Friday, 19 September 2014

The Morning After

Yesterday, my country held a referendum on its future. I have made no secret of the fact that I voted Yes to its independence, that I felt it would be better for all involved if it were to disentangle itself from the UK. In the cold light of dawn, after a result that was disappointing but not altogether surprising, I still feel much the same way.

I'd like to make clear, first and foremost, that I respect the choice of my fellow Scots. 1.6M of them agreed with me. I don't think that the other 1.9M are stupid (though I continue to lament the poor standard of finance education in schools that makes it easy to be misdirected). I certainly don't see them as my enemies. I just don't buy the notion of a deep divide that many people (mostly outside Scotland) have been pushing. Almost all of us did what we did because we wanted the best for our country and for the wider world. Compared to that, disagreements over the means of getting it are trivial. I am awed by the fact that some 87% of the Scots electorate came out to support that cause.

The struggle to reach this point has been long and hard. Parts of it have been quite distressing, particularly the hatred for Scottish people, especially Yes voters, expressed in parts of the UK national press, where we have been repeatedly accused of being members of some fascist cult, with little meaningful opportunity to dispute this notion. It's one of those things that sums up the discomfort one can feel as a Scottish person in England, despite all the assurances of love we have received from that country recently. The togetherness everyone now vaunts (one does wonder how many have only just thought of it) must involve action being taken to resolve these problems, which have their roots in the othering and exoticisation of Scots. In other words, it cannot just be about what we do here. Despite what you may have heard, nobody is going out today to hunt down No voters in the streets. It has been a long campaign; most of us would far rather have a nice cup of tea and a sit down.

That campaign now being over, people are talking about three things: a No victory; where things go from here; and what happens to the major figures involved.

On the first of those topics, yes, the No campaign has achieved its aims, but it's hard to ascertain what that 'victory' means. What has been gained? What is there to cheer about? The land has been defended: we have our feet planted on the same slippery ground. Soon, some tell us, we will have a much better life. Soon, after what? That part is unclear, probably because there is no consensus on it within Better Together itself. In fact, do a little digging and you'll find that quite a number of Better Together supporters actually want independence; they just didn't feel that the were being offered the right model, or that now was the time. If this movement is to have any real political meaning it must first identify its own point of focus. All it can be said to have achieved otherwise is a muddled delay. Perhaps that's better than the alternative would have been, perhaps not. If it starts to look more like the latter, uncomfortable questions will be asked.

On the second, Scotland has been offered a bizarre assortment of assurances, most of which are next to meaningless in real terms but some of which have the potential to cause great complication. There is a strong suspicion that what will ensue is an attempt to cripple the Scottish parliament by giving it many new responsibilities and few, if any, real powers. Taking away powers would be politically unwise but remains a possibility, and not all of us have forgotten how Scotland was punished last time it flirted with independence. What's intriguing, however, is the political corner that the Conservatives and Labour may have painted themselves into in relation to this, given the fragile balance of power at Westminster (and the very real possibility that whoever is in government after next May's election may need the support of SNP MPs in order to actualise its manifesto commitments). Given their close rivalry, neither of these parties will want to incur the wrath of Scots just yet, so there will be pressure to act on some of those promses, and that will put certain politicians in very difficult positions indeed.

So we come to the third point. David Cameron has had a difficult month. If he had 'lost' Scotland, his political career would not have survived, so he took  desperate gamble and made his wild promises. In doing so, he created fury among powerful elements within his party, and any move to make good on those promises will make that worse. Furthermore, because of the impending general election, his party has only a brief window in which to dispose of him before it becomes too difficult to get away with. The only thing really going in his favour is the lack of an alternative likely to gain popular support within the party, which illustrates its deeper problems. Its best candidate may well actually be Theresa May, yet she has proven herself to be incompetent at a basic level (such as quoting laws inaccurately whilst serving as Home Secretary) again and again. Gove is electoral poison, Bois has limited appal outside London and, well, it doesn't look good for them.

