Tuesday 28 July 2020

Much ado about nothing.

There has been a bit of a kerfuffle over the last month or so about there being another independence referendum, despite there not going to be another independence referendum. 

I wrote back at the turn of the year about this. There is no route to a legal and binding referendum without a s.30. And, eh, that's it. There has been a bit of newspaper speculation about there being an "advisory" referendum but this has the capacity to be the most spectacular own goal for the nats. Even if they negotiated the legal obstacles, no small issue in itself, what would its purpose be? If the nats won by a landslide on a derisory turnout, how would that advance their cause one iota? And if they only just scraped home or, worse still, suffered a defeat at the hands of a pissed of electorate? The problem is that in a legally binding referendum in 2014, 2,100,000 Scots voted to remain in the UK. Any victory that didn't deliver a similar figure now otherwise minded for some other proposition would simply be ignored by the UK Government and, as I repeat, there would be nothing the SNP could do about it.

But there is now another factor and that is the position of the leader of the SNP herself. In a little noticed development the weekend before last Nicola herself said that her immediate priorities were the pandemic and then dealing with its economic aftermath. This seems fair enough but nobody thinks the economic aftermath is going to be over any time soon. Let's take the very most optimistic of scenarios. There is a vaccine in the Autumn; mass production by the Winter; actual mass vaccination by the Spring and a return to something approaching medical normality by next Summer. Will the economic aftermath disappear as quickly? If only.

How we work, where we work and, in many cases, who we work for is going to be changed forever by the pandemic and, for a lot of people, they are not going to be working at all for a good period of time.

Now, let us consider the most optimistic political scenario for the SNP. They manage to win a landslide in an election which is still able to take place in May 2021. They are back for five years. The Tories have a Damascene conversion to allowing a fresh vote. Nonetheless, we are in the midst of  a world recession. Why attempt a vote any time soon when you have five years at your disposal? Seizing the moment would only lead to the counter question: "Why do you need to seize this particular moment? If history is truly on your side what's the harm in waiting a bit? I mean, I might not be opposed to a wee row in a lifeboat but in the midst of this Force 9 gale, might we not be better on the ocean liner for the moment?"

So you see, even if everything goes the nats way (a very big if) there would still not be a referendum before 2023 at the earliest. Given the technical issues about agreeing the actual terms of this exceptionally improbable s.30 and the fact of a UK General Election in (probably) May 2024, probably not until the Autumn of 2024. And that's on the SNP's own most optimistic timetable!

So why is all this current froth going on? Why all the reporting as if a second vote was imminent and (panic!panic!) the union might be equally imminently dissolved. Well, I regret to say, that is because  such a narrative is in the self interest of political journalists and commentators.

Like all people I am opposed to murder. Well, obviously not all people, some murderers aren't. But, I confess, when there is a local murder there is always a little frisson of hope that I might get the case. Murders are out of the common. More interesting and challenging than the day to day round. And there is usually a pretty decent cheque from the Legal Aid Board at the end of them.

Much of what goes on in Scottish politics is grindingly boring. There is good reason so many able talents have left Holyrood voluntarily. Duncan Hamilton and Jim Mather; Ruth Davidson and Adam Tomkins; Wendy Alexander and Susan Deacon; Nicol Stephen and Tavish Scott. And that's just the headliners. And if it is boring to participate in, it is even more boring to report.

But referendums are exciting. There are marches and rallies and inflamatory speeches. There is waiting by the phone for the latest opinion poll. There are balloons (not just of the human kind) and stickers and flags. Lots of flags. There are surprise interventions by celebrities or outside actors and denunciations of surprise interventions by celebrities and outside actors.. There is a real prize for the winners and a real downside for the losers (or at least that's meant to be the case). And, in our own heads at least, the eyes of the world are briefly on Old Scotia. 

So who wouldn't prefer reporting this to reporting on Stage Two of The Heat Networks (Scotland) Bill 2020? Indeed who wouldn't prefer speculating (no matter how ill foundedly) that such an event was imminent, rather than reporting on The Heat Networks (Scotland) Bill? I have no doubt a worthy, piece of proposed legislation.  Despite the fact that we can be certain we will have a heat network, indeed looking at the Bill's title potentially more than one, before we are ever going to have a referendum. 

But there is also something else. Journalism, as a trade,is under severe pressure from the internet age. Barely a day goes by without a local or specialist publication closing. Equally a day without announcements of redundancies in the national press. Or individual announcements on twitter, that some respected journalist or another is joining a PLC or trade body as public relations officer. Or has decided to take "time off" to write a book. And, like so much else, this trend has been turbo charged by the pandemic. And it isn't just happening in print media, it is happening in television and radio as well. 

But Scottish journalists and commentators think they hold an ace in their hand, particularly those working for UK publications or organisations. "You can't downsize in Scotland! There is about to be a second referendum! Here, it says so in [a rival publication]."

And, if you wanted to keep your job? "Hi boss, here's my weekly column. It's about the Heat Networks (Scotland) Bill............Only joking! It's about how there is about to be a second independence referendum."

Wednesday 15 July 2020

A whole new world.


When I moved to Kilsyth in 1992 I realised the nearest railway station was at Croy and indeed made occasional use of it. 

But it was a complete backwater. Two trains an hour to Glasgow and two to Stirling. And that was it.

