Saturday, 28 December 2013


It has not been a good year. I suppose it is an inevitability of age that you come to lose more and more of your pals each year. But not surely so many in one calendar period.

I am not a Roman Catholic but by accident of history a disproportionate number of my friends and in-laws are and in the last twelve months I have found myself muttering the words too often “Eternal rest grant to him O Lord and may perpetual light shine upon him, may he rest in peace.”

And yet at the same time I wish I could have that consolation of faith. For, too often, I have struggled to understand why those who have gone have gone.  At least so soon.

And, in one grim way, I know next year is unlikely to be much better. But at least it will be next year and a chance for a fresh start.

The “Festive” period is a strange thing. Somebody will undoubtedly joke at some point shortly that the nights are now drawing “oot” and, technically they are right. Although when Keats observed that “If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?” he revealed chiefly that he had clearly never lived in the west of Scotland.

But in an equally Scottish sense the turn of the year is a chance to take stock. Within my own business, I’ve already resolved on a staff meeting on 3rd January to discuss not only what we might achieve in 2014 but also what and why we failed to achieve in the year (by then) gone past. No point in the former without also understanding the latter. That is something that those on the wilder Nationalist fringe  who responded  to Euan MColm’s column last Sunday, critical of the performance of Yes Scotland to date,  with the claim that it has all gone entirely to plan might want to reflect upon.

For those of us in the Labour Party obviously this year’s turn won’t be as important as next year’s, when we will be close to a rare opportunity to directly engage the enemy. But, this year, for those committed to Scottish Nationalism there is more than an eve before battle feel about events. For many in that camp, this is the most anticipated New Year there will be in their lifetime.

I can write the narrative about how September 2014 is the culmination of a process that began near Stirling in 1314 or, perhaps more credibly, at Hamilton in 1967 . I can knock it down just as easily but, as a narrative, I can still empathise with the personal journey involved. For, for activists of any Party, it is not so much that the personal is political but rather that the political is personal. When Mandela died, I couldn't separate my grief at his passing for my grief at the broken connection with those: Brian Filling, “wee” John Nelson and others who had shamed me in the past with my insufficient time devoted to the cause of his release.

So there will be many of my age or just a little bit older on the “other” side who will look forward to September 18th as potentially the greatest day of their lives but with the increasing inner terror that it might be equally be the worst.

Only it won’t be their worst. For they will still have their partners, their kids and, indeed, if they’ve been at it since Hamilton, probably by now their grandkids as well. And they’ll have much more, I suspect, in their personal lives to look back on, and look forward to, with pride and enthusiasm. Nicola might want to reflect on some of her more apocalyptic “Nothing” rhetoric in that regard. It just makes her look silly.

And, even politically, the Nationalists should be proud of what they have significantly assisted in achieving; a devolved Scottish Parliament. For, I readily admit, without their leverage we’d have had a much harder struggle to get the Labour Party to deliver it. For Labour, internally, the crucial constituency was never the “fors” or “againsts” but rather the “what if we don’ts?”

But Labour did deliver and the problem for the Nationalists is that the very Parliament that is enabling them to hold their referendum is the reason they have no chance of winning it. To that extent the “fundies” in the SNP who argued against  any support for a devolved parliament have been vindicated by events. The choice on 18th September is not between Independence and direct rule from Westminster. The Holyrood Parliament will still be there on 19th September and with indeed, at the very least, the “Calman” additional powers already on the way.

No amount of “scaremongering” about the Parliament’s powers being reduced or its relative funding being cut, proposals being made nowhere but in Nationalist propaganda, is going to change that.

On 19th September nobody will require to flee the Country in despair. Anyway, where would they go?

It is already clear however that handling the aftermath of defeat will be difficult for the Nationalists. For all Eck’s (and Nicola’s) assertions that the Referendum would be a once in a generation event, if you read the runes it is clear that is not a universal view. Most recently, in a recent piece for the Herald, Harry Reid was already asserting that the SNP “shouldn’t accept” the outcome of a narrow No vote.

