Is ‘test’ fracking by the Ocean Guardian to blame for the Forth Road Bridge closure?

You very likely haven’t heard of it but if you live in Kinghorn or Burntisland – or you’ve looked out the window of your train as journey toward Edinburgh – you will have seen the Ocean Guardian.  It’s an oil rig.


Talking to a neighbour a couple of weeks ago, he assured me that the rig was simply getting a refit from Briggs in Burntisland and so I checked (and you can too by going to the Marine Traffic website).  The Ocean Guardian is listed as ‘active’ which is to say, drilling.  Sorry neighbour but the rig is currently rooting around the Burntisland Anticline fault looking for coal gas which is allowed because ‘test’ drilling isn’t the same as actual drilling.  Apparently.

If you look at the screenshot (below), you’ll see that the fault-line detected by The British Geological Survey runs very close to the major fault-line that runs all the way down to Rosyth and quite obviously through the sandstone layer that connects the Fife coast… including the bit around north Queensferry.

Screenshot from 2015-12-07 14:37:13

You can see the map in its correct context on page 36 of the 105-page report, ‘The Carboniferous shales of the Midland Valley of Scotland: geology and resource estimation‘.   You can get your copy from the The British Geological Survey here.

I’m no geologist but I did – briefly – study civil engineering at Heriot-Watt University and one of the more interesting projects was studying how the Forth Road Bridge (and by extension, all suspension bridges) was put together, a project which culminated in scrambling along the gantry under the bridge to study its footings.

The Forth Road bridge has been checked every day of its life for wear-and-tear.  The only way that substantial cracks appear so suddenly (and so close to the footings on shore) is if the bridge comes under sudden stress and given the amount of ground surveys done in advance of building the new Queensferry Crossing, it would be very peculiar if that construction project was to blame.

While it cannot be denied that the Forth Road Bridge is old and has suffered from a lot of corrosion, all suspension bridges – whether fabricated from rope or steel – work on the same engineering principle: two fixed points on opposite banks of a river secure the load using cable under tension.  Modern bridges are designed to adapt to changes in ambient temperature and wind sheer stress but what they really struggle to cope with is sudden changes in ground movement, you know, earthquakes and such like.

So, two questions:

Will the Scottish government order a geological survey of the footings around the bridges, at the very least to rule out test fracking as a cause?

Will this be enough to ensure that a moratorium becomes an outright ban after the elections in May or were Scottish government ministers cursing as loudly as INEOS, iGas and GDF Suez?

Yes, some repair work has been delayed or simply put off but nonetheless, I look forward to being proven wrong.


Collected notes, research and other scribbles

It’s getting to the time of year when it’s too cold to be working in the studio or in the garden, so there’s no excuse for avoiding a review of stuff of both the stuff I’ve written this year and plan to work on next.


Piles of notes for various projects (clockwise from top left: short stories; Joe Clawfinger; The Land of Zeroes; Fragrant Snow; Fearless; Harrow; Burn Your Flag; Tiger's Maria; Gargantus; Along Glass Shore; The Hidden King; Pegasus Rising)

Not shown above are the screenplays or the stuff that I’ve decided not to follow-up and finish. The first and second drafts of these novels are in what Stephen King calls the ‘bottom drawer’. Stacked-up, my notes come up to my waist, so it’s a good job I don’t waste trees by printing each draft of each book.

On top of the notes for ‘Pegasus Rising’ (bottom left) are the other books I’ve sourced to add to my research for a project I abandoned when I read the synopsis for Christopher Nolan’s ‘Interstellar’. Having finally seen the movie last week, I’m confident that my idea is sufficiently different to get the novel written (the problem wasn’t the space travel bit but that my story has a father and daughter as main characters).

It’s time to overcome my extreme dislike of rewriting stories I should have written to the standard I was aiming for at the first attempt and get this stuff out there, after all, writers only begin books: it is readers who finish them.

Ash bowl in Wa-nari style with almond oil finish


Looking around for ideas on how to sharpen my skills on the lathe, I saw some images of Japanese pottery and was attracted again by the apparent simplicity of the designs.

