Saturday, February 12, 2011

Swiss gun culture hangs in the balance

Switzerland goes to the polls this weekend to decide on a proposal to end the decades-old practice of military reservists - who make up a huge proportion of the adult male population - keeping their guns at home. By all accounts the result is likely to be very tight, and even if there is a narrow majority for the Yes side, it may fall foul of the "double-lock" rule that also requires support from a majority of the cantons (the less populous cantons tend to be more conservative). Regardless of how the vote pans out, though, it occurs to me that the American gun enthusiasts I used to 'debate' with would be nothing short of horrified to see such an important matter decided by something as frivolous as a democratic vote. Much better to let a tiny number of 18th Century bods who happened to have a gun fetish settle the matter for all time.

Reading the BBC article on the referendum, it's striking that although the arguments being advanced by the Swiss gun lobby are superficially similar to their American counterparts, there are significant differences. For instance...

"Dora Andres, president of the Swiss Federal Shooting Association, dismisses claims made by some women's groups that Swiss women would feel safer if guns were no longer stored at home.

"If a woman doesn't feel safe at home, if she feels afraid, that's a problem of her relationship, not a problem with weapons," she said."

Now, if that had been an American gun rights advocate, she wouldn't be telling women they had problems with their relationships. She'd instead be exhorting them to get a gun of their own pronto, and use it to "defend themselves" against their husbands and boyfriends. Guns "even the score", apparently.

Back on Planet Earth, it may well be in many cases that the relationship is indeed the problem. It doesn't change the fact that it's a problem that's generally a hell of a lot less severe when there isn't a gun involved. Most problems are.

Come back, Dustin the Turkey, all is forgiven

In the light of the BBC's decision not to allow the public any say in the selection of this year's UK Eurovision entry for the first time since 1987 (indeed I believe it's the first entirely internal selection ever), I thought I might as well make sure I voted in this year's Irish national final - UK residents were able to vote by mobile phone, thanks to the dedicated numbers for Northern Ireland viewers. For slightly complicated reasons I had to watch the RTÉ webcast with the sound down, so I could only guess at what was going on at various points. However, Cheryl Baker's presence on the panel - love her though I do - didn't exactly inspire confidence that the people of Ireland were being offered the most up-to-date advice on how to go about winning Eurovision. It could, of course, have been worse. It could have been John Barrowman.

Anyway, having listened to the five songs in advance, I decided to vote for Nikki Kavanagh's Falling. It wouldn't have been the most inspiring entry, but when I tell you that her main competition was Jedward - I'll say that again, JEDWARD - you might understand my thinking a little better. In my naivety I had thought the 67/33 split in the voting between juries and the public probably meant that sanity would just about prevail, but...well, see for yourself. I'm already starting to feel nostalgic for Dustin the Turkey.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Spot the difference...

Sean Fear in typical form at Political Betting earlier today, gloating about the supposed death of Social Democracy 'across the western world' -

"Put simply, globalisation has overturned the assumptions on which Social Democracy is based...How should Social Democracy respond to this. One option is simply to become a kind of lost cause society, insisting that its philosophy is correct, and the rest of the World is wrong. More likely, Social Democratic parties will have to adapt to a new World order, and accept that they can only win elections by proposing policies that they would have considered appallingly right wing, a few years previously."

But what's this? Here's a typically paranoid view from the North American right, claiming that communism, no less, has been sweeping the board across the western world since the collapse of the Soviet bloc -

"Arbatov understood, given his experience sitting in the privileged seat of the party in Moscow during the Brezhnev period, how the existence of Communist Russia checked the forces of the left in the West, keeping them from gaining influence and power. Now, as Arbatov reflected, since the Soviet Union as a military superpower had collapsed and the threat of Soviet Communism was discarded in the so-called dustbin of history, the spoiled children and beneficiaries of the West’s longest and strongest economic expansion and technological achievements, unparalleled in history, would set forth to do what the Soviet Union could not do — to advance the aim of Communism to wreck liberal capitalism from the inside."

Well, one thing's for sure - they can't both be right. Whisper it gently, but perhaps neither of them are?

Too many eggs in one basket?

I didn't see tonight's edition of Newsnight Scotland, but if this article on the BBC website gives an accurate sense of what Alex Salmond said, I must say it strikes me as another troubling example of the SNP putting, if not all their eggs in one basket, then certainly a few too many of them. There's simply no need to act as if only the party that wins the most seats in May has the automatic right to rule. And contrary to the mythology that's grown up about the last election, the SNP didn't actually go down that road in 2007 - at least, not until it was clear that they had one more seat than Labour. Remember Salmond's speech at the Gordon declaration? Reading between the lines, he seemed at that point to be working on the assumption that not only would Labour emerge as the largest party in terms of seats, but would perhaps even sneak the popular vote on the constituency ballot as well. And yet he was still confidently pressing the case for an SNP-led progressive alliance. It was a PR election, after all.

