Friday, 26 December 2014

We can make history

As the bells ring-in a new year it’s common to reflect on the past 12 months – and 2014 will certainly be remembered as a momentous time for Scotland.
We had the opportunity to re-establish our country as a normal independent nation, but a majority decided to remain governed by and from a parliament in London.  A referendum on a country’s independence is a truly historic event, and the result stemming from it - support for continued membership of the British Union – will rightly be accorded significant historical status.  However, what has happened since the referendum on September 18th is now more likely to be the foundation on which historians will write the defining chapter in Scotland’s story.

We now know victory for the British Unionist side was secured through scaremongering and lies.  What swung-it for the London-based Unionist coalition was a ‘vow’, made just days before the vote, which promised to deliver significant new powers for Scotland within the UK.  Their argument was that, if we rejected independence, Westminster would give us so much power over our own affairs it would be as if we were independent but without any possible constitutional upheaval.

The ‘vow’, as it was called on the front-page of the Labour-supporting Daily Record, was signed by the leaders of the three main British Unionist political parties – David Cameron, Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg.  To add supposed additional ‘credibility’ to the commitment, it was endorsed and promoted by former Labour Prime Minister Gordon Brown who promised he would “ensure” it was delivered by Westminster following a ‘No’ vote in the referendum.

Brown said the ‘vow’ would deliver “as close to federalism in the UK” as possible, arguing this would give Scotland control over virtually everything, with a continuing UK-wide shared responsibility for issues like defence and foreign affairs.

Within days of Unionists securing a 10% majority in the referendum vote, the ‘vow’ disintegrated and Gordon Brown was reduced to asking people to sign a petition supporting the commitment he previously said he would “ensure” was delivered by Westminster.

On top of a campaign that, from day-one, used scare-tactics to frighten Scots from taking the powers of independence – powers virtually every other nation on the planet takes for granted – we now had Unionist victory being secured with blatant lies. 

What has emerged from Westminster, and by way of the Smith Commission, since the referendum is a proposal to devolve some additional powers to the Scottish Parliament, which, while a small step in the right direction, leaves the Scottish Government without control over vital areas, such as our national economy, most taxation, welfare, employment policy and pensions.  The ‘vow’ to deliver significant powers was a lie: Gordon Brown’s “close to federalism” was a lie.

To London-based politicians, keeping control of Scotland and our vast natural resources was absolutely essential: without Scotland’s annual financial contribution to the Westminster exchequer, UK plc would be bankrupt.  In that situation, scare-stories and lies were just ‘tools in the box’ to be used in ensuring victory for the British coalition of Tories, Labour, Lib Dems, UKIP and other far-right, racist, sectarian, bigoted organisations.

However, the British victory has come at a severe cost to those involved in what many Scots now see as a betrayal.  People who trusted Gordon Brown and believed the ‘vow’ quickly saw they had been used.

The anti-independence Better Together campaign was funded by rich, mainly London-based Tories, but it was Labour Party activists who did the organisation’s dirty-work in Scotland.  By standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the toxic Tories, by arguing for the right of the Tories to continue governing Scotland from London (even when Scots have rejected them at the ballot box), Labour is now seen as just another part of the British establishment, willing to lie to Scots in order to maintain Westminster’s control over our country and our lives.

Since the referendum, the Tory-led UK Government has announced further ‘austerity’ measures, cuts to social security and continued below-inflation wage rises (which are actually real-terms wage cuts).  Tory Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne argues these policies are necessary to continue his proclaimed ‘economic recovery’. 

However, a close look at official UK Government figures released last week by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) reveals the true nature of Britain’s ‘economic recovery’.  The UK Government is continuing to borrow billions-of-pounds, despite claiming it would reduce the national deficit: this is additional debt that has to be repaid.

Meanwhile, the ONS data shows median income in the UK has fallen by 1.4% to £23,300 – the lowest level since 2003 – while income inequality has continued to grow.  The reality, therefore, is that any ‘economic recovery’ is being enjoyed by the already rich, while the poor continue to get poorer.  Mike Danson, Professor of Enterprise Policy at Edinburgh’s Heriot Watt University, described the situation, saying, “Most of the population are worse off in real terms than they were a decade ago, and those on lower incomes are significantly poorer.”

Remember those Labour Party activists campaigning with the Tories and telling us we should reject controlling our own affairs because we are ‘Better Together’?

