No news is good news

 

From Twitter / @Fergoodness

 

Well, that was embarrassing.  On August 9th, the Scottish edition of the Times printed a column by journalist Kenny Farquharson headed THROW THE BOOK AT POLITICIANS WHO DON’T READ.  Its first six paragraphs took aim at former Scottish First Minister and former leader of the Scottish National Party Alex Salmond because, supposedly, he wasn’t a reader.  Farquharson based his assertion that Salmond didn’t read books on two things: an acquaintance who’d visited Salmond’s home in Aberdeenshire and hadn’t seen any books lying around and a quote Salmond allegedly gave to a student newspaper about not having read a book for “eight years straight”.

 

Later the same day, after a photo of the library at Salmond’s house (which Farquharson’s first source evidently hadn’t seen) had circulated on twitter and Salmond himself had tweeted that in the student-newspaper interview he’d been misquoted – he’d said ‘write’, not ‘read’ – the column vanished from the Times’s online edition and Farquharson issued an apologetic tweet: “Student paper that interviewed Alex Salmond has now withdrawn the quote, so we’ve removed my column from online.  Apologies to @AlexSalmond.”

 

At least, Farquharson apologised.  Fellow Scottish newspaper hack David Torrance, who’d also peddled the Salmond-doesn’t-read story, reacted to Salmond’s intervention by tweeting: “It’s like being harangued by a mad old man in a pub.  ‘I used to be First Minister you know…’”  Thus, if the mainstream Scottish media smears you and you object, you’re the equivalent of a pished auld haverer in a bar.  That’s journalistic integrity in Scotland 2017.

 

I knew Farquharson slightly from my college days in Aberdeen, when he was a stalwart member of the campus Creative Writing Society (along with now-celebrated novelist Ali Smith), so I’m surprised a literary-minded man like him failed to question and check his sources.  Among other things, Salmond has interviewed both Iain Banks and Ian McEwan at the Edinburgh Book Festival, feats that’d require massive amounts of chutzpah (even by Salmond’s standards) to pull off if you were a non-book-reading philistine.  I suspect Farquharson rushed to conclusions because, like most of the Scottish press, he just doesn’t like Salmond and is happy to believe the worst about him.

 

© The Guardian

© Pauline Keightly Photography / From musicfootnotes.com

 

Now I admit that Alex Salmond, a man not known for his modesty, can be hard to like.  Even sympathetic profiles of him usually contain, at some point, the phrase ‘love him or loathe him’.  But the mainstream Scottish media’s antipathy towards Salmond is symptomatic of wider antipathy.  It also just doesn’t like Salmond’s party, the SNP, and how they’ve run Scotland since they won their first Scottish parliamentary election in 2007.

 

You get the impression that Scotland’s national print media – Scottish editions of the London-based dailies like the Daily Mail, Daily Express and Sun plus supposedly ‘home-grown’ titles like the Scotsman, Herald and Daily Record, though the Herald and Record’s owners, Newsquest and Trinity Mirror, are based in England – never forgave the SNP for disrupting the old status quo in Scotland.  That old status quo had seemingly stretched back through the mists of antiquity to the Stone Age.  Simply put, Labour dominated Scotland (first at council level and then, after its creation in 1999, the Scottish Parliament); while the Conservatives and, occasionally, Labour oversaw Scotland and the rest of Britain from Westminster.

 

As the sainted messengers who conveyed information from that establishment to the great unwashed and who offered interpretation and comment on how the establishment was doing things, Scotland’s journalists had their own comfortable and privileged niche in Scottish society.

 

The relationship between Scotland’s old politicians and journalists was a symbiotic one.  Iain Macwhirter, columnist with the Sunday Herald, one of only two newspapers in Scotland that gives the SNP much support, has recalled how the Sunday Herald’s decision to back the party in 2014 was made in spite of “fears… that stories might dry up if the Sunday Herald was black-balled by Labour – an indication that, though Labour had been out of power for seven years, the tribe still held on to many key positions in public life.”  He also noted that “Scottish journalism is almost as tribal as Scottish politics, and Labour has traditionally called the shots in the Scottish media through its extensive patronage networks.”

