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.

Sunday 24 November 2013

A Poem for the White Paper

This weekend I have swithered about the subject of my blog. I could have written about the inadequacy of the debate on same sex marriage at Holyrood last week where a lightweight minister, unable to answer even the most obvious in advance questions, ended up, despite the best efforts of others on our side, delivering the only victory on the day in the actual vote.

Or, in the aftermath of confirmation that Yes Scotland's computers had not been hacked after all, I could have wondered about how the Nationalist cost/benefit analysis over whether to dump Blair Jenkins before or after Tuesday's White Paper launch would play out. But I feared stepping too easily into "tomorrow's chip paper" territory there.

Or I could have added to the almost universal opprobrium now attaching to an SNP Government's proposal (pace Kinnock, AN SNP GOVERNMENT!) to abolish corroboration, one of the most distinctive features of our independent legal system. I concluded however that I could not possibly hope to outdo our most senior judge, Lord Gill in his evidence to the Parliament this last week.

Or I could have, once again, directed readers to read the small print of the White Paper when it comes to who would control the date of the next Scottish Parliament Election in the event of a Yes vote. But I've done that before

Or finally indeed I could have reviewed David Torrance's book, which I've just finished reading. The recent history and scene setting is exceptionally well done. Even I as a real geek on these matters learned much that I didn't know or at least had forgotten. But I have to say I think it goes badly wrong when it comes to predicting the hypothetical future(s). His belief that there will be amicable resignation, motivated by enlightened self-interest, to the result, on either side and  in the event of either potential result, seems to me to be hopelessly optimistic. Rather I suspect the aftermath will be much more bloody than anything that has gone before with both Yes and No camps bitterly internally divided over how to react to (either) outcome. For that reason I will come back to this in the near future. Instant reaction is probably a mistake anyway.

So, in the end, I've rather run out of topics and as I often do on such occasions I've decided to give my readers a bit of culture. Not a painting this time but a poem. One of my favourites.

 I dedicate it to the SNP rank and file who have dragged Eck so far and so reluctantly to this point. 

The Charge of the Light Brigade. By Alfred, Lord Tennyson
Half a league, half a league,
Half a league onward,
All in the valley of Death
   Rode the six hundred.
“Forward, the Light Brigade!
Charge for the guns!” he said.
Into the valley of Death
   Rode the six hundred.

“Forward, the Light Brigade!”
Was there a man dismayed?
Not though the soldier knew
   Someone had blundered.
   Theirs not to make reply,
   Theirs not to reason why,
   Theirs but to do and die.
   Into the valley of Death
   Rode the six hundred.

Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon in front of them
   Volleyed and thundered;
Stormed at with shot and shell,
Boldly they rode and well,
Into the jaws of Death,
Into the mouth of hell
   Rode the six hundred.

Flashed all their sabres bare,
Flashed as they turned in air
Sabring the gunners there,
Charging an army, while
   All the world wondered.
Plunged in the battery-smoke
Right through the line they broke;
Cossack and Russian
Reeled from the sabre stroke
   Shattered and sundered.
Then they rode back, but not
   Not the six hundred.

Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon behind them
   Volleyed and thundered;
Stormed at with shot and shell,
While horse and hero fell.
They that had fought so well
Came through the jaws of Death,
Back from the mouth of hell,
All that was left of them,
   Left of six hundred.

When can their glory fade?
O the wild charge they made!
   All the world wondered.
Honour the charge they made!
Honour the Light Brigade,
   Noble six hundred!
Share this text ...?

Sunday 17 November 2013

Pam for Falkirk

I had set off on Friday to write a mega blog on the state of the printed media in Scotland. And indeed the world.

As it turned out, through a combination of attending a lecture by Lord Hope on the development of Scottish influence in the Supreme Court on Saturday and then seeing Saints seeing off Ross County for the second time of asking today, the blog wasn't finished anyway.

But, never mind that, my efforts have more urgency tonight.

Falkirk is a mess. It's been a mess since Dennis was bumped off the approved list of candidates in 1998.

The one and only time I was ever looked upon with favour by "the leadership" was when they asked me to stand there at that time. I told them to get lost as Dennis was and remains my comrade, despite his present company. And anyway, any candidate against Dennis would have got gubbed.

But in 2007 Dennis announced he would be standing down and I did throw my hat into the Labour ring. With Dennis's support. And that of Campbell Christie. But not, unfortunately, the support of the local cooncillor whose immediate family made up a majority of the residual Party membership. And who, understandably, intended to vote for him. Blood is thicker than water.

However, in that process I met, for the very first time, a remarkable young woman, Pam Duncan. I'm sorry if that sounds patronising but at the time I was entitled to patronise her. For I was a many times rejected Labour Candidate and she was just a wee lassie having her first go.

But, and I say this in absolutely sincerity, in all my failed attempts to be a Labour Candidate, there is only one occasion on which, given a vote myself, I would have voted for somebody else. And this was it.

She is in a wheelchair. And as somebody in a wheelchair she is a disability rights campaigner. As she is entitled, indeed obviously, should be. But, once she is in company who see no reason to penalise her for that, she seeks no further favour. She is, and I can pay her no greater compliment than this, a Labour woman. One of ours. Just that.

