To End All Wars

This week we had another series of news items reminding us of te centenary of yet another WW1 battle—this time the Amiens offensive when the Allies finally had success in breaching German lines on the Western Front and rolling them back an appreciable distance. While I would be first to acknowledge the courage, hardship and sacrifice involved, the manner of reporting made me uneasy. For a start, it was superficial: no mention of numbers involved or casualties,  of devastating artillery barrages, of overwhelming tanks and aircraft deployed, of depleted armies, of fraying national morale. “Those who do not learn from history are condemned to repeat it” is a mantra to live by, but there was precious little by way of lessons in the news reports.

Within four months, we will be celebrating the centenary of the Armistice, at which the British Empire grew to its greatest extent ever. Except it wasn’t the end of the war. The revolution rolled on in Russia and Britain sent troops to help the Whites; the Turks fought a bloody war with the Greeks around the Aegean; the victorious Russian Reds lost a war to the Poles; defeated Germany was made so poor by reparations that chaos and the weak Weimar Republic set the stage for Hitler and World War, Part II.

Thankfully, we have managed to avoid WWlll (so far) because most agree it would be the end of civilization, of not life on this planet. But if news coverage of WWl centenaries are anything to go by, we have not learned much.

From ancient times through the Middle Ages, warfare was commonplace. Each group/tribe/city state would develop bny forcing its will om (and plundering the goods of) its neighbours. There was no law but that enforced at spear-point. That changed with the development of the nation state. China, the Moghuls, Incas and Zulus all made stabs at this but Europe developed this furthest by the 18th century. Political stability and economic growth within each state led to competition and oftrn large-scale, sustained warfare between nations for global supremacy. The global Franco-British colonial wars of the 18th century, the Napoleonic Wars can be seen as precursors of WWl & ll.

But, just as the writ of law being extended throughout a country ended internecine strife and forged nation states, so the writ of international law (and the threat of nuclear Armageddon) has forged a global community of some 200 nation states, living in comparative peace with each other.

The question is, how illusory is this? In theory, disputes are taken to the United Nations for resolution. But the truth is that its writ is weak and little respected. Those with clout (Russia in Ossetia, Crimea, Ukraine, Syria; USA in Vietnam, Panama, Somalia, Iraq, Afghanistan; China in Tibet, Paracels) regularly ignore the UN when it suits. And while nation states continue to coalesce (exceptions like Sudan notwithstanding) an the same be said for out global family of nations?

What brought nation states together was a common culture, identity, language, leadership and—dare to say it—a common threat, usually another nation seen as a threat. Germans feared the Russians; Russians feared the Mongols; Danes feared the Swedes; English feared the French; Scots feared the English; Poles feared everyone.

So will it take a Wellsian invasion of tripos aliens wielding death rays to make us all get along? Because the runes are not good. Most citizens have poor insight into  neighbouring countries, let alone those with a different alphabet on the other side of the globe. Brush-fire conflicts break out erratically (Saudi Arabia invades Yemen; India eyeballs Pakistan; Venezuela eyeballs Colombia; ISIS shifts from Iraq to the Sahel). Western democracies are plagued by having to play to inward-looking electorates. REak nuschief-makers like Putin have a much freer hand.

Perhaps the best catalyst for global harmony in the 21st century the way nation-states fostered national harmony in the 18th and 19th, is some form of disaster that affects everyone and that everyone will have to combat jointly to solve. The best candidate for that is global warming. Sea levels are rising and only rare countries like Nepal and Liechtenstein can shrug ‘so what?’ Iy may take losing the Seychelles, Bangladesh and half of the Netherlands before everyone takes it seriously.

But, bad though it may become before we reverse it, it’s better than WWlll.

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Third World Gateway

For my sins, I use Edinburgh Airport  (EDI) often. It rates well above root canal treatment on my list of painful experiences. What is particularly galling is that millions in investment have only made the place worse since a blog here on December 17th 2016 called “Fleein‘” discussed designs of various airports and awarded EDI “nulle points”.

