Friday, 26 October 2018

The Silver Darlings - the fishing Rich List pulling the strings on Scottish Tories


From my Daily Record column today:

Feeling the urge to join in the collective nervous breakdown of the Conservatives, Scottish Tories are going tonto about fishing.

The party’s Scottish MPs - a subsidiary of the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation - wail how they will vote down Theresa May’s “transition” Brexit deal if it means fishermen have to stay in the Common Fisheries Policy a day beyond December 2020.

The date is important because the Tories would be slaughtered going into the 2021 Holyrood election without delivering on the Brexit pledge that won them Westminster seats in north-east Scotland.

Being a tartan version of the DUP might play in the north-east constituencies, but who are Scottish Tories actually willing to die in a ditch for in order to have the UK crash out in a no-deal Brexit?

The answer is not the port communities they represent but the super-rich fishing barons, who own the rights to all the fish in the sea.

Some great investigative work by Greenpeace confirms what some of us have long believed - a tight millionaires’ club run Scottish fishing.

The records show 45 per cent of all Scottish fishing quotas are controlled by just five wealthy families, all of whom feature on the Sunday Times “Rich List” of Britain’s millionaires.

This Silver Darlings circle includes Alexander Buchan and family, ranked 804 in the 2018 Rich List, with an estimated net worth of £147million. Their Lunar Fishing Company are not just Peterhead’s biggest quota holders, they are the UK’s biggest quota holders, controlling 8.9 per cent of all catches.

Coming in at 980th on the Rich List are Robert Tait and family, whose Klondyke Fishing Company are the UK’s third-largest quota holders, with 6.1 per cent of the UK total.

Incidentally, in England, nearly 80 per cent of fishing quota is held by foreign owners or Rich List families.

The records also show 13 of the top 25 quota holders were convicted for offences in Scotland’s £63million “black fish” scam in the 1990s.

This sophisticated fraud, involving false holds and secret landings, demonstrated it was Scots themselves who fished out our coastal waters.

After years of denial, the industry acknowledged their guilt and are making amends with conservation measures, simply because fishing faced extinction if they carried on as they did.

As stocks depleted and skippers left, the quota ownership became concentrated in fewer hands. But fish stocks are a national asset and not the preserve of a rich elite who would now manipulate the fate of the nation to maintain their wealth.

Fergus Ewing, the Scottish Government fisheries Cabinet Secretary, wants full powers over setting fishing quotas in the Brexit Fisheries Bill. To do what with exactly, Fergus?

The Scottish Government already manage quotas yet the concentration of fishing quota ownership dwarves land ownership statistics.

Fewer than 500 people possess half of all privately owned land in Scotland and there is constant demand for reform.

When it comes to fish stocks, a privatised national asset belonging to us all, there should be talk of revolution.

Any politician with a claim to be radical (that’s you, Michael Gove, and you, Nicola Sturgeon) would seize departure from the Common Fisheries Policy as a year zero on fishing quotas.

There ought to be a redistribution of quotas to encourage new entrants and break up the Silver Darlings circle.

Licence to fish must be tied to specific ports to revive towns, and inshore fishing protected from the big netters.

The barons and their political puppets say it wouldn’t work. Well, they would, the rigged system works well for them as it is.

Pelagic fishing for mackerel and herring is a lot of the Scottish quota and it is argued only the super-trawlers are geared up to fish for those in dangerous waters.

Yet with redistribution, with restructuring, fishing could be the one transformative positive of Brexit.

But don’t bet on any politician showing the Silver Darlings what “taking back control” actually means.

Friday, 5 October 2018

A tale of two visions of Scotland's future


From my Daily Record column

THIS is a tale of two commissions, two rival visions of the future which collide over the SNP conference in Glasgow, though neither are on the agenda.

The first, the SNP’s Sustainable Growth Commission report will be the embarrassing uncle, talked about but kept away from fireplace conversations.

Andrew Wilson’s independence blueprint has not aged well over the six months since it hatched.

The vision of a low tax Scotland where austerity would last at least another 10 years look very unfashionable now.

In contrast, the IPPR Commission on Social Justice, a landmark report with radical solutions for the broken economics that have left so many people behind, set the weather for the political conference season.

