Sunday, January 31, 2010

Blair's last stand

.No regrets. Tony Blair didn't actually quote Edith Piaf, but the former prime minister was resolute about the wisdom of his own judgement over the Iraq war. Nothing to apologise for. The evidence of WMD was “beyond doubt”. We had to go in and deal with Saddam or else we 'd all likely have been incinerated by terrorist nukes or chemical weapons. Maybe not in forty five minutes, but sometime. You may disagree, but heck – you weren't there making these life and death decisions. The second UN resolution was destroyed by the French and the Russians – enough said.
The only thing Tony Blair was prepared to apologise for was that Fern Brittan interview when he said that he would have wanted Saddam removed even if he hadn't had WMD. It was impressive, though. Tony Blair remains a master communicator, and we all miss him a little, really. He gave a virtuoso display of effortless plausibility to the Chilcot Inquiry - surely the last time we will see him in this role.  A little coy and hesitant at first, fumbling with his briefing notes, but once he got into his stride we were transported back to those Iraq debates in parliament in 2002. That old unquestioning self-belief sugared by a dash of self-deprecating charm and a bit of blokish informality. 
Tony Blair could make any argument sound plausible. Black may not on the face of it be the same as white. But, with respect, what you have to remember is that white can very easily become black, if the intention is there to turn out the lights. And, in all fairness, wesimply cannot take take the risk of ending up in a black on black situation. So, Saddam didn't actually HAVE WMD, but he certainly had the will to aquire it and the know-how.
It's only after Blair's left the scene that you begin to appreciate the full absurdity of what he has just said. He kept referring to 9/11 and how it had changed the “calculus of risk”. These people weren't like ordinary terrorists, like the IRA, he insisted. Al Qaeda were beyond reason and prepared to die to kill any number of innocent civilians. They had to be stopped. That's why we invaded a country, er, which had no connection at all with al Qaeda. 
Nevertheless we had to disarm Saddam Hussein of weapons of mass destruction which – okay - weren't technically there, but which COULD have been. You can't deny that. The intelligence was “patchy and sporadic” but it might have become less so.  Saddam might have allied with al Qaeda (who hated him) and he just might have decided to blow us all into the next world. He didn't actually have a beef with us, especially since we helped arm his regime in the 1980s for his war against Iran. But heck, he might have found some reason to attack us!   And for that reason we launched an illegal war, wrecking Iraq and killing around 100,000 people. Politicians normally say they don't do hypotheticals – but the Iraq war was based on a whole raft of assumptions about the future which were highly questionable. 
Blair also said that we “couldn't let America do this on its own” as if anything George W. Bush did was by definition the right thing to do. It doesn't get much madder than that. Even Idi Amin had a better grasp on geo-political reality. How did we all fall for it? How did the UK parliament vote for this war? Why did the cabinet acquiesce? They are the real culprits: if Gordon Brown and John Prescott – or even Robin Cook and Jack Straw - had got together and said: “Tony – enough”, the whole miserable business might never have happened.  Remember that Harold Wilson stood firm in 1967 and refused to join America in the Vietnam War.  This wasn't a left or right thing; a new and old Labour thing. It was a not-doing-something-crazy-thing. 
  It is a dismal reflection on the state of our democracy that no one had the will or the power to hold Tony Blair in check. To save him from himself.  Clearly Blair had got in deep with the Americans – deeper than was sensible. A bit like getting involved in the Corleone family, it had consequences – one of which being that you were expected to turn up for a fight. After 9/11 Blair said he would stand by America come what may. And unfortunately, they held him to his word. America was slightly deranged at that moment – for perfectly understandable reasons – and was not behaving rationally. Perhaps Blair thought he could get them to behave; that he could involve them in the United Nations process and prevent them doing something stupid. Unfortunately, they went ahead anyway. Push came to shove, and Blair couldn't detach himself. 
  He must realise this now - but there was no sign of remorce before Chilcot.  Tony Blair is doesn't do bluster and he doesn't do angstor self-doubt. The only time he appeared rattled on Friday was when he was closely examined by Sir Roderic Lyne about that remarkably convenient change of heart on the legality of the war by the Attorney General Lord Goldsmith on the very eve of the invasion in March 2003. A miraculous conversion if ever there was one.
As Lyne took Blair through the sequence of events, summarising the evidence of other witnesses the former PM looked worried.   Was it really justifiable to go to war on the basis of a judgement from the Attorney General which  said that, while there was a case for war, he wouldn't have liked to test it in court?  It was history speaking, and Blair had a vision of his future. For a moment I thought that the carapace of self-belief was about to crack.   But the moment passed, and Blair finished the day, as he had begun, in full command of his cool.  
  History has already made its judgement.  After this inquiry no one can surely believe that the Iraq war was justified.  It was a tragedy.  A stupid war led by stupid leaders drunk on their own rhetoric.  As someone who supported both the Kosovo conflict and the first Gulf War, this is a matter of some concern to me personally.   Military intervention is sometimes justified, if there is a pressing humanitarian crisis, like ethnic cleansing. But after Iraq, humanitarian intervention has become an oxymoron.   And dictators across the world are sleeping easier in their beds as a result. 

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Party's over for the public sector.

It's open season on 'pen-pushers'. The Chancellor, Alistair Darling, is now calling, not just for a freeze, but for actual reductions in bureaucrats' pay. The Scottish government has launched an assault on bonuses for highly-paid public quangocrats. The Tories want pay cuts across the board. Everyone says the end is nigh for public spending and that with a £200bn deficit, cuts are inevitable – though politicians can never quite get round to saying where.


It's so over for the public sector, it seems. But before we go on, a word of support of the much-maligned public sector worker. They aren't all time-serving pen pushers with shiny bottoms. The state employs some of the most valuable and productive workers in society - doctors, nurses, teachers, social workers, soldiers, judges, prison officers, scientists, researchers. Without them, Britain has no future – economically, educationally, socially. Moreover, had it not been for the public sector keeping the economy going, the economic recession might well have plunged into a depression. In Scotland, where 60% of GDP is generated by the public sector, there would have been economic chaos.


Ok - party political broadcast over, because from here on it gets nasty. I'm afraid I have to end the habit of a lifetime and agree with the Chancellor. Quite simply: it's all gone too far. It's not just all those hospital administrators on £200,000 a year, or the 20% bonuses being paid to quango bosses. Public sector workers as a class have privileges which are no longer justified or affordable. And I'm afraid very few of them realise it. Most public sector workers still live in a world where jobs are secure, salaries increase every year, the working week is getting shorter, early retirement is the norm and final salary pensions are guaranteed whatever the state of the economy. That world has gone.


