Sunday, 8 September 2013

On the Road Again

The Bus Party, one of the cultural highlights of the devolution referendum, is reforming for 2014.
Here's a longer version of the news story in today's Sunday Herald.

Tom Gordon
Scottish Political Editor

IT was a road trip like no other.

In the final days before the 1997 devolution referendum, a constantly changing mix of artists, writers, poets and musicians shared a mini-bus on a 750-mile dash round Scotland to get the nation’s democratic juices flowing with ideas, song and grown-up conversation free from politicians.

Driving through the night between stops in schools, community centres and churches, the fluid line-up called themselves the Bus Party.
Their aim was simple: to ask people what kind of country they wanted, and to urge them to reflect on that when they cast their vote.

Its members included author William McIlvanney, journalist Neal Ascherson, poet Douglas Dunn, and the small pipes virtuouso Fin Moore, who provided the soundtrack as their 15-seater rattled through the September countryside.

In the middle of it: Ascherson, Storrar and McIlvanney
Now, with another referendum in view, the Bus Party is getting back on the road again.

Ascherson, part of the hardcore half-dozen who were there from start to finish in 1997, has agreed to take part, and Church of Scotland minister Will Storrar will again be organiser.

McIlvanney is helping launch the revival alongside Ascherson at the Wigtown Book Festival later this month, although a bad back will prevent him boarding the bus this time round.

He said: “I think it’s a very good thing to do, especially since one of the things that haunts me about the whole process at the moment is the number of unanswered questions surrounding it.

“I don’t know that Will or Neal have the answers to those, but maybe debating them with people can at least clarify to them how they feel.

“Folk say it’s an emotional vote, but the emotion’s the horse and the brain’s the jockey, and I think the jockey’s a wee bit confused at the moment.”

In a departure from 1997, the Bus Party of 2014 will include feature two trips, not one.

A week-long spring warm-up will see the Bus Party travel from Wick to Wigtown, with a second leg replicating the 1997 route - Edinburgh, Dundee, Aberdeen, Inverness and the Borders - scheduled for the final 100-hours before the independence ballot on September 18.

To head off jokes about being the Bus Pass Party, the old guard will also be joined by members of the Young Scotland Programme run by the Institute of Contemporary Scotland.

Storrar explained: “There’s a small core that will go all the way, five or six of us including the driver and me, and then on every leg of the journey several people get on for a day and night or two, and several people get off.

“It’s a wonderful repertory company of talent, of people who speak for themselves, but are deeply concerend to listen to their fellow Scots at this time.

“It’s a celebration of Scotland at this moment in history as well as a conversation about the kind of country we want to live in.

“It’s the haill clanjamfrie, as MacDiarmid would have said.”

The end of the road: Calton Hill
The original idea for the Bus Party was Ascherson’s, who was inspired by the memory of a similar event in Germany in the 1960s led by the German novelist Gunter Grass.

“When we did this the last time it was quite touching,” he said.

“People were astonished and then rather delighted to be asked what they thought, because politicans just come at election times and tell us what to do and what to think.

“The main thing is to give people a sense of courage really – that this is their choice and not just some political ramp.

“And also of course in this particular case, to say that the Yes option is not just about the SNP. You can say, vigorously, No to Alex Salmond, and yet vote Yes and it’s very important to realise that.”

Instead of more “grey debate” over baffling details, he said the Bus Party wanted to draw out the big issue of the referendum, asking people what kind of country they wanted.

“The Bus Party will be trying to say this is about something bigger. Nothing is certain about what happens after independence.

“Is it a gamble? Yes, to some extent, it is a gamble on a scale on which the choice for a Scottish Parliament was not.

“I always quote the Poles when they tried to get their independence back. They always said, Poland Yes, but what sort of Poland? I think that’s the question.

“Yes to the general idea of Scotland, but we must get to a point where we can make the choice about what sort of Scotland we really want.

“And it looks as if that choice can only be made in independence, because the other options are not there.” 

But he admits that, for the moment, the omens are not good for a Yes vote.

“The last time round we felt that public opinion really was with us, that people’s minds were made up to vote for the devolution proposals.

“This time it’s more complicated, partly because the proposal is huger even than the Scottish Parliament, and the grounds for doubt and hesitation are often much more respectable and honourable than perhaps they were in 1997.

