Saturday 29 August 2009

Norman Gillies - the last of the St Kildans

I travelled with Norman John Gillies on a voyage of remembrance to his native St Kilda four years ago and wrote the article below for the Sunday Herald, 26th June 2005, on our return.

It was a remarkable day . To stand with Norman John on St Kilda, when he touched the gable of his old house, was to journey through time. But I was also struck by the grace of Susan Bain, who spent time as an NTS warden on St Kilda, and her profound understanding of what is it about the islands that draw us to them. It's a long read but on this, the first St Kilda Day, come away with us...

THE sea cliffs of Hoirt don't reveal their intimidating flanks until you are bobbing, 1000 feet below, in what suddenly feels like a very small boat. Fifty miles out across the heaving, dark green Atlantic, St Kilda is an awesome find.

It's as if a giant had dropped Glencoe out at sea or sculpted New York skyscrapers in dark gabbro and hauled the unwilling structures across half an ocean. Way above our craning necks, the upper storeys of windowless towers are just visible through skimming cloud and teeming, wheeling layer upon criss-crossed layer of seabirds.

The shrouded tops, the eerie rebound of the screeching gannets against the cliffs, sharpen an atmosphere already laden with trepidation. St Kilda is so far off the map of modern imagination that the actual sight of it sparks a primal fear. It's like Skull Island in the old King Kong movie. Those rock cathedrals could be sheltering anything. It might just be possible that here be monsters.

What's truly amazing about this group of islands, breaking the ocean surface more than 40 miles west of the nearest Hebridean landfall, is that anyone ever lived here at all.

It took the intrusion of the 20th century for the St Kildan population to loosen their grip on the cliffs from which they'd once scraped an existence, and abandon a way of life that had been almost unchanged for two millennia.

St Kilda was evacuated on August 29, 1930, the last families - 36 people - carrying furniture on their backs to the pier and drowning their dogs in the harbour before leaving their homes forever. Other Hebridean islands have been evacuated since. On Scarp, the cool leaves of the church bible were left open in the pulpit as the population departed. But it is St Kilda that still enthralls.

St Kilda - the collective name for the four islands of Hoirt, Dun, Soay and Boreray - endures as a symbol of an ancient, lost society folding in the face of advancing civilisation. Its distinctive sea and landscapes, suffused with natural history bearing a unique human footprint, have each been bestowed with World Heritage status.

At the beginning of the 21st century, this archipelago remains one of the strangest, most historically redolent and least accessible places: a Machu Picchu in the Atlantic.

As the boat pulls into Village Bay - the only reasonably safe anchorage point on Hoirt - a row of empty stone houses hoves into view. Against the concave slopes of Conachair, which rises steeply behind, they are tiny. Yet their iconographic significance is immense. These houses - built in the 1860s - are the last remnants of a scattered community. St Kilda's sole street is the most melancholy in the world.

The fragile scale of human inhabitation, the dizzy cliff tops, the sense of isolation, and the sheer, extraordinary beauty of it all, are overwhelming. When the naturalist James Fisher left St Kilda in 1947, he knew he and every future visitor would be haunted and forever "tantalised by the impossibility of describing it to those who have not seen it". He was right. St Kilda, the island on the edge of the world, stays with you for the rest of your days.

From the deck, 80-year-old Norman John Gillies gazes into the far horizon. He has been straining like a pointer on a leash since the boat left Harris. One of the last St Kildans, he is heading home. Gillies left St Kilda as a five-year-old. He's been back twice but today is special because he is accompanied by his son, John, and that midwife of modern history, a television crew. It's early morning and he's the most smartly dressed and energetic of the dozen passengers aboard the Orca, a purposebuilt boat that can race from Harris to St Kilda and back in a day.

Being St Kildan, Gillies ought to have a Gaelic burr, but the language has died on his lips. He pronounces the word "Gaylic" in the anglicised accent of his adopted home, Ipswich, an object lesson in how displacement shattered the St Kildan culture. He is, though, 100-per cent, genuine islander, one of only three remaining evacuees. (Two older women live in the Black Isle and Greenock. ) History flows through him to his son, who shares his father's passion. Even the Gillies house in Ipswich, where Norman John has lived with his wife for 57 years, is called St Kilda.

You cannot expect a five-year-old to shoulder an entire heritage and Gillies has only fragmented memories of what life was like on St Kilda before he left, with the others, for Lochaline on the Morvern peninsula. Most of all, he remembers his mother, and they are beautiful memories that provide an umbilical link to the past. To step ashore on St Kilda with him is to walk across the bridge. If you touch the hand of this old man, and he touches the wall of the house he was born in, you are back there.

"I've got memories, " he says, standing outside the doorway of his old home. "We lived at number 10; there was a dyke in front of it. This dyke. If I was playing at one end of the mainland or the other end of the village street, my mother would stand on the wall and call out: 'Tormod Iain, time to come home for dinner'.

"It was all Gaelic. I didn't learn English until I went to school in Lochaline in Argyll. The other memory is of going to church. We went to church twice on a Sunday and there was no work. It was a day of rest." Playing, the Sabbath, his name being called out across time: these are general impressions, but Norman John has an enduring memory of the last time he saw his mother. It's an event that defined who he is and one which pinpoints the moment St Kilda died.

"My mother was pregnant and took ill with appendicitis. First of all they had to get a message out with a fishing trawler that there was somebody ill. The first time the lighthouse ship came the weather was so rough they couldn't get a boat out from shore. By the time the next ship came, and she was taken to Stobhill hospital in Glasgow . . . she died and so did my little sister. She died a few days after she was born." The tears well up in his eyes now: "My most precious memory is of her being rowed out to the lighthouse ship, with her shawl over her head, and waving to me on the shore. That is a real treasure that I will remember all my life."

The death of Mary Gillies in January 1930 was what we now call a tipping point, the one small but tragic incident that brought the whole of the island society crashing down. When news of her death came back to St Kilda, it was more than the inhabitants could bear. After years of internal debate and being urged to go by others who had already left, the St Kildans were overwhelmed by hopelessness. A letter was written to the Secretary of State for Scotland and in August, amid much publicity, they were evacuated at their own request.

In truth, St Kilda had begun to die years before the last fires were dampened. Organised religion, a dependency culture based on charity and tourism, emigration and economic change all eroded the symbiotic relationship the islanders had with each other and with nature. Life and death on St Kilda, described in several books, was excruciatingly barren. Existence revolved around the male population climbing those impossible cliffs to cull thousands of seabirds each year for oil, feathers and flesh.

The harvest was traded with the island proprietor, MacLeod of Skye, in exchange for worldly goods and his guardianship.

The lives of the women, as in all primitive societies, entailed load-bearing, childrearing and feeding. Every inhabitant was shackled into this cruel economy because in that environment your very survival depended on everyone else. The summers were spent in the dangerous pursuit of the cliff birds. In winter, the inhabitants were cut off from all other communities, with the wind whistling through the roofs and the rain running down the inside walls.

here is a palpable sense of loss here, amid the ruined houses and the hundreds of stone cleats - small stores for the harvested birds that litter the island. Not that there are many moments for quiet contemplation. St Kilda, during the summer months, is a busy hive of activity.

In the 1950s, the military set up an ugly base by the shore, and radars atop of the summits of Hoirt. Although the soldiers have left, civilian contractors work a month on, month off rotation tracking missile firing practice from the Benbecula range. Then there are National Trust for Scotland work parties, helping the island rangers restore the row of houses. There are scientists working for Scottish Natural Heritage, yachts at anchor, day trippers like ourselves and regular shoresiders from ocean cruise ships.

Nobody lives permanently here, but there are rarely fewer than 30 new St Kildans on the island each day of summer.

