David Torrance. For whom the Bell tolls

David Torrance does his usual SNPBAD, very very bad routine in his weekly Herald column (http://www.heraldscotland.com/opinion/14227156.David_Torrance__Here_come_the_champagne_nationalists/). Much of this is based on the Alex Bell charge that the SNP is “composed of self-starting entrepreneurial types, Thatcher’s children to a person….. bustling aspirational types who see no wrong in getting rich” (http://www.scottishreview.net/AlexBell20a.html). So before we revert to giving David Torrance a bit of a kicking, let’s review that claim

Of whom does Bell speak? Well the obvious cases seem to be Michelle Thomson and Lisa Cameron and their “massive” property portfolios. After all the former is worth – it is said – £1.7 million, though the latter a more modest £600k (capital value not rental value btw).

And what is it that Thomson has done? We know that her solicitor was struck off by the Law Society, though it should be kept in mind that one can be struck off for doing things (or indeed for not doing things) that would not be considered illegal. For instance, not responding to client communications in good time, or using money from the client account (though not putting it back would certainly be illegal) would have a solicitor in front of the Discipline Tribunal, and possibly struck off if repeated often enough. We don’t know though whether, or how much involvement Thomson had with the conduct of her solicitor – who had been warned by the Law Society before for not advising lenders when a property had changed hands more than once in a short period. Nor do we know with any certainty beyond innuendo, if she has actually done anything illegal. But of course that doesn’t really matter for the Scottish media. “Sentence first, verdict afterwards” as the Red Queen cried in Alice in Wonderland.

One case, involving Thomson, that got lots of exposure at the time by the Sunday Mail concerned a couple called Wright from Cumbernauld who had their mortgage paid off and went off down the road with at least 21k in their pocket. Their beef – “I don’t know how these people sleep at night” – seemed to be that Thomson secured a better price for the place than they could. When a property is for sale at £x, how often does someone come along and say “you are a poor soul. Your property is actually worth £2x (though valuations are always subject to uncertainty, arent they?), so I will pay you £2x”. It’s hard to see anything in that transaction that would trouble a Procurator Fiscal for even a nano-second.

What else? Money was reported to be missing from Women for Independence, and Natalie McGarry is being investigated for this, but so far without charge or clear indication of wrong-doing.

Ivan Mckee did business with Michelle Thomson.

Phil Boswell was paid in a manner not uncommon in the oil industry – perhaps he might have insisted on the readies, but would he have kept his job?

Tommy Sheppard owns the Stand comedy clubs.

Oh aye, and John McNally – MP for Falkirk – lets out his hairdresser’s shop now that he’s too busy in London to cut hair.

Then of course we come to Salmond, who has committed the unpardonable sin of being “good box office” just now. As such he has published a successful book, even if you would not get the sole of your shoes wet walking through its deepest thoughts. But no one made any of the purchasers buy the book (including me). He has a contract for a radio programme, but if he doesn’t put the expected number of bums on seats he won’t be doing that for long.

But the case of John Nicolson has to be something of a low, even for the Unionist press. This kicked off with a headline “SNP MP fashions a nice little earner at des res London pad” when the truth is that Nicolson bought the place as a wreck 20 years ago when he was a BBC and ITN journalist and restored it himself. He lives there when he’s on Parliamentary business – perhaps he should just let it out, make hundreds/ thousands of pounds from the rental and claim hotel expenses for himself? That’s allowed for we know of at least 46 MPs from other parties who have done exactly that (http://www.channel4.com/news/mps-expenses-46-claim-in-london-despite-owning-a-property). He also occasionally rents it out for overnight stays or fashion shoots, earning a few hundred pounds a time – about £320 seems the going rate. Is that headline a reasonable summary of those facts? Or malign innuendo that only intends to smear by implication?

But let’s suppose the above are all as guilty as sin – that Thomson and Cameron are latter day Rachmans, Boswell is a a serial tax avoider, Nicolson a property magnate and Salmond ….. well that Salmond has been successful (damn him!) We have mentioned, however briefly and even more tenuously, nine SNP MPs above. Let’s throw Brendan O’Hara into the mix, since he has been a director of a company that never traded, but didn’t put that in the Register of Members’ Interests when really he should have, giving us a nice round ten. What does even that say about the others in the 56 strong group? These are almost 18% of its total. Leaving aside that they have not at the time of writing been shown to have done anything that is either legally wrong, or morally reprehensible (if you exclude being in the SNP) since we can be pretty sure we would have been told, does the alleged, asserted “wrong doing”, as set out above, of 10 of their total really justify the charge that the SNP is “”composed of self-starting entrepreneurial types, Thatcher’s children to a person….. bustling aspirational types who see no wrong in getting rich”? Or is it just a tiny wee bit of an exaggeration about not just the Westminster MPs as a group, but about the entire party – 10 of over 100,000?

