Always Bring A Pen

23 09 2014

Hello new members!  I’m writing this at the point where you are part of 25,000 folk (and rising) who have signed on the dotted line – or rather ticked a box online – and signed up for the SNP.  You’ve arrived here via lots of different routes, but all in the wake of a referendum campaign that has reinvigorated participatory democracy like nothing else before.

The amount of razzmatazz the Yes campaign generated was unbelievable.  Someone tweets on a Sunday evening “hey, let’s all go to George Square on Tuesday for a rally!” and 48 hours later thousands of folk show up and have a laugh.  A guy on Facebook decides to have a get together at the Meadows on polling day and hundreds turn out.  We could have used you for the knock up though, folks…

Parties are different.  There’s a structure, there’s bureaucracy, there’s a rulebook.  There’s internal elections, selections, vetting, and delegacies.  None of this is bad, nor should it put you off.  It’s just the nuts and bolts stuff that keeps internal democracy and external campaigning functioning.  All parties get a bad rap for this stuff; a number of the commentariat like to occasionally poke fun at things that seem from the outside to be arcane and silly.  But when you’re actively involved in the mechanics of what keeps the show on the road, most of it is perfectly sensible and necessary to actually fulfil the function of a political party – to get things done, and done in a way that wins you votes and influence over the political agenda.

I remember walking along to my first branch meetings thinking they’d be hotbeds of debate; the nuance and intricacies of party policy vigorously contested by all strands of opinion, discourse and rhetoric filling the air from start to finish.  Of course, the main thing I remember about my first branch meeting was the discussion about what colour paper to print some leaflets on.  The debates and discussions are there – but you still need to keep the lights on.

Take campaign organisation.  In the Yes campaign, if you were part of a local group, you had a Lead Volunteer directing the operation.  In the SNP they’re Organisers, coming in Branch or Constituency varieties.  Organising campaigning is sometimes pretty tedious stuff; CSV files, clipboards, post-it notes, leaflet runs, stickers – if you’ve a stationery fetish this is your time to get your rocks off.  But it’s all incredibly important.  Think about the campaign when you went out knocking doors – you got lists with names and addresses on it, you got a pen, a bundle of leaflets – someone somewhere had to make up the lists, someone got the pens, someone made sure you had enough leaflets, someone decided it was that particular street in that particular scheme on that particular evening you were visiting, someone took away your completed canvass sheets and inputted the data… and so on.  It’s long, hard work, and the totally unsung heroes of the Yes campaign were the people around the country who did exactly this for 2 years, fitting it around work, family, the laundry, their lives.  If they hadn’t been burning the midnight oil putting all this stuff together, no way the result would have been the same.

And that’s just one aspect of it; there’s the policy discussions that – gasp in surprise at such antediluvian procedures – do happen.  There’s the internal debate about things like AWS or the composition of the National Executive Committee or how we select candidates which might seem dry and inward-looking even to anoraks like me, but actually matter.  It’s your party and it’s up to you how you and the other 50-odd thousand of us how we shape it and how it represent us.  Yes, you’ll be tearing your hair out on occasion as the branch meeting reaches AOCB on the agenda and you’re gasping for a pint, but I wouldn’t trade the simple common decency of a community centre on a Monday night, all of us having our say, something I wouldn’t swap for all the National Policy Forums in all the Labour world.

It’s this work that goes on, between elections, behind the scenes, that makes a party.  It’s the meetings and conferences – and sometimes the drinks afterwards – that bring you new friends, new perspectives, new thoughts, that make a campaign machine, that have you sharing confidences, that mean you’re part of a team.  You might have new ideas; they might be voted down.  Them’s the breaks.  Go back to the drawing board, get on the phone, and try to make them work.  We get these things right, the prospects for our cause get brighter.

What am I trying to say here, other than possibly coming across like a condescending twit breaking his 21-month old blogging hiatus?  I dunno.  Something like: there’s more to politics than the politics.  The craic’s good as well.  But always, always, bring a pen.



Ian Smart vs The Presiding Officer: A Rebuttal

23 11 2012

As loyal Labour types go, Ian Smart is a decent one, at least from my few interactions with him in the past and his appearances on TV discussion shows.  The thinking man’s limpet, clinging as he does to a party which, to its shame, never allowed him to stand for Holyrood.  I’d rather follow his timeline than some of the wibble-mongers who claim to be pro-independence.  But when he goes over the line, he’s does it big style.  His latest blog, on the subject of the Presiding Officer, Tricia Marwick, is a perfect example.  Head in sand, partisan, overly nasty in some parts, and (deliberately?) point-missing.  Let’s have a look at Ian’s blog and why he’s so very, very wrong.

There is no better example of the steady decline of the quality of the Scottish Parliament than the fact that Tricia Marwick is now its Presiding Officer.

It’s nice to kick off with an hyperbole-free introduction, leaning away from personal attack.  “No better example” – really, Ian?  MSPs screaming, “You’re ootae order” across the debating chamber like a pissed frog at closing time in the Welfare, is a fair example of a decline in quality from certain quarters, but of course that was aimed at the Presiding Officer, and is therefore fair game in your book.  If you’re going to play the “things ain’t what they used to be” card so early on, why don’t we mention the fact that Labour took a conscious decision to effectively bar their individuals of “quality” from returning to Parliament in the event they performed badly in 2011, by excluding them from the regional lists.  The consequences of that decision can be seen every time Hanzala Malik sits silently agape behind Johann at FMQs.  A “decline in quality” indeed, but the blame for it lies closer to Mr Smart’s door than the POs.