Today, the village street is as alive as when the SS Dunara Castle disgorged Victorian tourists ashore to ogle the natives, to pay them to have their pictures taken and to gift them baubles for knitted socks. For that new breed, the tourist, St Kilda was extraordinarily popular. It's generally held that early tourism corrupted the islanders, but it was a two-way process. By the end of the 19th century, St Kildans had developed a horrendous dependency on charity. Once, they burnt a new boat given to them as a gift, because it was not deemed good enough, doing so in full expectation of another one being sent shortly.

There are myths aplenty among the facts. The visitors did not wipe out the population with imported diseases, although by the 20th century the whole population had developed a weakened immune system, capable of being laid low with fever or influenza in one stroke, and they had a chemist shop junkie's addiction to medicines.

Missionaries turned the islanders into God-fearing Christians, surrendering themselves to the surety of the hereafter in exchange for fatalism towards the present. In this way, with a depleting and ageing population, St Kilda slowly unravelled. News of Mary Gillies's death arrived as a paperweight on scales of judgement already leaning heavily towards departure.

Lunch, outside the first cottage on the street (now a canteen), has the semblance of the famous St Kildan parliament, captured for posterity in a Victorian photograph, which saw the men of the island meeting each day on this spot to allocate work and discuss their world's events.

At this parliament, Gillies is guest of honour and we hang on his anecdotes and his gentle corrections of the photo captions in the museum. He's very much the professional, like a campaign politician who puts up the same rousing stump speech at each stop but to whom you never tire of listening.

But this natural charmer is upstaged by a mouse. It's not just any mouse; this is a native St Kildan mouse: larger than your average mouse, smaller than a rat, and in some way unique. St Kilda is so remote that, rather like Australia, it has evolved its own versions of certain species.
The arrival of the mouse creates a stir and provokes much snapping of cameras.

FOR five months of the year there are NTS wardens on the island. Susan Bain doesn't just count the sheep; that's someone else's job. As an archaeologist she looks after the buildings, which are tricky to maintain. Later in the year she'll go to Iceland to study traditional turf roofing.

Right now her biggest problem is how to repair a cottage roof around a nest of fulmars which, like the mouse, are a protected species. Visitor pressure, she recognises, will become an increasing problem as St Kilda finds itself on the welleroded path of world tourism.

The Peruvian government is spending dollars-70 million and proposing a 2500 visitors-aday limit for the Machu Picchu site, in an effort to protect its World Heritage status.

St Kilda has only 1500 visitors a year but already the effects are being felt. The further the images are broadcast and the more postcards are sold, the more they will come.

Cameraman Ged Yates has been gamely filming all day while fighting off seasickness. A St Kilda veteran, he once led a passenger mutiny on a boat here and has been aboard for dramatic helicopter rescues in the treacherous waters around the islands. He's our talisman for the voyage and boy, he doesn't look good on it.

With no tradition of swimming on the islands, drownings were a fairly regular occurrence among St Kildan men who rowed the four miles to Boreray, a gigantic shark tooth rock that is the largest gannetry in the world. On the overhanging stack, they harvested the annual bounty, able to take fewer birds than could be replenished by nature. Fatalities on the cliffs were common. "No St Kildan dies in his bed, " remarked one early visitor to the islands. Norman John is named after two relatives who were victims of the last big drowning tragedy.

NEAR the pier, in the muddle of military buildings, our skipper and mate are sheltering from the afternoon heat in the Puff Inn. The bar, the westernmost drinking hole in the UK, resembles a mid-ocean rest stop in the Azores. The ceiling is decked with graffiti and pennants from a thousand passing ships. We order a thirst-quencher and share a surreal moment of television as former Runrig singer, Donnie Munro, serenades Hampden before the Scotland vs Moldova match kicks off.

For the 15 or so civilian personnel who keep St Kilda functioning, the bar is the social hub. One of the Uist boys, posted out when he lost his driving licence at home - "best thing that ever happened to me" - drives Gillies, his son and me, to the Mullach Mor, the island's highest point, up a zigzag military road that leads to the radar stations. The original army plan to use the stones from the houses as bedrock for the road was, fortunately, stopped.

From this level, the village and hundreds of cleats lie scattered below like a broken string of stone pearls. We look on to Soay, where second world war bombers crashed in the mist, and Dun. We sign the visitors' book at the radar station - another surreal moment - and feel small and frail against the primordial power of the ocean.

Norman John Gillies points out the landmarks to his son, who already knows them by heart. In 1987, Gillies junior gave up a job as a printer and spent seven weeks tracking down the remaining St Kildans. It wasn't what he intended to do. "I had fanciful ideas about carrying on to Shetland and Iceland, but once I started visiting the people I didn't want to go any further, " he says. Across Scotland, the St Kildan diaspora took him in as one of their own.

"You can't generalise, but they were a lovely bunch of people, so kind and welcoming." We drive slowly back down to our waiting boat. None of us wants to leave.

Susan Bain has spent four summers here, letting the place get under her skin. She likes the muted browns and greens and the contrasting sea pink on the slopes of Dun when the flowers blossom at the end of May.

When she returns to Edinburgh at the end of each season she finds herself staring for long periods at the tree outside her house.

When the St Kildans moved to Argyll they were given jobs with the Forestry Commission planting trees, things they'd never seen in their lives. Gillies tells me all the trees have matured now, and been felled.

"In Lochaline we were treated very well. They didn't look on us any differently from anyone else, although when we came off HMS Harebell from St Kilda I suppose they were expecting people from outer space." In fact, St Kildans did have some physiological differences: broad, straight feet and thicker ankles, but Norman John's are no different from yours or mine. But there is something about the St Kildans, something about life on this far archipelago, that continues to inspire us.

There are ambitious plans for an international opera based on and performed on St Kilda. A book conference is scheduled later this year, and the First Minister wants to visit. Three-quarters of a century after the islands were evacuated, we remain fascinated by St Kilda, and a tiny community that was washed away in the tidal rush of the 20th century. Why is that?

Bain knows why she feels sad walking around the village in the evenings among the empty houses. The former inhabitants' histories have been documented on an unprecedented scale. "You can walk up to any roofless house, " she says, "and know who lived there, how they lived, what happened to them. You don't get that in any other abandoned landscape." It's true. We know more about them than the origins of our own families.

St Kilda and its people have been forensically dissected as noble savages and lost utopians, and they were none of these. Ultimately, each one of us fades to nothing, yet the St Kildans are immortalised. They are more famous than the kings of Scotland.

There are lots of reasons why the islands hold such a powerful sway on the imagination, but listening to Bain's explanation as we walk down St Kilda's only street, it seems to me that hers resonates best.

"People don't live in closed communities any more, or depend on each other to the same degree, and that's what's so alluring, " she suggests. Bain thinks part of what we're grasping for, that keen loss we feel when we come to the edge of the world, is an understanding of what it's like to belong to a long-established community.

She could be right. Like the 80-year-old man wandering among St Kilda's ruins, listening for the sound of his mother calling him home, perhaps we're all straining for an echo of what we have lost.

Latha Hiort - St Kilda Day

I had the pleasure the other week of heading to St Kilda. It's easy to get to: straight out the old Roman road from London, the A12, until you reach the River Orwell in Suffolk. Then follow the river down the coast, past the house of Roy Keane, Ipswich Town's new manager, and you come to Chelmondiston.

That's where you'll find "St Kilda", the home of Norman John Gillies, the last of the islanders to have left in 1930 who can still tell the story of the evacuation and what happened next.

Now in his 85th year, fit and healthy, the delightful Mr Gillies is the last man standing of the 36 islanders who left St Kilda 79 years ago today.

I interviewed Norman John in today's Herald for the first St Kilda Day, which will be marked with a series of events across Scotland. If I can find it I'll post the story of the voyage we both took to the island a few years ago.

St Kilda has captured the global imagination - in books, songs, even opera - and the St Kilda Day will tap into that intuitive connection we all make with one of the remote places in Britain and the ancient sense of community it came to symbolise.

