Friday, 31 January 2014

Moving towards independence

Even media-outlets loyal to the British Union are now acknowledging that the direction of travel in the independence debate is from ‘No’ to ‘YES’.

Last weekend Scotland on Sunday carried a new poll showing the gap between opposing sides in the debate has narrowed to such an extent that a further swing of just 3% will secure victory for the ‘YES’ side, meaning Scotland would once again become a normal, independent nation, fully in control of its own future. It’s worth pointing out that Scotland on Sunday is not just a British Unionist newspaper, it is a Tory-supporting British Unionist newspaper.

The so-called mainstream media – print and broadcast – is finally having to admit what those active in the referendum campaign have known for a long time – the positive case for independence is winning. Of course, that fact won’t stop the same media from carrying the ‘No’ side's scare-stories and from acting as propaganda outlets for the campaign that seeks to keep Scotland controlled from London by a government we rejected at the ballot box.

It is truly remarkable, and shows the strength of the pro-independence message, that more and more people are embracing the cause of an independent Scotland, despite the fact newspapers and broadcasters are almost universally hostile. In Scotland, only the Sunday Herald is open to the independence argument. All other mainstream newspapers are unswervingly loyal to the British Union, a position not hard to understand when we reflect on the fact they are all owned and operated by companies based in London and take their editorial line from headquarters in the English capital.

It is despite the best efforts of a British Unionist media that support for independence continues to grow.

Part of the reason the ‘Project Fear’ message of the Unionist campaign is failing, is because more and more Scots reject the idea that alone amongst all the peoples of the world, it is only us who are ‘too wee, too poor and too stupid’ to successfully run our own country. Scare-stories telling us it would be ‘disastrous’ if we re-take the powers of independence are actually attacks on the intelligence and capabilities of ordinary Scots. The Unionist position is that Scots are so inadequate and hopeless that if we had the powers taken for granted by every other nation on the face of the planet, we would turn that ‘normality’ into a ‘disaster’.

Another reason for the continuing rise in support for independence is that, in the 21st Century, increasing numbers of people get their news and coverage of current affairs from the internet, rather than hard-copy newspapers or mainstream broadcast outlets. London-based newspapers and television stations can completely control what their readers and viewers see, but they have no such control over the web. Pro-independence websites, such as ‘Wings over Scotland’ and ‘Newsnet Scotland’, have built huge readerships and daily articulate the positive case for independence. In addition, pro-independence sites on the internet also dissect and disprove British Unionist propaganda, carried elswhere by mainstream newspapers and broadcasters as if it were fact.

There is also evidence of a particular shift towards independence from what are described as ‘traditional’ Labour Party supporters. These are people whose vision of Labour is the party that formed the National Health Service and championed the interests of the working class, rather than the Labour Party of today, which is currently attempting to out-Tory the Tories by continuing to be ‘intensely relaxed about people becoming filthy rich’ while getting tough on the unemployed and those workers struggling to survive on poverty wages.

Alongside people who have voted Labour in the past, former elected representatives of the party are also endorsing independence. Alex Mosson, Labour Lord Provost of Glasgow; Sir Charles Gray, Labour leader of Strathclyde Regional Council; John Mulvey, Labour leader of Lothian Regional Council: all have spoken publicly of how they will vote ‘YES’ in the referendum, and of how independence will allow the creation of a real Scottish Labour Party that can shake-off the right-wing, middle-England agenda of the British Unionist Labour Party and can restore the core-beliefs of the movement. ‘Labour for Independence’ is a growing part of the broad ‘YES’ campaign.

We can expect to hear more supporters of the Labour Party speak-out for an independent Scotland over the months leading to the referendum on September 18, including some who previously held very senior positions.

Also making a very interesting contribution to the debate is Jim Sillars, the former Ayrshire Labour MP who went on to join the SNP and won the Govan constituency for the party in a sensational by-election victory.

Jim Sillars is acknowledged and accepted as one of the wisest-heads in Scottish politics and is respected by people in all parties. Now aged 76, Jim has emerged from retirement to make the case that Labour supporters should back independence and rebuild their party in an independent Scotland. The Sillars’ position is that the British Labour Party will never return to its founding, working class principles, so the only way for Scots to have the Labour Party they want is to vote for independence, free the movement from London-control and establish a new organisation in an independent Scotland.

Just last week a local Labour Party activist went out of his way to stop me in the Ardrossan Asda. He told me he was voting ‘YES’. He said he’d come to the decision because he felt it was the only option that would benefit his grand-children. He didn’t want them to have their future blighted by Tory Governments. He also said it had helped him reach his decision when he realised a ‘YES’ vote was for Scotland and not for Alex Salmond or the SNP.

