Thursday, 22 October 2015

Glimpses of another country

My Daily Record column
Wandering on the Aberdeen esplanade during the SNP conference I glimpsed another country.
Inside the black box conference hall, Scotland was ordered – coming blinking out on to the seafront was to see economic reality.
On the eastern horizon, rig supply boats were lined up far as the eye could see.
These ships are not waiting for a berth in a busy port. With their skeleton crews, they are going nowhere.
The idle fleet is a symbol of the impact the dramatic fall in oil prices has had on the fortunes of Aberdeen and the North Sea industry.
It was like having the central flaw of the independence White Paper writ large.
For each one of its 670 pages of oil-borne promises, 100 North Sea jobs and more are gone.
The jobs pain is spread evenly across the UK but a switch to three-week shifts offshore has effectively cut a third out of the onshore economy that services the turnarounds.
Real jobs, real livelihoods and mortgages hang on the fickle graph of oil barrels across dollars determined far from wellheads and safe harbours.
It has taken a year for senior SNP figures to publicly acknowledge the economics of independence let them down so badly in the referendum.
Whatever the excuses, voters didn’t accept the case. Internally the party has accepted the lesson, as the passionate conference debate on fracking demonstrated.
In their hearts, delegates wanted to ban the industry but Ineos boss Jim Radcliffe’s timely warning about fracking being Scotland’s best chance (last chance?) of “economic independence” rang true for them.
Independence remains the prize, it is just that with diminishing oil resources the price might be getting higher.
On Friday, the gathering storm over the Tata closures in Dalzell and Clydebridge, the outside world interrupted proceedings again.
Nicola Sturgeon promised to do what a Government can to bind the wounds, but for some the grasp on economic reality was slim.
One MSP claimed if Scotland had been independent then the Ravenscraig steel works would have been saved.
Possibly, but unlikely, though that sentiment captures both the strength and weakness of independence economics
Most Scots don’t believe independence could provide any better insulation against the rigours of global markets. That makes independence a hard sell.
Yet the very feeling of powerlessness and fury we feel about rampant globalisation is what makes many people look for alternative economic accounts, for other way of looking at reality.
The corporate muscle that stretches and bends our lives has had its own strong backdraught.
It has driven many voters to turn angrily away from conventional solutions to our problems, to a place where the price of oil will not matter to jobs and the long line of supply boats would not exist.
I dare say that anger over Chinese dumping of steel on the global market provided a distraction as Tata dispensed of what remains of the Scottish steel industry without too much scrutiny.
It is not entirely the fault of the Chinese that steel coming from Scunthorpe to Dalzell cost £325 a slab, wheras the same material could be purchased on the world market for half the price.
We cannot demand Chinese steel workers take redundancy to save ours.
It is one of the contradictions of this complex world that if Scottish steelmaking is to be revived it will likely be rescued by the very people now being scapegoated for its demise, our new friends in the Chinese Communist Party.
Maybe with the honour guard for President Jinping, the demise of steel in Scotland and these lines of boats off Aberdeen during the biggest ever SNP gathering, we all glimpsed another country this week – the one formerly known as Great Britain.

Thursday, 15 October 2015

Sturgeon with the whole world in her hands

When will the second referendum be?

It is the question on the lips of hundreds of new members turning up for their first ever SNP conference in Aberdeen today. It’s also the only story really exercising the media in the carnival tent in carpark 4 of the exhibition centre.

Jim Murphy in his exit speech from politics said it would be “as soon as they can get off with it”, and you can forgive the cynicism of Scottish Labour’s lost leader.

Nicola Sturgeon finessed it rather better this morning in her opening speech to the 81st SNP conference.

In a fair attempt at that old circus trick, riding two horses, she assured No voters, the majority of Scots, that there will be no commitment to an independence referendum in next year’s manifesto for the Holyrood.

Simultaneously she warned the result of the referendum we do see coming down the road, the EU vote, could be the trigger for Scotland to exit the UK. “Unstoppable” was her word, not inevitable.

But while trying reassure half the country that they are not entering “neverendum” land with the SNP she has clearly signalled that within months of winning office she could be preparing for a second referendum vote.

For rank and file SNP members, even the newbys who want a Indy2 yesterday, that should suffice. 

Sturgeon, who bestrides Scottish politics, has great command and respect from her party and there will be few, if any, dissenting voices.

It is that level of personal trust and respect that the SNP leadership want to replicate with the Scottish public over the next few months.

The election campaign is going to be all about Nicola (no Alex at all) and how much you trust and respect her to run the country. So the assurance on the referendum is a strong message.

Sturgeon said there would have to be “strong and consistent” evidence that the mood in Scotland has moved to independence before there is a second vote.

How will they know that? Polling evidence for sure but with 114,000 members, about two per cent of the population, the party ought to be able to judge the mood well enough.    

But asked if the future direction of the country would be weighed on the outcome of opinion polls by the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg the First Minister let slip the proper answer.

