Monday, 2 May 2016

You call me fat ...

You call me fat.

Am I meant to care? Am I meant to be so body shamed that I shut up?

I have opinions.

You call me a fat whore.

I make mistakes. Yes. I do.

And I am fat. Apparently. Amongst other happy insults.

I have an opinion on international affairs. I haven't had a holiday in two years but I travelled to Turkey (overnight after hosting a debate in parliament on disability and poverty)  to raise awareness of a human rights atrocity.

Then I was called a terrorist whore. And I can't even tell you how many appalling threats then came my way. I would've left it there, but when you have to get the MET Police involved, it's an issue. They were all gendered. They were about rape. They were about a woman having an opinion. And threatening sexual violence for having one.

And on.

Then being just an ordinary woman in politics means your appearance is subject to scrutiny. Be the headline of a story and it isn't your headshot they use. They find a weird side on image of you about to go on stage in Catalonia. Who even owns that image and how did they find it? They managed to completely ignore the march in Catalonia on any news, but can find an unflattering image of you speaking on it.

I am not fat, I am a UK size 12. Probably fairly average. Maybe a little less so.

Politicians are fairly subject to scrutiny, but why are women subject to a different form of scrutiny? We are judged on clothes, shoes and body type. A misstep for women and it's all about power dressing to get over it.

I am not fat. But even if I am, it isn't the prerogative of politics sites to say I am. And why should they care?

I am happy with my body type. At 18 I thought I was fat. I was a size eight. If I could go back to my younger self - who thought she couldn't wear short skirts because of athletic knees from Highland Dancing - I'd tell her she was a fool.

Women in politics are too often the subject of body negativity.

Criticise my opinions, my judgement, my politics. When you resort to my appearance or my weight, you have lost the argument immediately.

Saturday, 26 March 2016

Just where is the international condemnation?

The international silence on the human rights atrocities committed by President Erdogan’s Turkish AKP Government against not only Turkey’s Kurdish population, the Syrian Kurds fighting Daesh, but also the Turkish Trades unionists and academics, journalists and democrats is astounding. Turkey is a NATO member, an aspiring EU member and the country which the EU holds key to stopping the refugee crisis in Europe. Such is the EU’s collective wish to stop the passage of refugees through Turkey to the EU, it has written a blank cheque for £6bn and European countries’ leaders have been shamefully silent on the crackdown on civil liberties in Turkey and the violence being perpetrated against its citizens; Kurd or otherwise.

At present two journalists are on trial for crimes against the state for reporting in the Turkish Newspaper Cumhuriyet that they had evidence Turkey was complicit in oil and weapons trade with Daesh in Syria. They were kept in jail awaiting trial until a court took the decision that they be released pending trial. President Erdogan condemned both the court and the process. Another court has now accepted the state’s request that the trial be held out with public view and that Erdogan himself can testify.

In the last few days Erdogan has condemned international diplomats who observed. He demanded to know why they were there. He wanted to know what business they had there. Incidentally the exact same questions put to me about why I was observing state violence against the Kurds in Diyarbakir.

In the last few weeks a pro-Kurdish TV news station was taken off air and the large selling newspaper Zaman was violently raided and taken over by the state.

A Catalan MP was detained at Istanbul airport on her way to Diyarbakir, then deported.

In the last few days, three academics who signed a petition merely criticising the Turkish state’s suppression of human rights and calling for peace have been detained, allegedly tortured, and face sentences of seven and a half years for signing the petition. Other Turkish academics who signed now fear similar as Erdogan has declared that the act of putting their names to a call for peace is tantamount to treason. He called them, “traitors who should be declared as terrorists without weapons”.

A few days ago I attended an event which was looking at critical approaches to the peace process in Turkey. It was meant to be a bigger event with academics representing critical thought on what was happening in Turkey. Many of those academics did not attend out of fear of censure by Turkey, threats to their livelihood and potential violence and imprisonment. Some of these academics are not even based in Turkey, but such is the collective fear of the influence of the Turkish state that they pulled out one by one.

