Provocation? Not Gonna Work

The indy debate is heating up. In the course of my three-plus years of blogging and tweeting so far, I’d like to think my point of view contributed as objectively as my conviction would allow. Nonetheless, I have been classified as a cybernat—invariably  pejoratively. There is only one occasion—about a year ago—when I overstepped acceptable convention with a tweet for which I not only apologised but resigned from the party of which I had been a member for thirty-seven years to avoid its name being compromised.

My other 8,117 tweets, plus 634 blogs, I stand by. Indeed, I challenge any reader to find bigotry, insult and/or lack of respect in them. Nonetheless, I have been blacklisted as a ‘cybernat’, with the subtext that I am thereby blinkered, hostile or even racist—I have have even been blocked on Twitter by such ‘professionals’ as David Torrance as a result.

Rather than refute this directly, I came across the following from Alan Bisset on the ever-worthwhile Bella Caledonia blog. Finding it better articulates than I could the unfairness of and defiance at such mislabelling by those cited, whose virulent hostility to Scottish Independence I have also witnessed, it speaks in my stead. For the record, half my family is English and England is, as I have voiced to many, my favourite foreign country.

‘Ethnic’ Cleanse

April 16th 2014 by Alan Bisset

According to the Herald journalist David Torrance he is an ‘ethnic nationalist’. To the composer James Macmillan he is a ‘Blood Scot nationalist’ and ‘motivated by hate’. To the Labour blogger Ian Smart he is ‘anti-English’ and ‘a nasty piece of work’. To The Telegraph’s Iain Martin he is full of ‘hateful pish’. Who is this monstrosity walking among us, conducting his rage-fuelled pogroms against the English? Why it’s me! – with my English grandmother, English god-daughter, English cousins and half-English girlfriend. Did I mention I lived in England for three years?

‘Yeah, but some of my best friends are black.’

Okay then. Let us examine the evidence for these serious charges. What exactly has the ‘ethnic nationalist’ Bissett said to warrant such a ferocious reaction?

Could it be this?

If no Scot is ever appointed to a chief position in the Scottish arts again, so be it.  This might still be preferable to divisive talk of ethnicity and enmity erupting where there was none. (‘Who Carries the Carriers’ , National Collective)

Or this?

The intellectual and scientific achievements of the English are vast. (‘Is it cos wur Scots?’ National Collective)

Or this?

Scottish independence is not about ridding ourselves of the English, not least because there are so many English people integrated here anyway, with jobs, friends and families, and because Scotland and England will always be right next door to each other.  People from both nations will still be free to live in, work in and visit each other’s countries anytime they like. (‘Is it cos wur Scots?’ National Collective)

Curiously, none of these gentleman were able to identify a single quotation to back up their accusations. Quite the methodology.

We could, of course, examine their motives. It should surprise no-one that all of them are Unionists, and that both Smart and Macmillan have form for making inflammatory, baseless comments intended to provoke exactly the kind of reaction about which they can say, ‘Look at how angry they are!’ Smart has refused to apologise for his infamous tweet – “Better 100 years of Tory rule than the turn on the Poles and Pakis after indy fails to deliver” – incredulous on so many levels.

Macmillan is also a stranger to understatement, happy to describe Rangers and Hearts football fans  as ‘eager talkers of fascist filth’ and claim that the abortion of female foetuses in India and China is western feminism’s gift to the Third World. Macmillan also once called the National Collective, a group of artists in favour of independence, ‘Mussolini’s cheerleaders’. This is the same National Collective who organised a Wish Tree, on which people could write their hopes and dreams for an independent Scotland. Mussolini was fey like that.

Iain Martin, meanwhile, has worked for every right-wing British newspaper you can name and claims on his website that, ‘fearing a Nationalist victory and a potential show-trial I fled my homeland’. Clearly he’s good at getting things into perspective.

Smart, Martin and Macmillan are engaging in simple smear tactics, and I am their latest target. Smart admitted as much when he tweeted sinisterly last weekend that I was ‘now fair game’ and that (blowing his Viking horn) ‘I’ll be the least of Bissett’s worries over the next short period’.

The real disappointment is Torrance. He’s a high-calibre journalist, often reasonable, intelligent, able to see the angles, not one who normally goes in for slurs. What he has done by dropping the word ‘ethnic’ into the debate, without justification, is irresponsible.

It is interesting to note that Macmillan added his tuppence-worth in the Comments below Torrance’s Herald piece, as though Torrance, by using the term ‘ethnic’, had emboldened him to go one further and accuse me, bizarrely, of ‘blood Scot nationalism’. Torrance’s article is the thin end of a dangerous wedge.

So what prompted these attacks?

The impetus was my play The Pure, the Dead and the Brilliant, opening at the Assembly Rooms as part of the forthcoming Edinburgh Fringe, an excerpt of which was performed as part of a Yes cultural showcase in front of the SNP conference (and Martin’s ‘stunned hacks’). The scene took the form of a debate in the Faerie Kingdom – think Book II of Milton’s Paradise Lost – about how Scottish independence may be averted, which morphed into a parody of the No campaign.

The only time that England was mentioned was in the following rant from one of the anti-independence Faeries:

Think about your relatives in England. They’d be foreigners – Yes, FOREIGNERS, cos we all know FOREIGNERS ARE A BAD THING – who would be unable to love you ever again and who you’d certainly never see because there would a ONE HUNDRED FOOT WALL OF ICE ON THE BORDER LIKE IN GAME OF THRONES all to fulfil Alex Salmond’s dream of being Scotland’s first ever dictator, cos it’s all about him, you know that right? There’s only one person in Scotland who actually wants independence and he’s JUST A BIGOT WHO HATES THE ENGLISH! I mean, that’s what this is all about, isn’t it? Don’t give me that guff about redistributing wealth and getting rid of Trident and improving democracy, you just want to round the English up into Gulags and force them to eat porridge and read the poetry of William McGonigall every single day, don’t you? No? WELL THAT’S NOT WHAT WE’RE GOING TO TELL THEM!

