Thursday, October 30, 2008

A message for over-excitable unionists everywhere:

Ahem...

Hello there. Before I start, I should make clear that this message isn't aimed at all unionists - far from it. I've been told before that I'm quite well-balanced (for a Nat, apparently), so in that spirit, it's time to repay a compliment which managed to be both back-handed and tongue in cheek at the same time. So with that said, level-headed, fair minded supporters of the UK, please exempt yourselves from what is to follow.

Now. I know that since I’m an SNP supporter, in the eyes of some very voluble commentators and commenters, everything I’m about to say will already be completely wrong before I’ve even said it. Don't worry - I'm used to it. I'm used to the silly jibes that everything I do as a supporter of independence is about fermenting ‘grudge and grievance’, propagating ‘myths’, or whatever the insult of the week happens to be. Unquestionably, what I’m about to say will also be ‘typical’ of some vice you imagine is held universally by those of my political persuasion. However, please, hang in there. It’ll do you good, I promise.

It’s no secret that for reasons best known to yourselves, some of you guys really dislike the SNP. I also know that some of you, in your desperation to try and do down the SNP and the cause of independence, will leap on any passing bandwagon, no matter how rickety or unsafe it may seem to those of us with cooler heads, be we pro-independence or pro-union.

In that spirit, I can understand how exciting it must have been to see yesterday’s Daily Mail, with its screaming front page headline about how Alex Salmond had been ‘slapped down’ by the Norwegian Foreign Minister. ‘Sent homewards to think again’… ‘whaur’s your arc of prosperity noo’… that sort of thing. ‘Bigger is better, so just shut up about how brilliant you think things are elsewhere’. All great knock-about stuff.

I hope I’m not being unduly critical. After all, if a Minister of the Crown like Jim Murphy can stand up in Parliament to accuse Norway and Ireland of being insolvent, then there’s little hope that the febrile, uni-loony attack dogs of cyberspace might adopt a more reasoned and intelligent stance. Frankly, therefore, my expectations were already exceptionally low in this regard.

However, a word from the wise. Before rushing to publish, it might have been advisable to read the comments made by the Norwegian Minister concerned, and to establish whether his words could lend support to the slant being placed on them by the politically interested. I’m sure that for the smarter folk amongst you to have done so, would have led to the realisation that the Daily Mail was indulging in a little bit of stirring.

That’s why the following letter below is now on its way to the Daily Mail, courtesy of the Norwegian Ambassador, which I hope they’ll have the decency to publish in full:


Sir,

The article "Salmond Slapped down by Norway Minister" in the Daily Mail on 29 October contained several incorrect and misleading statements attributed to Norway's Foreign Minister, Jonas Gahr Støre.

Firstly, there is no "growing anger in Norway" over comparisons made between Scotland and Norway during the debate in the United Kingdom against the backdrop of the current global financial crisis.

Secondly, no accusations have been made by Mr Støre against Mr Salmond, as alleged in the article. In the interview, the Foreign Minister merely pointed out factual similarities and differences between the challenges presently faced by Scotland and Norway. Inferring from this that Mr Støre is of the view that Mr Salmond has in any way lied or mislead the public, is simply incorrect.

In short, the Norwegian Foreign Minister did not intend to criticise either side in this debate, which is a domestic political discussion. What he strongly emphasised in the interview with the Daily Mail and which, sadly, was simply omitted from the article, was his sincere appreciation of the warm ongoing relationship between Scotland and Norway.

Yours sincerely,
Bjarne Lindstrøm
Ambassador of Norway


Oh dear. Egg on face time for a few people, I fear. Is it time to speak of a unionist yolk which can be thrown off? ;-)

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Spoon-Fed Greasiness

I felt a bit sorry for Sarah Macauley, dragged out recently to help her husband 'campaign' in the Glenrothes by-election. Having to play dumb and let ex-NUS functionaries do your talking for you (in between threatening to shoot journalists - as politics goes, it doesn't get more ridiculous than that) on a short, stage-managed visit to already identified Labour voters, was always going to be demeaning and a bit of a crock.

She's an intelligent women who used to run her own PR company, for goodness' sakes. And how insulting, both to her and to voters, to assume that the partner of the man who leads the party of which the man seeking votes belongs to, knocking on precisely 3 doors for the edification of the media present, will make the slightest difference to the eventual outcome.