The IPPR recommendations translated straight into platform speeches for McDonnell and Corbyn, capturing the mood of voters to the extent that Theresa May was forced to claim she will abandon austerity.

With calls for a decent living wage and workers on company boards, the “prosperity and justice” report really did spark a national conversation.

It spat out ideas like a £10,000 “universal minimum inheritance” for all young people. It proposed to double the number of workers covered by collective bargaining, to auto-enrol gig economy workers into trade unions, to give the self-employed work-related benefits.

The Wilson Commission didn’t even consult the Scottish Trade Union Congress.

Instead, it recommended workers prepare for independence with something called “flexicurity”, a term so loaded with low expectancy, low wages and globalised exploitation that it will be the shameful headstone for the Wilson report when it is buried.

The IPPR Commission recommended reversing cuts to corporation tax, which have failed to increase investment as promised.

The Wilson commission argued indy-Scotland should match the UK’s low corporation tax step for step in a race to the bottom.

Given the preferred Tory model for Brexit Britain is to slash tax and diminish work protections, this is deeply worrying.

Tackling poverty and inter-generational opportunity are at the heart of the IPPR report.

In the Wilson Commission these issues, central to what politics is for, get little more than wishful thinking.

The IFS, the highly regarded economics research institute, concluded Wilson’s plans would leave Scotland facing an extra 10 years of austerity.

Yet, the SNP national assemblies convened to debate the Wilson vision reportedly spent their time obsessing over what currency Scotland should use.

Instead of wishing for money they don’t have, SNP members would do better for social justice by asking their leader questions about the money she does have.

Anyone going to the Glasgow conference will know the city has the highest levels of deprivation and lowest life expectancy in Scotland.

The council, now SNP run, have to tackle this with £233 per head less to spend on services than five years ago.

In the rural Western Isles, where public services are harder to provide, council funding has reduced by £504 per head of population over the same time.

These are not Tory cuts, this is austerity minted in St Andrew’s House.

The Scottish Parliament’s own research unit show that since 2013 council budgets have been cut by £744million, or 7.1 per cent compared to the Scottish Government’s own UK grant, which decreased by 1.3 per cent over the same time period.

Theresa May could end austerity with the stroke of a pen. So could Nicola Sturgeon but she backs the Wilson blueprint for independence and she’d double down on austerity.

Anyone who believes in tackling economic injustice, that's anyone on the left really, ought to look at Sturgeon’s council cuts and should compare the Wilson and IPPR reports.

Only one has the answers for a fairer future.

Friday, 28 September 2018

So what happens to UK politics under Brexit? Read Scotland's menu.


From my Daily Record column after the Labour conference
To find out what's happening in the UK, Westminster politicians really ought to pay much closer attention to events in Scotland.
Everything the political class in London are wrestling with - the backlash of anti-politics, the explosion of nationalism clothed as patriotism, post-truth news, a vile online debate, the triumph of emotion over economics, the unresolved schism of a referendum that warps all policy debate in its wake, the very divided self - we own all that.
Welcome to Scotland, you guys, your lunch was our square sausage political breakfast.
All the signs are there that a Scottish lunch is now being served to British politics.
The Labour Party conference in Liverpool gave us a glimpse of the starter menu.
Delegates would have gone home with the impression that a general election campaign is kicking off next week and that a personal thank-you card from Prime Minister Jeremy Corbyn will be in the post before Christmas.
Yes, it might happen. A cold mid-November election to match the gloominess of the "when the lights went out" Britain of 1974 is possible. But the chances of it actually taking place are slim.
The Tory party wouldn't give Corbyn the opportunity. The Tory right will, by all means, rail against the Chequers Brexit plan. But lose a vote of confidence that would trigger a prime ministerial resignation? Not yet.
Labour strategists know this but they also know the transformed party that Corbynism has created demands permanent revolution.
The enthusiasm of the thousands of new and "old left" members has to be maintained by promising Heaven is just one more step away.
The same situation confronts Nicola Sturgeon on an annual basis.
Having been gifted one of the most energetic and motivated political mass movements in Europe, she now has to find new ways of telling them the same story - that independence is just around the corner.
The SNP leader is good at keeping the ball in the air, often with the help of opponents. And Corbyn will be looking, learning and hoping that no one remembers that he promised conference they would next year be gathering under a Labour government.
That said, the Scottish experience offers Labour few lessons in how to move politics beyond the dominant divide created by the referendum (either referendum - Brexit or independence).
Labour had some good, strong policies this week, selling socialism as a retail offer, making Karl Marx sound like Marks & Spencer.
Tories like Robert Halfon MP, who understand constituencies that are key to a Commons majority, are worried. So they should be when you see the slick video about "rebuilding Britain" that Labour released.
Labour's ideas for a rebalanced economy are popular and the Tories have no response to a change agenda that wins elections.
But that doesn't matter to the Tories. As long as they occupy themselves with Europe, nothing else will matter. And that's the Scottish-flavoured main course we'll see at their party conference in Birmingham. In Scotland, nothing matters except the constitution.
Michael Gove doesn't believe in a Chequers deal any more than Alex Salmond believed in a devolved Scottish parliament.
But like the SNP in the late 90s, the astute on the Tory right are willing to get any Brexit deal over the line and then start dismantling it later on.
Like the SNP on devolution, the Tory Brexiteers will take the Chequers deal for now, as a means to an end.
Like the SNP, they can then start a tug of war and keep pulling the constitutional cables until, they hope, connections with Europe, or the UK in the case of the SNP, are severed.
If they chew through the ropes, we'll bring the UK the dessert menu, too.

