Quintinshill, the Lies of War and Respect for the Dead.

Apologies for the recent silence, I’ve been in New Zealand for ANZAC Day this weekend. As the forces representatives gathered on the beach at Gallipoli for the ceremony, and Nicola Sturgeon laid a wreath at the Scottish War Memorial, it was perhaps an obvious opportunity to reflect on the different experiences between Kiwis and Scots. For me, as someone who grew up in the north of Edinburgh, Gallipoli’s main significance was in the lure that drew the 7th Royal Scots (a battalion recruited mainly from Leith) away from their intended deployment in France, to instead board a train from Larbert bound for Liverpool, where they were to board the Aquitania. Just before 7am, the first train, carrying 498 (half of all ranks) collided with a local passenger train at Quintinshill, just north of Gretna Green. The train overturned, largely from the southbound on to the northbound lines, just a minute before the Glasgow-bound express hit the wreckage, igniting the wrecked old wooden carriages with their gas tanks for lighting. Although ten died on the express, 216 of the 7th Royal Scots died, with only 62 surviving unscathed – only 6 of them (officers) went on to join the second half of the battalion when they embarked from Liverpool. Due to the damage and incineration, only 83 of the 216 bodies were ever identified in what remains the worst rail disaster in the UK. Although hushed up for obvious moral reasons, no family in Leith was untouched by the disaster.

Unsurprisingly for a first world war venture, the Gallipoli campaign itself proved a fairly futile exercise, in its failure to secure the capital of Turkey: after 8 months occupying cliffs around the peninsula in trenches, the allied forces abandoned it in January 1916 – or ‘retreated’, as you would say, if describing another army. A surprising trivia fact: Rupert Murdoch’s father is credited with the ‘Gallipoli letter’ that allegedly ended the botched Dardanelles campaign through its exposure of the needless deaths of thousands of Australian and New Zealand soldiers. At the commemoration ceremony, Kemal Atatürk’s magnanimous quote (see below) was repeated, with one modern Turkish representative explaining that just as they were under Germany, so New Zealand was under Britain, and that was the only reason that they fought each other. I wondered if that was receiving quite so much coverage back in the UK…and it made me reflect on the impossibility of such a quote as Ataturk’s being broadcast by a German state representative to any British dead. Not that such a statement was unlikely to be made – just that it would not be likely to be reported on the BBC these days.

I have talked before about the waste of life at this time (see ‘Greys’ Psychology: Inside the Mindset of a Defeated Demographic’), with Scotland’s losses per capita (145,000 Scots dead out of 887,000 total British losses gives a disproportionate 16%) as among the highest of any combatant nation. But I found the BBC’s online description of the campaign interesting. Although it asserts that with New Zealand only becoming independent in 1907, and Australia doing similar in 1901, that there was “no question” that they would “fight for the mother country”, the BBC’s website continues “war also fanned the flames of nationalism…Ordinary men…had the chance to ‘do their country proud’, and by joining the global conflict, Australia and New Zealand would establish themselves on the international stage.”

I found that a noteworthy departure from the line that we have become accustomed to hearing throughout the Referendum campaign, of how independence automatically rendered any death in wartime as a death betrayed. Labour’s John Reid, amongst others, was quite keen to draw a line suggesting that all those who went to war in Scotland were fighting not for their families, but for a monarch or British flag, as though that was in some way paramount. This was then used, in a fairly transparently desperate argument, to contend that therefore anyone voting for independence in the Referendum was in fact betraying dead relatives. Firstly, there is something of an arrogance in that presumption – you can drink a monarch’s health, sign on a dotted line, and if things go badly for you know that your family will have the privilege of receiving a letter signed with a genuine royal rubber stamp, but I would hardly say that that makes any declaration of your primary loyalty, or what your political views were towards either a republic or self-determination – and woe betide anyone who casually assumes otherwise.

After that arrogant presumption there is secondly the arrogant conceit of making such a judgement on people contemplating a better political future for their fellow citizens and families, and the naked use of such crass irrational emotional blackmail against reasoned arguments for a better future – invoking, and presuming to speak for, the dead, often of your own family.

And yet – it isn’t so unusual. It is not just Labour Party members on their way to the House of Lords that espouse such disdain for genuine popular political aspiration.

Currently, there are debates on removing the Queen – Elizabeth the First and Second – as head of state in New Zealand. It can be contended that such questions are being raised this year, to distract from a general National (=Conservative) Party failure here, and that also it is somewhat cynical to raise the question during a centenary year for the origin of the ANZAC legend. As some have suggested David Cameron is deliberately intending to ‘throw’ the EU vote with a weighted question, so there is a similar suggestion that this is a distraction, rather than a seriously considered political proposal. But the same patterns of political opposition can still be discerned.
New Zealand, with a slightly smaller population than Scotland, is having the same dirt thrown at people arguing for the monarch to be removed as head of state – that, again, this is so disrespectful to all who died for New Zealand in the past. The difference, of course, is that New Zealand has been happily independent for over a century – and was even independent before its military legend was forged. Apparently that does not provide an expiry date on this nonsensical monarchist claptrap, where wartime combat can apparently still only be permitted to be packaged and presented as purely a monarchic statement, and nothing else.

There are many lies of war that are told by governments. The true scale of Quintinshill was suppressed for reasons of morale for some time. Gallipoli was an inept campaign of protracted failure – but it took some decades before historians could freely come to that conclusion. The story of the tanks being sent into Glasgow before the peace treaty was signed in 1919 was similarly downplayed. But it seems that even after their lives were taken from them and their families, the dead are still a legitimate currency for the establishment to employ – long after they can speak for themselves, or answer back against their misrepresenters. Even when it is the establishment that bears the guilt for the misdeeds that led to those deaths, they find guilt an easy currency for them to employ without any thought to propriety or respect, as an attempt to block any threat to their own position.

Harry Patch may have described war as “the calculated and condoned slaughter of human beings” – but once dead, they are still not allowed to rest by those responsible for their deaths, as they can always be hauled out to dance for them one more time.

“There is no difference between the Johnnies and Mehmets to us where they lie side by side here in this country of ours. You, the mothers, who sent their sons from far away countries wipe away your tears; your sons are now lying in our bosom and are in peace. After having lost their lives on this land they have become our sons as well.” (Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, on the fallen at Gallipoli)

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InSturgeonCy: An Unjustifiable Fear of Feminism?