Malcolm MacLean, of the Gaelic Arts Project which is staging the day, hopes the event will grow to be an annual celebration of islands, which oddly as an island nation, we do not do.

Next year will be the big one, 80 years on, and among projects I've already suggested to Malcolm is that the connection between St Kilda and Lochaline , where the islanders arrived on the mainland, be marked with the planting of a forest of 36 trees. Those familiar with the evacuation will recall that the islanders, people who had never seen trees before, spent the rest of their lives planting for the Forestry Commission.

Wednesday 26 August 2009

Beannachd leat, Edward Kennedy

News came through this morning that Edward Kennedy, the last of that generation of a fabled American political dynasty, has died , aged 77.

Most of the obituaries so far have concentrated on Chappaquiddick bridge and what David Owen described on radio this morning, in an honest and unvarnished assessment of the man, as his character flaws

But let's not forget that Ted Kennedy was a towering Liberal figure in American politics and though he might not have made it to the White House (while men with less of the right stuff have) he was a great advocate for the poor and for social justice.

The Grumpy Spindoctor , a man with a sense of history, gets the tone right by reproducing Kennedy's speech from the 1980 Democratic convention, when he failed to defeat Jimmy Carter for the nomination. Worth a read. Mike White of the Guardian also has a good, honest take to which I can only add - beannachd leat.

Experimental Vlog - Mike's newspaper review

My latest toy is a Flip video camera which I was fooling around with this morning. This my colleague Mike Settle, Pol Ed of the Herald at Westminster, leafing through the Financial Times in Room 2, the Press Gallery's Caledonian nervecentre. A bit like John Logie Baird's first television broadcast - a man juggling - there isn't really much to the item itself, but you can see the potential.

Over on , the Herald's new website, we hope we can get this kind of footage added to vlogcasts and podcasts. Look out for Robbie Dinwoodie and Brian Currie's podcast review of the momentous Holyrood week tomorrow morning.

Tuesday 25 August 2009

Gordon Brown - a question of "courage"

Five days on from the Tripoli Homecoming event Gordon Brown is resolute, that is he is determined not to say whether he backs the decision to return the Lockerbie bomber home to die.

To the inevitable question at his press conference there was the inevitable answer. We know that Mr Brown was "angry and repulsed" by the infamous Saltires in the Sands reception that Abdulbaset Ali al-Megrahi received, but we are no closer knowing what he actually made of the legal turn in the biggest terrorist case in British history

Into the vacuum created by the Prime Minister’s trappist vow on the most controversial decision in Scottish politics since devolution has rushed a tide of comment and ridicule.

There was a case for Mr Brown maintaining radio silence until after Mr MacAskill had been kebabed on the Holyrood grill on Monday. The by the book answer of his advisers is that this was a devolved, quasi-judicial decision under a separate legal system (although Mr Brown mistakenly referred to it as a decision of the Scottish parliament while putting these country miles between himself and Kenny MacAskill’s conclusion).

Add to that Mr Brown’s partisan delight in seeing the SNP government squirm under the pressure of making a serious decision - welcome to big boy’s politics he might have thought. Neither did he want to supply any ammunition to the SNP for their usual diversion of blaming London.

That logic did not take the Prime Minister further than the moment Mr MacAskill sat down on Monday afternoon. Despite the strong, over-rehearsed words about standing firm on terrorism, Mr Brown ended yesterday looking weaker. William Hague accused him of failing to show leadership, and the Lib Dems said he delivered a masterclass in evasion, a pattern of McCavityism that portrays him as the man who is never around when there is something important to say.

There are powerful political and journalistic forces trying to haul the Lockerbie story south to Westminster. The opposition Conservatives want to make Mr Brown as uncomfortable as Mr MacAskill, to damn him whatever he says. In tandem the London political correspondents are keen to get their teeth into the story and only by linking the Prime Minister, or failing that Lord Mandelson, to events can they justify upstaging their Scottish counterparts.

The low voltage electricity coursing through the body politic in Westminster is the belief, consciously held by some, that the Scottish government simply should not be responsible for such a momentous decision.

The peculiarity of a devolved parliament taking a quasi-judicial decision with huge foreign policy implications for the sovereign state can be shrugged off as a kink in the devolutionary road, but only by fellow travellers on the route. For metrocentrics who never bought into the devolutionary arrangement this does not compute constitutionally.

The foreign policy and security implications of an any empty cell in Greenock gaol is emphatically the responsibility of the British government and so is the playout for UK-Libya relations and the commercial and trade links. Mr Brown is the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom - he could say whatever he wants and he must have something to say on the issue.

There could be an argument that the Prime Minister does not dance to the media’s tune, he’s free to do so, but the Downing Street "say nothing" strategy simply invites a fresh wave of attacks. We’re told to expect that it is not his compassion that will be questioned but his "courage", the human quality he prizes so much that he wrote book about it,

Mr Brown is back in Scotland today where he can avoid questioning and he can stay out of the media spotlight until a series of press and television interviews in the run up to the Labour conference in a month’s time. Parliament does not get to hold him to account at Prime Minister’s Questions until 14th October, but will anyone have forgotten the issue by then?

Monday 24 August 2009

Lockerbie - so, what happens next?

We've been looking at the calender. According to the medical advice Kenny MacAskill received on the release of Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi , the Lockerbie bomber has three months to live.

Well, twelve weeks out from the release of Mr Megrahi is November 12th, which, we all think, is the likely date of the Glasgow North East by-election. It will be interesting to see if the political furore lasts until then regardless of what fate has in store for the terminally ill Mr Megrahi.

There was no prospect of Mr MacAskill losing his head today - there was no process for that -and most of the opposition criticism bounced off him like candy floss missiles. But if the hero of Tripoli is still alive and the toast of the Arab world in three months time there could be trouble down the line.

What happens next? Labour spent most of Sunday rowing back from the nuclear option of a vote of no confidence in the Justice Secretary, that would simply allow Mr Salmond to call their bluff and the opposition have blinked first in the past.

That said the government motion in the planned debate on the Lockerbie release can be defeated in parliament next Wednesday - embarrassing but not terminal for Mr MacAskill and Mr Salmond. They are the government and can survive anything short of a motion of no confidence (two third majority required).

Meanwhile, the London press and the Tories are desperate to pull the row back to Westminster where they can have bite of the pie. Gordon Brown's press conference with Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu tomorrow at 2pm will be fun.

You can understand Mr Brown allowing the Scottish government to stew in it over the weekend and his reluctance to feed the SNP any ammunition they could throw back at him. (The SNP went to the extent of translated a Gaelic interview with Lib Dem MSP John Farquhar Munro to cite support for MacAskill's decision yesterday - and fair play to them for that.)

But Mr Brown is the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom and could comment freely. His continued reluctance feeds into the McCavity's cat pattern of behaviour the Tories have framed him with.

Martin Kettle in the Guardian just about sums up how Brown will be seen if he doesn't talk soon - and I don't mean about the English cricket team winning the Ashes. He's just sent congratulations on that, according to Laura Kuennsburg.

Further down the line are Colonel Gaddafi's 40th anniversary celebrations but before that there are the US network news programmes tonight. The interpretation they put on the Holyrood debate will raise or lower the political temperature in America overnight.

Incidentally I noticed the #Lockerbie thread on Twitter while the debate was running was pretty much all British commentary. That may or may not be indicative of American feeling on the issue but they were all over threads about the Iranian election and the like.

I know there's a time lag but is it that the US Twitterati were abed or just not interested? Time will tell.

These boycotted Scottish products in full

The US Department for Homeland Security has now published a list of Scottish products and how Americans ought to order them in restaurants should they find themselves in the land of shortbread-eating surrender monkeys, by which we think they mean Edinburgh.