Independence is simply being a normal country, and the people of Scotland deserve nothing less.

Friday, 24 January 2014

"Can you spell 'scrounger'? No? Then starve."

Attempting to show they are as tough on ‘benefits scroungers’ as the Tories, the Labour Party’s spokesperson on Work & Pensions last week announced that the unemployed should have to sit tests in English and Maths. If the out-of-work person failed such a test, a future Labour Government would take away their benefit unless they undertook training in the subjects.

Remember when the Labour Party was actually on the side of the working class, rather than pandering to the right-wing agenda of the Tories, UKIP and the Daily Mail? I know, it’s such a long time ago now that it’s difficult to focus on such a Labour Party. Probably the last Labour manifesto to offer an agenda for the working class was delivered under the leadership of Michael Foot in 1983. Since then, under John Smith, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and now Ed Miliband, the Labour Party has become more and more a clone of the Tories.

Last week’s statement of intent by Rachel Reeves MP (Labour’s Shadow Minister for Work & Pensions) sought to demonise the unemployed as people of such little worth that they obviously can’t even write in basic English or do their times-tables. Ms Reeves’ added threat of immediately removing benefit from anyone failing Labour’s tests simply demonstrates how far removed from reality are Westminster politicians. The Tory-clone Labour Party would punish someone who fails a test – possibly because they had earlier been failed by the education system – and that punishment would be so draconian as to remove their only source of income. So the Labour slogan for the 2015 Westminster General Election could well be: “Can you spell ‘scrounger’? No? Then starve!”

Labour’s new ‘get tough’ policy would apply to everyone claiming Jobseekers Allowance, which means that unemployed university graduates and company managers would be forced to complete tests to show they had a basic grasp of writing and counting. Such a policy could only be introduced by a party that believes the unemployed are thick.

Has Labour even considered the skilled mechanic who has been laid-off? Such a person could possess the best mechanically-minded brain and the most skilful set of hands, yet if he or she is not so good at English or Maths, bang goes their Jobseekers Allowance and poverty beckons.

The thinking behind this new Labour policy mirrors the ignorance of the Tories’ decision that when the Universal Credit is finally introduced, Housing Benefit will no longer be paid directly to landlords. Instead, the Tory-Lib Dem Government says the rent should be paid to the tenant, so the unemployed person learns how to budget and pay their bills. Apparently, the unemployed have always been unemployed and have never been in a position where they worked, got their pay, budgeted and paid bills.

The Tory Minister behind this plan is Iain Duncan Smith who lives in a mansion, complete with tennis court, on the Buckinghamshire estate of his father-in-law. Mr Duncan Smith and his posh-boy Tory colleagues fail to understand the reality of living week-to-week on poverty-level benefits. Here is a little scenario that has escaped their supposedly massive intellects: living on benefits means always having too little money to make ends meet. It is very often the case that inadequate benefit payments are long gone before the next one is due. The last few days without money are frequently covered by small bank-overdrafts. Under the Tories’ Universal Benefit plan, Housing Benefit to cover rent will be paid directly into a claimant’s bank account. If the claimant’s account is overdrawn (if they have used an overdraft facility) the bank will immediately take-back its money. If the overdraft was not agreed with the bank, there will also be charges applied. The result, of course, is that instantly there will be insufficient money to pay the rent because the bank put itself at the head of the queue to get its money. Insufficient money to cover the full amount of rent leads to arrears, which build-up and can result in eviction.

If the people of Scotland do not take the opportunity to govern our own country by voting ‘YES’ in September’s Independence Referendum, it is a racing certainty that more austerity and more demonising of the poorest members of society will take place following the next scheduled UK General Election (May 2015). Labour claims it can form the next UK Government, but that is unlikely. However, even if they did, Rachel Reeves’ announcement of last week confirms the party would continue with Tory attacks on the poor.

In a nightmare scenario, polls show the Tories are most likely to continue in government at Westminster...but with the possibility of a coalition involving the far-right United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP). At every UK Election since 1955, Scotland has rejected the Tory Party but for the majority of that time we have had them imposed on us by the votes of people in England. UKIP has never even managed to hold a deposit at any election in Scotland (a party requires to receive at least 5% of votes cast to save the financial deposit that must be lodged to fight an election). If we don’t re-take our independence and elect a government we want here in Scotland, the electors of England will decide for us, and the possibilities are far from appealing.

Friday, 17 January 2014

This article is probably a 'thought crime'

It may be 30 years later than predicted by George Orwell in his dystopian novel ‘1984’, but ‘Big Brother’ is now with us, and I don’t mean the awful Channel 5 ‘reality’ show.

