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Crisis – Pitiful or Petrifying?

Robin McAlpine – 25th August 2022

I don’t know whether the response to the crisis approaching this winter is more pitiful or more petrifying. Pitiful because politicians are running around looking for someone else to blame, petrifying because if we really are this incapable of solving this crisis, what chance do we have in the crises to come?

Almost the entire political class is a disgrace just now. The Scottish Government is treating the crisis like it is a big PR campaign, meaningless stunt after meaningless stunt to make them look good while nothing has actually been done. The UK Government is treating the crisis like it isn’t happening, looking at their feet, mumbling about tax cuts and ‘aspiration’.

The opposition parties are treating the crisis like an electoral opportunity, the Bank of England is treating the crisis like they’ve been hit hard on the head with a cricket bat and don’t quite know what is going on, the economists are rattling away at their calculators to no great effect.

The best bet we’ve got so far is Richard Murphy’s plan, and he’d be the first to admit it is a sticking plaster. We’re left with virtually no choice but to throw money at the big energy corporations which are doing this to us. That’s what happens when you have no sovereign control of your economy.

But as a society we need to snap out of this paralysis, quick-sharp. The shape and reach of this crisis is unprecedented. The poor are in very deep trouble as with every crisis, young professionals are planning to be very cold this winter (please read my colleague Kaitlin’s article about this – it’s important), people who work from home are investing in fingerless mittens, the NHS will have to pick up the pieces of malnutrition and hypothermia without many of their own staff unable to afford heating bills.

That this crisis comes after a decade of cutting local authority budgets may leave some on the brink of financial collapse. Businesses will go down the tubes, mortgage rate rises will lead to home repossessions.

Asking the big energy companies round for a cup of tea and then press releasing that the UK Government ‘ought to do something‘ counts for absolutely hee haw. We can all hope the UK Government ‘does something’ but someone in Scotland needs to start acting like they have responsibility for the wellbeing of the Scottish people.

Globalisation has stripped nation states of their ability to save their own economy at times like this and Scotland is desperately underpowered anyway. So we can whine about it and regret the dead later or we can step up and do something about it. Here are some suggestions from me.

When you can’t control the problem you have to manage the symptoms. With food prices soaring, let’s start with hunger. The Scottish Government should be negotiating right now to bulk-buy potatoes, leeks, lentils, onions, stock cubes, flour,porridge oats, tea bags. It should be working in every single community to find local leaders who will organise mutual support groups and get these ingredients to them

Those groups must step forward and be ready to feed their community; everyone should be able to get a bowl of porridge in the morning, a bowl of soup and bread for lunch, a bowl of soup and bread at teatime, a cup of tea at any time. No-one should pay. No-one should be means tested. No-one should assume that there are communities where no-one needs this help – a starving person in an affluent neighbourhood is still starving.

In every community there must be a plan for helping people get that food. Most should have some kind of community hall or other venue; for those that don’t and very rural areas we should be looking at the public sector vehicle fleet to act as mobile soup kitchens, or gazebos or tents should be bought. This must be available every day from not later than when the clocks go forward.

Next cold. Where there are public halls they must be converted into social spaces. Where there aren’t, vacant shops must be commandeered. The Scottish Government must commit to providing direct funding to pay for the heating and lighting of those places and local government and landlords must provide them at no cost.

But these can’t become hell-holes of desperation. We need to bring in community groups asap and get them to run these venues. I don’t care whether that is just to make sure there are playing cards or whether it is a collection of local people’s unwanted books to create a library, or whether it is getting to borrow a TV from the local authority so films can be shown.

We need knitting bees to get people knitting, local sports clubs to invite people for a game of football or whatever, arts groups to provide materials to draw or paint, people to do talks about interesting subjects, there has to be wifi and some old local authority computers – we need to keep people warm and stop them sinking into despair at the same time.

These centres need to have social workers and citizen’s advice services in them. Council staff must be on hand to help with the many problems people will have. GPs should look in regularly.

