Jim Murphy’s Frackingly Good Plan

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After claiming they lacked the powers to deal with fracking, the Scottish Government has now come off the fence and blocked it in Scotland until further research is undertaken by them (cover, today). Who doubts that this research will be published shortly after the 2016 Holyrood election?

What this research will add to the debate is not entirely clear. Existing published work shows that even modest environmental regulation will mean that the problems faced in the USA will be easily avoided or render fracking non-viable.

The real challenge facing fracking in Scotland is that much of the reserves are within or near urban areas – much of them former mining towns and villages. Whilst the environment may be safe, fracking in these areas will come with significant disruption, particularly in the early stages of development.

If the Scottish Government does back fracking, and I feel it will, it must therefore ensure that local communities are convinced it is safe and also that they benefit directly.

Jim Murphy’s proposal for a local referendum appears to be ideally suited to this. It will force frackers to engage directly with communities by making binding environmental protection commitments and to support community projects. Such an approach would channel a fair share of the profits into some of Scotland’s most deprived areas.

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Stamp Duty – SNP and Tories Race to the Bottom

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Throughout the ongoing  constitutional debate in Scotland we have been warned of the danger associated with a “race to the bottom”. This is a socio-economic phenomenon in which competing governments cut   taxes in order to attract or retain economic activity or win votes in their jurisdictions with the result of disadvantaging the poorest in society.

Late last year the Scottish Government announced the LBTT would replace Stamp Duty and that it would make it easier to buy properties up to £325,000 in value. Soon afterwards the UK Government undercut the Scottish Government with changes to Stamp Duty – making it even cheaper to buy a  £325,000 house. The report in the Herald today explains that the latest round of one-upmanship involves the Scottish Government spending a further £60m on cutting LBTT. The race to the bottom has come to Scotland.

Scotland’s 50,000 homeless and the further 50,000 living in overcrowded accommodation must be reassured that the tax payable on purchasing a £325,000 home has dropping so rapidly!

The SNP’s £100m for Elderly Care

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Professor Donaldson was correct to be sceptical about the announcement by the Scottish Government that £100m will be spent over the next three years to deal with the crisis in elderly care in yesterday’s Herald.

Scotland has had three health minsters in three years. In 2012 the number of trainee nurses was cut significantly. In 2013 the RCN warned of intolerable stress levels in the Scottish NHS and that health services are only managing to meet demand because of nurses willing to go the extra mile for free. In 2014 we learned from the IFS that the Scottish Government had cut real terms spending on the health by 1.2%, whilst the UK Government had increased spending by 4.4%. At the turn of the year, we learned that 1,200 NHS beds had been cut in two years.

Of the £100m announced by Ms Robison, only one third is new money – derived  from Barnett consequentials. The additional funding will come from existing health budgets over the next two years.

The implicit question underlying the move is how much of the £100m will be spent on quietly moving elderly care from the public to the private sector?

The SNP’s Trident Folly

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David Torrance ably points out in his opinion piece in The Herald today that more Scots support Trident than oppose it. I am largely undecided on the issue, but his observation does highlight the folly of the Nationalist position.

When Nicola Sturgeon made Trident removal a “red line” issue, she was essentially saying it was more important than dealing with food banks, welfare sanctions and the redistribution of wealth and opportunity in Scotland. Cynics would say that this is because the SNP cannot flank Labour on the left on these and other issues, whereas Trident is a policy conflict which can be exploited.

Indeed, the news that the SNP have organised a commons debate on Trident speaks volumes. Surely Scots, not least the SNP’s new left-wing members, would have been better served by a debate about the issues which underpin inequality in the UK, or even one on how the oil industry may be better supported?

The Alternatives: Tories, Labour or Independence Nirvana

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The most serious challenge facing the UK is the deficit. The UK deficit is high, but the Scottish deficit is higher and growing. As Alex Massie outlined in the Scotsman today (16.01.15), unless the deficit is eliminated the UK debt will slowly drag the economy down.

At the forthcoming General Election voters will be faced with to realistic, but quite different, alternatives to deal with the deficit: a Tory party which  ideologically believes in a small state, and a resurgent Labour party which believes the wealthiest in society have an obligation to make a fair contribution to support the welfare state. The problem the SNP face is that a significant part of its traditional support prefers the former, whilst the bulk of its new support is tempted by the latter.

The solution for the SNP is to say nothing, but promise everything. They want to pretend that Scots can have Scandinavian  public services, with American levels of taxation. Worst of all, the belief is being promoted by them that this change would be as effortless as showing the rest of the UK the door – they, not us, are responsible for our problems.

