Minority Report

How Theresa May must wish she had had the services of an accurate prial of precogs to draw on before announcing the snap general election of June 2017.  They might have warned her that she would end up stood on a platform alongside diverse other candidates such as the new Sith Apprentice Lord Buckethead (God bless you British democracy), her expression as cracked and broken as her mandate as the results rolled in from around the country.  Her party’s defenestration of the SNP’s upper echelons counted for next to nothing – those gains had been secured by the efforts of Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson in spite of the glaringly awful campaign conducted by the Prime Minister.  This was, in my experience, the worst ever campaign fought by a sitting UK Government, and an amazing display of ineptitude by the Conservative Party.  It is hard to live up to the ‘strong and stable’ tagline when a key manifesto commitment is shredded within 24 hours of launch and you absent yourself from the bearpit of televised debate while occasionally sending surrogates to fight your corner.  Weak, weak, weak.

In Scotland the SNP were left licking some very deep wounds, having also stumbled their way through a shockingly bad campaign.  Nicola Sturgeon entrusted the campaign to her Cabinet Secretary for Finance Derek Mackay, and he delivered a plate of stovies so devoid of meat and moisture it sat in Scottish bellies like a heavy dod of stodge.  The presidential style campaigning of 2015, when the SNP were carried along by the wave of defeated 45ers, was repeated with the same vacuous straplines and another helicopter tour for the First Minister.  The Nicolopter in 2015 conjured images of a benevolent, caring Mother Sturgeon spreading her good cheer via endless selfies; in 2017 it made flesh Tracy Ullman’s superb satirical take on the First Minister.  The SNP’s campaign was negative and petulant.  It is hardly aspirational to meet criticisms of your handling of public services with “Yeah, we know they’re not great but they’re better than England’s or Wales'” – especially when evidence says otherwise.  Nor is it advisable for politicians to trigger witch hunt smears against public sector workers when they speak out, yet that is exactly what Jeane Freeman MSP and Joanna Cherry MP did when a nurse directly challenged the First Minister on national television.  In doing so the SNP revealed some of the bitter, tribal hatred that can develop when your Cult of the Leader strategy fails.

Her face no longer features on campaign literature

If all this was meant to mask Sturgeon’s self inflicted position of constant pivoting on EU membership, as well as the ‘we will, we won’t’ approach to indyref2, it did exactly the opposite.  The Scottish voters exacted a grievous toll of talent from the SNP’s Westminster group.  Alex Salmond may be well past his prime but he carries legendary status in the hearts of devout nationalists.  Angus Robertson, the party’s deputy leader and Westminster group leader, has been a standout performer in the House of Commons.  Both are now considering their future as the SNP’s northeast redoubt crumbled.  Lesser known names such as Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh and Steven Paterson fell as Conservative blue filled in central belt constituencies for the first time in decades.  The electoral fates are not without a sense of humour, though.  Just as the talent was being stripped from the SNP benches, their Bontempi organ bothering court jester Pete Wishart survived in Perth and North Perthshire by a handful of votes.

The SNP’s hegemony has been built on the back of a politics largely devoid of principle, seeking only to capture voters for their independence project.  The universalism of ‘free stuff’ (paid for by the Barnett Formula, remember) has proven hugely popular, as has their shameless caricaturing of the Scottish Labour Party as Red Tories based on that party’s decision to support remaining a part of the United Kingdom.  Finally that caricature has been crushed.  Jeremy Corbyn defied all expectations (including my own) by fighting a remarkably tight, coherent, and upbeat campaign.  He grew with the campaign and emerged, whilst not a victor, with a degree of personal credibility that seemed impossible only weeks ago.  I cannot look past his dubious history nor his Marxist politics, which I do not care for or share.  But he connected.  Labour secured 41% of the vote across the UK to the Tories 44%.  He has ended Conservative majority government, and it is highly likely that June will be the end of May.

“Jeremy, how will you convince Nicola to nationalise ScotRail?”

Not only that, he has re-energised the Labour brand in Scotland.  The first sign of this came early on Friday morning as my own constituency, Rutherglen and Hamilton West, made its declaration.  Margaret Ferrier who gained it for the SNP in 2015 with a majority of 9,975 was defeated by Labour’s Ged Killen by 265 votes.  Across Glasgow and the West, the SNP majorities of 2015 were hacked up, and while they retained most of these seats, they will look at the remaining majorities with some trepidation.  Labour regained East Lothian, Midlothian, Kirkcaldy, Glasgow NE, Coatbridge, and now have the biggest Scottish majority of any seat in Edinburgh South.  Corbyn’s campaign has given Scottish Labour a kickstart, despite the somewhat ill fitting dovetail between himself and Kezia Dugdale.  Labour moderates will find they have little choice but to follow Corbyn’s path for at least one more electoral cycle; already the signs are there that this is starting to happen.  Dugdale would not be drawn on her previous views on Corbyn.

