На Запад! (Westward Ho!)

Squeezed between Boris Johnson gaffes and cost-of-living crises, finally UK media led with dignitaries meeting in Geneva to talk turkey over growing tension between Russia and Ukraine. This shows this matter might now receive the level of attention it merits. Until now, it appeared Britain has not moved from Chamberlain’s 1938 view of Czechoslovakia as “a faraway country, of which we know little”. Such insouciance resulted in WW2, the Cold War and the brink of nuclear annihilation.

We are far from a repetition, let alone WW3. However, as most Westerners think such paranoia dissolved thirty years ago—along with the Berlin Wall and Soviet tank armies on the Elbe—we are already suffering flashbacks. Within a decade, Vladimir Putin, ex-KGB apparatchik had taken charge, was kicking ass and taking names. The Russian bear was back, showing none of Pooh or Paddington’s cuddliness.

This Bear Has Form

Exactly 80 years ago, three million seasoned soldiers in a dozen armies of the Wehrmacht that had stormed across the frontier six months earlier, were taught a sharp lesson by the sharp claws of that bear. In deep snows before Moscow, two years of rapier blitzkrieg shattered against brilliant counter-strokes from winter-wise Siberian troops under a wily General Zhukov. It would take three more years of horrors and hardships on the “Eastern Front” to dig the Wehrmacht’s, and thereby Hitler’s, grave.

Nor was this unique. Ever since Peter the Great dragged Russia out of the Middle Ages, nobody has tangled with Russia and come off best. Far more astute warlords than Hitler—Charles XII and Napoleon among them—were sent homeward to think again. The Russian character that achieves such deeds is not one easily understood by the West. It is one of gritty resolution, of deep-seated passion, if unyielding stoicism bred from dealing with endless landscapes, brutal climate and fighting off tough invaders, starting with Vikings and Mongols.

An unabashedly macho Putin plays to this with a gusto that may seem comic to us. His crude, authoritarian rule is more popular than we can explain.  But that does not imply Russians are stupid or cowed. It means they like their leaders strong and regard the Merkels and Bidens of the world as “soft”. They have responded well to Putin’s slavic version of “Make America great again.”

Technically, the Soviet Union is history. But Putin is on a mission to piece it back together again. The latest jigsaw piece fell back into place earlier this month, when riots over fuel prices consumed oil-rich Kazakhstan so that President Tokayev called on Russian “peacekeepers” to restore order. This has been common in former Soviet republics, both in Central Asia and the Caucasus. Russian units of their Southern Military District are based in such non-Russian places as South Ossetia (693rd  Motorised Brigade) or Dagestan (136th Motorised Brigade).

A Faraway Country

The largest piece still missing from Putin’s jigsaw empire is home to the 41 million people of Ukraine. After independence in 1991, when Ukraine started looking to the West, even toying with the idea of joining that kryptonite of Soviet ambition—NATO. That set alarm bells ringing in the Kremlin, much as they rang in the White House in 1960 when Castro planted communism 90 miles from Florida. Both alarms had less to do with doctrine and more to do with suddenly finding cosy spheres of influence pricked by hostiles in your back yard. Soon after becoming President in, Putin set himself to correct such outrages.

The independence of Ukraine is largely recent and somewhat artificial. Originating as the Viking settlement of Kiev Rus, it was soon referred to as “Little Russia” and bound to Muscovy by culture and language. Its wide open spaces made it subject to Polish, Swedish, Lithuanian and Turkish rule at various points but its longest stint was as provinces of Imperial Russia. It was Stalin’s attempt to secure multiple votes at the UN that it was resurrected as the second-largest republic in the USSR.

By 2014, with Ukraine asserting more and more autonomy counter to Russia’s interest, Putin had both the power and the motivation to act. He engineered, first the “independence”, then the prompt absorption of Crimea into Russia after a “plebiscite”. At the same time, a revolt broke out “spontaneously” among ethnic Russians in the rich industrial region of the Donbas.

However brutal all this may seem, there are sound reasons for Russia to take control of Crimea. Their Black Sea Fleet is based at Sebastopol, globally more important now Russia has a warm-water base at Tartus in Syria. Together with Taman, Crimea’s Kerch peninsula, means Russia controls access to the Sea of Azov. The mineral wealth of the Donets region and its factories are now denied to Ukraine.

Путин: Mоя Борьба

The present Mexican stand-off should therefore be seen as the opening gambit of the next phase of Ukraine’s re-absorption back into Russia. Just as Mein Kampf laid out Hitler’s ambition to secure lebensraum in the East, Putin has been quite open about his ambitions for Ukraine and his reasoning behind it. The Financial Times has quite helpfully translated a 5,000-word article from him: On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians.

“Ukraine’s ruling circles decided to justify their country’s independence through the denial of its past. They began to mythologize and rewrite history, edit out everything that united us.”

—Vladimir Putin

Despite several rounds of talks in Geneva between US Secretary of State Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Levrov, there has been no progress towards de-escalation. The Russians are being their usual unreasonable selves, wanting NATO to withdraw from Eastern Europe and permanently refuse membership to Ukraine.

That said, nobody in the West seems to have a grip on either the situation or where the Russians are coming from. British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss recently warned Russia that “an invasion of Ukraine would be another Afghan quagmire“. Really? A Foreign Secretary worth their salt should appreciate the military difference between the Hindu Kush and the wide open plains of Ukraine.

For all the stern warnings form the West of serious sanctions, the West are collectively whistling in the wind. Ukraine would be problematic (to say the least) to defend. NATO has wisely said there would be no military intervention if Russia acted. A glance at a map of Ukraine tells you why: it is indefensible. It shares an ill-defined 1,500-mile border with Russia and the same length of coast, vulnerable to the Black Sea Fleet. Ukraine itself is a quarter-million square miles of prairie—ideal country for  mechanised operations—a playground for Russia’s 15,000 tanks (that’s 100 times more tanks than the British Army can deploy).

Were Ukrainian forces superior, or even comparable, to those of the Russians, that might be deterrent enough. But they can deploy 13 mechanised, two armoured and two mountain warfare brigades, plus supporting units as a field army. This represents perhaps 185,000 combat troops.

The Russians, on the other hand have 60 active tank, mechanised and special forces brigades, with a similar number of artillery, missile, air defence, ELINT, etc. brigades in support, totaling almost 1 million troops. Though not all units will be full strength and some must guard other borders, a superiority of five to one over the Ukrainians must be anticipated, quite apart from superior weaponry and air superiority. Any conflict would be one-sided and likely to be concluded in days.

B•gger-Thy-Neighbour

We must move fast; Russia is not prepared to let talks drag on indefinitely.

—Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Levtov, January 21st 2022

What news we get speaks of 100,000 Russian troops massing “on the Ukrainian border”. The Russians protest that this posture is defensive; that there are no plans to invade; that it is NATO that is the aggressor. Whether this be true or no, it is academic. The West dare do nothing more than observe events. And if  events include a Russian takeover of Ukraine, that will be a fait accompli. Ukraine once backed away from an approach to the West, following President Yanukovy’s attempt to be non-aligned, but now it seems too late for any such nuanced positioning to succeed.

Putin has little fear of sanctions. He and his oligarch friends live quite happily with those already in place because sanctions don’t interfere with money launderimg through the Caymans and Panama. And if Western Europe gets to shirty, supplying a third of their gas at already-outrageous prices allows a serious squeeze to be put on their economies—including Britain.

The die may not yet be cast; what Putin is doing may be pure sabre-rattling to eke a few concessions out of the West. It wouldn’t be the first time; the Russians have been hard negotiators since Bolshevik times.

But taking the above and Putin’s article together, the runes say wheels are turning for a takeover of the Ukraine by force is likely before the end of winter and a thaw that would prevent a sneak flanking attack from the Pripyat by Russian troops already  “on exercise” with their Byelorussian lackeys.

Вітаю Tовариші!

#1001—1,459 words

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Meet the New Boss; Same as the Old Boss

When President Franklin Roosevelt died in the closing months of WW2, his Vice-President of only 82 days Harry Truman assumed the office and went on to win another term in 1948. A Democrat from Missouri, Truman’s Southern origins made him ostensibly racist. But, by late 1946 he had come to embrace civil rights. This was no small achievement. The American South—broadly those states that had formed the Confederacy in 1861—were the same states that resisted implementation of the 15th Amendment to the Constitution of 1870 that abolished slavery and the discrimination of anyone on the basis of race. Segregation remained standard and states were run by whites who voted solidly Democrat because they would not support Republicans, as thy were the party of Lincoln, who had defeated the Confederacy and freed the slaves. After Roosevelt’s progressive approach to racial issues, southern Democrats were pleased one of their own was now in charge.

In 1952, Truman made a speech in the predominately black borough of Harlem, New York, explaining what had changed his mind.

“Right after World War II, religious and racial intolerance began to show up just as it did in 1919, there were a good many incidents of violence and friction, but two of them in particular made a very deep impression on me. One was when a Negro veteran, still wearing this country’s uniform, was arrested, and beaten and blinded.”

“I hold it the duty of the State and local government to prevent such tragedies. The federal government must show the way. We need not only protection of the people against the Government, but protection of the people by the Government.”

As an example, he cited the case of Sergeant Isaac Woodard, who was heading home on a bus in 1946, when he told a bus driver he felt disrespecting him that “I’m a man, just like you.” The driver called the police, two of whom took Woodard off the bus and out of view up a back alley and beat him, before putting him in jail. There, the police chief himself continued the beating with a night stick (US truncheon), which permanently blinded Woodard. Thereupon, a local judge found Woodard guilty of disorderly conduct and fined him $50. The state declined to prosecute the police chief. When the federal government tried the police chief (who openly admitted he had blinded the sergeant), people attending the trial applauded when the jury acquitted him.

Truman also related how, in that same year, all-white primary elections were declared unconstitutional, and black people in Georgia prepared to vote in the primary there. Days before the election, a mob of white men halted a car in which two black couples were traveling on a back road, dragged them out, tied them to trees and shot all four.

Their murders were never solved because nobody was willing to talk to FBI agents that Truman sent to investigate . They reported: “the whites were extremely clannish, not well educated and highly sensitive to outside criticism, while the blacks were terrified that would be lynched if they talked.” They did, however, suspect a virulently racist candidate running in the primary had encouraged the murders, sure it would encourage voters to choose him. He even accused one of his opponents of being soft on racial issues and that, of white men took action against blacks, he would personally commit to getting them pardoned. He won.

When an old friend wrote to Truman to beg him to stop pushing a federal law to protect equal rights, Truman wrote back: “I know you haven’t thought this thing through and that you do not know the facts. I am happy, however, that you wrote me because it gives me a chance to tell you what the facts are.”

