Sunday, 22 December 2013

Taking Flybe to the Isles, a cautionary tale

If you are flying home to any of the Scottish Islands with Flybe/Loganair over the festive period take  my experience at Glasgow airport as a cautionary tale.

I arrived the other morning with 45 minutes to spare before check-in to be confronted by a snaking queue at the Flybe desk almost out to the doors that the airport bombers once attempted to drive through.

Only one member of staff was dealing with check-in while the others busied themselves with the new-fangled automated bag drop.

I was halfway down the queue before I realised that I had checked in online (and remembered to print my boarding pass) and so could go straight to bag drop.

I switched to the shorter bag drop queue feeling smug about by technological advantage. It took another ten minutes to reach the front of that queue, where you scan your boarding pass and the machine prints off a hold label for your luggage and you deposit the bags on the conveyer belt.

Except...the staffer explained my friend and I were flying to Stornoway on a Loganair flight, and Loganair which sub-contracts the island routes from Flybe, have not bought into the new automated system.

Back you go, - it didn't matter if you had bought your ticket from Flybe, checked in on their website or flew in their liveried planes, you were not getting their service.

Like a bad game of snakes and ladders we had to join the end of the now longer check-in queue and reached the desk just as our flight was closing. Flights to Sumburgh, Tiree and Stornoway take off in close order but the queue marshall didn't seem to know which was which.

The poor guy at check-in confirmed that Flybe's new system didn't include Loganair and that automation meant the company  had cut back on staff and reduced everyone else's contracted hours. Not great for him when confronted with various Vikings and Hebrideans anxious about getting home.

Using that old "excuse me, my flight's in ten minutes" line we rushed through security and made it onboard, but what a hassle and with no signage or explanation from Flybe staff until it was nearly too late.

That, and the lack of a fortifying drink onboard (they stopped that a while ago), made it feel like this is becoming a real second-class service for island passengers. Either employ enough staff for peak periods or get Loganair onto the automated system - it's a no brainer.

It also struck me that this could be part of a Flybe exit strategy from the island routes that the island group of councils and their politicians ought to take note and take action.

I haven't checked in with the Flybe press office for confirmation of Loganair's contract on automated baggage drop, but the evidence of my own eyes and the word of staff seemed convincing. I'll file this blog as complaint when business starts tomorrow.

Meanwhile, leave plenty time for check-in at Glasgow and Edinburgh, even when you have checked in online. And remember to print your boarding card, and take your passport and...och, you know the drill.

Monday, 7 October 2013

Europe cannot go on sealing borders, we have to recognise our common humanity

My first reaction to Jim Murphy being moved to the Shadow International Development post  - good news for international development.

If anyone can lever the issue up the political agenda it is Jim Murphy. He is one of the few recognisable Shadow Ministers and one of the few who has actually made the political weather in his job while colleagues have been invisible.

Moving him to International Development does not mean Murphy is off the map either, regardless of those who cheer about a "cull of Blairites".

Murphy fell out badly with Ed Miliband over the Syria vote and that may have been their final undoing. The Shadow Defence Secretary wanted Labour to support Cameron's plan to back military action (he was Shadow Defence Secretary, how could he not?).

Murphy felt that the Tories would not forget the doublecross and get their vengeance in the first military venture that a future Labour government might propose. 

I'm not sure how wise it was of Miliband to move Murphy, keep your friends close and your enemies closer and all that.

The Labour leader might think he has exiled a possible rival to the outback of international development, but remember how MacDuff was exiled to England by MacBeth. MacDuff came back, and took out MacBeth.

Plotting aside, here's a note for Murphy's in-tray from my column in today's Daily Record:

Lampedusa, a dot of an island in the Mediterranean, is the new Checkpoint Charlie between the divided northern and southern hemispheres.

The death of over 300 African refugees on Italian shores must give Europe pause for thought on how we handle immigration.

Islanders boycott the local fish because of the human remains they feed on. The seas around their island is a graveyard for over 20,000 migrants this century alone.

This isn't a new problem. Over a decade ago I spent time with African refugees in a tented detention centre in Ceuta, the Spanish enclave in Morocco.

In the gathering dusk we stared at the glittering lights of Europe across the straits. Many of these men, the strongest and the bravest who had walked out of war and famine, would have died risking the swim to the promised land.

Europe cannot go on sealing its borders and pretending not to see what is happening on our southern flank.

We have to recognise our common humanity here. We were all migrants at one time - half of Ireland, a third of Italy and, one way or another, large parts of the Scottish population moved abroad in the 19th and 20th centuries.

There should be more search and rescue and disruption missions in the Mediterranean and a renewed focus on resolving the conflicts that cause refugees.

The long term answers are in developing the economies of African nations. Migrants themselves are the answer to this.

UK immigrants send £2 billion in remittances back to the developing world each year, just as my mother sent two-thirds of her first wages back from Glasgow to her Scottish island home.

Europe actually needs more low-skilled workers in the next two decades, and new legal routes to meet the labour demands of the continent.

We cannot leave immigration policy to the mafia smugglers, the modern day slave traders sending leaking vessels on the dangerous route out of Africa.

Remember that when politicians demand cuts to the 0.7 per cent of our wealth we commit to international development.

Goodbye Moore in referendum campaign gear change

You turn your back for five minutes and they go and change the Secretary of State for Scotland.

With all eyes on the Conservative side of the Coalition no one was expecting a flanker from Nick Clegg,  and with the Scottish referendum a year from shore no one expected him to drop the pilot.

Michael Moore has been steady on the bridge at the Scotland Office during one of biggest political storms Scotland has ever seen.

Faced with the election of a majority SNP government, the prospect of an independence referendum at a time of Alex Salmond's choosing, the Borders MP found himself at the forefront of the battle to save the Union.

In the middle of it he found time to deliver the Scotland Act, which will give more powers, including tax raising, to Holyrood in 2016. That would be an achievement in itself.

More importantly he negotiated the Edinburgh Agreement for the Scottish referendum, in short time and within the red lines that Westminster needed to win - one question, before the end of 2014.

Though appointed accidentally, when Danny Alexander had to move to fill David Laws' shoes, Moore turned out to be the just the right man for the job.

Reasonable, amiable, ponderous -  it was hard for the SNP to get angry or fall out with Moore. With their own consultation showing them what Moore was suggesting, one question, and the support base
demanding that a referendum not be missed,  Nicola Sturgeon decided to do business and settle the terms.

I always thought the winner in the independence debate was going to be the side that sounded most reasonable. That is why the combination of Moore and Alistair Darling as leader of Better Together made sense. Neither are passionate politicians but they do sound reassuring.

So the Scotland Office half-time substitution marks a step change in Westminster approach to the referendum campaign.

Moore's replacement, Alistair Carmichael, is a different kettle of fish. A far more combative and self-assured performer he will be easier for the equally self-assured Alex Salmond to bait.

Some commentators, like Magnus Linklater this morning, see this as a gift to the SNP. That may be true, but it takes two to start a row and the SNP leader is not a dignified sight himself when he is in high dudgeon.

