Sunday, 22 July 2012


A bit like, it appears, Angus Robertson MP, I am a great man for giving the public what they want.

Accordingly, earlier today, I conducted a brief opinion survey, via twitter as to the subject of this, my final pre holiday blog.

I'm not one for confusing issues with a multiplicity of questions (regular readers may already know that), so I offered a simple choice: Scottish politics or Italian cheeses?

Given my conceit over the value attached to my political opinions, I was rather taken aback at the unanimity of the response. I was tempted for a moment to conclude that this was an organised attempt by the YES Scotland campaign to silence one of  their critics but that would force the conclusion they are better organised than might be immediately apparent. Or possibly obsesssed with cheese, perhaps as a result of the appreciation of the incongruity of the very concept of Scottish Cheddar.

Detailed poll analysis however led to the conclusion that the cheeseophiles belonged to all Parties and none, united, it appears, only in their common love for rennet. So cheese it is.

The problem then however is that there is only so much you can say about cheese. Not that it is not a noble subject, its just that it is more appreciated by eating than reading, ideally with a decent glass of wine.

Obviously it is possible to write about the colour, the texture, the method of manufacture but, to be honest, that's a pretty boring list. Cheese is really all about the smell and in that context the comparisons one might immediately choose would lead the proverbial, recently arrived, Martian to suspect that the entire human race had lost their collective marbles.

But I love cheese and amongst the myriad cultural, literary and, lets be honest, meteorological delights I anticipate experiencing on my forthcoming Italian expedition, eating a lot of cheese is right up there at the top of that list.

But which cheese? All and any might be the immediate response but that would bring the blog to a rather premature end.

So I'll start with the local speciality, Pecorino Toscano.We're not actually in Tuscany, as we're just over the Umbrian border. But the Province of Siena is just ten miles away and if there is a finer cheese in the whole world than Pecorino di Pienza then I've yet to encounter it. 

You get pecorino here in Scotland of course, but it is invariably pecorino stagionato. Hard and, in domestic usage, mainly used gratinato on pasta. Pecorino di Pienza does, of course come in  in the stagionato variation but the real treat is Pecorino Fresco. Soft, sweet, creamy. The Martians will just have to accept that it smells a bit of old socks but the taste......... Ideally taken with a grape or two, and honey for a real treat. And the wine? From Montepulciano, just up the road.

And then you have scamorza affumicata. Really a southern cheese, originally from the wonderful province of Bari. Pear shaped, golden skinned, smells very slightly of the Adriatic (at least in my head) and tastes like smoked milk. And I mean that as an unconditional compliment. Perfect with soft fruit, and cold white wine. Orvieto classico., or even amabile if you like that sort of thing. 

Now I appreciate that the cheese fanatics could probably read this sort of thing all day but I have to have some regard for my other readers, so I'm afraid I'm going to skip over provolone, taleggio, the much (IMHO) under-rated dolcelatte, casciotta, even fresh mozzarella di bufala and come straight to the finale: gorgonzola.

You either like blue cheese or you don't but, if you do, this is the daddy. Some swear by the crumblier varieties, but I prefer it "wet", not quite so salty and perfect to allow to melt on the tongue or even swallow down whole like an oyster. I quite like it with a wee bit bread, to clean the pallet between slices, and a red grape or two, more tannin the better. If you can't run to a Brunello (and, let's face it, few can) then best to go a wee bit south for the wine as the heavier the better. The reds from Montefalco are the heaviest in Umbria and would top my list.

And that's it, for this political season. If I did just have one bit of advice for Scotland's big cheese it would be that he too should take a holiday. I've never pretended that he is anything other than a politician of the first rank but he's beginning to look a bit ragged. Political success requires not just long term objectives but short term decisiveness. Dare I say it, in that latter regard, he's beginning to remind you of a certain Fife based politician of recent memory. Maybe Eck just needs a break. Only by taking one will he, or we, know.

Enough. The sun is calling. And so is the cheese.

Saturday, 14 July 2012

Bob McLean: An appreciation

Most of those who read this will already have learned, earlier today, of the tragically young death of Dr Bob McLean.

No one person will ever be able to pay full tribute to his life for, even to me, it had so many aspects that I could not hope to follow them all.

I didn't even meet him until after his time at Aberdeen University and, not being, despite best personal effort, at an NUS affiliated University, much of what he did within NUS, although later spoken of warmly by others, did not really impact on me at the time.

