Herald letter: Answers we know re independence – and those we don’t.

MAGGIE Chetty (Letters, January 30) seeks some answers before a new independence referendum.

Luckily for her, many of these have already been answered. For example, the basis of the calculation of Scottish exports is fully explained in the Scottish Government’s Export Scotland Statistics document, and likewise the nationalist myth of a whisky tax is knocked firmly on the head – again by the Scottish Government – in a specific answer attached to the GERS publication. Both can be found online with a simple search, by the way.

Similarly, the security of a ballot has been well proven by the Electoral Commission following the excellent conduct of the 2014 vote by local authority returning officers, although it is now more likely that any further referendum will stop either side from having the unfair advantage of Yes, which has to be an improvement.

It is also to be welcomed that Ms Chetty requires clarification on the issues of the Scottish currency, security of pensions, and the Scottish economy – don’t we all? The proposition in 2014 would have been ruinous in all of these areas, and so far no progress has been made in any new proposal. Indeed, with the fall in the oil price, the added risks of Brexit, and the continuing crisis in the Eurozone, things look even worse.

Finally, according the current polls, support for a second independence referendum stands at 27 per cent and falling. Who knows, when we know the answers to these questions, more people might even want a second referendum.

Peter A Russell

Poem: America First

A personal view. What it means to me.

America First.

America First is life and liberty
America First is Mohammed Ali and Billie Jean King
And Kate Millett and Malcolm X
America First is Arthur Miller and Harper Lee
And Hawthorn, Mark Twain, Edgar Allen Poe
America First is Walt Whitman and Allen Ginsburg
America First is Sharon Olds and Patti Smith

America First is the pursuit of happiness
America First is Johnny Cash and Elvis
And Muddy, the Wolf and John Lee
America First is Tamla, Stax and Funkadelic
And Hank Williams and Ella Fitzgerald, Cole Porter and Duke Ellington
America First is the Velvet Underground, the Doors, the Stooges
America First is Bruce and Dylan and Woody Guthrie

America First starts with We The People
America First is Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins
America First is FDR and Martin Luther King
America First is the Village, the Haight and the Castro
America First is Woodstock and Wounded Knee
America First is Selma and the Battle of Chicago
America First sings we shall overcome.

Herald letter: Labour MPs should do what is right and vote against Brexit

AN EXAMPLE TO FOLLOW: The late Labour stalwart John Smith defied the whip in 1971 to vote for Britain's accession to the Common Market. Should today's intake also defy their leader?

IN 1971, the father of New Labour, John Smith, led 69 Labour MPs in voting against the whip to support Britain’s accession to the then Common Market.

He did so because he believed that the economic well-being of our country was best served by co-operation with our neighbours. This remains the case.

Today, Parliament faces a vote on the use of Article 50 to start the process of leaving what is now the European Union.

I suggest that MPs examine what they are being asked to vote for and conclude that it is so vague and insubstantial as to not even be worthy of the description of a pig in a poke, and to reject it until a proposal comes forward that proves how Brexit would benefit their constituents.

In short, Labour MPs should simply ask themselves “What would John have done?” and vote against the Brexit Bill, as he would have.

Peter A Russell

Herald Letter:Brexit. (No £wall)

THE Prime Minister’s Brexit speech and the First Minister’s petulant reaction put them on collision course.

There can only be one winner: legislation agreed by our UK parliament and devolution agreed by two referendums (three if you count 1979) suggest that it will be Mrs May. Hopefully Ms Sturgeon will accept the limitations of her position in a UK devolved institution with good grace. Time will tell.

In the meantime, we can ponder just why Ms Sturgeon believes that to leave the EU single market would be “economically catastrophic” but actively seeks to leave the UK single market, which is four times as important to Scottish businesses.

Peter A Russell

What Are We Here For, Brothers And Sisters?

“What are we here for brothers?” So said Ron Todd back in the 1980s.

More recently, the question has been posed now for a number of years by our political commentators: “what is the point of the Scottish Labour Party?”

So let us face it: in Scotland, Labour has had it. Whatever the reason, whoever is to blame, it is all over for the hegemonic, monolithic electoral juggernaut that was Labour in Scotland for seven decades.

