Thursday, 7 November 2019

Tom Watson, the changed man

For the Daily Record 07/11/19

At the Labour conference I took a walk around Brighton with Tom Watson, it was a revelation.

The first person we (almost) bumped into was Jeremy Corbyn. But the weekend after the botched coup against the deputy leader he was in no mood to meet the boss.

We did, however, have several other encounters as we wandered through the Lanes.

“Are you still here?” someone shouted.

“They haven’t got me yet,” said the cheery pro-politician.

“That’s too bad then,” came the reply, but it was in jest. He was genuinely popular.

People flocked to greet him but Watson was most struck by one man whom he had met two years earlier.

“You changed my life,” said the man. “You got me dieting and look, I’ve lost two stone.”

Watson’s own inspiring transformation from “Big Lad” to svelte “Modfather” changed his outlook on life utterly. He looked and talked differently.

There was a sparkle in his eye when he spoke about health, less so when he talked about Labour.

On the way back to the conference he reminded us how he and his father once had their picture taken with Corbyn outside the hall. “Happy days, two years ago,” he joked.

But the laugh was hollow, the rift at the heart of Labour irreparable.  
  
Tom Watson is one of the most tenacious and fearless campaigners of his generation, and his leaving is Labour’s loss.

With his departure a light goes off in the window for those who thought they could return to a moderate Labour party any time soon.

Keith Schellenberg recalled

For the Daily Record 01/11/19 on the death of Keith Schellenberg, former laird of Eigg

At the West Highland Free Press, where I started in journalism in the 1980s, we campaigned for radical land reform.

It was when I stepped ashore on the island of Eigg with photographer Sam Maynard I learned this was easier in theory than in practice.

The islanders, almost all tenants of the landlord Keith Schellenberg, were living in derelict, rented homes. They were working, or not working, depending on the whim of the laird who controlled everything on Eigg apart from the dole and the doctor.

Eigg, we found, was in the feudal death-grip of landlordism.

After years of neglect at the hands of this self-styled “playboy”,the islanders had enough of his cricket matches, vintage Rolls Royces and Toad of Toad hall buffoonery.

Speaking out took some courage, but for those who did it was the first step in finding a voice in their own story.  

In turn charming and menacing, Schellenberg was a savvy legal and media operator, casting himself as a misunderstood philanthropist of which the Hebrides has seen many.


He tried outsmart the islanders by selling on, first to himself, then to a German fire artist.
With legal advice from the late Simon Fraser, the islanders proved smarter. They now own the place - game, set and match.  


I returned to Eigg two years ago for the 20th anniversary celebrations of the buy-out.

The islanders were the same, warm and welcoming, and there were lots more kids running around. The population has increased by 60 per cent, over 100 happy souls live on the inner Hebridean paradise. People were getting on with ordinary, radical lives.

Yesterday, as news of “Schelley’s” death spread, the last of the 3,000 tons of community-owned forestry harvested on the island was being shipped off the modernised pier.

Maybe that, the fact that islanders are cracking on with making Eigg a viable, self-sustaining community, is the best memorial to the Schellenberg era of misrule.

Saturday, 27 July 2019

Dear Priti Patel - an open letter

From my Daily Record column
Friday 26th July
Dear Priti Patel,
In fact, Dear Secretary of State for the Home Department. Forgive the informality and my open approach.
We haven't had many journalistic dealings with each other, not since your parliamentary aides stole four bottles of whisky from a Scotland Office reception a few years ago and you had to issue an apology, which you did with great grace and humour.
Your staff were reprimanded, not sent to the gallows (er, ha ha). You changed your mind on capital punishment, I hope I can change your mind on something else.
You inherit a bulging in-tray from Sajid Javid; Brexit, citizenship and immigration will be priorities.
Hopefully you will not have been bequeathed Javid's closed-mind attitude to drugs consumption rooms and the dire health crisis which leaves Scotland facing more than 1000 drugs deaths this year.
Health officials in Glasgow, the Scottish Government, local MPs, and this newspaper are campaigning for consumption rooms where addicts can administer their own drugs in a safe and sterile environment.
This is controversial, I accept, but these facilities have been proven to save lives elsewhere.
The Commons Scottish affairs committee investigation into the issue, which the Home Office boycotted under Javid, should be in your red box soon.
On health grounds, there are few arguments left against these facilities.
As a political issue it is rather more tangled. The SNP insists getting the facilities running should involve devolving part of the Misuse of Drugs Act to Scotland.
Whitehall sees this as conceding more power without purpose.
It need not be so.
As Home Secretary you could change the relevant clauses of the Act by statutory instrument, without a vote in Parliament.
At the stroke of a pen you could approve a UK pilot scheme in Glasgow, save lives in Scotland, confound opponents and show your Government has compassion for some very vulnerable people.
It's a big ask, but it would be a great start for you and is easier than Brexit.
Good luck with that by the way.
Yours, TC.



