Friday, 29 May 2015

Beat the Poorest Child

What people say, and what they do, are different things. The Queen provided the perfect example on Wednesday. She said that her Government would "promote social cohesion" and "give every child the best start in life." What she meant was "my Government will take £14 billion from welfare."

The Queen takes 15 minutes to deliver her anodyne speech. If you want the real story, you have to read the 103 pages of Background Briefs produced by Prime Minster Cameron's office. Here you will find stuff that Her Majesty forgot to mention - a Buses Bill, and one on Psychoactive Substances, for example.

It is in the detail of the briefings that you find the horrible stuff. It is no surprise to find that the Queen, a mother of four, omitted to mention that her Government would freeze Child Benefits for two years from 2016-2017. As the Child Poverty Action Group pointed out, the Department of Work and Pensions own impact assessment reveals that the freeze "is nine times more likely to hit children than adults." Her Government will keep poor children as poor as possible for as long as possible in the wholly mistaken belief that this will drive their parents into work. "Beat the child and the parent will obey" - it could be a Tory motto.

Her Majesty did deign to tell us that her Government would require "young people to earn or learn." That's an ad-man's catch phrase for a much nastier idea, explained in a little more detail in the briefings: 18-21 year olds will be required to start an apprenticeship, training or community work placement after 6 months of Youth Allowance. If they don't, they will get no allowance. And by the way, the same group will get no housing support payments. Poor families with young parents will be forced to move back in with the grandparents, and mum and dad will both be forced out to work even when their children are tiny.

And why?

All of this is so that Mr Cameron can stick to his pledge, as announced by the lady from Windsor that there shall be "no rises in Income Tax rates, Value Added Tax or National Insurance for the next 5 years."

The Queen could have put it in a nutshell:

"My Government will beat the poorest children so that my Lords and members of the House of Commons don't have to tax the well-off."

Tuesday, 19 May 2015

Under Water

By the time you read this, submariner William McNeilly will be locked up in a police cell. According to The National he had decided to hand himself in to police today after nearly a year on the run. Why? Because he had written a dossier in which he described the Trident submarines as a "broken system" and warned that with ageing equipment and human errors in safety systems there was a "disaster waiting to happen."

This makes sense. Load up nuclear bombs full of fissile material and stick them in boats that sink, and then keep them sinking year after year... it seems inevitable that an accident will happen. It is safe to assume that many minor accidents already have. Luckily for the people of Glasgow, they have been minor. Because a major accident at Faslane, just 25 miles upwind of Scotland's largest city, would mean disaster. Just recall the effects on Wales of Chernobyl, thousands of miles to the East, and then imagine that happening doon the watter. If, like this writer, you love Glasgow and have close family there, this thought brings a chill to your spine.

If this seems far from this column's normal themes of poverty and social justice in Scotland, think again.

Investment and Return
William McNeilly is talking about a system whose renewal will cost an estimated £100bn. You may safely take that as the baseline figure - look at cost escalation in the Eurofighter project if you want evidence of defence projects running, inevitably, massively over budget.

That is £100bn being taken out of the hands of the poor - this year's proposed welfare cuts of £14bn are a an indication of how the maths works. It's £100bn less on hospitals.  £100bn less on schools. £100bn less on childcare, social workers, homeless shelters... however you look at it the list is almost endless.

In short, it is £100bn less investment in human capital. Instead of making society better by investing in its people, Westminster proposes to chuck it into the sea.

Human capital pays dividends over a lifetime. The child whom you educate, the woman who is earning a living thanks to the free childcare you are offering, the clever 18 year old who can afford university because there are no tuition fees... From all of these people in whom we have invested there is a long term payback.

But not from the dangerous rust buckets that carry Westminster's bomb. We had guessed that they were dangerous. But it takes a brave man like William McNeilly to remind us, at huge cost to his life, how much our lives are at risk.

