Thursday, 20 March 2014

Bingo Budget Bulletin

Once we start deciding everything for ourselves, will Scots miss the theatricality of Budget Day?  The line-up of shop-window dummies outside Number 11, with the Chancellor holding up the red briefcase that, unbeknownst to all, contains only sandwiches and a rolled-up newspaper.  The 300-yard limo drive to the House of Commons, expensively filmed by the BBC from a helicopter because they’ve got your TV licence money, so bollocks to you!  The adversarial ranks of testosterone-addled louts, immune from everyday concerns, bellowing insults at each other and kept at bay only by an improbably pint-sized Speaker.

Then there’s the tradition that permits the Chancellor a drink of his choice during the speech, the only time alcohol’s allowed at the despatch box.  In their day Brown and Darling opted for mineral water, which was fine, because I wouldn’t like to see either of them too excited. Kenneth Clarke, who would rather have been lying back with headphones listening to Miles Davis, endured his ordeal with the aid of whisky.  Gladstone drank “sherry and beaten egg”, although he may have been secretly chastising himself for some personal misdemeanour.  George Osborne’s tipple looks like water, though it wouldn’t surprise me if it were actually the tears of the poor.

It’s very different from Holyrood, where there’s plenty of knockabout humour and gnashing of teeth to titillate the public gallery, especially when Johann Lamont is confronted with matters of detail, but nothing so compelling in dramatic terms.  Still, there’s nothing in my life these days to approach the thrill of Thunderbirds, Marvel Comics or sherbet dabs, either.  But that’s all right, because I’ve grown up.

There’s no doubt that George enjoys being in the spotlight, and not just because it helps to disguise his otherwise vampiric complexion.  It’s a great opportunity for him to put the boot in while others can only watch helplessly, summing up in one bravura performance the whole outlook of the Coalition Government.  His wickedest moment yesterday came when he announced funding for celebrations of the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta, which he reminded us was the story of a weak leader, who betrayed his brother and was bullied by powerful barons.  The House erupted into laughter, as in response Ed Miliband's control chip activated his “smile” app while he waited for Ed Balls to explain the joke to him.

George was particularly pleased with himself this year, because the economy had grown to the point where he could afford to buy the Office For Budget Responsibility a new dartboard for its forecasts. Naturally, he attributed this to austerity, a brilliant economic strategy that he would gladly enshrine in the Constitution, if only the UK had one.  That’s as may be, but if I smash you to a pulp with a baseball bat, and you subsequently recover sufficiently to live a normal life, it doesn’t make me an orthopaedic surgeon.

The Treasury’s “lazy stereotype” unit had obviously told George that potential UKIP voters were mainly elderly people with piggy banks, because he unleashed a massive love-bomb on savers and pensioners. When he announced that £15,000 annual ISA limit, I’ll bet the champagne corks were popping in Easterhouse.  As for easing restrictions on retirees, allowing them to blow their entire pension pot on drink and drugs, what a splendid boot in the knackers for annuity providers!  Standard Life must be considering moving to Sevastopol, where the outlook is more certain.

Any crusties needing to offload some cash might want to pop down to the bingo, if their local hall isn’t too packed with hard-working people who want to get on, or to the pub, where for the second year in a row George ran a “buy 300, get one free” offer on pints of beer. 

The Tories were so proud of these concessions to the proles that their resident idiot, Grant Shapps, decided to publish a colourful poster claiming credit for helping folk “do more of the things they enjoy”.  Unfortunately, as Twitter went into meltdown, it soon became clear that what they enjoyed was humiliating the Tories for talking patronising pish.  I don’t yet know under which of his many false names Grant will appear in the soon-to-be-published Great PR Gaffes Of All Time, but I’ll try to find out once my sides stop hurting.

