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Alex Bell

Taxing times for Scotland

December 15 2016

Is 19 years fast in Scottish terms? It’s been that long since Scots voted to have a tax-raising parliament and Holyrood actually raising any tax. September 1997 we said yes to our new parliament being able to levy tax in order to make Scotland better. It was campaigned for by Labour and the SNP in the referendum of that time, both saying such power was necessary for a parliament that was to be more than a “parish council”. Today we expect Finance Minister Derek McKay to say Edinburgh will indeed up the top rate of income tax by a wee bit as part of his draft budget statement. If he does then it will be a historic day, almost as significant as the opening of the parliament in 1999, as it signals the first time within the mainland UK that rates on the same tax differed. Not a particularly exciting moment but important. Scotland is a top-dollar state run on a middle-income economy – we spend more than we earn. For any tax rise to begin to address this, it would need to be of an order many magnitudes larger than McKay is likely to suggest. He may hope to raise hundreds of millions when the gap stands at a cheek-slapping £15bn. The other way to close the gap between spending and earning would be to increase economic growth – that is, earn more by doing more. The SNP has a “Growth Commission’ in which many of the same people who have been advising it on economic matters for the last 20 years have one more shot at solving the puzzle of why Scotland lags behind the rest of the UK in economic expansion. As the gap has existed for decades, during which England’s economy has diversified faster than Scotland’s, it’s unlikely we can expect any quick fixes from the Nat economists. That is, fixes they are prepared to discuss in public. In the Growth Commission, as in party ranks, there are nationalists who believe the only way to balance Scotland’s books is to be brutal – a Thatcherite purge of the state is required. This is an article of faith for Nat right-wingers, an unspoken but understood goal of the independence movement. What stops it happening now or being discussed is that any such ideological small state/big growth model would horrify the voters and damage the party’s popularity. Yet the time has come for some honesty in this area of policy. We have a big problem. Until we discuss it openly, we can’t seriously claim to be worthy of self-government. What the spending gap means, beyond the dry numbers, is that for some reason, we require more support from the state than is normal. We have spent a lot of money (it’s all getting added to the debt our children must pay) but have made ourselves more dependent on the state. The political hope is that growth will close the gap and stop this being a problem but that may be a false way to think of the issue. A braver and more productive line of thought would be to question the fundamentals of Scotland. We stand out as a developed state for our unique ability to damage ourselves. We claim a freakishly high level of disability allowance, for example – way above the UK average. Nobody quite knows why but it adds to our national debt as well as being a miserable testament to the happiness of our society. Nominal tax changes of the kind we are likely to hear today are political milestones but essentially meaningless in addressing the rotten heart of the state of Scotland. My fear is that the political milestones will come quicker now that tax is being raised. It can’t be long before this new arrangement prompts a wider debate about spending levels across the UK and further cuts to the Scottish block. What’s more, McKay’s new tax will only raise what the economy allows – with low growth, we may get low income and that may reduce budgets further. It is time the Nationalist right-wingers came out and admitted their belief and it is long overdue of the left of the SNP and Labour to explain our unique social problems. Scottish politics runs slow because it is dishonest – time to pick up the pace.

Alex Bell

The SNP will attack the Chancellor regardless, but at least he can make a taxing decision

