Monday, 15 September 2014

The Scottish Referendum: The Pound and Why All the Fuss?

Friday morning and we shall all know.  Until then, footwear will be worn out, voices cracked, keyboard tapped and nerves frayed.  Televisions and radios will be sworn at.  Friday will see desolation for some, manic celebration for others.  The weekend will pass in a similar vein. 
Come Monday, that is when the hard work really begins.

Whatever is the outcome of the vote on Thursday, we all know that the referendum campaign has changed Scotland and the United Kingdom for ever.  If Scotland votes No and stays with the Union, at least that is one variable out of the equation: we get to keep the pound Sterling.  If it is a Yes vote, Friday will still see me spending my pounds at the local ASDA.  The question for all of us is what will we be buying our groceries with in a couple-three years time?

There are several options, the first of which is to keep Sterling: the preference of the SNP.  They want to enter into a monetary and banking union with the UK government, thus retaining some influence with the Bank of England, whom the last Labour government made independent.  Of course, it would take the most leaden of intellects not to see the irony of the position: “we like your currency and financial system, just not you.”  There has been currency union since 1707, when the pound Scots was exchanged at a rate of twelve to one for pound Sterling.  The claim continues though that it would be to mutual benefit to both nations.  Let us have a closer look at this.

Staying in monetary and banking union with the UK would certainly be a good deal for an otherwise independent Scotland.  Up to now, Britain has managed to retain a triple A rating with the financial markets, meaning that government bonds are of the highest safety, thus being able to pay out the lowest of interest rates.  In other words, the UK can borrow money cheaply.  Introduce more risk and borrowers to the state would wish to see a higher return to offset the chance of the country defaulting upon repayment.  Scotland’s credit rating will be higher than if standing alone financially because if a bank should undergo a crisis, the Bank of England remains the borrower of last resort.  Great for the Scots.  Trade would also be stable as there would be no additional currency fluctuations or bank charges.  Business as usual:  Scotland would remain plugged into one of the world’s largest and most successful financial systems.

The question has to be asked though is “what’s in it for the rest of the UK?”  After all, the claim is for mutual benefit.  True, north-south trade remains but this is of far greater value to Scotland than to England: the main market.  The only real benefit I can see for England is maintaining the value of Sterling.  Scotland does have most of the oil (if one counts Shetland: that is another story) and thus would be the main beneficiary of the tax revenues.  Oil revenues are a major pillar of currency value but in a currency union, that will not matter so much because the revenues are still going to uphold the value of Sterling.  Sterling stays relatively strong.

What happens though if the UK keeps true to its word?  There will be no currency union: this has been stated by all the major Westminster parties.  Sterling falls in value, because current oil revenues are no longer counted towards its strength.  This makes imports more expensive: ironically enough even the price of fuel at the forecourt will rise because Sterling falls against the US dollar: the price of crude rises relatively, owing to the fact that oil and gas are traded in dollars.  The price of imports go up, everything from coffee to televisions to the price of foreign vacations.  There is good news too: suddenly it is cheaper to visit Britain, so one would expect numbers of tourists to rise.  It is also good for export business, as goods and services sold in Sterling also become relatively cheaper.  The effect on business will take some time to filter through; in the meantime the rest of us see the price of many goods rise.
It is not all bad news: government revenues from oil rise as a result of the strong dollar-pound rate.    The Scottish government though is under an imperative to build cash reserves because the Bank of England is no longer the lender of last resort for Scottish banks.  In order to avoid a run on Scottish banks, there has to be a credible lender of last resort.  That in tern will mean a new Bank of Scotland, an alternative to the Bank of England..  Since that title is already taken, let us call it the Scottish Central Bank.

The Scottish Central Bank has to be set up, initially to secure the future of Scottish banking.  That still leaves Scotland without control of its own interest rates or money supply and thus with absolutely no control over its own economy.  This is denounced for the craziness that it obviously is, and the Scottish Government decides to launch our own currency.  The pound Scots (abbreviation £Scots) is reborn.