Of course, the primary aim has to be a clear-cut win, but if the SNP were to fall, say, just one or two seats short of Labour's tally, wouldn't it be somewhat frustrating if they had tied themselves up in knots with too many pre-election pronouncements about what constitutes victory and defeat? It may seem improbable that "Two Hoots Tavish" would negotiate seriously with the SNP in that scenario, but as we learnt last May, all sorts of funny and unexpected things can happen in the aftermath of a tight election. Let's give them the maximum opportunity to happen in Scotland's best interests.

Mubarak's IDS moment

Like millions around the world, I was glued to my television screen earlier tonight, eagerly awaiting what was billed as the climax of Egypt's equivalent of the Velvet Revolution. Instead what we got, which historical event was it that it reminded me of again? Ah, that's right, it was the time everyone assumed Iain Duncan Smith was about to resign as Tory leader, only for him to deliver his risible "Unite or Die" speech. The good news for the Egyptian protesters is that IDS was eventually forced out, kicking and screaming. The bad news is that Michael Howard replaced him.

That's the frivolous answer, but the more troubling one is that the trajectory of events could also be seen as vaguely reminscent of what happened in China in 1989. The public support for the student protests in Tiananmen Square was so overwhelming that, for a few days, democratic reform seemed all but inevitable. Let's hope against hope that history doesn't repeat itself, but it is a timely reminder that the moment of greatest hope can sometimes prove to be the midwife of despair.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

"Electoral reform" and "welfare reform" - either both terms are justifiable, or neither are

As I'm registered with the Yes To Fairer Votes campaign (which seeks a Yes vote in the AV referendum in May), I received an email yesterday inviting me to put my name to a petition calling on the BBC to reverse their decision - taken under pressure from the No side - to stop referring to AV as "electoral reform". Caron Lindsay later took up the issue by quoting the dictionary definition of the word "reform", and pointing out -

"By any standards, changing the voting system so that MPs have to work harder to win the trust of half of their electorate is a change for the better, and deserves to be called a reform."

Although I entirely agree with that, I must say that in the context of the petition it's a slightly odd, and almost certainly counter-productive, argument to be putting forward. Essentially it invites the BBC to accept the belief of the Yes campaign that AV represents a positive change, and reject the belief of the No campaign that it represents a backward step. How can they possibly do that without contravening the requirement for impartiality?

A much better argument to advance is surely that of consistency. The broadcasters seem to have no difficulty whatever buying into the concept of public service "reform", NHS "reform", welfare "reform", etc, etc, in spite of the fact that there are any number of people in each case who regard such a label as utterly outrageous. The only justification I can think of is that the broadcasters imagine themselves to be effectively "quoting" the proponents of change, without necessarily endorsing the sentiment that it is a change for the better. Well, surely the same principle applies here? The proponents of AV call it electoral reform, therefore so should the broadcasters. Either that, or I look forward to not hearing the Orwellian phrase "welfare reform" uttered by a newsreader ever again.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Panic over, guys - apparently we've already got our perfect meritocracy

There's an extraordinarily provocative piece in the Telegraph from Peter Saunders, claiming that the fact that the overwhelming majority of places at the top universities go to private school pupils is exactly as it should be, because "intelligence is unequally distributed across the social classes". He innocently protests that discrimination based on anything other than intelligence is barely conceivable -

"Left to themselves, universities will admit the brightest students from across the social spectrum without being told. It’s what most academics went into the job to do."

Oh, really? So why do Oxford and Cambridge have an interview process, rather than relying solely on objective evidence of academic performance? I'd suggest it's to test whether a candidate is sufficiently "articulate" and "confident", which regardless of past achievement (much less raw intelligence) they're far less likely to be if they attended a state school, and especially if they come from a working class background. The fact that the academics concerned are probably genuinely oblivious to the nature of this bias really isn't a lot of comfort.

Saunders also relates an anecdote about a girl from an inner-city comprehensive who was horrified to learn of a scheme to reserve university places for people like her -

“I’m not coming to a place like this,” she said, “where you think I need special treatment different from everyone else.”

That's a fine ideal in theory, but if she and Saunders have her way, she may well find the words "I'm not coming to a place like this" were rather prescient - just not in the way she intended.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Richard Baker : "And we did not seek their view either..."

