Friday, 24 May 2019

A farewell to failure

My Daily Record column for today

When she goes – and that could be anytime between the next keystroke and Donald Trump leaving for the D-Day celebrations in June – there will, no doubt, be some sympathy of Theresa May.

It is fair to say she was dealt the worst hand of any incoming prime minister since Churchill took over from Chamberlain in the spring of 1940 as the German army advanced to the French coast.

But it is also true that May has done nothing since July 2016 to improve her own chances or that of the country she effectively stopped running many months ago.

She will not go down as the worst prime minister of the modern era. That booby goes to David Cameron, who gifted us this bitter legacy we all share.

As May said in what will be seen as her valedictory speech, moving “from the simplicity of the choice on the ballot paper to the complexity of resetting the country’s relationship with 27 of its nearest neighbours was always going to be huge”.

For her, it has proved impossible.

But the sentence sums up how a referendum harnesses a political curse on a generation. Having experienced two, most Scots wouldn’t wish another on any country or leader.

In her favour, May showed dogged resilience, bore relentless criticism in her stride, went beyond human exhaustion and remained wedded to her Christian sense of duty.

Those strengths were also weakness, demonstrating her inability to compromise, to dig in and fall silent when flexibility and reassurance were needed to lead.

Abba’s dancing queen was not fleet of foot enough even to avoid the slow lava flow that overwhelmed her. She will go down as the most incompetent diplomat and negotiator to cross the threshold of Downing Street as prime minister.

From the Lancaster House speech, where she ruled out the single market and freedom of movement, to the Charing Cross compromise, where she threw a kitchen sink full of concessions, she was a failure.

May was to deliver Brexit. Yesterday, morning, the death notice of her Withdrawal Agreement Bill was read out, or rather excluded from Commons business.

On the threshold of Downing Street, she said she would pursue the “burning injustices” of division and inequality that stalk Britain.

Yet in the week her fate was sealed, the United Nations accused May’s Government of presiding over a welfare system that has turned the country into a digital Dickensian workhouse for the poor.

She said she would defend the Union but called on the DUP, the political black and tans, as reinforcements.

She let Eurosceptic Unionists misrepresent the people of Northern Ireland and she completely misread the new European identity of the Irish.

She held Scottish nationalism at bay with a brittle, but so far effective “now is not the time”. But she showed no feel for this or any other part of Britain outside her own Oxfordshire church parish background.

May’s biggest task, which she so often put ahead of the national interest, was holding her beloved Conservative Party together.

Her ultimate failure is to leave her party and country a legacy that will rent it in twain from the top to the bottom.

His name is Boris Johnson. Brexit is a doomed enterprise for many reasons. The political foundations to assemble a coalition for any Brexit model are not in the parliament of no majorities. Changing Prime Minister does not change that. The misery continues.

There have been only 54 prime ministers in the three centuries of a United Kingdom. May is the sixth of my adult lifetime.

The office is the pinnacle of politics, a rare and incredibly difficult daily and lifetime feat that few can conduct well and even then, only for a limited time.

Her childhood ambition was beyond May’s abilities. Unable to accept reality, paralysed by her own decisions as much as by a hung parliament, she leaves us no further forward and she has no achievements to speak of.

There – I’ve reached the end of the column and she is still prime minister. She shouldn’t be for much longer.

Sunday, 12 May 2019

The great hang-glider debate, 20 years of Holyrood

Thoughts on 20 years of the Scottish parliament, Daily Reord 11/05/19

It was quite an event, the day Scottish parliament opened at the General Assembly on the Mound in Edinburgh. 

It was a day of great speeches, Donald Dewar’s best ever. A morning of great music, Sheena Wellington singing “A Man’s man for a’ that” in front of Price Philip and the MSPs joining in. The strains of Inverness Gaelic choir wafted up to the press gallery where we sat, a new model army of political journalists looking down on 129 new members of the Scottish parliament.

At the time there was about one journalist to every two politicians, more than enough to capture Winnie Ewing’s words that echoed of history and continuity: “The Scottish Parliament, adjourned on the 25th day of March in the year 1707, is hereby reconvened’.” It was her finest moment too. 

Somewhere I have the commemorative Royal Bank of Scotland pound note printed for the occasion, slipped into a copy of Neil Gunn’s “Silver Darlings” bought that day because I’d meant to read the novel for years and now seemed like the time for a new beginning.

That’s how it felt, as children from all of Scotland’s schools marched down the Mound and new faces made life-long friends as Scotland’s political class made it's way to the pub. 

It didn’t seem divided, as the body politic is now, although in the thrilling finale to ceremony, as the Red Arrows escorted Concorde in a fly-past down Princes Street, the seeds of the next 20 years were cast in a comic aside.

