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Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Schadenfreude Is Not Always Enjoyable

When John Swinney issued the statement that he could not foresee the conditions being right for at least another ten years, for an independent Scotland to join the euro, it was probably as close as he could come to admitting the SNP's Euro policy was wrong and had always been wrong. Politicians are never wrong, it is changing circumstances that cause changes in policy; rarely or never, is it the fault of the political leaders who either misread the political situation, or simply do not understand the issues with which they are asked to deal. Nothing in the EU has changed to such an extent, as to cause the euro to be such a disaster for countries such as Greece, Eire et al.

Gavin McCrone, whose report on Scottish oil has earned him such a well-deserved place among SNP heroes, has pointed out, that while Greece should have never joined the euro, the same is not true of Eire, Spain or Italy and that the system itself is what is wrong. He also pointed out that "monetary union can only work if inflation is at broadly comparable rates between the member states" He could have usefully added that without fiscal centralisation, there is almost bound to be trouble, which is why it is true to say that it was also a mistake for Spain, Portugal, Italy and Eire to join. McCrone is the second substantial figure to admit to making a mistake about the euro, Charles Kennedy being the other, a few days ago. As time wears on, and it becomes politically acceptable to admit to being wrong about the euro, we will see other substantial political figures coming forward to admit support for the single currency was a mistake.

I should be glad that so many political figures in Scotland and the rest of the UK are coming forward to admit the mistake, having been campaigning for years, to keep this country out of the euro. I should be glad that people like Gordon Brown kept the UK out because it meant that Scotland did not join and is now unlikely ever to join, but no one can be glad at the damage the issue has caused. Schadenfreude is not always enoyable because in this case, the issue is too important, too many businesses in the member countries have been ruined, too many people have lost their jobs and countless billions of taxpayers' money have been wasted, for a political idea about which the adherents could not be honest. On a personal level, my opposition to EU membership and the inevitable centralising ethos of the EU, including the euro, caused me to leave the SNP and ended my position in front line politics. The question of the single currency is far from settled for the member states and more countless billions of tax will be spent before fiscal policy, as well as monetary policy, is directed from the centre. It will be that or, the system will collapse completely but, as Greece and Italy have already had their current governments appointed by the EU, it is obvious the Euro elite are not going to allow the euro to die easily.

While my delight at the death of the euro, at least as far as Scotland is concerned, is tempered by the disappointment that it took so long for people to see sense, there are no mixed feelings about the other issue which can surely work to the advantage of the national movement. The late Willie Ross, christened the SNP, the "Scots Narks". It was a name that stuck and which did damage, as did the "Tartan Tories", which did even more damage, after the decision of the party to vote against the Callaghan government. It took almost a decade for the damage to be reduced and for Labour supporters in Scotland to recognise that Callaghan was prepared to accept defeat at a general election, before giving in to devolution for Scotland, something which would take more than another decade to become a reality.

Try as they might, it was impossible for a time, for the SNP to persuade Scottish Labour supporters that Labour were as solid Unionists as were the Tories. As far as the SNP were concerned, this meant that the Labour Party in Scotland, would invariably sacrifice Scottish interests, for the interests of the Union or the UK "as a whole". That is a perfectly valid political position to take and was epitomised by Tam Dalyell, author of the "West Lothian Question", and Brian Wilson, at the time of the devolution campaign in 1979. Unbelievable as it may seem now, the SNP campaigned harder for Labour's devolution policy in 1979, than did the Labour Party in Scotland, with SNP activists, delivering Labour's official devolution leaflets because the Labour activists refused. To be labelled "Tartan Tories", particularly in light of the behaviour of the Scottish Labour Party, really stuck in the craw of many SNP activists and played its part in the attitude of many in the SNP, to the Constituional Convention.

Scots have finally come to terms with the position of the Labour Party in Scotland, as far as the Union is concerned and the announcement of the founding of the cross-party group to "save the Union" will come as no surprise. It will also make the battle lines that much clearer. When it was announced earlier in the year, that there would be little or no overt cooperation between the three main Unionist parties in the referendum campaign, there were few in the Nationalist camp who believed it. As all three parties invariably appear in the popular media, singing from the same hymn sheet to the tune of the daily scare story, it simply made sense and was more honest, to make the campaign group official. Labour activists may object to their official spokesmen sharing a platform with Tories, but the Scottish electorate are no longer fooled by the arms-length campaigning, knowing perfectly well the level of cooperation at the very top, is as close as it can be, without forming an official coalition.

When it comes to the position of the Scottish leadership of both the Tories and Labour, Ruth Davidson and Johann Lamont have been put in their place quite emphatically. David Cameron undermined Davidson's position on his last visit to Scotland, as highlighted by Michael Forsyth and Lamont seemd to be incapable of dealing with the embarrassment created by Eric Joyce, whose suspension was directly ordered by Ed Milliband, something which should have been the preserve of the Scottish leader. As neither Scottish leader has made any impact on the Scottish political scene, having their leadership undermined like this, may have gone unnoticed by the Scottish electorate but, it is something which can be exploited by the SNP. The battle is now quite clearly between London and the London leaders of the Unionist parties and Edinburgh and the Scottish Parliament. It is a position tailor-made for the SNP to exploit.

Friday, 24 February 2012

Oil Fund or No Oil Fund? Is that The Question?

Scots must be about the most stupid people on earth, judging by the headlines in the daily newspapers, to say nothing of the comments made about the prospects for an independent Scotland. I know we are supposed to accommodate the lowest common denominator in the debates but I have to admit, I am beginning to wonder if some Unionists are actually capable of formulating any kind of rational argument. On the car radio yesterday, I tuned in to Brian Taylor's debate which came from Fettes College in Edinburgh. One contribution from the floor, in the discussion on independence, suggested that if Scotland voted "Yes" in the referendum, was there not a danger we could end up like Greece? There would be riots in the streets and people burning buildings. As he warmed to his task (probably from the heat from the burning buildings) the enthusiastic Unionist concluded, "There could be civil war!" Aye right. Away and lie down in a dark room somewhere.

Unfortunately, this kind of nonsense is not confined to the "ordinary voter" whoever that may be. Philip Hammond warned us that thousands of jobs would be lost in the defence industries, because the rUK "would not build ships in a foreign country" - the "foreign country" being an independent Scotland. Does Hammond not know what is going on in his own department, or, is South Korea not a foreign country? For the purposes of this debate, is Scotland the only "foreign country", or is it just the only country the rUK will not trade with? When questioned why an order from the Royal Navy worth £465 million, went to South Korea, a spokesman from the MOD - that is Hammond's department - said, "it represented the best commercial deal". Now why would that matter, if the rUK will not "build ships in a foreign country"?

One would assume that one of the longest serving MEPs and one who has consistently and unreservedly supported the EU, would know and understand the implications for an independent Scotland, when it came to membership of the EU. Unfortunately, it would seem that we presume too much. David Martin MEP, has been pushing the notion in The Scotsman (where else) that an independent Scotland, "having been part of another member state" would have to re-apply for entry. It is time that argument was exposed for the fallacy that it is. When Scotland decides to become independent, the UK will cease to exist because it was formed by the partnership of Scotland and England (Wales is another discussion) therefore it is wrong even to speak of the rUK. Scotland's position will not be that of a "part of another state" that has broken away, it will be one half of the partnership which created the UK and which has just dissolved the partnership, thereby ending the existence of the UK. Whatever arrangements are made with the EU for England, Wales and Northern Ireland, will have to be made with an independent Scotland. That is the constitutional reality and any attempt to downgrade Scotland's legal position should be fought every step of the way.

The major story hitting the headlines for the past week has centred on the question of an Oil Fund being created in an independent Scotland, with Unionists setting out to create as much confusion as possible. The Scotsman carried the following headline, "Go-alone Scotland 'cannot afford oil fund without major cuts'". Unfortunately, the think tank quoted, does not actually say that. The Centre of Public Policy and the Regions (CPPR) centred on the comment by Salmond that he hoped Scotland would put aside £1 billion a year of oil taxes "once fiscal conditions allowed", countering that by arguing that "in the period after independence" it would be difficult to help close the budget deficit and have the oil fund at the same time "certainly not in the size being suggested". Taken together, there is not a great deal of difference in the two statements. However, Unionists have decided to interpret the statement from the CPPR as meaning that an independent Scotland will not be able to afford an oil fund - at all, therefore independence is a waste of time, the lights will all go out and there may even be civil war - God help us.

Unfortunately, the reaction by some SNP spokespeople to the comments by the CPPR, have not been helpful, attacking the membership of the think tank as having worked at one time for the Labour Party. So what, if there are some years there will be insufficient revenues to contribute anything to an oil fund? Whatever figures are being produced now are no more than projections, based on a series of assumptions and, as those assumptions are changed, so will the projections of the revenues available. In other words, if you don't like the projections the think tank has produced, ask them to change their assumptions and they will produce other projections. Unionists can have their projections and Nationalists can have theirs and we can turn the whole argument into a farce. One year's figures neither make a case for independence nor a case against independence.

