Tuesday, 29 May 2018

Limits to Growth

Wealth.

A lot of folk have commented excellently on the Scottish Growth Commission report. A lot of folk on the left have been critical. George Kerevan, in particular, has lambasted the SNP for promoting a regressive, over-cautious, Morningside-friendly version of Independence Lite, writing:
"Working-class folk, especially those who are unemployed, unskilled and dependent on benefits, are the most likely to vote SNP. They provided the bedrock of support in 2014 that nearly won us independence. The Rowntree report argues forcibly that unless the SNP directly address the needs and aspirations of this core demographic, they will lose support to Labour and the Tories."
George is right, of course. I agree with him, of course. But actually, although I have many criticisms myself, I'm not too worried by this. From the point of view of an independence referendum, it doesn't matter. The SNP can wave their Growth Commission report in the faces of the 'soft no' voters in Morningside and Bearsden, Cramond and Newton Mearns. They may swing a few voters, and if they do, that's excellent.

But in the meantime, the left - Radical Independence, the SSP, RISE, even the Greens - can be presenting a far more radical, adventurous, egalitarian, internationalist vision of independence to working (and not-working) Scotland, and that's where the referendum will be won.

But that's also where the Growth Commission threatens to lose it for us. A report written to tempt the comfortable middle class does not go down well everywhere. Darren "Loki" McGarvie writes:
"the party I once voted into power, believing they could deliver an imaginative, “trouble-making” form of independence, have produced an economic prospectus so demoralisingly timid... if the big idea is simply to rebrand the fundamentals of the UK economy, so that independence becomes more attractive to those whose entrenched advantages are threatened by a radical alternative, well, that’s a very different proposition, isn’t it?"
Loki usually irritates me, but he represents a large section of 'soft yes' opinion; and in this piece he's only saying what I have said myself many times: independence which changes nothing is worth nothing. The very document which may win us a few 'soft no' voters threatens to lose us a lot more 'soft yes'.

My analysis of the Labour party has been for years that while its core vote was working class, its parliamentarians - and particularly its front bench - are drawn largely from an Oxbridge-educated elite. Their parliamentarians don't socialise with their electorate; they don't understand them. Consequently they have to send out ethnographers to do focus groups to discover (often imperfectly) what their electorate thinks.

The Growth Commission report emphasises that the SNP have fallen into the same trap. Their electors, too, are largely working class - and largely urban working class. Yet their parliamentarians are bankers, lawyers, journalists; suit-wearers. The Growth Commission report speaks to Morningsiders because SNP politicians are themselves Morningsiders. It doesn't speak to Easterhouse or Castlemilk because SNP politicians don't socialise with Easterhouse or Castlemilk.

This is the root of SNP timidity. They think the time is not right for a referendum because, in the circles in which they move, the time is not right for a referendum. They think caution, fiscal prudence, independence-lite will swing the vote because for the people with whom they socialise that is what would swing the vote.

Of course, if the SNP do dawdle, dally, and delay the referendum until after the next Holyrood election, George is right and I am wrong. The SNP have over the past decade run Scotland considerably better than any of their predecessors, but they have also made mistakes, and there are several policy areas on which they are now looking a little tired.

If they delay until 2021, if they don't radically change direction to appeal to working Scotland, then there really will be no independence referendum for a generation, because there aren't enough 'soft no' voters in Morningside to balance a 'soft yes' that sees no benefit in an independence which changes nothing.

But to get down to detail of Growth Commission report, and to my own criticisms.

The report says:
"3.88 Maximising frictionless trade and market access with the rest of the UK and with Europe is of critical importance to the performance of the Scottish economy in the short and long term."
This is almost certainly not possible, and absolutely certainly not in our gift. England and Wales (hereinafter EW - and note that I'm rather assuming we'll see a united Ireland before an independent Scotland) seem destined for a very hard crash out of the EU. Given that that is so, there will be a hard border between EW and any country which is in either the EU or EFTA. Scotland will have to choose which side of that border to be on. Do we choose the UK side, which makes independence virtually meaningless, or the EU side, which puts us into a community of 27 other nations many of a similar size to our own?

This decision is made harder by the fact that England sits squarely across our main trade route. Trade war with EW is precisely what undermined the Scottish economy before the 1706 union; it is a major risk. Scotland urgently needs its own Brexit Buster, like Ireland's. That means not just ships, but new port infrastructure (and transport links to it) at Grangemouth, Rosyth, possibly Aberdeen.

The Growth Commission report covers port facilities only in paragraphs A183 and A190; it doesn't mention the risk of trade friction in using EW as our main trade conduit - friction which could arise out of hostility but is equally likely to be simply a consequence of incompetence and dislocation of an economy collapsing under the weight of Brexit. For the commission not to have acknowledged this and allowed for it seems to me pretty remiss.

Related is the matter of currency. The report urges the idea of continuing to use Sterling for what seems to me a remarkably long period (10 years).

As Kirsty Hughes persuasively argues, using Sterling prevents us rejoining the EU during that period. If she's right (and I believe she is), shouldn't the Growth Commission have considered this? But even if she were wrong about EU membership, for a country which wishes to remain part of the European family to hitch itself to a currency set to diverge rapidly from it doesn't seem like a good plan.

I'm also bothered by the 'Annual Solidarity Payment'. It looks a lot like tribute; or like paying off a blackmailer. We shouldn't do this.