Scottish salmon fishcakes - Pinko burgers

Scots Porridge - Afghan muesli

Arbroath Smokie - Arbroath smoking gun

Otacakes and cheese - Taliban biscuits

Forfar Bridies - IEDs

Haggis and Neeps - Baghdad dhal

Scotch Whisky - Humvee fuel

Ceist Logarbaigh trom air MacAsgaill

Tillidh Pàrlamaid na h-Alba an-diugh, seachdain nas tràithe na bha còir, a dheasbad na connspaid mu bhomair Logarbaidh.

Tha Rùnaire a' Cheartais, Coinneach MacAsgaill, a' faighinn a chàinidh bho gach taobh son Abdelbasset al-Megrahi a shaoradh agus a thilleadh a Libya. Tha cuid de dh’Aimeireaganaich agus agus an sean Phrìomh Mhinistear Seac MacConnail a' cumail a-mach gu bheil a' chùis air cron a dhèanamh air cliù na h-Alba.

Chan e mise a nì an co-dhùnadh air sin, ach nuair a chunnaic duine bratach na h-Alba os cionn port-adhair Thripoli bha iad gu math feargach, gu h-àraid na Aimeireaganaich.

S e sin a thug air Rabairt Muiler, ceannard an FBI, sgrìobheadh gu Mgr MacAsgaill, ga chàineadh agus a' cur casaid air gun tug e sochair dha cheannarcaich, agus gun do rinn e magadh air na teaghlaichean a tha fhathast a' caoidh na bhàsaich ann an uabhas Logarbaidh.

Tha Mgr MacAsgaill agus an SNP a-nis ann a meadhan stoirm eadar-nàiseanta, na pàtraidhean dùbhlanach sa phàrlamaid a' tighinn còmhla na aghaidh an-diugh agus na h-Aimeireaganaich a' feitheamh ris mìneachadh a-rithist dè dìreach a thug air co-dhùnadh gum bu chòir Abdel Baset al-Megrhai a dhol dhachaidh a bhàsachadh.

S e là cunnartadh a tha ann aig ìre phoileataigeach airson Riaghaltas an SNP. Bidh sùilean an t-saoghail air a' phàrlamaid aig leth uair as dèidh dhà.

Cha bhidh bhòt ann an-diugh, dìreach cunntas bho Mhaighstir MacAsgaill agus ceistean bho na ceannardan agus an nuairsin na buill-phàrlamaid. Ach tha na Lib Demaich airson 's gum bi bhòt air co-dhùnadh Mhaighstir MhicAsgaill an t-seachain seo tighinn nuair a thilleas a' phàrlamaid. Chan e seo crìoch a' ghnothaich an-diugh ach toiseach tòiseachaidh.

Taing mar as abhaist, Eilidh Dhubh

Friday 21 August 2009

If you do one thing today...

...listen to David Pratt's documentary about the real life M.A.S.H. teams in Afghanistan at 11.30am on Radio Scotland

David regularly puts himself in harm's way to file dispatches for the Sunday Herald and this radio documentary, built on a magazine piece he wrote some time ago, will be no exception.

Mixed reports coming through this morning about the legitimacy of the Afghan election result and news that a British Chinook was brought down in an attempted Taliban "spectacular" that would have overshadowed the already tense week.

The helicopter made a hard landing and everyone aboard managed to get out but it is only one of eight British Chinooks in the country and its loss will be a logistical blow for the UK and a propaganda victory for the Taliban.

While people were dipping their fingers in ink in Afghanistan by coincidence I went to see The Observer, a new play by Matt Charman, in the National Theatre.

It's about a group of international observers monitoring the first election in a fictional west African state and it raises some pertinent questions about "liberal interventionism" and the legitimacy of the electoral process.

The cast, headed by Anna Chancellor, worked damn hard but you can't help but see the drama through the prism of journalism and real life news which - in elections Afghanistan and Iraq and Zimbabwe - has been more traumatic than anything contained in the play.

That's the news, theatre reviews and radio previews for the morning. Now, if Peter Mandelson is in hospital who is running the country...

Thursday 20 August 2009

The Homecoming

The scenes at Tripoli airport tonight, complete with Saltire flying as the Daily Telegraph points out in its headline.

Someone has just called me and asked: "Is this what they meant by the Year of Homecoming?"

The Scottish Parliament has been recalled to debate the Megrahi release, and the government's handling of the issue, on Monday so someone can put the question to Kenny MacAskill, the Justice Secretary, then.

Although I blogged earlier that he was getting pelters from the London media I see Mr MacAskill has had support from an unlikely quarter - Alan Cochrane of the Daily Telegraph .

Closure of Uist range would cost millions

Complete with bagpiper (a great gent from Kintail) the Hebrides Range Taskforce handed in their case against the closure of the missile testing facility on South Uist to Downing Street and the Ministry of Defence yesterday:

From the Herald 21/08/09

Closing the Hebrides missile range with loss of 125 jobs would seriously undermine the UK’s strategic defence interest and cost the Treasury £12.4m in terms of lost revenue, taxes and benefits for the knock-on effects on the fragile islands economy, according to the community taskforce campaigning against the defence cuts.

In a document arguing that the plans by Qinetiq, the civilian contractor running the base in South Uist, are "flawed" the taskforce presents a highly technical defence and economic case for retaining and expanding the Hebrides Range as the largest and most versatile live firing test facility in Europe.

The campaigners, who delivered their response to the closure case to Whitehall yesterday, hope they can shunt a ministerial decision into the MoD’s strategic defence review where it can be argued that the missile testing range is a unique defence asset that relies on community support for its successful operation.

Delivering the document to the MoD yesterday morning councillor Angus Campbell, leader of the Western Isles Council, insisted they were not involved in "emotional" plea bargaining. The council estimates that the regeneration costs of replacing jobs, attracting new residents and maintaining essential services to the islands will be an additional £10m to £15m.

"We’ve put a lot of time into this and we think the facts speak for themselves. The impact of these proposals will be not only catastrophic for the islands but bad for the UK in general," said Mr Campbell. "From a defence point of view we will be in a much worse off for the sake of saving a few pounds from an individual budget. It will cost much more in terms of a reduced defence capability."

The taskforce estimate that Qinetic’s projected saving of £3m a year by moving range operations to Aberporth in Wales are unproven and would not deliver until 2019. The remote control solution proposed by Qinetiq is also questioned.

The range extends westwards into the Atlantic from South Uist and includes a manned tracking station on the island of St Kilda, a UNESCO double World Heritage Site. The taskforce argue maintaining the island would prove an expensive millstone to the government if Qinetic automated their facility on the remote archipelago.

"The St Kilda factor is important in that you can track missiles way out into the Atlantic and track more than one missile at a time, when you lose that capability you limit the range," said Mr Campbell. "Also St Kilda is a double world heritage site has relied on the army to support it in terms of logistics. There is a huge bill for St Kilda that will fall on another part of government and there is also the question of restoration. In 1996 that was estimated at £10 to £15 m and it would be much more today. "

Angus MacMillan the chairman of Storas Uibhist, the community landlord on South Uist, said the effect of losing 125 jobs in the islands would be the equivalent to 30,000 jobs in Glasgow and would reduce UK defence capacity.

"There will be a huge reduction in capability by moving command and control from the Hebrides to Wales, therefore putting UK defence capability at risk," said " The missiles will not be tested to the same extent and it will be a dis-service to the armed forces. These proposals have not been discussed with their clients including the RAF and Navy, so there are flaws in their consultation, flaws in the savings that will be realised and flaws in what they say is going to be left of the capability."

The Spectator's "Cameron Highlanders"

Interesting piece by Fraser Nelson in this week's Spectator magazine, contemplating the relationship between a putative Prime Minister David Cameron and Scotland.

It has all the usual stuff about Cameron's gateway to Scotland being deer-shooting on Jura and notes, as Mike Settle did in the Herald some weeks ago, that 46% of new Tory candidates are not"uncomfortable" with Scottish independence.

You might disagree with the Spectator line on lots of things but Fraser is worth reading on this (and other subjects) because he is regularly invited to sit around the campfire by the Cameroons and he understands Scotland inside out.

