David Cameron is wrong on refugees but he’s not the only one

“Anyone here been raped and speaks English?” one of those brilliant bastards of the trade would proclaim upon arriving in the latest war zone.

That reporterly black humour speaks not just to Fleet Street cynicism but to the reality of foreign news: It feels very far away until it reaches our shores.

The rising tide of a humanitarian disaster has now arrived on the coastline of our conscience, washed in with the flotsam and jetsam of two young brothers, Aylan and Galip Kurdi — the Boys of Ali Hoca Point. The image of Aylan’s lifeless body prostrated on the Turkish sand enters history grimly, just as the sight of Phan Thi Kim Phuc screaming along the road from Trảng Bàng or Jeffrey Miller face-down on concrete on a Midwest college campus did before it.

The photograph is a potent, immediate and ultimately futile propaganda tool: It stuns us in the moment, perhaps even reaps a change in outlook or policy, but the memory soon fades and with it goes the lesson. Burns lamented “man’s inhumanity to man” and three centuries on we’re still doing the same.

This is not a wail of déclinisme. Quite the opposite: We in Britain are generally a good and decent people. We do our part, look out for elderly neighbours, stick a few quid in the charity box, hand in a bag or two to the food bank, and try to give everyone a fair go. There is, however, a parochialism to our engagement with the world. When disaster strikes a far-off country, news editors in London shout: “Get onto the Foreign Office and see if any Brits are involved.” When there are, news editors in Glasgow follow up with the cry: “Is there a whiff of Jockery to any of them?”

Don’t shake your head in mock disgust, hypocrite. You read the papers. You watch the news. You know how this works. We have the numbers. We know you buy more papers and watch Sky News for longer when “our people” are caught up in some atrocity. Everyone has a bit of the crass war correspondent in them.

David Cameron is pinned between the politics of the parish pump and the politics of the pulpit. “We know no spectacle so ridiculous as the British public in one of its periodical fits of morality,” Lord Macaulay recorded, and the arenas of politics and social media have been especially fitful in the past few days.

Demagogues are getting their chutzpah in. Alex Salmond accuses the Prime Minister of“shaming humanity” by his inaction; how Cameron must wish the refugees were Kosovar Albanians. The Sun which half-led, half-reflected a shift in the public mood with a now-famous front page is taunted rather than congratulated for easing up on its inflammatory rhetoric. There is more joy on Twitter in an echo from The Guardian than in a right-wing tabloid that repenteth.

Twitter, Top Trumps for the young and morally superior, has fallen to the occasion this week. Corbynmania and Lena Dunham’s career aside, competitive compassion must be the most obnoxious innovation of the millennial generation.

We need to do something to help these migrants.
They’re not migrants, they’re refugees!

It reminds me of the Vietnamese boat people.
Oh yeah? Well, it reminds me of the Holocaust.

It’s these awful regimes’ fault.
No, it’s our fault. Remember the Empire?!

I don’t care what you call them. Some are refugees, some are migrants. Some want a better life, others are fighting to keep theirs. Is fleeing poverty less legitimate than fleeing persecution? The legal nomenclature doesn’t exercise me and I would much rather we called them “people”.

Nor do I need the comparison with the Shoah and the Jews who pleaded for sanctuary in the United States and Britain or an easing of the blockade on Palestine. Begging often on behalf of their children, knowing their own lives were gone.

Spare me the lectures on the bitter fruit of colonialism or our moral responsibility to the harried and hounded. Some of the pedagogues should audit their own class the next time a dictator is subduing his people or gassing his neighbours.

“Refugees are welcome here,” says this tendency — just don’t ask us to do anything about the people making you refugees. #NotInMyName. The rank hypocrisy of notinmynamers is too much to bear. “Not in my name” they said to intervention in Syria. “Not in my name” they say to the consequences of not intervening. Have they ever considered that their name is not the most important thing in the world? That their reputation means little to the tortured or the torturer? When it comes down to it, the pulpit and pump are still in the same parish.

Emoting is no substitute for a foreign policy. Those who caution that we cannot be the world’s policeman insist that we must be the world’s social worker. That sincere progressives can only recognise a Syrian child’s right to a better life once they’re dead on a beach but not while they’re living under Assad is profoundly disturbing. The messiness of Iraq and its gleeful celebration by the war’s opponents have sapped our confidence that we can do any good in the world beyond handing out bottled water.

As the human security analyst Julie Lenarz reminds us, “Action has consequences, inaction does too.” The world needs an active and assertive United States to turn the tide against tyranny and towards liberal democracy and the United States needs a democratic world resolved and ready to play its part in Syria and farther afield. (North Africa, where the regional machinery of Islamism is waging a campaign of mass murder against Christians, is assuredly our next refugee crisis.) The choice is not between F-16s and food parcels; a coherent strategy means military, humanitarian, and diplomatic approaches are indivisible.

You may not like these prescriptions but they are a practical response that can be measured for impact and outcomes. Hashtags and selfies fulfil their primary purpose, to make the user feel good about themselves, but achieve little except dialling up the self-satisfaction and empty sentimentalism. Something must be done, you say? Somethingis being done: David Cameron has ceded ground and will take a few thousand Syrians, details to be confirmed. Cameron’s concession is just that, a tactical shift to get him past some difficult headlines. A classic PR move from a savvy PR man but when you reduce politics to 140 characters, you license politicians to do the same.

If much of the Left has responded with vapid hypocrisy, many on the Right have indulged the isolationism that ever-tempts their worldview. Conservatives flail around for a palatable reason not to help. Security. Cost. Cultural cohesion. The European Union. Why aren’t the oil-rich Gulf states helping?

There is some truth in each of these objections but they also conveniently mask a nasty little thought: What’s it got to do with us?

Conservatism is not merely ordered liberty; it has a moral dimension too. It was Tory Britain that gave safe haven to Hungarian refugees in the 1950s and two decades later a Conservative government did the same for Ugandan Asians. The Republican Party is fixed by anti-immigrant fervour today but their secular saint Ronald Reagan granted amnesty to families of illegal aliens facing deportation. In his first act as prime minister, Menachem Begin — a right-wing nationalist — brought Vietnamese “boat people” to Israel when no one else would take them. Malcolm Fraser, conservative prime minister of Australia in the late 1970s, took in 50,000 asylum seekers from Vietnam.

These are not aberrations from that political tradition but examples of its values in action. If a conservative does not believe in the dignity of the individual, the unity of the family, and the virtue of charity, he should find something else to call himself.

There are limits to what we can do but we are in no danger of reaching them any time soon. Of course we must control our borders, which is why Germany’s proposal ofbinding refugee quotas for EU member states is sensible. The situation in the Channel Tunnel is hardly an advertisement for border security; quotas and fast-tracked asylum assessments would give the UK genuine control over its perimeters.

There is potential in every person we bring to Britain, migrant or refugee. Who among them might be skilled craftsmen or world-beating surgeons? Who among their children might grow up to be the researcher who discovers the cure for cancer or the inventor of a life-saving device or an entrepreneur who creates jobs and wealth in their adopted homeland? Many will play more mundane but essential roles in our communities, as teachers and taxi drivers, restaurant owners and restaurant customers, neighbours who bring new flavours into our lives and friends who sit beside us in church or mosque or temple.

Right-wingers fear accepting large numbers of newcomers will change Britain. It will. It will make us more diverse, more competitive, and more at ease with the world. It will force us to define Britishness beyond heritage and cultural foibles; to decide who we are, what we stand for, and where we’re going as a country. This process will strengthen, not weaken, our identity.

David Cameron seems not to grasp this. He is failing not just the humanitarian test but the conservatism test and the leadership test. The Prime Minister can refuel the economy, streamline public finances, nobble the unions, and cut taxes but if he wants to be remembered as more than a good, sound chap who kept things ticking over — if he wants to be remembered as a leader — he needs a legacy. This is it.

Originally published on STV NewsFeature image © Ggia by Creative Commons 4.0.

Independence is coming. It’s now only a matter of time.

Let’s just get this out of the way right from the start: Scotland is going to be independent in our lifetime.

