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Tuesday 18 June

“So it will be with Scotland”…

Did you watch Question Time last Thursday? If not, you missed a rare treat, and one of Mentorn’s better efforts. It came from Edinburgh and the audience consisted entirely of articulate young people. It was not all about independence, but was clearly designed to hear from those who will be voting in the Referendum.  We were struck, as ever, by the sheer force of George Galloway’s debating skill, if not by the content, and the surliness of the SNP’s Angus Robertson. Lighten up Angus, for you did your cause no favours.

The Sunday Mail’s opinion column however, didn’t think much of the entire proceedings, especially the panel – “There was a lot of chuntering, a lot of heat but no light to speak of and viewers would have been easily forgiven for switching over to a rerun of Blackadder before bed. There were certainly no cunning plans being unveiled on BBC1…the Scottish Tories’ leader Ruth Davidson came out of the mess best by dint of mostly staying out of it. In a bunfight like that, less is most often more”.

Iain McWhirter in the Sunday Herald found the whole thing ‘toe-curling’- “But better get used to this, because I suspect the QT spat is what next year's referendum campaign will be like, only on a larger scale. The "story" of the referendum will be Nationalists trying to break up Britain and setting Scots against English… There will be lots of boring and balanced BBC Scotland programmes on late at night that no-one will watch, and then a series of dramatic UK-led prime-time debates chaired by David Dimbleby and Jeremy Paxman, which will define the campaign. It will be about acrimonious divorce rather than the highly nuanced and consensual separation proposed by Yes Scotland. But TV doesn't deal in nuance.”

On the panel was journalist and broadcaster Lesley Riddoch, who outed her intention to vote Yes in 2014 on the programme.  She used her regular column in the Scotsman yesterday, to enlarge on her decision – “I can put the UK in the dock just as easily as I put independence on trial – no matter how many alarmist headlines I read. I can plan to vote Yes and still recognise that option currently looks set to lose…I can entertain the very slim possibility my vote might change – if unionist parties step up over the next 500 days, commit together to transfer tax-raising powers to Scotland (including the collection of oil revenues), embed the Scottish Parliament so it cannot be abolished, and campaign for genuine federalism across England … I can criticise the SNP, not wish to join the formal Yes campaign and still – in my own un-herded, non-directed way – plan to vote Yes…I can cringe at simplistic slogans and feel my heart sink at the juvenile insistence on both sides that all things will automatically be better/worse after a Yes/No vote. The strength or weakness of each campaign doesn’t dent the basic choice facing me and every other person living in Scotland – is it better to face change outside the UK or face being changed within it?”

She warns of the lesson of polarity to be learnt from Northern Ireland should the vote be close and a large losing minority be created - “What’s needed for progress in Scotland is a collective and voluntary act of will – but that’s less likely to arise in an atmosphere of messianic, proselytising zeal”.

She cites the islanders of Eigg and the time taken over their community buyout – “the lengthy, exhausting buyout only became possible when a clear majority agreed the dangers of stagnation outweighed the dangers of change. So it will be with Scotland”.

One of Riddoch’s oft-stated beliefs is that Scotland should adopt the Nordic model – that we should emulate the success of Scandinavian countries and in particular Norway, with, of course, its enormous sovereign oil fund.  In last Thursday’s edition of the Scottish Review, Swede Elinor Owe argued that this is not necessarily a good idea. Would Scots, she asked be prepared to pay substantially higher taxes for a better welfare system?  In my mind, this would be a difficult endeavour for Scottish politicians. There is a range of very specific societal conditions which make this type of model possible in the Nordic societies. These include a fundamental trust in governments – a belief that they will act in the interest of the people – strong trade unions that hold the government and employers to account, as well as a strong tradition of grass-roots movements enabling political engagement among civil society.  There is, she thinks, also a ‘darker side’ to Nordic society – where the state provides almost everything there is an imperceptible shift in attitude that creates social division and lack of contact amongst families.  When the state provides childcare, why rely on grandparents? When the state keeps the pavements free of snow, why help your neighbours clear a way through? When the state provides care for the elderly, why bother to visit Grandma regularly?  Owe lives in Scotland, works for the Scottish government and doesn’t want to see Scotland lose the sense of community.

