Friday 27 January 2017

Postcard from the Trump White House

Phew, for a White House wedding that went well. Donald Trump didn’t say anything outrageous, he didn’t get angry and he showed an admirable sense of comedian’s timing as he joked with the press.

For Theresa May yesterday was the biggest win of her short term in office. 

She scored on some very serious policy issues - Nato and Russian sanctions - and the BBC managed to secure a u-turn on torture.

It could not have been better for May, she can show the EU that even with Brexit Britain can move Trump into a better place, maybe.

For his part the President was like the cat who got the cream when the world was told that he would have tea with the Queen.

Look out Britain, the ego is going to land later this summer. Good luck with that, your  Majesty.

Oh, and look out Stornoway, he gave his mother’s home island a name check - he might be heading there too.

Monday 23 January 2017

Telford - the Man of Iron who built in poetry

Celebrating Burns Night was not a big thing where I grew up, but on the islands we barely celebrated Christmas so that ought not be a surprise.

Now January commemorations of the poetry and life of Scotland’s bard are an international institution, and rightly so.

But this week I’ve been caught up by another lad o’ pairts who did not come to define what it is to be Scottish, but built much of what Scotland actually is. 

Thomas Telford was born dirt poor in Eskdale, in the Borders, in 1757, two years before Burns was born further up the road in Alloway. 

His shepherd father died when he was only a few months old and Thomas was raised by his mother in her cousin’s house and left school at 12 to work for a local stonemason.

As a young man Telford tried his hand at poetry too, ungainly village verse, and literature’s loss was Britain’s gain.

Aged 25, he saddled a horse and rode the 300-odd miles to London and went on to become a civil engineer extrordinaire.

Most of the fabric of Britain’s industrial revolution was constructed by this incredible “Man of Iron”, as a new biography by Julian Glover is titled.

For modern-day governments struggling inch by inch along the route of a High Speed rail line and sinking in the shifting electoral sands of a new Heathrow runway, Telford’s achievements stand as a rebuke of modern pigmy politics.

His impact across Scotland, designing harbours from Ullapool to Wick to Banff, bridges in Perthshire and docks in the Broomilaw, was massive.

The visionary plans on behalf of the British Fisheries Board to revolutionise coastal Scotland shame every MSP who voted to abolish the board of Highlands and Islands Enterprise this week.

Telford built over 1,000 bridges, 1200 miles of road over rough terrain, 43 harbours and fishing ports, and incredible structures from the Caledonian Canal to the Menai Bridge in Wales. His designs for state-funded churches and manses litter Highland Scotland.

As Julian Glover concludes: “When he was done, the road that carried the fishermen to the village and the fish to the cities, the church in which they prayed, the port which landed the herring, and the harbours from which some of them emigrated to North America: all of them were his.”

You could add that many of them still are. The roads follow the same lines, cross the same bridges to the same churches and harbours.

He was buried in Westminster Abbey yet Telford’s remarkable achievements are largely uncelebrated today, his biggest projects overtaken by the railway innovations of the James Watts and Isambard Brunnels who followed.

Glover, who worked in David Cameron’s Downing Street, well knows how Telford’s story is a cypher for what governments must do to re-tool Victorian Britain for a Brexit future.  

Perhaps Telford did not meet Burns, and they were born further apart than Glover would wish, but he should be just as inspiring.

I am all for the immortal memory of the ploughman poet, but this season let’s raise a glass to another Scot - to Thomas Telford, Eskdale Tam as he penned himself in his poetry.

He turned out to be not much of a bard but one hell of an engineer, and the world needs engineers as much as it does poets.

Man of Iron - Thomas Telford and the Building of Britain, by Julian Glover.Bloomsbury £25

Friday 13 January 2017

Tristram Hunt on the by-election conveyer belt

It is unlikely that anyone named Tristram would reach the very top of the Labour party but the historian was once talked about as a future leader.

These were in the days before the Corbyn revolution transformed Labour into a party that Tristram Hunt barely recognises. That change is undoubtedly the main reason Hunt is standing down as an MP at the age of 42, regardless of what is said about the wonderful opportunity to be director of the Victoria and Albert Museum.

The MP for Stoke on Trent Central faced repeated threats of de-selection under boundary changes because of his vocal opposition to Corbyn (he was marked as “hostile” on the leader’s little black list).

But it was the drift of Labour voters to UKIP that worried him. The anti-EU party came second, a distant second, to Hunt when he stood for re-election in 2015 in the Staffordshire seat

However, Stoke on Trent was dubbed the Brexit capital of Britain with the highest proportion of leave votes in the country.

Up to a dozen Labour MPs are said to join the conveyer belt of by-election resignations as they give up on the Corbyn leadership.

Jamie Reid has already signalled he will go from Copeland and it is clear the party is going to face a massive challenge there from the Conservatives.

For the inner-core Corbyn operation Hunt’s departure will be a bonus not a loss, an opportunity to put a more loyal candidate in place to catch the rising tide of support that will surely come Labour’s way as the May Brexit strategy falls apart.

Some hope. The evidence from two by-elections last night is that any Brexit blowback will miss the Labour party entirely and flow to the Lib Dems who have nailed their colours to the Remain mast

In Sunderland’s rock solid Sandhill ward, where Labour hasn’t lost since 1982, the Lib Dems won a council by-election with a massive 41 per cent increase in their vote.

One bright note -Labour’s loss is Dundee’s gain. The Victoria and Albert is opening a franchise in Dundee and Hunt, a great historian, will hopefully prove to be a dynamic director of the parent organisation.

But politically he is now history himself, amid signs that is the direction Labour is heading under Corbyn too.