Chippy Harry McNish

An occasional series on eminent Scots ignored or forgotten

How a Scot was cruelly denied the Polar Medal | The National

‘Chippy’ Harry McNish

As true as I can tell it, this is the story of a Scotsman and an Englishman. The Scot was called Harry McNish. The Englishman was called Ernest Shackleton. As the years went by English, annoyed by constant demands for equality from Scots for a genuine partnership between their respective countries, picked on McNish’s nickname to call protesting Scots ‘chippy’, awarding McNish inverse fame.

McNish had a cat called Mrs Chippy who is part of this story. Mrs Chippy took no insult at the name, a generous toleration considering she was a he, Mr Chippy. He went everywhere with McNish, on the harbour while McNish fixed a trawler’s hull or mended a cabin, the cat knowing the hand that fed him, and without qualms near water for he had his sea legs too. That Mrs Chippy was gie adept at walking a yardarm, catching rats, or sleeping curled up atop a binnacle. The cat amazed the crew of the Endurance by being able to walk along the ship’s inch-wide guard rails, in even the roughest seas.

He, Harry, not the cat, was born in Port Glasgow in September 1874, and died 56 years later, all but forgotten in his native land. He proper name was Henry McNish. Life would have seen McNish a decent, competent local carpenter, but fate had a different role in mind.

McNish played a vital role in saving Earnest Shackleton’s hapless expedition to the South Pole only to see his ingenuity and perseverance denied both praise and a medal. Actually, Shackleton was Irish-born, but of an English family from Yorkshire. His family moved to London when he was ten. In the archives of England’s best universities that keep tally on their national heroes, McNish is described as ‘British’ not Scottish. New Zealand named a whole island after him just to remind Scotland how we are dominated by our neighbour to the point we leave it to the British cabinet and the BBC to decide who is fit for greatness and who is not.

They say all great men have a skeleton in their cupboard, sometimes with flesh on it, such as a mistress, sometimes a dark deed, sometimes a theft from which they benefited. Shackleton had a closet full of hubris. He is our second character in this story, a man who let bitterness cloud his judgement. As for McNish, finding a cupboard was very hard. The home he grew up in was so small the one cupboard held coal for the fire. McNish was the third of eleven children born to John and Mary Jane (née Wade) McNish. Finding a bed for each was often the drawer of a pine dresser.

It could be argued infancy in a wooden drawer imprinted McNish to the extent he choose carpentry as his trade. Not much is known of his youth other than he was a person who knew his own opinion and was quick to stand his ground in an argument. Living in Port Glasgow, Inverclyde, he was drawn to boats and ships, and like all Scots living in a land taken from him,  he acquired the outward urge.

The penalty of the explorer

Our story takes place in the time of the British Empire, a time where successful men had man servants and ladies personal dressers, and the poor had food to find or lived off the land as labourers. A time too, when plucky Brits ventured forth to explore far off places no one had been to before, with plucky fortitude, and plucky courage, there to achieve greatness in the Empire’s gaze and of course, claim land for Queen Victoria.

McNish was 40 years of age, widowed twice, ten years in the Merchant Navy, a skilled shipwright in constant demand for repairs on small and large boats, when he applied to join Shackleton’s expedition aboard the Endurance set too sail to the Antarctic.

By then, McNish had acquired that Scottish trait of being judgemental on people and things, an age-old Presbyterian trait, and yet, because of his ability for hard graft, another Scots trait, and his carpentry skills, he was well liked and respected by the crew.

Accomplished and certain in his own actions, he was lauded for his ability to repair and fix parts of the Endurance that got worn or broken. McNish proved invaluable during the time that Endurance was caught in the ice. He built instrument cases for the scientists aboard, constructed a chest of drawers for Shackleton’s cabin, put together a windbreak for the helmsman, redesigned the crew’s sleeping quarters, and, after the ship was damaged by ice pressure, constructed a cofferdam in the stern to try and stop the leak from flooding the entire ship.

Curmudgeonly as he was, McNish was in every sense a team player. Though crew members soon found Mr Chippy too quick to point out the shortcomings of others, they liked his cat a lot, the gentle side of McNish, and made a cat-sized hammock for the feline creature to sleep in. Anyhow, I digress.

Like any tradesman employed today, McNish began his inspection of the damaged part by saying, “Who mended this last time? What a total mess. Amateurs”. At heart, McNish was a perfectionist. There was nothing more annoying than people who abused good workmanship, and in his mind, certain to abuse it a second time. One aspect of the ship he complained about was its ability to withstand sea ice if trapped for any length of time. In that he was to be proved profoundly correct.

In return, Shackleton expressed reservations about McNish in letters written from South Georgia in 1914 describing him as “the only man I am not dead certain of”.

He is “a very good workman and shipwright, but does nothing I can get hold of”, meaning, if you asked McNish to do something one way, he did it another, but got the job done to such a high specification no one could fault it.


The Endurance, crushed by ice, destined to sink


McNish was the oldest on the expedition, an accomplished sailor, a life-long socialist and a devout member of the United Free Church of Scotland who abhorred the use of bad language. When he grumbled about the behaviour of a crew member it was never accompanied by profanity. However, you wouldn’t want to challenge McNish without feeling the weight of his personality bear down upon you to remind you of how much of a fool you were not to be suffered.

As school history books tell, Shackleton failed in his attempt to chart the South Pole, and instead watch the Endurance crushing to pulp and twisted metal in sea ice. Unlike the Scots, the English are proud of their heroic failures, making Shackleton, a man who cared genuinely for the safety of his crew, an instant hero fit for a statue.

The flash-point came in December 1915 when, ordered to abandon ship, McNish questioned Shackleton’s instruction to drag Endurance’s lifeboats across the pack ice after the destruction of the ship.

He argued that dragging the boats across such rough ice would damage them beyond repair and, besides, that after leaving the ship, he wasn’t legally obligated to follow any orders. The captain of the Endurance, Frank Worsley, couldn’t manage to control McNish and sent for Shackleton.

Shackleton deployed both logic and force to counter the insurrection – reminding McNish with a brandished pistol that he had agreed to serve under him both on ship and ashore. Shackleton went further, denying McNish the right to salvage the timbers from Endurance to build a sloop to take the men home.

In the end, dragging the boats proved impossible and Shackleton and McNish right. Beaten by his obduracy, Shackleton ordered the men to turn back. In his diary, he wrote: “Everyone working well except the carpenter. I shall never forget him in this time of strain and stress” – effectively a logging for insubordination.

Mrs Chippy (2)

Mrs Chippy, and admiring Endurance sailor, Perce Blackborow,

The better man

McNish’s skill and ingenuity in events which followed is still remembered. After 16 freezing months trapped on the ice, the men set sail in the three small boats for Elephant Island. Eight days after their arrival, one of the vessels, the 20ft whale boat James Caird – the boat named after the Dundee jute magnate who donated £10,000 to Shackleton’s exploration fund, was commandeered to strike out for South Georgia – a journey of 670 miles – with six men on board, including McNish. It was only possible because, during their time trapped on the ice, McNish worked tirelessly to ensure the seaworthiness of the escape craft.

In keeping with the ingenuity of a gifted mind, McNish devised his own mixture of flour, oil paint and seal blood to caulk the seams of the boats. He raised the gunwales to make them safer in the high seas and and fitted small decks fore and aft to the Caird. The crew with him remember his inventiveness and skill with gratitude.

Before Shackleton, and two others, set off for the final 36 hour traverse of South Georgia’s mountain ranges, McNish fashioned crampons out of the boat’s two inch brass screws. “We certainly could not have lived through the voyage without it”, Shackleton wrote later of his carpenter’s efforts.

Without going into detail, the sailors were picked up by the Norwegian steamer Samson and then sent back to England directly from South Georgia, joining the cargo ship Orwell, which arrived in Liverpool on 3 August 1916. But that isn’t the end of the story.


The grave of Harry ‘Chippy’ McNish, and his cat.

The final blow

When Shackleton returned in 1917 from his failed mission to conquer the Antarctic, it fell within his gift to recommend his men for the Polar Medal. Of the 27 who served beneath him during the attempt to cross the continent via the South Pole, all but four had their names put forward to King George V.

The decision to leave out three trawlermen – Vincent, Holness and Stephenson – was a regrettable omission, to say the least, but the omission of Harry “Chippy” McNish, has rankled with polar enthusiasts ever since and blemished the reputation of Shackleton. Oddly, McNish expected the sleight and was never heard to complain.

The final journey

Like Shackleton, McNish never recovered his health fully. The journey and the events that led to failure broke his strong constitution if not his spirit. He returned to the Merchant Navy but suffered severe pain brought on by the months stranded at the Pole.

After the expedition, McNish worked for the New Zealand Shipping Company, making five voyages to New Zealand. He moved there permanently in 1925 and was employed at the Wellington docks until rheumatism and a serious accident forced him to retire.

Destitute, he eventually was allowed to stay at the Ohiro Benevolent Home, until he died in a Wellington hospital in 1930. He was treated as a hero and given a funeral with full naval honours paid for by the New Zealand government. McNish Island, which lies at the east side of Cheapman Bay on the south side of South Georgia, was named in his honour.

McNish was buried at the Karori Cemetery. For many years he had an unmarked grave, but in 1959 the New Zealand Antarctic Society erected a headstone. Then, in 2004, a life-size bronze statue of Mrs Chippy was added to the grave.

And what happened to Mrs Chippy, the cat? Well you might ask. Shackleton shot Mrs Chippy for food, a callous act for which McNish never forgave him. Whatever else Shackleton has in his cupboard, it shares the space with a cat.



Others in the series include:

A.S. Neil, dominie; George Forrest, plant hunter; Jane Haining, martyr; Mary Somerville, astronomer; Patrick Matthew, discoverer of the species; Don Roberto, co-founder SNP; Adrienne Corrie, actress; David Douglas, aborist; Frederic Lindsay, novelist; Allan Pinkerton, detective; Dr John Rae, explorer; Ian Stewart, racing driver.

Posted in Great Scots | 26 Comments

Car Culture: Sustainability or Scrap

A weekly look at what sucks in the our car world, and some good bits


BMW’s i3 – the sustainable electric car

Car makers are lobbying the UK government again with the insistence of a starving calf nudging a dry cow for milk. They are restarting production ignoring a huge backlog to sell. They are desperate to find ways of cutting their costs by any means but not to make their cars last longer or cheaper.

Following the basic rule of capitalism, car makers cut their costs by sacking workers. Then they stick their manufacturing costs onto the buyer as far as they can manage, while they pocket the profit. Cutting the cost of the car by using new environmentally friendly materials is beyond their comprehension.

A soon as England’s march to Brexit began the car makers pleaded to be exempt from import duties, no tariffs in any direction, massive grants (welfare payments to you and me), and lately asking for a scrappage scheme. There is talk of offering drivers discounts of up to £6000 to switch from petrol and diesel to electric or hybrid cars – and research shows that nearly a third of buyers are delaying plans to buy a new car until such a scheme is announced.

Pick up a car magazine and it will have an article detailing such a scrappage scheme. Pick up another car magazine and it will have an article dismissing a scrappage scheme. Those in favour say Aye. Those against say No. The No’s have it. The No’s have it. Unlock! Will the UK Treasury throw money at buyers after funding billions on beating a pandemic shut-down? Highly doubtful. We have a far-right capitalist government in power in London. If it has money to offer it will go straight to the car manufacturers.

With the notable exception of the shift to digital dash instrumentation and electric cars, very little has altered in materials that goes into making the car we buy today. The clever Smart Car appeared in the mid-Nineties. With it’s tough safety cage enveloping the occupants and plastic body panels that can be exchanged for new in the event of a crash or a desire for a new colour, panels that won’t rust, it showed the way forward. We have to jump to 2011 for BMW’s mould-breaking i3 to see a shaky advance on the Smart Car.

BMW i3 is the first BMW in which the entire outer skin is, like the Smart Car, made of plastic. Only the roof is made of recycled carbon fiber reinforced polymer (CFRP). The parts are by half lighter than steel and at the same time a corrosion-free surface protection, which can be produced energy-saving. The material is also insensitive to minor damage. (My Smart once took a 30 mph hit from the rear and  showed no damage.) 25 percent of the materials used for the thermoplastic outer parts of the BMW i3 are either recycled or made from renewable resources.

