Friday, 23 November 2018

Spanish Irony

Oh the irony! Spain blocks Theresa May's Brexit!

Remember the tales we were told about Spain blocking EU access for an independent Scotland? It was always load of toro-s&1t, designed as part of Project Fear. As Paul Kavanagh, the Wee Ginger Dug and the wonderful Pilar Aymara have repeatedly explained the 'Spanish Veto Myth' is exactly that - a myth created by the tabloids to scare swing voters to 'No' in the independence referendum.

But now the Spanish snake has turned to bite Theresa in the bum. Gibraltar, according to today's Financial Times, is the rock in the sandal of the Tory party's Brexit.

¡No passarán!

Monday, 19 November 2018

Letter to a Brexit-supporting Friend

Dear D

Thanks for your note. We have never really sat down and had a thorough debate about Brexit. So here is my case, in response to yours.

Migration: not the real argument

At her press conference to announce the draft agreement with the EU, and again at the CBI today, the Prime Minister focused on immigration and ‘control over our own borders.’ Immigrants have been at the heart of the Brexit argument. Immigrants, who ‘steal our jobs’.

This is a false argument, on four counts.

First, there is no evidence that immigrants steal ‘our’ jobs. In fact, the evidence from a wide variety of sources (here is a briefing paper from the OECD), is the reverse. Immigration creates a net benefit for the UK economy.

Second, we can’t escape our demographics. Like many countries in Europe, Scotland has an ageing population. We need young migrants to contribute to the economy, to pay the taxes that pay the pensions, and to fill the jobs, including the many caring professions, that our economy needs. You have seen the effect that the threat of Brexit has had on the recruitment of nurses in England; why on earth would we want that to happen in Scotland?

Third, the EU has strong borders, and border controls. It’s not a free-for-all for immigration, as the thousands of young men and women who die each year in the Mediterranean demonstrate. These migrants, escaping wars and economic misery, die trying to get through the many barriers that the EU has erected.

And finally, on what moral or ethical grounds can a person in Scotland say that there should be stiffer controls on migration? Who were the great migrants of the British Isles a century ago? Who, proportionally, provided more men and women for the Colonial Service than any other country in the British Isles? We are all immigrants in Scotland, and we are all related to emigrants. Do we really believe that the Scots who went to the USA did not contribute to the economy there? On what basis can one argue that the Scot who went to the USA and Canada helped build those nations, while the Senegalese or Syrian who comes to Scotland is nothing but a drain on our resources?

And if we were morally or ethically consistent in these arguments then we would follow them through. We would insist that the 300,000 UK citizens in Spain should return immediately to the UK because ‘they are a drain on the economy’. But we don’t. We call them ‘expats’ not ‘immigrants’, and we hint at their slightly glamorous life in the sun. Now put yourself in Aleppo, or Ouagadougou and imagine that your daughter lives in Glasgow and works as a nurse; wouldn’t you feel the same, that she was contributing to her host country?

There is a moral inconsistency in the pro-Brexit argument. Because it’s based on the false premise that ‘immigration’ is bad.

Faceless Bureaucrats

It’s the phrase favoured by the Daily Mail; the ‘faceless bureaucrats’ of Brussels have told us we can’t have bendy bananas or straight cucumbers or whatever.

This part of the Brexit debate is posited as though the UK can simply escape the clutches of Brussels. It is even posited as ‘escape from Brussels…so that we can enjoy the freedom of World Trade Organisation rules’. Gosh! Are the WTO bureaucrats so much better? So much less ‘faceless’?

But neither of these points is valid. Because this part of the debate is not about the bureaucrats. It's about governance. 

Proposing that the UK will be ‘free’ after Brexit is false.  Britain, like most countries, is linked into a huge, complex, web of governance. At the top of the tree is the UN: the UK is signatory to a wide range of UN treaties on topics ranging from human rights to the complexities of the International Telecommunications Union. Next are the INGOs; so the UK is a signatory to the conventions of the International Committee of the Red Cross and Red Crescent, meaning for example that we treat prisoners of war with respect. Then we are (until March 29th, unless the Tory Party comes to its senses) members of the EU so we have a layer of governance there. Then we have Westminster, the, er, mother of parliaments. Then you have the Scottish Parliament which, until Brexit showed that the Sewell convention has no legal force, appeared to govern us. And then Fife Council and then your local Community Council.

These are all layers of governance. They all perform different, sometimes overlapping, functions, and they all have rules, regulations and bureaucrats, faceless or otherwise. Many are essential; I’m sure that you would not want us to pull out of the ICRC Convention on the treatment of POWs, and equally sure that you would not want us to withdraw from the UN treaties on the use of child labour. Equally, I’m sure that you need your local council to sweep the streets and provide subsidised transport for older people.