Being Fraser, he brings gifts for everyone, even the Scottish Labour party. His line about the SNP being the "Cameron Highlanders" - "political mercenaries fighting Labour in its Celtic homeland" - is a turn of phrase that's bound to replace Labour's threadbare "Tartan Tories" jibe.

Kenny in the crosshairs

Whatever the ins and outs of the Megrahi decision it looks as if the knives are out in London medjialand for Kenny MacAskill, the Scottish Justice Secretary, over his announcement that the Greenock prisoner can go home to Lybia to die.

The blogosphere, dominated by the right wing libertarians it must be said, has gone ballistic over the decision and the way Mr MacAskill handled it.

"Grotesque political grandstanding" is what the Economist is describing his release speech as. I think Mr MacAskill has seen off worse than that in his time.

I think most Scots watching, and they are his electorate, would have felt a fair amount of sympathy for the Minister, realising that he was damned either way. He must be just grateful that the day is over.

Hebrides Range - taskforce case against closure

In the midst of all the Al Megrahi release drama there is going to be little space in print for the other story I'm covering today - the campaign against the proposed closure of the Hebrides missile range in South Uist.

The local taskforce campaigning against the loss of 125 jobs in the Hebrides delivered their case to the MoD and Downing Street this morning. Councillor Angus Campbell and Angus MacMillan of Storas Uibhist, the community landowners, did the honours.

In a short time the campaigners put together a pretty impressive document which is summarised below. The rest of the document will probably appear on their own website.

Their argument is that down-grading Range Hebrides and running operations remotely from a base in Wales would be damaging to UK strategic interests and would cost more money not save £3 million a year. Here's the executive summary, more in the Herald in the morning.

Response to the Ministry of Defence Consultation
for Hebrides Range
August 2009


The Hebrides Range Task Force (HRTF) has considered the proposals presented by MoD-QinetiQ in the consultative document, ‘Cost Saving Investment Projects Affecting MoD Hebrides and MoD Aberporth Ranges’. Following independent research and assessment of these proposals, HRTF has identified that:

• The rationale behind the MoD-QinetiQ proposals is fundamentally flawed.

• The proposals present a serious strategic risk to UK defence test and evaluation capability. In particular, Jane’s highlight the removal of NiDIR I-Band tracking radars from St Kilda.

• The Long Term Partnering Agreement (LTPA) has resulted in a narrowly focused and damaging proposal from a capability perspective.

• The complexity of the proposals presents a significant commercial risk with serious likelihood of cost escalation and project overrun.

• The proposals put a key strategic defence asset at serious risk.

• The proposals fail to meet project objectives as it does not deliver total net savings until 2019.

• The proposals lack credibility as all options were not fully considered. A ‘Campaign Aberporth’ would have been logical and sensible and should be pursued.

• The loss of the range is deemed unacceptable by MoD, but the loss of 125 jobs poses a serious threat to on-going sustainability and availability.

• Our primary research demonstrates that 203 FTE will be lost as a result of the proposal. This is significantly more than the MoD-QinetiQ projections suggest.

• The total cost to Treasury in terms of loss of income, benefits, output and taxes is estimated at £12.4M.

• The knock-on effects will add a further 30% to the total costs.

• In terms of equivalence, the scale of job losses would amount to approximately 50,000 in Glasgow.

• The annual cost of the total job losses is estimated at £5M.

• The regeneration costs of replacing the jobs, attracting in new residents and maintaining lifeline services is estimated at £10M - £15M over a 5 year period.

• The proposals if implemented will sterilise opportunities for future research and development capacity to the detriment of UK defence capability.

CONCLUSIONS AND RECOMMENDATIONS The overall conclusion of the Hebrides Range Task Force is that:

• These proposals will have a serious detrimental effect on a critical UK strategic defence asset.

• These proposals lack credibility and will not achieve anticipated cost savings.

• These proposals will result in significant additional expenditure to UK plc.

• These proposals will have a devastating effect on the local economy.

The Hebrides Range Task Force recommends that based on the details provided in this submission that:

1. The Minister rejects the proposals presented by QinetiQ in relation to the Hebrides Range as they are not in the best interests of UK defence capability, do not provide value for money and will have a devastating impact on a fragile local economy;

2. A fresh approach be developed to the cost saving investment proposals, including a ‘Campaign Aberporth’ option which would produce savings and reduce risk, based around a full independent evaluation and appraisal;

3. The MoD and QinetiQ proactively investigate the wider opportunities presented by the Hebrides Range to ensure the UKs significant global aerospace market share and technology lead is maintained and developed well into the future;

4. The LPTA be reviewed and revised in order to more effectively incentivise QinetiQ to bring new business to Hebrides Range.

Wednesday 19 August 2009

Brian Haw: 3000 days and nights for peace

Late last night I received a text from Brian Haw, the Parliament Square protester, to remind me that by dawn he would have spent a staggering 3000 nights camped out on the pavement in front of Westminster.
Brian, who has come to symbolise the right to protest as much as the anti-war campaign in the eight years he has been across the road, is an irascible and restless soul. He leans on crutches now and he looks pretty worn down by his obsessive vigil but he's still there, still going strong.
The Independent have put him on the front page this morning and gave him a deserved two page spread inside.
I interviewed him on a cold March morning two years ago for the Sunday Herald and, surprisingly, he liked the piece so much he wanted more copies to send to his family.
The interview was as comprehensive a biography of the man as I could puzzle together from what he said that day and from what he has told others and it's replicated below.
From the Sunday Herald 11/03/2007

BRIAN HAW would rather be hosting an interview at his "number two gallery", the Tate Britain, but as he's more at home on the rain-soaked pavement of Parliament Square, we'll have to make do with a big green umbrella in the shelter of his much-truncated peace wall.

Less than half a mile away, in the warmth of one of the capital's most prestigious galleries, Haw's pavement-length display of anti-war placards has been reproduced in all its former glory. The 40m ramshackle wall of placards, photos of genocide, anti-war slogans and messages of support was all confiscated by the Metropolitan Police in the middle of the night as part of an ongoing campaign to remove Haw from the doorstep of the mother of parliaments. For five years, they've tried and for five years they have failed.

Mark Wallinger's State Britain installation may be a loving recreation of the work of protest but Haw is still very much aggrieved at the loss of the original. He regards its removal as more of a war crime than a crime against art.

He points out the topography of his stolen landscape from his collapsible camping chair. "That's where my church sign was, the one phoney Christian Tony tore down when he sent his friend Sir Ian Blair, the police chief thief, to steal 40 metres of evidence of genocide. He disappeared it on the 3rd of May at 2.30am in the morning. The chief of police disappearing 40 odd metres of evidence of torture. Is that a crime or not?" He splutters to a halt.
Haw has become a bit hoarse of late, maybe from shouting, maybe the fags, maybe the effects of another winter spent living under plastic and canvas in the centre of London. He tries to speak softly but every so often he rises to a crescendo of invective as the anger ebbs and flows through his body.

You'd expect anyone who has spent five-and-half years sitting outside parliament, haranguing the denizens of Westminster on a daily basis, to be a bit eccentric. But Brian Haw, the Parliament Square peace protester, is no one's fool, even though a lot of the time he pretends he is.

Just as war needs heroes, the peace movement has a propensity to throw up brave individuals such as Cindy Sheehan, who camped outside George Bush's Texas ranch, and whose extraordinary commitment to the cause often stem from personal tragedy. Haw's in that category too, outside the mainstream, untameable, his own man.
Bruce Kent, the white-haired vice-president of Campaign For Nuclear Disarmament, was for many years the best-known figure in the peace movement. Still active today, he's planning to visit Scotland in March, and his assessment typifies the arms-length relationship Haw has with organised campaigns. "He is an enormously courageous eccentric who has managed to bring continuing national focus on to the whole issue of the Iraq war in a highly original way, " says Kent. "His witness has been very successful and the way he has managed his legal affairs has been extraordinary. The government hasn't had the brains to craft legislation that will get rid of him."

