Saturday, May 21, 2011

A plea to London journalists : stop tormenting us with these impossible questions

As a public service, I thought I'd try to assist yet another befuddled journalist - this time Stephen Moss of the Guardian - with his list of fiendishly difficult questions about the independence referendum...

"I dislike nationalist politics and hope the Scots give a resounding no to the question of seceding from the union. That vote will be fraught with difficulty. Who will be the electorate?"

The people of Scotland.

"Will it just be the 5.2 million people in Scotland, which includes half a million people born in England and plenty from elsewhere?"


"Or will it include the 800,000 born in Scotland but living in England..?"


"Who has the right to rule on the question of statehood?"

The residents of the territory in question, in line with the long-established principle of self-determination.

"Do people in the rest of the UK have the right to vote on whether Scotland should leave the union?"

No. See above.

"And if Scotland wants to leave, why not Wales or Cornwall or Northumbria?"

Absolutely, if they want to. But not if they don't.

"And what if the Orkneys and Shetlands want to express their own very different identities?"

They should be allowed to. Although I might have had more faith in your knowledge of those different identities if you hadn't made the classic schoolboy/weatherman error of referring to them as "the Orkneys" and "the Shetlands".

"A Breton or a Bavarian is every bit as proud of his or her regional identity as a Scot. Should they be given the right to secede?"

Yes, if they want to. I'm starting to feel like I'm repeating myself here.

"Should Basques and Catalans leave Spain?"

If they want to. (*Suppresses yawn*)

"Should the political absurdity that is Belgium break up?"

If either Wallonia or Flanders (or both) vote to become independent, then yes. If not, no.

Streuth, that was exhausting. After a grilling like that, explaining the Hegelian dialectic is going to be a walk in the park.

The fundamental reality

I may have had a small grumble the other day about Professor James Mitchell's lack of linguistic precision over the future of the "United Kingdom", but I certainly don't have any quibbles about his latest superb article for the Scotsman, in which he explains how pretty much all of the constitutional 'fundamentalists' are now to be found on the unionist side of the fence -

"Adding to this inhibition has been the tendency to try to re-build barriers that the electorate have smashed down again and again. The idea of unionism vs nationalism implies an alliance between Labour, Conservatives and Liberal Democrats against the SNP. It is not unusual for an emerging political party to be treated as some kind of upstart and marginalised by more established parties but at some points the SNP's opponents will look around the Holyrood chamber and realize who the electorate deems marginal.

The most striking case is to be found in the Liberal Democrats, a party that was once more sophisticated than most in its understanding of the complexities of constitutional politics. Over forty years ago the Scottish Liberal Party passed a resolution demanding that "Scotland now have direct representation at all levels of the (European] Community". Few parties have managed to squander such a rich constitutional inheritance as the Liberal Democrats."

That, in a nutshell, is what was so wrong with Willie Rennie declaring within hours of becoming Lib Dem leader that there is a consensus "between the parties" for the Calman proposals as they stand. It was clinging to the comfort of the old days when the SNP could be safely ignored as the 'odd ones out' and you could still have your "consensus" without them. But how does that work now that the 'odd ones out' have an absolute majority of seats in the Scottish Parliament? And, in any case, where do the Greens and Margo fit in to all this? It seems to me that the only real question is whether what we are seeing from Rennie and others is just a temporary phase as they struggle to adjust to the new political environment, or whether they really do intend to remain in this state of obstructionist denial for the full five-year term.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Has Senator Menendez heard the good news yet?

The reappointment of Kenny MacAskill as Justice Secretary for a second term was fully expected, but no less symbolically important for all that. One of the (many) things that had depressed me over the last year as I contemplated the prospect of the SNP losing the election was that some of our "friends" on the other side of the Atlantic might misinterpret it as a vindication of their rather colourful critique (if I can dignify it with such a term) of the decision to release Megrahi. But I needn't have worried. The Scottish government's renewed and enhanced mandate, Kenny MacAskill's own comfortable re-election in Edinburgh East, and Alex Salmond's vote of confidence in his Justice Secretary all send a powerful message to presumptuous US politicians and officials like Robert Menendez and Robert Mueller - assuming these most insular of men ever find out about any of it. I had thought of tipping Menendez the wink via Twitter, but by the look of his account his tweets are probably written by a staffer!