In 1999, the first Presiding Officer was David Steel. Now I am no Liberal Democrat but David Steel is a major political figure. In 1983, given a few percentage points, he could have been leader of the Opposition and, who knows, potential next Prime Minister. Throughout his life he has been a major player in the movement for Scottish Home Rule and he is, even today, a readily recognised public figure throughout these isles.

I like the “potential next Prime Minister” touch, although it’s perhaps overly complimentary of a politician who was popularly portrayed as literally being in the pocket of the SDP.  And the implication that Steel was some kind of superbly equipped P.O. by dint of his time in the Establishment is kinda undermined, when you remember it was his hand on the tiller during the most farcical and disreputable periods of the Holyrood building project.  Steel was a pretty good P.O. (and don’t forget, the only MP with the cojones to bring forward a Bill legalising abortion in the 1960s) and fair play to him, but let’s not rewrite recent history.

A “potential next Prime Minister” (the one on the right)

In 2003, he was replaced by George Reid, perhaps not as well known throughout the UK, but still a well known and respected public figure in Scotland. One, surely, of the more intellectual members of the SNP and recognised even by his opponents as a person of truly independent mind, in both senses of that word.

Now, given the circumstances leading up to Ian’s blog – the suspension of an MSP for discourtesy aimed at the chair – you’d think he’d recall some previous occasions where MSPs got kicked out.  Carolyn Leckie was the subject to similar treatment for a similar incident back in 2004, and she was again involved alongside other SSP MSPs a year later, this time being expelled for ONE MONTH.  With no pay or allowances for the duration.  I assume Ian either didn’t remember these events, or given his hearty endorsement of Sir George Reid’s time in the chair, also approves of the punishments doled out.

In 2007 we had Alex Ferguson. Now, no disrespect to him, he was hardly either Steel or Reid in terms of previous record but he was regarded across the political sphere as a decent cove who could be counted on to arbitrate freely and fairly (if not always correctly) on the matters placed before him. And, anyway, given the numerical dynamic of that Parliament, he was one of the few people prepared to stand.

I think Ian is underselling Fergusson here, given the crazily tight parliamentary arithmetic of the time, and having to deal with an unprecendented rejection of a government’s budget, I think he acquainted himself pretty well over the piece.  As well as ensuring loads of folk making silly points about Presiding Officers spell his name wrong.

And then in 2011?

No harm to Tricia Marwick but she had hardly set the Scottish Parliament afire in her previous twelve years during which she had only featured briefly on (even) the opposition front bench. She was (and is) the sort of person who can prosper in any Party by working hard for the cause and never saying anything remotely controversial. I could easily identify numerous similar members of my own Party now sitting comfortably on the Holyrood or even Westminster benches.

The implication here is that to be a good PO, you need to have had a high-profile political career.  I’d like the evidence for that from Speakers of the HoC and POs in Holyrood of recent times.  Indeed, picking someone with a career on the front benches would be guaranteed to stir up trouble from the get-go (which is why it almost never happens, and never in the modern era), as opposed to someone respected within the chamber for, as an example, their work on the Scottish Parliament Corporate Body over a number of years, as Tricia Marwick is.

And politics, all politics, needs such people. Deep breath, she reminds me a bit of Michael McMahon on our own side.

Surely the cruelest comparison that can be made in Scottish politics, aside perhaps from a likening to the aforementioned Mr Malik.  Again, the hyperbole coming through here.

But, in the aftermath of the SNP landslide in 2011, somebody decided that she should be made Presiding Officer.

Eh…. Tricia Marwick?  It’s a stab in the dark, an educated guess if you like, but it’s possible she thought she’d like a crack at it, had a blether with some trusted friends and family, and, in the immortal words of Mr Ron Pickering, “Away ye go!”.

For what it’s worth, I doubt if that was she herself for she strikes me as somebody not driven by personal ambition. Rather, I suspect that more serious operators within the SNP realised the importance of controlling the chair and employed all the tools of flattery to persuade her to put her name forward. Which she did, and then found herself, to her own incomprehension, elected. A bit like Chance the Gardener.

Ian’s got form for this comparison, indeed last time it was the MSP for Eastwood and then-putative Scottish Labour leader Ken Macintosh whom he likened to Chauncey the Gardener.  (I would find the relevant tweet but my google-fu seems to have deserted me. It’s out there anyway.)   I suspect nothing would persuade Ian and other fellow-travellers in the Labour party of the truth, but for what it’s worth, I’ve spoken to several people about this ‘she wis telt tae dae it’ mince since last May, and all have asserted totally that the leadership had next to hee-haw to do with it; it was entirely Tricia Marwick’s decision to ultimately put herself forward.

But having been put there as a pawn, that is exactly how she has behaved and in consequence her authority has steadily declined. Leading ultimately to the debacle of the last 48 hours.

The events of the last 48hrs, and Smart’s justification for his blogpost, stem from the inability of the likes of Michael McMahon to behave in the sort of way that you would on a number 23 bus, never mind Parliament.  If anything, acting against the kind of boorish behaviour on display from McMahon and his comrade Hugh Henry (on spittle-flecked form at Thursday’s FMQs), would only seem to boost the POs authority, and especially amongst the public, who tend to take a dim view of elected members acting like weans.

It’s perhaps also worth pointing out that the PO gave both Johann Lamont and Ruth Davidson an extra question each to sling at the FM on Thursday – a session which, let’s be honest, was not his finest hour – which sort of tells you a lot about this “she’s a tool of those power-crazed Nats” horsepoo.

