Sunday, 3 April 2016

Plot Summary

For ages I've been writing a book. It is a "caper" tale, set in Vienna and then Venice in the 1880s. It will probably never be finished and even then almost certainly never be published.

But everybody loves a caper, a scam. Assuming the victim (the "mark") has more money than sense, so that you never need feel sorry for them. And then enjoy the tale of their downfall on the way.

Such scams have a certain format. First we have the victim, the "mark" , a man/woman/corporate entity is presented with the opportunity to make silly amounts of money and are ultimately brought down by their own greed.  Then we have the perpetrator, the "principal" who sees and seizes that opportunity.

And then...?

"Marks" are not all stupid. Particularly if they are not individuals but corporate entities. So, in many of these scams there needs to be a third player, a "verifier". A person, or institution, of apparently impeccable integrity and resources who can sign off on the bona fides of the "principal".

 A person. or institution, who, thus vouching for the "principal", engages with the "mark". Giving the "mark" the impression that the "verifier"  themselves are doing business with the "principal". Indeed, suggesting to the "mark" that if he/she/it does do business with the "principal", then in time they, the "mark", might even do (much more) substantial business directly with the "verifier" themselves.

Even then however the "mark", particularly if they are not entirely stupid,  might be suspicious. So they might ask the "verifier" to put something in writing. Which the "verifier" might  readily do. Albeit making sure that, legally, they, the "verifier",  are actually committed to nothing.

So the "mark" goes away happy. Indeed so happy they put out a press release about how happy they are. While the "verifier"? They hope that no-one will notice. But even if they do? Well, actually they can put out a press release confirming they are legally committed to nothing.

And if/when the relationship between the "mark" and the "principal" goes wrong. "Look, we made our uninvolvement clear in a press release at the time!"

But the real question is not about the relationship between the "principal" and the "mark". One knows what they are doing and the other should have known.

No, the real question is why the "verifier" was prepared to vouch for the "principal" in the first place?

Anyway, as I say, my book will probably never be published. Chiefly because it will be unreadable. But hopefully some will grasp what I'm saying in the 4th, 5th and 6th paragraphs above.




Friday, 25 March 2016

Tax

So, we have had the first leaders debate and, to be honest, excepting the unintended light relief provided by David Coburn, I expect even the most hardened of hacks would rather have watched the new series of Line of Duty which was available on the BBC at the same time "except for viewers in Scotland".

All of Scotland's main four Parties are resolutely centrist. Centre left in the shape of Labour, centre right for the Scottish Tories. A wee bit centre left, or maybe just centre in the case of the Lib Dems. As for the SNP, centre left they will protest, centre right we will maintain, and the truth probably lies somewhere in between.

So the differences are marginal and, frankly, some times invented or forced on the Parties by their electoral position.No more so than on fracking. You can bet a pound to a penny that, if Labour was in government and the SNP our main challengers, then "the government" would be keeping its options open while "the opposition", sensing an electoral stick with which to beat them, would be advocating outright opposition.

I'm not persuaded much that any party says will much change opinion over the next six weeks. People like Ruth but she's still a Tory; the Libs are a long long way back; Labour are still in internal disarray and the SNP? Well they'll be not that much different from what a "New Labour" administration would look like except that they'll wave more flags and in some mysterious way "stand up for Scotland". They're not even, at government level, really interested in independence any more. Except as a way to keep their more zoomy members happy. Or at least quiet.

So the idea that an argument about marginal tax rates for 0.3% of the population, 17,000 Additional Rate Income Tax payers earning more than £150,000 in a population of more than five million, is going to prove a decisive one, is, I suspect, an illusory one. If that's actually a view anybody really holds anyway.

Still, we know where Ruth stands. Nobody in Scotland should pay a higher rate of Income Tax at any rate than anybody in England is paying. The Libs, I think, agree with her on the Additional Rate (although not on the Basic Rate. and possibly even then apologies if I've got that wrong). Labour is for putting the Additional Rate up from 45% to 50%.

And then, once again, we come to the SNP.

They agree with Ruth. Not that the Additional Rate should not go up but rather that it should only go up if it also goes up in England. Which, conveniently for them, it isn't going to. Indeed.......I'll come back to the indeed.

Now the "logic" advanced by Nicola for this is that if Additional Rate Tax went up in Scotland in isolation then people would move to England. You might wonder why that would have been any different had we been independent but that's a matter for you. Perhaps then they planned to get Donald Trump to build them a wall. Paid for by Mexico.

