Monday, 8 May 2017

Stronger for Scotland - really, are you sure?

Nicola Sturgeon’s many straplines in the coming four weeks will be all about Scotland’s voice being heard at Westminster. She’ll tell us that, only with an SNP vote and the largest number of SNP MPs being elected, can the voices of Scots be heard. Being “Stronger for Scotland” means electing only Scots who are SNP members.

The logic of Ms Sturgeon’s contention is that, in order to get the very best outcomes for Scots, it is essential that we don’t have any representation actually within the UK government. The SNP’s message is that the way we’ll influence policy is by not having any of our people being part of the government. It is apparently more productive for us Scots to be totally represented by people not in any positions of power. According to Ms Sturgeon, with all of our representatives not being in the government, we’ll get much more done; we’ll get our ideas put into action by simply opposing everything the govt says and does. Furthermore, it’ll benefit all of us in Scotland if that opposition is made regardless of whether the UK govt policy is good or bad. You see, being “Stronger for Scotland” is about objecting, spoiling, and opposing any policy; it’s about opposing for opposing’s sake. Scots citizens will be best served by having every single one of our representatives at Westminster in opposition.

Sound ridiculous? That’ll be because it is ridiculous. The SNP’s slogans and position are almost childlike when stripped down and the logic considered.

I rather like the idea of having an MP who is “inside the big tent”, making the decisions on my behalf. I like the idea of being able to contact someone in the government who has the ear of senior ministers. The idea that an experience or thought I might have on business, for example, could find its way directly to the policy makers via my MP seems a very attractive one.

The alternative is to be a constituent of an MP standing outside the tent, perpetually yelling and grumbling away about whatever grievance Peter Murrell and Nicola Sturgeon have decided upon for them that day. That’s how it has been for a majority of Scots since the 2015 General Election. No doubt some of “the 56” have done some decent work for constituents, but it’s hard to see how they had time in between grievance manoeuvres.

My own MP since 2015 has been Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh. I tried, on a number of occasions, to correspond with Ms Ahmed-Sheikh. After my first enquiry appeared to fall on deaf ears, I reminded her with two, gentle, follow-up emails. However, these, too, were to prove futile. In the end, I and a similarly frustrated constituent, wrote about our experiences in the Kinross Community Newsletter. Lo and behold, the tactic of engendering embarrassment worked and a response was finally received. I was pleased to receive this, even if it was a blandly drafted effort by some staffer. We didn’t want to have to go to this length to encourage a response. But having had to, it did reinforce my sense that having an SNP MP was not in the best interests of the constituency. Whether my emails were ignored as a result of my preference for keeping the UK together, I cannot say. I hope not, though; that would be even worse than simply having an MP with tardy correspondence habits……….

Image result for tasmina ahmed-sheikh and Alex Salmond
Alex Salmond and failed political experiment, Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh, look down on the people of Kinross
Ms Ahmed-Sheikh has been a noisy MP. An ever present, faithful attendant at the equally noisy Alex Salmond’s side, with some form of Foreign Affairs brief. She has oft starred on the BBC’s “Question Time”, and proffered her opinions on whichever other current affairs vehicle she could squeeze into. But what has she achieved? What has she done for her constituents? Which elements of government policy has she crafted or even contributed the perspective of her constituents to? Answers on a very small postcard, please (as far as I can see, you’ll struggle to fill that, too).

But there is a much broader point here than having an MP of limited efficacy. It’s a matter of what that MP’s key political drivers are. A person joining the SNP doesn’t do so because of their position on the political left/ right spectrum. That simply cannot be the case when considering the relative stances on a range of matters of, say, Brian Souter and Mhairi Black. No, a person joining the SNP does so because they do not wish Scotland (in its 300 year old constitutional arrangement) and the UK to be a success. They want to break that arrangement, regardless of whether the result is good or bad for the people of Britain. That breaking up of Britain is their raison-d’ĂȘtre and it’s what drives their position on every single political matter. In that context, it is difficult to understand how any SNP MP can properly represent Scottish constituents at Westminster. How could anyone trust an SNP MP with a serious issue when we know that they will first, last and always look at your issue through the prism of the constitutional debate? How they will act on your issue will invariably depend on how that action impacts on that constitutional debate. You may think that sounds incredible, but the reality is that this is the driver of their political existence.

