Sunday 31 March 2013

Why I am joining Yes Scotland

For the historical record I should point out this was published on Monday 1st April, notwithstanding the date assigned by the Pacific Standard time governing the blog.

Yesterday was an odd day. I woke up earlier than I normally would have on a Sunday and then realised that this was actually more or less the same time as I would normally have woken upon a Sunday.

So, I groped my way downstairs, stuck the kettle on, and then went for the papers. Which I then read with what we lawyers call "due diligence".

And, a bit like spotting something is not quite right in a prior title deed, something in that process nagged at me for most of the rest of the day.

Showered, eventually, my plan in the afternoon was to listen to Bach's B minor Mass (it is Easter) while finishing my book, Denise Minah's The End of the Wasp Season which is, I should say, most excellent. A bit like P.D. James crossed with early Ian Banks. Andy Nicoll would sell more books if he would only surrender to pastiche.

However, the best laid they say.... were rather postponed by my team performing better than expected against the Celtic. (OK, it was never a penalty but, then again, we had a stonewaller denied in the first half).and then further interrupted by Andy Murray's continued denial of the certainty that Scottish sports icons come close but ultimately fail.

But a bit like a nagging toothache I kept being drawn back to the morning's papers. And suddenly I remembered why.

I should be a supporter of Yes Scotland!

For my whole life I have been attracted to completely lost causes.

On Saturday, I demonstrated against the Bedroom Tax in Edinburgh. I am not much of an Edinburgh demonstrator. I much prefer Glasgow. But I like a good demonstration.

When I was younger. I even used to demonstrate in London from time to time. I also once demonstrated in Manchester, although I can't quite remember why.

But there is a certain attraction about demonstrations. For you are among............friends would be putting it too are among at least temporary allies and you constantly hope there  will be sufficient temporary allies to make a change. As indeed, in foreign countries, there occasionally are.

But, for all its faults, in this country, change is brought about not by demonstrations but at the ballot box, and ultimately, that has to be a more satisfactory state of affairs.

So, when I demonstrated with 30.000 plus in Glasgow against unemployment in the early eighties; or the same number for a Scottish Parliament in 1993; or even more still against the Iraq War in 2003, I slowly realised that the important numbers were not those taking part but those disinclined to do so.

It didn't stop me but it slowly led me to realise that the various Trots, Anarchists and (latterly) Greens selling each other newspapers were not exactly representative of wider Scotland.

But the Trots, Anarchists and Greens are at least against the evil Tories. The evil Tories who, despite us living in a verified democracy, seem to have somewhere between 30% and 40% of the population determined to vote for them.

What does that matter however when you're on a demonstration? We are all agreed they are evil and that is surely quite enough.

And that is why I am joining Yes Scotland.

For there was a truly inspiring piece by Blair Jenkins in yesterday's Scotland on Sunday. "The Tories are Evil"  he declared. And no matter what you think, an independent Scotland would not be evil, or worse still Evil.

And I thought............I should be on this man's side. "The Tories are Evil" is surely the campaign slogan I have failed to appreciate during my whole political life.

And, in signing up to Yes Scotland, I am also proud to say that there is no lost cause that I wouldn't join.

So, sign me up, Blair Jenkins OBE.

Wednesday 27 March 2013

A bit more bedroom tax

In principle, I'm in favour of the bedroom tax. If there is anybody rattling about at public expense in a house that is far too big for them when they could be living somewhere smaller then that is indefensible. I suspect we are all agreed on that.

And, if there ever is a never worked hinging aboot sloth who only ever goes into  his second bedroom to play computer games and who never goes into his third bedroom at all except to smooth down the bed he hopes will one day be occupied by the Russian girlfriend of his dreams, then I certainly don't think anybody's taxes should be subsidising that.

There. I've said it.

Except, how many of these people actually exist?

Pensioners are exempt from the bedroom tax. Quite right too. But the overwhelming examples of over occupancy in social housing are actually pensioners. And few, very few, of them want to be in that position. Trapped, and I use the word trapped advisedly, in large family homes after their large families have departed. More than willing to move to a one bedroom property if such a property was available. Indeed, choking up waiting lists in their desire to do so.

