Saturday, October 16, 2010

The SNP's 'away game' problem

Allan at Dispatches from Paisley has written a very interesting post on 'where the SNP went wrong in May and how they can win next year'. I have to say I disagree with much of his diagnosis of the problem at the general election - while the dispute over the SNP's banning from the leaders' debates was an intensely frustrating quagmire, I don't think the party had much option but to do what they did. Granted, some people found it tiresome that they kicked up a fuss, but I think we can rest assured that those are the types of people who wouldn't have been minded to vote SNP (at least in a Westminster election) anyway. The danger of just meekly accepting the injustice would have been an even greater level of invisibility during the campaign, and indeed it could have been seen as a tacit acceptance of the charge that the party is "irrelevant" in UK-wide elections.

Allan is perhaps right to suggest that Labour's jibe about "Ripped-off Glasgow" had some effect, but I doubt it was huge, and in any case it would by definition have been restricted to one part of the country. As for the suggestion that the SNP chose the wrong narrative in "More Nats, Less Cuts" and should instead have been hammering home the issue of independence, I have my doubts. Again, there would have been a severe danger of seeming irrelevant, or at least detached from the campaign that people were tuning into - by focusing on the cuts the SNP were getting to the heart of what the election was really about for most voters. Perhaps one slight mistake was that the "protecting Scotland" angle seemed too parochial, or even selfish - they maybe should have emphasised to a greater extent that they planned to vote in Westminster to protect everyone against the worst of the cuts, not just Scots (as indeed is now demonstrably the case).

I'd suggest there's a danger of overthinking this - the SNP's disappointing showing (which wasn't half as bad as I feared at one point, incidentally) can largely be explained by the Labour juggernaut, which in turn can largely be explained by the false perception that only a vote for Labour was an authentic vote to keep the Tories out. How the SNP will ever overcome that inbuilt disadvantage in a Westminster election (short of fair TV coverage, I mean) I really don't know. In spite of the huge challenges that next May poses, at least we can be grateful that it's a "home fixture" for the SNP.

The problem of restricting America's gun free-for-all to 'normal' people

Four months on, and I'm increasingly intrigued by the continued mysterious absence of the promised "Überpost" from Mr Kevin Baker in response to my last series of posts on gun control in the late spring. Of course, it's entirely up to him whether he thinks it's worth the bother of responding, and in many ways he'd be a man after my own heart if he's simply decided he has better things to do with his time - but given the bile he and his devoted followers routinely dole out to anyone they feel has ducked out of debate, I think it is appropriate to note that this increasingly appears to be exactly what's happened here. To be fair, he did warn us that there would be a long delay so he could get it "just right", but four months? Was he planning an Überpost or a novel?

On the subject of that old familiar bile, there's a textbook example in one of Kevin's posts from a few days ago. Apparently another Arizona blogger called Alan C Baird dared to write a post expressing bewilderment and anger at seeing a customer openly carrying a gun in a grocery store (I'll say that again - a customer in a grocery store), and at the unwillingness of the store management to do anything about it due to the insane state laws. Baird received a couple of death threats (not to mention a torrent of more general abuse) for his troubles, so took the obvious and inevitable step of closing comments on his post. Well, it might seem obvious and inevitable to most of us, but of course to the 'blog function fascists' I've come to know and love the closing of comments on any blog anywhere in the world for even the best of reasons simply WILL - NOT - BE - TOLERATED. Naturally, Mr Baird was now in line to receive an epistle (or should I say Überepistle) from Kevin on the subject of (ahem) "bigotry". To save you the trouble, the general gist of it was - "You are such a bigot. In fact, do you know how much of a bigot you are, Mr Baird? Take the biggest bigot you can think of, multiply the level of that person's bigotry by the combined ages of all the bigots alive in the world today - cancel that, their combined ages to the power of four - and that's still not even close to how much of a bigot you are. Stop being such a bigot, you bigot."

There was one particular segment of the rant (sorry, forensic textual analysis) that made my jaw drop to the floor, though -

"I'm very glad you don't own a gun. Obviously have anger control issues and you're not a stable person. I'm beginning to understand why you don't like to see other people armed - you think they're just like you, and lack of self-control is 'normal.' I assure you, it is not."

