Can Pay, Won’t Pay

As this campaign goes on I’m getting less time to blog. I spent yesterday’s blog time doing the podcast for Michael Greenwell

http://michaelgreenwell.wordpress.com/2014/03/03/for-a-that-41-shout/

trying to keep up with Carolyne Leckie, William Duguid and Andrew Tickell and now I’m preparing material for Thursday nights’ Yes meeting in Stirling with Pat Kane and fielding requests for other public meetings from Skye to Selkirk to East Kilbride.

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I thought when Yes launched that Blair Jenkins would do all the work and I could just sit here and slaver. Now I’m rushed of my feet. And me a pensioner, too…I think I’ve had enough of all this grassroots, people-led nonsense where citizens who should know better are going round the houses asking folk how they’re going to vote. It’s not meant to be like this in canny-be-bothered Scotland. We’re supposed to wave the enthusiasts off into the dark and head for the pub via the chippy and top up the lard and alcohol reserves. At this rate some of us are threatened with a lack of obesity. There are fine traditions at stake here and nursing a belly burkha is one of them. A straining fabric cover-all for the swelly belly is the mark of a true Scotsman. Too much canvassing – AND deliberately being nice to strangers – is putting all that in jeopardy.

The trouble I see is that it is more natural for us to be pessimistic and to say Naw that to be inspired, smile and trill Yes. We are not just a thrawn nation, we are a Naw nation. And the Unionists even got that wrong. Instead of trying half-heartedly to sound upbeat (fixed smile) with Better Together they should have read the national psyche and gone for regional variations with NO (in Bearsden and Morningside), Naw (Glasgow and the West) Nut (Borders) and Nope, Non and Nada (for guests).

I’m also working hard at keeping in check my natural Nat rage which is increasingly finely honed and which explodes in an empty house when I shout at the radio instead of the microwave – which answers back. If I set it a task, it pings three times and if I don’t open the door immediately it waits about 30 seconds, then pings again, as if it’s saying: come on, hurry up, open the door…I usually shout something like: I’m busy for chrissakes…

I’m learning to bite my tongue though at BBC items which seem to me to accept without question anything that comes from British and/or corporate sources as the obvious and rightful position we must all adopt. I’ve written before about the Britishness that seeps through the corporation and much of it is, frankly, unthinking. It is a mindset. It’s one reason why Standard Life and the other money monkeys are treated with ingratiating respect, because we have been conditioned to think they are more important, somehow superior and powerful because they handle somebody else’s money. Big business people are revered, aren’t they? Nobody asks how they got their money and how they fix things to keep making it. I seem to remember one of our great entrepreneurs saying he got started by selling trainers to stores when he didn’t have any to sell. He got the order first and ran off to a supplier. Another famous multi millionaire of your acquaintance (oh yes, he is) told me he was part of a cartel of steel-makers who met every now again to fix the price of metal. When the price fell too low to affect profits, the big manufacturers get together and all put up the price by 5 per cent. (Under EU rules, that’s illegal).

Bill-Jamieson

I heard the redoubtable Bill Jamieson of the Scotsman on the radio talking about Standard Life – the company where the management enrich themselves while sacking the staff. Bill took the conventional British line – that they have to consider all eventualities so had to make a statement on their future etc. But he didn’t mention, and I don’t think was asked, about the real strength of Standard Life, the staff, and how they might be feeling or how many might keep their jobs or be moved or get the sack.  Oh, they’re worried about pensions funds and investments and profits, but people? I would think staff are utterly indispensible to the company and doubt if they can be easily replaced. Are there so many qualified quality staff in overcrowded London?  And here’s a different perspective again. Supposing we turn the company’s position around and ask a different question. If they express doubts about their future viability and add they may have to move – maybe yes, maybe no – because trading might get difficult, is that reassuring? Or is it a warning that it might be a good idea to relocate your funds now? They are in effect issuing a warning to investors who may just take them up on it. In other words, it can be interpreted as the exact opposite of what the company – and the complaint media – suggest. It may have been a miscalculation – not the first by this company. But you wont hear that on the BBC.

It was striking too that Bill casually suggested that a warning not take any share of UK debt would be interpreted by the markets as a political act. Perhaps it will. But this remark went unchallenged when surely the blindingly obvious response is that the British provocation was also, in those terms, a political act. Are we really saying that the government, their coalition partners and the opposition, aided by the Civil Service, uniquely acting in concert to deny the Scots their rightful access to the Bank of England is not a political act, yet the Scottish reaction to reject the debt, is? Yes, we really are. This is a hall of mirrors and no matter which way you look, the same image appears.