Now serving 14m m passengers, it was already cramped and poorly laid out when present owners Global Infrastructure Partners (GIP) bought it from BAA eight years ago, “investment” seems to have meant “pour money into boosting retail and parking income; infrastructure and long-term planning can wait.

The contrast could not have been starker when I flew to a real airport last month Easyjet flies EDI-MUC (Munich) daily (and are habitually late). The outward leg contrasted EDI as a crowded retail mall with a runway attached with the expansive, modern ease of MUC. Munich is twinned with Edinburgh; you’d think they would pick up some ideas. But airside departures at EDI is crammed with retail outlets and waiting passengers but almost devoid of signage for either departures or gates.

EDImap2

Layout of Edinburgh Airport.

The map above is inaccurate. Actually, Gate 1 is five date (1A-1E), none of which have jetways, nor do all gates beyond 12, all of which involve an extra 250m walk down a long, blank tunnel through a construction area.

Arrival at MUC is a pleasing contrast. Up the modern jetway within 4 ,imutes of reaching the stance, you wait 30 seconds at passport control before following signs though spacious halls for “S-Bahn”, buy your EUR11 ticket. Withinn 15 minutes, you are sitting in a train and in 30 more you’re in the city centre.

MUCmap

Layout of Munich Airport

Note the modular design of Munich, with parallel runways and jetways at every gate for ease of boarding and deplaning. It is an integral, logical design that owes nothing to Heath Robinson and everything to German efficiency.

But if the flight out provides contrast between the slick operation at Munich and the cheapskate kludge that is Edinburgh, the return is much more stark. Leaving Munich is as  swift and well signed as the arrival. But last month, Edinburgh was a nightmare.

They recently switched international arrivals from the cramped space at the West end to a new grey barn at the East end. In so doing, they had damaged all six of the recently introduced passport scanning gates. As a result the half-dozen Border Force posts are overwhelmed. Fifteen minutes of waiting on the plane for a bus to arrive turned into another 20 standing in the bus waiting to get into the new barn, followed by a half-hour of snaking the length of the overcrowded barn six times before having your passport checked.

We had landed a half-hour late but that had become 1 1/2 hours by the time we picked up our bags. And, as if to add insult to injury, that pushed the time well past 11:30pm so that we had to pay night bus fares to get into the city.

Don’t just compare Edinburgh to Munich. Take any reasonably comparable city—Dublin or Lisbon or Barcelona. They all offer modern, spacious, efficient gateways to their country that are both businesslike and welcoming. Edinburgh is neither, being operated primarily as a GIP cash cow on an infrastructure shoestring worthy of some fly-blown dictatorship. This is not Kampala, nor Ulan Bator. While being touted as “Where Scotland meets the World“, a more accurate slogan for Edinburgh would be “Where visitors to Scotland meet the Third World.”

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Balls Bounces Back

You have to grant Ed Balls creditl he’s a man who lives up to his name . Who else has bounced back from setbacks to re-invemt himself so often? From Mr Yvette Cooper to Gordon Brown Treasury wonk, to Leeds MP, to Strictly contestant, he has repeatedly relaunched a career as needs required with a resilience that deserves credit. Last Sunday, he sprang back into public prominence with a new series on BBC2: Travels in Trumpland.

His brand of smooth-talking Blairism finds few friends these days among the wilder-eyed Corbynistas that is the politburo of the People’s Front of Islington, so an enforced sabbatical from front-line politics seems a sensible call. To explore the hinterland that is Red State America is both timely and shrewd.

Timely because just about every media source in the UK had fallen into an indignant line behind The NY Times, LA Times, Washington Post, etc in deriding the Presidency of The Donald as somewhere between ridiculous and disastrous, possibly both. Yet, while the Democrats foam impotently, nobody is proposing any credible antidote to Trump”s leadership. And, yes, leadership it is. Just because the Washington establishment, Beltway bandits, feminists, minority leaders, unions and sophisticates are mainlining valium to head off conniption fits does not mean Trump is unpopular with the people—just the nomenklarura. Europe needs to start listening to a wider America, and not just the usual suspects.