Neatly, Torrance, Martin, Smart and Macmillan, in their rush to brand me anti-English, demonstrate the accuracy of the satire.

Each speech from the Faeries was pro-Union in content, often using the No campaign’s own words and themes against them. Is Torrance really asserting that to hold a mirror up to the strategies of Better Together somehow constitutes ‘ethnic nationalism’?

I’m not sure I qualify as a nationalist at all, let alone an ‘ethnic’ one. I am a socialist. If I believed the best future for the Scottish working-class lay in the Union I would vote No. If we were still living in the post-War settlement of the Welfare State and full employment – led by a Labour party that truly represented the people, not middle-class swing-constituencies and the USA – I would vote No. That compassionate Westminster, however, existed all-too briefly and is irretrievable without the shock to the body politic which Scottish independence will provide.

A living, breathing, functioning democracy in Scotland, and an economy which works not for the ruling-class but the people – the kind advocated by Yes groups the Common Weal, Radical Independence, the Greens and the Scottish Socialist Party – will be an example for the rest of the UK to follow.

In short, I am partly in favour of Scottish independence because it will be good for the Scots and the English. Scottish ‘nationalism’, if we can even call the independence movement that, is bound up only with the struggle for self-determination, as opposed to the imperialism and elitism of its British counterpart. After independence we should be wary of anyone still calling themselves a ‘Scottish nationalist’. What we are all working towards is the normalisation of Scotland.

It’s often the rhetoric of the Unionist left that a worker in Ipswich and a worker in Inverness have more in common with each other than with their respective overlords. This is, of course, true (though I fail to see how Scotland remaining in the UK actually helps a worker in Ipswich). These days I feel more in common with the Englishman Billy Bragg or the Welshman Rhys Ifans – who understand and support the motives of Yes – than I do with Scots like Smart, Macmillan or Martin, whose dogged loyalty to an increasingly brutal British state I find alienating. One of the reasons I feel so comfortable in the Yes campaign is because of its inclusive, pro-immigration stance. If English people were to move to an independent Scotland to escape the right-wing consensus down South I would consider that quite a victory.

Torrance accuses me of having a ‘black and white view of history’ and being from ‘the “Scotland was colonised” wing of the Yes campaign’. As such, I kindly invite him to a reading of my work-in-progress for the Tron’s Mayfesto season next month – Jock: Scotland on Trial – which explores Scotland’s culpability in slavery and the colonisation of other countries.

In the meantime, David, please drop this talk of ‘ethnic nationalism’. Any reasonable observer would struggle to find it in the broad, pluralist Yes campaign, so it shouldn’t be invented where it doesn’t exist.

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By Their Fruits Shall Ye Know Them

This blog has been consistently critical of the UK Ministry of Defence and all who sail in her, right up to the Cabinet Minister for Defence, currently Philip Hammond. Apologists for the Union as diverse as Murdo Fraser, Alan Cruickshank and Stephen Curran have taken issue with this stance. Many others, from Brian Wilson to Lord Robertson of Port Ellen to Malcolm Rifkind have never deigned to comment but I’m sure would be equally stout in the defence of defence (if you know what I mean).

So, it behooves this blog to make more than accusations and back up criticism with plausible substance. Much of the very Unionist arguments revolve around the power that the UK deploys in the world and the glorious victories of the 20th century made possible by that strength and resolute joint efforts of the countries of the United Kingdom to achieve them. While there is much to praise in such achievements, the details do not allow close examination if you have no wish to expose a cataclysmic series of cock-ups that should have sold us down the suwanee but didn’t, mostly because we got lucky.

There are so many to choose from, with WW2 particularly blessed by incompetence from tank design to Singapore to convoy escorts to mechanised tactics to anti-tank guns to naval air, and so on. But because it is a century ago, let us examine the War Office/Admiralty approach to submarines on the eve of the outbreak of the Great War.

Throughout the 19th century, the Royal Navy dominated the seas with what is now called a ‘blue water navy’, meaning units could deploy almost anywhere around the globe, using a chain of strategically placed bases and coaling stations. Prompted by an innovative admiral called John (Jackie) Fisher, HMS Dreadnought, a 20,000-ton leviathan with 10 12-inch guns and capable of 24 mph was launched in 1906. By being faster than any enemy with three times the firepower, it instantly made every other battleship obsolete. Including all those in the Royal Navy.

That launched an early form of Cold War among naval powers to out-build each other with such ships. That race was in full cry when in 1911, Winston Churchill replaced Fisher as First Lord of the Admiralty. At the time, that job was the most pivotal in the Empire as the RN and its ability to project power was what held it all together. He presided over a naval budget for that year of over £44m, which was to pay for five new battleships, four cruisers (to scout for them) and twenty destroyers (to chase off torpedo boats who might sink them with that devilish new-fangled contraption).

So preoccupied was Churchill and the Admiralty professionals with outbuilding Germany especially that each year’s naval estimates included similar expansions up to August 1914. At that point, the Grand Fleet fielded 24 battleships (and 5 more building) to Germany’s 16 and everyone from Churchill down congratulated one other they had won the race. What they didn‘t know was that British armour design was inferior, that their poor isolation of gun turret from magazine below would cost them three battlecruisers at Jutland two years later and that German optics and gunnery training was far superior, especially at range and in poor visibility.

But, what His Majesty’s Admiralty also didn’t know (but swiftly realised after the outbreak of war) was what else the Imperial German Navy had been up to, besides building better equipped and protected battlewagons. They had been furiously developing submarines, the diesel engines to drive them and the torpedoes to fire from them. During Churchill’s tenure, the number of British submarines had actually gone down and only a dozen or so were ‘ocean-going’, able to operate other than close to the British coast.

While Fisher had been an advocate of the submarine, Churchill and almost all other admirals saw them as weak, slow and good only for defence, using phrases like “the weapon of a weaker nation” or “underhand, unfair and damned un-English”—this, despite the fact that the German budget for submarines was known and known to be growing. Against the British offensive dozen, Germany deployed 46. And when it was forecast in June 1914 that these would sink unarmed British merchantmen without warning, Churchill went on record as saying he did not believe that “this would be done by a civilised power“.

