Thursday, 25 September 2014

Miliband's Scottish Secretary should be an MSP

My Daily Record column for this week

Little details on a large canvas can be the most revealing. A small scene on the vast referendum campaign trail stuck with me as a lesson for Scottish Labour.  

It was Gordon Brown storming out the doors of the Royal Concert hall in Glasgow, witnessed by a few loitering journalists.

Having finished one barnstorming speech he was late for another in Edinburgh. As he ripped off his lapel microphone he fumed, at no one in particular: "Why did no one come for me earlier?"

His frustrated growl would be the perfect title for a Labour's campaign memoir.

The party won by recalling to service its most able leader. The only direct blow against Alex Salmond was struck by Alistair Darling; the street campaign was a solo Jim Murphy effort and the flashbulb moments belonged to Anas Sarwar. All of them are Westminster MPs.    

But in that televised debate, when a woman asked Darling if he actually had a referendum vote, she revealed what many think of Westminster politicians -  that they are remote from Scotland.  

Caught between two seismic events, the referendum and the roar of missiles on ISIS, there was no mood in Manchester for Labour post-mortems.  

Margaret Curran is right, to survive the party has to get stuck into heartland constituencies again. She's done it before, she can do it again, though anyone knocking on the doors of weary voters over the next few weeks won't be thanked for their efforts. 

There is the usual sniping around Johann Lamont's leadership, though she has no intention of stepping down.

But there are more positive fixes than a descent into internal warfare.

First of all Labour's Westminster talent has to join its Holyrood team where the political game is.  

From now on Westminster is just West Point, a political training academy where Labour recruits are drilled for Scottish service.

The Cameron double-cross to exclude Scots from English votes will inevitably involve some compromise of a Scottish MP's Westminster role. 

But here's another symbolic step Labour can take to cement itself to Scotland. 

When Miliband appoints his first Secretary of State for Scotland he should not give the job to a Labour MP.

Instead, a Labour MSP should sit in cabinet as Scotland's representative in Westminster.

Forget the niceties that mean nothing outside the political bubble. The move, combined with Labour MPs seeking Holyrood seats, would signal a party that takes Scotland seriously.  

The Scottish Secretary need not be Labour's Holyrood leader, because surely there is space to have more than one talented and ambitious Labour politician reaching the top on the canvas of Scottish politics. 


Resignation, what resignation? 

While I was on the notorious NFI list for the First Minister's Bute House swan-song what I heard didn't convince me Alex Salmond is  going anywhere soon.

Had I been there I'd have joined the rest of Scotland in thanking him for an outstanding contribution to public life.

Critics and admirers can agree Scotland owes the First Minster a huge debt. He has sacrificed his personal life to politics, a field in which the reward is often to be stung from the sidelines by the likes of me.

On that note, Salmond does go down as the most divisive politician in Scottish history.  

His accusation that the elderly are bed-blocking freedom and his sinister suggestion about ignoring the referendum result show the dream of division has far from died for him.  

Politics, he said, is now bigger than Westminster, cannot be contained by Holyrood, and is entrusted with the people.

Recognising public cynicism, the anti-politics politician is moving onto the next phase. 

He will cast himself as a figure beyond politics, above the grubby fray but with the common people, binding together the wider independence movement.

Prepare for Mandela Salmond, in open-necked shirt mode as father of the selfie nation.

By turning the page on a "political generation", as he said, he leaves a blank sheet for Nicola Sturgeon to pursue another referendum.

That leaves him to legitimise ideas like an illegal declaration of UDI or to give credence to other wilder claims of the thwarted 36 per cent.

I could be wrong, and like his biographer David Torrance I expect a letter from the First Minister telling me so.

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Last post before the vote

I usually let my Thursday column speak to the Record readers who've paid for a copy of the paper. For once, in advance, a preview.

Copy for the Daily Record 18/9/2014

To my "I hate nationalism, but.." friend.

It seems like we now live in two Scotlands. No matter what the outcome in tomorrow's sleepless dawn we will be in a divided country. 

