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Musings on the Scottish sports media

I’ve been reading a few of the legal blogs that have sprung up since the RFC affair occurred. It’s disappointing to note how blasé the Scottish media are, almost in their totality, in failing to indicate or predict outcomes and eventualities on a proactive basis. Instead they prefer to be reactive when, in actual fact, there is so much information in the public domain that can be utilised to get beyond the “Green says, D&P say, Regan says” level of coverage.

I was seemingly several days of ahead of all the media when I simply took a look at the Articles of the SFA and noted the relevant points about not reverting to courts and the various mentions of the CAS. Now, I’m not paid to keep abreast of matters legal but I’m damned sure that there are people at all the media outlets who have that in their job description. Why then is it that each twist in the legal tale is of a revelationary nature – a bomb chucked into the mix from goodness knows only where? This is just lazy journalism.

I’ll flag up another piece of lazy journalism. The much touted expulsion from the Scottish Cup sanction is almost certainly a red herring. Yes, the SFA can expel a club from the cup but, in principle, the competition needs to be underway before an expulsion can be made. Therefore to talk about this sanction in June is moot as the competition is not due to commence for several months. This was flagged in one of the blogs but has nobody else picked up on that yet? Mr. Green is very deliberately focussing all his attentions, and those of Rangers followers, on a penalty that is as valid as the transfer ban. It’s not going to happen and well he knows it! But why would the media be proactive and look down that avenue?


by Phil Lawrence 11/12/2001

There have been some wonderful quotes emanating from all angles following David Cameron’s veto of European Treaty reform. The UK media has been fairly congratulatory but Europe has been almost universally condemnatory.

So what’s the flavour? From Cameron himself, “I said before I came to Brussels that if I couldn’t get adequate safeguards for Britain in a new European treaty, then I wouldn’t agree to it. What is on offer isn’t in Britain’s interests, so I didn’t agree to it.”

Well that’s all fairly straightforward isn’t it?

And the old pals across in Europe were fairly kind in their reactions.

Nikolas Sarkozy came back with, “We would have preferred a reform of the treaties among 27 (nations). That wasn’t possible, given the position of our British friends. And so it will be through an intergovernmental treaty of 17, but open to others.”

José Manuel Barroso followed the same line with, “We would have preferred, of course, a unanimous agreement … This was not possible, because this required unanimity, so I think the only alternative that was left was to do it through this kind of intergovernmental treaty.”

Angela Merkel meanwhile preferred to concentrate on matters which DC seemed to be oblivious to, “We have made good progress, especially with regards to the debt brake for all states that will be part of this new treaty and more automatic sanctions.”

Angela Dominatrix
Darling David has stuck to his vaguely hypnotic mantra that he was “protecting” the City but this seems more and more disingenuous as every moment passes and the implications of separation from mainstream Europe become less appetizing for the financial sector. He reminds everyone that the EU, Frankfurt and Paris are jealous of the City but Lord Heseltine put it all into perspective with his own succinct putdown, “In saying he wanted to protect the interests of the City, there is no way you can protect those interests by floating off into the Atlantic, frankly.”

I’m not inclined to agree with Tarzan too often but he has nailed it here. The UK needs to be inside Europe and not on the outside looking in.

Another one that I am not too inclined to agree with – no let’s rephrase that, one that I NEVER agree with – is Douglas Alexander with his assessment, “The roots of Cameron’s fateful decision lie in his failure to modernise the Conservative Party. He promised to leave the European People’s Party, and ever since he has been following his party, not leading it.” That is pot calling kettle black as the Labour Party is the long-time master exponent of weather-vane politics as so brilliantly championed by Anthony Charles Lynton Blair. However Alexander has speedily cut to the nitty gritty here and what we see now is a Conservative Party leadership being chivvied along by the Eurosceptic backbenches. Suddenly the City is not the relevant factor and it is the MPs stacked behind DC in the Commons.

But what about other views from Europe? The Austrian Chancellor, Werner Faymann is quite kind with his, “The British Government is called upon to compromise and to represent their own country. But to simply present conditions and to say either/or, that’s a blatant contradiction to the spirit of the European Union,” and that’s a pretty common thread although the level of dissatisfaction varies quite a lot.

A less charitable tack is taken by Franco-German MEP Daniel Cohn-Bendit, “Cameron is a coward,” whilst German CDU MEP and European People’s Party foreign policy spokesman, Elmar Brok, led with, “If you’re not willing to stick to the rules, you should keep your mouth shut.”

Make no mistake, 26 EU members see Cameron’s intransigence as one of the grandest betrayals in modern history. His constituency in Europe has evaporated overnight and we can be certain that the White House is silently fuming as they wanted the Euro issue put to bed to give Barack Obama the chance to take centre stage as the 2012 US election campaign cranks into action in the first week of the year. Obama’s initial summing up of Cameron upon their first getting acquainted is sure to become common currency before the dust settles. And for those with short memories that line was, “What a lightweight!”

Back to London and Lord Oakeshott opined that, “He went to Brussels with a set of impossible demands. He wasn’t there to negotiate; he was there to stage a walk-out. LibDem leaders must stop Cameron kowtowing to the Tory right and force him back to the negotiating table.”
He is backed up by Tim Farron who chips in with, “The idea of this being any kind of victory for us is just madness. We have lost massively. It was a lose-lose situation and unsurprisingly we lost, while making ourselves isolated from our colleagues in Europe.”
I’m not one to give the LibDems credit for anything at the moment as they sold themselves and the country down the river in an unashamed power grab in May 2010 but this pair are not entirely dumb. If Nick Clegg really is as disturbed as he privately makes out that he is then this is his moment. He can bring down the coalition by withdrawing his party’s support immediately and calling a confidence motion in the Commons at the first opportunity.

Of course that is unlikely to happen as he is far too comfortable with his feet wedged firmly under the Cabinet table at No. 10 but maybe Nick might grow a bit of backbone. Who knows?