It might be helpful if we looked at some figures for oil and tax revenues, some of which are projections and some of which are factual. The latest figures for Government Expenditure and Revenue for Scotland (GERS) show that Scotland is in a better financial position than the UK as a whole. As a perecntage of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) Scotland's Net Fiscal Balance for 2009/10 was -10.6% as opposed to the UK's -11.2%. Scotland's share of oil revenues for the same year went down from £11.7 billion to £5.9 billion, which would have made it difficult to contribute Salmond's proposed £1 billion to the oil fund. Fortunately, the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) has forecast that oil revenues over the next five years will average £13.4 billion, of which Scotland's share will be £12.2 billion, which is a far cry from the assumptions used by the CPPR and its "diminishing oil revenues".

The National Institute of Economic and Social Research (NIESR) is another think tank whose findings are being used to suggest an independent Scotland would struggle financially. Under its "assumptions" Scotland's debt ratio to GDP would be around 70%, a figure the think tank seeems to think is unmanageable without severe hardship. When the conditions for entry to the single currency were being drawn up, it was decided under the Maastricht Treaty that the debt ratio for member states should be 60%, which is not all that far away from the 70% which Scotland would allegedly find a problem. We know that that figure was never adhered to by the likes of Greece, Italy etc, which is why the euro is on the verge of collapse. The OECD forecast that the UK's debt ratio to GDP would be 95% in 2012. On 31st December 2011, the figure was 64%, excluding the financial sector intervention (RBS, Lloyds etc) but when that was included, the figure was 148%. In 2010, Japan's ratio of debt to GDP was 225%, Germany's was 78.8% and in 2011, the USA's was 110%. It would seem therefore that an independent Scotland's fiscal position would be as healthy as the best economies in the world and a great deal more healthy than some others.

There are going to be a great many variables in any calculation that is made about Scotland's future economic prospects. If Scotland reduced corporation tax it would certainly encourage business growth but what we will not know is whether the gap created by the loss of revenue from each individual firm, will be more than covered by the increase in business activity. It is assumed that it will. North sea oil activity will be determined in large part by the tax regime imposed by a Scottish government. There have been three tax hikes in the past decade, imposed by Westminster governments, the last of which provoked Centrica to say it intended to abandon the North Sea. Centrica has now changed its mind and a "sympathetic" tax regime might bring on stream marginal fields currently not being developed. Any Scottish government would have to be careful however, that it did not become too sympathetic. It is assumed there are other fields waiting to be developed when the oil price is right and it is under those conditions that the proposed oil fund is likely to become a reality.

Greater economic activity in a sector of the economy as important as the oil industry will have a knock on effect in other areas. Once the multiplier effect kicks in, the increased economic activity becomes general. No government can predict with certainty what will happen in any economy, although every government claims to be able to. By the same token, no opposition can predict what will not happen. The one thing about which we can be certain, is that the Unionists will manufacture whatever statistics and assumptions are needed, to "prove" independence will be a disaster.

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Greece; Tragedy or Farce. What Does it Mean for Independence?

Surprise surprise, a deal was finally struck to "save" Greece from default. Was it ever in doubt? It all depends on how cynical one is about the EU, the European political elites and the lengths to which they are prepared to push a country and its people, to save face. Will it last? That depends on whether one is prepared to listen to the latest utterings of the EU leaders, who claim the situation has been stabilised or, to the more realistic political and economic analysts, who have been warning for several years that the eurozone cannot survive. I tend to follow the latter..

What does the deal involve? Greece has been advanced another 130 billion euros or £108billion, which allows the country to redeem its debt in March, thereby preventing a default which would have pushed the country out of the euro. An estimated £107 billion has been lost, most of it carried by the private sector. The Greek people will be required to endure austerity measures which will be prolonged for the next eight years until 2020, at which time the ratio of debt to GDP, will have been reduced from the current 160% to 129% (the target was 120%). For a country which is notorious for tax evasion, where government figures have been fiddled every years since the country joined the EU and where the population retires earlier than almost any other country in the EU, is any of that even remotely realistic? The riots in the streets of Athens have lost much of their earlier intensity and it would appear there is now an atmosphere of resignation among the Greek people. The latest opinion polls show 73% of Greeks want to remain inside the euro but 49% do not believe the country will survive as a member for the next two years. This contradicts earlier polls which showed that the majority wanted to revert to the old drachma.

This is perhaps an indication that some of the anger has dissipated but it may also just be a temporary lull before more serious demonstrations are resumed. The economics of the problem have not changed; the Greek economy is no more likely to be convergent in eight years than it is now and the austerity measures will inevitably undermine the capacity for economic growth which is vital, if the required changes to the economy are ever to happen. That is what remaining in the eurozone will mean for the Greek people and when those who currently express the opinion they would want to remain as members, finally realise what membership means, inevitably there is going to be renewed anger. The important point however, is that this is only half of the equation; the rest of it involves the German people and other member states which will be required to carry the burden of the Greek bailout. Is Greek membership of the eurozone as important to them? The answer to that question in the past has been, not if it means the German taxpayer has to carry an increased share of the costs. The people of the northern European states also take a more realistic view of the potential of another Greek bailout in the not too distant future, something which they see as a "probability" rather than a "possibility".

On Sunday past, Scotland on Sunday carried a leader column which should have been written several years ago. It was peppered with "wise after the event" comments and quotes the previous Chancellor Alistair Darling who desctibes European leaders' policy towards Greece as "sheer lunacy" and who argues that Greece should be allowed an orderly default. SOS states, "the whole house of cards is collapsing", "the truth is, the Grrek economy was always incompatible with Eurozone membership", "Greece bluffed its way in by fiddling its accounts", "encouraged to do so by a complicit EU eager to expand the Eurozone empire", "It is the same integrationist obsession...", "That kind of tunnel vision can no longer be indulged" and so on, and so on. When did Alistair Darling and Scotland on Sunday waken up to the situation? Where were they and all the other "wise after the event" experts, who are now exiting the woodwork, when some of us were warning of the likely outcome of the "deals" and "blind eyes" that were turned when the Eurozone was born? The Greeks were not the only ones who fiddled their figures, nor are they the only ones who continue to fiddle their figures, year in and year out. It was all accepted, in the interests of the "European project".

Now that it has become politically acceptable to express doubts about the wisdom of pursuing the "European project" to the detriment of almost everything else, how will that effect the debate on independence? The SNP's entire European strategy is in tatters, the comfort blanket that the EU was supposed to provide for a nervous and unsure Scottish people, is looking gey threadbare. For the SNP to continue to pursue the EU strategy of joining everything and accepting everything, just so long as it emenated from the EU, is dead in the water. The danger for the National Movement now, is that the Scottish people, having been forced to accept that all things European are not what they seemed or, more importantly, are not what they were told they were, seek their comfort blanket elsewhere and that "elsewhere" is the UK. It is not enough for John Swinney to say that the SNP do not see the economic conditions being right for Scottish membership of the euro within the next decade. To suggest that it is ever likely to be "in Scotland's interest" to join the euro, means one of two things; either the SNP do not understand the likely implications of joining a euro of the future or, it is no longer pursuing independence.

If Greece remains in the euro, there are strong moves to install EU commissioners to monitor every move made by the Greek government. Greek budgets will be determined only by agreement with the EU and, having had their government imposed, the Greeks will no longer be in charge of their own taxation. This may mean that the profligacy ends but it is also the end of independence. The Greek problem has simply brought to a head, the final realisation there cannot be 17 taxation policies and only one monetary policy. I have already pointed this out earlier on this blog but the latest deal to "save" Greece underlines it more forcibly.
The SNP is now going to have to drop all pretence that Scottish membership of the euro will be acceptable "if the economic conditions are right" and, either admit the conditions will never be right or, admit the party is prepared to accept Scottish taxation being determined by the European Central Bank as the price of membership of the euro of the future. If that is to be the "end game" for the SNP, it means the party is no longer pursuing independence because no matter how it is dressed up, if a country has both its monetary and fiscal policies determined by some body furth of its own borders, it is not independent.

For the SNP to accept that as the likely scenario for the eurozone - and there is no doubt it cannot go on as it has done for the past decade - the party is going to have to start thinking ahead a little bit. It has operated on the basis of the "next press conference" and, if it ever did give the EU situation any serious thought, it was obviously wrong in its analysis of the likely consequences of the euro and the centralising nature of the political treaties. It means it has to stop offering the EU as an alternative to the UK and really start to offer independence as the only real alternative

Sunday, 19 February 2012

Would No Fault Compensation In Medical Cases Serve Justice In Scotland?

Justice - "the quality of being just; integrity; rightness; the awarding of what is due", frequently missing when dealing with the law, particularly in medical negligence cases. As the parents of five children, my wife and I have had to make fairly liberal use of the NHS over the years. We have seen it at its very best, and at its worst - in the same hospital. It would seem to depend on which branch of the NHS one needs to use, that determines whether or not the service and treatment are even adequate, or first class.

About four or five years ago, I was told one of the arteries in my heart was narrowing but, that there was nothing to worry about as I had always kept myself very fit. In November 2010, I took a heart attack. I felt the first slight chest pain as I made my way to the office at 8.55am, was taken to the cottage hospital in Crieff twenty minutes later by a work colleague and, when told by the nurse I was having a heart attack, I laughed and said, "It cannae be a heart attack if I'm walking about like this." By 12.15 pm, I was in the ward at Ninewells in Dundee with a stent fitted and I haven't had a twinge since. The care from start to finish was excellent, as was the aftercare since and I was back in the office eight days after the attack. I couldn't have asked for better.

