Thursday, 31 December 2015

Fishermen vs environmental colonialists - the unequal battle over Marine Protected Areas

My column for the Daily Record

What do Fisheries Minister Richard Lochhead, an American Insurance charity and a board member of broadcaster BSkyB have in common?

Read on for an insight into how political power is wielded in the new Scotland.

Last week while the rest of us were mulling the choice between prawn cocktail and smoked salmon fishermen on the Clyde coast and Western Isles were scrambling to save their industry and way of life.

That was because Richard Lochhead, the SNP Fisheries Minister, delivered an early Christmas present by extending consultation over plans for a network of Marine Protected Areas by a mere month.

Announcing a short consultation over the festive season smacks of cynicism. Fishermen's leaders say these conservation zones would ban trawling and dredging for shellfish and so destroy fishing communities.

With politicians of every stripe representing on the west coast telling him he is wrong, who is telling Richard Lochhead he is right to press ahead with MPAs?

Well, ranged against the fishermen are a well-financed and well-connected network of conservation organisations.

Stunning amounts of money are used to cherry pick science and lobby politicians with a slew of data that portrays fishermen as plunderers.

A web of inter-connected environmental organisations ply the waters of Scotland and the corridors of Holyrood.

The Marine Conservation Society had £10 million at its disposal over the last four years. 

Scottish Environmental Link, the umbrella organisation for conservation bodies,  raised over £400,000 in the last three years. Revive the Clyde, closely linked to SIFT, a similar amount in two years.

The BSkyB connection comes through Nick Ferguson, chair of corporate governance at the broadcaster and a noted philanthropist who supports projects that benefit young and old in Argyll, where he has a holiday home.

He was also on the advisory board of SIFT, the Sustainable Inshore Fisheries Trust, that has applied for Regulating Order covering the Firth of Clyde. Such an order would grant power over who fishes and who does not. 

No prize for guessing how the "community" interest would stack in that situation. But prizes galore for one side of the debate.

The Goldman Foundation, funded by the legacy of a wealthy family of American insurers, gave their annual prize of  $175,000 prize to Coast, a self-appointed group campaigning for the South Arran seabed to become an MPA. Coast had an income of over £500,000 in the last three years, charity returns show.

Let's be honest, some fishermen are greedy rogues that took some species to extinction. However, regulation and voluntary participation in conservation measures, like increased mesh sizes, have taken the industry and stocks back from the cliff edge.

For me the jury is out on prawn trawling and scallop dredging. Dredging the seabed for shellfish was once described to me as cutting down orchards to pick apples.

Objectors say it destroys everything, fishermen say it renews the bottom, just as ploughing enriches the soil in an onshore field

The science and effectiveness of conservation zones is hotly disputed but the fishermen are right in one respect.

Whatever the damage to the seabed by fishing, that will be as nothing compared to the damage done to coastal communities if a whole sector of the fishing industry is banned.

Sterilising the west coast as a playground for the gin palaces of the rich and for rigid inflatables is not a viable plan to replace working communities.

After the thin varnish of consultation next month expect the pretence of "community" control of these protected areas.

But follow the money and you will see ultimate control of a campaign to effectively kill off our fishing communities rests in America and in London.

It is the kind of colonial environmentalism that, were it being targeted an the fragile population of an  Amazonian jungle, would have Scotland's right-on brigade indignant with fury.

Instead all that power and finance is being brought to bear on closing down the prawn fishery, the only major fishing industry left on the Clyde and west coast.

All this is all being done with the complicity of a government whose main selling point is self-determination and standing up for Scotland. Exactly which part of Scotland, fishermen ask?

Thursday, 10 December 2015

East to west, Scotland's transport system needs a reboot

For today's Daily Record

AS a totem of a nation at a standstill, the empty decks of the Forth Road Bridge can only be matched by that list of delayed and cancelled flights to and from the islands of Scotland.

The east coast has suddenly discovered, as the west coast islands already have, how failing transport links quickly become an economic stranglehold.

The closure of the Forth Road Bridge now looks as inevitable as the rusting stanchion on which the excuses hang.

There was the populist abolition of the £1 bridge tolls, which meant £12 million had to be found from somewhere as the maintenance list grew.

A new bridge was commissioned, an obvious step, because the current one was already beyond the expected lifespan.

There were the engineers’ warnings that more maintenance was needed, and somewhere in the middle of this Nicola Sturgeon had a spell as cabinet secretary for infrastructure.

With all ministerial eyes distracted by their role in the nation’s destiny, tenders were drawn up and dropped amid budget cuts. Trying to cross the river to a nationalist Jordan, it looks like the SNP government neglected the country’s basic infrastructure.

In an ironic twist for an avowedly left-of-centre government privatisation saw the bridge authority cease to exist.

This privatisation agenda runs like a stain across the whole transport brief. Who is pushing it?

On the west coast, Transport Minister Derek Mackay is hawking Caledonian MacBrayne to private sector buccaneers in preparation for the next transport fiasco.

On the east coast, he has to take the brunt of motorists’ anger over the bridge closure.

Being a Minister isn’t such fun when things go wrong. Mackay strains every political sinew to achieve the look of an underweight Atlas, mythically holding up the globe all on his own.

