I’m unanimous about this

By the way…I know EU membership rules have to be unanimous. See Rule Britannia below. But that’s under existing accession rules which relate to new states. My source says that there is a case for Scottish exceptionalism in that Scotland is already in and therefore not an accession state. It will  be treated differently and the lawyers – in the Council – have a draft agreement worked out for Scotland which they say meets the legal criteria. This formulation does not require unanimity because of Scotland’s existing status. All this could be thrown out by the member states after a Scottish application but in the meantime they have devised a clever and effective route for Scottish inclusion which should meet everybody’s requirements – even Spain’s if it decides to vote against as a warning to Catalonia. (This is not coming from an SNP source but from a senior EU figure. Obviously not Barroso.)

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Do As I Say…Not As I Do

I don’t normally respond to articles by other writers because we’re all contributing to the babel (although I see some actually get paid for it).  But I had a few thoughts on the Brian Wilson column in the Scotsman which continued the Shona Robison-as- Goebbels theme. I’m not sure this is at all fruitful for unionists as I don’t think anybody actually believes it. If you see what she was questioning – an academic leading a politically neutral university research programme while helping to set up a campaign group backing one side of the same programme, any sensible person would think she has a point. I imagine the manufactured mushroom cloud of outrage is what really puzzles the public. No wonder they turn off when the best the combined brains of |Better Together can come up with is an hysterical claim that Nationalists want to bully people into shutting up. (Perhaps Brian could talk to his chum Ian Taylor about threatening those revealing the truth).

Nevertheless the public will also note that all governments are notorious for trying to get their way and try very hard to influence opinion. I was trying to remember who started that. Oh yes, it’s coming back now…New Labour. Wasn’t Brian part of that?

Who remembers Alistair Campbell intimidating journalists not on message…refusing to give stories to reporters who didn’t write what he wanted…humiliating Nick Jones of the BBC who refused to bow to his bullying…as Jones reflects: “Perhaps it was no surprise that among Campbell’s many boasts he did not repeat the line from his diaries, The Blair Years, about not minding if journalists were fearful of falling out his favour because he “wanted to undermine them, divide and rule”.

Perhaps if the British Unionists had the interests of openness and transparency at heart, they’d like to explain why they refuse to open the Cabinet papers from 1997 dealing with Labour’s internal disagreements on Scottish devolution. Brian could write himself and encourage his friend Alastair Darling to do the same asking that the Scots be allowed to see those discussions before voting in the referendum. (It was the SNP which cut the embargo on government papers from 30 to 15 years – obviously the act of a secrecy-mad administration.)

While he’s at it, why not ask the British government to stop preventing release of papers which would allow the Chilcott Inquiry finally to complete its work investigating the war in Iraq? The documents revealing Labour leader Tony Blair’s private talks with George Bush are being kept back so the public – that’s the voters – don’t find out what was said. Who cares about lost lives when reputations are at stake?

Why aren’t Labour calling for detainees of the War on Terror to be put on trial rather than bought off with millions in compensation? Is it because the detainees can prove that British agents attended torture sessions and that authorization for that reached all the way up to…where?  Jack Straw?

If it’s bullying to hide the facts you’re after, you might shine a light on Falkirk where, it seems, Ed Miliband, a Labour leader, is now believed to have been previously informed of Unite’s recruitment campaign for Labour members but chooses not to admit it in the light of events. That is why the report won’t be published, to hide Ed’s blushes. Pressure is applied to those who want to speak up and their complaints made to disappear.

I recall even more explicit Labour bullying. According to Murray Ritchie of the Herald, Gordon Brown was so incensed at the paper’s failure to stamp on nationalism that he threatened to have public sector advertising withheld from the paper – a major source of revenue.

On a more recent note, who recalls the Howat Report? The Labour/Lib Dem devolved government commissioned Bill Howat to assess its spending and to report back on how effective it was. He did. They didn’t publish. They put it in a drawer because what it showed embarrassed them. It was only when the SNP took over that a publicly-funded document was brought to light.