It is clear to me that having a Conservative, Labour or Lib Dem MP offers a better opportunity to have constituents’ interests acted upon. They don’t exist for the single, sole purpose of promoting the break-up of the UK. They exist for the good of their constituents. I may not agree with all (or even any) of their economic or social policies across the left/right spectrum, but I do feel, strongly, that they want Scotland and the UK to be a success.

The coming General Election is offering us a second chance. It’s an opportunity to re-join political reality. We have a chance to elect MP’s whom we could trust to consider our issues at face value.

Even better, we have a chance to elect some of our own people as members of the governing party. We can put our own people back into that “big tent”. Our own people taking our thoughts, ideas and views into account whilst policies that will define our way of life are developed, debated and defined. Doesn’t that sound better than the alternative?

In my area, Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh is a failed experiment; one that has gone horribly wrong. We are though getting an early chance to re-set the experimental parameters and have another go. I’ll be taking that chance to give my vote to Luke Graham, the excellent Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party candidate. Looking at last week’s Council election results, particularly the first preference votes, the Scots Tories would seem to be in with the best chance of beating the SNP here. Allied to that, having met Luke, he appears a very decent man who I think would be great as our representative in the House of Commons.

Our own MP, actually in the party of Government. Taking Scots constituents’ interests directly into the policy making process. I like it - that’s what I’d call Stronger for Scotland.

Monday, 24 April 2017

So young to be so cynical..............

I popped down to the Farmers Market in Kinross on Saturday morning. These are great opportunities for local or small producers to advertise and sell their wares; it's important to support private enterprise and the range of quality produce is always good at these events.

We have an excellent local independent Councillor in Kinross, David Cuthbert. He was busying himself on Saturday, ensuring the market was properly organised and managed. Dave was telling me that both the SNP and Tories had enquired about having stalls at the event but that their requests had politely been refused. Seems fair to me really; politics is like a bad case of Japanese Knotweed at the moment - you deal with it, think it's gone away but here it comes again....

Not to be deterred though, further up the High Street, away from the market, both the SNP and Tories had stands. Both seemed to attract a few interested passers-by, or more likely, some friends stopping to say hello enroute to the Farmer's Market (as I had done).

As I was chatting to some old pals, there was a flurry of excitement at the SNP stall; celebrities had arrived in the form of Tasmina Ahmed-Sheihk and Roseanna Cunningham (plus an entourage of flunkies). A selfie was then taken by Ms Cunningham including Taz, their travelling entourage and two or three local SNP worthies. I smiled later, browsing twitter and finding the photo doing the rounds with the comment "wow - great crowd in Kinross!". That's politics though and I'm not naive enough to think that every single party doesn't do the same, cynical though it is.

"Meet the gang coz the boys are here, the boys to entertain you"
Roseanna, Taz and the entourage disappeared quickly but I was to stumble upon them again down at the Farmer's Market. Absorbed in some great cheeses, stuffed olives and plants for sale, I didn't really think too much about the glad handing with happy market shoppers - there's elections coming up, that's what politicians do.

As I was leaving though, I did see the Fair Maids of Perth standing for another photo op, outside our (also excellent) local butchers. The butcher collects for a fighting fund, which we hope will buy a de-fibrillation unit to be kept on hand for emergencies at the southern end of the town. I say "we" because my change on a Saturday morning invariably ends up in the collection tin too; it's a good idea.

The collecting tins had been spied by (presumably) one of the flunkies and they were siezed upon and carefully choreographed into the mits of Perthshire's political elite. Another photo op, not to be missed, showing just how munificent our illustrious SNP representatives are. We are such lucky cubs indeed.

Before you ask, I have anticipated your questions:

1. No, I didn't witness them put any cash in the collecting tins.

2. Yes, I am getting cynical in my old age.

3. Yes, I did eat all the cheese and the olives.

Saturday, 11 March 2017

Give us a break Nicola.

