Thursday, 30 October 2014

Labour's Scottish solution

Daily Record column 30/10/14
Lobbing stun grenades through the exit door provided a good smokescreen to cover Johann Lamont’s departure.
Lamont is a tenacious politician and Labour's ineptitude in handling its Scottish personnel created a handy narrative of "London control" that diverted from real concerns about her leadership.

Reluctant as we are to admit it, there are darker spices people require of their leaders.

These include elements of ruthlessness and enormous self-belief, talents Johann can be thankful she does not possess.

Gordon Brown has the requirements but with him Labour would not be forced to look in the mirror. The answer to every problem would begin and end with the word "Gordon".

Whoever the next leader is will have to face these "challenges", the word of the week to describe Labour's crisis of opportunity.

The first real-time problem is being the back-marker in the Smith Commission on devolution.

Labour’s low tax-raising offer, reasoned as it is, makes them look like reluctant home rulers, allowing the SNP to frame the general election on who will deliver more for Scotland.

By squaring off on the Smith Commission the new Labour leader can ask the real 2015 question - who governs, Labour or the Tories?

Then, there is the talent issue. To look like a capable Scottish government the leader needs A-list candidates for the 2016 campaign. That includes the powerful symbolism of Labour MPs leaving Westminster for Holyrood.

Obviously the leader must hold the SNP to account, to remind voters that Nicola Sturgeon’s vision, decisively rejected by voters, looks threadbare.

The SNP’s big consumer offer is populism, like free tuition fees for the middle class dressed as a universal benefit. This avoids the difficult choices facing true social democrats. 

This is the Labour leader's hardest challenge and moving left might provide strong core messages, but not policy answers. 

In good news for the party, voters don't care any more for its management structure than they do for Tesco’s. 

It would be just nuts for Labour to turn a showcase of talent in the leadeship campaign into a squabble between London and Scotland

Scots like Labour’s values of social justice, that's why the SNP preach left while governing right.

On the referendum doorstep voters kept saying one thing about Labour - they want the party to be better than it is. 

In that sense Labour is a great Scottish brand, it just needs a leader to match.

The asylum of the sea 

Immigration is becoming the dark and perfect storm of the political winter.

Natacha Bouchart, the  mayor of besieged Calais, said illegal migrants on the French side of the Channel are  "prepared to die" to get into the UK because of our attractive regime of benefits.

Compared to the kicking they get as they cross Europe, £72.50 a week that an asylum-seeking couple would get here makes the UK look like an El Dorado.

What draws migrants to our shores is our world-conquering language, English, and our stable migrant communities.  

But feeding the fear and loathing around immigration is a Home Office losing contact with thousands of asylum seekers refused the right to stay.

On top of that Tory Minister Nick Bowles says the UK can never avoid heavy immigration because freedom of movement is fundamental principle of the EU.  

Telling the truth is not exactly helpful to a Prime Minister trying to kow-tow to the UKIP anti-immigration agenda. 

And Ed Miliband has his own problems as UKIP polling clams that half of Labour voters in the Rochester by-election are crossing to the anti-immigrant party. 

But the migrant problem is not in Calais, or in Westminster, or in Rochester.

It is in the treacherous waters of the Mediterranean where thousands of refugees risk their lives to cross from Africa to Europe.

It is there that the UK government this week refused to fund any future search and rescue operations on the basis that saving drowning people only encourages  more to attempt the dangerous crossing. 

That should fill us with anger and shame. Where is our common humanity when the asylum we want to offer is in the sea?

Halloween offer
Are you stuck for a Halloween idea? I've checked online and they do still sell Alex Salmond party masks.
A terrible thought, I know, turning up to a party as the most divisive politician in Scottish history.
But buy now as most of the stock has been sold to Lib Dems in the Gordon constituency who are going out tomorrow night frightening the voters with the idea of the politically dead rising again.

Scales of tolerance 

Post-referendum the right-wing Scottish commentator (they do exist) Iain Martin provocatively asked: "just how much more Scottish wingeing can the English take?" 
The outrage from online nationalists was laughably predictable. 
But the science tells us there is no limit to English tolerance.
A poll for the London Evening Standard showed  only 25 per cent of Londoners were less likely to support Andy Murray at Wimbledon despite his backing for Scottish independence.
How annoying, they like is whether we win or lose. 
Sùil Eile

Chan eil buidheann de luchd-bhòtaidh ann am Breatainn cho cumhachdach ri dràibhearan.