He is left defending the past while firefighting the present. With no sign of back-up you have to worry about his own long-term structural integrity.

There are calls for an investigation into what went wrong, who knew what when.

Engineers, professionals who can be relied on not just to read what is written on the tin but test the contents too, gave ample warning of defects. Ah, but not the exact defects that emerged last week, respond the government, though that tune is whistling like the wind in a cable stay.

In a Scotland of two truths, empirical evidence versus political certitude, I doubt the worth of any inquiry.

An investigation would not move a single vehicle across the crippled Forth crossing.
For my tuppence, all that political energy would be better spent turning a crisis into an opportunity.

The bridge collapse, if it has done anything, has exposed the glaring inadequacy of Scotland’s public transport system.

Yes, Scotrail have pulled in extra carriages so Scottish commuters can get the sardine tin experience of the crowded south-east, minus the property prices and the milder weather.

There are expanded bus services, a sudden interest in car-sharing schemes and forlorn demands for featherweight cyclists to be allowed to zoom across the Forth (of course they should be).

So, if there has to be an inquiry it should be into the massive rethink Scotland needs to move dormitory commuters permanently onto public transport and off the roads.

Out road addiction shuts our eyes and ears, though not our lungs, to the carmaggedon of pollution and climate change.

Labour, in a search for 21st century principles, should be less consumerist, more conservationist and take the lead, especially if the Greens in Scotland remain a client state of the big oil party.

Just as in health and in education, it should be possible for a nation of five million to devise public transport policies that match the needs of the country. Big task, no easy answers, but put the engineers on the job.

That would require a bit of a political cease-fire to take place, a bit of bridgebuilding if you like. The Forth Road replacement might be falling into the water before we get that.

Wednesday, 2 December 2015

Hilary Benn - "What we know about fascists is that they need to be defeated"

From the Commons, for The Record

After a long day of speeches, some distinguished ones by backbenchers, and mediocre ones by the main party leaders, Hilary Benn arrived at the despatch box.

The speech by the Shadow Foreign Secretary was always going to have some drama to it. He stood at odds with his party leader, Jeremy Corbyn, but his rousing words left everyone in the shade.

In a short speech the son of the late Tony Benn elevated himself to the ranks of the parliamentary greats.

He showed principle, loyalty and what many moderate Labour MPs had been crying out for - leadership.

He told MPs in the Commons: “Although he (Corbyn) and I will walk into different division lobbies tonight, I’m proud to speak from the same despatch box as him.

“He is not a terrorist sympathiser. He’s an honest, a principled, a decent and a good man and I think the Prime Minister must now regret what he said yesterday and his failure to do what he should have done today - which is to simply say ‘I am sorry’.”

Of course Benn was for striking ISIL, and he laid out the case in detail and with rigour. The packed Commons listened in rapt silence.

Chancellor George Osborne leaned out of his seat, watching intently a politician who might one day be a direct rival.

His case for Syria was made, but it was his closing remarks, addressed directly to his own party, that distinguished Benn.

Fascists need to be confronted, he said. Labour has always stood up to them. We must now confront this evil, he said.

This is what he told Labour MPs: “As a party we have always been defined by our internationalism. We believe we have a responsibility one to another."

“We are here faced by fascists; not just in their calculated brutality, but their belief they are superior to every single one of us."

They hold us in contempt, they hold our values in contempt... they hold our democracy, the means by which we make our decision tonight, in contempt. 

"And what we know about fascists is that they need to be defeated and it is why, as we have heard tonight, socialists and trade unionists were just one part of the international brigade in the 1930s to fight against Franco. 

"It’s why this entire House stood up against Hitler and Mussolini. It’s why our party has always stood up against the denial of human rights and for justice and my view, Mr Speaker, is that we must now confront this evil."

Slowly, he concluded: “It is now time for us to do our bit in Syria and that is why I ask my colleagues to vote for this motion.”

The Commons had been silent throughout. Corbyn was stonyfaced behind him.

But when he finished MPs broke into applause. In extraordinary scenes, MPs roared and waved their order papers. The SNP, who have been banned from clapping, pointed to the Speaker in outrage. Mr Bercow let the applause run, and the electric atmosphere drain from the chamber. 

Thursday, 26 November 2015

Gaelic TV loses £1m in cuts, UK gov loses influence

Gaelic television is to lose £1 million of UK government funding as part of the Comprehensive Spending Review.

That shouldn’t be a surprise, given that the Department of Culture, Media and Sport has a budget cut of five per cent and S4C, the Welsh channel, has had a chunk of funding cut too.

But the £1 million represents 100 per cent of the UK government’s  stake in Gaelic broadcasting.

The funding, about five per cent of the Gaelic channel BBC Alba’s total budget, is not a huge amount of but its loss has cultural and political symbolism which appear to have escaped John Whittingdale, the Culture Secretary. 

BBC Alba, the Gaelic language TV service (you’ll find it on Sky ch143) is funded from a combination of public sources.

The service was set up the in the 1990s by the then Tory government with funding of £8 million a year, and a dedicated channel came along in 2008 and is well supported by viewers, both Gaelic and English speakers.

It is now funded by the Scottish government to the tune of  £13.8 million, with £1 million from the Department of Culture Media and Sport in Whitehall and £8 million from the BBC in terms of cash and technical services.

