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Showing posts with label Glasgow. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Glasgow. Show all posts

Saturday, 12 October 2013

The Builder’s Tale – a poem to the fibre Rawlplug, in the style of Burns …

Early in 1974 I was working for the Rawlplug Company in Thornliebank, Glasgow. The company, then owned by Burmah Oil, made a mind-blowing range of drills and fixings, but the humble jute fibre rawlpug was the key earner for them. The jute fibres were extruded then cut, and the binding agent used was composed mainly of pig’s blood, which the female operators carried about in buckets.

Despite the fact that I was leaving, and working my notice period out, I was invited to a Burns supper, and assigned the humble role of replying to the toast to the lassies. Feeling inadequate even for that lowly task, I thought I would write a poem in the Burns style, imagining a period before builders had the incalculable advantage of the Rawlplug, and had to shape their own fixings.

I found my original by accident today while moving books. Here it is. I wore my suit of hodden gray, and it went down quite well on the night …

THE BUILDERS TALE by PETER CURRAN

Long years ago, in Alloway, there live a weel kent man - a master builder, full o’ skill (so this auld legend ran)

Aye, hauf the hooses in the toon his braid strong hauns had built – and, frae the profits, he had filled his coffers tae the hilt

Nae man could rival his sure touch wi’ lumps o’ Ayrshire stane – he finished it in certain ways that came from him alane

An’ when external walls were done, the mason moved inside – his skills extended tae the trade o’ carpenter beside

He sawed resistant planks o’ wood and planed their knotty face, producin’ frae sich ugly things a span o’ licht an’ grace

Alas! When this fine wark was done, he couldnae find at a’ a better way than then he had – tae haud it tae the wa’

When hammerin’ in the masonry a crude and raggit hole, and rammin’ in a chip o’ wood, he cried “I’d gie ma soul ..”

“Tae find a simpler way than this that I could make a fixin’ – that widnae bluidy well fa’ oot, like some puir mortar mixin’ …”

So to this thorny problem his energies he bent. Yet still he couldnae find a way, an’ felt his speerit spent

But noo, it chanced tae happen that, jist ootside the toon – the builder met an auld gray witch whose face was wrinkled broon

He sat beside her fire, an’ efter siller crossed her palm – he posed tae her his question, for now his mind was calm

“O witch, please tell me, in this life, will ever – if at a’ – I find a way tae hauld my lovely woodwork tae the wa’ ?

“Withoot this carry-oan that drives me daily roon the bend – o’ chippin’ wood and gougin’ holes – O, will it never end?”

The witch sat gazin’ in the fire, an’ drinkin’ oot a jug – Then suddenly, she screamed and moaned “I see it! – O! The Plug!

“It’s drawn frae jute fibes – twa’d make your skin tae crawl – it’s held thegither wae pigs blood – it’s stickin’ in the wa’!

“The hole it hammers intae exactly fits its girth – but the tool that fashioned that wee hole is not yet oan this earth

“So, Builder – in your lifetime, this thing is no’ tae be – it lies beyond your time an’ mine in another century …”

The builder left that eerie place and gret the hale way hame – for he felt as tho’ he were a pawn in some cruel cosmic game

He lived for years in misery, condemned to watch, in thrall – as a’ his lovely woodwork - fell oot the bluddy wall!

 

© Peter Curran 1974

Saturday, 30 April 2011

You got it right in 2008, Glasgow voters - now get it right again in May 2011

This was my first YouTube video in 2008 - a cry of pain over the lost Labour Party, and a cry of hope for Glasgow East voters to do the right thing - vote SNP.

You did do the right thing, Glasgow East, overturning a 20,000 Labour majority, voting for John Mason, one of your ain folk.

But you panicked in May 2010, Glasgow East - fear of the Tories made you let Labour in again - the party that wrecked the economy and wrecked your hopes and dreams. They bottled their chance to form a Rainbow Coalition, and thus let the appalling ConLib Coalition into power.

Now Labour says "It wisnae us - big boys did it and ran away ..."

But it was you that ran away, Labour - a contemptible act. Since then the corruption of GCC, the Purcell Affair, the obscene profits of developers in Dalmarnock and the unforgivable persecution of Margaret Jaconelli in her own home have all exemplified the rotten thing Glasgow Labour has become.

Don't repeat your 2010 mistake at the critical Holyrood elections in May. BOTH VOTES SNP - Glasgow and Scotland's - real, best hope for the future.


Tuesday, 18 January 2011

You got it right in 2008, Glasgow voters - now get it right in May 2011

This was my first YouTube video in 2008 - a cry of pain over the lost Labour Party, and a cry of hope for Glasgow East voters to do the right thing - vote SNP.


You did, Glasgow East, overturning a 20,000 Labour majority, voting for John Mason, one of your ain folk.

But you panicked in May 2010, Glasgow East - fear of the Tories made you let Labour in again - the party that wrecked the economy and wrecked your hopes and dreams. They bottled their chance to form a Rainbow Coalition, and thus let the appalling ConLib Coalition into power.

Now Labour says "It wisnae us - big boys did it and ran away ..."

But it was you that ran away, Labour - a contemptible act.Since then the corruption of GCC, the Purcell Affair, the obscene profits of developers in Dalmarnock and the unforgivable persecution of Margaret Jaconelli in her own home.

Don't repeat your 2010 mistake at the critical Holyrood elections in May. VOTE SNP - Glasgow and Scotland's - real, best hope for the future.

Friday, 19 November 2010

Objective journalism in retreat at the Herald, thriving at the Scotsman

The mysterious turnaround in the Scottish ‘quality’ press – what can be at work?