“The tide of public option is extremely sluggish, but moving very very slowly. The Yes is rising. Maybe it won’t rise enough.”
Joyce McMillan and Billy Kay join the map readers

Storrar, who is now Director of the Center of Theological Inquiry at Princeton, said the Bus Party was his contribution as a “disapora Scot” to the referendum, and although like many Bus Partygoers he personally wanted a Yes, all those willing to “think aloud” were welcome.

“Our question in the referendum is what kind of Scotland, Yes or No, do you want to live in?

“We’re looking for writers, poets, singers, artists, commentators who will be reflective on that theme in their art, or in their thinking.

“The people on the bus – and I say this as a Church of Scotland minister – are not going to preach. It’s not a partisan Bus Party.

“It’s to foster the conversation. We will have people on both sides.”

Lots of people, but no politicians, he adds.

“They’re welcome in the audience, to take part like everyone else and be treated like a fellow citizen, but they won’t be on the bus.”

He hopes that, despite the referendum becoming increasingly acrimonious, the Bus Party can be a mobile oasis of civilised conversation.

“Some people might think things are too divided to have a kind of civil conversation that wouldn’t be hijacked by politicians or campaigns, but we think, Yes or No, it’s still very important for us to take this opportunity.

 “Scotland has an amazing opportunity. We have now a  year in a non-violent context to talk about the kind of country we want to be. I think it’s an extraordinary, rare opportunity in history to do that.

"We want to involve everyone in a civic cultural conversation on the kind of Scotland we want to live in - that is the most fundamental question for people voting No or Yes."

 As to the other crunch question for the Bus Party - transport - he's open to offers.

"Someone very kindly leant us a bus in 1997. The Bus Party runs on goodwill and pro bono contributions. If someone wants to lend us a roadworthy insured bus we'd be delighted."


The Bus Party relaunch is at the Wigtown Book Festival on Saturday 28 September at 3pm.

Wednesday, 4 September 2013

This is Planet Airth

After going rather quiet following recent publicity, Labour for Independence is back with us.
This time the controversy surrounds its leader and a private meeting of SNP councillors.
With no other party political groups taking part in the event, LFI's proximity to the SNP is again under the spotlight.

Tom Gordon

THE Labour for Independence group, which is accused of being an SNP front, is facing new criticism after its leader addressed a closed meeting of SNP councillors.

Allan Grogan spoke for around an hour at the annual conference of the Association of Nationalist Councillors at Airth Castle, near Stirling, on Sunday.

As Labour for Independence (LFI) does not admit SNP members, and claims not to be SNP backed, unionist parties queried Grogan’s action.

LFI, which is cited by the SNP and Yes Scotland as evidence of Labour division over the referendum, was set up a year ago, ostensibly by disaffected past and present Labour party members.
It was recently accused of being an SNP proxy, after pictures emerged of SNP councillors in Midlothian holding an LFI banner, and an SNP councillor from East Lothian was snapped manning an LFI street stall.

One of the Midlothian councillors, Owen Thompson (pictured left above), was an organiser of Sunday's event.
Grogan, a part-time wrestler nicknamed The Natural, subsequently admitted that only 40% of the group’s 80 or so members had ever been in the Labour party, and the rest were unaligned.
Yes Scotland, the SNP-dominated campaign for independence, also confirmed it paidthe £245 cost of hiring a venue for the first LFI conference last year.

The pro-Union Better Together campaign said Grogan’s turn before SNP councillors would fuel suspicions that LFI was little more than an SNP-inspired charade.
A spokesman said: “The Nationalists continue to treat the people of Scotland like idiots, trying to convince us that the Labour for Indy group is a legitimate organisation.
“It is not.  It is a Yes Scotland-funded SNP front.
“It is little wonder that people aren’t buying what Alex Salmond's independence campaign is selling.”

The Association of Nationalist Councillors is one of a handful of “affiliated organisations” within the SNP, and all SNP councillors are automatically members.
Sunday’s meeting was also addressed by Natalie McGarry of the Women for Independence group, and by Blair Jenkins, chief executive of Yes Scotland.

An LFI spokesman said Grogan had attended with others to work "across traditional political boundaries" for the good of the people
"Allan told the audience an independent Scottish government needs an effective opposition, and in 2016 he was confident the SNP will provide that to a real Scottish Labour government."

An SNP spokesman said: “LFI were one of a number of pro-independence groups  addressing the SNP Councillors’ Conference this weekend, discussing how all those in favour of a Yes vote can work together to achieve this next year.
 “This is obviously not unique to the Yes campaign – Alistair Darling did of course address the Tory Conference last year.”

Grogan did not respond to calls or email.