So, Falkirk Labour members. I ask you this. No harm to your local woman councillor but do you think she would even have even a chance anywhere else? No harm to Karen Whitefield but having lost one safe Labour seat.......No harm to Monica Lennon, who undoubtedly will get a better chance elsewhere and deserve it.

When people cast their vote here I ask them this. We want rid of Eric Joyce. And we want to hold this seat. But who is the only candidate with whom the Labour Party would call, with any real sincerity, for Joyce to immediately resign?

Pam for Falkirk. It is staring us in the face.

Wednesday 13 November 2013

A Change of Tack?

In 2009, while I was at the Law Society, we held a Conference to mark ten years of the Scottish Parliament.

We secured, if I say it myself, a stellar line up of speakers. Jack McConnell, Jim Wallace, David McLetchie, Jim Sillars and many others.

And we were obviously wanted a Minister of the then Government. Who, after a bit of coming and going, proved to be Mike Russell.

He came and went like most of the other contributors that day. But, unlike the others, he did not come and go alone. For he arrived in a Government car and with an entourage of SPADS and Civil Servants.

I make no criticism of that, for it reminded me, on the day, of a similar experience when big Donald spoke as (still then) Secretary of State for Scotland at the last big Scottish Labour Action event held in early 1998 on the topic of a Labour Agenda for the Scottish Parliament. Then, he spoke, and then as he left the hall seemed to be followed by the entire first two rows of the audience.

There is, it has to be conceded, a certain.....grandeur...that goes with being a Minister of the Crown appearing on official business. And a certain authority to your remarks that exceeds even that of the most distinguished opposition politicians.

I have been surprised to date as to how little use of this phenomenon the SNP has made use of in the Referendum Campaign.

For all they are an entire Government committed to securing Scottish Independence you would have thought from their public utterances that it was a matter only of real interest to Eck and Nicola (and not even all the time to Eck). The other Ministers are apparently mainly interested in running their Departments, even if that was framed by a requirement to run them as quietly as possible for fear of frightening the horses. “Freedom” is to be placed more in the hands who see Independence only as a precursor to the more general revolutionary overthrow of capitalism. Those who would make their argument on the street, or at least up Calton hills or Glasgow statues.

Patently this isn’t working, notwithstanding Panelbase polls commissioned by Wings over Scotland.

So the decision of Kenny McAskill to do an extended interview on Scotland Tonight on Justice Policy represents an interesting change of tactic.

Kenny is a manifestly competent minister. He might be a bit authoritarian for my taste but he will, I say with confidence in advance, be seen to be manifestly “on top of his brief”. Even on the issue on which we would most fundamentally (currently) disagree, the abolition of the requirement of corroboration for a criminal conviction, he has an argument to make and I am sure he will make it well. No harm to STV but it would be better if he was up against a (non-political) lawyer on this point.

The wider point is however this. At the end of the programme, lots of viewers at home will be thinking “I might not agree with that guys politics/nationalism but he certainly seemed to know what he was talking about.” A reaction from the neutral seldom enjoyed by the various “collectives” around the fringes of the Yes Scotland debacle.

And I’m sure a similar imprimatur would be bestowed on Mike Russell on Education, Keith Brown on Transport or even Richard Lochhead who is I am told similarly competent in a policy area of which I have little knowledge and only slightly more interest.*

If I was advising the SNP I’d say this was the way to go. “These people are competently running the Country at the moment. Give them more power.” Crucially, that also sends a signal  that Scotland, post independence, would not be expected to spend all day Saturday marching up and down outraged about something before going home to find Strictly had been replaced on the SBC with a two hour monologue by Alan Bissett about why we should all hate the English. Instead, the same, quietly competent people would still be in charge.

I wonder if Kenny’s appearance tonight means that Yes Scotland, under new leadership, has reached the same conclusion.

*Obviously there are exceptions that prove the rule but the internal politics of the SNP seem to prevent Alex Neil being thrown out of office as the useless clown that he is. Nonetheless  Governments in the end, decide who gets on the telly and who doesn’t so presumably that could be managed.

Saturday 9 November 2013

Barnard Hedger

Being a general practitioner of the law brings all sorts of business to your door.

Perhaps ten years ago an elderly man who was already a client presented at my door. We had sold a house for him; bought another house; made a will. The sort of solid citizen return client on which all family solicitors rely.

I knew little about him beyond the business we had done on his behalf but he came with a problem. One about which he was clearly distressed well beyond the financial issues involved.

His hearing was poor, he explained. Always had been. And his family kept telling him it might be something to do with what he had done in the war. So, eventually, he had applied for a War Pension. And he had been refused that pension, not because his deafness was in any doubt but because the official record showed him to be a deserter. And that distressed him well beyond, indeed out of all proportion to, the fifteen or twenty quid a week that might have come with the pension.

For in early 1945 he had been in Italy. The War was ending but the Allies were still south of the Apennines and had yet to break through to what Napoleon, one hundred and fifty years before, had described as the richest and most fertile plain in Europe. To Milan and to victory in Italy at least.

So fighting still required to be done.  And my client, then a sergeant in the Eighth Army, in pursuit of victory had been charged with assaulting a German pillbox. In which enterprise he had been badly wounded. So badly wounded that his hearing would never recover.

