Tuesday, 22 March 2016

The Sinking Of Gideon

This week sees the proposed date that, had Scotland voted a different way we would have become an Independent country, if you believe that those negotiations would have been brisk, swift and fruitful and not become bogged down very quickly.  I suspect that, like a couple of weeks ago, the GERS figures estimating a Scottish budgetary shortfall of £15bn will be common place within social media and the news.

The fact that the £15bn has been racked up by a body with very little powers regarding the raising of revenue (the ability to raise or lower income taxes by 3% either way seems quaint by comparison to the Smith submissions) seems to have bypassed most of the Scottish Media.  Indeed as sticks to beat the pro-Independence supporters go, it’s not the best stick to choose.  This would be a potent weapon to use against pro-Independence supporters if the UK economy was being run properly and we were genuinely better together.  Nowhere was this more evident than with last week’s Budget statement, a statement which looks more and more disastrous for Osborne than the notorious Omnishambles budget.

For someone who has been influenced by the Blair/Brown dynamic, you would have thought that Osborne would have noted that what eventually undid Brown the Prime Minister was the homecoming of the Chickens he set free during his time as Chancellor. Apparently not as Osborne blithely set about his favoured game last week of setting traps for the opposition and talking of hard choices etc etc etc.  The policy of a sugar tax did catch the eye of many people on the day, as did Osborne’s bashing of the SNP when announcing tax cuts for the oil industry.  There were five moments in that speech which spell the end of Osborne: The Heir Apparent.

The most obvious moment, at the time, being the less than good economic figures unfurled by Osborne.  True, as a country we have never resolved to fix the issues in the economy which led to the Credit Crunch/Banking crash from 2007 onwards.  This has not been helped by a political system which still places a priority on home ownership and increasing house prices.  Having said that, Osborne has at least recognised one of the issues holding the UK back – stagnant wage increases – and has attempted to rectify this.  Even if the resultant new ‘National Living Wage’ is still below the actual living wage. 

The poor forecasts announced by Osborne meant that 10 months on from last years election, Osborne will not hit his targets for debt in this parliament, with the GDP share forecast to be 77.2% at the time of the next election.  Borrowing forecasts have also been revised upwards by the OBR, up to £55.5bn (+£5.6bn), £38.8bn (+£14bn) and £21.4bn (+16.8bn) in 2016-7, 2017-8 and 2018-9 respectively.  Growth figures have also been revised downwards, as the global economic climate is forecast to take a downward turn.  Those figures do not suggest a man fit to be chancellor.  It’s so bad that it's enough to make you pine for the days of Irn Broon.

It is the second moment, coupled with the others that have lit the blue touch paper, typed without any irony whatsoever. It is the plans to cut Personal Independence Payments, the successor benefit to Disabled Living Allowance, which has been the straw to break the camels back for many Disabled rights campaigners, coupled with cuts to Corporation Tax and Capital Gains Tax.  The latest attempt by Osborne to go to the well of Benefits cuts has backfired big style.  More so since the resignation (which may or may not be influenced as well by the upcoming EU referendum) of the Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith.

That resignation and the bitter aftermath appears to have split a party that a couple of months ago was still in the full glow of the honeymoon period of this government.  Smith’s resignation letter laid squarely the blame at the Chancellor.  His phrase that the “salami slice” of welfare cuts were a “compromise too far” has deeply damaged the Chancellor, torpedoing not just his leadership hopes but has cast serious doubt about how long Osborne will be chancellor.  Yip, the so called Quiet Man as the assassin is a strange prospect.  Not as strange as the prospect of a man who went to Easterhouse, and came out of the experience wanting to make poverty stricken people worse off, holding the moral high ground, but we do live in strange times.

The prospect of Cameron not lasting this year is now a real prospect as the enmity towards the Cameroonies has now erupted into open warfare.  All of this should be an open goal to a Labour opposition still recalibrating itself after defeat.  Maybe all Corbyn needs to do is sit back and do nothing but plan his next move, I don’t particularly remember John Smith being outstanding around the time of ‘Black Wednesday’.  After all, Cameron’s government is showing every sign of not knowing when to stop digging, with the prospect of Osborne having to submit a second budget to cover the estimated £4bn black hole that the PIP’s u-turn has created.