 

Many Scottish journalists seem unaware of those wise words by American novelist and filmmaker Stephen Chbosky: “Things change and friends leave.  Life doesn’t stop for anybody.”  They’ve reacted to the SNP’s decade in power with continual aggrieved negativity.  Nothing the SNP government, originally headed by Alex Salmond, now headed by Nicola Sturgeon, does can ever be good.  It can only be bad.  Day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year, their headlines have regurgitated the message that Scotland is going to the dogs and it’s all the SNP’s fault.

 

What must be awkward for Scotland’s newspapers is the evidence that pops up now and again and suggests that things might not be going so badly after all.  For example, figures in June showing Scotland’s economy grew during the first part of 2017 – at a rate of only 0.8%, admittedly, but four times the equivalent rate for the UK as a whole.  Or Scottish unemployment dropping to its lowest level since the start of the 2008 financial crash.  Or passenger-satisfaction levels with ScotRail reaching 90%, its highest-ever rating (and way better than the 72% satisfaction-level for Southern Rail in England).  Or the Scottish National Health Service exceeding its targets for treating accident and emergency patients.  (Or indeed, evidence that the Scottish NHS is the best-performing one of the four health services in the UK.)

 

The condition of Scottish education remains a concern, with the 2016 Pisa rankings showing Scottish pupils performing considerably less well than English ones (though better than Welsh ones).  However, one thing that commentators have constantly lamented about, the small number of Scottish school-leavers from disadvantaged backgrounds getting into university, seems to have improved.  Recent figures show an increase of 13% in university entrants from poor backgrounds.

 

So hey, it’s not all bad news, is it?  Scotland’s newspapers will surely let a little sunshine filter out of their normally dour front pages and give credit where it’s due, right?

 

Dream on.  The Herald’s front page on August 7th gave a rubbishing of ScotRail: HALF OF TRAINS ARRIVING AT BUSIEST STATIONS ARE LATE.  After it was pointed out that the figures for this story were inaccurate, it vanished from the Herald’s website and an apology appeared the next day admitting, “The most recent figures show that 93.7% of ScotRail trains met the industry standard public performance measure (PPM).”  However, this wasn’t before similar stories had appeared in the Glasgow Evening News, Daily Record, Scottish Daily Mail and Dundee Courier.  Meanwhile, I only have to type ‘Scottish NHS’ into Google and click on ‘news’ underneath to get a long list of headlines suggesting that Scotland’s health system is ‘doomed, all doomed’ (© Private Fraser, Dad’s Army): SCOTTISH NHS AT RISK OF STAFFING SHORTAGES THANKS TO POOR PLANNING (the Daily Telegraph); HOSPITALS AND NHS FACILITIES MAY NEED TO BE ‘AXED’ (the Scotsman); NHS STAFFING SHORTAGES ARE COMPROMISING PATIENT CARE (the Scotsman again); SCOTTISH NURSES SLAM NHS STAFFING CRISIS FOR AFFECTING CARE OF PATIENTS (the Daily Record); etc.

 

Even the jump in students from disadvantaged backgrounds going to university has been sourly received.  In January 2017, the Times’s Daniel Sanderson wrote an article decrying the fact that in Scotland FEWER THAN 10% OF STUDENTS COME FROM POOREST BACKGROUNDS.  Well, those new statistics about university entrants should cheer him up, right?  Nope.  This week, the same journalist wrote in the same newspaper an article decrying the fact that in Scotland MORE MIDDLE-CLASS STUDENTS ARE MISSING OUT ON UNIVERSITY PLACES.

