Sunday 30 June 2013

Project Fear

I like a bit of black humour so I was actually quite amused by the suggestion that an internal nickname for the Better Together campaign was "project fear". What appears not to be a joke is the suggestion that Yes Scotland is now describing itself as "project hope" as if that becomes an argument.

Sometimes it is perfectly logical to be afraid. Of, for example, poisonous snakes or axe murderers. The only way hope is any useful counter weapon is in the sense that you hope not to encounter either peril.  If you are unlucky enough to have that initial hope defeated then no amount of "I'm not afraid" rhetoric is then of much use to you. Indeed you would be an idiot not to be afraid.

Nothing wrong with a bit of fearmongering.  The whole logic of a criminal justice system is that for some people at least the deterrence of  crime requires the fear of getting the jail. Health education campaigns, for good reason, aim to make people fearful of smoking or excessive drinking. Children are kept safe by parents teaching them to be fearful of certain places or situations.

And equally to respond to any of these well intentioned pieces of fearmongering by insisting there is nothing to be afraid of would just be silly.

There's beginning to be a bit of a trend emerging from the Yes Scotland campaign which is not to complain about the United Kingdom and promote the advantages of Independence but rather to complain about the tactics being used by their opponents while at the same time insisting they are doomed to failure.Stephen Noon was at it mid-week and given the opportunity of a guest spot in today's Scotland on Sunday, Jennifer Dempsie chooses to do the same.

There is, apart  from anything else, no logic to such behaviour. Both Mr Noon and Ms Dempsie presumably want to win the Referendum so if they truly thought their opponents were making a strategic error then the last thing they would want to do would be to point this out. Analysing campaign tactics is, frankly, very much a minority sport but, for the interested minority, complaining about the other sides approach just sounds like a losers lament.

All the more so because accusing everything being said by Better Together as "scaremongering" plays to nobody except the already converted. Where a point has no alleged foundation it should be refuted by argument. More importantly however, at some points there ARE downsides to Independence privately acknowledged even by its strongest supporters. Why not just admit that? It surely increases rather than undermines the credibility of a central argument that the pros outweigh the cons?

There was a perfect example of this today with the advance coverage of next week's Westminster publication dealing with Posts and Telecommunications. There were two points at issue. The first., relating to mobile phone charges seemed, even to me, to be pretty pish. Cross border tariffs operate elsewhere because there are different providers in each country. Nobody, as far as I know, is proposing that here and, even if they were, the EU is in the process of abolishing cross border charges. So that could have been easily dealt with. The problem was that the strength of the refutation on that was undermined  by the decision to go on to denounce the issue of increased postal charges as similar "scaremongering". No it's not. Simple logic dictates that providing a universal service to a country with a population density of 67 people per square kilometre  will be more expensive than providing it to a country with a population density of 257 people per square kilometre. That's not political argument, it's an arithmetical one. So why can't the Nationalists just concede that? Even I can see that a few pence on a postage stamp is likely to put off very few of the current faithful or even deter many of the undecided. "I was persuaded of the merits of Independence until I realised what it would mean for the price of postage stamps" hardly sounds a likely train of thought.

Now, I know I myself am falling into the trap of giving the "other side" advice but the difficulty they are getting into with this constant "there will be no downside at all" argument is that it fatally undermines their credibility. All taxes will be lower  or at worse the same. All public services will be the same or better. I was going to say nobody believes that, but that's untrue because some of the more deranged cybernats clearly do. So I'll say no thinking person believes that. Including the leadership of the SNP.

The making of any big decision involves the weighing of  positive and negative factors. That's what those yet undecided will do on 18th September next year. Who they are more likely to afford credibility to in that process is surely the only relevant question for either campaign.

Sunday 23 June 2013

Just about a poem

This afternoon I went out for a Sunday walk. I haven’t done that for a few weeks as, in a uniquely Scottish way, the weather has either been too good to leave the garden or too bad to go out at all.

