27 January 2016

Harry Clarke: "insufficient evidence in law to prove a crime committed"

I've written a greal deal about the legal fallout from the tragic crash in Glasgow on the 22nd of December 2014, which claimed six lives. Regular readers may feel I've exhausted my arguments. I probably have.

But I wanted to add a brief word or two here about today's tidings: that the Lord Advocate has declined to extend his concurrence to the two bills of criminal letters which were placed before him, the one emerging from the bin lorry crash, the second from a separate and sorrowful incident in Glasgow, involving the deaths of two young ladies in similar circumstances to the better known 2014 tragedy. 

First, a technical point. As I explained here last week, this isn't the end of the story for the Sweeney and McQuade families. The Lord Advocate gets the first look at a bill of criminal letters, but he doesn't have the last word on its success or failing. This is reserved for the High Court of Justiciary, which will now presumably hear argument about why the families have title and interest to take Harry Clarke to law, and a relevant indictment against him, which is supported by sufficient evidence. They will also have to persuade senior judges that there are "exceptional circumstances" to justify departing from the general principle that decisions are taken in the public interest by a politically-independent prosecutor, on the basis of the evidence. 

Frank Mulholland will be represented at this hearing, as, presumably, will Harry Clarke. It remains unclear quite how Scotland's senior prosecutor will approach the case. In Carol X, the Lord Advocate of the day felt he couldn't concur with the application for a private prosecution, on the basis that he had sent letters to the two accused, telling them they wouldn't be tried. But Lord Mackay of Clashfern didn't actively oppose Carol X's motion before the High Court in the 1980s. Given his public comments on the case, will Mr Mulholland take the same stance? Can he credibly do so? I have my doubts. 

Explaining his decision today, the Crown Office spokesman explained “the original decision not to take criminal proceedings was made on the basis that there was insufficient evidence in law to prove that a crime had been committed and that position remains unchanged.” 

There is likely to be a public outcry if the Crown vigorously opposes the family's motion, but if this private prosecution goes ahead, that arguably places the Crown's reputation in the greater jeopardy. Public opinion remains in the grip of an understanding of the case which is sharply at odds with the evidence. And a vengeful mood sells papers. Mulholland cannot ride the populist side of public opinion in this case, and keep his prosecutor's soul. He can now only chose the least worst option, from a cynical, public relations point of view. 

The Crown have sometimes struggled to explain their decision in the Harry Clarke case. It is complex. The facts are knotty. The fatal accident inquiry was ongoing. And everyone hates lawyers. I do think these questions of culpability and punishment are nuanced things reasonable people can reasonably disagree about. But there is nothing duller, or more predictable, than the inevitable "lawyers are cold bastards, unlike me with my plain goodhearted ignorance of the actual facts" schtick.

The facts about Harry Clarke's medical condition, what he knew about it, and the very limited consequences of his dishonest, hardly impinge on the public consciousness at all, however much I harp on about them. But there it remains. There is no medical evidence Harry Clarke "ought to have known he was not fit to drive." And even if he had been honest, the evidence shows he would have retained his licence by 2014, after a nominal suspension. These essential have gone unreported in almost every newspaper and broadcaster's bulletin. Perceptions of reality have been shaped accordingly.

This is one of those predicaments where the Crown Office cannot win. They can only do the right thing in the teeth of public opinion. In declining to prosecute Harry Clarke for death by dangerous driving, or homicide, it seems to me that they've only followed the evidence, and done their duty.

22 January 2016

Scottish Times

In the interests of shabby self-promotion -- as some of you may have noticed from recent punts on social media, the Scottish edition of the Times has been carrying a few bits and pieces from me of late, most recently a fairly critical, godless look at the emergence of the new anti-abortion group, Don't Stop a Human Heart, and the ailing and somtimes unappealling Scottish religious institutions which have given it birth. 

