Tuesday, 6 December 2016

Fake News and the Age of Cynicism.

We live in an age where knowledge has never been so widely or cheaply available.  The results are all around us: the computer device you are reading this on, the artificial fabric which keeps most of us warm either in the house or on the street, the car or bus that most take to work.  All fruits of knowledge and the labour of teams of experts who wrought this knowledge into material goods.  Knowing and doing is how most people earn their living.

There is one area of life however where knowledge seems to be unwelcome and that is the public sphere.  Especially in Anglo-Saxon society, it can be considered rude to show off one’s education outside an academic or applied setting.  On one level this is fine: it is an attempt to put others’ at ease who, through whatever circumstances, may not have shared in the advantages of a good education.  In another way, it is also a defence against any bad feeling that may result from excessing erudition.  “Know-it-all”,“too clever by half” or “too clever for his own good” are peculiarly British insults for those deemed boorish or precocious thought the use of too many big words.

It seems though that this suspicion of knowledge and those who possess some (for long gone is the age when anybody can claim to know everything), has moved into a new higher level.  This did not come about by accident but instead has been long in the making.  
The media have had a long history of skewing the news to fit their particular agenda.  When it comes to newspapers that has been long accepted as people are free to purchase the news that appeals to their own sensibility.  As for state-run media, the free-to-air stuff where most people get their daily news, it is more dangerous.  If the facts are tailored to fit the government view, this will work while the the media outlets are still relatively limited.  In the age of the Internet though, that is no longer the case.

Obviously the Internet changed everything and what the world is seen since is a constant struggle for control.  Some nations like China have been particularly heavy-handed with the setting up of the Great Firewall.  Others like Russia have more relied upon monitoring of internal consumers and  that for the majority of the population, English is still not widely spoken or read.

What happens though in the West?  It is impossible to suppress the news completely.  Facts can be challenged and checked.  So the answer is to attack the facts themselves.  This is not a competition between facts so that a path ahead can be mapped out based upon some reason, but rather the undermining of facts by downright contradiction, making it less possible to see reason at all.  

Contradiction and outright lying in politics has of course a long history.  It’s theoretical basis is outlined in the beginning of Plato’s Republic: rulers occasionally have to lie to the population, concealing a current truth in order to bring about a beneficial outcome.  

What happens though when the desired outcome is not beneficial to most, but rather to a narrow clique?  In order for this to be achieved, the last thing that most people should be told is the truth. Instead people will have their prejudices pandered to.  Something going wrong?  It cannot be Our fault can it?  We are wonderful!  It must be Their fault.  It doesn’t really matter who They are, as long as there is a recognisable difference.  The point is that it is Them that are holding Us back.  There might be too many of Them here.  Their culture does not fit with Our culture and ways.  They are a burden on society.  If it wasn’t for Their rules, we would be free to do everything better.   Even worse, the Elite is on Their side!  Elites cite Facts in order to bamboozle ordinary folk like You and Me.  Unless You are one of those who go around citing Facts?  Are You an Expert?  In which case You are a member of the Elite and thus either one of Them or, even worse, a traitor to the rest of Us.

I am not even going to pick a side here to attack.  There are so many to choose from nowadays.  Once political debate is reduced to the Them versus Us, facts and reason no longer matter.  The people who buy into whoever version of this are lost to both.  Instead their opinion is putty in the hands of whoever feeds them dialogue.  It is not even news.  It does not even have to be a version of reality because the motives of anybody who contradicts the dialogue must be acting from the worst of motives.  People have been trained to be cynical.

I will leave you with a suggestion.  If you automatically dismiss everything said by somebody you identify as an opponent.  If you are in the habit of branding certain parties as evil.  If you object to certain people simply by their presence. If you call for freedom from dictatorship without having any clear idea or knowing solid examples of what form that oppression takes.  If you only use facts to further your cause. 

If any one or more of these points rings a bell with you, ask yourself these questions:

Who is doing the thinking for me?  
What do they hope to achieve?  

Why am I not getting the all the facts so I can make up my own mind?

Then go and get those facts and be careful of those who would have you disbelieve that it is possible to do so.  The Internet is here: use it well.

Wednesday, 12 October 2016

Take the Time

When the World feels like sanity 
Is in short supply 
And reality is a commodity 
That most people 
Has called “Sell” 
Rather than “Buy”. 

This is the time 

When one looks deep 
Into one’s heart 
When self-belief 
Plays its part.
Take the time though 
Take the step back 
From the brink. 
Take that breath 
And look afresh 
At what you know.  

Or what you think you know. 

Consider again the facts 
Consider returning 
Back to the state of unknowing; 
Of admitting that one 
Might be wrong. 
Look at the facts anew: 
Humility is the rarest virtue.

Sunday, 25 September 2016

The Royal Yacht Britannia: an Appeal to Boris Johnson

The Rt. Hon Boris Johnson Esq.
Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs
Foreign and Commonwealth Office
Downing Street West
London SW1A 2AL 25th September 2016

Dear Sir,

It has been reported in the media that you intend to launch consultations on whether the Royal Yacht Britannia should be recommissioned for use as a floating embassy and, possibly, resume her role as a royal yacht.

As a person who has often visited the yacht and can actually see her from my front window, I wish to register my objection to this scheme.

First of all sir, I understand you have some reputation as a historian.  Then you will be aware that current Britannia is serving out her retirement as a museum and she is a beautiful one at that.  On the surface one would expect the exhibits to focus solely on Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II and her family.  There is far more on offer.  It is not often that a slice of society from the mid 20th Century can be served to the general public in such a layer-cake fashion.  Her Majesty, family and honoured guests at the top, through the officers and ranks, with the poor bloody marines and laundry crew deep in the bowels of the vessel.  

Britannia as a museum is a confection for which the public has great appetite: she is the top tourist attraction in Scotland.  In Leith, where Britannia is moored, there is still areas of great deprivation.  More can be done to make Britannia relevant to the local population but, if she is taken away, so will be jobs and incomes.  One is not solely talking of those directly employed by the company.  Britannia is the centrepiece of the Ocean Terminal shopping mall which is on its way to recovery after the recent economic crisis.  Hotels, restaurants and businesses all benefit from tourism that Britannia brings.  A quick check on accommodation websites, such as AirBnB, shows that in Leith alone there are over 300 rooms being let out by households in the area.  Removing Britannia will be a blow against Leith, people who are trying to make an honest living from hospitality and those who depend upon them.

A recommissioned Britannia will need considerable upgrading.  The oil-fired steam turbines in the engine room are a magnificent museum display and they should remain as such.  My father, who was a chief engineer, was scornful of the technology even in the 1970s.  In marine engineering, one of the greatest advances has been with engines, with their physical size being reduced substantially over recent decades.  Having previously worked with graduates of naval architect schools, it is also certain that the science of fluid dynamics and therefore ship design has seen recent improvements too.  

In a very fundamental sense, Britannia is a ship of her time.  Nowhere more so is on the automation side.  In terms of computation power, a tourist’s average smartphone has far greater capacity than anything designed for Britannia, even in her later days of service.  With recommissioning, the whole pre-digital nature of the vessel will be irrevocably and forever lost.  There are very few complete historical artefacts that can show pre-digital, industrial-era technology at the zenith of design and manufactured quality.  I have not even touched on the necessary upgrades which would have to be performed on the security side and whether they are even feasible in light of today’s threats.