Anyway back to the words that matter and Foreign Secretary William Hague assures everyone that, “We’re not separating ourselves from the European Union.”
Well it does not look like that from the continent. Cohn-Bendit insists, “Now we must put pressure on the British and force them, by implementing tough regulations on financial markets, to decide if they want out of the EU or if they want to stay inside,” and EPP vice-chairman, Manfred Weber, helpfully adds, “You can’t be a little bit pregnant,”which nicely sums things up.

So what of the implications of this in the sphere of Scottish politics and the debate on independence? In The Independent Jane Merrick points out, Some believe that Cameron’s isolation in Europe could make it even easier for Scotland’s First Minister, Alex Salmond, and the Scottish Nationalist Party to secure independence – and eventually, perhaps, to join the euro.” She then quotes a ‘senior’ LibDem as saying the following, “So Scotland walks away and joins the euro and leaves the Little Englanders having finally got their Little England. The Little Englanders think we will be like Switzerland, but with nuclear weapons. Actually, we’ll be like Norway, but without the oil.”
An Upper Volta with rockets for our generation! Classic! Who said the LibDems have no sense of humour?

Going Green? It’s a Gas – Hydrogen That Is

by Phil Lawrence 09/12/2011

The commitment to green energy on the part of the SNP and its leader, Alex Salmond, is a commendable line in the sand drawn as a bold and progressive policy. The target of generating 100% of Scotland’s energy needs from renewable sources by 2020 is an unprecedented ambition. But is it a realistic aim? And will the benefits really be there when virtually every commentator pours scorn on the vision of the nationalists?
Scotland has oil and gas aplenty so why in the name of all that is sacred would we need to look to a mega-industrial scale version of the life pursued by Tom and Barbara Good in their Surbiton semi? Why indeed. As the informed gentlemen of the press continually tell us the oil and gas will be gone in 10/20/100 (delete as appropriate) years so there is no point in basing an economy on depleting resources. 
Well OK, that sounds reasonable but how about if we use those depleting resources hand-in-hand with resources that are sustainable and renewable?
Hold on a minute, that’s not in the script! 
And how about if at the same time we lessen our reliance on the depleting resources so that the likelihood is that they will last even longer than anticipated?
Now that’s just plain cheating!
Yes, we are a right bunch of cheats aren’t we?
The long and the short of it is that Scotland has a rather unique position in Europe in that we are jutting out into the North Atlantic at the mercy of the wind and the tides but these two massive forces of nature are destined to become our very best friends. By reasons of geography and connectivity we are best positioned to exploit the potential of these gifts. The technology to best harness the wind and the tides is improving month by month and subsidiary technologies are developing hand in hand with this. 
As one example there is a green brains trust tucked away in Luxembourg working on various renewable options but their particular Scottish option is a giant battery. This is something on the scale of a 20ft container attached to a small wind turbine. The turbine generates electricity when there is adequate wind and keeps the battery charged. When the wind goes down the battery takes over and provides mains power until such a time as the wind rises again. This scheme is designed as a replacement for diesel generators for our islands so that small communities can become energy self-sufficient. Can you imagine it? Batteries that can belt out mains electricity.
Take a look to Methil and we have the Hydrogen Office. This test-bed demonstrates that wind power can look after the generation of electricity and excess capacity can be used to hydrolyse water to create hydrogen gas. This stored hydrogen can then be burned in a heating system or syphoned off and used to power vehicles. The beauty of hydrogen of course is that when it is burned with oxygen the sole byproduct is water. Pure simple water. From water to water with all the power in between.
When we gaze to the hillsides north of Dunblane as we drive up the A9 and see the turbines stacked on the slopes as wind-farms we only imagine the electrical power that they can send into the grid but we do not contemplate what else they might be doing. Hydrogen farms? Why not? We certainly have no shortage of water on those hills! Hydrogen farming might not be as daft an idea as it sounds if we consider the common objection to wind-farms that electrical transmission efficiency is not always suitable from the more inaccessible locations in which they are located. Gas storage and pipeline technology have their own limitations but not when it comes to moving the product to a convenient distribution point. 
Fuel cells continue to be prohibitively expensive and this seems to be a non-starter in the motor vehicle stakes in any short- to medium-term solution so this use for hydrogen is very limited. However burning hydrogen in a modified orthodox internal combustion engine remains a clean and efficient propulsion method. A “grid” of hydrogen stations across Scotland, fed by local wind-farms, could offer an alternative to short-range rechargeable vehicles with hydrogen-powered cars capable of traversing conventional motoring distances without the need for an interim charge or a switch to petrol power to complete the journey. 
This connectability of a network of a renewable resource is a quantum leap from the analogical thinking of hydrogen as a difficult to handle fuel. Yes, granted, that can be the case if hydrogen has to be delivered by tanker to point of sale but if production is localised then this major objection can be overcome to a very great degree.
I have to unveil my true colours here. I am no crusading super-green in any way shape or form. In fact in questionnaires I tend to test as the polar opposite of that model of the modern 21st century clean citizen. On the other hand I, like the vast majority of us, am feeling the bite in terms of fuel bills and I am left slack-jawed by the impunity with which consecutive UK governments lie to us about the true level of inflation. For me renewable energy is an opportunity to bring down costs to more manageable levels for the average punter at home in Buckie, Ballachulish or Baillieston. 