This week's headlines featured the latest depressing pronouncement from Nicola Sturgeon. According to the SNP supremo, the "common sense" time for another independence referendum is Autumn 2018. Whether this is what she has really decided to do, or whether it is more hyperbole for her troops in advance of their Spring conference remains to be seen.

I find this depressing because of the continuing instability it creates for business in Scotland. I can't be alone in thinking that business deserves a bit of stability. Some relief from the restlessness and unease that political uncertainty creates in those thinking of investment. Isn't that common sense? Unless you follow the school of thought that these awful business types, who must of course be evil Tories (etc), have had it good for too long?

Too good for too long? Chance would be a fine thing and not exactly as it's felt at the coal face.

Ms Sturgeon's Autumn 2018 date will fall a decade since we started to feel the impact of the global financial crisis. Unease had been spreading since 2007 when the term "subprime mortgages" started to appear in news reporting. But things really started to bite in 2008. The crisis became full blown on 15th September 2008 with the collapse of Lehman Brothers investment bank. What followed was a frightening period for everyone, almost regardless of the profession you were engaged in (other than insolvency practitioners.........).

Everyone in business will have their own recollection of how the crash impacted upon them. For myself, as a consulting engineer, the effects of the crash first manifested with contracts being put on
hold. For a period, I was scared to answer the phone in case it was another client looking to halt or cancel a project completely. It all happened very quickly; over a period of a few months, my forward fee forecast evaporated, almost in front of my eyes.

No one knew how long it was going to last, but fairly quickly, my team of engineers and technicians had to be shrunk. Some were short-term contract staff who we had to let go, and some were moved into a different section of the business. Our company was actually luckier than many because part of our workload was in the brewing and distilling industry. Our whisky clients were ramping up production and storage capacity in order to lay down stock for expanding overseas markets. So the jobs of some of the people who had been working with me on the rapidly disappearing residential and commercial property development market, were saved by redeployment. My running joke in the face of adversity was that strong alcohol was getting us through the recession; gallows humour I think that is called. It was part of a facade though, during a very upsetting and worrying period.

2009 and 2010 didn't prove much respite. In fact, they got worse. For many years we had undertaken the engineering design work for Applecross Properties, the Edinburgh based, high-end, residential developer. At the height of the recession in 2009, the rug was pulled from their feet by the Bank of Scotland. Shortly after, the same fate befell Kenmore Properties, another of my clients. So projects that had initially been put on hold were gone completely. It was no longer a case of holding on until things got better.

The next couple of years were tough and it was really into 2012 before we started to feel a degree of confidence returning. Whilst not necessarily expanding, businesses like ours were stabilising and life "normalising" again. This respite was to prove short-lived however. The excessively long lead in to
the Scottish independence referendum was quickly upon us, bringing with it new threats anduncertainty.

Surely Scotland's most joyous and civic of referendums was great for business I hear you say? Maybe if you were a supplier of flags and aluminium lapel badges perhaps. But for many trying to make a pound otherwise, it just wasn't what we needed in the aftermath of the worst recession in living memory. The independence referendum brought fresh uncertainty for the business community. In my industry, risk averse investors became anxious and the closer to the vote we got, the more decisions
were postponed. There were several examples of deals and contracts which involved "referendum
clauses" whereby transactions could be cancelled had Scots decided to leave the UK. It really wasn't funny.

From my perspective, the result of the 2014 referendum was a welcome one. Others were hugely disappointed but the result was decisive. Uncertainty was over; we knew where we were going, now we could really get back to business right? Well, kind of, for a bit, until we got the EU referendum out of the way. That was to be a formality of course, obviously we'd vote to stay and the good times would be within touching distance again.

I don't think I need say too much about what actually happened next; memories are recent and vivid. As it happens I'm not convinced Brexit will be the disaster that some predict and some want (yes, you there at the back Ms Sturgeon).  But the whole episode has been yet another unsettling and unpredictable one for Scottish (and indeed UK) business. We are where we are however. We are leaving the EU and now the decision is taken, we have to knuckle down and get on with it.