Barely a month after war was declared, on September 22nd three British cruisers HMS Aboukir, Hogue and Cressy were patrolling off the Dutch coast, enforcing a blockade on German trade. In broad daylight, the submerged U-9 sank all three with a loss of 1,459 men from their crews of over 2,200. The week before, another U-boat had penetrated the Firth of Forth past all its defences to within a couple of miles from Rosyth naval base and added insult to injury by sinking the cruiser guardship HMS Pathfinder near Bass Rock on the way out. The Admiralty had barely got over those shocks when the same U-9, replenished back in Kiel, came back out on October 15th. She promptly sank HMS Hawke, which had been sent to replace the lost cruisers, for the loss of another 500 lives.

In the ensuing panic, all Allied shipping in the Channel was stopped and troop transport to France suspended. The entire Grand Fleet held at Scapa Flow to block German breakout to pillage our maritime trade retreated to Loch Ewe and then to Lough Swilly in Ireland, from where they would have been hard put to stop any German move.

It was the beginning of a harrowing phase in British history when its ability to continue the war was called into question as more and more shipping was lost to submarine warfare for which no answer had been prepared. The subsequent carnage among shipping around Britain that followed had been foreseen by the retired Fisher but ignored by anyone with influence. It took two years—until July 1916—for the Admiralty to finally introduce a proper planned convoy system, after which losses started dropping.

But during that time, hundreds of millions (billions in today’s terms) spent on British battleships was neutralised by shrewd planning by the Germans taking advantage of  plodding thinking from those in charge of Britain’s defence. When the Admiralty finally did decide that submarines were “fair” and a weapon of the future, they got it so wrong it resulted in the Battle of May Island, when over 100 RN sailors died and the nearest German was asleep in Wilhelmshaven. But that’s a different MoD horror story.

Meanwhile, one hundred years on, with Nimrods, Harriers and half the army scrapped, while any naval air arm is in limbo and the RAF pared to find money to sustain nukes, the evidence that a great deal has been learned about defence is hard to find. We’re better together? With these chumps? Don’t make me laugh: how much worse could the Scots possibly do for themselves in the light of chronic, repeated ineptitude from Whitehall’s War Office/Admiralty/MoD?

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‘Britain’ Is a Geographic Term

Pace the great Austrian statesman Metternich who used a similar phrase in his famous put-down of Italy’s ambitions to become a united state, it seems long past time to broaden the discussion that so far has fixated on Scottish independence and ask the broader question: what is Britain for? Retired colonels staring out over their acre of Tunbridge Wells now grip their pink gins tighter and start composing a letter to the Times to defend all that is holy about this sceptred isle, this plot, this realm, this…England.

Ay, there’s the rub. Scratch a unionist argument for Britain and you soon find the talk turn to England. Indeed, ’twas ever thus—but the reason nobody bothered is that most people benefited from the global con trick that was the British Empire and so forged a career with little real thought to the culture from which it benefited, Currently the UK consists of three real countries, a sham country and some islands. We’ll leave those islands out this for now and presume Scotland chooses independence. How will what remains proceed?

Any future for the term rUK meaning ‘rest of the UK’ must to be ditched at the start. The ‘United’ part derives from the 1707 Treaty. With Scotland gone, any union is—de facto as well as de jure—null and void, so there will be nothing to be the ‘rest’ of. Which brings us to the sham country. Northern Ireland is a product of English political necessity, born out of trying to rescue pride from the centuries-long car crash that was England’s first colony.

That the bulk of the Irish (including many in Ulster) felt seriously gypped in 1922 when the mighty Raj flinched at total humiliation and used extremist Protestant ‘loyalists’ as an cover for an international frontier where none existed before to make Northern Ireland a ‘country’. The ‘unionist’ part of the Tory party’s real name (Conservative and Unionist Party) actually refers to Ireland and not Scotland. S0 we’re not going to get much logic or sense out of them while they’re in power—nor have we for 90 years. But does it matter?

Time was Ulster always returned a dozen Ulster Unionists to Westminster and common causes wedded them to the Tories. But nature has a way of dealing with political Luddites; it is estimated that, after the next general election, Catholics will form the majority in Ulster. So, with the growing ferrets-in-a-sack postures adopted by Protestant politicos, the prospect of a majority Ulster vote to finally rejoin Ireland (and the real world) can only be a decade away. If ‘United Kingdom’ has not been decently buried before, that will surely do it and plant a Cenotaph to the 3,600 who died while the country was artificially split.

Which brings us to Welsh Wales. Conquered so early, it can hardly be considered a colony. It has been treated as an integral part of England so long the astonishment is it didn’t disappear into English culture as totally as Mercia or Wessex. But not only did the Welsh keep their language but their creativity with it, especially in song. After a hesitant start with their Assembly, their tail is now up, seeking Parliamentary powers and status for it and the parallel decline here of unionist parties as in Scotland points the way, albeit more slowly, towards independence.

Though they will have another 20-30 years to adjust to it during the above, it is likely that England will still not have grown up and stopped hiding behind the delusion of a political entity (let alone a robust political entity) called ‘Britain’. But, as they are not stupid, confronted with fact, they will adapt and adjust, finding it surprising when they present themselves as a medium-scale affluent and influential Western country of 53m people which everyone else has regarded them as since WW2.

Freed of having to constantly combat Anglo-centric entrenched London bias, Dublin, Edinburgh and Cardiff will form a more equitable (and profitable) civic union, if England’s smart (which I believe) and joins,. A bloc of such common causes—much like Scandinavia—will advance an enlightened business-oriented global outlook, backed by 68m people with global reach. Freed of their periphery, the English can go back to what they’re good at:  disarming charm with the financial morals of a barracuda. The other three countries can get on with being the different places they always were, but adding colour from the superficial (blarney/music/kilts) to the substantial (energy/tourism/research).

