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Tuesday 14 May

The Hulk is Back!

Yesterday Gordon Brown made a dramatic – if somewhat hesitant in delivery – comeback on the political stage in Scotland. Some, more unkind, might refer to a resurrection.  Scottish Labour isn’t happy with the make-up of Better Together – altogether too many Tories, not to mention Alastair Darling – so goes its own way, outlining a ‘distinct’ vision of a post-referendum nation. ‘United with Labour’ is based on “Labour values of solidarity, community, fairness, equality and social justice…[a] vision for a fairer, better Scotland that stands strong within the United Kingdom, working in partnership with our neighbours...”

The problem is, Brown seemed to spend as long as Better Together telling us that we’re all going to hell in a handcart if we vote Yes, so where is the vision?  According to Scott MacNab in the Scotsman, he called for a “forward looking case for a strong Scottish Parliament inside a strong UK, pooling and sharing resources right across the UK…“I want to make the most modern case for the union so we’re in a position to tackle poverty and unemployment together and fund a Scottish NHS free at the point of need.” Nothing new there - Johann Lamont’s been saying just that since she became Scottish leader. BBC Scotland’s political editor Brian Taylor explained Labour’s rationale on yesterday’s GMS (1hr 11mins in) and gave a more detailed analysis of Brown’s speech in his BBC blog. 

Alan Cochrane in the Telegraph thinks Labour is in danger of damaging the No campaign –“It would be a disaster and wholly stupid if the new Labour campaign detracted to any degree from the success of Better Together. Alistair Darling has been accused of not setting the heather afire but he’s not that kind of politician. He and his team are doing extraordinarily well in selling the cause of the Union, especially to the business and commercial world…from this vantage point it really does look pathetic that some in the Labour camp cannot put aside their petty class war instincts in favour of the much greater prize of maintaining the United Kingdom. We can but hope that the wisest of counsels prevail”.   Interestingly, this weekend’s Scotland on Sunday ran a poll asking readers whether the former Prime Minister was an asset or a liability to the No campaign. When we last looked yesterday evening, opinion was running at 28% for ‘asset’ and 72% for ‘liability’.

In last week’s Scottish Review  Douglas Marr, undecided about which way to vote, but erring towards Yes, expressed the view of many  - “we’re not being told the truth about what things will really be like post-independencewe need to accept that if independence is to mean more than tinkering at the margins, it's going to be tough.. I would be more likely to vote in favour if the Yes campaign came out and said: 'The first 10 years are going to hard, but it's going to be worth it for your children and grandchildren'… an outbreak of reality would not go amiss.

I expect the No campaign to tell us we are bound for hell in a handcart if we go our own way. However the Yes campaign is making a serious tactical error by countering negative arguments by routinely offering the diametrically opposed view…the pro-independence camp needs to be brave and remember that it is dealing with a grown-up and sophisticated electorate.”

In the same SR edition, Angus Skinner argued that the whole debate is a waste of Scots’ energy and time – like a toddler who will not go to sleep; best ignored…energy around what happens after the No vote is already gathering. Let's get creative around that. That is the future we have and must make creative, owning all of our history and culture, all our science, patience, poetry, dance and thought – of our future, engaged with others” .  

These two differing views found an echo in the debate on Radio Scotland between Editor of the Scottish Times, Angus MacLeod, and political commentator Gerry Hassan.  Listen via You Tube. MacLeod maintains that the only thing people care about is how independence will affect them; everything else is peripheral.  Hassan says changing the present majority for the Union will be an uphill battle. Both agree that most of the debate is taking place in a political bubble.