To make a clusterfuck of one Budget might be, if you were being charitable, seen as careless.  To make the same mistake twice might be, if you were being honest, a terminal sign.  George Osborne is now the lame duck Chancellor just marking time until the referendum or when Cameron is replaced.

Tuesday, 8 March 2016

Why Osborne Won't Be The Next Conservative Leader

One of the jibes thrown by the SNP and their supporters about the upcoming EU Referendum is that this is an internal dispute within the Conservative Party and that it’s unseemly for us, presumably the public at large, to be involved in it.  True, many of the arguments have had a right wing tinge to them, but we should hopefully see a more left wing Euroscepticism – not unlike that outlined by myself two posts back – emerge.

Osborne will be hoping to emulate this man, John Major, as a
Chancellor who becomes Prime Minister
Of course, what hasn’t helped is the emergence of Boris ‘Boom Boom’ Johnson as a fully fledged Eurosceptic.  This has added fuel to the fire that is the argument that really this referendum might as well be the campaign to see who succeeds Cameron as Conservative leader, and ultimately PM.  What it has ensured is that nobody, for the moment anyway, is talking about the guy who was – and probably still is – favourite to succeed Cameron. 

I had never bought into the hype about Osborne. There’s way too much Gordon Brown in Osborne, he believes his own hype as a master manipulator (probably helped by Blairites who swallow the Osborne hype as well) and is a ridiculously poor chancellor.  Six years into his term as Chancellor and the country is still in the sick bed thanks to his policy of strangling the economy by taking money out of it to shore up the deficit.  The hallmark of his chancellorship has been his eagerness to set traps for his opponents to fall into, to paint his opponents as whatever he wants them to, rather than managing the economic health of the country.  It’s not that Osborne is useless as some sort of political chess grandmaster, its more that his card is marked as someone who is sleekit.

Osborne’s problem isn’t just confined to his position as a chancellor not as successful as he would like.  History is against Osborne as well.  Since the start of the 20th century, only six men have made the move directly from number 11 Downing Street to take up residence next door, four of them Conservatives.  Stanley Baldwin was the first in 1923, shortly before calling & losing an election the following year.  Neville Chamberlain was Baldwin’s Chancellor during his third term and succeeded him as Prime Minister in 1937.  Harold Macmillan was Anthony Eden’s chancellor during the Suez Crisis and succeeded Eden when he resigned at the start of 1957.  The most recent Tory to make this move was John Major, Chancellor for just over a year (having previously been Foreign Secretary for just over three months).  It is not the guaranteed step into leadership that many people assume that it is.

If that particular piece of history doesn’t count against Osborne, then a glance of the history of Conservative leadership elections should.  The one golden rule of Conservative leadership elections is that the favourite never wins. The first Tory leadership election saw Edward Heath defeat the marginal favourite Reginald Maudling.  Heath was favourite to see off his shadow Education secretary, Margaret Thatcher, ten years later.  Major was seen as the outsider when Michael Hestletine launched his bid to oust Thatcher in the autumn of 1990.  Kenneth Clark was favourite in both 1997 and in 2001, but lost both times (to William Hague in ’97 and to Iain Duncan Smith in 2001).  In 2005 David Davis was the slight favourite, but lost out to the then shadow Education secretary David Cameron.

Indeed the lesson of this (if we ignore Thatcher’s defeat of Anthony Mayer in 1989 or John Major’s defeat of John Redwood in 1995) is that the outsiders should be the ones to watch.  Assuming, as most of the professional commentariat are doing, that the leadership will be between Osborne and Boris. Who would be the outsiders?

I would suspect that Theresa May’s chance to lead has gone with Cameron’s General Election win last year.  I’m not convinced that Hammond has leadership chops while both Gove and Hunt would be too divisive to be leaders.  The Labour aligned blogger Ian Smart thinks that Nicky Morgan would be someone to watch.  She is on the periphery of things and could be a good outside bet.  Certainly one to watch, but I think there’s a better candidate out there.

