Plugspotting

Slightly to my surprise, The Scotsman published my letter and here:

In your editorial Gunspotting (24 March) you credit Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting with as much influence on public discourse in its subject areas as Uncle Tom’s Cabin, The Grapes of Wrath and 1984 were in theirs. Putting Welsh on this roll of honour, you are wondering if he’ll do it again, with his next book, set in the US gun culture. No pressure!

This is a remarkable change of tune from you, as a leader and reflector of Scottish public opinion. For ten years after the publication of Trainspotting, Welsh was a foul-mouthed glorifier or trivialiser of heroin. The City of Literature scheme, formed in 2004, could do no other than recognise his place in the pantheon of Scottish literary greats, if not on literary merit, then on sheer impact on the reading public. Then, in 2010 Rev Councillor Rt Hon George Grubb, Edinburgh’s Lord Provost, hailed Welsh as “an iconic chronicler of our city”.

After 15 years of conducting Trainspotting tours of Leith – which the tourist board initially deplored – I have written my own book which examines how Welsh did indeed change public perceptions of the drug scene, where it collided with the newly-arrived ‘gay men’s disease’, rapidly re-named HIV. It will be out by August, in time for the 25th anniversary of the launch of Trainspotting.

They correctly realised that in addition to making my point it is a plain old-fashioned plug for my book. I love the heading they gave it: Plugspotting! Not every new book has this sort of opportunity for advance publicity.

Gunspotting

The “authorities”, or the “establishment”, are really changing their tune about Irvine Welsh. Twenty years ago he was a flash-in-the-pan author with a foul mind who celebrated hard drugs. Now that he has said his next work of fiction is to be in the area of American gun culture, look at a recent editorial with this heading in The Scotsman, no less:

“Our world view is shaped by many factors, but books, films, and other works of art play a significant part. Abraham Lincoln reportedly greeted Harriet Beecher Stowe with ‘so you’re the little woman who wrote the book that started this war’ after Uncle Tom’s Cabin laid bare the horrors of slavery for many in pre-Civil War America; John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath exposed Depression-era poverty; and George Orwell’s 1984 remains a powerful warning about the dangers of totalitarianism.

“Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting was a publishing sensation that got people talking about drug addicts in a different way. If his draft of a novel about gun violence in the US and the ‘unhealed wounds in American society’ has anything like the same appeal, we may have another title to add to the relatively small list of genuinely life-changing books.”

Having got himself on the Roll of Honour once, he’s being asked to do it again. Nae pressure, then, Big Man, eh?

Leith faces “destruction” and “crass exploitation”.

Irvine Welsh is often asked daft questions, and he’s given some daft answers in his time. But he’s dead right to condemn recent and proposed developments in Leith, generating headlines such as the one at the top of this, in The Scotsman. The old Caledonian Railway Company’s offices on Leith Walk, built in what looks like Glasgow pink sandstone, are part of Leith’s history and part of Leith’s present vitality and versatility. They host a diverse collection of operations, with good internal space at street level on busy Leith Walk. So we’ll flatten them and build student accommodation. At Pilrig we already have exactly this – the “flats” are really little more than pods with “kitchen” space only for a microwave and a kettle. So a supermarket, in thick with the developers, takes space right down below them selling, guess what, you’ve got it, microwavable stuff and hot pizzas.

Welsh is right to call for robust local authority controls over permission for such developments, but the councils’ powers have been much reduced. And they are very strapped for cash. None of this is inevitable; it’s policy choices. Austerity and neo-liberalism make us punters in a market-place, not citizens in a democracy.

As The Man says: “If everywhere becomes a sterile version of somewhere else, then you’ve nothing left to make it special…” It’s the death of meaningful community. The casual and wilful destruction of the best of Leith is continuing beyond the Trainspotting generation.

Scexit

Here is my reply to my SNP MSP email to me, in the previous blog. Lines from his are in italics.

…you’ve passionately put forward your point of view…
Well, passion may be part of his repertoire, but I prefer stone-cold sober analysis and assessment. The matter in hand here is the use of a referendum; I say it is an ad hoc device of questionable status that undermines our long-established representative democracy. I say a referendum is a throw of the dice which, if you only accept the result you want, is a gamble you can’t lose. My MSP offers nothing to contradict me.

…the SNP campaigns for an independent Scotland…
We should get rid of this word “independent” for use in this context. We all form alliances, come to arrangements, do deals, sign treaties, all that, in our personal and political lives. There’s no such thing as “independence”. The question is which alliances, arrangements, deals and treaties we want to make. The mature thing is to form such alliances… etc that get the best out of ourselves and our neighbours and partners. It is impossible to imagine that Scotland could have a better relationship than we have with our immediate neighbours on this crowded archipelago of islands. We have completely frictionless trade and one of the most powerful devolved parliaments in the world. The SNP has to persuade us that if we departed from the UK we would be better off. They don’t even try. It’s all down to rhetoric and bombast for them.