Last summer, my daughter was hospitalised with suspected meningitis and detained for three days, until on the Friday, they decided to discharge her. When I called to collect her, she was sitting in the reception area being violently sick, therefore I decided to take her back to the ward, explaining to the sister in charge and asked to see a doctor, as well as for something to ease the sickness. Over the next four hours and thirty minutes, I made three requests for something to ease the sickness and something to ease a headache caused by the constant retching. Over that entire period, not a single member of staff came near my daughter's bed, nor did any doctor appear. Across the ward, an elderly woman, who was almost paralysed down one side as the consequence of a stroke, asked me to ask a member of staff to take her to the toilet, as no one had answered her buzzer. The old lady was left in the toilet on her own and almost fifteen minutes went by before I was able to get a member of staff to take her back to bed. At the end of the four and a half hours, my daughter felt well enough to leave, which we did, telling one of the nurses - the shift had changed by that time - we were leaving. Did anyone try to stop us? No. Did I complain? Yes, to my daughter's GP. Was anything done about it? You must be joking.

The latest report shows that the NHS in Scotland paid almost £49 million in compensation for medical negligence in 2009/10. The figure was £38 million in 2008/2009 and the increase over the past decade has caused so much concern that Nicola Sturgeon and the Scottish Government have agreed that Scotland should move to a system of "No Fault Compensation" where it would not be necessary to prove medical negligence, for compensation to be paid to those who have been the victims of medical negligence. Some of the worst cases have involved mistakes at childbirth, with children left physically disabled or with severe brain damage. The largest sum paid - £5.75 million - went to a mother and her child who was left with cerebral palsy. The child was born in February 1994 but the claim was not settled - out of court - until 2010, which meant for sixteen years, the mother had to cope with a child so severely disabled, he required 24 hour attention, without the financial means to allow her to do so.

In cases such as this, the entire family is affected. Both parents are requried to sacrifice almost every other part of their lives; if there are other children, they also suffer, to say nothing of the quality of life endured by the primary victim. One of the most distrubing and despicable aspects of this kind of case, is the fact there is no limit as to how long the health authorities will prolong the agony of the family involved. I have learned to my cost, there are also no depths to which the medical staff will not sink in order to wriggle out of any responsibility for the tragedy which they caused. Medical notes will be "lost" or quite blatently altered to omit incriminating evidence, special reports will be presented, prepared by so-called "expert witnesses", despite there being no minimum standards for "experts" in this country. Of course, the claimants can also have their own "expert witnesses" and it is amazing that two or more "experts" can come to diametrically opposed opinions, not on questions of law, but whether or not some medical practitioner has actually committed an act of gross negligence. The defenders' experts will tend to find that no negligence took place.

The arguments in favour of having a system of "No Fault Compensation" tend to favour the assumption that it will change attitudes inside the NHS. The secretary of the BMA, Martin Woodrow, said, "It would address the blame culture inside the NHS which discourages physicians from reporting accidents and would end the practice of defensive medicine". This is not necessarily accepted by everyone in the profession, many of whom see the biggest problem is the level of legal fees, which according to some estimates take up 50% of total amounts paid out. Other critics of the system ask, what I consider to be the most important question of all, "If no one is ever held to be negligent, a possible consequence of a system where negligence does not have to be proved, how does the NHS weed out those who are incompetent?" It is also argued that it will in all probability, cut the waiting time before payments are made. There is no doubt the insurers or whoever is paying the bill for the compensation, which in many cases, the NHS knows is inevitable, quite deliberately use every trick in the book or that the legal system will allow, to delay cases coming to court. It took me ten years finally to be told, my case was being struck out and my daughter waited twelve years before she won an out of court settlement, which could have been agreed years earlier. There is no possible justification for that quite deliberate abuse of the legal procedures.

The No Fault system does nothing to address the problem of those groups in the public sector which have a general immunity from prosecution, no matter how guilty they are. Unfortunately this is not an area the Scottish Government has any intention of addressing and is an argument for another day. The final problem with adopting No Fault Compensation would be the levels of compensation to be paid. As so much of the total cost is legal fees, and this system would cut that substantially, it is difficult to see why there should be any problem in arriving at figures which would be fair and just - that word again - to the victims of medical negligence but it is anticipated this could be a major area of controversy. What no "system" will alter, is the perceived changes in attitude which now prevail inside the NHS. In years gone by, I could never envisage sitting in a hospital ward, asking three times for a nurse to attend to someone who was being violently sick over a four hour period, yet receiving no attention. Far less could I have ever envisaged being allowed to walk out of the ward, without anyone making any attempt to find out what was wrong. Perhaps there is a need to change the practice of defensive medicine but that is certainly not the most important attitude that needs to change.

Friday, 17 February 2012

Here's Tae Us Wha's Like Us. Damn Few And They're Aw Deid

To say that David Cameron's speech on Scottish independence has had mixed reviews, is to put it mildly. I don't suppose he has a clue how patronising it sounded to Scots who have rather a better grasp of Scottish history than Mr Cameron, or whoever wrote the speech for him. He could have quite usefully led those present, in a final toast to the Scottish nation, and what more appropriate toast than the one we use ourselves, when we are feeling cynical. His address reminded me of the occasion when a good friend of mine was recounting how, when he criticised his son's effort to write a history of the SNP, his son, a professor of politics, was forced to exclaim, "How do you know so much about it that you can correct my version so much?" My friend responded, "Because I was there."

It was the second time I had heard that line put to good effect. The first was as a mature student in 1967, in a history class that was dominatd by mature students, all of whom had more experience of life than the lecturer. That it was in Dundee and the students were almost all local, added to the lecturer's difficulties when the discussions included economic history and he attempted to convince us that the 1930s were not as bad as is sometimes made out. We had one student who was considerably older than the rest of us and who kept his opinions to himself for much of the time. During one of those lectures, which had digressed somewhat from the topic, the lecturer talked about Hemmingway's "For Whom the Bell Tolls", and the author's presence in Spain at the time of the civil war. Three times, the student interrupted him to say, "That's not what happened" or, "No, it wasn't quite like that". After the third interruption the lecturer in exasperation, said, "How do you know?" The response of "I was there", closed all further discussion and earned the student an aura that had not been there before.

Cameron's quick romp through Scottish history was adequate enough, if slightly inaccurate in places, and most of the great heroes he mentioned were aw deid. His approach was certainly different from the usual derision and disdain with which any mention of Scottish independence is greeted by the London political and social elites and, if this is the start of a charm offensive, Nationalists may find it will be better appreciated by Scots than what has gone before. It will be no less patronising for all that. What Cameron, and any others who have a mind to follow suit, will have to take on board, is that it will be too little and too late. There are far too many of us who "were there" during the Wilson, Heath, Callaghan, Thatcher, Major, Blair and Brown years, particularly Thatcher and perhaps Cameron is at last, beginning to realise why the very word "Tory" is still so toxic in Scotland.

When he threw in the line, "From Waterloo to the Second World War our servicemen and women have fought and won together", I don't suppose he thought for a moment of the state murder of Farquhar Shaw and the McPherson brothers, followed by the deportation of 200 of their comrades in the Black Watch, for attempting to force the British government of the time to hold to a prior agreement the regiment would not be sent to serve overseas. I don't suppose he is aware that on the first day of the Battle of Loos, which he did mention, on September 25th 1915, of 69 infantry battalions that went over the top, 35 were in Scots regiments, that 24 of those Scots battalions, in two Scottish divisions, suffered 44% of the total deaths and that there were another 11 Scottish battalions in the three other divisions which took part. Would he be aware that many of the sons of those men were in the 51st Highland Division, so treacherously betrayed by Churchill in 1940, or had he ever heard of Wolfe's dictum, "they are little mischief if they fall? If Cameron wants to dabble in Scots history, then that and a great deal more, is an integral part of it.

He really should have thought twice before saying, "The Union helps to make Scotland stronger, safer, richer and fairer." When the university lecturer was trying to tell us that the 1930s were not as bad as sometimes made out to be, he was a young Englishman, lecturing in Dundee, where men were given the sobriquet "kettle bilers" because throughout much of the 1930s they had no work and stayed at home, while their wives worked in the mills. As the PPC in Dundee West in the 1970s, I met many people whose father's first job in the 1930s was when they were called up in 1939. Whatever improvements were felt in the 1930s took some time to reach Scotland. The Scottish steel industry was a part of the price Heath was prepared to pay, to gain entry to the Common Market, just as the Scottish fishing industry is the price all Westminster governments have been prepared to pay, for continued membership.