November 23 2017

The Chancellor is a fool and is to be mocked for whatever egregious mistakes he has committed in the budget, while everyone should take note that Scotland is down some £3 billion over 10 years and that is terrible. Given the standard SNP response to any financial statement from down south, as paraphrased above, we should perhaps praise Philip Hammond for achieving something that the Scottish Government finds very hard. Mr Hammond has made a decision. In fact, a great many. He has decided what the level of income tax should be, he has decided which loopholes should be closed and which new ones created. He has committed to spending money and finally responded to the blatant injustice of our emergency services paying VAT by scrapping that measure. Whether they turn out to be good decisions, we shall find out, but they are actions. Mr Hammond, a man elected to take decisions by the people of his constituency, and then by dint of being a cabinet minister, by the people of Britain, has done what we asked of him. Contrast that to the Scottish Government. We know the small ‘c’ conservative instinct of the Nats doesn’t favour boldness, but the evidence suggests any decision at all is proving tricky. On tax in particular – the holy grail of independence – they are hopelessly undecided. This is the party that campaigned for tax-raising powers in 1997, and offered to raise a “penny for Scotland” in the 1999 election. That policy was not born of considered need to invest, but to gain an electoral edge on Labour. In power in 2007 and the SNP no longer thought raising a penny was right – in fact, they allowed the tax-raising power to wither by not paying the annual fee for its maintenance. Even when the world’s economy crashed and cuts were inevitable, the SNP was against tax raising. In 2010 it argued that Lord Calman’s tax proposals on extending devolution were all wrong. Yet in 2011 it voted to approve Lord Calman’s proposals, as contained in the second Scotland Bill. The SNP argued that they needed “full control of the economic levers”. However, the second Scotland Bill of 2012 gave the Scottish Government control over Air Passenger Duty, which they vowed to cut. When Nicola Sturgeon took over the leadership from Alex Salmond, she ditched a long-standing policy to cut corporation tax. Some months later her finance spokesman in Westminster, Stuart Hosie, declared “tax competition” was a vital part of Scotland’s economic arsenal – implying a corporation tax cut was still on the agenda. When a new set of tax proposals came along in the third Scotland Bill of 2016, the SNP complained these too were not enough and repeated the call for “full levers”. Nicola Sturgeon went into the 2016 Holyrood election promising not to change the basic rate of income tax for the full term of this parliament. She argued that raising taxes might mean less income as rich people would flee rather than pay up. What was needed, she said, was the full range of taxes so the system could be tweaked to maximum advantage. Then Ms Sturgeon went into the budget process after that election with a plan to cut taxes – a wheeze only thwarted by the Greens refusing to offer support. A bare five months later, she announced at the opening of this parliamentary session that taxes might go up, and published a consultation document on this on November 2. It isn’t really a consultation – it’s a bid for time, a device to shift the blame. The SNP are waiting to see which way Labour go on tax, and then they’ll go for something a bit similar. In other words, the thinking hasn’t moved on from 1999 – tax is simply an electoral tool for the Nats. Within the space of 18 months, the SNP have adopted all the positions on tax it is possible to have: up, down and freeze. There are episodes of Strictly Come dancing with less posing than this. Yesterday, Philip Hammond attempted to tweak the tax system to the maximum advantage of the British economy. He has the “full levers” of a sovereign state, and one which is in a precarious condition. You and I might have done it differently but we can not accuse Mr Hammond of wanting to fail. Yet the implication from the SNP is the Nats have a secret formula for taking an economy from low growth to high growth, which they will only reveal when they have those “levers”. However, until that time, they haven’t got a clue. If you want decent health, education and welfare services, then taxes should rise, because good services are more expensive than we are currently paying. By blurring their tax position, they blur their purpose – every U-turn on tax is a blow to their claim that independence will deliver a fairer Scotland. Dithering for fear of causing offence has come to dominate this administration. Yet the cause of independence rests on leadership above all. If they can’t make a simple decision on tax, what hope the fate of the nation?

Alex Bell

ALEX BELL: I switched my vote from SNP to Labour — but the party is in no state to govern

July 27 2017

Woke has a new meaning: to be politically aware, according to the revised Oxford English dictionary. You might have been asleep to an issue but you are alert to it now. In political terms this became real when dope-eyed crowds of upper-middle class kids at Glastonbury chanted “oh, Jeremy Corbyn” as the man spoke. It was presented as the young waking up to the wonders of old Labour. A faction in Scottish Labour would also like it to be true – for the party to wake to the fact left-wing Corbynite policies are popular and the party should be grateful to the man. The argument is Corbyn’s Labour won 40% of the vote in the election, therefore it is both successful and popular. A surprising boost from one MP to seven in Scotland shows the swing to the left works better than the moderate policies of Kezia Dugdale. Corbyn himself thinks the current government will fall in six months and he’ll be Prime Minister. This theory is wrong. The Tories have descended into a brawl, Brexit is a proceeding like a drunk walking the white lines of a motorway and Labour did do well in the last election – but that’s no reason to think a Labour government is inevitable. One problem is that I voted Labour. I usually put my cross by the SNP, but the party’s reluctance to do any work on the detail of independence makes me think they are wasting time. It was an instinctive reaction in the polling booth. My hand moved to the Labour box and made the cross – possibly for the first time in my life. It felt quite good. Democracy should be about changing your position, and I felt like a true citizen. I was not troubled when Labour lost. It had been expected and the party is in no state to govern. Theresa May’s arrogance needed to be checked, her conversion to hard Brexit challenged, the SNP had a feeble campaign and it seemed like a valid protest in a UK election. Since the vote, Corbyn has handled his good fortune poorly. He is too smug with the hollow victory and too empty for office. Boredom with SNP is not an endorsement of Labour or the Tories, but part of the electorate trying to find something palatable from a poor choice. The Tories are neither hard enough for fanatical British nationalists, nor soft enough for trade pragmatists. Labour and the SNP’s plans to “end austerity” are not sufficiently worked through and ring too much of slogan not substance. After all, austerity isn’t actually a thing, but a word which describes a set of spending plans. Without a clear alternative, it’s not clear what Labour and the SNP are offering. Recently, what appeared to many as a pledge to end student debt was downgraded into an aspiration when a £100 billion price tag was attached. If Corbyn crumples so quickly on that, what chance he’ll dig in on the other spending promises? Nor is Labour the antidote to the issue of the age, Brexit, but another cheerleader for departure. Do those chanting his name all really want to quit Europe? This seems doubtful, as the young tell pollsters they really like internationalism and supra-national organisation. Corbyn is in the Boris Johnson camp of wanting to have his cake and eat it when it comes to Europe. He’s intellectually against the EU, and always has been, but being vague on his own policy so as not to distract from the Tory mess. He should be the calm voice amid the Tory squabbling, the leader in waiting as the rabble knock each other out. In truth, he’s still the other guy, the sideshow to a political mess in London. Should there be another election soon, the voters will demand an alternative. They will not swing behind a party that wants to leave the EU but is as split on the matter as the Tories. It is not simply that Corbyn is confused on Brexit – he appears at odds with modernity. He holds a profound distrust of global interconnectivity. For him, globalism means the weakening of the social contract between citizen and the state. What Labour and the left urgently need is a coherent critique of modern society which allows wealth to be more fairly spread while encouraging the shift from nations to internationalism. In its absence, Scottish Labour are having their summer bicker. Alex Rowley would like to be the leader and Corbyn critics are having to hang on to their positions. The man himself is due here next month to hold rallies in marginal SNP seats. The effect will be to stoke enmity between factions of his own party. It may all seem like a jolly wheeze but without a united party and a clear, soft, line on Brexit, its just another fringe event. Still, it’s always nice in August to see happy people imagining it can only stay sunny. Not woke yet, but perhaps no longer in deep sleep.

