Friday, 29 August 2014

Sant Esteve says YES

Last night's full house at the Llibreria Café del Teatre, Sant Esteve de Palautordera, for my "Scotland: 20 Questions, One Answer" talk.

Thanks to my friends Jordi and Sole for letting me use their space!

Thursday, 28 August 2014

Loves Bombs

David Cameron is coming to Scotland. Expect the normal love-bombs. At least, the love-bombs of the last three years.

Because before that, he barely mentioned Scotland at all.

Until the SNP's 2011 win, David Cameron did not talk about Scotland. In the nine years after he was elected MP for Witney in 2001, he used the word "Scotland" a total of 12 times in Parliamentary debates* - that's 1.3 times per year, or about a minute and a half on Scotland, in nine years of politics.

Talking about you

Then the SNP are elected and suddenly Mr Cameron loves Scotland.We learn that his dad was born at Blairmore House, near Huntly, Aberdeen, and his claim at the Olympic Park in London in January 2014 that "my surname goes back to the West Highlands."

Mr Cameron doesn't love Scotland. He'd rather talk about almost anything else, particularly about tax, defence, and London:


On defence he's silent on Scotland where it really matters. As CND has pointed out**, he signed a 10-year extension to the nuclear cooperation treaty with the USA, the Mutual Defence Agreement (MAD), without a debate in Parliament. The treaty is about the Trident A-bombs in Faslane, Scotland.

Mr Cameron loves bombs more than he loves Scotland.

*This excludes "Scotland Yard" and "Royal Bank of Scotland" unless the latter is connected in the debate with Scotland. Excludes "Scottish National Party" when Mr Cameron is simply taking  a question from the SNP (eg, on Syria).


Friday, 22 August 2014

A Stroll to the Polls

It's a sunny, breezy September afternoon and we are walking arm-in-arm to the polling station. Someone says "a penny for your thoughts." 

Here are mine:

I think of the poor. The poor in Ferguslie Park or Possil Park, where you are three times as likely to be unemployed and if you are unemployed, almost five times as likely to be sick and unemployed as folk living in the least deprived areas of Scotland. Your baby is likely to be born underweight and is much less likely to be breastfed - meaning that her daughters will also be underweight. You are locked into poverty. Why? Because the UK government is structurally and philosophically unable to deal with Scotland's poverty. Structurally because its main focus is on London and the South East. Philosophically, because since Margaret Thatcher and Sir Keith Joseph all our main political parties believe that by reducing direct taxation and allowing a few to get very, very, wealthy, that wealth will "trickle down."

It doesn't.

It floats up. The wealth gap widens*. And we create a broken society. The poor live in one world - what Abbé Pierre in France called the "4th World". We, the better off, live in another. We, the better off, think that poor people are just shirkers or lazy or dependent; we don't talk to them, find out who they really are. Neither the poor, nor the rich, feel part of the same society...and as a consequence of that the poor occasionally break up the street furniture as happened in 2011 in London, and the better off and powerful feel free to impose extra taxes (the "Bedroom Tax") on people they don't know and don't care about.

Westminster believes in this neo-liberal philosophy down to its very soul. Holyrood doesn't. Scottish politics has barely been touched by these ideas and as a consequence is willing to work for the poor. But its hands are tied by Westminster. So long as Westminster can carry on imposing its taxes on our poor, and its tax breaks on our wealthy, the poor of Scotland are condemned to poverty. We can break out of our poverty trap on 18th September.

We talk about your working lives, and business.  Imagine, I say, a country on the edge of the world's largest trading bloc. It's an English-speaking country with a tradition of enterprise, trade and export. It has massive oil reserves and loads of wind and wave energy. It has a highly educated population and a strong research and technology base, with more universities per head than any other country in the world. It's relatively easy to meet the people in charge - they are just down the road. Fancy building your new factory or headquarters there? Yes, of course you do! As an independent country it will do what everyone else does and nudge business rates here or taxes there to encourage inward investment. But it won't have to. Scotland will be a dream to invest in.

