Friday 8 May 2020

Alasdair Crichton, last of the VE Day generation

On the anniversary of VE Day this is the remarkable story of my uncle Alasdair and his experiences at the end of WWII.
There are wonderful pictures that could accompany this story but in our current coronavirus lockdown it isn't possible to get them. I will try to add them at a later date.

Last December, just as we approached the shortest day of the year, we buried our uncle Alasdair at the Braighe cemetery, a mile or two from the Isle of Lewis village where he was born.

At the age of 94  Alasdair Crichton, my father’s brother, was the last of the men in the WWII generation of veterans from Swordale.

My father used to tease him about how being a 1945 recruit he never actually made it to the war.

That was only partially true, as I discovered when I went to visit my uncle in the summer of 2011, fresh from Westminster’s political battlefields.

I came to his Stornoway home with a gift I thought he might find interesting. One of our cousins, Sergeant Major Alasdair Iain MacKenzie of the Scots Guards (now a Captain), had days before presented the colours to Her Majesty at the annual Trooping of the Colour.

I’d been to the ceremony and spoke to him about the experience. It wasn’t Sergeant Major MacKenzie’s only task that summer.

This Lewis lad told me he had also been in charge of Barack Obama’s guard of honour at Buckingham Palace during the US President’s state visit to the UK. That, I thought, was pretty impressive.

Back in Stornoway I presented my uncle, a former Scots Guard, with the Trooping of the Colour programme.

There were pictures showing our cousin, not as bearskin-hatted chocolate soldier, but in a slit trench, a three-tour veteran of Afghanistan. He’d been Obama’s guard too, I added.

My uncle seemed pretty non-plussed by all this humblebragging about our illustrious relative.

He wandered off through the house while I stayed chatting to my aunt, Mairi. Pretty soon Alasdair was back with a card-backed manilla envelope which he handed to me. Inside was a sheaf of 10”x8” black and white photographs.

“Who do you see there?” my uncle asked.
“Well, that’s Stalin, and that’s Churchill and that must be Truman,” I said making a stab at the threesome central frame.

“And who do you think that boy is there in the ranks they’re inspecting?”

I looked at him and he looked at me.

Alasdair said: “I was Churchill’s guard of honour at Potsdam.”

I was stunned. But if my father taught me anything it was never to be short of an answer, so I groped for his words.

“Da said you weren’t in the war.”

That was almost true, my uncle explained. Alasdair had enlisted in 1945 in the Scots Guards and was training with his comrades somewhere on the English moors to take the Allied campaign into Germany for the last push.

It wasn’t to be. An ear infection impaired his balance and Alasdair had to stay behind while his battalion crossed the Rhine into Germany and swung northwards to end their war in Hamburg.

Alasdair had to wait in barracks for the next lot of recruits to be trained and was flown into Berlin as hostilities came to an end.

“My first night in Germany was spent in a ditch by the side of the road,” he recalled.

His company had orders to make for a country mansion in Potsdam, south west of Berlin, but their route was blocked by Russian troops.

In these uneasy days after the Germans had been defeated it wasn’t clear if the Russians would be the next enemy or friends.

After three days of negotiation the British were allowed through and on arriving in Potsdam discovered the nature of their mission, to be Churchill’s guards.

Churchill, Truman and Stalin at Potsdam, from the Imperial War Museum archive
Pointing to another picture of a guardsman, at attention outside a mansion, my uncle said: “That boy was one of my best friends. That’s the house Churchill stayed in and he used to complain about the noise of our tackety boots marching up and down all night keeping him awake.”

There were probably more pressing issues keeping Churchill awake, I reckoned.

But my uncle told me how one evening the day watch was ordered to hand in their boots which were flown back to London overnight and returned the next morning with rubber soles. It must have been true.

“Now who’s that there?” my uncle quizzed me again turning to another photo.
“That is Clem Attlee,” I said, proudly recognising the Labour post-war Prime Minister. Shortly after the war ended Churchill was turfed out, Attlee was in and came to Potsdam.

Alasdair and my father in London sometime after WWII. My uncle stayed in London for seven years after the war.
One of my father’s earliest political memories was sticking up two fingers at Churchill at a Glasgow election rally in 1945. Churchill was good for war but people wanted Labour’s peace and Attlee was one of my father’s heroes.

My uncle disagreed. “No, we didn’t like him,” Alasdair said. “He gave too much to the Communists” pointing at Stalin, reinforcing the image of my uncle being in the middle of this historic post-war conference.

The division of Europe had in fact been mostly settled earlier at the Yalta conference but that didn’t mean that tides of geopolitics weren’t swirling around Potsdam and my uncle’s life.

“But we liked Truman,” said Alasdair. “He dropped the bomb.”

