Sunday, 15 May 2016

San Luigi dei Francesi

                                                                                   The calling of St Matthew. Caravaggio. San Luigi dei Francesi, Roma.

San Luigi dei Francesi is one of my very favourite churches in Rome.

Situated between Piazza Navona and the Parliament building it has, by virtue of that latter circumstance, also the advantage of being close to my very favourite restaurant in all of Rome. Of which perhaps I'll say a little more later.

San Luigi, you will gather from its name, is the French church in Rome. It is mainly visited on the tourist trail by reason of its three great Caravaggios, featuring scenes from the life of St Matthew. But to nip in and out just for the Caravaggios would be a tragedy. For its interior is, since its completion at the end of the sixteenth century, a miniature history of the French nationals once resident in the (now) Italian capital.

The completion of the church itself starts that story, benefiting from the personal patronage of Catherine de' Medici, widow of one King of France, mother of three others and mother-in-law of a fourth.

Inside the pillars of the church, the walls and even any unused space in the side chapels boast barely an empty piece of wall, such are the plaques and funerary monuments to the countless famous Frenchmen who at one time worshipped in the church, often dying in the eternal city.

You could spend a day, more, just reading these and placing the departed faithful referred to within the context of the events of their time.

But for the modern visitor the most moving plaques bear more recent dates. Countless bearing little more than a name, a rank and a date of death, the latter at an age seldom stretching beyond a thirtieth birthday. And beyond that, a simple encomium, "TuĂ© en Italie pour La Liberation de France". Killed in Italy for the freedom of France.

You forget the role the free French played in the Italian campaign during the Second World War but in 1943 and 44 they fought alongside us and the Americans and, more famously in British legend, the Poles in the long slog up the peninsula. And, as the plaques in San Luigi testify, died alongside us as well.

The Italian campaign saw as much fighting and misery as anywhere else on the "Western front". And as much brutality, it can now with the passage of time be confessed, not least from the French colonial troops deployed in that campaign.

But had the church a conscious existence, that brutality would have been no stranger the the stones of San Luigi. Its patroness, Catherine de' Medici, was of course mired in the Wars of Religion. But her departure from the scene was marked by nothing approaching peace. Through the transitional events of the Thirty years war, still, even including 1914-45, regarded by the Germans themselves as the single greatest calamity to befall their nation, the focus only shifted from confessional disputes to those involving nation states in the constant warring for supremacy that bedevilled the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Now, we British have been sheltered from much of this, the last land battle here was in 1746, but by the time of the culmination of this gory history, this isolation of our civilian population was no more. In the horrific clash of competing nationalisms and ideologies that saw the deaths marked in San Luigi's memorial plaques, and so many, many more deaths, our civilian population could die in their own beds in London, or Coventry or Clydebank just as readily as continental Europe's  peasantry had once been at the random disposal of any marching army or mercenary band.

And then it stopped. There has not been a war in Western Europe for seventy one years.

And I defy anyone not to concede that the European Union has been central to that great achievement. It is no accident that the genesis of the EEC came from the desire to create a joint German and French "Steel and Coal" Community that would make war between its participants practically impossible. Or that the greatest British advocates of  membership were commonly those  who had seen the reality of war close up. Or that, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the central European countries who queued up to join saw membership not just as a road to prosperity but as a passport to continued peace.

It has been said that those who defended the British Union in the Scottish referendum were too blind to legitimate criticism of it. There is a degree of truth to that. No "UK OK" sticker was ever displayed by me. For the UK is far from OK, particularly for those at the bottom. And there are certainly many legitimate criticisms of the EU: Its excessive bureaucracy and the waste that goes with it; the lack of transparency, indeed democracy, in much of its decision making; the lack of compassion or exception when it comes to its economic prescriptions. These things are all true and even the most Europhilic, such as myself, need to make that concession. You vote In not because of these things but despite them. And in the belief that they can change. Indeed that continued British membership makes them more likely to change.

But it has also been said that the Scottish Referendum was won by too much appealing to heart over head. Indeed that victory in that manner explains the continuing bitterness on the losing side in its aftermath. We might have had the better prose but they had all the poetry. And there is also a degree of truth in that.