You mention the Commonwealth Games - so good for Glasgow. Those nations - almost all of them once ruled from London. Even the tiny Sovereign Republic of Kiribati has its own government. Scotland can be a member of the Commonwealth too - as a sovereign nation, with the Queen still on her throne and the sun still rising each morning.

And then there is Trident. Set aside the madness of parking nuclear bombs 25 miles upwind of Glasgow, and of a heavily indebted country spending £4bn a year for 20 years on a new Trident. Trident is a metaphor. It's from the time when "Brutain's hardy sons" dominated an Empire. The missiles still get us a place in the UN Security Council, give us a role in US military adventures, and signal that we are an imperial power. It's time to stop, and think. It is time for Britain to grow up and out of Empire, to become a modern, constitutional state. Remove the bomb and we can do that. On 18th September we can take that step away from bombs, America and Empire and towards a modern, fairer union of equals with our neighbours.

And now we stop for a moment to take a look over someone's lovely garden. We take a breather. Because I am about to make a more controversial point.

I think we've been hypnotised.

All our lives we've been told that Scotland is poor. Too poor to look after itself. So poor that it is only kept alive with a dripfeed of Barnett-formula handouts from Westminster. And now I've woken from this hypnosis, and looked away from the propaganda. And I see a country that is an oil-producing nation, with productive, profitable industries (whisky, tourism, alternative energy). We're an oil producer! We are not poor! We've been sucked dry of resources and of talent, and then told we're handout junkies. This (take a deep breath, because this really is strong stuff) is how colonial powers work. Time for Scotland to crawl out from under the Empire and pay for itself. We can do it.

We talk about leaders. You comment that Holyrood is full (you acknowledge, gracefully, that there are a few exceptions) of small-minded politicians. So I tell you the story of a brilliant young advocate. With a good education at Loretto and the University of Aberdeen, he was an outlier in his cohort of young law students. He was a socialist. He dabbled in politics at university, and then as a councillor in Edinburgh. But he knew where the real power lay - in Westminster. He went to London to seek his fortune, eventually becoming Chancellor of the Exchequer.

That's what you do if you want to change the world in the UK. You join the Westminster brain drain. But now imagine March 2016. Our brilliant young advocate can play a role in running a whole country from just down the road in Holyrood. He doesn't have to head to London to do politicking. He and others equally clever will fight to get themselves elected in Scotland's Parliament. We will get the leaders we need. We can do it.

We are getting close to the polling station now, and it's time for you to go in and vote. There is a crowd of silent, thoughtful people outside, because this is a big choice. I don't say anything - you must decide which way you will vote. But in my head I'm hoping. I'm hoping that you will vote for the poor of Possil Park, not for the whirlpool of Westminster.

You decide, and step in.

*I have data and sources for all of this if you want. But this is a conversation, remember.

On Paisley, hens, and Scotland's Empire

This is "Paisley" pattern

It's a picture of twisted teardrops, woven into brilliantly coloured fabrics. The pattern is not originally from Paisley - it was brought there by Scottish soldiers and merchants who had seen the originals in India and Persia. Paisley weavers reproduced the cloth mechanically, on looms, and the Scottish merchants went back to successfully sell the patterned cloth to the then Indian colonies. In modern terms, they took the Intellectual Property (IP), and turned it into a profit.

A lot of profit. The evidence is all over Scotland, where our public buildings (Gallery of Modern Art, Hutchesons' School, and Hospital in Glasgow, amongst many others) were donated by people made wealthy by the imperial trade.   We benefit today from public goods, ranging from art galleries to schools, built from imperial profits.