With his perpetual Liberal majority in Orkney and Shetland Carmichael is willing to risk saying the unsayable and ride nationalist opprobrium. He comes equipped with a thick hide and a weighty punch.

Also he had ambitions to be Secretary of State and the office gives him a much more public profile than the backroom fixing required as Lib Dem Chief whip.

Until now reasonableness had ruled the day. But during the conference season Willie Rennie, and Moore in less combative tones, attacked the idea of nationalism itself, as a philosophy.

Johann Lamont, in her speech to the Labour conference, also hinted at the dark roots of nationalism.  David Cameron, in his conference comments on Scotland, also made an emotional plea to the Scottish heart as well as the head.

The Westminster government thinks it is trouncing the SNP in terms of the arguments over currency, economy, Nato membership and the rest. That might have a tone of complacency but the ground that the Coalition is taking the fight onto now is territory the SNP is complacent about too  - patriotism, belonging and national identity.

Alistair Carmichal can be expected to take the gloves off and take the fight to the the SNP. His first comments in office say pretty much that.

On days like these politics is brutal, and I sympathise with Michael Moore who proved himself in the job. But the new Secretary of State, the ninth holder of the office since Devolution was meant to render it redundant (I think he called for it to be abolished himself) is going to create bigger waves.

Incidentally, Carmichael is the second islander  in cabinet. Islay born he joins Danny Alexander, raised in Colonsay and South Uist, around the cabinet table. Look out Whitehall, the Highlanders are coming.

Friday, 20 September 2013

For sale: one bed apt in SW5 for just 60K

My friend Alasdair Stephen from Heb Homes is at the 100% Design show in Earls Court with his "airigh" kit house, a sip panel, self-build holiday cabin that can be put up almost anywhere.

It's a cosy design - with a nod to the Lewis summer moor house it is based on. But really it is the modern inheritor to the pre-fab homes of the 1950s. You can see it at the main entrance of the design show all this week.

Monday, 19 August 2013

For Tartan Army islands all games are away games

Some of the Lewis lads who came to London for the Scotland match last week called in for a ceilidh.

The cost of travelling from the islands means Wembley could be their only Scotland away game for some time to come.

That puts them at a disadvantage compared to other members of the Tartan Army, who can fly to away games and be back at work in the Central Belt next morning, er, hangover permitting.

With 35,000 members the Scotland Supporters Club is at about away match capacity, so tickets are sold through a points system.

The more away games you attend the more points you earn, and the better your chance of a ticket the next time.

But for Tartan Army fans from Shetland to Islay every Scotland game is an away game, involving a costly flight and a few days off work.

There is a case for the Scottish Supporters Association letting members with island postcodes start with a few away points advantage. That way they have a chance to qualify for occasional games abroad.

Wait a minute, if we applied the bonus points principle to the Scotland team’s away games too...

Monday, 12 August 2013

Planning "sterilisers" dictating to the Highlands

From my Daily Record column

"White settler" was an insult once used to disparage those who had moved to the Highlands to make a new life.

The natives realised their mistake and you don't hear the phrase much these days.

The people who came to stay are now recognised as shaping and saving the communities they adopted as home and enrich many a glen and island.

But the New Highlanders been followed by another wealthier breed who do not accept the values of the place or engage with the communities they live in, even if only part-time basis.
They are recognised by planners, councillors and locals across the western seaboard with a new phrase - "white sterilisers".

The sterilisers have paid a few hundred thousand pounds for their slice of Highland paradise and feel that buys them the rights to the view across the loch as well.

These are the people who object to the windfarms, who object to the fishfarms, to more ferry services or any other development that might detract from the "visual amenity" at the end  of their "private road - no entry" track. 

In the case of one west coast village, Torridon, the sterilisers succeeded in stopping an active crofter build a home on her croft because it might ruin the landscape.

They are joined by the vested interests of landed class, lairds like Mark Pattison of Kinlochdamph, who thinks that the revival of the nearby Kishorn oil yard would be an environmental disaster and isn't necessary while the west Highlands have "full employment".

The view from Planet Landlord is reflected in powerful landowning charities like the John Muir Trust and the National Trust for Scotland.

Combine that with the bird-loving RSPB and you have a toxic lobby that actively campaigns against economic development while shielding behind the argument that the "unspoilt" landscape (all of it shaped by man at some stage) provides greater wealth.

Well, as Victor, the Russian fisherman in Local Hero, quipped thirty years ago: "You can't eat the scenery".

Backing up the sterilisers' alliance are environmental designations handed out like parking tickets by Scottish government Ministers, who then wring their hands and blame Europe.

The result could be a Highland landscape and seaboard preserved in aspic but empty of people and the jobs that keep them there.

Environmental sterilisation is cumulative process over years and is now cleansing planning decisions. As the Torridon case shows planning power urgently needs to be rebalanced towards the people who want to be able to live - and work - in rural Scotland.  

The Scottish Crofting Federation, the crofters' union, said last week of the decision by Highland Council to reject that croft house in Torridon: "It is particularly alarming that this decision appears to have been heavily influenced by the objections submitted by holiday home owners in the area, people who don't themselves stay and work in the community yet feel they have the right to dictate on where a crofter can and cannot live."

Sùil eile air Runrig 's iad dà fhichead

Nochd am p'ios seo anns an Daily Record an-diugh

’S ann a’ ruith air falbh bho ar cànain a bha sinn nuair a dh’fhàg sinn an taigh anns na h-Ochdadan.

Uill, ’s e sin a bha mise a’ dèanamh, chan eil fhiosam mu fheadhainn eile.

Cha robh luach anns a’ Ghàidhlig, cha robh càil tarraingeach mun àite às an tàinig mi.

Am measg sluagh a’ bhaile mhòir, aig nach robh fhios sam bith cò às a bha sinn, thàinig tuigse oirnn fhìn mar Ghàidheil.

Chan e gu robh sinn eadar-dhealaichte; tha gach neach fa leth. Ach tron chànan bha ceangal againn ri chèile, ris an talamh, ri dualchas agus creideamh a bha, agus a tha, nas motha na sinn fhìn.

Dè dh’atharraich ar cùrsa? An t-astar bhon taigh, gu cinnteach.Ach b’ e rionnag na h-àirde tuath dhuinn an còmhlan Runrig, a tha an-dràsta a’ comharrachadh dà fhichead bliadhna on a thòisich iad.

Do dheugairean, thug iad creideas dhan chànan agus dhan a’ Ghàidhealtachd, fiù ’s ged nach e sin an seòrsa ciùil a bha sinn a’ leantainn.

Aig ìre chultarail, stiùir iad an ginealach agamsa dhachaigh. ’S e sin an tiodlac, an t-uabhal as àirde.

Monday, 22 July 2013

Iceland's cultural lifeline from deep water

This is an extract  from my Daily Record column, which you can read in the paper each Monday 

 The Deep - Iceland's Oscar entry for best foreign language film.

From Scalloway to Kirkcudbright, anyone who has spent time in a fishing community will recognise the hard drinking, chain-smoking trawlermen in "The Deep", the first big Icelandic movie since the banking crash.