Of all the MSPs likely to be suspended from the Scottish Parliament, Michael McMahon would be pretty far down the list. He, himself, is such a decent fellow that I myself have previously railed against his even handedness in allowing SNP members to talk pish, without contradiction, in his capacity as chair of the Welfare Reform Committee.

‘His disagreements, even with me, show what a great guy he is’.  Hmmm.  I don’t watch committees too often, but convening them, with their consensus and all, doesn’t really match up to trying to keep 128 MSPs in order, some of whom’s behaviour (including McMahon’s) would get them kicked out a finger-painting session in their local Primary School).

His “offence” was to express his frustration that in attempting to cover up for her Leader’s most recent duplicity, the Presiding Officer was “out of order”, as, on any objective view, she was. Her reaction was to suspend him from Parliament.

His offence was to bellow “You’re ootae order” at the PO as she attempted to bring the sitting to order.  That’s an attack on the competency of the chair, not done out of genuine concern about procedure, but rather because Michael McMahon is a rather boorish man, unconcerned with niceties.  That’s his business, but he shouldn’t try and drag political behaviour down to his level.  And as outlined above, the precedent from George Reid’s time in the chair is a punishment of a day in Holyrood’s jail cell (not really, he just sat in his office and called a ludicrous press conference).

In the heat of the moment, I made a number of intemperate remarks on twitter about the Presiding Officer earlier today. I withdraw them.

He didn’t just withdraw them; he deleted them from his feed.  For the record, comparisons were made between Scotland and Zimbabwe.  Last week it was sleekit eejit Kirk Ramsay comparing Scotland to Syria.  Can these folk just make up their mind as to which brutal dictatorship they want to offensively compare this country to, and stick with it?  I’m getting old and can’t keep up.

She is not consciously partisan; she is simply, out of her depth, unable to resist doing what is whispered in her ear by the same more serious operators. For that is, after all, how she progressed to her current exalted position.

This is a fairly serious allegation.  One, it is a direct attack on the impartiality of the Presiding Officer – and claiming that she’s some kind of automaton under the control of the SNP hierarchy.  Being a lawyer, Ian will know the law on defamation better than I, but making out that she’s having instructions “whispered in her ear” and blindly following them, sails pretty close to the edge, given her current occupation.  Two, it’s a direct attack on the ability of the Presiding Officer – “out of her depth, unable to resist”.  And three, as I mentioned above, not a shred of evidence has been put forward for this conspiracy theory about the PO being manuervered into her position by Nationalist practitioners of the dark arts – indeed quite the contrary.

But if she is to prosper in that position she must, in the words of St Paul, put aside childish things.

This St. Paul guy – is he a UNISON member?  Interesting Ian talking about childish things, when the great overlord of prog-rock amongst MPs, Tom Harris, had a pop at the PO for having the temerity to pull up Johann for calling the FM “Pinocchio”; minutes before he accused her of “flaunting her SNP membership card“.  The TWENTY POUND cash jackpot available to Tom Harris for bellowing “You’re ootae order” at Speaker Bercow at the next session of the House of Commons remains in situ, by the way.

She could start, any time soon, by pulling up the First Minister by observing that what he had just said was not an answer to the question asked and that he must try again.

As has been explained time, after time, after time, after time, after time, Presiding Officers aren’t reponsible for the content of answers (or indeed anything uttered) in Parliament.  They are there to keep things under control in terms of the tone, respect and procedures Parliament has agreed to.  That’s Parliament, not the PO, and not Government.  If Labour’s Z-list troops can’t hold the executive to account for giving, in their view, an insufficiently complete answer, maybe they should find some MSPs who can.  Tricia Marwick is not responsible for the paucity of depth and talent in the Labour party.

Who knows, if she was prepared to do that, even once, she might yet become as distinguished as her illustrious predecessors.

The thing about Smart’s attacks on Tricia Marwick are that they form part of an overall campaign of denigration by the Labour party, whether Ian realises it or not.  The attacks on the Presiding Officer and parliamentary procedure (procedures agreed by all MSPs), the vitriol towards Government ministers, the neddish behaviour of some Labour MSPs week after week, the continual insinuations of lying, deceit, crookery, and nefariousness that spout forth day after day from the Labour group now seem part of a wider attempt to undermine many of the collective institutional pillars of the Scottish political set-up, to chip away at the public’s confidence in the home-rule project bit-by-foam-mouthed-bit.

A wilder conspiracy theorist than me might postulate that in their desperation to ensure the defeat of the Yes campaign, Labour have decideded to bring the entire house down, and hang the longer-term consequences for themselves, but more importantly the nation.  I don’t know.  But while Ian Smart, Tom Harris, Michael McMahon, and others of the ilk peddle their toxic brand of mince, I’m on the lookout for a structural engineer or two, just to be on the safe side.

EDIT: With more elan and Biblical references than I could muster, Lallands Peat Worrier expands on my concluding paragraph here.

Uniquely Incapable Of Rehabilitation

20 11 2012

A few weeks ago I caught part of an edition of Brian Taylor’s Big Debate, live from the Bar-L (Brian is so hardened to the prospect of Twitter jail that the real thing holds no fears for him).  The audience was made of up of prisoners, prison officers, social workers, criminal justice professionals and the like, while the panel was pretty much standard fare for a topical debate show.  As you might expect, the focus was on the penal and criminal justice systems and policies that affected the venue day in, day out, and what was clear was that the idea of rehabilitation and reintegration into society after prison is firmly established within the professional and political classes who wrestle with these issues.  Speaker after speaker decried the idea that prisoners should end their sentence with nothing more than a travel warrant and a letter for the DWP, and instead emphasised the importance of the state and wider society aiding ex-inmates with their entrance back into ‘polite’ society.  I couldn’t agree more.