Celebrations all around.  It maybe the case that now backed with oil (assuming both the Scottish government have honoured their share of taking responsibility for UK debt and have also being willing to issue bonds at inflated rates demanded by the money markets) the £Scots gains in value.  It is even conceivable that, as the Irish Pund did in the 1990s, it on occasion even excesses Sterling in value.  The Nationalists burst with happiness.

Here is the bad news.  The rest of the UK is still Scotland’s largest market, regardless of currency, just as the UK is still Ireland’s largest trading partner.  Geography is an inconvenient truth that ignores sentiment and politics.  Now trade both ways faces exchange rate charges and the added volatility of oil price fluctuations.  Proportionally, the stress is far more upon Scottish firms than UK business, purely on proportion of overall business done.  Just as Ireland has to turn their best minds to getting the advantage in trade with the UK, the same will happen in Scotland.

Throughout this essay, I have referred to oil and it is worth taking a moment to consider its long term future.  Now the Yes campaign will tell you, with truth, that there is still years of production ahead and there are new fields to the west of Shetland.  

What they will not tell you is this: 



The graph above are based upon figures from the UK government website linked here.  I have not updated it for 2013 but as you can see by following the link, the production trend is still downwards.  From the peak in the late 1990s, both oil and gas production has fallen by 70% and both proven and probable reserves have also fallen.  It is true though that oil and gas production are still important: when the Buzzard field went offline in September 2012, it nearly threw the UK economy into a triple-dip recession (report here).  
If one field shutting down for a month has such an effect upon the UK economy as a whole, imagine the effect upon the far smaller Scottish economy.  It is important because business needs stability, they need to be able to plan ahead with a degree of confidence.  An independent Scotland may offer dizzying heights but equally abyssal lows.  Especially over short time frames, both are equally damaging.  This is what economists call volatility. 

We are not yet finished with the currency though, so please forgive the digression.  To return to the narrative, Scotland now has a central bank and we also have the £Scot.  The next big question is whether we rejoin the EU.  Like the rest of the United Kingdom, there is divided views on this.  One of the reasons I am voting No on Thursday is that I will not cast a vote to leave the European Union.  Let’s give the SNP the benefit of another doubt though and think through the end game for the brief life of the £Scot.  Its life as a currency would be brief owing to the fact that new applicants would be expected to join the Euro Zone as condition of entry.  The process is never swift: negotiations take years, sometimes decades.
The alternative would be to join EFTA, the European Free Trade Association, and go the way of Norway and Iceland.  This maybe economically appealing but in order to really work, I believe it takes a Scandinavian mindset - a willingness to be truly fair to each other in society and be united.  This unity is both in the view of the outside world and within society.  As an academic from the University of Edinburgh recently observed on the Today Programme, Scots believe themselves to be more progressive and tolerant that the neighbours to the south.  When views and beliefs are actually measured though, we are all pretty much the same in outlook across the entire United Kingdom.  We all think British, because we are British.  No matter in what high regard we may hold our neighbours, we are not Scandinavian.  The division with Scotland caused by the referendum is enough to prove that case.

There is two alternatives ahead on us on Thursday.  To vote, regardless of consequences, Yes for an independent Scotland.  The SNP are keen to emphasise the benefits of independence while at the heart of their campaign is a single dishonest word: scaremongering.  Exploring the avenues, looking ahead and assessing the possibilities, that is not scaremongering.  That is making an informed choice: a choice that by using terms like scaremongering and Project Fear, the SNP have been keen to shut down.

I am making an informed choice on Thursday by voting No. 


Monday, 1 September 2014

The Scottish Referendum: Why I Am Voting No.

Like most people I suspect, my reasons for voting the way I am are a mixture of logic, emotion and personal experience.  What this piece will not be is a campaigning effort on the part of the No Thanks.  It will be a process in self-examination: a totally personal outlook.

First of all though I think I should have a look at the reasons why I considered voting Yes.  The one which I found easiest to discard (perhaps surprisingly considering my stance on nuclear weapons) is Trident.

