Tuesday, June 17, 2014

The Independence Debate Is Giving Me The Constitutional Collywobbles, And Not In A Good Way

Mr Iain MacWhirter
I am no longer sure who it was who advised the Scottish people to live as if they were in the early days of a better nation. I think it was Mr Alasdair Gray, but it could have been the Rev IM Jolly. Whoever it was, they deserve an award for prescience, as the independence referendum has caused all of us to enter a state of constitutional collywobbles in which everything is possible all the time, as long it coincides roughly with the views held by those aboard the Scotland United battle bus which parked in George Square in 1983, or 1987 (or whenever it was; the mass gatherings of disappointed leftists and that man with the stilts and the bagpipes tend to blur into one). 
But, frankly, I find this endless shaking of the existential kaleidoscope to be quite exhausting, not least because it involves such a peculiar mix of principle and pragmatism. On most days, the case for independence appears to be founded on a deep resentment of the politics of the Thatcher-era, coupled with an ever more bilious rejection of New Labour, this latter cause being expressed with particular vehemence by lapsed supporters of the People’s Party, who fall into two distinct camps. The larger group, which is made invisible by the reluctance of its members to identify themselves, consists of people who “bought into” the bright promises of Mr Tony Blair and now find themselves in a state of perpetual embarrassment the likes of which can only be sated by repeated latherings of the soft soap of utopian nationalism. But there is also a sub-group of entrists, who believe that independence will awaken the ghost of the merrie Bolshevik, Mr John Maclean, who is one of the only Scotsmen to have been honoured with his own postage stamp in the Soviet Union (Burns was another). Neither of these groups have much in common with traditional Scottish nationalists, the cauliflower-eared “fermers” of Angus and Perth, yet all are united in the historical, or hysterical, desire to rip everything up and start again, in the naive belief that it is possible for a nation state to start afresh with nothing but hopes and dreams and the thin twine of contradictory aspiration to hold it together.
I am old enough and stupid enough to remember the days when Edinburgh admitted to being a conservative city, but I also recall the excitable days of “Red Eck”, Mr Alex Wood, who tried to give Mrs Thatcher a bloody nose by uniting the population around the poetic slogan “Improving Services, Creating Jobs”. Mr Wood might have earned himself his own postage stamp if he hadn’t been removed in a Labour putsch, which caused much consternation at the time amongst principled Labour folk.  

All of which tells me that it is nonsense to cash in one’s constitutional chips on the basis of contemporary politics. But it is, for all that, a brand of nonsense with an appeal in uncertain times. 

Monday, October 15, 2012

Another Monday In Edinburgh, Another Day Of Destiny For The Long-Suffering Scottish People Whose Destiny It Is To Endure Many More Days Like This

Mr Salmond, left, in happier times, with Sir Sean
Connery (centre) and Mr Donald Trump
To paraphrase a great Scot, whose greatness and Scottishness are matters of dispute and denial, I felt the hand of history on my balaclava this afternoon, as I reflected on yet another momentous day in our nation's history. The Rt Hon David Cameron, the Prime Minister, and Mr Alex Salmond, the Senior Retainer, signed a joint document which gives Scotland the ability, and the permission, to ask itself a question relating to its destiny as a nation. The exact wording of the question is yet to be determined, but my friends in the lobby of the Palatul Parlamentulu in Holyrood assure me that it will be clear in its language - a necessity, given that teenagers are being given the vote and are likely to need all their powers of concentration to daub an "X" on a ballot rather than "texting" their preference, or telephoning it in on a premium-rate line.
The negotations, I'm told, were fraught, due to the conflicting agendas in Westminster and Dumbiedykes. Mr Cameron, it seems, was badly briefed by his special advisers on the exact nature of the Scottish Question, and originally proposed the question "salt  or sauce?", not realising that this chip-related query was both the punchline to a joke told at the Edinburgh Fringe in 1999 by the comedian Mr Greg Proops, and the answer to the "West Lothian Question" posed by the sage of Linlithgow, Sir Thomas Dalyell Loch, 11th  Baronet.
Mr Salmond's original text was subtly different, and was ruled out by Westminster mandarins on the grounds that it was more of a statement than a question. According to the draft document, it read as follows:
"Lower your flags and march straight back to England, stopping at every home you pass by to beg forgiveness for three hundred years of theft, rape, and murder. Do that and your men shall live. Do it not, and every one of you will die today." 
There is, you may have noticed, a considerable difference between the two positions, but I understand that an agreement is close, if civil servants can iron out a few nuances.
What is not in dispute is the fact that the electorate will only be given two options on the ballot paper, "Yes" or "No", despite polls showing that a majority of Scots hold neither of these positions, and would prefer to vote for what is known as the Kenny Dalglish option, "Mibbes 'aye', mibbe 'naw'".
To paraphrase my mother, Mrs Elder (or Ma'am), there will be many turns of the spurtle before anyone can enjoy this pot of porridge.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Whither Scotland? The nation stands blinking at the Pelican Crossing of its own destiny