 

For the record – as opposed to the Daily Record – I don’t think it matters much politically if 90-95% of Scotland’s mainstream press hate the party in power and monster them at every turn.  I’d rather live in a society like that than in a Putin-esque one where the government controls everything the newspapers say about them.  The fact that, despite the overwhelming hostility, the SNP have won two more Scottish elections since 2007 suggests that not many people believe what the newspapers tell them to believe these days.  (See also how Jeremy Corbyn secured 40% of the vote in the last British election despite the massive abuse he received in the British press.)

 

What does depress me is how this adversity must affect the many people working in the Scottish public sector and / or in services widely used by the Scottish public: hospital workers, teachers, train-staff, etc.  Clearly, they’ve made huge efforts to achieve good results in an era of austerity and financial uncertainty.  (That might sound like a platitude but it isn’t – for months now a close family member of mine has been looked after by the Scottish NHS and received excellent care.)  But when you go the extra mile for your patients, pupils or customers, and still get nothing but negative headlines screaming at you about your profession and your sector from the newspaper stands, it must be demoralising.

 

The Scottish press’s negativity-at-all-costs policy is not a case of, as some people have argued, ‘doing Scotland down’, because the SNP government is not all of Scotland – no more than Teresa May’s lunatic Brexit-obsessed Conservative government is all of England.  But, often, it seems discourteous to an awful lot of ordinary people who are just trying to do their jobs well.

 

From scotbuzz.co.uk 

 

Everybody won – and lost

 

© Daily Record

 

My head hurts.  Since Friday morning I’ve been trying to figure out the results of the British general election and I still don’t feel much wiser.  Here’s how it appears to me.

 

Theresa May’s Conservative Party got the most seats in Parliament, 317 out of 650.  So they won the election.  Right?  Wrong.  Their total was 13 down on what it’d been before, which left Theresa May looking the world’s biggest dolt for calling the election in the first place because she’d assumed, from the polls, that her party would be returned with a thumping majority.  In fact, the biggest thump heard as the results came in was that of Tory jaws striking the floor in shock and disbelief at their majority failing to materialise.  Now they’re nine seats short of the magic 326 number required for a working majority and it looks like they’ll have to do a deal with Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party.  More on whom in a minute.

 

Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party has been hailed as the election’s big winners because they performed much better than expected.  There’s rarely been an election campaign where the odds against the main opposition party doing well seemed so great.  In particular, Corbyn and his followers had opprobrium heaped on them by the British press – two days before the vote, for instance, the Daily Mail seemed to devote an entire edition to telling us that Corbyn was an evil, crazed, corrupt, terrorist-loving, Satan-worshipping, child-murdering, baby-eating ghoul.  However, despite the unexpected bounce in their fortunes, Labour still managed a total of only 262 seats.  Even if they joined forces with the all the other non-right-wing parties in Westminster, they’d barely come within touching distance of that 326 working-majority number.

 

Tim Farron’s Liberal Democrats increased their share of seats by a third.  That’s a win, right?  Well academically.  They now have 12 seats instead of nine and remain utterly insignificant in the grand scheme of things.  Next!

 

Nicola Sturgeon’s Scottish National Party got its second-biggest share ever of seats in Scotland, 35 out of 59 and comfortably more than all the seats won by the other Scottish parties put together.  That surely qualifies as a win, right?  But no.  The party lost 21 of the seats it’d won in the previous election of 2015, which had been its all-time high-water-mark, with the result that their performance this time has been interpreted as a loss.  That’s certainly how the anti-SNP mainstream media in Scotland has been spinning it furiously since Friday.

 

The Scottish results are rich in irony.  The Scottish Labour Party managed to increase its number of seats from one to seven, helped no doubt by the popularity of Jeremy Corbyn’s left-wing credentials north of the border.  Yet for the past few years the Scottish Labour Party has been notable for its loathing of Corbyn.  ‘SLAB’ leader Keiza Dugdale claimed that Corbyn would leave the Labour Party ‘carping from the side-lines’ and Ian Murray, previously Labour’s only Scottish MP, once resigned from Corbyn’s shadow cabinet in an effort to undermine him.