With a significant expression of Scottish voters’ wishes falling due in six months, we were agog to see how George would play things.  We already knew that the pound we weren’t going to be allowed to have would be changing, taking on the shape, and by 2017 possibly also the value, of the old threepenny bit.  What noise would the new coin make, we wondered, as it clunked ineffectively into the reject tray of a slot machine?  Would there be compensation for people whose jacket pockets would be destroyed?  After independence, would Scottish engineering firms still be allowed to build the new fleet of supermarket trolleys? 

In the end, George didn’t offer Scotland much in the way of bribery.  I think we’re just not his type, dear.  And we could have done without the little victory jig when he indicated that North Sea tax receipts were lower than forecast.  However, at least he didn’t raise whisky duty above its present eye-popping level, and Scottish firms did share in his attempts to breathe life into the corpse of UK manufacturing.  He even tweaked Air Passenger Duty a little, although not enough for the BBC to start pressing Willie Walsh to recant his views on independence.  Yet.

As for the inevitable stiletto, we were too busy watching George’s lips to notice it being inserted between our ribs.  Buried deep within the crannies of the Red Book was the reduction, in real terms, of Scotland’s block grant for the coming year.  John Swinney is an equable chap, but I’m sure he must sometimes want to sneak into a private sound-proofed cubicle and unleash a blood-curdling primal scream.   

Well done, James Cook of BBC Scotland, for spotting that little piece of jiggery-pokery.  There is hope for you and your colleagues yet. Now chair a TV debate where Better Together aren’t permitted to lie their socks off, ye wee scamp!

As with all Budgets, we’re now in the honeymoon period.  First impressions never reflect the full horror that lies slumbering within the Red Book.  However, it’s good to see that George has already put the ever-willing Danny Alexander in place as a human shield for the coming storm, whatever form it may take.  Let’s see how long his zealous infatuation with the Tories survives that.

Barring unimaginable political upheaval, George will be back for another dramatic extravaganza next March.  Will it be his finale as far as Scotland is concerned, or the start of a series of increasingly irritating curtain calls?

One ballot paper, one question, one moment in history.  You know what to do.


If you're interested in the Scottish independence referendum, why not have a read of my "To September And Beyond" blog here?  It's completely biased, of course.

Saturday, 8 March 2014

A Barrage Of Balloons

Sorry I haven't been around these parts for a little while.  Here's some of what I've been getting up to on my other blog. You know, the one with all the references to Scottish politics no-one south of Berwick can understand....

Weren’t the Oscars a disappointment?  Faced with the planet’s foremost assembly of emotionally incontinent attention-seekers fuelled by mind-altering substances, the No campaign couldn’t persuade even one of them to supply a vacuous sound-bite about Scotland staying in the UK!  We were treated to the biggest “selfie” in history, and there wasn’t an embarrassing tartan jacket in sight, nor a single designer handbag with a petite Union Jack poking coquettishly out.

I suppose it’s possible the silly buggers entrusted the flag to Liza Minnelli, only for her to end up hopping about in frustration at the back of the photo group, searching in vain for a stepladder.  But if we move back into reality, the truth is obvious:  they’ve called off the love-bombing because they just don’t fancy us any more.  Perhaps it was our constant references to Norway that put them off, or our indiscreet hand gestures during Dave’s Olympics address.

The violins may have stopped playing, but the bombardment continues.  Now it’s a barrage of bouncing bombs, skittering along the river towards the dam of Scottish self-confidence.  “You’ll be uniquely unable to use any currency whatsoever.”  “You’ll be chucked out of the EU, but mysteriously be bound by its rules.”  “You’ll be walking away from the BBC…. oh, hang on, maybe that’s a good thing…”

In fact they’re not really bombs, but giant balloons filled with noxious gas, much like the people who launch them.  Anybody capable of sharpening a pencil can easily pop them, albeit never loudly enough for the mainstream media to notice.  But we’re dealing with the UK establishment, where you earn a gong by repeating the same crap over and over again, so the balloons keep coming.  The last week or so has brought an exciting new trend, where many of the balloons have sported a “highly respected” company logo and, according to the BBC, carried the message “Vote Yes and get the sack, losers!”