Even six months ago, if I had commented “almost totally anti-SNP, unionist in instincts, biased in news coverage to another party, mainly lacking in objective journalism, never provides space for nationalist viewpoints” I would have been talking about the Scotsman.

If I had written “Supports one unionist party in editorial comment and biased towards that party in opinion articles, but not anti-SNP, and relatively objective in news reporting, an occasionally presents a nationalist view point”, I would have been talking about the Herald.

Of late, I can virtually reverse these judgements.

With the always honourable exception of its superb Letters Page, the Herald has dragged the proud traditions of objective political journalism into the mire of blatant bias in news coverage and opinion towards Labour and unionism. William Randolph Hearst would be proud of it: Rupert Murdoch and Fox News would be happy to have the Herald in its stable. It provides a regular platform for journalists with links to the Labour Party: it almost never accords a similar platform to the many fine journalists with nationalist views.

Let me make my case from yesterday’s editions of both papers, the day after John Swinney’s budget for challenging times.

The Scotsman headline -

Swinney spreads the pain of £1.2bm cuts

Eddie Barnes Political Editor

For seven paragraphs and some  250 words, Eddie Barnes gave a factual and objective summary of John Swinney’s measures. Only at paragraph eight did the ‘but’ appear, and it began an equally objective account of the opposition and union responses to the cuts, moving to pages four and five and a double page spread. It was headed with an opposition quote in inverted commas -

‘Swinney’s running election campaign, not country’

This was fair enough in the light of the front page headlines: the entire structure of the two-page spread was completely objective news reporting and analysis. There was even a short piece in the right-hand column about internet and blog views.  The detailed objective coverage and analysis went on through to page 11, with various journalists and commentators setting out the arguments for and against one of the most important Scottish budgets in modern times.

This was journalism, not political polemic: it was objective news reporting and comment, with opinion clearly labelled as such when it occurred.

The Herald front page -

The top of the page was given over to a news item about secret talks to take over Rangers football club. That in itself says something about the Herald’s journalistic priorities, but we’ll move swiftly past that, and put it down to Glesca jist bein’ Glesca. (The more sinister interpretation would be the ‘bread and circuses at a time of national crisis’ theory, just in case the Royal Wedding wasn’t enough on its own!)

The headline beneath it was -

Swinney delivers a Budget sidestep

This is a loaded, pejorative statement, straight off the bat. Where the Scotsman delivered an objective news report at a time of national crisis written by one man, political editor Eddie Barnes, the Herald needs a trio - maybe to ensure that any blame is evenly spread – Brian Currie, Robin Dinwoodie and Gerry Braiden.

It leaps straight in with two paragraphs of criticism before it gets anywhere near reporting what the Finance Minister actually said, with phrases like “John Swinney was last night accused of dodging the tough decisions …” and “Opponents accused him of delivering stop-gap policies …”

As any jazz or pop musician will tell you, the introduction matters  - it sets the tone for the piece to follow. (Louis Armstrong’s introduction to West End Blues is regarded as a musical masterpiece in its own right.) This intro certainly set the tone. Six paragraphs are devoted to the criticisms of the Holyrood opposition leaders, and the relentless negativity persists, but with some attempt to actually detail what John Swinney actually said set out in the last few paragraphs. However, in the bottom paragraph, leading us into the page two and three spread, we return to an attack on the budgets measures by the General Secretary of the STUC.

The headline across pages two and three is -

‘20,000 public sector jobs on the line, union warns’

The whole of the page two article beneath it is a list of criticisms, when we still have had no objective summary of what the Finance Minister actually said, nor of the measures proposed, except through the mouths of his carefully selected critics. Three photographs appear of critics, Mary Taylor, Lucy McTernan and Fiona Moriarty.

In a box on page three, we finally get some fact – The Budget in Numbers, as a list. This is quickly offset by an opinion piece, Sketch by Ian Bell, deploying what passes for humour in such pieces, and a token attempt at balance. But its core message was clear – the SNP was playing politics with the Budget, trying to gain electoral popularity ahead of the May 2011 elections. There was a note of fear in this – fear that it might actually work.

If I may offer my version of Ian Bell’s message, it is this -

The SNP Government and John Swinney - in the face of a UK economy destroyed by the Labour Party, and a ConLib Coalition determined to protect the rich and powerful and attack the poor and vulnerable in their attempts to tackle the deficit - have tried to protect the sick, the vulnerable, the pensioners and the low paid from the full weight of draconian cuts to the Scottish Budget made by a coalition of two political parties totally rejected by the Scottish people in May 2010, in favour of the party – Labour – that had spent 13 years destroying their hopes and dreams.

If we remove Ian Bell’s pejorative lead-in to his paragraph on these measures, “Yesterday the plan was to cling on to anything …”, they are, in his words “a council tax freeze, travel for the elderly, the abolition of prescription charges”.

And we may hear the fear in his voice – and in the inner sanctum of the Herald – when he concludes by saying “voters might remember whom to blame and whom to praise.” I hope they do …

There is something rotten in the state of politics and the press in my native city, Glasgow, and there has been for a long time.

The Purcell debacle, the questions over the ALEOs, of links between PR companies, newspapers and local government, the criminal prosecutions, the resignations, and the catastrophic decline in objective reporting in the print media have only been alleviated in part by probing journalism by BBC, by ITV and by the new media of blogging and tweeting.

