Friday, 13 January 2017

Tristram Hunt on the by-election conveyer belt

It is unlikely that anyone named Tristram would reach the very top of the Labour party but the historian was once talked about as a future leader.

These were in the days before the Corbyn revolution transformed Labour into a party that Tristram Hunt barely recognises. That change is undoubtedly the main reason Hunt is standing down as an MP at the age of 42, regardless of what is said about the wonderful opportunity to be director of the Victoria and Albert Museum.

The MP for Stoke on Trent Central faced repeated threats of de-selection under boundary changes because of his vocal opposition to Corbyn (he was marked as “hostile” on the leader’s little black list).

But it was the drift of Labour voters to UKIP that worried him. The anti-EU party came second, a distant second, to Hunt when he stood for re-election in 2015 in the Staffordshire seat

However, Stoke on Trent was dubbed the Brexit capital of Britain with the highest proportion of leave votes in the country.

Up to a dozen Labour MPs are said to join the conveyer belt of by-election resignations as they give up on the Corbyn leadership.

Jamie Reid has already signalled he will go from Copeland and it is clear the party is going to face a massive challenge there from the Conservatives.

For the inner-core Corbyn operation Hunt’s departure will be a bonus not a loss, an opportunity to put a more loyal candidate in place to catch the rising tide of support that will surely come Labour’s way as the May Brexit strategy falls apart.

Some hope. The evidence from two by-elections last night is that any Brexit blowback will miss the Labour party entirely and flow to the Lib Dems who have nailed their colours to the Remain mast

In Sunderland’s rock solid Sandhill ward, where Labour hasn’t lost since 1982, the Lib Dems won a council by-election with a massive 41 per cent increase in their vote.

One bright note -Labour’s loss is Dundee’s gain. The Victoria and Albert is opening a franchise in Dundee and Hunt, a great historian, will hopefully prove to be a dynamic director of the parent organisation.

But politically he is now history himself, amid signs that is the direction Labour is heading under Corbyn too.

Monday, 26 December 2016

Chan eil na chaidh seachad mar eachdraidh idir

Mi fhein agus Iain, dhà bhalach a Suardal

Coimhead air ais air 2016, chan e na naidheachdan troma a thug a' bhuaidh as motha orm ach obair mo chuimhne fhìn.

Le Iain Moireasdan rinn mi prògram rèidio Fianais mu deidhinn tsunami Àisia ann a 2005, far an robh mi ag obair mar fhear-naidheachd.

An duilgheadas, agus sinn a' tighinn gu àm claraidh, 's e nach robh cuimhne mhionaideach sam bith agam air mar a thachair.

B’ fheudar dhomh na h-aithisgean a sgrìobh mi a lorg - cha do leugh mi iad roimhe - agus thàinig na tachartasan air ais san spot. 

Bha m’ inntinn air an doras a dhùnadh air an sgrios a chunna mi.

Gu fortanach, bha dearbhadh sgrìobhte agam air mar a thachair.

'S thàinig e steach orm agus sinn a' comharrrachadh na bliadhna annasach seo fhèin gu bheil sinn dualtach cus a leigeil air dìochuimhn.

Chan eil na chaidh seachad mar eachdraidh idir, tha e ann fhathast. Uaireannan chan eil e fiù 's air a dhol seachad. 

Tha Fianais a chraoladh a-nochd aig 5.30f.

Thursday, 15 December 2016

How NHS Highland pulled the plug on Raasay

A view of Raasay, from the deck of Mv Hallaig, last week

For my Daily Record column

This is a dispatch from the edge about the death of a National Health Service in Scotland.

As you might expect from me, it is set on an island community, but lessons can be drawn for any rural area and ought to be heard by a government purporting to put Scotland first. 

So, let’s begin our trip to Raasay, the long strip of an island next to Skye. It’s about the same size and shape as Manhattan, but with less traffic, as fewer than 200 people live there.

You approach Raasay on a 25 minute ferry crossing aboard a new Mv Hallaig, a diesel-electric hybrid ferry project in which the Scottish government invested £20 million.

You arrive at the equally modern £12 million ferry terminal, and walk up past Raasay House Outdoor Centre, fully restored with £4 million grant funding.

