Saturday 18 September 2010

The economic case - the case against GERS

OK, let’s take a wee glance under the skirts of the economic case before we put it back in its bath chair with a wee tartan rug over its knees and send it out for a sleep in the sunshine out in the garden.

It has to start, really, with that old warhorse GERS. Not the Ibrox team, I wouldn’t want to intrude, but the report known as Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland. I think Ian Lang must still be chuckling about his cunning plan, conceived in 1992 while he was Scottish Secretary. Not only did the numbers, maladjusted as they were before the recent review, create confusion, it fed the conceit that Scotland might not be paying its way in the world. It was a political exercise in undermining, as he wrote to his Prime Minister and Chancellor;

"The booklet I have had prepared and printed, setting out the details of the Government’s expenditure and revenue in Scotland, I judge that it is just what is needed at present in our campaign to maintain our initiative and undermine the other parties."

His greatest triumph, though, might be said to be that nationalist politicians ended up being sucked into the maelstrom of argument over what is, essentially, a partial cashflow statement. GERS is the spindoctor that has become the story, it’s a statistical report that has become a unionist shibboleth and a nationalist tripwire, and it means nothing.

The political points of GERS had to be addressed and its insufficiencies pointed out, the disingenuity of basing a political economics argument on a tally sheet which contains estimates and best-fits challenged, but we’ve ended with the daft position where we’re arguing about which years Scotland was in surplus and by how much rather than on how we make Scotland a better country. For surplus to have been the position in as many years as it has is nigh on miraculous, it is not the normal position for a country to have. If I may quote Professor Gavin McCrone in his 1974 paper on Scotland’s oil:
“In the first place it is not necessary to balance the budget. To finance loans and various items of capital investment, particularly those which yield a return by borrowing is quite reasonable; other items too may be covered by borrowing from time to time particularly if an expansionary budget is necessary to generate a higher level of economic activity in the economy. For these various reasons the United Kingdom budget normally involves a net borrowing requirement and whilst this will normally be fairly small this is not always so; in the present year, for example, the borrowing requirement reached the record figure of £4,000m.”
Governments borrow, nations run deficits. The UK Treasury’s website has a few fascinating items on it including the history of the national debt.
The origins of public debt
6. Historically when the state had budgetary deficits, particularly those arising from wars, it funded them from taxation.
The financing needed for the War of the League of Augsburg led to the creation of the Bank of England in 1694 and the first types of state public financing debt in England.
7. The early 1700s saw the emergence of banking and financial markets. The ability to raise money by creating debt through the issue of bills and bonds heralded the beginning of the National Debt. This rose from £12m in 1700 to £850m by the end of the NapolĂ©onic Wars in 1815. The two world wars of the twentieth century caused debt levels to rise, from £650m in 1914 to £7.4bn by 1919 and from £7.1bn in 1939 to £24.7bn in 1946.
8. The period of relatively high inflation in the 1970s and 1980s saw debt rise from £33.1bn in 1970 to £197.4bn in 1988. Debt measures are usually presented as a percentage of GDP since comparisons over time need to allow for effects such as inflation. Dividing by GDP is the conventional way of doing this.
As an aside, one of the interesting things about this, for me, is the fact that the UK national debt started accruing a few years before the UK came into being and it would appear that there is a bit of historical revisionism going on about the events that surrounded 1707. We are often told that the Darien scheme had brought Scotland’s finances to their knees and we were saved by integration with a larger and richer neighbour. It appears, however, that England had just become the first nation ever to get into debt. Interesting but little more than that in discussing Scotland’s future.