I've also contributed pieces on the raw, unglamorous perseverance which lies at the heart of the SNP tradition and an extremely uncharitable look at the late, great Secretary of State for Scotland. On a personal basis, this is a splendid opportunity to inflict my outlook and preoccupations on part of the Scottish population which has largely escaped the experience before. You might also think it no bad thing, that the Thunderer north of the Tweed is making a little space for a pro-independence, Nat-sympathetic voice.

I'll be giving my pieces a shameless nudge on Twitter and on the peaty Facebook page. There is always the paywall of doom to contend with, but if you are interested, you can always - in the timeworn phrase - buy a paper.

21 January 2016

Harry Clarke: in the dock?

News this morning that the families of Erin McQuade, and her grandparents Jack and Lorraine Sweeney, have submitted a bill of criminal letters to the Crown Office. The long-promised private prosecution of Harry Clarke has begun. Various outlets have the story, though the precise charge sheet remains a little hazy. 

The Times "understands that Mr Clarke could be accused of causing death by dangerous driving, culpable and reckless conduct, and fraud" but the full text of the proposed indictment hasn't be published. So how is this all going to work? What next? And who decides?

First, let's rehearse the ritual notices. We aren't quite in unexplored legal territory here, but as every commentator is statutorily obliged to point out, private prosecutions come along once in a blue moon in Scotland. This is an unusual procedure, involving unusual and unclear rules, with which even hardened criminal practitioners are unlikely to be familiar. As a result, making predictions about how the court will handle this application is also difficult. This is a case which will very much turn on its own facts. What we can do, however, is say something intelligible about the principles the courts will take into account in deciding whether or not to give these families permission to put Mr Clarke in the dock. 

So how will it be decided? The Lord Advocate gets a first look at the bill of criminal letters, but he doesn't get the last word. Procedurally, Clarke, the families and the Lord Advocate will now appear before the High Court of Justiciary, probably before three senior judges, if past practice is any guide. The court will hear legal argument and will either pass the bill of criminal letters, or refuse it. If the judges pass it, and the families find a mechanism to fund their case, Clarke will be set down for trial on the indictment they've presented. But if the judges struggle to see this case as "exceptional", and refuse the bill, the matter ends there. The long trial of Harry Clarke will be over.

The notorious Carol X case from the 1980s sets out the groundwork of legal rules judges will apply.  First, a bit of background. In that case, prosecutors dropped a rape prosecution, out of anxiety for the mental wellbeing of the complainer. Without her evidence, there was no case. In echo of Harry Clarke's experience, the Lord Advocate then sent letters to the two men, indicating that they would not now be prosecuted for the offence. The effect of these letters was pretty drastic. They deprived the prosecutor of the right to bring any proceedings against either of these two men in court. The Lord Advocate's undertakings couldn't be recalled; the courts wouldn't allow it.

But then? Then, Carol X's mental health improved. She remained determined to prosecute the men who had attacked her, and a private prosecution was the only way around the Crown Office's letters. In view of his undertakings to the two accused, the Lord Advocate of the day felt he couldn't grant his concurrence to Carol X's Bill, but prosecutors didn't actively oppose her action before the court. Some of you may remember the final chapter of this tale. The story gripped the Daily Record for months. Carol X secured her criminal letters from the court. Her attackers were prosecuted, convicted and jailed.

So what about Harry? First thing's first. Given his trenchant remarks after Sheriff Beckett's fatal accident inquiry, there seems like a snowball's chance in hell the Lord Advocate will concur with the families on any dangerous driving or culpable homicide charge. They gave Mr Clarke an undertaking he wouldn't, couldn't and shouldn't be prosecuted. You wonder if, in view of public feeling, the law officers might be tempted to concur with fraud charges against the bin driver, but for reasons I'll come onto in a moment, it isn't entirely clear that the Sweeney family have an interest in punishing frauds committed against other people. The Lord Advocate's view isn't decisive, but the court will surely take it into account. But beyond that, I think there are arguably four key things to look out for in the Harry Clarke case. 

