Well, that was an interesting weekend...

Second-to-last Friday, I get home. Bit tired, needing to wring myself out before a weekend's campaigning. Check Facebook and Twitter. The ever alert Connor Beaton (@zcbeaton) highlighted this tweet from Natalie McGarry - a recent SNP parliamentary candidate and activist within Women for Independence (give 'em a couple of quid here):




I rarely take trips abroad - I prefer just jumping on a train and abusing the kind hospitality of friends and family across Scotland. Mostly a matter of being skint a lot. But, one quick search for my passport later, an even more hastily stuffed bag of belongings, three days growth on my face, and I'm on Waterloo Place at 9pm, nursing a slight head-rush and sleep-deprivation with a double expresso and a strawberry ice-cream cone. Waiting, waiting, waiting. What is my purpose there? I come up with the reasonable answer - to be a living exhibit of democratic process, dialogue and consensus. And it's in this spirit that I answered the call - and that I have around a hundred EUR for food and booze spare this month.

I see a chronologically-more-gifted-than-I couple emerging from a nearby pub, both wearing Yes badges. I smile in recognition, and they smile back.

"Are you here for the Brussels trip?"
"Aye, son. Are you Scott?"

Quick hugs exchanged. They're Alice and Brian McGarry - Natalie's mum and dad. Alice is an Inverkeithing councillor for the SNP, Brian is retired. We head into the Waterloo bar together. I'm not quite sure what's just happened, but we take our seats - shake hands with another couple - Tam and Joan - and order a quick glass of Laphroaig 10 year old for the road. There's a musician playing the banjo (complete with a Vote Yes for Scottish Independence sticker covering much of it), belting out an addictive ditty or six, which rolls around in our heads for hours, but I can't for the life of me tell you what the words are now.

At this point, I had barely considered how we're actually getting to Brussels, whether it'll be boat or train. An email from Natalie pings from my phone - a 14 hour coach and ferry trip. Ouch. At this time, I'm wishing I'd brought sleeping tablets. Still, if these auld yins can do it, so can I. We'll see how it goes.

The minibus rolls up nearby. Out pours another handful of engaging and friendly people and the young musicians (drummer Arran - from Northern Ireland - and piper Craig - also a pipemaker and fledgling businessman in his own right), welcoming all of us and piling on luggage. We jump in and find a seat. There's bottles of vodka, and enough Irn-Bru to float HMS Victory. A brief oh-crap moment: is everyone going to be pissed and incorrigible? Should I have brought my own boozahol for sharing? It's not a big deal. Dinnae sweat the small stuff, Scottie-boy!

Our long-suffering driver, Gareth - with his head perpetually screwed on, no matter what's happening, our other driver, Shug - a fellow Leither, studying psychology and a volunteer for the Samaritans and Craig's girlfriend whose name regretfully escapes me. Also along for the ride, the irrepressible Sarah Hamlin, a young New Zealander, studying in Scotland, separated from her husband by unjust and frankly daft UK immigration law. She wrote her own account of the trip.

The first part of the trip was a blast. We chatted, we debated, we sang Scottish songs (I finally got to sing the recently learned For A' That in full - I'm quite good), we talked of New Zealand politics, what independence meant to each of us and what brought us to Yes. It was quite wonderful. Each of us, complete strangers who could not be more different to one another, united in a common cause of national and personal empowerment. I made it clear that I was a relatively new party hack in the Scottish Socialist Party, so party business was off the agenda for discussion - although politics and campaigning was ripe for rich blether.

It's very much a microcosm of the Yes campaign in general. Disparate and wildly different people, brought together united. I have made more friends in the past 2 years in this campaign than I have in 20 years of outside life. One of these days, I'm going to ask myself why that is.

The latter half was less nice. Everyone was knackered and grumpy. The musicians were pissed and singing loudly in their slumber. With legs and buttocks uncomfortably falling asleep, I knew I wasn't going to get much in the way of rest. I manage some, and am told that I kept quite a few awake due to snoring. We get to Dover, passing misty and grey buildings on the way, ghost buildings reminding me a little of Pripyat photographs, desperately in need of regeneration and tourism attractions.

An affably quick trip through French border control, and the B&O ferry affords us time to stretch our legs and maybe swig some more coffees. We do so and go for a walk on deck. No-one's in a particularly chatty mood, I take the hint. The sun threatens to rise for about 10 minutes, creating a gorgeous golden-red aura of cloud, mist and cold. On the deck, braced and awakened with the cold, I read Tony Benn's diaries - about the time of 9/11, engage with a simple sweet humanity of a life well-examined - and resolve to write more often. Probably won't happen, but I'll continue to manage the guilt.

Off the ferry and into Calais. The heat is beginning to take hold, and it does so as we drift through north east France and into Belgium. The scenery is flat as a billiard table. I listen to French lessons podcasts on the trip, trying to brush up briefly on my terrible French vocabulary and grammar.

After an hour of fighting with spelling mistakes and the sat-nav, we arrive at a house above a pharmacy, owned by a member of the Nieuwe Vlaamse Alliantie (NVA) - a conservative political party seeking Flemish independence. We meet up with various other SNP party hacks and campaigners, almost all of whom I've met through social media, Yes Scotland and social events. I like Shona McAlpine - a gallus gob from Govan - almost immediately. The group tuck into a quick feed on salad, bread, cheese, mayonnaise, olives and fruit.

It turns out that the brewery that was to be our home for the night is unavailable. The "pissup in a brewery" joke aside, accommodation is quickly found near the small town of Sint-Niklaas. It's basic, and smells of newly-assembled furniture and horses. We leave our bags and quickly depart for a short tour of Sint-Niklaas. Our guides speak decent English, while occasionally falling to a mixture of Dutch and French when the vocabulary isn't all there. It's all quite amicable and fun. The pipers play a quick set in front of the massive town hall, directly in front of the Grote Markt - the largest market square in Belgium, which recently celebrated 500 years in existence, and convenes every Thursday.

Noting the sheer number of bicycles in wide use - I strike up a conversation with a town councillor who is also a teacher, discussing the nature of local government in Flanders. We're given a tour of the town centre, and brought to a tobacco museum, featuring a mighty collection of all things baccy - including the world's biggest cigar, historical records of tobacco trading documents and surprisingly intricate and beautiful pipes and holders. To cement the idea that is is a hobbit's paradise, we were drawn upstairs for a half-pint of our choosing. The room was coated in a perfumed fug of pipe smoke, Borkum Riff Cherry. As I get older, I could totally get into this kind of simple luxury.