Anyone who works on a creative project for any length of time knows that simplicity is never simple. One of the aims of a Japanese potter is to create a bowl that sits so perfectly in the hand that you notice only what is in the bowl – presumably only until you finish your meal. In the lathe, you can turn a seeming infinite variety of curves but getting a curve that is as wonderful to hold as to look at has taken a long summer of days of frustration and walking away to rethink everything from the material used, to the way the gouge is being held, the speed of the lathe to the actual way I’m standing.


Wa-nari means ‘circle shape’ – I think – but it could also mean ‘teaches how to use a bowl gouge properly’. Ash is a great wood to work with as it punishes the smallest mistake, whether it be the slightest slip in concentration or a tool that has been allowed to go slightly blunt.


One of the details I love about the bowls I turn is the raw base. Most woodturners appear to prefer polishing the base as much as the sides or covering the base with felt. I don’t do fakery but prefer to show-off the fact that this wasn’t made in a factory or moulded from plastic. The slightly-rough base and the marks left by the final cuts remind the person holding the bowl that it was once a living tree.



Given the choice, I’ll take a few hours on my letterpress over days on the very best computers with the best digital suites that money can buy.

Here’s a new greetings card design made using a Bodoni font. The colour is a blend of red with gold to give an antiquated feel to the use of a very old word. One of the customers in the bookshop told me about this word and though I can find no trace of it being used elsewhere, I thought it so beautiful that I thought it would be fun to bring it back into use somehow.

Quaintrelle (probably nicked from the French): a woman who emphasises a life of passion, expressed with personal style, leisurely pastimes, charm, conversation and the cultivation of life’s pleasures…

Ash Tuesday

wpid-wp-1444753227429.jpegThe latest bowl off the lathe has been turned from a piece of ash found on Pettycur beach.  Usually, the wood washed ashore is driftwood, sometimes too dry and brittle to turn on the lathe.

This bowl – and the other three turned from the ash – will be exhibited as part of Round The Horn (more details here).

