Meretricious nonsense and half-baked propaganda: George Kerevan’s latest on Catalonia

Today in The National newspaper, George Kerevan, ex-journalist and SNP MP, has a long opinion piece on Catalonia and Spain entitled Madrid has carried out a coup – and it directly affects Scotland. It’s far from the first time he’s given his opinion on the subject but his latest effort is so full of meretricious nonsense and half-baked propaganda that it deserves a detailed textual analysis for its lies and half-truths. Do read the whole article but compare and contrast it with some real facts. I put his claims in italics; my comments follow.

Yesterday, the exiled, deposed president of Catalonia, Carles Puigdemont, was arrested by German security forces, on a European warrant issued by the neo-Francoist Popular Party government in Madrid. You can say many critical things about the PP. ‘Neo-Francoist’ is not one of them. Franco was a fascist: ‘fascism tends to include a belief in the supremacy of one national or ethnic group, a contempt for democracy, an insistence on obedience to a powerful leader, and a strong demagogic approach’ (Oxford online dictionary). That’s not the PP. They’re flawed but they are a democratic political party. They’ve been in and out of power as a result of elections, unlike Franco. This is the old trope of damning by (false) association.

Puigdemont is (literally) charged with “rebellion”, for organising a democratic referendum on Catalan independence last October. He didn’t organise a democratic referendum. He organised an illegal pseudo-referendum by defying the decision of democratic Spain’s constitutional court that the referendum should be suspended.

The only violence that occurred during that referendum was perpetrated by the Spanish Guardia Civil when it attacked polling stations and battoned old ladies to the ground. For ‘attacked polling stations’ read ‘attempted to stop the opening of illegal polling stations’. I’ve acknowledged elsewhere that police violence on the day of the poll was not right. But it was far from the parody of ‘battoning old ladies to the ground’.

… the political regime in Madrid is nowhere near as democratic as it pretends. There is no ‘political regime’ that pretends anything. There’s a diverse elected Spanish parliament with most shades of political and regional opinion represented.

When Franco died in his bed in 1975, the Francoist regime quietly morphed into its current reincarnation. The old order … simply adopted a veneer of democracy behind a resurrected monarchy. This is a bizarre claim. After Franco’s death the wisdom of politicians of nearly all shades ensured a peaceful transition to a modern democracy guaranteed by a written constitution that was approved by a majority of all Spaniards in a 1978 referendum. Through the decisive action of King Juan Carlos, the ‘resurrected monarchy’ (note the unspoken implication of something unpalatable) was instrumental in saving democracy in 1981 when there was an attempted far-right coup.

Anyone threatening the status quo meets repression … . Kerevan makes the claim, he should be willing to justify it. I don’t believe it for one moment.

… That repression included secret death squads recruited and paid for by the Spanish Ministry of the Interior to hunt down Basque separatists hiding in France, during the 1980s. From an unsustainable claim in the present tense, Kerevan glides seamlessly  without any link to a situation a quarter of a century ago. The ‘Basque separatists’ were not democratic politicians. They were ETA terrorists who killed about 120 people in Spain during the 1980s including civilians and children (see list here).

It [’that repression’] includes maintaining more police and paramilitaries per head than any European country west of Putin’s Russia. I’m not sure where Kerevan gets his data. The most recent comparative figures I could find on police numbers (I don’t know what Kerevan means by ‘paramilitaries’ – maybe he doesn’t) were for 2007 from Eurostat. It showed Spain had 4.8 police officers per 1000 population, compared with a not dissimilar 4.2 per 1000 in Italy. Neither level suggests an over-repressive police state. I suspect too that the devolved nature of Spanish democracy bumps the numbers up, with Policia Nacional, Guardia Civil, local police and, in Catalonia, the Mossos.

Catalan demands for independence threaten the existence of the regime. No, it threatens the integrity of Spain, not ‘the existence of the regime’, whatever Kerevan means by that.

On Friday, a politically-appointed Spanish court ordered the mass arrest and trial of most of the senior elected and civic representatives of the Catalan people. I’m not sure what ‘politically-appointed’ court Kerevan means. Thomson Reuters Practical Law web site sets out how the Spanish judiciary is selected and appointed (sections 16 and 17). There is no reference to politically-appointed courts. Incidentally, I assume ‘senior elected and civic representatives of the Catalan people’ means those representatives who promoted the illegal referendum. Many such representatives supported neither the referendum nor independence. And there was no ‘mass arrest’ (note the Stalinist overtones). There were a couple of dozen individual cases, each dealt with by due process of law.

Make no mistake: this is a soft coup by the Popular Party regime in Madrid, and its compliant, so-called “constitutional” court. It’s not a coup and it’s not a ‘so-called’ constitutional court. It is the constitutional court as described in Part IX of the Spanish constitution and it is certainly not a creature of the Popular Party.

It is a coup [sic] that affects Scotland directly. No it doesn’t. It’s nothing to do with Scotland or our devolved parliament. The only interest is the concern of many Scottish nationalists to thwart the execution of an EU warrant taken out by Spain against Clara Ponsati,  a Spanish/Catalan academic at a Scottish university. That issue is solely for UK law.

[That warrant was issued] as part of this weekend’s wave of repression. A few warrants issued under due process of law is not a ‘wave of repression’.

Madrid hopes to decapitate the Catalan independence movement. Sadly, the movement itself is disoriented following the strange decision by Puigdemont to first declare a Catalan republic – which everyone took to mean declaring unilateral independence – then flee into exile. Well ‘strange decision’ (for which in my view read ‘cowardly’) is about the one thing in Kerevan’s piece I can agree with.

