Friday, 28 June 2013

The choice we have to make

The choice facing Scots in September next year could not be clearer: we either retake our political independence and govern our own country or we remain in the UK and suffer savage cuts to jobs and public services for years to come.

We now know for certain that whichever political party or parties forms the UK Government after the 2015 Westminster Election, if Scotland remains in the British Union we will continue to be hammered by devastating austerity measures. Independence allows us to elect a Scottish Government with the resources and the full economic powers necessary to chart an alternative and specifically Scottish course to building a more sustainable and socially-just country.

Multi-millionaire Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne last week unveiled the latest Tory-Lib Dem Spending Review, which made clear that cuts to jobs and public services will continue at least until 2017/18, but probably well beyond that point. Over 100,000 people employed to provide the services we need will lose their jobs as a result of the measures introduced by Mr Osborne, and that’s on top of hundreds-of-thousands already thrown onto the dole. In addition, wages and conditions will continue to be eroded every year for the foreseeable future, while the growing number of unemployed will be attacked through cuts to already inadequate benefits and savage welfare reforms, with the poorest and most deprived suffering the most.

The UK is now officially in the longest and deepest economic recession since the 1870s, and the current Tory-Lib Dem Government – which Scots rejected at the ballot box but have imposed on us because we are part of the British Union – is continuing to borrow even more money to service existing debt. Essentially, government policy is like a massive Ponzi scheme, which if it was being carried out by anyone else would result in its perpetrators going to jail.

Currently, UK taxpayers are forking-out around £50billion a year in interest on the debt run-up by successive Westminster Governments. That figure is projected to rise to £70billion by 2017/18. Remember, those figures represent just the interest on UK debt. Those from whom Britain borrowed billions of pounds – including the Peoples Republic of China – are getting very rich at UK taxpayers’ expense.

There are two main scare stories associated with UK debt and an independent Scotland. You will have heard them trotted-out by the ‘No to Independence’ (Better Together) campaign: the first is that an independent Scotland would not have been able to bail-out the Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) when it got into trouble and almost went bankrupt in 2008. Only the much bigger UK could afford to ‘save’ RBS, so the British unionist argument goes.

As ever, the facts are very different. Firstly, it is doubtful that an independent Scotland would have followed the head-in-the-sand UK policy of ‘light-touch’ regulation of the banks, which was a main factor leading to the economic collapse of 2008. However, even if the same policy had been followed in an independent Scotland, the Scottish Government would only have had responsibility for safeguarding the bank accounts of Scots and for covering RBS business within Scotland. What British unionists don’t like you to know is that, despite having the word ‘Scotland’ in its name, over 90% of business carried out by the Royal Bank of Scotland took place beyond Scotland’s borders and outwith the responsibility of the government of an independent Scotland. That is why RBS was partly bailed-out by the American government, which covered the risk to investments made with the bank by US citizens.

Secondly, British unionists argue an independent Scotland would be ‘saddled’ with huge debts resulting from us having to take our share of the current UK debt, which would make us an economic basket case. Don’t you just love them? Apparently, we can’t be an independent country because the dysfunctional UK would offload so much of its debt onto us.

Clearly, an independent Scotland would require to accept our fair share of debt accrued while we were members of the UK, just as we would be entitled to our fair share of current UK assets. In addition, during the independence negotiations that would take place following a ‘Yes’ vote on September 18 next year, the SNP Scottish Government would certainly make the case that Scotland was due a rebate, given we have contributed almost 40 years of tax revenues to the UK Exchequer through Westminster’s exploitation of our oil reserves.