One of the modern success stories of British manufacturing is in luxury yacht design.  As a nation, we have the capability to deliver a brand new, top-class vessel that would serve as a floating bill-board for what our manufacturers are able to deliver today.  If the government should decide that we do need a moveable embassy (which might also double as a new royal yacht), then we should avail ourselves of what we are currently capable of.  Compared to some modern super yachts, while Britannia is undoubted regal, she is also modest in capability.

Time moves on and some things, because of the unique history and perspective that they offer, should be preserved for posterity.  Britannia is one such artefact.  Since I first voiced my opinions on social media, some people of nationalist persuasion have contacted me.  Their perspective is concentrated upon the symbolism of the vessel and what it represents to them in terms of Britishness and royalty.  The attitude is very much “let it go and good riddance".  Frankly it is an attitude that shocks me.  My retort was to point out that even in the Soviet Union, the Russians were smart enough to preserve their royal palaces.  They even painstakingly restored those which were gutted during the Second World War.  I view Britannia as a floating palace whose time of greatness has passed but should be preserved as she is now: at the height of her glory.  

After reading this letter, I hope you will agree with me that the grand old lady that is Britannia deserves the honourable and useful retirement which she currently enjoys.

Yours faithfully,

PS.  I write a blog which covers current affairs.  As such, I will be posting the above letter online and any reply you may make.  MV. 

Saturday, 10 September 2016

Grammar Schools and My Father's Education

I have been listening to the radio over the past few days with increasing fury.

Theresa May’s speech, standing on the steps of No.10 Downing Street, spoke of social inclusion and mobility.  I never believed it.  One’s cynicism seems to be borne out with her announcement  on the reintroduction of new grammar schools in England and increased powers for religious schools.

My father was born in 1935 and died in 2001.  He was from Hartlepool in the northeast of England and from a poor background.  He is no longer around for me to check the details but what follows is what can be recalled of his educational experience.

My father must have started school in 1940 and he enjoyed it. Apart from the threat of sudden death from the Luftwaffe and the near constant hunger, he said it, in general, was a great time to be a child.  All the children were covered in a substance called gentian blue - used to treat the resulting sores and general poor skin conditions resulting from the poor diet.

As a child, as he continued to be for the rest of his life, my father was bright.  He did very well at the junior school, that is until the age of ten.  It was then that the class got a new teacher.  For the next academic year, progress stopped completely.  Then the class sat the Eleven Plus exam.  Not one of them passed.

In the autumn, all those who failed went on to the local secondary modern school.  That was not quite true.  As a member of a different class in the school, the headmaster’s son had also failed his exam.  Nevertheless his uniform was bought, he attended the local grammar school and nothing more was said.

At the secondary modern, some pupils continued to get an education.  My father was among those who did not.  This even went as far as sporting activities.  One Wednesday afternoon, cricket was being taught to the selected.  The rest of the pupils were literally being ignored.  My father went up to the pile of spare equipment, got a couple bats, ball, wickets etc. and set up an alternative game.  One of the teachers noticed.

“What are you doing Veart?”
“Playing cricket sir.”
The teacher turned around and continued to ignore the group.

At the age of fourteen, my father left school without qualification and worked in an office as a gopher - go for this, go for that.  At seventeen he worked his day job and attended night school.  The lecturers was also the maths and and science teachers at the local grammar.  They used to say stuff like “I wish my pupils worked as hard as you lot do!”  Graduating with an Ordinary National Diploma, it was enough to get a job as an marine engineering apprenticeship.  This led eventually to a chief engineer’s ticket and a life at sea.

There wasn’t many people who had cars in the 40s and 50s.  My family certainly did not own one.  The observation was made that in Hartlepool, if the family had a car, any children went to grammar school.

To return to today, I simply do not understand May’s argument that the reintroduction of grammar schools will lead to greater social mobility.  Those who are better off will always find ways to preserve their privilege.  To an extent, that is human nature.  We should not be setting up new systems that allows privilege to be so easily preserved at the taxpayers expense.  

I am the first in my family to go to university and gain a degree.  An opportunity my father never had.

Liberal Democrats have already stated we will oppose these moves.  The reintroduction of English grammar schools is a retrograde step and should be opposed by any with a progressive outlook.

Monday, 29 August 2016

My Own Edinburgh Fringe - a Review.

Writing this on the final official day of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, I’m sitting in my small yard under a clear blue sky.  It is the August bank holiday for most of the UK but not for us here.  Never say that the Scottish weather does not have a sense of humour.My personal circumstances in the past year has been none too bright.  Having being made redundant from the oil business (along with tens of thousands of others) at the end of 2015, frankly it has been a struggle to find a paid position.  I have been through all the usual routes, had my C.V. checked and redrafted and done voluntary unpaid work to keep my profile up.  None to any lasting avail.  So when I was approached to do some review writing for the Fringe, I was both surprised and thought “Why not?”

It would be fair to say that this opportunity did not come through my work as a geophysical engineer.  As part of the 2015 general election, all the candidates were interviewed on local radio.  One of the guys who carried out the inquisition, Dan Lentell, has kept in contact since.  Owing to my blogging activity here, he must have seen some transferable skills.  I was therefore asked to to sign up as a contributor to the website edinburgh49.com and send in some material for their +3 page.  Press accreditation was part of the deal.

The world of theatre is new to me.  By shear coincidence, last winter I was fortunate enough to meet a stalwart of the business, Jack Klaff, who I got to know a little over a few days.  As it happened, Jack had put together a panel of top media critics which gathered for a discussion of current issues at Summerhall on the 15th of August.  This, I decided, would have be a must see event before I wrote a single word .  It was a good decision.  Hearing the combined wisdom of professional critics helped me put together an initial framework in which to operate.   It also enlightened me as to the challenges that is being faced by criticism in the 21st Century.  In the 1980s, a critic writing for the press was paid 10p a word and could make several hundred pounds a week.  Nowadays, with the press losing money, theatre criticism is often unpaid by the big online websites and is being cut completely many of the long-established papers.  This is important because artists need criticism.  This isn’t only for the publicity involved but to improve their material.  Independent voices and a disinterested opinion are important: especially for artists who are starting and those branching out into different fields of the industry.   Artists come to the Edinburgh Festival not to make money - all but the biggest names lose cash hand-over-fist.  They come to make a name and in the hope of a good review, or failing that, at least an honest and informed one.  
Armed with these new insights, I went that evening to my first ever show as a reviewer.  Clare Plested in her character-based comedy Flock Up.   I like Clare and like what she is doing.  There is huge potential there.  The show has its issues though and I hope my review reflects accurately both the positives and negatives involved.

The second challenge that I have had to address is writing to format.  Being a newbie, it took time for me to understand what was being asked and the reasons behind them.  This sometimes led to exasperation for the editors because of lack of mutual understanding and, on occasion, my failure to account for every detail.  It was a tough learning curve.  However, I wish to record here my public appreciation and thanks for their support, criticism and patience.  As the process went on, one would like to think the quality of my submissions improved.  Thank you Steve Griffin and Dan.

When I went into this, I knew from the start that reviewing shows would not be an easy gig.  It takes time: a lot of time.  I live in Edinburgh but even so, the process of obtaining tickets, travel and being at a venue ready to work is not being on a jolly.  When watching a show, it is not simply a case of sitting back and enjoying.  Notes have to be taken: recording the act, the staging and technology involved.  One has then to digest the material, consider the themes, message and intent of the writers and whether the artists successfully portrayed this to the audience.  Then comes the actual writing: the task of informing the readership of what it is like to be there, as well as conveying, with both intelligence and kindness, own’s own view.  I am certain that all this would become faster and smoother with experience but even so, this old dog has many tricks to learn.  Reviewing is certainly not a process to be entered into lightly.

