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.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

"UK taxman killed off Tartan Tax"

Well, well, well. After the ridiculous parade which lined up to claim that the lapse of the tartan tax represented an SNP 'betrayal' of devolution, what do we find in today's Scotland on Sunday?

UK taxman killed off Tartan Tax

Published Date: 16 January 2011
By Eddie Barnes

Political Editor

THE Scottish Government could not have implemented the Tartan Tax even if it wanted to because the revenue authorities were unable to collect it, new documents have revealed.

The power to vary income tax by up to 3p in the pound was granted to the parliament in the devolution referendum in 1997. But the documents show that, after the 2007 election, the incoming SNP administration would not have been able to implement it because of major problems and delays in a new computerised collection system being introduced by Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs (HMRC).

The flaws mean that the Tartan Tax - a key devolved power - will not be available to ministers until 2013 at the earliest.

This news leaves a veritable rogues gallery of MSPs with sizable quantities of egg on face. However, what of BBC Scotland, which did its damnedest over several days to make a controversy out of a story which was always - being charitable - complete rubbish? Your gast will be flabbered to find no mention of the story as yet on the BBC Scotland website.

I can only assume that they're preparing for tomorrow, where it'll lead GMS; see Kay Adams spluttering indignation right through her phone in; treat us to a suitably frowny Jackie Bird on the TV bulletins throughout the day; before offering up an incredulous Gordon Brewer on Newsnight Scotland to lambast Michael Moore and the aforementioned rogues for telling porkies, prior to offering a suitable mea culpa on behalf of the BBC for getting things so badly wrong the first time round?

I do hope so. Meanwhile, in other news, I'll be waiting at my window with similar levels of expectation, just in case 675 Porcine Squadron of the RAF decides to fly in formation past my house this afternoon.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Deeper and Down

Can anyone honestly say this comes as a big surprise?

Sales of the Daily Record have fallen below 300,000 for the first time, according to figures for December.

Circulation across the whole Scottish market declined in 2010, with national daily titles seeing an average drop in sales of 6%, while Sundays dropped 7%.

Among the titles to experience the biggest decline were the Scotsman, down 8%, and the Herald which fell by 7%.

The News of the World also saw its circulation fall by 37,000 to 261,000 during the year.

As an Aberdeen-supporting SNP voter, the future of an Old Firm obsessed Labour propaganda rag like Record matters not one bit to me. As for the Herald and the Scotsman, it's clear that with the declining quality of the bits in between the adverts, their proprietors are reaping in abundance what they have sown.

It's food for thought that despite the febrile near daily monstering the SNP has taken from all these titles over the past four years, independence support sits at 40%. Meanwhile, the party can still poll nearly 15 times higher than the Scotsman's daily circulation and well over double that of the Sun and the Record.

If *only* there was a way for all those clever newspaper executives to shore up their failing businesses, perhaps by enhancing the appeal of their titles to those who might inherently be inclined to try and buy Scottish wherever possible... any suggestions?