Now, on one view, nothing would suit the interests of the Labour Party better than for the SNP  to go down this road, for it would surely result in Nationalist immolation at the 2016 election. But what is in the narrow electoral interests of the Labour Party is not necessarily in the interests of Scotland. We need to move on from politics polarised around the national question for it is undoubtedly providing cover, on both sides, for inadequate domestic politics. We saw that clearly in the dog days of 2013 when the historical unwillingness to take hard but necessary decisions over hospital provision in Lanarkshire was exposed by the publication of the resultant mortality figures. We've been seeing it, for years, in the appalling statistics for working class participation in higher education. And, just in case you think I place all of the fault at the door of the SNP, you see it equally clearly in my own Party’s failure to properly engage with the reform of local government finance.

But the key not to so much unlocking this conundrum but rather to properly locking it away is in Mr Reid’s own article when he talks about “a narrow defeat”. The polls currently point to something much less but in the interests not just of our side but of Scotland it is important that by September 18th that this gap has widened further. There are, of course, those who think that the triumph of nationalism would be the solution to all our problems. There always are, in every Country, since the beginning of the modern political era. But those of us on the left also know where that mindset inevitably ends. When external enemies can no longer be blamed then internal ones come to be remorselessly sought out. Time for Scotland to truly mark itself out in the world by decisively rejecting that mindset.  Anything but a comprehensive No vote would be an indictment of the Country I believe us to be.  To gain that margin of victory there is truly no room for complacency. For the fanatics on the other side remain just that. Fanatics. No matter how hopeless it appears they will still vote. So, no matter how inevitable victory appears, so must we. This needs put to bed forever.

And yet think.  If, looking back, twelve months hence, our Country has decisively rejected, democratically and consideredly, the narrow wee politics of ethnic difference inevitably being equated with a need for fear and isolation, wouldn't that make you genuinely proud to be a citizen of Scotland?

A Happy 2014 when it comes.  It might yet be one of the greatest years in our history.

Sunday, 15 December 2013

Vested Interest

Polls, Schmolls.

We've now seen the last of the referendum opinion polls of 2013 and things now are pretty much the same as they were in December 2012. Indeed as they were in December 2011.

Obviously, Yes Scotland and the SNP have a vested interest in maintaining that there is all still to play for. They would only be doing their job if they continued to maintain that in the face of similar polling on 17th September.

And, oddly, they have an ally in that approach over at Better Together. I joke on twitter that there is no room for complacency but indeed in terms of fundraising and motivation of footsoldiers the last thing Blair McDougall wants to do at this stage is to give the impression that it is all over bar the shouting.

And both sides also benefit from a vested interest in the press in seeking to promote this narrative. All major media outlets, print and electronic, currently devote disproportionate resources to Scotland based on the premise that the result might go either way. No journalist enjoying additional column inches or network air time, possibly even employment itself, by virtue of that phenomenon is likely to wish to bring their temporary prominence to an end by suggesting that there is really nothing very exciting to report.

So, I think we can assume that, ideally, right until the last minute we'd be told that anything could yet happen.

But, as I've said before, the relentless march of time is inevitably reducing the opportunities for the much predicted game changer and, while the polls remain as they are, the Nationalists are more and more in need of such an event. If not, notwithstanding the cheerleading of both campaigns and the media, at some point all but the active partisans on both sides will come to the conclusion that it is indeed all over and, at that point, politicians of any stripe may have to take care not to irritate the public. This, I think, is a particular, issue for the nationalists. If they proceed on the basis that there has to be last minute surge of support for them to win, they must at least be alive to the possibility that there could just as easily be a last minute collapse. A vote in the low twenties, by no means an impossibility, would not so much settle matters for a generation as settle them forever. Indeed such an outcome would inevitably call into question any continuing purpose for the SNP, at least as an overtly pro-independence Party.

So it's with that thought I'll leave you. What if the "so many people" who tell Blair Jenkins that they haven't yet made up their minds are in fact just being polite? What if Project Fear no matter how "disreputably" it has conducted itself has nonetheless achieved its desired objective? What if the polls which haven't significantly moved in two years still haven't moved in another six months? What happens then?

At the very least, vested interest might eventually clash with the obligation to report what is actually likely to happen.

Sunday, 8 December 2013

Nelson Mandela

Mandela is dead. It is always the case that although you mourn in such circumstance nominally for the departed, in reality you also mourn for what you have lost of your own life.

When I was at the Law Society, I was at some sort of event involving our big, very money minded, firms when I was approached by one of their senior partners. Who, with respect to him, probably earns more in a year than I earn in ten.

"We've met before" he observed. "When I was arrested on an Anti-Apartheid protest."