But back in the real world where Scotland isn't independent? Actually, and here I might surprise you, Nicola might have a point. Up to a point.

First of all however, let's have a wee look at the figures.

The first thing to accept is that the vast majority of Additional Rate taxpayers would not leave the country for entirely practical reasons.

Earning more than £150,000 doesn't mean you earn a lot more than £150,000. The vast majority of the £17,000 will be in that category. If you earn £200,000 then your net pay after tax and National Insurance is £116,585. £9,715 a month. If the Additional Rate went up to 50% then that net pay would reduce to £114,085. You'd be £208.a month worse off but you'd still have  £9507. to struggle by on. Would you really move house because of that? The price of two decent opera tickets; lunch at a Michelin starred restaurant or half a crate of Brunello di Montalcino? Find another job down south? Expect your spouse to find an equivalently well paid job as well? Relocate your kids; change schools; abandon your friends; find a new golf club; support a new football team?

And that's even assuming you can find such a post. Most of those in the £150,000 to £300,000 band (and I suspect that's all but a few thousand of the 17,000) will be either in the public sector, (or quasi public sector such as consultants, medical and otherwise) or they will be running geographically based SMEs. It's not as easy as you might think to move from running North Lanarkshire Council to running North Yorkshire Council or managing Wilson's pumps in Bathgate to managing Johnston's pipes in Basingstoke. Especially if you, yourself, are the eponymous Wilson in question.

And even then would you save money anyway? If you earn £200K plus you might reasonably expect to live in a house worth £600K plus. The stamp duty alone on such a purchase is more than £20K, never mind other costs, so you'd be eight years before your Income Tax saving even got your Stamp Duty back!

Even look at someone earning £500K paying a 50% rather than a 45% Additional Rate.They'd be losing £1458 a month, not a small sum of money, but still be left with (only) £21506 hitting their bank account on the last Friday of every month. (assuming that's how such people get paid, which somehow I doubt). But their Stamp Duty on their £2,000,000 new house?  £153,750. Nine years to get that back alone.

So Nicola's "It wouldn't bring in any extra money" looks pretty threadbare. Never mind that it leaves the First Minister of Scotland maintaining that large numbers of people would leave her country just to save a few bob, Good luck fighting another referendum with that as a starting premise. Except.

As you look at these figures you do start to realise how much Income Tax is contributed by those on very high earnings. The total current Income Tax paid by someone on £500K per annum is nearly £225K. More every month than many of us earn in a year. The annual Job Seekers Allowance paid to nearly sixty claimants.

And those at the very, very very top, those who earn more than a million pounds per annum? Logically they pay even more.

And this last group, probably no more than a few hundred Scots, if that? They could move. They've probably, indeed almost certainly, already got other houses. And the problem if they move is that the Scottish Exchequer loses not just the marginal tax increase these multi millionaires have avoided but also  the tax they are resigned to paying at existing levels.

But there are two things that might reasonably be done about that.

The first is this. There is no need for the differential to be 5%. That's Labour's figure. But it could be just 1%. Would anybody really move because of that? And even if a few did, could it really be sustained that there would be no net benefit to the Scottish Exchequer? Perhaps that's simply never occurred to Nicola because, as a centrist politician playing a left wing role in pursuit of a flag, she doesn't really believe in increasing tax on higher earners at all? Someone should ask her about it.

The second is more utilitarian and might ultimately be where Scottish Labour policy needs to go. The Smith powers allow the creation of new tax bands. The assumption is that these would be ever higher as you go up the income scale. But in dealing with the super rich you do need to factor in tax competition.So why couldn't there be a band (above £1M?) where the rate reverted to the lower "English Rate"? Indeed why not 1% beneath the English rate? Tax competition works both ways. I can only assume that hasn't occurred to Nicola either.

Because finally I come back to my "indeed" above. It is no secret that George Osborne would like to abolish the Additional Rate altogether so that no-one pays more than 40% Income Tax. By Nicola's argument, that Scottish higher rate taxes must, of necessity, follow English ones, then if and when he does that we'll need to follow suit. And that will take real money out of Scottish public services. Real money.

Nicola's arguments can't prevail. That in the end is a real difference between the political centre left and the political centre. Although I suspect it will never make gripping telly.

Footnote: I am obliged to Iain McWhirter of the Sunday Herald and Mandy Rhodes of Holyrood Magazine for the initial twitter discussion which germinated much of the thinking in this blog.






Sunday, 20 March 2016

Independence Day

Last week, Alex Salmond gave an interview to the Aberdeen Evening Express about his departure from the Scottish Parliament.

