Friday, 28 November 2014

Oh dear Lord

The Smith Commission, headed by Lord Robert Smith of Kelvin, has reported.

The Good Bits

  1. Lord Smith got five political parties (Conservative, Green, Labour, Liberal Democrat and the SNP) to agree to one document. That's an achievement.
  2. The consensus includes an agreement to extend voting to 16 and 17 year olds - young people would* have more of a say in our future
  3. The Commission agreed that "nothing in this report prevents Scotland becoming an independent country in the future should the people of Scotland so choose." I'm choosing, and I'm choosing now. Yes please.
  4. He added his own view: for example that there should be more local devolution - to local authorities 
  5. Scotland would* get a voice on EU business. Bonjour, Monsieur Juncker.
  6. The Crown Estate would* pass to the Scottish Parliament - we get Balmoral! Anyone want to squat it?
  7. Scotland would* get powers over fuel poverty
  8. Payday loan sharks, sorry, shops, would* be controlled at Holyrood
  9. We would* get some "formal consultative roles" - for example with telecoms, renewable energy and the coastguard. I have the impression that this "consultative role" was a negotiation back-stop in the places where Conservative, Labour or LibDems would not hand over actual power. 
  10. The two governments would "explore" (sounds very, very tentative) the possibility (even more tentative) of a "temporary right" (tentative in the extreme) to remain in Scotland for anyone identified as a victim of human trafficking.
  11. We get control over food labelling to include "Made in Scotland". 
  12. Oh yes, and we would* get powers over traffic signs. Great. Thanks.

The Not Good Bits

The Commission received 18,381 submissions from the public including, as we say in Catalan, un servidor. When they published their interim report on these submissions they told us that just 259 (er, 1.88%) were submissions "requesting no further powers be devolved." So when the report says:

...what they apparently mean is that the public view would "...NOT influence the thinking of the political parties..."
The Scottish Parliament would* have no powers over the regulation of political parties or donations to those parties. Barmy, in the extreme. 
We would* get no powers over pensions, and limited powers over benefits. Child Benefit and Maternity Allowance are both "reserved" - i.e. Westminster keeps their sticky hands on them. 
Westminster - that bastion of gender equality - retains control over equalities!
The political and environmental hot potato of fracking comes to Scotland, but the real money - the licenses for offshore oil and gas - don't. Thanks a bunch, guys.
On income tax we get to control the rate...but not the personal allowance, or tax relief or even "the definition of income." So, change the definition and change the reliefs, and the b*&&ers can carry on evading tax like before
We don't get control over National Insurance, Inheritance Tax, Capital Gains tax, Corporation tax and "oil and gas receipts will remain reserved." ROBBERY!!
We get to control Air Passenger Duty...but if we cut it, we have to pay the difference to Westminster. The Ryanair policy.  
Same goes for fines and penalties. We get to keep them, but we pay the amount back to Westminster. Bl@@dy pointless.

Teacher's Comments

Not really "extensive new powers", is it, Bob? Definitely not the "home rule" that Gordon Brown promised. 
You didn't actually listen, Bob, did you? When 18,381 people sweated nights to write you their six pages of opinion, and when 98% of those people said they wanted more powers, you, and the Commission, simply ignored them.
We get to fiddle at the fringes of income tax, but we can't control allowances, nor even define what "income" is.
We don't get rid of Trident, nor anywhere near it.
And we have once again been robbed. Like the English colony that we are, our oil and gas, that huge opportunity to tackle the poverty of Scotland, has been taken from us. Robbery, pure daylight robbery. This part gives me, as an auntie used to say, the dry boak.

So thanks for trying, and well done with the getting-them-all-to-agree bit. But it's not enough. Not enough, by miles.

*IF the UK Government agrees to implement all this lovely stuff, bearing in mind the forthcoming general election, the views of UKIP and their mates in the Tory party...

Thursday, 27 November 2014

The Quine's Speech

Nicola Sturgeon, first of the quines of Scotland, has drafted her government's programme for 2014-5. The detail is interesting.

The programme has two axes - business, and equality. On equality, the Government is planning to do battle with poverty and to emulate by 2020 what the First Minister has done in her Cabinet - require 50:50 representation by women in the leadership of organisations across the nation.

The economic strategy is written for the long term - productivity, increasing labour market participation, and a focus on making Scotland a good place to do business.  The steps include good practical stuff, so parents in the workforce (and without) will get more and better childcare: that will help businesses directly.

The government is promising more Modern Apprenticeships too. For many young people an apprenticeship is a great way to get a solid start in work, and much better to get hands-on work than spending years in a classroom.

