You’re gonna need a bigger vote!

Should Scots determine on independence, no English party or politician would stand in their way – Margaret Thatcher

STAGE LEFT looks at the rallies held on the day of the Supreme Court ruling and ways forward for Scotland 

We can’t hear you!

The biggest demo last Wednesday was In Edinburgh, outside the Scottish Parliament, addressed by Nicola Sturgeon.  I trust it was well-organised and had a decent P.A system.  At the Glasgow gathering – about 1500 people surrounding the Donald Dewar statue by the Concert Hall – the main chant, as speakers tried to address the crowd, was “We can’t hear you!”

These impromptu protests are bound to be a bit rough-and ready, but there was no doubting the anger in Scotland.  It’s not just this latest “No, you can’t have what you voted for” decree, the sweep of history shows how far Scotland has been sidelined.  

Scotland ignored

The Scottish people last chose a UK Tory government in 1955.  Of the 67 years since, the Conservatives have ruled at Westminster for 43.  At Holyrood, the Scottish Tories are the only main party never to have held power.

Scotland voted against Brexit and attempts to soften it have been ignored.  All four Scottish elections since 2007 – under proportional representation – have been won by the SNP, the most recent producing a clear majority of MSPs who support a second referendum.

A plebiscite and persuasion

How to move forward?  Is it by persuading an overwhelming majority to vote in a plebiscite election – a would-be referendum – for pro-independence parties, so that Scotland’s will can no longer be spurned?

This week’s rallies, though fair expression against legal confirmation of Westminster’s disdain, don’t seem to be the kind of engagement likely to turn things round.

Demos, protests, rallies and marches hardly featured during indyref1.  The emphasis was on campaigning at local level, mass canvassing, meetings, street stalls and discussion.

Later, pre-pandemic, AUOB (All Under One Banner) organised regular huge marches to keep the YES momentum and morale going.

But the converted waving Saltires at each other is not going to cut through.  An even gentler, more understanding approach than 2014 may be called for, as the undecided are given every opportunity to find their voice.

No more consensus, just hostility

The obvious difference now is that the vote, in whatever form it comes, is no longer consensual.  David Cameron and Alex Salmond signing the Edinburgh Agreement, under section 30 of the Scotland Act in 2012, feels like a generation ago.

The tone last time was set by an unfailingly positive YES campaign, promising a better Scotland,versus a Project Fear NO.  And YES lost. Now the process is likely to take place in an atmosphere of greater hostility. 

Practical challenges lie ahead 

There are also practical difficulties in trying to make the 2024 General Election a plebiscite or would-be referendum.

Ideas about Scotland’s status risk being marginalised in the battle between the main parties in England, by unionist parties in Scotland and probably by the media as well. What’s more, Labour may have its best chance in years to win at Westminster; some SNP voters may shift allegiance.   

TV debates might exclude Scottish voices.  The Tories plan to have voter ID – likely to disenfranchise younger voters – and exclude 16 and 17 year-olds and EU citizens.

Unionist parties also face challenges.  The year after indyref1, Labour’s Scottish MP’s  were all but wiped out – 41 down to just 1, the same number as now.  There are just 6 Tories and 4 LibDems.  Paradoxically, Westminster’s preferred first-past-the-post system tends to work in the SNP’s favour; in 2019 they won 48 of Scotland’s 59 seats with 45% of the popular vote.

The SNP can be a formidable election machine, getting out the vote with great efficiency.  But in a plebiscite election, even if the unionists don’t accept it it as such, there’s bound to be dispute over what constitutes a majority – percentage or seats? 

Labour’s demise north of the border is attributed not only to their refusal to engage with Scotland’s democratic deficit, but also their readiness to get into bed with the Tories under the Better Together banner in 2014.  How will the anti-independence forces combine?

Scotland’s situation stays ambiguous

In short, we’re in a guddle.  It may be as nothing compared to the permacrisis facing the UK as a whole but, for Scotland, the way ahead seems as ambiguous as it did before Lord Reed made his clear and definitive pronouncement.

Paul Bassett

Glasgow

November 2022

The state of Scottish democracy

Democracy values everyone equally even if the majority do not.

 – Lady Brenda Hale

Professor James Mitchell gave the inaugural State of Scottish Democracy lecture, hosted by the Electoral Reform Society Scotland, in Glasgow last week.  Professor Mitchell, Chair in Public Policy at Edinburgh University and an expert on the constitution, assessed the health of democracy in Scotland today.  STAGE LEFT was there.

James Mitchell, Professor of Public Policy at the University of Edinburgh (left), with Willie Sullivan, Senior Director of the Electoral Reform Society Scotland.

 

25 years since devolution legislation was presented to the Westminster parliament, the UK Supreme Court is due – this Wednesday 23 November – to announce its decision on the independence referendum case brought by the Scottish government.  

The ruling is bound to excite strong reaction from all sides of the debate.  So, before we are all consumed – again – by the seemingly perpetual stalemate between YES and NO, it was refreshing to hear a more nuanced voice aiming to broaden the debate beyond the issue of our country’s constitutional status.

Mitchell began his talk by showing some recent examples of over-dramatic approaches to the subject.  Book titles combining the words crisis and democracy seem to abound. 

He also noted a recent unwelcome trend towards curtailing democracy as if the people – some with ugly opinions – can’t be trusted: demophobia.  Yet, he argued, this is the very point at which we should increase the engagement and involvement of people in their electoral systems.

Crisis – what crisis?

Looking more closely at the messy reality of Scotland’s democratic journey, Mitchell saw both progress and failure in the state’s accountability to the people.

His starting point was the 1990’s and the Constitutional Convention, the alliance of parties and civic groups that framed the devolution settlement, paving the way to the Scottish parliament.

He praised the openness and radicalism of their deliberations – a rich debate on representation.  It was especially important that the new set-up should be proportionally elected; that it should bring equality for women and be more inclusive ethnically; that it should offer better scrutiny and that, unlike the antiquated Commons, it should work in modern conditions.

In contrast, the UK Conservative government of the time was patently unable to provide Scotland with proper representation – demands from north of the border were neither heard nor met.  He thought this wasn’t just the Tories – even if a party sympathetic to Scottish interests had been in power at Westminster, there would still have been a lack of accountability inherent in the system.

And then came Holyrood. A great milestone but it was not, as Donald Dewar, its founding father, put it, an end in itself but a means to a greater end.

The improvement on first-past-the-post and the value of each vote counting would not magically lead to a more democratic society.  Has Holyrood, since its inception, been able to advance the notion of democracy as not just an event but a process?  

For Mitchell, the main weakness has been at the local level. The Scottish government has introduced powers to itself but failed to enhance those of city and rural government.  The great hope in early stages of Holyrood was to empower local representation, but the promised parity of esteem hasn’t happened.  Instead there’s been a reluctance, to the point of disrespect, to share power and resources with non-centralised institutions.

Votes count, but resources decide the outcome in the end – Stein Rokkan

Our practice of democracy has to go further and examine why power is limited, why it fails to engage more of the population.  Several key factors are evident: we cannot expect a society unequal in terms of wealth, health and education to be equal in representation. Also, certain interest groups have private access to power while others are pushed out.

Mitchell referred to the verdict of Nigel Smith (the most influential political campaigner you’ve never heard of) in his posthumously published pamphlet on the Scottish parliament: Partial success, could do better.

The professor ended his pithy and punchy lecture with a call for an audit of democracy to keep fresh ideas coming.  If not, he feared, those with undemocratic intentions will control the agenda.

A democratic event in itself

The event itself was suitably open and accessible – Mitchell spoke for a little over half an hour, allowing lots of time for contributions from the floor.  

These included Bob Thomson of the Jimmy Reid Foundation who said he couldn’t see how democracy could begin to flourish under a state with a hereditary monarch as its head.  He went on to decry the narrowness of views acceptable to the SNP leadership, adding that Nicola Sturgeon’s regime suppressed divergent opinions with a zeal Stalin would have envied!

Another speaker wondered if Holyrood’s reluctance to share funds and powers was a forced echo of Westminster’s domineering, parsimonious and begrudging attitude towards Scotland in general.

Others wanted to mark the crucial role of housing in local engagement and how tenants’ involvement has been steadily eroded.  When most people lived in a council house they had more say than with present-day Housing Associations and private landlords.  There were also calls, echoed by the main speaker, for our universities to pioneer new ways to regenerate Scottish democracy.

The undemocratic elephant in the room

Whilst it was good to focus on our own back yard, I felt the lecture downplayed the autocracy of Westminster.  Apart from his refusal to recognise Scotland’s right to choose its own future, our unelected Prime Minister is planning to put before the Commons the Retained EU Law Bill.  This will do away with consent from Cardiff and Edinburgh for laws which have been key to the devolution settlement.  It comes on top of the UK Internal Market Act which allows the Tory government to unilaterally neuter the remit of the devolved parliaments.  These kinds of attacks are far more damaging to the health of the Scottish state than any internal matters.

Finally, I was taken with the evening’s surroundings, which trailed a kind of democratic ambience of their own.  The main hall of Govan’s Pearce Institute exudes an aura of faded civic participation not often seen these days.  There we were, in the frayed splendour of a shared municipal zone, with echoing acoustic, draughty space and wood panelling, dominated by a magnificent rank of organ pipes, listening earnestly to a speech and giving our thoughtful responses.   How charming; how old-school!

Not so old – it brought to mind, just eight years ago, scores of such events in such places held during the indyref1 campaign.  Now that, I’d suggest, was democracy in action!

Paul Bassett

Glasgow

November 2022

A version of this post was published on Bylines Scotland:

Scotland’s Cultured Capitalists

The only reason to buy a painting is that you like it – Sir John Richmond (1869 – 1963), Scottish businessman and collector of Impressionist art

What makes a painting beautiful?  The painter’s talent, naturally.  But, as the National Galleries of Scotland’s exhibition, A Taste for Impressionism, shows, that’s just the start.  STAGE LEFT looks at some of the people whose vision and generosity made art desirable – and accessible.

Vincent Van Gogh’s Orchard in Blossom was painted in 1888, one of several works by the artist of fruit trees in bloom.

Matthew Justice, who ran a Dundee furniture business, bought the painting, as well as works by Bonnard, Matisse, Monet, Sisley and Vuillard.  Justice sold Orchard in Blossom to a director of Keiller’s (of marmalade fame) and it was later acquired by Rosalind and Alexander Maitland, son of a Dundee jute merchant.  

In the early twentieth century Dundee was renowned, along with Glasgow and Edinburgh, as one of the major art centres of Britain (https://artuk.org/discover/curations/the-dundee-art-collectors).  Jam, jute and Impressionism. 

Taste and generosity

The Maitlands were typical of Scotland’s industrialist-connoisseurs of French modern art for two reasons.  

First, their collection was extensive and pioneering: Cezanne, Degas, Gauguin, Matisse, Monet, Picasso, Renoir, Van Gogh and many others.  

Nowadays these artists’ works draw massive crowds and eye-watering bids.  But, at the outset, the impressionists were outsiders.  Their rebellion against the Paris Salon fired their radical aesthetic. Well into the 1900’s, as Scotland’s pioneering collectors sought out their pictures, they were still considered style revolutionaries.  By dedication and discernment, Scotland’s entrepreneurial collectors were ahead of the curve before a curve existed.

Second, these collectors were peculiarly selfless when it came to sharing their beautiful works.  Alexander Maitland presented their collection to the National Galleries in Rosalind’s memory and they had always chosen pictures to complement public acquisitions. 

The world-class range of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art in Scotland derives from this kind of generosity.  The first major bequest, in 1911 from Hugh Laird, enabled the Edinburgh galleries to amass a range of nineteenth century French paintings.

Other philanthropists included Isabel Davidson, a music lover, who left not just Monets, Pissarros and Vuillards to the National Galleries of Scotland but also her house and Bechstein piano to St. Mary’s Music School and Anne Kessler – fortune from Dutch oil – who gave her favourite painting, Cezanne’s Big Trees to Edinburgh.  

By 1995, NGS held the most significant range of Surrealist art, thanks to 170 works bequeathed by Gabrielle Keiller (marmalade again).

Glasgow’s dealer, Vincent’s twin

Paintings found their way from France to Scotland due to the keen eye of dealers, one of the shrewdest being a Glaswegian, Alexander Reid. 

Reid worked with Theo van Gogh, who introduced him to his brother Vincent.  The three of them shared a flat in Paris in the 1880’s and Vincent painted Reid’s portrait.  The two looked so alike, it was first thought to be a self-portrait. Frances Fowle, the Taste for Impressionism curator, dubs Reid Van Gogh’s Twin. (https://www.abebooks.co.uk/first-edition/Goghs-Twin-FOWLE-Francis-National-Galleries/30916409547/bd)

That Portrait of Alexander Reid is one of the best-loved pictures at Glasgow’s Kelvingrove Museum and Art Gallery. (https://www.glasgowlive.co.uk/news/history/bbc-van-gogh-glasgow-famous-14007978).

Reid promoted the colourists Samuel Peploe and Francis Cadell and other Scottish artists like William MacTaggart and the Glasgow Boys.  He sold works by Degas to William Burrell (still in the eponymous Collection) who said that Reid introduced more fine pictures to Scotland than anyone else. (https://carp.arts.gla.ac.uk/essay1.php?enum=1097247776).

The name’s Gogh.  Van Gogh.

What’s the connection between Van Gogh and James Bond?  Were Vincent’s oil paints shaken, not stirred?  No.  Evelyn Fleming, inspired by her lover, bought French art, including Van Gogh’s Head of a Peasant Woman.  Evelyn was mother of Ian Fleming, 007’s creator.