So the Brexit debate is not a choice between ‘freedom’ and ‘Brussels’. It's about the mixture of layers of governance that the voters want.  The effect of Brexit will not be to remove the EU rules, in the same way as it will not remove the UN treaties. Even if Brexit occurs, we will still have to abide by the rules of the EU because the EU is our largest trading partner. So if the EU insists that widgets made in Scotland are 14mm long then that is how we will have to make them. This is a debate about governance, about a specific layer of the many layers of governance that control what we do.

Now you have to convince me that the EU layer is worse than, say, the UN layer, or worse than the Fife Council layer. In all of those cases we (a) contribute cash to make that layer of governance work and (b) have a corresponding say in that body’s decisions. My view is that the EU layer provides far more positives than negatives; it encourages us to limit pollution and the damage of climate change, it helps build roads and bridges in Scotland, it allows us to be part of a 500m-consumer group that can face down Google and Facebook, it is dramatically positive for education and especially higher education, it is a significant funder of research in areas such as biochemistry, where the US and the Chinese would otherwise streak ahead of us, and it is one of the funders of one of your favourite engineering projects, the Falkirk Wheel …

At a more personal level, I have benefitted hugely from the UK’s membership of the EU, and, as a migrant have – I hope – contributed to the country that took me in. Above all, I have not had to send my children to another war in Europe but instead have been able to watch them benefit from the education systems of three EU member states. 

That's why - had I been given a vote - I would have voted to Remain. And why I'm doing whatever I can to get the mess of a mother of Parliaments at Westminster to reconsider Brexit and to opt instead for continuing membership of the European Union.

Tuesday, 31 July 2018

The Bright Side of Brexit

You could not have asked for a better bench-test of the Westminster system of governance than Brexit. A bench-test that Westminster, and the society that maintains it, has failed dramatically.

The Brexit campaign was built on racism. The campaign focused on the control of immigration, blaming ‘immigrants’ for the job losses and the poverty in the UK. This is a technique that has been used by mendacious governments, kings and tribal leaders since we were plankton. ‘Those amoebae look different from us. They are the cause of our discomfort. We are better than them. Let’s get them out of our pond.’

Poverty and unemployment in Britain are not the result of immigration. They are the result of a sick Westminster neoliberalism that soaks the rich. The City has not suffered, but the poor kids on the streets in Pollok, have.

The focus on immigration was led by the Mail, the Sun and the Telegraph, all of them newspapers owned by wealthy individuals who will lose nothing (and may win yet greater riches) as the result of Brexit. And here is the second ingredient in the Brexit bench-test. The tabloid devils were supported by the BBC, which equals or betters Russia Today as a government propaganda channel. No-one can demonstrate that Mr Putin is influencing RT, just as no-one can demonstrate that Mrs May is influencing the BBC, but both channels express an editorial line that suits the government of the day.

There may have been an imaginary halcyon day in which British journalists were an objective balance to the power of government – a functioning Fourth Estate telling truth to power – but those days – if they ever existed – have long gone.

The bent bananas argument for Brexit, led by the equally bent Boris Johnson, has been broken by the facts of Brexit. The argument was that Brussels had created a series of rules and regulations – including one governing the quality of fruit including bananas – that were an imposition on Britain’s freedom to do business. Boris and the Brexiteers argued that we should escape the shackles of EU regulation so that Britain could trade freely with the world. A hypnotic argument, amplified by the tabloids and the Telegraph.

And now we face reality; the EU is the UK’s largest trading partner, and so we will inevitably want to continue buying and selling there. So we will continue to have to abide by their rules on bent bananas, data protection, car parts and a thousand other products and services. But this time, we will no longer have a say, no longer have MEPs, or a seat on the committees that draft these regulations. We will be in a worse position, a weaker position, than we were before Brexit.

Brexit is the dark force in English politics. It has brought out the worst in the Westminster system of governance.

But it has a bright side. A bright side, for Scotland.

Because Brexit has shown that the ‘Union’ of Scotland and England is nothing of the sort. It has shown that Scotland is merely the colony of an ageing imperial power. The Scottish parliament, set up after years of demands and proposals, has no power. Brexit has shown that the ‘Sewell Convention’ is worthless, a slip of paper shredded in a Tory fart. The Westminster power grab – taking back any remaining powers that the toothless Scottish parliament had – has been supported not only by the Tories but also by a Labour party that has definitely lost its way.

And this is our hope. That the people of Scotland will realise, thanks to Brexit, that their parliament, their government, their power has once again been ripped away from them by the greed of Westminster. This is the bright side. This is independence.

