Wednesday, 24 June 2015

SNP overreact to 'non-story' on monarchy's Scottish funding, why?

What a curious ‘non-story’ it turned out to be.


Sir Alan Reid, the Keeper of the Privy Purse [yes, that’s his real title] yesterday presented The Queen’s Annual accounts to Westminster. He mentioned in passing that he was worried by the decision to devolve income from the Scottish Crown Estates to Holyrood next year fearing the SNP might hold back the Queens share.

The Times and The Daily Telegraph seized upon Sir Alan Reid’s ‘concerns’ to run a story alleging the SNP intended to cut the money Scotland pays the monarchy as part of some sinister republican plot.

 Today, following the Scottish First Minister’s intervention Sir Alan is apparently no longer worried. Move on there is nothing to see here insisted spin-doctor and SNP chief strategist Stephen Noon on Twitter.

Worth every penny..?

 Now before we go any further it might be worth explaining what the ‘Crown Estates’ are and how much income they generate. The Crown Estate is one of Britain’s largest property portfolios. It has assets worth £8bn and generates profits in excess of £250m a year. This ‘portfolio’ includes some of the most expensive real estate in London and Edinburgh. It also contains Ascot racecourse, several well-known and famously lucrative urban shopping centres [including Edinburgh’s Kinnaird Park] and the entire seabed around Britain as well as half the foreshore. All income from the ‘Crown Estates’ used to go to the monarch until 1760 when George III transferred it to the UK Treasury in return for writing off the huge debts he had amassed, taking on the cost of Britain’s civil administration and providing him with a handsome allowance known as ‘The Civil List’.

Worth every penny..?

 With the passing of the Sovereign Grant Act in 2011 the ‘Civil List’ was abolished and so was the rather unseemly spectacle [for monarchists at least] of an annual debate where ‘plebs’ in Parliament got to set the budget. Instead the Tories managed to get the issue passed on to the Prime Minister, the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Keeper of the Privy Purse [see above] to oversee and a ‘formula’ was agreed where a percentage of the Crown Estates annual net revenue was paid over to the Royal Household [currently it is set at 15% of all its annual profits].

Worth every penny..?

 The Times and The Daily Telegraph story that the SNP intended to ditch the formula set out in the Sovereign Grant Act and keep the money so worried the nationalists that First Minister Nicola Sturgeon herself was put up to rebut it. She was briefed to say this claim had ‘No basis in fact’ and vehemently insisted ‘By hook or by crook Scotland will pay our contribution [to The Sovereign Grant] in full and on time’.

Worth every penny..?

 So why was the SNP apparently so frightened of this ‘non-story’ that the nations First Minister had to deal with it? The answer speaks to the SNP’s nervousness about Britain’s un-elected, unaccountable and anachronistic ‘Head of State’. Any SNP Minister could have pointed out that under the ‘No Detriment principle’ enshrined in all the devolution plans out of London - The Scotland Bill 1999, The Scotland Bill of 2015, the Smith Commission and ‘Full Fiscal Autonomy’ [whatever that actually means] insist the UK Treasury is fully reimbursed for any extra income accruing to Holyrood from any new powers devolved. So any extra money received from the Scottish Crown Estates from next year must be deducted from the Block Grant.

So why would the SNP keep a penny piece when there is clearly no advantage to do so?

That’s the primary reason the ‘Keeper of the Privy Purse’s’ fears are unfounded. But the SNP’s ‘full spectrum response’ as it were speaks to its own political vulnerability.

They try to face both ways on the monarchy.

Worth every penny..?
They are aware there is a sizeable pro-Independence constituency in Scotland who wishes to replace the Crown with an elected Head of State. Indeed many suspect most of the SNP’s 100,000 members want such a republic. And yet the SNP leadership continues to reject that notion out of hand and talk up Alex Salmond’s post-Independence ‘social union with the Queen at its Head’ to appease their conservative voter base in their North East heartlands. Their naked political calculation here is that those who favour a modern, democratic republic are not as exercised on the issue as the right –wing monarchists who wish to conserve this ancient anachronism.

 For the SNP this issue remains a fault line running right through the party.

Their response to Sir Alan Reid’s claim yesterday is a measure of the vulnerability their leaders feel on this most fundamental of questions.

The question is will this ‘non-story’ mark the day the leadership’s position finally began to crack? Or will their democratic credentials continue to be ridiculed?

My pamphlet on a Modern Scottish Republic available HERE

Worth every penny.

Tuesday, 23 June 2015

Alexis Tsipras's Groundhog Day

Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras in Government for 5 months faces the same dilemma over and over and over.

Tsipras: Dilemma...

Greece owes 330bn Euro’s to the IMF/ECB/EU and has no way of paying it back. For the umpteenth time he stood on the precipice again this week, looked over and backed down. If anything his situation only gets worse. The Greek economy has shrunk 25% in the last 5 years, it is currently in recession again and shows no sign of recovery. Yet next week Tsipras has to pay the International Monetary Fund [IMF] 1.6bn Euros. If he cannot do so he loses the 7bn Euros promised to Greece under the terms of previous loans.

The Greek economy simply cannot afford the loss.

 In order to secure this latest loan he had to promise the Troika [IMF, EU and ECB] further cuts in public service spending and higher taxes, all in breach of the manifesto commitments Syriza made to voters in January. He has therefore agreed to raise a further £2.7bn to pay to the Troika from Greece's crumbling economy.