Today it was neither. The air was still to the point almost of ghostliness and the sky was not so much pregnant with rain as well past its expected date of confinement. But it stayed dry.

There is great walking round here for the casual participant and today I walked out alongside Dumbreck Marsh and then up and along the canal. And, as is my wont on such occasions, I selected music from the iPod to match my mood. Today that was Mahler. Melancholic, reflective and just slightly apprehensive about the future for reasons I couldn’t quite put my finger on.

It is of course High Summer and the wild flowers were in their full glory: banks and banks of long stemmed buttercups but other blooms of all possible colours and at one point, almost like a religious visitation, an isolated cluster of giant daisies standing out in their white spectrally against the verdant background.

The stillness and humidity meant that by the canal it was an insect paradise but also heralded a feast day for the swallows that swept over and among the water lilies. Where also swam ducks and ducklings and every mile or so pairs of swans with their now adolescent cygnets. Except at one point, where one pair of swans rested unaccompanied by offspring, one neck laid against the other, in acknowledgement, I feared, of the intervention of a fox or some other earlier tragedy.

See, I said I was in a melancholy mood.

When I came back, the threat of rain seemed to have receded somewhat and I started, at least, to write this blog in the garden, where the sun occasionally broke through the crowds and the small wind which had by now arisen, gently blew the bloom off my laburnum trees, carpeting the lawn in yellow.

But I’m not really in the mood for politics so I thought instead that in keeping with my mood I would write instead about a poem, one of my favourites, albeit with a somewhat tortuous title.

I’m a great Yeats man and this poem contains one of his most telling observations. “The innocent and the beautiful have no enemy but time."

Both women featured in the poem had fascinating lives. Markiewicz was of course the first woman to be elected to the British Parliament while Gore-Booth was a pioneering feminist and as openly gay as anybody was allowed to be in the early part of the twentieth century. But Yeats’ subject was not their achievements but rather how politics ruined their lives by reason of the failure of the vision of society they had both earlier anticipated.

And I suppose my own thoughts on that, and advice to the many bright and endearing young people on both sides of the Independence debate, are just that. Don’t let politics ruin your lives. There are more important things.

Bid me light a match and blow.

Friday 21 June 2013

A Bad Result for Everybody

Bit of a strange afternoon as everybody else here has gone off to see one of the staff getting married leaving me to hold the fort but, with no clients, little or nothing to do.

So I thought I might as well rattle off a wee Friday blog about the Donside by-election. Which, in my opinion was a bad result for all the major Parties involved.

I say all the major Parties because I can't really comment on how the Scottish Christian Party feel about their 222  votes, you'd need to ask them.

To the more serious players however, in reverse order.

First, the non-runner. Where was the SSP? There was indeed no ultra-left candidate, presumably because they didn't have the resources. Or perhaps they were too busy being an "important" part of the Yes Scotland coalition.

And then to those who did, at least, start.

Everybody seemed, out of politeness, just to ignore what was an appalling result for the Greens, much closer to the self same Scottish Christian Party than to any of the proper also rans. I do struggle to explain this. The Greens seem to me to  be the only Party with a really distinctive current policy offering for the Parliament and many of their ideas seem to me to have support at least among liberal middle class opinion. It's probably fair to say that all the other Parties think, in equity, that they ought to do better. But they don't . One for Patrick Harvie to explain. He may also have to explain to his chums in Yes Scotland what exactly he's bringing to their party.  It certainly doesn't seem to be votes

Which brings me to the new kids on the block, UKIP. This was a problem of expectation. Their 1,128     votes certainly kills off the idea that they are completely irrelevant in Scotland, unless that same argument is to be deployed against the Greens, but if it was to be a platform on which to build it is a pretty ramshackle one. Given their success elsewhere, again the question however must be why? There is undoubtedly some truth in the assertion that they have allowed themselves to be portrayed as an exclusively English Party and that such a perception is toxic in Scottish politics. That remains the Tories major problem. But it is surely also that if you, as a Donside voter, were inclined to a distaste for foreigners, uncosted policy promises and populist leadership then there was another, more obvious, recipient for your vote.