I know it seemed like we said No in last year’s referendum but it was actually “not right now”. The timing wasn’t right, key questions remained unanswered, and Alex Salmond just rubbed some people up the wrong way.

One year on, independence is still on the agenda and growing in strength.

If you doubt that, you only need cast your eye over the findings of a new poll conducted by Ipsos-MORI for STV News. It shows the SNP on 55% in first past the post votes for next year’s Scottish Parliament poll, a chasmal 35% lead over Scottish Labour. On list votes, the regional top-ups designed to make Holyrood elections more proportional, the Nationalists enjoy a more modest 30% advantage over Labour. Nicola Sturgeon’s job approval rating is a Pyongyangesque 71%.

Asked which party has the best policies for Scotland, the SNP comes a distant first on the NHS (48%), education (49%), and crime (40%), three areas where the Scottish Government has suffered significant and well-publicised difficulties in policy and delivery. Support for independence now sits at 53% — even with “don’t knows” included — and backing for keeping the UK together has tumbled to 44%.

Look at those numbers. Does that look like a country that will still be in the UK ten years from now? Twenty?

The Labour left holds out the promise of Jeremy Corbyn as a route to winning back Scotland. Scotland’s left-wing, Jeremy’s left-wing — it just stands to reason, comrade.The new poll confirms this to be the folly it always was. Just 23% of Scots would be more likely to vote for a Labour Party led by the socialist firebrand while 34% would be less likely to do so. Thirty-eight per cent say it would make no difference.

To the detached commentator or activist, peering at Scotland from afar, the SNP’s progressive rhetoric and the enthusiastic political engagement looks like a leftwards shift. The reality is more prosaic: The Nationalists talk left but govern from the dead centre and while Scots are fond of telling themselves how much more caring and compassionate than the English they are, there are only modest distinctions in public opinion on taxation, public expenditure, immigration and welfare.

What is happening in Scotland is about nationalism. To the extent social democracy has anything to do with it, it is a social democracy defined in nationalist terms. The Nationalists campaign on social justice but the only redistribution they have carried out in eight years is of Labour policies into the SNP manifesto. Like Labour, the SNP is a party of the managerial centre but unlike Labour the Nationalists venerate national strength over pan-UK egalitarianism. Of course there would be cuts after independence but they would be Scottish cuts carried out by Scottish politicians with Scottish values at heart.

This is why nothing can put a dent in the SNP’s popularity; not their sketchy record on health, nor dismal education outcomes, nor the disaster zone that is their national police force. They are not just another political party; they are Scotland’s Party. “Only one party has Scotland at its heart” as they brand themselves. Starting in the 1960s, Labour successfully framed Scottish Tories as an alien force in the body politic, colonial officers imposing foreign rule on the natives.

This narrative was brutally effective and did for the Conservatives north of the border as much as Thatcherism or the Poll Tax. The danger for all populists is that eventually someone will come along who is prepared to out-demagogue you and that is what has happened to Labour. Now it is the Westminster interloper, representing Westminster’s interests, and working to Westminster’s agenda. (“Westminster” is the euphemism du jour in Scotland.)

The Labour leadership candidates promise to fight nationalism tooth and claw. Nationalism is “a dead-end towards division, separation and conflict,” Andy Burnhamtold the Royal United Services Institute yesterday. It’s a noble sentiment and will find an echo in Britain’s ever-diminishing ranks of internationalists and cosmopolitans but it is far too late. Labour responded to nationalism by building it a parliament and hoping it would go away or be content to run schools and hospitals. But nationalism is a movement of stages; it takes strength from each concession and stirs grievance and resentment to force another and another.

The next stage for Scottish nationalism is independence. Despite the findings of this poll, were a referendum to be held in the next few years, Yes would probably lose again. A second referendum means a second campaign and a second campaign means another raking over of uncomfortable facts for the pro-independence side. The harsh realities on currency, EU and Nato membership, and the fiscal blackhole have not gone away. On the global oil market, the realities have got harsher. Still, if half the country can be sold on independence under these conditions, the nationalists are strongly placed for better days. That is why Nicola Sturgeon should resist the impatient people in her ranks who want another referendum right away. She will likely win next time but only if it’s the right time.

Of course in politics, as in life, nothing is inevitable. Something has to give and bring to an end the SNP’s eight-year honeymoon.

Eventually.

In theory.

Even then, it might not be enough to stop a break-up. There is a sense out there in the pubs and workplaces, coffee shops and doctors’ surgeries, an ineffable mood lingering in the air. It’s there in conversations with friends and even strangers hint at it when they accost you in their cups on the last train home on a Friday night. In its heart, if not yet in its head, Scotland has moved on.

Originally published on STV News. Feature image © Walter Baxter and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

Nicola Sturgeon goes back to basics in policy agenda speech

In politics, celebrated strategist Kenny Rogers (almost) advised, you gotta know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em, and know when to keep people who read the Daily Mail on side.

That is what Nicola Sturgeon does in her programme for government, unveiled in Edinburgh on Tuesday. The delivery was calm and assured and so too was the policy agenda. There was something for those doing well and something for those doing it tough.

“We intend to become the real northern powerhouse,” the First Minister trumpeted in her decidedly pro-business agenda, and the centrepiece involved a 50% cut in air passenger duty from 2018. The long-standing SNP policy is popular with the industry and is expected to boost tourist receipts. Elsewhere, firms will get more rates relief (“the most competitive business rates package in the UK”) and streamlining in the planning process, as well as a business development bank and a newly-announced £40m growth fund for small- and medium-sized enterprises.

But to emphasise the difference between the SNP’s pro-business outlook and that of the Conservative government, there was also a raft of social justice measures. Rent controls will come into force in some areas and employment tribunal fees will be junked. The Scottish Government will fight the Tories’ trade union reforms and deliver 30,000 additional apprenticeships every year by 2020. A Social Security Bill will seek to use the forthcoming Smith powers to mitigate some of the impact of UK welfare changes. Free childcare provision will almost double from 600 hours per annum to 1140 by 2020.

Every tilt right was counter-weighted with a shimmy left; balance not boldness was the object of the exercise. Critics might peg it as a safe statement but it is better understood as judicious, constructed with a looming election in mind and the long-game of independence playing out in the tall grass. It was a programme that drew battle lines ahead of next May’s Holyrood elections. The Scottish Greens are an established presence on the SNP’s left and Rise — an alliance of the Hillhead People’s Front and the People’s Front of Morningside — launched at the weekend.

The proposals outlined by Sturgeon are not the legislative agenda of someone unduly troubled by the latest rebranding of the obscure and embittered of radical politics in Scotland. It is clear from what was announced on Tuesday that the SNP will remain firmly on the centre ground from which they have won two Holyrood and one Westminster election. This may cause disquiet amongst those Nationalists convinced they are on the barricades of a radical movement but it underscores how canny Sturgeon is. She talks a good lefty game but she knows where the country is and she’s right there beside it, smack-bang in the middle.

This is sensible positioning on her part. The Greens might cause some trouble on the regional lists — where they have real talents like Zara Kitson and Andy Wightman — but the farther-left can be ignored with confidence. They are not an option for most of the members of Sturgeon’s national coalition. Middle Scotland and the SNP are as one on the economic and social prescriptions of the day and all but the most hashtag-afflicted Alba-gu-bràthers know a majority SNP government is the surest way to get a second referendum.

Where the charge of cautiousness has greater purchase is on education. Once again a Scottish politician dodged the difficult decisions that need to be taken if our failing education system is to be turned around. Labour and the Nationalists have consistently let children down through ideology, policy conservatism, and a desire to keep teachers and their unions in the tent. The successes of academies and free schools are mostly ignored and even a whisper about the benefits of vouchers and education savings accounts to the US school choice agenda will get you suspended, expelled and told to write “I will not think outside the box” 1000 times.

But Sturgeon struck a meaningful blow against mediocrity and excuse-making by announcing a new regime of standardised assessment. Pupils in primaries one, four, and seven and those in the third year of secondary school will sit nationally-designed tests in literacy and numeracy. This is anathema to some but as the First Minister pointed out, teachers have to be able to identify problems early on and parents want to know how their children are progressing. There would be no league tables, Sturgeon insisted, which is a shame but the very existence of the data means they will easily be compiled by newspapers. Parents will claw a morsel of power from local authority bureaucrats.

