On the 20st of July 1969 Neil Armstrong became the first man to walk on the Moon and on the 14th of December 1972 Eugene Cernan and Jack Schmitt, as part of the Apollo 17 mission, became the last men to ever walk on the moon. I know where I was during the first walk, sleeping in my bed at 56 South Street. I had stayed up all night but eventually Morpheus took me away. I was gutted but I have no recollection of the last moon walk. I suppose that is for two reasons. Firstly, moon walking was becoming ordinary. Nothing new was happening. We had seen walking, driving and even golfing (Alan Shepard Apollo 14) it was becoming blasé and secondly, I didn’t know it was to be the last or I may have paid more attention. In total 12 men have walked on the moon and I doubt I could name half of them. The Apollo programme did come under justified criticism and it is an argument that stands true to this day. How can we spend so much money on space exploration when there I so much poverty and disharmony on planet earth? The writer and poet Gil Scott-Heron (whose dad was the first black player to play for Celtic) wrote a piece called ‘Whitey on the moon’ which asked that very question. The Vietnam war raged, and people went hungry throughout the duration of the Apollo project. Was it the right thing to do? Did it engender innovation? Did it encourage national pride? Is that a good thing? These questions remain unanswered, but I do know that even as a wee boy in Greenock the moon landings made me realise just how small earth is, just how unique our planet is, how precious it is. If it is unique and precious then maybe it is time we started looking after it better. Maybe that should be the legacy of the Apollo missions, not to go boldly but to be bold about saving our own planet.
Earlier this week, there were two Select Committee evidence sessions both taking evidence on drugs policy. The first, the Scottish Affairs focused on the law enforcement angle but importantly how we can divert people into health services rather than how do we persecute people. The second committee was the Health Committee and it took evidence from senior police officers and people in recovery. The overall feeling, I got was that health professionals and criminal justice professionals have come a long way in understanding the drivers and life styles that fuel addiction. Unfortunately, a lot of MPs still don’t get it. There is still a propensity to marginalise and stigmatise users. To see them first and foremost as criminals. The easy option is to hide them away within the prison system. As a result, prison is often the default outcome and the first opportunity many people have to engage in recovery. But prisons are full of drugs and the criminal fraternity that are controlling the production and supply. We should be addressing the problem behind the addiction. What are the emotional needs that are causing the harm? How big a driver is poverty? How do we help people live fulfilling lives? How do we identify and support those who are most vulnerable? These are the questions that need addressed. Hopefully that conversation is being ramped up in political circles and we can all come to the discussion with an open mind, ready to engage and learn from lived experience.
I do not know how many members of the Conservative and Unionist Party live in Inverclyde. The only reason I am curious is that it will be up to them and their fellow members to decide who is the next Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. The front runner is Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson a man who, when it suits him, does not shy away from the limelight and as a political operator that approach has been successful for him. But as PM you need to be available all the time. You can’t hide away when it suits you. And that should worry us all. When put on the spot Boris has been found lacking. He was recently described as “a charlatan, a liar, bigot, peddler of racism, philanderer and serial embarrassment as London Mayor and Foreign Secretary”. And it’s hard to disagree as he has been sacked twice for dishonesty, described black people as “piccaninnies”, compared Muslim women to Bank Robbers and gay men as “bum boys”. During his tenure as Foreign Secretary he compared Francois Hollande, then French President, to a prisoner of war guard. He also suggested that Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe had been training journalists in Tehran. Nazanin is still in custody in Iran. He failed miserably to define the UKs position over the Ukraine and when pushed to resign over Heathrow, he felt is safer to take a trip to Afghanistan. And when it comes to Scotland his opinions and judgement have been appalling. He famously said “a pound spent in Croydon is of far more value to the country from a strict utilitarian calculus than a pound spent in Strathclyde”. And while he was editor of the Spectator he was responsible for publishing a poem that described Scots as “tartan dwarves” who were “polluting our stock” and suggested that Scotland should be turned into a “ghetto” with the inhabitants (described as vermin) submitted for “extermination”. As Boris himself said “I have discovered myself, there are no disasters, only opportunities. And indeed, opportunities for fresh disasters.” Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson a disaster in waiting. Thank goodness we have an alternative government in Scotland and an alternative path to follow.