Article 38 of the Vienna Convention on Succession of States in respect of
State Property, Archives and Debts reads:
"1.When the successor State is a newly independent State, no State debt of the predecessor State shall pass to the newly independent State, unless an agreement between them provides otherwise..." 
So Scotland is not obliged to, and cannot be obliged to, pay a share of the UK debt. This doesn't mean we should not, but it does mean we cannot be forced to. The risk that concerns me is that EW will assume it is entitled to payments from Scotland, and will behave badly - for example, by holding up Scottish exports - in order to try to screw more money out of us.

The Growth Commission report compounds this problem by suggesting that we should continue to 'buy services' from EW as part of the 'Solidarity Payment', specifically including military services. For me, making a break from the UK's military traditions of bombast, adventurism, gunboat diplomacy is one of the most important reasons for independence. I don't think I'm alone. Again, UK foreign aid is increasingly being used to pursue the UK's geopolitical and commercial ambitions. Scotland should not be supporting UK foreign aid programmes (para B2.3).

But there's a more fundamental issue about the Growth Commission report: growth. Sustainable growth is physically possible only if you assign artificial financial values to intangible things. We currently do do this, but we shouldn't assume it's beneficial.

Does the Scottish economy need to grow at all? I'd argue it doesn't. According to 'Wealth and Assets in Scotland, 2006-2014', the total household wealth of Scotland is £865.6 BILLION - almost a trillion pounds.

I own ten acres of land, a car with 130k miles on it, a 55 year old tractor, five cattle, a little sailing boat, several computers, a lot of books, several bicycles, a home-built house you would call a hut, and some tools; total value £70,000 if I'm lucky. Yet, apart from mental health, I have an extraordinarily good life. I work about ten days a month. I eat well. I'm secure. There's nothing I need I don't have. Of course, I don't have a partner or children, but if I did have, it would not take three times my current wealth to provide all of us with a very comfortable life.

The average household wealth in Scotland - the arithmetic mean - is £360,666.67. You don't have that much? I'm not surprised. The problem isn't that Scotland is poor, the problem is that Scotland is unequal. Worse, Scotland is still steadily getting more unequal.
Chart of household wealth per decile over time, showing increasing inequality.
Yet more than half of all households have no or negligible net financial wealth.

 

40% of all households have no or negligible property wealth (and you can bet those are mostly the same folk as have no net financial wealth).



In fact, overall, this is how badly wealth in Scotland is distributed. Iif we shared Scotland's household wealth equally, 88% of households would benefit. Only 12% of households would lose. And that is before you count wealth held in tax havens and secrecy regimes.


So, going back to that average figure, £360,666.67. Suppose your household had that much wealth. Would you be able to live an extremely comfortable life?

I would think so.

If you couldn't, what is wrong with you?

Inequality is the elephant in the room of independence. A plan for independence which does not radically address inequality will not attract a majority of Scotland's voters. Any major constitutional change is a risk - as we are seeing with Brexit. People - perhaps Scots especially - are wary of risk. People take risks only when the potential benefit is considerable, and independence which changes nothing offers no benefits. We have to have an independence plan which offers the prospect of a radically fairer Scotland.

We can do that. It really isn't hard.

And if the overwhelming majority of us could live very comfortably indeed on a fair share of Scotland's wealth, why does Scotland's economy need to grow? Why is it seen as a political desideratum?

We cannot grow by resource consumption without destroying the future of the planet for our children. We cannot extract all the oil from under the North Sea without far exceeding the planet's ability to cope. We need to use the resources we do extract more thoughtfully. We need to waste less. We need use less. All this can be done without hurting anyone's standard of living.

In summary, if we made our political objective to make people's quality of life better, rather than to grow the economy, we have adequate wealth and would have, with independence, adequate tools to do that.

The question is, have we the will?

Friday, 27 April 2018

Of foxes, and kings.

Red fox. Photograph: Jonn Leffmann, CC BY 3.0, Link
Does a social system with entrenched privilege systematically breed progressively nastier people? I suspect it does, and I shall argue it.

I used to believe that the reason the British elite are in general such noxious people was because our system of elite education is so bad; but I've begun to doubt that that's the whole story.

Elites tend to breed with elites, in quite narrow parameters: people tend to choose mates from socially similar backgrounds. Historically at least, elites have tended to have greater breeding success; they've had more children who have survived long enough to breed themselves. This is illustrated by programmes like "Who do you think you are": if you examine random people's family trees, royalty crops up surprisingly often.

The social systems we've had in Western Europe since the bronze age - warrior cultures, the feudal system, capitalism - have all tended to entrench privilege. Wealth and, to a degree, social status have been heritable.

And the characteristics required to ascend the ladder in all those systems has included the preparedness to be more ruthless, more ambitious, more bellicose, more vicious. (Obviously other characteristics have also been selected for: intelligence, charisma, physical attractiveness, and, at least until the end of the feudal period, strength).

Are characteristics like ruthlessness and bellicosity genetically heritable? I used to believe not; I used to believe that they were software, engendered by nurture, not hardware, engendered by genetics. The Russian fox domestication experiment persuades me I was wrong. By selectively breeding the tamest individuals, the experiment produced systematically different behaviour in foxes over remarkably few generations.

If characteristics like tameness are heritable, so, too, surely, are characteristics like ruthlessness.

If so, our social systems have since the bronze age systematically bred an elite which is progressively more ruthless over many generations. And worse, because elites have, historically at least, tended to have greater breeding success, we have progressively bred a general population which is more ruthless. (Of course, yes, other more desirable characteristics are also selected for).

