Friday, 15 June 2018

SNP look to Parnell for Brexit delay tactics

The bust of Parnell, Irish Home Ruler, in Westminster
There is a bronze bust of the Irish Home Rule campaigner Charles Stewart Parnell in the corridor outside the SNP Commons offices which they took over from the Lib Dems.

These statues litter the Palace of Westminster. Lloyd George, the last Liberal Prime Minister, is at the bottom of the stairs on the way to the underground car park. So the mighty fall.

But it’s fitting that the 19th century Irish nationalist should be guard of honour for the SNP leader's office, particularly now.

Parnell held great sway over the Commons for many years and was expert in sabotaging procedures to force the government to take Irish issues seriously.

As his namesake, SNP MP Stewart McDonald, pointed out yesterday he once kept the Commons sitting for 45 hours considering the 1887 South Africa Bill.

“It might be that those tactics are of interest to the House at this time,” said McDonald, with a twinkle in his eye.

In protest over the Scottish parliament vote on Brexit being ignored the SNP has promised to hobble the Commons at any time.

Parnell and the Irish Home Rule movement provide the template which the SNP hope to emulate with Brexit.

Kenny MacAskill, former SNP Minister and firebrand,  showed the way in his Glasgow Herald column today in which he promotes the plan. 

He wrote: "The model for the SNP isn’t Sinn Fein but its predecessors in the Irish Parliamentary Party. Under the great Charles Stewart Parnell it flourished in the chamber when it suited, but never forgot that its purpose was to leave.

"Hopefully, that will now be the template for the modern SNP, allowing the good work on the rape clause and other issues to be pursued but recognising that it isn’t its parliament and it is not respected there. It doesn’t mean being rude or malicious, simply ending the far too supine posture that has been taken and being more robust in defending Scotland’s interest."

The idea has some merit, look at massive publicity and membership boost the SNP had from this week's walk out.

But there are downsides too. The novelty of protest might capture the headlines once or twice, but  disrupting the Commons on a regular basis begins to get a bit wearing all round.

It also exposes individual SNP MPs to the charge (which you'd think their opponents would make regularly anyway) that they are sitting in the Commons not for their constituents but for their cause.   

The tactic is being roadtested, as far as I can see. At Business Questions on Thursday SNP MPs kept Andrea Leadsom answering questions until nearly 1pm, passing the ball backwards and forwards while the clock ticked down on the day.

The big Brexit clock is ticking down toward a deadline too and Theresa May can ill afford to have the Commons gummed up by delaying tactics.

Of course these kinds of tricks are played by all sides, all the time. 

Everyone blames everyone else for how little time there was to debate the devolution clauses on Tuesday.

Labour blame the government for squeezing Brexit clauses into two days (They had planned for one).

Tories blame Labour for calling votes on every amendment, everyone blames SNP MPs for loitering through the lobbies as if on a Sunday stroll, ensuring even less time and more outrage for the devo clauses.

The SNP’s first guerrilla attack, a walk-out over the disgracefully short time given to debate devolution in the Brexit Bill achieved its purpose.

The issue is on the agenda, a ministerial statement made, an emergency debate on Monday. But what next?

To keep the issue on the boil SNP MPs will have Parnell as a touchstone of disruption every time they walk past him to their leader's office.

Wednesday, 13 June 2018

He shoots, he scores... Blackford in Ally MacLeod land

My first World Cup report from Westminster, for the Daily Record

The World Cup doesn’t start until today but already we’ve had a controversial refereeing decision.

Like Willie Johnston being sent home from Argentina in ‘78, SNP Westminster leader Ian Blackford left the Commons chamber claiming to have been the victim of a great injustice.

But he left with the satisfaction of scoring a brilliant victory - even if he was given an early bath by the ref, sorry, Speaker.

Until now it has been hard to generate interest in the Torys' Brexit constitutional insult to Scotland.

Months of Mike Russell statements, Downing Street summits, overwhelming rejection by Holyrood, yet the whole season was a goalless draw.

With the Brexit bill in the Commons for the last time, the Tories were going to win.

So when the ball fell at Blackford’s feet in the 90th minute, he made a run for goal.