Nuair a bruidhinn riaghaltas Làbarach air cìsean a thogail a rèir nam miltean a bha dràibhearan a' siubhal, bha uiread de dh'fhearg ann agus nach cuala guth air an leithid a-rithist.

Nuair a thig e gu cìsean peatroil, 's e a' cheist dè cho àrd 's a leumas luchd-poilitigs airson dràibhearan a chumail riaraichte.

Mar sin tha e mar ìognadh gu bheil Riaghaltas na h-Alba air a dhol cho fada 's gu bheil iad air camarathan astair a chur air rathad mòr an A9 idir. Cha chaomh leis an riaghaltas seo a dhol an aghaidh ghuthan làidir.

Ach chan eil rian nach eil feum air na camarathan.

Tha iad air an A77, agus tha tubaistean air a rathad chunnartach sin air tuiteam an darna leth.

Tha dà cheud tubaist air an A9 a h-uile bliadhna, còrr is trì fichead bàs thairis air còig bliadhna.

Tha e duilich argamaid phoilitigeach a dhèanamh an aghaidh fhigearan mar sin.

English translation

There is no group of voters in Britain more powerful than drivers.

When the Labour government talked about raising tax according to the miles drivers travelled, there was such fury that the we never heard of the likes again.

Then it comes to taxes on petrol, it is a question of how high do politicians jump to keep drivers satisfied.

So it is surprising that the Scottish Government has gone so far as to put speed cameras on the A9 at all. This government does not like to oppose strong voices.

But there is no doubt that the cameras are needed.

They are on the A77, and the number of accidents on that dangerous road has fallen by half.

There are two hundred accidents on the A9 each year, over sixty deaths over a five year period.

It is hard to make a political argument against figures like that.

Wednesday, 8 October 2014

Angus MacLeod, Scottish Editor of The Times and distinguished broadcaster

It is very sad, at the end of a remarkable political season, to mark the death of Angus MacLeod.

The editor of The Times in Scotland was one of the country's most respected journalists.

Like every other reporter Angus MacLeod could be reduced to a name  above a newspaper article. But for colleagues and politicians who admired his inquiring mind he was a character much bigger than any by line.

After decades in print he still greeted every story with huge enthusiasm, firing up others around him as he cut through to the heart of what mattered.

He had a reputation as an old school print journalist, but was cuter than all the young reporters he mentored and took to every media platform. His last tweet was in defence of one of his reporters.

And that voice. Many's the Radio Scotland listener would not rise from their bed until his eloquent Saturday morning newspaper review was complete.

That voice turned newsprint into verse, no mean achievement even with his lilting Hebridean accent. 
Angus Macleod's every syllable resonated of a home he left years ago.

People think he was the sound of Stornoway but in fact his was a very specific Isle of Lewis brogue. 

Gaelic was on his tongue though not his lips. He had the pleasant grout of Plasterfield, a pre-fab housing estate where the edge of the English-speaking town met the sound of the Gaelic hinterland and mixed. 

Like all village sounds in Scotland that accent is being smoothed away, it is all but gone.
Angus was a rare pebble on the shoreline, and his voice and his influence on Scottish journalists will echo for a long time to come.

Sunday, 5 October 2014

Glasgow's Finnieston food revolution

Want a lesson on how to regenerate a rundown part of your city? Visit Finnieston in Glasgow where the alchemy of supercool dining venues, old-fashioned pubs and a rates holiday on opening new businesses has transformed the area into one of the best weekends of your life. 

There's a post-grad and a business model to emerge on what factors make a place like Finnieston work, but worry about that after the Lib Dem conference because all these great places are on your doorstep for the next few days.

When you emerge from a day under the shell of the Armadillo conference centre you are in a bit of a booze and food desert.

But cross through the red centipede, the covered bridge over the expressway and follow your nose up Minerva Street and onto Argyle Street.

You are then standing at the town end of Argyle St. Moving west along that half-mile strip bordered by the Kelvingrove Art gallery at the other end are all the dining out options you'll need.
First thing to do is find the Ben Nevis, not the mountain, the pub and orientate yourself from there - corner of Corruna St and Argyle St. A £5 taxi ride if it is raining.