The equality programme is wide and varied. From cradle to grave it includes continuing protection for the NHS, more free child care for 1-3 year olds, help for people caring for others, payment of the Living Wage in public-sector contracts, and a thoughtful proposal to analyse how best to legislate specifically against domestic violence. There is to be a fund to recompense people for the idiotic Westminster "Bedroom Tax" -  a bizarre example of one government digging a hole and the other filling it in.

The Government purposes legislation on human trafficking, a horrible source of exploitation that especially affects women. Human trafficking is the dark underside of the sex work trade and legislation will have the beneficial effect of shining a light on the (mainly) men who traffic their sisters.

The Government proposes the end, finally, of Mrs Thatcher's 'Right to Buy' scheme under which our best social housing was sold off to private landlords. This might protect the tail end of social housing in Scotland.

Land reform - the subject of much of Leslie Riddoch's Blossom (and today's front page at The National)- will also be tackled. This is going to be a land war, but one worth winning. Scotland, as Riddoch argued, has millions of acres of unproductive land held by unaccountable land owners. The reform proposed will include transparency so that we can see who's who, and a shift in business rates (tax) so that 'game' estates - those that occupy thousands if acres just so that folk can shoot grouse or deer - will pay their proper share of tax. Expect loud bangs when the gun lobby reads about that.

Land reform with power sharing with local communities is the environmental part of this programme. There is more - legislation on landfill and work on fisheries, as well as support for renewables through the "Offshore Wind Accelerator" programme (a pun of a name.)

So what's missing? There is stuff that this Government can't do. It uses the phrase "short of the power to legislate, the Scottish Government is committed to…", or "...within the limits of our current powers…"  to signal those places where it cannot overcome those of Westminster. Amongst the most horrible of the things they can't do: they can't get rid of Trident.

There is little on the non-profit sector apart from support for culture and reforms in the way that universities are governed. But the huge focus on inequality will please many in the sector.

The first quine's speech is a series of promises to do her best to shepherd all this good stuff through the Scottish Parliament. This is how she would like the future to be - but it's a plan, not an audit report.  Some of it might not make the final cut. Today's report by the Smith Commission and next year's Westminster election might open new doors, or close others. 

But as a manifesto for building better lives for people who have little, or nothing, it gets my vote.

Thursday, 20 November 2014

XY Scots

I inherit my Scottish nationalism from my mother.


One of my sisters has the condition but the other three siblings don't. I seem to have passed it on to both of my children. (Via my mum's X chromosome, I thought, until my daughter smuggled me into her second year Zoology lecture this week at the University of Glasgow by Professor Edward Tobias. Autosomal recessive inheritance, Professor?)

My clan name - Clan Kerr - comes via my grandmother. I know I'm a member because the clan motto - Sero sed serio, Late but in Earnest - is genetically embedded in me: I am forever late but always in earnest.

My mother and my grandmother are two of the most influential people in my life. These Scottish women have made me, loved me, fed me and wiped the blood of falls and cuts from me. They taught me to see life at its best every day and to keep on keeping on when life gets rough. And both women showed me that you carry on learning all of your life - my grandmother's lifetime of studying nature, and my mother's flowering as a writer.

A lifetime in pictures

And now another woman, a 44 year old "working-class girl from Ayrshire", is leading this country of women. She has promised to keep on keeping on for women in Scotland. She will do a great job for Scotland.

XY dominant, Professor?

Friday, 14 November 2014

Smith Says Yes

The Smith Commission has published its interim analysis of 13,759 submissions from members of the public.
Just, ehem, 259 (1.88%) were “submissions requesting no further powers be devolved.”

4,800 of the submissions were petitions – meaning they were signed by more than 10 people. Of these, all (yes 100%) were for one or other mixture of further powers including devo max and home rule.

So, Lord Smith. Your big, big test: will you recommend what most people want? Or will you fudge the issue?

Thursday, 13 November 2014

Horsemen of Hypnosis

England appears hypnotized. How else can one explain the inaction, inertia, blindness, sleepwalking? The country is heading into a perfect storm which will make the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse look like a Sunday School picnic.

Here they are;

The Pestilence of Poverty

Are England's ruling class aware of poverty, outside their own back door? This is the scandal of the wealth gap - the UK's near-to-worst position (24th in 2011, ahead - just - of Israel, Turkey and Chile...) in the OECD list of countries ranked by wealth gap.

We know from charities and from walking the streets that there are far too many people who have little or nothing. And from walking streets not many blocks away, too many with too much.

Britain, and especially the privileged bubble of Westminster has created a society of two tribes. The Rich Tribe is comfortable in its cars and its brand-name shops, while Sebastian ('he's something in the City, darling') squeezes the max out of his salary and bonus package. Its politicians are happy to reduce benefits and tax the spare rooms of the poor because they never consciously encounter the Poor Tribe.

