Friday, 22 August 2014

Independence Debate

Martin Kettle wrote an interesting piece on Scottish independence for The Guardian the other day in which he argues that things might get nasty after the referendum, in the sense that:

a) The Barnett Formula will be used to cut per capita public spending in Scotland 
b) Westminster will stop Scottish MPs from voting on laws that apply only to England

Now I can't see what reason anyone would have to object to b) because it makes perfect sense to me that if England's MPs can't vote on matters devolved to the Scottish Parliament, then this should cut both ways - what's sauce for the goose should be sauce for the gander. 

Nor should the cuts in per capita public spending come as any surprise because that is exactly what the Barnett Formula was set up to deliver (by Joel Barnett, a Labour MP) - a means of calculating future UK public spending on the basis of population size.     

So while these forces may be thrown into stark relief by the independence debate, they have a political momentum all of their own.

Yes or no, things could get nasty after the Scottish referendum

Despite what politicians want us to believe, the English may not be inclined to reward Scots if they vote to keep the union

By Martin Kettle - The Guardian

‘A clear inference from the research is that, whatever the result, relations between the English and the Scots could become increasingly hostile in the years to come.’ Photograph: David Cheskin/Press Association

Despite occasional narrowings of the lead in some polls, it remains more likely than not that the Scots will vote no to independence on 18 September. But what will happen then? The question has not been given the attention it deserves. But the Future of England Survey published today suggests the answers are unlikely to be as benign as is often assumed.

Some observers have expressed surprise that, given its increasing probability, the post-no scenario has received so little attention in the independence debate. But this is not really so surprising, for two reasons. First, the independence debate is, inevitably, mainly about the consequences of a yes vote, not a no. Second, unionists seem understandably reluctant to say tough things before polling day about the post-no landscape that may encourage Scots to vote yes.

The Future of England Survey has no such inhibitions. It is a solid piece of survey research of English opinion by academics at Cardiff and Edinburgh universities, conducted by YouGov. And it makes clear that the English, although opposed to Scottish independence, are in no hurry to reward Scots for the survival of the union. Indeed, a clear inference from the research is that, whatever the result, relations between the English and the Scots could become increasingly hostile in the years to come. Politicians of most stripes on both sides of the border have an interest in pretending this is not so. But the message of the research is hard to deny.

The principal findings of the study are that English people want Scotland to remain part of the UK by an overwhelming margin of three to one. But by five to one they think relations between England and Scotland would not improve after a yes vote. The English are strongly opposed – by nearly three to one – to an independent Scotland continuing to use the pound. And a majority think the remaining UK should not support an independent Scotland’s efforts to join the EU or Nato. The only part of the yes campaign’s vision that wins large-scale English support is opposition to border controls between the two countries after independence.

Even after a no vote, however, the English appear in an ungenerous mood towards Scots. There is strong support, in the event of a no, for Scottish MPs to be barred from voting on English laws. By four to one they want UK public spending per capita in Scotland to be reduced to the UK average (this could suggest 10% cuts north of the border on some calculations). And a majority think the two nations will continue to drift apart. But there is support in England for greater devolution on tax and spending to Scotland.

In assessing all of this, it is important not to leap to melodramatic conclusions too quickly. The fact that English opinion is revealed as generally quite hard-line towards the Scots does not mean that English voters want to impose a unitary system on Scotland in a surviving UK. Support in England for increased Scottish devolution is high and is likely to give politicians space to pursue fresh devolutionary plans. Nor does it follow that English politicians will follow English public opinion after 18 September. “Magnanimity in politics is not seldom the truest wisdom,” wrote Edmund Burke, and his warning is likely to set the pattern for the UK government’s response, whatever the outcome of the vote.

Nevertheless, the survey is a powerful reminder that the Panglossian scenarios about the sweetness and light that will inevitably prevail after 18 September may prove to be extremely naive. If Scots vote yes, the remaining UK will inevitably put its own interests first in the subsequent negotiations, on the currency above all. And if Scots vote no, there will be scars too. There will always be a significant tranche of English opinion, to which English politicians will need to be sensitive even if they do not automatically parrot its views, that is reluctant to reward what it sees as bad Scottish behaviour in trying to break up the union.

