Sunday, February 15, 2009

White hell

Britain ground to a halt last week as the country was gripped by white hell. Well, what they really meant was that there was some snow in London. The London transport system promptly ground to a halt, schools closed, factories shut and newspapers suffered superlative fatigue. There were the heart-warming stories about meals on wheels on ice, and about the human cost in ruined lives. Climate change deniers insisted that global warming is a myth. Health and safety officials ordered people not to build snowmen or use sledges without airbags and full body armour.

It’s strange, but somehow when it snows in Scotland, it just isn’t news, at least not network news - it's just weather. Of course, snow in Hide Park is news, because it doesn’t happen very often, as are all the snowmen and sledges and bumped cars. But it is LOCAL news. The perennial problem with the media in this country is that local news in London is assumed to be news everywhere else. Last week was confirmation that the metropolitan media is the most parochial in the country. Its news values are worse than the most local of local rags, precisely because it can’t see beyond its own doorstep.

When snow fall in Scotland there are all the stories we have seen in the past week, and more. We have mountain rescues, islands cut off, remote farmers isolated. The schools don’t generally close and public transport remains active but with our mountain landscape it’s a lot more interesting to look at. However, what you will never see is the BBC’s national news bulletin devoting half its slot to covering snow chaos in Scotland. It is only when weather happens in London that it is thought to be of national significance. The rest of the country is assumed to be fascinated with buses not moving in Regent Street and Boris Johnson trundling his bike in the slush.

I’m not making a Scottish whinge here - well, perhaps I am a bit- but it is a legitimate whinge. Metrocentrism was supposed to have been stamped out after the BBC’s Impartiality Review last year. But hiring a few newsreaders with Scottish accents doesn’t disguise the reality that the network bulletins are still utterly preoccupied with whatever is happening the in the South East.

I don’t know why we take this from our ‘national’ broadcaster, I really don’t. The King report two years ago for the BBC Trust was scathing of the southern bias of BBC network news and current affairs. We were promised that things would change. But they haven’t. Look at the coverage on the network bulletins of the Scottish budget crisis. They’re much more interested in beavers. Maybe we should all grow beards and build dams.

Sexual Offensive Bill

The First Minister, Alex Salmond, continued his daring manifesto striptease last week. First it was student debts, first time buyer grants and new police that dropped to the floor. Now the bigger items of clothing are being removed, like Local Income Tax. But fear not, because the SNP’s moral guardian, Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill, has come to the rescue with an armful of daft legislation to cover up the FM’s wobbly bits.

Judge Kenny has already tried to stop under twenty-ones from buying drink in an off-license, even though they may be married soldiers back from Afghanistan. He’s now topped that by calling for teenage girls to be prosecuted for having sex under the age of 16. The Sexual Offences Bill now before Holyrood would make it illegal for girls as well as boys to have consensual sex with each other if they are underage.

Does the government realise just how many teenagers it is going to criminalise as a result of this extraordinary exercise in sexual hygiene? Like hundreds of thousands of people, I had consensual intercourse with my girlfriend before I was sixteen, which means I’m technically a rapist. But she was also underage, which means she could be prosecuted too under the new law. I’d better shop her right away.

How is the justice system going to cope with the flood of tweeny sex-criminals? A BBC survey two years ago revealed that at least a third of teenagers have sex below the age of consent, and that is widely thought to be an under-estimate. . And just how is Kenny going to know when they are all having illegal nooky? Perhaps all those speech-activated security cameras that are being put up around Glasgow will do the job. Whenever one of them picks up heavy breathing the sex police will be onto the couple in a shot. Come on now you two, get your kit on, you’re nicked.

Perhaps Kenny could take a leaf out of the Ysgol Dyffryin Teifi school in Ceredigion Wales (crazy name, crazy school) which has placed CCTV cameras in secondary school toilets. It’s not quite clear who is going to monitor this footage since the teachers would presumably place themselves on the sex offenders register if they looked at it. But a rumour that I have just invented suggests that the Justice Secretary, may be minded to introduce toilet tv cameras into every home in Scotland so that he can know what everyone is really up to.