Let’s call this what it is: it is a separatist agenda. Or, to give it a more immediate and recognisable context, let’s call it “Scexit”. If they deplore the conduct of the Brexit referendum and the inevitable chaos of trying to make good on unachievable promises, the SNP has to explain how a Scexit referendum would be different. They pretend it wouldn’t be like that. But referendums are always like that.

…People in Scotland were erroneously told by Better Together in 2014 that independence would result in Scotland being taken out of the EU…
Oh dear, I really thought we had got past that. But, for my MSP’s benefit, let’s go over it again. Political developments didn’t stop on the day of the referendum. What he’ll find as life goes on is that things keep changing.

The price of oil, on which so much of the separatist “White Paper” (it was a wish-list) was predicated, crashed before the Brexit ref. If they were being honest, they would have to concede that it was a material change of circumstances, a significantly different state of affairs from the one they were imagining and promoting during the campaign, such that another referendum would be justified. But they’re not being honest.

They cannot say what would be the nature of the border with the rest of the UK (rUK), just as the Brexiteers cannot resolve their promises both to come out of all things European yet have a soft border in Ireland. They can’t have both, and the Scexiteers would have the same problem. How would it be possible to have different immigration policies, for example, yet keep an invisible border?

There is no guarantee that a separated Scotland would be permitted to join the EU, and a condition of membership may well be adoption of the €. These are very serious matters. Since it is impossible to know before separation negotiations are concluded, there is no clear prospectus on which a sensible decision can be made in a referendum. Just like Brexit, we would be voting for a pig in a poke with no chance of changing our minds if we don’t like the pig.

I will vie with no-one about how appalling the present UK government is, indeed, that we have a dysfunctional parliament at Westminster. Major electoral and constitutional reforms are desperately urgent. Similarly, I am under no illusion about the EU. I voted REMAIN and REFORM. Sadly, the last element wasn’t on the ballot paper. The basic question is: do we walk away from a union, forged by geography, history and economic realities, or do we stay and fix the problems? The geography, history and economic realities won’t change. Trade unions were formed to protect individuals and communities from the worst effects of capitalism. Capitalism has morphed into corporatism, and unionism has to keep pace. There is safety and strength in union; danger and weakness in isolation.

At Holyrood SNP social and economic policies are chaotic, with a strong and highly unfortunate centralising tendency, though I don’t say they get everything wrong. And at local level, they have nothing to say. This is because the SNP in office has no principle for government other than to manipulate things towards their sole aim. The Labour party’s principle is collectivism; the LibDems’ is human rights; the Conservatives’, at their best, is responsible free enterprise; the Greens’ is for ecological living; all honourable positions which can be applied to any aspect of government at any level. The SNP’s dismally small-minded, mean-spirited ambition is to separate Scotland from rUK. For the greater glory of… what, exactly? The SNP is basically an opportunist single-issue party. We deserve better.

On the face of it, we need fear the SNP no more: it seems highly unlikely that the 2005 and 2011 elections, which gave them an absolute majority at Holyrood, will ever be repeated. The electoral arrangements are designed to produce coalitions and minority governments. They didn’t have the cojones to make a unilateral declaration of independence when they could – they threw everything into a referendum and they lost.

However, we shouldn’t be complacent. The SNP is not Hungary’s Jobbik, nor Germany’s AfD, and Nicola Sturgeon is not Marine le Pen. But it wouldn’t take much for the ideologues to tip it into something not so far from the above-mentioned. It trades in identity politics, which always needs a bogey-man, and we know where that can go.

This is the best they can do…

Somewhat unexpectedly, a reply has come from my SNP MSP, given here in full (omitting only some courtesies). It came almost two weeks ago, just before I was leaving home, or it would have been up earlier – no disrespect intended. I will post my reply in the next few days.

As I’ve come to expect, you’ve passionately put forward your point of view on the use of referendums. I note your comments on the use of a confirming referendum or other mechanisms to qualify a referendum result.

As you are aware, the SNP campaigns for an independent Scotland in order to create a more socially just and economically prosperous nation, that makes decisions based on our priorities decided democratically here by our elected Parliament. It has been party policy for many years now that the people of Scotland should have a say on the issue of self-determination through a referendum. That policy remains the position of the SNP. It was of course also part of the mandate that we sought at the last Scottish Parliament elections in 2016.

Much has changed since 2014 when the last Scottish Independence referendum was held. The EU referendum was, in my view, based on slogans and overblown newspaper headlines. This was in contrast to the comprehensive White Paper that the Scottish Government put forward in 2014. The result of the EU referendum contradicts what the people of Scotland were told in 2014 during the Scottish Independence referendum. People in Scotland were erroneously told by Better Together in 2014 that independence would result in Scotland being taken out of the EU. However, voting to continue as part of the UK in 2014 has instead resulted in Scotland facing the isolationism of Brexit against our democratic will. As a result of the EU referendum, where Scotland voted by 62% to remain in the EU (78% in the local constituency), the people of Scotland are now faced with being taken out of the EU against their will.

Having discussed the issue of referendums with you before I know that we will disagree on their use. However, I want you to know that I respect your view and thank you for taking the time to inform me of your views.

Kind regards,
Ben