On the other hand, as Tom Gordon reports in the Herald, The Common Weal group, created by the Jimmy Reid Foundation “to bring some overdue intellectual heft to the independence debate”, believes that the Nordic model is just what Scotland needs. The group intends to publish a series of papers, beginning in the autumn with a “focus on tax and the critical issue of how Scotland would pay its bills without following the UK's market-led, neo-liberal economic model. Early ideas include levying a wealth tax on super-rich companies and individuals to pay for universal childcare”.

Food for thought …


That’s the way our money goes (1)…

Windfarms are under fire again. The Sunday Telegraph led with the figures from the think tank Renewable Energy Foundation that every job in Britain’s wind farm industry is subsidised to the tune of £100,000 every year. Wind turbine owners, says the report, received £1.2billion from consumers through their bills, and employed 12,000 people. In Scotland we have more onshore windfarms than anywhere else in the UK; the figures show that only 2,235 people are directly employed to work on our 203 windfarms despite an annual subsidy of £344million. That works out at £154,000 per job.

Yesterday’s Herald took up the story, quoting the think tank’s Director John Constable, "Subsidies can create some soft jobs in the wind power industry but will destroy real jobs and reduce wages in other sectors, in the UK's case because the subsidies cause higher electricity prices for consumers. The extravagant subsidy cost per wind power job is an indication of the scale of that problem…truly productive energy industries – gas, coal, oil, for example – create jobs indirectly by providing cheap energy that allows other businesses to prosper, but the subsidy-dependent renewables sector is a long way from this goal; it's still much too expensive."

In yesterday’s Telegraph the Scottish government argued that the jobs are not ‘soft’ and that the renewables industry actually invested £1.3billion in Scotland last year; the renewable energy we produce, it said, will be needed to keep the lights on in England as well. Last week Scottish Political Editor Simon Johnson revealed that FOI requests showed the Scottish Government putting pressure on councils to set aside more land for wind farm development – Even land that included sensitive wildlife was not deemed untouchable if it was not specifically protected by Scottish Government planning policies. Dumfries and Galloway Council was warned that ministers would appoint a senior official to review its planning blueprint if the local authority refused to get in line… in contrast, the Coalition Government last week unveiled new planning rules for England allowing local communities to block new wind farms if there is significant opposition.”

As an interesting aside, Richard Girling in the Sunday Times (£) wrote of the blight affecting rural communities – of which wind farms are a part, but are ‘surpassed’ by the lack of quality of rural housing. In many communities, he says, local people are now reduced to queuing up for ‘affordable’ housing while ‘middle class urban refugees’ take over the ploughman’s cottage. In Girling’s sights are the planners and developers who prefer computer modelling to good architectural design –“the cod-vernacular, period-detailed, peas-in-a-pod estates with which our free-for-all planning system sucks the life out of the communities it is supposed to revitalise”.  Girling is writing of course, of the English countryside, but we see the same here in parts of Scotland…


That’s the way our money goes (2)

The TaxPayers’ Alliance has published the latest edition of its Bumper Book of Government Waste. It makes for sobering reading, as the waste amounts to some £120billion on “unnecessary projects, inefficient processes and lavish pay and perks” in 2011-12, which is £4,500 per household. Imagine, says the TPA, what your family could do with that money.  £53bn overspend on public sector pensions, £20bn on public sector fraud, £15bn on inefficient public procurement,£5bn on benefits going to those with income over £100,000 and so on…. 

