Friday, 25 October 2013

North Ayrshire schools merger - it's time to listen to the people

In paperwork provided to councillors for consideration at this week’s meeting of North Ayrshire Council’s ruling SNP Cabinet (October 29), the following is given as a record of a question and answer at a public meeting in Ardrossan Academy (May 9 2013) with regard to the plan to merge the school with Auchenharvie Academy, James McFarlane School and Haysholm School:

Enquiry: The presentation mentioned the Council considered a number of sites for the new campus, did the Council also consider investing the funding into each school rather than merge them?

Response: The Scottish Government awarded the funding to the Council on the basis of merging the two secondary schools – the funding would not be available to the Council to upgrade either of the schools. If the outcome of the consultation is not to merge the schools then the Council will not be in a position to bring the existing school buildings up to a ‘modern, fit for purpose’ state.”

There are a number of points that arise from the Council’s reply to the question asked at the Ardrossan public meeting. Firstly, the Scottish Government awarded the funding to the Council on the basis of merging the two secondary schools because that was the proposal submitted to the Government by the Council in its funding application. The Scottish Government did not stipulate funding applications must relate to merger proposals.

Secondly, in an e-mail secured by the3towns under Freedom of Information legislation, a senior Council official admitted that a funding proposal to replace both Ardrossan Academy and Auchenharvie Academy would be unlikely to succeed because the current schools are not in a sufficiently poor condition. In other words, the Scottish Government would be unlikely to give the Council any money because the schools have been maintained sufficiently well that normal planned maintenance should be enough to keep them in an acceptable condition. Despite this, if the Council goes ahead with its merger plan, both schools will be demolished.

Thirdly, it is simply untrue for the Council to state “If the outcome of the consultation is not to merge the schools then the Council will not be in a position to bring the existing school buildings up to a ‘modern, fit for purpose’ state.” As stated above, the Council already has in place a programme of planned maintenance for all of the schools in North Ayrshire, including Ardrossan Academy and Auchenharvie Academy, and the funding to meet associated costs. The Council would have been failing in its responsibilities if it had not put in place a programme to maintain its schools, and had not set aside a budget for that purpose.

Both Auchenharvie Academy and Ardrossan Academy are currently listed as being in a satisfactory condition, with Council documents stating of the Ardrossan school, “the building structure and fabric does not appear to be suffering any major failings,” adding that “anticipated works likely to be required over the next twenty years” would come in at £500,000. This is the cost of major works other than those covered by the planned maintenance programme, with total expenditure averaging-out at just £25,000 a year.

For Auchenharvie Academy the anticipated major works over the next twenty years comes to a total of £580,000 or £29,000 a year.

There is only one school in North Ayrshire that is listed as being ‘poor’ for both condition and suitability – Largs Academy. Therefore, if it really was the case that without additional Scottish Government funding the Council will be unable to bring two ‘satisfactory’ schools up to a “modern, fit for purpose” state, then what chance has the double-rated ‘poor’ Largs Academy?

There is overwhelming public opposition to the Council’s schools merger plan – 77% of respondents to the local authority’s own public consultation rejected the proposal – so perhaps the elected representatives of the people should actually listen to the people.

Perhaps, also, our elected councillors should focus their attention on the pupils of James McFarlane School and Haysholm School, children with additional special needs who would severely struggle if shoe-horned into the campus of a mainstream super-school. The Council’s own figures show a new state-of-the-art facility for children with additional special needs could be provided for around £9m, compared to the projected £42m of the proposed merged Three Towns campus.

SNP councillors can still walk away from the merger plan with credibility and dignity. As a ‘listening Council’ they can take onboard what the public are saying and ditch an idea that was thought-up, not by SNP councillors, but by unelected senior Council officials, most of whom don’t even live in North Ayrshire

Friday, 18 October 2013

Independence - money matters

Last week a friend told me he wouldn’t be voting for independence.

His reason? Someone he knows works in the financial services sector in Edinburgh, and they said an independent Scotland would be skint.

I should really have asked for the name of the financial ‘guru’, because anyone taking advice from someone so out of touch with reality is likely to lose their money.

All of the British unionist scare-stories are a variation on the core theme of Scotland can’t be an independent country because we are ‘too wee, too poor and too stupid’. Uniquely amongst all the peoples of the world, it is only the Scots who are incapable – intellectually and financially – of successfully governing their own country.