Not only has Scotland received very little benefit from the discovery of oil but instead of the revenues being used to create a manufacturing sector in downstream activities, to replace those older industries which were struggling with foreign competition, our indiustry was allowed to die while the revenues were used to restructure the English economy or simply wasted in current consumption. Neither Wilson's and Callaghan's Labour nor Heath's and Thatcher's Tories, showed any concern for what was happening in Scotland, while exploiting Scotland's oil as fast as it could be taken from the sea. The currency union, which Cameron seems to believe was so advantageous for Scotland, imposed interest rates which were concerned with the inflationary pressure being generated by the South East of England, rather than the lack of economic growth in Scotland, and which were therefore totally unsuitable. That is likely to continue under the SNP's current intention to keep sterling, if there is a Yes vote in the referendum.

If this Union has been such a benefit to Scotland, why do we regularly lag behind in terms of economic growth; why is our health record so much worse than England's and why is our life expectancy so much worse? The history of Cameron's Union was selective to say the least and for obvious reasons, ommitted all of the above. But perhaps the most important omission, in the context of the referendum campaign, has already been noted by Alex Salmond, and that is Cameron's failure to see the parallel between his offer to the Scottish people of "more powers" if they voted "No" and that of his illustrious predecessor, Sir Alec Douglas Home, who made exactly the same offer- and then reneged. Sorry, Mr Cameron, we have heard it all before because we were there, and we have no wish to be there again

Wednesday, 15 February 2012

Minimum Alcohol Pricing Won't Work

David Cameron has said he will increase the price of alcohol in the hope of reducing the costs to the NHS of drink-related problems in accident and emergency wards, for example. The SNP could get no support from Labour and Tories in Scotland when they wanted to introduce the same measure and we have even had the EU say that any kind of measure, which was discriminatory, would be against EU law. As someone who is against EU membership in any case, I would not be in the least concerned what the EU said. The other member states do not have the same problems with drink that we have in the UK, particularly in Scotland, and if it could be shown that a rise in the price of drink, or even some kinds of drink, would solve the alcohol problem, I would not care how high the price went.

My only concern is that a blanket increase in the price of drink hits at those who drink socially and responsibly and who are not a problem to society in any way, as well as those who create the problems and are the real target. It would also have to ensure that the increase in price did not simply increase the profit margins of those who help to create the problem in the first place - the supermarkets and the clubs and pubs with their happy hours and special promotions. Some advocates of the measure claim it could target only those drinks which are popular with young people, drinks such as cider or alcopops. While they may be a part of the problem, they are far from being the only part.

Alcohol has been a problem in Scotland for as long as I can remember, although many of those who were considered to be a problem, saw nothing wrong with their behaviour. There were always families where the father, mainly, was known to "like a drink", which sometimes meant he liked a drink to the point where his family were forced to go without. That would sometimes be accompanied by weekend violence, usually directed at his wife and kids. As a young police constable I attended quite a few of those "domestics", which did not always end in the culprit "getting lifted". I walked the beat with a few of the old style men who dealt out their own kind of summary justice. Those days are long gone and far too many of the victims of problem drinkers now get very little of any kind of justice because there is ample evidence that the laws we have in place are simply not being applied with the kind of vigour which might have some serious impact on the drink problem.

Economic theory tells us that price will effect the quantity demanded of any product, assuming ceteris paribus or all other things remaining equal. Those other things include the general level of income, tastes and fashion and so on. If tastes and fashion change, the price of an object or pastime which has fallen out of favour will not matter a toss. If the fashion has changed radically, the item could not be given away. Similarly, if the general level of income increases, certain goods and services are then brought within the grasp of people who could not have afforded them in the past, therefore demand for those goods and services will increase with price having little or no effect. In fact, if incomes increase substantially and fashoins change at the same time, substantial price increases can also be tolerated. In many of the clubs and pubs, drink is not cheap, but the other two factors have changed to such an extent over the years that price of itself, will have a limited effect. It migh have some impact if the price is increased, of the drink sold in spermarkets, the drink that is often consumed before the drinkers ever get near the pubs and clubs. That will do nothing to change the culture of public drunkeness which afflicts this country now.

There was a time, which does not seem all that long ago, that the only women who were seen drunk in the streets were the kind you would not take home to your mother. Now, no weekend and some weekdays, are complete without seeing groups of half-naked young women either sprawled in the streets drunk or falling out of the various clubs, mouthing obscenities as loud as any of the young men. Neither is it unknown for some of the young ladies to be seen urinating in the street, once only the preserve of their male counterparts. Drink may have fuelled the loss of inhibitions which give rise to that kind of behaviour but anyone who thinks that increasing the price of the stuff is going to combat the fall in values which has given rise to such a fall in public standards, really is kidding themselves. They may think it provides a quick fix and politicians can then claim they are "addressing the problem" but neither is even scratching the surface.

Why do young women think they must behave like that or that it is acceptable behaviour? The obvious answer is that our society has deemed it is acceptable, which is perhaps part of the reason we have the highest rates of teenage pregnancies in Europe. Years of teaching the mechanics of sex, within an environment almost totally empty of the values of self-respect and dignity, to say nothing of the importance of sharing in something so precious, really teaches nothing at all that could not be discovered in some picture book. When people have little or no respect for themselves, they are hardly likely to have any for anyone else. I have been in almost every country in Western Europe and not a few in the Eastern part. In not one of them have I seen the displays of public drunkeness we see every week in Scotland. Price in many of them is much lower than it is here, even taking the supermarket prices into consideration, and despite the cafe culture, which includes taking glasses of wine and spirits from early morning to the early hours of the following morning, people do not fall about drunk. France and Russia have their health problems associated with the hard stuff but standards of public behaviour are better than ours. Without addressing that, we are not addressing the problem at all.

Tuesday, 14 February 2012

TELEPHONE PESTS

Every single day, we receive at least three or four telephone calls from companies attempting to sell us their services in dealing with the banks for selling us PPI. We never had need of PPI and generally, as soon as the caller identifies themselves, we hang up. As it is a machine making the call, such a display of bad manners has absolutely no effect in persuading the caller to stop calling. I have yet to find a way to stop the calls.

The sale of PPI was not always wrong, as protecting against unemployment and critical illness makes sense, if the cover is correct and the premiums are proportionate. Of course, this is where the banks took people to the cleaners, frequently without their knowledge. It is now costing the industry dearly but until those responsible for devising the scam and those who sold it, are held personally responsible, the compensation will simply be covered by higher charges imposed on the self same customers who were ripped off in the first place.

As an IFA I have dealt with several clients who have been sold PPI by their banks, tacked on to loans to cover anything from cars to holidays. The difference in premiums, between plans sold by the banks and those which could be attained through the internet or from an IFA, were sometimes enormous and not readily explained. A young couple approached me, having just arranged a car loan for £5,000 with their bank. As their income was limited, they agreed to take the loan over five years, in order to keep the monthly payments as low as possible. Their reason for coming to see me was because they had been told, not advised or persuaded, but told, they needed to take PPI before they would be granted the loan. That was illegal.

The monthly premium for the PPI to cover the loan of £5,000 came to £57 per month and at first, I thought the young couple must be mistaken until they produced their agreement. I tried several different companies and internet sites but could not come up with a premium that even approached that being asked by the bank. To try to understand how they calculated the premium, I called the bank for an explanation. The fact I was acting on behalf of one of their customers did not impress them in the slightest and I was told, politely, to go take a hike. However, after some persuasion, I was eventually given a breakdown of the method by which they calculated a premium which far outstripped any other premium I had been able to find. Their ingenuity can only be marvelled at and goes some way to explain how their executives manage to "earn" bonuses while making such enormous losses.

There is no question of the banks searching the internet to find the cheapest premium, they applied their own, which inevitably, were several pounds a month more expensive than those from other insurance companies. The total cost over five years or 60 months was then calculated and that sum was advanced as another personal loan. The interest on that loan was 8%, which was then calculated over the full 60 months and added to the cost of the five years of premiums for the insurance. The total was then divided into monthly premiums. The same cover for which the bank demanded £57 per month, was available on the internet for £8.97.

There is a great deal of angst about the strength of public feeling against the banks, commentators arguing there is a danger the UK could end by driving the best bankers out of the country. When examples of that kind of ripping off of their customers, the endless complaints about ludicrous bank charges being racked up for being pennies over drawn and the banks' failure to lend, despite the Bank of England having pumped £325 billion into the economy, most of which has gone to build up the balance sheets of the banks, we really should be asking if we would actually miss them.

Monday, 13 February 2012

Who Does CBI Scotland Speak For?

Thanks to the diligent work of Calum Cashley, an SNP party member and blogger, we can have a fairly accurate picture of just who is represented by CBI Scotland. In January, Calum produced a very good piece of work, in which he calculated exactly how many firms are represented by this organisation. Acccording to Cashley's research, there are 296,780 business enterprises in Scotland, with 148,760 Scottish owned. The CBI Scotland's own Business Directory shows that the membership amounts to the grand total of 62 or 0.04% of the total. In an attempt to give a fair and accurate picture, Cashley decided to include only the medium sized and large firms, which came to 2,695. Membership of the CBI therefore accounted for only 2.3% of this smaller figure but, given the amount of publicity it attracts, the attention that is given to every utterance of its Council, we could be forgiven for believing the entire Scottish business community had one single mouthpiece - CBI Scotland. By contrast, the Federation of Small Businesses has more than 20,000 members.

