Monday, 30 June 2014

Show Me Your War Face

As a Green you'd maybe expect me to be a bit of a hippy when it came to the topic of war. While I'm all for peace, I'm also a pragmatist and I have the experience of growing up the son of a soldier. Between the ages of 9 and 13 while living in West Germany it was my job on a Saturday to check the wheel arches of the family car for bombs. I view my enduring love of mayo on chips as compensation for such trauma.

While it's tempting to dwell, we must look to the future. As we debate the pros and cons of independence we should consider the opportunity to repurpose our armed forces, reprioritise our military spending and write our own foreign policy.

So often it seems those campaigning for a No vote characterise a Yes as Scotland turning its back on the world, when of course it would be us taking responsibility for our place in the world. It wouldn't guarantee we did or said things differently but there'd be a chance we might, and with the fairer representation that we have in the Scottish Parliament I can see the opportunity for debates on defence policy that simply don't exist through Westminster.

The Army itself is going through relentless reorganisation, so the idea that independence represents some sort of instability is simply laughable. By 2020 the MoD wants regular forces cut back dramatically and 30,000 reservists integrated.

Morale has understandably taken a huge knock. In the latest MoD survey there are fewer personnel who feel proud to be in the services, fewer who feel valued, fewer satisfied with service life.

Top brass say that the era of long-term "stabilisation" projects (as they cutely call Iraq and Afghanistan) is over. Adaptability will be key, and withdrawal from Germany means most of the UK military will be based at home for the first time in many generations.

Significantly, they say that the UK's economic climate remains a "strategic threat to the nation".

Deloitte, the corporate finance and risk management giant, publishes a global defense (sic) outlook, and in its 2014 version, hot off the press, it stresses: "Resources once devoted to conventional military formations are moving toward network security and military cyber capabilities."

All together you can see that the military is under enormous pressure to reform and get to grips with modern threats. For me it underlines the silliness of Trident. I seem to recall even Tony Show-Me-Your-War-Face Blair describing it as a status symbol.

The White Paper contains ideas for how an independent Scottish military would shape up, and naturally it focuses on personnel, bases, jets, etc. It seems reasonable to expect a long-ish transition rather than an overnight rearranging of the players and hardware.

How serving personnel will vote in the referendum is hard to say. It's tempting to think those who take the Queen's Shilling are likely to vote No, and it's understandable that those who depend on Trident for work want to know what job they'd get in future. However, the apparent attempt by the Cabinet Office to "cascade" pro-UK material down through the ranks using email is likely to have raised some hackles. It's one thing to take orders from a senior rank but it's quite another to be nudged by some remote politician with an agenda.

Crucially I'd like us to think of how a Scottish Government and Parliament with responsibility for the military would treat forces families. The impact on spouses and children can be both positive and negative - while there's an attraction to "seeing the world" as the recruitment ads used to put it, there's also the disruption to home life, schooling and friendships, not to mention the worry and trauma when mum or dad is away fighting or on exercise. I still can't quite believe my dad was on the frontline in the Falklands, and I still remember the night a helicopter was shot down over his base in Northern Ireland.

Whether it's lack of kit at the frontline or a failure to invest in decent houses for families back at home, it does seem like governments are happy to praise bravery but not provide for dignity. Interestingly I see from a glance at various military websites that the Army Welfare Information Service is currently suspended.

So, would a Yes soften the harsh realities of service life for families? Well, we'd have to push for it. By pursuing a defence policy that focuses on cyber threats, international peacekeeping and humanitarian operations we'd have a chance of ending the culture that Westminster governments have always embraced - a culture that says unquestioningly that war is inevitable.

And indeed we're seeing what appear to be attempts to repackage war as wholesome family fun, such as Armed Forces Day with all its bombast and bomb blasts.

I think the Quakers have a point when they invite us to step back from the music, parades and uniforms for a moment to ask what's going on. Are we creating a war-ready society?

While I like to insist I'm no hippy, I find it hard to resist quoting from Glasgow-born folk legend Donovan, who famously sang of the Universal Soldier:

"His orders come from far away no more. They come from here and there and you and me. And brothers can't you see - this is not the way we put the end to war."

Friday, 20 June 2014


Should jobseekers’ allowance be withdrawn from young people who don’t finish school or are not on training schemes, asks the vox pop section of one of my local newspapers. One guy answers saying he’s got two teenagers looking for work and there’s not enough for them, and he’d love them to get on a training scheme.

As a dad, that desire for kids (yours and others) to get on in life strikes a chord. And that’s maybe why one of the biggest attractions for me of a Yes vote in the independence referendum is the chance for Holyrood to take control of benefits and social security, and make the case for a more caring, equalising system than has been pursued by successive Westminster governments.

Here’s another inspiring quote, this time from a guy in his forties with two school-leaver sons who’re in poverty pay jobs. He lives in Manchester and says signing up for benefits when work dries up is complex and time-consuming. Safer, he says, to stay on benefits rather than dipping in and out of work.

Of course we hear a lot about welfare “reforms” but these don’t seem to be designed to address the issues highlighted by the two dads I’ve just referenced – the need for jobs and training for kids, and the need for a social security safety net that is easy to access and doesn’t leave you stigmatised.

Those reforms we hear about are themselves shambolic. The Commons public accounts committee says implementation of the new personal independence payment (Pip) has been "rushed", with long delays for claimants who are disabled or have a long-term health condition. Some folk have ended up in hospital due to the stress of the process.