This latest austerity package includes cutting Greece’s pension bill by increasing the retirement age, demanding higher contributions from workers and scrapping early retirement schemes. Additionally Tsipras aims to raise £1bn by increasing VAT rates for certain items, charging wealthier pensioners for some health services and raising Corporation tax.

None of this will be easy.

VAT for example is already at 23% and 8,500 businesses have gone bust this year alone. And in truth this latest ‘compromise’ offers little long-term solace. It simply buys Greece time to limp on to its next financial humiliation in August. The Greek economy remains in a desperate state. Its unprecedented level of debt [standing at 180% of GDP] chokes any chance of recovery. Official unemployment is at 25%, whereas under-employment is far higher. One in two youngsters is out of work. One million others have already emigrated.

 This depressing picture is all a far cry from the euphoria of January 25th when Syriza won the General Election. Back then they promised to implement a 7-point programme known as its ‘Thessaloniki Declaration’. This committed them to increase the National Minimum Wage to 751 Euros per month [£625/month], to lift the basic state pension to 750 Euros/month, to ensure everyone had electricity and no one was disconnected, to get 50% of the national debt written off and negotiate better terms on the remainder by mobilising international opinion behind Greece’s plight and convening a conference of all debtor nations to press for that write off.

Unfortunately none of those promises has been kept and for one simple reason. It has no power to do so.

The Troika [the International Monetary Fund, European Central Bank and European Union] hold all the ‘aces’. Now Syriza merely promises not to cut the National Minimum Wage or state pension and it sells that as a triumph. Maybe it is in the circumstances.

 Yet remarkably Syriza is more popular now than it was in January.

(Two podcasts I made from Greece in January)

The reason is apparently because the Greek people are pleased Syriza stood up to the Troika. Previous Governments were seen as apologists for the moneymen and they struck poor deals. This renewed sense of pride does not put bread on the table but it has won respect nonetheless. Why does Syriza not just leave the Eurozone and walk away from these crippling debts run up by its useless predecessors?

The answer is because ‘Grexit’ is not politically popular.

Syriza doesn't support it feeling that the consequences of reintroducing the Drachma would lead to even greater economic and political instability. The Greek people are hostile too because they don't have the stomach for the uncertainty and upheaval it would bring. Equally, the Eurozone’s architects Germany and France believe ‘Grexit’ would undermine the political and economic rationale behind the single currency. They believe it would be better to keep Greece inside. And therefore notwithstanding the political pressure from their own domestic electorate determined to see Greece abide by the terms of the Eurozone deal they signed Angela Merkel and Francois Hollande are determined to see Greece remain in the Euro.

 Both sides are guilty of underplaying the long and painful road Greece has to travel for many years to come if it remains inside the Eurozone. It will not be fun for anyone. Tsipras believes his Groundhog day’ will end when the Troika agree to write off some of his country’s backbreaking debt.

It has been a forlorn hope so far.

Tuesday, 9 June 2015

Greece - Is Syriza buckling under the pressure of the EU moneymen?

It's five months since that heady Burns Night when I witnessed Syriza - The Coalition of the Radical Left - win the Greek General Election. And the answer to the oft asked question back then 'who is going to blink first the new Greek Government or the EU moneymen?' appears to have been answered. Elected on a seven point programme know as its 'Thessaloniki Declaration' Syriza promised, among other things to : get half of Greece's 319bn debts written off as unpayable renegotiate the terms for repaying the rest with the Troika [IMF/EU and ECB] halt the privatisation programme agreed by previous New Democracy and Pasok Governments increase the national minimum wage and state pension to 751 Euro's per month and 750 Euro's respectively organise a European wide debt conference to build support for their programme of non payment. Any honest and objective assessment of the progress made on those pledges does not flatter Syriza. Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and his colleague Janis Varoufakis have succumbed to pressure applied by their creditors in Berlin, Frankfurt, Brussels and New York. The debts have not been written off. Indeed unaffordable repayments have all been made in full. The Port of Piraeus, the jewel in the crown of the Greek state, is to be sold off to a Chinese company. The promised increases in the minimum wage and state pensions have not happened either. The European debt Conference is nowhere to be seen. The odds stacked against Syriza have simply been insurmountable. Varoufakis and Tsipras have been outgunned on every occasion and emerge from every meeting with the Troika further compromised. The Greek economy meantime has been shrinking and shrinking. Billions of Euros have been withdrawn from banks as savers stash cash under their beds fearing credit controls will be imposed following the inevitable debt repayment failure. And yet despite all these setbacks Syriza remains popular at home. Recent opinion polls give them a commanding lead over the opposition New Democracy. They emerge with very little from the talks with the Troika but Greeks at least appreciate the fact they stand up to the creditors and conduct themselves with dignity and a never failing resolve. This is not something the previous New Democracy or Pasok Governments ever did. But as Paul Mason writes in his blog for Channel Four News this week the Coalition's partners, the trades unions and the youth who might have been expected to lead protests against the Tessaloniki failures will not remain silent forever. There are tensions and conflicts within Syriza about the failure to deliver on the Coalitions manifesto. As things stand those arguing in favour of leaving the Eurozone remain in the minority. Opinion polls suggest the Greek people are overwhelmingly against such a 'Grexit' and a return to the drachma. In these circumstances the political options open to Alexis Tsipras are extremely limited. He appears intent on shoring up Syriza's political support at least and has suggested that if the latest talks with the Troika - due to end on June 30th - fail he may call a Referendum to let the Greek people themselves decide whether to accept the terms negotiated or to leave the Euro.