If Cameron goes, things get more complicated elsewhere. Labour may well seize the opportunity to get rid of the increasingly flaccid Ed Miliband, with Yvette Cooper a likely replacement. In Scotland, Johann Lamont, who was almost invisible to voters during the latter stages of the referendum campaign (with those in strong No voting areas more likely to enthuse about Ruth Davidson - if you're less popular than a Tory in Scotland, you're in trouble). No's campaign was shambolic in general and has little to do with its victory (which hinged on the concept of risk, introduced early on and gradually growing less effective as time passed); it is difficult to see what Lamont contributed. Despite the official victory, she too may disappear before long.

Of all the major players, the one who seems to have come through this best is Alex Salmond, despite him officially having lost. It's broadly agreed that the Yes campaign could not really have done more. If he resigns, it's likely to happen after the negotiations of the coming months, and will probably involve a decision to step down at the next Holyrood election (in 2016). Should that happen, Nicola Sturgeon will slip easily into his shoes, and the degree of precision with which Yes crafted its campaigning will become fully apparent. Take Salmond's statements about the unlikeliness of a future independence referendum, for instance. They may have sounded definite (they had to, or people might not have bothered to vote in th one), but not a one of them was presented as anything other than personal opinion. In other words, if the Conservatives and Labour (and, for what it's worth, the LibDems) fail to live up to the promises which they strongly disagree on (and some of which would be extremely difficult to implement at a technical level anyway), there will be nothing hypocritical about the SP calling for another referendum. For that matter, the Greens could call for one any time they liked. It would probably take at least five years to engineer, but it's a credible threat. And sure, Westminster could refuse permission for it, but if a clear majority of Scots wanted to go, that would place them in a very difficult position in terms of their international reputation.

Why do I suggest there might be a clear majority in favour when there isn't this time? For several reasons. Firstly, broken promises don't go down well, especially if they inspired people to change their votes this time around. Secondly, if you look at the demographics examined in polling, you'll see a clear trend for No voting to correlate with age, and one that doesn't seem to relate to people's preferences changing as they get older; in time, much of the unionist vote will simply die off. Thirdly, looking at the pattern of No votes in this referendum shows a correlation with areas of poor internet penetration. As people get online, they become less dependent on mainstream media, they are better able to educate themselves, and they are more likely to encounter a diversity of political opinions. Internet access is expanding geographically in Scotland at a considerable pace. Over time, this will have a political impact.

That relationship with the internet has been one of the most interesting aspects of this campaign because it illustrates the increasing breakdown of traditional networks of power, of traditional frameworks through which ideas can become dominant. This isn't easy territory for Britain's traditional institutions to lay claim to. Despite the threat posed by increasing censorship, the internet is a real force for political change, enabling ordinary people to participate in public life as never before. It's a game changer.

Given the old choices familiar in Westminster elections, barely half the electorate turns out to vote in most places. Yesterday, when presented with the prospect of influencing something that actually mattered, with real choice available, voters achieved turnouts as high as 91%. That's what democracy ought to be about. We have a choice now. We can sit back and 'go back to normal' (which mans, essentially, accepting imposed changes we normally do), or we can stand up - not just in Scotland but all across the UK - and demand real choice in other elections. We can tell our politicians that we want leadership and vision, not just frantic clustering around whatever the Daily Mail says is the issue of the day. We don't need to sit around passively and let those who are supposed to be our servants take us for granted.

If Westminster hoped that a No vote in a referendum would pacify the Scots, they were wrong. Not only are we still here, still engaged, still capable of hoping for and fighting for something better, but we all stand together now in pressing for change. Westminster, stand and deliver!

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Why I'm saying Yes to Scottish independence

Despite looking in depth at a number of key issues in the Scottish referendum, and writing on it from a number of angles for several different publications, I have hesitated to say anything personal about my vote. This is't simply about trying to keep people happy, having friends on both sides. I trust my friends to respect my decision as I respect theirs. Rather, it has been an ethical choice - it has been very important to me to keep my writing neutral and focused on the facts, because I think that's what the people of Scotland have been crying out for. I have also wanted to keep things straightforward as far as my business and charity work is concerned, though I can assre you that my coming out today does not mean either Trans Media Watch or Eye For Film will lose their neutrality. I haven't asked my colleagues what they think and I wouldn't presume to speak for them. The former is there to serve, the latter to entertain and inform; there is no place for this kind of politics in that.