Even if Kevin is clearly not the most dispassionate judge of character in this instance, I'm glad that he's glad that at least one 'law-abiding citizen' out there does not own a gun. I'd be even more glad to hear that he thinks it would also be desirable if everyone with more genuine 'anger control issues' and 'lack of self-control' did not possess a gun. But I'm just wondering how he thinks such a desire can conceivably be brought to fruition in the context of the gun free-for-all that he so zealously defends. Perhaps he's relying on his trusty prayer mat?

Come to think of it, he told me he's an atheist. It's a puzzle.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Instances of Iain Dale missing the obvious : No. 273

"I see Ming Campbell and Charles Kennedy are leading the LibDem rebellion on tuition fees. Er, they represent Scottish constituencies, which are unaffected by any change. What the hell has it got to do with them?"

Oh dear. Whoever taught Iain about the birds and the bees clearly forgot to mention the Barnett consequentials...

A timely puzzle

Courtesy of Newsnet Scotland, I see that Tory MP Greg Knight has told Scottish opponents of the perennial proposal to permanently move the clocks forward an hour that they should go back to Scotland and set up their own time-zone if they don't like it. I raised a smile at this because the gist of Knight's argument is near-enough identical to one I encountered - albeit in slightly less abusive form - at Political Betting a few months ago. What are the Scots complaining about, I was asked? Haven't they noticed that there will be exactly the same number of hours of sunlight in a day that there was before? If light in the mornings is so important, it's scarcely beyond the wit of man for Scottish schools and businesses to put their opening times back an hour to take account of the time change, is it?

To which there was one simple response which, as far as I could see, was close to being unanswerable - you're the ones proposing a change to the status quo, matey. Haven't you noticed that such a change won't produce a single extra minute of daylight? If additional light in the evenings is so important to you, is it really beyond the wit of man for English schools and businesses to simply put their opening and closing times forward an hour? Why, in short, are you troubling us with this pointless argument at all?

The same principle applies a hundred times over to Knight. If he considers different time-zones to be an acceptable solution to this dilemma, fine - in which case, why does the proposal before Westminster needlessly extend to the entirety of the UK? Isn't it just a tad peculiar to try to use Westminster to force an unwanted change to the status quo in Scotland (when, bizarrely, he claims not to give a monkey's about what happens in Scotland at all) and then whinge about Scottish MPs voting against that change at Westminster? Where else would he suggest it would be logical for elected Scottish representatives to go to express their view on a Westminster bill that would change the law of Scotland?

It's a puzzle all right. Alternatively known as textbook Anglocentric presumption - regardless of the fact that they're the ones demanding a change to the status quo, it apparently just goes without saying that any new English position has to be the default position from which the rest of the UK might be allowed to 'vary' from if we tiresomely insist.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

It's good if we say it is

With the Commonwealth Games having drawn to a close, and with every Glaswegian bursting with pride (well, in theory) at the handing over of the flag in readiness for 2014, I've been trying to work out the extent to which this has been a genuinely successful games for the Scottish team. A direct comparison with the number of medals won in previous games isn't of much help, because the number of events has increased dramatically over the years. A more meaningful comparison would be with previous Scottish placings in the medals table - which, contrary to the general perception at present, actually tends to suggest that this has been a relatively poor games for us. Tenth place is, believe it or not, only one spot higher than our most barren games of recent times in 1998. At the other end of the scale, we've finished as high as fourth a number of times, most notably on home soil in 1970. But, there again, on those occasions we were ahead of countries that we had no real right to be ahead of in sheer population terms, such as India and Malaysia. Now that those nations have got their act together, perhaps tenth place can be considered an equivalent achievement to fifth or sixth a few decades ago.

Or, to put it another way, it's a good result if we decide it is. And it looks like we have. Hurrah! If it only worked that way in football...

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Tonight's fascinating fact

Former Liberal Democrat leader Sir Menzies Campbell on tuition fees :

"I'm going to stick to the promise I made. My credibility would be shot to ribbons if I did anything else."

Fascinating fact - that last sentence makes just as much sense if you replace the words "my" and "I" with the words "our" and "we".

Could child benefit be Cameron's poll tax?

