Friday, October 8, 2010

McKechin's appointment leaves 'the Snarl' in the spotlight

Just about the only Shadow Cabinet appointment that was utterly predictable was Ann McKechin's as Shadow Scottish Secretary - as a very low-profile Scottish MP who somehow managed to get elected to the top team, it was a no-brainer that she would draw the short straw. The most important practical upshot is that, for the first time, Iain "the Snarl" Gray has effectively become the 'real' leader of Scottish Labour, no longer in the shadow of Jim Murphy. In principle, it's of course entirely right (and long-overdue) that the Holyrood leader should have primacy - in practice, it leaves them with a rather obvious weakness.

As for the other appointments, my instinctive reaction is disappointment that Miliband has ducked out of the choice between husband and wife for the key role of Shadow Chancellor, and appointed Alan Johnson instead - that looks very much like a sop to the Blairities, and thus a step backwards.

Cracking down on the undeserving under-threes

In his now notorious Newsnight interview a couple of nights ago, Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt explained that people were in no way being penalised for having large families, but were instead simply being asked to take "responsibility" for their own "choices", as opposed to expecting the state to finance those choices. Of course by definition the majority of people in large families - and who are thus directly affected by the new cap on household benefits - are children. So let's recap on how Hunt's logic applies to them :

1) Children choose to be born.

2) Children choose to be born into large rather than small families.

3) Children choose to be born into welfare-dependent households.

4) Children choose to have a single parent who earns £44,000 (thus disqualifying them from child benefit) rather than two parents who earn £87,000 between them.

5) Children must take full responsibility for all of these free choices, rather than expecting the taxpayer to finance them.

Well, I'm sure I speak for us all when I say - take a bow, Mr Hunt. And you too, Nick "Conscience of the Coalition" Clegg, for making it all possible. The decent, hard-working, law-abiding majority in this country have been bled dry by these wastrel toddlers for far too long. They neither work nor want.

But, alas, democracy still has its critics...

The other day, I suggested that Ian Hamilton was wrong to talk as if Scotland was an occupied country, with the need for some kind of 'revolutionary' activity to secure independence. I was of course basing my comment on the fact that every British Prime Minister since Harold Wilson has acknowledged that Scotland has a right to self-determination. In the case of Mrs Thatcher and John Major, that didn't extend to a right to choose devolution, but nevertheless those leaders did accept that the country could, if it wished, opt for full independence. So that democratic bottom line is a very long-established principle - but, depressingly, it seems there are some out there who still hanker after the antiquated notion that the sovereignty of the state trumps the sovereignty of the people.

Early this morning, in response to a trademark wind-up from my old Political Betting sparring-partner ChristinaD on the subject of David Cameron's criticism of the Megrahi release, I left a brief comment linking to my previous post. It provoked an extraordinary (and largely tangential) response from another PB poster, "HD2" - it's now on a very old thread, so I might as well respond to it here instead...

"Scotland used the Lockerbie release to snub Gordon, Westminster and the USA as the Soviet-style mindset up there meant ‘wee ek’ (sic) wanted to posture on a wider stage (poor little man).

It’s all gone horribly wrong for him, as it’s disgraced Scotland throughout the world and won no friends, anywhere."

Now, that would be leaving aside the utterly trifling figure of Nelson Mandela, who praised the decision to the skies, would it? Well, of course it would, we all know that the "International Community" (aka "Everywhere" or "The Whole Wide World") consists solely of the US and that highly select band of Britons who Mrs Thatcher used to call "sound".

"It also means England and the English have even less sympathy and tolerance for Holyrood."

Ah, yes, I think I'm starting to see where HD2 is going astray here. It's the familiar Anglocentric assumption that every decision Alex Salmond and his government make must by definition be calibrated to impact upon the English psyche in some way. So, depending on what day of the week it is, Salmond is either a malevolent genius intentionally driving hard-pressed English tax-payers to distraction in order to force them to demand an end to the Union, or alternatively he is a pitiful, cack-handed buffoon who yearns for the respect of polite London society, but fails lamentably with his every effort to win it.