Ed Balls is shrewd because he dives right in to a bottomless Trump heartland of whose existence even half of America is barely aware. Steering well clear of politicians and suits, Ed went straight to the folks who see themselves as down-home custodians of what ‘Murca’ is all about. From truck drivers to lumberjacks to a Korean vet shooting beer cans off his front stoop, these are the people you find at rodeos, county fairs and gun shows. They keep Rottweilers behind chain-link fences in aluminum-siding bungalows in small towns you’ve never heard of: Wickiup AZ; Townsend MT; Arklow PA; Fredricksburg TX. Few are well off. But all believe in the American Dream—and that it could work for them.

So whether at the Rednecks with Paychecks festival in Texas or Jim Slaughter’s Wrestling Gym in Alabama, Ed gets cosy with the 50% of Americans, about whom we know little. This is because they don’t have passports—and wouldn’t visit us if they did. They don’t watch PBS and don’t feature in middle-class films/TV churned out by Hollywood. Many used to vote Democrat but Trump captured them in droves by telling them what they want to hear and not worrying about actual delivery. Ed’s program is no standard documentary but a selective set of chest-butting bouts with this under-reported, salt-of-the-earth society.

BallsBruiser

Ed Balls Gets in Character as ‘The British Bruiser” in Mumford, AL

And, to his credit, he doesn’t pussyfoot around; he questions how they can believe in Trump when he is often whimsical and contradictory. The answer seems to be that Trump has tapped this huge swathe of people with Disney-esque blind faith in America’s culture and intrinsic superiority—provided people have “life liberty and the pursuit of happiness” (US Declaration of Independence). It is similar to disaffected British industrial workers who voted for Brexit, but on a more massive scale. always suspicious of slick politicians in suits, they love Trump’s way of cocking a snook at the establishment, even though he wears the most expensive suits of all.

Ed deserves credit for exposing this powerful feeling gripping half of America that we (and most Democrats) struggle to understand. Such was the conviction of all those Ed interviewed that, despite his hard questioning, the foundations of a second Trump term were plain to see.

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The Wicked Wizard of the West

I have always been proud to be Scots and, humanly flawed though they may sometimes be, love them as my brothers and sisters. But seldom have I felt more pride in or love for them than when I caught this video from TBS “The Trump Haters“,  presented by Samantha Bee.

Trust my feisty, irreverent countrymen to lead me to enlightenment as to how to deal with an ego as gargantuan and Kevlar-coated as The Donald’s. While insults, irony and even ridicule are clear;y lost on him. But what will shrivel his bluster as sure as water did the Wicked Witch of the West is mockery; not taking him seriously; treating him as the blawbag he is to his face. As usual in times of crisis, the Scots have shown the way.

 

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The Real Joe Sixpack

Much has been written about the surprising—and even popular—nature of Trump’s presidential victory in 2016. Media consensus (and there has been a strong trend to uniformity in reporting) has been that white male lower-middle-class workers who once earned $25/hr at the local auto plant rebelled against twenty years of erosion in their standard of living as more and more manufacturing  jobs went offshore or to maquilladores in Mexico. While this us substantially true, a more sophisticated analysis appeared in yesterday’s New York Times. in a piece by Sarah Smarsh. For readers on the 90% of the planet who do not have NYT on your local news stand and don’t have a subscription to their website, I will try to paraphrase without infringing copyright and receiving a less-then-social visit from their stony-faced lawyers.

Smarsh rightly condemns the media for over-simplistic analysis of Trump support, arguing that he won among college-educated whites and women too. Rightly, she takes this further to condemn Democrats for their similarly simplistic analysis, which overlooks the erosion in their own support in those other areas.

It allows college-educated white liberals to signal superior virtue while denying the sins of their own place and class. And it conceals well-informed, formally educated white conservatives — from middle-class suburbia to the highest ranks of influence — who voted for Donald Trump in legions.