A novelty double act

We are currently being wrung dry by Westminster and the plain truth is that the tipping point where tax income starts to drop due to fuel prices reaching a level where consumers will no longer buy with gay abandon has passed. Already gross fuel duty income to the Treasury has started to drop because fuel buyers simply cannot afford to buy the same amount of petrol or diesel that they once could. This is a unidirectional trend as we have been induced to be prudent and we will not be heading back towards profligacy anytime soon. The answer from Osborne and Alexander — a veritable fiscal Jedward — is to only promise to slow the inexorable fuel duty rise and even this can only be accomplished as they have made a tax grab at source on the oil producers in the North Sea and the East Shetland Basin.
Whether or not the people of Scotland choose to separate from the UK at the upcoming referendum we need to consider the long-term fix right now. We need to explore all avenues to make the 100% goal by 2020 a realisable target. Nae-sayers in the mainstream media bombard us with headlines stating the implausibility of the renewables target but the arguments are almost universally thin and rarely if ever coherently constructed: 
We can’t achieve a 50% target in renewables let alone 100%. Why not? Because.But really, why not? Because I said so.
That is truly the sole scientific legitimacy of some of the stuff that is printed in our national newspapers. It’s like a game of “he said, she said” but unfortunately there is no robust player in our media willing to counter this disinformative claptrap. The smear campaign being insidiously leaked into the national consciousness is that green is loony, the SNP is green, ergo the SNP is loony. If you do not buy that then take a look at recent archives of The Scotsman and there is quite a head of steam being built up in that direction — unattainable targets, untested technology, unrealistic results and all with a political slant. It’s as if having an open mind to renewable energy in Scotland is tantamount to tearing the Union asunder. 
This slander must be addressed in a robust manner and a joined-up renewables strategy has to be presented to the people of this land to underline that pervasive fuel poverty is not an inevitability but merely the side-effect of an imposed Westminster policy which might as well have been dreamt up by Jedward.
We have the power to decide our own destiny in the palms of our hands or more accurately we will have it through the nib of a pen in a few short years time but now is the time to act, to coherently compose an energy roadmap which can only enhance the simple buried truths of McCrone and give us confidence to declare that we are big enough, we are clever enough and we have had enough!

Taxing Times

Friday’s Scotsman includes a remarkably blinkered critique of the Scotland Bill and Holyrood’s opposition to the lack of tax-raising powers incorporated therein with particular emphasis to Corporation Tax by Graham Gudgin. 

Dr. Gudgin is certainly something of an expert in Stormont affairs and is held in some high regard for that but his assertions that what is good for Northern Ireland will be detrimental for Scotland are based on some rather tenuous premises that do not stand up to anything like close scrutiny and finally fall into the category of Unionism for its own sake. That may be all well and good working on an agenda pushed by Peter Robinson and the DUP but that is nothing like the same dynamic that drives the SNP’s desire for fiscal powers.

He takes the view that for every 1% cut in the rate there would be a loss of 2,000 public sector jobs. He also takes the view that this reduction would create new private sector jobs at a net rate of 500 per year per 1% but doubts where the funding income gap might be closed in the “long run” with no vision as to what that term really means but the implicit threat that the public sector jobs would go very quickly indeed. His further assertion that new jobs would be created “mainly in new non-Scottish companies” misses the entire point of the argument for a reduced Corporation Tax rate — the entire proposal is intended to attract business into Scotland as well as easing the burden on existing companies. He deliberately couches the upside in woolly uncertainties whilst emphatically delineating the downside in explicit certainties.

Subjective stuff if ever there was. There’s more than one way to skin a cat and surely Dr Gudgin knows that. 

There are varying degrees of what a tax rate can mean in terms of how profits are treated. Taking a straight cut off the top of all profit is the accepted way of doing things in this country and it seems that no other formula is worthy of discussion. However there are practical examples in Europe of subtle adjustments which are fundamentally pro-business and offer different opportunities. 

For instance holding companies can be permitted to be the vessels for intellectual property as long as they do not engage in commercial activity — the company holds copyright, trademark etc on behalf of commercial companies and as it is not commercially active it pays no tax. There is no coincidence here that so much copyright is lodged in Luxembourg where this is very big business indeed. So that is a scenario where a specific type of company benefits from an exemption. 

The Estonian government introduced a 0% Corporate Tax rate over a decade ago. This sounds like madness at first hearing but the reality is a 0% rate on undistributed profit. If profit is kept in the business or, even better, reinvested then the rate is 0%. If the profit is distributed as dividend, bonus or whatever then it becomes liable for taxation at regular state rates which are set on an unambiguous flat tariff. When the tax regime was introduced the nae-sayers were flabbergasted that the Corporate Tax take went UP in the first year compared to the previous system. 

The Wall Street Journal hailed the bravery and farsightedness of the Estonian government in having the guts to do something that almost every “expert” said could not work. There has been virtually no talk in the intervening years of changing the 0% system as it has attracted foreign investors and created jobs. 

A Scottish Corporation Tax based on a similar model to that of Estonia — I say similar not identical — would mark out this land as being open for business and pragmatic enough to realise that industry needs to be encouraged to grow, not flogged to death by punitive taxation. Ally that model with an enticement to lodge intellectual property in Scotland through a specific new type of holding company and all of a sudden we are firmly in the game. Maybe not quite an entrepôt but certainly a modern pro-business jurisdiction.

Dr. Gudgin’s belief that new jobs will be “mainly in new non-Scottish companies” is a complete red herring as Scotland is already a cosmopolitan modern community with transnational employers well established for decades and cherished by all players in the political spectrum.

If we are to be led to believe that foreigners coming into Scotland to create jobs for Scottish workers is suddenly a bad thing then, quite frankly, the Unionist arguments have just plumbed new depths of contempt by trying to legitimise this economic pseudo-science.

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Let them eat cake!

In a remarkable twist of fate Philip Hammond as Transport Secretary had his “Marie-Antoinette moment” almost completely ignored by the mass media and before you can catch breath he is promoted to Defence Secretary. Outstanding luck for another of the Tory grey men.
As reported by Auto Express Hammond was speaking at the launch of a privately funded network of electric charge points and said, “You can’t force people out of their cars or place drivers on the naughty step, as our predecessors did.”
I’ll let the motoring mag take up the story here: When Auto Express suggested prohibitive fuel prices appeared to be doing exactly that, he shirked responsibility and instead blamed oil suppliers: “The increase in fuel prices is a function of global oil prices, it’s not driven by policy.”
Motorists currently pay 80 pence in tax for every litre of petrol they buy, according to the AA, meaning almost 60 per cent of your fuel bill goes straight to the Treasury.
When Auto Express asked Hammond what the Government intended to do to help reduce fuel prices, he suggested that motorists switch to electric cars. “People should look to new technologies. Electric cars are very cheap to run and allow motorists to drive guilt free.”
Let them eat cake, eh?
What next? Replace the army with ICBMs? They are very cheap to run compared to several divisions of infantry, cavalry and armour after all and will allow us to defend ourselves guilt free. How about embracing defence as part of the Big Society. Armed militias raised on a county by county basis. Oh, hold on a moment, that was where the old model started and that went wrong according to the bean counters. Local regiments so that the provinces actually feel that defence is inclusive and relevant to them? Nah, not this time.
Or even better, the UK government can contract out defence entirely. Give the contract to the highest bidder. Hammond can complete the work of Dr. Fox by handing the keys of the MOD to the Pentagon.
Philip Hammond is a huge accident waiting to happen and we should all be very afraid. If ever there was a case of someone being promoted way beyond his pay grade it is Hammond but this is merely indicative of the paucity of talent inhabiting the Tory benches at Westminster. Even with the GlibDumbs padding out the Cabinet the Tories still cannot cobble together a front bench that comes across as anything other than confused, angry and pompous. I thought the Labour administration was limited in the last Parliament but these jokers take the biscuit.
Or should that be cake?