In the financial year 2011-12, UK debt stood at £1,100billion, which translates to 72% of Gross Domestic Product (GDP), the main measure of an economy's output. On a population basis, an independent Scotland’s share of that debt would be £92bn - 62% of GDP (relating to a nation of just 5-million people with ownership of 90% of North Sea oil and gas fields). Scottish Government economic analysts calculate that with a rebate for the years Westminster has fleeced us of our oil wealth, an independent Scotland’s inherited share of UK debt would be £56bn - 38% of GDP. But even without such an oil-related reduction, the level of debt would be much more manageable in an independent Scotland than is currently the case for the UK. It should be borne in mind that virtually every country in the world operates with significant but manageable levels of national debt.

An independent Scotland would be the 8th-richest nation on the planet, with Scots enjoying one of the highest standards of living, similar to independent Norway, which discovered oil in its sector of the North Sea at the same time as fields were identified in Scottish waters. Of course, Scotland was, and currently remains, just a region of the UK and our oil wealth was taken by successive Westminster governments. The Thatcher government of the 1980s used oil revenues to meet the cost of mass unemployment in the 1980s as it closed most of Scotland’s manufacturing facilities and mines.

Over the same period, independent Norway invested much of its oil wealth in the interests of the Norwegian people. Today, Norway has a ‘Futures Fund’ worth £450billion, which guarantees the high living standards of Norwegians.

Ah but, British unionists will argue, we’ve missed the boat regarding oil, it’s running out. They’ve been telling us that since the 1970s, and while oil certainly is a finite resource, current estimates put the value of oil still to be recovered from the Scottish sector of the North Sea at around £1.5trillion.

So, that’s the choice we face at the Independence Referendum on September 18 2014. The Labour Party has confirmed it will stick to Tory-Lib Dem spending levels and austerity measures if the party is returned to power at the Westminster Election in 2015. It really is crystal clear: all British political parties will continue down the road of savage cuts to jobs, benefits, public services and standards of living. The only way for Scots to avoid it is for us to retake our independence next year.

Incidentally, while the current SNP Government would represent Scotland in the independence negotiations following a ‘Yes’ vote in the referendum, there is no guarantee the party would form the government in the first independent Scottish Parliament. The first election after a vote for independence will be held in May 2016, at which we can vote for any party we choose, and we will get the government for which we vote, unlike the case with Westminster elections.

Prosperity in an independent Scotland or austerity in the UK – the choice is ours.

Saturday, 22 June 2013

What the G8 was really about

Last week the leaders of the G8 countries met at the Lough Erne Golf Resort near Enniskillen in County Fermanagh, Northern Ireland.

Ironically, while these champions of the capitalist economic system discussed how to look as if they were concerned about the poor and hungry of the world, while actually ensuring the rich continue to get richer, the location of their meeting is for sale, with an asking price of £10m, which is less than half what it cost to create in 2007. The resort went bankrupt in 2011.

The cost to UK taxpayers of keeping safe the group of ‘world leaders’ will run to around £70m, which the Northern Ireland Secretary, Theresa Villiers MP, described as “money well spent”.

Ms Villiers, MP for that well known Irish constituency of Chipping Barnet (it’s in Greater London), knows what she is talking about when it comes to spending public money. The Tory MP owns a £345,000 home in fashionable Kennington, for which she charged the public purse £18,181 in parliamentary expenses during the year 2007/2008. That was the last financial year before MPs expenses-claims were exposed by a whistle-blower. Ms Villiers also owns a house in her constituency, which she bought for £296,000 in 2004. Her constituency home is just 45 minutes from Westminster by tube, but the woman who knows what is “money well spent” believes it is appropriate for taxpayers to fork-out for her second-home, which is nearer the centre of London.

The hundreds of workers who lost their jobs when the Lough Erne Golf Resort went bankrupt might consider a better use of just some of the £70m spent protecting David Cameron and Barak Obama would have been to create employment in Northern Ireland, the province for which Ms Villiers has UK parliamentary responsibility.

The G8 comprises the UK, USA, Germany, Italy, Canada, Japan, France and Russia: meetings discuss issues put on the agenda by the host nation and last week the UK Government highlighted tax avoidance and the ongoing conflict in Syria.