I have to confess that one event from the weekend’s conference did give me pause, and made my heart flicker as though clutched by a cold hand of chilling fear…much as when I watched Darling attacking Salmond over the currency in the first televised debate last year. (An ‘actual’ debate – not two leaders being interviewed separately by Jeremy Paxman, as we saw last week between Miliband and ‘I don’t do debates’ Cameron…)

It was, as far as I can tell, the only real source of dissent over the weekend. Of course, members of political parties generally like to say that things went swimmingly well at their conferences, regardless of what actually happened. On the other hand, in past years, the SNP conferences have been applauded as unusual in the UK, because policies are actually discussed, and not dictated by the executive in advance, as with the Westminster parties – a particular example of this was over NATO membership, when Salmond knew he had to argue for it against the wishes of many members, in order to present as seamless a transition for the Referendum electorate as possible. He won the day – but it was far from certain that he would.

The tense issue over the weekend was about All-Women Shortlists (AWS) – positive discrimination in order to achieve gender equality – specifically, the option to have all female shortlists for candidate selection.

And there are certainly arguments for it. Committed to gender equality as Nicola’s government and party is, with a gender equal cabinet, of the 64 SNP MSPs there are nonetheless only 17 women. And yet, with their new membership surge, an impressive 44% of the party are now female (before the Referendum, it was 33%, so this is a significant move towards representing the actual population figure of 52%). So all female shortlists were proposed…except, of course, positive discrimination is not everyone’s flavour of feminism.

As I said, I cannot deny a chill went through my heart on Monday when I saw someone online declaring that they had resigned their new SNP membership over it, as someone who had joined and become a hard-working activist after the Referendum. It made me realise just how divisive the issue is – and the massive potential consequences. It may be sexist, but to be politically active as a woman in this day and age takes (to my perhaps blinkered eyes) more political savvy and strength than to do it as a man. It implies that you are likely to have made political decisions about your gender role in society, which is pretty unnecessary as a male. Therefore, with 44% of politically motivated females, I really feared how much fallout there might be from this.

That big electronic sign above Nicola’s head during her speech, which announced the new membership numbers of 102,143 – I wondered how much it might have started counting down again, just on the basis of Nicola’s decision, and that policy…

And I think it is not unfair to describe it in those terms – allegedly this proposal was coming down very heavily from her, and she wanted it passed. The member who resigned from the party said that although she was told she would get to speak, she did not – and felt offended at the implication that she needed some kind of legislative protection to stand and succeed, when Nicola, Angela, Shona and Eilidh did not – that she was somehow ‘less’ than them. The fact that the policy was only on a trial basis for a year, and would need to be renewed by conference after review next spring, did not make any difference.

This horrible fear rose up in me as I read this – of the SNP throwing everything away with the positive discrimination lists option, to risk fragmenting the party, losing that enthusiasm and key support, just 5 weeks before the most important general election in the history of the SNP. After my statement less than a week ago that I was confident of her ability to deal with victory and loss and present it well to the electorate, was this Nicola’s critical misstep? Will the SNP be shedding membership by the tonne in the 5 weeks leading up to the vote, before they even have time to use that legion of ‘boots on the ground’ so envied by Scottish Labour?

And – that was what made it even worse: it would FINALLY give Labour something real to attack them on, as opposed to getting Eleanor Bradford to misrepresent the health service out of context every week on BBC Scotland for her ‘New Labour’ chums. Such an attack by Labour would be grossly hypocritical, of course, because Labour had done exactly the same thing, introducing female only shortlists at conference in 1993 (the LibDems rejected such a move in 2001, and Cameron has expressed support for the policy)  – but that hypocrisy has recently become par for the course with Scottish Labour’s new leader, and his Janus-like 24 hour rotations of policy. It has also been alleged that Labour lost a safe seat in Blaenau Gwent in 2005 over the introduction of AWS, so there are clearly risks in terms of a possible backlash.

And yet…

The all-women shortlists were criticised at the conference – but 9 all male shortlists (not created through policy, I hasten to add) passed through conference with barely any comment.

And then I think of the rampant sexism being applied against Nicola through the media in the past two weeks – the Miley Cyrus wrecking ball mock up on the front page of The (English release only version of The) Sun, retiring Labour MP David Hamilton referring to her at their conference as “the wee lass with the tin hat on”, picked up with unseemly haste in Steve Bell’s Guardian cartoon, indicating that all the SNP were interested in were incest and country dancing (see original quote from Thomas Beecham).

Clearly, this is unacceptable. Maybe this move IS important to show consistency in her policies across the board. Perhaps – as with those SNP members that resigned over NATO – there will only be a handful that go, and not too significant a dent. Perhaps one blogger’s observation over the weekend, is absolutely correct: “Things won’t start to happen in a way that views women as equal partners in business or politics until there are more women in there making sure they do.”

But, as I said before, 44% of the membership is now women – how will they react? Will the numbers meltdown?

I wait with heart in mouth. I guess I just have to trust Nicola, and hope that she is right. Under her leadership, a Survation poll on the 20th March on who would best represent Scotland’s interests, gave a clear endorsement of where the public thinks she is right now with the party: 17.9% thought Labour [a mere 51.5% of Labour 2010 voters], 45.6% said the SNP [including 19.7% of No voters, and a third of Labour 2010 voters], 10.6% said Conservatives and an optimistic 3.6% thought the LibDems. Her leadership ratings are +33, whilst Murphy dives down to -25, with Cameron -36, Miliband -53 and Clegg a not-so-stellar -70.

In which case, rather than her, maybe it will be Labour that will need the ‘tin hats’ to endure the switch in their fortunes – despite the SNP following their progressive policy on positive discrimination for all female shortlists. Let’s see, shall we?

 

“this is certainly the largest-ever political conference to be held in Scotland since Bonnie Prince Charlie’s Highlanders occupied Edinburgh. Better still, it could even be the largest-ever party gathering – in terms of official branch delegates – ever seen in the United Kingdom.” (George Kerevan, 29/3/2015)

Counting Pandas and Citadels with Lord Ashcroft: ‘Vote Labour, Get Conservative’, and How We Got Here

During Nicola Sturgeon’s speech to conference on Saturday (which noteably, the BBC did not have any mysterious problems with transmitting, unlike last year’s spring conference), she tried to play down the polls, noting that the SNP have only 6 MPs in Westminster, and “anything over 11 is record-breaking”. Yet it is hard to ignore the Big Numbers. So, I thought it might be worthwhile doing a quick retrospective of all the polls since I took time out just before Xmas, to try and see in one overview how the numbers have changed, in the space of the last 3 months, in particular – but also looking back to its origins.