Coalition ministers to flood Scotland in SNP attack? Bring it on!

The SNP government is developing a Scandinavian style society where those less able are offered certain social guarantees – healthcare, education, transport, housing etc. Danish sociologist Gøsta Esping-Andersen notes that this particular adaptation of the mixed market economy is characterised by universalist welfare states (relative to other developed countries), which are aimed specifically at enhancing individual autonomy, ensuring the universal provision of basic human rights and stabilising the economy. It is distinguished from other welfare states with similar goals by its emphasis on maximising labour force participation, promoting gender equality, egalitarian and extensive benefit levels, large magnitude of redistribution, and liberal use of expansionary fiscal policy. All commendable aims and all a very decent fit for modern Scotland.

The Tories are looking across the Atlantic to an American GOP model where it is, to a very great measure, sink or swim depending on the strength of your bank account. The so-called Big Society is nothing more than a cloak behind which to hide sustained cuts. The big difference in this case is that whilst the Republicans crave small government with laissez-faire policies, the Tories crave big government with micro-managed cuts. This just does not work as economic impetus is stripped from the national machine.

The LibDems have lost the right to comment on anything of relevance as they have turned their back on everything they claimed to stand for in a cheap grab for a share of power. Alistair Carmichael’s “bring it on” reference demonstrates that the LibDems are out of ideas altogether and have to quote recently forgotten Labour failures.

And Labour itself is a rabble scraping around for any straw at which to clutch. They forced the UK economy headfirst into the ground and now have the effrontery to question the SNP’s fiscal policies.

The SNP ship is sailing along a rocky shore but that is all that it can do just now what with the constraints of funding imposed by an entirely unsympathetic Whitehall which is desperate that the good ship Holyrood should founder. That John Swinney can somehow balance the budget and sustain some form of growth is remarkable in itself and well beyond the comprehension of Geordie and Danny, the Treasury Twits.

But the real “bring it on” for my money is that these posturing, preening non-entities such as Carmichael really believe that they have anything valid to say about the future of Scotland. Let them come and let them preach – the more often the better I say. Let the people of our nation see on a repeated and regular basis that the coalition in London is completely out of touch with 21st century Scotland.

Scotland does indeed have two governments – one looks out for this nation’s interests and one looks out for the interests of London. But let both governments state their case to the people of Scotland and then we’ll see who is smiling.

Now that’s “Bring it on!”

We Don’t Need No Education – Oh Yes We Do!

For many, if not most, politicians and political commentators south of the border Scotland has been more likely to feature as a source of annoyance than anything else. The most prevalent opinion has been that the Scots are at worst a bunch of scroungers or at best simply ungrateful for the largesse of the Union generally and England specifically. Now that Alex Salmond and the Scottish National Party have delivered the election result of a generation on our side of the border the chattering classes in the south seem to have woken up to the ideal way to put the kybosh on this whole referendum on independence thingummy — force that referendum as early as possible.

That sounds eminently sensible from the point of view of anyone determined to preserve the Union. The easiest way to torpedo an independence vote would be to prevent the Yes campaign from building any momentum by getting the plebiscite over and done with in the shortest timeframe possible.

Alex Salmond is acutely aware that we Scots need a bit of education on what our status is in the Union and what our status would be if we would go our own way. He is aware that we need education as to the benefits of freedom of choice in setting our own policy goals in an international context. He is aware that we need education as to the true potential of our industry and resources to be able to raise funds for the nation through taxation. He is aware that we need education in the opportunities afforded to small nations in the modern world.

However Alex dare not use this “E” word as that might very well come across as condescending. And if there is one thing we Scots cannot abide it is condescension! Instead he must lead us down a path where we witness by the evidence of our own eyes and ears the possibilities and certainties that many Scots cannot yet even imagine.

So why is education such a key aspect? Well firstly those very opinions of what Scots are permeating from England about us all being ungrateful scroungers may be dismissed with one hand but if this type of propaganda is repeated often enough it can leave a stain or even a scar on the psyche in terms of how we view ourselves. Secondly, this is reinforced by our local Unionist politicians telling us how essential it is to preserve the Union as we wouldn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of lasting five minutes out there. Anyway, where would we go? The EU wouldn’t want us and nobody would want to bail us out when we fall flat on our faces. These slurs against the competence and self-respect of our very being need to be addressed, dissected and put to bed once and for all to be replaced by new positive reinforcements of who we are and what we are capable of.

Let’s look at the different aspects of our education in understanding ourselves. We need to be clear, regarding our status, that the vast majority of the population of the Union treats us as second-class citizens. The English are not intrinsically a bad bunch and I think that we all know that. However they are finding a nascent sense of Englishness with the Cross of St George and all that. They look at us with some sense of indulgence as one would for an errant young nephew who really just will not learn. As long as the SNP were in a minority at Holyrood this was all well and good. Now, all of a sudden, this errant young nephew has been left a rather large inheritance and everyone in the family wants to tell him how to invest it or, even better, become his trustee until he is old enough to understand how to spend it wisely. Let’s make no mistake here; we are nobody’s nephew. We are full partners in a Treaty of Union which is as valid today as it was 304 years when it was formalised. Under international law the treaty is a live instrument and the partners are at liberty to revise it as and when they see fit. We are not locked into this Union and we are at liberty to challenge our status without a trustee or guardian insisting upon our conduct.