The Beatles told us that “Money can’t buy me love” (for younger readers the Beatles were a boy band back in the day). And we all know money can’t buy happiness and yet the vast majority of us pursue it doggedly, day in day out. In that respect I am as guilty as anyone. Since I was 17 I have worked and saved and spent and worked and saved and spent. The ideology that the acquisition of money is the end game is not a new one and most cultures embrace it in some way or another. At an individual level I fully understand that life is easier if one has a disposable income which buys comfort and engenders peace of mind but at what point do any of us say enough is enough?
At a national level we measure Gross Domestic Product (GDP) as a guide to how well the country is doing. This entails measuring the monetary value of products and services produced in a country.
Recently the Prime Minister of New Zealand, Jacinda Ardern, has charted a different course for her country. She wants to measure success based on happiness and wellbeing rather than wealth and growth.
When my partner died last year, I promised myself that I would concentrate more on enjoying the passing of time rather than worrying about the future. I am discovering that is easier said than done. But maybe if the aspirations of success are defined differently at a national level it will be easier for us all to step off the treadmill and enjoy a walk on the beach. I shall be watching what happens in New Zealand with interest. It will be interesting to see what a small independent country with a population of five million can achieve.
How many of you remember the American TV series, The Twilight Zone. It was a strange mix of science fiction, superstition, horror, drama and comedy. It stretched the boundaries of reality and often led the viewers to dark, macabre places. Eventually it ran its course and was dropped by the broadcasters, but it retains its position as being a leader of its time and even in the beginning, ground-breaking. Today’s equivalent would be The Westminster Zone. A place where common sense goes to die. A place where the outside world is shunned and political zealots are stuck in a timeless limbo echoing the long gone days of a fading empire. No amount of shouting from outside can permeate the faux gothic walls and if it did then the powers that be are surrounded by sycophants and hangers on, only too willing to prop up their egos and encourage more introverted, self-serving and delusional behaviour. The Brexit process has revealed Westminster to be a shallow husk of a Parliament. Incapable of governing and refusing to be guided. Unable to lead and too obstinate to follow. It has come to the end of its run and it’s time to discard it. It has now become suitable only for parody, drama and comedic entertainment. It is no longer innovative or ground breaking. It has forgotten what is in the best interest of the people and consequentially the people have lost interest in it. We are now tumbling blindfolded into a land inhabited by ghastly caricatures of what were once seen as politicians. Welcome to the Brexit zone.
While the Conservative and Unionist government continue to pursue their austerity policy, in
Inverclyde we have benefited from European Union funding to offset the damage. Projects including financial inclusion designed to increase the financial capacity and therefore improve the social inclusion of the most disadvantaged along with employability schemes that provide a five-stage pipeline to those with multiple barriers coupled with supporting 16 to 29 year olds into education, training and employment, are EU funded. They are not the most visible uses of money and therefore may not be fully appreciated by everyone. But in many ways that is how the EU works.
Unlike the United Kingdom the European Union is a true union of equals. From Malta (the smallest landmass) to France (the biggest landmass), when it comes to voting every country has the same rights. In the E.U. the member states work together and through collaboration gain a better understanding of each other. They trade with each other and together form the third biggest trading block in the world. Foreign students study in other member states and can live, learn and love without fear of deportation. And it’s a two-way street, while we welcome E.U. nationals to live, study and work in the U.K. our citizens are doing the same in other E.U. countries. Maintaining this level of mutual understanding, collaboration and shared benefit is the best way to ensure peace and prosperity. It is almost inconceivable that while our nuclear at sea deterrent is creaking at the seams and the cost of replacing it continues to grow, we are being pulled out of the biggest peace keeping organisation Europe has ever had.
Often in life we don’t appreciate what we have until its gone. I hope we don’t make that mistake with the European Union.
I am sure you are well aware that after nearly three years of attempting to negotiate the United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union, the U.K. Government has applied for and been granted an extension. Currently the outcome of that is, that unless a deal is agreed before May 23rd, we will be required to hold elections to the European Parliament. These elections are never the most popular and traditionally turnouts have been low. Yet, during the last three years the people of Scotland have recommitted our desire to remain in the European Union. Obviously, not everyone and I respect that but in every poll that has been taken the majority wish to remain in the European Union. I would hope given the opportunity to display that solidarity with the EU, we would take it. The EU elections are a platform for Scotland to express its opinion on Brexit. The candidates will be expressing their view on Scotland’s place in Europe and must be judged on that. Even though most folk seem to be scunnered by the situation we can’t let that lead to apathy or the turnout will be even lower. The right to vote has been fought for, many people have died to protect it, and while I understand the frustrations, now that we have been exposed to the arguments and possible outcomes of Brexit, it is imperative that you register your wishes at the ballot box. I can understand why those that voted ‘Leave’ may be frustrated at having to vote again but equally I would encourage them to do just that. Three years of discussion at Westminster have led us nowhere. It is now time for the wider electorate with a greater understanding of the issues to express their views. The last day to register is the 7th of May, please make sure you are registered to vote.
