Who knows? There was a lot going on this week. Public transport, more Euro Zone and a new Labour Leader. It made for a lively podcast.
The wonderful Sarah Webb died in September of this year. Look at this smile and try to believe that this fresh-faced looking lass was actually 49, Chief Executive of a large organisation (the Chartered Institute of Housing) and used a stick to get around. That's the impish grin of a genuine, funny, spontaneous human being – the kind of person you'd cheerfully get stuck with in a lift. The kind usually weeded out or somehow flattened on the way to the top.
Sarah – by contrast -- sat at the top of the housing policy tree and held the door wide open for staff, activists, tenants and interested fellow travellers like myself, fortunate enough to be asked to facilitate CIH conference events to make sure tenants felt sufficiently confident to ask tough questions of all "heid bummers". She was inclusive, no-nonsense, friendly and smart. Her knowledge of Scottish housing problems and affection for this country was so strong I always assumed she must have grown up north of the border. Wrong. Barefoot kids in Blackhill during the 1970s did kindle her passionate belief in better housing as this excellent Guardian obituary explains. http://www.guardian.co.uk/society/2011/sep/15/sarah-webb-obituary
I was in Norway for two months in September when Sarah died of cancer, and just heard the bad news on return from Gordon Proven's funeral in Ayrshire. Both of them used to light up lives. So hard to believe they're gone. And because bad news always comes in threes, farewell to James Bowie who used to live in our local village of Abernethy and was killed on Friday in a road accident in Kinross. Amazingly James was 80 but looked half that age and, though he was deaf and mute, managed to communicate an incredible joy in being alive. I used to see him standing at the bus-stop as I sailed past on the bike to get the paper. Being a fair-weather cyclist, it was always good weather when we met and he always waved. I still remember one beautiful day after a cloudy week – he pointed up at the blue sky and round us at the green fields and then at his heart and blew a kiss. As my mother says, it's a great life is you don't weaken.
That was an impressive acceptance speech by the new Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont. Have a listen (it's only 10 minutes) because the headlines have picked up only the familiar old lines not the harder to summarise change of tone and voice in Johann's speech.
So here are a few thoughts that will form the basis of a Scotsman column on Monday – constructive comments are welcome!
I didn't count precisely the number of times she mentioned "change" and "Scotland" but they were given more prominence than any others. The first five minutes didn't even mention the constitutional debate but concentrated on hammering home one message – the inward-looking and "tired old party machine" of the Scottish Labour Party must change.
"Nothing will be off limits – there will not be one rule, one policy one way of working that cannot be changed. Our one test will be what's in the interests of the people of Scotland, not what's in the interests of the Labour Party."
She sent a warning shot across the bows of Labour's "entitlement" brigade – those who think they can "haud the positions they haud" in perpetuity. Party candidates in future will apparently include folk who aren't in the party yet and those who are but don't think they've got a chance. Shadow Cabinet members will be chosen only on the grounds of expertise and ambition for Scotland – hinting that non-Labour party members could be included.
Strong stuff – heard by her Labour Party audience in slightly stunned silence. The first burst of applause was prompted by more familiar ground – a brave attempt to tackle the "visceral" hatred rumoured to exist between Labour and the SNP.
"I don't hate the SNP but I just love Scotland too much to believe in separation -- to disagree with the SNP is not to talk Scotland down but to seek a better future for the people of this country."
Last May Scotland didn't let Labour down – we let them down.
It's a good line – but once uttered there's no going back. Visible change needs to be immediate otherwise Labour will be left foundering – holed beneath the waterline by a leader who accepts the party is effectively "not fit for purpose."
Ms Lamont may have opted to get elected before she started paraphrasing the rejected Tory leadership candidate Murdo Fraser – but her message to party members is almost as stern and revolutionary. Now change absolutely must happen – and not just nuanced change like the deeply unmemorable but much hyped new name that means something significant only to party members. There were a few snags.
Firstly the vision Johann outlines is very, very similar to all the rest. I couldn't hear anything in the ambitious, caring, more equal Scotland she envisages that would stick in the throat of any other party leader – and that includes the young Conservative leader Ruth Davidson. There was a very good line about the need to continue devolution beyond Holyrood to renew local government so that power is closer to families and communities. Small, mutual, co-operative and community-based ventures have been growing like topsy outwith the Scotland's distant, over-large and top-heavy council structure. It's not just local taxation that needs reform – it's the whole shebang and looking to Nordic social democratic tradition, there's no reason why Labour shouldn't be the champion of a radical de-centralisation of power.