The truth, of course, is rather more prosaic. Alex Salmond is primarily interested in what the Scottish electorate think of his actions, because it is the Scottish electorate alone to which he is accountable. But, oh, how HD2 longs for it to be otherwise...

"The assumption, for far too long, is that the Scots, and the Scots alone, have the right to determine their own future within the UK. That was always wrong, as it ignores the fact that, at the start of 1997 each and every person living in the UK was electorally equal, having a single MP in Westminster.

So...any putative ‘independence referendum’ for Scotland has to be carried out throughout the whole UK and not just in Scotland - which should have been the position in all devolution referenda to date."

Hmmm. A sentiment of which Abraham Lincoln would heartily approve, no doubt, but this is 2010. It wasn't that long ago that a woman needed her husband's permission to obtain a divorce - perhaps HD2 would like to turn the clock back on the right of individuals to control their own destiny, as well as the right of nations to do so? In fact, I'm starting to wonder if he thinks it would also be appropriate for residents of England (on the grounds of being "equal citizens of the UK") to be allowed to vote in elections to the devolved parliaments and assemblies - that was, after all, the de facto position prior to 1999, with the Westminster parliament (consisting of 90% non-Scottish MPs) voting regularly on Scotland-only laws.

"The logical extension to the ‘Scots only get to vote’ position is to ask where the international border should be and should every single person be able to declare themselves independent and their home a separate State?"

This last risible rejoinder is rather akin to insisting that, because newborn babies are unable to hold a pencil, we might as well forget about our commitment to the 'unattainable ideal' of universal suffrage. Of course, there's a (miniscule) grain of a serious point there - the criteria for determining which groups have a right to self-determination are rather fuzzy and subjective. But if only we could finally move on from this Victorian notion of the absolute sovereignty of existing nation states, it ought to be possible to easily remedy that problem by allowing an international body to adjudicate - and it could also be charged with ensuring that the rights of minority groups in any aspiring new nation are fully protected. But we're fortunate in Scotland that there's quite simply no credible dispute to our status - by any criteria that could conceivably be set down (long history as a distinct jurisdiction, clearly-defined boundaries) we undoubtedly qualify for self-determination if anyone does.

And to anticipate one of the predictable retorts at this point - "ah, but you don't believe in self-determination for Shetland, do you?" - well, actually, I do. I don't see the slightest grounds for believing that Shetland would want to secede from Scotland if independence occurred, but they would have every right to make that choice without hindrance.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Does anyone recall something called "the respect agenda"? Run that past me again?

David Cameron's reference to the Megrahi release in his conference speech (courtesy of the Caledonian Mercury) -

"There are some red lines which we must never cross...the sight of that man responsible for the Lockerbie bombing being set free to get a hero’s welcome in Tripoli. No. It was wrong. It undermined our standing in the world. Nothing like that must ever happen again."

Leaving aside the irritating Blair-like 'stream of consciousness' party trick of trying to make it sound as if the sheer gravity of the subject has only just struck him mid-passage, it has to be said that Cameron is moving on to very, very dangerous territory with this rhetoric. It simply isn't possible for London politicians to credibly claim that they "respect" the devolution settlement unless they also accept that decisions that they personally feel are wrong not only can happen again, but almost certainly will, and indeed should. The powers transferred under the Scotland Act were not conditional upon being used in a way consistent with arbitrary "red lines" dreamt up by a Tory leader to win cheap applause at his party conference.

Was it legitimate for Cameron to attack his political opponents for a controversial decision? Absolutely. But to suggest that it must 'never' be 'allowed' to happen again, in order to protect 'our' interests...well, that sounds suspiciously like a threat, and one rooted in the hubris of an almost colonial mindset.

Sorry, Matt - Angus MacNeil and Stewart Hosie are both in the pink!