When painting the outer skin panels shine and resistance to environmental influences. The paint passes through dry separation without the waste of water and with only a quarter of the usual energy expenditure. In addition, 70 percent less water is needed because the body no longer requires protection against corrosion during the laborious painting process. Eliminating the conventional cathodic painting saves 10 kg weight.

Car makers could have produced a car decades ago that would last as long as the vintage cars of old, twenty, even thirty years with a few upgrades, had they designed them to last, but instead they designed them to fall out of warranty after two years. Then rust set in.

On the other hand, the BMW i3 aims for durability and sustainability. The few areas where leather is used is 100% tanned with natural extracts of olive leaves. Sounds like a face rejuvenating lotion, I know, though it has genuine advantages: olive leaves are otherwise just a by-product of olive farming. BMW puts them to good use. The tanning process itself is environmentally compatible and, last but not least, it preserves the intrinsic shine of the leather and its natural ability to regulate temperatures.

Where wood is used in interior trim, ash and beech are ditched in place of eucalyptus. Eucalyptus is naturally resistant to moisture. That means it needs around 90 % less surface finishing than more traditional types of wood. Processed without chemicals, the soft texture and natural open pores of the wood remain intact. Eucalypti are one of the fastest-growing species of tree in existence, which makes it ideal for series production. If you specify wood in the BMW i3 it’s sourced from 100% FSC-certified forestry, (Forest Stewardship Council) helping to safeguard sustainable forest management.

The seats in the BMW i3 are 40% pure wool, a renewable material that offers a high level of comfort. The wool blend is breathable, helping to regulate the temperature between the seat cover and the occupant. As a result, the seats remain pleasantly cool, even on hot days. Using kenaf – a fibre material close to jute – for larger interior surfaces allows BMW to dump petroleum-based plastics and reduce the overall weight of the BMW i3. Kenaf fibres are up to 30 % lighter than conventional materials. This extremely lightweight material is extracted from the mallow plant, which converts an above-average volume of CO2 to oxygen as it grows. These are all steps in the right direction.

Sustainability or scrappage? Both are expensive. Both ask us to buy new, both has us pay through the nose, but so far the BMW i3 is the only 4-seat vehicle that gives us a truly contemporary, environmentally conscious car to drive.

Speaking recently, Volkswagen sales boss Jürgen Stackmann said that the “automotive industry can be a powerful driver to help boost the economy”. So can buying food. He then let us know electric vehicles are not the priority for the industry. Selling what they are tooled up to make is the priority. He added that any incentive scheme should not be focused purely on electric vehicles because of their relatively low sales. How’s that for clever thinking? I had a look at VW’s much trumpeted new iD car, £36,000 before government subsidy, and whilst it’s reasonably refined as electric cars go, it is hard to see what is innovative about the way it is built. Anyhow, you won’t see one until September and probably left-hand drive.

A poll conducted for What Car? magazine’s shows 29% of us are patiently delaying plans to buy a new car post-lock-down in the hope of a taxpayer-backed scrappage scheme, and 25% are prepared to downsize. I’d like to see a scrappage scheme get rid of the high-emission vehicles first, but other than the BMW i3, I am still looking for that elusive revolution in car design and materials.

Don’t believe me? Look at any bays full of nice shiny new metal. You’ll pick out perhaps three you recognise immediately, the rest are ugly styling exercises, nothing more. 


That two metre gap

Grant Shapps, the UK transport secretary, one of the many disgraced politicians rehabilitated by the Tory party to fit in comfortably to Boris’ cabinet, says public transport means empty seats so walking and cycling should be the “natural first choice”. The power elite will stick to their mega-expansive supercars, chauffeured limousines aircraft and boats. In fact, Lord Sugar – did he never think to change his surname to Tate or Lyle? – has just taken possession of his new small business plane. There you go, plebs.

Cars are us

Cycling? I’ve thought about it to help strengthen limbs, but in Edinburgh it’s a sucker’s transport. Hills, exhaust fumes, cold and rain, wet derrieres from rear wheels without a mudguard, near misses from errant drivers, and no matter how courteous you are as a cyclist, motorists still think you are a fascist bastard. Green campaigners are right that we should drive less, particularly in cities, where congestion and pollution are serious problems and cars take up a lot of space. With public transport certain to retain the two metre rule, Uber taxis are not a good choice, (lack of a dividing screen between you and driver), buses problematic and train journeys a worry, more people are likely to use their cars to get to and from work. With 68% of people driving to work even before the pandemic, cars are not going away. Got it?

Hateful June

By some stupid reason I’ve organise June as the month my two cars need taxed, MOT’d, a full service, plus any repairs. That’s a big hit in one go. Don’t know how I managed that, but earning less and less with a pandemic lock-down keeping income to a trickle, maybe an electric bike is a good choice after all. One shot by me today as I drove home. It took a good few minutes to understand how the guy kept ahead of me, and without pedalling. Mind you, not anymore exercise in that arrangement against drive a car.

Happy motoring!





Posted in Transportation | 8 Comments

The SNP’s Moral Stance


“Stop Brexit”: the wrong slogan at the wrong time for the wrong reasons

An act of resistance is a moral act. When you take a moral stance, you are acting out of conscience. Your imperative, your motivation is to attain justice for a group or an individual, not for the political or the material or for self. You follow your conscience not because you seek personal advancement, but because the act is right. It is a courageous stance. Arraigned against the forces of the power elite and the corrupt, integrity can often make you the loser, denounced by the mob. Fear of reprisal makes cowards of us all. Strength of moral resolve makes us powerful.

The big easy

I don’t much admire the shoot-out coda in detective and political thrillers. Surrounded by villains with guns, the hero has no choice but to shoot his way to freedom. On the other hand, when the villain tells the hero he can have a quiet life by taking the bribe and walking away and the hero declines, he knows his pursuit of justice means his career and possibly life is in jeopardy. His decision is a moral decision, a decision far more courageous and admirable than loading bullets into a handgun.

A morally strong political party welcomes dissent because it has no fear of the democratic system. The party seeks out new ideas, new ways of seeing. When the SNP chase Brexit and every half-baked policy it can think up on a dreich day, causing consternation among its membership, it is non-threatening moral act to ask the Party to concentrate on pursuing their core goal, reinstatement of nationhood, first and foremost for the common good. And yet, and yet this can get you into trouble.

The moral act

Our conscience guides almost everything we do. It sustains our integrity and empowers others. When we refuse to surrender to totalitarian capitalism we make moral choices. When a company pollutes the land, it is a moral choice to report it to the authorities. When a trade union exploits its workers for political gain, and uses its power to undermine a nation’s right to self-determination, it is a moral act of resistance to criticise the union’s leadership. When the SNP fails to protect its supporters against malicious denunciation and actually endorses the injustice, resistance to their crass judge and jury affirms the sanctity of human rights. 

In iterating that principle of resistance, and the moral faith at its core, I am forced to ask why the SNP has all but dumped the cause of Scotland’s liberty. And it has done it to the extent it silences its very own adherents at the drop of an evil accusation by its political opponents, the same who are the oppressors of democracy.

An urgent truth

We face an urgent truth. Those who hold power in the United Kingdom have no respect for the democratic system. They demonstrate that time and time again. What they do exhibit in word and actions is neo-fascism, the right for one class of people to govern and to do it by immoral, illegal and oppressive rule.

By failing to release the pent up energy in the electorate to regain Scotland’s place in the world, by not harnessing the resounding support the SNP gained at the ballot box, by ignoring multiple mandates, and worse, not exploiting the May-Boris-Cummings axis, the current SNP is losing the opportunity to make significant structural changes for the better in our society. This is unforgivable.

Inertia is not a strategy. Watching people torn from their homes and repatriated and doing nothing is not the moral example of a nation supposedly acting in everybody’s best interests. Overseeing a nation’s constitutional rights attacked with impunity, passivity is a crime. 

A gift squandered

A hand full of aces left to Scottish aspirations for self-governance in the aftermath of the 2014 referendum has been ineptly played. This, despite the commanding electoral success, the electoral landslides enjoyed by Nicola Sturgeon, gifted by voters from all sections of society, and not all of them Scots by birth.

The criticism levied at Holyrood can also be levied at SNP MPs at Westminster. What do the SNP think they can achieve waffling to their heart’s content in the Chamber of Horrors now that the British state is in the hands of the ultra-right?

What strategy was Angus Robertson pursuing, and now Ian Blackford, each without a plan, standing in impotent defiance of a sniggering front bench of Tory millionaires and useless Labour faux apparatchiks? The highlight of their week seems prime minister’s question time! Has no one told SNP MPs that the television cameras cut away to the broadcasting studio as soon as the Speaker shouts their name?

Sovereignty cannot be sold

Scotland’s sovereignty is still intact. It is almost impossible for any country to part with its sovereignty. It can loan a modicum of self-reliance in, say, a trading agreement. Most countries do that. You give us a share of your goods and we will give you a share of our minerals; invest in my nation and I will buy some of your country’s debt bonds.

In any event, the people of Scotland are sovereign, ergo, their government cannot relinquish sovereignty in an agreement with another nation. Unlike England, where sovereignty is invested in the parliament, the Scottish government is not sovereign. It does not have the power to sign away something it does not own.

Sovereignty remains with the people. That indelible, irrevocable constitutional right was enhanced by the Salmond-Cameron signing of the 2014 referendum on independence. In fact, the Edinburgh Agreement of 2012 was no more a retreat from Scottish sovereignty than Robert the Bruce sealing the Treaty of Northampton in 1328.

This resurgence of idealism and hope that arrived after losing Scotland’s first full plebiscite on our destiny was based on the transformation in Scottish thought and attitude provoked by that very referendum process. And yet Scotland’s second Enlightenment is in danger of betrayal by an apprehensive SNP.

The movement for democratic rights is in a stasis partly of our own making. We lost the referendum well warned the British state would take revenge on our resistance to a corrupt London rule. The British state is brutal, without moral imperative.

The Labour party, in league with the Tories, lied to Scotland. Witness dissembler Blair McDougall on BBC Question Time telling us Boris Johnson would never be elected as prime minister. He is representative of all the others in the Better Together band of liars, slow-witted, self-serving, desperate to stop Scotland getting more democracy. We watched them scream in triumph, but we did not lose our sovereignty. That is inviolable, and that is what they want to overturn. Their answer is to resurrect devolution maximum for the umpteenth time, a tired, vague trope. And now they see opportunism in the pandemic. They hope to use it as a weapon of repression.

The great SNP sloth

We are where we are because the SNP has not pushed the momentous advantage gifted by the electorate in successive mandates. Nicola Sturgeon is a victim of her own self doubt, hiding behind an inane slogan, ‘The Gold Standard’. When the journalist Iain Macwhirter announced that Nicola Sturgeon had “kicked independence into touch” he got booed, and no doubt a few hundred angry tweets from SNP faithful. But he was right.

It is not affront to the SNP’s standing, or any individual in it, for that matter, to criticise SNP policy, or offer alternative solutions.

No act of resistance to London rule is a waste of time. No speech, no march, no  newspaper article, no blog site, no sit down protest, no placard, no press release, no tweet, no flags on bridges, no outrage expressed at neo-liberal tyranny. But coming from the SNP resistance has to be, must be, coordinated and consistent. Chasing squirrels takes a lot of energy with people running off in all directions simultaneously.

Our opponents are scared

What worries the opponents of greater democracy is, people are past the stage of thinking they need persuading independence should happen. They now know it can happen. Any number of English pundits have said independence is only a matter of time. That day might speed up by the way England has swung to authoritarian rule but what damage will have been done to Scotland in the meantime?

The power elite have spent the last three decades and more organising the obliteration of liberalism. They have abused the tolerance of liberalism to destroy liberalism. The repulsive pockmarked Steve Bannons of this world curb equality and justice by appealing to the worst qualities in human nature. They aim to indoctrinate the disenfranchised, the disaffected and the uneducated with a bitterness of the democratic system. Once that is accomplished power will be in the total control of the right-wing.

The notion Scotland might attain its liberty is both a challenge and a warning to them. They took out the European Union from the UK political system, now they have to take out Scotland too, the one nation in the UK determined to remain European and to exercise free will. 