If you look at the current Tory front bench, or the upper reaches of the aristocracy, or, indeed, those areas of law, finance and journalism where entry is selected on the basis of elite education, this thesis accounts for what you observe remarkably well.

So, if we have selectively bred a more ruthless, more vicious population than our "savage" ancestors, can we reverse the trend?

Heritable privilege seems to me to be key here. If you break the chains of inherited wealth and privilege, you'll get a sort of reverse eugenics - greater genetic mixing. That doesn't necessarily select for nicer, more cooperative, more sociable people, but at least it would stop us preferentially breeding worse ones.

As Comrade Lucy Broon put it,  'Just scrawl "full communism now" on rahbackuvvah silver rizla'

Thursday, 19 April 2018

Mastering Revision Control

This morning, browsing Twitter as one does, I came across this tweet:
I initially assumed that the tweet was meant satirically, but it seems it was not so. After a wee bit of discussion, someone asked me to explain why this is a really bad idea:
So I shall.

Alice and Bob are working together on the same software project. Each makes a copy of the files of the project in their local filestore, which these days tends to be on their own machine. These days, indeed, they tend to make a clone of the repository on their local system, and this is a good thing - but for the present argument it's a detail.

Alice makes changes in two files, foo.src and bar.src; she saves these locally, runs tests locally, checks they pass, and commits her changes to revision control. The continuous integration system pulls the commit, builds it, runs the tests, verifies they pass, and all's good.

Bob makes changes to two files, bar.src and ban.src; he saves locally, runs tests locally, checks they pass, and tries to commit to revision control. And of course he can't immediately because Alice has already changed bar.src, so he has to pull Alice's changes, do a merge, fix the resulting issues and rerun the tests.

Now, that's the game. That's what we all do when working on collaborative teams. We try not to work simultaneously on the same bit of the system; we try not to trample on other people's work; but it happens. So Bob only grumbles a bit.

But it's late in the evening, Bob's tired. It's time to knock off. What to do? Well, in any sane shop, he's working in a feature branch so he pushes his feature branch up to the server, and goes home. But in this shop, management has dictated that they will ignore the last thirty years of software practice and experience and do everything in master. So Bob commits his work in progress to his local clone of the repository, and goes home.

Morning dawns bright and early, and Bob's in work raring to go. He powers up his machine, and... nothing. His local hard disk has died. Doesn't matter, all his work's in... oh.

That's a day's work lost.

Meantime, Clarice is working in another part of the codebase, on a problem where the most efficient implementation isn't obvious. She builds an implementation, and it passes the tests, but she's not convinced it's optimal. So she commits her implementation to revision control. She then starts working on an alternative solution, completes it, and it passes all the tests, too. She wants to commit this to revision control, too, but management have dictated that everything shall be done in master, so she can't. One version or the other can be current.

So what does she do? Overwrite her first solution? Abandon her second solution?

Yes, of course she can commit her second over her first - the point of revision control is that you don't lose stuff - but in practice that means a decision is taken to prefer the second solution, because the nature of the growing edge of a software project is that a commit from several commits back on a branch is not going to be promoted to the head of the branch unless you have very serious breakage.

Any software development which cannot be wholly automated involves design decisions and uncertainty. The cost to the developer of being experimental - of trying one idea, seeing under what circumstances it works well, seeing under what it works poorly, and trying another - needs to be as low as possible. If management puts needless difficulty in the way, that's bad management.

Software development time is expensive. Practices which cause work to be lost are highly undesirable. It needs to be as easy as possible to make sure work is not lost.

Git - and other modern revision control systems - are the product of decades of hard won experience. What we've learned over those decade is that branching is good. Feature branches are especially good. They prevent trampling over other people's changes, and reduce stress and conflict in the team. They make it very easy to track which features are in the build. They make committing and pushing low-stress, low cost activities.

Of course it should be the responsibility of every developer to ensure all tests pass before merging a feature into develop, developers are human and sometimes things go wrong. We always need a branch which we know is production ready code, from which the production system can be rebuilt in case of failure. That's what, conventionally, the master branch is; and the whole point of having a develop branch is to have a branch into which all changes are merged, which can then be tested to demonstrate that it is production ready before merging into master.


Thursday, 12 April 2018

Mourning goose

The Goose That Laid the Golden Eggs,
illustrated by 
Milo Winter
The last thirty years have seen an extraordinary change in the technical substrate on which our culture is built. The World Wide Web, created in Europe in in 1989, made the Internet usable for non-technical people. Across the Web, the vast majority of servers run on Linux, an operating system written in Europe between 1991 and 1993, as do the vast majority of mobile phones, and many of the Internet's routers. Meantime, most Apple products - computers, phones and tablets - are built on the BSD operating system, as are many other Internet routers.

Facebook, the towering proprietary monolith of social media, was built on PHP, a web scripting language written in Canada by a European (strictly, a Greenlander), as are all Yahoo's and Wikipedia's web services. Twitter was built on Rails, a web framework written by a European working in the US.

What's key about all these critical products is that they are all open source: given away by their authors for free as a public good, a newly created common wealth for the whole human race. These gifts - because they are gifts, and critically valuable ones - have sometimes been made by corporations, and often by universities.

But nevertheless, the most important gifts have been made by individuals: people who have chosen, rather than get personally rich on the basis of their creative work, to make a gift to all of us. And as these gifts have been maintained, developed, improved and repaired over the years, a great deal of that work has itself been done by individual volunteers, seeking no reward but their reputation among their peers.