 

Meanwhile, the way the media has fawned over Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson since the election has left many with the impression that Scotland has now entirely turned Tory and Davidson has somehow become the new Queen of Scots.  I’ve seen comments on Twitter by hurt English Labour voters, berating the Scots for changing the habits of a lifetime, voting Tory en masse and letting the Conservatives finish ahead of Corbyn.  For the record, Davidson’s Tories won 13 seats in Scotland, 22% of the total – a lot by their usual standards in Scotland but nowhere near a majority.  Though in the topsy-turvy world of Britain’s 2017 general election, a showing of 22% is construed as a victory.  (Yet another irony is that the pro-Brexit Scottish Tories won their seats in regions like the Borders and the North-East, heavily dependent on agriculture, which will likely get hammered when Brexit goes ahead and EU farming subsidies stop being paid.)

 

One group who lost utterly was the right-wing United Kingdom Independence Party, which went from a vote-share of 12.7% in 2015 to a share of 1.8% in 2017, won no seats at all and saw its leader, the wretched Paul Nuttall, come close to losing his deposit when he stood in the constituency of Boston and Skegness.  Thus, UKIP are dead, buried and hopefully already in an advanced state of decomposition.  Good riddance to them.

 

© Daily Mirror

 

And probably the party who are feeling most chuffed post-election are the afore-mentioned DUP in Northern Ireland, who won 10 seats; and who since Friday morning have had Theresa May, desperate to form a Conservative-DUP coalition, wooing and serenading them like Romeo under Juliet’s balcony in Act 2, Scene 2 of Romeo and Juliet.  Yes, because the DUP have become the new kingmakers at Westminster, they could be identified as the real winners of this election.  Mind you, if you examine their beliefs and political record, you soon appreciate what a shower of losers they are.

 

Where to begin with Theresa May’s new best friends, the DUP?  Well, there’s the fact that as a bunch of Bible-thumping, science-hating nincompoops they include in their ranks such specimens as Thomas Buchanan, who campaigns for creationism to be taught in schools, condemns evolution as a “peddled lie” and proudly asserts that “the world was spoken into existence in six days by His power”; and Trevor Clarke, who until very recently believed that HIV was something that affected only gay people; and Sammy Wilson, who mind-bogglingly served as Northern Irish Environment Minister whilst denying the existence of climate change and dismissing the Paris agreement with Trumpian scorn as “window dressing for climate chancers”.

 

They have a medieval attitude towards women’s issues and gay rights, ensuring that that Northern Ireland is the only part of the United Kingdom where abortion is illegal, and vetoing any move towards the legislation existing in the rest of the UK that allows same-sex people to get married.  Former DUP politician Iris Robinson – whose hubby Peter served as Northern Irish First Minister for several years – once described homosexuality as an ‘abomination’ and prescribed psychiatric treatment as a cure for it.  “Just as a murderer can be redeemed by the blood of Christ,” she reasoned, heart-warmingly, “so can a homosexual…”  I hope some journalist tackles out-and-proud lesbian Ruth Davidson about what she thinks of her boss in London climbing into bed with Robinson’s party.

 

I’m from Northern Ireland originally so I know it’s futile hoping for religion and politics to be kept apart in the province.  But even if you forget their religiosity and focus purely on their performance as politicians, the DUP are useless.  Their disdain for environmental issues didn’t stop them running the disastrous Renewable Heat Incentive or ‘cash-for-ash’ scheme, encouraging folk to switch from fossil fuel to biomass heating systems; which not very smartly meant that claimants could get £1.60 back for every £1 they spent.  Hence, crafty local farmers were soon rushing to install biomass heating in empty sheds.  This happened while current DUP First Minister Arlene Foster was running Northern Ireland’s Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment and is believed to have cost the taxpayer £400 million.