Scotland is currently little more than a bit-part player in the world of international affairs. For better or for worse we are characterised as that bunch who let the Libyan bomber go free. How that affair is read depends upon where you are rooted. Hawks might say that we are a soft-touch whilst those with a more all-embracing nature might say that we are compassionate. Quite frankly this is an irrelevance. We are being judged on something that was decided from a point of law. There was no pay-off, there was no dividend, there was no back-scratching done. But as the government in Westminster was less than willing to be frank or in any way clear on the matter we had to stride the international stage as a government with no Foreign Ministry. Westminster made no attempt to assist in that and it was a perfect opportunity for London Labour to try to leave Edinburgh high and dry.

That we were able to get any message across at all was remarkable in itself. The SNP has a highly professional team of front bench talent in Holyrood and as we saw accusing fingers pointed at Kenny Macaskill and Alex Salmond from the hawks in the US and from within the Union a valiant and tidy rear-guard action was fought. Some were convinced that this issue might come back to bite the SNP in the 2011 poll but the results of last week are proof that this has become a non-issue for most Scots. Nonetheless we need to see for ourselves how the impressions and misrepresentations of others can affect our international persona. Our ability to present ourselves on the international stage is not helped by the status quo at Westminster but we need to demonstrate this for all to see on the domestic front.

We Scots have been some of the greatest innovators in science and commerce in the history of the modern world. This goes back to one key issue — education. We were the first country to offer universal education to everyone regardless of class or position. This great advantage was readily seized upon by the British Empire in its time as we were the most numerate society of the age, so the fact that the administrators and managers in the colonies were predominantly Scots was no coincidence. When the Industrial Revolution came along Scotland, as well as supplying many of the ideas and processes, embraced the new age with vigour and foresight. The great industries of the Central Belt were forged from Scottish iron and steel smelted on Scottish coal. Times have changed since the great days of the Industrial Revolution and the heavy industries have died or declined to a vestigial level compared to their pomp. But we tend to forget that New Lanark is still in the essential travel guide for Japanese tourist coming to the UK. We may have forgotten a great deal of our industrial background but they want to come and see where it all started from their point of view in the crucible of sustainable, compassionate industry.

But what of our current industry? Some would scoff about whisky, picture postcards and shortbread but let’s not get sidetracked. The whisky industry as it stands today is a massive contributor to the Exchequer. The taxes, duty and excise raised by Scotch whisky are the envy of many countries in Europe. This is a massive shot in the arm to Scotland’s input to London’s tax pot. Or is it? Well actually no, generally it is London itself that inputs the whisky numbers as the companies that own the distilleries are registered in London so therefore it is English whisky funds.

Oh well never mind, the oil and gas sector contributes billions and that does certainly come from Scotland doesn’t it? Well no, actually it doesn’t. The energy sector is also mostly London based. For all the endeavour that goes on in the North Sea and for all the roles that Aberdeen, Peterhead and Shetland play it is once more London’s input.

So that’s two of the major industries in the UK economy almost exclusively operating in Scotland but with their financial returns reflected as English. No wonder we would feel inadequate if we imagined that the best of our industries were being tallied in the big bean count as our own but we still came out so poorly. We need this financial obfuscation to be cleared up and complete transparency to reign.

“But Scotland is too wee and too poor to survive on its own.” If I had a pound for every time I have heard that in my lifetime I would be very well off thank you very much indeed. This is a lie peddled by those who have no coherent argument beyond the nonsense they are fed by the Unionists. For the past 18 years I have lived in Tallinn, Estonia which is a country of less than 1.5 million inhabitants. Now if that’s not a country that was too wee and poor to go it alone then I do not know what is. When I first visited Estonia in December 1992 I found a tatty little country lacking for most of the things that we take for granted but the one thing in no short supply was self-respect. The country had only shaken of Soviet rule 16 months earlier and was finding its way but the people were optimistic. The undercurrent of enthusiasm and the can-do attitude of people I met prompted me to settle in Tallinn for a short spell in March 1993 but that short spell has now become, as I say, 18 years. I am not going to try to convince anyone that Estonia is some kind of heaven on earth but what I will say in the clearest terms is that when I settled in Tallinn there were so many things that we simply accept as part and parcel of modern living that were unavailable. I recall having a dinner party in 1993 and I ended up having to visit eight different food shops before I had all the ingredients for a relatively simple menu. When I put fuel into my car I always had a nagging fear that there might be dirt in the petrol which could block the fuel system — it happened to me more than once and it happened to others frequently but we learned which pumps to avoid. These are two simple aspects of everyday living that we take for granted in that one will find food in the shops and one will be able to use the fuel that one buys without fear of breakdown. These are only exceedingly minor issues but this is just an illustration of what the population of Tallinn and other cities, towns and villages of Estonia had to put up with on a day-to-day basis for some considerable time.

But it wasn’t just Estonia. It was Latvia and Lithuania as well. It was Slovenia. It was Slovakia. These are all now full members of the EU and three of them are in the Eurozone as well. These countries had none of our advantages and yet they have all claimed their place in the New Europe with enthusiasm and pride. And lest we forget Croatia, Montenegro, Macedonia, Kosovo and the Czech Republic. All of these far less fortunate than Scotland but none too wee or too poor. OK, not all of these are perfect societies yet but they have chosen to be apart from something else that was no longer fit for purpose and to invest their effort in being what is their essence.

For us Scots to take on-board all of the above overnight is nigh on impossible. We need time to catch our breath and to make some form of understanding of what we have achieved so far and what that means for our future. This is where the education process starts. We need to know who we are, what we are, what we have as our right, where we are going, who we are going with and who we are going to meet. We need to know why we are going there and what we will receive in return. We need to know how we are going to get there. The question of when we can go needs to be carefully weighed up against all these whats, whys, wheres, whos and hows. At the juncture that we can understand the reasons then we will know when. That is the education that we need.