That doesn't answer the question, "Who does CBI Scotland speak for? because it has been found that representing Scottish businesses is not the same as speaking for them. There have been numerous complaints over the years, about statements, purporting to come from the Scottish business community, which are later denied by firms who claim never to have been consulted. In January Ian McMillan, Chairman of CBI Scotland, issued a statement to the effect that the membership were "very much at one" with the Council, that the referendum on Scottish independence should be held "sooner rather than later". McMillan claimed the decision had been taken at a recent meeting of the organisation but an immediate rebuttal from several prominent companies in Scotland, appeared in the Sunday Herald, forcing McMillan to admit his claim was false. The rebuttal by the firms was given in language that left no doubt that McMillan did not make a mistake or might have been inadvertantly misled by what was said at the meeting. Was McMillan's claim a deliberate attempt to mislead, in other words, was it a lie?

Barclay's Wealth said, "Barclay's is totally agnostic about when the referendum should be held." Both Edrington and the Law Society of Scotland made very similar statements while others said they had not discussed the issue and therefore held no position. Aquamarine Power said they "felt very strongly that this is a decsion for the SNP government", all of which calls into question other statements and claims made by CBI Scotland. The distinction between "representing" Scottish business and "speaking for" Scottish business will become even more important, the closer we get to the referendum. The Daily Mail may not be popular with Nationalists, with good reason as it has committed to campaign for a No vote with all the "power it can muster" but it has to be remembered it is the most popular newspaper in Scotland. Today, it runs a piece highlighting a series of ten question CBI Scotland has posed, allegedly to express concern for employment in an independent Scotland.

Some of the questions are a complete nonsense and could not be answered by any government, unless they believed in crystal ball gazing, which suggests they were posed for that reason, not in the expectation of receiving any kind of answer. Of course, it will then be argued that more and more uncertainty will have been created, leading to a "complete lack of confidence for employment prospects in an independent Scotland" in the business community. As the ruling Coalition's cuts began to bite and figures for employment prospects at the beginning of January, created mounting concern, particularly among the trade union membership, Ed Balls was asked to say what the Labour Party would do about those cuts in public expenditure, if they were returned to office. He refused, claiming that it was impossible to answer that question this far away from the next election. This means that Labour, while being opposed to the Coalition's cuts on the grounds that they are wrong and immensely damaging to the economy, refuse to commit to restoring them. The next election is no more than four years away.

This is standard fare from Westminster politicians, who refuse, even during the customary three week election campaign, to commit to any spending proposals "until they see the books". This is deemed acceptable by the business community but nevertheless, they demand commitments and spending plans from a Scottish government years in advance of taking office. The following is a selection of some of the questions posed by CBI Scotland:-

1) How would the Scottish Government fund current levels of public spending in the current era of declining oil and gas production?

2) How would Scotland's inflation target be set and met, and what level of interest rates would be set to control inflation?

3) Has the government assessed the risks of potential losses of business to Scottish firms operating in the remaining parts of the UK after secession?

4) What are the estimates of the costs to businesses in Scotland of exchange rate risk and currency conversions between Scotland and England?

5) How would an independent Scotland sustain the immediate loss of jobs in the navel and shipbuilding industries?

Unfortunately for CBI Scotland, on the very day their "killer questions" were published, the Centre for Economics and Business Research published their new report which showed that the deficit in Scotland between revenues and expenditure, is exactly the same as for the UK, which prompted The Scotsman to head up a leader, "Myth of Scotland as subsidy junkie of the UK is scotched". Of course this myth has been scotched regularly, by the SNP researchers thirty odd years ago and more recently by Jim and Margaret Cuthbert, not that it matters to CBI Scotland and other Unionists who continue to foster the false claim. The recent "find" in the North Sea West of Shetland has just increased the life of the oil fields for another fifty years and there will be other "finds" discovered years ago, which will be brought on stream as and when it suits. What should concern CBI Scotland and the Unionists, is what will happen to the rest of the UK when it is denied the oil revenues, which have kept the economy afloat since 1975. After independence, Scotland will continue to have the revenues, the rest of the UK won't but little or no concern for that part of the country, is ever expressed about the consequences of having the oil taps turned off. The Daily Mail somehow missed that report.

If the referendum timetable is adhered to - vote in 2014, independent  2016 - we are four years away, at least, from an independent Scottish government. Balls cannot say whether Labour will reverse cuts, which Labour insists are unecessary and damaging, in the same time period. He was not asked to give figures, he was not asked to even estimate or anticipate the nature of the damage he claims will be done; he was simply asked to say whether or not he would reverse a policy - and refused. What would have been his response if he had been asked, "What rate of interest will you set in four years?" No? Well, how about two years, or one year maybe; six months even? CBI expects a Scottish government to say not only what rate of inflation there will be in four or five years from now, but the interest rate that will be set in order to combat an inflation rate that cannot even be guessed at.

I don't agree with it but the SNP has committed to retaining sterling in the immediate aftermath of the restoration of independence or "secession" as CBI Scotland seems to prefer. The party has been heavily criticised for it, with critics claiming it is not independence, but that is the current policy and we have to assume that is what will happen. "We" obviously does not include CBI Scotland as it wants to know what the costs of currency conversion will be and the costs to business of exchange rate risks. They either have not noticed that part of SNP policy, or don't believe that is what will happen or, well they will have to explain that one a bit more. As critics of the policy have pointed out that London will continue to control monetary policy, set interest rates just as they do now, will even have some control over fiscal policy, CBI Scotland should be applauding it, as I suspect it was drawn up with them and the business community in Scotland in mind.

Finally, there is the old "job losses" threat, fear, paranoia, call it what you will. It is the same argument raised every time there is any mention of leaving the EU; what about all the jobs that will be lost? "There are three million jobs at stake." The UK currently runs a massive trade deficit with the EU, something which has grown larger every year. For those who are hard of thinking or who would sell their grandmother if it meant remaining in the EU, that means they sell far more to the UK than we sell to them. If the UK left the EU, it would potentially be losing one of its largest single markets. According to the Europhiles, all those European exporters would refuse to sell us their goods and services if we left. The unemployment in the EU would suddenly rise by about 3.5 million. Does anyone actually see that happening? Similarly, Unionists see only one side of the argument and if Scotland decided to become independent, England would stop selling us their goods, all cross border trade would cease. Point out the silliness of such an argument and the customary response is, "Why should they buy our goods if we cut ourselves off from them?" Maybe it would be because we were buying their goods, or would they be so spiteful, they would create unemployment in England just to get back at us? If it were true, what would it say about the English as a people? CBI Scotland assumes there will be job losses, among those companies that do business in the rest of the UK, therefore want to know what a Scottish government is going to do about it and how much is it going to cost them? CBI Scotland obviously think as little of the English as they think of their fellow Scots.

There comes a point where rational argument becomes impossible because we are not debating with rational people. The frightening thing is that these people are running some of our biggest companies and if they are not threatening to leave the country a la Mone, they are raising the kind of arguments one would expect to get from a rather dim child. In the old days, they only ever produced one side of the balance sheet viz. how much was spent in Scotland, figures which have been shown to be totally false. The current argument is all about costs. Having successfully denied us the information for years about the tax revenues, until it was forced out of them, they managed to hide the McCrone Report for over thirty years, which showed how they had been stealing the oil revenues all of that time. Obsessed with the costs or the price of everyuthing, they have completely lost the ability to appreciate the value of anything.

For example, what will the peace dividend bring to Scotland? How much will we save by getting rid of Trident and how much is it going to cost the rest of the UK to find another home for it? Or is that one of the items they appreciate only too well and don't like the answers very much? Once we have control of government spending, and use the money on projects which we want to prioritise and the multiplier begins to kick in, has CBI Scotland ever given any thought to the revenue side of the equation? Obviously not because outside of oil, there is a total absence of any consideration of revenues or income in their calculations. Anyone who gives any thought to the questions being posed must realise that this is not an organisation seeking truth or even information. It is an organisation which will do what it can to stop the people of Scotland voting for independence and the more uncertainty it can spread, the happier it will be.

Saturday, 11 February 2012

Is The Referendum The SNP's To Lose?

It was tempting to write, "Is the Referendum Alex Salmond's to Lose?" because to the media commentators and therefore the electorate and onlookers South of the Border, it is all about Alex Salmond. As far as they are concerned, there is no one else in the SNP, or at least none that matter. That is hardly susprising as the party has become very much a cult of the personality of Salmond, encouraged by him and those around him. As long as he is performing well, that will work in favour of the desired result in the referendum, but let him make the odd mistake, which he will do, and not only will he be crucified, so will the cause of independence.

Earlier on this blog, I asked if it was possible to have a civilised debate in the lead up to the referendum and, as I suspected, it is going to be difficult. For generations, the aspirations of Scots have been treated with derision by English commentators, any time the issue of Scottish independence or even, in the very early days, the question of devolution, was raised. Sometimes the strongest opponents of any kind of Scottish control of anything, have been the Scottish sections of the London-based parties. Ted Heath, in his Declaration of Perth on 21st May 1968, first raised the standard for devolution but had 20 Scottish Tory MPs, at least half of whom were totally opposed. The Scottish Council of the Labour Party had to be forced, kicking and screaming to support their own Labour Party leader's plans for devolution and, when the opportunity to vote for it came about in March 1979, a Westminster-based Scottish born MP was instrumental in introducing the infamous "40% Rule"; Sir Alex Douglas Home (who liked to boast his ancestors fought at Flodden while neglecting to say on which side) told Scots to vote against this proposal because the Tories would provide something better and Scots Labour MPs Tam Dalyell and Brian Wilson led the campaign throughout for a No vote.