Those spaces won’t work for all. We need more venues for kids to come to after-school clubs run by the community, and them and their parents need to be fed there if they need it. We need places for homeworkers to work which are warm and quiet – heated spaces with wifi, tables and chairs, tea and coffee. People need to wash; swimming pools and sports centres needs to make showers available.

But people have to go home at some point and that should not be hell for them. Pricing feasibility work should be done now to provide on a ‘minimum electricity guarantee’ – a power budget of a couple of kilowatt hours every day, enough to boil a kettle or two, cook tea, keep the lights and the TV on. People falling below that budget should have the public purse make sure the electricity stays on.

Cold is a horrible, insidious killer. When the cold is deep in your bones it takes a long time to get it back out. This can’t be how we treat our population. The one good thing the Scottish Government did during Covid was quickly to secure domestic supply chains for PPE. It should start talking to Scottish companies now to establish the feasibility of procuring potentially hundreds of thousands or even millions of electric throws.

These are very efficient at keeping people warm with very little energy. A family in a cold room each one wrapped in an electric blanket doesn’t get the cold into their bones. So start now working out how we can be ready to make sure they have those blankets.

For those genuinely in desperate positions we may also need to make sure they have adequate clothing. Clothes banks must be supported, but we need to be realistic that voluntary action can’t fix everything. No-one shouldn’t have warm gloves, a warm scarf and hat and a good, insulating jersey, body warmer or hoodie, and if that means public procurement, that means public procurement.

If we can keep people warm and fed and give them early access to medical, financial or social work advice if they need it we can prevent problems spiralling. 

Businesses which will fail over winter only because of crazy energy prices must be protected. The Scottish Government must start negotiating with banks and landlords to ensure that any that can be protected with rent or debt holidays are protected.

And the Scottish Government should be doing the same with mortgage lenders; people should not lose their house because for six months oil corporations are robbing them blind. Mortgage holidays must be agreed – god knows the damned banks are due us all for our ‘generosity’ in bailing them out after their criminal shit in 2007. 

I’d be talking to the Scottish National Investment Bank to develop a ‘mortgage to rent’ scheme where homeowners who can’t sustain the finances on their house could have the property bought (at a discount) and rented back to them by a public landlord at an affordable price. In time they could become pubic housing stock or could be sold back to tenants.

Local authorities must be assured that there is more revenue coming in the near future – the treatment of local government by this administration has been really awful. There should be a solid commitment rapidly to replace the Council Tax with a fairer tax that taxes land and property and also proportions the tax burden to house value (like Common Weal’s Property Tax). 

That will not get them out of this crisis but will give them scope to borrow with more confidence – taxing land alone could easily bring in an addition £500 million in revenue and despite how close the Duke of Buccleuch is to the Scottish Government it must resist ludicrous suggestions that he and others like him can’t put their hands in their pocket in a time of national crisis.

There is so much more that could be done and so much more that must be done after this crisis has abated. None of it is glamorous – sadly the First Minister will not get photo opportunities with big energy bosses to make her look purposeful and she might not relish photos of her with a leek quite as much. But just for once this isn’t about the politicians shouting ‘look at me! look at me!’.

It is a sorry world we’ve built when, in 2022, the best I can come up with to stop social devastation is soup kitchens and electric blankets – but it is. If someone in Scotland has a better idea, let’s do that instead. I’d be delighted.

But until there is a better plan, can we at least snap out of this dreadful paralysis, demand that the politicians put their vanity in cold storage for the winter and recognise that if we’re waiting for them to come up with all the good ideas to fix this, people will suffer. 

During Covid the Scottish Government gifted the oil industry £60 million to ‘help out’ which of course the people of Scotland paid for. In return it has done this to us. Perhaps the Scottish Government might ask for our money back to start paying the bill for the above.

But that’s just a start; a very serious reckoning with the oil industry must be a priority after we’ve counted the dead.

