Follow by Email

Tuesday, 19 November 2013

Where There's Muck, There's Brass

It's been a long time since I've had to think about my school qualifications. This morning, however, I've dusted off my passes in Higher Economics and Mathematics and made an interesting deduction - I'm certain my teachers at Dunoon Grammar School would be incredibly proud.

Depending on which figure you believe (I've taken the median figure) current UK National Debt is running at £1.3 trillion.

Assuming a Yes vote in the Scottish Independence Referendum next September, Unionists say that Scotland will assume a pro rata share of that debt.

Calculation One: 8.6% of £1.3 trillion = £111.8 billion

What Calculation One shows: A 'pro-rata' Scottish share of UK National Debt.

Now, that completely independent think-tank The Institute of Fiscal Studies concluded in its report yesterday that an independent Scottish Government would have to service any national debt using loans repayable at 6.65%. For the sake of comparison, that's about three times the rate curently paid by the UK. It's also substantially more than other economic 'power houses' like Bulgaria, Hungary and Slovenia. Indeed, within the EU, only Greece would pay more according to the IFS. We could argue about the rate but let's play along...

Consequently, an independent Scotland would have to spend substantial sums merely to keep national debt at sustainable levels.

Calculation Two: 6.65% of £111.8 billion = £7.4 billion

What Calculation Two shows: The yearly payments required from an independent Scottish Government merely to keep 'our' National Debt static.

Funnily enough, that is suspiciously close to the IFS assessment of the annual deficit faced by an independent Scottish Government, around £6 billion per year. Therefore, they say, in order to reduce the National Debt, an independent Scotland would have to raise taxes or make substantial cuts. It also means that almost all of Scotland's supposed structural deficit is taken up by interest payments on the debt ran up by successive UK Governments. And, incidentally, that £1.3 trillion deficit figure almost exactly matches the figure given to bail out the bankers. Neat, huh?

Of course, we know that under an SNP administration, an independent Scotland would make cuts including approximately £1.5 billion per annum in Defence spending. We would also be relieved of our potential share of paying for HS2, London sewerage works and a whole host of rUK commitments - all of which would eat into that £6 billion annual shortfall. We also know that an independent Scottish Government would be making decisions that benefit the Scottish economy rather than that of London and the south east of England hoping that they would stimulate growth and eat further into that deficit. Add to that those rUK headquartered companies that will continue to operate in Scotland after independence whose tax receipts are currently counted in rUK figures but whose VAT and Corporation Tax, generated north of the border, would now accrue to a Scottish Exchequer and the figure diminishes yet again.

But here's where it gets interesting. What if we had no National Debt in the first place?

I can hear the uproar from the Unionists already but, in fact, this is a position they have talked themselves into. They have, for some time now, warned Scots of three separate, 'separation' scenarios, all of which would lead to exactly that position.

Scenario 1: You take a share of UK National Debt but don't you dare ask for a share of the National Assets bought whilst accummulating that Debt. They all belong to rUK.

News for you guys. No share of assets equals no share of debts.

Scenario 2: The rUK is the sole successor state. Independent Scotland will have to re-apply to all international organisations. You are a brand new country, you have to start again. By the way, there's no guarantee you'll get into the EU, UN, NATO the Commonwealth etc, etc...

International law is fairly clear on this. No successor state status; no debt attributable to the 'new' country. It's like a bigger version of Rangers and The Rangers.

Scenario 3: The rUK will not be inclined to grant you currency union. It's the Bank of England's pound. You can't use it. Sod off and use the groat or the merk...

Again, international law and conventions are unambiguous on this one. If we have no stake in 'your' currency, we have no obligation to repay any debts run up in its name.

So, Unionists, you have a problem. Either admit a shiny, new, independent Scotland has no debt from day one...

...or admit your spokespeople have been economical with the truth or, as we say in Scotland, full of shit.

Monday, 4 February 2013

And Now, The News Where You Are

Dedicated to Bill.

"The trouble with Scotland is that it's full of Scots."

A famous line from a famous movie of dubious (to say the least) historical accuracy. Nevertheless, probably a fair estimation of Edward I's appraisal of the troublesome kingdom to the north. Clearly, in these troubled times, some in London's political corridors of power hold similar views. No doubt, those same views are being espoused by individuals in Galashiels, Gairloch and Glasgow.

