Tuesday 30 October 2012

Defence Jobs - at what Price?

The UK Defence Minister, Philip Hammond was up in Scotland recently to visit the Faslane base for the UK's so-called independent nuclear weapons.  During this visit he confirmed that the current UK government is determined to commission an upgraded replacement for the Trident nuclear weapon system.  As part of this he announced a £305 investment on designing the new boats to host the weapons.  All this before the government's own review has concluded.  So much for open government UK style!

A key plank of Hammond's defence of renewing Trident is that it will provide secure jobs for thousand of people in the Clyde estuary.  Claims of up to 12,000 jobs are bandied about by the government and the clear message is that these jobs would go if we vote for independence.  This of course is all rubbish.  In the first place if Scotland does become independent, then we will still have a navy, army and air force.  Just how big they will be and the precise configuration of these forces will of course be a matter for us, the electorate in Scotland.  The first question to ask of a defence policy should be - against whom do we need to defend ourselves?  Only then can we make appropriate decisions about what kind of navy, army and air force we need.  As a relatively small north west European country with (hopefully) no dreams of invading other countries, we could get by with a much smaller defence spending that at present.  Even with a smaller defence spending there will still be plenty of jobs in the defence sector in an independent Scotland.

Secondly, spending on defence is about the most wasteful kind of public spending you can get.  It is outrageously expensive and in terms of job creation about as cost effective as space exploration.  Every study has shown that defence spending creates less jobs than just about any other spending.  Less money on trident means more money and more jobs for teachers, nurses, social workers, police etc.  Jobs that are more likely to make a positive difference to more people than Trident related jobs.  So for the same amount of public spending we can have more jobs in Scotland than the 12,000 that Philip Hammond like to crow about.

Thirdly it is interesting to note that the morality or ethics of this kind of job creation is conspicuous by its absence in the world of Philip Hammond and his ilk.  This is perhaps not surprising from a Tory, but still it is a shame that Labour in Scotland is too willing to parrot this line.  Jackie Ballie for one is keen to avoid talking about the ethics of nuclear weapons and will only talk about the jobs provided.  Strange behaviour for a so-called party of the left and an self-proclaimed internationalist one at that.  One wonders if the Jackie Ballies and Philip Hammonds of this world would have put up the same defence for concentration camps - they provided jobs and a boost to the local economy.  Think of all those train journeys needed to get people to the camps.  Must have been a wonderful job creation enterprise.

Wednesday 24 October 2012

Nablus - It's the Occupation, the Occupation, the Occupation

I am not long back from a visit to Nablus as part of a delegation from the Dundee-Nablus Twinning Association.  We all had a wonderful time and some of the party are still there - the lucky ones.  This post will focus on my initial thoughts on what this visit has told me about the overall political situation in Palestine.

At first sight everything in Nablus looks fine and dandy.  The place is very lively, lots of busy shops, full of all kinds of goods.  The streets are full of cars and there do not appear to be any travel restrictions.  So it came as a bit of a surprise to find the town covered in posters with photos of armed resistance fighters - dead fighters, all killed by the Israelis.  
Still these posters did seem a bit out of kilter with the rest of the town.  That is until you look a bit more closely and ask a few questions.  You then remember that Nablus was occupied by the Israeli army from 2002 during the second intifada.  Though the soldiers are no longer in the town, evidence of their stay is everywhere.  Even our hotel had windows with bullet holes, like this one.
Even more disruptive was the destruction of whole houses. In the old town we met a Canadian woman who now lives in Nablus and she pointed out a newly rebuilt building just along from her house.  This was a building that the Israelis had destroyed, claiming that a resistance fighter was inside. He may have been, but in the process the Israelis killed nine people, including a pregnant mother and her baby.  So it is perfectly understandable that the Israeli occupation is never very far from the minds of Nabulsis.  

It is not the case that the occupation has ended.  It has just changed.  The Israeli presence is everywhere and the effects of their presence is a constant factor in living in Nablus.  During the week we were there, we witnessed Israeli military aircraft flying overhead, an unmanned drone crash landed just outside the town and soldiers invaded Balata refugee camp to arrest two young men.  The Israelis keep a permanent watch over Nablus.  This includes a military outpost on one of the hills above the town.  The small watchtower where Israeli soldiers look down on the town can be clearly seen to the left of the red and white tower on the right of this photo.
While travel in Palestine is less restrictive than a few years ago, the checkpoints are still there, as are the guard posts.  Cars still have to slow down due to the traffic slowing devices built into the road.  At any moment the Israelis can close a road and staff the checkpoints with soldiers.  There is even a military camp just outside Nablus.  Travel in and out of Palestine is of course completely controlled by the Israelis and it can be a terrifying experience to get in or out of Palestine through Israeli controls as we can personally testify.  Goodness knows what it must be like for Palestinians.  The Palestinian economy is, like travel, completely dependent on Israel.  The two economies are bound by the some currency - the Israeli shekel, over which Palestine has no say whatsoever.  We had the good fortune to visit the new Northern area Electricity Distribution company and see at first hand the modernisation programme they are carrying out.  But, they are totally dependent on Israel for the supply of electricity.