In television terms it is not much, but with £1 million the channel was able to produce a drama series, Bannan, which is in its second run.

The loss of the DCMS funding will be a disappointment for MG Alba, which had lobbied for the cash stream to be maintained.

The funding was guaranteed by Danny Alexander, the Lib Dem Highland MP, when he was chief secretary of the Treasury.

He understood the value of the small amount of support, but Gaelic now has few friends inside government, and no one was on watch in Westminster looking out for it. 

Culturally, it now looks as if the UK government is just turning its back on one of the country’s oldest indigenous cultures and the medium it has become most accessible in.

In political terms it is a bigger mistake. The funding was the last toe-hold the UK government had on Gaelic broadcasting.

Earlier this month the Scotland Bill included a little-noticed clause devolving power to make appointments to the governing board of the channel to the Scottish government. Now the UK government has surrendered its financial influence too.

Politically, the SNP government wants control of state broadcasting in Scotland,  and in terms of Gaelic it now shares that control with the BBC, as well as the responsibility for funding it.

It is only a hop and a step to extend that argument to English language broadcasting too. 

It may be that the DCMS is cutting the cash to prime the argument that the BBC ought to step in to fill the gap.

There is a BBC review going on right now, which openly questions the value of minority broadcasting and makes some unfavourable comparisons.

Anyone with an interest in Gaelic broadcasting (or a stake, as I do myself as a freelance contributor) should respond to that consultation.

Pressure ought to be brought on Whittingdale and the Scotland Office to revisit the decision,  it is not a lot of money after all.

How much of that pressure will come from the SNP, in whose interest it is not to have UK departmental involvement in Scottish broadcasting, remains to be seen.

SNP up and down the hill on Syria

My Daily Record column today
Jeremy Corbyn’s not the only politician exposed in the searchlights over Syria. 

On an issue as serious as war, Nicola Sturgeon began showing leadership worthy of the Grand Old Duke of York.

Trapped in no-man’s land between being on the right side of the  party activist base and the wrong side of public opinion, the SNP’s spin operation was uncharacteristically skittish.

First Alex Salmond, the party’s Foreign Affairs spokesman and hefty voice in the party, ruled out backing for UK airstrikes. So far so predictable.

But he was countermanded by the First Minister.

She was “prepared to listen” to the case for airstrikes.

Westminster leader Angus Robertson held that line on Sunday morning. He sounded more sceptical by Wednesday.

Then up popped his colleague Stewart Hosie, party deputy leader, saying “at the very least” UN support would be needed for the SNP to back UK action.

Everyone knows there will be no UN security council motion approving air strikes. China and Russia would veto that simply to keep the UK out of the conflict.

Then, on the same day as the First Minister handcuffed her leadership to the sinking stock of Natalie McGarry, she sharpened the position.

“It has got to be action that is right, that will make a positive difference, rather than make the situation worse,” said Sturgeon.

This was beginning to sound like war policy driven by opinion polling.

It may be with the world on a knife edge after a Cold War skirmish that downed a Russian jet that public opinion, hardened by the Paris attacks, has cooled again.

Cameron makes the case for war today, but aren’t we at war in Syria, anyway?

A Freedom of Information request reveals the UK has flown 196 armed drone missions over Syria in the last year, with no civilian casualties the MoD insist.

We have special forces on the ground, RAF pilots flying with Nato allies, a Royal Navy frigate escorting the French carrier,  with our Cyprus airbase and  surveillance and refuelling facilities on call. 

Though the SNP do try to overstate their importance in Commons vote  when it comes to bombing ISIS, Downing Street calculates nationalist votes will be irrelevant.

From Cameron’s point of view, the most important minority votes are these of the eight Democratic Unionist Party MPs.

They’re on board, and we’re well down the road to war in Syria.

We've been expecting you, Mr Monaghan

The SNP’s Paul Monaghan MP might not be paranoid, but it doesn’t mean they’re not out to get him.

With MI5 on high alert for a jihadi attack the Caithness MP thought the best use spy time was to ask if he was subject to personal surveillance?

In the Home Office written answer (they cost £164 on average) the spooks hilariously refused to confirm or deny what they were up to. 

Poor Paul, he’ll have to keep looking over his shoulder, though I suspect James Bond has better things to do.

