And They’re Off

The Tories are a dozen seats ahead or they’re a handful behind Labour; the polling percentages are neck and neck and everybody knows there cannot be a straight majority for either. The race is like two old nags stretching for the finishing line, one nose in front one moment, the second inches ahead the next.


Amid the controversy about which will be larger and who will treat with whom, there lies a bigger question – why is Labour so far behind? How could a left-of-centre party be fighting for its life against a stridently right-wing budget-slashing government which is missing every one of its economic targets?

The pious welfare minister who lives a life subsidised by his father-in-law is stripping life-saving benefits from the softest of targets, overseeing a regime which incentivises welfare withdrawal and leads to suicide and foodbanks. Yet has Labour landed a serious blow on Duncan Smith? Have they harangued him into reversing his cruel policies and made him a figure of contempt – an emblem of a hard-faced, class-war party that must be removed?

The average reading of the late polls before the 1997 election which brought Labour to power last time was Tories 30 per cent, Labour 47 per cent – that’s a lead of more than 50 per cent of the Conservative total. That was because the Tory Party was a busted flush, divided and incestuous, while Labour were appealing, modern and well-led. (I know there’s more to it than that, but that’s my shorthand version).


If you’re Labour looking to replicate – insofar as you can – Blair’s appeal, you might start with analysis of what the Tory-led Coalition is getting wrong. For a start, here’s a list.

Tories have axed 576 Sure Start Centres (evidence)

Bankers’ Bonuses rise by 64% in just 1 year (evidence)

Food Bank usage has grown by 700%+ in 3 years (evidence)

1 million are now employed on Zero-Hours Contracts (evidence)

The Disabled have suffered real term cuts of 1.7% this year in benefits (here)

52,701 firms have been declared Insolvent (Q2 2010 to Q2 2013) (evidence)

379,968 persons have been declared Insolvent (Q2 2010 to Q2 2013)  (evidence)

Unemployment is 20,000+ higher today than May 2010 (evidence & here)

Private Rental Homes costs £9,084 to rent (£1,128 up from Apr 2010) (evidence & here)

Tories have axed 5,601 Nurses since May 2010  (evidence)

That’s just the top 10 from a list of 100 Tory failures to be found here 

Is this the kind of stuff you’re hearing from Labour, because I’m not. I hear the eye-glazing economic targets mantra from Ed Balls and a few stand-alone ideas from Miliband – we’ll freeze energy prices (they’re falling anyway) and we’ll abolish the Lords (honest, we mean it this time).

But I suspect the reason Labour is so poor at campaigning isn’t just Ed’s freakishness but Labour’s policy vacuum. Just how much of this will Labour undo or where appropriate, reinstate? They do want the bring back the successful Sure Start centres for example but while placing a statutory duty on local authorities, they won’t be offering any funding. ‘The Pre-school Learning Alliance welcomed the initiative but dismissed Labour’s suggestion that it could be implemented without any additional public spending.’

On bankers’ bonuses there are similar noises. Ed Balls wants bonuses to be clawed back for 10 years in cases of misconduct – rather than the current seven. Mmm…not very radical, is it? We’ll chase you for longer but only if you’re found guilty of something.

They complain about zero hours contracts yet their own local councils implement them. And so on…

Labour lacks a definitive narrative challenging the basis of the Tory policy framework partly because it knows many aspiring voters side with the Tories and partly because it has locked itself into the austerity mentality which limits spending in popular areas. It isn’t just Miliband who doesn’t wash with the voters. The other one, Balls is a reminder of dodgy economics and bluster from the Gordon Brown era and should have been dumped long ago.

The conditions are different from 97 but on the other hand, Major was struggling with an internal enemy (Europe) while Cameron wrestles with an internal enemy (Europe) in the form of UKIP. After 18 years we were perhaps just sick of the Tories and wanted a change. I’m sick of them again but it looks like a large number of English folk are happy with them and it’s not just the middle class in the south-east. A man delivered a car to my house last week from Wolverhampton – a working class bloke doing a low-paid job. He was unabashed to say he preferred Cameron’s Tories to Labour.

