Few readers will care that it’s judging time for the Scottish Press Awards, but bear with me. I spent most of Wednesday sifting through entries for local reporter and local feature writer, about 200 articles from Scotland’s still healthy weekly papers.
The vast majority were well-written and presented and many told of human endurance against adversity, but as a snap-shot of life in Scottish communities it was relentlessly gloomy; moving certainly, but a litany of suicide, ill-health, addiction, crime and poor government service.
They lent credence to the Scottish Trends “Well-being Index” published a week ago by economist John McLaren, which showed Scotland slipping from 16th to 21st in a league table of 32 developed countries, based on income, education, longevity and inclusivity.
Some SNP supporters rubbished the report because of Prof McLaren’s past Labour Party links, but with anecdotal evidence illustrating the effect of soaring drug-death statistics, mental health neglect, measurable declines in school standards and higher income tax, the case was clear despite any of Prof McLaren’s previous political associations.
Critics pointed to other available measurements, and indeed the OECD’s “Better Life Index”, with 11 criteria including work-life balance and housing, puts the UK in 14th place but behind all the Scandinavian countries, which is cited as proof that smaller countries are generally happier. Unfortunately the argument is irritatingly undermined by Ireland and Austria’s positions behind Britain.
Well-being measurements are all the rage – corporate social responsibility is so last century – and the talk is of good or inclusive growth, with companies searching for effective ways to gauge their contribution to general personal welfare beyond the boardroom.
International business consultancy PwC‘s annual Good Growth for Cities report sprung from the 2008 banking crash, and in Scotland the Well-being Economy Alliance boasts a senior Aberdeen Standard investment manager and a former Scottish Enterprise director amongst its trustees.
Ill-defined and hard to measure maybe, but the language of good growth is all-pervasive, especially in the public sector where reports increasingly reflect ethereal political pledges. Edinburgh Council’s ‘2050 Vision’ (“connected, inspired, thriving, and fair”), its economy strategy (“enabling good growth”) and the recently published tourism strategy (“from driving growth to managing growth”) are three such examples.
But with last night’s EU departure, optimism matters in Scotland when accurate assessment of public opinion is vital for the SNP as it plots a course for a second independence referendum which balances political reality with inexorable pressure from the separation movement.
Despite, or maybe because of, domestic problems, the SNP turned this week’s main political debate into a row over flags so no wonder the prevailing mood is one of increasing pessimism when painting a grim picture of the United Kingdom is a key tactic in the Scottish Government’s overarching strategy of secession.
But recent data tells a different story. The International Monetary Fund predicts the UK economy will grow by 1.5 per cent by 2021 compared to 1.4 for Eurozone countries, while PwC’s latest poll of 1,600 chief executives puts the UK as the joint-fourth most-important global growth target.
According to the latest CBI quarterly industrial trends survey, optimism in the UK manufacturing sector has gone from minus 44 in October to plus 23 in January, the highest since 2014 and the biggest quarterly change since records began in 1958. PwC’s financial services survey put corporate confidence at its highest since 2015, and domestically analysts IHS Markit indicate “an easing of pressure on UK household finances”.
Meanwhile, UK public sector borrowing last month was £500m below forecast because a healthier economy is generating more tax, and the most up-to-date Scottish data showed a 2.9 per cent increase in exports to £85bn, with £55bn to the rest of the UK.
So plenty reasons to be cheerful, but one of the stories I read was about a working family sometimes left with only £34 a week for essentials and here is where the Johnson Government can score. People working hard, not looking for handouts and not wanting to use a foodbank, do want to feel the UK Government is helping them make and keep more of their own money.
That will keep those well-being measurements on the up, and then the SNP can talk all it wants about flags.
Scottish planning meets its Stalingrad
You read it here more than once but as predicted the grand vision for the troubled Dunard Concert Hall in Edinburgh’s St Andrew Square has been scrapped, ultimately because the city council’s enthusiasm for the massive concrete drum behind St Andrew Square flew in the face of its own planning policies.
The St James Centre investors Nuveen went to the Court of Session because of the way the planning application was handled and on Thursday the council announced the scheme had been ditched after it initiated a “process of mediation”. The reality is the council faced an embarrassing defeat, costs were rocketing, landowner RBS was becoming exasperated, so the Dunard board was forced into a humiliating retreat.
I was “advised” by the council’s chief executive to stand down from the Dunard debate because I had pointed out the contradictions in this column and now I and my Conservative colleagues who voted against it have been vindicated. If only they’d listened, it would have saved a lot of time, effort and public money and now architect Sir David Chipperfield must produce a new design.
Given how bullish the project board and senior council figures were in defending the plan, and how dismissive they all were of the St James Centre’s concerns, in Scottish planning terms it’s the biggest capitulation since Stalingrad
Salmond trial contempt?
Criminal proceedings against prominent individuals are always fraught with difficulties because of any preconceptions, one way or another, jurors might have about the defendant which are nothing to do with the allegations. In the trial of Coronation Street actor Bill Roache for indecent assault, the judge had to remind the jury his character Ken Barlow wasn’t in the dock.
Few are better known in Scotland than ex-First Minister Alex Salmond, so extreme care is needed to ensure the trial is fair and witnesses are protected, and in the past when there have been concerns that high-profile trials might be compromised by injudicious publicity, the Crown has not been slow in starting proceedings for contempt of court. I’ve been on the end of two, before the “Limbs in the Loch” and the Balerno murder trials, and fined for the latter.
Without going into details, an extraordinary commentary on the Alex Salmond trial which breaks about every rule in the book is in circulation; not drunken late-night social media posts but an extensive and well-written blog by someone who should know better.
No editor would re-publish details because of the legal risk, so if the author’s collar isn’t felt then the inevitable conclusion will be that the law is selective.