Monday, 6 April 2015

Hustings statement: Yes for a Better Scotland. 8th April 2015.

Statement to Hustings, organised by Yes for a Better Scotland.  South Leith Parish Church.  8th of April.

As a Liberal Democrat, it is easy to feel that the entire world is against us, even the job.  Although I was due to be back before this time, I am sorry to say that the cost-cutting that is globally taking place in the oil and gas industry has meant that my employer's client is saving money on personnel, leaving me literally stuck in the middle of the Persian Gulf.  So apologies for not being here: I sincerely regret not being with you this evening.

Let's cut to the chase, as the Americans have it.  Why should I be your MP?

First of all, the basics:

I live in the constituency with my family.  Our child goes to Trinity Academy.

I work in the constituency (at least when not galavanting off to distance parts of the world) with a local company that specialises in oilfield-related software.  Last year I was made redundant from my previous post, so from recent experience I know the taste of unemployment and the stresses that it brings.

My travel, both with my new and in previous employment, has been an education in its own right:  Unfiltered by media outlets, one sees how the world really works.  Nothing beats that first-hand experience.  During the past twenty or so years, I have seen places that have regularly come up in the news:  Russia, Israel, North Africa, the Middle East, and of course Europe.
With so many powers devolved to us here in Scotland, isn't it better for our Westminster MPs to have a strong knowledge of foreign affairs?

Closer to home I have lived in other parts of the UK, Ireland and Norway.   These last experiences in particular informed my opinion in the recent independence referendum.  I voted No.

I am not against Scottish Independence because of bloodymindedness or out of a wish to dupe anybody.  I am against independence because at this time I can only see the movement deliver a different future for our country, not a better one.

The Yes movement has put the cart before the horse.  Surely we should be all working hard to improve Scotland today, with the powers we already have, instead of promising the land of milk and honey tomorrow.

If in time Scotland evolves in a different direction from the rest of the United Kingdom, and the south will not follow our example and our lead, then the time for independence will have come because the case would be proven beyond all reasonable doubt.  I applaud the energy and enthusiasm that the Yes Campaign has brought to politics.  We should be directing that energy to making Scotland more progressive.
Greener.  Better.  Today.
Do not wait upon uncertain outcomes: we have the power to do the right things now.  Use them.

And whatever that future holds, it is clear that Scotland still needs liberalism.  Liberal values are the values of human rights: on the side of the the individual in the face of power.  While often copied, they can only be delivered and upheld by a person, by a party, that holds liberal values to the core of their beliefs.

In today's Scotland, I am not seeing these liberal values being upheld.  Power is being increasingly concentrated and centralised.  It is not a trend limited to these shores.  Across the world, governments grow in power and knowledge and as they do, the rights of individuals are being eroded.  We must not let that continue.

Help stop that trend by voting for the party with a proven track record on upholding people's rights, both in Holyrood and at Westminster.  On May 7th vote Liberal Democrat.

Monday, 30 March 2015

USA & Iran - It Isn't About the Nukes

Two articles have allowed me to understand the US-Iran dynamic and why Obama is so keen to seal the deal.  Of course, the Telegraph story really is the answer. which was met with dismay by an online North Sea oil forum tonight: predicting more woe for the UK sector.

To begin.  Israel in recent weeks have been making all out efforts to derail the US-Iranian talks, wheeling out the old adage that Iran is within five years of developing nuclear weapons.  It is old because that is what enemies of the Iranian regime have been saying since the 1980s.  If the Mullahs of Tehran really wanted nuclear weapons, they are really taking a leisurely time about it.

The first article is this from Arutz Sheva US Declassifies Documents Revealing Israel's Nuclear Program.  In diplomatic terms, the US deciding to release details of the now-aging Sampson nuclear weapons system is a real (but not widely publicised) slap in the face for Israeli complaints over Iranian nuclear research.  In no uncertain terms, the Israel government are being called a bunch of hypocrites by Obama.  It is a particularly sharp rebuke because the Sampson system is now elderly and in need of either upgrade or replacement.  The US is reminding Israel that if that is going to happen, they will need American help.

So if the US are willing to put Israel in its place over these negotiations, there must be something very big at stake.  Indeed there is.  The Telegraph story makes it clear that big oil wants to move into Iran after being forced to withdraw from the country following American-led boycotts.  Now the story says that the oil majors want to return and that is indeed the case.  Serious money will also be made in repairing Iran's existing fields though.  They have not had free access to Western technology since the late 1970s and the wells are seriously inefficient.  It would be no exaggeration to say that hundreds of billions of dollars of business will be generated for US companies if the barriers to trade and technology transfer come down and Iranian fields are resurveyed, repaired and reworked in the decades to come.  Companies like Schlumberger and Halliburton are set to be major beneficiaries.  