Mind you, meeting a handful of tame supporters in Cardenden was like going into the lion's den in comparison to Mr Sarah Macauley's foray into the fray. Sitting down in a cafe, talking to 'real people' (actually more party members), Mr Macauley showed every sign of still being afraid of his own political shadow.

The press, seeking to whip up a bit of interest, ridiculed the stage-managed visit of his wife, but somehow managed to suspend credulity for the Prime Minister as he trotted out his stock soundbites to a specially selected audience. But it would appear that this public appearance was not what all that it seemed.

With a tip of the hat to Jess the Dog, here are some pics showing just how close our sub-Prime Minister really got to the fray:



OK. Glenrothes is a new town. He was still in a bustling precinct somewhere, right?


Hmm, it's kind of hard to tell from above. Can we maybe take a closer look at this from ground level?

Oh dear. It's this sort of routine, low-grade misrepresentation that sickens me of the Prime Minister and his party. Frankly, if he told me the sky was blue, I'd still need to look up to check it out for myself.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Britannia Waves Goodbye?

An article written for the Scots Independent:

If there was an orthodoxy on which you could count in Scotland last century, it was that public support for the union, implicit or explicit, could be taken almost as read. After the war, you knew exactly what it was you stood for – God, King and Empire. Britannia ruled the waves – and Britons never, never, never would be slaves.

Despite economic decline and the need for reconstruction, the British were still a force to be reckoned with. We had the A-bomb and a seat at the top table of the new UN Security Council. Although the USA might have been the emerging power as the sun set on the empire, they still, as younger siblings sometimes do, needed our wise guidance and experience to keep them right.

Despite the need for reconstruction at home and US loans to stave off national bankruptcy, Britain was still great. As the Iberian peninsula endured the yoke of fascism and an iron curtain came down to separate Western Europe from the new Soviet satellites in the east, Britain could stand aloof and proud. Throw in a chance to pity the poverty of the Irish, and you could have a vaguely plausible, if smug and misguided view of the world and your place in it.

It's easy to understand the optimism ushered in by the 'new Elizabethan age’. It saw the end of rationing, great technological progress and huge advances in social provision. Following the success of central planning during wartime, big government was better government, and the man in Whitehall always knew best. Macmillan’s ‘winds of change’ may have been blowing, but for many, we had indeed never had it so good.

The loss of corporate control as headquarters moved south may have been a cause of regret, but never managed to fire Scots into a pro-independence state of mind. Perhaps that was due to the lack of progress which the SNP had made in terms of securing a place in the mainstream for its central goal. However, with the soft left in the ascendant, institutions such as the National Coal Board, British Rail, British Leyland, BP, even the National Health Service, could all be pointed to as examples of the import of British policy to our sense of wellbeing and identity.

But that was then. With the ending of 'consensus' politics in the 1970's and the privatisations of the 80's, the British state dimension to Scotland's political economy declined in importance. If Britain's place in the world had seemed secure before, with the benefits of standing together economically, socially and militarily seeming axiomatic to most, then how would it fare if those circumstances were to change?

Given the recent rise of the SNP and consequent support for independence, the answer, it would seem, is not very well. As the case for small independent states pooling sovereignty in a confederal Europe gained ground in Scotland, so too did the more general notion of self government amongst unionists.

For some, it was as a means of halting the gradual SNP advance. For others, it was about stopping the writ of an unpopular Conservative government at the border. What can't be denied is that through devolution itself and the election of an SNP government, a direction of travel towards greater autonomy has been well established over the past decade.

So, if the SNP narrative of Scotland in the world is clear, what then are the unifying ideas, the big imperative behind unionism today? With the role of the central state diminished and shorn of a meaningful international role or a plausible external threat, does anyone know what Britain is for any longer?

Many advocates for continued union struggle for an answer to this, preferring to cast their arguments in terms of past history or the supposed weaknesses which would befall a Scottish state. Vague and uncertain concepts such as 'economies of scale'; being 'greater than the sum of our parts'; or trite slogans about being stronger together are advanced, with seldom anything concrete offered to back up why this may be the case.

