Row Wir Ain Boat

Among the many obstacles thrown by Unionists in the path of Scottish Independence is the issue of currency. This is a fair question and one that deserves a plausible answer. Unfortunately, due to partisan heat generated in the run-up to the 2014 referendum, there was les of a debate and more of a bun fight, with the media asking pointed questions and the independistas offering an incoherent and therefore less than persuasive set of responses, the most persuasive and seamless of which was “to keep the Pound”. This, however, ran into a further series of obstacles, including;

  • This would be blocked by Westminster
  • This would scupper any chance of keeping/regaining EU membership, as they insist any new members join the Euro.
  • This would tie Scotland to UK fiscal policy and therefore undercut the whole point of independence

Let’s consider these reasonable objections to Scotland using the Pound one by one.

  1. Permission from Westminster. This would not be the first example of such practice. The Channel Islands and the Isle of Man already do. And there is better precedence in the number of countries pegged to or using the US dollar, including most of the Middle East and Latin American countries like Panama and Cuba, the latter being twice the size of Scotland. None of them ask permission from the US Treasury to do this.
  2. EU & the Euro. Membership of the EU may be desirable but membership of the Euro isn’t. It has helped major countries like France but even medium-sized ones like Spain have been trapped in an economic bind, unable to adjust their exchange rate. A single currency without a single government is unstable and counties like Denmark, Sweden, Poland and Hungary have been wise to avoid it indefinitely. Scotland could do the same.
  3. Locked into UK Fiscal Policy. Initially, this would be true.  But this would also be a time when both economies were still compatible and Westminster fiscal policy would still make sense. It would also provide stability for foreign investment and time to set up our own central bank and associated fiscal mechanism. But it need not be permanent.

Being fully fiscally aligned may suit Scotland initially. Indeed, this is the situation we are in now, with Scottish banks issuing notes that are technically for a Scottish currency, which is fully equivalent to an English pound sterling. Upon independence, this would continue and there is little that a UK government or the Bank of England could do to prevent it. Indeed, there is some advantage to them, as the Scottish economy would effectively be tied to and add some 10% more weight to the pound in the world.

At a pace set by Scotland, they would develop their own fiscal structures, including a central bank and a true Scottish pound that would be pegged to the UK pound, Though this would limit fiscal policy, especially exchange and interest rates, the stability gained would promote inward investment and ease borrowing. To invest in a renewed Scottish economy, this latter would permit the serious spending necessary on infrastructure but the existing debt would not weigh on the pound sterling as Scotland’s economy would remain small (<10%), as compared to the UK.

This situation could continue indefinitely, provided UK fiscal policy remained appropriate  for Scotland’s growth. Should, however, some serious economic downturn, such as happened to Spain, especially its property market over a decade ago, having all the trappings of a full currency, Scotland would have the option of decoupling its pound from the UK pound and either devaluing it or allowing it to float as a countermeasure not available to counties like Spain  tied to the Euro.


Posted in Commerce, Politics | Tagged | Leave a comment

The Antiquated States of America.

The USA is rightly regarded as the birthplace of many ideas that now underpin the modern world.  From mass production to  household white goods to air travel to semiconductors to genetics, to computers, mobile phones, space travel, not to mention fast food, fast cars and Facebook, Even if they didn’t invent it, they found a way to develop lucrativel markets from it. All this made them the richest country on the planet.

But there is one key area where thus bustling modern state seems stuck in the 18th century—civic geography and government. Their system, born in the crucible of their War of Independence from Britain worked well in forging a nation out of 13 highly individual colonies who jealously guarded their right to do things their way within the umbrella of a union.

As the country prospered, spilling over the Appalachians, absorbing the Louisiana Purchase and the spoils of the Mexican War, territories were carved out with simplistic, straight-line boundaries with little reference to actual geographical features. In a short time these grew into states, with little reference to whether a system born on the Delaware still made sense on the Columbia.

What is true of states is also true of the counties and cities into which states are sub-divided. Away from the East Coast, counties are almost always rectangular boxes on the map, paying little heed to geography,. In California, the Gold Country, where the states prosperity started is split into a half-dozen counties with populations of a few thousand. In contrast, San Bernadino County contains not just a city of a quarter-million of the same name but suburbs like San Dimas (home to Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure), plus half the Mojave Desert. Cities often occur in agglomerations with convoluted boundaries, often with lumps of unincorporated county land embedded within them. While prosperity boomed, the inefficiencies inherent in this for services like individual police and fire departments did not much matter. But there has been no redrawing or consolidation since these boundaries were set to adjust to modern population patterns, as there has in Europe.

Restructuring a prosperous and litigious country of 4,000,000 square miles and 328,000,000 people is a massive, if not impossible, task.  But there a few places crying out for reform where a stat could be made. California (pop. 39m) sends two senators to Washington. Several states, including Wyoming, Delaware, Alaska, Vermont and both Dakotas have populations under 1m. Yet all send two senators to Washington. If strongly Democrat California sent senators in proportion to its population, Trump would have been impeached by the Senate.

One obvious and simple answer (arrived at a century ago, but never implemented) is to split California into two states. The North and South elements are already culturally distinct so this might even prove popular.

