Saturday, January 11, 2014

Aaaaaand.... I'm back.

Just in case there's anyone around to see this, as of January 2014 I'm back and blogging again with a new page at Come along and join the fun :-)

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The Last Post

Today saw the dissolution of Holyrood prior to May's Scottish Parliamentary Elections. It also, for other reasons, seems like an opportune time to draw the curtains similarly on my blogging efforts here at 'Scots and Independent'.

My reasons for doing so are many and varied, but one stands out in particular - I'm about to make the transition from unpaid keyboard basher to full time journalist with one of the local titles up here in Aberdeenshire. While blogging, alongside my commitments as a columnist with the Scots Independent newspaper has undoubtedly helped me to hone a writing style, I'm no longer sure that blogging will be quite so attractive after a day spent writing professionally to meet deadlines!

I'm sad about it in a way, but it's also a necessary step. While blogging as a candidate was a pastime fraught with difficulty, leaving you just one ill-advised posting away from tabloid notoriety, it was still something which I enjoyed immensely. It was also relatively easy and often great fun to blog from the position of being a parliamentary researcher at the heart of Holyrood and Westminster. However, continuing with the partisanship you can exhibit when the mood takes you in the blogosphere would sit uneasily with the need to cover news stories impartially and to be prepared to discomfit all sides equally when the occasion demands it.

It's been an interesting ride since I started out in 2006 - a period which has allowed me to chronicle the lead-up to the election of the first SNP government and its first four years in office. Blogging has also put me in contact with some great people over that time, as well as opening up some fantastic writing opportunities elsewhere, whether for books, e-books, magazines, other websites such as WalesHome or even on one occasion, The Guardian.

Blogging is and remains in my view a great medium and certainly from my perspective, the past four and a half years has been made all the more enjoyable because of the audience and the interaction which came along the way. Nevertheless, all good things must come to an end, and I must say that in this case at least, it's happening in circumstances which I can genuinely say I'm happy about.

It would be a wrench to leave the Scottish blogging community behind entirely, and I fully expect that the occasional grumpy retort will still appear next to my name in the comments sections of Scotland's better blogs. However, as far as my own substantive efforts are concerned, the fat lady has, for the moment at least, sung her last.

Thank you one and all, and at the risk of being accused of emulating Wendy Alexander in any way, have a fun election - whichever party you intend to take up cudgels for!


Monday, February 21, 2011

The Big Society?

Ask ten different Cabinet Ministers what they understand David Cameron's 'Big Society' to mean and you're likely to end up with ten rather waffly but competing answers. As far as asking the man himself, right now, it seems to be an exercise about as rewarding as nailing jelly to walls.

At various points, Cameron has defined the Big Society as being about "devolving power to the lowest level so neighbourhoods take control of their destiny", and "opening up our public services, putting trust in professionals and power in the hands of the people they serve." At other moments, he has fleshed it out as providing the means for 'groups' to "run Post Offices, libraries, transport services and shape housing projects".

The impressionistic nature of the policy certainly gives a passably convincing response to the charge that in common with Margaret Thatcher, modern Tories still believe there is no such thing as society. 'There is such a thing as society', intone the Cameronistas, 'it's just not the same thing as the state'. Ask those on the political left, however, and you're likely to get a fairly unanimous reaction, where it's viewed as little more than 'a figleaf for Tory cuts'.

While there might be a fair bit of substance to that charge, I can't help but feel that it's one which risks diminishing the role which volunteers of all kinds play in society. For one thing, we've got a strong tradition of volunteering in Scotland and are quite used to the idea of the third sector and charities providing services in our communities, with or without the aid of government money. There's also nothing intrinsically wrong with the idea that government should enable individuals to step in to do that which the state can't, or which private business either won't or perhaps shouldn't.

When we think of volunteering, it's probably of something like the WRVS running the cafe at the local hospital, or a community transport service, rather than filling in for the full-time professional agencies of the state. However, why shouldn't it also encompass the work of Retained Firefighters or Special Constables? The RNLI has always relied on volunteers, while the work of First Responders in assisting the ambulance service across rural Scotland has helped to save many lives in situations where minutes really can be the difference between life and death.

In a small way, I volunteer myself as a member of one of my local Rotary Clubs. Each year, through a variety of events, we raise thousands of pounds to support local and international charities. Particularly, we support the efforts of Rotary International to eradicate polio and have taken the lead in Scotland in supporting a charity which enhances early life chances for young children in rural Nepal - a venture for which we were able to gain significant financial backing from the worldwide Rotary Foundation.