What is far more pertinent to the case against GERS is the attitude of the UK Government to managing the debt. The Public Sector Net Debt is £816.2 billion and there is some publically stated intention on the part of the current Conservative Chancellor to reduce that but supporting documentation for the June 2010 budget points to a slightly different set of priorities:
The Government aims to finance its net cash requirement plus maturing debt and any financing required for additional net foreign currency reserves through the issuance of debt.
In other words, the Government intends to borrow to cover its cash requirements this year and next year and the year after – and to borrow in order to pay off the bonds that are maturing; borrowing money to cover the costs of the money already borrowed. I haven’t looked to see when the UK last ran a surplus but I would imagine that it would take some looking. A little perspective is a wonderful thing – the UK still services the debt from the Napoleonic wars rather than paying it off, reasoning that servicing it is cheaper and therefore better value for the public purse. Not only do governments borrow money, they keep on going, relying on inflation to take the long-term costs down and make it affordable.

This may not be a bad thing – sovereign bonds are purchased by organisations like pension funds because the reliability and the guaranteed, if low, return serve their purposes well. Krugman and others have argued that we should actually be borrowing more in order to stimulate the economy and soothe the nerves of fund managers – the theory goes
High levels of borrowing increase demand and are therefore generally held to stimulate economic activity; low levels of borrowing (or, on occasion, actual repayment of debt) decrease demand, and so are generally thought to depress economic activity.
Whether Scotland has the economic ability to thrive after independence has very little to do with the figures that are in the GERS report and an awful lot more to do with what Scotland can do to earn a crust in the world. There is a political ping-pong that goes back and forth with equally sterile arguments on each side – Scotland’s ability to pay her own way is questioned followed by an accusation of mismanagement of our economy from London, there’s a union dividend or we pay all the bills. I don’t subscribe to the idea that malevolent politicians sitting beside the Thames design policies to harm Scotland. I do, however, reason that their calculations have to be about what’s best for the overall UK economy and that is skewed incredibly towards London and the South-East of England, even to the detriment of large areas of England. Scotland suffers as an unintended consequence of decisions made in the best interests of the UK economy.

Even if we had the figures to hand – the actual corporate and personal taxation take from Scotland, the actual spend in Scotland, the oil revenues, the backlog of capital works, the share of duties and so on – it would mean little in terms of the independence debate. A change of policy on the part of an independent government would move the numbers and a range of policy alterations will create a new landscape. Additionally, forces will come to bear which change those figures over which governments have little control, as we have seen recently. The real question to answer is ‘How can we make our country more robust to withstand the buffeting of bad weather, flexible enough to accommodate different strands of enterprise, and agile enough to take advantage of opportunities?’ The independence question in there is ‘can we do it?’ That’s what we should be looking at in the economic debate, how do we make this country resilient in the face of challenges, forward-looking in opportunity harvesting and capable of sustaining and improving her people’s standard of living?

It’s only partially a numbers exercise, the current figures only hint at what tomorrow may bring – it’s more an exercise in imaging a new landscape and about how to deliver it. That journey should take us away from the barren lands of GERS and into the more fertile lands of positive human interaction. The numbers may be fascinating and deliver us a cracking good argument from time to time but we’d best take a look at what we could win should we dare to try. That’s a field to poke my nose into next.