Or how about this from 1999….A UK Government minister is to appear in the High Court over his decision not to release information on a controversial dam.
Trade Minister Brian Wilson faces the court next week to answer claims that he is breaching environmental information regulations by refusing to release details about the impact the Ilisu dam in Turkey will have. Friends of the Earth allege that the environmental impact assessment – upon which the scheme is based – was not done properly and want to obtain access to it. The group will argue in court that under 1992 environmental information regulations, Mr Wilson is obliged to publish details of the report. He has so far refused, saying the documents are not the government’s to release.”Mr Wilson seems to regard freedom of information as a question of news management rather than a fundamental right,” said FoE policy and campaigns director Tony Juniper.

All these fall into the category of suppression of information against a wider public interest, either through refusal to release or through enforcement, official or otherwise.

We’re all guilty of hypocrisy. Me too. But I think of all the voices out there, some that should consider self-restraint are those of former politicians with a traceable record in office to set  beside their current views.

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Rule Britannia

Diplomatic incident in the Med! Enemy vessels threatens British enclave! Dive…dive…dive!!

Yes a wee Spanish survey boat came cheekily close to the sovereign waters of Gibraltar and – damn those siesta-lovers – didn’t they refuse to clear off under orders from Her Imperial Majesty’s Royal Navy. The brave Brit tars had to send out what looked like a pleasure craft, a kind of high-powered pedallo, to shadow the impudent imposters. Actually the RN pedallo may be all Britain’s got left as it downgrades its naval capacity by building aircraft carriers without aircraft.

Such was the storm of indignation from the British that the Spanish Ambassador was summoned for a telling off in London which I imagined to be a bit like Basil Fawlty slapping Manuel across the head.

What imaginings the Establishment conjures to bolster its self-imposed air of importance. How on earth could Spain which I think is still a member of the EU and of NATO be remotely threatening to Britain? If they are doing subsea surveys in the Med, so what? If they aren’t but are spoiling for trouble, why play their game? It really does sound like one of those affairs that require the teacher to come out and separate the wee boys.

What on earth do the Brits think they are protecting in Gibraltar in any case, apart from some 19th century concept of being a naval power policing the Straights where they used to plunder the vessels of Spain, France, Italy and Malta as they did when Nelson was in his pomp.

Gibraltar appears to be a kind of tax haven, although cleared of any toxic associations, in which companies operate remotely – for example betting companies which supply 15 per cent of GDP – paying no tax in Britain, something the Revenue and Customs is trying to clamp down on. There is no sales tax despite EU membership. What, one wonders, does Gibraltar actually do for Britain that justifies naval intervention anyway.

Is there any strategic military need to have British forces defending the Rock and from whom? The Spanish? Surely an historical anomaly involving a tiny area of coastal land within the EU could be solved by Madrid and London agreeing, perhaps with a joint sovereignty deal initially, a moderate idea rejected by Gibraltarians 10 years ago.  The rights of Gibraltarians are protected by the EU and retaining red pillar boxes hardly requires naval intervention. I don’t remember Britain threatening military action to prevent the Chinese retaking Hong Kong. I was there at the time and there was fury among the locals that their colonial overlord wouldn’t even give them passports to Britain. Why the difference with Gibraltar?

I ask because it seems to be there’s an opportunity for a bit of Scottish diplomacy here. If it’s the case that Madrid plans to veto Scottish membership of the EU, might their stance be softened by an indication from Edinburgh that it would support the opening of talks on the status of Gibraltar? This means a lot to Spain, it’s become a point of honour and I would imagine there would be barely suppressed glee if they found an ally within the British Isles with whom they could do business. It could really raise Scotland’s profile and, with many European countries uneasy at Britain’s carping and her colonial instincts, might change perceptions about the kind of EU neighbour Scotland could become.

Of course, we would be immediately branded disloyal and acting beyond our status by the same British government which I suspect would hit new heights of apoplexy but there’s nothing to stop an aspiring new state from forging its own external relations by flexing its nascent muscle. It would demonstrate to Europe that not everybody in these islands is tied to a faded glory.