Each would engage with the world/EU/each other as much/little as they wanted but if the experience elsewhere is anything to go by, pragmatic arrangements among the four would soon appear—and even new bonds with, say, Scandinavians or Low Countries that have much in common in terms of fishing or environment or social policy.

And, instead of 90 MEPs (78 for UK; 12 for Eire) we could do better, deploying at least 15 for Ireland, similar for Scotland, perhaps 10 for Wales and still send 69 from England alone. That gives us ‘clout’ of 19 more MEPs. Not only would this put UKIP’s gas at the peep but by doing that, we’d gather more EU friends and get more done there on behalf of all the people of Britain. Separately, all four of us would actually stand taller.

Which would slip its backward-looking, xenophobic overtones of ‘Great’ and morph into a harmless geographic collective term for the power-artist formerly known as Britain.

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Everyone Out of Step but John Bull

Perhaps it was always there, submerged in the jingoism that ran through British society in Edwardian times like a resort name through a stick of its rock. And when faced with the second half of WW1 (played 1939-45) in which we all but went under, it’s sensible to sink any difference in a fight for our lives together. That ‘Dunkirk Spirit’ togetherness still lingers in England but is increasingly hard to find here—especially urban Scotland.

This difference derives from a common bewildered disorientation of the Thatcher years in most Scots that boiled into expression in Poll Tax Riots that removed at least one chip from our shoulders. For the first time since the Enlightenment, many Scots developed ambitions for culture through many vehicles: the Eigg and Gigha buyouts; Lanark, Rebus, Black Watch, Kelman, etc; a Scottish Parliament articulating people (nowhere more poignantly powerful than in Margo’s lucid, redoubtable and now sadly stilled voice).

This week, behind a podium labelled “Securing Britain’s Future” Dave Cameron took another stab at unionist reasoning before the faithful of the Conservative Forum in London. The to-be-expected SNP response of jumping all over his shortcomings missed an opportunity to put his gas at the peep by reflecting on the nub of the speech, which went:

“Two hundred years ago we were leading the industrial revolution and shaping the world’s economic ideas. One hundred years ago young men from the Highlands to the Valleys went to war together, and many fell, together. Seventy years ago—the D Day landings, the Highlanders running onto the beaches of Northern France to the skirl of the bagpipes. Sixty years ago—building the health service that says no matter where you’re from or how much you’ve got, we will look after you. This is what I love about our UK. The decency. The family. The solidarity.”

It’s sad that most—if not all—Scots would share pride in all that history…until you get to those last two words. Because from Cameron to his supposedly Scottish advisors and the great payroll of Labour MPs who stuff committees to take turns echoing that mantra, live in that golden past. As anyone with half a brain who visits their local pub/cafe/club in Scotland, the Scots  no longer do.

Granted, anyone now out of school brings 20th century baggage to their thinking. But we’re talking 19th century thinking here. Substitute Inkerman for Northern France and Victorian railways for the NHS and this is Disraeli in full cry. He could afford to pontificate; there were decades of painting maps pink to come and any slide towards mid-range mediocrity was not yet obvious. Cameron can’t.

He and his apologists representing Unst to Ongar can’t get their heads around three facts absolutely fundamental to placing the present debate on a common footing:

  1. John Bull’s basic swashbuckling ‘might-is-right’ philosophy and economics that once made Britain Great are gone; it’s long been time for Britain to find a new, more modest, consensual role in the world.
  2. Because all main English institutions survived our 1707 union basically unaltered the larger/stronger English had no need to distinguish ‘British’ from ‘English’ and, three centuries later, are almost incapable of doing so.
  3. Because there was swash to be buckled and fortunes to seek, the Scots overlooked such niceties and joined in. When we were reduced to conquering Rockall in 1955, the whole rationale looked threadbare. A few decades of indecision led to Scotland finding itself around the turn of this century. Nobody in England noticed.

So this independence debate suffers Cool Hand Luke‘s famous “failure to communicate” as long as unionists accepting little of the above and start by presuming that Scots are happy as a junior partner in a rather lost ex-major power continuing a century-long slide.

Such myopia is not unique in once-great nations. Spend time in Madrid (or, better yet,   reactionary Spanish provinces like Badajoz or Salamanca) then visit Catalunya. There, the universality of Catalan language makes differences obvious, despite years of its repression. Witness the exuberance of youth buzzing around the Fontana district or the richness of yachts in the Port Vell. It all echoes a modern culture advancing and at ease with itself.

Contrast all that with over-serious chupatintas of Madrid and you see why a huge Catalan flag soars high above Montjuic. In the heart of the castel (NOT castello)—long a political prison—an extensive exhibit on life under Franco’s repression is only in Catalan. Across the city Spanish flags are rare, only hanging from military buildings; but every apartment block sports Catalan flags from multiple balconies.

View over Barcelona with the Catalan Flag Flying on the Santa Amalia Bastion

View over Barcelona with the Catalan Flag Flying on the Santa Amalia Bastion

Scotland is neither so blatant nor so comfortable with its own culture. Yet. But Cameron and his apologists would do well to examine it against a Catalan background. Despite long isolation from old friends in Scandinavia by UK fixation with global ambition and ‘foreign’ hostility, the Scots social psyche still show commonality in a way the English never have. Scandics value community, believe in society and choose mutual support over unbridled self-improvement. They are also more curious than hostile towards foreigners, generally welcoming them if they embrace their values. All of them aspire to a world role but as partners with others, based on trade and mutual prosperity, of moving by consensus.

This is not to denigrate the many cultural, familial and historic links that Scots share with their English cousins, nor to imply that they remain piratical demons looting the world three ways from Sunday (different Elizabeth). In fact, Scots want to keep many of the links we share but would like the option to choose how they develop. As an example, Scots have  musical links with our other cousins the Irish and a thriving folk scene is growing between the two.

