Thursday, 29 August 2013

The Sweet Smell Of Separation

Don’t be alarmed. The title of this blog post isn’t anything to do with Wife-features and me. No, it’s about the absurd tone of those leading the charge against Scottish independence.

There’s a great line in the 1957 Burt Lancaster-Tony Curtis movie The Sweet Smell of Success (directed by Alexander “Whisky Galore” Mackendrick) in which Burt’s megalomaniac newspaper columnist JJ Hunsecker says of Tony’s slippery publicity agent Sidney Falco: “I’d hate to take a bite of you. You’re a cookie full of arsenic.”

By default those campaigning for a No vote are sending out a negative message: Scotland shouldn’t decide on issues such as welfare, tax, foreign policy and defence. If they were smart they’d coat these bitter opinions with something sweet to persuade undecided voters that a No vote has positive implications. But judging by the latest comments of Scotland’s Labour and Conservative leaders they’re not even trying.

In this magazine comment piece Ruth Davidson claims we have “a seat at the top table of global decision-making”. Last time I checked the UN had no reserved a space for Scotland in its debating chamber, between Saudi Arabia and Senegal. Instead we have to hope a Tory PM represents the interests of a nation that overwhelmingly votes for other parties.

Ruth talks about her commission on how devolution can be improved and says “most importantly” it includes “a number of senior ‘real world’ figures from Scottish business”. To be clear, the commission is headed by Thomas Galloway Dunlop du Roy de Blicquy Galbraith, 2nd Baron Strathclyde, and the number of business figures involved is two. As to their ‘real world’ status, I would simply point out that one is simultaneously on the board of numerous ports, film studios, housebuilders, a yacht group, Celtic football club and is a council member of the CBI big business lobby group. That's one busy boy.

It is however useful to know that the commission’s findings will be clear before the referendum vote, although whether the Tories at a UK level will commit to delivering new powers if they win the General Election in 2015 is anyone’s guess. I rather suspect if Cameron’s lot get back in they’ll be obsessing over EU membership, and Scotland will be forgotten.

“Independence will kill parliamentary devolution stone dead,” says Ruth, buzzing with positivity. Yes, the SNP have tied the hands of local authorities – and Scotland’s local authorities are too big anyway – and they’ve merged the fire brigades and the police forces, but that’s because the punters voted for them. It’s called democracy. If Conservatives genuinely want to see more local control then why do I continually hear Tory politicians talking about the bloated public sector? Oh, what’s that? You want local control but with services provided by the private sector so actually there’s nothing left for locals to control?

Hilariously Ruth hopes the Government’s White Paper on independence, due this autumn, will reveal what an independent nation might “look, smell and feel” like. (Please can it look glittery, smell of cut grass and feel like bubblewrap? And not dishevelled, patchouli and moist.)

In the same magazine Labour’s enigmatic Scottish leader Johann Lamont says the referendum will “hog” the headlines for the next year and that the Edinburgh Agreement is “grandly titled”. This sort of language is familiar. I often see Labour politicians refer to the referendum as a distraction, yet in almost the same breath they often refer to it as the most important decision we’ll ever make. Which is it?

According to Johann the debate is becoming “increasingly bad-tempered”. I have to say the conversations I’ve had with undecided voters have become increasingly constructive and informed. The clock is ticking and people are starting to seek out information so they can decide. I’ve come across former staunch Labour supporters and those who would normally describe themselves as of the Left who find the prospect of taking responsibility for taxation and welfare incredibly appealing.

Lamont says however we vote the “financial future is bleak” and “we have less money”. Argh! I’m being dazzled by such rays of sunshine.

We also have to “compete in a global market”, echoing the words of David Cameron who told CBI  types that Britain needs to keep flogging fighter jets to the Middle East, needs to keep cutting taxes for corporations and needs to cap welfare and freeze child benefit.