It would be a mistake to repeat that error over the next six weeks. To allow the narrative to become "a proud island nation making its own distinctive way in the world" head to head with little more than "that's all very well but house prices will fall."

The European Union was and remains a great enterprise and its greatest achievement is peace. And there is no greater achievement than that for any political arrangement.

But it's not just peace through bureaucracy. It is peace through love. If you visit San Luigi you encounter visitors of all and every European nationality. The older visitors are polite to each other and to the surroundings, perhaps boldly venturing a few words of mutual appreciation of the vista in another's language. But the younger ones....they are a very babble of conversation. Proud of their own country, often wearing its football colours, but no more reserved about speaking to those of differing nationalities than would a Glaswegian hesitate to speak to a Dundonian. These kids are European.  And indeed we Brits can be proud that their lingua franca is almost invariably English.

I'm not for walking away from that or, worse still, starting a wider crisis of confidence in the European institutions the end product of which would inevitably be be far from certain,

So I'm voting in, not blind to the flaws but nonetheless with a song in my heart. An ode to joy.

And that's that. In my minds eye I'm now off for lunch in the Trattoria Dal Cavalier Gino, just round the corner in the Vicolo Rosini. Antipasto di verdure; fettucine con cinghiale; ossobuco (to die for); seasonal veg; pannacotta; litro di vino rosso (compulsory); acqua gassata; coffee and an Averna.

Take cash. Despite being next to the Parliament and filled with deputati, it's a strictly cash only establishment. In Italy, there are some things even the EU will never change.

Sunday, 8 May 2016

Yes we Khan?

We have just had a distinctively Scottish Election.

The results are the results but, be in no doubt, it was won and lost in Scotland.

Neither of the two main UK Party leaders did more than barely set foot here. For the same reason. Their presence was not regarded as being helpful to their own side.

And I doubt any but the most blinkered of Corbynistas would disagree with that, although they might also pause to reflect that, if that was the view here (and in Wales), then where exactly in the country is it that Jeremy is believed to be a vote winner?

For it certainly wasn't in London, where Sadiq Khan spent the last month of the campaign not just declining Corbyn's "help" but publicly rejecting it.

But, more interestingly still, that worked.

By framing the campaign as being solely who was best for governing London and specifically rejecting the idea that it had anything to do with endorsing a patently useless national operation, Sadiq triumphed. And was then free to observe that, ideally, his campaign should have been capable of drawing strength from the Party leader, but it hadn't, and he had instead won despite, rather than because, of him.

That last point might as easily apply to Scotland without for a moment suggesting Corbyn as the reason we lost. Because he wasn't.

The day when Scottish elections can be won or lost on UK issues (pace Labour's infamous opening line to our 2011 Manifesto "Now that the Tories are back.....) are over. If indeed, post devolution, they ever existed. In a Holyrood election we might be helped by a better UK operation but we will never win on its strength alone.

The question is however, can such an approach work with other elections?

Local Government elections have, in recent times, been too often seen as little more than big opinion polls on events taking place elsewhere.

And in some parts of Scotland, where boundaries are drawn on the basis of little more than cotermininity and putting everybody somewhere, that might indeed be true. Who honestly has ever owed affiliation to North Lanarkshire (particularly those of us living there without being in Lanarkshire at all) and the same undoubtedly applies to any number of other of Michael Forsyth's, mid-nineties, Macedonian creations.

But the cities, where there is a city authority, are different.

Long before they were in the position of national pre-eminence they now enjoy, the SNP built a power base in Dundee that was at least as much based on being Dundee Nationalists as Scottish Nationalists. In 2012, Aberdeen distinctly bucked the national trend by throwing out an existing local administration of particular ineptitude and returning Labour, as much to the surprise of the Party in the rest of the country as to anybody else

And of course, that same year, Glasgow famously defied Salmond's premature predictions of triumph to preserve Labour in power.

Now today, the assumption is that this was just putting off the inevitable, particularly following the nationalist advances in our greatest city in the aftermath of its unexpected Yes vote. Mind you, before Thursday the same people were inclined to think independence was inevitable.

But, for what it is worth, if the local government election in Glasgow, becomes a "Scottish" election, a bit of which happens to be taking place in Glasgow, then it is difficult to see past that outcome. And that will undoubtedly be how the Nats will wish to frame it. Even if they, this time, won't be stupid enough to announce, through their local leader, that they principally wish to take the City Council "as a stepping stone to independence."