If Americans were game for biting the bullet with urgent reform, they should consider their main metropolitan areas, currently split among states, as well as cities. Although these may cause conniption fits (as they might say) among Americans, here are some suggestions how things might be better organised:

  1. New England, Fold Rhode Island into Massachusetts and merge New Hampshire and Vermont with Maine, giving states with populations of 7m an 4m respectively.
  2. New York. Split the city and lower Hudson off from the state (which would retain ~9m population) and combine with Connecticut and Northern New Jersey to make a metropolitan ‘state’ of ~17m people.  Southern New Jersey would become part of…
  3. Philadelphia, which would split from Pennsylvania (leaving it with 10m people) and taking in Delaware to form another metropolitan ‘state’ of some 5m people.
  4. Washington would cease its amorphous ‘DC’ status expand to include Maryland and Northern Virginia, leaving 6m there and forming a metropolitan ‘state’ of ~9m
  5. Chicago would expand to include the adjacent urban counties of Illinois (leaving it ~7m people) and those around Gary in Northern Indiana to result in a metropolitan ‘state’ of some 5m.

America tends to regard Europe as archaic. Oncem Germany was indeed a myriad of statelets and Italy a jigsaw with larger pieces. But Bismarck and Garibaldu sorted that out 150 years ago And cities like Munich, Amsterdam or Barcelona boast transport, planning and services more coherent than Americans city-dwellers enjoy.

Some might rail at the demise of historic states but their identity could be retained, even if the civic power isn’t.  other might protest that it implies (assuming two Californias) a net loss of two states to equal  the earlier 48. This could be redressed by splitting the remaining two larges states:Texas (28m) and Florida (20m) in two. This would restore the total to 50 and make a better senatorial balance at the same time.

But civic incoherence is not solely the province of our American cousins. The City of London (pop. 8,000) is only a small part of, the city of London (pop. 8m). Neither Berwick-on-Tweed, nor North Berwick are within the county of Berwickshire.

As those Americans might say: “Go figure!”



Posted in Community, Politics | Tagged | Leave a comment

The Sincerest Form of Flattery

In the brouhaha surrounding Sajid Javid picking up his abacus and going home, the media has paid much less attention to what the Sorcerer of No 10 and his Apprentice were doing that triggered it. Post-December 12th, a reshuffle was always on the cards. Some pundits even predicted the idea that a whopping majority of 80 relaxed the need for orthodoxy in building a broader church within Cabinet.

That did not turn out to be the case. Even loyal leavers like Andrea Ledsome and Esther McVey both got their jotters—the former for having a mind of her own; the latter for not showing enough leadership, as in response to last weekend’s floods in Calder Valley. More significant than either was the removal of Julian Smith from Northern Ireland. This was both unexpected and undeserved. Not only had be brought a fractious Assembly back to life after three years of dissolution, but significant politicians from Arlene Foster to the Taoiseach had good words to say about his efficacy.

He was removed for agreeing that investigations into deaths caused during the Troubles could be made. This did not sit well with backwoods Tories, who object to former soldiers being put on trial after half a century. This may have deeper long-term effects than the loss of a Chancellor.

The media have also been conveying the plausible story that effectively merging No10 and No 11 makes sense. Chancellors and Prime Ministers must get along—Osborne did with Cameron and Brown did with Blair. Examples of poor teamwork are Hammond with May or Howe with Thatcher. These did cause friction (both public and private). But there is an equally cogent argument that a strong Chancellor is necessary to balance the spending tendencies of government.

Were this all, uneasiness at such centralisation might be unfounded. 21st © communications facilitates a web of unity, leading to clarity. This may seem desirable. But consider who sits at the centre of such a web: Boris Johnson and Dominic Cummings, (a.k.a. Boris & The Dominator). The former hides a robust ego and unswerving ambition under a cloak of affable buffoonery. The latter is on record as early as 2014 that the Treasury must be brought under control; more recently that all Cabinet special advisers (SPADs) become subservient to him as Chief of Staff, just as Ministers are to the PM. This will be much more than a smoothing out of workings between No11 and No 10. The reshuffle has set the tome.

You need look no farther than our ‘Special Relationship’ to find the model on which such an approach is being built. America has long been boastfully proud of its Constitution. Its democratic lock derives from a balance of power among three elements: Executive (= President), Legislature (= Congress); Judiciary (= Supreme Court). While everyone behaved themselves within the spirit, if not the letter, of the Constitution, all went well for over 200 years. Only in the 1990s when Newt Gingrich and frustrated Republicans tore up etiquette and went for Clinton’s jugular did flaws start to show..

Over the last three years. America’s President has taken his powerful jalopy out on the highway and put his foot down. Prior to Trump, partisanship was downplayed by predecessors. But Trump’s partisanship is of a new kind: it’s personal. His success in dropping taxes and boosting the economy has thirled the Republican party to his personal cause. By behaving like the big wheel mogul he sees himself as, he has flat-footed conventional political opposition. He has no scruples about using all levers under his control to further personal interests. The failed impeachment shows Legislature to be disabled as a check on his power. And, had that impeachment been approved, it would have been struck down by the Supreme Court, to which  Trump has appointed right-wing judges unlikely to censure him.