A brilliant piece of spywork, using X-rays, sparked a frisson just before the exhibition opened in July this year.  On the back of the canvas, under a sheet of cardboard, a self-portrait was discovered.  It took the number of Van Gogh works held by the galleries from 3 to 4.  This happens once or twice in a lifetime, says Senior Conservator Lesley Stevenson, it’s very special for a collection that belongs to the people of Scotland. (https://www.nationalgalleries.org/exhibition/taste-impressionism-modern-french-art-millet-matisse).

A communal past and an uncertain future

Whatever you feel about the art, perhaps the best thing about these exceptional works is their public accessibility.  We can only admire the faith of Scotland’s early entrepreneurs in a shared civic realm for such treasures.

They would, I imagine, be horrified that our public art institutions are now struggling for survival.  The NGS has closed its Modern Art building till 2023, with the director-general citing costs – heating especially – and the worst funding crisis imaginable. (https://www.heraldscotland.com/news/23057469.edinburgh-modern-two-art-gallery-closes-doors-amid-funding-crisis/).

Can our cultural sector survive the coming struggles?  Scotland’s going to need all the qualities of its artistic pioneers: invention, taste, zeal, and a staunch devotion to public service.

The exhibition A Taste for Impressionism: Modern French Art from Millet to Matisse is at the Royal Scottish Academy, National Galleries of Scotland
The Mound, Edinburgh, EH2 2EL until Sunday 13 November 2022.

Paul Bassett

Glasgow

October 2022

Charles III and the f-word

The bitch that bore him is in heat again. – Bertolt Brecht

STAGE LEFT looks at lessons from history and fiction on monarchy’s relationship with right-wing governments.

An edited version of this blog post has been published on Bylines Scotland:

King Charles III and the f-word

The authoritarian creep of the UK under the Tories led SNP MP Mhairi Black to deliver a blistering speech in the House of Commons in May. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nVZ3QwA5wy8

She warned that Westminster policies are leading us slowly towards the f-word.  Fascism, she said, happens subtly.  It arrives through the othering of people, the normalisation of human cruelty.

Edward VIII and his support for Hitler

This month, the queen’s death led me to The Crown, Netflix’s dramatisation of Elizabeth’s life and reign – a handy and entertaining source for matters historical and regal.

One particular episode is titled Vergangenheit – the past, in German. Does it have echoes in the present day, for all of us, including the new king?

It’s 1957.  Queen Elizabeth gets a visit from the abdicated king, Edward VIII, now Duke of Windsor.

Exiled and bored in Paris, the duke wants to come home and find a new role – a roving ambassador, perhaps? The queen is inclined, based on her Christian faith, to forgive her uncle.  Until, that is, she learns that his past links with the Nazis went far deeper than anybody knew.

Not only did he consort with Hitler and pals, he even tipped them off about the Allies’ plans and encouraged them to keep bombing London.  What’s more, the duke colluded with an enemy plot to usurp his brother, George VI, and get himself reinstated as a pro-German king.  Such treason makes it impossible to allow him back into public life.

The Crown is, of course, fiction. Yet, at the end of the drama, real-life footage of the duke – Nazi salutes and all – confirms the story.  There’s also, in German Naval Office papers of 1940, clear evidence of the duke’s advising the Nazi war effort.

Lessons from Italy and Spain

History offers further insights into the relationship between ruling kings and despotic regimes. Victor Emmanuel III’s support for Mussolini led to the end of the Italian monarchy with a 1946 referendum (in favour of abolition: 52%).

In Spain, by contrast, the king was in exile during the Franco years and a constitutional monarchy was restored in 1977, after the dictator’s death.

Back to reality – the UK, September 2022  

Prepare, writes Andrew Marr, for the most right-wing government of our lifetimes.

We had a slew of draconian laws from Boris Johnson and ministers to criminalise protest, outlaw asylum-seekers; disenfranchise ID-less voters and overrule judges’ verdicts on the government.

Now, the Truss regime’s priority is already painfully clear: the enrichment of the wealthy and the suffering of the poor.  We are in for much more.  More extreme, reactionary policies against trade unions, benefits, migrants, Europe and devolution.  

Suella Braverman – keen to ramp up the policies of her predecessor as Home Secretary, Priti Patel – wants the UK to leave the European Convention on Human Rights.  This will help her double down on the deportation of asylum seekers to Rwanda.

As heir to the crown, Charles privately thought the idea appalling.  Could the fact that we got to hear about his view mean that the late queen herself favoured his opposition to this divisive policy?

Can Charles afford to stay silent?

In his first speech as king, Charles stepped back from issues.  Yet he confirmed that he will uphold the precious traditions, freedoms and responsibilities of our unique history and our system of parliamentary government. 

With the Truss administration, we can expect an onslaught against the environment (fracking, anyone?), the NHS, the BBC, parliament and our whole system of civil liberties.  As the Tories take us further down the road towards the f-word, how will our new head of state react?

Constitutionally, the answer is clear –  he is bound to be politically neutral.  

The deep mourning for Elizabeth showed how much people shared the values of tolerance, respect and decency she came to personify. Many seemed to find the pomp and circumstance of monarchy a kind of comfort, a reassurance that all would be well.

Come the first King’s speech, that same paraphernalia will be deployed to strengthen this government’s grip on people’s freedoms.

Could Charles stay above the fray?  Would he risk the future of the monarchy on its consent to an assault on democracy itself?

If so, we might draw on the title of another TV series charting the fate and fall of a royal house: The Hollow Crown.

Paul Bassett

Glasgow

September 2022

Great Acting

The untold want, by life and land ne’er granted.

Now, Voyager, sail thou forth, to seek and find.

 – Walt Whitman

A version of this blog post is published on Bylines Scotland:

What makes a great actor?  There are theories – Stanislavski and the method, Brechtian alienation, classical acting or know-your-lines-and-don’t-bump-into-the-furniture (Spencer Tracy).

Unlike other aspects of theatre – script, design, lighting and sound – it’s hard to define superb acting.  Maybe the best guide is by illustration.  You know it when you see it.  And feel it.

I’ve watched 3 performances recently, each a stellar example of astoundingly good acting.

.

The first is Jodie Comer in Prima Facie, a new play by Suzie Miller.  It ran at the Harold Pinter Theatre, London and was live-streamed to cinemas globally in July.  I saw a recording of that screening, via NTLive, at the Grosvenor Picture House, Glasgow in August.

Comer’s interpretation is the most powerful one-person show I’ve ever seen.  Technically it’s a marathon of control, energy, focus and stamina for 100 unbroken minutes.  She creates a host of people – cocky witnesses, legal colleagues and students, friends, posh lawyers, jurors, police officers, a barrister who becomes a rape victim, her mum and brother – switching coolly and swiftly from one to another.

But one-person show doesn’t do it justice.  Her use of body and voice to inhabit each different character as they interact is so adept, you forget there’s just one woman on stage.  We know from her Villanelle in Killing Eve that Comer is a versatile mimic.  Here she goes deeper, peopling the story with layers of distinctive attitudes and perspectives.  It’s a brilliant performance.  NTLive may well show it again – catch it if you can.   

Another bout of acting brilliance comes from Sean Bean – early career at the Citizens’, btw – in the BBC four-parter, Marriage (still available on iPlayer).  I hesitate to praise the programme since I recommended it to a friend who says she’ll lock me in a cupboard for 4 hours as payback for the time she wasted watching nothing happen.

True, Marriage is a bit like one of those French movies – long, dialogue-free shots of people standing still or doing mundane tasks, with no music.  If you played a drinking game of a swig each time the dishwasher gets silently loaded, you’d soon be loaded too.

In fact, quite a lot happens over the piece, but it’s not big on narrative thrust.  It’s mostly a tender yet piercing observation of human beings desperately clinging on to life and each other.  Within this, Bean’s portrayal of a broken, bewildered husband is exquisitely sad.

He uses his incredible hulk of a body to convey his confusion and upset. He hovers awkwardly, not knowing what to do or say, his lined face a contortion of pain and love.

It’s a remarkable spell of taut, measured acting that cuts through to your soul.  I can see how it might all seem unbearable, but that’s the point.

My third instance of a heart-wrenching depiction of a character comes from the recent BBC2 showings of Bette Davis films, specifically as Charlotte Vale in Now Voyager.

Again, it’s neither fast nor cheerful.  Yet it cuts through like a knife, thanks to Davis’s flawless possession of the role: a woman, abused, fights to emerge into the world to find love and happiness.  Like all great actors, her technical abilities – utter command of body, voice and facial expression, a limitless grasp of character and plot  – are at their peak.

But she gives something more – not just inhabiting the role, but knowing, instinctively or otherwise, how to connect with the audience to make us feel every iota of pain, longing and joy.  I’m intrigued, ignorant of how exactly she does it, but by the time she utters the final words – Don’t let’s ask for the moon. We have the stars. – she’s reduced me, at least, to a sobbing wreck!

Finally, a couple of other gems of fantastic screen performances currently available – both stronger for being a double-act between two great actors.  Marriage writer/director Stefan Golaszewski also created Mum (BBC iPlayer), a comedy about a widow and her family.  As Cathy, Lesley Manville is sensational, a beautifully underplayed depiction of an older woman beset by son, brother, their partners and hilariously eccentric parents-in-law.  But it goes to a higher level when Manville is joined by Peter Mullan – Scottish accent used to great comic effect – as her would-be new partner.  The will they/won’t they tension is unbearably poignant, thanks to their stunningly smart performances, mostly unspoken, as they play off each other – heartbreaking and funny at the same time.

The other fabulous pairing is in Endeavour (ITV3 is currently working its way through past episodes and a final, ninth series is being filmed right now), the prequel to Inspector Morse.  The rapport between young brainbox Endeavour Morse (Shaun Evans) and hardened warhorse, Fred Thursday (Roger Allam, also once at the Citz, as Sheriff of Nottingham in panto) is magnificent.  It’s as much a reason to watch as the operatic plots.  Once more, the relationship is enriched by a tacit synergy; Evans’s muted show of Endeavour’s unrequited love for Thursday’s absent daughter is echoed by Allam’s subtle rock of a desolate father, doomed to keep quiet and soldier on. 

Paul Bassett

Glasgow

September 2022

Indyref2

 One of the greatest changes in Scotland is that people have grown bored with moaners and naysayers. Don’t grumble — get it done

Irvine Welsh

Last November, this blog said:

Unless we fight back, Tory chaos and disruption will destroy us all.  One thing could move us on.  Name the date now for an independence referendum. 

And then, this May:

We need to aim for the higher goal of independence and we need a target date to get things moving.  ‘Mon Nicola, name the day – now!

Just seven weeks later, the call was answered.  The First Minister announced that Scotland will vote in an independence referendum on Thursday 19 October 2023. 

Watch out for more prophetic demands from STAGE LEFT: the new PM agrees to Section 30 of the Scotland Act, transferring to Holyrood the power to hold the referendum; the YES side wins with 70% of the vote; Scotland votes to become a republic. 

You never know, but file those – for now – under wishful thinking…

Nicola Sturgeon’s announcement was bold and surprising.  She didn’t merely give the date, but also a route map with Plans B and C – a pre-emptive pitch to the Supreme Court, plus the backstop of a plebiscitary election.

This takes the initiative, shifting the power of decision to the Scottish people.  It also puts Westminster and the Unionists on the back foot. They can no longer bang on about process and London not allowing the Scottish government to realise its mandate.  They might even have to make the case for the Union to continue – if they can.

The move didn’t only confound the NO side.  Many pro-indy voices failed to see it coming. The unexpected always happens when you least expect it. 

Even sceptics have responded positively to the gumption behind the move. Craig Murray, for instance, urged all independence supporters to drop any grudges and get with the programme. Now is the time to work wholeheartedly for Independence; criticism from armchair generals is not helpful.

Smart as Nicola’s gambit is, it’s bound to need a massive grassroots campaign to empower a shift from the status quo and create a better Scotland.  

Bereft of a positive argument, the NO side will play dirtier than ever.  We need to persuade undecided or soft NO voters of the essential normality of independence.  Our case turns on hard specifics on currency, industry and the economy. 

But it also needs vision, ambition and creativity to lift us out of the present deadlock and into the future.  We must strive for a Scotland not just free of the UK, but also fit to challenge the gaps in power and wealth.  As Tony Benn often reminded us, radical change comes only through popular struggle and extra-parliamentary activity. 

We can’t simply look to Holyrood and the party system to win independence.  We know from 2014 how vital campaigning, canvassing and conversations on the streets, doorsteps and halls are to engaging people in the push for a new, potent and democratic settlement.

Bring it on!

Paul Bassett

Glasgow

July 2022

Don’t think – just watch!

Top Gun Maverick has hit its target, busting every block, playing cinemas only – smart.

It’s a great spectacle, the aerial tricks and dogfights especially thrilling, a cinematographic feast.  The dialogue, not so much.  Stuffed with cliches and coated with nostalgia, the script had me supressing giggles.  Slogans like Don’t think, just do! and It’s not the plane, it’s the pilot! strafe the exchanges between the ace fliers, the support crews and the armchair generals.

The other phrase that Tom Cruise, who plays veteran PeteMaverick Mitchell, seems to have been waiting for since 1986 – year of the original Top Gun – is Taps Aff!  At 58, he’s as keen as the buff jocks 30 years his junior to flash his abs and pecs to the max, as they play ball on the beach.

