The DUP is not just for Christmas
What about the DUP then? The phrase ‘tail wagging the dog’ springs to mind. The United Kingdom (that is of course the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland) had actually managed to broker a deal with the European Union over the border between the north and south of Ireland. The difficulty that has occurred is that once the UK leaves the EU we don’t want a hard border between the north and south of Ireland. We want goods and people to be able to flow back and forward just as they currently do. This is one of the major stumbling blocks in the European Union withdrawal process and Theresa May’s team seemed to have cracked it. Much joy was consumed in the Westminster bars and smug Tories indulged in copious back slapping and self-congratulations, until someone told their compadres, the Democratic Unionists. And then the castle, built on sand, fell into the sea. It’s not just a billion pounds that the DUP have in their pocket, it’s the UK government and apparently the EU withdrawal negotiations too. To be honest I was surprised the border deal could be done at all but apparently, where there is a will there is a way. Remember that next time we are told an independent Scotland would need a hard border with England and that families would be torn apart, parents from their children and grandparents from their grandchildren. One by one the Scottish referendum lies are being exposed. And then, after midnight on Monday, to add injury to insult, the DUP trooped through the voting lobby four times with the UK government effectively killing off any amendments to clause eleven of the EU (withdrawal) bill that could have repatriated one hundred and eleven EU powers to Scotland. Instead they now lie with the UK government. This action shows a total disregard for the Scotland Act of 1998 (schedule 5) which defines the powers that are reserved to Westminster and that all others are devolved to Holyrood. Monday provided two great opportunities to move Brexit forward but by combining political naivety and DUPlicity both opportunities were lost.
Ask any politician why they got into politics and the answer will be that they wanted to serve their community and to make a difference.
In May 2015 I was elected alongside 55 other SNP colleagues. For two years we lobbied, cajoled, encouraged and when necessary demanded that Police Scotland and the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service were exempt from VAT. All our approaches were dismissed off hand. The situation arose because the various forces in Scotland were merged into one police force and one fire service. A legal anomaly meant that as a result of this change, they became liable to pay VAT.
There was a reasonable assumption that the UK Government would do the decent thing and remove the VAT liability. They refused, meaning Scotland’s police and fire services were the only such bodies in the UK being forced to pay VAT.
The SNP made 140 separate approaches to the Conservative Government regarding this issue. They have only now decided to overturn the tax liability because they can use it as a political point scoring exercise.
I am delighted that they have finally seen sense and will remove the VAT obligation but they have shamed themselves by claiming that the change occurred because of the 13 newly elected Scottish Conservative MPs.
By taking this stance Phillip Hammond is not serving the communities of Scotland, he is simply serving the Conservative Party.
This decision could and should have been made three years ago but it wasn’t politically expedient and as a result Police Scotland and the Scottish Fire Service have been wrongly discriminated against – to the cost of £140 million.
In the same week as the BBC announced it was going to erect a statue of George Orwell outside its premises, Gordon Brown has launched his latest book. I couldn’t help but see the correlation between these two events. Orwell once worked for the BBC. He was responsible for creating propaganda relating to the United Kingdom’s involvement in India. This period of his life most certainly influenced his views as expressed through his novel nineteen eighty four where government manipulates the truth and rewrites history to support its views of the day and admonish it from any blame for previous wrong doings. Orwell was therefore acutely aware of this and despised it. Since leaving office, Gordon Brown has written extensively of his time as a Member of Parliament, including his time in the cabinet and as Prime Minister. His time in office had many trials and tribulations and Mr Brown was found wanting on more than one occasion and now he is working very hard to distance himself from his shortcomings. The banking crisis, according to Mr Brown, was nothing to do with him and yet it is widely believed that the regulator was put under political pressure not to be heavy handed or intrusive with banks such as HBOS and Northern Rock.