“When the mob gangs can take four people out and shoot them in the back, and everybody in the country is acquainted with who did the shooting and nothing is done about it, that country is in pretty bad fix from a law enforcement standpoint.”

Truman’s Damascene conversion to the cause of racial equality came early in the Civil Rights Movement. It had its roots in the Civil War, but its modern foundation came in the aftermath of WW2. Truman was part of that foundation. He recognised that a one-party, such as the white-only southern Democrats of his roots cannot reflect true democracy. It must not enable and legitimise abuse and force an entire segment of the population to live in fear. As he put it:

The Constitutional guarantees of individual liberties and of equal protection under the laws clearly place on the Federal Government the duty to act when state or local authorities abridge or fail to protect these Constitutional rights.”

By the 1960’s, things were changing: Rosa Parks had refused to give up her seat to a white man; Martin Luther King had led the march on Selma; black, as well as white soldiers were coming home from Vietnam in body bags. It was a time of change that neither furtive remnants of the Ku Klux Klan, nor Governor Wallace of Alabama could halt. The 15th Amendment was being  adhered to in both law and spirit. It seemed the struggle was over when Colin Powell became Secretary of State and Barack Obama President.

Unfortunately, the clouds of discrimination are gathering again. The first gloom happened in 2013, when a Supreme Court with a majority of Republican appointees gutted the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which had given federal oversight to ensure individual states could not pass election legislation that was discriminatory. This was a harbinger of what was to come. In 2016, Trump bought and bullied his way into the Republican nomination and used the resulting presidency to drive a coach and horses through convention, sided by a pliant and reactionary Republican majority in the Senate, led by Sen. Mitch McConnel.

Trump’s defeat in 2020 threw Republican-controlled states into a tizz, not least because Trump (and most of their colleagues) claimed the election had been stolen. The reaction in those states was a flurry of legislation—now permitted by the 2013 Supreme Court ruling that flouted the principle of the 1965 Act and made it hard for mostly Democratic voters to register and vote. This disproportionately affects non-whites. The devices include closing polling stations in poor districts, making voting registration difficult, restricting postal ballots and similar hurdles to overcome.

The irony, bordering on tragedy, is: the state governments undermining democracy are not Democratic heirs to their reactionary forebears of a century ago, but Republicans—from the same party that Abraham Lincoln led to victory after four years of bloody civil war to free black people from the dispossession of slavery in the first place.

As The Who sang in Won’t Get Fooled Again around the time Civil Rights were in full cry: “Meet the new boss: same as the old boss.”

#1000—1,153 words

Appendix

Those interested in background on the above are welcome to trawl a myriad of books on the subject of slavery and civil rights. But films, while neither scholarly nor analytical, do offer easier access and flavour for those unfamiliar with US southern states and their distinctive culture. Some suggestions, which also excellent films:

  • On slavery itself: Twelve Years a Slave (2013, Dir: Steve McQueen)
  • On FBI attempts to end racism: Mississippi Burning (1988, Dir: Alan Parker)
  • On small-town policing: In the Heat of the Night (1967, Dir: Norman Jewson)
  • On rural southern culture: Fried Green Tomatoes (1991, Dir: John Avnet)

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Economy of Veracity (The Art of)

This week may seem the worst of Boris Johnson’s premiership, but as long ago as last April the leaders of six opposition parties penned a joint letter, accusing him of breaching the high standard of honesty demanded by both the Nolan Principle and the Ministerial Code. His defence at this week’s PMQs that he had been advised there were no parties, that what he attended was work-related and that no conclusion could be drawn until an official report was concluded was, as we say in Scotland, gallus. But weaving flimsy denials into a defensive web is not new; when it comes to disinformation, the PM has form. For a list, see:

Lies, Damned Lies; the full list of accusations against Boris Johnson”1

The Guardian, Dec 10th 2021

People may believe BoJo, Putin and Trump share the dubious honour of having reached the top by simultaneously inventing the Machiavellian art of disinformation. This is not so. The history of the targeted lie has a long and odious pedigree, often referred as being an essential tool in political leadership. The false testimony of Richard Rich that sent Sir Thomas Moore to an unwarranted death is but one Medieval example.

Though developed into a refined instrument of policy during the Cold War, its development in earnest as a tool of the state dates from the WW1 when a self-evident superiority of imperial Europe lost its dominance and ‘civilising’ mission in the aftermath. For a few months after the October revolution, Russia teetered on the edge of  democracy, but Lenin seized the initiative and steered the Bolsheviks to power.

This was anathema to the exhausted and class-ridden European democracies and to the brashly ascendant capitalist USA alike. For the first time since the revolutions of 1776 and 1789, two massively incompatible dogmas faced one another, each claiming to represent mankind’s best future.

Early Enthusiasts

In 1924, Ramsay McDonald led a credible effort to form the UK’s first Labour government. They were far from being Communist. But this did not stop right-wing groups in Britain behaving as if the Cossacks were coming.

The election of a Labour government is the worst disaster, short of war.”                                    

—Winston Churchill, 1924

In an effort to discredit Labour as a credible government, 4 days before the election, the Daily Mail published a letter, ostensibly from a leading Bolshevik Grigory Zinoviev praising Labour as a possible government, with the Soviets offering a way British workers to join their revolution. It was an early example of calculated disinformation by people in high places; it was a complete fabrication by British intelligence.

To many, unnerved by widespread civil unrest across Europe, this proved Labour was in league with the devil. Such events made the letter credible and collusion between the establishment and the press to lie, justified. Despite this, Labour polled one million more votes and took power. They proved to be nothing like as radical as the Soviets.

The Tsarist secret police had been using such techniques for years. Their boundless suspicions drive them to become masters of deceit. They created the original lie to counter growing resistance to the Tsar’s rule, a forged text called “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” to justify pogroms.  Lenin, ruthless in his use of any method to advance the cause absorbed their techniques. Information was a weapon of the revolution so the Cheka were set up to manipulate it in defence of the state.

The Stalin show trials of the 1930’s verged on the surreal when, rather than seeking any objective goal of the truth, everything was true, except the facts. In order to destroy these perceived enemies of the state (including Zinoviev), confessions in great detail were extracted. By incriminating themselves, Stalin’s brutal trials were made to look heroic. This theatre framed the accused as someone about to stage a reign of terror. In fact the only one engaged in that was Stalin himself. The barrages of invective that concealed the flimsiness of some charges finds echoes today in mass trolling on social media.

When the Nazi’s came to power in 1933, they took up a similar theme as a warrant for genocide. Hitler was an early proponent of the “Big Lie”—an untruth so monstrous that it had to be true. Such exaggeration carried more impact than any small lie. When the Reichstag burned down and a hapless Dutch socialist was caught at the scene, the Nazis swiftly escalated the conspirators to include Communist leaders. The fact that their testimony made debunked the trumped-up charges did not save them, nor prevent Nazis popularity surging as the nation’s bulwark against Bolshevism.

Techniques of Disinformation

One key element of good misinformation is for the origin not to be apparent. The tool of planting a story in a relatively obscure publication and watching leading new agencies pick it up was developed early. This has its modern equivalent where an apparently genuine tweet waits to be re-tweeted.

Reversing the truth remains a potent trick and one that Trump in particular has developed to a disturbingly effective extent. Accusing hostile media of “fake news” and claiming he invented the phrase in self-defence deflects suspicion from his being the source of most fake news in the first place. It is a modern media variant on “the best means of defence is attack”.

“In an ever-changing, incomprehensible world, the masses have reached the point where they would think that everything was possible and nothing was true, both at the same time.”

—Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism, 1951

Lying in politics is nothing new, but organised lying by those at the pinnacle of power is less than a century old. Stalin and Hitler loosened our agreed, collective sense of the truth. The lie becomes the open secret that everyone knows is a lie bit will not admit to. If people important in your life accept the lie, then the emperor’s clothes can indeed look beautiful. Because it was so pervasive, whites in Southern states believed blacks were not capable of more than menial labour; citizens of the Third Reich accepted Jews had deserved their ostracism; Soviet citizens believed counter-revolutionaries had condemned themselves to the gulags; Serbian soldiers were protecting Christianity when they condemned the muslims of Srebrenica to death.

The demise of both Hitler and Stalin may have brought their brutal flavour of disinformation to an end, but the CIA was soon espousing a less blatant, less effective version. Their attempt to swing Italian elections against the Communists failed. Even more spectacular was an attempt to tarnish Indonesia’s President Sukarno with pornography. When a “blue” film made with a lookalike was released to the media, it only enhanced him as a “man of the world”.

Virtual Virtue

Tangled in the fallen vines
Pickin’ up the punch-lines
I’ve just been fakin’ it
Not really makin’ it.”

—Paul Simon, 1967

Since the end of the Cold War, far from fading away in a world of enligtenment, the practice of disinformation has grown: more subtle; more widespread; more acceptable. Effectiveness has actually increased by such techniques as “wrapping” the actual false information in a “package” of demonstrably true information. A Soviet echo of Zinoviev was found in a falsified letter from a Rockefeller heir seeking to ensure American dominance in the Gulf to guarantee oil supplies during the 1970s oil shocks. US sensitivity over its oil supply from the Gulf made it very plausible.

Another technique is the use of neutral “front” organisations: the World Federation of Trade Unions; the International Union of Students; the World Peace Council. Who could disbelieve releases from such prestigious-sounding organisations?

The West’s approach to disinformation has been hampered by a degree of public scrutiny. The Soviets had decades of experience on which to draw. In theory, this changed with the collapse of the Soviet Union and this tool of the Cold War became passé, if not obsolete after glasnost. The Letvinyenko poisoning soon changed minds. Each attempt to link this, or the subsequent novichuk poisoning in Salisbury, with Russia was met with flat denial and a flurry of semi-plausible stories to muddy the water so that media soon lost interest.

Alleged Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, plus the release of Hilary Clinton’s e-mails confused campaign issues, leading to a plethora of big-lie disinformation from the Trump campaign, which caught the entire American political corps off-guard. The latest ploy of sabre-rattling on the Ukrainian frontier is straight out of Hitler’s playbook. He shamelessly accused the Poles of aggression against Germany while he mobilsed forces to wipe the country off the map.

Today’s Chunterers-in-Chief

A man who tells lies merely hides the truth. But a man who tells half-lies has forgotten where he put it.”