The true nature of the Labour Party has been exposed – it has become just another part of the London-centred British establishment. Even the party’s new leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy MP, reflects the Tory-clone nature of what Labour has become, having previously backed benefit cuts, the introduction of tuition fees for students and the illegal American-led war in Iraq.  

Labour’s scaremongering and lies on behalf of the Tory-funded Better Together campaign has resulted in Scots rejecting the party.  Poll after poll shows support for Labour is down to around 25%, while the SNP is recording unprecedented highs of up to 50% - and these relate to voting intentions for next May’s UK General Election.  If those levels of support were translated into seats, the SNP would almost certainly hold the balance of power in the UK Parliament – and party bosses have already ruled-out any support for a Tory Government.  Labour, meanwhile, could be reduced to just a handful of MPs in Scotland.

Without a shadow of doubt, Labour’s partnership with the Tories in the referendum campaign, and the fact they were prepared to lie to the people of Scotland in support of continued Tory austerity imposed from London, are major factors in the demise of the party.  Labour betrayed Scotland, and Scots no longer trust them.

The referendum was the most historic event of 2014: and when history books are written they will show the British Unionist side won.  However, the results announced in the early hours of September 19th were not the end of Scotland’s fight to restore our national independence and the full powers that come with it.  In fact, the sunrise that autumn morning shone light on a new beginning for Scotland.

The referendum transformed our country.  More and more people are now ready to re-take control of Scotland and of their own lives.  More and more of us believe in our own abilities to build a better, fairer country.

There will be another referendum, and it could be as early as 2017: Scotland will be a normal independent country.

In the meantime, the May UK General Election gives us the first chance to strike back at the Scotland-based Unionists who betrayed Scottish interests.  If everyone who voted ‘YES’ in the referendum backs their local SNP candidate at the election we can unseat Labour representatives who worked in coalition with the Tories.  It’s vital we don’t split the pro-independence vote: we can vote SNP, Greens or Scottish Socialist Party at the 2016 Scottish Parliament Election, but at the UK Election we need to unite behind the party best-placed to beat the Unionists, and that is the SNP.

May 7 2015 – it’s payback time!

Saturday, 13 December 2014

American torture - who knew?

What surprised me about this week’s revelations that America tortured prisoners was that anyone was surprised.

The Senate report certainly provided previously unavailable details of exactly what the CIA was prepared to do in order to extract answers from people it held – people often detained illegally – but the fact America was involved in torturing prisoners is not news.  Neither, by the way, are subsequent media stories reporting that the UK ‘may’ have been complicit in US actions.

Of course, we are now hearing the defence that, in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on New York’s World Trade Center, the US had to take the gloves off to counter an enemy that did not play by the rules.  Actually, America and the UK have a long history of ignoring ‘the rules’ when it suits them.  It was, of course, the British who first used concentration camps to hold prisoners, while US use of napalm during the Vietnam war resulted in horrific injuries being inflicted on the civilian population.  Then there is the illegality of the attack on the sovereign state of Iraq in 2003, a country that had nothing to do with the Twin Towers attack of two years earlier, despite that accusation being the ‘justification’ given for bombing Iraq back to the stone age.

We are also hearing the public relations spin on what is actually the torturing of human bodies and minds: the US Government has acknowledged that the CIA carried out “enhanced interrogation techniques”.  The Senate report details some of those enhanced techniques, such as detainees being forced to stand on broken limbs for hours; others kept in complete darkness, deprived of sleep for up to 180 hours.  Prisoners were subjected to “rectal feeding” and rectal examinations were conducted with “excessive force”.  

The report also refers to mock executions, US agents threatening to sexually abuse a detainee’s mother, and to physically hurt prisoners’ children.  We’re not talking here of being slapped about a bit.

As for the ‘suspicion’ that the UK may have helped the CIA as it picked-up ‘targets’ on the streets of European cities and transported them to worldwide torture centres, well, evidence to support that claim has also been available for some time.

The US and UK governments say they knew nothing of the CIA’s torture and abuse of people, many who had actually not committed any crime, but they did know.  They just thought if they ignored long enough those of us who called for enquiries and legal action, we would get fed up and go away.  They were wrong.

Just for the record, this is my contribution to a Scottish Parliament debate held on December 22nd 2005.  It was on a Motion proposed by the Scottish Socialist Party and related to ‘rendition flights’, the method used by the CIA to pick up and transport people to be tortured.  Remember, the debate took place 9 years ago.