Now - the Belgians don't fuck about with beer. Best of the lot was Tripel Klok - manufactured by Boelens brewery, a very local brewing company founded around the 1850s in Church Street. Sweet, rich, creamy and incredibly refreshing.

As we drank, unwound and generally chit-chatted with interesting and interested strangers, the young daughter of one of the councillors played Flemish pipes. There's a lingering melancholy to the tune and the pipes themselves; a sad, serene gentleness - compared to the raucous skirling of the Scots bagpipe. The young lady was then joined by Craig, our own piper. There was a curious joy, and an ecstacy of fumbling as the people in the room connected, in talk, drink and music. In that moment, it was laid abundantly clear, national self-determination and cross-border kinship are quite simply not, and should never be considered, mutually exclusive concepts.

That's not to say there aren't serious, difficult political ramifications that won't be wished away.

After the tobacco and beer, we went to a local pub. A bit of broken French and pointing at beers later, the little differences came to light. Each glass was washed and the beer poured in front of my eyes. The bartender then took a straight-edged implement, and wiped off the top of the head immediately and plopped it on the counter, cold froth still dribbling down. It was then I discovered Duvel - a very quaffable but rather strong Belgian beer. Downed a bottle. I ordered another two, for myself and the councillor. Alas, we were quickly hurried off - so now, I've got two open bottles of powerful beer to drink myself, and heading across town for dinner. And the alcohol from the previous drinks was beginning to take effect.

Across town for our dinner - most of us got the local Flemish stew, delicious tender beef, soaked in thick savoury gravy; mopped up with undercooked chips. During the meal, I got to know Craig quite well, his business aspirations and his growing family.

Half of us wanted to retire for the evening, the other half wanted to continue on a pub crawl. Being the delirious fool, I was delighted to do so. It became a blur after a while: we crawled, we drank some more, we shared Yes Scotland campaign gossip, we chain-smoked, we collected interesting local people, we hugged and shared our stories, we said our goodbyes to our gracious councillor hosts, we debated the nature of Yes Scotland's civic nationalist-green-and-socialist movement with right-wing Flemish nationalists, and left-wingers who want to remain part of Belgium. The left-right divide is just as powerful, and just as deeply felt - but it was odd to feel the shoe on the other foot.

A taxi-ride that I don't remember, a desperate hangover, a gob like an ashtray and scary levels of snoring, a couple of Danish sweet pastries, and we're piling back on the minibus to head to the self-determination rally in Brussels, in Cinquantenaire Park. We're there quite early, but thousands of Catalans are there already amid the glorious gardens. I feel like a fifth wheel, but engage anyway. An assembled bamboo-stick and Saltire later, and I'm flying the flag for my country, engaging in conversation with the assembled.

I'm reminded of arch-unionist Sir Walter Scott: "Breathes there the man, with soul so dead / Who never to himself hath said / This is my own, my native land!" - I start to miss Scotland, even though I'm going back in a mere five hours. An elderly Flemish gentleman stops me, and gives me a scarf. I don't have anything to return, other than a copy of the SSP's The Case For an Independent Socialist Scotland, a grateful hug and my thanks.

In addition to Catalans and Flemish, there were Sicilians, Basques, South Tyrolians (whose flag is identical to the St George's cross - I've seen enough of those on the opposing side of anti-racist marches!) and others. The crowd is nowhere near the size of Edinburgh's March and Rally for Scottish Independence - but it's considerable, nevertheless. I'd say around 4,500 people - although I'm briefed to say it was 25,000. Bollocks. There are little white lies and there are whoppers. :)

But each of them would give something truly precious to have the what we have in Scotland. To them, and myself - it is the opportunity of a lifetime. And voting Yes, we would change their fortunes, too. Given my political compass, I find it ironic as hell that by choosing independence to escape from a horrendous right-wing government, we could liberate and empower other right-wingers within Europe.

It's the price of self-determination. The freedom to choose to make bad decisions - but the power to correct them if the people decide.
I'm trying to recreate the writing implements of my youth. I'm browsing stationary stores, looking for pads of just the right kind of squared paper in which I learned the quadratic formula, proved the sine rule, came up with a rudimentary proof of Pythagoras, wrote simple algorithms to find perfect numbers, came to a crash course in physics, balanced chemistry equations, wrote film review notes, copied recipes from the TV.

Paper thickness matters. 80gsm is thin, lacking in heft, weight and moves too easily from resistance from my hand. I had an architect's pad, each page was headed by the company name - 0.5cm squared paper, thick enough to take a bit of abuse, quality paper that felt just a little bit slick, but you could still feel the fibres that made up the texture of the page.

Sod fountain pens, I feel like the Third Doctor when I use them. I need a solid pen that feels right. Balanced in my hand, with smooth straightforward movement across the page, does detail well, paper soaks up just the right required amount of ink, without having to go over twice or drown it in blots. A workman's pen. Good for anything from a quickly jotted essay, signing cheques and adding personal notes to a textbook. I had one of those - and I had no idea it was precious to me. A comfortable talisman for writing terrible poetry and songs.

I'm becoming a stationary nerd. Is this how it happens, searching for a bit of nostalgia?
Dear Mr Chisholm,

I wish to thank you very much for your vote in favour of the Marriage and Civil Partnership (Scotland) Bill. This ensures that Scotland continues its progression as a country equal for all its citizens in her laws. Sometimes, absent of party hackery and tribalism, I can be in awe of the maturity and respect in the Scottish Parliament. I was deeply moved and delighted by the turnout and generally very high quality of the debate.

But the process isn't over. I write to you today to ask you to consider the amendments to the bill submitted to the Scottish Equal Opportunities Committee, which will further improve it for transgender and intersex individuals.

The Equality Network, headquartered in our constituency and with wide-reaching contributors, has proposed five amendments.