Sturgeon delivered a solid programme that won’t win converts — precious few are the agnostics left in Scotland — but will reassure those who vote SNP for its competent management. The opposition can only carp from the sidelines, pointing out the (very real) shortcomings of the last eight years, but this has failed to produce any results so far. Perhaps their attacks will manage to break through in the coming months but it seems unlikely. The 2016 election was always going to be fought on the SNP’s terms and the First Minister’s programme only confirms that.

Originally published on STV NewsFeature image © First Minister of Scotland by Creative Commons 2.0.

BBC won’t be devolved till SNP stops obsessing about it

“I pray God to deliver me from my friends,” remarked Voltaire. “I will defend myself from my enemies.”

The Daily Mail columnist Chris Deerin is afraid he might be falling for Nicola Sturgeon — join the queue, mate — but you don’t need to swoon over her political nous and personal charisma to wish the First Minister refuge from her more enthusiastic comrades.

Sturgeon made a pitch for a restructured BBC in her Alternative MacTaggart Lecture at the Edinburgh International Television Festival on Thursday. Free from jargon and jeremiad, her analysis identified key industry challenges and proposed practical solutions. It was a considered, literate, ambitious, and constructive presentation, more so than the standard BBC-at-a-turning-point ministerial spiel.

The First Minister counselled a shift towards federal governance of the BBC, including the creation of a dedicated Scottish TV channel and a second English-language radio station. Based on a blueprint first floated by the Corporation itself, Sturgeon’s plans bear the promise of innovation and creative expansion. The Beeb, she was at pains to say, was not biased but had made some mistakes and could avoid these in future with more homegrown content targeted specifically to the Scottish market.

There are a few snags, of course. The point of the BBC is to be a unifying British institution and ceding power over it to Edinburgh will only enhance Scotland’s sense of separateness from the rest of the UK. Then again, that is the inevitable logic of devolution. More pertinently, it’s not clear where content for this new channel would spring from, given the tiny creative pool and limited scope for original productions north of the border. And I hate so to be vulgar but TV channels cost money and the country isn’t exactly swimming in twenties right now. Bairns not broadcasters, you heartless Yellow Tories.

But none of these is the biggest hurdle to the First Minister’s ambitions. That honour goes to the people around her, the people she shares parliamentary benches with, the people who whoop for her in foam-fingered ecstasy at party conference. Take her predecessor, who this week attacked the BBC’s erstwhile political editor Nick Robinson, branding his and the Corporation’s coverage of the referendum “a disgrace”. Robinson, Alex Salmond announced, should be “embarrassed and ashamed” of his reporting during the campaign — the BBC after all was comparable to Pravda.

The beef originates in one of the uglier episodes of the referendum. Robinson was accused of bias after some terse questioning of Salmond and a flawed package on the evening news, culminating in thousands of nationalists surrounding the BBC’s headquarters in Scotland. Robinson expressed “regret” over the incident and analogised the nationalists’ behaviour to Putin’s Russia.

Even if that is an overblown comparison, there was an atmosphere of intimidation against the BBC. When flag-waving pro-government mobs descended on Pacific Quay, Salmond called it “peaceful and joyous”. (Sturgeon, it is worth noting, suggested the screamers might want to go deliver some leaflets instead, what with there being a referendum on and all.) The politics of recrimination unleashed in 2014 lingers on, as can be seen in the responses to Nick Robinson’s latest comments. One cybernat terms him a “colonialist p—k”, another “an odious, lying, tory loving w—-r”, while a third tweets: “What makes you think you would be safe in Scotland? We all know what you look like, but you don’t know us!”

Fuelled by repeated accusations of “bias” — the only evidence for which is bald assertion — some nationalists have become obsessive, contemptuous, and downright paranoid about the Corporation. They have deputised themselves as a patriotism police, patrolling the airwaves for crimes against the nation and the nation’s party. The charge sheet is long and covers everything from reporting unhelpful facts to conducting insufficiently deferential interviews with SNP politicians. Entire websites are dedicated to lurid conspiracy theories about the BBC, a favourite being the claim that the Great British Bake-Off was a Unionist ploy to throw the referendum.

It’s not all fun and game pie, though. There is sincere, in-the-guts hatred for the Beeb amongst the ranks. During the referendum, one of the leading nationalist websites demanded to know: “Why are both the ‘Scotland Correspondent’s on BBC Scotland 2014 English?”

Consider too the public Facebook group, Push the BBC off Pacific Quay, complete with an illustration of the broadcaster’s Scottish headquarters being shoved into the River Clyde. The page is a bulletin board for the kind of conspiratorial ramblings that used to arrive in green ink with second class postage. Every malfeasance of this “anti-Scottish unionist propaganda mouthpiece” is documented in excruciating, creatively punctuated detail as the tone swings merrily from paranoid to vicious. Of Jim Naughtie’s reassignment as a roving reporter, one post laments: “Unfortunately he will not be sent to Syria… which is a real shame”. There are detours to denounce Labour “traitors”, praise Putin as the saviour of the world, and decry the invention of ISIS by the Western media. But the obsessive focus is the BBC and its manifold wickedness.

You might dismiss this as a group for anonymous cybernats but amongst the 436 members, I counted four SNP MPs, two MSPs, and at least four councillors.

It may be “arrant nonsense” to suggest Nicola Sturgeon longs to “exert political control over the BBC” but others have the itchy fingers of a meddler. It’s not hard to imagine why such people are tearing at the leash to have broadcasting devolved. For them, the BBC is just another head of the same hydra. Whether it’s the Archers or the Labour Party, Armed Forces Day or JK Rowling — Britishness is the beast at the heart of it all.

I work for their putative rival — STV is the Sharks to the Beeb’s Jets — and though like all hardened street gangs we do share a Starbucks, they are nonetheless The Other Side. Monster that I am, I have never gone in for the idolatry that attends much public discussion of the BBC. It’s not my Auntie and while I grasp its role in our shared history, it does not inform my identity. Bear that in mind when I say I found their reporting over the last few years well-crafted, fair-minded, and at times excellent.

Reporting Scotland was consistently engaging and it is a shame that Scotland 2015 didn’t begin life as Scotland 2012. The forensic interviews of Gordon Brewer and the sober and reliable analysis of Douglas Fraser were complimented by stand-out talents Laura Bicker and James Cook, who have since gone on to bigger and better things.

But the Corporation’s referendum coverage was a tale of two BBCs, and while the output from Pacific Quay was strong the same cannot be said of its network operation. Nick Robinson’s RBS report left a lot to be desired — faults of error, not conspiracy — but he is a convenient scapegoat for wider problems.

There were some national correspondents, those who appeared to discover Scotland sometime in August 2014, who showed an astonishing ignorance of the key issues. As Sturgeon pinpoints, “some network journalists came into the campaign very late on” and as they struggled to grapple with debates that had been running for two years “sounded less than fully informed”. I can be blunter than the FM: They sounded arrogant, imperious and sometimes sneering.

Nonetheless, the faults of a few do not define the Corporation, however much loud people shout to the contrary.

Nicola Sturgeon’s proposals are impressive and deserve serious consideration but they cannot expect a fair hearing in this air of acrimony. She won’t change the BBC’s relationship to Scotland until she changes her party’s attitude to the BBC and robust, critical, independent journalism more broadly. The current First Minister cannot extend the hand of friendship while the former First Minister sticks the knife in yet again.

It’s time Sturgeon wrestled back the remote and turned down the volume.

Originally published on STV NewsFeature image © Batchelor at English Wikipedia by Creative Commons 3.0.

Review: Iain Macwhirter rides the wave of a Scottish political Tsunami

Tsunami: Scotland’s Democratic Revolution
Iain Macwhirter
Ebook, pp. 159
Cargo

Sometime in 2013, we lost Iain Macwhirter.

I can’t pinpoint the exact moment he slipped away, but I remember feeling it build up in his writing over time.