1.  Do the families have title and interest to prosecute?

Having drawn up a specific charge sheet and laid it before the court, what then? Firstly, the private prosecutors have to show that they have "the necessary title, and has qualified the necessary interest, to prosecute privately." What does this mean? Like any other legal action, here the families will have to show that they have sufficient legal interest in the matters before the court. You can't sue a landlord because she is unpleasant to your friend, their tenant. You can't take a man to court for a personal injury he has inflicted on an aquaintance. 

The same goes for a private prosecution. Carol X's title and interest in prosecuting her attackers was beyond dispute. She had been the victim of a horrific and violent sexaul assault. But sometimes title and interest may be less clear, depending on what precisely you're prosecuting. The Sweeney and McQuade families have an obvious and overriding interest in a death by dangerous driving charge. The loss is theirs. Reckless endangerment too, probably. But what interest would they have in prosecuting a paper fraud committed against the DVLA, or Glasgow City Council, or First Bus? This seems far shakier. It seems like a technical point, but it might become an important one.

2.  Is there evidence in support of relevant charges?

Next, the families will have to present the court with sufficient evidence to prove there is a prima facie case, sufficient to justify bringing Harry Clarke to trial for the offences identified in the bill of criminal letters. Again, all this has to be specific. Named offences, chapter and verse. This, I imagine, shouldn't be terribly tricky, depending on the charges laid at Mr Clarke's door.

3. But are there "very special and exceptional circumstances"?

And if these two tests are satisfied? Then the families will have to persuade the court that there are "very special circumstances which would justify us in taking the now exceptional step of issuing criminal letters at the request of a private individual" in this case. What are those circumstances? In Carol X, there had been a clear and material change in the complainer's wellbeing. The crown accepted that there was a sufficiency of evidence and a prosecution would be in the public interest. The underlying crime was appalling, harrowing. The circumstances were complex and unusual.

But here? Here, the crown say nothing which emerged from the FAI surprised them. They knew the extent of Mr Clarke's dishonesty. They understood the evidence about his medical condition. And they concluded that Clarke's actions weren't intentional, and they weren't criminally reckless. Prosecutors maintain that view now. So what's changed? As if to underline the point, today has seen a second bill of criminal letters submitted to Frank Mulholland, involving another motoring catastrophe which claimed the life of two young women in Glasgow in 2010. Sad. Horrific. But "very special and exceptional?"

Carol X was, in the words of Lord Justice General Emslie, a "quite exceptional case." It is far from clear that McQuade and Sweeney v. Harry Clarke meets that high hurdle at all, whatever charges they hope to bring. On the other hand, this is not the 1980s. The deference extended to the crown office decision-making is not, perhaps, what it once was.  

4.  And would allowing a prosecution be oppressive?

Lastly, the court will almost certainly be invited to consider whether it would be oppressive, to allow Harry Clarke to be tried. In Carol X, the two accused - unsuccessfully - argued that "the widespread publicity about this case ... in the Press, on television, on radio, and in Parliament itself, has made it impossible for the respondents at any time to obtain fair and impartial trial anywhere in Scotland." 

Very similar considerations apply here. The accident, its aftermath, and the FAI, have been subject to wall to wall coverage. Much of it has been shrill, accusing, overtly partisan. Inconvenient facts emerging from the FAI which portrayed Mr Clarke's actions in a more sympathetic light received next to no column inches. How many potential jurors know there was no evidence Harry Clarke "ought to have known he was not fit to drive"? Sod all, I reckon. But who could forget "Harry's 170 insults to the dead"? As I've written, time and again, here and elsewhere, Mr Clarke's actions are not admirable. They have had tragic consequences. But this has been an affair of tar and feather. That may weigh with the court.

So will Harry find himself in the dock? Or will he escape criminal liability? Some movement today, but still far, far too early to say.

19 January 2016

Justice, divided?

A niche interest, perhaps, but let's talk about Holyrood's Justice Committee. Christine Grahame's committee often pops up on the pages of this blog, sometimes favourably, and sometimes taking a bit of a shellacking.  