Which is fine. People, after all, in democracies hold a whole range of views. I don't wish to see any of them suppressed. It may not be unfair to ask whether those who direct one of our revered national institutions agree with that view.

When, in November 2011, BBC Scotland stopped allowing comments on the blog of Political Editor, Brian Taylor, some suspected that the north British branch of the state broadcaster was exercising something akin to censorship.

Regularly, the comment facility was flooded with contributions from those that seemed to support independence for Scotland.

Some suspected that BBC Scotland was uncomfortable with the perception this created, ie. that large numbers of Scots might vote Yes in the upcoming referendum.

Some imagined that this was in direct contrast to the position that must be taken by BBC Scotland as an organ of the British state.

Some stated that those at Pacific Quay were merely looking after their own livelihoods; fearing for the prospects of a British Broadcasting Corporation in a future independent Scotland.

Some, including me, pointed out that - at the very least - BBC licence payers in Scotland were being discriminated against in relation to those in other parts of these islands. In this blog from April 2nd, 2012 I remarked on the anomaly that the BBC Political Editors in Wales, Northern Ireland and all eight English regions allowed the people who pay their wages to comment on their blogs. Only in Scotland was this privilege removed.

In terms of the BBC's own Charters and operating guidelines the decision was, to say the least, a strange one. Nation may speak to nation but, it appears, a nation may not speak amongst themselves - except in England, Northern Ireland and Wales of course.

At any other period in Scotland's modern history the decision would have troubled many. In the context of the Independence Referendum, when those of every political persuasion agree that Scotland faces its most important political decision in over 300 years, it was frankly bizarre.

But we needn't have worried.

"We believe that by determining which particular issues might best be explored by the inclusion of public comment online, we will allow a more flexible and adaptable approach to be taken to how we cover the main issues in Scotland."

The words of BBC Scotland's online news editor David Maxwell, quoted above, were reassuring. The BBC, naturally, at those points of the campaign when the BBC decided the public should be allowed to be heard, he seemed to be saying, they would be. The BBC was going to uphold its reputation as a responsible and fair national broadcaster. Voices wouldn't be silenced, the Corporation would merely select those occasions when it wanted to hear them.

Today, is February 2nd, 2013. How many times, in the ten months since my blog, in the fourteen months since the BBC Scotland decision, have David Maxwell and his colleagues allowed Scottish licence payers the opportunity to comment on Brian Taylor's blog?

Not a single time. Zero. Nada. Zilch.

Two possibilities occur.

Either BBC Scotland have determined that the last fourteen months contained no instances of import in the lead-up to Scotland's Independence Referendum OR they've decided the voice of the Scottish people shall not be heard on these matters. 

Scots will not be allowed to discuss the issues with other Scots on the national broadcaster's online platforms. The only information we are to receive on the issues will be the information supplied by Pacific Quay. Which is fine, I suppose, because the BBC is beyond reproach. No-one on the staff has a political bone in their body. At all times, we can be assured, news will be unfiltered, un-nuanced and uncorrupted. 

Over the same period, naturally, those in Wales, Northern Ireland and the eight English regions have been able to comment on all of the blog submissions by their respective Political Editors - including on some posts which were directly related to the question of Scottish independence. I hope the people of the rest of these islands don't feel too encumbered by their surfeit of free speech - it's a heavy responsibility.

Luckily, we in north Britain have BBC Scotland to tell us what to think. 