So this will be long, but bear with me…

Apparently all this began sometime in the second half of October – but no one is sure precisely when. It was a scenario that no one envisaged after a ‘No’ vote (least of all Labour)…therefore no one was really asking the question too much in polls in the immediate wake of the Referendum.

John Curtice, a psephologist who was no friend to either ‘Yes’ or the SNP, was first to divine the signs from the entrails in an ICM/Guardian online poll published on the 27th December 2014. He broke ICM’s data down into four different categories of seat, showing that Labour’s decline was the most massive where its victory margins had previously been the largest over the SNP (by more than 25 points) – so although Labour’s vote across Scotland dropped by 16 points, in what Curtice referred to as traditional Labour ‘citadels’ in its ‘heartlands’, it fell by 22 points, against an SNP rise of 26. The greater the faith placed, the greater the sense of betrayal, perhaps.

That combination would be sufficient to wipe out majorities that were always assumed to be impregnable, and Scottish Labour’s Westminster caucus would be left shrivelling to just three MPs. “We are prospectively looking at the collapse of citadels that have always been Labour since the 1920s,” said Curtice. “That will seem incredible to some in England, but to those of us who paid close attention to Alex Salmond’s 2011 landslide at Holyrood, it would merely be the next chapter in the political transformation of a nation.”

A PanelBase poll conducted over the 17th and 18th January reported the SNP to Labour percentage share starting to separate at 41% to 31% – mostly the expressed reservations were due to both the oil price and Jim Murphy’s continuing unpopularity as the new leader of Scottish Labour.

Four days later, both Survation and IPSOS/MORI showed the SNP on 52%, with Labour on 24%. Curtice noted that seven polls over the preceding couple of months had shown a 46%/26% split, representing a 21% swing from Labour to SNP since 2010, and his average projections gave SNP 46, Labour 27, Conservative 13, LibDem 5, Scottish Greens 3. Which projected SNP to rise from their current 6 seats to 46, and Labour to fall to 9 from their current 40 Scottish MPs.

80% of Yes voters were apparently planning to vote SNP, and pollsters started noting similar trends for Holyrood 2016 voting intentions: on the 22nd January, an IPSOS/MORI poll for STV had SNP with more than double Labour support for both constituency (53, or +8.4 on 2011 results, to 24, -7.7) and regional (48, +4, to 22, -4.3) vote next year.

But the real bombshells were still to come.

On the 3rd February, Lord Ashcroft, the Conservative peer who seems to spend enormous amounts of money on polling (a thousand people per constituency, rather than a thousand people across Scotland or the whole UK) released a set of results showing a breakdown of the percentage vote of the top parties as Labour 31%, Conservative 31%, LibDem 8%, SNP 4%. It is worth pausing to reflect on that for a moment: UK-wide, the SNP were registering a seismic (given that Scotland has less than 10% of the UK population) 4% of the vote. But the big shock was in his first set of results, looking at sixteen marginal Labour and LibDem constituencies with strong ‘Yes’ votes, to see how much of that might be translating into support for the SNP. His data from 16,000 Scots indicated that 15 would go to the SNP with swings of over 20%, and an overall swing of 25.4%.

The following day, a YouGov poll for The Times seemed to echo this, with the Scotland vote breakdown of SNP 48%, Labour 27%, LibDems 18%, Conservatives 4%, prospectively translating into 48 seats for the SNP, 11 for Labour, and none for anyone else. Interestingly – and often forgotten – the prospective LibDem losses to the SNP in Scotland make the continuation of the current Conservative/LibDem (often referred to as ‘ConDem’ for numerous reasons…) coalition far less likely – although Labour campaigners that argue for tactical voting for LibDems to keep the SNP out (step forward Robert MacNeill) do not seem to care too much about this. The same YouGov poll also indicated that 52% would now vote for independence, with 48% against.

The same day, Peter Kellner, the YouGov President, noted that in January he had predicted a partial comeback for Labour to win 31 of their current 41 seats in Scotland, but given that the polls had refused to shift with Murphy’s appointment, he had reduced his prediction from 31 to 24, and gave this warning to Scottish Labour: “If Murphy cannot trim the SNP’s lead from 20 points to six to eight points, Labour could end up with as few as 10 to 15 seats”.

In the wake of Ashcroft’s first results, IPSOS/MORI had been busy, and on the 17th February presented their polling regarding prospective electoral deals between Labour and the SNP: 56% of English Labour voters supported the SNP deal, with only 25% opposed. A Survation poll released three days later showed that 35% of Scots wanted a Labour-SNP coalition government, with only 19% wanting a solely Labour one. Amongst the ‘also-rans’, 7% wanted another five years of the ConDem coalition, and a quaint 8% – perhaps rooted in the 1980s – wanted a LabLib coalition. Aw, bless.

At the end of February, Survation repeated their poll from the 19th September – results day for the Referendum – and the comparison was truly fascinating. From the 19th, the figures were Labour 38%, SNP 34%, Conservatives from 15-18% (no, I don’t understand this indecision, either). By the end of February, using the same methods for the same questions, Survation were getting SNP 45%, Labour 27%, Conservatives 13-15% (again – search me…). Interestingly, using the Electoral Calculus website tool on the 19th September figures to represent a resurgent Labour come May 7th, prospectively gave the Conservatives 2-3 seats in Scotland, increasing from their solitary, smaller-than-the-number-of-pandas-in-Scotland 1. ‘Vote Labour, Get Conservative’, apparently – in this scenario, a late swing back to Labour could actually be enough to make a Conservative government MORE likely – although you won’t be seeing that on any Labour election literature…

The second bombshell came on the 5th March, with Ashcroft’s second poll results released, this time of a thousand constituents in eight ‘No’ voting ‘safe’ seats for SNP opponents. All 5 Labour seats showed large swings to the SNP, with only East Renfrewshire’s Scottish Labour leader Jim Murphy holding on by 1%. Of the 2 LibDem seats, Charles Kennedy, the former party leader, was projected to go, leaving only Alistair Carmichael as the sole extant LibDem MP in Scotland, up on Orkney and Shetland. The 1 Conservative seat, David Mundell in Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweedale was projected to be a dead heat (Conservatives and SNP both 34%, Labour 18%, LibDems 7%). Overall, this suggested over 50 seats to the SNP. UK-wide Ashcroft’s polling showed LibDems and SNP now tied on 5% of the entire UK vote – but LibDems are contesting 650 seats, and the SNP are only contesting 59…