One year on

I wasn’t going to write a thing and then The Guardian this morning put out a poll asking for people’s views on how Scotland has changed since the referendum, so I’ve written something after all.
Personal anecdote can never adequately cover the diverse range of opinions and it’s true that opinion is still sharply divided but the referendum touched on we are as individuals.  This week, Jeremy Corbyn was condemned for not singing the dirge, ‘God Save the Queen’.  He’s a republican and it was to be expected (and as a lifelong socialist, I expect that he’s either agnostic or atheist too).  To have sung words he didn’t believe would have marked him as a hypocrite and so, like many I’ve spoken to since, I rather liked that he didn’t pretend to believe in sentiments that would not have been universally shared by every volunteer who fought in The Battle of Britain.
Even if Scotland had voted ‘Yes’, there would have been many who resented this choice and very likely would have objected to the result being described as ‘the settled will of the people’.  The right of those people to subsequently campaign to re-unite the UK would not – and should never – be contested.  It is in the nature of democracy that people change their minds.  Was the result that delivered Labour’s first Prime Minister, Ramsay Macdonald, ‘the settled will of the people’?  Of course not.  When John Major won a much larger share of the vote over Neil Kinnock’s Labour in 1992, was that ‘the settled will of the people’?
In the words of one elderly customer I served in Edinburgh a couple of weeks ago, Scotland feels now like the abused spouse who has tasted nights free of fear and is very much prepared to just pack up and leave – and that’s what anti-independence politicians don’t understand. Conflating support with a ‘Yes’ for being a ‘Nazi’ only inspired supporters of independence. The more shrill the shouts of ‘Nazi’ and ‘traitor’, the more we knew that this distant and mysterious neo-liberal elite was panicking. People were supposed to just accept that banks should be given public money when they fail. People should just accept that when the things that made Britian great – the NHS, the Post Office, the trains, the utilities companies, in short, the very fabric of our united nation – was sold off to foreign, tax-dodging corporations, that it’s for some sort of greater good.
There-in lies the problem: we were told we’re better together but there’s so little left of what actually brought us together as a family of four nations. You can’t sell the family home and claim you’re able to keep a roof over our heads.
I’m not unusual as a Scot in that I was brought up by my parents to hold no respect for those that don’t earn it first. Pushing the Royal family through every media orifice only earns more of my contempt. If it’s Her Majesty’s Government, why is she not telling David Cameron to cut the cuts? She’s an educated woman with advisors but I don’t think ‘Madge’ has ever thought to ask herself why everything smells of fresh paint and cleaning wax. She might visit the food banks and refuge centres but has she ever heard a mother or father cry into the night because they cannot provide the things that their children need?
Need not want. Growing up in the Eighties, no-one ever seemed to be in need. We could still leave the front door unlocked and trust neighbours to look in on the kids. I remember that during the miner’s strike, my dad came home once and I overheard him telling my mum how a picket had thrown bins through the windows of the bus he was driving but it didn’t stop my dad pretending to be Santa at a Christmas party the bus drivers put on for the miner’s kids or our family being among thos ethat gave to the collections. We understood that there was real anger that communites were being torn apart. It wasn’t so much the mines being closed down that caused the furore so much as the sense that nothing was coming to replace what was usually the largest employer in the area. The UK government hasn’t learned anything but is now doing the same to public services.
If there is anger at how the referendum turned out, then ‘Yes’ supporters are angry at themselves for not being able to convince more people that they were being lied to or they’re feeling anger at older generations who’ve had so much and now in their twilight years, are throwing our future away from fear they might lose their big, fat pension pots. There seems to be so little will on the part of older people to at least leave the world as good as they found it, let alone better than it was but I don’t think the people of Scotland are unique in that regard.
The generational divide is there and increasingly so. Older people in Fife get very angry when they see signs of support for ‘Yes’ or overhear even mild support for an anti-UK government position such as on welfare. It’s very rare to see someone younger with an anti-independence political badge and so while there’s frustration with the rapacious policies of the millionaire government in London, there’s also a sure sense that change is coming. We just have to be patient, watching support for the Union die off a little every day and remember to be polite, respectful to our elders and to dust with lime as we slowly fill in that deep plague pit of the politics of selfishness.
It is hard to remember not all older people feel that way. My parents got abused in their church for saying they intended to vote ‘Yes’. There was that elderly woman I spoke to who compared Scotland to a battered spouse, encouraging us to laugh off the insults directed toward the staff in the bookshop who’d been wondering how Jeremy Corbyn becoming leader might change the political landscape in Scotland. There’s a hope that his election would push the SNP to keep tacking left and not, for instance, give the green light to fracking as soon as May’s Scottish elections are passed.