From now on we live in a Scotland where half of us think the state broadcaster undermines democracy, while the other half looks on bewildered by this self-fuelled paranoia 

One half of Scotland believes an assertion that the UK would share our currency risks right after we walk out the door. The other half  lives in fear of falling through a trapdoor that spits us out as a washed-up Argentina.

One half is happy to think there is switch that turns off nuclear weapons and lights up nurseries. The other half shudders at the omens a vote for nationalism would send into a 21st century Europe that has already been down that dark alley of history. 

One half thinks Scotland will be born-again socialism, the other half foresees the death of social justice if politics has to be judged by its futile patriotism. 

The division is internal and external. I've had letters and exchanges with friends caught between the two Scotlands.

Overnight someone sent me a long e-mail entitled: "I hate nationalism, but I'm voting yes."

The clue to his conflict with himself was in the title.

Despite misgivings his frustration with the Westminster system drive him to a Yes vote. He justified his choice by blaming Labour for letting him down.

Well, we've all been let down by politics, and he is in for a big one.

I told him if he chooses a Yes on Thursday we get nationalism on Friday, not the fair and just society he wants.

The SNP is soft-soaping on social justice because it needs my friend to believe just enough, just once, that nationalism offers a better future. It doesn't.

Labour's political mission is fight poverty. The SNP's mission is to separate Scotland from the rest of the UK because we are somehow different from them.

This nationalism cloaks patriot politics as concern for social justice as a means to gain votes. 

Every nationalist movement that comes along tells you it is different from the last one, that its reasons for driving people apart are somehow unique.

In the end it is the same divisive force, and no one can explain what is progressive about dividing people?

The idea of Scottish nationalism was to divide us from England.
What it has succeeded in doing is dividing us from ourselves.


Stand up for freedom 

If the No side squeak a win in the early hours then last Sunday's demonstration outside BBC Scotland by Yes supporters will go down as the biggest waste of an afternoon's canvassing time in history.

The attempt to intimidate journalists by laying siege to the near-empty building in Glasgow did nothing to bolster the case for independence and a great deal to raise profound questions about nationalism.

Anyone marching under expensive banners demanding journalists be sacked for scrutinising politicians needs to think again about what they mean by Scottish freedom, press freedom and personal freedom.

Undecided voters viewing the demonstration would have seen not a freedom march but glimpsed a sinister movement of intolerance. 

The online bile every reporter gets washes off but when journalists cannot conduct interviews or ask questions without attracting hostile crowds we are entering a different ball game.

Shamefully it took 24 hours to extract a mealy-mouthed statement from the National Union of Journalists, my own trade union, in defence of press freedoms. 

The SNP is already writing the myth that the referendum campaign was a huge exercise in democratic engagement.

The truth is thousands of Scots have kept their heads low and their opinions close while a carnival of flags diverted people away from hard questions about currency they might be paid in next month.  

Meanwhile the list of the intimidation grows, as the tone of aggression comes off the cybernat keyboard and onto the streets. 

It all makes you thankful for the sacrosanct privacy of the polling booth. Today no one need fear expressing their verdict on what they have witnessed and felt.    

Last Post

Tom Nairn once said Scotland would "never be free until the last Minister is strangled with the last copy of the Sunday Post".

A bit grim, but has he checked on the progress of his prediction?

The Church of Scotland has only one Minister left in the west Highlands as congregations split over gay clergy.

Portree minister Rev Sandor Fazakas is the only full-time Kirk minister in the Presbytery of Skye and Lochcarron.

There are 16 vacancies for parishes stretching from Harris to Sutherland.

Don't let the Rev Fazakas near the Sunday Post for the next 24 hours.

Man of the match

The final whistle hasn't gone but I've already chosen my man of the match - Archie MacPherson.

His electrifying speech on the campaign trail spiked those on the left who consider voting Yes.

He said: "They are not become Nationalists. Worse. They are becoming parochialists and turning their heads away from the system and the tradition which brought us together and created our society."


Sùil Eile

"Seo dhut camanachd air a' Charibbean." Sin mar a chuir Fergus Ewing BPA fàilte orm, 's mi air nochdach aig Pàirce a' Bhught airson Cupa na Camanachd.