Thursday, 22 October 2015

Glimpses of another country

My Daily Record column
Wandering on the Aberdeen esplanade during the SNP conference I glimpsed another country.
Inside the black box conference hall, Scotland was ordered – coming blinking out on to the seafront was to see economic reality.
On the eastern horizon, rig supply boats were lined up far as the eye could see.
These ships are not waiting for a berth in a busy port. With their skeleton crews, they are going nowhere.
The idle fleet is a symbol of the impact the dramatic fall in oil prices has had on the fortunes of Aberdeen and the North Sea industry.
It was like having the central flaw of the independence White Paper writ large.
For each one of its 670 pages of oil-borne promises, 100 North Sea jobs and more are gone.
The jobs pain is spread evenly across the UK but a switch to three-week shifts offshore has effectively cut a third out of the onshore economy that services the turnarounds.
Real jobs, real livelihoods and mortgages hang on the fickle graph of oil barrels across dollars determined far from wellheads and safe harbours.
It has taken a year for senior SNP figures to publicly acknowledge the economics of independence let them down so badly in the referendum.
Whatever the excuses, voters didn’t accept the case. Internally the party has accepted the lesson, as the passionate conference debate on fracking demonstrated.
In their hearts, delegates wanted to ban the industry but Ineos boss Jim Radcliffe’s timely warning about fracking being Scotland’s best chance (last chance?) of “economic independence” rang true for them.
Independence remains the prize, it is just that with diminishing oil resources the price might be getting higher.
On Friday, the gathering storm over the Tata closures in Dalzell and Clydebridge, the outside world interrupted proceedings again.
Nicola Sturgeon promised to do what a Government can to bind the wounds, but for some the grasp on economic reality was slim.
One MSP claimed if Scotland had been independent then the Ravenscraig steel works would have been saved.
Possibly, but unlikely, though that sentiment captures both the strength and weakness of independence economics
Most Scots don’t believe independence could provide any better insulation against the rigours of global markets. That makes independence a hard sell.
Yet the very feeling of powerlessness and fury we feel about rampant globalisation is what makes many people look for alternative economic accounts, for other way of looking at reality.
The corporate muscle that stretches and bends our lives has had its own strong backdraught.
It has driven many voters to turn angrily away from conventional solutions to our problems, to a place where the price of oil will not matter to jobs and the long line of supply boats would not exist.
I dare say that anger over Chinese dumping of steel on the global market provided a distraction as Tata dispensed of what remains of the Scottish steel industry without too much scrutiny.
It is not entirely the fault of the Chinese that steel coming from Scunthorpe to Dalzell cost £325 a slab, wheras the same material could be purchased on the world market for half the price.
We cannot demand Chinese steel workers take redundancy to save ours.
It is one of the contradictions of this complex world that if Scottish steelmaking is to be revived it will likely be rescued by the very people now being scapegoated for its demise, our new friends in the Chinese Communist Party.
Maybe with the honour guard for President Jinping, the demise of steel in Scotland and these lines of boats off Aberdeen during the biggest ever SNP gathering, we all glimpsed another country this week – the one formerly known as Great Britain.

Thursday, 15 October 2015

Sturgeon with the whole world in her hands

When will the second referendum be?

It is the question on the lips of hundreds of new members turning up for their first ever SNP conference in Aberdeen today. It’s also the only story really exercising the media in the carnival tent in carpark 4 of the exhibition centre.

Jim Murphy in his exit speech from politics said it would be “as soon as they can get off with it”, and you can forgive the cynicism of Scottish Labour’s lost leader.

Nicola Sturgeon finessed it rather better this morning in her opening speech to the 81st SNP conference.

In a fair attempt at that old circus trick, riding two horses, she assured No voters, the majority of Scots, that there will be no commitment to an independence referendum in next year’s manifesto for the Holyrood.

Simultaneously she warned the result of the referendum we do see coming down the road, the EU vote, could be the trigger for Scotland to exit the UK. “Unstoppable” was her word, not inevitable.

But while trying reassure half the country that they are not entering “neverendum” land with the SNP she has clearly signalled that within months of winning office she could be preparing for a second referendum vote.

For rank and file SNP members, even the newbys who want a Indy2 yesterday, that should suffice. 

Sturgeon, who bestrides Scottish politics, has great command and respect from her party and there will be few, if any, dissenting voices.

It is that level of personal trust and respect that the SNP leadership want to replicate with the Scottish public over the next few months.

The election campaign is going to be all about Nicola (no Alex at all) and how much you trust and respect her to run the country. So the assurance on the referendum is a strong message.

Sturgeon said there would have to be “strong and consistent” evidence that the mood in Scotland has moved to independence before there is a second vote.

How will they know that? Polling evidence for sure but with 114,000 members, about two per cent of the population, the party ought to be able to judge the mood well enough.    

But asked if the future direction of the country would be weighed on the outcome of opinion polls by the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg the First Minister let slip the proper answer.

“ It will be down to whether we judge, I judge, that people who voted no last year have changed their minds,” she said.

“I judge” - Nicola Sturgeon, she has your whole world in her hands.

Coin is mhadaidhean-allaidh

Sùil Eile airson an Daily Record

‘S e an t-àite as fheàrr airson chon is mhadaidhean-allaidh rannan a’ bhàird.

Ach tha cuid de dh’amadain a tha airson na beathaichean a leigeil dhan Ghàidhealtachd a-rithist gus an t-àite a dhèanamh na fhìor fhàsach.

Bha aonan aca air an radio an latha roimhe, Alan Watson Featherstone, bho urras a tha a’ cur barrachd luach air glèidheadh chraobhan na air mac an duine.

An rud a tha cunnartach mu leithid, chan e am beachd neònach a th’ aige air madaidhean - sin gòraiche.

‘S e na thuirt e mu dheidhinn dòigh-bheatha a th’ air daoine a chumail anns na gleanntan is na h-eileanan fad bhliadhnaichean a tha marbhtach.

A reir an duine uasail seo, ‘s e “perverse subsidy” a th’ anns an taic airgid do chroitearan airson chaorach.