Alex Bell

ALEX BELL: Our environmental complacency is clear to see in every plastic water bottle

April 5 2018

Tesco is selling a bottle of water for 17p. I mention this not to encourage a shopping spree, but in the vein of the “World’s going to hell in a handcart” (whatever that might be). David Attenborough’s Blue Planet programme has alarmed people into action over plastic in our oceans. Non-recyclable, non-degrading bottles are choking the wide seas, poisoning wildlife and ruining eco systems. We have known this for a long time, but problems require the intervention of a beloved figure like Attenborough before they catch light in the public imagination. The bottle in Tesco and similar ones in other shops are the problem. The mass produced clear plastic bottle is one of 13 billion sold in the UK each year. Part of a wasteful, exploitative culture which the respected Stanford University biologist Paul Ehrlich believes will end civilisation within decades. You can take Ehrlich with a pinch of salt – 50 years ago he predicted catastrophe from the massive increase in the world’s population – but you can’t dismiss the Tesco water. In a wet country with a mild climate and a world-leading water utility, buying any bottled water is pointless. You could leave the supermarket, go home and run the tap – the water supplied to just about every home in Scotland is as clean as any bottled water. Yet we spend energy making the bottle, moving it around, pumping the water in to it – all a pointless task driven by marketing. Westminster’s Environmental Audit Committee reported late last year on the volume of plastic bottle sales, adding that around half are recycled, but 700,000 are left as litter each day. Concern over this planet-damaging level of plastic has prompted the UK government to promise a return scheme on plastic, aluminium and glass containers, like those which already operate in 38 European countries. The Scottish Government has been talking about something similar for a long time, and now suggest any measure should be UK-wide. It is yet another example of the Edinburgh parliament lagging popular opinion – if Norway can do this in the 1990s, what took us another quarter of a century to then feebly promise a lesser scheme, which has yet to begin? The stakes in this area of policy could not be higher – it’s not as if we have not been warned for a very long time. The seminal book on environmental degradation, Silent Spring, was published in 1962. Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb appeared on bookshelves in 1968. Ronald Higgins wrote a piece for the Observer in the mid-1970s warning of the effect humans were having on the planet, an article which became a BBC documentary – the Seventh Enemy. In 1986 the definitive work on how water mismanagement can wreck advanced societies was published, The Cadillac Desert. In retrospect, none of these tracts are perfect, but they are roughly on the money. That is nearly 60 years of warnings, yet Scotland still consults on what to do. Ridiculously, the Scottish Parliament felt very proud of itself for banning single-use plastic drinking straws – a full 15 years after Germany had set up a comprehensive, all materials, national recycling operation including a cash return for all containers. The broad theme of all these environmental warnings is that man has thrived by apparently controlling nature, which has provided the food, security and wealth to sustain a larger population. The more people there are, the more humanity’s mistakes are multiplied – chief of which is the assumption that nature will just keep giving. One effect of this greed is climate change – we pump much more CO2 into the atmosphere, which traps heat, warming the seas and playing havoc with the weather. The other is the consumption of resources faster than they can be replenished, and the damage to habitats from our pollution. It is this which Paul Ehrlich thinks will destroy our cities within decades. There is much that could be done in short order, such as banning the purchase of bottled water by the public sector, along with the removal of all office water coolers. Each child should be given a metal water bottle at primary school and taught the habit of refilling it. Commercial water extraction should be taxed at a higher rate. And finally, the Government should stop waffling on about this and do something akin to the Norwegian recycling scheme very soon. A 17p bottle of water – what folly.

