High Street Robbery

In the past, this scribe has criticised East Lothian Council (ELC) for its economic innumeracy. As examples, it couldn’t make its pie-beans-and-chips staff canteen wash its face, so they leased it to two ladies who turned it into the money-spinner of The Loft; wholly owned Enjoy Leisure, a sink for public money, can’t see how Bannatyne’s turns a profit in the same business; they fail to license ice cream stands along their 30 miles of beaches, foregoing thousands in income to RLC. It’s classic clunky corporation cluelessness.

But…haud oan…what’s this? An initiative to raise an extra £1m to bolster empty council coffers without going cap-in-hand to the Scottish Government or whacking up Council Tax above their 10% hike this year? Has ELC finally found its fiscal mojo? After announcing it a year ago and going out to consultation at the end of last year, they have decided to impose parking charges in town centres. Much to the surprise of visitors, until now, parking has been free.

An enlightened approach to solve parking, congestion and encourage green travel? Well, that’s what it has been presented as. In truth, it is a further example of stodgy narrow-mindedness characterising the administration controlling one of the most pleasant and affluent areas of Scotland. So “Town Centre Parking Management: Introduction of Parking Management Proposals in North Berwick” was approved 17-4 at a virtual council meeting on April 25th, 2023. 

Sadly, for 23 of its 28 year-existence, ELC has been dominated by Labour, who have yet to show understanding of the jewel in their hands. Slow to exploit being on tourist-magnet Edinburgh’s doorstep, they instead revelled in Provost limo, special allowances for ‘senior’ colleagues and free access to the biggest private box at Musselburgh racetrack. That theirs was the fastest-growing area in the country was pure luck.

Readers who have never visited North Berwick won’t know its historic High Street, bustling with interest. Since the 1950’s, there have been a myriad of schemes to deal with growing congestion and limited parking, decades before ELC came along. They all came to naught, and this was for a reason. Despite Labour running ELC, North Berwick declines to vote Labour. 

This has led to many behind-the scenes tussles, such as an attempt to break the North Berwick Trust (failed); close the outdoor pool (succeeded) and short-change the town at every turn (succeeded). You only have to study planning consent for Kirk View to know that it blocked any hope of a viable E-W traffic alternative to relieve the High Street.

The town centre plan prior to this one is not yet five years old. A charette, involving virtually every interested party in town hammered out a traffic and parking solution acceptable to everyone. It sat gathering dust until, as with earlier plans, ELC threw it out and started again. Because the charette had specifically ruled out parking charges. ELC has form on seeking consultations until it gets the answer it wanted. And so, this umpteenth consultation blithely states:

“With East Lothian having a growing population and being a popular visitor destination, we need to achieve a balanced and sustainable approach which meets parking needs, whilst ensuring our town centres remain vibrant and attractive places in which to live, work and visit.”

—Councillor. N. Hampshire, ELC Leader

To be fair, the final parking plan does take comments on the proposals from last November on board:

  • Extending free parking from 30 minutes to 45 minutes  (Traders)
  • Increasing the long-stay maximum from 5 to 6 hours (golfers)
  • Professionals who require to park on streets will be able to apply for exemptions (Carers and Health workers)
  • Free parking on Sundays until 1pm (church-goers).
  • Reduce the original four zones to three zones
  • Residents living in them will no longer be restricted to spaces marked as resident only but will be able to park in charging spaces in their zones.

Welcome though such adjustments are, the fact remains that all town centre streets and car parks will levy £1 per hour, while residents will pay £40 for a resident permit to avoid this. The only long-stay car park will be at the rugby ground, which is a 1km walk to the main shops. There will be no extra parking, no town shuttle bus and all this will be enforced by the same “blue meanies” who plague drivers in Edinburgh.

Just how Cllr. Hamshire sees all this as a “balanced and sustainable approach which meets parking needs, whilst ensuring our town centres remain vibrant and attractive” is entirely unclear.

In fact, Traders, Area Partnership, Community Council and many residents consider this betrayal of community cohesion displayed by the charrette. Some see it as a cynical mugging of the most economically successful town in the county, likely to dissuade locals and visitors alike from using the town centre. It risks the demise of retail vitality—as happened when Berwick-Upon-Tweed introduced parking charges.

Indeed, ELC’s 2018 North Berwick Town Centre Strategy piously records, in Section 5.3:

  • “The town centre is well used and there are a wide range of uses represented in the town centre. Residents do the majority of their convenience food shopping here.”
  • “83% of people who live in North Berwick visit the town centre weekly; 26% visit daily, 60% use it in the evening.”
  • “North Berwick has the highest proportion of shops, cafes and restaurants out of all 6 settlements in East Lothian.”

North Berwick’s formula for success has evaded wastelands, as Kirkcaldy, Falkirk, etc. have not. It offers a template to follow for other towns in the county—none of which are getting parking charges. But then, they vote Labour; ELC regards North Berwick as a cash cow.

“Charging people to park in the town centre would not benefit local businesses and could, in fact, damage them.”

Councillor J. Findlay, Ward Member

#1069—970 words

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The Right to Arm Bears

This week saw another mass shooting in the USA when eight people were killed and seven injured in Texas by a right-wing supremacist wielding an assault rifle, bringing the number of mass shootings there to over 200 this year alone. Rather than pontificate from afar on “What’s wrong with America?”, the rest of this blog is a transcript from a journalist we have praised before for her analytical view of her country, going some way to explain how this carnage has come about.

The Story of Gun Ownershjp in America

Heather Cox Richardson, May 7th 2023.

The Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, on which modern-day arguments for widespread gun ownership rest, is one simple sentence: “A well regulated militia, being necessary for the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.” There’s not a lot to go on about what the Framers meant, although in their day, to “bear arms” meant to be part of an organized militia.

As the Tennessee Supreme Court wrote in 1840, “A man in the pursuit of deer, elk, and buffaloes might carry his rifle every day for forty years, and yet it would never be said of him that he had borne arms; much less could it be said that a private citizen bears arms because he has a dirk or pistol concealed under his clothes, or a spear in a cane.”

Today’s insistence that the Second Amendment gives individuals a broad right to own guns comes from two places.