Scotland’s clarion liberal polemicist had spent much of the previous decade tearing into New Labour for its military interventions, economic centrism, and clunky-fisted response to Islamist terrorism.

In that role, he was sometimes strident but seldom shrill and his libertarian instincts made him stand out in a commentariat where you are deemed to have missed your deadline if your copy fails to call for a ban on something. The referendum gave him a new cause and he brought to it the zeal of the convert. Over time, an acid tone crept into his columns and his healthy scepticism became more muted on questions of independence and the economics of building a new country.

Now, there is nothing wrong with campaigning journalism. Some of the finest British journalists, from Cobbett to Orwell, have been pamphleteers at heart. But to have an impact polemic needs the leavening of self-criticism and that is why Tsunami: Scotland’s Democratic Revolution, an enjoyable broadside on the political upheavals of the past year, is a good but not a great book.

Macwhirter, for those just joining us, is Mr Devolution. He was posted to Scotland by the BBC in 1979 to cover constitutional change in Scotland and stayed on after the Scottish Assembly was choked at birth by the wrecking amendment to the Scotland Act. Since then he has distinguished himself as a political commentator, contributing a much-read column to the Herald and its sister paper the Sunday Herald. His Road to Referendum book was adapted by STV as an acclaimed three-part account of the history of Scottish nationalism.

Tsunami is more openly committed, which loosens the writing up and allows the commentary to be bolshier, but that is also its main sticking point. Where the book comes into its own is the chapter on Tommy Sheppard. If Mhairi Black is a star in the making, Sheppard is ready-made box office. Once a prominent figure in Scottish Labour, he is one of the spurned lovers of Scottish politics; like so many others, he didn’t leave Labour — Labour left him. He was too left-wing to advance in New Labour but he could have provided a radical conscience on the back benches. To lose 40 seats is careless, to lose one to your own former assistant general secretary is a just reward for arrogant stupidity.

In his maiden speech to Parliament and his television appearances, Sheppard cuts a social democratic rather than a nationalist figure. (He also cuts quite a stride in those soft-beige Man from Del Monte suits.) He tells Macwhirter: “I’m not a nationalist. I’m an internationalist. I think there’s lots of people in the SNP who aren’t really nationalists. Or rather are civic nationalists who see themselves first of all as social democrats. For me, independence is a means to the same ends in which I’ve always believed.”

The stoking of nationalist grievance and bitter resentment was vital to winning 45% of the country to the separatist cause. But Sheppard reminds us that there is more to the story: Not everyone in the SNP is in the grips of a patriotic paroxysm; Scottish Labour let people down and the SNP gives them hope, however specious.

There is hardly a scintilla of doubt in the whole book. I longed for the old Macwhirter to kick back in and hack away at the hoary platitudes and wide-eyed assumptions of his own side. But as a chronicler of the optimistic energy of Yes, he is without equal. Tsunami is an evocative account that gives readers a vivid glimpse into the referendum and 2015 general election. SNP partisans will appreciate the echo but the general reader ought to enjoy the backstage pass. This is what happened behind the scenes, in all its mad and maddening wonder.

The book is a rejoinder to those of us who struggle and all too often fail to explain Scotland’s nouvelle politique. It is written from the trenches but that might be the only way to understand a politics so steeped in belief and identity. Macwhirter speaks the language and is a punchy translator. Some Unionist speak about no longer understanding Scotland, as if it has become a foreign land to them. The structural shift in political allegiance has been truly historic and to some baffling or even threatening. Instead of standing in the dark cursing the SNP, Tsunami offers No voters the chance to shed light on what motivates those who have cast off political history and family convention to side with the Nationalists and the independence project.

And that is a project that Macwhirter gets better than many on the Yes side. He champions National Collective, whose absence from the political and cultural scene has made our debates duller, and appreciates the importance of social media. He gives credit to Stuart Campbell and his website Wings over Scotland for the significant contributions he made to the Yes cause. (Would that more Nationalist politicians were brave enough to say this publicly; the fact few do translates as cluelessness, if not ingratitude.)

There is some ocean-going nonsense too. Consider this, a despatch from an alternative reality or the comment threads on Bella Caledonia:

“[T]he idea of Scotland as a dour and depressive country full of anger and resentment is one largely perpetuated by the UK media. It is what metropolitan publishers and newspaper editors want to see written about Scotland and there has never been any shortage of Scottish writers willing to provide the copy.”

And while declaiming accusations of resentment, he happily stirs up grievance along the way:

“Scottish voters had been told after the No vote that they had to get back in their box, pack away the festival of democracy, and return to the normality of boring responsible politics. But the people refused to get back in their box, or to seek consolation in negativity and cynicism.”

It’s not clear who told Scots to “get back in their box” — perhaps the same mystery figures who slander us as “too wee, too poor, and too stupid” — but nationalism requires its straw men and needs must.

Tsunami completes a constitutional triptych begun with Road to Referendum and carried into Disunited Kingdom, still the best book written about the independence vote. (There is a nectarean irony in the finest accounts of the referendum coming from the hated MSM.) I’m sure Macwhirter has more to say about political structures and processes but I wonder whether his analysis — at its best, sharper than a Springhill chib — would be better deployed on policy debates.

Any and all criticism of the Scottish Government’s record on education, health and justice is met with howls of “SNPbad” but these are pressing challenges and Nationalists might listen to Macwhirter. Imagine securing a second referendum only to find it dominated by hospital waiting times and education results. The SNP is desperately in need of a critical friend where now it finds only Photoshop fan boys and bloggers more interested in holding the opposition to account. Macwhirter wasn’t born-again yesterday and could keep ministers on their toes and along the way bolster the case that Scotland can run its own affairs.

I miss Iain Macwhirter. He no longer surprises me, though he does shock from time to time. Tsunami captures the very best of Scotland in the last 12 months and I share its assessment of the inevitability of independence and have some sympathy with the opportunities it identifies in a new constitutional arrangement. But a cause needs its doubters as much as its zealots, for only they appreciate how non-believers think and what it would take to turn them. I hope Macwhirter relocates his scepticism and puts it to good use.

Originally published on STV News.

We don’t need more Scots in the arts, we need new Scots

How did you mark Wallace Day?

Yes, there’s an annual celebration of Elderslie’s favourite son and it took place over the weekend.

While you were trudging through the aisles of IKEA or more happily marching at Pride, people with full-body tattoos of Robert Burns sat in Hope over Fear T-shirts watching Braveheart for the 879th time and tearfully belting out Scots Wha Hae.

If it strikes you as odd that we have a day of rejoicing for someone who slaughtered thousands of soldiers from a country we are now in a union with, remember that certain states of the American Deep South still mark Robert E Lee Day.

The cult of William Wallace is mostly harmless tea-towelry for tourists but it also functions as a cover for Anglophobia, a blood-soaked warrior who died 700 years ago serving as a romantic touchstone in the prosaic margin-tinkering of 21st century Scottish politics.

So accommodated are we to the optimistic and outward-looking politics of Nicola Sturgeon that we can sometimes forget the narrow, insular nationalism that still stalks the undergrowth.

We got a reminder this week from Liz Lochhead, Scotland’s makar or poet laureate. She told an arts magazine: “I think it’s a great pity that there’s a shortage of Scottish people working in the National Theatre of Scotland. It’s just a shame, you know. I’ve nothing against any of the people that do work there. I just wish there were some more Scots, some more people with a Scottish theatrical culture.”

The artistic director of the NTS, Laurie Sansom, was born in England as was his predecessor Vicky Featherstone.

For Lochhead, the answer to what ails Scotland’s cultural institutions lies in nationality. The NTS doesn’t just need more resources or more staff or more creative excellence. It wouldn’t be enough for it to be bolder or more radical or to take more risks. It needs mair o’ wir ain. Native-born Scots, the assumption runs, have access to essential cultural knowledge to which the outsider is not privy.

Were a prominent English writer and vocal supporter of the Conservative Party to call for more English people in England’s cultural institutions, no one can doubt what the response would be. But Lochhead is a card-carrying member of the SNP, whose decision to join the governing party while serving in her public role was defended by Alex Salmond. Now the usual suspects have leapt to her aid and diagnosed “self-loathing” in those vexed by her remarks.

