Thursday, 24 July 2014

Lights out for 1914, Lamps on for the Iolaire in 1919

From my Daily Record column

Last week I caught up with Dan Jarvis MP, who gained the PM's backing for a centenary event to commemorate the beginning of the First World War.

The powerful plan for a "lights out" hour at 10pm on 4th August recalls the famous Sir Edward Grey quote about "the lamps going out across Europe" in autumn 1914.

By August on Lewis, where I am, we're only in the gloaming. But the idea dovetails into one of my own to mark the end of the war in 1919 at home.

That's right, 1919, it was in the early hours of New Year's Day that the biggest wartime tragedy to affect the Hebrides occurred.

The HMY Iolaire ran onto rocks, a mile from Stornoway Harbour and 181 servicemen, returning from war, were drowned in sight of home. Every island community was affected.

After an horrendous war the Iolaire disaster did not merit much national attention, but the tragedy defined 20th century Lewis, mourning and a sense of victimhood led to mass emigration. 

The history is well told but I think a visual representation of the effect on so many villages would make a centenary tribute. 

The idea would be to darken the island on Hogmanay leading to 2019 - but leave the "lamps on" in the homes of those lost.  

We know their names and every welcome threshold veterans were expected to cross, but never did.

Six in this village, seven in the next, a necklace of white lights across the island. 

One by one the beams could go up until there are 181 pillars of light in the New Year sky, guiding the Iolaire men home.  

Monday, 9 June 2014

Ireland - how nationalism did not lead to socailism

Apologies that the blog's been off for a while, I gave up trying to make it work on my office desktop platform. But the IT guys have found a way around the problem, and with 100 days to go and all that...
This from today's Daily Record column, at all good newsagents..

Ireland, the Celtic tiger with toothache, always serves well as a barometer of Alex Salmond's economic judgement.
Never mind 100 days, for nearly 100 years Ireland has been a working laboratory of what happens to socialism in a nationalist climate.
Ireland did not have the same industrial base as Scotland, and no James Connolly, but historically it had the strength of an organised trade union and labour movement.
There have been 29 general elections to the Dàil, Ireland’s parliament, since independence. Ireland’s Labour Party have won precisely none.
When socialism goes up against nationalism in a country where all civic politics is about the nation, then Labour doesn’t stand a chance.
What happened in Ireland – in fact Irish leader Eamon de Valera’s specific strategy – was to smother the Labour movement in the embrace of Fianna Fáil.
His nationalist party talked the language of social democracy with enough rhetoric to rob Labour of a distinctive voice, while never delivering the goods.
You find an echo of that approach in last week’s report on how wonderful the welfare system would be in a new Scotland, with none of it practically costed.
If the SNP win the Scottish referendum, they will do so by binding together a nationalist alliance. The party would be mad, their leaders unforgiven, if they allowed that political sheaf to unravel afterwards.
Anyone saying defeat in September will allow the Scottish Labour Party space to rise, phoenix like, as a force for government is just kidding.
Irish history shows how easily social justice can be crowded out in a nationalist arena. When it came to industrial relations, de Valera had a reputation, a strategy, for personally intervening to bring disputes to an end, all for the good of the Irish nation.
Think of Alex Salmond placing himself at the head of the march against Diageo leaving Kilmarnock, or the First Minister’s personal intervention with Ineos to keep the Grangemouth petrochemical works open.
That episode left Unite, and by reflection trade unionism in Scotland, looking impotent in the shadow of Salmond’s influence.
The Irish trade union movement and Labour Party continue to defend the rights of working people but rarely get the opportunity to change their lives.
When Scottish trade unionists hear enticements that a single vote in September will open the door to a land of social justice, they should look to Ireland.
Not a single Labour government in the country’s history. Not one.

Monday, 10 February 2014

From Southbank to Scotland, Bragg calls it wrong

From today's Daily Record column, 50p at newsagents or try the e-edition online
The kids who skateboard in the concrete cavities under the South Bank Centre in London have won an unlikely victory.

They have beaten a £120 million plan to move their graffitied  skatepark to make way for commercial development on the Thames side.

Mind you, they were up against some powerful opponents including Billy Bragg, the radical troubadour.

Bragg bought into the vision for community-based enterprises the arts centre developers had for the space.

Not many believed that community businesses would last a minute longer than it took to fulfil planning conditions.

There were over 27,000 objections to the idea of moving the skatekids, a colourful London tribe, onto "the reservations". Having read it wrong, Bragg appears to have fallen silent on the issue.

The episode shows that just because you are right-on you are not always right.

Now Bragg, like many of London's liberal left, wishes so hard for socialism he has convinced himself it is really Scottish nationalism.

Frustrated by the compromises of Labour Party, the English patriot Bragg backs independence for Scotland.

"Go for it," he tweeted at the weekend, and nationalists paraded him as Stalin lauded the British left who thought the Soviet Union offered a glimpse of socialist heaven.

The evidence of the last two SNP governments, and the populist, middle-class gains at the expense of the poor, is that the SNP is anything but the vanguard of the socialist revolution.

Before the bedroom tax is rewritten in history remember John Swinney didn't want to let London "off the hook" until he was pressed to act.

