Wednesday, 24 June 2015

SNP overreact to 'non-story' on monarchy's Scottish funding, why?

What a curious ‘non-story’ it turned out to be.

non-story..?

Sir Alan Reid, the Keeper of the Privy Purse [yes, that’s his real title] yesterday presented The Queen’s Annual accounts to Westminster. He mentioned in passing that he was worried by the decision to devolve income from the Scottish Crown Estates to Holyrood next year fearing the SNP might hold back the Queens share.

The Times and The Daily Telegraph seized upon Sir Alan Reid’s ‘concerns’ to run a story alleging the SNP intended to cut the money Scotland pays the monarchy as part of some sinister republican plot.

 Today, following the Scottish First Minister’s intervention Sir Alan is apparently no longer worried. Move on there is nothing to see here insisted spin-doctor and SNP chief strategist Stephen Noon on Twitter.

Worth every penny..?

 Now before we go any further it might be worth explaining what the ‘Crown Estates’ are and how much income they generate. The Crown Estate is one of Britain’s largest property portfolios. It has assets worth £8bn and generates profits in excess of £250m a year. This ‘portfolio’ includes some of the most expensive real estate in London and Edinburgh. It also contains Ascot racecourse, several well-known and famously lucrative urban shopping centres [including Edinburgh’s Kinnaird Park] and the entire seabed around Britain as well as half the foreshore. All income from the ‘Crown Estates’ used to go to the monarch until 1760 when George III transferred it to the UK Treasury in return for writing off the huge debts he had amassed, taking on the cost of Britain’s civil administration and providing him with a handsome allowance known as ‘The Civil List’.

Worth every penny..?


 With the passing of the Sovereign Grant Act in 2011 the ‘Civil List’ was abolished and so was the rather unseemly spectacle [for monarchists at least] of an annual debate where ‘plebs’ in Parliament got to set the budget. Instead the Tories managed to get the issue passed on to the Prime Minister, the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Keeper of the Privy Purse [see above] to oversee and a ‘formula’ was agreed where a percentage of the Crown Estates annual net revenue was paid over to the Royal Household [currently it is set at 15% of all its annual profits].

Worth every penny..?


 The Times and The Daily Telegraph story that the SNP intended to ditch the formula set out in the Sovereign Grant Act and keep the money so worried the nationalists that First Minister Nicola Sturgeon herself was put up to rebut it. She was briefed to say this claim had ‘No basis in fact’ and vehemently insisted ‘By hook or by crook Scotland will pay our contribution [to The Sovereign Grant] in full and on time’.

Worth every penny..?

 So why was the SNP apparently so frightened of this ‘non-story’ that the nations First Minister had to deal with it? The answer speaks to the SNP’s nervousness about Britain’s un-elected, unaccountable and anachronistic ‘Head of State’. Any SNP Minister could have pointed out that under the ‘No Detriment principle’ enshrined in all the devolution plans out of London - The Scotland Bill 1999, The Scotland Bill of 2015, the Smith Commission and ‘Full Fiscal Autonomy’ [whatever that actually means] insist the UK Treasury is fully reimbursed for any extra income accruing to Holyrood from any new powers devolved. So any extra money received from the Scottish Crown Estates from next year must be deducted from the Block Grant.

So why would the SNP keep a penny piece when there is clearly no advantage to do so?

That’s the primary reason the ‘Keeper of the Privy Purse’s’ fears are unfounded. But the SNP’s ‘full spectrum response’ as it were speaks to its own political vulnerability.

They try to face both ways on the monarchy.

Worth every penny..?
They are aware there is a sizeable pro-Independence constituency in Scotland who wishes to replace the Crown with an elected Head of State. Indeed many suspect most of the SNP’s 100,000 members want such a republic. And yet the SNP leadership continues to reject that notion out of hand and talk up Alex Salmond’s post-Independence ‘social union with the Queen at its Head’ to appease their conservative voter base in their North East heartlands. Their naked political calculation here is that those who favour a modern, democratic republic are not as exercised on the issue as the right –wing monarchists who wish to conserve this ancient anachronism.

