Surreal Scotland

Have we become Irish? I ask because there is such a hilariously contradictory mood around that it could be St Patrick’s Day. ‘Happy? Of course we’re happy. We lost our independence and our living standards are going backwards but isn’t the party grand?’


Makes you wonder just what we would be doing if we’d won the referendum… ‘Cabinet members arrived for their first meeting dressed in assorted onesies. First Minister Sturgeon came in a panda outfit accompanied by the Shotts and Dykehead Caledonia Pipe Band…The Cabinet sang Do They Know It’s Christmas before going into Bute House where they debagged Brian Taylor and threw his trousers on to the street. Reflecting off the windows were the flames of bonfires set by the mob in Charlotte Square gardens…’

Thousands of Yes Scots, many with no previous political history, clapping and stomping as political speeches are mixed with music represents a new and surreal Scotland. It isn’t simply a coalescing of the campaign, it is overtaking it in determination, identity and commitment to participate, even if the details of platform and policy are undefined. To be fair, the neighbouring RIC event was already past the hangover stage and into the tidy-up and allocation of cleaning duties. (The Left does planning ahead? Even more surreal).

I haven’t seen anything like it and with an awareness back to the days of Harold Wilson in government, my view is governed by grim experience. So, I am reduced to asking balefully: When does it all go wrong? And then I remember that I am out of time, that politics in my lifetime has been formulaic and only occasionally people-led and that I am forever cast in the role of questioning outsider, not joyful participant – the journalist’s fate.

The only real change in my 50 years of politics-watching has been the rise of the SNP because it, uniquely, threatens total change by forcing the disintegration of the British state. Even UKIP doesn’t offer such drastic revision. But for most of that time, although I knew it was my intellectual home, the SNP was, like me, the outsider. It was dismissed and reviled, consigned to popping up in sporadic outbursts before subsiding again. Devolution has changed all that and proved to be the perfect platform for power, forging the party into a national movement reaching into every corner of every home and street.

So why shouldn’t they be right now? Why should this not be a new politics, a new movement in a new Scotland? Maybe the balloon doesn’t have to burst and maybe the party, in every sense, will go on. After all, the national cause is still there to be the engine that drives ambition. Meanwhile, there is much to be done is reshaping the country with new laws and powers and a titanic struggle with Labour to hold the focus. Can I suggest for next year…St Nicola’s Day?

Others of course are not just puzzled but sneering. In one of those creepy London pieces by M25 media luvvies in the Times, there is an object lesson in why Scots feel aggrieved at their portrayal by an ignorant mainstream and why we need a media rooted in our own country. Alice Thomson and Rachel Sylvester interview Jim Murphy for the obvious reason that he’s the one they’ve heard of. He has a London profile so readers in Surrey might have heard of him.

The bold Murph is billed as ‘ the unexpected star of the referendum campaign’. In case you missed it, this is what he did…. ‘touring the cities and glens, street corners and village halls with his Irn-Bru crate. He was heckled, splattered with egg and had to shout his unionist message above baying Yes campaigners.’ What a hero! How the kilted peasants must have cheered and waved their sporrans in the glens. Our London feminists fawn over their subject oblivious to the contempt his juvenile antics are held in across Scotland. But see how the myth he created and our brave media perpetuated, is now standard usage in English journalism? Baying mobs, thrown eggs, defenceless, brave Jim. They swallowed it whole because they are conditioned to do so. He fashioned a story they couldn’t resist because it fitted their prejudices and desires. No mention here of the provocation of a man with a mike shouting at passers-by, of three men and a dog and his own henchmen making up the numbers, of ignoring the question and insulting questioners, of seeking police protection and hiding for three days after having an egg cracked on his shoulder in what many of us regarded as the nearest act of cowardice to Iain Gray’s sandwich shop retreat. No mention of his two-faced policies like voting for tuition fees for English students and now, to get the job, opposing them in Scotland – an issue, by the way, that really does irritate Times readers in the south.

The interview wasn’t just to boost Westminster’s man in his bid to lead the branch office, it was to ridicule the post-referendum Yes success which has them deeply worried (not on our behalf but because it might mean Scotland matters to their beloved Westminster election). On Twitter this hagiographic twaddle was paraded by more London luvvies, Times colleague David Aaronovitch and Blair biographer John Rentoul of the Independent, who’d love a Blairite to help them understand Scotland and stop these bloody Nats from enjoying themselves so much. ‘Why can’t they stay defeated?’