The SNP strategy

What is the SNP doing to counter this onslaught? Barracking Tory tyranny? Showing the aloof secretary of state to be a thumping ignorant dunce? None of those things. They smear autonomy’s strongest voices. They squander our money on show trials. With muddled domestic policies they cut off rational discourse that upsets them. They spurn anger and block dissent, hoping things that happen outside Scotland will save them the trouble of doing anything inside Scotland to secure self-determination. Their adoption of gradualism is defeatist and fatal.

To step outside your comfort zone to gain an ideal wished by the masses is to live in the fullest sense of the word. You exhibit a determination to exist as a free and independent human being. To abandon self in a campaign to defend an ideal or an individual is a noble, honourable pursuit. You cannot measure resistance as if it has monetary value. To resist those that enslave us, that cause us hardship and pain, is a just cause.

Taking all that into account, I have to say in sadness, that the SNP has lost its way. Why did they elevate the status of the European Brexit argument out of any reasonable context and make it of far greater importance to the pursuit of Scotland’s freedoms? Brexit is an all-England issue. We had no choice but to state how it will damage Scotland’s economy and remove our human rights, but dedicate an entire two years and more of an SNP campaign to reverse it? England in chaos and we offered to down tools to help? Somewhere in there lies over 300 years of a colonial mentality. 

This paradox was exemplified by the polar opposite bus to Boris’s red NHS coach. Our bright yellow campaign coach had ‘Stop Brexit’ on the side of it when common sense told us it ought to have read “Independence Now!”

The SNP tree needs shaken violently to rid it of infestation, the deadheads pruned.



Posted in Scottish Independence Referendum, Scottish Politics | 24 Comments

Car Culture: Petrol TV Shows

A weekly look at what sucks in our world of cars, plus some good bits


A 1937 Talbot-Lago designed by the great stylists Figoni et Falaschi

Back in the day as a stressed out BBC executive producer going nowhere, I sat around a table with colleagues and endless cups of coffee at the annual get-together of head producers to discuss new programme ideas. I had three: a history of Scottish painters from 1800 to contemporary times, and two proposals for automobile shows. I was less critical of what cars were doing to the planet back then than now, my interest propelled by my Sicilian father who left me with an eye for good design from his days as an engineer for Alfa Romeo, a racing company once more famous and respected than Ferrari.

One proposal was for a car mechanic programme in which a classic car was remastered for the modern age, and the other was a series on the great automotive stylists, some of them talented artists in their own right. I had in mind the European greats, Bugatti, Pinin Farina, Giugiaro, and the incomparable bodywork designers Figoni and Falaschi. The car ideas were nixed immediately. Top Gear was riding high. It made BBC a mountain of money. Why create potential competition? All other car programmes were blocked.

Top Gear is like Rowling’s turgid Harry Snotter, you will never be free of it. When I junked the BBC and went to work in Los Angeles, there it was again, Top Gear reruns daily on BBC America, a commercial channel where the BBC profits from television advertising disallowed by their Charter in the the UK. However, once the stranglehold of Top Gear was broken by a single punch from the testosterone filled belligerence of Jeremy Clarkson the gates were open for all sorts of car shows to get a chance at broadcasting fame. 

Switch on your television set today and there’s a plethora of car programmes to watch, from basic mechanics for the man in his shed, to car renovations shows, and mega-auctions of super cars. In the US an entire channel is devoted to gearheads and caraholics. (Prescriptive text is desperate to alter caraholics to Catholics.) There is even a weekly show on horrible car crashes. They are recorded by the latest ‘must have’ car gadget, the remote dash top camera. A lot of recorded incidents are from Russia. You are left wondering if anybody there knows how to drive.

Top Gear is still on telly, in repeats of repeats of repeats, and in its new form exactly the same as the old, an ersatz copy. It has never grown up. Three ordinary geezers with uncompromising local accents (‘ordinary’, as in, a few million pounds in the bank), laugh and joke in a pub-like atmosphere doing infantile things with cars and their safety while exchanging puerile banter. “A’hm outa me cumfert zone”, says Paddy McGuinness, as he sails up an Amazon river, looking worried in case the camera crew behind him are not paying attention to his mock anxiety. Yes, that’s where I’ll be driving my Smart car next week, up an Amazon river.

Car makers are the most prolific of advertisers, spending millions a year on commercials. Any old car show activates the flow of loot from all aspects of car manufacturing, maintenance and insurance. Now that car sales are decimated by the pandemic, ‘Dieselgate’, and people switching to electric vehicles, revenue from car advertising is drying up. Television companies are in dire trouble. But car shows plow on.

The Clarkson, May, Hammond Top Gear used a magazine format. It had two good things going for it, three if you count no one had to wear a suit or tie. It provided thumb sucking Sunday night light entertainment for couch petrolheads and their deferential girlfriends, and it had superb film photography.

The outstanding photography was the one element that raised Top Gear above Fifth Gear, the ITV version. But the show really only lasted 25 minutes, not the hour it was broadcast. After the halfway mark it fell to pieces. We got caravan crashing, inane football games smashing up small cars like fairground dodgems, and dropping cars from a great height. The show actually ended once Clarkson had judged a celebrity’s character by the car they drove, and gave them a shot at racing around an old airfield near Clarkson’s home, so he could race home in time for tea.

The original black and white earliest Top Gear was a strict, old school rota, thirty-minute show where middle-aged hacks described what the car looked like, how it differed from the last model, showed you its engine, and drove it a little before handing the keys back to the car company and the next tester, They returned to their life as an automotive freeloader moving between spurious car comparison tests in Tuscany and glitzy car shows in Paris. Clarkson was singularly responsible for shaking up the genre. Clarkson broke the mould as a newbie when he compared a boring Vauxhall saloon with a fridge and told viewers not to buy the model.

What car presenters knew about cars and car styling back in the day, and how they affect society, was handed to them by the car company in a carefully composed, all good press release, memorised, spoken to camera, and edited by the programme producer. To explain a new car was junk or a menace safety-wise, was an end to a comfortable career.

Automobile writers aspired to become television car show hosts one day. One managed it, Chris Harris, now part of the new Top Gear, proving its takes about 300 car hacks at least ten years of hard graft in all weathers for just one to get a gig on a car programme.

What Top Gear did not have, still does not have, and ninety percent car shows do not have, is a Scottish presenter, but we shall lay that little bit of colonial oddity aside for today. I want to point out what is not obvious to men who watch those programmes, the absence of female presenters and mechanics. This is an outrageous situation. Forty percent of cars are driven by women. There are female racing car drivers. What’s the problem, chaps? Can’t get away from the image of the female form draped over a bonnet? Open any car magazine and it’s all scruffy men with receding hairlines and beards writing about men making cars, men racing cars and men owning expensive cars.


The all-female designed Ford Ghia Focus, so good they didn’t make it

For the absence of women in car programmes, I lay blame at the big feet of right-wing Clarkson and his thuggish executive producer Andy Wilman. “We advertised for a third presenter as a woman but none were good enough. So that’s that”, Clarkson said, without his usual ironic pause before speaking the last line. Women  in Top Gear are restricted to the ‘dolly birds’ ushered to the front of the audience in the studio, or some celebrity who drives a plastic Whizz electric car around London.

Fifth Gear employs an expert female racing driver and car enthusiast since it began, the resourceful and knowledgeable Vicky Butler-Henderson. (I prefer Fifth Gear because it is car criticism first, chat second.) Alas, the new Top Gear also doesn’t believe women exit.

Only when you turn to American car shows do you find one of the presenters is a female, probably married to the garage owner, and usually in a supernumerary role. A few years ago Ford handed the design of a complete sports car over to a team of women. What they produced broke a lot of standard design cues. Ford exhibited the concept wherever it could as a marketing tool … and then sold it in auction. At least today’s car makers are employing women in their design teams, but as far as I know, none have seen their exterior bodywork design concepts put into production.

I want to finish with one British car show that I enjoy and dislike at the same time. There’s no women in it either unless selling their car to the host. It’s called Wheeler Dealers. If you are not much interested in automobiles it is boredom on wheels.

There are only two presenters and neither look as if they have a home life never mind a partner. One presenter is the buyer-seller – the dealer: Mike Brewer buys an old car that is screaming out for repairs and upgrades but might turn a profit resold. The other is the mechanic – the wheeler: Edd China, a genius of an engineer, personable, talented, hard working, handsome in a six foot six sort of way – what cars can fit him?

Mike Brewer is a seriously annoying short-arsed cockney who pronounces ‘street’ as shtreet, talks to us as if selling a dodgy second-hand car, looks sweaty with clammy hands most of the time, and leaves Edd to do all the work, stripping out (shtrippin‘?) an engine to find one fault, sanding bad paintwork, and reconditioning an entire interior. Brewer has gone all American these days and has a new partner. Edd has brains, he stayed in Blighty. 

And no, I don’t watch the new Top Gear. I’d rather wash cars for a living.


My three best car shows

There are a few television orientated shows I’ll go out of my way to watch. Jay Leno’s Garage is top of the premier league; always informative. Leno knows the vehicles history, and keeps the show educational and humorous. Leno likes and collects European cars. The show is so good it won a Primetime Emmy Award for “Outstanding In Its Class” in 2016. Fifth Gear is the top rival motoring show to big budget Top Gear. It’s a lot more sensible, and has a focus on useful and newsworthy information. The team usually review more affordable cars than their counterpart. Overhaulin’. The producers got the punctuation right in the title. I can do without the kiddy’s prank stuff at the start where they take some poor guy’s beat up car without him knowing so they can surprise him with it rebuilt at the end, but the outcome is always superb, a car to lust after. The redesign is master-minded by the gifted Chip Foose. His team have one week to rebuild and refurbish the car to turn it into a custom masterpiece. Other shows are, to my mind, also-rans. Since I actually have a life, if I’ve nothing better to do, I admit I watch them.

Back to basics

Just when you thought the car industry has learned its lesson, the sneak thieves are back lobbying the government to reverse environmental policies. Thousands of unsold cars lying in fields has the car makers in a panic. How to get rid of them? The UK automotive industry is in confidential talks with the UK government over a possible £1.5 billion scrappage scheme or “market stimulus package” (ha ha!) that it insists should encourage the purchase of diesel and petrol cars on an equal footing with cleaner vehicles. The plans under consideration would take £2,500 off the price of a car and put a further 600,000 new vehicles on the road. Before you jump for joy at owning another unwanted diesel car hard to sell, that’s out taxes the government is squandering to have us pollute the atmosphere a few years longer.

Keep on truckin’

A lorry driver has been jailed for six months after making a dangerous U-turn on to the M6 motorway in Staffordshire at rush hour. Unbelievable, eh? CCTV footage shows the man heading the wrong way down a slip road to face oncoming traffic before turning around to join the flow of vehicles. Yes, a full 44 ton big rig. No one was injured but the driver was lucky not to be lynched.

Happy motoring – your five miles!

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Car Culture: Fall of the Giants

A weekly look at what sucks in our car world, plus some good bits


UK car production all but stopped last month. Only 197 vehicles were produced, an unheard of figure since cars moved from horse and carriage to bespoke handmade.

Jaguar Land Rover (JLR) in trouble

Jaguar Land Rover, Britain’s largest carmaker, owned by the Indian conglomerate TATA, is reported as asking for a £1 billion bail-out from the UK Tory chancellor Rishi Sunak, reported in the press amusingly as a ‘support package’ to help it survive the coronavirus pandemic. There is no mention of job protection. Redundancies are never ruled out in ‘support packages.

Born in Southampton, educated at Winchester and Oxford, those bastions of the English class system, Sunak is of Indian origin making this an auspicious time for an Indian corporation to ask for a massive gift. A billion pounds sterling puts the company firmly in the nationalised industry bracket. 100 to 1 BoJo’s bungling far-right regime will never contemplate such a thing.

Most carmakers are burning through mountains of savings every day, primarily because of the cost of maintaining and running their operations shut down costs, despite furloughing a lot of people. Still, when it comes to grabbing the nation’s taxes, shtum is the watchword.