Brian Monteith in yesterday’s Scotsman devoted his Monday column to the report. “If that £120bn – or even half of it”, says Monteith,” could be saved, then the economic prospects for the country would change overnight, the political future for the coalition government parties would look a great deal brighter and the livelihoods of countless people would be improved”.  The trouble is, he argues, is that the political will to do something is often – nay, almost always – lacking because the government of the day has a constant eye on the voters and their expectations. What is needed is a change of attitude towards the role and scope of government. Only if public spending generates growth, says Monteith, is it justifiable – “Chancellor George Osborne can do us all a favour in his coming spending review by challenging not just the obvious waste but the need for whole departments and what they do”


Another week, another warning…

Not a week goes by now without some academic / official / European commissar pontificating on an independent Scotland’s position vis-à-vis the European Union.  This week is no exception – as the Scotsman and The Times (£) reported yesterday, it’s the turn of Alejo Vidal-Quadras, a Catalonian MEP, clearly not one of those seeking separation from Spain, who says France and Spain “will surely not” accept an independent Scotland.  And so on…

More interesting last week was a piece in the Guardian last Thursday from commentator Will Hutton, speculating on what would have happened if the UK had joined the Euro – it’s ten years ago this week that Chancellor Brown did what most people regard as the only policy he got right and kept us out of the Eurozone.

Had we gone in, Hutton maintains, the last decade would have been very different.  Instead of chronic sterling overvaluation, surging imports and sagging exports, “Inside the euro, at a highly competitive exchange rate, Britain's exports would instead have soared, and its traded goods sector would have expanded, not shrunk. Regional cities would have boomed around sustainable activity rather than property and credit. The euro's rules would have meant a less reckless fiscal policy, and banks would have been more constrained in lending for property. They would have had to lend proportionately more to fast-growing real enterprise, reinforced because the new rules would have required them to lend in a more balanced way”

Moreover, “having won a historic referendum decisively affirming Britain's future in Europe, the Blair government would have had to think in European terms about how to produce, invest, innovate and export  ... emboldened by his referendum victory, Blair could have sacked Brown before the disastrous second phase of his chancellorship and lacklustre primeministership.  Blairism would have morphed into a new form of European social democracy, fashioning British-style stakeholder capitalism”.   Is he right? Or is it a case of hand in hand to the promised land, and pigs flew overhead?


Malaga v. Largs. No contest – it has to be Largs…

Gillian Bowditch in the Sunday Times looked at efforts to revive the flagging fortunes of Scotland’s seaside resorts. Largs, Saltcoats, Rothesay – all were the expected destinations of working class Scots in the Fifties, Sixties and even the Seventies, until the arrival of the cheap package holiday and air travel became the norm. “As soon as the charter flights came along, they upped sticks and left. People went to the Scottish seaside because by and large, they could not go anywhere else”.   England’s seaside resorts, says Bowditch, are being regenerated through the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment’s Sea Change project, which gave £45m to improve the visitor experience. No such initiative exists in Scotland. However, some areas of Scotland are succeeding in attracting more visitors – Pittenweem and Elie in Fife and North Berwick are doing well, but they still lack the cache of Southwold in Suffolk, where a seven foot square beach hut without gas or electricity costs £60,000…  (This article is not yet online, but if you can find a print copy of the ST, it’s on p. 16)


And finally….

So, farewell then, Heart of Midlothian FC?

Sad days in Gorgie…the maroon half of Edinburgh's old firm has given up attempts to stay afloat and called in the administrators. Unable to pay their players, and faced with an unpaid bill from HMRC , not to mention debts of some £25million, it looks like a fairly hopeless cause, even if a Scandinavian consortium appears like a white knight.  Having finished in 10th place in the SPL last season with just 45 points, the club, if it survives at all, would begin the new season with a 15 point deduction.

Shaun Milne on the STV website sums up the feelings of the fans - “In many ways some may consider this a blessed relief that, having identified the root causes of these troubles, administration may now be the cure needed to stop Hearts bleeding once and for all. Frankly, they’ve had enough. Enough of the bluster, enough of the false dawns, enough of begging bowls that promised much but ultimately delivered little”.