Wednesday, 30 July 2014

A Carer's Journey

To mark the halfway point in the last 100 days of the campaign period, here's a wee change of pace for you  - a guest post by Fiona Fisher, who appears on Twitter as @galluseffie and is a full-time carer.  I'll leave you in her capable hands and see you soon.


A couple of weeks ago, I had a wee exchange on Twitter about the outpourings of Professor Emerita and how she'd twisted something Prof Curtice said, making a negative comment about Yes voters and their likely educational demographic. As part of my response, I mentioned that the only treatise I was ever likely to write was “My 20 years of being treated like shite by the UK Govt. AKA Being a family unpaid carer ”.

I got an encouraging tweet from Rev Stu of Wings Over Scotland to write something because “real stories count”. I haven’t read much about carers' journeys to whatever decision they’re likely to take in the referendum; I suppose it’s symptomatic of the deep disenfranchisement we feel about getting heard in any arena. So here’s my take.

My name is Fiona Fisher. I live in Dunfermline with my ever excellent husband and three children: two lovely girls and our son, The Bold Joff, our middle child, who has an ultra-rare, life-limiting and life-threatening genetic condition called Lowe Syndrome that affects males only.

Lowe Syndrome is caused by a genetic mistake on the X chromosome that affects the quantity and quality of a certain enzyme in the body, causing a spectrum of problems, in the main with the eyes, brain and kidneys. Boys with Lowe commonly die in their teens and twenties. There are only two other people known to have Lowe in Scotland, but there could be somewhere up to 10 males as the incidence is thought to be one in 500,000. If you’d like any further info, please feel free to tweet me.

Joff is a lovely young, gentle, man who has PMLD (profound and multiple learning difficulties).  He is registered blind, cannot read, write or talk, is doubly incontinent, has epilepsy, low muscle tone, and has Fanconi syndrome in his kidneys, which means he has to take a bunch of medications, multiple times a day, to maintain normal body chemistry and cannot be fasted from fluids. He can manage to walk and crawl about indoors, where the areas are safe, short and predictable, but has little stamina for longer distances and needs a wheelchair outdoors.

He has lots of other support needs, too numerous to mention here, but we have new concerns with a scary loss of bone density as a result of over a decade of anti-epilepsy medicine and he is facing surgery next month for recurring infecting cysts on his face and in his groin. I always hate writing this sort of paragraph about him. Yes, he has a lot of things to cope with. Yes, it is hard, for him and for us. He is a 19 year old man who is entirely dependent on adult support in every area of his life. But he is worth every struggle and more. I’m extremely proud of the cracking wee guy Joff has turned out to be. A Bold Legend.

When The Bold Joff was born we were living in Lossiemouth, as my husband was serving in the RAF. I was always reasonably interested and engaged in politics, but having a child with such profound disabilities from birth really opened my eyes to how families living with a child with additional needs are supported.

Without hesitation, I will say that Joff is the easy bit of the equation. Fighting constantly at every stage of his life for good services and support has been simply fucking brutal. I have fought long and hard for everything from getting decent education, incontinence products and respite services to wheelchairs and syringes... Oh god, don’t start me on syringes.... The transition period from accessing children’s services to adult services is, I’m convinced, part of one of the seven circles of hell.... add into all of that an ultra rare syndrome that hardly anyone knows about or has seen in the flesh and it's a potent mix for stress, isolation and financial worry.

I was a biochemistry graduate in the mid 80s, I trained as a haematology MLSO (lab technician) with the NHS in London, as I couldn’t get any work in Scotland at first. Cheers, Tebbit, I did get on my bike. A few years later I worked with the Scottish Blood Transfusion Service, then swapped to whisky analysis with Chivas Bros in Moray just before I had our kids.

After Joff arrived, paid work was impossible. To do a job from 9 to 5 and then come home and start all over with Joff and our older daughter, who is just 14 months older, was entirely unsustainable. That is, if you can even get a hold of decent childcare for a child with disabilities that doesn’t entirely wipe out your wage. The truth is, care costs. A lot. And specialist care costs even more.

Unless you’re a family unpaid carer.

Another topic on my Twitter timeline recently was how someone had said “caring is only a bit of extra housework”. And yes, for some people, help with essential housework is what helps support their needs, so I’m not entirely knocking the statement. However, for our family, like many families, a day of no housework just means a bit of catching up later; I can live with oose on my carpet and dusty window ledges. If I don’t care for a day, Joff dies.

I hope that shows some of the passion and anger for our situation. So how do the facts stack up?

My caring week is 133 hours long. Every week of the year.

The other 35 hours in the week (similar to many people’s working week) are when Joff is at his local day service. However, I’m always on call for any problems he might be having. So it is true to say I’m really never off duty. For this I’m currently paid £61.35 Carer’s Allowance (per 35 hour week of caring - ha ha ha, I WISH!) with an annual £10 Christmas bonus, whoopee!

Carer’s Allowance is about a tenner or so below the weekly rate of JSA, and the lowest UK benefit of its kind, so unpaid carers have totally understood the concept of Workfare long, long before the media ever picked up on it. It works out at under £2 per hour. It’s not a wage but “earnings replacement”. Hey, would you like your current wage “replaced” by £60 a week if you had to care for a friend or loved one and had to give up paid work? Oh, and that’s not even going into the extra conditionality of not being able to earn more than £102 a week before the allowance is taken back, not being able to claim if you’re a carer pensioner, or in full time study. Or regardless of the number of people you’re caring for. All penalising the already most shat-upon, non-unionised, hard grafting sections of society.

My probable loss of earnings over 20 years is easily in the region of £1/4 million pounds. I can’t even begin to estimate the loss of my occupational pension, of the camaraderie of colleagues, of professional development and recognition. The likely cost to the UK taxpayer if I had given up caring for Joff tops a million and a half pounds, without including the cost of lifelong therapies that we’ve applied: physiotherapy, occupational therapy, speech and language therapy and therapy for the visually impaired.   