“See if that was your independent Scottish republic that wouldn’t have been Concorde it would have been a hang-glider,” joked one stridently Unionist hack to his colleague.

“Aye, but it would have been wur hang-glider,” came the sharp retort. which pretty much sums up the current divided state of play in Scottish politics.

To begin with the delivery of devolution itself was the achievement, the pendulum swing from almost two decades of Conservative rule and the response to many years of demands for devolution in the United Kingdom.

With the hindsight of 20 years many argue devolution, to Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland,  is still unfinished business, that Holyrood is not complete despite tax-raising powers now being giving MSPs the freedom to raise and spend how they choose.

Yet the reluctance, or complexity, in assuming new powers on everything ranging from welfare payments to VAT is highlighted by critics as the unpreparedness of the current SNP government to move forwards.

The push-pull of devolution will continue for years and while Scotland has changed, Westminster institutions have yet to match the new devolutionary politics that strain at the ties of the United Kingdom. The devolve and forget attitude of Whitehall, and the high-handed treatment of devolved governments at what are meant to be joint inter-governmental meetings, grates with those outside (and some inside) the Westminster postcode.

Now the Scottish parliament is part of nation’s furniture,  although arguments about that furniture and the Enric Miralles designed home for the parliament, absorbed almost five years of controversy until politics came down from the hill to Holyrood at the foot of the Royal Mile. 

Holyrood, and its upturned boats is now seen as more important by Scots to their lives than the House of Commons and Big Ben, though it is the full-blooded drama of Westminster politics that still catches the country’s attention, and occasionally the country’s breath.

We shape our buildings and thereafter they shape us, said Winston Churchill. Holyrood may disprove that. Despite the radical design of Holyrood the politics that emerged from the building have been essentially conservative.

There have been some ground-breaking initiatives. Land-reform, the pre-legislative gift from the Labour government, has still to extend beyond the crofting counties. The smoking ban and the minimum price for alcohol will have long-term health benefits for the nation.

But others, like free care for the elderly and the abolition of tuition fees, mostly benefit middle ground, middle class Scotland that the all sides must satisfy to in order to build an electoral alliance.  

The stats for health outcomes and educational achievement for the poorest parts of the country remain stubbornly low, lending credence to the conclusion that devolution has been very good for Scotland’s middle class and not so good for the poor.

That raises, even after 20 years, a fundamental question about what politics and parliaments are for, if not improving the lives of the country’s citizens? 

While post-devolution England experimented with health care, education and social care reform - for better or worse - successive Scottish governments have shown no great courage for reform or for taking on vested interests that might prevent change.

Radical is not the word to describe 20 years of Holyrood, managerialism is and that lends itself to another m word, mediocrity.

But two decades is not long in the lifetime of a parliament and there is still great energy, great opportunity in Scotland to do things differently, as the recently ignited debate on climate change demonstrates.

Part of the reason why everything has stayed the same while everything changed is that the bandwidth has been absorbed by one political project - independence.

The rise of the SNP, the eclipse of the Labour party as the home of the traditional left vote, and the first, though perhaps not final, independence referendum have been the defining moments of the first 20 years.

That has been an incredible story and for those on the nationalist side of the debate these have been years of steady advance on the long, perhaps inevitable, march to independence. 

In 2014 the world looked on as that impulse for self-determination came close to a big bang that would have set Scotland on a very different trajectory.

Since then the world has moved on, leaving Scottish politics and Holyrood still in permanent orbit around the independence question or, as my squabbling journalist friends would have it on  that first day 20 years ago, the great hang glider debate.

Friday, 10 May 2019

Sùil Eile air Liverpool vs Barcelona

Sùil Eile bho colbh an Daily Record

John Reddin agus Alex O'Henley, Barcelona, 1993

Cha do chluich mi riamh geama proifeasanta, agus leis an fhìrinn innse, chan eil mi a’ leantainn ball-coise gu dlùth.

Ach sheas mi aon turas le Alex O Heanlaidh - a tha caran nas eòlaiche air a’ chùis - ann am meadhan na pàirce anns an Nou Camp, dachaigh sgioba Barcelona, aig leth ùine ann an geama an aghaidh an seann nàimhdean, Madrid.

Bha fuaim gun stad, sreathan thar shreathan de luchd-leantainn cho àrd ri creagan Hiort os ar cionn, bruthadh san adhar a bha a’ toirt oirnn ar dromannan a chrùbadh. Cha robh sinn ach a’ losgadh pìos airson a’ chamara, ach bha sinn air chrith.