1) To end the spousal veto on gender recognition. Uncooperative spouses can deny gender recognition - requiring a divorce for the trans person to be legally recognised as the gender they live as.
2) A reduction in the age required for gender recognition. Although trans people could easily satisfy all of the conditions required to receive gender recognition by the time they are 16, they are barred from applying because of their age. This is discriminatory and unfair.
3) Alternative evidence requirements for long term transitioned people. Given the difficulties in seeking a diagnosis for gender dysphoria in the first place, and if the patient has been out of the process for a period of time, it can be even more difficult. Seeking reassignment after marriage compounds this issue.
4) Allowing gender-neutral ceremonies. In truth, removing gender from our marriage laws sounds like a simple remedy.
5) To allow people with foreign civil partnerships to marry. Reasonably straightforward.

These amendments are discussed in detail in the Equality Network's pamphlet, which I link to a PDF copy below.

http://www.scottishtrans.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/11/Equal-Marriage-Amendments-Briefing.pdf

I would also hope that support could further be raised for heterosexual couples to have a civil partnership ceremony should they so wish. That way, both straight and LGBTI couples can be said to be equal in relationship law.

I trust you will consider the amendments' remedies to each of these concerns. I'd like you to vote in favour of them.

With kind regards,

Scott Macdonald
Dear Ms Davidson,

I wish to thank you, so very much for your proud, passionate contribution to tonight's equal marriage debate.

More than the many other fine contributors to the debate of this progressive bill, in your most personal speech, you spoke for me. You gave voice to enshrining the hope, truth and the forming of stable families which become confident able communities. More than this, you articulated the underlying need for this bill - to remove "that otherness" which need never permeate modern Scotland - and that young LGBTI people know that the their government has their back.

I'm not a constituent. I don't have any right to ask you to consider the many excellent and progressive committee amendments to the bill - which deal with a gender neutral marriage option, fixing the pensions issue, avoid any spousal veto nonsense and do away with the requirement for divorce for gender recognition. But be assured, I shall be lobbying locally to ensure my representatives consider them in full and vote accordingly.

Tonight, you were my comrade - so once again, I thank you very much. With all my best, and the hope that you will be able to marry your love,

Scott Macdonald
I'm a newcomer to politics. Since jumping off the fence on the independence referendum in mid-April 2011; this year has been the most eventful of my political life. It had to be. Looking at the challenges facing Yes Scotland, and having came to the conclusion that Scotland would be to my mind better off: socially, democratically, internationally, environmentally, economically and culturally as an independent country, I knew that I had to get involved.

It took a whole year of seeing the wanton destruction of modern Britain under radical cheap-work conservatives, NHS privatisation, food banks, crushed real wages leading to decreased living standards, failing energy regulation leading to huge profits for corporates, disability support cuts, tax avoidance on an gargantuan scale, and trebled tuition fees to get me off my backside. For that, I apologise to all good active citizens in taking so long to get here. In speaking to people, and doing an awful lot of reading about modern British political history, it's like viewing the world clearly for the first time. And it's horrifying.

It took a little less time to fully grasp the fundamental thistle of the nationalist argument. I, and so many people I know, are frustrated by social democratic values being repeatedly thwarted by Tory governments Scotland did not elect and often despise. A Labour party becoming increasingly less relevant in Scotland is no substitute; lurching rightwards on immigration and "the deserving poor" to fend off bigoted UKIP knuckle-draggers and the Daily Mail crowd.

Seeing the diverging political aspirations within Scotland itself as expressed within its devolved parliament's elected representatives and the social democratic values it has demonstrated repeatedly has made it far clearer. This is most directly contrastable with with the UK's flip-flopping two-and-a-crutch party system, permanently enforced by its undemocratic first-past-the-post electoral system.

I see independence as fundamentally about building a better representative democracy. If I saw a route to a better politics for the UK through Westminster by the time I reach middle-age, I'd understand if others voted No.

Scotland has much to offer as an active global citizen. From a recent devolved past where we scrapped tuition fees (I see having a well-educated populace as an investment), prescription charges (we don't tax sick people just because they're sick), to one where we scrap the fiscally ignorant and ill-considered “bedroom tax” and keep public services best placed in public hands.

Furthermore, Scots are opposed to the renewal of the expensive and immoral Trident weapons system. Under the union, not only must we pay our share instead of spending that money on education, health and housing, we have to host these weapons of mass indiscriminate civilian incineration in Scotland’s waters, thirty miles from her largest city.

Since signing the Yes declaration in May 2012 and volunteered my time and skills to the Yes Scotland campaign - it's had a curious side-effect in my personal life. I've written more letters, been on more marches and rallies for causes I believe in, been presented with arrest, met more passionate and wise people who agree and disagree with me and spoken to more disparate strangers in the past year than I've ever done in my prior adult life. They all have bit-by-bit changed me, as I may have bit-by-bit changed them.

I've joined a political party, the Scottish Socialist Party, attended their national conference, met hundreds of interesting people, joined the local branch and helped them spread their vision of creating a better society, where people and not profit matter most.

Getting more actively involved in grassroots politics has changed my day-to-day life.

  • It's tiring. I've been sleeping less, and working harder.

  • It's rewarding. Slowly convincing people of the causes and overcoming skepticism is immense. It's given me confidence in my abilities to openly discuss things that are important to me.

  • It's frustrating. Quite often in those I meet, I find apathy blended with ignorance, cultivated over a lifetime of marginalisation, disenfranchisement and disempowerment. I have yet to find consistently good means to engage them. Wit occasionally helps.

  • It's terrifying. What if we fail, or screw up, or over-think the negative possibilities? The only way to surely fail is to not try.

I've also found my personal communication habits changing: when on marches, leafleting, stopping people on the street, knocking doors, talking to friends, neighbours, family or extended social circles. I find that I'm rarely off-message; looking for an opportunity, a careful gambit to insert a point of interest, or a means to guide some thinking. It's an oddly mercenary approach.

I've found the trick to good political communication is listening carefully to what's being said, add an appropriate interjection, answer all the questions put to the best of your ability, then thank them for their time and leave them to chew on the information. It's for this reason, I'm pleased the referendum campaign has spent a year preparing the groundwork, amassing an army of volunteers (each with their own talents and time) to best spend the remaining 50 weeks. People need time and reinforcement of facts, not froth to make a similar journey to pull them towards Yes.

I'm loath to use the term "real change", when it's so flagrantly abused to distinguish between flavours and colours of Thatcherite in Westminster party-politics, but real change does happen - with equal marriage, the welfare state, the National Health Service, universal suffrage. It happens slowly, but speeds up when there's a mass movement and force behind it. And hard to cultivate directly, amidst an ill-representative democracy and a collective stew of back-and-forth oppositional bickering.