There’s a guy in my village who works on a new rig that is pulling so much oil out of the North Sea in a single day that it could power all of Scotland’s road and power station needs for a year. When media folk talk their usual uninformed nonsense about oil prices, they forget that many of us know people who still work in the business. We don’t go to a newspaper for that information or wait for the BBC to tell us what to think, we simply ‘dial a friend’. It’s a habit we’ve acquired and never let go.
A lot of what I see and hear comes from working in retail. Being in a bookshop has given me an ideal shop window to look out on the world. Edinburgh, generally speaking, voted ‘no’ but then it’s always had a reputation as being a bit weird, a bit selfish, a bit of the “You’ll have had your tea…” but by the same token, I suppose it was very considerate of the posh folk to gather in their ghetto up in Morningside. Come the revolution, we’ll know where to find them and all that…
Pitch black humour. Gallows humour. Humour so black you’d think you’d fallen into the orbit of a neutron star. It’s how you cope when you feel so constrained, you wonder how you’ll ever draw breath again. A lot of the hard words I used myself back then were simply frustration with The Commentariat, self-appointed experts flown in to loudly defame us as deranged, puerile, infantile or just plain nasty. We aren’t spiteful: we’re desperate. Who wants new nuclear missiles when the money could be beetter spent on feeding children? Our own children? And why would Russia invade a nation of food banks anyway? The oligarchs already have big fancy houses in the country here.
It was a friend who works in the media who first tipped me off about Nick Robinson’s spat with Alex Slamond at the Edinburgh International Conference Centre. Then the video appeared in Twitter and then later, with more than enough warning that people were aware of what had gone down – more than 400,000 views of the video by late afternoon – Nick Robinson then spouted his gash about: “The First Minister would not answer”. If there was single incident that highlighted the disconnect between what people were actually talking about in pubs, shops, at home, at work and what the media wanted us to think was being said, it was that episode.
If the media did talk a balanced message then you had to travel to find it. I was in Hong Kong when the result was announced. From our hotel room, we could still access all the world’s news channels. The contrast with the BBC couldn’t have been greater. The French had a team in a camper van going round Scotland in the weeks before the vote, asking folks opinions. The Dutch spoke about the implications for Europe. Norwegians discussed whether plans for a North Sea ‘energy loop’ would go ahead and as for Max Kiesler on RT… The world really was watching!
When we’d arrived a couple of days earlier, the local news showed pro-democracy activists waving not only the Saltire but the Catalan flag as they faced down ranks of blank-faced police. After the result, the Saltires were gone. We’d had a chance to lead the way, inspire other nations trying to attain independence and democracy and blown it. Then came Alex Salmond’s resignation speech and somehow, that didn’t feel like a punch to the gut. In falling on his political sword, this man who had so irritated people – even his supporters – with his smug patter for years had in that one act ensured that a thousand flowers would bloom where that thistle of Scotland had fallen.
In retrospect, that one resignation must have felt to David Cameron like a victory, much as it must have felt to the first hero who discovered what it feels like to fight the hydra. What is not understood, time and again, is that the desire for independence is more than just the aspiration to see national government returned to our capital: it’s about the need for fully participatory, unicameral democracy.
Edinburgh is the city, the size of a town that thinks like a village. We’re never as many as six degrees of separation from knowing someone who is someone. That was part of the magical appeal of independence: the people who would run our national government were going to be no further removed from our daily lives than the town councillor who lives a couple of streets away.
Watching Jeremy Corbyn’s first go as Leader of The Opposition at Prime Minister’s Questions was a reminder to David Cameron that behind each of those MPs on the benches opposite were real people who didn’t vote for unearned privilege and the despoiling of what was once ‘Great’ Britain. He had to hear real people’s life experiences behind each of those questions and it was clearly making him uncomfortable.
And that was what was great about the referendum: the chance to make the wealthy, the unelected, the self-appointed elite very, very uncomfortable.
Ordinary people are now much less embarrassed to object to signs of colonialism and the expectation that we should have to stand – let alone sing – a funereal dirge that begs for the continuance of monarchy and therefore denies the rights of full citizenship and democracy taken for granted in other countries. You see folk and get in conversation with them and you never can tell how they voted and even if you subsequently disagree with the choice they made at the time, it’s always interesting to hear their reasons why because sometimes, you’ll hear people concede that they would vote differently this time. People never speak about making the switch from ‘Yes’ to ‘No’: it’s always the other way around.
So now, there’s a sense of liberation in the air and that having opened the door just a crack, the great unknown is not so fearful. What will be interesting in the years ahead is to see how our political awakening affects people in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Will you, our friends and family, also have the courage to stop doffing your caps? Once you stop believing the media, you’ll find that the emperors really do have no clothes and your rulers hold no cards to play except your fears.