Friday, 26 July 2019

Beware of making Boris the bogey

From my Daily Record column

DOES political purgatory mean having to live the same lousy life twice over? That's been the experience of observers who are veterans of both the 2014 and 2016 referenda and their aftermath.
Every aspect of nationalism we see writ large across the UK today, we saw in Scotland first.
With Boris Johnson, pictured right - a populist to match Alex Salmond in his pomp - installed as Prime Minister, we are about to see the next phase of British nationalism.
In this stage, patriotism is harnessed to the no-turning-back certainty of a divisive referendum and moulded into an unbeatable political force.
People who took the step and voted Yes in the 2014 independence referendum were easy to gather behind the SNP in a first-past-the-post election the following year, creating a 50 per cent share of the vote for one party and nearly wiping out the opposition in Scotland.
Watch what will unfold. The cabinet Boris Johnson assembled on Wednesday is not one for government, it is for political warfare.
The horseguard of the Leave campaign have been recalled to duty.
Three of the great offices of state, Chancellor, Home Office and Foreign Secretary are filled by the talented children of immigrants, Javid, Patel and Raab.
This cause for liberal celebration also provides cynical cover for a Prime Minister who is about to run a nativist British campaign appealing to white, working-class patriots to get a breakout Brexit over the line.
Johnson, charismatic, funny and optimistic, will have no problem coalescing Leave voters behind this Big Brexit party in an early general election.
He will be the peoples' champion, opponents the unpatriotic roadblock to Brexit.
That is the plan, it's simple, and Scotland, that laboratory of nationalism which populists the world over now study, has shown it works.
One veteran Leave campaigner was quoted earlier this year saying that "if Vote Leave was a party, we'd smash everyone at an election".
In Scotland that's not a political revelation, it's a plain fact.
In the run-up to 2016, the Leave UK campaign studied and learned from the successes and mistakes of the SNP's 2014 venture.
They didn't produce a detailed manifesto. Alex Salmond's White Paper, and when you read it now, it is still stunning to think it was produced by an impartial civil service, became an albatross around his neck.
They didn't propose any detail on the Irish backstop or anything else to tether their fantasy to the ground, which is why so much remainer energy since has been spent on complaining the electorate were sold a pig in poke.
The voters weren't fooled, they didn't vote on detail, they voted on how they felt.
The Leave campaign, like the Yes campaign was an exercise in psychology as much as politics.
The change campaigners reached into the emotional hearts of voters to turn doubts on identity into opportunities.
The very meaning of Britishness, once the BBC is rubbished for "bias", is the NHS, Labour's neverending legacy.
In the Autumn of 2014, the Yes campaign warned there were only days to save the "NHScotland" from a UK Government by suporting independence.
That control of the NHS was already wholly devolved to Scotland didn't stand in the way of the lie.
Similarly, Leave reached into the battlefield between head and heart during Brexit, guaranteeing the NHS would flourish, £350million a week extra, but only outside the EU.
Fortunately or not, the deep anti-politics anger sparked by the 2008 crunch, superheated by the expenses scandal, hardened by the fall in living standards, had not reached boiling point in 2014.
On the morning of June 24, 2016, on what Nigel Farage coined "Independence Day", SNP strategists bitterly realised they had gone too early.
Had they waited, the mood even a few weeks later might have tipped the world their way.
If the SNP are to learn from history they won't repeat Labour's mistake when faced with a populist, right-wing Tory Prime Minister.
Scottish Labour, then the power in the land, demonised Margaret Thatcher to the extent that voicing support for the Conservatives, far let voting for them, was discouraged.
Funnily enough this didn't create Labour converts.
Tartan Tories simply began coalescing around the party most likely to beat Labour, the SNP.
If the SNP offers no better argument for independence than Boris Johnson as a "bogeyman", it could repeat history and reap the same harvest.

Tuesday, 16 July 2019

New PM could help tackle soaring drugs deaths


From the Daily Record 5th July 2019. A little lengthy but it spells out what  safe drug consumption rooms amount to and how they could be tried in Scotland. 

As the Tory leadership caravan trundles towards Perth tonight, a pack of hounds pursuing the pro-fox baiting Jeremy Hunt, Boris Johnson is nearly home and dry.

By now voting papers are hitting Home Counties door mats and most Conservative members have made up their mind, it has to be Boris for Brexit.

If only the sense of dismay greeting that outcome in Scotland could be matched by Johnson’s own anxiety over his lack of grip on the country of which he has next to no experience.    