And let’s not forget the tissue thinness of what the media has “exposed” – that a candidate did legitimate business with Thomson, that an MP has let out his shop now he longer has the time to work there since he is now at Westminster, and that one of them has committed the offence of success. Most of the “exposes” hardly merit the description tittle tattle, but they are reheated by a right wing commentator to attack his political opponents. Is this journalism? Or abuse?

Moreover, it leaves out that the Westminster MPs will donate the rise in MP’s pay to charity? Sitings of reports mentioning this should be reported, especially if positive. Probably doesn’t fit the narrative, though, does it?

However, lets revert to Torrance, and leave Alex Bell to himself. Mr Torrance sets out his stall early on with his example of an argument that it was hypocritical to own one’s own flat but be against Right to Buy. In other words, so David’s argument goes, as far as I can understand it, it’s hypocrisy to own one’s own flat but deny others the right to own their own place.

If that was all there was to it, then perhaps I might agree. But that’s not all there is to it, for the person who has bought his Council house under Right to Buy has, instead of buying a nice place already in the private sector, or a nice new home built by (insert name of builder), did instead take an advantage of rather a nice deal – in the case of the Wrights, they got a 70% discount on the estimated market value – created by the party that I understand that Torrance supports. In so doing they take a unit out of social housing, and transfer it to the private sector. On the other hand, if I sell my house (just for the avoidance of doubt, it has never been a Council house) to buy another, it will be another in the private sector, Is that the same as diminishing the stock of social housing by a unit?

Thus Torrance’s argument is bogus. Even without Right to Buy no one is preventing Council house tenants from buying their own home – just not their Council house as to do so would diminish the stock of social housing. Except that didn’t have to be the case. I recall Michael Fry – hardly a raving lefty nationalist – relating the story of putting Right to Buy to Thatcher for the first time, and being told, oh no, they couldn’t do that for it would do nothing for “our people”, since the original proposition was to allow right to buy proceeds to be used to build new council houses. But it was ok once that was changed to requiring the councils to use the proceeds to pay down debt, for that would limit increases to the rates.

THAT is the issue about Right to Buy, as well – the diminution of social housing’s stock. But those homes – the ones owned by Cameron and Thomson – had been bought before they became involved. These homes are now in the private sector with no relevance for social housing any longer. We might regret that, but we are where we are and we should really keep in mind the distinction of private and social housing.

But as well as having the usual yawning void where the evidence should be, this article demonstrates Torrance’s rather typical lack of awareness when he claims that anyone paying £12.5k in school fees (I presume per year) would “fulminate against the suggestion they might also contribute towards the cost of university tuition.” I expect they would, but in terms of the debate about fees charged or not at University, the number putting that sort of money into their child’s education will almost certainly not be significant, and they will be likely to have the income to be able to do this. However, Torrance seems to find it irrelevant that £12.5k in school fees is half the average worker’s wage for a year (and that’s before tax). Those who would be hit hardest by charging fees will be the child of that same average worker who was not able to afford school fees, and has little or no way of paying the sort of University fees being charged in England.

But more than anything else, coming from David Torrance, a Tory in tooth and claw, much of this is utter hypocrisy. Take another example I would love to hear Torrance redeem his criticism of Boswell saying that “we shouldn’t be frightened to reward hard work.” by quoting a socialist or indeed anyone of left views. Criticism from that perspective tends to be reserved for reward for little work or no work at all, as well as the scale of the reward. I can though recall a long line of those of a similar political philosophy to Torrance who would endorse the view that hard work shojld be rewarded, without a single condition or a moment’s hesitation.

Essentially what Torrance is arguing is that, on the basis of a small number of examples – and as above, I think its legitimate to contend that the rest of the SNP group of MPs must be squeaky clean not just of illegal, but also moral wrong-doing, or we would have heard – the SNP is just as bad as other political parties. What kind of argument is that? Vote Conservative because we aren’t any worse than the SNP? Vote Labour because our guys are no worse than the SNP’s? Better Together was roundly criticised during the referendum debate for negative tactics, and it’s pretty clear that the Unionist, and the Unionist press, intend to continue on this road. Instead of putting up a positive case for the Tory Party – or even Labour – Torrance prefers to develop a negative narrative against the other side. Even worse, he does this on the basis of the most slight of evidence, which amounts to little more than some of the SNP MPs were in business prior to being elected, which is of course their real offence. None of them – not a single one – has to date been shown to actually have done anything wrong. None of them, for instance, has bought a Council house and reduced the social housing stock, though they have bought what were once Council houses but were bought under Torrance’s party’s Right to Buy policy.

Whatever else it is capable of, prejudice can seldom masquerade as analysis for long. Thus while David’s concern for the “worst off in society” is laudable, I can’t help but feel that its expression here is nothing more than the means to another end.


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