Oddly enough, I feel the need to apologise for my silence. I am not sure why, given that I was always raised by my mother, Mrs Elder (or Ma'am) to remain mute except in case of emergencies, at which times I was permitted to raise my hand until an adult noticed, or my arm withered (whichever came first). The young are different. They never stop communicating: sending texts or having "sext" on their phones; typing and skittering on their computers; shouting Superdry inanities with their clothes - when they remember to wear any; inking advertisements for their own vanity on their skin, wearing more tattoos than a Japanese yakuza. Mostly, as I understand it, they are saying nothing, loudly. At best, they are paraphrasing the pre-fabricated pop group, The Monkees, who were fond of declaiming on behalf of the "young generation" that they had something to say, without ever getting round to explaining what that something was. Perhaps that was the point.
Mr Brian Cox: the real Brian Cox
So what has changed in my absence? Well, the world remains hellbound in a handcart, though that is scarcely novel. The nimble Chancellor, Mr George Osborne, has U-turned on a Cornish pasty; always a dangerous manoeuvre, especially in Church shoes. And the country has gone gaga for the Olympic torch, which just goes to show that though Hitler was, as Lord James Douglas-Hamilton once noted, "the naughtiest man in history",the Nazis knew a thing or two about ceremony.
But whither Scotland? As I type,the nation stands blinking at the Pelican Crossing of its own destiny, unsure whether to take to the road while the green man is flashing, or wait for the lollipop lady. As a Peeblean and sometime resident of Edinburgh, I am agnostic on the question of independence, because a Borderer is quite unlike a Glaswegian or a Highlander or an Orcadian in temperament and values. There is, of course, a logic in nationalist propaganda, and it is based on geography,with only a faint smattering of culture, lest the minorities should take offence,but I find that when I substitute the word "Peebles" for "Scotland" it works just as well. When the proposal is "local politics for local people", then my loyalty as a Peeblean must surely be to Peebles, and not to the Palatul Parlamentului in Holyrood.
Culture: National Theatre of
Scotland's Black Watch
It was, then, with an air of melancholy that I surveyed the launch of the "Yes"campaign from an Edinburgh picture house last week. The location, I thought, was odd,since the Senior Retainer, Mr Salmond, is not a noted aficionado of cinema, or indeed culture, unless it is theatre about Scottish soldiers for Scottish soldiers by Scottish actors speaking like Scottish soldiers (a genre which proved unattractive in his lusty wooing of Mr Rupert Murdoch). But, I suppose it may have been a reference to Sir Sean Connery, who famously delivered milk on Fountainbridge, before the street became a model city filled with outsized bank buildings and bantustan housing for people who work in Glasgow but can't face living there.
There are better buildings on Fountainbridge, more suited to civic symbolism: the Dundee Street library is a small masterpiece of Art Deco,though symbolically it would be hard to beat the derelict Mecca bingo hall at what is now called Port Hamilton. It was there, in its guise as the Palais De Danse, that Mrs Elder first submitted to the advances of my father, Mr Elder, though he told a different story on the rare occasions when he was permitted to speak. Until a few months ago, the Tartan Club at the old Scottish & Newcastle brewery might have proved a suitable venue,though the brewery is now rubble, despite the ghostly smell of hops in the air around the Union Canal, a waterway which stoically resists gentrification.
I do not want to discuss the substance of what was said at the "Yes" launch, largely because there was none. This was a faith-based event, and curiously nostalgic for a gathering of visionaries. I was pleased to see that Mr Salmond took it seriously, sporting what Mrs Elder (or Ma'am) would have termed a "richt balder", and I commend any politician of broad popular appeal who chooses to bestride the digital age with such an analogue haircut. (Larry's of Leith used to do a similar job for Mr Mick McGahey, the leader of the Scottish mineworkers, though he was a thinner man, less prone to grinning, and those were different times.) It was good, too, to see Mr Brian Cox, the real Brian Cox, back in the city where he made his name. I trust that the teenagers who run the SNP's internet campaigning division were similarly enthralled with the sight of a great Uncle Vanya, and were not expecting a pop-star astronomer. And I was surprised, but not unhappy, to discover that the star of the event was Mr Alan Cumming, who performed with such distinction as half of Victor and Barry, the cravat-wearing patrons of the Kelvinside Young People’s Amateur Dramatic Art Society. Appealing to Kelvinside Man is precisely the challenge which faces both sides of the referendum campaign.
Why, then, do I feel so wan? Well, try as I might, I cannot see Mr Salmond as he sees himself, as a saviour of a downtrodden people. It's true, he may be the most effective member of the Scottish parliament, but that is, by any reckoning, a modest compliment. (Modesty not being a word that usually exists with its cheek next to Mr Salmond's admittedly impressive jowls). He is closer to Dr Finlay than he is to Dr Martin Luther King, and, now that we get down to the details, his version of the Promised Land is something of a placebo. An independent Scotland will, it seems, keep the monarchy, remain in NATO, be subject to the whims of the Bank Of England while not making it any easier to spend a Scottish fiver at Tebay services. EastEnders will still be on the television, and there will be more Scottish news broadcasts, even if there is no more Scottish news.
It is a vision, not quite a dream.