Thursday, 24 January 2013

First Draft: A Daimen Icker In A Thrave


I. The Beginning of the End
Carrick took his Lungo – no flavourings or fripperies – and chose a table in the far corner next to the window. He scanned the street, searching for the old man, but saw nothing. Disappointed, he unfolded his newspaper and tried to read but his periodic surveillance meant he took little in. He raised the tall cup to his mouth, taking tentative sips, and waved an uninterested, yet obliging, hand at the tan leather chair opposite when asked if the seat was taken.
The newcomer, though, surprised him by lowering himself stiffly into the much closer wooden chair and Carrick looked up to find himself studying a face that had become reasonably familiar over the past few days. Glimpsed, until this morning, only fleetingly and from a distance but, without doubt, the same face. Lined and worn. Pale skin nipped red by the chilly late-Spring breezes. Mid-seventies, Carrick guessed, despite the eyes – bright blue, alert and alive.
The vigilant eyes flitted down to Carrick’s newspaper. “I see you prefer your misinformation artfully delivered.”
“The Sudoku is more challenging too.” Carrick was happy to play word games. For now.
An equivocal smile hovered on the old man’s features. “Favourite writers?”
“In there? MacWalter and Beale.”
“Ah, the voices of reason. I tend to prefer the critics, the world-weary hacks. Gardner. Hutchinson. Gaye. In the end, they serve a greater purpose.  Convincing those in the bubble that they are somehow representative. That negativity will win out. That aspiration is a weakness.”
Carrick gazed at the Caffe de Rege symbol on the window as he gathered his thoughts. Perhaps, in retrospect, in recent months, he’d been too indiscreet about the UK establishment; Dr Kelly, 7/7 and paedophilia in the corridors of power. He rejected quickly, though, the ridiculous notion that the Security and Intelligence Services might employ a secret cadre of septuagenarian assassins. Even more outlandish was the prospect of a pre-hit question and answer session. They could learn all they needed to know from his social media footprint – he hid very little. Clearly, however, he was being targeted in some way. By someone.
He smiled, realising he was checking the insignia on his coffee cup. He had not, after all, wandered into the Chestnut Tree Café. That, at least, lessened the prospects of him being spirited away and ‘re-educated’ in IngSoc. Not, of course, the absolute worst thing he could imagine. He did a little of his own probing. “And the others? At other newspapers? Corcoran? Faversham?”
The old man chuckled artlessly. ‘They speak for no-one. To no-one. Except themselves and each other. They’ll convince nobody.”
“And you. Who do you speak for?”
“I’m merely a messenger. Nothing more.”
“Then what’s the message? And why follow me around for days before delivering it?”
“My apologies. I realise it was clumsy but I wanted to choose the right time. Not to alarm your family. To marshal enough courage to speak with you.”
A pretty poor excuse for a contract killer, afraid to approach his target, thought Carrick, perhaps I’m not going to die just yet. Then, castigating himself for allowing his imagination to run riot, simply responded, “I’m all ears.”
“Let’s hope that at least one of them is able to hear.”
Carrick had put up with enough of the jousting. “Listen, I get the Biblical reference but I really hope you’re not about to invite me to a Personality Test or ask me to take a copy of The Watchtower. If you are, you’ve just wasted three days when you could have been targeting more saveable souls.”
The stranger laughed softly. “I, we, have been watching over you for far longer than three days, Mr Cunninghame. You, and others similar to you. But the choice has been made now. That is the message I’m happy to be able to deliver. You’ve been chosen.”
“Chosen?” Now Carrick was the one laughing. “By whom? For what purpose?”
The older man lowered his gaze and stared at the table for a number of seconds. When he raised his head to look back at Carrick, his eyes were filling with tears. “Not by whom. It would have been more accurate to ask by what. And the purpose? What greater purpose could there be? To be of service to your nation.”

