Progressive my arse

One of the on-going irritations of the Scottish independence debate is the claim by Yes campaigners that their cause is progressive whereas the No side is suffocatingly conservative.

Against this, it seems to me that there is no progressive cause that would be helped by Scotland becoming independent. Further, the majority of the Yes side, for all their rhetoric, seem uninterested in policies that could change Scotland in any way whatsoever.

A reasonable estimate given currency issues and projected oil prices is that independence would lop around four to five billion pounds off the Scottish Government’s budget. Anyone who is minded to vote Yes in order to promote spending on health/education/benefits is deluding himself.

The SNP in government have proven themselves averse to any policy that will significantly alter Scottish society. Judging by Scotland’s Future, this seems unlikely to change following independence. The document contains various small sweeteners like expanding childcare and reversing the bedroom tax. It’s hardly a recipe for a bold new direction for Scotland.

To make matters worse they have now managed to largely implement both of these policies within the existing constitutional settlement. In policy terms, why do the SNP now want independence?

Obviously, the people of an independent Scotland could elect any government they like. If Scots are minded to support a more radical regime than the one provided by the SNP there is nothing to stop them voting for one. The problem with this is that poll after poll shows that Scottish political attitudes are reasonably similar to the rest of the UK population. The conservatism of the SNP is popular.

For people who are interested in progressive politics, cutting Scotland off from the rest of the UK won’t make the task of changing attitudes any easier. At least within the Union we’ll have more money to play with.

Nationalists support an independent Scotland for its own sake. For anyone who is uninterested in nation states, as the Left in Britain historically has been, there is no reason to get involved with their campaign.

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Margaret Thatcher: Both our most successful free marketeer and the reason why liberal economic policies haven’t advanced for 20 years


Margaret Thatcher left office when I was eight years old. I remember watching Michael Heseltine, Douglas Hurd and John Major vie to succeed her and finding the thought of a man being Prime Minister deeply odd. That in itself is a revolutionary fact – a whole generation spent their formative years knowing nothing except what it’s like to have a woman leading the country.

Thatcher herself would have wanted to be judged on the political legacy she left rather than her gender. That legacy is confused. On one hand she presided over a genuine increase in every British citizen’s freedom to own their home, own shares in companies and choose which goods and services they bought. On the other, she sought to restrict immigration, impose family values and ultimately to withdraw Britain to the fringes of Europe. More perniciously, the specific freedoms she advanced tended to benefit the middle classes far more than the poor.

The economic part of her program inspired Jo Grimond, figurehead for the post-war Liberal revival, to write ‘Much of what Mrs Thatcher and Sir Keith Joseph say and do is in the mainstream of liberal philosophy.’ Grimond’s view of Thatcher as being, at least to an extent, a liberal is undoubtedly correct. Her father, who she credited as the major formative influence on her politics, came from a Liberal-voting family and according to Thatcher’s sister, Muriel, he was “always a Liberal at heart”. Many of the economists who inspired the Thatcherite economic program would have described themselves as classical liberals rather than conservatives.

The style of liberalism that Thatchers Snr. and Jnr. adhered to was a throwback to the nineteenth century. Their classical liberalism shared a belief in competitive markets with the modern creed, but also incorporated a rejection of wealth redistribution. Thatcher committed herself to rolling back the frontiers of the state without transferring the means for those who had been state dependents to stand on their own two feet. The result was that as formerly state subsidised industries crumbled people simply moved onto benefits, helping to create many of the problems that the current government is struggling with.

Thatcher’s failure to grapple with the maldistribution of wealth in this country makes her legacy problematic for liberals. In addition, she was happy to face down militant working class trade unions, but much less able or willing to take on middle class professional bodies. As a result market-based reforms to healthcare and education, like education vouchers, that could have genuinely benefited the poor didn’t happen.

Thatcher achieved a great deal, but in the end she only did half the job and promoted the interests of half the country. As a result, Britain’s most successful postwar free marketeer ended up souring liberal economic policies for the people who have most to gain from their complete implementation – the poor, the weak and the vulnerable.

For those on the Left who want to implement market-based reforms to public services it’s Margaret Thatcher’s record that is their greatest stumbling block.

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The Futureheads in Glasgow

The following videos are from an interview and session that I filmed along with three friends from my journalism course in April last year.

The event took place in the Glasgow University Union while the building was closed for a bank holiday.  The band dropped in immediately prior to their gig in the Oran Mor that evening.

The interview with lead singer Barry Hyde and bassist David ‘Jaff’ Craig was originally featured on the Daily Record web site.

Their first session track was Beeswing, a cover of the Richard Thompson song, from their current album Rant.

Their second was the traditional drinking song Old Dun Cow which is also from Rant.

