Friday 30 June 2017

Time for the real "reset" report to be published

From my Daily Record column
GATHERING dust somewhere in a filing cabinet in the First Minister's office is the real "reset" button on the independence debate.
The Andrew Wilson Growth Commission - the 2.0 economic case for Scotland going it alone - is being kept under lock and key, I suspect because it contains the devastating truth about the cost of independence.
When Nicola Sturgeon stood up this week to announce her own political "reset", she was delaying nothing - and changing nothing.
She put the TV on standby, she didn't switch it off.
The referendum burner can be re-ignited by Sturgeon at any point. Even though most people don't want a second vote, she doesn't have the power to hold it and the polls tell us she would lose it.
Understandably, the SNP leader looked uncomfortable acknowledging that core truth while being brutally barracked by the opposition.
For Sturgeon, time is running out to get the project back on track.
She would have to force the vote before the next Scottish election in 2021, in which she might well lose the Holyrood majority for independence.
Stage a second referendum against the tide and the cause is lost forever.
This doesn't need to be spelled out to SNP members. The party executive urged Sturgeon to bide her time - a commodity which, like her personal approval ratings, she has less and less of.
It is beginning to look like it may be left to others to reforge the case for independence because Sturgeon can't switch channels any more than she can switch off the dream.
The task of Wilson, assisted by several SNP luminaries, was to re-write the future because the milk-and-honey White Paper version punted by Alex Salmond and Sturgeon became a soggy, tearstained mess.
To a tight deadline, and with considerable intellectual gymwork, the job was done.
Wilson, the soul of discretion, won't tell us what is in the report, but we have been given hints.
A leaked account of a Craigellachie Hotel briefing, attended by Sturgeon, had the Wilson report suggesting an independent Scotland "could see a recovery of the position it now finds itself in over a five to 10-year period".
Wilson denied the claim. But a scenario which leaves Scotland worse off for a number of years but harnesses the country to the hope that pain will be worth the long-term gain chimes with many other projections.
If the report were published we would know.
But with the Scottish economy this week hovering on the brink of recession - while the rest of the UK bizarrely continues to grow - it is asking a lot of any electorate to wed themselves to that kind of proposition.
Yet without that reset economic case the torch that burned brightly in 2014 is in danger of becoming a flickering candle.
Brexit is the biggest uncertainty, and as I have written before, Sturgeon's best last hope.
But time and tide wait for no one and I agree with others that for Sturgeon this has been a watershed moment.

Island interests blowing in the wind down here

From my Daily Record column
THREE weeks on from the general election and no sign in the House of Commons order paper of Western Isles SNP MP Angus MacNeil renewing his commitment to any kind of effective representation.
It's notable that Labour's Ian Murray MP has tabled a question pressing the Energy Minister Greg Clark to make a statement on the Tory manifesto commitment to supporting island windfarms in Scotland.
The Lib Dems' Alistair Carmichael has also organised a Westminster Hall debate on the issue.
Thank goodness someone is looking after the islands' interests.

Macron is the talk of the town

From my Daily Record column
I was on a bike and stopped at traffic lights the other day when Faisal Islam, him off the telly, drew up on his own cycling steed.
London's not so big that you don't bump into people you know.
Pedalling towards Westminster, Sky TV's political editor inadvertently proved why he is one of Britain's top journalists. He was just back from the EU summit, where French president Emmanuel Macron dazzled everyone from the moment he arrived with a flirty wink to the BBC's Laura Kuenssberg and his love-in with Germany's Angela Merkel.
Macron, Faisal explained, has a Brexit masterplan. As well as bidding for the EU agencies currently based in London, he is poised to take full advantage of our departure from the Customs Union.
With the customs supply chain that keeps many companies connected broken, GM-Vauxhall, run by French state-owned Peugeot, will withdraw from the UK, Airbus will move from Bristol to Blagnac and so on.
Macron is about to launch controversial labour reforms to make it easier to hire and fire workers. This will run into huge street resistance from trade unions, where France's politics are often settled. But if he can create jobs at the same time by draining manufacturing from Britain to spur France's economic growth, he might succeed.
It was a precise, erudite summary of how lose-lose Brexit is going to be a big win for France. Admirably, Faisal did all this in a few minutes while cycling and navigating traffic. Much enlightened, we parted and I parked my hire bike.
On the pavement, two London workies were locked in conversation, their analysis as profound as Sky TV's. One said to the other: "You know what the problem is? It's these Frenchies. They're just jealous of us." Got it one.

Friday 16 June 2017

Eigg getting on with ordinary, radical lives

With Maggie Fyffe on Monday
I dashed from London to the Isle of Eigg on Monday to join the 20th anniversary celebrations of the community buy-out of the island.

If you don’t know the story, this Hebridean island was in thrall to a series of abusive landlords but created history by becoming a beacon for community ownership in the Highlands.

More than 20 years ago, with photographer Sam Maynard, I documented the deathly grip of landlordism on Eigg, although my grasp of feudal power was theoretical then.

For people living in leaking hovels on the island it was all too real.

Speaking out against their conditions risked livelihoods and homes because Keith Schellenberg, the landlord, controlled everything. But speak out they did, they changed the story and changed their lives.

It took great courage from the islanders, if I can borrow a fashionable phrase, to “take back control”.

Over two decades Eigg has become the proven alternative to the dead hand of landlordism.

Among many speeches and drams on Monday, the soundtrack to the entire day was toddlers gurgling and children laughing. It’s the sound of optimism.

Eigg is now home to 105 souls, a 60 per cent increase since the buy-out, with 19 children.

I bet when I go back in 20 years the population will have doubled.

About 500,000 acres of Scotland are now community owned, small cheer because that’s only 2.5 per cent of the land.

Yet, the minimum wage aside, I can think of few legislative changes other than land reform that have had such an impact on the Highlands in the last two decades.

I loved my day out, it was great to be re-united with old friends.

My journey proved, if it needed proving, that not all politics is in Westminster and there are people who in their ordinary way are a lot more radical than some of the guff on the green benches.

Wednesday 14 June 2017

Grenfell Tower blaze - a parable of our times

Grenfell Tower is only two miles from me, so once the radio went off this morning I headed there.  

By the time I arrived at 7.30am the sirens had stopped, the screaming had stopped. People had stopped jumping to their death or throwing swaddled children out windows in the hope they’d be caught.

I walked past row after row of fire engines and dazed, hijab-clad women gathered outside community centres.

People were beginning to wake up and realise that in the smouldering, black pyre behind us people were still alive, children were missing, families missing.

The building itself was a horror, just a horror, the flames still rising across London, the embers falling to the streets.

And it was unbelievable that this could happen in the capital of Britain, in the 21st century.

People were shocked but they were angry too. Locals had warned, again and again, the towers were a firetrap. But they were ignored by the council and the building operators.

The official advice in the event of a fire was to stay put. People ignored that and their lives were saved.

Minister Nick Hurd announced a review of safety in tower blocks but that won’t bring back a single life from Grenfell Tower.

There will be an inquiry but many have come to their own conclusion, echoed by Jeremy Corbyn, that cuts were partly to blame.

Many believe this hellfire was a judgement, that Grenfell will become parable of our times.

This is the price paid when the voices of ordinary people, and the needs of communities, are ignored. 

This is what austerity costs.