The echo of an earlier episode of cultural chauvinism reverberates. In 2012, that narrow glade of the political landscape known as Liberal Scotland tut-tutted at Alasdair Gray’s crude national distinctions in his essay ‘Settlers and Colonists’. He detected two kinds of English “invader” of Scotland: The “settlers” who integrate and accept the hyphen and the “colonists” who “look forward to a future back in England through promotion or by retirement”.

But the most troublesome part of his thesis was not his separation of the sheep from the goats; what remains of Anglophobia in Scotland is low-level and deprived of political power. More deserving of our concern was his pronouncement that “these colonists were invited here and employed by Scots without confidence in their own land and people”.

Confidence in their own land and people.

There are, pace those with “Saor Alba” in their Twitter profiles, many ways to be patriotic about Scotland. Lochhead’s and Gray’s exclusivist regard is small and mean and unSturgeon but in continuity with the nationalist tradition of old. “The rose of all the world is not for me,” wrote MacDiarmid, himself not averse to ethnic nationalism of the Caledonian or continental varieties. “I want for my part/ Only the little white rose of Scotland/ That smells sharp and sweet—and breaks the heart.” Shared histories and fluid identities, a globalised economy where labour crosses borders billions of times a day, the creeping impossibility of parameters physical and cultural — these are the inheritances of liberalism and they are anathema to those who long for the familiar geometry of their own rose garden.

Something has always stuck with me. Something a uni mate — James, Manc, could never quite decide if he was fit or not — said to me. It would have been late 2006 or early 2007 and the SNP was heading for its first ever victory in a Holyrood election. I used to go through political phases something terrible and I was smack-bang in the middle of my Alex-Salmond-is-the-best-thing-since-fried-bread turn.

“The difference between England and Scotland,” James pronounced, whipping the bait down at my feet, “is that we don’t vote for our nationalist party.” Stupidly, I would bite more often than not and rebut the notion that the SNP was that kind of party. And besides, in some former Labour heartlands outside London and in the north, the BNP was doing quite well with the white working class at that point.

Since then the SNP has become even less susceptible to ethnic nationalism, with an influx of former Labour voters many of whom think Siol nan Gaidheal is a Gaelic railway sign. Scratch a Scottish nationalist in 2015 and most of the time you’ll find a political sovereigntist; someone who believes in the democratic principle that government should represent the people and the votes cast.

But sometimes — not often, sometimes — when you scratch a Scottish nationalist you find something more troubling. This usually begins with talk of “culture”, “pride” and the national “we” and ends in the practised resentment of the perpetually aggrieved. Ethnic nationalism is vividly problematic but its Hillhead cousin cultural nationalism is more insidious. It says the country is threatened from within. We are on our knees, serfs before the dominant British (read: English) culture. If only we had more confidence in our own land and people.

The cultural nationalist has a loud, and more often than not, subsidised voice but they are few in number and diminishing. Three important voices rejected Liz Lochhead’s comments last week. The Scottish Government told the Herald: “Liz Lochhead is entitled to her own opinion but is it not one we share.” Pat Kane flourished, as only he can, about “Scots in the world, and Scots with the world inside them.” We identify our cultural allies, counselled Joyce McMillan, “not by looking at their birth certificates, but by experiencing their work”. Are Kane and McMillan, two of our most clarion voices for cultural exploration, “self-loathing”? Is the Scottish Government?

Scotland is not England and increasingly it is not Britain either. We have our own story to tell but it is one that intertwines with the stories of people across borders and continents. Our narration is far from omniscient. The Scottish psyches — those who think there is just one should reread their Stevenson, Hogg and Spark — are no more indecipherable to someone born in Watford than they are to someone born in West Kilbride. Indeed, the perspective of the incomer can yield interpretations too distant or too obvious for us to grasp. As others see us, and all that.

One of the under-acknowledged benefits independence offers is an influx of new people and new stories. Scottish culture is a mongrel beast, a never-quite-reconciled tension between the Celtic and the Anglo-Saxon. Asian and east European influences will soon be as intrinsic to our cultural topography as the path cut by the Irish Catholic immigrants. Independence will bring fresh flavours, to mix and blend and clash, and we will still be Scotland but we’ll be something bigger yet. We will have all the roses of the world, not just our own pallid flower.

Scottish culture needs more Scots but those it needs have yet to set foot on our shores.

Originally published on STV News

Jeremy Corbyn is not an anti-Semite. It’s so much worse than that

What do you have to say about Jews not to be invited to Parliament by Jeremy Corbyn?

The Labour leadership frontrunner has a singular talent for extending a warm welcome to anti-Semites and extremists.

He invited “friends” from Hezbollah and Hamas, both proscribed terrorist organisations. Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah says of Jews: “If they all gather in Israel, it will save us the trouble of going after them worldwide”. Hamas is committed by charter to “struggle against the Jews” until the “obliteration” of the State of Israel.

He invited Raed Salah, leader of the Islamic Movement, to tea on the Commons terrace. Salah promotes the blood libel that Jews murder children for blood to bake in their matzah and claims that thousands of Jews stayed home from work at the World Trade Centre on 9/11, a key component of the conspiracy theory that Jews and not Islamic fundamentalists were behind the attacks.

He invited Dyab Abou Jahjah and shared a platform with the Belgian radical. Abou Jahjah called the killing of British soldiers in Iraq “a victory” and the 9/11 terrorist atrocities “sweet revenge”. He says Europe has adopted “the cult of the Holocaust and Jew-worshiping its alternative religion”, and in response to the Danish Mohammed cartoons he called on Arabs to spray paint walls across Europe with “hoax gas-chambers built in Hollywood in 1946 with Steven Spielberg’s approval stamp, and Aids spreading fagots”.

Elsewhere, his connections to Holocaust-denier Paul Eisen have been documented by the Jewish Chronicle. Corbyn claimed in an interview with Channel 4 News that he had no contact with Eisen in recent times but might have given money to his organisation some years ago. In fact, as JC political correspondent Marcus Dysch has revealed, Corbyn attended a 2013 event for Eisen’s Deir Yassin Remembered group.

A JC poll finds 67% of British Jews “concerned” about the Islington North MP becoming Labour leader. The newspaper warns that Corbyn risks being perceived as “an enemy of Britain’s Jewish community” and has implored him to answer questions about his associations with anti-Semites and Holocaust deniers.

This he has failed to do to any satisfaction. He cannot recall meeting Abou Jahjah, despite a picture of the two of them sitting side-by-side on a panel. He was unaware of Eisen’s views at the time. He stresses that Salah “did not at any stage utter any antisemitic remarks to me”.

Jeremy Corbyn is not an anti-Semite. How I wish that he were. How much easier it would make things. We could chalk all this up to the prejudices of one man and we could avoid the raw, awkward conversation we’re about to have. Because this isn’t about Jeremy Corbyn; he’s just a symptom and a symbol. The Left, and not just the fringes, has an anti-Semitism problem.

Contrary to left-wing mythology, anti-Jewish prejudice has never been the exclusive preserve of aristocratic snobs or skinhead fantasists. “The Jew is the enemy of the human race,” declared Proudhon. “One must send this race back to Asia or exterminate it.” Bakunin labelled Jews “bloodsucking people” while Orwell, self-consciously anti-Semitic, even obsessed over the excessive number of Jews sheltering in London’s Underground during World War II. (No matter what the Jews do to protect themselves, it’s always disproportionate.) Marx, the grandson of a rabbi, essayed: ”Once society has succeeded in abolishing the empirical essence of Judaism – huckstering and its preconditions – the Jew will have become impossible”.

The contemporary Left, in most cases, would recognise these statements as irrational prejudice. But what if we substituted “Zionist” for “Jew”, what would happen then? How many would object to “Zionists” being termed enemies of the human race? How many would be glad to see the “Zionist” become impossible? Anti-Zionism has removed much of the need for classical anti-Semitism by recycling the old superstitions as a political critique of the State of Israel. Why risk the ridicule that comes with quoting The Protocols of the Elders of Zion when you can cite The Israel Lobby and win eager nods from academics and commentators? Why deny the Holocaust when you can throw it back in the Jews’ faces by fictionalising Gaza as a concentration camp? Why hurl rocks at a Jew in the street when you can hurl endless vexatious UN resolutions at Israel?