It sits at the centre of the Finnieston universe, and yours for the next few days 
Ten  Restaurant Tips: 

1 - Panevino - a new entry. The setting isn't amazing but the staff are and so is the great Italian food. Beer or prosecco and  a tray of nibbles for £5 in the afternoon. Best way to spend conference sessions if you're not skipping to Piece, the cafe on the other side of the road.

2- Crabshakk - the one that started the Finnieston food revolution and still the best place in town for seafood. All the food's good, crabcakes a speciality, service can take time so also try their Table 11 along the street.

3- The Gannet - imitation the sincerest form of flattery. Across road from Crabshakk, v hip, v tasty seasonal Scottish food and a good glass of wine always available.

4 - Kelvingrove Cafe - next door, less expensive than Gannet or Crabshakk and v friendly.

5 - Mother India - the big Moma India one street away on Sauchiehall Street has to be one of the best Indian restaurants in Britain, and I include the County Hotel, Stornoway in that list.

6 -Ox and Finch - Another new arrival on Sauchiehall St. Tapas size portions of melt in mouth food. London prices though.

7 - Old Saltys - a brand new, old-fashioned fish and chip shop that you can sit-in and have a scoff for a few bob. It also has a licence, which is handy.

8 - The Finnieston - Bar restaurant in that foodie style. Lobster and chips special offer during the week.

9 - The Banana Leaf - small, hole in the wall, BYOB, South Indian eatery far from the madding crowd.

10 - Mother India  - at Kelvingrove Art Gallery. Possibly even better than the big M India. Smaller portions and large queues to get in. Try the deli next door which has a limited menu but is less busy.

Further afield - In the merchant city there's Cafe Gandolfi and Bar Gandolfi - make the trip. 

Ubiquitous Chip off Byres Road, your expense account can find its way there blindfold,  and Hanoi Bike Shop - is up there too. 

Other side of Kelvingrove park is Stravagin, best bloody marys and excellent food.


The Ben Nevis, Argyle St - stunning choice of whiskies with a malt of the month offer. Stylish but not pretentious bar.

The Park Bar, Argyle St - Hebridean antidote to the Hoxton-isation of the area. Part of the Gaelic triangle that takes in the Snaffle Bit and the Islay Inn. All worth a ceilidh whirl 

Lebowskis - first pub you hit on the Finnieston strip when coming from city centre, good for Guinness. 

Brewdog - opposite Kevingrove Gallery at the west end of the area, locally brewed craft beers 

The Grove - down at heel and close to Mother India. Everyone ends up here, the barman told me.

The Baby Grand - hidden by Charing Cross train station. Scene of late-night drinks disasters.

The State Bar, Holland St -  In the shadow of the burnt out Glasgow School of Art. Used to be His Nibs when the art school dance went on forever. Good beers, good debates in the bar

The Horseshoe Bar - down by Central Station, a Glasgow institution. 

Blythswood Hotel - Top for cocktails though traditionalists like me will still go to The Rogano.

And one last one closer to conference - Hilton Garden City. Beside the Finnieston crane (Glasgow's Eiffel Tower) is a box-shaped hotel that actually has a good outdoor terrace on the riverside where you can watch the sun set on the Clyde.

Thursday, 25 September 2014

Miliband's Scottish Secretary should be an MSP

My Daily Record column for this week

Little details on a large canvas can be the most revealing. A small scene on the vast referendum campaign trail stuck with me as a lesson for Scottish Labour.  

It was Gordon Brown storming out the doors of the Royal Concert hall in Glasgow, witnessed by a few loitering journalists.

Having finished one barnstorming speech he was late for another in Edinburgh. As he ripped off his lapel microphone he fumed, at no one in particular: "Why did no one come for me earlier?"

His frustrated growl would be the perfect title for a Labour's campaign memoir.

The party won by recalling to service its most able leader. The only direct blow against Alex Salmond was struck by Alistair Darling; the street campaign was a solo Jim Murphy effort and the flashbulb moments belonged to Anas Sarwar. All of them are Westminster MPs.    

But in that televised debate, when a woman asked Darling if he actually had a referendum vote, she revealed what many think of Westminster politicians -  that they are remote from Scotland.  

