I’m With Yanis

And I thought the Holyrood elections would take precedence over Europe…no sooner do I write it than the First Minister does exactly the opposite, proving how out of touch with the Sturgeon leadership I am.

Off she goes to the enemy capital to encourage raging English Kippers to embrace refugees and whistle Ode to Joy. What about the council tax? I hear you call. What about the fiscal framework? Well, she’s not listening to that claptrap, not when there’s a chance to grandstand to the loony Unionists and get on the 10 o clock news as Tartan Nicola, somewhere between Mother Teresa and Joan of Arc.

Holyrood is the cooncil election by comparison with a joust with Boris and Dave to earn the admiration of liberal England. The positive case for EU membership she was laying out with emphasis on workers’ right, welfare with dignity and permissive values is so off the Brit agenda that lefties were tweeting how novel and refreshing it sounded. Which I suppose means she probably does know what she’s talking about.

Maybe too she realises that the support for Holyrood is rock solid and she can afford to gallivant on European business without losing votes. I had wondered for a while if all this Labour talk of the SNP being guaranteed to win was a ploy to undermine their vote because I don’t ever remember a party conceding victory weeks in advance and writing off their own chances to publicly. Back in the 80’s George Younger announced that the Tories were going to win in, I think the regional elections. The following day – after their slaughter – I reminded him of what he’d said to which he replied: Well, I was wrong….Labour aren’t bothering to maintain such fiction.

(I had a similar moment with John Nott at the Ministry of Defence just after the invasion of the Falklands. I said: You told us the defences of the islands were secure despite your budget cuts. What do you say today? He replied: Well, they obviously weren’t.)

On Europe, I’m with Yanis. http://yanisvaroufakis.eu/2016/02/28/is-greece-not-another-compelling-reason-to-vote-for-brexit-on-23rd-june/

I’m going to hold my nose and vote Yes because I believe in the project and can’t see it reforming unless we stay in, once the neo cons are out of Downing Street or the Scots are out of the Union. Then we can campaign from the inside. I don’t buy the fear-mongering, just as I didn’t buy it during the indyref and find it spooky how the language today mirrors some of the daft stuff we had to put up with. An organised and educated population has nothing to fear from political change. Whatever happens we will make it work. I just don’t see the need for withdrawal from a club of nations designed to be self-supporting (except for Greece, of course) while continuing in membership – at huge cost – of the single market and exposing ourselves to the risk of ever more attritional market-based policies. The move for withdrawal is just the inevitable consequence of an internal right-wing Tory Party struggle and a Westminster failure to plan and co-ordinate immigration.

I see an article today suggesting London might be granted special status as a newly-defined city state in the EU if the UK votes for Out as it is hugely pro-EU and so rich that Brussels won’t want to lose it. Hmm. I understand the dynamic of that argument but suggest Brussels would find it easier dealing with a rebelling existing country with its own government appealing for help to remain than it would devising a whole new form of membership for a city without state infrastructure. Imagine how worrying a special London status would be for France/Paris or Germany/Frankfurt. Mind you, they’d give a leery eye to an EU region too, I dare say.

I’m sure Brexit will play a large part in the pilot programmes being made at Pacific Quay to pave the way for the famous Scottish Six which has kicked off one of those wondrous arguments that could happen in our benighted wee branch office of UK Ltd. An entire nation is actually discussing whether it should have its own news service. Five million people, 15 universities, the best-educated school leavers in the world, a self-governing state-let – unsure if it can handle its own news service. Nothing could sum up timorous, querulous, retiring, embarrassed Scotland better than: We’re not good enough to reflect the world to our own people. Could somebody else do it for us? Please.