Campbell Martin (West of Scotland):
No one in Parliament endorses or supports torture or kidnap. I am sure the people of Scotland expect Parliament to emphasise that we do not support such practices, so I cannot understand the reluctance to carry out at a Scottish level an investigation to determine whether Scottish airspace or airports have been used to facilitate torture and kidnap.

Yesterday, Tony Blair said at his monthly press briefing that he would not initiate an investigation or allow one to be initiated because he had seen no evidence, which takes the man to a whole new level of hypocrisy. He was not too bothered about evidence when he joined his American buddy to rain ‘shock and awe’ on the people of Iraq, and he is not too bothered about the lack of evidence to justify people being disappeared from streets in Europe and taken to third countries, apparently to be tortured, but he wants to see evidence that Scottish or UK airports have been used to facilitate torture flights.

Let’s talk about what we know: there is a Gulfstream V turbojet, registration N379P, and independent witnesses have confirmed that Jamil Qasim Saeed Mohammed was bundled onto that aircraft and taken to Jordan. He subsequently stated that he was tortured there.

The Swedish parliamentary ombudsman has said that Ahmed Agiza and Mohammed al-Zari were taken from Sweden to Cairo aboard the same aircraft. They claim they were tortured in Cairo.

That aircraft has been photographed on more than one occasion refuelling at Prestwick airport in Ayrshire, which is a ground for suspicion that a crime might have been committed on Scottish soil. I would like to think that Scotland's police forces might investigate that.

The New York Times stated earlier this year that, as far as it can determine, the CIA owns 26 aircraft, 10 of which have been purchased since 2001. The newspaper has also established that the CIA is behind seven shell corporations - not Shell the oil company, but front-companies for the CIA - one of which is called Devon Holding and Leasing Inc. The New York Times investigated the company and discovered it has no employees and no presence at its registered address, yet it apparently owns aircraft that have refuelled at Scottish airports. Surely that is a ground for suspicion that something a wee bit dodgy is going on? Perhaps Scottish police forces should be investigating why such aircraft are landing at a Scottish airport.

Colin Powell, the former United States Secretary of State, has been quoted saying, “The thing that is called rendition is not something that is new or unknown to my European friends”. By the way, if nothing else comes from this debate, let’s make it clear to Colin Powell that his name is pronounced Coll-in, not Cole-in.

If rendition is not new and it is not unknown, why are we so reluctant to investigate it? Why are we arguing about who should hold the investigation? We have a separate justice system in Scotland, so if crimes are being committed in Scotland, why are we reluctant to investigate them? Why do we not authorise our police to go onboard those aircraft to establish whether crimes are being committed?

Italian judges have issued 22 arrest warrants for people who are suspected of being CIA operatives; Germany has initiated an investigation and the European Commission has initiated an investigation.

If a crime is suspected, surely we should investigate to establish the evidence to prosecute? If there is a suspicion that Scottish airports are being used – and there certainly is – then we should investigate in order to bring to justice, not just those who carry out torture but those who allow it to be carried out.

It is an extremely sad day for Scotland if that suspicion reflects badly on us because we will not allow an investigation.

Sunday, 7 December 2014

Women - A personal view

I know some people – particularly men – will think this is not sincere, but it is. As I have got older, my respect for women has continued to grow, and I decided to write this after seeing statistics that shocked me.

I've never understood why some men assault women, particularly women they claim to love. In just 12 months there were 51,926 incidents of domestic abuse recorded by police in Scotland. Of course, some women don't report being physically or psychologically abused by their partner. On average, women are on the receiving end of domestic abuse 35 times before they report it to police or social services.

North Ayrshire has the highest rate of domestic abuse in Scotland: a report by the local council put the annual cost of dealing with the 'problem' at around £2.9million.

Between 2003/04 and 2011/12 the rate of domestic abuse incidents responded to by the police in North Ayrshire increased by 90.5% - from 996 to 1,897. Worryingly, the Council recorded that the high rate of domestic abuse has not translated into increased 'homeless' applications for housing, indicating that, in many cases, women are remaining in the home where abuse has occurred.

North Ayrshire Women's Aid figures for 2012/13 show 95 women and 60 children stayed in local refuges operated by the charity. In addition, 588 women were provided with counselling support.