“ It will be down to whether we judge, I judge, that people who voted no last year have changed their minds,” she said.

“I judge” - Nicola Sturgeon, she has your whole world in her hands.

Coin is mhadaidhean-allaidh

Sùil Eile airson an Daily Record

‘S e an t-àite as fheàrr airson chon is mhadaidhean-allaidh rannan a’ bhàird.

Ach tha cuid de dh’amadain a tha airson na beathaichean a leigeil dhan Ghàidhealtachd a-rithist gus an t-àite a dhèanamh na fhìor fhàsach.

Bha aonan aca air an radio an latha roimhe, Alan Watson Featherstone, bho urras a tha a’ cur barrachd luach air glèidheadh chraobhan na air mac an duine.

An rud a tha cunnartach mu leithid, chan e am beachd neònach a th’ aige air madaidhean - sin gòraiche.

‘S e na thuirt e mu dheidhinn dòigh-bheatha a th’ air daoine a chumail anns na gleanntan is na h-eileanan fad bhliadhnaichean a tha marbhtach.

A reir an duine uasail seo, ‘s e “perverse subsidy” a th’ anns an taic airgid do chroitearan airson chaorach.

Bhiodh barrachd mathais air a ghlèidheadh anns an talamh às a h-aonais.

Sin an argamaid a bhiodh aig a’ mhadadh-allaidh cuideachd, nach eil fhios.

Seo mo chomhairlesa - fàg na madaidhean-allaidh gu mac-meanma, agus stamp gu cruaidh air beachdan luchd-glèidhteachais bhreugaich.

The best place for dogs and wolves is in the verses of the bard.
But some fools want to release the beasts in the Highlands again to turn the place into a real wilderness.
One of them was on radio the other day, Alan Watson Featherstone, from a trust that puts more value in hugging trees than in human beings. 
The dangerous thing about his kind is not their weird views on wolves, that’s just nonsense.
It is what he said about the way of life that has kept people in the glens and on the islands for years that is deadly.
According to this honourable gentleman the financial support for crofters to keep sheep is a “perverse subsidy”.
More nutrients would be kept in the soil without the sheep.
No doubt that’s the argument the wolf would use too.
Here’s my advice - leave the wolves to imagination and stamp hard in the views of these false conservationists.

Wednesday, 30 September 2015

Life in Wonderland - Corbyn's conference speech

For the Daily Record

Party conferences are locked-off, Alice in Wonderland places cut off from the real world.

If someone arrives from outside declaring  scientists have found life-giving water on Mars, delegates shrug their shoulders at the irrelevance of the news.

Conferences are altered reality, where anything can happen. That's why Jeremy Corbyn's first speech to the Labour conference was such a barnstormer in the hall. 

In here the drumbeat of socialist principles, the defiant challenge to Tory austerity, and the promise of a different way of doing politics drew ovation after ovation

The trouble is that as the testament of the Islington messiah reaches the outside world voters may shrug their shoulders collectively in return.

This was a speech aimed at soothing a bruised party, not convincing a sceptical voter who blames Labour for the economic crash

In his comfort zone it was a warm and witty speech, a wish list for a kinder world that offered few solutions to hard choices of the real world. We can assume these will be sent to policy reviews.

At its core was nothing less than a challenge to the historic order of capitalism. That passage turned out to be a rethread of a speechwriter's script that Ed Miliband rejected in 2011.

On issues he is passionate about, the injustice of poverty, the despot Saudi regime, the rhetoric  drew on Corbyn's own leadership speeches, but was not quite so mediocre as they were.

On Scotland it was a tick box affair, reading the lines from an unfamiliar autocue and what sounded like the script direction - "strong message here" - as he promised Labour would be back as the fighting force it once was. Not much for Nicola Sturgeon to lose sleep over.

He insisted on taking Trident out of the box that the party boss, sorry Unite union boss Len McCluskey, packed it into earlier in the week. Labour may not be debating Trident renewal yet but Corbyn insisted his mandate to is to scrap it and that means there will be division down the road. 

Though he submitted to convention and wore a tie, awkwardly, Corbyn clearly thinks he has changed the rules of politics.

In conventional terms he does not work, an unspun politician,  unstructured speeches, policy discussions not proclamations, it just shouldn't fly in a 24/7 news cycle and a digital world. 

But he told the media it is they who are on the wrong page. 

"No, media commentariat you've got it wrong," he declared, and that telt us. 

Much of the media has already dismissed this rebel who came in from the allotment as a disaster for Labour who will not connect with the public. 

But there is a Corbyn effect out there,  160,000 new members have signed up. He is reaching out with the Good Samaritan politics of kindness.

The speech played to his strengths, his unorthodox approach to politics and defiance of the accepted style of business.

But conventionally voters like leaders to have other strengths, to take decisions not seek compromises, and to be trusted with the economy.  

The political village cannot decide if Corbyn has genuinely tapped the anti-politics mood or how deep that well is. In Wonderland it is hard to tell.