It is on these acts of unselfish generosity, these gifts, that the whole of the the modern economy is built; and that isn't accidental.

The World Wide Web was by no means the first distributed hypermedia system; it was the first to be widely adopted, precisely because it was the first that individuals and organisations could adopt without onerous costs and licence terms. Linux is now the dominant operating system on the planet not only because it's free, but mainly because the ease with which people can contribute fixes and new functionality allows it to develop, and fix vulnerabilities, faster than commercial alternatives.

Open source not only reduces the cost of business innovation, it also drives up quality and enables business to share the costs of maintaining key software assets. It is the goose that lays the golden eggs on which the modern economy is built.

And the European Commission is proposing to shoot it.

The proposed Copyright Directive - and in particular Article 13 - totally undermines the gift economy; it poses unaffordable costs and liabilities on code sharing repositories like SourceForge, GitHub, GitLab and others. These organisations will be forced to either withdraw or charge for their services. making it impossible for volunteers to freely share - to gift - their own work.

Meantime, Article 11 seeks to undermine another critical substrate of a free society, the free and voluntary sharing of ideas. The civil society discourse on public policy requires citizens to be able to freely access and reference the ideas of others in their own works, and to make their own works freely available to others to reference, comment upon and critique.

Of course, the European Commission isn't setting out to shoot the golden goose. It's setting out to protect the interests of the film, television, and fiction publishing industries. But seriously, is it better in the modern age to have films and no internet, or internet and no films? If our present copyright provisions meant the total elimination of Europe's cinema and television production sectors, would the total destruction of the infrastructure of the Internet be a price worth paying to save them? If our present copyright protections meant the elimination of journalism, would the destruction of civil society be a price worth paying to save it?

No, obviously not.

And cinema and television production are not greatly challenged; they're thriving and immensely profitable. Journalism is challenged, and is still adjusting to the Internet. But nevertheless, the solution to that is not - cannot be - to destroy either the Internet or civil society.

This is a directive that should not merely be reconsidered; it should be abandoned entirely.

The discussion we should be having, in an age in which the cost of reproduction of digital goods is essentially nil, is whether the copyright model which served reasonably well through the era of print serves any sort of public interest in the digital age.

Of course the creators of cultural artefacts deserve to be rewarded; of course journalism is necessary to a free society and must be supported. But copyright does not serve either purpose well. For every J K Rowling, there are a thousand authors of fiction who make at most a pittance; for every Paul McCartney, a thousand songwriters struggling to put petrol into the car to go to their next gig.

In journalism, the Daily Mail, a purveyor of gossip, malice and deceit, profits more from copyright than the Guardian, which supports serious political discussion and commentary, and funds critical investigative journalism such as the recent Cambridge Analytica scandal.

In the Hitchhikers' Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams wrote a little parable for our times. The first settlers of Earth, he wrote, adopted the leaf as currency. But leaves were too plentiful; so in order to prop up the value of the leaf, they decided to burn down all the forests.

What the European Commission is proposing is to burn down the forest: to save the profits of the media industry by destroying the infrastructure of the Internet and of civil society. They must not be allowed to do this. Copyright is a tool of society, not its master; and if the tool has been made obsolete by more modern technology, it is time to discard it.

Tuesday, 10 April 2018

Yet another bid to centralise power

A bunch of unbelievable dunderheids calling themselves the 'Constitutional Reform Group' are proposing a new Act of Union. You can read it here. The group are remarkably coy about their membership, but rumour has it that they are, at least primarily, members of the House of Lords - which comes as no surprise to me (indeed, I'd hazard I could correctly guess the names of several members).

Long time readers of my blog will recall that I've written on the UK constitution, rather often:

  1. The West Lothian question, take two
  2. Parliamentary Questions
  3. Submission to the Smith Commission
  4. Scottish devolution, and socialism in one nation
  5. A breakfast any self-respecting dog would reject

Fortunately the committee have provided a feedback form through which you can give your opinion of their turgid bucket of foetid dingoes' kidneys, here. I strongly commend the idea you do so. For inspiration, my own contribution is below; do not copy it, as that is bad form, but feel free to riff melodically on some of these points.

I have very rarely read a more foolish or more incendiary document - this ranks surely alongside Jonathan Swift's Modest Proposal for offensiveness, but lacks the wit.

It is not possible to have a federal state in which one confederate can always outvote all others. If the United Kingdom is to become a federal state, then either England must be split into at least five separate units (Wessex, Sussex, Essex, Mercia, Northumbria, perhaps) or Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, put together, must be able to outvote England. Otherwise it isn't a confederation, it's an empire (which, under your committee's proposal, of course, it is).

It is not possible to have a democracy with appointed legislators. Not any appointed legislators at all. The United Kingdom, of course, never has been a democracy, but it is about time it became one.

It is not tolerable that a broad range of taxes be retained by the federal administration. The centre can have few functions and therefore has little expenditure; the overwhelming majority of revenue must be generated where it is needed - in the nations. It would be better to put all taxation powers with the nations and fund the federal government with subventions from them.

It is not possible to have a UK wide court system, because there is not a UK wide system of law. Nor is it desirable that there should be, unless, of course, England wishes to submit to the jurisdiction of Scots law. No? Didn't thinks so. Similarly, a UK wide civil service makes no sense.

If you want to cause civil war in these islands, I commend your proposed bill as a most excellent way to proceed. Otherwise, I suggest you bury it in the deepest cesspit you can find, and pray it never resurfaces.