Set in a north island fishing port in 1984, the drama is the incredible true story how an unassuming fisherman survived a shipwreck by swimming for five hours in the ice cold Atlantic.

Fellow crewmen were killed in sea temperatures that should have seen him off in 15 minutes. Somehow he made it ashore and walked barefoot across a lavafield into his island fishing village

The tone is pitch perfect, from the traffic cones as ship's fenders to the ordinary, unpatronising way the characters are portrayed.

The message for an Icelandic audience is not hard to fathom.

The film makers reached back into living memory and dragged up a forgotten legend to inspire them again.

This simple, noble fishing nation snagged itself on the rocks of international finance. Their boat sank and the situation looked grave.

But against the odds a plucky everyman makes it to shore, and goes back to the boats, the only trade he knows.

As they said in Iceland after the crash, 'we can always go fishing'.

Nations are the stories that they tell themselves.

In Scotland commissioned scripts are generally about heroic characters overcoming drugstrewn, urban backgrounds. That is unless they are about downtrodden characters swallowed up by drugstrewn, criminal backgrounds.

For our film industry The Deep is a cultural look and learn.

Wednesday, 3 July 2013

Ginger Rodent comes back to bite Harman

Harriet Harman swallowed  her pride last night as she apologised for dubbing Danny Alexander a "Ginger Rodent".

The Lib Dem Treasury Minister had a beer named in his honour after she insulted him in a speech to the Scottish Labour conference.

The Cairngorm Brewery in Alexander’s constituency was celebrating after the "Ginger Rodent" beer sold out in parliament’s Strangers Bar within days of going on sale.

Alexander was grateful to Harriet for joining in the fun and, fair play to her, she posed for the picture despite being mortified since the moment the phrase left her lips.

Danny said: "Now that Ginger Rodent has taken the House of Commons by storm, there is no end to its prospects for success."

But Harman had the last laugh. As she raised a pint glass she said: "I’m really glad there’s some economic growth in Danny’s constituency because he’s stuffed the rest of the country."

Tuesday, 2 July 2013

Plasterfield's Palaces for the People

Plasterfield prefabs on the Isle of Lewis - Elisabeth Blanchet

During a housing crisis that has gone on for as long as I can remember, it is useful to take stock.

Faced with a blitzed housing landscape after WWII the then Labour government came up with a temporary solution of prefabricated, kit homes. Nearly 70 years later some of the 150,000 hurried constructions are still standing and much-loved by their occupants.

Artist Elisabeth Blanchet spent the last 11 years photographing of the remaining "palaces for the people" that sprang up across Britain.

Neil Kinnock grew up in a prefab, so did Michael Caine, and the esteemed Scotland editor of The Times, Angus MacLeod.

For their parents these one-storey "tin boxes", with their own little gardens and mod cons like hot water and inside toilet, were heaven on earth.

Her odyssey took her from Catford in south London to the group of 42 cottages in Plasterfield on Lewis, built to alleviate a post-war squatters' camp in Stornoway's Castle grounds.

Out of Blanchet's show in Brixton, and from the residents who attended, came a tremendous pride and sense of place. Rarely does pre-planned architecture achieve that.

Most of the legoland housing we build now is desperately ordinary. The professional creativity of architects is devalued by developers and governments.

An architect at the opening told me that some expensive, modern versions of prefabs need foundation pads built within just one millimetre of tolerance.

Surely we can do better than that? Build to a higher standard the old-fashioned prefab could play a part in the housing solution we are crying out for.

The SNP government has delivered on its target to complete 4,000 social homes in the the last year. Commendable, but in March 2012 there were 187,935 households on local authority housing lists across Scotland.

The past may be a blueprint for the future.

Elisabeth's exhibition is at the Photofusion gallery in Brixton. Apart from Stornoway, I think there are some remaining prefabs in Paisley.

Wednesday, 19 June 2013

The leader will see you now

Here's Kevin Toolis, the writer and director of "The Confessions of Gordon Brown", opening the door on his show last night at at the White Bear Theatre in Kennington.

The play is previewing in London before opening at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in August, where I predict it will be a surefire hit.

So, no review here, save to say that say that Ian Grieve is the very embodiment of the former Prime Minister in the one man show. His opening night, in his first major stage role in 17 years, was a tour de force.

“It was terrifying going on, because the audience was full of people who know him. But when they started laughing in recognition I began to relax,” Grieve told me afterwards.

Grieve, 47, doesn’t just look the part, he’s getting under the skin of the former Labour leader too.

“Being Gordon Brown is quite comfortable. I come from a similar background, Perth isn't that far from Kircaldy and I think I get him.

"At heart, Gordon Brown wants to make a difference, he has a strong moral spine and I hang onto that as I play him.”

The play is not a biography of Brown by any means, it is more an examination by Toolis of leadership through the character of a politician who spent a lifetime seeking power and was then frozen in its grasp. 

Wednesday, 5 June 2013

MPs to launch “who owns Scotland” investigation

Ahead of the debate on land reform in Holyrood today Scots MPs at Westminster have signalled they are to launch an investigation into the shady offshore companies that own vast tracts of land in Scotland.

The Commons Scottish Affairs committee is due to start an inquiry into land ownership and tax avoidance after campaigners slammed the SNP government’s lacklustre commitment to the land reform agenda.

Ian Davidson MP, the Labour chairman of the Scottish committee, said he hoped the inquiry would “establish who owns and controls the great landed estates in Scotland, in order to minimise tax avoidance”.

The move came as leading land reformer Jim Hunter launched a broadside at the Holyrood government for failing on the land reform agenda.

Professor Hunter, a respected academic and land reformer, resigned from the SNP's Scottish Land Reform policy group for personal reasons.

But in an outspoken attack, the Highland historian said six years under the SNP had left Scotland stuck with the “most concentrated, most inequitable, most unreformed and most undemocratic land ownership system in the entire developed world”.

He said the process of getting land into community hands needed to be simpler.

Tuesday, 4 June 2013

Jim Hunter reads the Riot Act on Land Reform

An Suileachan, Bhaltos, Lewis on Friday 24th May 2013
"We’re now six years into an SNP Government which has so far done absolutely nothing legislatively about the fact that Scotland continues to be stuck with the most concentrated, most inequitable, most unreformed and most undemocratic land ownership system in the entire developed world.” -  James Hunter.

I was offline for most of the last week and didn't post my own piece on the opening of the Bhaltos land cairn. Andy Wightman kindly ran it as a guest blog on his own Land Matters site.

I went on a rare, dry Friday to the Atlantic coast of Lewis where the whole community of Bhaltos turned out to dedicate a monument to their shared past and future.

A brilliant stone sculpture, designed by Will MacLean and Marian Leven, commemorates land raids of a century ago and the recent community buyout of the island estate that will open a new door.

Places like Bhaltos, where the people own the land, are living proof that the land reform agenda is alive and matters.  Two of the prime movers of land reform in Scotland, Dr Jim Hunter and Brian Wilson, made speeches at the opening ceremony. They emphasised how land was the key to community development and empowerment and both shared their frustration about how progress has been stalled.