Alex Bell

A huge debt we can’t dodge

February 9 2017

With news that the Tories are game-planning indyref2, some nationalists are getting out the tap shoes and preparing to dance on the Union’s grave. They might have been cheered by a report this week which puts UK debt at around £3.6 trillion. What spells the end of a nation if it’s not debt so large none of us can imagine it? It is nearly double the total annual earnings of the country. It’s an astonishing number – is it any more meaningful if you break down per household (£130,000)? Domestic metaphors might work – we owe the equivalent of double of everything we own and earn. You may have thought the number was closer to £1.5 trillion but the report from the Institute of Fiscal Studies (IFS) and others this week suggests this is an incomplete measure – when you tot everything up and don’t kid yourself on, then it is £3.6 trillion. This is what is called Whole of Government Accounts (WGA). No baddie As we know, debt is as old as the hills, UK government debt has been around for hundreds of years and you and I couldn’t function without the odd loan. Debt is not in itself a baddie. Historically, spending money we didn’t have allowed us to make the world a lot richer. Its when the debt repayments get too much, or the whole thing is called in by some bruising money lender, that things get scary. The UK’s immediate problems are the debt repayments. These take up more and more of government spending. That wouldn’t a problem but as the IFS points out, the government is already spending way more than it can afford. The figures which hit the headlines were about tax. The UK government raises 37% of national income in tax to cover all the services we want. It spends as if it raised 45%. What has long been said of Scotland – Scandinavian spending (high) at American tax rates (low) – is now true of the UK as a whole. So do your tap routine on the UK’s grave if you fancy, because it looks like death would be mercy. I would pause, though, because whatever debt the UK has, an Indy Scotland would inherit its share. A huge national debt is something that has become normal for big economies – so long as there is not a revolution it can be handled. https://www.thecourier.co.uk/fp/news/politics/scottish-politics/365652/exclusive-uk-government-preparing-nicola-sturgeon-demand-indyref2-august-2018-articleisfree/ But Scotland is aiming to start again (a revolution of sorts) and adopt a new currency. It’s a big problem. Rather than sink into the details of currencies and debt, though, let’s look at the bigger picture. The IFS is saying that the modern state is no longer affordable. Trawl through the archives of reports and there is a consistent message – the standards UK citizens expect in public services are higher than what UK citizens are prepared to pay for. The pensioner of today is getting money which their grandchildren will have to repay. The sick person of today is being treated at the expense of the next generation. The disability claimant is getting money which today’s children will have to repay. If dark economic days come, then our children and grandchildren won’t simply be paying off our indulgent spending but they’ll be living in an economic chaos we created. So chuck your tap shoes away and focus on the truth – this is gloomy news for unionist, nationalist and everyone in between. The UK is burdened with debt and Scotland will be burdened with debt as we are running states we can’t afford. This is the moral equivalent to immunising this generation from plague but permitting the Black Death when we die. Straight bananas The question facing anyone interested in the future of our country has nothing to do with whether you hate the Tories, Scottish Labour, Nuclear weapons, Boris Johnson, Brexit, straight bananas or Nicola Sturgeon. The matter we need to concentrate on is how do we plan for a future where none of the services we currently enjoy might be possible. It doesn’t matter a tuppenny toss what flag flies above the maternity ward – what matters is can you afford the incubators? The same applies to any aspect of the state you currently enjoy. As both sides begin to game-plan their strategies for the Union or Independence, neither has a vested interest in admitting that the whole system is bust. Yet this is the only important political message for people today. There are reasons to be optimistic. Technological advances may deliver much higher levels of social service at lower costs in the future or a surprising spurt in economic growth may reduce debt levels. The world has been messed up before and recovered. But what we don’t need is a debate which pretends there is no problem. Whether it suits your politics or not, this is just a very tricky time for nations. If you want to start a new one, you need to stop obsessing about the past or present and focus all your energies on the future. Mind you, if you want to protect an old nation, it’s still a hole in the head.