Reviewing has also led me to a renewed admiration and appreciation of what the artists go through.  Showtime is just the pinnacle of their labour and being live in front of an audience is a culmination of months, perhaps years of effort and hard work.  In this at least I have some direct experience.  It is said that politics is show business for ugly people and through my own background, I am aware of the depth of knowledge and experience that is required to be in front of an audience and give a reasonable account of oneself.

It is my political experience that can sometimes also lead to insights on the more negative side of reviewing.  The one show I saw and paid to go to was Jonathan Pie - Live.  Pie is a character created by actor and writer Tom Walker.  Pie’s rants on You Tube became famous last autumn at the time when Westminster was voting on whether to enter the war in Syria.  I decided not to revue the show and just kick back and enjoy it because I was with company.  Besides, I had just seen Guy Masterson and didn’t want to risk messing up that write-up by over-burdening myself.  The show was fantastic and, what is more, Walker was unexpectedly very kind to my own party, the Liberal Democrats.  Next day, I noted this on a Libdem Facebook page and while most people took it at face value, others were decided sniffy about Walker.  Apparently the character of Jonathan Pie got his big break on Youtube from R.T. (formerly Russia Today) and some consider Walker to be disloyal to the UK for taking Russian money.  Walker is seen by some to be a willing tool of Russian propaganda.  A cynic might suspect that the two-stars awarded to his show by the Guardian (among others) is a reflection of this.  It was no two-star show I saw that evening and many other people I have spoken to who saw it seem to agree.

But what do I know?  I’m just a beginner.

Tuesday, 19 July 2016

Post Brexit Blog

After the Brexit vote I needed a vacation.  Thanks to the generosity of my family, I got a week away somewhere hot.

A week wasn't long enough.  Leave the country to it's own devices for a week and everything goes to hell.  There is a completely new, unelected government.  It may have been constitutionally legal but make no mistake: this is not the government voted for by people in 2015.  Owing to the first-past-the-post voting system for Westminster, both the Conservative and Labour parties cover too much of the political spectrum.  With a more representative voting system, each would split into at least two separate parties.

Just as we see the right of the Conservative party take over from the Cameron regime, Labour is openly split between its social democratic (let's be kind here and not refer to them as Blairites)  and socialist wings.  Corbyn's total ineffectiveness in the Commons has led to the open revolt among the majority of Labour's MPs.  His power is indeed with the membership and, just as with the Tories, it is obvious that the only thing hold Labour together at this time is the necessity of gaining power at Westminster.   The Trident debate was especially jaw-dropping. In anybody else's world, the sight of MP after MP rising up from benches behind and each plunging in the dagger would have led to Corbyn's immediate departure.  Not so for Jeremy: for unlike Caesar his power lies not with the senate but as a tribune of the people.  It may be a sad day for Labour but the realisation may finally dawn that it is the election system itself that is causing the failure of democracy within both parties.

May didn't even have to face an election but rather nimbly stepped over the political corpses of her enemies as they either did each other in or fell upon their own swords.  I am still considering the resuscitation of Boris Johnson though: whether it was an act of crassness or supreme genius.  I think it was more the latter.  In terms of foreign diplomacy, it was as crass as when the last Bush administration selected arch-critic of the UN, John Bolton, to be the US ambassador in New York.  In terms of Conservative party politics, Johnson did more than any other politician to bring about the surprise Brexit vote and this was done by betraying his friend and long-term ally David Cameron.  May may have little love for Boris but she is smart enough to know to keep enemies close and to keep them busy; which is  something Cameron failed to do and is exactly what Boris will be for the foreseeable future.

Meanwhile here in Scotland Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP must be feeling it is all going rather swimmingly.  The nation voted to remain in the EU, Labour is in disarray and the Conservatives' move to the far right has even put political distance between the SNP own austerity regime (rigorously denied but still ongoing) and the Brexiteers down south.   Indeed an envious position to be in but not without peril, for now is the real test for the SNP.   Are they a real party of leadership, working for the best for Scotland or is their only raison d'être to separate Scotland from England?
If Sturgeon decides to go for an early second referendum  independence referendum (#Indyref2 in the parlance of our times), it might well be won.  It will also prove that this is the SNP's only sole and narrow aim, for the economic arguments against independence are far stronger now than in 2014.  The decommissioning of the North Sea oil fields are ahead of expectation, despite celebration at the oil price faster-than-expected rise to about $50 per barrel.  Uncertainty over Brexit and even the prospect of a second Scottish referendum will make matters worse.

A more powerful and better solution would be to seek an accord with Northern Ireland and work, hard, to keep Scotland and Northern Ireland both in the Union and the EU.  Both the North and the Republic of Ireland have been put into a terrible situation by the Brexit vote, as not only trade but the whole peace situation is in peril if the land border is reinstated.  Since Northern Ireland voted to stay in the EU, a smarter solution would be move the EU land border to the mainland, between Scotland and England.  This could be achieved if the United Kingdom becomes a federal union.

One of the more risible soundbites made by SNP supporters at this time is "I am an Internationalist because I am a Nationalist."   People who say this either do not know the meaning of nationalism or internationalism, as they are mutually exclusive.  The EU is an internationalist organisation in the true sense of the word.
The latter observation leads us to the real cause of the Brexit vote and that is the rise of nationalism across the globe.  The far right, in the UK, in Europe and in the US (make no mistake: Donald Trump is a far right nationalist) are gleeful at the outcome.  They see Britain's exit as the start of the end for the European Union.  Parties across Europe have been emboldened to work harder for this end with Marine Le Pen in France being particularly enthused.

We live in dark times but I am glad that, despite disagreements on individual decisions and policies, I am a member of the Liberal Democrats: the only UK-wide party campaigning for a Britain with a continuing future in the European Union.  As Paddy Ashdown so graphically put it, we were roadkill after the 2015 election but, with the rise of nationalism my party has been consistent in opposing it, wherever it has arisen.  We are the internationalist party and will continue to be so.

If you support Britain being in the European Union and an have a believe in international cooperation instead of competition, you should join us.  https://libdems.secure.force.com/LiberalDemocrats/NewMemberRegistration

Friday, 17 June 2016

This Week: The Highs and Very Lows

This week has seen some of the best and worst of people and politics.

My own week started on Leith Links, campaigning with the Edinburgh North, East and Leith Liberal Democrats.  Given that the EU referendum is coming up, we decided to put our efforts into supporting the Remain campaign.  Always the party with the greatest enthusiasm for the European Union, I found it a real pleasure engaging people on the subject.

Even those who didn't want to know the Libdems (I know, hard to believe!) were usually willing to talk on Europe.  My approach was straightforward.  Those who were undecided were offered, and glad to accept, information on the matter.  We had brochures, leaflets and we're glad to answer questions.   People who had already decided to vote to stay were offered rather tasteful lapel badges with stickers and balloons for the children.