Now that Ed Miliband has moved Labour onto the ground occupied by many Liberal Democrat members and voters (if not necessarily the current party leadership), it's encouraging to see that a conversation has started over at Liberal Democrat Voice about the possibility of ditching the coalition with the Tories before this parliament is out. Matt Gallagher raises a very interesting prospect, and one which hasn't received enough attention thus far - what will be the psychological impact if, as seems highly likely, Labour at some point make enough by-election gains to enable them (theoretically) to form a coalition with the Lib Dems without the support of the nationalist parties? If by that stage there are opinion polls showing massive disapproval ratings for the Tory/Lib Dem administration, and perhaps even majority support for an alternative coalition, the enhanced arithmetical viability of that alternative might present the Lib Dems with a severe dilemma.

However, where Gallagher's argument takes a wander off into the bizarre is his suggestion that the by-election gains Labour need to trigger this scenario would come at the expense of the SNP and Plaid Cymru, rather than the Tories. I'm not sure he's thought that one through - perhaps he was misled by the frequency of Labour/SNP by-election battles in the last parliament? Anyway, I left this comment -

"For the life of me I can’t see why Matt is thinking of by-election gains from the nationalist parties rather than the Tories. As far as the SNP are concerned Labour would only have a theoretical chance in two of the six seats, and what are the statistical chances of either of those falling vacant? Angus Brendan MacNeil and Stewart Hosie are both in the pink as far as I’m aware!

The truth is that the arithmetic for a progressive coalition is already there, because the nationalists would be happy to give it a fair wind. But, sadly, some Lib Dems were determined to promote the narrative that “the numbers simply aren’t there” in order to justify their unholy alliance with the Tories, and a number of Labour neanderthals did the same because they were so horrified by the idea of having to work with other parties. 'Purity or death' is the mantra for the likes of John Reid and Tom Harris."

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

The SNP are like Cheryl Cole : they don't need a parachute

And so, with a single press release, the SNP have put an end to one of my theories from a few weeks ago - there is clearly now no chance whatever of a full-scale coalition with the Tories after the election in May. In one sense, to rule that possibility out so unequivocally seems a trifle rash, given that it provides the most plausible route by which the SNP might be able to remain in power if they slip to second place. It's also worth pointing out that their Welsh sister party Plaid Cymru have no such bar on coalition with the Tories, and indeed came within a whisker of forming one in 2007. So the SNP have consciously made a choice they didn't have to make - they've cut away their own safety-net, and ensured they will almost certainly have to defeat Labour outright next May to hold on to power.

It's not hard to see why they've done it, though, since the election battle will to a large extent be fought over which party can best stand up for Scotland against a Tory-led government at Westminster - hence the suggestion in the press release that it's Labour who are quietly keeping their options open and might well consider a deal with the Tories. The supporting evidence cited is that there is a Labour/Tory coalition in no fewer than five of Scotland's 32 councils, and that since 2007 Labour have voted with the Tories in the Scottish Parliament more often than the SNP. Now, in the literal sense, that's a bit thin - while Labour's irrational hatred of the SNP would probably lead them instinctively to favour coalition with the Tories if that was the only way of keeping the Nationalists out (hence what's happened in the councils), they nevertheless have a fiction of anti-Tory purity to maintain to keep their own electorate onside, and that would almost certainly preclude any chance of a formal coalition with the Tories at Holyrood. As for the parliamentary voting record, it is of course much easier for opposition parties to find common cause against something than it is for any opposition party to vote with the government in favour of a specific proposal. Such statistical analyses are therefore very crude - but Labour can hardly complain about their use in this case. They have, after all, spent much of the last decade-and-a-bit using voodoo statistics to peddle the fantasy of a de facto SNP/Tory alliance, both at Holyrood and at Westminster.

Child benefit : is Clegg the new Macavity?

Liberal Democrat blogger Caron rightly expresses her irritation that the cut in child benefit was announced at the Conservative party conference, rather than to parliament. But it begs the obvious question - what did the Tories actually have to gain from doing it this way? Surely you save your conference speech 'rabbits out of the hat' for things that are actually going to be popular with the electorate? Apart from anything else, it conveniently lets the Liberal Democrats off the hook. Since the coalition was formed, the Tories have gone out of their way to ensure that the Lib Dems were fully locked into the cuts narrative, with it being left to David Laws (remember him?) to itemise the early 'savings' with ill-disguised relish. But tonight, the only questions seemingly being asked are how this Tory cut will play with the Tory-leaning electorate, and how the Tory rank-and-file feel about it.

