It is like something out of a novel. An ex Russian spy is poisoned. We don’t know by whom and we don’t know how. But that doesn’t stop the media sensationalism of the story. Initially local police attended the scene but that has escalated to personnel in large, bright, protective suits and we now have armed military personnel at and around the scene. What a soldier armed with an automatic rifle is supposed to do when confronted by an airborne nerve gas I do not know. If they are there to make the local populace feel safer, then someone has to redefine the threat. The Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov says Russia has no connection to the poisoning of former spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Salisbury. The Russian authorities have asked for a sample of the poison and we have refused. And amidst all the headlines and theories we have a strange conundrum. Both the UK and USA have officially said they think Russia is involved but hinted that it may not have been Government sanctioned. Sergei Skripal was a double agent. I am no expert but I am guessing that he has a few enemies. So while the media focuses on Salisbury thousands are killed in Syria by Russian bombing raids. They aren’t as intriguing as the assassination of a spy and they aren’t as close to home as Salisbury but they along with the Turkish offensive against the Kurds is where we should be taking Russia to task. While the attacks on Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia are appalling that does not excuse us from ignoring the atrocities that are being perpetrated on the people of Syria and the attempted genocide of the Kurdish people. But then again the U.K. is embroiled in the Middle East and a long hard look at that situation may shine a light on our misjudgements and the consequences to thousands of nameless victims. It’s much safer to focus on what looks like a plot from a 1960s movie and portray Russia as all bad and Britain as the good guy in all its red, white and blue glory.
When Hunter S Thompson said “A man who procrastinates in his choosing will inevitably have his choice made for him by circumstances” he was undoubtedly talking about Jeremy Corbyn. When it comes to Labour’s position on Brexit it is fair to say, that just like regrets, they have had a few. Before the EU Referendum Labour policy was to support continued membership of the EU. They were a party split and amongst their ranks there were a few ‘Leave’ advocates including Gisela Stuart, Dennis Skinner and Kate Hoey but not Jeremy. However, after the EU Referendum Jeremy issued a three line whip for Labour MPs to vote in favour of triggering Article 50. Ahead of the General Election their manifesto included an ambiguous commitment to the “benefits of the single market” rather than “membership of the single market.” After the General Election Senior Labour figures have expressed a variety of different views on Brexit. They include, negotiate access to the single market, but not membership (Corbyn). Retain single market membership during transition period (Starmer). Retain single market membership permanently (Watson). Then they declared being open to the possibility of a formal single market membership, but added, access is the most important issue (Corbyn again). Then the UK should prioritise full access of the single market (Corbyn, yes him again). Soon after the Sunday Herald reported that Ian Murray would bring a motion to Scottish Labour conference, calling on members to support the UK “remaining permanently in the European single market and customs union.” And at the time of going to press, Labour have declared their support for the UK being in a new, permanent customs union with the EU. They also expressed support for a “new and strong relationship with the single market”, but not membership. And that is definitely, finally Jeremy Corbyn’s position. But he is a man that once chaired the all-party parliamentary group on the campaign for nuclear disarmament and changed his mind to facilitate becoming leader of his party. As Groucho Marx once said “These are my principles. If you don’t like them, I have others.”
As the snow fell this week I was glad that my days of driving tens of thousands of miles a year, as part of my job, are behind me. I remember one journey from Darlington to Jedburgh on a dark snowy Wednesday night. I had to drive over Carter’s Bar which takes you from England into Scotland with the border at the very top. I managed to manoeuvre a rear wheel drive automatic up the steep and winding hill. Moving from side to side to gain grip and patiently edging forward. When I got to the top I was delighted. And then the reality hit me. The second half of the journey was going to be even more difficult. Downhill, twists and turns, a lack of road markings and signage obliterated by driving snow. Any momentum built up, unlike on the ascent, made the descent more treacherous. I couldn’t let the vehicle run away from me and so I had to keep it in check at every turn. And that readers is my Brexit allegory. The picture that was painted looked good. Getting to the leaving point was achieved, with a struggle, but the next stage of the journey, to reach its destination, is treacherous. We risk damaging the vehicle beyond repair. And now when we need strong leadership and we seek to gain confidence from those in charge we discover that the Secretary of State for Scotland, our man at the top table, either didn’t know or didn’t want to tell us that a damning report outlining the damage to Scotland existed. Another example, if we need one, that we can’t rely on lapdogs and sycophants to represent Scotland at UK government level. When we needed a terrier we got a poodle. If the UK Government wants us to go on a journey with them they could at least provide a map, a destination and some strong leadership.
To boldly go…
Those of you that have been paying attention will have noticed that I have a healthy interest in space and in particular the Apollo missions. I remember as a kid trying and possibly failing to explain to my Gran why space travel was important and how it would benefit humankind (to be honest in the sixties we said mankind, we were less politically correct). Her reluctance to embrace it was well founded in common sense. Why spend money on going to the moon when we could spend it on issues that matter on Earth. Or as Gill Scott Heron the black American soul and jazz poet wrote “No hot water, no toilets, no lights but Whitey’s on the moon.” I admit I was just a little star struck by rockets and science fiction but ultimately, was I right?