The argument from the Yes campaign is that after independence, the UK would have to remove their nuclear-armed flotilla from the Clyde.  The price of  building a new base, also the geographic difficulties, will apparently lead the British Government to give up the whole thing as a bad lot.  
If only it were so.  Although there are factions within Labour who strongly support CND, there is no evidence that the Westminster executive have ever contemplated getting rid of nuclear weapons or Trident.  Cameron has gone ahead with the planning phase of the Successor-class boats, although thanks to the Liberal Democrats, actual building will not start until after 2015.  In 2006, Labour laid out the route-map to keep the Trident system until 2050, also alternative bases and facilities do exist.  Even if the boats were ejected from the Clyde (and I would not be sorry to see them go), then in a pinch they could be based in the USA while new facilities are created in the UK.
In order to be rid of these horrible devices, one has to change minds in both Westminster and Whitehall.  Britain does not need nuclear weapons, but the capacity is seen as vital by the political elites.  Even if Scotland goes a different way, that mindset has not changed in Westminster.  We might celebrate here but in reality our voices are lost to the campaign to really get rid of them.  Effectively we become NIMBYs.  With the SNP reversing their stance on NATO (one of the few things I admired about the party), worse we become hypocrites too: since NATO is an alliance based upon nuclear weapons.  Although the nationalists point to the example of Canada getting rid of US weapons deployed upon their territory in the 1950s, in reality they were not needed there since the US had bases both in Alaska and Greenland.  I would not be surprised if Faslane became a bargaining chip rather than a solid pledge to be delivered upon.  Why would I say this?  Many NATO nations already have stocks of US nuclear weapons, often against the will of their populations and indeed governments, as part of NATOs collective responsibility.  Critics have pointed out that this does not represent the entire US stockpile, which is true: it is not too hard to imagine that, as part of Scotland’s entry in NATO and as part of the sharing of nuclear collective responsibility, that Trident remains in the Clyde while a new base is being prepared.  

The second argument that had me considering voting Yes is a negative one: dislike of the increasing powerful right wing of UK politics - embodied in right-wing of the Conservatives and UKIP.  As the nationalists are fond of chanting “No More Tories.” 
Again, I do not believe a Yes vote would instantly create some kind of left-wing Scottish nirvana.  There is still a lot of right-wing people in Scotland, and freed from the label of Toryism, I expect the political Right to undergo a swift revival in an independent Scotland.  Some would argue that would be alright, because they would be “oor Tories”.  Which would lead to a different argument altogether.
I would wish to vote for an independent Scotland for positive reasons and not through dislike of others.   
While on the topic though, I may well reconsider my position in the future should Britain leave the EU: that would be the height of nationalistic folly - albeit English on this occasion.  In seeking to leave the UK, several EU states and officials have made it perfectly clear that Scotland will also be leaving the EU and would have to reapply.  There is no reason beyond that of wishful thinking that this will be a straightforward process.  France and Spain both have separatist issues and would not wish to encourage their own regional nationalists by giving Scotland an easy transition.  In short: Scotland would be made an example of.  
I will not cast a vote to leave the EU: it is clear from the rulings from Europe that a Yes vote will be doing just that.

The final reason I would consider voting Yes is the hardest to discard and it is this: the creation of a new Scandinavian nation.  Having lived in Norway and worked in Denmark, this really tugs at my heartstrings.  The point is though is that if one wishes to create a Scandinavian nation, most people have to think like Scandinavians!  I really don’t see a shred of evidence for this in Scotland.  Scottish people are, well, Scottish and being as such, we have a lot more common with our close neighbours, the Irish, English and Welsh.  Sure, there are minor differences but just as the Norwegians, Danes and Swedes have a lot more in common with each other, sharing a common history and close linguistic links, we do here in the British Isles.  Norway only really broke away from Sweden because the Swedes looked down on Norway and treated it as a colony, just as the Republic of Ireland broke away from the Union, owing the the often harsh and terrible treatment of the majority of the people there.   However, what popped my bubble on the Norwegian dream was a letter to the Scotsman from Haakon Blakstad.  Laying aside the risk of hardships he points to for the moment, he looks to the current disunity of the nation.  