So Labour's strategy must be to frame the 2017 election as the exact opposite. A Glasgow election where you vote on what will be best for the city.

And if we can do this then there remains all to play for.

For then we have a number of advantages, not least as a backwash of the SNP's own more recent successes which have transmogrified most of their better and more experienced local government troops into MPs or MSPs.

But above all we have Frank McAveety. I should declare an interest here as he is one of my oldest and dearest comrades. But, despite his long association with the Home Rule cause, (he was, with me, one of the founders of Scottish Labour Action as long back as 1987) I don't really believe that his heart was ever entirely at or in Holyrood. The job he enjoyed most was leading the City of Glasgow Council before 1999 and, on losing his Holyrood seat in 2011, it was getting that job back that motivated him much more than any real attempt to return to the elliptical chamber.

Sure, that might have involved a bit of deployment of the dark arts (this is Glasgow Labour politics after all) but, now that he is there, he enjoys the confidence of the local Party in a way neither of his predecessors experienced and has a clear vision for the way the city should go forward.

But above all, he is seen as somebody who will stand up for Glasgow in a way no "Yes Nicola, no Nicola, three bags full Nicola" alternative will ever do. Whether that is over the disgraceful financial settlement visited on the city (and local government more generally) by the SNP or the Scottish Government's steady erosion of power away from all local representatives or indeed over our governing Party's continued determination to shut the City's warship yards.

So, as in 2012, this needs to be a Glasgow Labour appeal. And it needs to be made clear to leaders from London or Edinburgh that their "help" is not required, unless asked for. (By which time, barring changes in personnel in the interim,  Hell will have frozen over).

Will it work? I make no guarantee of that, for Glasgow has many virtues but it doesn't have a flag. It is certainly however, under the hapless Kez and Jez tag team, the only show in town.

Just ask Sadiq Khan.

Or indeed Jackie Baillie.

Friday, 6 May 2016

Kez must stay.

You'll have noticed that I didn't do any blogging during the election. As always I voted Labour, although more than in hope than in expectation.

I was however never really in any doubt we'd be third. And given that conclusion I had no desire to undermine my own credibility by mindless cheerleading before a select readership already of pronounced political opinion.

That third place was effectively decided when Kezia Dugdale used her position as deputy leader to fix the rules to restrict the candidates eligible to stand for the leadership after Jim Murphy's defenestration.

The Party, already traumatised, simply lost the plot at at that time, stampeding into an election with ludicrous haste and losing sight of the most essential element of the job description: that the successful candidate for leadership of  the Scottish Labour Party had to be a credible candidate for First Minister. Or at least, that failing, to be a credible candidate for leader of the opposition. Kezia Dugdale was neither.

But the most bizarre thing is that she effectively stood on a platform conceding that. A platform that even attempting to hold constituency seats was a fool's errand; that we were bound to get gubbed; that another SNP overall majority was inevitable and yet that she, Kezia herself, must then, irrespective of the result, be allowed to hing aboot for another five years to have another go. People voted for this. Or at least by the time they thought "Haud oan a minute", Kez's own rules prevented a rethink.

So there was no alternative. Except that nice man Ken McIntosh who had, unfortunately, already been at Holyrood for sixteen years without anybody really noticing.

I abstained.

The problem of course is that thereafter of course, for the wider electorate, there actually was  an alternative. Unfortunately that alternative was outwith the Labour Party.

Five years ago, Murdo Fraser, a prophet before his time, stood for the Tory leadership on the platform of winding up the Party altogether and starting again under a new name as an independent Scottish enterprise of the centre right. I can't remember the name of this proposed vehicle, although the Scottish Unionist Party springs to mind. Anyway, personally, Murdo lost that contest. And yet ultimately his ideas won.

For, over the last eight weeks we saw the emergence of precisely what Murdo proposed. A Scottish political party of the centre right, allied to the "English" Tories but, when required, prepared to distinguish itself, even distance itself, from them. Only it wasn't now called the Scottish Unionist Party. It was called the Ruth Davidson Party. And be in no doubt, it is the Ruth Davidson Party that is now in opposition. As Ruth puts the boot into this minority government over the next five years no-one but the most deluded of cybernats will buy into a line that she acts only at the behest of her "London masters".

