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Thursday, 29 March 2012

Michael Forsyth? Self-hating Scot?

It’s one thing to be an unelected appointee to a similarly unelected body of toffs, bishops and party lackeys who have a say over legislation in a modern democracy.

It’s quite another to pick up a tidy £300 per day just for turning up.

It’s another again when you, frankly, take the piss out of the privilege.

Step forward Lord Forsyth of Drumlean. Or, for those of us not wedded to the idea of pointless privilege, Michael Forsyth. Aye, that’s him, Maggie Thatcher’s hatchet man as Secretary of State for Scotland.

It seems that Forsyth can’t bring himself to accept that Devolution actually happened. Perhaps in his mind, it didn’t. That’ll be why he keeps trying to lever in amendments to the Scotland Bill. It’s an uninspiring piece of legislation that’s being proposed but Mikey seems hell-bent on making even that unworkable.

Just like he was in the ‘80s, he is dismissive of the Scottish electorate – perhaps even more so because even fewer of them vote for his party now. As a consequence, one of his amendments demanded that Westminster retain control of the Referendum, deciding on the timing and the wording. One might have assumed that he was trying to support the Unionist mantra of sooner rather than later. The new variation of Wendy’s “Bring it on!” His latest rumblings betray that assumption though. Now he wants Whitehall departments to publish their assessments of what effects independence will have on the UK’s nuclear weapons; public sector pensions; and the future role of the Bank of England. Only when we have had a minimum of nine months to digest these ‘assessments’ can a vote on independence take place.

Rather than ‘Bring it on!’, this looks more like ‘Haud oan a wee minute!’.

Now, far be it from me to suggest the arch-Unionist is running scared but it does tie-in with his recent interview where he blasted the Unionist parties for playing into the SNP’s hands and admitting it may now be in both England and Scotland’s interests for independence to happen.

Still, it doesn’t stop his increasingly desperate efforts to get some input on the Scotland Bill.

Yes, the Scottish Parliament can have its tax-varying powers, Forsyth concedes, but only after Scots allow it in a referendum; then gets two-thirds support at Holyrood; and then is approved by the UK Parliament – and only then after an ‘impact study’ is commissioned. Presumably, this charade is to take place every time an Edinburgh Administration proposed a change in the tax rate. Up or down.

Now, forgive me for being a pedant, Mr Forsyth, but that ‘Yes’ actually translates to me as a ‘No’. It really is Kafkaesque.

What it actually reveals, of course, is that Forsyth (ably backed up by George Foulkes) is showing his contempt for the whole idea of Scottish devolution, of the Scottish Government and, through them, the Scottish people who elected them.

Is this a Caledonian version of the ‘self-hating Jew’ phenomenon? Is Michael Forsyth a ‘self-hating Scot’?
Well, consider this statement by him in the House of Lords on university tuition fees in Scotland…

“Scottish students go for free, Italian students go for free, French students go for free and anyone else in the EU goes for free. This is not sustainable, it is unfair to our young people, it is bad for the union. Shouldn’t the Government do something?”

Leaving aside the fact that this anomaly arises due to the UK’s membership of the EU and the UK Governments subsequent decisions to, firstly, introduce tuition fees under Labour and, secondly, increase those fees dramatically under the ConDem coalition, just who was Forsyth talking about when referring to ‘our young people’?

Not Scottish young people who pay no tuition fees – not unfair on them. So, English young people who would have to pay if they studied in Scotland, just as they would if they studied in England. Has Forsyth got his snout so deep in the Westminster trough that he now refuses to see himself as Scottish?

One could be generous and point out that he could have been referring to Scottish young people domiciled in England along with Northern Irish and Welsh students wishing to study in Scotland. But those two devolved parts of the UK also have what Mr Forsyth might interpret as ‘discriminatory’ arrangements in higher education and he’s not kicking up a fuss on behalf of English students with them. Just with Edinburgh. Why, Michael?

Is it now a case of any stick with which to beat the Scottish Government – regardless of principle? The Conservative version of the Parliamentary Labour Party’s now famous ‘Bain Principle’ to oppose anything emanating from the SNP, just because…

It’s in this atmosphere, stoked by Forsyth, Foulkes and others, that the Daily Telegraph can run a recent scandalous article on tuition fees accusing the Scottish National Party of discriminatory policies, creating division and stopping just short of calling the SNP racists.

They can’t seem to comprehend that England voted for a party that introduced tuition fees; and then two parties that substantially increased them (albeit the minor partner breaking campaign promises not to). In this respect, they got what they voted for.