I’ve heard of the nanny state, but this is ridiculous. The only way the Scottish government is going to stop young people having sex is to bring back chastity belts and bromide. But I’d better stop right there in case I give the sex police any more bright ideas.

The banality of bankers

Hannah Arendt used to talk about the “banality of evil”; last week we saw the banality of bankers. There they sat, the Sir this and Lord thats, uttering po-faced clich├ęs and over-rehearsed apologies to ratty MPs in Westminster. The Sun called them “scumbag millionaires” but they were really a bit of an anticlimax, and far to dull to make proper villains. Goodwin and co were revealed to be just like the countless interchangeable suits who sit around thousands of corporate boards and shuffle paper around a million offices every day; uninspiring bureaucrats whose vision extends no further than the latest management fad.

They’re the people you remember from school - the ones who got their homework in on time but lacked any kind of inspiration or independence of thought. The ones who joined the right societies at university, studied subjects of mind-numbing tedium, and then polished up their CVs for the graduate milk round. They were supposed to be the safe pairs of hands these accountants and actuaries, with their mousy wives living in their characterless suburban houses. Secure and boring. But somehow they grey men managed to blow up the world.

How did it happen? When did it happen? Without a shot being fired, these people not only took over the commanding heights of the economy, they infiltrated the heart of government, sitting on countless quangos and inquiries, advising ministers and civil servants, creating a society in their own image. How did we let them do it? And where did these boring bean-counters and shiny-bottoms get the wherewithal to engineer the greatest financial crisis in history?

Well, it all goes back to the 1980s when the ruminant number crunchers became infected with the virus of greed and turned into voracious financial predators. It was the great financial boom ignited by Margaret Thatcher’s privatisation policies that transformed plodding corporate clones into to reckless gamblers and risk-takers. With deregulated financial markets, the suits discovered that they suddenly had access to the ‘dumb’ wealth of society which had been sitting passively in pension funds, insurance funds, government departments. Deregulation encouraged financial ‘innovation’ and the creation of ‘products’ like dodgy endowment mortgages or “personal” pensions that delivered little apart from commissions.

But it was the sale of public utilities that offered the suits their opportunity to cash in on a grand scale. The sale of state assets in rail, airports, communications gas and electricity yielded billions in commissions and fees that flooded into the offices of the grey men turning them into privatisation tycoons. Look at how well they’d done, selling the country back its own property and calling it popular capitalism. They set up remuneration committees staffed by their friends which awarded higher and higher salaries to themselves under the guise of incentive schemes. The bonus culture was born.

The lords of financial misrule weren’t actually making anything - building companies or creating new markets - but they began to regard themselves as financial engineers, masters of the universe, able to create wealth apparently out of nothing. Ten they started on the property market - a massive pyramid scheme, so huge and complex that it took over twenty years to construct and will take almost as long for society to pay off.

A pyramid scheme, like Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme, is a way of inflating asset prices by creating an artificial scarcity fuelled by buying mania. Like the South Sea Bubble, inflated asset prices only last for as long as ever larger numbers of people can be persuaded to invest in them. The global real estate boom was the greatest asset bubble in history, as house prices in countries like Britain tripled with in a decade. This created trillions worth of paper wealth which was managed and manipulated by the bloated financial services industry which had now begun to crowd out other productive forms of economic activity.

It’s an open secret that the bankers realised that the boom couldn’t last forever, but they did everything they could to prolong it. Banks like Northern Rock and HBOS started selling 125% mortgages and the infamous sub-prime loans to people who could never repay. Then there was ‘securitization’. Instead of just holding on to mortgages for the duration of the loan, the banks started selling packages of mortgage in bonds to other investors and used the proceeds to lend ever more mortgages. They invented sophisticated derivatives like collateralised debt obligations and credit default swaps which used complexity to disguise risk.They started lending on every greater ratios of their core capital, “leveraging” loans by thirty or forty to one. Their command of the language of the balance sheet prevented the rest of us from fully understanding what they were doing. Just take a look at an RBS balance sheet - they’re openly available on the web - and try to work out whether or not it is solvent.

