Monday, 28 October 2013

Who Governs?

We have all become used to multi-nationals demanding subsidies to open (or keep operational) local manufacturing or service centres and if the government does not or cannot meet their demands they're off to bully and bribe someone else and place their business with someone else regardless of the impact on their workers or the communities they operate in.
About eight or nine years ago, in a flight of fancy, I dreamt up an imaginary scenario in response to what I saw as the growing power of giant multi-national companies and the influence they have over nation-states in this and other regards. 
It seemed to me, even then, that such organisations had developed power to such a degree that,  in terms of the tax they paid or the laws they observed, they were effectively volunteers. Most of them had tax avoidance departments to ensure that elected governments got a bare minimum, if anything, from the desired local taxation regime and even so, they would close plants, sack workers and generally hold to ransom any tax jurisdiction that dared to ask for anything they thought "unreasonable". And that's not to consider those organisations which were intent on outright and illegal tax evasion.
The financial collapse of 2008 showed that many of the large banks were "too big to fail". Governments, desperate to avoid meltdown in the banking system, poured taxpayers cash into keeping the economy and the banks "liquid". It seemed that, no matter how badly they behaved and how dysfunctional they were, large multi-nationals were above and beyond the power of the modern nation state to deal with.
The recent instances of multi-nationals with huge UK turnovers somehow paying peanuts in UK tax just extends the numbers of  examples from which we can choose.
The scenario I invented envisaged the possibility of a shooting war by nations states on multi-nationals. The specific case I outlined was the French President kidnapping and holding hostage the CEO and Chief Financial Officer of an oil company to stop the company taking actions (as the President saw it) contrary to French economic interests. Probably due to my inherent lack of imagination and skill, I didn't develop the idea any further, but I did discuss it in the pub with my mates, who all thought it a bit extreme.... they were right of course, but it was supposed to be art not politics or science. 
Anyway, that's just a long winded way of approaching the recent Grangemouth debacle. It had all the ingredients: a previously British owned manufacturing plant whose outputs and services  are vital to Scotland and the UK's economy, a Swiss base multi-national (Ineos) with an obscure financial regime whose master plan includes cutting the wages and benefits of the workforce, a trade union bent on resisting these cuts, the need for long-term investment, a decision on who stump up for that investment and threats of closure if the company did not get its way.
We all know the outcome; the representatives of the Scottish and UK Governments stood hand wringingly by while the employers humiliated their workers and the governments and got every bit of the cash and cooperation they craved. The workers and the governments got shafted, and seemed grateful for it. The interests of the company were paramount. The interests of the employees, the Scottish Government, the UK Government were swept aside. As for the interests of the people and community of Scotland or Falkirk or the UK, they get a horse laugh.
All my adult life I have been fed a narrative of unions=strikes=bad for the country. The irony is that this was a strike, not by the union but by the company, and the government showed no desire to do anything effective about it, even if it could.
Now, all of  a sudden, it seems that everyone thinks the big companies are getting just too big and too powerful. In this Scotsman article Alf Young examines the "hedge fund like" structure of Ineos and warns that companies with this approach are impossible to deal with. They put the interests of their shareholders first, last and always (and the shareholders all probably know each other). Jim Ratcliffe, the effective owner of Ineos, is British. Did he consider patriotism, the needs of the country or fellow feeling with his fellow Brits in making his decisions? NFL. The senior managers of the plant are Scottish. Did they betray any solidarity with their compatriots when "negotiating" over the deal? NFL.
These companies, and there are more and more of them, have no loyalty to anyone, no attachment to anywhere and no spark of humanity in their decisions and actions. They have the heart of stone of a 19th century mill owner in a Victorian penny dreadful or melodrama. The company logo could be a disembodied hand twirling a luxurious black moustache with a scroll of cackling laughter beneath.
Owen Jones in the Independent states it clearly "A Swiss-based private company has held to ransom not just hundreds of workers and their families, not just their community, but an entire nation". 
The problem is: what to do? Do we continue to echo Eck, smile and wring our hands while pretending we did our best in a difficult situation? Or do we find a way for the nation state to stand up to, to match and defeat these companies or at least bring them into line?
This is more of a problem for Labour than for the Tories or the Orange Book so-called Liberal Democrats - they both believe with a religious fervour in the power of the markets, and therefore companies, to be the mechanism for delivering the needs of the populace without interference from governments. Labour, on the other hand, believes in the need for at least some state intervention and support. If Labour's vision is to be enabled, we need the ability for democratically elected governments to engage with multi-national corporations on the basis of, at least, parity if not superiority.    
But it's also an opportunity. It seems to me that the power of large companies with budgets bigger than states and tactics more ruthless than any iron-man dictator, cannot continue unchecked. It's not just jobs that are at stake. The history of the 20th century shows that it is state power that creaks when governments cannot control and deliver to their populations what those populations need for a decent life. This is especially so in democratic states. And whatever the big organisations may wish in terms of operational freedom to make their decisions to suit their own ends, chaos doesn't suit them either. With the weakening of the state comes instability and corruption and out goes any enforceable framework of law and order and any system within which they can make money and expect to be able to keep it safe from banditry. 
Whatever happens I'm sure that no-one will be dusting down the all-out-war scenario of state-to-industry relations. Just what they will do is a fascinating question.