The pro-independence parties won the election in late December … . Oh George, I’m losing patience with your nonsense. The Catalan voting system is weighted in favour of rural areas and smaller towns, where the enthusiasm for separation is greater. So although the pro-independence parties won 70 seats, a bare majority of two, they only received 49.09% of the votes. If anything, there is a stalemate in the region, far from the unanimous clamour for separation that Scottish nationalists often assume.

It is important to note how the right-wing Popular Party government in Madrid is applying direct rule … . Left or right wing has nothing to do with it. The decision was of the Spanish parliament. The left-wing PSOE voted for the move too.

Madrid is halting the use of Catalan as the first teaching language in local schools – an example of cultural fascism. I’m not sure ‘halting’ is even strictly correct (advice from readers welcome). Even if it is – ‘cultural fascism’? A good case could be made for the opposing point of view – the cultural fascism of Catalan nationalist political parties who have forced their language down the throats of many native Spanish speakers in Catalonia.

We need to bombard the Scottish Government with appeals to reject the warrant for Clara’s arrest on the grounds it is politically motivated. See reference above to extradition being no concern of the devolved administration of Scotland. Scottish government politicians would be wise to maintain a discreet silence on the whole subject. Alas, wisdom on issues of phoney solidarity is not the norm for them.

Kerevan ends his contentious article with a classic piece of nationalist hyperbole:

Democracy is under siege in Catalonia, as it was in 1936.

If they come for Clara Ponsati today, they will come for the rest of us tomorrow.

The whole article is so deficient in truth and understanding that these crass claims scarcely register after wading through the preceding thousand words.

File under ‘Nonsense: nationalist’.

Search the blog for ‘Kerevan’ to find other nonsense perpetrated by this man.

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They must be mad, literally mad

‘They must be mad, literally mad’ is how I feel about the tweet above, the person who posted it, and all those who’ve liked it. Their souls and brains seem to have migrated to a far place where sane human beings cannot penetrate.

Here’s the story.

Alison Brown (a.k.a. Alison Rollo, who once looked forward to the demise of elderly unionists) posted this objection on Facebook to Walkers, a great Speyside company, marketing their shortbread in Germany in a tin whose lid is in the form of a union flag.

The Herald newspaper picked this up and concocted a lazy story out of it with the headline ‘Complaints over Walkers’ shortbread sold under a Union Flag’. It was lazy because, in the modern impoverished-media style, it did little more than string a number of Facebook comments and tweets together and add a response from Walkers. By the time they did so Ms Brown’s broken heart had been shared over 900 times (presumably approvingly) on Facebook.

Old social media hands will know what happened next: Twitter for one went into overdrive with approval and denunciations of Brown/Walkers in equal measure, much of it in the intemperate tones we’ve all come to expect.

Some time during the day The Scotsman realised they were missing out and tweeted ‘The firm is set to return to the Saltire after admitting a “terrible marketing faux pas”’, this allegedly based on a claim by one of Ms Brown’s friends that he had spoken to Walkers (full quote in the Scotsman article). [The Scotsman tweet was subsequently edited to remove the ‘faux pas’ statement]

This didn’t quite match the brief factual statement issued by the company which they clarified to at least one enquirer by adding ‘All other comments in the media may not be reliable’. In other words the ‘faux pas’ claim was itself faux. But hey, it’s 2018 and who cares about fake news.

The highlight of the day’s madness (remember this is all about a label on a tin of biscuits) came when an online nationalist claimed unionists were obsessed with flags.

As I write, the row has rumbled on overnight. It’s not the first of its kind (remember the great Tunnock’s teacake protest?) nor will it be the last. It seems hardly a day goes by without someone proposing a boycott of some hapless organisation that has had the temerity to display the wrong flag on its packaging, or even fail to display the right flag. Someone discovers their driving licence has a small union flag printed on it, posts a defaced photo of it and a new round of outrage is set off.

It is a kind of madness. If you doubt me, consider these three examples appearing on Twitter yesterday:

  • ‘Rob’ a.k.a. @Ruffheaded who tweeted of Walkers ‘500 of the lowest paid workers in Scotland’. I challenged what I’m sure is a defamatory statement, but of course he remained silent
  •  @PaulSnowdon5 who referred to ‘Mr Walker’s … Uncle Tam Yoon bias’. I doubt if Paul even knows there are several male Walkers involved in what is a long-standing family business, let alone which one he’s defaming (I’ve never seen any political statements attributed to any of them). Mind you, I hardly dare mention they hold a Royal Warrant as suppliers of oatcakes and shortbread to the Queen in case it sets off another round of scurrilous abuse
  • And in a special kind of crazy but clever corner, Glasgow SNP councillor Mhairi Hunter, who tweeted ‘I do feel sorry for shortbread makers. Mind the old days when shortbread was quite a fancy alternative to bourbons, custard creams & the like. Who eats them now? …’ Note how she manages to put down the likes of Walkers without mentioning them by name. As for comparing shortbread to custard creams, as a friend of mine says ‘Nae appreciation and even less understanding’.

Ms Brown’s Facebook message sets the tone for the brighter (the word is relative) members of the online mob who have piled in to support her – their concern, they say, is ‘hard won Scottish branding’ or ‘Scotland the brand’. They confuse national identity (which is really what they’re concerned about) with commercial success. The two things can overlap. But if you want a successful economy, let successful companies decide how to brand their products and services. Do they imagine that Walkers haven’t done their market research in Germany to establish that there’s a niche for shortbread that is branded with union flag alongside the vast majority of their products that shout Scottish at you?

The proponents of ‘Scotland the brand’ might do better pondering why ‘Schotten preise’ (Scottish prices) is a synonym in Germany for cheap, discounted goods, often promoted alongside associated  images, as on the Geizkragen website:

‘Geizkragen’ is German for miser in case you didn’t know.

Ex-SNP deputy leader Angus Robertson criticised this caricature of the mean Scot in 2009 but it clearly persists (this image was snipped from the web today).

If the broken-hearted nationalists so protective of Scotland the brand were really concerned, they’d mount a sustained campaign against what a whole nation seems to think of Scotland. But since it wouldn’t involve a tin of biscuits and a flag I guess they’re not interested.

Footnote: Oxford English Dictionary – ‘Madness … a state of wild or chaotic activity’.

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Visiting Auschwitz in 1970

I only noticed this nearly week-old tweet today. It comes from a self-proclaimed Scottish nationalist who lives in Dublin. I first became aware of him last September when he claimed that his ‘Uncle Rab’ had fought the fascists in the Spanish civil war. Some nifty footwork by a couple of anonymous tweeters revealed the truth – the photo of his ‘uncle’ was actually a stolen image of an SAS soldier in the second world war.

His claim – and its demolition – may have been a matter of light relief in a world awash with fake news. But in a few short months he has tipped from risible nonsense to dangerous lies.

Not long ago he posted a lengthy article on his blog asserting that the Highland clearances, certainly vicious enough, were ‘genocide’. Now he has tweeted the odious and unqualified statement at the head of this article.

On the question of the Highland clearances, the Bella Caledonia website – and all praise to it – has published a detailed refutation of Jeggit’s fallacious claims of genocide, citing at length two academic historians who, if my memory is correct, both declared for independence in 2014. As the editor of Bella says ‘Facts matter. History matters’.

Unless you’re a Holocaust denier, I don’t see that Jeggit’s latest tweet requires any refutation. What happened is a self-evident truth.

What do you do with people like Jeggit?

Bella Caledonia, for all I disagree with the independence it wants to achieve, has one answer – a detailed factual setting out of the truth.

The other response is that beyond arguing against a particularly obnoxious point of view, people like this should not be touched with a barge pole. I’m not a fan of boycotts but even neutral contact with the Jeggits of this world contaminates anyone – and the ripples spread outwards.

Jeggit himself has nearly 3,700 followers on Twitter. iScot magazine, for which he writes a column, has 11,300 followers although I suspect its circulation and subscriber base are smaller. Paul Kavanagh, the ‘Wee ginger dug’, who recently allowed himself to be interviewed approvingly by Jeggit, has 14,500 followers and writes regularly for a national newspaper. If you follow Jeggit, commission him or cosy up to him, you support and encourage him and his views, knowingly or unknowingly. You have the means to cease interacting with him and I hope you will.

Of course, what’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. Not long after I joined Twitter I liked a tweet about something or other that was fairly innocuous. A helpful individual messaged me to say ‘Careful, he’s a holocaust denier’. I blocked him and I could produce a list of people I’ve unfollowed or muted for lesser nastiness, more than a few of them supporters of the union. Do it, whether the offender is friend or foe.

As for the title of this post, it refers to the article below I published three years ago on another mothballed blog I used to write. If you reach the last sentence, you’ll see that I conclude with virtually the same sentiment as Bella Caledonia. I doubt if that’ll happen again. I can’t say ‘enjoy’ but know that what I wrote about visiting that dreadful place comes from the heart.

Thanks for reading.


27 January 2015 – Holocaust Memorial Day.

In Krakow I met a student from the German Democratic Republic (GDR).

‘You should go there,’ he said. ‘You know, work parties from the GDR helped to restore it. We had a crazy professor who took us to do that. At the end when the Poles gave a dinner to thank us he said how lucky they were to have this wonderful anti-fascist memorial.’

I had already decided to go.

By the standards of its day, the train from Krakow was modern, electrified and busy. I changed at a suburban station before Katowice. There was a silence, broken only by the wheeze of a small steam locomotive at a far platform, the branch line for Oświęcim. There were two, maybe three, wooden carriages, old enough to have separate compartments. I was alone in mine. A whistle blew and the engine groaned into action to the hiss of steam and sulphuric reek of coal smoke. The carriage creaked as it rocked gently sideways, the rails below sounding a slow clickety-click, clickety-click. A flat featureless plain passed slowly outside.

Oświęcim was the end of the line. No more than four or five locals got off the train, slamming carriage doors behind them. A small town with a modern concrete station, larger than such a sleepy place needed, anticipating visitors who were not here today. In the forecourt, an arrow helpfully directed me in Polish and German to ‘Oświęcim/Auschwitz.’

Even in 1970, photographs had made me familiar with the main entrance gate, the curved ironwork overhead spelling out the famous lie, ‘Arbeit macht frei.’ Rows of two-storey red brick barrack blocks receded beyond the gate, administrative buildings for an industrial operation – the efficient murder of millions of people.

Beyond them again lay the foundations of demolished huts, the cramped quarters of prisoners kept alive, at least for a time, until they could work no longer in adjoining factories.

And further over, the long railway sidings where other trains had arrived, victims offloaded from cattle trucks from all over Nazi-occupied Europe once the mass murder started. Some siphoned off for slave labour, some for the gas chambers.

Back in the barracks, whole floors had been arranged to show the brute scale of the operation. A room with a mountain of suitcases. Another with a hill of shoes. A tumbling glacier of spectacles. Prosthetic limbs piled high. On the long walls, thousands of photos of prisoners in rows, each with a simple black frame enclosing a blank-eyed man woman or child in striped uniform staring at the camera, a name and prisoner number underneath. Occasionally, maybe no more than every thousand photos, a small posy of dried flowers, a ribbon or note pushed between frame and wall. In a separate building a crematorium, steel ovens side by side as if in some hellish bakery, doors left open, each with a metal stretcher visible inside. No personal mementos here but large bouquets and wreaths of flowers and shiny green leaves, a brightly-coloured commemorative sash around each proclaiming which delegation, which fraternal group of socialist visitors, had left their temporary mark.

The whole place was silent. If there were other visitors I failed to see them in my introspection.

At the entrance there was a small shop, a limited range of books, most in Polish, some translated into other languages. I bought a small paperback – FROM THE HISTORY OF KL – AUSCHWITZ Vol. 1, published in Poland in 1967. For years I scarcely looked at it, eventually lending it to my daughters when they studied the history of Nazi Germany and themselves visited Auschwitz with their school. The book is in front of me now. Its flimsy pages and cramped text suggest meticulous research. It sets Auschwitz in the context of what it calls ‘Hitler’s programme of the extermination of the Nations.’ It lists ‘Poles, Russians, Czechs, Frenchmen,’ and many others. It details how Soviet army prisoners held in the camp were treated. ‘Prisoners in Auschwitz,’ it says, ‘belonged to various race groups … arrested regardless of religious denomination.’ It mentions Jewish prisoners briefly but not the peculiar cruelty that attended the attempts of the Nazis to exterminate the Jews. It is as if there were no holocaust. It is a small reminder of how history can be written to tell lies and of the importance of remembering the truth.


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Adventures in cyberspace. In which I venture into the dug’s den …

Two days ago, a well-known separatist who styles himself as a ‘wee ginger dug’ wrote an article on his blog entitled ‘Why the indy movement needs to crowdfund.’

It was a curiously defensive piece that can be summarised as ‘Pro-independence voices on social media need to solicit funds because they are just ordinary grassroots folk whereas unionist voices have got “loadsamoney”.’

If you suspect my prècis is a parody too far, this is the point at which I grit my teeth and in the spirit of openness that characterises cyberspace, provide you with a link to the article concerned. If you venture through to look at it (don’t feel you have to), you’ll also find the claim, on the basis of what one individual wrote in an independence-supporting magazine, that an anonymous group approached a number of people in 2014 to write pro-union blogs for cash.

The dug’s hackles had been raised by two tweets earlier that day:

The person sending those tweets is a nationalist but her comments seem reasonable to me, and since she cites me in evidence, I feel justified in reproducing her thoughts here. She’s correct about me, by the way. You’ll see no ‘Donate’ button (as is self-evident) and no shady backer – or anyone – has ever offered me money to write this blog, which I do in my own time. It was born of frustration during the 2014 referendum campaign and it continues because those who promised a ‘once in a generation’ opportunity lied, and continue to lie, about separation.

Anyhow, I don’t expect you want to know all this. The point, and it’s obvious, is that I didn’t agree with the dug’s conclusions so I ventured a lengthy comment on his blog:

Reasonable? I hope so. And in fairness to the dug he published it.

Meantime, his article was gathering a lot of comment, some of it from nationalists also concerned about aspects of fundraising. One thanked me for my comments (‘Nice to hear an opposing view’), I assume not ironically. One doughty individual had a go for a while at reinforcing my comments but, like me, was received frostily. The discussion veered off, as these things tend to, into scarcely-related territory and what passes for banter.

However, someone along the way challenged me on a few words I’d used in my comment:

“the bad and plain ugly categories”. Really, Mr White, really?

and it seemed reasonable to answer the question, which I sought to do with the following comment:

I expect the last thing WGD wants is for me to publicise my blog here but there’s really no other way to respond to a couple of comments already made, especially about my use of the words ‘bad’ and ‘ugly’ (I also used ‘good’ – geddit?). I wrote two posts on the subject, linked at the end of this comment and if it doesn’t offend your sense of propriety, I’d urge you to glance at both. The first deals with some general points, the second with some examples. If you get to the second, you will see I start with what I regard as an example of good practice, Common Weal. As for an example of something that seemed distinctly dodgy at the time, you’ll have to read to the end, where you’ll see Messrs. Clegg (David) and Macwhirter seem to agree with me.   Part 1  Part 2

The comment didn’t appear although a number of other people’s contributions popped up. What the dug may not know is that I use the same blogging software as him, so I could see that it was ‘Waiting in moderation’, the jargon WordPress use for comments a blogger has yet to approve. After about twelve hours it disappeared, never to be seen on the dug blog. Luckily I saved a draft.

A further brief contribution was also zapped. In response to my original comments, the dug had replied ‘I didn’t see the original tweet as I no longer engage with twitter.’ I had tried to chide him about his claim since his Twitter account is still there, although he’s blocked me from viewing it. A sneak peek revealed he’s tweeted several times already in February.

Meantime, and irritatingly, another commentator has challenged me on the dug’s blog. Thanks ‘Ian’ but I won’t be able to respond since the mutt doesn’t seem to want me around.

You see, the dug bottled it. He let a yoon in, presumably in the hope of some canine-inspired sport, but wouldn’t let the yoon defend himself when he was asked a direct question. I can only assume that like many pets who are made hygienic for modern living, the dug has had his op and is no longer in possession of his cojones.

Oh well, I tried.

PS – more important than any of this is the dodgy behaviour of some online separatists around fundraising (see links above to previous posts on this blog). To purloin a phrase used by the dug I’m ‘not pointing any fingers at any individuals’ but I wonder how many donations he gets on his blog and how he accounts for that money.

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Nationalism and flags: the never-ending saga

A while ago I had a wee run-in with Aberdeen airport. Outside their terminal they sport eight flag poles:

Source: Google Street View

Apart from the fact that the flags are ridiculously small and currently mostly past their best, a more detailed scan of the poles would reveal:

  • 1 union flag
  • 6 saltires
  • 1 EU flag.

I wrote to the airport suggesting that a more balanced mix might be 3 or 4 union flags/saltires each plus, at least until Brexit, one EU flag. I got what used to be known as the bum’s rush i.e. thanks for your interest but we have no intention of doing anything. A second approach via the chair of the airport’s consultative committee produced only silence.

I thought my suggestion was reasonable. After all, they do style themselves an ‘International’ airport and they boast scheduled flights to a dozen different countries. And Aberdeen is in the UK, the airport operates under UK law, the border controls are the UK’s, air traffic control is a UK function, and so on and so on.

When I told an English friend about my failed suggestion he sighed and said, ‘Don’t waste your time on flags.’

As anyone in Scotland will know, his judgement was naive.

I’m not a great believer in flags myself but they are undoubtedly potent symbols.

Ask the Scottish separatists who have adopted the saltire as their own and make any political demonstration a sea of blue and white on ever more improbably-high bendy poles – by the way, great for doubling the apparent size of any crowd.

More seriously, ask our SNP nationalist government, which is systematically trying to drive out all reference, neutral as well as positive, to the UK from Scotland, from the ‘.scot’ web domain that seems to be mandatory now for all government agencies (the perfectly serviceable and more transparent alternative is ‘’), to the flags the first minister chooses to hang behind the chairs of visitors for the obligatory Bute House photo (the saltire plus the visitor’s national flag for everyone except the UK prime minister, who gets two saltires).

Now, the Daily Telegraph has confirmed, the union flag is to be flown from Scottish government buildings on one day a year only – Remembrance Day. The nationalist response has been feverish, to say the least, ranging from ‘It’s not true’ through ‘The Queen agreed it with Alex Salmond’ to Nicola Sturgeon’s ‘It wasnae me.’ Indeed, she was said earlier to have tweeted on the subject twenty times since the Telegraph article was unveiled.

Restricting (eliminating) the use of the union flag is not only a denial of the devolved constitutional position of Scotland. Like so many things the SNP do, from their overall strategy post-2014 to the smallest anti-British jibe, it is also counter-productive, although they don’t seem to have understood that.

It should be obvious. All these actions stand a good chance of alienating a major part of the 55% who voted No in 2014 not to mention, I suspect, at least some who voted Yes. It might strengthen the resolve of that proportion of the population who still want independence (down to 43% in the latest YouGov poll). But it’s certainly not going to converts Nos to Yes.

There is, as usual, a conspiracy theory that offers an alternative explanation to what’s going on; that the whole stooshie over the flags is a deliberate diversion by the SNP from their current local problem, the closure of the children’s ward at the Royal Alexandra Hospital in Paisley – hence the ‘RAH’ in the cartoon at the head of this post. It’s a moot point.

In any event, none of this is any comfort to the SNP and none of it bolsters their standing.

After I drafted this, the BBC factchecked the claim that ‘ Nicola Sturgeon has ‘banned the Union flag for the Queen’s birthday’”. Their conclusion was that ‘It was actually Alex Salmond who changed the flag policy in 2010, but published guidance has only just been updated.’ It is at best curious that it has taken over seven years for published guidance to be updated, especially since (recorded by a number of people online) there have been a number of other updates to the guidance over that period. Whatever the truth of claim and counter-claim, it doesn’t alter the fundamental points I make above.

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On the delicate art of minute-taking

The Scottish cabinet secretary for justice, Michael Matheson, has got himself into a spot of bother over a meeting he had with the then chair of the Scottish Police Authority (SPA).

The facts are briefly these. The SPA agreed that the currently-suspended chief constable should return to work. The chief constable was informed of the decision and prepared himself for return. Meantime, the cabinet secretary seems not to have agreed with the SPA and met (summonsed?) the SPA chair to discuss his concerns. As a result, the chief constable received a further instruction, not to return to work.

This post is not about the rights and wrongs of the suspension, whether Mr Matheson exceeded his authority, or whether the SPA chair was right to overturn their previous decision. I am qualified to judge none of these things.

However, it is clear that set in the context of the numerous controversies surrounding Police Scotland and the SPA since they were both set up, there’s something significant and important going on here. Presumably the cabinet secretary thought so, otherwise why seek, whether formally or informally, to have the SPA’s decision overturned?

You might expect that, in the circumstances, those attending the meeting, whether politician/chair or civil servant/SPA official (I’m assuming one attended with the chair: it seems clear that at least one government civil servant attended) would want a record of the decision taken and why.

But yesterday, when challenged on the BBC’s Good Morning Scotland programme, the cabinet secretary seemed unsure whether there was a minute of the meeting. As the BBC recorded it:

… he indicated that he did not know whether any minutes had been taken, and said he would need to check with officials.

A spokesman for the Scottish government later confirmed to BBC Scotland that no minutes had been taken – meaning there was no official record of what was said during the meeting.

On the face of it, this seems remarkable on such a controversial issue. I am unaware of the detailed rules that cover these sorts of meetings. The Scottish Ministerial Code states that:

the basic facts of formal meetings between Ministers and outside interest groups [should] be recorded, setting out the reasons for the meeting, the names of those attending and the interests represented (4.22).

That sounds common sense guidance for most meetings. But the chair of a public authority is hardly the representative of an outside interest group.

As a case-hardened (although now ex-) public servant I wonder if one of a number of things might be going on here.

First, there may not have been a ‘minute’ of the meeting taken. In the public sector a minute is often a formal document – the minute of a meeting of a committee, board or even the cabinet. It will be drafted by an official, perhaps reviewed for accuracy by whoever chaired the meeting, and approved as a formal record at the next meeting of the group concerned.

However, that does not mean that there is no written record in the shape of one or more informal notes of the meeting. If such document(s) exist it may well be that the government spokesman answered the BBC’s question honestly but not entirely comprehensively.

A note of meeting might be of two sorts.

In the first instance, it might have been taken by a civil servant or official attending from one side and subsequently shared with the other to ensure that both have a common understanding of what action was agreed (and clearly, however the cabinet secretary’s concerns were expressed, action was taken as a result of the meeting).

In the second instance, a note of meeting not for sharing might have been taken by either side or both. I have written these sorts of notes innumerable times – to cement the details of a meeting in my mind, to share with colleagues for information and in order that any action agreed is taken, and sometimes as a form of insurance if I had doubts about what was afoot, especially if there were any controversy likely to arise from a meeting. From the two sides of this meeting, I could easily imagine two separate private notes that read in part (hypothetically of course):

FROM THE GOVERNMENT SIDE … The cabinet secretary reminded the chair of the SPA of the wider public issues involved and invited the authority to reconsider their position

FROM THE SPA SIDE … The chair informed the cabinet secretary that he was not happy with what struck him as too detailed an involvement in an operational issue but that in view of the secretary’s insistence he would convey his views to the authority’s members for consideration.

So there may be some sort of written record of the meeting, in which case both cabinet secretary and civil service were asked the wrong question about a ‘minute’. The right question could of course still be asked or a Freedom of Information request to the same effect submitted, although I’d wager the response would come back substantially redacted.

That leaves one final possibility – that there really is no written record of the meeting. Many meetings remain unrecorded in writing, for one of two main reasons:

  1. either because a meeting is informal, routine or uncontroversial between trusted colleagues, or
  2. because there is a sensitivity about the subject matter that one party (the more powerful) wishes to leave unrecorded.

There is no way a meeting between a cabinet secretary and the chair of the SPA to overturn the authority’s decision on the chief constable’s return to work could have been routine or uncontroversial. That leaves only the possibility that someone, presumably the cabinet secretary or civil servants on his behalf, thought this was one meeting best left unrecorded. In which case it is a legitimate question to ask ‘Why?’

Unless of course the whole thing is just a simple mistake and in the rush of events everyone concerned forgot to ensure a minute or note was taken*.

* Such things happen, as those who remember the minister’s missing diaries will know.

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Are the Scottish government’s baby boxes safe?

SNP Holyrood manifesto 2016

A year ago on 1 January 2017, a pilot distribution of baby boxes to test the SNP’s manifesto promise (above) began in Clackmannanshire and Orkney. Spontaneous joy, of a sort, erupted amongst SNP politicians including these examples, one an MP from Dundee, the other a councillor from Inverclyde:

My thanks to journalist @MrMcEnaney who retweeted those examples along with his own gloss on the subject:

Fast forward to 3 August 2017, when the SNP tweeted this message:

Note the date. It’s critical to what follows.

Bang on cue, the first minister’s special advisor Kate Higgins chipped in with her version of the claim:

Note, as well as the date, the statement, ‘I’ll find out if details have been put on SG website but I’ve seen the details [my emphasis].’ I cannot find that she ever replied but I can assure you the details were not on the government website that day or for some time after, because I checked.

As a result of the earlier, and disputed, ‘Proven to reduce infant mortality’ claim and the new assertion that the baby boxes had ‘British Safety Standard accreditation’, my interest in the subject was piqued. Were the baby boxes safe and what was the nature of the accreditation they had?

The capitalisation of ‘British Safety Standard’ suggested that there was an agreed set of national safety standards. People who knew better assured me that there is no such thing and my own web search found no evidence of their existence. The nearest anyone could come to the concept was the work of the British Standards Institution, of which safety (and then only some aspects) is just a small part. Sure enough, tucked away on their website was a document called British Standard BS EN 1130-1:1997 Furniture. Cribs and cradles for domestic use. Part 1. Safety requirements: Part 2 deals with ‘Test methods’. You won’t find either of these online since the text is only available to buy, or via an organisation like a library that subscribes to BSI publications. It was, however, suggested to me by someone with access to the document that there was no way any cardboard box could meet the BSI standard.

This raised the question of whether this was the standard that the baby boxes supposedly met.

Since the Scottish government continued to refer opaquely to ‘British safety standards’ the only way to find out what standards the boxes met, if any, was the inquisitive citizen’s stand-by, the Freedom of Information (FOI) request. Between 7 August and 1 October, I submitted three FOI requests to the government, receiving replies on 16 August, 15 September, and 27 October. Much of the material I was sent in reply had been redacted on the grounds of the commercial confidentiality of the government’s suppliers, most starkly in an e-mail that began like this:

and continued for two entirely redacted A4 pages. However, I was able to use the information I could see to answer four questions.

Does the box meet the standards of BS EN 1130-1:1997 in whole or in part?

It took some time to squeeze this information out of the civil service. Their answer was ‘yes’, but only in part, which is not really ‘yes’ at all. The first confirmation came in this statement:

the Baby Box meets all aspects of the standard applicable to it [BS EN 1130-1:1997 Furniture. Cribs and cradles for domestic use]

I queried the phrase ‘all aspects … applicable’ and was provided with this list of the parts of the standard that the box (supposedly) meets:

  • 2 Construction
    • 2.1 Exposed Edges and Protruding Parts
    • 2.2 Holes and Assembly Holes
    • 2.8 Small Parts
  • 3 Bed Base
    • 3.1 Apertures
    • 3.2 Sustained Load
  • 4 Sides And Ends
    • 4.1 Internal Height
    • 4.2 Holes and Distance Between Two Structural Members
    • 4.6 Strength Testing
    • 4.7 Static Load Testing
  • 5 Stability Pass
  • Instructions for Use
  • Marking

By reference to BS EN 1130-1:1997 itself I was able to see the parts of the standard the box doesn’t meet (as the FOI response did, I have summarised longer descriptions):

  • 1 Materials
    • 1.1 Wood and wood-based materials
    • 1.2 Materials and surfaces
    • 1.3 Metal [used in construction]
  • 2 Construction
    • 2.3 Connecting screws for direct fastening
    • 2.4 Castors/wheels shall not be fitted except in [a specified] arrangement
    • 2.5 Balancing system on cribs/cradles
    • 2.6 Mechanism used for controlling any dropside
    • 2.7 Adjustable bed bases
    • 2.9 Distance between any frame and the body in a swinging crib/cradle
  • 4 Sides And Ends
    • 4.3 Mesh sides
    • 4.4 Swinging cribs/cradles
    • 4.5 Distance between dropside guide rods and crib/cradle posts

Lots of this is very technical and you really need to read the full document to even get half-way to understanding the details. I can see that some of the requirements may not apply, for example ‘4.4.3 Mesh sides’, since the box has no mesh sides. Others however, for example ‘4.1 Materials’, refer only to wood and metals and nowhere in either Part 1 or Part 2 of the standard is there any reference to ‘cardboard.’ Part 2 specifies which tests should be carried out but assumes that a crib has legs and a cradle a rocking mechanism. A cardboard box has neither and without a test certificate, of which more shortly, it is impossible to know whether the tests specified were carried out, for example bending and impact tests that should be applied to the sides of the crib (described in paras. 5.6 and 5.7 of Part 2), let alone what the results were.

Did the government prove the box met the applicable aspects of the standard?

No, it has only asserted that it meets those aspects. Proof would only come with the provision of more documentation. In order for any organisation to claim it meets a British Standard it has to have an independent accreditation agency test a sample of its product (the baby box in this case) against the criteria (described above) of that standard. That agency will then provide a certificate confirming that the product complies with the standard as well as a detailed report of the tests carried out.

I know in principle that such an agency was involved in the government’s baby box scheme because their supplier, the APS Group, confirmed this in an e-mail dated 15 August 2017 and supplied to me in the response received on 27 October to my final FOI request:

Five pages of text each headed with the SGS logo follow this e-mail, almost entirely redacted. Not even their address is visible although it is widely-available and they are a reputable company. My assumption was that the redacted text comprised the test certificate for the baby box and the associated test results, an assumption supported by the only relevant part of the surviving text that reads:


However, in their response to my first FOI request, received on 16 August, the Scottish government wrote:

With regard to your request for copies of certificates relating to compliance with the relevant British safety standards … [t]his information is held by APS Group (Scotland) Limited who has been contracted by Scottish Government to supply the Baby Box. This is a formal notice under section 17(1) of FOISA that the Scottish Government does not have the information you have requested.

This suggests to me:

  1. either the response of 16 August was incorrect, because the government did have the relevant information attached to APS’ e-mail of 15 August
  2. or the accreditation agency SGS had sent APS a five page document that despite the text I cite above did not deal with accreditation or its associated tests.

In an e-mail of 13 September, APS Group explained their reticence to someone un-named within the Scottish government:

[I assume ‘cannot not’ is a typo that should just read ‘cannot’]

Four aspects of this statement are of interest.

  1. I assume IP means ‘intellectual property’ as in intellectual property rights; in this case, the intellectual property rights residing in the construction of a cardboard box.
  2. As an example of an entirely transparent approach to the (I believe spurious) problem that APS set out, you may wish to see how another commercial organisation, The Baby Box Co., deals with safety standards, a page on their web site linking to both an accreditation certificate and a full test report. If they can do it, why not APS?
  3. Note APS’s slightly disingenuous statement that ‘individual safety standards and accreditations are widely available on-line’. But not for their box.
  4. The response illustrates a wider problem related to public sector transparency. Although the scheme is the government’s and funded from our taxes, a contractor provides the box and its contents, which in turn may be sourced from suppliers unknown to the public. So FOI is sometimes of only limited use in answering legitimate enquiries.

Was safety uppermost in the government’s mind throughout the process of commissioning and acquiring the boxes?

As you can see above, the baby box scheme was in the SNP’s manifesto for the (May) 2016 Holyrood election. Once returned to government, they must have treated it as a matter of priority because a three-month pilot ran from January to March 2017. When I put in my final FOI request on the subject, I was careful to ask for:

A copy of all communications between the Scottish Government and its contractor that refer to BS EN 1130-1:1997 explicitly or safety generally (of the box itself, not the contents), to include references in any contract, letters, e-mails, minutes or notes of meetings, and notes of conversations.

I have no reason to doubt the thoroughness and honesty of the response I received to that request so was surprised that all the material I received in return was only in the form of e-mails and attachments, the earliest dated 17 May 2017 from someone in government headed ‘Subject: The Baby Wrap [sic] – the questions. Importance: High’. Most of it has been redacted (fair enough, it probably did not relate to questions I had asked about the box itself). But it includes this paragraph:

So, two and a half months after the pilot ended and only a month before registration for the main scheme began (16 June) reassurances were still being sought about ‘what the box is made of, is it “safe”, flammable etc etc.’

None of this suggests that safety loomed large in the government’s mind throughout the process of commissioning and acquiring the boxes. The answer to my final question confirmed this.

Were the SNP and the first minister’s special advisor being honest in the statements they made on 3 August?

This is where you need to remember the date of 3 August, when the first minister’s special advisor and the SNP (but not as far as I can see the government) tweeted so confidently about the baby box having ‘British Safety Standard accreditation’.

As far as my FOIs are concerned, the day began with an urgent e-mail from the government to APS Group, timed at 09:01:

[‘Mr McD’ was Mark McDonald, the then minister charged with progressing the baby box scheme. He resigned his ministerial post almost three months to the day after this e-mail but because of another matter]

Presumably spotting the urgency in this request, APS replied promptly at 09:19:

A further A4 page and a half of this e-mail has been redacted and no further e-mails on the subject passed between the two parties that day. I have not traced the ministerial interview referred to but there are five specific implications of this last-minute exchange before that interview:

  1. with baby boxes due to be despatched in twelve days’ time, from 15 August (source here), at least part of government was not sure of the full facts about the safety of the box
  2. that ‘part of government’ was not a political special advisor or member of the government’s communication team but someone within the precise part of the civil service responsible for implementing the scheme
  3. notwithstanding the rushed nature of their response, APS were fairly precise (at least in that part of their e-mail that was not redacted) about the nature of the accreditation
  4. within a matter of hours that day, both the SNP as a political party and the first minister’s special advisor (but not the government itself) were tweeting the misleading generalisation that the box had ‘British Safety Standard accreditation’
  5. also that day the first minister’s special advisor, Kate Higgins, tweeted in response to an online query that she had ‘seen the details’ of the accreditation. Apart from the redacted text in the APS e-mail, her information can only have come from the material released to me under FOI. One might ask what information she had access to that the professionals didn’t. Or, to put it delicately, was she gilding the lily deliberately?

Two final thoughts about BS EN 1130-1:1997.

First, the box itself comes with this printed on the side:

There is no explanation anywhere of what ‘BSEN1130-1:1997’ means. It is a requirement of accreditation that it be printed on the product but without some explanation it might as well not be there. It also fails to tell the whole story. The standard quoted by the government’s (eventual) admission is met only in part, and not in full as a reasonable reader might assume. The knowledge of which parts are met, and which parts are not, was only obtained through three separate FOI requests. The proof – the test certificates, including the reasoning for dispensing with some of the standard – is entirely obfuscated. This is not good enough. These things are called ‘standards’ because they are precisely that, standards. Any deviation from the standard should be made crystal clear if faith in the certification is to be maintained.

Second, the government have also set up a website called Parent Club that includes a lot of information about the baby box and its contents. When I checked today, it still includes this statement:

There’s still that misleading use of the phrase ‘British Safety Standards’, now ambiguously suggesting an organisation and including an unqualified and untestable (see ‘Did the government prove …’ above) statement that it ‘meets all safety requirements’.

In mitigation it has to be said that the box includes this safety information, also printed on the inside of the lid:

In the course of preparing this article I received information from a number of people, some of whom had just taken delivery of a baby box. Two in particular responded in a way that I suspect many new parents will:

Baby box now received (not that baby will sleep in it!)


Got to say, the baby box is ok. [Partner] thinks it’s a nice gesture, but noted that – on balance – she’d rather have the extra free nursery time she’d get in England. That would be worth many, many times more.

In other words, we’ll not use the box itself for the purpose it was intended, and we’d find extra nursery care much more useful.

The central issue is this. The government say the box is safe. They choose to prove this by asserting it’s accredited to a ‘safety standard’. Only when pressed do they say (in response to my FOI) that means BS EN 1130-1:1997. Only when pressed further do they qualify that statement by saying the accreditation is ‘in part’. Even then, it takes a further FOI request to establish which parts of the standard that means. And they still haven’t, and say they won’t or can’t, produce the documentation that proves their claim.

My own layman’s guess is that the box is probably safe to use for a sleeping baby provided you follow the safety advice and don’t do daft things with it. But to use a legal analogy, the case is pending, the evidence not yet all available. The ball is really in the government’s court: publish the accreditation certificate and test report or remain subject to the doubts that many have expressed.

There are many other aspects of the baby box scheme worthy of examination – some of the claims originally made for the box (see Messrs Law and McEnaney at the beginning of this article); whether it’s enough in tough times to spend that money on a ‘nice gesture’; whether yet another universal benefit is the best way to improve the health of babies or whether it would be better to spend the same money on fewer people who really need help; whether the success of the scheme will be honestly and objectively monitored; and much more. Others have already written effectively about some of these aspects. I may return to others.

My thanks to a number of contacts who helped me with information and suggestions for this article.

As I finalised this article I became aware of a forensic examination of the cost of the baby box scheme, The price of meeting political timetables: baby boxes as a case study. Well worth a read for its conclusion that ‘the baby box policy continues to be a fascinating case study in the operation and scrutiny of government policy-making in contemporary Scotland.’


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