Saturday, October 30, 2010

Terrors of the tongue

Iain Dale wrote a long post yesterday morning criticising the decision to allow a Sinn Féin member of the UK Youth Parliament to speak in the House of Commons chamber. All the way through reading it, I assumed that Iain must be one of those Tory diehards who take the (misguided, but perfectly legitimate) view that the compromises made with Republicans during the peace process went too far. And yet he actually draws his remarks to a close by declaring - "I applaud the peace process. It is remarkable what has been achieved on both sides of the political divide."

So it's a mystery. Here are a few points on which I don't think Iain's logic stands up to much scrutiny at all -

1) He says that Sinn Féin MPs should not be allowed to speak in the chamber unless they are prepared to take the oath. But this young man is not a Sinn Féin MP (duh). Moreover, the session was self-evidently not an official meeting of parliament, and thus presumably none of the participants were required to swear allegiance to the Queen as a condition of taking part.

2) He refers to how sickening it is that someone who "clearly" sympathises with those who murdered Tory MP Ian Gow twenty years ago was allowed to speak from the benches where Gow sat. Now, there is no doubting the enormous hurt that has been caused by welcoming unrepentant killers into the political fold - but for someone who believes in the Belfast Agreement, as Iain claims to, why does it appear to be so much worse if it happens in London, rather than in Northern Ireland itself? Sinn Féin's participation in both the Assembly and the Executive was an integral part of the settlement, and the families of victims have long since had to try to reconcile themselves to the likes of Martin McGuinness and Gerry Kelly holding executive power in their part of the world. The issue of whether a member of what is effectively a 'mock' parliament should be allowed to open his mouth seems absurdly trivial by comparison.

It's also worth pointing out that even at the height of the Troubles, there was actually nothing to stop Sinn Féin MPs speaking from the Commons benches if they so chose. Even if they had refused to take the oath, they could have participated in the first session of each parliament when the Speaker is elected - that takes place before the oath is administered to anyone.

3) Where Iain really seems to lose the plot is over the fact that the Sinn Féin representative planned to speak in Irish. Why should this even be an issue at all? If it's because of the rule that proceedings in the Commons should be in English, well, once again, these were not Commons proceedings. So once we eliminate that as the reason, what is there left? Perhaps Iain finds the Irish language itself offensive for some reason? Does he imagine it's some kind of 'terrorist tongue'?

Friday, October 29, 2010

'Please remember you're talking to the whole United Kingdom...'

So said David Dimbleby on tonight's Question Time during a discussion on the economy, as he made a determined (and clearly premeditated) effort to prevent Nicola Sturgeon making even the briefest comment relating to Scotland specifically, rather than to the United Kingdom as a whole. "We may be in Glasgow," he went on, "but Question Time goes out to the whole United Kingdom". Now, we know that the broadcasters have no political axes to grind, and simply apply perfectly reasonable principles like this with absolute consistency. Therefore, we can rest assured that no political discussion broadcast to the whole United Kingdom, regardless of whether it was broadcast from an English location, has ever focused solely on any of the following topics as they relate to England alone :

1) Health

2) Education

3) Criminal justice

4) Policing

5) Sport

6) Local government

7) Environmental protection

8) Agriculture and fishing

And, for the avoidance of doubt, according to the principle Dimbleby laid down tonight, it would in no way be sufficient to merely briefly "signpost" that any discussion of these topics related to England alone - it would plain and simply be inappropriate to discuss them at all.

But what's that you say? They do just that on Question Time every week? And they justified a 90-minute long UK-wide Prime Ministerial (sic) Debate predominantly concerned with purely English matters on the grounds that ten seconds of "clear signposting" by a bored-looking Alistair Stewart was more than sufficient? Well, this is indeed deeply mysterious. Could it be that it's in fact the London broadcasters who have yet to notice that they are "talking to the whole United Kingdom", and not just to one part of it?

I think I have a small clue as to the distorted thinking that lies behind Dimbleby's outrageous intervention tonight, however. A couple of years ago, on another Question Time edition broadcast from Scotland, he stopped Sturgeon in similar circumstances. The issue being discussed was the injustice of innocent people having their DNA stored permanently on a database. Sturgeon tried to explain how the system worked differently in Scotland, but was thwarted by an indignant Dimbleby, who informed her that the discussion was about the United Kingdom position on DNA retention, not the Scottish position. Just one small problem with that - there is no United Kingdom position on that subject. There is a Scottish policy, and there is an English and Welsh policy. That's the way devolution works - the same applies to health, education, and all the other policy areas that I referred to earlier. If the broadcasters want to comfort their audience by implicitly sending them the message that nothing has really changed since 1999, and that "national programmes" are still able to solely concern themselves with "national issues" (leaving the peripheral devolved stuff to "regional" programmes like Reporting Scotland), what they're actually doing is promoting a fiction. Some would put it a bit stronger than that.