And,yes, I know this sounds like the Daily Mail. I know lots of people in the public sector, mostly in education, politics, the civil service. I have great respect for many of them, but they just don't get it. They think everyone in the private sector is paid better than they are, which isn't true. Whisper it, but even many teachers and nurses are rather comfortably off now.


Take Pete Powerpoint, a bog standard college lecturer on £43,000. In his fifties, with house paid up, he's looking for early retirement. He thinks he deserves his index-linked pension after a lifetime of service. But the cost of providing it will be around £1.3 million – and it won't be paid by him it will be paid by the rest of us. The lifestyles, pensions and salaries of Britain's 6 million state workers are paid for out of the taxes paid by the other 15 milllion workers, and most of them are really struggling. .


The fundamental question is this: How can you ask one group of workers, whose pay is being slashed and either have no pension at all or have lost half of it in the stock market, to pay the salary increases and index linked pensions of another group of workers who just happen to work for the state? The unfunded burden of public sector pensions alone amounts to nearly a £1 trillion. These obligations are enshrined in law - so public services are going to be cut to shreds in order to keep paying the Pete Powerpoints. And taxes are going to have to go up. Already there are councils in Scotland where nearly all the council tax receipts go to pay the pensions of public sector workers.


Now, in the old days, the deal was that people in public service got job security and a small pension as a reward for poor pay – but those days are gone. Wages and salaries in the  public

sector are much higher than in the private sector, both in annual terms and hourly wages -  and that's not taking into account pension benefits, which are equivalent to 19% in additional salary for every public sector worker.  Defenders of public sector privilege argue that the pay differential is because many of the poorly-paid public sector jobs, like hospital cleaners, janitors etc.. have been outsourced to the private sector. But I'm afraid this only underlines the point I am trying to make: that it is increasingly impoverished workers in the private sector who are being asked to pay the exploding pensions and salaries of the public sector.


People also say that public service workers should get the rate for the job, if we want the best people. But that is a banker's argument, and it is as specious in council offices as it is in RBS. Our civil service has been infected by a bonus culture, borrowed from the City, which is creating ludicrous disparities between public employees and the ordinary people who pay their wages. And the bureaucracy is mind numbing.


Take the NHS, where the number of administrators has doubled since 1997. In that period, the number of beds has actually fallen, from 12 beds per manager to 5 beds. Since 1997 NHS chief executives have seen their average earnings increase by 98% compared to the 50% increase across the public sector as a whole.  No one is a greater defender of the NHS than I am – but this is simply insane. Senior health board executives all on six figure salaries plus bonus are a luxury we cannot afford.


Overall, public sector pay increased by 3.8% last year when private sector pay went down by 0.1%. That may not seem like much, but it is a relativity of epic significance. Private sector pay is going down faster than at any time since the 1950s as poorly unionised work-forces accept cuts to keep their jobs. 60% of employers say they are going to cut pay further this year. In free-for-all Britain, workplaces are governed by fear. These workers have no security and no future pensions to look forward to. Only one worker in five is saving enough for a proper pension.


But hang on, says Pete Powerpoint, why should the public sector have to share the misery? Depriving state employees of their security and pensions won't stop people being exploited? No, but the hard political reality is that the shrinking cohort of private sector tax payers are simply unable to pay the cost out of their diminishing salaries. The writing is on the wall. Get that early retirement deal quick Pete - while you still can. 

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Obama and the banks:oh yes he can.


     Yes he can!  Barack Obama has finally found his voice and has used the full authority of the US Presidency to make a profound moral intervention in the debate about the future of the world economy.  He has decided to take on Wall Street, the greatest concentration of financial power on the planet, in what promises to be an epic battle over who runs America.  Echoing Franklin D. Roosevelt, Obama has served notice on Wall Street that he intends to break up the behemoth banks and end their speculating with other peoples’ money. This could be a defining moment in economic history, and the howls of anguish have been heard across the world's financial centres.


  Last week, this column appealed to Gordon Brown to emulate Barack Obama and take on the banks on their own terms.  I make no apology for returning to the theme this week, following Alistair Darling’s refusal even to contemplate a levy on bank profits, similar to that proposed by Obama ten days ago.  This week, before he rejects out of hand Barack Obama’s latest bold attempt to cut the banks down to size, perhaps he should reflect on the editorial in Friday’s Daily Mail, the Prime Minister’s favourite tabloid, which celebrated the US President’s fighting talk. “At long last”, said the most consistently conservative paper in the UK, “the days of undeserved plenty for greedy bankers may be numbered”. 


    But not over here, unfortunately. Number Ten appears to be content to allow the culture of greed and irresponsibility to run unchecked in the City of London, even as the financiers asset strip British manufacturing.  Last week,  Royal Bank of Scotland - 84% state owned - helped finance the buy-out of one of Britain’s few remaining world class companies, Cadbury, by the US junk food manufacturers, Kraft.  So much for patriotism. So much for the government hopes of rebalancing the economy away from financial services.  The banking sector has become an economic version of nectrotizing fasciitis, a disease that eats the flesh off the very bones of UK PLC 


   Gordon Brown has assumed, mechanically, that challenging the financial kleptocracy will be regarded by voters as a lurch to the Left - a revival of old Labour.  The PM and his ministers are afraid of being accused of ‘socialism’ or Marxism. But they are living in the past.  What we have today,  following the banking bail out,  is actually much closer to state communism than any kind of functioning market economy. Our economy is dominated by half a dozen state-supported financial conglomerates, too big to fail, making speculative trades secure in the knowledge that the tax payer will step in again and bail them out. Whatever it is, this is not capitalism.  And the voters are sensible enough to understand this, even if Gordon Brown isn’t. 


   The bankers’ pigheaded refusal to recognise their debt to society places them in a worse moral position than the most cloth-headed trade union dinosaur of the 1970s.  At least the old union barons were fighting on behalf of their membership - around 12 million workers at the height of union influence in 1977.  The bankers are only in it for themselves, and have an insensitivity to public sentiment that makes Arthur Scargill look like the Archbishop of Canterbury.   If George Osborne, the Tory shadow chancellor, can support the Obama scheme, so can Gordon Brown.  Obama needs all the support he can get, and the vociferous backing of the UK Prime Minister - who is still a force in the G20 salons of developed nations - could be crucial in the drive to curb big finance.  For it will not be easy. 