As an even better example, Scotland could be working with Norway on oil and energy; they have exploited theirs carefully, tucking away billions for their future. England simply raided all it could short-term to squander it on weaponry and social programmes it could not otherwise afford. Restoring Scots fiscal prudence after Canary Wharf wide boys raped it and left it for dead would restore shrewd retail banking to the Scots panoply of global skills. Working with Scandinavian banks who avoided either hubris or catastrophe would be more fruitful than expecting an out-of-control City to reform.

See Scots ambitions in the light of Norway or Denmark, of Ireland or Catalunya and it is obvious that British bravado about global role, its fur-coat-and-nae-knickers defence strategy and repeated aggravation of its friends sets John Bull apart as the real odd man out. It’s the Scots who are normal. It’s the Scots who would benefit themselves, the English and the world by assuming its place as a normal country.

Unionists who claim Scots and their social democratic aspirations are weird or different have a skewed grasp of global reality. The social attitudes of Scots, and the policies of the Scottish Parliament, are pretty much standard for a European country. Scotland isn’t the exception, it’s the rule. It’s Britain that is the statistical outlier and, much as we love our English cousins, this union with them continues to plumb some miserable stats*.If we examine “Better Together” as a claim, so far we share:

  • fourth most unequal developed country on earth,
  • pay that has in recent years fallen faster than in all but three EU countries,
  • our people working the third longest hours in Europe
  • for the second lowest wages in the OECD
  • Europe’s third highest housing costs
  • highest train fares and the second worst levels of fuel poverty
  • the least happy children in the developed world
  • they suffer highest infant mortality rate in Western Europe
  • among the worst child poverty in the industrialised world
  • child care costs much higher than most European countries
  • elderly are the fourth poorest pensioners in the EU.
  • eighth biggest gender pay gap in Europe
  • wealth gap twice as wide as any other EU country

Scotland’s aspirations are normal. It’s John Bull who can’t seem to march in step with his comrades. Time he stopped trying to frog-march his best friend along to a tune that few but he can hear—and considers living normally himself.

*statistics extracted from Our Kingdom article by Alan Ramsay March 21st 2014

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And Answer Came There None

Not wishing to flatter myself, I would hope, after almost 8,000 tweets and over 630 blogs, that I am known in the smallish hothouse of political social media in Scotland and, despite some lively querying and debate, that I play the ball and not the man when advocating my unswerving belief that Scotland evolving into a full member of the family of nations is the most beneficial future for its 5.25m inhabitants AND their 58m friends ‘dahn saff’.

Where I have waxed venomous has largely been at the smug assumption (coming largely from the unionist fraternity) that the UK is the best thing since sliced bread and a beacon of enlightenment in a world full of terrorists, dope-smoking commies insatiable euromonsters and loud-mouthed ex-colonials who can’t spell ‘honour’ or drive on the proper side of the road.

So I compressed my critique of the history of Greater England (which is what the UK has always been) into seven 140-character tweets and challenged UK apologists to deconstruct their argument. I am still waiting for an acknowledgment, let alone a response. So, I repeat them here, along with the same challenge: debunk my analysis and make the positive case for the UK such that reasonably neutral people (i.e. not Labour MPs with a season ticket on the Westminster gravy train) would see the Union in a similar positive light as that in which I see independence.

  1. The UK state has been overcentralised since Henry VIII threw his considerable weight around and thought he could legislate on people’s souls
  2. The UK state got greedy when Elizabeth saw what riches Spain stole from colonies, regretting any Armada galleon lost before it was plundered
  3. The UK state put finance before governance to fund empire; a shoddy sale of baronetcies enriched the treasury but not the basis of nobility
  4. The UK state eschewed full democracy—taming royal power into fiction allowed a loyalty that let élites get on w/getting richer in private.
  5. The UK state’s globespanning achievement was driven by merchant greed and paid for with blood by some redcoats & many more who opposed them.
  6. The UK state’s Finest Hour was geopolitical reality visited on a bankrupt empire doomed by overreach—rescued only by superpower entanglement
  7. The UK state in the 21st © is a power base nostalgically trying to recall why it became one, a playground bully grown doddery and forgetful.

The above may be short, verging on glib, an disrespectful of the global might that was once the British Empire. But where is it essentially wrong as pocket analysis? Answers need not restrict themselves to 980 characters.

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A few thoughts on Labour’s Devolution Commission

(I have my own disappointments at what Johann Lamont announced as Labour’s offering to Scotland, should we choose ‘No’ in September and Labour wins the 2015. Indeed, the ‘Devo Plus’ option was one that I argued should be on the ballot because that interim stage was probably the most popular option among the apolitical majority of Scots. Given that, the attached blog from a professional dissects the paper’s shortcomings far more elegantly and clinically than I could.

Quoted verbatim from

I am surprised that Labour has backtracked on almost all of the tax proposals it made in its interim report.  I did not expect Lamont to be so thoroughly routed by her opponents in her own party on the need to extend the powers of the Scottish Parliament in any meaningful way.  The final report can be found here and my blog on the interim report can be found here.

The final report does not even go as far as the final recommendations made by the Calman Commission.  Calman recommend 6 new tax powers for the Scottish Parliament.  The Scotland Act 2012, often referred to as “Calman minus” only implements 3 of them.

This is from the final report: “We concluded that, for a variety of good reasons, VAT, national insurance contributions, corporation tax, alcohol, tobacco and fuel duties, climate change levy, insurance premium tax, vehicle excise duty, inheritance tax, capital gains tax and tax on oil receipts should remain reserved.” It is not clear from the final report if the Aggregates Levy will be devolved.  What is meant by the Crown Estate recommendation is anyone’s guess.

With regard to the only tax power left standing when the music stopped; income tax.  The interim report said: “In our view, a strong case exists for devolving income tax in full, and we are minded to do so“.  How Labour got from that point to the income tax proposal announced yesterday is again anybody’s guess.  I will come back to that point.