It was those who intended to vote for Brexit that were really engaged.  I always asked "Why?"   Now some would not be talked to, offering a stream of thoughts as they departed.  Most did stop and explain their reasoning.  The amount of misinformation about the EU is rather scary.   One person was not even aware that the European Parliament was elected and was seriously surprised that the next election for the Parliament would be in 2018, after they had missed the 2014 elections.   Others had to be reassured that the UK did have full control of non-EU immigration. One person raised the question of anti-social behaviour (littering) by some young Eastern Europeans, to which I countered "That is against the law so why aren't we applying own own laws?"  Countering minor nuisances like this doesn't depend upon the nationality of those causing it.

The result was that over half of those who had claimed to be solid No voters went away with a different point of view.  It was a good result and shows the value of real facts and direct conversation.

The next morning was the start of the lows.  News of a mass shooting came through from Orlando.  There had already been the murder of promising young singer, 22-year-old Christine Grimmie,  in the same town, earlier in the week.  It seems a perverse coincidence that there would be another incident there so soon.  As the details arose throughout the day, the full horror became clear.  The biggest mass killing by a single shooter on US soil was a homophobic hate crime.  From my viewpoint, LGBT+ rights are simply human rights.  I know that the gunman, whose name frankly should be forgotten, claimed to act in the name of ISIS but, giving the previous involvement that the murderer had with the Pulse club, perhaps that was just to give some self-justification for the atrocity he had decided to commit.

America, I don't think the root cause of the problem is the amount of guns in society, although that is a massive factor.  Rather it is the general attitude toward the value of human life.  It took two mass killings in the UK, thirteen in Australia, before guns were banned in the respective nations, with widespread public support.  It seems to us abroad, despite the continuation of the phenomena, despite the anguish of the parents and relatives of the dead, the attachment to firearms continue.  Perhaps since the right to bear arms was as part of a trained militia, that the only legal weapons should be flintlock muskets and civil war pistols.  Seriously though, military grade weapons have no purpose in civilian hands.  I remember that assault-grade weapons, such as a BAR, used to be sold with only three-round magazines for civilian collectors.  The only reason one can see to change that was to sell more weapons and bullets.  An AR-15 comes with a 30-round magazine as standard.
It might be naive to suggest a total ban but a handgun is more than enough for those who feel the need for personal protection.  Taking military grade weapons off the open market would finally signal a change in American attitudes.  Even that is too much for the NRA, arms dealers and their cronies in the Congress and Senate.   In my opinion, any society that does not value human life is the last society that should have open access to firearms.

From horrors like the massacre at the Pulse Nightclub, sometimes beauty comes forth.  Such beauty was the reaction.  Vigils were held across the world and I would like to thank the Edinburgh branch of Inclusive Networks for organising Wednesday's event, held in St.Andrew's Square.  The event was open to all and people of all ages and genders attended in large numbers, despite the unpleasant and dreich weather.  Two choirs, Loud&Proud and Edinburgh's Gay Men's Chorus, sang wonderfully and there were speeches from politicians and non-politicians alike.  The most moving part was the reading of the names.  Stalin was right: numbers are just a statistic.  Hearing the names, hearing how young and how much life would have been ahead of the fallen, that for me was important.  I turned fifty this week so in a position to fully appreciate how much life, how many futures, were taken.  For many LGBT+ people the massacre was also a violation of a haven: an area where one could relax and just be oneself in a safe and supportive environment.  It is a shame that such places are still necessary but, despite what has been achieved over the last fifty years, it is so.  We are still not in a society where neither the life not dignity of every individual is respected by all.

The following day (which was my birthday anniversary) I attended the afternoon's political rally held by the IN campaign.  This rally was symbolically very important because of its cross-party nature.  Chaired by Scottish Libdem leader Willie Rennie: Greens, Conservatives, SNP, Labour and Liberal Democrats were all represented by senior party figures.  For Labour it was Scottish party leader Kezia Dugdale and for the Liberal Democrats it was Nick Clegg.  Whatever views you may have about Nick (mine are mixed), he is a brilliant speaker.  Sitting next to me was a lady from the SNP who breathed a none-too-subtle "Oh my God" when Nick was a little way into his speech.  By the end she was clapping enthusiastically.

More importantly though, while all five parties want to see different outcomes from the European Union, we are all united in wanting to see it work and Britain to be an important member and leader in Europe.

I am immodest enough to note my own question was well received.  A few days before the "Official Information About the Referendum" leaflet from Vote Leave came through my letterbox.  Noting in my preamble it had ended up in the bottom of my canary's cage, I asked how best to challenge the misinformation held within it.  One example is that it stated that Turkey is set up to join the EU.  This is a lie: Turkey is nowhere near fulfilling the criteria for EU membership despite decades of negotiation.  More disturbingly, the leaflet notes the positions of Syria and Iraq in relation to Turkey.  This is beyond EU debate: it is nothing less than an appeal to xenophobia and I asked, with a week to go, how best to fight this aspect.  I appreciate Willie giving me the opportunity to put the question, which was well-answered by Nick.

At the start of the event, Willie Rennie informed the hall that there had been an attack on Jo Cox MP, to considerable shock and dismay.  None of us knew that by that time she had already died of her wounds, leaving a husband and two small children.  It was only in the late afternoon, tuning into PM and hearing Jo Cox's maiden speech being broadcast, that I knew then she was dead.

I didn't know Jo Cox but have no reason to disbelieve any of the tributes being made of her.  I am sure had she lived, that she would have made a great contribution to public life.  What shook me was the violence and manner of her death.  Members of parliament (and we now have several parliaments across the UK) come from the public and are at their best when serving the public.  They have to be available and approachable, which of course leaves them vulnerable.  When it comes to security, I think it should be up to each member of parliament to speak with the police and make the arrangements that they feel most comfortable with.   What should not happen is that members of parliament are cut off from the open access that is currently afforded.

I have stood for parliament a few times now and have yet to be elected.  Perhaps it will never happen, who knows.  It should be noted that most people who stand are aware that that they will not be elected.  We stand in order to propagate and promote the ideas, to lay the groundwork for party success in the future.  That may involve personal success but nothing is guaranteed.  If we were doing it for personal gain, we would be idiots.  There are some exceptions of course, especially when a given party is at its zenith of fortune, but on the whole what I say stands.  The vast majority of candidates do it for love and a wish to serve, not for money and certainly not for the glory.

When out on the hustings, in street, on the doorstep, one is vulnerable.  I have been pretty lucky: never having suffered personal abuse nor intimidation.  Most people are very nice; regardless of what they may think of one's personality or politics.   My fortune should not be taken for granted.   I personally know two candidates, standing in the 2016 elections here in Scotland, one of which who suffered intimidation after an otherwise civil hustings, and another who had to undergo the humiliation of racial abuse as the spoiled ballets  were being shown to all candidates.  The former was a woman and of course the latter comes from a BAME background.  Both cases are an outrage and I am aware that perhaps one reason I have not had similar experiences is because being white, male, straight and solidly-built (okay, a bit fat), such abuse does not come my way.  I have unearned privilege but I am aware of this and working for a society where such humiliations are not heaped upon other heads.

Listening to the news this evening, it was stated that the killer of Jo Cox was, during the 1990s, involved with the US Neo-Nazi group The National Alliance.  Now I remember this bunch.  They were the real-deal, full-fat Aryan white supremacists.  While at university, by accident I discovered the group online and, being blonde and blue-eyed, I felt it incumbent upon myself to disagree with these bastards.  If Jo's murderer was indeed involved with this group and paid real money for their publications, I find it extremely easy to believe that, unless he had undergone a Damascene conversion in the years since, that he would be a supporter of today's Britain First.  In their own way they are just as vile and nasty as The National Alliance was then.