This is not meant to be an exhaustive piece on what is happening in Turkey, but I feel it a necessary reminder to international observers and human rights activists that the world is collectively closing its eyes to Turkish state aggression as Erdogan tries to turn Turkey from a prime ministerial state to a presidential one – with himself at the helm – at the expense of democracy and human rights. Some observers claim that Erdogan’s regime is heading toward totalitarianism.

Just a few weeks ago I wrote the following for The National newspaper in Scotland,

“SHIMMERING in the late winter sunshine, Diyarbakir’s airport building is so new it hasn’t yet been commercialised. There isn’t even a coffee bar in departures. It is a military airport which is being adapted for commercial travel, but who wants to visit there? My own friend has fled as the Turkish crackdown on the Kurds and freedom of speech and expression continues unabated and suspicion of foreigners by the Turkish military is rife.

Diyarbakir is the major city in South Eastern Turkey. It has a population of about 1.6 million residents, many of whom fled there as the Turkish forces destroyed about 3,000 Kurdish villages during a period of protracted violence in the 1990s. It is, like many cities in the Middle East, suffering from an economic crash due to the violence in nearby Syria and at its own economic and geographical heart, the Unesco heritage area of Sur.

In the past three months during a military curfew and lockdown on six neighbourhoods in the ancient, walled district of Sur, 10,000 people have lost their jobs as 3,000 local businesses have been closed and 50,000 people have fled their homes, at least half of which have been destroyed. It is impossible to tell how many people have so far lost their lives. There is a ring of steel, sandbags, tanks and a rag-tag military armed with guns that marks the demarcation line.

Walk around the city, the markets and stalls bright with fresh vegetables and fish, and you could be forgiven for not realising that just streets away bombs, tanks and gunfire are the soundtrack to a bloody 90-day attack by the Turkish military on the district of Sur. As one local said to me, it has become so much a part of life there that the sounds blend in to the background, like traffic noises. It’s a necessary disassociation that allows people to carry on with their lives.

Turkish President Erdogan has justified the curfews on Sur and other towns, like Czire and Silopi, by saying that PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) terrorists are hiding within communities in the areas on lockdown, and any organisations I speak to freely admit there are perhaps 25 young guerrillas in Sur, amongst a civilian population of 200 trapped in basements.

Erdogan’s government, however, appear unconcerned about trials and capture, as demonstrated in Czire. Pleas to the governor to allow a civilian delegation to go in to Sur to bring the people out have been denied – including a denial of our request to meet them. By any standard, this is state-sponsored execution by starvation, fire or the denial of medical aid.
The people now fear a final end to the siege with a massacre like that in Czire, which killed dozens of desperate civilians – the youngest just nine months old – who had been unsuccessfully pleading for international help from hell-hole basements where they were starving and injured. In Diyarbakir too, there are many children amongst the 200 or so still trapped.
No-one would deny Turkey’s right to protect itself from terrorism, but proportionality and human rights have to be upheld, and there is absolutely no evidence of that in Diyarbakir.

Instead, Erdogan’s ideological and brutal suppression of the Kurds and restriction on civil liberties continues, fuelled perhaps by the success of the HDP (Peoples’ Democratic Party) in last year’s elections, his desire to move Turkey from a prime-ministerial state to a presidential one and the gains by Kurdish forces in Rojava in Northern Syria.

The peace process – which is supported by every organisation to which our delegation of civil society and trades union reps spoke – failed last summer; cynically timed for just before the elections in what some international observers have described as a deliberate move by Erdogan as he recklessly gambles with the stability of Turkey for personal ambition.

The return to violence has been swift, and the reaction to state violence has seen a call to arms by a disaffected youth.

There can be no pretence that Erdogan leads a secular state which stabilises the area. What happens now is vital to future peace in the Middle East. Erdogan’s actions in attacking the American and Russian-backed Kurdish forces, the YPG and YPJ, in Syria and his actions in South Eastern Turkey have the potential to engulf the country in a civil war; pulling in international forces.

The international community must now act. We must demand that the UK Government intervenes to stop a genocide, and prevent Erdogan from his current direction of travel. As Ibrahim Dogus of The Centre for Kurdish Progress observes: “The Turkish Government must reconsider its position on peace talks. Resuming peace talks or negotiations is vital. There is no solution to the Kurdish issue in Turkey through military means or violence.”