There is a kind of inchoate panic afflicting the UK unionist Establishment in the midst of its paranoia and confusion over Europe, its criminal and doomed foreign wars, its sleazy, venal, corrupt Parliament, and the results of its economic greed.

That panic is intensified by the ever-present threat that its fading, discredited empire might finally lose one of its last subject territories, Scotland, and that instead of providing cannon fodder for foreign adventures, and being some kind of northern theme park and playground for rich southerners, this proud nation that has punched above its weight intellectually, culturally, scientifically and ethically might regain its confidence, its autonomy and its integrity among the nations of Europe and the world.

It is profoundly sad that the Glasgow Herald and the City of Glasgow seem to be rejecting that future, and seem to be gripped by the same panic.

It is deeply encouraging that The Scotsman seems to be at last recovering its reputation and its journalistic integrity, after losing its way for a time.

Saor Alba!

Friday, 29 October 2010

David Dimbleby fails to recognise or understand the Scottish voice–again …


Question Time, under the chairmanship of David Dimbleby, is uneven in its standards as a prime political discussion forum on a public service broadcasting channel, the BBC, and its failing are particularly evident in its treatment of Scottish affairs and Scottish nationalist viewpoints.

The composition of its panel – one supposedly objective panellist, e.g. an academic, someone from the Arts, the occasional comedian, one representative of the governing party, two representatives of opposition parties, and one right-wing ranter, often a tabloid journalist, but occasionally a businessman/woman – is supposed to provide both political balance and entertainment. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.

David Dimbleby himself is supposed to be an impartial chairman, above party politics – which he usually is – but he in nonetheless rooted in the establishment values of monarchy, empire and the UK. He is the son of the broadcaster who epitomised these values, Richard Dimbleby, and he is very much his father’s son. (The other brother, Jonathan, has a much more liberal and questioning approach to British and world affairs.)

Last night’s Question Time exhibited all of the vices and few of the virtues of the QT format, and was, to put it mildly, partial and sometimes unfair in relation to Nicola Sturgeon and to Scottish affairs in general.

The historian was Simon Schama, now government guru on how to best inculcate an historical perspective in our children that will best reflect Establishment views and keep the Union together. Of course, Simon Schama would not recognise such a description of his role, and would not have accepted the poisoned chalice if he had – he is an honourable, likeable man. But he too, is imbued with deeply rooted Establishment values, as his endorsement of the simplistic viewpoint (Hugh Hendry) that terrorists were evil demonstrated.

Terrorist do things in pursuit of what they believe in that have appalling consequences, and are often young, idealistic, and shockingly - as we now know from Wikileaks - sometimes even mentally subnormal or disturbed individuals. The people who manipulate their ideals and send them to their deaths can fairly be described as evil, but we should remember that powerful states such as the US, the UK and Israel wreak even greater devastation, including the mass murder of innocent people, men, women and children, under a cloak of so-called democratic values.

Neither evil justifies the other – they feed on each other, and are locked in a deadly embrace that may destroy our society and even our planet.

But since this Question Time was in Glasgow, let’s come back to local matters and the state of the economy. David Dimbleby is fond of pointing out that Question Time is a national, i.e. UK-wide programme and addresses  the whole of the UK. While this is true, it is also a fact that when it is located in a city, region, or devolved state of the UK, it recognises the special interests of its host population.

Last week in Middlesbrough, it rightly and properly gave prominence to local issues, such as the fate of steel works and industry in general in the North East, and at no point were panellists restricted in addressing these issues. When Question Time is in Wales, or Northern Ireland, Dimbleby has no qualms or compunction over allowing local issues to dominate, indeed, he would be eaten alive in Northern Ireland if he were rash enough to attempt to do so.

But not so in Scotland, because as every diehard unionist knows, the real threat to the survival of the UK - in its present enfeebled form as the rump of a faded empire, attempting vainly to prosecute wars in foreign parts and strut its stuff on a global stage when it is unable to run its own economy successfully, and the poor, vulnerable and powerless are about to pay the price of the shambles created by Labour and now being compounded by the ConLib coalition - comes from Scotland, governed by a party that was elected by the people, the Scottish National Party.

The British Establishment has a visceral distrust, hatred and fear of the Scots, especially of their internationalist and humanitarian values, and because the drums of empire no longer resonate in this small but proud and profoundly European country, a country that has punched above its weight throughout its long history, intellectually, scientifically and economically.

Dimbleby therefore allowed the coalition spokesperson, Ed Davey, a minister, unlimited licence to speak without interruption, yet interrupt others, but radically curtailed Nicola Sturgeon every time she tried to address specifically Scottish matters. This did not stop him from quite gratuitously introducing the question of the Megrahi release decision, a topic on which he allowed others to offer their verdicts on a decision that politically and constitutionally was solely Scotland’s and frankly, none of their damned business, although Nicola was too polite to put it quite like that.

As best I could, I timed the total discussion contribution of the panellists, a tedious task in which it was difficult to be precise, because of interruptions. Here is my analysis.

Out of 43 minutes panellist discussion time, Nicola Sturgeon was allowed to speak for just under six minutes, that is, just under 14% of the time. The remaining five averaged well over eight minutes, with Ed Davey, for the ConLib government, allowed over nine minutes and the hedge fund manager, Hugh Hendry, allowed well over ten minutes.

Another way of putting is that, under the impartial chairmanship of Dimbleby, the Deputy First Minister of Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon - in Glasgow - was allowed to speak for only 60% of the time given to an unelected businessman, a Scot, based in London.

(If you want to challenge these timings, get your stop watch out and do your own sums – you’re welcome to it.)