And, indeed, in the early eighties, I had a vague recollection, at the request of the Scottish Committee of the Anti-Apartheid movement, of touring a series of students in custody at Stewart Street Police Station. To reassure them, as a seasoned defence lawyer aged then of all, perhaps not even, twenty five years, that the Crown would hopefully see sense over their arrest for sitting down in (Glasgow) University Avenue in protest of the University's continuing investments in South Africa.

Fortunately for the students, if not for the Legal Aid fees of my then employers, the Crown did indeed see sense and everybody was ultimately released without charge.

But that little (very little) anecdote demonstrates that we shouldn't underestimate the breadth of opposition to Apartheid in Scotland. For it embraced not only those I will come to but also those who would happily go on to embrace the most rapacious of rapacious capitalism.

Why did it? There was something peculiarly British, in the Churchillian sense of British, about the outrage at Apartheid here. For, unlike so many (sic) banana republics, Apartheid South Africa operated within a bastardised version of the rule of law. There were elections; an independent judiciary; even the illusion of a free press. It was just that not everybody could take part. And, for all people run down our own Country, an awful lot of people, by no mean all on the traditional left,  thought that this was simply "not British". Ironically perhaps. thought that particularly in relation to the behaviour of a  former colony.

And be in no doubt there was also a religious element. One of the two pillars of the Anti-Apartheid movement was the reformed church. Here in Scotland, the Church of Scotland. South of the border the progressive wing at least of the Anglican Church. And that also said a lot. There was a genuine belief (I use that word advisedly) that no Protestant country should be behaving like this.

But there were two other groups around which the venn diagram intersection on the Anti-Apartheid campaign coincided with my own Party. The first, and less controversially of the two, were the Liberals. We weren't used to working with them and indeed in the eighties when the Anti-Apartheid fight was at its height, there was no love lost between our two Parties over their association with the "traitorous" SDP. But they were at least as consistent on this issue as us. Indeed arguably more unanimously so, for Scottish Labour has always had a faction who saw little sense in devoting much time to events "overseas".

And the second, it should be acknowledged, was the Communist Party. At some point somebody needs to write a proper history of the Communist Party of Great Britain. It is easy to say now that they were wrong, sometimes very wrong, about the Soviet Union. But it should not be lost sight of that to so many progressive campaigns they brought discipline and focus. And, above all, organisation. And never more so than to the Anti-Apartheid movement.

Maybe they even did start off thinking that this was just an opportunity to secure recruits for a wider battle but on any view they became consumed by the justice of the specific cause. And in the end that commitment survived even the effective collapse of Communism itself. It is impossible to understand the campaign here, or indeed in South Africa itself, without respecting that role.

And so finally to me. There have been any number of people, some of whom at least had a pretty tenuous link to the fight, lining up to talk about meeting Mandela. I can beat that however, for I didn't.

For me, there were three greatest days for the Anti-Apartheid struggle in Scotland. The first was the giant demonstration on 12th June 1988 calling for Mandela's release. It was the year we got married and the day itself was aided both by the most glorious weather and the realisation as we rallied at Glasgow Green that The Republic of Ireland were beating England in the 1988 European Championships. The poster which illustrates the start of this article, acquired at the time for us by a very junior Glasgow Councillor called Frank McAveety, has hung in our kitchen ever since.

The second was 11th February 1990, the day of Mandela's release. People gathered spontaneously outside the Embassy in the famously renamed Nelson Mandela Place and spent most of their time just hugging each other while, to my memory at least, the sound system brought to the scene by wee Ian Carty (who wasn't actually particularly wee but was so named because he was the son of big John Carty, who wasn't particularly big) played Free Nelson Mandela and Nkosi sikelel iAfrica alternately all evening.

And the third was  9th October 1993 when Mandela finally came to the Glasgow to receive the Freedom of the City awarded to him twelve years before. The weather could not have been more different from June 1988 for it poured down all day. But we marched anyway. And caught a glimpse of the great man and heard the speech he made.

That night, the Council arranged a reception in the City Chambers and for my small small part in providing occasional legal advice I got an invite. Mandela was of course to be the guest of honour and never had so many cameras been gathered by the Scottish Left in one place.

But the great man didn't come. For having stood in the pouring rain all day to take our salute even his famously iron constitution had proved unequal to the Glasgow weather.