The rest was like an Ally MacLeod fantasy of Brexit negotiatons.

Blackford shoots, he scores, cheers from SNP terraces, but he is red carded for defying the ref.

For the middling midfield general it is his finest hour.

He is carried shoulder-high by his team, who forget to take the ball away with them.

He is man of the match, the shot is replayed for the rest of the tournament, even though Scotland isn’t in the competition.

Then we wake up, and nothing has changed except English MPs joshing that when it comes to the World Cup, it’s all “SNP”.

That’s short for “Scotland Not Playing”, and it’s as true at Westminster as it is for the World Cup.

Friday, 1 June 2018

Sùil Eile air an dealbh-cluich "Translations"

Sùil Eile,  bho Daily Record an latha an-duigh

Tha an dealbh-cluich ‘Translations’ leis an sgrìobhadair Èireannach Brian Friel air fosgladh aig a’ Theatre Nàiseanta.

Sin Theatre Naiseanta Shasainn air bruaich deas an Thames.

Agus mar as àbhaist tha na h-ealain air thoiseach air poileataigs na dùthcha.

‘S ann mu dheidhinn oidhirp le saighdearan Breatannach ainmean Beurla a chur air àiteachan Gaelige a tha an dràma, mun strì eadar dà chànan agus dà chultar.

Tha an aon sgeulachd ri innse mu ainmean-àite na Gàidhealtachd, a bh’ air an call fo bhlas na Beurla.

Ach tha na thachair ann am poll mònach Dhùn na nGall anns an naoidheamh linn deug, air innse ann an dealbh-chluiche bhon ficheadeamh linn, a’ togail sgàthan air suidheachadh an latha an-diugh.

Tha na ceangalan iom-fhillte eadar Èireann agus Breatainn air an cluich a-mach air àrd-ùrlar Westminster agus na Bruiseil gach latha.   

Gun fhreagairt air crìochan Èirinn a Tuath tuitidh còmhraidhean Brexit às a chèile.

Gun tuisge air dè tha an eachdraidh a ciallachadh, tha gach taobh a’ bruidhinn cànan eadar-dhealaichte.

’S e Èirinn a’ cheist air nach robh freagairt aig Breatainn bho riamh.

Chan e nach do dh’fheuch iad, mar a tha ‘Translations’ a’ dèanamh soilleir.


“Translations”, the play by Irish writer Brian Freil has opened at the National Theatre.

That’s the National Theatre of England on the south bank of the Thames. 

And as usual the arts are ahead of the politics of the country.

The drama centres around the efforts of British soldiers to give English names to Irish places, about the conflict between two language and two cultures.

The same story could be told about Highland placemanes, which were lost under the accent of the English language.

But what happened in the peat bogs of Donegal in the 19th century, told in a play from the 20th century, holds a mirror up to us today.

The complex ties between Ireland and Britain are being played on the stage in Westminster and Brussels each day.

Without an answer to the Northern Irish border, Brexit talks will fall apart.

Without an understanding of what the history means, each side is speaking a different language.

Ireland is the question that Britain was never able to answer.

Not for want of trying though, as “Translations” makes clear.

Growth Commission - would the real author please stand up

From my Daily Record column today

Bad artists copy, great artists steal, said Picasso who knew a thing or two about art.

If so, take a bow Andrew Wilson, the creative mind who produced the SNP’s Growth Commission report last week only to be accused, among other things, of lifting bits of it wholesale from another report.

It appears that when it comes to the writing credits, cheers of “author, author” cannot go entirely to Wilson.

According to investigative reporter Paul Hutcheon over 950 words of the document, hailing New Zealand’s scorched-earth approach to economics as one to emulate, was copied and pasted from a New Zealand Treasury paper written ten years, with no credit given to the original author.

Okay, so the great white hope of nationalism had some uncredited plagiarism in it, an embarrassing error that was all.

Wilson explained how a footnote giving due credit the origins of the analysis was mistakenly removed during the drafting process.

We know the report was cooked, frozen, microwaved, put in a drawer and re-heated over two years to make it as palatable as possible, and everyone makes a mistake.

But far more embarrassing than the omission, I have discovered, would have been to credit the real author of the New Zealand passage.