She then goes on to say she wants “a battle of ideas, not a battle over identity.” Characterising the referendum as a debate about identity indicates a failure to appreciate that those voters motivated by flags and history have already decided how to vote. Such abstract concepts have not cropped up once in the conversations I’ve had with undecided voters. If Labour genuinely move towards a debate about ideas I’d welcome that.

Finally, Johann says she campaigned for a Scottish Parliament so “no longer would we have a political leader like Margaret Thatcher who could make decisions that would have such a significant impact on people’s lives.” Yes, hooray for Holyrood. Thanks to its mighty powers we no longer have a Tory PM and Chancellor dismantling the welfare state. Oh, wait a minute.

Taken together the tone of the two big pro-UK parties is clear. Westminster does a grand job and if you’re thinking of reforming the way the people are served, think small.

But as Sidney Falco says in the Sweet Smell of Success: “I don't want tips from the kitty. I'm in the big game with the big players.” Scotland is a big player and this is a big game. Let’s think big.

Friday, 16 August 2013

Those Mad Ministers And Their Marketing Machines

There’s an episode of Mad Men in which Don Draper reveals a great business secret. He says advertising is based on one thing: happiness.

There must be some truth in this, as it seems we’re surrounded by fluffy, cheeky- chappie style advertising. The sort of advertising that calls you “mate”, gives you an unsolicited chuck on the shoulder and offers to get you a skinny latte with a dusting of cinnamon. Just the way you like it, mate.
Advertising. Mad.

These sorts of creepy campaigns, with their strummy, hummy music and freckle-faced children playing in the sun and ordinary suburban types trimming hedges really get my dander up. But thank goodness they stick to products and services I don’t give a hoot about. Well, it seems this happy clappy schtick has infected something I really care about – getting from A to B on a bike.

Before the last election the SNP promised to increase the proportion of government transport spending that goes on walking and cycling. They’ve done no such thing, instead committing billions to building new bridges, bypasses and dual carriageways.
Cycling. Not mad.

Two mass protests – Pedal on Parliament – have taken place and campaigners have been badgering the government constantly. To date we’ve seen little movement, with any new money going on tourist routes in the Highlands. Lovely but not what was being called for.

At some point it seems the government’s agencies – Transport Scotland and Cycling Scotland – presented ministers with a range of options for increasing cycling. Fixing the roads and making it safer would deliver great results but would cost a fair bit. However, you could run a marketing campaign to encourage “mutual respect” among road users for much less. I believe in any business meeting that’s what you call low hanging fruit, so it’s no wonder the minister gave it the nod.

The result is a half a million pounds campaign called Nice Way Code, and it certainly meets the Draper test of promoting happiness. There are cartoon cats being swung and grim reapers on HGVs. The central message is: wouldn’t it be nicer if things were nicer but let's face it, they're not. I’ve seen the campaign receive a warm welcome from keen motorists who dislike cycling and a frosty reception from cyclists who just want to be treated as human beings. That speaks volumes.

We can’t really blame Newhaven, the marketing agency, as they are simply delivering their client’s brief. But let’s assess how the brief corresponds with reality.      

A YouGov poll out today (admittedly on the back of comments made by David Cameron but still relevant in Scotland) asked people how often they ride a bike. Only 4 per cent of Scots cycle “most days”.

How safe are public roads? Across the UK 62 per cent say Not Safe. In Scotland this rises to 64 per cent.

Most popular factors among Scots for making people cycle more:

More dedicated cycle paths – 38 per cent.
Improved safety on roads – 35 per cent.
Better weather (!) – 24 per cent.
Safer storage of bicycles – 20 per cent.

31 per cent of Scots said none of the suggestions made would make them more likely to cycle. (Interestingly, across the UK this answer was given by 29 per cent of men; 39 per cent of women. It’s clearly much harder to persuade women that cycling can be made safe.)

And the big question: Should government encourage more people to cycle?
Across the UK 69 per cent say yes; this rises to 75 per cent in Scotland – the highest figure in the UK.