Every pathology of the anti-Semite can be visited upon the Jewish state in the flimsy guise of “anti-imperialism” or “human rights”. It’s all okay because it’s “Zionism” you’re against and that’s not the same thing as Jews and what about Jews who are anti-Zionist. The hallmark of a bigot is seizing on dissonant voices within a minority community and using them to delegitimise the mainstream of that community. The exception becomes the rule and those whose only connection to Jewish communal life is signing onto letters to the Guardian denouncing Israel become more Jewish than everyone else.

It shouldn’t have to be said but since stupidity is nearing pandemic levels these days I’ll say it all the same. There is nothing anti-Semitic about criticising Benjamin Netanyahu, the Likud-led government, or the policies of the State of Israel. There is nothing anti-Semitic about sympathising with the plight of the Palestinians (though it might be nice to recognise their culpability in the conflict too). There is nothing anti-Semitic about lacerating Israel for walls and checkpoints and bombs (though do address your alternative strategies to Beit Aghion, 9 Smolenskin Street, Jerusalem, Israel.)

The Left’s unhinged antipathy towards the State of Israel has let loose ugly sentiments wholly unmoored from such legitimate criticisms. Israel is execrated as uniquely malignant and its enemies held up as plucky freedom-fighters or victim-idols. Corbyn and his like sup with Hamas and Hezbollah, they say, because we must talk to all sides to resolve the conflict, even the extreme and unpleasant. It would never occur to them to invite representatives of the Jewish Defence League to Parliament or to count Baruch Marzel or Michael Ben-Ari as “friends”.

Why don’t the policies of the Chinese government in Tibet or against the Uighurs in Xinjiang inspire comparable protests and boycotts? Why do none of our cultural warriors demand the Edinburgh Festival kick out Russian-sponsored acts over Chechnya or Crimea? Why is produce from Iran or Pakistan never flung upon the floors of the nation’s supermarkets in solidarity with Muslim gays and women? Why is Deir Yassin remembered but not Safed or Hebron or the Hadassah convoy?

The problem goes deeper than asymmetry. For too many on the Left, Jewish suffering does not touch them the way Muslim suffering or gay suffering or black suffering touches them. Scrutiny of Corbyn’s associations elicits cries of “smear” or just a collective shrug of the shoulders. It was always going to. We lack a language to talk about anti-Semitism because too many on the Left don’t consider it a serious problem and couldn’t recognise it as readily as racism, misogyny or homophobia anyway.

When Labour MP Paul Flynn challenged the appointment of Britain’s first Jewish ambassador to Israel, demanding instead “someone with roots in the UK” who “can’t be accused of having Jewish loyalty”, there was little more than a few murmurs.

The Liberal Democrats looked the other way when their former peer Jenny Tonge urged an inquiry into whether Israeli medics helping earthquake victims in Haiti had actually gone there to harvest their organs. That party also failed to expel ex-MP David Ward, who accused “the Jews” of “inflicting atrocities on Palestinians”.

And who would come forward to cast the first stone? The Independent, which once published a cartoon of Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon eating a Palestinian baby? The Guardian, which marked Holocaust Memorial Day 2012 with an expose on public money going to security for Jewish schools? How about the New Statesman, publisher of a notorious cover story on the supposed “kosher conspiracy” influencing Britain?

Those who are questioning Jeremy Corbyn’s associations are dismissed as “extreme Zionists” and yet I struggle to imagine critics of a politician’s links to white supremacists being shouted down as “black nationalists”. The Left gets racism; it doesn’t get anti-Semitism. It’s forever on Cable Street battling a long-gone menace while around the corner thousands march and chant “from the river to the sea”.

Ruth Wisse defines anti-Semitism as “the organisation of politics against the Jews” and says it owes more to political ideology than clerical prejudice. Against the intolerable opening-up of political institutions, social structures and markets brought about by liberalism, anti-Semites offer the Jew as the symbol of conniving and decadence, sinister motives and hidden agendas. It has worked nicely for Soviet communists and Arab nationalists, as for Islamist theocrats and European fascists.

Israel has become the Jew of world affairs, affluent, successful, provocatively different. A rooted cosmopolitan that is to blame for being the only country in that region that is free and open and truly democratic. Why must it taunt its neighbours so?

If only Israel allowed Hamas to build up its terror statelet in Gaza unimpeded, angry Muslim youths wouldn’t riot in the French banlieues. If only Jews were driven once again from Kfar Etzion and Giv’on HaHadasha — this time not in blood but in cushioned, air-conditioned UN buses — there would be no more 9/11s. If only Jews had no national homeland, returned to rootlessness and the kindness of Christian and Islamic hosts, synagogues would no longer be daubed in swastikas and Free Gazas.

As the left-wing Israeli novelist Amos Oz wrote: “When my father was a little boy in Poland, the streets of Europe were covered with graffiti, ‘Jews, go back to Palestine’, or sometimes worse: ‘Dirty Yids, piss off to Palestine’. When my father revisited Europe fifty years later, the walls were covered with new graffiti, ‘Jews, get out of Palestine’.”

To be an anti-Zionist is to say the Jews alone have no national rights. The Left are committed internationalists; they just make an exception for every country in the world besides Israel. Today a European leftist is someone who sees “Jews, get out of Palestine” on a wall and tuts, before scoring out “Jews” and writing “Zionists” above it.

Jeremy Corbyn is not an anti-Semite and nor are most people on the Left. He is a petition-signer who never reads the small-print, a sincere man blinded as so many radicals are by hatred of the United States and Western power. But his ascendancy comes at a time of great upheaval and populist torrents battering the centre-left and centre-right. It is a storm in which the organisation of politics against the Jews could once again prove an anchoring force in Europe.

Corbyn has declared: “We all have a duty to oppose any kind of racism wherever it raises its head, in whatever form it raises its head.” When he is elected Labour leader next month, Corbyn will become a pivotal figure on the international Left. He should use that office to mature his own politics and shepherd his comrades towards a civil and tolerant radicalism.

Originally published on STV NewsFeature image © Wayne McLean (jgritz) by Creative Commons 2.0.

Two words Britain should say to her immigrants — thank you

There are stories that just get to you.

This morning’s Guardian brings news of a campaign to boost the number of blood donors in Britain.

A sunny, upbeat tale, you might think. And in part it is.

The campaign in question is the brainchild of the British Poles Initiative. Organisers want newcomers to the UK to donate blood in the hopes of countering hostile attitudes towards immigrants.

This is heartwarming, in one sense, but in another it is profoundly disturbing that immigrants feel they must swear a blood oath to prove their loyalty.

If there is any group whose commitment to our country is not in question, it is surely immigrants, who have left behind their friends and often their families in pursuit of a better life here.

And in doing so, they have brought an abundance of benefits to Britain. So instead of migrants donating blood, welcome though that is, Britain should say thank you to its most recent citizens, from Poland and elsewhere.

Here is a small beginning; please share your own reasons on social media:

Thank you to the 7.8 million people born abroad now living in Britain. You make up more than one in ten of our population.

Thank you European immigrants for putting £20bn into our economy in just ten years.

Thank you immigrants from outside Europe. You contributed a further £5bn in the same decade.

Thank you EU migrants for being so highly educated. You are more likely than native-born Brits to hold a university degree.

Thank you for saving us £49bn. That’s the estimated cost of providing people born here with the skills you have brought.

Thank you for how hard you work, especially if you are from a European Union country. You are more likely to be in employment than those born and raised in the UK.

Thank you for being net contributors to our welfare state. You are 43% less likely than native-born Britons to claim benefits.

Thank you to soldiers from the Commonwealth. You represent more than ten per cent of British Army troops.

Thank you for making up one out of every ten NHS or community health worker.

Thank you for comprising one-quarter of all NHS doctors.