For the central problem with the bedroom tax is that there simply is not the supply of one bedroom flats that those who need only a one bedroomed flat could potentially occupy.

Now at this point, with a bit of research, I could go off on a discourse about how how the British family unit has changed over the decades. But I suspect everybody reading this knows that already. What they also know is that the vast majority of social housing was built at a time, from Wheatley to McMillan, when the priority was for "family" homes, when a family meant several kids and a "family home" the bedrooms to accommodate these kids.  And ideally a garden for them to play in.

And then the world moved on. The "solid family man" acquired a wife who didn't stop work forever, or at least for twenty years, with her first pregnancy. Good. And then their combined income (and Mrs T) allowed them to buy their home and, as the family expanded to sell up and move on, without having to wait for the Cooncil to find them somewhere bigger to stay. (Deep breath) good as well.

But the world also changed in other ways as well. There were fewer solid family men, and fewer still who saw their ambition simply to emulate them. Actually, personally, I'm not sure that is good but I accept it is life. But there were also fewer women (time they got a mention) who resigned themselves to putting up with their "solid family man" no matter how they behaved, And that has to be good.

Except that as that change took place it did not involve the knocking down of the homes built for solid family men, their long suffering women and their families. Or their replacement with property more suited to the new demographic.

So, today, in the social housing sphere, we have an oversupply, or at least a supply, of large family homes and a chronic undersupply of smaller properties.

And, rightly or wrongly, we are also in a situation where a huge proportion of those in social housing are dependent, to some degree, on state support in paying their rent. Because those who didn't need that support have bought in, sold up and moved on.

Now, those of us steeped in the detail of this know that most of the really outrageous examples of the effect of the bedroom tax involve people who would probably, in real life, benefit from discretionary housing payments.

But the real tragedy lies in the mundane. People who would happily move to smaller properties but who have no smaller properties available to them.

What's their choice?

If I am a disabled 54 year old widower presenting at my local housing office to declare that my now adult children have left home and that therefore I no longer require (nor can afford) a three bedroomed "Council" house, what are the chances I'd be welcomed with open arms?

And yet, as someone steeped in this,what is the chance they'd turn me away instead with the offer of a discretionary housing payment?

More likely, no certainly, I'd be sent home to work out how I might find £25 per week rent out of an income probably less than £100 per week to start with, Or end up, literally, on the street. Sleep well against that background.

I'm almost fed up making the point that, giving the devolved settlement, this is as much an SNP tax as a Tory Tax, I almost don't care. I just know that it is indefensible. And that one or other of our governments should stop it,

Sunday 24 March 2013

Almost there?

When I was first involved in politics the "SNP man" in Paisley was a guy called Jim Mitchell. And we hated Jim Mitchell, not least because he denied us a ward on the Council that could never had been won by the Tories, even if we didn't really need it. He campaigned for many years with a wee dug, whom he would bedeck in yellow SNP posters come election times and whom the Labour Party promptly christened William Wolfe.

I remember at one election him chasing us down the street waving a placard at our Labour loudspeaker car as Allen Adams, the Labour MP, announced to all and sundry that "A Tory is still a Tory even though he is wearing a kilt". (I say to all and sundry but actually to Jim Mitchell personally). I, as the driver, was inclined to speed up to get away but our Parliamentary representative instructed me to slow down in the hope that we might "tire the wee bastard out".

But, for all his deluded politics, Jim Mitchell was also a great Paisley Man. Indeed, he was almost as much a Paisley Nationalist as he was a Scottish Nationalist. For many years, one of his major gripes that Glasgow International Airport was so called: "It is not in Glasgow!" he'd protest, "It is in Paisley! It should be called Paisley International Airport!"

And so, last Sunday, when Saints won the League Cup (3-2 but that flattered the opposition) I'm sure it wasn't just me who thought for a moment how happy Jim would have been on that day. For, as some of my readers will know, after a genuinely heroic battle with throat cancer, he is no longer with us.

And he'd have been nearly (only nearly mind you) as happy again when Eck announced the date of the Referendum on Thursday.

It is a substantial achievement for the SNP rank and file to have got to this point. Overcoming not only the combined forces of Unionism but, let's be honest, the reservations of their own leadership.