Hugh Hendry is the Glasgow-born, London-based, manager of “a multi-million pound hedge fund that makes its money from failing businesses”, as Dimbleby described him. He is a very rich man.

A hedge fund is a fund that is usually open only to a limited range of professional and very wealthy investors. They trade in derivatives, dealing often with high yield rating and distressed debt. The packaging of debts, such as excessive loans to people who manifestly could not afford to repay them, in the US and the UK by hedge funds led directly to the near collapse of the world’s banking systems. In the UK, such loans and investments led to the near-collapse of Northern Rock and the UK’s first run on the banks in generations. (I was one of the investors queuing apprehensively outside Northern Rock in Edinburgh on that fateful first day.)

I have no idea of the nature of Hugh Hendry’s fund, Eclectica Asset Management, nor of his or its ethical base. What I do know is that Hugh fancies himself as a deep political thinker and commentator, but is a little sensitive about the public’s view of him.

A quote from Hugh, speaking in The Telegraph -

Hugh Hendry: 'We Hedge Fund Managers Are On Your Side'

You don't know me; we've never met. But I fear you are being encouraged to dislike me. Let me explain: I'm a speculator. I manage a hedge fund. Apparently I profit from your misery. Accordingly, our political leaders are keen to see the back of me.

Well, that about sums up my view, Hugh. But now that I know a little more about you, from your Question Time performance, I’m even less inclined to like you or respect your views, which appear to include a distrust of all politicians, Europe, Scottish nationalists and a willingness to defend torture by “our boys” in pursuit of those you see as the bad guys.

Your view point, to me, is startlingly unoriginal, and can be heard in any saloon bar from right-wing Tories. I would guess that when relaxing with friends from the finance industry, your favourite song is My Way, that maudlin anthem beloved by complacent, middle-aged, self-made men who think they have achieved something in their life, and confuse material success with a real contribution to the society of which they are a part.

But I was painfully aware that some of the Glasgow audience appeared to like you, and found your views acceptable. I’m sure if a British Tea Party ever gets going, you can rally the British equivalents of Sarah Palin and Christine O’Donnell to your cause.

However, in the interest of true democratic fairness and balance, I have clipped and grouped some of your statements on the Question Time panel, so that others may judge. You make me want to vomit, Hugh, but doubtless I would have the same effect on you. But I do it my way and you do it your way…


Tuesday, 5 October 2010

Donald Trump, a Glesca Granny and the Scope-Severity Paradox

I am indebted to the always pertinent Ben Goldacre of the ‘Guardian’ (Bad Science column) for initially calling my attention to a recent study from the Kellogg School of Management (no, it’s not about rice krispies or cornflakes) at Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois.

As reported in  ScienceDaily 

The new study, entitled "The Scope-Severity Paradox: Why doing more harm is judged to be less harmful," has been published in the current issue of Social Psychological and Personality Science (published by SAGE) and was conducted by Loran Nordgren of the Kellogg School of Management and Mary-Hunter Morris of Harvard Law School. The researchers found that a "scope-severity paradox" exists in which judgment of harm tends to be based on emotional reactions, and thus people have a stronger emotional response to singular identifiable victims rather than to an entire crowd of sufferers.”

This accords entirely with my own lifetime experience of people’s reactions to suffering. It is understandable, but dangerous, and in its worst manifestations, genuine sympathy is replaced by self-indulgent sentimentality.

Charities attempting to solicit donations for humanitarian cries involving hundreds of thousands of people have little choice but to recognise this, and their appeals has to be directed through the prism of heart-rending individual pictures and films, rather than at the enormity and magnitude of the devastation and hardships caused and being endured by large numbers of victims.

Politicians, of course, or at least politicians of a certain type – we have a few notorious example on the opposition benches in Holyrood – exploit individual cases to divert attention from much wider issues affecting large numbers of people.

Perhaps the roots of the problem lie in Matthew 11For ye have the poor always with you; but me ye have not always”, used for millennia to justify the riches and profligacy of churches and organised religion while their followers languish in abject poverty.

And so to Donald Trump and the Commonwealth Games, an unlikely pairing.

I received an email from 38 Degrees, a campaigning organisation whose petitions I normally support, asking me to sign a petition against Donald Trump receiving an honorary doctorate, because he was forcing people out of their homes. I declined, and advised them that they were being politically exploited by the opponents of the Scottish Government as a anti-SNP ploy.

People have been forced out of their homes throughout human history, usually for profit or greed for land. From the Highland Clearances, the dispossession of the Native Americans in the US, through to Israel’s profoundly inhuman and immoral actions on the West bank, such actions have been and still are crimes against humanity.

But there is another kind of dispossession, with much more difficult moral and social choices involved. In discussing these, I get on to some very tricky ethical territory, not least for my own conscience, and I do not claim that there are simple answers.

Crichel Down – there’s a trigger for the memory of those old enough to remember it – a political scandal in 1954 that led subsequently to rules on compulsory purchase by government, and which probably led indirectly to the Ombudsman concept.

(There was also the tragic case of Edward Pilgrim in 1954, who committed suicide over a compulsory purchase incident.)

The fact is that roads have to be built (some of them, anyway) and economic development has to be permitted – providing appropriate safeguards for people and the environment are maintained and applied. That’s why we have planning enquiries, and that’s why Swampy dug tunnels in the woods and why people chain themselves to trees, and so on.

But we would have no industrial society, no infrastructure of roads, airports, rail terminals, commerce and industry, no cities and no road system, no hospital, no schools, etc. if every person insisted on hanging on to their home and their land. We would all be living in primitive, harsh conditions in an overpopulated set of islands, and probably engaged in perpetual conflict with our fellow human beings for food and shelter.

