Thursday, 27 December 2012

Fantasy Football

The latest edition of Private Eye forecast correctly that HM Customs and Revenue would appeal the long-running tax case involving Rangers Football Club.

What I don't understand is how a loan can be a loan - if the loan amount is never recovered by the lender?

Never mind 'fantasy football' - that sounds to me like a fantasy tax return!



"Many tax experts were surprised by the majority 2-1 decision in favour of the Glasgow club and its owners at the rcent tax tribunal, and they expect that the taxman will appeal the tribunal ruling that the £47 million pumped into offshore trusts for 81 players plus club officials represented genuine loans, rather than income, and so were not taxable.

The fact that the dcision was by a majority would normally encourage an automatic appeal - plus there is up to £70 million in tax, interest and penalties at stake. The tax claim effectively forced rangers into administration and now liquidation. HM Revenue and Customs could have  good reason to expect a different result on appeal, given past rulings in employee benefit trust cases.

However, given that the old rangers is now no more, who would pay if the decision were reversed? The club's directors, led by Sir david Murray? The players - many of them now abroad?"      

Friday, 21 December 2012

Smaller Banks, Bigger Unions

News reports during the week suggested that the boss of Britain's third largest union - Paul Kenny of the GMB - is preparing to stand down early from his post.

Has this anything to do with the likely merger between GMB and Unison?

I don't know, I have to admit.

But if and when a new union comes about - GUMBO or whatever it's called will have around 1.9 million members - even more than the current pack leader, Unite, with 1.5 million members.

I would say it's time that people stopped and ask themselves whether this trend towards supersized unions is in the interests of ordinary union members.

Because in any other walk of life it wouldn't be allowed - without putting a series of checks and balances into the system.

Supersize Me (21 January 2012)

Britain's union bosses (the Bubs) are always banging on about the need for healthy competition on the high street - and the benefits of cutting the big banks down to size.

But the unions are allowed to play by very different rules themselves - seems like they just keep on getting bigger and bigger - and growing in size.

The latest union merger on the cards is one between Unite and PCS (the civil service union) - both of whom are on a collision course with the government over public sector pensions.

A new union would have a combined membership of 1.8 million members - in effect a new super union would be created - which would dwarf second placed Unison with only 1.3 million members.

But of course Unison and GMB have already been in merger talks for some time - and if they agree to tie the knot - then only two unions would represent 3.6 million people - the bulk of the UK's union membership.

At a time when big monopoly suppliers of services - generally speaking - have acquired a pretty bad name for being able to dictate terms to their customers - because of the lack of choice and inability to take their business elsewhere.

The creation of these ever-bigger 'super-size' unions also has big implications for the Labour party.

Because as everyone knows the trade unions effectively decided the outcome of the recent Labour leadership elections - both Ed Miliband and Johann Lamont owe their positions to union votes - from GMB, Unison and Unite.

So in future only two Bubs may have this level of influence and if the trend continues, who knows - maybe there will be just one.

Now there are some arguments to be made for 'big is best' - including the usual ones about economies of scale and so forth.

But the problem with the trade union sector is that it is almost entirely unregulated - ordinary union members have nowhere to go if they have a complaint - in terms of an independent outside body at least.

If these mergers were taking place in the private sector - they would be referred to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission - which happened recently when News International trying to buy Sky TV.

In addition other parts of society - both public and private - what goes on is regulated by a whole host of public watchdogs - and while you can argue about their effectiveness in some cases - at least they exist.

Here's what I had to say on the subject back in November 2009.

Smaller Banks, Bigger Unions (November 6th 2009)

Much has been said - and written - this week about cutting the big high street banks down to size.

Apparently everyone now believes that smaller banks are good for us. Because smaller banks means more banks - that have to compete with one another - and the resulting competition is good for customers.

The big guy always finds it much harder to beat up on the little guy - if the little guy can just take his or her business elsewhere.

So far, so good - sounds reasonable enough.

But isn't it interesting that while the big banks are being forced to become smaller - to get closer to their customers - that trade unions in the UK are becoming ever larger and more remote from their members.

The latest move towards another super union - see post dated 16 September 2009 - is the planned merger between GMB and Unison - which would create a union of around 2 million members.