Friday, 6 April 2018

Response to consultation on a new enterprise agency for the South of Scotland

1 Do you agree with our ambition outlined?

Yes

2 What would you like to see for the South of Scotland?

Locally owned businesses, rather than inward investment. The current problems at Pinney's just reprise the history of firms like Stelrads; investors from outside the region are attracted in with generous grants, stay for the good times, and pull out suddenly when times are tough. That isn't what we need.

What we need is to develop and grow a vibrant entrepreneurial culture locally. That means training in entrepreneurship, mentoring networks, and, ideally, if they can be found, local angels. It also means facilitating local business and tech meetups.

I'd personally like to see more high skill high wage businesses, like software and engineering, and less emphasis on low wage, insecure businesses like hospitality and tourism. As agriculture adapts to a low carbon economy, there are huge opportunities for disruptive new engineering products.

3 What are your ambitions for the future economic success of the South of Scotland?

Innovative engineering, especially around reducing fossil fuel use in agriculture and forestry.

A broad entrepreneurial culture, with school leavers and university graduates equipped with the skills and confidence to start their own businesses; supported by
  1. a mentoring network.
  2. A local angels/venture capital network, and a local business focussed bank after the German model.
  3. The ability to develop businesses where people want them, not where it's convenient to central planning.
In particular we need employment in villages, and employment flexible enough for people supplementing reduced agricultural incomes.

4 What are the strengths you would like to see the Agency build on?

As outlined, we're a dispersed region with significant opportunities in renewable energy, a highly educated workforce, and, in places, considerable self reliance.We also have land, although it is concentrated in few hands. Land-based businesses over the 20th century became heavily dependent on fossil fuels and that now has to change rapidly. That's a challenge, but it's also an opportunity. Southern Scotland has a history of agricultural innovation - for example, the milking machine was invented in Castle Douglas. We can respond to this challenge.

We lack confidence, finance, and entrepreneurial skills. We need to make up these deficits, and that's something an agency would be well placed to do. We also, relative to urban areas, lack informal opportunities for entrepreneurs to network, and that also needs to be addressed,

A local business bank would be a great asset, either as a strictly commercial business or as a mutual.

5 What are the economic challenges you would like to see the Agency address?

  1. Infrastructure, especially communications.
  2. Finance.
  3. Entrepreneurship training and mentoring.Research and development support.
  4. Networking, meetups, matchmaking.
  5. There is a problem with affordable housing for young people. If people are borrowed up to the hilt for housing, or paying a burdensome rent, the amount of risk they can afford to take on in business is sharply limited.
  6. Universal Basic Income would considerably de-risk business startup.

6 What currently works well in the South of Scotland?

Not a lot.

7 What would you add or take away from the potential activities that the Agency could carry out across the three areas:
a) drive forward the economy?:

While opportunities are great, we need to be aware of risks and challenges. Scottish agriculture is not equipped to compete at world market prices, and Brexit will mean widespread farm bankruptcies across the region with consequential bankruptcies among farm supply businesses and more widely.

The challenge for the rural economy over the next decade is to maintain people in their homes in the face of rapid change and stress. Challenges are opportunities, and there are considerable opportunities in the current situation. But we need to be clear that the requirement, before seeking to drive the economy forward, is to prevent its utter collapse.

b) sustain communities?:

The costs and models of rural transport are going to change considerably over the next decade, and the prospects are not easy to predict. Because the rural economy is relatively depressed and electric vehicles are new and expensive, it's unlikely that they will naturally propagate into the rural economy first; rather, they're likely to be in the towns.

There's a related issue that most remote rural areas have great opportunities for renewable electricity generation, but lack the grid connections to carry that power away. If it could be used locally to power transport and farm machinery, that's a triple benefit to the rural economy.

If we expand electric vehicle use rapidly and early in remote rural areas, that will cut the costs of rural transport very substantially, leading to much more sustainable communities; driverless, on demand electric taxis following the Google/Waymo model could have a very positive impact.

But without government intervention and considerable subsidy, neither will happen. The richer, urban economy will soak up these new products first, and remote rurals will get them only when that market becomes saturated. Instead it's likely that private rural transport will tend to depend largely on second hand diesel vehicles, because they're cheap to buy and reliable; but they will increasingly be more expensive to run. This further disadvantages rural areas with respect to urban.

Without affordable transport and access to affordable housing and land, the pattern of a populated landscape and vibrant village communities will be very hard to sustain.

c) capitalise on people and resources?:

We don't educate nearly enough in entrepreneurship or in civics. Young people leave education expecting to get a job, not start a business. They lack the skills and they lack the mentoring network.

A related problem is that most of our young people go away to distant universities, and, because of the cost of housing and the few opportunities for employment, few come back. Of those of my generation from Auchencairn who went to university and did not inherit farms, only two - myself and one other - came back.

Full disclosure, I started my first business in Auchencairn at the age of 21; it was a steep learning curve, but was supported by good mentoring from Scottish Enterprise for which I'm still grateful.

So: we need better education in entrepreneurship at all levels, a wide network of good, easily accessible mentoring, and affordable housing and business premises. The second and third of these are things the new agency can contribute greatly to.

With regard to resources, our primary resource after people is land and landscape. Landscape, as a marketable asset, derives from cultural aesthetics which are inevitably somewhat backward looking; people like to see (and to live in) a settled, patchwork landscape of mixed farming, woodlands and hills. They like to see in that landscape a broad diversity of wild flowers, birds, and other wildlife.