If you want to add your piece of real change to the world, then do the following: talk to people, turn up to a rally, write a letter or email to your representatives (they're human beings, too - so write openly and honestly: a genuine letter in your own words matters) or join political organisations and parties that share your values and beliefs. And no matter how proud you are, always, always, ALWAYS be ready to accept you might be wrong.

Are politics and politicians failing us, or are we failing them? It's a little of both, but we should never fall into apathy in our public discourse. Constant vigilance protects us all.

Add your voice to public life. Get active.
This is a copy of an article posted by Michael Gray on April 7, 2013 on the website: National Collective. National Collective has been removed from the Internet. Some people just don't understand The Streisand Effect! Copy, print, and share.

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Today ‘Better Together’ disclosed £1.1 million of donations to its campaign. Almost half of that sum came from one man: Ian Taylor, a long-term Conservative Party donor and Chief Executive of oil-traders Vitol plc.

Today’s Sunday Herald described Taylor as “a Scots oil trader with a major stake in the Harris Tweed industry”. They also gave Taylor’s views – who is reportedly worth £155 million – print space to justify his funding decision.

This raises several concerns. Taylor, according to The Sunday Herald, is not registered to vote in Scotland. This breaks Electoral Commission guidelines for general elections, which Yes Scotland has promised to follow. Secondly, Ian Taylor has given £550,000 to the Conservative Party since 2006. This is a further case of Tory donors – and their political interests – bankrolling the ‘no’ campaign.

These general complaints, however, are minor in comparison to more serious incidents – unmentioned in the media today – linked to Ian Taylor’s business background.

While Chief Executive of Vitol plc, his company has been involved in shady-deals in Serbia, Iraq, Libya and Iran. Furthermore, Vitol avoided tax to the tune of millions of pounds through an offshore trading scheme. Douglas Alexander, Labour’s Shadow Foreign Secretary, described Vitol’s relationship with Westminster as “curious”, and said there were questions to answer.

As Chief Executive of Vitol since 1995, Ian Taylor has serious questions to answer in all of these cases. Better Together have serious questions to answer as to what they knew about Ian Taylor before they accepted half-a-million pounds from him. Alistair Darling – who recently met with Taylor prior to the funding deal – must also confirm what his position is on the following cases.

1) Vitol Admitted Paying $1 million to a Serbian Paramilitary Leader

In 1996 Vitol paid $1 million to the Serbian paramilitary leader Arkan to settle a score over a secret oil deal to supply Slobodan Milosevic’s Serbia with fuel. Ian Taylor’s director, Bob Finch, used Arkan as a ‘fixer’ after the oil deal in the former Yugoslavia collapsed. Arkan was assassinated in 2000.

Arkan was indicted by the UN war crimes tribunal in The Hague for crimes against humanity. According to The Obverver which names Ian Taylor in its investigation into Arkan – “his brutality was well documented” when the meeting with Vitol’s representative took place. Arkan’s paramilitaries – ‘the tigers’ – were notorious for massacring 250 patients and staff in a hospital.

Ian Taylor was Chief Executive of Vitol when Bob Finch, as Vitol Director, went to Belgrade. Arkan was then indicted with 24 crimes against humanity.

What did Ian Taylor know about his company’s dealing in Serbia and their payment to Arkan? What is the position of Better Together in relation to this?

2) Vitol plc: Guilty of Bribing Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi Regime For Oil Contracts

While Ian Taylor was Chief Executive, Vitol paid $13 million in kickbacks to Iraqi officials under Saddam Hussein to win oil supply contracts. The company pled guilty in a U.S. court to grand larceny in November 2007 and paid $17.5 million in restitution as a result. This undercut the UN oil-for-food program – 1996-2003 – that sought to trade Iraqi energy resources for humanitarian supplies.

Was Ian Taylor aware of his company’s actions at the time? To what extent did his company profit from these deals in Iraq and to what extent did he profit personally from the company’s success? Is Better Together content to accept Mr Taylor as a major funder in these circumstances?

3) Ian Taylor’s Company Avoided Tax ‘for more than a decade’

Vitol plc employed the controversial tax avoidance scheme known as ‘Employee Benefit Trusts’. (EBTs) Such schemes allowed employees to avoid paying income tax and companies to avoid national insurance contributions. Vitol used the scheme ‘for more than a decade’.

Tax evasion and avoidance costs the UK Exchequer tens of billions of pounds a year. EBTs were banned in 2011. Vitol then entered negotiations with HMRC over claims that it still owed millions of pounds in unpaid taxes.

What did Ian Taylor know about the company’s tax avoidance scheme? Even if it met legal requirements, does he consider tax avoidance to be morally just? Is Better Together aware of these claims against the company of its major donor?

4) Ian Taylor has been accused of improper political donations to the Conservative Party.

According to today’s Sunday Herald, Ian Taylor has donated £550,000 to the Conservative Party since 2006. He was one of the 70 millionaires who paid the £50,000 privilege to join David Cameron’s Leaders Group. Leaders Group membership led, in many cases, to a private dinner with the Prime Minister, which Taylor attended in Downing Street on November 2nd 2011. This was part of the “cash for access scandal”.

Taylor’s political donations have also been criticised by Shadow Foreign Secretary Douglas Alexander. In 2011 questions were raised concerning Taylor’s relationship with Alan Duncan, the International Development Minister. Taylor and Duncan had worked together at Shell. Duncan lobbied for an ‘oil cell’ within the Foreign Office to control fuel supplies within Libya. For this the government received substantial support through Vitol plc. Civil service official were concerned that the behaviour was “encroaching too far on commercial purposes”. According to The Daily Mail, Ian Taylor “profited from the war in Libya” and his company received a $1 billion contract to supply oil to the Libyan rebels. This was described at the time as a “huge conflict of interest”.

Douglas Alexander, Labour’s Shadow Foreign Secretary said, “Given Alan Duncan’s reported links with Vitol this curious briefing from within government actually raises more questions than it answers,”

Did Ian Taylor gain influence within government for his £550,000? Why was Douglas Alexander concerned about Vitol’s relationship with the UK Government? Is Mr Alexander happy for Better Together to be receiving financial support from the same source?