I would like Johann to have made the reduction of inequality Labour's single guiding goal before she moved on to echo the SNP's trademark stance about ambition.
Mind you, in many ways the absence of a startlingly different vision reflects the changed times in which Scottish Labour now operates. There are no primary colour differences between the parties in the Scottish Parliament – except for that vexed constitutional question. Like many other PR legislatures, coalitions and consensus tend to mean the difference between parties is reflected in the people they promote and their reputation for competence, inclusion and modern attitudes as much as well chosen single issues or oft repeated guiding lights.
Secondly though, there's a contradiction in the role of the new Scottish Labour Party. Is it a movement or a calling or a less emotionally charged vehicle anyone can join?
In her speech Johann made repeated mention of the concept of service.
"It's the people of Scotland we serve and not the institution in which they ask us to do service." This conceives of the Labour Party as a kind of Church and Labour politics as a religion. In some ways it's good to hear a Labour leader dare to aspire to such lofty ideals and long term goals. In another way it smacks of the slightly smug and supercilious "higher purpose" that always excluded very active non party-members.
I'm delighted to say Johann didn't utter my least favourite Labour phrase "our people" which always struck me as presuming the automatic support of traditional supporters AND the automatic exclusion of everyone else from a meaningful role in civic society.
But some parts of her speech suggested a zealot-like belief in the innate goodness of Labour as the only legitimate People's Champion is a hard default attitude to ditch.
Johann says "We were deluded to think Scotland was a "Labour country." The task is to make Labour Scotland's party again." Uh?
I know each party leader is in a political party for a reason and must believe their members are better equipped to solve problems and hold office than anyone else. But the vast majority of active citizens in Scotland are not members of ANY party. And the contrasting fortunes of the Lib Dems and SNP lately demonstrates that voters change party allegiance without necessarily changing their own political outlook. The long period during which non card-carrying members were regarded as "off-message" has to end. And not just as a device. Labour did indeed deliver the long list of social and constitutional goods Johann Lamont listed. But as she accepts -- that's now taken as read. Are all Scots equal or are members of the Labour Party still going to be more equal than others should the party regain power?
We will judge that one on deeds not words.
Finally – there's a slight delivery issue. Johann slow down!!!
I'm not too worried about Ms Lamont's fairly deadpan delivery style – Johann has an ironic sense of humour which will emerge more strongly over time. The awful memory of a grimacing Gordon Brown should be viewed by anyone who thinks "colour me beautiful" type change does anything other than undermine the confidence of naturally serious people. But a few pauses wouldn't go amiss.
Johann thanked her family for their support and included her absent young son who had her up at 5am "skyting about" on icy pavements to take him swimming. This was a more effective mention of the fact that she too is a parent than Ken Mackintosh's endless mention of his own six-strong brood – which happily has not effectively waved goodbye to a much-needed father.
There was also a laugh at Johann's analysis of campaign coverage; "There were many labels in this campaign – some flattering ....it says here....."
This tough but self deprecating approach will work well as an antidote to Alex Salmond who often comes across as bombastic and arrogant.
Gordon Proven --founder of Proven Energy -- passed away peacefully last week at home, with his family beside him. He had been living with Motor Neurone Disease for more than 5 years, and was still fighting to the end.
There will be a memorial service tomorrow Friday 16th December at The Lounge in Largs, 43 Main Street, KA30 8AF and the family want folk to know that all Gordon's friends are welcome to come along. Starting around 12/ 1pm, and followed by food and some time to chat and remember Gordon. Times may be a bit fluid depending on the funeral earlier.
Gordon was an enthusiast for renewable energy long before it became fashionable. He set up a company in the 1980s manufacturing a device that served the needs of communities all over the world. More than that Gordon himself was one of a kind and you could tell that from the minute you met him. Funny, determined, obstinate when he had to be. I was at the Green Energy Awards last week -- they were smart enough to give him a gong some years back. It's a great event but very full of lawyers and accountants these days. Gordon was neither. He was a visionary and a hands-on practical man in the best tradition of Scottish engineers. I'm sure we will miss him – but not half as much as his family.
It seems some numbers are too big and some mistakes too large for the public to digest.