Meanwhile, at the centre of that bubble, constitutional expert Alan Trench has been considering the ramifications of a potential – though unlikely, he says - referendum on UK membership of the EU taking place before our own on independence. Writing in the Spectator’s Coffee House blog, he asks What would happen if there were an ‘English’ vote against the European Union, while majorities in Scotland (and perhaps Wales and Northern Ireland) voted to stay in?  That’s a perfectly realistic scenario: political debate generally in Scotland is much more pro-EU than in England, and opinion surveys suggest that there is some difference in public opinion (if not as much as the political rhetoric implies).  An English vote to leave the EU while Scotland voted to stay in would trigger a first-order crisis for the internal structure of the UK as well as the UK’s relationship with the EU”.  

Trench suggests there are circumstances in which the Scottish referendum might be best postponed until after that on the EU, so that Scottish voters would have a better, if not definitive, idea of what we were voting for.  Indeed, so convoluted are the implications of the various scenarios that Honey is offering a Scot-Buzz prize for anyone who can prove they understood the article at first reading.

Iain McWhirter in the Sunday Herald puts it in more simple terms. Dissident Tories want to leave the EU, he says, because it is threatening the City of London’s freedom and bonuses. He does, however, agree with Trench – The big question in the next year is what impact the impending Europe referendum will have on the Scottish independence referendum. Unionists have attacked the SNP for risking Scotland's membership of the EU by becoming independent. But it looks just as likely Scotland could find itself out of the EU by staying in the UK.”



Our cup (maybe) runneth over…

Our Secretary for Energy, Fergus Ewing, has caught Texas oil fever. In yesterday’s Scotsman Tom Peterkin reported that Mr Ewing told delegates at a conference in Houston that Scotland’s oil and gas industry would still be in production and going strong at the end of the century. It was, to be fair, his ‘personal view’, but opponents have been quick to point out that even John Swinney acknowledged that production would be declining up to 2050. Tory Murdo Fraser waxed eloquent – “Next they will be telling us that under independence every day will be the first day of spring… Fergus Ewing must reckon the people of Scotland came up the Clyde on a water biscuit if they think they will swallow such wild assertions without question”.

Could Mr Ewing be trying to allay the fears of oil and gas companies?  Frank Urquhart, also in yesterday’s Scotsman, reported that uncertainty over independence is affecting plans for future investment.  According to the latest Oil and Gas Report from Aberdeen Chamber of Commerce, 38% of companies now consider the vote to be a major factor in their decision-making.

Simon Johnson in last Wednesday’s Telegraph  reported on this month’s  David Hume Institute paper by Professors Paterson and Gordon of Aberdeen University, where they claim that an independent Scotland could face a long battle with rUK over the North Sea boundary – “[rUK] would likely demand as large a percentage of North Sea oil as possible by arguing that the boundary should be “far to the north” of current assumptions… neither could a separate Scotland insist that rUK make a proportional contribution towards the huge cost of decommissioning fields that have run dry”. If no agreement can be reached, the matter may have to be referred to the International Court of Justice. At which point Jarndyce v Jarndyce hove into view…



River deep, mountain high…

Or not.  RBS is in trouble again – this time, according to the Sunday Herald, in the Appalachians, where the bank is the ‘seventh largest financial backer’ of mountain top removal (MTR). Protests are expected at the Gogarburn AGM today.  MTR involves blasting the tops of mountains with ‘Hiroshima-like’ force to give easy access to the coal. The waste generated goes into the valleys below with devastating consequences for wildlife and communities.  Environment Editor Rob Edwards quotes Paul Daly, corporate accountability campaigner with Friends of the Earth Scotland - "RBS is still financing corporations which undertake horrific operations like MTR, threatening the local environment and adding to climate change globally. The corporations financed by RBS act with complete disregard for local residents, spreading toxic chemicals in the air, water and soil. This results in health complications from cradle to early grave… RBS needs to accept that renewable energy is the way forward and get out of fossil fuels, starting with these obscene mountaintop removal schemes."