I started this week in campaigning mode for the Vote Remain and Scotland Stronger in Europe teams.  It didn't turn out that way.  This week is a ghastly, horrible, reminder that as a society we may feel that we have come far from how things were in my youth.  In reality we haven't.  The demons of hatred, homophobia, xenophobia, misogyny are still with us.  Their chains have become loosened, resulting in the deaths of many.

It is up to every single one of us to continue the fight against hatred, in all its forms.  We do not win by hating back.  Hatred is defeated through knowledge, wisdom and love.  Love is love.

Sunday, 5 June 2016

Britain and Brexit

This is a personal note, a reflection of my experience of the UK, Ireland, Europe and beyond. It is from both the head and the heart.

There are many disadvantages to growing old.  Hair goes grey, bits start to droop - if not actually drop off.  One has also lived through history and, in the context of the European Union debate, that is a rather valuable asset.  Polls lead us to believe that the older the person, the more likely one is to vote Leave.  What I would like to know is what on earth they are smoking because I too remember England before the EU and frankly it was a bloody miserable place.

By the early 1970s, Britain was dying on it's feet.  As a nation, we had won the war, lost the Empire and lost the peace.  Britain ship building technology was stuck in the 1950s and great yards were losing contracts to Japan.  Japan was also starting to dominate the motorcycle and car industry.  When the first Honda mopeds came to Britain in the 1960s, manufacturers like Norton, Triumph and Sunbeam laughed.  By the mid-70s, there was no more laughter.  Honda, Suzuki and Yamaha dominated.  British car manufacturers took longer to fall but fall they did and not just to the Japanese.  European manufacturers like Volkswagen,Fiat and Renault were hitting the budget and mid-market areas hard.  Avengers, Singers, Maxis and Allegros didn't stand a chance.  Even later efforts like the modern-looking Rover 3500 were underpinned with an ancient Buick chassis and suspension.  

Now that is not to say that the situation for the UK magically improved once Britain entered the ECC.  No, it took time.  The Conservatives would claim sole responsibility for the turnaround in the nation's fortune but they were greatly helped by the balance of payments from both the oil industry and trade with Europe, especially in the 1980s.   It is the fall in oil and gas production that has been a major contributor to the trade inequalities that we see today.

Europe started to change our politics too.  The emergence of the Greens in the late 1980s was directly inspired by politics in Germany and The Netherlands.  The voting systems of our European neighbours have been felt in non-Westminster politics, especially in the smaller home-nations of Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland.  By sticking to the nonsensical and unfair first-past-the-post system, England is falling far behind in terms of citizen representation.

It was during the 1980s I first started to travel regularly.  My brother was serving in the military and was stationed in Germany.  They did think a bit differently.  This was the first time I saw cycle lanes.  It is sensible: dividing cycle, motor and pedestrian traffic from each other simply makes the roads safer for all users.
Another thing was that the food was just better quality.  Although the 1980s started to see an improvement in UK restaurants, at the time many were still pretty dire.  Nowadays we take a plethora of cuisine types and high quality that is available to us for granted but it was not always so.  In my birth town of Lowestoft, I remember just a handful of foreign alternatives: mostly Chinese, some Indian, with a couple of Italians and Ffrench (the name of the restaurant, not a typo) for Continental dining.   The first cappuccino coffee bar didn't arrive until 1990 and was set up by an Italian electrician who had been blackballed by local management from working in the Japanese-owner Sanyo factory.  (The Japanese had decided to invest in the UK in order to circumvent restrictive French import practices.  British social practices did not change however).

When it comes to eating out it is only in the last decade or so can it be said that the UK has caught up with our continental neighbours.  The same cannot be said for our hospitality industry.  Why is it that the vast majority of our hotel staff are from outside the UK?  No, it isn't because they are cheap labour: it is because the cultural upbringing sees no shame in offering hospitality and service.  I know this is being unfair to those British people who work in hospitality and are excellent in their job but they are the not the majority.  Once past their prime, many British hotels and guest houses remain tired, threadbare and expensive.  It isn't just the climate that drives many UK holidaymakers to foreign lands.  We go abroad for vacation to be treated well.  Hoteliers in the UK employ foreign workers in order to obtain the same level of service that we have come to expect from being abroad.  Many forget to reinvest in the infrastructure.

Many British folk have permanently moved abroad to enjoy the sunshine.  It seems illogical to some that some British immigrants to Spain (or expats as they still model themselves) are voting for Brexit.  There is a reason for this however.  Those people who live abroad and are voting for Britain to leave, left Britain because they don't like the multi-cultural nation we have become.  The evidence for this is in their humour.  If you have ever seen the fanzines in circulation among the British communities in Spain, it is as if Bernard Manning and Roy "Chubby" Brown represent the pinnacle of our culture.  The readership hate modern Britain, hate foreigners and their greatest wish is to be able to assert their self-claimed superiority, insult outsiders at will and wind back the clock to 1955.  They fail to see the irony of their own position and, through their own inflated sense of self-worth, do not realise at a Brexit vote may well put their own position in Spain at risk.  A vote for Brexit defies logic but they are relying upon the Spanish government to act logically in the face of their own defiance.  What if the Spanish also throw caution to the winds and tells the British to assimilate or get out?   Adiòs y per favor vete!

From emigrants to immigrants.  There are many that claim that Brexit will allow us to control our borders and thus reduce pressures on our education and health systems.  It is true that language lessons for those those first language is not English do add to school expenses but has nobody noticed that we have an ageing population in this country?  The school children of today are tomorrow's workers whose taxes will be paying the state pensions of old gits like me.  If the average population continues to get older and there is not enough young workers, the state pension, already less-than-generous by the standards of our near neighbours, will fail.

As of the ageing population of today and the relationship to immigration, I will point out that the vast majority of European people moving to the UK are of working age.  The major burden on the NHS are pensioners, not young immigrants.  It has been stated often that a lot of workers from abroad staff both the NHS and our care homes.  Brexiteers argue that if we limited immigration more British people could work here.  With an ageing population though, what if there are simply not enough working Brits to fill the vacancies of services, industry and the NHS?  We are back to immigration again.  The truth is that, in common with much of Northern Europe, we need immigrants.  It isn't out of pure altruism that the German government have opened it doors to so many refugees.

The question must be asked, what is it that the Brexiteers actually want?  There are a few on the left of British politics who follow the Bennite view that the European Union is all about big business.  I disagree but at least that is a sincere and logical argument.  Since the European Union is the world's biggest freely trading zone, it is good for capitalism.  If one is against capitalism, one should be against the EU.  That is the basic reason for socialist opposition.  Fair enough.

The main driving force for the UK coming out of the EU is not from the Left but from the Right.  UKIP itself comes from a Conservative schism.  With their usual instinct for self-preservation, the Conservative Party has managed to head off the kind of damage inflicted upon Labour in the 1980s with the rise of the SDP but the cost has been the open civil war now being openly fought between those Conservatives who want to leave and those who want to stay.

If the main thrust of the argument is being generated by the political Right, what is it that they want?  The answer is not hard to find: deregulation of the private sector and lower taxation.  One former leader of UKIP, Lord Pearson, even wanted the United Kingdom to leave the EU and go and join the North American Free Trade Association (NAFTA).  To be fair that is not on the cards today but does go a fair way to illustrate where their sympathies lie.