It strikes me that there is some aspect of nationalism or independence which so discombobulates some people that they lose all sense of proportion. It’s like a 19th century kirk elder reacting to witchcraft. Fear and dread drives them to extreme reactions which at times are comical. To see an experienced, well-schooled hack of the old tradition like Alan Cochrane raging about the BBC giving in to the Nats is unintentionally funny. Wouldn’t reflecting modern Scotland be a better phrase? Have you read Cochrane bemoaning the lack of democracy in a single MP holding all executive power over the entire country? Does anyone who  knows how the country works really imagine that the BBC will broadcast live the Golden Spurtle Porridge Championships and At Home with Nicola in order to appease the SNP? If that were to be possible, wouldn’t it be the biggest own goal in broadcast history and damaging to the SNP? Even the usually intelligent Ken Macintosh, a former BBC producer, sounds unsure that this is the right move because he won’t hear Laura Kuennsberg. Actually, I’m pretty sure he will. But isn’t it a sign of the London dependency – the parochial fear – that so afflicts them?

That, rather than any Glasgow-based news service, is what is really embarrassing.

That’s not to say our friends at Pacific Quay won’t bugger it up. It isn’t so much the journalists as the executives who lack opposable thumbs at BBC Scotland.

If they’d come up with this idea a year before the indyref and demanded the money to pay for it, it would have been very difficult for London to turn it down. Instead the management said there was no need for extra resources – it was business as usual. Except of course they were simultaneously undergoing a ruthless clear-out of staff, excising so many of those with the nous to run the service they now seem to want.

Isn’t it one reason executives are paid so well – they’re meant to plan properly for foreseeable changes and unexpected contingencies. This episode hasn’t shone a kindly light on the new Head of News Gary Smith who appears to have conspired to keep his own staff in the dark – a classic piece of BBC chicanery that will go a long way to defining how he is judged. It drops him into the bracket I forecast – that of London placeman conniving with the bosses rather than putting himself on the side of the staff.

There are conspiracies now that this is set up to fail which sounds far too tricky for the BBC management to organise. And imagine if it was to crash and end in embarrassment, it would be a major fail for the existing board. Far more likely is that they are bungling their way into new territory and will require the staff to rescue them.

And have you heard the BBC Trust agitating on this? The people’s watchdog is another institutional failure stuffed with worthies who just love being ‘part of the Beeb.’ Is careerist Bill Matthews still there? Who knows, such is the subliminal profile he keeps. The only thing the BBC could do with is a dose of what the loony Unionists fear – some interference to make sure the people’s broadcaster at least attempts to get it right.

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But Is It News?

Ah, the Scottish Six of fond memory. In the 90’s a group of us presenters were actively encouraged by the  management at Queen Margaret Drive to campaign for it…John Milne, Ruth Wishart, Lesley Riddoch, myself and others appended our names. Against all BBC rules on impartiality and contractual clauses barring us from publicly commenting on corporation affairs, we were given the nod to write to the papers and point out the advantages of a Glasgow-based national and international news service. I was even allowed to pen a column for…the Daily Record. Mind you, it was still a proper paper in those days.

Pilots were done and the momentum in Scotland was powerful. But, surprise, London was opposed and, as ever, Scotland got what London wanted.

Mind you, even then we didn’t minimise the obstacles. Whatever looks right in principle, still needs practical steps to make it work. It will be just as difficult today as it was in the nineties. Just because the management sign up to an idea doesn’t mean they know how to make it happen. At every level in the BBC there are drones working out ways to stop things happening. Each department will find some reason to resist and reports objecting will be models of obscurantism requiring an Enigma code-breaker to decipher. If the clipboard jockeys in the darker recesses of the BBC don’t want to know…well, they didn’t know about Jimmy Savile, now did they?

The first thing that strikes me about this plan is the programme duration. A full hour is a huge commitment five nights a week requiring a complete re-working of the reporting model. Instead of two-minute packaged reports, the need will be for longer more discursive pieces with more detailed content flagging up the implications in the story to allow a studio-based interview to follow, either a two-way with the reporter or a relevant outside guest. That in itself is new because you rarely, if ever, see a live guest in the Reporting Scotland studio. That also means presenters conducting actual challenging interviews of an articulate (and possibly obfuscating) guest rather than reading pre-arranged questions lobbed to a Brian Taylor. (Most two-way interviews with news correspondents are basically questions written by the correspondent to make them look like interviews when in fact the whole report is scripted in advance.)