His work at the Edinburgh Museums and Galleries was even something that you had to work out for yourself as Bob was never one to boast of his own role in the numerous ground breaking events and exhibitions he had been key to.

And as for his stamp and coin interests..............each to their own as they say.

But all of these things, which others would have regarded in themselves as major life achievements, were, in the end, secondary to the great cause of his life, the fight for a Scottish Parliament.

Bob was one of the least sectarian politicians I had ever met. He was in the Campaign for a Scottish Assembly when association with the SDP/ Liberal Alliance, never mind the SNP, was regarded as bordering on treason by many in the Labour Party. He realised however that the defeat of the 79 proposals had come about precisely because an insufficiently broad coalition had been built in their support. He also realised that this very coalition needed to embrace a much wider enthusiasm in the Labour Party itself. It was to that he set his hand.

His masterwork, to my mind, was never his acclaimed PhD thesis on Michael Collins, or even his History of the Campaign for a Scottish Parliament but two pamphlets he wrote for Scottish Labour Action under the title "Labour and Scottish Nationalism" in which he tried to show both how Home Rule had been so central to the Party's mission since its inception and also how Labour and what ultimately emerged as the SNP had not always been the mortal enemies they became.

He was a natural recruit to the founding of Scottish Labour Action and Chair of the organisation throughout its existence, not least because his reputation as a constituency activist and election agent was always a shield against internal opposition based on accusations of disinterest in the wider Labour cause.

Above all however he was a man who believed that if you were not going forward you were inevitably doing worse than standing still. For many years we would speak almost daily and his opening line was always "What's happening", for he always believed something must be happening on which we ought to be trying to exert some influence. And no-one had more ability to exert that influence than Bob.

For he was always a great strategist. He saw, long before any of the rest of us, the necessity of a Constitutional Convention, and of Labour playing a full, but not arrogant, part in that Convention's deliberations.

And he also saw the compromises that might be necessary to bring about the ultimate goal. "Eyes on the Prize", quoting Dr King,  was his suggested title for one of the SLA Conference briefings. No-one had  a greater sense of that ultimate prize than Bob.

Friends will know that sadly his health had been failing in recent years and although his death at such a young age is of course a shock  it is perhaps not entirely a surprise. He was always a "big" man in a way that did not only embrace his intellect and that undoubtedly took a toll on his health, as did the death of his beloved mother to whom he devoted so much care and time. But it is also often the case that those who burn brightest do so for a shorter span. Never more so than here.

No-one who ever met Bob McLean would ever forget him. And when the history of his time in politics comes to be written, neither will Scotland

Thursday, 12 July 2012

A mini blog on freedom of information

Today, Rosemary Agnew, the new Information Commissioner, has decided to order the Scottish Government must disclose whether it has obtained legal advice on an Independent Scotland's right to remain part of the European Union.

In doing so, she has also ruled that, if it has, it need not disclose its content.

On that second point she has my unconditional support. Governments of any rank must be entitled to the confidentiality of their legal advice as much as any private individual.

We have an adversarial legal system. Every lawyer knows the strength and weaknesses of their own case. It would be absurd if they had to disclose the weaknesses to the other side just because their client was the government. Whether that ought to be our system is a topic for another day altogether.

The first point, whether they must disclose if  legal advice exists at all,  is more difficult and indeed one on which the Scottish Government intends to appeal to the Court of Session. Now, at this point I could, myself, provide an "on the one hand, but on the other" opinion.

But if I was advising the Government as a lawyer, I'd ask what would be gained by winning such an appeal. If the Government possesses opinion that Scottish EU membership is unproblematical they would surely have published it. If their opinion says otherwise then understandably they'd like to keep that to themselves. But only in the second scenario would they object to people knowing whether it exists at all. Even if the Court of Session supports them in that objective.

Tuesday, 10 July 2012


I want to start off with a history lesson.

In 2003, Labour, under Jack McConnell, was returned with a plurality in the Scottish Parliament. The same had happened under a different leader four years before. And, four years before there had been a faction, myself included, that had argued that we should have formed a minority administration and built a majority on a bill by bill basis.

