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.

Leave a comment in my guestbook, why doncha.

Trainspotting update – and it’s not just T2

All eyes this weekend are on Cineworld, Fountainbridge Edinburgh as T2 premieres tomorrow evening. More on that anon.

A nice piece of artwork on the wall of what used to be the Volley on Leith Walk (now the Mousetrap - go there, re-live it for yourself), where Tommy witnesses Begbie losing it at the pool table and assaulting a "specky wee gadge"

Nice, eh? Looks like Begbie, but at the games machines they have there now, not the pool table. It’s not just Danny Boyle who has to keep up. Leith is right up there too.

T2 brings the foursome of Trainspotting back together, roughly along the lines of Porno, the book sequel. The previews say it’s a regretful look back at youth from middle age. No suggestion that it takes the larger scene into account, you know, the IndyRef and Brexit. So, no mickey-take of Big Eck Salmond, as I was hoping for in my last blog. It’s personal. Which certainly tells me that in ten or fifteen years time there’ll be T3. That’s a captive generational audience Boyle has created, that likes to see itself grow older on the screen. Why not? – if there’s money in it. Not that it’s small achievement: Trainspotting had to not just capture a moment in the 90s, but also create one, such a strong one that the 90s generation can point to it, tell their children “that was me!” “I was there!” Well done, and good luck to you Danny.

Anyway, there we were, this morning, in the Mousetrap and the Docker’s Club, and other Trainspotting places in between, with Sky Entertainment and Radio Forth and some unreconstructed fans who had organised a reunion weekend in Edinburgh without realising the bit about T2. Look at Sky News tomorrow, around the half-hour for most of the day, and catch Radio Forth tomorrow afternoon for their takes on it all. And tune in to BBC Radio 5 Live around 7.30 tomorrow evening, when I am expecting to be in a studio discussion to fill in around interviews on the red carpet.

I really hope the film is good, after all this!

Blwyddyn newydd dda

OK, I’m staying with the Welsh theme – you’ll have to translate the heading yourself – although I’m back in the homeland now and I’ve had a couple of excellent tours over the Hogmanay. The level of knowledge and enthusiasm is wonderful. I’ve taken note of a couple of points made during the conversations, and I’ll be checking my drafts. Can’t afford to be even slightly wide of the mark in a published piece of work! Thank you, everyone.

There’s much discussion about T2, Boyle’s film of the sequel to which he can’t give the title of the book. It’s due out in a few weeks, maybe this month. Let’s start a hare running. In Trainspotting Sick Boy has a recurring fantasy conversation with Shir Shean Connery. Boyle picked it up and made something out of it in the film. In Porno Big Tam (as Shir Shean was known in his Edinburgh days) is replaced by Alex McLeish, then manager at Hibs FC. They go in for some macho man-management discussions, all feeding Sick Boy’s ego and giving the reader a wee smile. I’m betting Danny Boyle will give Sick Boy a fantasy interlocutor in T2, it’s a continuation element of the whole project. But it can’t be McLeish. Who then?

My guess is that Boyle will give expression to his hatred of identity politics and nationalism. Looking around Scotland, who would match Sick Boy’s gambling instincts, carelessness with facts, readiness to make wild, unsupported claims? There are a few candidates, but the king of all would be Alex Salmond. He could make Sick Boy’s efforts look like schoolboy stuff. Could be a laugh. Let’s see.

Nadolig Llawen

From the Principality of Wales I send my very best wishes for Christmas to you all on this winter solstice day of 2016. The sun is overhead at the Tropic of Capricorn today, so from now on it gets lighter and warmer all the way to the next cricket season. Thinking of which, it’s a shame our brave and heroic boys in white got so soundly humped in India in the last few weeks. Nice people, Indians, but when it comes to cricket they can be tricky. Without doubt, they are worthy number ones.

Last night in the pub the musicians turned up. Then came Mari Lloyd, a skull, in this case a horse’s skull, atop a small person with a sheet round her (him?). She was accompanied by two Welsh pipers, very nice. They asked the landlord’s permission to enter, which was granted on condition they sang some songs and generated a bit of good cheer. This keeps the pub safe over the winter. Fair enough. And a jolly good time was had by all. Nice people, the Welsh.

I’ll be at home for the Scottish Hogmanay, and you’ll see on The Walks page that I’m doing a couple of turn-up-and-go tours. Come if you can, you’re welcome.

Don’t get mad. Get even.

Oh dear me. First Brexit, then Trump. The fact that the pundits didn’t see either coming means the databases they were using were out of date. Something big has happened. But let’s not get mad. Let’s get even.

It’s inequality at the bottom of it. There is always inequality; now it is visible. It is flaunted. The people of the poor world – I was in Uganda this month – can see the prosperity of the world I come from. Tourists fly in, get on an air-con bus, go to their air-con accommodation, and go on safari. I was with family, and I got hot, bloody hot, we had punctures and stood by the roadside in the heat of the day – good fun, but even so the differences between our lifestyle and that of our new family are obvious. Very few people are employed, most work damn hard for very small margins without any prospect of advancement. Oh dear me, the warld’s ill divided. Them that work the hardest are aye the least provided. Meanwhile, people in Sunderland and Ohio see their livelihoods moved overseas, leaving them resentful in the Rust Belt.

Never mind diversity. It doesn’t help if a few more black people join the ranks of the super-rich. It doesn’t help if people can be openly gay and no-one cares. It doesn’t help if people of different religions live and work happily side by side. Diversity is all to the good, and we’re not going back on it. But it’s economic inequality that does the damage. In my lifetime in my country we have had mostly strong governments that have funded key infrastructure and services out of taxation. But government is becoming increasingly irrelevant and powerless. This is a world governed by the powerful. It was ever thus, this is a reversion to type, to the base instincts of humankind. My generation born in western Europe is the most fortunate in the history of homo sapiens.

So how do we get even? Don’t ridicule the Brexit-voters and the Trump-ists. Listen to them. Take them seriously. Address their needs. Their cheer-leaders would encourage them in a civil war with their own neighbours. The enemy is not the neighbour, nor the worker in another country who is now doing the work they did. The enemy is the corporate world, which exploits the workers around the world to the advantage of a very few who are unaccountable, who live the life of luxury and don’t pay tax. We have seen this throughout history. The answer is solidarity and collective action. Trade unions were formed to protect communities and individuals from the worst effects of capitalism. Capitalism has morphed into corporatism. Unionism needs to change shape too.