Friday, 25 April 2014

Remembering Margo

Last Friday (April 25) I was one of over 1,000 people who crammed into the Church of Scotland Assembly Hall at the top of the Royal Mile in Edinburgh.

The hall was used as the debating chamber of the Scottish Parliament between 1999 and 2004, until the new building was completed at the other end of the Royal Mile, and it was for one very special politician that so many had gathered.  The event was a commemoration for Margo MacDonald, who died on April 4th.

There are very few people who are nationally recognised just by the mention of their first name: Margo was such a person. 

I was fortunate to know Margo as a friend and parliamentary colleague.  I witnessed, first-hand, how the public held her in great affection.  In Edinburgh, it didn’t matter where you went with Margo, everyone knew her and everyone wanted to talk to her. 

At the commemoration, Margo’s husband Jim Sillars said there were three time-zones in the UK – Greenwich Mean Time, British Summer Time...and Margo Time.  Part of the reason Margo was late for everything was her willingness to stop and engage with everyone who spoke to her.  She always had time for people and was prepared to listen to what they had to say, whether it was a concern about politics, social issues, a discussion on the relative merits of Hibs and Hearts – she was a big Hibs fan – special bargains on the QVC shopping channel or simply someone who wanted a wee blether.  Margo was the same with everyone, whether you were the First Minister of Scotland or someone she was meeting for the first time in a chance encounter on the street.  What you saw was what you got with Margo.

Born Margo Aitken in Hamilton, the young girl that would go on to break the male-dominated political mould in Scotland grew up with a sister and brother in a single-parent home.  Her mother raised the three children through very difficult times.  When Margo the politician spoke about poverty, she knew her subject well because she had lived it.

A bright pupil, the schoolgirl Margo also excelled at sport, particularly swimming.  It was therefore no surprise when she combined education and sport to train as a PE teacher.

However, as she married and had children, Margo followed her first husband into his line of work – running a pub.  Can you imagine the conversations in a pub where Margo was behind the bar?

It was politics, though, that catapulted Margo to national prominence when, in 1973, she won a stunning victory for the SNP in a by-election in the Glasgow constituency of Govan.  The media had never seen anything like Margo.  Until she arrived on the scene politics had been a dull, dry occupation for men.  Margo changed that forever.  She swept aside outdated conventions and made it acceptable for intelligent, articulate women to take their rightful place in making the decisions that affect the country.

Speaking at last week's commemoration, the actress Elaine C. Smith recalled how she had seen this attractive blonde woman on the television, speaking in the same working class Scottish accent as she did, and arguing about politics, which the young Elaine thought was only something men did.  Today, there are so many strong, able female politicians in Scotland who owe their presence in the political world to the inspiration Margo provided and to the fact she smashed the men-only mould.

Margo fought all of her adult life for Scottish independence, not because she wanted to swap London government for Edinburgh government, but because she knew the people best-placed to take decisions to improve the lives of ordinary Scots are those very same ordinary Scots.  Only independence gives the people of Scotland the full powers necessary to radically transform Scottish society, and that was why Margo wanted independence.  She wanted Scotland to have use of the full resources of the nation, and she wanted those resources used to deliver a country where children didn’t have to grow up in the poverty she had known as a child.

It wasn’t flags or seats of government that mattered to Margo, it was people.

Jim Sillars told last week’s commemoration that when Margo knew she was dying, she began to put everything in order, including arranging for decorators to come in and ‘do up’ the house, so it was nice for Jim after she had gone.

Jim also said Margo made him promise not to stop campaigning for independence.  She told him not to mourn, but to get back out on the road and persuade as many people as possible to vote ‘YES’ on September 18th.

For Margo, I promise to do that too.

Friday, 18 April 2014

The Labour/Tory ban on lamppost posters

Banning political posters from lampposts in North Ayrshire might seem like a trivial matter, but it isn’t.

You have to ask why Labour and Tory councillors reached a decision that posters should be banned ahead of May’s European Election and the Independence Referendum in September, particularly when they have had no problems with the practice up until now. 

The answer has nothing to do with the European Election and everything to do with the Independence Referendum.  Put simply, Labour and their Tory partners in the British Unionist ‘Better Together’ campaign do not have the activists to actually put posters on lampposts, while the pro-independence ‘YES’ campaign have so many activists they would have blitzed the area.  Labour (and the one Tory councillor) sought to negate the ‘YES’ campaign’s advantage by the application of a ban on a legitimate political campaigning tool.  The Labour and Tory line appears to be, “If you can’t beat them, ban them!”

The Tory-Labour poster ban comes as polls continue to narrow ahead of the referendum, showing an unmistakable movement from ‘No’ to ‘YES’.  With the momentum strongly behind support for independence, the British Unionists are beginning to panic.  The Tory-Labour coalition in ‘Better Together’ is losing...and they know it.

