Saturday, July 17, 2010

Should Kenny MacAskill submit to American imperial pretensions?

I'm not quite sure how to react to the suggestions in The Scotsman that Kenny MacAskill could be summoned before the US Senate committee that is about to conduct a forensic (ahem) probe into the decision to release the man convicted of the Lockerbie bombing. On the one hand, it smacks of the depressingly familiar American imperial presumptions - that all must defer towards that country's institutions as the world's ultimate authority, and that even democratically-elected politicians from other countries must submit themselves for questioning or censure if their actions happen to conflict with American sensibilities. The worst example of this breathtaking arrogance was exhibited last year by FBI director Robert Mueller in his shameful, self-indulgent and (to put it mildly) deeply unprofessional rant in a letter to MacAskill, which the Scottish government managed to dismiss with considerably more grace and good manners than it deserved.

But the flipside of the equation is that it would be rather timely to see a member of the Scottish government have the chance in an open hearing to blow apart some of the fantasies the US senators have been peddling. Alex Massie, in the latest installment of his brilliant commentary on the Megrahi affair, has identified the newest batch of what George Galloway might call "schoolboy howlers" committed by US senators -

"Unfortunately their request is predicated upon nonsense and, for that matter, riddled with errors. Among them:

1. No "Scottish court" ordered that Megrahi be released. It was a matter for the Justice Secretary and him alone.

2. The prognosis given by Karel Sikora and the other doctors paid by the Libyan government played no part in MacAskill's decision. He never saw Sikora's report. The decision was made on the basis of reports compiled by Dr Andrew Fraser, the senior doctor in the Scottish Prison Service. These drew on the findings of at least two other independent consultants.

3. If BP really was lobbying the British government for Megrahi's "release" it was lobbying the wrong people since the British government did not have competence in this matter. Again, and evidently this still needs to be spelt out, London could no more approve Megrahi's release than could Timbuktu."

The only drawback is that, if MacAskill appears before the committee, he probably won't confront the senators with the most uncomfortable truth of all - that they should drop this pathetic self-righteous smokescreen, and instead conduct a more illuminating investigation into the strong suspicions that their own country's authorities tampered with evidence and helped to frame both Megrahi and the state of Libya. Sadly, the Justice Secretary has felt honourbound to profess his absolute belief on Megrahi's guilt, and so can't say any of that. Come to think of it, I'd quite like to see Christine Grahame summoned...

Friday, July 16, 2010

Cameron gives corpse of respect agenda a good kicking

What does David Cameron think he's doing ordering (for presumably he must have done) the British Ambassador in Washington to call the release of Megrahi a "mistake"? It was perfectly legitimate - albeit deeply misguided - for Cameron as leader of the Conservative party to express a critical view on the quasi-judicial decision of a member of the Scottish government. But for the official representative of the United Kingdom to be trashing the proper authorities of a part of the United Kingdom who followed due process to the letter is...well, bang out of order. Indeed, it's worse than that - I'd guess the impression it's intended to convey to an American audience is that the new UK government is in some way distancing itself from a "mistake" made by its own predecessors. Can there be anything more disrespectful than fuelling the (rather popular) fiction that the Scottish government either a) does not meaningfully exist, or b) dutifully takes its cue from London on such a grown-up matter as this?

As I understand it, part of the purpose of the "respect agenda" was to demonstrate to Scots that devolution works really well and that there is no need to move beyond it. Instead, Cameron has just helpfully identified a massive deficiency in the devolved settlement that only independence can possibly remedy - namely that our supposed "representatives" in foreign capitals are not merely unable to speak directly on our behalf, but are apparently going to be specifically instructed to undermine us in certain circumstances. Can you imagine the American ambassador in London criticising, say, the decision of the governor of Texas to put a British citizen to death, even if that governor was an ideological opponent of the incumbent president? If it's beneath the dignity of the UK government to allow its ambassador to defend the Scottish administration on a decision that was wholly within its own competence, then all he should have been told to do is explain that Megrahi's release was solely for the Scottish authorities to adjudicate upon, and therefore wasn't a matter for the British government or its representatives to express a view on.

One man's 'reform'...

It was rather satisfying watching Newsnight Scotland tonight, with Lorraine Davidson and Michael Fry (both of whom I'd disagree with on many issues) doing a grand job of exposing the utterly bogus arguments that underlie this whole 'Devolution Distraction' wheeze. Tom Miers repeatedly assured us that his report was not a right-wing Trojan Horse, but was merely about making the case for 'reform', 'progress', and 'radicalism' in place of the 'conservatism' that has held sway in Scotland since devolution. But when Davidson presented him with a whole list of Holyrood's most radical innovations over the last eleven years - the smoking ban, free care for the elderly, abolition of tuition fees - all he had to offer was a blank look. The game was well and truly given away - for Miers, only right-wing radicalism counts as the real thing, and as Davidson pointed out, the value of self-government lies every bit as much in protecting ourselves from the 'reforms' we don't want as in implementing the ones we do.