One is the establishment of the National Rifle Association in New York in 1871, in part to improve the marksmanship skills of American citizens who might be called on to fight in another war, and in part to promote in America the British sport of elite shooting, complete with hefty cash prizes in newly organized tournaments. Just a decade after the Civil War, veterans jumped at the chance to hone their former skills. Rifle clubs sprang up across the nation.

By the 1920s, rifle shooting was a popular American sport. “Riflemen” competed in the Olympics, in colleges, and in local, state, and national tournaments organized by the NRA. Being a good marksman was a source of pride, mentioned in public biographies, like being a good golfer. In 1925, when the secretary of the NRA apparently took money from ammunition and arms manufacturers, the organization tossed him out and sued him.

NRA officers insisted on the right of citizens to own rifles and handguns but worked hard to distinguish between law-abiding citizens who should have access to guns for hunting and target shooting and protection, and criminals and mentally ill people, who should not. In 1931, amid fears of bootlegger gangs, the NRA backed federal legislation to limit concealed weapons; prevent possession by criminals, the mentally ill and children; to require all dealers to be licensed; and to require background checks before delivery. It backed the 1934 National Firearms Act, and parts of the 1968 Gun Control Act, designed to stop what seemed to be America’s hurtle toward violence in that turbulent decade.

But in the mid-1970s a faction in the NRA forced the organization away from sports and toward opposing “gun control.” It formed a political action committee (PAC) in 1975, and two years later it elected an organization president who abandoned sporting culture and focused instead on “gun rights.”
This was the second thing that led us to where we are today: leaders of the NRA embraced the politics of Movement Conservatism, the political movement that rose to combat the business regulations and social welfare programs that both Democrats and Republicans embraced after World War II. 

Movement Conservatives embraced the myth of the American cowboy as a white man standing against the “socialism” of the federal government as it sought to level the economic playing field between Black Americans and their white neighbors.

Leaders like Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater personified the American cowboy, with his cowboy hat and opposition to government regulation, while television Westerns showed good guys putting down bad guys without the interference of the government.

In 1972 the Republican platform had called for gun control to restrict the sale of “cheap handguns,” but in 1975, as he geared up to challenge President Gerald R. Ford for the 1976 presidential nomination, Movement Conservative hero Ronald Reagan took a stand against gun control. In 1980, the Republican platform opposed the federal registration of firearms, and the NRA endorsed a presidential candidate—Reagan—for the first time.

When President Reagan took office, a new American era, dominated by Movement Conservatives, began. And the power of the NRA over American politics grew.

In 1981 a gunman trying to kill Reagan shot and paralyzed his press secretary, James Brady, and wounded Secret Service agent Tim McCarthy and police officer Thomas Delahanty. After the shooting, then-representative Charles Schumer (D-NY) introduced legislation that became known as the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act, or the Brady Bill, to require background checks before gun purchases. Reagan, who was a member of the NRA, endorsed the bill, but the NRA spent millions of dollars to defeat it.

After the Brady Bill passed in 1993, the NRA paid for lawsuits in nine states to strike it down. Until 1959, every single legal article on the Second Amendment concluded that it was not intended to guarantee individuals the right to own a gun. But in the 1970s, legal scholars funded by the NRA had begun to argue that the Second Amendment did exactly that. In 1997, when the Brady Bill cases came before the Supreme Court as Printz v. United States, the

Supreme Court declared parts of the measure unconstitutional.
Now a player in national politics, the NRA was awash in money from gun and ammunition manufacturers. By 2000 it was one of the three most powerful lobbies in Washington. It spent more than $40 million on the 2008 election. In that year, the landmark Supreme Court decision of District of Columbia v. Heller struck down gun regulations and declared that the Second Amendment protects an individual’s right to keep and bear arms.

Increasingly, NRA money backed Republican candidates. In 2012 the NRA spent $9 million in the presidential election, and in 2014 it spent $13 million. Then, in 2016, it spent over $50 million on Republican candidates, including more than $30 million on Trump’s effort to win the White House. This money was vital to Trump, since many other Republican super PACs refused to back him. The NRA spent more money on Trump than any other outside group, including the leading Trump super PAC, which spent $20.3 million.

The unfettered right to own and carry weapons has come to symbolize the Republican Party’s ideology of individual liberty. Lawmakers and activists have not been able to overcome Republican insistence on gun rights despite the mass shootings that have risen since their new emphasis on guns.

#1068—1,077 words

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Rishi, Don’t Lose That Number

A week ago, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak traveled north to address the faithful with a sermon in the SEC.  He played the usual refrain of how the SNP are failing Scotland and how the Tories are “delivering for all parts of the Union”, citing £1bn in levelling-up, two freeports, etc. coming to Scotland, how survival of Covid was only possible due to the scale of support provided in furlough, etc. He even shaded into condescension when he referred to the Scottish Parliament as “a Devolved Assembly”.

Such gutsiness for the future of Scottish Conservativism was undermined by a scene outside the conference when Rishi Sunak’s minders attempted to block several newspapers, , from attending a media Q&A session.This is an example of “controlling the story” that the present breed of muscular media specialists favour. Such media handling has become systemic, driven by how Boris Johnson took pages out of Donald Trump’s playbook—that the Big Lie was more credible than the small one, and that gallus* bluster works better than factual reasoning.

Such tactics were again deployed in the week since, as sundry ministers appeared across the media parroting the same story that Rishi was following five prioroties that mattered to the people and that the English local elections would be difficult and might result in the loss of as many as 1,000 Conservative councillors. This latter is known in the trade as “expectation management; paint a dire picture, so that a bad result looks good by comparison and can be touted as some kind of victory.

Sadly, the Tories “builded better than they knew” (pace R. W. Emerson) , losing almost exactly the prediction in a result even more dire than Theresa May managed in the throes of Brexit inertia in 2019.

Rishi and his team must be grateful that wall-to-wall coverage of the Coronation blanked serious coverage and analysis of what this result portends. To hear other parties, Tory fate is sealed. Indeed, knives are out among rebellious Tory MPs who are either feeling politically precarious or are on the IDS/Redwood/Truss low-tax wing, who see Hunt’s present posture as an affront to their principles. Neither camp seems to have read the runes.