But Unison itself is the product of an arranged marriage of what used to be three separate unions - COSHE, NALGO and NUPE - which tied the knot to become Unison in 1993.

And this latest giant union is all about keeping up with the Joneses, in the shape of Unite - currently the largest union in the land with 1.5 million members - and itself the product of a previous merger between Amicus and the old transport union, TGWU.

The fact is that these new super unions are run just like giant businesses - except that they are not as well regulated as businesses - arguably they are subject to less scrutiny than your average corner shop.

In terms of service standards - ordinary union members do not have an independent body to turn to for support, if they have a problem or complaint - there is no equivalent of the Financial Services Ombudsman, for example.

In future, union members will get even less choice from these mega unions - which all give huge sums of money to the Labour Party - despite the fact that the great majority of union members support other parties - or no party at all.

The present government has no interest in making the union more accountable to their members - because the Labour Party is so heavily dependent on the trade unions for financial support.

But it will be interesting to see what happens after the next general election - maybe the unions will be forced to move with the times. A healthy dose of external and independent scrutiny - would certainly help the unions become more accountable to their members.

Brussels Sprouts

Jose Manuel Borroso - the President of the EU Commission - has been in the news recently for poking his nose into the various 'ifs, buts and maybes' about Scotland's planned referendum on independence in 2014.

But there is another side to this gentleman which is laid bare by the latest edition of Private Eye - in its regular column about the worst excesses of the European Union.


While member states row over cuts to the EU's 89 billion Euro budget, the battle between them and the European Commission over the bloated salaries of the EU's civil servants looks set to rumble on.

Despite continually refusing pay cuts and legal challenges in the European Court of Justice (ECJ), chairman of the Federation of European Civil Servants Pierre-Philippe Bacri has now threatened strikes to block future summits if their pay demands are not met.

Since the EU's 55,000 or so civil servants enjoy an average salary of 18,000-30,000 Euros a month, with additional allowances of some 3,000 Euros, another 10,000 Euros for three years when they leave, extensive holidays and a 70 per cent of salary pension while the rest of Europe suffers savage jobs and pension cuts and are losing their homes, they clearly live in cloud cuckoo land.

After EU civil servants refused the demand of the European Council (which assembles the leaders of the nation states), to cut their 3.8 per cent pay rise two years ago, the council challenged them in the ECJ but lost after the court found that the council had "exceeded the powers conferred on it by staff regulations" (a predictable finding since the judges themselves would have been included in the cuts). The rise cost taxpayers an estimated 72.5 million Euros.  

The following year the commission again refused member states' requests for pay freezes (although member states had frozen the pay of their own civil servants), proposing a 1.7 per cent salary rise instead.

The council then said it would challenge the way the commission reviewed staff pay in the ECJ, while staff unions filed counter-suits at the ECJ against the council decision.

More to follow in cloud cuckoo land as the Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso continues to demand an increase from 56 billion Euros to 63 billion Euros in the administrative budget while the UK, Germany and the Netherlands demand cuts." 

I think it would be just fine if the Commission President - Jose Manuel Barroso - put his own house in order before giving free advice on Scotland's future relations with Europe.

Because the way this chap is carrying on - he must be a recruiting sergeant for UKIP.  

Thursday, 20 December 2012

Stop and Think

The debate about gun control in America is likely to get bogged down in a partisan debate - with the two main parties attacking each other's positions. 

I heard some chap on the TV the other day say that the way to make schools safer was to allow teachers to carry firearms - because at the moment the 'bad guys' are not at all anxious about going into school premises because they are for the most part gun-free zones.

Now I suspect that the reason schools are gun-free zones is that if a teacher were to be allowed to carry a gun - then why not a student or, indeed, another visitor?

The same argument taken in isolation must surely apply about people having the right to defend themselves - whether that person is a student, school teacher or someone else - what essential difference is there under the law?

But it doesn't take a genius to work out that more guns there are in circulation - the more incidents there are likely to be - leading to even more shootings and deaths.

So while there are no easy answers I thought this comment - drawing a comparison between airport security and other aspects of everday life in America - certainly made me stop and think.

Hairdryer Treatment

I think Sir Alex Ferguson must have too much time on his hands at the moment - because he's switched his attention away from winning the Premier League in England - to deliver one of his 'hairdryer' rants on the subject of Scotland's independence referendum. 