Anti-English feeling in Scotland and anti-Scottish feeling in England have generally and happily played little overt part in the independence referendum campaign. Most English and most Scots prefer it that way, for reasons both of high principle and low political calculation. The campaign, by and large, has been positive and high-minded. But the survey is a reminder that the resentments on which reactionary forms of nationalism often thrive, where they exist, can be a two-way street. After 18 September, things may begin to get nastier than most of us would prefer to believe, in Scotland as well as in England.

What's the Big Secret?

Compare and contrast the response of the Scottish Government to my recent FoI request to that of North Lanarkshire Council.

In the Scottish Government's case they acknowledge receipt of my request while confirming that they will respond within the 20 working days laid down in the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002.

In the case of North Lanarkshire I've had to submit a formal Review Request as the Council has failed to respond at all to my original request for information about a minute of its Corporate Management Team dated 11 August 2005.

So what's the big secret?

The Scottish Government
Riaghaltas na h-Alba

Our ref: Fol/14/01382 

21 August 2014

Dear Mr Irvine

FOISA Acknowledgment

Thank you for your requests dated 19 August 2014 under the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002 (FOISA) asking to;

1 Please confirm the names of all Scottish councils which have applied to the Scottish Government for extra 'borrowing consents' to meet the costs of their outstanding equal pay claims?

2 Please confirm the names of the councils which have made successful requests to date and the amounts of money involved in each case?

3 Please confirm if this facility is still available to Scottish councils in 2014 and the process to be followed in making such a request to the Scottish Government?

We received your request on 20 August 2014 and will respond in accordance with FOISA by 17 September 2014

If you have any queries, please contact me quoting case number Fo1/14/01382.

Yours Sincerely,

Louise Hester 

Scottish Government 

Freedom of Information (18 August 2014)

I've had to submit an FoI 'Review Request' to North Lanarkshire Council because of the Council's failure to respond to my original request within working 20 days as required by the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002.

Now I'm quite surprised about this I have to say because up until now North Lanarkshire has behaved quite well in relation to my FoI requests, unlike some other nearby councils I could mention.

So why has NLC come over all coy about releasing a copy of a report to the Council's Corporate Management Team meeting held on 11 August 2005 which dealt with the costs and other issues regarding North Lanarkshire's Job Evaluation Scheme (JES)?

I suspect there is something quite damning contained in this report, but one way or the other  I'm confident that the information will come into the public domain where it belongs because all this secrecy and keeping things hidden form the workforce is quite shameful, if you ask me.

Gavin Whitefield
Chief Executive
North Lanarkshire Council

Dear Mr Whitefield

FoI Review Request

I refer to my letter dated 20 June 2014 and would now like to submit an FoI Review Request given North Lanarkshire Council's failure to respond to me within the time limits laid down by the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002.

Please note that if the Council fails to respond to my FoI Review Request in a satisfactory manner, I plan to register an immediate appeal with the Scottish Information Commissioner (SIC).

Kind regards

Mark Irvine

-----Original Message-----
From: Whitefield Gavin <>
To: '' <>
Sent: Mon, Jun 23, 2014 10:47 am
Subject: RE: FoI Request

Mr Irvine
I acknowledge receipt of your email regarding the above and would advise that I have forwarded it to the Executive Director of Corporate Services to process as a Freedom of Information enquiry.
Gavin Whitefield Chief Executive Tel: 01698 302452
From: []
Sent: 20 June 2014 11:14
To: Whitefield Gavin
Subject: FoI Request
Flat 8/1
90 London Road
G1 5DE
20 June 2014
Gavin Whitefield
Chief Executive
North Lanarkshire Council
Dear Mr Whitefield

FOISA Request 

I would like to make the following request under the Freedom of Information Scotland Act 2002.

Please provide me with a copy of the report to the Council's Corporate Management Team (CMT) meeting held 11 August 2005 which dealt with the costs and related issues regarding North Lanarkshire's Job Evaluation Scheme (JES)?
Please include copies of all of the relevant Appendices which were attached to this report from the Director of Administration? 

I look forward to your reply and would be grateful if you could respond to me by e-mail to:
Kind regards

Mark Irvine

Medicine for the Dead

Here's an excellent article by James Bloodworth writing in The Independent which just goes to show that not everyone on the left of politics is an apologist for the increasingly ridiculous arguments of the Stop the War Coalition (STWC).

