Negotiating the corridors of power

Negotiating the corridors of power

RECENTLY I got involved in a Twitter debate, one of the joys of social media.

Kevin Williamson, doyen of Leith socialists, asked, not unreasonably in my view: “What do SNP loyalists have to say about ScotGovt decision to allow foreign tax dodgers & shadowy offshore corporations to own Scottish land?”

I tweeted agreement with his sentiments and then mountain man Cameron McNeish offered a counter-view, saying: “It’s a lost opportunity but don’t necessarily blame #ScotGov Blame the lawyers and civil servants?”

At which point I weighed in: “That’s a wee bit of a cop-out. Ministers heading for a 3rd term ought to have learned to stand up to them.”

All good natured stuff, but as the debate continued, with some saying it was wrong to blame the Sir Humphreys and others indicating hope that a long game was being played by Ministers, I got a private message.

This led to a chat over coffee which I admit gave me pause for thought. How did any of us know, across the whole field of Scottish Government activity, the level of interaction between Ministers and civil servants?

If, for example, a Minister decided to reject legal advice and proceed with a course of action, we might never know. If Government lawyers were sent away and told to come up with alternative advice, we might never hear of it.

In short there will be be all manner of negotiation going on in the corridors of power between civil servants and politicians, of which we remain unaware. Sure, at times the former may be more cautious than the latter, but it certainly isn’t as simplistic as wily Sir Humphreys pulling the wool over the eyes of naive Jim Hackers.

Of course if this is true, the buck really does stop with the Ministers.

A farewell tribute to Ian Bell

A farewell tribute to Ian Bell

I’m breaking my self-imposed word limit today for reasons that should be obvious. This is the full version of the tribute I made to my friend Ian Bell at his funeral in Edinburgh today. It was just one part of a flow of warm words in his memory. A little of it appeared in the piece I was asked to write about Ian recently in The National.

I’ll begin and end with songs because song mattered to Ian Bell.

He was a great admirer of Bruce Springsteen, and our time together on The Scotsman in the seventies and eighties brings to mind Glory Days “that pass you by in the wink of a young girl’s eye.”

The Boss sang: “I hope that when I get old I don’t sit around thinking about it, but I probably will / telling boring stories of Glory Days.”

Well here I am doing it. But my friend never got old. I hope at least that these stories aren’t too boring.

A quirk of fate saw me in 1973, straight out of school, accepted to be an indentured apprentice journalist — such were the terms of the old craft — joining The Scotsman in the New Year. It was an experiment never repeated. Those trainees who followed were all high-flying graduates and some, such as Andrew Marr, Lionel Barber and James Meek, were to scale the heights of journalism, broadcasting and literature.

But Ian found an unusual foot in the North Bridge door, a post for which his academic record should have rendered him absurdly over-qualified. Hence, as a tyro news reporter in 1978 using the newspaper’s library I found this intriguing new assistant there, soon to be taken across onto the sub-editors’ desk, and in turn to the features department as his writing talent was recognised.

Jim Seaton had succeeded Harry Reid as features and literary editor, and with deputy David Ross, set about assembling a team that could be a powerhouse at the heart of the paper. To avoid losing Ian, Jim gave him the literary editorship. So many talented trainees and staff passed through the department, I cannot name them all.

Melanie Reid is upset to be unable to be here today, but Jim Seaton recalls the day she came back to write up a feature about a course to help women be more assertive in the workplace. As she held forth, assertively, Ian swivelled in his chair and said: “Shut up, Mel!” The whole place collapsed.

But we got the inside joke. No-one was kinder or gentler with male and female colleagues than Ian, as Sarah Nelson has spoken of. He was a tower of strength in his role as union FoC in dire times.

At that time we worked ferociously hard and played harder. I well remember the day a strong rumour emerged from Westminster that Home Secretary Leon Brittan was the subject of paedophilia rumours. We decamped to Le Sept restaurant to celebrate the imminent downfall of the Thatcher Government. We returned from many toasts to discover it had all gone mysteriously quiet.

Only decades later did it emerge that he had indeed been handed a dossier of allegations at that time but the document conveniently disappeared. Our celebrations had been premature.

When Ian left after the lock-out of 1987 he wrote a memorably excoriating take-down of the state of the newspaper he was turning his back on. I read it again last night and three decades on it is prescient.

“Newspapers are fragile things, hard to build and easy to to topple. They depend on an odd, unspoken contract between editor, journalists and public, a contract based on trust (we believe what we write, you believe what you read); mutual respect (we try to write intelligently, believing in your intelligence); some sort of belief in the importance of reliable information (Zircon, Peter Wright, Westland to name but three); and reliable prose.”

Ian left, supporting Mandy and a very young Sean with no job to go to. I secured a ripcord before jumping, and we both ended up courtesy of Arnold Kemp and Harry Reid on The Glasgow Herald as it then was. Others were to take a similar escape route, including Andrew Hood and Drew Allan.