Monday, September 05, 2011

Committing Suicide In Order To Survive: The Scottish Tories Come Up Nuts, Slice After Slice


I noted with some excitement the news in yesterday's Sunday Telegraph that the Scottish Conservatives have decided to embrace the inevitable and disband due to lack of interest. I paraphrase slightly, but one must congratulate the Conservative leadership candidate, Mr Murdo M McMurdo (or thereabouts), whose ruse this was, as the doings of the Scottish Tories have not been newsworthy since approximately 1974, when that great man of the people and Bullingdon old boy, His Worthiness Michael Andrew Foster Jude Kerr (aka Ancram), 13th Marquess of Lothian, accidentally won the Berwickshire and East Lothian seat. Mr McMurdo (or thereabouts) must be encouraged that he has received the enthusiastic support of Conservatives in England for this proposal, and I am sure his Scottish colleagues will fall into line, just as soon as they have worked out the electoral benefits of advertising the party's now-fatal unpopularity.
Changing the name of a party is never an easy business. The Labour Party was branded "New Labour" by Mr Tony Blair and his cohorts, to demonstrate that it no longer represented the working man, and would bring a bluey-whiteness to even the most heavily stained unmentionables (again, I paraphrase slightly). And the Social Democrats enjoyed a brief honeymoon, before mutating into the Liberal Democrats, who were less social, but not noticeably more liberal. While Mr Nick Clegg has, by a quirk of the electoral system, gained access to the corridors of power, he stalks them with the purpose of an angry janitor rather than a seasoned spinner of the political roulette wheel.
But name changing is all about marketing. Mr David Cameron's Conservatives, who were briefly green but are now as blue as the bruises on a rioter's cranium, are still represented by a logo showing a leafy green tree, largely because the image of Mr Michael Gove stamping on a child's face forever played badly in focus groups. The Scottish Tories have the same logo, and it is entirely without impact, appropriately enough.
I suppose one must congratulate Mr McMurdo (or thereabouts) for his optimism. But I fear that history will reflect harshly on his initiative. By suggesting that politics is no more than a matter of branding, he reduces his principles to the question of snake-oil, and how to sell it. Did British Steel do better as Corus? For how many minutes was The Post Office called Consignia? Shouldn't a true Conservative be resigned to the principle of referring to a Snickers bar as a Marathon, whatever it says on the wrapper?