* * *

The parliamentary vote to formally re-elect Alex Salmond as First Minister on Wednesday reminded me of what seems to be a major flaw in the rules. One of the most important principles is that a fresh general election must be called if a First Minister isn't chosen within a month - this is to ensure that a stalemate parliament where no administration can possibly command sufficient support is quickly put out of its misery. But the rules fail to achieve that for one simple reason - abstentions aren't taken into account when determining what constitutes a majority. That doesn't matter if, as on this occasion, there is only one candidate - those members who want to express their lack of confidence in the candidate can simply vote against rather than abstain. But as soon as more than one candidate is validly nominated, a problem kicks in - there's no provision in the rules to vote down all of them, so long as the very modest quorum is reached. If, for example, Conservative and Liberal Democrat MSPs had decided four years ago that they weren't prepared to accept either Alex Salmond or Jack McConnell as First Minister, how could they have voted both down in the final ballot? They couldn't, even though there would have been a natural majority against both candidates.

Of course, in those circumstances an incoming government would probably have been swiftly defeated in a vote of confidence. But in theory the same First Minister could then have been re-elected on a minority vote, and the whole circular process could have carried on and on. Surely there's an obvious way round this problem - if the most popular candidate for FM doesn't have an absolute majority, he or she should then be subjected to an additional affirmative ballot, just to check that the majority of parliamentarians are at least prepared to tolerate the incoming administration. Cumbersome, admittedly, but it could potentially save a lot of grief in the long run.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

The Clarke episode illustrates everything that is wrong with our politics

I feel slightly queasy embarking on a post defending a Tory cabinet minister (let alone one of the Thatcher vintage), but here goes anyway. Having finally heard the relevant extract from Ken Clarke's now-notorious radio interview, it's quite clear that his mouth did run away with him, and he ultimately said something extremely stupid. But a fair amount of the blame for a train-wreck of an interview must lie with Victoria Derbyshire, who by the sounds of things fancies herself as the Paxman of Radio Five Live, and who barely gave Clarke the space to complete a word, let alone a sentence. In his losing battle to quell Ms Derbyshire's sneers, he blurted out in mangled form a couple of points - one of which was outrageous and I trust he didn't mean, but the other of which actually had a degree of validity, however poorly expressed. The latter was his reference to a scenario where two teenagers very close in age have consensual sex, but this is defined as rape because one of the two is just over the age of consent, and the other is just below it. Clarke's mistake was to imply that such cases are 'less serious rape', whereas what he should have been querying is whether they should really be treated as rape at all. Apart from anything else (and to return to a topic I've touched on in the past), it's hard to imagine that many seventeen-year-old girls are ever charged with rape for having consensual sex with boys who are just short of their sixteenth birthday, and yet the principle is absolutely identical.

Where Clarke said something reprehensible and didn't simply mis-speak was in his implication that date-rape is not "serious rape". But, even so, bearing in mind that this was a garbled, poorly-thought-through comment in the context of an absurdly belligerent interview, the fact that Ed Miliband immediately piled in and demanded Clarke's instant resignation tells you everything you need to know about what is wrong with our politics. And if that wasn't enough, we then had Labour MP Bridget Phillipson on Channel 4 News declaring that Clarke's modest efforts to reorient the criminal justice system towards rehabilitation and the reduction of reoffending meant that he was 'on the side of rapists and violent criminals'. Given that those words were clearly pre-planned and carefully considered, in many ways I regard them as far more offensive than the stupid things Clarke found himself saying under pressure.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Scottish Liberal Democrats take (another) step backwards