Why, then, am I coming out now? It's because I think that, at this point, most minds are made up; because I want to be honest with m friends and my readers; and because I don't want to be smugly positioning myself after the fact. I want to be clear that this is what I believe in, in or lose.

As someone with fourteen years of experience in business and eight years of experience writing about it, as well as about the world of high finance, I feel confident in assessing the economic arguments at stake in this debate and I am not about to pretend that I think independence would be risk free. The thing is, I see some serious risks with staying in the union as well. It's important to remember that voting No is not a neutral option, not a vote for no change. There is always change, and there are many other major political and economic factors creating instability just now. I do find it vaguely amusing to hear avowed neo-liberals suddenly preaching against risk when it comes to this vote. All in all, I'm not too worried, because I've been following the policies of big business on this for a long time, I respect their ability to manage contingencies (they wouldn't be big otherwise) and I have, unfashionable though it may be, a degree of faith in the basic principles of capitalism. Market niches do not stay empty. High prices make retailers vulnerable to competition. Etc. Where currency is concerned, a see use of the pound (approved or not) as a viable short term option, and I would expect an independent Scotland to develop its own currency within five to fifteen years.

If these seems a little brusque, forgive me. I could write pages on any one of these issues, but I don't want to bore you.

Setting aside the fear of financial catastrophe, then, and laying to rest some other fears through the simple process of looking at what has happened to other countries that have made this kind of change, I shall move on to look at some of the other headline issues. Firstly, England. You're so vain, I bet you think this vote is about you. Well, to be honest, that's not what most English people think, and I've heard a wonderful diversity of opinions from those I've discussed the matter with; I know many of them are frustrated at being purportedly represented by the likes of David Cameron saying "I think I speak for all English people when I say that I want Scotland to stay." In fact, many English people themselves want something loosely described as "independence from Westminster," and I wish them well with that - I hope that Scotland's actions can encourage a flowering of political engagement in England. That's why I don't accept the "Stay and help them fight" line. I think the best way to help is to illustrate what's possible. What politics has been most painfully short of in recent years has been ideas and real faith in the potential of ordinary voters. That, and I've helped England fight for decades, and nothing has changed. I refuse to keep on nobly banging my head off the same brick wall..

Still, it's not about England, and it's not altogether about Westminster either. It is, strangely enough, about Scotland, about what we are, what we can be, what we can do. It's about a different kind of politics already manifested in a fairer voting system, a much more diverse set of political parties (I alone have voted for four different ones at Holyrood elections), and a much more engaged public. Woken now that it might act tomorrow, the dragon of Red Clydeside, so long bound in despair and apathy, is not going to go back to sleep again. This is a country where the voices of working class people have political weight, and that, rather than any sentimental factor, is why I think it can become a fairer country. I don't think Scots are better than other people, but I think we are in a position to take advantage of a range of cultural and political factors that give us the potential to make active use of the virtues and talents we have.

I don't comprehend the argument that independence is tragic because it will make people into foreigners. I already am a foreigner to most people in the world. There are borders between me and my friends in Pakistan, Canada, Brazil and New Zealand, yet I don't care about them any less than my friends in England or my friends who live just down the street. I see borders as practical things, enabling society to be split into democratically manageable sections. I'd like to see more evenness between those sections, more freedom of movement, and respect for human rights across all of them, but those are bigger causes I shall be no less engaged with for supporting an independent Scotland.

It probably goes without saying, but I am no more afraid of being invaded by aliens in an independent Scotland than anywhere else on Earth. Nor am I worried about being invaded by the armies of Vladimir Putin, in part because I understand his empire's economic and naval limitations. I think Scotland could continue to play a useful role in the world militarily, playing to its strengths in engineering, tech and medicine; I favour maintaining a ground army but I honestly don't see us as high on anyone's target list provided that England doesn't get any silly ideas. I trust we can all be more grown up than that.