The collective caring benefit to the UK economy was valued at £119 billion in 2011 in a study by Carers UK and the University of Leeds. It was estimated that if 3 out of every 10 carers in Scotland gave up caring, we’d bankrupt the country in a week. And Westminster has the bloody neck to call us “economically inactive”.

My total earnings for the past 20 years is £47,281.25. That’s not per year, that’s for 20 years round the clock caring, with no right to time off, emergency or sickness cover, an occupational pension or any health and safety training, particularly moving and handling. Unless you count the 10 minute instructional video I saw on my own in an awful wee side room at the Victoria Hospital in Kirkcaldy about how to administer rectal diazepam, by way of demonstration on a mannequin, to stop a prolonged seizure. Glory days.

So what has the UK government ever done for me? Apart from the jet set lifestyle it’s given me, when I asked the DWP a few years ago why unpaid carers were exempt from the European Work Time Directive and why we weren’t paid a wage, I was told I wasn’t working, but “playing a role”. I think they call that adding insult to injury.

At the time Joff was going through an unfortunate phase of smearing faeces in his bedroom at night. How I loved remembering what a role I was playing when disinfecting a soiled boy, his bed and the walls at 3am. Thinking about the then Minister for Disabled People and Carers claiming almost twice my yearly income on her spend for stationery. Thinking how I could be paid over three times my hourly rate to chop lettuce at Maccy D’s. Such Esteem. So Valued.

But, happy memories aside, how does Westminster intend to maintain the scant support for me to be able support our son in the coming, increasingly austere, years? It doesn't. For example, it intends to tighten the eligibility of receiving Disability Living Allowance (soon to become PIP, Personal Independence Payment) and it is entirely possible due to the new, and currently being contested, ”20 metres rule” that Joff will be judged as not needing his entitlement to his Motability car and as a further consequence, I will lose my crap-but-necessary Carer’s Allowance. I would genuinely be caring for nothing.

And I am gobby, I can appeal and complain and do my best to restore Joff’s rights to a good life with every bit of support I can find. Indeed, it’s part of the obligation Joff’s dad and I took on when we applied to Court be his lifelong Legal Guardians under the Adults with Incapacity Act 2000. What about all those many vulnerable people, who don’t know their rights, who don’t have the luxury of a nice home, the internet and a close family to support you?

My journey to Yes was extremely brief; part gut instinct but mainly cold headed logic. I continue to test every No argument I hear to see if they hold any merit, and they never do. I’m completely confident about the vote I will make. We deserve a Scotland that is fairer, is just and looks after everyone, and especially to do what’s right by her unpaid carers. In the long run, I’d like us to be paid a living wage for the work we do, and have some enshrined rights to support us to complement the extensive responsibilities we’ve always had.

The first positive step towards fairness for unpaid carers in 20 years has been the recent promise by the SNP to raise the weekly rate of Carer’s Allowance to be the same as a Job Seeker. By comparison, Nick Clegg will write into the 2015 LibDem manifesto for 1 million ( of 6 million ) carers to get a one off annual uplift of £125, rising to £250 in 2020, to perhaps offset the cost of a bit of respite. That wouldn’t even pay for 12 hours care. Where do these people get these half arsed ideas?

I don’t want a Scotland to continue to be ruled by an increasingly unfair, right wing, aristocratic and tawdry Westminster. I don't want to hear any more about non-elected £300 a day Lords, coming the big shot and moaning about the quality of their subsidised in-house cappuccino, while someone in Maryhill is walking miles to the food bank so she can eat cold baked beans out a tin with her hands. That’s simply obscene.

Carers may feel fearful about change, which will undoubtedly come whatever the outcome of the referendum, but we’ve certainly nothing much to linger back for either.

I don’t think it’ll be all rainbows and glitter after a Yes vote, I think we’ll go through a period of rebirth, which as any fule kno, is never easy. And if iScotland isn’t immediately "perfect", like the Bold Joff, we’ll still look after her and support her because she’s ours and we’ll care for her in the right way. And if you really care for Scotland, she’s worth every struggle and more.

A wee bit of fun to finish with. During Carer’s Week (sigh) last month, Richard Branson tweeted a picture of himself raising a mug of tea to unpaid carers to laud all the “amazing things” we do (pinch me, mama, my troubles are over). Tell you what Richard, file your platitudes away with the other 20 years worth of vom-making “unsung hero” pointless toothless rhetoric and come back and tweet congratulations to us on the 19th September, when the "amazing things" begin for us all.

Fiona Fisher

Vote Yes 18/9/14  #Indyref

Monday, 28 July 2014

Games People Play

Fourth day of Commonwealth Games competition.
52 days of campaigning to go.

As the new Secretary of State for Defence, Michael Fallon has the prime purpose of flitting about authoritatively, blowing smoke in his wake to fool foreign powers into thinking the UK can still afford to be a military heavyweight.  But are the red, white and blue fumes trailing behind him the self-confident splurge of unabashed patriotism, or the noxious toot of the cheap propagandist?

I know cynicism is the cheese-grater of the soul, but it’s hard to resist an upward tug of the eyebrow at the apparent last-minute switch of smoke colours for the Red Arrows’ Commonwealth Games flypast.  Jings, the planes themselves are red enough to blister the eyeballs, so sticking to the host nation’s blue-and-white, which was easy-peasy for them when they saluted the inaugural Scottish Parliament in 1999, would simply have evened things up a bit.

So was this another in the endless series of “misunderstandings” that always tilt one way, or was it Mr Fallon implementing the Government policy of “being childishly vindictive to the Scots and then blaming them for nit-picking”?  To find out, I suppose we’ll have to wait for the 2014 Cabinet papers to be released in 30 years’ time, or, if Scottish independence is deemed a national security threat, 100 years.  Until then, we’ll have to content ourselves with ping-pong Twitter discussions that themselves drag on for 100 years, or until the participants block each other, whichever comes first.