Sunday, 15 July 2018

From Clay to clay

I'm in a town in the Potteries, in England's West Midlands. The town was built on clay, and what you could make from it, and there are still the tall chimneys of the ceramics works that were the employers of the region.

The ceramics works are now heritage museums. Which would be fine, if this was part of a successful diversification of industry. But it is not. The scene is desolate, crumbling, bleak. Walking through the city yesterday, Saturday evening, there were too many boarded up and empty shops, with the only thriving retail business, the betting shop. The grocer, who serves as the local branch of Western Union, has his windows barred and meshed so that it appears more like a cop shop in Blade Runner than a place to buy your greens. The roughly-painted restaurant set up by - from what I can read of the flaking signage - a Polish couple has been closed for months. A Wetherstones pub provides a cheery change, its bulky, white, clients spilling out onto the pavement to sing football songs.

But it is the buildings I notice most. Nineteenth century brick buildings, with the carved and moulded additions that signalled ostentation, English-style, with what were once neat little sash windows and once-gay window-boxes for flowers. Now? The buildings are rotting. The roof of one - occupied, with tattered greying curtains at the windows - is curving inward, broken-backed. The brickwork on all of them - made from the clay that also fed the potteries - is crumbling. Clay is returning to clay. How long will it take? How long before this once busy town melts into the earth again?

The census - England is dilligent in charting its decline - tells us what is happening here. The data is from Nomis, based on the 2011 census. This is a poor town, with almost two thirds of the population in socio-economic grades C2, D and E (overall in England, just over 45% of the population is in these grades). One person in five (20%) is on benefits (England 13%). Worse, young people are being abandoned. Amongst 16 to 24 year olds, one in three has no educational qualification whatsoever, and 48% have either no qualification or a Level 1 qualification - the lowest grade (England, 35%). Their future is bleak.

This town has all of the illnesses of the neoliberal economy, the preferred model of Westminster governments since Margaret Thatcher. The state has not intervened, except to pay, grudgingly, the increasingly faulty and impoverishing benefits that its citizens are due. The state has allowed London, its financial quarter and its southern-county hinterland to flourish, while it has left the north to rot.

Why did the state not intervene? The decline of the ceramics works was well-signalled. Their carefully collected census data showed Westminster, long before it became physically obvious in the crumbling façades of the buildings, that this town needed help, needed to diversify, to build a well-educated young population, to be given a hand to climb out of poverty. But Westminster, hypnotised by the snake-oil sellers in the City and the tax-dodging barons of the tabloid press, abandoned the north of England to focus on the comfortable homes and voters of Surrey. 

What now? Like the Scottish Highlands, this town has been cleared. Not by the Duchess of Sutherland and her ghillies, but by Margaret Thatcher and her dodgy economists. A young person with gumption will have caught the privatised Virgin train to London and have looked for work there. It's a town, built on clay, sinking.

Tuesday, 1 May 2018

Too Bad

I am talking to my son, and he is describing a lecture he just had at University. It was about archaeology in war zones – what happens when a war rolls over our heritage. The lecturer showed video of military tanks clanking over ancient temples…and then said that the real story was not there, but was in the fact that these sites were looted first, that the statues, the pottery, the art was stolen, packaged and shipped out for sale to the highest bidder. With the funds, of course, coming back in the form of guns, bullets and more tanks. The pillaged loot was re-badged in Basel, and sold in London.

London! Trading in stolen artefacts! Why does so much immoral trade circuit through London?

This week’s Commons vote illustrates part of the problem. London is the node in a network of former colonies including the British Virgin Islands, which have allowed people to set up companies whose ownership is opaque, or directly anonymous. So whether you are dealing in stolen statues or offering ‘riot control’ equipment to dodgy regimes you can trade through London’s former colonies, or its Crown Dependencies.

Westminster could have stopped this years ago. But they didn’t. It took 14 rebel Tories, including the increasingly belligerent Ken Clarke, to force a Government climb-down.

Why? Because we are badly governed. We have a bad government in Westminster, a rotten government. I don’t mean the Tory party, although they are fully part of the problem. I mean the government. Westminster bends its ear too easily to the lobbyists – from the arms trade, from the City, from the architects of tax-avoidance schemes, from the multinationals… Westminster is too full of clubbable chaps who went to school with the chaps who are now doing the dodgy deals.

Westminster is corruptible, and corrupted.

And Westminster rules Scotland. ‘Rules’ in the imperial, Britannia sense, as the Brexit power grab shows. Rules in the expectation that the people of Scotland will be grateful for the crumbs from Westminster’s very fat loaf.

The big decisions – who we go to war with next, how we control the power of wealth, what we do or don’t do about climate change, which American multinational we let off the fiscal hook, how we set quotas for immigration – are all taken by a rotten government on behalf of Scotland.

