Ian Bell, the award-winning Herald and Sunday Herald writer and columnist, died last week aged 59. Here are excerpts from 10 of his finest pieces of writing. 

On Hilary Benn's speech

(The dismantling of Hilary Benn's empty war rhetoric, December 6, 2015)

It isn’t often that a rousing speech on socialist internationalism is rewarded with a full transcript in the Spectator. In fact, it never happens. The Tory Party’s newsletter is funny like that.

Last Wednesday night, nevertheless, Hilary Benn had barely finished opposing the Government by agreeing with them than his every word was up on the Speccie website. If you hadn’t heard the Shadow Foreign Secretary speak, you might have thought the journal was making a satirical point. Instead, it was joining general adulation. 

Benn was applauded after saying not a word – not one – about what should be done if IS does not succumb even after every last strategic and diplomatic domino falls as the coalition desires. For how long should bombing continue? Benn didn’t say. Will doing our bit in the name of solidarity and national security lead him to support the use of UK ground troops if there is an atrocity at home? Benn didn’t say.

The great, acclaimed speech managed to say very little. Like all the bombers, its author avoided the connection between war and domestic security. He did not explain why, having been wrong about three previous interventions, he had a remote chance of being right on this occasion. He did not spare much of his passion on the risk of civilian casualties, despite all we know of Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya.

In which circumstances would Hilary Benn say “Enough” and call for the UK to stand, as he would have it, aside? If the answer is that he would never utter the word, the shadow minister had a duty to tell us what he has in mind, home and abroad, to answer for such a failure. After all, his flimsy, culpable rhetoric will have helped to make it happen.

On the referendum, one year on 

(How the referendum changed us, September 13, 2015)

THE first jump from the high board is the hardest. It's a long, slow way up and a long, quick way down. You step off and there's nothing underfoot. You step off and suddenly the world is unrecognisable. You don't know if this will end badly or well.

Next time up: not so hard. Next time, if you've quelled your fears, you can see why so many others have made this jump. Each one of them would do it again. The board wasn't so high. The unknown becomes known the minute you take a step forward.

The short year since the end of Scotland's long referendum has been busy. There has been the small matter of a political world turned upside down. The statistics - votes, affiliations, opinion polls - have been remarkable. They have been doubly significant because they have come like derisive retorts in the aftermath of a defeat.

If we could live off theories to explain it, we wouldn't go hungry. The historical decline of Labour in Scotland, or of all the old European centre-left parties; the rise of "populism", or the rise of nationalism; the outrage against austerity and pillage; a universal disgust with establishments, elites and tales told to frighten children: all of that and more is offered.

For our part, we know one thing above all. It's the fact that demands the theories: Scotland has changed utterly in a year. The country has altered. The way it looks at itself is different. We know how to jump.

On Nicola Sturgeon

(Salmond was the SNP's second-best leader. In Sturgeon, a new kind of Scottish nationalism is stalking the poor old United Kingdom, April 26, 2015)

There's the trick. Sturgeon does ordinary to an extraordinary degree. She's just Nicola. She deflects all the media bullets with her magic cloak of ... Real and Believable. Her actual background is a life lived in the discipline of party. But when you see the magic flow, when you see the trick that is no trick, you believe in the person. Then you have the choice: can some extraordinary percentage of a country's hope and belief exist within a single person?

Of course not. The whole point about a conjuring act is that the audience has to join in. They have to say: "Our Nicola, our country, our belief in ourselves." But when the usual stoats and weasels then turn up to demand equal rights for another kind of conjuring, you might want a Nicola to ask, in a familiar voice, what they have up their tattered sleeves. Then, only then, can you decide what to believe.

In the end, it's not the tricks of rhetoric or the staging, but the need to believe that a person can be true to statements made. It trumps stagecraft. All of Nicola Sturgeon's enemies are trying now to work out how she's "getting away with it". Perhaps - let me suggest - because she is trusted; perhaps because people need desperately to trust; perhaps because the reasons for trust have been so eroded. Trust baffles those who like tricks.

What matters is that a new kind of Scottish nationalism is stalking the poor old United Kingdom, and that a new kind of SNP leader, no one's pupil, is supremely relaxed about the fact and its consequences. She has been a woman in politics all her life. Each part of that sentence is another big deal, for better or worse. I'd add that the First Minister is always polite while taking no lip.

Charismatic politicians come along. Quite often, they let you down. The list of Clintons, JFKs, Obamas and the like should be warning enough for any little country. The tricks are just tricks. But scaring the hell out of the inept mountebanks next door while helping your own voters to believe in a different future isn't bad, for now.

On a referendum exchange between father and son

(Dear young Scotland, thank you for daring to believe… September 21, 2014)

When the story of a long night was as good as done, one of those who had lost the most sent me a text message. He would mourn for a day, he said, and then get back to work. He did not elaborate.