Such mis-identification is of particular importance over the next few moths in the run-up to mid-term election in November. The Democrats appear to be banking on a reaction to Trump and hi bull-in-a-china-shop tactics to sweep them back into power in both the House and the Senate, as if it were their inevitable birthright. But Ms Smarsh acknowledges the broader appeal beyond a unemployed guy with a tool belt. She also argues that this focus on the 90m whites who have no college degree plays into the hands of white supremacists and this leads to ugly scenes, such as South Carolina earlier this year. She claims several factors create a biased situation:

  • Barriers to voting
  • Different information sources
  • Populism on the left.
  • Pat narratives about  the working class

Ah hae ma doots. But the article does provide a timely wake-up call to Democrat campaign planners that this next election will not just fall into their lap, as many Republicans fear. And, while Republicans are well funded and deploy fearsome TV ads, their ground organisation is woeful; doorsteps and town halls are their weakness.

Ms Smarsh is right to see what is being labelled  “Trump Country”— the two dozen  overflight states like her own Kansas that are regularly painted solid red but voted up to 48% Democrat.

But, while she rightly identifies a much broader, overwhelmingly white audience for Democrats to convert, what is missing here—as from so many heartfelt, humane pleas for more outward-looking, equitable policies—is how to appeal to disaffected white voters, whether male or female, worker or manager that offers the hope and ambition that is a cornerstone of American culture. However erratic and insubstantial Trump may be, he speaks that language. Hilary did not.

Somebody needs to. Soon.

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The Emperor of DIT Has no Clothes

Dr Liam Fox has been Minister for International Trade ever since Theresa May bought his loyalty with the job two years ago. Just this weekend, he was tweeting proudly what a good job he and his 3,000 (!) staff have done. The substance was that we have record exports on his watch. Except,  the government’s own trade statistics disagree: trade ahs been flat for two years.

Each month, Britain exports around £31bn—rather overshadowed by £42bn in imports, giving a trade imbalance of £11bn, or some 36% of exports. Together with servicing debt of over £1.5tn, (118% of government revenue) such imbalance acts as a drag on the economy and on the value of the £. This drag has been slowing the economy for some time, Yet Dr Fox keeps quiet about it. Let’s look at how the (neutral) OECD evaluates Britain’s economic performance against its peers. Britain’s per capita GDP is $43,250 per annum. Not bad, but what about others? Germany’s is $50,649; Scotland-sized Denmark‘s is $51,496; Ireland‘s is $75,827 (Tory disparaging of Ireland has been notably absent of late.) Not much for Dr Fox to crow about there.

Maybe this is a vision of the future: what about OECD projected growth rates? Britain’s is 1.3%—hmm, better than we had been doing. For comparison: Germany: 2.1%; Denmark: 1.9%; Ireland: 2.9%—all significantly better. (Even for government debt: Germany 79%, Denmark 82%; Ireland 52% vs Britain 118%))The same is true for unemployment, social disparity, in fact by any measure that you might want to evaluate success or prosperity or even happiness of European countries.

It should come as no surprise to those who have witnessed the Brexiteers behaviour over the last two years that hard, objective, statistics that might disturb the eyes-wide-shut mantra they have been peddling gets short shrift. Evidently we have things to learn fro  our neighbours. Cutting ourselves off from them makes no sense.

But that toom tabards like Liam Fox think they can blow soapy bubbles and call them statistics shows just how deep in soapy bubble their political careers are in as the whole foundation-less edifice of their “Brexit Bonus” wobbles about their ears.

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West of Eden

Sitting in the shade with a hundred other Bavarians and visitors outside the Nurnburger Bratwurstglockl in the heart of Munich, enjoying helles bier in 30 deg heat, a pile of bratwurst and street entertainment in equal measure, it is hard not to see the world as idyllic and lfe rich and fulfilling. Any untraveled Brits who think of Germans as cold and humourless have never met any Bavarians. The entire Altsdadt (city centre) is an exercise in how to make a largely intact medieval street warren into a sprawling human-friendly popular venue. A personal tragedy for me is that my home city of Edinburgh, although twinned with Munich for the last 50 years, seems to have learned nothing in this regard. Coming here, it took the X100 Airport “Express” bus 15 minutes to clear Waverley Bridge.