For some, their preference for existing structures is largely a default – an attitude developed through osmosis. Even if the matter has been considered to any great degree, it's rare to find much in the way of hostility to the idea of Holyrood assuming greater powers or Scotland becoming independent. In contrast, the political leaders of unionism in Scotland all too often seem better at disparaging the case of their opponents than in articulating a convincing set of arguments of their own.

Even with the recent world financial turmoil, where contentions about the benefits of scale become easier to advance (even if no more accurate), certain political leaders have found themselves unable to resist having a dig at other small countries, most of whom are doing considerably better than the UK. Which is, in part why I found David Cameron's recent assertion that an independent Scotland was perfectly possible to be so interesting.

I've argued for a long time that unionists of all stripes should have no difficulty in ditching the scaremongering to be able to say without equivocation that 'we accept that Scotland makes many great contributions to the UK, and here's why she should continue to do so'. If nothing else, enlightened self-interest ought to suggest that were Scotland to become independent in the near future and they wished to play a significant political role thereafter, the electorate would be unlikely to grant this quickly to those who had been so vehement in their reluctance to assume new responsibilities.

Cameron, of course, is not about to become a supporter of independence and will, I suspect, be a formidable opponent for the SNP if he becomes Prime Minister. However, the change to a more emollient tone and a new found respect for Scotland in Westminster could well start to alter some of the political topography we have become used to fighting around.

The most significant point from this is that if such an approach were maintained, it would remove some of the intellectual barriers which people have to direct engagement in the independence debate. Unionists have nothing to fear from a more mature and honest approach to the constitutional debate in Scotland. And if we're confident in the SNP about the essential logic of our arguments, then neither have we.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Back From Conference

That's me back from SNP Conference, with several more visits to our Glenrothes campaign rooms under my belt. It was a thoroughly enjoyable conference and great to catch up with old friends whom due to my sojourn in London, I haven't seen too much of over the past year or so.

If last year was a case of pinching yourself that May's election of an SNP government had actually happened, this year was more of a 'down to business' conference. The feelgood factor still abounds, and none moreso than for those delegates who took in the speeches of the ministerial team.

Of course, the dark clouds of the financial crisis loomed overhead. If some commentators and politicians of other persuasions seemed almost gleeful in their recent dismissals of independence, they were swatted aside by Alex Salmond's Sunday afternoon demolition of Gordon Brown's partisanship and the toxic economic legacy he will leave.


My duties this year were light, except to chair what was possibly the busiest fringe event of the conference - a London Branch organised debate on the economics of independence, with John Swinney and Stewart Hosie as the speakers. Almost 300 delegates, and not a few journalists too, packed in to hear then put questions to the two speakers. The claustrophobic conditions and rising room temperatures proved too much for one delegate, who temporarily passed out. Luckily, he made a swift recovery, and was able to get to his feet soon after.

I can't complain too much about the resulting press coverage either. If the worst you have to deal with is Magnus Linklater being his habitual sniffy and disdainful self about the SNP, then it's usually a sign of our vitality and health - a bit like a cold wet nose on a labrador.


video

Anyway, next year is the Year of Homecoming and to help mark it, singer Sandi Thom will be recording a version of Dougie MacLean's 'Caledonia'. Here's a sneak preview which I took on my phone.

And no, it wasn't shot during an earthquake - I just had to use the zoom to get up close.

C'est le meme chose

Scotscare, the charity for Scots in London, has been running a vote to find Scotland's best loved song. The 'shock' news is that 'Flower of Scotland' has been eliminated, leaving a quintet of 'Dignity' by Deacon Blue; 'Caledonia' by Dougie McLean [see above post] ; 'Fields of Fire' by Big Country; Runrig's version of Loch Lomond and '500 Miles' by the Proclaimers.

Doubtless the list reflects the tastes of the 30-40 somethings who will have mostly been the ones taking part. Nonetheless, I thought it might be fun to compile a list of five of my favoured tracks, which have at least some connection to Scotland:


Whole Lotta Rosie - AC/DC


Aussies might complain, but since the Young brothers were born in Glasgow, and original singer Bon Scott was born in Kirriemuir, I think we can still lay claim. Possibly the most rumbustious track in their back catalogue – get those air guitars at the ready :-)



Maggie May – Rod Stewart

For any child of the 80's who remembers the spandex and the endless greatest hits albums, it's easy to overlook just how good Rod Stewart's material was. I've been known to murder this at karaoke, but at least I'm not as bad as Richard the cat sitter...