II. The End of the Beginning
The lead horseman stood tall in his stirrups, as if doing so would give greater import to his words. He was getting impatient. “We have ridden hard from Dunfermline on a matter of the direst emergency and must speak with the abbot. Open the gate!”
The gateman, an illegitimate second cousin of the abbot, had not long been given his post and was wary of allowing strangers in at this ungodly hour, possibly upsetting his benefactor. His peace of mind was not helped by the knightly visitors refusing to divulge their names. And even in the half-light of a northern summer, not one of them wore any surcoat that he could identify. In these uncertain times, with disturbing news reaching the Abbey on an almost daily basis, he did not wish to expose his kinsman or, indeed, himself to any unnecessary danger.
“Can it not wait till morning? You may seek lodgings in Perth or take shelter in the barn yonder. The brothers rise early for Lauds, little more than three hours. Surely your message will save till then?”
“Ye Gods, man. I will break down the gate if I must and then cleave your head from your shoulders if you do not allow us entry. We are on a mission that concerns the future of the entire Kingdom.”
Seyton was certain that the gate would survive an assault from the obviously lightly-armed force. He was less sure that his neck would put up the same resistance to any sword wielded by the broad-shouldered man berating him. There was little doubt that these men would eventually gain entry, even if it were in a few hours when the Abbey stirred to life once more. He did not want to risk to fortune the prospect that the angry knight would have calmed down by then. He would try a different approach. “I am inclined to allow you and your party entry, sir Knight, but I must seek permission from those inside. Please wait.”
There was no answer and Seyton hurried into the depths of the abbey hoping to find anyone who would relieve him of this unbearable responsibility. Crossing the courtyard, he was delighted to see Brother Aongas emerging from the sacristy having, no doubt, just replaced the vestments and sacred vessels used for Matins. Seyton grabbed the unfortunate monk’s sleeve and, babbling incessantly all the while, dragged him bodily to the gatehouse where, having gained some intelligence from the gateman, he announced himself to the party outside the gates.
The lead horseman turned to the man on his right who represented the other great faction in their fractured nation and spoke quietly, “We are still agreed on our course?” The other’s curt nod sealed the pact.
“You will forgive me, Brother, if I do not reveal my identity and that of those who accompany me. I refuse to do so only for the safety of everyone inside. Others may follow us and it is best for all of you that you possess no information of use to them.” Edward Bruce knew that this was, at best, an optimistic premise. Any that followed them here were likely to show little compassion to those inside. “We are representatives of the Council of the Realm of Scotland and carry their instructions for the abbot. We also carry letters from Matthew de Crambeth, your own Bishop of Dunkeld, transported here from the French court. Our business is a serious one and relates to the very survival of our realm. I beseech you. We must come inside.”
The sacristan made his decision quickly. “I will wake the abbot.”
Thomas de Balmerino looked up from the letter at the nine earnest young men filling his small warming-house. “The Council could not have come to this decision lightly. As you know, however, we have been entrusted with this responsibility for hundreds of years. I must take some time to decide what I should do. After all, I see that your letter has not also been signed by the King.”
“The King no longer makes decisions for Scotland. It has been this way since December last. All know this to be true regardless of who occupies the throne. And that occupation, I’ll wager, will not last much longer. Indeed, none of us here can be sure that we still have a King.”
Bruce’s remarks drew a hard look from the young Comyn, but no argument.
“Nevertheless, it does leave me in a rather difficult position. I’m sure you understand.” The abbot stroked his chin. “Perhaps, the letter from my Lord, the Bishop of Dunkeld, may offer some guidance…”
“Forgive me, Father. There is no letter from the Bishop. It was a device we… I thought to use to help secure our speedy admission to the Abbey. Every minute wasted endangers the realm. I apologise.”
The abbot sighed deeply. “I must take some time to consider my response.”
Comyn now got to his feet. “I’m sorry, Father. The Council do not require your response. These are instructions, not requests. And we, as servants of the Council, cannot allow our aims to be frustrated. We shall remove the Stone and no-one will prevent us from doing so. You may be assured of that. And now, as instructed, the letter.”
Hesitantly, the clergyman placed the parchment in the young knight’s fist and he promptly threw the crumpled missive in the warming-house fire. All watched in silence as the document’s secrets expired in the flames.
Again it was the kinsman of Badenoch who spoke. “No use dawdling. Father, we will take what we have come for. The only question now is a replacement. Do you have anything suitable within the abbey or nearby?”
Edward, somewhat irked at having his leading part usurped was, nonetheless, impressed by the young man who was barely seventeen. He would take careful watching. Like all Comyns. The abbot, for his part, still stared at the fire, transfixed, and Edward took his opportunity. “Father! A substitute! We may already be running out of time. The Hammer may be close.”
The abbot seemed to wake from his paralysis but was still clearly wrestling with the implications of the demands made. He looked uncertainly at Edward but was distracted by the young Comyn gently laying a restraining hand on the forearm of an even more impatient knight whose hand had strayed to the handle of his dirk. “There is something, yet it is hardly suitable.”
“Show us,” chimed both young nobles, showing rare unity of purpose.
Only Bruce and Comyn could squeeze into the small chamber with the abbot. Despite the stench, both laughed open-mouthed and unreservedly.
“You have outdone yourself, Father. I can think of nothing more suitable,” Comyn declared, “for one so full of shit to use as his Kingly stool.”