But what happened next was what had caused his grief more than fifty years later. For he was evacuated to a military hospital in Perugia. Where he remained when the War in Europe ended.

And there he was visited by his Officer. The Regiment was to be repatriated to the UK through Naples, he explained, and they were there to take him along. Except the medical staff would not let him go, for he was still not recovered from his wounds. But my man didn’t want to stay in Italy. He wanted to be back in England. For an Englishman, even fifty years later in my office, he undoubtedly remained.

So, in the middle of the night, by pre arrangement with his comrades, he was smuggled out of the hospital in Perugia and driven, in a jeep, to Naples and from there taken home on a troopship.

Now, here I want to stop for a bit of reflection. For I know this geography myself. It is a long way from Perugia to Naples. A long way in an air conditioned, modern suspension, car, travelling in good health and good spirit on modern autostradas.

God knows what that journey was like for a seriously wounded man in a rattly jeep on bomb damaged roads. But it was regarded as journey worth it to get home.

Except even then that is not the end of the story. For although he got home, for my man, the war wasn’t over. His regiment returned to the UK only to be told they would be shipping out to finish off the Japanese. And he remained unfit to fight. So they set off without him, leaving him on a base in the West Country.

And then the war ended. With the regiment no further than Gibraltar. From where, he was advised by telegram, they were to be demobbed. And from where he was, after a further exchange of telegrams, advised that he might as well go home. The war was over.

And so he went home. Although in circumstances I never learned the details of, home eventually became Cumbernauld Village in Scotland and a post war career ended up being in the Prison Service.

From which position, as I hope my even my most leftist and even republican followers will excuse me from observing, he retired believing himself to be a lifelong and loyal servant of the Queen.

Until somebody suggested he might claim a war pension for his deafness.

Now, I would like to tell you that this story has a happy ending. Except that it doesn’t. I did what I could in correspondence with the Ministry of Defence and the regimental archive. My man’s son found the officer who had driven the jeep, still alive in a nursing home, but his memory had gone.

Since I know Perugia, love it perhaps more than any other City in Italy, and am aware that as part of the Italian red belt it would put on a real reception for any veteran of that period, I suggested I might look at organising that. Only to be told my client that he had no desire to ever to set foot in Italy again. Which left me looking pretty small.

And then he died.

For, increasingly, they are all dead: My Uncle Bobby, who was evacuated not from Dunkirk but Dieppe and who saw no further active service as a result of his “bad chest”; my Uncle Adam, who served in RAF Groundcrew in Egypt, where, if asked at family gatherings, he never failed to tell you there were only two classes “The filthy rich and the just plain filthy”; my dad who as a Fleet Air Arm observer, managed to defeat the Germans and the Japanese (and have the medals to prove it) without ever being closer to Germany than Edinburgh or Japan than the Suez Canal.

We have no idea of the experience of these people. We, today, know only of “abroad” as involving foreign locals mediated, if necessary,  through an English speaking guide. And, even then, of foreign locals not ill disposed towards us. And even, even then we only know the war experience of those who survived it.

But I come back at the end to my client. It is one of the rules of my game that you can’t identify the client. But sometimes rules are made to be broken. It is thanks to people like him that we are tonight sitting in comfort watching the Service of Remembrance. Even those who are moaning about it without fear of reprisal.

My client's name was Barnard Hedger. He should have got his pension.

Sunday 3 November 2013

Why does Our Lady wear blue?

If you go into virtually any Catholic Church anywhere in the world there will be a statue of Our Lady. "Holy Mary, Mother of God" as the Ave Maria has it. Now, as I've already long since confessed, I'm not personally absolutely convinced of the literal truth of that.

But the one thing of which I can be certain is that in each, every one, of these statues, Our Lady will be wearing blue. For blue is the colour of the Virgin.

There is no biblical justification for this, even in the apocrypha. Nonetheless, if you take yourself off onto the internet you'll find any number of explanations as to its rationale.

The bizarrely rational: That blue was "traditionally" worn by "virgins" in first century Palestine which would make sense except that it has no basis in fact whatsoever; or that she wears blue because her wean was a boy (where to start)

The simply nonsensical; that blue is the colour of the sky, as indeed it is, and......; or indeed of the sea (of which she is the star), as indeed it is.

Or even the attempted theological. That blue is the colour of serenity (why?) or virginity (chickens and eggs are now coming to mind).

No, the real reason is altogether more mundane. The reason Our Lady Lady always wears blue is that in Italian renaissance art she was easily the most revered female figure. She had to wear something and, according to the thinking of those commissioning art at the time, surely there was no more proof of their devotion than to clothe her in the most expensive colour available? And there was no more expensive colour than blue, which could then be derived only from crushing and then making a paste from the semi-precious lapus lazuli stone.

Thus, from Giotto to Caravaggio, via all points in between, Our Lady wears blue. And,  since these images came to dominate all Catholic iconography by virtue of their connections to the Papal See in Rome, in time she wore blue everywhere. Even in Germany and the low countries where, to start with, (in painting) she had often worn red.