Hunter, who had to resign from the Scottish government's Land Reform Review Group for family reasons,  made clear in private comments his disappontment about the interim report the group produced.

Today, Jim, who is sympathetic to independence, has gone public with devastating criticisms of the SNP, telling Salmond and Sturgeon they must at least match Lamont's pledges on land reform if they are to be taken seriously on the issue at all.

Jim Hunter’s full statement :

“If the Scottish Government are serious about land reform, Ministers and the government machine more generally must be involved directly in the work of the group.

“The relevant Cabinet Secretary, Richard Lochhead, should himself chair regular meetings of the group and its advisers. And the group should include senior civil servants with expertise in shaping legislation. This would be to follow the highly productive precedent of the 1997 Land Reform Policy Group which paved the way for the Land Reform Act of 2003.

“The Government should commit right now to legislating in 2014-15 on community land ownership. What needs to be done in this area is clear from lots of evidence already available to the LRRG. The process of getting land into community hands needs to be simpler. And there have to be powers – of the sort to which Johann Lamont has committed the Labour Party – to ensure that moves to community ownership can’t be blocked by existing landlords.

“Beyond that, Government needs to tell the group to explore how council tax and business rates might be replaced by a land value tax – something the Scottish Parliament could introduce with existing powers. Such a reform would benefit Scots right across the board by reducing greatly the cost of land for housing and other development.

“And the Scottish Government has to get serious about giving tenant farmers a right to buy their farms. That’s been basic to land reform all across Europe. Danish farmers got a right to buy more than 200 years ago, Irish farmers more than 100 years ago. How much longer are Scottish tenant farmers to be denied a similar right?

“The SNP Government says over and over again that it’s committed to social justice. But there’s precious little that’s socially just about a Scotland where fewer than a thousand people own more than half the country and where tenant farmers, as the LRRG have discovered, are frightened to speak out for fear of repercussions from their lairds.

“Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said recently of Denmark that ‘it gives us a glimpse of the kind of country we might be’. Well, if she and her colleagues truly want Scotland to be more like Denmark, a country where big estates were long ago confined to history books, then land reform is where they need to start.

“As it is, we’re now six years into an SNP Government which has so far done absolutely nothing legislatively about the fact that Scotland continues to be stuck with the most concentrated, most inequitable, most unreformed and most undemocratic land ownership system in the entire developed world.”  

Monday, 3 June 2013

Harris quarry plans are not dead

On the west Harris hills looking south over Luskentyre

Back to Westminster after a week of blazing sun in the Hebrides. I met great people and heard many good tales on my travels. This is from my Daily Record column today, download the Record app for a full read.

They wanted to remove a mountain. It seems staggering now, but almost 20 years ago the idea of quarrying out Roineabhal, a huge mountain on the coast of the Isle if Harris was a real runner.

Redlands Aggregates, and later Lafarge, wanted to take ten million tons of rock a year away from the island for use on roads across the UK. The hole left in the landscape would have been visible from space.

After the longest public inquiry in Scottish history and much delay Ministers rejected planning permission in 2000 for the Lingerbay site. Lafarge walked away and the idea of a superquarry in south Harris was stone dead. Or is it?

I can reveal that Ian Wilson, the mining engineer with the original vision for the Harris superquarry, is back on the scene and hoping to open up for business again.

This time, he promises me, quarrying would be on a much smaller scale.

Speaking from his home in Scotland he said: "Very small scale mineral extraction might be possible but it needs to be tested. It would be nothing in terms of aggregate production if it went ahead. We are talking thousands of tons, not millions of tons. "

Wilson and partners are exploring the possibility of extracting a mineral called zoisite from the mountain which may, or may not, have a bizarre application.

He said: "It is a mineral which could have industrial uses in terms of being a natural fertiliser for asparagus. It has unique properties but it has a long way to go to be proved - so don't hold your breath."

The quarry was one of the last hopes for manual work in Harris. A decade on a different kind of economy has emerged. The population hit rock bottom but developments like community land ownership are encouraging.

In Northton, one of the villages most directly affected, half the houses are emptied. But there are four thriving micro-businesses involved in food, textiles and heritage.

They are experiencing a tourism boom which will expand on the back of the BBC Scotland nature series, "Islands on the Edge"

Each of these businesses is female-run and, given the lack of women and children on the islands, these are the kinds of jobs that point to the future.

Ian Wilson is a genial businessman trying to turn a buck from a place he invested considerable time and money in. There may be room for him in a shared future.

He said: "The site is open and the jetty is still there but it would be on a small scale that would leave no one unhappy."

For the communities living under the shadow of the mountain these reassurances will sound like an exploding stick of quarry dynamite.

Monday, 13 May 2013

This is Ground Control to Planet Point

He's not David Bowie but Canadian astronaut Chris Hatfield's version of Major Tom confirms him as the coolest cat in space. This is a video to send shivers of thrills down the spine of the space generation.

I remember man on the moon,  but thanks to Commander Hatfield I now recall as a youngster gathering around the red public phonebox in the village and calling dial-a-disc (Kids, it was like i-tunes on the end of a piece of string and tincan, but in the 70s).

The first song we heard, as we passed the receiver around, was David Bowie's Space Oddity. It was a voice from a far off place, a message from Planet Pop to Point and I think that's why I find the song just as thrilling today.

The Commander of Expedition 35 on the International Space Station, Chris Hadfield,  returns to earth tomorrow after his five month mission. Godspeed to you.

I don't usually publish comments (I do like feedback , but life it too short and if people have strong opinions they can start their own blogs.) I make an exception for David Woods - he is the ultimate space cadet, NASA medal holder, and the author of a great book that demystifies it all called "How Apollo flew to the Moon". If I was going to the stars I'd insist on having David at Ground Control.

Tuesday, 23 April 2013

Future of newspapers part I, part II and part III

Part I

I'm  very exercised by the fact that readers in the Western Isles can't get a copy of their daily newspaper now until the ferry arrives in the afternoon.

Loganair, the airline that supplied the islanders with their daily blatt, has upped their freight prices and made the exercise uneconomic, which is a huge blow to the reading public, the newsagents and the life on the edge.

My brother Donald Crichton is at the forefront of the campaign to have the decision reversed or to reach a happy compromise, hopefully that will bear some fruit.

Of course, I have a personal stake in all this (if we don't sell newspapers my job is on the line, and not just online). Also, one of the regular joys of going home is being able to read all the papers in the morning without having to actually do anything about what they contain - a pleasure denied.

For anyone feeling deprived of their morning read can I recommend the Daily Record App for your i-Pad which gives you an excellent "read as you see it in print" view of the paper. The app is free to download and free to read.

Not every bodach on Lewis has an i-Fhad yet, I realise, and the wireless connection leaves a lot to desired, but they're working on it I'm told. It probably is the future.

Part II

Other newspaper apps are available. I'm thinking of having to sign up for The Times app myself, just to make sure I can keep up with some of the Scottish news and comment from fellow Leosach Anguish MacLeod and others.