Playing the man rather than the ball, in my view, Sir Alex has accused the First Minister - Alex Salmond - of trying to 'silence' Scots who live in the rest of the UK - by calling for the cash they can donate to the referendum campaign to be capped at £500.

In response, Sir Alex decided to donate £501 to the Better Together, pro-Union camp - with the extra £1 being a symbol of his defiance presumably - and released a statement which said:

"Eight-hundred-thousand Scots, like me, live and work in other parts of the United Kingdom. We don’t live in a foreign country; we are just in another part of the family of the UK.

Scots living outside Scotland but inside the UK might not get a vote in the referendum, but we have a voice and we care deeply about our country.

It is quite wrong of the man who is supposed to be leader of Scotland to try and silence people like this. I played for Scotland and managed the Scotland team. No-one should question my Scottishness just because I live south of the Border."

Now this is really quite silly because no one is trying to silence people like Sir Alex who are very well placed to have their say - with or without a financial donation.

Sean Connery is another famous Scot and  a long-time supporter of independence - yet no one is suggesting that the former James Bond star is unable to speak up and air his views.

The point about capping donations is to stop big organisations or weathy individuals - from exerting undue influence over the campaign. 

Big private companies for example - or trade unions which are UK based in the main and have no compunction about using large sums of their members cash to influence campaign results - as they did in the recent Labour leadership elections, of course.

While most individual Labour party members voted for one candidate - the members' choice did not prevail - the deciding factor was trade union muscle and organisation - not the democratic principle of One Member One Vote.

Now that doesn't seem very fair or socialist to me - but then nor do the tax arrangements of many star football players which leave a lot to be desired as well.

Merry Christmas!

Like most people I'll be taking some time off over Christmas and the New Year - quite when and for how long remains to be seen as far as the blog site is concerned.

But the Action 4 Equality Scotland office in Edinburgh will be closing down over the festive period - from 5pm on Friday 21st December and will re-open again at 9am on Thursday 3rd January 2013?

Season's Greetings and Happy Holidays! 

Tuesday, 18 December 2012

Fitted Up?

Channel 4 News and Michael Crick have shown the country what good investigative journalism is all about - and it now seems as if the Government Chief Whip - Andrew Mitchell may have been the victim of a considerable injustice. 

I couldn't help feeling that the chap from the Police Federation got a taste of his own medicine - as he sought to explain himself, very badly in my view, under only the mildest of questioning from the polite Mr Crick. 

I wonder where this story will lead next?  

Urban Wildlife

You see some strange wildlife sights living in a city centre these days - for example urban foxes are frequent visitors, deftly dodging cars and people, as they head out foraging as soon as the evening sun comes down.

But here's a sight you don't see every day - a big yellow 'rubber ducky' swimming up the River Thames in London - and all just for fun as well.

'Tis the season to be jolly - after all.

You're Nicked

News reports today confirm that a police officer has been arrested on suspicion of misconduct in a public office - following an investigation by the Met Police into how national newspapers came to publish police records into an incident at Downing Street.

The so-called 'Plebgate Row' led to the resignation of the government's chief whip - Andrew Mitchell - and the Police Federation had plenty to say about events at the time - demanding that someone's head should roll so long as it was not the head of a serving police officer, of course.

Apparently a police officer from the Diplomatic Corps was arrested on Saturday and bailed on Sunday to return in January 2013 - having been suspended from his normal duties.

Presumably this means the officer being suspended on full pay while the case trundles through the court system - but you have to ask why the matter is not also being dealt with through his employer's disciplinary procedures. 

Because the courts often take an age to come to a verdict - and the standard of proof required in a criminal court is quite different, much higher - than the evidential standard required of an internal disciplinary hearing.

In other words, why should the police be operate to different standards when their behaviour or conduct is called into question - compared to other workers performing equally vital jobs in the public services?

Seems to me that irrespective of the outcome of the court case - that the employer's disciplinary procedures should kick - since the two issues are not directly linked.

So far, I've not come across any comment from the Police Federation - though I would be greatly interested to hear their views.

Men of Violence

So the men of violence have returned to the streets of Belfast - only this time the flash point is the flying of the Union Jack over Belfast City Hall for 365 days a year - and the defence of their cultural heritage, we are asked to believe.