In my half-dozen conversations with locals so far, nobody seems to know or care who Boris Johnson or even who Theresa May is. But they do know about Brexit.  Amd there is a common theme—somewhere between disappointment and anger. The disappointment comes from the Germans feeling that, apart from the French (when it suits them), the only allies they have in the EU against the profligacy of the PIGS are sensible northerners like Holland and Sweden—and until recently, Britain.Rather than us taking our train set home in the huff, they would rather we had joined with them to pick up dissolute southerners and Brussels bureaucrats by the lapels and made the made the EU better.

What this means for the long term is anyone’s guess, but the chance that even the Germans are likely to allow the pick ‘n’ mix of May’s White Paper to get very far (assuming the Jacob Rees-Muggers don’t already assure it is still-born at Westminster) is slim to the point of vanishing to zero.

Which effectively means a hard Brexit with no deal. This may be raw meat to May’s boisterous back benches, nobody here in Germany seems happy with such an outcome. They are fully aware that AIrBus Siemens and a boatloads of car/components manufacturers will lose money, business and momentum. But the Germans are sticklers for doing things right. They will deal with ‘no deal’ with the same calm efficiency that made them world-class manufacturers and rebuilt shattered cities to a standard we can only envy.

And take no comfort from the Brexiteers bluster that “The EU sells more to the UK than we sell to them”. Look at it in proportion to the 60m Brit, compared to five times that number in the EU and you realise they have the clout to find other markets easier than the UK will.

So I am here, enjoying my beer and wurst while I can still afford them, Once the Little Emglander tail has finished wagging the Conservative dog, they will eventually be proved right about an influx of foreigners, But these will be affluent EU citizens with Euros to burn in the low-budget third-world island just 30 km offshore.

 

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Single Deck Shuffle

Last week First Minster Nicola Sturgeon announced a major reshuffle of her Cabinet, extending it from 10 to 12 ministers. The unfortunate rammy over some ill-judged remarks made by Gillian Martin before she became an MSP derailed her appointment as Minister for Further Education, Higher Education and Science . This event illustrated the fineness of the behavioural mesh that all public figures are required to pass through. Ms Martin now accepts that blog posts she made in 2007 were “inappropriate” but the real irony may be that she was railing against excessive political correctness. That, and the fact that media turnover-boosting darlings like Boris Johnson and President Trump get away with it by already being famous, and therefore not so expendable.

Even more unfortunate was that red-top rags devoted themselves to excoriating Nicola Sturgeon so venomously that sober analysis of the major reshuffle was confined to more serious publications like the Spectator or Guardian. But even they failed to get under the skin of what is actually going on, After the departure of Wur Eck, the SNP was run by a tight-knit quartet: Nicola, backed by husband Peter Murell, as Chief Executive and with deputy Stewart Hosie MP, Westminster Leader and husband to Health secretary and Nicola’s close friend Shona Robison. This cosy arrangement fell apart when Stewart was caught having an affair. For Shona, this, a health scare, losing both parents and vicious attacks by opposition health spokespeople, put her under intolerable pressure. Shona is a decent and hard-working sort but was in the thick of it all 19 years, the last 11 in the Cabinet. Her resignation deserved plaudits and gratitude for her service. But politics is a dirty business.

Nicola is a doughty leader, handling herself well in parliament and press. She has not managed to shake off her ‘nippy=sweetie’ sobriquet from earlier times and not quite managing to achieve the engaging ‘cheeky chappie’ appeal of her predecessor. Her leadership is unassailable; a reshuffle now makes eminent sense. Yet the the reshuffle shows how how thin the available deck is. The pool of experienced talent in which she  can draw is shallow. There are basically four types of colleagues she can draw on:

  1. Old Guard who have mostly  held senior spokespeople since 1999
  2. Time Servers whose pqrty profile put them high on regional lists
  3. Technocrats whose work for MSP/MPsMEPs found reward
  4. Young Turks mostly swept in with the stunning 2016 intake and WFI

The previous Cabinet was Old Guard, with  junior ministers drawn from Time Servers. All parties reward blind loyalty; the SNP is no exception. This, however, was time for change, as progress on anything of significance has become rare.