Anyway, congratulations to Ruth and commiserations and congratulations at the same time to Murdo.

But my own principal role isn't to comment on the Tories other than in passing. It is to comment on my own Party and our own hapless contestant yesterday, Kezia Dugdale. Before moving on to that however  I would just point out one other "bleeding obvious" point. For the Tories (and indeed the SNP) their leader was up front and central in everything they did. "Ruth for an effective opposition" "Nicola for First Minister" These were messages tailored to win votes, as they did. The problem with "Kezia for.....what?" wasn't just the "what", it was also the "Kezia". The other two were substantial public figures with an established life history. Our woman had been a student and then......had run George Foulkes office.  So instead we just had "Vote Labour.......please". Or phrased our appeal (sic) ...."Vote Labour for higher taxes", although we struggled, to put it mildly, to explain what, other than as a demonstration of public virtue, these higher taxes were actually meant to be for.

But the Ruth/Nicola dichotomy also had a blunter engagement in post referendum Scotland: "Vote Nicola for independence". "Vote Ruth for the Union".

Where however did Labour now stand on the Union? I've made the point repeatedly before but the only reason there ever has been an SNP is that, back in the 1930s, it became clear to people who were then  in, or associated with, the Labour Party, but who believed Scottish Independence was the way forward,  that their views were never going to be acceptable to the vast majority of the Party. So they left and formed a rival Party.

No harm in that, that's democracy. And, who knows, maybe they were right and the Labour Party was wrong? Only time will tell. Although when most recently put to the test, on 18th September 2014, it appears for the moment my own  Party's decision of the 1930s remains vindicated as reflecting majority Scottish opinion to this day.

But that shouldn't be difficult to know, or understand, by someone aspiring to a position of Labour Party leadership. When asked if Labour elected representatives might support independence, for such a person to reply "No. If that's what they think there's another Party for them". Or indeed when asked if they themselves might ever support independence to respond "Never. If I thought that I wouldn't be in the Labour Party."

Yet that is what Kez pointedly refused to do. Albeit to then correct herself on the latter point when confronted by internal outrage. 

I'll be honest, I've always been a bit suspicious about Kezia Dugdale. She emerged explaining that she had no previous Party history: no history of family links; or student political activity; or trade union or other radical cause involvement. This, she explained, was because she had not been interested in politics, indeed hadn't voted at all, until she was twenty three. Yet, when it emerged, during the election campaign, that at almost that same age that she had volunteered for the SNP, her explanation was that she had then, within apparently a few months, not only developed an interest in politics but had begun contemplating it as a career. Although, given the nature of her volunteering, patently not a career necessarily in the Labour ranks.

The best possible interpretation of this is that she at one time decided on "a career in politics" without actually being sure of what the complexion of these politics might be. And that's the best possible explanation.

In my day job you see stories that you think won't stand up to cross-examination. This, I have to say, is one of them.

So, anyway, you'll be surprised at what I say next.

Kez must stay.

Obviously not until the next election. But for the immediate future.

That's not just because an immediate contest would inevitably be coloured by the as yet unresolved matter of whether Corbynism is the way forward for the wider Party, it's also because we should appreciate what we should have appreciated in 2011, 2014 and 2015. That there isn't going to be an election next month.

As indeed, there is not going to be an election for the Scottish Parliament, in this case, for five years. Sure, the Nats don't have an absolute majority but they will always be in a position to pick and mix from the other Parties to support them on a particular issue, either because these Parties actually do support them or because they fear an immediate encounter with the electorate.

So, Labour doesn't need a (this time credible) candidate for First Minister for at least three years.

My own view, in an event, is that the key to a Labour recovery in Scotland doesn't lie in Scotland. UK politics are increasingly presidential. If Labour gets a credible candidate for that "presidential" Prime Minister then Scotland will have a big choice to make. .But at the moment that choice isn't even on the table.

So, given that Kez was so desperate to fix the rules to get into the position of leader, we should let her, having made her bed, then lie on it. And then dispense with her services at a time of our, and not her, choosing.