Getting to my point (you may be glad to hear), I really do believe that we have been through enough instability and uncertainty. Having been put through the mill since 2008, the thought of having another independence referendum in Scotland seems an extraordinary act of self harm. This week, Andrew Wilson, leader of the SNP's own Growth Commission has admitted the economic prospectus presented to us in the run up to 2014 was false. Only the most fevered of cybernat would now deny that the economic circumstances an independent Scotland would face would be, at best, difficult. At   the end of the day, we Scots are not fools and given  another "opportunity to reduce our standard of living", I expect a result broadly in line with that of 2014 would be forthcoming. Ms Sturgeon is no fool and must surely realise this too. On that basis, why on earth does she feel the need to put us through more uncertainty and instability? Eight years of turmoil are not enough perhaps, she wants to go for the "ten in a row" maybe?

While this may well read as a tale of woe, most business people are naturally positive and resilient. I like to think that I am too. "We get knocked down but we get up again" as the song goes. But it isn't easy and after a while people could be forgiven for starting to wonder if there is really any point. The anxiety around this lack of stability may become too much for some. Coupled with the fact Scotland is now the highest taxed part of the UK there has to come a point when entrepreneurs/ business people think its just too hard here and not worth the effort.

I haven't written this seeking sympathy. No, not sympathy, but some understanding perhaps and a plea for business to be considered and heard by our political masters. Think on the years between the financial crash and Ms Sturgeon's "common sense" timing for another divisive referendum:

  • Lehman Brothers collapse - September 2008
  • The depression, following the financial crash - 2009 to 2012
  • Scottish independence referendum - September 2014
  • UK Government Elections - May 2015
  • Scottish Government Elections - May 2016
  • EU referendum - June 2016
  • Scottish independence referendum Mark II - September 2018?

That's a decade of uncertainty. A quarter of a career.

I wonder why the SNP cannot see that we've been through enough already. If only they could see that Scotland's fortunes would be best served by entrepreneurs and the wider business community being given political stability. If only they understood that it is this which will create the chance of growth, jobs and an increased tax take; that could reduce our deficit and go some way to help fund our failing education and health services. That's what is needed to start driving up our standard of living. The polls suggest that there is limited appetite for another referendum amongst ordinary Scots. It seems that the general population and business communities are of the same mind. A second referendum really is the very last think we want or need.

If you are listening Ms Sturgeon, will ye no' haud yer wheesht an' gie us a break?

Sunday, 5 March 2017

What happened to the wise, principled Scot?

As the never ending noise of Scotland's constitutional argument drones on, I've been wondering where the wise, principled Scot has gone.

Politics used to be defined on the left/ right scale. Small state, free market capitalists at one end and large state, nationalising socialists at the other. (This is a sweeping generalisation but you know what I mean!). The debates were straightforward. You could think about how you felt about each of the issues; about how your own attitudes, experiences and values would position you on that scale.

There were always those on the wild, outer fringes at either end of the scale. But the vast majority held the views they did because they thought they were likely to create the best economic and social results for their countrymen. Political debates and battles were grounded in the solid belief that your version of left or right was just and measured. They were debates and battles that could define our standards of living and, crucially, how we thought they could be improved. If not about that, what else is politics for?

Barring those from the outer fringes, we rubbed along pretty well. Right balanced left and left balanced right. For me, that was/ is part of the great success story that is the UK. Ours is a moderate, liberal and tolerant democracy. It has meant that whilst that political pendulum has swung over the decades, the consensus generally fell around the centre. That's what keeps the UK so stable and such a safe, desirable place for the many immigrants who have chosen to make ours, their home also.