Old Guard lost from the Cabinet are no real loss.  Angela Constance has a good heart but little traction. Annabelle Ewing was lazy, contributing none of her mother’s charisma or dynamism. Keith Brown did carry his weight but is not lost; he’s taking on the un-sexy but vital campaign organisation brief, just in time to get serious about elections in 2020. But some Old Guard cling like leeches: Fiona Hyslop has tried (and failed) several jobs; former colleagues at Standard Life are unsurprised at this. Roseanna Cunningham displays all the people skills of the Berlin Wall and Fergus Ewing wasted more time than his sister to prove himself a toom tabard (why he should replace the quietly competent Richard Lochhead is a puzzle). All three remain on the strength of their party base alone but are overdue their jotters because the Cabinet (especially) can’t afford passengers.

John Swinney stays at Education, despite reneging on his much-touted Bill. He always was a steady pair of hands, with his bank manager stability. The trouble is that he was steadier (and far more credible) at Finance than Derek Mackay. Derek is a capable amalgam of youth, presentation, manipulation and ambition. That makes him tactically astute but strategically myopic. Adding Keith’s economic brief spells weakness and trouble for the Scottish economy. Long-term goals and infrastructure will be sacrificed to short-term headlines. On the plus side is the re-appearance of Michael Russell. He may have an ego the size of a planet but he sounds, looks and acts like a senior politician, a combination in short supply across the Parliament—especially among Labour.

As for the rest of the Cabinet, Young Turk Humza is a pretty boy yet to show depth, which means he will struggle at Justice—especially with Kenny MacAskill’s messy legacy.. He swaps Transport with Michael Mathieson. This brief gets passed around like a bad-smelling fish supper: i.e. a career graveyard,  Another Young Turk Aileen Campbell shows promise but has yet to develop depth and capability,  suffering a touch of the “Kezias” = promoted too fast too soon. The most promising of the Time Servers is Shirley-Anne Somerville, still young but a campaign veteran, with a capable “nippy-sweetie” demeanour reminiscent of the younger Nicola herself. She takes over the tough Social Work brief from the very capable Jean Freeman at Health and Sport. Jean is just the kind of straight-talking, clear-seeing, hands-on stable-cleaner the struggling, high-profile NHS needs. How she performs will be pivotal.

Incidentally, you may wonder why a parliament of only 129 members would need a Cabinet  of 12, with 11 other ministers. That’s 37% of the 62 SNP MSPs with a ministerial job but Westminster has 118 ministers, giving them a similar 37% of 316 Tory MPs.

As for Junior Ministers, we now have a mix of Time Servers and Young Turks. Kevin Stewart, Joe Fitzpatrick, Christina McKelvie and Graeme Dey are still at their posts, having done little but nurture their party base and deliver rent-a-quote questions on cue at FMQs. Only Paul Wheelhouse has shown promise, but his Borders base is weak in SNP terms, giving little leverage within the party.

The balance are almost all Young Turks—unknown quantities first arriving in 2016. This means they owe little to sclerotic party structure beloved of the Old Guard and Time Servers. Here is where Nicola’s hope must lie. Her Government is still popular but running on air. The Parliament is seen as increasingly irrelevant by even politically savvy Scots. For years few debates or laws have grabbed headlines, let alone sparked imaginations. Scoring points in the Chamber has become irrelevant. If  Young Turks decline to be satisfied with business-as-usual that could be a game-changer.

Ash Denham (along with Jean Freeman) showed promise in the Yes and WFI campaigns such that she won Kenny MacAskill’s old seat.  But her brief of Community Security and a stint working for Fiona Hyslop may blunt that promise. As Minister for Trade, Investment and Innovation, Ivan McKee holds a key brief and comes closest to qualifying as a Technocrat. Given his head, his business and international experience could light some economic fires. But whether the career-canny Derek Mackay will permit that and whether the good people of Glasgow Provam re-elect him are major unknowns. The spirit of the much-missed Margo Macdonald still stalks the Parliament. But whether these two or any other Young Turk becomes infused with it will take guts—neither Nicola Sturgeon nor Johm Swinney could abide her free spirit. But the punters loved her.

