Mike Vickers' Blog

May 28, 2012

Three topics

Filed under: economics, History in the making, Scotland, Scottish Independence — derryvickers @ 5:59 pm


This will be more of a Thought Dump than a blog.

The high topic in Scotland is of course Independence.  Last week’s particular high spot was the ‘Yes’ extravaganza where all the great and the good who support Independence were on stage welcoming the future Yes vote at the Referendum in October 2014.  Well that’s what it was billed as but if you read Lesley Riddoch’s column in today’s Scotsman it went somewhat flat  – perhaps a more balanced assessment may be heard on her pod with Chris Smith – http://www.lesleyriddoch.com/2012/05/the-.html?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+LesleyRiddoch+%28Lesley+Riddoch%29

I also commend to the reader:


Burdzeye puts forward ten points for Scottish Independence and how Scotland could be a much more egalitarian country given Independence.  But as he kindly admits many of these are achievable already with the powers that the Scottish Government has through devolution.  Only taxation looks to be the one not available with taxation still under the control of the Westminster government.  Once the Scotland Bill comes into force then the Holyrood government will have some degree of control over the population’s taxation.  As yet the SNP has not come forward with its fiscal policy for taxation and this could be that if it did some of its Great and Good supports might think twice.  So why has not the Scottish SNP Government moved more strongly on its egalitarian agenda and what likelihood of it doing so after Independence?

Topic Two

Michael Sandel has published a new book ‘What Money Can’t buy’.  Sandel is a political philosopher at Harvard and has a great series of lectures on the web that he gives to his first year Graduates.  The book is written for the US market – see recent review in the Guardian http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2012/may/27/michael-sandel-reason-values-bodies

A quote from the review:

Putting a price on a flat-screen TV or a toaster is, he says, quite sensible. “But how to value pregnancy, procreation, our bodies, human dignity, the value and meaning of teaching and learning – we do need to reason about the value of goods. The markets give us no framework for having that conversation. And we’re tempted to avoid that conversation, because we know we will disagree about how to value bodies, or pregnancy, or sex, or education, or military service; we know we will disagree. So letting markets decide seems to be a non-judgmental, neutral way. And that’s the deepest part of the allure; that it seems to provide a value-neutral, non-judgmental way of determining the value of all goods. But the folly of that promise is – though it may be true enough for toasters and flat-screen televisions – it’s not true for kidneys.”

Very much in the vein of ‘We know the price of everything but the value of nothing’

Sandel’s thesis is the Economics has cast itself as a value-neutral science rather than it should probably be seen – as it once was – as a branch of moral and political philosophy.”

Relevant to Scottish Government – I think so – economics dominates the Westminster Parliament at present – separation from it could be loosening the dominance of ‘market forces’ but only if the Scottish Government takes up the challenge.

Topic Three

Timothy Garten Ash in last week’s Guardian considers the future of Greece and its economic woes. 


He finishes his article:

‘The future of the eurozone now depends on the choice to be made in Greece, the future of Europe on that of the eurozone, and that of the west to a significant degree on that of Europe – so, with slight hyperbole, we can say that the future of the west now depends on the birthplace of the west. Is it too much to hope that, in such a moment, Greek politics will rediscover some of the grandeur and simplicity that was present in Athens at the creation of democracy? Probably it is.’

OK, Scotland has never been a democracy as ancient Greece was – Edinburgh even failed to finish its Capital Hill! – but Alex Salmond in his Hugo Young lecture referred to the Attlee post war government and its aim to be the ‘New Jerusalem’.  The young Greeks are looking for self-determination to free themselves from Europe and its economic straightjacket as are Scotland from the UK as they preceive it.

So it’s back to Economics as moral philosophy rather than a value neural science.

And I shall be back again and again over the next 1000 days

May 21, 2012

Corran Raa

Filed under: Music, Personal, Scotland, World Class — derryvickers @ 2:42 pm

Taransay – a small usually uninhabited island off the west coast of Harris in the Outer Hebrides with a bay called Corran Raa.  It also a small Scottish band, heavily influenced by the traditional music that has flowed across the North, Atlantic and Irish Seas. Moving melodies, lush harmonies, soulful vocals and inventive accompaniment (their words). The band is Janet Lees (fiddle), Jenny Smith (fiddle), Kath Bruce (piano and vocal) and Robbie Leask (fiddle and guitar). 

Corran Raa - The Group

Corran Raa

Last evening they held a gig at 42 Royal Park Terrace a very interesting place in itself in a small road opposite the Royal Park and you can see the park through the enormous window looking south.