“We are in regular discussion with government on a whole range of matters and the content of our private discussions remains confidential”. JLR Spokesperson

Falling demand from all car makers – in the UK by at least 90% – because of the lock-down, has grounded the entire automotive sector. Obviously, JLR thinks itself an entitled company. Last month JLR said retail sales for the fourth quarter, ending 31 March, fell by more than 30%, to 110,000 vehicles. In 2018 it sold about 600,000 vehicles. |This is a car company in crisis.

SKY broadcasting reported that JLR ended the last financial year with cash and investments of £3.6 billion and had access to up to £1.9 billion in credit. If used, credit means debt. Last summer the company secured £500 million in government-guaranteed loans in a deal with UK Export Finance to help accelerate electrification after it reported a £3.6 billion annual loss.

I get the feeling their former talented Scottish head of design, Ian Callum, saw the writing on the wall and got out of the company in the nick of time.

Nissan in trouble

Nissan is closing its Barcelona factory with the loss of over 3,000 jobs, holding onto its Sunderland plant meantime. This disaster causes great rejoicing from the right-wing jester Andrew Pierce not just because he is happy to see it affect Johnny Foreigner, but because he thinks the Sunderland plant is safe. It is not. Sunderland is still in jeopardy.

In a tweet, omitting to point out Nissan, like JLR is in deep doodoo financially, he said:

“Nissan to shut its plant in Barcelona with the loss of 3,000 jobs but its sticking with plant in Sunderland. the reverse of what the Remoaners said if we dared to vote for Brexit.” Andrew ‘ToryBoy’ Pierce

No one has gloated in the press over the potential of Nissan-Sunderland axed because of pulling out of the EU, warned it could be a causality if Brexit went ahead, yes, hoping it would close, no. Even if it gets a long-term stay of execution how does that prove Brexit is a raging success?

Reading auto pundits drivel gets very boring after a while. Perhaps that’s their plan, that we don’t notice what the right-wing are doing while we are shocked at the behaviour of underboss Cummings or the stupidity of Sunderland car workers voting for Brexit.


The French carmaker Renault plans to cut 14,600 jobs as it tries to save €2 billion in a savage restructuring programme prompted by the pandemic. The company will cut 4,600 jobs in its French operations, which will undergo a major reorganisation, and another 10,000 around the world.

If you don’t own a Renault you won’t be worried. If you do own a Renault car you might be justified in wondering what that will do to your local service dealer.

Carmakers keep a tight grip on franchised showrooms, how they present the vehicles, how they do deals with buyers, and the provision and cost of spares. Only a few years ago, Edinburgh’s Honda dealer for over forty years found itself dumped in favour of a new out-of-town swanky showroom and an outfit to run it. Car makers are among the most ruthless cost cutters on the planet. They always begin with loyal staff.

Renault’s closures could include a foundry in Brittany and either the Douai or Maubeuge plants. Major changes are under consideration at factories in Flins and Dieppe. The carmaker will also abandon producing combustion engine cars in China, with Dongfeng buying out its joint-venture partner.

Unless Nissan, still linked to Renault, decided to make a Renault model at Sunderland, no one should place a bet on its safety for another decade. Meanwhile, Nissan has asked the Japanese government for substantial aid and appears to be getting it. I’d like to think the investment showed up in better built cars.


McLaren is one of England premier supercar companies,that decided to go BIG and aim for the wealthiest set in society, Monte Carlo included. It also decided to return to Formula 1 racing, a crippling cost for even the most cash rich company. This week Williams Formula 1 Team posted a loss of £13 million for 2019 and is now up for sale.

Appeal plummeting in pandemic times, McLaren also failed in its request for a £150 million emergency loan from the government, a serious blow. JLR got their docket in first. McLaren has burned through £257 million in the year up to 20 April, with bleeding expected as lock-down continues worldwide. In keeping with almost one million other British businesses the group has furloughed staff and implemented temporary pay cuts for the few working. Production at Woking was suspended in March.

With the cajones of ace cricketer Ian Botham on crack, McLaren boasted it was taking on Ferrari as the world’s premier sports car maker – Lamborghini tried that once, now owned by VW. McLaren. It duly borrowed megabucks to build a space age factory on England’s green and pleasant land. All went well at first, the cars were admired, drove divinely, their looks less admired, until owners discovered resale values dropped 40% in a few months, on a good day.

“We’ve found a stealthily specced example going for £82,950 – almost a 50% fall from its price when new.” Autocar magazine

Delusions of grandeur ran ahead of reality. Limited-edition McLaren’s can cost as much as a small passenger plane: the windscreen-less Elva will cost a reported £1.4 million before options such as a 24-carat gold engine heat shield are included. Yes, we live in crazy times.

Back down to earth: there are no McLaren showrooms. You cannot walk into a McLaren showroom near you to check out their cars or extras. Wealthy buyers want to see their purchase before handing over £163,000 for a McLaren’s GT, a road car, yet are asked to pay up, wait months, and then take delivery.

In any event, ask yourself, if you had the money, would you buy a McLaren or a Ferrari?

Aston Martin

When the latest James Bond film was dry docked until later in the year the biggest groan could be heard emitted from carmaker Aston Martin. They have both the classic DB5 and the latest zoomy version in the new 007 movie, great advertising too late to boost orders.

Aston Martin sacked its chief executive, Andy Palmer, this week and without warning – he read of his sacking in the press – following a 98% collapse in the luxury car company’s share price since it floated on the stock market less than two years ago. The company has replaced Palmer, who has served as Aston Martin’s CEO since 2014, with an executive from Mercedes. Wonder why the executive left Mercedes?

Still, though the company has its back to the wall you can pretend you’re Sean Connery or whichever actor you like best in the role, you can buy a replica of 007’s car with all the gadgets, ejector seat too, a limited edition of 25, so long as you can cough up £3,3 million.

And finally, VW, some good news

This week Volkswagen lost a case in Germany’s highest court in the land against a single owner of a second-hand diesel powered minivan who claimed he had been deceived as to its emissions capability. The court said he should be awarded 25,600 Euros for the used-car purchase he made for 31,500 Euros in 2014. Sounds a fair deal to me. He had four years use.

VW is legally bound now to offer compensation, a replacement vehicle of the same value or the cash… and all the other diesel minivan owners.

The shock verdict applies to vehicles with rigged diesel engines in Germany, meaning it sets the precedent worldwide, though VW, as has been its habit in such cases, will do all it can to block claims internationally. This is a just but truly calamitous blow to the automaker almost five years after its emissions scandal erupted.

The ruling by Germany’s highest court for civil disputes will allow owners to return vehicles for a partial refund of the purchase price serves. It is a template for about 60,000 lawsuits that are still pending with lower German courts.

After years of dismissed protests about cars taking over the world and governments tarmacking  the green earth and the arid desert, we see Mother Nature doing it better by sending the Grim Reaper’s scout to bring car makers to their senses if not to heel.

I chose those companies as examples of the collapse of old ways because they are symptomatic of the two great ills of the motor trade: walking a tightrope by serving only the rich, a diminishing return unless you can keep values increasing, and making far too many vehicles you pile up in fields and sell to customers when they are already two years old. In those circumstances, rich or poor, the buyer is always the loser.


Best wee second-hand buy

Regular readers will know I had to drop a search for a small SUV for friends while no one is allowed to move beyond their local supermarket, and only if an essential journey, such as starving to death. I got asked a similar question for a small city car and remember I liked the VW Lupo with the its pleasant blue instrument illumination. I’d recommend the biggest engine variety – you need that burst of speed to get you out of trouble when overtaking. Prices don’t reach higher than £5,000 for a four-seat GTi version. A light car, it can cover 0-60mph in 7.7sec, and it has more character than its modern equivalent, the Up GTi. Get an MOT in with the price or walk away.

Big Rig Trucks

The truck industry is getting hit as hard as motor companies. I read the chief executive of the Road Haulage Association said coronavirus had ‘decimated’ large parts of his ‘sector’. After Beeching wiped out 70% of British rail – one of the easiest ‘rationalisations’ ever for a fat fee – the road haulage business grew and grew. So did the size of the trucks. Almost every year they add more tonnage, more wheels to carry it, and damage more bridges. I for one won’t miss fewer trucks on our road, but I have a soft spot for the red and green of Eddie Stobart trucks – they are kept spotless and driven by courteous truckers.

Unequal equality

West Granton Access, a long semi-rural pavement in Edinburgh, has been divided into two parts with a thick white line, two-thirds for cyclists, one thirds for pedestrians. Pedestrians include parents with children, mothers with prams, joggers, dog walkers and individuals glued to their iPhone. The width allotted to them is so narrow they have to step into the path of cyclists to keep a safe distance. Just to pass someone coming in the opposite direction forces them out of the pedestrian lane. To gain safety they have to lose safety. Ludicrous planning, Edinburgh council. Well done.

Happy motoring!




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Churchill in Dundee


Whenever a journalist writes a piece on Churchill’s stint as Liberal MP for Dundee – research unearths a skip-full of identikit articles, shallow and derivative – one aspect is mentioned without fail. They begin or end with the loaded statement “The only evidence of Churchill’s presence in Dundee is a single small plaque on a street wall”. (My italics.) A cursory study tells us Churchill cared little for Dundee folk; a wonder city fathers don’t remove the plaque permanently in embarrassment.  

The man and the women

Let’s begin with the man. Sir Winston Leonard Spencer-Churchill (1874 – 1965) was a British politician, army officer, and writer. He painted a bit but as a hobby. For all the waving of Union Jacks, Churchill was of mixed English and American parentage.

Churchill was born in Oxfordshire to a wealthy, aristocratic family. He was a direct descendant of the Dukes of Marlborough, his family among the highest levels of the British aristocracy, born into the governing elite. His paternal grandfather, John Spencer-Churchill, 7th Duke of Marlborough, had been a Member of Parliament (MP) for ten years, and a member of the Conservative Party who served in the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli. His own father, Lord Randolph Churchill, who died of advanced syphilis or a brain tumour, whichever fits your perceptions, was elected Conservative MP for Woodstock in 1873. His mother, Jennie Churchill (née Jerome), was from an American family whose substantial wealth derived from finance. To say Churchill was born into privilege is an understatement. He arrived with a silver spoon  sticking out of every orifice. He came into being when the British empire was at its zenith and the elite ruled without mercy.

In appearance he was unprepossessing, or as Scots say, nae oil paintin’. Below average height (5′ 6″), with a large head, small chested, he tended to wear high hats to increase his stature. He was podgy, prematurely bald, with small hands and feet and skinny legs.

His speech defect, a splashy sibilant ‘S’, later to become his trademark together with a fat Havana cigar, did not help him. His over-weaning self-confidence compensated to an extent attracting a succession of sexual liaisons, but women left him as quick as attracted, finding him egocentric and a misogynist. The found it difficult to subordinate themselves to him completely.

Churchill was thirty-four by the time the twenty-two year-old Clementine Hozier accepted his offer of marriage, “he talked entirely of himself”. He had already been rejected on four known occasions by women of good judgement and taste. Clementine was the daughter of Sir Henry Hozier and Lady Blanche Hozier, although that is in doubt because her mother was infamous for her infidelities.

Clementine was not purblind. She kept a wary eye on his gambling, and a close watch on his wandering eye for shapely women with money. She disliked his Tory friends in whom Churchill found convivial political views and told him as much. Disputes were problematic, “he shouts me down!” That aside, they were a good match, they shared a penchant for spending money lavishly they did not have. 

No mates Winston

For a member of the Liberal Party recently defected from the Tory Party, Churchill tested fate. He disliked Liberal leader David Lloyd George, continually opposing Lloyd George’s policies as weak or woeful. The feeling was mutual. In fact, Churchill’s Liberal peers neither liked him nor trusted him, and the same prevailed when he crossed the House again to rejoin the Tory party years later. MPs from all sides of the House thought him a serial failure, racist, bombastic, and a bully. It was water off a duck’s back. As he said himself, “any fool can rat but it takes a certain amount of ingenuity to re-rat”.

Like Boris Johnson, on whom contemporary pundits are wont to compare for something better to do, he was an opportunist with a string of non-achievements and disasters in his portfolio acquired in office and as a young army officer. (Facts for a different essay.) Trailing those lead weights behind him, how did he manage to win a seat in Dundee?