This behaviour is consistent and disturbing. The Miller report condemning Trump’s actions was ignored and Miller subjected to a Twitter lambasting by the President himself.  Various Trump appointees have fallen like flies by either daring to contradict him or resigning in frustration. The latest is the Attorney General William P. Barr (in post for a year) who has complained in public, along with the four judges involved, that Trump has demanded the 9-year sentence recommended for a friend of his be reduced.

More disturbing than Cabinet turnover is US spending. The voodoo economics of tax curs for the rich paying for themselves has not come to pass. US national debt has climbed to $22 trillion (over £50,000 for every American). The UK’s massive £2 trillion debt is half that per person. Unlike the deficits of the mid-20th century, the money is not being invested in infrastructure like highways and dams.


Boris and The Dominator may not have presidential powers, but they are taking the unwritten—and therefore more amenable—British constitution that way. And who’s to stop them? An inexperienced Chancellor? SPADs from all departments subject to the Chief of Staff ? Labour leader contenders more focussed on transgender than transport? The temptation to mimic an autocratic White House beckons. Centralisation reduces disputes and imposes speedy decision-making. And there lie serious dangers. It goes beyond a pliant Treasury allowing the government to spend like drunken sailors and Just ask the Germans or the Russians about their last-century experiences with centralisation.

Ironically, the one hope of salvation from Boris and The Dominator’s Trump adulation may be the backwoodsmen of the Tory party, referred to above. They may have kept quiet so as not to frighten the voters during the election. But now they have Brexit under their belt, they are gathering their pitchforks and re-lighting their torches to take on HS2 and figuratively re-deploy steam gunboats in the Channel to see off Johnny Foreigner. Cue Huawei’s impudent bid to provide 5G or CMCC cheek in undercutting rail-building barons. A dozen bolshie Tory backbenchers could be our best defence against rampant Tumpian triumphalism.


Posted in Politics | Tagged | Leave a comment

Britannia Waives the Rules

Here we are at the cliff edge: January 31st 2020, the day a long, tortuous time coming that is supposed to make over 17 million people joyous and under 17 million miserable. As of tomorrow, we ate all liberated or stuffed, depending on your stance on Brexit.

Actually, very little of the foregoing is true. Many of the 34 million who did vote and most of the 31 million who didn’t regret the embarrassment of this fankle we got into, irrespective how it pans out. Friends, forms and families have all been riven between Leavers and Reminers. This hour has not been Britain’s finest.

It is possible that, freed of restrictive EU regulations, Britain Redux may blaze a bright path across the economic firmament, dominating trade and enriching its citizens. But ah hae ma doots.

Why? Because most of the case made for Brexit is for a Land of Hope through Glorious Isolation. This reeks of rhetoric from a century ago, when it was deployed—along with gunboats—by nabobs of the Great Queen to exploit the rest of the planet.  While Lancashire mills, Rhondda mines, Clyde shipyards and City counting houses minted the resulting moolah, it all worked like a dream. It’s little wonder we harbour folk memories of  such heady history.

Those who endlessly cite the 2016 referendum result as “the will of the people” seem oblivious to those halcyon days being gone. Still less do they appreciate the degree to which two world wars, a profligacy with North Sea oil and regulatory “light touch” that led to the 2008 financial crisis have all left Britain in poor shape to sail the choppy economic seas of the 21st century alone. Cutting ties to the third-biggest economy bloc, we will be up against the BRICs and Asian tigers, not to mention China.

Dare we pin our hopes on a ‘special relationship’ with the USA to cut at least one good trade deal? That seems delusional.

Isolated larger countries can survive—Brasil, Australia and Russia all do well. But they exploit vast resources. Isolated smaller countries can also do well—Singapore, Gulf States, Switzerland do well. But they have small population to feed and profitable global USPs. The world may beat a path to Britain’s door to buy whisky and Rolls Royce engines. But what else? The country that invented railways now buys its trains from Hitachi and Siemens. Though there are hordes of good British SMEs, where are our answers to Apple, Facebook, Amazon or—dare we say it—Huawei. Small countries can survive without breeding such giants. But not 65 million who spent the last three decades living beyond their means.

Britain is handling a £2,000,000,000,000 public debt because interest rates are risible. Were rates to rise to ‘normal’ levels—say 2.5%—the £50bn to be paid in interest would exceed the entire UK defence budget. There are opportunities in global trade. But, as Britain runs a £48bn trade deficit, we don’t make enough of what the world wants. Singapore and Netherlands prosper as entrepots, trans-shipping goods bound for elsewhere. But neither has 65m mouths to feed.

The UK government has signalled that, from 2021 onward, it will not follow EU rules. That means our £291bn exports there will suffer bureaucratic or customs friction and decline. The EU’s £1,876bn with the RoW will not suffer that effect. UK trade flexibility could open markets elsewhere, primarily in the USA.  But examines our ‘special relationship’ down the years. From Woodrow Wilson to Donald Trump, Churchill at Tehran, Eden over Suez, Wilson over the IMF all got short shrift when British clashed with American interest. Anyone thinking they won’t play hard-ball with an isolated Britain shows a poor grasp of both Americans and their deal-making, and.

