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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

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

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

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.

Alex Bell

Time to stop the killing

May 19 2016

Killing people must serve some purpose, else humans wouldn't be so good at it. The ethics of murder as self-defence are relatively straightforward. It is less clear cut if you started the war. Killing because you can't think of anything better is despicable – and that's what we are threatened with. Theresa May, the Home Secretary, has raised the threat of an Irish Republican attack in England to 'substantial'. Over the last 12 months, there have been 52 bomb attacks in Northern Ireland, according to the Police Service of Northern Ireland. May is warning us to expect dead bodies on our streets, murdered in the name of – what? Irish Free State The word Eire means the whole of Ireland. The Free State of Ireland born in 1922 used Eire knowing it was inaccurate, but as a statement of intent. One day the Dail Eirrean would be the parliament not just of the South, but of the whole island. As it is, the South itself took a long time to establish nationhood – not just the centuries before of resisting English and British rule, but the decades until 1949 when the Republic was officially created. It's a messy business, undoing the ties that bind to neighbouring country. In the hazy morality of fighting for a cause, you can justify continuing a struggle for a long-held ambition when you think the job is not yet done. So Irish republicans fought on from the 1920's through the century in the name of a united Ireland. Blood Nations are rarely born without blood, and it seemed Eire was going to spill a great deal in this protracted fight for completeness. The history was clear cut – the English had invaded, Scots did settle, laws were discriminatory against the native people. Causes came easy to hand. The laughably-named 'Troubles' – it was a civil war – re-ignited in the late 1960's for good reasons. Catholics didn't have the vote – the North effectively ran an apartheid system, favouring protestants. It doesn't justify the 3,000 dead in the conflict, but explains the call to arms. However, in the last twenty years things changed. Ceasefire The IRA declared a ceasefire in 1994. It didn't hold – the City of London was attacked – but ultimately led to the Good Friday Agreement of 1998. Devolved government, suspended in the 1970's, was restored. The Irish Republic amended articles 2 and 3 its constitution, ending a claim on the North. The new clauses seek a peaceful solution for all. The people of Northern Ireland have the democratic capacity to determine their own future, and the people of the South make no claim on the six counties. These facts obscure an equally important cultural change. While the throughly crooked Fianna Fail politician Charles Haughey could be done for gun-running in the 1970's. By the time he was in office again in the 1990's the idea of uniting Ireland was anathema in the South. Chattering classes The chattering classes of Dublin had come to see the North as a land of angry bigots and wanted nothing to do with them. Further, The North is expensive – the most subsidised part of the UK – and even in the boom times Dublin had no appetite to pick up the bill. By the time Martin McGuiness, of both the IRA and the Sinn Fein, got round to running for President of the republic in 2011, history had completed its turn. His campaign was dogged by accusation about his killing past. Once this might have been a badge of honour, now it was a sordid legacy about which voters felt no sympathy. He came third in the vote. McGuiness had enjoyed sharing power in the devolved assembly of North of Ireland with one time arch-enemy, Ian Paisley. That alone should have told him the past was dead. A generation has grown up since the 1994 ceasefire. Their collective memory of Ireland is of boom and bust, of being the celtic tiger. The old war is a distant thing of no relevance. Thugs In this context a few thugs with gun want to keep bombing. They cannot argue that an imperial force is denying their future. They can't point to discriminatory laws against catholics. They can't say the Republic yearns to unite with them. In short, they have no plausible cause left. They are not republicans, nor nationalists fighting for a homeland, but gangsters with a disturbing lust for blood and a pathetic need for attention. If they kill on our streets, the chances are high that the people killed will have had no strong feelings either way about Ireland, or any passion to keep that strange little enclave of prejudices known as Northern Ireland within the UK. Another death in the name of the IRA will achieve nothing. Their terror is pointless. We should not wait for the next outrage but let the fanatics know now in clear terms that we have all moved on, that the killing is plain murder of a cowardly kind, and the great cause is to live in peace – something humans find remarkably hard.

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

Who can blame Ruth Davidson for deciding I’m a personality, get me out of here?

