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Friday, 14 November 2014

Absent friend

Sadly, the Paisley RFC family has lost another member. Dan Witchell left us far too soon. It's fair to say we're all devastated by his loss. It's always hard to recover from news such as we've just had. I'm sure we will, but right now it seems too hard. We loved Dan. I don't mean liked, we loved him. He was our brother. His life, though, is well worth celebration.

A few years ago, after having coached junior rugby for about 15 years, I took a step back and, for a while at least, settled for being a Paisley RFC fan rather than being actively involved in the running of the club (that didn't work out for me, but bear with me. About this time, a bit of an oddity appeared on my horizon. The first time I saw Dan Witchell, the new Welsh prop at the club, I thought, "He looks a bit small for a prop." He was too, and not small as in short (he was) but small as in, well, typically props looked like me. OK, fat. Dan was slightly built. Never in my wildest dreams could I imagine him being useful in the front row. Well, I was wrong. The little bugger was strong as an ox. The first time I saw him play, he revelled all afternoon in absolutely pumping his opposite number, an ox in the real sense. Dan one, me nil. What a player. He tackled himself to a standstill. He nipped around the field like a scrum half, exhibiting a certain joie de vivre. He was just a great wee rugby player.

Of course, as I got to know him better, I realised his scrummaging ability was the tip of the iceberg. He was an accomplished artist, and not in the conventional sense. His work was, is thought provoking and was often coupled with verse. I'm proud to say I own a couple of Witchells. Dan worked mainly in ink and just about everyone at the club has a favourite. His legacy to us is the huge mural he painted by our clubhouse door, a stylised version of the club shield. It's beautiful.

Of course, Dan, like most of us, had personal demons, and he battled them most of his life. He didn't win every time, but he always bounced back. He was a man of faith, and while I'm not, I strongly believe that was part of what kept him going. Above all, he was a decent man. He would help anyone in any way he could. He had a streak of kindness a mile long. He was no saint. I know he wasn't proud of everything he did, but the good in him seems to dwarf any shortcomings.

What I wish for now, and what I'm sure will happen, is that those who loved Dan will not mourn, but will celebrate his life. We'll tell stories about him. We'll recall the funny side of him. We'll probably get drunk singing his name. But above all we'll think this of him; we didn't know him long enough, but just imagine if we'd never known him at all. We miss you Dan, but we won't forget you.

Monday, 15 September 2014

Considerably more than tuppence worth...

I’m voting Yes. I accept you might think everything else I say is coloured by this. That should be fairly obvious, but it’s why I am that’s important. For that, you’ll have to plough through my past life. Never one to use one word when ten will do, nevertheless, I’ll try to keep it below epic proportions.

Since I was 22 years old, we’ve had one of two things; a Tory government or what amounts to a Tory government. Between UKIP driving Tory European policy without the inconvenience of having to actually win a Parliamentary seat, and New Labour making it clear they’re not going to change much, least of all reverse the most iniquitous of the Tories’ legislation against being poor, it’s hard to imagine much is going to change about that any time soon.

I moved to London when I was almost 22, in 1980. We lived there until 1987 and during that time my admiration for Margaret Thatcher blossomed. Like most people living in the South, and this hasn’t really changed to this day, my world view was coloured by the media. When I saw people like Arthur Scargill, as I saw it, trying to take on government, I was immediately driven to anger because ‘these people’ (I talked like that then) were trying to destabilise the democratically elected government of the day. Thatcher, of course, was defending the rights of the public to own shares, to more easily buy a house, to be a part of democracy in action. Oh yes, I was that pompous idiot. Even when she was stabbed in the back by her own party, which she was, I was able to muster up real anger at the manner of her removal, completely comfortably with ignoring the fact that she did exactly the same thing to several of her colleagues.

After Thatcher and the Grey Man, Major, came a breath of fresh air. Along came the new generation of Labour’s Bright Young Things. The new era of Blair, Brown, Darling, Two Jags et al. We were promised a new beginning. We’re still waiting. What we got instead was a succession of body bags coming back from an illegal war largely instigated by Blair and his colleagues, with the quiet acquiescence of Parliament, very much against the wishes of the British people. Oh yes, we got the minimum wage. That saved us from having to have a living wage. Other than that, it was business as usual. Oh, and the Metropolitan Police were granted virtual immunity from prosecution, having pursued an innocent man onto a Tube train and put seven rounds through his skull. Possibly even worse, when a Coroner’s Inquest was eventually held, and those of us who had come to believe in the idea of real justice held our breath, the coroner instructed the jury they may not return a verdict of Unlawful Killing. 