Haw can be, at turns, a glint-eyed, hallelujah evangelist, cursing with the salty tongue of a whaling ship's captain. He'll rant like Ahab against "Bomber Blair" and "Killer Bush" and break unbidden into sea shanties of doggerel song. But beneath the trademark beanie hat, festooned with water-stained peace badges, there is a shrewd operator with a keen sense of what he has come to represent. Haw, who has spent more nights in the open than most SAS troopers do in a career, has become the enduring symbol of the British anti-war movement, yet no one can claim him as a mascot.

He's been voted by the public as the most inspiring politician of the year, but has no constituency. His uncompromising, rugged looks have been captured on canvas by artist Nick Botting, who described Haw as "key to our time". Last December, Botting contacted the Imperial War Museum to suggest they consider exhibiting the portrait, but the offer was politely declined. The museum may not have been interested in displaying a picture of a dedicated peace activist, but Haw continues to be feted by sympathisers from around the world.

Laws have been passed across the road to have him booted off his parliamentary pitch but, after five-and-a-half years, successive efforts to have him silenced and removed have come to naught. With the anniversary of the 2003 Iraq invasion looming on March 20 it's beginning to look as if Haw will outlast his nemesis, Tony Blair. Yards from the traffic fumes, the noise of buses and the cold and damp, the pavement opposite Big Ben is a hellish place to spend a morning, let alone five-and-a-half years of your life. Haw camps on the grass, goes to a friend's flat for a wash once a week and eats what he is given by visitors and supporters. Where he goes to the toilet is, he says, his own business.

Underneath the hat, he's a reasonably clean-shaven, square-jawed 56-year-old with nicotine-stained hands and overlong fingernails. He seems as permanent a fixture as his companion on the square, the large-scale statue of Winston Churchill, or "the gasbag" as Haw describes him.

Brian Haw arrived in Parliament Square, a geometric green island in the witch's cauldron of London traffic whirling by the Palace of Westminster on June 2, 2001, and put up a small display of placards protesting the deaths of children because of sanctions against Iraq. It seems a long time ago. The foot and mouth crisis had passed, a still youthful Blair had been re-elected for a second term and, in his wake, I walked through the Westminster portcullis for a stint of parliamentary reporting.

It was that last summer before those fuel-laden jets ushered in the Age of Uncertainty. London was hot and Brian was noisy. He could be seen from The Herald office on the Burma Road corridor of the press gallery and he could be heard, too, day in, day out. In a cramped office – shared with The Scotsman, the Press and Journal, and the Western Mail in a scoop-tight arrangement of Chinese walls – the window had to be open to keep the heat of the capital at bay.

That let the noise of Brian in and he was very annoying. At some stage of the day, someone trying to concentrate would shout at Brian to shut up. I doubt if he could hear us. He didn't, he reminds me, start using a megaphone until 2003. Still, he was damn loud without it. "And how loud are our bombs?" he asks rhetorically.

The ambient traffic seems louder than any noise Haw could make, flattening the chime of Big Ben, his constant companion on the mantelpiece of parliament. He seems immune to the traffic noise and doesn't react at all to either cheers of support or the occasional white van man jeer.

He's confounded the law on many occasions, beating numerous attempts to have him evicted. A new law was drafted specifically with him in mind, part of the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act, which removed the 350-year-old right to peaceful protest within a quarter mile of the Palace of Westminster. The case has snarled up enough Home Office lawyers and police time in a game of legal ping-pong that they maybe wish they hadn't started.

The Court of Appeal would not grant him leave to appeal to the House of Lords, but Haw's lawyers refused to accept that and he will be independently seeking leave to appeal. As an interim measure, his solicitor has notified the police Haw intends to continue his demonstration. Then the police imposed conditions on his demonstration last May. In Westminster Magistrate's Court, these were thrown out but the empire struck back with new conditions preventing him from re-instating his former display.

He's limited to a three-metre long display, no more than one metre high. The legal molestation apart, he's hemmed in by crowd barriers and the park wardens who guard the grass. It seems an extraordinary amount of legal muscle to silence one small nuisance but the law didn't stop there.

Another clause of the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act banning the use of megaphones in Parliament Square was drafted with Haw in mind. He sought an exemption from Westminster City Council, who were minded not to grant it. A High Court judge quashed the refusal and awarded Haw costs. He now has the right to use a megaphone at certain times under certain conditions. He can use it for half an hour in the morning, half an hour in the early evening and for a short while when Tony Blair drives past to face Prime Minister's Question Time.

His quarry usually goes in the back way now, Haw complains. "I have to take my 25-watt megaphone down to the end of the display. I have to toddle off to that murderer Churchill, " he says, pointing to the three-metre high statue that guards the way into Whitehall. "You know his grandson Nicholas Soames gave me two fingers on the way in these gates?"He's back to shouting: "I was saying: 'Tony Blair, George Bush, hear the words of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. In the past, it's been said an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. Now I say love your enemies. Christ didn't say to you burn the babies and bugger their mums and dads and brothers and sisters, did he?" His voice drops back to normal: "I'm crying out these words and he gives me two dirty fingers – 'f**k you'. So, I'm telling the police officer to do his duty and arrest the Right Honourable scumbag, the shadow offence secretary as he was. His grandfather was a gasbag too. His grandfather gassed and bombed people too."

Haw's had worse encounters with authority and unwanted visitors. He's been beaten up three times and had his nose broken. In one of those fractured conversations, he tells how an army officer named "Jake" wanted to give him a hard time at 4am one day. "I'm under the plastic there, trying to have some rest, and he's shouting: 'Were you there? Were you there?'." "Well, I wasn't getting any rest, was I, so I stuck my head out from under the canvas and I shouted: Were you in Cambodia? Do you know about Pol Pot? They called him Asia's Hitler. They called the Khmer Rouge the red people, Asians Nazis. Now they're commies and we call them gooks don't we?" Well, anything you say, Brian.

He continues uninterrupted: "I went there at Christmas-time 1989, when Lord Carrington said the Cambodians were only eight million and we shouldn't worry. Oh, did John Pilger do the job on him. . ." With such a bomb-splinter approach to answering straight questions you have to pick the shards of Brian Haw's life from the random clues he fires off and from what others have been able to document.

He actually has been to Cambodia, to the killing fields, but perhaps the most surprising aspect of Brian Haw, apart from the pleasant news he's a twin and the poignant fact he's the father of seven children, is that his presence in Parliament Square is part of a long voyage around the ghost of his father. "My dad was a sniper in the British Army and he was one of the first to go into Bergen-Belsen and save the people, " announces Haw, seemingly apropos of nothing.

You have to learn quickly with Haw that everything is connected and that between the polemics on depleted uranium and the protest songs are the stories of the demons that drive him. "He knew genocide, my dad, and 20 years later he gassed himself. But he taught me a valuable lesson, did my dad – you don't get peace by shooting people."

Most enlisted infantrymen in battle spend their time trying not to kill people. Despite the training, it is in defiance of human nature to deliberately take aim at another man and fire accurately. But being a sniper is the most calculating and callous role in an infantry regiment. In war, they kill each day, every shot recorded close up through telescopic sights, everything remembered. "And you very rarely shoot the right people do you?" says Haw. "They were just young men. Do you know how many soldiers from the American army are coloured? This man from Iraq came and said he only saw one or two white officers."

Haw's father could have been haunted by his fighting experience or the sights that greeted the liberators of the Nazi concentration camps or a combination of both. Either way, he committed suicide 20 years later, after bringing shame on the family by dipping into the till at a betting shop he worked in.

At 16, Brian Haw became head of the family. He joined the Merchant Navy and sailed the world, sending home GBP4 a week. Woven in his life is evangelical religion that shaped his childhood in Whitstable, on the Kent coast. He spent six months after one merchant voyage at a college of evangelism in Nottingham and then really began to take his mission for peace to the streets.

