Friday 25 November 2016

The end of the world as we know it

From my busy social diary and Daily Record column

Off to a champagne reception in the Locarno Room, the gilded, Italianate suite in the Foreign Office.

The last time they let me in President Obama was giving a boring speech. Yes, he campaigned in poetry, but boy he governed in prose.

Anyway, he’s history. Now we must party as if it is the end of days.

My company in the lift, it’s not golden by the way, is former chancellor Lord Lawson who complains that all the Foreign Office ever do is throw parties. “Well, it seems to have worked so far,” I reply.

Upstairs Boris Johnson, who doubtless views this opulence a temporary stabling, doesn’t blush to tell us that from the map room down the corridor Britain ran an empire seven times the size of the Roman one and planned the conquest of 171 countries.

All that delusion of grandeur, all that diplomatic heritage and protocol, is swept away in the middle of the night by a 140 character tweet from Donald Trump suggesting Nigel Farage would be an excellent British ambassador to America.

The victor in this year of revolution is clearly set on continuing his disruptive politics right up to and through the door of the White House.

Farage beat Theresa May to a meeting, now Trump’s telling her by tweet how to run her diplomatic corps. How humiliating.

Bizarrely, I also received an invite to the Farage victory celebration at the Ritz hotel, which I ignored thinking it must be one of these fake Nigerian-style scams to draw me in.

But it turns out to be a real event, complete with Brexit media magnates toasting the victor and a staircase speech promising more seismic shocks. Chilling stuff, with no credible counter from the left.   

All I need now is to bump into a young American with finger-nails painted emerald green. If she invites me to see her cabaret act the feeling that we are living in a parallel, early Weimar Republic will be complete.

Monday 21 November 2016

Skye's housing crisis taps a generational issue

In the pub in Glasgow last week I ran into a couple of boys from Skye. I say boys, we’re grown men now comparing how our bodies are falling apart, but 25-odd years ago we could drink, smoke and dance through an island night and think nothing of climbing a hill like Glamaig the next morning.

For me living on Skye in my twenties was a golden time and these boys, members of Skye’s Camanachd Cup winning team, were a golden generation.

On the island people took me in as one of their own (even though I was from Lewis) and were incredibly generous. But my life and career took a lovely turn and I left.  

Yet, for anyone who has lived on Skye, the second most visited tourist destination in Scotland after Edinburgh, having the island voted the most beautiful place to live in the UK will come as no surprise.

The island has that perfect visual combination of water, woods and mountains - a scenic magic you might find echoed on the island of Corsica or the Norwegian coast, but truly nowhere else in the United Kingdom.

All this beauty comes at a cost. 

In a striking Facebook post this weekend another Skye friend, architect Alasdair Stephen, laid out in stark detail how the dream of the island living is beyond the generation growing up there.

It is worth reading Alasdair’s post, and the responses it has generated from a real “left behind” generation all over Scotland, but I’ll reproduce most of it here, it speaks for itself.

Alasdair said: “If you want to understand the disaster of the housing crisis in rural Scotland then look at these figures.

Twenty years ago I built my house on Skye.

In 1996 my plot was valued at £9,000. The same plot would cost £80,000 in Sleat today.

The construction cost of my house in 1996 was £35,000.

Building the same house today would cost £150,000 using a main contractor.

However changes in building regulations means that I could not build that house today. The house could easily cost £220,000 (new building regs and devalued pound will see this rise rapidly in future).

In 1996 I qualified for a Rural Home Ownership Grant. That covered 1/3 of my costs. It meant my mortgage was £22,000 (which was 2 1/2 times my income at the time).

There are no similar grants available any more for young people in rural Scotland.
Two and a half times a typical Highland salary for a young person would probably get you a £50,000 mortgage.
But a 26 yr old would need to access around £300,000 today to do what I did with £22,000 20 years ago.

The consequences of this is that the young cannot live in their own communities. Businesses cannot expand or are never realised. In Lewis the rural villages are dying (along with schools and Gaelic) as the young move to Stornoway for accommodation.

And don’t expect the young to be able to compete on the existing housing market.

I would really like to know what the Scottish Government is going to do about this. It requires some big thinking.”

Alasdair followed up his post with an interview on Radio nan Gaidheal appealing for Nicola Sturgeon to make rural housing an agenda priority.

If there was anyone I’d turn to for advice on the housing crisis it would be Alasdair and his brother Neil. As architects living on Skye they walked the walk and they’ve seen close-up land and housing prices spiral beyond the reach of anyone with an average income.

There are two points here, though one of them almost incidental.

The first is that although housing crisis in Skye is a long-standing problem, Alasdair has tapped into the frustration and disappointment of hundreds of young people at the rag-end of this awful year and and channelled that into something that could be quite positive.

You can see from the responses to his post that he has connected people to a massive issue that plays not just into housing but the entire economic future and make-up of rural Scotland.

If what propelled Trump and Brexit revolutions are the “left-behind” voters, then Scotland is creating its own “get out” generation of people who can’t afford to live where they were brought up.