So I never did get to meet Nelson Mandela. But on any view my life has been a better one for having known him. May he Rest in Peace.

Sunday, 1 December 2013

The White Paper

Was that it?

Over last weekend, in the run up to publication, the length of the White Paper was trailed heavily in the press.

It was to be the most substantial proposal for an independent country ever produced running to 670 pages and covering every possible angle. No one would ever more complain that they did not have enough information.

So I have now read the actual document with something approaching incredulity. 670 Pages with virtually nothing to say.

It is not so much the entirely un-costed wish list of policy promises which even if affordable had no place in what was a Government rather than a Party publication. It is the complete lack of detail on anything of any real importance.

For example, as a lawyer, one of the things I was interested in was how the transitional process to independence was anticipated to happen.

We have plenty of experience of such matters in Scotland in recent times. When local government was re-organised in 1974-75 and again in 1994-95, shadow authorities were set up for a year and then power transferred to them after that period. A similar mechanism was adopted when the current Scottish Government created the National Police and Fire Boards.

Now the importance of such transitional arrangements is this. New institutions need management structures, accomodation and above all, staff. And there needs to be the means of recruiting and remunerating these staff until they take on their responsibilities.

An Independent Scotland would need to create such structures on a much larger scale. We'd need an armed forces, a foreign service, and a revenue and customs for a start. And that's just for a start. We'd need to recruit the leaders of such institutions; we'd need them then to create the structures in which they would operate and we'd then need to hire the personnel or at least work out which they would inherit from the UK. Even where that simply (sic) involves the redeployment of existing civil servants there would still be a massive programme of retraining to be undertaken.

And all of that would cost money. Not the sort of mega money that might or might not be there for a fully functioning Scottish state, just the sort of money that would ensure that whoever is answering the phone in the putative Scottish Foreign Office in February 2016 had some way of getting paid at the end of the month.

Now, this could be done, legally, in one of two different ways. The White Paper would concede that technical sovereignty remained with Westminster until "Independence Day" and contain a proposal that Westminster legislate immediately to give the existing Scottish Government the vires to undertake all this hiring etc. Or it could assert that sovereignty would vest in the Scottish Government on the declaration of the referendum result, giving them, if the rest of the world was prepared to play ball, power to act on their own authority in such matters. And it could be paid for in one of two ways. Either by asking Westminster to lend us the money to be repaid after independence (most likely with the first legal route) or, assuming the markets were willing, by borrowing commercially on a promise to repay from sovereign Scottish revenues in due course. (more likely with the second).

So what does the White Paper say? The Executive summary seems to suggest that the first route is the preferred legal one although the document itself is clear as mud. And on financing? Nothing at all. It does indeed have 670 pages but the transition, after 300 years of integration at every level, from the United Kingdom to a sovereign Scotland gets precisely fourteen of them (337-351), even then full of of references to transitional "agreements", "negotiations" and "shared services" without a word about what the Scottish Government's objectives would be in these negotiations, let alone whether they've any anticipation of the position of the other side. Let alone (at all) how to pay for this. The cynic might think that last failure applies to much of the rest of the document but at least with that they try.

But that's not the only example of fundamental but difficult issues being ignored. Take public sector pensions. You have to jump about a bit to find them saying nothing about the difficult bits here.

First of all we have page 149

"In an independent Scotland, all public service pension
rights and entitlements which have been accrued for fully
or executively devolved or reserved schemes will be fully
protected and accessible."

That seems the very least you would expect. But what about those in the Forces and in the non devolved functions of the UK Government currently discharged by Scots, often in Scotland, such as those at DfID in East Kilbride?

Well then we have page 433

"For pension schemes that are currently reserved, such as civil
service, armed forces and judicial pensions, the Scottish
Government will work with Westminster to ensure an orderly
transition of pension responsibilities to an independent Scotland. "

What does that mean?

For example:

If I retire from DFiD in February 2016 who pays my pension?

If I did serve in the British forces but am already retired, who pays my pension?

If I worked for the Foreign Office but return to work for the Scottish Foreign Service in 2016 and retire a year later, who pays my pension?

If I've worked for the Scottish Office all my life but am now retired and living in England, who pays my pension?

If I worked for the (wholly English even before Devolution) Department of Education but am now retired and living in Scotland, who pays my pension?