According to the Commons Public Accounts Committee, the MoD has wasted £1.2 billion on procurement processes which failed to buy a single armoured car over the last decade.
Instead it dipped into Treasury reserves leaving a funding shortfall for new armoured vehicles until 2025. The Minister for Defence Equipment says the procurement problem is not really that bad.
End of story.
How can that appear in a couple of paragraphs and be relegated so quickly to the back burner?
Every year for a decade the MoD has wasted twice the amount of cash being lavished on the Olympics Opening Ceremony – without a squeak from us.
And – as if to stick a contemptuous two fingers up more clearly– the MoD says it cannot "identify anyone who has been held to account for the clear delivery failures". Oh yes and it spent £564 million of the cash earmarked for armoured cars on consultants. But it'll cut thousands of military and civilian personnel jobs to shave 8 percent off its spending. Is that because we plan to fight fewer wars? No comment.
Och well then. Par for the course.
It's public procurement. The numbers are big, the procedures are byzantine, the end users are soldiers doomed to defend distant lands we will doubtless forsake and no physical constituency is directly affected by the missing cash.
Just every taxpayer. So we shrug and move on to get excited about smaller mis-spending scandals with names, faces and identifiable winners and losers.
OK – the final word on the History Festival. Was there a funnier gig last week than the closing event? I rather wager there wasn't – and since five learned academics were hogging the stage at the Stand Comedy Club in Edinburgh, one of Scotland's regular comedy venues was out of commission anyway. Why history in a comedy club? Why not – the strike on November 30th meant university venues were out. Then a late run on tickets meant smaller alternative venues weren't big enough. So me ol mucker from NI-- Tommy Shepherd – gave the venue free and gratis to diminutive comedienne and History Festival organiser Susan Morrison (or Sumo as we are not to call her).
The slightly counter-cultural nature of the venue transformed the night. Or to put it mair succinctly, the boffins lightened up. Indeed the Worshipful Tom illuminated the proceedings like an incandescent lightbulb – the kind that sputters into brilliant 100 watt clarity and then leaves you stottering aboot in the dark awhile. But not for long.
Prof D was preceded by four historians each addressing the same subject for ten minutes apiece – and it was this.
Historically, we tend to view the drain of people from Scotland's shores in the light of loss. But is this necessarily the case? Could Scotland's diaspora be an advantage to our small nation?
It was a high-powered line-up – Strathclyde's Professor Richard Finlay, Aberdeen's Dr Andrew MacKillop, Glasgow's Dr Catriona MM Macdonald and Edinburgh's Frank Cogliano. It would be hard to summarise their arguments. Some felt the forcible migration of hundreds of thousands of Scots since the 15th century had helped Scotland be relieving pressure on those who remained behind. Richard Finlay (somehow) calculated we would have a population of 8million today if they had all stayed. I observed that we might also have had the intolerable population pressure that prompted revolution or at the very least radical realignment of wealth in other countries – and that migration rather let the steam out of the system. No-one really agreed with this at the time, though on the way out Mackie (Mr MacKillop) observed (and I paraphrase heavily) that miserable poverty, starvation and emigration in Scotland seemed to prompt spurts of religious rather than political zeal. On stage others observed that cash followed migrants out of Scotland and never returned. Rates of return were given on various investments – sheep farming in Oz and railway construction in Canada gave ten times higher yields than iron or coal mining in Scotland. Another inconvenient truth was the way Empire opened doors for literate Scots – at one point it seems half the doctors in Europe were Scots and many of the engineers.
Maddeningly I have mislaid the copious notes I took that night. Doubtless to be rediscovered the minute I hit the "post" button. So for any misconstruing of expert arguments in the jottings above I hereby apologise.
For anyone who has any clout with the Scottish Government can someone please persuade Fiona Hyslop to give Not Sumo some cash next year? She's proved the impossible can be done on a shoestring – it doesn't need megabucks but a modest budget could at least pay train fares for speakers, hire large venues like the Stand throughout and get enough publicity to give folk from outside Edinburgh the chance to attend.
And a final well done to Susan and Ian Harrower for this year's wonderfully original, argumentative and interactive History Festival.
Photos courtesy of Colin Hattersley
This was the history posse in the Stand Comedy Club in Edinburgh.
The event promised;
The Devine Judgement
Historically, we tend to view the drain of people from Scotland’s shores in the light of loss. But is this necessarily the case? Could Scotland’s diaspora be an advantage to our small nation?