Where does this leave the UK sector?   On the up side, a lot of British-based companies, many based around Aberdeen will be able to benefit from the opening of Iran to business.  As this time, they are simply not allowed to trade.  In 2013, BP had, at least for a time, closed the Rhum field in the North Sea as it is partly owned by the Iranian National Oil Company.  The financial sector in both Edinburgh and London will also gain.  Skilled individuals will doubtless find work, and in an environment much more stable and safe than to be found in neighbouring Iraq.  The down side however is large.  The North Sea is expensive to explore and develop.  When it comes to oil, it isn't the price of a barrel that is the only factor.  Thought is first given to how much will it cost to extract the stuff and then ship it to market.  With calm waters, large areas of land-based fields (cheaper to develop than offshore) and sitting on the world's major tanker route, when Iran opens for business, it will only make the UK offshore by comparison more expensive and even less attractive to new investment.

Friday, 27 March 2015

Germanwings 4U9525

Tonight, French prosecutors investigating the downing of Germanwings flight 4U9525 over the Alps, announced that the aircraft containing 150 people was crashed deliberately by the co-pilot, twenty seven year old Andreas Lubitz.  It is not thought that his motives were political, so it will not be counted as a act of terrorism.

My heart goes out to those who have lost family members, friends and colleagues, and also those people whose job is to recover the wreckage and bodies.  I am sure anybody hearing the news will feel the same.

I am not writing from any viewpoint of expertise on aviation, just as a person who travels a lot in a wide variety of aircraft, all the way from four-person helicopters through to A380 super-jumbos.  The truth is that every time I get in an airplane, there is an unspoken contract between myself and the pilots that they want to live & want to see the passengers, myself included delivered safely.

It therefore stands that if the pilot ever feels that they are unable to fulfil that contract, that person should seek immediate help and not fly.  I don't know the pilot training and profiling currently entails but I do know that ever time I fly, I am trusting the people up front with my life.

There are obviously grave implications for any pilot who turns around to their bosses and voices such dreams.  This is the point where my knowledge fails because I don't know what procedures exist to help staff in mental distress.  Are there any?  I have no idea.  If there isn't, then a pilot confessing to dark fantasies, such as crashing a plane, are instantly out of work.  This is a powerful incentive for them to remain secret until they are either overcome or are acted upon, as it appears to be in this tragic case.

What I am asking therefore, is not only should such a service exist for pilots but also that pilots are confident that in turning towards help will not lead to them losing the jobs, which for many is also a vocation.   If it were proved that Andreas Lubitz crashed this plane on purpose (and I am sure once the second black box is recovered and the control movements analysed, we will have a definitive answer) then his actions led to a most terrible betrayal of trust.  It is as if a doctor decided to murder the entire hospital ward under their care.   It seems the young man had lost any good of his intellect.

On my facebook page this evening, a friend of mine said she regretted booking her flight to Turkey now and that a little trust had died tonight with the news. I naturally compared air travel with probabilities of being injured in one's own home or in the street but she is right insofar when a passenger gets on a plane it is a very real act of faith.  Faith in the pilots, in the crew, in the maintenance teams, in the management, in the air traffic systems and in the manufacturers.  Tens of thousands of people are responsible daily for the lives of millions.  All it takes is the action of one to destroy all that faith and undermine all that trust.

Tuesday, 10 March 2015

The End of Top Gear?

It seems that Jeremy Clarkson is unable to save himself.  He was suspended tonight after what the BBC described as a "fracas".   Later on Twitter, there was a tweet from him inviting applications for a new Top Gear presenter.  Fair play for the gallows humour mate.

I say "mate", not because Clarkson is one personally (and one suspects with our differing political views, every likely to be one) but because the relationship between the three presenters embodies an ideal of male friendship.  It is easy to see that the bond between Clarkson, May and Hammond isn't manufactured.   When one has a success, it is naturally denigrated by the others.  When they are genuinely annoyed at each other, especially during the Top Gear adventure specials, it shows.  While being intensely British, it is friendship that gives Top Gear franchise its international appeal and, of course, turned it into a huge money maker for the corporation.