PS. If you need a reason to buy the new National, it is surely David Torrance displaying more bile about Alex Salmond in the comment section of the Herald.

He has never forgiven his humiliation at the hands of Salmond who dismissed his attempt at biography so neatly. (His charge that Torrance doesn’t know him was echoed to me by a professor of politics who had read the book. ‘It is obvious he has no understanding of Salmond’s character or motivations’, he said).

In contrast we are told by Tory-supporting Torrance that Douglas Alexander is ‘typically thoughtful’ and Gordon Brown’s failings ‘were largely presentational’. Brown is full of substance in contrast with the mere presentational strengths of the SNP. (How gullible the stupid Scots are for not realising). Anybody outside the Unionist bubble agree?

In my memory Brown destroyed the pensions of millions of Britons, sold off the gold reserves at knock down prices to support the bankers’ profits, devised the failed financial services regulatory system, bailed out the same bankers and organised for working people to pick up the bill, ended the 10p tax rate, sacked 100,000 public sector workers, kept quiet about his concerns about the Iraq war, stabbed colleagues in the back and orchestrated a coup against the elected Prime Minister. But then to David Torrance, he is first a Unionist and anything is justified to preserve the mighty Union, even the reputation of the great deceiver that is Brown.

We need the National, not because it is pro independence but because we need balance in our media, never more so than today.

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Left Turn

Amid the peeling of bells and peasants dancing in the streets, gorging themselves on idylls of Labour Party wipe-outs in six months time, it’s been hard to discern just what thinking No people make of it all (I’m excluding Jackie Baillie).

So I was pleased to have sent to me this piece by Jean Barr, emeritus professor of Glasgow University and a confirmed Unionist, published in the Left Review.

I recommend it, not just to support the team at Review, but to benefit from a glimpse into a mindset that is blinded by revulsion at belief in country and allows her entire political outlook to be defined by it – in a way only a fundamentalist nationalist would recognise. How ironic is that?

I think it is insightful by revealing the convoluted emotions that cloud the judgement and steer the mind towards rejecting the very ideals the author espouses but is, through her prejudices, obliged to reject because of their nationalist branding. Progressive ideals are dismissed because they are labelled with the Scottish flag – her own country’s flag.

This is, to be blunt, a form of narrow-mindedness which Unionism has made its own by trumpeting British national interest from immigration to defence to euro-scepticism while simultaneously scoffing at Scottish pride as something lesser and faintly sinister. British nationalism is the NHS and the Olympics but Scottish nationalism is border guards and Anglophobia.

Left-minded Unionists are trapped in aspic, seeing the changed world outside but unable to join in, wallowing in their memories of the Cold War, communism and anti-Vietnam marches. ‘It was the real thing in my day, you know. None of this pandering to identity.’

Jean Barr lards her case against the new Scottish Left with what I can only call mis-readings of events. One wonders which campaign she was following when she is able to write… ‘In the run-up to the referendum and in its aftermath, the leftist case for Scottish independence reveals a dogged reluctance – even refusal – to engage in robust democratic dialogue with critics, especially those who also identify with the left. Dialogue means people together examining their thoughts and assumptions. It demands effort as well as empathy and imagination.’

A reluctance to engage…? Is that what the Yes movement was about…hundreds of them springing up from Shetland to the Border…staging public events, hustings, stalls, publishing papers, opening blogs, forming new media, knocking doors…and inviting Unionist speakers of any and all stripe to come along and join in and yet were either turned down or promised speakers who never turned up, cancelling meetings all over the country. Every Yes activist has a similar tale to tell. Did Better Together stage a single, open public meeting in the land? I know they didn’t have a single one in Glasgow. Where was the non-nationalist Left…hiding from the people, it would seem, or lost in space while their case was made by George Galloway.

Come to it…where was Jean Barr? ‘Challenging thoughts and assumptions’ is exactly what was happening under her very nose with trade unionists, food bank volunteers and lapsed Labour voters standing up in public to tell their stories of enlightenment and transformation. It was wonderful to behold. This was the greatest dialogue Scotland has ever had on any area of public policy and here is an intelligent citizen blind to it. Staggering.

