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.

An open letter to my MSP

While admiring Nicola Sturgeon’s exquisite timing in announcing her intention to call for a second IndyRef, and thrilled at the way Theresa May was forced to say it was madness to cut ties with your nearest neighbours (it reminded me of something, couldn’t quite put my finger on it), I felt moved to write this to my representative at Holyrood.

Ben MacPherson MSP
Holyrood, Edinburgh

Dear Ben,

I am writing to protest in the strongest possible terms at your party’s intention to call a second “independence” referendum. I am not going to vie with you about which of us deplores most the English-dominated Tories, Brexit, and their handling of it; probably we are somewhere around the same. That is irrelevant here.

We had a referendum in 2014 which your party undertook to respect; the answer was clear-cut rejection of separation. It renders your call for a separate deal for Scotland in Brexit irrelevant; obviously you are disappointed, but we are part of the UK. The insertion of a clause in your manifesto about “changing circumstances” to justify a second referendum is a post hoc device of your own making; the result of the referendum was for a generation, not dependant on “changing circumstances”. “Circumstances” are always changing. The price of oil changed, which was material. If the 2014 referendum had gone the other way, would your party have recognised it as a “material change of circumstance” and held another referendum? It is intolerable that your party regards defeat as a temporary setback but victory by 50%+1 is decisive and irreversible. You should beware: the logic that permits a second referendum is unable to resist demands for a third. Then where are we?

Nicola Sturgeon’s statement yesterday was couched in her own, narrowly defined logic which takes no account of other and larger factors. We do not govern by referendum as though we were in the medieval period when great constitutional matters were settled on a day on the battlefield (think of Bannockburn, for example). Contenders in a referendum seek to outmanoeuvre the enemy, to have greater firepower, and luck on the day. Please don’t pretend that the issues are seriously and soberly debated in a referendum campaign, or that the eventual outcome, with all its implications and complexities, have been properly negotiated and agreed. If you deplore the conduct, outcome and consequences of the 2016 EuroRef, as I do, then you are unable to extract a second IndyRef from the same problems. If you are seriously promoting a referendum you have to explain how it is sensible to make the big decision before negotiations. It’s not our form of government.

We govern by representative democracy. You know that Westminster is not representative. The SNP has well over 90% of Scottish representation from 50% of the Scottish vote; UKIP had more votes in the UK than the SNP and has one MP; and we have a majority government on the strength of 37% of the vote. Your party at Westminster should be putting its shoulder to the wheel not only to influence the Brexit negotiations but also, crucially, for electoral reform. Sadly, however, you have an interest in maintaining this Tory government to maintain your own grievance agenda and advance your opportunistic purposes. This is an abdication of your responsibility.

The timing of this demand for a referendum is disastrous, and no amount of speculation about the state of Brexit negotiations or speculative reassurance as to EU attitudes two years hence removes the fact that it is intended to take advantage of confusion and uncertainty. This is no way to govern, no time to make huge decisions. Your party is guilty of low-level gambling and opportunism in pursuit of your narrow interest, and you should be ashamed.

The SNP should be attending to bread-and-butter issues in this Holyrood parliament. It is perfectly entitled to put into its manifesto at the next election (as it could have in 2016) an undertaking that if it is in a position to do so it will make a unilateral declaration of independence after 2021. That would give you a fresh mandate with the effect of respecting the referendum result of 2014 and would make parliamentarians responsible for their own actions, which is what they are elected to do. This hiding behind “the peoples’ voice” in a referendum is cowardly, reducing parliamentarians to cheer-leaders and managers, and the cowardice is doubled when you don’t accept a result you don’t like.

You won’t often catch me agreeing with Theresa May, but she is no more than stating the obvious when she says the SNP has tunnel vision. It has no principle for government. My own party’s principles are collective action and solidarity, and I respect other parties’ principles; personal rights and freedoms, for example. Where is your intellectual integrity and moral purpose? You want to separate Scotland from the UK in any circumstances and at any price, and you call it “independence”. It is identity politics, and this never ends well. All I can say in favour of the SNP is that it is law-abiding and ostensibly generous in outlook, which has spared us from the more rabid end of the nationalist surge that is going round at the moment. But voters have no idea what they are voting for in an SNP candidate at local elections.

