Thursday, February 27, 2014

Scotch Mist - Occasional reflections on a referendum. No 3 - the BBC debate and what it reveals

Should Scotland become an independent country it will naturally want to establish its own broadcasting services. There is no particular reason why a publically funded system such as that used for the BBC should be employed but doubtless Scots like the model and appreciate the quality and range of the huge range of BBC services. However as always there is a fascinating subtext in the arguments about money.  In an article in The Guardian the culture secretary has highlighted the proposal of the SNP to retain all of the licence fee collected in Scotland and to spend it funding its new service.  This is the key bit
The Scottish government has argued that in 2016 the BBC will raise £320m through the licence fee in Scotland, but it will spend only £175m on services for Scottish viewers and listeners.
Yes, BBC Scotland does not get all of the money raised in Scotland. So what? Nearly all of the BBC's budget goes on programmes that go to the whole of the UK. If the SNP are proposing to keep the licence fee for their own purposes and to go on having the full range of BBC programmes made available in Scotland then this simply won't fly. As a statement of principle it is so obviously stupid that I must have misunderstood their position. But they have stated they will keep all the cash and will not charge their citizens any more for receiving BBC output.

Now, citizens in Ireland receive BBC programmes and pay nothing for them and no doubt there will be an excellent signal to most of Scotland for some time to come (Whether terrestial television and radio continues  or whether the BBC goes subscription based is another story).  But it is the attitude of the SNP that grates.  "We want to share whatever you've got and we want to keep whatever we've got." Not "How can we best work together in future?". As with the currency union idea, it is all about what the SNP wants,  and sod the views of anyone else involved,  because if you are not Scottish and have a view then you are interfering, bullying, out of touch, elitist and probably a disciple of Beelzebub.

And on another note a major company suggested it might want to relocate if an independent Scotland left the sterling currency area. Another instance of interfering, bullying etc etc? Er, no. This is the highly respectable epitome of canny financial management Standard Life, HQ firmly (for the time being) in Edinburgh. And why? Because 90% of their income comes from the rest of the UK. Seems fair. If the licence fee argument, as quoted above, is a guideline then it works in exactly the same way for businesses reliant on the stability of the sterling financial system that are essentially based south of the border.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Scotch Mist - Occasional reflections on a referendum. No 2 - Independence

What is a "country" or a "nation"? Do you start with the political borders, with a language group or simply with a bunch of people who define themselves as a nation?  What happens when opposing religions divide the populace? These are difficult questions to answer and the more you (or me, at any rate) think about them, the harder they get. Do you need to be born in the territory that defines the country? Or have parents who were? Does it matter where you now live or where you aim to live in the future?

What are the classic reasons for any country to emerge as independent?
  • Where an existing country has been conquered or absorbed into another and then re-emerges - Poland, destroyed in the 19th century and reborn in the 20th. albeit with shifted frontiers is a good example, as are the Baltic states and indeed all of the 19th Century Russian empire.
  • Where the previous arrangement forced people of different languagues and cultures into a polity neither would choose freely - Czech and Slovakia perhaps, or East and West Pakistan.
  • When a group of people are oppressed by another and only a full separation can relieve the problem - South Sudan, the nascent Palestine
  • When stupid borders have been created by previous empires or colonial administrations that divide people who would naturally wish to be united, though forming new countries by merging old ones together happens pretty rarely and is, I believe, frowned upon by the UN. Kurdistan is the obvious case.
I have been trying to see how Scotland fits the case. The country has had its territorial integrity for a very long time and has never been subsumed into another. The UK was effectively a new country, not a takeover (unlike in the case of Wales). Whether Scots would have chosen the Union freely in 1707 is a matter of debate but not relevant now - what is relevant is that Scots consistently show a preference for staying in. It does seem that the case for independence is not based on any of the classic reasons. Indeed, given that Scots as a people are totally in control of their culture, their media, their police, education, health and legal systems, and compete in the football World and European cups as a nation, one wonders what difference it would make were the Act of Union to be repealed. For the huge number of Scots living elsewhere in the UK, one might think not very much at all.

