Sunday, 20 April 2008

Spring Conference Speech

Motion proposed by Rob Gibson MSP
Seconded by Pete Wishart MP


Conference welcomes the growing evidence that Scotland's creative industries are becoming a core economic sector in 21st century Scotland.

We note that Scottish performers and artists receive a very warm welcome in many countries across the world - they are truly cultural diplomats winning new and future partners in business vital to Scotland's continued prosperity.

Conference urges the Scottish Government to extend the scope of its Expo fund to promote Scottish-based productions premiered in the Edinburgh festivals to include comparable acts premiered at Celtic Connections.

Conference also recognises the unique contribution and vibrancy of our contemporary traditional arts, and calls on the proposed new body, Creative Scotland, to make an enhanced commitment to fund the development of this sector. This would present the perfect opportunity to encourage pride in a strong, fair and inclusive national identity.


Rob’s speech:

Convener, fellow nationalists,

The creative industries employ 100,000 people and generate £5 billion annual turn over or 4% of Scottish GDP today. Music alone brings £6m into the Shetland economy and Iain Hamilton of Highlands And Islands Labesl confirmed recently that there are around 800 people working in this sector in the Highlands and it is worth £24 million a year to the area's economy.

Creative Industries cover games, radio and television, new media, film, music production, design, publishing, architecture, advertising, arts and cultural industries.

According to Scottish Enterprise, outwith London and the South East, nowhere else in the UK has a greater share of creative industries employment … and it’s going to get larger.

Over the next three years the sector is expected to grow at 10% per annum in Scotland, with rates up to 20% per annum predicted for companies involved in digital content production.

Our artists and performers underpin the cultural confidence of Scots today. Through the dark Thatcher years they shone a light on the road to our Parliament. In terms of entertainment more people go to concerts, galleries performances and libraries than to play sport. So this Party should celebrate this artistic vibrancy and let it flourish.

For centuries now Scottish artists have been visiting and performing in countries across the globe. I hope our SNP Government can help many more to do so.

I’ve been on a personal mission with the help of Alyn smith MEP and Dr Aileen McLeod to talk with cultural representatives across Europe. Scotland is high profile, we are easily recognised and they want our cultural output in their lands. In turn we should be inviting as many nations to come and perform here. Not just in the Edinburgh Festivals programme but in every community. One example is a Basque sport and music group which performed in Inverness last month that is now making twinning links with the local Highland Games.

That’s cultural diplomacy on their part and that’s what the National Theatre of Scotland’s record breaking play Black Watch has done for Scotland on three continents. Haven’t they done well! That’s what we want to do again and again through a variety of art forms.

Turning to the Edinburgh festivals, they are always evolving. For instance the Fringe before the fringe was the Peoples’ Labour Festival in 1951 which featured political theatre, folk song and classical concerts.

This spurred the Edinburgh International Festival to feature traditional music which was usually sold out. But without consistent content each year this vibrant sector of Scots culture loses out on the prestige platform of Edinburgh in August.

I am asking our Government to look closely at a wider range of original Scottish artistic output to qualify for the expo fund.

That could be done through a dynamic partnership between Edinburgh festivals and Celtic connections that would open doors for our vibrant contemporary traditional music.

Put simply ahead of the 2009 Year of Homecoming we should be featuring as many Scottish artists and performers as possible around the world to attract people over here to see Scotland for real.

Please support this positive motion.

[Passed unanimously]

Tuesday, 15 April 2008

The Skara Brae Timeline

Photo: Myself, Anne Marwick, Linda Fabiani and a Historic Scotland Guide at Skara Brae

The Gagarin stone being placed along the Skara Brae timeline. Finally!

Friday, 11 April 2008

Plain spite from London Labour over future plans

Published: 11 April, 2008
John O'Groat Journal and Caithness Courier

As the new tax year begins a range of positive improvements kick in. They passed through Parliament under the minority SNP Government with the help of various parties. The Small Business Bonus is a good example. Incredibly, Labour sees all small businesses as the class enemy. Although they abstained on the budget it was the Tories who saw that small businesses in many parts of Scotland need the boost the SNP first envisaged for the shops and firms that are the backbone of places like Caithness. Labour supported the single survey scheme that helps cut out unnecessary expense for home buyers each time they apply to buy a house. The LibDems and the Greens have supported various SNP Government measures like abolition of the Graduate Endowment.