Amongst other things he said this: "There would be no black hole in an independent Scotland’s finances because we would not be paying out billions on Trident, high speed rail projects for England and nuclear power stations at Hinkley Point."

This is simply nonsense. I am not remotely interested in the merits or otherwise of the three projects named (although even Eck, I suspect, concedes that an independent Scotland would need electricity from somewhere)  but the idea that Scotland avoiding our share of these costs would somehow cover the annual £15bn hole in an independent Scotland's finances revealed by the latest Scottish Government produced GERS figures is farcical. And yet Mr Salmond said this, not as some angry cybernat engaged in a late night twitter argument, who might genuinely know no better, but in cold sobriety as one of the best informed people in Scotland as to the true potential state of an independent Scotland's balance sheet. He was, to put it simply, lying.

And yet it didn't really matter he was lying. Because in September 2014 we decided Scotland was not going to be independent.

But suppose that vote had gone differently?

On 23rd June we are having another referendum. About leaving an economic a political union we have been in for (only) forty three years. 

If there is an out vote, even the most rabid 'Kipper accepts that we  won't be able to leave immediately. Indeed to the best of my knowledge no-one seriously objects to the minimum two year period set out in the Lisbon Treaty and indeed most "Leavers" are relaxed at the suggestion that in reality it might take a bit longer. The UK and the EU have become significantly integrated since 1972, not just in relation to trade, but in the field of commercial law, environmental policy, farming and fishery regulation and countless others. So disentangling all this will take time. As I say, an accepted minimum of two years.

Yet the UK is already a mature sovereign state. We collect, already, all of our own taxes; we already have our own currency, our own armed forces, our own overseas establishments; our own welfare state, our own provision for issuing every form of official document of citizenship. Indeed we already have our own established independent citizenry.

Yet despite all this, leaving an economic and political union of only forty three years will, it is accepted, take a minimum of two years. 

If Scotland had voted Yes then we were expected to leave a much more integrated union, one that had existed for more than three hundred years, in a period of one year, six months and six days. And not only that, within the same period, set up all the essential apparatus of a modern sovereign state that I list above..

Now some Yessers, most notably Patrick Harvie, suggested before the referendum that this timescale was unrealistic.

But for the SNP hard core it was essential. 

Because it would have been vital for them that Independence was a fait accompli before there was another test of Scottish public opinion.

The Yes vote of 45% had two elements. There are those for whom Independence is a vital task in itself. They do not care what economic devastation it might bring to others, indeed they don't even mind if it brings economic devastation to themselves. They would be nationalists if there had never been a drop of oil in the North Sea and they'll remain nationalists if we never see another penny of oil revenues. They would literally starve for their own flag.

Fair enough.

But that is nothing like 45% of the electorate.

The second element were people who were simply lied to by the first. Those, often those in straightened personal circumstance, who were lead to believe, quite dishonestly, that an independent Scotland would be a land of milk and honey. And who, far from wanting to starve for a flag, felt that they were long overdue some milk and honey. In many cases with some justification. Those who, far from wanting the austerity that independence would have brought, far greater austerity than George Osborne at his worst, were lead to believe that in voting Yes they were getting not just a flag but an "end to austerity".

Now lying in this way doesn't matter if what you have said is not put to the test. That's the obvious conclusion Mr Salmond has reached in his remarks in the Evening Express. But had there been a Yes vote that would have been put to the test. As would the various other consequences of that vote that the Yessers simply dismissed as scaremongering: that the UK Government genuinely wouldn't build warships in a "foreign" shipyard; that the Edinburgh financial institutions would indeed relocate  to be with the vast majority of their customers; that Spain, for internal reasons, would be far from willing to fast track our EU membership; that the USA would not take the loss of their Western Atlantic submarine base with equanimity; that you couldn't have both an open border and a different immigration policy; that in proposing to use a currency issued by the Bank of England, the key was in the name.

So you might expect this second element, nineteen months on, to be pretty pissed off and disinclined to vote for the Party that had so blatantly misled them. Indeed as they contemplated the cuts to their pensions and benefits, soaring unemployment, higher taxes and payment of their public sector wages in a Scottish currency of indeterminate value, you suspect they would have been inclined to take pretty spectacular electoral revenge.

The White Paper solution was to deny that electoral opportunity until it was too late but there is I suspect a fatal flaw in that strategy.. The pace of negotiations wouldn't have been in the sole province of the Scottish Government and Westminster stretching them out a mere six weeks would have left Holyrood high and dry. Bar the nuclear option of cancelling the forthcoming election, which you suspect would just have brought any negotiation about anything to a complete stop.