Alex Bell

ALEX BELL: Strong and stable? Alarmingly incompetent seems more credible

May 25 2017

Let us choose to be normal. Not defiant or angry but as we were and as we choose to be – cool and passionate according to our moods, human and humane, sensible and contradictory as ever – while sending our love to Manchester. Normally, I would write about the most astonishing U-turn in an election campaign. The Tories built a campaign on the slogan “strong and stable” to the point this became mocked for its repetition. They won’t have minded. With every repeat of the phrase, it sunk a little further into the public conscience. The aim was that no matter what else, as many people as possible over the last month will have heard one thing – strong and stable. The one risk in such a strategy is you do something which is neither strong nor stable and everyone gets to hear about it. Unavoidable Last week the Tories launched a brave manifesto which grappled with some unpopular but unavoidable ideas. At the heart of Tory thinking was the idea that the cost and demand of services are rising and a debt-laden state can’t afford them. In part, the Conservative manifesto planned to tackle this through tax rises – gone was the pledge to freeze VAT and income tax. This was a Tory government which was campaigning on taking more of your income – a bold move for a party which usually warns of tax bombshells. Secondly the Tories wanted to cut generous benefits – universal winter fuel payments and a triple lock pension among them. And lastly, Theresa May wanted to bring in a disguised tax in the form of a payment system for dementia care. She revived an idea of Margaret Thatcher’s which is that the value of a person’s house should go towards the cost of the care – to be paid for after death. At first this upset Andrew Dilnot, who had spent a lot of time thinking about the problem and suggested an insurance system to tackle the huge expense of looking after a population getting older and far more susceptible to dementia. Experts and government is a combination destined to end in tears as very little of our politics is based on rational conclusions from evidence. May rejected Dilnot’s report and opted for something simpler which could start producing revenue as soon as it was enacted. The thinking behind the policy was simple – a vast swathe of the UK’s wealth is held in houses. Taxing issue Government urgently needs to access that wealth if it isn’t to crash in a horrible pile of debt and rising costs. You either get that wealth by a death duty – a tax on your estate – or by posthumously collecting for services enjoyed during life, as May proposed. Boy was it brave and bold. She was attacking the property-owning democracy Mrs Thatcher had done so much to create. Yet apparently none of the people in the room when this was being written or approved realised how significant it was. Any policy or manifesto gets to the point where the leader and top advisers are sitting around discussing it. The purpose of the communication or campaign person or the one trusted to have the feel of the people, or even the cleaner who happens to be passing through, is to shout: “Are you mad? That’s going to irritate the bejaysus out of our core vote”. Apparently no one had the nerve or sense to say this. Not long after the policy was announced, nervous Tory candidates reported back that it was going down like a euthanasia pact on the doorsteps. Over the weekend anger from within the party grew and by Monday May announced to a packed news conference it was being amended – along with deeply pathetic cry this was not a U-turn but a “detail we had intended all along”. The Lancet health journal reports our dementia care cost crisis is greater than anyone imagined – set to increase by 25% in 10 years. Unfortunately, May’s chance to fix this problem has died over three days of negative coverage. That is bad, but not the whole story. Scrutiny It is the second time she has had a “big” revenue idea and the second time it has been pulled in the face of criticism (the first was in her budget). It shows her advisory team do not understand the politics of their decisions. Which suggest they are cut off from the everyday concerns of citizens. May has shown she doesn’t have the temperament for a public bruising and lacks the instinct to avoid one. The buck stops with her, and she has twice demonstrated she can’t handle that. The UK is about to negotiate its most important challenge since 1939. What happens if the heat from Brussels gets too much or her own right-wingers kick up a storm? The Tories wanted us to think strong and stable – alarmingly incompetent seems more credible.

