Friday 30 November 2012

Upon St Andrew's Day. A miracle.

I was going to write today, St Andrew's Day, on the iconography of St Andrew.

For I've had a really hard two weeks and I'm  not really yet in the mood to return, at length at least, to the political fray.

So nothing better than to divert in to more aesthetic pursuits.

Except that I knew in advance the painting I would finish with. In pursuit of which  I found "accidentally"  the wonderful critique of it to which I will link in a minute. And I thought what a wonderful thing the internet is. That someone I will never meet, thousands of miles away, can express my own thoughts exactly. Brava Anna Vitz. Ti amo.

Thursday 22 November 2012

48 Hours

There is no better example of the steady decline of the quality of the Scottish Parliament than the fact that Tricia Marwick is now its Presiding Officer.

In 1999, the first Presiding Officer was David Steel. Now I am no Liberal Democrat but David Steel is a major political figure. In 1983, given a few percentage points, he could have been leader of the Opposition and, who knows, potential next Prime Minister. Throughout his life he has been a major player in the movement for Scottish Home Rule and he is, even today, a readily recognised public figure throughout these isles.

In 2003, he was replaced by George Reid, perhaps not as well known throughout the UK, but still a well known and respected public figure in Scotland. One, surely, of the more intellectual members of the SNP and recognised even by his opponents as a person of truly independent mind, in both senses of that word.

In 2007 we had Alex Ferguson. Now, no disrespect to him, he was hardly either Steel or Reid in terms of previous record but he was regarded across the political sphere as a decent cove who could be counted on to arbitrate freely and fairly (if not always correctly) on the matters placed before him. And, anyway, given the numerical dynamic of that Parliament, he was one of the few people prepared to stand.

And then in 2011?

No harm to Tricia Marwick but she had hardly set the Scottish Parliament afire in her previous twelve years during which she had only featured briefly on (even) the opposition front bench. She was (and is) the sort of person who can prosper in any Party by working hard for the cause and never saying anything remotely controversial. I could easily identify numerous similar members of my own Party now sitting comfortably on the Holyrood or even Westminster benches.

And politics, all politics, needs such people. Deep breath, she reminds me a bit of Michael McMahon on our own side.

But, in the aftermath of the SNP landslide in 2011, somebody decided that she should be made Presiding Officer.

For what it's worth, I doubt if that was she herself for she strikes me as somebody not driven by personal ambition. Rather, I suspect that more serious operators within the SNP realised the importance of controlling the chair and employed all the tools of flattery to persuade her to put her name forward. Which she did, and then found herself, to her own incomprehension, elected. A bit like Chance the Gardener.

But having been put there as a pawn, that is exactly how she has behaved and in consequence her authority has steadily declined. Leading ultimately to the debacle of the last 48 hours.

Of all the MSPs likely to be suspended from the Scottish Parliament, Michael McMahon would be pretty far down the list. He, himself, is such a decent fellow that I myself have previously railed against his even handedness in allowing SNP members to talk pish, without contradiction, in his capacity as chair of the Welfare Reform Committee.

His "offence" was to express his frustration that in attempting to cover up for her Leader's most recent duplicity, the Presiding Officer was "out of order", as, on any objective view, she was. Her reaction was to suspend him from Parliament.

In the heat of the moment, I made a number of intemperate remarks on twitter about the Presiding Officer earlier today. I withdraw them. She is not consciously partisan; she is simply, out of her depth, unable to resist doing what is whispered in her ear by the same more serious operators. For that is, after all, how she progressed to her current exalted position.

But if she is to prosper in that position she must, in the words of St Paul, put aside childish things.

She could start, any time soon, by pulling up the First Minister by observing that what he had just said was not an answer to the question asked and that he must try again.

Who knows, if she was prepared to do that, even once, she might yet become as distinguished as her illustrious predecessors.

Sunday 18 November 2012

An interrupted narrative

To be honest I'm not really sure what to blog about this week.

The easy thing would be just to pile in with everybody else putting the boot in Mike Russell but it's difficult to find anything further to say on this baleful episode. It is trite to say the real scandal is the not the original offence but the attempted cover up but on this occasion the reverse is surely the opposite. Thursday's debacle was great entertainment for the political class but the real scandal is that college funding for support for, overwhelmingly, poorer kids is being slashed to try and desperately preserve the middle class perk of free higher education.

