The gamble of a referendum

Oh dear, I just can’t used to how bad the SNP really is. The persistent calls for the right to call a referendum when they want to inspired this letter to the Herald, and it was published last week. I was hoping to start a rammy, but there’s been no blowback yet. I sent it to my SNP MSP and SNP MP for comment; by chance I ran into Ben McPherson MSP over the weekend, and he said he would read it to see if “it’s worthy of a reply”. He has a week, or I’m entitled to conclude that there is no principle for government other than pursuit of their sole aim, and they remain committed to referendums as a means of government. I’ll post any reply here. Don’t hold your breath.

Repeated indications from the SNP that it aims to call for another referendum when it thinks it can win tells us three important things. Firstly, that they regard a referendum as a throw of the dice, a gamble which, since they only respect the outcome if they win, they can’t lose. Secondly, that, in office, its guiding principle for government is not good politics but the manipulation of politics towards its sole aim. Thirdly, both to upgrade Scottish politics, national and local, to a serious level, and to protect ourselves from another ad hoc referendum of questionable status, a Referendum Act is needed.

This is not a Unionist stance; it is in support of our well-established system of representative democracy which a referendum undermines. A referendum is the perfect vehicle for liars, bullies, fantasists and neo-liberals who don’t care for democracy.

Here are some start-points for a Referendum Act. If the subject of a referendum is a single piece of legislation then it must be fully drafted and debated in the campaign and, if approved, the parliament is required to enact it without delay or changes.

Constitutional change requires a super-majority; that could be 50% of the entire electorate or 66% of the turn-out on the day. 50%+1 of the voters on the day could be sufficient to start negotiating constitutional change, but secondary safeguards are required.

One possibility would be that the outcome of negotiations must be put in a final draft and submitted to a confirming referendum; another is that the parliament must endorse the final draft; in either case within two years and by a specified margin. Rejection of the final draft returns the situation to the status quo ante, and the matter may not be subjected to another referendum within, say, twenty years.

If there’s one thing the Brexit referendum and its aftermath has taught us, it is that the outcome of a referendum that is not secured in law can be a decision made in ignorance of the implications with far-reaching unintended consequences, is incapable of giving adequate authority for anyone to properly deal with towards an agreed outcome, and no-one is held to account. In Scotland we were within a whisker of all this in September 2014. Never again!

It’s coming yet for a’ that

No, not a tribute to the Bard and his call for egalitarianism in his revolutionary poem A Man’s A Man For A’ That, although we increasingly look forward to the day when this ghastly, dysfunctional, unrepresentative, sense-of-entitlement “government” in London collapses. And while we’re at it, we can look forward to the day we get rid of the government in Holyrood, with its sustained attacks on professionals such as teachers, Transport Police, and local government in general. Aye, it’s coming yet…

No what I’m meaning here is the arrival of a new visitor on Leith Links, a statue of the signatory to the first written rules of golf in 1744: none other than Dr John Rattray. He strode the Links, winning the Silver Arrow in the annual archery competition and the Silver Club in the first ever golf competition. His part, and Leith’s place, has been written out of golfing history. But after sterling work on the part of Leith Rules Golf Society, Leith is reclaiming its heritage.

Leith Links is long-beloved turf. It is the oldest stretch of open land in Scotland that is protected by Act of Parliament. Badly hooked shots from the first tee of the eighteenth-century course would break windows in Wellington Place. St Andrews’ boast to be “The Home of Golf” is not a claim to the historical origins of the game. The eighteenth-century golfers drank copious quantities of claret in the Leith howffs, which is the origin of the Claret Jug, the most coveted trophy in world golf as the prize for The Open wherever in Britain it is played. Leith is home to an extraordinary collection of golfing firsts: in chronological order, the first recorded game; the first club; the first port of export of golf equipment; the first rules; the first competition for a prize; the first international challenge match; the first club house; and the first professionals’ tournament. Golf is Leith’s gift to the world.

Dr John will be arriving later this year or possibly next year. I saw the statue at the Powderhall foundry last night at the LRGS Annual General Meeting. This is going to be huge. It will pull in tourists from around the world. There’ll be books, maps, hotels, tour buses, and all. Bring them on. It’s coming yet…

Survival, resurgence and renewal: everything to play for in 2018

Greetings from Leith at the turn of the year. For several years now I have been saying that publication of my book should happen in the year ahead; although it has become slightly embarrassing to be wrong so often, I don’t mind the delay so much because the whole thing has matured in the process. I have never done anything like this before, and I don’t know how the publishing process goes.

Meanwhile, I have been pleased to meet so many people who have come on the tour this year. A highlight was the flurry of interest in February, with the release of T2. And I have been working towards presenting the draft to a publisher, with the help of an agent. Can’t say more than that just now. It would be nice to have good news early in the New Year, and less nice to have disappointing news. I’ll be published in one form or another, and since 2018 is the 25th anniversary of the publication of Trainspotting, I’m certainly aiming for next year.

In addition to the anniversary, it is also becoming clear that there is a resurgence of interest in the 1980s heroin scene. This is led by survivors. One I pick out is Graham MacIndoe, from West Lothian, just outside Edinburgh, who got into heroin in New York. He recorded his downward spiral in photographs, which formed an exhibition recently at the Portait Gallery here in Edinburgh. He also wrote an account, together with his partner Susan Stellin, in Chancers (Ballantine Books, and not cheap).

Then look at David France’s How to Survive a Plague, subtitled The story of how activists and scientists tamed AIDS (Picador), this year’s Baillie Gifford Prize winner. Again from the USA, it deals mainly with the gay scene and HIV/AIDS, both closely associated with the smack scene here in Leith and not overlooked in Trainspotting. France was told ten years ago that the AIDS cannon was complete, and there was no market for this. He not only proved them wrong, but also pioneered a history of these interlinked subjects that has been ignored by mainstream histories. No more.

With this longer view of the 1980s scene, we can see that Welsh was very quick and early to tell the story, in all its chaos, danger, pathos and, ultimately, survival. But Trainspotting is in urgent need of a re-appraisal. This is where my book comes in.

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 taking a turn for the worse 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:

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.