 The English media will continue to deride the whole idea because it is in their DNA, they can't help themsleves. Many of them such as Jeremy Paxman and Kelvin McKenzie genuinely believe that we are incapable of governing ourselves, although McKenzie would be glad to be shot of us because he thinks he subsidises us. Paxman, who gives the impression he has some eveil-smelling concoction hovering just under his nose, every time he has to deign to discuss the topic, gives every indication he believes we lack both the talent and the intelligence to run our own affairs. That is good; with any luck those kind of people will be given wall-to-wall coverage in Scotland between now and 2014. The Scottish media will ensure the self-loathing Scots will also be given plenty of air time, as well as endless column inches to tell us how we can't survive without English subsidies. They should be asked - daily if necessary - to tell us how it feels to believe they are living off the backs of the unemployed, the homeless and the socially deprived in England. Those unfortunates would obviously be better off, if they didn't have to subsidise Scots, many of whom are much better off than they are. Where is the dignity and self-respect in not only believing that you are living off people more unfortunate than you are, but in demanding that you should continue to do so?

In having that kind of opposition, the SNP could not ask for better and when we see the calibre of the leadership of Labour, Tory and Lib/Dem parties in Scotland, it would be tempting to agree with Paxman - if that is all we had. It is no more than two weeks ago that the leader of the Conservatives Ruth Davidson, told a TV audience that the Scottish Enlightenment was only possible because of the Union with England. Johann Lamont will struggle to live down the part played by her party, in the collapse of the banking system, or to explain the cynical exploitation of the political system by their once well -loved and now well-heeled party leader, Tony Blair. And who would envy poor Willie Rennie as he attempts to explain to the handful of Lib/Dems left in Scotland, why the party has just abandoned another dearly-held policy commitment? Scots are going to be gey scunnered of this kind of treatment for the next 30 months or so. It is one thing to have to thole it in three and four week bursts during election campaigns, or to know that is the opinion of our English neighbours but it is quite another, to be fed an almost weekly diet of derision and negativity about our abilities, over such a prolonged period. No people, with even an ounce of self respect and a millimetre of backbone, would tolerate it, therefore the SNP has never been in a better position to win.

There is a danger however, that the ground already won and the latent support that needs only one last, relatively small push to become strong supporters of independence, will all be lost by the party's apparant unwillingness to trust the Scottish people with the truth. As the debate heats up and people demand much clearer answers to the important questions which will inevitably arise, it is not going to be enough for the SNP to simply assert, as Unionists do, in the expectation it will be enough. It has been customary in the past for the Unionists to argue by assertion; thus, "Scotland is too small, or too poor, or lacks sufficient talent, or lacks political experience was deemed sufficient, no further explanation was necessary or given.

There are three major issues where the SNP has adopted the same approach, refusing point blank to explain, rather than merely assert. The first is membership of the EU and more particularly, the euro, something which has been a running sore for close on twenty five years. "Independence in Europe" was supposed to be the comfort blanket the Scottish people needed, to persuade Scots an independent Scotland would not be isolated and to take the sting out of the Unionist barb of "separatism". It did neither. It is an oxymoron, a classic contradiction in terms and persuaded no one except SNP activists, and not even all of them as a substantial number of them left the party because of it. Anyone with any knowledge of economics, argued the single currency could not and would not work; it was simply a matter of time before it came to grief. Even with the crisis in full flow, riots in Greece and demonstrations on the streets of several of the worst effected members, the SNP clung to the fanatasy that membership of the euro would be in Scotland's best interest but latterly with the caveat "if the economic conditions are right." The cybernats harassed and abused anyone who dared to suggest the party was wrong while the usual suspects continued to assert the wisdom of the policy in the letter pages of Scotland's broadsheets.

Without the slightest preparation of the ground beforehand, John Swinney suddenly announced two weeks ago, the "SNP could not see the conditions being right for at least another decade". The policy has not been changed, membership has just been delayed. In other words, membership of the euro is still the long term aim and would still be in Scotland's best interest; but not immediately. If the euro survives at all, it will not be in its current form and the SNP's policy stance leaves it open to the charge it simply does not understand the ramifications of the planned reforms or, it does not care and will be perfectly happy with Scotland's economy, including its budget, being run by the ECB. There is no way the SNP could sell that policy to the Scottish people, particularly as they have gone to great lengths to tell Scots that membership of the EU will not be a surrender of sovereignty. Of more immediate importance however, are the consequences which arise from delayed membership of the euro.

The second hole the party has dug for itself is its policy of remaining with sterling in the immediate aftermath of a Yes vote in the referendum and Scotland becoming an independent nation state. The consequences of that have been set out in some detail in earlier blogs and nothing has changed, except the pressure on the party leadership to explain. Salmond annoyed some and infuriated even more, commentators by attempting contemptuously, to brush off all questions anent the policy, by claiming "there are 67 countries in the world who all share a currency in the same way." Was that a mistake - he altered later statements by pointing out that the currencies were shared "either informally or formally" - or was that a deliberate attempt to mislead people, after all he was a professional economist? It is being left to the Unionists and other critics of the policy to explain to the Scottish people just how much this would inhibit any Scottish government's ability to run the economy. The criticisms have been detailed enough to leave no doubt that Scotland would not be independent and, if the SNP did not understand the implications before -a most unlikely scenario - there can be no excuse for not understanding them now. More importantly, there has been plenty of time to offer a rebuttal or a confirmation or an explanation of why the policy is being promoted as the best for a newly independent Scotland. It will be a Scotland independent in name only but the SNP insistes or asserts that not only will the country be independent, but Scots will control the economy. Given the amount of detailed criticism that has appeared in the media and on the internet, that is nothing short of a deliberate attempt to mislead.

The third area of difficulty is of more recent vintage but has the potential to create just as much damage, unless nipped in the bud quickly. An investment fund manager recently asserted, passed an opinion, gave his judgement that an independent Scotland "would be unlikely" to be given the much-valued AAA rating by the rating agencies. Suddenly, it became a vital pre-condition for independence, for the country to have this rating and immediate confirmation was demanded by the three leaders of the Scottish versions of the Tories, Labour and Lib/Dem parties. When it was discovered that the SNP had made no formal request of the rating agencies for a rating to be given to Scotland, but that the party asserted confidently, passed an opinion, made the judgement that the AAA rating would be given to Scotland, another crack appeared in the independence argument. It matters little apparently, that the biggest economy in the world, the USA, as well as Japan, France and 15 members of the eurozone have been downgraded in the past year, that Ireland, Hungary and Greece all have junk status. It took a leader in The Scotsman, to point out that it was impossible to give Scotland any kind of rating at the present time.

This would not have been difficult for the SNP to defuse; it would have been easier still to make the opposition look very foolish and their demands not only unreasonable but totally unrealistic. There is no doubt that the lower the rating a country is given, the more expensive it is for the government to borrow money and the Scottish people will find that out because in time they may have to face it. How much more acceptable would it be if they found out from the people who want to lead the country to independence, the people who have enough confidence in them to believe the AAA would only be a short time in coming? Each time the SNP attempts to mislead Scots or appears to have so little confidence in them, they will not trust them with the truth, more doubts and uncertainty are fostered. The party is in danger of undermining the people's confidence beyond the point of no return.

Wednesday, 8 February 2012

Why Should we Trust the Banks?

There is no doubt Fred Goodwin was scapegoated, that he was far from being the only guilty party, but those who may have been tempted to feel sympathy for the man, may decide to think again, when they read the latest reports on RBS. Everyone might want to think twice about the banks in general, before they decide to do any business which involves financial services. But RBS first.

It seems the sack cloth and ashes are to be considered compulsory by the current chief of RBS, at least for a wee while yet. Stephen Hester, it is reported, thought hard about leaving the bank,  having underestimated the depth of public feeling about bankers' bonuses, but in the end decided that would be self-indulgent, so decided to remain in post. It is now common knowledge he decided to refuse to accept the almost £1 million bonus to which he was - according to his contract - quite entitled. It is also common knowledge now, that bankers' bonuses seem to have absolutely no relationship to performance and are paid, whatever the performance. Performance itself, is something which also has to be defined. Does it include the rise/fall in share price, the level of profits, customer satisfaction? On at least two counts, share price and customer satisfaction RBS fails badly while on performance and profit, it is still losing but not as much as previously. On reflection therefore, was Mr Hester returning something to which he was hardly entitled in the first place?

In his latest report to the staff of RBS, Hester has provided some information for which the industry has been searching for some time. The cost of re-structuring RBS has amounted to £38 billion to date. This includes disposal costs, covering losses and restructuring changes since the bank collapsed in 2009. By all accounts, this is considered to be a satisfactory outcome. Another cost which has still to be met, is the compensation for the misselling of PPI or Personal Protection Insurance, the biggest misselling scandal of the past decade, more of which below.