     “If these folks want a fight, I’m ready to fight”, said Barack Obama last week, and he’d better believe it. Since he made his announcement on Thursday, legions of bank lobbyists have been Blackberrying the length of Washington and London, calling in favours, making threats, pushing the line that undermining the banking sector will undermine America.   10% of American GDP comes from the financial sector, and Wall Street banks operate across the world.  Obama’s announcement led to dramatic falls on all the world’s stock markets, indicating the extent to which they have been pumped up by bank rescues. 


     For a decade and a half, the banks have been  quietly colonising the upper reaches of British politics and administration.  There is a revolving door between the UK government and the financial sector through which a whole raft of cabinet ministers and senior civil servants have followed the money.  In America, the overlap is even more conspicuous because of party donations.  Barack Obama’s biggest campaign donation came from Goldman Sachs - aka "Golden Sacks" - the biggest investment beast on Wall St..   Yet was Goldmans that prompted Obama to act last week after it  announced profits of $45bn for 2009 - the very year it was saved by the taxpayers -  and said that it was handing out $16bn to Goldman employees in salaries and bonuses. The US President could simply could not let this continue. 


    What he intends is a fundamental and irreversible shift in the balance of power from Wall St back to Main St..  He plans to stop banks from playing the markets with depositor’s funds, bar them from speculative activity like hedge funds and private equity, and to concentrate on old fashioned banking: mortgages and business loans.  If Obama fails, the consequence will be dire.  The banking kleptocracy, which has managed to plunder taxpayers’ money on an epic scale on both sides of the Atlantic, will become even more entrenched, even more powerful.   If Obama fails, the ground will have been laid for the next great financial crash, of even greater dimensions than the crash of 2008. Already, the banks, gorged on public money, have been quietly reflating the bubble economy.  Speculative cash is pouring back into property, shares and commodities.


     The infamous “carry trade” is back, where banks borrow money at near zero rates in countries like Japan and America and then lend it in higher interest rate countries like Australia. The mountain of unstable private debt that underlay the 2008 crisis has been transferred to the public sector - with no clear idea of how it is going to be repaid. The future economic and political stability of the world is at stake.  If Obama fails, we could all find ourselves living like Haiti. It's as serious as that. 

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Fred the Shred is back!

Well, at least we now know why the Scottish parliament building project was such a disaster. The Edinburgh architects, RMJM or “Rumjum” as they're usually called, are clearly a few bricks short of a full hod. How else can you explain their astonishing decision to hire the world's worst banker, “Sir” Fred Goodwin of RBS fame, as an international adviser. It's like saying your ambition is to be regarded as the world's worst architects. Small wonder that the Holyrood project ended up ten times over budget three years late if this is the kind of person RMJM hires. 


Imagine the job interview: “Well Sir Shred, what skills do you think you can offer RMJM in this important post?”

Shred: “Well, I'm an expert at building complex structures on shifting sands without any proper foundations. I'm fully versed in fantasy finance and making huge sums of money disappear. But my real strength is that I'm a people person who inspires loyalty.  My public image is one that will surely enhance RMJM in the international arena. When your clients deal with me they'll know that they're in safe hands.”


And what a CV. This is the businessman who delivered the largest loss - £28bn – in corporate history, while paying himself £4.2 million a year in salary. Who bulldozed the $50bn merger with ABN AMRO bank in 2007, widely regarded as the most ill-advised single business deal in banking history. Under “Sir” Fred Goodwin's command, the Royal Bank of Scotland came within forty eight hours of shutting its ATM machines in October 2008 and had to be rescued by the injection of tens of billions of public funds, after which it was effectively nationalised. Take that to the local jobcentre and see what they come up with. RMJM employees, who recently accepted a 10% pay cut and hundreds of job losses, must be over the moon that their sacrifice has been in such a good cause. 


After being prised from his post, Goodwin was so unconcerned about his personal reputation that he prefered to become a national pariah rather than give up a penny of his £16m pension pot even as thousands were losing their jobs. He was eventually forced to hand back half of it.  Any sensible figure in public life would have pre-empted the row by giving half the money to charity after making a public apology to those whose livelihoods were destroyed. It's not as if he needed the cash since Goodwin's personal worth is thought to be well over £20m. But instead, Fred bolted to France after angry citizens located his £3m Edinburgh home and started hurling rocks at it. RMJM better have thick skins because they may find themselves similar targets of public discontent. 


RMJM does a lot of its work with the public sector, where attitudes are rather less tolerant toward amoral, grasping incompetents. Labour and SNP politicians have united in urging public sector bodies to stop awarding contracts to RMJM. Better postpone the Commonwealth Games for a start. The athlete's village is being build by RMJM. With Fred Goodwin on board, they'll probably out-source the work to the Cayman Islands, invest in collateralised debt obligations, and then go into public ownership owing vast sums of money after buying Nakheel Property Developments of Dubai. 


So what on earth possessed RMJM to hire the world's worst banker? Well, as so often in Scottish business, cronyism seems to have played a large part. RMJM's chief executive of North American operations is Sir Fraser Morrison, an old chum of Goodwin's from the days of the Clydesdale Ban. Morrison's son, Peter, is overall chief executive of RMJM. 


The deal will no doubt have been struck at the 19th hole of one of Edinburgh's many exclusive golf courses – the natural habitat of the Edinburgh financial elite. They look to their own, these people. Impervious to public criticism, they sweep in their limousines between George Street and their multi-million pound houses in the Grange. If anyone criticises them they are accused of perpetrating the politics of envy and undermining Scotland's “dynamic” financial services sector.


Yet, we should remember that it was precisely this coalition of building and banking that delivered the worst financial crisis in eighty years. Together, they fuelled an unsustainable construction boom, based on irresponsible lending, dubious valuations and often poorly-designed buildings, that finally collapsed in 2008. The credit bubble was partly a product of poor financial regulation and low interest rates, but it was principally the result of ruinous financial lending by institutions like Royal Bank of Scotland. Under the guidance of Fred Goodwin, RBS became one of the biggest financial toxic wasted dumps in the world.  The people responsible didn't pay the price – we did, the taxpayers, who picked up the pieces and refinanced the banks while shouldering the burden of the banks' bad debts. 


Now it might surprise you to learn that this is not how it is seen in the financial world itself. The bankers have largely excused themselves from complicity in the biggest financial disaster in eighty years. Indeed, many of them are saying that the whole thing was exaggerated and that there wasn't really a crisis at all – just a momentary panic caused by the collapse of the US investment bank Lehman Brothers in September 2008. If the US government hadn't allowed Lehmans to go under, many say,then things would have sorted themselves out and everything would have been hunky dory again within six months. 