8 thoughts on “Crisis – Pitiful or Petrifying?”

  1. Never have I ever read such a riduculous treatise.
    Attacking the sumptoms is always the worst thing to ever do do, because it’s difficult to deal with such a widespread malaise.
    Let’s just cut to the nub of the problem and recognise that unfettered free enterprise, free market capitalism has failed and it needs surgery now.
    The energy market is bust. It’s developped 8bto a cartel, and one whose mission is successfully harvesting huge profits while ripping off consumers.
    We either moderate the companies’ profiteering or se take back control of the resources and operate them for the common good as a social service we all need.
    They’re our fesources, we own them, we have the right not to be ripped off by those explouting them and us.
    We pay a legitimate price for production to allow the same decent profit level as before this “crisis” and we contain prices at the same level.
    Pliwtering about with soup kitchens? Madness. The next step would be riots, civil society reakdoen and murderous mayhe.
    I can only tbink this article was written toungue-in-cheek to provoje reaction.
    But I wouldn’t respect you for it.
    Jim Taylor

    I’ll give you a chance to reply before I feature it as another contribution to The National.

    1. Robin McAlpine

      Jim,

      You can read through our detailed proposals for a public good energy market (“Powering Our Ambitions”) in our policy library. In fact there are about six or seven major reports we have produced on heating and power. Or others on home insulation. But you can also find our analysis of what is actually happening (“Scotwind: privatising our future again”). The Scottish Government is 100 per cent committed to the “unfettered free enterprise, free market capitalism” you rightly identify as having failed. It rejected nationalisation of Scotland’s grid, public ownership of electricity generation, a publicly-owned National Energy Company. Meanwhile the Tories in Westminster are making absolutely clear how little they are planning to do.

      So I’m happy to have a great long chat about what we OUGHT to be doing, but since both the Scottish Government and the UK Government are refusing to do that, what then? What do we do? Just let people starve and freeze? Please go and read Kaitlin’s article. I’m sure you must be aware how scared people are.

      So great, let’s talk about how capitalism has failed. Let’s wish we weren’t being governed by Tories. Let’s wish the Scottish Government weren’t in the pocket of the energy companies. And then, once we’ve stopped wishing and we are facing the reality, what then? Shall we talk some more?

      Robin

      1. We are not going to abolish capitalism by this winter, and even modifying it will be a very long-term challenge, and a global one. Nor are we going to be able to make big technological changes to the energy supply system in the next few months either, however desirable.
        So yes … electric blankets and well-organised soup kitchens for all those who will need them is a good idea.
        Might even gain our governments some much-needed credit.

  2. How do we get those in ‘power’ out promptly?
    Scotland is fully self sufficient in energy and there is no need whatsoever for fuel poverty, just the eradication of greed by suppliers and shareholders.

    I recall living in a village in the Highlands which was cut off from the world by a heavy snowfall. No power.
    Those with stoves were given provisions from other villagers, people helped cook, hot food was distributed to every inhabitant, elderly people were given hot water bottles in the evening, hot supper and checked that they had plenty of blankets.
    The local pubs held social evenings, fires were lit, people took food along.
    People cared and shared and it worked.

    Our communities seem somewhat fractured these days, wealthy incomers are somewhat distant. Lockdown was a indication of this. Fine, there is no harm in helping other communities outwith the area you live in.

    Bairns and the vulnerable need a good diet, meat and fish, milk, fruit and vegetables. The ability to receive good hot food. Shame on those in power who fail to recognise or act upon this basic need. The politicians are all right Jack! They have subsidised food and electricity, they don’t have to worry about themselves!

    Starvation and misery will cause a revolt.

    To the government, utilise school kitchens, take a percentage of raw materials (food) from farms, organise groups who can cook, look at how a little Highland village coped at providing care for shy of 900 people one harsh winter.
    It can be done and *must* be done soon.