None of the questions are answered or even addressed. Oh but here they are! On page 341

[After a Yes Vote]

"Discussion will also cover the allocation of liabilities,
including apportionment of the national debt, the current 
and future liabilities on public sector pensions, civil nuclear
decommissioning and social security benefits."

So that's all right then.

I could choose any number of other examples. The whole document is premised on hypothetical future negotiations in which,(as I've observed before) "The English", having treated us appallingly while we are in the same Country, will prove the soul of reasonableness now we want to be in a different country. But worse than that, it assumes that the separation of a unified state of more than 300 years standing would be simpler than even the re-organisation of a Police and Fire Service! In Eighteen months, not only is the whole infrastructure of a State to be created but any number of subsidiary functions such as a Financial Services Regulator. And where that is accepted to be impossible, the assumption is that the rest of the UK will be happy for us to continue to use theirs. 'Cos we love them really.

The truth of this lies in the proposal for Broadcasting. In the sort of dissonant note that you get from a document written by committee, it is accepted that it would be impractical to establish a State Broadcaster any sooner than January 2017.  Bizarrely however, that notwithstanding, establishing an entirely new state continues to be maintained as an altogether simpler exercise!

You really do wonder if the SNP regard this whole thing as an entirely serious project? Indeed, maybe the truth is that they don't. They're not worried about the incoherence of the White Paper as they're already resigned to the conclusion  that  it has no chance of ever being put to the practical test.

Paul McConville

It has been a bad week. Obviously the thoughts of all decent people are with those affected by the Clutha Vaults tragedy. Much has been written elsewhere about that, more eloquently than I could ever do, so I will not add to it.

But on Friday as I sat down to consider the subject of my usual Sunday blog, which inevitably will be about the White Paper, I had already decided that I also had to say something about a more private tragedy which affected me earlier in the week. In the end I decided that tacking it on to a more political piece was inappropriate so it will stand alone.

On Tuesday evening, towards the end of the Celtic Milan game word started coming through on twitter about the death of my friend, professional colleague and fellow blogger Paul McConville.

It was so sudden and unexpected that at first I couldn't be sure it was true. Tragically, it was. Suddenly and without warning of any sort he was gone, from what is suspected to have been a heart attack.

I've known Paul for more than twenty years, since he was a trainee solicitor with Hughie Trainor in Coatbridge. Although his work then took him to Courts beyond Airdrie, he remained a frequent visitor there and much regarded company by all at the local bar.

It is no secret that he had had a difficult professional career, with the collapse of his own firm several years back leading him to suffer a bout of acute depression and the inevitable round of tabloid publicity that is attracted to any lawyer "falling down on the job". But, contrary to the later malicious allegations of those who set out to harm him, he took nobody's money. His business failed and he became ill. That was all. And later he himself spoke bravely and openly about that period.

But it was in the aftermath of that trauma that he established almost a second life as an internet commentator through his "Random Thoughts re Scots Law" blog.

If you consider the topics listed on the right hand side of his site you will see the breadth of the subjects he covered. Always with wit; regularly with unique insight.

He is however probably most famous for his chronicling of the various machinations at Ibrox and in the Courts before and after the liquidation of Rangers. This was territory he must have known would lead to him attracting attention and abuse in equal measure, abuse that shamefully continued even after his death. Anybody who thinks political blogging in Scotland should not be for the faint hearted should look for a moment at some of what goes on around the Old Firm. And threats in that context cannot as easily be shrugged off as internet bravado as those made in the political world.

To all of this however, in life,  Paul brought the same drollery and common sense rationality that surrounded him in the "real" world. Truth and accuracy would allow him to triumph in argument time and time again.

It even lead him to some sort of minor celebrity among the "Celtic family", although it was truly the case, as he never ceased insisting, that his first and truest football loyalty was always to the mighty Albion Rovers.

It was a celebrity he never sought, for he remained above all a modest, deeply religious, family man. He wrote only a couple of months back about the joy of celebrating his 20th Wedding Anniversary with an openness and patent sincerity, indeed, in the proper sense, love, that would have defied most West of Scotland men to express.

Any death is a tragedy but the death so young of such a patently good man is almost impossible to come to terms with.

My thoughts are obviously with Val and his girls. The days ahead will be difficult for them. But when we gather for his funeral hopefully the size of the attendance there will give them some appreciation that their great loss is one shared, in an inevitably smaller way, by so many others.

Rest in Peace big man. You'll be missed.