Labour’s reliance on media consultants are in part to blame for the victory of the Conservatives

Nicola Sturgeon, the Scottish National party leader, with parliamentary candidate Michelle Thomson during a campaign visit to South Queensferry. Photograph: Russell Cheyne/Reuters
It is no use blaming the SNP and, by extension, voters in Scotland for the return of David Cameron to Downing Street at the head of a majority Conservative government. Even if Labour had won every seat in Scotland – 59 – it would still have been short of the total needed in England. Neither is there any use in blaming polling companies for the results published. They worked to a plus-or-minus of 3% throughout the campaign and the Tory share of the vote was 6% more than Labour’s.
Do you remember this video appearing on YouTube? That was in 2011. But don’t put the entire blame for Labour’s defeat to Ed Milliband MP either. In repeating the same answer over and again, he was trying to ensure that the message he got out was not one which the media chose, edited down to a single sentence soundbite. He was taking advice. Very good advice if you’ve read Sun Tzu: never let the enemy choose the terrain on which you fight. The trouble for Ed, The Labour Party and now the whole of Britain, is that Labour forgot to follow that advice in everything it does.
The truth is, Labour was attempting to manage its message long before it lost the 2015 UK general election but those attempts have been failing since Gordon Brown finally ousted Tony Blair.
Whether we self-identify as ‘unionist’ or not, it is fair to say that we do not see ourselves as anything other than a nation of people who respect honesty, integrity and above all, honour. Regardless of the truth of whatever may have been agreed by Tony Blair and Gordon Brown when they were both running for election as leader of The Labour Party, it was for Tony Blair to stand down at a time of his own choosing. Machinations behind the scenes and an uncontested coronation were never going to make Gordon Brown beloved of people in Britain, especially when Brown appeared to chicken out out of validating his premiership by calling a snap general election.
This episode may appear unrelated but every time the Conservatives and their supporters, particularly the newspapers, mentioned David Milliband, they were reminding voters of what Ed was capable of doing. No matter that politics on an international stage requires ruthlessness, the man wanting to be Prime Minister stabbed his older brother in the back.
The constant fighting between Gordon Brown and Tony Blair may now be two elections past but the lessons learned by their deputies, special advisers and by The Labour Party in general, were perhaps the wrong ones and while we wait for Jim Murphy to do the honourable thing, we can see how the legacy of past disputes between various factions within political parties inform current events.
Media perception is everything. The belief long held is that without the support of the media, no political party can make gains but perhaps the SNP have shown that to be wrong.
Though it is hard to remember now, the tumult between the Brownites and Blairites occurred before there was wide use of social media. Such sleights and manouevres between panjandrams would not have remained so hidden from voters for long were Twitter in the wide use it is today and even were journalists to have heard on the grapevine that something was amiss, access to tomorrow’s key stories could be strangled at source by media consultants and advisers.
It’s hard to believe now but access to the biggest stories used to come via ‘spin doctor’, Alastair Campbell. If you didn’t print the stories in the way you were supposed to deliver them, you didn’t get a story and working to tight budgets and deadlines, even broadcast media such as BBC News would sheepishly follow whatever print media wrote. Perhaps such men – and it is still usually men – are necessary. Print media is predominantly owned by non-dom, tax dodgers like the Barclay brothers, Rupert Murdoch, Richard Desmond and Viscount Rothermere and not one of them is sympathetic to either The Labour Party, let alone the idea of fair, socially-just societies.
It would be naïve to assume that the SNP doesn’t have it’s own backroom staff but if, for instance, you think that the UK’s deficit, the so-called ‘balancing of the books’ is one of the most important issues facing the UK government today, if you feel that there is too much influence from the EU/ Brussels/ regulation and red tape, if you feel that there are too many people claiming benefits and if you feel that the economy is on the right track and is the best it’s been since 2009, then it’s very likely you’ve not only stopped reading by this point but that you’ll never appreciate that you’ve been had. Like lots of dutiful, patriotic Italians in the 1920s and Germans in the 1930s, propoganda has sucked out the reasoning centres of your brain and inserted a blank cheque for selfishness and crude ideology.
In the five years since the last UK general election, UK debt as a proportion of GDP has increased and believe it or not, it was not until 2013 – on the Conservative’s watch – that Britain’s credit rating was downgraded for the first time since 1978. What is clear is that trying to eliminate all your debt as a government has the exact opposite of what happens when trying to manage your household bills.