Now judging by the number of young teenagers who have been arrested on the streets - I doubt this is true - because I have some experience of young teenagers and I have yet to meet one who is genuinely interested in their cultural heritage - at the tender age of 13 or 14.

More likely they are simply mimicking the behaviour of their adult role models - by hurling rocks, petrol bombs and fireworks at the police.

While elsewhere parts of the mob threaten and intimidate elected Belfast councillors from the Alliance Party - who voted to break with some of the flag flying traditions from the past.

Now of course no one is stopping anyone from flying the Union Jack - and if you go into some areas of Belfast, flying the Union Jack seems to be compulsory - in fact it's hung from just about every house, street lamp and even painted on street corners.

The intended message is not so much a cultural one that reaches out to fellow citizens and visitors from other countries - to my mind anyway.

No, it's more a tribal display of ownership and domination which says something like:

'We arra people and if you object to our cultural interpretation of history - you can piss right off and live somewhere else!' 

Not a great advert for the rest of the world to see, but then again Northern Ireland has come such a long way in the past 15 years - that no one is going to allow these men of violence turn the clock back now. 

Monday, 17 December 2012

Who Guards the Guards?

I'm all in favour of tougher regulation for the press - who isn't these days?

My mind was made up about twenty years ago when I complained to the Press Complaints Commission (PCC) about a sucrrilous article in the (Glasgow) Evening Times, if I remember correctly - which completely rubbished a dispute I was fighting at the time - on behalf of low paid NUPE members.

My complaint was rejected in a peremptory fashion - the PCC being stuffed full of  arrogant newspaper editors - so the outcome was hardly a surprise. 

Ever since I've regarded the PCC as a completely worthless organisation - with the same kind of credibiliity you would achieve - by putting Count Dracula in charge of the blood transfusion service.

So while I think the Leveson Inquiry was something a three-ring circus - a celebrity-driven feeding frenzy - nonetheless the noble lord has hit the nail on the head by saying that the game is up and that the PCC has had its day.

The public deserve a media watchdog which has real teeth and the ability to deal with bad behaviour - from individial journalists, newspapers and other rmedia outlets.

In fact I would go further than just holding the press and media to account - because there are other powerful organisations in our midst which could do with more oversight and serious scrutiny.

For example, Britain's trade unions which are all in favour of greater regulation and external scrutiny - except when it comes to their own activities it has to be said.

Trade unions are still powerful organisations of course - as can be seen from the fact that the the Labour affiliated ones (GMB/Unison/Unite) effectively decided who would become leaders of UK and Scottish Labour parties - Ed Miliband and Johann Lamont respectively.

Trade unions in the UK are becoming ever larger and more centlralised - as the trend towards super-sized unions gathers pace - soon there may be only two major unions operating in the public sector (Unite and Unison/GMB) - representing around 3.3 million members.

Except to say that these two or three trade unions are not very representative of course - paticularly in Scotland.

Because just about every 'man jack' of their senior officials is a card carrying member of the Labour party - whereas only a minority of union members actually support the Labour party at election time.

So who's kidding who?

I've had lots of people contact me to say they are disgusted at their trade union's behaviour over equal pay - but if they want to complain, who do members complain to?

Why the union's head office, of course.

Not an independent body which will examine the facts and act as an impartial referee - as is the case in most other areas of public life - where people can complain to a regulator, a public watchdog if you like - whose job is to level the playing field between the big guy and the little guy.

Trade unions are not very open organisations - even though they are very free with their advice and opinions about how everyone else should behave.

Trade unions are not, for example, subject to Freedom of Information legislation - despite the fact that they receive lots of public money directly and in-kind - especially the unions operating in the public services.

So, let's hear it for an independent regulator which can deal with complaints from ordinary union members - and hold big trade union bureaucracies to account.            

Late Running Dispute

The Daily Record reports that the RMT member at the centre of the planned strike at ScotRail was dismissed by his employer several months ago - back in March 2012.

Now I can't be the only person to find it rather strange that the dispute is still dragging on all this time later - and that dates for strike action called by the RMT just happen to coincide with one of the busiest periods of the year - the run up to Christmas.

Nor has the RMT said whether the union is actively pursuing a claim for unfair dismissal to the Employment Tribunals - which is the obvious thing to do in the circumstances.