Michael Settle, my Herald colleague in the lobby, pointed out this morning that the Balkanisation of the British press is now almost complete. Of all the London papers today only the Financial Times carried an account of the Treasury report on the options for a Scottish currency post-independence.

I'm sure all the Scottish editions of the national newspapers did but readers in England are being deprived of the referendum debate which, believe me, they do have an interest in.

Despite the appetite news editors prefer to ghettoise Scottish news into Scottish editions. Breaking news - there are 800,000 Scots in England and a whole lot of other people who want to have a stake, and a voice, in the debate. Nationalism will be strengthened when England turns it back on Scotland, and the London newspapers are shaping that kind of future

Part III

This is a great time to be a Scottish journalist. There are huge stories to look forward to - from  the Commonwealth Games and the Ryder Cup - and every day throws up a new twist on the path to a referendum.

Times are hard, people are losing their jobs in each year of newspaper cuts,  but during the Scottish Press Awards last week all the speeches seemed to largely reflect the huge uncertainty we feel as an industry, and the legal challenges, with little fanfare about the opportunities we face as a profession.

I felt we were being a bit hard on ourselves, especially when the room was brimful of talented people being patted on the back for doing a great job.

We are feeling a bit fragile I suppose (I certainly was), but the choice is to embrace what is a great period for newswriting, or just live in fear of the future.

Wednesday, 17 April 2013

Scenes along the funeral route

Early morning, London
It feels like it might rain. I've just finished walking the course, as the commentators say before the racedays, from St Paul's Cathedral down to the Palace of Westminster under a typically slate-grey London sky.

The City of London police are lining the road in their silver buttoned uniforms, service medals shining, white gloves gleaming. They give way to the Met officers at  St Clement Danes, the boundary of the City of London, who have wisely dressed for the weather and not the occasion.

There are crowd barriers all along the two mile route, but apart from the steps of the Cathedral where some of the public have gathered, the streets at 7.30am were only busy with commuters on the way to work.

Behind the railings a group of  Para veterans, in their maroon berets and blazers, have stationed themselves on Ludgate Hill, where protesters had planned to turn their backs on Margaret Thatcher's coffin. If you want to dis-respect Thatcher then I guess you have to get up earlier than a Falklands veteran.

The police will facilitate protest, but not disorder, today. In a completely empty Trafalgar Square it didn't look as if anything was going to kick off soon. But neither did it look as if the streets were going to be thronged with mourners, even if Tory MPs have organised buses to come in from the shires.

Along the Strand and down Whitehall some had forgotten their manners, or perhaps forgotten that their buildings had flagstaffs and that the banners should be lowered.

The Scotland Office was cutting it fine, their St Andrew's Cross and Union flag still flying at 8am, when the government order had all Whitehall departments lowering to half mast from dawn to dusk. That was fixed shortly afterwards, just as the roads were being given a final sweep and sand was being sprayed onto Fleet Street's slimy surface so the bearers would not lose their grip on that last mile.

Big Ben chimed the hour but the further away from the tolling bell, which will be silenced shortly - last chime at 9.45 am  next at 12.59 am -  the less this spectacle resonates.

Two-thirds of  Scotland's councils have refused to lower their flags to half-mast in memory of Margaret Thatcher.

There will be lots of words today, but let's start with  Glasgow City Council leader Gordon Matheson who said it would not be appropriate to mark the funeral.

He said: “It is always sad when someone dies and I offer my condolences to the family of Lady Thatcher. The scenes of people celebrating in the city were embarrassing and distasteful.

“But In terms of the government led by Lady Thatcher, it created social and economic divisions which destroyed families and communities.

“The government she led was a disaster for the city and it would not be appropriate for Glasgow to honour that political legacy with such a tribute.”

Tuesday, 16 April 2013

How my Basque friends marked Franco's death

From my Daily Record column:

I have a friend from the Basque country whose stories about growing up in Franco’s Spain the Sixties are similar to those my father told about Scotland in the Hungry Thirties - no shoes going to school, no cars on the road, no meat in the pot.

When the dictator died in his bed in 1975 my friend Alberto and his brother, then young men, ran out and bought a bottle of champagne, which would have been the equivalent of buying a crate of the stuff last Monday.

The nationalist Basques lived under Franco’s heel for nearly 40 years, they had reason to celebrate.

It was an ETA bomb that killed Carrero Blanco, Franco’s heir apparent, in 1973 which they argued paved the road to democratic transition.

My jubilant pal and his brother were ready to pop the champagne cork at home when they were pulled up short by their mother.

She was an anti-Francoist who had witnessed the bombing of Guernica by the Germans and had a deep sense of ethics.

Alberto recalls she said: "We fought tooth and nail against him, but there is no honour in dancing over his dead body now."

It was a convincing argument. The brothers compromised, and drank the champagne to toast their dignified mother.

Monday, 15 April 2013

The punk monster Scotland created

My Monday column for the Daily Record

Star turn from Richard Dormer as Terri Hooley. the godfather of late 70s Belfast punk

It’s 1979 all over again - from the brilliant Belfast punk movie "Good Vibrations"   to the election re-runs on television last Saturday. It’s all a reminder of how we got to this place, to the divisive pomp of a Thatcher funeral.

Why David Cameron chose to pour the remnants of Olympic feelgood down the drain with a Commons session baffles me. Churchill had 45 minutes of tributes, she had a whole day, just to retoxify the Tories.

The ‘79 imagery reminded us too how 11 SNP MPs went into the voting lobby with the Tories to bring down the Labour government by one vote.

Jim Callaghan, all gallows humour, said it was the "first time in recorded history that turkeys have been known to vote for an early Christmas."

The SNP lost all but two of their seats in May, Thatcher was elected, the rest is history and rather a lot of myth.

There are more legends about Thatcher and Scotland than there are around Loch Ness. She presided over the destruction of the old heavy industries that gave central Scotland its 20th century Labour identity. The deep mines, the shipyards, the steelworks and the certainties they provided for a largely male workforce are gone.

She waged war on the miners, showed no compassion for the jobless misery of monetarism. But Thatcher didn’t just discriminate against the Scots, she had it in for working people all across Britain.

Somewhere we forgot she was just Queen of the South, not the Queen of England, and that she was in the tide of history as much as making history

We took Margaret Thatcher’s medicine very personally. Instead of dismissing her as the poster girl of globalisation, which swept away the Soviet Union as surely as it closed Scottish shipyards, Scots made her the lightning rod for intense pain of these worldchanging forces.

We held her responsible for every ill visited on our native heath. We didn’t like her policies, we didn’t like her "we in Scotland" tone, we didn’t like the poll tax.

In fact, most of the UK hated her but put up with it all because there was no opposition alternative.

In many ways she was a failure, her economic policies were more bonkers than Osborne’s. The welfare budget under the Tories, then as now, increased. She lurched on lubricated by North Sea oil receipts, the blood of the Falklands and late night whiskies to steady her nerves.

But instead of ridiculing her Labour demonised her and instilled fear among voters. Labour succeeded in making voting Tory a taboo in Scotland, and created a Frankenstein monster that came back to haunt it.