5) Iran and current business practices

Vitol recently conceded, in September 2012, that it had broken sanctions on trading Iranian oil. According to Reuters, the company purchased 2 million barrels of fuel oil. This undercut Western efforts to isolate the Iranian regime, and brought further attention to Mr Taylor’s close relationship with the UK government.

Is Vitol an ethical company and should Better Together accept support and funding from this source?

Better Together have serious questions to answer


  • This information raises serious questions – both for Ian Taylor and the ‘Better Together’ campaign.

  • There cannot be a fair referendum if money is solicited from outwith Scotland or from rich Tory donors who do not vote in Scotland.

  • There cannot be an open referendum if funding comes from unethical sources. Our politics is once again tarnish by ‘dirty money’ and vested corporate interests.

  • This information also raises serious questions for the Scottish and UK media, who have not raised any of these question in relation to today’s donation announcement.

  • There cannot be a fair or open referendum if the Scottish people are left in the dark. We need to have the facts. We need to know the truth.


I hope this makes the case for funding alternative media in Scotland even clearer on our path to building a more equal, prosperous and peaceful Scotland.

Michael Gray
@GrayInGlasgow
National Collective
I should qualify some of this. Kezia Dugdale MSP in the Scottish Labour Party has done a lot of excellent work as a regional MSP in her Debtbusters campaign against pay-day loan companies. She was also the No campaign's representative at a recent public debate.

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Dear Ms. Dugdale,

I'd like to state that I enjoy both our Twitter exchanges and keeping up to date with your activities and work. You came to my attention during your excellent regional work in Debtbusters. It is the complexities of this, as you highlighted in the Debating Scottish Independence public debate on 6th March, within the context of an independent Scotland, that I write to you today. I mentioned it to you on Twitter, and seek clarification now.

My interpretation is thus: The underlying regulation - rather than your outstanding campaign work for local amelioration - is unlikely to be faced until the Labour Party legislate UK-wide, or a Scottish Parliament can hold the full powers to do so. I was distraught to learn of the very poor debate in the Holyrood debating chamber, where independence was held up as *the* solution by MSPs within the government. You disagree that Scotland should be an independent country, and believe that as an independent country we would face other difficulties for dealing with this vile problem.

So, please can you outline the specific concerns and difficulties that would face an independent Scotland, with its full powers, to legislate against pay-day loans. If you have made speeches inside or outside the chamber, or had written correspondence with ministers which deal with this specific concern, I would like to read and consider them. Furthermore, I would appreciate your considered perspective in this matter should Scotland decide to become independent. I believe that social justice unites us regardless of party affiliation, or constitutional preference.

Thank you for your very welcome invitation to the Debtbusters public meeting in April. I shall be happy to attend, and will see if I can bring others. I support your regional campaign ameliorating as much as possible the reach of these predatory companies, and the deprivation and desperation they exploit and generate.

Yours gratefully,

Scott Macdonald

P.S. Your answer to my question about what should be enshrined in a written constitution of Scotland was the best answer of the night.
Dear Mr. Lazarowicz,

I write to you today to express my concern at my understanding that the Labour Party will not oppose the government's retrospective legislation on workfare. The bill seeks to retrospectively excuse the DWP from reimbursing wrongly sanctioned claimants.

This, to put it mildly, is illiberal hogwash and sets a dangerous precedent. When citizens defeat the government in court, it can overturn the court ruling retrospectively with primary legislation – effectively making the government above the rule of law.

I would appreciate that you vote against, or provide a detailed explanation as to why you will not vote against it.

I hope this email finds you well.

Yours sincerely,

Scott Macdonald
Dear Mr. Chisholm,

I write to you today to highlight a potential issue in what is likely to be an issue in the upcoming 2014 independence referendum. I note that the agreement has yet to be confirmed, but it has been widely reported in the media that 16 and 17 year olds will be eligible to vote.

Duncan Hothersall, a Scottish Labour activist in Edinburgh has astutely highlighted the difficulty in canvassing those 16 and 17 year olds. His opinions can be read here:

http://dhothersall.blogspot.co.uk/2012/10/votes-at-16-and-critical-importance-of.html

I believe that his central tenet - that it shall be of utmost importance that next year's Valuation Joint Board must ask for the names and birthdays of 14 and 15 year olds in a household - is quite sound.

If you agree, then please can you clarify, or discuss this matter with those selecting the means by which voters are empowered in the constitutional future of Scotland? If it is to be an inclusive and fair ballot, Mr. Hothersall's points make sense.

Thank you for your time. I look forward to your reply, and wish you every continuing success in representing Edinburgh Northern and Leith in the Scottish Parliament.

Yours faithfully,

Scott Macdonald
It's Edinburgh Film Festival time again. Every year, I end up writing loads of reviews all the while wondering how *other people* review movies. I find it difficult, but not impossible to churn out 3 or 4 pieces a day. Here's how I cope.

When watching, I keep scribbling notes, to remind myself of people, places and interesting lines. I stop doing this around halfway, and simply keep watching the movie.

Once the movie is over I find a comfy seat, transcribe the notes I've made to computer, and add whatever detail I can to them while writing them up. During this detail-adding, I invariably start writing in complete sentences, and some of the structure of the review reveals itself. Re-reading the mass of detailed notes, I try to divine some kind of structure to the piece (finding connective links, amassing evidence for my views and to give the reader a flavour of the film), and then copying and pasting the notes to suit.

I then eliminate useless text, write some tissue to unify the piece, and have a fight with how to begin and end the review. A final re-read, to ameliorate the over-written and "chewy" (ones that are nearly impossible to speak aloud without getting into a knot) paragraphs, and I'm done.

Method. What do you all do?
There's little surprise that QI host Stephen Fry was one of the first major cheerleaders for tweeting. Twitter isn't in itself very interesting - but becomes interesting through being a source and user-driven broadcaster of interesting things from its users.

I hesitate to use the word recipe. Recipes involve doing things precisely and in order - Twitter is more like "just whack a bit of it in". It doesn't matter much as to the proportion, as long as you do them regularly and often.
  1. Follow interesting people and engage with them.
  2. Tweet things you find interesting, and you think others would find interesting. Don't be shy about it either.
  3. Propagate current interesting news, witter or events. (Either tweet your own spin on it, or retweet it for others who follow you.)
Twitter's smartest move is the ease of following and unfollowing people. It's easy to take a punt on an unknown person; should they be dull outside of a few choice tweets you can unfollow them quickly and easily with a minimum of social baggage. Following people who are experts in your interests gives a rich tapestry of interesting stuff of the here and now. Engaging with them benefits everyone - since those who are interested can join in the conversation.