It is worth noting that arguments have been made that Ashcroft’s polling system may be slightly underestimating SNP support, as it asks the voting intention twice, and only uses the second answer: psephologists posit that the second answer can be used to give an ‘apologetic’ response, through a feeling of having to ‘balance’ the first more honest answer with a different second one. But, even accepting Ashcroft’s data at face value, the New Statesman’s electoral calculator went further with the data, projecting 56/59 seats going to the SNP. Which would leave Alistair Carmichael for the LibDems up in Orkney and Shetland, and Labour with Glasgow NE (Willie Bain) and East Renfrewshire (Jim Murphy), a 25% swing to SNP in West Dunbartonshire taking it from Labour’s Gemma Doyle.

An ICM poll for the Guardian between 13-19/3/2015 showed no sign of this support slipping, with SNP 43%, Labour 27% (+1 since December), Conservatives 14%, UKIP 7%, LibDems 6%, Greens 3%.

And, finally, on the 31st March, a ComRes poll for ITV News of Labour-held constituencies across Scotland showed a 19 point swing from Labour to the SNP since the 2010 General Election – with SNP support in those 40 Labour constituencies now at 43%.

Which all rather begs the simple question – why?

Well, I suspect the answer lies in Ashcroft’s second set of polling data, from across the rest of the UK, predicting a dead heat for Labour and Conservatives on 272 seats, with Labour having fallen from their peak above 40 down to the low 30s, where the Conservatives have been stuck since mid 2012, and the LibDems on below half of their 2010 vote share, with UKIP falling back slightly from their peak at the end of 2014. Polls show 70% of Scottish voters believe that Labour has ‘seriously lost touch with ordinary working people’, and that two thirds believe UKIP is a party for ‘oddballs and extremists’. The LibDems opposed VAT rise and austerity until they were in government, when they supported both, so are little trusted. A leaked memo even shows that the Conservatives are only seriously contesting 2 seats – including the one that they currently hold – and for that David Mundell is avoiding mentioning the fact that he is a Conservative Party candidate on his leaflet, perhaps thinking it is not a vote-winning strategy…

It continues to oscillate tightly backwards and forwards, on the UK-scale: after the leader’s had their non-debate (the ‘battle of the TV interviews’) last Thursday, Labour had a 4% lead on the Sunday – then Ashcroft’s polling the following day gave the Conservatives a 2% lead. In terms of seat forecasts, ‘Elections Etc’ and ‘Election Forecast’ have generally had the Conservatives 6-8 seats ahead of Labour, with ‘May 2015’ and The Guardian putting the lead at slightly less, at 4-5. Polling gives Conservatives 276-286 seats, with Labour on 271-280 seats, and the LibDems on 22-26 – so if the SNP can muster 40 seats in Scotland, it makes it electorally impossible for the Conservatives to gain power, even with the LibDems help. With a vote for the SNP, it avoids the dangers of Labour swinging even further to the right once in government, as happened so tragically under Tony Blair.

So Sturgeon made it very clear that she would not be supporting the Conservatives under any circumstance whatsoever in November. As the polls had yet to leap up to their current levels, nobody paid a blind bit of notice – until last weekend when Alex Salmond reiterated the same point, and that the SNP would vote down a Conservative Government, and uproar hit the right wing tabloid press down south. But it looks as though neither Labour nor the Conservatives are going to get much more than 33% of the vote (is it worth pointing out that ‘Yes’ managed significantly better than that in Scotland?…). With such a widely-promoted tie below majority government level, perhaps, just for once, Scots know that their votes would not just be making up the numbers, but actually for ONCE have a chance of making a difference to the political landscape of Scotland – and even the rest of the UK.

There is also less of a sense that one just has to accept whatever London hands down anymore, and that there are no alternatives and no way out: a recent study by the University of Edinburgh indicated 69% of Scottish voters believe that Scotland WILL become independent (although, coyly, no timeframe was offered or asked for…). And with this self-belief, this sense of empowerment, perhaps there also comes a desire to flex those muscles…and just once try voting for something different from the consensus, at the one time when it really might make a difference.

So, Glasgow NE and East Renfrewshire as Labour’s remaining seats…that means that there would be as many Labour MPs as pandas, in Scotland? Now, there would be a thing…

 

“the most important thing for the SNP in every Westminster election is to achieve the thing we failed to achieve since 1974 and that’s to achieve relevance in a Westminster election. And listen, folks: nobody can say we are anything other than relevant to this election campaign.” (Alex Salmond, 29/3/2015)

Wings Over Bonn: Waiting for ‘Project Red’…

I spent the last week of February attending a training course in Bonn. Come the last Friday afternoon, and I had some time to kill before going to the Airport for the flight back to Edinburgh. As the internet had been a little erratic to access for the preceding day or two, I managed to find an office in the department I had been studying in, and logged in – Gmail (a forbidden pleasure in so much of China) the inevitable first port of call.

I saw the notification that the year’s ‘Wings Over Scotland’ fundraiser had started at 10am that very morning, and my interest was piqued right away. Their first fundraiser in 2013 had set a precedent for a political website, and last year’s had been legendary: launched 6 months out from the Referendum, with a target of £50,000 (+£3,000 for the fund-raising site’s commission) to try to reach in 34 days, it had hit the total in under 8 and a half hours, had gone over £80,000 in 24 hours, and finished the 34 days at £110,717. A stunned and outraged unionist twitterati (note: no capital ‘t’…) mumbled incoherently that the fiendish editor of ‘Wings Over Scotland’ must be taking the same money out and resubmitting it, under a variety of fake accounts, to produce such a large sum (as clearly there could not possibly be so many people believing in independence and the service that he provided)…despite the fact that the commission would erode the money each time….and the amount of work to generate over 1,710 donor accounts would have been quite impressive.