Glasgow's landmark Necropolis, a hilltop covered in the ornate gravestones and memorials of our rich 18th and 19th century merchants - the time when Glasgow was the Empire's second richest city - reminds us that Glaswegians lived, profited and died all over the Empire.  Benjamin Disraeli (1804-1881) said: "It has been my lot to have found myself in many distant lands. I have never been in one without finding a Scotchman, and I never found a Scotchman who was not at the head of the poll."

The Imperial trade was not simple burglary, or just swapping trinkets for gold. There was exchange, even if it was not between equals. And it is too simplistic to say it was just evil white men; I've been to the West African seaboard, and I know that slaves from what is now Mali were traded by people who would now be Ghanaian.

There were exchanges that benefited both sides. Here is one with a Catalan connection:  In farms in Minorca you'll see fat black chickens scampering about the farmyards. Good layers, and good to eat, these are Menorquin hens.  The chickens are here thanks to the wife of the British Governor of colonial Minorca. This was probably Ann, wife of James Murray, the Scottish-born Governor or Minorca from 1774-1782. She took some scrawny black hens home to Britain, spent years improving them (presumably with a bit of good breeding) and returned them to the island's farmers. Generations of Menorcans have benefited from her imperial philanthropy.

The Scottish Referendum reminds us of Empire, because at various points in the debate it has felt like Scotland is the colony. When George Osborne said that we could not have the pound it sounded like the Empire speaking. How dare he! That pound is built on Scottish wealth as well as English; he cannot simply take it away. And when we are told that Scotland should continue to hand over its oil to support the UK treasury, we're being treated like a colony, only relevant so long as the Imperial power can extract valuable raw materials.

Now we know, just a little, how it feels to be colonised .

So now is the time to face up to our imperial past. That means justice,  education and reparation. Education in its very widest sense, so that we the public learn that our good stuff, much of it, was built on bad stuff - on injustice, pain, death and cruelty. Education designed to remind us, before we purchase that new mobile, that new dress or those shoes, that these objects are made in the Empire of today, the multinational trading empire, and that they are made in the pain of the Coltan mine or the dangers of the sweatshop.

And reparation meaning that we go back to the communities we abused and repair some of the harm we caused. We will arrive far too late, and in far too tiny a way; we will not find the skilled Persian embroiderer who made the first twisted teardrop. But we must seize this moment when we are, for a while, a colony of England, to start to repair the ruin of Empire.

Disraeli quote from The Scottish Enlightenment, Arthur Herman, Fourth Estate, London, 2002, page 294
Poultry for Anyone, Victoria Roberts, Whittet Books, Suffolk, 1998
The Minorca Club - poultry

To a First-Time Voter

The Referendum on 18th September will be your first ever vote. So it's a good opportunity to find out about how politics works. I mean how it really works, not the theory.

You can see a good example of how it works in the "Plan B" issue that has been top of the news this week and last. As you will know, this is about Scotland using the pound.

Alastair Darling asked Alex Salmond 20 times, during the infamous TV debate "What is your Plan B?" In interviews and statements, Mr Darling and his BT colleagues have focused on the "lack of a Plan B." And now there is a poster campaign about the lack of a "Plan B."

What is going on?

Mr Darling is a clever politician. He knows that it is relatively easy to make people worried. You just have to find out what scares people - so he and his team will have been surveying and questioning people to find that out. And they will have discovered that (as Bill Clinton said) "it's the economy, stupid" that most people are concerned about. So they have picked something big and obvious like "the pound in your pocket" (these are favourite politicians' phrases - hence the inverted commas), and a catchy phrase about "Plan B." This is propaganda.

"Propaganda" just means information that is used to persuade people of a point of view, or to act in a particular way. It has been used for good and for bad through history, and comes in every flavour, shape and size. The "Plan B" campaign is a good example:

How Do I Know It's Not Butter?

You can check whether or not something you hear, read or see is propaganda. Here are some easy tests:

Is this stuff everywhere?

