David Cameron, a Pro-Poverty PM for an Anti-Vulnerable Age: or, The Walrus and the Carpentier

Around two years ago, I read Alejo Carpentier’s ‘Explosion in a Cathedral’ (original title ‘El siglo de las luces’, which translates as the Age of Enlightenment). The Cuban writer and musicologist’s 1962 novel deals with the ‘exporting’ of the revolution to France’s Caribbean colonies, and was recommended by a friend as a ‘mood-setter’, before we went to Cuba. Its opening line is haunting and chilling in equal measure: “I saw them erect the guillotine again tonight. It stood in the bows, like a doorway opening on to the immense sky…” The book records the transmutation from Enlightenment to Terror and the mirroring of the wholesale executions on both sides of the Atlantic. Inasmuch as some have argued that Scotland’s Enlightenment role was one of seed to its equivalent in France (rather than simple recipient as elsewhere int he world), I think that is a legacy that most of would want some distance from.

I found myself prompted to think of this by David Cameron’s speech yesterday. Emboldened by his unexpected electoral success, he has increased his austerity target to £12 billion in welfare cuts, but will not say where they will come from.  It is planned to cut Personal Independence Payments – the replacement for the Disability Living Allowance  – by 20%, as apparently the list of disabled deaths resulting from the welfare cuts to that sector (see calumslist.org) as a direct result of the implementation of the austerity measures is not long enough already. As Frances Ryan notes in today’s The Guardian, Iain Duncan Smith and his Department of Work & Pensions is in conflict with the Information Commissioner’s Office over figures showing how many individuals have died within 6 weeks of having their benefits stopped. As has been noted elsewhere, this is not exclusively a Conservative problem, as half of the deaths resulted under Labour, the other half under the coalition government. (Journalists such as The Telegraph’s Brendan O’Neill conveniently dismiss this toll as merely a ‘problem of suicidal people’, thus neatly sidestepping any need for responsibility to be taken. Stay classy, Brendan.)

Yeah, maybe it gets boring, dealing with that old idea that austerity is predominantly hitting the wealthy, when of course Dave told us that “we are all in this together”. Here was Dave’s new message, yesterday: the poor, he says, will be hit much harder, if the deficit is not brought under control. This is the myth of trickle-down economics for a new age – once the economy is stable again, then we can look after the poor….but, if we are still ‘in it together’, is austerity hitting the wealthy? Well…since the 2010 General Election, the wealth of the top 1000 has grown by £212 billion (to reach £547 billion), so I’m not sure how much traction that idea really has. This is not trickle down: this is sucking up.

And with the UK’s debt now at over £1.5 trillion (one correspondent suggested Cameron’s promise to ‘look at Holyrood’s books’ was because he was desperately trying to find handy hints on ‘how not to increase your national debt’ for his Chancellor), and the deficit reduction targets consistently being missed by Osborne since he became Chancellor (see https://50daysofyes.wordpress.com/2014/12/18/a-post-autumn-statement-of-the-obvious-using-a-crisis-as-a-pretext-for-an-ideological-opportunity/ ), it seems unlikely that that aspired to ‘stable economy’ is going to be showing up anytime soon to stop the position of the poor getting worse.

Purely in Scotland, there were 510,000 people in severe (with an £11.5K household income, equivalent to 50% of the UK average, or less) or extreme poverty (on a £9.2K household income, equivalent to 40%), in 2012-2013, with 410,000 the year before. With the forthcoming introduction of Universal Credit (the ‘super-benefit’, replacing six others: including Job Seeker’s Allowance, tax credits, income support, housing benefit – see https://50daysofyes.wordpress.com/2015/03/25/the-labour-conservative-alliance-two-sides-of-the-same-coin/), rent payments will go direct to the household, rather than the landlord, despite the outspoken opposition of many charities: as Social Work Scotland said in their submission to Holyrood’s Welfare Reform Committee, “Increased  homelessness is widely anticipated as a result of Universal Credit being paid directly to individuals.” The recent drop in relative poverty (60% of the UK average) not only is a reflection of the general cross-the-board drop in living standards: it was also reflected in the increased numbers of those in severe and extreme poverty. These people aren’t leaving poverty by being ‘upcycled’: currently, there is no way but down, once you get to that income level.

But more than that, as I have said, there are a further £12 billion in cuts coming, meaning that the current proportion of 1 in 10 in Scotland living in severe poverty is scheduled to rise, with a further 100,000 children in Scotland projected to be in poverty by 2020. Audaciously, Cameron attempted to morally justify this move yesterday, by accusing welfare of being a “veneer of fairness”, papering over the cracks of poverty, as opposed to “extending opportunity”…although quite how opportunity will be extending by precipitating more people into the poverty trap of the ‘in-work poor’ in full-time working austerity is currently unclear. More sinisterly, this speech heralded a move to make a significant legislative change, as The Times reported: “The Child Poverty Act, one of the final pieces of legislation passed by the last Labour government, commits the government to ensuring that, by 2020, fewer than a tenth of children live in relative poverty. According to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, the latest figure is 2.3 million, or 17.4 per cent of children in Britain. Cutting child tax credits, one option under consideration by ministers preparing to cut a further £12 billion from the benefits bill, could add 300,000 children to the total living in poverty, according to the IFS. The prime minister said that the definition of relative poverty enshrined in law meant that even a small rise in the state pension led to an increase in average income and, consequently, the number of children living in relative poverty.” A familiar pattern of goalpost-moving for those who remember the modifications of definitions of being ‘unemployed’ under the last Conservative Government, in order to cosmetically reduce the numbers.

Pensions will supposedly be protected in this new round of cuts. One might cynically say that this is because the demographic that will be recipients are traditionally a core Conservative-supporting group, but in reality (if looked at by share of average earnings) the UK pension ranks 23rd out of 27 in the European Union. Instead, tax credits are widely viewed to being in the frame for a significant part of the cuts…as Alison Garnham of the Child Poverty Action Group put it: “No moral mission involves taking away tax credits for our poorest children. No serious plan for the low-paid begins with making them poorer by cutting their tax credits.”

Mike Danson, Professor of Enterprise Policy at Heriot Watt University, warned us before the General Election that the remaining austerity cuts would be implemented regardless of the impact on the poor, because they were ideologically-driven – and this was reinforced by Osborne not backing away from further austerity in his last budget 50 days before the General Election (https://50daysofyes.wordpress.com/2015/03/25/the-labour-conservative-alliance-two-sides-of-the-same-coin/), as well as the recent noises that they will go even further. Other than meeting purely ideological objectives, these cuts achieve nothing…in fact, they further contribute to low growth and extend the life of this (increasingly-localised) recession. Simon Wren-Lewis, Professor of Economics and fellow of Merton College University of Oxford, criticised the austerity ‘strategy’ for this very reason before the General Election: “The main impact of lower growth – including that caused by fiscal austerity – has been on living standards.” Lower growth caused by fiscal austerity would normally mean higher unemployment or lower living standards: “Austerity in itself has increased child poverty…Nicola Sturgeon’s statement on the economic impact of austerity on the UK is correct, with no qualifications.”

It is scenarios like this that start to give one a glimpse of the anger of the people that simmered under the former European aristocracies, eventually causing the people to take to the streets and later execute those aristocrats. Working in China during the last couple of years, I saw the gauche evidence of China’s new rich, driving their Maseratis past the subsistence farmers, who were struggling with their donkeys along the same stretch of motorway. Culturally, rural China might well have been long indoctrinated through the Cultural Revolution into believing in their inherent agrarian nobility – but how long can you expect such flaunted wealth to not provoke a reaction? Perhaps the most powerful – and most likely the least-intended – lesson that I derived from Carpentier’s novel was that, bloody as the Terror was, at least the aristocrats did not smoothly slip back into their previous roles within a short space of time, restoring the status quo that had been so comfortable for them at other’s expense. True, others eventually did – but it took much longer than in France, and at least was not the originals.