Friday, September 02, 2011

Apologies For My Extended Absence. I Have Been Held Hostage By My Teeth


I would apologise for my absence from these pages if I thought anyone had noticed, but the sad truth for a silver - verging on ferrous oxide - surfer such as myself, is that the internet has become overrun with celebrity, filth, and irrelevance. And that's just the Daily Mail.
In truth, I have been unwell. My teeth have been playing up again, and I have been forced to endure a series of sadists with poor communication skills in the vain hope of finding a solution. My problem is age (and how many times do I say that to myself of a damp autumn morning?). It was my misfortune to be born at a time when the ethos of dentistry was changing. My mother, Mrs Elder (or Ma'am) talked fondly of her 21st birthday, because on that day, along with the key to the door (and a 16 hour-a-day job mashing raspberries at the cannery), she was given a full set of mahogany choppers. Her teethy teeth were removed, and donated to science. I understand they reside in a glass jar in the Surgeon's Hall museum, next to a two-headed pygmy in brine, where they are often mistaken for a masterpiece by the punk charlatan, Mr Damien Hirst.
By the time my teeth had succumbed to a lifetime of jube-jubes, the National Health Service had introduced a new ethos: to preserve the teeth by any means necessary, without regard for the pain and inconvenience this may cause to the patient. Over the years, this philosophy has been modified somewhat. Currently, it can be characterised as preserving a bit of tooth at all costs, with the emphasis on costs. So it is that even when dentistry is free, one's practitioner will find a way of charging hundreds of pounds, while also making sure that the work is completed to a ludicrously tight schedule. Most of my appointments are scheduled to last 30 minutes. but I have noticed that they tend to unfold with the rhythm of a 10,000 metres race, rushing aimlessly at the end, before sending me out into the daylight in a state of collapse with mysterious flecks of red plastic attached to my face.
I hope it is not racist to mention it, but I was happier when dentists were British. It may be a small point, but the ability to converse with the patients - who, like passengers on trains, are now thought of as customers - made the whole gruesome business a little more bearable. I am not saying that these British fellows were better dentists: my old scale-and-polish man was a terrible alcoholic who learned his drilling technique on Piper Alpha. But if I am going to be humiliated, I would like to understand the nature of the humiliation as it is happening. My last dentist, Mr Ceaucescu, was an angry Lithuanian, whose smalltalk extended to three words: "Open", "close", and "goodbye". That is not to say that he offered no entertainment. A flatscreen television on the ceiling showed the films of Mr Vladislav Starevich in endless loop. He was particularly find of Terrible Vengeance.
Oddly, I didn't intend to write about teeth. I turned on my computer because I felt the need to say something about trams. But I suppose that can wait. When it comes to trams, I fear Edinburghers will have to get used to waiting.

Monday, March 21, 2011

The Scottish Election: A Nation Shelters Beneath A Potless Rainbow Awaiting Deliverance, Or A Free Prescription Of Custard Creams