Alcohol plays a part in men assaulting their partners, but it is no excuse. No-one forces men to get drunk and then take out their frustrations by physically assaulting women. One formidable woman I have worked with in the past, Kay Ullrich, summed-up the paucity of the “But I was drunk” excuse, by asking, “So why did he wait to get home before he decided to punch someone's face in? Why didn't he batter the big guy standing next to him in the pub?”

In my life there have always been strong women. My maternal granny was a socialist activist in the Independent Labour Party in the Saltcoats area. My paternal granny was undoubtedly the boss in a household that included a husband and six sons.

When I was a politician my mother was my staunchest defender and supporter – she could criticise me, but no-one else was allowed to do it. She was physically small, but would have faced a lion to defend her two sons (albeit one needed more defending than the other).

I'm delighted that my daughter is following in the tradition: she is beautiful, intelligent, articulate and funny. She is more than a match for any man.

The human race would have expired centuries ago if child-bearing was not something done by women. Men could never endure the physical pain and stress of giving birth.

Women raise families, run households, have careers and now, in Scotland, run the country. Amazingly, they also find time to 'look good' because men expect that of them, even while our beer-bellies swell and forests of hair emerge from our ears and noses.

In the early days of the Scottish Parliament I was the only male who attended meetings of the SNP Parliamentary Group Management Team. Other attendees were Kay Ullrich, Nicola Sturgeon, Shona Robison and Fiona Hyslop. Incomparable individually and collectively, and more than a match for any man.

During my time as an MSP, the Scottish Socialist Party had six members, including Carolyn Leckie, Rosie Kane and Frances Curran. As with the women in the SNP, they were there entirely on merit and proved themselves to be amongst the best politicians in the country.

Then there was my pal, Margo. Despite suffering from a terrible debilitating illness, Margo MacDonald was the brightest star in the parliament. She was so intelligent, so articulate and so funny.

None of those women needed any form of positive discrimination, they achieved their positions through ability and determination to prove their gender was an asset, not a hindrance.

It is a misconceived belief of superiority that leads some men to think women are less than their equal. From my experience, in work, in politics, in life in general, women constantly prove themselves to be more than equal to men. When a problem arises, men will form a committee to look at setting-up a focus group that could examine possible options for inclusion in a brainstorming session to set-out ideas that might feed into a matrix of potential solutions. Women will identify the problem and sort it out.

There is no doubt in my mind that women are the stronger sex. Of course, physically, men are generally bigger and stronger, which is a major factor in the appalling statistics relating to domestic abuse.

So, to any men who might, in the future, find themselves feeling they want to hurt a woman they claim to love – or any woman – please pause, take a step back and be a real man. Real men don't hit women.

Friday, 5 December 2014

Still failing the victims of child abuse

Almost 30 people – mostly victims of historic childhood abuse – have informed the UK Home Secretary that they have lost confidence in the government’s inquiry into the issue, even before it has actually got under way.

The actions of the individuals in snubbing Westminster’s inquiry is understandable.  Westminster is at the heart of the British establishment and that very same establishment stands accused of being central to a paedophile ring that abused vulnerable children over many years.  That Home Secretary Theresa May has twice appointed people to head the inquiry who have strong links to the British establishment and individuals who could form part of an investigation is just one reason victims of abuse are losing confidence in the proposed inquiry.

Other concerns expressed by victims and their legal representatives include that the terms of reference of the inquiry do not go far enough.  They insist the UK Government and the establishment should be investigated over cover-ups of paedophiles in their ranks: that, even after two inquiry heads have stood down, there remain other conflicts of interest among members of the panel: and that the investigation should look back as far as 1945 – the current cut-off date is 1970.

Until the concerns of victims are fully addressed, there remains the belief that Westminster’s real intention is not to uncover those who abused children, but to keep a lid on the shocking truth as much as it can.

Ten years ago, to the week, I took part in a Scottish Parliament debate on Institutional Child Abuse.  The issue was brought to the Parliament by the Public Petitions Committee, of which I was then a member.

The Committee had received a petition from survivors of childhood abuse, which called for a public inquiry into what they had suffered and those who had abused them.

On the day of the debate, then First Minister Jack McConnell issued a public apology to children who had been abused after being placed into care by the state: this was the first apology of its kind by anyone representing government in Scotland.  While the country had been run directly from Westminster, a blind eye had been turned on the matter.

It is a disgrace that, ten years since victims lodged their petition calling for a public inquiry, they are still waiting.  It is also a disgrace that the British establishment at Westminster is so enmeshed in the historic abuse of children that victims have little confidence a London-based inquiry would deliver answers, convictions of abusers and closure for those who were abused.