The UK wants to arm Syrian rebels, but could not persuade the other G8 members to support such a move. Russian President Vladimir Putin pointed out that providing arms to anti-government rebels in Syria would be the equivalent of giving guns to radical groups that share the views of the mentally deranged men who brutally murdered British soldier Lee Rigby outside Woolwich barracks just a few weeks ago. The compromise position was for the G8 to issue a statement calling for peace in Syria. Well worth £70m?

On tax avoidance, the ‘world leaders’ asked so-called tax havens to clampdown on companies who bank ‘off-shore’, thereby avoiding paying their fair share of taxes in countries where profits are actually made. The ‘tax havens’ were said to have agreed such a clampdown, but as ‘off-shore’ banking services provide most of their income, it isn’t going to happen. Reporting on the issue, the BBC said sources were “warning ministers had not consulted the UK business community, which may reject the plan because it would prevent them saving as much corporation tax as they do at present”. Honestly, you couldn’t make it up.

Some of the most active ‘tax havens’ benefit hugely from the British business community dodging corporation tax by ‘off-shoring’ their accounts and profits, places such as the Cayman Islands, Bermuda, Gibraltar, Anguilla, Turks & Caicos – all are British Overseas territories – while the Crown Dependencies of Jersey, Guernsey and the Isle of Man also get in on the lucrative act.

Despite the global collapse of the corrupt capitalist system, which has plunged millions of citizens of G8 countries into poverty, the leaders of the UK, America, Germany, Italy, Canada, France, Japan and Russia were meeting to ensure there is no challenge to their concept of world order. The G8 is all about retaining power in the hands of global capitalists, allowing a super-wealthy elite to get even richer as the poor get poorer.

In the UK, while the Tory-led Government spent £70m of our money on protecting a group of politicians, there are now 3.5-million children living in poverty. That’s 27-percent of children, or more than one-in-four. According to the Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG), current UK Government policies will see child poverty continue to rise, with an expected 600,000 more children living in poverty by 2015/16. CPAG predicts that by 2020, just seven years away, there will be 4.7-million children living in poverty in the UK.

Against those figures, Barclays Wealth Management (part of Barclays Bank) has revealed there are now 619,000 millionaires in the UK, which is up from 528,000 in 2008, the year capitalism collapsed and banks had to be bailed-out using our money. Barclays also says there are an increasing number of multi-millionaires, with 86,000 UK residents having personal wealth of more than £5m. That figure is projected to significantly increase by 2020, just as the number for children living in poverty reaches 4.7-million.

Friday, 14 June 2013

Women in politics

Last week saw the 100th anniversary of the death of Emily Davison.

Ms Davison died on June 8 1913, four days after colliding with a horse on the track at Epsom during the Derby. At the time, and until relatively recently, it was generally accepted that the young woman (she was only 40 at the time) had committed suicide by throwing herself in front of the King’s horse, Anmer, in order to publicise the cause of women’s suffrage (votes for women). However, modern analysis of the newsreel that captured the terrible event show Emily Davison holding something in her hand and reaching up towards the horse prior to the collision. It is now believed she had, in fact, been attempting to attach to the horse’s bridle a scarf proclaiming ‘votes for women’, and had not intended to harm either herself or the horse.

Emily Davison had been a prominent member of the Women’s Social and Political Union, which campaigned for women to be allowed to vote and be elected to the House of Commons. It is hard to believe, from this distance in time, that women had to fight for the right to vote – sometimes literally fight. Emily was jailed on no fewer than nine occasions and, while in prison, went on hunger strike. Records show she was force-fed 49 times, which was an extremely unpleasant experience.

On the night of the national Census in 1911, Emily Davison hid in a cupboard in the Palace of Westminster, which meant that when her place of residence was recorded on the Census form she legitimately wrote ‘House of Commons’.