   The Fred Goodwins remain unrepentant and unpunished.  His rehabilitation is not only an unflattering insight into the corporate culture of Scotland's largest architects, but also of the international business community as a whole.  RMJM presumably thinks that putting Sir Fred on their letter-headings will give them a tough, streetwise image. That the banksters of the world will recognise Goodwin as one of their own – a fellow rogue they can do business with. But if that's really the thinking behind their business plan, it's time they changed their name to Rumdumb. 

Campbell's Last Stand.


Alistair Campbell.  What can you say?  He’s beyond hatred, beyond contempt, beyond belief.  He’ll never change and he’ll never get it.  The Chilcot Inquiry got nowhere with him. Did anyone seriously expect that it would?

   However, the good news is that Tony Blair’s erstwhile Rottweiler is condemned to live a kind of inquisitorial Groundhog Day - eternally going before committees to defend “every single word” of his dodgy dossiers. Defiantly “proud” of the “small part he played” in removing Saddam Hussein. Thumbing his nose at the press. Quoting Psalms. You almost admire him for it.   

    You can imagine Campbell in his dotage, being hauled before the International Criminal Court when Tony Blair is eventually arraigned for war crimes.  Bent and white, like an ageing former Nazi, muttering oaths and repeating the old lies: intelligence reports were clear...never sexed anything up..just did my job. It was the BBC’s fault, really.  You can all think what you like.  Not listening.  Look at my face: bothered?  

       Does it matter any more?  We’ve gone over this ground so many times: the weapons of mass destruction that were a figment of the Pentagon's imagination.  BBC TV’s “Spooks” would never have fallen for it.  Of course the intelligence was “sexed up” for public consumption, just as Andrew Gilligan said it had been.  Why deny it?  The world has made up its mind  long since. The more Campbell avoids the truth,  the more he identifies his own personality with Britain’s worst foreign policy disaster of modern times. 

   The Sultan of spin hasn’t entirely lost his touch.  Last, week he astutely foregrounded Tony Blair’s pre-emption of  cabinet government by revealing how the PM had written to President Bush privately promising to back him in any invasion long before parliament knew.  Then he dumped Gordon Brown right in the middle of the Iraq scandal by insisting that the then chancellor was fully involved in all the critical decisions.  We were all fooled into thinking that Brown’s lack of public endorsement of the Iraq war indicated reluctance. Not a bit of it.
 
  But again, what’s the point?  Why rake over the coals again?  Well, for the oldest reason in the book:  lest we forget.   Campbell’s blokish obfuscations and word games led to the deaths of a couple of hundred British soldiers, tens or even hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, and of course of David Kelly, the weapons inspector who committed suicide because he couldn’t reconcile his conscience with the spin machine  

    Campbell is undoubtedly a piece of work.   In The Thick Of It doesn’t nearly do him justice. He has become a modern personification of evil, a downmarket Machiavelli, a by-word for political cynicism and deviousness.  That’s his reward. And you have to say: he’s worth it. 

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Darling rules out bank levy. Doh.

Brown to clobber the banks”. “PM takes on City of London”. “Brown levy on bankers causes fury”.  No, you can’t see it, can you.  Barack Obama may appreciate the political opportunity presented by headlines like that, but for some reason the leadership of the British Labour Party cannot. Alistair Darling has ruled out applying a levy to bank profits in Britain because "the circumstances are different".

   The real reason is that Labour is afraid of  being accused of class war, of fighting an election on ‘core values’, of bashing bankers.  But what’s wrong with core values when it comes to taking a moral stand against excessive reward and irresponsible greed?  Surely it is the historic mission of the British Labour Party to express the outrage of the many when they are taken to the cleaners by the few?

    And what’s wrong with bashing a few bankers?  If team Obama realise that tapping the public’s justifiable anger at  the bonus culture is an election winner, why can’t team Brown? The irony is that a number of British banks could actually find themselves paying Obama’s levy through their US operations.  It makes a nonsense of the claim that taxing British bankers will make them depart for Wall Street. 

  The Street’s outrage at the Obama levy is actually pretty ritualistic, if not synthetic.  These guys aren’t stupid.    Paying back around $120 bn over ten years isn’t going to break any banks - certainly not the ones who’ll be charged, since they are the $50bn behemoths left standing after the credit crash. The bankers realise that they screwed up, awesomely, and that some kind of atonement is in their best long term interests.

    Moreover, they know they’ve been handed the keys to the kingdom and will be able to make even greater profits and greater bonuses in future because there is less competition. JP Morgan, the bank that hired Tony Blair, is handing out a staggering $6 billion in bonuses on $12bn profits this year.  Wall Street as a whole will be paying out around $100,bn in bonuses for the very year they were bailed out by the taxpayer. This profiteering will continue without restraint - until the next crash when they come calling to the taxpayer for another bail out. 

  So, the levy is the least Wall Street could expect. A small price to pay, even though they will squeal ‘socialism’.  They know that Obama has his own constituency to think of - the main street dudes who have lost their jobs, their small businesses, their homes thanks to the crash. They know that the President has mid term elections to think about and that a lot of his support is deeply troubled at the way this great people’s leader has come to an early accommodation with mammon. Obama has to beat the banks. 

  So why the hell can’t Labour do the same? What is it about Gordon Brown that he would rather lose a general election than upset the City of London?  Roosevelt famously said, of the plutocrats, “I welcome their hatred”.   If I were in charge of Labour’s election strategy I would be doing hatred in spades.  What about some righteous anger at the return of ‘Sir” Fred Goodwin, unchastened and unrepentend, as an adviser to the architects RMJM.    In fact there were actually around 20 executives in Royal Bank of Scotland who were paid substantially more than he did.  What about some righteous anger about them?     Stephen Hester, the new RBS boss, has admitted that his own mother thinks he’s overpaid - but that hasn’t stopped him making the ludicrous assertion that public money will be wasted if RBS employees are denied their million pound bonuses.


Labour should ask what planet are these people living on.  Do they not realise that the median wage in this country is little more than £26,000 a year? The ordinary working families of Britain have every right to expect that their interests are protected and that the greed of the bankers is challenged by the people’s party - the Labour Party.  These are the people who have, through their taxes, paid the cost of the biggest banking bail out in history - a total of £1.2 trillion of public money.