Even the Liberal Democrats tasted success against the luminous yellow horde.  They claimed three SNP scalps, in particular depriving the SNP of the political embarrassments that are Paul Monaghan and John Nicolson.  Monaghan is the Russian TV devotee who seemed to think he was playing the part of some Bond villain KGB member.  Nicolson was half of the witch hunt against then STV journalist Stephen Daisley; curious to see an ex-journalist attempting to restrict freedom of speech.  Their third gain of the evening came in the hotly contested constituency of Edinburgh West, where they consigned Toni Giugliano to his second defeat in two years.

Where to now for Scotland?  It is really difficult to say.  May’s calculated gamble has failed on one front but succeeded on another, albeit in spite of her efforts.  She took out the SNP’s Westminster talent but left herself exposed to Corbyn’s unexpected campaigning vim.  The SNP claimed victory but certainly haven’t given the appearance of being winners.  Sturgeon faces a difficult choice.  Indyref2 has proven to be a vote loser at the ballot box, but there is a question of timing here.  Some Yes voters have deserted the SNP at Westminster; this does not mean they have necessarily changed their minds on independence.  For the time being, Sturgeon could remove indyref2 from the table, preferring to play the waiting game while events unfold at Westminster and Brussels.  She would risk alienating her party fundamentalists, but the only other choice is to go all in, continue to push for indyref2 despite voter opposition to it and risk losing the farm.  The clock is ticking on what she claims is her Holyrood mandate for indyref2 and there is the possibility of another general election very soon.  The Tories might not threaten her in many more seats but Scottish Labour are now breathing down her neck in their old heartlands.  There are dangers every way she looks.  She will need every ounce of her political talent to navigate these choppy waters, and momentum is not on her side.

Technicolor Dreamcoat. Note: subject to possibly rapid change

A lot of water could flow under the bridge very quickly.  Brexit negotiations are due to begin soon and the stability of Conservative minority government propped up by DUP votes remains highly questionable.  Tory discipline will need to be watertight to sustain such an arrangement, and MPs are furious at the failure of their party’s campaign.  Minority government is unusual but not impossible at Westminster, though it has its pitfalls (ask Nick Clegg).  But Tory splits between Leave and Remain might, as has historically been the case, throw a spanner in the works.  Ruth Davidson is already deploying her enhanced political capital with suggestions that the Brexit deal sought needs to be revisited.  May called an election with the intent of securing a strong mandate to see the UK through the Brexit process.  Instead she has created an almighty boorach.  Will Brexit now mean Brexit?  What sort of continental breakfast are we about to be served?

“Where there is discord, may we bring more discord… eh… dammit, that’s not right…”  *exits stage left*


Caledonia’s Playground

It sits right on most of our doorsteps.  We see it from a distance, clad in snow contrasted with the sharpest of azure skies or (as is much more common) shrouded in swirling mist, summits lost above a frustratingly low cloudline.  Many of us dabble with it occasionally, panting and peching our way along well travelled paths before peeling the tinfoil from the cheese rolls and digging out the Ribena from the bottom of our rucksacks.  Cameras click on iPhones, stills and videos fill up our iCloud storage waiting to be shared on social media so the world can be in no doubt that, on this day, you were there.  You stepped out into Caledonia’s Playground and made it back alive.  I am of course referring to Scotland’s glens, hills, and mountains.  The Great Outdoors that surrounds us, binds us, holds the Galaxy together.  Or something.

I was never a natural hillman.  I possibly should have been.  I was born in Stirling and lived my entire childhood in the Hillfoots.  Alva sits in the shadow of the Ochil Hills, the eastern half of the town below the hill locally known as Torry, while the western half is faced with the grim bastion that is Craigleith.  Running between these two is the Carnaughton Burn, which falls gracefully about halfway down in a feature known locally as the Mare’s Tail – suitably impressive when in spate.  Craigleith in particular had a fearsome reputation amongst the kids in the town; a classmate’s sister had ventured directly up the front of it before falling to her death.  Getting up to the summits of these two was left to the Hill Racers in the annual endurance race held as a part of the famous Alva Games.  Competitors came from all over Scotland and the UK to take part, while we local kids focused our attention on the shows.  We fired as many 10p pieces as we could scrounge into the arcade games and bandits, sharing the odd cheeky cigarette and candyfloss while our parents sat sipping from hip flasks on the hellishly uncomfortable wooden rails put up annually for the Games.

The most prominent hill from Alva is probably Dumyat.  It sits about three miles west of Alva and is one of the smallest in the Ochils but by virtue of its isolation is visible for miles around from all parts of the compass.  It was Dumyat that drew me into hillwalking and it’s a hill I’ve revisited many times.  The views from its curious kettle cap summit are simply wonderful.  The whole of the Devon and Forth valleys are visible, taking in the view all the way from the bridges at Queensferry past the Wallace Monument and across to the Campsies.  Looking further west and north reveals the start of the Southern Highlands: Ben Lomond, Ben Ledi, Ben More and Stob Binnein, with Stuc a’ Chroin and Ben Vorlich completing the vista.  And all this for a leisurely hour’s walk.  Dumyat rewards the walker handsomely.

