Thursday, February 14, 2008

Another fine mess....

Who would want to be a Tory or Lib Dem in Scotland these days? Not only does our redoubtable First Minister appear to be positively steaming ahead in opinion polls, but now poor Nicol S and Annabel G find that they’ve been mugged by the inability of Wendy ‘Shreek’ Alexander to deliver her much-lauded Constitutional Commission. How so?

Dream sequence: let Scotland’s unionist parties take the wind out of Ecky’s burgeoning nationalist sails by announcing the setting up of a new Constitutional Commission which will consider what further powers (including over taxation) should be devolved to the Scottish Parliament. And let that project invoke memories of the Constitutional Convention of the 1980s where a united Scotland stood firm in its determination to take on an unpopular Tory administration in London. Rekindling that spirit of national defiance against Thatchers’ “over-centralisation” of UK Government will effectively kill Salmond’s National Conversation for the “over-separation” (i.e independence) of Scotland’s Government. That will see off his so-called national conversation once and for all…

Horrid reality: not only are Wendy’s well-trailed ambitions for further devolution of powers subject to extensive criticism by the UK-wing of her own party, but the Constitutional Commission project is taken over by the UK Government and managed by a senior civil servant whose professional coordinates lie somewhere between the UK Ministry of Justice and the Scotland Office. It quickly becomes crystal clear that not only is bailiff Brown really in charge of this Commission, but he is ready to leave no one in any doubt that he is in charge!

The fine mess: Nicol and Annabel stick with this ill-fated Commission venture and find they are captured by the UK Labour Government. Self evidently Brown’s terms of reference for the remit of the Commission differ fundamentally from Wendy’s and, all the more so, from the terms that Nicol and Annabel thought they’d signed up to with such inelegant haste back in November. As rulers do, the bailiff has ruled. But he’s ruled out key reforms that Scotland’s unionist parties had persuaded themselves ('cause Wendy said so) had been ruled in! One can’t really imagine that being instructed the bailiff as to the conclusions this Commission will not be permitted to reach ahead of any meeting taking place is a situation that either Nicol or Annabel (or their UK masters) is likely to enjoy. But walk away from Wendy’s Commission on the grounds that you’ve been misinformed on its remit and scope, and the inability and incompetence of Scotland’s unionist parties collectively to discuss further any serious constitutional reform is laid bare for all to see. Upshot – not only is the constitutional debate handed back to the SNP – to be engaged through its still active national conversation – but the SNP Government emerges as the only political party capable of engaging this debate.

And all this begins with an idea from Wendy who, we are constantly assured, has a brain the size of a small planet.

Friday, January 25, 2008

The Peter and Wendy show...

In March 2007 the Association of Chief Police Officers for Scotland and the Electoral Commission agreed a Concordat covering, inter alia, procedures should potential violations of the rules on Parliamentary candidates’ spending and donations be uncovered. Appendix E, point 7, of that concordat states the following:
“In cases where the Electoral Commission has…information that indicates that criminal offences may have been committed…and the Commission has considered that the breaches are of sufficient severity that they believe prosecution action to be necessary…” these will be reported to the police.

The key words are, of course, “…sufficient severity…” - this presumably being in the opinion of the Electoral Commission, notwithstanding any advice it may receive. RRR finds it somewhat strange that crime (and the law of the land) is to be enforced subject to what is, essentially, a de minimis test to be applied by a quango. But whether we approve or not, this process might well determine the fate of Wendy’s political career.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Three men in a newspaper...

Today's Hootsman carries three stories that RRR thought worthy of comment.

First, the great whinge by everyone's favourite pundit, Dougie Donnelly - recently removed Chairman of the Scottish Institute of Sport. A full 2 pages worth of interview, plus great big happy photo. My sole question in all of this national wailing and associated carfuffle about Dougie's dismissal - and one that has not yet been addressed - is whether the aforementioned Institute actually provided value for money in terms of the performance of our elite athletes? In short - was it doing a good job? Has anyone asked him? Not his pals on the beeb, that's for sure - pace GMS appallingly fawning interview on Thursday's show. And not the redoubtable Hootsman interviewer either. As far as I can see from its annual reports, it certainly was doing a good job of appointing experts - so full marks on the input (spending money) side. But what about outputs? No one seems to have had the audacity to actually ask Dougie to defend the "value-added" record of the Institute in terms of overall performance by our elite athletes. I don't know the answer, but for goodness sake would somebody please pose the question?