Auf Achse – Franz Ferdinand

Maybe not one of their bigger crowd pleasers. Tales of unrequited love are the staple of music, but there's something I love about the way this one builds, particularly the way the drums and bass can go from their methodic pulse into building a sense of agitation at key points. You've also got to love the Kiss tribute in the guitar solo in this live version.



Sunshine on Leith – The Proclaimers

For years, I'd never had any particularly strong feelings about this song. However, a half-time at Easter Road, with 15,000 Hibbies in full cry and scarves aloft, changed all that. It brought a lump to the throat of even a hardened Aberdeen supporter like me. Just magnificent – I wish we had a song like that.

[Apologies to any Kilmarnock fans, who may find some of the following scenes disturbing!]



Vienna – Ultravox

Atmospheric electro-pop, but so, so much more. The soaring vocals and percussive piano put a shiver sown my spine every time.



No tags for this one, but feel free to take part in any way you see fit. Performers, songwriting credits, whatever you like - no connection can be too tenuous :-)

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Do My Eyes Deceive Me?

4 excellent articles in The Scotsman in 3 days? I must be coming down with something! In addition to Ms Riddoch's effort highlighted in a previous post, here's another 3 articles well worth a minute of your time:

Ross Lydall: New boy has taken his seat – now for the hard bit

George Kerevan: Small countries looking best placed for recovery

Marc Coleman: Ireland is still a success story – and Scotland could be, too

Monday, October 13, 2008

Precisely

Amen to this.


Lesley Riddoch: Mock Nordics if you like, but they are survivors

The Scotsman - Published Date: 13 October 2008

LITTLE countries have come under suspicion since Iceland's banks went belly-up. Geir Haarde, the prime minister, enraged Britain by suggesting foreign investments would not be protected. And though the war of words has abated with Haarde's assurance that "we will honour our obligations", the damage to Iceland's reputation has been done.

No-one came to bail out the Icelanders – quite the opposite. Clearly no-one in Britain ever believed that a country of 316,000 souls could possibly produce firms like Baugur whose rampant expansion bought over half the British high street. At least not without paying a terrible price. Iceland will pay for it.

But is Iceland also being made to pay for its inclusion in Alex Salmond's arc of prosperity – the ring of small, northern seafaring states whose prosperity, according to the First Minister, arises directly from their independent status?

Opposition politicians and commentators have used the economic woes of Reykjavik to fire a salvo across SNP bows – whaur's your arc of prosperity noo?

Without Big Brother Britain to bail out Scottish banks, they argue, an independent Scotland would now be in economic meltdown just like lonely, little Iceland.

Indeed, British shoppers are boycotting Iceland grocery stores in protest at the threatened loss of charity, council and individual savings – in a sad echo of the confused attack on a paediatrician's office during an anti-paedophile campaign.

Ironically, Icelanders would be unlikely to make such mistakes. Blessed with the highest rates of literacy in the world, and the freedom to opt for plain Icelandic rather than archaic Latin in their public world, this part of the so-called arc of prosperity has not only enjoyed financial success. In May of this year the Economist Intelligence Unit named Iceland the world's most peaceful place based on the absence of an army and the lowest ratio of citizens in jail. The UN Human Development Index, makes Iceland the world's most developed country (male life expectancy at 81 is the highest in the world) and one of the most egalitarian (they read more books per capita).

Iceland's long been described as the "bumble-bee" economy – no-one knows how it flies – and yet its population is young and rising.

So Iceland is a success story on many levels – not just the financial one over which so many crocodile tears are currently being shed.

And anyway, one country's failed banking system doth not a failed arc make. How have the other small countries in the arc of prosperity been doing? Actually, not too bad.

In fact, the British government appears to have used the Nordic bank nationalisations of the 1990s as a model for its own present banking bail-out. The Nordic crisis, in the early Nineties, was sparked by a property boom, deregulation of financial services and the economic crisis in neighbouring Russia. Norway took full control of two of the country's top four banks – wiping out shareholders, and purging senior management. In Sweden, the government also took control of failed banks and created a "bad bank" for toxic assets.