And now he claims the United Kingdom’s involvement in the Iraq war was nothing to do with him. He blames the Americans for not sharing a report. This revisionism doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. There were many voices raised in protest. Hans Blix stated that the weapons of mass destruction argument was flawed and unproven. Mr Brown must have known the real reason was regime change. And he supported this war despite the lack of any plan to rebuild Iraq post war.
On Sunday I, like many politicians, will lay wreaths at war memorials and I can’t help but think that wearing a poppy and laying wreaths is not enough. Politicians should pay tribute to those that paid the ultimate price by working to avoid military intervention, rather than sending our armed forces into areas of conflict and then wiping our hands of any liability. There is no room for revisionism in war. We should learn from our mistakes and we should never put ourselves into a position where it is convenient to forget.
Growing up in Greenock in the 1960s my political influences were subliminally derived from day to day life. For me, as a kid, life was like television, black and white. There were good guys and bad guys, right and wrong, rich and poor. Back then the area still bore the scars from the Second World War. Gap sites still existed side by side with crumbling tenements. Housing conditions, in some parts, were Dickensian. And while the poor were dirt poor everybody had hope in the welfare system and the NHS. Social housing building was progressing at pace and a new world was just around the corner. But social housing was destroyed during the Thatcher years and is only now, under an SNP administration at Holyrood, moving in the right direction. And the NHS, despite its detractors, is still cherished and protected in Scotland. Through the decades the welfare system has been adjusted and tweaked to cater for social conscience and working practices but somewhere on the journey it has become so cumbersome, so complicated, that it often fails the people who need it most. The latest example being Universal Credit. The evidence is that it causes unnecessary hardship, with families falling behind in rent payments and increasingly relying on food banks. The Conservative Government at Westminster is making promises to improve the system but Universal Credit has been rolled out in Inverclyde since November last year. We are already suffering because of UK government incompetence and callous disregard. Meanwhile the Scottish government are being criticised for being forward thinking and considering a Basic Income. To design a Scotland fit for the 21st century we need to be brave and welcome big ideas rather than retreat into political silos. Some will fly, others will fail but the solutions aren’t all black and white like my old television. The complexities of modern life require well thought out evidence based policies and we shouldn’t wait until the welfare system is crumbling around us before we make moves to rebuild it.
I have never been one for blind faith in anything or anyone. I question my views and those of others. By questioning myself, I either find flaws and attempt to improve or reaffirm and therefore strengthen my belief. Over the last few weeks I have listened to speeches by the leaders of the Labour, Conservative and SNP parties. Each one I have tried to listen to trying to extract good ideas and policies that I can back. It was Alex Salmond, when he became First Minister of Scotland that said “the SNP don’t have a monopoly on good ideas”. I took that at face value and believe we all have something to contribute.
Jeremy Corbyn has waited many years for his moment in the sun and is basking in it now but it was a speech to the faithful, not so surprising as it was Labour conference but it should have appealed to a wider audience than Labour Party members. Theresa May’s speech, well where do I begin. Take away the nervous cough, the faulty signage, the sheer incompetence of those around her that allowed a prankster to reach her. The actual content was poor and the delivery appalling. Nicola Sturgeon’s speech was calm and concise. It contained big ideas and at the same time policy that directly affects each and every one of us. It wasn’t triumphant in tone but managed to point out the SNP government’s successes.
Cynics will say that of course I would be more impressed by the leader of my party and I understand that but I would ask any unbiased person to measure those three speeches against the leadership maxim laid out by the sixth president of the United States, John Quincy Adams “If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader.” May never got out the starting block, Corbyn came close but he seems to be stuck in third gear. He never really takes off. The shouty bits are contrived. I would say that Nicola Sturgeons commitment to a national lending bank for Scotland, a publicly owned not-for-profit energy company for Scotland, a commitment to fund basic income projects in Scotland, the re-allocation of unused council house funding to councils that need it, lifting the public sector pay cap and increasing free childcare to 30 hours a week, all show that the First Minister can lead while staying engaged with those she is leading. The way ahead is clear and the team are in place to take us there.