One thing that has particularly irritated me about Miers' blitz of publicity in recent days is the way in which he's used smoke-and-mirror tactics to try to paint the reforms he's most interested in pursuing as non-ideological. He points out, for instance, that many of them originate in "social democratic countries". But what does that actually mean? I'm not aware of any country in western Europe that enshrines 'social democracy' in its constitution - except perhaps Portugal, but even there it's a meaningless token. Miers, I imagine, is to a large extent thinking of examples like the Swedish free schools model, which Michael Gove is now so zealously promoting in England. And, yes, Sweden does indeed have a reputation as being generally a social democratic country. Just one snag, though - free schools were in fact introduced during one of the rare periods of right-wing rule, and the leader of the Social Democrats Mona Sahlin has warned us in strong terms about the dangers of establishing them in this country.

Adventures in futility

Audience member on tonight's Question Time -

"Do we have to wait for Tony Blair's memoirs to find out the real truth?"

If ever there was such a thing as a futile wait...

My other observation is that Nick Ferrari seems to be mounting a serious challenge for David Starkey's 'Most Irritating Question Time Panellist' title. But at least he finds himself amusing.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

False choice of the week

I've always had very mixed views about Tommy Sheridan, but he certainly spoke for me and millions of others when he responded to an infamous false choice in the following simple terms -

"I'm not with the terrorists, and I'm not with George W Bush either."

The false choice of this week appears to be - are you with the tens of thousands of people on Facebook who apparently believe that Raoul Moat is somehow "a legend", or are you with David Cameron, who believes that Moat was "a callous murderer, full stop, end of story"? My answer is neither. There is no such thing as a three word summary that can be regarded as the "end of story" for any complex human being, no matter how wicked his actions. But I suppose for many politicians a three-word soundbite will do for just about any occasion.

What is it with people? Why do we have this unquenchable urge to characterise anyone who commits a serious crime as either a hero or an irredeemably evil monster (usually the latter)? Indeed, it's not uncommon to hear about criminals self-righteously "taking the law into their own hands" when sharing a prison with a certain type of serious offender - can't they spot that there's just a slight touch of irony there? In the case of Moat, they would almost certainly have gone to the other extreme and welcomed him as a hero. Why? Because he had a vendetta against the police and his girlfriend, something they could easily identify with. It doesn't matter that in lashing out he took and wrecked the lives of innocents - simply because they could understand the impulse, the actions became heroic, regardless of their devastating consequences. I hope that the idiots who've joined Moat's tribute page on Facebook recognise that they've now sacrificed any trace of credibility the next time they feel like pontificating about how the likes of Maxine Carr - someone who behaved appallingly and heartlessly but did not, unlike Moat, actually take a life - should "rot in hell".

The truth is that Moat's actions were a manifestation of his own weaknesses, and an inability to rationalise his rage - a peculiar type of "heroism" for anyone to fawn over. Ironically, we now discover he was aware of his problems on some rudimentary level, and asked to see a psychiatrist. I'm not suggesting for a moment that he wasn't responsible for his own wicked actions and that he shouldn't have been severely punished for them had he lived, but I am saying that his actions were not his whole being, as the Prime Minister seems to believe. I think we like to demonise certain people and regard them as utterly beyond redemption mainly because we're frightened by the fact that, deep down, we recognise that they are not as different from us as we'd care to imagine, and that we all started life with some kind of potential for evil within us - had circumstances provided the trigger. We have to turn serious criminals into "inhuman" non-persons to convince ourselves that isn't really the case.

Or, occasionally, we can turn them into "legends" and bizarrely lionise the end product of their mental illness. Either course is equally irrational. Indeed, such a black-and-white worldview makes it extremely hard for someone like Moat to stop once they've started - a hero has no reason to stop doing exactly what he's doing, whereas a "monster" knows he's been left with no conceivable way of reconciling himself with the world, and feels he might as well go out with a bang.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

The real 'distraction' is the argument against Scottish self-government

There are two ubiquitous pieces of political rhetoric that I utterly detest. (Come to think of it, I'm sure there are hundreds - but, as of this evening, two in particular spring to mind.) The first is the endless appeal to the hearts and minds of "decent, hard-working families". It's a particular fixation of Labour's, of course, but it has to be conceded that the idiotic phrase has occasionally been known to pass Nationalist lips. The obvious implication of it is that the words "decent" and "hard-working" are synonymous - but they're not. I gather Hitler had quite a punishing schedule most days. Actually, if anyone ever starts a political party specifically for the decent-but-a-bit-lazy people in this country, I'd fancy it to do rather well.