For the unionist case to appear to ‘stack-up’, they have to ‘do-down’ Scotland. Since the 1970s unionist governments in London have told us Scotland is an economic basket case, dependent on hand-outs from the benevolent taxpayers of England. The facts, however, show the exact opposite: the McCrone Report – commissioned by the Tory Government of 1974 and delivered to the subsequent Labour Government – found that an independent Scotland would have financial surpluses so large they would be “embarrassing”, but that didn’t stop UK governments telling us we couldn’t stand on our own two feet, while London-based newspapers branded us ‘subsidy junkies’. Needless to say the McCrone Report was buried in the Whitehall files, only seeing the light of day in 2005 following a Freedom of Information request.

Coming right up to date, this month Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs (HMRC) for the first time produced a report showing tax receipts for each of the four UK nations – Scotland, England, Northern Ireland and Wales. The report also calculated oil receipts on a geographic basis, which revealed that, since devolution alone (1999), Scotland has contributed £42.5billion more to the London UK Treasury over and above our population share. In fact, Scotland has generated more tax per head than the UK for every one of the last 30 years.

British unionists have also been telling us since the 1970s that North Sea oil is running out. Forty years later and economist Gordon MacIntyre-Kemp recently reported the views of a director of the London-based industry body, Oil & Gas UK, who indicated his belief that there is at least 40 years of oil left – with other industry experts agreeing the value of identified reserves still to be extracted from the North Sea stands at around £1.5trillion. That’s before we even look at potential oil fields around the north of Scotland and down the west coast.

Ah but, the unionists say, you can’t base your economy on oil alone. No, and an independent Scotland wouldn’t. In addition there is our food and drink industry, where annual turnover was recently recorded as £12.4billion. Scotland’s creative industries had a turnover of £4.8billion; Life Sciences - £2.9billion; our manufacturing sector exported £14.7billion-worth of goods in 2011; and the Scottish tourism industry currently employs around 200,000 people: and that’s just a few of the contributors to the Scottish economy.

Overall, international comparison of statistics shows an independent Scotland would be the eighth-wealthiest country in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) – compared with the UK in 17th place. We have the potential to be the eighth most-prosperous country in the developed world, instead of our current status as a devolved region within the British Union where the number of our fellow Scots living in poverty and dependent on food-banks is soaring.

If we needed any further evidence of just how successful an independent Scotland of 5-million people could be, we need only look across the North Sea to Norway, which has a similar population and discovered oil in its waters at the same time as Scotland.

Of course, the difference between the two countries is that Norway has been independent since 1905 and therefore had full control of its resources when oil was discovered in its waters 40 years ago. Scotland, as region within the British Union, handed-over its resources to successive UK Governments.

Today, Norway is one of the wealthiest countries in the world, regularly topping international indexes recording human, prosperity and democratic development, and social mobility. Norway also maintains a welfare model that provides universal health care, subsidised higher education and a comprehensive social security system.

In addition, with control of its natural resources, Norway has built a sovereign wealth fund that currently stands at around £170billion (projected to be worth £600billion by 2020). The fund is used to guarantee the prosperity of future generations of Norwegians.

In contrast, Scotland today has record numbers of people living in poverty – latest figures show 1-in-5 Scottish children are growing up in poverty (in some areas the figure is more than 1-in-3).

Scotland, even with a devolved parliament in Edinburgh, continues to hand every penny of our oil wealth to UK Governments in London. Over the same period that Norway prospered and invested in the future of its people, UK Governments used Scotland’s wealth to pay for soaring unemployment and an economic system that promoted low-paid jobs and low taxes for the super-rich.

The question Scots should ask themselves before we vote in next year’s referendum is not ‘can we afford to be an independent country’ but rather ‘can we afford not to retake our independence’.

We can do so much better than condemn every fifth Scots child to a life in poverty within the British Union. Like Norway, an independent Scotland can be a successful, prosperous and socially-just nation.

Saturday, 12 October 2013

1919: Tanks on the streets of Glasgow

The First World War armistice, signed in November 1918, brought home thousands of soldiers and saw an end to the demands placed on Glasgow’s engineering and munitions works. This led to fears of mass unemployment, which prompted workers in key industries to call for a reduced working week as a means of absorbing those without a job.

In January 1919 the Clyde Workers Committee (CWC) helped establish the ‘Forty Hours Movement’, which called for the working week to be reduced to a maximum of forty hours. This demand had initially been made by coalminers in pits across Scotland, from Ayrshire in the west to Fife in the east.