Maverick flies around, destroying millions of dollars’ worth of US government equipment in his zeal to keep America great.  Why Cruise at a mere Mach 9 when you can push your luck and your Darkstar prototype up to 10.2 and wreck it?  Later, trying to destroy a nuclear plant in another country (the enemy is never named), Maverick trashes his F-18 jet to save Rooster, son of Maverick’s doomed BFF, Goose, from the first film.

Brilliant and thrilling to watch, but, says the Aerotime Hub website, quite absurd… for the sake of drama, excitement, and lingering shots of military hardware glistening in the sun, the aircraft do tricks they would not attempt in real life.

In between the riveting flight-and-fight scenes, Maverick meets Hammer (admiral trying to shut him down); Cyclone (mission leader playing it by the book); Iceman (another old pal, dying of cancer) and a former girlfriend, Penny (Jennifer Connelly).  Charlie, love interest in the first movie, was played by Kelly McGillis but, she says, they didn’t get in touch – I’m old, fat and look my age.

Many of the encounters in the new film include lingering regrets at what-might-have-been and overwrought yearning for bromantic camaraderie across the generations.  Maverick risks all for Rooster to honour his dead parents.

If the US fighting forces are really this reckless and sentimental, no wonder they got their asses whooped by the Viet Cong, the Taliban and the rest.

Whatever tricks Tom and pals soar through, the test that Top Gun Maverick totally fails is the Bechdel one.  Phoenix is the token woman pilot, while Penny and her daughter mooch around, ever-ready to pick Maverick up when he stops doing the serious piloting stuff. 

Another male, pale American tale at the cinema recently was Straight Line Crazy.  I watched this NT Live broadcast, from the Bridge Theatre, London, at Glasgow Film Theatre.  Though some have doubts about screenings of stage shows – https://stageleft.blog/2019/11/01/is-it-a-film-is-it-a-play-part-2/ – it’s easy, cheap and better than nothing.

This new play by David Hare, directed by Nicholas Hytner (ex-National Theatre boss and now joint head of the Bridge) stars Ralph Fiennes as Robert Moses, who dominated the layout of New York for nearly half a century.

It’s a titanic performance, brilliant, energetic and imperious.  Fiennes hardly leaves the stage, like Moses himself, who only quit as urban wizard when forced out by newer, more democratic forces.  As with the Bridge’s previous show, Hytner’s staging of The Book of Dust – La Belle Sauvage, the action is played out on a long apron forestage thrusting into the stalls, giving the scenes greater immediacy.

And yet, though highly accomplished, it feels strangely old-fashioned.  It could have been produced ten, twenty, thirty years ago. In a way it was, in Pravda (1985), Hare’s satire of a Murdochite media baron.  He seems to hate/love such sacred monsters.

Now, in 2022, it all seems a bit solid, stodgy even, and emphatically male.  Hytner commissioned Hare after reading the 1300-page doorstep by Robert Caro, The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York.

So, a story about an overbearing man by a man, read by another man, dramatized by a man, starring a man, directed by a man and designed by a man, with a creative team of mostly men (10 out of 14).

There’s a hint of complacency from Hare, talking with Fiennes and Hytner just before the screening, when he says how much he prefers working with them because he knows how they work and it’s simpler that way.

Hytner carries on, says the Guardian, as if he has the budgets and resources previously available to him at the National.  Even so, Straight Line Crazy’s cast of 13 is a lot larger than most theatres outside London enjoy.

Finally, a recommendation for a really entertaining TV comedy, The Outlaws (BBC1 and iPlayer).  12 episodes over 2 series, it’s the brainchild of Stephen Merchant (he writes and directs some episodes, as well as playing Greg, a nerdy lawyer).  Greg and six other oddballs are doing community service for minor offences, but they get drawn into a much darker world of drug-dealing, dirty money and the threat of harm or jail – a sort of Carry On Breaking Bad.

The plotlines intertwine and careen ahead, though the main delight comes from the bunch of diverse, quirky characters, each colourfully backstoried.  One, Frank, is played by Christopher Walken, with all the impish glee he showed when he danced in that Fatboy Slim video.  My favourite is Diane (Jessica Gunning), the hopeless but ambitious supervisor; the episode in which she gets high on hash brownies is priceless.

It evokes just the right mixture of farce and menace, of desperation and warmth, to be both funny and thrilling.  The Bristol setting is beautifully matched by Merchant’s wicked Victoria Wood-like specificity for language.  As it dawns on him that he’s been sent to pick up drugs, Greg says: I’m beginning to realise it’s not Gaviscon Extra.  He’s seen Breaking Bad, and worries they’ll end up digging their own graves in the desert – well, Minehead beach.

Great stuff.

Paul Bassett

Glasgow       

June 2022

Dutiful Losers?

Did you catch, last week, Nicola Sturgeon in the US alongside the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi?  Not on BBC Scotland.  They couldn’t be arsed showing our country’s First Minister starting a major international trip; they were too busy covering ounces of trivia around Rangers’ trip to Seville. 

Who knew BBC Scotland was such a nest of bluenoses?   We already know how many brown noses there are from the coverage of the upcoming Platinum Jubbly, but the Beeb’s examination of every insignificant detail of the Europa Cup final – to the exclusion of other important stories – was excruciating. 

Watching Sturgeon and Pelosi, it struck me how polite and slightly old-fashioned it all seemed.  Sure, it’s great to see such leading women being so proficient, compared to bumbling BoJo and stumbling SloJo.  Unscripted, no missed words, not an um or an er,nor a fluffed line.

I suppose such opening exchanges are bound to seem platitudinous – later, Nicola got down to brass tacks in her speech to the Brookings Institute in Washington.  Ukraine, NATO, energy and, especially, the environmental crisis post COP26 – all featured in another class-act delivery. 

Thank goodness we’ve got a smart, coherent and finger-on-the-pulse leader to represent Scotland abroad.  But, like those articulate greetings with Pelosi, does this approach actually cut much political ice these days?

Of course, it’s a big step up from Boris & co.  And, though conventional, it doesn’t suffer from the craven conformism of Keir Mr. Rules Starmer.  So concerned to be seen – in stark contrast to Boris – to obey regulations, the Labour leader forgets to put any substance into his message.

At least the SNP have some policy lead in their carefully sharpened pencil.  Yet, whenever Ian Blackford, SNP leader in the House of Commons, tells the PM that Scotland will not stand by while one more democratic outrage is inflicted, or some further havoc wreaked, we can see that Boris is really thinking: I think you’re confusing me with someone who gives a fuck…

Pelosi was deeply concerned that the UK’s plans to discard the Northern Ireland Protocol and urged constructive, collaborative and good-faith negotiations.  Nancy – this is the UK government, in full Trump mode, you’re talking to.

A couple of days later, meeting Michelle O’Neill – would-be first minister at Stormont and Sinn Fein deputy president – Nicola said: We’ve got to be careful about drawing parallels between Sinn Fein’s success in Northern Ireland and the case for Scottish independence. 

Careful?  Why?  The parallels are clear. Both countries voted against Brexit, both now question the future of the UK.  Aren’t these a further spur towards a referendum – or two referenda, even – either side of the Irish Sea?

Johnson, Patel, Cummings, Farage et al have, like Trump, trashed mutual norms.  Negotiation, compromise and consensus have all but vanished from the UK’s lexicon of political discourse.

All the more reason, you might think, for Scotland to stick to the traditional codes.  But in 2022 does anyone get very far politically by honouring inherited customs. formalities and manners?  In the teeth of crises and disruption, is respect for the rule of law – that overworked phrase – still apt, distinctive, and effective enough to cut through and change anything?

And, when it comes to negotiating with Westminster over independence, how can we expect the kind of respectful reciprocity we used to take for granted?

I’m not saying for one moment that we should sink to the level of dirty, fake and rogue tactics practised by the populist right.  But it’s beginning to feel as though our time-honoured and benign political currency needs a more trenchant additive to break through and actually win.  Otherwise, we might remain dutiful losers, noble but impotent when it comes to getting shot of our rotten rulers.

Other than a change of style, I’m not sure what that would mean exactly.  Maybe we saw, also last week, a hint of more potent messaging in Mhairi Black’s brilliant, if scary, speech in the House of Commons.

Forensically listing the Tories’ recent record – crushing protest, ditching human rights, trafficking asylum seekers to Rwanda, cutting pay and pensions – she demonstrated how, economically and culturally, Westminster policies are leading us slowly towards the f-word.  This, she said, is Little England elites, drunk on the memory of a British Empire that no longer exists.  And she added: Fascism happens subtly.  It arrives through the othering of people, the normalisation of human cruelty.

She didna miss and hit the wa’! 

Paul Bassett

Glasgow                                                

May 2022

The Power of the Dug

Time makes fools of us all; our only comfort is that greater shall come after us.

– Scottish mathematician and writer E.T. Bell. 

Is today’s movement for Scottish independence more divided than the forces that almost got us over the line in 2014?

Yes (!), you might say, when you see pro-indy voices at each other’s throats.

Given the disproportionate unionist bias in the mainstream media, the internet often seems the best way to understand what’s happening in Scotland.  Yet some online sources bring their own negative tendencies: differences amplified into stark contrasts; dismissal of alternatives and anyone with a divergent point of view dosed with invective.

On the other hand, some commentators manage to play the issue not the person, use measured language and focus on the essential need to fight unionism, rather than other independence supporters.

Step forward the Wee Ginger Dug, who’s been blogging since 2013.  The blog is not actually written by its canine namesake, a rescued mongrel from Spain.  And Ginger died last year.  The blogger is Paul Kavanagh who fights on, dugless, supporting pro-independence parties and not going down a rabbit hole of conspiracy theories.

Kavanagh’s patiently practical bulletins are clear and accessible.  He aims especially at soft NO voters, making the detailed, nuts-and-bolts case for indy.  He examines everyday events and persuasively builds up the reasons why things happen as they do in the UK, showing how divisions between rich and poor, the entitled and the people, Westminster and Scotland, are symptoms of our constitutional set-up – and how it could all change with independence.

A linguist, he’s articulate, erudite and funny.  He uses humour to critique the true enemies of Scottish self-determination: the Conservatives and the British Government and other apologists for British nationalism.

Until recently, he also walked the walk, attending demos and giving talks to various YES groups all over Scotland.  Sadly – just as Ginger ascended to his immortal kennel – Kavanagh himself suffered a massive stroke.  This has curtailed his campaigning, but not his written combat, adding daily political analyses in The National (The REAL Scottish politics) to his blogging.

His doggedness (duggedness?) in dealing with his own immobility is matched by a resolve to stick exclusively to promoting Scottish independence. For below-the-line comments, he rules: If you want to mouth off about how much you dislike the SNP leadership, there are other forums.

So, let’s hear it for the dug – I’d say his unfailing positivity offers a better way forward than online sniping. 

There are other commentators who keep an inclusive, open-hearted attitude as they write about Scotland, like Joyce McMillan, Lesley Riddoch and – except on the gender issue – Ruth Wishart.

That said, none of us can pretend that everything in the YES garden is rosy and harmonious.  How do we disagree?  Let me count the ways…

Perhaps the biggest divergence is between the SNP and Alba, the party set up by Alex Salmond just in time for the May 2021 Holyrood election.  Salmond proposed a super-majority of pro-independence parties but, in the event, Alba got just 1.7%of the list vote.  The SNP leadership will have nothing to do with Alba, while many in the new party are at odds with some SNP policies, especially on gender reform.

Imagine Salmond and Sturgeon still together.  The brilliant strategist and the consummate tactician united, leading the drive for independence.  And more than that – all those disenchanted with SNP inertia who’ve joined Alba, or just drifted off, working alongside the loyal foot soldiers who’ve stayed, slogging away for the cause.

Dream on.  Not going to happen.  Yet don’t the SNP need a partner or partners to challenge and push them on the core aims of the movement?  It’s not just that they’ve been in power at Holyrood for years; they’ve also done it single-handed. 

Admirable in many ways, but now both these factors seem to be a disadvantage in moving forward.  So, if not Alba, who?  The Greens have priorities even more urgent than getting out of the rotten-to-the-core United Kingdom.

One piece of proposed legislation – The Gender Recognition Reform (Scotland) Bill – has become not just its own blazing row, but also a proxy for other rifts.

At the heart of all this is the pace of progress towards independence.  The unionist jibe – get on with the day job – is now, for many restless indy supporters, the main problem.  The SNP leadership is consumed by managing the system.

And why wouldn’t it be?  Mitigating the worst ravages of Tory rule and coping, hands tied by the constitution, with the day-to-day running of a country.  It’s more than a full-time job.  Besides, this was always part of the plan: gentle persuasion of waverers by deeds rather than words.

What’s more, it’s worked.  Most people think Holyrood has made a better job of things than Westminster. 

We’re 8 years on from indyref 1 and fifteen since the SNP started to govern.

Nobody’s perfect. There have been a number of own goals – the ferries fiasco, Bi-Fab, Prestwick, underselling offshore wind etc.  Piecemeal public investments have been, as George Kerevan wrote, reactive rather than strategic.

Add in events like Brexit, Covid, Ukraine and inflation plus the Tory demolition mob and we can see that we’ve come as far as devolution can get us. 

For months, if not years, now, polls have shown how evenly divided the people of Scotland are.  We’re stuck unless we get to choose independence (or not).

It’s no longer enough to govern; to break out of this impasse we need to aim for the higher goal of independence and we need a target date to get things moving.

‘Mon Nicola, name the day – now!

Paul Bassett

Glasgow                                                

May 2022

Craig Murray – flawed champion?