But I'm also struck with the somewhat strange mood of this weekend's Conference.

The SNP has always been two things: a Party and a movement. Dare I say it, a bit like us.

But it is a pretty curious state of affairs where the best contribution to the Conference appears to have been made by someone who is not a member and who indeed specifically declined to encourage people to vote for his hosts.

It was Roy Hattersley who famously observed of the Labour Movement that while we might not be agreed on the route, or even on the ultimate destination, we were at least agreed on the general direction of travel.

Suddenly, the Nationalists have the choice of the ultimate destination and suddenly they realise that they are not agreed upon it. So they fall back on being a movement, not a Party

I suspect that explains the somewhat hesitant tone of events in Inverness.

Their problem is that they have now set a date by which the ultimate destination must be defined. And I suspect they are slowly realising that this is not a problem for us but for them.

Tuesday 19 March 2013

Iraq and Scotland

Today, at the instigation of the SNP, the Scottish Parliament held a debate on the Iraq War.

I understand the attraction of this as a purely political gesture as it exposes a continuing disagreement in the ranks of my own Party about that enterprise, although the contrast between the Nationalist gesture politics of today and their unwillingness to use the actual powers of the Scottish Parliament to tackle the bedroom tax last week was telling.

Still, gestures are not unimportant, I suppose. The year I went to University, my Comrades still enthused about how they had, the previous year, ceremonially voted to surrender the John McIntyre Building to the Viet Cong.

To the best of my knowledge, the heirs of Ho Chi Minh have never appeared to claim their prize and some sort of long negative prescription probably now applies.

Anyway, in the best traditions of student radicalism, at the end of the debate,  they (the Scottish Parliament, not the Glasgow University Students Representative Council) passed a motion as follows:

"That the Parliament acknowledges the civilian, military
and economic cost of the Iraq war and its aftermath; pays
tribute to the armed forces and remembers the almost 5,000
allied servicemen and women and estimated 120,000 Iraqi
civilians who lost their lives; notes that, 10 years on from the
invasion, questions remain unanswered about the UK
Government’s decision to invade without a UN resolution, and
believes that one of the key lessons of the Iraq war is the need
for all nations, large and small, to conduct international affairs
as cooperatively as possible according to international law and
the authority of the United Nations and to act as good global
citizens rather than engaging in reckless, illegal military conflicts
with incalculable human and material costs."

Now, I was against the second Iraq War. I thought at the time, and I still do, that it was misconceived in its target and even then confused as to its objectives. I considered, correctly, that it would undermine the general world sympathy towards the west in the aftermath of 9/11 and would simply end up with one terrible set of affairs in Iraq being replaced with one different but no better. And, Kurdistan aside, at least for the moment,   I defy anybody to argue with that not having been the outcome.

So I agree with the motion that the war was reckless and, for what its worth, since International Law is a pretty worthless commodity, I also believe it was illegal in international if not domestic law. Not however as clearly illegal in international law as was the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia to overthrow Pol Pot, although I suspect nobody is calling for any prosecutions over that.

The point however is the extent that the debate was conducted from the principle that the war was the creature of the British Government and that a hypothetical Scottish Government would have had nothing to do with it.

The first thing to recognise is that the war was the creature of the (then) government of the United States. Nobody has ever suggested that, had the Americans not been interested, even setting aside military practicalities, Britain would still have attacked Iraq with whoever else would go along. Blair and some others might genuinely have thought Bush was actually right but the decisive bloc inside the Party was of those who thought the war was a mistake but, given the Americans would proceed nonetheless, that it was better to stand with them than to stand aside.

I wasn't with that bloc. I'm of an age who can remember, just, Wilson refusing to support a much more sympathetic President than Bush over Vietnam. I don't however doubt the integrity of those who, over Iraq, took an opposing view.

The thing that annoys me is the suggestion that it would all have had been different if Scotland had been independent. British refusal to participate in the invasion of Iraq wouldn't have stopped it, that was the argument of its reluctant supporters, but British refusal to co-operate would still have been important, that was the argument of us on the other side.

But where did the wee Countries stand?