The people who cross this tribal divide are the philanthropists. Not just the high profile people of wealth, but the thousands of people who know that poverty is not another world and who give their money to good causes. But there are not enough philanthropists to fill the growing wealth gap. And some day the Poor Tribe are going to have had enough. 

There will be an explosion in the streets of Britain.

The War Horse

It is Poseidon's weapon of choice. It sits sizzling just 25 miles upwind of Glasgow. And it is costing you, and you, and you a King's ransom. The UK parliamentary committee that met to approve its upgrade reckon £80 billion over the next twenty years... but that's one of those defence spending estimates that has a habit of increasing, maybe doubling.

And yet the English public seem blind to the atomic war horse that is Trident. Most will spend most of their working lives paying for it through their taxes. Some, the million Scots living downwind of Faslane, may one day sniff it in the air. But only a tiny number seem to care. Think how many schools and hospitals you could build, equip and run for £80 billion!

The Financial Famine

Yesterday's Financial Times reminded us that the UK is horribly in debt, and that the debt is getting worse each year, despite awful cuts to social services. ONS says that the debt is now £1.4 trillion. This year it is likely to be £100 billion more.

Britain is sleepwalking into the red, with a government that is meant to be good at financial management. But this is a neo-liberal government that refuses to the sensible thing (tax wealth to pay the debt.) Instead it has announced tax relief on wealth, and further cuts in benefits for poor.

One morning we will wake to the news that a trader in the Far East, a new Soros, has decided that the UK economy can't support the debt and that the pound is worthless. When that particular horseman arrives he'll be galloping, and the apocalypse will be fast. The collapse of the pound ('if only we'd joined the Euro when we had chance!') will mean hyperinflation and massive social unrest. A very British apocalypse.

The Death of the World

The palid horse of Death also approaches, across the Channel. It is the Death of Britain's world, and the rebirth of Little England. The people of England seem to have become afraid of anything foreign, starting with the 'terrorists' and now encompassing the EU and its massed ranks of 'immigrants.'

England, exporter of migrants to her colonies where they were supposed be a civilising influence, now fears migrants who might civilise the Motherland. Students are now blocked from entering the UK to study here. Entrepreneurs and new corporate recruits (the CBI complained last week) are facing delays and refusals at our borders. And Prime Minister Cameron has flown the dangerous kite that he will attempt to remove the right of EU citizens to move to and work in any Member State. His kite string will snap in the combined storm of protest from Germany and France over this core principle of the EU.

But this fourth horseman appears to be invisible to many in England. To the UKIP supporters and the loonie right of course, but also to Conservative and Labour voters. Can these Little Englanders not see the illogic of their position? 'We emigrate' equals 'good'. 'They emigrate' equals 'bad'. Really? 

And do they not see the dangers? Targeting immigration means targeting immigrants and that smells, quickly, of racism. And of course Britain will be expelled from the EU - even if England does not vote the whole UK out - if it persists with this folly.


Hypnotic Men on Horses

Why are the people of England blind to the four horsemen? It seems to be an almost perfect disconnect between the English and their politicians. A disconnect made obvious by the contrast with Scotland, where these topics were aired and discussed for the Referendum and continue to be the subject of writing, thinking and discussion afterwards.

But for hypnotised England the clip-clop of hooves is already audible. We just don't know which horse will come in first; poverty, and social turmoil when poor people finally sicken of the cuts? The a massive sell out of sterling when the markets discover that our debt is unpayable, ever? A 'tragic accident' at Faslane? Or the loss of Britain's largest trading partner? Or will all four Horsemen arrive together in a perfect storm?

Whatever. It's coming. Someone, please: wake up England.

Sunday, 9 November 2014

Self-Determined Catalans

The polls have just closed here in Catalonia and it looks very likely that two million of the electorate of 5.4 million will have voted in the civil referendum.

This is despite the fact that:

a) only one third of the normal number of polling stations were open

b) the Constitutional Court had declared the vote, the act of voting, and the act of supporting a vote illegal

c) Head teachers at every school in Catalonia (many schools are used as polling stations in elections) had received this letter from the Governor of Catalonia telling them that it was illegal to open the school as a polling station.

Message from the Moon

(The letter, from the wonderfully named Maria Llanos de Luna (Mary "Planes of the Moon") is a masterpiece in legalistic obscurantism. It is also almost unreadable - the first sentence, for example, runs to 107 words.)

Catalans everywhere have been voting - there were queues at the London office of the Generalitat, in Fleet Street.

Today's poll is determined self-determination. Every Catalan who voted was breaking the law - two million people defied the courts and voted. This is democracy in the face of a Madrid government that tried to ban it. At last night's European Free Alliance meeting in Barcelona  Daniel Turp of the Parti Québécois focused on the right of people to self determination as a measure of democracy. 

He was right - the Catalans have shown what democracy (δημοκρατία / dēmokratía) really is - rule of the people.