I don't see everything as dependent on oil. As has been pointed out, if we're still dependent on oil in fifteen years, we're really screwed regardless of our governance (and our low-lying neighbours are even more so). We have a number of strong industries here in Scotland and they compare pretty well to those on which many larger national economies are dependent. We're pretty flexible and we've maintained our strong tradition of innovation, which reinforces that advantage.

For the sake of friends elsewhere in the UK who have been dependent on UK national newspaper coverage to make sense of what's going on in Scotland, I would simply like to say, don't panic, there is no terrifying fascist cult here, thee is no danger of No voters being hunted down in the streets if their side wins; we're really not that exciting. There's no terrifying censorship going on (I think I personally have a pretty strong record on fighting censorship, so I hope you will trust me on this, at least enough to do some real research before buying those lines), and there is at present no convincing evidence that the debate here has led to elevated levels of violence (there have always been a few people who enjoy that, and it's not surprising to see them attaching themselves to each side of the debate, but they'd probably have been behaving much the same way without it). Perhaps most importantly, no-one here is going into the voting booths without having thought things through. It may be that parts of the UK have only just discovered the issue, but we've been talking about it for over two years. W've thought about this, you know?

So this is what it comes down to, for me. I'm voting Yes because I think it's the right thing for democracy and gives Scotland (and perhaps other UK nations too) the best chance of achieving greater social justice. There is no conflict between my head and my heart; I am voting Yes because my experience of Scotland's business landscape, its creative sector, its political mechanisms and its community leaders convinces me that it has what it takes to make a success of this, and to exemplify a better way to live than we have recently known. I don't know if it will make me better or worse off. I don't believe I have any right to concern myself with that ahead of what is good for the electorate at large. I think the time has come to grasp the nettle and to make practical change. There's no future in England's dreaming, nor in the vague promises of those who lied to us last time. If we want a real future, we must make it.

I don't ask you to stand with me. I ask only that, if you are voting in this referendum, you consider your decision carefully and do what honestly seems right to you. But for better or worse, this is where I stand. Yes I said yes I will yes.

Thursday, 28 August 2014

Kitchen Sink Drama

By now, people all around the world are familiar with Patronising BT Lady. M&C Saatchi have done it again - they have created a viral advert distributed even by those in opposition to the cause they are supporting. The theory behind advertising strategies like this is that they raise the profile of a movement and help it connect with new people, so that even if initial impressions are unfavourable, those connections can be productively exploited in future. It has, however, misfired for Saatchi clients in the past, and it looks like it's doing so again.

In the case of Better Together, which has just three weeks in which to try and persuade the Scottish populace not to vote for independence, the adage that all publicity is good publicity really doesn't apply. People who switch allegiance or make up their minds at this point are very unlikely to switch back. A number of women of my own acquaintance have told me that they have moved from an undecided position or even an outright unionist position to a pro-independence position because of this advert, and I have not met any who have moved in the other direction. I have also talked with women who were already intending to vote Yes but were not very assertive about their politics who have started speaking out and trying to change the minds of those around them specifically because this has made them so angry; and I have met firm No-voting women who feel deeply embarrassed that they have been represented in this way.

Why do they feel like this? The message is pretty consistent, regardless of political position. Women feel that they are being treated (a) as if they're idiots, (b) as if they don't respect other members of their families, (c) as if they're expected to exist in a domestic space that eschews politics, and (d) as if their sincere voting intentions must be based on gut feelings rather than reason. Many of those who are or recently were undecided are far from apolitical - if anything, it's their awareness of political nuance that has kept them from taking firm decisions earlier in the campaign, though most of them do intend to vote. No voting women who thought they were part of something are now wondering if, all along, they've been thought of as pawns.

It is of course worth noting that there are some very capable women involved in the No campaign, and one can only conclude that they lacked the marketing savvy - or confidence therein - to prevent this advert from going ahead. The Saatchis have long had a bad reputation when it comes to the representation of women, so arguably something has been imposed on Better Together that doesn't fairly reflect what's going on inside it (I'm happy to attest that I have friends within the campaign who have done solid work on women's rights in the past).