Nice Way Code
So, three quarters of Scots want the government to make it easier to cycle, and the most popular ways people can be encouraged are cycle paths and improved safety. Is it any wonder light-hearted images of horses on bikes have gone down like a lead balloon? Why are Scottish ministers continuing to ignore such a significant section of society? Why are they ploughing money into messages that enforce the idea that cycling isn’t safe?

So today I’m launching a copycat campaign. I’m stealing Newhaven’s idea to use classic Highway Code-style imagery but I’m replacing “Nice” with “Fix”...

Swapping “Way” for “The”…

Substituting “Code” with “Road”.
Fix The Road
As Draper put it, happiness is freedom from fear. It's a billboard on the side of a road that screams with reassurance that whatever you're doing is OK.

Ministers can provide that reassurance by investing in cycle lanes and safer roads. Only then should they pay ad men to scream about it from billboards.

Wednesday, 14 August 2013

What We Did On Our Holidays

For what seems like the first time in many, many years I’ve just had a two-week summer holiday. I didn’t leave the country but I did disconnect from most of reality, and spent lots of time with The Bairn and Wife-features. It was bliss.

By disconnect I really mean that. Perhaps my proudest achievement is surviving a whole fortnight without Twitter. I’m not a huge fan of having conversations on it but it is a superb way of finding interesting content and linking to items of note. In the two and a half years I’ve been using it I’ve slowly learned to take it in moderation; dipping in a few times a day for short periods. Otherwise it can be overwhelming.

I made a point of avoiding radio and TV news and tried to dodge newspapers, although did find myself slipping in a little bit of mild environmental campaigning with local media. A brief busman’s holiday as it were.
And speaking of newspapers – I consume several every day for work – I found it hard to go cold turkey and after 24 hours on holiday got the “information shakes”. I ended up walking to a late night supermarket to buy a copy of the Economist. That kept my brain fed for a bit.

I’ve also started floating the idea of stopping our purchase of a Guardian on Saturday. We used to get it and the FT for sheer enjoyment at weekends but the cost mounts up. Wife-features is a big fan of Tim Dowling but I’m afraid the Guardian has taken a shine to the Farage Balloon in recent months, inviting him to editorial meetings, taking him for pints and describing him as a reluctant celebrity. By contrast my holiday treat of an FT resulted in a detailed feature on the forthcoming IPCC report on climate change and a crossword whose answers included Celia Johnson, my secret black-and-white movie star crush. No, I’m not crying. It’s only something in my eye.

As for black-and-white movies I treated myself to a box set of film noirs (or should that be films noir?) – three Otto Premingers and a Jules Dassin – which I watched from under the brim of my fedora while I knocked back bourbon after bourbon. I read 22 Raymond Carver short stories, and looked out my record player and collection of vinyl. The Bairn got a good blast of dark and sad Joni Mitchell stuff, and didn’t object when I insisted on lining up Herbie Hancock’s Headhunters. She has since acquired a ukulele. If she turns out to be a genius singer-songwriter I plan to take full credit.   

The Bairn had a whale of a time at East Links farm park, while we spent another day at Dunbar guddling for sea creatures (smaller than whales) and lounging on the amazing sands of Belhaven Bay. We also took Green Gran to the outstanding Falko cake shop at Gullane. I’m a sucker for strudel.

Belhaven. Bliss.
East Links park was actually a revelation. It’s a serious chunk of change to get in as a family but once inside you have the run of the place and it’s enormous. There’s a narrow guage railway, mini-tractor rides, all sorts of play equipment, bales of hay for climbing and trampolines for bouncing. My earlier experiences of soft play centres have been terrifying but this was actually enjoyable. Maybe it was the fresh air; maybe it’s because the Bairn is four and a bit so needs less attention. Either way I’d recommend it. But watch out for the goats. They almost ate my wristwatch.

It does feel like the last “innocent” summer. Next week she starts at morning nursery so no more sleeping after dad’s gone to work. And of course after that it’s full-time big school.

As Joni once sang:

“The seasons they go round and round and the painted ponies go up and down. We're captive on the carousel of time. We can't return we can only look behind from where we came.”