Instead of hearing narrow-minded Labour MPs moaning about no deals with Nationalists, we should be hearing them explaining why after five years of a neo-con, ideological government, they aren’t miles ahead in the polls and destined to win outright. They should be hammering the Tories the way the Tories are hammering the vulnerable.

The truth of that is that they don’t have ideas and they don’t have conviction. They are afraid to be who the people want them to be. They are trapped pandering to two audiences and have no clear path to power of programme for government. As in Scotland, the strongest message is: We’re not the Tories. But that only takes you half way to power. Defining what Labour IS seems beyond them and instead others do it for them and are not charitable.

That Labour is neck and neck with a discredited party is an historic condemnation of their failure. (Personally, I don’t think they’ll need the SNP because I expect the Tories to be the biggest party. I expect there to be nearly enough Lib Dems to continue the Coalition but still in need of extra insurance probably with the DUP. Labour will be the party that couldn’t protect working people from the ravages of Tory austerity while the rich get richer.)

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When I first realised I was badly overdrawn at the bank, I was only a kid and a month away from getting married. £50 in the red (it said in my little bank book – remember them?) and I went as red as the account. It was a disaster requiring immediate and painful remedial action – meeting with manager, agreed overdraft, short-term loan and hurt feelings.


Then I had to ask a fundamental question: How did I get into this mess in the first place? Who’s fault was it? What went wrong? That produced a whole litany of retrospectively obvious answers involving beer, Gitanes, Fred’s steak lunches at the Jinglin’ Geordie in Fleshmarket Close and a wilful refusal ever to check the state of the account.

As I tried to sort it out, I had the light bulb moment that if I wanted a balanced account, I wouldn’t start from here; I wouldn’t have allowed myself to get into debt if I’d been cleverer…I should have been counting my pennies and keeping better company.

My boozy lunches and hollowed out account came to mind when I read the headlines from the GERS report showing Scotland with a public spending deficit of £12bn.

Oops…That’s hefty whatever our tax-raising capacity – and that’s considerably higher per head than the UK by £400 – but the national overdraft is what makes headlines because voters don’t like debt, especially if it looks cripplingly high with doubts about repaying and the near-certain prospect of it getting worse next year (when more oil price drops kick in).

No surprise then that the national leader (UK branch) Alistair Carmichael, remember him, immediately pounced to proudly declare that this proved Scotland was incapable of surviving without London’s money. Thanks, Al. It’s the resolute way you champion Scotland’s corner that makes you and your party so popular.

These are figures produced by the SNP government, not fiddled by our chums in the Treasury who give Danny Alexander his winning lines to read. They are a true reflection of the current state of the national bank account. (Although, I have to say I’m never convinced about what is attributed to Scotland and what is left out in the minutiae of actuarial alchemy the UK uses but there we are…we have to live with it.)

Proportionately, the deficit is higher than the UK’s which is scary enough and last time it was this high, Britain had to beg for help from the IMF

We’re going through a rocky time and hoping that there will be surge in oil prices before March 24 next year isn’t going to cut it. So the baiting over the public finances will continue – albeit ironic on a titanic scale, given the UK’s fiscal desert. Does it matter?

Well the answer is Yes, if you’re politically active and either devise attacks on the SNP or if, from the other side, you have to defend independence. There are answers but it’s a struggle…a bit like me wheedling to the bank manager that a pint of Tennents had gone up to 17p a pint.

But in truth the answer is No, it doesn’t really matter at all. First, because the independence option was knocked from the chessboard by the referendum result, therefore the question of how Scotland’s economy would cope separately has become in that sense academic. The SNP believes in independence but is campaigning for Home Rule, in effect. It is sending a cohort of MPs to Westminster not to negotiate independence – sorry, the break-up Britain – but to ‘hold their feet to the fire’ so they deliver a worthwhile deal for the Scots.

It is, though part of the argument around fiscal autonomy and continuing Barnett and the rest. But having Unionists bang on about a theoretical Scottish deficit only emphasises how they’re stuck in referendum mode and can’t get over it.

The second reason it doesn’t matter is that the independence movement is driven not by profit and loss accounting but by belief. That’s right – Alice in Wonderland, Yellow Brick Road, airy-fairy, unrealistic David Torrance Fantasy Politics.