So it comes down to the ordinary bloke (or blokes) in the street. After independence will they cease to be oppressed? Will they have freedoms they do not have today? Will they be able to worship as they wish, bring up their kids in a system that works for their benefit, work as they choose, live where they like, pay reasonable taxes and spend the remainder as they choose? Yes, I would think so. The SNP's domestic policies are pretty close to the standard European left-leaning Social Democratic norm (as far as I know).  But my point is that this is already pretty much the case.

What then is the true meaning of independence in this special case, a country that has its economy massively integrated into its neighbour and with whom it has lived peaceably and with full participation in national government for three hundred years (skipping over the odd Jacobite rebellion)?

The answer, I think, is that independence for Scotland really won't mean a lot. They already have it in all but name. So why bother? Pride? Maybe. But pride has never been a really good reason to break up a marriage if everything else is working fairly well.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Scotch mist - Occasional reflections on a referendum. No 1 - Currency Union.

I wrote ages ago that I was not impressed by the leader of the Scottish National Party, one A. Salmond and now that the debate about the Scottish referendum is hotting up, I am bound to say that not a lot has changed. Mr. Salmond is now not simply the only man who knows what is best for Scotland, he is (according to his own statements) the only man who can speak for the future of the UK. He wants his country to be independent but simultaneously wishes to dictate the currency and, by implication, general economic policy, to the rest of us. He has decided that his country should continue to use the Pound sterling and wants a "currency union" with the rest of the UK. The trouble with this is that it makes no sense whatsoever. Currency unions throughout history are precursors to full political union. Countries surrender sovereignty in such arrangements and it generally follows that they then recognise it formally. The history of the unifications of Germany and Italy, and the expansion of the United States across the North American continent show us this.  Equally, when for other political reasons, and there is nothing wrong with having such reasons, countries separate, then they also separate their currencies so that each may take full control of its monetary and fiscal policies. Otherwise there is not much point in being independent. The first act of the Bolsheviks in seizing power in 1917in Russia was to take over the state bank. Communists they may have been but they knew where the power lay.

So, now that all main political parties at Westminster, backed by the Treasury and the Bank of England, have ruled out a currency union ("bullying" apparently, according to Mr. Salmond; I expect his next soundbite will be "It's not fair") the choice for the Scots is simple. If the EU permits it then join the EMU (Economic and Monetary Union) of the EU and move swiftly to adoption of the Euro. Or make the Scottish Pound legal tender. Actually the first choice is probably out because like all other applicants, Scotland may have to wait a while to show that it it is fit to join the EMU. So something else must be done in the interim. Therefore it has to be the Scottish pound. But can this work on anything other than a 1:1 parity with Sterling and fully convertible balances? I doubt it. So the Scots will end up with a shadow currency and no fiscal independence to speak of, because if they do anything to spook the markets the resulting run on the Scottish pound could empty the coffers overnight (cue bitter memories of the Northern Rock fiasco). And they will be bound by whatever economic polices the Government in Westminster sets.

The solution to all of this is obvious - stay in the UK and avoid the hideous mess of splitting up. The only people who do well out of divorce are the lawyers.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Commuting causes anxiety - Official

I've been writing about it for a long time and now the Office for National Statistics has confirmed, as reported in the Guardian yesterday, that commuting causes unhappiness, compared to working from or near home. Furthermore the level of unhappiness increases for each minute of a commute, although it tails off and reduces for people doing extreme commuting (journeys of several hours).

All pretty obvious, really. Commuting is a fairly unnatural sort of experience. Throughout human history until very recently people worked where they lived. When you commute you are no longer in control but dependent on the service of the transport provider. You are often forced into uncomfortably close proximity to other people. It can be difficult to concentrate on anything other than the rigours of the journey. Modern technology - in the form of tablets/smartphones/music players - as well that old standby of something decent to read can help but never fully alleviate the problem. People travelling by car or on wheels were happier than those going by bus or train, and cyclists the happiest of all (but I am sceptical about applying this to general commuting because typically cyclists do not have a long distance to cover; for someone like me to try to cycle into central London would be exhausting, extremely dangerous and more stressful, due to the nature of the main roads, than almost anything else).