When Ian took to cyberspace he blogged under the name Prospero. The hero of Shakespeare’s The Tempest used supreme intellect to work magic for the cause of good. Given Ian Bell’s relentless flow of journalism, biographies and who knows what else still to be published, it was apt.

He recorded in that blog exactly two years ago his love of his forebears who fought and strived for a better world and lamented the way the Labour Party seemed to have lost sight of that, particularly in the side it chose in the independence referendum.

He wrote: “We can live without a Labour Party. I’m not sure we can live without the beliefs that first brought Labour to birth. When that party remembers as much, our politics will be respectable again. But I won’t hold my breath.

“The important thing about those old, departed folk is that they didn’t think for half a minute they were being radical. They believed they were being human. We could try that. There’s a country yet unmade, and a politics waiting.”

Ian’s writing was simply that, articulating being human.

I doubt Ian would have expected he and I to meet again to argue the merits of Hearts and Hibs. I know I don’t. But if we are pleasantly surprised to be proven wrong by those among you of faith, I’m ready with how to greet my old friend:

“We’ll meet on edges soon, said I,
Proud ‘neath heated brow,
But we were so much older then,
We’re younger than that now.”


Sarah Nelson, now an academic at Edinburgh University but back in the day a features writer and education correspondent at The Scotsman, adds:
“After the sudden quite untimely death of Ian Bell most tributes have featured his fierce and crafted writing and his breadth of intellect, alongside his many years with the Herald.
“Ian’s writing repeatedly revived and gave heart to those of us on the Left of politics, who had become too depressed or too exhausted with the turn of political events to respond with his own unquenched spirit.
“As an ex-colleague I also want to mention his time in the features department of the Scotsman under Jim Seaton.
“I most remember Ian’s quiet  supportive presence, his dry and acerbic wit and the years of fun and friendship we all had, in the days when we took our work seriously, but did so during happier times for journalists everywhere.”

A successful search for Willie McIllvanney

A successful search for Willie McIllvanney

I RETURNED from my regular morning walk with an added spring in my step today, thanks to the recently departed Willie McIllvanney.
He was a regular visitor to The Scotsman features department when I worked there in the eighties and always the most fantastic company. He was generous, broad-minded, full of anecdotes that didn’t centre on himself. What is the opposite of bumptious? Not just unbumptious but actively anti-bumptious. That was Willie, holding court, but modestly. That cliche of the thriller blurbs was apposite: “Women want him. Men want to be him.”
I didn’t have that much contact with Willie over the next decades, brushing briefly during the occasional literary/political interface. But to know him and his wonderful, smooth malt voice — even through broadcasts such as the re-run of a beautiful  Janice Forsyth interview this week — was to think you were close, a tangible link with the word on the page.
His politics — non-partisan socialist and supportive of independence — were mine too, but the beauty of Willie and evident in his passing was that you did not have to share his views to admire him as a writer and a man.
The evidence was there in the wake of his death at the weekend, when writers as diverse as Alex Massie and Kevin McKenna united in magnificent tribute.
So why the spring in my step mentioned above? His passing made me realise that while I had read all of his novels I had never read his poetry, an omission I thought to put right. On my morning walk I dropped into the Oxfam bookshop in Stockbridge and there was In Through the Head, his 1988 collection of new and collected verse.
I open my new purchase, read: Love’s counterfeits are endless and a bore. I’m in.

A response to IS which doesn’t simply dig a deeper hole

A response to IS which doesn’t simply dig a deeper hole

I HAVE put off writing about the slaughter in Paris for two reasons. The first was a sincere wish to spare the world another of those “our hearts go out” or “we are all Parisians now” expressions of maudlin self-importance.
The other involved grave personal uncertainty about the appropriate response. And by that I mean military response. As I made clear in a previous post I’m no pacifist. I just like the fights carried out in my name to be justified and intelligent; to have more than a “shock and awe” entry strategy but an endgame which leaves the world a better place than when we intervened.
Or, to put it in President Obama’s sage words this week: “It’s best if we don’t shoot first and aim later.” OK, that’s a wee bit rich for a commander-in-chief whose forces recently bombed a Medecins Sans Frontieres hospital in Afghanistan, but you get the idea.
The Islamist-Fascists of IS have, I believe, clearly declared war on ordinary citizens of nations they deem to be Christian or Jewish or atheist or generally hedonist. Since the latter two categories  affect me, I have started to thinking.
Clearly there can be no Western “boots on the ground” as the presence of “Crusaders” would be welcomed by Islamists. But as the MSF hospital bombing shows precision targeting can be anything but.
So limited bombing and drone strikes may play a part but can do only so much against a shifting enemy using guerrilla tactics, and must be conducted as air support of the enemies of IS on the ground, particularly the Kurds. Can pressure be applied to Turkey to stop attacking our best allies on the ground in Syria and Northern Iraq? As for economic weaponry, I commend Ian Bell today.