This is the beauty of walking in Scotland.  There is so much variety, from the size of the challenge to its accessibility.  When I started in my early twenties, I climbed with my cousin and occasionally we would be joined by my uncle, his dad.  The two of them had been out in the hills from an early age unlike myself, so I had a pair of old hands to rely on for advice.  Other than walking locally in the Ochils, they had plenty of Munros (Scottish mountains over 3000ft) under their belts and it was through climbing with them that I got bitten by the Munro bagging bug.  It is a debt I can never repay.  From topping Dumyat, to my first camping trip in the far north in the wilds of Coigach, to my first Munros (Conival and Ben More Assynt) took less than two months.  That first trip set the tone and from there we took every available opportunity to get away into the hills.  A typical Saturday could see us hitting the road at 6am, which put us in easy striking distance of ranges as far afield as the Mamores, the hills of Glen Coe and Appin, and the Cairngorms.  If the weather forecast for Sunday was favourable, we’d plan to climb on that day too.  If it wasn’t, we’d grab a fish supper from the Ben Ledi café in Callander, sprint home for a shower and shave before hitting the pubs in Stirling.  A full day’s climbing and a full night’s bevvying together would ensure Sunday was written off.  The summer months were the prize time though.  Trips of up to a fortnight were planned, with a brutal climbing itinerary that was often way too ambitious.  Inevitably we’d settle into a rhythm of two days climbing, one day off, and repeat until it was time to head home.  Accommodation was primarily canvas but I remember one year where having worked every overtime shift available for a month we booked a self catering flat in Ullapool for a week.  This bourgeois betrayal was very much a one off but what a difference it was to wake up with home comforts and cooked breakfasts.

You remember the hills but you also remember the craic.  The sheer sense of achievement and the camaraderie that is forged through the shared endeavour of long hours in the wild, particularly in winter when days can take on an expedition feeling.  The almost fantasy film beauty of Scotland and the unremitting savagery of so much of its landscape, a scenic character that too many of its people miss out on.  The wild camping, the campfires, the feeling of living rough off the land even if you are heating up a tin of Heinz beans and sausages for your evening meal.  Sitting out at 3am under a clear night sky looking up at the stars, your senses somehow cleansed of the background noise and incessant traffic rumble that comes with living in a city.  The nirvana that is finding a clear, cold stream in which to bathe your feet and fill your bottle from on a hot summer’s day (just not in that order).  And the social life of the camping trips away: hitting the local pub or hotel, taking the money off the locals on the pool table and chatting up the talent.  The days on the hills brought their own vitality, rewarding the effort expended with a spiritual rejuvenation.

It’s probably ten years or so since I last climbed a hill.  My wife and I climbed a few Munros together before we married, but that was it.  Ben Vane in the Arrochar Alps was our last climb, the cramp that gripped my left calf on the descent the first real hint of what was to come.  And ten years on I now race about in an electric wheelchair, motor neurones dead and dying while the brain remembers.  We have a young family and all the joys, hopes and fears that go with parenthood.  We have a new addition in the shape of our year old Labrador, Dexter.  Life is busy and the thought of climbing a hill has never seemed further away.  But every so often I see something (today it was a picture on Twitter) that brings all the memories of Caledonia’s Playground flooding back.  Every so often I hear the sound of vibram sole on rock, in my mind’s eye I can see those glorious views.  And I think about how I can encourage my family to get out there, start small, and go explore.

If you’ve never gone walking or climbing in Scotland, it’s never too late to start.  Take the right kit, wear the right gear, learn how to use a map and compass, and get out there.  Just wait till next year though.  The skies might be safe then.

Tsunami becalmed

Another election in Scotland, therefore another yellow spring tide, right?

The Westminster and Holyrood elections of 2015 and 2016 saw the SNP successfully converting Yes voters into SNP voters, and the results were spectacular.  56 of Scotland’s 59 Westminster seats returned nationalist MPs.  The SNP saw a tiny uptick in their constituency vote share in 2016 vs 2015’s first past the post share, but were unable to repeat their 2011 feat of a Holyrood majority.  That aside surely the council elections of 2017 would see the SNP, as they put it in their local election appeal leaflet, “complete the set”?

Well, kind of.  But certainly not in the manner they expected, or wanted.

If you mixed these colours, we’d have a lot of Greens, right?

That the SNP won the council elections in Scotland is not in doubt.  They won the most seats, and are the largest party on more councils than any other party.  This is being touted as a “clear and emphatic” victory.  But the mood yesterday, especially on Twitter where the SNP dominate with their spinners and cybernat activists, was very different.  There was little of the triumphalism that accompanied the crushing election victories of the two previous years.  Instead, a sense of frustration and a touch of salt could be detected.  By the early evening, some blistering attacks on fellow Scots were being tweeted.  In this respect sadly, some things haven’t changed.  The SNP won, they will have enjoyed a few drinks to celebrate but I suspect behind closed doors there will be some serious analysis of their strategy.