So it was interesting to see the reaction to ex-MP/MSP Lord Mike Watson’s attempts to regain membership of the Labour Party.  Watson was gaoled in September 2005 for 16 months, after admitting guilt on a charge of willful fire-raising, serving his sentence in Saughton Prison and being released after 8 months in gaol.  The exact nature of Watson’s crime would best be described as “getting absolutely pished at a posh hotel, being annoyed he got a knockback at the bar, then setting fire to some curtains as a kind of pisshead’s revenge.”  It shouldn’t really be necessary to stress the next bit, but for the hard of thinking, here goes: no-one, not least myself, condones what Mike Watson did that night.  You’re waiting for the ‘however’ now, right?

However, he’s served his sentence.  He resigned from the Scottish Parliament on the day he pled guilty, and remains a parliamentarian in the House of Lords only by dint of the archaic rules around membership and eligibility (if he’d be an MP, he’d have been automatically out on his jacksie, guilty plea or not).  Unfunny eejits like me continue to crack jokes about curtains whenever the opportunity arises (in my defence let me say I resisted the childish urge to bellow “It’s curtains fur you, pal!” when I passed him near Victoria Station, London, last year).  He hasn’t, to my knowledge, re-offended or broken the conditions of his early release since 2006.  I very much doubt the usefulness of the House of Lords as a revising, second chamber, but their curtains and other draperies remain untarnished.  In short, he has got on with his life, easy though that may be with a guaranteed income for attendance at Westminster.  How long are we to dangle his inebriated felony above him and lash out at anyone or any organisation he associates with?

As the guests on Brian Taylor repeated time after time, allowing and encouraging ex-offenders to re-integrate themselves back into society should be – and I think has been for over a decade now – the prime focus of the post-penal section of our criminal justice system.  Mike Watson’s ‘society’, if you like, was the Labour party.  A Labour activist, Labour employee, Labour MP, Labour Lord, then Labour MSP.  I can tell you, as a member of another political party, that your party membership doesn’t just come with a declaration of political principles; it comes with an entire social network of friends, relationships, events, and memories, that are just as much a part of your day to day life as the former schoolmate and workmates you duck down the pub with.  It seems to me, therefore, that part of Watson’s return to ‘polite’ society means him attempting to rejoin the party with whom he spent nearly all his adult life.

I couldn’t give a toss about the application itself.  Whilst I’m eager to ensure as few people sign up for Labour membership as possible, it’s a battle I’m going to lose from time to time.  What irks me instead is the idea that politics and politicians should be almost uniquely excluded from the idea of rehabilitation and reintegration.  If Jimmy the Joiner goes to the gaol for some unspecified offence, it would be crazy for his social worker to say to him upon his release, “You’re not going back to the circular saw again, even if you can find a job with it” (although if Jimmy the Joiner turned out to be Jeffrey Dahmer, the SW might have a point).  There has to come a point where the sins and crimes of the past become merely the punchline to a poor joke or two, not a reason to exclude someone from the arenas they formerly kicked about in, and certainly not a reason to criticise their attempted purchase of a plastic card from a political organisation.

If we’re prepared to give Watson a going over for his sins, how many people itching to donate themselves to politics and the betterment of society take a look at the times they’ve been steaming, stoned, angry, stupid, or young in decades past, possibly collecting a criminal conviction for their actions, possibly leaving only a photo on Facebook as evidence to be dug up years later, and say to themselves: “Not for me, ta.  Best to keep the heid down.”  I’d rather we had a better nation than that.

A Guest Post From Alistair Darling

9 11 2012

Hullo, I’m Alistair Darling.  You may remember me as the UK Secretary of State for Transport who brought in wholesale change in the railway sector without addressing the fundamental problems inherent in a privatised passenger train network, and also for my guest-starring appearance as the Chancellor overseeing the scrapping of the 10% tax bracket.  But I’m here today to advise you, the people of Scotland, as to what you’ll feel is “ours” if you decide to vote for independence.

I have taken my headphones off as they were blaring out some Creedence Clearwater Revivial. They were about 200 years too late with “Lookin’ Out My Back Door”.

You see, after independence, you’ll no longer identify with those songs, films, TV programmes, books, artworks, poems, plays, and other cultural products that currently fall under the category of “British”.  What was once “ours” will become “theirs”, and thus a reign of artistic darkness will fall upon Scotland, a bleak midwinter of Jimmy Shand LPs and Paul Coia repeats.  Your soul will no longer feel alive and at one with the sparks of creativity that happen to emanate from other parts of these Isles, and instead will spitefully eject acclaimed talent from your heart, to be replaced with No Mean City paperbacks.

I’ve taken the liberty of outlining some individual cases for you, as to guide your quest through what you should feel is “ours”:

1. George Frideric Handel


While you may feel Water Music to be an appropriate anthem for such a climatologically-challenged nation such as ours, a Yes vote in 2014 will ensure you derive no universal human joy from his catalogue.  Not only German-born, he also became a naturalised British citizen and premiered Messiah in, of all places, Dublin, where mine blog host stayed in the hotel named after him.  On no account must you feel that an independent Scotland would allow you to bathe luxuriantly in Zadok The Priest, or indeed listen for one second to its use as the Champions’ League theme tune.