And of course there are these twin sides of the coin - the refugee camps and the illegal settlements.  While Jews from anywhere in the world can come and with Israeli government support illegally build houses on land stolen from Palestinians the Palestinians from Jaffa and other areas now in Israel, are forbidden to return to their villages and have to make do with living in a desolate, confined space in the camps.  Many of the settlers around Nablus are not averse to using violence to harass and even destroy the olive trees of the Palestinian farmers lower down the hillsides.  

So, while Nablus is a vibrant and lively town, you only need to spend a few days there to experience at first hand the debilitating and humiliating effects of the occupation.  For make no mistake about it, however much things have improved for some Palestinians, Palestine remains under occupation.  Two of the key demands of the Global Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement are brought to life by just a short stay in Nablus - End the Occupation and the Right of Return for Refugees.

Thursday 11 October 2012

Eurozone Prospects

It is getting a bit like Groundhog Day as regards the Euro and its future.  Every month of so, some supposedly very serious commentator, economist or politicians steps up to warn us the there are only two or three months left in which to save the Euro.  And yet two or three years later, the Euro is still there and nobody, not even the Greeks, has left the single currency.  At one level it is all a bit of a laugh.  Unfortunately this is a serious issue and the constant doomsayers are doing us all a major disservice.

Firstly because after a while most people simply cease to believe them and may wrongly, assume that all is well in Euroland.  Secondly, the focus on the survival of the Euro comes at the expense of the underlying economic realties which affect the Eurozone countries.  For the reality is that the main source of the woes affecting European countries is the application of more and more austerity.  Policy makers in nearly all countries seem hell bent on pursuing policies which all the evidence confirms is only making the situation worse.  Government debt is not coming down and most economies are either in recession or flatlining.  That this is happening in the UK, which is not in the Euro, would seem to indicate that it is not the Euro per se, which is the problem, but the "austerity at all costs" policy which is the problem.  Paul Krugman in a recent post outlines the crux of the matter.  Many of our governments seem to want to inflict pain on the rest of us for their own political agendas.

Getting out of this current and long lasting mess will not be easy.  Continuing with the current policy prescription is likely to kill the patient.   It is hard to see how the populations of countries like Spain, Portugal, Greece and even Ireland can continue supporting the consequences of the these policies for much longer.  What they face is a decade or more of deflation with high unemployment and the lost growth that this involves.  Not an enticing prospect.  At some point in the not too distant future something is likely to give.  Either some countries leave the Euro or the current policies will have to change.  Neither will be easy and all governments will try to avoid either happening.  But there has to be a limit to how much suffering people are prepared to endure, especially as there is little prospect of improvement in the medium term.

If the countries of the Eurozone want the Euro to survive there are various options available.  None of them involves rocket science and they have been know about for some time.  American economist Bradford DeLong provides a succinct summary of these options here.  As he points out the most likely outcome is a combination of the following three measures:

Northern Europe tolerates higher inflation – an extra two percentage points for five years would take care of one-third of the total north-south adjustment;
Northern Europe expands social democracy by making its welfare states more lavish;
Southern Europe shrinks its taxes and social services substantially.

Something along these lines is needed pretty soon if the Euro is to survive and the whole of the Eurozone gets a chance to rebalance its economy.  At the moment nobody in either northern or southern Europe is prepared to engage with their electorates about what these measures would mean in practice.  So the majority of Europeans are unaware of what lies ahead.  The sad thing in all this is that to continue as now is more than likely to make things even worse.  We are alas living through very difficult times with a bunch of scared politicians in nominal charge.

Thursday 4 October 2012

Catalunya - On the Way to Independence?

While the debate about independence for Scotland continues its slow march towards the referendum in 2014, things have suddenly become very heated in Catalunya.  The nationalist government in Barcelona has called for early elections, set for 28th November and if it wins has vowed to hold its own referendum.   In all this it is clear that there are many similarities between the situation in Catalunya and here in Scotland.  However the differences may be even more significant.