Craig Murray’s blog gives a profound interpretation of the political world, but does his strategy for independence ignore the reality of everyday political change?

Where, if you’re independence-minded, do you go for serious political analysis?

You’re unlikely to find it in the overwhelmingly unionist press.  Of30 or so titles available in Scotland, only one, The National, is pro-indy.  As Paul Kavanagh, Wee Ginger Dug, says: The biggest obstacle to Scottish independence is our truly lamentable media, which is grossly unrepresentative of the views of the country it purports to serve.

 

Except for a few columnists – like Joyce MacMillan in The Scotsman – newspapers don’t bother to explore beyond their bias, hostility and – especially from London-based papers – ignorance towards independence.  Other writers who purport to offer insight into Scotland’s situation – like Chris Deerin, Alex Massie and Kenny Farquharson – have become their own echo chamber, cleaving to unionist faiths, however strained the reality of the union becomes.

My own political reading is mostly online – particularly a handful of bloggers – in order to try and understand where our nation is going and how well, or badly, it’s getting there.

Of the internet writers who tell it like it is, ex-ambassador Craig Murray is the intellectual heavyweight.  His background as a member of the establishment adds heft to his subsequent career as a whistle blower, activist and author.

His dissection of major political events is knowledgeable, shrewd and thorough.  He cuts through the surface aspects and reveals the deeper political motivations of those in power.  His recent pieces on the Russian invasion of Ukraine are typically forensic and provide a fuller picture than most other commentators: https://www.craigmurray.org.uk/archives/2022/03/the-universal-boosting-of-putin/

At the same time, he goes out of his way to support campaigns and report on court cases, notably of Julian Assange and Alex Salmond.  For the former, he queued every day, from the early hours, for hearings in Belmarsh prison.  He produced uniquely valuable reportage on this deeply troubling example of British justice heavily influenced by the US government.

His accounts of proceedings in the Alex Salmond trial offered an alternative to most of the press, who seemed to have decided the former First Minister was guilty of the charges on which the jury then acquitted him.

Craig Murray himself ended up in the High Court in Edinburgh, charged with jigsaw-identifying some of the complainants in the Salmond case.  He was found guilty and sentenced to 8 months’ imprisonment.

Personally, I found the grounds for his conviction weak and I contributed to his legal costs’ crowdfunder.  Many people protested vigorously at his sentence, while some pro-indy voices were noticeably silent. 

Whatever your view, is incarcerating someone like Murray, just for what they write, a good look for twenty-first century Scotland?  Given that he’s in his sixties, has young children and poor health, the decision to put him in jail, rather than some other sanction, seemed positively vindictive.

But – despite all that – I feel that Murray can be too intolerant of those pursuing a different path, especially when it comes to independence.

A recent post https://www.craigmurray.org.uk/archives/2022/01/now-is-the-moment-to-declare-independence/, is an example of this cavalier attitude.  He writes: The UK government is reeling like a boxer knocked unconscious before hitting the floor (this was at the depth of partygate).  He urges action while our opponent is at their weakest. 

He calls for a string of moves – declare independence; hold a plebiscite, convene a National Assembly and repeal the Act of Union.  (Simples!)  He immediately goes on to attack the SNP’s cowardice and their preference for the gravy train ofgovernance inside the UK, rather than attaining Independence.

Murray’s to-do list culminates with Scottish MPs (he doesn’t say which party!) walking out of Westminster.  He declares: it should be simply unconscionable for any genuine independence supporter to do otherwise.

We have, should, and will argue whether these specific steps are the best way forward.  My problem here is with his approach.  However brilliant the strategy he advocates, they’re just his own assertions.

Is that how political change happens?  Progress tends to come in concert – a multiple of people and actions.  Of course, we need an overview, a vision, but the fulfilment of independence is bound to take in a broad range of moves and players.  It’s as if Murray, in declaring his own strategy, has little time for the equally necessary gradual tactics being pursued by others.

The broad radical sweep shouldn’t cut off the tiny steps, sometimes unsung, of political persuasion.  These engage thousands of activists who chap doors (when doors can be chapped), fill envelopes, hand out leaflets and run street stalls.

It also encompasses politicians, at all levels.  Though they get paid, working away in councils, Holyrood and Westminster is still an uphill task.  They also serve who strive and wade through long boring meetings.

Our route to national liberation is manifold.  There are so many ways it will come about.  We need them all – from the flourish of a grand vision to the nitty-gritty, painstaking detail.  The key, it seems to me is how all the disparate approaches and activities combine to form an effective political movement.

That movement is bound to include the SNP.  To repudiate Scotland’s mass party is fruitless.  But the wider independence campaign is just as vital.  Murray has made his position clear: that some leading SNP politicians and apparatchiks, are not really interested in independence and are even working to frustrate it. 

He’s not alone in finding the leadership too timid, too cautious and too wedded to the existing system – though it must take Amazonian grit to keep the governing show on the road, whilst maintaining a radical view for the future.  These are real political disagreements which have to be hammered out.

Yet Murray seems prone to attack rather than reconciliation, and sometimes makes his objections personalised, blaming those who think otherwise.

Beyond such rancour stand hundreds of thousands keen to achieve Scotland’s autonomy, plus many others open to persuasion.  It’s not enough to be brilliant yet heedless or snide towards others’ efforts.  You need to be tolerant and consensual enough to make ideas work on the ground, over time and in tune with other people’s efforts.

From my own experience, I’d prescribe 4 wet Wednesdays out canvassing.  Not only does this essentially human exercise reach out to voters, it also helps you get a sense of perspective, a feeling of common cause and a taste of camaraderie.  I have every respect for the people, including elected politicians, who put hours into this kind of campaigning.

I also respect Craig Murray’s trenchant grasp of what we’re up against, as well as an inspiring picture of what could be ahead.  The essential challenge for the independence movement is how we can empower everyone to reach that future – together.

Paul Bassett

Glasgow

March 2022

Comments and feedback welcome, here or: stageleftblogscotland@gmail.com

The first feminist novel?

Reader, I wish I’d never married him.

Heathcliff’s soul and mine are the same.  But I pray he’ll go away, the sullen misfit!

Can you imagine the women in Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights responding to their deep, dark, mysterious men in those terms?

What would Emily and Charlotte Bronte’s most celebrated works be without the romantic love of a misunderstood anti-hero?  If they’d shown men as they really were, would their novels have become such classics?

Step forward the third Bronte, Anne.  (There were 5 sisters in all; 2 died as children.)  She wrote just 2 novels, one more than Emily and two less than Charlotte.  I’ve just finished her second book, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848).

Like previous STAGE LEFT posts on Mary Shelly and Daphne du Maurier, –  https://stageleft.blog/2020/02/13/meet-the-shelleys/  and https://stageleft.blog/2020/04/08/three-good-books/  – this is a recommendation for another great read from a writer ahead of her time.

I picked up on it from a Melvyn Bragg In Our Time broadcast last September, which suggested Wildfell Hall is the first feminist novel. 

The main story is framed by a conventional romance between a young farmer, Gilbert, and the mysterious tenant, Helen.  No Rochester, nor Heathcliff – here, it’s the woman whose enigmatic past is key to the narrative. 

The core of the novel is much darker, showing – in unflinching detail – Helen’s struggles with an abusive, alcoholic and unfaithful husband, Arthur.  Against her highly moral, better judgement, Helen falls for him, hoping she can correct his boorish ways.

But he just gets worse, hunting, partying and bolting to London to screw around.  He becomes increasingly violent with his dogs, servants and Helen herself.  Tired of her attempts to refine him, he literally throws the book at her.   

The arrival of her son, young Arthur, only makes things worse; as he grows up, his father forces him to drink and swear, just like daddy.  Helen’s determination to save her son toughens her to defy convention: I’d rather he died than be brought up a man of the world.

Arthur humiliates Helen, brazenly parading his infidelity in front of her.  Bronte shows mercilessly just how trapped she is – though selling her paintings helps Helen survive the unrepentant Arthur. 

Anne Bronte’s depiction of domestic violence goes deep – the couples who visit Arthur and Helen are unhappily wed, with a nasty hint of just you wait till we get home from some of the brutish husbands.

Not all the men are bastards – 2 of Arthur’s badly behaving pals reform.  As for Gilbert, he’s mostly meek; it’s Helen who coaxes him to maturity.

The Brontes had to adopt men’s names (Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell) to get published.  It was still as Acton that Anne wrote her defensive preface to the second edition: Is it better to reveal the snares and pitfalls of life… or cover them with branches and flowers?

This was her defence against the torrent of criticism against the novel’s coarseness.  It was judged unfit, revolting and disgusting by contemporary critics (all male, of course).  Even Charlotte called the subject of her sister’s best-seller an entire mistake whichthe author was not qualified to handle.

Anne had, at least, the consolation of popularity.  That second edition was due to Wildfell Hall selling even faster than Jane Eyre had.  Jalouse, moi? – as the francophile Charlotte might have said.

The first feminist novel?  You could claim that Wildfell Hall’s theme intelligent woman denied opportunity by patriarchy echoes Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792).  But Anne was writing from her own imagination and observation, if not experience.  Like Emily and her brother Branwell, Anne never married, though she saw, at first hand, Branwell’s drinking and affairs.

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is a brilliant read because it’s so vivid – the story intricate, the characters authentic and the situation compelling.  Until recently, Anne’s books haven’t attracted the kudos of her sisters’. 

When you hear of the Met policeman writing to a female officer: I’d happily rape you and countless examples of disgusting misogyny in 2022, you realise that Anne Bronte’s evocation of male domination, and women’s struggle to break it, seems more urgent than ever.

Paul Bassett

Glasgow

February 2022

Comments and feedback welcome, here or: stageleftblogscotland@gmail.com

Scot Goes Off?

Since 2008, Scot Goes Pop! has effervesced as the pro-indy opinion pollster.  But, with a flawed survey on gender reform and the promotion of Alba beyond its vote share, has James Kelly’s blog lost its sparkle?

Done right, opinion polling is an accurate science with strict rules about sample size, selection of participants and margins of error.

 – Dave Roos How Political Polling Works 

  (A version of this blog post is published on Bella Caledonia: https://bellacaledonia.org.uk/2022/01/31/scot-goes-off/ )

Are opinion polls objective?  You can’t argue with numbers.  If a poll shows a greater percentage in favour than against, doesn’t that prove the more popular option?

In the case of Scotland’s future, it couldn’t be simpler: literally a Yes/No question.

Yet unionist media interpret polls according to their own political tilt.  Last April, the Sunday Times was disappointed at its Panelbase survey which showed nationalists on course to win a supermajority.  The recent 55% Yes from Ipsos Mori was headlined by the Daily Express as not necessarily indicative of what’s going on

The BBC, who claim to report trends not single polls, pronounced a No lead decisive, but played down the run of Yes majorities throughout 2020.  In 2017, Ruth Davidson crowed over a supposed 60% against indy, based on a ridiculously leading question, phrased to beg people to say “no”.

Step forward, Scot Goes Pop!  The pro-indy blog, run by James Kelly, is a corrective to the slew of No-friendly papers and broadcasters.  The site doesn’t pretend neutrality – instead it steers a forensic analysis of polls, parties and press.

As well as reporting and interpreting results, Scot Goes Pop! drills down into the methodology – probity of the questions, weighting of the samples, how and when the poll was run and who by.

More, Kelly has an exhaustive grasp of different electoral systems.  Defying flak, he’s made it his job to explain how Scotland’s voting schemes – first past-the post, d’Hondt and STV – work in practice.

When he thinks there’s a gap – say, a long while since Yes/No has been tested – Kelly crowdfunds and commissions Scot Goes Pop’s own research, giving the initiative to a pro-indy voice.

Last October, SGP’s political journey took an interesting turn when it commissioned a poll about gender reform.  Past SGP! pollsfocused on independence and related matters, like a plan B for indy, Brexit and the handling of the pandemic in Scotland and England.

Panelbase (who ran the poll) shows that 23 questions were asked, 9 on gender and the rest on voting intentions, broadcasting, the EU and the royals. ScotGoesPop-Full-Tables-for-publication-261021.pdf 

While the questions on voting etc. are short – as few as 9 words – the gender questions are long, up to 155 words.  Some are hypothetical.  Others ask respondents to pick the most persuasive from a range of set answers.

According to Kelly, his poll asks straight-down-the-line questions.  But is that true of this one, for example?

If a woman requires an intimate medical examination after being sexually assaulted, do you think she should have the right to ask to be examined by a doctor who has been biologically female since birth, or should she only have the right to ask to be examined by a doctor who is legally regarded as a woman, regardless of that person’s biological sex at birth?

How likely is that situation to actually play out in the way this question supposes?  Does it reflect reality, or is it phrased to evoke an uneasy reaction in respondents’ minds as they try to answer?

The questions and answers on voting etc. are straightforward (Which party will you give your first preference vote to?) and give the respondent a choice from simple responses (yes/no/don’t know/wouldn’t vote/a political party).

The gender questions are circuitous.  They start with a contentious point-of-view (Some people argue that…) and end with an open question (Which point of view do you find more persuasive?).  The set options are not the respondent’s own and use emphatic phrases like it is wrong; should and it is unacceptable.

Some of the gender questions set up a split between two strongly worded points of view.  For instance:

Some people argue that it is bigoted or transphobic to ‘misgender’ a transgender person – for example to refer to them as ‘he’ or ‘him’ if their preferred pronouns are ‘she’ and ‘her’.  Others argue that forcing people to use particular pronouns when referring to a transgender person is an unacceptable attack on free speech.  Which point of view do you find most (sic) persuasive?