 

And then there’s the tale of the DUP receiving a £425,000 donation from dodgy sources, of which £282,000 was subsequently spent on funding a ‘vote leave’ advertisement in the Metro newspaper during the run-up to the 2016 Brexit referendum.  The Metro isn’t even published in Northern Ireland.  Soon after the vote, and despite her own party backing Brexit, DUP Agriculture Minister Michelle McIlveen went scuttling off to Brussels to plead for continued EU support for Northern Irish farmers – a shameless act of grovelling hypocrisy.

 

But the most entertaining instance of DUP duplicity and corruption is, of course, the 2009 scandal involving Iris Robinson and a man nearly 40 years her junior.  Robinson not only had an extramarital affair with him but also illegally procured some £50,000 to help him out with a business project.  Needless to say, this turned the supposedly God-fearing and holier-than-thou Robinson into a figure of ridicule.  And with a name like ‘Mrs Robinson’, she was really asking for trouble.

 

© Irish News

 

Right, that’s enough politics for now.  I’m seriously depressed.  The UK has become the equivalent of a clown-car, trundling towards Brexit, with the beleaguered Theresa May and those idiots in the DUP at the steering wheel.  The only way this scenario might change is if May gets usurped by her party, which isn’t known for showing mercy towards failed leaders.  But if that happens, her replacement is likely to be Boris Johnson – and substituting Boris for May is like treating an open wound by pouring sulfuric acid into it.

 

So there’ll be no more politics in Blood and Porridge for a while.  Unless they decide to clear up the shambles caused by this election by holding another bloody one next week.

 

I hear you’re a racist now, SNP

 

© Hat Trick Productions

 

Well, that was nice of the Scottish Labour Party.  Last weekend, they held their spring conference and presumably, like any political party, they hoped they’d present themselves in a good light.  Good enough to win a few new voters or, in their case, win back a few old voters.  Because in recent years the Scottish Labour Party has haemorrhaged support – in 1999 it had 56 seats in the Scottish Parliament and another 56 in the Westminster one, compared with 24 Scottish seats and just one Westminster seat today.  And a great many of those former Labour voters have defected to the pro-independence Scottish National Party.

 

So in their wisdom what did Scottish Labour do?  They got Sadiq Khan, the Labour Mayor of London, to come to Scotland on Saturday and give a conference speech that accused the SNP of racism.  Yep, that’ll win those old supporters back.  Call them racists.

 

Specifically, Khan talked of “Brexit, the election of President Trump and the rise of populist and narrow nationalist parties around the world” and said there was no difference between the likes of the SNP and “those who try to divide us on the basis of our background, race or religion.”  Which sounds like a pretty good definition of racism to me.

 

Admittedly, when Khan delivered the speech, he tried to tone it down slightly – but the damage had been done for it’d already been printed in the Scottish Labour-supporting tabloid the Daily Record.  And it sparked a tremendous uproar from SNP supporters, furious that despite backing a party that’s probably the most pro-immigration and pro-European Union of the major parties in Britain today, they’d been told they were no better than, say, the British National Party, National Front and English and Scottish Defence Leagues.  You know, real racist organisations.

 

One thing that stuck in many people’s craws was the fact that back before the referendum on Scottish independence in 2014, while the SNP had campaigned for a ‘yes’ vote, the BNP, National Front, EDL and SDL had all campaigned for a ‘no’ one.  Indeed, the racists’ campaign literature had often warned that in an independent Scotland the SNP would bring in more immigrants, more refugees, more Muslims, etc.  Though I have to say this picture tweeted by ex-BNP leader Nick Griffin as a warning about how an independent Scotland would look is so cool it surely made more people vote for independence than against it.