Effective propaganda is widespread - so you can expect to see it everywhere. You'll see it in Facebook and on Twitter, in the newspapers, on the TV and in adverts in the street. "Commentators" will talk about it, long and often. "Analysts" will appear to, er, analyse it. Propaganda works when it is everywhere.

Are you feeling emotional?

Propaganda is often designed to make you feel emotional. So emotional that you stop being rational. I hope that you never live through an era when there is the worst type of propaganda - that which engenders hatred - but you may feel twinges of fear or anger. The "Plan B" story makes people worried, and that may be enough to trigger them to vote "safely" for the status quo.

Is someone trying to make me do something?

All through history, propaganda has been used to make people do stuff. Before you were born, Mrs Thatcher created a war with Argentina over a tiny archipelago of islands called the Malvinas. I remember standing in Charing Cross Station in London seeing the Sun newspaper headlines about the "Argies" and realising that I was in the middle of a propaganda campaign. The Government wanted me to feel that Argentina was our enemy. But I knew that Argentina had for years been a friend of the UK. There was and is a huge population of Britons there - I think it has the largest population of Welsh-origin people in the world (I mean, more than are in Wales!) But the newspapers, the TV, the radio, were full of bad stuff about the "Argies." This was propaganda.

Look the other way, at the stuff they are not saying

If you think you are being fed propaganda, look the other way. Think about the stuff that is NOT being talked about. Politicians often try to hypnotise us - like rabbits in the headlights - and the "Plan B" campaign is just such a trick. BT are shouting about the lack of a "Plan B" but they are NOT talking about, well, everything else! They are NOT talking about the health service, or poverty in Scotland, or the £4bn-per-year Trident missile, or making a fairer society, or free university education, or… Get the idea? Propaganda tries to grab your attention. Turn away, and think.

Think it through, for yourself

What happens when you think it through for yourself? Can you see the flaws? Walk through, in your mind, what would happen if Scotland voted Yes on 18th September. There would be a massive negotiation afterwards, of course. England would want some oil, Scotland would want rid of the Trident nuclear bombs, England would want access to Scottish fishing grounds, Scotland would want to keep the pound… It would all be negotiated.

What the politicians are doing now is they are preparing themselves for that negotiation. They are trying to get into the best position to negotiate with the winning side. Scotland can use the pound if it wishes - it's an international tradeable currency. But the Scottish Government wants more; it wants a currency union. Darling knows this, so he is making it hard to get. Salmond is also focusing on the pound, because he wants the voters to support Scotland's demand for currency union. No-one is admitting to any Plan B, Plan C or Plan D because to do so would look like weakness in the negotiations that will follow the vote.

When I think it through for myself, and look away from the propaganda I see Scotland's poor. I know we could have a better Scotland in which the poor are not abandoned. That's why I want a Yes vote.

And This, Too?

And you'll have worked out the logical conclusion. It's all propaganda, this note included. So what do you do? Think for yourself! How do you want your country to be governed, in your lifetime?

The real Scottish Question

The recently released (22 July 2014) Public Sector Finances figures from the ONS show that the UK’s Public Sector Net Debt is now £1,304.6 billion. Divide that by the number of adults in the UK and we each owe £25,833.

Messrs Cameron, Clegg and Miliband have announced that, should Scotland vote for independence on 18 September, the Scots can’t have the pound. The Bank of England has said that it will honour the whole UK debt.

If the Scots can't have the pound, then they are not responsible for the debt. That will pile another £2,400 of national debt onto each voter in the rUK.

The real Scottish Question is; do the voters of England want £2,400 more debt?

We should agree a shared currency and a shared debt.

The Spooks and Scotland

You are in a darkened room, in the basement of MI5's Thames House HQ. The meeting is interminable.

You wake up when you hear the word "Scotland."

What is our man in Moscow saying? You recall the phrases; "... scare the SNP into submission...", "...Salmond has to be crucified...", "... Putin would not hesitate if he were PM..."