Monday, 21 January 2013

Head Banging

Some people have asked to be kept up to date with my efforts to get a response from every Scottish MP on whether they agree with Ian Davidson's infamous Bannockburn comments referred to here and here.

Thus far the response has not been encouraging with only two SNP MPs making a proper response and one Labour MP making a half-hearted one.

The vast majority are declining to answer by invoking Parliamentary protocols which they either do not understand properly or understand perfectly well but are using as a shield to avoid answering.

Reproduced below is a typical to and fro with a Honourable Member who belongs to the Labour Party. I have excised the name to avoid embarrassing anyone.


Dear Mr Adams,
Thank you for your recent e-mail to XXX XXXXXXXX MP.
Under Parliamentary rules and codes of conduct, Members of Parliament may only take up matters raised with them by their own constituents.
On this basis I would be grateful if you could provide us with your full postal address.  This will allow us to confirm that XXX XXXXXXX is your Member of Parliament and able to assist you with this matter.
In the event that XXX XXXXXXXX is not your MP we will be happy to pass your e-mail to your own Member of Parliament.
Yours etc...

Of course, I was not going to let it lie there...

Dear Mr XXXXXX
Thank you for your response which, although informative in a number of ways, is factually incorrect.
There are no Parliamentary 'rules' to prevent MPs taking up matters for non-constituents. There are, however, advisory protocols regarding the issue which more than one Speaker of the House has acknowledged are not hard and fast rules but that Members should apply a common sense approach to.
In any case, these protocols do not apply to my enquiry as I am not asking Mr XXXXXXXX to raise an issue or pursue an action on my behalf but merely asking for his reaction to some aspects of the debate on Tuesday, 15th January.
I trust that this will dispel any fears you may have that I am asking Mr XXXXXXXX to breach Parliamentary protocol in any way and I look forward to his response to my original enquiry.
Warmest regards etc...

At the last count, I have 27 such dialogues in progress and am determined that my 'best laid plans' aren't frustrated. I'll keep those interested up to date with further developments.



The SNP and Racism

Ask one hundred Scots what the best thing about Scotland is and while you're not likely to get one hundred different answers, it won't be a kick in the backside away from that. Home towns; mountains; coastline; wildlife; literature; the Enlightenment; family and friends; golf courses; whisky; her inventive past; her exciting future; and a multitude of other things.

Ask the forty-one souls elected to the 2010 Westminster Parliament under the Labour banner and I suspect you may find a greater deal of unanimity.

Do they not agree with Samuel Johnson that "The noblest prospect which a Scotchman ever sees, is the high road that leads him to England!"

It would certainly seem so. The suspicion that they send what they consider their best and brightest to Westminster rather than Holyrood is evidenced not only by the pitiful opposition benches in Edinburgh (with a few notable exceptions); but in the knowledge that progression from Holyrood to Westminster is considered 'promotion'. In recent years this has been a path trod by both Margaret Curran and Cathy Jamieson.

This in marked contrast, of course, to Yes Scotland Chairman Dennis Canavan who made the opposite journey to show his commitment to Scotland and Scottish issues. The First Minister made the same journey.

It is also clear from appearances on televised debates about the future referendum in Scotland, when few of the 'home team' are to be trusted as Labour's messenger. That duty normally falls to Anas Sarwar, Margaret Curran, Douglas Alexander, Jim Murphy and, of course, Alistair Darling - Labour's so-called 'big-hitters'. These are also the personalities wheeled out when there is a tight or important election to be won.

The air-time allowed to Scottish Labour's 'Leader' - Johann Lamont - in comparison to the 'Big 5' only serves to confirm the assertion.

This mindset may explain a rather strange exchange during the Section 30 Order Debate in the House of Commons recently.

Jim McGovern, the Labour Member for Dundee West felt moved to ask Ian Davidson the following question:

"Does he find it somewhat odd that the former England football captain, Terry Butcher, will be entitled to vote in the referendum, but Sir Alex Ferguson will not?"