Caught between two seismic events, the referendum and the roar of missiles on ISIS, there was no mood in Manchester for Labour post-mortems.  

Margaret Curran is right, to survive the party has to get stuck into heartland constituencies again. She's done it before, she can do it again, though anyone knocking on the doors of weary voters over the next few weeks won't be thanked for their efforts. 

There is the usual sniping around Johann Lamont's leadership, though she has no intention of stepping down.

But there are more positive fixes than a descent into internal warfare.

First of all Labour's Westminster talent has to join its Holyrood team where the political game is.  

From now on Westminster is just West Point, a political training academy where Labour recruits are drilled for Scottish service.

The Cameron double-cross to exclude Scots from English votes will inevitably involve some compromise of a Scottish MP's Westminster role. 

But here's another symbolic step Labour can take to cement itself to Scotland. 

When Miliband appoints his first Secretary of State for Scotland he should not give the job to a Labour MP.

Instead, a Labour MSP should sit in cabinet as Scotland's representative in Westminster.

Forget the niceties that mean nothing outside the political bubble. The move, combined with Labour MPs seeking Holyrood seats, would signal a party that takes Scotland seriously.  

The Scottish Secretary need not be Labour's Holyrood leader, because surely there is space to have more than one talented and ambitious Labour politician reaching the top on the canvas of Scottish politics. 

Resignation, what resignation? 

While I was on the notorious NFI list for the First Minister's Bute House swan-song what I heard didn't convince me Alex Salmond is  going anywhere soon.

Had I been there I'd have joined the rest of Scotland in thanking him for an outstanding contribution to public life.

Critics and admirers can agree Scotland owes the First Minster a huge debt. He has sacrificed his personal life to politics, a field in which the reward is often to be stung from the sidelines by the likes of me.

On that note, Salmond does go down as the most divisive politician in Scottish history.  

His accusation that the elderly are bed-blocking freedom and his sinister suggestion about ignoring the referendum result show the dream of division has far from died for him.  

Politics, he said, is now bigger than Westminster, cannot be contained by Holyrood, and is entrusted with the people.

Recognising public cynicism, the anti-politics politician is moving onto the next phase. 

He will cast himself as a figure beyond politics, above the grubby fray but with the common people, binding together the wider independence movement.

Prepare for Mandela Salmond, in open-necked shirt mode as father of the selfie nation.

By turning the page on a "political generation", as he said, he leaves a blank sheet for Nicola Sturgeon to pursue another referendum.

That leaves him to legitimise ideas like an illegal declaration of UDI or to give credence to other wilder claims of the thwarted 36 per cent.

I could be wrong, and like his biographer David Torrance I expect a letter from the First Minister telling me so.

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Last post before the vote

I usually let my Thursday column speak to the Record readers who've paid for a copy of the paper. For once, in advance, a preview.

Copy for the Daily Record 18/9/2014

To my "I hate nationalism, but.." friend.

It seems like we now live in two Scotlands. No matter what the outcome in tomorrow's sleepless dawn we will be in a divided country. 

From now on we live in a Scotland where half of us think the state broadcaster undermines democracy, while the other half looks on bewildered by this self-fuelled paranoia 

One half of Scotland believes an assertion that the UK would share our currency risks right after we walk out the door. The other half  lives in fear of falling through a trapdoor that spits us out as a washed-up Argentina.

One half is happy to think there is switch that turns off nuclear weapons and lights up nurseries. The other half shudders at the omens a vote for nationalism would send into a 21st century Europe that has already been down that dark alley of history. 

One half thinks Scotland will be born-again socialism, the other half foresees the death of social justice if politics has to be judged by its futile patriotism. 

The division is internal and external. I've had letters and exchanges with friends caught between the two Scotlands.

Overnight someone sent me a long e-mail entitled: "I hate nationalism, but I'm voting yes."

The clue to his conflict with himself was in the title.

Despite misgivings his frustration with the Westminster system drive him to a Yes vote. He justified his choice by blaming Labour for letting him down.

Well, we've all been let down by politics, and he is in for a big one.

I told him if he chooses a Yes on Thursday we get nationalism on Friday, not the fair and just society he wants.

The SNP is soft-soaping on social justice because it needs my friend to believe just enough, just once, that nationalism offers a better future. It doesn't.