Lo and behold the section of “copied homework” is that of a respected British economist, Neil Kidd, who did indeed work for the New Zealand government, and has gone back to live there now.

But Kidd also worked for HM Treasury in London in the run up to the 2014 Scottish independence referendum.

He was one of the key Treasury team which wrote the Scotland Analysis Programme, a series of hefty documents produced by the UK government to inform the independence debate.

The documents, carrying the full weight of the Treasury’s best economists, pored over everything from pensions to currency under independence.

They were war hammers in the hands of George Osborne and effectively destroyed Salmond’s dodgy  milk and honey prospectus.

So the Growth Commission report, raising the new case for independence from the rubble of the White Paper, is built on the foundation of an economist who analysed Scottish independence and found it wanting.

Irony doesn’t come near it.

Being found copying the work of a Treasury economist who built the case against independence will merely feed the nationalist backlash against Wilson’s cautious plan.

One former SNP government adviser, Alex Bell, described it as the political suicide note of nationalism, ceding ground to Labour on cuts and the Tories on low taxes.

But Wilson is a politician bouncing along with so much friendly optimism that he makes Tigger, from Winnie the Pooh, look like the glumbucket Mrs May.

His sunny disposition may be unaffected by the slings and arrows.

Part of the reason for making the real case for nationalism now is to draw the toxic response to the price of independence out of the body politic.

Because he is one of the most ecumenical politicians in the land, the good regard Wilson is held in helped the report off the runway without being shot down on take off.

But if going out of your way to please people is a personality strength, it is a political weakness too.

With his natural inclination to please everyone he meets Wilson has produced a hodgepodge of bolted-on, contradictory ideas of Danish welfare spending and New Zealand neo-liberal economics.

With a bit of unacknowledged help from an anti-independence economist, he’s cut and pasted them onto a photocopied map of a future Scotland. Mind you, Picasso did a lot of collage work too.

Friday, 25 May 2018

The economics of inequality, Darling's short answer to Indy Growth Report

From my Daily Record column

OLD generals are apt to fight the last war, not the next one. Sometimes it felt that way as Alistair Darling and Ruth Davidson warned against the potency of nationalism.
Darling was clear the battleground remains the economy.
"If people believe the Union is not delivering for them, the argument for breaking away will only gather strength," he told a conference in Westminster, where few nationalists were present and none made presentations.
Davidson regretted how the lessons of 2014 had not been learned for the EU referendum campaign, neglecting how the lessons were very well learned by her opponents on the Leave side.
Boris Johnson and Michael Gove simply picked up the baton where Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon left it and neutralised the negatives of Project Fear II, amplified claims tenfold and repeated their version of baloney with more conviction.
Remainers think it was foolish of Leave to paint the "£350 million a week for the NHS" slogan on the side of a bus.
This overlooks how Leave won, like Donald Trump won, by riding aboard a big red lie and surfing on emotion, not economics.
As the Brexit result came in, SNP strategists were kicking the family dog wondering if they had made even bolder independence claims they might have caught the anti-politics surge which brought Brexit to shore.
There's always another wave and this week's new claim, independence will make every family £4100 better off, might look good on the side of a bus too.
On one issue Darling and Davidson were agreed, people are weary of debating independence and of referenda. They might be but again this neglects how wearing down the opposition is a long game strategy. It is why former senior SNP advisers have gone into industry and lobbying firms, like Jesuit missionaries, spending years in the business jungle persuading the wealth creators who were so opposed last time.
It is why the subtext of SNP messaging on the Wilson Growth Commission, launched without the razzmatazz of flash bulbs so it does not crash on takeoff, is to simply give this new case for independence a reasonable hearing.
Levering extraordinary ideas to parity with common sense and then presenting the two as reasonable options is an old political trick.
Darling noted on Monday the longer the independence campaign went on, the more embedded the fantasy economics became. So, sure, some experts will be found to back the idea of a separate Scottish currency, with or without a central bank, and other experts will disagree.
You, the voter, then decide between two "reasonable" ideas circulating in the political bloodstream for some time.
It is to deny the economics of independence a foothold on reasoned ground that UK Ministers will show the Growth Commission the same regard most people have for the Alex Salmond Show, and simply ignore it.
That, of course, would be a mistake as the weary generals of Unionism must accept. Darling redeemed himself by spelling out his Labour counter to nationalism, it is social justice.
In both Brexit and Indy campaigns it was easy to encounter people who felt they were losing out to another group because of the way politics is run.
"Unless we sort out the economics of inequality, particularly outside big cities, that cause the rise of nationalism we are storing up problems for ourselves," said Darling, emphasising how this is not a passing phase.
"It may not manifest itself in a vote on Europe but something else will come along and someone will say, 'You're living like this and it is someone else's fault'."
"The only right thing to do is fix the lack of opportunity, to let people know they are cared about, or the same problems will manifest themselves again."