  3. This is the first hard proposal of things that could be done I’ve seen.
    People just do not ‘get’ how rough this is going to be for very many people. Still lots on fixed direct debits for maybe a few months yet. So the effects might take a while to be felt.
    Small businesses though are probably going to be among the first to see huge bills. They really do not have anywhere to turn for support. Bakeries – look forward to a slew of closing down.

    Yes the problems are coming from the top of the tree. Scotland is swimming in energy (pardon the pun). Cost of extraction is not THAT hugely more than it was a year or two ago. It’s profiteering that’s impacting on the public.

    Yes I agree with Robin there seems an almost total lack of positive action in this crisis. It is a crisis. Many people will use savings to get through the early effects. The big problem is – this is here to stay. The huge energy corporations are not going to cut their prices any time soon. Either we suck it up or we do something about it. Those on the Titanic who looked into the water and were afraid to jump were lost.

  4. Excellent ideas. It doesn’t solve the root cause of the problem but for this winter it is crisis work that needs done. We under-use our public resources at times like these. Libraries could open in the cold, dark evenings as a warm space where no payment is expected. Leisure centres should already be priced at token cost to allow people to wash and heat up through exercise.

    Why do we tolerate our school canteens to lie empty all weekend when there are hungry people outside?

    Why do we give school uniform grants but not winter coat and boots grants?

    Why do we not have community social launderettes?

    Now is the time to plan and organise for the grimmest winter in decades. All hypothermia deaths are preventable. But only if those of us who can help act now.

  5. florian albert

    What is happening is not unprecedented. It is a re-run of the 1970s. It may be prove to be worse but Scotland is a significantly more prosperous country than in the 1970s and that should cushion the blow for most people.
    As in the 1970s, energy producers have created the immediate problem. Then, it was oil producers in the Middle East, today it is Putin’s gas-exporting Russia.
    ‘The big energy corporations’ are not the enemy here. They are peripheral players and can be targeted for windfall taxes as before.
    Robin McAlpine’s plans for commumities to come together to distribute food commandeered by the government is bizarre. Supermarkets have a complex network – built up over decades – which demonstrated extra-ordinary resilience during the Covid outbreak.
    There is little doubt that the government will take steps to protect the most vulnerable. One important question is whether
    everyone should be protected – as with an energy price freeze. Doing this, would involve borrowing vast sums of money.
    (To be paid back, in the future, by the younger members of our society.) The UK borrowed massively to deal with the 2008 financial crisis and to deal with the covid pandemic. At some stage, the government might find, as in 1976, or more recently in Ireland, that the borroweers are not lending. Even when they are, interest rates are no longer at rock bottom.
    Borrowing can be justified to protect the vulnerable but not to protect the comfortable middle class. Even as ‘armageddon’ beckons, house prices continue to soar. Refusing to protect the middle class would be a genuinely radical option.

  6. Andrew Currie

    The subsistence crofter, who has a stack of dry peats, a kail yard and a handful of livestock will fare better than his cousin in a Glasgow flat, with no fireplace.
    It’s not just heating to think about. How about the cost of food processing and ironically refrigeration ? And all this in a country noted for poor diet.
    Expect higher food prices and for God’s sake insulate your water pipes.
    The super stores will have costs and problems, which will dwarf Covid.
    On an individual and family scale, at the very least figure out your Winter requirement of Vitamin D and C .
    Look after family first then assist those in your community.
    Don’t expect any help from your representatives in Edinburgh or London. They are only worthy of razor sharp ridicule for their impotent lack of foresight.
    What’s coming will make them irrelevant anyway.
    For the gardners…load up with your seed and fertilizers for next year. You’ll need them.
    It’s ridiculous that an energy rich country like Scotland has come to this and you might ask yourselves in mid February if it was worthwhile letting the political class stick our noses in a “bar room brawl in a seedy part of town” (the Ukraine), while they tell you to make sacrifices.
    Prepare.

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