 

© Metro

 

Incidentally, Khan’s mention of religious divisiveness seems ironic too considering that there have been moments in recent history when his party in Scotland has cosied up to the pro-Protestant, anti-Catholic Orange Order – Labour councillors in Falkirk handing more than £1000 of public money to the Order in May 2016, for instance, or Labour-controlled Glasgow City Council throwing more cash at it in June 2012 so it could stage street parties in honour of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee.

 

https://www.commonspace.scot/articles/8416/labour-party-council-leader-votes-give-orange-order-community-funding

http://www.heraldscotland.com/news/13060185.City_funds_Orange_events/

 

Labour’s response to the furore was to claim that, because Khan comes from a British Pakistani family, anyone disputing his ‘SNP equals racism’ claims were themselves racist. Labour Member of the Scottish Parliament Anas Sarwar, also of Pakistani descent, tweeted: “Quite ironic that 2 brown guys are being abused / trolled by mob of angry white men in a racism row.”

 

Actually, the people who got angry about Khan’s speech included the correspondent Robert J. Somynne, lawyer Aamer Anwar, entrepreneur Yasmin A. Choudhury and SNP politicians Humza Yousaf and Tasmina Sheikh, none of whom are ‘white guys’.  Not all of them are ‘guys’, either.

 

At least Khan received some backing from Scotland’s not-in-love-with-the-SNP mainstream press.  Among those voicing support for him were Stephen Daisley, columnist for the totally non-racist, pro-immigrant, pro-refugee, pro-Muslim Daily Mail, and Iain Martin, former deputy editor, head of comment, columnist and blogger with the totally non-racist, pro-immigrant, pro-refugee, pro-Muslim Telegraph newspapers.

 

Then on Monday evening the Guardian newspaper poured fuel on the fire and published an opinion piece by a PhD student at Stirling University called Claire Heuchan.  Baldly titled THE PARALLELS BETWEEN SCOTTISH NATIONALISM AND RACISM ARE CLEAR, the piece promptly started its own shitstorm.  By the time the Guardian decided to close the comments thread underneath, two hours after it’d appeared, there were 1242 comments – many of them not written in admiration of Heuchan’s thought-processes.

 

Well, regular readers of this blog will know that I’m sympathetic to both the SNP and its goal of an independent Scotland and I have to say Heuchan’s Guardian piece annoyed me even more than Khan’s speech, mainly because her arguments were so half-baked.  For example: “Zeal for national identity invariably raises questions of who belongs and who is an outsider”, which makes me wonder why this has to be a peculiarly Scottish issue.  After all, zeal for national identity in Britain as a whole amputated the country from the European Union recently and left many EU nationals living in Britain fearful for their futures.  Actually, if national identity’s so bad, shouldn’t Heuchan be petitioning for Britain to shed its borders and merge with France, Germany and everywhere else in Europe?

 

She criticises the independence movement for its supposed belief that that Scotland is better than England, which will be news to those who simply want an independent Scotland run by the people who live in it – including English folk, ethnic minorities and EU nationals – because they believe it would be better run that way than by Westminster.  Not better than England or anywhere else, but just better than how Scotland is now.

 

She castigates independence supporters for holding England “accountable for all the wrongs of imperial expansion while denying this country’s own colonial legacy”, which forgets that prominent pro-independence Scottish historians like Tom Devine have written extensively about Scotland’s role in shaping the British Empire.

 

http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/scotland/6524149.stm

 

Then there are the claims that Heuchan, who’s a person of colour, makes about whiteness.  Being white means your’re entirely immune and oblivious to racism, apparently.  The trade unionist Claire Hepworth is criticised for tweeting that she’s never heard any of her SNP-supporting friends and followers being racist.  “Comments such as Hepworth’s only make it harder for people of colour to come forward about the discrimination we face…”  Suggesting that because she doesn’t know anyone who’s racist, Hepworth is an accomplice to racism.  And a claim that “(w)hite SNP supporters and allies have never been subject to racism” seems unlikely considering that many SNP voters in Scotland are of Irish descent or belong to other white national groups and quite possibly have been subject to racism.