—Mr. Dryden, Lawrence of Arabia

It is only in the last few years that disinformation has grown from being the lingua franca among practitioners of Orwell’s Ministry of Truth and sundry cloak-and-dagger operatives to become mainstream. Forty years ago, Lord Carrington resigned as UK Foreign Secretary simply because the Falklands were invaded on his watch. Such an act belongs to another era. Aided by the Wild West ubiquity of social media, Putin’s Cheka-style smokescreen has been joined by two weighty proponents equally adept at creating and sustaining realities from words alone.

Boris Johnson has used bluster and affable bloke-ishness to embellish bombast into a career. It is only his laziness and increasing public profile that has let his  inconsistencies blow him off course and tarnish the image. The relatively trivial matter of “Partygate” may be the end of him.

But the master practitioner of disinformation must be The Donald. Even more self-absorbed in a world of his own creation, Trump was already practising voodoo truth in building a Ponzi scheme of property deals in New York. Spinning ever more phantasmagorical prestige fantasies, he nonetheless walked away blameless from the Taj Mahal casino white elephant, leaving contractors, employees and investors to carry the financial can.

All this turned out to be perfect training for a presidential bid. Trump had the funds and public profile to bypass the usual kingmakers. He did not flinch from preaching his big lie about representing ordinary Americans while living the high life in Mar Largo. Plus, his habit of blurting wild assertions on social media spread as entertaining gossip and completely beyond the control of party or minders.

Because blue-collar “Joe Sixpack” identified with a self-made man because he had aspirations himself and because of Pavlovian mistrust of government, embodied by insiders in Washington, he bought the Big Lie that Trump was his champion who could “make America great again”.

Even out of office, Trump dominates his party and is surfing a wave of disinformation gushing from Republicans with such breadth and conviction that they are likely to re-take the House and stymie Biden after November. The crystal is muddy as to what follows. Here in Britain, because he angered the faithful, BoJo is in no such commanding position, being at the mercy of outraged backbenchers and unlikely to survive the year as a result. His mistake? Too many lies—and not big enough.

#999—1,846 words

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The Road to Scindy IV—Europe As Partner

Two years after Brexit was “done”, several major loose ends remain untied, resulting in repercussions for which adequate adjustments have yet to be made. Among these are the Northern Ireland protocol, a final trade agreement, additional documentation restricting trade (especially exports) and the labour shortages caused by removal of many EU workers.

Despite having voted convincingly by 63% to 37% to remain, Brexit has hit Scotland particularly hard. Strong support for the EU in Scotland persisted throughout the Brexit process and continues to this day, and a large majority of the Scottish Parliament opposed Brexit to the very end.

But new barriers to Europe erected by Brexit do not mean that Scotland must follow the seemingly antagonistic approach adopted by our English neighbours. Scots once enjoyed close links with Europe. Throughout the Middle Ages, trade with the Hanseatic Ports and the Low Countries far outweighed that with England. When focus switched to further afield after Union, the Scots seized those new opportunities offered by empire. From the Hudson’s Bay Company to HSBC and Jardine Matheson to Lachlan MacQuarrie turning a penal gulag into a prosperous colony, the Scots were innovative and imaginative partners.

However, the growth of superpowers and economic “tigers” means the world does not offer the same scope for global exploitation as when Britain’s technology “edge” was sharpened by gunboats and Gatling guns. English attitudes toward Europe narrowed Scotland’s economic view there. Brexit may allow England to seek restoration of lost global trade. But tariff barriers and diplomatic fences to mend with close neighbours should not blind Scotland to opportunities right on our doorstep.

To exploit these, Scotland must cope with today’s greater structural limitations on any interaction with the EU. Until Brexit, the Scottish Government interacted directly with EU institutions. For this to continue, flying the European flag is neither a robust policy on EU affairs, nor a strategy to exploit opportunities unique to Scotland.

Scottish media coverage of European politics beyond Brexit and independence is rare. Readers can have little idea that a new German coalition government had taken office, or that French president Emmanuel Macron has set out a vision for France’s EU Council presidency – let alone what those developments might mean for Scotland.

The Scottish Government has a clear pro-EU stance; its aspiration is to become an EU member. Procedural hurdles mitigate against this being achieved during the 2020’s. But there are short-term opportunities to forge relationships with the EU while still within the UK. Trade and co-operation initiatives would build on Scotland’s favourable image within the EU. Growing Scottish direct trade with the EU is one that unionist parties could hardly find objectionable and may be persuaded to support.

Currently Scotland exports £87.1 bn total in trade. Of this, £57.0 bn goes to rUK. Of the balance, £16.4 bn is with EU countries and the £18.7 bn remaining with the rest of the world. Since Northern Ireland is part of the EU for trade purposes and the Irish government treats it as non-foreign, the £2.1 bn that Scotland exports there should be added to the EU total, giving a balance of £18.5 bn (21%) to EU, £54.9 bn (63%) to England and Wales and £16.5 bn (16%) to RoW..

A pro-active strategy to minimise the effects of Brexit should be to forge a substantive profile for Scotland within the EU. This would build connections and influence in Brussels to smooth later passage to membership. At the same time, by raising Scotland’s international profile and increasing its prosperity would demonstrate competence that might sway the many doubters clinging to the Union in fear for their economic well-being, rather than residual loyalty.

As things stand, the Scottish Government will have its work cut out to sustain, let alone enhance, its EU connections and influence in Brussels. As part of a third country, Scotland has become a peripheral actor in Europe. Clear priorities are needed for Scotland’s relationship with the EU to flourish. This requires substantial investment in EU affairs, plus “Europeanised” politics. This would best be achieved through cross-party consensus and a more informed media.

Scotland’s USP’s

Scotland, as Europe’s leading renewable energy hub, is its key to a green future. We are home to the largest tidal power project in Europe and account for a massive 25% of all of Europe’s wind and tidal resource. The Orkney Islands are not just home to the European Marine Energy Centre but offer, in Scapa Flow, a major trans-shipment hub (outlined in Scotland 2070) to rival Singapore, once the melting of Arctic sea ice permits 5,000-mile shorter sea passage to East Asia for Cape-sized ships.

In more intangible terms, the offer of a skilled and educated English-speaking workforce, with world-class offerings in marine engineering, biotech and quality food and drink offer opportunities to build links by growing business ties.

While it is geographically at the periphery, this offers certain advantages, such as the Orkney entrepot mentioned above and strategic bases to complement NATO allies. But the key aspect to be exploited this decade are the historic but rather neglected links with our neighbours outside the UK. Two examples are cited below.

The overall strategy should be to forge links with Northern European neighbours, with whom we already have much in common. They are likely to look favourably towards us as a similar small, prosperous country to help counterbalance the culturally different Mediterranean members.

Denmark As Partner

About the same population as Scotland, Denmark is an open, wealthy, educated economy. Scottish Development International already has an office in Copenhagen. It is one of the Nordic and Baltic eight, rankung as 3rd-easiest country in which to do business (source: World Bank). The IMF ranks it as the 9th highest GDP per capita in the world (£43,690), this having grown at 3.1% annually between 2004 and 2017. Exports make up 55% of GDP and trade with other countries is worth £121.7 bn.

However, while Denmark may be Scotland’s eighth-largest export market, but that £875 million total represents just 2.7% of all Scotland’s international exports. In fact, Scottish exports to Denmark have decreased by 30.8% since 2013, implying much ground to be made up. Major opportunities exist in construction, engineering, ICT and transport, which includes one of the largest rail innovation projects in Europe running until 2025.

Suggestion Scotland’s dominance in natural energy and marine engineering, combined with Denmark’s Vestas (the global leader in building wind turbines, with 61 GW installed last year—a 22% p.a. growth), suggests co-operation to exploit the market for mutual benefit. Scotland still has much unexploited wind energy, not least offshore, while its lead in tidal would benefit the Danes in harnessing the tides passing through the Great Belt’s entrances to the Baltic.

Ireland As Partner

Again comparable in population, Ireland is Scotland’s closest International trading partner and 5th largest export market, with exports worth £1,470 million going to Ireland. As argued above, this should have NI export added to the total, to gives £2.6 bn total exports. It is now one of the most developed OECD economies, with a GDP per capita of £53,837, caused by an impressive annual growth rate of 13.1% 2005-17.

Ireland is an ideal first step market for Scottish companies. Top sectors in Ireland include food & drink, ICT & business services and renewable energy. There are export opportunities particularly in food & drink, construction, life sciences and energy.

Because Ireland has used low corporation tax to attract overseas investment that wants to locate in the EU to come there, there is little sense in Scotland competing with them in this regard.

Unlike the UK, which sold them off, the Irish government was shrewd enough to retain ownership of its main airports and invest in them to promote ease of access to and from the country. As a result Dublin airport is modern and expansive, putting all Scottish airports to shame. Compared to the handful available from Scottish airports, Dublin offers ten services to North America, as well as the facility to clear US customs before boarding. Being 400 miles closer than chaotic Heathrow, all flight times from Dublin are shorter by an hour.

Suggestion: By an arrangement with Ireland similar to the Scandinavia countries joint use of Copenhagen as their sole North America hub, Scotland could encourage North America-bound passengers to use Dublin superior facilities and connections for transatlantic flights, thereby offering a bargaining chip for trade negotiations.

If Scotland is to become a full member of the world’s nations, its government must behave as if this were already true to make it credib;le.

#998—1,398 words

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Paucity of Esteem

Unnoticed in December’s news flurry of pandemic panics and Boris blunders was an item of importance. On December 21st, all 32 council leaders signed a joint letter to the First Minister, highlighting their belief that local government had again been short-changed in Kate Forbes’ budget announced on December 9th. (letter is appended)

As they often differ in priorities, Holyrood and Scotland’s councils don’t always agree. But this one was both different and serious. Every leader of Scotland’s councils unanimous over anything is rare; normally loyal SNP-run councils lining up with the rest in criticism is unprecedented.

Such a rift between Holyrood and councils has been brewing for years. Scotland’s a groundswell for devolution in the 20th century led to the Scottish Parliament. Councils had been to the fore in this. They expected the autocracy and neglect suffered under Westminster’s Scottish Office would end. Unfortunately, little changed post-1999.

Eight years of restricting councils under Labour/Lib-Dem saw both Since 80% of council funding coming from Holyrood, they were compelled to comply. With 2007’s financial crash came an SNP government and much promise of a “Parity of Esteem” agreement to weather the fiscal storm of Osborne austerity.

“Under the concordat, we have invested record levels of funding, halted the downward trend in the proportion of the Scottish Government’s overall budget that goes to local government, removed unnecessary and restrictive ring fencing around funding streams, given councils greater freedom and flexibility to do their jobs, and stepped back from micromanaging local government..”