At every meeting that our delegation attended, be it of political parties, trades unions or the families of political prisoners, the clear message was that the Kurdish community is ready for peace.

For me, in my hotel just 150 metres from the ancient walls of Sur, I couldn’t sleep as the sound of heavy bombardment escalated and punctured the night. During my brief detention – where I was dragged off the street, pushed around and questioned in a shack filled with sandbags and rifles behind the curfew line – I was terrified. But I am not Kurdish, I am Scottish and an MP, so my detention was short and my experience nothing to that of the many journalists imprisoned or deported for trying to document a humanitarian crisis.

The absence of footage of what is happening in the area makes it easy for the news agencies and the international community to look away and pretend it isn’t happening. That is why verifiable recordings are important to force the world to open its eyes.

One thing is clear: the Turkish Government do not want anyone to bear witness to their actions and that authoritarianism proves they are well aware their actions breach international law.

The Kurdish people feel abandoned by the international community. One trade unionist said to me: “It feels like we are all alone and no-one is listening. We want to sing songs and enjoy our lives.” That doesn’t seem a lot to ask.

The need for action is current, urgent and vital. Those of us on our delegation have a responsibility to shout about the brutality wherever we have a voice, and to that end, I’ll be trying to get an urgent question in the House of Commons.”

Since my return from Turkey I have been characterised on Turkish websites as a “terrorist”. Such is the level of aggression that I have had to report death threats from Turkey to the Met Police. What power in a word. The word “terrorist” is being used by the Turkish state and media to delegitimise the views of its opponents and any critical voices. The power of a word can indeed be more powerful than the gun or a bomb.

Just yesterday the Foreign Affairs Select Committee in the UK condemned Turkey for its aggression against Syrian Kurds fighting Daesh in Syria. Where was the UK media attention? Where was the international reporting? The collective silence is deafening. This powerful committee is being ignored. Why?

Turkey was once praised for being a stable influence in the Middle East, a bridge between Europe and the Middle East. It was deemed a secular and progressive state. Yet international commentariat is failing to condemn the allegedly increasing sectarian islamisation of citizens and schooling, the repression of civil liberties and the regressive policies toward women, trades unionists and critical voices.

It is time to speak up and end the silence. Turkey isn't the solution to the refugee crisis. Peace is. Peace will not be achieved whilst Turkey is an aggressor and continues its violence which is displacing yet more Syrian and Turkish citizens. The volatility of the situation in Turkey has the potential to explode in to yet more violence in the Middle East. A violence which will be directly on the EU’s borders.

Open your eyes, for humanity’s sake.

Tuesday, 9 April 2013

Here's Maggie Thatcher - Politiciser of the Playground

“Here’s Maggie Thatcher, throw her up and catch her. Squish her, squash her, squish her, squash her, here’s Maggie Thatcher” was a ditty which formed part of the soundtrack to my playground experiences of the mid-eighties. It was accompanied by some creative pen work and hand movements. The children of the eighties, the playgrounds of the eighties, were political in a way I am not sure we shall ever see again.

I met someone recently who was also a child of the eighties – in a completely different area of the country – who also knew the ditty.  It was a shared remembrance of invention, of ingenuity, but also a sad indictment of the despair in many Scottish households which imbued children with political hue and awareness which is unparalleled today. Where the ditty originated, I don’t know and I am not sure I want to.  It is a childhood memory which needs no clarification of retrospect, but it is a telling one.

The myth, the legacy, the damning toll of Thatcherism will live on. That the children of the nineties, who were born with Major, and grew up with Blair, are still shaped by their attitude to Margaret Thatcher – especially in Scotland - says much about the attitudes of their parents and their peers, but also indicates that, love her or loathe her, she created herself a legend. And those who protested against her lionised her.  They gave her a status which no other prime-minister of the twentieth century – with the exception of Churchill – could claim. Demonised by some, idolised by others.