For the uninitiated, Butcher - in his playing days - was the epitome of the English bulldog and once completed a match for his country with a particularly serious head wound. The resultant photograph of him leaving the pitch, his head swathed in blood-soaked bandages, has gone down in English football folklore. He has, for some time, been the manager of Inverness Caledonian Thistle and he and his family seem very happily settled in Scotland.

Sir Alex Ferguson, of course, is the Manchester United manager and has lived in England for over a quarter of a century. He is, of course, a well-known backer of the Labour Party - something not uncommon amongst multi-millionaires in this day and age.

Terry Butcher's political allegiances are, as far as I am aware, unknown. That is, perhaps, why Jim McGovern was keen to question his right to vote in the upcoming referendum.

I sincerely hope that is the only reason because it would be worrying and somewhat insidious to question anyone's entitlement to vote on the basis of ethnicity or birthplace. Especially when the Scottish National Party are regularly characterised, by those on the Labour benches, as anti-English extremists. This, despite my own confident assertion, that amongst Scottish political parties the SNP will comfortably have the greatest number of members born outside Scotland.

To be fair to McGovern, I can see another reason he might be suspicious of Butcher. The Englishman was recently given the opportunity to move south and manage an English club (Barnsley) where, no doubt, he could easily have tripled or quadrupled his Inverness salary. This is clearly highly suspect behaviour to Labour apparatchiks who slaver for the chance to take Dr Johnson's high road to the promised land.

McGovern might even have worried that Butcher loves Scotland more than he and his colleagues do. After all, despite these arch-Unionists forever telling us how much they love their country, they are never slow in doing it down in public and in Parliamentary debates - along with the SNP, the Scottish Government and the Scottish Parliament which they, to their eternal credit, effectively created.

But then I started looking at the debate again and discovered a number of Labour and Conservative MPs questioning the validity of non-Scots voting in the referendum. It became clear that the anti-independence parties have, at minimum, a significant minority of MPs who want the entitlement to vote in the plebiscite decided on ethnic grounds alone.

Labour contributors to the debate who espoused views along these lines in addition to McGovern included Ian Davidson and Andy Sawford. They were joined, perhaps less surprisingly, by Conservatives such as Eleanor Laing and Iain Stewart.

All of this putting the lie to claims amongst these parties that the organisation driven by considerations of nationality and ethnicity is the Scottish National Party.

I am proud of the inclusive, outward-looking and international nature of the SNP. I am proud, with two English grandfathers and three English sons, to join English-born members at my local branch meetings. And, indeed, with those born outside these islands - of European, Asian and African descent.

I am happy to accept that the contributions noted above were not driven by any racial prejudice and were made, solely, for political point scoring purposes. I will not accept, however, insinuations from the anti-independence parties that my own is founded on narrow, insular anti-Englishness - an insinuation of racism with which they have tried to poison the debate.

Wanting the best for one's own people is not racism.

Certainly not when one's own people includes all the people of Scotland - regardless of their origins.

Having pride in one's own country is not racism.

Certainly not when that country wishes to lower barriers to immigration and to engage with Europe rather than withdraw from it.

Desiring independence and self-governance is not racism.

Certainly not when that independence will be used to improve the lives of all the people of Scotland - keeping a public health service; providing free education for all; not taking part in post-colonial illegal wars; and removing a weapons system whose only purpose is to destroy civilians in other nations.

Among many bone-headed pronouncements, Samuel Johnson also said 'Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel.' How little he understood of Scotland and the Scots.

Ask one hundred Scots what the best thing about Scotland is and one answer might come up more than once - that we are all Jock Tamson's bairns; our sense of brotherhood extends to all, of every colour, creed and nationality. And, for that matter, his station in life. 'A man's a man for a' that' as a patriotic Scot once wrote.

With the Westminster government pursuing attacks on the ill, the disabled and the unemployed, can the rest of the UK currently say likewise?




Sunday, 20 January 2013

Scottish Labour's Petticoats Showing

Politics can be a rough business. In Scotland, after the rise of the SNP challenged Labour's iron grip, it has become positively brutal.

The death throes of an Empire often lead to its worst excesses. And, let's be clear, what we are seeing now in our nation are the final nervous twitches of the Scottish Labour Empire accompanied, of course, by the impotent rage and vitriolic bile of its leading figures.

