Thursday 7 November 2019

Tom Watson, the changed man

For the Daily Record 07/11/19

At the Labour conference I took a walk around Brighton with Tom Watson, it was a revelation.

The first person we (almost) bumped into was Jeremy Corbyn. But the weekend after the botched coup against the deputy leader he was in no mood to meet the boss.

We did, however, have several other encounters as we wandered through the Lanes.

“Are you still here?” someone shouted.

“They haven’t got me yet,” said the cheery pro-politician.

“That’s too bad then,” came the reply, but it was in jest. He was genuinely popular.

People flocked to greet him but Watson was most struck by one man whom he had met two years earlier.

“You changed my life,” said the man. “You got me dieting and look, I’ve lost two stone.”

Watson’s own inspiring transformation from “Big Lad” to svelte “Modfather” changed his outlook on life utterly. He looked and talked differently.

There was a sparkle in his eye when he spoke about health, less so when he talked about Labour.

On the way back to the conference he reminded us how he and his father once had their picture taken with Corbyn outside the hall. “Happy days, two years ago,” he joked.

But the laugh was hollow, the rift at the heart of Labour irreparable.  
Tom Watson is one of the most tenacious and fearless campaigners of his generation, and his leaving is Labour’s loss.

With his departure a light goes off in the window for those who thought they could return to a moderate Labour party any time soon.

Keith Schellenberg recalled

For the Daily Record 01/11/19 on the death of Keith Schellenberg, former laird of Eigg

At the West Highland Free Press, where I started in journalism in the 1980s, we campaigned for radical land reform.

It was when I stepped ashore on the island of Eigg with photographer Sam Maynard I learned this was easier in theory than in practice.

The islanders, almost all tenants of the landlord Keith Schellenberg, were living in derelict, rented homes. They were working, or not working, depending on the whim of the laird who controlled everything on Eigg apart from the dole and the doctor.

Eigg, we found, was in the feudal death-grip of landlordism.

After years of neglect at the hands of this self-styled “playboy”,the islanders had enough of his cricket matches, vintage Rolls Royces and Toad of Toad hall buffoonery.

Speaking out took some courage, but for those who did it was the first step in finding a voice in their own story.  

In turn charming and menacing, Schellenberg was a savvy legal and media operator, casting himself as a misunderstood philanthropist of which the Hebrides has seen many.

He tried outsmart the islanders by selling on, first to himself, then to a German fire artist.
With legal advice from the late Simon Fraser, the islanders proved smarter. They now own the place - game, set and match.  

I returned to Eigg two years ago for the 20th anniversary celebrations of the buy-out.

The islanders were the same, warm and welcoming, and there were lots more kids running around. The population has increased by 60 per cent, over 100 happy souls live on the inner Hebridean paradise. People were getting on with ordinary, radical lives.

Yesterday, as news of “Schelley’s” death spread, the last of the 3,000 tons of community-owned forestry harvested on the island was being shipped off the modernised pier.

Maybe that, the fact that islanders are cracking on with making Eigg a viable, self-sustaining community, is the best memorial to the Schellenberg era of misrule.