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.

Thursday, 20 November 2014

TTIP and ISDS - one good, one bad.

The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership has hit a major stumbling block, with the announcement that France will not sign it in its current form and Germany has grave concerns over a section known as the Investor State Dispute Settlement mechanism (ISDS).  
Minister of Foreign Trade, Matthais Fekl, told the French Senate that “France did not want the ISDS to be included in the negotiation mandate.  We have to preserve the right of the state to set and apply its own standards, to maintain the impartiality of the justice system and to allow the people of France, and the world, to assert their values,"  according to an article on the EurActiv website.

It is this very section, the ISDS that has also led critics of the project to claim that the NHS would be opened up further to corporation takeover, whether the government of the day welcomed it or not, for the ISDS would allow corporations to challenge legislation that they claim would be putting a brake upon profits.  The US is loath cut this section but it seems that Germany is not going to sign any agreement that contains ISDS. 

Quite right too in my opinion.  TTIP is more than a look at tariffs between trading nations: it is a massive unification of regulations across vast trading zones.  Although there is a lot of potential upside – for the UK alone this is estimated at £10 billion a year, it is important too that governments are able to keep control over their own legislation – this should not become a battlefield for lawyers.  Surrendering of sovereignty to corporations is unacceptable.

A lot depends on the TTIP negotiations: at this time in the UK economy an estimated 3.5 million jobs are linked to the EU, and that number will only increase if TTIP goes through.  I want to see that happen, but it is also correct for both Germany and France to highlight the threat to both sovereignty and therefore democracy that this contained within ISDS.

The TTIP negotiations also show how wrong-headed and muddled the views of UKIP and the Conservative right are on Europe.  Outside the EU, we would not be part of the negotiations and would have no influence upon their outcome.  Should a Britain outside the EU seek to join the TTIP group, it would be on a take-it-or-leave-it basis.

My view is that the UK can benefit greatly if TTIP is secured, and that we should be backing the views of France and Germany on ISDS.  Trade is good: having corporations being able to dictate legislation, not so much.

Thursday, 6 November 2014

A Lidl Supermarket bans Polish

I don’t speak Portuguese.  Neither does my family.  So it was with relief that when in Lisbon last year that in the local supermarket that the people made an effort to communicate, even finding a member of  staff that spoke English if the pointing and sign language was not enough.

I don’t speak Swedish but do have a little Norwegian to my name.  No matter: if neither is enough in either Stockholm or Kristiansund, shop workers will instantly switch to English.  They don’t ask if I live there or just visiting; they just do it.

The question I have then is what on earth is going through the minds of the managers at the Lidl in Kirkaldy that have just banned their Polish employees not only speaking Polish between themselves, but have also ruled that they can no longer speak to Polish customers in their own language either?

It is certain that the workers there have better things to do than talk about their managers.  This move is both petty and racist.  It is not as if the Polish workers in Lidl refuse to speak in English to their Scottish customers.
More worryingly though is the many comments of support that the ban has solicited social media, such as The Scotsman’s Facebook page.  I would say that opinion is divided fifty : fifty.

To those people who support the ban I say this: next time you are abroad, in whatever capacity, and a store worker makes the effort to speak to you in English, you had better stop them right there, even if you are not able to speak the local language.  Anything else would be hypocritical.  


It has been drawn to my attention that some people are uncomfortable with a foreign language being spoken around them.  Perhaps of working in an international environment for the past eighteen years, I have lost any sympathy with such a view.  There are those which equate other speaking in foreign tongue in their presence with whispering in public.  Really?  The chances are that the people are talking about some other subject, as their body language will usually make clear.  If you are the subject of a discussion in front of you, the chances are you will know.  I see little difference between that and talking about somebody behind their back.  If people are going to be rude, it makes little difference what language they are going to be rude in.  In my experience, most people are neither stupid nor rude so being stressed about foreign languages is a matter of personal insecurity.

Tuesday, 7 October 2014

History, Europe and Being British.

I’m looking at a portrait of my wife.  

That mere statement should identify me as rich, privileged and thus most likely a Conservative.  Which by outward appearance would be confirmed but in actuality could not be further from the truth.

The trouble is with us British, is that we don’t give enough account for difference, until that is it has becomes embedded: another layer in the thick, deep quilt that is modern Britain.  As we have always done though, each addition has always been initially resisted but ultimately accepted.  For example, who of us outside the realms of the BNP still harps on about the baneful influence of Huguenot refugees, the 19th Century influx of Jews fleeing pogroms in Eastern Europe, or the arrival of people of Indian heritage after being expelled by Idi Amin from Uganda?  No.  People we accept.  Ideas though take a lot longer.

This initial resistance to ideas is, although irksome to the more intellectual class of UK society, has actually being, and continues to be, a strength of British society.  We are a wary people; one might even say a small ‘c’ conservative people.  That comes too from deep history but one fashioned by no human virtue, but rather from geography.  Historically, it was that very geography that initially led us to be vulnerable, then defensive and ultimately offensive (in whatever way one might take that term), conquerers of what became the British Empire and, perhaps finally to enter a period of geopolitical decline, as air power superseded the power of the Royal Navy.