This week the U.K. Government’s Home Office department published a white paper regarding ‘online harms’. It is a good document that manages to identify a range of areas where people are bullied, abused, exploited and put at risk. The rapid growth of social media and the associated technologies has far outstripped any governments ability to legislate for it. And as a result, those with the least moral compunction have forged ahead spreading their material far and wide. Children have been drawn in and, in many cases, have been abused as a result. Bullying once associated with the school playground now has access to the victims wherever they are via their mobile phones. Terrorist groups spread propaganda, gang culture is promoted, and disinformation undermines our democratic values. Historically governments have shied away from legislating in these areas and instead have relied on companies to self-govern. They have encouraged responsible behaviour but in far too many cases that has not been forthcoming. Currently the printed media and their associated web sites are bound by publishing laws but the same can’t be said for the legion of self-styled commentators on the web. They are not bound by any legal obligation and a loose code of conduct is not adhered to. The balancing act that the government must achieve is to regulate the internet without hindering free speech. The statutory duty of care that is being proposed by the UK Government does not do enough. Any respectable publisher will take full responsibility for its content and not hide behind anonymity. We don’t just need a culture of transparency we need it legally enforced.
In nearly four years at Westminster I have heard a lot of things said that could be described as factually incorrect, fatuous nonsense, egotistical ramblings, misleading mutterings or simply inappropriate chat but this week the Prime Minister’s latest pontifications takes the biscuit. Theresa May said “I cannot commit the Government to delivering the outcome of any votes held by this House.” She made the comment as part of her statement on the European Council Summit and she said it because she knew that a cross party amendment was going to be voted on which would take control of the E.U. withdrawal agenda from the UK Government and would give that control to the MPs. We now have a Prime Minister that doesn’t control her own party or her own government and she doesn’t command the confidence of the House of Commons. She even managed to lose three more ministers in the process. The outcome was that on Wednesday eight amendments were voted on. These were indicative votes designed to better inform the house how a consensus could be agreed. The crushing irony that emerged was that the Prime Minister said, in an attempt to curry favour, she would stand down after her deal got through and therefore trigger a leadership race. But her deal did not get any closer to passing after eight indicative votes were voted down. The only indication we got was that Westminster is in complete disarray. A lot of House business is dictated by and arranged with what is known as ‘the usual sources’. That encompasses whips offices, Speaker’s office and government departments. Last week, that process broke down. Nothing is being scheduled and therefore members can’t be allocated to debates and diaries as well as chamber business is chaotic. My Friday should be in my constituency talking to organisations, companies and individuals. As of half past midnight on the morning of Thursday the 28th, as I write this, I have no idea what business is like for today or Friday. If Friday becomes a sitting day I shall have to cancel all my Friday appointments at a great deal of inconvenience to everyone. This is no way to run a government or parliament. It’s time to man the lifeboats as Westminster weighed down by its own incompetence sinks in the depths of Brexit.
I am writing this at midnight on Tuesday and the latest but not final thrashings of Brexit are just calming down. Nobody was surprised when the Conservative and Unionist United Kingdom Government lost its latest attempt to get a European Union Withdrawal Bill through the House of Commons by a whopping 149 votes. Tomorrow (Wednesday) we will debate the motion to leave without a deal and if that is defeated parliament agree to an extension to Article 50. This will need to be agreed by the European Union. At this point we have 17 days before we are scheduled to leave, we don’t have a deal and the UK Government don’t have a plan. None of this is a surprise. The sheer incompetence of the U.K. Government in dealing with the EU and the devolved administrations is clear for everyone to see. They went into negotiations with a belligerence and arrogance that defies all logic. At the heart of this shambles is the internal ructions of the Conservative and Unionist Party and yet the polling figures show that in England they are ten points ahead of Labour. In Scotland, the SNP is 19 points ahead of Labour. The choice is clear, a U.K. in the control of an incompetent broken Conservative and Unionist Party or an independent Scotland in the European Union.