I’m sure SNP expectations were high – very high.  Why wouldn’t they be?  When you batter the opposition twice in two years, especially your ancient and traditional enemy (that’s Scottish Labour, by the way, not the Conservatives) then you’re surely entitled to serious optimism about your prospects.  The big prize for the SNP – the jackpot, three bars on the puggie – was Glasgow City Council.  Confident boasts that ‘the Red Citadel will fall’ were left looking a little overdone as the results started to filter in.  Early indications from around Scotland were that the SNP were treading water, Scottish Labour were putting up a surprisingly decent fight, and the LibDem fightback seemed to have stalled.  The biggest news of course were the Tory gains, which unusually were not limited to rural areas.  

In the end, the big winner was NOC – no overall control, which turned out to be the result for every one of Scotland’s 32 councils (unless you think Independents is a party).  The SNP supplanted Scottish Labour as the largest party on Glasgow City Council but did not secure overall control, and even more surprisingly they lost overall control of Dundee as a result of Conservative and LibDem gains.  Given these two cities voted Yes in 2014, that surely came as a blow.  Expectation management seems to have been a little bit off.  The usual flood of infographics from official SNP Twitter accounts was absent – the impression given of a triumphalist narrative being hastily discarded whilst a positive spin was sought for an unexpected result.  Sturgeon eventually hove in front of the cameras to proclaim victory, stating that the Conservatives “did well entirely at the expense of the Labour Party”.  A closer look at the numbers however shows this to be not entirely accurate.  Labour lost out to both the SNP and the Tories, and SNP gains from Labour in urban areas were balanced by a swathe of lost SNP seats in their rural heartlands.  The Tories did the damage, becoming the largest party on six councils.

Erm… mibbe this wisnae such a guid idea…

Personally, I’m surprised the SNP didn’t do better.  The last council elections in 2012, held way before the independence referendum and yellow surges of 2015 and 2016, saw them win 425 seats; after boundary changes in this election they won 431 seats.  This time there was no yellow surge.  If you insist on the tidal metaphor then this was no more than a neap tide which shifted hardly any sand.  Psephologists would grimace at comparing First Past The Post, Additional Member System and Single Transferable Vote voting percentages, but it does feel like there is a change in the air.  I would hope that many voters will have looked at the shameful spin the SNP and Greens used when passing Holyrood’s budget earlier this year, when they slashed council funding by £170 million but described it as extra cash compared to their originally planned cut of over £300 million.  But I suspect I hope in vain; like everything in Scottish politics just now the constitutional question overrides all.  It’s clear that the strong unionist element of the No vote is throwing its weight behind the Conservatives.  And Brexit overshadows everything, providing potential opportunities for both sides.  Here too the Tories have been more consistent in their approach, despite the obvious irony of Remainers May and Davidson throwing their weight – and messaging – behind making Brexit a success.  The SNP by contrast have been inconsistent on their desires for our future relationship with the EU, pivoting from full membership to single market agreement and back again.  They can’t long continue with this approach before voters start to query their sincerity.

It is way too early to entertain talk of “Peak Nat” having passed, but the council elections have thrown the SNP a curveball.  The results in Aberdeenshire, Moray, Perthshire and East Lothian will have a few SNP MPs looking over their shoulders as we count down to the general election in June.  I’m sceptical that Tory success in the council elections will translate into Tory MPs, as FPTP is a different animal to the STV system.  They will likely gain a couple of seats in the Borders and Aberdeenshire, but many SNP MPs are defending sizeable majorities and will enjoy the benefit of incumbency.  Some of the names at potential risk however will be a concern for the SNP.  They will be forced to spend money campaigning to defend seats they may have assumed were safe, for a few more years at least.  Sturgeon will not want to lose her Westminster leader Angus Robertson the MP for Moray, one of the few SNP MPs who is an accomplished Commons performer.  (She might not, however, shed too many tears if the Tories were to relieve her of the persistent embarrassment that is Pete Wishart, despite his majority of nearly 10,000).

Distinctly below average.

The backlash to the Tory advance has already begun, with the Sunday Herald first out the gate.  Instead of a triumphant front page of, say, SNP councillors standing in front of the imposing Glasgow City Chambers, they gave it over to a disgraceful smear attempt linking the Orange Order to voters and the councillors they voted for.  West of Scotland politics has been trying for decades to drag itself out of the sectarian gutter; this regrettable move by the paper’s editor reflects more on his character than voters who turned out to perform a civic duty or the councillors they elected, regardless of party.  Nationalists were quick to criticise the use of the term Ulsterisation when it was mooted by journalists Aidan Kerr and David Torrance, yet here the sectarian card is being played by the Nationalist press during an election campaign.  The vast majority of Scots have shown they are above lazy attempts at othering, and I suspect this will be viewed unfavourably by folk on both sides of the constitutional debate.  It ought to be.