The Brexiteers claim that to leave the EU is a reclamation of sovereignty but there is no talk from them that we should be leaving NATO, an organisation in which our national sovereignty is almost entirely subservient to the requirements of the USA.  I knew one former Royal Navy navigator who was so sickened by the amount of times his vessel was running American missions that he left the service.  This sharing of sovereignty passes without discussion with those on the Right but give anybody else outside the UK a say in workers' or human rights of British citizens and, apparently, the whole nation is being dragged down by the envious machinations of Johnny Foreigner.

Instead of being strong partners with our near neighbours in Europe, we are told that we should be going it alone.  Make Britain great again!  Reach out to the rest of the world and we will be that great trading nation once again.  Let us make one thing absolutely clear: Britain was never a great trading nation.  We were great imperialists.  Our country grew to the height of wealth through trading with our Empire in a closed market on the most advantageous terms.  Already by the end of the 19th Century American and German industry was out-competing the UK in free trade.   In  promotIng protectionism, the British Empire become our industrial tomb.  When we lost the empire and after nations such as Germany and Japan rebuilt their industrial base after its destruction in WWII, the UK was swept aside.

How are we going to compete toe-to-toe with not only the entire EU, the USA, China and all upcoming nations like Brazil on the world markets?  The answer is in deregulation.  Chinese workers have very few rights and so it will become with us.  Corporate taxation will be reduced.  Personal income tax rates may well fall too but with a rise in VAT: after all, t was the Conservatives who introduced that tax in the late 70s and it is easily avoided by the wealthy who can afford to shop outside the country.   Leave the EU, go it alone and one can say goodbye to the minimum wage,  a month's paid holiday, health and safety at work, maximum working hours and any vestige of working rights.  In a low-tax economy, there is no way the NHS will survive.  This is the grand vision that is meant by the return of sovereignty.

At this point, I would expect to be accused of scaremongering by those who would vote Leave but I'm not and I will prove it to you with a simple example and following question.  When the respective populations of both Norway and Switzerland cast their votes on EU membership, they knew, regardless of outcome, that their own governments and political systems would continue to look out for them and act in their best interests.
Now ask yourself the question: do you trust the UK government with your future, your families' future and to act in your best interest, regardless of outcome of the vote ahead?
If your answer is no, then there is only one logical way to vote on the 23rd of June.

Cast your vote to remain in the European Union.

Monday, 2 May 2016

Five Questions: Broughton Spurtle

1. Edinburgh, in my opinion, has some of the worst new building in Europe. Why is planning law is so slanted towards the developer when decisions arising may put the UNESCO World Heritage status at risk? (My specific concern as local resident is the RBS proposal to develop the site bordering Eyre Place, Dundas Street, Royal Crescent, Fettes Row, Dundonald Street and overwhelming King George V Park. The RBS proposals suggest overdevelopment of the site that will place unrealistic pressure on local services and the environment.)

One of the biggest challenges facing communities in Edinburgh is fostering any sense of social awareness among developers.  I was speaking to the Cala during their public consultations over the 450 proposed dwelling places opposite the Ocean Terminal site.  I asked them about extra medical facilities required by the increase of population.  The answer was that this is very much a matter for Edinburgh Council.  They were however more willing to take on board my comments about any lack of play facilities for young children and keen to focus on minimising the traffic impact.

This last point shows that developers address the issues that planners address.  They know that under the current system, public views rarely matter: it is the council planning committee that they have to satisfy and that is everything.  Another example would be the redevelopment of the Edinburgh Academicals stadium in Stockbridge.  The local residents are overwhelmingly against the scheme as it stands but it is being pushed through by the council nonetheless.  It seems that the threat of losing the next election is not enough of a threat to hold over politicians.

This is something that perhaps can be addressed by the Scottish Parliament.  When it comes to housing, the first thing I would look at is housing density.  There are minimum standards for room size here in Scotland but I am not aware of any minimum standards of dwelling density.  It is in a developer's interest to maximise the return.  It is in the power of Holyrood to set maximum numbers of dwellings in a given area for a given city zone if the council is not providing suitable local standards.

The right of counter-appeal can also be looked at, although there are dangers if this becomes too powerful, resulting in neighbourhoods refusing any form of development.  Some may say that the Edinburgh trams should not have gone ahead at all but imagine if each neighbour the line goes through had to grant the scheme access.

The main point though would be to make any appeals scheme affordable.  At the moment, the residents of Stockbridge have only the option of spending tens of thousands of pounds if they want to launch a judicial review.  That probably is not going to happen.

As for the point over UNESCO World Heritage status, I have mixed feelings on this.  True, it does identify areas of outstanding character across the world (thus bringing in tourism and revenue) but some cites complain that it also halts necessary development.  Now I am not saying that Edinburgh is getting it's planning right; just highlighting the potential conflict between UNESCO standards and city needs.

In the end, cities are for people to live in.  Not just for the people already there but also for those who need to come and live here.  It is the politician's job to find the best way through the possible areas of conflict.

2. What concrete measures will you put in place to alleviate poverty and inequality in Scotland?

As a Scottish Liberal Democrat, I believe that not only should every person have equality of opportunity but we as a society should be there for whenever a person seeks to do better for themselves and their family.

The key to this on an individual level is education. Scottish Liberal Democrats believe that education is the first and arguably most essential investment when it comes to tackling any form of  poverty. That is why we have proposed a Penny for Education - a penny on income tax to enable investment in a transformation in Scottish education that will make it the best in the world again and enable people to get well paid jobs. This is fair because the rising personal allowance will mean that anyone earning under £21,500 will actually pay less tax next year. Those at the top will pay 30 times more than someone on an average income.

For those already in work, we have sought to ensure work pays and that the system is fairer to those on low and middle incomes. In government we raised the income tax personal allowance, cutting the bills of 2 million Scots by £800 and lifting 2.7 million across the UK out of paying income tax altogether.

We will pay the Living Wage for all public services and stop giving government grants to companies that don't pay the Living Wage. The Scottish Government has given £5 million to Amazon, even though it pays its workers more than £1 less an hour than the living wage and there have been real concerns over working conditions at their base in Dunfermline.

Scottish Liberal Democrats have committed to working with the other parties and stakeholders to ensure that the new Scottish welfare system is fair to those in and out of work and has the full confidence of users.

I believe that fuel poverty in a major issue in our city and across Scotland.  Liberal Democrats will work with other parties to see the energy efficiency of our nation's entire housing stock, not just new builds, but all our nation's homes improved.  This will be a major, long term project but a necessary one.  If we leave this to the free markets, it will never happen for all.  The nature of Scotland's housing, especially for the older buildings, means that there are people living in older property will can never really afford the major improvements required for their homes to truly become energy efficient.  As we undergo the transition towards a low carbon, more energy efficient future, it is important that our homes and, indeed, our businesses too, are fit for purpose.  Frankly, we are a northern nation but previous generations of regulators and builders did not seem to appreciate this, especially when it came to mass-market housing.

3. Tonight, women and girls in Edinburgh are afraid to go out in the dark alone. At this moment, women here are afraid to stay in their own homes, through fear of violence and abuse. What specific measures will your party bring forward, in the next parliament, to ensure that women and girls in Scotland are safe in their own homes, and are able to go out freely and confidently into the world? What will you do to stop women in Scotland living in fear?