Or, to put it another way, conviction. We believe in something and it’s too powerful to be destroyed by transitory budgets and oil prices. In fact, we believe just like the Unionist Britnats believe in the UK.

Britain has survived everything from military attack to Scottish independence, from foreign ownership to the IMF begging bowl. It is currently surviving with nearly £1.5 trillion in sovereign debt. To do that, you must believe and I think they do. Unionists have created one of the world’s most enduring brands in the idea of Britain – despite wars, torture, corruption, dodgy royals etc, ad nauseum…

Everything about the UK since 2007 has been threadbare and mangy. People have suffered terribly while the rich earn more. Hedge fund managers are revered and protected by government while the jobless and disabled get hammered and humiliated. To mitigate the collapse we’ve had circuses like the Olympics.

Yet the question of Britain not continuing is never raised. It is literally unthinkable.

And for me, so is dropping independence.

It doesn’t mean I think everything will be sunny from Day One (note the dynastic capitals). I don’t. I actually think the early years will have serious challenges, but that in those first days the real heart of the nation will be forged because we will find out who we really are when we have to go it alone. In the early struggle, we will find out who are friends are…and discover what we all suspect – that we really can do this and that the foundations will be laid for our children’s children. It will be worth it.

Mad, of course, to the critics with calculators and those for whom a tough decision is when to start a new tea towel in the kitchen.

Just as I realised in 1972 that I had made mistakes and should never have got into the mess with the bank, so it is with Scotland. Remember, our finances, with or without devolution, are not our own. The budget is set at Westminster, our taxation powers are retained there with benefits as are the business development powers and the key levers of much public spending, public procurement, immigration and most borrowing.

Does anybody really imagine that if we had been independent years ago that we wouldn’t have matched up tax receipts and spending and made sure any deficit was within our comfortable borrowing requirement? Would we have drained our accounts with nuclear weapons and foreign wars, closed our factories and mines and prevented oil exploration off the West Coast? Do you think we’d have sold off the public oil company? Would we have allowed the decline which led to our young people leaving and never return? Would we have left post-industrial areas to waste, poverty and ill-health?

And isn’t a downturn in oil prices exactly when we would have turned to our National Oil Fund to support our economy – a fund burgeoning with petro currency and returns from investments worldwide? Where is that fund today…what happened to our natural resources and who spent it all and didn’t save a bean?

Today’s figures aren’t a denial of independence. They make the case for independence.


All nations must take the long view of history to survive. We have done that in our movement and the day creeps ever closer, while any and every setback – referendum outcome/GERs reports – we take in our stride. In the lead up to last September the abiding quote from the Bard was A Man’s a Man for a’ that to emphasise the democratic nature of Yes. Today as we regroup and grow stronger, his relevant words come from the same tract – It’s comin’ yet for a’ that…(For a’ that and a’ that;

It’s comin’ yet for a’ that)


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When I got back to the centre, a report was waiting for me. It was worse than I thought. When I double-checked, I discovered the HMRC document was indeed in my wife’s name and did have the correct address but was rejected by the Stasi ‘because it isn’t a utility bill.’


In all my years of working behind enemy lines from China to Afghanistan to Russia, I had never come across a political system so backward that it preferred a domestic gas bill to a letter from a state agency responsible for collecting the most detailed data on every citizen.

What happened if, as in this case, only the male was named as account holder? It discriminated against women who may not be account holders and who are entitled to use both maiden and married names to suit circumstance – only not in the hard-faced Stalinist world of the Greater Glasgow Gulag.


I was putting the paper in the typewriter for my report to London when she walked in. She was the agent who had become my wife and yet our marriage was seen as a sham by the Stasi who seemed to think we were undercover international agents posing as a couple. And our mission? Nothing less than acquiring by stealth a year-long residents parking permit worth £50 in the top secret Western Section – codename Kelvinbridge.


She placed the heavy Walther on the desk, shook out her hair and perched on the table edge. ‘I’ve never known anything like it’, she breathed. ‘I offered them my brand new driving licence complete with name, address and photograph as proof of identity and they turned it down. I even offered them the old licence with the maiden name to compare the two. They said No. It must be a utility bill or nothing. Is it a Trotskyite plot to cause terror?’