There was no need. The exchanges between a father and son - between a Scottish father and son, especially - often become a kind of rough shorthand. I knew what he meant. He had known that I would know. The fancy version of his message might have run: "We lost; we try again; we don't give up; we have no right to give up." Busy, I simply responded: "Exactly."

A couple of weeks before the vote, I tried his patience with still another ancient anecdote. I had offered the weary tale a few times to those who were turning the Yes campaign into a phenomenon. It was the one about sitting up to see Thatcher re-elected, time after time, and how things felt on those mornings after.

The idea was simply to say: "You can lose, you know. You can lose and find it impossible to understand how losing happened, how anyone voted for that, or how you were outnumbered by any supposed adults who made such a choice. But it happens."

For much of the campaign I worried, now and then, about how the Yes movement might cope with defeat. Self-belief exacts a price. For those who have never felt the loss, reality comes in hard and collects, especially when it is fenced around with the choices of the timid, the fearful and the willingly deceived. As night fell into cold dawn last week, people I care about were hard to console. But stuff happens.

Those younger than me can make their choices. I can only report that the Yes movement is without precedent in my lifetime.

On political statements at the Commonwealth Games

(Why sports can't pretend to be above politics, August 18, 2013)

The value placed on an Olympics or a World Cup can be judged simply by the obscene amounts governments are prepared to spend on playing host to a few weeks of running around. Even the worst regimes thirst for approval. They are wounded when the world's approval is withheld. But boycotts and the like have a more precise purpose: they penetrate the fog of propaganda and lies for the citizens of pariah nations. When the sports fixtures stopped, the truth could not longer be hidden from white South Africans. Contrary to any claims made by the Pretoria regime, they had no friends and allies in the world.

Perversely, the failure to boycott can have the opposite effect. The fact that the Beijing Olympics passed off with barely a whimper of complaint internationally allowed China's rulers to pretend to their subjects that their rule was legitimate, accepted and admired by audiences everywhere. Boycotts are a way of telling the truth in simple language. Glasgow cannot shun its own games, but it can speak the truth to its guests. You could say, in fact, that it has an obligation to do so.

If part of the purpose of a major international sporting event is to advertise the virtues and values of the host nation, silence about the things that matter ought to be unthinkable. It might not end persecution. for a single gay person. It will not transform attitudes overnight. But the alternative, as the SFA demonstrated in 1977, is a national disgrace. There are no medals for that.

On class

(Class war exists – and guess who’s winning? October 14, 2012)

So how do you persuade those who had already been paying up to pay up again? One way or another, the banking crisis has put a trillion-pound hole in Britain's accounts. The class who put themselves in charge of capital, labour and ordinary lives almost brought down their own system by refusing to be content with giant salaries and mere compound interest. So how to get the suckers – you may prefer citizens – to pick up the bill?

First, tell them it was their fault. You got a kitchen on credit or voted to have a hospital built? You brought down Lehman Brothers. Then tell them there is no alternative to a bracing round of austerity, unemployment, wage and spending cuts. We – you must not forget to say – are all in this together. Tell them it would be wrong and foolish to tax wealth, but vital to sort out welfare scroungers. Say this: "It's your money those work-shy con artists are taking. Let us get it back for you. In the national interest, of course."

Above all, deprecate any mention of class. Deprecate it mightily. Deprecate it until you are a fetching blue in the face. Tell them class describes nothing important. Tell them it's a mean-spirited distraction for an aspiration nation full of strivers. The squeezed middle hauling on its bootstraps is no different, you must say, from those who "happen" to possess unearned wealth.

What sort of person isn't a striver? Either a sponger or an envious type who doesn't want – you can forget logic at this point – privilege for all. That type wants only class war.

Marx had a lot to say about class conflict. While he neglected to recommend specific weapons and tactics – baseball bats, garden implements, mockery? – he did hold it to be inevitable.

He also said, somewhat famously, that the "history of all hitherto existing society" was the history of struggles between classes. For a Coalition Government stuffed with rentier toff millionaires, this is inconvenient. It must be why David Cameron never asks me to help with his speeches.

On Bob Dylan’s China tour

(How does it feel in China, Bob? October 4, 2011)

My soft spot for Bob Dylan could be mistaken, most years, for a bruise. He's one of two talents in the last 100 years that I cannot - the other was a painter - explain. I can tell you why 'New Danville Girl' and 'Brownsville Girl' are so very different.

I can talk about the blues and the rebellions of fettered folk. I can tell you why he isn't as bad in poetry as those real, dull, invented poets. I can talk about Bob Dylan, politics - and the rest - until a strayed milking cow comes home.