Desperate attempts to justify the advert haven't really helped, however. "The woman [in the advert] is of course not representative of all women – no one woman is – and I think it has been unfairly distorted into an illustration of what the campaign thinks of women. I can confidently say that is not the case. I wouldn't be involved in such a campaign," Talat Yaqoob told the Guardian - which, of course, is tantamount to an admission that she finds the character objectionable. It has also been argued that the representation is fair because "all the quotes are verbatim from women we've met on the doorsteps." Well, sure, I can see how that might seem like it makes it okay, but whilst any one woman feeling confused about one or two issues is understandable (and a sensible reason to seek advice), combining all that confusion in one woman creates an idiot, and to have her decide how to vote on the basis of her confusion is still more deeply problematic. it's the antithesis of political argument.

How could Better Together miss something so fundamental? Some have argued that they couldn't - that they contain a fifth column secretly working for Yes, or that this is pat of a more sophisticated Saatchi strategy yet to be revealed. Well, possibly - but then there's Hanlon's razor to consider.

There's also a worse possibility - and that's that the advert genuinely reflects what influential people in the No campaign think of women. One can only hope that such attitudes are not widespread. Whatever position one takes in the great debate, it ought to be apparent that hoping people don't exercise thought before they vote is loathsomely anti-democratic. The best thing about the past two years has been the political awakening taking place in Scotland, where people with diverse political perspectives have been engaging in debate like never before. it's opening up new possibilities for us as a nation - whichever way the big vote goes - by contributing fresh insight and energy into our political system and reviving our democracy. Women must be a part of that, and their contributions must be respected. It is way past time to get out of the kitchen. Scotland may choose to be independent or it may choose to stay in the union, but whatever it decides, there will be no place in it for those seeking to deny women a political voice.

Tuesday, 5 August 2014

Making the news

Early in the morning of the 23rd of May this year, I contacted the BBC to raise my concern about its coverage of the local elections in England and Northern Ireland. Now, I'm not a party political person (I tried that at one point and it didn't work out), but I wouldn't have needed my research degree either to identify the bias in this coverage: the Green Party, despite making impressive gains throughout the night, was almost completely ignored. I counted just three mentions of the party before midnight, there were a couple of minutes devoted to their story later on, and there was an interview with leader Natalie Bennett (looking impressively chipper) after 3am, when most viewers would have already gone to their beds. In expressing unhappiness with this situation, I was joined by people from across the political spectrum, and a substantial petition was later presented to BBC headquarters.

Today I finally got a reply from the BBC. It reads as follows:-

Please accept our apologies for the delay in replying. We understand our correspondents appreciate a quick response and we are sorry you had to wait on this occasion.

We are committed to impartial, balanced reporting but we appreciate that not everyone will agree with how we choose to cover a particular story.

In the case you have highlighted we felt it most newsworthy to report on the results of the three 'major' parties and UKIP, who finished second. The Conservatives won the election whilst Labour came third.

As you've pointed out, the Liberal Democrats were sixth, behind the Greens and an independent candidate. However, the fact remains that are [sic] a party in government which came third in the popular vote in the last General Election. Therefore we felt their performance to be both editorially relevant and of interest to our audience. But as explained above, such decisions are judgment calls which we recognise not everyone will agree with.

Let's address the issues this raises one at a time.

Firstly, that apology. It's notable that no reason is given for the delay, though I had been contacted briefly earlier to advise me that investigation would take some time. How long does it take to find out about an existing policy? If the explanation is so obvious, why couldn't it have been provided immediately?

Secondly, that commitment to balance - what exactly does it mean? Running the numbers (votes, percentage growth, comparative positioning, poll comparisons) makes that lack of coverage look distinctly unbalanced. As the letter goes on to explain that newsworthiness, not balance, was the prime consideration, it sees rather disingenuous to mention balance here.

Thirdly, whilst I acknowledge that UKIP did come second, the increase in their share of the vote was lower than that of the Greens and, notably, they had significantly fewer elected representatives in senior positions. If being in government is enough to give the LibDems consideration although they came sixth, ought not being represented in parliament to be a consideration when it comes to balancing coverage of the Greens against that of UKIP?

The most glaring point here, however, is this: that coverage of the Greens was missing right from the start of the programme, when they were several time lumped in with 'others'. At that point, the BBC did not know what the results of the vote would be. They made the decision to run extensive coverage of UKIP's story (actually disproportionate in relation to the major parties, too) and to exclude the Greens before the programme began.