In contrast, Scots voted for a party that promised resident Scots would not pay tuition fees ‘till the sun melts the rocks’.

Now, they want English voters to be able to circumvent their electoral decisions by sending their children to Scottish universities for free, in the process displacing Scottish students who are then, presumably, expected to find places in English universities and pay the tuition fees that they and their parents didn’t vote for.

I can see four possible solutions.

One – the UK Government abolish tuition fees.

Two - a reciprocal agreement where Scottish students can attend English universities free of tuition charges and vice versa.

Three – the UK Government pay the tuition fees of any English student wishing to study in Scotland.

Four – Independence. Michael Forsyth is right, it’s now in the interests of both Scotland and England.

Can I choose option number four please, Mr Forsyth? Or do we need some Whitehall reports and some impact studies first?

Wednesday, 28 March 2012

BBC Scotland and the Union

Interesting times we live in.

In his Budget, George Osborne, announces he will reduce the 50p top rate of tax - set by the last Labour Government - to 45p. He is confident, apparently, that those earning over £150,000 per annum will now give up their illegal tax-dodging ways and will happily pay this lower rate leading to greater tax take at the Treasury. The Labour Party, quite rightly, decried this as nonsense. Led by Ed Balls (the Shadow Chancellor), they were to fight this Tory tax giveaway to the rich at every turn.

On Monday night they had their chance. The Scottish National Party and Plaid Cymru jointly introduced a motion against the top-rate reduction. Labour abstained.

Leaked emails have already shown there is confusion in Labour ranks about what happened.

More sinister is the instruction contained in one of the emails 'We should probably hold off releasing line in Scotland just yet, in the hope that it is ignored...'

Ignored, presumably, by the mainstream media. It has been. Primarily by BBC Scotland - the latest in a long line of issues damaging to the Labour Party to be ignored by the State broadcaster.

It got worse.

Last night, Willie Bain (Labour MP for Glasgow North East) provided clarity. It had not been a mix-up in the Labour group. No, he tweeted, it is a 'long standing convention in the PLP (Parliamentary Labour Party) not to support SNP motions'.

Really, Willie? Regardless of merit? Regardless of whether it would benefit the electorate? Regardless of whether it would benefit your own constituents? Constituents, Willie, the people who elect you; pay your wages...

So, Labour. The People's Party. Scotland's Party, they claim. Putting themselves and their hatred of the SNP above all else.

A great story for the media. BBC Scotland's response?

No response. Nada. Zero. Zilch.

The BBC has long claimed to be an independent, unbiased arbiter of news broadcasting. Their recent record in Scotland - particularly with regard to the ongoing independence debate has been nothing short of disgraceful. They have shown themselves to be nothing less than an instrument of the State, supporting the Unionist agenda. They are no longer fit for purpose.

Monday, 26 March 2012

Unionist Attack Dogs

An atrocious editorial in the Telegraph today. Almost what you'd expect from that organ of spite...

Few more nefarious policies have been visited upon the people of these islands than the Scottish government’s deliberate discrimination against university students from the rest of the United Kingdom. From next year, students living in England, Wales and Northern Ireland who plan to go to a Scottish university will face a bill of up to £36,000 for a four-year honours degree course. However, their counterparts living in Scotland – or in another European Union country – will pay nothing. More than that, the parents of the English students contribute more per head to university spending in Scotland than they do in England through the Barnett funding formula.
French or German parents pay no taxes at all to the UK exchequer yet their offspring can have a free place in a Scottish university. It would be hard to design a more divisive policy – and maybe that is the intention of SNP First Minister Alex Salmond. If he can stoke up English resentment he might achieve the independence he seeks. Ironically, were Scotland a separate EU nation then such discrimination against British students would be unlawful; but it is allowed within countries.
It is time to put an end to this injustice. An amendment to the Scotland Bill now before the House of Lords is to be voted upon later today to prevent Holyrood denying students from England, Wales and Northern Ireland the rights it has given to people in other European Union states. Tabled by Lord Forsyth, the former Scottish Secretary, it has all-party support and the approval of leading academics. The Government has yet to back the move; but it is hard to see how it could possibly oppose giving all youngsters resident in the UK and attending Scottish universities the same deal as everyone else in Europe.

