Sunday, 29 April 2012

Just some memories

I've never been a candidate. There is no false modesty about that. For a long time my number one objective in life to was to be a public representative of the Labour Party.

When I was younger I had no number of friends whose ambition in life was to play for St Mirren. Even as a wean however I realised such an achievement was likely to be beyond me. As I've got older, my friends in turn have often aspired to judicial office. I won't lie by saying I've never had a go but those charged with making such decisions are probably right to have knocked me back. You can't be both a player and a referee, even if you're not much of a player.

But I'd be a good candidate. I can do the stump speech. I'm reasonably clean and, in my own opinion, personable. I've got no dark secrets (as far as I know). To my eye at least, I've got a beautiful wife. She'd certainly stand by me if some scandal arose (again, at least, as far as I know).

But the Party, in its wisdom, has consistently decided on others, and, with a few exceptions, I wouldn't give them an argument.

But the advantage of never having been a candidate is that I have been able to say to others, in the aftermath of defeat and without any agenda that "it wasn't personal".

Rarely is defeat the responsibility of the candidate, at least in the context of their own constituency. (Whether they might have used their elevated position to protest against the Party's direction is another thing altogether). When it comes down to it, a national swing is a national swing.

When my great comrade Dennis Canavan saw off Labour in 1999, I was a not so secret supporter of his candidacy, despite Dennis himself warning me that it would be daft to get expelled over the matter. But I remember one particular public meeting which had the flavour of a revivalist event as various people stood up to abandon their former Party allegiance (not just Labour allegiance), and announce they would be voting for Dennis. One woman in particular I remember declaring that Dennis had helped her over her disabled child and that she was so happy that Dennis was no longer the Labour Candidate as it allowed her to vote for him.

So, by reference, sometimes it doesn't matter what your personal virtues are, you are damned by your Party.

And, on the other hand, I remember the first election in which I ever voted. In the 1977 District Council elections. I'm sorry if this proves to be a relatively long story but my Councillor was a woman called Elsie McFall who was a good, hard working, individual. She had two polling stations, the second of which she shared with another Labour Councillor, Andy Noble, who had a much more substantial majority. I, together with a number of other Young Socialists, was charged with covering this location.

And it rained.

The bulk of Elsie's vote was at the other end of the ward so we were left largely on our own by her, on the basis that Andy would "look after us". Only he didn't. From 8am until 1030 or thereabouts there was no sign of Councillor Noble. There was however the constant presence of one George Wills, the Tory candidate. Now, Mr Wills was everything councillor Noble was not. He was an active member of the local community; an elder in a local church and a small businessman with a reputation, even to me, of running a limousine hire business prepared to give anyone a chance of a job. From the moment the polling station opened, in the pouring rain, and in the absence of Councillor Noble, he shook the hand of every voter, a good number of whom knew him personally. The problem for him was that in that area they knew him as Mr Wills the Tory.

At about 9.30 Mrs Wills appeared with soup (Soup.....!) for her husband, and George, as he insisted we call him, with good humour, insisted that, "as we appeared to have been forgotten by our Party", soup was also found for the Labour canvassers.

And then, at 1030, Councillor Noble appeared. He was slightly unsteady on his feet and somewhat irritated by the weather under which he was expected to meet his constituents but nonetheless he did deign to do so for a full twenty minutes until he announced to no-one in particular, that it was time for lunch.

Now, I won't bore my older readers with a discourse on the licensing laws in 1977. Suffice to say, at about Three O'Clock Councillor Noble re-appeared, having lunched. He parked his car in the driveway to the polling station, got out, and observing that the weather was no better, proceeded to shake hands for a further ten minutes or so, during which time we managed to persuade him that his efforts were unnecessary, meaning in reality that they were doing more harm than good.

"Very well then" he announced, "I will go off and do some campaigning, but perhaps I will first have a wee sleep."

And with that he returned to his car, parked literally in the driveway of the polling station, and embraced the charms of Morpheus.

So, for the next two hours, every voter tramped up through the rain to be warmly shaken by the hand by George Wills and assured that it didn't matter if they were voting for him, what was important was that they were voting at all. And as they did so they required to walk past the Labour Candidate slumbering in his car, liberally covered in posters bearing his name.

At ten to five or so, the candidate awoke and announced he was off for "his tea", offering only qualified assurance of any possible return, as he might need to "prepare for the Count". And he was never seen again, even at the Count, where it was left to George Wills to thank the Police and the Returning Officers.

Now, you know the punchline here. At six o'clock we were meant to go and do a knock-up in Elsie McFall's ward but thanks to the usual chaos of polling day nobody appeared and we were instead sent to the furthest reaches of Councillor Noble's. Where we persuaded sixteen Labour voters to accept a lift to the polls.

And later that night when Elsie cried having lost by more than two hundred votes after years of hard work, Andy Noble got back with a majority of eleven. A narrowness of victory that might have worried him, had he been there.

In the aftermath of last years landslide, I have a number of friends who, having lost their seats, confess to feelings of personal rejection. I sympathise, but while I am not prepared to let them off the hook over Scottish Labour's direction since 1999, I also assure them that it is nothing personal. For it isn't.