Cameron states the continued existence of the deficit would harm the poor in the long-run – that, in effect, the increased poverty (and – inevitably – deaths) are ‘for their own good’: he plays the part of Lewis Carroll’s Walrus to Ian Duncan Smith’s Carpenter…sobbing crocodile tears and feigning sadness, while keeping right on eating. Except the lives affected are not oysters, but those of real people, successively demonised by the press since the recession began, and now ripe for victimhood. The difference being that, by the end of Cameron’s gluttonous meal, there will be far more impoverished and suffering than at the start of his ill-advised walk upon the sand. Does Cameron really understand the keg of nitroglycerine that he is kicking around? Does he see the abyss, or is he too drunk on the heady intoxication of his unanticipated electoral majority to remember to care?

Perhaps he can act with complete impunity. But he would do well to heed the warning: Sands shift.

 

“It has been astonishing, from a US perspective, to witness the limpness of Labour’s response to the austerity push. Britain’s opposition has been amazingly willing to accept claims that budget deficits are the biggest economic issue facing the nation, and has made hardly any effort to challenge the extremely dubious proposition that fiscal policy under Blair and Brown was deeply irresponsible – or even the nonsensical proposition that this supposed fiscal irresponsibility caused the crisis of 2008-2009.” (Paul Krugman, Nobel economist 2008, The Guardian, 29/4/2015)

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50 Shades of Austerity: Poles Apart, or an Example of Economic Masochism?

I watched a summary of yesterday’s Sunday Scottish Politics half-hearted Leaders Debate this morning. It was not an entirely wasted experience, however – as much as the broadcast little resembled what I understand buy a ‘debate’, I am informed that the hectoring and interrupting that Murphy so frequently deploys is actually a debating technique, called ‘gish galloping’ (thank you, Patrick Roden…). The ‘technique’ involves lots of small simple questions or accusations regularly being hurled at your opponent while they are speaking, never giving them time to answer. This works particularly well if you know that the answers take time to give a proper answer to – because you can then deny the environment that such an answer can be given in…providing you have a moderator that is not going to switch off your microphone.

One SNP person, with 3 from the Westminster parties ganging up to shout her down and talk over her in a BBC studio, with one behaving like the playground bully – it was somewhat depressingly familiar to what one saw during the Referendum campaign, and highlights the difference when other parties (say, like the Scottish Greens, who are looking somewhat more relevant than the LibDems to Scottish politics right now…) are involved to break the onslaught of establishment dogma, and perhaps also explains why Nicola, Natalie and Leanne did so well during the Leaders’ Debate. But there is much that is different between the Referendum and this General Election, in terms of the coverage – for one thing we now have a newspaper!!! This makes my work very different, as it is less a role of collation of data and extemporising my own viewpoint, compared to largely passing information on to the comparatively few people not reading one or two key sites, or ‘The National’, rather than generating new copy myself.

Another difference is the interaction with polls: in ‘Yes’ we largely ignored the polls, except to look for signs of slow growth over time. By June/early July I know I was a little alarmed when we were not turning the corner of 50:50, as there was not going to be time to deflect counter-propaganda if we did it late, so hoped that we might sneak over that threshold on the day, without any polls to expose our rise. Of course, we had the worst possible scenario – a week to go, YouGov arrives, the propaganda lie of ‘The Vow’ was delivered in response, and we slumped at the last day.

But now the polls have a very different role. From the point of Johann Lamont’s resignation, the SNP has soared in the ratings, making this our General Election to lose. This means we are in the ‘No’ campaign’s starting position, three years ago, but once again with most media outlets turned against us…fortunately with Labour and the Conservatives taking some flak as well. YouGov, which always gave fairly low ratings of ‘Yes’ popularity, have now become our new Best Friends Forever as far as SNP versus Labour support goes. And also – even more unlikely as an ally – Conservative peer Lord Ashcroft’s extensive polling has indicated that dissatisfaction with Labour is greatest in those seats that they hold with the largest majorities.

But, within that, there was one weird statistic of his that made me do a double-take.

In a question on austerity, 57% of those that he polled did not want any more austerity – which does not seem so surprising – but 43% DID. Closer analysis shows that his 57% was made up of 36% yes austerity was needed but no more, and 21% that it was never needed, but, yes, 43% said that more austerity was needed. Say what? I mean, I could understand if it was a class thing, perhaps a poll done in Mayfair or the heart of Kent, but 43% based on national polling? What is, this some sort of inferiority complex, that the government in charge ‘must know better than me’? ‘Punish me – if it hurts, then it must be good for me’, is that it?

Well, let’s take a look and see how that is working out – first looking at the social impacts of austerity, and then at those all-important ‘economic benefits’ – shall we?

David Cameron was recently supported by a letter from 103 businesses in the Telegraph saying that if Labour got in, it would be a disaster. But would it really make such a difference, or is this simply a sign of traditional prejudices? Miliband has pledged to limit zero hours contracts to twelve weeks, rather than letting them run for a year, but (as those of us who have been on renewable contracts know, where employers will end them as the two year mark approached, when you would actually acquire some rights as an employee) that just means the turnover period is faster. Ed Balls, Labour’s Shadow Chancellor, knows all about zero hours contracts: he recently claimed that he would pass legislation to ban zero hours contracts – shortly before it emerged that that was how he employed four of his staff. Ed has committed to spending £800 million in Scotland, but that is somewhat offset by Scotland’s anticipated £2.4 billion share of the forthcoming cuts that he has pledged not to overturn if he gets into office. As one wag correspondent put it on April 1st: “Cracking April Fool’s story on the front page of The Herald today – Ed Balls pledging to ‘end Tory austerity’. Who makes these things up?”
Ed still cuts a more human figure than Ian Duncan Smith, the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, though. He has planned £12 billion in welfare cuts for Scotland alone over three years of the next parliament, which he claims will be cut from the welfare budget without affecting the poorest in society.

It is fair to say at this time that no one is pointing out the positive aspects of welfare in terms of benefits to the economy, not just for ameliorating inequality, but also through business promotion. A recent US study, demonstrating the impact of welfare dimensions to business development and success, recently showed a dimension that we are missing in the UK. Looking into expanded foodstamps, they found that it provided new businesses with a safety net to fall back on: if business is about risk, or managed risk, then knowing that you will not compromise the security of yourself or any dependents is a key consideration. The research showed that there was an increase of 16%, in other words a greater likelihood for people to start up their own business, if they knew that they could rely on this welfare availability…although most of them never used the facility – that was not the point, it was the idea of managed risk. Similarly, US Government healthcare means people at retirement age are more likely to start their own businesses, as they no longer have to worry about relying on an employer providing health insurance. Those families in the US that qualified for Children’s Health Insurance were 31% more likely to start their own business, than those in the slightly higher income bracket that failed to qualify. Similarly, France continues to pay benefits to long-term unemployed people starting a business, finding that they are 25% more likely to start a business than without.

But the ideological changes driving these Conservative cuts, under the veneer of ‘necessary austerity’ do not allow for that perspective. They do not believe in the state’s role in providing support, and come what may they will try to remove as much of that structure as possible, while they have the pretext of the deficit.

And Scotland will still have limited ability to protect itself from those welfare cuts – again, thanks to Ian Duncan Smith’s last minute intervention before the Smith Commission report was finalised. Only 14% of the total welfare budget is to be devolved, including benefits for disabled people and carers. In 2017, under the Smith proposals (if they ever see the light of an Act of Parliament), the Scottish Government will take over responsibility for the successor to the Disability Living Allowance, called the Personal Independence Payment (PIP), with a 20% cut in the relevant budget. This means that 100,000 working age disabled people will see their benefits reduced, the equivalent of cuts of £300 million a year, a loss of around £1,120 per person affected. Across the UK, this will see a million people affected by 2017/2018.