   The latest plutocratic obfuscation to argue that the public money is all going to be paid back.  Indeed, that the shares bought by the government in banks like RBS will end up yielding a profit when they are finally sold.   But this ignores the central fact about the banking bail out.  RBS is only in existence because the state took on the risk of its £2 trillion loan book at a time when many of its loans were effectively worthless. It was the preparedness of the taxpayer to stand behind he banks that saved them.  Had the banks been left to the vagaries of the free market - for which bankers are generally evangelists - they would have ceased to exist. 

     Yes, had banks like RBS been allowed to collapsed their would have been economic chaos.  Almost certainly another Great Depression.  Millions of businesses would have gone bust because they couldn’t get finance. The stock market would have collapsed and house prices would have plummeted.  Rapid intervention to ensure the preservation of the financial system was the first obligation of government.  But this does not mean the system has been vindicated because that intervention succeeded.   It does not alter the fact that the banks had behaved with ruinous irresponsibility in the run up to the crash.  Indeed, we now run the even greater risk of another boom and bust as state-backed banks that are “too big to fail” return to their old practices secure in the knowledge that they can raid the treasury again if things go pear shaped. 

   History is already being rewritten. Commentators like Anatole Kaletsky in the Times are now saying that the whole financial crisis was overplayed and that it was just a normal ‘correction’that got out of hand.  It was not: the banking crisis was a systemic crisis of epic proportions which brought the world to be brink of ruin and required unprecedented amounts of public money to forestall economic collapse.  Our children will be paying for this for decades. 

  Never again.  The banks should, of course, have been nationalised - they are now effectively state-guaranteed agencies. There is no market discipline in finance, just a usurer’s cartel.  The same people are paying themselves the same bonuses and looking forward to business as usual.  The people of Britain have the right to be protected against this financial kleptocracy. And Labour should wake up if it wants to survive:  bashing bankers is not only morally justified, it is good politics. 

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Do the Blairites want Labour to lose?


 “Out of the night that covers me; Black as the Pit from pole to pole; I thank whatever gods may be; For my unconquereble soul”.  Those who’ve been speculating about the Prime Minister’s state of mind had further material yesterday in those lines from “Invictus” by the High Victorian poet William E Henley, which Gordon Brown says consoled him during his recent trials.  The poem also gave moral sustainance to Nelson Mandela when he was incarcertated in Robben Island. 


  Make of that what you will.  Certainly, there is a darkness surrounding Gordon Brown’s personality.  But there is also defiance, dogged determination.  He is, in lines from the same poem, “bloody, but unbowed”,  a fighter not a quitter. Which makes it all the more bizarre that the leaders of the Midwinter Mutiny last week bothered with their comic-opera coup.   Over the past week, commentators struggled to explain why two senior Labour politicians, Geof Hoon and Patricia Hewitt - not noted for their rebelliousness in the past -  should  have launched their  revolt when they hadn’t even secured the backing of any cabinet ministers, let alone significant back bench support.  Surely they realised that this prime minister would need a whole army of grey suits to prise his bitten finger nails from the door of Number Ten. 


   It didn’t make sense, and it still doesn’t.  Why did Hoowitt choose to strike in the very week when Labour appeared to be recovering in the opinion polls and Gordon Brown had his best outing at Prime Minister’s Question Time in months?  Why, indeed, launch an attack on the Labour leadership at the very moment when the Tory leader, David Cameron, had stumbled into his worst policy error since he became leader over tax reliefs for married couples? Do they want Labour to lose the election?  A BBC/Daily Politics poll on Thursday showed that 60% now believe Labour is the most divided party -  and as we know a house divided is a house defeated. 


   Well maybe they do want Labour to lose.  It may seem unbelievable that Labour politicians who have devoted their lives to the Labour Party would actually want  to lose the general election.  We haven’t had that kind of active disloyalty since the days of the far Left Militant Tendency that tried to wreck the Labour government of  Jim Callaghan in the 1970s.  But I’m having great difficulty coming up with any other explanation.  It’s not the first time either.  Think back to the ‘Night of the Stilletos’ in June when three women cabinet ministers resigned along with the work and pensions secretary, James Purnell. That was on the eve of the European elections, which Labour went on to lose so badly that it came third behind UKIP.   Even then Brown stayed put.


  Could it be that Blairite diehards are now afraid Brown might remain in charge even after a general election defeat?  Are they now trying to ensure that Labour goes down so badly that there is no question of Brown remaining as leader?  I’m beginning to think that this is the only plausible explanation.  Certainly, the destabilisation campaign is continuing.  Yesterday, Geof Hoon released highly damaging correspondence to the Sunday Times suggesting that the Prime Minister vetoed the purchase of vital military helicopters for British troops fighting in Afghanistan. This is tantamount to saying that Gordon Brown endangered the lives of British soldiers.  Serious stuff - especially since Hoon, the former defence secreatary, is due to appear before the Chilcott Inquiry into the Iraq War.  Moreover, the current defence secretary, Bob Ainsworth a close friend of Hoon, is thought to be on the point of resignation over the situation in Afghanistan. 


  In another move clearly designed to destabilise the Prime Minister, the former general secretary of the Labour Party, Peter Watt, has said that Gordon Brown is not fit to be in Number Ten.   In a book serialised in the Mail on Sunday he gives further evidence of the PM’s unpopularity in his own government. He quotes one of Brown’s longest and closest political allies, the development secretary, Douglas Alexander, as saying:  “We’ve spent 10 years working with Gordon and we don;t like him.  The more the public get to know him he less they will like him too.” Watt also reveals bungling and treachery over the abortive 2007 election-that-never-was and over the “donorgate” affair when businessman David Abrahams was allowed to disguise his cash payments to Labour by registering them under false names. The former general secretary claims he was lied to and set up by Brown. 


   The Watt revelations are clearly motivated by personal grievance , and some of the charges - such as that Gordon Brown sulked at a dinner party with US politicians - are faintly ridiculous.  Nevertheless, scheduling this embarrassing account of domestic life in the Brown cabinet on the eve of a crucial general election campaign remains highly damaging, and calculating.  Watt’s actions should surely be condemned by every member of the Labour Party.  Indeed, you wonder how the party can expect its footsoldiers to start canvassing the icy doorsteps this winter when the leadership seems to have acquired a death wish. But once again, this could be exactly what the Blairites want:  to so weaken Labour morale as to guarantee a Tory landslide.   


    If this is indeed all part of a ‘scorched earth’ campaign by the New Labour old guard - and I’m not the only person who’s thinking this - then the sections of the party that are not determined to lose the election need to consider how they respond. It’s one thing to believe privately that Brown isn’t up to it; quite another to side with the Tories.  Retaliation is necessary,  but it is hard to fight back without making he party look even more divided.   


