35th Edition
October 17th, 2016

Monday 10th October

Following the 3-week conference recess I am on my way back to Westminster for a short period of time. On Thursday the SNP conference kicks off in Glasgow.

My Column appears in The National every Monday. This week I wrote about the explosion of Donald Trump's presidential campaign in the US. 

Friday's opinion polls, just before the latest revelations about his sexism and boorishness made the headlines, had Donald Trump a mere one percentage point behind Hilary Clinton.  Given the thee-point margin of error either way, that’s a dead heat with barely a month to go till Election Day.  These latest revelations may blunt The Donald’s momentum. Equally, given past performance, alienated blue collar workers in the rust Belt (de)industrial states might still turn out in droves for Trump, in order to stick a up finger – Brexit-like - to the US Establishment.

The fascinating thing is just how long it has taken for Trump’s lurid background to surface in a generally anti-Donald media.  I suspect that the brazen intervention by the Putin regime on behalf of Trump – witness Russia’s hacking of the Democratic National Committee computer system – has convinced the Republic Party leadership that Trump is too loose a cannon to use against even the Clinton clique.  (By the way, the tough reaction of the normally low-key Obama administration to Putin’s aggressive opportunism in Syria suggests a Hillary presidency will declare a serious Cold War against Moscow, with the UK poodle dragged in as usual.)

Donald Trump has built his demagogic campaign by presenting himself as the champion of the alienated working class of the US hinterland. Quite how he has gotten away with this conjuring trick will be the stuff of history books.  For Donald John Trump, the son of a millionaire, made his dubious fortune not in the US Rust Belt, but in New York City, where he tore down working class districts in order to build luxury apartments for the super-rich. Bank-rolled by his rich dad, Trump’s modus operandi was hardly new in the Big Apple: buying up apartment blocks on the cheap (because they were rent-controlled) and then harassing tenants to leave so he could do the buildings up. Then re-let to the rich at mouth-watering rates - or redevelop completely.

Thus Trump was responsible for forcing large numbers of native, working class citizens out of central New York and “gentrifying” swathes of the city for the Establishment bankers he pretends to despise.  Trump’s methods as a landlord were unsavoury as you might expect: in the early 1970s, he was accused by the US Justice Department of refusing to rent accommodation to blacks and Puerto Ricans. Eventually a deal was done with the Justice Department by which Trump avoided an admission of guilt but had to agree to a local black organisation approving housing applications in Trump properties.

In 1981, Trump bought a 15-storey apartment block at 100 Central Park South. These were the days when one didn’t go into Central Park after dark. His plan was to tear it down and throw up a new skyscraper. There was only one problem: 100 Central Park was rent-controlled. But Donald had a plan. Over the next few years, according to court papers filed by tenants, Trump engaged in “drastic decreases in essential services” and “instructing employees to obtain information about the private lives (and) sex habits of tenants”.  In this case, the courts came down on the side of the tenants and 100 Central Park is still standing.

Donald had better luck with building his eponymous Trump Tower on Fifth Avenue. Predictably, he built on the cheap. To clear the site – the Bonwit Teller department store, an Art Deco architectural masterpiece – 200 Polish illegal immigrant workers were employed. They worked 12-hour shifts and many had to camp out on the building site itself. The House Wreckers Union sued, claiming Trump had withheld over $1 million in pension contributions owed on behalf of the Polish workers. According to Manhattan federal Judge Charles Stewart: “No records were kept, no Social Security or other taxes were withheld.”

Unusually for him, Trump was made to testify in public. During a 16-day trial, the Polish workers testified that Trump underlings had threatened them with deportation. Judge Stewart eventually found against Trump and the contractor, saying they had joined in a “conspiracy.” Trump appealed but then settled out of court in 1999 – a habit of his. The exploitation of illegal, migrant labour on the Trump Tower is worth remembering every time Our Donald mentions that wall he intends to build between the US and Mexico.