Now, you may be asking, what relevance does any of this have to politics? None at all except for my reference to those who seek to invent explanations or connections and simply end up making things up (or guessing) to justify conclusions they themselves have already reached.

The SNP has always been a broad church united by a belief in Scottish Independence, even if not quite in the definition of what is meant by independence.

And long term Nationalists generally accept that your "other" politics can be right, left or centre and you yet be entitled to support the "greater" cause. Some even believe, alongside Stephen Noon, that there would be no long term function for the SNP once independence was accomplished.

But the referendum has brought to the forefront a curious new group. Many seem to me to be late converts to their own cause and, a bit like many converts, they bring with them a particular, often an irrational, zeal. Their particular obsession is to try and establish that there is some natural connection between their (self perceived at least) wider leftist view of the world and their support for independence. This is not, for the avoidance of doubt, the longstanding view held by some that independence would serve the interests of the left. That's not a view I agree with but it seems to be one that can rationally be held and defended. No, these people I write of are ones who have come to  believe that independence is per se a left wing project and thus that those of us on the left who do not support it are somehow traitors to our own cause.

The problem with this is (and here, I accept, this is possibly due to their later arrival to the argument) this is not only to misunderstand the history of the Labour Party it is also to misunderstand the history of the SNP.

When the founders of the National Party of Scotland split from the Labour Party in 1928 it was precisely because they had been unable to persuade their former comrades of the virtues of Independence (as opposed to what was then called "Home Rule") for Scotland. And the National Party of Scotland was an avowedly left wing organisation. But when it merged with the equally avowedly right wing Scottish Party to form the SNP in 1934 that was in recognition that Nationalism had no wider colour. And indeed, to the extent that is true in Scotland, we should be grateful for it. For Twentieth Century European examples of left wing nationalism are, at the very least, hugely outweighed by some particularly nasty right wing ones. While the SNP under Donaldson and Young undoubtedly dipped their toe in that water, thankfully they never dived in.

But, more to the point of this argument, the Labour Party and the wider Labour Movement in Scotland have never been in favour of Independence and it is therefore entirely in keeping with our history and traditions for that to be our position in 2014 as much as it was in 1928 or indeed when the original Scottish Labour Party of 1888 dissolved itself into a wider UK movement immediately on the formation of the (then) Independent Labour Party in 1894.

Now it seems to me perfectly acceptable to argue, even if I do not agree, that the Labour Party is no longer a left wing party but it is difficult to maintain an argument that it never was. And even though I would equally disagree, it is also even sustainable to argue that the Labour Party "ought", for whatever reason, in 2014 to be in favour of independence or even ought always to have been. That is presumably what the departees did before leaving in 1928.

What is not acceptable is to try and re-write history. And yet this is not just confined to the wilder fringes of cybernattery. My particular bete noir of the moment is an organisation calling itself the Jimmy Reid Foundation. Now, I do not deny that, at the end of his life, Reid became a convert to independence. But, unlike those who would appropriate his memory for their own ends, I have a more rounded view of his life. Jimmy Reid came close to being elected to Parliament only once. That was in 1979 when he stood as the Labour candidate in Dundee East. And he failed entirely because the SNP incumbent and his Party ran a vicious red scare smear campaign against the "ex-communist" that would have caused hesitation even, I suspect, within the editorial ranks of the Daily Mail. All justified "in the cause of Scotland". Not one acknowledgement of this has ever been given by those now running a foundation in his name as they tour the country giving leftier than thou lectures to the rest of us. Indeed although the Dundee candidacy is mentioned on his potted biography on their website, no mention is even given of the Party who beat him, let alone the tactics that they used.

My point is only this. Scottish Nationalism and progressive views about other social issues are no more automatically connected than Our Lady is automatically connected to the colour blue. No matter what specious arguments are advanced to the contrary.

Sunday 27 October 2013

Credibility is Everything: The Yes Scotland Declaration

For the second time in a month I have had my blog stolen! I wrote, briefly, at the end of September about how my three quarter written blog on the abolition of corroboration had been comprehensively pre-empted on the eve of publication by Lallands Peat Worrier, to the extent that my own thoughts on the matter could only have appeared at the risk of allegations of plagiarism.

And today it has happened again, albeit from a different source. For my intention in this Sunday blog had been to follow up what I'd said about our Dunfermline Campaign on Friday, and to try and address the extent to which both universalism and current local government funding needed to be reviewed by Scottish Labour if we were to have a credible policy platform in 2016. But, as it turns out, I've once again been beaten to it, this time by Kate Higgins at Burdzeyeview who, albeit writing from a (semi-detached) Nationalist perspective, covers the same territory so comprehensively that all that would be left for me would be to reach different conclusions.

I will return to that topic but only when recollection of Kate's piece has faded a bit from the memory of my potential readers!

But I'm left instead scratching about for a topic and have resolved on the old standby of having a go at the opposition when they set off down on a patently absurd course and then quietly hope everybody will forget about it.

Purely from the detached perspective of a political hack of thirty-nine years standing I was utterly bemused as to why, at the launch of Yes Scotland on 25th May 2012, the ambition was declared of securing one million signatures to the Yes Scotland Declaration. It struck me as something which could only have been thought up by somebody with no knowledge of electoral politics for it was something that was always going to be impossible to achieve.