Saturday, 5 October 2013

The Return of the Tartan Tories

I've been away, seduced by the speed and ease of Twitter..... Twitter is great for immediacy and sloganising, but some things need a bit longer and more space to expand into, so I have returned for a one-off gig* there's anyone still out there...

I found this informative little flowchart which seems to show the contradictions in the SNP position on tax, and it does it  quite humorously IMO.

But it seems to me that the chart also reflects the Yes campaign as a whole: we'll give the facts where we think they help US, we're much more open to dealing with big business than any piddling idea of letting YOU know what we think might happen and, BTW, any questioning of what we say is "negative".

In addition, Fergus Ewing's siding with the energy company and the Tories on the Labour proposal for an energy price freeze is straight from the Torie-love-big-business-Daily-Mail-stock-editorial-fallback , along the lines of "if you don't like big business you must hate Britain". Fergus obviously loves big business: does that mean he also love Britain?

Anyway, it all signals the distant echo of an old song..... The Tartan Tories Resurrected.  Question is: how will the SNP snuggling up to the Tories go down with the Scottish public and in the upcoming referendum?

Not very well is my judgement. What's yours?

*Not promising to stay away forever....

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Wonderland Two: the benefits of the union

A couple of days ago I came across the image below on the Better Together website, showing that Scotland gets more back from the UK than it contributes in taxation.

Embedded image permalink

Scotland gets a full £10 billion a year more from Westminster than we delivere in taxation.

The SNP has just published what it apparently thinks is a refutation:

Embedded image permalink 

So: Scotland gets 20% more in spending than we pay in tax..... and that's a reason to break up the union which delivers this result?  

As the immortal philosopher Homer Simpson is wont to cry in moments of vexation: Duh!!

I mean...

What would they prefer? 10% more? 20% less?What can it mean when the No To the Union Campaign advertises this great benefit that befalls us by our membership of the very union they despise?

Is there a mole in their rapid rebuttal department?

We used to hear a lot about "Alex in Wonderland Economics". 

Is this the return? 

"Wonderland Two: the benefits of the union"
See the great 20% gift. ...Luxuiriate in the spectacular generosity of the benificient Union! 
Learn to love your fellow islanders!

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Nationalists, the EU Membership and hidden advice, No. 99

There has been much controversy about the Nationalists and the advice they have bought, with our money, on the status of an "independent" Scotland vis-a-vis membership of the EU and the Euro.

Broadly speaking those who oppose the break up of the UK have been suggesting that EU membership would not be automatic for a newly independent Scotland and we would be forced to join the Euro, while the Nats have  been claiming that it's a foregone conclusion that the EU would welcome us with open arms and we could still be part of a "Sterling zone".

There has been legal opinion sought on these matters by the Nationalists, but they seem reluctant to publish it.

So, thanks to the Better Together website for this little image.....

....which gives a simple precis of all the public advice from the top experts.... ....all of which contradict the Nationalist politicians.

Whether it contradicts their legal advice, who knows?

Maybe they will let us, their constituents and paymasters, see it some day....

Friday, 5 October 2012

A "promise them anything" coalition cannot prevail

Last month Jim Sillars branded the SNP the most totalitarian party... his contention being that the lack of any challenge, dissent or protest from its active politicians, particularly MSPs, and their kowtowing to the Party leadership, was a sign of weakness in the party and a sort of cowardice by its members.

 He has reurned to the theme in Holyrood Magazine, and is again attacking the lack of backbone evident in SNP MSPs

Jim Sillars berates SNP MSPs for failing to address openly the many policy questions that will require answers in an "independent" Scotland.

The problem for Mr Sillars and others who may be exasperated by the SNP's lack of opennes and challenge on policy is that the SNP has promised so many things to so many disparate groups that any honest discussion of policy would be poisonous to party unity and alienating of the various tranches of voters they have managed to attract by promising them whatever they wish.

It's all very well telling Nat MSPs to break ranks, but every time they do they reveal, not just that they have promised one constituency a particular thing, but that they have promised other constituencies conflicting even opposing, things.

So business friendly tax cutting to North East Tories, tax raising left-wing service deliverers to Central Belt working class voters, anti-nuclear to CNDers, pro-Nato to pragmatic defence realists, conservative Christans to the Archbishop's flock, supporters of gay marriage to liberal sentiment...right-wng in Tory constituencies, left wing elsewher. It's a balancing act that can only be maintained by never acknowledging that you are on the high wire in the first place. Even glance down once and you topple into the abbyss.

Any honest challenge or critical discussion of any of these positions and you alienate at least two groups and lose their votes. What's more you show the splits and dishonesty at the heart of the SNP project the more discredited the party becomes and the more tarnished its only real policy looks. 

Sillars is right that SNP MSPs are supine. But how could they be anything else given the contradictions inherent in their pro-independence coalition and the penalties in revealing those contradictions?