 For the SNP this issue remains a fault line running right through the party.

Their response to Sir Alan Reid’s claim yesterday is a measure of the vulnerability their leaders feel on this most fundamental of questions.

The question is will this ‘non-story’ mark the day the leadership’s position finally began to crack? Or will their democratic credentials continue to be ridiculed?

My pamphlet on a Modern Scottish Republic available HERE

Worth every penny.


Tuesday, 23 June 2015

Alexis Tsipras's Groundhog Day

Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras in Government for 5 months faces the same dilemma over and over and over.

Tsipras: Dilemma...

Greece owes 330bn Euro’s to the IMF/ECB/EU and has no way of paying it back. For the umpteenth time he stood on the precipice again this week, looked over and backed down. If anything his situation only gets worse. The Greek economy has shrunk 25% in the last 5 years, it is currently in recession again and shows no sign of recovery. Yet next week Tsipras has to pay the International Monetary Fund [IMF] 1.6bn Euros. If he cannot do so he loses the 7bn Euros promised to Greece under the terms of previous loans.

The Greek economy simply cannot afford the loss.

 In order to secure this latest loan he had to promise the Troika [IMF, EU and ECB] further cuts in public service spending and higher taxes, all in breach of the manifesto commitments Syriza made to voters in January. He has therefore agreed to raise a further £2.7bn to pay to the Troika from Greece's crumbling economy.

This latest austerity package includes cutting Greece’s pension bill by increasing the retirement age, demanding higher contributions from workers and scrapping early retirement schemes. Additionally Tsipras aims to raise £1bn by increasing VAT rates for certain items, charging wealthier pensioners for some health services and raising Corporation tax.

None of this will be easy.

VAT for example is already at 23% and 8,500 businesses have gone bust this year alone. And in truth this latest ‘compromise’ offers little long-term solace. It simply buys Greece time to limp on to its next financial humiliation in August. The Greek economy remains in a desperate state. Its unprecedented level of debt [standing at 180% of GDP] chokes any chance of recovery. Official unemployment is at 25%, whereas under-employment is far higher. One in two youngsters is out of work. One million others have already emigrated.

 This depressing picture is all a far cry from the euphoria of January 25th when Syriza won the General Election. Back then they promised to implement a 7-point programme known as its ‘Thessaloniki Declaration’. This committed them to increase the National Minimum Wage to 751 Euros per month [£625/month], to lift the basic state pension to 750 Euros/month, to ensure everyone had electricity and no one was disconnected, to get 50% of the national debt written off and negotiate better terms on the remainder by mobilising international opinion behind Greece’s plight and convening a conference of all debtor nations to press for that write off.

Unfortunately none of those promises has been kept and for one simple reason. It has no power to do so.

The Troika [the International Monetary Fund, European Central Bank and European Union] hold all the ‘aces’. Now Syriza merely promises not to cut the National Minimum Wage or state pension and it sells that as a triumph. Maybe it is in the circumstances.

 Yet remarkably Syriza is more popular now than it was in January.


(Two podcasts I made from Greece in January)


The reason is apparently because the Greek people are pleased Syriza stood up to the Troika. Previous Governments were seen as apologists for the moneymen and they struck poor deals. This renewed sense of pride does not put bread on the table but it has won respect nonetheless. Why does Syriza not just leave the Eurozone and walk away from these crippling debts run up by its useless predecessors?

The answer is because ‘Grexit’ is not politically popular.

Syriza doesn't support it feeling that the consequences of reintroducing the Drachma would lead to even greater economic and political instability. The Greek people are hostile too because they don't have the stomach for the uncertainty and upheaval it would bring. Equally, the Eurozone’s architects Germany and France believe ‘Grexit’ would undermine the political and economic rationale behind the single currency. They believe it would be better to keep Greece inside. And therefore notwithstanding the political pressure from their own domestic electorate determined to see Greece abide by the terms of the Eurozone deal they signed Angela Merkel and Francois Hollande are determined to see Greece remain in the Euro.

