I wear two hats when I write this blog of mine. First and foremost, I manage a small charity in a small Scottish town called Dumfries. Ours is a front door that opens onto the darker corners of the crumbling world that is Britain 2015. We hand out 5000 emergency food parcels a year in a town that is home to 50,000 souls. Then, as you can see from all of the book covers above, I am also a thriller writer. If you enjoy the blog, you might just enjoy the books. The link below takes you to the whole library in the Kindle store. They can be had for a couple of quid each.

Saturday, June 7, 2014


Last Thursday night marked another first for me. I was invited to appear in a proper political debate with along with three proper, professional politicians. Actually, that isn’t quite correct. I was asked to fill in for Henry who couldn’t make it. Whatever. I was there.

From the moment I arrived at Gretna’s Garden House Hotel, it was crystal clear that I was going to stick out like a sore thumb. This is not unusual! The other three debaters were predictably suited, booted and well groomed whilst I probably looked like I’d been dragged through a hedge. My younger son Courtney had come along to watch and he caused some raised eyebrows. He’s been the TA for a year now and he seems to have grown six inches taller and about three miles wider. No doubt when people clocked me arriving with my crew cutted mixed-race son, they must have assumed he was my minder!

One thing was for certain: Courtney was the youngest person in the place by about thirty years. The polite chat was hard work. I have never really mastered polite chat. I suppose it is probably too late now. I was introduced to the two Better Together guys. I had the impression they had already checked out my scruffy trainers and frayed jacket and didn’t approve much. They gave off the same sort of vibe to the Council health and safety inspectors who every now and then used to turn up at our mill in Lancaster.

My debate partner hadn’t arrived by 7.20pm. He was coming down from the Parliament in Edinburgh. He was running late.


Bloody hell.

The guy who was chairing the thing said he would give my man until twenty to eight and then he would have to kick things off.

Fair enough. One rank amateur versus two professional politicos? What the hell.

I decided to take a properly Lancastrian approach to the situation, so Courtney and I grabbed a couple of pints and headed out to the smoking area outside the front door to load up with enough nicotine to cover a couple of abstinent hours.

Was I sub-consciously reaching for the Nigel Farage playbook? Christ I hope not. It meant that as most of the audience arrived, they clocked one of the speakers smoking and drinking with a mysterious tough looking mixed race lad! It’s bloody lucky I’m not even close to being in any kind of political party: the spin doctors would have had a duck fit.

A few familiar faces from the local ‘Yes’ campaign started to arrive and they basically told me to give it to the opposition with both barrels.

My partner in crime arrived just before half past seven and the chairman laid out the ground rules. He told us that this was an event which had been organised by the local churches so it would be good if we could all make nice with each other.

Fair enough.

Once I took my seat at the table, I picked out the faces of a few local ministers I have got to know over the last couple of years. These are guys who have prompted their congregations to bring tins of beans and packets of rice along to church on a Sunday morning for First Base. Without these guys we would never in a million years have been able to keep up 500 food parcels a month, so making nice was definitely a priority.

Introductions were made and the first of the Better Together team got to his feet to deliver his 5 minute pitch.

He ran us through his CV and he told us all he was from Aberdeen and then he pointed out how well the fifty states of the USA had done by being better together. It seemed to me to be something of a rewrite of the history of our American cousins. I was under the impression that on every July 4th they throw a big party to celebrate escaping from Westminster rule in 1776. But maybe I have that wrong.

An honest opinion of the speech?

I thought it was dire to be honest. I have heard lots of speeches of late made by people who have never spoken in public in their lives. They have all been full of enthusiasm and passion. This speech was filled with neither. It was a half hearted read through of a page and a half of notes. I am Scottish and proud of it. I am British and proud of it. I think we should leave things as they are.

It actually really annoyed me. We are coughing up £66,400 a year to pay this guy. We give him expenses for everything he does. And when he is done, we will be paying him a hell of a pension for the rest of his days. All in all, it is a pretty serious investment and in return the least we should expect is a degree of professionalism. Instead he came up with five minutes worth of monotone dreariness. Anyone volunteering to help us out at First Base has to prove that they have the required skill and heart to be friendly, polite and non-judgemental to anyone who arrives at our front counter for a food parcel. In return we pay them nothing whatsoever other than cups of coffee and slices of donated cake. Here was a guy who we are shelling out the thick end of £200,000 a year to keep in the style to which he had become accustomed. Surely the least we can expect in return is a decent five minute stump speech.

My man gave his address and when he said he was passionate and enthusiastic, it wasn’t hard to believe. He told the audience that before entering the Parliament in Edinburgh he had been an accountant in the East Side of Glasgow who had worked in the Voluntary Sector. I was glad to hear the accountant bit. It seemed a pretty good idea to have a bean counting wing man to handle all the inevitable economy questions.

At this point I got an inkling as to how the evening was going to pan out. When the Carlisle Tory had finished his speech, the audience gave him a gently polite round of applause. Me and my partner joined in. Well of course we did. Surely it was no more than basic manners. But when my partner finished his speech, I noticed that both of the Better Together team made a big point of not clapping. I mean, how bloody pathetic. They just sat there looking like a couple of sulking kids who hadn’t been picked for the school team. Jesus. Sixty six grand a year and you can’t ever show a few basic manners.