Ironically, Trident being dangerous could be just what the defence lobby wants to push MPs into committing to the £100bn renovation. "Trident is dangerous - William said so - so let's renew it now before the bloody thing blows up." You can imagine the conversations in the Members Bar at Westminster. Scotland's 56 will be unable to stop this because renewal is Tory, Labour and Liberal policy. They will have to use their most Machiavellian methods to encourage back bench rebels - surely there is someone in the remnants of Labour who has a moral backbone - to join them.

Of course if Scotland were independent it would not have these terrible weapons of mass slaughter doon the watter. We'd invest the money in the people of Scotland, and make our home a better place.

Monday, 11 May 2015

Rights, or right

People chose political parties for all sorts of reasons. But when a country chooses, massively, one political philosophy it is saying something about the core beliefs of its people. This is nicely illustrated by yesterday's Pink News.  This reports a survey by Scotland's Equality Network which finds that Scotland is the leading country in Europe for LGBTI equality and human rights legislation.

In Scotland 50% of voters chose the SNP, a party embedded in beliefs in equality and social justice.

In contrast, most voters in England chose Tory-UKIP, the right wing grouping which garnered 55% of voters in England, 14,194,922 people. These parties are not built on a foundation of equality and social justice - for evidence check the Tory party manifesto, which included a pledge to repeal the Human Rights Act.  Instead they focus on the rights of the individual to do as he (normally, he) wishes in the hope that this will benefit society.

Two very different philosophies and increasingly two very different countries. 

If England wishes to head out of the door on the right, then let it do so. Scotland now needs the powers to enable it to grow a fairer society - fairer for LGBTI people, for migrants, for "minorities", for people living with disabilities, for the poor...

Fairer, in other words, for all of us.

PS: For a more educated, knowledgeable and generally better view on all of this, read Lallands Peat Worrier. For a laugh on the same topic, take a walk with the Wee Ginger Dug.

Friday, 8 May 2015

From Politics to Productivity

Janan Ganesh, in Tuesday's FT, called this election campaign a 'carnival of nonsense'. Westminster politicians have had weeks of fun and folly, promising us the earth, frightening the impressionable and finally carving promises into stones and "watch my lips no tax increases" legislation.

Elections are democracy's theatre. For six weeks politicians must emerge from their palace and prance around in front of us, spouting scripts and taking the parts of the Big Bad Wolf and innocent Cinderella, often within the same speech.

That is now all over, till next time. The people have spoken. 

The Scottish people have spoken for a centre left agenda, social services, education, childcare, and properly redistributive taxation to pay for it all. 

The English (does anyone really know why?) have voted for cuts to welfare and a widening gap between rich and poor. Oh yes, and for £100 billion on the atom bomb, to be conveniently parked somewhere in North Britain.

Which will make the next four years interesting.

Because now we need productivity, not theatre scripts and Cinderella.

We need productivity focused on the people who need it most - people surviving on next to nothing. People who live in the former council estates now dominated by private landlords. People whose benefits have been stopped by the kangaroo social security courts. People who rely on food banks to feed their children.

Because, and this is bad news for politicians with inflated egos, this is not about politics. Politicians and their parties are just tools for system change. They, through the agency of Government, can do stuff that the rest of us cannot.

In England, that means that politicians will spend more on bombs (something that most normal citizens don't do) and give less to the poor (ditto.)

In Scotland we now, more urgently than ever, need to use the agency of our own Government, to be productive for the poor. We need a fully devolved Holyrood with the power to remove the ridiculous Bedroom Tax. A Holyrood that can legislate to build tens of thousand of council homes. That can grant-aid childcare and free meals. That can link together education, nutrition, housing and benefits to build an environment in which children in Scotland's poorest families can escape the cycle of poverty that their parents, and likely their grandparents, are locked in to.

England has voted to remain locked in poverty. They had the choice, and a clear numerical majority (54% of voters in England, counting Tory and UKIP voters) has voted for the conservative right. That was their choice, not ours.

It is now, urgently, the moment for Scotland to be radical, to break away from Westminster's cycle of poverty. To win back the levers of power. It is time for Scotland to show that we can do a better job than the Cinderellas in Downing Street. It is time to do some hard work, to produce a decent, fair, good society.