Progressive policies always have to be fought for, they won't be gifted by separating like-minded voters from each other across a political border.

Does anyone think if the SNP manages to bind together a majority around a Yes vote that coalition would be allowed to unravel after victory to usher in a left-wing government made up of the remains of a shattered Labour movement?

That patriotic bundle would strapped together with whatever populist policies necessary.

Ruling around a patriotic banner means every principle is subsumed to the greater national cause. The White Paper promise on childcare - independence first, women second -  is a good example of that.

Governing from the left involves compromise, but is underpinned by the mission of create a more equal society. Popular nationalism by its nature, involves jinking opportunistically from one populist pillar to another.

I don't think that is the kind of New England Billy Bragg seeks. He'd be mistaken to think a Yes vote offers a socialist New Scotland.

Monday, 20 January 2014

How big an offer to the undecided?

From today's Daily Record column

There just cannot be up to one million Scots out there who have not made their mind up on independence.

They are a fiery cross of hope for the Yes camp and a gnawing ringworm of doubt for the No side.

The high number of polling "undecideds" are astute voters waiting to be informed by an offer of what No means.

The No side looks like winning but can't just hang on, palms sweating, hoping to land on a safe ledge.

Everyone knows this battle is not settled with a near win. Like World War Z, some nationalists wouldn't know they were beaten. For the SNP a near loss is a staging post to a re-match hinged on the following elections.

Any Labour politician awaiting the disintegration of the SNP machine after a referendum defeat is deluding themselves.

Should the vote go No (looks likely) there are 11 Scottish Lib Dem seats going a begging in 2015. Some sitting ducks will survive, but if they topple the SNP is placed to gain.

There is no reason either why Labour's west of Scotland Westminster majorities should remain impregnable. Many are represented by SNP MSPs at Holyrood, well entrenched, looking for an electoral opportunity.

During the 2010 Coalition negotiations the only people talking to the SNP were security guards in an empty Palace of Westminster. Next time the numbers could be different, but SNP priorities won't be.

An emphatic referendum win is needed to head off this and several permutations of Labour's No nightmare.

Labour voters are the ones most likely to be drawn by the SNP bid. The question is how big a counter-offer can Labour make to its undecided supporters?

The majority of Scots are in favour of more Holyrood powers short of independence, if vague about what these powers should be.

The only one worth talking about is tax-raising power. Johann Lamont's  Devolution Commission was minded to devolve all income tax powers. It stalled and not because of London control-freakery, much as the SNP would love that.

The big asks by sceptical Labour MPs are that devolving tax should not leave Scotland worse off, affect the Barnett formula or diminish Scottish influence in the UK parliament.

Scottish Labour still has to persuade itself how bold it can be in offering a tax-raising alternative to nationalism. As Gordon Brown pointed out, an offer of no change will not do.

Labour better decide soon - there are one million people out there waiting for an offer.

Monday, 6 January 2014

England Awakes

From today's Daily Record column

Is this the week that England awoke to the end of Britain?

While we were sipping drams and looking back on the year that was commentators in what we call the national newspapers, that is the London ones, began to realise that 2014 might be a big year.

Charles Moore, the former editor of the Daily Telegraph and biographer of Margaret Thatcher no less, wrote alarmingly that the United Kingdom "could be voted out of existence". Welcome to the party, Charles.

Philip Collins, Tony Blair's former speechwriter, noted thoughtfully that  the usual  case against independence is that Scotland will be damaged. "The real damage, though, will be done, though, to England."

Simon Jenkins, a hired girn of the Guardian, still reeling from the celebrations, urged the Tories to let Scotland go.

The response from petty nationalists, there are a few of them, is that this is a debate for the Scots alone. Except David Cameron, of course.  They'd like him to debate independence so that it can be framed as an Us versus The Tories battle. 

True, Scots alone - and resident Czechs, Catalans and exiled nats from as far away as San Francisco  who are on the electoral roll at their parent's Heilan' Hame for the year - are the ones who will vote.

But the English will be affected too and are beginning to voice concern. Moore detects a change in attitude, which I see for myself.

A few years ago the tolerant English would say if Scotland wanted to go alone then regretfully, so be it.

That changed to "are you Jocks still here?" as Salmond's policies of differentiation - and downright discrimination in the case of university fees for English students - began to engender resentment.

Now, there is an edge of incredulity when English friends ask what is happening in Scotland. "You're not going to, are you?" they ask. I don't know, I reply.

I do know that Carlisle doesn't see independence as the springboard to English devolution, with Scotland as a Scandic beacon of social justice in the British Isles, as the leftish newspaper chatterati naively wish for.

The Labour-voting north of England will feel abandoned and isolated, not empowered, if Scotland turns it's back on them.

The Welsh see the UK unravelling completely and Northern Ireland, where the problems of sectarianism are far from solved, look on nervously.

That is to say nothing of the 800,000 Scots in England who must wait for their nation to decide whether to make home a foreign country.

Scottish independence is not just about Scotland. The English are beginning to realise that, and beginning to care.