In the first place the so-called Nationalists in Catalunya are not in favour of independence.  The nationalists are made up of two centre-right parties,  Liberals and the Christian Democrats.  They have always worked together and present themselves as a coalition at elections, when they are know as Convergència i Uniò - simplified to CiU.  They mainly represent the Catalan speaking middle class and want better status for their own language - Catalan - and more and more powers, including fiscal powers for Catalunya.  There is a relatively small party - the Left Republicans, ERC, who do actively campaign for independence, but to date they have remained fairly small.  This is one of the key differences with Scotland, where it is the Nationalists who lead the campaign for independence.

Another key difference with Scotland is that the centre left, represented by the socialists - PSC, and the smaller left wing parties are all in favour of more powers for Catalunya.  Only the right wing PP, the party of the current government in Madrid opposes this.  There is thus ample support throughout Catalunya and across the political spectrum for more powers - what might be termed DevoMax, here in Scotland.  In particular the Catalans have pretty much united in calling for a new Fiscal Pact to give increased tax raising powers to the Catalan parliament.  This has recently been resoundingly rejected out of hand by the Spanish government.  And it is this point blank refusal in Madrid to even talk about more powers which has set alight the touch paper.

This all led to the massive popular demonstration in Barcelona in early September, when between one million and a million and a half people crowed onto the streets to demand independence, shown in photo at top.  And here is another key difference with Scotland.  All the recent initiatives seem to have come from the ground up.  There has been a long standing campaign at local level in support of independence which has involved local councils holding local referendums about independence.  With in most cases large majorities in favour.  The recent big demonstration was itself not organized by political parties.  But once they realized how big it was going to be, they quickly jumped on board.  It is this massive demonstration calling for independence which seems to have been the game changer in Catalunya.

The nationalists, at least some of them, have started to talk about independence, or Catalunya acquiring the institutions of a state.  They cannot, as yet, openly talk about independence.  Even the proposed referendum will be about sovereignty as opposed to independence.  The Socialists are now apparently all in favour of rewriting the Spanish constitution so that Spain can become a Federal state.  In the hope of giving Catalunya sufficent powers, while preserving the unity of Spain.   Apart from the right wing party, the Spanish governing PP, just about all the other Catalan parties are coalescing around the demand for more powers and in particular a new Fiscal Pact.  What will happen if the Nationalists are returned to power with a mandate for a referendum and the Spanish government continues to say NO, NO, NO, is anybodies guess.  Some nutters on the right - former politicians and retired military - have already called for the Guardia Civil to be deployed.  This is another difference with Scotland.  Despite the rhetoric on the Unionist side it is hard to imagine either David Cameron or Ed Milliband sending in the tanks to squash the unruly Scots.  We can only hope that cool heads prevail in Madrid.

However the opposition of Madrid to significant additional powers for Catalunya is something that is common to both situations.  London is equally set against more powers for Scotland.  Another similarity is that despite the best efforts of the SNP and the other pro-independence parties, the majority of Scots seem to want to stay in the UK.  Like their Catalan colleagues however the overwhelming majority want increased powers, including financial and fiscal powers for Holyrood.  The key difference is that in Catalunya the Socialists are also in favour of increased powers, whereas in Scotland the Labour Party has become entrenched in a “this far and no further” paralysis.  The LibDems too, while they proclaim their federalist crudentials seem only too happy to align themselves with the staunchest do nothing Unionists in the Conservative and Labour parties.

Another all too depressing similarity is the negative posturing of both governments in Madrid and London.  Both continually assert, with no evidence, that Independence will be bad for Scotland and for Catalunya. They also like to wield the EU card.  Independence will entail leaving the EU and we (Spain and the UK) will veto any chance of joining.  With supposed friends like these, who needs enemies?  It is interesting to note that one EU Commissioner, Viviane Reding, has already come out and denied that independence would mean leaving the EU.

For the pro-independence movement in Scotland, the changed political situation in Catalunya can only be a welcome shot in the arm.  Much will of course depend on the outcome of the elections in November.  But a renewed mandate for the Nationalists will surely provide some food for thought amongst the unionists over here.  For what is most noticeable about the Unionist campaign so far is its complete refusal to think beyond the UK.  One gets the impression from Unionists that independence has never, ever happened before.  They seem stuck in their own little world of make believe.  Events in Catalunya may just shake them up a bit.