Strange how the Torygraph can turn such a malicious piece of Coalition policy into an attack on the Scottish Government.
The 'deliberate discrimination against university students' they talk of was perpetrated by the Conservatives and their LibDem lapdogs when they allowed for these huge increase in tuition fees. The LibDems, incidentally, largely garnered their General Election votes by being absolutely opposed to this policy only to rubber-stamp it when asked into the Cabinet to massage Conservative shoulders. The Tories, at least, had campaigned on this issue.
The Scottish Government, meanwhile, stuck to their manifesto pledge of ensuring Scottish residents (not nationals) would have their tuition fees paid. How irritatingly principled that must seem to the Telegraph and its mendacious, spiteful hacks.
The fact is, though, that the English electorate got what they voted for. They make up almost 90% of the UK electorate, after all. In the Commons vote, five LibDem MPs from Scottish constituencies voted for the bill, along with David Mundell - the only Tory elected in Scotland. Not a policy made in Scotland then...
However, English voters, having gotten the government and policies they deserve now want to circumvent the policy by sending their children to Scottish universities. For free. Almost like all these tax dodges that wealthy Telegraph readers engage in while telling the rest of us to get our hands in our pockets.
In the process, these students sent up from the shires displace young Scots who, presumably, have to find places in English universities and pay the £9,000 fees.
You can see why the Torygraph are spitting feathers....can't you?

Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Independence and a Scottish Defence Force - Part 1

Already, in the initial referendum debate sorties, Unionist politicians and their supporters have pointed out areas where they feel the SNP have not provided enough information on what Independence will mean. One area regularly cited is Defence.

Whilst actually having some sympathy with the view that the Nationalists have yet to put some meat on the Defence bones , it is also fair to point out that we are only a few weeks into a thirty month process. More details will inevitably follow. Indeed, as the First Minister announced recently, the Independence ‘campaign’ will not begin until May – at the end of the Consultation period.

It doesn’t, however, require access to the SNP inner circle; crystal balls; or, even, many years of military experience at staff officer level to make a reasonable guess at how a Scottish Defence Force (as it is normally referred to) might look.

Those opposed to Independence claim that Scotland can’t afford to defend itself into the future. One wonders if they have ‘double-thunk’ into existence the belief that the £3.5 billion Scots currently contribute to UK defence budgets will continue to be siphoned off to Westminster? As official figures show, only £2.5 billion of that taxation is actually spent by the MOD back in Scotland. Another example of sharing the ‘risks and rewards’ of the Union. Apparently.

So, we have two options it seems.

The first is to maintain that current £2.5 billion level. Clearly, responsible MOD mandarins have concluded that this is the appropriate amount to be spent on the defence of north Britain – and they can be trusted with such crucial decisions, unlike that Scottish Mugabe and his disarming brethren. This, then, would free up £1 billion for other spending priorities in a renewed Scotland. Throw in that an Independent Scotland will no longer contribute to the £100 billion required over the next 30 years in replacing Trident and a Scottish exchequer saves a further £300 million every year.

Or, alternatively, we could spend the entire £3.5 billion and defend ourselves better than the Union currently does.

How to pay for the hardware in the first place then? Surely a massive capital expense for a fledgling Government. This, of course, is how the Westminster parties spin things.

Those same anti-Independence parties are conscientious in reminding us that an Independent Scotland cannot waltz away from the Union Scot-free, so to speak. We must take with us our share of UK National Debt, they say. And we shall. They are slightly less than conscientious in pointing out that this entitles us to an equivalent share of the assets accrued in running up that debt. And we shall take those too – in the process dismantling the disingenuous Unionist claims that our newly-independent state can’t afford the ‘kit’ to defend ourselves. Unfortunately for their argument, our ‘starter pack’ is already there and waiting. And it’s free because we’ve already paid for it!

Of course, the details of how the Union’s family heirlooms are divided will no doubt be the subject of protracted negotiation. Perhaps more protracted in Defence than in any other matter. An Independent Scottish state, though, should find itself in a reasonably strong bargaining position. In fact, it would be more accurate to say Scotland would find itself in a bloody strong bargaining position. That position can be summed up in five words: Her Majesty’s Naval Base Clyde.

HMNB Clyde is home to the United Kingdom’s strategic nuclear deterrent in the shape of the four Vanguard-class submarines on the Faslane-Gare Loch side of the base and the Trident nuclear warheads housed at Coulport which is over the hill on Loch Long. HMNB Clyde is also home to the new Astute-class submarines – the most advanced submarines in the world.

