St Andrew’s Day 2017

Another opportunity to celebrate all things Scottish. This year there’s a serious attempt to reclaim the flag – the Saltire – from the separatists and the SNP. St Andrew was crucified on a diagonal cross, poor chap, and was buried. Later, when the burial site was under threat, the Christian authorities ordered that several parts of his body should be scattered to the ends of the world. This was both to preserve the remains and to spread the Word. Good idea, really. I think it’s his knee-cap that got as far as the coast of Fife, after which the town of St Andrews is named.

But, back to the present. We who believe that Scotland needs to be within a (reformed) United Kingdom need to ensure that the separatists don’t make the flag their own. We should all drape ourselves in the flag and take selfies, captioning it with something like: “Ma flag, oor flag, aa’body’s flag”. That settles it. Oor Wullie and The Broons belong to all of Scotland.

While we’re on the subject, interesting to read in this month’s Leither three pieces by local politicians. SNP MP Deidre Brock wrote a sterile piece about Catalonia; SNP MSP Ben MacPherson did a cut and paste job from party HQ extolling the government’s achievements and efforts on renewable energy; and Labour councillor Gordon Munro wrote a hard-hitting and painful to read fact-filled indictment of poverty in Leith. It’s carefully referenced and passionate, ending with an appeal to work together to halt and reverse the worst effects of what he calls 20th century “benign patriarchy”. I would quarrel with the adjective there. He didn’t (have space to) go on to point out that the out-of-control heroin abuse of the 1980s was a symptom of social malfunction. It’s clear to me that Gordon is the only serious, thoughtful, politician among them all.

Do I, a man of the English/Scottish borderlands who has lived in Leith these nigh-on forty years, feel at home? Yes, I do, very much, and very comfortably. But I still relish the tensions. As a young fellow I played village cricket in north Northumberland and occasionally Newcastle. Two or three times we crossed the Border to play at St Boswells, a shorter journey than to Newcastle, but the accents were very strange. So, a life-long hard-core Test Match Special aficionado, I was listening to the match report from far-off Brisbane in the wee small hours recently. The situation was deteriorating for Our Brave and Heroic Boys in White on the Batting Crease of Life. The commentators read out an email from a chap on an oil rig in the North Sea complaining that he was trying get some peace to concentrate while putting up with a bunch of “really immature” Scotsmen who were pretending to be Australian. All in the best of good humour, of course, and no hard feelings. They don’t all understand. Cricket is a Scottish game as well. The British cricket team was named the England team in mid-19th century when everything British was subsumed into England. There have been several Scottish players and captains of the England team. Ach well.

“Double inverted commas” or ‘single ones’, darling?

It’s been an interesting month. Oh yes. Maybe you can’t imagine how much fun it has been going through every page of my copy, looking for the absolutely correct way to give a page reference. It has to be exactly this: (p.67) Indentation of paragraphs, too. Not forgetting “double inverted commas” and ‘single ones’. And italics. It all has to be dead right.

It seems that publishers no longer have what they called desk editors, that is in-house people who sort out incoming texts. These people are now free-lancers, and the publishers pay – so the publishers now want the text to come in pretty well ready to go. Luckily, a relative of mine introduced me to a very nice one such person, who was generous with her time and advice. I’m very grateful to her.

Still, I reflect, it takes me ages to do all this, and it would take someone who knows what she’s doing only a morning. ‘Tis the way of the world.

Shut up or speak up – the SNP doesn’t get it right

The SNP doesn’t shut up when we don’t need to hear from them (“SNP warns disastrous ‘no deal’ on Brexit must be ruled out” screams today’s Herald headline: REALLY? the rest of us yawn) but we don’t hear anything from them when they have something to explain. Taken to task last week to explain how the official GERS figures for the Scottish economy shape up, Nicola Sturgeon had to say that the collapse of the oil price following the 2014 IndyRef was an unforeseeable change of circumstance. It blew a hole in the SNP prospectus for departing from the UK. It also blew a hole in her claim that the Brexit vote was a change of circumstance which justifies a second IndyRef.

I wrote a letter to the Edinburgh Evening News:

Nicola Sturgeon has blown a hole below the waterline in her case for holding a referendum. Defending her party against charges that the White Paper ahead of the 2014 IndyRef was phoney, she is forced to say that the collapse of the price of oil was an unpredictable “change of circumstance”.

That’s the thing about life: there are always unpredictable changes of circumstances. She has recently gone quiet about demanding IndyRef 2 on the grounds that the Brexit vote creates a change of circumstance. Now she should say that if we had said YES in 2014 the SNP would have held a second IndyRef because of the change in the price of oil.