The second Better Together guy was a Labour councillor from Dumfries and he really could have done with speaking a bit louder. I could only hear two words out of three, but I got the gist. He was from Northumberland and he had lived in Scotland for quite a few years. He liked England. He liked Scotland. He liked Britain. He really liked a Durham cathedral. He thought we should leave things be as well.

To be honest it wasn’t a great speech, but that was fair enough. As a local councillor he gets £3000 a year or so from the tax payers of Dumfries and Galloway and when you divide that sum by the number of hours worked, nobody in their right mind would accuse any local councillor of taking a lend of anyone.

I gave my speech. How did it go? Not really for me to say.

And so battle commenced. The questions were better than expected, largely because many came from the church side of things which meant an interest in whether or not an Independent Scotland might be a fairer and kinder place. Would Jesus approve of the way we might run our new and independent railroad?

I had done my best to prepare so that I could answer questions with a few relevant facts and figures. Even so, I was pretty sure that this would be my Achilles heel. After all, the other guys were all pros and my day job is managing a tiny little charity.

It didn’t take very long for the dreaded question about keeping the pound to arrive. The Carlisle Tory said that hell would freeze over before this would happen. He pointed out that they were 60 million against our 5 million. Do the math little guy!

I had decided in advance that the best way to answer the question was to quote more or less word for word what I had heard from Ken Clarke when he spoke in Moffat recently.

Ken’s view? Of course an Indy Scotland could use the pound. It is a fully tradable currency after all. Anyone is allowed to use it, just like anyone is allowed to use the Dollar and the Euro. Is it a good idea? Not in Ken’s view. Ken points out that the Governor of the Bank of England will always be appointed by the Chancellor of the Exchequer in 11 Downing St. Guess who he will be expected to look out for first? 60 million English, Welsh and Northern Irish voters of course. Will he be bothered about 5 million Scottish non-voters? Will he hell. Ken thinks it would be much better if an Independent Scotland simply opted for its own currency. Such a currency would be deemed to be a ‘Petro’ currency because it would be backed up by huge oil deposits. The world money markets would be keen to hold such currency, so it would inevitably be very strong. This would mean good news for Scots going on holiday but not so good news for Scottish businesses looking to export stuff. If the currency got too strong, then at some stage Scotland might have to look to do a Germany and artificially weaken its currency by joining the Euro.

The Carlisle Tory’s response to this was to smirk and say. “Well obviously Mark’s ideas are completely naïve….”

Well of course they were. After all, who was I? Just some jumped up little person from the Voluntary Sector. Now it was time for the audience to hear from the Westminster Village.

Well bloody sod that.

I interrupted him and pointed out that I had done no more that repeat the words of a Cabinet Minister from his own Government, a Cabinet Minister who by the way had once upon a time been a Chancellor of the Exchequer. How on earth could he call that naïve?

His answer? His top notch, professional politician comeback?

He gave a smug sort of laugh and simply said ‘Ridiculous’.

That was it. That was all he could come up with. How completely bloody pathetic. Christ if I was representing First Base at a public meeting and had as little to offer, I would expect to be fired on the spot.

That was the tone of the evening. We quoted facts and figures to back up what we were saying, most of which came straight from the HM Treasury end of year accounts. They sneered and gave their derisive laughs and never quoted a single, solitary statistic to back up what they were saying. By the end, they had both pretty well lost the tempers. Their message became very simple and they repeated it on at least three occasions. If you are foolish enough to vote ‘Yes’ on September 18th, you will have to negotiate every single clause in the divorce settlement. So remember this. There are 60 million of us and only 5 million of you. You want to know what will happen? We’ll give you a proper kicking, that’s what will happen.

My partner tried to point out that fairness has always been at the very heart of the British psyche and he found it inconceivable that the rest of the UK would treat an Independent Scotland with anything other than proper decency.

In response, the Tory from Carlisle gave a mocking, derisive snort. Just you wait and see little guy. Just you wait and see,

So the evening drew to a close and the handshakes were cold and unfriendly. Most of the people I spoke with seemed to think the ‘Yes’ side had prevailed, but I guess most of them were ‘Yes’ voters anyway.

My impressions? I was staggered by the mediocre nastiness of my opponents. How on earth can we be shelling out a salary of £66,300 for that kind of complacent, arrogant smugness?

Next week I have my second debate in Langholm and this time I know in advance that I have nothing but the highest respect for my two opponents. Archie Dryburgh is a local Labour Councillor and Elaine Murray is our Labour MSP. Both are genuinely fine politicians who have gone out to bat for some of First Base’s most vulnerable and socially excluded clients on numerous occasions. I gave Archie a call when the date was fixed and made sure that we have a ‘no falling out’ agreement in place. That means ‘no falling out’ once the debate is done and dusted. We both agreed to try to kick lumps out of each other on the night itself. Archie is an ex Gordons Highlander and a typical old school, street fighting union man. If it came to a punch up, then he would batter me into next week. So long as we have a verbal battle, I might just about hold my own.

I cannot imagine any circumstances where Archie and Elaine would ever show the kind of lack of class and manners that were shown the other night. Not clapping an opponent’s speech? I mean, come on.

Final thoughts?

Simple really. The way that Carlisle Tory went about his business hugely increased my determination to get free of him and his kind forever and a day on September 18th. I cannot bear to picture the look of utter smugness on his face on 19th September in the wake of a ‘No’ vote. The thought is a complete nightmare.

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