Bhiodh barrachd mathais air a ghlèidheadh anns an talamh às a h-aonais.

Sin an argamaid a bhiodh aig a’ mhadadh-allaidh cuideachd, nach eil fhios.

Seo mo chomhairlesa - fàg na madaidhean-allaidh gu mac-meanma, agus stamp gu cruaidh air beachdan luchd-glèidhteachais bhreugaich.

The best place for dogs and wolves is in the verses of the bard.
But some fools want to release the beasts in the Highlands again to turn the place into a real wilderness.
One of them was on radio the other day, Alan Watson Featherstone, from a trust that puts more value in hugging trees than in human beings. 
The dangerous thing about his kind is not their weird views on wolves, that’s just nonsense.
It is what he said about the way of life that has kept people in the glens and on the islands for years that is deadly.
According to this honourable gentleman the financial support for crofters to keep sheep is a “perverse subsidy”.
More nutrients would be kept in the soil without the sheep.
No doubt that’s the argument the wolf would use too.
Here’s my advice - leave the wolves to imagination and stamp hard in the views of these false conservationists.

Wednesday, 30 September 2015

Life in Wonderland - Corbyn's conference speech

For the Daily Record

Party conferences are locked-off, Alice in Wonderland places cut off from the real world.

If someone arrives from outside declaring  scientists have found life-giving water on Mars, delegates shrug their shoulders at the irrelevance of the news.

Conferences are altered reality, where anything can happen. That's why Jeremy Corbyn's first speech to the Labour conference was such a barnstormer in the hall. 

In here the drumbeat of socialist principles, the defiant challenge to Tory austerity, and the promise of a different way of doing politics drew ovation after ovation

The trouble is that as the testament of the Islington messiah reaches the outside world voters may shrug their shoulders collectively in return.

This was a speech aimed at soothing a bruised party, not convincing a sceptical voter who blames Labour for the economic crash

In his comfort zone it was a warm and witty speech, a wish list for a kinder world that offered few solutions to hard choices of the real world. We can assume these will be sent to policy reviews.

At its core was nothing less than a challenge to the historic order of capitalism. That passage turned out to be a rethread of a speechwriter's script that Ed Miliband rejected in 2011.

On issues he is passionate about, the injustice of poverty, the despot Saudi regime, the rhetoric  drew on Corbyn's own leadership speeches, but was not quite so mediocre as they were.

On Scotland it was a tick box affair, reading the lines from an unfamiliar autocue and what sounded like the script direction - "strong message here" - as he promised Labour would be back as the fighting force it once was. Not much for Nicola Sturgeon to lose sleep over.

He insisted on taking Trident out of the box that the party boss, sorry Unite union boss Len McCluskey, packed it into earlier in the week. Labour may not be debating Trident renewal yet but Corbyn insisted his mandate to is to scrap it and that means there will be division down the road. 

Though he submitted to convention and wore a tie, awkwardly, Corbyn clearly thinks he has changed the rules of politics.

In conventional terms he does not work, an unspun politician,  unstructured speeches, policy discussions not proclamations, it just shouldn't fly in a 24/7 news cycle and a digital world. 

But he told the media it is they who are on the wrong page. 

"No, media commentariat you've got it wrong," he declared, and that telt us. 

Much of the media has already dismissed this rebel who came in from the allotment as a disaster for Labour who will not connect with the public. 

But there is a Corbyn effect out there,  160,000 new members have signed up. He is reaching out with the Good Samaritan politics of kindness.

The speech played to his strengths, his unorthodox approach to politics and defiance of the accepted style of business.

But conventionally voters like leaders to have other strengths, to take decisions not seek compromises, and to be trusted with the economy.  

The political village cannot decide if Corbyn has genuinely tapped the anti-politics mood or how deep that well is. In Wonderland it is hard to tell.

Saturday, 12 September 2015

Corbyn connects, but can he reach out in Scotland?

The lesson from that phenomenal result - Corbyn connects.

Certainly he does in the Labour party where six in ten members backed him as their first choice.

That is a call for a different way of doing politics and for a different Labour Party.

A mandate like that is unassailable from within and resistant to the many setbacks and traps external opponents will put in the way of the new Labour leader.

It’s clear now that this summer politics in the left in Britain has undergone the same transformation as the nationalist politics in Scotland experienced last year.

Defeat has spurred political activists to express their core values, nationalism in Scotland, socialism within the Labour party.

The anti-politics surge that gifted the SNP with over 100,000 members after the referendum has left Labour with over 500,000 across the UK.

But be careful, the SNP membership still outnumbers Labour by five to one in Scotland.

Will Jeremy Corbyn’s anti-establishment credentials, his principled socialism and left-wing values connect with voters better than Nicola Strugeon’s assured, groomed and polished nationalist operation?

Although amazed by the result Corbyn looks like taking leadership in same straight-talking style as he won the contest with.

Mind you, it was noticeable that his powerful victory speech was aimed at the Labour support in the hall and not at the TV nation looking in who he must introduce himself to connect to with the same vigour.

In Scotland the test of Corbynism will be if his policies pull back votes from the SNP.

If they do not then what is happening in Scotland is not about politics at all, it is all about identity.