Just as bizarre and no less desperate was the concerted attack by SNP and Yes activists on Patrick Harvie, for having the temerity to announce his Green candidacy for the Glasgow North seat in June’s general election.  The sitting SNP MP Patrick Grady has a majority of over 9000, yet well kent Yessers such as Lesley Riddoch and Carol Fox weren’t happy.  Accusations of it being “counterproductive” and “splitting the Indy vote” were levelled at Harvie.  The message was clear – eat your cereal Patrick, until we say so.  Democratic principles, Green principles, are secondary.  Independence transcends everything.  If I was a Green, I’d be heartily pissed off.  To his credit Harvie has taken the brickbats and more or less ignored them.  As for the SNP, their activist reaction to Harvie’s candidacy has been a revealing example of just how brittle they really are at the moment.

And of course the BBC got it in the neck.  The SNP’s desperation to deliver a positive spin on their somewhat Pyrrhic victory saw them take exception to the Beeb’s attempt to compare apples with apples as regards the number of seats won.  The Beeb crunched the numbers and found that, based on the same boundaries as 2012, the SNP result translated to a loss of seven seats.  Of course the SNP weren’t having that and insisted that apples be compared to oranges.  Something that those who studied their economic pitch during the indyref will be very familiar with…

What of Scottish Labour?  The rose has shown in the council elections it still has thorns.  There is life yet in the fallen giant.  They will hope to hold on in Edinburgh South and might give the SNP’s George Kerevan a run for his money in East Lothian.  They continue to set their course firmly on a policy driven basis while all around focus on the constitutional divide.  This approach hasn’t yet borne any fruit – whether it will or not in the future depends on how quickly Scots tire of constitutional politics, if we do at all.

We await our next trip to the ballot box in June.  Bring it on.

Bleeding Purple

There are many ice hockey fans in the West of Scotland probably just about now coming to terms with their club’s tame exit from the Elite Ice Hockey League (EIHL) playoffs during the weekend just gone.  Or maybe it’s just me.  For the third season in a row, Braehead Clan have fallen to Gardiner Conference opponents at the playoff quarter final stage.  This year it fell to the Dundee Stars to end the Clan’s hopes of securing a second visit to the EIHL’s showpiece event – the playoff finals weekend (POFW) held annually at the National Ice Centre in Nottingham.  Dundee produced a composed, controlled and brutally effective performance over the home and away quarter final tie and fully deserve their weekend in the Lace City.  When it counted, they were that much better.

#OperationPlayoffs runs into a fortress

The Clan’s exit from the playoffs prompted an immediate response from the club, with an announcement the following day that head coach Ryan Finnerty would not be returning for the 2017-18 season.  This came as a surprise and also as no surprise.  A surprise given the speed of the announcement and what Finner has contributed to the club in his four year tenure.  And no surprise given the club’s step backward in the league this season and failure to clear either of the quarter final hurdles (Challenge Cup & Playoffs) for the third consecutive season.  It doesn’t matter whether it’s the right or wrong call; the club has made the decision and the Finnerty Era is over.

The Finnerty Era.  Let’s have a wee look at that.

When Finnerty was announced in April 2013, he inherited a club in disarray.  A three year old organisation, Clan had scraped eighth place in the league, and fell over the line to win their first Gardiner Conference title.  The 2012-13 season remains Clan’s worst with on and off ice problems and was a definite step backwards from the first two seasons of the club’s existence.  Change was needed.  The potential for growth remained huge, with Braehead Arena only two thirds full and the huge catchment area of the Glasgow conurbation to draw from.  Clan hockey was establishing a presence in the West of Scotland but the third season was a potentially serious brake on the club’s aims and ambitions.  The on and off ice product needed to step up and meet the challenge.  What the club needed was grit and professionalism, and that’s what it got.  There was a real air of anticipation as Finnerty’s first team took to the ice in the autumn of 2013.  For the first time the fans got a real taste of what it felt like to be in the hunt for a league title.  The Clan kept pace with the eventual league champions Belfast until the festive break, when defeats home and away to the Giants started a slide which ended with Clan finishing fifth.  

But the seeds of success had been sown and the coach improved upon his first roster with key arrivals in 2014 in the shape of Matt Keith, Stefan Meyer, Leigh Salters and Scott Pitt.  They spearheaded a lethal offence while the returning netminder Kyle Jones found a strengthened defence core in front of him.  Early season results saw the Clan top the standings and the club were involved in a season long duel with the Sheffield Steelers for league supremacy.  Braehead Arena became a fortress and routinely sold over 3,000 seats as new and old fans turned out in their droves to enjoy watching the Clan battle hard with cross conference teams while putting their own conference rivals to the sword.  The Clan had the league title’s fate in their own hands until the second last weekend of the season, when a nervy, narrow defeat on the big ice at Murrayfield handed the initiative over to Sheffield going into the final weekend.  Steelers won out, and the Clan were runners up by one point.  Ecstasy and agony, but finally the Clan’s arrival as league contenders.  And the victory at the home of our fiercest rival Fife Flyers in the final regular season game saw the Clan qualify for the Champions Hockey League – providing one of my favourite Finner moments captured perfectly at the final buzzer by Clan cameraman Alistair Girvan.

They love him in Fife. Honest (courtesy of Alistair Girvan).