When canvassed by researchers in 2014, it turned out that four out of five MPs did not know how money is made and therefore how the UK economy grows. The chances are that most voters are similarly of the belief that The Bank of England simply makes the money.
No, it doesn’t and it hasn’t since 1916 when what was supposed to be a short little war actually bankrupted the Treasury. Ever since those dark days, private banks have been allowed to create money without limit. They do this by selling things like loans. In fact, loans are pretty much all a bank sells: mortgages, loans to businesses, you name it, that money only comes into existence the moment that a bank approves your request. These loans – and the creation of new money – depend on trust. The bank trusts our abaility to one day pay back that loan (with interest because that’s how the bank turns a profit). Other banks trust that the banks they borrow from have the capacity to loan against assets they claim to have and the government trusts that the banks have the capital they claim to own. In fact, debt is such a good way of raising money for stuff you want to build, make, sell and so on that governments sell off their debt to the banks, promising to pay interest on that debt, the value of that interest being judged to be approximate to the growth they expect in their national economy. This government debt is called a ‘bond’. Bonds get bought by corporations and funds who trust – that word again – that your economy will grow sufficiently to cover the debts accured in building roads, bridges, hospitals, schools and other such investments in infrastrucutre that make capitalism possible. Companies don’t build stuff for free. Governments are the very best sort of customers because they’re big spenders and they’re not going anywhere. Had a coup? No worries. The revolutionaries will pick up the debts of their deposed predecessors or offer a stake in the future administration.
When Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP proposed increasing government borrowing by just half a percent per year to off-set the effect of austerity and economic downturn, pretty much everyone in the newspapers and TV said the idea was really stupid. Damned socialists or words to that effect. The funny thing is this idea had already been put into practice and even more strangely, the economy that had adopted this technique is now out-growing the UK by a sginificant amount. Better still, this wasn’t some barmy, told-you-so, Leftie-socialist Scandinavian paradise that had borrowed it’s way out of trouble: it was the USA, you know, that bunch of barmy left-wing cardigan-wearing hippies, that you know… oh, never mind.
Are you starting to wonder why you didn’t hear this in the electoral campaign? Who brings you your news? Who puts ‘informed opinion’ and expert analysis into news programs? Who sits on the BBC Question Time panel and answers studio audience questions yet more questions about immigration or the rise of nationalism but never tells you about the difference between deficit and debt but the same politicians and experts you’ve already seen before? Who do they work for? How did they arrive at their arguments and who paid for the research they’re quoting? How many of you have actually researched for yourself what The Adam Smith Institute does and who pays them?
It is no wonder that Ed Milliband listens to media advisers. Faced with an aggressive in-your-face barrage of hostile questions and editors looking for that one bloop which will destroy your argument by making you look like you’re contradicting yourself, wouldn’t you pay for the best help you can get? Look at what happened to Natalie Bennett when she had a moment of ‘brain fade’? We’ve all had a moment when we can’t recall the name of the person we’re talking to or recall the information we’ve spent weeks learning by rote and found that panicking or asking for a moment only makes the forgetfulness worse. We all have.
Contrast the highly-polished media campaigns of the Conservatives, LibDems and Labour with what was happening north of the border. Many people compared the spontaneous crowds around Nicola Sturgeon to religious mania and perhaps there was a little of the rock star about the idea that a national leader would just be there, without security guards or minders or advisers, holding a baby or taking yet anohter selfie but which other senior politician allowed such scrutiny? The genius of the SNP campagin is that it was so well practised that it looked unrehearsed but here’s the thing: the SNP chose the ground it was fighting on.
In contrast, Ed Milliband (and Nick Clegg and David Cameron) visited factories, made speeches from fields and with the exception of occasional visits to schools, rarely met members of the public. No-one, it seemed, was going to risk having a Gillian Duffy moment but then there was that unscripted admission in South Queensferry.
The Labour Party has some very obvious cheerleaders in Scotland. It not only has the support of all but one newspaper, it has the full support of the BBC and though Labour politicians may demand that there’s more scrutiny of the SNP – and there should be – the fact that they were demanding this should happen is telling. ‘Old’ media – newspapers, radio and TV – were talking to one generation but an entirely different form of media belonged to the other team and the other guys don’t do sympathy or understanding. If you say on TV – as Jim Murphy did last year – that waiting lists for hospital treatment in Scotland are four times longer than in England, you will be pummelled for telling that lie because the moment the words are out of your mouth, some student will be double-checking your claim online and doing the work that Jackie Bird, Brian Taylor or James Cook should have done before letting your remark pass uncontested. Within an hour, you will find yourself doubted, disparaged and mocked.