The policy of ‘sanctioning’ welfare claimants has been a particularly dark ‘costcutter’, with documented cases of suicide resulting: from October 2012 until September 2014, 81,980 Scots experienced 143,671 sanctions (meaning no state benefit for at least 4 weeks), equivalent to £32 million in Scotland in 2014. Over the whole UK it was 355 million, up from a mere 11 million sanctioned in 2009-2010. Former senior Scottish Medical Officer Sir Harry Burns (see NHS Scotland: Always independent, now at the TTIPing Point of Privatisation ) has been highly critical of coalition policies on welfare, chillingly talking about the legacy of the seventies and eighties unameliorated industry cuts in Scotland, which destroyed communities, boosted problems of violence and substance abuse, until Scotland has the worst drugs problem in Europe. He is well worth listening to in conversation on Bateman Broadcasting online as he talks about the causes of ill health from this political legacy, and noting the statistically significant connections between percentages of ‘Yes’ votes and low life expectancy in a given area: these were people who knew the Westminster system is not working, with the evidence of their everyday lives. Burns describes sanctions as “a judgment on the poor”, and those sanctions are only due to increase with the rollout of the Department of Work and Pensions’ new Universal Credit system, which reaches Glasgow just after the General Election.

A pilot scheme for the new Universal Credit system was introduced in Inverness last year, leaving families with only beans on toast for their Xmas dinner, as there was a 5 week gap transferring from JobSeekers Allowance to Universal Credit, with no money in between. The transition of the system – never mind the smaller level of support offered to fewer people – seems to be deliberately creating gaps for people to fall through. Certainly, jobseekers in the UK receive very little help in finding work. compared with other European countries. Alex Neil, Cabinet Secretary for Health and Wellbeing, has argued in the wake of the Smith Commission for immediate legislation to abolish bedroom tax so that the Scottish Government can redirect the £50 million being spent on mitigating the effects of that tax.

Child benefit is now at its lowest point (0.6% of GDP) since 1977 (it reached a high of 1.3% in 1980). In some areas in Glasgow 1 in 3 children are living in poverty, and by the end of the coalition government’s term of office, the value of Child benefit will have fallen by 14%, against a backdrop of increasing costs. Accompanying this, the Scottish Trades Unions Congress highlights that this is the fifth consecutive year of a drop in the median wage in Scotland. Women working part-time have experienced the biggest losses (down 11.6%), but financial sector directors’ salaries went up 23% in last year alone.

This has seen the rise in the phenomenon of ‘the working poor’: Professor Steve Fothergill of Sheffield’s Hallam University recently noted that Scots in work have lost £730 million a year as a result of the coalition’s welfare reforms. 48% of the £1.5 billion (or £440 for every working adult) losses would be met by households with at least one working member, with £960 million of the cuts going on families with young children as well as disabilities and health problems. So, for example, a couple with 2 children on average would be £1480 worse off, single parents with one child £1770 poorer, single parents with 2 or 3 children £1850. Sick and disabled households are losing £600 million a year in total. Although many of the effects of the cuts have been mitigated by the Scottish Government refusing to pass on the 10% cut in council tax benefit payments, and non-implementation of the bedroom tax, the impact is still severe and it drives people further into poverty: 43% of people in poverty live in working households, although the low-paid are better qualified than ever. The UK’s minimum wage level lags behind the level in Luxembourg, Ireland, Belgium, Germany, France, Netherlands, and the Trades Unions’ Congress has highlighted the problems of ‘living wage blackspots’, e.g. Birmingham Northfield, where 53.4% of people earn less than £7.85 per hour, blighting entire areas. This led to the STUC calling on all Scottish parties in the run-up to the General Election, to restore trade union freedoms and collective bargaining, the lack of which prevented them from defending those who suffer most from low pay and insecure work.

Foodbanks first appeared in the UK under the 13 year Labour government, and the disability benefit scheme of Work Capability Assessment was introduced, with its notorious implementation by ATOS to remove as many disabled claimants as possible from benefits. 71,000 people in the oil-rich nation of Scotland now depend on foodbanks (the figure stood at 7,500 four years ago). In December, 10,500 people visited the Trussell Trust’s Scottish foodbanks, a 13% increase on the previous year, and a third of them were on low incomes.

80,000 people in Scotland are working on zero hours contracts, 180,000 on council waiting lists, 820,000 Scots in poverty. The least wealthy 30% of households (half of whom are headed by someone employed) in Scotland have no savings or pensions, and own only 2% of the wealth of the country, property and personal belongings – they are most likely to be single adults or lone parents. But the most wealthy 2% own 17% of the wealth in Scotland.

At the same time, although Scottish rents are rising at their slowest for over two years (1.1%, with inflation becoming zero for the first time since records began in February 2015), the numbers of late rent payments are still increasing. This has all resulted in a predictable rise in personal debt. A PricewaterhouseCoopers report (24/3/2015) states that the average UK household is set to owe close to £10K in debts of personal loans/credit cards/overdrafts by the end of 2016.

The evidence from this blizzard of statistics (which is testament in itself to how endemic the problem is, with the ever-mounting numbers of studies being carried out) is that this is an ‘economic recovery’ based on low wages, rising insecurity for those in and out of work, rising household debt, and a failure to ‘rebalance’ the economy away from the financial sector. Any recovery in living standards is still to be seen, with shockingly weak reforms to the cause of the current crisis, namely the banking sector, and a lack of preparation or actions to prevent a similar crisis in the future.

The UK Government’s budget deficit (the difference between expenditure and revenue raised) peaked at £150 billion, and now stands at £80 billion. The Institute for Fiscal Studies says that eliminating the annual deficit will require departmental cuts of 14% and 750,000 job losses. UK national debt has now trebled since 2008 to £1.4 trillion, because tax receipts plummeted with the collapse of the economy in 2009. This was compounded by the Thatcher-style cuts policy of the 2010 coalition, which increased the downturn of the economy, and thus the welfare bills. The only economic growth is coming from £130 billion of subsidised mortgages, triggering another property market bubble (particularly in London – although the Centre for Economics and Business Research is predicting a fall in London’s house prices this year of 3.6%, after “years of overperformance”), with rising house prices encouraging consumers to borrow again. This, of course, creates a mini consumer boom…which only lasts until interest rates start to go up.

Thus, the coalition government’s economic strategy is short-term, as it is based on a housing bubble, and transferring state debt to households (by 2020, the household debt to income ratio is forecast to be more than 10% above pre-recession levels, according to the Office of Budget Responsibility), and undermining sustainable long-term growth. The Coalition has overseen the weakest recovery for 200 years, where indeed the only factor exerting a positive influence on living standards across the UK is the falling oil price – which is nothing to do with government policy (although their response to it is).
Paul Krugman, 2008 Nobel Prize winning economist, noted recently in the New York Times that although growth resumed in 2013, the income per head of the population is only now reaching pre-crisis level, giving Britain a worse track record than during the Great Depression. He went further, in terms of the evidence that political response by the public to the economy is only based on very short-term perceptions.

In brief, he suggested that for politicians (NOT for the economy) the best strategy would be kind of similar to one that I used to employ in games of SimCity. Your popularity as the leader of your City was dependent on taxation, but your ability to build your City and keep the people happy, was dependent on taxes. So you could keep taxes incredibly low throughout the year, and then just before it came to the end of the financial year, you kicked taxes into the stratosphere to get a massive amount of revenue to compensate for the rest of the year – then dropped taxes way down again straight afterwards. In the game, the public had long-term, rather than short-term, memories, so would ignore the recent pain of the high taxes. What Paul suggested as the best route for political success was an inversion of that approach: as voter memories are only interested in the last couple of quarters, not the longer term picture, a successful strategy to stay in power would be to deliberately impose “a pointless depression on your country for much of your time in office, solely to leave room for a roaring recovery just before voters go to the polls. That’s a pretty good description of what the current British government has done, although it’s not clear it was deliberate.”