Scottish Labour will continue to be a major party in Scottish politics. Post-2014 they may have to make some serious structural and ideological adjustments though and the days of 'monkeys in red rosettes' are fast expiring.

Neanderthals remain, clearly.

Ian Davidson's portrayal of a Scotland to which only he is witness just add to the evidence of that particular Member as something of a loose cannon. His Party supported him when he offered to give an SNP MP a 'doing'; serious enough had it been another man, despicable that it was Dr Eilidh Whiteford.

Anas Sarwar (the Scottish Party's Deputy Leader no less) felt secure enough, in the glow of his colleagues' unwavering support of the most crass pronouncements, to decry the Holyrood Parliament as undemocratic and its First Minister as a dictator. Ironically, demeaning a Scottish Government which won a bigger share of the vote than any UK Government since 1966. Demeaning a First Minister re-elected by the people of Scotland after leading a difficult minority administration - some say more a reflection on the inadequacy and incompetency of Labour rather than an endorsement of the Scottish National Party.

No matter, Alex Salmond and the Nationalists don't need me to defend them. However, the people of Scotland are belittled every time someone in a position like Sarwar makes statements like this. They elected this Government; to a Chamber and using a process effectively designed by Labour. When Sarwar dismisses that system, he dismisses the Scottish nation who express their civic responsibility through it.

No-one in the Labour Party felt moved to criticise either contribution to Parliamentary debate. Clearly, this is now what passes for debate in the Labour Party.

Next into the ring, through the medium of Twitter, steps Ian Smart - the solicitor who underplays his standing in the Party by modestly describing himself as a 'Labour hack'. Smart is a football fan. If he is using 'hack' in the sense of an aggressive, ill-timed and violent attack on an opponent, he has categorised himself perfectly.

Following the deaths of four mountaineers in a Glencoe avalanche yesterday, the First Minister issued a press statement commiserating with those who lost loved ones in the tragedy. Quite correctly, as the elected voice of the Scottish nation, Salmond spoke for all of us. For all of us, apart from, that is, Ian Smart.

In a prolonged and astonishing tirade he questioned whether any newsroom had asked for the statement, implying that the First Minister needs permission to speak on a matter of interest to Scotland. This quickly descended into remarks like the following:

"Salmond's response: Me, me, look at me. I'm really important!"

"Four people died in Glencoe tonight. Within an hour Salmond saw it as an opportunity to get his name in the papers. Hope he's proud."

"...he was the man who saw the deaths as a chance for self publicity."

The more cryptic tweet of "Ra Ra Rasputin", I'll leave to be interpreted by each of you individually.

I suspect, upon reflection, that Smart may show some contrition and claim that the demon drink played a major part in his insidious attack. Personally, I won't accept that as any kind of excuse. Alcohol merely lowers inhibition, allowing us to voice what we actually believe but might not say when we can exert better control.

Let me make clear. We have all, myself included, committed to Twitter remarks that we, on reflection, might not be particularly proud of but they are normally momentary lapses - not sustained attacks like Ian Smart's.

In the past few days, nominally Unionist commentators have committed to print that they are almost being forced into the Yes camp by the unremitting negativity of the Unionist attack dogs. Many more will surely follow if the quality of the Better Together argument is being articulated by these three Scottish Labour 'personalities'.

In the end, the people of Scotland will choose who they want to speak for them. Salmond? Or Davidson, Sarwar and Smart. Independence or the crumbling Empire?

Saturday, 19 January 2013

The Wisdom of John Steinbeck (and my wife)

There can only ever be a certain number of extraordinary people in the world. I'm lucky enough to be married to one of them.

Not only is Jilly an incredible wife, she is my best friend. Thoughtful, giving and incredibly unselfish, she has also been granted a towering intelligence that reveals itself not only academically but empathetically, creatively and in terms of so-called 'parallel intelligence' being the ultimate multi-tasker.

She has been described by more than one senior colleague in terms such as 'the greatest natural teacher I've encountered in a lifetime in the profession.' Never has the phrase 'Those that can, do; those that can't, teach' been more comprehensively disproved. Jill could have been anyone, been anything and done it better than anyone. It has been to the great benefit of thousands of pupils that she chose to do the job that she loves.