Sometimes you are simply damned by your Party.

And, others shouldn't forget, sometimes you are only there because of it.

Friday, 27 April 2012

A moment not a crisis

I'm going to start with not one but two anecdotes.

On the 10th of November 1988, Jim Sillars won the (second) Govan by-election for the SNP. Now the consensus, then and even now, is that this was a hugely important political event. And I do not for a moment disagree. Whether it forced Scottish Labour into joining the Constitutional Convention or whether it simply strengthened the hand of those of us already so inclined is probably an argument that will never be resolved but that it was an important factor is beyond dispute.

Four years later however, Iain Davidson was charged with regaining the seat for Labour at the General Election. And his Election Agent was one Johann Lamont.

Telephone canvassing was then in its infancy but given that Labour had few other challenges in the West of Scotland, we had, for the time, a sophisticated and activist rich operation at our disposal. But at the same time we were novices in its application.

And for the first few days the response was beyond our widest dreams, so much so that we doubted not the electorate but the method. So Johann, as the election agent, decided to break one of the golden rules of canvassing: when assured that the respondent would be voting Labour, instead of a simple thanks, the interviewee would be faced with a further question: "Does it make any difference that Jim Sillars is the SNP candidate?"

It didn't. Not because Sillars had proved a disappointment (he was, by unanimous opinion among the political class, a dedicated and hard-working MP as well as being a significant national figure). No, the electorate was altogether less sophisticated: "No. we've always been Labour" from households about whom our own canvass indicated something else; "We live in Penilee, Jim Sillars is in Govan" from those unaware that Sillars had always been their representative from the moment of his election; most depressing of all "Who is Jim Sillars?" over and over again from people who must, in some numbers, have shaken Scottish politics to its very roots by voting for that self same man.

And come polling day, Govan returned safely to the Labour fold, not with a bang, or even much of a whimper, but simply as footnote while most of us were crying over Neil Kinnock's concession speech on the steps of Walworth Road.

So that's my first story.

My second comes from the last few days. I spoke for the first time for some weeks to a long standing friend, not so much equally obsessed with politics as even more so than yours truly. We discussed Levenson, the possible outcome next Thursday, whether the coalition would hold together and, inevitably, as everyone in Scotland does, whether Salmond's bubble saw any sign of bursting. As an aftermath we inquired as to the wellbeing of our respective nearest and dearest and he then volunteered for the first time that his partner was actually in the hospital for an operation. Not, I should hasten to add, for any life threatening condition but, nonetheless. involving a general anaesthetic.

The reason for that was not that he was unconcerned but rather that political people are not normal. Despite all the effort we, of all Parties, are currently putting in, the one certainty next Thursday is that something well short of half the population will regard it important to express an opinion of any sort. I've banged on here and on twitter about my own thesis that there is not going to be an Independence Referendum because the SNP know they can't win it but amidst all of those politically engaged denouncing or tentatively endorsing that proposition, during my "real life" over the last year I have been repeatedly interrogated by people of otherwise reasonable intelligence, aware of my political interests, along the lines of "Do you really think there is going to be a referendum?" This group are not engaged with the arguments for and against but rather start from an only vague awareness of this being some sort of possibility.

So, the idea that Alex Salmond  having had dodgy dealings with Rupert Murdoch is something which is dominating the day to day lives of ordinary people in Scotland is, I am afraid, a wholly illusory one. Many will have no idea who Rupert Murdoch is and, regrettably, a good many will only have a general idea who Alex Salmond is.

So, on one view this is all just an amusement. Marking Johann up or Eck down as to how they did at First Ministers Questions without this being of interest, or importance, to anybody very much outwith the ranks of those already decided.

But, and there is always a but.

People vote not based on specific events, or even specific policies. They do so based on an overall perception of what Parties stand for: That Labour defends working people; that the Tories are good at managing money; that the Libs are independently minded; that the SNP stands up for Scotland.

That's not all however. All Parties have secondary characteristics, appealing to some at least: that Labour is ultimately anti-establishment; the Tories for "order"; the Libs a bit crazy and, crucially, for the SNP that they somehow have a higher calling.

And anything that damages that secondary character can often be very damaging even if the primary one remains undiminished. That's why, in turn, Labour suffered so badly over Iraq; the Tories, currently, over basic governmental competence; or the Libs over ever doing a deal with (let's be honest) either of the major Parties.

So the problem for the SNP is not the detail of the deal Salmond did with Murdoch but rather that he did any deal at all. That the SNP has turned out just to be like any other Party. Concerned mainly as to their own political advantage, even if it involves supping with the devil.

To this extent the defence that Salmond has done nothing more than Blair or Cameron did, which is the best even his most loyal sycophants can offer (and is, I concede, the worst that can be said against him) is actually no defence at all. It is an admission of defeat.

It won't be the furore of the last few days that will damage the SNP; it is the fact that on any future occasion when they try to claim the visionary high ground they will inevitably be brought back to earth with two words: Rupert Murdoch. Just as, after Iraq, Blair could never be believed about anything ever again. And like the water dripping on a stone, eventually, something is worn away by that process.