Unfortunately, Scottish politics has been diverted off this path. Most external observers would look in on us and recognise what defines our politics now: identity. We rarely seem to have intellectual discourse on which approach to economic policy would derive the best results for Scots citizens. Scotland's politicians are elected according to whether they support the UK remaining intact or whether it should be broken up. The economic reality isn't the meat of the debate. Rather, it's whether you are Scottish or British, and Scottish nationalism has decreed that you cannot be both; they are mutually exclusive. You don't have to look much further that former First Minister, Alex Salmond for evidence of this. Last weekend he embarrassed himself ranting on a television interview about the "Yoon media". Yoon being an intended derogatory term for non SNP aligned individuals and the "Yoon media" being any newspaper or broadcaster with the temerity to report something unflattering about the SNP. The inference to supporters, of course, being that information prepared by such parties is always wrong, simply because it has been produced by "Yoons". It was quite a spectacle.

The rise of nationalism in Scotland has nurtured and developed identity to become the defining issue of our politics. On occasions when economics or social policy matters are introduced into the debate, they are spun beyond any reasonable reality. Black is argued as white, in order to support the identity argument. Even when presented in logical, clinical fashion (I am thinking about some of the excellent analysis by, amongst others, Kevin Hague, Neil Lovatt and Fraser Whyte) it is quickly rubbished, often as a sleight to Scotland; "talking Scotland down". Mostly the response to reasoned argument moves straight to ad hominem attacks from the nationalist "intelligentsia" led by the likes of Stuart Campbell (Wings over Scotland) and his faithful followers. Some of those followers, of course, include SNP MPs and MSPs.

But our politics used to involve interrogating such analysis, presenting alternative assessment and debating how a situation might be improved. That involved applying policy from either side of the centre but with an intent to improve our people's standard of living.

Today though, that doesn't happen. All debate seems to revert to identity. If that isn't the case, how can Brian Souter and Tommy Sheridan possibly have common cause? Maybe they are bad examples, coming as they do, from the wilder, outer fringes of traditional left/ right politics. But examples they are, of what nationalism has done to our politics. It has degenerated our debate. It is no longer about the great principles and ideas of how our standard of life might be improved. It is about whether you have identity X or identity Y. It's about your allegiance to one flag or another.

As others have said before me, you can't eat flags.

This depressing, backwards step in our politics is even manifesting at local level. As we approach May's council elections, I find constitutional politics interfering even in my own thinking with that. I don't want SNP councillors. Doubtless there might be some good community orientated people I am discounting, but discount them I will. I do so because by standing as an SNP candidate, and passing their Party's vetting system, I know that their over-riding political principles are about identity. I can't trust them to make decisions based on what is best for constituents because that is not what motivates their political position. Their identity as a Scot, or perhaps more simply, not British, is their defining political characteristic and driver. If not the case, why would they be an SNP candidate? They will vote/ act in every matter according to the party line, as defined by what best promotes their identity politics. At a local level, I don't see how that best serves our communities.

I don't want to have to think this way. I'd like all UK citizens to live productive lives with increasing standards of living. But that can only happen for us here in Scotland if we, and particularly our politicians, start concentrating on the right things. No matter which side of the traditional political centre you see yourself, the things that wont improve our economic fortunes and standard of living are flags and identity politics.

This shift from policy based politics to identity has, of course, worked superbly well for the SNP. Their members care about identity above all else. As Nicola Sturgeon herself said, "independence transcends everything else". There's an obvious reason this has worked so well. A majority of Scots who care about real politics and issues affecting our standard of life still vote on the left/right spectrum. Thus the Scots who don't see identity as the defining political raison d'ĂȘtre are largely split across Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat. The wise, principled Scottish vote (in my view) is therefore split according to the kind of economic and social policies they believe could improve our standard of living.  For the moment, the proponents of identity politics have the whip hand and, as a result, are beneficiaries of that oldest of tactics - divide and conquer.

I say "for the moment" because there is hope that we might find a way back from all of this. The SNP have had a decade of power. During those ten years of identity driven politics and policy, we must ask ourselves if education, health and other devolved matters have improved or declined. All but the most partisan of observer will be stretched to think the former is the case. As the inherent wisdom and principles of Scots begin to re-surface through the fug of populism and identity politics, and they will, I hope we will again progress.


