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.