I think it was round about that time I began to believe that something had changed about our society. Something had changed about us. We were led to believe that there were terrorists lurking behind every bush, waiting to kill us, take away our freedoms. Freedom had to be protected at all costs. There was only one way to achieve that; remove our freedoms, lock them up safely and start to militarise our police services. Do you feel safer now?

Our acceptance of these restrictions on our freedoms was largely driven by fear, easily achieved with the assistance of the media, particularly the tabloid press with their blaring headlines. Words like ‘Jihad’ and ‘Al Qaeda’ and most recently ‘ISIS’ are guaranteed to pick up that old Bulldog spirit. Descriptions of Alex Salmond as a communist and a fascist (with no apparent sense of irony) remind us of happier days when the Soviets were the enemy at the door and we knew why we had the worst weapons the world has ever known parked on our doorstep.

It’s worth examining at this stage what the words ‘independent nuclear deterrent’ mean. Only the middle one has any real meaning in my view. We’re happy enough to claim that monetary union would mean that we wouldn’t be independent, but at the same time happy enough to think a weapon we don’t own, and which will never be used without the permission of the USA (the only nation ever to have used a nuclear weapon in anger), is. As for deterrence, well, let’s see. Did the possession of nuclear weapons stop the Falklands, a British dependency, being attacked? Did threats from several nuclear powers stop Iraq from invading Kuwait? Did it save the lives of US citizens all over the world who were victims of constant state-sponsored terrorist acts? Did not having nuclear weapons result in the invasion of 184 plus nations? So, think about that next time you feel we’re being protected by Trident.

I could go on all day but I’ll settle for stating some of the things I want no part of. I want no part of a ‘democracy’ which has a second, totally unelected house, populated by people who are simply born into the right family, make films, donate money to political parties or are senior members of the Church of England (so much for our secular democracy). I want no part of a government which allows a member of the Opposition to make promises of new powers he couldn’t guarantee even if he was in government, and then pretends he can. I want no part of a government which signs an agreement, including a ‘purdah’ period it then ignores. I want no part of a government which defends its own Treasury’s breach of rules when briefing the media on a decision by a bank while that bank has not yet made that decision, and further, doing nothing to address the issue of the media simply lying about what the bank actually said.

You could be forgiven for thinking what I’ve said so far has been uniformly negative, and you’d probably be right. To balance that, I’ll try to finish on a few positives. The important question to me is, given the rotten state of politics in the UK, what can we, the people of Scotland replace it with?

Scotland already has a system of proportional representation I didn’t always believe was the right way to go. I have seen, though, minority parties in Scotland get a voice they didn’t have before, which can only be a good thing for democracy. Inclusion, feeling included, must be the way forward if we are to engage people politically, and it seems almost undeniable that people have been engaged in an extraordinary way, an unprecedented way by this referendum. If we choose independence, we choose it as a nation, together. I want nothing to do with the idea that only those who vote for the winning side are the only ones who should be involved in the next step forward. We should all be in it together.

After independence, if that’s what we choose, we will have a long hard period of negotiation with the remainder of the UK. After that, probably a longer, harder period of nation building. Should that deter us, the difficulty of it all? I hope not. I’d like to close with a word about two people who are no longer with us, but who would have dearly loved to be at this moment in our history. The first is Margo McDonald. Margo in many ways reminded me of my mother. This was partly because she was loving, kind, passionate and caring, but mostly because, when you got her mad, you got a slap on the ear for it. Nobody can deny her love for her native land, and I personally will probably shed a tear for her, especially if we vote Yes. The second is my late father-in-law, David Jackson. David passionately believed in Scottish independence, and it’s to my great regret that I didn’t come to the realisation that he was right before he died. He would have been intensely proud to have seen this day, so if it’s not too mushy, I’d like to think I’m voting as much for him as for my children’s future. Please, vote. I’d like you to vote Yes, but just vote.

In any moment of decision, the best thing you can do is the right thing. The worst thing you can do is nothing. Teddy Roosevelt