So here's the irony. A Yes vote would have done immense damage to Scotland: once the warship orders were placed elsewhere they couldn't come back, any more than would have RBS or Standard Life. And any future Scottish Government, in negotiating with the Treasury would have already played their trump card and yet still lost the trick. So I'm glad we got the right result. 

But, even then, if the yessers had won? Nothing would have woken people up more to the economic consequences of independence more than the same people actually voting for it. Once. And Scotland would not have been becoming independent on Thursday.

Sunday, 13 March 2016

Boring for Scotland

Courtesy of, of all sources, Newsnet, here is the text of Nicola's speech to SNP Conference

It was received in the hall as if it was the Sermon on the Mount crossed with the Gettysburg Address.

But on the written page what immediately jumps out at you is the lack of substance.

To be fair to the First Minister, the Party Leader of a governing Party, any governing Party, has a tough gig in making a conference speech. Mario Cuomo famously talked of campaigning in poetry but governing in prose. On any view however the best speeches bring an element of poetry with them while inevitably the obligations of office leave mere prose as the dominant vehicle. Even Blair and Cameron, archetypal politicians for whom the occupation of power was/is their very raison d'etre, undoubtedly made their most memorable speeches while still in opposition.

Nonetheless, there is an accepted template for the pre election speech of a governing Party leader. You provide a bit of light relief poking fun at the haplessness of your opponents before turning to the red meat of the disaster their success would be for the country. And Nicola certainly does that.

You then, by convention, outline your achievements of the past four or five years. This is where Nicola's speech starts to depart from type. For what have been the achievements of the past five years? Say what you like about the SNP from 2007 to 2011, they did things. They abolished the graduate endowment and slashed maintenance grants to poorer students; they relieved the fifteen percent of the well to do who paid prescription charges from their obligation to do so; they froze Council Tax; they let Megrahi go.

These might not have been particularly progressive things but they were nonetheless things.

The problem when Nicola came to this bit of the speech is that she had nothing to say. As I say, what has the SNP achieved since 2011? Few, even of the most devoted of Nats, could maintain that health or education provision are better than they were five years ago. At best, they are, arguably, no worse. Sure, the accomplishments of the first term have been banked, but, even there, the Council Tax freeze has now quietly been acknowledged to have been a mistake; the reduced college places for working class students as a consequence of the electorally popular free places at St Andrews and Edinburgh Universities for the sons and daughters of the upper middle classes is......perhaps just better not talked about very much. Particularly by a supposedly social democratic Party. Nonetheless these things are still there. But 2011 to 2016? Well, there was a referendum, which had it resulted differently, would have been a really, really big achievement. Except it didn't result differently. And, to be honest, this is a Party still so upset about that that it would be bad taste to talk about it. Particularly......I'll come back to the particularly.

The final section of an "election" speech delivered by an incumbent is also difficult. More so the long incumbent. There inevitably is an element of "If this is such a good idea why didn't you do it before now?" Generally however this can be got round by announcing that it is a result of "our careful stewarding of resources". Except that Nicola can't claim that while at the same time railing against "evil Tory austerity" for denying her those resources. So although it was enough to bring the faithful to their feet, all we get is a couple of penny ha'penny schemes that I suspect would not be objectionable to Michael Forsyth, never mind Ruth Davidson. And a promise not to raise taxes which any Tory would have enthusiastically applauded. And that was it. No other agenda at all.

As I say, if you don't believe me, read it yourself.

To be fair, there is something to be said for boring but reasonably competent government. Swinney does a good job as Finance Minister. So do a number of other Ministers. The ones who are useless are no more useless than the similarly useless who would occupy at least some office if a different Party was in power.

But, and this is a huge but, people don't join political parties to advocate boring but competent government. If that's what they're into they would join the Civil Service.

Kez is pretty hapless. I didn't need Nicola to tell me that. No more so than when Kez herself enthusiastically announced that she was confident we would be........ second. But, to be honest, if we had thought there was any chance we might win this election she wouldn't have been our candidate to start with. Ruth is in a different league as a politician but she's still a Tory. So the SNP will win this election. Perhaps not with an absolute majority but certainly with a plurality that will make any alternative administration an impossibility.

Labour needs time. But, of necessity, we are going to get time.

For that's the hidden poison pill for the wilder Nats in Nicola's boring speech.