2. Super Furry Animals


Not only will Scotland feel instantly ill at ease with the Welsh popsters after independence, their insistence in singing in their native language from time to time renders doubly jarring the rejection they will inevitably face if powers over, for example, defence and foreign policy are transferred to the Scottish Parliament.  I would advise any youngsters who currently possess a copy of any of their beat-tastic albums to sell them now, ahead of the inevitable price crash when thousands of CDs go on the market at record shops across the nation.

3. Oscar Wilde


This chap was “theirs” initially, then became “ours” until 1922, then became “theirs” again.  At some point he became “ours” again, and you can’t have him.  Not if you vote Yes.  He was lying in our gutters, looking at our stars, and being gaoled in our prisons.  Any admiration or connection you may have had for his writing and reflection of the human condition will disappear in Autumn 2014 if you give the wrong answer on your ballot paper.  Your copies of The Ballad Of Reading Gaol will no doubt be subject to confiscation by Salmond’s cultural commissars, so I recommend you read them now while you have the chance.  And obviously Stephen Fry and Michael Sheen will be off-limits too, so no more QI & The Damned United for you.

I have selected but three examples from our cultural milleu, but be under no doubt; an artistic steel curtain will descend upon Caledonia if you choose to establish a new system of government for the country.  Those shared, tender moments with your loved ones experienced to a soundtrack of music composed and performed by people outwith Scotland will metamorphise in your mind into a dark, dank nightmare, haunted by the spectres of Del Amitri and The Time Frequency.  The times you sniggered away on the bus as you read Adrian Mole: The Prostate Years will be no more.

Don’t let this happen to our great and proud nation.  Vote No to Independence.  And help keep Keith Lemon “ours”.

Cameron’s UKIP Indyref Problem

6 11 2012

Erstwhile enemy of the more excitable types on Twitter, Euan McColm, had an interesting piece in the last Scotland on Sunday, discussing the partial disconnect between David Cameron’s premiership and the broader Tory base, and the problems facing the party as they attempt to square the circle of coalition politics, the traditional tack to the centre so beloved of UK party leaders, and the desire of the Thatcher uber-fanboys to pursue an even more right-wing agenda.  I don’t quite know how they could move further to the right without withholding benefit payments from anyone who watches The X-Factor, but there you go.

What caught my eye in McColm’s piece in particular, was the mention of UKIP as a past and future threat to the Conservatives.  After their inability to secure an overall majority in 2010, they will be desperate to avoid a similar fate in 2015.  How UKIP do in squeezing the Tory vote, even a seemingly modest level of 1 or 2%, could be the deciding factor between Cameron striding triumphantly into Number 10 fulfilling his Eton-forged manifest destiny, or being forced to break bread with whatever’s left of the unprincipled muesli-knitters he’s currently forced to rely on for a majority – or even a narrow Labour majority, with Ed Miliband blinking in the early May Friday morning like a guy who wanted a trip to Westworld only to end up sharing a room with Yul Brynner.

Having last time peeled open the history books of recent times a little bit, I’ve polished the crystal ball for this one and gazed into two parallel universes…

Scenario A involves a ‘No’ vote in 2014.  The independence movement, whilst not about to go off and disappear to Rockall or what have you, are disheartened and demoralised (I know I’d be straying little from my slanket and hard liquor for a day or two anyway).  Meanwhile a triumphant PM Cameron basks in the reflected glory of the result, proffering the victory of the pro-Union campaign as evidence of his political competence and statesmanship.  The Tories wrap everything not yet covered in red, white and blue in the Union Jack – and by the end of the referendum campaign, that’s unlikely to be much – proclaim themselves ‘saviours of the United Kingdom’, and align this attitude with the centrepiece manifesto commitment of their 2015 Westminster Election campaign – a referendum on continued membership of the European Union.

The context for this massive shift in government policy comes from UKIP’s overwhelming victory in June 2014’s European Elections.  A public, tired of 4 years of austerity, watching the Eurozone economies racked with paralysis and crisis (or at least portrayed as such by a not-so-secretly smug London media class), with Labour still treading water under Ed M and the LibDems fatally toxic, give Nigel Farage’s gang over a quarter of the vote and seats, effectively emulating the Tory result of 2009, although as ever their vote in Scotland falls well short of the ‘winning’ post necessary to secure a seat under PR.

Piggybacking on the pro-UK message being pumped out by the Unionist parties, UKIP position themselves as the one true completely pro-British party, in favour of one Union on these Isles, but against another across the English Channel.  With a ‘No’ vote in the referendum secure, they use the 7 or so months left before the UK General Election to select 100 marginal seats that will determine the fate of any possible Conservative majority, using their newly-acquired MEPs and connected resources to pressurise Cameron and the softly pro-EU Tory leadership to finally acquiesce to their historic manifesto commitment or face major problems at the polls.

The PMs attempt to head off the challenge at the pass is, on his terms, a success, with the Tories securing an overall majority of 26 and the LibDems reduced to a rump of just over a dozen, but with a potentially party-splitting referendum to come…

Scenario B involves a ‘Yes’ vote in 2014.  Negotiations with the rUK government begin on the final independence settlement, due to come into effect in early July 2016, and I enjoy my hard liquor for a day or two (but leave the slanket in the drawer).  Cameron’s earlier mauling the hands of UKIP seems like a parish council by-election compared to the doing he takes from the Tory backbenches, the press, the BBC, the opposition… you get the idea.  Now it’s not about heading off the anti-EU forces at the pass to ensure a Conservative majority, it’s about his own survival as PM until May 2015, and secondarily avoiding a disaster for the Tories at the election, blamed as he and they are for the End Of Union (it deserves capital letters I think, despite what the style guides may say).