We had offered them an electricity bill, an HMRC letter, a property management account covering our building, a driving licence and our council tax details with both married and maiden names at the same address. Yet still they obstructed us.

We sat in silence until I asked: ‘Anyway how many people actually get a paper utility bill nowadays? Isn’t it normal to use internet?’

‘Not in the Gulag. Remember, General Matheson and the politburo wage a desperate war against the forces of democracy and call them Nazis and a virus and will do anything to stop the cybernats from winning the city. Allowing citizens full use of the internet to access services would undermine his campaign.’

I adjusted my specs. She smoothed her skirt and said: ‘There is one thing.’


‘They said I could change my name on the council tax from my maiden name to my married name as it appears on the parking application form.’

I leapt from the seat, grabbed the gun and made for the door. She grabbed hold of me.

‘Stop! It isn’t worth it’.

‘But we must fight a sexist and primitive system so undemocratic that it demands a woman changes her name to get a…a parking permit!’

‘Look. It took 40 years for the Wall to fall and glasnost still hasn’t arrived in Labour-run Glasgow. It may take a generation but change and democracy will surely come. If we take a stand on the parking issue, the people will follow.’

She opened her purse. ‘Have you got £1 for the meter?’





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Funeral in Glasgow

Today, at 1100 hours, I made contact with the Stasi. I took the usual route by subway – it didn’t matter any more if I was followed – and made my way to the huge Lubyanka building in the city centre.


I used my Harry Palmer disguise with the glasses, kept my eyes hooded and my rebellious mien barely supressed. I approached the unsmiling security guard behind the reception desk and delivered the agreed lines. ‘Application for parking permit…Western section.’

She glanced at the screen and sidled her eyes to the left. ‘Desk 33.’

She handed me a ticket. I was number 500 – nice round sum, I noted, and too obvious.

I was aware of eyes following me as I passed uniformed security and a line of glum peasants with the look of those whose life was dedicated to waiting…

Behind Desk 33 was a woman of agricultural disposition. ‘Papers’, she snapped.

I pulled the file marked IPCRESS from my case – it stands for Induction of Psychoneuroses by Council Refusal Staffs.

I removed them one by one – the application form completed in my wife’s name and the car lease agreement, followed by an energy bill and a letter from the brutal state collection department – Revenue and Customs. She looked them over and shook her head.

‘The application is in your wife’s name but energy bill has your name, not hers. The tax letter is in her maiden name, not the one on the form either.’

‘But the address on them all is the same. And you know we live there because we’ve been paying you council tax every month for 14 years.’

‘I have to check your file’. The light from the screen reflected on her glasses as lists of names flashed up. Then… ‘I have found you – both at the same address just as you say.’


At last.

‘But wait’. Damn the triumphant sound in her voice. ‘Her name on the council tax form is different from the one on her permit application.’

‘Of course it is…we weren’t married when we started paying the tax…’ My cool Harry Palmer front was in danger of collapsing. ‘Now we’re married she uses my surname. It’s what people do.’

Fixing me with her stare, she picked up the phone and mumbled into the handset. ‘Now we go to adjudication. Follow me. Desk 10.’

There sat the praesidium executive in her black military suit and crisp white shirt. Farm woman from Desk 33 moved in behind her and both looked me over.

‘Sorry, but the applicant’s names must match with the council tax records.’

I was threatening to blow my cover in anger and the Walther PPK suddenly felt heavy against my ribs.

‘Then tell me what I must do to beat the bureaucracy.’

‘We need to see a marriage certificate to prove identity. The original. No copies.’



I adjusted my glasses. ‘Do you mean to tell me that in 21st century Glasgow I have to produce a marriage certificate to GET A LOUSY PARKING PERMIT…!! So I can put my wife’s car outside my own home where you’ve been taking £2400 a year from me for a decade and now say you don’t believe she lives there…? Do you know the Wall’s come down?’

They were unmoved. Their eyes said this is how it is. We are cogs in the great machine and you are grit.