But back to the gig – a great evening of what I consider a wonderful mixture of Gaelic and home grown music with a distinctly jazz flavour enhanced by Kath on an electric piano – no doubt they will dispute my attribution.  They may also dispute if I relate the group to Ally Bain & Phil Cunningham; but they are certainly in the same class of fiddle playing. 

This was our first time listening and watching the group but it won’t be the last.  Following meeting Janet on a ski holiday this winter we caught up with the group through their first CD – Yes its call Corran Raa- and if you would like a flavour of the group’s why not get yourself a copy through their website (Sorry – I assure you they don’t know about this blog and I hope they will forgive me for copying the image above from their website!).

May 6, 2012

Local Democracy – Localism

Filed under: DHI SPIF, Politics, Scotland — derryvickers @ 6:47 am

I am inspired, by a SPIF (Scottish Policy Innovation Forum) event on 1 May entitled ‘The New English Localism: How Real and How Relevant, to think again on the relevance and value of local democracy.

There were two main speakers at SPIF: John Raine of Birmingham University talking about the English Localism Act 2011 and Duncan Maclennan of St Andrews University reviewing aspects of Localism. By the way, the English Localism law underpins Cameron’s ‘Big Society’. 

Neither speaker saw localism below the council level.  In Scotland there are 32 councils (considered large by European standards by population) but only Community Councils below them.  Community Councils are statutory bodies but with little money and few teeth.  I contrast this to northern Europe and Norway in particular with 10 times the degree of local presentation through community councils which do have real teeth.  As an example our town has a Community Council but it also started a Town Management Group some five years ago – this is a non-elected body but receives a non-trivial annual grant from the Council. One of the speakers also brought up the point that Community Development Projects are sprouting up across Scotland, these are projects often created by well-intentioned individuals but are hardly democracy and we are starting one too!

There is of course a dichotomy:

  1. Economies of scale favour centralised government as it does large companies.  The move in Scotland is for one NHS, one fire service and even one police force (it is beyond my understanding how policing Glasgow can be anything like that for the Outer Isles). 
    On the down side centralism fosters governing silos and multiple layers of management leading to infighting and staff empire building.  Equally significantly senior management is out of touch with grass roots concerns and problems.  Elected politicians are intended to moderate central government by calling senior politicians in government and senior civil servants to account – a point made by Raine when questioned as his role as councillor. But do they, or are they just lobby fodder?
  2. Distributed government is more in tune with the grass roots and should be able to work closely with the people and direct the available funds to where they are most needed.  What is sure is that people feel involved and there is no doubt that this is in short supply at present – there was only 32% turn out for the recent local council elections.
    In principle more money is spent on providing for government at community level as there are more people involved in the governmental process and there also may be a shortage of good administrators to go round and there is a serious risk of nepotism and low level corruption between officials and business interests. 

A real issue comes as how are the funds raised.  Where government is centralised the obvious choice is through central taxation which is dispersed centrally.  For distributed government there is the opportunity of collecting it at various levels, community, council and centrally; this provides the option for dispersing community level funds to the community itself.  But this leads to the situation where the communities in most need do not benefit from those communities that are better off and could well contribute to the former.

Interestingly the current Scottish Government has full control of the dispersion of the funds at its disposal whether they come from the UK Central Government through Barnett or from the Scottish Councils.  The funds available are unlikely to change with Scottish Independence:  speakers at a recent seminar on Scotland and the UK were agreed that oil revenues are roughly in balance with funds coming though the Barnett formula.  In consequence the only financial difference that Independence would make is by allowing the Scottish Government the ability to decide how funds should be collected, either centrally or on a distributed basis.  So far the Scottish Government has shown no interest in collection other than centrally.

So if we take Maclennan’s point that major assets are best acquired and run centrally what roles are appropriate to be run on a distributed basis.  It would seem to me that these roles are of a social nature where funds go largely in salaries: the social and care services.  In this respect Policing is best considered as a local service meeting the needs of the local community.

Raine’s conclusion includes:  ‘Currently the commitment to localism in England seems ambiguous and contradictory to say the least, and particularly against a financial context of huge reductions in central grant provision, there is precious little scope in reality for councils to exercise the ‘new freedoms’ that they have been awarded.  However, there seems little doubt that localism is coming back into vogue ……

Maclennan’s conclusion includes:  ‘In Scotland, in reshaping service provision and to engage community energies in renewal, we have to have a better defined notion of localism, namely it cannot be either ‘municipalism’ or ‘community’ alone that will be effective.  Perhaps we need better choreography between government levels rather than more change across them …’

I agree with Raine’s point that localism is coming back in vogue if only because people at all levels and particularly at the grass roots can get and are getting their voice heard across the Internet.

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