It is completely disingenuous for the supporters of the Union to insist that a referendum must be held at the very earliest moment. Did David Cameron put every campaign pledge into action in the first 90 days of his Prime Ministership? Of course not. Will Labour action every policy in Wales immediately? Don’t be daft.

Alex Salmond and the SNP clearly stated again and again ad infitum that the referendum would be called in the second half of the new Parliament. The pledge was clear and unambiguous.

It is no coincidence from my own point of view that I am coming home. I am moving back to Aberdeen this year and I will be opening a business using many of the things that I have learned in my time in Eastern Europe. I have confidence in Alex Salmond and the SNP; I know where we are going. I feel it is my duty to share with as many others as possible in finding that same route so that we might all know exactly why we are on it. And I am so looking forward to the thrill of the journey. A one-way family ticket please.

Never Mind The Quality, Feel The Width

The media coverage of the popular revolts in the Middle East has been pretty in-depth up to now with all the major news outlets covering every aspect of the unravelling political landscape. Or have they?

I would contend that far from analysing the breaking stories they have instead favoured an approach akin to sports commentary where the correspondents report what they see with little thought given to analysis. The main culprits here have been TV and radio with some of the more serious newspapers taking a slightly more academic approach to their examination of the events.


Having been in the UK for much of the time I have been subjected to observing things through the prism of BBC News and Sky News with the occasional referral to CNN, Al-Jazeera and Russia Today among other sources. As for radio I have listened mostly to BBC Radio 4 and BBC World Service.

Let’s deal with the TV stations first and in reverse order. The first order of business is to be clear that Russia Today is not a news channel. It is a mouthpiece for sources close to the Kremlin to further Russian interests by points-scoring from any and every adversary. On one bulletin last week whilst highlighting the suppression of anti-government protesters in Libya the rolling ticker at the bottom of the screen was delivering the single message that the security services were using British made crowd control “machines” on the streets. This intrigued me until I eventually twigged that they were really talking about “vehicles” and obviously the copy had been translated directly from Russian language in which the word машина (mashyina) is commonly used. Anyway it was interesting to note how the Russians were spotlighting the possible lineage of the police vehicles but there was no mention of the MiG, Sukhoi and Mil aircraft raining death from the skies which all coincidentally share a common origin. Russia. Go figure.

Al-Jazeera was quite interesting as they have a rather no-holds-barred approach to their reporting. They tell it like it is, warts and all, but do tend to get a little ahead of themselves in reporting speculation and rumour with little or no verification. Having said that the quality of studio expert has been excellent with plenty of texture and context added to unfolding events. I would have watched more of Al-Jazeera but they do tend to focus on single events for a bit too long to the extent that if you are looking for a rolling news update you can sometimes be disappointed.

CNN has huffed and puffed and made out that its coverage is serious and highbrow but once we get beneath the skin we have a fairly safe and uncontentious package to deal with. In its defence CNN is pretty unlikely to announce a story until it is double-, treble-, quadruple-, and quintuple-checked. This is commendable in many ways but it also means that CNN is most often the network which is last out with the story.

Sky News has come a long, long way since it started out but it is still the TV equivalent of The Sun newspaper. It’s all about headlines and dramatic statements but once you get beyond that the content is flabby and superficial with a general lack of journalistic talent and a total lack of meaningful analysis. The studio experts are maybe experts at being studio experts but they add very little to the understanding of what has been unfolding.


BBC News has thrown an inordinate amount of journalistic power at the Middle East in the last weeks to such an extent that there have been complaints of overkill by some licence-fee payers. It was noted by one complainant that near the end of the demonstrations in Egypt there were no less than 14 TV and radio correspondents representing the BBC in that country at the same time. I would hold that this is no bad thing as, until the Libyan uprisings started, the anti-Mubarak phenomenon was certainly the biggest story of the year and if a news network does not have a duty to report the news comprehensively then what duty does it really have?

The BBC coverage has been light years ahead of CNN and Sky and whilst Al-Jazeera has made a good effort I must come down in favour of Auntie Beeb. As mentioned before Russia Today is not a news channel so it does not deserve a rating here at all.

But where all the networks have missed the boat is in the almost complete absence of contextualisation and analysis in the wider sense. There has been an almost complete lack of understanding of the role of Pan-Arabism and the assertion therein that the Arabs are one nation from the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean.

The previous existence or attempts to exist of the United Arab Republic, the United Arab States, the Federation of Arab Republics, the Arab Islamic Republic and the United States of North Africa demonstrates a complete and utter lack of understanding of the historical common thread that runs through the Arab world. That so many attempts have been made or mooted to unite Arab states is a clear indication that there is a lot more to the idea of Pan-Arabism than merely the hangover from Nasser’s years in Egypt. Virtually every country in the Arab world has been involved in one or more of these schemes and it has been more the chauvinistic attitude of individual ruling cliques that has caused the lack of any success in this direction as opposed to any will of the people.

NewImage Leaders such as the late Hafez al-Assad of Syria embraced Pan-Arabism but profoundly on their own terms. The list of pragmatic Pan-Arabists is almost endless but chauvinism under the guise of protecting national interests always rules the day — or at least it has up till now. These events in the Middle East have been prompted and undertaken by the underclass in society to whom Pan-Arabism is a far more important component than it was to their erstwhile rulers. The Arab League has been one more international talk shop up to this point but that may change if we see some real people power in the region.

And what of the Ba’athists? It is as if they do not exist anymore. But they do. The regime in Syria which has ruled under Emergency Law since 1963 is led by “the leading party of society and state” — the Ba’ath Party. There are Ba’athists sprinkled throughout the region in different guises and strengths. I am not suggesting that this is a renaissance period for the Ba’athists (that would be ironic as “renaissance” is what Ba’ath means!) but they should be considered from the point of view of analysts, even if to be dismissed. But some would say that today’s Ba’athists are those best prepared to benefit from mayhem in the Arab world and much more so than Islamic extremists who have been caught entirely on the hop.