“Finally, if an independent Scotland succeeds it will be because it is totally united. When Norway wanted independence 99.5 per cent of the population voted Yes.I don’t see that sort of unity in Scotland today, and for that reason alone there should not be a referendum at all.”

Herr Blakstad is right.  Over the past, artificially prolonged independence debate, it seems that divisions between the sides have become more entrenched.   
What are my positive reasons for staying in the UK?  Frankly I'm reminded of Joni Mitchell’s song Big Yellow Taxi.  
Don't it always seem to go 
That you don't know what you've got 
Till it's gone 

The biggest thing that people will miss is the pound Sterling, or at least having any say in the matter.  This is a well-trodden path but it is fundamental to the heart of the matter.  The SNP says “It’s our Pound too!”  Well, no.  With the 1707 Act of Union, the pound Scots was replaced with the pound Sterling - at an exchange rate of 12 to 1.  There is a shared sovereignty between the nations of the United Kingdom, but only while in union.  Withdraw from the Union and Sterling goes with it.  There is no obligation whatsoever for Westminster to share its financial sovereignty with any successor state.
If the pound goes, there are three choices: keep with Sterling but with base interest rates set by the UK (and borrowing rates dependent on Scotland’s perceived credit rating), join the Euro zone when finally gaining entry in the EU or recreate the pound Scots, with it possibly being linked to one of the major currencies.  The uncertainty is real and is not good for business.  Hardline nationalists will not care: better lean freedom than fat slavery they may say.  Except we are free already and not slaves.
The currency is so important because if effects us all: relative earnings, savings, mortgages, pensions, trade.  Consumer prices in both Ireland and Norway are more expensive that here in Scotland.  That is just a fact and is an outcome of living in small nations.  
I understand that there cannot be guarantees: and the Yes campaign should be straight with us rather than giving out jaunty and optimistic views.  The most honest answer is “We can’t guarantee anything but we’ll do our best.”

Another major change which is literally in public view is the media.  Sure, the BBC has many faults: I am increasingly frustrated with the bias of BBC news, especially in matters of international affairs.  On the whole though it is pretty good.  Add to that Channel Four, and UK free-to-view television is delivering excellent programmes.  Having lived in both Ireland and Norway, I can assure you that the local output of those nations are not up to much.  What most people in those nations do is buy satellite or similar alternatives in order to tune into a wider range of international programmes.  Remember though, both nations still have television licences too.
The two examples above are obvious examples of the benefits of being part of the United Kingdom.  We should be aware of those which are hidden.

As part of its briefings on the Future of the UK and Scotland, the Innogen Institute (itself a collaboration between the University of Edinburgh and the Open University) looks at the present and future of medical research in the nation.  They observe that the SNP have focused upon preserving the delivery of services and says little about the future of research in Scotland.  Now, I will make very clear here that Innogen attempts to stay politically neutral but their concerns are clear.  Currently medical research in Scotland is hard-wired into the UK-wide system and all benefit from that arrangement.  In terms of research base and medical studies, bigger is better.  If Scotland goes independent, what is the future of medical research here?  Not only in the scale of the research base but in funding too.  Alternatives will have to be found for the latter (and that is not made clear how, except by remaining an integrated part of the UK system), but this cannot solve the scale issue.  The population would be too small to give statically viable results in many research areas.  To be absolutely fair on this issue, so I am not accused of putting words in the institute’s mouth, I give you the following quotation:

Scotland has pioneered clinical and medical research, and has built up significant assets and capabilities in the life sciences.  There are clear opportunities for building this research capacity under independence, but there are also clear uncertainties for medical research system funding and governance.”