That sounded appalling to me, but when my uncle explained it just underscored our generation’s shallow understanding of the actual horror of war.

My uncle and his friends knew what the war expected of them. Their service books were marked “Far East” and Postdam might only have been a colourful diversion on the road to a hellish invasion of Japan if the atom bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki had not brought the conflict to a close.

Alasdair in Scots Guards uniform in a picture sent to his sister, Nora.
So, yes, my father was partially right. My uncle missed the war and thankfully so.

Alasdair had never spoken before about his military service, few of them did, and he added only a few details about the starving civilian population he’d seen while stationed in post-war Germany.

I suspect the trauma of it meant that generation couldn’t remember the details, although the experience completely defined who they become as men. Good men, as I remember.

My uncle was one of the humblest of that generation who fought for and then rebuilt Britain, literally in his case as he worked on the construction of the Royal Festival Hall on London’s Southbank.

Back in Lewis Alasdair married, raised a family, became a teacher and lived a quiet life as a committed Christian. All his adult life he’d probably consider himself more a soldier for Christ but he did his service for his country too.

And, as he taught me that day he revealed his role in the closing chapter of WWII, never try to pull rank on an old soldier.  

Alasdair Crichton, Swordale and Matheson Road, 1925-2019

Wednesday 18 December 2019

Five things Labour should to do now, and five things it (probably) won’t.

From the Daily Record Sat 14/12/19

The Labour party in England woke up yesterday in the same situation Labour in Scotland found itself in 2015 - shattered, its citadels sacked, the activists bewildered and not knowing how to win back territory taken fore granted for generations.

There are few lessons from Scottish Labour on what to do next, because the party was ahead of Corbyn into the ditch.

If there is a lesson from further afield it is that there no guarantee for social democratic parties in an age of identity politics.

The French Socialist party banked just 6.4 per cent in last year’s elections, in Greece Pasok last polled at just over six per cent. That shows what is on offer for Labour if change does not happen.

Here are five do’s for revival, and five don’t pitfalls.

1) Goodbye Corbyn, but not all of Corbynism

If he hasn’t gone by now more shame on him. The leader, and his legacy of anti-patriotism as much as anti-Semitism, repelled Labour voters. He was a force for failure, not a cause for hope. But the agenda for change, for nationalisation and for renewal, people wanted that. To persuade voters Labour needs leaders who can communicate big ideas, and how they would be paid for, beyond reading out a shopping list.

2) Take your idealogical purity and stuff it where your majority just went

If a party keeps losing, Labour’s lost four in row, it is beyond time waiting for voters to come home. If the Momentum purists and trade union barons put a ring of voting steel around socialist purism and one more push to awaken the working class, then it is time to start thinking about another centrist party. The purge of purism has to be done, and done quickly, or Labour is lost for a decade. 

3) Adopt a friend

If you’re Labour and don’t have any Tory or SNP friends you’re not principled, you’re just a loser.
Listen, don’t preach on politics. Often people will shock you, but unless they cross a racist or bigoted line, try to work out what policy responses can answer their fears.

4) Open up

Mandatory re-selection isn’t popular but open primaries can be. Labour needs top talent, and needs to sound and look like the people it wants to represent. That starts with you, Richard Leonard.

5) Embrace the nation

The UK fashion industry is bigger than the car industry, no one has worked in a deep mine in three decades. New commuter housing developments on the edge of hollowed out former mining towns, in places like Mansfield and Bolsover, do the talking, pay the taxes and voted Tory. Offer aspirational voters the future, not just an echo of the past. So green lives four our kids not just green industrial jobs. 

Five things Labour shouldn’t do (but might):

1) Don’t look back in anger

History is in the rear view mirror, the party could be too. Fine, blame Jeremy or John, kick the dog or the dressing table, anyone but yourself. Your opponents are in front, not behind. Unite quickly to get on with winning.

2) Choose the wrong leader

There is a certain inevitability to the left, which controls the party, trying to prove it was right and the voters were wrong by choosing a bad leader. Don’t choose a leader for you, choose a leader for that SNP/Tory/Lib Dem mate you’re talking to again. You need someone who can win. Otherwise see point 2 above

3) Don’t forget the who won the election

Not Johnson, but the grown-up children of working class voters you lost a connection with. Don’t deny reality, reconnecting on voters’ trust is hard work and takes time.

3) Don’t break up the country

Don’t buy the nationalist narrative of Scotland being ”different” but learn from the SNP that politics is about identity as well as policy. Labour’s identity is common endeavour, that more is achieved by unity. Keep challenging nationalists to come up with a progressive argument for dividing people from each other.

5) Don’t give up

Against failing school and health standards, against austerity, against globalism and climate change, people need a social democratic alternative more than ever.

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?