Today Isis is attacking the Middle East. Tomorrow it’ll be the West

Those who have spent the past 10 years warning against intervention need to wake up

By JAMES BLOODWORTH - The Independent

The reported murder of the American journalist James Foley is further proof that Western countries must not be squeamish when it comes to helping the Iraqis and the Kurds to defeat Isis.

Liberals are very good at calling for the bombs to stop, but now is the time for anyone of a remotely progressive temperament to call for an intensification of the military campaign against Isis. Indeed, let more bombs fall on those who behead journalists and enslave Kurdish and Iraqi women.

The latest atrocity by Isis ought to drive home the point that those committing such crimes are not misunderstood men who have been "radicalised" by Western imperialism, but rather are attempting to use our concern for human suffering against us by proudly brandishing their own disregard for it — all to create a hellish and totalitarian Caliphate that would make death feel like a deliverance.

Indeed it bears repeating: the existence of Isis (as opposed to the group’s growth) is in no sense "our" fault. The old communist turned anti-communist Arthur Koestler once said that the difference between a person of a liberal and absolutist mentality was that the absolutist viewed wrong ideas as crimes committed against future generations.

It followed that wrong ideas must be punished in a similar way to other crimes. In the case of Isis this involves taking women and girls as slaves and murdering men who fail to convert to their particular noxious strand of Islam. If you believe that you are creating heaven on earth then anything and anyone that stands in your way must be squashed underfoot like a rotten apple.

Those who have spent the past 10 years trying to neuter Britain and the United States into international passivity need now to wake up. It seems clear that if the gung-ho 2000s showed the consequences of Western military adventurism, then recent events have demonstrated the limits of trying to stop the world on its axis and climb off.

Isis have germinated so rapidly not because of George Bush and Tony Blair, but because Western governments decided at some point that it would be acceptable for Bashar al-Assad to drop explosives on the Syrian people in order to keep power. It may come as a surprise to those MPs who whooped and hollered when the Commons voted against military intervention in Syria last year to learn that they did not "stop the war".

Judging by the macabre video which appeared on YouTube yesterday evening, James Foley's murderer appeared to have a British accent. We demand that our politicians do not put British "boots on the ground" in the Middle East yet it is our society which appears to be incubating at least some of the fighters currently chopping off heads in Iraq and Syria. When you live in a country that is failing to prevent at least some members of its own society from travelling to destroy somebody else’s, all talk of "keeping out" is little more than sanctimonious rubbish.

Either way, if you believe that, for whatever reason, Britain is at fault for the rise of Isis you should invariably want Britain to make amends by helping the Kurds and Iraqis to defeat it. Similarly, if you claim to be an anti-fascist you should waste no time in calling for a recognisably anti-fascist policy from the government – the bombing of Isis positions, for example. Indeed, for any genuine internationalist the next course of action is a straightforward one: to help the Iraqis and Kurds to kill those that will otherwise kill them.

For those that are inclined to bury their head in the sand a warning is probably more appropriate; in which case I will quote something a Kurdish friend told me on a recent anti-Isis demonstration in London. "Today they are attacking the Middle East; tomorrow it’ll be the West". In other words, just as you cannot ignore climate change because you do not live on a melting ice cap, Syria and Iraq are not someone else's problem because you have a mortgage and a credit card and live in a prosperous liberal democracy.

Questions and Answers

Robert Fisk breaks off from his usual anti-western rants in The Independent to write this rather more contemplative piece in which he asks the question that if ISIS are really as bad as people say, then why have so many Sunni Muslims stayed in their homes instead of taking to the hills.

Now I'm surprised that it takes years of journalism to ask such a stupid question, because I can answer it and I've never been anywhere near the Middle East.

The answer is that ISIS are not cutting Sunni men's heads off, stealing their children and selling their wives and daughters as slaves - which seemed pretty obvious if you ask me.

Now I could be wrong, but Im pretty certain that Afghan citizens didn't flee their country lock, stock and barrel after the Soviet Union invaded in 1979 and nor did the Iraqis in 2003 when an American led force toppled Saddam Hussein. 