Second, and this is a very unnerving moment for RRR, top marks go to Bill Jamieson for a very well written, sensible and balanced (yes, that's what I said...) piece on the Trump issue. I can't believe I've just written that...I'll stop now lest I begin again to believe in Santa Claus and the tooth fairy. But read it yourself.

And finally we turn to Corporal Jones (CJ), hubby of Groaner Brankin, writing on how an issue (inward investment) described as one of the Government's strategic economic objectives. As per usual, in his haste to bash the incumbent government CJ's logic goes somewhat awry:
' the Government's budget statement there is the following strategic objective: "We live in a Scotland that is the most attractive place for doing business in Europe"'

While this text indeed does appear in the budget statement (see here p46), it is presented not as an objective - I'd have thought the syntax kinda gives it away - but as a National Outcome to be delivered via the implementation of the 5 strategic objectives set out in the much earlier Government Economic Strategy (seemingly CJ doesn't know how to read a matrix). As usual, in his haste to catch out our new national government poor old CJ stumbles. And if that wasn't enough, he then undertakes some comparative analysis (sic) and compares the inward investment (under-)performance of Ireland with that of London - needless to say one is a country and one is a city. Following some very basic back-of-the fag-packet arithmetic (long-division, multiplication - that sort of stuff) and confused argumentation that I'll spare you, CJ comes to the breath-taking conclusion that "...the idea that tax cuts are a magic bullet for fixing the Scottish economy does not...stand up". Er, excuse me, but who said it did (stand up that is)? Like it or loathe it, I think the Government economic strategy is just a tad more sophisticated than that. Sadly, perhaps, CJ isn't.

I never thought I'd come to the stage when I'd be awarding top marks to Bill J for his objectivity in comparison to other scribes on the Hootsman. Strange days indeed....

Friday, September 07, 2007

Alf's Oafishness

There are many aspects to the copy that the Herald’s Oaf Young has been writing ever since a SNP victory began to look likely that are deeply irritating. Perhaps the most irritating is the intensely anti-intellectual stance he adopts over the matter of addressing Scotland’s contemporary economic performance (although a close second is his primordial west-of-Scotland Labour sectarianism). There are two aspects in today’s Herald piece that demonstrate what I mean.

First, the attempt to entirely undermine the new Council of Economic Advisors some 2 weeks ahead of its first meeting as reflected in the utterly contemptible comment that its composition “…gives independence an inbuilt majority on the 11-strong group” – this because Messrs Mathewson and Beveridge have come out in favour of independence; Professors Hughes Hallett and Kay “…avowedly favour Scottish independence”, and Professors Kydland and Ruane “…would not be minded to deprive Scotland of what their own countries have so long enjoyed”. Oh - and do you really think the CEA will decide on the basis of a vote for goodness sake?

Let’s look a bit more closely at our Council. Both Mathewson and Beveridge worked at various times in very senior public sector positions to improve the economic performance of Scotland. Both have concluded that Scotland lacks the necessary economic powers to achieve this – a conclusion also reached at by Robert Crawford, another former Chief Executive of Scottish Enterprise. RRR knows none of these individuals, but he’d be most reluctant to cast aspersions on their analytical abilities. RRR does, however, know the next two – Professors Hughes Hallett and Kay – and can assure Oaf that neither has an overtly political bone in his body. Both – and for entirely different reasons – have come to conclude that Scotland’s economic situation can be improved under a changed constitutional arrangement. Of the two, Hughes Hallett is driven by some heavy-lifting economic analysis. In a number of peer reviewed articles he has shown why Scotland’s economic performance is likely to be improved under an assignment of more economic powers to her government - it is the prevailing (mis-)assignment of economic policies, rather than independence per se, that is his starting position). Can this body of work simply be dismissed out of hand – or has Oaf read these and found the flaw in the underlying economic reasoning that other economists have missed? If so he’s keeping remarkably quiet about it. And as for his speculations on the independence-minded psychological state of the other two whom he seems not to have encountered (Kydland, because he's Finnish, and Ruane, ditto Irish, one of whom won the Nobel prize in Economics)…well, utterly pathetic really. One can only speculate why the remaining 3 economists – Jim Mirlees, Francis Cairncross and Alex Kemp – escape adverse comment, although if the afore-mentioned seditious-six are to get there divisive way they have to negotiate around these three…has Oaf ever met Jim Mirlees?…not something I’d be tempted to try).