I have made it clear that I think Labour itself has brought this about in many ways.

We hid behind First Past The Post for years: I remember Jimmy Allison telling party members “the four party system favour us by splitting the rest”. We kept on doing the same things over and over, even when the population was no longer gravitating around the same communities of interest: trade union, churches, council houses, the co-op. We failed to equip ourselves as a party in government and (especially) in opposition at Holyrood, which we assumed we would govern for ever and a day. We alienated many in the communities we served by not rising above petty disputes and feuds.

We offered the voters second best at the ballot box, and campaigned in prose while the SNP governed in poetry. Above all, we failed to see that the Scottish independence referendum was an opportunity for us, the Labour Party, and that if we failed to take it, the SNP would supplant us culturally as “the party of Scotland.”

That process is now all but complete, and will be finished at the local authority elections in May.

So that is the self-flagellation done. Or nearly, because our catalogue of failure cannot be complete without an account of the failure which is probably most significant and at the same time emblematic of where we went wrong, and where our continuing further difficulties lie: our failure to hold the middle ground.

By the middle ground I do not mean the lowest common denominator or the indecisive: I mean the middle ground under which lies the keystone of Labour’s bridge to a better world. It is the ability to take the best from wherever it is found, and to create a non-dogmatic programme for the benefit of those who need it. So we are responsible for a mixed economy instead of a state-controlled command economy or robber-baron capitalism, and for public services carried out professionals under the control of elected citizens.

Labour is the best of both worlds party: so it is all the more ironic, if not tragic, that our downfall in Scotland came about by first our triumph in delivering the best of both worlds in the form of devolution, and our failure to defend it.

Devolution also has the benefit of being the form of government favoured by the people of Scotland as measured in three referendums, dating back to 1979, but its main value is that allows for a large degree of home rule while retaining the economic security of the broader and bigger UK.  This shown by the cash flows from south to north in the recent years shown in GERS (Government Expenditure and Revenues Scotland.) Like any other part of the UK, we share in the potential to redistribute the tax take from the wealthiest parts of the country to those that are less well-off. (Similarly, when the UK’s offshore oil was being landed in Scotland, the revenues were redistributed to other parts as they needed them.)

The larger and more diverse economy is better able to absorb the shocks of the global economy, but at the same time, a devolved parliament has the powers to spend Scotland’s revenues (including the Barnett Formula top-ups) according to local needs.

It is a simple solution to what was seen as a democratic deficit: the best of both worlds. However, and incredibly, Scottish Labour never succeeded in making the Scots love devolution.

Many were sceptical from the start, and others developed scepticism as they saw their fears realised that Holyrood would actually take powers away from more local levels of government. Labour’s personnel at Holyrood did not help: the public held Donald Dewar in affection and he was widely and sincerely mourned, but there has no such warmth towards any other Labour figure since: Henry McLeish, anyone?

Or how many people love the building, despite its vast and uncontrolled costs? The SNP saw the lack of love for Holyrood and snapped it up as an opportunity, introducing policies like free prescriptions and claiming others like free university tuition as their own. In other words, they marketed Holyrood – but in their own image, as the halfway house on the road to independence that it was never meant to be, and certainly not by Donald Dewar.

So Labour allowed the devolved arrangements to be painted as not the best of both worlds, but as second best, and pleasing no-one. Holyrood was designed to be the best form of government available to Scots, instead we have allowed it become regarded as a stepping stone to independence, and second best to both nationalists or unionists.  So by the time the 2014 referendum came round, the No campaign, and Scottish Labour as part of it, was all but apologising for our own achievement, conceding that more powers were needed and promising them.

And so the effect has been devastating. We cannot be either the champions of the union or of independence, as those two positions are well-filled by the Tories and the SNP respectively, and we have abandoned arguing the merits of devolution. This is a truly dreadful place to be politically, made worse by the outcome of the Brexit referendum. We are stranded in the middle in a politics now increasingly defined as being about competing nationalisms. Our call for federalism is welcome, but belated.

It would be easy to call a plague on both their houses, and it is here that the question is posed: what are we here for?  The answer lies not in any certain future, but in its very uncertainty.