On any view this puts the Scottish administration, on this issue, to the right of every other mainstream party in these islands. But then the SNP have always been a bit iffy on education. Derek McKay, don't forget, was the man who, while leader of Renfrewshire Council, regarded teachers as an optional extra in the schools under his then domain. Such anathema was this to the local SNP that they made him a Parliamentary candidate.

But my heart's not really in this Nat bashing and that, I think , is because our wee problems here seem so trivial compared to what is going on in the Middle East.

But about which I have no magic prescription.

The loss of life is tragic and, of course, the Israeli response  wholly unacceptable in its disproportionality to the provocation. But the provocation was, I'm not reluctant to say, also wholly unacceptable.

The argument just goes round in a circle. It's easy to say that the starting point is the Israeli blockade of Gaza but given the fact that even under that blockade long range missiles have been smuggled in to Gaza from Iran, and then fired randomly into Israel by people who show no inclination to stop such behaviour, it is simply unrealistic to suggest that Gaza should have an open border either.

Then again, while the current Israeli regime shows no real desire to negotiate the two state solution that seems so blindingly obvious to the outside world, what is the incentive for the Palestinians to repudiate those within their own ranks seemingly set on a course of permanent, hopeless, war?

It's just a mess where I defy anybody but the most blinkered of partisans not to accept that there is fault on both sides.

However it can't be the case that the rest of the world community just gives up in despair tempered only by the occasional sorrowful or cautionary word.

And here is where a particular obligation rests with one man, Barack Obama.

It is Second Term; he is not going to stand again and frankly, to date, his foreign policy legacy has been a disappointment.

The Americans can't, realistically, be expected to abandon the Israelis altogether but they could certainly offer more incentive to the Palestinians particularly by making it clear that their UN Veto on Palestinian statehood was not at the disposal of the Israeli Government, no matter how they behave. And they could also offer to consider how the blockade might be policed by others than the Israelis and, over time, relaxed in the process.

But, in the end, the starting point has to be a ceasefire all round. And you can't get round the fact that the Gazans remain, currently, more of an obstacle to that than the Israelis. It's simply not good enough for the Hamas administration to say that if the Israelis stop the attack, they'll stop their own rocket attacks but, unfortunately, they can't control the acts others. Not good enough and not credible either.


Now, I wrote everything immediately above earlier today. I then saved it and went off to do other things intending to come back tonight to finish it off essentially to say that it was unfair that the Palestinians had to take the first step by agreeing to an unconditional ceasefire but that this was, nonetheless, the political and military reality.

Except that this afternoon the Scottish Government decided to issue a statement about the crisis. Here it is.

Commenting on the ongoing violence in Gaza and Israel, Humza Yousaf, the Scottish Government’s Minister for External Affairs and International Development, said:
“The priority is for an immediate and effective ceasefire and a de-escalation of hostilities in the region, and the Scottish Government supports all ongoing international diplomatic efforts to achieve a ceasefire.
“The dangers of a further escalation in this conflict are obvious and must be avoided. The killing of innocent civilians, be they Palestinian or Israeli, is to be utterly condemned and we urge both sides to exercise restraint.  The rocket attacks on Israel are wrong and should stop, as should the Israeli bombardment on Gaza which has been heavily disproportionate in terms of the civilian loss of life, and have been rightly condemned as such by many in the international community.
“The voice of the UK Government in making these points and in helping to achieve a lasting ceasefire must be heard loud and clear,.....
Now, as I said, I'd written the rest of this blog earlier today and you will therefore conclude, correctly, that, to this point, I agree with every single word of what Humza Yousaf has to say. However, he could not resist, or at least somebody could not resist continuing......
and I aim to speak to counterparts at the Foreign Office to stress the importance of their role in achieving these aims.
Mr Yousaf does not have "counterparts in the Foreign Office". He is a Junior Minister in a devolved administration. He might like to have "counterparts" in the British Foreign Office but, to be frank, were that ever to be the case, they would surely have no particular reason to pay him any more attention than a spokesman for any number of other small countries. And the irony in his calling on the British Government to use it's influence on events is that he wants to unilaterally surrender any influence that Scotland, through the United Kingdom might actually be capable of having in events on the ground.
For the sake of completeness, I should say that he continues

“If a ceasefire is not achieved quickly, the humanitarian crisis in Gaza threatens to worsen.
We continue to join with voices in the international community in calling for the illegal blockade of Gaza to be lifted.
And again, you will have gathered from what I say above, I endorse these sentiments entirely.
But let's what consider has gone on here? Faced even responding to a with a humanitarian crisis, thousands of miles from home, the Scottish Government could not resist promoting their separatist agenda. These people are beneath contempt.