— Budget Statement by John Swinney, Cabinet Secretary for Finance, December 2008

More than a decade of financial squeeze later, councils believe little of this has come to pass. Indeed, most of them believe funding that should have come to them has been diverted to sustain populist social programmes like free tuition, prescriptions, personal care, bus travel, etc.  And, by freezing council tax, the ratio of  council funding coming from Grant-Aided Expenditure (GAE) has grown even larger—to 85%.

In effect, councils increasingly see themselves as local delivery conduits of government policy. The swathe of devolved powers that came to Holyrood has gone no further. Back in 2008, John Swinney proudly announced an increase in local government settlement to £11.7 bn. Roll forward to today and the equivalent statement is:

“Details of how £11.6 billion of funding from the Scottish Government will be distributed to individual local authorities in 2021-22 have been published. … In total, councils will receive additional revenue funding of almost £600 million to support vital local government services.”

— Budget Statement by Kate Forbes, Cabinet Secretary for Finance, December 2021

Contrast the figures cited as funding for councils some 13 years apart and you might appreciate why councils across Scotland feel short-changed. Even adding in the |extra” £600m (all of it ring-fenced), this amount to 0.5% increase each year over a period when inflation rose 36.4%—effectively a decrease of over 25% in real terms. The population increase of 2.6% alone justifies a larger budget.

But some real world council obligations dwarf that. For example, East Lothian Council Adult Social Care budget was £20m; in 2001; two decades later it had grown to £45m—a 125% increase.

Scottish Government attempts to deny this crippling decline in funding simply do not ring true, such as “

“It is misleading to claim there has been a £371 million real terms cut to the 2022-23 core local government budget. This figure is extremely selective as it ignores almost £1.4 billion of other funding for joint priorities within the overall local government finance settlement of over £12.5 billion.”

—Scottish Government spokesperson, Daily Record, Dec 24th 2021

The devil lies on the detail of “joint priorities:”, which is a euphemism for ring-fencing and compulsion for councils to spend the money where they are told on pain of fiscal penalties.

All this presages a showdown between local and national government. It also highlights a much deeper issue—effective emasculation of local democracy. Fiscal management and initiative skills within councils have been weakened by having little practice in either. Council leadership has been worn down to passivity. Meetings to which the public have access are Potemkin villages of democracy—all façade; no substance. As a result, the public don’t bother attending, which encourages councillors to be passive voting fodder.

Were council passivity counterbalanced by visionary initiative at government level, such centralisation might work. Sadly, this is not the case. Despite former council-leaders-now-MSPs serving as Local Government Ministers, all have acted as policy conduits. None have acted as champion for local government nor shown any encouragement of initiative within councils.

This is evidenced by studying GAE calculations in detail. These determine the bulk of council finance. They are Sir Humphrey McAppleby alive and well at Victoria Quay. (refer to official GAE for details; the relevant tables take up 90 pages of the document’s 106). Each table is a complex matrix of parameters applied to each council. They are shaped by objective factors like population, but also subjective ones like “remoteness” and “social deprivation”. They allocate funds in detail to everything from teachers to school transport.

GAE Summary Table for Council Services, 2020-21

In principle, if applied objectively and rigorously such a scheme has merits. However,  it is wide open to “pork barrel” manipulation by people well hidden from public view. Its effectiveness and objectivity comes into question. Who decides how much should be spent on school transport in the first place is mot in council control.

Because of the foregoing, Scotland stands on the cusp of open hostility between local and national government. The antidote is an acceptance that devolution cannot stop at Holyrood.

Despite warm words, micromanagement is laid bare in the GAE tables. A simpler method of GAE distribution which trusts councils to deploy funds as their residents require must be found. Then councillors be forced to be real partners, to engage with how their allocation is spent, accountable as common democracy.  Councillors unable to make the transition may—rightly—lose their jobs as the public becomes engaged.

Radical change required will take time. But a clear start to the process must be evident before the next council election, due in May. Were the present Scottish government were to ignore CoSLA’s letter, a major shift in Scottish politics as unprecedented hostility from councils grows. For the government to continue holding all the cards and claiming the resulting credit will condemn most of our 1,200+ councillors to vent their accumulated frustration through outright opposition.

A ground-breaking initiative is required…and soon. Hard though it may be to contemplate, a reversal of the 85%-to-15% imbalance of income sources is essential to restore fiscal flexibility nearer the people and thereby reviving skills within councils to manage their own affairs and operate as a true partner.

A sketch of how such an option might be initiated was made in an earlier blog.

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Appendix

Letter to the First Minister and Cabinet Secretary for Finance, December 21st 2021

We have already written to the First Minister and Cabinet Secretary for Finance and the Economy in relation to the settlement, but last night there was a real strength of feeling that we need to press for a meeting at the highest possible level of Government in a bid to make Government understand what this budget will really mean in our communities, and the detrimental impact it will have on core services.”

COSLA President Councillor Alison Evison said:  “Many in the meeting described this settlement for Local Government as the worst they had seen. Council Leaders were clear last night that we could not sit back and simply accept this and there was a real strength of feeling that enough is enough.

“Not only do Leaders consider that we have been given a real- terms cut of £371 million, the Local Government settlement  makes no provision for pay, inflation or increased demand for services nor for the increased burden of National Insurance Contributions;

“Leaders instructed COSLA to seek an urgent meeting with the First Minister and the COSLA leadership team including political group leaders and that is what we will be pushing for as a matter of urgency.”

(signed)

Councillor Jenny Laing (Aberdeen City Council); Councillor Andy Kille (Aberdeenshire Council); Councillor David Fairweather (Angus Council); Councillor Robin Currie (Argyll and Bute Council); Councillor Adam McVey (City of Edinburgh Council); Councillor Ellen Forson (Clackmannanshire Council); Councillor Roddie Mackay (Comhairle nan Eilean Siar); Councillor Elaine Murray (Dumfries and Galloway Council); Councillor John Alexander (Dundee City Council); Councillor Douglas Reid (East Ayrshire Council); Councillor Andrew Polson and Councillor Vaughan Moody (East Dunbartonshire Council); Councillor Norman Hampshire (East Lothian Council); Councillor Tony Buchanan (East Renfrewshire Council); Councillor Cecil Meiklejohn (Falkirk Council); Councillor David Ross (Fife Council); Councillor Susan Aitken (Glasgow City Council); Councillor Margaret Davidson (Highland Council ); Councillor Stephen McCabe (Inverclyde Council); Councillor Derek Milligan (Midlothian Council); Councillor Joe Cullinane (North Ayrshire Council); Councillor Jim Logue (North Lanarkshire Council); Councillor Graham Leadbitter (Moray Council); Councillor James Stockan (Orkney Islands Council); Councillor Murray Lyle (Perth and Kinross Council); Councillor Iain Nicolson (Renfrewshire Council); Councillor Mark Rooney (Scottish Borders Council); Councillor Peter Henderson (South Ayrshire Council); Councillor John Ross (South Lanarkshire Council); Councillor Steven Coutts (Shetland Islands Council); Councillor Scott Farmer (Stirling Council); Councillor Jonathan McColl (West Dunbartonshire Council); Councillor Lawrence Fitzpatrick (West Lothian Council).

https://www.scotsman.com/news/politics/scottish-councils-need-ps1-billion-extra-funding-to-survive-cosla-warns-3458116

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Amo vs Ammo

In America, the gun is big business. At $28bn, it i half th size of the UK Defence budget—which runs nuclear subs, aircraft carriers, an 80,000-man army and the RAF. Given there are more guns than people, the horrifying statistic, it might not be surprising that 39,773 people die from guns in the US each year. That’s 120 pe million. The equivalent figure for the UK (and most other developed counties) is 2.

Therefore, when Michael Moore (who made the chilling documentary Bowling for Columbine) goes off the deep end twenty years after the high school mass killing after which the film was made, you have to concede he has a point. Below is his most recent, typically passionate, argument why the gun-toting element of American culture has had its day and must stop. It is written for an American audience. But it should be of interest to anyone who believes in civilisation and the human spirit.

After each mass shooting, after each school and church and shopping mall slaughter, a choir of voices screams out, “Why have we not done something to end gun violence in this country?” We ask this question as if we don’t know the answer, when in fact deep down we know exactly what we need to do. We just don’t want to say it out loud. We don’t want to be attacked. We are afraid of the anger of the gun owners.

But we also know if we don’t stand up and say the four things I’m about to say, four things we know must be said and must become the law of the land, then we are doomed to suffer hundreds more of these mass murders. Who is willing to take the leap with me?

I understand most of you don’t believe this cancer on our American soul can be expunged. You feel like it’s too late. There are too many guns out there. How will we ever get millions of gun nuts to cooperate?

Well, maybe it’s not as hard as you think. The strange thing about humans is that they want to live. How did we get 55 million people to stop smoking? In bars! How did we get the nearly 300 million of us to wear a government-mandated seat belt every day of our lives? Although we’re nowhere near the herd immunity we need to stop the pandemic—and while we have untold millions calling the Coronavirus fake and the vaccine for it a plot to control us—how in the hell have we still succeeded in getting, to date, 201 million Americans fully vaccinated? So millions have agreed to get licenses ffor their bicycles, for cars, even to cut hair. But no one has to have a license to own and fire dozens of bullets out of a gun! Who are we?

I grew up believing the Berlin Wall would never come down, Nelson Mandela would never be released from prison, the Soviet Union would be with us forever and, most certainly, a Black man in this racist country would never be elected President of the United States. If all of this has happened — and if every other democracy has virtually eliminated private gun ownership—are we so pathetic that we can’t do the same and save our children’s lives? I think we can. Here’s how:

1. Admit Who We Really Are.

Guns don’t kill people. Americans kill people. We’re great killers. Whether we’re invading countries, selling trillions of dollars of weapons to dictatorships, using drones to bomb a wedding in Yemen—or the 40,000 times a year we kill our spouse, ex-girlfriend, estranged brother, the neighbor we’re fighting with, the boss who fired us, the student who bullied us, or we simply decide to end our own life with the handy gun that’s already in the house, making it the quickest and easiest way to end our misery. On an average of once a day, nearly 400 times a year, we in the U.S. experience a mass shooting (defined as 4 or more people shot). There have been 303 school shootings since Columbine. This simply does not happen on a daily or even a yearly basis in Ireland, Japan, Germany, Chile, Tunisia, Australia, Spain or nearly 200 other countries.

So why us? What is so special and unique about us that we seek to kill not just our foreign enemies but each other? No other world power has ever thought that the way to stay a world power is to start a mass slaughter of its own people. Those who’ve done that eventually were no longer world powers. You’re supposed to kill off people elsewhere — not your own offspring, not yourself.