What the currently gleeful coteries around Downing Street, the ERG and the Brexit Party seem not to grasp is that Britain, far from being the heavyweight dispatching Edwardian gunboats to bring Johnny Foreigner to heel, has neither the influence, nor the heft to reassert it. The White Star Line, North British Locomotive and Leyland are all history…and we have no USP to replace them.

So, as we sever ties to friends across the water, and that 50% of trade with them that built our present prosperity, are we waving their rules for a tangible purpose? Or are we just waving shared prosperity goodbye?


Posted in Commerce, Politics | Tagged | Leave a comment

Abelio Runs Out of Track

ScotRail has come into some stick from customers for habitual poor service, especially since the franchise was taken over by Abelio four yeas ago. There have been a catalogue of criticisms, many of them recurring as frequently as Abelio promises of improvements.  These include:

  • October 2016: 19,000 people back a petition calling for Abellio to be stripped of its ScotRail contract over delays and cancellations.
  • May 2018: ScotRail misses performance targets in 22 out of 34 areas in the first months of that year. They were hammered with a £1.6m fine.
  • July 2018: The first of a new batch of electric trains start running four months after they were promised.
  • October 2018: Performance level hits the lowest since the franchise began in 2015.
  • December 2018: The rail operator is given eight weeks to improve performance in an official notice issued by the Scottish Government after a surge in cancellations.
  • January 2019: Passenger satisfaction falls to a 16-year low and ScotRail apologises for “unacceptable service”. The Sun excoriates them for this.
  • February 2019: ScotRail is given a second notice after failing to meeting passenger satisfaction targets. Figures show that staff shortages caused the cancellation of thousands of ScotRail services since April 2018.
  • August 2019: Major disruption and claims of dangerous overcrowding during the Edinburgh Fringe.
  • Transport Secretary Michael Matheson announces franchise will end in March 2022, three years earlier than expected.

The analysis of this slow car crash by Douglas Fraser, BBC Business and Economics Editor, Scotland does not make for pleasant reading.

It did not have to end this way. Abelio should have been the godsend to rescue Scottish rail services from the penny-pinching, profit-obsessed clutches of First Group. They had run it like there bus operations—as a “cash cow”. But also, Abelio is a subsidiary of Nederlands Spoorwagen (NS = Dutch Railways). Anyone visiting Holland can’t fail to be impressed by the smooth, fast, punctual operations of their superb and frequent trains.

As it turned out, little of that expetise made its way to ScotRail. Indeed, the mediocre management ingerited from First was largely left in place and the cash cow milked in the same old way to subsidise NS to the tune of several £million each year.

To be fair, improvements like free WiFi, new trains and auto station announcements did happen. But had the ever-higher fares been invested in the ScotRail system, rather than repatriated to Holland, they might have avoided losing the franchise and addressed the many operational shortcomings that pushed their customers patience into seeing red, such as:

  • Cancellation of trains with no notice, often because train crews were unavailable
  • Turning services before the outbound terminus to avoid the return being late.
  • Station announcement boards showing ate/cancelled trains as “on time”.
  • Overcrowded trains with too few carriages causing poor fare collection.
  • New contactless card readers are still not usable by most tickets.
  • Total lack of bus co-ordination or common ticketing (c.f. London’s Oyster).
  • Refusal to try new routes or even extra trains for events like the Festival.
  • Lack of interest in tourism, e.g. promotion tickets to attractions.

Generally, new trains are fast, clean and bright, train staff are capable and pleasant and new service (Borders, Alloa) are great successes. But operational management of the system has been shoddy, verging on the amateur. Business oportunities to boost profits are ignored. As an example, ridership on the line into booming East Lothian has doubled in a decade. But apart from newer trains, nothing has been done to encourage more because trains and station car parks are both full. The extra £1m profit they now make here forms part of what disappears to Holland.

It’s high time Abelio was stripped of a franchise they simply have not earned. There is a strong argument coming from both unions and the Greens that this should be taken back into public ownership. But, whatever happens, don‘t give it back to First!

Posted in Transport | Tagged | Leave a comment

For “One Nation”, read “England”

Everyone, including the First Minister, accepts that Boris Johnson won an historic victory on December 12th and is highly likely to achieve Brexit by January 31st and look forward to five years of rule but fat majority. There is a reasonable expectation that this same fat majority will allow him to face down the more rabid Brexiteers around the ERG and take the sensible tack he did as Mayor of London, where he built a fair reputation for gathering competent people around him and let them do the hard work while he built bridges to the myriad communities in that most cosmopolitan of cities.

And to prevent the many blue bricks bulldozed out of Labour’s northern “Red Wall” from turning red again at the first opportunity, he needs to  woo ‘Workington Man’ with some real infrastructure, employment and social investment that does not risk him being taken up an alley behind the Tunbridge Wells Bridge Club. That, plus the heavy task on coming good on the economic boost promised by trade deals with all comers should keep him very busy all the way to 2024, when his tenure will next be tested.

