Friday, 20 July 2018

Holding on to the Trump rollercoaster

From my Daily Record column today

 The Westminster press corps at Chequers, the hat didn't help get me question

AS we sat in the baking sun at Chequers, watching Theresa May’s white-knuckle podium grip while Donald Trump freewheeled through the world order, it struck me we’re only a quarter of the way through.

Not a quarter of the way through the press conference. Believe me, we journalists didn’t want that one to end.

No, depressingly, it struck me we are a quarter through a Trump presidency.

Close up, this guy is a phenomenon, an unstoppable force, who will stand and win again in 2020.

Barring impeachment - maybe the 12 innocent Russian spies aren’t so innocent - or personal calamity, nothing will stop The Donald’s second term.

That will be eight years - and many afterwards to clean up after him.

Victory looks inevitable. Trump won on populism against a toxic, elitist opponent the last time. “Crooked Hillary” stuck with voters. We could be in for the same kind of re-run.

Left-leaning senator Elizabeth Warren is trying to forge alliances (Trump calls her “Pocahontas” as a slur on her claims of mixed heritage). But rich Democrats seem to think Trump can be fought from the centre ground which, as we know, is gone.

When people look at British polling and wonder why Labour aren’t 20 points ahead of the shambolic Tories, I say look at it the other way.

Labour, with their most left-wing leader ever, seemingly determined to taint British socialism with anti-Semitism, are polling within touching distance of power.

In Scotland, a party with a prospectus for Brexit 2.0 chaos rest on the belief that separation will magically insulate us from global storms.

That represents a lot of anger against a broken system, where voters despair and political campaigns blithely cheat their way through the democratic process.

But Trump is better at stirring his base to anger than the liberal left are.

In one week in Europe, he slotted old allies as foes and cuddled up to a kleptodictator, selling the pass on the Middle East and his own intelligence services, until he remembered he had mis-spoke.

In Helsinki, the architecture of the world was re-arranged, nothing less, the post-war consensus dismantled in front of our eyes.

We are only two years in. People say we are rushing back to the 30s but we will sooner be in the 2030s, where “fake news” and instant, emotional politics will make democracies easier to sway.

The antidote must be as radical and counter the political darkness with optimism, of course.

There was quite a bit of that, and tremendous humour, coursing through the thousands who marched against Trump in Edinburgh, where I went on Saturday.

The homemade banners were hilarious. “Yer Maw” was my favourite.

But the mistake the left make is not to take Trump seriously, to see him as a balloon buffoon.

He’s not. He’s astute and cunning. When he plays the media, as he did at Chequers - charming down one side of the aisle, brawling down the other - he has four decades more expertise than any of us.

After a weekend full of Trump, I went to see Paul Simon play in London’s Hyde Park, to be reminded of another, more beautiful America.

I swayed with the baby boomers as they bade farewell to the balladeer of plaintive songs, goodbye to their blessed generation. It’s going to get harder for their grown-up kids.

He’s not much given to political pronouncements, Paul Simon, but he’s profound enough for me.

“Strange times,” quipped the poet and the one-man band during his last encore, and we all knew what he meant.

He added, quite simply: “Don’t give up.”

Friday, 13 July 2018

Dear Mr President - a letter to one island son, from another

Here's my Daily Record letter to Donald John, whose mother hails from the Isle of Lewis, as I do.

Dear Mr President, 

Welcome home, or fàilte dhachaigh, as they would say in Tong, the village that was birthplace of your mother and my own.

There will be great celebrations in the island village today.

The dish towels will be nailed to the fence posts, flying as flags, but not because a prodigal son is back on native soil.

It’s not all about you.

You see, there is a wedding in Tong today, a beloved daughter of the village is getting married.

She happens to be a cousin of mine, but that doesn’t mean we’re all related on the islands. It just shows we value relationships and know who our family are.

It’s a great shame Donald John, that you didn’t keep up your Scottish island connections, or the values of compassion, co-operation and tradition of welcoming exiles and visitors typical of these small places. 

It’s perfectly understandable how you have to give international publicity and promote commercial interests on your private golf course in Ayrshire, now secured in perpetuity at the expense of the British taxpayer.

Who wouldn’t want to play a round of golf with pals, rather than pay tribute by visiting their family home. 

When you took your oath as the 45th President of the United States your hand rested on Lincoln’s Bible and below it, I gather, the Bible your mother gave you in your youth.

So, she must have meant a lot to you, though not enough for you to take time out from the fairway to visit her birthplace.

Your elder sister Maryanne, who visited often with your mother, made a donation of almost £160,000 to a small care home in the Western Isles. She didn’t want the glory, she just wanted to honour the memory of her mother.

When you did set foot on the Isle of Lewis in 2008, your second ever visit to the Western Isles having previously only been there as a child, it was to promote your other golf course in Aberdeenshire.

These were the heady days before you fell out with your big pal, Alex Salmond, and transferred your allegiance to these other populists for a nationalist cause, Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson.

You were asked then to make a contribution to the restoration of the island’s museum. You gave not a cent, and as a consequence I don’t think the museum makes mention of you, the most famous son of Lewis. 

The good book say a prophet is without honour in their own land, and I guess you thought there was nothing in it for you.

More’s the pity because your family story, your mother’s story, reflects the experience and the honour of so many Scottish and American families.

Mary Anne MacLeod, as she was in the 1920s, was one of millions of Scots who went to the New World as economic migrants and made their lives and families there.

The loss of that migration generation had a profound effect all across Scotland, in places like the Isle of Lewis, in fact all across Europe.

We miss them, and try to keep the ties with our cousins across the world from generation to generation. 

Their hard work, their spirit of adventure and enterprise, that was your country’s gain and our loss. People like your Scottish mother, and your German grandfather, they were the people who made America great.

But, because of your political views you cannot acknowledge your own family story.

You Donald, you lock migrants up and separate children from their parents to dissuade others from making the same journey your family undertook.

Your own mother, Donald, arrived at Ellis Island beneath the Statue of Liberty which proclaims “give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free”.

You have traduced that American legacy and, sad to say, with it the memory of your own roots. You threaten the very values of liberty that makes America one of the great nations, the pillar of our freedoms.  

The door will always be open for you and your family on the Isle of Lewis, of course it will be. People there are courteous and kind and do not forget the ties that bind. 

Your mother’s Bible tells us how the prodigal son was lost and then was found. But you Donald, you have wandered far from home.

For the sake of the millions of women like your mother, who will come to seek a new life in my European home and your American home, I hope you that you can one day accept who you are, a migrant son.

Then we could welcome you home with an open hand and a warm embrace.

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.