What would you do if you were MI5, charged with "protecting the UK"? Yes there are external threats. But now there is a threat from inside, that Scotland will drop out of the UK and force England to give up its Trident base at Faslane. You would be derelict in your duty if you did not attempt, by whatever means possible, to derail the Yes Campaign.

How? The classic spook's manoeuvre - tar the leader with personal allegations. What might MI5 use against Alex Salmond or Nicola Sturgeon? A sex scandal? Corruption?

Or tax evasion?

Because that is what might have just happened in Catalonia.

On the 25th July, the Most Honourable Jordi Pujol, President of Catalonia 1980-2003, issued a news release through his lawyers admitting that he had evaded taxes over 34 years in relation to a €4m inheritance from his father, Florenci Pujol.

The story raced through the Catalan and Spanish media in the silly season for news, building into a witch hunt. Five days after the confession, the leading Catalan newspaper headline, over ten pages of comment and analysis, was "Pujol is not Honourable."

Jordi Pujol was the patron saint of Catalan nationalism. Imprisoned and tortured for his views under the Franco dictatorship, he founded in 1975 what has been since then the dominant political force in Catalan politics, CDC ('Catalan Democratic Convergence', later merged into CiU). He was the face of Catalonia on the world stage, and a wily local and national politician, benefiting from weak coalitions in Madrid to push through legislation that allowed Catalonia some degree of autonomy. His dream was independence.

The Pujol revelations began when an estranged daughter in law, Maria Victoria Álvarez, and a former business associate in Puerto del Rosario, Argentina, released information to the police about irregular deals, some involving car-loads of cash in €500 notes being driven by Sr Pujol's son (also named Jordi) from Andorra to Madrid.  The allegations turned into a flood on 7 July this year when El Mundo, a right-wing newspaper, leaked information apparently provided by an ex-advisor to the Banca Privada d'Andorra. On the 14th July, Sr Pujol's wife Marta Ferrusola and four of their seven children reportedly admitted to the Inland Revenue ('Hisenda' in Catalan) €4m in undeclared capital. On the 25th, Sr Pujol released his statement. 'Manos Limpias' ("Clean hands ") a shady pressure group took the case to court on the 28th, so that it became a legal affair.

This story is much too perfect, too precisely timed in the silly season, for it to be simply the result of diligent journalism. The timing, three months before the planned 9th November independence referendum, is strategic. The target, the retired patron saint of Catalan nationalism, too carefully chosen. And the media reaction, pages of analysis, hours of TV, too clamorous.

Because this is almost a non-story. Thousands, perhaps tens of thousands of people in Spain and Catalonia have assets salted away in Andorra. It was a common safeguard during the Franco era - recognised by the Spanish government in three fiscal amnesties in recent years. Sr Pujol must have dozens of friends who have the same rainy day fund, from a father or mother, in a vault in Andorra.

This does not make it right. And these people were not the Most Honourable President of Catalonia. Nor did they speak on public platforms about ethics and moral values.

But it is very conveniently timed news for Madrid. Sr Rajoy, Spanish President will have been smiling over his breakfast 'churros y chocolate' as he read the news.  The story topples an icon of Catalan nationalism, beheads the political party he founded and horribly demoralises the nationalists, who discover that their longest standing leader is rotten to the core.


Can all this be true? Even if it is, why is it appearing now? Can all of these hidden millions have been totally unknown to the security services for the last 34 years, from when Spain was a very delicate new democracy and when Sr Pujol had many Establishment enemies? It beggars belief that his friends, associates and his enemies had no idea of this wealth.

So, what happened?

Imagine. A black dossier on a desk at CNI headquarters in Madrid. A phone call from the Moncloa, the Spanish President's residence. A hand breaks the wax seal and opens the dossier. Pujol is assassinated, without a shot being fired.

And then consider Scotland. What contingency plan has MI5 for Scotland? Whose name is on the black dossier in Thames House?

Beware Scotland, of the enemy within.