Then we have the Tories. Started third. Finished fourth. Enough said.

And so on to the Libs. At first glance they might be the only ones with a justifiable claim to real progress. An increased vote share and an improved place. Except that the increase was only on that vote achieved in the annus horribilis of 2011 and still only to 8.3%. This is an area where the traditional Liberal support was c.15%. Still, I fear, a long way to go.

Thus to the final two. I can do the old "great result" spin. Increased share, 9% swing, "one of the SNP's safest seats" etc etc. All true. But its also true that people rarely remember who came second. And I think there is something that needs to be said about that. Labour now chooses Westminster Parliamentary by-election candidates with considerable care. Emma Lewell-Buck, the local social worker who held South Shields for us with ease in what could have been a difficult contest, was a perfect fit for the seat. But she wouldn't have been any fit at all in, for example, Cambridge.

Labour rushed into candidate selection in Donside and chose the person the Party would have liked to have been the MSP if the electorate hadn't been a feature. But the electorate were a feature and the choice of any local councillor was surely something that should have been given some more thought. It might not be fair, but people seldom have a good word for the Council anywhere. Labour can hardly be to blame for all the inadequacies perceived in Aberdeen Council,  not least since we've only recently returned to power. Nonetheless by choosing a councillor as the candidate we inevitably invited our opponents to seize on this, so that what was meant to be a contest about the direction of the Holyrood Parliament ended up focusing on the adequacy of a roundabout and the need or otherwise for some local school closures. That was never going to be favourable ground for us but we had invited our opponents on to it.

Further, any victory by us would inevitably have sought to rely on tactical anti-independence votes from Liberals and, I don't mind admitting, even some Tories. The least likely magnet for that would be a tribalist Labour Candidate. Nothing wrong with Labour tribalists, I'm one myself but to continue my racing metaphor, you need the right horse for a particular course. These decisions are too important to be taken by local activists, in a hurry and without some assistance in the responsibility of their decision making. Hopefully that's a lesson learnt.

And so to the victors, the spoils. The reason this was a bad result for the Nationalists wasn't really the fact that they lost a quarter of their vote share. It's mid term and it seems common ground that Brian Adam had a significant personal vote. No, the reason it was a bad result for the SNP was that in order to hold on to what was their eleventh safest seat they nonetheless had to disavow the suggestion that voting for them had anything to do with Independence. Voters were encouraged  to support them as a mark of respect to Brian Adam; to keep the Council; Tax freeze and indeed to do something (never really quite explained what) about this bloody roundabout. All very well, except that if they couldn't sell separation in their eleventh safest seat then it hardly bears out the "secret private polling" boasted of by Yes Scotland. Sure, the Referendum is still a year away but the "plenty of time" argument is beginning to wear a bit thin. And getting thinner.

But there was a final reason this was a bad result for everybody and that is the turnout. 38%. Never mind any implications for what that means for a country allegedly in political ferment over independence, it is surely a worry for politicians of all parties that 62% of Donside voters apparently couldn't care less about who represents them in the Scottish Parliament. This was at times a close contest, so there's not even the excuse that "everybody" knew what the result would be that sometimes excuses low turnouts in foregone conclusion seats.

What can be done about that? Perhaps for a start we should stop talking down the Parliament's powers and responsibilities. But perhaps also we need a somewhat bolder politics.

Saturday 15 June 2013


My first was my favourite. As with so many things in life.

On the 13th of April 1978, Donald Dewar won the Garscadden By-Election for the Labour Party.

I was nineteen, full of the energy of youth, and Chairman of the Glasgow University Labour Club.

It's indicative of a different age that I was two months from getting my degree. From a similar comfortable middle class background today, at that age,  I would probably have had a Sixth Year and then a gap year and only have just been starting out at University.