Which is a shame. Because the Union, about which he claims to feel so strongly, is likely to be falling apart by then. He has already picked a fight with a resurgent SNP by flatly denying that the mandate they won in Scotland is even more convincing than his own impressive one in England. Whatever the legal situation, it is hard to see democratic justification for asserting his 43% UK vote share entitles him to Thatcher-esque autocracy over the UK when the SNP’s 47% does not entitle them to a similar mandate in Scotland.

And it is not just intransigent Canute act with the Scots that will endanger his precious Union. With its habitual Anglo-centric bent, the London media was even more scant in its reading of implications of election results in Northern Ireland than in Scotland. Although not as clear cut as the SNP’s sweep of 80% of seats, for the first time, the dour voices of Ulster Unionists did not secure a majority of the 19 seats. The DUP won 8, losing their Westminster leader in the process; Sinn Fein won 7; SDLP 2 and the non-sectarian Alliance 1.

With Stormont out of action for three years, with the DUP no longer relevant as Westminster kingmakers and public services (especially the NHS) drifting with no political guidance, the sense of impotence and abandonment that drove Scots into the arms of the SNP may well do similar in Ulster. Boris’ “Deal” that effectively puts a border n the Irish Sea and the ever-stronger economic ties with Eire will have the people of the six counties wondering just who their friends really are.

Quite apart from his temperament, given that the ‘Unionist’ part of his party’s name actually refers to Ireland, Boris will be in no frame of mind to treat aspirations in Northern Ireland any less peremptorily than he already has done to the Scots. However much the ‘One Nation” epithet Boris may apply to himself and even his party, it will be a stretch for him to reach, address and satisfy his converts in Leigh, Sedgefield, Grimsby, Wakefield, etc., let alone Kensington and the Tory shires.

Take one look at the coloured media maps of the election result by constituency. England and Wales are covered with a patchwork of Tory blue surrounding red islands of Labour. Scotland is wall-to-wall yellow. Northern Ireland has neither red or blue but swathes of other colours. It looks more like three different countries—certainly not like a union.



UK 2019 Election Results Map by Party

As England’s population of 55 million represents 72% of the entire UK (77m), it is natural that it should dominate debate. But, as with the crucial Brexit debate, the degree to which Remain-voting components of the UK (Scotland and Northern Ireland) were drowned out by the disproportionate scale of England’s voice. The word ‘union’ implies that there are two or more elements involved. If, as happened with oil and now with Brexit, the larger partner in the union ignores the other to follow its own purposes, yet requires the smaller partner to comply with its every whim, then this verges on abuse, Similar behaviour between two people in a marriage would be considered unacceptable and justify divorce, irrespective of the wishes of the other partner.
It is possible that, having formed a stable government on the back of his large majority, Boris may soften his confrontational attitude towards junior members of the Union. He may see the tension into which Spain is thrown by aggressive repression of a clearly democratic effort by Catalans to secure themselves as a county. Or he may be swept up by the London-centric fixation of the Tory party and consider the HS2 project adequate recompense for the rest of the country to balance the £billions thrown at CrossRail.
Unfortunately, the Tory track record on perceiving that a union requires consideration of other partners is poor. From Highland estates, to oil, to Trident at Faslane, to Thatcher’s Sermon on the Mound and the Feeble Fifty, to opposition to a Scottish Parliament, to Brexit and now to a second referendum, the priority has been on one nation: England and its best interests. They tried to rule the American colonies in England’s interest and lost the greatest asset the Empire ever had. Even when forced by revolt and bloodshed to let Ireland leave the Union, they held on to six Irish counties. Look how well that turned out over the last century, when compared with a peaceful and now more prosperous Republic.
Remaining parts of the Union might as well be colonies, for all the say they have…or may ever have under “One Nation” Tories.

Posted in Politics | Tagged | Leave a comment

The Impotence of Being Earnest

Unless you have been snow-camping in the Mamores for the last month or are a fanatic for one party you will be cringing every time the word ‘election’ is mentioned. And the fervour with which the media—BBC especially—are banging on about it could tightly be accused of overkill. But they are not the main culprits.

Because, when you talk to the average voter and reassure them that you are not there to punt any particular point of view, they tend to lose that look of panic and calm down. For younger voters, brought up with mobile phones and Facebook, the scrappy, sound-bite nature of modern discourse on social media is second nature. If you can’t tweet or text it, the message isn’t worth digesting.

Older votes recall gentler days, when party political broadcasts might actually be watched and leaflets read. But that was before broadcasters discovered the jump cut, the gladiatorial lure of the leaders’ debate and the rottweiler interview.

To be fair to the politicians, such developments forced them into a media arms race. Whereas fifty years ago, any senior politician being interviewed would be treated with deference and respect. They had, after all, deigned to discuss things in public, for which the interviewer should be suitably grateful. Asking a question more than once was deemed rude. As interviewers became more forensic, interviewees became more evasive. This was compounded when party staffers discovered media management and armed their politician front men with media training, the basic rules of which are:

  • Appear authoritative; never stumble; keep talking
  • Always be positive—admit nothing
  • Answer a different question if the first one is awkward
  • Punt your policy sound bite whether its germane or not
  • Bad-mouth the opposition at any opportunity.

