Sunday, 30 November 2014


Dundee, in the last week of November. I was coming across the bridge at just the right time to see the wonderful sunset and its reflection - and that of the city and the hills - in the so-still water of the Firth of Tay. This was begun three nights ago, when a possible frost was forecast, and completed just now.

A finger-nipping chill is in the air,
and in the earth, as I dig, even now
to plant and seek to grow, for hopes of sping.
Though days continue mild, their warmth now fades,
and soon dark gathers, evening deeps to show
how near we are to solstice.
And daily flocks of chaffinches now gather,
forgetting their rivalries of summer
for winter friendships here.

At night, again, my candles blaze, to mark
a time between the times, a time so late,
a time when winter hovers on her dark brink
and darkness holds the calling owls, who greet
the winter’s chill, the driving rain,
the last wind-fallen leaves.

Yet today, with winds moderate, then stilling,
it seems December pauses on the threshold
as marigolds unfurl their still-bright petals
to drink the sun that gives life to their brilliance,
and stubbled fields and hills hold promised beauty,
the bare trees limned by low-slanting sunlight;
when evening chill returns, a gold-red sunset,
glowing, is mirrored in stillness of the firth.

(© J Blain 2014 - still draft of course.)

Thursday, 27 November 2014

NOT HOME RULE: The Smith Commission and the Lib Dems' need for critical perspective

Well, I am disappointed. Very disappointed.

Not, though, so much with the Smith Commission’s report (which you can read in full online at OK, I’d have much liked it to go further, but knew this was unlikely – the time-frame, aside from anything else, militated against true ‘home rule’ proposals. There were compromises, many of them, and not too surprisingly today’s proposals were probably most in tune with the Tory submissions. So the report, in what it says, is just about meeting (my) expectations, indeed maybe even meeting some hopes a little better than I’d feared. It might even – just might – be another stage on the way to some kind of federal situation. Britain needs to change and this may move things on.

My disappointment, therefore, is not so much with the report – it’s with the comments that followed it.  First, I thought that John Swinney’s immediate comments were a bit too negative – he, after all, was one of the people presumably agreeing to this. He could have made it more evident that he did welcome what was proposed – his short welcome appeared a grudging one, followed as it was by all that was wrong… even while largely agreeing with him I found the timing misplaced.  Nicola Sturgeon’s comments in the Scottish Parliament were rather more welcoming – she made the same points, but made them rather better and I respect that.  However, Swinney’s comments gather only a minor quibble from me.

What I find wrong, yes wrong, indeed very wrong, is the response of my old ‘home’ party – the Scottish Liberal Democrats, whom I had been thinking to rejoin. That’s been pushed aside yet again. Michael Moore presumably does know that these proposals are not ‘home rule’ and should not have used that term, but his ‘welcoming’ comments were somewhat measured. Alistair Carmichael has promised to see them through, and I respect him for this. But the ‘welcome’ of Willie Rennie, online at is ridiculous. 

I mean that. Ridiculous. Laughable. The comments are laughable for people with no knowledge of the Liberal long-standing commitment to federalism, who’ll see Rennie’s claim that ‘we argued for these Home Rule powers’ as irrelevant – and also laughable, in a very sad way, for people who do know of that long-standing commitment and see this claim and 'welcome' as a serious backsliding, and as a serious inability to take any kind of critical view of what's going on here.

The STV news tonight had a comment from Bernard Ponsonby that 'Some traditional Liberals may well say that "home rule" amounts to a whole load more powers than is on offer'. Just so. Indeed this is very far from a federal or even a ‘quasi-federal’ solution, whatever that might have meant. Do we laugh or cry?

So why could not the Scottish Liberal Democrats be honest?  Why can they not say,  ‘We have a long-standing commitment to a Federal Britain. We know this is not Home Rule. Nevertheless, we pushed for such powers as could be got at this time. We much welcome the result, and it may be a stepping stone to a true British Federalism. We certainly hope so and will continue to work for such a solution.’

Had they said that – or something like it – they would now have had a rejoined member. As it is, I’m back to weighing up my political options, feeling more disgruntled than ever – and not because of the Smith report.

Saturday, 22 November 2014

Of English students and Scottish history...

This past week I was invited by my previous university (Sheffield Hallam) to meet with some colleagues in Edinburgh and there give a lecture to their second-year undergraduate students. (They had secured funding for a sociological field trip and picked Edinburgh as a good place to go to.) So I took up their offer.  They had a room booked in the top of the Museum of Scotland, and I had two hours to give the students some sense of ‘Scottishness’, the Scottish Diaspora and so forth.

So, I used a good part of the time in an attempt to give them some sense of Scotland’s history, that it wasn’t all ‘tartan’ and that we had culture, heritage, civilisation, and some moves towards ‘equality’ before that last became fashionable elsewhere.

I think my task was made very much easier by the tour of the National Portrait Gallery that students were given in the morning, before my talk. I caught up with them there and heard part of what they were given by Gallery staff – being shown portraits of men and women of the mediaeval and early modern periods, and the ‘age of progress’, with only a small group of tartan-clad chiefs and a discussion of Walter Scott’s organisation of Georgy-Porgy’s visit in his very expensive ‘highland dress’. Hooray for the tour guide I heard! She saved me at least ten minutes of a talk that was otherwise going to be too long… (and still was too long – I needed to skip over some of the sociological content of what ‘diaspora Scots’ had said to me about what this land means to them, but the students will now have the slides which have quotations in and I hope will now read these).

But the ‘Highlandism’ which is the commonest set of ideas about Scotland is still very entrenched, among much of the diaspora and among not only English students, but many Scots. And it has several sides. On the one hand is the romanticism of misty isles, rocky glens and heroic chief and warriors; on another, though, the view of such as ‘barbarous’ and so discountable. Well, I did give the students one ‘Highlander’ from history, whom they may have seen also in the Portrait Gallery, not dressed in tartan and certainly not waving a claymore; Adhamh MacFhearghais or Ferguson of Raith, born at Logierait in 1723, first a pupil in the local parish school, eventually Professor of Moral Philosophy at Edinburgh, past chaplain to the Black Watch, writer who, while himself Christian, worked to develop a science of humanity… you’ll know him better as Adam Ferguson, the ‘father of sociology’.

I do hope the students enjoyed their trip, and that they will now have a sense of Scotland as a complex country which is different from their own, but not so different as to be beyond their comprehension. One of my colleagues, in the short question session at the end of my talk, gave me a lovely opportunity to say what kind of political situation I’d like to see post-referendum… but that’s for discussion now another day.