So, on the one hand bigoted or transphobic, on the other forcing people and an unacceptable attack on free speech.  But do these stark terms chime with the natural impulses of people trying to use the right word?  Again, the question bludgeons real-life experience into hard-line contrast rather than engage respondents in a thoughtful and authentic reply.

In answer to that question 29% said they didn’t know.  Don’t know responses to the gender questions are strikingly higher than the number of neutral replies to voting intentions.  (There’s no well, it’s a complicated issue, it depends option!).

Previous SGP! polls raised the money needed fairly quickly, yet – despite constant appeals on the site – funding for this one sticks at just over £4000 of its £6500 target, 3 months after it was run.  Kelly used his own money to cover the shortfall.  Future polls won’t happen until the funding is fully nailed down.

Kelly describes running this poll as an extremely stressful and bruising process

He says he’s heartbroken by the way the SNP leadership’s obsession with this issue has needlessly opened up a rift in the independence movement.  He claims his poll on this thorniest of questions aims to point the way to a much-needed resolution

As if this particular Gordian knot could be untied by 9 loaded questions! 

Summing up the results, Kelly writes: The Scot Goes Pop/Panelbase poll has convincingly demonstrated the public are strongly opposed to gender self-ID.

I, for one, am not convinced.

Another interesting turn in Scot Goes Pop’s political journey came in March 2021.  Kelly, antsy (like many of us) for indyref2, quit the SNP and joined Alba.  In September, Kelly was elected to the new party’s national executive committee.

This isn’t just personal.  The site has long weighed the case for another party to spur the SNP.  It charted the fortunes of the Scottish Socialist Party, Solidarity, Rise and others trying for electoral success in the Scottish parliament. Only the first, led by pre-perjury Tommy Sheridan, managed it.

Since 2003 – apart from the SNP, the Greens and individuals like Margo MacDonald and Dennis Canavan – no pro-indy group has won representation at Holyrood. 

Scot Goes Pop! has consistently argued that such a party needs one thing to make a breakthrough: a weel-kent face. 

Step forward, at the eleventh hour, Alex Salmond.  In the 7 weeks between its launch and the 2021 Holyrood election, Alba got plenty of coverage on SGP!: Alba ascendant on course for 6 seats. Campaign hard and make sure that Alba reach at least 5%.  Seven good reasons to vote Alba.  The site urged its co-belligerent, Wings Over Scotland, to stop wasting time on trans rights and campaign for Alba.

Alba won no seats at Holyrood.  Its vote share was 1.66% of the regional list.  The low result may in part be due to Alex Salmond’s exclusion from all 5 TV debates; SGP! argues that outcomes hinge on these set-pieces. 

Despite the setback, the blog thinks it would be realistic to persevere and pressurise the SNP because Alba boasts two MPs and a good number of local councillors.  But all these were defections from the SNP, none elected under the Alba banner.

Kelly stayed open towards his former party, urging people to vote SNP on the constituency ballot, an attitude unreciprocated by Scotland’s dominant party.  The SNP ignored Alba.  Or, in some cases, spat venom at it.

Now, nine months after the Holyrood vote and three before local government elections, SGP! still thinks Alba could be a mainstream party. 

He’s surely right in seeing space – and need – for forces more radical than the SNP, in power for 15 years and with enough to do keeping the show on the road.

Maybe such forces could come from a schism in Scottish Labour who finally realise how dead-end their party’s position has become.  The grassroots independence movement, wings clipped by Covid, might produce a group to stiffen the SNP’s resolve.

But a party led by Alex Salmond?  Whatever your view, there’s too much baggage.  Perhaps if a less Marmite figure – say, deputy leader Kenny MacAskill – took over, the party might cut through, but, as things stand, it’s hard to see how Alba will gain many council seats. 

As a seasoned pollster, is Kelly’s optimism an accurate reflection of the likely results?  Or is he kidding himself?

We’ll find out in May.

Paul Bassett

Glasgow

February 2022

Comments and feedback welcome, here or: stageleftblogscotland@gmail.com

Tales of brave Ulysses – part two

Do it on the radioEducating Rita’s fix for staging Peer Gynt isn’t just succinct; it also suggests that each work of art has its own best format.

I’ve long wanted to read Homer’s Odyssey.  I bought the Penguin paperback years ago, but never got round to it. 

Though it’s the first work of literature – as in writing and reading – I think Rita might say: Get a talking book.  Thanks to the audio version – all 14 hours of it – I’ve just finished the whole epic saga.

I’d listened to the 42 hours of Stephen Fry’s version of the Greek myths – Mythos, Heroes and Troyhttps://stageleft.blog/2019/09/06/stephen-fry-in-mythos-gods/

Troy ends with the Greeks’ genocide of the Trojans, using that early weapon of mass destruction, the wooden horse.  It was the brainchild of the shrewdest Greek warrior: Odysseus – or Ulysses, as the Romans renamed him.

This being a Greek myth (did it really happen?), Odysseus had divine help.  His mentor was Zeus’s daughter, Athena, goddess of war and wisdom.

Troy (or Illium, hence Homer’s The Illiad) predicts that Odysseus will be away for 20 years.  The war grinds on for 10, but how does it take another decade for him to get back to Ithaca?

The answer is The Odyssey.   Battle, blood and brotherhood; death, defeat and despair; vengeance, victory and violence; life, love and, finally, home. 

It teems with incident – the lotus eaters who rob Odysseus’s crew of purpose; the nymph Calypso who promises him immortality if he stays with her; the one-eyed Cyclops who eats his men; the sea-god Poseidon who wrecks Odysseus’s boats; the sirens, luring him to his doom, plus the restless spirits of his mother, Achilles, Agamemnon and Hercules in the underworld.

And there are the heinous suitors who, hoping Odysseus never returns, try to seduce Penelope and kill their son, Telemachus. 

Homer’s feat was to write the story down, 24 books of it, in about 700 BC.  Yet the events it describes took place at least five hundred years earlier, around the twelfth century BC.  How on earth did the stories survive all that time?

They were passed down through a long oral tradition.  They lived through reiteration, rhetoric and rhythm.  Homer keeps these in his penned version.  The Odyssey is a poem, to be read out loud and listened to.  It’s in dactylic hexameters – six beats to the line.

I feel lucky to have found the 2018 version by Emily Wilson, the first woman to translate Homer into English.  It’s accessible, direct and moving.  She uses iambic pentameters (five beats to the line) which keep you hooked to the imagery and narrative drive.  The narrator, Claire Danes, also gives a different voice to these muscular tales.  

Wilson finds appealing ways to vary the repeated epithets (wine-dark sea, rosy-fingered dawn, cloud-gathering Zeus etc.).  Like Homer (apparently) she adopts short, powerful words to evoke the characters’ emotions, as when Odysseus says: I miss my family.  I have been gone so long it hurts.  A slaughter describes the victims lying in blood and dust like fish hauled out of the dark grey sea in fine-meshed nets.

Her translator’s note shows the care she takes in not adding moral bias to the original, as some have.  For example, she shows empathy with the executed slave women, unlike translators who use words like sluts and whores to imply they deserved their fate.

Similarly, she eschews terms like savage for the Cyclops and other strange beings, to avoid the legacy of colonialism.

It’s a big responsibility to interpret such a great work.  A classics graduate tells me that he finds Homer’s language intricate and beautiful and loves how words foreshadow events to come. 

 A translation may not be as rich as the original, but Emily Wilson’s interpretation made me cry several times.

Yet The Odyssey is also barbaric, macho and violent.  A desperate Telemachus vows to kill mercilessly, like his father, to prove he’s a real man.  The thrust of the saga inclines us to want Odysseus to get back home, but how to accept his slaying so many and his abuse of women?

Have we left all that behind?  In his appendix to Troy, Stephen Fry says:

Rage, lust, envy, pride and greed energise Homer, but they’re balanced by love, honour, wisdom, kindness, forgiveness and sacrifice.  The same unstable elements constitute the human world today.  Dark human passions of selfishness, fear and hatred counterbalanced by friendship, love and wisdom.  The field’s open for someone to portray all that better than Homer.  But I’ve yet to see it done.

Read the first part of this post here: https://stageleft.blog/2021/12/10/tales-of-brave-ulysses-part-one/

I’d like to revisit a third Ulysses, James Joyce’s novel set over 24 hours in 1904 Dublin – another classic I’ve tried to read but never finished.  What would Rita say?  Perhaps I’ll give it a listen instead…

Paul Bassett

Glasgow

December 2021

Comments and feedback welcome, here or: stageleftblogscotland@gmail.com

Tales of brave Ulysses – part one

When, at the start of Sarah Winman’s 2021 book, Still Life, you meet “two English spinsters” bickering over Botticelli, Giotto and Rubens, you might think you’re in for a tale of artistic snobbery.  But Evelyn Skinner could not be more human, alive and fascinating.  The other woman, not so much; Winman cheekily names her Margaret someone, then drops her from the story.

There’s a hint, in this opening chapter, how fascinating Evelyn will turn out to be (and how beautifully Winman writes); she tears open a fig and presses her thumbs against the soft yielding skin – the erotic sight of its vivid flesh.  In the unseen, most guarded part of her, a memory undid her, slowly like a zip. 

It’s the end of WW2 in Italy and art historian Evelyn is heading for Florence to rescue masterpieces lost and damaged in battle.  The first she discovers in a stinking villa (the Germans shit everywhere before they retreat) – a prized altarpiece of Christ lowered from the cross. 

Evelyn‘s trick, throughout the book, is not just her deep knowledge of the objects but her ability to impart to other characters – and the reader- how art touches real life.  It’s about feeling, she says, that’s all.  People trying to make sense of something they can’t make sense of. 

Evelyn’s intriguing in many ways, strung through shifts of period and place, mostly central Italy and London.  The final chapter, All About Evelyn, goes back to 1901. Twenty-one years old and unchaperoned (!) in Florence, she embarks on a thrilling secret affair – the hint in Chapter 1 – with the pensione’s pretty maid.  She offered me a door into her world.   Priceless.  She also offers a lot of sex, described with passionate intensity.

Evelyn emboldens an awkward E.M. Room with a View Forster to get out and experience Florentine life.

The other great character in the book, with whose equally unconventional story Evelyn intertwines, is Ulysses Temper.  Heroic name, heroic guy.  We first meet him, a London working-class private in the Eighth Army, with Evelyn in Italy as he drives her from villa to albergo in his jeep.  Kindred spirits from the off, their paths keep almost crossing until they find each other again as Evelyn joins Ulysses’ found family in 1966.

This clan, a mismash of exiles from Ulysses’ London local and a few Italian mavericks, muster in Florence where Ulysses – thanks to an incident in the war – settles.  These wonderfully original characters, bound by mutual humanity, make a web of enchanting relationships.  There’s even a magical parrot, Claude, who doesn’t just talk and think, he influences the plot!

The third great character is Florence, the Renaissance city itself.  If you’ve never been – or.can’t go thanks to Covid – reading this book is almost as good the real thing.  Like Thomas Mann’s exquisite portrait of a diseased Venice, Winman’s evocations of the 1966 floods which devastated the Tuscan capital are heart-wrenching.

Best read in ages!

Paul Bassett

Glasgow

December 2021

Comments and feedback welcome, here or: stageleftblogscotland@gmail.com

Coming up next – Part Two: the original Ulysses – Odysseus, and his Odyssey by Homer…

Spanish gold

It’s the common people who pay for our plays, so we should speak their language

 – Lope de Vega (1562-1635), Spanish playwright

Studying theatre at uni, we spent ages on Shakespeare.  We read, researched, wrote, experimented, acted and workshopped Elizabethan drama.  We did a Clockwork Orange-flavoured presentation of the Scottish play.  I played Alex/ Macbeth, egged on to violence by my droogs/thanes.  It was probably terrible!

But only now, nearly fifty years on, have I discovered the Spanish golden age of theatre.  I’d heard of it, but have no memory of its being on the syllabus – nor experience of it since.  Is it me – or, even after all these years, are UK courses and repertoires still insular?

The Spanish and English periods overlap, with the two countries at war, culminating in the defeat of the Spanish Armada (1588).  England’s victory – says History.com – led to a surge of national pride

Elizabeth I (Cate Blanchett, in the 2007 film, in shiny armour) declared: If the best arrangements are made, we shall prove ourselves once more able to defend our island home, if necessary alone”.  Remind you of anything?

I tried to read Don Quixote (1605), the first great European novel by Cervantes, but couldn’t finish it.  I enjoyed the tilting at windmills, which comes early on, but grew tired of the silly episodes of fake chivalry.  Maybe I need to try again.

I visited the Prado in Madrid and loved the huge, intense paintings of El Greco and Velasquez.

I knew a bit about Lope de Vega, because his most famous drama, Fuente Ovejuna (1619), was political – a cry for democracy.  I read about its first British production, in 1939, by Manchester’s Theatre Union, by Joan Littlewood and Ewan MacColl. 

Based on a true 1476 incident in the village of Fuente Ovejuna, the people kill their raping, despotic commander.  The king and queen try to force an individual confession but, Spartacus-like, the villagers declare: Fuente ovejuna lo hizo (the whole village did it).

Our theatre studies also mentioned the Spanish dramatist Tirso de Molina, because he invented the character of the arch-womaniser, Don Juan (1616) – later dramatised by Moliere, Mozart, George Bernard Shaw and many others.