Nordic banks have since been nursed back to health and assets sold when valuations improved. According to Steinar Juel, chief economist at Nordea, Scandinavia's biggest bank: "It was very, very painful, (but] taxpayers, in general, did well. All the money governments spent, they got back again."

How are the countries at the heart of the arc of prosperity faring today?

Compared to the arc of materialism, they are facing no major banking crisis. Meanwhile, in the world's others envious arcs, scapegoating, denial and displacement
abound.

So should the financial problems of Iceland change public perceptions of independence?

Quick thinking and opportunism are part of the Icelandic psyche. That's why they took advantage of Danish occupation by the Nazis in 1944 to declare independence.

That outlook has upsides and downsides. But does anyone think the Icelanders this week wish they had not parted company with Denmark? Do their current woes make them wish there was a large wing they could crawl under and quit the dodgy business of self determination? Iceland may have made some colossal mistakes – but I'm sure the decision to stop living in the distant shadow of Denmark is not considered one of them.

Iceland's people have long experience of adjusting to bad news. Seismologists expect a vent or chasm to open up near the massive glaciers of east Iceland anytime with viscous lava creating a cloud of dust that could reflect sunlight and cause darkness and crop failure across northern Europe. Some experts speculate the last such eruption in the 1780s caused such widespread hunger and unrest that the French revolution was the result.

Who knows when nature will deliver its own credit crunch? The Icelanders have been living more or less happily with its certainty for centuries.

If we valued a healthy outlook as highly as financial liquidity, we'd realise the Nordics are the only people getting it right in the developed world today. And applaud the Nobel Prize Committee who awarded this year's Peace Prize to the Finnish president Martti Ahtisaari. Despite that country's recent traumatic college shootings, despite nervousness over the resurgence of the tiny nation's giant neighbour Russia, Finland is still a model of prosperity and peace.

Small Nordic countries have generally outperformed Scotland in every way. But that simply proves the Scots current preference for the Union is not the product of calculation or international comparison.

Enthusiasm for constitutional change will be home-grown or still-born. And nothing in Iceland will change that.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Oops!

My researcher, Mr Google, has drawn my attention to an article in the Scotsman, where Tavish Scott is having a go at the SNP.

No change there. However, this time he's making the case for something called an 'Infrastructure Investment Board' to be set up, which would take the decisions about which major transport infrastructure projects ought to be progressed out of the clammy hands of ministers.

'Why on earth would he want to do that?', I hear you ask. Well, it seems Tavish has it in his head that the SNP is only interested in advancing major projects in constituencies which they hold, or would like to hold. This, he contends, would be a way to stop such low down skulduggery.

Golly. I wonder if he means the Edinburgh Tram Project? Oh, sorry, that one's going ahead, and the SNP was against it, wasn't it? Ah, here we go - he means improvements to the A9 between Perth and Inverness, which, he contends, the SNP only want to press on with, not because it might be a good and useful thing to do, but because it runs through Fergus Ewing's constituency.

R-i-g-h-t. Now Fergus, I concede, is indeed the SNP MSP for Inverness East, Nairn and Lochaber, and could, I suppose, accurately be described as someone with an interest in seeing improvements to the A9 go ahead. But remind me - which party currently represents the seats containing Caithness and Sutherland; as well as Inverness West at Holyrood? And which party is it that represents Inverness and all points north at Westminster? And which party, other than the SNP of course, is it that has repeatedly called for the A9 to be dualled between Perth and Inverness over the past 4 decades?

I'll give you a clue. Russell Johnston, a formidable advocate in his lifetime for improving the A9, used to be one of their MPs [for Inverness, as it happens].

Still nothing? Well, they provided the transport minister in the last Scottish Government, before the SNP took over in 2007.

Still nothing? Oh, OK then. That former transport minister, who singularly failed to improve the A9 during his term of office, is the one now complaining in this Scotsman article about the SNP going ahead and doing what he didn't.

It's certainly a novel tactic - trying to hold onto seats by complaining about transport improvements which you've always supported going ahead. Anyway, all answers, this time on the back of a dodgy by-election bar chart, to the usual address.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

More Nonsense

So, Angus... do tell. Exactly whose cash is the UK 'begging' for at the moment? And if even the mighty US banking sector is in difficulties, why would any rational observer claim that size offers any protection whatsoever in respect of exposure?