Alas, and indeed, alack, in this diffident spring of earthquakes and lavender revolutions and supermoons and Cruise missiles raining down on the close personal friends of Mr George 'You Can Call Me The Cat' Galloway, an election to the Scottish parliament is underway. You may have detected the signs, though this might more easily be done with the giant stethoscopes they used to employ inside those outsized golf balls in the countryside to eavesdrop on the chatter of Cosmonauts.
Much is at stake. Not, of course, the destiny of the nation. All the parties in the Palatul Parlamentului are in broad agreement about everything, and all are agreed that in order for the parliament to prosper, they must pretend to disagree. Broadly speaking, all are in favour of public services being free, or subsidised by the broader UK economy, though this arrangement is excused in nationalist circles by the suggestion that the books can be balanced by taxing the profits made by multinational oil companies in the 1970s. All subscribe to a mythical vision of Scotland, in which a soft-left consensus prevails, and all are mystified and powerless to deal with any outbreaks of inconvenience which might undermine that image, such as sectarian prejudice. All are in favour of single faith schools, which might be a contradiction in a less generous nation.
There are, of course, marginal differences. The Nationalists want to do something about the availability of cheap alcohol, but Labour does not, for it fears the loss of its block-vote of Buckfast drinkers in the West. The nationalists, meanwhile, take a benign view on the release of convicted international terrorists and the business acumen of that great exiled Scot, Mr Donald Trump, albeit at great cost to the pink-footed geese of Foveran Links. This, I think, is due to the essential optimism of the Senior Retainer, Mr Salmond, for a lesser politician would surely have been dented by the disappearance of the "arc of prosperity" his party hoped to shelter under, which turned into a potless rainbow with the bankruptcy of Ireland and Iceland at roughly the same moment Scotland's reputation as a country of sound banking was being traduced by that croupier of the RBS supercasino, Sir Fred Goodwin, who should not be called a banker unless he is within the sound of the Bow Bells.
Superficially, Scotland must be prospering, for its people have never been so fat, nor so overdressed. Even Auld Reekie, for so long the capital of Calvinist dourness and hop-flavoured air, is like a satellite of Glasgow's wet West End these days, full of chubby millions with tandoori tans and the kind of tailoring that is designed to look obvious, rather than appropriate. What I wonder, is Mr Salmond's plan to tackle obesity, other than making sure he eats all the custard creams himself?

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Prince William's Wedding Is An Act Of Great Optimism. He Must Hope He Is Heir Only To His Father's Hair, And Not His Matrimonial Tricycle


The news that HRH Prince William is to marry his lady friend, Miss Kate Middleton, is, of course, to be welcomed. One must always accept tokens of optimism as they are dispensed, and there can be no more optimistic act than for the heir to the heir to the throne - who is also heir to the heir's hair, or absence of same - proposing to enter wedlock with a civilian, and "sealing the deal" by producing his mother's ring.
The point does not need to be stressed, but the marriage between the Waleses, Charles and Diana, was nobody's idea of a dream. To borrow the modern vernacular, one might almost say it was a car-crash of a relationship, if such an observation was not in obvious bad taste. But, viewed with cruel hindsight, it was an advertisement for the uselessness of arranged marriages, and a danger to the mythology of the Crown, which relies on a cocktail of magic and deference for its continued survival. One might ask now, what the Prince of Wales thought he was doing when he condemned the innocent Diana to her dreadful fate? Presumably, when he mounted his matrimonial tricycle, he thought that the usual rules of the road applied, wherein the foibles of the posh are forgiven on account of their splendid manners. (See also Mr Julian Fellowes' contemporary riot of forelock-tugging, Downton Abbey).
I know nothing of the relationship between HRH Prince William, and Miss Kate Middleton, and while I suspect the size of this void will be greatly increased by speculative verbiage over the next six months, I fully expect to know even less of the reality of their lives by the time they make it along the aisle. I do wonder, though, whether they will be forced to take note of the tenor of the times, and celebrate their nuptials with a cut-price ceremony, perhaps in hired ermine and recycled lace to match the second-hand ring, or whether Royal tradition will dictate that the poor huddled masses require an escapist binge to compensate for the absence of paid employment, benefits, homes to live in, or legal aid to fight over the custody of the dog-on-a-string when their hasty and probably fraudulent relationships fall apart due to the unforeseen pressures of the above. I am no public relations guru, but I tend towards the suggestion that unrestrained opulence would be a rather bold strategy for these straitened times. Perhaps, as a means of symbolically cutting the Royal cloth, the beano could be subsidised by a temporary tax on Duchy Originals' Velvety Beetroot Soup.
Many have commented on the fact that the broader culture seems to be locked in a strange tribute to the 1980s, with a careless Conservative government promoting inequality, and leaving the Falkland Islands undefended in the hope that the Argies will invade. I am not really in a position to judge this observation, as Peebles is locked in a permanent state of 1962, and is all the better for it.
In the meantime, I wish the couple well. Royal weddings are a mug's game, and I trust that this marriage will last long enough to be toasted in a ceremonial souvenir, before its inevitable descent into junk shop, and on to historical curiosity.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Mr Ed Miliband Should Stop Talking About How Young He Is, Because He Is Growing Older And Less Fresh With Every Passing Moment