But dealing in New York’s shady property market was just the start. The big money was in casinos. And where there are casinos in the United States, there is the Mafia. In 1981, Trump met with FBI agents to discuss his plans for a casino in Atlantic City, where the Mob controlled things. According to an FBI memo cited by the Wall Street Journal, Trump was aware his local business partner in Atlantic City “knew people” who might be a trifle unsavoury, to say the least. Bumptious Trump rejected advice from the FBI to abandon the venture.

Who were these unsavoury characters Trump knowingly did business with? They included Kenneth Shapiro, who owned part of the site where Trump planned to build his first casino. Shapiro was a Philadelphia scrap-metal dealer described by the FBI as an “agent” of Philadelphia mob boss Nicodemo Scarfo.  Shapiro was used by Scarfo to bribe Atlantic City’s then-mayor, Michael J. Matthews, according to a 1984 indictment. Mayor Matthews ultimately pleaded guilty to corruption charges.  Shapiro, Trump’s erstwhile partner and the Mafia conduit, testified to a federal grand jury that he secretly gave thousands of dollars to the mayor on Trump’s behalf.  To be accurate, there is no proof to back Shapiro’s allegations. But Trump’s judgement is seriously in question, to say the least.

Over the years, Trump’s dubious business relationships have been legion. For instance, there is Robert LiButti, who had links with another leading Mafioso, John Gotti. LiButti’s gambling losses earned Trump Plaza a cool $11 million between 1986 and 1989, according to official documents. It is illegal for casinos to entice high-rollers by giving them cash gifts. Yet regulators - in a ruling that avoided citing Trump personally - fined his Plaza casino for gifting LiButti $1.65 million in expensive cars – which he subsequently converted to cash.

The exposure of Trump’s lewd comments is only the start of an end run by the US Establishment to consign The Donald to the dustbin of history. If he does lose, don’t imagine US politics will return to some golden era with Hillary Clinton in charge.  The US Establishment has been given a fright by ordinary Americans who feel short-changed by their political and economic system – just as with Brexit here in the UK. But the response of the ruling class will be anything but benign.

Theresa May has used Brexit as an excuse to tilt towards the populist, Little Englander politics of Ukip, complete with a return to elitist grammar schools. Worse, Brexit has justified racist and neo-fascist movements across Europe. In Washington, under Hillary, expect a return to confrontation with Putin and a fierce US economic nationalism. In China, President Xi is ramping up territorial claims, as a way of diverting internal discontent. It feels more than ever like the calm before a global storm.  All of which suggests the sooner Scotland takes back control over its own destiny the better.
On the afternoon, I went to the Chamber to listen to the statement of the Secretary of State for Brexit, who despite answering questions at the Despatch Box for more than 2 hours, superbly failed to provide any relevant insights regarding the Government's negotiating strategy to exit the EU. He also demonstrated some uncalled complacency whilst making the case for the Government's bypass of the House for the launch of article 50 procedure.
My SNP colleagues along with most of Labour MPs and a growing majority of Conservative backbenchers are becoming increasingly frustrated at the Government's alleged ambition not to consult the national representation before triggering article 50. 
As a result, Labour decided to call for an urgent debate on Brexit on Wednesday, but eventually refuse to embarass the Goverment and called off the vote.

You can watch some parts of the debate here below :

Later that day, I sponsored the launch of a new report by the New Economic Foundation on the creation of a Scottish National Investment Bank. Private investment levels in the UK has consistently decreased over the past 30 years and have contributed to create regional inequalities across the countries. There is a strong case for the creation of such an invesment bank in Scotland and creative reports like this one prove helpful to discuss the future governance and functionning of such a much-needed institution to boost public investment.

The report is available here  

Tuesday 11th October

The first item on the agenda for Tuesday was the meeting of the Treasury  Select Committee during which we interviewed Michael Saunders and Anil Kashyap before their respective appointments to the Monetary Policy and Financial Policy Committees of the Bank of England.

You can watch the session here
Later I went to a conference organised by the New Economic Foundation, a progressive think tank, to discuss how we can build a Progressive Alliance against austerity and Brexit. 
Following the business in the Chamber, I, along with my SNP,Tory and Labour colleagues deliver to the House the WASPI petition for pension justice for 50s women in East Lothian.

Wednesday 12th October

On Wednesday morning, my article on Financial Exclusion was published on the website of the monthly magasine Prospect. You can access the article here.