She clearly feels that the sense of community and belonging we felt at reshaping – or trying to – our country was nothing more than a form of exclusion, which demonstrates our limited outlook and lack of universalism. She quotes Adam Smith. ‘For Smith, sympathy, the ability to put oneself in the other’s shoes rather than standing in judgement of them, requires continuously challenging one’s own assumptions: too much emphasis on belonging and on being the same limits and stultifies, leaving those outside the clan ‘in a limbo of coldness and indifference’.

Is that what Asian for Independence was about? Is that why the SNP declared that everybody living in Scotland was a Scot – no exclusions – and colour, country and religion made no difference at the same time a Unionist British government had vans touring London telling immigrants to go home?

I suspect the author felt cold and indifferent because she couldn’t come to terms with events and has projected it on to the movement which was precisely the opposite. This is what I mean by a prejudice that stains every thought. I defy anyone who joined in a Yes event, perhaps the Calton Hill rally, to say it was judgmental of anyone who disagreed or that it excluded anyone. The international media agreed.

There is much worrying analysis which describes Yes as sectarian – yes, the biggest single movement in modern history which has harnessed public mood into an array of parties and organisations and which commands groups of hundreds for political branch meetings and this week 3000 prepare for the RIC conference. It is almost unbelievable that an idea which has gripped public imagination and galvanised all sections of our society including our youth could be dismissed as sectarian and exclusive. Indeed, one is forced to conclude that that if anyone is judgemental, it is the author herself whose assessment flies in the face of the facts.

The total lack of critique of the British state and its systematic abuse of low paid workers and families, its militarism and campaign against civil rights shows where Jean Barr’s heart lies.

‘And a labour movement united at British level is better able to challenge the concentration of power and wealth at that level and bring the economy under more democratic control. Dealing with the limitations of nationalism will challenge the new left formation that is emerging in the wake of the referendum, in light of its apparent abandonment of class-based politics.’

So we are better able to cut the ruling class down to size and re-order society in favour of the poorest by maintaining the state which bankrupted the country, bailed out the bankers and cut living standards. Is Jean Barr living in the belief that there will be a Labour government with a radical agenda along any time soon?

Well…. ‘The Labour Party in Scotland and at UK level must speak of inequality and poverty as obscene; advocate redistribution and progressive taxation, including council tax reform; pursue public ownership, social housing and employment rights; and reverse the creeping privatisation of the NHS.’ (I think you’ll find the NHS privatization isn’t true, if you check with Labour).

To me those are exactly the policy ideas discussed at Yes meetings that Jean Barr couldn’t attend because she was scared of their sectarianism. I suspect she is whistling if she expects Miliband to deliver that lot.

This article ends with a cri de cour repeating the old canard that voting SNP will prevent a Labour government – no stats provided because they don’t stack up.

If this is a glimpse into No progressive thinking, we should begin to worry. Or Labour should, for this is another portrayal of Labour’s denial of SNP success, of refusal to accept that within Scotland we have created a new platform demanding social change and it doesn’t need the Labour Party or the United Kingdom to achieve it. The people are doing it for themselves…the people of Scotland.

Yes and the SNP need critics and need robust challenge but the British Left will have to do a lot better than this if it is to resonate.



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As I was saying…there will be no second referendum without a material change in circumstance. One of the dismaying aspects of the referendum experience has been the blind eye turned to the democratic process by some Yes voters who have begun to sound like zealots rather than campaigners by refusing to come to terms with defeat and instead playing victim to British propaganda.


Did Better Together lie and cheat? Yes. When the referendum was announced, it was clear that in a struggle for the survival of the British state virtually any device or stratagem would be deployed to get the result they wanted…short of selective assassination*. Every department of state was given instructions to produce reports damning the nationalist critique and, amazingly, they all did. Not one examined the evidence and concluded that independence might have benefits. This was an exercise in state propaganda. They utilised their cohorts in academia and industry to weigh in with unsubstantiated claims of contractual complexity and additional costs, some of which were embarrassing in their schoolboy naivety.

But this is a political campaign. Did we expect them to acknowledge Scotland would have been as rich as Switzerland if we hadn’t let them take our oil revenues? Did we expect them to concede the balance of payments would be unsustainable without our exports? (I myself suggested Cameron should have met with Salmond to thrash out a deal between the two before the process started but that would have required a maturity and vision lacking in the Prime Minister. He prefers to deal in war games and subterfuge).