This is not from an agricultural point of the most efficient landscape. As pressure grows on farmers, we will see less employment, less varied agriculture, a less settled and less diverse landscape. Beef, lamb and cereal production will cease to be economic as we open up to world markets, increasing the reliance on dairy, and, probably, on cows kept indoors and fed silage.

If we are to protect a settled landscape, we need ways to subsidise small farms. I believe that moving from a per-hectare model of agricultural subsidy to a welfare model - preferably a universal basic income model - together with opportunities for part-time employment, would encourage a settled, more diverse landscape, which would in turn bring benefits to tourism.

8 What would you prioritise as the key areas of activity for the Agency?

  1. Building mentoring networks.Facilitating meetups/informal business networking.
  2. Encouraging entrepreneurship education, including on-going education for existing business owners.
  3. Providing/gatekeeping access to local angels.
  4. Encouraging the establishment of a regional business-oriented bank.
Politicians like inward investment because it provides sudden, relatively large job creation which they can take credit for. This is a snare and a delusion. As the south of Scotland has seen repeatedly over the past century, inward investors become outward divestors at the first sign of trouble. The agency should NOT support inward investment.

9 What specific things could the Agency do to help you, your business, your sector or your community?


  1. My business? Better broadband; business networking.
  2. My sector? Better broadband; business networking.
  3. My community? Affordable housing. The average income is about £21,000, the minimum house price is about £200,000, the two don't meet.

10 What could the Agency do outwith its boundaries working with other local authorities or with agencies like Highlands and Islands Enterprise to support specific projects which benefit the South of Scotland and with national agencies?

East to west travel across southern Scotland is not facilitated by either the road or rail network, and consequently there is not much communication between Dumfries and Galloway in the west, and the Borders in the east; rather, Galloway tends to face Ayrshire and Glasgow, where the Borders tend to face the Lothians and Edinburgh. It does not therefore seem to me that, despite the similar challenges, it will be easy for one agency to service all these regions.

In particular an agency headquartered in the Borders will find it hard to service Galloway, while one based in Dumfries will find it hard to service Berwickshire; sadly, one based in Langholm would find it hard to service anywhere at all.

In Scotland we over-centralise everything; Dumfries and Galloway, considered as a unit, is larger both in area and in population than one sixth of the independent nations of the world. On average across Europe, local government units are one twentieth the size they are in Scotland. I do not believe this can continue; I believe the democratic deficit must mean that we will soon see the break up of these monstrous local government divisions.

Nevertheless, there is a clear geographic divide running to the east of Moffat and Langholm, Without major new roads infrastructure, despite the similarities in economic challenge, it is not useful to see the whole of southern Scotland as one unit. While I think Dumfries and Galloway council is an oversized and anti-democratic anachronism, an economic development agency for the south-west would make sense.

11 Which option, either from the list above or your own suggestion, do you think offers the best way to ensure the Agency is accessible to all across the South of Scotland?

Of the options listed I would go with the first: 'the Agency could have minimal physical presence with its services delivered digitally across the area', supplemented by local, probably part time, networking and mentoring staff dispersed across the region.

There is no location which could reasonably serve as a 'headquarters' for the whole of southern Scotland, because there is effectively no transport infrastructure between east and west.

12 Which criteria should be used in reaching a decision about the location of the Agency?

Don't locate it. That is a snare and a delusion. A centre in Dumfries could service the southwest, but not the Borders. One in the Selkirk/Melrose area could service the Borders, but not the southwest.

Obviously in my personal interest it would be better in Dumfries than in Melrose, but that's exactly the point; getting bogged down in squabbles about location doesn't help, and whichever location were chosen, unless the Scottish Government is prepared to invest in a Stranraer to Melrose motorway, the side of the country not chosen will feel discriminated against.

Board meetings and other central functions should rotate across the whole area, rather than being centrally located; staff should be dispersed.

13 If you were to use the services of this Agency, what factors are important to you in terms of reaching it?

Digital delivery is still problematic across much of rural Scotland: broadband speeds are laughably poor - I'm currently seeing 0.9 Mbits/sec download and 0.3 upload, and I run an Internet business!

Without better broadband performance digital delivery alone will not service remote rural areas.
So until we have the broadband we've been promised for the past twenty years, the agency would need to work on an 'account manager' model, with dispersed, locally based, probably part-time account managers regularly visiting their client businesses, probably as part of a mentoring/support scheme.

14 What sort of people should be on the Board of the Agency and what sorts of skills and expertise should they have?

A board widely drawn from experienced local business people - not politicians nor career public servants.

15 We know that young people are less likely to stay in or move to the South of Scotland than they are other parts of the country. Do you have any comments on things the Agency could do to meet the interests of children and young people?

We need homes for them to come back to after university, and opportunities to create their own employment in the form of flexible, low-commitment business premises. Ideally we need either universal basic income or an enhanced enterprise allowance to de-risk at least the initial three years.

We need opportunities for part time employment so that people not able to make a sufficient income from a nascent business can supplement it.

But most of all we need housing. And the housing we need has to be affordable in perpetuity, so either we need sufficient council housing of sufficient quality to be both available and attractive to potential entrepreneurs, or else we need to make the Rural Housing Burden actually work.


19 Do you have any other thoughts on powers that the Agency will need?

There will be a great deal of pressure for the agency to intervene in situations like Pinney's. Pinney's is a tragedy, but it's one that is an inevitable consequence of businesses being owned from outwith the region, and of Brexit. We will see more instances of this over the coming years, and they could easily soak up all the resources of the proposed agency for years to come.