The tone of the week was set by over-promoted solicitor Alistair Carmichael, who issued a pompous warning to Alex Salmond about politicising the Games.  This, of course, was a subtle use of the word “politicising”, known only to Whitehall mandarins with twisted minds.  It includes anything any Yes supporter, under the First Minister’s pernicious thought control, might say, think or do that makes the Telegraph feel queasy.  However, it excludes any arguments or symbols the UK Government or its hench-people might use in support of the constitutional status quo, which is obviously an excellent thing, blessed by all respectable deities and our only bulwark against savagery. 

According to the rules, if you try to enter an arena with the flag of a non-competing nation, the thought police are entitled to nick it off you. You’ll be un-gobsmacked to learn that this prohibition doesn’t cover the Union Jack, which is why persons unknown, but no doubt you can guess who, were in the streets around Celtic Park on Wednesday handing out bizarre “half-and-half” Saltire/Union Jack flags straight from the laboratory of Dr Frankenstein.  The tolerance for that old red, white and blue also extends to the helmets of the English cycling team, unless there’s been a pigeon circling the velodrome with a colourful diet and an uncanny aim.

Despite the best efforts of the BBC, whose conspicuously bussed-in presenters still light candles for the glory that was London 2012 and pine for the days when the “Home Nations” were a giant Team GB love-in, Scotland is most definitely a competing nation.  So you’re allowed to take in a Saltire, even if the thought of it gives Alistair Darling conniptions.  In fact, I’d do it just because it does. But emblazon it with a controversial message such as “YES”, or even “Personally, I prefer Tunnock’s Caramel Wafers” and you risk being sentenced to five months tied to a chair with Councillor Gordon Matheson yelling at you.

Sport is mankind’s favourite metaphor for war and a handy tool for our leaders to distract us from their nefarious pauchling, so no amount of boil washing is ever going to get politics out of it.  I’ll bet there were even placards at the ancient Olympics saying “Pericles is a twat” and “I wish that fat git Socrates would drink hemlock”.  With a key moment in the nation’s history hurtling towards us like a meteor, asking for the Commonwealth Games not to become politicised is like expecting water to flow uphill.  It’s just a question of whether you do the politicising subtly, or give it laldy until there’s nothing left but a smouldering teacake wrapper.

The First Minister seems to have gone for the former approach, following some tongue-in-cheek remarks about Glasgow being “Freedom City” which sadly underestimated his critics’ sense of humour deficit. Since then he’s said very little, apart from congratulating and being photographed with medal winners, including, bizarrely, the England bowls team.  This is, of course, a calculated political stance, which we might describe as “genial host associated with success”, or “waiting for the other side to make all the mistakes”.   

By contrast, the UK Government has stuck to the strategy it knows best, ”petty tinkering and honking double standards”, plus a new habit of bribing Glasgow with financial inducements every five minutes.  Meanwhile, some of its chums in the press have gone for the “ignorant drivel” approach, belching out risible articles trying to portray Scots as racist. English competitors seeking advice on how to cope with being booed?  Clyde, the Games mascot, intended by its 12-year-old designer specifically to piss off the English?  Aye, right. Hope you’re enjoying the Friendly Games, ya complete poltroons.

Ach well, in a few days the bandwagon will have departed and the Machiavellian spin-meisters on both sides will find, to their utter amazement, that none of this Games-playing has made a jot of difference to undecideds.  At least, not one that will show up in the opinion polls and make Professor Curtice’s hair fizz with sparks.

But subconsciously?  Who knows?  Nobody reckoned on the competitors themselves stepping up and delivering a belting, record-breaking performance laced with dramatic comebacks and inspiring personal stories.  There must be only so many times people can see that, or hear Flower Of Scotland associated with success, or watch a crowd waving Saltires and shouting “Yes”, before they reach a tipping point and realise that maybe Scots aren’t all that crap after all.

Be afraid, Blair McDougall, be very afraid….

Thursday, 24 July 2014

The Endorsement From Hell

57 days of campaigning to go.
2 days to John Barrowman live at Celtic Park.

As if the Commonwealth Games norovirus hadn’t been a stark enough health scare for the authorities, Monday evening brought widespread reports of people suffering a severe pain in the rectum.  This turned out to be Tony Blair, now bereft of the illusory charm that once befuddled the electorate and revealed as he truly is, a billowing methane cloud of evil surrounding a massive set of teeth.

Tony was addressing Progress, a sarcastically-named Labour think tank, on the general subject of his brilliance.  I suppose we should be grateful he wasn’t personally loading rockets into launchers, but it was somewhat jarring to find a so-called Middle East Peace Envoy lapping up applause in a Grade II listed building in London while hospitals in Gaza were going up in flames.  Maybe he thinks it’ll take him only 45 minutes to pop over there if either side develops a need for sanctimonious claptrap.

It’s 20 years since the man dubbed “Mrs Thatcher’s greatest creation” assumed the leadership of the Labour Party, and set about “modernising” it by dynamiting its foundations and watching its principles slide out of the upper windows as it began to tilt.  So the speech was mostly a collage of self-congratulatory tosh, with a bit of back-seat driving to annoy Ed Miliband and a conspicuous absence of words such as “dodgy dossier” and “warmongering”.    

For anyone but his coterie of delusional sycophants, Tony’s approval is the endorsement from Hell.  He doesn’t come cheap, so the No campaign had zero chance of bribing him to keep quiet about independence without breaching Electoral Commission spending rules.  Sadly for them, with a Telegraph scribbler lurking and a question-and-answer session looming, the topic was bound to come up.

While travelling the world preaching the gospel according to J P Morgan, Tony’s probably not had much time to read up on Scottish politics.  It’s debatable whether he gives a hoot about Scotland at all, except as an opportunity to add one or two castles to his property portfolio. That’s the most charitable explanation for the bizarre response he gave to the Telegraph’s question, which was that “Better Together’s arguments have got stronger as time has gone on”. Unless, of course, he was talking about the smell. 