Can anyone on either side be remotely surprised at the British approach? This is how every election I’ve ever known is run – with highly contentious claims and warnings and threats.

Did Yes play the same game? Well, not to the same degree clearly since a principled decision was taken by the board to play a positive tune and avoid the negative and discordant. There are many out there who believe this was a mistaken policy and that we sacrificed the chance of being independent today by playing nice when the waverers should have been reminded of the horrors of modern Britain – a system channelling money to the rich while child poverty increases; working families, some with more than one job, picking up benefits to make up a living wage; sanctioned claimants committing suicide; benefit levels so low the Council of Europe calls them illegal; a government working in Brussels to defend bankers bonuses while throwing out the ECHR; corrupt politicians paid by corporate interests while they sit as legislators; an economy built on unsustainable and mounting sovereign debt and a people borrowing to eat. But we didn’t do it. (To be fair, I did).


On the other hand, there were somewhat extravagant claims by the SNP about how welcome we would be in Europe and how soundly that was based on legal advice. To many, the late claims that the NHS was threatened by a No vote were contrived and at the very least, overstated. An independent parliamentary report by SPICE contradicted the claim that free nursery care for all one to five year old would draw 104,000 women into work when there are only 64,000 mums of one to five year olds in the country and only 14,000 of them wanted to work. Is this designed to win over voters with assertion or do we take everything the SNP says as the truth? Elections are about winning and each side does what it thinks will achieve that.

It isn’t disloyal to the cause to concede defeat and regroup. But it is, in my view, disloyal to Scotland and to democracy to begin immediately arguing for a re-run. It implies No voting Scots don’t count as much as Yes do. It implies they were too thick to see through the lies (as we were smart enough to do) and that if we believe something, then all must agree. It suggests fanaticism and lack of compromise.

Turn it round and imagine if Yes had prevailed by one or two percentage points. Some of us actually postulated that in the event of a narrow win, forces in London would object and suggest there were flaws in the process, that Salmond had made claims to win over voters that were manifestly untrue. They would lodge a legal challenge, find lawyers to say a constitution can’t be changed on a simple majority etc.

These, I said, would be the dark forces of Britain, the non-democrats who can’t accept an outcome that doesn’t fit their world view and personal interests. And that would be right. Wouldn’t every Yes voter be outraged that after a prolonged and legally binding exercise, the validity of the result should be questioned by the losers? We would berate and deride them for their extremism. This isn’t an edifying place to be.

We are fortunate in having a second focus for our disappointment and rage – a full-blown British General Election in six months time which has the capacity to blast the tired Westminster boys’ club out of the water depending on the way the seats fall.


If other events unfold, an EU exit poll holds within it the key to another test of democratic will for Scots, both in our own Holyrood election in 2016 and in the Scottish Parliament’s own powers to consult through referendums. The issue has not died but is on life support and must be left in a darkened room meantime.

As Alex Salmond steps down today, we should remember that the party didn’t go down the route of change through threat or violence. Everything the SNP and Salmond has achieved has been through democratic mandate which is why they are held in high regard – and fear – in Westminster and why so many people felt at ease in rushing to join them. The defeat was as much a declaration of democracy as a victory would have been. The suggestion that it wasnae fair or we didna ken sullies the history and ethos of the SNP.

This is not over. It will, I believe, return because Britain will simply fail to deliver or understand. I will go to my grave believing in independence and I will also go to my grave as a democrat.


*This used to be the responsibility of the Home Office but is now outsourced to Serco.

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Yes? NO!

I think we’re all supposed to be cock-a-hoop in contrast to the expected deflation of defeat as we were supposed to grub around for some vestige of consolation. Personally, I’m not dancing in the street yet but I am buoyant and confident of where Yes is leading and if this is second prize, I’m happy with silver.

Yes or No

A burgeoning engagement, new media, astonishing membership stats and a pervasive mood music of positivity is infecting everyone – we are all lit up in vivid colours while Unionism fades into monochrome. I can’t think when a leadership contest for Labour caused so few ripples, so much indifference.