The conclusion of their briefing paper is:

The key message from our research is that Scotland is not so fundamentally different from the rest of the UK in terms of institutional assets, infrastructure, approaches and capacity for healthcare and medical research.  It has key strengths, but what is missing is policy and economic evidence of what devolution, and potential independence, means for health and wealth.  What is clear is that there are many different views about the benefits and limitations of the existing healthcare system and the complex research system that has evolved alongside it.  In the public debate, emphasis has been very much on the fiscal and currency issues and where health has been discussed, it has focused on the NHS and assess to healthcare, with research very much marginalised.” 

In other words, in the rush to gain the popular vote, whole areas vital to the future of the nation’s health have been overlooked.  It is not hard to imagine that this is the case too in many other areas of academic research.  If the academic and research funding and prospects are damaged by independence, that will mean only one thing: our youngest and brightest will go to places where they can continue their work.  Just in case you think I'm making this up, this story has arisen literally as I write: Fears of Academic Exodus, which appears in this morning's Herald.

No honest self-examination should leave out the negative aspects of why I am saying No.  We all have personal prejudices and I am no exception.

The first time I encountered hard-edged nationalism was at university, in my case that was Aberystwyth.  By the time I arrived as a mature student, I was already an active Liberal Democrat.  I tell you, apart from my flatmate who was a Plaid Cymru supporter who I got on with really well, there was no talking to the other Plaid activists.  Every single discussion was a war of point scoring and attrition.  There was no commonality nor any attempt to find any on their part.  
What really opened my eyes though was how my flatmate treated by a couple of Plaid activists one night.  He was a Welsh speaker, no problem there but he was also English-born.  The boys from North Wales treated him with ill-concealed contempt and barely tolerated his presence.  

My experience from Wales led me to examine the philosophy of nationalism and I came to the conclusion that the whole genre focuses on the small differences between groups of people, while ignoring the vast areas of commonality that exist between all of us.  Now I was challenged on Twitter over this view who, with some justification, pointed out that nationalism  embraces concepts all the way from Nazism to the ANC struggle against apartheid.  My reply to this is that what is being described is the struggle between the oppressor and the oppressed.  If there is equality between the two sides, where does nationalism come in?

There are many things that irks me about the SNP, a minor one is the attempts to create or at least rewrite history.  A small example was commentator Leslie Riddoch dreaming that following a Yes vote, we could get rid of all the Hanoverian street names in Edinburgh.  It may have been unkind of me, but the game ended when I pointed out that Bonnie Prince Charlie didn’t lead the army south to free Scotland, but rather to rule over the entire Union from the throne in London.  A more serious example of rewriting of history in order to create a nationalist narrative is the widespread introduction of Scots Gaelic in signage across the country.  While I have nothing against the language itself (my mother speaks the Donegal dialect), there are many places in Scotland where it was never widely spoken.  I hear that when there was an attempt to introduce the practice into the Northern Isles, there was a widespread rejection of the new signs.  When the local opinion was sought, the consensus was that if there was to be bi-lingual signs, the second language should be Norwegian.  As far as the East Coast is concerned, I remember a friend of mine in Aberdeen was working on a PhD. which showed that most Scottish place names, far from being derived from either Norse or Gaelic, actually had their linguistic roots in Welsh: the original Celtic language that was widespread in these isles prior to the Germanic invasions.
Top tip SNP: it you want to introduce authentic bi-lingual place names, stick to Welsh.

To summarise my personal experience: I am half-Irish, English-born, Welsh-educated resident of Scotland who has been here for quite a few years now.  I have travelled widely and have also lived in Ireland and Norway.  I have found that what unites us in these islands far outweighs any perceived differences.   
Believe me, most foreigners can’t tell the difference between us, apart from the accents.

