We are told we can’t all achieve greatness, not all of us get to walk in space or sing at the Albert Hall. The question is what stops us? Nature or nurture? Opportunity and circumstance? I wasn’t blessed with a great singing voice (or any singing voice for that matter) so achieving success through vocal dexterity was always unlikely. I was reminded of this when I recently went to see Bob Dylan. I am sure when the young Robert first croaked out a song nobody, not even he, thought he would go on to sell over 100 million records. If he had allowed himself to be put off by all the negativity he would never have sung another song. Instead he became a global musical icon and gave pleasure and hope to all of us that never made the school choir. History is littered with such examples, from the Wright brothers to Thomas Edison.
When we set out to build something we can’t be afraid of failure. It’s a down side of our culture that failure often attracts ridicule, which, in turn, discourages others from trying and the first tentative step to achievement is never taken. The twist is that the power then stays with the detractors. As we try to create we shall make mistakes. Winston Churchill once said “perfection is the enemy of progress”.
The naysayers, the boo boys, the purveyors of relentless negativity always revert to the same logic, they claim they are just being realistic. But they have other traits. They only see the obstacles, they manage but they don’t define and they never have a dream of their own.
So, to those people that are trying to invigorate and regenerate Inverclyde. To those who believe we must do better I salute you and promise to do everything I can to help. To the others, as Bob Dylan said “don’t criticise what you can’t understand”. Maybe if this politics thing doesn’t work out I will brush up my application to NASA.
With President Trump now saying he may reconsider his decision to withdraw American from the climate change agreement at Paris it is interesting and encouraging to see how many Americans are buying into climate change and doing something about it. Despite their Presidents sceptical approach many American towns and cities have embarked on programmes to create 100% renewable energy systems. Burlington in Vermont (population of 42,000) has already achieved this through hydroelectric schemes. The entire state of Vermont is aiming for 90% renewables by 2050.
Imagine that a hydroelectric scheme providing all the electricity required for a town with the population of 42,000. If only we didn’t allow Inverclyde’s abundant water supply to be wasted year in year out. We talk about it and to be more precise we pay lip service to it but we never actually hitch our wagon to this splendid natural resource and do something about it. In Las Vegas all municipal buildings are powered 100% by renewable energy. When an administration has the foresight to lead by example it makes it much easier to encourage commercial enterprise to do the same. Many companies and individuals would buy into such schemes but the UK Government is not interested and Scottish Government has room for improvement. I note that homes being built by River Clyde Homes beside the Gourock rope works have solar panels and I would hope all new builds in Inverclyde, homes, businesses and public buildings would be required to fulfil ambitious environmental targets both in their build and in their own energy generation capabilities. We have the capabilities within Inverclyde and we shouldn’t be afraid to lead.
The Welsh Government implemented a soft opt-out policy for organ donation in 2015. The Scottish Government has recently indicated it will do the same. When I asked the Secretary of State for Health in the Westminster parliament if he would do the same, I got an encouraging response.
The Scottish government has also said it is working towards legalising cannabis for medical purposes. A group of Cross party MPs and Members of the House of Lords are actively encouraging Westminster to do the same. Although I applaud both policies I am frustrated that Westminster, which sees itself as the mother of Parliaments is slow to lead. There is so much good it could do, such as the Nordic model on prostitution, Fixed Odds Betting Terminals (FOBTs) set at a maximum of £2 a spin, a Universal Basic Income, to name just three. But Westminster is stuck in a state of paralysis, incapable of moving forward for fear of letting go of the past. This happens when your establishment is so rooted in history and rigid conformation. It is the 21st century and only this week were men allowed to ask a question in the House of Commons chamber while not wearing a tie. The world is changing quicker than it has ever changed before and governments have to start acknowledging that and adapting their working models and systems of government to reflect that. Citizen’s assemblies and greater spending power at local government level could encourage and engage more people and lead to policy changes that are proactive and empowering but for that to happen central government has to be brave and confident and at this time Westminster is neither.