Well, among the "Coalition of the Willing" were: Denmark; The Netherlands; Portugal; Slovakia; The Czech Republic: Latvia; Lithuania; Estonia and numerous others. Did they all independently conclude that the war was a good idea or did they rather conclude that it was not something over which it was worth falling out with the Americans? I know my answer to that question.

So, it's easy to declare, ten years on, that the war was reckless [and] illegal. But does anybody think the friends of Murdoch and Trump would have said as much at the time had they actually been a position where their stance was remotely important?

Sunday 10 March 2013

Amateur Hour

This blog might never be published. About a week ago my router started playing up which indeed is one of the reasons I didn’t blog last weekend.  For whatever reason if you switch it off and on again it sometimes works for a wee bit so I’m hoping that will get this online. If it does, and anybody knows anything about routers, then please get in touch via twitter.

Anyway, I had a really weird dream last evening. (I say evening because I fell asleep on the couch).

I was invited, in the dream, to sing, in full Highland dress, “The Bonny Lass o’ Ballochmyle” to an after dinner company.  I protested however that I would look ridiculous in full Highland dress and I thus found myself preparing to sing while wearing a lounge suit. Only on facing the audience did I find myself realising that this was more ridiculous than if I’d been kilted up. You’ll be pleased to know that at this point I woke up.

Now, whether you be a country maid or a happy country swain you can make of that dream what you will. I’m inclined however to think of it as a warning that there is no point in doing something half-heartedly.

That was obviously the thinking of the Better Together team when the leaked Scottish Government document about the financial challenges facing an Independent Scotland landed in their in-tray.

I have no idea what possessed the normally ultra-cautious John Swinney to write a sentence like:

“I expect that the Working Group will consider the affordability of state pensions as its work on fiscal sustainability proceeds”

but on any view it was always going to be disastrous if uncertainty about such a basic state provision was revealed as a possible consequence of separation. Indeed, if Labour had made such a claim the cries of scaremongering would have been deafening.

The boys and girls at Better Together didn’t put this out in a lounge suit. They waited their time, sat on their leak, and then threw the kitchen sink at it; publishing it in a way that then effectively wiped out coverage of the SNP’s own preferred GERS figures. Well done them.

I've said before that this campaign will be war to the knife and I can’t help thinking that this episode demonstrates the professionalism of one side as against the gifted (or not so gifted) amateurs at Yes Scotland. Faced with a potential equal opportunity does anybody think they’d have handled it as deftly and devastatingly?

On the Nationalist side, there are two public visions of the economics of an independent Scotland. There is the view that we’d be pretty much where we are just now, or possibly slightly worse off but with opportunities to improve. That’s the view of the Scottish Government’s own Council of Economic Advisers and the one articulated by Andrew Wilson  ("neither a black hole or a pot of gold") in today’s Scotland on Sunday.  And then there is the alternative "Joan McAlpine" view that we’ll be rolling in it; fortuitously able to have Scandinavian public services at American levels of taxation. All paid for by oil. And indeed even money to save up for when the oil runs out, not that it ever will.

The problem is not so much that  both these visions cant be true, it is that if the Nationalists can’t agree among themselves about this then it raises the question of whether they know what they’re talking about at all. That their hearts are ruling their heads. Just some less than others.

In the aftermath of Wednesday’s debacle we are told that all John Swinney’s fears of last year have somehow proved unfounded in less than twelve months. All of them.  Nicola has assured us that an independent Scotland will “abolish child poverty” and Eck and Mr Swinney are apparently planning to pop up in Aberdeen tomorrow to announce that they’ve just noticed, over the weekend, that there is even more oil than they previously realised. This looks like amateur hour and somebody at Yes Scotland should be telling them that. It just keeps the Leak story alive for another week. Remember Healey’s first rule of holes.

They’ve apparently, finally, got the paving bill next week. A perfect opportunity to change the subject. They should get on with that.

But in the longer term they need to get a line on the economics of independence, any line, and stick to it. I say "any line" but surely better that of Wilson and the economists and indeed, privately, John Swinney. It has the advantage, not least, of being somewhere near the truth. And somebody with authority at Yes Scotland should be telling them that. And if no-one has the authority to do that then such a person should surely be appointed. But then that would be no Yes man.