This announcement must also have exasperated those still arguing for “devo plus” and “devomax”.  These proposals are often misunderstood, often intentionally.  ”Devo Plus” would devolve almost all tax and welfare powers.  ”Devo max” goes even further. Remember there are over 25 taxes, charges and duties when comparing the Labour proposal to “devo plus” or “devo max”. The Labour proposal such as it is, when taken together with the recent announcements by the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives may well prove to be the final straw for those arguing for the devolving of substantial powers for the Scottish Parliament. That I suspect can only be good news for the “YES” campaign.

Johann Lamont was unable to even answer basic questions on the income tax proposal when she was interviewed on Newsnight Scotland.  A link to this interview can be found here.  To be fair, I am not sure if anyone could easily explain the income tax proposal.  If I was the cynical type I might suggest that this looks like a policy that is intentionally created to make sure it never sees the light of day.  I was also interested to hear that she is opposed to tax competition if it involves Scotland.

This is from my chapter in the Hassan/Mitchell publication “After Independence” and titled: “The continuing battle for Scottish tax powers”.   Nothing it seems has changed.

“So how have the opponents of substantial tax powers for the Scottish Parliament been able to ensure that substantial tax powers are not devolved to the Scottish Parliament?  A template can be seen from Calman, what might be called the ”Calman doctrine”. Make a huge fuss about having someone look at the issue, take your time, offer as little as possible, exaggerate any problems, minimise or ignore any advantages and ensure HMRC and HM Treasury remain in control.”

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On Yer Bike

With crocuses pretty much done and daffodils coming on like a billion smiles, Spring is here, which means Walk to School Week can’t be far away. Although these pages have seen little on this topic, it is one on which I could bore for Scotland. This is for three very good reasons:

  1. The education, health, security and welfare of its children is a major measure of any civilisation; most serious accidents involving children happen on busy roads.
  2. Various studies have shown that children who walk to school regularly and through whatever our Scottish weather may throw at them not only stay healthier but arrive at school alert, awake and ready to learn.
  3. The unsupervised “chumming” of one another to/from school is a key factor learning social skills, making friends and learning about/from each other.

Parents don’t set out to endanger their own or any other kids but especially around the larger primaries, bringing kids by car is a beguiling option if you’re busy/late, driving that way in any case and—most perversely—concerned about their safety, especially in bad weather. Generally, East Lothian parents have a pretty good track record on Walk-to-School year round. But the statistics from recent Walk-to-School weeks have shown a negative trend:

WTSW Statistics for Major Primaries (Source: ELC)

WTSW Statistics for Major Primaries (Source: ELC)

The trend is clearly more cycling (which is good) and car (which is not) use at the expense of walking. And while one in ten pupils arriving by car doesn’t sound bad, consider a 600-pupil school like Law that shares a campus with a 900-pupil high school and a popular gym/swimming pool, the last of which gets used as an unofficial drop-off area. Those 60 vehicles for Law mostly arrive in a ten-minute window when teachers’ cars, buses and gym customers add up to give a vehicle every couple of seconds while 400 pedestrians and 120 bikes are pouring past them.

All this is bad enough if the bulk of cars arriving were Minis, Kias, etc but North Berwick favours the Chelsea Tractor to an extent that seems almost inconsiderate because few primary pupils are tall enough to be seen behind them and so can pop out unexpectedly. Although almost all parents at Law are careful and considerate, both the crossing guard and the community police officer have hair-raising tales of drop-offs at blind corners, from moving vehicles or even on the traffic circle inside the campus—off-limits at school time because of the bewildering density of foot traffic.

Of course, not everyone lives within a reasonable distance to walk. But even those from the country can take the advice of the Junior Road Safety Officer volunteers in Law (and many other primaries) who have laid out maps of alternate drop-off point nearby (e.g. Gilbert Avenue) that avoid bringing a vehicle into school traffic but involve no more than a 200m walk. There have also been walking buses in the past approaching along Lochbridge Road and Trainer’s Brae that parents have joined at points away from the school. If they are not now running, the upcoming Walk to School Week in May would be a good time to revive them; contact myself or the school.

That said, the bulk of drop-off car traffic at Law (as well as Dunbar, Windygoul, etc)  is from within the town from well intentioned parents who may not appreciate either the desirability of alternatives nor the extent to which danger levels rise for other pupils just as they try to protect their own. Once the Grange Road development gets underway, the school roll will rise significantly and the problem will only get worse—unless a concerted effort is made to encourage and choose the healthier alternatives.

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One Hundred Years of Desuetude

With apologies to Señor Gabriel Garcia Marques for abusing his title, the next thousand words seek to examine the assertions coming from Philip Hammond, his MoD minions and his boss David Cameron that Scotland would be far safer and able to defend itself in this wild and woolly 21st century by remaining a partner in the UK.

We shall leave for another time whether the current UK pose as a global power wielding a nuclear-tipped seat on the UN Security Council is either sensible or affordable and focus on the last century’s track record of defence ability in general and military posture in particular that led to the present overstretch and inability to project anything anywhere without US or NATO support (which comes to the same thing). UK contributions in Afghanistan were marginal; those in Libya were weak; Syria non-existent and Crimea not even credible.

One hundred years ago when Victoria died, Britain did indeed rule the waves—and underscored that fact by launching the revolutionary HMS Dreadnought in 1904. Problem was that it made not only competing fleets obsolete but the Royal Navy’s as well and locked it and the bulk of its funds into building the 28 comparable battleships with which it entered WW1. The result was a neglect of other forms of naval war, such as submarines and countermeasures to them. This led to the loss off Holland of all 3 (obsolete) ships of the 7th Cruiser Squadron—and 1,457 officers and men—to a single U-boat on September 22nd 1914 and brutal merchant losses for years before the Admiralty was forced to adopt a convoy system.

Tragic as that was, the flaws in British capital ship design came home to haunt them. Not only were German ships better designed but they were tougher with superior armament and—decisively—both ranging optics and skill in using them. After indecisive skirmishes in the North Sea, the ‘showdown’ at Jutland became no such thing. Three British battlecruisers simply blew up—not just because they had been designed for speed at the expense of adequate armour but because flash protection to stop fire in a turret reaching the magazine below had not been fitted. The Germans suffered no such weaknesses.