Most of the dodgy mortgage-backed bonds were bought by savers in Asian countries, who are now feeling extremely sore. Back home in Britain people stopped saving altogether as the suits found ever more ingenious ways of ensnaring them in debt - like credit cards, with 25% interest rates. Then there were student loans: an entire generation of graduates landed with £20,000 debts. Governments were persuaded to take out PFI schemes - which are a bit like endowment mortgages for public projects like hospitals and schools. Our children will be paying the cost of these and other financial innovations for decades.

As I say, the bankers knew perfectly well that a real estate asset bubble couldn’t last forever. But they believed that if they got big enough, fast enough, they would be too big to fail when the music stopped. This was why the former HBOS executive, Sir James Crosby, launched his dash for growth, which even the Financial Services Authority realised was reckless insanity. When Lloyds ‘rescued’ HBOS by taking it over last year, they too hoped that the resulting bank behemoth would be too big to fail - that the bigger the losses the more likely the government would always step in with public money.

This was why the Lloyds boss, Sir Eric Daniels, largely dispensed with due diligence before the HBOS take-over- he didn’t want to know how bad the HBOS books really were. And in a sense, he was right; they were all right. As we saw last week, the government has had no choice but to step in to save the bankers from the consequences of their own irresponsibility. After the privatisation of gains comes the socialisation of the losses. It’s been the crime of the century, perhaps of the millennium, and the colourless culprits are getting clean away.

Rector Reflections

The most difficult thing was explaining why I wanted to do it. As the 50th Rector of Edinburgh University, following my election last week by students and staff, I will now be chairing the University Court, the governing body of one of Scotland’s great cultural institutions. It’s clearly an immense honour and a privilege, and - I hope - a lot of fun since being Rector involves associating with some of the brightest and liveliest minds in the country and speaking on the great moral issues of the day.

But as I was trundling around lecture theatres and dinner halls canvassing support, I kept being assailed by the question why? Why did I want the hassle? It became increasingly difficult to give the same pat answer without sounding just a little false. The subtext of the question was clearly that there must be some kind of ulterior motive. People don’t just take on these roles for nothing these days - puh-leese - there must be something in it for me. The students didn’t want to condemn me for it; they just wanted to know what it was.

The more I answered the question the more I started questioning my own motives. I’m not a daytime TV celebrity or a full time politician, so there is no real PR benefit. The job involves no salary or comfy expense account and, so far as I know, there are no lobbying companies seeking rectors-for-hire. Apart from a lifetime membership of a unique club which includes Gladstone, Churchill, and Lloyd George, it’s not clear what the material rewards really are of being Rector of Edinburgh University. Perhaps I should have just said: ‘because it’s there’.

So, why did I stand. Well, the first reason of course, was that I was asked to - and sometimes that is incentive enough. Call it vanity, but it is very hard not to respond when you’re called out of the blue by a group of bright undergraduates from a wide range of political backgrounds, who seem to think that you stand for what they stand for. After thirty years in the tawdry trade of journalism, it’s nice to be told that you actually stand for anything at all- even if you’re not quite sure what it is. When you realise that the students are mainly interested in you because you are not one of the other candidates the ego boost diminishes just a little. But it was still immensely flattering to be told that I could take on, in electoral combat, someone like Lord George Foulkes, a former cabinet minister, one of the most experienced political operators around. Or that I could beat the Respect MP, George Galloway, one of the greatest parliamentary orators of his generation and the man who faced down the US Congress over those alleged oil dealings with Saddam.