Back in 1949 Orwell wrote of a future where there would be omnipresent government surveillance, supposedly carried out for the greater good. Jump forward to 2014 and the seemingly never-ending ‘war on terror’ is given by UK government and intelligence officials as the reason it is necessary for the state to spy on the people it is supposed to serve. Incidentally, ‘perpetual war’ was another of the frightening predictions in ‘1984’.

It has emerged that the United States of America’s National Security Agency (NSA) has been operating a system called Dishfire, which hoovers-up millions of text messages every day. We already knew the NSA and its UK counterpart, GCHQ, eavesdropped on phone calls and read our e-mails, but the latest revelation takes mass surveillance to a completely new level.

You might think, who cares if ‘they’ are reading my text messages: chances are ‘they’ won’t get any earth-shattering information from them. Of course, it’s true that many of the texts we send every day are mundane in content, with appalling grammar and spelling. However, Dishfire not only reads your texts, it can pinpoint where you are, through the GPS in your phone, and can obtain bank account and credit card details if you have ever used mobile banking.

In addition, such surveillance of our mobile phone use is illegal in Britain. In order to obtain this type of information, GCHQ would require legal authority to request mobile phone data from telecoms companies. However, the American National Security Agency does not require such legal niceties to spy on us, nor is it prevented from passing information to GCHQ, which effectively by-passes UK law.

Edward Snowden is the American former sub-contractor with the NSA who is now essentially on the run from US security organisations after leaking details of how they spy on the public. It is documents leaked by Snowden that have revealed the extent to which UK surveillance agencies are also listening to our phone calls, reading our e-mails and now our texts. According to the leaked papers, Dishfire not only allows surveillance of the texts we are currently sending, but can go back months and even years to see what we were up to.

Meanwhile, if you are unlucky enough to find yourself unemployed, expect to have your personal computer scrutinised.

As part of changes being introduced by the UK Tory-Lib Dem Government, Jobseekers will soon find it mandatory to use the internet to look for work. To do this, everyone who claims Jobseekers Allowance will be required to set-up a Universal Jobmatch account.

Of course, a large percentage of the unemployed already use the internet to search-out jobs, so what is the problem with doing that through the Universal Jobmatch? Well, for a start, in order to set-up the account an unemployed person must agree to allow ‘cookies’ on their computer. Cookies are small pieces of data sent from a website and stored in your computer’s web browser. Every time you log onto a particular website – in this case the Universal Jobmatch website – the browser sends information back to the site telling it your previous activity. In other words, a cookie spies on what you do, remembers it and tells someone else about it.

Worse still are ‘tracking cookies’, which compile long-term records of everything you do while connected to the internet, not just your activity on a particular site, such as the Unversal Jobmatch site. This type of cookie tells someone else everything you do.

Remember, Jobseekers are being told that it will soon be mandatory to sign-up to such an account. The Universal Jobmatch site is run by a private company – Monster – which has been paid £17.6m by the UK Department for Work and Pensions. Monster is an American company and tells you, in the small print, that information it stores about you will be held in the USA. The ‘privacy statement’ – actually a lack of privacy statement – on the Universal Jobmatch site states Monster can pass your information to anyone it believes should see it.

When setting-up a Universal Jobmatch account becomes compulsory, Jobseekers will be required to input personal information, which will include home address, phone numbers, e-mail addresses and possibly National Insurance numbers.

One way of getting around having to accept cookies onto their own computer is for a Jobseeker to set-up a Universal Jobmatch account while using a pc in a public library. However, a person’s job-search activity can be monitored, and if someone is deemed not to have done enough to look for work – based on their use of the Universal Jobmatch site – they can be ‘sanctioned’ for anything up to three years. Sanctioned means having your benefit stopped. The numbers being sanctioned has soared in the past year, resulting in more people plunged into poverty. For the UK Government, however, this is good news: the rate of unemployment is reduced as sanctioned claimants are removed from the register.

Welcome to the brave new world of state control, which, of course, is for our own good.

Friday, 10 January 2014

Demonising the poor

You would almost think it was a co-ordinated action: in the same week that another documentary is aired on television – ‘Benefits Street’, which portrays the poor as scroungers and thieves - Tory Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne announced a further £25bn of cuts to public spending, with at least half being targeted at those on benefits.

Like the disgraceful BBC documentary ‘The Scheme’, which portrayed the entire Kilmarnock housing estate of Onthank as work-shy, drink and drug-addled spongers dependent on state-provided benefits, the latest ‘poverty porn’ offering, broadcast by Channel 4, gives the same treatment to a street in Birmingham.