I am a child of the eighties. I remember Thatcher.  I distinctly remember Thatcher.  Thatcher helped shape my childhood and the ideology I have as an adult. Of course, my attitude to Thatcher was a reflection of my parents’ attitudes at that point in time, but I have encountered no other considerations since to inform a change of opinion. 

My parents were political.  They became political as a reaction to societal and political events.  My mum joined the SNP in 1966 at the age of 14 with her sister Maureen who was a year older. Their father – my grandfather – was an Irish miner. They grew up in relative poverty in Fife. My grandfather, John was an Irish immigrant whose father was a Labour councillor in the south of Ireland. He was a member of the Scottish wing of the Labour Party and he campaigned for them. He once presented me with a Parker pen which had been given to him by Gordon Brown.  It was a treasured item of his. 

My mother and Maureen became aware, through their voracious appetite for knowledge and books, of the history of Scotland, of the potential of Scotland, and of the relative imbalance of being governed by a Westminster which was not Scotland focussed. It was a love affair which was to last a lifetime for my Aunty Maureen and a vision which my mother still works toward as an SNP councillor of 27 years standing. 

In the sixties, however, becoming members of the SNP was more than frowned upon.  My grandfather wouldn’t even display a poster for my mother when she stood against Gordon Brown during the eighties.  Miners’ daughters from Cowdenbeath did not join a nationalist party. They withstood that familial disapprobation and their legacy is a family of younger sisters – like my aunt Tricia Marwick - and their brother, and all their many kids and nieces and nephews, and now grandkids, who share their vision of a Scotland governed by the people of Scotland with social justice, fairness and equality at its heart.

My father was less of an emotional nationalist. He is a pragmatist. From Fairhill in Hamilton, he met and married my mother in 1974 but remained a Labour voter until 1979.  He was a devolutionist and was blindly confident that the Labour Party would deliver on a devolution settlement in the referendum in 1979.  To watch it drafted to fail and torpedoed by elected members of the party he had respected and voted for, and which his gradfather had represented as an elected member, hardened his attitude toward a different constitutional settlement.  Clearly, neither the Labour Party nor the Conservatives could be relied upon to bring democracy closer to the people of Scotland. When my father embraced independence and the SNP he did not look back, only forward to the future potential of an independent Scotland. There is no-one as passionate as a convert.

He was wrong, Labour did deliver devolution 20 years later, but in the meantime Thatcher changed the landscape of Scotland irrevocably both physically and politically and forever designating large industry and traditional employment to the scrap heap and she privatised national industries allowing public wealth to flow freely in to the hands of the few. This entire she achieved without a mandate from Scotland which confirmed the correctness of his decision to back independence and the SNP. 

Thatcher the anti-devolutionist would have little idea in 1979 that the actions which she took in office would so harden Scottish attitudes against the Conservatives so that from a high of 22 MPs when she was elected in 1979 they led to the complete eradication of all Tories in Scotland a few months after she was forced from office. She would have no idea that she set in motion the rise of the SNP. Or that less than a year and a half after her death there would be a referendum on Scottish independence. She also, probably, didn’t foresee she would be stabbed in the back by her Tory peers and humiliatingly be driven from office, but that is by-the-by. 

And who would have thought during the eighties that the SNP would be here, holding a referendum on Scotland’s political future? The eighties were not a pleasant time to be in the SNP.  Still blamed for their actions in helping to bring down the Callaghan Government and prematurely calling the general election in which Margaret Thatcher’s Tories swept to victory in the subsequent general election, they faced much derision and abuse on the doorsteps. That the SNP were on the right side of the debate in the eighties on the Poll-Tax, in support of the miners and against the desecration of traditional industry did not matter a jot, their decision in 1979 was a cross to be borne.  

It was inevitable that Callaghan’s government would fail anyway. It had failed to deliver its own policy on devolution and it was incompatible to dealing with the many problems of the seventies – the three day working week and the knock-on effects of that, and strikes which left the streets filed with rubbish had already hardened middle-England voters against the Labour Party. They would vote Tory in swathes at the next election, but in supporting the vote of no confidence which brought down the government the SNP sealed their own fate; losing 9 of their MPs at the general election and consigning the party to an electoral funk which would last well over a decade.