The serious point of course is that Oaf is systematically aiming to throw doubt on the integrity of some highly eminent individuals (who, unlike Oaf, have reached the very top of their respective professions) by implying they have reached their professional conclusions on the underlying causes for Scotland’s relative economic performance as a consequence of a political predisposition towards the SNP, rather than (if at all) the other way round. This is the very epitome of the ‘old’, bitter and ugly politics of Scotland, and demonstrates why Oaf is no longer fit for purpose. (Though RRR is willing to wager a large sum that Oaf would be entirely sycophantic and grovelling to every one of them if ever he met them…)

The second irritating aspect of today’s piece is the oh-so-clever-clogs bit about the quality of the economic data on which any advice made by the CEA will be based. Here Oaf invokes the recent study by McLaren and Harris which raises a few very well founded doubts about the quality of the current economic data in Scotland, and which attracted intelligent comment yesterday from Gavin McCrone. But rather than criticising the quality of data produced by a string of previous occupants of New St Andrews House (most of whom were the political brethren of Oaf), he opts instead to try and be clever with words. I’ve lost count of the number of economists who have pleaded with officials to improve the quality of Scottish economic data. To set achieving this as an acid test by which the CEA will or will not be judged is simply bonkers. Statisticians in the Scottish Government will need to develop a range of new survey/sample methodologies to deliver a comprehensively solid set of economic data for Scotland, and I doubt this will be done before 21 September. I don't think this will prevent the Council from having an informed and useful debate.

Wendy (Shreek) Alexander clearly is trying to begin the long process of returning Scottish Labour to the position in which it has policies that the public want to vote for. And RRR wishes her every success in that quest. Everyone benefits from having a credible opposition. But the type of political carping that has become Alf Young’s stock in trade will not help. This is a throw back to the era in which political bigotry ruled the roost; the “better dead than SNP” type of politics so characteristic of the deeper recesses of West of Scotland labourism. It is the same mind set that delivers the religious bigotry that has come to scar our national sport week in. week out. Alf Young clearly despises the SNP as Rangers "fans" despise Celtic "fans" and vice versa. RRR would like to see that this form of deep-seated journalistic sectarianism rooted out and exposed for what it is.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

The Sad Tale of Dr Jones and Mister Brankin

Is Peter Jones losing it? In today’s Scotsman this formerly balanced reporter is trailing a new conspiracy theory as follows:

Is it part of the SNPs plan to deprive Scotland of the kind of big improvements that are eminently achievable now so that we become convinced that we must have independence in order to get them? In other words, is the SNP taking our toys away from us now and saying we’ll only get them back if we do as we’re told?
What has prompted this bizarre outburst is a “contradiction” which Mister Groaner Brankin has detected “at the heart of SNP’s programme”. He argues that because the SNP accepts the proposition that better transport infrastructure will improve Scotland's economic growth rate, it is acting in a contradictory (read "conspiratorial") manner in axing the Edinburgh Airport (vanity) rail project.

Upon interrogation on this by our redoubtable reporter, Enterprise Minister Jim Mather is quoted as having two responses explaining the Government’s position: first the Government needs control over income as well as expenditure if they are to embark on such huge capital spending programmes; second that the project is too risky under the current constitutional settlement. Mister Brankin finds neither explanation acceptable – on the basis that he sees no reason why this decision should have a “constitutional” dimension – and this leads him to his conspiracy theory as set out above.