As for those making very long journeys - that is not so much commuting, more choosing to live a substantial chunk of your life on the move and requires a very different mindset to that employed by the rest of us.

I am not sure quite what the point of the survey is, given that it tells us nothing we did not already know.  If you are interested in further research, my groundbreaking study Why doing nice things makes us happier than doing unpleasant things is available on request for a modest 25 bitcoins [whatever they are: Ed]

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Watching the waters

The flooding of significant parts of southern England has continued and in some places is now worse than ever. The West Country and the Severn valley have been in difficulties since early January. In the last couple of weeks the Thames has risen to record levels and some of the most desirable (or they were, up until recently) towns in the country are under water. At first glance the areas affected seem the wrong ones - the upper Thames from its source to Oxford is ok, even though these areas often flood even in reasonable times, and there are no flood warnings of any sort below Richmond. But in between, where the river itself is not particularly wide, the waters have risen sharply and are pushing up groundwater. It is almost as if the Thames is itself acting as a barrier to the water and is protecting central London.

There is no danger in beautiful Ruislip although our own dear River Pinn is overflowing onto its flood plain (if one can call a few soggy strips of open meadow and woodland that) downstream where it meets the Colne at Uxbridge; and there have been warnings where the Colne itself meets the Thames not much farther on. Some back gardens that back on to the rivers are under water. This morning the warnings were removed but there is a lot more rain on the way.

Will these unheard-of wet conditions favour the amphibian population? In the past couple of years the frogs have ceased to come to our little pond - fifteen years ago we might have had a dozen taking up residence during the mating season - and this is part of a national crisis. We shall know in a few weeks.

Wednesday, February 05, 2014


A couple of ISPs*, with whom I have a business relationship, have emailed me to advise of the new domains that are coming into effect. There has never been any particularly good reason for internet addresses to be restricted to ".com", ".org", "" and the like. Now a plethora of new dot endings are here, or will be here shortly,  including ".clothing", ".bike" and ".plumbing". I can see how this sort of name will be useful. But the contents of an email I received today from one of the ISPs are giving me some considerable difficulty for this one suggests that I should rush to register a new name ending ".guru".

Now why on earth would I do that? What does say to you? To me it says pretentious tosser. And how many real gurus are there? And of those, how many are customers of the ISP that is touting this particular domain extension? There are millions more commuters than there are gurus. Why don't we have our own domain? Strong and worthy questions, I think you'll agree. I think I might even pay real money for ruislip.commuter. Not a lot, mind. But when you have a valuable brand you need to protect it. So when the sunrise process, or whatever they call it, begins for this particular domain I shall be first in the queue. Unless it costs more than £5. In which case I won't be.

[Internet Service Provider: Ed]

Monday, February 03, 2014

The Wycombe Hole

One of the minor news stories of the day concerns the sinister car-swallowing sinkhole of Wycombe, and shows the perils we all face in our daily lives. Fans of writers such as H.P. Lovecraft and Ramsey Campbell will recognise the scene at once, as some ghastly demonic being from beyond the galaxy issues forth, growing fat on a diet of Vauxhall Corsa fricassee garnished with petrol. But leaving aside the horror story potboiler possibilities (and I do so with reluctance),  I was taken by the brief comment issued by the Buckinghamshire Fire Service which included these words "Firefighters placed a cordon around it and gave safety advice". (Presumably the advice was given to members of the public, not to the hole). Somehow this induced an image of a bunch of burly blokes in helmets and breathing apparatus standing in a ring around the hole, facing outwards and holding hands, whilst issuing the following vital safety advice to onlookers
"Do not fall down the hole. Repeat - do not fall down the hole. Falling down the hole may cause injuries. So do not fall down it."

And it must be working because so far nobody has been reported as having fallen in it.

Saturday, February 01, 2014

Search is back

The search box seems to be working again. So I have reinstated it.
[and jolly handy it is too: Ed]