I remember during the 1989 Euro elections Kenny McAskill stood as an SNP candidate. He set off to campaign in Leven with my mum and Charlie and Craig Reid of the Proclaimers on the “Snappy bus” -which was a van with no sides and a loud hailer. They returned hours later caked from head to toe in egg. Leven, it seems, had not forgiven the SNP even then.

Another chant which formed the soundtrack of my childhood was “Maggie, Maggie, Maggie. Out, out, out” as my brother, sister and I accompanied our parents from Bannockburn marches to anti-Poll Tax rallies. There was no disputing the passion and sentiment of the people who were involved and marched.  Ordinary people marching in defiance of a discriminatory and unfair system of taxation, imposed on Scotland a year earlier than the rest of the UK. The despair of people on those marches was palpable. These were not only marches against the Poll Tax, but about the annihilation of industry and mining which underpinned the very fabric of Scottish urban and rural society and way of life. They were marches against forced unemployment, against visceral attacks on Scottish society.

Margaret Thatcher traduced the working classes; the blue collar workers who were the engine power house of Scottish traditional heavy industry. She maligned the workers, privatised their industries and went to war on the unions to sate an ego which insisted she was correct and brooked no argument from those who dissented. She was the ultimate political narcissist in action.

Margaret Thatcher metaphorically took a sledge hammer to mining communities, to close knit communities of proud working men and their families. She criminalised miners and forced food from their families’ tables to impose her arrogant scorched earth political will and policies. That Arthur Scargill did a disservice to miners does not exculpate Margaret Thatcher, it just highlights that they were both driven by ego to the exclusion sense and compassion.

Her premiership is categorised by infringements and attacks and erosion of civil liberties. She employed draconian and subversive methods of undermining political opposition.  She politicised the police and she used covert operatives to spy on protesters. That my parent’s phone was tapped during the miners’ strike is merely an indication of this, not the sum total. Their particular brand subversive actions? They were feeding the miners who were on strike.

That Thatcher came to power in a very difficult period cannot be disputed. Something did need to be done.  That something was definitely not to act with reckless abandonment and callousness creating social divisions and ramping up class barriers. The rich got richer, and the workers lost their jobs.
Margaret Thatcher’s governance is categorised by her kowtowing to the City of London. She was much trumpeted for creating the opportunity for social mobility, but this was built upon the shaky foundations of credit, and the whole house of cards – banking deregulation, reckless spending and spiralling borrowing – culminated in the crash of 2008.  The crash of 2008 was inevitable, built as it was on credit. It was one lasting legacy of Thatcher, like finding someone has dropped a fish behind your chest of drawers and left it to rot.

She is credited by her admirers for giving working people the “Right to Buy” social housing which allowed people to get on the property ladder.  And loathe Thatcher as they came to do, many people in Scotland did take the opportunity to do just that.  However, this was another of Thatcher’s ticking time bombs. So many houses were sold off without much attempt to replace them that queues for adequate social housing are huge and people are forced in to private rented accommodation which is more expensive and benefits neither the welfare system nor the householder.  The only one benefitting in that situation is the landlord. Some of whom bought their properties from the state at knock down prices in the first place. Margaret Thatcher probably thinks that is a good thing though.  Capitalism, eh? 

And so now, when her successor in Cameron applies his unfair and disgusting bedroom tax, there are hugely insufficient numbers of size appropriate social housing for those affected to move to, even if they wanted to.

Privatising public industry, annihilating heavy industries like shipbuilding and steel-working, and attacking the public sector does not come without its cost. Four million people in the UK were unemployed, many of whom did not have the skill sets or education to smoothly transition from one industry to another. Many of whom in despair as their whole communities were blighted by worklessness and their pride stripped away as they were forced on to the scrapheap.  Thatcher robbed these people of their self-worth, forcing them on to benefits and parking them there, creating new categories of benefits where people were abandoned, forgotten, but which allowed Thatcher to massage the unemployment figures to her advantage. What cost to these people as the eighties carried on regardless of their plight with its shoulder pads, cigars, champagne and ostentatious behaviours and superficial wealth? They were collateral damage to Thatcher’s autocratic pursuit of self-interest.