Occasionally, I find myself guilty of referring to politics as “this game”. It’s an easy mistake to make because it’s competitive, there are rules and there are winners and losers but it’s not a game. That would be too trivial a description. This was made crystal clear during the recent General Election when ninety one MPs lost their jobs. The media pontificated at length about who would retain their seat but didn’t give a passing moments thought to the MPs staff members whose jobs were also on the line. In the end around four hundred also lost their jobs. It’s particularly cruel this time around as Parliament was convened on the understanding that it was for a fixed term of five years. Across the U.K. people made life choices based on the known facts and then Theresa May rampaged through them. What I found distressing was the glee with which these job losses were received by those not affected. Labour activists cheering a Tory win because Alex Salmond lost. My own staff being asked at the count “what will it be like when you lose your job on Monday?” The dehumanising of people in public service is not a new thing but the advent of reality TV and social media has encouraged everybody to express their opinion, no matter how ill-informed or spiteful it is. We all sit in judgement, often from the comfort of our own homes, wielding a keyboard and too often we are quick to judge.
The public image of politicians with jobs to fall back on and expense accounts dripping with expensive lunches, living the high life, isn’t one I recognise. I lost good colleagues, many that gave up careers or took a drop in salary to get elected. I know too many of their staff too well to not recognise their hurt at being discarded with the minimum of redundancy. Politics has its fat cats, I don’t doubt it. But the majority of MPs are only in their post for a short period and their mortgages and bills require paying regardless. Their parliamentary staff serve the public, they work long hours, often under difficult circumstances, they don’t judge and they don’t discriminate. They have earned respect. The day we take the humanity out of politics, that’s when we reduce it to a game and that’s the day we all lose.
This shall be my last column (hopefully just for a short while) because as of midnight on Tuesday 2nd May I cease being an MP. Theresa May in her haste to protect Conservative MPs that are under scrutiny for election fraud, combined with political opportunism to kill off the divided and rudderless Labour Party has called a General Election. I have every intention of winning the Inverclyde seat back but I would like to take this opportunity to thank everyone in the local community for their incredible support over the last two years. Businesses, organisations, private and public have been open and honest with me and I have responded accordingly. The frustration now is that the rug has been pulled from under my feet and the working relationship we have created must now be put on hold. They say a week is a long time in politics and it can be, but two years can be too short when we are trying to move mountains. My short term in office has been based around constituents. Issues you have brought to me have become campaigns I have promoted. The casework my team have taken on has been at the heart of everything we do. Every case won, every constituent we have helped has been a victory. So if the electorate will it, we shall speak again. Whatever the outcome, it has been a huge privilege to serve you and an opportunity I would not have missed for the world.
On Monday evening I attended a lecture by Brett Hennig on a Citizen’s Assembly. The idea is that a second chamber would be randomly selected from the population and employed for two years to produce legislation. It is not as radical as it sounds and similar ideas are in practice in Australia and the Netherlands. And it is not such a new idea as it was widely used in ancient Greece. Personally I can’t see it at a national level as it creates one of the fundamental problems it is trying to solve. The audience on Monday universally hated politicians, especially middle aged men. I have had more comfortable evenings.
One problem with any national chamber is that the members, who would be pulled from all over Scotland, would need to travel to and live in Glasgow for at least three days a week, just as happens at Holyrood and Westminster. That makes it less appealing to people with a young family and single parents. Therefore, the demography of the people that is required to create a representative cross section of society is immediately reduced and you end up with people who are better placed to travel and live away from home, namely middle aged men. If the concept of a citizen’s assembly was applied at a more local level it becomes more practical. Twenty people that represent a cross section of Inverclyde employed for two years to address the issues that affect Inverclyde in a non-political non-partisan way. They would then report to the local council with guidance from experts. Whether it is national or local there are a range of ideas that need sorted but it’s a hugely interesting concept around giving citizens a voice in the sort of country they want to live in.
On Wednesday Theresa May (Prime Minister of the United Kingdom) triggered Article 50. This sets in motion the process by which the United Kingdom shall leave the European Union. The agreed timescale is 24 months but at this moment nothing else is agreed.
First the UK Government must agree an agenda with the EU and then they must negotiate the UKs exit. This throws up a multitude of constitutional questions and a myriad of trade and legal implications. As Nicola Sturgeon (First Minister of Scotland) said on Tuesday, “we do know that the change will be significant and profound.” But, “When the nature of the change made inevitable by Brexit becomes clear, it should not be imposed upon us. Let me be clear. I want the UK to get a good deal from these negotiations – whatever path Scotland takes in the future, that is in our interests. I simply want Scotland to have a choice when the time is right.” And that to me is at the heart of any future debate.