 Both sides are guilty of underplaying the long and painful road Greece has to travel for many years to come if it remains inside the Eurozone. It will not be fun for anyone. Tsipras believes his Groundhog day’ will end when the Troika agree to write off some of his country’s backbreaking debt.

It has been a forlorn hope so far.

Tuesday, 9 June 2015

Greece - Is Syriza buckling under the pressure of the EU moneymen?

It's five months since that heady Burns Night when I witnessed Syriza - The Coalition of the Radical Left - win the Greek General Election. And the answer to the oft asked question back then 'who is going to blink first the new Greek Government or the EU moneymen?' appears to have been answered. Elected on a seven point programme know as its 'Thessaloniki Declaration' Syriza promised, among other things to : get half of Greece's 319bn debts written off as unpayable renegotiate the terms for repaying the rest with the Troika [IMF/EU and ECB] halt the privatisation programme agreed by previous New Democracy and Pasok Governments increase the national minimum wage and state pension to 751 Euro's per month and 750 Euro's respectively organise a European wide debt conference to build support for their programme of non payment. Any honest and objective assessment of the progress made on those pledges does not flatter Syriza. Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and his colleague Janis Varoufakis have succumbed to pressure applied by their creditors in Berlin, Frankfurt, Brussels and New York. The debts have not been written off. Indeed unaffordable repayments have all been made in full. The Port of Piraeus, the jewel in the crown of the Greek state, is to be sold off to a Chinese company. The promised increases in the minimum wage and state pensions have not happened either. The European debt Conference is nowhere to be seen. The odds stacked against Syriza have simply been insurmountable. Varoufakis and Tsipras have been outgunned on every occasion and emerge from every meeting with the Troika further compromised. The Greek economy meantime has been shrinking and shrinking. Billions of Euros have been withdrawn from banks as savers stash cash under their beds fearing credit controls will be imposed following the inevitable debt repayment failure. And yet despite all these setbacks Syriza remains popular at home. Recent opinion polls give them a commanding lead over the opposition New Democracy. They emerge with very little from the talks with the Troika but Greeks at least appreciate the fact they stand up to the creditors and conduct themselves with dignity and a never failing resolve. This is not something the previous New Democracy or Pasok Governments ever did. But as Paul Mason writes in his blog for Channel Four News this week the Coalition's partners, the trades unions and the youth who might have been expected to lead protests against the Tessaloniki failures will not remain silent forever. There are tensions and conflicts within Syriza about the failure to deliver on the Coalitions manifesto. As things stand those arguing in favour of leaving the Eurozone remain in the minority. Opinion polls suggest the Greek people are overwhelmingly against such a 'Grexit' and a return to the drachma. In these circumstances the political options open to Alexis Tsipras are extremely limited. He appears intent on shoring up Syriza's political support at least and has suggested that if the latest talks with the Troika - due to end on June 30th - fail he may call a Referendum to let the Greek people themselves decide whether to accept the terms negotiated or to leave the Euro.