I am of an age where I can only be ambivalent about new leaders of the Labour Party. I was never very taken by the messianic drabness of Mr Tony Blair, who is the most successful leader of the People's Party, even though his success was based on what my old drama teacher, Mrs Ballet-Oliphant, of the Roxburghshire Ballet-Oliphants, used to call "charismatic misdirection". (Meaning that Mr Blair's vocal tunes were more powerful than the words he spoke, leaving the listener with the belief that they had witnessed something profound, when the text would show nothing more than ideological throat-clearing).
What were Mr Blair's memorable utterances? Well, despite his suppressed godliness, there was no "I have a dream". His fondness for global adventure did not produce an "ich bin ein Berliner". He did manage "tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime", though this is more usually credited to Mr Gordon Brown, with due to deference to mild green Fairy Liquid. He, or Mr Alastair Campbell, coined the phrase "the people's Princess", which sounds profound, but is close to meaningless. And I think we can credit Mr Blair himself for the assertion that "today is not a day for soundbites... but I feel the hand of history upon our shoulders". (Now, as then, I wondered whether Mr Blair might have left the coat hanger in his suit jacket.)
Mr Blair also talked some nonsense about Britain being a "young country", which is not true in terms of the nation-state (Turkmenistan is a young country. Britain has a mobility scooter). Nor does it work as a statement about the age of its population.
Which brings me to Mr Ed Miliband's speech to Labour conference, his first as party leader. It was a very modern performance, devoid of poetry or persuasiveness. The prevailing style of political oratory these days is that of the office manager, explaining to a bored workforce that there will be no balloons at the Christmas party, and no party either. (The prime minister, Mr Cameron, increasingly adopts this posture, albeit with occasional flickers of Billy Bunterish derring-do; turning rapidly into derring-don't, as the "double-dip recession" thunders towards us,like a tsunami of black sherbet).
Mr E Miliband is not quite the finished article, but he has a decent grasp of conversational blandness. He could not, I think, convince a sceptic to purchase a second-hand Austin Allegro, but he radiates sincerity to the degree that a disinterested stranger might spray his trousers with a soda siphon if they were to unexpectedly catch fire. That I think, counts as a success in terms of achieving empathy with an electorate comprised largely of idiots.
But still, I found the core of his speech to rotten in a way that was very reminiscent of Mr Blair, namely his repetitive use of the phrase "new generation", a construction designed to signal optimism and freshness. Well, pardon my political correctness, but such talk is ageist, offensive, and wrong. Youth is greatly overrated, except by insurance companies, who understand that young people crash their parents' cars as lackadaisically as they breach the terms of their ASBOs. They turn our city centres into the seventh circle of Hell every weekend evening. And, as Ms Emma Thompson recently pointed out, they can no longer speak English without using the word "like" as punctuation. I hesitate to suggest that they could be improved by a spell of National Service, but a little instruction in elocution wouldn't go amiss. Perhaps, as the professional buffoon Mr Toby Young suggests, Latin classes would help. If nothing else, they would make text messaging more difficult.
But, like Mr Ronnie Corbett wrapped in sacrificial pigskin and dragged around town behind a Roman chariot, I digress. My point is that Mr Miliband should go easy on the New Generation nonsense. By stressing his youth, he merely ensures that with every 24 hours that passes, he will a day less able to fulfill his promise.

Friday, September 10, 2010

The Senior Retainer, Mr Salmond, Does Not Believe The Scots Are Ready To Vote For Independence. Is This The Last Midge Bite Of Scottish Nationalism?