December 14 2017

The news that Ruth Davidson is thinking of leaving for Westminster confirms that Holyrood lacks the wit and humour of the Commons. She leaves for ambition, but her absence will be felt in the funereal proceedings of a dull chamber. Ms Davidson told The Spectator magazine she would consider quitting after the 2021 Scottish elections. Previously she had declared no interest in Westminster and pledged her future to Holyrood. It appears the lure of running for leader of the UK Tory party is too great, and who can blame her. She hints that she would still run for a Scottish seat, and so must at least dream of becoming the first Tory PM from a Scots constituency since Alec Douglas-Home, who won a by-election in Kinross and West Perthshire to assume the keys of Number 10 Downing Street in 1963. Westminster’s gain would be Holyrood’s loss and draws into sharp focus the abysmal quality of our chamber. Ms Davidson has the merit of being funny. This is a crucial part of politics, of any role in public life. The capacity to see that some things are just daft, and that there is the thin line between serious and silly. She laughs during First Minister’s Questions, and quite often at herself. In contrast sit po-faced government benches, with people who only cheer the most lame of loyalist slogans, and who sneer at others. Alex Salmond had a debating style that veered between him chuckling at his own humour then savaging the opposition with a mix of high pomposity and brute venom. Nicola Sturgeon learned from her master and does the same jaw-jutting aggression, the thin-eyed, sinister stare and the bully pulpit phrasing. Thus far, neither has produced a truly great speech, and while Mr Salmond could summon drama from his words, Ms Sturgeon lacks the gift of holding the moment. The full blame for the dreary humourlessness can’t all be put at the Nationalists’ feet. The SNP’s Duncan Hamilton – then a young MSP in the first parliament of 1999-2003 – dared to criticise the lame debating of Labour in the early days of Holyrood and came in for a barrage of abuse – he was a snob for being intolerant of different levels of education and confidence. Snob maybe, but he was right. Of Labour’s great Scottish generation, only Donald Dewar came to Holyrood and that has hampered the parliament ever since. With no standard of oratory to aim for, the parliament started middle rank and slowly sank. It is a pity to report but there is no one in the chamber at Holyrood who excites before they get up to speak. The press rooms don’t empty, the researchers don’t flock to listen to a single speaker. Not one MSP belongs to Scotland’s great tradition of firebrand speakers, all rage and wit. While there are many fine speeches in Scottish political history, none has been made in the chamber. The only memorable one is Mr Dewar’s opening address in 1999, and that was when the parliament sat on The Mound in the Kirk General Assembly. The public never get to see a barnstorming speech, or a funny one, as they do from Westminster. If Edinburgh politicians never match the rhetorical heights of London ones, then it suggests there is either nothing worth getting excited about or the politicians simply aren’t as good. We once did a line in proudly independent women. The first speaker of the first parliament was Winnie Ewing. Her fans would say she was redoubtable. I always found her slightly mad. Whatever the truth, she was wonderfully herself, uninhibited by overwhelming unionist opposition or social convention. In a similar vein, Margo Macdonald was a force of nature who had to be admired, even as you ducked out of her way. Holyrood was also home to lively characters – Tommy Sheridan, Wendy Alexander, Susan Deacon, David McLetchie, Christopher Harvie – and now there are none. It's not that political commentators want a good joke or two for the sake of it, but that humour, passion, driving oratory are the sign of a politician who cares, who has thought through their case, who really wants things to change. Sure, sometimes its just for show, but at least there’s fun in the performance. In planning to leave for Westminster, Ruth Davidson is acknowledging that a good politician is going to get a better reception, and meet like minds, in London and not in Edinburgh. She is not alone. Privately, many an SNP MP will admit they wouldn’t have bothered standing for Holyrood but wanted a shot at the more demanding Westminster. Personally, I could never see Angus Robertson swapping Prime Minister’s Questions in the Commons to become a clap-hag to Nicola’s weekly performance, and Alex Salmond literally skipped with excitement when back in the Commons in 2015. Holyrood lacks personality in part because it lacks personalities. Why are we to care for greater powers if those who hold power today seem so flaccid and humourless? What happened to caustic humour, the rapier wit, the spine-tingling oratory that used to be so common in Scotland?