Not waiting for UKIP to make their inevitable attempt to increase the unemployment rate amongst Conservative MPs, Cameron waits a month following the referendum, then announces that in the wake of Scotland’s future independence, a critical reassessment of Britain’s place in the world is needed.  Now that one debate about the Union has been settled, it’s time to settle another.  Blah, blah, blah, you get the drift.  Attempting to pre-empt any outflanking on his right, he declares that the party manifesto for the year after will contain a concrete pledge to hold an ‘In or Out?’ referendum on continued rUK membership of the European Union.  Scotland, heavily engrossed in its own move forward as a country, looks on as a curious and concerned friend, wondering why the neighbours have suddenly turned stark, staring mad.

UKIP and the by now incandescently bonkers Tory right maul Cameron, declaring that The Man Who Broke Up Britain (their caps this time) can’t be trusted to ensure the democratic rights of the rUKanian people, but a mixture of inexperience, lack of activists, and dirty tricks by both Labour and Conservatives puts paid to their ambition to behead a Conservative leadership they perceive as traitors.

The PMs attempts to head off the challenge at the pass are, on his terms, a success, with the Tories securing an overall majority of 26 and the LibDems reduced to a rump of just over a dozen, but with a potentially party-splitting referendum to come…

Ach, OK, I probably wouldn’t have made a very good Gypsy Rose Lee.  But it’s not hard to see a threat emerging for Cameron and the Conservatives from UKIP.  It’s easy to see how a pro-UK campaign, extending UK-wide, and proclaiming the virtues of the UK as a sovereign entity, would play into the hands of Nigel Farage.  After all, it’s what he’s been banging on about ever since he entered politics.  UKIP would be crazy not to jump on the chance to try and force the major Westminster parties into what they’ve been campaigning for since day one, and together with the Tory party at large, there’s a fair chance they’ll get it.

The question for ourselves up here is whether we want to be around when it happens.  I don’t, and I rather suspect a majority of my fellow resident don’t either.  Sadly, my crystal ball doesn’t say whether that’s reflected in the result in Autumn 2014.  We’ll have to wait for that one.

A Highly Topical Post

4 11 2012

It’s exactly 6 months since the results were declared in Scotland’s local authority elections.  Normally you’d expect a cynical partisan hack such as myself to be putting together a ‘look at all these Labour manifesto promises hanging in the air half-a-year on’ type post, but to be honest, what’s the point?  They’ve got another 4 1/2 years to make an Archie of it, so we’ll save that bit of analysis for another day.  Maybe I can post that particular blog the day Glasgow’s free municipal wi-fi gets switched on.

But the ‘anniversary’ (OK, I’ll be honest, I was looking for something to blog about and my eyes alighted on the calendar) prompted a bit of thought from me about the last year and a bit and what I’d been doing.

You’ll sometimes hear (usually beaten) candidates declare afterwards “I enjoyed every minute of the campaign”.  Do not believe them; it’s a wee white lie.  If I’d been deemed important enough to have a microphone shoved in my face immediately after my declaration, I’d have forced a grin (an unappealing sight at the best of times) and utter the same banality.  It sounds better than the alternative – “It was grand, but sometimes I just wanted to neck a bottle of MD 20/20 and stay in my pyjamas for a weekend” – and gets the retrospection out of the way sharpish.

There are plenty of bits of a campaign that are awful, depressing, soul-destroying, infuriating, annoying, or just plain crap. Getting called an “ugly fucking rat” at someone’s doorstep (possibly right on the first point, failing their Zoology exam on the last).  Realising you’ve missed the only bus for the next hour and trying to jump a taxi to the workday, only to remember it’s Old Firm day. Gazing out of the window at work as darkness covers another minging February evening and knowing you’ll be squelching your way from close to close delivering leaflets taken from a box that seemingly has no bottom.

Of course, those kind of moments stick out in the mind more. I can honestly say they were far outweighed by the always surprising willingness of folk to tell some complete stranger at their door their beliefs (and let’s face it, looked from afar it is a fairly strange way to spend a Sunday afternoon), the camaraderie of the campaign team,

And cards on the table here, having box upon box of leaflets going through doors, exhorting people to vote for you, with a nice colour headshot and “VOTE MACKIE – 1” emblazoned on them, is a wee ego boost. I am but a fallible creature.

Rewind the clock about a year from polling day, to just after the Scottish Elections.

Myself and a few pals were having a chat about the next test, the council elections.  Either at my suggestion or someone else’s, the idea of me standing came up.  There may have been some drink involved.  Anyway, after a few weeks of umming and aahing about it, I decided to go for it.  I genuinely thought really seriously about it, firstly because you don’t want to let your constituents down and make an arse of it, particularly in the a city not reknowned for its high quality municipal governance.  Secondly, because you don’t want to let your party down, especially the activists giving up vast quantities of their time and money to help win elections.  And thirdly, because the thought kept cropping up, “There must be loads of folk much better than me out there”.

But I decided it was worth throwing my hat in the ring, as a first step anyway.  In political parties, it’s not as simple as that.  All candidates have to undergo vetting, which sounds worse that it is.  The Mandelsonian era of New Labour seems to have left people with an image of thumbscrews and mind-control rays when it comes to candidate selection, but the reality is more prosaic.  It’s just to determine whether you’re the right person for the gig, a kind of pre-interview in advance of the real thing.  After filling in my application form and collecting a referee or two, a day of various interviews and sessions at a Central Glasgow hotel ensued, and a few weeks later my Wonka Golden Ticket letter confirming me as an approved candidate came through the post.