It was not until the passing of the Representation of the People Act (1918), five years after Emily’s death, that women were finally allowed to vote and be candidates in parliamentary elections, although this ‘right’ was restricted to women over the age of 30 and who met ‘minimum property qualifications’.

Ten years later, the Representation of the People Act (1928) extended the right to vote to all adults, including women, over the age of 21. It was not until 1969 that the voting age was reduced to 18 and, of course, the Independence Referendum in September 2014 will be the first time anyone aged 16 and over will be entitled to vote.

We may look back across the past Century and find it hard to believe that women – 50% of the population – were denied the basic right to vote in parliamentary elections, far less to actually become Members of Parliament. However, we should not be too quick to pass judgement. Today, in the much more enlightened and gender-balanced 21st Century, women are still hugely under-represented in the political world.

At public meetings over many years I’ve tried to get the message across that every one of us should take an interest in politics. Why? Because decisions taken by politicians affect every one of us, every day of our lives. From streets being swept, bins emptied, education provision, the health service, welfare, pensions, taxes through to whether or not our young men and women are sent to kill or be killed in foreign wars: virtually every aspect of our lives is affected by the decisions of politicians in local councils, the Scottish Parliament, UK Parliament and European Parliament. Yet the under-representation of women in elected politics means the female view can often be denied due regard, if not entirely overlooked.

In the current Scottish Parliament there are 46 female MSPs, which represents almost 37% of the total. Bear in mind women form 50% of the population. The highest number of women MSPs was achieved in the second session of the Scottish Parliament (2003-2007) when 50 were elected (39%), so we are actually heading in the wrong direction in terms of gender equality.

At Westminster, things are even worse. Of the 650 MPs elected at the UK General Election in 2010, only 146 are women (just over 22%), and this represents the best-ever level of female representation since 1918.

Closer to home, North Ayrshire Council has just 8 female councillors (27%) compared to 22 men (73%). The SNP group of 12 has 5 women (42%), while the Labour group of 11 councillors has just one female.

There are clear reasons why fewer women than men enter politics, not the least of which is the burden of child-raising still falling disproportionately onto the shoulders of females. However, even when women do get involved, the facts show gender discrimination still prevents them from progressing to hold elected office, in many cases.

Of course, not all political parties are the same, as the breakdown of female representation on North Ayrshire Council shows. The SNP was just one female candidate short of achieving gender balance in the 12 people it saw elected in May 2012. The Labour Party, though, with just one woman out of 11 councillors, should be ashamed.

During my time as a Member of the Scottish Parliament, the Scottish Socialist Party had four women elected as part of a six-strong parliamentary group. Each of the SSP’s female MSPs were there on merit, were strong articulate campaigners and made an impact on Scottish politics.

In my time in the Scottish National Party I worked closely with many women who were more than the equal of any man. Kay Ullrich was the party’s first Chief Whip (also the first of any party in the Scottish Parliament) and was responsible for enforcing discipline within a parliamentary group of 35 MSPs, the majority of whom were men. Then there was Nicola Sturgeon, now Scotland’s Deputy First Minister and without doubt one of the parliament’s most able and competent politicians.

I was also fortunate to become friends with Margo MacDonald, one of the best-known and respected MSPs. No-one in their right mind would ever underestimate Margo.

The fact women are under-represented at every elected level is to the detriment of not just the female half of the population, but every one of us. As we move, hopefully, towards re-establishing Scotland as a normal, independent nation, we should also strive to ensure women play a full and equal part in building our better, fairer country.

Friday, 7 June 2013

Young Scots and independence

Anyone who has ever been active in Scottish politics would have been surprised, to say the least, by the results of a survey published last week, which found that 60% of Scots aged between 14 and 17 planned to vote ‘No’ in next year’s independence referendum.

The reason for the surprise is that, for many years, whenever a mock election was held in Scottish secondary schools, the SNP usually won. This has always been the case, even when the SNP were performing badly in real elections.