I’ve often argued that every community needs to feel included for the nation to flourish. That’s why at the start of April this year there are good reasons to cheer the results of the first year of this government. It is saving people money in their everyday lives. For example, prescription charges are reduced to £5, moving to full abolition by 2011. The council tax freeze across Scotland benefits many of us. The end of the £2,289 graduate endowment benefits students who graduated last year and all currently in full time degree courses. 150,000 small businesses around Scotland are to benefit from the Small Business Bonus. Inflation related increases help pay for free nursing and personal care for older people and this benefits over 9,000 people. Also the offer of immunisation for cervical cancer is now available to all teenage girls.

All have been achieved in one year of this SNP Government showing a determined level of delivery and ambition for Scotland. But New Labour in London is not pleased. The latest spat over a Treasury veto on SNP plans for a fair local income tax is just plain spite. How dare we plan a fairer future for Scots without their say so? What if London wished to change the local taxes? They would never give a thought to what Scots wanted. So the SNP has much to aim to deliver in the coming years to put Scotland on an equal footing with our neighbours.

MEANWHILE London bumbles on. Our whisky industry pays the price of misguided untargeted budget increases. I’m so glad that Wendy Alexander’s husband Prof. Brian Ashcroft has broken ranks and added his voice to underline the fact that the Chancellor’s whisky duty hike had nothing to do with tackling binge drinking and everything to do with propping up the UK’s failing finances. It exposes the festering divisions over the UK Government’s astonishing attack on one of Scotland’s vital industries which we know is vital to the North economy sending untold millions to the London treasury that could be much better spent in job creation and investment here.

MY COLLEAGUE Kenneth Gibson MSP, no relation, has drawn MSPs attention to the betrayal of the low paid by the abolition of the 10% tax rate, announced by the Prime Minister in his last Budget as Chancellor of the Exchequer and implemented from April 2008. This is happening at a time when the gap between rich and poor has reached levels not seen for more than 40 years with social mobility in the United Kingdom among the lowest of any developed country.

It hits all those earning less than £17,000 per annum, effectively increasing the amount of income tax that they must pay. Those on low pay lose the benefit of the 10% lower rate and do not have enough income chargeable at the 22% rate to benefit from the cut to 20%. Because the wage gap between Scotland and England is over £2,000 there are more lower-paid workers in Scotland, therefore hard-working Scots will be heavily penalised by this measure. According to figures published by Deloitte, in 22 Scottish Westminster parliamentary constituencies more than 50% of workers will be worse off, which means voters in Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross are deeply affected.

I STARTED this column in a mood of optimism; I want to remain on track. I’ll mention once again a key ingredient that can make the Far North a centre of activity, not the end of the line. Last week, in this slot, Jamie Stone was praising the foresight of the early rail developers. Alas our hopes for a modern railway have been parked in a siding of dashed expectations from the Tory rejection of 1986 to this day.

However I have received full backing from all parties on the Transport Infrastructure and Climate Change committee for seeing a proper study of the Far North Line’s potential. An assiduous reader of the committee minutes will know that Stewart Stevenson, the Transport minister, has been advised that according to the Halcrow report for HIE in 2006 there is far too low a benefit cost ratio to back further study.

There will come a time to list the hidden forces who have written off the North Highlands, but since 2006 many more options for our economy have opened up. Firstly, the Orkney hub as a major transhipment port is included in the Strategic National Transport Projects list. Secondly First Minister Alex Salmond has underlined the tidal and wave power potential of the Pentland Firth in his relaunch of the Saltire Prize during Scotland Week in the USA. Thirdly many more supermarkets and national chains are set up in Caithness. Their supplies should arrive by train to reduce wear and tear on the A9. Also the tourism potential of Caithness and Orkney, not to mention accessibility for civil service relocation, should all back a strategic reappraisal of the gross underinvestment in the Far North Line.

These are grounds enough for HiTrans to make amends – for the Transport Minister to demand more rigorous examination of our case. Never mind driving a train, let’s win the big prize of driving to a prosperous, sustainable county. Are we all aboard?