Two of Pedro Calderon’s plays, Life’s a dream (1635) and The Mayor of Zalamea, get produced in British theatres now and then.  But I’ve never seen them.

Until now.  Thanks to Edinburgh Lyceum’s opening show of their autumn 2021 season, there was a chance to see an escudo of Spanish theatrical gold. Originally to be staged pre-pandemic, Life is a Dream finally opened this October.  It was worth the wait.

As we entered the auditorium, everything had changed.  The actor-audience configuration was revamped, with the stage floor extended out over the stalls, so that we sat and watched, on four sides, the action in the middle. 

It reminded me of a similar in-the-round set up we devised on the Citizens’ stage whilst the façade – then new, now demolished – was built.  It inspired the creation of 2 studio theatres front-of-house.

This Lyceum Calderon was anything but small-scale.  They kept the whole auditorium open; the show’s reach exceeded its grasp.  The actors darted round the wings, aisles, circle, seats, pit, traps, drapes and two proscenium arches (one real, one fake) to evoke a world from Moscow to Poland, encompassing global ideas: reality/dreams; authority/popular rebellion; family feuds; free will and love.

It’s the antithesis of domestic drama and this version made the most of it.  Design, costumes and Wils Wilson’s direction all captured the broad, epic sweep of the play and its times.  They abandoned the confines of naturalistic theatre and made it exciting to watch.

The actors echoed this.  As the shackled prince Segismundo, Lorn Macdonald’s fuck-you, unconventional acting style was electrifying.  Like him, Alison Peebles, Laura Lovemore and the rest grabbed their roles by the scruff of the neck and made them spring into life.

As jilted Rosaura, Anna Russell-Martin made her character the feisty agent of change, reclaiming not just honour, but the rightful order of things.  I love it when, in a universal situation like this, an actor makes the most of her Scottish voice.

Calderon’s era, apparently, shared a lot with Shakespeare’s.  Open-air playhouses.  Prolific output of plays. Diverse sources, stories and styles – religious and secular, classical and current, comic and tragic.

As Lope de Vega’s quotation above shows, they also appealed to a broad audience; their theatre was probably more democratic than today’s.  At the Lyceum, the £52 for 2 concession tickets on a Tuesday may not be in most people’s price range (though they are streaming the show for £10 each).

And they had plagues.  As Lyceum director David Greig wrote in his (free) programme note: The 1600’s were plague years all across Europe.  In 1605, London theatres were shut.  With 22 plague outbreaks in Spain during that century, it’s almost certain that Calderon would have experienced a total theatre shut down like ours.

Contemporary relevance, right there!

Paul Bassett

Glasgow

December 2021

Comments and feedback welcome, here or: stageleftblogscotland@gmail.com

We need to talk about ferries

In 2015, as work started on the building of two new ferries for Arran and the Hebrides, I visited the Ferguson yard in Port Glasgow.  The enthusiasm was palpable.  Boats being built on the Clyde again!

6 years on, it’s all gone wrong – 4 years late and £100m over budget.  2 more ferries for Islay and Jura will now be built in shipyards in Poland, Romania or Turkey.

The first ferry – Glen Sannox, due to ply the Firth of Clyde Ardrossan-Brodick run – is still in the yard.  It won’t start service until late Summer 2022.  The second boat, known as Hull 802, will begin sailing the Outer Hebrides/Skye route a year later.

If you travel to Arran, or other islands off the west coast of Scotland, you’ll know how sorely needed the new vessels have been for a long while now.  The service between ports is often sub-standard.

For Arran residents and visitors this invariably means cancellation, because bad weather makes Ardrossan harbour unsafe.  Or the linkspan – the ramp between port and deck – is broken.  This is also a problem at Gourock, once the alternative to Ardrossan.

There are other pretexts for service breakdowns.  Last month, the front page of the Arran Banner (which must have the words ferry, fiasco and fury forever set on its printers) reported that all sailings to Arran were cancelled, because 2 of Ardrossan port’s 23 staff tested COVID-positive.  No contingency, just everything shut for a day (7 crossings, thousands of passengers and hundreds of vehicles).

For some, the ferries hold connotations of bucket-and-spade getaways; it’s a pleasure to get on the boat, have a drink, a portion of chips and relax.  But, for islands like Arran, tourism is their anchor.  Reliability of scheduled crossings is fundamental to economic survival.  If boats don’t sail, the hotels, holiday lets, cafes, pubs, shops and countless other businesses suffer the loss immediately.

For islanders especially, these lifeline services are vital for work, deliveries and medical appointments.  If you’re sick on Arran, it’s compounded by worrying if you’ll be able to reach the hospital.  The only other way is to be helicoptered to the mainland.

Islanders and regular visitors also question some of the infrastructure decisions made.  For example, the Brodick harbour project cost over £30m but, as the Arran Ferry Action Group says, the new berth is misaligned, meaning it’s harder to dock in the frequent easterly winds.

Brodick’s new terminal building, a clunky block, makes the walk to and from the boat much longer than the old gangway.  Many passengers – with kids, buggies, luggage, golf carts and dogs in tow – have to use the vertiginous stairs.

Why was so much spent on the Brodick facility when the crying need was (and still is) the seaboard entrance to Ardrossan?  Who makes these decisions, and why?  How much do the construction, service and network of these key links involve the people who use, care and pay for them?  

The last 2 questions can read across to other transport services in Scotland, like trains and buses.  Following record levels of passenger (not customer!) dissatisfaction with Dutch company Abelio’s franchise, Scotrail will soon come back into public ownership.  Is this a chance to ensure that the poor bloody passengers, and workers, are part of the future decision-making process?

First Bus runs over 100 routes in Glasgow.  There are constant complaints of unreliability, services being cut and fares hiked.  A Glasgow survey of nearly 3000 bus users showed only 16% satisfaction.  Unite, campaign groups and the public want the present bus networks – profit-driven yet heavily subsidised by tax and ratepayers – brought under public control.

Ferries, trains and buses in Scotland happen to, not with, people.  It’s their business, not ours.  Like it or lump it.

The model of publicly funded services being left to a company to run has become commonplace throughout the UK.  What the Thatcherites couldn’t flog off and privatise, they farmed out to profit-making entities, a trend spurred on by Blair/Brown governments.

This has facilitated the now sickening levels of corruption throughout British public life, especially when it comes to who gets the lucrative contracts. 

At Holyrood, with proportional representation, levels of graft and sleaze are as nothing compared to Westminster.  Yet our civic amenities still tend towards top-down management, lack of control for users and unreliable quality of service.

The point of independence is to make our country a better place to live, work and be.  If business as usual is second-rate, then we’re bound to campaign for a different kind of Scotland, one that serves its people properly.

Being a better nation also means becoming a more democratic one, so that ordinary people can have a say in the running of transport – and education, health, social services, utilities etc.

How exactly can we start to improve our transport networks and ensure that they come to be truly public in terms of participation?  Does it have to wait until we achieve independence?  Shouldn’t it be part of the push towards Scotland becoming its own nation again?  Independence isn’t a shortcut to get past these issues, it’s a means of engaging with them. 

We’re not talking about token consultative committees, tacked on to existing structures.  It needs a shift in power away from self-selecting and appointed individuals towards people whose only interest is the service itself.

Though ultimately Abelio got its jotters from the Transport Secretary, it seems unlikely that a bigger shake-up – involving the public – will spring from Holyrood, an institution settled in its norms of influence and pressure.  Lobbyists gonna lobby.

A radical re-think on the buses might come from local councils, but it would probably be a defensive move, to curb a clamour of passengers’ complaints.

As to our beleaguered ferries, is there a realistic way to get passengers engaged in control of the service?  West coast ferries’ operator Calmac have appointed their own community board, but why not get Arran Ferry Action Group and other local voices into the main boardroom?

How do you even start to set up a system to incorporate the public? 

Before we devise mechanisms for participation, maybe the vital spark of democratic control is shown by the gumption of the recently formed Govan Free State, which aims to reclaim our freedom and collective responsibility from below.  There is no one coming. There is only us.

More bambassadors and poeticians now!

Paul Bassett

Glasgow

November 2021

Save the date. Save Scotland.

Work as if you live in the early days of a better nation, painted Alasdair Gray, the Michelangelo of Riddrie, perched under the ceiling of the Oran Mor. 

This blog post is published on Bella Caledonia:

https://bellacaledonia.org.uk/2021/11/04/dave-the-date-save-scotland/

That phrase wasn’t Gray’s own; he took it from a Canadian poet.  It became a pro-indy maxim.  In 2014, it defined how we campaigned: the positive case for a fairer, stronger and more creative Scotland.

We know, from history, that the gestation and birth of a new nation affect what kind of country it grows to be.  Conceived in brutality, India and Pakistan fight bitterly to this day.  Palestine has never recovered from the lop-sided formation of Israel in 1948. 

Violent divisions plagued Ireland and Northern Ireland from the 1920’s up to the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 – now threatened by Tory recklessness.

On the other hand, the velvet divorce which separated the Czech Republic and Slovakia in 1993 seems to have left both states unscathed and, relatively speaking, thriving.

During indyref1, many of us in the YES movement felt that how we sought and fought for independence was key to the nation we would become.  Not just YES versus NO, but what kind of society Scotland could be.  Our approach was willfully idealistic, seeking ideas from as many people as possible.

But we lost.  3 years later, I went for a drink with a couple of friends who’d voted NO.  Seeing the mess of Brexit and the broken promises of Westminster, they’d changed their minds.  Let’s face it, said one, independence couldn’t be any worse!  Picture the tee-shirts: Vote YES – it couldn’t be any worse!

Since then, things have deteriorated sharply.  The UK’s in crisis: shortages and steep price rises in food, fuel and energy; a chronic dearth of labour; a widening gulf in wealth; ballooning national debt; soaring levels of poverty; barely functioning state services; the worst public health failure in history (say a cross-party group of MPs) and corruption rife, with Tory donors winning lucrative contracts and ministerial posts. 

Recent verdicts on Britain couldn’t be more damning: an Orwellian state (American writer); they don’t keep their word (Irish deputy PM); EU workers won’t help the UK out of the shit it created itself (Dutch TUC) and the UK has no intention of keeping to what it signed up to (CEO of the European Policy Centre).

The Houses of Parliament are falling to bits.  The head of state is nearly 100 and the heir a septuagenarian.  The UK may not yet have failed like, say, Lebanon, but it looks like a failing state.

All this from a bull-headed right-wing government to which Scotland remains tethered.  Most of the money and power remain firmly in Westminster’s hands.  However we vote, whatever we do, we’re bound to the Tories’ chaos. 

The Scottish government has made a good fist of softening the cruellest blows from Westminster and handling the pandemic more competently.  But mitigation and management can’t solve our deeper issues.  How much longer can we cling on with the current devolution settlement – itself under attack by the Conservatives?

We urgently need greater control of what happens in our country.  It’s becoming clearer by the week that the only way that’s going to materialise is if we get a chance to vote on independence, one way or the other.  Gordon Brown and Labour’s perpetually promised federalism is moonshine. 

The Tories are making it clear how they see Scotland.  Andrew Bowie, Scottish Tory MP, recently published Strength in Union, essays by leading Conservatives.  Its grasp of history and its analysis are so shallow, they wouldn’t drown a gnat (or a nat).

In the book, Alister Jack asserts: the UK is one great nation, not four.  The Scotland-England border is just a road sign and Brexit’s in the rear-view mirror.  Would that be the rear-view mirror where you see all the parked lorries?

The British government provides a transparent tax regime.  Just don’t read the Pandora, Panama or Paradise Papers. 

But what if this isn’t just a set of essays, but a manifesto?  Are the Tories planning to realise Theresa May’s view of Scotland as just another region, like Yorkshire?  Away with your separate legal and education systems and your parliament!  It might seem hare-brained, outrageous and unworkable, but would you trust them with Holyrood?

Unless we do something to fight back, Tory chaos and disruption will destroy us all.

One thing could move us on.  Name the date now for an independence referendum. 

The tactics of such a move – what if/when Boris says no to a section 30 order?  How can we set up an alternative plebiscite? What are the legal options? – are bound to be laboriously discussed.

But beyond process, the idea and the reality of a second indyref would seize the initiative, shift the political momentum and capture people’s imagination.  And the campaign for a YES vote would reinvigorate our politics.

Let’s rekindle the idealistic spirit of 2014.  We still need vision, ambition and creativity to lift us out of the present deadlock and into the future.

Things will change.  Daring to look beyond the referendum (assuming the right result this time!), fresh ideas and new voices will arise.  We’ll need them to tackle the most pressing issue of all – the climate emergency.  Could the SNP-Green alliance prefigure a broader rainbow of pro-indy forces?  Could Scottish Labour, or a reformed part of it, join in?

Further ahead, a newly independent Scotland will need international leverage.  Rejoining Europe could be a two-way street.  Ask not what the EU can do for you, but what you can do for the EU?  The European Commission is battling with illiberal member states like Hungary and Poland.  Scotland’s enlightened democratic traditions should make it a welcome returner to the fold.

But first things first.  Save the date.  Save Scotland!

Paul Bassett 

Glasgow

November 2021

America invades. China trades.

This blog post appears as an article on Bella Caledonia: https://bellacaledonia.org.uk/2021/10/05/america-invades-china-trades/

The great challenge of the 21st century is understanding China – Martin Jacques

They’re the lucky ones.

I switched off.  The BBC presenter was talking about 3 Afghans who’d reached the UK, just before the US withdrawal. 

You escape violence, panic and chaos, leaving family and friends.  You face a future in Priti Patel’s Britain, trying to get money, work and help, not knowing when you’ll be free to return to your home country.  And you’re the lucky ones?