I gave them my I’ll Be Back look and left wondering how it is that in a westernized country the mentality and practices of the Soviet Regime still operate. Petty officials relentlessly enforcing obstructive rules they know make no sense and merely lead to disaffected citizens. Next time I will demand a meeting with the Stalinist who runs the failed state, the dictator Matheson.

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The British Way of Life

Sorry about this. I know some of you will be disappointed but I am seriously thinking of voting Labour in May. I know it’s against everything I’ve stood for and I’ve just accepted an invitation to Troon to help launch Philippa Whitford’s career as an MP (which may now be withdrawn), but I’ve fallen in love with Margaret Hodge.

Margaret Hodge

If every Labour MP was as direct and outspoken and as clearly on the side of the angels as the Labour MP who chairs the Commons Public Accounts Committee, they wouldn’t be in the trouble they are. In fact they would probably be the radical reforming people’s party they used to be and I’d have the same old dilemma I lived with forty years ago – Labour or SNP.

If I lived in Barking (no idea…I’ll have to check the map) I’d be offering to campaign for her and might even put out a press release complaining about vile cybernats like that Wings person.

Time and again this woman expresses the same degree of incredulity and astonishment at the barefaced lies and dissembling that our elders and betters parade before her committee. Today was a prime example. Here’s a waspish line from Andrew Sparrow’s sketch in the Guardian: ‘It is not that unusual to see a public figure subject to withering scorn by MPs on a select committee – it is one of the few unadulterated pleasures that parliament offers – but, still, this was something. We’re used to see Keith Vaz duff up some hapless copper, or a second-rate council chief. But chair of the BBC Trust is one of the triple-A jobs in the British establishment. To hear someone that senior be told to her face by a select committee chair that she should be sacked is remarkable.’

And that’s exactly what La Hodge did to Rona Fairhead, Chair of the BBC Trust and formerly head of oversight at HSBC, responsible for aiding massive tax evasion.


She tore into this corporate ice maiden who earned £500,000 to make sure the bank complied with its legal responsibilities and manifestly failed to do so. In fact Fairhead’s sang froid was Olympian in scale and her indignation withering as one member of the British Establishment accused another of failure. She looked and sounded as if the butler had been caught picking his nose at a dinner party. ‘Madam chairman…’ she squawked again and again.

Remarkably, she took no responsibility herself for anything and even tried to deny earning as much, but was quick and decisive in naming the areas of the operation she believed had erred. She had no doubt. Indeed, she sounded very cross that others had let her down – just as the boss of the bank had done before her. Preening executives, so precious about their status and cornucopia of earnings and benefits, utterly incompetent in their duties and casually contemptuous of others who must carry the blame.

How British. How utterly typical of the whole contrived raft of elitism on which British society is founded. Hodge of course is very much in that mould as family company shareholder and Lady but whatever reservations you may have about her and her career, I defy you not to cheer that someone – just someone – has the courage and ability to express what the voters think for a change without hedging it round with caveat and qualification like Miliband.


And what a contrast the gilded life of Fairhead is with its weekly cheques equivalent to the average annual wage and its automatic entre to the gleaming corridors of power compared to the life of Mr and Mrs Britain eeking out their existence with the help of benefits.

Failed to attend an interview (because it was too short notice and you couldn’t find childcare)? You lose your benefit for four weeks

Not been available to work (because you don’t want to work too far away from your children)? You lose your benefit for four weeks

Refused a job (because it doesn’t fit with your child’s school hours)? You lose your income 13 weeks – just over three months

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The exact opposite approach is taken to the life of those who have no respected education, no high level contacts in the financial sector, outside the metropolitan carousel and whose every little error in life has a magnified penalty rather than promotion to the top of the BBC Trust.

In fact the system deliberately hurts them by demanding that targets are met for reducing the bill and deliberately ensuring that interviews are missed so that sanctions can be applied. British citizens are killing themselves rather than live such demeaning lives. Not that Rona would notice.

When so-called progressives challenge the right of Scots to play a part in running this country, remind them what a rank and hierarchical state the UK is and that a single MP asking hard questions stands out because she is so rare amid the cowed and complacent. The sad truth about Britain – despite the pitiful attempts at scorn in cartoons and otherwise – is that it should be biting off the hand of the SNP to bring some plain human sanity to a country in moral and economic free-fall.

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