It is nothing short of incredible that the broadcasters apparently think it is perfectly reasonable to invite a Scottish nationalist politician onto a programme and then expect her never to talk about Scotland or her nationalism at any point. If it is seriously going to be their policy that UK-wide programmes must be wholly free of 'sub-UK' discussions, then clearly previous practice is going to have to change beyond all recognition, and any future Question Time exchanges on health, for example, will somehow have to cover all four different health systems in the UK simultaneously. How on earth they intend to achieve that is beyond me - but if, as I suspect, what Dimbleby and the broadcasters really mean is "United Kingdom discussion = discussion of the policy that applies in England", then it totally blows out of the water the thin justification they put forward for going ahead with general election debates held exclusively in English locations, that covered many English-only matters (but no matters that related only to other parts of the UK), that specifically excluded non-English residents from participating in the audiences, and that of course totally excluded the leaders of all parties that did not stand in English constituencies.

I think we could sum up the position by saying that the broadcasters imagine they are performing a public service by snuffing out what they see as a politician's attempt to 'hijack' the UK-wide airwaves for a Scottish-only discussion - and yet imagine they were also performing a public service by conspiring with politicians during the election campaign to hijack the UK-wide airwaves for an English-only discussion. I'd really like to see how they can possibly justify that blatant contradiction - but it seems for the time being they won't even have to try, simply because their own regulatory bodies are caught in precisely the same Anglocentric trance.

As an aside, it's also worth pointing out that the first fifteen minutes of tonight's edition of Question Time - broadcast from Glasgow, remember - was taken up with a discussion about a remark made by the Mayor of London, in his capacity as Mayor of London. And yet Dimbleby still couldn't see the irony of chiding Sturgeon for spending just a few seconds talking about a 'non-national' issue later in the programme. You really couldn't make it up...

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Cameron draws the wrong lesson from Jackanory Jim's success

David Cameron, in response to Angus Robertson's question about the likely closure of RAF Lossiemouth at PMQs -

"If you had an independent Scotland, you wouldn't be flying planes, you'd be flying by the seat of your pants."

A sneering reply that was the cue for lots of equally sneering laughter from the Tory benches - but let's just examine this for a moment. Who are they actually sneering at? Not the SNP, that's for sure - Cameron wasn't particularly talking about an SNP-run independent Scotland, or even a Labour-run independent Scotland. He was simply mocking the capacity of Scots to govern themselves under any circumstances.

Now, you can see how Cameron might have been deluded into thinking that he's onto a winner here. After all, Labour have been talking Scotland down for decades and have more often than not been richly rewarded for their troubles. But the difference is that it's usually Scottish Labour figures who are the front for the talking-down operation. Why else does it infuriate us so much when Jackanory Jim does his "as a Murphy, it breaks my heart to say that an independent Scotland would be as rubbish as Ireland" routine? Because we know that the spinning of such yarns does get under people's skins, and it does ultimately sap this nation's morale. But hearing an Old Etonian Tory PM repeatedly sneer at "you" Scots will, I suspect, have a somewhat different effect.

Great politics, Dave. Don't stop.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Berlusconi a right-winger? Can't be, he agreed with New Labour...

The mind boggles at Tom Harris' explanation of why he shouldn't be considered a right-winger. Essentially he lists seven reasons typically given for suggesting he is one - and then says "er, yes, those are all true actually, but they're all things the New Labour government was keen on or that traditional Labour voters support". Well, a striking number of traditional Labour voters have been turning to the BNP in recent years, while the New Labour government always seemed remarkably comfortable in the company of American neocons, not to mention the Italian and Spanish right. By Tom's rather simplistic logic, does that mean Nick Griffin, George W Bush and Silvio Berlusconi can't possibly be considered right-wingers either?

Specifically, Tom ought to be careful about his smug assumption that he, rather than the left, is in tune with the core Labour vote on the issue of welfare - this poll indicates that the position is, at the very least, somewhat more nuanced than he imagines. Hardly surprising - the more likely you are to have been a benefit recipient at some point (or to know someone who has been) the more likely you are to appreciate that many, many claimants are not "scroungers" or "trying it on".

To be fair, the first commenter on Tom's piece hits the nail on the head by pointing out that a lot of the other questionable views his detractors point to aren't so much "right-wing" in the strictest sense as just very, very authoritarian. Hint - that doesn't actually make it any better, Tom. After all, it was the Chinese Communist Party that felt it was entirely appropriate to tell people when they should and shouldn't have children - just like the Labour MP for Glasgow South...