The one thing that this reshuffle highlights is the shallow nature of the talent pool into which Nicola can dip. Alert readers will have noted scant mention of Technocrat—people offering deep knowledge and/or experience of key fields: business, education, finance , technology, etc. Such as the party once had were sidelined by ambitions Old Guard and Time Servers. This reshuffle could do nothing about redressing that. But this must change—not only to widen vision with fresh ideas to deserve power, but to find the far more visionary ones necessitated by independence.

For reference, Cabinet members, Ministers and their respective posts are listed below.

Cabinet

The Cabinet is the main decision-making body of the Scottish Government. It is made up of the First Minister, all Cabinet Secretaries, Minister for Parliamentary Business and Permanent Secretary. The Lord Advocate may also attend in his or her role as the Scottish Government’s principal legal adviser. Cabinet meetings are held weekly during Parliament in Bute House, Edinburgh, and may also be held at other times in locations throughout Scotland. The Cabinet consists now has 12 members, still gender-balanced:

Ministers

Cabinet Secretaries are supported by Ministers. Responsibilities and biographies of Ministers, including the Lord Advocate and Solicitor General (who are also the principal legal advisers to the Scottish Government), are below.

  • Minister for Parliamentary Business and Veteran
  • Paul Wheelhouse MSP Minister for Energy, Connectivity and the Islands
  • Ash Denham MSP Minister for Community Safety
  • Maree Todd MSP Minister for Children and Young People(Awaiting Appointment) Minister for Further Education, Higher Education and Science
  • Kevin Stewart MSP Minister for Local Government, Housing and Plannin
  • Jamie Hepburn MSP Minister for Business, Fair Work and Skills
  • Joe FitzPatrick MSP Minister for Public Health, Sport and Wellbeing
  • Clare Haughey MSP Minister for Mental Health
  • Ben Macpherson MSP Minister for Europe, Migration and International Developmen
  • Christina McKelvie MSP Minister for Older People and Equalitie
  • Ivan McKee MSP Minister for Trade, Investment and Innovation
  • Kate Forbes MSP Minister for Public Finance and Digital Economy
  • Mairi Gougeon MSP Minister for Rural Affairs and the Natural EnvironmenJames
  • Wolffe QC Lord Advocate
  • Alison Di Rollo Solicitor General
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The Bedrock of England

Down the years, I have spent many a pleasant week visiting friends in Norfolk. At over two hours from London by fastest train, it is mercifully still relatively unspoiled by the explosion of building, crowds and traffic that is London and its commuter belt. But, until this month, I had not spent more than the odd day in North Norfolk, the bucolic quilt of farm and village, forest and field that rolls over fifty miles between Norwich and The Wash.

The first thing to strike you is how ageless it seems. A myriad of small villages each have their own quirky character in flint brick and tile roof as they cluster around village churches mostly built by Normans and Angles and straggling down Street patterns that date from the Doomsday Book. But partly because this was once the richest Dukedom in England and partly because the royal retreat on Sandringham is slap in the middle of it, the villages are interspersed with sprawling country estates like Holkham and Houghton and up market villages like Great Wasingham that are almost Chelsea, grafted onto a rural setting.

MapNNorfolk

Map of North Norfolk—Hardly a Town or A-Class Road in Sight

The only town of any size is Fakeham, which provides the local supermarlet but barely reaches 7,000 population. Spreading out from there in a bewildering spider’s web of narrow and unsignposted back roads that are a joy to explore. You might come across Lord Nelson’s home hamlet of Burnham Thorpe or the Wells and Walsingham Light Railway, or the church at South Creake whose ‘new; cei doling was painted to celebrate Agincourt.