Hat-tip to cameramen, David Lyons, Stephen Walsh and Craig Telfer.

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Some thoughts on Labour’s economic policy ahead of Ed Miliband’s speech on Thursday

He may have been banished to the backbenches two years ago but Gordon Brown still casts a long shadow over those sitting in front of him.

The latest ICM poll shows 29% voters still blame Labour’s legacy for the current performance of the economy as opposed to 23% blaming the Coalition’s record in government.

So far Labour have been attempting to sell the idea that if they had been re-elected in 2010 the extra £6 billion they had planned to spend in the first year of this parliamentary term would have prevented a double dip recession.

This is implausible.  £6 billion amounts to approximately 0.4% of GDP.  If that spending had been directed towards a well-designed stimulus package then the most that an economist would expect is that it would result in roughly 0.4% of additional growth.

Since Labour was not planning to spend that money on measures exclusively aimed at stimulating the economy it’s reasonable to assume that at best the effect on growth would have been less than 0.4%.  Furthermore, there’s actually reason to believe that the effect on growth from implementing Labour’s plans could have been negative.

This author argues that Gordon Brown’s large stimulus package in 2008/9 reduced growth.  He bases his case on comparison with Sweden which, unlike Britain, had run a budget surplus in the years prior to the credit crunch and was able to bounce out of recession with a much smaller stimulus than the UK.

This brings us to the least defensible aspect of Brown’s term as Chancellor – his decision to run a budget deficit in every year between 2002 and 2007 in spite of the fact that the economy was growing.  That flew in the face of conventional wisdom on what amounts to good economic policy and almost certainly eroded the government’s ability to stimulate the economy when the downturn arrived.

Even if there is a case for a renewed package of fiscal stimulus in the UK, the record of the last Labour government and the stance adopted by Ed’s Miliband and Balls in opposition hamper their credibility in making it.

Ed Miliband should use his speech on Thursday not to praise Gordon Brown but to bury him.

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Nick Clegg’s New Year’s Resolutions

In Nick Clegg’s New Year message he promised that “the Liberal Democrats will continue to anchor this Coalition in the centre ground.”

It’s a familiar rhetorical theme that Liberal Democrat and Alliance politicians have wheeled out over the last thirty years, but coming from Clegg it feels a little disappointing.

The Orange Book, which in 2004 brought Nick Clegg, Chris Huhne and it’s editor David Laws to the attention of the political classes, was sub-titled “Reclaiming Liberalism”. The liberalism to which the editors laid claim sounds a lot like that of the Liberal Party from Archibald Sinclair to Jo Grimond. Unlike Clegg et al, Grimond wouldn’t have hesitated to refer to himself as a Left winger.

In Grimond’s case he would talk about the Liberal party’s mission as being to realign the Left while simultaneously advocating the privatisation of the railways and the NHS. To some modern eyes this might look like conservatism dressed up as a progressive ideology.

In truth, influenced by Hilaire Belloc, the Liberal Party had adopted a radical alternative to Labour’s postwar state socialism. The idea was to take wealth, property and power from those with the most and redistribute it to those with the least thereby giving everyone the means to live independently of the state. This was opposed to the socialists’ policies to effectively replace wealthy private landlords with council landlords and business owners with politicians and political appointees.

In policy terms, the Liberals advocated extensive worker share ownership schemes and land value taxes aimed at breaking up inherited wealth. These ideas find echoes in the policies adopted by the Liberal Democrats since the publication of the Orange Book.

Nick Clegg should spend 2013 building on policies like the privatisation of the Royal Mail (Lib Dem) and the setting up of free schools (Tory, but first mooted by Paddy Ashdown). Furthermore, he and his team should be fleshing out a radical approach to the economy designed to give power to the people. He shouldn’t retreat to simply seeking to moderate lurches in one direction or another inspired by the other parties.

In the closing years of the coalition it will be vitally important for the Lib Dems to set out their own distinct vision. Failure to do so will compound the party’s problems in 2015.

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Two Gallants, King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut, 30th October 2012

The audience for Two Gallants’ performance in King Tut’s were a literate-looking bunch. Spectacles and beards abounded, as you might expect amongst a group of people who’d come to see a band named after a James Joyce story.

The impression that this was a gathering of quiet intellectuals was shattered, however, when the singer of one of the support acts asked if anyone had any drugs and was met with the response “aye, but they’re suppositories” from one bespectacled audience member.

The first support act was singer-songwriter, Jonathan Snee. He has a strong voice and his more anguished material shows definite promise.

Following him was Belgium’s The Hickey Underworld. They play a complicated brand of grungy emo rock. While the band are impressive musicians, the material didn’t really seem to connect with the audience until they moved away from the more emotional songs and started rocking out towards the end of their set.