He is far from alone in this analysis, as noted by George Kerevan. Foreign investors hold £400 billion (a quarter of the total market), and are selling off their holdings of British Government debt at a rate of knots – a massive £14 billion went in January and February, far faster than during the credit crunch. The usual buyers are refusing to pick it up, as it has become toxic, because Britiain’s current account deficit (borrowing required to pay for imports, when a state does not export enough) reached 5.5% of GDP last year, heading for a record 6% in 2015. Productivity has been falling for many years (which even the International Monetary Fund has raised concern about, as a ‘major risk to growth’), and the only reason the City of London stays afloat is because of its low regulation tax haven status, which allows foreign investors cheap access to the EU market of 500 million customers (usually providing a convenient 2.5% of the UK’s GDP in the process). Except, of course, that this is threatened by the EU exit referendum, which will render London of no interest, next to Paris and Frankfurt, as choices for basing your trade. Uncertainty on the financial markets for a Scottish Referendum? You ain’t seen nothing yet…

And for those of you – evidently into masochism, if you have stuck with me so far – who are still wondering, this is why I am shocked that 43% across the UK could still be saying ‘more austerity is needed’.

Really? Inequality is rising, poverty increasing, which means crime rises too, society becomes less safe – and all because of a strategy that is failing to work, but generating an inflatable model of a recovered economy, relying on a housing bubble. In the age of Christian Grey, this appears to be a population that truly wants to be punished.

Austerity is not a way forward – it never was, and certainly isn’t now, with the reams of stats above. Austerity is an ideological transformation of the British state, while failing to address the economy it purports to be helping, and destroying social cohesion and the fabric of society along the way.

It is time for something different.

 

“Very few British academics (as opposed to economists employed by the financial industry) accept the proposition that austerity has been vindicated. This media orthodoxy has become entrenched despite, not because of, what serious economists had to say.” (Paul Krugman, 2008 Nobel Prize winning economist)

The Labour-Conservative Alliance: Two Sides of the Same Coin

So Gorgeous George’s last bribing budget came out, with 50 days to go until the General Election. 50 Days of Yes to More Austerity….and very few surprises, with the expected concessions for the oil and whisky industries. The novel Help-to-Buy ISAs have been criticised by the Institute for Fiscal Studies, as (if done without a housebuilding programme) they would push up house prices, and heat the (predominantly southern – with house prices going up by 13% in London last year) housing bubble even more. Current economic growth comes from 130 billion of subsidised mortgages – which enable consumers to feel comfortable about borrowing again…creating a mini consumer boom…which only lasts until interest rates start to go up.

Supposedly Osborne also revealed a new harder-to-forge pound coin design – perhaps someone had suggested to him that this one would be more difficult for the Scots to ‘steal’?

Perhaps the one real surprise was that he said that the economic recovery was progressing well – yet made no attempt to present a budget ameliorating the previously projected cuts…until some 5 years time. So, of course, this left plenty of room for HM Opposition, the Labour Party, to leap in and play progressive posturing, with less cuts, or slower cuts, or a smaller overall total. Ok, they had been claiming that the government were planning a further 75 billion in cuts, so the ‘reveal’ of a mere 30 billion over the next two years might have taken a little of the wind out of their sails, but they would still have room to descry the coming axe in some form or another…

Except that they didn’t. Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls explicitly said that he would not change or wish to reverse ANYthing of what had been announced by the Chancellor. Labour’s much vaunted declaration that they would not cut so much or so fast, has been shown ultimately to be hollow. Yesterday in Glasgow, Miliband tried to distance himself from the Conservatives in order to try to recover Labour’s position in Scotland, by saying that the Chancellor was making cuts not because he had to, but because he wanted to. But then, where does that leave Labour, if their Shadow Chancellor is saying that he would make the same cuts?

This not only vindicates what may have previously been judged to be ‘cruel’ or ‘unfair’ comparisons with the Conservatives, and suggestions that there was not any difference larger than a cigarette paper between them. They do not simply have the same political priorities, the scale of those priorities is identical, even when they could make political capital in the last weeks of a general election campaign. Their desire to be as vanilla-identical to the Conservatives in order to get those votes in the SE of England is so great, that they might as well marry the two parties together. As Richard Walker remarked, after Osborne’s budget and the failure of Labour to criticise it: “The expected influx of SNP MPs in the General Election will not just benefit Scotland, in the shape of the extra powers it can wrest from Westminster control. It will also give Britain the effective opposition so obviously and dangerously missing from the House of Commons”.

This also follows on from Shadow Welfare Secretary Rachel Reeves’ comment: “We are not the party of people on benefits… we’re not the party to represent those who are out of work.” If the Labour Party is not the party of the poor or the unemployed (or the ‘economically inactive’) – and, let’s face it, neither of the current coalition partners seem likely to be in a rush to take over that role…then who does represent these 11 million UK residents that are left without political advocacy?

Derek Bateman noted on February 1st that Britain has some of the lowest social mobility in the developed world, with the OECD figures showing that our earnings are more likely to reflect those of our fathers than any other country: “Social mobility hasn’t changed since the 1970s – and in some ways has got worse”. The Institute for Fiscal Studies noted directly after Osborne’s budget that the Coalition’s policies have singularly targeted the poorest in the UK (leaving middle-to-high earmers “astonishingly protected”, as their Director put it). Overall, the IFS says that median income for 22-30 year olds is 7.6% lower than it was in 2008. If looked at by share of average earnings, the UK pension is 23rd out of 27 in the European Union. From 2008-2014 9% of public sectors jobs were lost, with only a 4% concomitant increase in private sector jobs. Since the coalition government took office in 2010, the average wage is worth 2.5K less (and is 3.3K down on its pre-crisis peak). From 2002-2014, the number of single people living in emergency homeless accommodation in Scotland (for which housing benefit cuts in both support and eligibility are largely to blame) increased from around 4,000 to over 10,000.

As observed by the Bank of England’s chief economist, this is the worst fall in living standards since Queen Victoria was monarch in mid-19th century: the illusion of a recovery is generated by service industries subsisting on low pay and insecure work. And as Osborne announced last week, a further 12 billion (mostly unspecified) in ‘savings’ are planned for the welfare budget.

Currently, there are three generally recognised grades of poverty: Relative Poverty (household income less than 60% of the UK average); Severe Poverty (household income less than 50% of the UK average, 11.5K in 2012-2013); Extreme Poverty (household income 40% or less than the UK average 9.2K in 2012-2013). Although relative poverty has fallen in the last ten years, Severe Poverty (affecting half a million Scots, including 330,000 working-age adults, 100,000 children, 80,000 pensioners) and Extreme Poverty have both increased: the combination of welfare cuts and eligibility changes, with insecure contracts and low income (the living wage of 7.85 and hour is 20% above the legal minimum wage), against a background of costs rising faster than wages, means that once you are in poverty, it is extremely difficult to get out of it, and the reduction in Relative Poverty probably is mainly a reflection of those who have fallen out of it down to Severe and Extreme levels. A Scottish Government Report on the 17th March made the observation: “In short, poverty is changing; work is no longer a guarantee of a life free of poverty; people in poverty face increasing costs; and those in receipt of benefits and tax credits – which of course includes many in work – are finding their incomes squeezed.” Hence, the chilling new term of the ‘in-work poor’. And so we have 167 organisations across Scotland trying to provide food, with emergency food aid now being rolled out to those in work as well as on a wide variety of social security payments, with the numbers using foodbanks increasing from 5,726 in 2011-2012 to 71,428 (almost a third of them children) in 2014. There is also an increased rise noted by police in people shoplifting for food – a sign that the social stigma of accepting charity is still difficult for many to overcome.