Since a tribunal hearing would involve an independent examination of all the facts and issue an impartial decision as to whether or not the dismissal was unfair - without the need for a strike and all the inconvenience to the travelling public.

The more I read about the RMT - the more I think the union leadership is completely out of control.

Sunday, 16 December 2012

Religious Wars

Here's an intelligent and thoughtful article by Lord (Paddy) Ashdown - former leader of the Liberal Democrats - which appeared in The Times newspaper the other day.

Strange to stop and think that two branches of Islam can wage such war and cruelty on each other - sometimes with guns and rockets - at others by subjugating whichever group happens to have the whip hand - in any particular country at a specific point in time.

Islam's inability to tolerate religious differences within its own ranks seems to be the crux of the problem - and Paddy Ashdown is right to point out that western countries are terribly short-sighted - if they think that supporting one side or the other will bring about a lasting peace.

What's needed is a power sharing approach where the rights of the minorities are respected and protected - but that of course is anathema to a culture based on tribalism, feudalism and religious certainties, 

Who should we back in this Sunni-Shia war?

by Paddy Ashdown 

Syria is not a struggle between tyranny and freedom but a fight for dominance between two visions of Islam

It is always illuminating to look at things through different eyes.

An intelligent and worldly-wise Muslim friend said to me of Iraq recently: “The chief effect of the removal of Saddam Hussein was to advance the frontier of Iran 400 miles to the west.” With the current Shia-dominated Baghdad Government doing more and more of Tehran’s bidding, he could easily have been talking politics. But I suspect he was also talking religion.

The dominant struggle in the Middle East is not for control of Syria; it is the wider confrontation of which Syria should be seen as a part — the contest between the Sunni and Shia visions of Islam.

The history of Western policy in the Islamic world is rich in examples where we act on what we hope is happening, rather than what actually is. In the 1980s we hoped we were throwing the Soviet invaders out of Afghanistan, but ended up unwittingly funding and arming a deadly Islamic global insurgency. In Iraq during the 1980s we first helped secular Saddam Hussein against the Shia mullahs of Iran, then we removed him as a brutal dictator. Now we discover that we have enabled the expansion of Tehran’s influence in ways we wouldn’t have wanted.

We hoped that the Arab Spring would lead to a new secular enlightenment, but what we are seeing instead is the rapid growth of Sunni Salafism, spreading extremist Islam from Mali in Africa through Libya and Egypt to the increasingly radicalised and factionalised rebel groups fighting in Syria. And this extremist counter- revolution that we hate is being funded and promoted by wealthy private donors in Arab states that we regard as friends in the struggle against President Assad, such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar and other Gulf monarchies.

Are we being played again? Probably.

Something curious and potentially very menacing is going on in the world of Sunni Islam. At first the Arab Spring looked as though it might lead to a broadly heterogeneous, democratic “secular” Islam, best epitomised by Turkey. Governments elected in the early plebiscites of the Arab Spring — even in Egypt — seemed in their first flushes, to support this. Islamic pragmatists by nature, broadly pluralist and tolerant in their approach and above all democratic, these were the West’s greatest hope.

But they are, for the same reasons, regarded by some in the Saudi and Gulf monarchies as the greatest threat. So, quietly and largely unremarked, a counter-revolution is now under way. In war-torn northern Mali, until now the home of the gentle doctrine of the Sufi, the Salafists are increasingly the dominant force. In Libya they run many of the armed gangs beyond the Government’s control. In Egypt the widening ripples of Salafist influence are dramatically revealed in a recent poll that showed 61 per cent of Egyptians would now support a Saudi-style (monarchist) government. In Syria, the rise of radical jihadism among the rebels is already bleeding instability into neighbouring Turkey. In Jordan there is a substantial and growing Salafist opposition to a king seen as far too Western.

But it would be a mistake to see the motivation behind this as simply anti-Western. Where it appears so, it is a secondary, not a primary, consequence. The days when Wahhabist Sunnis defined themselves by their attitude to the West are largely over. After Iraq and Afghanistan exposed the myth of Western omnipotence we are just not that important in the Middle East any longer.

Nowadays this Sunni world does not define itself, as Osama bin Laden did, in relation to the “Great Satan” in the US, but to the “Great Heresy” of Shia. That is the conflict they are now preparing for. And we again are helping them, albeit again unwittingly.