But you rapidly discover that it’s not really about the candidate, but the effectiveness of the campaign - which in my case was led by the dynamic Edinburgh undergraduate Devin Dunseath, and devised by the President of the Edinburgh University Students Association, Adam Ramsay, whose sometimes shambolic appearance disguises one of the sharpest political brains I have come across. Certainly, my campaign worked and delivered one of the largest votes in the history of rectorial politics - something of which I am immensely proud. I haven’t stood in a competitive election since I left school, but political inexperience turned out to be an advantage. There is such a depth of cynicism about politics at all levels now, that just being a politician has become an electoral handicap - at least in an election like this.

Of course we had policies on student debt, the accommodation crisis, the quality of teaching and such like, as well as on broader issues like Gaza. But being independent of any party line was very important as was being remote from parliamentary sleaze. The Lords-for-hire scandal broke just as the campaign got underway, inflicting immense collateral damage on the unfortunate Lord Foulkes. While he'd broken no rules by peforming parliamentary services for the international law firm Eversheds, it was very hard for him not to suffer guilt by association. There was a whole range of issues which made Lord Foulkes’s campaign an uphill struggle - not least his record of support for university top up fees, the Iraq war and identity cards. He fought a very dignified and effective campaign for all that.

But the hyper-cynicism that has afflicted our political culture has left us in a very difficult situation. The way things are going, not being a politicians may be the best way of winning elections. Even my uncertain delivery in the hustings debates, where I was no match for my rivals’ oratorical skill, added in a curious way to my credibility. I was clearly not comfortable selling myself and I struggled with the stilted discourse of electoral politics, where what you don't say is as important as what you do.

So what now? Well, there will be little opportunity for motivational navel-gazing because Universities are heading for difficult times. Budgets are going to be under immense pressure. Graduates, burdened with £20,000 debts, are going to be dumped onto a jobs market that no longer wants them - at least not in the numbers of the last ten years. Universities are in the front line of the financial crisis, and it is going to require hard lobbying to remind governments that investment in higher education is even more important in an economic downturn. There’s a whole range of issues requiring attention. So, once I find out what I’m doing it for, I’ll let you know.

Monday, February 09, 2009

Hate speak - look who's talking.

Yesterday, I committed an act of hate speak. Upon reflection I have decided to apologise unreservedly for remarks I made about Gordon Brown in the Sunday Herald. In the heat of the moment I wrote that: “To describe Gordon as an unmade bed is an insult to teenage bedrooms”. This was derogatory and I offer my sincere apologies to the teenage community for suggesting that they are deficient in their domestic arrangements.

Further I would like to apologise to the bedroom community for any pain and distress caused by a comparison with the Prime Minister’s state of dress. Finally, may I apologise to Gordon Brown, who has himself the target of hate speak from the Gauleiter of the Top Gear Nazi Party, Herr Jeremy Clarkson, and who is in no way untidily dressed, exhausted, not looking 100% or any of the other things I may or may not have said. And while I’m at it, let me issue a prophylactic apology to Britain’s petrol heads for comparing the presenter of their favourite television programme to a member of the far right.

Sadly, I’m only half joking here. I’m really not sure what is acceptable to say any more, in public or private, after this astonishing week in which Orwellian thought crime became a potent reality in the British media. A kind of madness has infected the country - an incomprehensibe witch-hunt for petty offence. I’m no apologist for Jeremy Clarkson, but I don't believe Scots are racially offended by his description of the Prime Minister as a “one-eyed Scottish idiot”? I’m Scottish and I’m not offended, and I don’t need to be defended from people like Clarkson by self-appointed cultural guardians or rent-a-quote politicians. I’m frequently called an idiot myself and I refuse to take offence at the description.

If calling someone Scottish or English or an idiot or one-eyed is to be outlawed then a lot of books are going to have to be burnt and most Scottish comedians will be joining the dole queues. The Declaration of Arbroath will have to be banned as will the National Anthem with its talk of crushing rebellious Scots. Programmes like Mock the Week and Have I Got News For You are toast. I’m a republican, but I can see that jokes, such as the one on MTW about the Queen’s p***y being so old it is haunted, are offensive on so many grounds you hardly know where to begin. Little Britain made its name by being ageist, sexist and offensive to the disabled, rural gays and the people of Wales.