Sajid Javed is sufficiently under the radar, and knows perfectly how to say the correct things to a Conservative audience.  He has the makings of being a conference favourite in the future, whatever his future, and knows intuitively how to play to the right of his party.  Even when speaking about the EU, he has backed his leaders plans though has placed his euroscepticism near the front of his speeches.  When the time comes to choose a successor to Cameron, I believe the Conservative Party will tire of being run by Eton alumni – because of jibes about jobs for the boys and being ruled by elites – and pick someone who in many ways is more like the Tories last PM from blue collar stock, John Major.  At a time when the stock of immigration is not at it’s best, what would be more Conservative than to pull off another rags to riches success story whilst wrong footing Labour at the same time – to paraphrase a 1990’s slogan, what to the Conservatives have to offer the son of an immigrant who got a job as a bus conductor – they could make him leader.

I can see two scenarios playing out for the next Tory leadership election.  One involves Osborne and Boris fighting it out and Javid coming through the middle.  The other involves Osborne running but damaged by recession and his record coming back to haunt him while Boris is also running but as a backbencher, having been exiled by Cameron post referendum.  Either scenario is likely to happen, and in both outcomes the end result for Osborne is not the prize he seeks.

Tuesday, 1 March 2016

The Scottish Six

Ah, the nineties revival.  I’d always wondered how it would manifest itself.  We’ve had the re-appropriation of Ibiza House anthems as…  er… the basis of so called ‘R&B’ anthems (otherwise known as the Guetta-isation of pop) and the revival of the X-Files.  Now over the past couple of weeks we’ve seen the re-emergence of two ideas from the late 90’s.

John Milne & Alan Douglas, the Reporting Scotland
presenting team circa 1987
The Daily Record were reporting that the Atlantic League, the B & Q Cup of European League schemes, was back on the agenda of some European clubs.  It’s an idea that was first floated in 1999 when Scotland had two large cash hungry and impatient football teams that wanted to play like minded big fish in small leagues.  It fell by the wayside when the interest among sponsors, television companies and the general paying public was somewhat below expectations.

Whether the general public are more eager for the second idea receiving a revival remains to be seen.  The Scottish Six – essentially a Scottish version of the BBC’s Six O’clock News – has come back to the fore due to the ongoing BBC Charter negotiations.  You know, the ones that has seen BBC Sport essentially shred it’s portfolio and reputation as it’s shed key events.  Events like The Open and exclusive 6 Nations rights – events that used to be on the protected list of sports events to be broadcast on free to air television. For some reason, it is this, rather than the destruction of BBC Sport’s rights portfolio (to the benefit of Cameron’s backers – one R Murdoch, still a 39% shareholder in BSkyB via his 21st Century Fox company) that is the controversial proposal.  And it is difficult to see why.

All of the UK’s broadcast media has struggled to come to terms with the post devolution landscape, with most criticism being levelled at the only public broadcaster – the BBC.  It should however be pointed out that both ITV and Sky News have not adapted well to the post Devolution landscape either with too many stories about public services in England being dressed up as UK wide stories.  And don’t get me started with the papers round up late at night which sees the London based print media dominate.  To be fair to BBC News, at least they featured The Herald, The Scotsman and the Daily Record in the run up to the referendum.  Not a pep on Sky News.

It may be that because the BBC is the public broadcaster in this country that they have been seen to have failed the most.  Indeed, the SNP’s proposed devolution of the BBC looks an awful lot like, well, the successful model that ITV had from it’s inception until the 1992 franchise bid process.  You may be old enough to remember the incredibly strong regional identity that the companies that made up ITV had, from STV and Grampian up here, Granada, Yorkshire, Central, Tyne-Tees and the two London franchises that were Thames and LWT.  It’s ironic that while ITV have since 1992 gone towards the BBC model of a centralised organization, through the mergers of the winners of that 1992 franchise contest, that the BBC should be considering adopting and adapted version of the old ITV model.  A Scottish Six programme being a proposal to enable the BBC to enter the post devolution UK is not necessarily the only proposal, but possibly the only workable proposal.

