Friday, 14 July 2017

Can we talk about racism?

For my Daily Record column

Can we talk about racism? It’s awkward, I know, given that 96 per cent of the Scottish population, and so this readership, is white and doesn’t feel that affected. Also, I bring centuries of my own white, male privilege to the table.

But Tory backwoodswoman Anne Marie Morris has done us a favour and loaned the platform to talk about racism in 2017. 

The deplorable MP managed to perfectly combine the combustible elements of Brexit and casual racism by describing a “no deal” EU exit as “the nigger in the woodpile”.

All white liberals were offended, though I was more astonished that no one at the public meeting Morris spoke to called her out.

But black friends weren’t shocked. “That’s life,” a pal told me the next day.

Even if explicit racism is not in your face, and in the main it is not in cities like London, it is the low hum, lived experience of hundreds of thousands of Britons made to feel different, and judged differently, because of their skin colour.

In Scotland we try convincing ourselves we don’t have much of a problem with racism, perhaps because we’ve spent the energy of generations just facing up to our sectarianism.

But Scotland, like every other part of the UK, has a racist heritage.

The next time you walk up Buchanan Street to Glasgow’s Queen Street station take a good look at the Gallery of Modern Art.

Enormous as it is, the gallery didn’t go up as a civic building. It was the private town house of a Glasgow tobacco trader, our nice way of describing the people who built the city on the back of the triangular Atlantic slave trade.

That’s history, and this week people under 40 needed “n***er in the woodpile” explained to them.

It used to be commonplace and it stems from runaway slaves in the United States. Like “being sold down the river”, it is one of these outdated phrases with resonances of the past.

No one needs lessons in how unacceptable the n word is, though for some reason other terms still appear to be debatable.

Only last week I was lectured by a Scottish exile on how “Paki” is a perfectly acceptable description of anyone with Asian and Glaswegian roots.

“We always called them Pakis, they called themselves Pakis, it is the Paki shop and no one is offended,” insisted this cultural expert, repeating the word, I suspect, to bait me. Drink was involved, I wasn’t going to argue.

“Am I being very politically uncorrect?” asked my tormenter.  

“It’s worse than that,” I replied. “You’re showing your age.”

It is worse than that. While words are weapons, and offensive, they are only the surface of the problem.

Theresa May this week postponed the publication of an “explosive” report on race in Britain which records stark differences in the way people are treated by schools, hospitals, the police, courts councils and employers.

The data shows a middle-aged white person with cancer gets better treatment than someone who is black.  

Yet we persist in seeing race in terms of minority communities not fitting in, despite the fact that most of us will simply never feel what it is like to have to censor yourself to fit in.

In frustration, Reni Eddo-Lodge has written a book on this lack of understanding. It’s called: “Why I’m no longer talking to white people about race”. 

She said: “Racism is about discussing white identity. It’s about white anxiety. It’s about asking why whiteness has this reflexive need to define itself against immigrant bogey monsters in order to feel comfortable safe and secure. Why am I saying one thing, and white people are hearing something completely different?” 

Racism isn’t a problem for black or asian Scots, they just deal with the effects. It’s the other 96 per cent of us who have a problem with it. Awkward, I know. 

Sùil Eile air ceol Anna Mhàrtainn

Sùil Eile airson an Daily Record

Cha robh riamh càil ‘àbhaisteach’ mu Anna Mhàrtainn, an seinneadair ainmeil às an Eilean Sgitheanach.

Tha i an-còmhnaidh a’ toirt blas ùr air an t-seann traidisean.

Nochd i air an deireach seachdain air a’ Bhruaich a Deas ann an Lunnainn le còmhlan raga, a tha a’ toirt ath-nuadhachadh air ceòl tradaiseanta ceann a-tuath nan Innseachan.

Le bhith a’ taghadh ceithir òrain mu dheidhinn eadar-sgaradh, tha Anna agus Jason Singh air ceangal a dhèanamh eadar eachdraidh nam Fuadaichean, eachdraidh Partition anns na h-Innseachan agus an gluasad mòr sluaigh a tha sinn a’ faicinn timcheall oirnn gach latha.

Eòlach ‘s gu bheil sinn air ar sgeulachd fhìn, bha e follaiseach gur e eachdraidh dùinte a th’ ann an sgeulachd teaghlach Jason Singh agus a’ bhuaidh a thug sgaradh mòr nan Innseachan - a stèidhich Pagastan - orra. Tha gu leòr eile ann am Breatainn coltach ris.

Tro chultar agus dùthaich eadar-dhealaichte, tha fuasladh a’ tighinn air a’ chùis.

Tha “Ceumannan”, mar a th’ aca air a’ phròiseact,  cumhachdach, gu math poileataigeach agus drùidhteach.