Sunday, 22 December 2013

Taking Flybe to the Isles, a cautionary tale

If you are flying home to any of the Scottish Islands with Flybe/Loganair over the festive period take  my experience at Glasgow airport as a cautionary tale.

I arrived the other morning with 45 minutes to spare before check-in to be confronted by a snaking queue at the Flybe desk almost out to the doors that the airport bombers once attempted to drive through.

Only one member of staff was dealing with check-in while the others busied themselves with the new-fangled automated bag drop.

I was halfway down the queue before I realised that I had checked in online (and remembered to print my boarding pass) and so could go straight to bag drop.

I switched to the shorter bag drop queue feeling smug about by technological advantage. It took another ten minutes to reach the front of that queue, where you scan your boarding pass and the machine prints off a hold label for your luggage and you deposit the bags on the conveyer belt.

Except...the staffer explained my friend and I were flying to Stornoway on a Loganair flight, and Loganair which sub-contracts the island routes from Flybe, have not bought into the new automated system.

Back you go, - it didn't matter if you had bought your ticket from Flybe, checked in on their website or flew in their liveried planes, you were not getting their service.

Like a bad game of snakes and ladders we had to join the end of the now longer check-in queue and reached the desk just as our flight was closing. Flights to Sumburgh, Tiree and Stornoway take off in close order but the queue marshall didn't seem to know which was which.

The poor guy at check-in confirmed that Flybe's new system didn't include Loganair and that automation meant the company  had cut back on staff and reduced everyone else's contracted hours. Not great for him when confronted with various Vikings and Hebrideans anxious about getting home.

Using that old "excuse me, my flight's in ten minutes" line we rushed through security and made it onboard, but what a hassle and with no signage or explanation from Flybe staff until it was nearly too late.

That, and the lack of a fortifying drink onboard (they stopped that a while ago), made it feel like this is becoming a real second-class service for island passengers. Either employ enough staff for peak periods or get Loganair onto the automated system - it's a no brainer.

It also struck me that this could be part of a Flybe exit strategy from the island routes that the island group of councils and their politicians ought to take note and take action.

I haven't checked in with the Flybe press office for confirmation of Loganair's contract on automated baggage drop, but the evidence of my own eyes and the word of staff seemed convincing. I'll file this blog as complaint when business starts tomorrow.

Meanwhile, leave plenty time for check-in at Glasgow and Edinburgh, even when you have checked in online. And remember to print your boarding card, and take your passport and...och, you know the drill.

Monday, 7 October 2013

Europe cannot go on sealing borders, we have to recognise our common humanity

My first reaction to Jim Murphy being moved to the Shadow International Development post  - good news for international development.

If anyone can lever the issue up the political agenda it is Jim Murphy. He is one of the few recognisable Shadow Ministers and one of the few who has actually made the political weather in his job while colleagues have been invisible.

Moving him to International Development does not mean Murphy is off the map either, regardless of those who cheer about a "cull of Blairites".

Murphy fell out badly with Ed Miliband over the Syria vote and that may have been their final undoing. The Shadow Defence Secretary wanted Labour to support Cameron's plan to back military action (he was Shadow Defence Secretary, how could he not?).

Murphy felt that the Tories would not forget the doublecross and get their vengeance in the first military venture that a future Labour government might propose. 

I'm not sure how wise it was of Miliband to move Murphy, keep your friends close and your enemies closer and all that.

The Labour leader might think he has exiled a possible rival to the outback of international development, but remember how MacDuff was exiled to England by MacBeth. MacDuff came back, and took out MacBeth.

Plotting aside, here's a note for Murphy's in-tray from my column in today's Daily Record:

Lampedusa, a dot of an island in the Mediterranean, is the new Checkpoint Charlie between the divided northern and southern hemispheres.

The death of over 300 African refugees on Italian shores must give Europe pause for thought on how we handle immigration.

Islanders boycott the local fish because of the human remains they feed on. The seas around their island is a graveyard for over 20,000 migrants this century alone.

This isn't a new problem. Over a decade ago I spent time with African refugees in a tented detention centre in Ceuta, the Spanish enclave in Morocco.

In the gathering dusk we stared at the glittering lights of Europe across the straits. Many of these men, the strongest and the bravest who had walked out of war and famine, would have died risking the swim to the promised land.

Europe cannot go on sealing its borders and pretending not to see what is happening on our southern flank.

We have to recognise our common humanity here. We were all migrants at one time - half of Ireland, a third of Italy and, one way or another, large parts of the Scottish population moved abroad in the 19th and 20th centuries.

There should be more search and rescue and disruption missions in the Mediterranean and a renewed focus on resolving the conflicts that cause refugees.

The long term answers are in developing the economies of African nations. Migrants themselves are the answer to this.

UK immigrants send £2 billion in remittances back to the developing world each year, just as my mother sent two-thirds of her first wages back from Glasgow to her Scottish island home.

Europe actually needs more low-skilled workers in the next two decades, and new legal routes to meet the labour demands of the continent.

We cannot leave immigration policy to the mafia smugglers, the modern day slave traders sending leaking vessels on the dangerous route out of Africa.

Remember that when politicians demand cuts to the 0.7 per cent of our wealth we commit to international development.