Journalists tend to do well - the providers of regular digested news, gossip, astute commentary, pithy back and forth chatter and links to some of the most interesting stuff on the Internet. 140 characters need not be a limitation. It is sufficient for a single, carefully-considered thought, point or counterpoint - any one of which can be the beginning of an interesting, multi-dimensional tapestry of chatter within or around the here and now.

Trending topics are little pieces of text about which a lot of people have taken a sudden interest. These are mostly inane, but occasionally provide interesting social data on current issues and interests.

One of the interesting hacks that emerged from Twitter early on was the concept of hashtagging, and using Twitter's search to find common chatter. They were adopted, and now are part of the common Twitter lexicon.

Hashtags unify disparate commentary on commonly discussed current affairs - using a common shibboleth which begins with a hash sign (#). Reading live updates, adding your own chatter, retweeting points for your followers - it all contributes to a rich source of interesting media.

They range from silly word-punning games [0], through current happenings across the globe, to live television commentary from some of the wittiest, most enthusiastic and passionate people. The #bbcqt hashtag is for BBC Question Time, a UK political discussion show which covers the issues of the week with politicians, commentators and its audience. Add the drinking game, and it's like having a busy pub discussion with thousands of people.

It's all Quite Interesting.

You can reach me at @scott_eff.

[0] - Recent example: #popleveson. Write a tweet in the style of Robert Jay QC - lead counsel to the Leveson Inquiry - to a pop-star using their songs as submitted evidence.
Dear Mr. Lazarowicz,

I am a university-educated IT professional living within your constituency. I write to you today to express my disgust at the announcements made yesterday regarding the massive expansion of the online and cellular surveillance programme - RIPA - which may be part of Her Majesty's speech in May. Leaked briefing notes suggest that the Liberal Democrats will support it, in spite of their coalition agreement - "We will end the storage of Internet and email records without good reason."

My opinion is thus: this scheme is a violation of our human right to privacy. Such measures are also easily defeated by anyone with sufficient knowledge of Internet and cellular communications technology - terrorists and criminals can avoid such surveillance with a little discipline; all the while the privacy of innocents is indexed and susceptible to data-mining. As for policing, an argument could easily be made that the current system of surveillance authorised by judges when there is reasonable suspicion works, and gives police the powers they need. Personally, I believe the illiberal RIPA should be repealed.

The proposal may also backfire spectacularly, as means to defeat surveillance become common knowledge and are used far more frequently. Journalists, other investigative personnel, protesters and privacy-conscious citizens who have broken no laws and use encryption, proxies and anonymising technologies will be under undue state suspicion. Furthermore we can ill afford to pay for another inevitable failed government IT white elephant, particularly while the Chancellor continues doing precious little to stimulate economic growth, jobs and borrows far more than projected.

I further expect this scheme to be tendered out to the private sector. Perhaps Rupert Murdoch might be interested in bankrolling it, since mass interception of private communications seems to be in his interests.

Thanks to the eternally useful website, The Public Whip, I note you overwhelmingly supported the identity cards charade, but rebelled against the Digital Economy Act after consulting with your constituents. I know not the politics of defying a three-line whip, but thank you. What links these matters is thus: civil liberties are real, and are matters which people care about. Nevertheless, I would like you to clarify your position on this matter, and as my representative, to take on board my opinion. Further information about how this scheme differs from prior efforts would be appreciated.

You may reach me on this email address, or via post if you wish to discuss it further.

Yours faithfully,

Scott Macdonald
--> snip address.
I was asked recently about how exercise is coming along. It went south over October and November, although I kept the PureGym membership and occasionally went to make heavy things move.

Over the past three months, I've improved. One of my co-workers is a personal trainer and martial artist, and with his help I've started kickboxing after a fifteen year hiatus - and I seem to have kept most of my earlier flexibility. It's utterly punishing stuff, with incredible emphasis on conditioning and cardiovascular work. By the end, I'm uncoordinated, tired and weak - and in pushing on, in spite of the dizziness and drenching in sweat I'm learning to enjoy it once more. It's weirdly rewarding. I keep walking out feeling like a million bucks; like I'm accomplishing something.

In early February, I hired my co-worker as personal trainer (at a considerably less expensive rate than I got from the gym) for an hour a week. In these sessions, I've been pushed for more conditioning, and learning how to handle kettlebells correctly. They're excellent for combining resistance training with gasping-for-breath cardio work. I seem to be blessed with buttocks of old mutton and iron. My lower back isn't thanking me, but it's the good kind of tired muscle pain, which is easily resolved with a good stretch. Not to be confused with the "AAAAARGHCANTGETOUTOFBED!" pain that requires Vicodin. I've gotten myself two steel kettlebells from left-over birthday money, do a short circuit every morning and I'm already looking for heavier ones.

In a moment of madness and their £29/month promotion, I've joined Edinburgh Leisure - mostly because I like Leith Victoria's swimming pool - and it's easy to sneak in a swim most days after work. Again, I've kept most of my skill from fifteen years ago, even if I don't have the puff to do much more than the occasional front crawl sprint.

Speaking of puff, in spite of several attempts (most of which annoy the shit out of my Twitter followers), the delicious fags remain. There is no excuse. I've been supplanting them with electronic cigarettes, the kind that make my mouth smell like a packet of blackcurrant Tunes. All hail helping me breathe less easily.

I pulled out the old pull-up bar from the closet (probably bought years ago on a dare), and combined it with a Pilates resistance band tied to the frame and using the band on my foot as assistance. This way, I'm training myself to handle the load, and I'll decrease the assistance from the band. Using a stool to assist in pull-ups requires me to split focus from the pull-up movement itself, whereas the bands are passive assistance.

So. Nothing much has changed. I'm still unfit; every session remains a challenge, but the real difficulties in keeping the routine remain. How do you all keep yourself motivated?
I often cycle to work. The bicycle is one of our greatest transport inventions, transferring up to 98% of the energy from the rider to the wheels, this means I don't really need to put a very large amount of effort into it, and coasting - stop pedalling and letting momentum take you forward - is common. It's not really making me that much fitter, but quick for getting me from one side of Edinburgh to the other in an hour (which is about the time I'd take on the bus). It also makes me strangely happy. I turn up raring to go.