‘Wings Over Scotland’ might not – as their fundraiser positively declared – have ‘finished the job’ last year, but their impact was massive, and in a war against a decidedly partisan and all-pervasive media (coming soon, The Death of Scotland’s Post-War Dream Pt.4), as much underground promotion of the case for independence as possible was necessary: the legend that is The Wee Blue Book had a massive penetration of literally hundreds of thousands of copies, and won many minds (and, perhaps, hearts) over to ‘Yes’. For Rory Bremner, in his BBC review show of the Referendum campaign, to say that Wings was the unofficial propaganda outlet of ‘Yes’, in the same way as the BBC was for ‘No’, was a high plaudit indeed. I certainly don’t regret the two week’s salary donation one bit – I only wish that I could have given more. Undoubtedly, ‘Wings Over Scotland’ are a huge part of the reason why The National exists today, where before there was no equivalent media outlet (Ok, the Sunday Herald came late to the party…) before September 18th: it demonstrated an appetite for news that was not coloured by an overriding hatred of the idea of an independent Scotland.

But back to Bonn. I clicked the link from the Wings e-mail that led to the IndieGogo page, to see how things were doing. I think my biggest post-Referendum interest has been on how much of the surge in support for ‘Yes’ (in a broad sense – full fiscal autonomy, as a path ultimately to independence) would be retained by the time May 7th‘s General Election comes, so anything that gives an indicator of change, or weakening resolve, interests me. Is the hope for self-determination being crushed and eroded by the increasingly contradictory nonsense coming out of the ‘No’ camp parties?

The page started to load: it was just after 4pm in Germany, so that meant the fund-raiser had been running for five hours. I looked at the figure, and my heart fell slightly…the only figure up on the page was the target – £48,356. It did not appear that there had been any donations at all yet. Still, people would be getting home from work soon, and…no, this was not right. £45K plus £3K for indieGogo’s commission was fine, but that £356 was…just weird.

On an impulse, I refreshed the page. £48,501. And I started to laugh…

‘Wings Over Scotland’ had hit their target in 5 hours – a slightly lower target than the previous year, admittedly, but still: the difference between £105 per minute last year, and £160 per minute this year.

Around two weeks later, on the 14th March, the fund-raiser broke through the £100K mark. So far it has over 2,700 donors, and still gets several hundred pounds each day. I have a feeling that, if it was running through the end of March, there would have been yet a further surge when another payday came through.

And what, might you ask, does all this mean?

Firstly, I would contend that the faster rate of donation, across more individual donations, suggests that despite the Referendum focus being absent, that this is a mark of people’s ongoing revived engagement with politics in Scotland. It is also – clearly – a massive endorsement of Campbell’s character (the editor), to inspire such belief through his posts on the website AND what he delivered during the Referendum campaign, The Wee Blue Book in particular being outstanding [http://theweebluebook.com/]: this is not just based on some wild promises, then the proceeds disappear as he runs off to the Bahamas – this is a vote of confidence, based on what he actually delivered last time. People have confidence in him, believe in and trust him to do well for them with their money.

And what – I may hear you ask – is this money for? Well, in addition to the (compared to mainstream media) thoroughly referenced and researched articles, and a (small) salary for the man to do it, he commissions a large amount of leftfield polls, asking alternative questions…which reluctantly the mainstream polls slowly drift towards asking in his wake. And something hinted at for this year’s fundraiser is ‘Project Red’: “After last year’s Wee Blue Book, we’re currently working on another sizeable and significant undertaking in time for the general election. We can’t give away too much about it at the moment…” Project Red: a book of handy referenced Scottish Labour lies, perchance? Well, that would be my guess, anyway…but whatever it turns out to be, I am pretty sure it will repeatedly nail the lie that ‘the biggest party gets to form the government’ (only true if you get a majority…otherwise it is the incumbent’s job).

 

“Wings are the ‘No’ campaign’s biggest nightmare: they were expecting Alex Salmond and the SNP. They were expecting Blair Jenkins and Yes Scotland. They were NOT expecting Stuart Campbell and Wings Over Scotland.” (Dr. Morag Kerr)

“Football is not a matter of life and death… it’s much more important than that.”: Of Football and Diverging Flags (The Death of Scotland’s Post-War Dream Pt.2)

In the previous post in this series (intended to pretentiously mirror the ‘Thrie/Four Estaits’ – my apologies), I noted the role of some of the 1950s movements towards self-determination and devolution, in which it could be argued that the Church of Scotland had played an occasional hand (e.g. the Scottish Covenant). However, with the decline of the significance of the Churches over the post-war years, it would be hard to portray any church as a serious ‘Second Estait’ in modern Scottish culture.

But if one were simply looking for a much broader definition of ‘religion’…well, then, one might not have far to look for an alternative candidate for an opium of the masses…than football.

So what does the most globally popular game invented by Scots have to do with Scottish politics relating to the Referendum? As someone once put it: “Its not the losing that’s the worst part of being a Scotland football fan, it’s the hope.” Familiar sentiments, perhaps, to some of us on the morning of the 19th September last year…coming so close to winning with that series of polls but a few days earlier had given us that last minute hope (probably as surely as it rallied the enemies of Yes at the last minute), only to see the apocalyptic bleakness of the final result rise like a mushroom cloud over that grey morning. But – beyond clumsy metaphors – is there some more substantive significance in this sport?

It was once noted by a son of East Ayrshire, the legendary Liverpool manager Bill Shankly, that whereas some people talked about football as though it was a matter of life and death, it was actually “much more important than that”. Football has often been discussed in terms of being some expression or venting of social tension through proxies warring on the pitch – although it arguably has a history for doing quite the reverse of dissipating social conflicts when sectarian agendas have lain between the teams. But beyond local fixtures and derbies, the national game has often been presented as the most simple or obvious metaphor for vicarious warfare, with the symbolic sporting of national flags at either end of the stadium.

And when one turns one’s attention explicitly to the national teams of Scotland and England – apparently the two oldest national football teams in the world – and their senses of identity as expressed by the ‘heraldry’ borne by their supporters, the picture becomes quite interesting.

In the home where I grew up, much was made of the presentation of Scottish sportsmen and women within a British context: Scots always claimed as British, but English only ever referred to as English. A modern manifestation has been commonly remarked on with Andy Murray – British until he loses a match, at which point he spontaneously becomes a Scot. But this second aspect is of less interest to me – it is a projection (primarily) of the state broadcaster, and less to do with how Scots perceive themselves within the Union, as much as how they are being told to see themselves by the media (with an unavoidably implicit inferiority attached). Within football, my father would observe that it rarely took long in any international match by the England team – especially relating to a world cup campaign – before the commentators would mention winning the 1966 world cup, and maybe that this was the team that was going to do it again. As the celebrated soft drink advertisement succinctly put it “I had an Irn Bru in 1966 – but I don’t go on about it.” But that 1966 tournament probably marked a rather fascinating watershed in identity as far as England and Scotland were concerned.