There's another major point at issue here which the BBC's letter does not even try to address. Newsworthiness can sometimes explain not having room to mention something or someone in a short article. But this was a broadcast over six hours long. In that context, there is no need to make hard choices between subjects. There would have been ample room to properly cover the Greens' story and that of UKIP and the major parties.

It's generous of the BBC to explain to me that I may take a different point of view. As a commissioning editor (at Eye For Film and KaleidoScot) I understand the issue of editorial lines. As a sociology graduate, I understand the importance of anticipating bias in one's own work and work one is reviewing. The problem is that the BBC does not, as an organisation, acknowledge any of that. Rather it passes itself off as a neutral arbiter, delivering straight, unbiased facts. That makes slanted coverage like this deeply problematic.

On the night of the elections Natalie Bennett pointed out an interesting fact (which, from what I can determine, seems to bear up): the Greens were getting more new members per minute of airtime than any other party. In other words, there are a lot of people out there who are drawn to their politics once they know it's out there and know what it's about. in a context where overall levels of voting are falling lower and lower, doesn't the BBC owe it to potential voters to let them know what their options are?

Saturday, 26 July 2014

Women against feminism: what's the story?

There's "a large and growing number" of women who are against feminism, says the BBC, referring to "a wave of anti-feminist argument from young women". This evidenced by a group Tumblr blog with 4,700 members and a Facebook group with 14,784 members (a good many of whom are there to argue with its founders, to troll, or simply as observers). Far be it from me to dismiss these women's voices, as they may have important points to make on an individual basis, but numbers like this are, when considered in proportion to the number of women using each medium, hardly evidence of a mass movement. The pop group One Direction has over 400 times as many Facebook fans and its cultural relevance is not accorded that kind of weight.

Several publications have now seen fit to publish lists of some of these women talking about their feelings on the subject. If we are to take these as representative at all, we must further question the premise behind these rather wild claims. Around half of those interviewed stress that they are for equality. They say they want the chance to achieve things on their own merits. In other words, they are not anti-feminist at all - they simply describe themselves that way because they don't know what feminism is. Given how little education is available on the subject, this is hardly surprising, and it doesn't mean they're stupid - most of them seem to have arrived at reasonable ethical positions by themselves, just without using the same labels. It does mean, however, that journalists should know better than to treat them as part of the same 'movement' as women who don't believe they are the equals of men.

In between, there is the more obscure group of women who believe they "have all their rights already". Again, this belief doesn't mean they're stupid - they may simply never have been in situations where they were knowingly impacted by gender inequality. It's relatively easy to be sheltered from these things if young and from a relatively comfortable middle class background. If they have limited experience of employment, living independently, raising children, coping with ill health etc., they may not have noticed the worst inequalities, and if they are aware that the potential for male sexual violence has a limiting effect on their lives, they may not see that as part of the same phenomenon. But just as we can't assume they're stupid, we can't assume they wouldn't rage against inequality if they did encounter it, so construing them as anti-feminist, even if they label themselves that way, is rather misleading.

In other words, this notion that a great many women are rising up to say that they don't want to be equal and would rather spend their lives deferring to men just can't be substantiated by the evidence put forward it its support. So why is it circulating at all? There are a few possibilities. First up is sheer sensationalism: it's a simple case of man bites dog, where what is less likely, if presented as truth, gets more attention. Secondly, it's an example of fear porn - that is, people love to be shocked and horrified by reading about what is supposedly going wrong with the world, and the idea of a group turning on its own is easy clickbait. Thirdly, there's the possibility that it serves certain agendas - although most articles express horror at the "growing phenomenon", the idea nevertheless helps to trivialise feminist concerns, positioning them as outdated, elitist and out of touch with everyday reality. (It's also possible, of course, that all these factors are involved to some degree.)