Let’s just unpick the conundrum which leads him along the false trail towards his conspiracy story. Both of Jim Mather’s responses are easily understood in fairly basic economic terms;

(i) Controlling income as well as expenditure gives a government access to the full range of taxes (including - and this is crucial - future taxation) in order to fund capital spending programmes that are characterised by long pay-back periods (which is why the private sector won’t step in). Under the present fiscal arrangements the ‘block grant’ is set in London with scope for raising additional funds in Scotland solely via higher income tax (the ‘tartan tax’). Is Peter J suggesting that income tax in Scotland should be increased now to pay for a project for whom the main beneficiaries will be future generations? As matters stand the Scottish government’s task is to select spending priorities subject to the ceiling set by Whitehall. They cannot breach this ceiling – their budget has to balance. The Government has to select spending priorities within that ceiling, and the SNP made no secret of the fact that the rail project was not a priority. Other wealth-enhancing projects are of course being prioritised:

(ii) Under the current arrangements a Scottish government has no scope to raise revenue by borrowing (i.e. by issuing government debt). The bailiff’s golden rule when at the Treasury permits the UK government to borrow to finance capital spending (e.g. railway projects) – which it does – but not current spending. (Does PJ really believe that the 3 billion Euro he reports the Irish government will spend on a rail link to Dublin airport is coming out of the current spending account?) Scotland is unable to operate a golden rule, and so is further handicapped when it comes to funding expensive investment programmes, even where these are deemed desirable. Independence would enable a Scottish government to borrow in international capital markets and close this gap. In other words it can borrow now against higher revenues accruing in the future:

(iii) “Risk” is a complex issue, and every investment carries with it some element of risk. Indeed, it is the existence of risk that requires governments to step in and invest where the private sector will not – because a private company will be spreading the risk over a small number of current shareholders while a government can spread the risk over the current and (crucially) future tax payers as a whole. If there was no risk then there would be no obstacle to the rail link being provided privately (the channel tunnel is a good example of what I’m driving at!). When we consider “risk” in this way it is clear that the degree of “risk” attaching to capital investment spending by a government indeed is directly linked to the constitutional situation. At present the risk attaching to the rail link falls entirely on this government and this Scottish population. The government cannot borrow against benefits accruing from the project in the future. This changes fundamentally if Scotland was to become independent.

The type of conspiracy theory being pedalled by Peter Jones is feeble and reflects poorly on him. As someone who once worked for the Economist, one might have hoped he’d be better versed in elementary economics. But maybe Peter Jones is gone, and all we're left with is Mister Brankin? I really hope not...

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Yet more Tory Euro-tosh

Oh dear, here we go again. Ill informed drivel coupled with wilful mischief making by politically reactionary forces in Scotland - a combination certain to get RRR irritated. I am referring to this report from "the Tories" which is headlined: "An independent Scotland would be forced to use the Euro if it wanted to join the European Union as a sovereign country, according to the Scottish Conservatives." The content is cited in the following terms:
“It is now clear that we (i.e. Scotland) would have no choice in the matter and that membership of the Euro would be an automatic consequence of independence. There is absolutely no guarantee that the special status enjoyed by the UK would automatically transfer to an independent Scotland. This would create a very damaging situation for Scottish businesses, where they would be operating with a different currency from their major markets in the rest of the UK. Alex Salmond needs to stop misleading the Scottish people and now come clean, admitting that as an independent Scotland, we would have no choice but to join the Euro.”

It is, in fact, the Scottish Tories who should stop misleading the Scottish people.

First: the facts. It is entirely true that all countries acceding to the EU since, and including, those who joined in 1995 have been obliged to sign up for eventual membership of the euro - the EU´s single currency - this being an integral part of the EU Treaties. The opt-out from the requirement to participate in the EU single currency which both the UK and Denmark secured in the run-up to the signing of the Treaty on European Union (TEU) back in 1992 has not been available to any country subsequently joining the EU. It was only agreed back then because of the particular circumstances of the day. It is highly unlikely (though not impossible - we are back in "successor state??" territory) that a comparable opt-out will ever again be available to a prospective EU member state (if that is the position in which an independent Scotland finds itself). However, even although obliged by the EU treaties to become a member of the euro-zone, a member state will only be permitted to adopt the euro if it meets the so-called convergence criteria as set out in the TEU, the most difficult of which traditionally has been reducing its budget deficit to below 3% of Gross Domestic Product. For the record, Slovenia became the 13th member of the euro-zone from January 1st this year, and Malta and Cyprus will take the number participating in the euro-zone to 15 from January 1st, 2008.