And thank you for the blood. We’re starting to think we couldn’t run the NHS without you…

Thank you for Clive James and Kazuo Ishiguro, Iris Murdoch and Oscar Wilde.

Thank you for kåldolmar and pierogi, kheer and gulab jamun. Thank you for banana and cashew halva, though my blood sugar levels might disagree.

Thank you for Tomasz Schafernaker. Good Lord, thank you for Tomasz Schafernaker.

Thank you for Isaiah Berlin and Henry James, Sigmund Freud and Handel.

Thank you for Raheem Sterling and Wilfried Zaha, Owen Hargreaves and John Barnes.

Thank you for Mo Farah, Chris Froome, Bradley Wiggins, and Kevin Pietersen too. (Sorry, butlook at him.)

Thank you for Marks and Spencer. The high street favourite was co-founded in 1884 by Michael Marks, a Belarusian Jew.

Thank you for starting up one in every seven million-pound companies in the UK. Taken together, your firms are behind 14% of jobs in our country.

Thank you for my local Polski sklep and the cute guy behind the counter who sells me my ogórki kiszone.

Thank you for not expecting anyone to thank you for any of this.

Thank you for choosing us, that makes many of us feel proud.

Thank you for choosing Britain, it wouldn’t be Britain without you.

Originally published on STV News

Backing Corbyn is another step on Daily Record’s journey to Yes

The Daily Record was once a giant of Scottish life, at its height read by one in every two Scots.

The days of such sales figures are long gone but some newspapers retain a certain status, conferred by journalism or symbolism.

The Record qualifies on both counts and even if it is no longer Scotland’s most-read title, it is a daily distillation of what much of Scotland thinks and in particular the central belt working class.

I love the Daily Record. I truly do. It’s the best newspaper in Scotland for political reporting, a distinction earned during the referendum campaign. Through a mixture of hard news and populist campaigning, editor Murray Foote has achieved a quality of journalism that tabloid nostalgists associate with the “glory days”. The 2000s, and the paper’s wince-making mimicry of its nearest rival, are a distant memory. They have almost – almost – redeemed themselves for “Keep the Clause”.

It was one of the most rewarding moments of my career to see an essay I wrote about my grandfather and Scotland’s changing politics reprinted in the Record, the paper that granddad took every day. Like most people 30 and upwards, the Daily Record was always around the house when I was growing up, like a neighbour who popped in for a cup of tea and a natter.

So it is in that spirit of admiration and with respect to its role in the political debate that I consider the paper’s endorsement of Jeremy Corbyn for the leadership of the Labour Party. And what an unhinged, airy-fairy, moon-howling piece of nonsense it is.

The Record has usually been sensible Labour. This is not a sensible decision. It is an endorsement of an extreme man with extreme views and extreme associations.

The accompanying editorial is passionate and shot-through with anger about the policies of the present government and the impact the paper believes they are having on the low-paid and the vulnerable. But there is not a word, not even a hint, of an alternative. “Corbyn’s anti-austerity message inspires people and restores their faith that a better way is possible.” What is that better way? What would a Corbynite economic programme look like? It’s not enough to hate the Tories, you have to offer a better plan.

In place of a blueprint, we are offered chicken soup for the left-wing soul. The Record intones that “we desperately need to reconnect Labour with its roots”, as though this was a daring and original strategy. When Labour lost government in 1979, it spent more than a decade trying to reconnect with its roots before eventually deciding it might be worthwhile reconnecting with the voters. The two decades in the wilderness brought about by that self-indulgent soul-searching hurt Daily Record readers a great deal, yet their paper now proposes another generation of righteous impotence.

What are the Labour Party’s roots? Labour was founded so that working people, organised through mutuals, cooperatives and trade unions, could leverage power through the ballot box. It was not set up as a debating society or a pressure group. It is Jeremy Corbyn and his supporters, not the hated “right-wingers”, who want to tear Labour away from these roots. Corbyn backers openly admit that he cannot win an election in this country and yet this seems only to magnify their fervour. They are not voting for a future prime minister; they are voting to stick two fingers up to the country. At some point, Labour is going to have to come to terms with the general election result.

When Corbynistas speak about Labour’s “roots”, they invariably mean the revisionist history of the labour movement peddled by the far-left. But the Labour Party is a reformist, not a revolutionary outfit, at different points in its history pursuing democratic socialism, social democracy, and liberal egalitarianism. Corbyn is poised to throw all that away in favour of ideological purity and oppositional sentiment.

But wait, the Record says, we don’t want any of that. We recognise that Labour has to be electable too:

Corbyn must learn from the lessons of history. In the 1980s, Labour’s rigid principles opened the door to more than a decade of Thatcherism. Far from protecting the poor, the high principles of the left ensured their sacrifice to a right-wing government. That is why a Corbyn leadership would have to temper these principles with the pragmatic and practical desire to govern.

This paean to moderation would carry a little more clout if it wasn’t crowbarred into a hagiography of the most dogged foe of pragmatism and practicality since Tony Benn. But we leave contradictory behind and veer into absurdism with this nugget:

It is not an abandonment of social justice to seek popular support for your policies. The only way poverty can be eradicated is if there is popular support for Labour policies. That means speaking not just to the true believers but seeking to convert people too.

These words appeared, I remind you, in a leader endorsing Jeremy Corbyn.

It goes on like this across two pages. The writing flows freely but the thinking comes hesitantly, as if in unspoken admission that they are backing a winner in September but a loser in May 2020:

Somehow, the party must weld the enthusiasm around Corbyn’s principles to the wider popular appeal that wins votes.

Labour must get back to its roots. But not too much or it’ll be unelectable. The Tories are wicked. Lots of people turn up to his rallies. Something must be done.

You call that a leader? I call it an emotional spasm.

Such is the tortured logic of an editorial that doesn’t mean what it says. Not on the indignities of austerity and economic mean-spiritedness. On those questions, the paper has a proud record of standing up for the humble and humbling the powerful. The problem is not insincerity so much as an internal conflict, and not about a hitherto obscure Labour backbencher but about the Daily Record’s place in Scotland and Scotland’s place in the world.

Contrary to popular mythology, the Record did not counsel a No vote in the independence referendum. It was one of several newspapers that left the matter up to its readers, a sure sign that it was unsure how the vote would go. It was an acknowledgement too that readers were divided on the question and no savvy newspaper editor knowingly offends half his readership.

Instead we had The Vow, an extraordinary exercise in activist reporting that sought to hammer out a cross-party consensus on further devolution in the event of a No vote. Where the Better Together parties had failed for years to reach agreement, the Daily Record pulled it off in the dying days of the campaign (and what at that point looked like the dying days of the United Kingdom).

While the famous parchment paper front page did not swing the referendum to No, it guaranteed there was a framework within which the Unionist parties had to operate after September 18. Whatever the deficiencies of the Scotland Bill – and I think they are legion – the Record’s securing of a substantial slate of new powers for the Scottish Parliament is an under-acknowledged triumph for campaigning journalism.

The Nationalists have still not forgiven the tabloid, for they console themselves with the myth that it was the Record wot won it for Better Together. It had to be. For if those who voted to stay part of the UK were not hoodwinked by The Vow, if they consciously chose the Union over independence, then it would mean that the private fears of some Nationalists were true. Scots would be a nation of quislings, cowards and forelock-tuggers after all. If you are as driven by dreams of national strength as the SNP is, that is devastating to contemplate.

The irony is that for all they inveigh against the Daily Record, it is moving steadily in their direction. A great many more page leads and spreads are dedicated to castigating the monstrous Tories than the SNP government in Edinburgh, which has a fair few failings to be getting on with. First Minister Nicola Sturgeon couldn’t ask for better coverage anywhere outside the pages of The National. (That beehive haircut picture aside.)

The Record’s journey has been Scotland’s journey and it did not begin in the dying days of a frenzied referendum campaign. As the academic David Seawright documents, the tabloid’s and the country’s long meander away from Unionism began in its shift from the right to the left:

When the Daily Record was a Tory supporting paper it readily used the idea of ‘alien’ socialism but by the 1964 Election the Record was now equating Labour with ‘Scottishness’, a vote for ‘Labour was a vote for Scotland’… The Unionist ethos was no longer rooted in Scottish consciousness, the Conservative Party in Scotland would now be the party perceived as having an ‘alien’ identity; an ‘anglicised’ one.