For, while the Tories need not look far to find reasons for voter discontent at their recent rule, Labour is reading rather too much into the local election results, the overview of which is in Figure 1

Figure 1—English Councillors by Party, Post-May 5th (source: BBC News)

Yes, the Tories took an unholy drubbing, losing a third of their councillors, control of 49 councils and slipping from their place as the largest party. But Labour picked up barely half of those seats, with the other half going to ebullient LibDems and Greens.

This suggests that, while Rishi may be achieving some popularity, his party isn’t. And, while Labour is recovering ground lost, their leader isn’t. The shift in voting signals discontent with Tories for more than inspiration by Starmer. If there is a lesson for next year’s General Election, it is that the probable outcome will be a hung parliament.

But, worse than that, in the run-up to the next election and after it (if Starmer stalls and the Tories stagger on), the low-tax rebels will seize the moment and trigger yet another blue-on-blue, ferrets-in-a-sack interlude. This is unfortunate for the country, because their mantra is flawed and there is a glaring example of why, if only they would care to do their homework. For example, take a look at what the American Republicans have failed to achieve by the idealistic policy that they have followed of slashing taxes.

The Brookings Institution (BI) in the U.S. has outlined a very different vision of the global economy and American economic leadership to the Republicans, which is to integrate domestic policy and foreign policy. 

The BI asserts many of the economic challenges facing the USA have been created by the economic ideology that has shaped U.S. policy for the past 40 years. The idea that markets would spread capital to where it was most needed to create an efficient and effective economy has been proved wrong.

Under Reagan and Bush, the U.S. did cut taxes, slashed business regulations, privatised public projects and advocated free trade on principle with the understanding that all growth was good growth. And if the U.S. lost infrastructure and manufacturing, it could make up those losses in finance. But, as countries lowered their economic barriers and became more closely integrated with each other, they would also become more open and peaceful. 

That did not happen. Today’s tax-cutting Republicans are reduced to gesture politics. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy persuaded Congress to pass a bill demanding major concessions from Biden before the Republicans would agree to raise the debt ceiling. He succeeded only because everyone knew it was dead on arrival at the Senate, and so would never become law.

This sorry pass is where prioritising tax cuts over fundamental economic growth has got them—a national debt of $32 trillion, rising at $30,000 each second. The U.S. lost supply chains and entire industries as jobs moved overseas, while countries like China discarded markets in favour of artificially subsidising their economies. Rather than ushering in world peace, the market-based system saw an aggressive China and Russia expand their international power. 

The American stance on tax cutting has not achieved the desired outcome. The Tories have always been the self-proclaimed party of low taxes—a popular stance among British voters. But the American experience should be a warning message to any UK Government—tax cutting does not expand an economy in a changing global economic climate. Savvy UK voters will demand economic policies that drive growth directly. Those who grasp this will win the next General Election.

The whole Brexit rationale in Britain was to follow this flawed American example. The tax-cutting wing of the Tories are as wedded to this ideology as Republicans. Unlike a century ago, Britain does not wield equivalent economic clout. In Britain‘s enthusiastic embrace of joining the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Since UK trade in the region is relatively small it is not clear that heavyweight dogs will not wind up wagging the British tail, as they see fit.

If Rishi is to regain the initiative, not to mention the numbers of councillors, he will need more than a five-point plan to ease the people’s current economic pain. Simply building HS2 or nuclear power stations will not re-establish Britain as a major economic force until they have thriving businesses to connect and industries to power. With imports growing and exports dropped by 30% since Brexit, we need to make something the world needs in quantity. The wealth created by the wide boys of Canary Wharf doesn’t spread much outside the M25.

Nd 85% of UK votes live outside the M25.

  • gallus (Scot.) = abrasively self-confident
  • #1067—1,132 words
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The House that Jock Built

On Wednesday, April 19th, our new First Minister launched his flagship New Leadership; a Fresh Start for Scotland” into rather choppy seas. With the SNP’s former leader, CEO and Treasurer all under a cloud, whatever message he hoped to get across was lost in a blizzard of press speculation. He avoided banging on about independence, focussing instead on: Equality; Opportunity; Community. Unfortunately, he omitted to mention what pre-occupies many: housing.

Though Nicola Sturgeon failed to ease a decades-old housing crisis, she at least supplied a sticking-plaster remedies by imposing a rent freeze. That freeze has now thawed. Despite it, private rent in renewals rose by 5%, and new lets by 10%. 

Whether Patrick Harvey’s proposed Rent Control, and 3% “cap” will be effective is anyone’s guess. While this might ease inflation, it leaves landlords to cover rising costs while mortgage tax relief is phased out. This may reduce incentive to repair and invest in private rentals to meet overflow demand from insufficient social housing.

The cause of this crisis is not hard to find: there are simply not enough homes available, especially at the affordable end of the market. This originated 40 years ago in the right-to-buy policy. Though the principle itself is good, requiring councils to set ALL proceeds against debt made building replacements unaffordable. Over the next four decades, council tenancy fell steadily from 54% to 12%. Private ownership and rentals both doubled—to 1.42m and 334,000, respectively. See Figure 1 below (Source: Scottish Government).

Figure 1: Change in House Tenancy by Type in Scotland 1981-2019

The proliferation of housing associations to evade right-to-buy did provide a second source of social housing, but at higher rents, a loss of economies of scale, and confusion ti all. The private market kept expanding to meet the need, but at a cost to tenants. With shrinking numbers of social housing, waiting lists grew enormously. Ordinary punters havd scant hope of ever being offered a house.

As a result, rents in Scotland now average £970 per month. This is up 45% over the last 10 years. Edinburgh average is now £1,370—up 65% over the same period. This has taken “mid-market rent” in Edinburgh out of reach for many. 