Monday, 7 April 2008

Housing crisis and land values - tax change needed to deal with trade cycle

This letter to the editor, only slightly edited, appeared in The Herald 7.1.08
An Aberdeen estate agent [House prices in Scotland see fastest rises in UK - Herald 5.1.08] says the housing market "is still very healthy and still going up." Surely this just shows that property owners and sellers have one view while the struggling first time buyer has quite another. In short, property owners want rising prices to enhance their 'investment' potential, first time buyers want stable lower prices.

At the same time Scotland as a nation loses many young and able families who just can't afford to live here. As we ought to know the housing boom eventually leads to a crash every 18 years or so. 1992 was the last nadir full of negative equity and repossessions, and yet Gordon Brown tried to ignore this iron rule and merely promoted the consumer boom to mask the underlying property crisis. Subprime has bitten him on the backside along with other 'prudent' economists across the globe.

Here in Scotland we have to address this mess. I would suggest we go to the heart of the matter: too little land in favoured locations for new builds and too high of prices near work for most people while meanwhile the price of farm and estate land soars to an all time high despite the credit crunch. With the cost of bricks and mortar rising on a far less inflationary curve the issue boils down to land availability.

Our planning system has enriched landowners in the favoured zones for development, but there has never been a serious attempt to levy land rent since Lloyd George's People's Budget of 1909 to support the less wealthy. A land reform review due in the Parliament is very urgent and the ongoing Scottish Government consultation on the Future of Housing in Scotland must address these issues. For a start far more land must be freed for building sustainable and affordable homes.

New studies on water needs and simpler utility servicing should point to ending the ban on appropriate housing development in the countryside. If existing land holders are short of cash then site sales can help, but if a far greater number are put on the market by changes in the law the prices of plots will naturally fall. There's been far too much speculation in housing in these past decades. Now is the time for bold action to make it possible for Scots to live affordably in their own land and for landholders to contribute - through a levy on land values - to local councils who have to deliver the planning and infrastructure.


Commentary -

Three months have passed and the depth of the shock to world banking is plain. Sub-prime bank losses are slowly and painfully revealed leading to a credit squeeze that hits first time buyers hardest. But keeping our heads down is no responses. Nor is criticism of small countries like Iceland targeted by speculators, or Ireland whose phenomenal climb to GDP levels higher than the UK is based on inflated property values for most of its better off citizens. Ireland still has a growth rate above the UK's sluggish performance. So when the richest economy in the world shivers in a global market we all catch cold in different ways.

Gordon Brown, when New Labour Chancellor, said "Most stop-go problems that Britain has suffered in the last fifty years have been led or influenced by the more highly cyclical and often more volatile nature of our housing market."

What jumps out from the financial pages and newscasts is the pain and attempted adjustment - not a deeper analysis of a recurring problem that used to be specific to each national economy but since the end of communism has become truly worldwide. Fred Harrison is Director of the Land Research Trust in London. His work on tax reform in favour of a land value tax is long recorded. Perhaps most urgently, his book Boom Bust - house prices, banking and the depression of 2010 published in 2005 by Shepheard Walwyn Ltd caught the crisis we are living today most graphically and accurately.

He traces the 18 year cycle back to the time it took a 17th century artisan to build and pay for his home at around 14 years, the average working life of a man in these days. With some modern tweaks that trade cycle is around 18 years - 1992 being the last deep depression. (Read the book to glean the arguments) However he also shows examples of how some fiscal regimes have weathered the storm better than others. Various states in Australia did far better than others when Land Value Tax was adopted.

So what is going on?

Rent for assets is extracted by landlords, speculators and, occasionally as in the case of London, congestion charging by public bodies. It is that rent which we all should be paying to allow good government, not speculation. Making profit from an immovable asset, land is at root self-defeating. Harnessing the power of rental value from scarce land in desirable locations is the theme of real tax change. Henry George campaigned for it to be a single tax in the late 19th century. He witnessed a property boom in San Francisco that penalised the poor who were nevertheless essential to the functioning of the city. His ideas were hugely influential but opposed tooth and claw by landed and property owning classes. A good set of examples show the principles at work as mentioned in Australia, Pennsylvania and Denmark to name but three.