Monday 6 September 2010

A Case for Independence

I want to state a case for independence to start it here and develop it over time. I tire of the economic argument, of the statistical ping-pong, of the sterile subsidy/surplus, poverty/plenty, barren/bountiful debate. It shrinks the debate on Scotland’s future to little more than a car boot sale haggling session; it belittles our politics and narrows our politicians. A country is more than a balance sheet, a nation more than a cash account, a people more than a bank statement. There are wealthy nations and there are poor nations and each of them goes about its business and its international interactions seeking its best advantage. Most of them run annual deficits and carry large debts. Seldom does any nation decide that its wealth or its poverty requires it to be subsumed by another and seldom does any nation decide that its wealth or its poverty requires it to secede from such a union; nations are more than the sum of their sovereign funds, you cannot place the value of a community in a set of accounts any more than you can weigh identity or measure the dimensions of belonging. The ‘economics’ debate brings to mind Bierce’s definition of a cynic as someone who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.
We know that Scotland is a wealthy country, one of the richest, and we know that we’ll have a moral obligation to hold out the hand of friendship and assistance to nations which need it, wherever they are – it’s an obligation and an opportunity we should welcome. Our wealth is not in and of itself an argument for independence, though, any more than its absence would be a case for the continuation of the UK. Our common future deserves more careful consideration than that and should be rooted in a deeper understanding of what it means to be a Scot. Or, to quote Walter Scott:
Breathes there the man with soul so dead
Who never to himself hath said,
This is my own, my native land!
Whose heart hath ne’er within him burned,
As home his footsteps he hath turned
From wandering on a foreign strand!
If such there breathe, go, mark him well;
For him no minstrel raptures swell;
High though his titles, proud his name,
Boundless his wealth as wish can claim
Despite those titles, power, and pelf,
The wretch, concentred all in self,
Living, shall forfeit fair renown,
And, doubly dying, shall go down
To the vile dust from whence he sprung,
Unwept, unhonour’d , and unsung.
It is that unquenchable affection for a people, a land, a place, a belonging that marks a people’s link to their country, perhaps even more so in stateless nations like Scotland. It is the drive that comes from that which leads many to the nationalist cause and it is the yearning to belong to that land and the people of the land that drives civic nationalism; an inclusive and welcoming thinking. It does not easily lend itself to outlining a case fro independence, however, and Scotland needs that case to be laid out.

Muhammad Ali Jinnah, first president of Pakistan and its chief architect, laid out a case for nationhood. He appears to have used the same formulation of words on several different occasions and used them to, amongst other things, explain why Pakistan should be created. It’s a clear and cogent phraseology:
We are a nation with our own distinctive culture and civilization, language and literature, art and architecture, names and nomenclature, sense of values and proportion, legal laws and moral codes, customs and calendar, history and traditions, aptitudes and ambitions, in short, we have our own distinctive outlook on life and of life. By all canons of international law we are a nation.
It’s approaching 70 years since Jinnah laid out this vision of the distinctiveness of his nation but the clarity of his argument means that it applies just as much to Scotland today; we have our own distinct and distinctive culture, evolving and ever-changing it is true, and welcoming of additions from new members of our society to create what William McIlvanney happily described as “our mongrel nation”; a distinctive civilisation – an understanding of civic society which differs in scope and direction from our English neighbours and, to a great extent, from our other European neighbours, falling closer to Scandinavian mores but still distinctly Scottish; our own languages, Gaelic, Lallans, Doric, and Scots English spring easily to mind; our literature and art have proud traditions which resonate Scottishness but stand easily and well as part of the international movements; our architecture has a history rooted in Scotland and touching European styles; our names are distinct although our nomenclature might not be quite so clear-cut an issue; our sense of values and proportions seem markedly different from those of our neighbours; our laws and legal systems are our own; our customs and calendar are marked by uniquely Scottish events (I imagine that this isn’t what Jinnah meant by calendar but it still stands); our history and traditions are steeped in the mythology of Scotland. In short, we easily fit Jinnah’s definition of a nation. But it seems not enough.

Ernest Renan, 19th century French theorist, had another take on nationhood, one which I can cleave to readily:
A nation is a soul, a spiritual principle. Two things, which in truth are but one, constitute this soul or spiritual principle. One lies in the past, one in the present. One is the possession in common of a rich legacy of memories; the other is present-day consent, the desire to live together, the will to perpetuate the value of the heritage that one has received in an undivided form. Man, Gentlemen, does not improvise. The nation, like the individual, is the culmination of a long past of endeavours, sacrifice, and devotion. Of all cults, that of the ancestors is the most legitimate, for the ancestors have made us what we are.

A nation is therefore a large-scale solidarity, constituted by the feeling of the sacrifices that one has made in the past and of those that one is prepared to make in the future. It presupposes a past; it is summarized, however, in the present by a tangible fact, namely, consent, the clearly expressed desire to continue a common life. A nation's existence is, if you will pardon the metaphor, a daily plebiscite, just as an individual's existence is a perpetual affirmation of life. That, I know full well, is less metaphysical than divine right and less brutal than so called historical right.
That accepted continuum argument would seem to hold water well; the social capital, the bonds that hold Scotland as a nation, only exists with the consent of the people. The folk memories and the common aspiration of the people of Scotland are what makes Scotland, the zeitgeist of modern Scotland holds Scotland of the past and Scotland of the future in its hands. The commonality of those who belong to Scotland now is what Scotland is and their joint aspiration will be what determines her future. Where you came from doesn’t matter half as much as where you want to go.