The carnage of four years in the trenches were not a result of MoD shortcomings but the sideshow bloodbath that was Gallipoli was. This amphibious assault with no amphibious assault equipment provided was an Opera Bouffe for which ANZAC, rather than British, troops suffered casualty rates as high as 25%. Nothing of substance was achieved. Luckily, an even dafter plan to land British troops on the Pomeranian coast and march on Berlin came to nothing.

That the “War to End All Wars” should result in huge defence cuts post-1919 is understandable but seldom were those funds provided put to good use. HMS Rodney & Nelson were built to a daft design that were structurally unsound and often inoperative. The folding of the Naval Air Service into the RAF meant that Britain entered WW2 with risible naval air strength built around the obsolete Swordfish biplane and a maritime reconnaissance arm on short-ranged Ansons. And, while Hobart was writing prophetically of the key future role of the tank only to be ignored, Guderian was busy forming the first ten panzer divisions.

At the outbreak of WW2 at least the RAF were being provided with modern Spitfires and Hurricanes but its ‘striking’ power were underarmed Battles and Blenheims in the tactical role and lumbering Hampdens and Whitleys in the strategic, all of which were swept from the skies in the debacle that led to Dunkirk. Magnificent as that operation was, it stands as a monument to British muddling through to atone for Whitehall inertia and incompetence.Even Fighter Command’s magnificent achievements in the Battle of Britain came close to jeopardy by a dearth of pilots because it was being treated as an exclusive club for Oxbridge buddies.

The whole sorry story of weak/slow/clumsy British tanks commanded by impulsive ex-cavalry officers throughout the war is a book in itself and responsible for half of Rommel’s reputation. Blindness to the lessons of Jutland led to HMS Hood blowing up in action (3 of her 1,325 crew survived) and to the convoy lessons of WW1 led to countless mercantile losses and two aircraft carriers sent out to chase submarines (?!). It took most of the war to catch up building the escorts needed to secure the Atlantic trade routes.

And none of this is to mention the charades being played about British might in the Far East. That Hong Kong might fall was obvious but racist deprecation of the Japanese led to Singapore being a shibboleth of Empire might. After Pearl Harbor, it fell within weeks to an inferior force and the loss of two battleships, an aircraft carrier, six cruisers and an entire army—the largest single defeat the British have ever suffered. It wasn’t just because they had omitted building and defences on the inland side of Singapore—but that didn’t help.

In all of this, there is no insult intended to the brave men who served noble causes, nor to the campaigns conducted with a verve and aplomb that compensated for shortcomings in leadership and authority: the Abyssinian campaign of 1941; commando raids on Fortress Europe; innovation in special forces like the LRDG or the Chindits are only some deserving mention. But look at design sensations and you find it wasn’t the MoD who launched the amazing plywood Mosquito (it was deHavilland) or the fast MTB for light forces and air-sea rescue (it was Vosper). Perhaps the General staff’s most successful and useful project was the 25-pounder artillery piece which provided the ‘punch’ in ground warfare in all theatres throughout WW2 and beyond.

Thankfully, the last half-century has seen less warfare and so less need to ‘muddle through’ to make up for shortcomings in the MoD and General Staff planning and leadership. There was the massive (if casualty-light) humiliation of the Suez debacle. There were the millions wasted on the Blue Streak/Blue Steel missiles. There was the aluminium superstructure of the Type 42 destroyers that burned in combat and lost HMS Sheffield in the Falklands; the lack of decent tactical AA in the Falklands; the absence of enough heavy-lift coppers that left 2 Para taking Goose Green with cold steel and most of 5 Brigade yomping across East Falkland under a ton of kit each.

The last 20 years has seen the MoD directing UK forces in the Middle East with a variety of shortcomings, whether it was Tornados’ vulnerability to any old iron thrown up in its path as it follows the nap-of-the-earth low-flying training standard or vulnerability of standard-issue Landies to roadside bombs. For over a decade now, UK forces have suffered almost all of their casualties from irregulars in unconventional warfare in which Challenger tanks, Warrior APCs, artillery and air bases are targets rather than assets. The advantage of being part of a large country that can better afford such things escapes most objective observers. The Irish Defence Force in Mali or the Norwegian Army in Palestine both do bang-up jobs of peacekeeping with nothing heavier than jeeps and machine guns.

And what good our Trident nuclear subs are doing slithering around the Atlantic two decades after a Soviet threat evaporated and as expensive, irrelevant junk in the present Crimea crisis passes all logical understanding. But then, where the MoD and Whitehall have been concerned they have ‘form’: ’twas ever thus.

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This Septic Isle

Last week’s Scottish Tory Conference virtually frothed with discussion about what they were going to do for Scotland—once their deluded countrypersons had seen the light and consigned Independence to the bin for toxic waste, come September. Ruth made a competent speech, outshining Cameron who was nonetheless in sincere mode and completely leaving a very plodding Hammond in the dust. Those people watching not already hardened Tory might have been impressed, even swayed.

My favourite was an interview from retiring MEP Struan Stevenson (not a phrase I have used often in his case) advocating complete tax devolution and leaving nothing but defence and foreign affairs to Westminster. Given that his colleagues are busy trashing the prospect of using the £UK in both countries, I don’t see how this radical “devo-max” avoids all the pitfalls Osbo et al are listing against sharing currency but perhaps he’ll blog and enlighten us. I’d certainly consider reblogging it because if he’s cracked the problems for such a radical move, then he’s also undermined the unionist arguments too.

If there’s something that underscores the bankruptcy of Tory political philosophy, it’s the selectivity with which they approach the very concept of  ‘union’. While I’m sure they would dispute this, their various simultaneous positions can only be seen as coherent if seen through the prism of the Home Counties in general (the very phrase speaks volumes) and London in particular.

Let’s start with their name. “The Conservative and Unionist Party” does not refer to union with Scotland but with Ireland. This goes some way to explain their dalliance with Ulster Unionists for much of the 20th century and their dogged insistence on retaining Ulster in the UK, despite civil mayhem for decades. And, perhaps, their ongoing support for an open border with Eire, despite Tory Pavlovian paranoia on immigration and security.