Next door copper stills are being installed in the new Raasay distillery, a multi-million investment with public backing which could provide 12 full-time jobs.

Along the road is an award-winning community hall, a magnificent building attracting over £1 million of public money.

With that investment in a half-mile strip, perhaps £50 million, you would think little Raasay is on the cusp of something big.

But this focus of the economy of things, as I call it - buildings, piers and utilities that politicians can cut ribbons on - overlooks a negligence to invest in the most basic service people rely on, the NHS.

Highland Health Board is pulling the rug from under Raasay’s future by withdrawing the island’s full-time nursing cover.

After the resident nurse retired six years ago a rota of three full-time nurses was slowly wound down to nine to five, weekday coverage.

One nurse went off sick about the same time as two others were promoted off the island. For the first month they missed a few nights, then only covered every second weekend.Since the start of the year the rota wound down to nine-to-five, weekday coverage.

Fall ill on Raasay anytime after 5pm, fall down in your home on the weekend, and you face the prospect of being evacuated by helicopter or lifeboat to get primary health care.

One pensioner did just that, sat at the bottom of the stair until dawn, rather than face the palaver of an emergency dash.

The island community council is fighting a rearguard but the high-handed attitude of NHS Highland bureaucrats has alienated people. 

NHS Highland have had few volunteers to hold neighbour’s lives in their hands while waiting for a nighttime helicopter landing. Basically, the NHS want to leave health care with well-meaning amateurs, says Anne Gillies the community council chairwoman.

Needless to say lifeboat and coastguard crews are peeved at being cast as first responders to NHS failure. 

The board claim they find recruitment hard. Yet an island Facebook appeal drew 26 responses worldwide from people willing to work an island nursing parish.

Naturally, everyone wants a hospital at the end of their street and rural communities always accept compromise. 

Thirty years ago people feared school closures would signal the end of the line for some villages.

But these people are resilient. The secondary pupils of Raasay go down the slipway to the ferry and bus to Portree each morning on one of the most daunting school-runs in Britain.

But take away the security of primary health care and their parents start thinking twice about staying, or about setting up home in remote communities.

The plight of Raasay is emblematic of what is happening across the west coast. Coigach, Lismore, Eigg are in the same situation.

Out of hours GP services are earmarked to be withdrawn from Lochaline, Glenelg, Applecross, Lochinver,Tongue and Armadale.

This is the fraying edge of the NHS in Scotland.

There was a nurse on Raasay 80 years ago, before the NHS was founded. Now, in the second decade of the 21st century, there is no NHS on Raasay for most of the time.

Pull at the thread long enough and the whole blanket will unravel.

Remove health cover from places like Raasay and ferries, piers, whisky stills and the sprung wooden floor in the community hall, it will all be for the tourists.

The jobs will be commuter-fed, workers departing the island on the last ferry of the day, as the nurse does now. 

Nicola Sturgeon launched that ferry, the ill-named Mv Hallaig, with some ceremony.

Hallaig, of course, is the cleared, abandoned Raasay village made famous by the poet Sorley MacLean.

Perhaps having the First Minister as the naming patron was an omen in itself. On her watch, does Nicola Sturgeon want her ferry sailing to an emptying island?

Friday, 25 November 2016

The end of the world as we know it

From my busy social diary and Daily Record column

Off to a champagne reception in the Locarno Room, the gilded, Italianate suite in the Foreign Office.

The last time they let me in President Obama was giving a boring speech. Yes, he campaigned in poetry, but boy he governed in prose.

Anyway, he’s history. Now we must party as if it is the end of days.

My company in the lift, it’s not golden by the way, is former chancellor Lord Lawson who complains that all the Foreign Office ever do is throw parties. “Well, it seems to have worked so far,” I reply.

Upstairs Boris Johnson, who doubtless views this opulence a temporary stabling, doesn’t blush to tell us that from the map room down the corridor Britain ran an empire seven times the size of the Roman one and planned the conquest of 171 countries.

All that delusion of grandeur, all that diplomatic heritage and protocol, is swept away in the middle of the night by a 140 character tweet from Donald Trump suggesting Nigel Farage would be an excellent British ambassador to America.