An e sin a rinn a’ chùis air Barca, an sgioba as fheàrr anns an t-saoghal, ann an coire goileach Anfield an oidhche roimhe? 

Dhuinne nach robh ann, tha e do-chreidsinneach mar a thàinig sgioba Jurgen Klopp air ais bho thrì tadhail sìos gus buannachadh ceithir gu neoni.

Dhaibhsan a bh’ aig a’ gheama, bha e na mhìorbhail. Agus cò ach iadsan, luchd-leantainn a bhios dìleas gu bràth, a dh’adhbhraich e?

Dè a thuirt Jock Stein nach maireann? “Chan eil dad ann am ball-coise gun luchd-leantainn.”

Bha sin air a dhearbhadh ann am baile mòr Liverpool, air an t-seachdain seo. Agus an uair sin thachair mìorbhail Spurs.


I never played a professional game, and to tell the truth, I don’t follow football that closely.
But I once stood with Alex O’Henley, who is a little more knowledgeable on the subject, in the centre spot of the Nou Camp, the home of FC Barcelona, at half-time in a game against the old enemy, Madrid.
The noise never stopped, column upon column of supporters rose above us as high as the cliffs of St Kilda, pressure in the air that pressed down on our backs. We were only shooting a piece for camera, but we trembled.
Is that what did for Barcelona, the best team in the world, in the boiling kettle of Anfield the other night?
For us who weren’t there, it is unbelievable that Jurgen Klopp’s team came from three goals down to win 4-0. 
For those who were at the game, it was a miracle. And who caused it, except fans who are loyal to the death?
What did the late Jock Stein say: “Football without fans is nothing”.
That was proven in the city of Liverpool this week. And then the miracle of Spurs happened too.

Thàinig seo bho Alex às dèidh laimh: 

Ha Torcuil sin an oidhche a’ phas mi am ball gu Raghnall Koeman😉 Cha robh cabhag sam bith orm am PTC sin a dheànamh! Bha còrr is 100,000 sa Champ Nou an oidhche sin. Abair access ge-tà. Més que un club👍⚽️

Strugeon speech on a burning question

From my Daily Record column 03/05/19.

I should have posted this earlier but it still stands, especially now as the First Minister is moving on Air Passenger Duty and withdrawing support for a third runway at Heathrow (The SNP abstained in the last Commons vote).

Nicola Sturgeon followed up her fairly predictable SNP conference speech the other week with something far more thoughtful, opening up about the kind of big ideas we have to adopt to stop climate change.

Only a politician with lots of political capital can do this kind of thing, I argue Sturgeon should use her’s to advance this agenda. Anyway, read on...

Two big speeches from Nicola Sturgeon this week, one had acres of attention the other hardly appeared on the radar. Guess which was the most important for you?

We knew so much about the SNP leader’s bid for a second independence referendum that when she addressed her party conference at the weekend it had all the drama of watching a well-maintained cuckoo clock striking the hour. 

To be fair Nicola Sturgeon has made this speech often and regularly manages to dress up old news. No one in the hall really believed there would be a referendum in the two year time frame but they cheered to the rafters anyway.

She also had a standing ovation for a more nimble line, stealing Jeremy Corbyn’s thunder and riding on Greta Thunberg’s wave, by announcing Holyrood would declare a climate change emergency.

My inner cynic (I try to keep him at bay) sighed. This party spent 40 years telling us Scotland’s independent economy would forever be buoyed by hydrocarbons. What is the new SNP slogan to be: “It’s Scotland’s oil, and it’s staying the ground”?

That’s what a real response to a climate change emergency would mean.

In the hall the commitment to carbon-free future only required the same suspension of belief as a second independence referendum happening next weekend.

Remember, we’ve had the “Saudi Arabia or renewables” promise of the Salmond days but a government whose entire bandwidth was so taken up with the first independence campaign that no proper industrial strategy emerged.

It has fallen on trade unions, who see work in the renewables sector go across the North Sea, to come up with the vision of how jobs, communities and the country can actually benefit from the green manufacturing revolution that has almost passed us by.

But then Sturgeon’s second speech of the week, to a woolly sounding Wellbeing Economy Governments Policy Labs, struck the tone of someone with serious intent.

In Panmure House, the home of Scottish economist Adam Smith, Sturgeon acknowledged the “growing realisation that growth is not the only measure of a successful economy”.

She added: “And there is a growing realisation that we must give much greater priority to the wellbeing, and the quality of life, of people living in a country.”

Economists and environmentalist argue, quite rightly, that capitalism and our consumerism are eating up the planet. As Greta pointed out this is for the benefit of a privileged few. I think she meant us. 