Once one party (actually the Tories) had hired the Young Turk SPADs who became the priesthood of this religion, major parties followed suit. This led to embracing techniques culled from other countries, like ‘air war’ vs ‘ground war’, focus groups, phone canvassing, targeted mailing, etc. To marshal and manage the complexities and subtleties of all this, the ‘Chief of Staff’ role became pivotal. By dint of experience, parties learned that this role required the properties of a sales whizz, a drill sergeant and a pit bull. The result wasn’t pretty. But it was effective. As the prototype, Alaastair Campbell showed what could be done by delivering Blair a series of election victories and spawning the highly entertaining “In the Thick of It“.

Since Blair stood down, Alaastair has had many imitators, with both the present two main exponents of the creed (Dominic Cumming for Boris Johnson and Seamus Milne for Jeremy Corbyn) being just as uncompromising in ranking effectiveness above all else. They may be titled “Executive Director of Strategy and Communications” or whatever, but make no mistake: they dominate how the party—and that includes all senior members—behave in the public eye.

Sadly, while this pubic stonewalling prevents too much discussion of real issues—let lone car crash disasters—it has bred a level of cynicism among all kinds of voters, whether they pay attention or not. The media frenzy that features this merely adds to the cynicism. Even seasoned forensic interviewers of the Jeremy Paxman/Andrew Neil/Andrew Marr Illuminati make scant headway towards the truth when faced with evasion of such elegance that thee should be Brtawards for those involved.

All of which leaves those parties foolish enough to still believe honesty and sincerity has a place in 21st century politics pretty much out in the cold. It leaves Caroline Lucas coming across like a wide-eyed new ecology lecturer and Jo Swinson as an earnest girl scout. You can fault what they say. But in the bear-pit-masquerading-as-debate into which British elections have fallen, political success, if not survival, appears to hinge on how effectively you can hoodwink the electorate—as well as the interviewers.



Posted in Politics | Tagged | Leave a comment

And the Canute Cup for 2019 Goes to…

..the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party, for the umpteenth year running. While this award is so richly deserved, it is hard not to feel sympathy for a number of sincere and honorable people who have dedicated much of their lives to this party’s lost cause. Current members from Jackson Carlaw down to the most marginal coffee morning attendee may  well rail at such trite dismissal. But it’s their own fault.

A party with a long and influential history in England, it reached a high level of influence with Disraeli’s government of 1874-1880, a time when British explorers led entrepreneurs, backed by the Royal Navy, to dominate and influence the world. Sadly, the Scottish Conservatives were a sickly scion of that robust tree, reputedly able to send all of its MPs to London in a single first class railway compartment. This is small wonder.

Whereas, in England, while the party’s grandees wee uniformly upper-class, the bulk of its members and support came from middle-class pillars of society—bank manager and shopkeepers who may not have been to Eton of Oxbridge, but were (in today’s phrase) “aspirational. The rise of the Labour and concomitant decline of the Liberal parties couched the political debate in class terms, which amplified this social stratification of party support.

A parallel stratification was at work in Scotland, but here it rather worked to their disadvantage.  Post-Culloden, the landed gentry mostly adopted London-centric English culture and accent, following the English practice of identifying the status of strangers by the way they spoke. Edinburgh had little to offer the ambitious that could compare with the  power, the finance and the gentleman’s club networking beyond the Faculty of Advocates and the Honorable Company of Archers. Support from landed gentry evolved naturally to include farmers. But what gave Scottish Conservatives a much-needed shot in the arm in the 20th century was their opposition to Irish independence. The ‘Unionist’ part of their title refers to unity with Ireland, not to Scotland. Their staunch support for the Protestant unionists of Ulster garnered them major support among the (larger) Protestant working class, specially in and around Glasgow. This was augmented post-WW2 by some shrewd intermingling of social events with politics; people attended their popular tea dances just to meet ‘nice’ people.


What a Difference a Lifetime Can Make—The 1955 Unionist Heyday

This helps explain the unique phenomenon of the 1955 General Election, when, for the first and only time, Conservatives gained over half the votes cast. But this was delusion. The rule of the landed gentry grandee MP was over. William John St Clair Anstruther-Gray lost rural Berwickshire & East Lothian to a dynamic Labour academic John Macintosh. The pragmatic and therefore popular Teddy Taylor held Glasgow Cathcart against a decimating tide of Tory unpopularity in Scottish cities, perhaps because he had no class pretentions.

Against a waning influence of landed gentry, no robust Home Counties and Shires base as exists in England, rampant Labour support in cities and a disappearing Protestant vote, Thatcher’s reign sounded their death knell. Despite her early reforms Britain so desperately needed, she never saw Scotland as more than a province (c.f. “The Sermon on the Mound“) and the patrician arrogance of Ian Lang and Michael Forsyth sealed the fate in advance of  the 1997 wipe-out.