The real answer to this is that we don’t govern by referendum. Brexit has demonstrated that it is lunacy to make a dangerously over-simplified YES/NO decision ahead of the outcome of hugely complicated negotiations, the outcome of which is unknowable at the time of making the decision.

It is open to the SNP to pursue its sole objective by making a unilateral declaration of independence from Holyrood, provided it is elected on a clear statement of its intention in its manifesto. That would produce a clash between constitutional law and the will of the people; a crisis of the first order – no harm there – which would have to be sorted out somehow.

I wish I could say I am looking forward to the day the SNP will give up its reckless and dishonest gambling instincts and show some political maturity and responsibility.

Apart from this one, muttered statement on the GERS figures, total silence, on both the figures and the use of a referendum. I sent it to my SNP MSP, adding that I would be interested to have from him or his party the positive case for use of referendums.

I deny the legitimacy and the finality of a referendum as a means of deciding momentous and complex matters such as breaking away from either the EU or the UK. I would expect anyone who respects the system of representative democracy that we operate to do the same. Obviously, we can’t expect the SNP to agree with that, as it would open the door to having two referendums: the first to authorise negotiations towards separation, and a second to approve or otherwise the outcome of the negotiations before they can come into effect.

I don’t normally like drawing broad generalities to characterise people or parties, but in this case it is pretty straightforward: the SNP is a single-issue party, with very limited politics within their range, and they are at heart irresponsible gamblers.

Leith Theatre and the cult of Trainspotting

A jolly good time was had by all as Irvine Welsh and Ewen Bremner came to Leith Theatre to supplement a showing of Trainspotting last week. Read all about it in the Edinburgh Evening News. £20 a pop, no shy they c***s, till you realise it was a fundraiser for the theatre itself, well worthy of restoration after three decades in mothballs. And it wasn’t only the stars, there were a couple of contemporary punk bands and a cellular tribute to the late Paul Reekie, of fond memory. No seating and a bar at the back, it was an unusual format. Strictly for younger guys than me. But like I say, fun. And important in its own way.

So there were the old die-hards, Welsh’s contemporaries and co-creators from the arts scene, along with a surprising number of younger folk, some of whom were nowt but bairns twenty-one years ago when the film was premiered. It’s ample demonstration that Welsh and Boyle have created and are perpetuating a whole industry. Welsh is updating his characters and Boyle is extending his story-line. Think of Leith as HQ of a world-wide cult.

The biggest cheer of the night came after Tommy says, trying to persuade his pals to join him on a healthy walk in the hills: “It’s the great out-doors… It’s fresh air.” Renton: “I hate being Scottish… some people hate the English, but I don’t… they’re just wankers… it’s a shite state of affairs, and all the fresh air in the world won’t make any f…ing difference.” That line never dies.

What’s the good of a referendum?

I’m still at it, plugging away at one of the great sticking-points in Scottish political discourse: is a referendum a valid or sensible means of coming to a decision on constitutional matters? Only opportunists and gamblers with nothing to lose seem to think it is. Here is a letter I had published in The Herald at the weekend:

R Russell Smith’s suggestion that we should have another referendum to correct the outcome of the EuroRef is tempting but unsound. The logic that permits a second referendum cannot resist demands for a third. Then where are we?

Another worry is that the corporates and some elements of the press would bully and buy their way to another victory for themselves.

The better suggestion is that we require our parliamentarians to abort the Brexit project and take responsibility on themselves.
Elected representatives are expected to exercise their judgement. Pulling out of Brexit would certainly incur the wrath of sections of the media, but if their case is good it won’t lose them votes at their next rendezvous with the polls. On the contrary, I think.

And it would give us the welcome sight of elected representatives showing some leadership. We need them to stand up to the corporates, not to cave in by letting them push us around in a dangerously over-simplified one-day showdown that is a referendum.

I have asked our SNP MSP for the case in favour of a referendum. I’ll let you know if there’s a reply, but I don’t think you should be holding your breath in anticipation.

It must have been a quiet day at The Herald…

I was slightly surprised when The Herald got back to me yesterday within an hour or so of me speculatively submitting a piece for their Agenda column. They published it today (click here) having changed it a little bit. They omitted my title, leaving it to suggest that it is no more (nor any less) than a personal manifesto; not quite what I intended. I enjoyed quoting my SNP MSP saying to me a few weeks ago that a referendum is “the voice of the people” in order to contradict him. Anyway, here it is:

CHRISTIAN SOCIALISM: AN UPDATE
From Old Testament times there have been passionate calls for social justice, summed up in the injunction which, explicitly, carries into Christianity: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” The history of the Church is full of condemnations of greed and abuse of power and calls to share resources equably.