We must acknowledge, study, and fix who we are. We must treat this as its own pandemic, as a mass-murder mental psychosis.Students protesting for their lives outside Congress in 2018. Getty Images/Tom Williams

2. Ban All Guns Whose Primary Purpose Is to Kill Humans

We’ve been trained to believe our Constitution is sacred, and what it says about guns is to be treated like the Word of God. If our Constitution said “The Earth Is Flat,” would we still believe it today? Of course not. God said it in the Bible that the sun revolves around the Earth, but we know better now and we no longer believe Him, so why do we treat the Constitution like a holy decree when it comes to guns? Start with this: the word “gun” appears nowhere in the Constitution. Why is that?

Because “the gun” was not invented until 1825 — 38 years after the Founders wrote the Constitution! So when they talked about “the right to bear arms,” they had never even seen a bullet yet because the bullet hadn’t been invented! They had no concept of holding something in their hand that could massacre hundreds of people at once. Do you honestly think when they created this Amendment that it was to protect personal weapons of mass slaughter? It is a Big Lie, a wackadoodle myth, to say our Constitution was written to protect your “right” to own an AR-15 with a magazine that holds 100 bullets.

We need to repeal the Second Amendment, by repealing it with a brand new amendment: The 28th Amendment. It will read like this:

“The People have an inalienable right to live their lives free of gun violence. All weapons intended primarily to kill human beings are prohibited. Those few guns allowed for legal hunting or public safety, or for sport on private ranges, must be strictly regulated by the government. States may form a National Guard or regulated Militia to protect the safety and well-being of the residents of a State. Citizens suspected of committing a felony crime are, as noted elsewhere, not only innocent until proven guilty by a jury of their peers, they have a right to live to see their day in court and not be executed by a law enforcement officer with a gun. This Amendment nullifies and voids Amendment II.”

—Proposed Amendment XXVIII

It is time to do what we all know we’ve needed to do for some time: remove nearly all guns, especially handguns and assault rifles, from private ownership.

This is what they have done in Great Britain, in Japan, in Australia, in Canada — the list goes on and on. In many of these countries, they enacted their gun bans immediately after a tragic mass shooting at a school. They didn’t want to wait to see more of their children killed, so they got rid of most of their guns. Just like that. After 45,000 gun deaths every year, we Americans are still waiting for the evidence to come in. You must realize the rest of the world just shakes their collective head at us. They think we’re nuts.

Many of these countries offered cash to all their gun owners who were required to turn in their weapons. We can do that.

These weapons were handed in for scrap following Australia’s ban on all automatic and semi-automatic rifles. William West/Getty Images/AFP

Hunters can still hunt. But, like in Canada, they may be required to store and lock their hunting rifles and shotguns at a local gun club. The sport of hunting is dying out in the U.S. Two generations of young adults now have little interest in spending dozens of cold, wet hours in a deer or duck blind. The percentage of American hunters has gone from more than 7% of the population in 1982 to 4% today.

Why not be a patriot, show how much you love your fellow Americans and give up your guns. Both sides in Northern Ireland did that—and if they could do it, why not us? What good have all these guns done for us? I first went pheasant hunting with a gun at 12 with other kids in the neighborhood. No adults with us. Crazy! I went on to win the NRA Marksman award as an Eagle Scout. What’s the point? If you have a gun in the house, the chances of it being used to shoot you in a moment of anger, or for someone in your home to use it in a moment of despair to kill themselves — it’s just not worth it. Oh, but you say you’re afraid — you need the gun for protection. What if you had something better to protect you? What if you became less afraid because we made the world safer?

Relax. Breathe. Step away… step away from the gun…

3. Tear Out Violence by Its Roots.

We can prevent violence by eliminating its root causes and creating a new peace and public safety center in our neighborhoods

What are you really afraid of? Why do you have that gun? Who is it that you think might hurt you? You’re white? You live in an area with little crime? A suburb. A rural area. That’s where most of the guns are in America. That’s where nearly all of the school shootings, mall shootings, and workplace shootings take place. Have you stopped to think about why that is?

Do you know that your kids know where you keep your gun, and they know how to get to it? Just like they know how to bypass your parental controls.

Most murders happen between people who know each other. You, the gun owner, are the problem. You alone — and those like you — can bring so much of this violence to an end.

Most police show up after the crime has taken place. They are so misused and they know it. What good are the police after you’re dead? Their job is to catch the bad guy. If you’re already dead, do you really care if they catch the bad guy? That’s not going to bring you back. Their other job is to secure the crime scene and do some crime scene cleanup. Usually, they just hand you a business card for a local company that can get the blood out of the carpet.

What if we had officers, social workers, mental health professionals —non-violent interveners, whose main job is to prevent crime and violence? Police showing up after the crime or murder has been committed. What good is that? What if they actually stopped the shooting in the first place—before anyone even thought of pulling out a gun?

Crime is caused in large part by the stresses of poverty, hunger, lack of health and mental health care, anger over the life one has, injustice, unfairness, shitty schools, bullies, intoxication, addiction, etc. Most of these social issues could be prevented if we lived in a more caring, more equitable society. What if we gave that a try?

We’ve tried everything else, including incarcerating millions. What if we restructured things and had a Department of Peace and Public Safety. It will take letting a lot of cops go, and hiring a whole bunch of smart, empathic, anti-racist women and men. And pay them really well, as they will now live in the towns they serve. Because, seriously, we really have to rethink this. Because I know a lot of you won’t want to give up your guns if the neighborhood isn’t safe. So let’s fix the root causes of what makes us feel so unsafe and afraid in the first place.

But we all know race is a big root cause. And the majority of the guns are out in Whitey-ville. You’re going to have to admit you’ve got that gun not because you’re afraid of freckle-faced Jimmy down the street. You’re scared of DeAngelo or Lamar or whatever Black or Hispanic name you’ve made up and placed in your head, where it grinds away, making you act stupid and scared. Stop it! They are not on their way to your doorstep. You have to knock this off. You need to examine and own the racism that fuels your fears and your need for “protection.”

Finally, the worst way to prevent a break-in is to have a gun under the pillow which can result in accidentally shooting someone you love. Get a dog. The last thing freckle-faced Jimmy wants to deal with is your dog putting her teeth into his leg.

4. Learn from Women and Canadians.

In addition to 78% of us not owning a gun, thus making us all safer than we think we are, there is another demographic element that makes us even more safe. 51% of the American population will likely never pull out a gun and shoot you!

They are called “women”.

For some reason I can’t explain, there must be something in women’s DNA (or in their souls) that does not make them want to grab a gun and start spraying bullets.

When CNN cuts in with “Breaking News” that there’s a gunman on top of a Las Vegas hotel firing a gazillion rounds into a concert crowd of 20,000 people, you don’t stop and question the anchor’s choice of gender in using the word “gunman.” The anchor has no idea yet who’s up there. He just knows it’s a man. And we all know there is absolutely no way he could be wrong in calling him “gunman.” There is no need to call in the fact checkers, even though it will be hours before they drag his dead carcass downstairs and verify his gender.

So let’s just say, with a few minor exceptions, no woman is going to jump out of the bushes and cap you, no woman is going to take you into a dark alley and plug you, and no woman is going to charge into your child’s classroom and execute a dozen fourth graders. Not happening. For now, just know you’re safe from half the population, and if you see three women at night walking toward you, there’s no reason to cross to the other side of the street.

And finally, as is often the case, the answer to our problems is right in front of us on the tip of our nose—that spot called Canada.

Even though Canadians share a similar culture to ours, and their teens watch the same violent movies and play the same violent video games, they rarely kill each oth er the way we do. Last year there were 277 gun fatalities in Canada, a nation of 38 million people. That’s a rate one twentieth of the USA.

Canadians have done two things to avoid being like us, and thereby reduce the potential for extreme violence:

  • They make it almost impossible to buy handguns and assault rifles. If you want to try and get a permit for a handgun, you must get the women in your life—your wife, ex-wife, girlfriend, ex-girlfriend, etc. — to agree that you are not a threat and do not have a history of violence against them. They have to sign a document stating it’s OK for you to have a gun. If any of them object, no license. Whoa! That is some evolved thinking. There is much we can learn from our neighbors when it comes to living in peace, without weapons that are only intended to kill human beings.
  • While Canada is not a perfect nation, Canadians do try to treat each other differently than we do. Their government doesn’t believe in controlling women’s bodies, either.They believe health care is a human right, and that you should not go bankrupt if you fall ill. They refused to join us in our invasion of Iraq. The list goes on.

I’ve written this piece on December 14, 2021, the ninth anniversary of the massacre of 20 little children and six staff at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut. The majority of these first graders had their heads blown off, or their faces blown off, or their internal organs spewed out of their bodies due the massive holes in their chests and torsos that the ammo blew wide open.

Just keep sending your thoughts and prayers and NOTHING will happen. Me? I, along with the Parkland kids and numerous new citizen groups that have arisen in the years after Columbine, we no longer have any interest in half-measures, inaction, compromise, or centrist Dems who can’t get shit done on this issue. We want the guns gone. GONE! And we want all of us to be kinder and more loving to each other.

#995 2,897 words

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Rock of Eejits

Rock of ages, cleft for me
Let me hide myself in Thee.”

The current intransigence infecting the Republican Party in clinging to the flotsam that remains of the Trump presidency has much deeper roots than Trump’s ego-driven tenure. Their demonising of Biden—and anyone who disagrees with them—as “socialist”, if not “communist” is hyperbole with a history. Its roots lie half a century ago, in the depths of the Cold War, the Vietnam War, and the Nixon presidency.

The Lewis F. Powell Jr. Memorandum

On August 23rd, 1971, prior to accepting Nixon’s nomination to the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS), as a corporate lawyer, Powell was commissioned by his neighbour, Eugene B. Sydnor Jr., a close friend and education director of the US Chamber of Commerce, to write a confidential memorandum for the chamber entitled “Attack on the American Free Enterprise System,”

American global hegemony, as the only power not devastated by WW2, had brought them widespread prosperity and influence through the 1950’s. America had risen to the challenges of Sputnik (1957)  and the Cuban Missile Crisis (1962) and had hemmed in the Soviet Union with a ring of bases and allies. However, rising competition from Germany and Japan, domestic unrest in the shape of the Civil Rights movement, anti-war demonstrations and a rug-fuelled counter-culture among the youth had tarnished the clean-cut, crew-cut image of itself shared by what would be called “Middle America”. In 34 pages, Powell delivered what Sydnor and his contemporaries wanted to hear.

No thoughtful person can question that the American economics system is under broad attack.