In between the vetting and the approval, I’d spoken to a couple of people in Govan about the possibility of me standing there.  They were happy for me to throw my hat in the ring, and in October I stood in front of a selection meeting and gave my wee five-minute “vote for me” speech.  Whether it made any difference, or whether folk had an idea of how they were voting before entering the hall, I don’t know, but I can tell you I was bricking it.  My left leg involuntarily tapped away as I tried to vocalise the reasons why I wanted to be a councillor.  I’d given speeches before to National Conference, appeared on telly for work-related stuff, faced the wrath of Jeremy Paxman in a couple of episodes of University Challenge, but I can honestly say that night in the Pearce Institute was one of the most nervous of my life, I guess because I personally had a big stake in the proceedings.  The membership must have felt the leg-tapping was not a handicap to being a candidate in Govan, and I was selected to stand alongside incumbent Cllr and Group Leader, Allison Hunter, and Tahir Mohammed.  I repaired to Brechin’s across the road for a celebratory (and calming) Babycham.

What can I say about the campaign itself?  It whizzed by alright, a haze of leaflet runs, canvass sessions, Saturday afternoons at Govan Cross handing out leaflets, introducing myself as “one of your candidates” (which took me a long while to get a hang of) to complete strangers, the sinking feeling as you look down your canvass sheet and see 14 ‘Outs’ in a row, falling asleep on the 34 bus after an evening of leafleting in the howling rain, getting suited and booted for our manifesto launch in George Square, realising we had thousands of newspapers in storage at the other end of the city and no-one with a car available to pick them up, and all the rest.

Did I mention I was Organiser as well?

What I’ll always remember about those months are the campaign team.  They were (and are) a joy to work alongside, dedicated, hard-working, never complaining even when I sent them off to a street of tenements in the dark with a sack of newspapers that would cripple Charles Atlas.  They were funny, supportive, constructive, bright, unceasing, and I could hand out fifty quid notes and gold bars to them every day for the last decade and still not come close to repaying the debt I owe them for all their hard work.  After all, I had a life-changing prize at the end of the campaign if all went well (spoiler: it didn’t).  They were doing it because they believed in the party, the cause, and the candidates, for nothing more than the satisfaction of doing it.  They slogged their guts out, and while, like any normal human, have my moments of sorrow for myself, my biggest regret is not giving them the victory the worked so, so hard for.

Polling Day from my perspective was oddly relaxing.  I stood for a shift outside a few polling stations, chatting to folk entering the buildings and handing out ‘How To Vote’ cards, asking people to use their preferences in a particular way so as to maximise the number of SNP councillors elected.  Polling was ‘brisk’, because polling is always ‘brisk’.  10pm arrived, and instead of the traditional rush to the SECC for the count, we went our separate ways, to reassemble at 9am on Friday – May 4th – for the results.

The count itself was a strange affair, impersonal and sterile.  Gone were the rows of tables with papers dumped on straight from the ballot box, three people grabbing handfuls and gradually working through, counting and sorting.  Instead there were columns of LCD panels flashing up images of ballot papers after they’d went through a scanner.  I’m not much of a romantic, and have the MP3 playlists to prove it, but the clinical effieceny of the operation meant the whole event was missing something palbably human.  And, of course, they weren’t that efficient in the end up anyway.

So the machines work their way through votes and wards, until we arrive at Ward 5: Govan.  You’re summoned, along with the other candidates and agents, to a curtained-off area backstage guarded by blazers.  Evidentally I didn’t appear much of a candidate (and who can argue with that?), as I was greeted with, “CANDIDATES ONLY, PAL” as I approached the entrance.  “A bit like going backstage at T in the Park”, I obviously didn’t think at the time but have subsequently added to my memory by way of adding some colour to an otherwise fairly dull anecdote, as I flashed my pass.  Inside was the lecture theatre of a travelling university, 20-odd seats facing a wee projector screen.  With our 14 candidates, plus the election agents, and some hangers-on who strictly speaking should have been elsewhere, it was standing room only.

It would be nice to be able to say what happened next was burned in my mind for all eternity, but it was far too dull for that.  The Returning Officer got up, rattled through some procedural stuff, stuck a spreadsheet on screen, then went through the stages of the count as figures popped in and out of existence in each subsequent column.  At the first count, I knew I was in bother, and my second running mate was stuffed.  There was a wee moment when a couple of candidates were elimnated in quick succession and it appeared their transfers had carried well over to myself, but like Scotland going one up against Brazil, it merely angered the gods.  At the end the RO declared the winners, and that was that.

Govan being Govan – the sitting councillor being our Group Leader, half of the ward in Nicola Sturgeon’s constituency, and the fact we’d ambitiously stood 3 candidates, it was subject to a wee bit more media attention that most.  The three of us filed out of the “room”, behind the victorious Labour candidates, camera lights glaring into our eyes.  I remember pacing behind Nicola & Allison as they walked round to the front to do so impromptu interviews, I guess in my head at the time wanting to show solidarity in our disappointment, but was promptly elbowed out the way by some camera-hungry types eager to be seen in shot.  I stepped off to the side by five feet and became a civilian again.

In the couple of months after polling day, I vowed to all and sundry, “Never Again”.  There could’ve been a by-election to become President of the Galaxy with me the sole nominee, and I’d have knocked it back.  With the benefit of some chronological and psychological distance, I honestly don’t know if I’d stick my name for another election in the future.  Without trying to sound pompous or preening, I hope I’m a relatively sharp and honest man, and I’d like to think I’d do justice to being an elected representative, both for my hypothetical constituents and my political beliefs.