The term “Christian Socialism” (CS) was coined in the 19th century in contradistinction to laissez-faire individualism. At its heart is the belief that we are social creatures, that we must work together and care for each other. Translated into political language, that means collective action and solidarity, which is the bedrock of Labour Party ideology.

But the Labour Party is not the sole proprietor of CS. It cannot be right that a majority will insist on universal conformity to its own norms. We have human rights and we must all enjoy civil liberties. The Lib-Dems remind us that with every right comes a responsibility; it is a duty to afford rights to the stranger and the outcast.

And the Parable of the Talents says there is space also for private enterprise. We need risk-takers, without whom society becomes stagnant. The force of economic tides and the power of the marketplace cannot be ignored. The instinct to do well for oneself and one’s own is not wrong, and absolute equality of circumstance is not an aim of CS, but it insists no-one shall grow wealthy or powerful outside certain margins.

Since entrepreneurs are good at looking after their own interests, strong government is needed to develop and protect community and personal interests. We are looking for a healthy balance between competition and co-operation.

A wise entrepreneur knows that a fair taxation on his personal and business wealth to pay for good public services is money well spent. It buys an educated and healthy workforce, and it generates wealth in the population to purchase his products. Reasonably equable societies are harmonious and productive.

Traditional CS needs to be updated. Wherever we stand within it, we must all be aware of the urgent need to respect and protect our natural environment, for we are on the very brink of destroying it. We all must be actively Green. This is not an optional extra.

An early achievement of CS was the foundation of trade unions to protect individuals and communities from the worst effects of capitalism. Now there needs to a be a recognition that capitalism has morphed into corporatism, and unionism needs to change accordingly. International collaboration at state level – updated, enhanced unionism – offers protection from corporate oligarchs who operate globally.

Christian Socialists are democrats, which requires government by representative democracy. We expect our elected representatives to be creative, to work through the issues, to respect others while they argue and persuade, to take responsibility and regularly face the electorate.

A referendum is a failure of representative democracy. To say that it is “the voice of the people” is shallow and inadequate. A referendum reduces politicians to cheerleaders egging people on in a one-day showdown, which is a model of decision-making we left behind on the medieval battlefields.

Port o’ Leith – revised opinion

I shouldn’t have been so dismissive of the changes afoot at no 58 Constitution Street. I understood it was to made into some sort of cafe, the like of which there is no shortage in the area. But no, dear reader, it has been restored as a pub, under new management. It has gone for the stripped-back distressed look, making a virtue of having to, well, strip it right back to the bricks and stone. With the change of management it has lost its direct personal connection with Irvine Welsh, but hey, that’s life. It’s still a pretty good pub, it’s still the Port o’ Leith, and you’ll have a nice welcome from Craig behind the bar.

And thanks to all who came on a tour from no 58 during the Leith Festival, a total of 26 over three evenings. The groups were very different – it all depends how people gel together – and they were all good fun. Now it’s time to get the head down and finish the book. One problem is I have too much material, so I’ll take a lead from the pub – go for the stripped-back effect. Less is more.

Port o’ Leith no more…

What a month it’s been! Nothing much has happened except the Port o’ Leith pub is no more. Known in it’s early years as the Dockers’ Bank – they deposited their money there on Friday nights – and the Sailors’ Bank – any time would do for them, obviously – it became respectable, well almost, under legendary landlady Mary Moriarty from 1984. She never stamped on a wee bit of exuberance, but on her behalf any rough stuff was quickly sorted. She knew Irvine Welsh as “the big tall laddie” from the stair next door to hers as he came in with his writing pals around 1990. She put herself on the customers’ side of the bar and introduced folk to each other; it was a meeting place. She was good to me as I was starting the tours. But the new lease holders have come across some serious problems with the building, and the landlords left them with no real choices. It’s sad.

It’s still Venue 203 for the Leith Festival, and I’m starting this year’s tours from outside (it’s not open yet), but I’ll have to see if it’s still going to be suitable for the Trainspotting tour.

The single-issue SNP

I went to see Ben MacPherson, my SNP MSP, and a very dispiriting experience it was. Here is my follow-up letter to him, updated since it was sent and slightly altered. There has been no reply.

Dear Ben,

Thank you for seeing me yesterday afternoon. I’m sorry I was a wee bit late and breathless; I thought I knew where I was going, but it turned out I didn’t. I was in good time at the wrong place.

I have no intention of getting into a wrangle with you, I won’t send any more emails on this, and I don’t mind if you don’t reply. But I must make some points that arise out of our conversation. You declined to answer my points by email, and you refused to let me record the conversation.