Having completed a one move chess game the party didn’t stop to think what the consequences would be.These Scottish Tory voters didn’t become socialist converts, they gathered around an anti-Labour alternative, the SNP.

The SNP, which took former Tory strongholds in north east, became the true inheritors of Thatcher’s division. From a rural, conservative base Alex Salmond managed to built, and hold together over two decades, a nationalist coalition that can talk left and walk right.

Labour was still fighting Margaret Thatcher in 2011, putting her face on Holyrood election leaflet and leaving the keys to the parliament under Alex Salmond’s mat.

Holyrood, her lasting legacy, was born from a collective determination to "never see her like again" more than any grassroots demand for home rule.

While she pulled us to the right, and we stayed there, she also put us on the road to self determination. Where that leads exactly we don’t know, but the SNP can be grateful for the convenient signpost she and Labour in inadvertently provided.

The SNP doesn’t like inconvenient history, like Hugh MacDiarmid’s shady fascist politics, and how it ushered in Thatcher’s Tory government.

Angus Robertson’s "We will never forget, we will never forgive" SNP declamation of the poll tax in the Westminster debate on Wednesday, reinforced the Scottish mix of malice and mythmaking around Thatcher.

She is divisive even in death. A Labour MP who stayed away on Wednesday vowed to me with equal bitterness that he would "never forget or forgive" the SNP’s role in unbottling Thatherism.

Wednesday, 10 April 2013

Agent Mendez, Argo hero, reporting for duty

CIA agent Tony Mendez: "If you were in the field during the Blitz, you wore a trench coat. If you were tracking Ivan, you had Harris Tweed."

My first Gaelic column for the Daily Record  (Suil Eile, every Monday) was about CIA agent Tony Mendez, the real-life American hero behind the Iran hostage rescue featured in Argo.

While watching the Ben Affleck movie I said to myself: "Wait a minute, I recognise that jacket!"

Sure enough, some research revealed that Mendez, played by Affleck, always wore a Harris Tweed jacket. The  clothes designer on Argo dressed the Hollywood star in the same style and Affleck made 70s tweed look ultra all over again.

Someone obviously thought this was a marketing opportunity too good to miss. Now Agent Mendez, whose Harris Tweed jacket is giving the fabric its highest-profile Hollywood exposure in decades,  has been honoured for his services to the cloth, the Clo Mor.
Tony was guest of honour at the launch of a new social media site, Need for Tweed, in New York this week, a Harris Tweed Hebrides intitiative to celebrate the heritage of Harris Tweed in North America as well current, cutting-edge use.

Speaking in New York, Mendez confirmed that the movie reflected reality and that Harris Tweed had been “part of what every agent wore” during his time in the service. “I wore it all the time,” he  said.

"The jackets were representative of our group. Those of us in the CIA who did overseas work, work in the field. If you were in the field during the Blitz, you wore a trench coat. If you were tracking Ivan (the Soviet Union and its allies), you had Harris Tweed."

When Ben Affleck asked him how he dressed during the Argo mission, Tony couriered to Hollywood the jacket he wore during the rescue drama in Iran more than 30 years ago – and which he had refused to part with.

His wardrobe has now been replenished – Tony was presented with a brand new Harris Tweed jacket by Brian Wilson, the former Labour MP and journalist who chairs Harris Tweed Hebrides.

Brian said: “Argo is the perfect link. Tony represents an era when every well-dressed American had Harris Tweed in his closet while Ben Affleck confirms why that would again be a great idea.

“By telling the story and honouring Tony, we hope everyone who sees Argo will be more likely to say – that’s a great Harris Tweed jacket Ben Affleck is wearing. I want one of them”.

You know Brian, that's what I thought too. Seo an colbh mar a sgriobh mi air 25/02/13.

Sùil eile... air fasan nan Oscars

Am faca sibh na h-Oscars a-raoir? Ainm gaisgeil Gàidhealach airson prìomh dhuaisean saoghal nam fiolmaichean, nach e?

Am fiolm a b' fheàrr a chòrd rium fhìn, 's e Argo, le Ben Affleck, mu dheidhinn Aimeireaganaich a bha fo bhruid ann an Iran anns na seachdadan.

Coimhead ris a' fiolm, thuirt mi rium fhìn, “tha mi ag aithneachadh na seacaid sin,” is i cho coltach ri tè a bh' aig bràthair mo mhàthar.

Rinn mi rannsachadh, agus ceart gu leòr, mhìnich an tè a rinn an t-aodach ann an agallamh gur e seacaid Chlò Hearaich a th' air Tony Mendez, caractar Ben Affleck, fad a' movie.

Bho na seachdadan gun t-seachdain-sa chaidh, bho Tehran gu Àird Thunga, chan eil càil cho fasanta ris a' Chlò Mhòr.

Monday, 8 April 2013

Thatcher and Scotland - the legacy of self-rule

Lady Thatcher has died, and while it is wrong to speak ill of the dead, the former Prime Minister was so demonised in Scotland that there will be few homes in which the mirrors will be draped with black cloth tonight.

There are more myths about Thatcher and Scotland than there are around Loch Ness, so they are best put to rest before the orations are made or before an arm stretches for the bottle cork.

In the mists of time she will be remembered for imposing the poll tax on Scotland, for the demolition of heavy industry like Ravenscraig steelworks and for reducing the number of Scots Tory MPs to nil. In fact, she did none of these three things.

It was the Scottish Tories themselves who demanded that the community charge, an individual local levy for services, be introduced in Scotland because they feared the backlash that would come from a long overdue rates re-evaluation.

Little did they know what they had sown, and the poll tax, introduced a year early in Scotland as a result, went down as a Thatcherite experiment on the back of an browbeaten nation.

Ravenscraig, of course, did not close until John Major was Prime Minister, and Margaret Thatcher actually gave British Steel extra subsidy to keep the steelworks open. Scotland kept returning Tory MPs, including her greatest disciple Michael Forsyth, for seven years after she left office.

There is only one certainty in Thatcher’s Scottish legacy - the movement for self-government and the independence would not have become half as strong had it not been for how unfairly Scots felt Thatcher had treated them.

Her biggest legacy in Scotland was that she engendered so much hatred that collectively the nation decided they never wanted to see her like again.

She hastened the movement for home rule and in 11 years as Prime Minister she made the process of devolution unstoppable.

The body politics of Scotland scorns Thatcherism, it is like a touchstone of the nation. But virtually all politicians are bound to the political path she established - private sector delivery of services, cuts in the size of the state, and market competition almost unfettered by government rules. She moved all of Britain to the right, and we have stayed there, even  though she could not destroy the spirit of 1945 that laid the basis for the welfare state.

She re-discovered British patriotism - the Falklands saved her and 255 servicemen paid in blood - but she hated the real patriotism people showed to loved institutions like the BBC and the NHS, and the spirit of British tolerance. Few will dance on her grave, but Danny Boyle’s Olympic opening was a balletic response to how Britain overcame her legacy of division.