And let us not look to the ‘new legislative powers’ resulting from the Smith Commission to save us. A new study by the University of Edinburgh has concluded that a last minute intervention, specifically by Ian Duncan Smith, blocked extensive tax and welfare devolution, due to his fears of repercussions on UK policy. Thus we are left with 81% of welfare still controlled by Westminster, 70% (37.3 out of 53 billion) of tax revenues from Scotland still being controlled by Westminster. And the worries concerning the transition from one government to another of the few newly devolved components (particularly those being voiced by the voluntary sector with regard to the introduction of Universal Credit, in a letter signed by 56 Scots voluntary sector organisations in January), do not promise a smooth and seamless handover, at a time when those in extremely vulnerable situations can ill-afford to be fumbled or lost in transition.

 

“It’s just not deliverable. The UK Government’s approach to benefits is completely the opposite to the Scottish approach to public services. They are two different bureaucracies heading in different directions. The idea that they could call this [the command paper, ‘Scotland in the United Kingdom: An Enduring Settlement’] when it is really just a political quick fix tells its own story.” (Martin Sime, CE of Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations, 10/2/2015)

The ‘Nurse Event Horizon’ & the End Times: New Labour’s Vision of Class Warfare, 2015-style.

I wrote recently about coming back ‘off hiatus’ (as I believe the transatlantic phrase is…or maybe was, in the 1980s), but I should probably make clear that this is only in a writing sense, as I was still noting the news reports as they came in from various sources, no matter where I was in the world. In a large part, it could be said that little has changed – the polls of voting intentions for Westminster have remained remarkably solid since mid-December, and in that sense it could be said that not much has been missed by me being AWOL for the last 90 days.

But aside from those polls (and more on those in another post), some developments have been more remarkable. What is predictable in the world anymore, when a survey released on the 6th of January showed that for the first time the Conservatives (Cameron, 22%) were trusted as better at running the health service than Labour (Miliband, 20%)? That this is mirrored in Scotland by a YouGov Poll for The Times on 14th March showing that 47% of Scots think the SNP would be most effective at protecting Scotland’s NHS, compared to just 20% for Labour, is less surprising, given what seems to be a largescale rejection (however temporary) of Labour in Scotland to be relied on to do anything, even protect their one achievement (the NHS) that these days is regularly cited as the one thing that makes people proud to be British. And perhaps this is reflected by Scottish Labour with the piece of buffoonery that was their pledge to deliver a thousand nurses more than anything the SNP offered to deliver, paid by the mansion tax – despite the fact that the £1.7M that is Scotland’s share (of a largely London-derived tax) won’t pay for a thousand nurses – and there aren’t a thousand nurses out there to be employed anyway. And, what if the SNP said ‘we will provide 100,000 nurses’ – do Labour automatically say 101,000??? It reduces their ‘policies’ to the level of playground tit-for-tat taunts, and reminds me of Douglas Adams’ account of the ‘Shoe Event Horizon’ as a phenomenon when society collapses through all retail outlets having become shoe shops. Perhaps what Jim and Scottish Labour are pitching for is the ‘Nurse Event Horizon’ – so desperate to win back NHS Scotland support after trashing them repeatedly over the years of the SNP being the majority Scottish Government, that they have alienated a natural core area of their support. ‘If you become a nurse, we will give you a job – gonnae vote for us now, eh?’ A fiendish plot to grow their electoral support, by turning every voter into a nurse and giving them guaranteed employment. Clever.

Well, it’s a plan, Jim – just not as we know it. But maybe a smarter one than the determination to oppose the SNP even when it involves the curiously insane position of arguing for alcohol to be permitted at football matches again. In terms of our ongoing cultural problem with alcohol, 2013 saw Scotland with the largest death rate from alcohol of any of the countries of the UK, but still the only one to witness a significant fall in that death rate over the previous ten years. Murphy may posture this as New Labour’s version of ‘class warfare’ – allowing people to drink alcohol at football matches, just like the ‘toffs’ do at rugby – but it still is a policy that involves a high likelihood of increased alcohol-related deaths and domestic abuse…ah, perhaps this is where Jim got his idea from, for a further thousand nurses being needed by NHS Scotland? It is not so much that they are needed now (well…) – but he is making forward plans for the impact his alcohol policy will have in terms of increasing pressure on the health service. Clever. Again. As someone remarked not long ago, the correlation between long-term Labour wards and low life expectancy in Glasgow is striking: Labour may (in their faux internationalist posturing) state that they care about the worker in Grimsby just as much as the one in Glasgow – but that doesn’t mean that they are going to do damn all for either of them.

But let’s leave the bizarrely unique hue of Labour in Scotland at the start of 2015 to one side (as they now like to pretend that they only ever said ‘a thousand nurses’, without the playground add-on of ‘whatever the smelly SNP say’ – if only they hadn’t printed off all that literature with it on it…), as we look at the fortunes of the Labour Party across the UK in the context of that first poll: the idea that the electorate south of the border would abandon an intrinsic trust in Labour to look after their grand creation, the NHS…well, what next – cats and dogs mating in the streets? Are these not so much ‘Interesting Times’, as ‘End Times’?

To be fair, perhaps the phrasing of the first poll, with the named leader rather than the party, is telling – albeit in a slightly chilling fashion: confidence levels in Milliband as the next Prime Minister have been diving for many months, even when Labour were edging ahead of the Conservatives in voter support. There is something about Ed that just does not seem to inspire that confidence needed in a leader.

It is not completely comparable (of course it is not, it is not only a different question, but a different group of people being asked), but in this context it is worth looking at the leader satisfaction ratings in Scotland: Sturgeon +49, Cameron -40, Clegg -51, Miliband -45. Astonishingly, there is the same reflection in Scotland as noted for Ed with the NHS across the UK – the Conservative Prime Minister has greater satisfaction in Scotland than the Labour opposition leader?? Cats and dogs in the streets, indeed, as well as lions eating their own, and 6-legged horses….

Milliband may well be a liability as a party leader (only true if there is someone more credible who can get that job), and it was a long time ago that the party passed the point at which they could change him – as though horses in mid-stream – in time for the May 7th shindig. So he gambled, to try and shore up the Labour support in Scotland (and possibly rid himself of a tempestuous former cabinet member that supported his brother as campaign manager for his Labour Party leadership bid, along with Dougie Alexander) by sending Jim Murphy back up north to take over from Lamont. How is that working out? Well, when former Labour voters were asked the effect of Jim Murphy becoming Scottish Labour leader on their likelihood to vote for Labour, 20% said they were more likely, 28% were less likely, and 48% said it made no difference to them. So it has not exactly worked out too great, with a net loss in likelihood to vote Labour (as most people who had not spent too much time at Westminster predicted, he represents the toxic right wing of Labour that has had membership nosedive in Scotland since Blair was premier).

So, on the 30/1/2015, the Guardian published a poll of voting intentions which gave the following result in the Westminster elections: Labour 273, Conservative 273….and SNP 49.

Enter Nicola Sturgeon – and (next time) the only two games in town that Ed has left to play…

 

“You don’t get a banking crisis by employing too many nurses or teachers, or (for that matter) civil servants. You get a banking crisis by employing too many bankers.” (James Meadway, Senior Economist, New Economics Foundation, 4/12/2014)

A Post-Autumn Statement of the Obvious: Using a Crisis as a Pretext for an Ideological Opportunity

In politics, crisis can often be used as a pretext for the (often less than scrupulous) imposition of an ideology, that has nothing to do with the crisis it pretends to address.

I remember first being aware of this phenomenon while on the University of Edinburgh Court. At the time, the University Court was working through the consequences of suddenly finding itself £5.98 million in debt, and to that end had employed KPMG Peat Marwick McLintock (now KPMG) as management consultants to tell them what to do. In due course, the report arrived: I was informed by another client who had used them, that 85% of the report was merely standard KPMG Peat Marwick McLintock statements, and nothing whatsoever bespoke for the University of Edinburgh – flannel and padding, for the princely sum of more than £70K, if I remember correctly. However, as the University of Edinburgh specific areas started to appear in the report, it became clear that the management consultants were coming up with some slightly bizarre proposals, that would not be expected from a straightforward management analysis – for example, their recommendations regarding the Chair of the University Court. Traditionally, this job was done by the Rector of the University – a position elected by the staff and students, and a means of democratically bringing their influence firmly to the highest level of an organisation that they were the most heavily invested in. The university executives had grumbled for a long time about this – that it was not ‘one of their own’, overseeing things the way that they liked them to be. At the time, the Rector was Runrig’s Donnie Munro – surprisingly effective as chair. And yet, within the management consultant report, amongst other slightly unusual suggestions (bringing accounting procedures of the university as a whole up to the standard of its own Students’ Association was one of the more obvious ones), was one concerning the removal of the Rector as Chair of Court. In the broader context of the report, one could see other, long-term aspirations of the university executives coming to the fore as well – this was not just a management consultancy report, this was a longstanding wishlist.