Now though, all of that hangs in the balance tonight.  The remaining three episodes of the season have, for the time being, been taken off our screens.  All because, according to reports, one of the mates threw a punch at a producer.  It would have to be Clarkson.  If May or Hammond had done it, it would have been awful but probably survivable.  Nope, it was the bad boy who was already drinking in the Last Chance Saloon.  Striking somebody in a junior position is particularly despicable.  If true, I cannot see how Clarkson can come back from this.

So if Clarkson goes, what happens to the others?  Can a new presenter be really introduced into the long-standing dynamic?  I doubt it.  What may happen is that the current series becomes the last.  I don't think it will be a total end to Top Gear, just it will be reincarnated into a new form, with new presenters.  A bit like Blue Peter.

Why do I say this?  It is kind of hard to see where the current format with the existing presenters can go from here, even without the latest incident.  They have driven the finest machines across the face of the globe from the North Pole to the Amazon rain forests.  The only thing left would be to recreate Scott's expedition to the South Pole - but even that would be a bit like their Arctic adventure.  Besides, the guys are getting old.  Goodness knows, I travel a lot in my job and I know how damn exhausting it can be, never mind all the hacking at jungly tendrils and bridge-building across the River Coq.  Even if it is the magic of television and others do the really hard work, some of the latest season has reminded me less of high adventure and more Last of the Summer Wine.

It is quite possible that the BBC high command might make a clean sweep: leave the format fallow for a year and return under a new regime with new faces.

It might be time.

[previous blog: Clarkson, Childhood and Eenie Meenie.]

Monday, 2 March 2015

Rights and Accommodation

In Elizabeth Longford's biography of Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington, there is a brief passage in the first volume where she discusses the Duke's political outlook.  As a Tory, (although Wellington was no fan of party politics) he did not belief in rights but rather in pragmatism and accommodation.

"He had an English taste for improvisation and flexibility, highlighted by a constitution that was not written down....  With accommodation went a certain permissiveness for which his army was grateful."

I believe that in this nation, we live in a time when we are in danger of losing both our rights and accommodation.  Conservative distaste for rights have been longstanding but have always being seasoned with pragmatic accommodations.  This manifests itself in Theresa May's abortive (thanks to the Liberal Democrats) attempts to reintroduce the so-called Snoopers' Charter.  Riding roughshod over individual rights, technology and power of government means that that we can no longer rely upon accommodation, (ie. good will) of the powerful to get along.  We need rights, enshrined in constitutional law and while the British constitution remains flexible and unwritten, we have the backup of European law to frame our rights.  It is a good composite system that works.

The United Kingdom is also in grave danger of losing our accommodation.  This is most manifest in the nationalists parties: UKIP and the SNP.

Evolving from a party of anti-European Union, UKIP has evolved into a xenophobic Frankenstein .  In short, there is no accommodation: neither for rights, nor foreigners nor even for that most prized British quality, pragmatism.  This lack of accommodation goes across the left-right spectrum of party politics so that is the reason why UKIP is able to pick up support from both Conservative and Labour supporters.  Labour has been historically been pretty good on rights (well, until the Blair-Brown years and New Labour that is) but never had the right's mindset of accommodation.

One cannot accuse the SNP of not being tactically pragmatic , being in effective coaltion with the Conservatives during their first term in goverment, but one can certainly slam their lack of accommodation.  Only today, it was revealed that new leader Nicola Sturgeon has drafted  draconian guidelines for behaviour of their own MPs, going well beyond the usual party discipline, and includes disciplinary action for being critical of party policy, colleagues and leadership.  If one will not trust one's own MPs, what does that say for the party's view on the rest of society?    From behaviour of many of it's supporters up to the run of the SNP defeat at the Referendum, it is clear there is no accommodation of views dissenting from their own.

Thus I come to invite you to think carefully about the type Britain you want this May.  If you value twin virtues of rights and accommodation, then there is still one party that enbodies both of these: the Liberal Democrats.

Friday, 23 January 2015

Leadership Debate and the Smaller Parties

I was just listening to BBC 5 Live getting in a tizz about the prospect of leadership debates with so many party leaders expected to take part: seven at the current count, with the prospect of the DUP joining in as well.

Although the Dutch approach of a series of one-to-one debates, drawn by lot, does have merit, I think there is a more appropriate way forward for the current UK situation.  A series of regional debates.

First of all, formal debates take place, involving those parties that are represented either at Westminster or in the regional parliamentary body: SNP & Greens for Scotland, Plaid Cymru for Wales and none of the mainland parties (apart from the Greens maybe?) in Northern Ireland.  UKIP would be therefore limited to England only, which is a fair reflection of current representation.  Owing to the wide availability of modern media (internet or digital television and radio for example), it should be made easy for those who have an interest outside the respective region to tune-in and follow these debates.