BlakeneyPier

The Pier at Blakeney

But my favourite part is that coast—unlike the rocky coast here in East Lothian and even the straight shingle and low cliffs all the rest Of Norfolk, this shore is more of a puzzle then the web of black roads. Beaches can be huge, as at Holkham. Wells-Next-The-Sea and Cleys-Next-The-Sea are ports, but misleading misnomers, for the lie over a mile from open water, up tortuous channels that need to be dredged to keep then open. In between are endless expenses of salt marsh, crisscrossed my tidal channels, navigation is documented only in local folklore.

For the less adventurous, the truth of such folklore are available fresh in the local restaurants. You can even pick up a deliciously fresh dressed Wells crab for as little as £4 on the quayside there. And if you should get talking to people there on the pier, whose business take them there every day, don’t be deceived by their slow accent and think of them as bucolic throwbacks. Watch instead the steady eyes; feel the firm handshake; sense the ready warmth and humour. At the market, in the pub or working the fields, these people are as deeply and organically rooted in this placeas their churches and their houses. They are still the yeomen bedrock on which England was built.

BlakeneyBoat

Exploring Blakeney Marsh on Coastal Advenure Co’s Restored Norfolk Fishing Smack

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The Bottle of Britain

In all this unseemly scrabbling for political lifebelts by the UK government as the  rudderless SS Great Britain rushes ever nearer the Falls of Brexit, there is little manifestation of either the Dunkirk Spirit or the stiff upper lip or the unsinkable Jolly Tar who built an Empire with their bare hands and held on to it in its darkest hours. For that is not the Britain that the brexiteers are burning to create. What they seem to want is some global version of Del Boy— an amalgam of Canary Wharf with Open All Hours.

There is nothing wrong in creating well through enterprise. Capitlaising on the opportunity of Empire, Scots parlayed themselves into the richest country in the world in 1910. The IFS has now taken a jaundiced view of the Sustainable Growth Commission’s recent economic projections for an independent Scotland. They pours cold water on the likelihood of achieving such economic greatness again. In fact, they predict the need for commenting austerity for at least the next decade.

Is this all of which we are capable? A country that explored the world, invented the agricultural and industrial revolution, spawned successful countries like the USA, Canada and Australia, established the planet’s first lingua franca is reduced to a has-been with a penurious future? It is true the Great White Queen no linger paints the globe pink, that we no longer manufacture steel and shirts and ships for the world.

Have the Scots no option but to join in the traditional Tory dirge of “too wee, too poor”, sung to the tune of “Rule Britannia“? Hell, no!

Those Scots who have raised their eyes beyond the myopia of Little Englanders to how small countries like Norway, Ireland and Singspore have fared since parting with their colonial masters (in  1903, 1922 and 1961, respectively would learn that their first decade did not overflow with riches. But any plebiscite to return to the mother country held now would fail to gain any support. In fact, no countrry, once freed, has sheepishly asked for readmission.

Hardline Brexiteers want Britain out of the EU because they claim it will release trade and enhance affluence. But they are in a time warp when Britain still had the global clout to deal from a position of strength. Britain has no strong card to play in the poker game of global trade. But Ireland has parlayed EU bases for multinationals, Norway has parlayed oil, Singapore has parlayed Asian financial service and shipping hub into prosperity Britain now envies.

What Tories, the OBR, the IFS and other naysayers all assume is that an independent Scotland would simply continue as an unimaginative branch office of the sclerotic sate that Chancellor Brown led us into 1997-2010.

What if Scots revived the pride and entrepreneurial magic of a century ago and exploited similar niches. What if we made Weir Pumps into the global powerhouse for high pressure engineering that Apple is for smart electronics? What if we cornered the market on tidal and wave power, as well as wind? What if we exploited the imminent loss of the Arctic  ice sheet by seeing Scapa Flow as the obvious trade trans-shipment hub for transpolar traffic to/from China?

What if, instead of wresting over the same inward-looking fixations as the English like waiting times, train punctuality and  airport runways, we raised our eyes, not just to independence, but what we could DO with it? What if we tapped into the guts and vision of the Glasgow tobacco barons who made their city famous? What if we tapped into the imagination of ship architects who made the country famous? What if we said, politely, to our uncollegiate southern cousins: “thank you for three centuries of profitable and proud partnership but we are off to join the world again”.

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