—Lewis Powell

The memo was intended as an outline philosophy of conservatism in the USA. Because the Founding Fathers had created the perfect Constitution, right-wing observers believed America’s adherence to it had slipped.. A corporate lawyer from Virginia who specialised in defending the tobacco industry, his conservative presence on SCOTUS was pivotal in decisions made during his tenure 1971-1987.

Part of the plan was to dumb down America – especially those college students protesting the war.  Anti-science seems to be a part of that philosophy; science and reason vs. pro-business/pro-wealth. It was an anti-Communist and anti-New Deal blueprint for conservative business interests to retake America. It was based in part on Powell’s reaction to the work of activist Ralph Nader, whose 1965 exposé on General Motors, Unsafe at Any Speed, put a focus on the car industry and its putting profit ahead of safety. It was seen as the spearhead of an attack the American consumer movement, an undermining of the power of private business and a step towards socialism.  His experiences as a director on the board of tobacco manufacturer Phillip Morris from 1964 until his appointment to SCOTUS made Powell a champion of the tobacco industry as they railed against growing scientific evidence linking smoking to cancer deaths. He argued, unsuccessfully, that tobacco companies’ First Amendment rights were being infringed when media did not give credence to cancer denials of the industry.

The Foundation Fathers

The memo called for corporate America to become more aggressive in molding society’s thinking about business, government, politics and law in the US. It inspired wealthy heirs of earlier American industrialists to fund Powell’s vision of a pro-business, anti-socialist, minimally government-regulated America. This was based on what he thought America had been in the heyday of early American industrialism, before the Great Depression and the rise of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. He realised that, unlike political parties, private charitable foundations did not have to report their political activities, offering unlimited what is now called “dark” money.

Those sympathetic foundations responding to his call to provide funds, mostly for research in conservative think-tanks included:

  • the Carthage Foundation (Richard Mellon Scaife—banking, metals)
  • the Earhart Foundation (oil)
  • the Smith Richardson Foundation (cough medicine)

The Powell Memorandum thus became the blueprint for the rise of the American conservative movement and the formation of a network of influential right-wing think tanks and lobbying organisations, such as The Heritage Foundation and the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) as well as inspiring the US Chamber of Commerce to become far more politically active. The rise of neoliberalism in the US can be traced to Powell’s memo, where he argued:

“The most disquieting voices joining the chorus of criticism came from perfectly respectable elements of society: from the college campus, the pulpit, the media, the intellectual and literary journals, the arts and sciences, and from politicians.”

—Lewis Powell

First; Define Your Enemy

In the memorandum, Powell advocated “constant surveillance” of textbook and television content, as well as a purge of left-wing elements. He named consumer advocate Nader as the chief antagonist of American business. Powell urged conservatives to undertake a sustained media-outreach program; including funding neoliberal scholars, publishing books and papers from popular magazines to scholarly journals and influencing public opinion.

The Elephant Is the Symbol of the epublican Party

This memo foreshadowed a number of Powell’s court opinions, especially First National Bank of Boston v. Bellotti, which shifted the direction of First Amendment law by declaring that corporate financial influence of elections by independent expenditures should be protected with the same vigor as individual political speech. Much of the future Court opinion in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission relied on the same arguments raised in Bellotti.

Though written confidentially for Sydnor at the Chamber of Commerce, it was discovered by the  Washington Post, which reported on its content a year later (after Powell had joined SCOTUS). Anderson alleged that Powell was trying to undermine the democratic system; however, in terms of business’s view of itself in relation to government and public interest groups, it was a major force in motivating the Chamber and other groups to modernise their efforts to lobby the federal government. Following the memo’s directives, conservative foundations greatly increased, pouring money into think-tanks. This rise of conservative philanthropy led to the conservative intellectual movement and its increasing influence over mainstream political discourse, starting in the 1970s and ’80s, and due chiefly to the works of the American Enterprise Institute and the Heritage Foundation.

Second; Disdain Your Enemy

The Heritage Foundation laid the groundwork for the later Contract with America, which was a legislative agenda advocated for by the Republicans during the 1994 congressional election campaign. Written by Newt Gingrich and Dick Armey, recycling text from Reagan’s 1985 State of the Union Address.

The Contract detailed the actions the Republicans promised to take if they controlled the House for the first time in 40 years. As it was signed by all but two Republican members of the House and all non-incumbent Republican candidates, it can be seen as a unifying force for the party, which had a reputation for weak party discipline.

The Contract was revolutionary in offering specific legislation for a vote, describing in detail the precise plan of the Congressional Representatives, and broadly nationalising the Congressional election. It represented the views of conservative Republicans on issues such as:

  • shrinking the size of government
  • promoting lower taxes
  • greater entrepreneurial activity
  • tort reform
  • welfare reform.

Gaining 54 House and 9 Senate seats, meant Republicans controlled both chambers. Sweeping changes, such as an amendment to the Constitution that would require a balanced budget unless sanctioned by a two-thirds vote in both houses put them on a collision course with Bill Clinton’s Democratic Presidency.

Third; Discount Your Enemy

It was at this point that the widening policy gulf between Democrats and conservative Republicans broke into the open. From this point on, moderate Republicans, such as Senator John Glen of Arizona, became more and more of a minority, as they were swept along by conservatives, led by Newt Gingrich. Unable to get most of the Contract enacted, they fell to obstructing Clinton, initiating a personal witch-hunt that threatened to impeach him over the Monica Lewinsky case.

Some harmony returned under George W. Bush, whose focus became international in the aftermath of 9/11. This involved the Second Gulf War, and occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan. This “War Against Terror” was such a motherhood-and-apple-pie issue that Democrats dare not oppose. It  was also a bonanza for arms and aerospace industries, enthusiastic supporters of conservatives.

Any cross-party consensus was broken with the election of Obama in 2008. His efforts to revolutionise health care to include the vast bulk of Americans, and not just those who could afford it, ran foul of a pharmaceutical and medical insurance lobby even more powerful than tobacco had been in stifling legislation. In this, they found allies not just in an increasingly right-wing Republican party, but the various conservative foundations described above, who provided both research and directed funding through their well financed backers.

Money had always played a role in American politics. But it was at this point that anyone wishing to run for Congress required a campaign fund in the millions. And those prepared to provide those millions attached conditions that were almost always the pursuit of conservative policies.

Seen from this perspective, the divisive, tribal nature of the Trump presidency has roots stretching back half a century. The Potemkin Village of obstruction that Republicans are now building denyies Trump lost the election in November 2020, and asserts Biden is a socialist, bent on destroying the American way of life.  The whole village is built on the 34-page rock of the Powell Memo.

See also: https://www.greenpeace.org/usa/democracy/the-lewis-powell-memo-a-corporate-blueprint-to-dominate-democracy/

Full text of the Powell Memo available at: https://scholarlycommons.law.wlu.edu/powellmemo/1/

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Meet Pesky Blunders of 10 Clowning Street

Pesky Blunders on the Beat in Liverpool, 6.12.21

Unless you’ve been the victim of one of his many jolly japes that pass for policy, it’s hard to dislike Boris Johnson entirely. There is something about his gung-ho gusto, about his head-down bullishness that makes him an effective political campaigner which reaches not just across his party but out into the great majority of people who regard politicians much the same way as shepherds regard wolves. Many people allergic to policy discussions have confessed they would like to sink a pint or two in his company.

However, blokeishness is not normally listed as a key characteristic in a successful national leader. Boris was two years into his premiership before this home truth did, in fact, come home to him.

He had led a charmed life to this point. He survived an itinerant childhood to put his undoubted intelligence to good use as a ticket to Oxford, where he developed his trademark veneer of an affable everyman. This disarmed men and women he met, to the point of deflecting their censure of less likeable traits of egotism, ambition, moral flexibility and a penchant for cutting corners and asserting implausible reasons for his behaviour.

Had he become a rake, or a City trader, or even stuck to journalism, the path he originally followed, he might have been successful, even famous. His appearances on Have I Got News for You show wit and presence of mind that may well have made him a household name and “personality”, even had he not chosen politics.

But that he did chose politics has become his downfall. This was not apparent at first. With his Bullingdon Club background and faced with the unappealing likes of John Redwood, Theresa May or Jacob Rees-Mogg as competition, their adherence to principles and traditions made them easy to outmanoeuvre. Like Trump, and with only slightly less brash assertion, it was easy to climb aboard a passing bandwagon. His passage as Mayor of London was achieved by peppering the airwaves with sound bites, while relying on a team of competent subordinates to actually run the city. It was a page straight out of Ronald “The Gipper” Reagan’s successful playbook.

But the full orchestra bandwagon he climbed aboard to take him to the top was Brexit. And he rode it skilfully, playing on the xenophobia that ran through Conservatism and paying scant attention to accuracy when asserting EU costs and perfidy. Misjudgements by his predecessors and maladroitness in his opponents swept him to power.

That is not when things started to go wrong for him but it was when it started to matter. Had he surrounded himself with competent colleagues in his Cabinet, as Wilson did in the 1960s, he might have reprised the approachable competent leader of his days as mayor. But the political furnace of the Covid pandemic burned away any illusion that his team were of such high calibre. They could not divert from him a growing sense of erratic and untrustworthy leadership out in the public.

The vast majority of people who pay scant attention to daily political detail may think recent exposure of clandestine Christmas parties, questionable financing of flat refurbishment and so on are scandalous revelations coming out of the blue. But the man has form. Lots of it. The chickens now coming home to roost in Boris’ coop are darkening the sky over 10 Clowning Street. It’s a Fair Cop. Read on, if you dare…

…as a Journalist

  • As cub reporter on The Times, BJ was to write article on  discovery of Edward II’s castle. His research was shoddy, citing conflating characters from differing times. He quoted Prof Colin Lucas (his godfather) as saying “reign of dissolution with his catamite”. Lucas denied the quote; so Boris was fired.
  • Became Brussels correspondent for The Telegraph. While there he “made the assignment more interesting” by fabricating stories, like: “EU wants to ban prawn cocktail crisps”; “There are plans to blow up the EU Commission HQ”; “EU has plans to monitor smelly farmyards; ”EU has plans to standardise coffin sizes; pink sausages; condoms
  • He promised Telegraph Editor he would never become an MP. He was elected MP for Henley in 2001, while still at The Telegraph  

…as Mayor of London

  • On 27 Sep 2019, GLA referred him to the IOPC for Misconduct in Public Office for providing Jennifer Arcuri (his “bidie-in” at the time) with subsidies and access to trade missions. After two years of investigation, the necessary records could not be found and are believed to have been deleted.
  • During the 2008 mayoral campaign, Boris Johnson pledged to withdraw articulated buses on the grounds that they were unsuitable for London. They are still in use in most European capitals.
  • When he was mayor, Boris Johnson pledged help for my business to win my love” Jennifer Arcuri in The Observer, November 14th 2021.