Archival photographs of the time record a rather different looking set of crowds for both Scotland and England (although Scotland beat England the year after their world cup victory, they did not qualify for the world cup during that decade) compared to today. The union flags are very much in evidence in both crowds – something largely unthinkable in a Scotland football crowd today – and the St George’s Cross virtually absent from the England crowd. Fast forward a few years, and the picture is radically changed – the St George’s are out in force with nary a union flag visible, and the Saltires are rampant in the Scotland crowds. Was this event really a turning point in the British identity, with a UKIP-like rise in a sense of Englishness, displacing the Scottish component out of ‘Britishness’? I am not suggesting that winning one sports tournament caused a reassessment of their own identity by those who called themselves English – but rather that it gave a vehicle to express their inner sense that English success was British success…because the two terms were – to many of them – entirely synonymous, and the words so interchangeable that they were frequently used in that way during news and sports coverage. Such a repackaging of Britain, wherein Scots had grown up believing that they were in an equal partnership, then were suddenly finding themselves on the outskirts of something approaching a Greater England mentality, inevitably provoked a backlash: the rise of the Saltires in the Scotland supporters’ ranks, and the other highlight of the 1978 world cup campaign that was not Archie Gemmill, namely Andy Cameron’s chart-topping (well, it got to number 6) ditty ‘Ally’s Tartan Army’: “We’re representing Britain, And we’re gaunny do or die, England cannae dae it, ‘Cos they didnae qualify!”. This was more than poking fun, this was bursting a vainglorious bubble, puncturing an arrogant conceit trumpeted for years from the media – that for once there would be a world cup that was not wall-to-wall England coverage, regardless of how many of the ‘home nations’ were playing. [Of course, the media got their revenge in Argentina, with the harrying of the team at every turn in what at the time was a novel tabloid media attack dog style by broadcasters in particular – Trevor MacDonald, please do take a bow -…but that is quite another story.]

Similarly ‘that’ epic piece of monologue by the Norwegian commentator Bjørge Lillelien at the end of their triumphant game against England in 1981 (“Maggie Thatcher – can you hear me Maggie Thatcher? – we gave your boys a HELL of a beating tonight…”) was played to death on Radio Scotland News the next morning, with noone in the studio concealing their amusement. Another small nation had struck a blow against that pomposity. The increasingly popular ‘Anyone But England’ jerseys are a recent iteration of that same expression.

During the Referendum campaign, some unionist voices complained with much annoyance at the way that the Saltire had been ‘appropriated’ by the nationalist side – as though it could be appropriated by the unionist one? – but this somewhat pales in comparison to what I would argue is the more stealthy appropriation of the union flag as solely for England in those post-war years. Another comment from during the Referendum campaign comes to mind: “We’re not leaving Britain – Britain left us long ago.” One could make the case that it was this dispossession that rendered the union flag suddenly redundant, obsolete, as a symbol for Scotland football fans. Whether it was solely a response to poor media handling after the 1966 tournament, or a symptom of a broader reaction within Scotland to some other repackaging of their identity…well, in that debate, there’s still all to play for.

Jim Sillars may well have rebuked Scots in the past for being “90 minute patriots”, but the evidence of a changing perception of Scotland as being part of Britain or not can be viewed on the stands: the historical images of the flags carried by those football crowds record the undeniable changes over time, all the way to the present day. And as you look at them, it is worth reflecting on just how unimaginable it would now be for those union flags to be anywhere near as prevalent in a crowd of Scotland supporters again.

 

“Are we still the 90-minute patriots of the 1970s-80s, who, when put on the spot, faced with full responsibility for ourselves, ran for cover as a province of England? Are we, like the team that Craig Levein fielded against the Czech Republic, desperate for a draw, which is what devolution is in the political arena?” (Jim Sillars, March 11th 2014)

(Still) Living in Interesting Times: Reinventing 2014 And All That?

I have taken some unintended time out since the last post – a couple of writing deadlines that got in the way while I was stuck out in China, and only really getting my head back above water now I am back in Scotland, at the time of the Chinese New Year.

This means that I will have missed both new year in Scotland and in China, which was not exactly my intention. The truth is, that when I was planning my 2014, I had not intended to be in China for Xmas. As with many – although not in any way regarding a Yes victory as a foregone conclusion – I had thought about the sort of Hogmanay that we would have had as one huge ‘New Yes 2015’ party, ringing out joyously across a land set for a new beginning. When the result came in, it was clear that not only was that not going to happen, but the reality of the poverty of the smaller regular celebrations in contrast to what could have been, would be a somewhat sad celebration to witness.

My friend Antonio stopped me with a grin as I was in mid-flow in Kunming at the start of February, trying to explain something to him about new year in Scotland: “Hey, Man – c’mon – you guys voted to be English, remember?” I hesitate, then grin back – it is hard not to agree with his perspective. It reminded me of my friend, who joined the SNP after the Referendum, as the only party with any chance of making a real difference: ‘I was there the day the strength of Albannach failed…’, he proclaimed on the 19th. (As a scientist, he has since left the SNP because of the issue of creationism teaching.)

That said, although the days of the festive season passed fairly anonymously in China, it was not entirely possible to avoid the reality of what was happening in the outside world. The shops more and more gear up for Xmas, just like any western city, and for two weeks beforehand, the university where I work was playing an arrangement of ‘Auld Lang Syne’ on the tannoy. Naturally, they knew nothing of the roots of the music – ‘it is Scottish? We know the title as something like ‘The Snowflower’….’. Well, I guess Scots was never going to be that easy to translate into Mandarin.

The traditional New Year question holds true, in any language: what, if anything, has changed, as 2014 recedes? Where do we stand now in this Year of the Goat or the Sheep (depending which region of China you are in)?

There were many ‘Review of the Year’ articles that I looked over at the end of 2014, that attempted as usual to answer just that question, all of which had some degree of resonance to them. But the most striking for me was a short paragraph by Stuart Campbell – still the press’s favourite ‘demon of choice’ in the absence of Alex Salmond – which I reproduce in full as my ‘quote du jour’ below: “As far as the wider goal of independence goes, we’re persuaded by the argument that Yes had to lose this time round.” Whoa. Really? The ‘Great Satan of Unionism’ says that?