Saturday, 12 September 2015

Corbyn connects, but can he reach out in Scotland?

The lesson from that phenomenal result - Corbyn connects.

Certainly he does in the Labour party where six in ten members backed him as their first choice.

That is a call for a different way of doing politics and for a different Labour Party.

A mandate like that is unassailable from within and resistant to the many setbacks and traps external opponents will put in the way of the new Labour leader.

It’s clear now that this summer politics in the left in Britain has undergone the same transformation as the nationalist politics in Scotland experienced last year.

Defeat has spurred political activists to express their core values, nationalism in Scotland, socialism within the Labour party.

The anti-politics surge that gifted the SNP with over 100,000 members after the referendum has left Labour with over 500,000 across the UK.

But be careful, the SNP membership still outnumbers Labour by five to one in Scotland.

Will Jeremy Corbyn’s anti-establishment credentials, his principled socialism and left-wing values connect with voters better than Nicola Strugeon’s assured, groomed and polished nationalist operation?

Although amazed by the result Corbyn looks like taking leadership in same straight-talking style as he won the contest with.

Mind you, it was noticeable that his powerful victory speech was aimed at the Labour support in the hall and not at the TV nation looking in who he must introduce himself to connect to with the same vigour.

In Scotland the test of Corbynism will be if his policies pull back votes from the SNP.

If they do not then what is happening in Scotland is not about politics at all, it is all about identity.

Thursday, 16 July 2015

The Tories gunning for Gaelic in BBC review

The government's Green Paper on the BBC's future clearly has Gaelic broadcasting, and Welsh, in its sights for cuts.

Why else would the document   launched today present a comparative graphic showing the cost for producing an hour of Radio nan Gaidheal is 18.9p while the cost of an hour on mainstream BBC Radio Scotland is a third of that, at 6.5p per hour? (See page 35 of the document).

Similar figures show that BBC Alba, the Gaelic TV channel part-funded by the BBC, costs 8.3p per hour to produce, compared to BBC3, for example, at 8.1p per hour and BBC 1 at 6.5p per hour.

The reason minority language radio and television is more expensive per hour to produce is because less of it is produced.

But the graphic highlighting and the attention given to language broadcasting is a singal that the government considers that nothing is sacred when it comes to stripping costs out of the BBC.

The documents states: "Nearly two thirds of minority language speakers in the UK say that the BBC supports their language. But while the BBC and licence fee funded services are clearly an important pillar for indigenous language communities there are also challenges: audience reach has been falling across some indigenous language services over the last few years, particularly in Wales.

And these services come at a cost; cost per hour of indigenous language radio content in Scotland and Wales is considerably higher than cost per hour for English speaking content which raises concerns about value for money."

The government says it will ask "hard questions" about the size and ambition of the BBC as part of a consultation on its future. 

Clearly it intends that minority language  broadcasting should be scrutinised as it seeks a smaller and cheaper BBC. 

Wednesday, 8 July 2015

Osborne unleashed, the king of the Commons

Quick fire on the budget for The Record
Don’t be fooled for a second. Don’t be distracted by figures finessed so that welfare is cut by £8 billion over two years instead of the £12 billion expected.
George Osborne is no fool. The Chancellor in his budget just listened to what everyone told him, that £12 billion is nigh impossible to shave in such a short space of time.
Behind the gimmick of rebadging and resetting the living wage, cuts there will be.
Capping wages at a miserly one per cent for public sector workers while setting corporation tax lower than the basic rate of personal tax shows the chancellor knows how to look after friends in business more than his new friends in the north. 
That is not to take away from Osborne’s sheer bravura.
Dealt a lousy hand in 2010, he messed the economy up for three years until it started healing itself in time for the election.
This is the chancellor who has gone from omnishambles to crowd-pleasing magician.
He warmed Tory benches yesterday with a two per cent defence commitment.
He tried to reach the country with the northern powerhouse talk and “one nation” rhetoric while framing Britain as a US-style low tax, low welfare economy. Audacious, not half.
It is all part of his project to discredit Labour’s decade of social democracy, to undo the redistributive work of Gordon Brown while the opposition is leaderless and without a compass.
The SNP, by the way, hardly matter to the chancellor.
With the tax-varying powers of the Scotland Bill Osborne reckons he has handed Holyrood a dirk to bleed Scotland’s veins with. 
Every time Osborne pushes a tax cut Swinney must match it, as he did on devolved property taxes.
On every welfare cut he will challenge the SNP to fill the gap out of Scotland’s middle class pockets, and see who’ll vote for that. 
There’s another project that is bigger for Osborne.
He has his eye on next door and the well-worn path for chancellors to move into the prime minister’s office.
Theresa, Boris and events stand in the way but Osborne has greatly improved his standing with the Tory party selectorate.
The Chancellor, a 16/1 outsider to be Tory leader two years ago, is now the bookies’ favourite to succeed David Cameron.
A roman haircut, a trim look and a new-found panache. That was a Prime Minister in waiting.