    Brown’s last line of defence is the Scottish MPs who have in the past acted as defenders of Labour’s core values and as his Praetorian Guard.   Perhaps they need to make a move now to isolate the Right and ensure that Labour, under Brown, fights a principled campaign based on social democratic policies.  Following the financial crisis, and given the behaviour of the banks, this should be Labour’s moment.  The public are waiting for a lead against the plutocrats and banksters. It isn’t too late. Time for all good men, and women, to come to the aid of the party.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Are the Blairites trying to lose?

  “Out of the night that covers me; Black as the Pit from pole to pole; I thank whatever gods may be; For my unconquereble soul”.  Those who’ve been speculating about the Prime Minister’s state of mind had further material yesterday in those lines from “Invictus” by the High Victorian poet William E Henley, which Gordon Brown says consoled him during his recent trials.  The poem also gave moral sustainance to Nelson Mandela when he was incarcertated in Robben Island. 

  Make of that what you will.  Certainly, there is a darkness surrounding Gordon Brown’s personality.  But there is also defiance, dogged determination.  He is, in lines from the same poem, “bloody, but unbowed”,  a fighter not a quitter. Which makes it all the more bizarre that the leaders of the Midwinter Mutiny last week bothered with their comic-opera coup.   Over the weekend, commentators struggled to explain why two senior Labour politicians, Geof Hoon and Patricia Hewitt - not noted for their rebelliousness in the past -  should  have launched their  revolt when they hadn’t even secured the backing of any cabinet ministers, let alone significant back bench support.  Surely they realised that this prime minister would need a whole army of grey suits to prise his bitten finger nails from the door of Number Ten. 

   It didn’t make sense, and it still doesn’t.  Why did Hoowitt choose to strike in the very week when Labour appeared to be recovering in the opinion polls and Gordon Brown had his best outing at Prime Minister’s Question Time in months?  Why, indeed, launch an attack on the Labour leadership at the very moment when the Tory leader, David Cameron, had stumbled into his worst policy error since he became leader over tax reliefs for married couples? Do they want Labour to lose the election?  A BBC/Daily Politics poll on Thursday showed that 60% now believe Labour is the most divided party -  and as we know a house divided is a house defeated. 

   Well maybe they do want Labour to lose.  It may seem unbelievable that Labour politicians who have devoted their lives to the Labour Party would actually want  to lose the general election.  We haven’t had that kind of active disloyalty since the days of the far Left Militant Tendency that tried to wreck the Labour government of  Jim Callaghan in the 1970s.  But I’m having great difficulty coming up with any other explanation.  It’s not the first time either.  Think back to the ‘Night of the Stilletos’ in June when three women cabinet ministers resigned along with the work and pensions secretary, James Purnell. That was on the eve of the European elections, which Labour went on to lose so badly that it came third behind UKIP.   Even then Brown stayed put.

  Could it be that Blairite diehards are now afraid Brown might remain in charge even after a general election defeat?  Are they now trying to ensure that Labour goes down so badly that there is no question of Brown remaining as leader?  I’m beginning to think that this is the only plausible explanation.  Certainly, the destabilisation campaign is continuing.  Yesterday, Geof Hoon released highly damaging correspondence to the Sunday Times suggesting that the Prime Minister vetoed the purchase of vital military helicopters for British troops fighting in Afghanistan. This is tantamount to saying that Gordon Brown endangered the lives of British soldiers.  Serious stuff - especially since Hoon, the former defence secreatary, is due to appear before the Chilcott Inquiry into the Iraq War.  Moreover, the current defence secretary, Bob Ainsworth a close friend of Hoon, is thought to be on the point of resignation over the situation in Afghanistan. 

  In another move clearly designed to destabilise the Prime Minister, the former general secretary of the Labour Party, Peter Watt, has said that Gordon Brown is not fit to be in Number Ten.   In a book serialised in the Mail on Sunday he gives further evidence of the PM’s unpopularity in his own government. He quotes one of Brown’s longest and closest political allies, the development secretary, Douglas Alexander, as saying:  “We’ve spent 10 years working with Gordon and we don;t like him.  The more the public get to know him he less they will like him too.” Watt also reveals bungling and treachery over the abortive 2007 election-that-never-was and over the “donorgate” affair when businessman David Abrahams was allowed to disguise his cash payments to Labour by registering them under false names. The former general secretary claims he was lied to and set up by Brown. 

   The Watt revelations are clearly motivated by personal grievance , and some of the charges - such as that Gordon Brown sulked at a dinner party with US politicians - are faintly ridiculous.  Nevertheless, scheduling this embarrassing account of domestic life in the Brown cabinet on the eve of a crucial general election campaign remains highly damaging, and calculating.  Watt’s actions should surely be condemned by every member of the Labour Party.  Indeed, you wonder how the party can expect its footsoldiers to start canvassing the icy doorsteps this winter when the leadership seems to have acquired a death wish. But once again, this could be exactly what the Blairites want:  to so weaken Labour morale as to guarantee a Tory landslide.   

    If this is indeed all part of a ‘scorched earth’ campaign by the New Labour old guard - and I’m not the only person who’s thinking this - then the sections of the party that are not determined to lose the election need to consider how they respond. It’s one thing to believe privately that Brown isn’t up to it; quite another to side with the Tories.  Retaliation is necessary,  but it is hard to fight back without making he party look even more divided.   

    Brown’s last line of defence is the Scottish MPs who have in the past acted as defenders of Labour’s core values and as his Praetorian Guard.   Perhaps they need to make a move now to isolate the Right and ensure that Labour, under Brown, fights a principled campaign based on social democratic policies.  Following the financial crisis, and given the behaviour of the banks, this should be Labour’s moment.  The public are waiting for a lead against the plutocrats and banksters. It isn’t too late. Time for all good men, and women, to come to the aid of the Labour Party.

Iceland freezes Kuwait burns

    Last week, Iceland said no. The country's president, ├ôlafur Ragnar Grimsson , refused to ratify a bill to pay Britain and Holland the £3.6 bn cost of guaranteeing Icesave accounts after Landisbanki uk went bust in 2008. Faced with paying around £12,000 per head - about £40,000 per family - the Icelanders have decided that, on balance, they'd rather not. At least not now. 


Shock horror – send a gunboat. But the Icelanders have a point. Icesave, was the UK subsidiary of a private bank that went bust. Very few Icelanders had any knowledge of what was going on and even fewer benefited financially, so why should they be liable now? The interest on the debt alone is equal to the cost of Iceland's health care system. It was the British government's decision to bail out Icesave along with the other insolvent banks. If banks don't have to pay their debts why should Iceland? 