Unfortunately for many people, the banks were far too often considered the best bet for "independent" financial advice and there can be few account holders who have missed the pleasure of being targeted by their friendly bank teller, any time they have had cause to appraoch a bank counter, rather than take advantage of the "hole in the wall". RBS has a subsidiary in the Isle of Man, which was asked for advice by an elderly client, about boosting his income. The RBS solution was to sell their customer an annuity, which cost £500,000, was provided by AVIVA and earned the RBS "adviser" £15,000 in commission. Under some circumstances, not many, that might have been reasonably suitable advice, however in this instance, the customer was 80 years of age and was dying with terminal cancer. He died without ever receiving the first payment, which allowed AVIVA to pocket £485,000. Both AVIVA and RBS determined to hold on to their windfalls and refused to acknowledge that either of them had done anything wrong.

Fortunately, the family of the dead customer, were not prepared to allow the matter to rest and after an investigation by the FSA, the contract was annulled and RBS was forced to repay the £500,000 to their deceased customer's estate. It would be good to be able to report that both RBS and AVIVA "bitterly regretted" what was done, that they apologised for "something which should never have happened" but neither feel they did anything wrong. Left to them, the deal would have stood because neither was prepared to acknowledge any fault or even to apologise. Was this an aberration? Unfortunately it is just the tip of the iceberg, as far as misselling and the banks are concerned.

Bob Diamond, CEO of Barclays, offering his apologies for the misselling of PPI, is reported to have said, "We don't always get things right for our customers, when we get them wrong we apologise and put them right". Worthwhile sentiments but only the first part of it is anywhere near the truth. The problem of the misselling of PPI has been rumbling on for years and complaints to the banks were simply ignored. It was not until the FSA were receiving complaints at the rate of 5,000 per month, that they decided to step in and demand that the banks get a move on and resolve the dispute. RBS has already paid out £100 million in compensation, has set aside another £100 million to cover immediate claims, and another £800 million to cover expected claims. Barclays has set aside £1 billion but the figure that really stunned the City is the £3.2 billion set aside by the Lloyds Banking Group, (a construct of Gordon Brown?) which is now hiring hundreds of new staff to deal with the complaints. HSBC has got off lightly in comparison, setting aside only $440 million, which is still estimated to have cut their profits by 14%. They stopped selling PPI in 2007, which is an indication they knew something was seriously wrong with the product, which raises the question why the others continued to sell it right up to last year. Industry analysts estimate the cost to the banks will be in the region of £9 billion.

The really important point of this sorry tale - forbye the sheer dishonesty of the banks of course - is that it all happened on Labour's watch. They set up the FSA. They allowed the banks to have the freedom to missell on such a grand scale. When the complaints were flooding in they did nothing. Even now, as they question the ability of Scots to run their own country, they have to be forced to acknowledge their culpability for almost destroying the entire economic system of the UK. Alex Salmond was a fool to support the purchase of ABN Amro by RBS, because there were plenty of people in the industry warning against it. But at least, he has acknowledged as much, which is a great deal more than Gordon Brown, Alistair Darling, Ed Balls et al have done.

Monday, 6 February 2012

Lies, Damned Lies and Statistics!

Both sides of the debate on independence, should, by the time the referendum is held, be a great deal better educated about the economics of Scotland. That is assuming of course, that the information we receive is actually accurate, that the spin doctors are held in check and more importantly, the electorate does not become so bored by the whole affair that the majority of them simply cease to pay any attention. There is little we can do about the bias, disinformation, half truths and out and out lies which will be peddled by the popular press. What we have seen, even at this early stage, does not augur well for what we are about to receive, much of which we will certainly not be thankful.

The latest edition of Investment Week, a financial services magazine for those involved in the industry, carried a piece under the heading, "Will Scotland be given a AAA rating?" followed by the information that the SNP has not asked for any indication of what the rating might be. The three agencies, Standard & Poors, Moody and Fitch volunteered the information however, that "it was unlikely that Scotland would be given the sought after AAA. That was followed by the assertion from the National Institute for Economic and Social Research (NIESR) that Scotland would likely run a "considerable trade deficit". All of this of course, was part and parcel of the veritable flood of such headings and specualtion, we can expect during the period before the referendum. Of one thing we can be sure, none of the agencies or financial papers will be presenting us with a favourable outlook for an independent Scotland. It would never do for Scots to start to feel good about themselves or, to feel in any way confident that independence might work to our advantage.

Let us take the ratings agencies first. They are the agencies which provide guidance on the credit rating of individual companies and even countries, will provide information on the worthiness of securities and whose word is taken almost without question by the world's bankers, investment houses and politicians. Their critics - and there are many - argue their word is tainted and is given far too much weight, sometimes creating instability where none or very little already exists. In the 1970s, the agencies started to charge those who were bringing securities to the market for sale,  for providing ratings for the products being sold. There is such an obvious conflict of interest here, that it is difficult to understand why their ratings are accepted at all.

They were accused of creating instability in Latin America in the 1980s and 1990s, at the time of the debt crisis and consistently overrated sub-prime, mortgage backed securities in America, right up until the market collapsed. By the same token, they have consistently underrated nation states which refuse to bow to the agencies' orthodoxy by cutting spending, thereby creating greater difficulties than are necessary. In May 2011, they created a storm by cutting the AAA rating of the USA, followed in August by doing the same to Japan. The downgrading of 15 members of the euro, brought the agencies into conflict with the EU Commission. The ratings of Ireland, Hungary and Greece have all been reduced to "junk" status, despite the actions taken by the Irish government to solve the financial crisis, being far more likely to achieve that aim, than those taken by the Greek government. The standard of research carried out by the agencies has long been a major source of concern and criticism and the Scottish government, while it may have some illustrious colleagues, will have a fight on its hands.

While the available statistics on the Scottish economy are far more numerous than they once were, there are still gaps which need to be addressed. The NIESR's contention that Scotland "would likely run a considerable trade deficit" is hardly worthy of comment. The UK ran a considerable trade deficit over many years but its balance of payments was in surplus for much of that time. The balance of trade tells only a part of the story anent any country's trade situation and unless the balance of "invisibles" - services such as insurance, tourism etc - are included, the statistics are meaningless. It gives us a flavour however, of how the (mis) information is going to be delivered. If Scotland would find it diffcult to cope with independence with a balance of trade deficit, what can we say about the position of the UK?

The UK (including Scotland and Scotland's oil resources) has run a current and capital account deficit in every single year since 1997 and in every Quarter since the 3rd Quarter of 1998. In the 3rd Quarter of 2011, the UK's current account deficit was £15.2 billion, the highest on record. The Balance of Trade deficit (the part about Scotland's trade figures which so exercised the NIESR) in the 3rd Quarter of 2011, went up to £9.96 billion, up from £7.2 billion the previous Quarter. The income surplus in that Quarter came to a paltry £0.3 billion, the lowest level since 2000 but more importantly, in 2010, the UK was a Net Borrower of £44.9 billion, the highest ever recorded.

Opponents of Scottish independence speak about oil as if it was the only thing that Scotland produced, arguing vehemently that any economy which relies to such an extent on one natural resource, will inevitably have problems as the resource begins to disappear. No country should know that better than the UK, having been the recipient of oil wealth worth approximately $1 trillion since 1975. What has been done with that wealth? Look at much of urban Scotland and there is little evidence there was ever any oil discovered, with the possible exception of Aberdeen and surrounding area. Compared with what has been done in Norway, with independence, Scotland's oil has been completely wasted and the longer Westminster can hold on to Scotland, the more of what is left will also be wasted. Meantime, the Bank of England has just announced it intends to inject another £50 billion into the UK economy. The Bank has already injected £275 billion into the economy since 2009 and we now know the UK economy contracted by 0.29% in 2011. And they have the gall to tell us we are not fit to govern an independent Scotland!

Sunday, 5 February 2012

Is it Possible to Have a Civilized Debate on Independence?

Mike Russell is one of the more able wordsmiths in the Scottish Government It is his ability with the spoken and written word that enabled him to be such an effective alleged "Hatchet Man" for Alex Salmond, earned him the sobriquet "Peter Mandelson" of the SNP and led to his being effectively de-selected by party members, who placed him so far down the "list" for his Parliamentary seat, there was no chance of his being elected. His absence from office lasted only one session. Joan McAlpine's use of the term "anti-Scottish" has ensured it has become toxic and the period between its first use by Ms McAlpine and its second, by Mike Russell, was long enough for Russell to appreciate how it is being used by the Unionist media. He should have known better.

If one reads what Mike Russell actually said, it bears little relation to the claims of what he said, made by The Scotsman and the Daily Mail. "Agree with me or you're anti-Scottish, says senior minister", so ran the headline in The Scotsman. Even a cursory glance at the article that accompanied the headline, confirms that  Russell said that the policies embraced by the Tories were "ant-Scottish". There is not a single word aimed at any Tory MSP, contained in the article that ran for almost two complete columns, although Tory and Labour spokesmen were quoted extensively. The Scotsman also carried a leader, "Nip this arrogance in the bud" which again railed against the use of the term, without providing a shred of evidence that Russell's remarks were aimed at a single individual but the paper then suggested the "victims" of the anri-Scottish charge, might "regard its use as little short of fascism". 