Furthermore, paying bribes to businesses based furth of Scotland to keep open businesses in Scotland, even if it preserves employment in Scotland, is poor use of Scottish government money.

The agency needs to have the independence to be able to resist political pressure to intervene in saving failing businesses. This isn't to say that the agency might not back a management buy-out, or some other scheme which brought ownership of a facility back into the region, provided that the facility was viable as a business or could reasonably be expected to be brought into a condition in which it was.

I don't think the agency should have the power to invest directly in businesses; I think that it should seek to encourage and support a network of angels, or a local venture capital group, and a regional commercial bank.

20 Is there anything else you wish to say about the operation of the Agency?

Keep it lightweight, keep it dispersed, don't spend money on fancy headquarters of large central staff.

Saturday, 24 March 2018

On HOOP, and hope.

Ok, let's talk about Hands Off Our Parliament, and the lessons to be learned. Firstly, huge congratulations to the organisers!

Secondly, we can pull out a big crowd in Edinburgh at short notice on a weekday afternoon. That shows there's a huge appetite to get the Yes movement rolling again.

Thirdly, the average age was about 60. That's not surprising - it was in working hours, many folk with day jobs couldn't be there. But it proves that the idea the old aren't keen on independence is havers.

Fourthly, folk came a long way. I left Auchencairn at 8:00; the friends I met at #HOOP were from Ayrshire, Galloway, Lanarkshire and highland Perthshire. I heard a bunch of folk had come down from Orkney, although I didn't meet them. Folk were very committed: the weather turned out good, but the weather forecast wasn't primising and I left home in condensing fog.

Fifthly, the leadership of the Yes movement won't lead. The only SNP figure I saw was Tommy Sheppard (who did speak); I didn't see any of the leadership of the Independence Convention and I know for a fact Robin McAlpine of Common Weal wasn't there. Full disclosure, when Tommy Sheppard was announced, because sound wasn't good in the wind, I thought they'd said Tommy Sheridan and was actually walking out before I realised I was wrong! My apologies, comrade Sheppard.

Of course there may have been people there I didn't see. It was a big event, and in my current state of very frail mental health I'm not good at recognising people. But if the folk who should be leading this movement really were notable only by their absence, this isn't good.

Worse still, as far as I can see, no significant figure from the SNP, the Greens, the Independence Convention or even Radical Independence has commented on or tweeted about the event either yesterday while it was happening, or this morning in retrospect. No solidarity, no congratulations, no encouragement. Not even criticism. And I think we need to be saying this to our leadership: shit, or get off the pot.

Sixthly, if we're going to do this again on a weekday, a day when Holyrood is in session would be better. We need to be able to lobby our MSPs; we need to show the strength of our support to MSPs; and we need to make it easier for MSPs to join in.

Seventhly, I am certain that it is vital that things like this are not allowed to become party political. Tribalism will kill us. If the Independence Convention won't lead, we need something similar that will.

China Central TV conducting an interview at HOOP
Eighth, we cannot rely on the mainstream media to get our message out to the public. Neither of Scotland's broadcasters seem to have reported the event at all. The National, of course, had good coverage, and the Scotsman had reasonable coverage, but the Herald and Daily Record both played down the event reporting the turnout as 'hundreds'. The Herald in particular focussed on 'noisy' Yes Bikers and alleged anti-BBC chanting. China Central Television apparently gave us coverage, but I doubt much of the Scottish electorate watches that!

Ninth, it was great to see Welsh dragons and Catalan esteladas among the cloud of saltires; I also saw a Palestinian flag. I didn't see anyone else with an EU flag, although I had one; but many people had EU stars on their saltires. I would personally have liked to have seen a Kurdish flag (although I don't know what one even looks like), and it would be good to build solidarity with other small European nations. It's important to make it clear to onlookers and to the media that we're an internationalist, and not a narrowly nationalist, movement.

But dae a wheen o Saltires no luik braw?

Tenth, many folk had dressed for the occasion, which really helped make it feel like a carnival. My gratitude to all of you who did! Indeed, all the news outlets which reported the event at all did use good pictures, showing that the effort of those who dressed up or brought good placards and flags was not wasted. If we cannot get our message across in the words that journalists write, we can still influence through the pictured they use.

Eleventh, yes, of course there was no trouble. That's not who we are. #Yes is positive, #Yes is creative, Yes can turn anything into a party. Let's be proud of that and stay that way!

Finally, thanks again to the organisers. We needed this. We need to be spontaneous. We need to push our self-appointed leaders to lead or get out of the way.

Thursday, 8 March 2018

Now is the time

Betty Hutton playing Pearl White in The Perils of Pauline (1947)
There's a trope in early Hollywood: a girl, bound to railway tracks, an oncoming train. That's the situation we're in now: Brexit is the oncoming train, and our Scotland, our Bella Caledonia, is bound to the tracks.

But with what are are we bound? With chains? No: with caution, with timidity. Folk are saying that is isn't certain that with one bound we'll be free. They're right, of course. Folk are saying if she tries to bound free, and fails, we cannae try again for a generation.

Folk - Peter Arnott - are saying, there's no need to worry. We can just let Brexit crash over us. It will cut the non-existent chains, the chains of our timidity, and when it's passed, without any effort on our part, we'll be free. Sans arms, sans legs, but free. And what did we care about Scotland's arms and legs anyway?

Let us be clear what Brexit means to Scotland.