A 60-minute programme – without Channel 4’s commercial breaks – requires a skip-load of content. FMQ’s ain’t going to do it and neither is the Economy, Energy and Tourism committee at Holyrood. Political coverage, which will provide a staple of content, will need much more explanation and narrative linkage to Brussels, London and Edinburgh so Holyrood is put in its proper perspective instead of popping up in bite-size segments seemingly unconnected to the wider world. We will require the services of a genuine Rottweiler or at least an ankle-biting Highland Terrier of an interviewer with the detailed knowledge that was once the on-air preserve of Mr Mcwhirter. Talk of Brussels…there has been no BBC Scotland presence there for a decade and more. The last correspondent would be John Morrison whose sojourn was financially justified by the happy coincidence that he spoke Gaelic and therefore the language fund could be accessed. The BBC has got away for too long with ignoring Brussels as if Scotland had no direct connection to the European institutions – a shameful neglect that also meant no Scotland-based staff have been designated Europe watchers learning the EU ropes to inform Pacific Quay journalism.

This in turn opens another Pandora’s Box – will BBC network correspondents co-operate? Where Scotland has no presence on the ground – say in a foreign capital – BBC staff already serving there will be expected to produce for Glasgow. This is the point at which you realise what the corporation’s priorities are. In ascending order the duty of a correspondent is to 1) serve London 2) serve London and 3) serve London. ‘Network’ overrides everything else in all circumstances. The centralisation is eye-opening to any ingénue who imagines this is a truly British Broadcasting Corporation. London holds all and every lever. It gets first call on any correspondent, any story, any available service. Regional outposts like treated as backwaters. You want an interview with a BBC correspondent for your local programme? Form an orderly queue. Sorry, Glasgow, you’re behind Radio Suffolk and Radio Dorset.

That’s how it’s worked in radio which has always had a transnational and international remit, unlike television which is charged with reporting Scottish affairs only – until now. To be fair, correspondents are under a heavy strain as they are serving BBC outlets and many will give short shrift to requests for a separate item for Scotland. Many stories of course don’t actually have a need for a different treatment for Scots and can be taken straight from network – not too many though, otherwise what’s the point of a separate programme?

A lot can be shovelled in towards the end of a programme basically to pad it out. The really important part is the top where a heavy and meaningful item is needed each night. This is where judgment and planning come in. People working off diary, researching and constructing their own news material – breaking stories! – is a key source of lead items but only the small investigations team at PQ really has that experience. In addition pre-shooting needs camera crews dedicated to the job, not being diverted by a news desk panicking about a breaking story that day. BBC Scotland got rid of camera crews to save money just two years ago.

They will have to learn too the craft of building a news item into a story by exploring its ramifications, something you’re more likely to hear on weekend radio than a tea- time telly show with brief items of an intro and a she-says-he-says series of clips. This is something the new Head of News is well-placed to know about having done the job for network.

All this of course should lead to better journalism, new faces, more resources and an informed audience. The early omens are not good because what they need more than anything is a willing and enthusiastic staff. In fact they are already rebelling, incensed at the PQ management’s hallmark approach of failing to consult. Instead of working out the plans with the journalists, as ever they didn’t trust them with the information and then sprung a rush to produce a pilot show on them. No wonder they’re weary.

Two final points. Will a tea-time audience really watch a single hour-long news programme? Same presenters throughout? It will need some bells and whistles to hold ‘em for sixty minutes.

And, to the parochial-minded, moaning that Scots can’t produce a proper programme says more about you than BBC journalism. One reason why the current output is poor by comparison is resourcing. Another is the very agenda you complain about – television has no remit to cover anything outside Scotland. Like Scotland itself, Scottish journalism will grow with its independence.

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Star Letter !

From MBC

I’m half Norwegian and spend a lot of time in Norway where we have a home. The main reasons Norway has rejected membership of the EU is from the left. You will note the gentleman Derek quotes is a Conservative, from the business class in spohisticated metropolitan Oslo, and he seems to be saying that it’s pretty pointless not being a full member.

The left in Norway is strong (although they currently have a Conservative prime minister – though Norwegian Conservatives are more like the Lib Dems or New Labour) and the left feels that the EU is too right wing and not socially progressive enough. Women particularly feel that. Also the farming sector is very powerful still in Norway and this is not like the Tory landowners over here.