There is a total of 2.67m homes in Scotland. This represents an increase of 34% on the 1.97m in 1981, as compared to the 6% increase in the population as a whole. Put another way, demand for housing grew over five times faster than the population. Of this total stock, 320,400 (12%) are local authority units, 318,369 (11%) Registered Social Landlords (RSL’s),342.199 (16%) private rental, leaving 1.55m (56%) owner-occupied. There are also 3% vacant and 24,487 (1%) second homes.

This represents a radical change in Scotland’s housing mix. Council and RSL housing together are regarded as “affordable”, but even were this term accurate, the relative halving of availability is itself an indicator of the housing crisis. Council house rents are genuinely low across the country. However, RSL rents, although well below private rents, vary between 10% and 25% higher than council rents in the same area. This effect is exacerbated by six councils, including Glasgow City. turning their entire housing stock over to RSLs.

The Scottish Government, while speaking of a housing crisis, have done little to meet it. They often resort to obfuscation. For example, their publication on affordable homes states:

“The total completions for the 12 months to end March 2022 rose to 6,557, an increase of 72% (2,744 homes) on the 3,813 social sector new build homes completed in the previous year.”

—Scottish Govt Housing Statistics, ISBN 9781804354209

Sounds great? Actually, the previous year’s build had been crippled by Covid-19. The figure for the year to March 2020 had been barely 14,000 of all types, a steep drop from over 21,000 the previous year—and making the 2022 figures look stellar. This also compares poorly with private completions of over two-and-a-half times that (17,225). This imbalance of affordability is not clear from official charts showing overall figures, such as Figure 2 below. (Source: Scottish Government)

Figure 2: New Homes Starts and Completions in Scotland, 2007-2020

“ScotGov affordable home target concerns as house approvals slump. Concerns have been raised that the number of affordable homes being approved for build has slumped to the lowest level for eight years.”

—The Herald, 28th March 2023

For comparison, the late 1960s and early 1970s saw 41,000 to 43,000 new houses completed each year. This was predominantly public sector housing with barely 7% being private sector. By the time the SNP formed a government in 2007, this had reversed drastically, as shown in Figure 1 above.

The Scottish Government seems coy about this and the massive social stresses it causes. Their housing statistics cheerfully cite the number of new builds, without emphasising the paucity of affordable social housing involved. The fact that the half of Scots who once enjoyed low-cost council housing are now chasing a narrow 12% segment of council homes, plus a more expensive 11% segment of RSL homes does not seem to have galvanised any of the three earlier Housing Ministers (Alex Neil, Keith Brown and Margaret Burgess) into decisive action.

The crucial element in council housing they seem to have ignored is its offer of long-term security. Such security allows for continuity of education, health facilities and social structure. All these are being eroded by the current policies that provide a paucity of secure affordable rental stock. This creates huge social problems and a further drain on Government finances. The result is a steady increase in homelessness and an even more acute situation of people in temporary accommodation. These latter may not be sleeping rough, but have no basis for a stable, let alone a fulfilling life. Recent worsening of the crisis is highlighted in Figure 3 below. (Source: Scottish Government)

Figure 3: People in Temporary Accommodation in Scotland, 2014-2022

The surge shown in Figure 3 happened during the unfortunate seven-year hiatus when Nicola did not see the need for a dedicated Housing Minister to address this worsening crisis. Humza Yousaf resurrected the post by appointing Paul McLennan last month.

Though new as a minister, Paul has been steeped in this crisis, as his East Lothian constituency is in the van of growth in Scotland, so that affordable homes are like hen’s teeth. This results in an ELC waiting list if over 4,000 applicants. Pressures from being commuter-land for Edinburgh are compounded by serious numbers of second homes and Air B&B-style holiday lets, forcing scant private rentals towards Edinburgh prices.

Provision of affordable homes was compromised by East Lothian Council (ELC) building virtually no homes before 2008, relying on local RSLs EL Housing Assoc. and Homes for Life to provide. They failed, achieving only 4.7% of housing in the county—well under half the RSL national average of 11%. And ELC are not above fudging the figures. They are proud the number of people needing temporary accommodation has dropped by 20% from its 2011 peak of 1,137. However, since average days spent IN that accommodation has almost doubled (from 199 to 377), that’s actually a net 72% increase in demand.

At the same time, ELC’s original stock of over 16,000 homes in 1981 has halved to 8,740.. They were also slow in enforcing a planning requirement that developments of four or more homes must provide 25% of them as affordable. This has been undercut by elastic interpretation, with many going to RSLs, to rent-to-buy schemes and even to “affordable” purchase. This has left only 5-10 in each hundred being truly affordable council homes to rent, almost all of which go to “vulnerable” people and those stuck in temporary accommodation.

“When you’re up to your ass in alligators, it’s hard to remember the plan was to drain the swamp.”

Paul could make a name for himself in his home turf by incentivising ELC to get serious about rebuilding their stock and stop relying on crumbs from developers’ tables. Better yet, he could put his head together with Tom Arthur, Minister for Planning, and come up with a scheme for planning communities, rather than the 21st century bland equivalents of Castlemilk or Wester Hailes, now growing like boils on small towns. That would do much to heal social fragmentation blighting Scotland and thus render the “progressive” policies this government favours largely redundant.

Does Paul want to leave a legacy, or become just another revolving-door minister?

#1066—1,395 words

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Wars Begin at Calais

“Fog in the Channel; Continent cut off!”

 The Times, 22 October, 1957

Despite a rehearsal of delays and confusion over last weekend when holidaymakers had to queue for up to 24 hours at Dover to get away to the Continent, more delays were still experienced om Easter weekend. This was due, in part, to unhelpful weather, a surge in demand and Eurotunnel declining to take many coaches. Least convincing were the furious denials by Sue Braberman and her Home Office this had anything to do with Brexit. 

The closest she came was implying French custom officials were sluggish in checking passports. But, since the UK is now as foreign as North Korea in EU eyes, passports must be date-stamped, and mug shots examined.

Much though the present UK government will huff and puff denials, this is yet another consequence of Brexit and the xenophobic paranoia that drives many Home-Counties-Heartland Tories. Their credo is embodied in European Research Group stalwarts like John Redwood, IDS, Mark François and the inimitable Jacob Rees-Mogg.