The US and allies’ exit from Afghanistan, 20 years after they invaded, is a pivotal, kairotic moment.  The BBC led on it for weeks, focussing almost exclusively around Kabul and the airport, on soldiers leaving and the desperate plight of those who’d helped them, trying to flee.  The rest of the country and the majority of the population were all but ignored.

The portrayal of the new governing powers was rigidly hostile.  Though the Taliban are a mass of conflicting forces, the T word was used, often in the third person singular, to portray them indiscriminately as monolithic, brutal and primitive. 

Surely the people that defeated the greatest superpower on earth warranted analysis?  The UK media might as well have said the Gruffalo, such was the infantile demonisation.  The Taliban has terrible tusks and terrible claws.  And terrible teeth in its terrible jaws.

And terrible misogyny.  The BBC presented a stark contrast: women studying, teaching and working before the withdrawal versus barbaric suppression of women’s rights after.

Dr Yvonne Ridley was imprisoned by the Taliban in 2001.  In a recent Scot Goes Popcast, she says the women judges, journalists and doctors were green shoots, but came from the privileged elite of Kabul and the main cities.  Across the country, female illiteracy is 84%.  Some places have no schools, while shiny new schools in Kandahar are devoid of teachers and pupils.

The truth is that the Taliban had greater popular support than the deeply corrupt puppet regime it replaced, which collapsed weeks after the US started to pull out.  The president fled the country before the Americans did.

Given how they worked with the Americans to smooth the evacuation, Dr Ridley believes the Taliban have changed.  And that they’ll adapt further, if they are to stand a chance of governing the broken country they’ve inherited. 

There are signs, from meetings and discussions being held, that this regime will be more inclusive, not just of tribal elders but neighbouring countries, other ethnic groups and women.  Ridley adds: My money’s on the women.

It’s bound to take time.  But how long and why on earth should women have to keep waiting for the opportunities, rights and equality that should be theirs already?  And as for theocratic fascism – the sooner that’s consigned to the bin of history, the better!

But bombing’s not the answer.  While we must object to the regressive elements of the Taliban, the more realistic path to change in Afghanistan is through engagement.

To be fair, the Beeb’s coverage is a bit more savvy with the return to Kabul, after 27 years, of Jeremy Bowen, Middle East editor.  He has no illusions about the Taliban’s unforgiving idealogy, but he makes clear how the war undercut attempts to make Afghanistan a better place.  Tellingly, he now wears a shalwar kameez to respect the local dress code.

Overall, the BBC and the rest reflect the narrow outlook of the UK establishment.  Ex-foreign secretary Raab’s grilling by MPs showed how little the government knew about what was going on: how many Afghans worked for Britain; how many have the right to settle here; which foreign ministers were contacted and why 5000 desperate emails went unread by his department.

He knew nothing.  Not even the dates of his holiday.

The chaos, divisions and instability sown by 20 years of US, UK and allied occupation left those powers strangely ignorant of the country they invaded.

In February 2020, Trump signed the Doha deal with the Taliban, committing to the withdrawal of US and British troops by May 2021.  Biden upheld the plan, amending the exit date to August.  Everyone knew what was going on. 

Aren’t we supposed to have world-beating intelligence services?  What did we miss and why?  Chief of defence staff General Sir Nick Carter said: I don’t think we realised what the Taliban were up to.

Imperial declines are unlikely to be peaceful; the US one has been especially bloody.  We mourn the 3000 people killed in the New York horror that triggered the US invasion, but how do we weep for the hundreds of thousands of deaths in Afghanistan since 9/11?

The US forces’ last act was a Hellfire drone attack on a white Toyota. They thought, based on substantial intelligence, they were targeting an ISIS terrorist.  Instead, 7 children were playing around the car.  The drone killed them and 3 adults, one of whom worked for an American aid organisation.  It was a futile, impotent response, like a microcosm of the entire Afghan war.

Tony Blair says the US departure is tragic, dangerous, imbecilic

Once he stood, in too-tight jeans, alongside George W. Bush, helping him enter Afghanistan and Iraq.  Now Tony returns, to the scene of the war crime, to tell us this wouldn’t have been the exit pursued by A. Blair. 

But we see for ourselves.  Blair’s liberal interventionism is just another brand of racism, a legacy of colonialist attitudes and systems.

When I went to Afghanistan, in the 1970’s, it was neither modern nor Western, but it was safe.

Since then, the Soviets and the US, have joined the list of invaders – stretching back to Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan – who’ve dug themselves into this graveyard of empires.

William Dalrymple’s Return of a King gives a vivid history of the first disastrous British entanglementin Afghanistan, in 1839.  The British installed a deeply unpopular ruler, Shah Shuja.  They thought they’d beat Russian expansion.  It was all part of the Great Game, a sort of imperial pissing contest.  The retreat, in 1842, saw 20,000 British troops killed.

One of the bloodiest deaths was Sir Alexander (Sikunder) Burnes.  Cousin to Scotland’s bard, he was the classic example of a talented, diligent Scot trying to make the British empire function.  Forced to accept unworkable instructions from his witless, arrogant superiors, he was hacked to death in Kabul at the age of 36.

Nothing learned, there were 2 more Anglo-Afghan wars in 1878 and 1919.

Some in the West, seeking a replacement for the US, cite China as the next imperial aggressor.  More misconception. 

As Martin Jacques, author of the seminal When China Rules the World, says: the chances of China being so stupid are zero

Part of the explanation is China’s experience as the underdog, dominated by Japan and the West for a century of humiliation and – since 1949 – as a developing country.  Unlike the US and the UK, China knows how it feels to walk in the shoes of a state like Afghanistan.

Throughout its long history, China has often been a world power.  Yet, while it attaches the greatest importance to retaining (and reclaiming) lands which it regards as its own, it has little tradition of colonising foreign territories.

Instead, as it works with an ever-greater number of countries, China prioritises stability and development.  In Afghanistan, this means that Beijing is likely to offer the new regime economic aid to rebuild and fight ISIS.

Since post-Mao reforms in the late 1970’s, China has focussed remorselessly on its economic strength, while improving its infrastructure, the lives of its people and its involvement with the rest of the world.

In the 1980’s, China’s economy was 5% of the size of America’s.  By 2014, it was the same.  In the 2030’s it could be twice as big as the US.

This meteoric and inexorable rise has enabled China to join the world.  It became a member of the World Trade Organisation in 2001.  It recently signed up to the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, a free trade agreement of 15 Asia-Pacific countries (including Australia).  The RCEP accounts for 30% of global GDP, and the same share of the world’s population – more than the EU and the US-Mexico-Canada pact.

The global reduction in absolute poverty is at least as much to do with internal Chinese development as western aid & trade.

Obama set up, in 2016, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, another trade deal between some of the RCEP states, plus Canada, Chile, Mexico and Peru.  Within months, Trump pulled the US out.  Now, China has applied to join the TPP.

Since 2013, China’s most ambitious international project is the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a huge multi-continental investment, infrastructure, construction and trading project.  It now involves 139 countries.  China is highly fused with the global economy. 

Italy was the first European state to commit to the BRI.  Russia now sees it as an opportunity.  Imran Khan, Pakistan’s prime minister says: China is the country that came to Pakistan’s aid.  Most of China’s partners are developing countries, which now account for two-thirds of the world’s economic activity.

Meanwhile the G7’s influence is diminishing, its market dominion a fraction of what it was.  The west’s share of world population is just 14%, compared to the developing world’s 84%.

The withdrawal from Afghanistan has been a major military humiliation.  But the greatest blow to the West was economic: the 2008 financial crisis, from which it’s never recovered.

Cold war rhetoric won’t wash.  The recent formation of AUKUS misreads the realities of international progress.  It’s more fantasy – the US is like playground bully, Draco Malfoy, having just lost one massive fight, instantly picks another, egged on by hapless Boris Johnson and Scott Morrison, the Crabbe and Goyle of international diplomacy.

At the very moment when they could seek to build bridges with China and others, the AUKUS squad choose the military route.  Johnson says stocking the Indo-Pacific seas with nuclear submarines is not intended to be adversarial.  Tell that to the French and other allies, who are incandescent at the move.

The crucial thing about China is its difference from the West.  It’s not like a Western nation state.  Its approach, rooted in a civilisation going back to Confucius, is shrewder, deeper, more strategic.  It doesn’t indulge in Bush’s good guy versus evil simplistics.

Huge problems lie ahead of course: environmental crises, tech wars, refugee flights, the return of Trumpism etc.  A major concern is what a cowed US will do with all its weapons.  60 years ago, Eisenhower warned against the unwarranted influence of the military-industrial complex.  Now it’s bigger, stronger, yet aimless; how long before it concocts another casus belli, a pretext for war? 

The post-US world is not all about China vs. America, replacing one superpower with another.  We’re seeing a shift away from a minority of developed countries ruling the world towards a multipolarity of developing countries.

To understand is not to condone.  How can we share the values of distant civilisations?  I’ve never been to China, nor can I speak a word of Mandarin, which I’d say were the least requirements to assess the rights and wrongs of what’s happening within that huge country.  This article is about how to go with the grain of history and humanity, as the whole world moves forward.

This new world order is already spreading from south-east Asia to encompass the rest of that continent, Africa and Latin America; projects like the link across the bay of Maputo, capital of Mozambique –  the longest suspension bridge in Africa.  And the joint hydropower plan to build 2 dams in Argentina, due to generate nearly 5,000 megawatts of electricity, reducing dependence on fossil fuels.

The BRI might reach further into Europe and even the USA itself.  Though China may be preeminent in this process, it’s unlikely to dominate it.

A current upside to China’s connecting with the world is the number of Covid vaccines it’s provided to over a hundred countries – 884 million, with plans to make it 2 billion by the end of 2021.  The US has delivered 160 million.

The world is changing.  Good.

Paul Bassett 

Glasgow

October 2021

Boris trots out a plan

When I was at uni, moving in broad left circles, the problem wasn’t the Tories.  The real nuisance was the Trotskyists. 

Thanks to the ultra-left, no political meeting ended on time.  These comrades could split hairs and pick nits till the cows came home.  By which time the unpersuaded had, like my will to live, drained away.

 IMG, IS, SWP, WRP – far-left groups could out-acronym Line of Duty.  Zealous and deeply idealogical, Trotskyist parties made more noise than their numbers warranted.

None of us stays in the political berth we occupied in our youth.  Conventionally, we drift starboard.  But there’s a particularly well-sailed crossing of ex-Trotskyists from extreme left to far right.

Figures like Paul Johnson who opposed NATO and the Suez war, supported the May ’68 Paris protests and became editor of the New Statesman.  Then he pivoted rightwards, turning into a vicious anti-communist and cheerleader for Thatcherism, backing dictators like Chile’s Pinochet.

The Observer journalist, Nick Cohen, was a scourge of Blairite Labour, but went on to champion the invasion of Iraq and attack Islamic culture, Scottish independence and Wikileaks.

Claire Fox was leader of the Revolutionary Communist Party (which, as the Revolutionary Communist Tendency had broken away from the Revolutionary Communist Group.  RCG to RCT to RCP – Jesus, Mary, Joseph and the wee donkey!).  She published Living Marxism, but later morphed into a Brexit party MEP and Baroness Fox of Buckley.

These political oscillations – from the distant fringes of the left to the extremities of the pro-corporate, libertarian right – were noted by George Monbiot in the Guardian: While their politics have swung 180 degrees, their tactics – entering organisations and taking them over – appear unchanged.

Now, there’s a former Trotskyist ex-RCPer at the very heart of the UK government.  In 2019, Boris Johnson appointed Munira Mirza director of the Number 10 Policy Unit. 

She and her husband Dougie Smith – chief Conservative strategist – are, after Carrie-Antoinette and BoJo, the other Downing Street power couple.

If Mirza’s ultra-left background led to her current job, how did Dougie’s previous role lead to his?  He used to run swingers’ orgies.  Maybe the journey from sex parties to Tory party is not that great.

In a previous blog – https://stageleft.blog/2021/02/24/and-its-a-yes-from-boris-maybe – I suggested Boris’s clueless blustering was no match for a smart indy movement.

Yet, though they still lack a clear response to Scotland, that doesn’t mean the Tories don’t have a bigger plan. Recently, we’ve seen more evidence of it – and it’s not a Priti sight.

A slew of new bills – police, crime, sentencing and courts; nationality and borders and secrecy – are being introduced to severely curtail people’s rights to protest (even if a demo is just annoying), to come into Britain as a refugee or to disclose facts that might embarrass the government.

OK, most of these proposals are not directly applicable to Scotland.  But they’re coming for us too: the UK Internal Market Bill (which breaks international law, but only in a specific, limited way) confirms Johnson’s view of devolution as a disaster and overrules the Scottish Parliament.

Meanwhile, Boris and pals tease out dog-whistle remarks in their war on woke.  Beat crime with hi-vis chain gangs; bring back stop and search (a kind, loving thing to do,bumbles the blonde buffer) and blame students for cancel culture

Housing minister Robert Jenrick wants statues saved from woke worthies and baying mobs.

Home secretary Patel, putting aside her copy of Neo-Fascism for Dummies, backs fans booing players who take the knee.

It’s hard to see all this as a coincidence.  Boris blunders on, but behind him there’s a sinister, concerted effort to legislate away vital freedoms, while undermining compassion and understanding.

Labour said things can only get better.  Under the Tories, they can only get worse.