It wasn’t exactly a compelling sound-bite, and it was done and dusted in ten seconds, which rather sent a herd of elephants through the bouncy castle of the Telegraph’s potential scoop.  Clearly Tony had far sexier subjects to occupy his lie-generating software, though disappointingly these didn’t include the question, “Why the hell are you here and not in The Hague?”

Campaigners on the No side were far from anxious to draw attention to Tony’s mini-intervention, preferring to rock gently back and forth with their heads in their hands, moaning softly.  It was as if an embarrassing uncle had suddenly gate-crashed a family party, thrown up on the rug, pissed in the fireplace and exited through a plate glass window, while everyone else tried to pretend nothing had happened.

And so the episode shuffles off to a shelf in the curiosity shop of history.  But it does illustrate a growing problem with defunct politicians coming back to haunt us.  Previous generations didn’t have to worry about this sort of thing, since outgoing Prime Ministers didn’t have foundations, money-spinning lecture tours and glamorous international sinecures to keep them in our faces, but could instead be relied upon to retire to their country estates to grow vegetables, develop syphilis, and never bother us again.

Perhaps we need an incentive scheme to make sure it’s goodbye and not au revoir. In Tony’s case, could we not play on his massive ego and make him the first Ambassador to the Klingon Empire, blasting off from one of the six potential Scottish space-ports identified by the Civil Aviation Authority?   We’d need to put together a dossier to make it look convincing, but, given his proven lack of critical faculties, some old Star Trek scripts and a bit of Tipp-Ex would probably do the trick.  The crowd-funding might be a challenge, but if money’s tight we needn't make it a return trip.

Meanwhile, Tony is off to Africa next week to see what “progress” he can inflict there.  He won’t be hanging around for the Commonwealth Games.  He doesn't have a problem with games, especially if they involve acquiring wealth, it’s just the “common” bit he’s not so keen on.

Saturday, 19 July 2014

The Ideal Opponent

Jings!  Less than 2 calendar months till the referendum!

In a bleedin’ awful week for world news, I was sorely in need of light relief.  So I spent a spiffing few days on the Moray Coast, enjoying some aquatic acrobatics from Dolphins for Yes.  Oh, I know our cetacean cousins haven’t actually spoken out in support of self-determination, but, given their intelligence and positive disposition, it can be only a matter of time.

Around Nairn, say locals, the dolphins are particularly visible this year. Whenever you spot them, it looks like they’re saying, “What an opportunity to frolic in total freedom, doing algebra in our heads and adding to other species’ happiness!”  You never come across one muttering, “Crap, this water’s freezing!  We should have stayed in the aquarium, where the humans patronised the hell out of us but generally didn’t harpoon us.”  Maybe that sort all live south of the border, waiting to be bussed in by Better Together.

Yes campaigners should regard the cheerful Moray dolphins as role models, for there’s much to be upbeat about.  For one thing, we know that even if the propaganda war goes tits up  -  if the Daily Mail convincingly fakes a picture of Alex and Nicola hand-in-hand in a jacuzzi, smoking crack, or a conveniently unearthed Dead Sea Scroll predicts that Scottish independence will bring famine, cataclysm and a plague of midges, or the Queen’s Baton turns out to contain the message, “One is not amused by troublesome Cybernats!  Orf with Salmond’s head!”  -  we have the consolation of knowing that on the other side of the argument stands the hapless David Cameron.

It’s only the shambolic state of the opposition that keeps us from appreciating how monumentally duff Dave’s judgement is.  This is the man who must have left his truth-seeking antennae in the pub before interviewing future jailbird Andy Coulson to be his rottweiler-in-chief; who couldn’t bring himself to sack repentant-my-arse Maria Miller even as her fingernails were scraping agonisingly down the side of the gravy train;  and who maintained that placing Lady Butler-Sloss in charge of the paedophile enquiry was The Right Thing To Do, even though her conflict of interest was so massive it blotted out the sun. 

One of Dave’s most spectacular political belly-flops has been his opposition to Jean-Claude Juncker’s election as head of the European Commission.  With a name that sounds like “country squire” in German, you’d think Jean-Claude would fit right into Dave’s Chipping Norton mind-set. But, alas, his vision of an integrated Europe jars horribly with Dave’s proposal to erect barricades and fend off foreigners with firebrands in order to make drooling bigots vote Tory instead of UKIP.  Worse still, he used to be Prime Minister of Luxembourg, which is just a radio station and a few cows, unlike proper-sized countries which start with populations of 60 million.

Dave couldn’t find anything of substance on which to nail Juncker, so instead he arranged for selected Tory scandal-sheets to smear him as an alcoholic potty-mouth who drank cognac for breakfast.  When the rest of the world stopped laughing at that one, Juncker was voted in by a margin of 26-2, which on the international ladder of humiliation placed Dave several rungs below the Brazilian football team.

In consequence, the normal round of photo-opportunities has been torture for Dave.  His arrival at this week’s EU summit was a laughing-stock, with Juncker effortlessly parrying his attempted karate chop and creating the lamest high-five in history.  In the subsequent official photograph, Juncker’s expression clearly reads “Get this plastic-faced dipstick out of my sight!” while Dave, looking glaikit even by his standards, appears anxious to tunnel out of the room with his bare hands.

As it turned out, Juncker’s appointment was less notable for Dave’s discomfiture than for the opportunity it gave our beloved media to resurrect the zombie argument “Scotland won’t get into the EU for years/decades/centuries (delete as appropriate)”.  An initial round of fourth estate fist-pumping was prompted by his statement that you couldn’t join the EU simply by writing a letter, which he addressed to a Catalonian representative who had, guess what, written a letter.