To darkest Scotland

On his appointment as President of the Board of Trade, Churchill had to fight a by-election in Manchester North. He lost by 400 votes to the Tories. A day later he received a telegram from Liberals in Dundee inviting him to stand there, a safe Liberal seat, a shoe-in. As is Scotland’s political fate, whatever politics is popular in England, Scotland is sure to defend the opposite policies.

The sitting MP was handed a peerage and his suitcase packed. Churchill’s Dundee opponent was a devout Christian and socialist prohibitionist, Edwin Scrymgeour, not much of a rival at that time. To win, Churchill adopted a hyper-critical style, describing the Tory Party as “filled with old doddering peers, cute financial magnates, clever wire-pullers and big brewers with bulbous noses.” The enemies of progress were Tories “weaklings, sleek, slug, comfortable, self-important individuals.” He could almost have been describing himself.

If he had one talent outside self-serving expediency it was a fine oratory talent. He won with a 7,000 majority, but all was not sweetness and light.

“This city will kill me. Halfway through my kipper this morning an enormous maggot crawled out and flashed his teeth at me. Such are the penalties which great men pay in the service of their country.” Letter to Clementine

Privately, he had already formed a dislike of Dundonians. “It is an awful hindrance to anyone in my position forced to fight for his life and always having to to make his opinions on national politics conform to local exigencies.”

As far as Churchill was concerned, Dundee was a small provincial town of no great importance other than for saving his political skin. Like so many Englishmen who followed him to Scotland, it is difficult not to see him as another ligger and a carpetbagger. Dundonians learned to loathe his expensive lifestyle, his long absences, especially his active social life amid the aristocratic elite. 


Churchill campaigning in 1908 with arch suffragette Mary Maloney in the background

Scottish hospitality at its best

Churchill was at first well-received in the city. The Liberal Party was popular among the city’s working class communities. Dundee had never been a Tory city, the Liberal Party had values people admired. One policy was the National Insurance Act of 1911, another the establishment of Labour Exchanges – now called ‘Jobcentres’ – a successful idea copied from Germany. Churchill was not known for paying attention to detail. His impetus was to avoid waste. For him, that meant an organised labour market to benefit the state, the interests of the individual to be subordinate to those of the nation.

To the man in the street, a policy of putting men back to work appeared progressive, men out of work were better in. To Churchill, the policy was “a remorselessly unsentimental government attitude to the people’s sacrifices for the future of the race”, a maxim more Tory than liberal. By siding with Liberal policies Dundonians initially misinterpreted Churchill’s allegiances. For almost a decade they held to Churchill’s representation and he retained the seat until 1922.

Not what we ordered

Nevertheless, as was his character, Churchill could alienate as fast as he could impress. He set up his headquarters in the city’s Queen’s Hotel and spent much of his time in the Dundee Advertiser’s Bank Street offices, poring over proofs of his speeches as they were typeset within minutes of his meetings. (The job of writing history to his own image began early in his career.) During his tenure he made himself unpopular by deploying troops during the both the miners’ strike in Tonypandy, Wales, in 1910 and the transport strike a year later that concluded with two people dead and 400 injured. Also, some Dundonians were not slow in blaming Churchill for the Dardanelles failure and the slaughter of so many men at Gallipoli during 1915.

At the beginning he was very popular with the Irish in Dundee but that popularity waned too when he sent troops to Ireland after the war. Churchill’s attitude to every nation England had conquered, and ultimately to his own people, was one of colonial master to lowly citizen.

Reversal man

Churchill was adept at advocating one policy one year and reversing it the next. For example, in June 1908 the Liberals created a Budget League, a convenient mechanism to  head meetings around the the United Kingdom to debate budget proposals. A meeting in Edinburgh in July saw an angry Churchill announce that if the Lords rejected the budget the government would dissolve Parliament and fight an immediate General Election.

Liberals were outraged that he had announced a non-existent policy. He found himself formerly rebuked, apologising a day later. In 1907, he had described the Lords as an anachronism, a “one-sided, hereditary, unpurged, unrepresentative, irresponsible and absentee”. In September he talked of a representative assembly and a miserable minority of titled persons who represent nobody”. A decade later Churchill was spouting the opposite sentiment. The hereditary House secured, “the vital breathing space for consideration and for more stable forces in the community to assert themselves”.

Female contempt

Churchill’s misogyny was self-evident. He refused to back women’s suffrage, an obsessive opposition that dogged his Dundee tenure from start to finish, having previously made public his belief women had rights “through your husband”. He varied the goading with “through your father, brother and son.” To Winston, women only had uses in the kitchen and the bedroom.

One Irish suffragette, Mary Maloney, a leading member of the Women’s Freedom League, followed him to every speaking event to ring a loud school bell as soon as he stood up to speak. Her most famous interruption was during his campaign speech at a Blackness factory in May, 1908. The meeting had to be aborted. Churchill struggled good-humored against the incessant clanking, but gave up in despair, saying,

“If that woman thinks that is a reasonable argument she may use it. I don’t care. I bid you all good afternoon.”

From then on Maloney was known as the “La Belle Maloney”.

She was not the only female warrior to torment him. The suffragette Ethel Muirhead pelted Churchill with an egg during a political meeting in 1910, while another suffragette jumped into his carriage at the Tay Bridge Station and harangued him. Like so many in the city, they were women working in the mills and factories, the breadwinner.

N A523/1 Churchill in Kinnaird Hall 1908 (C)DCT

Churchill (stage centre), Caird Hall, Dundee

Tide and appendix turn

Throughout his representation Churchill was a minister in the cabinet in one post or another, but as the years went by high office failed to impress voters. By the time elections rolled round in 1922, Churchill just had an operation to remove his appendix, an operation that probably saved his life. Hospitalisation and recuperation delayed his campaigning in Dundee allowing opponents a free hand. Arriving late he threw himself into the fray with gusto – Churchill was never a slacker. He was renown for working hard whatever the task before him. Near the end of his tenure, where the opening speaker was drunk, Churchill tried to make a speech but was shouted down by the audience.

Churchill was thoroughly beaten by Edwin Scrymgeour, a native of Dundee who became the only person ever elected to the House of Commons on a prohibitionist ticket. He held the seat for nine lonely years. The election’s other candidate was E.D. Morel, a former conscientious objector who stood for the Independent Labour Party. Churchill’s Dundee “seat for life” was anything but.

The campaign coincided with Churchill losing his cabinet post and now had lost his seat. Dundonians had had enough of him. In fact, his wife Clementine, who had undertaken some of his campaigning, was just as intensely disliked, in her case for parading her wealth ostentatiously and her unacceptable English upper class attitudes.

Onward to destiny

Churchill’s open views on education also contributed to his flight from Dundee. He believed in a two-tier system, one for the elite and one for the masses. His idea of state-backed gambling was also rejected but came to fruition under Margaret Thatcher. In that he considered horse racing was for the rich and should be given state support, and greyhound racing was for the “new degeneracy” – working class gamblers.

He went on to stand as a totemic symbol of the power elite’s fear of social and political revolution, helping to crush the General Strike of 1926, protect land reform from taxation, giving tax breaks to wealthy Americans to live in the United Kingdom in “sporting counties”, and cutting the level of benefit for the unemployed.

His 14-year spell in Tayside, in which time he had raised funds from wealthy supporters for the Liberal Party one of whom was immediately knighted, was a history to which he never referred.

He lost by a landslide 12,000 votes to Scrymgeour who first stood against him in 1908. Dundonians were fly enough to realise they could elect a tee-totaller and drink to their win in the local pub.


Churchill with Doris Castlerosse, a beach near Château de l’Horizon, Vallauris, Côte d’Azur 

Facing Hitler

As the Second World War approached, Churchill was still cold-shouldered by his parliamentary peers, he now a member of the Tory Party. By a fluke of world events his destiny awaited, and greatness was thrust upon him by default.

Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain had tried in vain to broker a deal with Hitler to avoid a war with Europe. The Tory party was ready to hand Czechoslovakia over to Nazi imperialism and parts of Poland too, appeasement at almost any cost the policy of the day. Though a few in the party did not trust Hitler, Churchill stood alone among them advocating re-armament for a concerted attack on Germany’s ambitions.

When Chamberlain waved Hitler’s letter as he disembarked from the aeroplane, wearing his out-of-date wing collar and holding his trusty umbrella, claiming “peace in our time”, only later to learn the Nazi army was on the march, he was booed in parliament. He left Westminster a broken man.

With no other contenders for Tory leadership, Churchill, now proven prescient in his judgement of Hitler, saw himself elected as leader of the Conservative Party unopposed. In that regard, time and events came together.

After the war he was a justified hero. (His blunders during the war years were huge, but again that is for another chapter.) His speeches and appearances in bombed areas kept the British together and in hope. When it was over no one asked how he had entered the war bankrupt and in massive debt, but ended it with the equivalent of £2 million in his bank account. He was given a house in London free of rent for life and the status of a  ‘great man’ conferred upon him.

Newspapers turned a blind eye to his increasing alcoholism, his gambling debts paid by unnamed admirers, his egotism rewriting history for his self-aggrandisement, and his affair with socialite, Lady Doris Castlerosse.

The public, however, remembered his transgressions of which there were many and bloody, not the least of which was the criminal Allied carpet bombing of Dresden that killed tens of thousands of innocents. The collapse that led to the humiliation of Dunkirk; the Norway shambles in 1940; the early defeats in North Africa; the complacency that led to the Germans’ Ardennes push and the chaos of the Sicily campaign were not easily forgotten. The walking wounded were home to tell the tale..

Days of glory over, once more Churchill found power slipping away from him when his party lost the General Election after the war. As for Dundonians, they went on to vote overwhelmingly for Scotland’s independence. Must be something in the water.


Readers might spot the odd trajectory line Churchill with Boris Johnson. Motivation for this study was Boris Johnson, his supporters going out of their way to depict him as the new Winston. (Johnson is also born of half-American, half British parents, but born in the USA.) Publishing a pot-boiler biography on Churchill and Johnson quoting him whenever it suits, is evidence of an attempt to resurrect days of Empire glory. Press pundits refer to Johnson as a ‘great leader’ in the making and a reincarnation. It is an accepted fact by his peers and critics alike that the UK’s self-appointed prime minister of the Union (where’s Gibraltar?) is a ruthless calculator of where his personal advantage lies. Johnson tells us is that his only core commitment is to himself. As for being another Churchill, readers can make their own judgement. Meanwhile, the Tory party revives the mythical ‘spirit of the Blitz’, calling the pandemic a ‘war’ with a ‘front-line’.


Origins of the Second World War – AJP Taylor; Letters to Clementine Hozier; Age of Extremes – Eric Hobsbawn; Memoirs of the Second World War – Winston Churchill; Churchill – Clive Ponting; Secret Affair – Professor Richard Toye; The Autobiography of Bertrand Russell – 1914 to 1944; Hansard 1908, 1910, 1922; Dundee Courier; Glasgow Herald; London Evening News; the Times.



Posted in Scottish Politics | 12 Comments

Car Culture: Dicing Dyson

Your weekly look at what sucks in our world of cars, plus some good bits


Sir James Dyson, the man, the money, and his car

There are so many clever and socially conscious people in the world who make our lives better and yet here I am, just as Margaret Thatcher wanted, discussing an extraordinarily wealthy entrepreneur, a jingoistic self-promoter and profiteer. She denigrated public service, told us society did not exist, demoting postmen, railway workers, teachers, nurses, doctors – anyone who did any good in the community – downgraded to the lowest category. We were reduced to farming livestock, some good for breeding, others for selling at market.

Britain’s men of mega-money, the bosses, they were the people we should venerate. BBC even has a regular television series dedicated to a chosen few, The Dragon’s Den, where, pitching to the self-satisfied team of opinionated millionaires, less than half of the hopefuls looking for investment see a penny for one reason and another. Bank used to be the place to go for loans.

The week Sir James Dyson announced the closure of his car design business. He said he could not make money out of it. Bit late in the day to make that discovery. Did no one do the calculations at the start?

Dyson boasts – I choose the word carefully – closing down his car making enterprise cost him a personal £500 million. It will help balance the books at the end of the financial year. What Dyson forgot to mention, and the deferential press too, was he received a £16 million grant from the UK government towards battery research for the car.