Sunday 11 November 2012

Proud of my Profession

I promised when I posted my Friday night blog that normal service would be resumed today. Before doing so I'd just like to thank everybody who was in touch, one way or another, in its aftermath.

Anyway, what is normal service at the moment?

I was on the telly at lunchtime today with Kate Higgins, otherwise @burdzeyeview, doing our usual double act.

In the course of the interview, which really devoted followers can find at the end of today's Sunday Politics Scotland on the iPlayer we covered three topics. In the course of the discussion of the last, the launch of Labour for "Indy" (whatever that is this week), I suggested that it contained a solitary member of the Labour Party. Helpfully, this "organisation" was in touch through twitter to protest that there are in fact two of them. I am happy to stand corrected.

The middle topic was that of pay-day loans, on which Kate and I, for once, found little on which to disagree but, inevitably, the main subject under discussion was the debacle at the BBC.

So much has already been said on the specifics of this that I have no intention of adding to it except to say, with some pride, that it shows the value of my own profession. It has already been observed that it was only thanks to their own lawyers that the BBC were saved from an even more disastrous error a week past on Friday. They, if not the journalists involved, realised that the uncorroborated evidence of a witness already described as "unreliable" by the Waterhouse Tribunal was not the basis on which to accuse anybody of a serious crime. And I doubt if, had they been asked for a moment, the lawyers would have thought the use of the weasel phrase"A senior Tory official of the Thatcher era" was ever going to be enough when, truly, the allegation was not one made generically but rather specifically against the man accused. No-one who made the programme, even if they naively took their witness at face value, thought for a moment that he might be talking about (another) "senior Tory Official of the Thatcher era", (because even on the witnesses own, since retracted, testimony, he wasn't) so if the allegation couldn't be reliably made against Lord McAlpine by name, then patently it couldn't be made properly against anyone within that wider group. I simply have no idea why there was no realisation of that except the old saw that the facts were not to be allowed to get in the way of a "good story".

Dare I say it, that's more what you would expect of the Sun than of the BBC.

And all of this, we have to assume, would have been avoided if the most basic of precautions had been taken; the showing of the witness a picture of Lord McAlpine and the question (leading though I appreciate it would have been!) "Is this the man you are talking about?"

No competent lawyer would have made that mistake. Then again, perhaps, so would have no competent journalist.

But that leads me on to more familiar territory; Scottish politics.

There is a skill to asking questions.

At lunchtime on Tuesday 30th October the Lord Advocate wrote to Ruth Davidson. The full text of the letter, somewhat mysteriously, does not appear to be available online but a copy of the letter was sent, internally, to every single Opposition MSP. This is what he wrote in the third paragraph.

"As was made clear by the Deputy First Minister the Scottish Government has now requested specific legal advice from the Law Officers on EU Membership. As you will be aware legal advice on many issues is provided by the lawyers in the Scottish Government Legal Department (SGLD) but in relation to certain matters the government will seek a legal opinion from the Law Officers. That is what is happening in relation to the matter of EU membership"

(My emphasis)

That same afternoon Nicola Sturgeon summed up a debate on this very matter and at 16.38 Of the Official Report said

"Clearly, if ministers have sought legal advice, the law officers will provide that legal advice, so to reveal that legal advice has been sought from the law officers reveals the fact of such advice and puts us in breach of the ministerial code."

(Again my emphasis)

Both of these statements can't be true.

So here, if I had been asking my first year trainee to act up in the role of Leader of the Opposition are the three questions I might have suggested they ask on Thursday 1st November.

1. Do you agree that the Lord Advocate wrote to Ruth Davidson stating that "Legal advice on many issues is provided by the lawyers in the Scottish Government Legal Directorate?

2. Do you agree that the Deputy First Minister said in the Chamber "Clearly (sic), if ministers have sought legal advice, the Law Officers will provide that legal advice"

3. Since both of these statements can't be equally true, on the matter of automatic EU entry, does the Government already have legal advice from the Scottish Government Legal Directorate?

Quite literally, the Lord Advocate had passed the Opposition the ball in front of an empty net. And yet they still conspired to miss it in a manner which would have defied even Chris Iwelumo.