This isn’t the end of it though.  Instead of then having an eight-way debate across the entire United Kingdom, as an finale why not have a Question Time-style format with all the party leaders?  This style of questioning is far more suitable for a large group holding a variety of view points.

Much has been written about the rise of smaller parties.  One of the reasons particular to the UK is that the first-past-the-post system is designed to funnel power towards two large opposing parties: the Conservatives or Labour.  Those who express dissatisfaction with coalition politics ought to remember that the large parties are in themselves coalitions, representing a wide range of views, often in direct conflict with each other.  Labour, for example, has a large section of their party divided by the future of Trident and as for the Tories and Europe, well, need I say more?

As people seek to organise around common views and opinions closer to their own, we are facing the partial dismantling of the larger parties.  In terms of democracy, this is no bad thing.  Instead of coalitions being a matter of internal discussion and debate inside large over-arching coalition parties, why should it not be a matter of public debate and discussion as governments are formed?  The biggest issue preventing it of course is that we do not have a Westminster voting system that allows for such an approach.

As for those who claim that the two-party system blocks the rise of extremism, have a look around.  Does it really feel that way to you?  The suppression of representation within the two largest parties has led to the poisoning of the body-politic as a whole and the widespread disillusionment now felt by many when it comes to mainstream politics.  The supporters of first-past-the-post are still plugging their finger in the dyke without realising that all around them that the levees have already burst.

Monday, 1 December 2014

Edinburgh is Missing an Eco-Tourist Trick

Yesterday my daughter and I cycled from our home down to Crammond village, on the coast of the Firth of Forth.  On the way out, I had made a point of using the cycle paths rather than risking the half-mile or so rather busy and dangerous main road that runs between Newhaven Harbour and Lower Granton Road.  After that though, we were forced on to the road again for although there are few pedestrians in the area of West Habour and West Shore Roads, the numerous industrial gateways are not suitable for a child to ride a bike on the pavement.  The condition of the road is not much better.

Once off the road and on to the coastal path, it is a delightful and easy ride along the Silverknowes section and on to Crammond.  The amount of people along this stretch is a testament to the popularity of coastal walks.

It is a similar situation to the East at Portobello, where the coastal path is often packed on any weekend with good weather.  Even the less picturesque length behind the Lothian Bus depot and car showrooms of Seafield Road East are available for cyclists and runners.   Beyond there, heading west and one soon is into convoluted routes as the cycle paths (often mere painted lanes on the road) meander through Leith.  I would currently suggest pedestrians follow that path as Salamander Road is hardly an oil painting.  Leith itself though is very pretty with a wide selection of bars and restaurants for all budgets.

So, what is this eco-tourist trick that Edinburgh is missing out?  This year, I led the family (and friends on occasion too!) on walking sections of the Fife Coastal Path.  Although some parts are undoubtedly industrial, most of it is an extremely beautiful trek along the Fife coast.  What we would do is leave the car at a given point, go the our furthest point of the day, have a snack or even a high tea, turn around and trek back again.  Hopefully by the time we finish, we would have walked the path effectively in both directions.  For those who wish to see more in a day, there is an excellent bus route to take party back to their start line.  When entering an eatery, it is usual to be asked if one is "doing the path" and from where we have started.  In other words, the Fife Coastal Path is an established part of the tourist scene as is relied upon to bring custom to businesses along its route.  What is more, the path is well-signposted on the ground and the website has good suggested walks with clear, printable maps.

In the Lothians, we have our own version:  the John Muir Way.  It is clearly signposted at its Westerly end, the Forth Road Bridge, which links it directly to the Fife Coastal Path.  The John Muir Way continues in a similar vein along the coastline of East Lothian.  There is currently a gaping hole in the route though, and sadly that is the city of Edinburgh and the Port of Leith.  There is not one sign post for the path within the city bounds.  I dare say that plans may be afoot for the path to be linked in the future but I ask, when businesses as still trading on a knife-edge, why wait?

To my mind this is a crazy situation.  Edinburgh is indeed the UK's second tourist destination after London.  Much of the tourist trade though stays in the centre.  The communities and businesses along the north coast would greatly benefit from the extra trade that walkers and cyclists would bring as they follow the John Muir Way.  There are undoubtedly challenges but as can be seen from the experience of Fife; if we build it, they will come.