Tuesday, 5 May 2015

You vote, I don't

On Thursday, if you live in Scotland and have passed the hurdles of electoral registration, you can vote.

I can't.

I am one of the millions of Scots emigrants. I chose to leave, age 18, to find a new world away from what was for me, then, the stifling claustrophobia of the Scottish middle class. I have family - lots of them - in Scotland and visit regularly. If you ask I'm Scottish and in classes and conferences when people lump together the Anglo-Saxon cultures I always make a joke about being a Pict. 

But I can't vote.

Before the Referendum I thought it was an injustice. I know Scotland, I love the place, I can pronounce 'Auchterarder' correctly, and I sing "I belong to Glasgow" and "Ye cannie shove your grannie" in the shower. But I can't vote.

And then came the Referendum, and the people who live in Scotland voted. People who lived in a place decided how the place should be run. Whether they'd arrived from Surrey last year or had ancestors that reached back to Dalriada, each had a vote. And that was right. The people who lived in Scotland decided for No, and that was their democratic choice, the wish of those people at that time.

On Thursday you can vote, and I can't. There is another way. In France, eleven of the seats in parliament are taken by MPs for the overseas French. They are there to represent the interests of expatriate French people. Theirs is a small voice in the clamour, but they are able to speak out on topics - immigration, tax, passports, embassies, pensions - that affect the expatriate community.

So here is a proposition for Holyrood. One MSP to represent expatriate Scots. All of us who wanted to vote would be required to register. We would pay a fee - say £25 - to register, to ensure that 'our' MSP was not a burden on the state. Any surplus from these registration fees would be donated to charities in Scotland.

Why bother? Scotland's emigrants are an underused asset. We are millions of ambassadors for Scotland, introducing friends and neighbours to Scottish culture (come to our Burns Night!) and, often, encouraging friends to visit Scotland as students, tourists and business people. Keeping us engaged is useful to Scotland's economy and to Scotland's world view.
Giving a vote, a single-seat vote, to expatriate Scots would offer democracy and participation to Scotland's global community. We, the millions who have chosen or been forced to leave Scotland would at last have one small voice in Scottish politics.

Monday, 4 May 2015

Catalonia is not Scotland

The opinion poll reported in Sunday's La Vanguardia, the leading Catalan newspaper, shows that we are far from Scotland.

The picture in Catalonia is of politics shattered, with no clear support for independence and no single leading party. The main issues driving voters are the economic crisis and unemployment (selected by two thirds of voters), and political corruption (48%). Independence is identified as the main issue by only one third (34%) of voters.

If the vote were held today it would result in a coalition on steroids, with the current Government (a coalition of two parties, CiU and ERC) requiring a third and possibly fourth partner to hold together. New parties are gaining ground both on the left (Podem, with 6% of the electorate) and on the right (Ciutadans, with 19%). Both have captured supporters from traditional parties scarred by corruption. In Scotland one party has managed to channel the dreams and the protests of the people; in Catalonia there are three, none of which are capable of attracting more than 20% of the vote.

In Scotland it was Glasgow and Dundee that voted Yes. In Catalonia that picture of urban radicalism is reversed - it is the countryside north of Barcelona that is the hot seat of nationalism. Voters in the Pyrenees and the farming areas around Girona give a clear majority (64% of votes) to nationalist parties. But Barcelona carries the largest population, and it is there that the many smaller parties of right and left are growing fast.

Having been refused a referendum by Madrid, Artur Mas, leader of CiU, is planning a "plebiscite election" in September 2015. Yesterday's poll could dissuade him from that track. 

And the similarity? In any likely scenario we get a coalition. We have years of experience of coalition governments in Madrid, in Catalonia and in town halls across the land. They seem to work as well, and as badly, as any other form of government. Certainly not the "biggest constitutional crisis since the abdication." (In our case that would be Alfonso XIII, who abdicated in 1931, resulting eventually in a fascist dictatorship. So, really, quite a crisis).

Catalonia is not Spain. It is also not Scotland, yet.