Our continental neighbours on the other hand have, well, enjoyed would not be the correct word, perhaps endured, a different past.  One of the waxing and waning of powers, of borders, of kingdoms.  Who remembers the princes of Burgundy or the extent of to Lithuanian kingdom?  Certainly if your knowledge of history is restricted to the curriculum taught in UK schools, you will wonder what the hell I’m on about and perhaps ask the question “why is this relevant?”   

Both are relevant because in Britain, we didn’t have to endure the trauma that such constant warfare did to communities and borders.  At least, not since the Civil Wars.  Britain was spared such brutality.  When the nephew of King Charles the First wanted to burn Leicester to the ground for the crime of not accepting terms of surrender, Prince Rupert was confronted both the burghers of the city and by his generals saying “We don’t do such things here in England.”  It is a shame that Cromwell, who showed similar restraint here in Scotland, did not do so in Ireland.  History shows that religious brutality does not work out so well.

What is my point?  We are all products of history: of the grandest of events.  Example: Billy Connelly.  This guy alway thought he was of poor Irish background only to discover, and that is only owing to his talent and fame, that actually part of his family took part in heroic deeds during the Indian Rebellion and his ancestry is partly Indian.  He would have never have known if he had stayed in the shipyards of the Clyde.

Owing to our geographical defences however, we have lacked a certain degree of empathy with our European neighbours.  Our islands were seldom under serious threat of invasion.  London has not endured the marching tramp of a foreign invading army in a thousand years.  I doubt if the Normans even marched.

Mrs Veart came from a different background.  Her great uncle was killed outside Moscow.  His last letter to his sister spoke that he knew he was to be thrown against the German invasion to his death.  Her paternal grandfather was a successful fighter pilot against the same foe.  

That is how come I am looking at a portrait of my wife.  She comes from a background where wealth was not necessary to have a portrait done.  Just the time and location.  
Neither of us are from a rich nor privileged background, just a different background.  

The differences within us may unsettle some but looking back, it is surprising perhaps how commonplace such differences are among the British.  We are a complicated people.  

So why on earth is it that we are encouraged to continually seek easy answers from our politics?

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

What Now?

There are so many “What Nows” that, like Marcellus Wallace in Pulp Fiction, one can be easily answer another point when the question is put.  Let’s just take stock and first ask “What just happened?”

Thursday was nerve-wracking for all of us who cared, either way.  There seems to be most of us, as 84% of the Scottish electorate turned out to vote.  Safe to say, in terms of numbers that is the highest figure one can expect in modern day politics: everybody who ever intended to vote in this nation did so on Thursday.  It means therefore that the result is valid and credible.  After two years of campaigning by Yes, the campaign to stay in the Union won.  The result may have been despite some of the Better Together efforts: one cannot say that Alistair Darling was an inspired leader.  From Labour, Jim Murphy and that grand old bruiser Gordon Brown came good.  From the Libdems, Alistair Carmichael and Jo Swinson shone brightest.  For Yes, Nicola Sturgeon and Patrick Harvie should be acknowledged    On both sides though, it was thousands of grass-root activists that were the real stars.  When the Yes campaigners had the feather banners, balloons and badges, there were a lot on the No side too, no posters in their windows or badges for their lapels, just quietly going door-to-door, sliding leaflets through letterboxes.  On both sides, it is those new to the realities of political campaigning that should be honoured most highly.
Of great interest though is is those who, when asked, answered “I don’t know.”  Now, I am sure that at the outset of the campaign, that was a viable option.  On the day of the referendum though, it is clear that the Don’t Knows mainly voted No.  Although it could never be proven, I suspect for this campaign at least, “I don’t know” really meant “I’m not telling you.”
Although there were highly publicised instances of companies threatening to head south upon a Yes vote, dismissed by the SNP as moving a brass plate on the door, there were others not reported that would have had a huge impact on jobs across Scotland.  Their preparations were share-price sensitive hence the media silence, but one preparing for immediate departure, a major UK utility company, would have had a profound effect on Scottish homes and businesses.  Many owners of small and medium businesses linked to financial services and IT were also preparing to move south.  Most of us, including myself, did not at the time realise how rapidly some businesses were prepared to leave Scotland.  Although the result was a profound disappointment for many, in economic terms we had an extremely narrow squeak.  