Today, Holyrood's sexy Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments Committee reported, making recommendations about how the Scottish Parliament should organise its committee work in future, scrutinising Bills, exploring how new legislation is actually working in practice, and setting their own investigative agenda. But don't be dazzled by the dreary name. This is important stuff. The Committee is lukewarm on the idea of Holyrood directly electing committee convenors, and recommends that in future, committees should be limited to seven MSPs in total. But on the justice brief, the group has this concrete suggestion.

Justice committee 
23. The one exception is the Justice Committee which, in every session of the Parliament to date, has been more consistently burdened with legislation than any other committee. In session 2 there was an experiment with two Justice Committees sharing the same remit. We do not suggest repeating this approach, which only led to confusion. However we note that, in this session, the Justice Sub-Committee on Policing has worked effectively to pick up major issues which the main committee did not have time to cover. 
24. We do not recommend sub-committees as a long term solution. We think that they raise issues of accountability to the main committee which are difficult to manage. We think the Parliament could consider for next session establishing two justice committees but this time with distinct remits – analogous to the split in the House of Commons between Home Affairs and Justice. 
25. We recognise that there are downsides to this option. We point out that the alternatives are also unsatisfactory: they are for the Scottish Government to bring forward less legislation in this area; or for the Parliament to accept that the Justice Committee exists mainly to scrutinise bills and will never have much time to initiate its own inquiries – a clearly undesirable scrutiny gap. 
We recommend that the Parliament should consider establishing two justice committees next session with different remits. If this option is trialled, we recommend that our successor committee reviews it after the first two years of the session. 

Intuitively, this seems like a sound conclusion. Grahame's committee has been rammed with work this session. Ministers are always in favour of criminalising something new, or sticking a new name on an old infraction. NGOs nibble away at MSPs incessantly. And you are never in want of a backbencher or two, with a nut they believe only a sledgehammer can crack. The accelerating pace of criminalisation has proved unremitting. Justice is snowed under - and save for the odd flash of steel - have had next to no time to cast a critical eye backward over the laws Holyrood has passed, or forward, pursuing its own agenda distinct from the Scottish Government's legislative programme. This is not desirable.

But how to distinguish the two committees proposed? Today's report is hazy, and the Westminster parallel prayed in aid isn't particularly helpful here. Keith Vaz's select committee traipses after Theresa May's Home Office, while the Commons Justice Committee chases Michael Gove. There are obvious policy overlaps between these two UK departments' activities, but from a quick look at their current agenda, the home affairs brief focusses almost entirely on reserved matters which remain outwith Holyrood's ken: drugs, immigration, terrorism. 

Between 2001 and 2007, MSPs formed two justice committees, with identical remits, without demarcating any special areas of focus, one from the other. This was daft, providing no opportunity to build up expertise across the policy brief, and no compensating rational divisions of the committees' functions. Reprising this approach in the next session would be a mistake. But if they see the wisdom in today's recommendation, how should MSPs proceed in the next session?

Perhaps the most obvious, wisest and most coherent way of distinguishing between the two committees would be to give one a criminal justice lead, and to proccupy the other with civil themes. Police, prisons, prosecutors and the criminal law on one hand, legal aid, human rights, tenants' rights, and defamation reform on the other. At times this session, a preoccupation with the former has felt like it has crowded out that latter. I grant you, you can't - shouldn't - look at either criminal or civil justice in isolation. Some topics cut across both branches of law, and its professionals and institutions. But a flexible but clear division of functions could only help setting the committees' hopefully more autonomous investigative agenda. Good call.

15 January 2016

EVEL is milquetoast

Back in October, I had a bit of a rant. I was fed up: fed up of some of the nonsense being peddled about the Tories' feeble new EVEL rules. With the final Commons vote on the England-only Housing Bill this week, the guffstorm surged back into life. Part of me is sympathetic. The changes to Parliament's standing orders which give effect to the principle of "English votes for English laws" are complicated. To understand how the Commons rules have been tweaked, you also have to understand how parliament ordinarily scrutinises legislation, the stages and processes. 