It’s been said by some that a working class Scot has more in common with the working classes in other nations than with other Scots who aren’t ‘working class’ and that there’s a ‘Social Union’ of shared values and mutual cultural interests which binds all on these islands together and which will survive Scots independence. There is little, if anything, to support either of these affectations, they appear as confections created to bolster political positions. I have cousins who are English, born on the Albion side of the border and have lived there ever since, proud of where they come from and proud, too, of their nation. They’re my family and always will be – even during World Cups – but I have more in common with those who have chosen Scotland for their home.

I think it was Oliver Brown who said that there are two types of Scot, those lucky enough to be born here and those intelligent enough to move here, and that seems to fit what can be seen in the towns and cities of Scotland day and daily. Those who have chosen to make this country their home sit easily in the values that Scotland shares, the investment they make in this nation shows the commitment they have whether they have just stepped across the border from England or flown in from Poland or Pakistan or India or Africa or, indeed, anywhere else in the world. Their values chime with those we recognise most happily in ourselves and that we, in our commonality, appear to share; perhaps not universally but in clear majority terms. They have a shared existence, a shared belief, a desire to share in the ‘large-scale solidarity’ that is Scotland and their lives are led to the same rhythm as ours. I find a greater affinity with someone who has chosen to come here than with those who have always had their allegiance tagged to another nation.

What, then, of those who set forth from Scotland and settle elsewhere? They appear to be of at least two types – those whose romantic hearts have remained behind and those whose eyes are set on other lands and ne’er backerties do they cast. There is ample evidence that Scots have held fast to their home nation even when living on the other side of the globe (read Kenny MacAskill’s book Wherever the Saltire Flies for detail) and there is an equal amount of evidence that there were Scots who never thought a second time about shaking the dust of Scotland from their shoes (although we still like to claim them as our own when it suits us). Those who never look back seem to be on a par with those who have never looked here, their links with Scotland are broken, it has become just another country to them, quite possibly as foreign a country as the past can make it. Scots who have moved abroad but carry a piece of Scotland with them have never truly left but their connection is simply not as strong as the connection between Scotland and someone born elsewhere who has chosen to live here – they are Scots just as much as any of us are Scots, it doesn’t matter whether you can trace your Scottish roots back to an ancestor who sat in McAlpin’s court or your Scottish roots began at the airport last week if you’ve made the commitment to live in Scotland you’re a Scot if you choose to be one.