 

Soon after the Guardian’s comments thread was closed, Heuchan disappeared from Twitter too.  I imagine certain newspapers like the Daily Mail, the Daily Telegraph and the also totally non-racist, pro-immigrant, pro-refugee, pro-Muslim Daily Express will soon be running horror stories about her being hounded off Twitter by racist SNP scumbags.

 

To be honest, I suspect the real reason why the Twitter account vanished was because people were reading her past tweets and finding items from before the 2014 independence referendum that showed she was a ‘British and proud’ activist campaigning for a ‘no’ vote. Now Heuchan is free to define her identity whatever way she likes.  But it might have been wise to temper her piece with a wee bit of balance and admit that British nationalism can be racist too.  Ask those many people who were abused on British streets for speaking a language other than English during the giddy days that followed dear old Blighty voting for Brexit.

 

No political movement consists wholly of angels.  I’m sure a few racist bampots who object to both coloured people and English people do support the cause of Scottish independence.  And I know that in the past the SNP had its share of anti-English bigots.  (Though in the 1980s I knew some Scottish Labour supporters who’d mouth off about ‘English bastards’ too, on account of them voting Maggie Thatcher into power every four years.)

 

But if the pro-EU, pro-immigration SNP are going to be maligned as racists, what does that make Theresa May’s Conservative Party, hellbent on steering Britain out of Europe, using EU nationals in Britain as ‘bargaining chips’, ramping up the rhetoric against immigrants and refugees and toadying to a bigoted thug like Donald Trump?  Indeed, what does that make Sadiq Khan’s Labour Party, now that at Westminster they’ve resolved to support the Conservatives over Brexit?

 

Worse, I’d say.  Much worse.

 

© The Independent

 

Mourning Margo

 

(c) The Daily Record

 

Spring 2014 is not proving to be a good season for the remaining handful of British politicians who choose to show an independent cast of mind and follow their own consciences, rather than obsequiously toe a party line – even if such independence and integrity costs them a lucrative political career and dooms them to a lifetime of outsider-status.

 

A few weeks back, the venerable socialist Tony Benn shuffled off this mortal coil.  Ostracised by his own Labour Party in the 1980s while it was bidding to make itself ‘electable’, Benn’s left-wing zeal now seems refreshingly honest and honourable, especially when it’s measured against the cynicism and opportunism of those who rose to power in Labour after he’d been shunted into the sidings – that of the notorious trough-feeder Neil Kinnock and of the even more loathsome Tony Blair.

 

Then, last week, there was the news that Margo MacDonald, the one-time Scottish National Party MP and more lately an independent member of the Scottish Parliament, had succumbed to Parkinson’s disease, against which she’d been battling for many years.

 

Margo became an MP in November 1973 at the age of 30, after winning the Glaswegian constituency of Govan for the SNP in a by-election.  Her victory was memorable because it shattered the Labour Party’s assumption that the vote in urban working-class Scotland would always be in its pocket.  It was memorable too because Margo’s background was anything but the norm for a Westminster MP.  She was a mother of two who’d never been to university.  She’d trained as a Physical Education teacher but had more recently been working as a barmaid.

 

She lost the seat the following year, though.  This was seemingly a harbinger of how the fortunes of the SNP, and the morale of Scotland generally, would deflate during the second half of the 1970s, culminating in the travesty of the 1979 Scottish devolution vote (a majority voted for a devolved Scottish parliament but due to backroom politicking it wasn’t delivered) and then the Westminster ascendancy of Margaret Thatcher (who seemed happy to run Scotland like it was a colonial territory).  I’ve seen a depressing clip of Margo campaigning in 1978, trying to engage some miserable-looking people who were clearly suffering from a massive dose of the Scottish cringe.  One woman started heckling her, lamenting that Scotland could never survive as an independent country because all it would be fit to do would be to ‘pump oil.’  Oh aye, pumping oil.  That’d be fatal for a country’s economy…