The ‘need to lose’ seems a harsh conclusion from Campbell…were we the example to the others who come after our own struggle – so that they could see how we were bullied and lied to, as a warning that they might experience the same if they foolishly trusted their establishment governments? I would like to think that our example has thus encouraged the vote for Syriza, maybe even boosted Podemos support, through our sacrifice – going first, like the elder sibling, to endure the worst travails, so that the younger siblings can follow them in an easier trodden path.

That doesn’t mean that I would not prefer that we had reaped the rewards of that struggle ourselves, rather than merely serving as a cautionary tale to others.

I am not denying that I can see some benefits to the movement for Scottish self-determination in losing – as predicted, ‘Yes’ turned into the smug movement of ‘I told you so’ (The Party of I Told You So, or ‘Too Late to the Party’), as the Smith Commission unveiled its feeble offerings, with the usual suspects being pushed into the limelight to assert that the Vow had been delivered, and that being able to redesign the speed limit signs on Scottish roads had been EXACTLY the sort of sweeping new powers that the majority of the electorate had been seeking.

The wake of the result has of course seen SNP support (for both parliaments) and membership rise to fever-dream levels, with a combination of Yes voters becoming politicised into traditional activism, and I suspect more than a few Hangover and Conditional No voters becoming annoyed that they were so arrogantly and blatantly deceived. (Well, we did warn you…) This means that the base of agreement for independence has risen, with support for independence polling at its largest levels ever (up to 60%) – I am aware of course that people feel comfortable saying that now, when there is no threat of another Referendum, but bear in mind that is also true for the vast majority of the figures on support for independence going back to 1978 with IPSOS-MORI, so these numbers today are still perfectly valid and comparable.

In contrast, if we had scraped a win, the communications that have surfaced since the end of the campaign from Whitehall about Scottish independence not being allowed regardless of the result, play to the paranoid conspiracist in me – that we would not have been permitted, despite the vote, to achieve statehood. The oil prices (regardless of how irrelevant they are, as a mere sweetener to the Scottish economy that makes it healthier than the UK’s, and as something that could well have recovered by March 2016) would have been an excellent basis for a black media campaign – yup, even worse than the last one – designed to destabilise the Scottish Government. And if all else failed, and opinion polls started to see a waivering in public support…well, did we just avoid a repeat of January 1919, when the Westminster government sent in tanks to Glasgow and closed the local barracks?

Yeah, I know – hysteria on a par with ‘but you CAN’T have the pound!!’ – but as we appear to be such an invaluable resource, and Britain has a (contemporary) habit of sending in armies to countries with oil, I do not think that the scenario is too unthinkable, even (or especially) in this day and age.

I remember grimly deciding a few months before the vote that we would need a win of at least 5% – knowing the media odds were stacked against us, we could have added an effective additional 5-10% on to our ‘natural’ support base, once the propaganda campaign stopped after the vote. Except, of course – as we have seen – the propaganda would not have stopped – it would just have stepped up. Uncertain people would have had barrel loads of anxiety heaped upon them – they would have felt that ‘Yes’ had strongarmed the nation into a decision before it was ‘really’ ready to do so, and agree to any policy from Westminster that would have headed off the responsibility of independence. As Eddi Reader pointed out, everybody has to make their own journey themselves to get to the conclusion that self-determination will be what makes the difference.

I am always wary of reinvention – sometimes that psychological need to reprocess and represent seems more like pathological denial, a form of callus to grow over an open wound: your heart may be broken, and your mind is thrashing around, desperately trying to find factors about which it can say ‘ah, y’know? We’d never have worked out anyway…’ Sometimes it is too easy to give in to that as a justification for failure – to persuade yourself that you never really wanted to succeed in that after all – and you just had a narrow escape. The thing that makes me fear that I am doing that, is that I am unsure that we will ever be ‘permitted’ a second referendum – and that was almost certainly our one chance (which we were never supposed to have in the first place)…so subsequently building voter support in such a scenario becomes meaningless. Were we politically educated enough before as a people to see through the transparent fiction of the Vow? Is that embittering experience what it takes to build the consensual move forward towards a new Scotland – the recent memory of being blatantly lied to like children? Perhaps…and to an extent, I hope that that is really the case, as it is hard to otherwise find a silver lining from the cloud of September 19th.

So, ‘Kung hei fat choi’ – and we continue to live in ‘Interesting Times’. I myself am somewhat comforted by the words of one correspondent: “It will all be OK in the end. If it’s not OK it’s not the end.”

 

“As far as the wider goal of independence goes, we’re persuaded by the argument that Yes had to lose this time round. A 51% victory followed by the collapse in the oil price – irrelevant as it actually is, as the factors causing it won’t be applicable by the time Scotland would actually have been independent – would have unleashed unholy chaos and the prospect of some truly dark events. As it stands, things are set fair for the subject to be revisited sooner than anyone would have thought this time last year.” (Rev Stuart Campbell, 31/12/2014)

Jim Murphy, Torture and the CIA: or, Why Everyone Loves a Good Margaret Thatcher Assassination Story

I read with some mild amusement of the criticism of the BBC’s Radio 4 for selecting for broadcast a book by (twice Man Booker Prize-winning authoress, no less) Hilary Mantel, that features a fantasy about a woman killing Margaret Thatcher. In a time when BBC journalism has lost its teeth since the departure of Greg Dyke (if not the arrival of John Birt), when Government toadying has become the norm…do we really have to look to ‘Book at Bedtime’ to find the last vestiges of the BBC’s political independence and integrity?

It brought back fond memories of the 1989 ‘St. Swithin’s Day’ controversy, the comic produced by Grant Morrison and Paul Grist for Trident Comics (with no sense of irony), where an individual plans a fake assassination of Margaret Thatcher as she visits a technical college. Even the fact that the denouement shows him pointing a finger at Thatcher and saying ‘bang’ did not diminish the howls of outrage from Conservatives, The Sun leading with the headline “DEATH TO MAGGIE BOOK SPARKS TORY UPROAR”, and questions asked in Westminster were recorded in Hansard about it.