To us in the West the struggle in Syria is the struggle in which we can never resist intervening — the compelling, simple contest between freedom and tyranny. In reality it is much, much more complex than that. To the growing Salafist counter-revolution it is nothing to do with democracy and little to do with tyranny. It is the cockpit from which to control the worldwide Sunni community and prosecute the wider struggle against the Shia enemy.

Last weekend The Sunday Times reported that the US is providing covert arms and funds to the rebels. Probably America is. Probably the French are too. Probably, so far, Britain is not. But London is providing encouragement to the fighters and tacit support for their funders. We need to be much more clear-eyed about the dangers of a regional conflict here and much more active in persuading our friends in the Arab monarchies that the best reaction to the Arab Spring is to reform to meet its challenge and not allow some in their states to undermine it.

We hope for a peace in Syria. But even if Assad were to fall soon, there is one very big reason why a wider peace is unlikely. Syria itself is not the conflict; it is only the front line in something much bigger — a widening, long-term struggle between Sunni and Shia to define the future Middle East.

The Russians understand this very well. Their support for Assad rests not just on him being “their man” and the only one they have left in the region. It is far more about their fear of the Salafist contagion now also sweeping up into their own Islamic republics of Dagestan and Chechnya. The Chinese too worry about the radicalisation of their Sunni Uighurs.

If, as seems more than possible, the turmoils of the Maghreb and the Eastern Mediterranean dissolve into a wider Sunni-Shia conflict, then, unless we are much more cautious about who we back and why, the scene will be set for the West to be suckered into supporting one side, while the Russians are drawn into the other.

Mao Zedong used to call the First and Second World Wars “the European civil wars”. It is always illuminating to look at things through different eyes — especially if this reminds us that, as in Europe in the last century, so in the Middle East today, a regional war can have global consequences.

Euro Madness

Unlikely as it seems Scotland's opposition parties - Labour, Tory and Lib Dems - appear to have fallen head over heels for a new political poster boy, the 11th President of the European Commission - Jose Manuel Barroso.

JMB (for short) has offered his considered view that Scotland will be outside of the European Union and its treaties - if the country votes for independence in 2014.

Which I think is bonkers - I have to say.

And I speak as a someone who is sceptical about the need for independence - because as I have said many times before I think the best outcome is a stronger Scottish Parliament - one with the power to run Scotland's economy instead of having no option but to follow UK policies laid down by Westminster.

To my mind the headlong rush of Scottish Labour, Tory and Lib Dems parties to embrace the twisted logic of JMB seems rather silly to me - because what the EC President says makes no kind of sense - and his ham-fisted, 'spanner-in-the-works' intervention seems likely to backfire.

Seems yo ne that if the Scottish people vote for independence - that is not the same thing as voting to leave the European Union (which lots of swivel-eyed Tory MPs in England would like to do, by the way).

In which case the Scotland people retain the same rights as other European citizens - while new arrangements are put in place through a process of negotiation with the Eropean Union and the Westminster Parliament.

Whatever that is it's not rocket science - and it's not the end of the world either.

Great Danes (3 November 2012)

I heard a Danish professor on the Good Morning Scotland (GMS) radio programme earlier today - Michael Herstfeld, if I caught his name correctly - who made a very telling point about the increasingly ludicrous debate about Scotland's future in Europe.

The quietly spoken professor pointed out that when Germany expanded its national boundaries to become a larger European state - by absorbing the old failed state of East Germany - no one gave two hoots about its status within Europe.

No one said a word about a greater Germany being forced to re-apply for membership of the European Union (EU).

Seems to me that exactly same logic must apply to Scotland if the country votes for independence 2014 - because that would simply have the effect of making the UK a smaller state - whose former member countries (Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland) would then have to sort out their future relations with the EU.

But to say that as a consequence of voting for independence - Scotland or anyone else would be thrown out of the EU seems complete nonsense to me or to put it another way - desperate scaremongering of the worst kind.

So I take my hat off to the Danish professor - he has cut through all the nonsense from the No campaign which is becoming increasingly hysterical.

Scotland in Europe

I am a very logical person normally - which is why I'm having some trouble with this wholly manufactured row about the future of Scotland in Europe.