From now on the darker elements of our politics which have become stuck in the repeating echo chamber of cynicism will tell us the optimism will fade, the branch meetings will decline, disillusion will follow, the polls will narrow, Murphy will win and the dreary conventional formula of machine politics and media compliance will gather pace.

Maybe. I’ve been wrong before. I was wrong about the referendum result and I was only partly right that there would be a sympathy vote for Alex Salmond after a respectable defeat. But I didn’t foresee just how energised we would be.


Ridiculously, we are in a quiet period. Post-vote there was bound to be a lull and we are now in the dark days of winter with holidays and current affairs fallow periods ahead. Yet with the SNP conference and the new leadership there is a continuing platform, Labour will produce a wee hiatus in December and the travails of Miliband are morbidly fascinating – and as predictable as Jingle Bells playing in Debenhams mid-November.

I have a caveat though…I am uneasy at casual talk of a second referendum.

This is not how democracy works. First comes the vote and the result. Then comes the acceptance. The people have spoken. That is, just for the record, the Scottish people in a deluge of 85 per cent from the Northern Isles to the Border. The referendum is over and the referendum issue is laid to rest until circumstances change.

I don’t believe this is a time question as in waiting for five or 10 years for it to return as postulated in a poll this week. This is an events question because only an undeniable and ground-shifting change in circumstance can justify a second vote.

To argue otherwise isn’t just anti-democratic, it is anti-Scottish. The 55 per cent are our countrymen.


For my taste there are far too many assertions that it will magically come round again as if No voters are already filled with regret. Maybe they are but hell mend them. The answer is not to pretend September was a mistake or we weren’t quite ready or the Unionists lied. (Of course they lied. This is the British state – it’s in the DNA. And if any adult Scot couldn’t tell that was happening, they were either too dim to merit the vote or would vote No regardless of the facts). The answer is to say out loud: The referendum settled the debate.

There is no longer a mandate in winning half the Scottish Westminster seats. It was, pre-devolution, the benchmark that was set by the SNP but it was trumped by the referendum, the internationally acknowledged method which leaves no doubt about the electorate’s intention. Any process less than a Yes/No referendum will henceforth lack legitimacy. The UDI brigade are also shouting down an empty tunnel. Bald statements of sovereignty apply when a nation is oppressed and denied access to democratic solutions. And what is independence anyway without international recognition – which would be denied while London resisted.

There is another reason why strident claims of indyref2 should be put on mute. They are troubling the No Scots who look on in wonder at how their victory is being treated like a scrag-end, a threadbare, unloved thing despised as soon as it entered the world. This has the effect of painting what we regard as a glorious, reforming democratic movement as demagogic and intolerant, hell-bent on getting its own way no matter what the rules say. It also turns them away from us rather than inviting them in to think again. If there ever is to be a future vote, we will need a significant number of them to get on side and to do that they must not only buy the arguments but feel at ease in our company. The affront Yes people feel about the shredding of the Vow is the same emotion No people feel about demands for a re-run.

Judgement on Unionism and the Smith process will be played out in the elections of the next two years and there is no doubt in my mind that an abject failure by Smith allied to a Tory-led Euro referendum would constitute a change of circumstance that would justify unwrapping the referendum package a second time. But that is for then not for now.

Hurt as I am by the outcome and – at times mad with anger at the No folk – I believe we live or die by democracy and that in time it is democracy that will frame the next step. The Unionists traduced the ethos of our democracy by their behaviour in the campaign but we are in danger of dishonouring it ourselves with reference to another referendum. If it is to be, then it will happen through events and a sense of democratic outrage. It should not be openly talked about it now.

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The Party That Time Forgot

Some decent reads in our beloved Scottish Press this morning…the Herald redeeming itself with Ian Bell after my criticisms earlier this week. (Although quite what I learn about the new First Minister by reading where she buys her shoes and what colour her carpets are is beyond me).

But my Saturday morning entertainment was made complete with Brian Wilson’s latest homily in the Scotsman from his Hebridean croft. I gave up reading him during the campaign after concluding that there may be personal factors beyond journalism that informed his neurotic and splenetic outpourings and it was polite to look the other way.