The BBC has always been close with the Establishment. That’s one reason why rifts like the Gilligan and associated David Kelly affairs are so tense and fractious, because they are rare, and do remember that after the Iraq War spat, the BBC Governors in the shape of Richard Ryder (former Tory Chief whip) made an abject apology to government for any and everything the BBC may have done. Servile hardly did it justice. But in today’s debate the duty to acknowledge the essential role of government should not be confused with a wider duty to viewers and listeners – the licence-fee payers – who have an inalienable right to fair, balanced and impartial treatment. That means at every stage of every programme every effort is made to look at issues from both sides and to ensure that Scots of all political persuasion can hear their side reflected. It does NOT mean taking sides. It means using journalistic imagination to tease out every angle and give nourishment to the debate.

I accept that management have made that more difficult. I met a BBC producer today who said the job was a constant battle to get time and resources to make programmes rather than having the space we used to have to make inspired intellectual leaps. When the budgets are slashed and the staff reduced, the first thing to go is the quality – the very thing Kenny McQuarrie promised would never be compromised.

Still, what is also undeniable is the depth of the kick-back. Scots are increasingly aware of being short-changed by their BBC and many won’t be for forgetting after the referendum. One side effect of grassroots Scotland getting mobilised is that it can easily turn into a different but equally effective campaign. If enough Yes people feel aggrieved, there is a case after any No vote, for keeping people together and turning it into a truly Scotland-wide anti-BBC movement, demanding changes in personnel and remit with the abiding threat of hundreds of thousands refusing to pay the licence fee. It is conceivable that a million Scots could stop paying and I would predict that disenchantment elsewhere in Britain would quickly escalate into something unstoppable. These are dangerous days for the British state and equally dangerous for its partner the BBC.

Bugger -that’s the microwave again

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Standard Procedure

Standard Life – Standard Procedure. What did you expect from a financial company – altruism? Presented with any change they can’t manage themselves, they panic. Oh yes, the do have to plan for eventualities, but they don’t need to make public announcements coordinated with a political campaign.

Notice how early warnings were issued to selected media including the BBC’s Robert Peston who worked hand-in-glove with Alistair Darling’s Treasury during the financial meltdown to get daily exclusives. He was on air this morning claiming special access – who would organise that? Is it significant that this “politically neutral” company was in recent weeks having its executive board undergo media training in case they faced interview?

And on Radio Four the thunderclap of doom was applied by James Naughtie from Edinburgh, transformed for the day from news presenter into Scotland correspondent, analysing the implications and calling Standard Life one of the Edinburgh “family”. The tone was set by the Today presenter whose opening question to him was: ‘So Jim, just how bad is this for the Yes campaign?’ That question tells you the BBC already had its narrative in place otherwise, as an impartial interviewer, she would have asked: ‘What’s the significance of this?’ It’s a subtle difference which gives the game away – London has made its mind up and is thrilled at having the nationalists on the run.

But are they right? For as Peston himself writes: ‘What brought this issue to a head for the company was the recent declaration by Chancellor George Osborne, Labour shadow chancellor Ed Balls and the Liberal Democrat Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Danny Alexander, that they would all oppose formal monetary union with Scotland.’ Exactly. The contrived opposition to the logical course for the currency is the reason there is uncertainty yet it seems Standard Life is blaming instead the lack of a credible alternative. It seems no matter what Scotland does, it loses.

But there are unanswered questions here. This is NOT a declaration of departure, it is a statement outlining an alternative approach, presumably in response to shareholder requests for clarity caused originally by the independence campaign but deliberately fanned – undeniably so – by the British government refusing to negotiate in good faith as any administration should when  faced with a non-violent, constitutional democratic movement for change.

These questions of uncertainty are clearly the responsibility of the No side designed as a political response, not an economic response.

I see nothing in the words issued which indicates that this company has sought clarification from either side.

Have they asked the Scottish government for reassurance on currency or just read the papers?

Have they asked for private discussions on the tax regime?

How much will it cost to relocate, to make redundancies and find new premises?

How can it operate in 50 countries with dozens of currencies but not in Scotland?*

Have they read the White Paper, which has a long and detailed outline of the regulatory proposals?

Have they asked the British government why it has ruled out a currency union, consequently putting the company in this predicament? I

If they are concerned about EU membership, why haven’t they mentioned the UK IN/Out referendum, or doesn’t that concern them?

Have they asked the British to comply with the EU’s offer of legal clarification on membership?

Has Standard Life consulted its own staff? Or has it unsettled them by openly discussing leaving? Is this corporate responsibility, is it duty of care?

I think the answers are all negative. Yet they have gone ahead to form holding companies in England. That is the clearest indication that far from neutrality, Standard Life has adopted an active programme of anglicisation and set its face against independence. Interestingly, nobody on either side is saying otherwise. They have identified themselves as English first and Scottish second, because they are by definition happy with whatever London decides on regulation, interest rates or taxation as they haven’t raised any questions with them, yet we know there will be tax increases whoever wins the next general election and Europe is moving towards a unified regulatory system and we don’t know if London be in or out. Only they’ll have to think fast if there’s a Yes vote.