We do this by consultation, by pubic enquiries, and ultimately by recognising the right of property owners and landowners to get a fair price for what they own, and compensation for related losses.

No society can, however, maintain a right for someone to block major and necessary developments for the greater good by refusing to sell, refusing to move. Such a position is just not tenable.

But there’s the rub – what constitutes a fair price and equitable compensation for giving up property rights and perhaps a place and a home with deep emotional significance to the dispossessed individual?

TRUMP and the GLESCA GRANNY

Let me nail my colours to the mast – I believe that if a development – international golf and hotel complex or Commonwealth games facilities are manifestly in the wider public interest, some people may have to lose their homes, property and land if they stand in the way of that, providing there has been full consultation and all relevant environmental, social, economic and personal arguments have been properly heard and adjudicated on.

If it happened to me, I would be sad, but I would recognise its inevitability and focus on getting the best price.

The objectors in Aberdeen on environmental grounds have been heard, and they have lost the argument. If such arguments had been accepted throughout the centuries, we would have no cities, no roads, no industry and no modern infrastructure in Scotland.

God knows, we are not short of wild unspoiled places, vibrant with animals, fish game and species in abundance, much of it regrettably in the grip of private landowners. I have no wish to turn Scotland into a concreted-over theme park, but neither do I want to see thousands of families condemned to unemployment and penury because of lack of work.

Those who are refusing to sell their homes are in another category entirely. I sympathise with them and I want them to get a price that reflects the hardship and emotional upheaval that the loss of their homes will visit on them, but I do not support their right to veto a major project by refusing outright to sell. So I have little sympathy for the Aberdeen protesters.

But I do stand up for Margaret Jaconelli, the Glasgow grandmother who has fought to get her idea of a fair price for over a decade for her two-bedroom flat in Dalmarnock. Unlike the Aberdeen protesters, who appear to have elicited public sympathy by virtue of the Scope-Severity Paradox (see above), she is well on her way to being demonised, together with her lawyer, for asking £300,000 for the land the Games authority wants to acquire and £60,000 for the inconvenience of being evicted.

Glasgow City Council plans to evict her for refusing to accept the £30,000 figure assessed by the District Valuer, a UK government agency under the compulsory purchase order.

When I was teaching negotiating skills in the early 1990s to managers and businesses of all kinds, I was introduced by Professor Gavin Kennedy, an international expert and best-selling author on negotiation, to the concept of ransom strips in property dealing, i.e. often small piece of land, privately owned, that stood in the way of a large, multi-million development. I used one of Gavin’s cases when I worked for him as director of Negotiate Ltd. to show how both ends of such a negotiation worked, the clear objective of the seller being to maximise the sale price and the buyer to minimise it.

No one, then or now, ever suggested that there was something immoral in recognising that the value of the land was determined, not by comparison with similar plots that were not the object of development, but by the particular circumstances of them being positional goods in the development context.

Governments don’t like such negotiating clout and good fortune to be in the hands of small property and landowners, however, hence the compulsory purchase legislation. While the UK government is totally reconciled to paying enormously inflated prices for armaments, defence contract, consultancy and IT projects based on market circumstances and leverage, they don’t like the idea of a Glesca granny trying to exploit her once in a lifetime opportunity.

Well, I do – go for it, Granny Margaret (she’s 23 years younger than me!) – get the best deal you can.

Do I think £300,000 for the land and £60,000 for the inconvenience excessive? Well, it’s an opening bid, and Margaret and her lawyer would, I’m sure, settle for a smaller amount in negotiation if she and her lawyer are permitted to bargain. But of course, they won’t be – the steamroller of local government and UK law will roll over them, in a city where municipal corruption has been endemic for generations, where dirty land and property deals have been the order of the day and where corrupt council officials who would have been sacked in any just society have been quietly retired with massive settlements and pensions over the decades.

But you’ve lost nothing by trying, Granny Margaret, and if there is any justice, you’ll still get the price offered, a new home, and with luck, tell your story to the tabloids and media and make a few bob.

Meanwhile, if there is a petition to protect you, I’ll sign it most willingly. But I won’t support your Aberdeen counterparts in their efforts to stay put.

Saturday, 3 April 2010

Externalisation – the insidious corruption of democracy – and Glasgow City Council




Preamble

I intend to get to Glasgow and the reverberations from the Purcell Affair under the above heading, but I must develop a rather lengthy argument to do so. If you find extended argument tiresome, and prefer the light touch and brevity of the traditional blog – or even Twitter – leave now! You have been warned!

(An alternative is to dive down the blog to the heading ALEOs and Glasgow City Council.)

EXTERNALISATION

Economists use the concept of externalities to describe the impact organisations make upon the society that they operate within. An organisation’s responsibility is to itself and to its own objectives but in the process of discharging this responsibility, it creates an impact on others, positive or negative. If that impact and effect was part of the organisation’s intention – part of its business strategy – that’s fine, but if it was simply an unintended consequence of its pursuit of its objectives, then problems can arise.

An externality is the effect of a transaction between two individuals and a third party who has not consented to, or played any role in the carrying out of that transaction. MILTON FRIEDMAN

For example, a mining company has an environmental impact, a chemical company may pollute the rivers or the atmosphere, a growing company may force smaller companies out of business – the negative examples can be multiplied along familiar lines.