At this election, Scottish Liberal Democrats are proposing among other things to:

Introduce a new offence of domestic abuse

Support early intervention with those at high risk of first-time offending

Take major action to improve conviction rates for sexual offences, including consideration of legislation to allow research to be undertaken with jury members; the right of juries to be able to ask questions of expert witnesses or the provision of an expert adviser to assist juries with expert evidence, together with suggestions made in the Bonomy review.

Legislate to prohibit physical punishment of children. The evidence from dozens of studies is now indisputable on what our law describes, in Victorian fashion, as the "justifiable assault" of children.  It damages their wellbeing, increases aggression and antisocial behaviour which can continue into their adult lives, and risks escalating into physical abuse.

My colleague Alison McInnes, the Scottish Liberal Democrat justice spokesperson, did a great deal in the last Scottish Parliament to help protect women and girls from violence and abuse. You can read a recent speech she gave on preventing violence against women at http://alisonmcinnes.co.uk/en/article/2015/1125822/speech-on-violence-against-women-16-days-of-activism.

My personal view is that some of it comes down to early education, both in schools and in the examples from parents and carers.  Some people, usually but not exclusively women, are simply more vulnerable to abuse.  Recently schools have done a great deal to tackle bullying in our schools but until we live in a society where signs of weakness does not trigger an oppressive response in some others, the challenge will still be ongoing.  Peer pressure has a lot to do with this.  When it is not done for a group member to cat-call or abuse a passing stranger in the street and the peers turn upon others for doing so, progress will have been made.  We do not yet live in such a society.

4. In the light of the current PPP scandal, how do the candidates see future funding for large infrastructure projects?

Following the schools crisis here in Edinburgh, Scottish Liberal Democrats have been calling for a full inquiry into how we got to this point. We would also make the companies that build and maintain our schools and hospitals subject to freedom of information laws so that the public can check they are being run properly.

Our fully costed manifesto sets out the infrastructure projects we plan on taking forward and how we will pay for them. For example:

We will establish a Fit For The Future Investment Fund, drawing on the earmarked resources from half of the Scotland Act borrowing powers (more than £200 million a year).

Action to reduce the persistent underspending of the Scottish Government's budget to ensure underspends are redeployed into other projects that are waiting for the green light.

The Scottish Government's capital budget is increasing.
Our Help to Renovate loans will come from the special financial transaction consequentials in the Scottish budget.

We will expand the Housing Fund for Scotland model that has seen investment in rented homes pioneered by a local government pension fund.

In view of Liberal Democrat commitment to local democracy and councils being responsible for raising and spending funds locally and transparently, I would be open to ideas on other alternatives, such as funding of city projects through the issue of bonds.

5. Although the independence referendum was the occasion for great political involvement, it has also led to a very polarised political environment in Scotland. (As anyone who follows social media will be aware!) How do the candidates intend to heal the political divisions of post-referendum Scotland if they are elected?

As far as I am concerned, these elections are about the best delivery of services and improving the standards of living for everybody living in Scotland.  It most certainly is not about a second referendum, which is what the SNP want to make it about.  Nor is it about cries of defending the Union, which is what the Conservative party would have us believe they are about.  Both of these parties are cynically exploiting and deepening the polarisation which the question, correctly, refers to.

We are living in exciting times here in Scotland and we have an opportunity to use the new powers coming to us to make a real difference to all our lives.  We can show the rest of UK that there is a different way to do things than the old Labour - Conservative Punch and Judy show but, to my mind, nationalism is not helping in this.  It is, in fact, a distraction from us as a society making use of the the powers we already have.

I say that instead of blaming others or calling upon any form of jingoism, let us focus on the task at hand, right now.  Goodness knows they are big enough.  Education, housing, the NHS and a myriad of others, just as vital.  How does either cries for either a second independence referendum or claims to be the protector of the Union help?  They simply don't.

If on Thursday I were to become your MSP, my pledge would be to focus on the issues, encourage others to do so, take responsibility for our own actions here in Scotland and work, constructively and transparently, with others in finding and delivering fair, democratic and liberal solutions for the people of Scotland.

Friday, 29 April 2016

Seven Questions. Greener Leith.

1. In your opinion, what is the most pressing environmental issue facing the Edinburgh Northern and Leith constituency?

The two most pressing environmental issues facing the constituency is cleaner transport and warmer homes.

Of these, the transport one is the easier to tackle.  We can encourage cycle use by upgrading cycle lanes on streets, like Leith Walk and Lower Granton Road, wide enough to handle them.  26,000 people live with 800m of Leith Walk and in storage right now, there is enough materials to have the trams run to the Foot of the Walk.  Let's get on with it.

2. If elected, how will you use your role as MSP to encourage the Scottish Government and Edinburgh Council to improve how they work together on environmental issues facing this constituency?

Edinburgh Council is currently undergoing severe levels of cuts and while the Scottish Government  always demand more services, it's no good if there is no funding for the changes.  Liberal Democrats would free councils to raise and keep more money to spend in their local communities instead of having to be dictated to by central government.
If elected as your MSP, I will ensure that I keep good lines of communication open with Edinburgh Council. It is important that each level of government understand each other and, despite any party differences, common ground is found to work together for the good of all.

The main environmental issue affecting the city (and nation as a whole) will be to bring up the energy efficiency of our existing homes.  We will need transparent communications between central government and local authorities to achieve this.

3. How will you use your role to inspire and encourage greater pride and civic engagement in our public spaces?

It would be great if we have more of them!  We really need more green spaces and play spaces  incorporated in the new residential plans for the Port of Leith.

What parks that we have are well used and I would be sympathetic to turning over more space to allotments.  This is already been done in Victoria Park for instance.  For public health and fitness, I would also like to see more outdoor gyms, as already exist in Musselburgh and Silverknowles.  These can be put into quite small spaces that would otherwise be neglected.
I want to see Stedfastgate brought back up to some form of good use.  The fountain monument there has been vandalised, brick paving ripped up and seating damaged.  If areas like these had some form of dual usage then they are more likely to be appreciated.

4. When local issues are so important for many constituents, how will you ensure that the global issue of climate change, and our impact, is always kept front of mind?

I spent twenty years travelling the world in energy so know the reality of global energy generation first hand.  We live in exciting times however because even the industry itself realise that the time of oil is drawing to the end.  Our energy is moving over to electricity and that means more local generation.  It does not mean however that Scotland is isolated from the rest of the world.  We will be still importing gas for the next twenty or thirty years while our renewable industry grows.  Scotland will still be a part of the UK and European-wide power network and will, at different times, be an energy importer and exporter.
It is for these reasons that Scotland cannot be isolationist in outlook.  How the UK and Europe generates energy will continue to affect us and greenhouse gas emissions, regardless of what we do here.  We have to continue to take an interest in the global energy picture.

5. Which environmental policy do you think the current Scottish Government has been successful at implementing over the last 5 years, and which policy could do with some improvement?

Liberal Democrats do welcome the start made by the Scottish Government on land registration, with private land being registered by 2025 and public land by 2020.

I wish I could be more generous but I can't think of another damn thing that has been successful.  Great and ambitious environmental targets are set but are never reached.  The Scottish Government has a statutory duty to eradicate fuel poverty by November 2016. It refuses to accept this is going to be missed despite the fact a third of households (845,000) are in fuel poverty. In some rural and remote areas (Orkney for instance) it is almost two-thirds.
I have been at hustings where the SNP claim that the nation is on target to meet our renewable heating targets by 2020.  The target for that year is 11% and currently we are at 3% renewable heating production.  How is that even near being "on target"?  If we are going to be anywhere near the 40% target set for 2030, we have to move on this immediately.