Let me frame this in entirely Nationalist terms. There are Four  Million people, more or less, entitled to vote in the Referendum. In reality, somewhere between two and a half and three million will actually vote. let's split the difference and suggest 2,750.000. So to win the Nationalists would need 1,375,001 votes. Let's even concede them, for this purpose, a big win. 1,500,000 votes.

To get one million signatures to the petition would then require persuading two thirds of these people not only to vote yes but to (semi) publicly (I'll come back to that) declare individually an intention to do so in advance.

Now, here I simply ask a question of all hardened Party activists? Has any of our respective Parties ever achieved that degree of voter identification, even in the most marginal of seats, worked intensively over years and even then relying on the fall back of asking in telephone or doorstep canvassing if the views of the elector you're speaking to are shared by the whole household? Of course we haven't. And even then, we are only asking people how they are voting, not to sign in blood to that effect and, what's more, we are mainly relying on telephone contact which makes signing anything physically impossible.

So what persuaded Yes Scotland to set themselves such a patently absurd objective of a million signatures? It is difficult to conclude it was anything other than being completely naive about the realities of political campaigning. I can't imagine if Kevin Pringle had held the position then that he holds today that this would ever have seen the light of day. Nobody has ever suggested that the modern SNP don't know how to fight elections. I remain completely puzzled why they initially entrusted their most important election ever to such rank amateurs.

But the more interesting thing is what has happened since.

Firstly, almost immediately, the declaration became something less than a declaration. In common sense usage, a declaration is something with which you are prepared to be publicly identified. We all know who signed the Declaration of Arbroath; The US Declaration of Independence or indeed the Declaration (proclamation) of Ireland's Provisional Republic. Very quickly however it was announced that the identities of those who had signed the Declaration of Cineworld would remain secret. Three reasons have since been given for this. The first was that this was always the intention, although that rather contradicts the public nature of the first signatures on the day  and might have been expected to have been said on the day rather than several weeks later. The second was that to make the names of the signatories public would only alert the "unionists" to the strength of their opponents, although most people would think that was precisely the point of a Declaration. The third was that some people would want to sign who could not be identified publicly as supporters of any political cause by reason of their employment. That of course is marginally true but while it might justify an option for a signatory to ask that their name not being publicised, it hardly justifies downgrading the original apparent intention of the whole exercise.

But more interesting still is what has happened since. At the end of September 2012, Eck announced at the first March and Rally for Independence that 100,000 had signed up. That seemed to the outside an entirely credible claim (even if from a normally dubious source). The first one tenth of the number required was always going to be the low hanging fruit. All of the SNP's membership and most of those of their minor Party allies. And most of those true believers prepared to approach a street stall or go on-line in both the good weather and the first flush of enthusiasm. But the very fact that even then, only 100,000 had signed in the first four months showed the impossible scale of the overall task. The assumption, I think all round, was that this would be something, in time, quietly forgotten about.

And indeed that appeared to be the case until, in a bizarre development, on 24th May 2013, Yes Scotland announced that precisely 372,103 (secret) people had signed their Declaration. "What?" I hear you ask. Having only got 100,000 in the first four months, an average of 135,000 had then signed in each of the further two four month periods since. Through the depths of the Winter when face to face contact with any electors is at its most difficult? Really? Was anybody actually expected to believe this?

I suspect at this point even the SNP realised that such absurd claims were damaging their credibility for there have been no mention of any numbers since. Notably even as Nicola made her equally outlandish claims as to those in actual attendance at this Year's March and Rally.

Now here I want to finish with some advice. It would have greatly cheered my Labour readers if I'd blogged last Sunday on my return from Dunfermline that I expected a Labour landslide. But it would have so clashed with the actual feeling of those with experience on the ground that it would have been rightly dismissed as cheerleading. And cheerleading has never won any election. Whereas making claims that lack all credibility has lost more than a few.

So, if, as I suspect, we will hear no more about the Yes Scotland Declaration then I suspect the hidden hand of Kevin Pringle might, once again, be at work

Friday 25 October 2013

Dunfermline digested

My  Report from the front line last Sunday stands up pretty well in light of the final result.

The only real error was in miscalculating how the Libs would do. although amidst what was a poor poor result for them, we shouldn't lose sight of the fact that, even then, they still beat the Tories.

I  was also perhaps a little pessimistic about the turnout, although all Parties should pause to think a bit about describing 42.75% as " better than expected".

Now, as a supporter of the People's Party, I should, on one view, just sit back and bask in what was a (reasonably) good result but I have to say I have  pretty substantial reservations about just doing that.

What exactly was the Labour message? Essentially that our candidate was personable enough and lived locally, that we were a bit more generally organised than 2011 and that we were opposed to Scottish Independence which, everybody on both sides knows, is really not very popular . And, surprise surprise, that was enough to win in Dunfermline as no doubt it would have been had the by-election been in Paisley or Clydebank or Airdrie or Cathcart or any number of other seats that we should never have lost in the first place.

But the problem is that we lost these seats in 2011 from the already losing position of 2007. We could get them all back, more or less, in 2016 and, unless the Libs experience a recovery that would astonish even Lazarus, it is difficult to see how that would lead to (even a minority) Labour Administration.