Living in the Borders has its advantages, not least the ready availability of Hawick Balls, and a plentiful supply of knitwear at reasonable prices. Less obviously to the outsider, we Borderers are blessed with an independent spirit, and a refusal to be swayed by flim-flam, tomfoolery or nonsense.
Perhaps this explains my antipathy towards the Palatul Parlamentului in Holyrood, and my inability to take seriously the windy ejaculations of the Senior Retainer, Mr Salmond, who leads a party whose main political impulse is to suggest that the accumulation of power in Edinburgh would solve everything, when the natural tendency of all Scots is to fear a future in which the nation is responsible for its own mess. Far easier to suggest, as Mr Salmond does repeatedly, that the country's problems are rooted in the fact that A Big Boy Did It And Ran Away.
To be fair, Mr Salmond is acknowledged as the finest Scottish politician of his generation (though his achievements, and his global impact, are minor compared to those of Mr Gordon Brown, whose misfortune it was to be raised in the Manse with the manners of a Fifer; a recipe too glum for the English electors, who prefer to be patronised by their social superiors).
But what are the achievements of Mr Salmond's period in office? Certainly, Mr Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed Al Megrahi has reason to be thankful to the compassion of the Senior Retainer and his bewildered justice secretary Mr Kenny MacAskill. No doubt the lives of both politicians were made more exciting by their decision to thumb-nose the US Senate, and the thrilling realisation that every ring of the telephone might signal a verbal blast from Ms Hillary Clinton, calling on behalf of the relatives of the Americans who were killed by the Lockerbie bomb. How intoxicating it must have been to deal with an agent of real power, rather than trading glum platitudes over the blonde pews of Holyrood.
Compassion is a virtue. Still, the whole affair had the strange whiff of vanity's pomade, and reminded me of that other great moment of Scottish statesmanship, when the leotard-wearing pussycat from television's Big Brother, Mr George Galloway, saluted the indefatigability of Mr Saddam Hussein.
Even so, I find myself confused by the Senior Retainer's latest piece of fancy-footwork. He has announced that there will be no referendum on independence ahead of the Scottish parliamentary elections of 2011. Why has he done this? Well, clearly, Mr Salmond is acting from a position of weakness, and does not want to have his proposals for a referendum defeated by the hostile majority in the parliament. Yet, previously, this was a risk he was happy to take, as the scenario fitted perfectly with the SNP's core principle (the aforementioned Big Boy, and his habit of running away).
So, something more profound is at work. Could it be the realisation, rather too late in the day, that devolution, and more specifically the endless wittering about independence which it has spawned, have been bad for the country? Consider the nation in the years before the establishment of the parliament - we had a vibrant and diverse newspaper industry, and a football team which, while incompetent, could at least qualify for the rituals of humiliation at international tournaments. Now both of these things are but a shadow of a memory. The showpiece cultural event of this year's Edinburgh International Festival was Caledonia, a piece of agit-prop from which the agitation had been surgically-removed, and the propaganda replaced by an amputee itch for the lemming-leap of Darien or its modern equivalent, the national hallucination of Ally's Tartan Army, Argentina-bound in bathtub boats.
Scottish nationalism is a strange virus, carried by sheep-tick and midge. We are all bitten by it from time to time. We may never learn to stop scratching at the rash. But I wonder, momentarily, whether we may be getting close to discovering penicillin.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Mr Elder's Guide To Understanding The Election, Involving Chewing Gum, And A Gratuitous Joke About Mr Salmond's Expanding Briefs