'S ann airson faighinn air falbh bho phoileataigs a chaidh mise dhan gheàma ach bha mi toilichte Ministear na Turasachd fhaicinn, agus cha robh e fada ceàrr.

Bha a' ghrian a' deàrrsadh agus gàire air aodann a h-uile duine a bh' ann an Inbhir Nis Disathairne airson latha mòr na h-Iomain.

Agus abair spòrs. Chan eil geàma ann coltach ri iomain airson sgil, luaths agus gaisgeachd. Tha d'anail nad uchd gach mionaid a tha thu ga choimhead.

Mar Leòdhasach, chan fhaca mise caman gun robh mi còrr is fichead bliadha a dh'aois 's mi anns an Eilean Sgitheanach. Bha mi air mo ghlachadh leis a' gheàma agus na freumhan domhainn a th' aige ann an coimhearsnachdan Gàidhealach.

Chaidh an latha 4-0 le Ceann a' Ghiùthsaich, far a bheil ginealaich de ghaisgaidh spòrs air an àrachadh.

Chaidh iadsan dhachaigh leis a' Chupa; dh'fhuirch an còrr againn ann am blàths Camanachd a' Charibbean beagan na b' fhaide.

English translation

"This is Camanachd on the Caribbean". That's how Fergus Ewing MSP welcomed me, when I knocked up a the Bucht Park for the Camanachd Cup.


It was to get away from politics that I went to the match but I was pleased to see the Tourism Minister, and he wans't far wrong.

The sun was shining and there was a smile on everyone's face at Shinty's big day in Inverness on Saturday.

And what a sport. There isn't a game like shinty for skill, speed and heroism. Your heart leaps in in your chest every minute of play.

As a Lewisman I never saw a shinty stick until I was more than 20 years old on the Isle of Skye. I was captivated by the game and its roots in the Gaelic communities.

The day went 4-0 to Kingussie, where generations of sporting heroes have been raised.

They went home with the cup; the rest of us stayed in warmth of Caribbean Camanachd for a little longer.

Thursday, 31 July 2014

The untold story of who owns rights to Scottish fish

From my Daily Record column

Ever wondered how Manchester United might have the right to take a fishing boat out into Scottish waters? Read on.


Listen in the bars of Scotland's ports and you'd think fishing was a permanent open season for Spanish pirates. This is not even half true.

Some brilliant research by Emma Cardwell, an Oxford PhD student, lifts the lid on the ownership of UK fishing grounds, a system described as the biggest grab on traditional rights since the Norman Conquest.

In 1999 the UK government introduced a quota system to conserve fish stocks. It did this by dividing up the right to fish on a historic basis

Small boat owners, the vast majority of British fishermen, were allocated less than five per cent of the total catch. 

Larger vessel owners were given property rights over fish based on their historic catches.

So, the more you had raped the seas the more quota you were given. Well-financed buccaneers were rewarded, small fishing communities went to the wall.

Here in the Hebrides, where they still mourn the extinction of herring by east coast trawlers, people know how mad this was.

At one time thousands of boats caught mackerel and herring around Britain's coast. Now the quota, almost half of total landings by UK registered vessels, is caught by 33 trawlers.

In the private market wealth accumulates itself and the right to fish inevitably ended up in the hands of a few companies with quota used as collateral for loans for more powerful boats.

In Scotland quota ownership is now consolidated in ports like Peterhead and Lerwick, home to sea roaming supertrawlers.

The value of these boats, and their quota rights, runs to hundreds of millions of pounds.

Despite a register, who actually owns the quotas is opaque. Hence the pub tales of large institutions, like Man United and RBS, having a  stake in the industry. 
This is the untold story of Scottish fishing. A national asset has been handed to profiteering fishing barons. It is manifestly inequitable, bad for conservation and destroys coastal economies.    

Think independence will solve it? In Iceland, where fishing companies have deep links to politics, wresting fishing rights back into public ownership has been nigh on impossible.

North Atlantic fishing is a millionaires club, with small communities reduced to scraping a living from shellfish.