In the Summer, the SNP are going to have some sort of conversation about Independence. Not a second referendum. Not even a precursor to a second referendum. A conversation.

This was a pre election conference. As a political pro I share the irritation of the SNP leadership towards the delegate who wanted it to be occasion for debate.

And as a, hypothetical, nationalist political pro, I would have cheered the idea of this conversation, as a diversion for the herd, as enthusiastically as did the rest of the SECC.

There is an immediate prize for the SNP and that is retaining office. While giving the Labour Party another kicking on the way. Not a small prize. Indeed, if you are now a Minister, or an MSP, or a Spad, or a paid constituency worker, or an wannabee any one of these, a very important prize indeed.

As indeed, next year, there will be the different prize of depriving Labour of our remaining local government fiefdoms. With more, well paid, secondary prizes as a result.

I make no criticism of that. It is how another Party of my acquaintance operated for many years.

But at some point somebody is going to ask "Whatever happened to Independence?" Just as, dare I say, last Summer the Labour Party, in the context of the three terms of Blair landslides nonetheless asked "Whatever happened to socialism?"

The problem is that what is popular with Part activists, of any Party, is seldom what is popular with the general public.

At some point even the currently unimpeachable Nicola will have to face her activists honestly, tell them that Independence is off the agenda because there is no way Scotland would be daft enough to vote for it. Ever. That is the "particularly" that I referred to above. From start to finish, 2011-14 there was but one poll that put them ahead and then they lost. Decisively. Since then, any examination of the detail indicates that even the prospectus that got them to 45% was a hopelessly optimistic one.

It's over.

That was the rationale behind Nicola's promise of a conversation, not a referendum.

At one point she'll have to tell her activists that. Then, if she survives that different "conversation", she'll have to tell the rest of us why she should remain in office nonetheless.

That's when, and only when,  Labour will be back in the game.

Just about my favourite political quotation comes from Ted Heath, on the day Mrs Thatcher fell. He claimed it to be an old Chinese proverb.

"If you wait long enough by the banks of the river, eventually the bodies of your enemies will float by"

Time to do a bit of waiting.




Sunday, 6 March 2016

Határ

One of the major cities of Austria-Hungary was situated only shortly down the Danube from Vienna. During the long two hundred year Turkish occupation of upper Hungary it was indeed recognised as the capital of Hungary and, although the Hapsburg role in the final lifting of that occupation at the end of the eighteenth century brought with it a significant German presence, in 1910 this city's population was still 42% Hungarian 41% German and 15% Slovak. The name of this city was Pressburg.

Today it no longer exists.

Sure, geographically, it is still there. But its name is no longer Pressburg, it is now Bratislava. More significantly, more than 90% of the population is now Slovakian, only 3% of the population is Hungarian and the Germans have gone completely. Along with the 10% of the poulation: Hungarian, German, Slovakian or whatever which, in 1910, also identified itself as Jewish.

The Hungarians or Germans did not suffer the terrible fate of the Jews, indeed they bear their share of the blame for that fate, but they, the Hungarians and the Germans, nonetheless, as a result of the terible events of the twentieth century, had to move. To be with their own. In Hungary, or Germany. Wherever that now was.

For you cannot understand central Europe without understanding that it is not a place of fixed borders. More than 60% of 1910 Hungary now lies in one or other different Country. Slovakia certainly, but Slovenia, Romania, Ukraine as well. And the Hungarians who once lived there, admittedly generally as a minority, albeit not an insignificant minority, no longer live in these parts of their former lands. They live together with other  Hungarians. In Hungary. Because to some degree they wanted to do so but much more so because they were forced to do so. Because other nationalities wanted to live with their own as well. Somewhere. Such as in Bratislava.

We, the Brits, don't really get this. We are an Island. We know our boundaries. We have long since abandoned a claim on any part of France as our own: To force the French inhabitants there to speak English, or abandon Catholicism, or drink warm beer or, if they were not so inclined,  to baiser quelque part ailleurs.  . Equally, our major geopolitical rivals in modern times have made no serious attempt to reciprocate in malignancy. While France from Louis XIV to Napoleon and Germany from the Kaiser to Hitler were undoubtedly deadly serious about defeating us miltarily, neither had any interest in turning Kent or Sussex into part of their wider realms.