On looking back at what I said in that Scottish Parliament debate ten years ago, I feel real anger that a decade has elapsed and victims are still having to fight for their voices to be heard and for those responsible to be held to account.

Scottish Parliament
Official Report
December 1st 2004

Debate on Institutional Child Abuse

Campbell Martin (West of Scotland):

In 1999, the Irish Taoiseach Bertie Ahern told the Dáil:

"the test of a true democracy is to be found in how it treats its weakest and its most vulnerable members."

On that criterion and on the testimony of far too many Scots who spent time in the care of the state, Scotland has historically failed Bertie Ahern's democracy test.  For generations, Scotland has failed that test because we have failed to listen to the hundreds of people across Scotland who as young children were placed in the care of the state and were abused in our care.  Back then, while they were being abused, the state failed to protect them - the state let them down.  Since then, by failing to listen to them and to offer the solutions they need, successive Governments have compounded that original failure.  I hope the First Minister's apology today finally brings to an end those days of failure.

We know that some of the children who were abused while in the care of the state are in the public gallery today.  Of course, we will not recognise them as children, because they are now adults.  However, in quiet moments and at times of sadness or stress, those adults are again young children.  The memories, the nightmares and the faces have lived with them.  While they were young, vulnerable children, we as the state failed to protect them.  Because of that, we as the state have saddled them with burdens that most of us, thankfully, cannot even begin to imagine.  They do not need to imagine those burdens, because for them abuse was a reality.  They lived it and continue to relive it.

Those children, now adults, need to be able to talk about their experiences.  They need to be able to know that the people to whom they talk will understand what they are talking about and will believe them.  They need to know that the people to whom they talk will help bring closure to what has been a lifelong nightmare.  I believe that a public inquiry would do that.  That is why Chris Daly and the people behind petition PE535 have asked for a public inquiry.

There is too much denial on this issue.  At the meeting of the Public Petitions Committee of September 29th, the minister accepted that institutional child abuse had happened.  We all know that it has happened; we have living proof that is the case.  Surely if those responsible are to be held to account and those who are abused are finally to have closure, we need a public inquiry with the full powers necessary to investigate every case and organisation.

Of course, some people who were abused do not want that aspect of their past to be raised in public and we must respect their position.  A public inquiry would not compel people who had been in the care of the state to come forward to speak about their experiences - it would be for them to make that decision.  However, for those who need finally to put the nightmare behind them, having the option of speaking about their experiences and knowing that the forum to which they speak has the power to act are absolutely essential.

In Ireland, the most significant action that enabled historic institutional child abuse to begin to be addressed was an apology by the Taoiseach. He said:

"On behalf of the State and of all the citizens of the State, the Government wishes to make a sincere and long overdue apology to the victims of childhood abuse for our collective failure to intervene, to detect their pain, to come to their rescue."

An apology from the state is for that collective failure; the First Minister made such an apology for Scotland today.  However, another apology is necessary - one from the organisations that ran the institutions where the state placed children.  Those organisations need to accept their historic responsibility and they need to apologise for their failure to intervene and to protect the children.  Until that happens, we cannot move on and we cannot offer closure to the children who were abused.

The response by the Catholic Church in Scotland to an inquiry last week from The Herald newspaper about whether it would be prepared to release files it holds on the subject was particularly unhelpful.  The Herald reported a spokesman for the church said that: "it had never run children's homes in Scotland."

Apparently, its children's homes: "tended to be operated by autonomous orders of nuns or brothers."

I suggest that, when a young child is being abused by a nun or a priest, the corporate-speak distinction between an autonomous body and the headquarters organisation is not the first or most important thing that goes through that child's mind.  Like every other organisation that had care of some of Scotland's most vulnerable children, the Catholic Church must face up to its responsibilities and co-operate fully in all attempts to bring to justice those who abused children in care.

The cloak of secrecy has to be lifted and we need to get to the truth.  We need to know which organisations were responsible and we need to know that the individuals responsible for abusing children in care will be brought to justice, even if they are now old - we need to know they will pay for their crimes against Scotland's children.  Equally, the people who committed the crimes need to know that, although the abuse might have happened years ago, it has not been forgotten and they have not got away with it.  One day - I hope very soon - the children's time will come and the abusers will pay for their crimes.