Who in Scotland will stand up for a fair distribution of fishing rights that gives coastal communities a chance of survival?

Thursday, 24 July 2014

Lights out for 1914, Lamps on for the Iolaire in 1919

From my Daily Record column

Last week I caught up with Dan Jarvis MP, who gained the PM's backing for a centenary event to commemorate the beginning of the First World War.

The powerful plan for a "lights out" hour at 10pm on 4th August recalls the famous Sir Edward Grey quote about "the lamps going out across Europe" in autumn 1914.

By August on Lewis, where I am, we're only in the gloaming. But the idea dovetails into one of my own to mark the end of the war in 1919 at home.

That's right, 1919, it was in the early hours of New Year's Day that the biggest wartime tragedy to affect the Hebrides occurred.

The HMY Iolaire ran onto rocks, a mile from Stornoway Harbour and 181 servicemen, returning from war, were drowned in sight of home. Every island community was affected.

After an horrendous war the Iolaire disaster did not merit much national attention, but the tragedy defined 20th century Lewis, mourning and a sense of victimhood led to mass emigration. 

The history is well told but I think a visual representation of the effect on so many villages would make a centenary tribute. 

The idea would be to darken the island on Hogmanay leading to 2019 - but leave the "lamps on" in the homes of those lost.  

We know their names and every welcome threshold veterans were expected to cross, but never did.

Six in this village, seven in the next, a necklace of white lights across the island. 

One by one the beams could go up until there are 181 pillars of light in the New Year sky, guiding the Iolaire men home.  

Monday, 9 June 2014

Ireland - how nationalism did not lead to socailism


Apologies that the blog's been off for a while, I gave up trying to make it work on my office desktop platform. But the IT guys have found a way around the problem, and with 100 days to go and all that...
This from today's Daily Record column, at all good newsagents..

Ireland, the Celtic tiger with toothache, always serves well as a barometer of Alex Salmond's economic judgement.
Never mind 100 days, for nearly 100 years Ireland has been a working laboratory of what happens to socialism in a nationalist climate.
Ireland did not have the same industrial base as Scotland, and no James Connolly, but historically it had the strength of an organised trade union and labour movement.
There have been 29 general elections to the Dàil, Ireland’s parliament, since independence. Ireland’s Labour Party have won precisely none.
When socialism goes up against nationalism in a country where all civic politics is about the nation, then Labour doesn’t stand a chance.
What happened in Ireland – in fact Irish leader Eamon de Valera’s specific strategy – was to smother the Labour movement in the embrace of Fianna Fáil.
His nationalist party talked the language of social democracy with enough rhetoric to rob Labour of a distinctive voice, while never delivering the goods.
You find an echo of that approach in last week’s report on how wonderful the welfare system would be in a new Scotland, with none of it practically costed.
If the SNP win the Scottish referendum, they will do so by binding together a nationalist alliance. The party would be mad, their leaders unforgiven, if they allowed that political sheaf to unravel afterwards.
Anyone saying defeat in September will allow the Scottish Labour Party space to rise, phoenix like, as a force for government is just kidding.
Irish history shows how easily social justice can be crowded out in a nationalist arena. When it came to industrial relations, de Valera had a reputation, a strategy, for personally intervening to bring disputes to an end, all for the good of the Irish nation.
Think of Alex Salmond placing himself at the head of the march against Diageo leaving Kilmarnock, or the First Minister’s personal intervention with Ineos to keep the Grangemouth petrochemical works open.
That episode left Unite, and by reflection trade unionism in Scotland, looking impotent in the shadow of Salmond’s influence.
The Irish trade union movement and Labour Party continue to defend the rights of working people but rarely get the opportunity to change their lives.
When Scottish trade unionists hear enticements that a single vote in September will open the door to a land of social justice, they should look to Ireland.
Not a single Labour government in the country’s history. Not one.

Monday, 10 February 2014

From Southbank to Scotland, Bragg calls it wrong




From today's Daily Record column, 50p at newsagents or try the e-edition online  http://www.dailyrecord.co.uk/apps/
 
The kids who skateboard in the concrete cavities under the South Bank Centre in London have won an unlikely victory.