A grant is the same as welfare for you and I, paid from our taxes, in Dyson’s case, money down the Swanee. We won’t get that money back. Even so, most company bosses that lose £500 million would be tossed out on their neck by shareholders. Who cares a fig? Most of us have forgotten Sir Philip Green is still living in luxury. We complain on Twitter and spit in disgust but nothing happens to see a fair society exist. Big business has governments in its pocket.

The car he hoped to manufacture was an high-end SUV – he only makes things to sell to the wealthy and the cash rich. There’s no doubting his creative staff are very talented at contemporary leading design. Cars are a completely different matter. Actually, he announced he was shutting his car activities last year but hoped to find a buyer. With Tesla ruling the roost of electric cars, and most other mainstream car makers about to launch two or three electric models, Dyson made a serious error judgment thinking he could beat long established companies. He is not Elon Musk.

The car is not the only failure to his name. Among a string of no-takers is his washing machine with the obligatory purple bits, that thrashed clothes to recreate the way we used to do it by hand. You’ll find one model of it on display in most PC World showrooms priced at £1,200. Which? laboratories called it unreliable and poor value for the money. Dyson sued the government sponsored cheat checker but lost. The public didn’t take to his status symbol knowing you can buy four superb brands for the price of a Dyson.

In politics Dyson made the fatal mistake of ingratiating himself with UKip, the Brexit Party and the Tory Party. He praised British inventiveness and decried EU bureaucracy only to up stakes and flounce off to Singapore to develop and produce his ‘revolutionary’ vehicle. He did it just as the EU was bringing in legislation to outlaw high-powered vacuums that help screw up our atmosphere. Dyson’s inventions always seem to carry a penalty. At 71, having built a self-made family fortune estimated at £9.5 billion, he can certainly afford to insulate himself from the slings and arrows of public opprobrium.

He began his company with the ‘Ballbarrow’, a conventional barrow but with an inflated orange ball (later used on an early vacuum), instead of a wheel to make it more tractable moving left and right or over mud. The body was made of moulded plastic. The ball deflated in double-quick time, the metal fixings rusted and snapped, and the plastic container section split carrying anything heavy and sharp. But he sold a ton of them.

New doesn’t always mean the best. A few more inventions, good and bad times, joining up with a Japanese company, and then to his famous vacuums, redesigning hairdryers and hand dryers sold at sky high prices on the way.


Dyson’s yacht, The Nahlin, an old American Indian word meaning fleet of foot

Arch Brexiteer Dyson owns a yacht, The Nahlin, purchased from another jingoistic English multi-millionaire, the one who advocated Scotland trash civil rights and vote independence down, Sir Anthony Bamford, Chairman of JCB diggers and bulldozers. A wonderful irony attached to the yacht is where it was built, the John Brown Yard on the Clyde, part of the same industry Thatcher ensured went to the wall.

As well as a yacht, he surrounded himself with all the trappings of the rich, pretty well cancelling out any good he does investing in his institute of engineering and technology in Wiltshire. He has a global portfolio of homes including a £20 million London town house, a £3 million chateau in Provence with its own vineyard, a £50 million penthouse apartment in New York, and a 51-bedroom stately home in Gloucestershire boasting orangeries, lakes and a 300-acre park designed by Capability Brown. Dyson is well able to ride out any economic turmoil that Britain’s current political paralysis will spawn.

You pay a lot of staff to look after all those places. To reach them he has a helipad in his landscaped garden, a £40 million Gulfstream jet in his personal hangar, and a showroom of cars. His yacht saw him hand over £25 million to JCB’s Bamford.

He employs 9,000 people, 1,500 fewer when he locks the gates on his car factory, and turns over £3.5 billion a year producing household goods across the world.

We’ve been here before. Back in 2002 Dyson announced he was moving production of his vacuum cleaners to Malaysia, making 800 loyal members of staff redundant in the process. The following year, he and Deirdre, decided to pocket some £17 million in dividends from the firm. He used the money to buy his stately mansion in Dodington Park, Gloucestershire, a V-sign to his sacked workers who live nearby.

Redundant staff would not have been pleased either to see the Brexiteer net some £1.6 million in EU farming subsidies. The cash was paid to Beeswax Dyson Farming Corporation, a firm he’d set up to manage the swathes of farmland he’s acquired. With around 25,000 acres under the organisation’s control, primarily in Lincolnshire, Gloucestershire and Oxfordshire, he’s now believed to be England’s biggest private landowner, with more rolling acres than even the Queen. Farmland is exempt of inheritance tax.

A wonder he has time to invent anything, devoting his life to stashing the cash.

In 2015, the Guardian revealed that various parts of his business empire were registered in the tax haven of Luxembourg. And last October, it emerged that he’d invested in three different film finance schemes via firms embroiled in tax avoidance planning. A Sunday newspaper reported Dyson is a member of Tamar Films, Tyne Films and Future Screen Partners, allowing him to keep down his tax bills.

Tamar and Tyne are run by Ingenious, a now notorious accountancy firm involved in a long-running dispute with HMRC over movie schemes, which such luminaries as David Beckham, Gary Lineker and Andrew Lloyd Webber joined in an effort to keep their hard-earned cash from the Exchequer. Back in 2009, meanwhile, Dyson gave his three children Emily, Jake and Sam a total of £45 million shortly before the capital gains tax from such transactions increased from 10 to 18 per cent.

Nobody gets stinking rich without doing dodgy deals.

I thank Dyson for two things: the paperless hand drier, and getting rid of the vacuum bag, the one thing from which vacuum makers made their millions. But after my wife brought three different Dyson vacuums that broke down in quick succession, we use the humble Henry Hoover, one of the hardiest and cheapest hoovers on the market.

The press like to call him, and others of his ilk, a buccaneering entrepreneur. I’d like to call him a few other things. He’s a symbol of the worst of a neo-liberal economic system. Yet, with one ill-judged, and appallingly timed act of corporate desertion, the noble legacy he so cherishes, and others probably designed, now looks hopelessly tarnished. Moreover, the world does not need another SUV even if his boast was true that it could travel 600 miles on a single charge.

Remember, Dyson advertises heavily worldwide. In every product the company sells a large portion of the price covers marketing costs. We pay Dyson to tell us his product is better than the others.


Scooters to blooter

A little boy on a small self-propelled scooter crossed the road in front of my car today remind me we will see more of them in the near future ridden by adults. In the States they can manage up to 30 mph, though for how long I am too lazy to check. Like cyclists on footpaths they’re another hazard for long suffering pedestrians. I can report e-scooters will be limited to 12.5 mph when they are trialled in the UK, while an ongoing consultation will decide the final rules that will apply to the vehicles when they are fully legalised for road use. Anyone who uses an e-scooter during the trial period will need to hold either a provisional or full UK driving licence, but no training will be required and helmets will not be mandatory. E-scooter providers, meanwhile, will need to ensure their vehicles are covered by a motor vehicle insurance policy. There are decisions still to be made including whether a driving licence should be required to ride one and if a final speed limit should be 15.5 mph.

Lock-down breakdowns

If you’ve not used your car while in lock-down, check the battery and the tyre inflation levels. (And use hot water and a sponge or jay cloth to wipe off the bird poo before the acid in it stains the paintwork permanently.) The easing of the UK lock-down In England has led to a 72 per cent increase in car breakdowns, according to Green Flag patrols. Cars are like humans, sit around too long and they get creaky and stiff. To prevent battery failure start the engine once a week and let it run for up to 20 minutes. You  should also try to move the car at some point. Tyres develop flat spots if left sitting in the same position too long.

Coming our way

Milan is to introduce one of Europe’s most ambitious schemes reallocating street space from cars to cycling and walking, in response to the coronavirus crisis. The northern Italian city and surrounding Lombardy region are among Europe’s most polluted, and have also been especially hard hit by the Covid-19 outbreak. Under the nationwide lock-down, motor traffic congestion has dropped by 30-75%, and air pollution with it. City officials hope to fend off a resurgence in car use as residents return to work looking to avoid busy public transport. The city has announced that 35km (22 miles) of streets will be transformed over the summer, with a rapid, experimental citywide expansion of cycling and walking space to protect residents as Covid-19 restrictions are lifted. We may be out of the EU but we are just as able as ever to copy what is happening there, but there will be a backlash as soon as winter arrives. And who will want to use public transport when we go back to work?

Happy motoring when you can!


Posted in Transportation | 2 Comments

The Rise of the SNP

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Sean Connery at the opening of the Scottish Parliament in 1999

I was certain we would lose the first independence referendum, so certain that I placed a £100 bet in William Hill at 7 to 1, to win the vote. I did the patriotic thing, the futile sacrifice. And why not, as Arnold Brown is want to say. Colonised over 300 years, the chances of the ill and the sick getting up off their mattresses to vote the invaders home was no more than fantasy. After all, we hardly had more than a year of a nationwide debate to turn Britishness into nationness. No amount of frantic idealism was going to reverse 300 years of imposed English values overnight.

Be prepared – next year, maybe

And so it came to pass a fool and his money are soon parted, in my case, to a bank in Gibraltar where William Hill has registered his betting company. As I left Davy Byrnes’ pub in Dublin days before the vote, a republican shouted “Do you think Scotland can do it?” I hesitated a beat and then shook my head. Had enough folk seen the light, a third of the UK land mass would have ceased to be British territory.

Had we won, Scotland would still be called Scotland, but what England would be called, still dragging Wales and Northern Ireland behind it, is another matter. “rUK” is clunky.

I suspected back then England might hold tight to the delusion of an empire and stick with Britain just to snub Scotland. That presupposed there would be a “South Britain”, a “North Britain” in Northumberland, and a “Middle Britain”, somewhere around Nottingham, mythical Robin Hood territory.

Instead, we have a fiercely anti-democratic British prime minister, Boris Johnson, fronting a tyrannical British state, a man who has anointed himself ‘prime minister of the four nations’, arrogantly ignoring devolution parliaments and assemblies.

Stand well back and look again

To understand why the Union is not worth resuscitating you have to stand well back, back to the late Sixties early Seventies. When I was in short trousers the Union could not have been more secure. Britain was still a world power.

In the Sixties, London dominated everything, or took over everything if the source made money. In that category fell popular music, classical music, television programming, fashion, photography, fine art, magazine production, newspapers, novels and writer’s agents. If you were anything not anyone you gravitated to London.

I subsisted in London penniless, seeking fame and fortune, living off Rumbaba cakes, secretly sleeping in a camper van at the back of a big garage. I left each morning before the staff arrived. London was an education, the magnet for everything. That process had been a fact for two hundred years, enough to worry English intellectuals who saw the land denuded of farm and craft workers, they abandoning the place of their forefathers for the lure of the metropolis and better paid work.

The SNP at the time was a blot on the misty moors of the Highlands, an irrelevant and oft derided eccentric sect that attracted more ridicule than serious interest. One of its founding members, Hugh MacDiarmid, was forever getting thrown out of the SNP and invited back in again. He was news, the others were considered comics in kilts.

Scotland’s mainstream parties were Labour and Tory. Scotland was that contradictory thing: proud of its Red Clydeside yet rejecting any thought of independence. In fact, when revolutionary socialist John Maclean was at his oratory height, Scotland voted Tory. Only in times of adversity did dissent ferment in the tenement villages of Glasgow. When a Labour government ruled Scotland we grew contented again despite being robbed blind of our wealth by Labour as much as by Tory administrations.

British together

The paradox of the Anglo-Scottish mentality is, we died for other people’s countries, not for Scotland. In reality we killed for English power.

We were part of something else, something much bigger than our land. Deaths of our service men and women in the First and the Second World Wars encouraged Britishness. The collective sacrifice was reiterated to us in all sorts of ways, as it is now, in press articles, television documentaries, films, and endless ceremonials to the dead.

To add to that imperial outlook, the establishment of the Welfare State made us feel Britain is a good place to be. We did not, after all, have any other source of income. The British Treasury took it all, including funds from the US Marshall Plan – a post WWII massive bribe to see things the US way – hardly a penny spent in Scotland.

On the other hand, pride in a the British empire had all but evaporated by the Sixties. We still had the Commonwealth countries to comfort us – common and wealth being the most cynical title for countries we thought had nothing in common with England, and from which we stole wealth. We were blind to the hypocrisy.

Seeing HRH Queen Elizabeth accepting flowers from an indigenous child in British Guiana, for example, helped to cement the image of a great Union still a powerful force in the world. We might have ended the war bankrupt but we felt we were only down to our last bag of rubies.