I've just caught up with the first PMQs duel between Cameron and Miliband, and it was startling to see just how easily the new Labour leader was allowed to score a hit on the issue of families with only one working parent being effectively discriminated against as a result of the threshold for the withdrawal of child benefit. Miliband's jibe that the Prime Minister "had no defence" was quite literally true. That marks a change, though, because the government did have a defence on the day the policy was announced - Philip Hammond breezily accepted on Newsnight that there would be a little "rough justice", but insisted that was unavoidable if the costs and complications of full-scale means-testing were to be avoided. It seems the penny has dropped that this wasn't such a winning line - but the fact that they haven't been able to come up with anything better in the intervening week is extremely telling. Cameron instead rather lamely answered the question he wished he'd been asked, and defended the general principle of withdrawing benefits from the wealthy.

In truth, of course, this isn't "a little" rough justice - as Miliband noted, there will be hundreds of thousands of families with a single working parent who lose out. And presumably as relative high-earners, these people are also to a significant extent natural Tory supporters. It starts to beg the question - could the controversy over the changes to child benefit be a slow-burner that eventually turns into Cameron's "poll tax"? After all, the poll tax was also a system that permitted lots of rough justice in the pursuit of maximum "simplicity". The Tories really should have learned their lesson by now - in any battle for public support between "simplicity" and "fairness", there will only ever be one winner.


Later in PMQs, Angus MacNeil spoke very eloquently on behalf on his constituents, the family of Linda Norgrove. Can we now expect some more ill-judged musings from Fraser Nelson on the subject of a Scottish politician getting above his station?

Meanwhile, outside the bubble...

What is it with Westminster bubble journalists? Stick them in a room together for ten minutes and they'll convince each other that the moon is made of green cheese, and then solemnly report it to the masses. Their latest piece of collective wisdom is that the Liberal Democrats have "got away" with their breathtakingly cynical about-turn on tuition fees in England, with Nick Robinson asking "has Vince pulled it off?". Er, no, Nick, is the concise answer to that one.

I really think politicians and lobby correspondents alike need to take a step back and consider just how ghastly the 'before and after' footage of the Liberal Democrats on the news tonight would have looked to the average voter. How they can even begin to judge the damage done when there hasn't yet been time for the public to give their initial reaction via polls is beyond me. This, remember, is much, much worse than the Lib Dems' finessing of their position on tuition fees in Scotland after the 1999 Holyrood election - at least then they could tenuously claim to have kept their word, even if there was a fair bit of sophistry involved (ie. that the graduate endowment bore no resemblance to tuition fees because "it didn't pay for tuition"). This time they've been caught absolutely bang to rights, and where the evidence is that the electorate are feeling particularly indulgent towards the party at the moment is a bit of a mystery.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Landlords who can't see the cash for the smoke

Slightly depressing to see on Iain Dale's blog a Tory MP who aims to take England back to the dark ages when a trip to a pub or club was a serious health hazard - before you'd even downed your first drink. David Nuttall wants the Cameroon principle of localism to extend as far as landlords having discretion to decide on whether smoking should be allowed on their premises - or, in plain language, a complete repeal of the smoking ban in pubs and clubs. The case is being made under the disingenuous rallying-cry "save our pubs and clubs", which just makes me wonder how non-smokers would react if Nuttall got his way. In the past, they largely tolerated the discomfort and the health risk - partly because, I'd suggest, it had always been that way. But now they've had a taste of the clean air alternative, it would be very foolish to take their forbearance for granted in future. It would be deeply ironic if, in chasing an illusory economic boon, landlords ended up suffering a net loss of customers.

Justice for Megrahi e-petition

Eric Falconer got in touch yesterday to ask me to give a mention to this e-petition to the Scottish Parliament from the 'Justice for Megrahi' campaign :

"Calling on the Scottish Parliament to urge the Scottish Government to open an independent inquiry into the 2001 Kamp van Zeist conviction of Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al-Megrahi for the bombing of Pan Am flight 103 in December 1988."