But exams were more important then as well, in the sense that you were expected to pass them at the first time of asking, Accordingly, until about a week before polling I'd been limited in the time I could spend along Great Western Road, being engaged in my final class exams.

But., by some miracle, for the discipline has never been my forte, I already had my "class ticket" in Conveyancing, the final class exam due to take place the day after Garscadden polling. So for the last week or so of the campaign I was there every day.

And, be in no doubt, Labour was worried. For all that Garscadden had been a safe Labour seat at the October 1974 General Election, by the 1977 District Council elections the Nationalists had won all six Council seats in the constituency. More importantly still, in every local government by-election since October 1974, Labour couldn't buy a win. Nationalism was on the rise and indeed somebody (my memory is Richard Kerley but I wouldn't want to embarrass him) had recently written an influential book suggesting that perhaps Labour should resign ourselves to independence being inevitable.

Three things changed that.

The first was that we had an exceptional candidate in Donald Dewar.. Enough said in some ways but it shouldn't be forgotten that the person he beat for the Labour nomination, in the person of  Alf Young, was also pretty exceptional. When the chips were down Labour realised that this was not the time to reward time serving. Hopefully that will be remembered in 2016. September 2014 won't be enough. We need to complete the rout.

The second reason Labour won at Garscadden however was because the SNP also had an exceptional candidate. I have since known Keith Bovey for more than thirty years as a professional colleague. He is a great lawyer who, were he so inclined, would surely have been recognised by the British state for his command of the law on the misuse of drugs. And he is also a man of great integrity. So when asked during the campaign what the consequence of Independence would be for the Yarrows warship yard, then the constituency's largest employer, he was not prepared to dissemble. It would inevitably close, he admitted, but that was a price worth paying for independence. Parties have long memories. Any SNP candidate since has been drilled to deny that there would ever be ANY downside to independence, The strategic consequence of that thirty-five year old tactical decision has brought much reward since. Perhaps only now  is it being tested to the full.

The third reason is a bit related to the first. Never underestimate the survival instincts of the Labour Party. At the time I thought the number and dedication of the activists at Garscadden was, presumably, typical, but in time experience taught that was far from the case. I have fought many by-elections since where the mood was one of going through the motions; where we seemed indifferent to the outcome where even, if there was any point to democracy, we (whisper it) might deserve to lose.

But Garscadden was special.

It rained all day and we worried all day, but at tea time the weather improved. Legend has it that it was at this point the late great Jimmy Allison observed that "The sun is coming out.....and so is the Labour vote" although my recollection is that I first heard these words on the day from Georgie Rogan, one of the assistant organisers. Perhaps Jimmy had suggested she pass it on.

By close of poll we knew we had won. Afterwards, and before the result was announced,  there was a "Question Time" type format debate and Bill Speirs wangled him and I a ticket. I have no recollection of any of the participants except Winnie Ewing, who spent the entire programme on the point of tears. I later had the privilege of recommending Winnie for life membership of the Law Society but on that night I would be lying if I didn't take some pleasure in her distress. Politics is politics.

And then we partied, Believe me, we partied, Until, at about 4am, like a guardian angel, Nancy Allison turned up to take Jimmy home and also offered me a lift back to Paisley. Then, the next day, still high on elation, I miraculously secured an exemption from the conveyancing degree exam. Which enabled me to spend the day I would otherwise have been sitting that exam helping George Robertson see Margo off even more comprehensively in Hamilton.

Happy days.

I recollect all this because there is of course another by-election taking place in Scotland this coming week. If we're being honest, "down here", none of us are entirely clear what's going on, not least because it is taking place in one of the few places in the Country with a genuine local media. I've not been. I could plead personal circumstance but in all honesty, I'm long past an age which would enable me to drive for two and a half hours, spend a day knocking doors, and then drive back. Were it but 1978 again.