Because for the most part civilians try to ignore men with guns and try to get on with their lives even if they have to keep their heads down and follow the new 'rules' which are barbaric to say the least when it comes to ISIS, especially for non-Sunni Muslims.

I think I'll stop reading what Robert Fisk, he has so little to say these days other than re-hashing the same old things he's been banging on about for years which is that when it comes to the Middle East the 'west' is to blame for everything that's gone wrong in the region.    

Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now President Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink?

By ROBERT FISK - The Independent

For centuries, governments told their soldiers and their people to “Know Your Enemy”. The problem with the Isis “Caliphate” – and it is a big problem for President Obama after journalist James Foley’s murder – is that we don’t know who it is. We are told of its butchery, cruelty, its kidnapping of women, its burying alive, its viciousness towards Christians and Yazidis and its public beheadings, but that is all. Even the Isis leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, comes across as a mad combination of the Mahdi who murdered Gordon of Khartoum, the assassinated Osama bin Laden and Oliver Cromwell, who did to the civilians of Drogheda what the Muslim Lord Protector al-Baghdadi has done to his enemies.

Foley’s ritual slaughter is enough to dissuade even the most foolhardy of journalists from seeking an interview with al-Baghdadi. Never before in the Middle East has so much land been out of bounds to the Western media. So ignorant are we of this Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant – a dark land in which the reports we see of it are their own phone videos – that the Obamas, Camerons and Hammonds can only gnash their teeth at this unspeakable enemy. Easy reaction – but not much to go on. Yet Isis knows how to do one thing: confront Obama with his very own hostage problem, the same conundrum Tony Blair faced when Ken Bigley appeared before the video lens. Do you ignore the warnings, thus proving that you don’t care about your individual citizens when undertaking military operations – which is the truth – or do you turn into Jimmy Carter, curtsy to every whim of your enemies, go down on one knee and tell the Pentagon to “Hold it right there”?

Now Obama has seen the next American reporter threatened with beheading. Will he blink? He can’t, can he?

So I suspect the answer will be what presidents and prime ministers have always done best in the Middle East, and announce that Foley’s murder shows not only just how awful Isis is – but how important it is to go on bombing it in order to destroy the wretched institution. In other words, turn the sadistic Isis reaction to the air strikes into the reason why America is carrying out the air strikes. After all, we were bombarding Isis because it was killing Yazidis and dispossessing Christians and threatening Kurds. And Iraq. Now we have another reason to bomb al-Baghdadi’s “Caliphate”.

For journalists, yesterday was a fearful day. Thirty years ago, Arabs would acknowledge our special role as neutral observers. As the years have gone by – and as journalists have been killed by American military forces and Israeli soldiers and Iraqi rebels (and Arab militias), so our vulnerability has grown infinitely greater. When our chum, the Egyptian Field Marshal Abdol Fottah al-Sissi, locks up journalists for months, precious little do Western governments care about them. When our own masters show so little concern for our fate, is it any surprise that Isis –or Isil or whatever – are prepared to kill them. Sure, we don’t execute them. But that’s not a significance Isis is going to take much interest in.

A yellow ribbon is tied to a tree outside the family home of journalist James Foley (AP)

There are two truths that the West is going to have to face about al-Baghdadi’s savage and dotty “Caliphate”: these executioners began their careers – or their predecessors did – in the video-murderers of the anti-American resistance in Iraq; and however disgusting their activities, there are hundreds of thousands of Sunni Muslims who live in the area of the Caliphate and who have NOT fled for their lives. This, of course, makes unhappy reading. If the “Caliphate” is so revolting, disgusting, gruesome in its purity-driven brutality, how come all these people – Iraqis and Syrians – did not flee along with their Christian brothers? Are a few thousand armed fighters really able to coerce so many people over such a vast tract of the Middle East?

Let’s go back to the months and years that followed the 2003 Anglo-American invasion. The rebels or insurgents felt able to demonstrate extraordinary cruelty against their captives. I was once offered a videotape in Fallujah of a man having his throat cut by hooded men. It took me some time to realise that the victim was almost certainly a Russian soldier and his murderers were Chechens. Someone had brought this video to Fallujah so that the future butchers of the resistance could learn from it. This is the epic violence which our invasion unleashed.