Monday, 16 April 2018

Sùil air an Tsunami, BBC Alba, Diardaoin 8.30f

Anns an stiùidio le Iain Moireasdan airson Fianais

“Inns dhuinn mun chogadh”, bhiomaid a‘ faighneachd nar cloinn, agus gheibheamaid sgeulachdan èibhinn mu phuirt air taobh eile an t-saoghail agus seòladairean annasach. Cha robh dad ann mu chogadh.

Cha do thuig mi sin gus an deach iarraidh orm pàirt a ghabhail ann am prògram Fianais, far am bi Iain Moireasdan a’ còmhradh riuthasan a bh‘ ann agus a chunnaic tachartasan eachdraidheil.

‘S e an cuspair agamsa an Sual Mòr ann an 2004, an Tsunami Àisianach. Chuir mi seachad cola-deug ag aithris bho theis-meadhan an sgrios a mharbh còrr is cairteal de mhillean.

Mar a b‘ fhaisge a thàinig sinn air clàradh a‘ phrògraim, ‘s ann bu lugha a chuimhnich mi. na rudan èibhinn, bha iad agam, ach cha robh an còrr eile.

‘S ann nuair a lorg mi agus a leugh mi airson a‘ chiad uair na h-aithisgean a chuir mi dhan phàipear-naidheachd agam bho chionn ceithir bliadhna deug, a thàinig a h-uile càil air ais.

Am fàileadh, na seallaidhean, na cuileagan, na làraidhean làn de chuirp. Bha mi air mo ghlasadh a-mach às mo chuimhne airson mo dhìon fhìn.

Tha na thàinig a‘ taomadh a-mach ri fhaicinn air Fianais, Diardaoin-sa tighinn aig 8.30f air BBC Alba.


“Tell us about the war”, we used to ask as children and we’d get amusing reports about harbours on the other side of the world and strange sailors. There was nothing about actual war
I didn’t understand why until I was asked to take part in the programme Fianais (Witness), in which John Morrison talks to those who have been and seen historic events.
My subject was the Great Wave of 2004, the Asian Tsunami. 
I spent a fortnight reporting from the epicentre of the disaster which killed over a quarter of a million people.
The closer it came to recording the programme, the less I remembered.
The funny things I could recall, but not the rest of it. 
It was when I found and read for the first time the reports I had sent to my stories newspaper 14 years ago that everything came back.
The smells, the sights, the insects, the lorries full of bodies.
I had been locked out of my memory for my own protection.

What came tumbling out can be seen on Fianais, next Thursday at 8.30pm on BBC Alba.

Saturday, 14 April 2018

The swing away from Europe's forgotten Spring

From my Daily Record column 13/04/18

Kenneth Murray, Murdo Morrison and myself, Czechoslovakia, March 1990

In the spring of 1990, as the walls came tumbling down, I travelled with two friends on an 2000-mile round car trip to the newly liberated countries of central Europe.

We had our passports stamped at Berlin’s Checkpoint Charlie, as East Germany held its first free elections since 1932.

We drank in Prague beerhouses and stayed in art deco splendour as Czechoslovakia went to the polls, and we swam in the steam baths of Budapest as old men played chess after voting.

We made it there and back in a 950cc Ford Fiesta with a battery tape recorder blasting out Neil Young’s Rockin’ in the Free World.

I realise this is not everyone’s idea of an Easter break but after the Soviet Union collapsed, the prospect of a liberated, united Europe drew everyone east.

