I Give Up…

Sometimes I don’t know why I bother trying to blog. Contributors do a much better job than me.

‘While it is extremely unlikely that any supporter of an independent Scotland will be swayed from their belief by the gathering, marching and proselytising of the Orange Lodge, there is always a chance that a change can occur in even the most fervent unionist.

My mother was a member of the Orange Order and the Eastern Star. My father was a Worthy Master in the Masons and both were members or the Church of Scotland.

Both signed the National Covenant my father wore his kilt throughout his life and both wanted home rule for Scotland yet had a loyalty to a sense of Britishness brought about by the society they grew up in. Slowly the trappings of unionism dropped away and both became staunch members of the SNP..

Sadly both are now gone although my mother got to see a Scottish Parliament before she passed on. But what did they leave? Children, grand children and great grand children all workers for our Independence and a legacy of hope for the future. After the referendum seeing that I was visibly upset my thirteen year old grandson said to me  Don’t worry grandpa, we’ll get Scotland free for you.

Let them march, gather, talk, hate and fear.  We have something much greater. We have hope and love and we will prevail’

Thanks to Mosstrooper

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Orange Fest(er)

Sometime in the nineties I was asked by Sky News to spend the day in Larkhall filming. It was July 12th.

I knew about the Orange Order and I’d seen plenty of flute bands. What I hadn’t experienced was total immersion in the time warp of brocaded uniforms, competing bass drums, toddlers in Union Jack dresses and Buckfast-bevvied teenagers. I wandered the streets (red, white and blue kerbs) with slack-jawed wonder, smiling nervously as faces loomed at me with guttural greeting.

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Lurid banners announced bands from Antrim and Belfast, there was wild, unselfconscious cheering yet the police were wary and tense, turning a diplomatic Nelson to any number of minor infractions. I had only twice before felt such a complete outsider alone in an alien context – once when I was the only non-Chinese amid hundreds at the Festival of the Monkey God in Kowloon and when I was the only white at a black Baptist church in Georgia celebrating its reconstruction after a Ku Klux Klan burning. Both times I was made to feel at home. In Larkhall I allowed myself to feel distinctly uncomfortable and at times threatened.

Every cliché hove into view – plastic bags bulging with bottles, men peeing against buildings, youths silently spitting at the policemens’ backs. It appeared uncontrolled, a delirious saturnalia befitting Alloway’s auld kirkyard. The choreographed section was a line-up of kirk ministers and politicians from Ulster on a makeshift stage on the back of a flatbed lorry. They made pious statements to a thin scattering of men (some swaying) while the raucous carnival continued nearby. When one Dog-collar asked What shall we do with these ecumenicals? a voice called out: Shoot them. When a hymn was rendered meekly, two of the congregation applauded after the amen.

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It was clear that drunkenness was descending into muscle dysfunction as rubber figures in sashes rolled by. I was attempting to be the impartial observer open to influence, judging rationally and ready to speak as I found. Had I been asked for a report, I fear what I would have said. I left after eight hours, relieved to be in the car heading east, chastened by the knowledge that this is my country. These are my people, the Scots.

And that’s why I think Orangefest must go ahead.

Pretending there isn’t a powerful and embedded Protestant tradition in Scotland is delusion. Saying the Orange Order has no place is dictatorial – it exists, it is supported – therefore, like it or not, it is part of our country. The judgements I reached, shared by many, of a tribal, triumphalist, backward-looking and intolerant clan could be used to describe some football fans or, even, when I think back to the eighties, of some mining communities where social conformity was expected and imposed through the NUM. Tight-knit, virtually closed communities, whatever else they have in terms of solidarity and self-help, also tend to intolerance and unyielding discipline. If it’s true that many thousands have deserted the Labour Party as an ideological home, then in a Britain in inequality and powerlessness, why shouldn’t some cling to a traditional certainty that pulls them together and allows them a show of defiance?

I have also been in the home of an Orange Order official and, away from feral teenagers and drunks, had a calm discussion about history and religion. As we judge football via hooligans, so we judge Orangism via thugs and drunks. Can we write off the entire movement based on its extremes?

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I was struck too by the similarity of language between Orange Torch magazine and commentary in the Daily Mail. We are a ‘nation of psychiatric basket cases’ for voting SNP. The electorate is ‘barking mad’ for being won over by the ‘lying propaganda and fruitcake delusions’ of the SNP. Not so far from the Unionist media’s outpourings, is it?  If we praise the Daily Mail and other divisive outlets and treat their rants as civilised, in what way is the Order worse? And weren’t they on the same side in the indyref? The Orange Order is a more powerful supporter of Britain’s mighty Union than the Tory Party.