And most Sunni Muslims stayed in their towns and cities and went on living there while their brothers – the Isis citizens of the future – went about their grisly work. In other words, the “Caliphate” obviously does not appear to be so terrifying to them as it does to us. Is there a problem here? Or is it just a matter, as the Americans seem to think, that the Sunni tribes – those all-purpose mini-societies which we depend on when things go wrong – have only to be bought over or their national government made more “inclusive” after the departure of al-Maliki to bump off al-Baghdadi? These are the questions we should ask.

In his last weeks, Osama bin Laden was expressing his revulsion at the sectarian nature of “Islamist” attacks – he even received a translation from Yemen of an article I wrote in The Independent in which I described al-Qa’ida as “the most sectarian organisation in the world”.

Things have moved on. At least when I met bin Laden, I didn’t fear for my life.

Trial by TV

Here's an incredible video which has been released by an alleged 'eyewitness' to the shooting of Michael Brown by the Missouri police.

Now a full scale campaign is underway to lay the blame at different doors before the facts have even been established and if you ask me, the release of Piaget Crenshaw's video is part of that campaign.

Because she offers her opinion of what is going though the police officer's mind in the aftermath of the shooting which is something she could not possibly know.

So why is she speculating in this way?

The 'eyewitness' also links what she saw with her own eyes to a subsequent autopsy report which is unfortunate because it sounds as if she is tailoring her evidence to suit what she has seen on the TV or read in the newspapers since the original incident occurred. 

The whole situation is one big mess, but it stems from the widespread possession and use of firearms and the all too obvious problems of policing urban areas in America with officers who are not remotely representative of the majority black communities whom they are there to 'serve and protect'. 

Panama Schmanama

As I was listening to Alistair Darling banging on about Scottish independence on the radio the other day, I made a mental note to find out more about the central American country of Panama.

Because the gist of Alistair's argument was that without the support our neighbours and friends in England, Scotland is little more than a banana republic.

But the BBC came quickly to the rescue with this fascinating piece by Katy Watson which explains that Panama (unlike the UK) rode out the greatest economic recession in living memory and has been growing at an impressive rate of 8% a year since 2008.  

Now I'm not so sure that even the Chinese can match that growth rate and although there is a real problem about the spread of Panama's wealth, the same can be said about the UK and Scotland, albeit on a lesser scale. 
So, who knows, Alistair Darling and the No campaign might have to eat their words before this referendum debate is over.

Panama Canal at 100: A tale of growth and development

By Katy Watson BBC South America business reporter

Panama's ambitious skyline and economic growth has led to comparisons with Dubai

The Panama Canal opened 100 years ago. It was a feat of engineering that revolutionised global trade. More than a million ships have passed through the 80km (50 mile) canal in the past century, but what do the next 100 years hold for the waterway and the small Central American country?

If the number of skyscrapers is a marker of a country's ambition, then Panama has set its sights high - Panama City's skyline is full of towering apartment blocks, and newer high-rises are continually going up.

It is sometimes called the Dubai of Latin America, but while Dubai saw its ambitions come crashing down in 2009 after it failed to pay its debts, Panama came out of the global financial crash relatively unscathed.

Since 2008, the country has seen average economic growth of about 8% a year.

Panama's growth though is not evenly spread. There is a stark difference between Panama City and the rest of the country.

According to the World Bank, around a third of Panamanians live in poverty. In the countryside, that figure rises to about 60%.

"It's a country that's moving very fast but on two tracks," says Tomas Bermudez, of the Inter-American Development Bank in Panama.


The engine of Panama's growth comes from the canal.

Panama took control of the canal from the US in 2000, and has since been widely praised with the way it has handled the operation.
The Panama Canal is a key route in global shipping

Transit fees now bring in about $1bn a year for the government.

"The canal has been such an important driver of growth that the whole domestic industry has been built around that," says Michael Henderson, Latin America economist at Maplecroft in London.

The waterway itself accounts for less than 5% of the economy, but it is the port activity, logistics and shipping services that boost the contribution for the country of just 3.5 million people.

Expansion needed

Although the Canal is significant for Panama, traffic through it accounts for just 5% of global trade. With the nature of that trade changing rapidly, Panama needs to keep up.