Anyway, I've been a lardy guy for the better part of 20 years, and I'm getting sick of it. The only people I know AFK who have successfully changed from being fat to slim have either exercised hard or had surgery to make it so they can only eat a few mouthfuls of food. Good food is a great pleasure, and should not be sacrificed. My mum has lost a lot of weight in the past two years, through eating a lot less, but she looks weak - losing both good muscle as well as fat. As it happens, I work with a guy who moonlights as a martial arts and personal trainer, and after picking his brains over a few "water-cooler" moments, he suggested hiring a personal trainer to go over my lifestyle and training regimen. Around the same time I got a raise, and decided I could afford it. It's also the first time I've ever face-to-face hired someone to do me a personal service.

So, after asking at my local gym I got a trainer. He's a rugby player, and looks it, built like a friendly brick shithouse. As it turns out, it was entirely (if initially) painless - a couple of questionnaires and a conversation about goals. Taking "I want to be healthy, fit and strong" - and breaking it down into "running 2 miles without an oxygen tank", "being able to do unassisted pull-ups" and "losing fat, without losing muscle". I despise the word "tone" as a verb - it's a marketing droid's word that disguises the very real effort required to get in shape. Instead of saying "tone" from now on, say "making heavy things move and yourself for good measure". It's hard work, and using soft words to disguise it is foolish. </rant>

On to the first session - a basic program of calisthenics and simple equipment exercises. The trainer devised a program that avoids resistance machines, largely because the body does not work in the simple way that these machines force you to work. Hooray for science! I regretted it, but almost certainly won't over time as I get better. Going through the programme, it was an interesting if downright weird experience - relearning how to do this stuff properly, and feeling the body work as a functional unit. I have so many annoying habits, and physical tics to undo.

Lesson #1 - Getting it right is more important than throwing weight around. So, it turns out I had to relearn how to do a squat: bend at the hips, keeping knees in line with toes, driving through the ground with your heels, and keeping the back straight. Keeping that stuff in your head, and feeling it work - it was strangely satisfying.

It's worth saying out loud that a knowledgeable, encouraging and correcting-where-necessary human being is an enormous help.

Towards the end, the programme required gritted teeth, involuntarily shaking. and a small monsoon of hard-won sweat. But... I *can* do this. In the changing room afterwards, pulling off a sopping-wet t-shirt with some difficulty, and feeling the soft, sweet endorphin rush amid deep, rich oxygen refilling my body; it felt like an accomplishment - a badge of pride.

Now to do it again...
I am not very well-read. I know more about cinema than I do any other art form, and I suspect it's hampering my abilities to communicate - at least in appreciation of shared contextual comedy and avoiding general ignorance. Therefore my New Year Resolutions (yes, they're made to be broken - I'll try not to) include the following two.
  1. I'll write a blog post at least once a fortnight - including this one. Some may be friends locked, some may be private to me alone. All that psychological nonsense that clogs up my right hemisphere late at night when frantically trying to sleep will be dumped there. Apologies in advance if any of you should be exposed to it. I may also review films and Doctor Who.
  2. I should become better-read. Fifty books over the course of the year should be manageable.
So, my appeal to the groupthink. Please suggest books that will not turn up in those terribly dry "*arbitrary number* of X to Y before you die" listspeak books. I'll be reading stuff from the "long established classics" nodegel too, and would appreciate some suggestions to randomise it a little.
I'm terribly happy. Right now, even as I type, I've got a glowing ember of joy in my chest; the kind of simple bliss that we all had when we were eight and knew Christmas was a couple of days away, or that first visit to a pretty girl's bedroom. Even the simple act of breathing kindles it and spreads the warmth and the endorphins. It's filling me up with pleasure and hope.

Let me explain. I've just gotten a job offer, for a role I think I'd be brilliant at - a Web System Administrator. It's a vague title, encompassing a reasonably broad, if not terribly deep skill-set. It starts on 1st September. The money is perfectly acceptable, it's full-time, permanent and it should be an excellent bike-ride to and from the facility. And I've accepted it.

I've been out of full-time work for just over three years after leaving a property company (in hindsight, at the right time). I was having anxiety attacks at work, and didn't know how to deal with them. Since then I've been doing bit parts in retail, seasonal postal work, volunteer work to keep the CV fresh - and to feel useful! - business eBay selling and up until ten hours ago, a telephone interviewer for a market research company - a job I'd been doing for six days.

My biggest issues in doing this kind of call-centre work are as follows.
  1. I am very easily replaceable - the stats are like a swinging scythe over everyone's head.
  2. I have no sense of ownership of my work. I'm the square peg in a room of cylinders.
  3. The entire job is structured so that I get zero decompression time after a call - no time to catch my breath, or lubricate my throat. I'm usually hoarse after an hour and a half.
  4. There is no chance to get to know anyone while at work. You're perpetually on call, or waiting for the next one to pick up.
  5. Most of my respondents are terribly, yet understandably, rude. Guys, don't be rude, or make excuses to pollsters - just ask them not to call you again, and do the TPS thing for sales calls. Simples!
  6. The money is not good enough - not for the unpleasantness of the job.
Even so, I like money - it buys nice things and services - and so I was planning on sticking with the job until the new one begins. Unfortunately, after handing my notice in, they asked me to leave the premises there and then. Even so, I've gotten things from the job, other than money.

I've never been good on the telephone - I find I witter nervously, rather than sticking to the point. Over the last couple of jobs, I feel I have gotten a lot better and more confident in my professional telephone manner. It's still tough to speak slowly, concisely and clearly; but the experience gained from interviewing and negotiating on the phone should put me in good stead.

While delighted, I'm trying a little to temper my overall joy. I'm not sure if this is my unconscious mind trying to sabotage my happiness, with a nagging and unshakable feeling that "This is usually the point where the ground falls from under my feet." But then again, maybe it won't this time. Maybe this is the one piece that everything else can hang on to. I'm going to hang on to it, and make it flower through skill and will.