The price of The Scotsman was increased to a £1 a copy two weeks ago and the latest publication figures showed a steady and quite dramatic reduction in the daily sales of the paper over the past few years. If that is the standard of journalism, to which Scots are going to be subjected in the run-up to the referendum, the paper will be lucky to survive. As someone who has regularly been on the receiving end of the kind of abuse usually reserved for Unionists and those who are seen to have "deserted the cause", I can vouch for the stupidity and viscousness of some of the cybernats. I believe that at least some of it is orchestrated from party HQ, confirmed to some extent when Mike Russell's office manager, Mark McLachlan was forced to resign two years ago, when it was discovered  he had used the internet to smear political opponents. To the SNP's credit however, it has never based its Nationalism on racism or hatred of the English, something which has been acknowledged time and again by even its strongest critics. To even sugggest that the party displays a hint of fascism in its behaviour, particularly as the "evidence" consists of no more than political play-acting on the part of the opposition parties and the plastic hysteria of The Scotsman, is totally despicable.

Unfortunately it is the kind of journalism to which English readers of the trashier tabloids have been subjected for years. Alex Salmond, whatever one thinks of him and I am not a fan, is the First Minister of Scotland and he has been compared to Mugabe and even Hitler and has been sneeringly portrayed as a "fat fool". There would be an outcry, if any of the Westminster politicians in any of the other parties had been so regularly belittled, never mind the Prime Minister. The Scottish people are castigated as "subsidy junkies" no matter how many times it is shown that Scotland has regularly contributed more taxation than our population share. The English media see nothing wrong or unjust, in the way Scottish life is presented as being dominated by drunkeness and violence and we are considered to lack the talent to be independent. Would the English dare say that about the Danes or Norwegians or any of the small countries of Europe? Scotland places greater emphasis on education and health care than England but the fact that the SNP government has organised public spending to relflect those priorities, is used by the opposition parties and media in England, to claim the extra spending on health and education in Scotland, is being paid for by the English. Again, if any other ethnic group in the UK - such as the West Indians - were so regularly held up to ridicule, questions on racial prejudice would be raised in Parliament but I would never suggest that comparisons might justifiably be made with Germany in the 1930s, when the Jews were being targeted.

Any sporting event, where England is the opposition, will create excitement and anticipation among Scots. English football and rugby players know they will get a hot reception at Murrayfield and Hampden but for as long as Scottish players have plied their trade south of the Border, friendships between Scottish and English players have been forged, some of which last a lifetime. The BBC's Scottish director invited Alex Salmond to join the panel of commentators at Murrayfield for the international between Scotland and England on Saturday but Ric Bailey, the Corporation's political advisor reversed that decision on the grounds that "the BBC has an obligation to ensure impartiality". Salmond's assurance that he would not mention politics at all was to no avail. Despite the BBC's stated nervousness about inflaming the political situation, John Inverdale introduced the programme by immediately making reference to Bannockburn and Culloden. However, those naff sideswipes were as nothing compared to the remarks of a couple of English players and ex-players.

At the recent  Rugby World Cup in New Zealand, England's players disgraced themselves both on and off the field. Andy Robinson, Scotland's English coach, castigated the English squad for "the disrespect they showed Scotland" in that World Cup. Phil Vickery, former England captain, when asked to say how Murrayfield affected him, said, "I loved running into the cauldron - everybody hates your guts."  Chris Robshaw, the newly capped current captain of the England squad, spoke of the advice given to him by Will Carling, who reminded him "just remember, no one likes us but don't let it get to you." Mick Skinner, former England flanker, speaking about Scotland's Grand Slam win in 1990 and perhaps underlining the arrogance to which Andy Robinson referred said, "Scotland were irrelevant. We were going to win the Grand Slam. I did not even know that Scotland had won all their games." Is that how England players approach matches with Scotland? If so, I have never been aware of the "hatred" they appear to feel but it might explain their sometimes atrocious behaviour.

Two years of this and the realtionship between Scotland and England will be soured for a generation, despite the best efforts of the SNP Government to maintain harmony. To give Mike Skinner credit, he admitted the English defeat at Murrayfield in 1990, provided a "really painful lesson" "What I believed and who I was changed after that. I thought I was better than I was before that game. But what happened at Murrayfield that day made be a better person and I am grateful for that." A Scottish "Yes" in the referendum may make England a better nation.

Friday, 3 February 2012

Is The SNP Beginning To See Sense On Currency?

John Swinney's latest comment on the currency that Scotland should use after a "Yes" vote in the referendum brings some clarity at last. He said, "I can't forsee a set of circumstances that will see the economic conditions being correct for the Euro for some considerable time. It would be difficult to define that (suggested for the next decade) but it feels neither to me like the short term or the medium term." He then went on, "I don't think you can get to the position of fiscal union in the EU and I don't think it would be desireable". That is encouraging to my nationalist ears but desireable or not, it is the way the EU is heading, if it wants to make the euro work.

All that is needed now is for the official SNP to explain why they think it is such a good idea to retain sterling, thereby ensuring that the Scottish economy would continue to be controlled by London, something which has not proved to be to our advantage in the past. George Kerevan wrote a decent piece in The Scotsman today, in which he outlines some of the advantages, highlighting how the Irish Free State continued to use sterling in 1922. As a party member, mindful of party policy and the importance of party discipline at this stage of the campaign, Kerevan has ignored the fact that Scotland today, is an entirely different country to the Free State in 1922, with a considerable number of economic advantages Ireland did not have. The presence of oil will be increasingly underplayed by the Unionists, the closer we get to the date of the referendum and we should not be surprised to read the headlines in the Daily Mail the day before polling, "North Sea Oil has Dried Up!"

If the SNP has become disillusioned by the euro, it looks as if they intend to keep sterling permanently, as they have made no mention at all, of a Scottish currency. Of course, that situation could be altered by the fact the SNP will not always be the government of an independent Scotland and, the party under different leadership, could change its policy; but we are faced at the moment with the choice of a party which would in all likelihood form the first government of an independent Scotland and their policy is to retain sterling in perpetuity. The policy mix followed by a Scottish government will be as important as the resources available and that policy mix will be constrained to a far greater extent if the Bank of England controls monetary policy. Interest rates will be set with the economic conditions and interests of England in mind, rather than those of Scotland. As fiscal policy should complement monetary policy, the Scottish government will be forced to tailor fiscal policy to suit the monetary policy with which they will be presented by the Westminster government. John Swinney has stated he would enter into a "dialogue" with the Bank of England about Scottish spending plans before pressing ahead  with them, in order to provide assurance they would not get out of control.

Under that scenario, investment in Scotland will be determined by English economic conditions by and large. Thus Scotland would be denied the freedom that its own currency would provide. To allay fears of instability or the currency becoming too high relative to those of our main trading partners at the time of independence, the Scottish currency could be "pegged" to sterling or, if it was thought to more advantageous, to the euro. For almost a decade until 2006, the Chinese pegged the renminbi to the US dollar, but as China enjoyed an absolute advantage over the USA in terms of the costs of production, this allowed China to undercut US producers and flood the US domestic market with cheaper goods. Under pressure from the US, the EU and other trading partners China finally agreed to cut the tie to the US dollar and switched to a "managed float" against a basket of currencies of her main trading partners, effectively revaluing the Chinese currency.

The economic position of the most recent members of the EU from Eastern Europe has changed over time as they manipulated their currencies to suit their own circumstances. Hungarian debt has been downgraded to "junk" status, despite being bound by the excess deficit agreement of the EU. Hungary devalued her currency by 25% in 2009 but managed to keep inflation to 3%, otherwise her economic situation could have been much worse. After adopting a capitalist economy in 1991, Estonia soon became the "Baltic Tiger", adopting a flat tax system, introducing reductions from a rate of 26% in 1994 to 21% in 2008, finally freezing it at that rate in 2009. Unfortunately, the economic expansion was allowed to get out of control, creating rampant inflation and a property bubble, which led to unemployment rising from 3.9% in 2008, after the financial crisis, to 15.6% in 2009 when the situation was finally addressed. Estonia's entry to the euro was delayed until 2011because of the inflationary pressure which had been caused. Poland's entry to the euro, if it happens at all, is unlikely before 2019 because the country has already found just how important it has been, having their own currency in order to help to avoid external shocks. Poland was able to avoid recession, its ratio of debt to GDP is only 50% and over 60% of the population is against joining the single currency.

The different economic conditions of each of the new entrants to the EU made it imperative that the one-size-fits-all regime of the euro was avoided. Having their own currncies allowed them to taylor their economic policies to suit their individual economic conditions. Not all of them were equally successful in addressing and dealing with those economic conditions and none of them can be taken as a "perfect" example for an independent Scotland. However, what is clear is that flexibility or the freedom to adjust policy to changing circumstances, will be vital if independence is to succeed. Allowing the main levers of economic management to be in the hands of an organisation which is furth of Scotland and which will have no obligation to even consider Scotland, is hardly going to allow that to happen.