Would it be appropriate for one small country seeking independence to act against what the local inhabitants would regard as another (relatively) independent nation?  One difference is that Gibraltar is actually part of the Spanish mainland entirely separate from the UK and is an historical anomaly from a time when we were regularly at war with Spain.  Scotland was regularly at war with England but did sign up to a treaty to come together. Scotland is not, like Gibraltar, seeking the protection of the UK and if Britain shared sovereignty with Spain or handed the Rock over, all that would actually change on the peninsula is the1000 Spanish workers not having to queue at a border to get to work.

I think it’s worth at least a preliminary discussion between the Scottish government and the Spanish authorities in Britain because that would put the wind up Whitehall – I presume they bug the FM’s phone.

(I don’t believe by the way that anybody will block Scotland’s EU membership by voting against. The only possibility is that, if my information is correct, there will be qualified majority voting which allows for example Spain to vote No in the knowledge it won’t prevent Scotland becoming a member).

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On the media front, I watched recordings of Scotland Tonight and Newsnight Scotland on the IFS report and found both fair and balanced and, the big prize I look for as a reward for watching, I learned something.

Discounting the set up packages played out before the discussions which rarely add much to the subject, I thought both channels did their job. I watched Scottish first and enjoyed the debate with Simon Johnson and Lesley Riddoch. Johnson is with the dreaded Daily Telegraph, a paper that really has lost its soul from its halcyon days when it was a beacon of good journalism, now twisting news and comment into a single cord which it wraps daily round Scotland’s neck. He was truculent and triumphalist as only a Unionist toady can be when there’s a chance to scoff at Scotland. On the other hand he gave as clear and coherent an exposition of unionism’s response to the report as you could expect, neatly combining the top-line facts with undisguised glee and leaving nobody in any doubt that the last place they would look for objective analysis is his paper.

He summed up the conventional view, that if you are stuck in the Westminster mode of thinking, this report puts the tin lid on independence. It plays perfectly to the idea, assumed before it was released, that Scotland is too poor. I noted the lack of any attempt to place responsibility for that – if it were to be true – in any of the output. The old question returns: If this is the most successful union in history, why are we still poor after 300 years? If the UK’s national debt is crippling Scotland, whose fault would that be? The message seems to be: We’ve made you so poor, you can’t afford to escape…Britain, the payday lender of the United Nations. In fact, Wonga would be a great name for the UK, as it’s composed almost entirely of moneylending, crippling itself with debt and keeping people under the thumb. Henceforth, the UK is known here as Wonga.

So we got a smirking Unionist view which was countered by the legendary Riddoch, surely Scotland’s own Joan of Arc*. She can be, as they say, feisty, can Lesley, so when she is totally calm and controlled she is magnificent…a thing of beauty. What she represents to me is a different way of thinking, a whole different intellectual approach to being a country and a community. She has developed a depth of understanding of how society can be made to work which reaches beyond the sterile Left and Right and which leaves a hack like Mr Johnson stranded in the shallows, gasping. I loved her reference to the way Norway added to its economy by making it easier for women to work and now their contribution exceeds that of oil. Fantastic.

This kind of thinking exceeds even Stewart Hosie who was locked in mortal combat with Iain Gray. Hosie did a fine job considering what he was up against as the simplicity of a headline like Scotland’s black hole makes it an uphill task. But what I love about Lesley is her scorn for the old thinking, that things can never change and nothing can get better, that there is only one way and it’s the Union.

The best single interview was Gary Robertson with Paul Johnson, director of the IFS because fair questions were put succinctly and enough time was given for the answers which were illuminating. I never felt it was being rushed or that the presenter was gagging to get in to interrupt. It is the simplest form of broadcast journalism – ask an informed interviewee sensible questions and let him answer. Rocket science it ain’t. It provided a depth of understanding and allowed some light into the findings that didn’t make it sound nearly as apocalyptic as the Unionist adherents painted it. In fact, Robertson, whom I have maligned previously, didn’t get in the way at all last night and judged his interviews and to-camera remarks really well, even managing what looked to me like a genuine smile or two, always a sign of confidence.