In a way, the SNP should be thankful for the continued hostility of the BBC especially. It’s brand is so tarnished among younger voters that anything stated as fact by Jackie Bird, most especially, will be treated as the most toxic, most partisan nonsense.
With such adversaries and wall-to-wall confrontation, it’s no wonder that when the electorate in England and Wales first heard Nicola Sturgeon speaking they were surprised to hear not a communist or an anti-English racist but someone who was prepared to ask the same questions as they had been asking themselves and putting forward exactly the sort of policies that they had given up on hearing from The Labour Party.
If Labour is to find it’s way back from the mess that it finds itself in now – it won’t – then it has to distance itself from the very things it has relied on in the past. Labour likes to position itself to the left of the LibDems, mocking Nick Clegg’s pledge to never raise tuition fees among other things but forget that the electorate knows that Labour introduced them in the first place. Labour also introduced the so-called ‘Bedroom Tax’. On websites such as, voters have been able to observe how often their MPs turn up to debates and how they vote. In Scotland, we knew which Labour MPs were lying when they said they voted against austerity.
We’ve made a habit of using these websites because voters in Scotland are used to doubting everything they’re told, a habit learned during and indeed after the referendum and will check and double-check everything for themselves. No amount of spin or media advice will overcome this distrust. The only time we ever encounter the BBC’s version of news and public opinion is by accident and only because we’re waiting for something interesting to come on the tellie, otherwise, we only see the BBC’s view of the world when it’s being held up for mockery in a YouTube clip (thank you, Nick Robinson) that one of our friends shared as a link.
For The Labour Party to ever again be able to challenge for government, it will take the same things that built it up originally: courage so great that it’s willing to smash the Establishment and a grassroots membership. Reliance on older voters who still trust the biased opinions of Jackie Bird et al is a slow road to ruin. Thanks to the discrepancy between life expectancy figures in the south-east of England and northern England and Scotland, Labour’s traditional voter base is dying out fast. These were voters who began work in the unions and remember the Maggie Thatcher years.
I work alongside folk who were born the year Tony Blair first became Prime Minister. These kids have grown up with computers and now spend hours of every day communicating instantly by phone. They don’t knock on doors, hand out leaflets, canvas punters in the rain unless they’re already believers and how do they get to that level of belief that sees a far greater turn-out in Scotland than in England? Social media. If you think that Blair McDougall and John McTiernan can produce the sort of excitement that returns 56 out of 59 MPs then please, continue to believe that ‘nationalism’ caused Labour’s losses in Scotland.
Jim Murphy’s constant references to the possibility of a second referendum (which wasn’t in the SNP’s 2015 Westminster manifesto), served only to remind voters in Scotland that no matter how often they vote Labour, they will always have to endure whichever party south-east England chooses: 1979, 1983, 1987, 1992, 2010). Raising the spectre of the referndum and battles already fought and lost but also served to remind voters about warnings given by the Yes campaign and promises broken by Jim Murphy, Gordon Brown, Ed Milliband, Nick Clegg and David Cameron.
There was a point during the referendum campaign when things turned around for Alex Salmond, the SNP and the Yes campaign and when there was a noticeable up-swing in support. It was during the second debate with Alastair Darling when the unionists again tried pressing the point about currency union which many deemed had won the unionists first debate. Salmond batted his reply out of the field and after Darling was stunned like a landed fish, the First Minister (as he was then) rounded on the former Chancellor of the Exchequer for not only his failings in propping up banks with mismanaged public money but for being part of the government that began the privatisation of the NHS. I remember turning to my wife and saying ‘Nicola’s advised him this time…’ The difference between debate performances was as different as salt and sweet.
It was in that moment, I think, that social democracy won the argument between the left and right of the SNP which is to say, between the left-left and the centre ground where the other main British political parties fight to be heard. The NHS was built by and for the public. It is not an asset that can be sold off because it doesn’t belong to anyone but the people who live here. When the Conservative/ LibDem coalition sought to continue Labour’s efforts at privatising the Royal Mail, it was the SNP who were first to kick-up stink. And so on…