Monday, 24 September 2018

Corbyn - the speech he won't make


The weeks leading up to party conferences are when speechwriters really earn their corn. A leader’s speech is a moment of high jeopardy, able to transform or confirm voters’ impressions. So I suspect these discarded “notes” won’t make it to Corbyn’s speech to conference this week: 


“Comrades. I think it is safe enough to say that now the shadow cabinet and the NEC have our MPs surrounded. Comrades it is, then.

Let’s not forget, united we stand, divided we fall. If the Tories finish off Theresa May, we face an election in a few weeks. Polls show we would win.

On the brink of a Labour government, we need the best to fight the battle. So read my lips – no re-selections, only victory.

"But today I want to speak beyond Labour, directly to Britain’s Jewish community, and say this: If I gave offence to you, and I clearly have, from the bottom of my heart. I apologise.

I learned that from John McDonnell. He knew that to be taken seriously, he had to sever his past history with the IRA, just as today I repudiate my connection with anyone seeking to dismantle the state of Israel.

A Labour government will not back enemies of peace. We will ensure the peace (and I will not mention Trident for a few years).

And on national security, let me just say this about Vladimir Putin – any friend of Donald Trump’s is not a friend of mine.

In a divided world, people see enemies everywhere. The right-wing press have me as an enemy. They threw everything at me, only some of it stuck. Now, they will try to engender fear of Labour’s economic plans.

All my life, I’ve been saying capitalism is broken. The last 10 years have proved it.

Of course, Labour will stand for the poor, will re-order national priorities.

But I want to reassure you, if you enjoy a glass of prosecco, if you drive a Nissan Qashqai, I am not your enemy.

My data crunchers tell me this is the key demographic. And I thought being middle-class was having an allotment.

To people who want to improve their lives and their children’s lives, I say we are the party who will give your children a chance, who will close the wealth gap, give them homes of their own and a future.

But if your choice is Champagne, if your car is a Bentley driven to the City bank by a chauffeur, look out.

If you are a tax haven multi-national, we will come for you with a corporation tax to make you pay on your UK profits.

The world is moving left. Remember Ed Miliband’s so called “Marxist” energy price cap – the Tories have brought it in.

But rotten, divided Tories can’t deliver fairness and, to borrow a phrase, if we can’t take this lot apart, we shouldn’t be in politics at all.

Labour can do much more. We are socialists but we are not Venezuela.

My Build It In Britain slogan is not narrow patriotism, it’s a plan to use the power of the government to create jobs and invest in communities. It’s not communism, it’s common sense.

On slogans, I now realise, as you do, there is no Jobs First Brexit. Any Brexit will damage the economy.

People ask if I am for a second referendum? I am not for a second referendum, do you hear me, Nicola Sturgeon?

But I will lead a Labour government who lead in Europe. A Labour government who keep Britain in...”

The notes run out there, so who knows how this draft ends. But it is so out of tune with the country’s mood that none of the passages will make it to the leader’s real speech. 


