Wednesday, 29 November 2017

Pirates and Ghosts

Nicely in time for Christmas shopping, here is the exciting new Flame Tree anthology Pirates & Ghosts.

This features my story Heavy Weather, a tale of the Royal Navy during the Seven Years' War (1756-1763), in which an impecunious lieutenant gets more than he bargains for when appointed salvage master of an unmanned vessel.

As usual from this publisher it's a beautiful hardback book that anyone would be delighted to own.

I don’t know whether it’s some kind of genetic inheritance from my sailor father, who died while I was still a toddler, but I've always been fascinated by the sea, and particularly by the age of sail. 

With all our technological advantages today, the sea can still catch us out if we don’t treat it with respect. The daring of the men who challenged the sea in ships made of wood, at the mercy of wind and weather, finding their way by measuring the angle of the sun and the stars, deserves our admiration. And if the way to hear a tall tale in a dockyard tavern is to stand an ancient mariner a glass or two of rum, by my reckoning it’s cheap at the price.

Saturday, 18 November 2017

The Sovereignty of Parliament

In the UK, the sovereignty of parliament derives from the people. It was historically asserted against the arbitrary use of prerogative powers by the monarch, who was the hereditary head of the executive, and it was steadily strengthened after The Glorious Revolution of 1688 and the Bill of Rights.

At the end of the eighteenth century Edmund Burke asserted that an MP was not a delegate but owed his electors the benefit of his advice. This doctrine is still asserted today when MPs wish to establish their independence from the electorate.

However Burke was writing long before the democratic extensions of the franchise that began in the nineteenth century. The electors he had in mind were the bourgeoisie, not the working classes who had no votes. It might be reasonably supposed that a full time parliamentarian in those days had a better grasp of current issues than a voter who could only learn of them from the newspapers and was only consulted at corrupt elections.

A general election is a blunt instrument anyway. Voters choose a representative; they do not pronounce on individual issues. It is therefore not unreasonable to suggest that the political innovation of referendums has altered the relationship between voters and representatives. The MP now knows his constituents’ wishes on specific issues, as well as the will of the electorate at large.

Those opposing Brexit in Parliament might therefore be considered somewhat disingenuous. For forty years all major parties supported EU membership. They naturally selected a substantial majority of parliamentarians who also supported membership.

In the 2016 referendum the public rejected membership despite all major parties campaigning in favour.

In the 2017 election all major UK-wide parties campaigned on a platform of implementing the popular will as expressed in the referendum.

What we actually see is an effort to sabotage Brexit in a suddenly rediscovered enthusiasm for the principle of parliamentary sovereignty. However this is no longer asserted against the arbitrary whims of a hereditary monarch but against the declared wishes of a sovereign people.

Is sovereignty of parliament to be the new tyranny of the elite?

Thursday, 16 November 2017

Carlisle – Calais without a passport

Scotland has a drink problem. Alcohol-related diseases, domestic violence, road accidents and other social problems are fuelled by booze to a level higher than other countries. Something must be done, obviously.

The Scottish government, famed for its keen grasp of basic economics, is reaching for minimum pricing as its solution. At a minimum price of 50 pence per unit of alcohol, the retail price of some currently-inexpensive strong drink will double.

Of course this will only apply to alcohol purchased within Scotland.

Obviously it will not occur to any canny Scots that there are fair-sized cities just south of the border, where the price of alcohol will not increase.

Nobody will order cases of wine from English wine merchants.

There are no border patrols to prevent the import of English booze, so absolutely no-one will take up a lucrative new career running alcohol.

Similarly no cash-and-carry warehouses will be set up in northern England to exploit the situation.

Since there won’t be trucks full of liquor crossing the border in a northerly direction, no cheap alcohol will conveniently fall off the backs of lorries in the vicinity of unlicensed premises.

And in future all the whisky drunk in Scotland will be made in Scotland, driven over the border, sold, bought and driven back first.

I do hope the police force and the inspection authorities are currently underworked or that there is lots of money available for their expansion.

No? Didn’t think so.

On second thoughts, maybe I’m confusing the government’s alcohol-limitation programme with a job creation scheme.