Perhaps the Nordic state should ask to become part of the government's asset protection scheme, like RBS. Alternatively, the Treasury could pay a call to the former owners of Landisbanki many of whom live in London enjoying tax-free non-dom status. Landisbanki had assets of well over £3 billion. As usual, the profits have been privatised but the losses are socialised. Perhaps we should all set ourselves up as banks and get our debts paid. This isn't quite as daft as it sounds.


Over in Kuwait, the National Assembly has passed a bill for the government to take all the debts run up by its citizens during the boom years – around $24bn. Under the scheme, the Kuwait government would buy the loans from its three million citizens, wipe out interest payments and pay capital back gradually over ten years. It's the ultimate get-out-of-jail-free-card for a country used to living the high life without actually having to pay for it. Just, er, like Britain


British citizens have debts of £1.5 trillion. Perhaps the government should just add this to the trillion of liabilities of the British banks. Well, in for a penny in for a pound. If the City of London's debts can be put in cold storage, why not ours? Then everyone could just go out and spend again like it was 2007. Actually, we're already doing that. The high street stores have been astonished by the continued spending power of the British consumer, who is, by any reasonable standards, are drowning in debt. 


And of course we can pay for it all just by printing more money. In fact, why not give British consumers a bonus for handling their finances so irresponsibly, just like the banks? Then there'd be even more funny money to spend on cheap tat. Really, Gordon is slipping up here. This could be an election winner.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Midwinter mutiny leaves Brown dead in water, Miliband overboard.


  The best thing to be said about the latest tragicomic episode in the decline and fall of New Labour, was that the latest coup attempt was at least quickly over.  In fact, it was over almost before it began,  on Wednesday lunchtime when the Labour former cabinet ministers, Patricia Hewitt and Geof Hoon launched their kamikaze raid on the Prime Minister’s bunker.  The move was so preposterously mistimed - in the middle of the deepest freeze in thirty years and with an election campaign only weeks away - that no one in their right minds could take it seriously.  Eighteen months ago, perhaps.  Last summer, maybe.  But on the eve of an election?  Barking. Not so much the men in grey suits as the men in white coats. 


 The PM is someimrd compared with Joseph Stalin in his rigid approach to party loyalty, but Stalin never had to face anything so inept.  It’s as if the plotters had all liquidated themselves instead of targeting their leader.  No need for show trials with enemies like these.  One MP said that Charles Clarke, the arch Blairite former health secretary who has was one of the ringleaders, was like “a suicide bomber who only kills his own friends and family”. 
  
  The midwinter mutineers had clearly hoped finally to winkle out Gordon Brown’s cabinet critics, bouncing them into the open, but even this was botched. They briefed journalists to the effect that the Scottish Secretary, Jim Murphy, was one of those willing to wield the knife. Anyone who knows the ultra-loyalist Murphy would realise that this was ridiculous, as Murphy made clear on his own website.  New media is adding an interesting new dimension to political coverage.  Unattributable briefings can be almost instantly denied now by politicians writing in their own blogs, making it much more difficult for malicious rumours to spread,


  Indeed, you might call this an analogue coup in a digital age.  Things move too fast now, with twenty four hour news and the internet, for backstage plots to work.  The cabinet ‘rebels’ couldn't afford to wait around to see if there was much support for the plot on the backbenches  before deciding which way to jump.  It was back Brown or sack him within hours -  delaying for six hours made David Miliband look like a dangerous rebel.  


   The prime minister is damaged, of course, by this latest challenge to his leadership, however farcical.  It confirms the continuing dissent in the party and the government over his leadership, while also making the Labour party look a laughing stock.  Piss ups and breweries come inevitably to mind.  If they can’t organise a coup properly, how can they be expected to run the country?  If David Miliband is the best they have got, then God help all of us if he ever becomes prime minister. 


   The boy wonder may charm women of a certain age, like Hillary Clinton, but he is manifestly unsuited to the role of leadership. Three abortive coups have been mounted in his interest, leaving a trail of ministerial casualties in their wake.  The first was sparked by Miliband himself when he set out his stall in a Guardian article before the 2008 Labour conference, announcing that the party needed a new direction.  That ended famously with Miliband wagging a banana disconsolately at the cameras after he disowned the rebellion he had inspired.  But among those who lost their careers as a result was junior minister, Siobhan McDonagh and the former Scottish secretary, David Cairns.  Then in June 2009, the high-flighing cabinet minister, James Purnell, committed political suicide by leading a ministerial walkout following Labour’s disastrous showing in the European elections, when they came third after UKIP.  Miliband sat on his hands and then backed Brown - just as he did this week.  His belated endorsement on Wednesday sounding about as enthusiastic as a sun cream salesman in mid winter.  Hewitt, Hoon and Clarke now have to answer to their constituency associations for their incomprehensible act of pre-election treachery and will justifiably find their true place in the rogues gallery of Labour hate figures.


   But there was more.  The cabinet ministers who denied joining the plot then briefed journalists to the effect that they had all wrung concessions from Gordon Brown on the back of it. Alistair Darling got assurances on the government being more honest about spending cuts, Harriet Harman on being less nasty and blokeish, and Jack Straw, that Brown would abandon the class war against Tory toffs.  This made matters even worse, confirming the depths of cabinet discontent with Brown and making it look as if the PM was being held hostage by his own cabinet. 


   Needless to say, the Tories are laughing like a drain. After all, it was the week when David Cameron admitted he had “messed up” his own manifesto pledge on tax relief to married couples.  It doesn’t get much worse than that, and yet it was Labour that crashed and burned.   This inept and divided government will surely now drift aimlessly to defeat in May when Gordon Brown finally meets his date with the voters.  Though no doubt he will be looking for any pretext for delay, arguing that the risk of an asteroid hitting the earth means an election would not be in the national interest.


   For what it’s worth, Alan Johnson, the affable home secretary is the probably winner in the leadership stakes.  His humility and loyalty will have elevated him in the eyes of the party, since he was the only member of the cabinet who wasn’t looking out for number one last week.   A shoo-in when Brown goes.   Lord Mandelson of Foy consolidates his place as Her Majesty’s Fixer-in-Waiting. Mandy was once again the centre of attention as he offered just enough support to Brown to make it look as if he were indispensable to the government while carefully distancing himself from his boss. 