Thursday, 16 July 2015

The Tories gunning for Gaelic in BBC review

The government's Green Paper on the BBC's future clearly has Gaelic broadcasting, and Welsh, in its sights for cuts.

Why else would the document   launched today present a comparative graphic showing the cost for producing an hour of Radio nan Gaidheal is 18.9p while the cost of an hour on mainstream BBC Radio Scotland is a third of that, at 6.5p per hour? (See page 35 of the document).

Similar figures show that BBC Alba, the Gaelic TV channel part-funded by the BBC, costs 8.3p per hour to produce, compared to BBC3, for example, at 8.1p per hour and BBC 1 at 6.5p per hour.

The reason minority language radio and television is more expensive per hour to produce is because less of it is produced.

But the graphic highlighting and the attention given to language broadcasting is a singal that the government considers that nothing is sacred when it comes to stripping costs out of the BBC.

The documents states: "Nearly two thirds of minority language speakers in the UK say that the BBC supports their language. But while the BBC and licence fee funded services are clearly an important pillar for indigenous language communities there are also challenges: audience reach has been falling across some indigenous language services over the last few years, particularly in Wales.

And these services come at a cost; cost per hour of indigenous language radio content in Scotland and Wales is considerably higher than cost per hour for English speaking content which raises concerns about value for money."

The government says it will ask "hard questions" about the size and ambition of the BBC as part of a consultation on its future. 

Clearly it intends that minority language  broadcasting should be scrutinised as it seeks a smaller and cheaper BBC. 

Wednesday, 8 July 2015

Osborne unleashed, the king of the Commons

Quick fire on the budget for The Record
Don’t be fooled for a second. Don’t be distracted by figures finessed so that welfare is cut by £8 billion over two years instead of the £12 billion expected.
George Osborne is no fool. The Chancellor in his budget just listened to what everyone told him, that £12 billion is nigh impossible to shave in such a short space of time.
Behind the gimmick of rebadging and resetting the living wage, cuts there will be.
Capping wages at a miserly one per cent for public sector workers while setting corporation tax lower than the basic rate of personal tax shows the chancellor knows how to look after friends in business more than his new friends in the north. 
That is not to take away from Osborne’s sheer bravura.
Dealt a lousy hand in 2010, he messed the economy up for three years until it started healing itself in time for the election.
This is the chancellor who has gone from omnishambles to crowd-pleasing magician.
He warmed Tory benches yesterday with a two per cent defence commitment.
He tried to reach the country with the northern powerhouse talk and “one nation” rhetoric while framing Britain as a US-style low tax, low welfare economy. Audacious, not half.
It is all part of his project to discredit Labour’s decade of social democracy, to undo the redistributive work of Gordon Brown while the opposition is leaderless and without a compass.
The SNP, by the way, hardly matter to the chancellor.
With the tax-varying powers of the Scotland Bill Osborne reckons he has handed Holyrood a dirk to bleed Scotland’s veins with. 
Every time Osborne pushes a tax cut Swinney must match it, as he did on devolved property taxes.
On every welfare cut he will challenge the SNP to fill the gap out of Scotland’s middle class pockets, and see who’ll vote for that. 
There’s another project that is bigger for Osborne.
He has his eye on next door and the well-worn path for chancellors to move into the prime minister’s office.
Theresa, Boris and events stand in the way but Osborne has greatly improved his standing with the Tory party selectorate.
The Chancellor, a 16/1 outsider to be Tory leader two years ago, is now the bookies’ favourite to succeed David Cameron.
A roman haircut, a trim look and a new-found panache. That was a Prime Minister in waiting. 

Monday, 6 July 2015

Remembering 7/7: The city that will not die

Tomorrow's  anniversary of the 7/7 attacks is a reminder that terrorism is a continuous threat in our lives.

I was in east London, close to the Royal London hospital, on Thursday morning as news of the tube and train bombings broke. The roads were sealed immediately and police cars started screaming into the city from Essex, so I took to my bicycle and went around each of the bombed sites.

I wrote this essay for the Sunday Herald in a hurry on Friday night,  taking stock of the situation and not realising when I started that it would be a tribute to London.

Sunday Herald, Sunday 10 July 2005
THERE are few things as indestructible as the London Underground system, and few forces as unstoppable as a metropolis of seven million people. The arteries of the Tube, lines and tracks as familiar and loved and hated as a lifelong partner, run far beneath the skin of the city.
Its station names and line colours are coiled around the lives of Londoners, buried deep in memory, available for instant recall: Circle yellow, Bakerloo brown, Victoria sky blue.