Their voices deserve an answer and a political solution.

The problem, as Alasdair states, is bigger than housing and demands a response to match.

In the 1920s the solution to Highland over-population and economic decline was assisted emigration to Canada, the USA and elsewhere. Scotland needs to think seriously about a new Highland project to keep young people at home.  

The second point is a kind of tragedy. I couldn’t afford a house on Skye at the time, couldn’t afford one now. Fortunately I made a home elsewhere.

Alasdair did manage to build his by dint of his professional knowledge, his commitment to living on Skye and a self-confidence which has now built a business that employs 20 people.

But hundreds of other people now my age, who might otherwise be on the housing, family and the school run on Skye or Lewis or elsewhere, simply aren’t there.

That loss is being repeated year after year until the real beauty is emptied out of these island communities.

There is a coda to this, which I find a bit tragic too.

Alasdair and I are friends on either side of the independence debate and we agree this issue has nothing to do with the constitution.

But I regret we’ve both spent so much time pursuing a zero sum game, though I appreciate he won’t see it as that.

It doesn’t take constitutional change to build homes and if a tenth of our collective energy was put towards making a change in housing for young people then we would be on the way to building, literally building, a better nation.

Depressingly, I feel as if we’ve gone from being a golden generation to a wasted one, ill-serving the people coming behind us.

Friday 18 November 2016

On President Trump and Scotland

For my Daily Record column

Just think, except for a few wind turbines it could have been Alex Salmond, not Nigel Farage, in that golden elevator with his now lost best bromance ever. 

Through these sliding doors and nine days into Trumpland the wretched acceptance of political reality is no easier to bear.

Thole it we must. Yet, could many Scots have woken last Wednesday morning thinking their sense of security in this uncertain world could be improved by another leap into the unknown?

In that sense a Trump victory was never going to be good news for the SNP whose politicians now run up the down escalator explaining how their populist nationalism is so different from the 56 other varieties of a brand which is taking us on a conveyer belt back into a dark history.  

Because we have been living life under the microscope of Scottish nationalism it is through the telescope of the Trump tsunami we refocus and recalibrate.

Breaking the political system in 2011, the referendum rising and then breaking the back of the Labour party in 2015 - from close up we mistook all these for a swelling tide of Scottish patriotism.

Indeed they were, but in the context of 2016, this year of revolution, these results from Scotland were not just a rise in flag-waving Scottishness. That was the symptom, though not the cause.

On the world stage Scotland should have been seen as the canary in the coalmine, the flashing amber lights on the dashboard of social democracy.

Things were going so badly wrong in the wake of the 2008 financial crash and the old, mainstream political parties were not picking up on it. 

Scots were the first voters to be given a chance to embrace an alternative, and not an untested one. The SNP had been in office after a marginal win in the  2007 “hanging chads” election.

The SNP offer was based on the progressive, compassionate old politics it replaced, a liberal force which Trump has flipped into a toxic brew.

Thousands of people, not all of them “left behind” by any means, were so sick fed-up of the status quo that they were willing to accept the overblown rhetoric, the white paper bag promises, and take a punt on something else.

“Post-truth politics” may be the phrase of the year but it is not new in Scotland. “I’m not a nationalist, but...” became a byword for patriotism but also a far deeper political disconnect that the social democrats still have no answer to.

Much the same thing happened in America last week, just on a grander scale. 

Once again, in the context of Whitehall’s Brexit “burach” and Trump’s handbrake turns in the face of political reality, the hollow echo of 18 smooth months to independence can be heard scrunching into the bin.

In the short term Nicola Sturgeon benefits from being anti-Trump, as every liberal politician in the west does.

But given the extensive Scottish links of the most powerful man in the world there can no doubt that Trump will at some stage exploit his homeland connection, sweeping aside any disagreeable political blowback from the First Minister.

This guy went to Mexico after threatening to built the wall, he’s going to have no problem hugging Caledonia.

Downing Street has signalled that Theresa May will be rushing across the Atlantic with a Christmas present but it is interesting to note that she will not beat Enda Kenny, the Irish Taoiseach, to the White House.

The first thing you do on being elected is start campaigning for re-election and so the Irish patronage has nothing to with Ireland and everything to do with Donald Trump’s second term.

On St Patrick’s Day Trump will be signalling to the urban descendants of Irish immigrants, the Democrat voters of Chicago and New York, that he is their guy too. Expect the Polish and Czech leaders to receive the same treatment.

Trump will embrace us whether we like it or not. Airforce One will touch down at Prestwick and probably Stornoway airport too, the runway is long enough.

On Lewis a President Trump would get the cordial welcome afforded to any emigrant’s son. The office, if not the man, would be respected.

There would be protests about the repugnant revolution that Trump has harvested. The First Minister would be perfectly within her rights to cold shoulder him.  

But the SNP shouldn’t complain too much about a populist politics fuelled by patriotism and division. After all, they started it.