Willie Rennie, from the little I've seen of him over the years, seems like a decent bloke, and I have a feeling he'll have more of a personal appeal than his predecessor Tavish Scott. Paradoxically, that's partly because he's less polished than Tavish, who often looked as if he was reading from a script even when he wasn't - Rennie comes across as unspun, and therefore more genuine. That's the good news for his party. But where to start with the bad news? The new leader basically had to make two big strategic calls to set the course for electoral recovery. Firstly, he needed to argue the case for the kind of substantial constitutional progress that would break the Scottish Lib Dems out of the straightjacket of being just another shade of grey, humdrum unionism. Secondly, he needed to make a psychological (if not literal) break with the federal party and its catastrophic alliance with the Conservatives. Rennie has flunked both tasks on day one - and he's seemingly done it with his eyes wide open. All he's offering on the constitution is more of the same (after all nothing's really changed, has it?), and he's incredibly offering an even closer relationship with Clegg and the gang than before. As noted here a number of times, Tavish's stance on the latter point during the election campaign was intellectually incoherent - if you wanted to know about something good the UK party had done, he was your man, but if it was something more toxic for heaven's sake go and ask them about it. But at least that showed a flickering of understanding of the kind of distancing that was required to limit the damage. Rennie, by contrast, is giving every indication of being a party leader who quite comprehensively does not "get it" at all.

Specifically on the constitution, it seemed to me that there were three gaping holes in Rennie's line of argument on Newsnight Scotland tonight -

1) He repeatedly claimed that the Calman proposals had to be adhered to because a consensus between "the parties" had been reached. That was a dubious point even before the election given that only three of the five parties in the Scottish parliament were on board for Calman, but now? Can minority opinion at Holyrood really be described as a "consensus"?

2) He stressed that Alex Salmond couldn't claim a mandate for greater powers for the Scottish Parliament, because that issue hadn't been to the forefront of the campaign that won the SNP the election. But he then curiously made the claim that the unionist parties themselves had an "overwhelming mandate" to proceed with Calman on the basis of the 2010 general election result. The difficulty there is that I'm struggling to recall Calman being mentioned any more frequently during that campaign than the SNP's plans for greater powers were during the Holyrood contest. Rennie's own logic therefore surely suggests that the unionist parties can't possibly claim a mandate for their preferred constitutional blueprint - even if we were to accept the dubious premise that the 2010 result hasn't been superceded by more recent events.

3) A key part of the rationale for claiming a "consensus" in favour of Calman was always that of a dual mandate encompassing both Westminster and Holyrood - the unionist majority at Holyrood (which was complacently assumed to be virtually permanent) was endlessly cited as being just as critical a factor as the unionist majority at Westminster, and this interpretation was made concrete by the involvement of the devolved parliament in the scrutiny of the Scotland Bill. Having made such a song and dance of the arithmetic at Holyrood when it suited the unionist case, it simply won't wash for Rennie to now claim that a Westminster mandate alone is sufficient to proceed as if nothing had changed. The logic of the previous stance surely demands that a compromise between the two parliaments must now be reached.

Incidentally, does anyone remember the glee with which the London coalition partners pointed out a year ago that their combined vote in Scotland at the 2010 election exceeded the 32.9% support that the SNP secured in winning office? They must feel so nostalgic for the days when they could fall back on that line...

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Since you asked, Alan...

Alan Cochrane seems to have rather a lot of nagging questions and doubts about this new-fangled "independence-lite" concept. I really wouldn't want his nights to become tormented over this, so I feel it's my duty to help set his mind at rest...

"The stuff they’re advocating is the same old warmed over nonsense that they continually fall back on whenever they’re faced with the certainty that, their stupendous Holyrood election result notwithstanding, hardly anyone in Scotland supports their core objective of separation."

"Hardly anyone" seems to refer to the trifling 38% of the electorate a recent ComRes poll found to be in favour of independence. Even the last YouGov survey put the figure at 29%.

"The idea that Mr Salmond and his team no longer wish for Scotland to take its “rightful place” – their words, not mine – among the community of nations at the UN and EU is nonsense."

Glad you've noticed. They've only made that clear about 798 times over the last ten days.

"but how could these international bodies accept not one but two states from these islands as full members?"

They already do, Alan. Those states are commonly known as the "United Kingdom" and the "Republic of Ireland". Easy mistake to make, though - the latter country has been relatively low-profile (at least for Telegraph readers) over the years, but now the British monarch has graced it with her presence it may finally enjoy a brief moment in the sun.

"And if Scotland wasn’t admitted to the United Nations or European Union, what kind of independence would that be?"