You only need to spend a few minutes at the canal locks to see why. Huge container ships squeeze through the lock chambers with just centimetres to spare on either side.

New supertankers cannot fit through the old locks, which is why the country is spending more than $5bn (£3bn) expanding the canal - a project that, after delays and legal disputes, is now expected to be finished by the end of next year.

"The justification of the expansion was that a new trade pattern has emerged," says Jean-Paul Rodrigue of Hofstra University in New York.

"When China became a global exporter in early 2000s, the Panama Canal started a new type of business, linking China to the US east coast."

At the moment, the biggest ship able to use the canal takes 5,000 containers. After expansion, it will be able to handle ships carrying as many as 12,000 containers and it will double the capacity of ships carrying dry bulk such as sugar and soy.New rivals

Panama also faces growing competition.

The Suez Canal recently announced plans to widen its waterway. And closer to home, Nicaragua last month unveiled more details about its own canal between the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans.

But it is still early days for the Nicaragua project.

"It's a project that is technically feasible, but commercially at this point it doesn't make sense," says Jean-Paul Rodrigue.

As for operating the canal, he is sceptical of Nicaragua's track record.

"When you build such an infrastructure project, one of the biggest criteria is trust and political stability," he says.

"The Panama Canal Authority is run like a business and is run very, very efficiently. Nicaragua has a lot of uncertainty."

Panama's healthy economic growth came under the presidency of businessman Ricardo Martinelli. But his was a leadership tainted by accusations of corruption.

New President Juan Carlos Varela has promised to bring change and more transparency.

"He seems to have captured the popular mood in Panama," says Michael Henderson. "His campaign was to clean up politics and it will be what his success is ultimately judged on."
The canal has been key to Panama's economic growth
The country is spending more than $5bn (£3bn) expanding the canal
Despite income from the canal, Panama is a country of great inequality

The president will also be judged on how inclusive its future growth will be. The canal expansion will help retain Panama's importance in global shipping but more Panamanians want to benefit from the extra revenues the expansion will bring.

"We have a very modern economy but our political system is not very modern, it's not very representative," says Panamanian economist Horacio Estribi.

"We need to deepen our democracy in order to have more integral economic growth and social growth."

Opposite the Dubai-like skyline, the old colonial part of town encapsulates the country's economic story.

The Casco Viejo, once a run-down neighbourhood, is now experiencing full-scale gentrification - run-down colonial buildings are being given makeovers, and trendy bars, shops and boutique hotels are springing up.

But in amongst the renovated houses you can still meet some of the original residents. It is a neighbourhood where rich and poor live side-by-side. As long as both can benefit from the boom, Panama will be a better place.

Thursday, 21 August 2014

Freedom of Information

I have submitted a Freedom of Information (FoI) request to Scottish Ministers over a scheme the Scottish Government established five years ago to help councils in Scotland meet the cost of their outstanding equal pay claims. 

Now I've heard all sorts of things about what councils in Scotland have done to raise money to pay for equal pay including mortgaging off commercial premises from which councils get rent - Birmingham City Council did something similar recently with its National Exhibition Centre.

But why would a council enter into such an arrangement if the Scottish Government is willing to lend a helping hand?  

Maybe the Scottish Government would ask sensible questions of the councils involved, such as: "What is the council's total liability?" -"How did the council get into this position?" - "How will the council ensure that the same thing does not happen again?" - "Is anyone within the council being held responsible?" - or "Sure we can help, but the council will have to open its books so that Scottish Government can see exactly what has been going on?" 

Surely that would be a very responsible thing for the Scottish Government to do because the intention would be ensure that public money is properly spent. 

Derek Mackay
Minister for Local Government and Planning
Scottish Government

Dear Mr Mackay

FOISA Request 

I would like to make the following request under the Freedom of Information Scotland Act 2002.

Please confirm the names of all Scottish councils which have applied to the Scottish Government for extra 'borrowing consents' to meet the costs of their outstanding equal pay claims?

Please confirm the names of the councils which have made successful requests to date and the amounts of money involved in each case?

3 Please confirm if this facility is still available to Scottish councils in 2014 and the process to be followed in making such a request to the Scottish Government? 

I look forward to your reply and would be grateful if you could respond to me by e-mail to:
Kind regards

Mark Irvine