British Unionist parties – Labour, Tory, Lib Dem – were never too bothered about such results, because real elections showed the SNP had a problem holding-on to those potential young voters. By the time they reached the age to vote, many had found ‘more interesting’ things to do, while others had changed their political outlook. In more recent years, though, the flow of support away from the SNP and independence had been stemmed.

Virtually every opinion poll conducted in Scotland over the past decade has found support for independence is strongest amongst the younger generation. That fact alone should have had people asking questions of last week’s survey, which was massively out of kilter. However, as usual, anything that is perceived to be damaging to independence is instantly seized on by the pro-British Union media, which was why newspaper headlines and television news bulletins screamed about bad news for the ‘Yes’ campaign as Scotland’s young people ‘reject independence’.

The Tory-supporting Scotsman newspaper was so excited about the survey’s findings it actually ran a headline stating, “80% of young Scots snub independence”. Apparently they reached that figure by including the 20% who said they were undecided.

Perhaps if the survey hadn’t produced a result the Unionist media was so ready to hear, newspapers and television might have taken the time to question why young Scots, previously so pro-independence, were now apparently even more pro-British Union than their parents.

Closer examination suggested why the survey may have produced results that so blatantly contradicted all that had gone before.

The poll was carried out using a system called Random Digit Dialling (RDD), which basically does as it says on the tin: telephone numbers are generated and dialled randomly. If you no longer have a landline telephone – and that would include a very large number of people – you are extremely unlikely to have been selected by the random number generator. There is no evidence that random numbers selected were spread across Scotland to give a balance of political allegiance in terms of parliamentary constituencies.

It is also the case that no weighting was applied to results in order to factor-in known support levels for political parties in Scotland. For example, at the last Scottish Parliament Election in 2011, the SNP won an overall majority of seats, with pro-independence Greens and an Independent also elected. However, the organisation that carried out last week’s survey canvassed households where 58% indicated they were pro-British Union, with just 17.5% supporting independence.

The method used in carrying out the survey was to speak with an adult in a household, determining their voting intention in relation to the independence referendum, and then asking that the 14-17 year-old in the house was put on the phone. With their parent standing next to them, the young person was then asked whether they were for or against independence. Of the 1,018 households whose responses made up the survey, 594 had parents or guardians who said they would be voting 'No' in the 2014 referendum, only 178 households had parents or guardians who said they would be voting 'Yes'.

Clearly, the methodology and lack of weighting to correct imbalances in the political outlook of the one adult in the households that were randomly selected (and the potential for parental influence on outcomes) leave a lot to be desired, and possibly go some way to explaining why this poll produced results so starkly different from others, both in terms of the voting intentions of young people and the views of the general public with regard to the independence referendum.

Had a survey been produced that reported a massive surge in support for independence, particularly amongst a section of the population that had previously, and consistently, backed the British Union, it would have been dismissed as, at best, a rogue poll. The media would either have ignored it or rubbished its findings.

However, by contrast, the results of the survey published last week could not have been reported more prominently. Once again the media was highlighting something that fitted into their programme of British Unionist propaganda, and this time there was a menacing undertone, with the message targeted at young Scots: your pals are dead against independence, and you don’t want to be different, do you?

Meanwhile, in real news, the Labour Party announced it would stick to Tory spending levels if elected at the 2015 Westminster Election, making clear that it would also end its long-standing commitment to universal benefits, while reducing welfare funding. The reality, therefore, is that if Scots reject independence in 2014, we will be hammered with further devastating cuts irrespective of which British party forms the UK Government.

Already, youth unemployment is soaring, while others placed into Modern Apprenticeships are forced to work for as little as £2.65 an hour. That situation will continue if Scotland remains within the British Union. Tory, Labour, Liberal Democrat or Westminster coalition (which could possibly include the far-right UKIP), Scotland’s young people will continue to suffer if we reject the opportunity to run and govern our own country in the interests of the Scottish people, in a normal independent nation.