To save us from ourselves governments have to stop endlessly chasing GDP figures, and more and more consumption, as a sign of national success.

To make sure the momentum that propelled Extinction Rebellion protesters into Michael Gove’s office is not ”only mildly less shit than expected” there has to be follow through on this week’s declarations.

The big targets of the Committee on Climate Change to stop global warming do come down to the personal.

Recycle, replace the boiler, buy an electric car next or better still have no car at all. Eat less red meat and fly a lot less.

These are big asks but only what the coming generation will oblige on us to do. Best get on with it as we already owe them for time wasted.

But to make this a decisive moment the entire political conversation has to change.

Either we overthrow capitalism (an ongoing project on the streets of Paris) or we change it, and change our measures of political success.

That’s extremely hard. Let’s all be more responsible and get slightly poorer is not as catchy as let’s get rich, and need not be the case. 

But if we’re to stop the planet burning we should vote for happiness and wellbeing not economic growth, as the First Minister suggested in her pioneering speech.

It’s going to take leaders with incredible communication skills, confidence and masses of personal capital to persuade people to change priorities, to jump the tracks and engage in radical 21st century, world-saving politics.

But I’ll tell you what Nicola, that’s a better mission than making clockwork speeches about a 19th century idea like nationalism.

Migration, and Scotland's one-way love affair with Europe

From my Daily Record column today

They say 50 per cent of advertising works 50 per cent of the time. The only problem is you’re never quite sure which 50 per cent. 

On Brexit Day, well the scheduled one on March 29th, the Scottish government launched a glitzy advertising appeal to Europe on the theme of “let’s continue our love affair”.

The £2.1 million advert, funded by public agencies, was screened at international airports like Munich and Paris and in prestigious newspapers like France’s Le Monde, Spain’s El Pais, and Germany’s Der Spiegel.

The beach looked brilliant and the casting agent for the smooth, dark-haired actor declaring “Hey Europe, Scotland is open to you,” must have had the phone ringing off the hook.

But the advert, which we all loved, probably missed its mark. 

Two weeks ago, in a humdrum Commons committee hearing, the romantic strain of the boyfriend on the beach mini-drama took a hard slap from the reality of what European workers think of Scotland.  

MPs were taking evidence on the effectiveness, or otherwise, of a pilot scheme for migrant workers.

Stephanie Maurel, from Concordia, one of two companies handling the pilot immigration scheme for agricultural workers, was asked casually about Scotland’s attractiveness as destination. Casual, in that the assumption of the question was we’re a great place. 

Her answer left MPs shocked.

She said, quite frankly, that agencies like her’s struggle to get people to go to Scotland.

She said: “We think there is more of an issue in Scotland in terms of recruitment, more than England, Wales and Northern Ireland.”

“It is a perception issue to the point that we will get a worker in Bucharest coming into our agent’s office saying: ‘I will do anything but I won’t do strawberries and I won’t do Scotland.’”

“They may never have been to Scotland before or the UK before, yet in their mind they will earn less or will not be treated as well in Scotland. We have videos and leaflets that do an excellent job of showing that it not the case but there is a really strong mindset that potential workers do not want to go to Scotland.”

In case they hadn’t heard, Maurel illustrated Scotland’s reverse attractiveness in figures: “It used to be ten workers for one farm, four to one three years ago. We now have three or four offers for each worker. So, Scotland versus Herefordshire, it is very likely they will take Herefordshire first.”

If they had been showing the “Scotland loves Europe” advert it would have melted in the projector at this point.

As a mainplank of their Remain campaign, and for independence, the SNP government has drummed home how Scotland’s economy will need migrants as the native population gets older.

Evidence of that is all around. In December there were 2396 nursing vacancies in Scotland, 5.1 per cent of all posts.

Scottish Ministers argue for a separate immigration policy and for freedom of movement to continue. This despite figures showing 55 per cent of Scots (about eight per cent less than in England) think there has been too much immigration in the last decade.

For whatever reason (and the weather might be a factor) immigration into Scotland is quite meagre with about 80,000 incoming met by 59,000 on the way out last year.

Overall about 11,000 people came to live here from the rest of the world last year, and a net 10,000 from the rest of the UK.

What’s clear from that is Scotland cannot look on immigration from the EU as some kind of silver bullet to address population decline outside the central belt.

What has to be worked out is ways to make young Scots stay in rural areas or return to them after their college or university education. That means devolving jobs outside cities, more rural housing aimed at single people, policies and spaces that make living there more female friendly.

That involves the hard grind of policy and is less glamorous work than basking in self-reinforcing myths about a Scottish boyfriend on the beach.

Especially when it turns out Europe is just not that into us.