Alex Bell

ALEX BELL: Harvesting a better future

February 1 2018

Whenever ‘superfoods’ are listed, it reads like the food we used to eat. Blaeberries, the fruit of summer picking, apparently confer ever-lasting life. No day should begin without porridge and no snack is better than an oatcake. When a meal is planned, the ideal is a herring or a mackerel with kale; the bitter twist of life, that the dreaded kale of childhood should become a magic ingredient now. By some oversight, our forebears didn’t also corner the quinoa and goji berry markets, but they probably felt no Scot could ever go wrong just eating oats, berries and oily fish native to our waters. By ingredient and tradition, the Scottish diet should be world-famous for its healthy properties. Yet while slim celebrities swear by the ingredients native to Scotland, Scots are dying from an awful diet. Our food is famous for killing people early. The forces which made us give up berries and smokies are well known. Poor Britons were moved off fertile land and away from ‘superfood’ diets by the farm enclosures and clearances. As substitute for the excellent natural supply, the British workers’ diet switched to fats and sugar. Famine, here, is a political construct, as is bad diet – we eat according to our wealth, class and location. This has been reinforced by evidence which shows years of soft campaigning for Scots to eat better hasn’t had any effect. We may think choice is what determines the evening meal but deeper social habits and economic status write the menu. Food is happiness – the delight in flavour, texture and mood, not just for feast but the favoured snack too. Yet the diet of many in Scotland is joyless – yesterday’s chips from the chippie, microwaved burgers with gristle in the middle. It is food to fill up on at low cost, food to supply energy with little fuss – and food which is killing us. There is comfort in the fat and sugar but, then, they line coffins for comfort, too. What happened to our joy? Richard Lochhead MSP is trying to get food quality raised at Holyrood, linking bad diets to cancer rates and NHS costs. This seems yet another example of an ex-minister seeing the light – he was in charge of food production for eight years. The argument, though, is valid – we need a complete change in what we eat, a revolution that takes us back to the diet of the past. As Holyrood gets used to having more tax powers, we can expect all issues to be seen through the tax lens. Linda Bauld, a professor of health policy at Stirling University, says the nudging hasn’t worked and it’s time to use tax as a strong-arm tactic towards a better diet. Tax, though, is a loud hailer – everyone hears the message when tax goes up so it’s useful. It might work but given what we know about Scotland’s diet history, it does seem rather unfair – a punishment to the poor who live in neighbourhoods where the only shops sell fast foods. Other things we should do are simple. Stopping pupils from leaving the school grounds for lunch and serving them something healthy in the canteen would be a start, as would cooking lessons for all kids. But even that might not be enough to overcome an instinct buried in our culture: that our own food is not good enough. To reverse centuries of conditioning, we need drastic measures. The food served in those school canteens should be the same food talked about in environmental lessons, the same food eaten in every hospital – porridge, oatcakes, berries, kale and herring – because the food we produce is not only good for us (not ‘super’, nothing is) but healthy. This should be taught in other lessons at primary and secondary school because food is also about health and the environment – and keeping mum and dad in a job. A grass-fed cow raised in Scotland is much more environmentally sound than a beast raised in drought-ridden America or Argentina. It hasn’t travelled miles, hasn’t absorbed endless supplements and the water it drank is in abundance; same for the venison, the sheep and the pigs – animals raised and cut and packaged on our land, by ourselves, served in our canteens. Most of all we need a shift from the crippling political culture which makes MPs and MSPs compete in the I’m-more-ordinary-than-you stakes, where everyone has to profess love for Irn-Bru and macaroni pies, and nobody dare champion fresh ingredients for fear of appearing too fancy by half. We need change, and tax may be helpful, but a bigger help would be fresh food shops in poor neighbourhoods, our natural ingredients in all canteens and our political leaders seen eating our own harvest.

Alex Bell

ALEX BELL: Adding DUP to Brexit mess will prove to be a disaster

June 22 2017

If only there were Orange marches in London, we might not be charging into an awful mess. A tragedy foretold might be averted if the colours of July 12 marched up Whitehall. The orange of the sash, the red of the face and the black of the soul. The Conservative minority government’s pursuit of a deal with the Democratic Unionist Party of Northern Ireland is grave folly. In the UK, nobody’s first thought is ever Ireland. In British public and political life, the idea that it’s an “Irish problem” is ingrained. The place is an afterthought to our leaders. If only we thought of it as a “British problem”. That is what it was and that is very much what it will be if this parliamentary deal goes ahead. The Queen’s Speech shows how the big issues of the day pivot on Ireland. The first is Brexit. The bulk of what MPs have to consider in the next two years are measures to prepare the British state for being out of the EU. This is a vast task – commentators refer to the Tory agenda being “culled” but it’s the Tories who want Brexit and this is a gargantuan workload. What didn’t feature was any mention of Northern Ireland, much as it didn’t feature in the Brexit campaign. The issue is that the UK will have a land border with the EU at the edge of the six counties in the north of Ireland. This used to be “hard” border, with customs and security checks until the Good Friday Peace agreement removed the British Army and the watchtowers which loomed over crossing points. The new soft border exists only in law and cartography – you can speed along the M1 between Belfast and Dublin without noticing the change in nation. The problem for Brexit is trade and immigration – if there are different rules either side of the border, there has to be an old-fashioned checkpoint. The EU and the UK have recognised that solving the soft/hard border problem without undermining the Good Friday Peace Agreement is a big problem and have said they are open to some as yet unspecified solution. The hope is to avoid reigniting the bonfire of hatred which killed 3,000 people over the preceding decades. There is a second pressure on the stability of Britain’s Irish outpost. For the Queen’s Speech to pass a Commons vote next week, it needs the support of the DUP. For most of the 20th Century, Northern Ireland’s main party was the UUP – an archetypal conservative movement which liked things just as they were. The DUP emerged from the Troubles that erupted in the late 1960s. It was Northern Irish unionism with an aggressive agenda of protestant defence – it was No Surrender in physical form. It opposed the Sunningdale Agreement of 1973 and memorably said of the peace-seeking Anglo-Irish agreement of 1985 “Ulster Says No”. It campaigned against the Good Friday Peace deal when it was put to a popular referendum, having pulled out of the preliminary talks. Central to that agreement, which most people would regard as a success given the problem to be overcome and the ragged history of previous deals, was the show subsection five of article 1 of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. “The power of the sovereign government with jurisdiction there shall be exercised with rigorous impartiality on behalf of all the people in the diversity of their identities and traditions and shall be founded on the principles of full respect for and equality of, civil, political, social and cultural rights, of freedom from discrimination for all citizens and of parity of esteem and of just and equal treatment for the identity, ethos and aspirations of both communities.” A government reliant on the DUP to pass laws, not least laws which relate to Brexit and therefore to the future condition of the UK/Ireland land border, is clearly not one of “rigorous impartiality”. The DUP is still haggling over its support deal with Theresa May. Imagine when they start leaning on her on the basis of what’s being said in the Brexit negotiations. This is a disaster of fatal proportions in the making. England will see funeral marches as a consequence – if only they had thought of Ireland and the British problem first.