Things are good, and I'm happy. And I'm still breathing, it still feels good.
Dre Parker (Jaden Smith) is a thin, wiry and likeable 12 year old from Detroit. Leaving America with his mother, who is relocating to Beijing for work (his absent father is mentioned only once, in a memory-laden height chart) - he's got his work cut out. He can't speak Mandarin well at all, he's got next-to-no-friends, he's bullied by particularly violent kids schooled by Master Li (Rongguang Yu), a "No Weakness, No Pain, No Mercy" mantra-spouting kung fu instructor, and Dre has from his time in America is a skateboard from his best mate, and memories of Spongebob Squarepants dubbed in English.

Like the original, there's even a rather atypical love story with Meiying (Wenwen Han), a sweet English-speaking girl Dre's age. They have a fairly nice meeting, and evolving friendship. She is driven by her strict parents to practice the violin constantly - a not terribly subtle comment on the high expectations placed upon modern Chinese youth. It works well, forming a charming prepubescent romance. After Dre suffers a particularly brutal attack from his tormentors, the apartment maintenance man, Mr Han (Jackie Chan) steps in, and promises to teach him “real kung fu” and train him for a tournament where he will face the bullies.

All in all, so 1984 - and it's at this point, too that you stop caring that it's a remake. The film, directed by Harald Zwart, is a great step up from his previous efforts The Pink Panther 2 and Agent Cody Banks, and is illustriously photographed by Roger Pratt (the first two Harry Potter pictures). It is about as good as one can expect - a faithful update of the source story by Robert Mark Kamen, by newbie screenwriter Christopher Murphey.

Jaden Smith (The Pursuit of Happyness) is a terrific find, with no "cartoon black kid" nonsense clogging up the work. He's particularly good at the alienated, sensitive and easily hurt kid who's longing for the past; he instinctively knows how to act for the camera - and is evolving into one of the most natural child-performers I've seen in a very long time. He's Will and Jada-Pinkett Smith's son - so screen charisma may be in the family.

The fanservice Miyagisims from 1984 are present and correct - Mr Han finds a new, and considerably more practical way of catching a fly with chopsticks, and lovingly restores a very special car with doses of wax-on wax-off. The fight scenes are mostly over-edited and undershot, with lashings of shots to the sternum and wince-inducing thumps on the soundtrack. Mr Han's defense of Dre is the best fight scene by far. Watching Chan take on six 12 to 13 year olds to humiliate, but not injure them is very clever, but it's a real fight, not at all a weak-sauce effort. The 56-year old Chan has still got it.

The training montages are obvious, present and correct - but the update of "Pat" Moriga's training is strains credibility at first - but like the original, it kind of works. "Kung Fu is in everything we do!" exclaims Mr Han - as Dre grasps the significance of picking up, putting on and pulling his jacket off with perfect form.

The movie features Jackie Chan's best English language performance. There's pathos, depth and honest-to-goodness acting - and he truly sells the idea that student and teacher fit together like the yin-yang. It's corny, but they're good enough to give the movie its humanity and depth. He doesn't remind us of Noriyuki "Pat" Morita's Mr Miyagi, the little clipped man from the original whom noone pays attention to until it's too late. Chan and the script make a halfway decent effort to combine the post-Imperialist China backdrops with the innate sense of being more than just Postcard Exotic Locations. There's a really good story thread where Dre and Han visit the Great Wall, on an equally potent voyage of self-discovery - and refresh themselves with waters real, and metaphorical.

The Karate Kid is a good movie, with a pleasant and engaging story - but it's about half an hour too long; at 140 minutes it tests patience. It's not particularly great cinema, it does nothing at all that's fresh or invigorrating and doesn't replace or outdo the original. It's just different - and equally worthy. Also, it's infinitely better than this year's other 1984 remake, A Nightmare on Elm Street.

Oh, and there's no Karate. Perhaps that's for part II?

"When I became a man, I put away childish things."

Toy Story 3 is a dazzlingly confident and magical picture that recalls Paul of Tarsus's quote, but its makers have never forgotten what it feels like to be children. Pixar Animation Studios continue their near unbroken run of animation masterpieces with a colourful and emotional return to the best toy box in moviedom.

In the first emotional sting of the tale, the first scene delves into a loosely-tethered and spectacular imaginary recreation of the time where we all devised our own worlds and stories with toys. But Andy has finally grown up, and is preparing to go off to college. His toys (the gang's mostly here, though some have left, through age, breakage and yard sales) are devastated with his paucity of playing - going so far as to  contrive elaborate schemes to remind Andy of playtime. It doesn't work. They're heartbroken, but pragmatic - "Every toy goes through this".

The week before college, Andy's mother asks Andy to separate the toys he wants to keep for the attic, those for the trash. In a mixup, Buzz Lightyear, Mr & Mrs Potato Head and the rest barely escape from heading to landfill (under the untouched recycling bin) and head to the local day-care centre. The fluffy teddy-bear Lotso, driven bitter and angry by his owner replacing him, spearheads a chilling and wholly corrupt totalitarian regime within the centre. Our heroes are stuffed into the Caterpillar Room for toddlers and barely escape with their lives, if not their dignity.

Lotso enforces discipline with an iron will, eventually reprogramming Buzz to serve him - the effort to get him back to normal leads to the most inspired animation gags of the movie. The rest of the film is basically a wonderful mashup of Toy Story and Prison Break in the most exciting U-rated action adventure I've seen since, well, Pixar's last. (Some moments may disturb very young children - the all-seeing monkey should be a monster on Doctor Who!)

The character animation has come on leaps and bounds since Toy Story 2. Humans are far less plasticy and better animated. And the performances of all the main characters are richer and more nuanced. This is essential for the drama that is to come. Barbie and Ken ("I'm not a girl's toy!", "You're a purse with legs!") have their own delightfully amusing strand, and the voicework remains as invisibly wonderful as always. A particular standout is the Fisher Price Classic Chatter Telephone, an old timer in the centre. Teddy Newton's work combines with magnificent animation (acting by eyebrow has never been so sublime!) to create an incredible world-weary performance.

Pixar have always delivered magnificent scripts, and this is no different - what a delight it would be to be a fly on the wall of their story meetings. The storytelling mixes huge laughs and rich pathos, seemingly without effort, and leads to a finale that will leave few with dry eyes. Pretty much perfect.

And stick around for the credits, the gang all get their closures - including Rex's 'dominant predator' status and videogame addiction.

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