A cynic might almost suspect that this was a deal cooked up between Clegg and Cameron - you can have your cut, but this time you can take the (initial) heat for it yourself. If so, there are of course only so many times that trick can be pulled before Clegg starts to take on an old mantle of Gordon Brown's - as this government's "Macavity".


Iain Martin on Newsnight : "the Tories have forgotten where the middle is".

Now, there are a great many reasons why abandoning universal child benefit may be extremely unwise, but one of them is not that a £45,000+ salary for an individual somehow represents a "middle income". Memo to all politicians - please feel free to "forget" things that aren't actually true. Regardless of the best efforts of right-wing hacks to "remind" you of them later on.

Monday, October 4, 2010

A whole new school of thought

Last week, BBC2 ran a two-part documentary called The Classroom Experiment, in which education expert Professor Dylan Wiliam was given carte blanche to turn the teaching methods for a single secondary school class upside down for a few weeks, to see if his radical ideas could help bridge the 'achievement gap' between the most and least able pupils. I must say that in the early stages I couldn't work out whether I was cheering him on or willing him to fall flat on his face. Although the objective was laudable (indeed it ought to be the Holy Grail of any education system) his methods seemed almost chillingly inflexible, with no regard for the different needs of individual pupils. As someone who found PE incredibly stressful, for instance, I think I can safely say that a compulsory extra session every single morning at 8.30am would not (to put it mildly) have been a net benefit. And there would surely be many shy students for whom being repeatedly put on the spot, asked to come to the front of the class, and then formulate some kind of instant answer to a question they might not even understand, would have been pure torture. The new regime just seemed to be compounding the fundamental problem that exists with most schools - that they're not so much places of learning as they are bootcamps for people who haven't actually committed a crime.

On the other hand, the overwhelming case for at least thinking something needed to be done to shake things up soon became apparent enough. A particularly bright student called Emily featured prominently in the film. Before the experiment started, she was accustomed to being one of the few class members to put their hands up to answer questions - which she would invariably, with ego-stroking effects, get right. She at one point draws a distinction between the bright students such as herself, and the "shy" ones. Tellingly, this distinction is later echoed by some of the teachers, and even once - presumably unthinkingly - by Professor Wiliam himself. Since when has the word 'shy' been interchangeable with 'stupid'? That, in a nutshell, seems to me to be the main problem with modern systems of continuous assessment which award specific grades for 'classroom participation' - to a frighteningly great extent, it simply amounts to bonus points for being naturally chatty.

Another telling incident occurred when a maths teacher first implemented Wiliam's idea of coloured 'traffic light' cups in class, giving pupils a shortcut for communicating to the teacher how well they are understanding the lesson. Displaying the green cup means everything is fine, the yellow cup means that the teacher should slow down, and red means "please stop". Soon the teacher was confronted with a sea of red. Her reaction? To express her intense annoyance with the pupils for so quickly forgetting what she had taught them. This really struck a nerve with me - I'm sure most people who ever had struggles at school can recall instances of teachers who, instead of spending five minutes helping you understand a question, would much rather spend five minutes listing a hundred and one reasons why it's all your own fault that you don't know the answer. But, to the maths teacher's enormous credit, after Wiliam pointed out to her that the pupils clearly had never really grasped the underlying principles of what she was teaching, she took the criticism on board and very quickly found a more effective way of explaining herself.