   And for Labour? Well, the immediate future looks bleak. The party will be racked with recrimination and remorse after defeat at the election.  Brown is hoping to do a deal with the Liberal Democrats, but Nick Clegg is making clear they don’t want a deal with him. This Labour government, and Brown personally, will be in the dock of history for the most irresponsible credit boom since the South Sea Bubble.  But at least in opposition Labour will be able to rediscover its soul.  That’s if it still has one. 

Friday, January 08, 2010

Alcohol pricing: Westminster shames Holyrood


   I've been watching the row over alcohol pricing with unusually close interest.  Recently, I decided to stop drinking myself - partly for health reasons, but also to reassure myself that I could. I'm not a temperance fanatic, but like many people I know, I was beginning to feel that alcohol played too great a role in my life, and in the life of my country, and that it was time to sober up.  So,  I was dismayed last month when pig headed oppositionism by Labour and the Liberal Democrats wrecked the Scottish government's attempts to introduce minimum pricing for alcohol -  a policy which is supported by all leading medical authorities, and now by a powerful Commons committee.


  Yes, for once, Westminster has stepped into the moral vacuum left by the Scottish parliament.  Labour, Libdem and Conservative MPs on the health  committee have called for mandatory health warnings on alcoholic drinks, a rise in tax on spirits,  and minimum prices for all alcoholoic drinks. It says a 50p minimum per unit would save 3,000 lives a year,  I trust Labour, Tory and Liberal Democrat MSPs in Holyrood are suitably shamed. The Commons health committee also said that ministers are too close to drinks companies and supermarkets and have effectively been captured by the alcohol lobby. Hear, hear!  It's time we called time on the biggest drug pushers in the world: the drinks giants.  For too long, the booze manufacturers have sprayed their hospitality around the political classes, addling politicians's senses. 


  I think Scotland is ready for a lead on alcohol and our politicians have let us down.  We have seen what has happened to our city centres, to our children to ourselves.    I don’t have a drink problem, but I had become very aware of how much alcohol had insinuated itelself into my life.  I go to lots of receptions and dinners where it’s easy to knock back glasses of tepid wine, often to relieve the boredom.    I don’t remember when I started having wine regularly with meals at home, but I can certainly remember the days when it was still too expensive so to do.  And when did it become the norm to take drink into plays and concerts?  Drink is now so socially acceptable that respectable people see nothing odd in sitting in the park on a warm day knocking back booze.  There was a time when only derelicts and winos staggered around with cans in their hands - and they would have been moved on by the police.   I went to a school fundraiser recently and found that it had an all day licence. 


   Now, I have absolutely nothing against moderate drinking,  which is for most people a pleasurable and harmless social lubricant.  But I’m not alone in thinking that things are getting out of hand.  The epidemic of alcohol-related illness is a national emergency - half of all deaths in Scotland are down to alcohol and the mortality has doubled in a decade.  It’s only when you stop drinking that you realise how cheap and available it has become, and how much  other people are consuming.   


   As a nation we have peculiarly intense love affair with alcohol, but we are not alone - other countries with cold dark winters like Norway, Iceland, Finland have also wrestled with the demon and have come to the conclusion that pricing is an essential weapon in the armoury.  No, making booze more expensive won’t stop hardened drinkers getting their fix, nor will it stop people turning to other substances like glue or shoe polish. But what it will do is give a moral lead, reduce consumption and help the very many people who are trying to get their drinking under control.  


  When I gave up smoking thirty years ago there was a direct financial benefit.  I could look at my bank balance and  notice the effect of giving up the weed.  The financial reward for cutting out alcohol today is negligible.. At all levels booze is ludicrously cheap.  I recently saw a litre bottle of good whisky in a supermarket on sale for eleven quid.  In 1970s money, that would have been nearer forty quid. You can buy three litres of strong cider for little more than the price of a pint in a city bar - that’s eighteen units in one bottle!  Wine at three or four pounds a bottle is less than half the cost of a decent bottle thirty years ago,inflation adjusted, and wine today is much stronger.


  So, it was desperately depressing last month to see minimum pricing of alcohol falling, being rejected in Holyrood as a result of party tribalism.  Labour didn’t want the SNP to get the credit for turning the tide against drink so they found reasons for opposing the legislation. Yes, I know the arguments: the SNP hadn’t shared its legal advice, the government hasn’t set a price per unit,  the supermarkets and off licences would make a mint.  But since when has New Labour been bothered about supermarket super profits?   And if minimum pricing is so lucrative, why are the supermarkets and the drinks companies spending a fortune opposing it? They are interested in volume not price, and they know that ultra cheap alcohol prices is a good way to attract people into their stores.  


  Perhaps the government could have been more forthcoming on the legal advice, though previous Labour ministers similarly refused to publish advice from the law officers.  There are undoubtedly legal issues about minimum pricing: it could be seen as price fixing, and profiteering.  There are questions about the legality under European law.  But the clearest way to bulldoze these legal obstacles is for the national legislature to mobilise its case and to act decisively and clearly in the national interest.  Legal problems were similarly raised over the smoking ban, but they disappeared rapidly once the legislation was in place.  


   Labour should know this only too well since it was they who piloted the smoking ban through the Scottish parliament in face of legal threats, opposition from London and warnings that there would be civil unrest.  The First Minister at the time, Jack McConnell, faced them down, remained focused, and acted on the best advice he could get on the medical case for abolition.  If only Labour had that kind of leadership now. The SNP could have opposed the smoking legislation in 2005, just as Labour did last year, but to their credit they put aside party advantage and voted it through.  


  The Liberal Democrat opposition is even worse, because they actually support minimum pricing - it’s in their UK election manifesto. This is very bad politics.  The medical authorities are as unanimous on minimum pricing as they were over the smoking ban, and they rounded on the opposition parties last week for wrecking the bill.  The legislation has the support of the Chief Medical Officer, the BMA, the Royal Colleges, the Association of Chief Police Officers, and numerous campaign groups like Alcohol Focus Scotland.  Many  believe the SNP’s bill doesn’t go far enough, but they still support the measure as a first step, a moral stand.   Lined up against that coalition are the drinks manufacturers, the Scotch Whisky Association and the supermarkets.  Whose advice would you choose?  


   Labour may think that the working man likes his pint and will reward them at the ballot box.  But times change.  Many social drinkers like me are sobering up; women voters see the damage to families;  voters in housing estates are fed up having to run the gauntlet of teenagers sucking on those big bottles of cider.  In defying medical opinion, the police and alcohol charities Labour has made a serious error of judgement.  I believe the opposition parties will eventually realise this - and the sooner the better. But valuable time has been lost, and Labour will not be forgiven for being in the pocket of the drinks pushers.