There was always that plucky British spirit to see us on our feet again. Moreover, the nationalisation of British industries helped strengthen Scotland’s perception of living in a partnership of equals, overlooking some of us were poorer than others.


The quiet before the storm

Winnie Ewing’s surprise, shock 1967 victory for the SNP at the Hamilton by-election was a portent of things to come.

By then, uncontrollable events inside and outside Britain undermined the age-old stability of the Union. One of the first to burst the banks was joining the Common Market in 1973. Remember, the 1707 Treaty was essentially a trading agreement, not only a way of rendering Scotland compliant. So too was signing up to the Common market.

The Seventies changed Scots. England’s markets ceased to be Scotland’s only outlet. Now we had multiple trading partners, the very thing that England blocked in order to impoverish Scotland and bring it to the negotiating table in 1707!

With Britain joining what was to become the European Union, Scotland did not have to rely solely on trade with England. There was freedom in trade.

Joining our European friends had other benefits. A primary factor floating Union stability was the perception of a collective existential threat from a foreign foe: France and Spain in the 18th century, Russia, Vietnam and then China in the 20th century. Meeting Europeans who were meeting their Soviet and Chinese counterparts brought forth better knowledge of countries we were told were evil places.

In the 18th century Scotland was exploited for its taxes and trees to fund England’s racists wars, its intense suspicion of Johnny Foreigner. By the Sixties we had East Germany and a nuclear-armed Soviet Russia served up as our existential ‘threat’. With the rise of the Soviet Union’s Mikhail Gorbachev we saw the end of the Cold War removing the fear of nuclear attack, or at least lessening it. (The USA was busy surrounding Russia with nuclear posts.) Today, the Tories do their best to resurrect fear again by adding Islamist fanaticism to the pile. Now we live in an age of digital communication. A politician’s lie can be dismantled worldwide within an hour.

The religious angle

Until these last few years the Catholic church was spectacularly antagonistic towards anything associated with the SNP. Not for nothing does our ecumenical music man, Sir James Macmillan, compose for the pleasure and applause of cardinals, and does it while portraying the SNP as philistines, third-raters, and godless.

Catholics had a profound suspicion of the SNP. They saw it as a Presbyterian stronghold, and indeed, some of the fiery Calvinist rhetoric that issued from its best speakers added to the distrust. As church congregations faded away so did adherence to the Pope’s edicts, and resistance to the SNP as a political force.

The Sixties and Seventies liberalisation of sexual laws, and the freedom from sexual taboos, plus the Pill for women, were all resisted by the Catholic church. The new free thinking wave and scientific attitude to the mysteries of life and the universe freed the intellect. The times saw the Catholic church losing well over half of its followers in a decade.

Scotland, for all its Catholic history since Mary, Queen of Scots, brought it with her from France, was still wedded to Protestantism. In the latter half of the 20th century Protestantism kept Scottish society close to England’s religious traditions. As we moved into the age of secularism Scotland began taking note of its own history and traditions. By the Nineties the Church of Scotland was toiling to get parishioners into their chapels. The ‘Wee Frees’ of the Highlands and Islands found their influence reduced to pomposity.

The working-class Protestant culture, once the bedrock of Scotland’s daily life, the Kirk, the Boys’ Brigade, the Boy Scouts, to some extend the Girl Guides, but especially Rangers Football Club, began to atrophy. The dib-dib-dibbing, the chanting football songs to unionism that produced Tory governments, started to creak and fall apart.

Until the rot began, working class adherence to the two main political parties most committed to the Union, Conservative and Labour, left no space for the growth of nationalism. Now there was space for the SNP to breathe, to speak with a unified voice, and to convince.

First, the SNP had to pull together policies fit for the 21st century. Internally, the SNP had a rethink – curiously the slogan ‘It’s our Oil‘ was jettisoned – and slowly but surely the result attracted new membership from all walks of life, and all political parties, from communists to Conservatives, from Buddhists to vegetarians.

That sectarian electoral pattern in existence so long, especially in the west of Scotland, derived from the age-old hostilities between Protestant and Catholic. It reached a crisis between the wars, when the Church of Scotland leadership made the gargantuan error of petitioning the UK government to prohibit Irish Catholic immigration. The animosity left deep scars. People began to revolt against discrimination for jobs selected by sectarian category. By the late Nineties the old ways had withered, sectarian voting patterns dissolved. The habit of Protestants supporting the Conservatives and Catholics giving automatic allegiance to Labour, was no longer the rule.

As those beliefs, those certainties fell away, the populace began to question why Scotland danced to England’s piper, and why Scotland had to beg for, and justify, an annual budget figure when the money awarded by the UK Treasury was nothing more than a paltry portion of taxes taken from Scotland. In time people realised Scotland’s progress was at the mercy of English nationalism and English priorities.


Manufacturing is decimated

Scotland lost nearly a third of its manufacturing capacity from the mid-Seventies to the late Eighties. Steel making, ship building and bridge building, that were Scotland’s pride and international trademark, disappeared in a few years.

There was only one culprit, one destroyer of worlds, Margaret Thatcher, the same Tory who stated an SNP landslide was a legitimate democratic cue to restore independence. Her successful assault on the miner’s union, implemented with cunning and police violence and a lot of help from the right-wing press, was repulsed in Scotland as much as Wales until resistance could hold out no more. Mine after mine closed down, the communities around them turned into bleak, depressing towns sporting a ‘visitor’s mining museum’. Her imposition of the hated Poll Tax on Scotland as a guinea pig, was more evidence of England abusing an alleged equal partner.

The social dislocation was much greater in Scotland than in England. It made people understand they were not in charge of their own destinies. People who did not live in Scotland decided who worked and who did not. Decisions that affected Scotland were taken by people elsewhere, people who did not care about Scotland’s needs or interests beyond hunting, fishing and shooting, and owning a track of pine forestation as an investment.

The reaction was strong and decisive. Scotland became a Tory-free zone in electoral terms. Another pillar of the Union crumbled and collapsed. Power first moved to the Labour Party to govern not the SNP, giving rise to the myth that Scotland is traditionally a left-wing country in political outlook.

The English colonial

Not for the first time Scots began to count the colonial English among them, the ones that influenced their lives, who saw Scotland as a stepping stone to ‘better things’ in London. English appointments to high office in various institutions ran into a wall of criticism. Were there no equally qualified people living and working in Scotland? BBC Scotland found itself the target of protest for ignoring the glaring rupture in Union loyalty.

The derogatory term ‘House Jock’ was attributed to Scots of a colonial mentality, keen to achieve preferment and elevation to the House of Lords. Secretaries of State tended to be given that derisory epithet, their post more viceroy of Scotland than special consultant for Scotland. To those critical voices there was an opposite reaction in London where anybody with a Scots accent in high office was derided or sidelined. On the streets, a Scottish bank note was considered ‘toy town’ money and refused in shops as legal tender.

Scots began to compare their political attitudes with countries other than the alien ideology of neo-liberalism imposed by Margaret Thatcher and her protege, Tony Blair. They looked at Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Finland, and inevitably Ireland, a nation that  recovered quickly from the bank crisis of 2008. Those developments, fundamental and petty, and the comparisons they saw in other countries of five million people, pushed Scots to take a greater interest in state involvement in public spending. 

Lord Jonathan Sumption, justice of the Supreme Court, argued in a 2013 lecture, that these levels of public expenditure “inevitably had profound effects on attitudes to the state in Scotland, which differ significantly from the rather more equivocal view of the state taken by most Englishmen”.

An English judge had spotted profound changes in attitude on both sides of the border, a divergence in political cultures, cleaving the Union like a shelf of Arctic ice.

Nicola Sturgeon Meets The 56 Newly Elected SNP MPs

The end is the beginning

The foundation of the Scottish parliament in 1999  saw Labour take charge, with the SNP in second place, and the Tories trailing behind. Devolution was by then unstoppable, although some tried, Scots MPs among them proving a colonial mentality takes a generation to shake off. The task of rubber stamping a debating assembly, then termed ‘executive’ was given to prime minster, Tony Blair. (Later Alex Salmond switched it to its proper function, a parliament.) As Blair feared, reinstating Scotland’s debating chamber energised nationalists, and, fulfilling his worst nightmares, saw them demand real powers to govern Scotland without being on bended knees.

Blair was to add that agreeing to devolution was one of his major errors. To Scots, his biggest error was taking the UK into the Iraq war on a falsehood, a lie a first year student of politics could perceive, that folly and corralling North Sea oil to steal the revenue for the UK Treasury. For those transgressions he was not to be forgiven. His blunder was further enlarged when his successor, another Scot seeking stardom as prime minister, Gordon Brown but totally unsuited to the role, refused to visit the Scottish parliament. He turned his back on any co-operation with the SNP. At one point it was rumoured he had contacted other leaders of other political parties in an attempt to overthrow the SNP in its first days in office, an attempted coup in anybody’s language.

Under Blair old Labour had become New Labour, but to Scotland it was business as usual Labour. When the SNP gained its first shaky minority administration, proven to govern with a competent, steady hand, the die was cast. Scotland’s parliament became the spur for Scots to examine every aspect of the lives, their history, their culture, their economy and their future. This, then, became the basis of the historic SNP victory in 2011.

Is that the time already?

Now, in 2020, the SNP has reached a crossroads. Having ignored three mandates and as many opportunities to use them, given to them by the electorate to process a second referendum on autonomy, discontent has created a clamour for the constitutional change the SNP so often promised.

The SNP is once again faced by the old enemy, an implacable, far-right Tory Party in power at Westminster determined to treat Scotland as a province, but give it less respect than Northern Ireland, indeed, less respect than Gibraltar.

England’s nationalist upsurge has its goal to regain its own parliament and embrace delusions of empire with inflated occasions of pomp and circumstance. Simultaneously, when it ought to have been at its most politically vigorous, the SNP is mired in badly thought through policies, cases of sleaze and conspiracy it could have avoided, and dragged out of the European Union against its will by the British state.

The SNP sees itself out of step with the concerns and anxieties of the people who put it in power. Dissent mounts. Formerly avid supporters bleed away who see the SNP as risk averse, clumsy and unreliable. Self-determination is superseded by self-flagellation.

Historians studying Scotland state the Union is dead. Scots acknowledge the Union is wholly unfit for the 21st century, but the risk-averse SNP, hell-bent on chasing more mundane political matters, appears unable or unwilling to do what it was elected to do, give Scotland back to its people.

NOTE: This is a work in progress.



Posted in Scottish Independence Referendum, Scottish Politics | 36 Comments

Car Culture: Pandemic Imponderables

Your weekly look at what sucks in our car culture, plus some good things


What has been happening in our world of automobiles since the pandemic lock-down?

For one thing there are far fewer of them on the road, which makes life very pleasant if you live over a busy street or near a motorway. This has caused pedestrians to encounter near-death incidents when they cross streets assuming them free of cars, and car drivers to speed up in restricted areas on the same assumption and shoot out of side streets without stopping. On motorways the motorbike with the noisiest exhaust rasp gets the nuts ragged off the engine pushed to jet-aircraft decibels.

Another downside is fewer people using public transport, bus services cut as a result, their revenue zapped as a consequence. After months of governments and councils exhorting us to ditch our cars and take to the bus, they might have to rethink that  paradise when we resume some sort of normality.

Bicycle sales have  gone through the roof, fine for a sunny summer’s day. Try cycling up the Mound in Edinburgh – one of the capital’s many steep roads – in a rainstorm and cold wind. Notice how cyclists disappear from the city centre on bad weather days? How do their owners get to work? Walk? Cycling comes too late for my beaten up body. Quite frankly, my lardy arse in Lycra no longer causes women to inhale their breath through their teeth and smack their lips. They tend to exhale or take a coughing fit. Sales of cars are back to 1946 levels. Cyclists 1, Drivers 0.

I cannot see how one creates physical distancing on a subway train at peak travel times? Film of masses of folk getting in and out of carriages on the London Underground are evidence of the problem. A face covering and no body contact is about as much as you can do. Those carrying backpacks, swinging them left and right, are a menace.