Even within the UK, while this might be a benign product of our own longstanding Union, no matter what can be said about the Independence Referendum, everyone understood where the Border would be. Exactly where it had been since long before even 1707. We talk about English people in Scotland but we really mean only those who have relocated here in adulthood and haven't yet assimilated. There is no longstanding, generations old, "English" population just as, beyond the occasional Caledonian Club or Rugby team, there is no distinctive, let alone resentful, "Scottish" minority in England, even at the border. No-one suggested, outwith the wider fringes of Scottish Nationalism, that a Yes vote would require anyone to move home (in either sense of that word) for ethnic, if not neccesarily for economic, reasons.

Even with the UK's one external land border, in Ireland, the argument has long been over whether there should be a border at all, rather than where exactly it should be drawn, and in modern times few have suggested that the border's abolition would involve any part of the current population of the North being required to leave. Indeed, more enlightened Republicans have been at pains, naively or not, to assure the North that unity could still respect their different tradition.

But central Europe is different and you can't understand the current refugee crisis in central Europe without understanding that. And the significance to the national psyche of that need to move in the past in order to stay together. Having moved, and settled, to be with their own, none of them, Hungarians, Poles, Czechs, Slovakians, Slovenians, want to be other than with their own, Not exclusively alone but certainly not in an enforced multiculturalism, a devaluation of their own distinctiveness, that they have long fought against in their struggle for "national" survival against the behemoths of Russia and Germany to their east and west.

Even more so, having themselves been driven out of elsewhere, they are fearful, perhaps irrationally, perhaps not, that if they do not defend that distinctiveness, then, one day, they might have to move again.

I'm in Hungary for the weekend and the word everywhere in the news is "határ", meaning border. Not, yet at least, the Hungarian border but the closed border between Greece and Macedonia. Last Summer, Hungary was almost overwhelmed by refugees travelling from the south. Few wanted to stay and the Hungarians were happy  to pass them on, via Austria, to their more willing recipients in Germany. But this year the Germans are not as willing, yet Hungary is still on the route. This year, with the virtual collapse of Schengen, who is to say that those who get from Macedonia to Serbia and then Serbia to Hungary will just as easily pass on into Austria?

So few here want the Macedonian border opened. They see the same pictures of misery as us, but they have hardened their hearts to it. This, as far as they are concerned, is a fire in respect of which they had neither part in starting nor say over Merkel's decision to pour fuel on the flames.

You will have gathered from the above that I am not completely unsympathetic to the central European states.

But equally we can't simply ignore the humanitarian crisis the refugees represent. It can't however be Hungary's crisis and it certainly can't be Greece's crisis either. Patently, the refugees don't want to come to Greece, or even Hungary. They want to come to Northern Europe. That's where, no matter how unwisely, with the benefit of more than hindsight, they were told they would be welcome. And that's where the welcome is being withdrawn. That's where the money is that is drawing them. And, no matter how inadequate that solution will be for the refugees compared to their desired resettlement in the rich north, that's where the money for an at least palatable solution needs to be found.

Not in wishing the central Europeans to be more "British" or in suggesting, hypocritically, that if Britain was shrunken in size and relocated to the Danube basin, endowed with an impossible language as the chief mark of our nationality and fearful of the disappearance of our already minority culture, that we would nontheless find ourselves being altogether more sympathetic to the refugees. People, with respect to them,  with no knowledge of our history, culture or tradition; indeed with no desire to be among us at all other than the fact that, potentially having arrived here, they then might not be able to get to somewhere else.

Refugees need to be dealt with at the first point at which they arrive safely, And if we acknowledge our humanitarian obligation as we ought to then the whole of the world community that can afford it should be bearing the cost of that. And certainly not looking away while turning our noses up at the only choices then open otherwise to those left in the front line.

So, as I've said before the solution lies on the borders of Syria or, if all else fails, in Greece. But with us all paying for it.

The Hungarians are right. There has to be a határ. And sometimes borders do need fences.

Thursday, 4 February 2016

Three buts.

I'm very much in favour of Labour's proposal to raise Income Tax by 1% to help defend public services in Scotland. Others have set out why this is both a progressive and necessary initiative and I won't duplicate their efforts here.

The buts that follow are therefore offered in a spirit of constructive criticism.

They are all hugely informed by the vox pops offered by the Daily Record in its coverage of the issue to which, if I could find a link, I would direct you. For the public are our masters in these matters and rather than spending time on commentators interpreting their views it is altogether better simply to ask them directly, which is precisely what the Record did.

So my first but is this.

We will never sell this policy if we present it as aimed at preserving jobs in local government. People who work in local government, and their unions,  are understandably interested in preserving jobs in local government. The general public are not.