There’s nothing unique about what’s written above; you could find a thousand similar stories if the possessors of them were as self-absorbed as I, and willing to hammer out a couple of thousand words on the subject.

It’s just as I said, I looked at the calendar and had a think back to what had been.  And what might have been.

Remembering Is Asking The Right Questions

1 11 2012

It was a wee bit of running joke in my family to mention my Granda’s WW2 spell in the Film Unit in Italy.  A wee bit of ribaldry whenever ‘The Guns Of Navarone’ or the like turned up on a Sunday afternoon before Scotsport.  Except that after he died, it transpired he was at Normandy. And not on a wine tour.  Like a lot of men of that generation, he minimised his role in the conflict once he was back in civvies.  He ended up in the Film Unit, sure, but only because he got shot in the arse on the beaches of France.

I don’t say ‘shot in the arse’ for comedic effect.  You might want to imagine a bullet shot from a German machine gun ripping through your flesh as you land on a strip of sand in a country you little about, in a war you know as much as any 19 year old would.  That’s why he ended up spending the last bit of the war showing Ronald “Fucking” Reagan films to guys marching up the Apennines.  After that, he got sent home, eventually taking up employment in a nationalised industry, before taking early retirement when it was privatised.

He never wore an Earl Haig poppy.

My other Granda was a bit younger.  He ended up stationed in post-war Palestine, keeping the peace on behalf of the long-dead Arthur Balfour and his half-pissed Declaration.  Stationed down the road from the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, he popped out for ten minutes (knowing my Granda, it was probably for 10 Embassy Red) and came back to find a smouldering shell where British HQ had been.

After that, he was shunted to Egypt, spat on (and I mean literally) by a population sick of British colonisation after nearly 70 years of occupation; and sent to Malaya to fight a nasty, colonial, resource-driven conflict, which the Empire ultimately lost, in keeping with the rest of the pink disappearing from the map.  Coming back to a Corpy house, he did a turn on the Corpy buses before becoming a mechanic for the Scottish Ambulance Service, dying of cancer before he received a penny of a pension.

He never wore an Earl Haig poppy.

I tell these stories of dead family members, not because I’m proud or because they are in any way remarkable – although I am and they are – but just to reject the nasty little smear that echoes around the right-wingers in our midst at this time every year, the lie that only by wearing a red poppy do you properly remember the dead of conflicts past.  I know neither of my grandfathers had much difficulty remembering their time in the army – the death, decay, violence, and inhumanity – and neither countenanced sporting a poppy (that’s not even mentioning my Belfast-born great-grandfather, who, in lieu of any work for young Catholic men, joined the British Army just after WW1 and had the IRA shoot him out of his house for his troubles.  After that he set up home, like thousands before him, in the Gallowgate.  I suppose therefore I have the IRA to thank for ensuring I exist.  Talk about metaphysical conundrums).

Were they being disrespectful to their comrades?  I challenge anyone to utter those words.  I challenge anyone to minimise the totality of experience they went through, a period of their life that very few alive today can properly comprehend.  I challenge the likes of Melanie Phillips, and the other spittle-flecked reactionaries who denigrate those of us who remember the victims of wars via methods they disapprove of, to say I disrespect my grandas and the men and women alongside them by consciously deciding not to don a red poppy.

I wear a white poppy because I think nearly all of those killed at war are worthy of our thoughts, because I believe nearly all human beings are fundamentally decent creatures driven to indecent actions by their environment, and because the idea of valuing human lives higher because they happened to be born on the Tyne rather than the Rhine sits uneasily with me.  Those are only my beliefs; it’s not for me to say whether they’re right or wrong, whether they’re the most appropriate way to view war, coloured as they are by the prism of my 21st century, relatively safe perspective.

To say these things is to be accused of “politicising” the act of remembrance.  Good.  I can think of no better way of remembering the waste of war than by asking questions of the political decisions that led us to war in the past, the decisions that determined the world we live in today, and questioning that world.  Questions like: Why the life of a Bavarian WW1 conscript sent to die by the butchers in Berlin isn’t deemed worthy of official commemoration, while the life of a Bradfordian WW1 conscript sent to die by the butchers of Belgravia is?  How young men and women end up being blown up by home-made landmines in the backstreets of Kabul, while 5 miles away other young men and women end up being blown up by US-made cluster bombs, all the result of the decisions taken by some of those besuited types lined up at the Cenotaph?  When did we as a society relieve the Government of its responsibility to assist those injured and wounded as a result of being sent into conflict by those suits, and instead implore the public to fund their care and rehabilitation?

Remembrance isn’t about whether you wear a red poppy, a white poppy, or no poppy at all.  A moment of honest, thoughful reflection on the horrors of war is worth more than a thousand flimsy pieces of material, especially if those thoughts re-occur at other times of the year.  If the presence or otherwise of that material helps concentrate the mind, use it.  But it’s also about asking those questions and many, many more.  It’s about demanding answers of those past, present, and future, who hold the lives of millions in the balance, as to their motives and reasons.

To go meekly along with the Establishment and attach a red poppy on your lapel simply because you fear the opprobrium of others if you don’t, seems to me to be the worst way possible of respecting the spirit of those who, in their last moments, must have known better than any of us what the worst of war means.  And who, one hopes, would want us to ask the questions that might save their descendants from a similar fate.