I don’t expect any dissension in the ranks of SNP MSPs when it comes to voting at Holyrood, it being the most rigidly controlled party in modern politics. However, we are entitled to expect that you will engage seriously with the issues and not restrict your discussion to speeches at Holyrood, press statements, and soundbites on the doorsteps. Please advise when you will be on a public platform (something other than an SNP meeting) and available for robust examination of this action.

I am cc-ing this to [various people including my local Green councillor who] I want to fully justify Green support for 1) a second referendum and 2) the SNP agenda of separating Scotland from the rest of the UK. I really don’t see how it furthers the Green cause. He may put some pressure on his Holyrood colleagues. I am also circulating this with some of my Labour Party colleagues.

Yours sincerely,

Tim Bell

A month of T2 tours

Thanks to all who came on the T2 special tours, almost 30 folk. Actually, although T2 inevitably comes into the conversation as we go round, this isn’t really a T2 tour at all. Starting at The Black Bull and the Calton archway, which features in both films is pretty well the only T2 location – apart from a quick look in at The Central Bar where there is a very brief shot of Begbie. You can find all the locations HERE.

The next set of programmed turn-up-and-go tours will be in the Leith Festival, that is 15th, 16th, 17th June in the evenings. Otherwise you need to make a booking with me, and it’s best if you can get a few folk together.

T2. It’s good. Very good.

Just had the thrill of seeing T2 on the first day of general release, here in Leith, where Porno is set, but not a lot of the film is shot here. I don’t like multi-plexes, but 40 years ago Henry Robb’s shipyard stood right where we were sitting in comfort watching the film. It’s all part of the legacy. Not that Danny Boyle makes anything of it, in T2. This is an update of the characters, not of Leith.

So – no spoilers. Go and see it yourself. It’s worth re-reading both Trainspotting and Porno, and watching the film Trainspotting again if you haven’t done so for a while. The more familiar you are, the more you get out of T2. There are some lovely reprises, flash-backs, inversions, and twists. And it’s funny and entertaining while having its moments of honesty and sadness. The music isn’t as compelling as I was expecting, and although it is clearly set in Edinburgh I’m not so sure it’s going to be easy to string together the locations to form a tour. But somebody will be working on that.

OK, I lost my little wager. I was expecting Sick Boy to have a fantasy conversationalist along the lines of Shir Sean in Trainspotting and Alex McLeish in Porno. I was hoping Boyle would be taking the mick out lf Alex Salmond. He doesn’t. For fuller details, see the film. But I was right in the big forecast: never under-estimate Danny Boyle’s creative genius. I think this is set to be another classic, riding the title that has become a catchphrase in common parlance for all it’s worth. And the central rap: Choose this, choose that… it’s not copyright, but in all other senses it belongs to Welsh and Boyle and, well OK, McGregor as well.

And by the way, just enjoy it. There’s a lot of comedy, and even some farce. But there are some real truths in there as well. And there’s a strong story. I worried that at 2 hours it might be paunchy and flabby, in contrast to the very tight pacey punchy 90 minutes of Trainspotting. But it isn’t. The intellectualisation and contextualising will come later. It’s good. Very good.

We’re all getting excited.

Well, a very interesting time was had on the weekend of the premiere of T2. There was me taking a tour for my punters, with Radio Forth and Sky Entertainment in tow. My ideas of where to go and what to say went out of the window. See production teams? My punters contributed to the journos – vox pop for them, of course, and the guys played into it. I didn’t hear the Radio Forth output, but the Sky piece went online later in the day. They got me to say that line about there being gaps in people’s lives that were filled by heroin about five times. There’s no knowing why they chose that version, I didn’t think it was my best! I took them to the scene of “urban distress”, where Katey walks down the steps saying how 1960s planning didn’t work out. She was right on location for that – it used to be Leith’s magnificent Kirkgate, heartbeat of the town. And on Sunday they went on the orange carpet (railway orange – geddit?) and interviewed the stars. Fame by association.

Then during the premiere itself they had me live on Radio 5 Live. Terrifying! They had me lined up to be interviewed along with another guy who didn’t answer his phone and didn’t show. So it skewed the line of questioning that I was prepared for. Then the Skype connection went funny and I was cut off in my prime. Listen to it here , it’s about 13 minutes in.

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