A Citizens Advice report Voices from the Frontline is even more heart-breaking and anger-inducing. The human cost of the benefits cuts and the administrative chaos at the Department for Work and Pensions is simply appalling. Take for example the client who was sanctioned (losing four weeks’ worth of payments) after he was 20 minutes late for an appointment. The client was caring for his 15 year old sister after their mother started a custodial sentence. The client had literally no money.

Or the Citizens Advice client who is type 1 diabetic and was sanctioned for four weeks. She has a six year old child and has been relying on her mum, who was also on benefits, for food. She had completed a Hardship Form, but the Jobcentre would not give her any help as to where to send it or hand it in. The bureau was able to source some food for the client from a local community centre. 

Meanwhile the UK Government could breach its self-imposed cap on welfare spending. Labour supports the cap, and my local Labour MP was absent from the vote that saw it approved. The cap is £119.5bn, which excludes the state pension and some unemployment benefits. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation has pointed out that there is more spending on the richest households NOT in the welfare cap than within it. It’s madness.

Labour are of course desperate to win the 2015 election. They’ve openly admitted the moveable votes are mainly in the south-east (of England) where there seems to be a real battle around issues such as benefits, housing and immigration with sections of society being pitted against each other. And the Westminster system means Labour need to win votes from right-of-centre Tories or downright-daft Ukippers.

But back to the vox pop I mentioned at the start. Labour are proposing to end out-of-work benefits for 18 to 22-year-olds if they don’t have the right skills. The chief executive of the Crisis charity for the single homeless says this risks leaving many more young people homeless. The assistant general secretary of the Unite union says the rhetoric of sanction and punishment is not a message that Labour should be taking to the country; our young people did not cause the economic crash and shouldn’t be made to pay for it. And the chair of the left-wing Compass pressure group says in a world of increasing job insecurity, conditionality makes less sense.

Contrast that with the words of the Jimmy Reid Foundation. In a report called “In Place of Anxiety” - part of its Common Weal project – the authors, including the late Ailsa Mackay, say that the most significant indicator of causes of stress and anxiety is economic inequality and in particular the problem of low pay. They say that the political narrative in the UK seeks to divide different social groups from each other, creating animosity and disharmony between them as a means of generating consent for continuous downward pressure on benefits.

If we had responsibility for welfare in Scotland we could reverse all of that. We could bring different social groups together, generate support for a social security safety net that we could all be proud of, and see a less-stressed, more productive society.

Labour like to characterise a Yes vote as Scotland turning its back on those being squeezed south of the border. In reality, a Yes vote would enable Scotland to show a better way is possible.

And as a dad, why wouldn’t I want to lead by example?

Monday, 9 June 2014

Independence - Are We There Yet?

Independence - Are We There Yet?

100. What a lovely, big round number. Today’s media is awash with coverage of the indyref as it’s 100 days till the polls open. Sadly that coverage is mostly generalities, with the usual figureheads at loggerheads. Luckily I found myself where the real action is - speaking to undecided voters, specifically undecided teenagers who are getting their first chance to vote.

In a debate hosted by Jedburgh Grammar and chaired by an old BBC colleague Ken Macdonald it was me, Colin Fox and Joan McAlpine for Yes, and Michael Moore, John Lamont and Claudia Beamish for No.

For those of us who’ve been on the campaign trail for the past couple of years it does feel like the vote can’t come soon enough. But for these students, as with many others, it’s only now that minds are starting to focus on what it’s all about.

I did my best at explaining why I’m voting Yes as a Green and as a Dad. I had a go at answering questions on the currency and the BBC. I did take a few notes, and if there had been time it might have been fun to unpick some of what the No gang said.

Michael - a thoroughly and literally upstanding chap who like me has a Bairn about to go to big school - talked about the UK having “real power”, whatever that is. And the collapse of the banks seemed to be a reason against independence, although I find it hard to imagine Westminster ever truly reforming the sector.

Claudia - a vision in green and the first speaker to mention climate change - spoke of wanting a “moral economy”, although how Labour would deliver that if the Tories win the 2015 election she didn’t say. She also said the UK is great at sharing resources. I’ll just pop down to the local food bank to spread the good news, shall I? We also heard that we couldn’t click our fingers to make Trident go away, and that there are complex global agreements being worked on we should put faith in instead. I prefer putting faith in CND who reckon we could switch Trident off within 8 days if we had the will to do so.

John - who only lives a few miles from the Border - fretted about cross-border health care post-Yes when of course neither health service or government has proposed changing the current arrangements.

Chatting to some of the young people afterwards they were asking for specific local visions - what would independence do for the Borders? I pointed out that if we’re moving powers from London to Edinburgh there will be pressure on Edinburgh to give power away to regions and local communities, giving them more control of finances and economic development.

But I closed the debate for Yes with a riff on a memorable movie quote. When I left school, twenty years ago, the big film that year was Forest Gump. His mama liked to say life was like a box of chocolates - you don’t know what you’re going to get.

At the moment the UK system feels like someone else is holding the box of chocolates and I have no choice and have to swallow flavours I don’t like. A Yes vote is the equivalent of taking hold of the box and getting to choose which chocolates I eat.

I am a bad man for talking about chocolate right before lunch but I just know a Yes vote will be sweet.