The victor in this year of revolution is clearly set on continuing his disruptive politics right up to and through the door of the White House.

Farage beat Theresa May to a meeting, now Trump’s telling her by tweet how to run her diplomatic corps. How humiliating.

Bizarrely, I also received an invite to the Farage victory celebration at the Ritz hotel, which I ignored thinking it must be one of these fake Nigerian-style scams to draw me in.

But it turns out to be a real event, complete with Brexit media magnates toasting the victor and a staircase speech promising more seismic shocks. Chilling stuff, with no credible counter from the left.   

All I need now is to bump into a young American with finger-nails painted emerald green. If she invites me to see her cabaret act the feeling that we are living in a parallel, early Weimar Republic will be complete.

Monday, 21 November 2016

Skye's housing crisis taps a generational issue

In the pub in Glasgow last week I ran into a couple of boys from Skye. I say boys, we’re grown men now comparing how our bodies are falling apart, but 25-odd years ago we could drink, smoke and dance through an island night and think nothing of climbing a hill like Glamaig the next morning.

For me living on Skye in my twenties was a golden time and these boys, members of Skye’s Camanachd Cup winning team, were a golden generation.

On the island people took me in as one of their own (even though I was from Lewis) and were incredibly generous. But my life and career took a lovely turn and I left.  

Yet, for anyone who has lived on Skye, the second most visited tourist destination in Scotland after Edinburgh, having the island voted the most beautiful place to live in the UK will come as no surprise.

The island has that perfect visual combination of water, woods and mountains - a scenic magic you might find echoed on the island of Corsica or the Norwegian coast, but truly nowhere else in the United Kingdom.

All this beauty comes at a cost. 

In a striking Facebook post this weekend another Skye friend, architect Alasdair Stephen, laid out in stark detail how the dream of the island living is beyond the generation growing up there.

It is worth reading Alasdair’s post, and the responses it has generated from a real “left behind” generation all over Scotland, but I’ll reproduce most of it here, it speaks for itself.

Alasdair said: “If you want to understand the disaster of the housing crisis in rural Scotland then look at these figures.

Twenty years ago I built my house on Skye.

In 1996 my plot was valued at £9,000. The same plot would cost £80,000 in Sleat today.

The construction cost of my house in 1996 was £35,000.

Building the same house today would cost £150,000 using a main contractor.

However changes in building regulations means that I could not build that house today. The house could easily cost £220,000 (new building regs and devalued pound will see this rise rapidly in future).

In 1996 I qualified for a Rural Home Ownership Grant. That covered 1/3 of my costs. It meant my mortgage was £22,000 (which was 2 1/2 times my income at the time).

There are no similar grants available any more for young people in rural Scotland.
Two and a half times a typical Highland salary for a young person would probably get you a £50,000 mortgage.
But a 26 yr old would need to access around £300,000 today to do what I did with £22,000 20 years ago.

The consequences of this is that the young cannot live in their own communities. Businesses cannot expand or are never realised. In Lewis the rural villages are dying (along with schools and Gaelic) as the young move to Stornoway for accommodation.

And don’t expect the young to be able to compete on the existing housing market.

I would really like to know what the Scottish Government is going to do about this. It requires some big thinking.”

Alasdair followed up his post with an interview on Radio nan Gaidheal appealing for Nicola Sturgeon to make rural housing an agenda priority.

If there was anyone I’d turn to for advice on the housing crisis it would be Alasdair and his brother Neil. As architects living on Skye they walked the walk and they’ve seen close-up land and housing prices spiral beyond the reach of anyone with an average income.

There are two points here, though one of them almost incidental.

The first is that although housing crisis in Skye is a long-standing problem, Alasdair has tapped into the frustration and disappointment of hundreds of young people at the rag-end of this awful year and and channelled that into something that could be quite positive.

You can see from the responses to his post that he has connected people to a massive issue that plays not just into housing but the entire economic future and make-up of rural Scotland.

If what propelled Trump and Brexit revolutions are the “left-behind” voters, then Scotland is creating its own “get out” generation of people who can’t afford to live where they were brought up.