Alex Bell

ALEX BELL: SNP policy has proven to be a complete waste of energy

May 10 2018

You have to take the government to court if you want the truth. Day one of the legal case against the Scottish Government’s ban on fracking heard that there is no ban on fracking. This admission was not part of smart cross examination but the central plank of the defence. Advocate James Mure, QC, for the government said: “The concept of an effective ban is a gloss. It is the language of a press statement.” Which comes as surprise given the First Minister told parliament: “Fracking is banned in Scotland – end of story.” We have to worry when a government lawyer declares an important policy to be “a press statement” with no substance. No parliamentary question, no reply to a concerned constituent, no submission to a committee established this. The nation’s democracy is apparently so feeble that when an all-dominant SNP declares something for the purposes of publicity, not a single check in the system is capable of establishing it as a fact or not. This is government by virtue signalling – saying things to please voters and not acting on them so that, if the wind changes, it can say something else to retain popularity. Environment minister Paul Wheelhouse already looks weak. Announcing a National Energy Company when he had no details about what it would be, do or achieve was virtue signalling at its most lazy. Telling parliament there was a ban on fracking, as he did last October, when the government now says there are further consultations needed, appears deceitful. Honour suggests he should go. Form tells us he won’t. He and his drowning colleague, health minister Shona Robison, will stay because Nicola Sturgeon’s SNP doesn’t do weakness. Behind this farce lies a serious matter. The institute of Public Policy Research (IPPR) brought out a report into the merits of the UK having a sovereign wealth fund. The idea of government saving money for future needs was first used by Pitt the Younger, who created the Sinking Fund in the early 19th Century. Many nations have these savings, most famously Norway, with a pot now worth a trillion dollars. The usual way to do it is to charge a levy on the extraction of a natural assets and bank the money. The SNP appears very keen on a sovereign wealth fund. In 2009, the Scottish Government issued a paper on the merits of oil funds in particular, implying Scotland could have one if it were independent. According to the IPPR report, had a UK fund been set up in the mid-1970s when oil began to come ashore from the North Sea, it might be worth £500 billion now. The pro-indy newspaper The National reported this as further evidence of British stupidity and a missed opportunity for Scotland. North-east MSP Gillian Martin told the paper that the UK was broadly useless and urged for powers over oil to come to Holyrood. “With a steady oil price, the oil and gas sector is once again set on an upward trajectory. The revenues from such a valuable national resource cannot be put towards covering the cost of Tory tax cuts for the very richest in our society – they should be invested wisely for future generations. The best way to ensure that happens it to take these powers out of the hands of Westminster altogether – devolve them to Holyrood and let us properly steward, rather than squander, Scotland’s natural resources.” Which sounds tough and ambitious, but is drivel when tested against the facts. Since the 1970s, Scotland has been presented with two oil-like energy opportunities. The first is renewables and the second is fracking. On renewables, we got the virtue signalling – the Saudi Arabia of renewables – but the reality was exposed when the wind turbine plant BiFab in Fife was in jeopardy. Far from grasping the opportunity and using it to build wealth and employment for Scotland, the Scottish share in the renewables industry was miserable, most local companies set up to exploit the wind had since folded and the industry was largely in foreign hands. The SNP’s abject failure to capitalise on renewables will be the subject of economic tomes in years to come precisely because it was the mid-1970s all over again, because Scotland had the chance to re-run the last four decades but this time better, and blew it. Now, yet another chance has come around in fracking, and this time the SNP isn’t even pretending it can handle the challenge. We could fund an economic renaissance from fracking and build a sovereign wealth fund, but will do neither. The Nats hate the UK for “squandering” the oil. They must loathe themselves for messing up two chances to correct the mistake. The excuse for not fracking is that it will burn fossil fuels. But the SNP’s dream of an oil fund floated on carbon emissions. Much as so many Scottish Government policies amount to hot air.