Elections are traumatic events, promising milk, honey, and liquorice torpedoes for all, but delivering little but disappointment and mild angina. The cycle of hope and despair is so predictable that it is possible to become quite jaded by the political merry-go-round.
However, rather than fall back on the counsel of despair, or, indeed, the council of despair, I like to quote Sir Winston Leonard Spencer-Churchill, KG, OM, CH, TD, PC, who noted that democracy was “the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.”
He also said “A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on”, which has always troubled me. To think of untruths is bad, but to imagine the truth wearing pants is confusing indeed. What kind of unmentionables would the truth favour? A traditional Y-front? A sensible pair of Sunspel boxers? Or something from the terrifying range of posing pouches which have made a visit to Marks and Spencer so traumatic?
But, like Mr Ronnie Corbett, pedalling a Sinclair C5 along the Dirleton bypass in a hurricane, I digress. My point is elections, and what must be done to survive them.
My solution to this conundrum is to apply the Chewing-Gum Test. This test is based on the fact that while the promises of the political parties range from naively utopian to disappointingly pragmatic, nothing changes. At least, not for the better. The Chewing-Gum test can be carried out on any stretch of urban pavement. It asks a simple question: has the volume of gum on the ground increased or diminished since the last election?
As a measure of efficacy, it works on several levels. The removal of chewing gum from the streets would show a commitment to the environment and the well-being of the electorate. But there is an element of personal responsibility, too. In a decent society, no-one would spit gum on to the pavement. Indeed, in a properly ordered society, no-one would chew gum in the first place.
The test neatly illuminated the different approaches of the parties. If I understand Mr Brown’s New Labour party correctly – and I confess I cannot grasp the meaning of the slogan “a Future Fair For All”, unless it is promising gaudily-painted jetpacks for the populace – it would do nothing to discourage the sale of chewing gum, unless a freak worldwide chuggy incident threatened the survival of the planet, whereupon the leading chewing gum manufacturers would be taken guiltily into public ownership, unless they were based outwith the UK (which they would be), until confidence in the breath-freshening confectionery sector returned.
On the matter of removing this sticky detritus from the streets, New Labour would employ the full machinery of the surveillance state to observe the problem without ever addressing it, while also introducing a range of emergency ASBOs, designed to catch the worst offenders, though any legal action taken under these measures would be repealed under the Human Rights Act. There would also be an education programme, designed to stop people spitting in the street, but this would be so patronisingly-designed that it would cause previously polite people to actively consider hacking up sputum and Wrigley’s Juicy Fruit.
Mr Cameron’s Conservatives, who unveiled their manifesto at Battersea Power Station, as if to remind the electorate of the Tories magic touch with regard to the creation of industrial wastelands (and the accidental implication that, in the manner of the Pink Floyd record sleeve, pigs might fly), have a no less complicated approach. They do not address chewing gum problem directly, but their manifesto, with a cover designed like a brochure for a high-toned timeshare development, offers the glorious promise that a Conservative government will do nothing except encourage the more motivated sectors of the populace – aka the wealthier, more able-bodied people – to form vigilante groups in order to root out whichever problem takes their fancy. But, since they are also libertarians at heart, they will do nothing to curb the rights of people to chew gum, and will rely on “have-a-go heroes” to intervene when a spitting incident at the bus stop is observed.
On the approach of the Liberal-Democrats, I have no firm understanding. In the salad days of the SDP, I had much sympathy for Lord Steel, who was then known by the less grand title of Wee Davy Steel, because it can’t have been easy living in the top pocket of Lord, then David, Owen. But the new generation of Liberal Democrats confuse me. Mr Nick Clegg has been making every effort to look less like Mr Cameron’s shy brother, but he is routinely left in the shade by the Nation’s Favourite Shadow Chancellor, Dr Vince Cable. This, I think, is something of an achievement, as Dr Cable has all the charisma of a former economist for Shell Oil, and is forgiven a lot by virtue of the fact that he is a keen ballroom dancer. What this odd couple would do about chewing gum I hesitate to say, as, I suspect, would they.
Which leaves the Ego of the Nation, the Senior Retainer, Mr Alex Salmond. He would argue, I think, that the chewing gum problem, along with every other problem, is the fault of London, and cannot be addressed until Scotland has control of oil revenues, and has harvested the pot of gold at the end of the arc of prosperity which stretches from Ireland to Iceland. But he might also argue that his administration was quick to tackle smoking (leaving me and my pipe with a remote corner of Gruinard on which to enjoy a fly puff of the Walnut Plug). They have also been making windy exhortations about alcohol and obesity, which is fortunate, when the BBC’s national election coverage invariably involves the excellent Mr Brian Taylor conspiring to make Mr Salmond look like Twiggy.