I can quite see how it is that when you have neutered, normalised and embraced the profound dishonesty that says the SNP has respected the outcome of the 2014 IndyRef – to respect it was a formal undertaking – then the rest follows easily.

Referring to the oft-repeated “this is a once-in-a-generation opportunity” to vote to separate from the UK, it was chilling to hear you say that a colourful campaign slogan shouldn’t be taken too seriously or out of context. WORDS HAVE MEANINGS, Ben. When they are said they remain said. To change their meaning or to deny they were said is the beginnings of tyranny, the creation of “alternative facts”. You have an easy way of brushing this aside. It is a direct equivalent of Leave bus in the EuroRef claiming that the £350m that goes to Europe per week could be diverted to the NHS. You seem not to appreciate how dangerous that is.

After your defeat Nicola Sturgeon repeated the newly invented “material change of circumstances” mantra, twice a day, for weeks, and even she must have been surprised by the lack of challenge and the easy ride she had. Then she talked about the “inevitability” of a second IndyRef. Then you put the prospect into your 2016 election manifesto. Now a second IndyRef is being attached directly to the General Election in June. You have changed the narrative about a second IndyRef. You have not changed any of the principles and facts of the 2014 Ref. The answer was NO. You have not respected the outcome, and nothing you say changes that.

As I said to you, I have a problem with a referendum as a form of government before I have a problem with breaking up the UK. Perhaps because we didn’t have much time (half-way through the janny chapped on the door and gave us 15 minutes, max), or perhaps because you were obfuscating, we did not adequately discuss how a referendum fits into a representative democracy. All you said is that a referendum is the voice of the people. That is deeply irresponsible. You are elected to lead and take responsibility, not to egg people on. What body of political theory are you referring to?

You never explained how it is remotely sensible to reduce a profoundly complex matter to a binary and if, you get the answer you want, irreversible choice ahead of addressing and engaging with the complexities. The secessionist party in a referendum can peddle dreams, but is in no position to make promises that will certainly be delivered after the gritty reality of negotiating the terms of the secession. You know that. You have no idea what lies the other side of an “Independence Day”; to suggest otherwise is simply dishonest.

You described several SNP policies with which it is easy for me to agree: for example, the importance of public ownership of key infrastructure. But your problem is that if I was talking to another SNP MSP in another part of Scotland, the conversation would be on the importance of private enterprise and ownership. I described various aspects of Scottish life that are in crisis, and I said you are not sensitised to them because you have eyes only for your single goal.

I said that trade unionism was formed to protect people from the worst effects of capitalism (you said you like trade unionism). I went on to say that as capitalism has morphed into corporatism, so unionism must keep up and form international unions. I said that the British Isles are a small compact archipelago within which there should be no international borders. I will find fault with any union: the UK, the EU, any union. That’s easy. Your answer is to leave. My answer is to fix the fault. Of course we’ll never get it right, that’s politics. But you just walk away. Your ambition is limited to Scotland. Identity politics never ends well.

The 2014 IndyRef clearly instructed you to stay engaged in the UK and fix the problems. You could make a start by using your over-representation at Westminster to help abolish the first-past-the-post electoral system. It has ill served the UK for a century, and my own party failed to take the best opportunity to abolish it twenty years ago. If it was wrong then, it’s wrong now. We easily agreed that this is a priority. Fix it, if you are a progressive party. Fix it. Or at least show me you are trying to.

You said you want Scotland to do well. So do I. I decline your invitation to think about and get to know your party better. My principles for government (collective action, solidarity, etc), which I outlined, know no boundaries. You signally failed to give any principles for government which apply across different levels of government. You are indeed a single-issue party, and you ask for more respect than is due.

I have no idea if you are going to take this seriously. I am very concerned. It’s not that I disagree with you on policy, I can live with that. The intellectual integrity and moral purpose of the party you represent is not adequate for good government.

Yours sincerely

Tim Bell

That’s journos for you.

Well, you win some, you don’t win ‘em all. I had a very good morning with a journo from der Tagesspiegel (Daily Mirror), Berlin last month. See what he wrote here. My German isn’t too great, but I get the gist. Apparently I’m the supreme Trainspotting exegete, and that’s fine by me. I’m not sure he was paying full attention to everything I told him, but that’s journo’s for you. He makes out the problem was the language – although his English is excellent, and there were no misunderstandings between us, he writes that my spoken English is too “Scottish” for him. I told him any regional accent in my case comes from 80 miles south from here, just south of the border. Any Scot knows I’m not a native, but non-Brits might not pick up the differences. Anyway, there’s no such thing as bad publicity.