Alex Bell

Martin McGuinness: A life that shows terrorism’s failure

March 23 2017

As a terror attack occurs in the Palace of Westminster, it seems we can't escape terrorism. And yet there is no evidence it ever works. Martin McGuinness was an affable chap. I recall a joint ministerial meeting where a lone piper played and it was McGuinness who stepped to the front and enjoyed the music, while the Scottish ministers held back. A happy man who killed and tortured. He helped give the world kneecapping — shotguns were easily had in rural Ireland. You won't die from such an injury but the pain will be off-the-charts horrible and you’ll never walk alone after it — a stick will be your companion for the blasted leg. Grotesque things McGuinness as chief of the IRA not only kneecapped people but also did a range of other grotesque things in the name of a united Ireland. On the same day that he died the UK government issued a ban on laptop computers being allowed as carry-on luggage from some airports into Britain. This week also saw the first anniversary of a terror bombing in Belgium which killed 32 civilians. Northern Ireland was devolved long before the word became fashionable — part of its invention in the early 20th Century included the illusion of local power. It had an assembly at Stormont and tax raising powers. The armed struggle by McGuinness saw the Assembly suspended and direct rule imposed by the Labour government in 1973. The IRA did not want devolved power from London but a complete Eire — the word refers to the whole of Ireland, not just the existing Republic. Yet for all the 3,000 or so deaths in the war, the ending was a peace deal that “returned” devolved powers and an assembly, which sits in the same building as the old one. Dig deeper and it's more complex — McGuinness was objecting to the exclusion of Catholics from the franchise and government jobs and being treated like blacks in America. But the end of the terror journey was still an assembly where McGuinness eventually rose to deputy first minister and from where he resigned recently over a strangely trivial issue — in the context of his career — concerning a botched green incentive. Did he maim and kill in order to oversee a scheme promoting green energy in the six counties? One hopes he has written an honest autobiography because it's a very important life — an archetype of a political outrage and compromise. It might give insights to understand the lives of those who lead Al Qaeda or ISIS or whatever is coming next. The academic studies conclude that terrorism never works. Phases of violence within political struggles express an outrage and determination but almost never end up achieving the terrorists’ stated goal. There are national liberation movements against colonial powers which buck this trend; the terror adds a brutality to the honest request for self-government. India, Tunisia and Mozambique are just three examples where the demand for sovereignty was accompanied by bullets. When the terror group represents a sub-national entity or no nation at all, then they always fail — Baader Meinhoff, IRA and the various forms of US domestic terrorism spring to mind. When McGuinness thought he would take his noble history of fighting for Ireland to the ballot box of the Republic of Ireland in the form of a bid for the presidency, he was rejected. The Irish in general did not celebrate the violence, or even much see the point in the Troubles — when the IRA ceasefire was in doubt in 1996, Dubliners marched in their thousands down O’Connell street to call for peace. And when McGuinness put himself up for scrutiny by the voters of the South, they picked over his bloody history with open distaste. Pointless Which suggests the fanatics rewiring laptops so they can claim the top prize in the terrorists’ hit-list, a passenger plane in mid-flight, are also engaged in a task not only inhumane but pointless. McGuinness deserves his credit for stopping the violence, taming the renegade thugs who wanted to start it all over again and cooperating within the democratic process. As he also deserves the contempt of those whose family members died. His brother in arms Gerry Adams writes that McGuinness never gave up on his dream of a united Ireland — in other words, he failed utterly. The Irish have given up on that road with nationalism overtaken by globalism. Ireland deserves no less — it suffered at the hands of the Scots and the English, in a different age but that is passed and new generations are born entitled to new lives. The perpetrators of Irish injustice are also dead and gone and new generations can see the value of not going back. There will be other threats, other McGuinnesses, but history shows they will either learn the value of peace or fizzle out for lack of purpose. And we shall be free again to tap our feet to the sound of music, smile and welcome others, in the insistent hope of something better to come.

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