A call was made for a general strike to commence on January 27th in support of the 40-hour working week: days later newspapers reported 40,000 workers from engineering and shipbuilding yards on the Clyde had withdrawn their labour. In addition, as many as 35,000 miners had stopped work, alongside others from supporting trades and occupations.

The anger and disenchantment felt by Scottish workers towards a remote union leadership in London was made clear in a CWC Strike Bulletin issued at this time, which read:

“London Executives don’t understand our aspirations here and never take the trouble to find out what is wrong when a strike occurs. We have to emancipate ourselves from the London junta by building an organisation which will be under our control.”

On January 29th a march through Glasgow by strikers culminated in a rally in George Square, from which a CWC deputation secured a meeting with the city’s Lord Provost. The shop-stewards sought the Provost’s support for the workers and asked that the Council instruct Glasgow’s employers to introduce a 40-hour working week. Apparently, the Lord Provost asked for time to consult with councillors and a further meeting on January 31st was agreed, at which the workers would be given the Council’s response.

January 31st, a Friday, saw around 60,000 demonstrators gather in George Square in support of the 40-hour strikers and to hear the Lord Provost’s response. However, while the CWC deputation was inside the City Chambers, ranks of police waded into the crowd in an unprovoked attack. Men, women and children were struck by batons, resulting in a violent response from the crowd, which included many ex-servicemen recently returned from fighting in the First World War. Contemporary newspaper reports recorded the crowd retaliated with fists, iron railings and broken bottles.

The CWC deputation heard the commotion and left the City Chambers, only for two of the leaders, Willie Gallacher and Davie Kirkwood, to be struck by the police and arrested. Others from the CWC leadership were also taken into custody, including Emanuel Shinwell, Harry Hopkins and George Ebury.

As pitched battles took place in and around George Square, the Chief Constable stood on the steps of the municipal building and attempted to read the Riot Act. However, workers continued to drive back police assaults. Eventually, peace was restored as protestors re-grouped and marched-off towards Glasgow Green where they planned to hold a rally.

Police later stated they had intervened at George Square because demonstrators had been stopping trams in adjacent streets, but workers believed the violent baton charges had been planned to disrupt the legitimate protest and undermine the strike action.

By the time the workers’ march reached Glasgow Green on January 31st ranks of police officers were already waiting and further fights broke out, which spread to other parts of the city and continued into the night.

Alarmed by events in Glasgow, and concerned they faced a ‘Red uprising’ similar to the revolution that had happened in Russia just two years before, the British Government ordered troops and tanks onto the streets of Scotland’s largest city. The troops, believed to be 10,000 in number, were drawn from English regiments, while Scottish soldiers stationed at Maryhill were locked in their barracks: the Government feared they would side with the Scottish workers.

Some years later, the leaders of the Clyde Workers Committee acknowledged that they had not fully understood the magnitude of what happened, and what potentially could have happened in Glasgow on January 31st 1919. One said, “In our heads we were leading a strike, but we should have been leading a revolution.” Another, Willie Gallacher, added, “The soldiers at Maryhill were confined to barracks and the barrack gates were kept tightly closed. If we had gone there, we could easily have persuaded the soldiers to come out and Glasgow would have been in our hands.”

The actual outcome was to be very different. By Monday, February 10, the Joint Strike Committee of the CWC called-off the strike. They had failed to achieve a 40-hour working week, but employers had agreed a reduction to 47-hours, ten less than was the case before the strike.

The events in Glasgow on January 31st became known as ‘Black Friday’ and forever established the name of the Red Clydesiders in the history of socialist struggle in Britain. However, for many, the day will be remembered for what could have been had the strike’s leaders taken a different course of action and sought support from the Scottish soldiers stationed at Maryhill barracks.

* Originally published as part of the Hidden History series in the Scottish Socialist Voice.

Friday, 4 October 2013

Scottish independence and the English working class

In 2006 Tony Benn said, “The Labour Party has never been a socialist party, but it's always had socialists in it, just as there are some Christians in the church.”

There are now very few socialists in the Labour Party and it would certainly be impossible to square Labour’s policy agenda with socialist beliefs.

Today’s Labour Party has long-since abandoned any pretence of seeking to represent the views and interests of the working class: right-wing English newspapers branding Labour Leader Ed Miliband as ‘Red Ed’ is simply ridiculous mischief-making. As was the case with Labour Governments led by Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, the party under Miliband is a Tory clone, championing the free-market capitalist system, demonising immigrants and dividing the working class between what they believe to be ‘hardworking families’ and the ‘undeserving shirkers and skivers’ on benefits.