There’s precious little understanding of Scotland by the current occupant of Downing Street, let along the next one.

Theresa May gathered Scottish Tory MPs recently, her first group meeting two years after their election. Proceedings started, apparently, with Gavin Barwell, the PM’s chief of staff, telling the room he hadn’t been to Scotland often and outlining what the PM’s speech should say. That heavy rain the other week, it was the weeping frustration of Scottish Tories.

There’s little Boris Johnson can do to change Scotland’s political weather to his advantage.

It’s doubtful his blond appeal can counter the nationalist line that his personality alone is reason enough to stage a second independence vote.

A hard Brexit, Johnson’s epistle to the faithful, his suicide note to the nation, is a clear and present danger to the Union.

On the constitution, and much else, a new PM is going to need every lever at his disposal to wrongfoot Nicola Sturgeon.

One thing Johnson could do is listen to his own libertarian instincts to outpace the SNP in a progressive policy area.

If the Tory leadership contest did us one favour it was to explode the hypocrisy around illegal drugs, taking Michael Gove’s leadership ambitions with it.

The next Prime Minister will almost certainly be a self-confessed drug criminal, possession of a class A drug like cocaine can mean up to seven years in prison, and the prisons are full.

The need for an overhaul of drugs policy across the UK is writ large. In Scotland we are headed for 1100 needless drugs deaths a year.

The rethink on safe consumption facilities that Scottish politicians and this newspaper are campaigning hard for only serves to highlight the drugs crisis across the whole UK.

In England Police chiefs are offering offenders treatment as an alternative to prosecution. 

Unfortunately for the SNP, a demand for anything different is always viewed through the prism of conceding more powers and meets Whitehall resistance.

But this is a UK-wide crisis, the constitution has little to do with it, and, it seems, not much has to change in the law  to allow safe drug consumption rooms that save lives in other countries.

Heroin Assisted Treatment clinics, straight-up medical centres where people are prescribed heroin, rather than methadone, by a doctor for use in the clinic, are on the way. A licence for one to open in Glasgow should be in place for the Autumn.

But supervised drug consumption rooms, where people bring their own street drugs to a safe, sterile space for use under medical supervision, are illegal. 

Health experts avoid calling these places, pardon the media parlance, “shooting galleries” or “injection rooms”. They would look like health centres, and from Portugal to Canada they have proven record in reducing fatalities.

There are just a few legalistic steps to overcome to allow a safer drug consumption facility to operate, because no Health board can put its staff at risk of prosecution for allowing their premises to be used for taking illegal drugs.

There has to be an exemption from specific sections of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, the kind of exemption that allows similar facilities to operate in a range of European countries.

In evidence to the Scottish Affairs committee Professor Alex Stevens, a member Advisory Council on Misuse of Drugs, said it would take just a simple statutory instrument to go through the Commons, that is without a vote, to alter the law.

Or, a letter of comfort from the Lord Advocate, Scotland’s chief legal officer, that health staff would not be prosecuted could provide police and medics, and people who use drugs, with the clarity needed. 

The Lord Advocate, James Wolffe, has so far refused to do this pushing the problem back to the Home Office which sticks to the letter of the, highly outdated, 1971 law. 

But in his evidence to Scottish MPs this week, Chief Inspector Jason Kew, of Thames Valley Police, suggested the Lord Advocate could reconsider.

He pointed out that prosecutions can only happen if they first pass the “public interest test”. Given soaring drug deaths would it be in the public interest to prosecute medical staff simply trying to save the lives of vulnerable people?

The roadblock to preventing more deaths is essentially a political one.

The current Home Secretary, Sajid Javid, is irreconcilably against decriminalisation or safe consumption rooms, citing the abhorrence of ordinary people on the streets of Bristol where he grew up to drug trading and its consequences.

Getting drugs and needles off the streets is, of course, one argument for safe consumption rooms.

However, one consequence of a new Prime Minister is a new cabinet, and Javid may be moving on very soon, possibly to become chancellor.

An opportunity arises, for Scotland and for Boris Johnson. 

Another Johnson, Police Scotland’s Steve Johnson, spelled it out in harrowing detail this week. Day on day he is recording deaths through drug abuse of people in their early 20s, people his officers know are in need of a doctor not the dock of a courtroom.  

In one stroke a new Prime Minister could cut through the legalistic buck-passing, and signal that we are ready for a new, grown-up debate on drugs policy.

But scoring a political coup would be incidental and hardly the point. Boris Johnson would be saving lives in Scotland, lots of them.

Tell me, which Prime Minister doesn’t want that headline?