Her philosophy was summed up in the notorious Sermon on the Mound, her address to the Assembly of the Church of Scotland in 1988 in which she tried to twist Christianity into a theology for capitalism and the market economy.

It was so far removed from the consensual, social Scotland that the speech provoked uproar and was seen as pivotal moment in the relationship between a Prime Minister who thought there was “no such thing as society” and a country which deeply valued its communities and sense of belonging.

Without Thatcher Scotland would be a completely different country, an unimaginable one.

She presided over the destruction of the old heavy industries that gave central Scotland its 20th century Labour identity. The deep mines, the shipyards and steelworks, the state industries and the certainties they provided for a largely male workforce are almost all gone.

They may have staggered on with the subsidy of a devolved Scottish Assembly, had it happened, or re-elected Labour government but they were wiped out by her Tory government and the march of globalisation.

She moved the great giants of the state -electricity, gas, telecoms and railways - wholesale into the private sector and undermined the power of the trade unions by using the police and the law against them.

The war with the miners, it could not be described as anything less, destroyed not just an industry but the basis for the existence of whole communities. From one end of Britain to the other Thatcher left communities without purpose, or reason, or hope. These deep wounds are still felt collectively and in some places she will never be forgiven for that radical change to our lives.

What is remarkable about modern Scotland is how much of that community and political cohesiveness survives as the country forges a new identity on a completely different economic base.

Yes, without Thatcher Scotland would now be a different country, one that would not be so far down the road of self-determination.

Thursday, 4 April 2013

Cameron sails into uncharted waters

There is an old  political adage, played out in the tv drama the West Wing - never let a good crisis go to waste.

As the nation woke to the news of the US deploying anti-missile batteries in Guam to counter a threatened nuclear strike by a rogue North Korea, David Cameron chose to issue a timely reminder of why he wants Britain to keep its nuclear deterrent.

But ramming home his case for nuclear arms with an audacious sail up the Clyde aboard a Vanguard submarine also sends the independence debate to Defcon Two, one step away from total war. 

The symbolism couldn’t be more explicit. While Alex Salmond is away gallivanting in New York the Prime Minister is parking tanks, or should it be subs, on his lawn.

Cameron has dismissed the idea of a one-on-one  independence debate with Salmond but here he is picking a fight on his own terms, with the biggest club in the armoury.
Downing Street want to make Cameron look like a duffle-coated Jack Hawkins (The Cruel Sea) in charge of our defence destiny, and reduce Alex Salmond to pipe-puffing Para Handy (The Vital Spark).

Cameron knows one of the big uncertainties for Scottish voters is what would happen to defence jobs and defence of the realm under independence. The SNP has not been able to assure the public on the issue and now Cameron is driving home the advantage.
Defence is one thing, but the multi- billion Trident deterrent is a divisive issue in Scotland. Having the city killer parked on the Clyde is a source of resentment for many Scots, but also a source of employment for many others. 

One result form the sub stunt is guaranteed - the SNP will go ballistic. Trident is a touchstone issue for nationalists. Opposition to nuclear weapons is one of the reasons many people joined the party in the first place, and focus group evidence tells the SNP it is one of the issues that appeals not only to the faithful but helps slice off some left wing votes that could otherwise be with the Union.

The SNP leadership will feign outrage, be privately delighted, and then use the pictures of “Kim Jong-Cam” astride the nuclear sub for the next 18 months.

But Downing Street is sensing that the SNP is on the back foot. With a tremendous election winning year in 2011 Salmond won the first round of the Battle for Britain.

Cameron, unlike the Spanish government, which has goaded Catalans into the hands of nationalists at each cack-handed turn, boxed clever and calmed the waters.

The PM offered to clear any legal impediment to a referendum vote in Scotland, so long as it was only one question and done and dusted by the end of 2014.

The talks were headed by the slow pulse Lib Dem Scottish Secretary Michael Moore, leaving Salmond only air to punch at. In what the SNP described as a historic deal, he was boxed into a one question vote within a time limit. Round two, in 2012, went to Cameron. 
In the 2013 phoney war, with over a year to run to a vote, experienced strategists are telling Cameron to up the tempo to stop any chance of Salmond getting back onto the front foot.
The SNP leader has suffered various slings and arrows this year, nothing fatal, but once you start losing forward political traction it is very difficult to regain.
Having the Prime Minister come up the Clyde in a nuclear sub is bound to provoke a reaction - a nuclear one from the independence camp for sure. But it will focus the minds of the majority of voters on the defence issue and independence and on that deep, almost subconscious concern, who guard us in our sleep. 
In that sense you see the pared-down strategy of Cameron’s Australian election guru Lynton Crosby having its effect on the referendum debate, combining with the tv opportunism of Craig Oliver, Downing Street’s Scottish-born director of communications. 
The must have thought it was a good idea, but this stunt is not like flipping burgers at a Downing Street barbeque with Barack Obama, where all that could go wrong was a singed chicken wing. 

As a photo opportunity this is high risk, potentially explosive even, and the debate could swing the other way. Remember, it is not just the Royal Navy that  has form for putting its own ships onto the rocks

Wednesday, 27 March 2013

The Milibands, the Jacob and Esau of politics, go their separate ways

You chose the wrong night to resign - that was a my initial,  cynical, reaction when news broke that David Miliband is to step down as a Labour MP.

If David Miliband shared the streak of ruthlessness his brother Ed demonstrated in standing against him for the leadership, he would have walked out on another night -  in June 2009 - when his friend James Purnell called the game on Gordon Brown.

Because he stayed loyal to the cabinet the Purnell rebellion that would have decapitated Gordon Brown and installed one David Miliband as leader never happened.

Instead the inevitable happened, and Labour went down to one of the most crushing defeats in its history because MPs allowed their loyalty to get the better of them, and were bullied and shackled to a flawed leader.

Not all, of course. An honourable exception was the late David Cairns MP, who was sacked from the government for uttering criticism of Brown's leadership style.

When David Miliband spoke at a memorial fundraiser for Cairn's charity a few years ago he was mesmerising. Defeat by his brother,  and a spell in the political wilderness, seemed to have done wonders for him.

He made an incredible speech at the event -  witty, warm, visionary and full of political potential.  People were left in tears, particularly those who had that day witnessed a flat-footed performance by his brother at Prime Minister's Questions.

But Ed Miliband has improved since then,  and the parliamentary Labour party remains remarkably united. But there was always the question of David hanging over the family.

Whenever he spoke in the Commons, or made any intervention, it raised the question of whether he would come back into the shadow cabinet, if the room was big enough for both brothers, and what the implications would be for everyone else in the court.

Had David joined the shadow cabinet we would hardly have written another word about David Cameron and Nick Clegg between now and 2015. The focus would be on the Jacob and Esau of British politics, one born clutching the heel of the other's ambition. It would have been intolerable for both, but it would have made incredible politics, and a combination that would have vanquished the Coalition.

Ed Miliband made an open door offer to his brother, but those who know them said they were not reconciled, which is the greatest tragedy of this saga. I have a brother, so I know how brothers wound each other, but the greater pain is not being able to recover from the fall out.  