This is the stuff that the news networks should be researching and telling the viewing and listening public about. It is not at all as sexy as Ashley Cole shooting someone with an air rifle or who wore what at the Oscars ceremony but
could certainly have much more of an impact on all of our lives in the coming weeks, months and years as the NewImage oil price heads inexorably upwards with each new piece of uncontextualised drama reaching the airwaves from the Middle East.

We surely deserve better in what we are fed as news by the networks out there and in the UK we are not too badly off compared to some countries believe you me, but evidently in the words of the two tailors of 60s-70s sitcom fame, we should “never mind the quality, feel the width!”

21st Century Russia 1.0.1

I have been asked for my own perspectives about what I blogged on last time regarding Russia and the Russians. What follows is my own reading of the situation but it is based generally on first-hand experience with as little anecdotal input as possible.

In my own experience I think that there is something to be said for the concept that Russians are rather lost in the modern world. Russia has bossed an empire unquestioningly from the Kremlin for hundreds of years and it has been the norm to impose Russian values and culture on other nations.

Now the boot is on the other foot somewhat with Western, particularly American, values imposed on Russia as part and parcel of the process of democratization. The Soviet population saw the General Secretary of the Communist Party and the Party itself by extension as a simple continuation of a culture of blind obedience which originated with the concept of the “God Tsar” as an infallible guiding eminence in every facet of daily life.

Suddenly in 1991 the peoples of the former empire were forced to think for themselves. In most of the European non-Russian republics of the USSR the people had been thinking for themselves for many a year and had never bought into the Russian fantasies so the possibility to regain independence was a welcome salvation and deliverance from a tyrannical occupier. But for the Russians themselves there was a massive cultural vacuum to be filled.

The idea of the free market was an alien concept but in principle it sounded easy so many average Russians gave it a go. Within a short time there were many sole-traders all over Russia and the Former Soviet Union (FSU) with tables or rudimentary kiosks set up at garden gates and on street corners selling goodness knows what. These budding byiznyesmyen and women were shocked to find that the general population were not particularly interested to buy their wares and were in fact not beating a path to their doors.

What they had failed to grasp was that there is no point in selling off all your old bits and pieces to a market which already owns those very same bits and pieces, usually from the very same source by the same manufacturer – the Soviet model saw supply as being of moderate importance, NOT variety. These small traders were completely disappointed by this turn of events as they had not picked up on the idea that the market craves uniqueness. They themselves aspired to earn money to buy nice things but they could not comprehend that every other individual shared the same aspiration and was equally at a loss to fulfil that ambition.

It was the few as opposed to the many who saw what was required and made contacts in the West to bring cheap goods to the East that would make a quick profit for the speculator ready to take the risk. From the other side some Western businessmen saw the potential in the East and moved rapidly to fill the gap or even perceived gap.

I met many a sharp operator from Western Europe in the bars of Tallinn, Riga and Vilnius in the early 90s – these were chaotic and certainly interesting times. What do the citizens of the new countries of Eastern Europe need urgently? Why, it has to be casinos and Spanish time-share. I kid you not! Guys from London and Edinburgh and Leeds who saw the main chance and jumped in with both feet, took the money and skipped off at great speed to the next location in Montenegro or Romania or Albania or somewhere equally naïve and ready for the BS. This was the story from the Baltic Sea to Valdivostok.

Then there was the influx of exiled nationals who came back to their homelands. This was repeated all over the FSU but the general outcome was that the exile was only too willing to come back to the land of his birthright because he or she was not especially competent at home but his new kinsfolk would probably take some time to work that out. This especially reminded me of the old acronym as taught to me by a former member of the Royal Hong Kong Police Force who was fulfilling a valuable role for a shipping line. FILTH – Failed In London Try Hongkong!

This was a huge phenomenon and I saw it unravel in Estonia particularly to such an extent that ex-pat Canadian-Estonians were virtually universally shunned as dangerous dilettantes who would be guaranteed to screw things up! But this happened all across the FSU as foreign “experts” craved to give their input. The dividend of this today is that the locals who were “educated” by these fools are now equally dumb and mistaken in their beliefs so the dilettantish culture still pervades.

But enough of the FILTH and charlatans and onwards with locals.

There were of course sharp operators at a local level throughout the FSU and these boys quickly rose to the top of the market. The term “mafia” is bandied about very generously when referring to any form of criminality in Russia in particular and Eastern Europe in general but in my experience the word is grossly over-used. Yes, there were boisterous groups who would think nothing of drawing blood from their opposition but these were more small-time players than most Western observers would imagine. There certainly were turf wars but the big league criminals were not so concerned with the provinces and concentrated on making money out of such things as dismantling the Soviet military or gaining control of natural resources.

I have met a few local bandits in my time and on one occasion I was in a meeting with the head of a company which distributed Philip Morris cigarettes in Estonia. I had brought along two high-ups from an international consultancy firm who were looking for reasonable propositions in the Baltic States. The guy came right out and said that his boys had taken care of the opposition so there was no threat to his company’s position in the market. He then bemoaned the lack of choice in the local retail market for clothes and said how much he wished for a Marks and Spencer in Tallinn. He will have seen his wish granted now if he has lived this long. But his office was located above a boxing gym and to get upstairs to the modern suite we had to negotiate the gym and a small army of back-clad Russian crew-cut types wearing the archetypal 9mm suit – a black Italian double-breasted affair with the jacket baggy enough so that a shoulder holster could be worn unobtrusively. These were serious people but they saw things from the point of view of legitimate businessmen in a dangerous business. It may seem quite odd to someone sitting in Tamworth or Tallahassee but to the Tallinn mentality it was nothing abnormal.

Then there was the Afghan dairy owner who had made his money in Kabul after the Soviet invasion of his country and had then sought out the fleshpots of Minsk in preference to Afghan locales….. but I digress.