To some extent, this paranoia is understandable. Southeast England has been the target of continental miscreants, from Caesar, through William and Napoleon to Adolf himself. Such repeated threats leaves cultural scars. Add in the Southeast’s folk memory as the capital and a pink-painted fifth of the globe and the breeding ground of the elite who came to rule ít, then disdain for poorer unfortunates (‘Frogs’, ‘Wops’, ‘Krauts’, always said sotto voce) becomes effortless.

Since their “End of Empah” half a century ago, this nomenklatura has been casting about for a comparable dominant role in the world, for a chance to keep “punching above our weight”. Unfortunately, despite sucking up to new superpower America and building symbols of power like nuke subs and aircraft carriers,, those that matter—in Moscow, Beijing and Delhi—are unimpressed. From their perspective, Brexit smacks more of petulance than ambition.

The recent Easter snarl-ups are just one of many consequences of 2016’s marginal decision to go it alone. On the credit side of the ledger, Liz Truss (remember her?) secured trade deals with Iceland (pop. 376,000) and Liechtenstein (pop. 38,900) and a recent t rade deal with 12 Pacific nations, most of whom already had trade deals with us. We now feel free to deal with unwanted immigrants as if we were North Korea. Of the £385,000 a day for the NHS, promised on Boris’ Big Bus, there is no sign.

Unfortunately, the debit side of the ledger shows rather more (and more consequential) entries:

  1. The Office of Budget Responsibility (OBR) estimates that the UK’s GDP is 4% lower than had Brexit not occurred.
  2. UK is the only G7 country whose economy is yet to surpass its pre-Covid level.
  3. After two years of a half-baked Northern Ireland Protocol which damaged the NI economy, the Windsor agreement has removed many trade obstacles but the NI Assembly remains dysfunctional.
  4. Research at Aston University’s School of Business found UK exports fell by an average of 22.9% in the first 15 months following Brexit.
  5. They also found that the variety of UK products exported to EU was down by 42%. This matters for the future because variety comes from smaller growth businesses, least able to deal with new bureaucracy and overheads. An example is Scottish shellfish exports, typically partial-load and time-critical, where volume has halved.
  6. Relations with France. in particular. have declined because of the UK’s inability to dissuade migrants choosing small boats to cross the Channel over the UK’s glacial system for processing asylum seekers.

“We are seeing the effect of Brexit on exports; and that is persisting. It’s not diminishing, and exports have yet to show signs of recovering. It seems that the UK can buy, but it can’t sell.”

 Professor Jun Du, Aston University

Perhaps the most galling consequence for those gung-ho Brexiteers of the Home Counties who have (or have relatives with) gites/spiti/haciendas scattered across the sunny PIGS (Portugal; Italy; Greece; Spain) is EU residency law.

Whereas before, you could hop on Easyjet on a whim, you now get your passport date-stamped. The EU tracks when you are, whether in Tallinn or Torremolinos. You may stay 90 days in any 180 and may not return for another 90. Thjis has caught many of the 2 million Brits living in the EU who did not apply for residency pre-Brexit with their Bermudas down.

Despite this catalogue of disadvantages, the denizens of the ERG and their acolytes hate the taste of humble pie and are unlikely to be swayed into revisiting the 2016 decision.

This is unfortunate for the disadvantaged areas od the UK (basically anywhere outside Southeast England), whose main business is goods, and who benefit little from London’s massive trade surplus in services.

Shame Indy has become a distant hope for Scotland when the Tories have spent over a decade offering a blizzard of reasons (beside Brexit) why that chance would be worth taking.

#1065—846 words

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Republicans Wrecking Their Own Republic

“The Constitution of the United States does not make governing easy. If anything, it makes it harder, because it requires that the majority respect the minority. When the Constitution works as it should, and opposing sides must come together to find an effective solution, it’s amazing what can be accomplished.”

“We the people are the rightful masters of both Congress and the courts, not to overthrow the Constitution but to overthrow the men who pervert the Constitution.”

– President Abraham Lincoln, Republican

Unfortunately, the Republican Party of Wisconsin went off the democratic reservation around 2010, indulged in blatant Gerrymandering and, since Trump was in the White House, have gone into overdrive in trashing the principles on which the USA was built in a naked bid to seal their grip on the state indefinitely. 

What follows is an edited column from political journalist Heather Cox Richardson’s column Letters from an American of April 3rd which is a forensic expose of Republican contempt for the Founding Fathers and their democratic principles. Trump may be the most odious example of this contempt. But desperate bids to appeal to his supporters means that many Republicans have sold their souls along with him.

*  *  *

A key fight over democracy is currently taking place in the US Midwest state of Wisconsin. On April 4, voters there will choose a new judge for the State Supreme Court. That judge will determine the seven-person court’s majority, a majority that will either uphold or possibly strike down the state’s gerrymandered voting maps that are so heavily weighted toward Republicans as to make it virtually impossible for Democrats to win control of the legislature.

Political scientists regard Wisconsin as the most gerrymandered state in the country. The state is divided evenly between Democrats and Republicans, although the Democrats have won 13 of the past 16 state-wide elections. But, despite the state’s relatively even political split, the current district maps are so heavily tilted for Republicans that the Democrats have to win the state by 12%, just to get a majority in the assembly: Republicans, though, can win a majority with just 44% of the vote. 

The election of Governor Scott Walker and a Republican legislature began the process of taking control of the state. Using granular voting data and sophisticated mapping software, the Republicans gerrymandered the state so severely that they retained control of the assembly going forward, even though Democrats won significantly more votes. 

“If the Wisconsin policies were a national model and Act 10 is enacted in a dozen more states, the modern Democratic Party will cease to be a competitive power in American politics…. It’s that big a deal.”

right-wing strategist Grover Norquist

The assembly also passed at least 33 new laws during the Walker years to change election procedures and make it harder to vote. When Democrat Tony Evers won election as governor in 2018, Democrats won 53% of the votes for state assembly—203,000 more votes than the Republicans—but, because of gerrymandering, just 36% of the seats in the legislature. 