I don’t pretend that Scotland is free from racism nor would I contend that xenophobic sentiment is a minor issue here. I dislike the smugness on this issue that Scots, including myself, so often display as if we were better people than those elsewhere but we have a civic and collective attitude which encourages assimilation into our nation – some of the most passionate Scots I have met have been the children and grandchildren of immigrants, building a belonging here while still holding a candle for their ancestral homeland. Internationalism burns clearly where people can feel a part of a new nation as well as retaining their own histories. I would like to think that we can aspire to the same level of acceptance of others that Ataturk displayed while speaking to the mothers of ANZAC soldiers who died at Gallipoli:
Those heroes that shed their blood and lost their lives...
You are now lying in the soil of a friendly country.
Therefore, rest in peace.
There is no difference between the Johnnies
And the Mehmets to us where they lie side by side,
Here in this country of ours.
You, the mothers, who sent their sons from far away countries...
Wipe away your tears.
Your sons are now lying in our bosom
And are in peace.
After having lost their lives on this land, they have
Become our sons as well.
His constant refrain was that nations are people in the land and that the strength of nations depends upon the strength of its people; in a speech in Ankara in 1920 he said:
Today, nations recognize only one sovereignty: sovereignty of the people. Looking at the details of an administration we would see that all begins in a village, a community, in other words with persons. People can be led by anyone in the wrong or right direction if they are not educated. For his/her salvation every person must take his/her future in his/her own hands. An institution built from bottom to top, from the foundation to the roof will certainly be strong.
Ghandi expressed similar sentiments:
We have long been accustomed to think that power comes only through legislative assemblies. I have regarded this belief as a grave error brought about by inertia or hypnotism. A superficial study of the British history has made us think that all power percolates to the people from parliaments. The truth is that power resides in the people and it is entrusted for the time being to those whom they may choose as their representatives. The parliaments have no power or even existence independently of the people.
The continuing theme is that it is the people who are important, not the institutions, that the cohesiveness of a people indicates both nationhood and the strength of the nation. There is no social union crossing national boundaries that can be as strong as the union of people within those boundaries. I think the concept of the social union was first touted in Jim Sillars’ book The Case for Optimism where he noted the parallel concerns of FBU members in London and Glasgow. I would speculate that firefighters’ professional concerns, though, retain a similarity across the globe as has been so often demonstrated with the efforts firefighters here will put in to ensure that their colleagues in other countries have equipment which will help ensure their safety and let them do their jobs effectively, while their cultural and social concerns diverge markedly – it isn’t a social union that motivates them, it’s a professional bond and similar bonds can be seen in many other professions.

Is this a case for independence? Not of itself; there is no restriction on what the people of a nation can do with their sovereignty – it’s theirs to do with as they will, even to cede control of it to others – and the case for independence is still to be made. It rises from the contention that the interests of Scotland differ from those of the UK, that our pooled sovereignty is not serving our people in the best possible manner – and that is the case we have to argue.

I have heard the case made that “an independent Scotland would not have gone to war in Iraq” and I wonder whether that is thought to be a compelling argument. Leaving aside the fact that we have no way of knowing what an independent Scotland might have done nor how it would have developed and where its best interests would have lain at the time, how is this any more a compelling argument than arguing that an independent Scotland would have a different speed limit or a different benefits system? It hinges on the fall of one decision in one direction or the other and is no more an argument for independence than the assertion that vegetarians and meat eaters disagree is an argument for any such couple to divorce. The dissonance between Scotland and the UK must be greater than this for the case to be made for independence and I’d like to take a stab at establishing the basics of that case first and developing it in greater detail later.

There are shining contrasts between the civic discourse of Scotland and the civic discourse of the UK – interestingly often seen most starkly in those UK politicians who come from here, perhaps a proximity thing, perhaps because they try too hard – and there are equally large contrasts between the reported opinions of Scots and similar opinion polls across the UK, mirrored, it would seem, by the vox populi of ‘letters to the editor’, broadcast phone-ins, those dreadful ‘stop you on the street corner and ask your opinion of asylum seekers’ spots, and all the other trendy and with-it techniques of garnering audience participation to justify broadcasting.

It all suggests that Scotland is a nation with a different social conscience from that of the UK, we are a more collectivist people – an attitude more Scandinavian where our sense of decency reaches out for us and we see a society in balance, a society which holds to yachad, which embraces togetherness, collectivity and togetherness.

We see the political discourse of Scotland being a welcoming of asylum seekers and holding close of refugees – a discourse which is echoed by the neighbourly welcoming those in need through community action groups. Even if there are tensions at times and even violence, the over-arching is a welcome, a social commentary from the roots of Scotland which disparages the actions of the UKBA and rails against the inhumanity of decisions made in the tribunals. The political discourse in the UK, meanwhile is that of the fortress, of quotas and caps and fast rejection, the contest seems to be who can hang toughest, who can play the card closest to the wire, and who can match the vitriol of the least reasonable newspapers. The civic chatter is muted at best, and the words from the pens and keyboards of the concerned populace appears to be concerned with preserving property and lifestyles rather than offering friendship and humanity.