Closer to home, we stage mock job interviews, run cookery and music competitions, and send local youngsters on an outdoor education and leadership camp in the Cairngorms. The more green fingered amongst us tend to the community garden which the club opened a couple of years ago, and take turns cutting grass at the old folks home. But while we might do a lot, we're never going to be in a position, even alongside thousands of others, to ever try and replace Aberdeenshire Council's education or social work departments, far less the efforts of the Department for International Development. And nor would we want to even try.

Volunteering can bring much to the table that central or local government will never be able to and should not be expected to, but there are limits. The main block to volunteering isn't usually money or even suitability – it's about having the time to give, and finding a suitable outlet through which to give it. We live in a society where many are underworked and many more find themselves overworked. In that regard, there's a lot which can be done to assist more people who might welcome the opportunity to volunteer.

The right to ask for flexible working, for instance, now exists. However, it's much harder for small businesses to offer this flexibility than it is for larger businesses. Even something as basic as offering greater support to employers to allow those who wish to volunteer, or who need to work unconventional hours to look after a child or older relative, could transform the quality of life of millions of people.

Why, for instance, should someone on Jobseeker's allowance, be penalised through the withdrawal of benefit for working more than 16 hours in a week? Equally, why is it that the most experienced in our workforce find it so difficult to scale back their hours as they approach retirement, without jeopardising either their jobs or future pension entitlements? Our inflexible approach not only creates a disorientating shock when retirement finally comes, it also deprives people of opportunities to find a future role in the community, which would enable them to do something worthwhile while helping others to make the most of what life has to offer them.

If you want to look at it this way, we already have a 'Big Society' in Scotland, supported by thousands of volunteers and community minded individuals who expect nothing in return, but we won't make that society bigger or better simply by making the state smaller. We could, however, with the judicious use of some policy levers currently out of reach of Holyrood, begin to make it easier for more people to make their contribution. Now that would be a society worth being part of.

Wednesday, February 02, 2011


It's always a delight to see a good slapping handed out to the deserving in the letters pages of our newspapers. Here then, for your amusement, is a letter from Professor Neil Kay, in connection with recent nonsense-mongering over any proposed tax powers which don't concur with the conculsions of the Calman Omission:

I WAS interested in the arguments by six economists led by Professor Anton Muscatelli Principal of Glasgow University (Perspective, 31 January) apparently challenging the argument by Professors Scott and Hughes Hallett that fiscal autonomy would lead to economic growth.

In 2005, I was signatory to an open letter from 13 economists titled "Increased Fiscal Power Essential", it argued that "Increased fiscal responsibility is essential for the prudent management of Scottish government spending and, ultimately, of the Scottish economy …Scottish politicians under the current regime have no incentive to improve Scotland's economic growth … for a small open economy on the periphery of Europe, an ability to alter the incentive structure is crucial".

One of the co-signatories to that letter was Prof Muscatelli, then Professor of Economics at Glasgow University.

I have to confess that I find it difficult to find much difference between the sentiments of Muscatelli (2005) and Hughes Hallett and Scott (2011), and it is not clear to me what of substance has happened in the last six years for Muscatelli (2011) to apparently reject or forget the arguments of Muscatelli (2005).


Economics Department University of Strathclyde


Thursday, January 27, 2011

A World Dis-Service

As a nat, I often find myself in an uncomfortable position when it comes to broadcasting. If life were straightforward, I'd be against the BBC and all its works, except for its Scottish outpost at Pacific Quay, which I'd argue ought to be bolstered to become a broadcaster in the mould of RTE or Norsk Rikskringkasting.

As it is, if you can set to one side the bumptious metrocentricism of David Dimbleby and the general default lack of knowledge about Scottish issues on the occasions where they intrude upon the 'network', generally speaking, the BBC is still one of the best broadcasters there is. Sadly, I find that my biggest gripes are with BBC Scotland, which dumbs down relentlessly, and which in its news and current affairs output, all too often tolerates the advancing of individual agendas which sit ill at ease with a requirement for political impartiality.

A treatise on the state of Scottish broadcasting is something for another day, though. What's prompted me to put fingers to keyboard this morning is the news that the BBC World Service is to face a cutback in its services, with the loss of 650 jobs, 5 separate language services and potentially, 30 million of its 180 million listeners worldwide.