People seem to forget the real feelings that people had at the time towards her, provoked both by her actions and the attitude of contempt that accompanied them, whether engaging in conflict over islands in (arguably) a cynical attempt to retain her premiership, or decimating the mining industry. People forget how easily the phrase ‘vile and evil woman’ followed her name in the 1980s – they look bewildered at the pictures of celebrations in Glasgow last year at the announcement of her death, uncomprehending. Well – maybe you had to be there. Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister throughout my secondary and tertiary education, and I can remember coming down to breakfast one morning, to hear the news from Brighton that the Grand Hotel (where the cabinet was staying for the Conservative Party conference), had been blown up by the IRA: you didn’t have to have any interest in Irish politics to feel exultation on hearing the news, and the thought of the possibility – just the possibility – that she was finally dead. I remember t-shirt designs with a picture of the wrecked hotel and the slogan ‘So near – and yet so far’; a working-men’s club in South Yorkshire discussed having a ‘whip-round’ to pay for the bomber to have another go; Morrissey echoed the feelings of a large chunk of the population when he said “the only sorrow of the Brighton bombing is that Thatcher escaped unscathed”. You may not have been political, but you knew enough to hate Margaret Thatcher.

Eventually, it was another form of political violence that brought her down: as much as Scotland protested against the poll tax for the preceding year, it was only when the Battle of Trafalgar Square took place in London that the poll tax was seen as ‘a bad thing’, and it is now portrayed as what led to the end of her premiership (although opinion polls stated that her handling of the NHS and water privatisation were far more unpopular, and Geoffrey Howe’s resignation speech that precipitated her 3 week downfall was about differences over European integration). I remember the news coming in at the time of her resignation, while I was working at the student union offices in Edinburgh. A colleague was writing a student paper editorial on Thatcher’s resignation, and had written ‘noone could fail to be moved by those last moments as she got in the car to drive away from Downing Street for the last time…’. I stopped her short: ‘You can’t say that.’ ‘Why not?’ ‘Because I think the only way that she should have left office was with a bullet in her head.’ (The editorial was rewritten: ‘almost noone could fail…’)

That may seem a hugely extreme over-reaction – and maybe you really did have to be there – but actually the way she has been beatified since her (galling) death from old age, to become untouchable and beyond any form of besmirching criticism, for me actually emphasises exactly why an end that expressed the fact that she was deeply, deeply unpopular and reviled would have been far more appropriate, and honest, for how history recorded her. ‘Gunman ended Prime Minister’s life’ requires an explanation of ‘why’ – even if it is to dismiss as ‘clearly deranged’, or ‘loner’ (as in St. Swithin’s Day, with the obligatory US assassin’s copy of ‘Catcher in the Rye’ in their pocket, mythically supposed to be used by CIA-programmed killers in the more far-fetched conspiracy theories). But this way? ‘She died, peacefully, of old age – in The Ritz Hotel’. O, Rest in peace, you poor, dear, dear, little old lady: all her mistakes, her unpopularity, can be swept under the carpet and ignored, in the face of final frailty and weak capitulation to final oblivion. And now, she has become a sacred cow, where the idea that people did not like her is barely allowed to be uttered – she even received what was tantamount to a state funeral – and is put on a pedestal with Churchill as yet another ‘untouchable’ – beyond question.

Back to the BBC under attack for a short story scheduled for ‘Book at Bedtime’ (which I fully accept the BBC to cave on before broadcast). I find it slightly amusing, buried amongst the outraged criticisms, that one individual (Lord Bell) stated that the decision to broadcast it five months away from a General Election “is inevitably going to be accused of political bias.” Against whom, exactly? Have people suddenly forgotten how much Thatcher is lionised by the Labour Party these days? They do not criticise her legacy or openly condemn her actions for fear of losing another single SE of England vote – oh, no, that ‘radical viewpoint’ is left to be espoused by…the SNP.

Given the current generally right wing state of the UK Government since Blair, Thatcher’s stain extends far into the present, and is much to be reviled. Her example, it seems fair to say, engineered the death of the Left in UK-wide politics, and the birth of Tony Blair. What did she say her finest achievement was? “New Labour.” And it is true – ever since the Labour Party came to power, they have increasingly attempted to out-Conservative (if not out-Thatcher) the Conservative Party: the British Government’s policy on torture changed from Thatcher to Blair: it expanded beyond what was done in Kenya and Northern Ireland, to become far more broadly acceptable policy in the lead up to the first Iraq War. CIA and MI6 operate a mutual exchange of all information – which means that they can spy on each other’s citizens, then report back, so that MI6 (via the NSA) and the CIA (via GCHQ) can keep their respective hands ‘clean’ regarding their own citizens by not having done it themselves (as Snowden revealed). Similarly, they can get third parties to do the torturing for them, while informing them of the sort of information that they are wanting. It was the Labour Government that oversaw the change in that policy to become far more systematic (if not industrial) in scale: ‘Cruel Britannia’ came into being at the same time as the marketing people were throwing the slogan ‘Cool Britannia’ around. (See revelations by Snowden, and listen to Craig Murray, on: http://tvi-media.com/batemanpodcasts/141212_db026_craig_murray.mp3 ).

Which – perhaps inevitably – brings us to Jim Murphy. Is it true that Jim, that arch-Blairite currently trying to reinvent himself as more socialist than Keir Hardie, gets expenses from the Henry Jackson Society, a ‘thinktank’ (allegedly partly-funded by the CIA) that actively supports foreign military interventions as standard policy? That dismisses what it cares to consider as the opinions of ‘non-democratic’ states, or organisations that include such states within their members (that would be the UN, then…)? What…Jim? What…Trident-supporting, pro-Iraq War Jim?

Surely not?

 

“We all know here in Scotland that Labour ceased to believe in anything approaching socialism a long time ago, and has largely ceased to believe in social justice. The Labour Party has really become a mechanism for people to advance their political careers. That’s what it is: it’s a mechanism for people to make money out of politics. And you have people in the Labour Party like Jim Murphy, for example, many of whose views are to the Right of an awful lot of people in the Conservative Party….so you have a party which has abandoned its roots, stopped working for ordinary people, which talks about austerity, which says that not only does it want to keep welfare reforms, it wants harder welfare reforms than the Tories, and abroad has simply agreed to be a servant to American NeoImperialism, and to spend a huge amount of our GDP on the weapons to back that up, so… I find the Labour Party morally disgusting.” (Craig Murray, Former British Ambassador, in conversation with Derek Bateman, 13/12/2014)