Labour's political mission is fight poverty. The SNP's mission is to separate Scotland from the rest of the UK because we are somehow different from them.

This nationalism cloaks patriot politics as concern for social justice as a means to gain votes. 

Every nationalist movement that comes along tells you it is different from the last one, that its reasons for driving people apart are somehow unique.

In the end it is the same divisive force, and no one can explain what is progressive about dividing people?

The idea of Scottish nationalism was to divide us from England.
What it has succeeded in doing is dividing us from ourselves.

Stand up for freedom 

If the No side squeak a win in the early hours then last Sunday's demonstration outside BBC Scotland by Yes supporters will go down as the biggest waste of an afternoon's canvassing time in history.

The attempt to intimidate journalists by laying siege to the near-empty building in Glasgow did nothing to bolster the case for independence and a great deal to raise profound questions about nationalism.

Anyone marching under expensive banners demanding journalists be sacked for scrutinising politicians needs to think again about what they mean by Scottish freedom, press freedom and personal freedom.

Undecided voters viewing the demonstration would have seen not a freedom march but glimpsed a sinister movement of intolerance. 

The online bile every reporter gets washes off but when journalists cannot conduct interviews or ask questions without attracting hostile crowds we are entering a different ball game.

Shamefully it took 24 hours to extract a mealy-mouthed statement from the National Union of Journalists, my own trade union, in defence of press freedoms. 

The SNP is already writing the myth that the referendum campaign was a huge exercise in democratic engagement.

The truth is thousands of Scots have kept their heads low and their opinions close while a carnival of flags diverted people away from hard questions about currency they might be paid in next month.  

Meanwhile the list of the intimidation grows, as the tone of aggression comes off the cybernat keyboard and onto the streets. 

It all makes you thankful for the sacrosanct privacy of the polling booth. Today no one need fear expressing their verdict on what they have witnessed and felt.    

Last Post

Tom Nairn once said Scotland would "never be free until the last Minister is strangled with the last copy of the Sunday Post".

A bit grim, but has he checked on the progress of his prediction?

The Church of Scotland has only one Minister left in the west Highlands as congregations split over gay clergy.

Portree minister Rev Sandor Fazakas is the only full-time Kirk minister in the Presbytery of Skye and Lochcarron.

There are 16 vacancies for parishes stretching from Harris to Sutherland.

Don't let the Rev Fazakas near the Sunday Post for the next 24 hours.

Man of the match

The final whistle hasn't gone but I've already chosen my man of the match - Archie MacPherson.

His electrifying speech on the campaign trail spiked those on the left who consider voting Yes.

He said: "They are not become Nationalists. Worse. They are becoming parochialists and turning their heads away from the system and the tradition which brought us together and created our society."

Sùil Eile

"Seo dhut camanachd air a' Charibbean." Sin mar a chuir Fergus Ewing BPA fàilte orm, 's mi air nochdach aig Pàirce a' Bhught airson Cupa na Camanachd.

'S ann airson faighinn air falbh bho phoileataigs a chaidh mise dhan gheàma ach bha mi toilichte Ministear na Turasachd fhaicinn, agus cha robh e fada ceàrr.

Bha a' ghrian a' deàrrsadh agus gàire air aodann a h-uile duine a bh' ann an Inbhir Nis Disathairne airson latha mòr na h-Iomain.

Agus abair spòrs. Chan eil geàma ann coltach ri iomain airson sgil, luaths agus gaisgeachd. Tha d'anail nad uchd gach mionaid a tha thu ga choimhead.

Mar Leòdhasach, chan fhaca mise caman gun robh mi còrr is fichead bliadha a dh'aois 's mi anns an Eilean Sgitheanach. Bha mi air mo ghlachadh leis a' gheàma agus na freumhan domhainn a th' aige ann an coimhearsnachdan Gàidhealach.

Chaidh an latha 4-0 le Ceann a' Ghiùthsaich, far a bheil ginealaich de ghaisgaidh spòrs air an àrachadh.

Chaidh iadsan dhachaigh leis a' Chupa; dh'fhuirch an còrr againn ann am blàths Camanachd a' Charibbean beagan na b' fhaide.