Sunday, 22 April 2012

All Countries are different

One of the attractive things about French Elections is that, thanks to the much derided Scottish Education system, you can follow them a bit.

Unfortunately, that educational advantage does not seem to extend to the journalists charged by the BBC to cover the event who in turn missed the three key things in the speeches, covered live, of the four major candidates: that Melenchon encouraged his supporters to vote for Hollande unconditionally and without any policy concessions in their favour; that Le Pen showed no interest in bestowing her endorsement on either remaining candidate; and that Sarkozy suddenly suggested that there should be three, rather than one, Presidential debates, even proposing the subjects. Suffice to say this last development was unlikely to have been the initiative of someone who believed they had anything other than ground to make up.

Our candidate, with one exception, constrained himself to "Get out the Vote" copperplate, although that exception, an avowed repudiation of the politics of the extreme right was to his significant credit. He may not be as clear as some of us would like about what he supports but there is no doubt what he opposes. On reflection, that was perhaps why Melenchon did not set conditions.

Yet, while there was a glow of common solidarity in Hollande's disavowal of the politics of racial identity, in many ways what was really telling was the extent to which the politics, indeed the wider national culture of France, is different from the politics of both of the Countries in which I live.

The after poll rallies of each of the four major candidates were bedecked in the Tricolour, not just on the platform but spontaneously among the activists. Further, each, as far as I could tell, ended in the singing of the Marseillaise.

Association with "the Flag" is however something that would make any mainstream political party a little uneasy in a British context and, just judging on my own visual impression, is even something, in the context of the Saltire, the SNP are increasingly aware loses more votes than it gains. And the suggestion that it would, as a vote winner, or even a necessary obeisance, be appropriate for any British Party, even the Tories, to raucously sing the National Anthem at the conclusion of an entirely political event, would provoke a slight feeling of disbelief.

Again, while the SNP are undoubtedly a Party immersed in traditional music, indeed at one time that was advanced as evidence that they were not entirely serious, they are inclined, today, to keep the mass choral renditions of "Flower of Scotland" and "Scots wha Hae" well away from the cameras. It's just not a very "British" thing to do.

Now I have always been a huge enthusiast for the European project (another word that does not easily translate from French to English). Rather lachrymose person that I am, I am seldom moved by physical geography but some years ago we holidayed in South West France. Convenience of travel involved a flight from Prestwick to Barcelona's Reus Airport and a drive "up". As you drove on the elevated motorway across a border that was now no more marked than the border between Scotland and England you were given a view over the massed, now redundant, railway marshalling yards and customs posts on both sides. I make no apology for saying that this moved me as a symbol of progressive achievement.

So I don't have any time for those who would seek to create or re-create boundaries that have been happily swept away by the tide of history.

But if three hundred years have failed to create a unanimity of perception of the world, domestically and internationally, between England and Scotland, then it is surely dangerous to try and draw many conclusions for our domestic politics, Scottish or British, from the current elections in France.

Except these.

Elections have to be fought and won in the Countries in which they are fought. There is little, if any, evidence that the extracted endorsement of Angela Merkel, won Sarkozy any votes. But, equally, no matter what one thinks of the FN, it beggars belief that 20% of the French population are racists; rather many simply looked for the candidate who they most believed would best stand up for French identity. And that has a powerful appeal in any country.

Scottish Labour still however still shies away from a much nearer example than France.

Post devolution, far from assisting the cause of Nationalism, Welsh Labour has gone from strength to strength. But we (they?) have done so by assuring their electorate that, first and foremost, Welsh Labour will stand up for Wales, on the merits alone of that commitment, and not simply to keep Wales in play as a pawn in a wider game.

Now Labour here in Scotland is currently fighting a local government campaign premised on the proposition that our candidates will, first and foremost, fight for their local communities while attacking the SNP for only really being interested in a wider agenda. Why then do we remain reluctant to apply a similar logic to the Scottish Parliamentary elections?

That's the end of my blog but, vis a vis the BBC coverage I must just say one more thing. There was not a single person viewing who required Sarkozy's final appeal to be translated into: "Long live the Republic! Long live France!" If we didn't understand that little, at least, of what he was saying then we wouldn't have been watching in the first place.

Tuesday, 17 April 2012

Disnae Work

The timing of Salmond's initiative to abandon the SNP's opposition to NATO membership might have been picked straight out of the Tony Blair playbook.

There are Local Government elections on May 3rd. These elections are probably more important to the activist layer of all of the Parties than they are to the electorate who seem remarkably unengaged with the whole process.

Indeed, in advance of the event, the greater interest is in the advance spinning. The SNP claiming in the Sunday papers that the Labour vote is holding up; Labour launching their campaign this morning with the "concession" that the Nationalists will gain seats. Thus you frame the terms of discussion for the post election analysis, assuming that this is really what is important, rather than who might be in charge of running your local area for the next five years.

But there is something very important understood by the rank and file of all Parties in a pre election period: you don't show internal dissent when directly facing the enemy. And cynical leaderships know this to be a window of opportunity.