Sin neart nan seann òran.

Faoidaidh sibh  èisteachd riutha a seo air Radio 3.


There was never anything conventional about Anne Martin, the notable singer from the Isle of Skye.
She always gives us a new taste of the old tradition. 
She appeared last weekend on London’s South Bank with a raga band, which is re-interpreting the traditional music of North India.
Choosing four songs of separation, Anne and Jason Singh have made a connection between the history of Clearances, the Partition of India and the huge movement of populations we see around us each day.
Familiar as we are with our own story, it was clear that Jason Singh’s family story about the effect  of Partition - which created Pakistan - is a closed history. There are plenty others in Britain like him.
Through a different culture and landscape, there was a new angle on the issue.
“Ceumannan”, as they name the project, is powerful, quite political and moving.
That’s the power of the old songs. 

Friday, 7 July 2017

Brexiteer playing a desperate patriot game

From my Daily Record column today
GENERALLY, when politicians start attacking the media it is a sure sign that they are losing the argument.
So when Liam Fox, the biggest Brexiteer out of East Kilbride, perhaps the only one, claimed yesterday that "some elements" want the UK to fail in negotiations with Brussels, it had the aroma of a desperate, sweaty summer shirt about it.
Remember Andrea Leadsom's recent claim that broadcasters should be more "patriotic" during Brexit?
That gave me the same uncomfortable feeling as the Scottish Government "contacting" the boss of Highland Spring after he made less than complimentary remarks about a second independence referendum, which were then retracted.
Cornered by critics, or even by reality, these who share more common nationalistic fervour than they'd care to admit, start drinking the Kool-Aid instead of bottled water in an attempt to silence anyone they view as less patriotic than themselves.
Fox, a trade minister idling in the shallows with no real job to do unless there is a hard Brexit, is desperate.
The vote has been won but the kind of Brexit he wants is still a far shore.
Fox fancies himself as a buccaneer on the high seas of free trade, with Britain reborn as a mercantile nation plying the oceans of fortune.
In the wee hours of the night, the former defence minister might even dream of the Royal Navy's two supercarriers as Britain's enforcers in far-off oceans.
Quick as they can be fitted, I suspect these carriers will be sent to far-off oceans, to the Sea of China, helping the US try to maintain a fragile global dominance in Asia's cauldron as the balance of power shifts eastwards.
Squeezed by the trading power and military muscle of a burgeoning China and a protectionist second-term Trumpian America (oh yes) Britain is going to be tossed on the waves like the balsawood Kon-Tiki raft.
Perhaps Fox can't see that but most other people can. That is why big business, in the form of the CBI, is at last weighing into the Brexit debate, having been as mute as the millennial generation during the actual referendum campaign itself.
Last night, the CBI called for a slow transition out of the EU single market and the customs union, for which read business does not want to leave the biggest trading block in the world at all.
Combine that with EU Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier warning the same day that it would be impossible for the UK to have frictionless trade with the EU if it left the single market and the skies darken for Brexiteers.
It may well be that the EU will offer Britain such a bad deal that the economic madness of leaving Europe will become apparent even to the Kool-Aid gang.
It may be that the combination of the awakened youth vote and the influence of business will sway the political mood and that (somehow?) Jeremy Corbyn will see the light on Europe too. Maybe.
A year on from the vote, Brexit still looks like the biggest act of economic self-sabotage a country could inflict on itself. The real patriots are the ones who will carry on saying it.

Friday, 30 June 2017

Time for the real "reset" report to be published

From my Daily Record column
GATHERING dust somewhere in a filing cabinet in the First Minister's office is the real "reset" button on the independence debate.
The Andrew Wilson Growth Commission - the 2.0 economic case for Scotland going it alone - is being kept under lock and key, I suspect because it contains the devastating truth about the cost of independence.
When Nicola Sturgeon stood up this week to announce her own political "reset", she was delaying nothing - and changing nothing.
She put the TV on standby, she didn't switch it off.
The referendum burner can be re-ignited by Sturgeon at any point. Even though most people don't want a second vote, she doesn't have the power to hold it and the polls tell us she would lose it.
Understandably, the SNP leader looked uncomfortable acknowledging that core truth while being brutally barracked by the opposition.
For Sturgeon, time is running out to get the project back on track.
She would have to force the vote before the next Scottish election in 2021, in which she might well lose the Holyrood majority for independence.
Stage a second referendum against the tide and the cause is lost forever.
This doesn't need to be spelled out to SNP members. The party executive urged Sturgeon to bide her time - a commodity which, like her personal approval ratings, she has less and less of.
It is beginning to look like it may be left to others to reforge the case for independence because Sturgeon can't switch channels any more than she can switch off the dream.
The task of Wilson, assisted by several SNP luminaries, was to re-write the future because the milk-and-honey White Paper version punted by Alex Salmond and Sturgeon became a soggy, tearstained mess.
To a tight deadline, and with considerable intellectual gymwork, the job was done.
Wilson, the soul of discretion, won't tell us what is in the report, but we have been given hints.
A leaked account of a Craigellachie Hotel briefing, attended by Sturgeon, had the Wilson report suggesting an independent Scotland "could see a recovery of the position it now finds itself in over a five to 10-year period".
Wilson denied the claim. But a scenario which leaves Scotland worse off for a number of years but harnesses the country to the hope that pain will be worth the long-term gain chimes with many other projections.
If the report were published we would know.
But with the Scottish economy this week hovering on the brink of recession - while the rest of the UK bizarrely continues to grow - it is asking a lot of any electorate to wed themselves to that kind of proposition.
Yet without that reset economic case the torch that burned brightly in 2014 is in danger of becoming a flickering candle.
Brexit is the biggest uncertainty, and as I have written before, Sturgeon's best last hope.
But time and tide wait for no one and I agree with others that for Sturgeon this has been a watershed moment.