In a recent blog, Ian Smart wrote honestly and perceptively that Nobody has a clue. That includes me, but I do know what I believe. Which is that Labour offers the best solutions to the constant and increasing stresses of the world because our solutions are collective solutions; that the only way to govern those collective decisions is through the democratic process; and that the messy, inefficient and deeply human process we know as social democracy is needed now more than ever.

I believe in what it says on my Labour Party membership card, that “by the strength of our common endeavour we achieve more than we achieve alone”.  I am also of the opinion that our politics have been hollowed-out  – it is a discourse where internet hearsay has greater currency than academic fact, flags matter more than food on the table and the likes of Trump, Farage and Sturgeon can con great swathes of population who seem not to care that they are purveyors of massive falsehoods.

In such circumstances, it is vital that those of us who believe in truth and solidarity and in evidence-based policy and politics stick around. There is a place for us in all sorts of collective forums, online and in our communities and our workplaces, in trade unions, in newspapers, in credit unions, as local candidates.

We may not win immediately, or ever. Labour might become a 20% party or 10% party like some of our sister parties. But when it is very dark, those who can shine a light have duty to do so. And then the good times might just come back.

But in what form that might be, I haven’t a clue.

Writer As Liar – My Debt To Guido Almansi

I had a shock a few months ago in a discussion with a poetry tutor. She told me that in her time at university as an undergraduate, what was taught was in strict adherence to the classic post-Leavis canon of English literature. As she is a bit younger than me, it was an eye-opener to hear such a tale of enforced orthodoxy, but it did ring true when I cast my mind to life back then in the 1970s.

In my final year of study, I frequently visited my then girlfriend (now wife) at her university. She was at Edinburgh studying German and I was at the UEA in Norwich studying Comparative Literature with German, and in that area where our studies overlapped, the two curricula were quite different.

The Edinburgh course was soundly anchored on the foundation of Mittelhochdeutsch and classical German literature. The UEA course, on the other hand, had offered the gateways of genre and literary/aesthetic movements into the German literary canon: in my case leading to finals papers in Tragedy and Modernism respectively: so these offered not only Goethe and Lessing, but also Brecht, Wedekind and Peter Weiß, and Musil, Rilke, Grass and Kafka. So it is and was hard to judge between the two – but they were certainly different.

The UEA also offered a German faculty that included W.G. Sebald, at that time not a published novelist (I knew him slightly as “Max” and he recommended several good Bavarian beers to me).  Indeed, in each area of my studies, the UEA had appeared to have gone out of its way to attract new voices into its faculty, with the other part of Comparative Literature in English and American Studies including Malcolm Bradbury. It was known that lots of his colleagues tried to identify themselves as Howard “History Man” Kirk, although to me, it seems like he was a composite: one man’s SWP politics mixed with another’s womanising and so on…

But for me the academic personality who summed up the spirit of the Comp Lit Sector (pointedly, not a department) was the new Professor who joined as my second year started, announced by one of the tutors as “an amazing character” (which indeed he was) – Guido Almansi, previously of Glasgow, Kent and Dublin Universities, rotund, full of joie de vivre, expansive, unorthodox and indeed iconoclastic.

I took several of his courses.  His subjects included the erotic novel and nonsense literature. Set books included Lewis Carroll, Henry Miller, Edward Lear, Nabokov, Christian Morgenstern, Phillip Roth, Raymond Queneau, James Joyce, Leonard Cohen and Samuel Beckett.  He railed against the humourlessness of D.H. Lawrence and challenged his students: “I am teaching you about literature that literally sets out to mean nothing – this goes against everything you have been taught in high school.”

The lesson for us was that in literature no subject is out of bounds, from literally nonsense right through to the obscene and transgressive. Here is what he has to say on that subject in one of his remaining critical works:

“Havelock Ellis…always mainitained … that great literary masterpieces deal openly and objectively with sexual issues. Probably he has a different list of literary master pieces than I do, for mine would include….” [Guido then goes on to list a string of what he accurately describes as “the most unusual and remarkable sexual excesses.”}

For what Guido really hated, and he makes it clear in the same critical work, and is the difference between the erotic and the pornographic, was writing that was boring.