Most folk - understandably - don't. And the gulf left between appearances and reality has been filled with the most tedious kinds of grievance-seeking and exaggeration, gleefully encouraged by certain members of the SNP parliamentary delegation. In fairness to Pete Wishart, his speech on Tueday focussed more on the principle of the thing than the detail, arguing that there should not be "two classes" of members of parliament in a single House. This isn't an argument I can get particularly het up about, but fair play. Pete makes his case.

But there remains a strange tendency - a strange desire, even - wildly to overstate the comparatively trivial restrictions on Scottish MPs' voting rights which the new EVEL rules represent. Pete depicts the scene with characterstic vigour. "Even if I wanted a say in this Bill, I would be barred from doing so", he says:

"I am not allowed to vote on this. I am not even allowed to call a Division, and if I attempted to do so, you would quite rightly rule me out of order, Mrs Laing, according to the standards of the House. If I were to vote in the Division I have no idea what would happen. I presume that the Serjeant at Arms would come chasing after me with his little sword, telling me that I cannot participate in this vote, and he would chase me out. That is what he should do; that is what his job would be."

Listening to this rhetoric, you could be forgiven for thinking that EVEL cuts Mr Wishart out of the loop altogether; that he is permitted no vote and no voice whatever on a Bill designated as England only. But this depiction - however colourful - is wildly misleading. I tried to explain why in October's blog.  I thought I'd give it another shot today. 

In the Commons, the scrutiny of Bills goes through a number of stages, or "readings" in parliament's preferred phrase. The first reading is a bit of a formality. A Bill is presented to parliament, without a vote and without debate. Under the new EVEL rules, it is at this stage that the Speaker will decide whether or not the legislation - or bits of it - relate only to England, or England and Wales and so on. Let's say the hypothetical Bill we've introduced seeks to change the rules on funding university tuition, introducing yet another fee for students studying in English higher education institutions on top of the current system of debts and loans. Holyrood enjoys legislative competence over the issue. This is a classic EVEL question, but it is also one you might expect Scottish MPs to feel strongly about. 

What influence would they be able to exert in the Commons? Would they be able to participate in parliamentary process at all? Listening to shriller outriders, you could be forgiven for thinking Scottish MPs had been all but expelled from the chamber. For reasons which will shortly become clear, this is a nonsense. Indeed, if you haven't already aquainted yourself with the detail of the rules, you may find yourself surprised at the sheer gutlessness of the Tories' restrictions on the voting rights of Scottish MPs. 

After the formality of the first reading, the second is when things really begin to kick off.  MPs debate the general principles of the legislation. Sticking with our hypothetical example, would EVEL bar Scottish MPs from participating and voting in the second reading debate, sticking up for students, smiting for justice? Not a bit of it. They could gnaw away at the general principles of this English only legislation as vigorously as their colleagues from Cumbria or Kent. And having howled their discontent, they're entitled troop through the lobbies en masse to vote down the England-only education Bill.

Only at the Committee stage would EVEL begin to bite at all. If a whole-UK majority supports the Bill's general principles, it proceeds to committee, for scrutiny and amendment. Under EVEL, an English Bill will only be scrutinised in detail by MPs representing constituencies south of the Tweed. These MPs will produce a report on their findings, which brings us to the next stage in parliamentary procedure - the so-called "report stage" - where MPs contemplate the work of their colleagues and consider further amendments to the law. 

Once again, no robust serjeant at arms need be kept at hand to gag Mr Wishart, as Scottish MPs will be quite free at this stage to participate in, vote upon and lodge amendments to our hypothetical, England-only education Bill. You might expect a full-blooded "banishment" to be more effective in limiting the influence and silencing the voices of Scottish parliamentarians, but hey ho. 