Island interests blowing in the wind down here

From my Daily Record column
THREE weeks on from the general election and no sign in the House of Commons order paper of Western Isles SNP MP Angus MacNeil renewing his commitment to any kind of effective representation.
It's notable that Labour's Ian Murray MP has tabled a question pressing the Energy Minister Greg Clark to make a statement on the Tory manifesto commitment to supporting island windfarms in Scotland.
The Lib Dems' Alistair Carmichael has also organised a Westminster Hall debate on the issue.
Thank goodness someone is looking after the islands' interests.

Macron is the talk of the town

From my Daily Record column
I was on a bike and stopped at traffic lights the other day when Faisal Islam, him off the telly, drew up on his own cycling steed.
London's not so big that you don't bump into people you know.
Pedalling towards Westminster, Sky TV's political editor inadvertently proved why he is one of Britain's top journalists. He was just back from the EU summit, where French president Emmanuel Macron dazzled everyone from the moment he arrived with a flirty wink to the BBC's Laura Kuenssberg and his love-in with Germany's Angela Merkel.
Macron, Faisal explained, has a Brexit masterplan. As well as bidding for the EU agencies currently based in London, he is poised to take full advantage of our departure from the Customs Union.
With the customs supply chain that keeps many companies connected broken, GM-Vauxhall, run by French state-owned Peugeot, will withdraw from the UK, Airbus will move from Bristol to Blagnac and so on.
Macron is about to launch controversial labour reforms to make it easier to hire and fire workers. This will run into huge street resistance from trade unions, where France's politics are often settled. But if he can create jobs at the same time by draining manufacturing from Britain to spur France's economic growth, he might succeed.
It was a precise, erudite summary of how lose-lose Brexit is going to be a big win for France. Admirably, Faisal did all this in a few minutes while cycling and navigating traffic. Much enlightened, we parted and I parked my hire bike.
On the pavement, two London workies were locked in conversation, their analysis as profound as Sky TV's. One said to the other: "You know what the problem is? It's these Frenchies. They're just jealous of us." Got it one.

Friday, 16 June 2017

Eigg getting on with ordinary, radical lives

With Maggie Fyffe on Monday
I dashed from London to the Isle of Eigg on Monday to join the 20th anniversary celebrations of the community buy-out of the island.

If you don’t know the story, this Hebridean island was in thrall to a series of abusive landlords but created history by becoming a beacon for community ownership in the Highlands.

More than 20 years ago, with photographer Sam Maynard, I documented the deathly grip of landlordism on Eigg, although my grasp of feudal power was theoretical then.

For people living in leaking hovels on the island it was all too real.

Speaking out against their conditions risked livelihoods and homes because Keith Schellenberg, the landlord, controlled everything. But speak out they did, they changed the story and changed their lives.

It took great courage from the islanders, if I can borrow a fashionable phrase, to “take back control”.

Over two decades Eigg has become the proven alternative to the dead hand of landlordism.

Among many speeches and drams on Monday, the soundtrack to the entire day was toddlers gurgling and children laughing. It’s the sound of optimism.

Eigg is now home to 105 souls, a 60 per cent increase since the buy-out, with 19 children.

I bet when I go back in 20 years the population will have doubled.

About 500,000 acres of Scotland are now community owned, small cheer because that’s only 2.5 per cent of the land.

Yet, the minimum wage aside, I can think of few legislative changes other than land reform that have had such an impact on the Highlands in the last two decades.

I loved my day out, it was great to be re-united with old friends.

My journey proved, if it needed proving, that not all politics is in Westminster and there are people who in their ordinary way are a lot more radical than some of the guff on the green benches.