The UK voted to leave the EU, Scotland did not. Once we know the terms and conditions that are going to be imposed on Scotland, the people of Scotland must have the democratic right to choose the path they want for their country. But first we must know what effect leaving the EU will have on local businesses, on tourists arriving on cruise ships, on students studying abroad, on Scots living in EU countries and on EU immigrants living in Scotland. Over the next two years or so we will have that debate and as the First Minister said “let us start today as we mean to go on – positively, passionately and respectfully”.
The Brexit process of scrutiny which involves the legislation being hammered out between the House of Commons and House of Lords didn’t take very long at all. The process known as ping pong was completed within a few hours and article 50 was put on a plate just waiting for the Prime Minister, Theresa May, to serve it. Earlier on Monday, in Bute House, Scotland’s First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, had made it crystal clear that once the details of Brexit were known, the people of Scotland shall have the opportunity to vote in a second independence referendum. Given the timescale allowed for negotiations and ratification, it is fair to say that the referendum will be between autumn 2018 and spring 2019.
We don’t know what the constitutional situation will be in Ireland by then and what border will exist between Gibraltar and Spain. The United Kingdom government has manoeuvred itself into one unholy mess and I can guarantee you they will try everything they can to keep Scotland in the UK. Last time we were made promises that were not kept. We were told if we stayed in the UK it would protect our place in the EU, we did, and it didn’t. We were told we would be amongst the most powerful devolved governments in the world. We aren’t.
Day in day out, away from the public ear, I hear Members of the UK government talk reasonably about a range of subjects. But this falls apart when it comes to Scotland’s independence. They plead their love for Scotland. They holiday in Scotland. They own homes in Scotland. They and their offspring have or do gain from further education in Scotland’s universities. They love Scotland so much they want to keep it. I love Scotland so much, I want to set it free.
For some time now I have been saying that the welfare system is not fit for purpose. It puts unnecessary strain on those who rely on it and those that administer it. That relationship is a difficult one and was highlighted in the Ken Loach movie ‘I Daniel Blake’. Building a good working relationship between jobcentre staff and service users is a difficult and often arduous task, so it doesn’t help when politicians ride rough shod through the arena with scant regard for the compassion required or sensitivity of the subject. The most recent example of a complete lack of understanding of the situation and indeed the injustice being perpetrated on the most vulnerable section of our society was the abhorrent view expressed by Tory MP and head of the Number 10 Policy Unit George Freeman. The UK government has announced emergency legislation to change PIPs, which replaced Disability Living Allowance, and overturn two tribunal rulings last year which it claims would have added £3.7bn to the benefits bill by 2023. The support was designed to help people cope with the extra costs of living with ill health or disability. Mr Foreman said the most recent changes would ensure that benefits went to people who are “really disabled” rather than people “who suffer from anxiety”. I sometimes wonder what the Tories say in private if they are comfortable making statements such as that in public. For a Tory MP and one of Theresa May’s most senior advisers to suggest that people with a mental health disability are not “really disabled” is completely unacceptable. His words also highlight this Tory government’s total lack of understanding or compassion when it comes to providing for those who are less fortunate than others. Mental health issues are as real as physical disability. Neither should be treated lightly. One in four people in the United Kingdom will experience a mental health issue each year. Not all will be debilitating but it’s foolish to dismiss these issues and callas to class the most severe as not really disabled.
George Orwell’s novel, 1984, presents a dystopian future where news is altered and fabricated to promote the message that the governing body wishes to be heard. People are constantly on their guard due to Government surveillance. The citizens are always being asked to accept less freedom and less money, so that the ongoing war against some unknown enemy that threatens their very existence can be fought. Questioning the evidence or strategy is treason and punishable by death. People are ruled by fear and distrust of their fellow human beings. It’s a powerful story that was written in 1948, just as we entered the Cold War. Orwell’s ability to see the big picture of control by fear is writ large on every page. I have no doubt it is one of the greatest books of our time. And in our time both fake news and post-truth politics are rife. The art of subterfuge and spin have become the norm. Doublethink and newspeak permeate our media and lives. And where does this leave the electorate, the citizens, the proles? Disenfranchised, disillusioned and decidedly hacked off with the media, governments and politicians. And ironically that plays into the hands of those that Orwell described as Big Brother. With that in mind it is vital that we encourage our media to report honestly and openly without risk of retribution and politicians must fulfil their duty to shine a light on injustice and persecution. With that in mind I am delighted to see that 1984 is back in the top ten sellers list. My own copy is a bit battered so I shall order two new ones. One for me to re-read (to keep me honest) and one for the White House and hope somebody can read it to President Trump.