Seems to me that if Scotland votes in favour of independence in 2014 then the UK - as presently constituted - no longer exists.

In which case all four current member nations/countries of the UK - Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland - must continue as members of the European Union (EU) - or we're all out on our ear together.

And if the latter - then we would all need to apply to join the EU club again - and at that point I think England would have a big problem, not Scotland - because of the influence of the UK Independence Party (UKIP) south of the border.

But to say that Scotland would somehow be out on its own seems completely laughable and ludicrous to me - no more than silly scaremongering of the worst kind.

I'm a sceptic on independence as I've said before on the blog site - many times.

My favoured option was an second question on the referendum ballot paper - proposing more powers and much greater economic independence for the Scottish Parliament.

Yet all these negative scare tactics by the Better Together or No campaign - are beginning to annoy me and get right up my nose - if I'm honest.

Some of these spokespeople have taken to praying foreign politicians in aid - such as the Spanish Foreign Minister who allegedly said the other day that Scotland would have to go to the back of the queue - if we Scots vote for independence.

Now what's it got to do with Spain - given that the Scottish and UK governments have both agreed to have a democratic vote and to respect the outcome of the 2014 referendum.

Well what is has to do with Spain is politics - of course.

Because the national government in Madrid is getting it in the neck from the people of Catalonia - who in increasing numbers are demanding their independence from Spain.

But as things stand a referendum on independence is unlawful under the Spanish constitution - so the Spanish Foreign Minister is simply sticking his oar where it doesn't belong.

Saturday, 15 December 2012

America's Dunblane

There are obvious parallels between the Dunblane massacre in Scotland in 1996 - and the cold-blooded murder of innocent children in Connecticut yesterday.

16 years ago an inadequate man with a grudge and a gun walked into a local school in Dunblane - a nice, middle-class  part of Scotland - and deliberately killed 16 young children and the teacher - before the turning the gun on himself. 

In the leafy suburbs of Connecticut yesterday - a young man, armed with a variety of weapons, killed his mother at home before making his way to the school where she had taught - Sandy Hook Elementary - and shot dead 27 people including 20 children aged between 5 and 10.

The response in Scotland was swift and already tight gun controls were tightened even further - so that now you can't even buy an air gun (a BB gun in America) without a licence and a police check.

Now this doesn't make Scotland a better place than America - but it sure as hell makes it a safer one because there hasn't been another similar incident in Scotland since 1996.

Whereas in America these violent shootings seem to occur every few months as disturbed and/or inadequate people - with easy access to a wide array of firearms - decide to settle some score and make a name for themselves.

Now I don't underestimate the difficulty of changing things in America - because I know a few Americans and even some of the more liberal-minded ones buy into this business - about a citizen's right to bear arms.

I can see their point - up to a point - but yet again a major shooting incident has occurred but despite the proliferation of guns in America - the shooter is not stopped dead in his tracks.

Instead he kills himself with his own weapon - or as in previous incidents he is caught by the police after carrying out his foul crime.

The word 'his' I use quite deliberately since men have been responsible for all such incidents as far as I know - from Dunblane to Norway to America.

One thing's for sure, there will now be a big public debate in America - the one that was so noticeably absent from the recent Presidential election - which Barack Obama won, of course,  but by steering well clear of any confrontation with his country's gun lobby - as did his Republican opponent, Mitt Romney, to be fair.

If any progress is to be made, I suspect this will only happen if the politicians avoid the kind of strident behaviour and language - that turns people off and sends them back into their bunkers - instead of encouraging people to think rationally and reflect carefully.

I can understand an argument that says the more people who carry guns - the safer things are for everyone - because the bad guy can be dropped dead with a single shot before he carries out his evil plan.

But that's a recipe for everyone carrying a lethal weapon - even teachers and young children at an elementary school - and sounds like something from the movies not real life.

So let's hear from you President Obama - people say that in American politics 'you campaign in poetry but govern in prose' - but this is a time for the kind of words and leadership which inspire a great country to change.    

Religious Intolerance

The BBC reported the other day that an Egyptian blogger - Alber Saber - has been sentenced to three years in jail for blasphemy and contempt of religion.

Apparently Alber Saber - an atheist and non-believer from a Coptic Christian background - was arrested in September after neighbours accused him of posting links to a film mocking Islam - presumably the one that led to staged protests recently across the Muslim world.