The CHL adventure in Finnerty’s third season saw Clan fans heading to Sweden and Germany, with return fixtures at the Braehead Arena.  The Swedish team Växjö were a class apart, but German opponents Ingolstadt were a worthy scalp, falling to a spirited Clan performance which threatened to blow the roof off the purple barn.  Expectations were again high for the EIHL league campaign, and the team delivered until hit by an injury crisis after a defeat in Nottingham.  The eventual third place Clan secured felt like a disappointment – that’s how high Finnerty had raised the bar.

Finnerty’s fourth and ultimately final season as Clan head coach can only be described as frustrating.  The league campaign never got off the ground, with the team unable to get any sort of winning streak going.  The coach’s frustrations were obvious in every post match interview.  The Clan were to finish fifth, just as they had in Finnerty’s first season.  But it had been on the cards early in the season; by December as Cardiff raced clear it was clear that Clan’s best hopes of their first major trophy would be the Challenge Cup or Playoffs.  Those hopes were finally extinguished last weekend as the final buzzer sounded at a sold out but muted Braehead Arena, and 24 hours later the head coach was gone.

What is his legacy?  Some will point to the lack of major trophies, will argue that the club’s record at the two legged format during his tenure (1-7) meant change was needed.  I prefer to focus on the positives, particularly the league campaigns and CHL qualification that really put the club on the map.  Ryan Finnerty took the Clan from mediocrity and turned it into a club worth reckoning with.  The explosion of interest in hockey in Glasgow and the West, in an area where football dominates sporting headlines, is down to the teams he assembled and the performances they jointly delivered.  The atmosphere in a packed out Braehead Arena is one of the most intense I’ve ever experienced as a sports fan, and from late 2013 onwards we Clan fans have had plenty to shout about.

2014: the year of #Scottingham (courtesy of Al Goold)

The high expectation level of both the club and fanbase, and the phenomenal growth of that fanbase, is a direct result of the success Ryan brought to the organisation.  There’s no doubt that he has played a proud and significant part in the Clan’s short history; he bled purple and made sure people knew it.  His departure leaves a huge hole at the heart of the club and right now it feels like a part of our identity has been lost.  That’s maybe no surprise given he was head coach for four of the Clan’s seven seasons in the EIHL.

Of course, it is the badge on the front of the jersey and not the name on the back of it that matters.  The challenge for Ryan Finnerty’s replacement will be to set their own standards and shape the club’s on ice delivery to meet the high expectations of the fanbase.  A new identity will take time to bed in behind the bench but let’s hope for a new dawn that hits the ground running, just as it did in 2013.  Taking the club forward from the rude health in which Ryan Finnerty leaves it is going to be tough, but that’s the challenge awaiting the new appointee.

In the meantime, thanks for the memories, coach.

Never mind me. It’s the guy at the back right who won it three times (courtesy of Al Goold).

Sizing up the situation

Ross Colquhoun, formerly of National Collective and one of many campaigners who were swallowed up by the SNP machine after Scotland said No Thanks, tweeted this graphic today:

You can see me in GERS, too!

Ross helpfully added, “This map from the BBC provides an interesting perspective of Scotland’s land and maritime boundaries.  Scotland small?” which inevitably prompted replies from fervent nationalist tweeters that there was more oil to be “bled dry”, and that it was now obvious why we needed to be kept “institutionalised in the UK”.  Repeat to yawn inducing, Groundhog Day fade.  But what does the graphic actually show?

U.K. EEZ, innit

The UK’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) defines the sea zone around the British Isles over which the UK has special rights regarding exploration and use of marine resources.  These resources including animal, vegetable, and mineral… anything really that humans could exploit to their advantage, be it for food or energy consumption.  The United Nations Convention on the Law Of The Sea (UNCLOS) determines how an EEZ is defined, and importantly how it is delineated between neighbouring sovereign states.  As Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland are internationally recognised together as the UK, the theoretical borders defined in the first graphic are essentially meaningless.  It is the UK’s EEZ that matters when it comes to marine resources, and critically when it comes to strategic defence and protection of those resources.

If Scotland chose to separate from the UK, she would have an EEZ pretty much as defined in that first graphic.  That confers rights over all the marine resources in that zone, as well as the responsibility to defend and protect that area.  With regards to defence, it’s currently unclear what the SNP are proposing.  The defence plan put forward in Scotland’s Future seemed eminently reasonable to me but that is now to be ditched, we are told (http://www.dailyrecord.co.uk/news/politics/snp-plan-revamp-out-date-10049162).  This is where size does matter – unless Scotland were to turn more of its spending over to defence, it would find itself patrolling a proportionately much larger EEZ and coastline with significantly less naval or air power.  The coastline aspect may surprise some, but Scotland’s rugged glaciated landscape means the mainland alone has a coastal length of just over 6,000 miles (the UK mainland’s coastal length is just over 11,000 miles).  Add in the coastal length of the Scottish islands and it’s clear that size matters – patrolling this area would indeed require a bespoke solution.  But given the deficit problems caused by the fall in crude oil prices, it is increasingly difficult to see an increase in short or mid term defence spending in a separate Scotland; if anything it is likely to fall.

But aren’t you saving on me?