For many, the situation is already dire.  14 million people are in poverty, one in every five. The number claiming Universal Credit has doubled from 3 million to 6 million. 

Having slashed benefits and tax credits and declared sick people fit for work, the Tories are cutting Universal Credit by £20 a week. It’s the largest single cut to social security since the Second World War says the Rowntree Foundation.

Another time, another place and this lot wouldn’t be in power; they’d be in jail.

When the furlough scheme dries up this month, unemployment will rise.  Almost everyone’s in debt, especially the government.  UK debt is 100% of GDP and rising, with Santa Sunak planning billions of public spending cuts.

Empty shelves, hospitals under pressure and more homelessness. Everywhere you look – mental health, social care, half-full schools and more food banks – the cracks in the UK’s social fabric are widening.

As these crises deepen, are the Tories banking on repressive measures taking root to hump us all?  Keep their paymasters and media cheerleaders happy.  Screw the poor and blame the dissenting.  The Nasty Party, red in tooth and claw.

There is, of course, no guarantee that dodgy demagoguery will work.  Yougov found that most people don’t know what woke means.  Surely these toxic, prejudicial schemes won’t win hearts and minds?

The Tories realise they won’t get everybody behind them.  But they don’t need to.  Their 80-seat majority comes from 43% of the electorate.  And Brexit shows how disruptive ideas can prevail.

TINA.  There is no alternative.  Labour are, sadly, all over the shop.  It’s heart-breaking that our family and friends in England have nobody to vote for.

Westminster seems broken beyond repair, but Holyrood, inherently more democratic, offers a hint of an alternative with the SNP-Green pact.  The chair of GB (Gammon Bastards) News is apoplectic.

Is it too much to imagine that a future deal might include some of Scottish Labour? 

But there seems greater scope – and hope – for a fight back beyond such parliamentary manouevres.  There are vast areas of society where the Tories are vulnerable.  Save profits for their pals, they’ve no real interest in the public sphere – civic activities that exist for the common good. 

Across the world, what do autocratic regimes fear most?  Public demonstrations and protest.  People power.

Remember the fright they got, exactly seven years ago, when they thought YES were winning?

Is Scottish independence the cause to spur the battle against the Tories?  If the grassroots campaign picks up momentum again, it could be formidable.

In which case, we’d better get on with it!

Paul Bassett 

Glasgow

September 2021

Feedback welcome – comments to stageleftblogscotland@gmail.com

An edited version of this blog post appeared in The National on 7 September 2021:

Everything Goes?

Flying too high, in the sky, with some guy, is my idea of nothing to do…

 – Cole Porter

So, er, is that it, then?  Covid, lockdown, closures, stay home?  Forget it.  Back to normal?  It seems unreal.

I must confess that, back in March 2020, I felt I might never sit in a full theatre again.  We had no idea when or how such a forbidden impossibility would recur.  This wasn’t just a pause; it looked set to be a long-term upheaval to the way human activity was organised.

And yet there – last week – I was, in a theatre stowed to the gunwales.  The naval analogy is appropriate, given what was on stage.

The Barbican Centre in London (brutalist architecture is never nice, imho) has a spacious, comfortable theatre inside, even with every one of its 1162 seats occupied.  Most people wore face-masks throughout the two-and-a-half-hour extravaganza.

You’re the top…
You’re the National Gallery
You’re Garbo’s salary
You’re cellophane!

It’s hard to imagine a better show to emerge from the Covid waves than Anything Goes.  Originally composed by Cole Porter in post-depression America, it’s a high-octane all-singin’, dancin’ and laughin’ joyous, escapist spectacle.

The verse I’ve started seems to me

The tin pan thesis of melody,

It’s delightful, it’s delicious, it’s de-lovely!

This dazzling, fizzing entertainment felt more infectious than the Delta variant.  Based on a Broadway version of 10 years ago, it imported the star of that production, Sutton Foster.  She’s amazing in the main role, Reno Sweeney, as she taps, sings, mugs and hoofs brilliantly, supported by veterans like Gary Wilmot, Felicity Kendal and Robert Lindsay and a chorus of stunning dancers. 

The title number, which closes the first half, is a full-on, knock-out, drag-down, spine-tingling slice of pure Broadway magic.  I haven’t seen such tap-dancing since watching Fred Astaire movies or Will Gaines at the Fringe years ago.

If they ever cook your goose
Turn me loose
If they ever put a bullet through your brain
I’ll complain

If you think theatre is easy, try these routines 8 times a week.  Could you dance like this until you’re Googie Withers?  (Or Ethel Merman who played the role in the original 1934 Broadway version.) I felt I was still watching the Olympics.  Joe Wickes would wilt.   

I’ve been a sinner, I’ve been a scamp,
But now I’m willin’ to trim my lamp,
So blow, Gabriel, blow!

I loved every minute of this exquisite piece of froth (P.G. Wodehouse had a hand in the book), set on the pristine, camp decks of the SS Americana, packed with the craziest galere of passengers and crew.

And those mind-boggling lyrics, those indelible numbers – I get a kick out of you; You’re the top; Friendship; It’s de-lovely; You’d be so easy to love; Blow, Gabriel, blow!

And then, out into the crowded foyer, cafes and toilets, we flooded, like Corona was just a beer you’d order from the bar.

Just weeks ago, we were ordered to stay home and see no more than a handful of our nearest and dearest – it feels strange that such crowds are starting to be the norm again.

Anything Goes was, in fact, the second time I was in a theatre in 18 months.  The first was last month to see, in the Scottish Opera Car Park venue, the Citizens’ fabulous Comedy of Errors.

No gunwales stowed on that occasion.  It was all socially distanced and out-of-doors.  I was grateful for the tented roof because it kept out the sultry Glasgow sunshine!

The show was like a breath of fresh – and funny – air, the perfect tonic to lockdown, isolation and darkened theatres. 

Shakespeare, the magpie, nicked the plot from old Roman playwright Plautus.  It’s full of classic theatrical devices, spinning perpetually on mistaken identity: two sets of identical twins, ignorant of each other’s existence.

How lovely to be back in a theatre, enjoying all the physical and verbal harum-scarum.  The 7-strong cast dashed up and down the staircases of ScotOp’s Falstaff set, twisting audience laughter from the bewildered characters’ panicked exchanges.

As with Moliere, Goldoni, Feydeau, Orton et al, the greatest moment of such farce comes when the truth is revealed to all.  How best to show the real identities?   Mirrors?  Dummies?  Other actors with backs to the audience? 

The only other version I’ve seen had four actors as the twins.  But this 90-minutes-straight-through production did the four twins’ set-up with just two people and an incredible lightness of touch so that the denouement – a swift flick and an empty hat – was breath-taking.

Next stop, Edinburgh.  It’s good to be back.  For now!

Paul Bassett 

Glasgow

August 2021

Broken Wings. Bath votes SNP.

Wings has done the full Icarus – flown too close to the Sun and plunged into the deep blue sea.

This is a short update on a previous STAGE LEFT post:  https://stageleft.blog/2021/01/27/is-wings-broken/

As the Reverend Stuart Campbell turned his fire away from unionist parties and on to the SNP, his blog Wings Over Scotland became more of a menace to the YES cause than the anti-indy camp.  Was it too late to get our old Wings back?

Yes, it was.  In the longest suicide post in history, The Ship Song, Stuart closed down his website.  Or, as the Herald tweeted, Bath man pulls plug.  (Campbell lives in Somerset.)

His adieu came 5 days after the Holyrood election that saw an increase in seats for the SNP and Greens.  Campbell had attacked them relentlessly, urging his readers to cast their constituency vote for unionist parties instead.  Meanwhile the party he championed, Alba, won 1.66% of the list vote and no seats.

Stuart was – is – a very good writer.  He knows how to pursue a coherent argument, how to turn a phrase and where to put the apostrophes   He was blistering and effective at calling out the NO side for its shallow arguments, partial facts and broken vows.

He was merciless as well as forensic.  His style was wilfully brutal (I will kill you with hammers) – though, personally, I didn’t see much wrong with his Rabelaisian profanity.

But the invective turned vicious to the point of bigotry.  He became obsessed with attacking the SNP, vilifying anyone who showed a scintilla of disagreement.  Just a few of the milder insults: scumbags (the Greens); racist midget (Patrick Harvie); truly epic idiot, appalling dimwit, less intelligent than cheese-on toast, pitiful intellectual void (SNP members) and useless waste of space, worthless coward (Nicola Sturgeon).

Right or wrong, prescient or hubristic, loved or hated, Wings painted itself into a corner.  Short of a crushing defeat for the SNP and a triumph for Alex Salmond’s party, things couldn’t end well. 

It’s quite the political journey.  Lib-Dem before starting Wings, Campbell became the scourge of unionist parties – especially Labour – then anti-SNP.  Where will he go next? 

Predictably, if understandably, some spat out Good riddance!  But I think the YES movement needed Wings – as it used to be – and will need such strong voices again in the renewed drive for independence.

Faced with a largely orthodox, antagonistic media, we lack a robust rebuttal outfit.  The SNP seem reluctant to take on that role.  As the governing party, maybe they shouldn’t be expected to.

We’re bound to look to online campaigners for tough, lucid and sharp analysis of the political battlefield.  Above all, we’re going to need something to put the fire back in our bellies.

Paul Bassett 

Glasgow

July 2021

North and South

I was a child of the north and the south. 

My dad (born Manchester) met my mum (born and buried Gravesend, Kent) in Glasgow.  They had their first date at the Citizens’ Theatre.  They married and had 4 children.

We repeated the pattern – one of us born north of England, one south, met Glasgow, Citizens’, married, 4 kids.

Recently, I learned that the south-to-north pattern, or a similar version, goes back another generation.  I’d always assumed my dad’s dad hailed from Manchester, since that was where nanna and grandad Bassett lived.  But though she, a stern scold, was from Bradford, he came from Westerham, also in Kent.  He moved north in search of work, met his wife and they had 3 (almost 4!) children.

Like my mum, my paternal, southern granddad was kind and soft.  I can still feel the warmth of his hand as he slipped half-a-crown into my palm: Don’t tell your nanna!

I knew all about my mum’s side of the family – they were close.  Was I ignorant of my dad’s side because, taking after his ironhanded Yorkshire mum, he was harsh to us, making my childhood an unhappy place to explore?

I discovered more about my father’s forebears by researching family history.  Seems to be what you do when you get to my age.  North and South, now and then.  The past can also be another country, where they do things differently.

My research started with an old newspaper cutting about the funeral of my dad’s first cousin, a Charles John Bassett, who died at just 29 in 1944.

We traced him to St. Mary’s churchyard in Westerham.  Not only is he buried there, but in the next grave lie his parents – Cecilia and Charles Bassett, my great aunt and uncle. 

The young Charles John, a lieutenant in the Royal Engineers, was killed trying to defuse a V1 bomb.  His name is also on the war memorial which dominates the entrance to the graveyard.

As I look further into my ancestry, perhaps I’ll find more north-south, past-present, bonds and rifts.

For now, I have at least my own story.  When I was 7, we moved from my dad’s northern home to my mum’s southern town.  I went to school in Gravesend, but always felt drawn back to the top half of the country, going to Lancaster Uni and, via Bristol, moving to Glasgow.  Forty years on, I’m still here.

The date I migrated from the south-west to Scotland may offer a clue to my Hyperborean hankering.  It was 4 May 1979.  Maggie Thatcher became prime minister, spawning the Tory grip of England.  And it’s still going on, once-red walls Boris-blitzed.

Except for viewers in Scotland.  Driving north at the end of the seventies, I felt like I was escaping a country embarking on a right-wing coup to somewhere preparing to fight it.  Since then, that feeling and that fight have grown stronger.

I was a child of the north and the south.  But I know where my heart lies now.

Paul Bassett

Glasgow,  

May 2021

If music be the food of love…

Itching to get back inside a theatre?  Can’t wait for a real live show with real live people?

There’ve been myriad substitutes during lockdown.  Streaming, online, mini-films, videos – ingeniously working round the elephant-not-in-the-room: a living, breathing audience.

Can theatre on screen, at any time, be as good as the real thing?  My blog post, pre-Covid, addressed the issue.  Read it here:

https://stageleft.blog/2020/07/03/screening-theatre-reprise/

Now, as we edge back to live theatre, I’d just like to mention 3 recent examples of screened performance that might help get you back in the groove.

Play On! Is a brilliant evocation of what it feels like to be in the room where it happens.  It’s Oran Mor’s Play Pie and a Pint team in a joyous celebration of the past and future of theatre.

If the challenge of filming drama in the time of Covid is to make it uplifting, rather than focusing on the misery of lockdown, this smart-as-paint 30-minute adventure succeeds fabulously.  It makes you want to get back inside and enjoy a show.

You can watch it here:

Another inspired, creative project comes from Mull Theatre.  Braw Tales are 5 short animations – some delightful, some mysterious – that draw you in and give you the frisson you’ll feel once you can watch the real human thing.  The design, style and talent of each are distinctive and enchanting.

Here’s the link:

Finally, not the work of a theatre company, but a wonderful reminder of all that’s quirky about performance.  Wuthering Heist is the first episode of a new series of Inside No. 9, bizarrely original comedy noir.

Goldoni meets Tarantino.  With the plot, style and characters of commedia dell’arte, it’s an affectionate piss-take of the whole idea of live representation.  It captures the daftness of tricks like umbrellas for wheels, grotesque masks and stage whispers.

It’s on BBC iPlayer.

Here’s hoping your appetite is duly whetted!

Paul Bassett

Glasgow

May 2021