And, by 2016, we won't even have two of the three cards that we played in Dunfermline. Personable local candidates are all very well but they do not per se provide the material from which to form a Government and unless the Nats decided on a collective suicide pact around "having another go", by 2016 Independence won't be on anybody's (immediate) agenda. Indeed on both these points, objectively, the Nationalists could even be strengthened by 2016. They will still have the same technocratically competent Ministerial team, perhaps even improved by the departure of some of their old guard "their life's work failed" and the removal of the Marmite figure of Alex Salmond. They will also have the card they always hold of being seen to be best placed to "stand up for Scotland". It's all very well for us (and the Libs and the Tories) to protest that this is either completely meaningless or, if it is not, is equally true of all Scottish political parties. Just as any amount of wishful thinking by the SNP won't make Independence any more popular, no amount of wishful thinking by us will ever deprive the SNP of that "patriotic" advantage in the context of a purely Scottish election.

No, if Labour wants to get back in 2016 we need to have a policy offer and nothing in Dunfermline indicated that we are any closer to that.

I might write more about this at the weekend but for the moment I will finish with a football analogy. Diehard football fans like to see their team play attractive football but not if the price paid for that is to get beat. So for those ever loyal to the Labour cause the big thing in Dunfermline was to win. And we certainly got our result. More occasional supporters however place a greater premium on entertainment. And if, week in week out, they are not enjoying the product then they eventually find something else to do on a Saturday afternoon. Even if the team is winning.

Wednesday 23 October 2013

Sometimes You're just beat

Sometime's you're just beat.

Karl Marx famously observed that the value of labour is the source of all wealth. And of course he was right.

A Modern Fairy Tale

A long long time ago, in a country far far away there was a great city in a verdant valley between great mountains. And the city had great natural resources, among them abundant vineyards from which was produced the most wonderful wine. And many men made a living from carrying that wine in pigs bladders from door to door and for a few fraction of a groat selling the wine to the city's inhabitants.

Till, one day, a wine seller went to a particular house where he had in the past enjoyed much custom. "I would love to buy your wine" advised the lady of the house, "but we do not have a beaker between us from which to drink it." "But why?" replied the wine seller.

The lady responded "Beakers are only sold by pedlars from beyond the mountains. And they are very expensive, two Groats each. We are poor people and, our beakers having all been broken, we cannot afford others." And the wine seller went on his way. Until he met the same story a few doors later and over the next few days found it repeated many times. And the wine seller found himself worrying for his future, for if people wouldn't buy his wine, for want of beakers, how would he feed his children. Of which he had many, as wine selling opened a number of opportunities.

Then, suddenly one night he found himself dreaming of the words of the prophet Rahm Emanuel. Every crisis is an opportunity. And he remembered his friend Jimmy the baker, a man who he remembered had travelled across the mountains as a young man. "Jimmy" he inquired the next day, "I don't suppose you know how to make beakers?" "Of course I do," replied Jimmy, "you take some clay, you shape it into a beaker and you then fire it in a kiln."

"Clay? A kiln?" inquired the wine seller? Jimmy looked quizzical at his friends ignorance. "Clay is that red mud you find by every river and a kiln," and with this he turned smiling towards his bread oven.

A week and a few other free drinks later exchanged with Jimmy and others for information, the wine seller returned to the baker with a question. "How much would you charge me for ten beakers, clay included?" The baker thought for a moment "The clay is free, it just needs collected from the river so......Five Groats" he replied. And when would you need paid, my old, old friend?" the wine-seller continued. "For a month" and with that they shook hands.

For, in the interim the wine seller had returned to his (former) customers with a proposition. "I know you like my wine but have no means to drink it. Suppose I could sell you not only wine but a beaker to drink it from, for, perhaps"....pause...", a Groat a beaker?" And a lot of other hands had been shaken.

One month later the baker and the wine seller sat down for a glass of wine. Ten beakers had been produced and sold. The wine seller gave the baker his five Groats and suggested that perhaps next month's order might extend to fifty beakers at the same price. The baker nodded in agreement even though he was slightly disquieted for reasons he couldn't quite put his finger on. He wasn't reassured when, at the door, his friend asked for a Groat for the baker's share of the cost of their wine.

[We stop for a Marxist gloss. Marx says that the source of all wealth is the value of labour and the evil of capitalism the exploitation of its surplus value. From the story so far, on one view, the view broadly of the left, the wine-seller was sitting with five groats profit for having persuaded the baker to sell him ten groats worth of beakers for five groats. On the other view however, broadly the view of the right, had the wine-seller not identified the market and found the first ten customers then there would never have been the need for any beaker manufacture. The wine-seller would then have no extra groats, the baker would have no extra groats and the potential beaker customers would have no beakers. For what it's worth the beaker customers would at least still have a groat each but, this being (very) primitive capitalism, they would have nothing else to spend their groat on. Except wine. Which they had no means of drinking. But Marx is right on either view. For the clay, still inert in the ground, has no value. So the wealth here has been created by the value of the baker's labour, in making beakers, combined with the value of the wine-seller in primitive development, sales and marketing. Whether the division of the spoils is "fair" is must await the next bit of the story.]