Indeed.  The removal of Trident would save about £280m a year, out of Scotland’s share of UK defence spending which is £3bn.  But would this be spent on enhancing a separate Scotland’s coastal defence capability?  We don’t know, because as already stated SNP plans are up in the air.  It will be interesting to see where they come down.  And in any case, aren’t we frequently told that Trident savings would help close a separate Scotland’s deficit?  I find it hugely unlikely that Trident savings would have any upward effect on conventional defence spending, regardless of the constitutional question.  So this issue of proportionate size would still need addressing.

Where this new found size doesn’t matter however, is with regards to the public finances.  A proportionately larger EEZ does not mean proportionately larger government revenues.  The Scottish Government’s GERS report has for many years provided public sector accounts for Scotland which rely on the graphic Ross Colquhoun tweeted to define Scotland’s geographical share of the UK’s oil and gas production, and the revenues associated with it.  GERS helpfully now includes the same graphic, though given Ross’s MP and MSP colleagues are currently on a mission to trash GERS veracity and credibility, maybe it’ll disappear from the next edition.  The purpose of tweets such as Ross’s (he is an SNP strategist after all) is to convince people that the vast tract of waters forming a separate Scotland’s EEZ would bring with it a windfall to the Scottish public purse.  In reality, the purse would be no bigger as GERS already takes account of the area, and the country would be presented with a defence challenge.  Presumably it is this challenge the SNP are currently wrestling with.

The UK isn’t free of negative press over defence policy with regards to its EEZ coverage.  Frequent appearances of Russian warships has led to fierce criticism of naval response times and the loss of the Nimrod MRA4 programme in 2010 left a gaping hole in airborne maritime patrol capability, a hole that will only start to be closed in 2019 when the first of nine P-8A Poseidon aircraft arrive.

Eye in the sky – but not until 2019
Logically these aircraft should be stationed in Scotland given the maritime area around it, and that’s the plan – they will be based out of RAF Lossiemouth.  The frigate and offshore patrol vessel construction programme currently underway in BAe’s Clyde shipyards will strengthen coastal defence and EEZ patrol capability.  The UK has acted to improve and enhance its capability – but it had to tackle a defence spending question in the process.

Size isn’t everything but instead has upsides and downsides.  Ross and his colleagues would rather we obsess over that favourite nationalist grievance trope – “too wee, too poor, too stupid” – rather than think about the practicalities and possibilities.

The longest river in the world

“The point of modern propaganda isn’t only to misinform, but to exhaust your critical thinking, to annihilate truth.”

So tweeted Garry Kasparov, former world chess champion and Russian dissident, in December 2016.  Kasparov is a ferociously outspoken opponent of Vladimir Putin’s regime which controls Russian society, where media and government work in tandem to further the leader’s aims.  A propaganda war is being waged against the West, with dark hints of Russian interference in Western democracies.  But Kasparov’s point applies equally to any scenario where misinformation games are being played.  And being Scottish, I’m particularly interested in the misinformation game currently being rebooted by SNP activists and politicians.

Former FM giving his view on state TV bias to, er, biased state TV

We’ve been told by Nicola Sturgeon that “… we will set out as I say, our proposition on all the issues the people of Scotland will require to have clarity on…” – these being the First Minister’s words on the 13th March 2017, when she announced in Bute House her intention to press the button for #indyref2.  Commentators from Yes and No camps rarely agree on much, but one area where both are aligned is on the importance of economics to the constitutional question.  Hints of honesty have been forthcoming from Andrew Wilson, her appointee as head of her Growth Commission, and numerous SNP grandees have been severely critical of the economic prospectus presented to voters by the SNP during #indyref.  Former Special Advisor Alex Bell described it as “deluded”, ex Cabinet Secretary and MSP Kenny MacAskill said “It sounded too good to be true.”  If Yes is to win, it is a critical part of the debate which cannot be ignored.

What has been notable since the First Minister pushed the #indyref2 button (though with a delay timer) is the determined effort by SNP activists and politicians to do just that.  In the absence of the Growth Commission report and with no new information to go on, politicians and activists are trying not just to ignore the economic question, but to erase it completely.  Or at the very least, airbrush from history the “deluded” prospectus given in their white paper, Scotland’s Future.  The fiscal foundation of this weighty tome was, of course, the Scottish Government’s GERS report.  GERS – Government Expenditure & Revenue Scotland – is an emotionless, sober numerical analysis; you don’t need to be an economist to read and understand it, and on its own it’s a reasonably interesting dive into where the country raises and spends its money.  It is by no measure a complete assessment of the country’s economic health; more a roadmap of where government extracts value from our economy (through fiscal policy, i.e. taxation) and where it chooses to reinvest that value for what it determines as being for the benefit of our society as a whole.  

It was however, widely quoted and referenced during the #indyref campaign by the SNP.