The SNP National Council is not until the beginning of June. Seven weeks away. If there is a view among the SNP Leadership clique that policy towards NATO needs to be changed then there is surely plenty of time AFTER May 3rd to float such an idea.

The very reason that this policy change is being floated at this time is because they have worked out that, no matter how furious many of their ground troops might be, equally they will not wish to show disloyalty (meaning actually loyalty to existing policy) in the run up to an election. And the hope is that after May 3rd, this idea having already been out there for three weeks, opponents then emerging will be easily dismissed as "too late to the Party". A silent congratulation card to Kevin Pringle is no doubt already on its way from Peter Mandelson.

But the problem is that this is not an initiative plucked from the quite brilliant, if utterly cynical, Labour politics of 1994-97. It is simply a reprise of the "we thought at the time were brilliant" internal Labour politics of 1983-87. It goes as far as internal Party dynamics will allow, but it does not go nearly as far as external political realities demand.

I keep banging on that it is impossible for the SNP to win an independence referendum. (and that, for that reason, a referendum will never take place, at least at the initiative of the SNP).

So far however, in the midst of all the various arguments I have deployed in pursuit of that conclusion, I have not even touched on the issue of US opinion and influence.

The SNP like to suggest that the only "foreign" country likely to have a view on the merits or otherwise of independence will be England. Thus desperate evidence is produced that, despite their own fiercely resisted separatist movements, Scottish Independence would be a matter of indifference to Spain and France while the very existence of Wales and Northern Ireland with something to contribute to the debate, is ignored to a point almost approaching arrogance. But most significantly of all, the potential intervention of the United States is simply wished away.

Now at this point I could dust down my Gramsci and depart on a lengthy treatise on the concept of hegemony. Suffice to say that, whether I like it or not, the United States of America enjoys a cultural, economic and political hegemony over almost all of the democratic world, and indeed a fair bit of the non democratic capitalist world into the bargain.

And the American posture towards a significant part of the land mass of their principal (be in no doubt, principal) strategic ally, deciding to up sticks and depart not just from the continued participation in the same nation state but, further, in the process to move from slavish support to. at best, cautious scepticism, towards US Defence policy is hardly likely to be one of "no comment".

Is there anybody who would be prepared to seriously dispute that immediately preceding proposition?

Now, that doesn't mean we would see military intervention, or even threatened economic reprisal. Soft power doesn't work like that. All that would need to happen would be for the United States to express a mild disapproval, which, if independence ever became a remote possibilty they undoubtedly would, and the terms of the debate would be fundamentally changed. And how much more so if that disapproval came from the lips of a President more loved (I use that word advisedly) here than he is in many parts of the United States itself.

The idea that this threat can be headed off by a token commitment to half hearted and possibly temporary membership of NATO is simply deranged. Indeed, even if we were promising, post independence, enthusiastic embrace of a continued nuclear submarine base as part of a continued United Kingdom common defence policy, even then, surely the Americans would rather prefer things to remain as they are at the moment.

I finish however with a local example. Northern Ireland. For historical reasons wholly unrecreatable  in Scotland, for a long time it was possible for the altogether more committed and serious nationalists of Northern Ireland to ensure the United States remained broadly neutral in their struggle. When that changed however, the struggle itself was quickly realised to be unwinnable by the Nationalists themselves and, today, Sinn Fein politicians queue up to be patted on the head for their common sense conclusions just as readily as the most hardened unionist. Without a single threat, just a quiet indication of what was expected of them.

Sorry to keep repeating myself but no matter what policy changing gymnastics the SNP leadership perform, they cannot win a referendum. For for that reason, the final policy routine performed in front of the membership will be to persuade them that a referendum cannot take place. Or at least by deliberate legal obfuscation to secure that same outcome.

Sunday, 15 April 2012

Independence Revisited

I don't normally blog about international affairs and I'm not, really, going to start tonight.

Today's news however is dominated by events in Kabul. Now, I am certainly not among those who opposed the attack on Afghanistan in the aftermath of 9/11. The governing regime there had clearly allowed their Country to be the basis of an unprecedented terrorist attack and, even in the aftermath of that attack, were not willing to give up its organisers. To that extent, it seemed to me that to argue that direct military action was not then justified could really only proceed from a premise that direct military action is never justified. And that's never been my view.

But, even in the almost immediate aftermath of that intervention I wondered what we were still doing there, and that bemusement has only grown with the passing years, with or without the rising British death toll.

It may be a pretty cynical view of the world but if the Afghans, by their own choice, want to live in the 13th Century, then that is surely a matter for them. I doubt if they'll be daft enough to allow their way of existence to encroach on the lives of the rest of us any time soon. And if they are then we'll just need to go back.

But the relevance of today's events in Kabul is that it reminded me of an earlier event: the Tet Offensive.

Just as then, this was something that American military might was meant to make impossible, and yet it happened. And just as then, I suspect it marks the beginning of an end.