Friday, 12 July 2019

Rogue polls will send indy down the plughole


From my Daily Record column today  12/07/19

Whatever is in the water this summer is fast polluting the independence campaign.

First Angus MacNeil pipes up and says forget a referendum, any election win will do.

Then Kenny MacAskill, whose judgment and political antenna are several stages of evolution ahead, calls for a wildcat, illegal vote.

Add to that Joanna Cherry hijacking plans for citizens’ assemblies as a tool to “create a consensus around Scotland and a bigger majority for Yes” and there’s your democratic credibility swirling down the plughole.

A consultative referendum was a disaster in Catalonia and supporters of citizens’ assemblies are looking at the wrong country.

In Ireland, they were used, successfully, to transition the country on abortion and sexual equality.

These were big cultural and generational changes, massively assisted by the collapse of the Catholic Church and the lived experience of friends and family members talking about previously taboo subjects.

In Scotland, we have been talking about nothing else but constitutional politics for years. Not so much talking as shouting, abusing and singing Kylie Minogue with our hands over our ears if so much as a contradictory tweet comes our way.

Citizens’ assemblies will never be seen in Scotland as anything other than an SNP astroturf campaign, the independence agenda given the synthetic appearance of a grassroots engagement.

Scottish voters have been to the polls eight times in the last 10 years. We were the test tube for the divided, post-crash world that’s seen the rise of nationalism from America to India.

We are the canary in the coal mine of post-truth politics and now we’ve reached the stage where politicians say: “Forget the will of the people, who needs a referendum?” 

To quote the philosopher Justin Timberlake, sometimes the greatest way to say something is to say nothing at all. Not that you’d expect MacNeil to button up.

However, I notice the SNP Government spent £24million on foreign affairs last year, promoting independence abroad. That’s just £1million less than his party has cut from the core budget of MacNeil’s Western Isles council in the last five years.

It shows you what just one year of shutting up about the constitution is worth.

Sùil Eile air Apollo 11


Bho colbh an Daily Record. Mo thaing do Daibhidh Woods agus Mairi K, mar is àbhaist. English translation below.

Nam chuimhne, bha mi cho fad’ air falbh bhon taigh ’s b’urrainn dhomh a bhith aig m’ aois.

Bha mi ann am Bràgar, aig dachaigh m’ uncail, taobh eile an eilein.

Bha telebhisean san t-seòmar-suidhe, ri taobh uinneag ìseal. Bha mise nam shuidhe air an làr.

“That’s one small step for man...”

Bha na h-ìomhaighean dubh is geal, làn sneachda dealain.

Ach bha fios agam, fiù ’s mar phàiste, gun robh sinn ann am fianais seòrsa de mhìorbhail.

Anns na lethcheud bliadhna th’ air a dhol seachad chan eil am faireachadh sin air falbh.

Tha na rinn iad, Niall Armstrong agus Buzz Aldrin, le bhith a’ coiseachd air a’ Ghealaich, fhathast a’ cur iongantas orm.

Bidh mo charaid, a tha na eòlaiche air na speuran, a’ toirt leis ball-coise agus ball teanas a-steach a sgòiltean, ’s iad a’ riochdachadh na Cruinne agus na Gealaich.

Ann am meudachd, tha iad an ìre mhath ceart a-rèir a chèile.

Dè cho fad ’s a dh’fheumas am ball teanas a bhith bhon Chruinne gus sealltainn cho fada ’s a dh’fheumadh na h-astronauts siubhail? Faid do ghàirdein, dà mheatair, còig? 

Bhitheadh an ball teanas 7.5 meatair air falbh, sin 238,900 mìltean.

Bhon a thàinig an sgioba mu dheireadh, Apollo 17, dhachaigh chan eil clann an duine air a bhith cho fad ri mearachd pàiste bho uachdar na talmhainn.


Translation

In my memory, I was as far away from the house as I could be for my age.
I was in Bragar, at my uncle’s home, on the other side of the island.
There was a television in the living room, beside a low window. I was sitting on the floor.
“That’s one small step for man...”
The images were black and white, full of static snow.
But I knew, even as an infant, that we were witness to some kind of miracle.
In the fifty years since that feeling has not gone away.
What they did, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin by walking on the moon, still amazes me.
My friend, who is a space expert, takes a football and a tennis ball into schools, representing the Earth and the Moon. In scale, they are about the right proportion to each other.
How far does the tennis ball need to be from the Earth to show how far the astronauts had to travel?
The length of your arm, two metres, five? The tennis ball has to be 7.5 metres away, that’s 238,900 miles.
Since the last crew, Apollo 17, returned home humanity has not gone the width of an infant’s finger from the surface of the earth.