I've blogged before about the importance of soft power when it comes to winning hearts and minds around the world. To my mind, an institution like the World Service, which educates, informs and broadcasts pretty well impartially to people around the world in their own language, is more useful than the Foreign Office when it comes to winning influence, and worth any number of Trident missiles when it comes to earning meaningful international prestige.

If life were straightforward, I'd probably feel like crowing a little over what is yet another loss for British standing in the world yet somehow, I can't help but feel a little sad about this news. An independent Scotland, for better or worse - largely better, I would say - will inherit a great deal of shared experience and outlook from our time in the UK. The public service ethos in broadcasting and the undoubted ability of certain British institutions to win cultural influence around the world, which the present Cameron Government seems to be so cavalier towards, is one thing which I hope might find a more congenial home in an independent Scotland.

Sadly, the evidence is that presently, our own broadcasters are barely up to the task of catering for Scottish needs, let alone competing on an international level. Increasing the broadcasting spend in Scotland and launching a dedicated Scottish digital channel to counter the undoubted draw of London's residual broadcasting capital may help matters, but it's unlikely to be the whole solution. That's going to require a shift in leadership and mindset which, unfortunately, money might not be able to buy.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The Empire Strikes Back

The controversy over the treatment of Professor Andrew Hughes-Hallet and Professor Drew Scott by the Scottish Parliament committee scrutinising the Scotland Bill shows little sign of abating.

It's certainly irregular, if not downright discourteous to invite witnesses to submit evidence, ignore it completely, then try to quiz them on a matter which the committee has already decided is to be separate, without giving notice that this is what you intend to do. It's also disappointing that the Committee appeared to want to spend more time scrutinising a policy which it won't be helping to legislate for, at the expense of examining the Bill which it is responsible for.

While the anemic response of Presiding Officer Alex Fergusson to the complaint of Professors Scott and Hughes-Hallett was perhaps sadly to be expected, the decision by Professor Alan Trench, a man who appears to hold no particular brief for the SNP, to also withdraw is one which ought to dismay anyone hoping that the Bill might receive the sort of expert, impartial guidance that it so badly needs. The sniping partisanship of certain MSPs after the event has also done little for the Parliament's public image.

Today's Scotsman leader writer, presumably Bill Jamieson, is grasping frantically at the straw left behind by Professor Lars Feld – namely, that tax freedom does not of itself lead to increased growth. Of course it doesn't – if the Scottish Parliament got full fiscal autonomy and taxed at 100%, the economy would crash – a point so crushingly obvious it really shouldn't need to be stated.

It's a truism to state that it is government spending and increased freedom on how to spend resources, rather than tax freedom per se which drives growth. Yet it is true only up to a point. GDP is the sum of government spending plus investment plus consumption plus exports minus imports. Although the tax system isn't a factor in that equation, it's simply daft to claim that this is the end of the matter.

As the Professor points out, economic growth is driven by a number of factors away from tax and tax collection mechanisms. The quality of human capital is one, the ability to exploit physical resources another, as is the ability to take advantage of technological advancements, to be able to transport goods and services effectively, the existence of law and order and a legal framework which protects individual and property rights, together with the ability to access market information and to share ideas freely.

For all but the most ideologically pure libertarian, however, Government remains an important factor. One way government might made be more efficient by fiscal autonomy is to spend money more effectively. For if government is encouraged to be more efficient, it can get more bang for buck in its spending, which could be expected to increase economic activity. This can lead to a further positive economic effect by freeing up more resources to spend, or it can give all or some back as a tax cut, which will either be spent on consumption, or saved and used for investment. All of which helps to make GDP higher than it might otherwise be, resulting in benefits for government, private individuals and businesses.

Our present system doesn't reward the Scottish government with higher tax revenues if growth is enhanced. Barnett creates a disconnect, sending back to Scotland an ever decreasing percentage of public spending in England. Cut spending on, say, universities, and Scotland experiences an equivalent cut in funding, whether it wishes to follow the policy or not. Sad to say, Calman would do exactly the same.

The trouble with Calman and the resulting Scotland Bill is that it set out with a destination in mind and then tried to bend the evidence to fit. It's dispiriting to see the same vice being exhibited in committee by those for whom constitutional change is simply a means of trying outflank the SNP, rather than seeing it as something which could be beneficial on its own terms. It's particularly distressing for those of us who want to see a mature, self-governing Scotland that some of our supposedly better MSPs appear to consider it fair game to engage in guilt by association attacks against those whom they deem to be politically unsound.