Their voices deserve an answer and a political solution.

The problem, as Alasdair states, is bigger than housing and demands a response to match.

In the 1920s the solution to Highland over-population and economic decline was assisted emigration to Canada, the USA and elsewhere. Scotland needs to think seriously about a new Highland project to keep young people at home.  

The second point is a kind of tragedy. I couldn’t afford a house on Skye at the time, couldn’t afford one now. Fortunately I made a home elsewhere.

Alasdair did manage to build his by dint of his professional knowledge, his commitment to living on Skye and a self-confidence which has now built a business that employs 20 people.

But hundreds of other people now my age, who might otherwise be on the housing, family and the school run on Skye or Lewis or elsewhere, simply aren’t there.

That loss is being repeated year after year until the real beauty is emptied out of these island communities.

There is a coda to this, which I find a bit tragic too.

Alasdair and I are friends on either side of the independence debate and we agree this issue has nothing to do with the constitution.

But I regret we’ve both spent so much time pursuing a zero sum game, though I appreciate he won’t see it as that.

It doesn’t take constitutional change to build homes and if a tenth of our collective energy was put towards making a change in housing for young people then we would be on the way to building, literally building, a better nation.

Depressingly, I feel as if we’ve gone from being a golden generation to a wasted one, ill-serving the people coming behind us.

Friday, 18 November 2016

On President Trump and Scotland

For my Daily Record column

Just think, except for a few wind turbines it could have been Alex Salmond, not Nigel Farage, in that golden elevator with his now lost best bromance ever. 

Through these sliding doors and nine days into Trumpland the wretched acceptance of political reality is no easier to bear.

Thole it we must. Yet, could many Scots have woken last Wednesday morning thinking their sense of security in this uncertain world could be improved by another leap into the unknown?

In that sense a Trump victory was never going to be good news for the SNP whose politicians now run up the down escalator explaining how their populist nationalism is so different from the 56 other varieties of a brand which is taking us on a conveyer belt back into a dark history.  

Because we have been living life under the microscope of Scottish nationalism it is through the telescope of the Trump tsunami we refocus and recalibrate.

Breaking the political system in 2011, the referendum rising and then breaking the back of the Labour party in 2015 - from close up we mistook all these for a swelling tide of Scottish patriotism.

Indeed they were, but in the context of 2016, this year of revolution, these results from Scotland were not just a rise in flag-waving Scottishness. That was the symptom, though not the cause.

On the world stage Scotland should have been seen as the canary in the coalmine, the flashing amber lights on the dashboard of social democracy.

Things were going so badly wrong in the wake of the 2008 financial crash and the old, mainstream political parties were not picking up on it. 

Scots were the first voters to be given a chance to embrace an alternative, and not an untested one. The SNP had been in office after a marginal win in the  2007 “hanging chads” election.

The SNP offer was based on the progressive, compassionate old politics it replaced, a liberal force which Trump has flipped into a toxic brew.

Thousands of people, not all of them “left behind” by any means, were so sick fed-up of the status quo that they were willing to accept the overblown rhetoric, the white paper bag promises, and take a punt on something else.

“Post-truth politics” may be the phrase of the year but it is not new in Scotland. “I’m not a nationalist, but...” became a byword for patriotism but also a far deeper political disconnect that the social democrats still have no answer to.

Much the same thing happened in America last week, just on a grander scale. 

Once again, in the context of Whitehall’s Brexit “burach” and Trump’s handbrake turns in the face of political reality, the hollow echo of 18 smooth months to independence can be heard scrunching into the bin.

In the short term Nicola Sturgeon benefits from being anti-Trump, as every liberal politician in the west does.

But given the extensive Scottish links of the most powerful man in the world there can no doubt that Trump will at some stage exploit his homeland connection, sweeping aside any disagreeable political blowback from the First Minister.

This guy went to Mexico after threatening to built the wall, he’s going to have no problem hugging Caledonia.

Downing Street has signalled that Theresa May will be rushing across the Atlantic with a Christmas present but it is interesting to note that she will not beat Enda Kenny, the Irish Taoiseach, to the White House.