As we contemplate Microsoft inventing an irritating paper-clip that says “It looks like you’re trying to join the EU!  Need any help?”, it should be acknowledged that Juncker was right.  If we want to be, or remain, part of the EU, we shouldn’t just write a letter.  Or try to impress them with a tasty Rice Krispie traybake, or invite them to a snooker match where the pockets are mysteriously stuffed with fivers, or stand beneath their window serenading them with an out-of-tune ukulele.  There’s a process to be followed, we get it.  Realpolitik may or may not shorten that process, but, seriously, we’re cool with it.

All of this was, however, a mere blip on the seismograph compared with the reaction to Juncker’s later statement about holding off on EU expansion for a few years.  “Take that, Scotland!” whooped Better Together, as the BBC devoted the red button channel to celebratory church bells.  Then, just as hysteria began to grip the nation, newshound James Cook performed a heroic act of self-sacrifice.  Remembering his vocation, and promoting himself to the head of the Beeb’s P45 queue, he decided to check with Brussels what Juncker had actually meant by “expansion”. 

Lo and behold, the answer thundered back, fast enough to suggest that the new chief bureaucrat was a tad peeved at his words being spun by vested interests.  It transpired he’d been referring to countries geographically outside the EU, and not to Scotland, whose accession would be an “internal” matter.  So move on, folks, nothing to see here.  Pity nobody advised Sarah Smith, whose BBC2 apathy-fest Scotland 2014 continued to promulgate the “hammer blow for Salmond” lie as if she’d been locked in a sound-proof tank all day.

Of course, even if Juncker had donned a kilt and sung Flower of Scotland in 27 languages, it would have made no difference.  Whether Scotland is a member of the EU, and on what terms, doesn’t fall within his personal diktat, any more than it did for Andrew Marr’s bosom buddy Barroso.  But we all have to pretend that it does, because we’re trapped in the Twilight Zone, where you can be asked to believe six impossible things before breakfast, especially if Jim Naughtie’s at the microphone.

Naturally Mr Cameron, even after the whole claim had been thoroughly debunked, blithely proclaimed without a trace of embarrassment that Juncker’s statement was “very important”, which was all the proof anyone could require that it wasn’t.

That’s why Yes supporters should be cheerful about Dave’s presence in this campaign.  It would be even better if he had the cojones to debate Alex Salmond face-to-face, but why ask for the moon when we have the stars?  He’s pompous, bereft of self-awareness and blatantly wrong 100% of the time.  In all of 307 years, could we ever have chosen a better opponent?

Saturday, 12 July 2014

Bully For You

Round about Wednesday.  70 days of campaigning to go.

It’s a truth universally acknowledged that fishermen are among the most genteel and well-mannered of people.  Etiquette is everything to them, and woe betide the crewman who holds his pinky out at the wrong angle when sipping his Earl Grey after an honest day’s toil.  Should a fisherman ever drop a crate of haddock on his toe, his colleagues are immediately on the scene with smelling salts in case his cry of “Dash it, what a silly sausage I am!” causes alarm to the local ladyfolk.  Accordingly, the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation draws its membership from only the finest European finishing schools, and was once forced to eject Noel Coward for being too boisterous.

In that context, it’s easy to see why the Federation’s chief executive, Bertie Armstrong, should have been so scandalised to receive a letter from Alex Salmond that, God forgive me for even saying it, bordered on the brusque.  Far be it from me to join those scoffers who assert that Mr Armstrong has a squad of Munro-baggers permanently stalking him in case he decides to get creative with a molehill.

The whole unfortunate episode goes back to Mr Salmond’s speech in April to the College of Europe in Bruges, when he pointed out the absurd results of an independent Scotland’s expulsion from the EU, such as other nations losing EU-based fishing rights in Scottish waters.  To most observers the address was measured and statesmanlike, and the point about fishing rights a statement of the bleedin’ obvious, since even Better Together’s schoolboy fantasists can’t expect Scotland to lose all of its EU benefits while simultaneously being held fast to its obligations.

But, needless to say, some sections of the Scottish press took a puff on their crack pipe and edited the entire speech down to “Salmond threatens Europe”.  Perhaps Bertie truly swallowed this hook, line and sinker, in which case I’d like to advise him of a fabulous lottery prize that’s his for the taking once he’s sent me his bank details.  It’s equally likely, however, that he spied a delicious opportunity for stirring, for he ensured that his subsequent letter to the Scottish Government seeking “clarification” was accompanied by fireworks and a brass band. The Telegraph, pausing only to wet itself with delight, reported this as “Salmond accused of blunder”.

If Bertie had been inclined to accentuate the positive, he’d have acknowledged that the First Minister’s response to his missive was refreshingly free of platitudes. Instead he did a shambolic impression of Arjen Robben collapsing in the penalty box, protesting about being intimidated by verbal shafts such as “ridiculous interpretation” and “astonishing”.  I’m sure there must be spine-chilling seafarers’ legends about the sort of meltdown he experienced whenever he encountered 20-foot waves lashing the deck.

The disclosure of Mr Salmond’s snarly eyebrow-raising came in an edition of Channel 4’s Dispatches, with the camera lingering meaningfully over the offending words but offering little other context, thereby avoiding any danger of viewers forming an opinion of their own.  It was an enormously frustrating programme, with snippets of referendum gossip wheeching past your eyes like canap├ęs served by a roller-skating waiter, as it gradually dawned on you that this was the only grub you were going to get tonight.  Though vaguely even-handed in a tit-for-tat sort of way, it was so shallow that you could have wheeled on Sanjeev Kohli to present it without making any difference.

We did get a glimpse of the virtual reality scam known as Vote No Borders, the most outrageous Tory front since Fatty Soames, but it got no further than the Acanchi website and an enigmatic reference to “country-branding” before the script drifted off into a half-arsed whinge about how beastly everyone’s been to celebrities.  We also heard about the Foreign Office’s new role as chief pimp for the Union, whispering to visiting dignitaries “Give us a half-decent soundbite, or you don’t get to meet Her Majesty”. In response to this charge Westminster played the card marked "So what?", which, according to emergency legislation I must have missed, obliged Channel 4 to stop asking awkward questions.