Writing on Boccaccio, he says: “Fortunately, Boccaccio is not monotonous, for when he is obscene, he has the courage of his own obscenity.”

The name of the work on Boccaccio is also a great signal to Guido’s aesthetic:  The Writer As Liar. It is a remarkable book, which takes on centuries of Boccaccio studies head on, starting with references to Dante and rapidly bringing us to Winnie The Pooh and conventions of narrative voices.

The message is to use words to create what you want, to defy the truth, to defy convention and decency –  but don’t be dull whatever you do. For Almansi, Henry Miller at his best had passed the test, while D.H. Lawrence had failed and betrayed what he had set out to champion.

To me as a willing but naïve undergraduate from a very unliterary background, he was generous and helpful. He praised my translation of a poem by Morgenstern and said he would credit me if he used it in a book (I never knew if he did.) He stopped me in the Comp Lit Sector corridor one day and told me how interested he had been in the ideas in my essay. He never marked me down for references to beat poets, popular culture or rock and roll lyrics – as long as they were relevant and interesting.

He was just as generous with his social life. As a genuine bon viveur, he held great parties for all his students, where he served huge bowls of pasta and lots of good Italian wine. He also made a big deal of real Parmesan cheese, in two ways: he insisted that he had to bring it back in his suitcase every time he came back from Italy, this being Norwich in 1975; and he always invited the prettiest female students to the kitchen to help him by grating it. It was dodgy, but in character.

After the UEA, Guido went back to Italy, and became the Literary Editor of La Repubblica and in that capacity I saw him pop up on the old Late Review show, I think explaining his preference for Jay MacInerney over Brett Easton Ellis. Some of his articles are now online, notably an a review of Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber and an interview with Edward Said on his seminal Orientalism in the Literary Review  (paywall)

Guido Almansi died in 2001, aged 70, in Ticino, the Italian speaking canton of Switzerland. His literary interests were vast, his intellectual curiosity was even bigger, and his appetite for life was bigger still. He made me the reader I am today, for which I will always be in his debt. If I can write something he would have liked, so much the better. And I will try not to be boring.

Thanks Guido. And that’s not a word of a lie.

Herald letter: not the usual…

ALISON Rowat refers in her article (“Scottish Labour: Too feart to change and too stubborn to die”, The Herald, January 4) to a Fabian Society report which outlines the parliamentary arithmetic whereby the next General Election could lead to a government formed by an alliance between Labour and other parties – including the SNP.

Such a development would be welcome to many of us on the left and centre of politics – as long as the SNP gives up on independence.

Indeed, it ought to be possible to foresee a formal coalition, with SNP MPs taking places in the Government, in both the Scotland Office and in further all-UK departments. In contrast with their colleagues in the Holyrood government, some of the current crop of Nationalists at Westminster have shown that they might be perfectly adequate ministers: we can imagine Stephen Gethins on the EU at the FCO, and Alison Thewliss at Work and Pensions (following her work on the Rape Clause), and perhaps Tommy Sheppard at Defence, considering his former career in the multilateralist Labour Party. Likewise, a ministerial position for Mhairi Black would expose whether she has the substance to match her juvenile rhetoric.

It is even tempting to see the SNP becoming a sub-national junior partner for Labour: a centre-left equivalent to the arrangement in Germany between the CDU and the Bavarian CSU. However, there are two barriers to this progressive outcome, one of which could be overcome, and the other of which would be less tractable.

The first problem is that we cannot expect people in the other parts of the UK to be happy to be governed by a Scotland-only party: they could not vote for it, and thereby hold it to account at the ballot box. This might be overcome by standing on a common manifesto at the subsequent election, making the two parties effectively a single proposition to voters across the whole UK.

The second problem is that the SNP would necessarily be required to surrender its commitment to Scottish independence – ultimately, it would be perverse in the extreme to allow into the government of a nation state a party which is committed to the destruction of that very same state (in this case the UK).

To take this step, the SNP would also of course finally conform with the wishes of the Scottish electorate as seen in the outcome of the 2014 referendum. Regrettably, however, it also seems impossible given its proven propensity to put a dogmatic pursuit of independence above the wishes and the pragmatic interests of the people of Scotland.

Peter A Russell