Demonising the Conservatives as “anti-Scottish” worked when the Record could point to Labour as a viable alternative. Now Labour are the Red Tories, the Record finds itself tarred with an “alien” identity and it must choose between the party it has supported for 50 years or the country it aspires to speak to and for. And the paper knows what Liz Kendall knows: The country comes first.

That’s why the Corbyn endorsement feels like a final roll of the dice. Perhaps some unforeseen turnaround will deliver him to the door of Number 10 and an authentically socialist UK will remove the need for independence. But if it doesn’t, the Daily Record has distanced itself from New Labour and backed the SNP’s favoured candidate for the Labour leadership. It is another step and while there are still a few more to go the end point seems inevitable.

I’m not saying Murray Foote has made up his mind yet. Maybe he hasn’t even daydreamed about the layout of the splash. I don’t know if the necessary phone calls and emails have been exchanged with London. But I am convinced when a second referendum comes, there will be no more vows and no more equivocations. Scotland’s champion will champion independence.

Originally published on STV NewsFeature image © Finlay McWalter at English Wikipedia by Creative Commons 3.0.

Jeremy Corbyn is not the Messiah, not in Scotland anyway

There’s an old Jewish joke – usually attributed to Teddy Kollek z”l – about the parting point for Judaism and Christianity.

What would you say to the Messiah if he appeared on Earth tomorrow, the former mayor of Jerusalem was asked.

“Is this your first time here?” he quipped.

If only supporters – devotees, really – of Jeremy Corbyn were as equanimous about his arrival on the scene. He too has been here before – he’s made a 32-year career out of not being a careerist – but his campaign for the Labour leadership has been greeted as a moment of revelation.

This leads some to wonder if the fevered crowds flocking to the backbencher’s public meetings have come down with a bad case of Scotlanditis. North of the border, support for the SNP has taken on a religious character for some, with every policy and pronouncement from Nicola Sturgeon accepted on faith alone.

I heard an echo of this at Corbyn’s rally at the Edinburgh International Conference Centre on Friday. A packed hall – young and old alike but more male than female and overwhelmingly white – whooped and clapped at his every word.

Corbynmania shares some characteristics with organised religion. There are prayers (“Lead us not into the centre and deliver us from Kendall”), almsgiving (he thanked the congregation for £100,000 raised over recent weeks), a redemption narrative (resurrection of the old Labour Party), and an Antichrist (though instead of casting him out of Heaven, they want to throw him in the Hague).

The disciples hang worshipfully on the gospel according to Corbyn. They have accepted him as their political saviour and been reborn in the spirit of ’83. Perhaps they don’t quite revere him like the other JC – a Jew born in Bethlehem and therefore an illegal Israeli settler – but if he tried and failed to walk on water they’d blame New Labour for not renationalising the utilities.

But here the religion analogy breaks down. The Church of Corbyn doesn’t seek converts; in fact, it wants rid of people it finds insufficiently pious. They’re evangelicals in reverse: They will be His witnesses in Islington, in all Hayes and Harlington, and to the ends of the M25.

No, this isn’t a retread of the SNP surge. In fact, when we compare Corbynmania and Yesteria we see they are not only distinct but oppositional phenomena. The most committed (and committable) of Scottish Nationalists have formed a religious attachment to their party. No matter what the SNP does, they believe in it. Nicola Sturgeon could declare herself an enthusiast of puppy-choking and a sizeable section of the membership would start eyeing up Rover and the phone cord nearby.

The Corbynistas are devout sceptics. They’re just itching for him to win so they can declare him a sell-out in a few months’ time. While it seems there is almost no policy – save abandoning independence – that could cleave some Nationalists from the SNP, there is little Corbyn could do as leader that would satisfy his most intense partisans.

Like the SNP, they have a cause but it’s not the restoration of democratic socialism; what they yearn for is the comfort of betrayal. If Corbyn lived up to their expectations, that would mean there was someone in the world as good and sincere and progressive as them. And the far-leftist is a creature born of moral superiority.

That is what stood out at the Edinburgh rally: Amidst the CND badges, the salutations to “comrades, friends, brothers and sisters”, the denunciations of the Tory press and Labour moderates, there was a suffocating air of certainty. One speaker announced that “neoliberalism” must be rejected in favour of socialism because socialism is about the individual. No one laughed.

Katy Clark, left-wing former Labour MP, announced: “I’m more worried about the right-wing in the Labour Party right now than the right-wing outwith it”, before adding that “some of the people attacking Jeremy would not have been happy with Keir Hardie as leader”. The capacity was standing room only but it wouldn’t have hurt to squeeze a few doubts in too.

Mainstream journalists and politicians are lambasted for not “getting” Corbynmania and denounced as Pharisees for clinging to outdated conventional thinking. I know I should prostrate myself here and engage in some self-laceration but I’m not going to. The voters are seldom wrong, as any smart strategist will tell you, but Corbyn’s fan base are not voters so much as democratic tantrum-throwers. They opted out of British politics, by their own admission, two decades ago and since have either cast their ballot for one impossibilist sect or another or abstained altogether.

When the last Labour government was setting up the Scottish Parliament, introducing the minimum wage, repealing Section 28, and guaranteeing paid holiday leave, Corbynistas were still grumbling into their lattes and their pints of mild about nationalisation and the expulsion of Militant. Maybe they were left behind by modernisation but only because they chose to cling to a failed and dying creed.

And he has the young, too. His prescriptions sound original to them because they are not old enough to remember the last time they were tested in government. Endless strikes and flying pickets are inconceivable to those who grew up after trade union reform. If you try to tell them about rubbish in the streets and bodies left unburied they will accuse you of scaremongering. Inefficient state monopolies, a top rate of income tax at 83%, the debilitating culture of managed mediocrity – all these mean nothing to millennials. They have spent four years at university and have call centre jobs and debt to show for it. They feel their future and all their dreams slipping away and in these moments of desperation crude fantasy can pass itself off as hope.

Jeremy Corbyn draws on this embitterment and sells the angry and marginalised nostalgia for simpler times, before everything was sullied by compromise and Peter Mandelson. Labour would be worst affected if (or rather when) he becomes leader but Ukip could take a hit too. Their appeal is not just to Europhobia and anti-immigrationism; it is a broader reaction against liberal modernity. Where Ukip offers the outsider as a scapegoat, Corbyn points to the bankers and the Blairites; where they push national strength and pride, he extends the promise of political resurgence and class dignity.

Against the complexities of the modern world, with its free markets, liberalised trade, property gouging, and wealth disparities, the heroic dogmas of the academy and homely populism of the miners’ welfare. Corbyn makes for a mild-mannered demagogue – he reminds me of that Volvo-driving geography teacher who insisted on bringing in a Thermos of tea every morning – but a demagogue is what he is. It’s little wonder a poll this week found him slightly more popular with Ukip voters than supporters of his own party. It won’t carry him into Number 10 but don’t underestimate the appeal of Red Farageism.

Corbynistas naively preach that their man can “win back Scotland” and in doing so expose their ignorance of the political scene. The Tories are upfront about their preference for Corbyn but the Nationalists have been cannier, hinting that they could work with him in a “progressive alliance” in the hopes of bolstering his appeal to Labour members. They know Corbyn means more Tory governments and more Tory governments mean independence is a dead cert.

This is why it was telling to see a senior SNP MP slip up on Twitter: “Corbyn pursues the old Bennite fantasy that English people vote Tory because they want a more left wing Labour Party,” tweeted John Nicolson, adding: “He will never ever win a UK election. He is Michael Foot for the 21st C.”

And therein lies the chief difference between Corbynism and the SNP: The SNP wins elections. Corbyn’s flock can have all the faith they want; he doesn’t have a prayer.

Originally published on STV NewsFeature image © Tsering Lhamo by Creative Commons 3.0.