So having taken to the streets to free themselves of one dictator - Hosni Mubarak who ruled Egypt with a rod of iron for forty years - a new tryant seems in danger of springing up in the guise of Islamic religious orthodoxy.

Many liberals, secularists and minority groups such as Coptic Christians are complaining that the new draft Egyptian constitution - fails to protect basic rights - and that the assembly which approved the draft document last month was dominated by Islamists.

Now the Muslim Brotherhood may be the majority party in Egypt - which is fair enough and the voice of the Egyptian people obviously deserves respect.

But majority rule is about respecting not trampling over the rights of minority groups - or so you would hope anyway - democracy, for those who are supporters of the concept, is about more than simply winning a majority at the ballot box.

After all, Adolf Hitler and his National Socialist Party at one time won the support of German citizens in democratic elections - before going on to become a fully fledged Fascist party which had no respect for minority groups.    

Back in Egypt the blogger Alber Saber faced charges of making critical statements about Islam and Christianity - and there has been a proliferation of such prosecutions for blasphemy since Hosni Mubarak was overthrown nearly two years ago.

Human rights activists in Egypt say that while Articles 43 and 45 of the new draft constitution guarantee freedom of belief - and freedom of thought and opinion - Article 44 contains a specific measure to prohibit insults against prophets.

Doesn't take a genius to work out which of the articles will be given greater weight - if the courts, judiciary and the police are all ruthlessly controlled by religious zealots.

Heba Morayef, a researcher with Human Rights Watch in Egypt told the New York Times:

"Expect to see many more blasphemy prosecutions in the future now that it's embedded as a crime in the constitution."

I think he's right you know which begs the question why should the UN and the western world support the overthrow of dictators - if all that happens is that the victorious side replaces one form of tyranny with another?

A referendum on the draft Egyptian constitution is being held next week and - at the moment - the opposition groups seem torn between campaigning for a No vote or boycotting the process altogether.

On the bright side the human spirit is a wonderful, indomitable thing.

Because just stop and reflect - that only fifty years ago there were strident, respectable voices in the UK - jumping up and down about Monty Python's 'Life of Brian' which they denounced as blasphemy. 

OK, the Pythons didn't end up in jail for three years I have to admit - but as a concept 'blasphemy' is now largely irrelevant in the UK - unless religion and religious differences are abused in the context of someone committing a hate crime. 

Rightly so, I would say.

Friday, 14 December 2012

Serial Losers

As regular readers know, South Lanarkshire is one of my least favourite councils - one of the worst offenders in Scotland over equal pay - in my humble opinion anyway. 

So I am pleased to share the news that South Lanarkshire has just lost another big equal pay battle - in the Glasgow employment tribunal.

Earlier this year the council's 'in-house' job evaluation scheme was heavily criticised by the employment tribunal - which decided unanimously that it was not 'fit to be relied upon' in terms of the Equal Pay Act.

A shocker of a result it has to be said - for a council which had been developing this 'in-house' job evaluation scheme for years - in collaboration with the trade unions, so it claimed.

Unhappy with this decision, South Lanarkshire asked for a review of certain aspects of the original decision - another time-wasting and delaying tactic, if you ask me - never mind another appalling waste of public money. 

And what do you know?

South Lanarkshire lost (again) and their request for an appeal has been thrown out - with the tribunal deciding unanimously (again):

"The unanimous Judgment of the Employment Trbunal is that the interests of justice do not require a review of the Judgment dated 18 June 2012 and that accordingly the respondent's application for a review should be refused."

Now I'm not sure if South Lanarkshire Council would recognise the interests of justice - if it suddenly jumped up and bit them on the arse, but as this is the season of goodwill, let's put that point aside - for the moment at least.

In the New year South Lanarkshire is heading to the UK Supreme Court to challenge (yet again) my FOI request for pay information about traditional male jobs - and to pursue an appeal against the Employment Tribunal's original findings over its 'in-house' job evaluation scheme.

I think that South Lanarkshire may be developing a reverse 'Midas touch' - in terms of equal pay anyway - because everything the council touches seems to turn to dust rather than gold.

I certainly hope that recent eevtns are a good omen for what's likely to follow in various courts and tribunals - in 2013.