Rather than getting angry at young women who are trying to do what's right with limited information, feminists need to be asking why this non-story has been inflated and passed off as something meaningful - and why it's happening now. At a time when worldwide movements to reduce violence against women are finally gaining ground but when things like access to contraception and the right to equal pay are coming under attack in parts of the Western world, feminist ideas that were once minority currency are gradually moving into mass circulation. We should all be on our guard against insidious attacks based on flimsy evidence. It is the story that is the problem, not the myth upon which it is based.

Thursday, 15 May 2014

In the pit

Like everyone else, I've been following the unfolding story of the disaster in Soma, where over 280 miners died this week. I've watched twin media narratives unfold. One of these is the conventional disaster story, the attempt to convince viewers that there might yet be some hope, that it's possible a miracle could happen and someone could be found alive, despite the fact that's vanishingly unlikely in a case like this and the relatives waiting out there could probably do without the added pressure of being urged to clutch at straws. The other involves exploring the political background to the event, the failure of the Turkish government to provide adequate protection to miners. But this is part of a bigger story that they still seem to be missing.

That story is one in which each of us plays a role, at least insofar as we might be benefiting from the global economic recovery. Because it is on the backs of people like the Soma miners that that recovery is built. We don't hear a lot about it but mining is one of the key industries driving the recovery and, when one considers how others depend on it, it might be considered that most important. It may be people in offices coordinating shipments, brokering deals and buying and selling stocks who are shaping economic growth, but it is miners who are putting their bodies on the line, and without them we could all find ourselves a great deal poorer.

I don't say this purely to celebrate the people who do his job (though it would be nice to see more of them get adequate wages); I say it as a warning. Because we've seen this before - in gold rushes, in South Africa's uranium rush, in the horror of what happened under the conquistadors at Potosí. Although we depend on miners, they often have very little control over their working conditions. When society is hungry for raw materials, miners end up being forced to take risks. There isn't time to manufacture and distribute proper safety equipment, and many pit owners don't care. Less care is taken with geological surveys. Pits are expanded into territory that those involve recognise as treacherous. Poorly trained newcomers are sent into working environments they are not ready for (and in some countries, too often, they are children).

In this situation, we can expect to see more disasters like that at Soma. Most of them will be smaller, involving 'just' injuries or  small number of deaths, and will not make the headlines. Many will take place in areas that the international media pays little attention to anyway, but they will happen. It is imperative, therefore, that pressure be put on governments and industry to ensure good safety standards in mines, with regular unannounced inspections. This is as much an issue for the First World as for the countries where most of the accidents will happen, because as consumers of internationally sourced products, we all have a responsibility to those who are working on our behalf.

Mining is an inherently dangerous profession and we cannot prevent accidents, but we can work together to monitor them and we can stand up for the people on whom our global economy depends. The Soma accident isn't just a tragedy to watch on TV; it's a wake-up call.

Wednesday, 29 January 2014

Banking on the Pound

Yesterday's speech by Bank of England Governor Mark Carney received predictable responses on Twitter - passionately assurances, from both Yes and No campaigners, that their own cases were vindicated by it as he clearly agreed with them in full. Having watched this go on through the subsequent hours, I hope that I may be excused for sticking my oar in and asserting that, on the contrary, he agrees with me in full: I have long argued that this is a complex, nuanced issue with both positive and negative points.

I'm not a newcomer to this area of discussion; I've run three different kinds of business and I've written on business and financial issues for around a decade. And like it or not, this is a business issue, not an ideological one - those who get further than just lapping up the soundbites or shrugging their shoulders because maths is hard will be thinking carefully about how the decision could impact them financially before they decide which way to vote. They will be thinking not just about their domestic lives but also about the businesses they run and the businesses they work for. Even if they've already made up their minds about voting, many will want to work out how they can prepare financially for what is to come, how much work they will need to do to make adjustments, and what they need to take into account when preparing individual business forecasts.

In any situation of this type there are a lot of unknowns, but as Carney noted, something we can do is to look at other countries that have gone through the same process, and consider what happened to them. Doing so should reduce some of the panic that has attended the independence debate. The question is not - and, to serious minded people, never has been - about whether or not Scotland can survive on its own. What matters is whether or not it should, and whether or not it would be able to provide its citizens with a standard of living not simply adequate but satisfactory.