It was Labour that introduced the Bedroom Tax – the Tory-Lib Dem coalition extended it to the public sector. Thirteen-years of Labour governments refused to scrap Thatcher’s anti-trade union laws, the most draconian in Europe, while under the Blair and Brown administrations the gap between the rich and the poor widened to record proportions – with Peter Mandelson stating New Labour was “intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich”.

Yet a constant theme of ‘Scottish’ Labour’s anti-independence propaganda argues from a socialist perspective that it would be wrong for Scots to abandon the working class of England to perpetual Tory Governments. If we retake our independence, they say, our brothers and sisters in England will be governed forever by the likes of David Cameron, George Osborne and Boris Johnson.

Before looking at the ‘abandoning the English working class’ line, it’s worth mentioning that there is no such political party as ‘Scottish Labour’. Despite fielding candidates under the banner of the ‘Scottish Labour Party’, no such organisation is registered with the Electoral Commission. ‘Scottish Labour’ is simply a ‘description’ registered by the ‘Labour Party’, which, of course, has its headquarters in London.

Speaking to the recent Labour Party conference in Brighton, ‘Scottish Labour’ leader Johann Lamont MSP condemned as “narrow nationalism” the campaign to re-establish Scotland as a normal, independent nation. Presumably, every other normal, independent nation in the world is also guilty of such “narrow nationalism”, but Ms Lamont failed to mention them. In the eyes of ‘Scottish Labour’ and their Tory and Lib Dem partners, it is only the Scots who are ‘narrow nationalists’ for simply wanting to re-take the powers that would allow us to govern our own country in the interests of the people of Scotland.

Frequently ‘Scottish Labour’ politicians cite their claimed ‘socialist’ beliefs when they allude to solidarity with the working class of England, arguing that the people of Scotland re-taking our political independence would condemn ordinary English men and women to Tory governments for evermore. In addition, Labour politicians and activists argue we have more in common with the ordinary people of London, Manchester and Newcastle than we have with Scottish Lairds and millionaire businessmen. Quite simply, those arguments are false.

Working class Scots certainly do share common bonds with the ordinary men and women of London, Manchester and Newcastle, just as we share common bonds with the working class of Madrid, Marseille and Munich, but we would not accept governments imposed on us by the voters of Spain, France or Germany.

Since the end of the Second World War in 1945, there have been just two occasions when Scottish votes have had any bearing on the outcome of UK General Elections – 1964 and February 1974 (there were two elections that year). At both those elections, Scottish votes helped Labour to very slim majorities over the Tories. On all other occasions, Scottish votes have been completely irrelevant and UK governments have been elected by the voters of England. We won’t hold our breath waiting for Johann Lamont to condemn the “narrow nationalism” of English voters imposing Tory Governments on Scotland when Scots have voted to reject the party.

The reality is that, within the British Union, every person in Scotland could vote Labour, but if England votes Tory – and it has at a majority of UK General Elections since the war – then we in Scotland will have a Tory Government imposed on us. It is only by re-taking our political independence that Scots are guaranteed to get the government for which we vote – and it won’t be Tory.

Scotland re-taking its independence will not condemn the English working class to Tory Governments. The Tories could not have won a majority of elections in England since the war without substantial support from the English working class. If the Tories were to continue winning elections in England after Scotland re-takes its independence, then the English working class would require to actually vote for them. If Tory governments continue to get elected in England after Scotland re-takes its independence, than that will represent a massive failure on the part of the Labour Party.

Meanwhile, in Scotland within the British Union, ‘Scottish Labour’ is not a registered political party: ‘Scottish Labour’ is certainly not a socialist organisation: and the ‘Scottish Labour’ argument that Scotland re-taking its independence would condemn the English working class to perpetual Tory rule is a lie.

It perfectly illustrates how bereft of reasoned argument the pro-British Union campaign actually is that it attempts to persuade us we should continue to accept having Tory Governments – and policies like the Bedroom Tax – imposed on us in Scotland simply to show some sort of warped solidarity with the working class of England. The unionist ‘logic’ being that if the working class of England are being hammered by Tory cuts then the working class of Scotland must also be hammered by Tory cuts.

Re-taking our political independence is simply re-establishing Scotland as a normal, independent nation. Once independent, virtually-certain centre-left Scottish governments could act as a beacon lighting the way for the working class of England to throw-off Tory rule and embrace a more enlightened agenda. Of course, that would require a political party in England to actually support centre-left policies but, at the moment, all three of the main English parties – including Labour – are firmly on the centre-right.