Scotland hasn’t forgiven the Conservatives – or indeed Thatcher – because Scotland has not recovered from the Conservatives or Thatcher. The Tories are so synonymous with Thatcher that their vote is in perpetual decline. Margaret Thatcher has cast them adrift and only some seismic shift can change their electoral fortunes.

When Thatcher came to power in 1979, Scotland did lag significantly behind the rest of the UK in terms of unemployment and other figures, and this is no longer the case. Proponents of Thatcher point to her economic policies as being responsible for this. Thre may be elements of truth in that, but that is based only on a superficial examination of the employment which people are consigned to., It isn’t as simple as job creation. 

The jobs which were lost during the Thatcher era were jobs for life; skilled jobs, trade jobs. Replacing these with transient service industries and call centres might make for good reading of unemployment figures, but they certainly don’t tell the story about life quality and opportunity. Thatcher’s policies ripped the heart out of communities, and you cannot patch that rent with part-time jobs in the service industry.

Worse than destroying industries she destroyed communities, aspirations and people and that is not a legacy to be proud of.

So, when Thatcher died yesterday, I confess – to my shame – that there was a brief moment of satisfaction that we could now move on to dissecting the legacy of Thatcher; of Blairism and Cameronism. Both are pale imitations, but shaped by her vision nonetheless. In the case of Cameron, her legacy of pandering to the wealthy to the exclusion of the most vulnerable is interpreted, possibly, even more perniciously than she enacted when in power. 

Thatcher created the conditions which eradicated heavy industry and mining in Scotland. You can’t destroy an industry twice when it is already obliterated, but Cameron is trying his best to continue Thatcher’s legacy by destroying the only industries left to him; the English NHS and the public sector.

I wasn’t dancing the “Day that Thatcher Died”, even if that song by Hefner has a very catchy tune. She was a wife, a mother, and a grandmother and divisive she may have been; arrogant and callous she undoubtedly was, she was a person and our humanity should dictate we don’t dance on her grave. 

However, I will not stand idly by and watch her eulogised out of culpability for the many crimes committed against the social fabric of Scotland.
Margaret Thatcher politicised the playgrounds. That should serve as due indication of the strength of feeling of people in Scotland have about her actions in office.

Sunday, 24 March 2013

Public Speaking and the Fear That Lurks Inside

The first time I remember feeling real terror as a child I was alone in my room with a burst balloon trying to suck the rubber until it popped like Clingfilm. Rubber, however, isn’t as easily popped as Clingfilm and it resisted my herculean efforts to make it.  Instead the balloon shot to the back of my throat and lodged there, blocking my airway. I was terrified.  I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t shout for help.  I choked, I coughed, I turned red and I panicked. I am here now, so it all turned out fine in the end, but for those few seconds I was truly frightened and clawing at my throat in abject terror as I couldn’t get any air in to my lungs, marvelling all the while at the tenuous hold we have on our own mortality.

This was the first time I remember experiencing the sensation of being unable to breathe. It certainly wasn’t the last.

Meet me and you will quickly realise that there are some things I do well, or more accurately, often and incessantly. Talking is one such thing.  I could talk until the cows come home; talk the rear (and front legs) off a donkey and any other ridiculous simile you’d care to toss my way. Give me a topic and - I might not know anything about it - but I’ll unadvisedly have a clumsy bash at conversing on it. Your main problem is stopping me full flow. I remember a school report from a high school geography class which rather wittily sniped, “work sometimes interferes with her chatting”. Meet me and you’d probably make the mistake of thinking that I always enjoy an audience.

The second time I felt the same discomfort and terror I was in high school. I had prepared a solo talk. It was pretty funny, or at least I thought so.  My chosen topic was an irreverent report about the motivations behind Jarvis Cocker interrupting the pomposity of Michael Jackson’s Brits performance of Earth Song. I felt confident I could make the audience laugh. My friends had laughed when we practised our talks in the lunch break before.

The first 30 seconds were fine – if somewhat quick. Then I looked up. I looked up and realised where I was. I was standing in front of a group of my peers, their attention was on me, and I panicked. I stopped breathing.  I tried to speak, but I couldn’t. I stuttered.  I tried again, nothing.  I fled that room in tears.