The negative impact of organisations on people and communities can be considerable. A large company that becomes the dominant employer in an area can destroy the entire community if it pulls out. A dominant company can drive down the price of the goods and services it procures, forcing small suppliers into reducing their margins to dangerous levels.

An organisations can engage in practices and processes that are actively dangerous to the health and safety of those it employs and to the external community. Such effects were common in the early stages of the industrial revolution, and they were still occurring in the late 20th century, and will still occur in the 21st century, especially in third world or economically vulnerable communities. (The disaster at the Union Carbide plant in Bhopal in India is still one of the worst examples, and of course, Chernobyl.)



Entrepreneurs have two major concerns – one is to be able to take commercial risks without destroying entirely their own security and economic viability, and the other is to be allowed to focus on the central purpose of the venture without being deflected by external consequences that are not central to the business purpose, especially those that relate to morality, legal compliance and social values.

Business is essentially amoralmorality and legality are constraints imposed on it by a society that it of necessity must operate within, and the dynamic balance of these forces is the essence of capitalism in a free society. Organised crime is simply a business that elects to ignore these constraints.

That is not to say that entrepreneurs, business managers and directors of companies are amoral, or lack a moral compass, but that the very nature of business is without malice or pity, and the moral individual must operate within that context. All too often the individual moral conscience becomes subordinate to, or is crushed by the demands of the organisation.

When businesses are small, and a sole proprietor or family dominates, the business activities can and usually will reflect their personal ethics and morality, and concepts of equity and justice can prevail. In rare cases, that ethical basis can survive the growth of the company if the values of the founder or founders – or indeed the founders themselves – are still present, and some great British companies managed to preserve such an ethos until comparatively recent times. Altruism has existed and does exist in business, but it often has a hard time …

 

HOW BUSINESS PROTECTS ITSELF

Entrepreneurs protected themselves against the first risk - destroying entirely their own security and economic viability in commercial ventures – by getting the concept of the limited company on to the statute books. The company or corporation became a legal person, distinct from its owners and directors, with almost all of the legal protections an individual person has under law, and a limit set to its liabilities – the limited liability corporation.

Without that legal protection, there can be little doubt that we would not have had the industrialised world that we know today. An entrepreneur could set up a venture and take risks, supported by investors in the company - the shareholders and venture capitalists – and fail occasionally without destroying his or her own capital and financial security, going into personal bankruptcy and losing everything. Legal safeguards were set up to prevent abuse of this immunity by entrepreneurs.

Entrepreneurs protected themselves against the second risk - being deflected by external consequences that were not central to the business purpose, especially those that relate to morality, legal compliance and social values, and not being allowed to focus on the central purpose of the venture – by insisting that it was the job of government and society to impose morality and social values upon them by legislation and regulation. This was the first externalisation, releasing the organisation from the need to establish its own morality and values and leaving them free, within the regulatory constraints, to pursue their business objectives. Thus was the balance to be maintained between the legal protection of the limited liability company and the needs of the society it operated within.

The company, in essence, could be amoral but have its morality imposed by society and be constrained within limits acceptable to that society.

But this ideal rested on an assumption that proved naive and false from the very start, namely that the limited liability company would not be able to influence the legislative constraints that they operated within. In fact, from the earliest days, companies have sought to influence, and in an increasing number of instances, subvert the very legislative process that was meant to constrain them.

The most spectacular example of this has been the insidious, relentless and inexorable growth of the military/industrial complex, a threat defined and named by President Eisenhower in 1961.



This has proved to be a cancerous growth that has perverted our values, our politicians, our democracy and our world.

THE IMPACT OF EXTERNALISATION ON THE UNITED KINGDOM

The results of externalisation in America have been evident for well over a century – explosive industrial and commercial expansion delivering enormous wealth and prosperity to some and utter misery, poverty, sickness and death to others. Initially, the exploited were the immigrant population and the ill-educated lower classes, but then, faced with the growth of organised labour and labour protection legislation at home, exploitation tended to shift to America’s colonies (which of course it always denies having) in Latin America, in its offshore islands, and in many other parts of the world. In this, they were simply following the brutally exploitative model of British imperialism, whilst coyly rejecting the idea of an American empire.




(The continuing American hatred of Castro’s Cuba stems, not only from  real ideological or strategic beliefs, but also significantly from the burning resentment of American big business and American organised crime at losing a population that could be exploited with minimal risk and effort.)

But closer to home, the events leading up to the financial meltdown that followed the near-collapse of Northern Rock had already signalled that all was not well with our notional democracy, and the regulation of big business.

Maggie Thatcher began the process in the 1980s that involved widespread deregulation, externalisation and outsourcing of business, and we entered the era of the short-time temporary contract, of cleaning contractors who didn’t clean - killing hospital patients while their directors grew fat on the proceeds - of railways where the left hand didn’t know what the right hand was doing and trains crashed with alarming regularity, of an exploding housing market where essential workers couldn’t afford to live within commuting distance of their place of work, of the destruction of entire mining communities – the list goes on.

Industry, notable the financial sector, were allowed to lobby, bribe and bully the Westminster government and our elected representatives, and to negate or at least emasculate the regulatory authorities designed to keep each industry in check. A government and the regulators turned a blind eye while the banks and the financial industry gambled with the security and the lives and hope of millions of ordinary citizens. The concentration of power – by acquisition – in the newspaper industry and the media also led to distortion of objective journalistic values and to the impotence of government in the face new Citizen Kane’s in their Xanadus.