This is, of course, something of an awkward point for us supporters of the SNP, because the Scottish government have categorically ruled out holding such an inquiry on their own initiative, on the grounds that it would lack the powers to compel key witnesses (notably from the US) to give evidence. I must say I think that's a valid concern - a homegrown probe could easily turn into (almost) as much of a joke as the recent hearing chaired by Senator Menendez. But the bottom line is that, however it is constituted, there is a desperate need for a wide-ranging inquiry of some sort - it's nothing short of scandalous that the fatal flaws in Megrahi's conviction identified by the SCCRC have simply been swept under the carpet. It's an ongoing injustice not only to Megrahi himself, but also to the families of the victims, including those who are totally convinced of Megrahi's guilt. Comfort drawn from a false belief in a man's guilt does not equal justice.

So while I might quibble about the precise wording of the petition, if it helps refocus attention on what really matters, it probably has quite a bit of merit. If you'd like to put your name to it, or just to have a peek, it can be found here.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Capital connections

There's a long and fairly dishonourable tradition in political rhetoric of making connections that are tenuous at best, and then brazenly putting them forward as if they were utterly self-evident. Classic examples are the right-wing blogosphere's insistence that the BNP are left-wing because they are a bit "statist" (don't bother pointing out that Hitler was statist as well, because he was apparently a leftie as well), and Mrs Thatcher's extraordinary claim to be a "devolutionist", because she believed in "real" devolution - to the individual.

I think I spot a whiff of something similar over at the Party Lines blog today, in Jon Stone's post about the Westminster government's encouragingly strong stance on the use of the death penalty abroad. Instead of making an honest case for why he believes that this stance is wrong or should not be a priority, Stone instead tries to undermine Tory support for it by artfully suggesting that it represents a degree of continuity from the Blairite policy of "liberal interventionism". In the eyes of the average Tory, could there be a more damning indictment?

Except that it is, of course, garbage. If only Blair had been an evangelist for the abolition of capital punishment, but I noticed precious little of that in his dealings with the US (or with countries like Saudi Arabia, for that matter). And as for the most famous example of 'liberal intervention' - the war in Iraq - well, did Blair use his fabled "influence" on the Americans to insist that the new democratic Iraq must have no place for the death penalty? The fact that Saddam Hussein is long dead gives you your answer on that one.

In truth, it's utterly routine for western democracies to raise the issue of human rights in other countries, at least to some degree - the European Union collectively does so for prospective new member states, for instance. Stone would have a tough sell convincing anyone that the Cameron government's continued support for that process is another example of their liberal interventionism, but by his own logic the conclusion is inescapable. If what he actually means - as I suspect he does - is that the death penalty is not an important enough aspect of human rights to be made such a priority, he ought to be arguing that case directly, instead of resorting to rhetorical sleights-of-hand.

Scotland's new Rae of sunshine

What with Scotland's travails on the football and rugby pitch over the last decade or so, I'm sure many of us would happily settle for a national renaissance in just about any high-profile sport. The bitter irony, of course, is that in a sense we've had exactly that in tennis, but it's been entirely under the enforced camouflage of the Union Jack. Andy Murray even absurdly ended up having to distance himself slightly from his own Scottishness, in an effort to defuse the synthetic anger over his lighthearted "anyone but England" comment.

But, at last, the debut of tennis in the Commonwealth Games seemed to offer a fleeting chance for the golden generation of Scottish tennis to shine under their own flag. Well, it did, but understandably Andy Murray had other priorities. And Elena Baltacha withdrew because of health concerns. And Jamie Murray turned up, but without his form. Who'd have thought we'd have enough strength in depth to win a gold medal in spite of all that? Step forward Davis Cup stalwart Colin Fleming, and the virtually unknown Jocelyn Rae.

It's of course dangerous to heap too much expectation on any promising young sportsman or woman, but as the decisive force on the court tonight, and with an evidently superb temperament, the 19-year-old Rae looks like a genuine star in the making.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Aubrey de Grey responds

For anyone who was interested in the piece I wrote a few weeks ago querying the timetable for potential therapies that might radically extend human lifespan, Dr Aubrey de Grey has left a reply :

"This is Dr. de Grey. Thanks to you both. All I would offer in my defence is that I do in fact insert "subject to funding" into my replies to questions on timeframes much more often than is apparent, but journalists just leave it out (rather as they insist on describing my goals as "immortality" and so on). My view is that progress in the past seven years or so since I started making these timeframe predictions probably amounts to about two years of the progress I think we would have made with full funding, so it's not as bad as all that."