Many years ago, I became reasonably well-read on the scientific research into the human form of mad cow disease. I've probably forgotten about 80% of what I learned, but at the time I was knowledgeable enough that when a news story cropped up on the subject, I was able to meaningfully judge for myself whether it stacked up, and if so what the true significance was. As a result I was genuinely shocked to discover just how often journalists in the quality press and television news - ie. the ones you trust, not tabloid hacks who you fully expect to lie and distort at every turn - make sloppy factual errors, or exaggerate wildly for sensationalist effect. The angle on any given day would always be one of two extremes - the BSE scare was over, or else it was "much worse than previously thought". Either the best-case or worst-case scenario of what the science was saying would be selectively reported to suit the occasion. Nuance was never an option, even when that was precisely what the facts demanded - which they invariably did.

So it really is quite a jolt when you first get to the point of knowing enough about a subject to realise just how amateurish journalists can be, but it's happened to me a number of times since then. Today was an absolutely textbook example. The only thing anyone can find to pin on the SNP government in the documents released on the Megrahi affair is the apparent belief in Whitehall in late 2007 that Kenny MacAskill was looking to do a deal on slopping-out compensation and the devolution of legislative powers on airguns. Alex Salmond has explained very convincingly the good reasons for taking that belief with a bucket-load of salt - if Jack Straw was going to win concessions from his colleagues, it suited his purpose to present the position as "MacAskill looking for a deal". But whether or not we believe that a deal was actually proposed, it's a relatively minor revelation, because it didn't relate to the release of Megrahi. By definition it couldn't have done, because the UK government didn't actually want Megrahi freed at that point - it wasn't until the following year that the policy changed, as a direct result of the diagnosis of the Libyan's illness. When it did, we learn from Gus O'Donnell that London Labour's rather startling strategy for "facilitating" Megrahi's freedom basically consisted of saying as little as possible to the SNP - for fear of "irritating" them! The fact that communicating any desire for compassionate release was seen as totally "counter-productive" tells its own story, and essentially kills the conspiracy theories of any SNP collusion with London in 2009 stone dead.

But have the gentlemen and ladies of the London press noticed any of this? With a few honourable exceptions, the answer is - don't be daft. Even the normally authoritative Channel 4 News baldly claimed at the start of tonight's show that the documents "also show a Scottish government trying to gain other advantages for sending him [Megrahi] back", in spite of the fact that the dates render that a logical impossibility. Upon seeing a near-identical example of journalistic sloppiness (or should that be consciously cavalier treatment of the facts in pursuit of a sensationalist story?) from Paul Waugh, I couldn't resist getting the following out of my system -

"Paul, for the love of God, even the most cursory look at the dates would tell you that conclusion is logic-bending gibberish. The alleged "footsie playing by the Scots" supposedly happened in 2007 - a whole year before O'Donnell claims the British government changed their policy and decided they wanted Megrahi released. How could the Scottish government have gained concessions by offering to do something the UK government didn't actually want at that point? Hint - they couldn't, and therefore, fairly obviously, they didn't.

The allegations of a proposed deal - which Alex Salmond has refuted strongly, and offered credible reasons for doubting - related solely to the possibility of the Scottish government dropping their public opposition to a PTA with Libya that didn't specifically exclude Megrahi. That would have been a relatively minor shift on their part - but it was, for the record, one they didn't make. This is pretty basic stuff, and all in the documents. Now forgive me for lapsing into cliché, but the fact that so many London-based correspondents seem incapable of comprehending what is there for them in black and white really does call the standard of journalism in this country into severe question."

But however frustrating the distortions of today have been, I'm in little doubt that the SNP have taken a stride forward as far as the "long game" is concerned. On all the salient points, the documents bear out what they've been saying all along, and have left Labour - especially Scottish Labour - looking like rank hypocrites. The latter now have very little option but to stick to the absurd line that "if Iain Gray had been First Minister, Megrahi would still be behind bars", but there can't be a single person in Scotland who seriously believes that anymore. Whether Gray's personal stance in 2009 was sincere or not (and I have my doubts), the only premiership of his in which Megrahi wouldn't have been returned to Libya is a purely theoretical one in which he paid no attention whatever to the wishes of his colleagues in London. Everyone knows that could never have happened, because he's Labour, and the first loyalty of Labour First Ministers is always to the UK party leader - not to his or her own values, let alone to the people of Scotland.

Thankfully, one news source we can absolve of the charge of sloppiness tonight is Newsnight Scotland, which zoned straight in on the key question - when Scottish Labour were sanctimoniously denouncing the decision to release Megrahi, had they already been told that their London masters wanted him freed? Richard Baker's answer when pressed on that point spoke volumes -

"And we did not seek their view either."