The following decade in the wilderness did little to change their mood music. Having bitterly opposed the Scottish Parliament, their acceptance of (almost all list) seats in it did people’s perception of their integrity no good. The pedestrian leadership initially displayed did little to help

Then, along came Ruth Davidson, the breath of fresh air they so desperately needed. Suddenly, the SNP Government were being held to account by Ruth and her Tories than the denizens of Numptygrad who lined Labour’s opposition benches. Not only was she a breath of fresh air after the stilted mirthlessness of McLetchie, Fraser, Carlaw and Liz Smith but she appealed to thousands normally put off by Tory policies and history. From one solitary MP—the hapless David Mundell—she galvanised her party and the electorate to return 13 in 2017. In the 2017 Scottish elections, she led 31 MSPs into the chamber, becoming the official opposition and keeping Nicola Sturgeon and her troops on their mettle far more effectively than the carousel of Labour leaders had done.

But this renaissance was not to last. Cameron misjudged the mood of Britain regarding the EU, May misjudged Tory party loyalties and played her Brexit cards too close to her chest and Johnson has behaved like a political bull in our parliamentary china shop.


Sixty Years  After the Unionist Heyday

Any party that has lost one third of its support, as Labour has, needs to look at its policies in the light of who it seeks to represent. But a party like the Conservatives, who have lost TWO thirds of their voters needs to ask why it exists.

If Scottish Tories are content to be a minor, marginal party, they may well exist for some time. Landowners, farmers, businessmen, professionals and public school alumni, many of them seeing themselves as British more than Scottish, do form a natural base. But that is barely 10-15% of the Scottish electorate. A century ago, their forebears stuck their unionist heads in the sand over Ireland. The result was partition, bad blood, The Troubles, thousands dead and—ironically—the divisive Backstop that torpedoed May’s Brexit deal.

To break out of that ghetto and gain widespread appeal to seriously contend for power in Scotland, they must (however distasteful this may be to the Old Guard) listen to the people they claim to represent and break with their English colleagues on three major issues. This means:

  1. Rejecting Brexit and adopt a Europhile approach
  2. Removing Trident from Faslane or anywhere else in Scotland
  3. Actively supporting Scottish Independence

I can already hear the Old Guard choking on their cornflakes at such outrageous proposals. But Scottish Tories cannot afford to be dragged j

kicking and screaming into independence (as they will be) the same way they were dragged to devolution. This would be political hari-kaei. And it would leave businessmen and professionals of a right-wing bent who are to generate and staff the economic renaissance that would follow ceasing to be the vassal of a stumbling England and joining the European community as a valued and active member

Or they can cling blindly to their rusting throne and let the tide of history engulf them, then sweep them away.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

US Founding Fathers Had Trump’s Number Two Centuries Ago

So, on the last day of October, after weeks of preliminary investigation, the US House of Representatives voted by a convincing margin to proceed with the impeachment of a sitting President for only the third time in the country’s history. Every Republican voted against this. Those Republicans are following the line given out by the President and his staffers that this is “a witch hunt”; “unconstitutional”; “secretive”;; etc.

In this, they appear to be both partisan and misguided, not to say ignorant of the Constitution in which the profess to believe and which they are sworn to uphold. Because among America’s founding fathers were some very shrewd operators—particularly Alexander Hamilton, whose views count heavily because he was the foremost proponent of a robust presidency. But conscious of the powers that would reside with that one individual, he also harboured an abiding fear that a brazen demagogue could seize the office. That worry explains why he was the one who analysed the balancing factor of impeachment in  detail: It would be required as a crucial instrument to curb possible abuses arising from extensive Presidential powers that he envisaged.

For the first 200 years, the ‘nuclear option’ of impeachment was never invoked. President after President from both parties sustained the dignity of the highest office in the land. Then came Nixon and Watergate and, in the stunning aftermath of the Vietnam War, a serious crisis of faith in the American system. Nixon at least when cornered, owned up to abuse of his office and  resigned. The impeachment attempt on Clinton twenty years later, being more partisan and of less import, fizzled out.

Unlike Thomas Jefferson, with his belief in people’s common sense, Hamilton concerned himself with their “turbulent and changing” nature. He feared an unholy trinity of traits in a future president — ambition, avarice and vanity. He worried about a “restless” and “daring usurper” who would excite the “jealousies and apprehensions” of his followers. He wanted the country to be governed by “wise and illustrious figures” who would counter the fickle views of the electorate with reasoned judgments.

And so after 242 years of figures living up to the high expectations pf their office, we come to Donald J. Trump— the type of man Hamilton most dreaded: a populist demagogue who would profess friendship for the people and pander to their prejudices while secretly betraying them. Such a false prophet would foment political frenzy and try to feed off the confusion. This is immediately recognisable as Trump.

What Trump and his Republican apologists seem to forget is that the morals of business deals and reality TV do not translate well into the dignity of high office and the impartiality of representing all 330 million people under care, rather than narcissism  and nepotism. Hamilton predicted there would be a Trump when he waned against:

“a dangerous ambition more often lurks behind the specious mask of zeal for the rights of the people than under the forbidden appearance of zeal for the firmness and efficiency of government. History will teach us that . . . of those men who have overturned the liberties of republics, the greatest number have begun their career by paying an obsequious court to the people; commencing demagogues, and ending tyrants.