Adam Stephens, the lead singer of Two Gallants, took to the stage in a Guns ‘n’ Roses Use Your Illusion t-shirt. Given the fact that the band’s songs are often stories set in the 19th century I had half-expected the duo to come out wearing flat caps and braces.

At their best the Gallants use fiction to express quite raw emotional states. One of the highlights of their set was My Madonna with it’s repeated line “if liquor’s a lover, you know I’m a whore”.

Musically the spare combination of distorted folksy guitar and drums with occasional harmonica is effective. Stephens’ often cracked voice gets across their tales of heartbreak and despair brilliantly.

Other highlights included Despite What You’ve Been Told, Steady Rollin’ and Las Cruces Jail – all of which come from the band’s older albums.

The less despairing material is much less engaging than the songs about drinking yourself to death and the like. One of the audience repeatedly shouted out for Broken Eyes, a relatively upbeat number from their latest album. The band delivered this as the closer for their main set. While much of the audience sang along happily, I would have been disappointed if this had marked the end of the gig.

Fortunately, they came back for an encore and finished on the satisfyingly depressing Nothing To You.

If you’re going to listen to people pretending that they’re from the 19th century then I’d recommend these guys over Mumford and Sons any day of the week.

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Interview with Off!, King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut, 21st June 2012

“It’s like this big fucking hairy ball with rubber bands and staples and snow and it’s rolling down the hill and it’s going to crash into your house.”

That’s how Keith Morris of legendary hardcore punk band The Circle Jerks describes his critically acclaimed new outfit, Off!  It’s a confident assertion given that Morris and Off!’s Dimitri Coats started their collaboration writing material for a planned new Circle Jerks album – a project that collapsed acrimoniously.

Keith remembers the moment the rest of the band decided they didn’t want to have Dimitri produce the album: “I got a phone call one night at 10:30pm and we had a conversation that was very, very lop-sided.

“’We’re going to take control.’ Are you fucking kidding? One guy wears cowboy boots because he can’t tie his shoes.”

On Dimitri’s account the ultimatum was provoked by him rewriting songs that other Circle Jerks had started. Here’s how he remembers the night Off! began:

“I put in a lot of work. My daughter, my first child, had just been born when we started trying to work on this album. I was climbing out of a hospital bed. Sleeping with my wife and my newborn daughter in this little hospital room going to these writing sessions with these guys.

“I’d really put a lot of my life into it at this point and for what? Nothing. All of a sudden I get a call from my wife. She goes, ‘you need to come home – Keith is here.’

“So I went home and Keith was there. Myself, Keith and my wife at a table. He goes, ‘Dimitri, I know you’re probably upset, but don’t be. I knew this was probably going to happen and it’s the best thing that could have happened because we’re going to form a band.’”

Drummer, Mario Rubalcaba, and bassist, Steven Shane McDonald, were quickly recruited and the big fucking hairy ball got under way.

In spite of the success of Off! Keith seems to have lingering resentment for his former bandmates from the Circle Jerks: “I don’t really have a lot of nice things to say about them. I’m happy that Zander’s off playing with Sean from Throw Rag – that’s really cool. Other than that, keep running. See you later. Eat my dust.”

The two records that have emerged from the new band sound a lot like the sort of hardcore punk that The Circle Jerks and Black Flag were turning out in the late seventies and early eighties.

Dimitri: “The music that he was playing for both of us for inspiration was not punk rock music it was all stuff that those guys were listening to back in the late seventies that inspired that first wave of hardcore or whatever you want to call it.

“I hail from that same place. It’s classic rock. All our record collections are not too far away from one another.

“I was forcing him to listen to his early material. He was yelling at me telling me what I can and can’t do on the guitar. Something just happened. We built this time machine by accident.”

The timewarp extends beyond the music to the artwork on the records. Raymond Pettibon, who provided the artwork for classic Black Flag albums, had been close friends with Keith back in the early days but the two had drifted their separate ways. Keith decided to get back in touch: “We hit it off and we were wondering why we hadn’t contacted each other.

“One night we were going to go to a rock show in San Pedro to see Mike Watt (ex-Minutemen bassist) and his band. On the way down we played Raymond and his girlfriend four songs.

“Raymond was like, ‘I want to work with you guys. If you want to use some of my artwork, feel free.’”

For hardcore punk fans eager for hints about what the band will do next Dimitri had this to say: “Cameron Jamie, he wants to do a movie where we’re the Monkees. His version of that.

“Cameron Jamie is a pretty serious artist. He lived in France for a while. Now he’s in Berlin. He’s the real deal. Painter, sculptor, film-maker. His shows are only shown in specific places and usually with a band playing in front of them like The Melvins. He loves Off! And he was talking about making a movie where we’re like the Monkees.”

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