We met Labour’s Brian Wilson in Berlin, bumped into Lib Dem veteran Russell Johnston in Budapest’s Intercontinental hotel. For once, Russell wasn’t in Brussels.

Budapest, when we arrived in our sewing machine car, was the most westernised capital of them all.

The legacy of the 1956 uprising, the education system and liberalised economy gave it a real head start on other eastern neighbours.

Last weekend, after the re-election of right-wing populist Victor Orban as Hungary’s PM, I messaged a friend in Budapest, a descendant of one of the small pocket of Hungarian Jews who survived the Nazis.

In good news, she is expecting a baby. But as for her country, she texted back: “Extremely sad.” It is likely she’ll move her life to Paris.

The pendulum swing from communism to neo-nationalism that has barbed wire fences going back up on Hungary’s border is tragic.

Orban was re-elected on a single issue – immigration, with anti-Semitic and anti-Islam overtones.

He used the same image of queuing migrants as UKIP played in the last days of the Brexit referendum (I feel sorry for Scots photographer Jeff Mitchell, whose image of refugees in Slovenia has been misappropriated).

Results like Orban’s – he controls two thirds of parliamentary seats – show voters aren’t going to back to the “sensible centre” any time soon.

Not under the old rules anyway. Politics is in the grip of populists.

I reckon this is why talk of a new centrist party in the UK is a dead loss.

Despairing of Jeremy Corbyn, some in the centre left are sniffing around for a new political vehicle.

The money is there but the backing isn’t because splitting the Labour vote simply allows the Conservatives to remain in government and sustain the SNP at Westminster.

And what would a centrist party have to say to voters driven to tribal extremes?

When radicals gain ground, even people with reasonable views are driven into the bunkers. The lesson of the post-crash world is that populism is an easier sell than reason.

The only European exception is president Macron, who I’m beginning to think is not the new radical centre but a throwback to market-driven Blairism which France skipped out on for years.

Soon enough, populists move on to scapegoats or sell mirages too ludicrous to accept. Just watch Brexit unfold.

The mainstream challenge is to respond with optimism about what can be achieved, to somehow find a voice that squares identity politics with a bigger picture, that addresses fears of migrants and resists the downsides of globalisation.

With voters not hankering for the middle ground, it is a big ask.

Another liberalising European spring is down a rocky road. Democracy needs more than an underpowered hatchback for the journey.

Sunday, 25 March 2018

Fishing barons the Brexit winners

From my Daily Record column

The fishing fiasco has exposed the utter shallowness of Conservative thinking on Brexit, and much else besides.

Michael Gove and Ruth Davidson were fools to cast aside a political rule to under-promise and over-deliver in a rush to say the UK will quickly gain control of territorial fishing waters.

Desperate for a Brexit win, they set the UK up for a fall.

Russia is not the only country which delights in sowing dicord.

French negotiators read British newspapers, saw what the pair wanted and simply said: “Non”.

The EU will set quota until 2020 and France proposed not just that the UK have no say but that our share be reduced too.

British negotiators were lucky to escape with the current quota intact, and that was bad enough.

Politicians then danced a sailor’s hornpipe to outdo each other on outrage.

To calm Scottish Tory MPs, whose lease on the north east has fishing and Brexit stamped on every page, chief whip Julian Smith told them not to worry because “it’s not like the fishermen are going to vote Labour”.

Unbelievably, Smith is Scottish but hasn’t caught up on the last 30 years of SNP dominance in fishing communities cut short by Brexit.

They just don’t get it but neither do nationalists clamouring that the UK will sell out fishing for a better deal for London’s financial services.

The choice is not between banking and fishing quotas, it will be about how much quota the UK will share versus the EU trade tariffs fish exports could face.

The hard-Brexit Rees-Mogg and his Scottish valet, Ross “Jeeves” Thomson MP, propose what might amount to a quick quota grab for the white fish fleet.

But for the majority of Scottish fishermen, the in-shore boats that export shellfish landings into the EU, it would be a disaster.

Before their limited free trade deal with the EU, Canadian fishermen faced an eight per cent import tariff on lobster - double if the produce was frozen.

That’s the price the Scottish shellfish industry would pay under a sovereign seas policy Farage and Co demand.