I remain though of the view that independence is about belief and that if we see ourselves as just pawns of the London-centric system, they will treat us that way. This report offers an immediate prospect of a sustainable Scotland, a period of years, if they’re right, before the squeeze begins to be felt and that time can be used to good effect preparing our country by sorting out our own priorities, our tax system and our own immigration policy. Other questions won’t go away…will the UK be in the EU…will fracking reduce energy costs…will there be a housing bubble in the South east and will we all pay higher interest to combat it…will the banks need to be bailed out again. And as for 50 years hence…fifty years ago we didn’t know there was North Sea oil and gas…50 years ago we didn’t think of renewables…and 50 years ago we didn’t know there would be a new Scotland with its own parliament making laws we can be proud of and we had no idea that the British Prime Minister would come to Edinburgh and sign a document confirming a referendum on our independence. We didn’t know our destiny really would be in our own hands. In 50 years time our children might look back and thank us for seizing the moment and transforming our country for them.

*Don’t send me messages saying: I’ve got the matches!

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Plus ca change

I have to say that the Institute for Fiscal Studies has always been respected and the only time I remember doubts about its work was when it reported on Scotland’s economy and happily quoted oil statistics from the Office of Budget Responsibility which had already been questioned as unduly pessimistic. The money for this latest effort comes from the Economic and Social Research Council which is in fact a non departmental government body with funding from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, so make up your own mind about motivation. Any thoughts on its publication the day before the Scottish government’s financial report…obviously coincidental. No?

I can’t argue with any of their figures but as ever it is the conclusions they draw which cause concern. The reason is that they don’t appear able to take account of any variation in their modelling, as the call it. It means, like all of these reports it bases everything on what we know now and presume there will no change in anything much after independence. In fact, as Swinney pointed out, further into the report, they concede that it is the case by saying that…there are “alternative assumptions about inward migration, future productivity growth, the change in revenues from North Sea activity, the initial allocation of accumulated debt between an independent Scotland and the rest of the UK, and the interest rate payable on public debt. These factors are inherently uncertain and could also evolve differently if Scotland were independent rather than part of the UK; in addition, they could be substantially affected by the policies chosen by the government of an independent Scotland.”

So you can’t dispute, I think, the report on Scotland’s budget shortfall as far it goes but, like all these think tank efforts, it doesn’t – can’t – say what will actually happen.

Why shouldn’t Scotland negotiate a better deal on its share of national debt for example? It’s even suggested that could lead to a deal on Trident for a period of years. Will Scotland’s economy never grow any bigger…will there be no entrepreneurs…no boom in business…no savings in budgets, some of which we know are already unfairly attributed to Scotland? To read the report and to listen to an increasingly shrill Alastair Darling, you’d think the future is set in stone. Is that how Alastair saw the crash coming and averted financial disaster?

The IFS should have subtitled its report: If Everything Remains the Same After Independence and All Future Projections Prove –Against All the Odds – To Be Accurate. Anyway, if they imagine a tax hike or a service cut would prevent me from voting Yes they really are lost in space. Whatever the initial costs, there can be no doubt in the mind of any Scot that we will make a better long-term fist of our country than the Unionists have. The main reason why the figures are so god-awful is our share of the ballooning national debt of the UK, heading for £1.5 TRILLION. Whose fault was that, Alastair? Who was in charge over all those years when the money was rolling in, when the oil was in its heyday, how much was invested? Don’t you find it rich for Darling, the man who was asleep at the wheel in 2007-08 and contributed massively to this obscene economic mess, to be lecturing us on prudence. In a tirade without punctuation on Radio Four he sounded like an out-of-control local councillor desperate to get the last word, a long way from the mighty statesman we were promised. He even said we were trying to base an economy entirely on oil! Eh? Does he never to stop to think what a dreary picture he paints of his own country. I accept he has a point to make about finances and is justified in using the IFS report but for him and Alexander to suggest as they do that their own countrymen couldn’t punch their way out of paper bag is one way to not to get folk onside. There is a hint, a growing one, in all this of desperation creeping in. I wonder why.

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