The answer of course is that we don’t like their ‘type’ – the socially primitive who are quick to aggression and don’t shop at John Lewis. But they are a creation of their upbringing, their environment and the Scotland they belong to. If we don’t like it – and I don’t – we still have to lump it. I don’t like a government that builds child poverty into its welfare system but I have to lump it.

On Newsnet we interviewed a woman from an Orange family who was voting Yes and her words were a reminder that our country is in a constant flux and there is nothing that we can’t change with argument and debate. We’ve already changed the political map and in a generation maybe orange will turn yellow too. I’m not holding my breath and I will be avoiding the city centre on Saturday. But every Billy Boy with a fife and a Lambeg drum has as much right to be there as me.

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Rest in Peace?

There seems to be no end to the Unionists’ loathing for Alex Salmond. If ever a politician needed confirmation of his success (as if), the last SNP leader receives it daily from aggrieved opponents in the commentariat. The charge of grudge and grievance has been swapped neatly from Nationalists to Unionists as they continue to lash out at the former leader even as he retreats to the backbenches.

He stands accused today in lurid terms of appropriating Charlie Kennedy’s death for a partisan purpose. Here’s what Salmond said: ‘Yes, he was an extremely generous human being. I have had one or two, but not many, people who had a bad word to say about Charles, and that’s very rare in politics. In terms of the independence referendum, I don’t think his heart was in the ‘Better Together’ campaign. His heart would have been in a pro-European campaign, that’s a campaign that Charles would have engaged in heart and soul. That is something he absolutely believed in.’ See? No? Well, he is clearly implying Kennedy was a secret Nat. Isn’t he?

There has been an outpouring of criticism unleashed with a particularly vitriolic item by Alex Massie in the Spectator describing his remarks as contemptible. http://blogs.spectator.co.uk/coffeehouse/2015/06/alex-salmonds-reaction-to-the-death-of-charles-kennedy-was-as-revealing-as-it-was-contemptible/  As usual, I am out of step with our friends in the pious mainstream media who see it as their duty to regulate the rest of us on behalf of decency and good journalism. His recorded comments in all media have been kind, warm-hearted and thoughtful. I found myself asking: What did Salmond say that was so wrong?

Was Kennedy a secret Nat? Of course, not. There was never a hint of doubt that he remained a committed Unionist who believed in federalism. To imply otherwise would not only be wrong but transparently foolish – hardly the automatic description of Salmond. But was ‘his heart in the Better Together campaign’? Try this from the Sunday Post http://www.sundaypost.com/news-views/politics/westminster/charles-kennedy-brands-better-together-campaign-as-stupid-1.293864 ‘I looked at some of the rhetoric from last week’s Labour Scottish conference, It’s Salmond versus Scotland – I don’t think that’s the tone we are looking for. A lot of Scots probably think Alex Salmond is on the side of Scotland whether they agree with his ideas or not. So it’s a bit stupid to pose it as Salmond vs Scotland but I do appreciate Labour have a specific contest of their own, essentially anchored in the central belt against the SNP. The danger is that this drowns out the broader rhetoric needed to appeal to the landmass and islands of Scotland as a whole.’ Branding a campaign stupid and with the wrong tone might just indicate doubts about it.

Or there’s this from the BBC. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-scotland-politics-26602996 ‘When asked about the charge of negativity in the No campaign, Mr Kennedy said: I’ve made that criticism. I think that we should be more positive in terms of the way in which those of us on the Better Together side are putting over our key messages. I think we’re right to ask the pertinent questions, of course. But if you take, for example, the recent figures on the state of the Scottish economy, the decline in the oil revenues and so on and so forth, I’m not sure that the right response to that from our point of view is to say There we are, we told you so, Scotland could never go it alone. I’m not sure that’s a resonance that you can establish with the people and I’m not sure it’s the right one anyway.’ He just might be implying there the campaign wasn’t meeting his aspirations.

Or how about this on the threat to withdraw the pound: ‘I don’t think that the Scots will feel bullied. I think that the national instinct, if you like, is more Who are they to come up here and tell us what to do? Which is a different mindset. I think it’s We’ll make our own mind up, thank you very much.’

He wasn’t finished: ‘I think it would be better if we had a more coherent blueprint to put to people, to say, voting No means Yes to this distinct proposition, as opposed to, well, something that will be worked out in due course. Because then you’re open to exactly the accusation that we’re making of the other side.’