The other one is "let's get on with more important issues, no-one talks about this down at the Dog and Duck". Anyone who says that might just as well wear a T-shirt that reads "I haven't really got a valid argument against this reform, but could we please, please, please not do it anyway?". The latest depressing example is Neil O'Brien's article in the Telegraph suggesting - rather unconvincingly - that the Scottish Parliament has all the powers it could ever possibly need to address the country's problems (you'd think we were practically a sovereign nation the way he talks) and that we should get on with doing so instead of "blethering" about the constitution. The trouble is, it's not too hard to imagine O'Brien in the pre-devolution days arguing that Scotland already had all the powers it could ever need back then - after all, who needed the pointless upheaval the Scottish Constitutional Convention were proposing when we had our great champion Michael Forsyth fighting our corner every step of the way at the Scottish Office? (Don't snigger, the Tories actually used to say that sort of thing.) But, there again, if O'Brien had been around circa 1885, he'd probably have been telling us that the establishment of the post of Scottish Secretary was an unnecessary distraction from the real business of governing, with the Home Office and the Lord Advocate doing such a cracking job on our behalf.

I suppose what I'm saying is that, if you want to argue the case against Scottish self-government, that's fine - but do so honestly, give your real reasons, and let people make up their minds on that basis. If you're so scared your case wouldn't stand up to that kind of scrutiny, it's more than possible you were on the wrong side of the argument in the first place.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

One word, Mr McTernan : desperate

I've heard some desperate excuses for New Labour's failures in office before, but John McTernan's suggestion on Newsnight Scotland that any attempt to repeal the Act of Settlement was doomed to fail because the Queen would have refused to grant Royal Assent really takes the biscuit. Let's take that insane idea literally just for a moment - if we genuinely have a hereditary monarch who still thinks she has the right on her own whim to veto legislation passed on a democratic basis by the people's representatives, then quite clearly there's an aspect of our constitution that needs to be reformed even more urgently than discrimination against Catholics. This country's (often rather tenuous) claims to be a parliamentary democracy hinge on the assumption that the Queen will never, ever veto a piece of legislation, no matter how much it troubles her conscience. I'm not a monarchist, but I seem to have considerably more faith in the Queen's absolute adherence to that vital principle than McTernan does.

There was, admittedly, a brief constitutional crisis in Belgium a few decades ago, caused by the King's unwillingness to put his pen to a law liberalising access to abortion. But instead of the politicians doing what McTernan seems to be suggesting - ie. shrugging their shoulders and saying "well, if the monarch doesn't like it then we'll just have to forget about democracy this time" - they found a simple mechanism by which the King was temporarily declared unfit to perform his duties, and someone else was able to sign the law in his place. The King's conscience remained intact.

So, nice try, John, but this "we couldnae do it, because the Queen wouldnae sign" excuse just isn't going to fly.

Monday, July 12, 2010

I don't want to become a broken record on this subject, but...

From today's Scotsman -

"The First Minister yesterday dismissed claims that holding a referendum on voting reform on the same day as the Scottish elections would save £17 million.

The claim was made by Scottish Secretary Michael Moore who said that holding the two votes at the same time would save the taxpayer money.

But Alex Salmond, who has written to the Prime Minister David Cameron demanding a rethink over the plans, said that holding the AV referendum across the UK would cost up to £100 million and that none of the main parties at Westminster supported that form of proportional representation."

If even a major newspaper still can't get its head round the elementary fact that AV is not any kind of 'form' of proportional representation, what chance have the British public got of making an informed choice, whenever the referendum is held?

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Could the greatest challenge to Calman's timidity come from Wales?

Interesting to read in yesterday's Herald the suggestion that, if the Holtham Report is implemented in full, the Welsh Assembly would all of a sudden hold more extensive fiscal powers than the Scottish Parliament is set to receive under Calman. On the face of it, this is excellent news - the detailed economic arguments over Calman would be more than superceded by any perception that we are for the first time being left behind by our Celtic cousins. The pressure to beef up the proposals would become irresistible.

However, I'm more inclined to fear that the end result of this divergence may instead be that the Welsh proposals are watered down. As we all know, the default setting in both Whitehall and the Tory party is to relinquish as little power as they can possibly justify.