Twelve months later, the baker was dead. A (primitive) intellectual property dispute having arisen, both he and his one time friend, the wine seller, had sought in vain for (primitive) corporate lawyers. So, instead they had sat down for a reconciliatory glass. After which, in circumstances never entirely satisfactorily explained, the baker had been found floating in the river in a form of (primitive) "alternative dispute resolution".

At the funeral, the wine-seller approached the baker's family. "I'm so sorry" he explained. "I thought he had had too much to drink to go swimming but he simply wouldn't see sense. Anyway, you'll be needing some money. I wouldn't insult you with charity but perhaps I could buy your father's kiln for, shall we say, ten groats? I've always wanted to try making my own bread."

"That's very generous" replied the baker's widow, "but how, wine seller, will my sons make a living?" The wine seller paused. "I will find them something." The widow was moved to tears: "How could the Baker family ever thank you wine seller?"

"There is no need for thanks, but I think you mean not the Baker family but the Beaker family...... and perhaps I misheard you when you called me Wine Seller, when of course you meant to call me the Boss".

And the widow nodded.

Twenty years later, the Boss had become a big wheel in the beaker market and had long since stopped selling wine. He was now selling 10,000 beakers a month, not just in the city and not just for wine and he employed 1,000 beaker makers, not all called Beaker. At the end of each month they had their five Groats each and he had, eh, 5,000 Groats. The subsistence of that first original supply agreement between him and the baker  might have looked, to the outside, a bit unfair had there been a (primitive) free press or indeed a (primitive) democratic assembly with a (primitive) social democratic administration. That might indeed have prompted demands for a (primitive) minimum wage. But, of course, this being a primitive society none of these things existed. So the Beakers and their similarly employed non-namesakes were on their own.

But then, one day, one Beaker, with a particularly large family, went to the Boss and complained he was struggling to feed his family. Could I not, he asked, be paid six groats for every ten beakers? The Boss pondered. He could easily have given this one man his six groats a month. The Boss would still have 4,999 groats a month but he was conscious that giving this particular Beaker an extra groat would undoubtedly lead to similar demands from others. So he told  him to get lost. As one individual, what could he do? He could go and get another job but that assumed that job would pay more than five Groats a month. And it also assumed that he could find one, particularly if the Boss let it be known in the City that he was a "troublemaker".

So the snubbed Beaker, realising that he has no power on his own, decided the only solution is to enlist the assistance of the other Beakers. Indeed not just the Beakers but of all the beaker makers. "I'm worth more than five groats a month" he told them "and so are we all". "And with his 5,000 Groats a month, the Boss can well afford to pay us that. We should form a Trade Union." And the beaker makers agreed and agreed that their Union demand that every beaker maker be paid six groats a month. Failing which they would withdraw their labour. And the Boss, being a (primitive) Development, Sales and Marketing guy and not unfortunately also a (primitive) HR person told them to get on with it. And a strike followed.

Except that after one month of the strike, while the beaker makers were all five groats worse off the Boss suddenly realised he was 5,000 Groats worse off (he was also not a (primitive) stock control person). And what's more those customers presenting at his factory to buy new beakers were telling him that not only would they go and buy their immediately needed beaker elsewhere, they wouldn't be back to him in the case of future demand for a beaker, now they knew they can't rely on the supply he purported to provide. Indeed there was talk of somebody else setting up another beaker factory, possibly even one run by its workers.

So not only was the Boss worse off he was beginning to realise that his customer base was melting away. And he found himself thinking that 4,000 Groats a month is still a lot of groats and if things went on much longer it might not even be 4,000 Groats a month when the dispute was resolved. So he decided, after all, "in a spirit of magnanimity and recognising that we're all in this together", to concede the Union's demand.

So the beaker makers got their six groats and hailed their own wisdom in joining the Union. And they all lived happily ever after in a spirit of industrial harmony and collective enterprise, more or less........................

Until a hundred years later. Beaker demand is unprecedented. There are 10,000 beaker makers and 100,000 beakers produced every month. And thanks to ever increased power of the Union the beaker makers are being paid nine Groats a month. But the great great grandson of the Boss is collecting 10,000 Groats a month, still twice as much as his forebear. And he loves being called The New Boss. Neither side is entirely happy but both sides can live with it.

And then, one day, a man arrives in the town with a caravan full of beakers. "How much are they?" demand the people. "Three quarters of a Groat each" replies the trader. "How can that be" demand the people, "beakers from beyond the mountains have always been much more expensive?"

"Have you not heard of the new Pass through the mountains that has been found? Or of the famine there that means people will work for bread alone?"

And the people had heard of neither but they knew that the cheaper they could buy their beakers the better. So they bought from the trader and not from the New Boss.

And at the end of the month, The New Boss sat down and looked at the books. He had paid the beaker makers 90,000 Groats but he had sold no beakers. And so he called in the Union.

"This can't go on" he said.

"Why?" replied the Union. The New Boss was puzzled. "Because I am the Boss and the purpose of being the Boss (old or new) is to make money. Not to spend it on beaker makers."

"But you have millions of Groats, all entirely derived from our labours and the labours of of our forefathers."