Scotland needs an independent modern government. A government that is transparent, open and representative, so that everyone can walk into Holyrood and feel that someone there shares their interests or their concerns. We also need, as Lesley Riddoch keeps reminding us, good local government with the power and the money to resolve local issues. We need to pass our own laws, to work out how we live and love together, through a parliament that is not held in the palm of the lobbyists. We need independence.

There is a similar feeling about Madrid. Even the right-wing El País asks whether we should be 'organising public life [by] relying on Mafia techniques.'
 The corruption, and the extraordinary collusion of the judiciary in locking up elected politicians for their opinions, are leading many Catalans to the conclusion that independence is the only way of getting a government that functions.

An escape from under the heel of a bad government is one of the reasons why half the people of Scotland, and half the people of Catalonia, want independence. We’ve both had more than 250 years of it, and it gives us the dry boke.

Friday, 5 January 2018

Clink the Difference

What’s the difference between Catalonia and Scotland?

The weather? Well, yes. The food. Yes, again. The beaches? Hmmm. There are those lovely beaches on Coll…

But the big difference?

The big difference is that Nicola Sturgeon is not in exile in Brussels, and Patrick Harvie is not in the clink with Ross Greer, Robin McAlpine and, say, Lesley Riddoch.

Because that is what is happening to Catalonia. Spain has four people locked up for their opinions: prisoners of conscience, or political prisoners. Two of these people – Oriol Jonqueras and Joaquim Forn – are elected politicians, re-elected in the ballot imposed by Spain on the 21st December. The other two, Jordi Sànchez and Jordi Cuixart are the leaders of two charities, yes charities, that promote Catalan culture and democracy. Omnium Cultural, the charity led by Jordi Cuixart, was set up in the 1960s amongst Catalan exiles to preserve and promote their culture in the face of the onslaught and assassinations of the Franco regime.

All four – Jonqueras, Forn, Sànchez and Cuixart – are prisoners on remand. They have been charged, but not tried. They are innocent until and unless proven guilty. The Spanish state has gone back to its origins, and is charging the men with ‘sedition’ and ‘rebellion’, accusations that would have resonated in the 15th century but which nowadays seem antediluvian. In an extraordinary piece of invention, the state has also decided that the men should be charged with creating a violent, ‘tumultuous’ affray. The charges relate to the various pro-indy demonstrations in Barcelona and Catalonia; demonstrations that have attracted a million people each year…and which have resulted in zero arrests, zero charges, and zero police claims (at the time) of violence. Now the Spanish state is trying to portray these peaceful, warm, friendly, demonstrations as ‘violent.’

Meanwhile ‘our Nicola Sturgeon’ is in exile in Brussels. ‘Our Nicola’ is Carles Puigdemont, chosen as President of the Generalitat (the Catalan Parliament) after the September 2015 elections, and selected again as the leader of the biggest pro-indy party at the December 2017 election. He and four other elected members of the Generalitat fled the country in early November to escape imprisonment by Spain.

Spain’s militarised Civil Guard have now decided to extend the assault, by charging more than 30 more people with crimes against the state. These new charges – amongst which the militarised police have included charges of ‘violence’ – could see many more elected politicians locked up.

Spain has used a paragraph in its Constitution – para 155 – to take control of the Catalan government and civil service. Just like in Scotland, Catalans thought that they lived in an ‘autonomous’ region, with its own parliament, its own rules and its own civil service. But as Scotland discovered during the court case over Brexit and the Sewel Convention, ‘autonomy’ is an empty word. You can have your autonomy, but only with our say so.

Imagine that Westminster had decided to lock up, or drive into exile, our elected politicians. Imagine that Westminster had taken over the Scottish parliament, closed websites, used armed riot-police to break up queues of people voting in Scottish elections, had trumped-up charges against civil leaders, politicians, police officers. Imagine the affront to democracy that would represent.

And then work out just how stupid this policy would be. Stupid (from Westminster’s point of view) because it would drive many more people into the arms of the SNP. Many more people would vote for independence, exactly as happened in the 21st December 2017 elections in Catalunya, where 106,013 more people voted for pro-indy parties than in 2015. We’d have ‘martyrs’ to the cause in jail or in exile. We’d have cases heading for the European courts and the international justice system, and campaigns at the UN. We’d be the Palestine of northern Europe.

That’s the clink of a difference. Scotland is not Catalonia; Nicola is free to speak her mind from her Holyrood office. But as you hear her speak, think about Carles Puigdemont, Oriol Junqueras, Jordi Cuixart, Joaquim Forn, Clara Ponsatí, Antoni Comín, Meritxell Borràs and Meritxell Serret, who are either exiled or jailed for speaking out.