Where the UK argues for the retention of a nuclear weapons facility in order to play with the big boys on the world stage, Scotland revolts against the inhumanity of them. Where the UK political slant is that we need to be a nuclear power in order to retain our permanent member position in the UN Security Council, Scotland’s political viewpoint is, generally, more geared towards working productively with a larger number of other nations for the greater good, and taking our turn at doing the work in the Security Council when it comes round – more a cooperation in world affairs than the desire to rule them that seems to be the UK position – a position which Dean Acheson perhaps measured accurately. Internationalism rather than imperialism, perhaps?

Scotland favours offering opportunities for self-advancement and entrepreneurship rather than the glorification of wealth; the encouragement of employment opportunities and the helping hand back into work rather than the provision of advice about mounting bicycles and heading off in search of the promised land; and the protection of those who cannot work rather than their vilification as scroungers.

Public ownership of the public sector and the infrastructure of the state is regarded as a good thing in Scotland, far less so across the UK, and the argument that the public sector drags down the private sector is contested vigorously here but appears to be accepted wisdom across the UK – even when the private sector turned to the public sector recently and begged for investment in massive public sector procurement projects to help the private sector. ‘Project Privatise UK’ which has appeared in many guises over the years has been met with increasing opposition in Scotland – even to the point of turning it back (the SNP Government, obviously, but don’t forget that the last administration did their bit with things like the Skye Bridge). While there continue to be moves afoot in the UK to toll roads Scotland has removed tolls from bridges because they are part of the roads network (again, the SNP Government with panache but the previous mob also got into the act with the Erskine Bridge).

Whisper it, but there’s a tendency in Scotland to favour progressive taxation while the UK seems set on moving towards flat taxes, having only come towards progressive tax as a necessity; and a willingness in Scotland to use the business tax system to encourage smaller businesses to thrive rather than simply create conditions for yet more massive profits for those already making fortunes.

It’s not an exhaustive list by any manner of means but it is indicative of some of the big issues. It can be expanded as we go – or, indeed, challenged. It serves, I think, to indicate that Scotland thinks and feels differently about big issues in society, that we pull towards a different path, that we would be more comfortable, more stable, feel more in solidarity if we went our own way.

The UK politicians aren’t necessarily wrong to follow the paths they are taking and it may be that the policies they have chosen to pursue are the right policies for some parts of the UK. They may have positioned the UK just right for its interests but they do not appear to be Scotland’s interests.

The wellbeing of a nation, of a people, is about much more than economics, it’s about how a nation walks together, about how we rub along, agree and debate and decide the way forward. I can’t understand why, as one of my SNP colleagues put it, some politicians don’t appear to want Scotland to have an economy fit for independence even before it happens, but I don’t think that it’s the most important point in the debate. Poets contribute as much as economists, engineers as much as programmers, it’s a collective effort that drives a country forward and it seems that the impetus to drive Scotland forward is missing from the UK agenda – not out of conspiracy or evil intent but merely because Scotland’s interests do not align with those of the UK.

Scotland is pulling in a different direction, our interests lie other than alongside those of the UK, we have different attitudes, different collective opinions, a different solidarity. It isn’t just that we might have come to a different conclusion in taking this decision or that decision, it’s that we approach the decisions differently.

We are a nation with all the attributes of a nation and all of the gatherings of a nation, a nation whose sovereignty is currently commanded to take pathways which don’t sit easily with us, with our beliefs or our collective conscience.

That is the case for our independence, that is why we should reclaim our statehood, that is why Scotland should rejoin the family of nations - Scotland is a different nation and should be seen as such.

Friday 3 September 2010

Councillor Dawe - just not worthy

There was a wee story in Edinburgh's Evening News recently. The gist is that Edinburgh Council paid out £6,000 to a company involved in the Gathering and no-one had told Council Leader Jenny Dawe who had told other councillors that no money had been paid, she instituted some kind of inquiry to get to the root of it all and that report has indicated a series of events which resulted in the money being paid out and it was, of course, all the fault of a senior council officer.