By and large, it seemed that the university executives had told the management consultants what they wanted to hear back – and then they could appropriately distance themselves from it being their decision to take such inherently distasteful actions – especially when it came to the area of job cuts. In other words, they had their plausible deniability: ‘wasn’t me, mister – big man did it and ran away’. I sat around that huge table, and watched these respected men and women meekly bob their heads in agreement to whatever the management consultants said – and if any queries were raised, the response was standard: ‘The management consultants have indicated this to us, and we must do it, otherwise we would look to be sending the wrong signals to the outside world for not fully complying in the present crisis.’ In short, the crisis was used as a pretext for another, preexisting, agenda.

The most recent example of this technique that most of us will remember, was the curtailment of civil liberties that followed the September 11th attack on the World Trade Center. Those were policies that had been advocated for a long time by some of the more authoritarian elements of government, but their proposals had up until then been met with a stony rebuff…until the World Trade Center provided just the opportunity for their ideological agenda to become policy. Remember how close we came to having identity cards? That one has been knocking around for a long time…waiting for just such a chance to be dusted off and presented as a snake-oil panacea for whatever-security-problem-you-have-got.

And so to Austerity.

Traditionally, the Conservatives were always regarded as the party who could be trusted with the economy. I suppose that I must be getting older – the Prime Minister and the Chancellor look like eager rosy-cheeked schoolboys….are they really where the trust of the country (the UK, that is) is placed? Confidently, to do a responsible job, in the heart of this banking crisis?

The Chancellor’s avowed central policy – on which he wanted the government to be judged – was to entirely eliminate the structural deficit within this parliament. So, how is that going? In 2010 Osborne said the deficit would stand at £40 billion by the end of this year. It does not. The last 3 years have seen deficits of £120 billion, £100 billion and £108 billion. The Autumn Statement revealed that it is already at £91.3 billion for this year, and likely to break the £100 billion mark again by the end of the year, with the second smallest annual deficit reduction (£6.3 billion, half what the Chancellor predicted as recently as March) since 2009-2010.

Despite this, the cuts have been real – and are continuing. Since the Coalition came to power, 600,000 public sector jobs have been lost. As part of the Autumn Statement, the public sector pay freeze has been extended. Welfare is to receive a 1 billion pound greater cut than was forecast. There will be a 2 year freeze in working-age benefits and universal credit. Immigrants – in what is most surely a sop to UKIP rather than for any economic benefit whatsoever – will lose their benefits after 6 weeks if there is “no prospect of work” – however one defines that.

There has been a slump in real wages – down 10% on 2008, having fallen every year for 6 years, producing the longest sustained decline since records began in 1856. Yesterday’s employment figures provided some small crumbs of comfort, but only in terms of Scotland performing slightly better than the UK as a whole. Although employment fell slightly to 2,605,000, the jobless total was down by 11,000 between August and October; the Scottish unemployment rate is now at 5.6% (lower than the UK’s 6%); female employment increased by 21,000; Jobseeker’s Allowance claimants fell by 2,100 from October to November; youth unemployment in Scotland fell by 26% to its lowest level (72,000) for 5 years. The jobs that are being created are low wage/zero hours, so are failing to restore the economy: 400,000 Scots are earning less than the living wage with 120,000 on zero hours contracts. In addition, cuts or freezes on benefits such as Work Allowance (a tax credit for people in work who receive benefits) make it even more difficult for them to cope, meaning that the working poor have even less ability to pay basic bills, never mind support the ailing economy. The widespread cuts to benefits and pay freezes are part of an overall picture of a falling income for individuals, which means lower spending, and reduced tax receipts. The only tax receipts that are increasing now are those from stamp duty – hence the accusations that Osborne’s pseudo-recovery is in fact reliant on creating a vulnerable new housing bubble.

In order to pay for what little economy there is, an increasing sector of the population is now reliant on unsecured lending, rising at a billion pounds a month, with 6 million in the UK now borrowing just to get through to payday.

For the Scottish dimension, StepChange’s new report ‘Scotland in the Red’ notes that the average payday loan debt of Scots was £1,438 (£129 more than the UK figure). Scots also have the largest level of Council Tax arrears, with £1,534 (almost double the UK’s figure of £798). Actually, for those hitherto unconvinced, there is a real argument that the council tax freeze is essential at this time – food in people’s mouths are surely a higher priority than improving council services: let the roads decay, to the point that those whose spending has thus far been unaffected, are inconvenienced – because until then, it simply will not be a priority for them. File under ‘Other People’s Problems’.

To reduce the deficit and curb borrowing, Osborne needs to save over £100 billion a year, so proposed cuts of £25 billion (£15 billion of which are heading to Scotland) are, as one observer pithily put it, akin to placing a band-aid on an amputated limb. But if the cuts are not having the desired effect…then why continue with them?

The recession struck hard in the UK because it was already a debt-ridden economy – and highly vulnerable, thanks to the high-risk concentration of the economy in the financial services industry, a policy firstly pursued with such vigor by Margaret Thatcher, then perilously augmented under New Labour’s Blair and Brown. But for the current government, the recession has been an ideological opportunity – first and foremost – for the Conservatives, and the Liberal Democrats have done little to rein that in. Their opposition to the principles of the welfare state (now chillingly echoed with even more zeal by their opposition counterparts) has been what has driven their policies of axing it (and, similarly, expanding Labour’s privatization of the NHS, pioneered by Andy Burnham). In pursuing this ideological dogma, they have now destroyed the tax base of the country, pushing more of the population to the financial margins and rendering it incapable of driving the economic recovery.

Nicola Sturgeon is not advocating an end to Austerity because ‘it is nice to be nice’, or part of some socialist utopian vision: Austerity is not working, and is further undermining the economy for an ideological aim without addressing the problem that it purports to be solving. Austerity is about reimagining a future UK as a welfare-less, public health service-free zone – it is about the antithesis of Clement Attlee’s government (voted the greatest British Prime Minister of the 20th Century), under the stealthy cover of a recession caused by inept and unregulated international banking practices.

Ideology has made fools of this Conservative-led Government – to the extent that it has made a mockery of their former long-established credentials of fiscal prudency. Trust the economy with the Conservatives….really? When they can become so fixated by ideology over and above actual economics, that they cripple the country? With financial wizards like these, why would you ever think they could be trusted with the office Xmas Club Fund, never mind the UK economy?
“Far from being ‘all in this together’, the living standards of the most vulnerable – the old, sick and disabled, the poor – have been continuously eroded under good times and bad, through growth and recession. With Westminster parties at best threatening merely to freeze these inequities, they offer no hope for any reversal of Britain’s divisive and world-leading levels of inequality. Each promises the remaining half of austerity cuts will be implemented regardless of the impacts on the poor and social security payments reduced further in real terms.” (Mike Danson, professor of enterprise policy at Heriot Watt University)

Greys’ Psychology: Inside the Mindset of a Defeated Demographic

I went to a reunion of the Yes Marchmont and Yes Morningside activist groups on Tuesday night, at our regular HQ of the Argyll Bar. I was actually prepared to be somewhat inspired on the way over there, as the vibe that I had got across social media from the wide Yes movement was quite astonishingly upbeat. Arriving there, after the vanguard arrival of the English Scots for Yes, the group built up to about 38, filling up the cellar bar, all writing out their A4 sheets of ideas about how we go forward. There are a lot of galvanized people who aren’t going to let this go. Many of them had stories of ‘No’ voters who had recanted within 24 hours – some feeling sick when they realized the result was not what they were wanting (hint – you have to vote for what you want, guys…), and others seemingly genuinely astonished at Westminster so quickly and blatantly backtracking from its not so solemn ‘Vow’ on the front page of the Daily Record two days prior to the vote… As I said in an earlier post, this voting generation may just need a refresher course in that ‘1979 experience’, in order not to be so naïve again – but have they blown it forever, or do we get another shot at this? Soon. Because – sorry Alex – but when Jack Straw is writing about ‘uprooting a healthy plant time and again’ as a reason for making the Union legally indissoluble during Labour Conference, you realize that it REALLY has to be ‘Soon’.