You can suspend this life support system - bring its writhing, darting veins and trains to a temporary halt with three simultaneous, terrorinspiring explosions - but you cannot stop it.
You cannot hope to stop it. It is a river, it is a Niagra, a torrent of three million people coursing beneath the pavements of the capital each and every day of every year.
From early morning these silver tubes set off from 267 stations, sweeping a rush hour average of 900 people per train below ground along 244 miles of steel, buzzing with 630 volts along every jolt of every tunnel.
It has been this way since the first trains ran underground in 1863, and commuters came into being. It will be this way until the red finally bleaches out of the Central Line on Harry Beck's schematic map of the network.
It is the current and coughing lifeblood of London, it is the arrhythmic heart that never beats in time, and if it stops a city dies - so there is no stopping it.
 The terrorists, whoever they are, might as well have staked out the Thames and tried to stop the tide by lobbing a grenade over the balustrades of Waterloo Bridge. You cannot kill London.
That is why early on Friday morning at Liverpool Street station, the Essex ingredient of the commuter soup that sustains the city every day threw itself into the melting pot one more time.
Passengers came off the feeder trains from the suburbs, drew their breath (perhaps a few said prayers) then ritually waved their season tickets across the alter of unblinking scanners. They walked past the London Transport staff, with their orange safety vests and the demeanour of deacons at the gates of Hades, and went back down into the bowels of the earth just like they do every day.
They behaved as they had 24 hours earlier until the first bloody survivors were spewed out from the dark tunnels at Liverpool Street and Aldgate to bear witness to the evil of men.
They didn't go back down, these Essex commuters, out of bravery or bravado nor some nebulous "blitz spirit" that commentators incant whenever a calamity strikes the capital. It was a simple, practical calculation. "We have to get to work and there's no other option, " said Bob Keene, a small, suited office worker who could have embodied the spirit of the London defiance had he not been so disarmingly frank.
Mr Keene, aren't you apprehensive about travelling underground again, this reporter asked, a dramatic tremolo somehow finding its way into the question.
He didn't answer immediately, just threw open his arms to indicate the six police officers, one sniffer dog and its handler hovering around the underground entrance. "I can't see it happening two days in a row, " he said and turned to join the morning crowds. And, like a huge shoal of mid-ocean fish that congregate in thousands in the instinctive knowledge that a single predator can only claim a few at a time, they bunched together and went about their business.
ON Friday evening, the Thames and the twilight raised a curtain on the grandeur of the city once more. Across the river, high up on St Paul's Cathedral, the steeplejacks could be seen unwinding the giant "Make Poverty History" banner from around the dome. Below, the panorama of the metropolis throbbed and pulsed as it always done, perhaps with its eyes a little more sharply focused.
A police launch could be seen patrolling the river; another faster, black security boat skulked up and down the far bank. There was a cluster of motorcycle police on the north shore and another two luminous jackets on the platform at Blackfriars station. Sentinels are everywhere now.
But to Kensington in the west, the pubs were packed and in Soho the clubs prepared for another Friday night of disco. Beyond the now empty Lloyds tower and the Swiss Re "Gherkin" in the unshaken City the faithful had left the huge East End Mosque and Friday prayers. The terror had subsided and been packed back into its box.
For a few hours on Thursday, in the darkness after the midday news confirmed the scale, the audacity and the barbarism of the attacks, London did stand on the brink. People were uncertain, anxious-looking and reeling from a bodyblow that had slaughtered innocents to attack the psyche of a whole country and to wound a political system. The city stood still, the air sucked from its lungs.
Traffic had been cleared from the roads. The silence was pierced only by sirens, the soundtrack of our urban lives echoing across the rooftops as the injured and the dead were rushed to hospitals.
All morning - from the moment death was unleashed deep in three underground carriages and atop of a number 30 bus - the city rocked on its heels and there was fear, real "what direction will it come from next?" fear, on the faces of people on the streets.
On the surface, most behaved calmly but it would be a foolish displacement to kid ourselves that there was no panic underground, no dread, no sweat-soaked, adrenaline-pumping pain and hell and agony in the hot, piercing darkness of twisted metal and shattered glass at Aldgate, Edgeware and Russell Square.
After the flashing lights, the powerful rip of metal and the shuddering halt, the survivors said there was no way of telling what was up or down, whether the dampness on the scalp and face was a wound or water or someone else's blood. There were the screams of the wretched, the sobs of anguish and torture as limbs were severed, legs were crushed and life was painfully surrendered.
Hopefully death was instantaneous for those who lost their lives on the trains in the seconds between the first blast at Aldgate and the third at Russell Square. You hope nobody died alone, crying in the darkness.
Steven Densborough, a 28-year-old from Essex, exemplified the triumph of the human spirit over fear, staying behind in the wreckage of the Aldgate tube to cradle a young woman as she lay dying in his arms. He wants to find her family to tell them she did not die alone, but he does not even know her name.
For most people there was no time to consider the obviously dead or dying in a survival situation.
Most of the hundreds evacuated walked out, sooty and shocked, choking but alive.
By chance or design, or the limits of explosive supply, the slaughter by the terrorists was contained. It could be a calling card of precision for future attacks or the best throw of the dice, but they were able to kill at least 50 people. But both sides had rehearsed for this macabre dance of death and, through preparation and practice for the day they knew would come, the emergency services saved dozens of lives.
The police took complete and total command of the situation from the start. In every part of the city, at every hospital, train station and road junction, they were there, plenty of them and all calm, polite and ultra-reassuring. It was as if the Met rehearsed for this inevitable atrocity by sending all its officers to a charm school. They were on horseback urging office workers up the street from evacuated buildings and on foot walking the lonely hundred yards back down these empty roads to peer into nooks and crannies for reported suspect devices.