 

But thanks to her gregarious personality and many media appearances – she was on TV a lot and, if memory serves me correctly, she even had regular columns in the fervently pro-Labour Daily Record and Sunday Mail newspapers – she stayed in the public consciousness.  When the Scottish Parliament was finally set up – 20 years late, many would grouse – she was a shoo-in as one of the new MSPs.  By now her days as the SNP’s bubbly and Abba-esque ‘blonde bombshell’ were behind her.  She’d matured into a doughty and formidable matriarch.  Fond of a laugh, but plain-speaking and at times bloody-minded, she was somebody you’d love to love to have as a pal, but at the same time you really didn’t want to get on the wrong side of her.  I suspect she was most Scottish people’s notion of what the ideal mum would be like.

 

Her relationship with the SNP ended acrimoniously in 2003.  She didn’t get on with the party’s ultra-cautious then-leader John Swinney and she was eventually expelled.  However, she seemed more than happy to re-invent herself as an independent and the people of Lothian region were more than happy to re-elect her to the Scottish Parliament as such.

 

Her maverick status paralleled that of her second husband, the one-time SNP MP Jim Sillars, who ended up having his own feud with the party and headed off to plough his own lonely furrow.  Indeed, Sillars, who in the late 1980s had been ubiquitous on the Scottish political scene, seemed to vanish entirely off the radar for a while.  (With the Scottish independence vote this September approaching, I’m pleased to say that Jim Sillars has been visible again of late.  A few weeks ago, I saw him take part in a televised debate about independence with the preening and increasingly ludicrous George Galloway.  Sillars quietly made mincemeat of Galloway, whose only way of dealing with criticism and argument these days is to shout, “That’s nonsense on stilts!”)

 

Being an independent MSP – albeit one still committed to independence, as she’d been in her SNP days – suited Margo down to the ground and it allowed her to get on with her own personal campaigns. She tried to get to the bottom of the fiasco surrounding the construction of the new Scottish Parliament building in Edinburgh, a project that ended up costing £414 million, about ten times its original estimated price, and that nearly wrecked the credibility of the parliament as an institution before it’d properly started operating.  She fought for the rights and safety of workers in Scotland’s sex industry at a time when the police’s policy seemed to be to turn them out onto the streets.  And she championed an Assisted Suicide Bill to permit the terminally ill in Scotland to end their lives at their own choosing – a cause that’d come increasingly close to her heart after she was diagnosed as having Parkinson’s disease in the late 1990s.

 

Her death a few days ago brought tributes from across the political spectrum.  Even Alan Cochrane, the Daily Telegraph’s rabidly independence-hating Scottish correspondent, penned a moving eulogy to her – although I suspect that if Margo had read his previous column (in which Cochrane used a tragedy at an Edinburgh school where a 12-year-old pupil had been killed by a collapsing changing-room wall as an excuse to condemn the Scottish Parliament), she’d have run him down with the mobility scooter she’d been using towards the end of her life and then drove it over the top of his head.  Meanwhile, she was also the subject of an obituary written for the Independent newspaper by the lugubrious, fiercely-his-own-man and much-loved former Labour MP Tam Dalyell.  Actually, in this post-Benn, post-MacDonald era, Tam is possibly the last of the Mohicans.

 

http://www.independent.co.uk/news/obituaries/margo-macdonald-politician-whose-popularity-crossed-party-boundaries-thanks-to-her-infectiously-enthusiastic-personality-9240081.html

 

Dalyell concluded his piece by admitting that, in the last Scottish election, he’d actually voted for her.  What, Tam Dalyell voting for a pro-Scottish-independence politician?  Only Margo could do that.

 

Here she is, by the way, speaking at the pro-independence rally on September 22nd, 2012: