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.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015


One of the things that annoyed me most of all during the Referendum campaign was the constant obsession with money. Both sides were as guilty as each other in this regard. Whether or not an Independent Scotland would be a good place to be a citizen or not was deemed to be entirely down to pounds, shillings and pence. I guess to expect anything different would have been pretty naïve really.
We are constantly obsessed with money which they say it makes the world go round. And yet every day brings us fresh examples of how money is anything but everything. Having loads and loads of cash is no guarantee of things being great. You can find proof of this in all kinds of different walks of life.
Why don’t we start with Lottery winners? Each and every one of them is always convinced that their cheque with lots of noughts will transform their lives from the ordinary to the fantastic. It hardly ever does. Most of the time it leads to misery, alienation and an arid shell of an existence.
Football offers umpteen examples of money guaranteeing absolutely nothing. Take last year’s Champions League as a prime example. Hundreds of millions worth Middle Eastern oil money has been ploughed into the French club Paris Saint Germain to pay the ludicrously obscene salaries of what are supposed to be some of the best players on the planet. These Petro-dollars have signed off on a contract paying Zlatan Ibrahimovic £300,000 a week AFTER tax. Let’s remember here that the top rate of tax in France is now 70% for high rollers like Zlatan. So for the gilded striker to receive £300,000 in his hot little hands, the Sheiks have to pay him £1 million a week gross. £50 million a year. And he was but one player in a squad of 25. So surely all the truck loads of Arabian cash that have been tipped into their stable of superstars must have guarantee Paris Saint Germain will sweep all before them? They don’t, actually. Last year they were bounced out of the Champions League in the quarter finals. The wage bill for Athletico Madrid’s entire payroll from directors to players to groundsmen to tea makers was 30% of what PSG paid Zlatan alone, and yet the Spaniards made it within 60 seconds of winning the competition.
How could this be? The established narrative is that splurging money offers a cast iron guarantee of success in football. Except that it doesn’t. Management and team spirit more often than not prove to be every bit as effective. More so in fact.
Every year the supposedly wise old heads who commission Hollywood blockbusters will pile hundreds of millions into some sprawling dog’s dinner of a movie which fails utterly to become a blockbuster. Every year some Indy movie made on a shoestring will defy all the odds and put bums on seats all over the world.
RBS was the biggest bank in the world and set to grow and prosper for ever and a day.
Tesco is huge and massive and home to one pound in every five that we spend on our groceries. How can anyone possibly compete with them? Well they can’t of course. The rule of Tesco is absolute! So how can a funny little foreign company owned by some reclusive weirdo who hasn’t had his photo taken since 1973 even think of taking on the mighty behemoth of British retailing?
You got it. They’re called Lidl.
Does the same failed logic apply to countries? I think it does. Qatar is the richest small country in the world and, so long as we use oil for our cars and gas for our central heating, it always will be. Denmark has very few natural resources and lots and lots of pigs. Where would you rather live?
A common theme that runs through all of these various examples is that something small is a great deal easier to manage effectively than something large. Big is beautiful is a theory that seldom works. Generally the bigger any entitity becomes, the less well it tends to work. Empires start small and for a while they are pretty effective. Then they get ideas beyond their station and they start to believe in their own publicity. They start to feel invincible. And then, as sure as night follows day, they start to over reach. Surprise setbacks put them onto the back foot and their instinct is to throw cash at the problem in the belief that might will always be right.
Then the time comes for them to learn the age old lesson of 'the larger they are the harder they fall'.
Waterloo and Isandwana and Stalingrad and Dien Bien Phu.
Hitler and Napoleon had all the resources in the world in the run up to their harder than hard falls. The money got them nowhere in the end.
When addressing numerous ‘Yes’ meetings, I tried my level best to sell the idea that a nation of 5 million stands a far better chance of punching above its weight in the world than an archaic amorphous mass of a place that is now home to 60 million largely discontented souls. Why? Because it is manageable. Just like Lidl.
My argument seldom seemed to excite much interest from the various audiences I spoke to. My efforts to sell the dream of being able to draw up a Bill of Rights for every man, woman and child in an independent Scotland  fell on equally deaf ears.
Sadly we live in an age where ideas and dreams seldom seem to stand a chance of winning any hearts and minds. It seems that cold, hard cash is our one and only God.
But nuts and bolts common sense should still deserve a hearing.
And so I’m going to give it another shot. Here is a nuts and bolts argument for why we would all be so much better off living in a well run little country of five million.
For the last five years, First Base has run a project to support local veterans. During that time we have done our best to support over 150 men and women who have been involved at the sharp end of Britain’s recent wars. Their ages have ranged for 20 to 80 and they have witnessed the darkest corners of humanity in Ireland, the Falklands, Bosnia, the Middle East and Afghanistan.
The majority suffer from some sort of PTSD type symptoms and each and every one of them deserves the kind of Rolls Royce mental health treatment politicians never tire of spouting on about.
When the project started out five years ago, local Vets faced a waiting list of nine months to see an NHS mental health professional. Believe it or not, this was actually quite good. The average wait across the whole of the UK was 18 months.
This didn’t seem right to us.
It wasn’t right.
It was a bloody disgrace. So we did some negotiating with the local NHS guys and they offered us a deal. £5000 would buy us half a day a week from a superb young psychotherapist who specialises in PTSD treatment. So we raised the £5000 and soon the waiting list was down to three weeks. After a year’s worth of lobbying, the local NHS beancounters found some underspend money and agreed to cover the bills themselves.
So. Job done. 
Well, not quite. 
As Rab the psychotherapist successfully worked with over fifty local guys, the word of what a great job he was doing started to spread. And as the word spread, more and more local vets started to have their names put on the list. And the list started to grow.
Time for another meeting with the boss of the mental health team. Would another £5000 get us another half a day? Nope. Not this time. Things are stretched way too tight. If Rab is taken away from other duties for half a day, there is be nobody with any slack to ‘backfill’ him.
So we started to look for a more permanent fix. The next 15 years are going to be challenging to say the least. For a reason that nobody really understands, it takes an average of 13 years for a veteran to pick up the phone to ask for some help from the first onset of the symptoms of PTSD.
This is why almost everyone working in this particular field is expecting a mental health timebomb to go off over the coming years. Between 2003 and 2014, over 200,000 men and women saw the worst combat the British Army has seen since the Falklands. Iraq and Afghanistan. Those whose minds are disturbed by memories of the 2003 invasion will start to pick up the phone next year and the phone will ring off the wall all the way to 2029.
The waiting list is just going to grow and grow. And of course with every passing year, the public memory of what the guys endured in those two brutal wars will fade out. In the end all the wars we don’t win become forgotten wars. And the men and women who fought those wars become forgotten warriors.
Anyway. What is the long term, permanent fix for this coming problem in Dumfries and Galloway? The boss of Mental Health services could see the answer clearly.
Hire an excellent psychologist to work full time on meeting the demands of the coming mental health time bomb. To encourage the right person to up sticks and move down to Dumfries and Galloway, this absolutely has to be a full time post. It must also be a fully mobile post. Having a single central location in a huge rural region like ours is no use.
£70,000 a year.
Any chance of getting that from the local NHS budget?
Not a cat in hell’s chance.
So where then?
The Government. No other show in town.
Fair enough.
If First Base were based in Carlisle, the chances of making this kind of pitch to the government would be much the same as Carlisle United winning the Premier Leagues. The Westminster Parliament is a closed off place where to get any kind of access you generally need to write a cheque with plenty of noughts on it. You need a super smooth lobbyist to stand a chance of getting the ear of a minister and their invoices are enough to make all but a very rich man bust into tears.
But First Base isn’t based in Carlisle.
We are based in Dumfries. And things are rather different here than in Carlisle. After my meeting, I was able to leave a message for my local MSP Joan McAlpine to give me a call. And she gave me a call. We talked the thing through and she agreed that the proposed plan seemed like an ideal fix for the rural regions of Scotland that have provided the British Army with so many of its finest fighting soldiers for hundreds of years.
Last Thursday there was a debate on Veterans in the Parliament and Joan put our plan to the Minister. And next week she will be taking me along to meet the Veterans Minister Keith Brown.
Maybe we will get a result, maybe we won’t. There are no guarantees and we don’t expect any. Our argument is that £70,000 a year is a modest amount of cash to fund a pilot project down here in Dumfries and Galloway. If the model works here, then it can work just as well in all of the rural regions of Scotland. The annual bill to give this kind top class support to our country’s traumatised veterans will be a tad under £15 million a year.
I intend to put forward three arguments as to why this represents money well spent.
First, there is the emotional argument. We sent these men and women into unique horror of combat. When helicopters and tanks come home from combat zones with all kinds of damage, we shell out the required cash to get them fixed without batting a eyelid. Why is it so very hard to do the same for human beings?
Then there is the political argument. The public has spoken very clearly on this one. The public have shown support to veterans to the tune of £100 million – that is the amount that we have all put into the ‘Help for Heroes’ collection pots.
Then there is a pounds, shillings and pence argument. When PTSD is allowed to fester, it almost invariably drives the person suffering into the disastrously false embrace of drink or drugs or both. All too many vets use a litre of vodka a day to hide from the nightmares that haunt their fractured brains. As the years roll by, their bodies slowly but surely give up the ghost. As their livers cave in, these guys become very expensive citizens indeed. Last year I wrote a blog to commemorate my friend Tinker who was one of the Paratroopers who fought the battle of Goose Green in 1982. You can read it here.

Tinker spent eighteen months of his last two years of life in the high dependency unit at our local hospital. When I visited him he looked like a man who had been liberated from Bergen Belsen. God alone knows how the doctors and nurses managed to keep him breathing for as long as they did. How much did those last two years cost the NHS? £100,000? £200,000? More?
Would his life have ended in such a desperate way had he been given the mental Health treatment he asked for and needed years earlier?
Surely it would.
There will be many more Tinkers over the coming years. If we leave them to seek solace through drink and drugs, they will becomne every bit as expensive as Tinker became. Surely this is a classic example of prevention being better than cure. £70,000 a year spent now will save hundreds of thousands down the line.
Will these arguments prevail? I have no idea. I hope so.
But that isn’t the point. The point is that our Dumfries postcode gives us the chance to make the argument. Maybe after my meeting next week with the Veterans Minister, I will get the chance of a further meeting with the Health Minister. And maybe after that meeting the Health Minister will take the idea to the Cabinet. And maybe the Cabinet will sign off on a pilot project down here in Dumfries and Galloway. And maybe after a couple of years, the pilot project will be successful enough to encourage the Government to roll the model out all the way across rural Scotland. And maybe in 15 years time the NHS with be several million pounds better off as a result of not having to treat hundreds of guys who have wrecked their bodies through using booze to self medicate their cancerous memories of Basra and Helmand.
This is the kind of thing that can happen in a small, well run country of five million which has an open, accessible Parliament filled with open and accessible MSPs. It is the kind of thing that wouldn’t stand a snowball in hell’s chance of happening if First Base had a Carlisle postcode.
Running a railroad well always beats the pants out of throwing bucket loads of cash at a railroad. I look forward to the day when the rail road will finally be ours to run well.              


  1. Great, common sense post. Prevention is always cheaper in the long run.
    Said Alba

  2. Great, common sense post. Prevention is always cheaper in the long run.
    Said Alba