Friday, 14 September 2018

Katag MacLeod, Swordale, 1929 -2018


Katag MacLeod, Suardal

Sometimes my father would lift a packet of sugar and remind us that the two pounds he held in his hand was the weight Katag MacLeod (Katag an Nìonag) had been when she came into the world.

Born in an age before the NHS, Katag’s premature arrival in April 1929 left her with skin so translucent that all her mother Lily, my great-aunt, could do was cover her in olive oil and swaddle her in a shoe box. 

The sugar baby turned out to be a real fighter.

Katag, our neighbour, our cousin, a second mother to the village children of Swordale, was buried this week, aged 89, having borne many trials and illnesses with great dignity.

She was a strong woman, Katag, and life made her stronger still.

At a young age she lost her two half-brothers within weeks of each other, Murdo (3/11/39) and John MacKenzie (23/11/39 on the HMS Rawalpindi. Norman MacLeod, 25 Swordale, was also lost along with six other Lewismen on the ship ). They were among the first naval losses of WWII. Murdo Iain ("Fred", 19 Swordale) is named after them.

Her elder brother, Iain Dan, emigrated soon after the war. Katag was left with her younger sister,  Mairi, to comfort their mother and father, Donald MacKenzie. 

She was married herself in 1966 to the boy next door, Kenneth MacLeod, “Am Bowan”, and presented none of that tragedy to the world.

They were a fun-loving couple who indulged all the village children.  Katag and Bowan introduced us to cassette tapes, to war comics, country and western music and mail-order catalogues.

She was brilliant photographer, casually taking her Kodak to the peat banks, breaking the convention that photos had to be formal. These were the pictures of we 'd pore over for longer. She leaves a great photographic legacy of village life.

Katag loved innovation, and new gadgets. A few years ago, I showed her the camera on my mobile phone and we took her first selfie. Though her eyesight was fading, she immediately wanted an upgrade to her own basic mobile.


Katag and Bowan had no children but as youngsters we couldn’t appreciate that particular pain, we just benefited from how they turned it into love for us all.

Nephews from Seaview,  and from Kyle of Lochalsh, who would spend the summer at 19 Swordale, expanded our horizons and became part of our village. Katag carried that bond with young people across generations to her grand nephews and nieces.   

In 1977, when Bowan was only 54, he collapsed on a Sunday night on their kitchen floor, having suffered a heart attack, leaving Katag a widow for the next four decades.    

Am Bowan, my father’s best friend from childhood, died cradled in his arms. They had volunteered for the Royal Navy together, my father accepted for wartime service, Bowan rejected either because he was colourblind or lied about his age, possibly both.

Even if he was too young, even though the village was reeling from the loss of Katag’s brothers, he still wanted to volunteer. They were a remarkable generation.

The MacLeods were generous in every way.  Bowan gave Aonghas Dhòlan (Angus MacKay, No 16) his first sheep, allowing the young boy to choose the best ewe from his flock - if he could hold it down. I still have Bowan’s trademark black work beret, which Katag gave to me.


One evening Bowan gifted my brother a pocket watch. Dòmhnall was so enthralled that the next morning he sat, half awake, staring at the watch face while blowing his nose with a handkerchief. Still dozy, he threw the watch instead of the hanky into the open stove. I suppose it’s safe to tell that one now.

The village came out for Katag’s funeral on Tuesday.  Aonghas Iain Eachainn (20 Swordale) pointed out in prayer and in tribute how she was a cornerstone of the village family.

Between showers we carried the coffin to the graveyard and laid it beside Bowan’s headstone.

A heavy lift,  the men said, which is a way of saying it was no bother at all. Swordale will miss Katag, the sugar baby, who was so light in life.

Friday, 31 August 2018

Salmond's £80,000 warning to Sturgeon


From my Daily Record column

Of course he has the money to pay for it. Court actions are for the rich and no one bothers the Court of Session without the wherewithal to put money where their over-extended mouth is.

So Alex Salmond is pulling a stunt in crowdfunding his legal action against Nicola Sturgeon’s Government over how her civil servants handled sexual harassment complaints levelled at him.

In crowdfunding campaigns, sums can be quickly raised by a few generous backers funnelling donations through micro-contributions. In turn, the naive and devoted part with their small amounts of cash and an impression of popular support is created.