We gained satellites and therefore GPS and telecommunications networks the likes of which we never had before. Artificial limbs are being developed based in robot technology developed by NASA. Water purification systems developed to provide astronauts with clean water are now used in third world countries. We have developed, materials, instruments, manufacturing techniques and foods. And never to be forgotten or underestimated, international collaboration between the USA, Europe, Russia and China.
But, in the end, I think what makes space so inviting is that it’s all about taking on challenges and coming up with solutions. If we could bottle that mentality and focus it on Earth we could eradicate poverty, provide food, water and shelter for everyone on this planet. We could harness the energy from clean renewable energy and decontaminate what we have already poisoned. To do that we would need to start each new project with a blank piece of paper and not be tied to the current systems and processes that perpetuate the problems. Space may be the final frontier but the lessons we learn there must bear fruit on Mother Earth if any of it is going to make sense. Live long and prosper.
I didn’t vote for the United Kingdom to leave the European Union. I still think we should do everything we can to stay in the single market. That’s two sentences you will never hear Jeremy Corbyn say, at least not this month. And that is a major problem. In these challenging times we need strong opposition. We need to hold the United Kingdom’s Government to account. We need to ensure they are questioning their decisions and ensuring the best outcome for everyone. But instead, while the Conservative Government at Westminster is stumbling and falling towards a hard, or even no deal, Brexit, the Labour Party is in complete disarray. When they should be getting on with the day job they are too busy fighting amongst themselves and pursuing their own self-interest. The idea of being elected to serve their communities comes way down the list after, fighting over their policies on Brexit and Trident. Their party is being consumed by Momentum and the Parliamentary Labour Party squabble and bicker. At this stage of a government one would expect the opposition to be well ahead in the opinion polls but Labour are not. Despite this they continue to call for a General Election and local branches are on an ‘election footing’. Meanwhile we drift out of the European Union and the single market. Soon we will be adrift and paying the price of this feeble excuse of an opposition. It’s ironic that a party that fought the Scottish referendum side by side with the Conservative and Unionist Party can’t even fight side by side with each other now.
“Hope smiles from the threshold of the year to come, whispering, it will be easier” so said Alfred Tennyson. A lovely sentiment indeed. Sometimes amidst the hyperbole, media bias and political point scoring we can miss the good news stories. And despite working with one hand tied behind their backs the Scottish Government continues to deliver. They have delivered the baby box, scrapped the public sector pay cap, tuition fees have been abolished, over 650 schools built or refurbished, record health spending with 12,000 more NHS staff, childcare provision increased to 30 hours a week, 70,000 affordable houses built and 40,000 more planned, prescription charges scrapped, free sanitary products provided in schools, colleges and universities, crime at its lowest for 43 years, fracking banned and the list goes on. I have no doubt some people reading this will be furious that, under the SNP, Scotland has been so well governed but I would ask them to take a step back and see what can be achieved. Forget the party affiliations, these are good outcomes for the people of Scotland that should not be ignored. As we start to make progress regarding drug addiction as a health issue, with a view towards drug consumption rooms and welfare reform is under way with four basic income pilots in the offing, I sincerely hope that the Labour Party don’t view these as vehicles for political opportunism. We don’t get many chances to make positive changes, it would be a shame if the waters were muddied for political self-gratification. This is a time to pull together and create the best possible Scotland. A little political maturity would make this year easier.
In years gone by various versions of the United Kingdom, Great Britain and England have fought battles at sea to protect shipping and therefore trade routes. These days there are trade agreements and treaties in place that are mutually agreeable to the concerned countries but as an archipelago of islands, the surrounding oceans, seas and channels are of paramount importance to us.
Over the years we have traded with Western and Southern Europe as a matter of course and as foreign holidays became more affordable we have become used to holidaying in those regions too.
As we get closer to Brexit, questions are being asked as to what sort of trade agreements we shall negotiate. The major theme appears to be that we attempt to keep what we have with the remaining twenty seven countries in the European Union and then go beyond to create new agreements beyond those twenty seven countries. Personally I am sceptical about just how many of the existing deals with the remaining twenty seven countries we shall be able to maintain but time shall tell.
As the United Kingdom Government is set to spend £250m on a new lorry park at Dover, it’s clear that the route to Europe is still envisaged as being from the south of England. But this creates logistical problems as we are moving the goods via road and rail to get to a port at the very South of the United Kingdom. The additional transportation costs for companies based North of Watford makes their goods more expensive and there is also additional environmental damage related to the transportation of the goods by road over such a distance.
Amidst these negotiations we, especially in Scotland, must keep an open mind and look to create new markets and trade with a wider range of countries. With that in mind we could do well to look North rather than South. The Nordic countries and Baltic states should be high on the list of potential trading partners. But we need to improve the infrastructure to make that possible. The port of Liverpool has seen massive private investment of £250m but Hull (on the East coast) hasn’t. Greenock will see an increase in container ships as it is fed from Liverpool. Aberdeen could be expanded as a port with road and rail links improved accordingly. Whether it is part of the European Union, European Economic Area or European Free Trade Association we have to expand our horizons. But as Scotland can’t negotiate foreign trade deals we rely on the United Kingdom’s Government to do that for us. I expect the new car park for nearly four thousand lorries near Dover will be getting utilised sooner rather than later and the Northern regions along with Scotland shall be expected to put up and shut up when it comes to the extra cost and pollution that causes.
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.