That's because it’s the corporate reporting season, when, as a condition of the pen-pushers signing off on their accounts, companies must draw attention to any risks they believe will affect operations.  Even though the UK economy is a Ponzi scheme teetering on the edge of meltdown, they’re not allowed to cast aspersions on the status quo.  Independence, on the other hand, is just the ticket to set alarm bells jangling, especially if it means a firm might be properly regulated and any fraudsters thrown in the clink for a change.

This is particularly relevant for the financial sector, which a couple of weeks ago was a ravening monster whose demands would suck Scotland dry, but is now a pillar of national prosperity we can’t afford to lose.  Hence the hullaballoo about Standard Life “threatening Scottish jobs”, even though that’s not really news, because they sack people all the time, especially when the directors’ bonus pool needs topping up. 

Similarly, Alliance Trust, tiptoeing on to the scene today with a bland statement about forming additional companies, soon found themselves waving in the wind on top of the media flagpole, as commentators sucked their teeth in concern.  By contrast, Aviva, through the brilliant stratagem of announcing they weren’t fussed about independence, guaranteed themselves peace and privacy for the duration of the campaign.

It’s difficult to conceive of any situation that can’t be made more annoying by the intervention of a banker.  Sure enough, an old Square Mile chum of Robert Peston popped his head out of the trough the other day to deliver a sly tip-off.  While looking for buried treasure, he’d found a cobweb-encrusted piece of European legislation, forgotten by everyone and never tested in the courts.  After some restoration work with Tipp-Ex and a felt pen, lo!  the magic document proclaimed that upon independence RBS and Lloyds would have to move their head offices from Edinburgh to London.  Surprisingly, Robert assumed we’d interpret this as bad news, whereas it actually prompted a surge in sales of pitchforks and firebrands as we prepared to help them on their way.

In opposing independence, oil companies are on the sort of sticky wicket that defies all lubrication.  As soon as they praise the UK as a bastion of stability and continuity, it’s a fair bet that Osborne will move the taxation goal-posts again and UKIP will have a five-point boost in the opinion polls.  They also know that it would be a bugger of a job to extract the oil, transport it into English waters, bury it and extract it again, just to keep in with the chancers at Westminster.

So the oil sector’s comments about independence tend to be restricted to remarks by chief executives, whose grasp of the real world slipped away long ago.  Bob Dudley’s pro-Union views in a BBC interview were sentimental claptrap, albeit carefully judged to mask his own diabolical performance at BP.  Still, at least they were internally consistent, unlike those of Ben van Beurden, who at Shell’s annual reception waxed lyrical about the certainty provided by the EU, but didn’t notice that a Yes vote might be the best way to prevent it being flushed down the toilet.  Perhaps he was simply reading from the script Mr Cameron left behind after the Cabinet had finished posing in Shell’s Aberdeen offices.

And so it goes on, and on, and on.  The nay-sayers in the mainstream media are in clover here, because unless a company has something to gain from independence, such as British Airways hoping for Air Passenger Duty cuts, it isn’t going to leap on the Yes bandwagon in its annual report, any more than it would eulogise about its favourite colour or Kylie Minogue single.  So the best we can hope for is neutrality, although that hope seems somewhat forlorn when so many company boards are festooned, like Standard Life’s, with former Thatcher acolytes.  “What would Maggie do?” they ask themselves, and the answer’s always “Knee Scotland in the balls!”

Meanwhile, a million miles from the microphones and the lurid headlines, membership of the pro-independence group Business For Scotland has hit 1400 and continues to rise.  They’re mainly small enterprises, trying to make a living for their owners and the ordinary folk they employ, so they needn’t expect Westminster to give them so much as the time of day.  But they have a clear glimpse of something that’s plainly in front of us, when it isn’t obscured by the Unionist propaganda that surrounds us like a cloud of midges. 

Hope, not fear.  Opportunity, not risk.  A decent society, not an austerity-ridden hellhole.

And maybe, just maybe, the chance of a Saltire in next year’s Oscars selfie.