Friday, 29 May 2015

Scotland Bill is trap for Independence movement says eminent economists

I’m beginning to think the Scottish Socialist Party’s exclusion from the Smith Commission - we were the only one of the 6 parties formally involved in the Independence campaign not invited to join - was a blessing in disguise. Because as Joyce McMilan states in today's Scotsman ['Scotland Bill is a challenge for SNP'] 'What's undeniable is that last November all five parties signed up to this deeply flawed settlement.' And she is right because neither the powers proposed by the Smith Commission nor under Full Fiscal Autonomy or the new Scotland Bill puts an extra penny into Holyrood’s treasury. That unmistakable fact should be obscured by no-one in this debate. Moreover under the so called ‘no detriment’ principle enshrined in the new Scotland Bill any extra revenues accruing to Holyrood are automatically deducted from the Block Grant Holyrood receives under the Barnett formula. On the other hand under what Jim and Margaret Cuthbert of Stirling University call 'the Gearing problem' the Scottish Government is loaded with many new responsibilities and a potential reduced tax base. In other words the Tories are not proposing to pass on a penny but will pass the responsibility for cuts in public services and welfare benefits to Holyrood, thus dumping political disadvantages to them. I thought Nicola Sturgeon’s 'faux outrage' at the Scotland Bill yesterday at First Minister’s Questions was a sign the SNP realises they will need to do a dramatic U-turn on their attitude to Smith because they understand David Cameron’s ‘Scotland Bill [2015]’ is a trap. And it is one the SNP fell headlong into. 'Full Fiscal Autonomy' sounds attractive but as I pointed out throughout the General Election campaign the devil is in the detail. The FFA envisaged by the Tories does not mean full tax raising powers are transferred to Holyrood, far from it. They propose in fact that most taxes raised in Scotland will continue to be sent to London. And yet they are conspicuously silent about the obligations Scotland would face in terms of expenditure; contributions to defence and foreign affairs, to Europe, for UK Embassies across the world, to UK historic debts and much more. We would continue to be responsible for many debts and not actually enjoy the full benefits of all taxes raised here at all. The Independence movement owes the Cuthberts a debt of gratitude for pointing out the trap Smith set us. We therefore need to oppose these provisions in the Scotland Bill and focus our energies on winning a second referendum as soon as possible.

Friday, 13 February 2015

NEW SSP PAMPHLET 'UKIP, EUROPE AND IMMIGRATION : A SOCIALIST PERSPECTIVE' OUT NOW

Next weekend's Scottish Socialist Party National Council in Glasgow will launch our new pamphlet on UKIP, Europe and Immigration. The Scottish Socialist Party does not share UKIP’s philosophy on free market economics, on Europe, on immigration or indeed on most things. They are for a lassez-faire free market where the bosses and the rich are free to exploit whomever and whatever they like across Europe. We are for an independent socialist Scotland, a modern democratic republic which shows solidarity with all other workers across Europe as part of a continent wide federation of socialist states. We have a proud record in standing up for working class people. Indeed no other party in Scotland or Britain can match our record in challenging exploitation, racism and prejudice. We are determined to stop UKIP and others from victimising working class people whether they are immigrants or not for an economic and social crisis that had nothing to do with them. We hold the bankers, spivs and speculators who caused the 2008 financial crash responsible and insist they pay in full for their misdeeds. * The pamphlet is available to order now at £5 [incl P&P]