If the SNP are serious about reducing Scotland's greenhouse gas emissions, why is it that at a Spectator event here in Edinburgh on the 28th of April, George Kerevan MP, SNP representative on the Treasury Select Committee, appeared on stage with Gordon Dewar, chief executive of Edinburgh Airport, and agreed to half tax on Air Passenger Duty by 2018?  Anybody with environmental awareness knows that that air travel is the worst method in terms of greenhouse gas emissions and that aviation fuel is otherwise untaxed at any level.

6. Where do you stand on amending the current law on ownership of Scottish land or property by overseas companies to say that the land must be owned through a UK registered company or other organisation? (E.g. Much of the ownership of brownfields land in the constituency is by offshore companies who are hard to trace.)

The law needs changing.  Where I live in Newhaven Harbour, I look over the brownfield site whose exact ownership is only known to the lawyers involved.

Liberal Democrats will work with other parties to ensure:

An effective and transparent land register for Scotland

We will work with other parties to establish fair taxation based upon land value in order to replace the council tax.

Liberal Democrats would like to see the right for local communities to purchase land extended to urban communities, and especially applied to neglected or abandoned plots.

7. What is your stance on equal rights of appeal under the planning system? Currently only planning applicants can submit appeals, not councils or other community organisations.

I see the need for reform, especially when councils fail to represent the views the local community.  The redevelopment of the Accies site in Stockmarket was railroaded through by the council in the teeth determined local opposition.  In these circumstances the local community should indeed have the right to appeal and that any process should be affordable.

Local communities cannot have the right to veto in all circumstances however.  Now it is debatable whether the trams were a good idea or not but imagine if each neighbour had the right to appeal the route.
A balance is required between local effects and greater needs.  Thus the effects of a retail development (such as Accies) is local and should be able to be appealed.  I would want to look at the effects upon developments that have wider applications and am open to ideas on the issue.

Saturday, 23 April 2016

Protecting the NHS in Edinburgh

Thank you for your email on protecting the NHS and the specifically-targeted question of what I would prioritise if I were to become our community's MSP.

In order to answer your question, I will have to refer to both Edinburgh-wide and larger national issues but I will do my best to stick to the brief!

My main concern with health delivery in Edinburgh is the ongoing rollout of combined health and social care services.   I, along with the Scottish Liberal Democrats, understand the need for this process.  In general, the population is getting older and this means more long-term, chronic illness.  The practice of relying upon long hospital stays has become increasingly difficult.  In response to this challenge, there has been various pilot schemes set up across Scotland.  Known as Hospital-at-Home, the purpose is to keep the patient in their own home for as long as possible while under the same level of medical care they would receive while in hospital.  This means that the GPs, hospital doctors, nurses and pharmacists would come to them.

Hospital-at-Home has several advantages.  First of all, the patient is able to maintain a higher life quality and level of independence than if they were staying in hospital.  It amazed me when I learned how quickly people forget even basic things like washing up and making a cup of tea when they have been in hospital after a long stay.  While in the person's home, changes in social care needs can also be quickly identified by the visiting health professional and packages tailored appropriately.  What is most important is when the person does need to go into hospital, the visit can be planned and a bed made ready.   The most costly manner of hospital admission is through the A&E system, which are unplanned, meaning that there can be long and costly delays while a bed and staffing is found.

From reports that I have received, the integration of health and social care in Edinburgh is not going well.  There was supposed to be extra budget set up for Hospital-at-Home but the money was not provided.  Instead staff was transferred from ward duties and based in Liberton Hospital, resulting in the closure of a physiotherapy gym.  The hospital staff were not replaced.

Unlike other Hospital-at-Home schemes in Scotland (i.e. Fife), there is no provision for pharmaceutical services to be part of the home visit scheme here in Edinburgh.  Fife found that it is far more efficient to include pharmacists as patients' drug needs can be monitored and, if necessary, changed thus avoiding unnecessary crisis situations.  In Edinburgh it seems that frequently a patient has to return to hospital before an effective review can take place.  This can result in the postponement of planned surgery, delays in admission and bed-blocking down the line.

It seems that the care side of the package is not being effectively handled either.  Agency staff are not being used (deemed too expensive) and there are problems in both recruitment of new staff and retaining existing personnel.  Neither staff nor patients like the 15 minute visit but these still happen, resulting in poor service and sometimes leaving patients flustered and upset.  People can pay the difference to ensure better care but only if they can afford it, leaving the poorest with a take-it-or-leave-it service.

Add to all this the planned closure of Liberton Hospital, due for early 2017, resulting in the loss of vital rehabilitation services.   Astley Ainsley hospital had its orthopaedic recover services moved to Liberton in 2015, so with the closure of Liberton it looks like that Edinburgh would lose this as well.  Astley Ainsley itself is due to be remodelled as a care village but there is no clear timetable as to when this will take place.  In the meantime Gylemuir to the west of the city is being used as an interim rehabilitation venue but people have to pay the current national care home rate to use it.  The 60 beds announced by health minister as being new were in fact already in use.

One has to remember that this situation is taking place against the background of long-term and continued cuts made by the SNP Scottish government.  Once inflation and capital spending has been accounted for, Audit Scotland found that in real terms health spending in Scotland since 2008/09 has decreased by 0.7%.  While the SNP claim they are spending record amounts on the NHS, they are not matching the ring-fenced amounts made for NHS England by the Westminster government, although the budget we receive reflects this protected spending.

If Scottish Liberal Democrats are part of the next Scottish government, we will seek to address three areas of Scotland's NHS:

  • Increase spending on mental health services, especially for young and adolescence age group.  We will also see that there are 24/7 mental health facilities in all 30 of the nation's A&E units and in every one of Scotland's police divisions

  • Address the increasing need for GPs across Scotland.  From 2009 to 2013, the SNP government only managed to create 35 new GP positions across Scotland.  By 2020, the Royal College of GPs predict a shortfall of 740 positions.  Although the Scottish government announced the creation of 400 new training places, of the 315 of these that have been advertised, only 237 positions have actually been filled.

  • The integration of health and social care involves the creation of 31 new care boards overseeing £8 billion of NHS and social care resources. In March 2015, Audit Scotland’s report on progress towards the integration of health and social care found: “a lack of national leadership and clear planning is preventing the wider change urgently needed if Scotland’s health and social care services are to adapt to increasing pressures”.

It is to this latter point that the problems with Edinburgh's integration of health and social care lies.

So to answer your question:

The first thing I would certainly do as an MSP is to postpone the closure of Liberton Hospital, at least until the problems of Edinburgh's Hospital-at-Home and social care deliver have been suitably addressed. Following the Fife example, I want to see pharmacy services included as part of Hospital-at-Home.  Only after those services are running properly can we review the hospital bed situation across the city.

I would also seek to get the Astley Ainsley remodelling into a care village underway.  It cannot be allowed to continue in it's current state of limbo and, with our aging population, it will certainly be needed.

Later this week I am meeting with a local GP who is also a representative of the British Medical Association.  I will listen very carefully to what is said and how we can improve GP services across the city and what can be done to improve frontline mental health services city-wide.

In order to see an improvement in the state of our local health and care services, I hope I have convinced you that both the Scottish Liberal Democrats are aware of the challenges that we face and have the resolution to tackle them.  If so, please support us in the upcoming election by casting both votes for Scottish Liberal Democrats.