English translation

"This is Camanachd on the Caribbean". That's how Fergus Ewing MSP welcomed me, when I knocked up a the Bucht Park for the Camanachd Cup.

It was to get away from politics that I went to the match but I was pleased to see the Tourism Minister, and he wans't far wrong.

The sun was shining and there was a smile on everyone's face at Shinty's big day in Inverness on Saturday.

And what a sport. There isn't a game like shinty for skill, speed and heroism. Your heart leaps in in your chest every minute of play.

As a Lewisman I never saw a shinty stick until I was more than 20 years old on the Isle of Skye. I was captivated by the game and its roots in the Gaelic communities.

The day went 4-0 to Kingussie, where generations of sporting heroes have been raised.

They went home with the cup; the rest of us stayed in warmth of Caribbean Camanachd for a little longer.

Thursday, 31 July 2014

The untold story of who owns rights to Scottish fish

From my Daily Record column

Ever wondered how Manchester United might have the right to take a fishing boat out into Scottish waters? Read on.

Listen in the bars of Scotland's ports and you'd think fishing was a permanent open season for Spanish pirates. This is not even half true.

Some brilliant research by Emma Cardwell, an Oxford PhD student, lifts the lid on the ownership of UK fishing grounds, a system described as the biggest grab on traditional rights since the Norman Conquest.

In 1999 the UK government introduced a quota system to conserve fish stocks. It did this by dividing up the right to fish on a historic basis

Small boat owners, the vast majority of British fishermen, were allocated less than five per cent of the total catch. 

Larger vessel owners were given property rights over fish based on their historic catches.

So, the more you had raped the seas the more quota you were given. Well-financed buccaneers were rewarded, small fishing communities went to the wall.

Here in the Hebrides, where they still mourn the extinction of herring by east coast trawlers, people know how mad this was.

At one time thousands of boats caught mackerel and herring around Britain's coast. Now the quota, almost half of total landings by UK registered vessels, is caught by 33 trawlers.

In the private market wealth accumulates itself and the right to fish inevitably ended up in the hands of a few companies with quota used as collateral for loans for more powerful boats.

In Scotland quota ownership is now consolidated in ports like Peterhead and Lerwick, home to sea roaming supertrawlers.

The value of these boats, and their quota rights, runs to hundreds of millions of pounds.

Despite a register, who actually owns the quotas is opaque. Hence the pub tales of large institutions, like Man United and RBS, having a  stake in the industry. 
This is the untold story of Scottish fishing. A national asset has been handed to profiteering fishing barons. It is manifestly inequitable, bad for conservation and destroys coastal economies.    

Think independence will solve it? In Iceland, where fishing companies have deep links to politics, wresting fishing rights back into public ownership has been nigh on impossible.

North Atlantic fishing is a millionaires club, with small communities reduced to scraping a living from shellfish.

Who in Scotland will stand up for a fair distribution of fishing rights that gives coastal communities a chance of survival?

Thursday, 24 July 2014

Lights out for 1914, Lamps on for the Iolaire in 1919

From my Daily Record column

Last week I caught up with Dan Jarvis MP, who gained the PM's backing for a centenary event to commemorate the beginning of the First World War.

The powerful plan for a "lights out" hour at 10pm on 4th August recalls the famous Sir Edward Grey quote about "the lamps going out across Europe" in autumn 1914.

By August on Lewis, where I am, we're only in the gloaming. But the idea dovetails into one of my own to mark the end of the war in 1919 at home.

That's right, 1919, it was in the early hours of New Year's Day that the biggest wartime tragedy to affect the Hebrides occurred.

The HMY Iolaire ran onto rocks, a mile from Stornoway Harbour and 181 servicemen, returning from war, were drowned in sight of home. Every island community was affected.

After an horrendous war the Iolaire disaster did not merit much national attention, but the tragedy defined 20th century Lewis, mourning and a sense of victimhood led to mass emigration. 

The history is well told but I think a visual representation of the effect on so many villages would make a centenary tribute. 

The idea would be to darken the island on Hogmanay leading to 2019 - but leave the "lamps on" in the homes of those lost.  

We know their names and every welcome threshold veterans were expected to cross, but never did.

Six in this village, seven in the next, a necklace of white lights across the island. 

One by one the beams could go up until there are 181 pillars of light in the New Year sky, guiding the Iolaire men home.