The front line at the carnage were the London Underground staff, the British Transport police and the fire brigades. They behaved heroically.
Sergeant Steve Betts of the British Transport police was one of the first rescuers to reach the Piccadilly line train between King's Cross and Russell Square on Thursday. "I am not very good in enclosed spaces at the best of times, and we had to climb over bodies and body parts to try to help people and see who was still alive. I thought, 'This is the end of the world - right here in this carriage.' But you have to do your job."
WHY, the Bangladeshi shop owner asked, is the BBC still saying this is a power surge?
By 9.30am two lanes of the Mile End Road outside his shop had been completely cleared of traffic to create a runway corridor from Aldgate to the Royal London Hospital.
In the opposite direction, past lines of tightly packed traffic, police cars were streaking in to the capital from the outskirts of London, a blaze of blue lights. Sirens were going off everywhere and Sky News and local radio stations were alive to the fact that this was the long-awaited terrorist attack on London. Yet to the Muslim shopkeepers on Mile End Road it seemed that the BBC were part of some cover-up of the obvious truth.
At Aldgate station, the first hit, police ushered people away from the entrance and set up concentric layers of plastic tape to hold the crowds back.
Between 9am and 10am, the situation moved from panic to controlled chaos. The walking wounded were ferried to the Royal London Hospital in a fleet of double-decker buses. Dazed survivors who were able to walk away from the station shuffled into the back streets around the Petticoat Lane clothes market sandwiched between the City and east end. The horror of what was happening across the city dawned on people as they staggered past a loud radio on a market stall. The same scene was being played out at four other stations as survivors were led out of the tunnels from the King's Cross and Edgware Road bombings.
On a cycle journey between the mass crime scenes that had been stations an hour beforehand, other sporadic reports came in of bombs on buses and across town. At Cambridge Circus, in the heart of Theatreland, police officers and army personnel stood behind a thin plastic tape.
Behind them, further up Charing Cross Road, a light blue double-decker bus was abandoned in the middle of the road, its hazard lights flashing.
"Suspect device, " said one of the policemen.
Down at Charing Cross station commuters milled around outside the closed gates. Trafalgar Square was hushed and Whitehall leading to Westminster looked looked like 28 Days Later.
Soho was quietened and up on Euston Road, rows of ambulances awaited casualties that did not come while police hung endless strings of plastic tape across the thoroughfare.
Dark clouds gathered, the rain came stairrodding down and a chill spread across the capital while its bewildered inhabitants wondered whether to stay or go. No amount of rainfall could wash away the blood and guts splattered on to the walls of the British Medical Association at Tavistock Square or the indelible image of a trusted London bus, ripped apart like a paper cracker. In the damp gloom, London went though its hour of desperate straits.
But time passed as we sheltered under the glossy leaves of mature trees, and the sun came back.
From a nearby radio, the first strains of The Archers theme music signalled a surreal return to what was meant to be normality. Soon the pavements dried up and the city workers, released from the "stay where you are" mantra of the morning police announcements, began heading home across an cityscape unfamiliar to many of them. Dressed in their shirtsleeves in the afternoon heat they pounded across pavements in their thousands.
Some stood on corners with A-Zs in their hands, pioneers on overland routes discovering the challenge of walking across London.
On the north bank of the Thames, long snakes of people began forming for the ferries that ply east and west along the river. Two by two they went across the gangplanks to the waiting arks. Boat and the bicycle were the only effective means of traversing the city. Buses were stopped and traffic heading into London was told that the area was closed. How to close a city down might be a good question, but somehow it was managed. Hotels filled up with refugee commuters and some reduced their room rates while others were accused of exploiting the situation by increasing prices.
By late Thursday afternoon, there was a rush back to human routine as office workers sought out each other's company. The pubs on the edge of the City and around Aldgate were packed to the gunnels and punters spilled out on to the pavements clutching pints and exchanging oncein-a-lifetime experiences. But the laughter was a little too loud, a little too forced. Nevertheless, nobody marched in the rain as they did in Madrid, there was no hysterical reaction and the citizens did not turn their fear on each other.
In 24 hours, London had swung from the euphoria of winning the 2012 Olympic bid to dealing with the tragedy and grief of the return of terror bombing to its streets. Cities live off their myths and two of London's enduring stories were rewritten and woven together over the past three days. The unifying spirit of the blitz that pulled Londoners through the war and the IRA onslaught and the multi-ethnic, worldwide appeal that won it the Olympian accolade came together in newspaper pictures that showed the diversity of races, creeds and ethnicities of Londoners that are still missing below ground.
Ken Livingstone had his Giuliani moment, and carried it off with great respect. "The city air makes you free to be yourselves, " he told citizens. "Keep on breathing it." 
In the heat, dark and danger of the King's Cross tunnel they carried on digging out the dead so that the funerals could begin.
Some time late on Thursday night, somewhere in an anonymous operations office in Scotland Yard, where the people who are paid to out-think, out-manoeuvre and out-play terror sit, someone must have let the air exhale through their pursed lips and thought, is that the best they could do?
There were no chemical or biological agents, acres of central London were not closed for years by a dirty radioactive bomb. All of that might come to pass as the hourglass runs out on the next attack, but this time they can say - with some justification - "London can take it." It was knocked off its axis for a few hours but a pulsing, vibrant life still runs through this wonderful city.