Small and large nations, municipalities and regions can all apply the principles if they have fiscal powers. What has to happen is to empower the people through reducing the speculative value of property. I have watched land prices rocket on farms and in cities. I know many are perplexed but we need a radical tax change to capture that rental value for the common good. I'll be glad to share more details with the growing band who see LVT as the next big tax reform.

RG 7.4.08

Saturday, 5 April 2008

Myself and Patrick Mulvany of the Food Sovereignty Movement in my Parliamentary office.

Friday, 4 April 2008

The Organic Movement

Julian Baggini of the Philosophers' Magazine asked if there is anything coherent keeping the organic movement together.

[The Herald 1 April]

I would ask of this philosopher how he can base his argument on such fragmented logic.

For a start he quotes Lord Krebs who recently hit out at the 'organic illusion'. Krebs was head of the Food Standards Agency and also a well-known proponent of GM crops. The problem with these GM advocates is their failure to admit the bad science on which multi-national companies like Monsanto are promoting their much hyped 'improvements' to lure farmers into their grasp. The mulit-national bio-tech companies influence among politicians, agricultural unions and journalists covers up a failing agro-chemicals industry that constantly seeks free world trade to save their share holders dividends. Until now the EU has done a fair job at resisting as far as possible the WTO's intent on aiding these GM giants but EU Commissioner Mandelson has been a trojan horse for GM as his former boss Tony Blair and now Gordon Brown are GM's prime supporters inside the EU. So Kreb's views about the nutritional value of organic food come with the usual health warning.

I first read this latest attack on organic produce in The Observer on Sunday 30th March 08 (,,2269340,00.html). It ended with a caveat to the Krebs judgement by the FSA, namely - 'a number of new studies have recently emerged focusing on nutritional differences between organic and non-organic food.' Mr Baggini, in The Herald on 1st April 2008, ignores this and fails to address the Soil Association studies that show higher levels of iron, calcium, magnesium, phosphorus and vitamin C in organic foods which are good for you. Nevertheless, he criticises the Soil Association on other grounds, i.e. that organic food flown from around the world should be labelled differently. Organic maybe, but with a hefty CO2 footprint shows the whole process is not organic in the holistic sense of the word. It's not just about lack of chemical additives in the soil, it's also about lack of respect for the producers of Africa who can't get land and time to produce enough of their own food because the lure of cash crops for the rich West is promoted by local business middle men. However, once the African and other continents' food needs are met they too can choose, pity it's the wrong way round just now.

Surely the DEFRA report, quoted by Mr Baggini, that many organic foods grown in the UK are less energy efficient and more polluting than conventional equivalents has to be challenged. Imports have a high CO2 footprint as already mentioned. Does that make organic better or worse than chemically treated foods we capriciously term 'conventional'? There have not been conclusive experiments by the proponents of 'conventional' foods to deny the organic argument and prove so-called conventional methods are sustainable.

Is the idea of 'organic' being an intellectual mess really so?

To start with, the rising demand for organic home produce is out-stripping supply. The organic market reached a value of £2b last year. This shows a clear link with consumers across Europe being already wisened up. A contemporary pan-European survey of 26,370 people shows that 86% want tough health and quality standards applied by the EU in Europe to apply to all imported food as well. (

Does that not link to demands for food safety and security of supply as well as nutritional value? Previously consumer surveys show an overwhelming rejection of GMOs in our food - another pointer to concerns about the aims of agri-business conglomerates.

Could it be that consumers are instinctively correct to demand as little artificial chemical input in their food as possible? We should be told. Could it be that chemical residues are a real problem yet to be tackled in 'conventional' food production? Should we be joining Lord Krebs in his assertion that the FSA has found no safety or health reasons for consumers to be switching to organic? Or should we be seeking answers to the increasing monopolisation of production of 'conventional' and 'GM foods'? That, precisely because they rely on patented chemical additives and a narrow range of suppliers of animal feed and chemical treatments so prevalent in intensive industrial agriculture.

I believe these questions will have be addressed in the context of the Scottish Government's consultation on a National Food Policy which poses the question - How do we guarantee a future for Scotland where our food is wholesome, healthy and produced in an environmentally and welfare friendly way? The editor of the Philosophers' Magazine has done us a good turn in his article but logically a food policy needs far more answers than he offers.

RG 4.4.08