It is, of course, deliberate. It benefits (no pun intended) the right-wing agenda of the UK Tory-led Government and much of the England-based media to demonise those on welfare. Like immigrants, the poor are blamed for the economic ills afflicting the country. Tory Ministers regularly attack the unemployed by describing them as lying in their beds while decent, hard-working people get up and go to work. In reality, the vast majority of those who find themselves unemployed are decent and desperate to find work, but that task isn’t made any easier when 6.5-million people are looking for full-time jobs in the UK. Again, the situation isn’t made easier when employers are only offering low-paid, part-time work, often on zero-hours contracts where there is no guarantee of hours or wages.

While demonising the unemployed and portraying them as the undeserving recipients of welfare, the UK Government hides the fact that most working-age benefits are paid to people who are actually in employment. Because of the practices adopted by employers, and endorsed by the Tory-led Government – again, we’re talking about poverty-level wages and zero-hours contracts – many workers are so poor they qualify for benefits. The reality of the situation is that taxpayers are subsidising employers who refuse to pay a living wage or provide regular hours for workers. The real state spongers are the company bosses who exploit workers and rack-up profits while their hard-working employees live in poverty.

Also hidden by the UK Government and broadcasters of documentaries like ‘The Scheme’ and ‘Poverty Street’ is the fact that most of the welfare budget is made up of payments to pensioners. Those pensioners have paid tax and National Insurance all of their working lives and are receiving their entitlement (in fact, Britain pays one of the lowest state pensions in the western world).

So, what of the people featured in ‘poverty porn’ documentaries, some of whom are shown to be manipulating the system and claiming more benefit than they should actually be getting? Of course it happens: there will always be people who try to get a bit more, particularly when what you have is grossly inadequate. However, when we look at the facts on benefit fraud it puts things in a very different light to that portrayed by the Tory Government and the right-wing media. In the last full financial year for which figures are available, benefit fraud cost £1.2billion. That is a lot of money, but it pales almost into insignificance when seen against the figure for benefit that went unclaimed - £16billion. That is money to which some of the poorest people in the country were entitled, but no-one told them, so they went without.

Then there is the much-publicised ‘benefits cap’, which we are told was introduced to prevent work-shy spongers from pocketing benefits in excess of £26,000. Again, the reality behind the Tory-generated headline is a bit different.

There are very few families outside of London who are in receipt of benefits totalling anything near £26,000, and those in the English capital who come close do so because they have to pay the hugely-inflated rent charged by private landlords, often for cramped and sub-standard housing. The benefit-claimant does not ‘pocket’ the money, it goes directly into the bank accounts of the real state spongers, the free-market, private landlords so lauded by the Tory Government.

The bottom-line is that the poor did not create their predicament: those on benefits did not bring about the collapse of the national economy. It was greed-driven, free-market, capitalist banks and financial institutions that caused the economic catastrophe from which we are still suffering. It was private institutions that imploded, yet Labour and Tory politicians at Westminster decided to use public money to bail them out. Because of that decision, ordinary, decent people – in work and unemployed – are still being forced to pay the price for the collapse of capitalist money-markets and enterprises.

When we talk of spongers and free-loaders, no-one comes close to the multi-millionaires behind some of the biggest businesses operating in the UK. Richard Murphy, a Chartered Accountant and author of a number of books on corporate tax avoidance, calculates that the amount big business in the UK avoids in tax every year is in the region of £70billion. Every penny of that is money stolen from me and you. It is also worth comparing that £70billion total against the official UK Government figure for benefit fraud - £1.2bn.

Tell me again, who are the spongers and thieves?

Friday, 3 January 2014

Referendum: a 'No' vote is a Tory vote

So, the festivities are behind us and we now start easing ourselves into 2014.

Without doubt the coming year will be the most significant in Scotland’s history since our nation was ‘bought and sold for English gold’ in 1707. The Independence Referendum on September 18 gives us the opportunity to take responsibility for governing our own country and shaping our own lives.

Saying ‘No’ to independence would, in effect, be giving the green light to further Westminster-imposed ‘austerity’ measures, such as the Bedroom Tax and cuts to vital public services. In Scotland, we reject the Tories at every election, but voting ‘No’ in the Independence Referendum is the equivalent to voting Tory. Every ‘No’ vote is support for David Cameron and his London-based government of posh-boy multi-millionaire Tories. Every ‘No’ in the Independence Referendum is a vote for the Tories to continue imposing their will on Scotland.