The general public are interested in preserving local government services and indeed public services more generally, and recognise that this service delivery creates or preserves employment, but they have no sympathy at all for the idea that local government's objective is to employ people as a virtue in itself.

So we should talk about preventing increased class sizes, protecting vulnerable children, keeping open libraries and other community facilities, maintaining roads, providing adequate care for the elderly, making sure we can use a taxi, or a public house, or a fast food outlet in relative safety. Employing only just as many people along the way as are required to do that. And not a single person more.

And, while we are at it, once the decencies of a living wage are dealt with, paying only enough to ensure that those adequate to these tasks can be recruited in sufficient numbers.

To return to the vox pops, while some of those maintaining that they'd happily pay more tax if they could be sure it will be "spent properly" are clearly making a self serving excuse for actually being unwilling to do so for any purpose, by no means all of them are. We have to recognise that. And acnowledge Labour's own culpability in reaching a situation where that Nats think they can knock lumps out of The "Cooncil"(s) with impunity.

And my second but is this.

There are no votes in gloating.

Our activists are having a great time pointing at the SNP and shouting "Tartan Tories". It's good fun. I've done it myself. And those few politically engaged who have pledged their allegiance to the SNP in the genuine, if deluded, belief that their social democratic veneer was something other than a tactic are certainly looking pretty silly. At best keeping a low profile and at worst writing pathetic pieces maintaining that while "of course" they are in favour of progressive taxation, they are just not in favour of this particular progressive taxation because............well because.....because Nicola is against it.

But the vast majority of people are not politically engaged. And few of those who have left Labour for the SNP have done so in a sincere belief that the SNP are suddenly to the significant left of Labour. Rather they believe that the SNP are, at the same time, something new and something familiar. Something new in that they are more patriotic (and who isn't patriotic) and yet something familiar in that, publicly at least, they are that sort of non-ideological, don't frighten the horses, force that characterised Scottish Labour before the rot of complacency set in.

So the idea that Labour being suddenly, once again, clearly to the left of the SNP will bring electoral reward in itself is an entirely illusory one. If it was otherwise we'd have seen a Corbyn bounce rather than, it appears, precisely the reverse.

And that leads to my final but.

For the moment, a significant section of the electorate are lost to us. A very significant section. For they have genuinely been sold on the idea that you can eat a flag. It's not a majority, we put that decisively to the test sixteen months past, but it is certainly a plurality.

More than one of the randomly chosen Record interviewees suggested that instead of raising Income Tax we should simply be given more money from "Westminster", apparently completely unaware of how well we currently do in that context. That being the reason the SNP (the SNP!) seem reluctant for the Scottish Parliament being more responsible for raising its own revenue in the current fiscal framework talks. One interviewee even suggested that the simple solution was for us to be allowed to keep "the oil money", apparently unaware that there is currently virtually no oil money. Nor will there be for the forseeeable future.

That problem will not be solved by a Scottish Labour leadership unwilling to say regularly and loudly that, with or without £500 Million from 1% on income tax,"Osborne" austerity would be a drop in the ocean compared to the £7 Billion black hole in our public finances that an independent Scotland, within three months, would be facing had things gone otherwise in September 2014.

And to realise that, until that argument is won, no amount of tactical positioning, in the context of devolved Scottish elections, will be enough, in itself, to restore our fortunes.

Come next May, Labour should not be ignoring this, we should be confronting it head on.




Thursday, 7 January 2016

What are schools for?

This is a much more complicated question than you think.

Schools are surely for the purpose of educating children.

Except in practice, in Scotland, they are not. Or at least for far too many of them they are not. Really.

The biggest single challenge facing Scotland is the gap. The gap in expectation between those from comfortable backgrounds and the rest. It isn't an exclusively educational gap for it also shows up, at the other end, in life expectancy. That's not a small thing but it's not my topic here.

For in relation to those at the end of the life cycle, while it might be possible to mitigate the gap, it will never be possible to eliminate it. You can't turn the clock back.

But at the start at least you can try to ensure that it doesn't run too far behind.

Before I go on, I want to say two things.

The first is observational.

On 29th December, Andi and I went to see Scottish Ballet perform Cinderella at the Festival Theatre. We got the train from Croy to Waverley. We wandered about the German Market for an hour or so, with its lights, its trivial but beautiful gifts, with its generally cosmopolitan air. And then we walked up the Bridges to our “night oot”. Followed by two hours of wonderful music, wonderful staging and, insofar as I am qualified to judge, wonderful dancing. It was a brilliant experience. But it wasn't a cheap one, albeit one that we personally were well able to afford.