All answers on a set of unionist blinkers please, to the usual address...

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Breaking Cover

Light blogging this week, thanks to the competing demands of work, Glenrothes and trying to have something approximating to a life. However, I'll break cover to make the following observations.

  • In the present financial situation, the tendency to jump up and down yelling 'I told you so!', whether it relates to interest rates, borrowing, house prices, securitisation, boardroom pay, bonuses or whatever – can be overwhelming, whether indeed you did tell people so or not. The fact is, the present situation is unprecedented in any of our lifetimes. History books are likely to be as useful right now to our policy makers as a dog-eared undergraduate copy of Lipsey.
  • Sadly, the Western taxpayer is going to be seen as the only solid guarantor for financial institutions. If banks require to be recapitalised by the state, we the taxpayers must get something in return in the form of an equity stake.
  • Central banks should offer to further guarantee deposits and extend liquidity to the commercial banks.
  • While the actions of governments may be the best hope of restoring stability in the short to medium term, we should recognise that direct government management of our financial institutions is unlikely to offer the best route to their recovery in the long term.
  • Sooner or later, something is going to have to be done about the 'toxic' securitised debt on bank balance sheets. Whether its unwound in some way or ultimately taken on by the state, the extent of that debt needs to be quantified, and fast.
  • It seems inevitable that interest rates will be cut quite substantially, which ordinarily would allow inflation to grow. However, we should recognise that inflation has been kept artificially low in recent years by cheap imports from Asia and migrant labour from Eastern Europe. Effectively, it's been inflation postponed.
  • In any case, if the economy has grown further than its productive capacity is able to sustain, then inflation is probably the least of our worries right now. Deflation is probably the outlook for the next few years.
  • Just as the banks must be able to lend once more to eachother, it's important that businesses are still able to access capital to finance themselves.
  • Labour mobility is a key driver of economic growth. For that reason, it's imperative that the housing market is kept going.
  • China, Russia and the oil-rich Gulf economies are the countries with the capital to invest right now, and the debt to exchange for equity. There is likely to be a substantial rebalancing of world power and influence in the next few years from the US and Europe in favour of the east, and we'd better get used to the idea.
  • I enjoy a good cyber punch-up as much as anyone, but I'm inclined to ignore some of the sillier posts out there trying to criticise comparisons which have been made between Scotland and elsewhere. The fact is, no open capitalist economy has shown itself to be immune from events elsewhere. If there's any lesson to be learned, it's that size offers no protection to exposure, whether you have a economy the size of America or indeed one the size of Iceland.
  • Finally, if anything, it's those who act firmly and decisively, regardless of size, who will emerge in the best shape from the present maelstrom.
Right, it's bedtime. Let's all hope that this has a positive and calming effect.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

William Forsyth Community Garden

I began Saturday morning in Oldmeldrum at the opening of the new community garden. The garden was conceived by local Rotarians as a project which would commemorate the 2005 centenary of Rotary, yet also enhance the town for visitor and resident alike.

A lot of work has gone into the garden, from securing the land as a gift from Meldrum Estates and Aberdeenshire Council, to getting the site surveyed by Meldrum resident Jim McColl of Beechgrove Garden fame, and having plans for the site drawn up. Through the clearing of the land, the planting, weeding, fundraising, securing of materials and sheer hard graft, it's a project which has brought together all sections of the community.

The name of the garden is taken from William Forsyth, who was born in the town in 1737. Forsyth was a botanist of considerable note, who worked in the Apothecaries Garden in Chelsea. He became Curator aged 34, and eventually Chief Superintendent of the royal gardens at Kensington and St James’s. He was also one of the founders of the Royal Horticultural Society.

The day itself was a bit breezy, but otherwise the weather held, giving us a fine clear day to appreciate what the garden has to offer. Here's some pictures which I snapped from the opening ceremony:


The ribbon being cut by Jim McColl:


The view from the garden towards Bennachie:

It's a lovely setting, and will be a tremendous asset for the town. I can't think of a better way to celebrate an organisation which puts the good of the community at the heart of all it does, and to commemorate one of Oldmeldrum's most famous sons. I'm sure it won't be my last visit to the garden.