The Republicans there immediately held a lame duck session and stripped powers from Evers and Democratic attorney general Josh Kaul. Then they passed new laws to restrict voting rights. Polls showed that voters opposed the lame duck session by a margin of almost 2 to 1, and by 2020, 82% of Wisconsin voters had passed referenda calling for fair district maps.  They were ignored.

When it came time to redistrict after the 2020 census, the Republican-dominated legislature carved up the state into an even more pro-Republican map than it had put into place before. Ultimately, the new maps gave Republicans 63 out of 99 seats in the assembly and 22 out of 23 in the state senate. 

With gerrymandered districts virtually guaranteeing their re-election, Republicans are insulated from popular opinion. In the 2021–2022 session, they ignored the governor, refusing to confirm Evers’s appointees and going nearly 300 days without passing a single bill. They also ignored popular measures, refusing to let 98% of Democratic bills even be heard; refusing to address gun safety issues, although 81% wanted background checks for gun sales; refusing to continue abortion rights supported by 83% of residents.

This Wisconsin assembly this radicalised mattered nationally. When it became a centerpiece of Trump’s attempt to overturn the 2020 presidential election. Nearly 75% of the Republicans in it worked to cast doubt on that election, despite an audit turning up “absolutely no evidence of election fraud.

“Republicans should take control of the elections, because Democrats can’t be expected to “follow the rules.”

Wisconsin Senator Ron Johnson

By shaping the state maps and limiting the power of Democratic constituencies, Republicans have also taken control of the state supreme court, which sides with the Republican lawmakers’ attempts to cement their own power. Now voters have the chance to shift the makeup of that court. Doing so would make it possible that new challenges to the gerrymandered maps would succeed, returning fairness to the electoral system.

Theoretically, the election is nonpartisan, but Republicans paid former state supreme court justice Dan Kelly $120,000 to consult on Trump’s false elector scheme to overturn the 2020 presidential election, and he was on the payroll of the Republican National Committee until last December.

“Let’s be clear here: The maps are rigged. Absolutely positively rigged. They do not reflect the people in the state. They do not reflect accurate representation, either in the State Assembly or the State Senate.”

Milwaukee County judge Janet Protasiewicz

The race comes down to checks and balances. Wisconsin’s Supreme Court has not checked the legislature, which has entrenched one-party rule in Wisconsin. 

“This isn’t to say the maps should be redrawn to instead benefit Democrats—far from it. It’s about fairness. If one party isn’t doing their job, voters should be able to do something about it. It’s about crafting a system that is responsive to the state’s voters. We don’t have that now.”—Wisconsin journalist Dan Shafer

#1064—995 words

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No Fooling!

Humza Yousaf’s Government—March 29th 2023

10 Cabinet Secretaries + 18 Ministers

(In 2007, the first SNP Government appointed a total of 16)

  • Shona Robison the new Deputy First Minister, will take on the Finance portfolio (from Kate Forbes), with responsibility for Local Government and the Scottish Budget
  • Minister for Community Wealth and Public Finance Tom Arthur
  • Minister for Local Government Empowerment and Planning Joe FitzPatrick
  • Michael Matheson becomes the Cabinet Secretary for NHS Recovery, Health and Social Care
  • Minister for Public Health and Women’s Health Jenni Minto
    • Minister for Social Care, Mental Wellbeing and Sport Maree Todd
  • Jenny Gilruth joins Cabinet for the first time as Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills (was Transport Minister)
  • Minister for Children, Young People & Keeping the Promise Natalie Don
    • Minister for Higher & Further Education; and for Veterans Graeme Dey
  • Màiri McAllan joins Cabinet for the first time as Cabinet Secretary for Net Zero and Just Transition
    • Minister for Transport Kevin Stewart
  • Neil Gray joins Cabinet for the first time as Cabinet Secretary for Wellbeing Economy, Fair Work and Energy (replaces Ivan McKee)
  • Minister for Small Business, Innovation and Trade Richard Lochhead
  • Minister for Energy Gillian MartinMinister for Green Skills, Circular Economy and Biodiversity (to work alongside Cab. Sec. for Net Zero and Just Transition) Lorna Slater
    • Minister for Zero Carbon Buildings, Active Travel and Tenants’ Rights (to work alongside Cab. Sec. for Social Justice) Patrick Harvie
  • Mairi Gougeon remains Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs, Land Reform and Islands (this is the brief Kate Forbes turned down)
  • Angus Robertson remains Cabinet Secretary for Constitution, External Affairs and Culture
    • Minister for Culture, Europe & International Devmt. Christina McKelvie
  • Shirley-Anne Somerville moves from Education to become Cabinet Secretary for Social Justice
  • Minister for Equalities, Migration and Refugees Emma Roddick
    • Mnister for Housing Paul McLennan
  • Angela Constance returns to Cabinet as Cabinet Secretary for Justice and Home Affairs (replaces Keith Brown)
    • Minister for Victims and Community Safety Siobhian Brown
  • Reporting directly to First Minister Humza Yousaf
    • Minister for Drugs and Alcohol Policy Elena Whitham
    • Minister for Independence Jamie Hepburn
    • Minister for Cabinet and Parliamentary Business George Adam

Kate Forbes (formerly Finance), Keith Brown (formerly Justice) & Ivan McKee (formerly Economy & Business) move to the back benches to join Nicola Sturgeon and John Swinney.

#1063—393 words

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Channelling John Wayne

This week, democracy in the USA again came under threat as former president Trump held a rally in Waco, Texas, where in 1993 a 51-day government siege of the headquarters of a religious cult gave birth to the modern anti-government militia movement. Since then, Waco has been a touchstone for violent attacks on the government. There, Trump stood on stage with his hand over his heart while loudspeakers played not the national anthem but a song recorded by January 6 insurrectionists. Footage from the attack on the U.S. Capitol played on a screen behind him.

In the wake of the school shooting in Nashville on Monday 27th, in which seven people died (including the shooter), Biden once again urged Congress to pass a ban on assault weapons. Republican Rep Andrew Ogles, in whose district this happened said he was “utterly heartbroken” by the shooting and offered “thoughts and prayers to the families of those lost.” 