…as Foreign Secretary

  • In a Michael Crick interview discussing Turkish immigration Boris asserted: “I didn’t say anything about Turkey”. In a June 2016 letter, he had written: “The only way to avoid common borders with Turkey is to vote Leave
  • Reflecting on his first three months in the job at the Tories’ 2016 conference Boris referred to Africa as “that country”, while painting the world a “less safe, more dangerous and more worrying” place than a decade prior.
  • Boris stated: “Membership of the EU costs UK an extra £1 bn each month” This is untrue.
  • During a 2017 select committee hearing Boris erroneously said Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe was training journalists in the region. The 38-year-old Briton was hauled in front of an Iranian court and told her sentence could double.
  • He was berated at a Sikh temple in Bristol for talking about increasing whisky exports to India – despite alcohol being forbidden in the Sikh faith.
  • In August 2019 after Boris compared women wearing burqas and niqabs to letter boxes in a column for the Daily Telegraph that earned him £275,000 a year, he was publicly rebuked by Prime Minister May.
  • At the Tory conference in October 2017 Boris was condemned after claiming the Libyan city of Sirte would have a bright future as a luxury resort once investors “cleared the dead bodies away”.
  • At a November 2016 meeting with EU ministers, Boris described suggestions that free movement of people was among the EU’s founding principles as “bollocks”. He wanted only the free market, or they “would sell less wine”.
  • During a visit to India in 2017 Boris appeared to accuse the European Union of wanting to inflict Nazi-style “punishment beatings” on the UK because of Brexit.
  • Boris broke Commons rules by failing to declare a financial interest in a property within the mandated time limit. The Commons Standards Committee accused him of displaying “an over-casual attitude towards obeying the rules of the house”.
  • Britain’s ambassador to Myanmar had to stop Boris from reciting a Rudyard Kipling poem, written in the voice of a colonial soldier in the country’s most sacred temple. He also referred to a golden statue in the Shwedagon Padoga temple as a “very big guinea pig”
  • Boris once waved a kipper during a rant about “pointless, expensive, environmentally damaging” EU regulations, claiming that Brussels bureaucracy had “massively” increased costs for fish suppliers because of rules saying that their products must be transported in ice. It turned out the regulation had been introduced by the British, not the EU
  • In January 2017, Boris was forced to apologise for breaching Commons rules by failing to declare more than £52,000 of outside earnings.

…as Campaigner

  • Boris claimed “polls showed a no-deal Brexit was more popular by some margin” than Theresa May’s deal or staying in the EU. This was untrue.
  • n Tory social media campaign orchestrated by their Central Research Department, 88% of claims made were found to be misleading, such as:
  • “Corbyn plans to wreck the economy with a £1.2 tn spending plan”.
  • “Corbyn thinks home ownership is a bad idea.” Untrue
  • “Corbyn has called for the abolition of Britain’s Armed Forces.” Untrue
  • During the ITV leader debate, the Tory Twitter account’s name was changed to “@factcheckUK” and proceeded to support Boris’ statements and denigrate those of Corbyn.
  • Claimed “Corbyn would whack corporation tax to the highest in Europe. “ Labour wanted to set the rate to 26%; in France, it was 31%.
  • Claimed “Corbyn would give Scotland a referendum inn2020”. Labour had ruled that out the day before Boris made this statement.
  • At the General Election launch, Nov 2019 Boris said: “We can leave the EU as one UK, whole and entire and perfect, as promised”. “There will be no tariffs and no checks between Britain and NI” Andrew Mar Show. Goods travelling between Britain and NI now must complete import declarations and Entry Summary Declaration

…as Prime Minister

  • He promised he was building 40 new hospitals when the money for only 6 had been identified.
  • He promised 20,000 more police operating on our streets. In fact he only replace those lost since 2010 over 3 years
  • Reaction of his government to each wave of Covid was slow and ineffectual, especially as regards testing foreign arrivals and learning from other countries.
  • Claimed the biggest increase in NHS funding by £34bn. Adjusted for inflation the rise of 20.5 bn was less than Labour had provided.
  • Allocation of contracts for emergency PPE was poorly supervised, with insiders gaining lucrative contracts and the quality supplied inadequate.
  • The English Test & Trace system cost over £30 bn but was ineffectual, ignoring the local knowledge of environmental health teams and paying consultants £1,000 a day, even after the system was defunct.
  • He has deeply disappointed both Yorkshire and Northeast England by cancelling their leg of the HS2 project.
  • A Report on Russian Interference in Election by Ruwwiq. Submitted 17 Oct 2019. Normally 10 days to release. Boris said:. “I see no reason to interfere with the normal timetable for these things” But that’s exactly what he did.
  • At the 2021 G7 meeting in Cornwall, Boris said: “We will vaccinate the world by the end of 2022.” This seems highly unlikely
  • Many of the £30 bn in emergency Covid loans to small business went to defunct companies or ones set up days prior to applying, such that as much as 1/3rd of the money is likely to be irrecoverable.
  • Boris is currently picking a fight with France over Channel-crossing immigrants and fishing licences, and with the EU over rewriting the Northern Ireland protocol which he signed and declared as a victory a year ago.

To apply a euphemistic phrase like “economic with the veracity” may be one way of avoiding breaking Westminster edicts against calling a member a liar. But Boris Johnson lives in a world of his own creation, where facts are to be moulded to his purpose and brazen assertion is how others can be snowed into agreement. That may have worked in foxing editors and Londoners. But at time of writing, his assertive statements about knowledge of law-breaking parties in December 2020 and donation-breaking financing of his flat refurbishment may run foul of the following:—

The Commons may treat the making of a deliberately misleading statement as a contempt.”

—Erskine May Para 15-27

It is of paramount importance that  ministers give accurate and truthful information to Parliament Those ministers who knowingly misled Parliament will be expected to offer their resignation.

—Ministerial Code

Even if the unprecedented scale of his tribulations do no bing him down—not least because he has been careful not to harbour an obvious successor—he will go down, and heavily. His has broken with the traditional courtesies associated with British Prime Ministers, being more an iconoclast in the Trump mould. The incomplete and tawdry track record listed above makes it inevitable.

Far from being an echo of his hero Churchill, history will not be kind to him. The end will not have the orchestration of Blair’s going, nor the pathos of Thatcher’s. The closest model is likely to be that of Nixon; shoddy, mean-spirited and eminently forgettable.

(from Norway’s Dagbladet—Pace the Black Knight from Monty Python & the Holy Grail

See also the New York Times: https://www.nytimes.com/2021/12/13/world/europe/boris-johnson-uk-coronavirus.html?referringSource=articleShare

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The Road to Scindy III—Councils As Partners

On Thursday, December 9th, Finance Secretary Kate Forbes will present a budget to the Scottish Parliament. A couple of goodies have been trailed in Nicola Sturgeon’s speech to the SNP Conference in November, including a doubling of child benefit from £10 to £20 per week. Undoubtedly a boon to less-well-off families, like free prescriptions, personal care, tuition fees, etc. Nicola did not discuss where the additional funding to pay for this could be found.

It is unlikely that Kate will be any more specific, but the likelihood is that a squeeze on council budgets that has lasted a decade will continue. Despite John Swinney’s promise of “Parity of Esteem” made to CoSLA as Finance Secretary in 2007, devolution of powers to Holyrood did not been reflected in any devolution of powers to councils. This has been Devo-min.

The Background

The series of Ministers holding the Local Government brief included Derek Mackay and Kevin Stewart, both former Council Leaders—in Renfrewshire and Aberdeen City, respectively. But this made no discernable difference to the tight rein on which councils were kept.

This has been achieved through control of finance. All 32 councils in Scotland receive their revenue from two main sources: around 20% from council tax and around 80% from a Revenue Support Grant (RSG) direct from the Scottish Government (SG). Only a few per cent come from fees and charges. By offering to add or threatening to remove parts of the RSG, the SG persuades councils to implement their policies. For a decade, this was how Council Tax was frozen during austerity. Even when this stricture was relaxed, a 5% rise in Council Tax would still only raise 1% more in actual revenue. The SG still threatened a cap if much more was attempted.

Discussions about replacing Council Tax with another revenue source, such as local income tax, have gone nowhere. With all her other pressures, councils are not likely to see any relief from Kate’s budget. Indeed, North Lanarkshire has got its rebuttal in first, claiming they will be faced with a £70 million cut over three years from its annual budget of £854 million.  Whether realised or not, demands on major council services—like Education and Social Work, which together typically absorb three-quarters of council budgets will grow. Local options for raising funds to meet this are limited. The present Council Tax is regressive, with poor people paying proportionally more. The attempt to spread this fairly across eight ‘bands’ (A-H) has been skewed over 30 yeas as house prices have risen at rates well above inflation. It is now to the point that the “top” band at £212.000 is now over  £10,000 below the average house price.

If the present government want to win an independence referendum, they must show the vision and creativity needed to steer Scotland to prosperity beyond independence. Popular though such measures may be, £10 per week “bribes’ to voters do not fit the bill.

One Simple Solution

Without redrawing council boundaries or revaluing homes, there is a straightforward way to provide a significant funding boost to councils, empowering their ability to improve those services that directly affect people’s lives. It involves adjusting the existing banding system in use. The system allocates properties within value bands, with Band D used as the median. Bands above and below are rated in multiples of ninths. Taking East Lothian as an example, its eight bands, the number of homes in each band and the tax levied on them are shown in Table 1.

BandRatioCouncil TaxNo. of PropertiesTax Raised
A6/9£7451,231£917,505
B7/9£8709,271£8,061,650
C8/9£99415,036£14,942,443
D9/9£1.1186,294£7,036,692
E11/9£1,3666,325£8,642,761
F13/9£1,6155,219£8,428,105
G15/9£1,8634,657£8,677,543
H18/9£2,236862£1,927,432
Total48,895£58,634,131
Table 1—Council Tax by Band in East Lothian

This shows a total of  £31.0 million collected from the 65% of properties in Bands A-D and £36.5 million from the 35% in E-H, for a total tax income of  £57.6 million. There are no bands above ‘H’, although many properties have much higher values in picturesque villages, affluent coastal towns and commuter developments. What is needed is an adjustment that burdens those with money rather than those without.

The simple approach is to split each of the four existing upper valuation bands in two, dividing properties equally between each. This creates eight upper bands. By applying the “ninths multiplier” as before, we arrive at a modified table, as shown in Table 2.