So Better Together was variously stupid, had the wrong tone, set Scotland against Salmond, was negative, mistakenly told Scots they couldn’t go it alone, told the Scots what was good for them and didn’t offer a coherent blueprint after a No vote. To me this is sounding pretty conclusive – that while remaining a dedicated Unionist, Kennedy was less than impressed by the campaign his side was running. You could say his heart wasn’t in it.

I can’t say either that I saw very much of Charlie during the campaign apart from the occasional TV interview. I don’t know why but on the simple basis of visibility he was hardly the central focus of No.

All this contrived apoplexy, remember, on the very day Kennedy’s death is announced. Even if the conspiracy-minded were suspicious, couldn’t they wait 24 hours before turning mourning into controversy? Have they lost all respect as well as reason?  It does seem that in the Unionist mindset commentators can write the most horrible stuff about our country and be lauded as heroes exercising their right to freedom of speech but woe betide the Nationalist who thinks that right extends to them, even honoured former First Ministers whose contribution to the nation is unmatched. Reason has deserted them in defeat and it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that fine-combing Salmond’s remarks is all they have left for the fight.

(One right wing source even yelped on Twitter that Salmond had gone on – in the quote above – to mention Europe. Europe! The horror of it all. Is there no end to this man’s crassness?)

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Bonnie Charlie’s noo awa

Tragic as such an early death is, it would be wrong to remember Charlie Kennedy’s as a sad story. Touched with human frailty for sure, his life is really a metaphor for a changing Britain emerging from two-party domination by public schoolboys on the one hand and union-controlled placemen on the other. He arrived flushed with improbable youth, a cheeky smile and a beguiling line in self-deprecation while armed with a wordsmith’s gift for common sense analysis.

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His tone in debate, fashioned in the hothouse of Glasgow University, allowed him to play the ordinary man among the dissemblers, cutting through the bluster with Highland logic. To an audience leery of slippery politicians, his accent combined with an amused aspect, allowed him to reach out beyond the Westminster bubble and make him highly believable.

He had a gift that for the public figure is gold dust – he was likeable. He came across as easy-going, dealing with complex subjects with casual ease and frequently squeezing a smile from the listener.

He went to Westminster as a flag-bearer for a new political entity, the SDP, which was to get within grasping reach of breakthrough and which would light the path eventually followed by New Labour. There was excitement in the air at the possibilities presented by smashing the two-party duopoly and Kennedy’s air of anti-establishment precocity encapsulated the times.

He was part of a radical tradition in Highland politics and, for many in the vast constituency, he was their boy. In the years before the Edinburgh Parliament he shone as a successful Scot on the Westminster stage, extending his wit and lust for life to the TV studio. His success in leading the new combined party to its largest haul of seats in 2005 didn’t please those unconvinced by his leadership abilities and the rumblings of discontent would never go away thereafter. To some of us, the high point had been his passionate and rational opposition to the cheer-led war in Iraq in which he was conclusively proved right. In a constituency with a guaranteed Labour winner, I broke with habit and voted Lib Dem as a way of thanking him for his stand. His may look a logical decision now in the light of experience but at the time with the weight of establishment opinion and Washington against him, it took courage to gamble on a radical position.

Good politicians don’t necessarily make good leaders. The history of politics is lined with the names of those convinced leadership was their destiny only to find it was their dustbin. A drink issue can be managed from relative obscurity but it can’t escape the scrutiny of leadership and, as he struggled with the demons, he lost sight of his duty and tried to carry on, leading to the inevitable denouement. The cost to him of alcohol was costly on both public and private life and a lack of visibility on the ground was noted in the run-up to the May election. He was swept into parliament by the SDP surge and swept out again by the SNP’s.

His death comes as Britain enters a period when the potential for his objective of federalism has never been greater – the case has been made by events more than by the parties. He would have played a statesman’s role. Like many, I will smile when I remember him – pint in hand and a twinkle in his eye.

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The News Where You Are

Reports are circulating of fast-moving events at the inappropriately-named Pacific Quay. It seems that years of executive neglect of documented harassment and ill-treatment of staff in news and current affairs may be coming to a head at BBC Scotland.

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The details are best left unstated to avoid any prejudice to proceedings, but it seems senior management can no longer turn a blind eye to the claims of staff who have complained for years of bullying, inappropriate behaviour and scant regard for either industrial relations law the corporation’s own in-house personnel processes.

The Director General’s input is awaited.