Farms are small family farms and there are powerful rules that prevent people especially foreigners from buying farmland and not cultivating it. This all goes back to the 19th century when it became possible for land to be democratised and it has been a powerful thing in Norwegian national identity since, all these small independent farmers grimly and patriotically eking out a living from the land. Food production in Norway is sacrosanct. The small farmers who are the backbone of Norwegian identity forged powerful links with the Labour and trade union movement in the 19th century.

It might be cheaper today to import food from abroad, that would be the right wing urban Oslo business class Conservative rationale, but the left in Norway says No, small farmers must be protected, food production in Norway must be protected, small farmers are an essential part of the rural economy especially in Trondelag (the west and north) and if they were not protected many areas would see their local economies collapse so rural areas would become depopulated and turn into a desert. That in turn would not be clever from a defence or geostrategic point of view, as Norwegians share a border in the far north with Russia and are very keenly aware of the need to monitor what the Russians get up to there.

So despite the Oslo business class Norwegians as a whole support these agricultural policies even if food is more expensive as a result. They have no wish to be dictated to by Europe in matters such as fundamental to Norway’s traditional economy and national identity such as fishing and farming.

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Another View

( This is a guest column from Professor Paul De Grauwe, John Paulson Chair in European Political Economy at the LSE’s European Institute. Prior to joining LSE, he was Professor of International Economics at the University of Leuven, Belgium. He was a member of the Belgian parliament from 1991 to 2003).

The discussions about Brexit have centered around the question of whether it is in the national interest of the United Kingdom to remain in the EU or to leave it. It appears today that the British public is split about this question, so that the outcome of the referendum remains highly uncertain.

The question of whether it is in the interest of the EU that the UK remains a member of the union has been discussed much less intensely. The conventional wisdom in Brussels is that the answer to that question is positive. The UK should remain a member of the EU. A Brexit would be very harmful for the future of the European Union. But is that so?

There is a deep-seated hostility of the British media and large parts of the political elite against the European Union. This hostility has found its political expression in the Brexit movement. The proponents of Brexit cannot accept that the UK has lost sovereignty in many areas in which the EU has competences. They abhor the fact that Britain has to accept decisions taken in Brussels, even if it has opposed these. For the Brexit-camp there is only one ultimate objective: to return full sovereignty to Westminster.

Those who believe that a referendum will finally settle the issue have it wrong. Let us suppose that the Brexit-camp is defeated and the UK remains in the EU. That will not stop the hostility of those who have lost the referendum. It will not reduce their ambition to bring back full sovereignty to the United Kingdom.

Having found out that they cannot leave the EU, the Brexit-camp will shift its strategy to achieve the objective of returning power to Westminster. It will be a Trojan horse strategy. This will imply working from within to undermine the union. It will be a strategy aiming at shrinking the area of decision making with majority rule and replacing it with an intergovernmental approach. The purpose of the British enemies of the EU will be a slow deconstruction of the union so as to achieve the objective of returning power to Westminster.

One may argue that having lost the referendum, the Brexit-camp will lose influence. That is far from certain. The agreement achieved by Cameron with the rest of the EU has not transferred a shred of sovereignty back to Westminster. This will be seen by the Brexit-camp as a huge failure, leading them to intensify their deconstruction strategy.

I conclude that it is not in the interest of the EU to keep a country in the union that will continue to be hostile to “l’acquis communautaire” and that will follow a strategy to further undermine it.

I therefore also conclude that it will be better for the European Union that the Brexit-camp wins the referendum. When Britain is kept out of the EU it will no longer be able to undermine the EU’s cohesion. The EU will come out stronger.

Britain will be weakened and will have to knock at the door of the EU to start negotiating a trade agreement. In the process it will have lost its bargaining chips. The EU will be able to impose a trade deal that will not be much different from what the UK has today as a member of the EU. At the same time it will have reduced the power of a country whose ambition it is to undermine the cohesion of the union.

(This article first appeared in Social Europe)

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Can We Affjord It?