In years gone by when I was asked if Inverclyde had a drugs problem, my standard reply was no, there are plenty for everyone. This answer masked both my lack of knowledge and my unease at discussing the subject.
As a population, we do discuss alcohol and tobacco but as recreational drug use is illegal it can become a taboo subject. Anyone seeming knowledgeable on the subject would imply that they partake and therefore that they are a criminal. Fortunately, that attitude is changing and more people are engaging in the topic. And most interestingly the more we discuss it, the more a health issue it becomes and the less a criminal justice one.
It is an issue that affects Inverclyde. The death rate due to drug consumption continues to rise and the surrounding health issues, both physical and mental, leave deep scars on our community. To resolve these problems we must talk openly and frankly about the production, availability, quantity, quality and demand for recreational drugs. We must determine how best to educate and support our citizens and all this has to be achieved without prejudice. Within Inverclyde we have a number of first class organisations that help and support people with addictions but I believe we all have a role to play. Suffering with addiction can afflict any person, from any walk of life and the better informed we are the more we can help.
I shall be hosting a public meeting to discuss the UK’s drug policy along with a panel of renowned experts at an event in the Beacon Arts Centre at 19:00 on Thursday the 5th of October. I am hoping for a large turnout so that our community can have its say in reforming the UKs drug policy and hopefully guide the powers that be to adopt a more health centred approach.
When the government of any country attempts to undermine the democratic process that it purports to hold so dear then it is playing with fire. Democracy doesn’t just happen, it has been fought for and defended over a long period of time. At the heart of this ideal is that government can be held to account. That is why we have opposition parties. That is why government ministers must come to the house and be questioned. That is why we have debates and votes. The alternative would be a government that governed absolutely. In the last week during the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill the Conservative government have perpetrated two outrageous injustices. One on the United Kingdom and the other on Scotland.
First it abused the exit process by planting Henry VIII clauses throughout. This allows the government to amend primary legislation with secondary legislation. This is not new (the hints in the name) and it is used regularly to amend tedious legislation but within section 7 of the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill it can be used to alter the substance and effect of the law.
Second, according to the Law Society of Scotland the bill will “remove powers from the Scottish Parliament and erode human rights”. They went on to say “the effect of the bill would be to remove the legislative competence of the Scottish Parliament in relation to any matter in retained European Union law.” Needless to say the Conservative MPs representing Scottish seats backed their Westminster bosses, once again the Labour Party were split and went through both voting lobbies. It would appear that the job off opposition has once again fallen to the SNP in both scrutinising the EU exit process and standing up for Scotland.
Inverclyde, an area that is used to being on the receiving end of bad news, has in the last two weeks heard that yet another company, Misco, is pulling out. Personally, I have been in contact with Skills Development Scotland, Scottish Enterprise and I have spoken to members of the senior management team at Misco. Alongside that, Riverside Inverclyde have been extremely active and are working very hard to retain any jobs that they possibly can. While I appreciate all the hard work that everyone is doing to improve a bad situation and I know Riverside Inverclyde, within their remit, are actively seeking to bring jobs into Inverclyde. Nevertheless, I have grave concerns that existing local business are being taken for granted.
When a company declares it is leaving, it is usually for one of two reasons. Circumstances dictate that it is no longer economically viable to remain and the company or division is being sacrificed for the financial greater good of the rest of the organisation or operating in another geographical area is preferred because Inverclyde has been deemed unsuitable. The first scenario is regrettable and almost always non reversible, the second is a damning criticism of the lack of care we put in to maintaining what we have.
When Harland and Wolff wanted to extend their shipyard in 1917 the Old West Kirk was moved to its current location on the Esplanade. Yet one hundred years later we see Ferguson Marine being squeezed by a fire station that could be located elsewhere. Inchgreen dry dock, earmarked for city deal money, remains dormant while it should be breathing life into our local economy. Instead of leveraging an industrial solution we have committed industrial vandalism by hastily blowing up the cranes that serviced the site.