Traveling back on the bus after the meeting, a comparatively young woman got on the bus, and sat down opposite me. She may have had the odd drink, if her ability to not drop her unlit roll-up was anything to go by – as well as her urge to offer Strepsils to the back of the bus, and to wish to indulge in conversation. “I tried to report a crime to a policeman earlier – and he wouldn’t listen to me. Wouldn’t do a thing about it!!” I asked a question or two to elucidate some more details: “I said it was a crime that Scotland still wasn’t an independent country – and he wouldn’t even write it down in his book!”

It was a great gag – but then humour has always suffused the Yes campaign, just as much as sublimated anger and arrogance has suffused the No. Talking to Mark (one of the mass purveyors of the WBB) on one of the last days of the stall, he reported one rejoinder that he had overheard to one naysayer: “Aw, don’t be such a Nawbag – and grow yourself a pair of Yes-ticles.” On the bus with me was a good friend and colleague (an old-style socialist from Leicestershire – the type that cancelled his longstanding membership of the Labour Party after the Iraq invasion), who was up visiting me in Edinburgh for a few days of joint work. He had angsted about the Referendum but – finally, and not without the help of the Wee Blue Book – he came forward supporting Yes before the vote. I had a few friends down south who had been like that – who suddenly seemed to ‘get it’ on the ‘eve of war’, and their support was greatly appreciated. But it is not the young – or the southern non-voters – that were really the issue, according to the stats: the demographic that REALLY voted No – by over 70% – was the over 55s. The Greys.

This – with the curse of hindsight – was, of course, entirely predictable: the demographic that was least internet savvy, is inevitably the one most resilient to the idea that mainstream media (especially the BBC) might be less than reliable. Sealed in their social media-free bubble, they were by-and-large immune to Yes. Maybe we could have done a grandchild-to-grandparent dialogue, as a means of exploiting Generation Yes. Inasmuch as sometimes you felt it was a race to get as many people unplugged from ‘The Matrix’ as possible, in order to see the real world and the harsh realities of the choice we had to make, we did not ever find a way to get to that particular batch.

I engaged my pet ‘over 55’ in the process early on, helping her give an online response to the consultation exercise ‘Your Scotland Your Referendum’ launched by the Scottish Government in January 2012. At the time she wanted more information on different aspects. I obtained a copy of the White Paper for her – but that was apparently ‘too much’ – even the WBB didn’t work its magic. I’ve tried quizzing her on why she voted ‘No’, and Mum’s adamant insistence is (STILL) that there was ‘not enough information either way’ and that there ‘should have been a third option’. This may just be a group who, with DevoMax off the ballot paper, voted ‘No’. Why would you go that way? What would drive a Grey to do that? It seems unlikely to be pension fears, given Gordon Brown (he who most vociferously propounded that nonsense, contrary to Home Office statements) was also responsible for the tax grab that destroyed most private pension schemes in the UK when he was Chancellor. But then, memories are fickle in the over 55s: as mine said “They say that Alistair Darling was Chancellor….but I don’t remember that. Was he really?” No, Mum – not really…

Well, then, was it another brand of shameless last-week manoeuvering that swung them, perhaps the type that led to stories about ‘disrespecting the war-dead’ with a ‘Yes’ vote? This ‘reimagining’ of social history is tasteless but – again – entirely foreseeable: the ‘celebrations’ (as they were initially rashly referred to by government spokespeople) commemorating the centenary of the declaration of war (as well as hosting Armed Forces Day in Stirling – a repackaging of Veterans’ Day to try to expand the ‘romantic and heroic glow’ of the old war dead to take in the woefully under-resourced and vulnerable modern military – way to ‘punch above our weight’ guys…) were an opportunity to try and appropriate these activities as ‘solely for the Union’, dismissing somewhat more commonplace motivations. The state that declared war on Germany on August 4th 1914 (the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland) no longer exists, but Scotland’s dead constituted over 16% of the British dead for that campaign – there were thirty two ‘Thankful Villages’ in England and one in Wales (where no men from the village died in the conflict), but there were no such villages in Scotland. I talked with my brother about this, and he pointed out the military tradition in many Scottish families which might lead to such disproportionate levels of casualties – however that tradition (like mass emigration) tends to be the result of a lack of opportunities at home in farming or industry, the ‘disposal’ of a sector of working class (predominantly) males. Family traditions of going into the armed forces do not always start through choice.

The great security of the armed forces is a great mythical dividend of the Union – never mind the twelve ‘traditional’ Scottish regiments abolished/merged since 1957, the air and sea protection around the country has been stripped back, with cuts disproportionately high in Scotland, only Lossiemouth left (albeit without any submarine spotting craft) as an airforce base, and Faslane as a military naval base with Coulport’s Trident submarine pens. Scotland’s role in the UK military is to be undefended, provide a base for the nuclear weapons of Westminster’s vanity and provide fodder for US wars, both of which consequently make us a target for foreign attack. We no longer even derive the local economic benefits from having the number of bases we used to on our territory – economies compromised by reduced local spending power, just as with deindustrialisation thirty years ago.

Of course, this does not stop ‘supporting our military in Scotland’ getting wheeled out at election time: the Conservatives last pitch in the run-up to the general election was vote Tory for more Scottish military investment but since then they have closed RAF Leuchars and Kinloss and reneged completely on their promise to build a ‘super barracks’ for Scottish military returning from Germany (most of whom now appear to be in Belfast).

Certainly, my mother was deeply offended when, just this week, Tony Blair turned up arguing that British troops should go back into Iraq. ‘You do realize,’ I helpfully said ‘that in voting ‘No’, you have given them complete permission to keep using Scottish working class people as fodder for US conflicts like that, don’t you?’ ‘I didn’t vote for that!’ Oh, yes, Mum, you SO did…

As I predicted in an earlier post, the Party of ‘I Told You So’ is in the ascendancy. With each broken promise and escalating threat, it seems we are growing stronger – the membership of all three Yes parties (SNP, Greens, SSP) have doubled, such that the Scottish National Party is now the third largest political party by members in the whole of the UK, beating the LibDems into fourth: forget my little ‘metrics’ of FaceBook ‘Likes’ – there is the real rise in support, right there.

The question is, even with the unexpected continuation of many of the pro-independence blogs and social media sites that one expected would fold utterly after a ‘No’, how does this support sustain itself and – I think most importantly – manifest itself? Fair enough – we can do events on every day that Gordon Brown’s timetable fails to deliver what he said it would, and we can have a demonstration next September 18th – but we need something more now. Before the end of the year, when there will undoubtedly be a Yes manifestation at Hogmanay.