GERS: #indyref keystone

But GERS is now persona non grata.  It has informed against the SNP government in the most disloyal fashion.  Because the tale of the GERS tape is no longer favourable to the SNP, the knives are out for the former favourite.  All it took was a single tweet from chartered accountant Richard Murphy suggesting GERS was unreliable data, and the inevitable snowball of nationalist interest rolled.  The debate on the estimates used in GERS (for they are estimates, clearly detailed in the methodology with defined confidence intervals) is covered in most detail by businessman and blogger Kevin Hague here: https://chokkablog.blogspot.co.uk/2017/03/richard-murphy-gers-denier.html

Suffice to say, Hague’s argument makes clear sense, but it’s not my intention to debate the veracity of GERS here.  The question voters should be asking is why this key resource, which informed the central planks of the SNP’s #indyref economic case, is now being sidelined.  If there is any question mark over GERS, it certainly didn’t stop the SNP from using it as the platform for their economic case for independence in 2014.  Something that was held up as the gold standard, the definitive account of Scotland’s public finances, is now to be viewed with suspicion and it seems, ideally ignored.  Why?  A cynic might say that it was because GERS provided the SNP with a loaded musket in 2010-14 which has since been found to be charged with wet powder.  But how so?

It’s Scotland’s oil.

The dramatic drop in oil revenue seen in GERS (yes, the bloody oil again) has given the SNP a real problem, in the shape of the dirty ‘D’ word – deficit.  Or more precisely, deficit as a percentage of GDP.  And this has led to an outbreak of nationalist denial on a quite comical scale.

That toy tiger is real.

Denial, eh.  Not just the longest river in the world.  One can only hope that when (if?) the Growth Commission report is made public, Andrew Wilson hasn’t relied on GERS for his base data.  If he has, then one can surely expect a hornet’s nest of GERS denying SNP activists and politicians to descend upon him and his conclusions.  Quite how this is intended to help the old Yes campaign make progress is unclear.  If their own supporters pour scorn on what is likely to be a key document in setting out the SNP’s new economic position, they can hardly expect No voters to view it with any credibility.  Propaganda can come back to bite you.

Kasparov’s tweet continues to resonate with me.  It’s impossible to keep up with the swarm of memes created by SNP activists that either tell a half story, or are downright deceitful.  The sheer volume of output speaks to a passionate activist base that is quite prepared to do what it takes to misinform, to exhaust those holding competing views.  And of late, GERS has become a target.  It’s maybe surprising, given GERS so comprehensively debunks 99% of these memes, that it’s taken so long for it to come under fire.  But that’s where we stand now: large numbers of activists, led and encouraged by politicians, no longer believe the Scottish Government’s kitemarked, National Statistics approved accounts.  What a difference a couple of years makes.  What a difference a price war between Saudi oil pumps and American shale rigs makes.

The First Minister is keeping her cards very close to her chest right now.  Predictable queries on topics such as currency were met with “All in good time”.  Fine, I can wait.  But don’t leave it too long eh, First Minister.  Your colleagues’ attempts to sideline your original economic argument by trashing GERS aren’t making you look particularly trustworthy right now.  And the fact you don’t yet have a credible, definitive currency proposal (still!) only reinforces my belief that you’re focused not on the long term economic health of our country but on the short term goal of you winning a referendum.

All in good time, you say.  Well, if you have Mr Wilson’s report on your desk, what’s keeping you?

The difficult second album

Like any aspiring musician, SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon understands the need to refine her sound.  Her first album, while not a critical commercial success (some might say this was the fault of her duet partner) captured enough consumer interest for her group to get back in the studio.  Between jam sessions at Holyrood and rap battles in Westminster, she clearly now feels they have enough new material to get on with that second album.

Do you have one with a saltire body?

Under enormous pressure to record a follow up before the hype disappears, La Sturgeon has hinted at a more European theme for this new material.  Whether this will surpass her debut in terms of sales remains to be seen.  The level of secrecy around the new material has both fans and critics feverish with anticipation.  Those on the inside are keeping even the rough detail close to their chests, but one of the Westminster SNP massive has hinted at a 54 strong choral rendition of Beethoven’s Ninth, Fourth Movement.  

While it did go platinum, Sturgeon’s first album left so many questions unanswered that most commentators felt a second album would be a broken Forth Road Bridge too far.  But they reckon without the First Minister’s prodigious talent.  The marketing ahead of the new material’s release suggests the critics will be cleverly sidestepped by simply ignoring them, relying instead on punchy slogans and the flooding of social media with “What you need to know” titbits.  The Nicola Signature Range of merchandise no longer appears on the SNP website, fuelling speculation that a dynamic new range of EU themed SNP merchandise will be launched in support of the second album.  It’s an exciting time if you’re a Sturgeon fan.

Fucking yaldy. Strum for Scotland.

To break new ground is bold.  To break new ground that sounds suspiciously similar to the old ground but for a few key changes and some dodgy new lyrics is bolder still; some might even say reckless.  Don’t expect a rejig or encore of the old track listing, however.  Expected sometime late in 2018 (assuming no production issues), La Sturgeon knows expectations are high.  Her best creative talent has been unleashed in the studio, and it is game on.

That hair. Those hands. The Wishart wit.

Scots music fans are indeed in for a treat.  Here we, here we, here we fucking go.  Again.