This is beyond a joke. There is a very real danger that satire, irony and other forms of comic abuse are now going to be driven from our screens because of the theoretical possibility that some minority group might be offended. Is the word “chav” offensive to single parents living on housing estates? I don’t like it myself, and don’t use it - but my children do, and so do travel companies who offer “chav-free holidays”. “Redneck” is a term of abuse used against truckers and poor rural whites in the southern states of America. Songs like “Short People” by Randy Newman can surely no longer be broadcast on the BBC; and terms like “one-armed bandit” must now be proscribed. Should Gullivers Travels be banned for its misrepresentation of smaller people?

Laughter is a serious business. The right to be offensive is an important part of our political culture, and was only won after a long struggle against laws on seditious libel. But can cartoonists like Steve Bell of the Guardian and Martin Rowson continue depicting politicians as rotting meat or gibbering morons? The former leader of the Liberal Democrats, Sir Menzies Campbell, was driven from office because cartoonists portrayed him as a corpse propped up by a zimmer frame. That’s surely ageist. It may not be possible to depict Barack Obama at all except as a secular saint because anything offensive might be interpreted as racist. Imagine if Steve Bell were to depict Obama as a chimpanzee in the way he has President George Bush? Or as a criminal, or a vampire or a lunatic, foaming at the mouth.

Freedom of speech is under enough threat in this country from official secrecy, defamation laws, anti-terrorist statutes without overlaying it with excessive sensitivity to minorities. And no, I’m not ranting about ‘political correctness gone mad’ - we are right to cleanse our language of racial abuse. But in our zeal to avoid hateful imagery we must not believe we can police other peoples’ thoughts. I’m sorry, but Carol Thatcher should never have been sacked for whatever she may or may not have said in a private conversation over a glass of wine in the BBC green room - and I speak as someone who has heard many profoundly offensive remarks being made on BBC premises. I am dismayed to see liberal commentators claiming it is acceptable for anyone, even Mrs Thatcher’s daughter, to lose their job because of a private conversation. I am as opposed to racial prejudice as anyone alive, and I might have taken issue with her had she compared a tennis player to a Gollywog in my presence. But I would never have gone telling tales. What were these people thinking of?

In every newsroom in the land there is an undercurrent of banter, much of it sexist, racist or sectarian. In BBC Scotland, whenever there was an old firm game on, the air would fill with jokey remarks about blue noses and papists. Are those who said these things now to be sacked? Should I be naming names? The late Kenny MacIntyre was one of the funniest and most humane journalists BBC Scotland ever produced. As was the butt of much of his humour, the late travel reporter and curry connoisseur Ali Abassi. They spent much of their time hurling hyperbolic abuse at each other much of which, out of context, could have been construed as racist or offensive to crofters and sheep. Yet in their relationship you saw the true image of racial tolerance in Scotland. What if someone reported them?

The surest way to drive a wedge between communities is to try to police what people think and what they say in private. That way lies only intolerance and hate. Now, have you heard the one about the Scotsman, the Irishman and the Englishman....

Monday, February 02, 2009

British jobs for British workers

You can tell a lot about a country by what bring its citizens out on the streets. In France, millions demonstrated last week against banking bailouts and public money being used to prop up a failed financial system built on greed. Here in Britain we go on strike against foreign workers.

I say ‘we’ when of course it is only a relatively small number of workers who have been involved in wildcat strike actions against the importation of Italian and Portuguese workers to the Lindsey oil refinery in North Lincolnshire. But they are mostly in key positions, in power stations and energy plants, and able to make a disproportionate impact on the economy. There are plans this week to shut down filling stations owned by Total, the French company which has imported the workers at Lindsey. Shades of the fuel protests in 2000 which a handful of hauliers and refinery staff brought the country to a standstill.