Now, why does the Tet Offensive ring such a bell in my memory? Because it is one of the earliest political events of which I have a clear recollection. It was regarded in my household, and thus by me, as a generally welcome event, even if regrettable in its necessity.

I was nine.

I've been involved with the politics of the Left all of my life. I read an fascinating profile of Alex Neill in Holyrood Magazine this week and I understood his underlying need to protest too much in justifying the betrayal of everything he was brought up to believe in. I suspect he doesn't sleep very well. If it's any consolation, I wouldn't be able to sleep at all.

But I was almost more annoyed at his assertion that he had had to lie about his age to join the Labour Party at 15. You could always join the Labour Party at 15. I did. Although I accept that in some parts of the Country you might have been 16 before you were "checked out" and actually allowed in. 23 in Harry Selby's Govan.

But, oddly, that lifetime commitment to one cause allows me to understand, even sympathise, with those with a similar commitment to another.

So, much as I personally think it is a deranged idea not hugely dissimilar to the apparently majority opinion among the Afghans, I respect the consistency of those who have always believed that Scottish Independence  is an essential ambition.

I have to say however that I am increasingly puzzled as to who these people might be. It seems to me that their are a number of essential elements to an "independent" country: You have control of your own borders; your own currency; your own National Broadcaster; your own Head of State and your own military forces.

Now, at the danger of sounding like a rabid cybernat, this is of course not what the SNP are offering at all. Indeed, if I were of a Cybernat persuasion I might be inclined to rant that having border controls dictated by the ENGLISH; using ENGLISH currency; watching ENGLISH television; owing allegiance to an ENGLISH Queen and now, apparently, forming part of the ENGLISH armed forces is, in fact, in terms of influence in our own affairs, somewhat worse than that which we have at present.

And this is only to be the maximum option offered in a two question referendum! The way things are going the second question will be "Are you sure you want a Scottish Parliament at all (It's awfy expensive)?"

Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely, as either Gibbon or Acton wrote. (Can't be bothered to Google).

The SNP leadership have done astonishingly well electorally by being "Not the Labour Party".  And until Labour gets our act together within the micro-climate of Holyrood, they can, no doubt, look forward to the continuity of that success, But, unfortunately for their rank and file, they are enjoying the fame that goes with it too much to put that fame at risk. And while politics might not be for all its players "Showbusiness for ugly people", that is certainly what it regrettably becomes for too many in its higher reaches. In all Parties

That's why if I had a lifelong commitment to Scottish Independence, reflecting on Today's events, I might find my sleep as disturbed as that of Alex Neill.

Thursday, 12 April 2012

In sure and certain hope

Tonight I watched the final episode of White Heat. You are kind of caught at this point in an introduction. Half your readership will have watched it and be annoyed at the plot being reprised, while the other half, being completely ignorant, can hardly be expected to appreciate six hours of television based on a single paragraph precis. (I never did work out how to type an e grave, or even an e acute. Bloody French).

Anyway, this was one of these "State of the Nation" dramas. Lots of students share one flat in the Seventies. Starting off as broadly, if unfocused, "progressives", as the years go by they are seduced by Thatcherism or resigned to Blairism, The only one who keeps the faith ends up prematurely dead. It is assumed but not expressed, in not entirely happy circumstance.

Everybody is truly genuinely sorry, and a bit guilty, but, even before the camera stops rolling, they are already working out how life might go on.

It was good "watching".

But for me it was just that little bit unfamiliar. For while some of the central characters were politically involved, not all of them were. That is not my own experience,

Now, in one sense I am not a nerd. I like watching the telly; I love football at any level; I quite enjoy music and I can even have a limited appreciation of high art. But politics has been my life.

I was never happier than in the great days of Scottish Labour Action, when, at least for a moment, we might have turned the Labour Party into an insurrectionist movement on the National Question. But, equally, my life was marked out in General Elections and the lessons to be learned (sometimes wrongly) from them. 1979; 1983; 1992...................actually it is twenty years since I concluded anything really significant from such a major political test, except that such major political tests were the only ones of any real importance. And that was the similar experience of almost all of my really close friends.

But, at the same time, my personal life went on. As did the personal life of those to whom I was close by virtue of politics but also to whom I became close by something more than political alignment.

So folk got into "serious" relationships; had weans; had improbable affairs; turned out to be gay (as we'd always suspected); left the Party in the huff (to be excused) and even on one singular and utterly inexcusable  occasion, joined the SNP. But, ordinary life also went on. Asked what they were doing in a particular school, there would become the casual response, "I'm the heedie"; or there would be the spousal assertion: "You know he/she is now a professor"; or even, in one the resentful observation "I still  can't believe he is the First Minister"

But friends are friends; so there were also weddings and christenings and even occasionally very drunken observations of divorces. "You were always too good for her"; "I know he's my pal but I should have also told you he was always a complete bastard"; "So, anyway, are you still going to be an Election Agent?"

And now, just occasionally, you start to run across the funerals. Bill Speirs, taken before his own time by virtue of his own demons; Dave Crosher, just taken; Campbell Christie, after a good innings but still not quite before the lifetime acclamation he deserved; and tomorrow, at the Partick Burgh Hall, Janey Buchan. A woman who looked down, beneficially, on all this manouvering, personal and political; all this shagging and stabbing; plotting and longing; hoping and losing and just, very rarely, winning and who nonetheless never doubted that, no matter how slowly, we were moving forward.