A few years later, again in high school, I was in sixth year and Head Girl. A concert was given to honour the retirement of my primary school head teacher and I was asked to write a tribute.  Given her many attributes, it wasn’t a difficult task to pay homage to a dedicated and supportive teacher such as Mrs Gilfillan. It is a shame that my considered written words, when I attempted to read them from stage, failed to do her justice.  Mid-way through my voice just stopped.  Again I fled in tears. I think some people thought I was overcome with emotion at paying tribute to Mrs Gilfillan, but I wasn’t; I was in tears because I couldn’t articulate myself, breathe or find the courage to read what I had so painstakingly written.

Mark Twain said that there are only two types of public speakers in the world; the nervous, and the liars. I don’t necessarily agree, but I take his point.

Hyperventilation is a construct of the mind.  It isn’t any less real for being so. It feels real and it provokes a real physical response as the brain tells the body that it can’t breathe. For people who suffer from panic attacks it can be terribly debilitating. I am lucky that my panic attacks were limited to public speaking. Some people have their lives severely restricted by other situation-based experiences even more frequent; like crowded spaces, small spaces or even empty rooms. I feel a kinship with anyone who has experienced panic attacks. It isn’t rational, but it is very real to the person experiencing that sensation. It certainly isn’t as simple as mind over matter; not when it is the mind that is the matter.

When I went to the University of Aberdeen to study law, I decided to take part in mooting.  Perhaps in the swanky new law library there still resides a dusty trophy bearing the names of the winners of the 2001 mooting competition; myself and the lovely Miss Joanne Powrie.

Poor Joanne, unfortunately for her, was probably the person most familiar with the limitations of my public speaking.  She chose ill for a partner as I had to be cajoled along at every stage.  Oh the jokes about paper bags we made and laughed at. It was funny, to an extent, but I am aware that I used humour as a defence mechanism to cover up my discomfort. That we won is tribute to Joanne’s wonderful legal reasoning rather than any conquering of my incapacitating fear of speaking in public.

Undeterred, I decided a less formal form of public speaking might conquer my affliction and off to Cyprus I toddled in 2003 to work as a holiday rep. What I took away from Cyprus is affection for the country, an intellectual curiosity about the political situation, a love for karaoke and some wonderful memories. I didn’t conquer my fear of public speaking even if I was happily disinterested enough to wax lyrical confidently to a group of holiday makers about the virtues of Cyprus.

It did, however, teach me a lesson: that where I am imparting knowledge to people eager to hear it - such as holiday makers, or in a training environment - I am confident to speak in front of people. I had already learned as a sixth year at high school, when I crashed higher drama at the school across the road, that I was confident when I was performing someone else’s words. I just lacked the confidence to articulate my own.

I have been a trainer, I have presented information to groups over the years since university, and even then still got a small flutter of panic as I step in front of a group, but it was manageable, a managed discomfort.

This year I made a decision. I decided that it lacks integrity to snipe on the sidelines about people who have the ability to deliver their own words to an audience whilst lacking the courage to get up and articulate my own alternative. I have opinions and if I have any conviction in them, I should be able to stand in front of a group of people and substantiate them. Else how can I critique with any credibility others who put themselves out to public scrutiny?

And so I have embarked on a journey which is perhaps the most difficult thing I have undertaken in my life.  I consider the fear I have past felt every time I stand in front of an audience.  My mouth goes dry and I feel the back of my throat begin to close. Then I remember that I am there to speak because I believe in the topic I am addressing, and that is a powerful motivator.

How proud was I, and privileged, to be one of those to speak in the NATO debate at SNP conference in 2012? I waited in the huge audience half terrified, half desirous of hearing my name being read out to speak on a matter of fundamental importance that I am absolutely passionate about.

My name was read out and I wandered up there in a dwam, conscious of the thousands of faces riveted on the stage. Nonetheless, I got up there and I spoke. It might not have been the performance that I’d like to have given, but that I was there at all was remarkable to me.