Workers in Longannet and Cockenzie power stations in Scotland have been active in the strike, though none of their jobs are remotely at risk from immigrants, and there are plans this week to organise an Edinburgh-to-London march against foreign workers. What a grim commentary on the state of industrial politics in modern Britain. In the 1930s, the Jarrow Crusade marched on London to demand work; now in 2009 they will be marching to demand that foreigners are sent home. The British National Party is finally in from the cold - inheritor of the great tradition of British industrial militancy.

It’s not that I don’t have a measure of sympathy with the strikers. It’s easy for politicians and middle class newspaper columnists to accuse workers of xenophobia (a polite word for ‘racism’) when they aren’t facing a similar threat to their jobs. If a barge loaded with Italian politicians were to tie up outside Westminster offering to do MPs’ jobs for less money I suspect we would discover overnight that this was an act of industrial warfare which threatened Britain’s economic livelihood, culture and way of life. MPs and Peers would be linking arms in New Palace Yard to prevent any of them entering the building. Though it’s unlikely there would be a wave of sympathy actions from other workers across the land.

But there are so many better reasons to take to the streets right now than over a handful of European workers in Grimsby who are here entirely legally. As countless billions of taxpayers’ money is handed to the private banks, why is no one demonstrating against socialism for the rich? Why are there no barricades in Downing Street to protest at the government’s monumental incompetence - a decade of policies which have run down manufacturing industry in order to turn Britain into a casino economy based on financial speculation? Why are people not marching down Threadneedle Street, demanding the head of the Governor of the Bank of England for doubling the national debt and printing money in order to bail out delinquent banks which can’t be trusted to manage an honest deposit account let alone the wealth of the nation?

Why not a demonstration against foreign tax havens, which are allowing British companies to evade a hundred billion in taxation? Why not demonstrate against the insurance companies whose dabbling in derivatives has helped destroy the pensions of the very same workers who are taking to the streets against immigrants? Why is it that, in Britain, it is foreigners who are the first to be prime target?

Gangs of foreign workers have been coming here ever since the Irish navigators were imported to dig the canals two hundred years. And immigration is a two way street: the long-running TV series “Aufwiedersehen Pet” was about British workers going to work in Germany on similar terms to the Italian workers in Lincolnshire. There is generally an element of social dumping when workers are shipped abroad - of firms undercutting local labour prices. But in Lindsey, the firm in charge, Total, insists there have been no local redundancies as a result of their sub-contractors, IREM bringing their own staff. Nor, they insist, are the Italian workers being paid less than the British ones - though no one has been able to verify this. No, there is something deeply troubling about the way this local dispute has grown into a rolling national strike of more privileged workers condemning all foreign workers.

There is a latent xenophobia in British society at all levels, but it requires political leadership to bring it out. And that is the most serious charge against Gordon Brown. He has made the British National Party respectable by borrowing its slogan of “a British job for every British worker” - and I don’t believe for a nano-second that a politician as seasoned and sophisticated as the PM didn’t realise the full significance of these words. Labour has been blowing the immigration dog whistle for the last two years, promising to give British families priority in housing, promising to withhold benefits from foreign workers, when most aren’t entitled to them in the first place. Labour has adopted largely the same immigration controls that the Tories advocated in 2005. By subtly appealing to economic nationalism in this way, the government has legitimised actions that set worker against worker. Now the entire strategy has blown up in his face.

Yes, I know that British workers are losing their jobs by the hundreds of thousands, and that unemployment is likely to reach 3.1 million later this year - almost exactly the same as the number of foreign-born workers. Gordon Brown has encouraged mass immigration, along with “flexible” labour policies, in order to drive down the wages and living standards of UK workers in the hope of attracting foreign investment. But that isn’t the fault of the employees who come here.

The British workers holding meetings today to plan the next stage of their campaign should pause and reflect. Do they really think it would be any better if immigrant workers were all sent home? Most public services would collapse. Those taking to the streets are relatively well paid and wouldn’t dream of working in a hospital for £14,000 a year. Perhaps the trades unionists among them should dig out their copies of that great socialist novel, “The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists” by Robert Tressell to see how hostility to foreign workers was exploited by employers a hundred years ago. Plus ca change....