Now, thinking it safe to return, I find him in customary dyspeptic mode, deflecting attention from the real story – the stunning success of post-referendum nationalist politics – in order to attack his own side. The comrades truly are revolting…

This is an object lesson in bilious propaganda and demonstrates better than Johann Lamont’s resignation fireworks why Labour is unfit to lead the working people of Scotland. The message, stripped down, is that they hate each other and will risk all in order to settle scores. Labour are happier running down each other than in running Scotland.

The headline alone is straight from the satirical handbook. Brian Wilson: Blast from the past hits Labour race. This is a reference to Unite’s Len McCluskey but applies so neatly to Wilson himself that you begin to wonder if this is a deliberate joke by mischievous sub editors.

Even the strapline is ripe with irony… ‘Being endorsed by a political dinosaur (like McCluskey) is something Jim Murphy can do without…’

Here is Labour cavorting in Jurassic Park with one tired old party fraud who sold out every socialist ideal he ever had berating another monster from the deep for bellowing his opinion about the Scottish leadership. Unreconstructed creatures from another age wrestling each other to the ground while all around them the landscape blossoms and a new age of enlightenment dawns.


The intended thrust of this piece of course is that a left-wing union leader has no business criticising a right-wing candidate like Jim Murphy because Brian wants Murphy to win. We can’t allow dialogue to intervene when personal promotion is at play – dialogue being exactly what should be happening long before broken-backed Labour start playing leadership personality politics.

Now if McCluskey had been endorsing Murphy instead of excoriating him, do you suppose the tribally prejudiced Wilson would complain? Indeed this morning’s Scotsman would have been treated to a ‘Wilson welcomes late conversion by McCluskey’ column on how the Labour family was pulling together.

The depth of Unionist hypocrisy also lives on here because of course we hear that (in times past): ‘…no London-based general secretary would have dreamt of treading on Scottish territory in this way’. Really? The leader of a UK union which funds Labour should butt out of the leadership race in Scotland because they’re based in London…?

I may have misunderstood the Better Together message but it seemed to me to imply we shouldn’t differentiate between England and Scotland and that we were one happy family with shared interests and pooling of resources and there were 800,000 Scots living in England who would become foreigners overnight and it was only narrow nationalists who wanted to separate and divide…

Yet here is arch-Unionist Wilson doing exactly that when it suits his own petty interests.

This most right-wing of former progressives who, I understand, brokered the £500,000 Ian Taylor (of Vitol) donation to Better Together – the single most morally repugnant act of a despicable campaign – declares airily this leadership contest should not be about ideology. Read that again…not about ideology – a political party lost in the wilderness, haemorrhaging votes, with no story to tell, dislocated from its core, trapped in age of austerity while families use food banks – and in the mind of millionaire Wilson this is no time for ideology.

On the contrary, this is the time for ideas, vision and reconnection starting with a brutal admission of what has gone wrong. Even this most basic of requirements is brushed aside with majestic contempt.

He calls to his aid the likes of Hugh Wyper and Mick McGahey (whom Labour disdained) to remind us of great trade unionists from the past who combined ‘principle with pragmatism, underpinned by loyalty to both class and movement’ as if today’s union leaders were made of lesser stuff.

But isn’t the truth that it is Labour itself that no longer has principle, loyalty and connection with the working people? Isn’t that exactly why they are struggling now – because self-seeking careerists like Wilson and his leader Blair abandoned every vestige of social solidarity to embrace the crudest of capitalism?

There are no principles left for Labour, only a wolverine hunger for winning – but to what end and to achieve what exactly? They can’t even tell us.

Wilson’s utter lack of self awareness and criticism exposes him as a deluded hypocrite, perfectly articulating everything that Labour now represents – Neanderthal argument and pointless self-promotion – a mere shell of a movement that is being deserting for a vibrant and meaningful alternative.


With this kind of naked disclosure – a sort of public post mortem in which we can all peer inside the cadaver – universities are rendered redundant. Why waste money on tuition fees at all in politics departments when all the explanations for failure are plucked out and offered to us for our perusal? I don’t believe Wilson knows what is happening in our country let alone inside his own party. He is writing of what he wants to believe is happening and has convinced himself is true rather than the utterly changed picture of modern Scotland.

It is too late for Labour to change in time for next year’s election or the Scottish one the year after. Their course is set and the idea that the spitting, hissing hatreds epitomised by Brian Wilson will dissipate is perhaps the biggest delusion of all.

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