Joining the Daily Mail : a dubious benefit

It's rather sad to see Gerri Peev, who I remember as being a fine jounalist on the Scotsman, put her name to a tediously predictable 'benefit scrounger' bashing article for the Daily Mail. There's actually nothing new in the revelation that the majority of initial applicants for the new Employment and Support Allowance are failing to get it, but Gerri - loyal to her new masters' cause - dutifully pretends to be dumbfounded.

"Out of about 840,000 who tried to obtain the £95-a-week Employment and Support Allowance, 640,000 were told they were fit for work, or withdrew their applications before they took the tests – suggesting they were ‘trying it on’.

Incredibly, 7,100 tried to claim because they had sexually transmitted diseases and nearly 10,000 because they were too fat. Only 178,000 – one in four – were given the payment after convincing doctors they were actually unable to work.

The disclosure by the Department for Work and Pensions raises fresh questions over how many of the 2.6million people on the existing incapacity benefit are really incapable of being employed."

Well, that's one side of the equation. But what about the other "fresh questions" that it poses, but which the Mail seem unaccountably incurious about - for starters, what if a lot of the unsuccessful applicants were not in fact "trying it on"? What if (as anecdotal evidence strongly suggests) the assessing contractor Atos have instead been wrongly certifying large numbers of people as fit to work as a direct result of the incentives built into the system for them to get the overall number of claimants down?

A week or two back, Jon Snow raised with Iain Duncan Smith the case of a woman in the middle of treatment for breast cancer, who was repeatedly found to be fit for work before common sense finally prevailed at an appeal - but by which time she'd been put through an unimaginable amount of completely unnecessary additional stress. To his credit, IDS made clear that he'd now put procedures in place to ensure that this could never again happen to cancer patients. But in a sense that rather neatly left unanswered the real thrust of Snow's question, which was about the culture at Atos, one that is clearly geared towards finding reasons to reject claims, rather than towards making the most accurate and objective assessment possible of each individual's capability to work. Until that culture is addressed, neither the Daily Mail nor the government is in any position to credibly draw convenient inferences from the current high rejection rate.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The alternative to 'welfare dependency'

Anyone who ever imagined that a straightforward answer to welfare dependency is simply to snatch away the safety-net altogether ought to have been given pause for thought by Sarah Smith's report from the US on Channel 4 News tonight. It's quite clear that what you actually end up with is not the imagined land of milk and honey where everyone can and does fend for themselves, but instead countless numbers of people dependent on charity instead. A phenomenon that's considerably worse than welfare dependency, incidentally - as we know from Britain's own past, even the best-intentioned charities are far less efficient than the state in ensuring that people don't fall through the gaps. And as for the less well-intentioned charities, they may have absolutely no interest in ensuring that what they consider to be the 'undeserving poor' aren't left to starve.

The woman who was used as an example in the film of those reliant on charity acknowledged that she had no means of feeding herself - but didn't want the government to help her. That might seem incredible, but when you learn that the charity in question appeared to be a right-wing evangelical outfit, which along with the food handouts was also feeding her the line that her plight was the fault of 'big-spending' (self-evidently not all that big-spending) liberal elites, it starts to seems marginally less mysterious. Now I'm no Marxist, but if ever the term "false consciousness" had a degree of resonance...

Monday, October 25, 2010

In a democracy, protesters don't need to resort to quietly holding up pieces of cardboard

I've only just caught up with Nick Robinson's blog post on his placard-stamping exploits a few days ago. It's of course decent of him to issue an apology, although it has to be said bits of it read like a 'non-apology apology', and I still wonder if it would have been forthcoming at all if it hadn't been for footage of the incident appearing online. One sentence in particular made me smile -

"However, as I explained afterwards to the protesters who disrupted my broadcast, there are many opportunities to debate whether the troops should be out of Afghanistan without the need to stick a sign on a long pole and wave it in front of a camera."

Anyone would think he was describing some kind of unspeakable act of depravity. Perhaps "pole" is a euphemism? To be fair, though, the horrors of the "disruption" didn't end with a man standing quietly in a public place holding up a piece of cardboard - you can clearly see from the picture that the ink on the placard clashes hideously with Nick's tie. How can he be expected to report and analyse an important political story in such impossible circumstances?

Sunday, October 24, 2010

SoS opinion poll analysis : compare and contrast

According to Tom Peterkin in Scotland on Sunday, Labour's opinion poll leads of six and five points over the SNP are, in spite of having just been roughly halved, "solid".

But he also reassures us twice that Alex Salmond's seventeen-point lead over Iain Gray as the best First Minister is "not irretrievable" and "not insurmountable".

Answers on a postcard...