There are existing companies in Inverclyde that we should be bending over backwards to accommodate and yet we take them for granted until they announce they are leaving the area or reducing their workforce. We need to be proactive and positive and take pride in our local businesses. Inverclyde requires an over-arching industrial strategy that harnesses our natural resources and enables our existing employers to flourish and complement each other. The alternative, managing decline, is a futile waste of time, energy and money which can only lead to one inevitable outcome, a year from now there will be another Misco and one after that until Inverclyde is no more than a commuter belt and our once proud manufacturing base is no more than research material for historians.
Those of you that have listened to my speeches, read my column and diary in the Greenock Telegraph or are familiar with my musings in Clydelife magazine, Politics Home, House magazine and a few other publications shall be aware that I like a quote.
If someone has polarised an opinion into a neat soundbite that reflects my views or inspires my actions then I am happy to quote them. From Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King to Groucho Marx and Spike Milligan I have ripped them all off. I never in my wildest dreams thought that I would be on the other side of this process but to my utter amazement and delight it was brought to my attention that Guy Standing (great name) quoted me in his latest book on Basic Income. When the guru quotes the pupil it’s a red letter day. It shall be with an extra spring in my step that I address the Basic Income Earth Network in the Portuguese parliament at the end of September.
While I was motivated by my inclusion in Guy’s book I am continually dismayed by the erosion of Inverclyde. Buildings with heritage are left to rack and ruin. The latest being Highlanders Academy and the Asylum at Ravenscraig. To top this off we fail to maximise the potential of our coastline. A coastline that has changed shape a number of times throughout history. Most of the docks that once hosted ships from across the globe have now been filled in. The industries that these docks once sustained, both large and small, have disappeared. In their place we have a range of buildings that could easily have been located elsewhere within Inverclyde but instead they inhabit plots of land that should have been used to promote maritime industry. A housing estate, call centre and a bar diner could all be located away from the shore but maritime industry does by its very definition benefit from and in most cases depend upon a coastal location. In Inverclyde we even have a cinema and bingo hall in locations with prime views but these buildings do not require windows. There are still plots that remain to be utilised but they fall into two categories. They are either ear marked for housing or land banked as an investment with possible developers being spurned. The common land of Inverclyde should be for the common good of its citizens. The opportunities that Inverclyde’s coastal land provide should not be over looked for short term gain nor be allowed to go untapped so multi-national companies can buy them up while providing no benefit for the local community.
We are told we can’t all achieve greatness, not all of us get to walk in space or sing at the Albert Hall. The question is what stops us? Nature or nurture? Opportunity and circumstance? I wasn’t blessed with a great singing voice (or any singing voice for that matter) so achieving success through vocal dexterity was always unlikely. I was reminded of this when I recently went to see Bob Dylan. I am sure when the young Robert first croaked out a song nobody, not even he, thought he would go on to sell over 100 million records. If he had allowed himself to be put off by all the negativity he would never have sung another song. Instead he became a global musical icon and gave pleasure and hope to all of us that never made the school choir. History is littered with such examples, from the Wright brothers to Thomas Edison.
When we set out to build something we can’t be afraid of failure. It’s a down side of our culture that failure often attracts ridicule, which, in turn, discourages others from trying and the first tentative step to achievement is never taken. The twist is that the power then stays with the detractors. As we try to create we shall make mistakes. Winston Churchill once said “perfection is the enemy of progress”.
The naysayers, the boo boys, the purveyors of relentless negativity always revert to the same logic, they claim they are just being realistic. But they have other traits. They only see the obstacles, they manage but they don’t define and they never have a dream of their own.
So, to those people that are trying to invigorate and regenerate Inverclyde. To those who believe we must do better I salute you and promise to do everything I can to help. To the others, as Bob Dylan said “don’t criticise what you can’t understand”. Maybe if this politics thing doesn’t work out I will brush up my application to NASA.