Given that they got 55% of the vote in 2011, that they have an excellent candidate and that they have thrown the organisational kitchen sink at the seat, it would be extraordinary if the SNP lost Donside. Indeed it would be that rarest of things, a watershed political event. It probably won't happen.

But hope springs eternal.

Sunday 9 June 2013

In Memoriam Iain Banks

It has been the most beautiful of afternoons here. The morning cloud eventually burnt off and I found myself sitting in the garden, listening to the bird song and admiring my laburnum trees which are now perhaps seven days from absolute perfection. All the while wondering when I might, respectably, pour myself a glass of white wine.

And my mind had wandered, as it does, if you are a sad soul like me, to what might be the topic of my blog tonight. Which was to have been, if you’re interested, the dilemma of the Scottish Conservatives. Between the interest of the “Party” who need greater financial autonomy for the Scottish Parliament in order to have any political traction and the interests of their supporters who fear that this autonomy would inevitably be employed to their detriment. Another time perhaps.

For about four o’clock I went to uncork the wine and had a quick look at my phone and I learned that Iain Banks was dead.

Now, we’d all been expecting this at some point, for all the minor optimism in the last communication from the man himself, but none of us had been expecting it quite so soon.

And I found myself genuinely grieved.

I have read every book Iain Banks has written, with or without the M. Even the rubbish ones (isn’t that a terribly Scottish thing to say). Except the last one, which I haven’t quite been able to face. As I’m not quite sure I’ll be able to face his interview with Kirsty.

The “problem” with much literature written by Scots is that either it is parochial to the point of Kailyard or it starts from the assumption that, since it is written for an English speaking audience, the origin of its author is something to be obscured. But some transgress that: Scott; Stevenson; Iain Banks.

Although, as a Paisley man my favourite book should surely be Espedair Street and The Crow Road, as a title, can only ever be truly understood by those with a knowledge of the west end of Glasgow my absolute favourite of his books is The Bridge. For it most obviously defies that false dichotomy between speaking to your compatriots and speaking to the world. “WE” all know the bridge, or, more precisely, the bridges of which he writes. The story however, in both reality and in the imagined subconscious, speaks to people who will never ever see the Firth of Forth.

And when he abandoned that local but never parochial frame by the addition of an M to his name?....Consider Phlebas is one of very few books of which I have read the last fifty pages in tears. But Use of Weapons is better, in its parallel but intersecting narratives. And still not as good as The Player of Games.

To create an entire civilisation is a remarkable achievement but Banks did that, with no false or inconsistent steps on the way. Hopefully that achievement will die with him for fan fiction would be disrespectful except at the hand of a genius capable of equal invention of their own.

It’s only right that, in conclusion, I acknowledge the political path of his ideas; from disillusionment with “New” Labour to the conclusion that Independence might be the answer. I don’t agree with him on that in death anymore than I would have in life. That is Scotland.

But would that we could have argued that out in the Omar Khayyam tonight and then repaired to Haymarket to depart in different directions.

His death will be mourned as much by Gordon Brown as it is by Alex Salmond. Both will have read his books and both will feel his loss. As we all do.

For an entire Nation mourns tonight.

Iain Banks (1954-2013)


Sunday 2 June 2013

A wee history lesson

Ask your average European to name a Scottish Monarch and there would only be one answer. 

No harm to Robert the Bruce but how many 14th Century Kings of Hungary or Denmark or Serbia can you name? So how many 14th Century Kings of Scotland would you expect them to know in reciprocation?

No, only one of our uniquely Scottish Heads of State has entered a wider European consciousness, the one who lost her head.

And the reasons why deserve a bit of consideration.

I was brought up in the tradition that all history was (ultimately) economic history. Eric Hobsbawm and E.P. Thompson were the heroes of my youth and beyond. But I have slowly changed my view on that and my ulitimate apotheosis was caused by Diarmid MacCulloch’s great, great book on the Reformation. Here was ideology driving economics and not the reverse. And precisely at Mary’s time.