Supported by the government's majority, the Bill sails through report stage. Now we come to the nub of Grayling's rules. EVEL introduces a new procedure, by which English MPs are invited to "consent" to the proposed clauses. Scottish MPs are, understandably, not permitted to vote at this stage. If a majority of English parliamentarians are in favour of the new student fees, MPs from all parts of Britain then participate in the final vote on whether to accept or reject the proposals at Third Reading. But if the majority of English MPs did not support the proposals, they fail. They're vetoed.

The key point is this: all MPs, from every corner of the United Kingdom, will retain the last word  on whether England-only laws reach the statute book. Scottish MPs retain their votes. The SNP delegation could have voted on the Housing and Planning Bill this week. They chose not to. But if the Scottish delegation can muster sufficient allies from the rest of the country, the Bill will fall despite the approval extended to it by the majority of English MPs. Notice: the attitude of English MPs is decisive only in a negative sense. They can veto England-only laws they don't like, but they cannot insist that England-only laws they approve of are passed. This is how the plans are intended to operate. 

Mr Wishart describes this as Scottish MPs being banned from the Commons; barred, banished, exiled. He talks of wounded feeling, and of symbolism. Fair dos. Symbolism is important. But symbolism doesn't change the rules. And symbolism doesn't transform feeble restrictions into mighty oppressions. EVEL remains what it was in October: milquetoast.

12 January 2016

RIPA: Police Scotland's whoops apocalypse

On the 25th of March 2015, a new code of practice on the use of Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act came into force. RIPA, as it tends to be known, sets out the procedures and authorisations which public authorities - including Police Scotland - must employ if they want to intercept telecommunications, tap phones, or gain access to what is called communications data. Who owns this mobile phone? What numbers has it been calling? What telephone networks has the device being connecting to? What movements has its owner been making? This can be invaluable information in the detection of crime and terrorism, but it also throws up challenges when it comes to journalists' sources. 

The European Court on Human Rights regards the protection of journalists' sources as a critical aspect of Article 10's protection of free expression in a democratic society. To dig up journalists' sources, public authorities must show an overriding public interest. But imagine you are a curious police force, which wants to know where a troublesome hack is getting his information from. What do you do? The temptation is obvious. Identify the hack's mobile phone number. Dredge his communications data to find out who he has been blethering to. Trace the numbers back, and you may identify his sources, without anything so awkward as interrogating the journalist in question. Indeed, the hack whose sources have been traced in this scenario almost certainly has no idea what the hypothetical police force has been up to.

In an effort to control the behaviour of police forces, the new March 2015 code made serious changes. The amended code is a fairly long document -- but the sections on the additional protection which would be extended to journalists' sources seems crystal clear to me. It is worth underlining too: draft versions of this new code was laid before parliament at the beginning of March, and the issue of accessing journalists' communications data was repeatedly highlighted in the media. The changes were sprung upon nobody, including Police Scotland. So what does the new code say? And what did it change? It provided that in future:

Where an application is intended to determine the source of journalistic information, there must therefore be an overriding requirement in the public interest, and the guidance at paragraphs 3.78–3.24 should be followed.

Paragraph 3.78 summarises this - I should have thought - absolutely clearly. Here's what it says:

3.78. In the specific case of an application for communications data, which is made in order to identify a journalist’s source, and until such time as there is specific legislation to provide judicial authorisation for such applications ... law enforcement agencies in Scotland must use the appropriate legislation or common law powers to ensure judicial authorisation for communications data applications to determine journalistic sources

Got that? Comprehensible? This isn't a technical, jargon-laden text. It isn't a knotty section of a long and complex statute. It sets out the rule perfectly clearly when it comes to accessing data on a journalist's sources. Mystifyingly, Police Scotland conspired to "misinterpret" this new, crystal clear provision. Officers did what you might expect: secured access to several sources of communications data without seeking judicial authorisation of any kind. In November 2015, the Interception of Communications Commissioner concluded that Police Scotland had "recklessly" failed to follow the Code. "Reckless", that is, rather than "wilful". Police officers hadn't deliberately ignored the requirements of the new Code. They'd been negligent.