PQ has been a desperately unhappy place for too long with the journalists’ organiser describing relations there as the worst he’d seen in 20 years as a union rep. Former colleagues deserve better. Recent reports suggest a day of redemption may be near for them.

There is no surprise at the failure of management to protect its staff. If you speak to people from virtually any department you can hear the same disappointment and frustration in their voice. Of all the people I know who have left our national broadcaster in the last few years, I don’t know any who’d go back. They regret the loss of what should have been an inspiring career but they are released from the atmosphere of threat and constraint.

The latest haitus coincides with G A Ponsonby’s account of the corporation’s behaviour during the referendum in London Calling – How the BBC stole the referendum, a crowd-funded publication written by a founder of Newsnet motivated by a tenacity professional journalists would envy.

This book is a product of the alternative media spawned by mainstream failure to take official Scotland to task and is unapologetic in singling out individual journalists as well as a Unionist corporate culture for scrutiny – something journalists themselves hate more than anything while defending their right to criticise others in the name of freedom of speech. In a way though, it helps to make the book by confronting you with known onscreen reporters and contrasting them with his interpretation of what they were telling you, the viewer. It gets uncomfortable at times and I suspect the reaction in the BBC newsroom will be blanket rejection to avoid awkward questions and occasional embarrassment at a colleague’s expense. But the Ponsonby approach isn’t dismissed so easily by anyone really interested in how we are informed and even the Unionist-minded might be alarmed at what the BBC chose to tell them in a report and what it chose to omit; what it chose to emphasise and what it chose to dismiss. He has addressed his subject like a Panorama investigation breaking down different elements of the story, researching and sourcing each section in minute detail and reassembling to construct the narrative.

While I wouldn’t claim many outside BBC management will actually sit down and read this as they would a thriller, it is worth dipping into  chapters and letting the author lead you through the maze from what appeared on screen back through the sources and previous comments via earlier BBC versions and contrasting with related known events. Some of these are necessarily complex trails but are not irrelevant as they return to haunt the debate today – vide, the Carmichael Frenchgate ‘lie’ story which is now being routinely compared in the media to the Salmond ‘lie’ over EU legal advice.

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Ponsonby reports that in the space of weeks Labour’s attack veered from demanding Salmond say if he had legal advice on EU membership to claiming he had advice and demanding he reveal what the advice said. They couldn’t decide which was the stronger attack line so ran both in contradiction of each other and ‘the BBC headlined both attacks without so much as the blink of an eye.’ He goes on to point out that Salmond’s defence of being unable under the rules to talk about official advice was exactly the same defence used by the British government in refusing to divulge its information on Scotland’s membership – yet there was no row fomented over it by Labour and no corresponding coverage by BBC Scotland. He constantly points out this kind of unbalanced treatment which for those of us unconvinced by the claim of deliberate political bias is troubling. My answer I think, is that what he reveals is a lack of good journalism which wouldn’t merely report what some official source has released for broadcast. This approach results in news items being put out in isolation, like stand-alone statements disconnected from history and therefore lacking perspective and balance. Most of the time this failure to connect different stories into a more insightful whole doesn’t have much impact but when it came to the future of our country it was of critical importance to our understanding.

In a critique of news management before the indyref I said a dedicated (and experienced) referendum unit was required where all relevant data was stored and staff became expert. It would be the clearing house for all referendum output so that inadequate or incomplete items were unlikely to make it to air. Too late now.

Here we also find the story of the BBC’s imperious dismissal of John Robertson’s university examination of early evening news output and, in one of the best sections of all – a close look at the BBC handling of the Megrahi case – worth it for a reminder of a global story and how wee Scotland handled the limelight.

This is systematic and at time brutal stuff that unearths failings in BBC journalism that could have been overcome if, in my view, internal oversight had been good enough, standards set high enough and had staff not been run ragged by poor management and relentless budget cuts.

Lest you’re tempted by the inevitable cries of ‘It’s cybernat lies’, I liked his reasoned and honest finale. ‘Although you won’t find any journalists willing to publicly accuse the BBC of being deliberately corrupt or biased, there is an uncomfortable acknowledgement among many that the BBC has problems in Scotland.’ And, even more restrained still… ‘BBC Scotland is not a devolved institution. The BBC never evolved in line with Scotland and thus it remains firmly stuck in the past where London rules. Like most of Scotland’s media, it is IN Scotland but not OF Scotland. It does not reflect the views of Scotland but instead lectures Scotland…’

I hope in addressing the management of news and current affairs this week the Director General takes an equally forensic approach.

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