Join Professor Tom Devine, Professor Richard Finlay, Dr Andrew MacKillop, Dr Catriona MM Macdonald, Frank Cogliano and chair Lesley Riddoch to tussle with the legacy of Scotland’s diaspora – advantage or disadvantage?
Result. It was funny, enlightening and great history!
This week, it's back to business with an update to the question "what happens when you let the historians take over the comedy club?" And there is mention of green awards, wind turbines and customer service. Something for everyone!
I've been thinking we should have more debate between meetings of the Nordic Horizons group. (for more info see www.nordichorizons.org ) And maybe your responses can help us get the best focus for meetings currently being planned – and one is being planned about small nations culture. So here are some thoughts about the cultures of small northern Nordic nations– are they suffocatingly couthy or devastatingly dynamic?
Every nation constructs an identity and Scotland and Norway are no exceptions.
But for a Scot who has become used to seeing the distinctive culture of Scotland tucked away in corners as "alternative" or "traditional" it's been moving and massively thought-provoking to visit Norway and see the collective life experience of Norwegians take centre stage in their most prestigious places.
We have Scottish art often sidelined to a basement of our "national gallery " on the Mound with large swathes of space given over to Dutch, Italian and other masters whereas the Norwegian national gallery is filled almost entirely with epic, massive, romantic and realistic portraits of Norwegian life and landscape from the nation building period at the end of the 19th century to the present day. Or take the Lewis Chessmen - stuck in the British museum in a wee room. The museum at Tromso made me realise that the UK still gives primacy of place to objects stolen during the colonial era. Countries like Norway without colonies have the space to tell their OWN story. and the Tromso museum blew me away with the way it used one single tiny exhibit -- a piece of tree bark with the teeth marks of a stone age child -- as the focus for a huge exhibition about the amber trade and the ways of life for Norwegian people living in the fjords and forests back then. I know in a wider sense some critics like the fabulously feisty Nina Witozek think Norway is sport, ski-ing and outdoors obsessed. Maybe so -- but it's not a bad set of obsessions is it? And I don't really agree with Nine when she says Norway's urban culture is lacking because Norwegians regard urban life as inauthentic. Oslo works as a city far better than Glasgow.
It may Oslo doesn't have the chaos and colour of Celtic cities like Glasgow and Dublin or the stone built grandeur of Edinburgh. But Edinburgh wasn't partly destroyed during the war, the smaller cities of Oslo are as vibrant as out small cities and so much of the colour and outspokenness of Scottish culture is a product of our enduring tolerance of poverty and inequality. There's a great bit in the film My Left Foot which tells the story of disabled painter Christy Brown. He was suicidal after a rejection. So his mother went into their tiny back yard and got on her hands and knees with a spade to start building a room for him (he had been sharing a room in their shack of a house with three brothers). It was an incredibly moving scene that demonstrates how much people have had to care for one other in Celtic society and when I watched it in Sweden with writers from Norway, Finland and Sweden -- they all felt a loss. They felt their societies were smug and self sufficient and inward facing and that such warm human gestures had become unnecessary. I can see that argument - that the Nordics have a culture where the state does too much it squeezes out the human factor. But if that means old people don't die of hyperthermia in winter, then frankly I'd be quite happy to lose quite a lot of what is currently characterised as the couthy warmth of Celtic craic. Maybe our connected, chatty and rich shared traditional culture is partly a product of being ignored by the British state and having had to endure unfairness for so long.
There's another argument though – any capitalist society is based upon the joint mutual action of state, private sector and civic society. The Nordics have actually a far more structured and well supported civic society than us – co-ops run huge hotels and whole ferry companies in Finland. Most flats in Oslo are run by co-ops too. Here "alternatives" to big business and multi-nationals are usually wobbly well-meaning ventures supported by the idealistic few. There successful multi-nationals like Nokia, Kone, IKEA etc sit beside successful co-operative ventures and successful state ventures like Statoil. Strikes me this mix is healthy. To me small versus large countries is a false divide -- culturally and economically. The economic crisis has shown America to be as vulnerable as Iceland -- and as good/bad at digging itself out of the same hole. But confidence is the key. Confident small countries make a huge contribution to the culture of the world -- they provide vital diversity -- they act as a control on the dangerous experiments politicians conduct on bigger economies. Vive la difference and vive confidence!