People like the cigarette vendor marked out their territory all the way across Eastern Europe and the FSU and from that point onwards regarded themselves as respectable and worthy of praise for a job well done. This was the modus operandi for the New Russians – elbow, claw and if necessary shoot your way to the top. Of course this is only a very tiny minority of people but they grabbed the majority of the wealth and their empires are still intact in most cases if they have not been already been sold off as going concerns to a genuine commercial operator.

So economic opportunities had revealed themselves to those who were prepared to seize them and that was all well and good for those who had done the seizing. But what of those who were not so motivated to use their elbows?

I can best illustrate this with a true story from the summer of 2003.

A business colleague of mine was visiting from Benelux and a female friend of his from Belarus was due to meet us in Tallinn for the Midsummer festivities. The girl arrived but my colleague and I had to attend an important bank meeting. She would be quite happy she said if we would drop her somewhere that she could do a bit of shopping, somewhere with decent boutiques. The bank’s head office was located just next to a fairly high-end Finnish department store so we ushered her in that direction before heading to our meeting.

Upon meeting our Belarusian friend again she complained that the Stockmann store was not quite what she had in mind. She had been looking for Ralph Lauren, Gucci, Christian Dior and other similar boutiques as she could shop in at home in Minsk. From this point of view she was sadly disappointed with Tallinn.

The following day we were heading to a Midsummer barbecue party at a friend’s house and we stopped at a newish supermarket to buy some beer, some wine and a couple of toys for the host’s kids. Now this place really took our Belarusian friend’s breath away. The idea of going shopping in a regular supermarket with all staple goods under one roof with self-service from the shelves and no requirement for queuing just blew her mind. “We have nothing like this in Minsk,” was her comment. I can hear her as clearly as if it was yesterday.

What is the point of this little tale? Well, the retail situation in Minsk was the same as many and any city across the FSU and Russia. Plenty of opportunities to buy overpriced designer nonsense but no chance of being able to go out and do the weekly shopping in one place. The population at large were entirely ignored at the expense of the new rich who needed their baubles on a regular basis. And where would they shop for the basics in life? They wouldn’t need to as somebody would do it for them if they couldn’t get across to Helsinki, Stockholm or London this week or next.

And that’s not an idle throwaway line. From the early 90s onwards the best shops in Helsinki and Stockholm would have Russian language signs in their windows and Knightsbridge followed only a short time afterwards.

The New Russians had everything and the Old Russians had nothing.

More to follow…

Who is North Korea?

Part 1: Kim Il-sung up to the Sino-Soviet schism.

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Perhaps before examining what is to be done with North Korea it might be valuable to explore the characters who have shaped the Hermit Kingdom from its earliest days to the present and to appreciate their influences.

A quick question for all and sundry. Who is the President of the Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea? Kim Jong-il? No, he is only the Supreme Leader. The post of President is reserved for his father, Kim Il-sung. There is nothing wrong with that as such until one realises that Kim Il-sung died in 1994! But by constitutional revision in 1998 Kim the elder was enshrined as Eternal President.

This one snippet from North Korea surely gives even the most casual of observers the basis to wonder what goes on in the corridors of power in Pyongyang.

To understand the DPRK it is first essential to understand the cult of personality that was built up so thoroughly around Kim Il-sung that it seemed more expedient after his death to let it perpetuate rather than transfer it wholesale onto someone else’s shoulders.

Kim Il-sung was born in 1912 and at a very early age his family moved to Manchuria. Whilst at school he developed an interest in Communism progressing from membership in a Marxist cell to joining an anti-Japanese guerrilla army led by the Communist Party of China (CPC). Kim was a political commissar and coincidentally ended up associating with a number of senior party members who were close to Mao.

Kim became leader of a division (only a few hundred men in reality) and he skirmished with the Japanese in North Eastern China and across the border into Korea until he was eventually forced to flee with his remaining men across the border into the Soviet Union in late 1940. At this point he was sent to a camp to be retrained by the Soviets along with other Korean Communist fighters and was awarded the rank of Captain in the Red Army. His political development was now in the hands of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU).

When the Soviet Union declared war on Japan in the summer of 1945 the Red Army’s progress to Pyongyang was surprisingly easy and the need for someone to head a puppet regime became acute. Stalin had Lavrenti Beria handle this task and it was Kim who Beria settled on. There were undoubtedly better qualified candidates but Kim had no connection with the indigenous Communist movement and that was ideal for Soviet needs. There is also much speculation that Kim was something of a blank canvas who was capable of being manipulated by his handlers.

Whatever the truth in this there is no escaping that Kim had spent only his very formative years in Korea and the eight years of formal education he had undergone were in China before receiving indoctrination in China and Siberia. He was described by one of his MVD handlers as essentially “created from zero” and furthermore his Korean language was poor. The MVD had to coach him through speeches and he was far from the ideal figurehead from this point of view but a very rosy picture of his anti-Japanese war record preceded him and for this reason he was popular with the population.

There are rumours and counter-rumours about who the real Kim was. Some Soviet sources later suggested that the Kim who reached Pyongyang was a replacement for the “real Kim” who had been killed in action earlier. Whatever the truth of that might be the reality is that the man we know as Kim Il-sung was installed as the head of the apparatus in the fledgling Soviet satellite by Stalin’s MVD and by September 1949 when the DPRK was proclaimed he was unassailable.

The Korean War came and went and Kim Il-sung survived to be the Great Leader of his people who had repelled an anti-communist attack from the south when in actual fact it was Kim who attacked the south but was then driven back right to the Chinese border before China saved his bacon by invading to drive back the UN forces as they feared invasion of their own territory. But why let a little thing like the truth get in the way of the cult of the personality?

This fraternal saving of Kim’s bacon gave him a new and endearing appreciation of China and the CPC. When Khrushchev denounced Stalin’s purges to the CPSU in 1956 several of the less mainstream and more idiosyncratic Communist regimes around the world felt less inclined towards the Soviet leader and saw Mao as a better role model. Kim was unimpressed by Khrushchev and turned increasingly towards China in much the same way as Enver Hoxha did in Albania. Curiously Kim only had contempt for Hoxha but the two men and their regimes were so much closer than either might have been willing to admit.