But then, big Donald, steeped in Westminster experience, had decreed that a Government required a guaranteed overall majority in the chamber on all important matters. So, when, in 1999, the newly elected Labour MPs washed up in Edinburgh for the first time they were ushered into a receiving room past Donald and Henry, who each shook their hand in a manner that, Frank McAveety later recalled, reminded you of the bride and groom at a gay wedding. Donald then addressed the assembled rank and file to advise them that he had decided that a coalition with the Liberal Democrats was the only way forward. And no one demurred.

So, in the 2003 aftermath, such a renewed coalition appeared the obvious way forward. And Jack, by then our leader, was sent off to seal the deal.

To be honest, I can't remember what the Libs "wanted" in 1999. But I do know what it was in 2003: PR for local government. So when Jack came back to the Labour Group to advise that, unfortunately and despite his best argument, he had conceded that to them, who were the Labour Group to argue?

All very straightforward, Except that, actually, Jack was in favour of PR for Local Government. He'd written a Scottish Labour Action pamphlet making that very argument long before he'd ever thought he might be First Minister. To have to concede that "demand" as the price of coalition was, in reality, no concession at all. It was a way of by-passing an argument that he could not win, internally, within the Labour Party

So what's the point of this modern history lesson?

Alex Salmond was in exactly the same position in the run up to 2007. Like Donald, he saw the attraction of a majority administration. And, like Donald, he saw the Libs as his only conceivable partners. And like Jack he realised that they would want a concession. And like Jack he realised that this might be a concession that would deliver the policy he actually favoured. So if the Libs had demanded a second question within any Independence Referendum called  in the aftermath of  2007 as the price of coalition, this was a demand he would have "reluctantly" conceded. But the Libs wouldn't play.

All subsequent Scottish politics has to be understood against that background.

Now here I must pay Eck some credit. He doesn't really want a second question. Indeed, in an ideal world he doesn't even want a referendum, and not in the cynical version of that omission I have advanced.

Ideally, Eck would like to fight a Scottish Parliamentary election on the basis that an SNP victory would be a mandate to directly negotiate the dissolution of the United Kingdom. But he knows he could not win on that basis, hence the original compromise that at the best (or worst), such a victory would mean simply a referendum.  But he also knows that he couldn't win such a referendum. Everybody secretly knows that, even the wilder cybernats who maintain that the opinion polls themselves are part of a Unionist conspiracy.

Eck also knows however that his Party rank and file really believe that the Party's non negotiable objective must be to achieve independence. It was that which caused them to drive out John McCormick in favour, even, of Nazi apologisers in the 1940s and which later saw the triumph of the fundies in the early 1980s.

But Eck also believes that any step towards greater devolution is a welcome step forward, unlike many of his rank and file who would decry it as a compromise or, worse, a betrayal. So, just like Jack, who could never have found a way to persuade the vested interests in the Labour Party to embrace PR, Eck thought that the Libs would give him a way out. Only, as I say, they wouldn't.

His mistake (he might think otherwise) was to stick to the strategy of forced compromise when it was unclear, to say the least, as to who was forcing it upon him. There is not a single political Party in Scotland which publicly supports anything other than a yes/no vote. Not the pro-independence SNP, Greens or SSP; nor the anti-independence Labour, Tories or Libs. Even the various rag, tag and bobtails who do support a second question do so in the belief that a defined option will emerge and concede that there is no prospect of that happening.

Now, not a  soul believes for a minute that the "consultation analysis" will credibly throw up an overwhelming demand for something different from a direct choice. But as Uncle Joe famously observed, it's not who votes that count, it's who counts the votes. We are told this "analysis" will report in the Autumn but, for what it is worth,  I can confidently predict that "the Autumn" will prove to be some date after 21st October, when the SNP Conference ends. That buys more time.

In the end however you can't run away for ever. Eck, at some point will either have to adopt either the model of the Grand Old Duke of York or that of Lord Cardigan, in command of the Charge of the Light Brigade.

For legal reasons I have already outlined at length there will then either be a resignation to a direct yes/no vote or an attempt to keep the second question alive in the knowledge that this will mean no vote at all.

My money's still with the Grand Old Duke.

Saturday, 7 July 2012

The State of the Game

I don't usually blog on a Saturday but tomorrow I plan to watch a tennis match.

Even having decided to do so I am undecided as to the topic. The admirable Nationalist blogger, Lallands Peat Worrier, posted a thoughful contribution to the constitutional debate earlier this week. It deserves a response in kind and, in time, I will try to provide it.