Fishing, like shipyards, is a deeply symbolic industry, but just who are politicians fighting this Brexit war for?

To their credit (and the EU’s), Scotland’s white fish fleet went through years of conservation pain and decommissioned boats.

Perversely, as stocks recovered, quota was gathered into fewer hands and fishing power was concentrated in supertrawlers capable of hoovering up tons of stock in one catch.

Effective control of the Scottish fishing industry now rests with a few dozen multi-millionaire owners across the north-east and northern isles.

These fishing barons are licking their lips at the prospect of leaving the EU and dictating policy to MPs marching up Downing Street to their tune.

What chance for conservation or a re-balancing of the fishing industry if it’s the megabucks interests masquerading as a heritage industry who call the shots?

There is a genuine opportunity in Brexit, though Theresa May probably didn’t register it when she said: “We want to rebuild our fishing industry.”

Voiceless, run-down fishing communities want that too but there isn’t a post-Brexit plan which speaks to them any more than there is for negotiating Brexit in the first place.

Right now all Brexit means for fishing is allowing millionaire Scottish quota owners and huge English quota conglomerates (foreign-owned some of them) the opportunity to plunder more from the seas.

If it is about the catch to profit ratio of millionaires, Brexit will be a real betrayal of coastal communities.

Friday, 16 March 2018

Salisbury and Salmond

From my Daily Record column today
We awake, blinking into a the new world of war where guns and missiles have been replaced by fake news on Facebook, poisoned spies and useful idiots.

The attempted assassination of Sergei Skripal and his daughter using a Russian military grade nerve agent was a very loud wake-up call. You would have to be politically deaf, deluded or Jeremy Corbyn to ignore it.

Like it or not we are, and have been for some time, engaged in a humming, constant conflict with Vladimir Putin’s criminal regime.

Over the last few years we have seen the symptoms, in the Crimea, in the interference of in US elections and now on the streets of Salibury.

What happened last week was not a targeted assassination of a traitor, it was a massive political assault against the west.

For those still scrambling around for an alternative explanation it is maybe best to spell it out - we are meant to know it was Russia behind the attack, we are meant to feel powerless to respond.

My essential catch-up viewing this week has not been the Alexei Salmond show, more on that later, but a timely BBC documentary on the Russia’s new Tsar, Vladimir Putin.

Feeling isolated and paranoid about the West, Putin embarked on a campaign of chaos to undermine his enemies.

This first use of chemical warfare in Europe was designed to destabilise the UK (it has succeeded) and to further isolate the country just as it breaks its bonds with the EU.

Fail to respond and Theresa May would have looked weak, but ramp up the rhetoric and the world discovers the limits of Britain’s international reach.

The collective European response will be meagre and Britain is left with a Frank Spenser lookalike of a Defence Secretary telling Russia “go away” and “shut up”.

Moscow snorts and continues to deny all facts, because these can be countered with alternative facts in the “post-truth” world.

Which takes us neatly to Alex Salmond.

It was never in doubt that the former First Minister would go ahead with his defiant broadcast on RT this week, though even his friends must have watched thinking this was quite a long way for one of the best politicians of his generation to fall. 

Salmond’s claim to be free from political interference gives RT the same veneer of impartiality as ballot boxes give to this Sunday’s Russian elections. 

The former SNP leader is not gullible nor naive. He knows RT is one part of the Putin’s full spectrum arsenal to undermine western democracies.

But he and Moscow share a common objective, to diminish confidence in established UK broadcasters and to weaken the unity of the United Kingdom. 

Salmond properly recognises the BBC as a keystone of shared British identity. By jacking himself up on RT pedestal he can pretend, well he can try to pretend, the Russian propaganda arm is on a parr with the BBC or ITV. 

There is enough of a receptive audience out there to make the cringing performance worthwhile.

The current First Minister is cleared to be a centre-ground stateswoman, turning the gas down on constitutional rows, leaving Corbyn in the shade with words of solidarity on the steps of Downing Street.

Salmond talks to those willing to lulled by an alternative story, highlighting the Labour leader’s isolation by lending him a crutch.  

That looks like a smart win-win for someone. With Salmond and Corbyn it is Putin who wins twice.