Nearer to home, SEPA has joined forces with East Ayrshire and South Lanarkshire councils to take legal advice on a Court of Sessions petition by accountants KPMG, liquidators of Scottish Coal, to allow them to abandon up to 15 disused open-cast mines, leaving the clean-up bill to the local authorities.  Deputy Business Editor of the Sunday Herald, Steven Vass reports that Due to years of lax arrangements between Scottish councils and mining companies, the firm [Scottish Coal] had been allowed build up a backlog of 11 former mines that had never been restored to their natural state in line with planning requirements. Some have been empty since the late 1990s, while four of its six existing open-cast mines seem unlikely to be reopened by a potential buyer, further adding to the size of the clean-up”.  KPMG says there’s not a lot of precedent for deciding who pays, but Vass quotes ‘an insolvency lawyer who wanted to remain anonymous’ as warning that even if they succeed in blocking the petition, the councils could still have to pick up the bill,  setting an unfortunate precedent themselves in the process.



How to crack a nut…

A couple of weeks ago, it was quietly announced that the UK Government’s Behavioural Insight Team will become a profit-making unit and is looking for a commercial partner.  Who they?  You might know them better as the ‘nudge unit’ – charged with enforcing the idea that if we are told often enough in several ways that something is good or bad for us, we will come to believe it and act accordingly. Orwell, thou shouldst be living in this hour.

Our Scottish Government does not believe in such namby-pamby ways.  It prefers to whack the citizenry with a legislative sledgehammer to bring them into line. Thus, not content with passing into law a ban on display of tobacco products, the next step is to go for plain packaging – which last month went out to consultation.  Down south an already unpopular coalition has decided that this would be a step too far.  In last Friday’s Spiked Professor Stuart Waiton described these moves towards the ultimate nanny state as “the collapse of Liberty in Scotland.” The aim, he says, is “to create a smoke-free Scotland by 2035. One wonders if Scottish politicians also plan to make Scotland a heroin-, cocaine- and dope-free society, too. Good luck with that. Strangely enough, some Scots keep taking drugs despite their not coming in shiny packets or being sold at supermarkets”.  It is ‘deeply disingenuous’ says Waiton, to say the government is not ‘nannying’, merely ‘informing’ us to ‘try to help us make the best decisions’. 

Those in favour of legislation also talk of addressing ‘health inequalities’, meaning, says Waiton, the poor don’t have the same capacity to make choices as middle-class people do.  “In other words, the poor need to be protected against the temptations of that big sweetie jar of cigarettes and alcohol, which must either be hidden away or made too expensive to buy… experts hide their illiberalism behind the idea that these behavioural policy changes are ‘good for the children’. The reality, though, is that too many of today’s politicians and experts think that we adults, especially the poor ones, are overgrown children who need constant help and guidance”. Discuss.



And finally…

So, farewell then, Scotland’s greatest living export…

Rainforests have been denuded this week following the decision of Sir Alex Ferguson to step down as manager of ManU. BBC political editor Nick Robinson broke from his train of thought on the Today programme to describe his hero as the ‘greatest living Briton’, only later to sheepishly admit it was a tad OTT.

More years, more trophies than any other manager – a god at Old Trafford.  What made Ferguson so?  Allan Massie contributed a very gentle piece to Friday’s Telegraph on the working class Glasgow boys who became ‘footballing titans’.

There have been four outstanding Scottish managers, says Massie – “Matt Busby, Jock Stein, Bill Shankly and Alex Ferguson. Some would add Dalglish, who took Blackburn Rovers to the Premier League title and was very successful in his first spell with Liverpool. But Busby, Stein, Shankly and Ferguson are the titans. Three of them won the European Cup, Stein, astonishingly, with a Celtic team whose members were all born within 30 or so miles of Celtic Park. This is also something that will never happen again…all were immensely compelling individuals, but their individuality was tempered by the communal values that were instilled in them as boys. They represented the best of Old Labour.

David Moyes, another Glaswegian, takes over. It’s a wonderful inheritance, says Massie, but one that would daunt most men. Wish him well.