Dale Carnegie, the author of How to Make Friends and Influence People wrote, “There are always three speeches for every one you actually give: the one you practiced, the one you gave, and the one you wished you’d given.”

Afterward, as I took my seat I was shaking so much I spilled my bottled water down me, but that was a lesson to me.  That was progress, and it gets easier every time I undertake to speak in public.
Since then, I’ve been fortunate and flattered to be asked to speak at various events in support of independence.  I’ve addressed an audience at Glasgow University, talking about gender and the referendum; kicked off proceedings in front of 600+ at the launch of Yes Glasgow; and began my campaign to be selected as an MEP candidate for 2014 by being involved in hustings meetings, making my case directly to meetings of party members and activists across the country.

Every time I make my way to the final full stop of my speech I feel a small personal victory. Perhaps practice won’t entirely conquer the fear, but passion is a powerful motivator and I am passionate about the direction which Scotland moves in. And if I sometimes feel the flutter of fear, so what?

**Since I wrote this, I today failed to be selected as one of the SNP's candidates for Europe. I don't see this as a failure though.  I got up in front of a big audience to try to sell myself - which is a whole other shade of fear. I evidently didn't do the best job in the world, but just being up there on that stage is a personal victory for me, so I am a winner too!

And thanks to everyone who supported and voted for me. I owe you all a debt of gratitude.

Thursday, 15 November 2012

A Very Personal Welcome to the Scottish Government 'Don't Give Fire a Home' Initiative

I doubt many people will wake up early on Hallowe’en Sunday morning at the age of 23 to go in to McDonald’s to open the store for 6am.  I doubt even more so that you will be visited by your aunt at around 9:15am, who looks like her chin is still stained with fake vampire blood, whilst wondering why she is there as her closest McDonald’s is on the other side of the river Forth. Nor will you demand she tells you what is wrong, because you suspect something is, and then run through a list of your immediate family members loudly, and in front of horrified staff and a full queue of customers, getting increasingly frantic.  Nor when you mention your brother’s name will she look stricken as you demand she tells you what is wrong.  I hope you never have to hear the words, especially in front of an audience, that he died in a house fire, pulled out not breathing at 7am that morning.  I hope you never have to hear those words.

I did.

Loss is something everyone faces in their lifetime; it is an inevitable part of living, although that doesn’t make it any easier. Happiness is a quiet death at an old age surrounded by family, sadness is a long illness which eventually wins, sadness is also a short illness, unexpected. Tragedy is an accident where circumstance steals away a loved one. Waste is something entirely different.  Waste is carelessness. Carelessness is what killed my brother. He died in a house fire; a house fire of his own making. He went in after a party and decided to fry some chips; fell asleep and never woke up. That is waste.

How many times do we read of house fires, fatal and non-fatal, but dangerous nonetheless, of carelessness, of chip pans, or pans left on or dropped cigarettes?  How many times do we hear that these houses had no fire alarms to wake up the inhabitants of the house or their neighbours? How often is alcohol a factor?

My brother had a fire alarm, it did go off and someone attempted to help him.  Unfortunately they were too late to resuscitate him, but at least there is a chance if you have a smoke alarm.  And isn’t it morally reprehensible to put your neighbours lives in danger too by not having a fire alarm to possibly alert them and their families of a fire? Sometimes forward planning and a little bit of sense can prevent your family having to pick up the pieces of your waste and carelessness.

I’ve never written about my brother dying, why would I? It is personal to me and my family, but yesterday I saw the Scottish Government launch its “Don’t Give Fire a Home” initiative and wanted to stick my oar in, and praise any efforts to raise awareness that fire can happen to anyone, tragedy can affect any family.  It did then, in 2004, and it did again last year.

My aunt, who was my godmother, died in a house fire last year.  They say lightning doesn’t strike twice; well it did in our family.

If this serves as a little reminder every time your oversensitive fire alarm goes off when you burn some toast and you are tempted to remove the battery, then it is worth me talking about.  If it stops you getting in after an evening and out and switching on a cooker, then it is worth sharing a personal story.

Just remember: Fire Kills, Carelessness Kills.  It happened to our family twice, it can happen to anyone.  Be careful and take precautions.