Think I’m exaggerating? Do you think the Better Together anti-independence campaign is simply a grouping of cross-party activists who would prefer Scotland remained within the British Union for no apparent reason other than that’s the way it’s been for 300 years?

Certainly, the Labour Party appears to be fronting Better Together in Scotland – the organisation’s principle spokesperson is former Labour Chancellor of the Exchequer Alistair Darling – but look behind the facade and you find the anti-independence campaign is funded by Tory money, much of it donated by people who live in England and so won’t actually have a vote in the referendum. Better Together is a Tory front, with the ‘useful idiots’ of the Labour Party doing the donkey-work that, ultimately, seeks to retain control of Scotland – more accurately our natural resources – for use by future London-based Tory Governments.

The absurd position of the so-called ‘Scottish’ Labour Party is that they would rather Scotland continued to be governed by Tories from London, than have a Labour Government in an independent Scotland. I say so-called ‘Scottish’ Labour Party because no such political party actually exists. ‘Scottish Labour’ is simply a ‘description’ registered for use by the London-based Labour Party.

In the last few weeks of 2013, Better Together revealed that 19 wealthy individuals had given them a total of £1.3m to fund the campaign against Scottish independence. One donation of £200,000 came from Andrew Fraser, a City of London stockbroker and former head of Barings Bank. In the past, Mr Fraser has given £1m to the Tory Party.

Another prominent Tory donor, Sir Chippendale Keswick, gave Better Together £23,000. As Chairman of London-based Arsenal Football Club, Mr Keswick’s interest in Scottish politics or the future of Scotland is not immediately obvious.

In addition, two separate donations of £10,000 were received by the anti-independence campaign: these came from senior figures in the private intelligence firm Hakluyt, which has links to the British secret service organisation MI6. Better Together also pocketed £50,000 from Ivor Dunbar, an executive with London-based Deutsche Bank.

Earlier in 2013 it was discovered that £500,000 of the funding being used against Scotland re-taking the status of a normal, independent nation had come from one man, Ian Taylor, a long-term donor to the Tory Party. Mr Taylor does not live in Scotland.

Ian Taylor’s money partly comes from his role as Chief Executive of Vitol plc, a company that trades in oil. In 1996 Vitol paid $1m to Serbian warlord Arkan, apparently to sort out some problems that had arisen following a secret deal to supply Slobodan Milosevic’s Serbia with fuel. Arkan was subsequently indicted by the United Nations war crimes tribunal in relation to crimes against humanity: he was assassinated in 2000.

Still think I’m exaggerating about the Tory control of Better Together or Labour activists’ role as ‘useful idiots’ in the anti-independence campaign? Alex Mosson is a former Labour Lord Provost of Glasgow, and this is what he had to say on the matter: “The latest roll call of No campaign donors should really come as no surprise to anybody who understands the vested interests at play here. This should act as a wake-up call to everybody, especially those in the Labour Party, if they’ve been kidding themselves that the No campaign is anything other than a Tory-led propaganda machine.”

Sir Charles Gray, a former Labour leader of Strathclyde Regional Council, added, “The fact that Darling and his No campaign are prepared to accept hundreds of thousands of pounds from right-wing Tories and bankers would be a joke if it weren’t so serious. It completely nullifies what might have been genuine were it not for the fact that they will take significant donations from wealthy people who will not have a vote in the referendum in desperation to prove a pretty hollow case. The more they take the more weak their cause becomes.”

Both Alex Mosson and Charles Gray, Labour men to the core, have seen through the Better Together facade: they have realised the organisation is nothing more than an attempt to retain Tory control of Scotland.

Alex Mosson and Charles Gray have announced they will be voting ‘YES’ in the referendum. More and more Labour Party members are realising that independence doesn’t mean a one-party (SNP) state. After Scotland re-takes its independence in September this year, there will be a period of negotiations between the current Scottish Government and the London-based UK Government. There will also be negotiations between the Scottish Government and the European Union. Then, in May 2016, we will elect MSPs to the first independent parliament and the first government of an independent Scotland. Which party (or parties) forms that government is for the people of Scotland to decide.

One thing is certain: with independence we will always get the government for which we vote, unlike Scotland within the British Union where we reject the Tories only to have them imposed on us by the electors of England.

The reason more and more Labour Party members are signing-up to ‘Labour for Independence’ is because they realise the full sovereign powers that only come with independence present an opportunity to traditional Labour voters to help build a better, fairer Scotland. They also realise the position of the London-based Labour Party is currently tying them into Better Together, a front for the Tory Party and an organisation whose vision for Scotland is more London-imposed austerity.

A ‘No’ vote is a Tory vote in the referendum.