Nelson's column

As ever, I'm grateful to Ezio for pointing me in the direction of a Nat-bashing article I might otherwise have overlooked, this time by Fraser Nelson in the Spectator Coffee House. I must say I'm not so much angered by the piece as...well, bemused. The general thrust of it seems to be that unionists should be dismayed to note that, a decade into devolution, no-one is now surprised by the fact that the Scottish government routinely speak out on issues of concern to Scotland, such as the tragic death of aid worker Linda Norgrove - as if Alex Salmond was "the spokesman of the nation", Nelson adds with evident distaste. But, quite honestly, if anyone had been surprised by such a thing even ten days into devolution, they would have been missing much of the whole point of the exercise. The Scottish Parliament, for example, was always intended (even by its unionist 'founding fathers') to be a comprehensive national forum - the standing orders allow for debate on subjects well beyond the institution's defined powers. By extension therefore it would be utterly extraordinary if, at this moment of tragedy, the First Minister did what Nelson presumably feels would be more seemly, and responded to media questions by saying - "It is not appropriate for me to comment on this matter, or to extend any sympathy to Ms Norgrove's family. Please understand that I am charged merely with certain limited aspects of the administration of this country, I do not in any way speak for it. Perhaps David Cameron will have a view."

Would it have occurred to Nelson to tell the humble MP for Cleethorpes that it isn't his place to comment on the death of one of his constituents in a foreign land, simply because he isn't Foreign Secretary? Somehow I think not. We hear a great deal about 'narrow nationalism', but the fact that Nelson could even begin to imagine that 'First Minister of Scotland sends condolences over Scot's tragic death' is, should be, or ever could have been a story of note, let alone a matter of controversy, is extraordinarily revealing of the narrow-mindedness of his own British nationalist zealotry.

To deal with some of his other specific points :

"He didn’t say that, when a Libyan murderer wants to be released, the SNP can use this to thumb their nose at Wicked America and posture on the world stage. Any excuse to make Scotland seem distinct from England, and themselves as spokesmen for a country."

I'd be quite interested to see some hard examples of the SNP (by which I mean the party leadership, not the likes of Christine Grahame) being in any way critical of the United States at the time of Megrahi's release, let alone "thumbing their nose". Indeed, Alex Salmond went on to show the patience of a saint with Senator Menendez and co, and their clownish attempts to set up a McCarthyite show-trial over the affair.

As for any suggestion that the decision over Megrahi was being used to differentiate Scotland from England, the way to do that would have been to treat Megrahi differently from Ronnie Biggs, not to release him on an absolutely identical basis.

"But I cannot see why Salmond needs to release a statement about a woman who has not really lived in Scotland since she left Aberdeen University."

This is really quite telling - Nelson evidently regards Scottish identity as such a weak thing that it is totally negated by time spent outside the country. To him, Scotland is simply a place where people live, not somewhere to which it's possible to have a broader sense of belonging. But does he similarly regard Ms Norton as no longer in any meaningful sense British because of her time spent abroad? Of course he doesn't. Little more needs to be said.

"As First Minister, Salmond is in charge of about half of government spending in Scotland - and as a unionist, I'd like him to confine his comments to the provision of public services."

And how precisely does Nelson propose to enforce this principle? It's perfectly legitimate to restrict a minister to commenting on his own responsibilities inside parliament, but if you try to enforce the same rule outside parliament it becomes censorship, plain and simple. Now, if Scotland had actually shared Nelson's preference for a shrinking violet First Minister who left the grown-up stuff to his betters in London, we could of course have elected one. (In fact we might be about to, so Nelson shouldn't despair just yet.)

"The misleading phrase 'Scottish government' is routinely used to describe Salmond's administration."

What exactly is misleading about calling a body that governs a "government"? Wouldn't it be considerably more misleading to call it anything else - specifically an "executive", the use of which for eight years left most people utterly baffled? All right, so Nelson is getting at the fact that the Scottish government doesn't control all of the administration of Scotland - but let's turn that on its head. The fact that it does control some of the administration (and the same applies to its counterparts in Wales and Northern Ireland) means that, by definition, David Cameron and his ministers do not control all of the administration of Britain. Does that mean it's also misleading to describe them as "the British government"? Presumably it must be.