Friday, 29 April 2016

Poor Fashion

Sir Philip Green removed £1.2 billion from fashion retailer BHS before selling it for £1 to "former bankrupt and racing driver Dominic Chappell," says today's Financial Times. At the top end of the fashion business, an already wealthy family enriched themselves further.

The other end of the rag trade is all about poverty.Three years ago, on 24th April 2013, the Rana Plaza factory collapsed in Bangladesh, killing 1,136 garment workers.As Baptist World Aid Australia point out in their third annual Fashion Report, out last week;

"There are presently 14.2 million people in forced labour exploitation and 168 million child labourers scattered across the global economy. Many of this number are forced to work in the farms and factories that feed the apparel industry. For millions of others working in the industry, wages remain so low that they are unable to lift themselves and their families out of poverty." 

Fewer than a third of the companies surveyed were "able to demonstrate that some portion of their workers were earning significantly above the minimum wage."

These two ends of the fashion thread show why capitalism must be controlled. It is, as Cambridge economist Ha-Joon Chang points out in "23 Things They Don't Tell You about Capitalism." So this is a debate about the degree of control. Should we allow the boss of a fashion retailer to swim in luxury while the people who make the clothes he sells sink into poverty?

These two stories - rags and riches - highlight the poverty gap, the growing distance between the poor and the rich. People in Scotland live with this gap every day, whether they are putting a coin into the hands of a poor woman under the Hielanman's Umbrella, or popping into the shops for a new, cheap, t-shirt. 

We can all work, by buying fair trade and supporting fair taxation, to close the gap that is killing the poor.

Chang, H., 2011. 23 things they don’t tell you about capitalism, London: Penguin Books.
Nimbalker, G., Mawson, J. & Harris, C., 2016. The 2016 Australian Fashion Report: The Truth Behind the Barcode, North Ryde, New South Wales: Baptist World Aid, Australia. Available at: [Accessed April 29, 2016].

Thursday, 21 April 2016

Leaving Canna

The folded ruddy face under her felted hat
Stretched and soaked and squeezed into a seven hand-width
With the waulking song, keening Gaelic women
Who are the heart of this circle of Hebridean stones,
Stones carved with cycle symbols – a dog chasing its tail,
And a Mother cradling her Son in an oval niche.
Leaving, I wave and weep, wind driving water from my eyes
As the waves, water cycles, weave a tiny new thread
Into the looping skein of Canna’s history.

Wednesday, 20 April 2016

Scottish Circles

I am just back from a week in Scotland. A week of talking and walking and island hopping from West to East and back. Walking and talking in circles.

Scotland has so many circles. I sat one night in the candlelit circle of a tiny bar on an island south of Skye, and sang circular Gaelic songs of the waulking. Here was a circle - half the population of the island with a handful of incomers - of people who love the ancient stony roots of the Gàidhealtachd, its history and its legends.

Then I talked with another circle, that might have been on another planet, about the landowners and the salmon fishing proprietors and their fear that the bureaucrats were about to enter their world in the form of regulation. The circle felt distant until we talked of the ghillies, Gaelic-speaking men (universally, men) who kept the rivers from the poachers.

In Edinburgh, with my best friends, I sat in a debating circle, critical of Government (in the proper sense of critical, the good and the not so good) and keen to see more radical policies, to break up power blocs from the landowners to the private schools, to shake up Scotland and put together a modern, egalitarian democracy.

In another home I talked with old friends in high places about life in the upper circle, about golf clubs and committees. Scotland's upper circle is very small, and anyone in this circle knows all its other members. 
For hundreds of years its most ambitious members have headed south for the vortex of London, and my old friends are likely to do the same.

I met more circles - the rugby circle, the business circle, the young circles of students and schooling. All of them interlinked so that a person in one can connect to another, but each with their own priorities, dreams, desires and politics.

We sometimes think of the independence debate, or the debate on wealth and poverty, as one-dimensional: 'Yes', or 'No Thanks', 'keep it' or 'share it'. But Scotland is such a wonderfully diverse place, with so many circles of light, that we do well to remember that the 'Yes' or the 'No' come from circles of motives, fears, desires and dreams. We need debates and arguments that cover all the angles for all of these  circles if we are to persuade 51% that it is time to stand upright as a nation.

Friday, 8 April 2016

Number 4

Remember. Mossack Fonseca, of the Panama Papers, is number four. The fourth largest firm in Panama in offshore tax dodging. Not the largest. 

So the 2.9 terabytes of data squirreled out of the firm and now feeding the news is just a small slice of the action. The Legal 500 lists six firms in Panama that they regard as experts in offshore tax dodging. No, they don't use that term, but it's what they mean.

We are losing between £3.1 billion and £34 bn in tax revenues because of evasion.

It is not the poor who are skipping their taxes. As the Panama Papers underline, it is of course the wealthy. When it is the wealthy who are meant to lead by example from Westminster, the system begins to stink.

The OECD says that 27 out of the 34 OECD countries do not require information on the beneficial ownership of companies. That's a cloak over political leaders and business people. Andy Wightman is doing the right thing in digging out these relationships and questioning them.

Time for Westminster to open up. We need to see the tax returns of anyone who is in power (Andy does this each year), to see who owns the shadowy companies that buy and sell property and companies, and to reclaim from the people behind them the money that they owe to our hospitals, our schools and our social services. A proper transfer from wealth, to reduce poverty.