No such luck for the dastardly SNP, who got clobbered even for mild-mannered John Swinney reminding bodies such as Visit Scotland that their legal obligation to stay neutral involved fleeing from the clutches of the CBI.  Not to mention the fact that five out of 50 companies consulted by C4 “had a feeling”, following contact with the Scottish Government, that if they didn’t stay schtum on independence there might be “retribution down the line”.  Such as what?  Being paraded down Sauchiehall Street wearing Scotland Commonwealth Games uniforms?  Being forced to buy season tickets to watch Hibs?

In each and every case, there was no smoking gun, not so much as a water pistol craving an e-cigarette.  But it was enough for the salivating hacks, who were quite content to insinuate that the SNP were basically the Mafia. 

What conversations might they invent to explain Italy’s Foreign Affairs Minister Sanro Gozi declaring his country’s neutrality on the indyref result?  “Buon giorno, Signor Gozi.  My name is Don Alessandro and this is Nicola, who may look quiet, but cross her in debate and she’ll bite your leg off.  Nice olive groves you have here.  What a shame it would be if they all suddenly burned to the ground...”

Actually, I’m in no doubt that the SNP has occasionally exerted pressure to get its way, because every government, actual and wannabe, does that.  That’s why they all employ ruthless bastards.  Did David Cameron appoint Andy Coulson as his media chief because of his dressmaking skills?  Was Alistair Campbell allowed to hound people, allegedly to extremes I can’t mention for legal reasons, because Tony Blair enjoyed his office banter?  And if a Labour spin-doctor calls up a BBC Scotland producer following a news broadcast, is it to exchange recipes for lemon drizzle cake?

I’m not a fan of the practice, and I’ll be first to hang out the bunting if we can use the carbolic soap of regained sovereignty to wash it from our body politic. But let’s not exaggerate it when you can clearly hear complainants sharpening their axes in the background, or assume it never existed before being thought up by the SNP in a brimstone-filled room in 2007.

Anyway, those are my opinions on political “bullying”.  I’d be grateful if you’d spread them far and wide and recommend this blog to everyone you meet.  It is, of course, entirely your decision.  But that’s a nice laptop you’ve got there.  What a shame if it suddenly fell victim to a horrible debilitating virus...

Wednesday, 9 July 2014

Power Projection and Protest

A four-day dash from Thursday to Sunday.  73 days of campaigning to go.

With the news beginning to seep nauseatingly out of Westminster that “appropriately dealing with” child abuse dossiers and losing them without trace were one and the same thing, it was clearly time for some razzamatazz to distract people’s attention.

Fortunately, we had a glitzy toy to gawp at:  HMS Queen Elizabeth, the new aircraft carrier that will, we’re told, be a source of inspiration and pride for us all.  Sadly, we’ll have to wait until 2020 before it becomes a source of aircraft too.  This makes it an especially potent symbol of the Union, which with the swing of the Treasury’s remorseless axe will soon deliver fire engines with no hoses, ambulances with no wheels and, by special request of Donald Trump, wind turbines with no blades.  As denizens of Maryhill know, food banks with no food have already been delivered bang on schedule.

The naming of the bare-decked behemoth took place at Rosyth before an assortment of the great and good, including American dignitaries who’d agreed to shut up about independence even though it was 4 July.  For David Cameron, watching his fifth cousin perform the ceremony with a bottle of “UKOK” whisky thoughtfully provided by William Grant & Sons, there was a glow of pride at a significant achievement:  three days in Scotland in less than a week, and still no questions answered.  Or did the glow betray a smidgin of embarrassment at getting booed? Never mind, he thought, he’d get his chums in the media to say the heckling was even worse for Salmond.

“We’re back in the business of maritime power projection!” gushed Philip Hammond, who by all accounts is UK Defence Secretary.  That’s great, although going by the last time the Russians strayed into Scottish waters without challenge he may still be relying on scaring them off with holograms and cardboard cut-outs. 

Still, unless his staff had carelessly left him on his “random Tory lie generator” setting, at least Phil confirmed that the new warship’s wee sister would be built at Rosyth even if, despite all the Government’s postal votes, Scotland came out for Yes.  Cue gurgling noises from Alistair Carmichael, history’s one and only Secretary of State for Portsmouth, as his last iota of credibility slid inelegantly beneath the waves.

A different form of power projection, one we needed like a boil on the bum, manifested itself in Glasgow on Saturday, when an Orange Order march ended in another piece of bottle-smashing and a 12-year-old girl was injured.  Now, I’ll not spend long on the Orange Order’s activities, because (1) they’re a crashingly hopeless subject for comedy, and (2) you can take it as read that I’ll rant about provocative, quasi-militaristic, alcohol-fuelled sectarian exhibitionism being an abhorrence in an educated modern society, so why waste energy?

The stramash was relevant to the referendum because the Orange Order, displaying an intellectual honesty that’s an elusive butterfly to the CBI and BBC, had signed up as No campaigners with the Electoral Commission.  So the parading of chunky great NO banners through Glasgow while mayhem was taking place immediately offstage was, at least until the press found a way of blaming the whole thing on Alex Salmond, a PR disaster for Better Together.

This is a dangerous thing for Yes to gloat about.  To be fair, it’s unlikely that any fascist fringe weirdo groups, or for that matter UKIP, will come banging on Blair Jenkins’ door asking to be given a plug in the next Aye Right leaflet.  But I, for one, won’t be uncorking any champagne if Rupert Murdoch, the destroyer of all that’s worthwhile, becomes bored of toying with Cameron and cranks up the muck-spreader called the Scottish Sun in support of Yes.  When it’s a binary choice, there’s always the danger of winding up with fellow travellers whose views on other topics make you want to throw up.