"Let's just set aside for the moment the issue of the role of entrepreneurship and accept that to be true. So what?"

"You owe us an obligation"

"Let's just to agree to differ on that"

"Alright, what do you suggest?"

"I suggest that if you accept seven groats for ten beakers then we could still turn this round"

"No way, nine Groats is the rate for the job"

"It's not across the mountains"

"What does that matter"

"Tell that to the people not buying our beakers"

And so the Union went on strike. Only the New Boss discovered that while the (old) Boss had been 5,000 Groats a month worse off as a result of a strike, the New Boss was actually 90,000 Groats better off.

And so, one morning, when the beaker makers woke up, they discovered the New Boss had piled all his remaining Groats on to a cart and disappeared over the mountains during the night.

And the beaker makers complained they had been treated appallingly. And they were right for the New Boss had given them no warning. But a lot of good  did their complaints do them. For the people still had beakers. Cheaper beakers than the local beaker makers were prepared to supply. And it was too late now to offer to match that price.

Sunday 20 October 2013

A Report from the front line

I was in Dunfermline today.

There are only two places in Dunfermline with which I am remotely familiar: The Sheriff Court and East End Park. Professionally I am a rare visitor to the former and thanks to the travails of the football club I have regrettably not been a recent visitor to the latter. My memory was that Dunfermline was further away than it actually is and having reached there from Kilsyth in well under an hour I feel rather ashamed that I have not been a more frequent visitor to what has become By-Election City.

Nonetheless, having been, it would be appropriate for me to file a report from the front line.

It is only right that I say these observations are based more on conversations in the Labour Committee rooms than any great feeling on the street. 

In the morning (Sunday morning) my activities were confined entirely and understandably to delivering literature. I met a single voter and hailed him with the immemorial “I trust we can count on your support?" To which he replied “I've just come outside for a cigarette” as if he feared being mistaken for the mythical elector who spontaneously rushes out to embrace his Party’s representative on the street.

In the afternoon we did a knock up in a village just outside the town to hand out pledge cards to those who were already identified as our supporters. In so far as they were in at all, these people were voting Labour. But then we knew that already. As to whether, where I was, their number should have been more or less than it was I simply have no idea. As I’ve already said, I was in Fife, a place that was not as far away as I thought it was but still beyond any informed knowledge of mine. In terms that local activists in Cumbernauld and Kilsyth of all Parties will understand, the Labour identifiers would have been brilliant for Banton but terrible for Croy. Or in Paisley terms, brilliant for Glenburn but terrible for Shortroods.

But what then was the feeling in the Labour Rooms?

After Donside, I wrote a blog suggesting the result was bad news for everybody. This time the feeling is that it might be qualified good news for everybody.

First, us. We look like winning and if, as I observed after Donside, winning is everything, winning in Dunfermline will be important.

I won’t bother with the “but” for it is implied in what follows.

Second, the SNP. Their vote won’t collapse as we had hoped and as “liberal” opinion might have expected to have been their due for having chosen a known domestic abuser as their previous representative and thus, once the rest of us found out what they had known all along, triggering the by-election in the first place. This is important. There is a significant section of the electorate, aside from Independence true believers, who are still not impressed with Labour’s ability to “stand up for Scotland”. If we don’t turn that round by May 2016 then we won’t be back in power. Perhaps we should commission a report from Rhodri Morgan.

Third, the Libs. Ages ago I had a row with a Liberal-Democrat (otherwise) pal over my assertion that they were really no more than a “neither of the above” Party. And, do you know, he may have been right and I may have been wrong. For in May 2011, despite the coalition travails, 20% of Dunfermline’s voters “still” voted Liberal-Democrat. At the start of this campaign both us and the Nats saw these voters as easy pickings. They’ve not been. They may indeed be actual Liberal-Democrats. Comfortably off but with a social conscience. Jings.

And then finally we have the Tories. They have clearly got the best candidate (except, of course, for our own most excellent candidate) but more to the point he (the Tory) might be, I think, the likely beneficiary of a renewed wider confidence. Every other opinion in this blog had to be canvassed by me but, spontaneously, two people volunteered to me that they agreed with my thoughts last week that a (minor) Scottish Tory revival might be under way. We’ll see. They’ve only got 7% but I suspect they may hang on to that.

As for the rest. UKIP will beat the Greens senseless but the Greens days in the sun (or Calton Hill) had already been seen off in Perth this weekend past. The Trots didn’t stand and the Jacobite Candidate will, once again I fear, find himself on the way to Skye disguised in women’s clothing.

So that’s my call. Except for one final and important point. On my way back in the morning I undertook a tour of the town. This was not engaged upon for any political purpose but rather because I got lost and couldn’t find the Sheriff Court or the Football Stadium from which to get my bearings back to the Labour Rooms.

But on that tour, albeit at a Sunday lunchtime, I hardly encountered a place in the midst of a political ferment. Not a single householder had a poster for any Party in their window or garden. Nothing reassured me that Thursday’s turnout would be anything but derisory.

In so far as there is a crisis in our politics it is not a constitutional crisis but a democratic one. A crisis of disengagement. And against that background I fear that on Thursday coming, while we are all winners, we will all be losers as well.