What now?  The first thing is new powers for Scotland.  This has to be decided as a matter of priority and I urge all interested parties and individuals to make their voices heard.  It cannot be agreed around a table in London and handed down.  The three main Westminster parties disagree as to the level of autonomy to be ceded: the Scottish Government needs to be a party to negotiations as well.  It should not just be left to politicians though: bodies such as the CBI, research councils and trade unions, will have views and should be heard.  This may slow matters down a bit but it is necessary to get it right, whoever is in power in Westminster.  It should certainly be all in place by the end of 2015, before the Scottish parliamentary elections the following year.  Gordon Brown has came out with a very rapid timetable: it sounds great but I have no idea how he came up with it.  If we just spent two years fighting over independence, we can take a year sorting out the actual future of our nation.
Out of all the Westminster parties, the Labour proposals are the most modest.  In 2012, the Liberal Democrats came out with a manifesto for Scotland which is effectively one of self-rule within the United Kingdom.  The key points, with a link to the full version can be viewed here.  Whatever is finally agreed though, it has to come first and not be linked to reform within the rest of the United Kingdom.  Hardly fair, might be your response, but if you have not been living in Scotland for the past few years, you haven’t been through a two-year independence referendum campaign.  In its way, the trauma has been intense.  All of Scotland is united in this one thing: we expect reform.  The other night I was speaking to some of the most ardent supporters of the No campaign and all of us agreed that we would review our support of the Union if the promises made are not delivered upon.  Messrs Cameron, Clegg and Milliband, you have been told.  Take it seriously.

As an aside, before we get objections about levels of spending per head of population in Scotland compared to England, just remember that we have one third of the landmass of mainland Britain with less than one tenth of the population.  We do not have the economies of scale enjoyed by many parts of England, especially in the South East.  The Highlands and Islands are especially awkward in demanding luxuries like roads, hospitals and schools, despite not having the density of population that, apparently in the eyes of some, discounts their worth as citizens of the United Kingdom.

What follows for England?  As made clear above, David Cameron’s attempt to link change for Scotland with change for the rest of the United Kingdom at the same time should be utterly rejected.  Change is necessary though, not least because it is fair.  Why should Scotland have more democracy and have government closer to the people than the English?  I am disturbed for this scheme of English MPs only voting on English affairs in the House of Commons.  The parliament represents the whole of the UK and every MP should have equal weight.  Besides, what are English affairs?  Say the discussion is on health, for an example: an area devolved in Scotland so should be a no brainer for England.  In reality though, the NHS is only devolved in terms of priority of national spending on services.  The research and academic components are firmly UK-wide issues.  The same can indeed be said for universities: while some in England resent Scottish undergraduates not having the pay for tuition, the systems are totally integrated for post-graduate and higher research.  Another instance would be strategic transport: the planning of further airport capacity and H2S high-speed rail ultimately affects all of us.  
One simply cannot say “this area is for England, so MPs from other parts of the UK have no right of say.”  Each issue would have to be looked at case-by-case.  While some maybe easily agreed upon by the party whips, others would not.  It would not be a system: it would be chaos.
What is to be done?  The obvious solution is that England needs to devolve powers away from Westminster and into the regions.  It is up to themselves whether that means a new national parliament or regional assemblies but what is clear is that the state quo is no longer tenable.  Such a process of reform may have a the similar effect of reviving political debate among the wider public as the referendum did here.  A system of first and second class MPs is not viable: the Westminster Parliament should remain the ultimate sovereign body for the United Kingdom with equality for its members.

What now for Scottish politics?  The first thing that the SNP has to accept is that they lost the vote.  Naturally though, they are not accepting the democratic outcome.  Despite claiming that Yes was not the SNP, that it was a broad coalition and a grassroots organisation throughout the campaign, on the Friday they immediately set up a new organisation called 45, officially in order to carry on the fight for independence.  Their party membership has ballooned: putting on 20,000 over the weekend.  I cannot blame the SNP from wanting to preserve the campaigning organisation that arose during the referendum campaign, but to tell these new members that a new referendum can be recalled and won in the short term is simply a lie.  Even the name, 45 (the percentage who voted Yes), is a misrepresentation.  I personally know many Yes voters and while some are firm SNP supporters, other Yes voters are far from their camp politically and have very different visions for the future of Scotland.  This division within Yes was hidden in order to present a united front but I will predict that non-nationalist members of the coalition will not continue with the fight for Scottish independence because, unlike the SNP, that is not at the heart of their politics.  They will instead attempt to see their politics take root through existing avenues, of which there are now many and more to come.  Even the cracks in the SNP are beginning to show with MSP John Wilson resigning from the SNP, citing differences with leadership and policy. 
What I ask new members of 45, many new to politics, is while I genuinely welcome your entry into political involvement, the question for you is what do you want?  Yes, I know that you want independence for Scotland but what then?  A change of government is not an end in itself: it is a means to an end, usually a better life for citizens.  How are the changes you wish for going to better the lives of Scottish citizens?  Much of the reason why Yes lost was that they were unable to convincingly answer this question during the campaign.  The question has not gone away.

What is clear though is that forty-five percent of the Scottish electorate that did vote Yes, for whatever reason, have one thing in common: they have lost faith in current UK politics.  That is a matter of upmost seriousness.

It will be an interesting couple of years ahead for us all.

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:

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!

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

 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.

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.


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.