If you’re thinking of voting to leave the EU, you may imagine the UK will be like Norway. Our oil-rich chums across the North Atlantic are outside the EU but have what many Tory Eurosceptics desire – access to the vast and wealthy European market for goods and services. (Obviously no one need bother themselves with trifles like civil and employment rights or quality standards etc).

This was also an argument that emerged during the indyref when Britain used its association with the Euro institutions to orchestrate a case against a separate Scotland joining the Brussels club. ‘We don’t need to join. We can be like Norway.’

I found an article on the government website by Norway’s former minister for the EU (eh? A minister for something you’re not part of?). Vidar Helgesen (a Conservative) writes: Norway’s trade with EU countries accounts for a greater share of our foreign trade than of Britain’s alone. In relative terms we have more EU labour immigrants than does the UK. We are part of the Schengen system. We implement more than three-quarters of EU legislation. We regularly align ourselves with EU positions on foreign and security policy. And our financial contributions are on par with comparable EU member-states. Essentially, with the exception of our agricultural policies, Norway is part of the same European integration process as the UK. What really sets Norway apart is that we don’t have the right to vote in Europe.

Norway it seems is in effect already in the EU in all but name.

No one falls in love with a market, Jacques Delors once said. Well, at least Norway is pleased to be lawfully joined to the single market, whether love is involved or not. It is crucial for Norway’s economy, for our companies, our jobs and our welfare. And the EEA (European Economic Area) agreement is our lifeline to this market. During the past twenty years we have incorporated more than 10,000 EU rules into the EEA agreement. That means roughly five acts of EU legislation for each day the Norwegian parliament has been sitting.

We see the results of these rules every day – in our daily lives, in our work, in our public sector and in business. They have brought about a profound Europeanisation of Norwegian society.

Yet for all this direct involvement with Brussels – and all 28 Member States – Norway has only a right to be consulted at an early stage of any new laws. It does not need to have its views accepted and has no votes. I must say that isn’t a relationship I’d favour for Scotland because it leaves us at the whim of other nations who have no reason to consider our national interest. It smacks a little of Britain’s semi-detached stance, indicating selfishness – we’re only in it for what we can get out of it.

The only thing I have some sympathy for is being outside the Common Agricultural Policy which has become the beast they cannot kill. Devouring around 40 per cent of the budget, it embeds the idea of subsidy in a strategic industry and is open to abuse. If a business cannot survive without constant hand-outs, its existence must be questioned. It isn’t just individual farming businesses that are given the subsidy. Check down the lists and you’ll find, for example the Prince of Wales’ Duchy Rural Business School in Cornwall collected £4,159,663 in 2013.

A total reform of CAP could transform the EU itself by shrinking budgets and forcing market discipline on a creaking and largely unprofitable sector, mirroring the transformation in New Zealand after, ironically, Britain joined the Common Market and protected farm produce markets outside Europe disappeared. New Zealand went through the pain and emerged with a productive and innovative industry turning out produce it’s impossible to avoid in British supermarkets. (As for the fisheries policy, I’d rather stick pins in my eyes).

Mind you, it may be the Norwegians don’t feel they need all of the protections available through the EU since they do not a bad job themselves. The Norwegian Confederation of Trade Unions and the Confederation of Norwegian Enterprise determine the wages and working conditions of most public and private organisations that create wealth. High but fair progressive income taxes fund a universal welfare system, benefiting everyone. They also work together to minimize the disparity between high-wage and lower-wage jobs. We simply don’t have a consensual system like that in which state, business and people invest their aspirations for a greater good. We talk about it but we don’t do it. We have a ruthless capitalist system based on fast profits and short-term thinking, one where we try to trim all welfare to inhuman levels. Sink or swim is our motto. As a result, people look after themselves. There is a report out today confirming that the overwhelming number of top professional jobs are held by graduates of private schools despite only seven per cent attending them. No wonder we have a rat race mentality to get on by scrambling over others – if you don’t look after yourself, the state won’t do it for you.

And that lack of empathy for others and a reluctance to share is what drives the Tory desire to step back from Europe or get out altogether.

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