Before he is even gone there is talk of a David Miliband comeback. But almost all the Blairites have gone now, and few in Labour will see him as a Prince o'er the water, waiting to come and claim the crown. The Tories of course will try to keep his shadow alive as much as they can,  an ocean of safety now between them and the danger he posed.

Labour is a tribe as much as a party, and if David Miliband is not engaged in the election of 2015, and Labour do not win, then the party will not take kindly to him waltzing back in without blood or a battlescar on his tunic. British politics, by then, will have moved on

For every man there is a season, a time for every purpose. If David Miliband harbours any bitterness about not being Labour leader it should go back to his own failure to recognise, on that night in 2009, that it was time for action.

Friday, 1 March 2013

The Miracle of Eastleigh

That was a long night, I fell asleep before the declaration in Eastleigh, maybe because twitter has robbed election nights of the drama of the count. 

But if you awaken groggy, just think of David Cameron who gets up this morning with a 12 star, continent-sized headache called Europe.

For nervous Conservative MPs eyeing their own slim majorities, the sight of the party beaten into a humiliating third place by UKIP amounts to an earthquake in England. 

Cameron's promise of an EU referendum in the distant future was not enough to slay the anti-European dragon, the fears over immigration and the growing discontent over economic stagnation.

Tory backbenchers will want a radical prescription in George Osborne's budget, the next political set piece of the season. But with Cameron ten points adrift of Labour a lurch to the right to medicine for winning an election?

With UKIP "coming up on the rails" all the way through the campaign, as its colourful leader Nigel Farage always claimed, then we may have a new vessel of protest. Farage is no Bippo Grillo, the comedian who snatched millions of votes in the Italian elections. But for anti-politics voters, wishing to curse mainstream parties as "all the same", he will do.

A few years ago that would have been a good place for the SNP to be in Scotland, but they are a party of government now and can only play anti-politics, decrying everything in the current set up, on the independence issue.

For the Liberal Democrats this has to go down as the Miracle of Eastleigh. 

They beat national polls that declare them dead and two scandals  - a bitter court case and an alleged cover up over sexual harassment claims -  that threatened to scupper Nick Clegg's leadership.

They also have the satisfaction of beating their coalition partners to a pulp, which is the Westminster equivalent of the nerds rising up against the school bully. Clegg can breath a sigh of relief, if only until more revelations come along in the Rennard affair this weekend.

Remember Eastleigh is a Lib Dem citadel with 36 councillors holding every seat in the area, backed in this titanic struggle by an army of volunteers from across the country. 

Not every Lib Dem seat can be so well fortified in a countrywide election. It would be foolish of the Lib Dems to read salvation into this Lazarus trick but survival looks possible in the light of Eastleigh's dawn. 

Wisdom is that if the Conservatives can't win in places like Eastleigh they cannot get a majority in the Commons. But by-elections do not write iron rules for general elections. The head to head fight between Tories and Labour in northern marginals is what will decide the next government of the UK. 

The warning for Labour, the tail end Charlies of the night,  is that although there are plenty voters unhappy about the coalition they are not convinced that  Ed Miliband and Ed Balls can do better in handling the economy.

The biggest issue in Eastleigh was not Europe, it was immigration, in a town with no visible ethnic minority and no great problem with racism. It is also an identified concern for the Scottish electorate but  Labour has not found the language of voters on this issue.

Concern over the cost of living for the "squeezed middle" and the "predatory capitalism" of the power companies worked for Miliband, eventually. He has his work cut out to deliver a clear alternative to a government that comes back to Westminster from Eastleigh as a vagabond Coalition.

Sunday, 17 February 2013

Scotland and Complicity

The cursor hovered "Michael Moore launches defence of Zero Dark Thirty" for a second before I realised it was the other Michael Moore, not the mild mannered Scottish Secretary, the Guardian was quoting over the critically acclaimed Osama Bin Laden film.
It must happen from time to time though - mail for the guerrilla film maker arrives at Dover House and invites from the Scotch Whisky Association find their way to a film production office in the USA.

Moore, the film maker that is, was arguing that ZD30 must be a good movie because "it will make you hate torture". It certainly does, the whole first act of Kathyrn Bigelow's hunt for Bin Laden follows the CIA down the rendition route, and very discomfiting it is too.

The second  part shows how buying a Lamborghini in exchange for a telephone number can be more productive in gleaning intelligence,  and that sends you down the rappelling ropes with the US Navy Seals  to the Bin-Laden lair.

Nothing to do with the Scotland Office, then. Nonetheless there is, as there always is, a direct and an oblique Scottish connection to the whole issue of torture, or there is at the Scotland Office at least.

It is  little know but Alun Evans, the civil service head at Dover House, arrived there last year having served as Secretary of the Detainee Inquiry - the UK investigation into "whether Britain was implicated in the improper treatment of detainees, held by other countries, that may have occurred in the aftermath of 9/11."

The inquiry was shut down prematurely last year and sent hasty conclusions to the government when the Met Police announced an investigation into the allegations the renditioning - the illegal transfer of prisoners of two individuals to Libya.

We still await to a full response to the unquiry but last month the UK government paid £2.2 million to settle a case brought by Libyan dissident, Sami al-Saadi, who alleged British involvement in the rendition and torture of him and his family, to the Gaddafi regime.

Kevin Toolis, the Scottish journalist and documentary film maker, is just back from Libya where he uncovered more evidence of British complicity in torture which might never make it into a report drafted by officials for the inquiry assisted by Mr Evans.

Toolis has a great journalistic track record and makes superb documentaries too. His first foray into drama, a very British take on state torture, is being aired on Channel 4 at 9pm tonight.

Complicit, deals with the very complicated issue of torture through a very layered and human story.  I've seen a preview, and it is a script and performances that make for very worthwhile viewing.

But back to the Scotland Office. Jim Wallace, the Advoate General in the government, the man who makes sure Westminster law and Scottish law knit together, tells a great yarn about Scotland and renditioning.

Wallace, a lawyer who studies historicial precedent, say that one of the first laws, if not the first law, the Westminster parliament passed in relation to Scotland after the Act of Union in 1707 was to ban torture.

Because torture was illegal in England its monarchs were apparently in the habit of sending their prisoners across the border to Scotland to have their conspiracies wrung out of them. The practice was abhorrent to the new state and so torture was outlawed across the kingdom. There is nothing new about renditioning, or Scotland's role in it.

When Wallace mentioned this, I flippantly asked if the English Crown might have used Prestwick airport for renditioning, as the CIA did for numerous flights taking prisoners from to black sites across Europe?

Quck as a flash, Wallace replied no, but they might have used Wick airport - indicating that we might all have been looking the wrong way when we focused on CIA flights in and out of Prestwick.

Sure enough Wick Airport, tucked away there in Caithness, features prominently in the Reprieve report on Scotland and extraordinary renditioning.

I think that's enough Scottish connections with torture for one afternoon, but congratulations to Kevin on getting his fim made. You can watch it on Channel 4 tonight at 9pm as you contemplate if anyone has clean hands when it comes to state torture.