The SNP want to rid Scotland of the nuclear weapons and the submarines that launch them. The Scottish people overwhelmingly agree. The London Government are determined not only to retain them but, in fact, wish to replace them with an even more sophisticated, deadly and costly version. The seemingly insurmountable problem facing those parties and politicians who see these grotesque weapons as Britain’s membership card to the global top-table is that they have nowhere else to base them. Any alternatives currently being suggested are either impractical or breach Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaties. The only plausible way out for the UK would appear to be the construction of an alternative British site. This, it is agreed, would take about ten years. So, what to do, what to do…

Assuming the Scottish electorate vote for Independence there seems but one solution. It will be an imperfect one for all concerned but it is how the political horse-trading will resolve itself.

The new Scottish Government will lease HMNB Clyde to what remains of the UK for a reasonable period – let’s say 15 years – giving them sufficient time to prepare new facilities. The leaders of Scotland may be quite bullish in negotiating the price to be paid in return – such is the fundamental nature of Westminster’s and the MOD’s obsession on the nuclear weapons issue. One hesitates to speak in terms of negotiations with one side over the proverbial barrel but it is difficult to avoid. It seems clear that this one issue alone will make post-Independence discussions considerably less difficult than they may otherwise have been. Westminster will, in effect, have to make Edinburgh happy.

What, then, can they bring to the table in addition to their new helpful disposition?

Westminster might prefer to pay an annual financial stipend but any astute Scottish negotiator would reject such a notion – once a figure had been agreed for HMNB Clyde, the London Government could be as difficult as they like on all other matters.

One can imagine the share of national debt the new state would have to assume being up for discussion, along with North Sea oil and gas sector boundaries and, perhaps, a slightly more indulgent view relating to what share of the MOD’s conventional military materiel a new Scottish Defence Force might require – after all, we are relinquishing our paid-up share of the nuclear arsenal. In some areas this could allow Scotland to ask for, and receive, more than a purely ‘pro-rata’ share.

This article also appeared on the Newsnet Scotland site and is the first in a series I'm preparing looking at defence in an independent Scotland.

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Sunshine and Rain

Most of us can remember a time when a birthday - especially if it was one's own - brightened the world as if a second sun had risen.
                                        Robert Staughton Lynd, American Sociologist, 1892-1970

My forty-sixth birthday was two days ago.

It was a good day. Just as I would have wanted it. No presents and no fuss but best wishes from those that I care for most. In the morning I drank chilled, fresh orange juice and strong coffee. I ate the best croissants that money can buy - in a cut-price, Glasgow supermarket. In the afternoon, the small-town, provincial football club that I follow defeated our big city opponents to win a rare trophy. Our anthem, 'Paper Roses', reverberated around a Hampden vacated by the massed Celtic following, allowing thirteen thousand Ayrshire folk their day in the sun. If only I'd had a Killie pie to celebrate. Still, it was a good day.

I can't claim, though, that I felt 'as if a second sun had risen'. I am, however, starting to see one peeking over the distant horizon (exactly where one might presume a second sun would appear). That horizon is in the East, of course. And from here, in the west of Scotland, that means Edinburgh. Holyrood, to be exact

Despite the cold winds of this economic downturn with its chilly threats of austerity measures, credit rating downgrades and rising unemployment, I can't help but be warmed by the faint rays of this second sun. Each day, as it rises ever so slightly higher at that horizon, it touches more and more of our land and fills a few more of our people with a new hope and a new confidence in the future. As days turn into weeks and months, more of us turn to this source of illumination and peer, blinking, at how a new beginning might look.

And you know what? Despite a surfeit of forecasters telling us that 'a hard rain's a-gonna fall' an increasing number of us seem unperturbed. Many, indeed, are elated. Every day more of us see through the unremittingly negative rhetoric of desperation and ridiculous scare stories. We recognise the vested interests and the nests soon to be de-feathered and know that the purveyors of doom and gloom will become even more outlandish.

Tavish Scott: Shetland and Orkney may secede from Scotland and remain under London's governance.

Peter Hain: Spain will veto Scotland's EU membership.

Philip Hammond: We'll ensure Scotland will pay for removing Trident from the Clyde.

Lord Fraser of Carmyllie: England may be forced to bomb Scottish airports.

These are the latest attempts of the Scotland is 'too wee, too poor, too stupid' brigade who realised that not only was that approach falling on deaf ears but that it was acting as a recruiting sergeant for the Independence campaign - especially after a series of official UK Government figures showed that Scotland was a nett contributor to the UK Treasury rather than the drain on resources we were continually assured it was.

Nevertheless, some hard rains may fall (this is Scotland after all) and there shall be obstacles to overcome. If nothing else though, the Scots have always been an ingenious lot and I have no doubt that it is within the ken of my countrymen to deal with those obstacles.

Now, if only we could make the weather a wee bit better...