At first I regarded this as being a bit of a waste of public money and just a bit snide on the part of Cllr Dawe, seeking to shuck off responsibility but thinking about it now, I'm thinking that it's indicative of a deeper malaise, leading the council carries a responsibility similar to the leader of any other organisation - your desk is where the buck stops whether you ordered the action or not. Tony Hayward never ordered the rig explosion or the oil slick but he took the rap; Dugdale resigned in spite of not being responsible for the Crichel Down Affair; Carrington resigned because the FCO had failed over the Falklands in spite of not being personally responsible; and if memory serves there was even a Minister in Blair's Government who resigned over exam marking even though she was not personally responsible. Being at the top of the tree means you have to be prepared to accept responsibility for the organisation you lead. Slippy shoulders when it comes to responsibility (aye, and the blame) are not acceptable.

I laughed at the irony a while back when I saw a leaflet from an Edinburgh SNP councillor which stated that the Lib Dems now only stand for hypocrisy; now I wonder whether he was being too kind. When you're in a position of privilege and responsibility like the leader of the council in Scotland's capital city you have a duty to strive always to be worthy of the office, you should always be asking whether when all is said and done you will have said more than you've done or done more than you've said. Cllr Dawe doesn't match that specification, she is just not worthy.

Wednesday 1 September 2010

Labour and alcohol

Most interested was I in the 'independent' commission on alcohol that Labour set up. It had six members: Sam Galbraith, Labour party member and former Labour Minister; Stephen Doran, Labour party member and Glasgow Labour councillor; Brian Fearon, Labour party member, former Labour councillor and Labour's candidate in Ochil in 2007; Sally Brown (chair), former Labour party member and friend and neighbour of Labour MSP and former Labour Minister Richard Simpson; Graeme Pearson, former policeman and now Labour's adviser on crime (providing the skeleton for Richard Baker's sterling work); and Jeremy Blood who spent 21 years working for Scottish & Newcastle and is now a director of Mitchell's & Butler's. Impartiality - ye canna whack it!

Anyway, this commission, fascinatingly, came up with proposals that are already Labour party policy - remarkable the prescience that Labour politicians have - and scorned Minimum Unit Pricing (the policy of the SNP Government). This commission argued that "MUP is not in place anywhere in world and the evidence presented for its effectiveness relies on estimates of impact" just before it refers to the Canadian Social Reference Pricing which it suggests differs markedly from MUR. Perhaps they should have done the tiniest bit of research, something like reading the submission from the Brewers Association of Canada to the Alcohol Bill which describes SRP and shows it to be the same as MUP. In addition, Russia introduced minimum pricing on vodka earlier this year to curb consumption and has already had minimum pricing for other spirits for a couple of years, Moldova introduced it on strong alcohol products, Ukraine and China both have minimum pricing (Ukraine's politicians were arguing about how much it should rise by in April last year), and Australia was considering it at the beginning of last year (just me and my research assistant Mr Google finding MUP in action)

If you want something more stunning than that, though, look at the recommendations - this commission rejects the idea of Scotland bringing in a minimum price for alcohol based on the strength of the product and suggests, instead, that the Scottish Government asks London to introduce a floor price below which alcohol may not be sold and harmonise prices so that the cost of the drink will be based on the strength of the product. So that would be an argument that we shouldn't do it but should ask London to - the argument being that you shouldn't have a different system in Scotland. The irony of Labour being last to understand devolution is almost painful. Also interesting in that section, though, is that Labour's minimum price is based on adding together the cost of production, duty and VAT but there is an aside that "The Commission is unconvinced by those who argue that it is not possible to arrive at a notional basic cost of production." This is the only time in the report that it is mentioned that someone has suggested that it might be impossible to isolate notional basic costs (for instance, if one site is producing 20 different products on 7 different lines, how do you allocate production costs to each unit of each product?)

Labour once again ignoring the duty of responsible politicians and, instead, messing around looking for a tiny political pointscoring opportunity - a party that really can't be trusted. It's time to properly address Scotland's unhealthy relationship with alcohol and Labour just isn't interested.

Let's leave the last word to some international alcohol experts who have written to MSPs encouraging them to support the SNP Government proposals.