Raising a populist £50,000 (now £80,000) is a banker for Salmond – and not just a financial one. It is a symbolic show of strength warning the SNP, Sturgeon and Scotland not to trifle with him.

It demonstrates he has a substantial well of loyal support should the ride get any rougher than it already is.

Salmond has, typically, taken a massive risk in ending 45 years’ membership of the SNP, jumping before his protege came under irresistible pressure to push him, with all the internal party rancour that would cause.

Already there are signs these divisions may just be delayed, not avoided. It is why Salmond hitched his money appeal to the lodestar of independence, a cause bigger than any individual, he said (subtext, but not bigger than me).

But if Salmond closed the door on his own membership, then his dream will have died.

The whole situation is a nightmare. For Salmond, who cannot address the complaints against him, for Sturgeon in a stomach-churning fight between political expediency and personal morality, and for the women whose harassment complaints are sidelined in this spectacle of legal distraction.

Having had the courage to come forward, they will go through hell wondering if the process and substance of their complaints will be legally undermined and their credibility shredded.

Salmond’s fight for “fairness”, as he labels it, only serves to telegraph to them, and us, what forces are stirred when women choose to cross a powerful man, as he undoubtedly is.

With his connections to the ruling party and his well-deployed ability to command media attention, the former first minister is wrestling for the conductor’s baton. The police and the law courts must play in this unwilling orchestra, and the strings connecting the village web of political, legal and civic Scotland are tuned up too.

This weekend, we lament the passing of my former paper, the Sunday Herald, launched as the Scottish Parliament first convened, at a time when things could only get better.

In the years since, Scotland has become a toxic and divided polity where allegations of sexual harassment are viewed through a “for us or agin us” prism, where MPs air state conspiracies and connections appear out of thin air.

In the early days of the Sunday Herald, we attempted to map out the real links between politics, law, media and the PR industry in cosy village Scotland.

It is perhaps time to draw that map again. For the least edifying aspect of the last week is how influential commentators, with a stake in currying favour with the ruling party, attempted to shield the First Minister from media scrutiny under the guise of concern for the complainants.

Sturgeon could deal with this situation in no other way except the way she has. The rules apply to everyone regardless of status. But the rules of politics are incontrovertible too and this scandal has the potential to consume her premiership.

Sturgeon, by her own admission, had three meetings with her mentor at which the situation was raised and has questions to answer, personally and publicly.

What Sturgeon knew, and when she knew it, is only the beginning of it.

Sunday, 26 August 2018

Runrig - the parting glass

From my Daily Record column

So that was what Liam Clancy meant with “the parting glass”.

When Malcolm Jones raised his guitar for the last time, when the emotional rip current caught him, it really was “soraidh leibh”, goodbye to Runrig.

The unassuming Malcolm, always more attentive to his guitar work than the applause, was most affected by the crowd at the end of Saturday’s final gig.

Don’t worry Malcolm, in the dark, under the ramparts of Stirling Castle, there were many tears.

Younger readers will find out later, but a great trick of ageing, I noticed on Saturday, is that everyone stays the same when the 45 year soundtrack of our lives is played. 

Like the “sìthean”, the little people, Runrig on stage still looked like the boys from the village hall, the ones who took their music to the world.

Lifelonrg friends spooled by with the songs. There was Iain “Smithy” Smith, a born for the stage musician, whose mandolin drove Donnie Munro’s evergreen set. 

Great that Donnie was given his due, that Gaelic threaded every minute, that Gary Innes’s accordion echoed of the late Robert MacDonald, of Blair Douglas, of the ceilidh chords that set Runrig on the way.

When I recorded Seumus Heaney’s paean to Sorley MacLean he said the Raasay bard saved Gaelic poetry in the 20th century and so saved the language forever. Quite a claim but, you know, poets.

That honour now belongs to Calum and Rory MacDonald, the band’s soul brothers, whose music ensured Gaelic’s recovery. Their authentic Highland charm was ever the secret tune of Runrig’s success.

Where these boys led with song, others followed with words and deeds, pens and policies. 

Without that 1970s “Runrig generation” we’d have been drinking a parting glass to Gaelic long ago.

Some of them were there on Saturday, forever young, dancing like the fairies, toasting the joy of a wedding, not a wake.