But there’s no room for sentiment in a propaganda war, so as BT furiously back-pedal we can expect several trip-wires to be laid in their path.  They certainly wouldn’t hesitate to be equally ruthless with us, as was demonstrated big time by their calculatedly over-the-top reaction to the anti-bias protest at BBC Scotland the previous weekend.

As far as I’m aware, the protest was overwhelmingly good-humoured, started and ended at the advertised time, involved no bottles being lobbed in anyone’s direction and took place without a single arrest.  If John Simpson was there in a tin helmet, ready to deliver a breathless war zone report, I hope he brought plenty of Sudoku puzzles to keep him occupied.

But Jim Murphy, who really should give his Irn Bru crates more air time because they’d undoubtedly talk better sense, slammed the demo as “bullying” of the BBC.  Ah, that oft-prostituted word, from a man whose party used to understand the principle of peaceful protest, until Tony Blair devoured its soul with a nice Chianti!  Just to keep the irony-meter smouldering, the protest had included a speech from Professor John Robertson, an academic who really had been bullied when the BBC responded to his questioning of its impartiality by effectively trying to get him sacked.

Murphy’s whinge goes to show that, in the twisted world of propaganda, picketing a TV station is far from risk-free, even if you behave like Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm.  Accordingly, some high-ups in the Yes campaign weren’t at all keen on the BBC demo, and said so, resulting in a spicy in-house Twitter rammy I’m sure the forces of darkness enjoyed. 

Well, sorry, high-ups, but in my view having a self-organising grass-roots campaign is a stunning advantage, something for which Better Together would crawl over broken glass.  However, it does mean you can’t complain too much when the naughty grass roots do something that doesn’t slot neatly into your agenda.

In any case, seeing how cheesed off people were when the Beeb turned a blind eye to 50,000 anti-austerity marchers in London, I reckon there’s scope for “BBC bias” protests to emerge in the not-too-distant future as the new fashion craze.  Maybe the Pacific Quay demonstrators are pioneers!  

Saturday, 5 July 2014

Bad Education

Five-day sprint from Saturday through to Wednesday.  77 days of campaigning to go.

The days fair whizzed by, like when you’re under sedation at the dentist’s and weird speeded-up things keep happening you’d rather not know about.
I initially assumed that I was having trouble assimilating the week’s events because, like all Yes voters, I’m thick.  At least, that was what some propeller-head at Edinburgh University called Professor Emerita (hey, wacky surname!) was tweeting.  Then it turned out she was misquoting Professor John Curtice, although, in fairness, he opens his trap so often that, if he hasn’t come out with a particular piece of nonsense yet, he’s bound to get round to it some time.

Anyway, one “unreserved” but patronising apology later, the latest update from the groves of academe is that we’re not necessarily dim, merely ill-educated.  Although, entre nous, I’ve learned enough at the University of Life to know I can’t post batshit-crazy tweets that make me look like an arrogant dork and expect to have an easy time of things.  Just sayin’, Prof.

The Twitter goblins, clearly offshoots of the pesky critters that turn mild-mannered folks who enjoy a bit of gardening into raging psychopaths when behind a steering wheel, were perpetrating impish mischief in other places too.  Their machinations dynamited possibly the briefest political career in history, as newly-appointed Labour parliamentary candidate for Angus, Kathy Wiles, somehow felt compelled to post a picture that compared children gathering under a banner at a demo with the Hitler Youth.

“I was making a point about the dangers of using young children in campaigns,” explained Ms Wiles in a grovelling resignation tweet, as seething parents protested with a ferocity even the Courier couldn’t ignore.  Ah, we might have guessed, far too subtle for us uneducated dimwits!  Maybe she should offer some advice to HM Government, who jacketed their last propaganda outburst with a heart-tugging vision of the von Trapp family scampering across the heather to escape the wicked SNP.

Neither campaign educates its adherents in Twitter etiquette, although if they’re so toe-curlingly stupid that they need to be told “Don’t libel children” it’s a lost cause anyway.  As a species we’re still getting to grips with a tool that can instantly spout the unwanted contents of someone’s brain to every individual on the planet, but it’s been heartening to see pockets of self-policing appear.  

People of both indyref persuasions (that’s my token attempt at even-handedness, so enjoy!) are starting to flush out the dingbats, bozos, troublemakers and MI5 deep cover operatives whose “support” they need like a hole in the head.  It’s a filthy job, and the pay’s rubbish, so let’s applaud them, help them spread the word and not swither about blocking half-wits because we like the cut of their Twibbon.

In that context, and battening down the hatches for a retaliatory tsunami of whataboutery, I’d like to raise a teensy-weensy concern that this “SNP or other pro-indy group of choice are Nazis” meme seems to extend somewhat further than Ms Wiles’ galumphing tomfoolery.  Alistair Darling’s mumbled “blood and soil” brain-fart may not have represented explicit marching orders for saddoes who unaccountably view him as a role model, but it wasn’t exactly a cease-and-desist order either.

Nor is it just creepy Kenny in his clammy bedsit with six followers.  The recent Twitter activity of one prominent former Big Brother contestant, highly educated in polysyllabic grandstanding but with a kindergarten grasp of diplomacy, has been like waving a flamethrower about at a petrol station and yelling, “Haven’t hit any pumps yet, ya numpties!”

Of course, it’s all deliciously deniable if you take a soul-crushingly literal approach to language. “How DARE you insinuate that I said that?” hisses the perpetrator, rearing up like a startled mongoose, as his vulpine lawyer flaunts his education to demonstrate you ain’t got a leg to stand on.  It’s almost like there’s a new internet law – let’s call it Nodwig’s Law – where tweeters can get clean away with making references to the Nazis in any argument as long as they do it in a “Sally Bercow innocent face” kind of way. 