But it does not explain their silence on Eire—from 1801 an integral part of the union sending MPs to Westminster, since 1922 fully independent and for all that time behaving as a much more constructive partner than their recalcitrant neighbours to the North. And after the burst of prosperity there in the 1980′s into the noughties—when Dublin built a tram system 3 times the size but half the price of Edinburgh’s—they have been suffering heart-stopping austerity to recover from a speculative property bubble. Yet they have not come, cap-in-hand, begging to be let back into this (according to Tories) robust, stable fly-wheel that is the UK. What is weirder yet: Tories have made not a peep to persuade them and so recover the lost chunk of empire so dear to them 100 years ago that they named their part in its honour.

But there is more to the British Isles than UK and Eire. Both Man and the Channel Islands enjoy a relationship eerily close to that which Scotland aspires: their borders are open; they raise their own taxes; they use the £UK freely; they are not IN the UK and send no MPs. Yet our Tories are not only supportive of this state of affairs but positively encourage it as friends who are ‘something in the city’ make millions banking ‘offshore’ in Jersey. How can such tax havens be exempt from unionist cant while Scotland is not?

We’ll leave for another (longer?) blog in which we discuss the tortured policy stances that rend the Tories over Europe, except to say that their whole argument that Scotland would prosper better folded in Nurse UK’s ample skirt pleats is reversed totally when it comes to being at the core of the 500m-and-counting market that is the EU. Illogical, captain.

Even in the simple issue of devolution Tories have been all over the place. From centuries of opposing all devolution, Heath sprung the possibility for Scotland (as an antidote to Tory decline and the coming of oil) at a conference in Perth in 1970. That led to the Kilbrandon Report and (indirectly) to the 1979 ’40% threshold’ referendum swiz. By that time, Douglas Home and Thatcher were promising a vague ‘something better’ if Scots would only vote ‘no’. They voted ‘no’ and were rewarded with Thatcherism and the febrile 1980′s.

It might be simpler (and certainly more honest and true to their roots) if the Tories simply decried all attempt to take any power away from Westminster; their protestations at being the party of small government seem borne out by Tories having been responsible for most reductions in the Civil Service—from 3/4m in 1977 to 1/2m now. But while the odd Sir Humphrey has got his jotters, decisions continue to be centralised as control freaks like May and Gove wade into their brief with autocratic gusto. And whether on trunk roads, houses or HS2, local opinion and/or government is swept aside whenever ‘the national interest’ is cited.

This bodes ill for the English provinces. At least the other three nations have some forum in which to mount counterattacks on over-centralisation. But pity the NorthEast or Cornwall—both provinces that the Tories largely regard as inhabited by recalcitrant ne’er-do-wells who never vote Tory and are therefore lost causes. The Geordies got a sniff of an assembly back in 2004 when Two-Jags was peddling his wheeze. An Ipsos poll at the time found that three out of four people surveyed in the North East of England believed they got a worse deal from the Government than those living in London.

But Tories were dead against. And when you saw the sickly creature to be spawned—all councillors, business and the voluntary sector but none directly elected—you have some sympathy with their view. And as the first one went down in the flames of a three-to-one vote against, Labour and Lib-Dem supporters ran for cover and the idea has not been heard from since.

Which is a shame for places like Kernow (a.k.a. Cornwall), where the rudiments of an Assembly, if not a full-blooded independence movement are coming together. The complete and long-term isolation of the county from the storm-wrecked rail line at Dawlish has recently highlighted their tenuous links with the rest of England—not to mention their historical privileges.

Since the Charter of Pardon in 1508, Cornwall has enjoyed rights to its own parliament and veto over acts, statutes and laws passed by the Westminster government. These powers were granted in perpetuity and cannot lawfully be rescinded. They were confirmed as valid in British law in 1977 by the then Lord Chancellor, Lord Elwyn-Jones. Mebyon Kernow was formed in 1951 and describes itself as a Centre-Left party. It now regularly fields candidates in elections to Westminster and currently has four elected councillors onto Cornwall Council.

The Tories take a jaundiced and dismissive a view of all this, much as they did towards eqwuivalent Scottish aspirations—until they had their heads handed to them by the Scottish electorate. It seems the Tories have limited scope for loyalty. Their culture is so embedded in things English that they cannot entertain any other hub in their universe; theirs was the mission in the decades of empire-building to “make the world England”; they were behind the early 19th century fashion for Scots to become “North British” that spawned a hotel and railway company of that name. Curiously, there was never any move to name anything “South British” and in this can again be seen a certain consistency of attitude.

Perhaps the reason there  has never been an English National Party is that the job has been filled for a long time by a quite indefatigably single-minded Tory Party who have long proved inexorable.

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Redefining Security and Intelligence in an independent Scotland


The debate on defence has gone all quiet, perhaps because anyone comparing the costs to Scots of expensive ego-toys (like nukes, global bases, aircraft carriers, etc,) to the threadbare defence we actually get sees the fiscal ineptitude behind the MoD’s present posture.
But the unionist case about security and counter-terrorism is made just as seldom—and is equally in need of debunking, as here.

Originally posted on A Thousand Flowers:

A Guest Post by Cosmopolitan Scum

Military and intelligence stories have been all over the news recently. Be it indiscriminate eavesdropping programs, WMD infrastructure, or our impending doom at the hands of terrorists if we vote “yes”, there is a common denominator in the statements of the high heid yins: these are issue for the big boys, the role set out for the rest of us is to cower in fear and not to hurt our wee brains trying to understand. In the independence debate, we are warned that an independent Scotland is going to be overrun by terrorists, disastrously cyber-attacked, or run out of money trying to prevent these disasters from happening. The catalyst of the recent wave of scare stories is a report by a bunch of military and intelligence insiders,  the crowd treated in the mainstream media as holding an exclusive grasp of the serious issue…

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