There was no proper funeral for Janey, That was her wish. Her mortal remains were returned, without fuss or circumstance to the earth from which they came. So it was left to others to insist that she could not simply pass like this. For she'd sowed the seeds of freedom in her daughters and her sons.

Tuesday, 10 April 2012

Election Photographs

There is a famous story about a Labour Candidate on the occasion of a long forgotten local government landslide confiding to the battle hardened local Party Election Agent that he didn't know what he would do if he was elected. "Listen, son" came the reply "if there is any chance we would win this seat, there is no way we would have had you as the candidate."

No hope candidates, prepared to carry the Party colours onto the most hopeless of battlefields, play an important part in our democracy. Some do so in the hope of gaining experience while on their way to fame and fortune in more welcoming future territory, others regrettably only to enjoy a brief moment of prominence before disappearing back into the obscurity from which they had momentarily emerged.

But all must, in the process, have an election photograph taken.

I am prompted to these thoughts by the leaflet delivered to me today by the local SNP. This seat is what, under STV, is becoming known as a 2-1. We get pretty certainly 2 and they, equally certainly, get the other 1. But they need a hypothetical 2 even if we are not sufficiently arrogant to risk a 3.

So the SNP have a young man running alongside their local incumbent.

He seems very enthusiastic, although when he claims to have been, personally, the SNP's 16,000th member, you can't help feeling that there are probably a number of other, equally enthusiastic youths, making equally sincere claims elsewhere in Scotland, in much the same ways as a remarkable number of mediaeval Italian Cathedrals each claimed to be in the unique possession of the head of John the Baptist.

I've promised however not to blog about politics proper until May 4th, so I want to talk instead about his election photograph.

Speaking as someone unlikely ever to feature in any Labour Hunk calendar, even I cannot believe anybody is that ugly. I cannot believe it because it cannot be true. He has been the victim of the election photographer. Such a creature is the curse of every political party.

When I was first active in the Labour Party in Paisley, our photographer was a man called John Bradley. Mr Bradley was not known for his talents of composition, although he was regarded as a bohemian character, and thus presumably "artistic", by reason of his maintaining two wives at different locations. This information appeared to be common knowledge to the entire population of Paisley, excepting, apparently, the ladies themselves. Thus, if you required an urgent election photograph you phoned one number and if told John was not at home, you simply phoned the alternative.

It was perhaps this method of living, or perhaps a misguided Labour party photographers training school that   appeared to have persuaded Paisley's answer to David Bailey that, in order to portray the candidate as a man of action, he need invariably be portrayed with a phone clamped to his ear. Perhaps this was meant to convey a subliminal message that, if elected, the candidate would always answer the phone, but, particularly in election literature for elections involving more than one candidate, it could give the unintended impression that the Labour nominees were so aligned that, as captured on film, they were at that very moment in communication with each other. Albeit from a distance.

But that was not the most bizarre experience that I had of political photography. In 1994, when John Smith died, I pursued the Labour nomination in his Airdrie seat. The contest was called on a very short timescale and since there was a Party event between the shortlisting and the selection, at that event, all three shortlisted candidates had official photographs taken with Margaret Beckett, the acting leader, and George Robertson, the Shadow Secretary of State. As is now known, victory fell to La Belle Helene but after the event I thought it would, nonetheless, be nice to have these photographs for some future "I coulda been a contender" archive. I accordingly phoned Keir Hardie House. "No" was the response. "C'mon don't be ridiculous" I persisted. "They've been destroyed" the eventual answer. Such was the Party mentality that the possibility that anyone but Helen had ever been considered as the Labour nominee had had to be expunged from the official record. And people criticise Stalin's Russia.

My worst story of all however does not feature a Party volunteer at all but rather a paid up professional working for the Evening Times. In 1992, Labour's banner in West Renfrewshire was carried by Tommy Graham, who not even Annie Leibovitz could have made appealing to the eye. Tommy however presumably thought that he might attract a little glamour by association so, when encountering a long term acquaintance in Linwood's St Brendan's Club, and learning that the acquaintance's daughter was a Miss Scotland finalist, Tommy was immediately seized with the mutual advantage of there being photographed together.

Thus it was that 20 stone Tommy, grinning through such teeth as he had, featured on the Front page of the first edition of the Evening Times standing outside the AEU Halls in Incle Street, Paisley during March 1992 next to a young lady wearing nothing but a bikini and a Labour rosette.

Now the Levenson inquiry has featured on an unhealthy relationship between politicians and the press. It is a great pity however that the inquiry will never have the opportunity to inquire as to the promises of future exclusives and other favours Labour had to make on this occasion before the Times Editor was persuaded to pull the photograph from later editions.

So. my advice to all politicians of all Parties is: Avoid the camera. If only elections could be fought entirely on the radio.