This is the same Ogles who posed for his Christmas card with his wife, and children all holding guns, carrying the message: “The very atmosphere of firearms anywhere and everywhere restrains evil interference—they deserve a place of honor with all that’s good.”

It would appear Republican lawmakers will never agree because gun ownership has become a key element of social identity for their supporters, who resent the idea that the legal system could regulate their ownership of firearms.

This pandering to right-wing reactionism in home-of-cowboy-culture Texas seems to underscore that MAGA (Make America Great Again) Republicans not only have the GOP (“Grand Old Party”) by the short-and-curlies, but seem to be guiding its moves from a political playbook that might have been compiled from the scripts of old Westerns.

For MAGA maniacs, the evils of the world can be confronted and conquered by a good man with a gun, just like Gary Cooper in High Noon. There is no more respect or understanding for other cultures than in the blinkered, driven focus of The Searchers. Heroes are taciturn loners whose arguments are settled by gunplay, as in Sergio Leone’s “spaghetti” trilogy, or a band of buddies who triumph by shooting the bad guys to shreds, as portrayed in Rio Bravo.

Reading Rep. Ogles’ Christmas “greeting”, you speculate if his favourite film might be Winchester 73, where people are secondary and the film is the story of the gun itself. Not all Republicans are signed-up members of The Wild Bunch, although the way the party is going the metaphor of nine gun-blazing desperadoes who get whittled down to four before a Götterdämmerung confrontation with the entire Mexican Army could well prove apt.

Westerns do have wide appeal. The idea of a wide-open frontier where men of guts could carve a future, where black hats and white hats defined simplistic morals is understandably embedded in American culture. But, revered as the myths may be, the Gunfight at the OK Corral never took place; it was invented by Howard Hawks after a conversation in Los Angeles with an aging Wyatt Earp.

What is more important, the Western is no template for 21st century politics. Those trying to do so are not just paunchy oilmen sporting string ties and Stetsons.  Rich Republicans much further from the original culture can be found on Beacon Hill; in California hot tubs; in Manhattan gyms; on Philly’s trading floor; playing Pebble Beach or Augusta. What they share in common is hostility to regulation in general and government in particular. America’s fiscal free-for-all rewarded them with riches, so why can’t everyone else. Those who make it have much to protect and real protection comes in the shape of a gun. Never mind that the frontier died a century ago—and its simplistic morals with it.

Republicans—especially the MAGA sort—seem not to believe that. This is makes them political dinosaurs, appealing mostly to the wealthy and the uneducated. The former are kept on-board by self-interest and the latter by disinformation.

But their relevance is fading as they offer nostalgia but no new policies. They are flickering, like the clattering sepia nickelodeon footage that introduces Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

#1062—685 words

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Words to the Wise to the Winner

Three candidates stepped forward, laid out their stalls, clashed in debate and this was supposed to be the quiet run on as SNP members voted for their choice. Then two of the candi dates for SNP leader questioned the election process, especially the actual number of SNP members comprising the electorate.

This led to the party press officer announcing numbers thar turned out to be inflated by 30,000. When corrected, he resigned, prompting Peter Murrel, party chief executive of 20 years, to do likewise, Stepping in as acting CEO, party president, Mike Russel, called the whole thing a “burrach”.

No matter who wins the leadership, their job just got harder. Not only must they re-inspire a party that has lost much of its trademark dynamism, but they must counter a widespread belief—nor just among unionists—that Project Indy has stalled.

Following the longstanding principle of this column to light a candle, rather than curse anyone’s darkness, what follows is a series of pointers to earlier posts that might stimulate thinking on ways out of the political doldrums in which the SNP is becalmed.

For thoughts on how the Scindy (Scottish independence) might have lost its way, consider “Where Now for Scottish independence?” (Feb. 19 2022). As it points out, rather than focussing almost entirely on the route to another referendum and stoking grudges at its refusal, cogent positive arguments what might be achieved were it successful are rarely made. Yet it is only by such arguments that enough unionists can be persuaded to see the light for “Yes” to win. Waiting for independence to demonstrate its advantages is foolishness. Better to exploit the latitude already achieved to demonstrate competence achieve benefits and hint at more to come.

Seeing all England as hostile is to ignore opportunities.” Hug a Sassenach” (Nov.12 2021) makes a case that the whole post-industrial “Red Wall” half of England has much common cause with Scindy as the hollowness of “levelling-up” becomes ever more evident. Though making friends across the Border may twist reluctant arms at Westminster, it will cut little ice among punters at home. For that, implementing some radical ideas possible under devolution is required. One option is a pro-active approach to community-building through the planning system, as outlined in “Cunning Plan or Planning Con?” (Nov.21 2021). For this to work, the devolution powers hoarded at Holyrood need to be further devolved to their partners in councils, perhaps, as outlined in “Councils As Partners” (Dec.7 2021).

For any of this to have a point of achieving more than the status quo and the mediocre “Buggin’s Turn” than plagued Old Scottish Labour and made it ripe for reaming by a dynamic SNP 16 years ago musy be avoided. Such history may repeat itself in reverse if the SNP remains unimaginatively complacent. “Rebuilding Ambition” (Feb.7 2022) suggests ways this might be done.

Once such ambition was established, it should not wait for Scindy to be exercised. Even with the limited powers available now, much more could be done to improve Scotland’s lot. Before Scotland was yoked to England’s ambitions, it was an outward-looking nation—see “Our Past Is Our Future” (Mar.11 2022). Suggestions where fruitful progress might be nade externally in short order are outlined in “Europe As Partner” (Jan.9 2022).

But the real argument for Scindy must be economic. Many support it for emotional reasons, but a majority will only be won by convincing hard-headed unionists it would make them better-off. Ireland, being some 30% richer per head than their former masters show no sign of rejoining the union. So how does Westmnster’s claim we’d be better holding on to nurse stack up? ”A Case for the union?” (Jun.20 2022) seeks to answer that question. Subaequent inflation and the worst economic prospects in the OECD has hardly strengthened the case over the intervening nine months.

Whoever becomes SNP leader, and thus First Minister, may ignore all of the above. But, unless they produce something equally radical, they’ll get their jotters and be out of Bute House like snaw aff a dyke.