In 1989, he was deeply affected by John Pilger's documentary on the Cambodian killing fields. It sparked something in him, perhaps a desire to get some insight into the horrors that affected his father. By then, he was a father himself, married in Essex with four children with a fifth on the way. Back then, his wife understood his motives and he left on an overland journey with GBP100 in his pocket, passing from West to East, through the Brandenburg Gate on the night the Berlin wall came down.

He spent three months in the horror of Cambodia but, when he came back, he was given only 10 minutes in a church hall to tell his story. When he came to parliament, his wife initially continued to supported him, but now they are divorced.

He bats away questions about whether he sees his children with another rant. "My youngest one is 14. I'm bloody angry at you and everyone else and my whole stinking country. Why can't I be with my family and my children? How do I feel when everybody wants to regard me as the hero, like Rocky getting into the ring? Did I ask for that? I just came here as a responsible person, as a Christian. As you do to the least, you do to me, that's what Jesus said."

Tony Blair, George Bush and Brian Haw have Christianity in common but they do not share the same God. "They're lying, evil bastards aren't they?' says Haw, putting adequate distance between himself and the leaders of the free world. "Jesus Christ going around bombing babies? Jesus Christ will say he never knew them." You get the feeling there's a sermon coming next. "You know a tree by its fruit, " says Haw. "If it's a tree with poison ivy around it and the fruit says Christian, do you believe it? Well, suck it and see. And that evil, baby-bombing Brown: 'I don't do war, I just pay for it'. Lying bugger. You pay for it, we pay for it but who pays for it the most? The babies we bomb."

He's reached a plateau of anger now: "Gordon Brown lost a baby while I was here. It is sad when you lose a baby. I lost my first-born son at the age of 12 hours and that was painful. I can sympathise with Brown for losing his baby but what about all those babies that Brown financed the killing of?"

Haw may be the cracked mirror of the parliament's conscience over the Iraq war but his vagabond protest has sparked with the British people. He was voted the most inspirational political figure of the year in the 2006 Channel 4 news awards. In a public poll, he garnered more votes than Blair, David Cameron, General Sir Richard Dannatt, the head of the Army, John Sentamu, Archbishop of York, and Aishah Azmi, the teaching assistant sacked for wearing a full veil in her classroom. "See, 54-per cent wanted Brian for peace and 6-per cent wanted that clown Cameron, " says the award-winner.

He spoke to General Dannatt at the ceremony and didn't waste the chance. "Bring the troops out of Iraq and into Afghanistan, that's smart isn't it? No, bring them home, I said, bring them home. Why should they die so that people can make a filthy fortune?". It's hard to find out from Haw whether his protest might end when Blair leaves office. What would the longest one-man political protest in British history do then? He doesn't appear to have anywhere to go, this emblem of the anti-war movement.

The recent Channel 4 satire, the Trial Of Tony Blair, immortalised Haw by having him set up camp outside the retired Prime Minister's new home in Connaught Square. But is Brian Haw destined to be one of the furies pursuing Blair into the abyss, the externalisation of a PM's night-time doubts? If Blair has any nightmares over Iraq then Haw has to wrestle with his own haunting memories, the gas fumes of genocide and his own father's suicide.

You can send a postcard of support to Brian Haw, c/o Parliament Square, London SW1A. Visit his website at

Tuesday 18 August 2009

That March Hare is running

We were having a chat in the office yesterday morning about election timings. Two journalists had came back from separate meetings with politicians from different parties who had come to the same conclusion - game on for a March election.

The logic goes something like this - next year's Budget is too horrible for any chancellor to deliver just weeks from a May election. If a budget is presented without a cuts agenda (impossible) Britain could have its international credit rating down-graded from AAA, making all that debt more expensive to pay off and penning a suicide note for the Labour government.

Better then to have an election before a budget - which leaves the government open to charges of "hiding" their cuts plans but could be better than a bitter end strategy. Tomos Livingstone lays out the theory here and notes that there are good odds on a March poll.

Alistair Darling, who is in charge of the budget and the country this week, was talking this morning about how Labour will set out an "optimistic view of the future" in an effort to win the next General Election. Keep watching him to see if he buys a thick winter coat. That'll be a sure sign.

The hermit and the unbreakable whisky bottle

Another fantastically mad, shaggy dog story from Iain MacIver about a chain smoker trying to give up his addiction and a bottle of Bowmore whisky that just would not break.

Believe me life in the Western Isles isn't all like this. These things only happen to Iain MacIver. You can read his blog here.

New entry at number 37...

Wha-hey -Whitehall 1212 has been included in the top 40 media blogs in Ian Dale's annual list of UK political blogsites.

Okay, so my site creeps in at 37 out of 40, just below Tomos Livingstone's 07.25 to Paddington, but I'm happy enough with that as I didn't canvas for any votes beforehand, or vote for myself either.

The Steamie (20) and Blether with Brian (18) are the other Scottish entries. A special mention to Vaughan Roderick, the Welsh Affairs editor at BBC Wales, whose entirely Welsh blog is rated ninth in the league table. (Niall, cait a bheil thu?)

This week Whitehall 1212 has also been honoured, along with Kevin Schofield of the Record, by being added to Tom Harris's blogroll over at And another thing. It's all too much, blub, ...I'd like to thank my producer, my mother...blub, and Ian Dale.

Breaking news - Tom Harris has been voted Number 1 in the list of Top 30 MP blogs.

Monday 17 August 2009

Mandelson's cocktails with Gaddafi

Is there anyone that Peter Mandelson doesn't have little tet a tets with while on holiday? The latest conspiracy-stirring cocktail hour came in Corfu when Lord Mandelson, a guest of the Rothschild family, met with none other than the son of Colonel Gaddafi.

A week later it is revealed that Abdelbaset Ali Al-Megrahi, the man imprisoned in Scotland as the Lockerbie bomber, is to be released on compassionate grounds. Coincidence? Pure coincidence say Lord Mandelson's officials in response to a story in the Financial Times this morning.

It could be. The Rosthschilds and Gaddafis do know each other. The Spectator diarist Taki gives a fascinating insight into this world of cocktails and Middle East politics in his blog.

Darling turns Standard's map upside down

Paugh Waugh, who works for the local newspaper down here, is all upset that the country is apparently being run from Edinburgh instead of London for the next 24 hours while Chancellor Alistair Darling is in charge of the ship.

"Now you know what it feels like," we chorused when Mr Waugh walked into Room 2 (the Scottish and Welsh room) in the Westminster press gallery to annouce that the Tories were taking the bait. More on that in the prints tomorrow.

Mr Darling, who will be looking to have a quieter week than Lord Mandelson and Harriet Harman, is in Glasgow today on official business and will be in London before nightfall so that worried Standard readers can sleep easy in their beds.

PS: I have been asked before about Paul Waugh and, no, he is no relation to Evelyn Waugh, the author. Paul is northern, working class and a brilliantly witty diarist, journalist and blogger while Evelyn just happened to be the privileged son of a noted editor and publisher.

Friday 7 August 2009

Bill who?

Hat tip to Henry Macrory, the Tory chief press officer, for spotting this letter this mother's letter in the Guardian:

"While we listened to the coverage of Bill Clinton's mission to to North Korea, my nine year old daughter asked: 'Is this Clinton related to Hillary Clinton?'"

How fleeting is fame and, you could say, how alert is the Conservative press machine.

Wednesday 5 August 2009

Coirea a Tuath toirt leasan dhan Staitean

Dithis ceann suidhe - Kim Jong Il agus Bill Clinton

Tha dithis luchd-naidheachd Aimeireaganach, a fhuair saorsa bho phrìosan ann an Coirea a Tuath mar thoradh air obair dhiplòmasach sheann cheann-suidhe nan Stàitean Aonaichte, Bill Clinton, air ais dhachaigh.