Note the omission of the obvious word "no" at the start of that sentence. That makes it a non-denial denial, something which generally isn't issued by a politician without very, very good reason.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

On Planet Staines, John McTernan going off on one about the SNP constitutes a "smoking gun"

Paul Staines, aka Guido Fawkes, has triumphantly produced an email written by John McTernan (Labour media tart and recreational Nat-basher, but at that point special adviser to the Scottish Secretary), claiming that it is the long-awaited "smoking gun" that the SNP did a deal to release Megrahi. The story also appears in the Mail on Sunday, whose headline hysterically screams "Scottish Ministers offered to free Lockerbie bomber in secret deal to end 'slop bucket' payments to prisoners". Now, I'd gently suggest to Staines that it might have been an idea to keep the email to himself, because although his near orgasmic excitement is clearly blinding him to this fact, the gap between what is contained in the actual text and the ludicrous claims that are being made on the basis of it is several light-years wide. Let's run through some of the problems thrown up by the rather creative "interpretation" of this fragment of correspondence, shall we?

1) The Date. McTernan's email is dated 9th November 2007. Megrahi was released on compassionate grounds because he was dying - or, if you're Paul Staines, that was the "pretext" for releasing him. So if a deal was being done to facilitate that process, you'd think it might just have happened after Megrahi's illness had actually been diagnosed, which didn't occur until well into 2008. If we're instead expected to believe that the SNP were preparing the ground to release him on an entirely different basis (presumably prisoner transfer, which wouldn't strictly speaking have been a "release" at all) then they had an awfully funny way of going about it. At that point they were volubly demanding that Megrahi be excluded from the Prisoner Transfer Agreement altogether, which would have ruled out even the theoretical possibility of his release from a Scottish jail unless his conviction had been quashed. Even purely from a PR point of view, it seems somewhat implausible that they were contemplating moving from that highly popular public position of principled and total opposition to one of "actually, guys, on second thoughts we might as well release him, because we've got some concessions on airguns and slopping out".

2) What was the "deal" actually supposed to be about? From the way the Mail and Staines report the story, you'd be forgiven for thinking that the email spells out that the alleged deal concerned the release of Megrahi. It does no such thing. Indeed, the only clue about what McTernan was getting at points overwhelmingly to the completely opposite conclusion -

"Jack should be aware that MacAskill may well want to portray this as him negotiating with the UK government on an international treaty - though we know that putting a statement of fact into the PTA, to the effect that Scottish Ministers have final say on prisoners in Scottish jails, does not require final say from the Scottish Executive".

So the discussions seemed to be merely aimed at reaching a public agreement over toughening up the language of the PTA, not at reaching a deal over what the SNP would then go on to do if the PTA was enacted, ie. whether Megrahi would be released. The best evidence that it had nothing to do with the latter is that McTernan and the UK government seem to be rebuffing MacAskill's alleged suggestions on the grounds that they don't actually need his permission to conclude the PTA on any basis they see fit. But they certainly would have needed his cooperation (and far more than that) if the purpose of the discussion had been to actively secure Megrahi's release.

3) Second-hand information. It's quite clear from McTernan's own words that he hadn't been present at the "discussion with MacAskill" - he is simply relaying second-hand information based on what officials have told him. And even that information seems startlingly vague -

"but that he [MacAskill] indicated he wanted to do a 'deal'".

Why is the word "deal" in inverted commas here? There could be many reasons, but my guess is that it was intended to convey that it was merely the officials' impression that a deal was being sought, and wasn't something that had actually been stated - that would be consistent with the very careful use of the word "indicated".

4) The name "John McTernan". To coin a phrase, we might wish for more reliable witnesses, especially when something as dramatic as a "smoking gun" is being claimed. Ideally, a document from a Scottish government source, but at the very least from a more sober Whitehall official. It may seem incredible that McTernan would bother with his trademark spinning against the SNP when corresponding privately with another Labour special adviser, but his final paragraph leaves little room for doubt that is exactly what he is doing -

"On Somerville, our law officer believes that Scottish Ministers are having a laugh. They could have ended slopping out by building private prisons but did not have the courage...they lost fair and square - the solution is for them not to screw up again in future."

So let's sum up what this "evidence" amounts to. Well, first and foremost it suggests that one of Labour's Nat-bashers liked to do a spot of Nat-bashing in his spare time. There's a shocker. It also suggests that this completely objective source of information had claimed that his officials' perception was that MacAskill wanted a "deal" of some kind - but as he hadn't been in the room at the time, he was in no position to judge if that perception was remotely justified. Most importantly of all, we know nothing about what the alleged proposal of a "deal" related to, but what little evidence there is in the email points to it being something completely different to that claimed by the Mail and Staines - ie. nothing whatever to do with the release of Megrahi.

And we're supposed to be impressed by that little lot? Dream on, Paul.