It is also important to make clear that North Ayrshire Council officials supported the continued use of political posters on ‘street furniture’.  As the officials pointed out, by allowing the practice it was possible for the Council to regulate exactly where posters could be fixed, the time-span during which they were allowed, and the sanctions that would be imposed if any party or campaign group breached the rules.  This has been accepted practice in North Ayrshire for decades and has worked effectively.

From time to time, some posters were left on lampposts after an election, beyond the 48-hours the Council gave parties to remove them.  Ironically enough, the Labour Party was probably the worst offender.  However, in most cases political parties were conscientious in getting posters down after elections.

Of course, there is the argument that no-one is going to change how they vote simply because they see posters on lampposts, but that is countered by the position that if there was no benefit from fixing posters to lampposts, then political parties would not invest the time and money to do it.  The parties clearly believe it is a worthwhile practice that can work to their advantage, but only if they have the resources – people, finances and time – to compete with their rivals.  The Tory-Labour decision to ban lamppost posters in North Ayrshire ahead of the Independence Referendum was taken because they can’t match the support and resources of the pro-independence campaign.

What is quite remarkable in terms of the wider campaign around the Independence Referendum, is the continuing rise in support for ‘YES’ despite concerted and often co-ordinated attacks launched by the Tory-Labour Unionist coalition and the mainstream media.  None of the ‘national’ newspapers sold in Scotland are actually owned in Scotland.  Most take their editorial positions from newsrooms in London and oppose independence.  Only the Sunday Herald, so far, has been prepared to offer a fair hearing to the case for an independent Scotland.

Then there is the BBC: the corporation’s coverage of the Independence Referendum is so biased in favour of the British Union that it’s become a joke.  It is, after all, the BRITISH Broadcasting Corporation and is effectively now carrying out the role of chief propagandist for the London-controlled British State. 

Against such British Unionist control of what we get to see and hear in the media, support for independence continues to grow.  It is therefore clear that the Scottish public is not being taken-in by the Unionist propaganda in newspapers and on television.  It is clear the positive case for independence is being heard, and that the message is circumventing the so-called ‘mainstream’ media to reach the people of Scotland.

The grassroots ‘YES’ campaign is holding public meetings the length and breadth of the country, while the ‘No’ campaign is nowhere to be seen.  More and more people are turning to the internet for their news coverage, both nationally and locally.  Sites such as Wings Over Scotland, Newsnet Scotland and Bella Caledonia daily set-out the positive case for independence while comprehensively demolishing the British Unionist scare-stories and propaganda.

What Labour and Tory councillors did in banning posters from lampposts in North Ayrshire ahead of the Independence Referendum was just the latest strand in the British Unionist campaign aimed at preventing people from hearing both sides of the argument.

When public meetings have been organised to hear a debate from the ‘YES’ and ‘No’ camps, the British Unionist ‘Better Together’ campaign has frequently failed to put up a speaker.  They have then demanded the public meeting is cancelled because only one side would have been represented.  The ban on lamppost posters in North Ayrshire uses a similar tactic – the Tory-Labour coalition would have been unable to get their posters up on lampposts (if they even have posters), so they unite in a Council meeting to ban the ‘YES’ campaign from putting up theirs.  

Of course, what lies at the core of this issue is the fact that there is no positive case for Scotland remaining within the British Union.  We don’t have to speculate about what Scotland would look like if we vote ‘No’ on September 18th because we are already living it.  If we reject independence, Scotland will continue to be governed from London by Tories.  If we reject independence and the powers to govern our own country, we will continue to have imposed on us savage ‘austerity measures’ and cuts to public services.  If we reject independence, the Tory-led Government in London will really put the boot into us and we will be powerless to stop them...because when we were offered those powers in the Independence Referendum, we rejected them.

The choice is ours – prosperity with independence or austerity with the British Union. 

What the Tory-Labour Unionist coalition really doesn’t want is for us to hear the positive case for independence.  A seemingly trivial thing like banning lamppost posters in North Ayrshire is just part of the attempt to close-down debate and campaigning.   

Friday, 11 April 2014

Increasingly desperate Unionists

The British Unionists are losing....and they know it.

Just over five-months from the Independence Referendum, most polls still give the Unionists a small lead but the direction of travel is unmistakeably from ‘No’ to ‘YES’.  With such momentum likely to continue, the British Unionists now know they are facing defeat in the real poll on September 18th.

It is for this reason that the already fear-stoked message of the Unionist coalition – Tory, Labour, Lib Dem, UKIP – has recently taken-on an air of total desperation.  Last week, former Labour MP George Roberston had his audience squirming – he was speaking to a liberal-centrist American think tank – when he claimed Scotland re-taking the status of a normal independent nation would be “cataclysmic in geo-political terms”.