Monday, 9 April 2012

Until 4th May

Regular followers of my blog will know that I am not an unconditional supporter of the current Labour Leadership, either North or South of the border.

Now, for the avoidance of any doubt that does not mean that it would not be better for both of my countries if the current incumbent of the highest elected office was swept away and replaced with the Labour alternative. My lack of enthusiasm for the current Labour leadership is premised not on any doubt about that. Rather it is that any hoped for change of administration will depend on the will of the people and that, regrettably, the people seem hugely unenthusiastic about the alternative candidates Labour currently intends to place before them. That is at an actual election rather than a snapshot opinion poll. In a democracy, while the people are often wrong, that does not contrive to make them any less the ultimate arbiters. The SNP might well have won last May if, instead of Eck, they had been led by Nicola or Kenny. They certainly would not if they'd been led by Lyall Duff or Bill Walker, equally approved candidates though they both were.

So, Labour needs to realise this and, at some point, act accordingly. Unfortunately, such is the self interest that surrounds politics at all levels that I am not holding my breath. In the end the only people who will truly have a say about this will be the close lieutenants who might just conclude that with a different captain they might just have the chance of being something a bit more significant than a supporting cast to the Leader of the Opposition. No change of leadership will only confirm they think we've got no chance of office either way.

That, I assume, is the conclusion the SNP have reached about Alison Hunter in Glasgow. This woman is simply incredible as leader of Scotland's major City. It appears that not only can't she be trusted to appear on television, worse, when she appears on any other public platform at all the Nationalists themselves know that the next 48 hours will be dominated by them spinning desperately about what she meant to say or indeed would have said if she'd only thought about it. Why are they imperilling the prize of seizing control of Glasgow in this way, you may ask? They are not, is the answer. They have worked out that they can't take the City and are already two moves ahead in the game. Poor Ms Hunter, who has given her life to the Nationalist cause, is to be offered up as a (possibly even knowing) human sacrifice to shield the wider SNP from any suggestion that the "Big Mo" to independence is any less Big and might not even be a Mo at all. "Nothing to see here; personal car crash, no suggestion it any way interferes with the ever clearer road to independence" will, I confidently predict, be the spin in the early morning of May 4th.

It's all very cynical. But then again, that's politics.

But I also know politics to be a rough trade. And that the time at which you are facing the enemy is not the point at which to be running about doubting the formation or querying the generals' competence.

So, with that in mind, this will be my last blog about Scottish politics until May 4th. I reserve the right in the meantime to bore on about the politics of Italy (Bossi has resigned!); the art of the Renaissance or even whether Lang Lang is really the genius he is marketed to be. But I do not wish to give comfort to the enemy, or worse still provide some sort of ludicrous "Labour activist claims...."copy to the Daily Mail or the Sunday Herald.

So I intend to say nothing more till the polls close except that here I will be voting Jean Jones 1 and Heather McVey 2. And I won't be expressing any other preference. If anybody reads this in Kilsyth and the Villages I would encourage them to do likewise.

Friday, 6 April 2012


The Resurrection - Piero della Francesca

I hate to admit this but I share a favourite painting with Tony Blair, utterly unprincipled specimen of humanity that he is.

"The Resurrection" by Piero della Francesca in Borgo San Sepolcro in the Province of Arezzo.

No harm to the internet but a cut and paste here fails to do the painting justice. In the room the fresco appears to depict a Christ who is about to actually step into the room. It is a magnificent example of the early mastery of perspective.

But, you know, it is not the mastery of perspective alone that makes this a great work of art.

It is common currency now to dismiss Easter as nothing more than the Christian example of a Spring Festival common to every culture, just as Christmas is similarly ticked off  as belonging to the equally ubiquitous celebration of the occurrence, and more importantly passing, of mid Winter. And of course, in one respect, that is undoubtedly true.


This is our culture. There was a time when nothing was more lamentable, indeed contemptuous, than the idea that western Christian culture was superior to all others. The passing of that assumption however has led all to readily to a belief that our own culture has no value at all.

Here's St Luke 24. 1-8

 "1Now upon the first day of the week, very early in the morning, they came unto the sepulchre, bringing the spices which they had prepared, and certain others with them.
 2And they found the stone rolled away from the sepulchre.
 3And they entered in, and found not the body of the Lord Jesus.
 4And it came to pass, as they were much perplexed thereabout, behold, two men stood by them in shining garments:
 5And as they were afraid, and bowed down their faces to the earth, they said unto them, Why seek ye the living among the dead?
 6He is not here, but is risen: remember how he spake unto you when he was yet in Galilee,
 7Saying, The Son of man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men, and be crucified, and the third day rise again.
 8And they remembered his words,"

"Why seek ye the living among the dead? He is not here but is risen"

Now, the reality is that there are few sentences in the whole history of mankind that have more resonance. They have a resonance for Christians certainly but they have almost an equal resonance for militant atheists shouting back NO HE'S NOT in the internal knowledge that they are protesting not just against an immensely powerful idea but also one, particularly in the King James' Version, quite beautifully expressed.