What Hamilton failed to predict was:

  1. a supine electoral college, stuffed with party appointees, instead of individual wise thinkers.
  2. a supine Senate, more concerned with protecting ‘their’ President than demanding the noble and selfless spirit Hamilton had in mind when he empowered the office.
  3. a supine Supreme Court who, even if impeachment happens and passes the Senate, will quash any such impeachment

But who knows? Impeachment is no terrible swift sword and may well drag beyond next year’s election. If Trump loses, it’s all academic as it will be swallowed in a wave of law suits, once Presidential immunity evaporates.

Buy if, as the smart money has it, Trump trounces whichever of the myriad Democrat contenders who wind up opposing him, the circus will continue, Trump will denounce all opposition in his voluble way and Republicans will cling to his shabby coat tails. And the sensible, noble provisions Hamilton made so conscientiously will be trampled in an undignified public bar brawl for another four years.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Turkeys Vote for an Early Christmas

So the Brexit centipede’s final shoe has dropped and we are to endure the first General Election at Christmas for a century. Broadcast media are already hoaching with rentqaquotes from every party, burbling over their keenness to come to grips with their opponents and thereby win punters’ heats and minds.

Leave aside that those punters’ hearts are likely to be focused on whether to buy a Disney Rapunzel Vanity or and iPhone for their niece and their minds have, over the last three years, been gradually fortified against the predations of MPs who appear on TV with unavoidable frequency to eloquently rubbish one another, yet who cannot assemble agreement on the most important question facing Britain this century, despite pulling down £6,334 for each of the 41 months they have failed to do so. When their campaign gets underway in the dreich depths of winter, they may be warmed by the roasting they can expect on many doorsteps.

For, while media still conspire with politicians for these three years to pretend that various spokespersons speak with the honesty and clarity of Winston Churchill or Clement Atlee. Too many transparently self-serving statements have been made by small men (less often women) with small ambitions for this election to be seen by many as little more than a bun fight among political pygmies. To be sure, a voter with strong leave/remain views has some clear choices and will exercise them. But the indifferent and the tired-of-all-of-it may body-swerve the polls altogether.

Add in likely weather on December 12th and the turnout is likely to be low. This may reward Boris for sticking his neck out by suppressing Labour votes and pushing marginals into the Tory camp. This effect will be compounded by two additional factors: 1) Labour has a bigger civil war raging between the leftie Corbynistas and the centrist Blairits; 2) Corbyn himself is seen as un-electable as PM by anyone outside Labour..

But this does not mean a romp for Boris and his Tories. They will do well in the Home Counties and various shires. Nigel’s Brexit party are a spent force and won’t win seats. But their 10-15% will be enough to upset the Tory apple cart in leafy suburbs and the West Country where the Lib-Dems have strength and can milk their Remain credentials.  The Independent Group will be casualties, as will some very capable Tories like Ken Clark, Philip Hammond, Justine Greening, Rory Stewart and Dominic Raab, through the spite of BoJo and his Chief of Staff, Dominic Cummings.

The net result in England and Wales is likely to be a moderate Tory majority and a surge in Lib-Dems back to their pre-2015 strength.

But in Scotland, expect the story to be rather different. As late as 2006, Scotland was a Labour fiefdom, with other parties consigned to holding the odd seat and the Tories in limbo since their 1997 wipe-out debacle. Then the SNP shattered Labour hegemony in 2007, 2012 and 2015. Since Scots voted 63% Remain and the SNP has led a vocal resistance against being bounced out of the EU by English Eurosceptics, there is every chance of the Tories losing some of their hard-won seats and be left with a handful, mainly in the Northeast—especially since their doughty and effective leader Ruth Davidson has stepped down..

Labour, despite a revival in 2017, is a shadow of its former self, now that its power base and patronage system has been shattered. Although left-leaning, Scottish Labour is mostly at odds with Corbyn and will suffer the worst of both worlds. They will hold on to some seats where the MP is popular and effective, such as Ian Murray in Edinburgh South. But they will drop to single digits.

The Lib-Dems, though bouyed North of the Border by being europhile and a kindlier alternative to Tories, will also be squeezed—Orkney & Shetland will remain safe but even their leader Jo Swinson will need to look to her laurels not to get he jotters in Dumbartonshire East.

Irrespective of hat happens down South, in Scotland, the SNP will win big—not as big as their 56-seat landslide in 2015, but certainly getting halfway there from their present 36.But they could do better. If their leadership abandons its present timorous approach to leading the Scots to something better than a chattel of English jingoism and lay down some visionary policies, backed by plausible research, such as Andrew Wilson’s Sustainable Growth Commission report from 2018, they might do better.

Were they to articulate how wealthy Norway is from the same amount of oil as Scotland’s, how Netherlands is influential in the EU beyond its size and (especially) how Ireland not only recovered faster and better from the 2008 crash than the UK nut now boast a per capita GDP 40% higher than the UK, they might really set the heather alight.

Then not only would Indyref2 be a given but its outcome more likely to differ fro the first. Only then might the 438 Tory and Labour Unionist MPs when finally played nice and voted for a Dec 12th election realise that they were turkeys voting for an early Christmas and for the demise of the United Kingdom.

Posted in Community, Politics | Tagged | 1 Comment