They have beaten a £120 million plan to move their graffitied  skatepark to make way for commercial development on the Thames side.

Mind you, they were up against some powerful opponents including Billy Bragg, the radical troubadour.

Bragg bought into the vision for community-based enterprises the arts centre developers had for the space.

Not many believed that community businesses would last a minute longer than it took to fulfil planning conditions.

There were over 27,000 objections to the idea of moving the skatekids, a colourful London tribe, onto "the reservations". Having read it wrong, Bragg appears to have fallen silent on the issue.

The episode shows that just because you are right-on you are not always right.

Now Bragg, like many of London's liberal left, wishes so hard for socialism he has convinced himself it is really Scottish nationalism.

Frustrated by the compromises of Labour Party, the English patriot Bragg backs independence for Scotland.

"Go for it," he tweeted at the weekend, and nationalists paraded him as Stalin lauded the British left who thought the Soviet Union offered a glimpse of socialist heaven.

The evidence of the last two SNP governments, and the populist, middle-class gains at the expense of the poor, is that the SNP is anything but the vanguard of the socialist revolution.

Before the bedroom tax is rewritten in history remember John Swinney didn't want to let London "off the hook" until he was pressed to act.

Progressive policies always have to be fought for, they won't be gifted by separating like-minded voters from each other across a political border.

Does anyone think if the SNP manages to bind together a majority around a Yes vote that coalition would be allowed to unravel after victory to usher in a left-wing government made up of the remains of a shattered Labour movement?

That patriotic bundle would strapped together with whatever populist policies necessary.

Ruling around a patriotic banner means every principle is subsumed to the greater national cause. The White Paper promise on childcare - independence first, women second -  is a good example of that.

Governing from the left involves compromise, but is underpinned by the mission of create a more equal society. Popular nationalism by its nature, involves jinking opportunistically from one populist pillar to another.

I don't think that is the kind of New England Billy Bragg seeks. He'd be mistaken to think a Yes vote offers a socialist New Scotland.

Monday, 20 January 2014

How big an offer to the undecided?

From today's Daily Record column

There just cannot be up to one million Scots out there who have not made their mind up on independence.

They are a fiery cross of hope for the Yes camp and a gnawing ringworm of doubt for the No side.

The high number of polling "undecideds" are astute voters waiting to be informed by an offer of what No means.

The No side looks like winning but can't just hang on, palms sweating, hoping to land on a safe ledge.

Everyone knows this battle is not settled with a near win. Like World War Z, some nationalists wouldn't know they were beaten. For the SNP a near loss is a staging post to a re-match hinged on the following elections.

Any Labour politician awaiting the disintegration of the SNP machine after a referendum defeat is deluding themselves.

Should the vote go No (looks likely) there are 11 Scottish Lib Dem seats going a begging in 2015. Some sitting ducks will survive, but if they topple the SNP is placed to gain.

There is no reason either why Labour's west of Scotland Westminster majorities should remain impregnable. Many are represented by SNP MSPs at Holyrood, well entrenched, looking for an electoral opportunity.

During the 2010 Coalition negotiations the only people talking to the SNP were security guards in an empty Palace of Westminster. Next time the numbers could be different, but SNP priorities won't be.

An emphatic referendum win is needed to head off this and several permutations of Labour's No nightmare.

Labour voters are the ones most likely to be drawn by the SNP bid. The question is how big a counter-offer can Labour make to its undecided supporters?

The majority of Scots are in favour of more Holyrood powers short of independence, if vague about what these powers should be.

The only one worth talking about is tax-raising power. Johann Lamont's  Devolution Commission was minded to devolve all income tax powers. It stalled and not because of London control-freakery, much as the SNP would love that.

The big asks by sceptical Labour MPs are that devolving tax should not leave Scotland worse off, affect the Barnett formula or diminish Scottish influence in the UK parliament.

Scottish Labour still has to persuade itself how bold it can be in offering a tax-raising alternative to nationalism. As Gordon Brown pointed out, an offer of no change will not do.

Labour better decide soon - there are one million people out there waiting for an offer.