But, instead I'm going to post about football. And I do so prompted by a brief exchange with another courteous Nationalist, Natalie McGarry. Nat, by name and nature as she was described on Scotland Tonight,  tweeted within the last few days that she was minded to return to blogging and appealed for suggested topics. Replying instantly, I suggested "Rangers", It was meant as a joke but, on reflection, maybe it was insightful in its frivolity.

For a Country meant to be in the throws of a constitutional fervent, actual people, not internet political partisans, are much more interested in the state of our national game than they are in the state of our nation.

I'm a supporter of one of the wee teams, St Mirren. The club's main unofficial website recently asked for accounts of supporters first game. I couldn't answer that question because it was so long ago, and I was so young, that I have absolutely no recollection of the event. I've just "always" gone, to Love Street and then latterly to New Greenhill Road.

But like many supporters of their local team, I was not always constant. When I moved to Kilsyth in 1992 it all became a bit to difficult to trek back to Paisley every second Saturday and I slowly drifted away. I even, for a while, gave Clyde a wee go. But they were never "my" team and, anyway, they were rubbish, so over time I just stopped going altogether, other than on special occasions such as encounters with the Morton.

And then in 1999, one of my pals phoned to say that we really had a team worth watching again and I should make the effort to see them. And I did and they were worth the effort. "Big" (actually that is insufficient description) Mark Yardley; Junior Mendes who, if he could have been arsed, could have played for Barcelona (but rarely could be arsed) and Barry ("Basher") Lavety. What a team!

But there is one moment of that team, of that season, that I particularly remember. There were four teams in contention for promotion: Us, Falkirk, Dunfermline and Livingston. Towards the end of the season we played Livvy away midweek. It was make or break for them and they rose to the challenge and attacked from the off. There were 1500 of us packed in, in the freezing cold, at the away end and, in the second half, we were under siege. And in goal was Ludovic, "Ludo", Roy, who played a blinder.

Now, as you might have deduced from his name, Ludo was not from Paisley; indeed he was French. But while in our heads we could recognise that he was just a journeyman pro who had washed up in Paisley by accident of history, in our hearts, for that forty five minutes we believed he could as well have been born in Causeyside Street. As save after save was made an invisible bond formed between him and the fans behind his goal. And you slowly realised they were never going to score.

And, at the end, as we chanted "Ludo, Ludo" and embraced complete strangers, they were not strangers, they were Paisley folk who, even if you didn't know them directly, would certainly know somebody who knew you. And Ludo, for that moment at least, was one of us.

These better moments are what makes people so engaged in football. The game certainly but also the sense of belonging, and of common cause, and, just occasionally, sheer joy.

And I defy any supporter, of any team, not to have had a similar experience. The sort of experience that makes you excuse, or at least forget, all the dysfunctional home defeats, in steady sleet, boasting not a a singular redeeming feature; defeats that invariably end with the team booed off the park.

So, to that extent, it is no surprise that when the game in Scotland is in crisis, and be in no doubt that Rangers are as much a symptom as a cause of that crisis, everybody has an opinion. And everybody worries about what it might mean for their own team.

But crises demand leadership and the difficulty that Scottish Football is facing is that too many who are meant to provide that leadership seem concerned not with the welfare of every team but only with the welfare of one team.

For the Chief Executive of the SFA to be in a position where he consistently denegrates the product of his own association; threatens his own long standing members at the instigation of an institution which has not even, yet, applied to join; casually disregards rules and regulations; misrepresents the position of other stakeholders; asserts consequences of certain outcomes without any regard for actuality; makes hyperbolic claims of social unrest (social unrest!!!!) unless a team gets to play in the League he has chosen for them; all of these things are unacceptable. Some of them are bordering on farcical.

In consequence, however, we now find ourselves in a situation where the occupant of  a position in which trust is essential is someone of whom no-one believes a word he says.

Anybody who has read the detailed, sometimes agonised,  statements of Clubs like Stenhousemuir, or attended meetings of fans like that organised by my own club can only feel sympathy for the Directors and officials trying to balance the good of their own club, the good of Scottish football and the imperative of sporting integrity. But all of us need to decide where we stand on the basis of the true facts (it's indicative of the problem that in this context this construction is not tautological) and that can only come from a full disclosure of the position of the sponsors, particularly the television companies.

Assertions that we must simply trust those in whom we have no reason to invest trust is simply not good enough.