It has been the greatest gift in my life that she loves me and my three sons (from a previous marriage) so unreservedly. Quite simply, I do not deserve her.

Of course, she is also the clumsiest person I have ever known; capable of falling over fresh air. And she is incapable of closing drawers and cupboard doors behind her. She infuriates me constantly but it is a small price to pay.

Obviously, being a Scottish man, I don't tell her enough just how much I love her; certainly never in the manner of the words I've just written and even they do scant justice to how much she contributes to the lives of those closest to her.

I'm incredibly fortunate that she loves me but, from today, I'm being forced to share her with John Steinbeck. She has fallen head over heels in love with the American writer on the basis of a letter she discovered today. I can almost understand. It is a great letter. In fact, it's heart-breakingly perfect. So perfect that I've raised Steinbeck into the pantheon of extraordinary people alongside Jill. So perfect, indeed, that I'm going to share it in its entirety below.

It is a letter he wrote in November 1959 to his friend, politician Adlai Stevenson, just after Americans had discovered their favourite TV quiz shows had been rigged for some time. His concern about the moral bankruptcy of the country is palpable.

I hesitate to make party political points but as you read the letter perhaps you might reflect on how it applies to our current circumstances and what we can all do to improve the quality of political debate, political engagement and of our democracy.

New York
1959
Guy Fawkes Day

Dear Adlai,

Back from Camelot, and, reading the papers, not at all sure it was wise. Two first impressions. First, a creeping, all pervading nerve-gas of immorality which starts in the nursery and does not stop before it reaches the highest offices both corporate and governmental. Two, a nervous restlessness, a hunger, a thirst, a yearning for something unknown—perhaps morality. Then there's the violence, cruelty and hypocrisy symptomatic of a people which has too much, and last, the surly ill-temper which only shows up in human when they are frightened.

Adlai, do you remember two kinds of Christmases? There is one kind in a house where there is little and a present represents not only love but sacrifice. The one single package is opened with a kind of slow wonder, almost reverence. Once I gave my youngest boy, who loves all living things, a dwarf, peach-faced parrot for Christmas. He removed the paper and then retreated a little shyly and looked at the little bird for a long time. And finally he said in a whisper, "Now who would have ever thought that I would have a peach-faced parrot?" 

Then there is the other kind of Christmas with present piled high, the gifts of guilty parents as bribes because they have nothing else to give. The wrappings are ripped off and the presents thrown down and at the end the child says—"Is that all?" Well, it seems to me that America now is like that second kind of Christmas. Having too many THINGS they spend their hours and money on the couch searching for a soul. A strange species we are. We can stand anything God and nature can throw at us save only plenty. If I wanted to destroy a nation, I would give it too much and would have it on its knees, miserable, greedy and sick. And then I think of our "Daily" in Somerset, who served your lunch. She made a teddy bear with her own hands for our grandchild. Made it out of an old bath towel dyed brown and it is beautiful. She said, "Sometimes when I have a bit of rabbit fur, they come out lovelier." Now there is a present. And that obviously male teddy bear is going to be called for all time MIZ Hicks.

When I left Bruton, I checked out with Officer 'Arris, the lone policeman who kept the peace in five villages, unarmed and on a bicycle. He had been very kind to us and I took him a bottle of Bourbon whiskey. But I felt it necessary to say—"It's a touch of Christmas cheer, officer, and you can't consider it a bribe because I don't want anything and I am going away..." He blushed and said, "Thank you, sir, but there was no need." To which I replied—"If there had been, I would not have brought it."

Mainly, Adlai, I am troubled by the cynical immorality of my country. I do not think it can survive on this basis and unless some kind of catastrophe strikes us, we are lost. But by our very attitudes we are drawing catastrophe to ourselves. What we have beaten in nature, we cannot conquer in ourselves.

Someone has to reinspect our system and that soon. We can't expect to raise our children to be good and honorable men when the city, the state, the government, the corporations all offer higher rewards for chicanery and deceit than probity and truth. On all levels it is rigged, Adlai. Maybe nothing can be done about it, but I am stupid enough and naively hopeful enough to want to try. How about you?

Yours,

John