#1061—686 words

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R.A.S. Puttin

The first anniversary of Putin’s “Special Military Operation” to envelop Ukraine back in the arms of Mother Russia has been the focus of much media attention. However, most of it has focussed on plucky and resolute Ukraine and the unexpected fact that it gave the Russian military juggernaut a bloody nose and cause to think again. Less coverage has explored why many Russians believe the grotesque narrative being put out by the Kremlin. Putin is not about to think again—and has public backing for this.

Admittedly, Western observers are not used to dealing with the scale of the Potemkin villages tyrants like Putin are forced to inhabit. Minor versions built by Johnson and Trump. Not to mention petty despots like Assad or Mugabe, have not prepared the West for a despot with superpower trappings. That puts Putin in a class all by himself.

The degree of self-belief and confidence displayed in his 2-hour-long State of the Union address a few days before the anniversary puzzles many commentators. He was full of piss and vinegar, despite his army having been fought to a standstill. His story was unchanged: Kiev is run by fascist paedophile puppets of America whose ambition is to destroy Russia. And, just like the Swedes, French and Germans before them, would also fail.

How could this nonsense become the catechism of one of the world’s great and historic peoples? How did the land of Pushkin and Tolstoy, of Tchaikovsky and Barishnikov fall so low?

To some extent, it is the effect of history on the culture. Seventy years of Communist authoritarianism and paranoia, on top of the invasions mentioned above, don’t make for the easy-going nature of the Dutch.

Putin’s own history as a cold warrior on the East German front line in the KGB is no breeding ground for a sunny disposition. Fighting his way to the top taught him to apply the ruthless brutality of his training. His low cunning was displayed when he perverted the principles of capitalism. Once installed as President, he used this power to breed oligarchs owing him allegiance as the price of their wealth. Deft control of media—learned under the Soviets—kept the prole majority passive and ignorant.

Despite railing against imagined fascism, Putin copied pages straight out of Hitler’s playbook:

  • Unify the people behind you by stoking paranoia about  internal threats (Chechen terrorists served as Putin’s “Jews”)
  • Extend paranoia to external actors to build resentment (disloyal Ukraine, backed by aggressive NATO serve as Czech/Polish excuses did for Hitler)
  • Offer uncompromising strong-arm leadership to deal with such “threats”

But how can anyone live 24/7 in an alternate reality that baffles objective observers? Simples!Putin is the reincarnation—or is at least channelling—the spirit of another influential Russian who came centre-stage at a pivotal time in Russian history: Grigori Yefimovich Rasputin. Putin began in St Petersburg, but spent time in the career gulag of Dresden—as 

Rasputin wormed his way into the trust of influential socialites in Kazan, so Putin’s rise to influence in post-Soviet Moscow defies logical explanation. But a potent brew of iron self-belief, voodoo mysticism and opportunistic timing serves to explain both.

After his introduction to the Romanov royal family in 1905, Rasputin soon became the darling of the Czarina Alexandra through his apparent ability to “heal” her son Alexei, the Czarovitch (heir to the throne). He suffered serious bouts of haemophilia. Haughty as the Romanovs could be, Alexandra was especially so, being born a German princess and granddaughter of Queen Victoria. As such, she dominated Czar Nicholas, and thereby national policy. Taking Rasputin’s advice on matters well beyond the medical or spiritual reinforced prejudices against social reform. This contributed to unrest among the people, leading to the unsuccessful 1905 and successful 1917 revolutions.

Putin’s rise from the seedy obscurity of the KGB’s Dresden office was due to an ability he shared with Rasputinn of knowing which people, were influential and therefore worth cultivating. His equivalent to Kazan was returning to St Petersburg and making himself useful to his former professor Anatoly Sobchak, whom he helped engineer into the position of Mayor.

Upon Sobchak’s political demise, Putin used contacts made to transfer his Machiavellian skills to Moscow and the staff of recently appointed President Boris Yeltsin—Putin’s ‘Czarina’. Once Yeltsin had appointed him Head of the FSB (successor to the KGB), there was no stopping him.

The 15 years following the Soviet demise were a time of decline in Russia. Democracy was a novel concept; capitalism was equally novel and soon perverted by opportunistic oligarchs. Putin soon eclipsed his mentor in the Presidency and, by dealing ruthlessly with incidents like the 2002 theatre hostage and the Cjecjen rebellion, rapidly became popular as a strongman, such that he genuinely won elections. But, to remain popular, a strongman must have threats to be strong against.

“Communism is a blind alley, far away from the mainstream of civilisation”

—V.V. Putin, 1999

His equivalent of Rasputin’s sorcery and mystique, Putin has conjured up Russia’s inalienable right and destiny to dominate the territory of the Russian Empire/ Soviet Union (take your pick; he’s never geographically specific), combined with an exhumed tenet of the Soviets: that the West/NATO is out to destroy Russia, just as Napoleon et al did. It is a more bellicose variant on Trump’s “Make America Great Again.”

Such mythical constructs might have come from in uneducated serf like Rasputin, but Putin has a law degree, speaks German, and has written three theses on mining economics. This may seem strange. But dig deeper; fifteen pages of one thesis was plagiarised directly from an American doctoral thesis. Morals play no role in his world of myths.

What he relies on has served him well so far, as it did Rasputin; inspirational mythical mumbo-jumbo that is hard to disprove, delivered with a penetrating dead-pan expression and utter conviction, free of moral scruples. After a 2008 interview with Angela Merkel, to which Putin brought his dog, knowing she had a phobia of them, Merkel commented:

“I understand why he has to do this—to prove he’s a man. He’s afraid of his own weakness. Russia has nothing, no successful politics or economy. All they have is this.”

Angela Merkel,

Mythical constructs do not last forever. Rasputin was found face-down in a canal with three bullets in him. With his experience and control of state security, such fate is unlikely for Putin.

In the meantime, it seems only right that his faintly redundant forename and patronymic of Vladimir Vladimirovich should be replaced with a more appropriate appellation, in homage to his spiritual forebear: Russia’s Autocratic Sociopath Putin

One day, such truth will out.

#1060—1.135 words

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