The official line from senior police officers is that the senior responsible officer regrettably "misinterpreted" the new rules. And today, Assistant Chief Constable Ruaraidh Nicolson appeared before Holyrood's Justice Committee in what seems likely to prove an abortive attempt to allay MSPs' fears about Police Scotland's behaviour here. It wasn't a particularly assured performance by the Assistant Chief, but for me, the critical question which remains outstanding is this. You've read the new code. You've seen its short compass. I bet you've understood it too. It makes it plain that judicial authorisation is necessary, if a police force - any police force - proposes to hunt down communications data on a journalist's sources. Scotland even warrants a special mention in paragraph 3.78 of the Code, for criven's sake.

How is it, therefore, that a senior and experienced officer in Police Scotland failed properly to understand this simple-simple new requirement? A "mistake", they say. A "misinterpretation". But I'm at loss as to how one could "misinterpret" this straightfoward text and conclude that judicial consent was, in fact, not necessary. It stretches credulity. After the Assistant Chief Constable's appearance before parliament today, I remain at a loss. Senior officers offer contrition, but their explanations remain garbled and unclear. And the stooshie rumbles on.

2 January 2016


I once knew a woman who tried to be all sweetness. In word and thought and deed, she hoped the world would believe she lived her life according to the motto: “I have a heart, blessed and cursed, with the inability to feel hatred or anger,” with never a bad word uttered, and never a black thought contemplated. 

She wanted not only to turn a sceptical eye inwards, to interrogate her own worst impulses towards jealousy, cowardice, heartlessness, cruelty – her ambitions were more vaulting than that. She sought to extirpate even these impulses utterly, or at least have others believe that her blemishless generosity of spirit comprehended them not. A being of light, and no darkness. But being human, and not a plaster saint, being motley and mortal, this excision failed. In the secret and disavowed terrain of her small-heartedness and her malice, thoughts like poisonous toadstools multiplied. Jealousy. Bitterness. And ultimately, she disintegrated. Pitching for perfection, she brewed a vinegar bottle in her own breast. 

I thought our candidate for sainthood was a good deal worse than many decent sinners I have known. They understood, as she did not, that we are all of us creatures of shade as well as light. Our erratic impulses may be kindly as well as crooked. You needn’t be in thrall to the bleaker portions of your personality, but only an idiot tries to efface them. 

In my bones, I am not a nice person. Most Tickells have vein of ice cutting through them, somewhere. One of the more admirable traits in Scottish culture is our fondness for sparkling cruelty, and the cutting remark well-administered to a worthy object of scorn, with a twinkle in either eye. We don’t disavow our shadows. But as I’ve grown more ancient, I’ve become less cynical, less negative, less inclined towards the detracting remark. 

In my late teens and early twenties, I was, I think, frequently insufferable: sardonic, knowing, condescending, unconstructive. Swaying the brittle swagger. Anxiety masked – poorly – by scorn. Sometimes needlessly cruel. Often over-estimating the solidity of the people and ideas I trained my enervating attention upon. There isn’t much to be proud of. But you should forgive yourself and others your youth, and theirs. You learn, they learn, you both change. 

I owe a lot to teaching other people to clarifying my values. It now seems to me far more important to think with a different vocabulary. Fostering, growing, encouraging – and above all, striving to understand. I do wonder if 2016 is the year in which we are all of us – collectively – ought to reckon in a more sober, thoughtful, playful and basically kind way with the strong feelings which our recent politics have unleashed on all sides. 

We don’t need saints. We don’t need to blot out our unkind feelings. We don’t need worthy lessons from hearts, blessed and cursed with the inability to feel hatred or anger. But I wonder if we can’t respond to our current political and emotional predicaments in Scotland with a more human face in the coming year. With more bravery. And with a kinder, deeper, more surely rooted confidence too.