In asking these questions, we really need to examine two points that have been sidelined or distorted during the bulk of the debate. Firstly, there's the issue of currency use. We need to say goodbye to the nonsense that has been spouted about Scotland perhaps not being able to use the pound. Of course it will be able to use the pound. There's a very simple reason for this: the pound is a freely tradeable currency. Should it cease to be such, the UK (or what then remains of it) can kiss goodbye to its high credit rating. Naturally that isn't going to happen - so what really matters is not the cash we use (after all, we could always choose the bitcoin), but who is our lender of last resort.

This brings me to the second point - it would be unwise for any country already dealing with complexities of establishing itself as an independent force in the modern world to try and set up its own weighty central bank at the same time. But independence does not have to be established overnight. Again, if we look at other recent divorces between nations, we can see how this works in practice. If a currency is shared for a short period of time - five years is probably  good base estimate, but it should be flexible in order to take account of changing circumstances - this gives a new country stability when it most needs it. It will face limitations for the duration, being obliged to follow a similar economic direction to its larger partner, but this can be temporary. Introducing its own currency after that point is much easier and means it then has the freedom to determine its own direction.

So why is nobody discussing this option? In act, a few of the smaller political parties are, but it has been elided from the mainstream debate for two reasons. Firstly, the majority of those opposed to independence find it problematic because it makes the option of independence seem more viable. secondly, the majority of those in favour find it problematic because it requires the acknowledgement that independence would be complicated and some major elements would remain unpredictable for years after the fact. (The desire to make everything seem predictable and safe is a problem on both sides of the argument - it's politically expedient, of course, but hardly honest - there is no political arrangement without uncertainty - and the public are beginning to see through it). This is another illustration of the problems stemming from the media narrative of the referendum as a battle between polarised opponents, focused on sniping at each other rather than on elucidating the issues the public is anxious to understand. We badly need to open up public discussion of a wider range of possibilities where Scotland' political and economic future is concerned.

At present, many Scots find themselves dependent on putting their trust in one financial assessment or another based on how credible its exponents seem, without ever unravelling the details. Carney is to be praised for he clear language he used in his address, and this should be taken not as an opportunity for political posturing but as an opportunity to explore the pros and cons together, constructively, and invite more people in to the economic debate. If nothing else it is an opportunity for education that - whichever way the referendum goes - will benefit Scotland in the long term.

Friday, 24 January 2014

Best Exotic Politico Hotel

This week, First Minister's Questions in the Scottish Parliament opened with a bizarre exchange in which Johann Lamont challenged Alex Salmond over the cost of a 2012 trip to Chicago. There's a reason why this kind of politics is generally discouraged, with people being advised to play the ball, not the man. It's not just about being polite. It's that the ball can't kick back.

Lamont's criticism centered on Salmond's $2,000 a night stay at the Peninsula Hotel in Chicago. It just so happens that, like my many writers, I make part of my living from producing promotional copy, and I've written about the Peninsula Hotel. The reason it's so popular with celebrities, something Lamont ridiculed (she must wish Justin Bieber's latest bad-boy-honest publicity stunt had happened a day earlier), is that it has excellent security. Accommodating politicians in a place like this may cost more upfront but it cuts down on the cost of providing personal security, so it's not quite the waste of money it might look like. Sadly, senior politicians and celebrities do need security these days, and the cost of losing our first minister, even just in financial terms, would be considerable - not to mention that, with increased security, he's cheaper to insure.

What really makes this unfortunate for Lamont, however, is nothing to do with Salmond - it's all about the Labour Party. Let's stick with Chicago. In 1999, Tony Blair stayed in the Conrad Suite in the city's Hilton hotel, another place known for the excellent security, which is partly why it has been used by the likes of Frank Sinatra, John Travolta and Cher. The Chicago Hilton charges upwards of $7,000 a night for this suite.

Far be it from me to attack Blair for this, even if I can't see why he'd need 24 hour butler service. The point is, accommodating famous politicians is expensive. If Lamont herself becomes First Minister one day, she may find herself in the awkward position of having to find a cheaper hotel and security deal for herself. Thursday's conversation may come back to haunt her. She would be wise to do her backtracking now rather than letting this fester.