Hey, and you know what?  Someone on “our” side did exactly the same thing to Jim Murphy this week, somehow contriving to find a lame parallel between his “100 streets” tour and Hitler’s predilection for cruising around in open-top cars.  That’s plumb wrong as well, no bones about it. And unnecessary, since there are crate-loads of legitimate reasons to lob brickbats at Jim, as I hope to demonstrate in the not-too-distant future. 

Until then, let’s keep it decent and witty, folks.  Like the educated people we are.

Tuesday, 1 July 2014

Proud Edward's Barmy

A three-day catch-up to Friday.  82 days of campaigning to go.

Can you in your wildest dreams imagine Ed Miliband taking part in a laid-back, conversational interview such as Alex Salmond’s public chinwag with Derek Bateman on his Bateman Broadcasting podcast? 

According to observers who confuse politicians with people who actually achieve things, Ed’s a highly capable chap whose brain possesses its own gravitational field.  But the poor guy does “natural and relaxed” like Luis Suarez does vegetarianism.  My personal job from hell would be as his body language coach, training him to interact with humans without scaring them.  Pushing water uphill with a sieve would be preferable, and less likely to end with me being led away in a straitjacket.

Now, the personalisation of politics is trivial and unhelpful, as I’m sure professional “Salmond Dictator Bingo” player Alistair Darling would acknowledge.  But we all have hidden shallows, haven’t we, and nobody’s going to take our vote away on account of that, apart from Glasgow City Council, who’ll grab any excuse.  So there’s no denying the influence of David “Debate? Moi?” Cameron, the spine-chilling prospect of whose re-election in 2015 might, according to a tantalising recent poll, scunner Scots sufficiently to swing the referendum result to Yes.

This makes Ed the white knight bearing the banner “Saviour of the Union”, whether he’s sitting the right way round on his horse or not.  And it adds a distinct pinch of spice to one question stewing away in the electoral cauldron.  Does the mental image of Ed smiling and waving on the doorstep of Number 10 give UK voters a cosy, warm glow, or does it look suspiciously like the trailer for a disaster movie?

Unfortunately for Ed, other polls darkly hint that 60% of voters think he’s not up to the job, and it’s always possible that the other 40% are confusing him with his brother.  How Ed must envy his fuzzy-felt-haired sibling as, knife wounds beautifully healed, he jets around the world polishing his International Rescue halo and receiving “Let’s do lunch!” texts from Hillary Clinton, while Ed himself is left munching disconsolately on the bacon sandwich of failure.

Such was the background to Ed’s trip to Scotland on Friday, the latest in a “regular” series he’s threatened.  It was part of a two-day Shadow Cabinet blitz in cahoots with his fellow Ed, Mr Balls, who’s on record as promising to resign as chief bean-counter if a future Labour UK government agrees to a sterling union with Scotland.  It’s hard to beat a generous two-in-one offer like that, so we were all agog to see how his boss would rise to the challenge.

He didn’t.  Ed’s advisers, perhaps working from a 1970s Scottish Labour manual that said you simply had to turn up to win a standing ovation, had somehow failed to load his “voter-pleasing” software.  Instead we got an old Bitter Together cocktail of spittle and wind about his patriotic duty to erect border posts if Scotland introduced a robust, fair and coherent immigration policy in place of the UK’s random, cruel and senseless one.  As the room was full of journalists, any outraged squeals from fair-minded listeners were drowned out by purrs anticipating lurid headlines.

It’s de rigueur these days for party leaders visiting Scotland to promise “more powers”, except for Nigel Farage, who’s usually barricaded in a pub before he has the chance to promise anything.  Ed declared Labour’s unworkable and chaotic proposals, unveiled in March, a perfect fit for his 2015 manifesto, but gave no undertaking to explain them to Johann in terms that she could understand.  Did this indicate that Johann was about to take a long walk off a short plank?  We thought about that for a moment, and discovered we didn’t care.

As Keir Hardie knew, a political party must have a firm philosophical grounding or be an empty shell.  But philosophy looks like awfy hard work, so nowadays Scottish Labour’s main driving force is its hatred of the SNP’s guts.  Tax strategy, irrelevant to voters in September 2014 but arguably Labour’s principal remaining Socialist fig-leaf, is an excellent conduit for the party’s bile.

So cutting Corporation Tax, which Gordon Broon did twice and would have done a third time if the electorate hadn’t rugby-tackled him to the ground, was lambasted by Ed as a “race to the bottom” when suggested by the wicked SNP.  Cynical readers may note that the other Ed, safely returned to London, is currently reviewing business taxes as a whole, so this view may change in future.  Stay tuned for a whispered retraction at the height of the Commonwealth Games in a carefully camouflaged paragraph on page 24 of your super soaraway Scotsman.

Insofar as he ever had a field of expertise in the real world, before becoming the least unpopular self-aggrandising oddball on his local ballot paper, Ed used to major on “policy research”.  The remainder of his speech reflected this, as it became obvious that he’d researched the policies of the Tories and decided that to adopt them was the best way to get elected. Sorry, I mean second-best. The best was to adopt a shoutier version of them.

Thus Tory spending plans, otherwise known as “Pick up the nearest flamethrower”, were endorsed as a decent start.  The cold shower of austerity?  A bracing tonic, and let’s pep it up by shovelling bucketfuls of ice over ourselves. Food banks?  Brilliant photo-ops for politicians doing compassion, more please!  Iain Duncan Smith’s incompetent, blame-shifting slash-fest at Work and Pensions?  A brave attempt, but can we not do something to increase the amount of crap kicked out of people?

So ended another chapter in the never-ending story “That’s The Scots Telt”.  In a bawbag - sorry, nutshell - Ed was nonplussed.  Why on earth should Scots want independence when we can have this truckload of exploitative tosh, “the biggest progressive change for a generation”?  Isn’t progress, after all, a great thing?

Yes, it is.  Except, of course, if your vehicle is teetering on the edge of a cliff and some berk is lunging for the accelerator.