“For the Record- I am English, I entered military service when I was 18. I served up until 2008 where I was severely injured in Iraq. On leaving hospital in Plymouth I returned to my partners home town in Scotland. I served in Iraq, Afghanistan, Kosovo, Bosnia and Serbia. Instead of 6 month tours I often ended up away for almost a year with no leave. I am decorated with an exemplary record of praise from senior officers. The fact I can walk is a tribute not to the military support but to the Scottish NHS. I find it insulting that my fallen comrades are being used as a tool in this campaign by the ‘No’ side. Our sacrifice over the last century has not been about protecting a union, but about protecting our democracy. To use this against a yes vote is an affront to their sacrifice. They and I, fought for our right to have a free vote in any election and to take this away from us in emotional blackmail is disgusting and I believe that those saying this should hang their heads in shame and resign. VOTE YES and let us all move forward to a future of our own making.” (Unknown Soldier)

MorgueTown: A Velvet Revolution Smothered (or, failing to get into the second round of a tournament on goal difference AGAIN?)

I can remember the eve of the 1992 general election. I was working in the Edinburgh University Students’ Association, and confidence was building in how the vote was going to go. Lorna Davidson, our tireless officer (geez, I can’t even remember what her job title was…but it was the most invaluable one, bar none) was talking to me happily about the coming coalition. I looked back at her, and said ‘It isn’t going to be a coalition’. Although she heard my words, she missed my look, and said ‘I know, but I keep trying to tell myself not to think about that, about getting a Labour government.’ I looked at her and gently said ‘I didn’t mean a Labour majority.’ She blanched, shut down, and went away shaking her head – at the time, I thought she was angry, as she muttered ‘no way, no way’ – but I think I probably had uttered such a horrific concept, that it offended her: the idea that we could live in such a world where Such Things could happen.

I took no pleasure at all in being the only person in that extremely politically active office that correctly predicted the result of that election. I remember writing an editorial in the wake of that result, and for some reason I could only think of a quote from Alan Moore’s ‘Watchmen’ to sum up how I was feeling: “The horror is this: in the end, it is simply a picture of empty meaningless blackness. We are alone. There is nothing else.” Sometimes…you just get a feeling, on the street.

Fast forward to the deathly quiet on the streets of Edinburgh on the 19th. I was out strolling, to pick up a prescription. I couldn’t help thinking that I should try and put in a bulk order, as prescription charges will soon be coming back in. The streets seemed deserted – very few people visible, let alone conversing. There had been a death in the family – that mythical ‘family of nations’, perhaps.

In spite of how I’d been feeling about the way the campaign was going, this didn’t really appear to surprise me. There had been a couple of odd moments where I had realized that, although the script was good, there were a few near misses that meant it was not a fairy tale…which implied the fairy tale ending might not be coming either. Perhaps that was what was bugging me when I said ‘of course, we won’t get Edinburgh’ (I still don’t know what the percentage vote was here) – and even the ending of my last blog post seems scarily prescient. In a strange way, I remember feeling that with regard to the misattribution of the Magnus Gardham piece in the Herald last Saturday. It made me realize that – yes, in the fairy tale ending, Magnus does see the error of his ways (even if he just wrote it because he wanted to be on the winning side) and makes that sudden declaration for Yes. But for that online piece to be misattributed to him…that is a story that has a different ending.

The day of the vote had been eerily quiet. The grey weather may well not have helped my mood – as people pointed out to me, that upbeat optimism on a sunny day might make a difference in how people vote – but as I stood outside the Polwarth polling station, the overcast clouds, the wind gently blowing hosts of leaves down around us, it felt like the first day of autumn. I had the urge to start quoting ‘O season of mists and mellow fruitfulness…’ – and thought, ‘John Keats? How inappropriate’.

Inappropriate for one narrative, perhaps.

I didn’t actually watch the results shows – again, odd (and yet the prospect of a last splurge of Union-skewed broadcasting was strangely unappetising). Even more unusually, I did not take up the offer of meeting up with the rest of the campaign group. In fact, I went to bed, and lay there with the laptop, as people started to message me the results as they came in via FaceBook and GChat. My first reaction was that the turnouts seemed lower than we had expected – which was not a great sign. I started screwing up my gaze at the list of constituencies…inevitably reading across from them to the scale of the SNP lead or loss there in Holyrood, as a marker of some degree of receptivity to the idea of an independent Scotland, if nothing more than that. There were a few wobbles in the percentages, but it still looked possible (thank you Dundee)…until the collapse in Stirling. Thirty to forty thousand votes down, in the home of the council that dreamed up the hosting of Armed Forces Day as a direct opposition to Bannockburn 700, the council that wanted to stop flying the saltire – how appropriate. For one narrative.

Of course, we are less than 24 hours into Gordon Brown’s ‘exciting timetable’, and the first target has already failed to be met. Miliband has opted out of Cameron’s devolution plans, and is setting up his own commission aimed at – guess what? – devolving power from Holyrood down to the district city and regional councils that Labour still controls many of. [‘I told you so.’]

What? So now we have to systematically get rid of Labour from there, as well?

Cameron has already said that delivering a Scotland Act before the general election would be ‘meaningless’ – so that’s gone, too. Jack Straw is writing that the Union should be made indissoluble in law, so no more votes ever. [‘I told you so.’]

Apparently it was the over 55s that lost it for us – some 73% supposedly voting ‘No’, around 560,000 of the 800,000 postal votes, most of which are part of this demographic (and a stark contrast to the 71% of the much smaller demographic of 16-17 year olds that voted ‘Yes’). The irony of a group of people voting that way because the former Prime Minister that destroyed the private pension scheme in the UK (and oversaw the UK’s state pension decline to the worst in Europe) might have scared them that their state pensions (already-guaranteed by the Home Office) were at risk, is a bitter one indeed. I find it hard to find other reasons why they would have voted that way – it is unlikely that, as a group, they all wish their children and grandchildren to be in penury…and can delusions from the Telegraph really have made them that upset about the war? Certainly the ‘over 55’ that I live with has been inarticulate in her defence of her decision – and as much as I can (scandalously) take out my disappointment and anger on her, I know that it was my failure to reach her that resulted in her mistake.

Whatever – we didn’t reach them as we should have: the ‘silver surfers’ are too few in number to make an internet-informed difference in that demographic of some 900,000 yet, and although the surfers will be a far greater number in any subsequent vote, we still need an approach that can get past that. What makes me saddest is the coming wave of health decline and mass emigration – it is hard to see how that can be avoided from happening again (as it did after 1979): as much as I would hope that people can believe for a little longer that we can get something out of this, just by the speed at which the mendacity of Westminster looks to be falling apart, I find it hard to imagine people sticking around much longer. We were already running out of time, with balancing the books on a declining budget, and I can’t see that that can continue much longer.
The benefits from Holyrood’s different way will be lost, the Parliament neutered.

The vague reports of civil unrest are spreading – just as with the signing in 1707. I cannot say that I blame them, and it is exactly what I expected – I just don’t have the energy to participate.

I remember meeting someone who was a probable ‘No’ voter on one of the last days – ex-army, with his Filipino civil partner at his side, he told me that things were not bad enough to justify ending the Union. If one is comfortable, it is easy to say ‘I do not think the Union has been so bad’ – if you don’t see or hear about how things have changed for everyone else, you might be comfortable enough (especially if you have bought into the recent media campaign to criminalise the poor) to think that, and look no further. But the context and the society within which you are ‘comfortable’ is changing: you will not remain so well-insulated forever…and really, is it all just about ‘I’m alright, Jack’? Of course, one cannot push that angle in conversation with someone you are trying to reach, so instead I asked him to go away and think about one thing: what are your criteria for ending the Union, if this is not enough? Put another way: if not now, then when? The Union cannot last forever, no matter how sentimentally it is spoken of (and we can take issue with those sentiments another time) – it is a fact that it will cease to exist one day, either split or subsumed within something greater (for yes, there are many things greater than the United Kingdom – an independent Scotland would very likely have been one of them), that this will not simply be a permanent relationship beyond Death. So, given the nuclear weapons, the increasing poverty, the redirection of our natural wealth, the emigration as opportunities fail, the declining health without a sense of any control over our own lives…how much worse do things have to get, before you accept that it is time up on the Union?

 

“There are 250,000 children living in poverty in Scotland. That’s a moral outrage and economic stupidity.” (Jim Sillars)