Mr Robertson is now known as The Right Honourable, The Lord Roberston of Port Ellen KY GCMG FRSA FRSE PC (no, I haven’t just leaned on my keyboard, that is the full title claimed by the ex-Labour MP for Hamilton).  So, clearly no stranger to delusions of grandeur, it was apparently a small step for George Robertson to extend his delusions to include an apocalyptic future for an independent Scotland.

Like everyone else involved in the anti-independence campaign, Mr Robertson was incapable of articulating a positive case for Scotland remaining within the British Union.  Instead, like his Unionist colleagues, his default position was to conjure-up a nightmare scenario where, uniquely amongst all the peoples of the world, only the Scots would turn the normality of independence into abject disaster – “cataclysmic” disaster according to George Robertson. 

Even the Labour-supporting Daily Record appeared to call time on the British Unionist fear-mongering and use of increasingly deranged language.  Of Robertson’s contribution, the Record said, “To say his speech was ludicrous and over-the-top would be to downplay it,” adding, “He doesn’t just think a Yes vote would be a disaster for all of Scotland.  He thinks it would be a disaster for all of western civilisation.”

We should, of course, remember that it was the same George Robertson who predicted that devolution for Scotland – the limited powers currently held by the Scottish Parliament - would “Kill stone dead” the campaign for independence in general and the SNP in particular.

Elsewhere last week, Labour MPs were issuing press releases to local news outlets in their constituencies, with the message that the SNP Scottish Government has been using public money “to bolster support for a Yes vote in the independence referendum”.

The Labour press release cited “tax payer’s money” having been used to produce the White Paper on Independence, and the fact the SNP Cabinet has held meetings outside of Edinburgh, meetings Labour claim have been used to promote independence.  The press release went as far as stating, “The funding of these meetings, and the civil servants used to organise and promote them, are not meant to be employed for party political purposes.”

Honestly, it’s difficult to know where to start with such nonsense, but let’s try the basic concept of democracy.  In 2011 the SNP was elected to form the government of Scotland.  So strong was public support for the SNP that, for the first time since the Scottish Parliament was created in 1999, one party secured an overall majority.  There can therefore be no doubt that the SNP has a public mandate to implement the policies it set-out in its 2011 Election Manifesto.

The SNP clearly stated it favoured an independent Scotland and, if elected, would bring forward legislation to allow for a referendum on the subject.  That is exactly what the party has done.

Just as Labour has done when in power at Westminster and in the Scottish Parliament, the SNP has used the public resources of the civil service to help deliver the commitments it made to the public in its Election Manifesto.  What Labour is objecting to is the SNP having been honest with the public and actually delivering on the promises it made at an election.

It is also the case that Labour’s partners in the British Unionist coalition, the Tories and Liberal Democrats, have produced no fewer than 11 papers (so far) opposing Scottish independence.  All have been compiled and published using “taxpayer’s money” and civil servants.  Then there are the publicly-funded separate visits to Scotland by David Cameron, George Osborne and the entire UK Tory-Lib Dem Cabinet – all of which were used to attack independence.  Of course, these visits were organised by civil servants and paid for from the public purse.

As for the SNP publishing a White Paper on Independence, can you imagine the wailing and complaining the British Unionists would have indulged in if the SNP Government had failed to set-out its plans for independence ahead of the referendum?

Meanwhile, Labour’s complaint regarding the SNP Cabinet holding meetings across Scotland beggars belief.  At every meeting, SNP Government Ministers have held a Question and Answer session with the local public.  It is the public that has determined what topics were raised.  Ministers have also stayed to chat with local people after the event, before carrying out visits in the area.  That is democracy in action, but the Labour press release issued last week actually calls for people to complain about the SNP’s actions, and specifically to complain to a Westminster committee set up by the Tory-Lib Dem UK Government.

Finally, in what can only be described as a classic example of ‘irony by-pass’, the Labour press release states, “the referendum in September is too significant an event to allow one side to gain an unfair advantage”.  An unfair advantage, such as the fact that every so-called ‘national’ newspaper sold in Scotland is owned by companies based outside of Scotland, and which all support the British Union.  Or the BBC acting as the British State Broadcaster and churning out anti-independence stories on a daily basis (Google ‘BBC anti-independence bias’).

George Robertson’s “cataclysmic” depiction of Scotland with the powers of independence (powers every other normal country takes for granted) and Labour MPs calling on people to complain to the Tories at Westminster about the SNP actually delivering on the promises it made at an election are just the latest manifestations of the increasing desperation afflicting the British Unionist campaign.  They are losing...and they know it.