Mr Regan is, in the end, an employee. If any of my employees claimed that they were justified in keeping secrets from me, then they wouldn't occupy that position much beyond the end of the sentence in which they made that assertion. It's time the clubs asserted their authority and we all knew the truth.

Sunday, 1 July 2012

A Banking Tale

Four weeks yesterday I'll be in Italy. It'll be just my luck if that's the day it finally stops raining in Scotland but, even then, I will not be tempted to turn back at the airport.

I need my holiday every year. And it is, if I say it myself, a deserved reward after 49 weeks of pretty hard graft.

But the real graft isn't the work. I enjoy the work, grim though its subject matter sometimes is. The real graft is running a small business, which, 31st May past, I've been doing for twenty-one years.

I don't myself hold to the Tory view that small business is over-regulated by Government. We've had little or no grief from the State, local or national, over that period. Sure, the Legal Aid Board could be a bit more competent in their decision making but the tax authorities we deal with: (VAT and PAYE for ourselves; Stamp Duty Land Tax for the clients) have always, in my experience, been unobtrusive in their day to day activities and positively helpful when called upon for advice or assistance. And the Cooncil largely leave us alone, which is the best any small business can hope for.

Over the years I've also managed to hire, and occasionally fire, numerous employees without encountering either the worries about recruitment or the difficulties in departure which we are assured by the wider fringes of the Conservative Party are holding back enterprise.

So, if anybody was to suggest to me that "the state" was a problem for business I could only honestly say that this is not my experience.

But business is business and the legal business is no different. For all they provide 90% of the grief, the Legal Aid Board provide a (declining) 30% of our turnover. And the rest of the turnover is subject to the same ups and downs that affect any other business.

Sometimes you have to speculate to accumulate. Court fees incurred; expert opinions obtained and paid for; simple work in progress carried on behalf of clients who might have a guaranteed settlement but who are unable to pay you as they go along. And if you have over speculated, you need a supportive bank.

Now, at this point you might be expecting a horror story about my own banking experience but, to be honest, I've never had a single problem with my bank, RBS. Any time I've made a case for borrowing, they've stepped up to the plate. Indeed the only time I've been reprimanded by my bank manager was when he complained, on receiving the direct debit, that I had purchased a new car without taking the loan from him!

But while I was at the Law Society I was aware, ex officio, that the banks generally had decided that small legal businesses were a risk. To be honest, like a lot of what went on then, I ingested this information intellectually and then passed it on to others without really thinking that it would affect me.

So, when the new bank manager rolled in nine months later we drank coffee, we exchanged a few words about our different "business", we discussed the state of the nation, we confessed our respective football allegiance and we then shook hands and went on our respective ways.

Thus, when the same man phoned a week or so later to assure me "in case I was worried"  that my overdraft had been renewed, the only moment I actually was "worried" was when I first realised this might have been a matter at issue in the first place!

Now, over the 21 years, I have not spent all of the profits on Italian holidays, tempting though that might have been, so the withdrawal of my overdraft would not have led to my ruin. But it would have involved me in encashing some long term investments and incurring penalties in the process. And, interestingly, the principal  beneficary of these penalties would have been my personal bank........... RBS.

I give that personal experience only to demonstrate one thing. That it is important that banks behave ethically.But also that we have assumed in the past that they do. If the bank had pulled my overdraft, it would not have occurred to me for a minute that this was a decision, even if I disagreed with it, that had been made on anything other than its own merits.

That is what is so shocking about recent events. That there was no pretence, even, that decisions were being taken with regard to the circumstance of the customer. They were being taken solely in the interests of the bank.

And the really shocking case is that of Farepak, where HBOS, knowing that the venture was bust, instructed the Company to continue to collect money being paid to it by those who on any view were the deserving poor in the knowledge that the payers would get no return and the only beneficiary of their payments would be HBOS themselves.

Now, I have already said that Farepak was the absolute low point of New Labour. For the sake of a few million pounds,  "moral hazard" was applied to some of the poorest of our citizens by the very same people who later threw billions at those much better placed to afford such loss, and better informed in the first place, on the basis that they were "too big to fail".

There is a solution to this. It's even already in our hands. If health and education are essential to national wellbeing, then so is credit. So let's not give the (already) nationalised banks back to the private sector. Let's keep them in public ownership. And let's start managing them in the public interest as well,  rather than that of their residual private shareholders.

Now that would be the start of a really radical Labour Manifesto for the next election.