Then, in 2000, all of that changed in the space of a few days. 

Those of you old enough to remember will recall that in the relatively early years of the Blair Government there was a tanker drivers dispute which tested the mettle of that administration in facing down trade union demands. At a more micro level it caused huge problems for people used to driving to their work each day. They feared they would run out of petrol going there or be unable to obtain petrol to return home.

A significant proportion of the population of Cumbernauld work elsewhere and thus were left looking for alternative travel arrangements. Croy station was their solution.

And although the strike itself lasted only a few weeks, during these few weeks, these commuters discovered that train travel was quicker, less stressful and, if you were paying for your parking, cheaper than the private car. When the strike was over, Croy Station did not go back to normal. Far from it. Today there a four trains an hour to Glasgow; two to Edinburgh and one (via Stirling) to Alloa or Perth. 

Short term that caused immense parking problems, as people generally still drove to the station, but in time a huge new car park was built. A car park which, at the beginning of March this year, was already struggling to satisfy demand, leading to plans for further expansion being considered. 

I drove past Croy station yesterday. The picture I start with is of that big new car park. Taken at twenty past five. Before any commuter got home from their work.  Shops are reopened, offices are reopened, things are supposedly getting back to normal. Only the new normal is not the old normal. If any extension to this car park is ever now built I will be astonished. We are in a whole new world.

Few would argue that the changes brought about by the 2000 dispute were not changes for the better. Changes that benefited the life experience of the commuters. Changes that benefited the environment. But this time, I suspect it is a mixed bag. 

There was a time, long before March 23rd,  that I used to go into "the town" (Glasgow) to browse in a bookshop at least every couple of months. I usually went for a particular purchase but I never left with just that. And in the process I produced a profit, or if you prefer a surplus value, that paid the staff who served me, the rent of the premises they operated from and, and I say this quite happily, a return on the investment to those who had facilitated this personally pleasant experience. In the end they were being paid in turn by payment made to me by, or on behalf of, of those who had suffered the less pleasant experience of divorce, or industrial accident, or criminal prosecution.  As were also being  paid those whose remuneration derived from the coffee or the pint or the lunch I went for after book shopping. That's how a market system works. In this case from each of these according to their miserability to each of these desiring of a feed. 

I stopped this practice perhaps five years ago. If I now see a book I'd like to read, I don't wait to go to buy it, hoping it's in stock, that coming weekend, or whatever. I buy it there and then on my kindle. And, slowly but steadily, I know I am killing the very bookshops that I love. But, on the other hand, I have read the book long before I might have forgotten about it and perhaps found my attention seized by something else. Good news for the author, sort of good news for me, utterly disastrous news for the bookshop, landlord and tenant. And also for the bookshop's staff and also, marginally in the specific but disastrously in the trend for those who might once have sold me a train ticket, driven the train, poured me a pint and/or cooked or served me lunch along the way. 

This was all nonetheless long term trend before March 23rd. As I suspect had been people getting the train to work from Croy, as opposed to driving, before the tanker drivers strike 2000. But it is a trend prescribed steroids by the lockdown over the last four months. Just as it happened in 2000.

There will be no going back to the big city centre white collar workplaces. Once it has been worked out that, thanks to modern technology,  they are not needed, as people can work from home, then they will die away. More concerningly still, once it has been worked out that there has been no particular need at all to call on the services of some of  those (prepared to be) working from home...? The private sector will get this pretty quickly. The public sector eventually. 

But the wider knock on from this? For sandwich bars at lunchtime to other bars at tea time. For the  trains and planes and, if not automobiles, then certainly petrol stations? For jannies and cleaners and receptionists and commissionaires. For railway and bus station shops and early morning train and bus drivers? We are in a whole new world. 

Some of this is limited good news. If I worry that an electric car wouldn't take me very far? What does it matter if I won't need to go very far anyway?

But in other respects.

So here are my modest suggestions,

1. All planning permission in towns and cities, conservation status aside, should be deemed agreed residential in addition to any existing permitted use. If town and city centres are to survive it can only be by encouraging people to live there. That requires urgent action.  Bureaucratic obstacles to that are madness.

2.Since in the modern economy a driving licence is a better route to a job than many college degrees, driving lessons, 21 to 24, should be free, As should be the driving test.

3. Non domestic rates liability should be calculated by virtue of revenue derived on and from the site. With transparency a legal obligation. I get this is a big task but it is an essential one. City centre stores paying higher rates bills than distribution sites operating online are simply city centre stores who will eventually close. 

4. "Job creation" can't just be "employment creating". If there are to be public, or,  publicly funded, private sector, job creation schemes, they must have defined objectives and, in the private sector at least, be able to show some sort of business (or time limited project) plan. This will inevitably involve government picking potential winners but should also involve inviting those winners to get filthy rich if they create real long term jobs.

I started this blog yesterday. I wish I had taken a further photo tonight. Next to my office there is a Wetherspoon's pub. We've been conscious over the last few days that their staff have been back in planning to reopen. Today they did and, as I left my work tonight, I stuck my head in the door. There were a number of customers sitting socially distanced and looking hardly enthusiastic about their experience. Most looked more likely to be about to go home than to order a meal or another round. If this was a remotely profitable enterprise I'd be astonished. 

What is to come is going to be grim, really grim.