Between the hammer of rule by governments we don’t vote for and the anvil of a hostile press, the SNP – and by extension, the wider Yes movement which included Greens, socialists and the politically unaligned (folks like myself) – have had to resort to a street-level campaign. If people knocking on doors are all reporting that ‘people won’t vote for us until we support a fully publicily-owned NHS’, it would be a stupid political party that didn’t listen.
Labour is in a difficult place. It is still fighting the same war it was losing when the Blairites were squabbling with the Brownites. Labour won in 1997 because the Conservatives were so rotten, they ahd MPs choking on oranges in hotel cupboards while wrapped in bin bags. Anyone offering something that looked like Thatcherism that wasn’t absolutely crazy was going to win an election.
Triangulation worked for The ‘New’ Labour Party only as long as the core of their voters didn’t notice what sleight of hand Blair and Brown had pulled. Socialism is about more than singing the International at the end of your conference or saying that you’re ‘not them’ .ie. Tory but the problem with neoliberalism is that if it stinks like shit, looks like shit, it probably is the sort of ‘economic theory’ that benefits fewer than 3% of the population.
This is not 1997. ‘Blairism’ or, the dark art of triangulating the centre ground is not going to work. If people want to vote Conservative they can do that because the truly mad Tories have scuttled off to hide under UKIP’s umbrella. All David Cameron had to do to recover Tory numbers was promise an in-out referendum on EU membership and threaten socialist hell if he didn’t get returned to power.
The key to understanding the result of the 2015 general election lies in several figures. The first is the appalling relief that sane people find in that the millions of votes for UKIP returned just one MP but with less than half the number of votes, the SNP got 56. Don’t blame the SNP as they’ve long supported constitutional reform but Labour… Oh dear. They had thirteen years in office to fix the problem (and to rid us of the House of Lords). With proportional representation, the race for government would have been much closer.
Second, and to my mind, the more important number. Fewer than 30% of all those eligible to vote, voted for the Conservatives. If seven in ten people are voting for someone else, there is surely no mandate that the Conservatives can claim to be a ‘majority’ government.
Scotland reported about 85% of the electorate voting during the referendum. That figure was only down to around 77% on Thursday but England and Wales had a turnout of more than ten percent less. This tells us that despite the dangers to public services and natural monopolies, insufficient numbers of voters were enthused by Labour Party policies to vote at all. Look again at the proportion of voters turning out in Scotland and look again at how many more votes Labour needed to capture target seats in England and Wales. For goodness sake, Labour couldn’t even hold on to Gower in Wales but lost that to the Conservatives.
No matter how much or how little those media advisers cost, they were simply not up to the job. They may be able to create a whizzy spreadsheet, map a difficult demographic, conjure up a punchline strapline for tomorrow’s papers but after everything else, politics, it seems, comes down to the heart and issues of trust.
To return last of all to issues of personality, consider this: when the campaign for independence in Scotland fell short by just 5% (the difference between 55% and 45% is little more than a 5% swing to the latter because ‘Yes’ only had to win by one vote), Alex Salmond fell on his sword the very next day. Jim Murphy, leader of Scottish Labour’s branch office has lost more than 95% of Labour MPs, has instead chosen to stay in charge. The Scots – like most other folk in Britain – do not admire sneaks, thieves, folks who stab other folks but most especially their brothers in the back or who talk out their mouths sideways. Labour is doing itself no favours by holding on to the past or old ways of doing things, of blaming everyone else or ‘dark forces’.
On the TV, in newspapers, we get told that ‘nationalists’ are evil or deluded but then I bump into friends in the streets who are going from door-to-door with clipboards, taking note of what people are saying about the lives of voters and non-voters alike and the state of the world and they’re doing this the day after the election has been won and I wonder, just how more deluded could the media advisers of Labour, the BBC, the UK’s newspaper proprietors really be? We chose SNP because they listened and because when they did something – in words or in images – they spoke to the heart and to our common aspirations and when we hear Nicola Sturgeon, we hear someone who we imagine to be just like us.
I don’t hear that in Jim Murphy. I don’t hear that in Ed Milliband and I certainly have never heard it in the words of David Cameron or Nick Clegg.
But I do hear common aspiration, nobility and frustration with Westminster government when I read of East Lothian’s new MP, George Kerevan, making a pledge to only accept the median salary while MP but maybe that’s the thing: you don’t need a media consultant to tell you that you’re out of touch of the folk who elect you, you just need to listen.
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