UN Security Council membership won’t feed bairns or keep pensioners warm

UN Security Council membership won’t feed bairns or keep pensioners warm

IS JIM Murphy the last man standing in defending the 2003 invasion of Iraq , now that the joint architect of the Bush-Blair policy has begun to back-pedal furiously as Chilcott finally looms?
A recent New Statesman article by Murphy made clear that he is once again urging British military intervention in the region, offering the startling revelation that he now thinks he should have resigned as Shadow Defence Secretary in August 2013 when Labour voted against UK air strikes in Syria.
The nub of his article is the following passage: “I respect conscientious objectors and the Quaker traditions . . . but conscientious objection isn’t a legitimate posture for a P5 nation in the face of Isis ferocity.”
There is one irritating condescension there and one disturbing corollary.  The “I respect conshies” line assumes that those who are concerned about military action are principled but useless idiots. In fact I am no conshie but I objected to the Iraq war on strategic and tactical grounds — fake pretexts for going in and a dismal lack of agreed goals which might have given us an exit strategy which did not leave behind desolation and increased misery for those on the ground.
The same applies to Syria now. We need clear goals and action compliant with international law. Above all, we need a realistic endgame, particularly given Russian involvement in the arena.
But look again at the nub of Murphy’s argument, the bit concerning “a legitimate posture for a P5 nation.” He obviously puts immense store on Britain’s status as one of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, regardless of what this may cost.
It’s what drives us to increasingly unaffordable Trident replacement and an absurd aircraft carrier programme, but coveted P5 membership won’t feed bairns or keep pensioners warm.

Prospect of carrier with no aircraft looms larger

Prospect of carrier with no aircraft looms larger

WHILE on holiday in Fife’s East Neuk last week I gazed out from the sea wall at the bottom of the garden and spotted what I took to be the latest sections of aircraft carrier making their way up the Firth to their assembly yard at Rosyth. But will there ever be aircraft to be flown off them? Readers from my Herald days may recall a recent piece about how the US F-35 fighter was still considered, to coin the military slang, FUBAR, politely rendered as fouled-up beyond all recognition, a flying turkey which at $400 billion and rising has cost twice the bill to put humans on the moon.
Some aviation experts believe the entire programme could be written off, which is a shame for UK carriers designed to fly only that aircraft.
The slices of the Prince of Wales we watched passing Anstruther, once assembled, will be mothballed and possibly sold off. Sister ship the Queen Elizabeth is now on sea trials and one can only hope these tests are going better than those of the planes destined to accelerate off her decks.
One recent amusing development saw slim pilots banned from flying the plane. That is not actually a joke. The complex helmet that twins with the jet’s avionics is so heavy it is a health hazard for the fine-boned.
And now this: The very first act of Premier-elect Justin Trudeau of Canada has been to cancel his country’s contract to buy a fleet of the simpler, land-based variant of the stealth fighters. Australia is already alarmed by this, fearing it could push up unit costs of the $24 billion contract it is already committed to. Dominoes anyone?
Then what will Britannia do with its prestigious maritime platforms? Immigration detention hulks might be exemplify the age.

A heavy price to pay for the historical quirk of the right to bear arms


AFTER a year of writing leaders and columns last week, ending just short of 42 years in Scottish daily newspaper journalism, it came to my last day and I mooted a column on US gun control.
This was turned down as not topical, in favour of a column on automated telephone canvassing which was in the news that day.
Fair enough. The Herald’s typical Triple-M reader (middle-aged, middle-class, male) is indeed more likely to experience a nuisance phone call than a madman brandishing a Glock 20SF or a Bushmaster XM15-E2s.
Still, my planned column would have seemed prescient given what happened the following day at Umpqua Community College in Oregon when yet another deranged young man shot 18 people, killing half of them before turning one of his many guns on himself.
I didn’t have a crystal ball to predict this event. You don’t need one. Gun massacres in the US are like buses here, only more regular.
I wanted to write on the issue because of the astounding revelation published in the exemplary US magazine Mother Jones that in the last 25 years more US civilians had died from gun violence than American military personnel in the nation’s entire history.
That’s right: Combining battlefield deaths in a dozen conflicts from their Revolution against the Brits to Iraq, via their Civil War, two World Wars plus Korea and Vietnam, the total was 651,031. And that’s according to the US Department of Veterans Affairs.
Since that pinko liberal Ronnie Reagan left office in 1989 there have been fast approaching 840,000 gun deaths in the US, including accidents, suicides and murders, pushed ever upward by the accelerating wave of mass shootings.
It’s an obscene price to pay for the quirk of history that produced the right to bear arms.