Monday, 24 September 2012

500,000, 50,000, 5,000...whut!?

Masses fail to appear at Nationalist rally.

I was in Edinburgh on Saturday. I had organised a day visiting a few art galleries and a special evening meal for a family celebration. I had not realised that a huge Nationalist gathering, march and rally was planned for the same day, so it was with some trepidation that I approached the weekend: would our special day be compromised by gangs of woad encrusted warriors and boisterous tartan army refugees clogging up the streets and bars and restaurants of our fine capital city?

The problem was compounded by the fact that our chosen hotel was only a few hundred yards from the Meadows, where the invading army was scheduled to bivouac before taking over the town centre. And the route of the march was close to the walk we hoped to take to one of our planned exhibitions.

Around midday we set off to town, prepared to be beset or accosted and delayed by the occupying army on the march. As we walked our view of the Meadows showed no hordes a-gathering and no blocked streets, no hubbub, no hum, no skirl of the pipes, no drums and fifes, no music of any description, in fact nothing....

Edinburgh old town is a tightly formatted swirl of narrow street and connecting closes. Any celebrations or stramash of any size or volume would be seen and heard around the town. It would seem impossible to hide a march or expedition of any size, in this enclosed and echoing space, from detection.

But we saw nothing and we heard nothing.

I can't say I was disappointed at the non-appearance of the Nationalist convoy. Just a bit puzzled.

Anyway. We crossed the Royal Mile and headed for the City Arts Centre and an exhibition of the work of the Scottish Colourist Leslie Hunter. It was great.

Two hours later we emerged and headed past Waverley Station where we glimpsed a single face-painted Nat clumping along the pavement. We then walked through the eastern end of Princes Street Gardens. It was a beautiful autumn day and there were - at least - hundreds sitting, strolling, playing and even picnicking along the gardens.

At the National Gallery there were even more people sitting out having coffee and cake.  

We made our way to the Van Gogh to Kandinsky exhibition. Another fabulous two hours passed in a flash and we emerged blinking in the late afternoon sunshine onto the foot of the Mound.

By this time the march had passed and the rally was going on across the street, in the western end of the Gardens. I saw one man with a Saltire draped, football-fan-wise over his kilt-and-vest garb and another with a red and orange flag of Catalonia. An amplified voice carried from the rally, but no press or throng assaulted the streets. From what I could see, a not-very-large crowd were facing a stage. The space available was not taken up and, while respectable, the attendance was very obviously nowhere near the spectacular numbers (even pro rata) reported from Barcelona last week.

We walked up the mound and back to our hotel and saw no more of the Nationalist spectacular.

Truth to tell, Edinburgh was mobbed on Saturday, but not by political activists or galvanised voters intent on showing the strength of support for their chosen path. Edinburgh's throngs were tourists and shoppers and locals going about their business. 

Sunday dawned and the papers reported 5,000 people at the rally.  So few. No wonder they made no impression.

There were about a thousand people strolling and picnicking in the Gardens. There were tens of thousands mobbing Princes Street, the Royal Mile and the other main thoroughfares. 

The problem for the Nationalists must be: why were these people, or even a small proportion of them, not on the march? What does it say for the attractiveness of the pro-independence message and the momentum behind the Yes Campaign that they couldn't even attract a crowd any bigger than either of the local SFL teams gets regularly, every Saturday, to watch their games?

Minister for the Referendum, Nicola Sturgeon, 
looking puzzled as to why nobody turned up at her party.

We enjoyed our weekend and it wasn't spoilt by the pressing mass of Nationalist marchers. Because, rather to my surprise and I suspect the chagrin of the organisers, there was no pressing mass.

Good news, IMO. What Eck and his Minister for the Referendum make of it, I would really like to know.


Wednesday, 12 September 2012

Why not publish the advice?

The SNP claims that an "independent" Scotland would automatically accede to membership of the EU.

You would think that they would have taken legal advice on the possibility of this being so, any legal or constitutional problems or obstacles in the way of immediate accession identified by this advice and any arguments for or against that they have thought of, heard of, or have been advised might apply.

If you had a difficulty, perhaps unprecedented situation or problem that you were wrestling with, wouldn't you take advice? Legal advice if approriate? 

Maybe they have taken advice, but they refuse to tell us if they have. And if they have sought such advice at public cost, they will not tell us what advice they got.

So it's not clear to the voters whether the Nats are telling the truth or not: would an "independent" Scotland have to/not have to apply for EU membership.    

But we don't have to speculate any more. This week Manuel Barroso, President of the EU Commission, commenting on the situation in Catalunya, said that any secessionist region (Catalunya, Scotland) would have to re-apply for membership of the EU. They would not automatically accede to the Union, they would have to apply and meet any pre-conditions that would allow EU membership.

So there's the answer. An "independent" Scotland would not automatically be an EU member. It would have to apply and meet membership criteria. This would, of course, take time, maybe years.

So much for for Eck's "Och it'll be all right. Nae bother. No need to worry".

When will the Scottish Government tell us if it has any legal advice? And will it let us know what that advice tells them ..and us?

In the meantime...??