The final verdict was that the experiment had significantly improved performance in maths and English, although not in science - findings that were sufficient for the entire school to decide to switch to the new methods. I wouldn't be at all surprised if average grades improve as a result - but I still fear that any system that is inflexibly geared towards the needs of a class or school as a collective entity, rather than tailored to the needs of each individual, is bound to leave an unlucky few feeling totally alienated. Perhaps they'll just be a different few to the ones who were left behind in the past.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Ian Hamilton's distorted look at the thistle

Winnie Ewing once received rapturous applause at the SNP conference for affirming that "we are all fundamentalists". What she meant is that the entire party - or as close to the entire party as makes no difference - is wholeheartedly in favour of full independence for Scotland. For most of us that may not be much of a revelation, but there's no harm in pointing it out occasionally, particularly given the tendency over the years for parts of the London-based media to characterise gradualists within the SNP as the "pro-devolution wing" of the party, and fundamentalists as the "pro-independence wing". It seems that they struggle with the notion that a Scottish party could conceivably have a 'moderate' wing that nevertheless supports independence from London!

But, sadly, it appears that it's not just ill-informed London scribes who need to be reminded of that truth. Many fundamentalist nationalists themselves like to fondly imagine that they are the only ones authentically agitating for independence. The latest example of that world view is a thoroughly unjust post from Ian Hamilton QC, in which he brands the current SNP leadership "collaborators", and asks "what about us who aren’t meek and who want our grandchildren to inherit a free Scotland?". Well, that'll be all of us who support independence, Ian, gradualists and fundamentalists alike. It's at times like this that I (almost) start to sympathise with unionist politicians who complain that the SNP shouldn't regard themselves as having a monopoly on patriotism. Some of the langauge Ian uses is truly astonishing -

"It [the SNP] is nothing if it isn’t revolutionary. It should never be a party of government. Now it’s a party of collaborators, preparing to enforce England’s budget cuts. Edinburgh has become Scotland’s Vichy...

Also, I am a trouble maker. Once we were a nation of trouble makers. Once they sent tanks into George Square against us. Now the meek moderate the mild."

Ian's starting-point is just fundamentally different to that of the gradualist camp. He clearly perceives Scotland as a literally "occupied" country, and therefore looks around in bewilderment wondering where the "resistance" has gone. In contrast, most of us accept that we live within a democratic framework - a deeply flawed one to be sure, but democratic nonetheless, and one that provides a clear theoretical path by which independence can be achieved. That being the case, the rather prosaic reason for Scotland not currently enjoying the normal powers of a normal nation is quite simply that the Scottish electorate hasn't voted for that yet. The remedy to the problem is therefore to persuade the electorate of the merits of independence, not to idly fantasise about taking to the streets and fomenting an anti-London revolution.

Of course the sentiment that moved Ian to write his post right now is one we can probably all share - he fears that the SNP in government will be "implicated" in London's cuts, and that the cause of independence will be set back as a result. But if that happens it will not be a failure of the gradualist strategy in itself, but instead a failure to effectively communicate the (self-evidently true) message that the Scottish government simply don't have the powers to protect Scotland from the cuts, and that if the electorate want that to change they'll have to vote for a more powerful parliament. At least the SNP have a story to tell here - by contrast, what would a new Labour-led government have to say for itself next May? They'd have no choice but to implement the cuts, and yet won't even be asking for the extra powers that would afford them that choice. "Scotland can do nothing but moan - let's keep it that way" isn't a great message to be selling to the electorate.

Lastly, I can only sigh wearily at Ian's fixation with the issue of parliamentarians having to swear allegiance to the Queen. In principle, I entirely agree with him - an oath of office should primarily be about upholding the highest standards of integrity, and shouldn't force people to say things they don't believe in. But to criticise the SNP leadership for not making that issue a 'dealbreaker' in deciding whether to take up office just seems crazy. Have the republicans in the party been remotely hobbled by holding their nose once every four years and taking the oath? It seems odd to say, but I think the former Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble once summed up the 'real' meaning of the oath better than anyone I've heard - he suggested that the Queen as Head of State symbolises the "rules of the game" as set down by the law of the UK, and therefore the allegiance sworn to the Queen is simply a de facto pledge to abide by those rules. Constitutional nationalists shouldn't find too much difficulty with that - the whole meaning of the term is that we work within the rules to change the rules. To change them utterly. In that sense, we are all fundamentalists.