Instead, while I know the answer to that question, I suspect even the very politically nerdy of my readership can't remember the questions actually asked at that First Minister's Questions, except that they involved shouting in a generally unspecific way that Eck was a lying toad.

Well here's my final piece of legal advice. I have, over thirty years, conducted numerous trials where the defence consisted, for want of anything better, of accusing all the prosecution witnesses of being lying toads. And I've never secured a single acquittal on that basis.

There is no substitute for actual evidence.

Friday 9 November 2012


This is hard,
It's Friday, thank God it's Friday.

We've had a good week at my work. A few results for the clients; some decent money in the door and some interesting new business to look forward to.

But it's been hard going and, on Friday night, it's not unreasonable to think you might come home, have, perhaps, a small glass of wine and start to anticipate an entertaining week ahead.


Wee Mo has Alzheimer's disease.

When I came home tonight she greeted me at the door dressed to go out. Not to go out to the theatre or the cinema as we might, once, have done on a happy Friday but rather dressed to go "home". As if home involved a long cold distant journey.

And the house itself, which I'd spent an hour tidying after she'd gone to bed last night was in a state of chaos.

Clothes, shoes, food, cups. kitchen rolls and toilet rolls distributed to random corners. The food I'd left  on prominent display for her in the morning left uneaten but a cold, raw, pie somehow retrieved from the fridge and then semi-consumed.

And, even after I'd reassured her that we were already home in the house we've shared for twenty years, and then tidied up a bit, not even the chance to watch the Channel 4 News in some sort of calm as she sat across from me, perched on the edge of the settee, turning over her keys in her hands like some modern day set of rosary beads and muttering quietly to herself.

And so to my legendary Friday night bath, interrupted as I would never confess in the more light hearted banter of twitter by five minute visits to check I was "alright" and even in between marked by her lurking outside the door in want of any idea where else she might go.

I love this woman. Next February we will have been married for twenty five years. When she first started getting unwell seven years ago and when she was eventually conclusively diagnosed perhaps five years back I resolved then that I would be with her to the end and I will, I promise, deliver on that. Although I will not pretend that this is becoming anything less than progressively harder. I recall with a chill that when we had our first visit from the occupational therapist, several years back, she asked if Mo could make a cup of tea and I replied "Don't be ridiculous". Today the same answer would have an opposite meaning.

But it's Friday. This afternoon I was called by an old friend to advise that, at very short notice and thanks to a last minute cancellation, they had a spare ticket to hear Madeline Allbright speak in Glasgow tonight. Now, anybody who has followed this blog will know that this is something I would very much liked to have done. But at such short notice I could not have found someone to look after Mo, so I had to decline.

But at least tomorrow we have another friend who will arrive and indeed stay over so that I can go, in relative relaxation, to see the Saints in the afternoon and, indeed, if I had anything to do, would allow me a night out.

Only I don't have anything to do.

For what do you do on a Saturday night? If you are in a steady relationship perhaps a few nights a year you get a "night off" (ho,ho,ho) to go out boozing with your pals but most of the time you, in middle age at least, to go to the theatre, or the cinema, or a concert with, and here I make no wider sexual orientation point, a woman. Usually "your" woman. If you're inclined to promiscuity, a "different" woman.

I'm not inclined to promiscuity but I'm not "abnormal" either. It would be great to have such a night out. I persevered, perhaps, too long in thinking such nights might still be possible with Mo but at a certain point I came to realise that her behaviour, out and about, caused me more anxiety and occasional, I regret to say, embarrassment, than was worth the effort.

So, I made a stupid mistake. Some months back, I propositioned (for that is undoubtedly the word) somebody else. Somebody to whom I felt, indeed still feel, a warm affection. But her reaction was not simply a rejection of that proposition as more a horrified and outraged response to it. To the extent that she has not spoken to me, other than of necessity, ever since. And who can blame her. For who would want any part of this situation except for love.

I wrote privately to say that it was better to have tried and failed than simply to have always wondered. One of many communications that provoked no response other than "leave me alone", as indeed did my last attempt earlier this evening before I sat down to write this rather self-indulgent and melancholy blog tonight. Increasingly I regret not simply carrying on as before I recklessly broke the spell for at least then I could always have had the consolation of wondering.

So here I am, having got Mo to bed, sitting on the settee blogging and looking forward to another bleak weekend.

This is hard.