Revolving doors carried senior civil servants into top jobs in the industries they had been so recently responsible for controlling. Regulatory bodies were – and are - packed with industry representatives, neutering attempts to limit the worst excesses. Our own elected representative were either lobbying themselves or acting as pimps for the professional lobbyists. And of course they were also ripping off the taxpayer by inflating their expenses or actively falsifying them.

A new generation of politicians, drawn at a much younger age from the offices of the party machines and from PR companies, or straight from university, saw politics as a career and a route to enrichment rather than a calling. 

They knew nothing, had done nothing, had achieved nothing  and were, figuratively speaking, nubile adolescents eagerly awaiting their imminent ravishment and reward by the hard-eyed men and women of big business.

And so we come to Scotland, and to the great city of Glasgow

EXTERNALISATION’S IMPACT ON SCOTLAND

Scotland, a little nation of over five million people at the northern end of Europe, had nonetheless punched well above its weight for centuries, in culture, in learning, in innovation and invention and had made a crucial contribution to the industrial revolution. It was no stranger to the huge forces of industrial and commercial change that swept across the globe: it had experienced the cruel impact of the shift from the land to the city, from an agrarian society to a mechanised one, and its people had felt the iron hand of capitalism.

The abandonment of personal responsibility by their leaders, in very early forms of externalisation – an externalisation of responsibility and values - driven as always by rampant greed, from the Highland clearances to the dispossession of the lowland cottars had brought misery to hundreds of thousands, and the great workshops of Empire in the ancient city of Glasgow exacted a terrible price from the ordinary people, producing amongst other evils disease, death and malnutrition in the worst slums in Europe.

The clan chiefs unforgivably broke the bonds of faith, blood and absolute trust to enrich themselves (with a few honourable exceptions) and most of them reap the benefits of their ill-gotten gains to this day. The lowland landowners were little better, and both highland and lowlands leaders were prepared to ruthlessly suppress any attempts by the people they were exploiting and oppressing to obtain justice.

(The ‘Big Factor’, John Campbell, Chamberlain of the Duke of Argyll’s estates in Mull and Tiree, was so hated by his former tenants that emigrant communities in America and Canada celebrated his death (1872) in ‘uninhibited style’ with singing, bonfires and drinking.)

We must never forget that this, in the main, was done by Scots to Scots. There are those who are still doing it to this day, and their betrayal is all the greater because they know their history. They still see their noblest prospect as the high road to England, specifically Westminster, and once there, Scotland becomes almost an embarrassing memory.

In our own time, Scotland was devastated by Maggie Thatcher’s destruction of large parts of our industrial heritage. Her cynical and ill-judged attempt to pilot the hated poll tax in Scotland cost her party dear, and ultimately brought her down as Prime Minister. The Tory Party has been a negligible force in Scotland since that time.

But of course Scotland had been, for over half a century, a Labour fiefdom, nowhere more powerful than in Glasgow, one that was propped up by the ineffectual Scottish Liberal Democrats, whose utter betrayal of the ideals and principles of liberalism continues under Tavish Scott, in the name of unionism.

The election of the Scottish Nationalist government in 2007 and the great SNP breakthrough in Glasgow East brought a ray of hope to the people of Glasgow, and in my desperate attempts to find hope for the future for the city of my birth, I saw Steven Purcell as an honest politician who placed the interests of Glasgow first, despite his Labour allegiance. Whatever the truth of that wishful assessment, the revelations following his tragic collapse and resignation show something deeply suspect in the heart of the administration of Gleschu - the dear green place - by the Labour-dominated City Council.

ALEOs and Glasgow City Council

The responsibilities of Glasgow City Council are as extensive and complex as one would expect from the requirements of governance of one of the major cities of the United Kingdom, a city of 620,000 souls. The governance of this great city is entrusted by its electorate to elected councillors, and they represent the democratic will and control of the people of Glasgow over how their city is run.

Ideally, those running for office would see the role of councillor as a vocation, not as a career ladders nor as a route to personal wealth. Power would be sought unselfishly to serve the people.

But life – and politicians – ain’t always like that …

An elected councillor can expect to earn a minimum of £16,234 per annum, and has pension rights in addition to this. This is about two thirds of the average wage and in itself is unlikely to attract an ambitious and able person who is not driven by an altruistic wish to serve his or her fellow citizens, and is even less likely to persuade someone to give up a higher rate of remuneration to seek election.

However, anyone who was driven by money and career considerations would already be highly aware that the potential earnings are very much higher. The great British public were duly shocked when the Telegraph exposed the true level of earnings of honourable and right honourable members of Parliament, made up of expenses, expenses fiddles and extra-curricular activities of various kinds, including directorships, consulting, and other nice little earners too numerous to name.

The Glasgow electorate – not easily shockable after generations of corrupt administration – might just be beginning to see what is going on by the light that the Herald (belatedly, but God bless them for doing it now!) has been mercilessly shining into the earnings activities of their councillors.

And they may be coming to grips with the acronym that represents a nice little earner – the ALEO, or Arms Length External Organisation, which should really be ALEGO, Arms Length Governance External Organisation. I suppose ALEGO was too close to A LEG OVER, with its related concept of screwing the electorate. Or is it related to that old Glasgow chant about the Eely Aleo?

So what are the ALEOs? They are external organisations set up by Glasgow City Council to run departments and functions and deliver services to the people of Glasgow that were formerly run by Glasgow City Council. They are given a considerable degree of freedom of decision and action, but have at least one board member who is also a councillor, to ensure that they remember to whom they are ultimately accountable – the people of Glasgow.

Here’s what Glasgow City Council says about the principles of governance in a paper relating to ALEOs by its External Governance Committee on 26th May 2009.