It does seem a pity since what they company is calling for, as in clarification on these issues, is exactly what the Scottish government has demanded but has not received.

And doesn’t it turn your stomach as a Scot that a company started here and which has traded on its Scottish roots can dismiss its origins and associations midway through a political campaign? Have they no inherent pride in their company’s background…no belief that the Scots will find a way of sorting out our constitutional issues…have they forgotten how Scots rallied to support their mutual status 14 years ago, including all parties of MSPs?

You can understand a company sitting down after a democratic vote and looking at their interests but when you are Scottish by definition, it is surely incumbent to treat your own country with more respect than this. But then we know how debased the idea of finance has become in Scotland when the same greedy types ran RBS and sold out Bank of Scotland to Halifax. And after the Crash, there can few, if any, who retain admiration of any kind for the incompetents and crooks and overreached themselves in search of more profit.

This has become the recent hallmark of Standard Life. You may remember that while Scots suffered austerity, the executives under David Nish, pocketed millions in pay and bonuses.

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Nish saw his pay packet almost double, just months after the firm announced 490 job losses. He received a basic salary of £720,000, a bonus of  £1.05 million, pension contributions of £179,000 and a further ‘benefit’ of £17,000. Unite union official Paul Neilson said: ‘These pay levels are obscene.’

Pat Connolly, Chase De Vere, said payouts on endowment policies have again been cut and overall returns remain much lower than they were five or six years ago .

‘Standard Life remains an average, middle-of-the-road with-profits provider…existing investors should take this opportunity to review their policies.”

And they have form in this duplicitous handling of customers and their own millionaire salaries. In March 2007 the company announced it would cut 1000 jobs in an attempt to save an additional £100 million per year in costs and a month later it was highlighted in the company’s annual report that three of Standard Life’s top executives were awarded more than £5 million in pay. You can see who these people are really interest in and it isn’t the Scots.

They haven’t been scrupulous either in their activities. A few years ago they were fined for dodgy behaviour. The Financial Services Authority hit them with a £2.45 million fine over the Sterling Pension fund fiasco, in which a fund was advertised   as wholly invested in cash when in fact it was heavily invested in floating rate notes. Guess what? No one lost their job. ‘The FSA has identified that there were flaws in both our systems and controls however they have not identified any particular individuals. No heads are going to roll on the back of this fine from the FSA,’ they said. So, if we ever were dealing with moneymen on the side of the angels – and they did welcome devolution in in the 90’s – those days are long gone. Profit before patriotism is their motto.

We can expect more of this pro-Union outing. Weir Group will follow them I think. You know Weir, engineers and bribers of Saddam.

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‘Glasgow-based engineering firm Weir Group admitted paying kickbacks to the dictator’s government a decade ago to secure lucrative business contracts. The High Court in Edinburgh heard this had contravened the Oil For Food programme aimed at helping Iraqis. Judge Lord Carloway also confiscated £13.9m of illegal profits from Weir.’ (I think it gives a little perspective when they lecture us about our democratic responsibilities). You could also remember that they can avoid tax – unlike you – by using offshore subsidiaries. From the Guardian: Lord Robertson, the former defence secretary and Nato secretary general, is a non-executive director of the Glasgow-based engineering firm Weir Group, which has subsidiaries in the Bahamas and the British Virgin Islands. He is also deputy chairman of the board of the Russian oil company TNK-BP, registered in the British Virgin Islands. Not bad for a former GMB official, eh?

I liked the following quote from 2000 when financial companies were hinting they were unhappy about devolution. Happily Standard Life and Scottish Widows indicated they were relaxed and plain George Robertson MP said: “It’s a bombshell which blows apart the Tory campaign efforts in Scotland since it shows that Scottish business is not taken in by Treasury scaremongering.” Would he like to repeat that today?

I think what the Standard Life business does is confirm for the fearties that they were right to be concerned. They would have considered a Yes so long as nobody objected and waved them through but they haven’t the stomach for their own independence. They would always wilt and vote No. But the real prize here is that it confirms more surely than ever that No is corporate, moneyed and selfish. Its largest support is outside Scotland, it’s money comes from the millionaires, even it’s boss Alistair Darling fills his pockets with corporate dosh on top of his full-time MP’s salary.

This is diktat. It is a sharp reminder of how Britain is structured and how it works and why we must get out and rebuild our own country. Corporate entities like Standard Life don’t care about Scotland or the Scots as they have confirmed today. They care about profits and will go anywhere and do anything to get them. They epitomize everything the burgeoning new democracy movement stands against. Forget their threats, they are  another reason for voting Yes.

*One of those countries is Canada where the Standard Life head office is located in Montreal, Quebec, a place with a long history of separatists government and campaigning. It hasn’t bothered SL. Quebec even has different tax rates for personal, sales and corporate purposes and there isn’t a cheep of complaint from Standard Life who manage just fine.