Somebody was criticised last week for observing that 75% of students now arrive at University without having read the Bible. My only surprise was that 25% have and, indeed, excepting the occasional seminarian with a professional responsibility, I am a little sceptical that so many, apparently, have, But not having read the Bible is not the same as having no knowledge of it. And if, as I suspect was truly being said, 75% of those entering higher education have no real knowledge of the Bible then that is a matter of real concern.

How, otherwise, might one appreciate Milton; or any of Bach's Choral music; or indeed almost all of the art produced by the Renaissance? 

The real importance of Piero's Resurrection is not in its technical competence: it is that after a millenium where Jesus was not a real, living, person but rather someone portrayed, literally, iconically, here was a proper man, stepping not just out of a wall painting or even just out of a book, but out of the grave and into the daily lives of the Faithful. And not just in San Sepolcro.

And you cannot appreciate the painting properly, no matter how admiring of the perspective, without appreciating that as well.

Now, here I just want to reassert my own position as a creature of the enlightenment. Of course, much of what passes for Christianity today enjoys only the endorsement of doctrine rather than Scripture. And, of course, the alternative, protestant, approach attaches to the pre-historic rules of one ethnic group a ludicrous supposed importance with regard to modern living. And of course the middle way of the modern reformed Churches while politically reassuring is undermined by a lurking suspicion of intellectual inconsistency with the idea of a 2000 year old belief. 

And anyway, the whole idea is ludicrous. The Son of God, living among us, martyred for the redemption of our sins and then rising again to show the way to eternal salvation. Who could possibly believe that?

Yet, on Sunday, when across five Continents, and across every race and generation, people gain not just hope but joy with the words "Christ is risen", I defy anybody not to wish that this be true.

Sunday, 1 April 2012

Home thoughts from abroad (really this time)

I am in Rome. Really, no kidding.

Wee Mo and I, thanks to the Scottish Legal Aid Board having relaxed a little their usual parsimony, are here for a long weekend, in the company of our niece, who, in exchange for her food and accomodation, deigns to wash the occasional dish.

I would like to console my readers with the sentiment that we are having a miserable time but I cannot tell a lie. It is 22 degrees during the day; the Churches are not just as magnificent as ever but by their sheer ubiquity guarantee that there is always something new to see; the food, while I am assured is still no comparison to that available north of Florence, is nonetheless somewhat superior to that on offer in Kilsyth.

And the Caravaggios....................well, my keyboard could never hope to them justice. And that's before, tomorrow, we have the Vatican Museums: The School of Athens by the greatest of all the renaissance masters and a ceiling  some people at least get very excited about.

So, I would surely have every excuse just to sit back and enjoy the whole experience. And not to be bothering my happy band of followers with a blog.

But, in the end, that's what I do on a Sunday night. And anyway, my legs have rather seized up after all the day's walking.

Oddly, in terms of my domestic affairs, now that I am "home", I could be home.

Instead of booking a hotel, we have secured, I was going to say a small, but actually as it has turned out a rather grand apartment on the third floor of a palazzo at the top end of the Via Giulia. For those so inclined to look it up, it is next to the (very Tuscan) Church of San Giovanni Battista dei Fiorentini.

That is not however its most remarkable feature. As we were being shown round on arrival, after an stern lecture on the importance of observing the correct bins for our rubbish (these Greens have got a lot to answer for), suddenly, as almost an afterthought, our host announced that we would, of course, want to know how to correct to the wi-fi router.

And so, as the portalone closes for the night, we could be back in Scotland. Not only am I able to exchange my usual good-humoured insults with the Tory Hoose crew over twitter, I can read Scotland on Sunday as surely as if I was in the breakfast room of the North British Hotel and indeed rant and rave as normal over some of the more ignorant callers to 606. The only real difference is that here it's at 706.

And my niece, being more familiar with the technology in the way that young(er) people so irritatingly are, can not only converse by keyboard with her friends back in Scotland but can somehow, thanks to features on my netbook of which I was wholly ignorant, give them a video tour of our accomodation.

When Mo and I first went to Italy more than 20 (cough) years ago, you were in a very real sense, away. News from home might be occasionally gleaned from a two day old copy of the Daily Telegraph purchased at enormous expense from a newsagent in one of the larger cities but keeping in touch with the business required the accumulation of a colossal quantity of change to be fed at rapid pace into a phone box while desperate advice was sought about some case or other in which there had been unforseen developments. If the money ran out the client was left to sink or swim.

Since then, the world of communication has changed beyond the imaginings of that time.

Tomorrow morning not only will I wake up to Nicky Campbell as usual but even as I go about the day, my office will not only be able to contact me me but by phone (phone!) even send me documents to review and revise. If I could afford it, I could probably live here permanently.

Now, at this point I was going to go on and make a series of wider points about how we haven't appreciated how this has changed the wider economy and, indeed, the political game. It is not however just the temptation to venture out for a last digestivo that pulls me up short in that task. For we all realise that in one respect. But in our day to day lives we all still cling to how things are currently done for fear of  perceiving only that they will need to be done differently in future. The reason, and the problem, is that we don't yet understand how that might be.

Buona notte a tutti