Where do we go from here?  Following a Yes vote, Alex Salmond has called for No voters to get on board Team Scotland.  Scottish secretary Alistair Carmichael agreed to this stating that following a Yes vote, he would indeed join the Scottish side in negotiating the best deal for Scotland with the United Kingdom.  As will I - if anybody should call upon me to do so.  The flip side of this coin though should be that Yes campaigners should pledge to accept a No vote, we should then work together to see what is the way forward for Scotland.  The Westminster parties have made pledges on new powers for our nation.  I realise that committed Yes supporter will treat this with distain but they shouldn’t.  The pledge is important because it is a public acknowledgement that things cannot stay the way they are.  It is now possible for Scotland to build a distinctive nation while underpinned by the financial strength of the United Kingdom.  Let us not discard that lightly.  



Sunday, 10 August 2014

A Friend Asks Me: "Who Should I Vote For After a Yes Vote?"

On Facebook, my mate and political belligerent Alex wrote the following on my timeline.

"My dear friend - as the only person I know active for a political party (there is one other but since he stood by while his mother embezzled thousands from his grandparents and he's with the SNP.... ) - we have known each other a few years and are probably on completely opposite sides of the political spectrum - we may agree on certain aspects but not on the implementation or the resolution but I do like to see your posts on here.
"I have a question that only you can really answer.
"Scotland gets the YES vote, what happens with all the no parties including yours?
"What plans have they kept from the public that will put them into a winning position against Salmond and the SNP?
"Now there must be something in the pipeline because to have ignored the possibility only strengthens my concerns of staying with the UK.
"This is quite serious as at the moment he has no opposition for a landslide victory and a chance to make himself president of Scotland.
"Convince me who should I vote for after YES"

This is the rest of the exchange:

Me:
Alex, thank you for your question. It deserves more than just a couple of lines answer, so I'll take 
a bit of time to reply.
The answer will be based upon my own understand, and not any "official" policies. Cheers!

Alex:
Martin I would expect no more from you bud - looking forward to a good read - and debate?


Me:
 Hi Alex,

I had a wee think about this and here is my best guess.


As you are aware, the Better Together parties are working hard to ensure a No vote next month so as far as I am aware, have no plans to change their constitutional remit at this time. Following a No vote, there would be no need for any such change.

Following a Yes vote, the SNP have called for all interested parties to be involved in talks on a new constitution. You may recall Nicola Sturgeon called for consultations to start several months ago. This can and should be written off as campaigning, for if the Better Together parties had accepted the invitation, this would have been tantamount to accepting defeat.

What is clear that, following a Yes vote but prior to new elections for Holyrood, the SNP have plans to challenge the legal and constitutional remit of all parties whose registration lies outside Scotland. In other words, Labour, Conservative, Liberal Democrat, Green (as far as I know) and many smaller parties may cease to exist in a legal sense.

I am not used to doing this but for now let’s give the SNP the benefit of the doubt and assume that they are acting in good faith. The reality on the ground is that all the existing party structures, networks and activists will remain in place. Part of the constitutional talks would have to involve the formation of legally-recognised parties prior to any new elections. I have read of nationalists dreaming up completely new parties, based upon continental models. As I pointed out though, the existing party structures and networks are already in existence, so what I would expect to happen is that Scottish versions of current UK-wide parties would spring up to contest the 2016 elections.

Beyond that date, doubtless there would be a state of evolution both within parties and for the Scottish constitution in general. For instance, I would be concerned that Holyrood remains a single chamber parliament, without the balancing effect of a second house such as a senate. Supporters claim that there is no need, as the Storting in Oslo only has a single chamber. Norway has strong regional representation however, with overview of the police for example: systems currently lacking in Scotland. Constitutionally, I would be deeply unhappy if the current structures were to remain effectively unchanged, as this would concentrate far too much power with the executive in Edinburgh.

The question has also arisen as whether the SNP would disband after completing it’s stated purpose: to bring about independence. I would stake the farm that that would not happen. It is certain that the current party would seek to exploit the glory of a successful referendum campaign.

To attempt to answer your question: following a Yes vote, who should you vote for Alex? The quick answer is I don’t know because the chances are the party you would ending up voting for does not legally exist yet. 

Obviously I will be seeking a No vote next month. If it is a Yes vote though, what is clear is that Scotland will have a greater-than-ever need for Liberal representation.