Monday, 2 February 2015

LETS BE CLEAR SYRIZA HAVE NOTHING IN COMMON WITH LABOUR OR THE SNP

Here is a letter I sent to the Herald Letters page last Tuesday following an article by Iain Macwhirter wrote claiming Syriza the 'Radical Coalition of the Left' were merely populists like the SNP. The Herald chose not to publish it. Having just returned from Athens I feel I must correct several errors in Iain Macwhirter’s article ‘A New Deal could be the real deal for Greece’ [Herald 26/1/15] because, if left uncorrected, they would seriously mislead your readers. First on a point of information. Syriza forged a coalition yesterday with one of the smaller parties the ‘Independent Greeks’ [ANEL] for one reason only, to secure an arithmetic Parliamentary majority. As readers will know Syriza won 149 MP’s on Sunday out of 300. In order to prevent an opposition ‘vote of no confidence’ they moved to secure the support of another 10 MP’s. This ‘coalition’ should be seen as little more than housekeeping. ANEL, for all they are a right-wing party of small businessmen, fully support Syriza’s anti-austerity and reflationary economic programme and have done so throughout the past two years. All the other suitors were either unsuitable partners [like PASOK the Labour Party's neo-liberal equivalent in Greece] or are like the Greek Communist Party [KKE] with 17 seats bitterly hostile to Syriza. Since very few Greek Governments serve their full 4 year terms the approach to ANEL on Day 1 was a wise move. But it is Iain’s central contention that Syriza is ‘a populist coalition much closer to the SNP' that runs the risk of misleading readers most. For Syriza is not like the SNP. They are not ‘populists’, they are, as their name suggests a highly politicised ‘coalition of the radical left’. They are anti-austerity and anti-neo-liberal. The SNP are not. The two parties are represented in the European Parliament but whereas Syriza are in the unmistakably socialist ‘European Left’ group the SNP belong to the populist ‘Nordic/Green’ caucus. Iain also ignores Syriza’s socialist principles entirely when he suggests ‘..rhetoric aside their [Syriza] programme isn’t that different from Ed Miliband’s Labour’. You think? Syriza aims to confront the most powerful capitalist institutions in the world and recover 160bn of debt relief. They intend to double the national minimum wage and state pensions. They will introduce collective bargaining rights for Greek workers. They have called for a European wide debt relief conference to write off monies owed by Spain, Italy, Portugal, Ireland and others. They believe in practical solidarity assistance from the left across Europe. Ed Miliband doesn't support any of that nor is he ever likely too! If Iain really thinks Labour and the SNP can be compared to Syriza I suggest he has been drinking too much Ouzo at his Burns supper.

Sunday, 25 January 2015

EUROPE'S FIRST RADICAL LEFT-WING GOVERNMENT SINCE 1945 ABOUT TO BE ELECTED

The poll of polls published today in the Greek General election show Syriza the ‘Coalition of the Radical left’ on 35.7% of the vote meaning they would secure 147 seats in the 300 seat Parliament. Whilst this is just short of the overall majority needed to govern outright three of the smaller parties likely to pass the 3% threshold for representation [Potami, PASOK and Independent Greeks] have said they would abstain in any 'no confidence vote’ and therefore allow Syriza's Alexis Tsipras to become the next Prime Minister. After casting his vote in Athens today Tsipras forecast the result would ‘mean the future of Europe will see progress and democracy predominate, not austerity.’ It is clear Syriza has won today’s election on the most left-wing programme Europe has seen since 1945. In their manifesto, the famous seven point ‘Thessalonki Declaration’, they promise to confront the most powerful financial institutions in the world to ensure half the 319bn Euro Greek debt is written off. The ‘Troika’ [European Central Bank, International Monetary Fund and EU] as well as the establishment parties New Democracy and PASOK insist the Greek people must continue to live in their existing economic, social and political purgatory for years to come. Standing up to these interests on behalf of the Greek people Syriza have said ‘No. We refuse to live under these conditions a moment longer. There is another way that protects our dignity and improves our appalling standard of living. Hope is coming. Greece will advance. Europe is changing.’ They have promised to convene a European conference against austerity to allow similarly indebted nations to jointly campaign against austerity and for debt annulment. Syriza will work with other radical left parties across Europe, including the Scottish Socialist Party, to secure concrete solidarity support for the Greek people. Meanwhile here in Greece Syriza have pledged themselves to raise the national minimum wage and state pension to 751 and 700 Euro’s per month respectively. They will also create 300,000 new jobs to get the unemployed back to work as soon as possible and have guaranteed no one will again go without food, healthcare or electricity. Greece will not be a socialist country tomorrow but socialists will be running the Government. Syriza is a left-wing anti-capitalist party. It supports public ownership and wealth redistribution and it is determined to lift millions of Greeks out of poverty and want. And that job starts tomorrow morning. Tonight however is a time for celebration both for Syriza activists and socialists everywhere. Their historic breakthrough has been achieved after many years of struggle. Moreover they realise winning the election was, relatively speaking, the easy part. For it is the preparedness of the Greek working class to struggle against the considerable conservative resistance inside Greece and the power of international capital outside lined up against it that will ultimately be decisive.