Despite this cynicism, I hope that as the General Election nears those who have trusted the nationalist blindly will begin to ask questions. Not questions about the line-up of a TV debate or the independence nirvana,  but about the challenges Scotland faces and the detail of how best to deal with them.

Mark Carney’s message is clear.

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Mark Carney’s message is clear: families and businesses across the whole of the UK will benefit from the fall in oil price, but the oil industry in Scotland will pay the price (Cover today). Furthermore, Scotland’s deficit, which was already greater than that of the rest of the UK, is set to worsen considerably as oil revenues fall. Jim Murphy has outlined how  taxation collected elsewhere in the UK can be used to offset this – resources will be pooled and used in the UK where needed most.

We know that the current Scottish Government is ideologically opposed to this concept, and would prefer that Scotland could manage this situation alone as an independent state or under a Home Rule setup within the UK. To those on the left within Scotland’s nationalist movement there surely must be real concerns about the impact that this would have on education, the NHS and welfare. I am sure that they, like me, would be very interested in seeing detailed proposals from the Scottish Government prior to the forthcoming general election if Home Rule is their goal.

In response to John Swinney

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John Swinney’s letter in the Scotsman today makes interesting reading, particularly his belief that “Scotland will prosper best when all revenue raised here stays here”.

His own government’s March 2014 GERS data shows that, including oil revenue, Scotland spends more than it earns (deficit) to a greater extent than the rest of the UK. The data also shows that the Scots deficit is one of the largest in the western world. This situation will have worsened considerably due to the oil price crash.

This means that right now Scotland is actually benefiting considerably from what Gordon Brown termed a “pooling and sharing of resources” within the UK. If Mr Swinney feels that Scotland would somehow benefit from shouldering the full impact of the oil price crash alone, I would be very interested in seeing his detailed analysis.

Style Before Safety?

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One can debate the merits of Nicola Sturgeon’s leadership over Alex Salmond’s endlessly. However, in my opinion, Ms Sturgoen beats Mr Salmond on sartorial elegance effortlessly. Not least because Mr Salmond famously wore the same tie for seven years.
However, I do feel that Ms Sturgoen  should have been advised better before her recent trip to a construction site in Fife. Inspection of her attire shows that safety hat, protective gloves and a high-visibility vest are all present. However, in place of safety boots she is wearing high-healed shoes. Is this a case of  style before safety or was she simply dressing up for the cameras? Whatever the reason, it is a bad advertisement for improving construction site safety in Scotland.

Education & Inequality in Scotland

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The link between education and deprivation is clear, the problem is that the there is no short-term solution to deal with it. It requires education to provide opportunities for children from pre-school through to university.

I grew up in one of the most deprived areas of the UK – a council estate in Kirkcaldy during the 1980’s miner’s strike. My route out of that was to work hard at school and go on to complete a degree and eventually a PhD. This solid educational base has led me to a career which has taken me right around the world – from Australia to Brazil, Japan and Dubai.

My experience tells me that education is fundamental to reducing inequality in Scotland and elsewhere in the world. As a lecturer who manages one of the UK’s leading engineering programmes at a Scottish university I continually come across students who must leave university because they simply cannot afford to support themselves.

The Scottish Government deserves great credit for abolishing the £2000 “Graduate Endowment Fee” in 2007 and thereby making higher education fee in Scotland. However, they also halved the grant payable to the very poorest students to the lowest in the EU – £1,750 per year (less than I received from Margaret Thatcher in 1987).  Students from poor backgrounds must now either work long hours or accumulate massive debts.

I recently came across a student from one of the most deprived areas in Edinburgh who as well as studying full-time also managed a supermarket full-time.  He was one of the very best students I have encountered, and was evidence that whilst Scots growing up in poor communities may lack opportunity, but they don’t lack commitment, intelligence or ambition.

What could the SNP bring to a coalition arrangement with Labour?

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There can be little surprise that Ed Miliband has refused to formally rule out a coalition agreement with the SNP. The real question is what could the SNP bring to such an arrangement?

If they had left open the possibility of working with the Conservatives, then they could perhaps have had a stronger bargaining position. Their current position means they’d have to back Labour or be criticised by the Scottish left for letting the Conservatives back into Downing Street. Ed Milliband would have them over a barrel.

Nonetheless, if the SNP say they hope to influence Labour’s policy agenda, they need to outline what they oppose, what their alternative is and how Scotland would benefit. Simply pretending that the SNP’s mere presence in government would “end austerity economics” is fanciful.