Alex kindly consented to having our exchange posted as a blog.

Thursday, 31 July 2014

Libdems Pledge to Plant a Tree for Every Newborn

"Libdems will plant a tree for every baby born"  is a pretty cheesy headline but it is a good idea.  As an extension of The Forestry Commission's Big Tree Plant, it seeks to both help to protect the natural environment and foster community feeling; getting people involved and improving the neighbour.  Under the Big Tree Plant, 800,000 trees have already been planted.  The Libdem plan will see that extended to a further 750,000 trees every year for England and Wales.

Following some of the disastrous policies of the 1970s and 80s, in which many square miles of the country were put under a monoculture of non-native spruces, it is good to see a pledge to not only to manage and protect existing woodland more effectively, but to democratise the scheme and bring the benefits as close to people as possible.

If one is hoping to bring maximum benefit to wildlife, it is better to plant native species such as (but by no means limited to) oak, ash,  chestnut, sycamore, bird cherry, aspen, birch and rowan.  It is always good to be aware of the ultimate size an individual specimen is expected to grow: aspen for example can reach heights of over 20m.

If a community is intending to recreate a natural woodland, a mix of trees and shrubs will be necessary, planted in the knowledge that as the decades go by, the larger tree specimens will eventually overshadow and kill off smaller species.  This is all part of the natural progression,  with four main woodland cycle being recognised - pioneer plants, scrub and shrubs, small trees and finally mature woodland consisting of the biggest species.

The Royal Horticultural Society has a very useful page, giving a list of native species of trees and shrubs, along with a size guide.

When it comes to forestry, a very long term vision is needed: something we are not encouraged to think about in our day-to-day lives.  I am reminded of the story of an Oxford college who, some decades back, was facing a crisis.  The oak beams that supported the roof of the Great Hall had perished, reaching the end of their useful lives.  Meeting after meeting was held and alternatives sought, but no solution could be found by the dons.  Eventually the college steward was invited to yet another meeting and was finally asked his opinion.

"I wondered when you would get around to asking me," said the steward.  "You know that line of oaks at the college entrance?  They were planted in the same year construction of the Great Hall started over 500 years ago, so when these beams wore out, their replacements would be ready."

Now that is vision.

Friday, 18 July 2014

MH17. My reaction.

I am not just saddened by the downing of Malaysian airliner MH17, causing the death of 298 people, I am profoundly pissed off.

If it is not bad enough dealing with the threat of accidents and terrorism, the air traveller have to risk the attention of trigger-happy morons, who with the aid of high-technology weapons supplied by the power-hungry, take a pop at anything that happens to be passing overhead.

It is not the first time it happened. Nor, historically speaking, is Russia the only guilty party. The US has previous form too.

Whoever doles out these weapons should be equally liable, under international law, when they are misused by others.  In this case, although Mr. Putin is already on record as blaming the Ukrainians, I hope he sticks to his word, promised to Dutch premier Mr Rutte, that the inquiry will be thorough and objective.

My heart goes out to the families of the dead. My anger is for all those who feed war zones such as Eastern Ukraine.

As a postscript, why is it the US "leading calls" for an inquiry, as reported on the BBC news at eight o'clock this morning? Although they are welcome to pass on evidence, surely this one is for the Dutch and Malaysian authorities, in co-operation with the Ukrainian and Russians.

Sunday, 6 July 2014

Why a Liberal? Why not something else?

I'm not a Conservative owing to its cynical view of humanity and refusal to engage with the better nature of people.
I'm not a Socialist because although collective action does have a role in society, the movement quickly dissolves into competing factions in its struggle to replace one elite with another.
I'm not a Nationalist because although there is a lot to be grateful for in growing up in a particular place, the place should not be romanticised and set up above all other places. That is the politics of Us and not Them.
I'm not a Green because although care of the Earth is vital, it isn't at the centre of everything. We are in politics to serve people first, but it would be irresponsible not to care for the planet too.
I'm a Liberal because I have a belief that the state is here to serve the individual, the family and caring for people who are not able to care for themselves; to encourage behaviour beneficial to wider society, while acknowledging that some human drives are destructive and selfish but allowing for those instincts too. 
In short, liberalism accepts people as they are, rather than what some might wish others to be.