Sunday, 19 February 2017

Investor perception of today's Scots

Unaccustomed to writing blogs, I approach this exercise nervously. But, on balance, it seems a good idea to get things off your chest and air the sometimes troublesome thoughts that circle in the mind. Maybe it will help, so here goes........

The United Kingdom has been a beacon of justice, democracy and fairness for centuries. A stable country and viewed as one of opportunity, borne out by the vast numbers of international citizens who have chosen to make Britain their home. Ours is a country where a working class lad from Brixton, John Major, was able to become Prime Minister, and a minister's son from Kirkcaldy, Gordon Brown, also made it to the same position. It is truly a place of opportunity where a person can achieve virtually anything their personal capabilities will allow. It is true that those with the more robust family structures around them will find that success more easy to achieve but that might be said of any country in the world. There will always be work needed to improve  social mobility and to break cycles of deprivation but if there is a place on earth where this is recognised and fought for, it is surely the United Kingdom!

In that light, how might we Scots be viewed by international investors and business partners when they see a noisy element of our countrymen decrying our way of life? Politically, our image has become one of angry men and women, eternally aggrieved and engaged in aggressive, threatening rhetoric. That aggression and those threats are directed towards the structures of the United Kingdom. The very structures that have made Britain the stable and desirable place it is. We appear angry and aggressive towards a society and way of life that is opportunity laden and as safe as possible in the increasingly fragile geopolitical situation that is the 21st century.

Scotland's political representatives at Westminster by and large see their role as being to oppose, object and spoil. They do not give an impression of positivity. They do not give an impression of acting collaboratively with any intent to improve matters for any citizens, never mind their own constituents. They give an impression of being against anything and everything that might be promoted by any party, other than the Scottish National Party.

Scotland's political representation - angry, aggressive, aggrieved (faux)

So if we can't ever be seen to agree or collaborate with good people in our own United Kingdom, how might third parties view us from outside? If looking for a business partner, do you want one who is eternally aggrieved, aggressive and threatening to its existing partners? Particularly when those partners are amongst the fairest, most open, honest and decent people possible? If a prospective business partner is shown to be spiteful, unwilling to act collaboratively and positively with, effectively, their own people, why on earth would you get involved with them? If that is how they relate to their closest associates, how could you trust them to deal with you any differently?

I genuinely worry about Scotland. Our economy is lagging that of England, where growth is being achieved. I travelled to London and Manchester last week and was taken with the number of tower cranes there were in and around the city centres. Considerably more activity, it felt to me, than in my home territory of Edinburgh. Might that be because we are open to being interpreted as bad business partners?

I was meeting clients who develop student accommodation buildings. We had done some work together in Scotland historically but they have decided not to do any more here for now. We laughed as one of their key figures remarked "you're all angry and mad up there". It was said in semi-jest and whilst we laughed, the reality was that here was a business who didn't think Scotland a good place to invest at the moment. The thought of the income our business had planned from projects they have since pulled back from, now lost, wasn't so funny.

We are fortunate because we are being engaged by this client on England based projects. So a bit more travelling for us, but welcome workload to help pay people's mortgages nonetheless. Other Scots businesses might not be as fortunate as us.

I can't help but feel our experience is part of a much wider problem though. The economic picture in Scotland has lagged rUK for the past few years. That lag has existed since the run up to the 2014 referendum and shows no real sign of improving. The SNP now cling to the more recent circumstance of the Brexit vote, blaming that for our economic struggles. But it's been happening for longer than that. The Brexit excuse is all the more depressing as it illustrates an abject failure to accept or interrogate the reality of our situation. Rather than do that, our political representatives resort to the angry, threatening rhetoric and push that agenda of grievance. I find it difficult to understand how that is meant to help our economic fortunes improve.

Scots, like our countrymen throughout the UK, are creative and resourceful. We've made wealth for ourselves, our people and our business partners across the centuries. We did that by working hard and collaboratively such that good people wanted to trade and do business with us. We are though in danger of hiding these qualities from potential investors who look in from the outside and might see our politics as reflective of the people we are now. I think we have grounds to be worried.