BandRatioCouncil TaxNo. of PropertiesTax Raised
A6/9£7451,231£917,505
B7/9£8709,271£8,061,650
C8/9£99415,036£14,942,443
D9/9£1.1186,294£7,036,692
E111/9£1,3663,163£4,321,381
E213/9£1,6153,163£5,107,086
F115/9£1,8632,610£4,862,368
F218/9£2,2362,610£5,834,842
G121/9£2,6092,329£6,074,280
G224/9£2,9812,329£6,942,035
H128/9£3,478431£1,499,114
H232/9£3,975431£1,713,273
Totals48,895£67,312,668
Table 2—Modified Bands for East Lothian

Although this looks similar to Table 1, the four additional bands bring the top tax payment up from £2,236 to £3,975. Although this is a steep 78% jump, it applies to only 431 properties—less than 1% of the total and worth far more than their out-dated £212,000 valuation. The tax increase would diminish as we go down the bands, so that those in E1 would be paying the same and the 65% of properties in A-D would be unaltered.

The net effect would be to boost Council Tax income in the East Lothian example from £58.6 m to £67.3 million, while making a regressive tax more equitable. This £8.7 million increment is equivalent to an unthinkable 15% rise in Council Tax and delivers a financial flexibility councils have not had in years.

The 35% of residents paying more might feel aggrieved. But consider this: given annual increase in house prices across East Lothian exceeds 3%, even a £400,000 home paying the £1,739 increment for Band H2 would recoup that in property value within two months.

More Complex Solutions

The above should be regarded as a temporary solution until a property revaluation is done to make location within the bands more fair. But there would be no need to adjust the bands, other than the range of property values applied to each.

This raises the question of particularly valuable properties. It would be unfair to allocate properties above, say £500,000 to band H2 when properties exist valued in the millions. If Band H1 were to run from £400k to £500k with a tax levy around £4,000, the introduction of a “Mansion Tax” of 1% on the value of all properties above that. Rather than being onerous, this would still leave 2/3rds of the 3% annual growth in the hands of the property owner.

As additional income, East Lothian has many holiday homes. These are typically rented in season at high rates through Air B&B or local agencies. Anyone owning a second home and able to do this cannot be poor. The density of holiday homes, though not as endemic as in Cornwall or the Highlands, has a detrimental effect on community, especially in older properties, town centres and picturesque locations.  If such properties were rated at 150%, this would effectively tax holiday lets,  yet leave the locals payment unaffected. The definition of local would be registered voters resident, which would have the added bonus of catching the rich who maintain a home in Scotland yet claim reduced council tax as non-residents. Estimating the number of local second homes (mostly above band D) at 1,000, such a scheme should add another £1.5m. This is equivalent to a further 2.5% rise in Council Tax, the difference being that it affects mostly non-residents of the council area.

As a party of government, the SNP has remained resiliently popular. If all it wished to do is maintain the status quo of devolution, this might be a shrewd tactic. But, by not frightening the horses with a timid fiscal policy based on populist political “bribes” they have neglected showing inspirational leadership and, more importantly, how they would deal with the 22% of GDP in government spending that would be the case on the first day of any independence. That Kate Forbes will empower our 1,200 councillors as partners on Thursday, instead of continuing to treat then as chattels, is unlikely. But a scheme like that above is the kind of radical thinking and willingness to take risks necessary to attain the future prosperity to which we all aspire.

#992: 1.298 words

This idea is neither new, nor original: see also:

Ma Faither’s Howff Has Many Mansions (March 2012)

Ma Faither’s Howff (Revisited) (September 2012)

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The Road to Scindy II—Cunning Plan, or Planning Con?

A high quality planning system is essential to create quality places with the homes, infrastructure and investment that people need. We are improving Scotland’s planning system, to strengthen the contribution planning can make to inclusive growth, to delivering housing and infrastructure and to empowering communities to influence future development of their areas.”

—Scottish Government Planning and Architecture

The Planning (Scotland) Act 2019 was passed by the Scottish Parliament in June of that year. The idea is that this will determine the future structure of a modernised planning system. The detail of how the new Act’s provisions will work in practice is to be contained later within secondary legislation. The end result is to be a comprehensive document called National Planning Framework Four (NPF4), which will replace the current NPF3, in force since June 2014, when the Minister was the now-disgraced Derek Mackay. His introduction then already included pious boilerplate about “sustainable economic growth” or “reduced spatial inequalities” or “promoted low-carbon growth and wellbeing”.

Behind the warm words is a developer’s charter. The prime motivator appears to be seen to address social inequalities, while providing more and better housing. Nothing wrong with that, but good planning requires much more. The net effect is that each council winds up with a simplistic tally of homes it must provide through a local plan.

It is, in fact, a de minimus framework, leaving councils drawing rings around fields and letting developers decant any shape or style of house they wish into them. These are usually detached 3-to-5 bedroom family homes squeezed together to generate maximum profit. Outside the provision of schools, safeguarding space for infrastructure—bypasses, surgeries, community hubs, etc., is ignored. Questions regarding human-scale integration of shops, leisure, nature or social diversity, let alone the aesthetics are not asked, let alone answered. The whole is administered by planners who cite rule books about acceptable materials and window distances in a mostly reactive way. The developer decides street layout, choosing house design A over B in homogeneous ghettoes of 50 to 500 houses grafted like growths onto town peripheries.

In England, a highly centralised system of planning over seventy years spread wartime rebuilding by a mix of Keynesian state and modernist architects favouring Corbusian towers and motorways. The role of finance in shaping urban landscapes is most obvious behold Docklands redevelopment, the corporate island of Canary Wharf, and steel and glass monoliths named for their shapes—“Gherkin,” “Shard”— jutting from London’s neoclassical skyline.

The modernist experiment was also imprinted on concrete public housing estates such as those found in London’s boroughs, still occupied by the poor. More recently, English planning has turned towards participation and reclaiming the street network for cyclists and pedestrians, following a European trend to address livability and climate change. As a retrofit, this has been only partly successful.

Scotland has followed this centrist model, initially creating (without intending to) centres of deprivation in Easterhouse, Wester Hailes, Mastrick, Raploch, etc. Right to Buy saw abandonment by councils of building social housing and provision by RSLs at much slower rates. The bulk of new builds have been detached family homes, as described above. Only Edinburgh has made good use of brownfield sites with low-rise flats integrated with existing communities and facilities.

Both countries have suffered from a planning regime that is bureaucratic, unimaginative and reactive. It is divorced from what people regard as town, let alone community, planning. The urban segmentation results in excessive vehicle flows. Both fragment society, increase “defensive” living, and petty crime. As commute distances soar, local social mixing in High Streets declines, children don’t dare run free any more and our affluence comes at increasing cost. Ask any bufti to relate all we have lost.

But it need not be this way. And at a time when Covid has scrambled social patterns and climate change is forcing us to re-think how we live, might this not be the time to radically re-think how we plan our towns, if not our civilisation?

The Scottish Government, rather than churning out another developer open season in NPF4 has a chance to show how to evade the urban sprawl and inner-city disintegration becoming the norm in England. Our cities are not so large; our towns less smothered in suburbs. It will take vision, resolution, team work and devolution.  The benefits will be immense, with the Scottish Government augmenting the credibility it needs to be plausible steering an independent Scotland the people believe will be the better place to bring up their children. This will demand:

  1. Vision. Quite apart from waking up sleepy council planning departments , the law needs to be changed to remove the presumption of permission to build unless “material planning considerations “ can be demonstrated to stop it. Overarching Regional Plans will set out how a city region is expected to develop and will include business, retail, and (especially) integrated transport plan, all to be secured and partly provided before residential elements are finalised.
  2. Resolution A completely restructured planning law that sets out mechanisms whereby real town planning is to be achieved. Statutory consultees will be tasked to comply with requirements, rather than have a veto. Government departments will be expected to supply support, finance and guidance to ensure the plans are viable. Local councils will employ more creative teams, led by a qualified town planner with vision to perform town planning on each settlement under their care, including settlement statements on their future role.
  3. Team Work  This will be required and expected from all those contributors listed above. Y these should be added seminars of consultation with community representatives, with the goal of each town plan becoming as close to consensual as possible. Only when that point has been reached would developers be included in the process, each bidding to fulfil a part of the town plan, with an incentive to address the vision contained therein.
  4. Devolution  It should be clear from the foregoing that the Scottish Government will no longer hold centralised authority over planning, other than in formulating and adapting laws, as required. Bu the same token, planning departments will have a duty to engage with and persuade partners and residents of the desirability of the plan, far more than the present holding of public meetings, then ignoring whatever was said.

The principle to be adhered to is that each area is different, has a sense of itself, and, has a good idea what it would like and gets behind working for the future if they believe it theirs. Kirkwall, Kirkcaldy and Kirkcudbright are all different places—and should feel different—even if they have much in common and things they might learn fro  one another. Like taking your cue from local accents, you should know where you are just by looking around. People are tired of everywhere looking like Watford.

So, what should they look like. That depends where it is. Edinburgh has a mixed record in getting this right. The Radisson Collection Hotel on the Royal Mile is barely an improvement on the Midlothian County Council it replaced on the Royal Mile, but the Scandic Crown further down makes a superb effort to blend in. The state of Princes Street is pitiful, but the new apartment blocks on Macdonald Road let you know you’re in Edinburgh and provide compact modern city living.

It is not necessary for Glasgow to build a pastiche of its red sandstone tenement heyday. But building another Gherkin or Shard there would be as inappropriate as in the centre of Paris—or a clutch of detached family homes to fill Pollokshields Park.

Planning must make our great cities more liveable, and therefore more attractive. As well as compact living, making for handy facilities, they need green space and pleasant walkability. That means fewer vehicles, which is not achieved (as Edinburgh is trying) but just making life hell for drivers. It means that glacial buses need help from a re-opened South Suburban rail line and some trams on the many abandoned tracks around the city.

If Glasgow were the hub of a city region plan that included all adjacent councils; if Edinburgh were a planning hub for the Borders and West Fife, as well as the Lothians and such areas were granted the context described above, this mishmash of obscure and unaccountable bodies like SEStrans would become simpler and, more importantly, transparent to those it is supposed to serve. Scottish Water, NHS and ScotRail should not be allowed to hide in there ivory towers either.

Is this radical? You bet. But it’s how the Dutch made their towns and cities pedestrian friendly and more liveable than ours. It’s how the city twinned with Edinburgh, Munich, is so highly praised, because they took the Deutschhe Bundesbahn (railways), city trams, local buses and banged their heads together to make a seamless, efficient public transport system that everyone uses. Whether you want to shop or go sailing or take off from the airport. it’s so easy, they leave their cars at home.

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