Chaidh binn dusan bliadhna de dh'obair chruaidh air Laura Ling and Euna Lee as dèidh dhaibh a dhol a-steach dhan dùthaich gun chead. Thuirt an ceann-suidhe Obama gur e là math dha-rìreabh dhan dùthaich air fad a bh'ann.

Bho choinn àm goirid bha an dà luchd-naidheachd seo a' coimhead ri dusan bliadhna ann a prìosan ann an Coirea a Tuath. Tha iad a-nis sàbhailte, tha iad air ais còmhla ri na teagleachain aca, agus tha tòrr dhe sin a' laighe air gualainn agus cliu Bill Clinton, an seann cheann-suidhe a chaidh na thosgair a dh' fhaighinn saorsa airson an dithis.

Ach 's e an fhìrinn gur e na Coireanaich a bha os cionn chùisean, 's ann acasan a bha an cumhachd anns an t-suidheachadh. Dh'iarr iadsan airson Clinton, agus nuair a fhuair esan geallteanas gum bitheadh e a'tilleadh leis an dithis bhoireannach, dh' aontaich e a dhol ann agus, tha seo cudthromach, coinneachadh ri Kim Jong Il, an ceann-suidhe

Bha Kim Jong Il airson leasan a thoirt dhan na h-Aimeireaganaich. Airson bliadhnaichean tha e air a bhith a' feuchainn ri còmhraidhean cuimsich a bhi ann eadar an dà dhùthaich, ach cha ghabhadh na h-Aimeireaganaich ris an sin.

B'fheàrr leotha-san an còmhradh a bhi eadar na sia dùthchanan ann an Ear-dheas Àsia. Tha iadsan a' faicinn Coirea a Tuath mar riaghaltas mì-laghail aig nach eil seasamh eadar-nàiseanta. 'S e an duilgheadas nach eil am beachd sin air toir air Coirea a Tuath a dhol à bith mar thrioblaid eadar-nàiseanta agus chan eil a' toirt air a' chumhachd aca - cumhachd niuclasach, cumhachd airmealtach - a dhol à bith nas motha. Mar sin 's e leasan ann an diplomasaidh agus tosgaireachd a bha ann an seo - bho Kim Jong Il dhan an t-saoghal.

Tha Obama air fàilte a chur air an dithis luchd-naidheachd agus thug e taing do Bhill Clinton 's a sgioba - ach cha tug e iomradh air ceistean mòra mar phrògram niuclasach Choirea a Tuath.

'S e is adhbhar airson sin gu bheil an ceann-suidhe, agus an seann cheann-suidhe agus a h-uile duine eile a' cumail a-mach gur e tosgaireachd phrìobhaideach a bha seo, ged a dh'aidich iad gu robh teachdaireachd aig Mgr Clinton bho Mgr Obama gu ceannard Choirea a Tuath nuair a choinnich iad. Dh'fhaodadh rudeiginn thighinn a-mach às - 's e stàit dùinte, dìomhair a th' ann an Coirea a Tuath agus 'se gluasad poileataigeach a tha seo.

Tha ar meadhanan a' feuchainn ri dhèanamh a-mach gu bheil Kim Jong IL agus na Coireanaich craicte, ach chan eil iad idir. Tha iad borb ri na daoine aca pèin, tha iad iomagaineach mu dheidhinn an t-saoghail a-muigh air na crìochan dùinte aca, agus tha iad mì-reusanta agus cunnartach.

Ach tha iad seòlta, agus tha iad clis, agus tha iad air an suidheachadh seo a stiùireadh dìreach mar a bha iad fhèin ag iarraidh, a' toirt air Aimeireagadh agus Mgr Clinton a bhith dannsa ri ceòl na fidhle bhon an aon stàit Chomunach a th' air fhàgail ann an an Ear-dheas Àsia.

Taing do Eilidh Dhubh

Scotch these Rogue Nation rumours

When I heard I'd been name-checked in Alan Clements' Scotch on the Rocks re-write, "Rogue Nation", I wasn't sure whether to be flattered or stretch for the speed-dial to m' learned friends.

Turns out I needn't have bothered buying the book to check. Mr Clements names a bit character in his independence-countdown thriller with the moniker Torquil Crichton, so escaping the clutches of the libel courts. (The bad news Alan, I have a cousin who spells his name just so). Still, my finger hovered over the phone as I read on...Arghh

Having Clements cast me as a member of the hitherto secret "Scottish Unionist Resistance" is bad enough (cyber-gnats at ten o'clock high) but being appointed Finance Minister of Scotland in this proto film script is taking things too far. I'm no George Clooney, but I tell you I'm no John Swinney either. Get me Dowdall!

UPDATE 17/08 : I've now read the book and have less to fear from it than Sammy Wilson, the East Antrim DUP MP has. It may not be the best-written thriller of the year but it has a corkscrew plot that keeps you turning the pages right to the end. Hats off to you, Alan.

Goodbye Harry Patch.

Harry Patch's funeral takes place tomorrow and there was a very moving musical tribute to the last Tommy by Radiohead on the Today programme this morning. It's a bit Sigur Ros, if you know what I mean but there are lyrics on the site. You can listen to it here.

After that go and read Trevor Royle's "The Flowers of the Forest", his history of Scotland and the First World War, and if you're not weeping by then pick up Lewis Grassic Gibbon's Sunset Song.

Monday 3 August 2009

Home - The boy who trapped the sun

While we're on all things musical here's a great hand knitted video from Colin MacLeod, "The boy who trapped the sun", to go with his song "Home".

He's London based but I keep missing this Swordale boy's gigs so I've had to join his Facebook fan club (how uncool is that?) to get his itinerary only to discover, you've guessed it, he plays Lewis next.

Rare cat sighting - the week that was.

Running the Westminster show single-handed, even in the close season, is demanding so I haven't kept the blog up to date for the last week. However, mobile phone replaced, energy levels boosted by the freedom of not being a slave to the ringtone for a week, and I'm ready to dive in again.

And the news is, well not much really. Went up to Luton for the launch of Esther Rantzen's election campaign last week. She sounds well intentioned, and I'm not saying the public anger over MPs expenses has dissipated, but I don't think she'll make the grade in what is going to be a highly charged and brutal election campaign.

The Tory candidate for Luton was quick out of the trap to have a go at her and no wonder. If she takes some of the 5000 majority he needs to take the seat that the scandalised Margaret Moran is vacating then Labour might come through the middle.

Better news for the Tories is that in the 30 key marginals, the ones that have to change to rob Labour of a parliamentary majority, the party is on party on 44%, a massive 24 points ahead of Labour on 20%, with the Liberal Democrats on 18%.

This compares with a YouGov poll for the Daily Telegraph on Friday which gave the Tories a 14-point lead across the country as a whole, with 41% against Labour's 27%. It will take more than a televised debate to turn these figures around.

As I stood there listening to the That's Life star in a Luton clothes market I thought that the silly season was truly upon us. I was wrong. Soon after I had to write about the death of Alistair Darling's cat , Sybil, which died after a short illness. Important news if you are a member of the Darling family but unlikely to alter the state of the markets.

Sybil, a black and white moggy named after Basil Fawlty's wife in Fawlty Towers, passed away at the London home of friends of the Chancellor. Although her basket was a feature of the 11 Downing Street state rooms the Scottish-born cat had only ever been a short-term resident at the famous address.

She moved into the Chancellor 's flat from the Darling family home in Edinburgh in 2007 but left six months later after failing to settle.

Here's some rare footage of the cat enjoying itself in Downing Street which, I think, looks suspiciously like the footage of the Argyll panther that had us all so entranced last week. This week will be far more exciting, I promise.

West Side Story

The Chancellor of the Exchequer, Alistair Darling, opening the West Side Agricultural Show in Lewis last week. He's always said he would rather be a crofter.

More pictures on Iain MacIver's blog.