Car free streets is the perfect time for councils to fix the millions of potholes and cracks that knock hell out of our hard earned private transportation. Councils don’t have the funds and road crews are restricted to emergency work only. But at least the pot holes are not multiplying, unlike deaths from corona virus.

One good consequence of the fall in car use is lower air pollution. The air is cleaner. We can’t yet take a deep breath in case we swallow a capsule of corona. Aircraft trails that widen and block sunlight are missing from our skies. The quietness has birds sing louder than ever.

There has been incidents of domestic livestock and wild animals strolling around town and city centres. Sheep have moved into gardens to chew tulip heads, and deer are munching grass in play parks. A kangaroo was filmed hopping madly down an empty street in Sydney, probably in search of a Nike store to beat up for using kangaroo skin to make trainers. I’ve not yet seen birds congregating on the hat and shoulders of traffic wardens, the warden ecstatic, motionless, wearing a beatific smile, but it could happen.

Elon Musk, the super-charged genius behind the move to electric driven vehicles, and CEO of Tesla, has reopened his Californian factory in defiance to the state’s instruction. He feels he has a plan for safe distancing. His critics and manic opponents overlook the lowered restrictions is adjoining Californian counties, and car factories reopened in the UK, and American owned car makers too in such places as South Korea, now producing cars again to keep US investors happy. However, what makes Musk the successful entrepreneur that he is, is the gene that pushes him to go further than anybody else, the same that has racing drivers become world champions, or  turns otherwise good folk into alcoholics. Shame he has indulged in posting misleading information on how the coronavirus functions, a low trick to justify his action. Another individual the press can label as a ‘Marmite’ man.

Car events everywhere are at a standstill and that presupposes car boot sales too. Small traders must be on their uppers, the ones who deal in long out-of-production car parts.

Automobile magazines are lost without a queue of new cars to test and promote. Staff road maps they lay over car bonnets for that photo cliché lie limp and unused on their office bookshelves. Auto hacks are reduced to articles on ‘My first car’, or ‘Great Cars of the Eighties’, or ‘What I did on my holidays’. They could spend their extra time better discussing ways to bring more women into the auto business, in design, engineering, and testing. Dump the misogyny. Let women talk about cars, what they like and dislike about them. I remember one spectacular concept sports car designed by women. It got a lot of press interest for its novelty value but Ford never made it. The concept was sold a few years ago in an auction; that’s how much female pioneering means in the car business.

Lock-down locking his brain matter, one prominent magazine editor chose to warn we should buy new cars now, before “prices go up” before the pandemic eases, his reasoning being the slump in cars sales is so bad, no dealer will offer a discount. Oh, really? I suggest buyers stand their ground, money in hand. Sure enough news reaches my busy in-tray that manufacturers will discount certain cars of the hybrid variety, stockpiles so high, capital investment rusting in factory car parks and competition so intense, they want rid of them fast. Dealers are discussing ways of opening on June 1st.

Aston Martin says it has taken a £100 million hit in income since the lock-down. Wonder how cheap I can get a stockpiled Aston Martin? Here’s an odd thing, you can get applause and admiration for driving around in a half-million pound veteran car, such as a blower Bentley. Park and get out of a half-million Aston Martin and someone will call you a “wanker!” One day the Aston will be a veteran car. Just saying.


Border blues

I read Police Scotland is stopping cars driving over the Scottish border. One family was on a 500 mile trip from London to Motherwell, stopped by Cumbrian police. You read correctly. They were on their way to a weekend in Motherwell. To see relatives? Anyhow, that’s the outcome of England doing its own thing, making laws and imposing them on all the nations, and Scotland deciding we should do a different thing, not violently so, just a wee bit different. I’ve no objection. I just wish we had the sovereign right to close down our border in times of emergency.

Car doors

How nice not to be awakened by neighbours slamming car doors early in the morning as the prepare to go to their place of work. Hearing a door slam cut through relative silence is an unusual thing in lock-down. On this occasion it was a rear door four times. We use the handle to open a car door, or button, but we slam them shut to close them. Auto engineers got wise to this and stuck all sorts of rubber stoppers around the door frame to dampen the sound. Cheap cars have tinny doors. I watched Rolls-Royce owner open his door by the handle and shut it by the handle. I concluded it was the quality of the sound that motivated use. So I took off my cabin door cards and installed sound proofing on the bare metal of each door, a sticky roll you can buy from Amazon and cut to shape for doors, wheels arches and floors. Result – the door has a quality sound when banged shut.

Petrol costs

Some superstores are advertising petrol at 99p a litre. If only we could drive places to take advantage of the slump in price. Early in the Eighties, when I was working in Los Angeles, I filled the tank with gas less than a dollar a gallon. No wonder they were holding onto their gas guzzlers and 10 mpg pick-up trucks. American were blase about gas mileage. It was President Obama who told car makers of cars and light trucks they must average 31.4 mpg and 250 grams per mile, and he legislated for it. The writing was on the wall. Here is Jockland, Unionists are back to jeering us. “Ha, ha! So much for your oil fund!” Well, we don’t actually own the oil at the moment, chaps. The UK Treasury takes all the profits having corralled North Sea oil. And didn’t you tell us oil is a toxic product best left in the ground? Make up your minds. Oh, one more thing, goods and haulage should get cheaper, aye, even for car-owning manic British nationalists.

Happy motoring! – to the local shop and back home.


Posted in Transportation | 5 Comments

The Assistant – a review


Julia Garner plays the ingenue who’s forced to keep her wits about her

Depraved behaviour, with the Harvey Weinstein trial in New York seeing the movie mogul jailed for 23 years, a second trial soon to be held in Los Angeles on new charges, The Assistant is a perfectly timed, highly topical study of the extremes of misogyny in the work place.

Anybody who has worked in an office knows the hot house weeds that can grow there, office parties and all. For some who work in open or roomed offices, the width of their social contacts can be few, choices for partners, fewer. I have worked in only three offices in my career, two a short time before I was a student at college and university, both travel agents free of leering or men teasing females, although in the first the addled alcoholic manager was having an affair with a very pretty member of staff, she, no doubt, convinced in time she could cure him of his malady.

The third office was later in my vocation, the BBC. Life there was altogether different. Sexual liaisons were the stuff of canteen gossip. (Lord Reith, stern son of the manse, the first director general of the corporation, set the standard. He walked in on a couple hard at it on his desk in flagrante dilecto.) I shall never forget the senior BBC colleague who played me for a patsy, asking me to meet a talent agent over dinner because he had done it three years running and was bored. The agent turned out to be a scumbag who offered hookers to BBC producers in return for slots on shows. The jolt of that experience taught me to have female colleagues always attend my theatre and film interviews and auditions when casting, and indeed, that policy proved wise when working in the sleaze capital of America, Los Angeles. But that’s another story … for a book.

The Assistant is an impressive study of the culture of silence surrounding daily workplace abuse. Julia Garner excels at instilling a sense of dread as she presents each successive incident in a story which, unsurprisingly, ends not with a satisfying solution to the drama that unfolds, but with the depressing realisation what she witnesses and senses won’t be fixed next day.

The Assistant is a slow burn, meaning you should watch ever glance, observe every body movement, every speech inflection riveting story. In other words, it about adult affairs.

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Matthew Macfadyen reminding Jane, and us, an office is a man’s world

The story appears simple but is cluttered with sophisticated twists and turns, some barely visible, some hinted. Ingenue Jane (Julia Garner) takes a job as the assistant to a high-powered film company executive – who could that be? – after she graduates from college. She is looking forward to the experience and making new friends.

She leaves her Astoria, Queens apartment and arrives at the studio’s loft-like Soho offices, all under the cover of darkness. We see her do all the normal things a newbie does when starting in a new job. What’s the first task she is asked to do? She makes coffee. She gets her boss’ coffee. She makes small talk introductions with passing staff. She makes photo copies. She collates photo copies.

She takes care to make sure everything is right when his male assistants (John Orsini, Noah Robbins) come in at 8am, and the executive comes in at 10am. One of her tasks is to clean “stains” on her boss’ casting couch; it takes a while for her to understand what kind of stains they are. She picks up stray earrings and hair bands left by “visitors”, again, not putting two-and-two together. In a clever visual tease, we never see the chief executive she works for, but we hear him, mostly in half-heard conversations on the phone or on the other side of the wall from Jane’s desk.

Her boss is a boor and bully, bastard is an understatement. He has no compunction over hurling curses at his staff or throwing things against a wall if angry. When the executive’s wife (Stéphanye Dussud) calls in to complain that her husband froze all of her credit cards, and Jane says she’ll try to help, the exec berates her for interfering in his personal life, saying “all your good for is ordering salad.” Jane’s first real test of mental strength is presented to her. What does she do? Smile meekly and carry on? Respond with a similar insult? Rebel by walking out? In those situations there is always a decision to weigh in the balance, job experience on your curriculum vitae, or potential reputation as a troublemaker.

She does what most young women would do new to the experience. She frets. Her male assistants help her compose an e-mail apology. This seems to sort things momentarily, but her boss is quick to exploit her reserve. She then has to babysit his kids as he screams out his nanny Sasha (Juliana Canfield) for bringing them to his office.

During this day, Jane begins to free herself of inhibition. She is uncomfortable with what she has to do for her boss. She gets a call from someone who will “visit” with him on his trip to Los Angeles for a premiere, and she has to make sure this woman knows how to get to the hotel. Traces of corrupt Weinstein begin to pile up.

A young attractive woman named Sienna (Kristine Froseth) comes in to sign papers to be a new assistant. Everyone seems to know why she’s there, with the requisite winks and nudges, except for Jane. She makes sure Sienna gets to the hotel where the boss has rented a room before it dawns on her why Sienna is there. This upsets her, and she decides to talk over her feelings with her colleague Wilcock (Matthew Macfadyen), who more or less dismisses her “feeling” that Sienna was only hired for sex, and not-so-subtly tells her that hundreds of people would love to have her job.

Chastened and miserable, she returns to her office to put in a late night filing files and filling envelopes while her boss is there entertaining another young actress named Ruby (McKenzie Leigh). Things move from puzzlement, to curiosity, to morality and finally decision time. As Jane follows her daily routine, she grows increasingly aware of the insidious abuse that threatens every aspect of her position.


Jane gets very little sympathy from work mates, and soon realises she’s on her own

Written and directed by Kitty Green, I was pleased to see much of the film is wordless, that’s cinema after all, if you can manage it without losing your audience’s attention. There some interesting music from composer Tamar-kali, and lots of background ambient noise. That’s a tough call for a young actress who has not acquired a repertory of expressions. Nevertheless, Garner is superb at conveying her character’s increasing concern, degradation and inner conflict.

I enjoyed Matthew Macfadyen’s sly performance, his misogyny there for us to see, his testosterone healthy as he attempts to show concern. After he listens to Jane’s anxieties he tells her there are four hundred people who would kill for her job. He has their ‘resumés’ on his desk – and so in good male fashion, he blackmails her into submission.

Julia Garner is in virtually every scene in this film. To the quick study she might seem perpetually glum, but I think she was directed that way to force us to read her face in our search for her reaction to events. When she gets the one crumb of praise from her boss, she starts thinking things are looking up. If you watch her face intently you can detect her thinking, this shit might be worth it. We’ve all been there, we’ve all done that.

There was one memorable line I recognised from the Weinstein affair. “I don’t think you have anything to worry about,” says Wilcock as Jane walks out the door. “You’re not his type,” he adds, dryly. That pretty much wraps up how so many sleazy executives get away with their behavior.

A true anecdote: in the aftermath of the bank crash, a madame, interviewed in a documentary, was asked how she managed to run her New York brothel when people were going bust. “Oh, no problem. My clients are nearly all bankers and high finance guys. I have a lunch session arranged for their three hour ‘business lunches”.

  • Star Rating: Four stars
  • Cast: Julia Garner, Matthew Macfadyen, Makenzie Leigh
  • Director: Kitty Green
  • Writer: Kitty Green
  • Cinematographer: Michael Latham
  • Composer: Tamar-kali
  • Adult rating: 15
  • Duration: 1 hour, 27 minutes
  • 5 plus: potential classic, innovative. 5: outstanding. 4: excellent. 3.5: excellent but flawed. 3: very good if formulaic. 2: straight to DVD. 1: crap; why did they bother?


Posted in Film review | 1 Comment