The first item of business on the Chamber agenda was the session of questions to the Secretary of State for Scotland. The SoS proved rather unable to defend the Government's appalling record on protecting the political and economic interests of Scotland following the vote on the 23rd of June to leave the European Union. It has been made official this week, that the SoS does not participate to the private meetings of Theresa May's Brexit Cabinet during which the negotiation strategy is being debated.

Following the session of questions to the Prime Minister I stayed in the Chamber to listen to the first statements of both the Secretary of State for Brexit and of his opposing number in the Shadow Cabinet during an emergency debate on the future relationship of the UK and the EU. I then went to the meeting of the Treasury Select Committee during which HMT Permanent Secretary admitted that he was looking for a new fiscal rule for borrowing and spending.

Thursday 13th October

I write a column in the East Lothian Courier please scroll down the right side to read the article.
Thursday was the first day of the 2016 SNP Winter Conference in Glasgow. On arrival we went to the main auditorium of the conference to listen to Nicola Sturgeon's welcoming speech. In her address to over 3000  delegates, the First Minister made the pledge to publish a Second Independence Referendum Bill for consultation this week. This announcement received an unequivocal supportive reaction from the crowd which immediatly gave a standing ovation to the FM.

Next item on my agenda, was a private roundtable sponsored by Holyrood magasine and the Investment association on the challenges faced by the Investment and Assest Management industry and the Scottish Economy following Brexit.

The financial services industry plays a pivotal role in the Scottish Labour Market and Keith Brown, Cabinet Secretary for the Economy, made clear that the Scottish Government was committed to protect the interests of the sector.

Following the publication of an article I wrote for Prospect, I took part on Thursday morning to another roundtable discussion on the theme of financial inclusion/exclusion organised by the magasine. It was a fascinating experience to hear from other stakeholders in the field be it from the consumer protection sector, the academia or charities.
In the afternoon, I spoke at the Festival of Ideas being held in the Glasgow Science Centre. The festival aimed to provide a platform to discuss radical ideas for a future independent Scotland. There was a good audience and debates were held on Energy Policy, Banking Reform, Climate Change, and creating a Progressive Alliance to name just a few.

I was invited to speak to an event co-sponsored by the NEF and Commonweal to launch the report on the future of a Scottish National Investment Bank, the same report that was presented in Parliament earlier in the week.

Friday 14th October​

On Friday morning, I chaired a roundtable discussion co-sponsored by the Social Market Foundation and Nationwide to discuss how financial services firms could support customers through life changing circumstances. In attendance were representatives of the Equity Release Council, Macmillan Cancer Support, Samaritans, Money Advice Trust, etc.
Following the roundtable discussion, I went to the main auditorium of the conference centre to congratulate my colleagues Ian Blackford MP and Alex Salmond MP for their relentless efforts in securing an extension of the Visa offered to the Brain family.  The Australian family initially moved to Dingwall in 2011 on Mrs Brain's student visa but a two-year post-study visa scheme then on offer was later withdrawn by the UK Government. After months of fighting deportation with the Home Affairs Department, the family was recently granted the authorisation to stay following Mrs Brain obtention a new job in the Highlands.

Ian Blackford and Alex Salmond, who both contributed to the positive outcome through months of infighting with the Government, gave brilliant speeches to the conference and were followed by an emotional and humbling address by Gregg Brain on behalf of his family.
Saturday 15th October
On Saturday morning I chaired my last Fringe Event which was sponsored by John Muir Trust.

The theme of the discussion was the costs and benefits of the protection of wild landscapes.
Finally I went back to the Auditorium where I had the chance to find one of the rare free seats remaining to listen to Nicola Sturgeon outstanding address closing address. As many commentators affirmed, one may not agree with the First Minister politics, but one cannot deny that she is a magnificent public speaker.

Her speech centred on the theme of inclusion, making it the "guiding principle for everything we do". She promised a root and branch review of the Scottish care system to ensure that young people whose paths come across that system, would be offered the same life opportunities than any other members of their generations. She also affirmed that there was more in Scotland that unites people than divides them. 

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