The only Bob Dylan I don't understand is the one who agrees to be censored. These days, he doesn't need the money - Aultmore was £2.2 million, five years back. With his catalogue, a certain boldness is allowed.

The point in dismissing politics is to grant freedom from every politician.

Had you happened to be called Dylan, and written "Chimes of Freedom", and then found yourself in the middle of TotalitarianCentral, it might resonate.

BUT no. Instead, a silence. Instead, he allowed those ancient Chinese inherited party goons to tell him what he may and may not sing. In fact, having abandoned a tour last year, Dylan just appeared at the Worker's Gymnasium - fully one half of the Marxist problem - in Beijing, with 5000 "fans", and with "approved content".

On the Iraq war

(Iraq: not forgiven, not forgotten, April 18 2010)

Time passes inexorably; the future presses in; yet some persist in the futile attempt to inhabit the past. Think of Ireland. Think of Serbs, Boers, English tabloid editors, or those southern conservative Americans still finding racism's excuse in the myth of the Confederacy.

But slates are never wiped clean.

The past informs the present. The uses made of history, and the uses refused, are what matter. No-one makes the preposterous claim that modern Germans bear any guilt for the Holocaust. But what would we make of an overtly Nazi party overthrowing German law and standing for election today? What do we make of the Vatican's determination to insulate the present pope from the crimes of the past? There are collective legacies, institutional inheritances, and they are not resolved by "moving on". That's true denial.

Besides, Britain is far from being done with Iraq and its successor war. Last year the National Association of Probation Officers estimated that there are 20,000 former service personnel caught up in the justice system, with 8,500 imprisoned. The Veterans in Prison Association, a charity, claims that the Ministry of Defence is failing in its duty towards these people, despite the fact that half of them, by one estimate, suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder or depression.

Ripples spread. Such people have families, friends, children. The same is obviously true, and inescapably true in army towns, of the hundreds killed and thousands maimed who will no longer stride forward into happy forgetfulness with Lord Kinnock. Afghanistan is adding new chapters to the miserable tale with each passing week.

The past has an inconvenient quality. It is not erased just because it is forgotten.

And it does not offer pardons on demand.

On the SNP 2007 win

(The feelgood factor, September 16 2007)

You could easily argue, of course, that Salmond hasn't done much yet, though he would beg to differ. You could say that what has swept the nation is a mere honeymoon effect, or an outbreak of wishful thinking. It is a first minister's job to believe that all is for the best in this, the best of all small countries in the world. But even that laboured slogan has been discarded. For publicity purposes, Scotland is now "a breath of fresh air". That sounds right. [...]

A decade or so ago the possibility that optimism and the SNP might coincide would have had captains of industry and commerce threatening to book helicopter flights to Berwick and all points south. Instead - those anecdotes again - they are reported as reassured, when not actively impressed, by the government's hopes for repatriated economic power, cuts in corporation tax, and an assault on lamentable growth rates.

Mere straws in the wind, you may say, and you would be right. The jury should stay out, you will add, and that would be sensible. Problems? Gordon Brown's Treasury is about to squeeze Salmond (and the rest of Britain) for cash, for one thing. Scotland's health remains, in the parlance, diabolical, for another. Parts of our infrastructure are a joke; the financing of higher education is a problem waiting to happen and the energy debate has yet to make contact with reality.

I could go on. Most of us could. But the interim report would still say that reasons to be cheerful about Scotland are growing in number while reasons for the old dolefulness diminish.

On James Connolly, his distant relative

(How would our James feel about today’s brothers’ in arms? March 18, 2001)

Twenty years ago Bobby Sands, MP and terrorist, was on the 17th day of a 65-day hunger strike. He was the first of 10 men who starved themselves to death that year in an attempt to win political status for Republican prisoners from an intransigent Margaret Thatcher. I remember thinking at the time: "What would James have made of this?"

Seventeen years pass. I find myself back in Omagh, County Tyrone. It is early evening and the last of the sun is giving the hotel lounge a ruddy glow as it begins to fill with people. They are each dressed in their best - the president of the United States has come to call - and many are smiling. Among them, nevertheless, are children still in wheelchairs, adults with crutches, a solicitous woman whose face and arms are speckled still with the dark, livid marks left by flying glass. Again I find myself thinking: "What would James have made of this?"

It's an odd sort of thought, for it does not always produce the same answer, yet James, dead these 85 years, deserves the question. If any one man could be said to have inaugurated Ireland's wars in the 20th century, he was that man. In the wake of St Patrick's Day, with the Real IRA having displayed its virility with a bomb at the BBC, and with the Provisionals' guns not yet beyond use, it is worth inquiring of James Connolly's shade what the wars have meant and what, if anything, they have achieved.

I have my reasons. He was my great grandfather's younger brother, born in the Edinburgh slums in 1868, at work at the age of 10, and educated entirely by his own efforts.