Wednesday, 2 July 2014

Fracking and Anti-Fracking.

Fellow Liberal Democrat, Tessa Munt MP, asked for views on the proposed government legislation to enable developers gain access to resources under private property.  Tessa is anti-fracking, so my response probably will not be a pleasant read for her, but below is my initial reply.

Tessa, I will make several points.

1) You are correct. Renewables should be the priority for the UK. It seems though that the British public are against ANY form of development of the countryside. The Conservatives are pandering to this by promising a ban on further onshore windfarm development if they win power after the next election.
Research and development of renewable energy, combined with government subsidy of improving the energy efficiency of our homes and places of work, should be a priority. Perhaps the stamp-duty tax and business rates of properties could be tweaked to reflect the energy efficiencies of properties, as well as giving positive support to make buildings more energy efficient.

2) In my view, and in the view of the British Geological Survey, 300m is too shallow. In a paper cited in my block entry on fracking, the BGS says that prospects under 1000m should not be explored and developed. Although some prospects in the UK come into this zone, most are between depths of 1000 and 3000m. I am against development above this depth and the law of access should reflect that safety margin.

3) You state that hydrocarbons should be left in the ground to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. True, but that is not happening. Coal is currently supplying 30% of UK energy, and those figures are rising, thanks to cheap imports from the US. Surely it is better to exploit cleaner gas reserves and leave the coal in the ground?

4) It is interesting that you mention the Coal Industry Act. This provides precedent under the law.
Can any individual really claim ownership of the ground over a mile below their property? Similarly, if we owned the sky above our houses, an overflying aircraft would equally be guilty of trespass. It is important that legislations does recognise damage and the level of evidence should not be criminal (beyond all reasonable doubt) but rather civil, on the balance of probabilities. A civil body, perhaps advised by the BGS, should be set up to independently evaluate any complaint. This should be funded by a levy on exploration companies involved in onshore activities.

5) Energy security. One just has to remember this simple fact. Since the late 1990s, levels in production of both oil and gas from the UK sector have fallen by two-thirds. Please see my blog for a graph based upon DECC production figures.
What is clear is that Britain’s main focus should be making good on this shortfall. We are currently a net energy importer and this situation is projected only to get worse in the next decade. http://www.fraw.org.uk/publications/e-series/e03/e03-uk_balance.png

To summarise.
I am all for government subsidy into renewable energy and energy saving in our nation’s buildings. We should investigate methods of taxation that reward responsible owners and disadvantage those who make no effort to improve their properties.

1000m should be the minimum depth of development, not the 300m cited in the proposed law.

In order to further decrease greenhouse gas emissions, usage of coal to generate electricity should be completely phased out as soon as possible.
Precedent for the proposed law already exists. An independent body, advised by the BGS, should be set up to evaluate damage claims. This body should be funded by a levy on the energy companies.
The status-quo is not tenable. If we do nothing as a nation, refuse to develop the opportunities open to us, we are effectively washing our hands of the matter and in importing more energy, we are paying cash to export the problem and our responsibilities.

If you wish to support Tessa's point of view, her website can be reached here.

My previous blogs on fracking for beginners can be reached through this link.

I fully intend to look over the government's consultation paper on drilling access and give a more detailed account later.

UPDATE

The day after I published this blog, the BGS published their Aquifers and Shales; a series of interactive maps showing the proximity of shale prospects to drinking water aquifers.  It is especially useful as it gives both plan and section views, giving the vertical distance between formations.  On the basis of this information, it is expected that drilling will be prevented where there is a risk to drinking water.

The site also gives details of their water-sampling project, which establishes a base line of the current methane content in the UK's potable water aquifers.  This is something that the US failed to establish prior to their fracking industry going ahead.