EXTRACT

1.1

Governance has been defined as the means by which an organisation ensures that the level of direction and management of the affairs of the organisation are satisfactory, aligns corporate behaviour with the expectations of  the public and maintains accountability. The process of governance therefore involves the clear identification of responsibilities, accountabilities and adequate systems of supervision, control and communication. Fundamentally, governance is about how the organisation ensures that it is doing the right things, in the right way, for the right people, in a timely, inclusive, open, honest and accountable manner.  

1.2

The Council has statutory responsibility for the delivery of a range of services and it meets
this through its operating structures and its governance arrangements.

END OF EXTRACT

ALEOs are therefore a manifestation of externalisation – outsourcing – and of shuffling off the inconvenient need to run departments, deal with real people and with trades unions - in other words, of reducing, if not avoiding real responsibility for doing what Glasgow City Council is elected to do. A fig-leaf of residual control and accountability is provided by the external director or directors appointed from the ranks of councillors – and perhaps friends of the Labour Party.

It goes without saying that the above is not the rationale used by Glasgow City Council to justify the helter-skelter multiplication of ALEOs.

It was, of course, no part of justification for the setting up of the ALEOs to provide a nice little earner for councillors or others, nor to regard the ability of the new external directors, in the City Council’s own words (from the extract above) to

… ensure that the level of direction and management of the affairs of the organisation are satisfactory

… align corporate behaviour with the expectations of  the public and maintains accountability

(provide) … clear identification of responsibilities, accountabilities and adequate systems of supervision, control and communication

… ensure that it (the ALEO) is doing the right things, in the right way, for the right people, in a timely, inclusive, open, honest and accountable manner

as rather likely to be compromised by their need to protect a healthy supplement to their council salaries and to stay on the right side of their new board members. The eternal question cui bono? always has a familiar answer in Glasgow – Who dae ye think, Jimmy?

Doctor Christopher Mason, a LibDem councillor, who has some responsibility for looking at these things, got very testy with Gordon Brewer on Newsnight Scotland when he was asked about an inquiry into ALEOs and Doctor Mason’s view of them. In his rather aloof and patrician style, Councillor Mason curtly dismissed the questions, saying that there was no evidence of wrongdoing, therefore why have an inquiry?

He muttered about ‘witch hunts’, and appeared ignorant of the old dictum that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, and that the confidence of the people of Glasgow had been severely shaken by the news coverage following the departure of Steven Purcell.

The potential of corruption in government is ever-present, and it is not McCarthyite to say that the facts revealed by the Herald give grounds for grave disquiet.

Whit’s goin’ on Jimmy, eh? There’s somethin’ no’ right here, ah can smell it fae here …

Wednesday, 3 March 2010

Steven Purcell

I regret the skepticism displayed over Steven Purcell's surprise resignation and his motives displayed by many commentators. Admittedly, the way he handled his legal and PR front is puzzling - perhaps explained by his being admitted to a drug and alcohol rehabilitation centre - but I am inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt.

Here's what I wrote about him last March. I still feel that way, and wish him well in his recovery. I hope he sees the light and changes his party to the SNP, but whatever he does, he will do it well and honourably.

Of course, I may be wrong and his critics right, and if so I will eat crow.

FROM MY ARCHIVE
Sunday, 15 March 2009
Sunday, Sunday - and Steven Purcell

Oh, the Labour Party! What it has become is both tragedy and farce. Someone should dramatise its decline and fall. It could tour the world, like Black Watch. Brian Cox could play Gordon Brown as a Lear-like figure, crying in the political wilderness. There would be parts for Iain Gray, for Wendy - tears (crocodile variety) would flow copiously ... Stop, stop! This is serious - I mustn't get carried away.

Among the ruins, however, I find wholly admirable Labour people, still alive and kicking, albeit a little damaged. Today, one of them, Steven Purcell, leader of Glasgow City Council, is in the news, for all the wrong reasons as far as Iain Gray and the Labour leadership are concerned.

He is the kind of young Glaswegian I recognise and celebrate. He was born in 1972 in Yoker. Now to men of my generation, born in the centre of Glasgow (E1) but living in Dalmuir, near Clydebank in the early 1960's, Yoker was a kind of frontier town, on the Clydebank/Glasgow border.

When the pubs shut at 9 o'clock (yes, my children, 9 o'clock) Yoker pubs, lawless and rumbustious, stayed open until well into the night - well, half-past nine, to be exact. With a fast car from Dalmuir - say a Hillman Imp - you could be thrown out of the Park Bar in Dalmuir at closing time and be in the Cawdor Vaults for a final swally before half-nine. When the Clydebank licensing laws changed to permit opening until 10 o'clock (oh, bliss!) we were all skint by 9.30 and had nowhere to go but home.

But our hero, Steven, missed all that. A 16-year old school leaver, and a YTS trainee in a building society, he was precocious politically, apparently (I look twice in astonishment) joining the Labour Party at 14 and being elected to Glasgow City Council, for the Blairdardie Ward, at the age of 23. He just rose and rose, being elected - unopposed - as Leader at the age of 32. That career path is not down to luck - it must be due to formidable ability and political nous, allied to superb people skills. And if all this was not enough, he seems like a genuinely nice guy. There is still hope for politics, and for Glasgow, if not for Labour.

It's such a pity you are in the wrong party, Steven, but you've got all the years ahead of you to see the light.

You will be a worthy opponent for Alex Salmond when the hapless Gray disappears. I look forward to the contrasting styles at First Minister's Questions. Good luck.