The current BBC way is to have a central cast of correspondents who report on events.  When news events happen in Scotland or Wales, those correspondents continue to report on those events, shunting to one side the local reporters who know the area.  We saw this during the referendum when BBC correspondents from London descended to report on the campaign in the last weeks.  There was a feeling that these London based correspondents were not unlike the foreign correspondents that  had arrived, except they had the arrogance of thinking they knew what was happening in their own back yard without doing the prep.  It was simply unacceptable for the likes of Hodges and Kettle to pontificate from the pages of their newspapers about events here, even more so for the BBC to report on events when hardly any coverage had been given to the referendum up until the last weeks of the campaign.  What this shows is that the BBC’s tendency to impose a central, London-centric view on all events ensures that a Scottish Six is the only workable solution for the BBC.  There are two problems to this though.

The first problem is that if the BBC do go ahead, they should ask themselves what exactly they want to do with that slot.  Do they want to just put out a version of the Six o’clock news filtered through the Scottish sensibility & viewpoint, or do they want to do something a bit more radical with the slot?  It should be not beyond the wit and wisdom of those at Pacific Quay to aim to produce something not unlike the Channel 4 news, a programme which produces reports on current affairs as well as providing the news.  I say that they could be aiming for something a bit more radical for that timeslot in the full knowledge that they’ve never given the impression of knowing what exactly to do with their last creation – Scotland 2014.  I’m not sure you can call it a successor to Newsnight Scotland, because it’s not an exact Scottish equivalent to Newsnight like Newsnight Scotland was.

The second problem is the assumption that the early evening news is the flagship news programme.  There was a time when both the BBC and ITV had their early evening news shows earlier than 6pm.  By a similar token, when the Scottish Six was first mooted the flagship news slot was the late evening slot.  People were home, they’d relaxed and wanted to know the news before bedtime.  It was this argument that led to the BBC moving their own 9pm news programme to 10pm and the slot vacated by ITV and presumably it’s this argument that has lead to the rise in post 10pm current affairs programming.  From personal experience a Scottish Six would not be a programme I’d watch purely from a practical point of view as I’d still be on the commute home.  As would many others.  So for those late commuters, the early evening timeslot would not be the flagship spot for the news.

I said somewhere at the start of this post that I really don’t understand the case against changing the current news structure of the BBC.  The token figure arguing against it appears to be the Eastwood MSP Ken MacIntosh.  His argument is that there seems to be a political agenda for the ‘Scottish Six’ and that “It’s quite clear that for many they’ve got a clear agenda, which is to make things more Scottish and less British  MacIntosh’s thoughts on the dastardly BBC having an overtly Scottish Doctor are alas not recorded for posterity.

The other thing that’s not recorded are MacIntosh’s thoughts on the network BBC’s coverage of previous Holyrood elections.  The election which sticks in my mind, and therefore makes the case for a Scottish Six, was the 2003 election.  The SNP ran under a ticket promoting ‘trickle down economics’ whilst Labour’s Jack McConnell was serenely heading towards a first (and only) full term as First Minister.  Yet the news was dominated night after night by the ongoing Second Gulf War. 

Even away from the war, there was very little coverage of the Holyrood election and even less of the parallel Welsh Assembly elections.  While BBC Wales seems to have benefited from the devolution age, in terms of funding and the infrastructure being built in Cardiff (no doubt the benefit of Doctor Who being filmed there) coverage of Welsh politics on the UK news is worse even that Scottish politics.  The only time events at Cardiff Bay have made the news has been when Cameron attacked ‘Welsh’ Labour’s running of the Welsh NHS, and even then there was only the right of reply from the Welsh Health Minister.

In truth, all of the UK broadcasters are stuck in the pre-Devolution age when it comes to reporting on politics in this country.  Both Sky News and ITV really should be upping their game.  However it is the BBC, as the only public service broadcaster, which has most ground to make up.  Whether it is with a dedicated ‘Scottish Six’ – which would be the easiest option for the BBC to take – or with a fundamental shift in how they cover news stories up and down the country – which would be more difficult for a centralising BBC to facilitate.  BBC News needs to change and adapt, but then again this is change that has been overdue since 1999.  In the meantime, can they decide what Scotland 2016 is supposed to be?