Second: the actual position for non-members of the euro-zone as we know it to be. The UK and Denmark retain the opt-out and so are under no legal obligation ever to join the euro-zone. Both countries currently hold to the position that whilst in no sense ruling it out, they will not join unless this is supported in a national referendum. For the rest, and this includes Sweden where just such a referendum held in September 2003 went against joining the euro-zone (despite the fact that Sweden met the convergence criteria), there is simply no question that any country can be - or ever will be - forced into joining the euro-zone. Any suggestion to the contrary (including that made by Scotland´s Tories) is arrant nonsense and reveals a truly worrying degree of economic, political and legal illiteracy. The question as to whether an independent Scotland should exercise its right to join the euro-zone (subject to meeting the convergence criteria) is, of course, quite a different matter and (for the record) one on which RRR remains agnostic, this being a matter requiring further research.

The apparent content of this report truly is bewildering and deeply troubling, and suggests that one or more of the following propositions must be true;

ONE; that the Scottish Tories collectively are sufficiently stupid and ill-informed to have been duped into believing that an independent Scotland would be dragooned into the euro-zone against the wishes of either or both the Scottish government and its electorate;

TWO; that the Scottish Tories´policy-ideas cupboard is so bereft of constructive policy proposals that might help Scotland that they are reduced to wilfully misleading the Scottish public of the true situation vis-a-vis the Euro;

THREE; that the Scottish Tories have just discovered that all new member states (and not only those joining since 2004 but also those who joined in 1995) have had to sign an accession treaty committing them to eventual membership of the euro-zone. (Hell, if the Tories think that the SNP Government could have saved some money by not publishing the White Paper on Scotland´s constitutional future, RRR could have saved them a few pounds in consultant´s fees if only they had phoned him on this matter.)

Fit to govern...?? Scotland needs an independent think tank on EU policy so that the type of rubbish coming out of this so-called "investigation" can be debunked as soon as it´s published!

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Jack Straw: what a waste of an expensive (legal) education

D'ya know what? When Jack Straw was away from the Home Office and the administration of justice which he now taints, I actually missed him. No, seriously. Somehow my vision was tainted by the successive horrors of David Blunkett, Charles Clarke and John Reid, and I really missed Jack Straw's apparently reasonable approach to things. Not any more, not after today. I am pleased to see that Straw's Wikipedia entry refers to my favourite snippet about him - namely that the Students' Union in Leeds, of which he was once a sabbatical officer before becoming President of the NUS, banned him from the student union building after taking exception to his illiberal policies. I remember seeing the lovely plaque outside the main entrance to the building. I am sorry to see that the policy has now apparently lapsed. However, the historical record appears to state that Straw took a law degree at Leeds University - my former employer... I am sure it was a very good law degree - all Leeds law degrees are. But it clearly appears to have gone to waste, because it was apparently his "expectation" that Chindamo could be duly deported from the UK once he had completed his prison sentence. So now I mourn the passing of Charlie Falconer, who - as Lord Chancellor - would never have said anything so legally idiotic. Now, funnily enough, Jack Straw was Foreign Secretary at the time when the Citizens' Rights Directive was passed by the EU legislature, and as such he was effectively the UK's leader on all EU policy-making through his membership of the General Affairs Council. It is so blindingly obvious, I'm afraid, that the UK could never have an expectation of deporting Chindamo on release under EU law, and at most a hope that such an objective could be achieved, that one has to ask oneself the question whether (a) Straw has any understanding of the measures the UK is bound by, by virtue of EU law, and (b) whether his legal skills have so wasted away that he is no longer able to appreciate the clear effects of the provision of the Citizens' Rights directive which I cited in my last post on this matter. Anyway, it leads me to conclude that it was certainly a waste of an expensive (legal) education to send Jack Straw to Leeds University.