Absent the close trading relationship with Europe, the UK will need very quickly to agree trading relationships with other big, rich markets, and actually there are very few. India and China are big, but not rich; Canada, Australia, New Zealand rich but not big. So the Tories are going to have to do a deal with Trump's United States. They'll need it quick. And they aren't great negotiators.

What does the USA want to sell us? Well, it does want to sell us food, produced to much lower standards than we've been used to. It wants to sell us 'Scotch Whisky' and 'Cornish Pasties', made in Illinois and Nebraska. But most of all it wants to sell us "healthcare". The Tories will not be averse to this: many of them have existing links to healthcare companies. Selling off the health service will not mean just selling off the English health service; the trade treaty will not be between England and the USA, but between the UK and the USA. So that's our health service gone. For ever. Independence after Brexit won't bring it back.

But what did we care about Scotland's health service anyway?

But then, there's the economy. Scotland used to be big on manufacturing. It used, especially, to be big on marine engineering. Not any more. Scotland proudly boasts the world's first floating wind farm - owned and installed by Norwegians using turbines from Germany on towers from Spain. Margaret Thatcher closed down most of our industry for her 'leaner, fitter Britain', and it's never recovered. What manufacturing we have left depends significantly on just-in-time relationships with European partners; and those are going to be savaged by Brexit.

Margaret Thatcher's big idea was that we switch from manufacturing into 'services'; by which she chiefly meant financial services. Well, that's OK, Scotland has always been big on financial services, too! We have the Bank of Scotland, and the Royal Bank of... oh, wait...

Seriously, we do still have some good financial services organisations. But with Brexit, they will lose their 'passporting rights' to Europe, which will take away a big chunk of their market at a stroke.

And the one thing that no-one is talking about is this: less than three years from today, every consignment of goods leaving the UK and every consignment of goods arriving in the UK is going to have to go through customs. Where is the customs infrastructure to handle that? When will it be built? Do you think the current British government is competent to build it, in under three years? Aye, right.

You've seen what happens to the shelves in our supermarkets after one day of snow. Imagine what they'll be like after a month of chaos at the ports. Never mind, let them eat fish.

As a communist, obviously I believe that wealth should be shared equally - and obviously, that means equally across the globe. It is not just that workers in Scotland are paid more than workers in Mumbai or Shenzhen. In the long run that does have to change. But after Brexit, workers in Britain, outside the protective barriers of the EU, will be competing directly against workers in Mumbai and Shenzhen. We're no longer better educated. We no longer have better infrastructure. There is nothing, in a free market, to maintain our historical differentials. If we demand to be paid more, businesses will just move the jobs. Outside the EU, there's nothing to stop them.

But what did we care about Scotland's economy, anyway?

And while there is a degree of justice in this, the sudden, drastic fall in incomes and loss of jobs will be very hard for us in Britain.

Scotland cannot be protected from this. The Scottish Government cannot tax more to maintain public services, if its tax base has collapsed. Brexit means the end not only of our health service, but also of our welfare state. We're going to face a decade of economic collapse - probably two. Civil dissent will be met with repression. In those circumstances, secessionism is just another form of civil dissent, like trades unionism, to be crushed. We saw it in Scotland in the 1980s, we see it today in Catalunya.

I don't know whether you are old enough to have campaigned in the 1979 referendum, or lived through the industrial conflict of the 1980s. I am; I did. Thatcher's government was as hostile to nationalism as to the left. I believe the isolated, xenophobic, bankrupt Britain we face post-Brexit will be far more repressive than Thatcher ever was. Such a regime won't tolerate any further independence referenda. If we do not achieve independence before Brexit, we will not achieve it in the lifetime of anyone now living.

But what did we care about Scotland's civic freedoms, anyway?

Rewind. Cut.

It doesn't have to be like this.

We can have another referendum.

Now.

Yes, it's true that we don't currently have a lead in the polls. We didn't in 2012, when we started the independence referendum campaign. We didn't in 1979, when we started the devolution campaign. In each case, we swung the polls more than 15% over the course of the campaign.

Yes, of course it's true that there's no guarantee we can do that again. But we don't have to. We're already much higher in the polls than we were in 2012, and the trend is positive.

All Scotland needs to bound free, to avoid the train, to keep her arms and legs, her health service, her economy, her labour differentials, her civic freedoms, is confidence. Courage and confidence. Yes, of course it's true that it isn't certain we can do it. We need to have a long campaign, because we didn't keep the Yes Movement going after the 2014 defeat. The Yes Movement isn't like a political party with a permanent membership system and secretariat. But we know from experience that given a long campaign, Yes is a formidable electoral machine.

And seriously, what are you going to say to your starving daughter as you hug her close to try to protect her from the damp and chill of a Scottish winter without fuel, and she asks you "what did you do to try to save Scotland from this?"

Are you really going to say "well, it looked hard, so we didn't try." Really?

Really really?

Nothing comes to those who wait. If we don't forge the future, the future will go to those who are forging it while we wait. The Brexiteers are forging the future. We may not like the future they're forging, but they're doing it very effectively. The climate change deniers are forging the future. The far right are forging the future. They're not waiting. It's their future we will get if we wait.

Independence is not the key political issue of our age. Global warming is more important. Social justice is more important. Ecocide is more important. Peace is more important. Independence is important in as much as it helps towards those goals. But independence, like social justice, like an end to war, like a habitable planet, will not come if we wait. We must forge these things. This is no time for quietism. It is time for action.

Now is the time.

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