And over the holiday we met up with kith, kin and friends and enjoyed the vicariously the years experience of their children; their parents being our contemporaries, the “children” now being teenagers and beyond.

So we learned of expeditions to see Basketball at Madison Square Gardens in New York; snowboarding “sabbaticals” in the Canadian Rockies; “working holidays” in Australia; not such working holidays spent on the beaches of the Croatian Islands.

But I come back to the ballet. For as we walked towards it and back from it, we were surrounded with lots of little boys and girls (alright, mainly girls) literally skipping with enthusiasm at what they were about to see or, later on, had actually seen.

No education system can fix the ability of parents to be able to afford, or more likely not to be able to afford, these sort of life experiences for their children and the subsequent life advantages that these experiences inevitably bring. But it can at least try.

Which leads me to my second, more personal and cautionary point. It is difficult for a legal aid lawyer to write about his or her cases in an attempt to draw wider conclusions without betraying client confidentiality.

You will therefore have to trust me that the essential elements of what I now say are based on a true case but appreciate I have had to very substantially change the detail to anonymise it.

For they involve a child from a particularly difficult background. His paternal uncle was in prison for murder and his father, now prevented by law from contacting him, had served a period of imprisonment for assaulting his mother even before the child went to school. Where he proved incapable of overcoming his nurture, even disregarding his nature.

So, from Primary one, he was violent to other pupils. He would hit them, kick them, when once having come off worse in a fight, then present a knife towards them. Until one day, at the age of eight or so, he went “too far” and put another eight year old wee boy in the hospital with a fractured skull.

When, after an admitted suspension, “the system” suggested he should be returned to class. Whereupon the other parents in the school had had enough and occupied the Head Teacher's office, vowing to leave only when they were assured their own children were safe. Which could only happen if this child went somewhere else. Anywhere else. I'd like to say their view was that he needed “appropriate help”, but it wasn't. They just wanted to know that they could go to their work in the reasonable expectation that their own child wouldn't be stabbed in their absence. Not to their work as Social Workers or Teachers or even Legal Aid Lawyers, for few of “us” would have had a child in that school in the first place, but (just) to their work as Social Carers or Labourers or Shop Assistants. Who hoped perhaps that their children might have a bit better opportunity in life than them. And who knew that this could only come through education.

Now, I read all of the Social Work and Education reports in this case. They repeatedly referred to the value to the child himself enjoying a mainstream education. Of the extent to which he was “bright”. Of the unfortunate circumstance of his upbringing. Of the extent of his personal “innocence”.

AND THEY HAD COMPLETELY LOST THE PLOT!!!!

For where were the interests of the wee boy with the fractured skull? Or of the classmates reluctant to go to school, or even too scared to go to school altogether, for fear they'd be stabbed? At best for the kids who'd conduct every Arithmetic or English class lacking concentration as a result of always looking over their shoulder for fear of an unwanted kick or punch?

Where was the appreciation of a school as a place of education, not a place for the teachers to, hopelessly, try to address the injustices of the wider world,? Or of a school as a place for the pupils within it  to attempt to do something more than, simply, survive?

There is no better example of the hard choices of politics than this. Politics' objective is surely to secure the greatest good of the greatest number. But it can't progress on the basis that there will be never be any casualties on the way. “No child left behind” is a noble sentiment but not if it translates as “Every child kept behind in consequence”.

As they are inevitably if classes need to be disrupted by other children regularly turning up late. Or held up while teachers deal with discipline problems. Or, I'm sorry, simply with hygiene problems.

To return to my given example; maybe, if returned to mainstream schooling, that wee boy might have overcome all his disadvantages and gone on to make something of himself. Maybe.

But at some point, no matter how ruthless it may sound, somebody surely needed to balance that remote chance, for that's all it would ever be, with the damage that might be inflicted on so many other wee boys and girls while failing in the attempt. Even then hoping it would only be educational damage.

I'm a great defender of the comprehensive principle. All children willing to learn should be treated equally.

But teachers are not Social Workers. And schools are not miracle palaces. If we want to even start to challenge the advantages of Basketball trips to New York, or Canadian sabbaticals, or evenings at the ballet, then a starting point has to be this: That, for working class pupils, state schools are, as private schools have always been, start to finish, places of education. Not outreach departments of Social Work. And for those not able or willing to buy into that,even if they are, personally, “innocents”? Then schools cannot be the “cheap” solution. For that solution maybe cheap for some but it is not for those other children, from ordinary backgrounds, who truly find themselves paying the price.