Now we all know a bit about Mary Queen of Scots. That she was “Celtic minded”; that she ended up ill served by a couple of husbands from the South Side, one of whom she might have had bumped off herself; that her last words were “Keep the heid”. (I think that’s right).

Why however was she such a figure of importance both contemporarily and in subsequent literature and music?

Well there were two reasons, neither of which had very much to do with Scotland.

The first, which needs to be acknowledged before I move on to my central argument, is that she was a woman, and that important women were rare in this age. Not unique; for, important though she was, she was small beer compared to her contemporaries Catherine de Medici or Elizabeth the 1st  of England. Indeed Mary’s own mother had been a woman of some considerable substance. Nonetheless, Queens, in their own right, of any sort, were still pretty exotic creatures in the Sixteenth Century, never mind ones who saw off three husbands and ended up by having their heads cut off. So she would always have had a certain curiosity value. But it was not that which brought her her real fame.

The reason Mary resonates down through the ages, from Schiller to Donizetti to Liz Lochhead (I may have taken that too far), is not because she was Queen of Scots but because she could have been Queen of England. And it was that reason, rather than any mysteriously exploding houses that ultimately lead to her death.

For her undoing was her granny, sister to Henry the Eighth of England; her great uncle’s inability to provide a viable, incontestably legitimate, heir and Henry’s last surviving daughter’s disinclination to help him out rescuing the situation. 

Now all of this was obviously further complicated by the religious politics of the time, as if it was suddenly realised that the fall out from Charles Green and Craig Whyte’s corporate shenanigans might mean that the true owners of the Rangers had turned out to be the trustees of the Croy Miners’ Welfare.

Nonetheless, there is another important point which is that Scotland and England, notwithstanding the Wars of Independence, were always going to end up in each others pockets long before Mary’s boy ended up as King of both. As they inevitably had to be. For, at its simplest, 16th Century, expression, you can’t travel by land and short sea route to anywhere of importance from Scotland without going through England. And yet, at least in a more martial age, the English could hardly growl aggressively towards the Continent if they feared constantly a gnat bite on the bum. What’s more, England has always been a much larger Nation, geographically but much more importantly demographically, than Scotland. So a relationship based, on our part, on occasional bearing of our blue buttocks was always going to end in tears, as indeed it had for both Mary’s dad and granddad.

The irony of course was that the “deal” when it came gave us pretty much everything we wanted at the time. Which amounted to little more than free trade and freedom of our, distinctive, religion. For all the modern reference to the law and education being thrown in, the first was merely a guarantor of that religious exceptionalism and the second a consequence of it.

Now, what has any of this to do with 2013 or more importantly 2014?

Just this, Scotland and England will continue to have to be in each others pockets as we were as long ago as the 16th Century. The idea that we might pursue dramatically different foreign and defence policies is wholly illusory. “They” could do us much more harm than we could ever do "them" and the idea that we could rely on their good neighbourliness stumbles on the proposition that, while wishing them to be polite towards us, we would apparently seek independence precisely so that we could be as rude as possible to them: repudiating “their” nuclear weapons; “their” military alliances and “their“ illegal wars.

Meanwhile, as the acrobatics being performed by the SNP over currency are increasingly demonstrating, economic independence is also wholly illusory. A choice between a joint currency with the terms of our economic policy being set by a much larger foreign country or a separate currency with the inevitable consequence of a flight of capital and the collapse of our financial services industry. And that’s even assuming this would be our choice to make in the first place.

Truly, the choice next year remains whether we have, as we have just now, on this small island, some influence on our own destiny or whether we have no influence at all. Our “own” flag and anthem is to me a small consolation for the latter option.

Let’s not forget that, when the interests of Scotland and England coincided, James the 6th got to be King of both.

And when they didn’t?

Mary Queen of Scots got her head chopped off.