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: 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

Jeremy Corbyn v Owen Smith? It’s Mr Stubborn vs a hologram

August 25 2016

Tonight in Glasgow Jeremy Corbyn and Owen Smith will debate, pitching their claims for the leadership of the Labour Party. Locals complain at this time of year of over-confident people turning up in Edinburgh to put on obscure shows – and Glaswegians may feel the same about the hustings. The overwhelming sensation of the ongoing spat in the UK Labour Party is how remote it feels. To write that would once have been inconceivable – the Independent Labour Party was first led by the Scotsman Keir Hardie and dominated late 20th Century politics in this land. Now it appears like a student revue show, where the audience claps more out of embarrassment than praise. The back story runs thus – one of those towering Scottish labour figures who used to be so common, Gordon Brown, lost a UK general election in 2010. To most people’s surprise, it was Ed Miliband, not his brother David, who then took over the leadership. This was the beginning of a backlash against the centrist politics of the Blair era and the banal careerism it fostered. Ed Miliband then lost a general election in 2015 – not badly in England and Wales but catastrophically in Scotland. In part, he may have lost because English voters didn’t like the idea of Scotland, in the form of the SNP, somehow controlling Labour if it won power. Miliband quit and in the following leadership contest, Jeremy Corbyn came from rank outsider to victor – beating Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper and Liz Kendall by a landslide. So the revolt against Blairism seemed victorious but key figures such as Len McCluskey of the TUC let it be known that Corbyn was a two-year fix until an election-winning candidate could be found. However, the old New Labourites couldn’t stomach more than one year and took the Brexit result as a cue to revolt by quitting en masse from the Shadow Cabinet. The dissidents were a mix of people angered at Corbyn’s management – Angela Eagle, for example, was infuriated at the way her sister, Maria, was treated by the Labour leader over a disagreement on Trident renewal – while others had not come into politics to discuss ideology but to go along with the neo-liberal flow. However, nobody figured on Jeremy Corbyn just not going – a tactic to oust him by general lack of support failed because he didn’t seem much bothered. Immune to some social sense of propriety about quitting, he felt that with a huge personal mandate from party members it was the dissidents who were exposed as gatecrashers to a party that didn’t want them. Angela Eagle battled tears and announced, in an unfortunately weak voice, that she would challenge Corbyn. Then Owen Smith emerged from obscurity. His first move was to declare he was just as left as Corbyn but had a Blairite wardrobe. However, against the undoubted authenticity of Corbyn, he came across as a fake. Owen Smith is a political hologram, both there and not there, visible but see-through and it is no surprise that early returns from the ballot which began this week show he is destined to disappear altogether as Corbyn marches back to victory. The first article in the Labour Party constitution says: “This organisation shall be known as ‘The Labour Party’. Its purpose is to organise and maintain in Parliament and in the country a political Labour Party.” Which neatly sums up the dilemma – Corbyn and his supporters seem more interested in maintaining a Labour Party in the country, while opponents care more for the Parliament – by which they mean government. Presumably, Corbyn imagines he can win a general election but strangely, he never speaks of such ambitions. Meanwhile, moderate Labour MPs scour the parliamentary rule book to see if they could declare as a new entity and be recognised as the official opposition – a shot too long to be credible. Instead, it appears the movement must split between an ideological Labour Party under Corbyn and a moderate, centrist grouping with an uphill task of getting elected to Parliament under a new name and with no money. Despite this operatic incompetence from all involved being heavily influenced by the loss of 50 Scottish MPs, its not clear what Scotland gains. The leader of the Scottish Labour Party, Kezia Dugdale, has seized the opportunity to do nothing. She clings to the wreckage of the UK party when it can be doing Scottish Labour’s chances no good. Bizarrely, Kezia has endorsed Owen Smith, even as he fades from political reality. Yet a split Labour movement means more years of a Tory UK government and no social democratic opposition to the SNP’s incoherent conservatism. Scotland needs the left to sort itself out and develop a cogent position on the status of the common weal in a globalised world. This performance feels like a rehearsal, among characters unsure of their purpose.

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