The first thing you do on being elected is start campaigning for re-election and so the Irish patronage has nothing to with Ireland and everything to do with Donald Trump’s second term.

On St Patrick’s Day Trump will be signalling to the urban descendants of Irish immigrants, the Democrat voters of Chicago and New York, that he is their guy too. Expect the Polish and Czech leaders to receive the same treatment.

Trump will embrace us whether we like it or not. Airforce One will touch down at Prestwick and probably Stornoway airport too, the runway is long enough.

On Lewis a President Trump would get the cordial welcome afforded to any emigrant’s son. The office, if not the man, would be respected.

There would be protests about the repugnant revolution that Trump has harvested. The First Minister would be perfectly within her rights to cold shoulder him.  

But the SNP shouldn’t complain too much about a populist politics fuelled by patriotism and division. After all, they started it. 

Friday, 30 September 2016

Show us some direction on the Brexit bypass

For my Daily Record column

Does anyone at Holyrood have an actual plan for Brexit? 

We can’t be sure about the effect of leaving the EU, but there is little sign of the Scottish government trying to even insulate the place from the impact.

It’s scant relief the First Minister yesterday gave an assurance on the future of Highlands and Islands Enterprise following well-sourced reports that closure was being considered.

HIE, and its forerunner the HIDB, was the instrument of turnaround Highland development, successfully channelling millions of euros of EU funding into the area.

Closing the region’s development agency before Brexit would be an act of economic vandalism, yet it was on the cards.

On this, and a host of other policy areas, Holyrood Ministers are floundering instead of making the waves. 

Only this week a £3 million European fund to develop community businesses in the Western Isles was told to stop taking applications because of the alleged uncertainty Brexit is causing.

Businesses can’t sleep easily just because Fergus Ewing has written to Whitehall for clarity.

Speaking on radio the SNP’s Alasdair Allan MSP sounded as informed on the issue as the Victoria Quay janitor. He is actually the Scottish government Minister for Europe.

Instead of offering something constructive all hapless Allan bleated was: “I’m just asking the question, what happens?” 

I'll tell you what’s happening.

As Ministers look for fights with London their civil servants are taking from the Highlands with one hand then punching it in the face with the other. 

While there’s an unseemly haste to close up shop on economic development there’s no slow down in efforts to baler twine the region in European environmental designations that sterilise the sea and shoreline. 

If we’re going to be out of the EU these empire-building schemes from the bureaucratic green brigade won’t apply.

But European Union Wild Bird directives are being rushed through in Scotland fast before the Brexit guillotine falls.

That’s what Brexit means for the Highlands, it’s a pretty shameful two-handed game  that doesn’t impact on government thinking.

Playing keepy-up with the constitution Nicola Sturgeon’s distraction therapy from focusing on a real Scottish response to Brexit.

Marching purposefully past tv cameras down Brussels corridors does not amount to a plan.

Pro-independence firebrand Alex Neil is the only person to have set a compass.

In an excellent article this week Neil nailed it - forget a referendum vote, there to be lost, and focus on getting as many EU powers and replacement funds to Scotland as possible. 

He has hit on Scotland’s Brexit sweet spot. A majority voted to stay in the EU and a majority voted to remain in the UK.

So, if power is to be repatriated from Brussels then it should by-pass Westminster and go to the communities affected by the decisions.

It’s £800 million of cash and a swathe of controls over farming, fishing, employment law, consumer protection, social policy and the environment.

Neil is the only one on the case, oh and the NFU which is hiring big lobbying firms to make sure rich farmers stay subsidy rich.

Yet if powers and cash are to be clawed back from one distant political institution they shouldn’t then be embedded in Edinburgh, home to the most centralised government this side of Uzbekistan.

Really, to kickstart a Labour comeback Kezia Dugdale should have ripped off Neil’s article and used it as her Liverpool conference speech. Well, maybe not the bit about “neo-independence”, more about real devolution. 

As the clock ticks down on our EU departure all the Scottish government’s preparations for the Highlands amount to is cutting the legs from economic development while strangling the population with needless European environmental designations.

It will be the same for the rest of Scotland. Some plan that.