Tuesday, 14 November 2017

Third & Starlight - Kickstarter

Third & Starlight
The Kickstarter for the forthcoming Third and Starlight anthology is now live.

All sorts of nice goodies on offer for people willing to help defray the costs of this project.

Among these rewards are included some free ebook  copies of my novel The Prophets of Baal.

What greater inducement could there possibly be?

Well, just in case you don't think I'm the greatest science fiction author since Asimov, there are are lot of other free ebooks on offer too.

Just a reminder that all the authors in this volume are semi-finalists or better in the Writers of the Future Competition.

Since I seem to have disqualilied myself from further participation in the competition as a result of my recent flood of published stories, I'm not going to improve on my semi-finalist placing.

But I'm nevertheless honoured to share the Table of Contents with these guys!

Please do take a look at the Kickstarter page!

Interview with the editor, Dr Robert Finegold.

Monday, 6 November 2017

What's The Laffer Curve?

All except one of the political parties at Holyrood appear to be agreed on the need for higher taxes to finance public services. Apparently we ought to be asking ourselves ‘What sort of country do we want to be?’

Now in any economy there are generally more far more poor people than rich people. If you ask the majority whether they would like something for free and would like the minority to pay for it, it would be quite surprising if you got a negative answer.

However to pose such a question actually begs a logically prior one. Will the rich minority be happy to stick around and pay up?

Scotland already taxes businesses more than the rest of the UK and has a lower threshold for the top rate of income tax. Without more detailed analysis it would be simplistic to suggest that its relatively high taxation is a significant contributor to Scotland‘s growth rate lagging behind the UK average. I suspect however most economists would agree that the impact is most unlikely to be positive.

Further tax increases may damage investment and encourage businesses to locate on the southern side of the border. Mobile workers may follow.

If personal taxes are raised, self-employed Scots may start to consider forming companies so as to pay business tax to the UK government instead of income tax in Scotland.

In short, there’s a danger of passing the point of peak revenue in Scotland’s Laffer Curve; not only might putting taxes up reduce government revenue, it may reduce the tax base itself.

We should bear in mind that it was Scottish choices on issues like student fees and care for the elderly that led to a situation in which Scotland spends about £1,300 a head more than England.

Perhaps it’s time to ask ourselves not ‘What sort of country do we want to be?’ but ‘What can we actually afford?’

Sunday, 5 November 2017

More Alternative Truths

 More Alternative Truths

As someone who taught philosophy for a couple of decades, I am regularly fascinated by attempts to define truth.

It is commonly assumed that the truth of anything is single and incontrovertible; all we have to do is find out what it is. Once we've done that, we can be quite confident that anyone holding an alternative view is just plain wrong.

But as Protagoras painstakingly explained to anyone who'd listen 2,500 years ago, that's not how the world actually works. Man is the measure of all things.

For example, since I live in Scotland I'm relatively unaccustomed to high temperatures. On holiday in Greece this past summer, I found the weather too hot to be borne and retired hastiliy to the air-conditioned cool of the Archaeological Museum. Outside, Greeks who found the weather no great challenge were engaged in strenuous physical labour repairing the road. So was the weather too hot or not?

Well, it was too hot for me and not too hot for them; we were both right and this particular truth turns out to be relative, not absolute.

Fast forward a couple of millennia from Protagoras and we find Spinoza comparing truth to a scene witnessed by different people through different coloured glass. This was the inspiration for ‘A Sonnet on Truth’ which appears in the forthcoming anthology ‘More Alternative Truths’ (see above.)

Although I’ve had poetry published before and once won the poetry competition held in association with my local Falkirk Tryst Festival, I’ve never before had a poem published in a paying market. I hope you like it.

Actually I was very surprised to make the Table of Contents here twice. The second piece is a short story entitled ‘Conspiracy of Silence’. This explores the perennial argument between the two groups of historians who, when I was at university, we used to call the Conspiracy School and the Cock-up School. Are recent events the outcome of someone’s dastardly plot or just another mess resulting from human incompetence? Well who knows?

I hope you enjoy this one too, as well as all the other pieces in this anthology inspired by recent events in US politics.