See above. Although I would have thought a rabid Eurosceptic like Alan ought to be insisting (like the troll over at Stuart Dickson's blog) that Scotland could only really be independent if it doesn't join the EU.

"How could we share defence policy, when an SNP run Scotland would ban the use of Faslane as home to Britain’s nuclear deterrent and would object to Scottish troops being used in conflicts of which Mr Salmond disapproved; never forget his “unpardonable folly” jibe about the West’s offensive against Serbia in Bosnia (sic)?"

Which, I would have thought, also begs the question of how Britain and France's defence capabilities could become as intertwined and mutually dependent as they just have when the two countries were at loggerheads over the war in Iraq - a more recent conflict than Kosovo, in case Alan hasn't noticed. Answer : when it's in the overwhelming strategic and economic interests of two countries for such pooling of resources to take place, it's likely to happen. It doesn't preclude either side from opting out of a piece of reckless and unlawful adventurism.

"Perhaps above all, how could an independent Scotland share macro-economic policy with England, presumably eschewing the euro and continuing with sterling? That way Scotland would be bound still to ‘English’ interest rate policy. What’s independent about that?"

Again, I'll have to direct Alan's attention towards that obscure entity known as the "Republic of Ireland". The Irish retained sterling for five decades after independence - I doubt, in any case, that Scotland will be breaking their record.

"this latest flurry is merely the latest bid by the Nats not to frighten the horses and part of their incremental tactics to get what they want – which is "a completely separate state outside the United Kingdom". I was roundly criticised by Mr Salmond when this newspaper tested that precise formula in an opinion poll a few years ago. He accused me of using negative – that word again – concepts to attack his plans."

Ah, so it was your idea to turn YouGov into a laughing-stock by insisting on such an absurdly biased and emotionally-laden wording, Alan? That explains a lot. I trust in that case you'd have no difficulty accepting the findings of any SNP-commissioned poll that innocently asked the electorate if they want Scotland to be "a normal independent country with normal powers".

"With constitutional experts, such as Vernon Bogdanor...pouring buckets of cold water of these latest Nat ideas, it really is time for so-called Unionists to see what the SNP is up to."

Vernon Bogdanor is a likeable guy who added much-needed gravitas to the BBC's election night coverage last year, but he's an avowed unionist and an utter dinosaur on the question of British sovereignty. Hardly the most objective authority to pray in aid.

"As far all those Nat activists are concerned, I have only this to say: If this new policy really is Salmond-approved, did you work your guts out in that election to remain part of the hated British state?"

An academic question. But by that logic, "Nat activists" shouldn't have bust a gut campaigning for a devolved parliament within the British state in the 1997 referendum. No, that never got us anywhere, did it Alan?

Or perhaps it was the message that needed tweaking?

According to the Independent, "Europe's last dictator" may be in danger of losing the plot -

"The Belarusian leader has long been seen as a skilled political operator...but analysts are now asking whether the moustachioed strongman might have lost touch with reality. Mr Lukashenko's rhetoric in recent weeks has become increasingly aggressive, as he has criticised "nauseating" democracy and the country's political opposition, and even suggested that Belarus's failure to qualify for last weekend's Eurovision Song Contest was part of a sinister Western plot against the country."

Granted, vote-rigging is one logical possibility for what went wrong at Eurovision. Another possibility is that the people of Europe may have been somewhat bemused that a country trying to shed its image of being caught in a Soviet time-warp would want to enter a song entitled I Love Belarus, and featuring the following lyrics -

"I'm feeling great and it's easy to be strong
When all the hearts keep on beating as one
The sky is blue and I'm writing a new song
Saying that I'm free, friendly and young

I have so much and I'm ready to show you
Let's come together, so here is my hand
We're gonna fly watching lakes in their full view
Fields are full of gold, and it's all my land

I - LOVE - BELARUS, got it deep inside
I - LOVE - BELARUS, feel it in my mind"

All that's really missing is "glorious is our leader, purging the counter-revolutionaries". But we shouldn't knock it - the song may not have qualified for the final, but it did receive twenty more points than Latvia's somewhat less ideologically-driven call for us to "stare me with candy eyes, love me with luscious thighs".

Actually, it occurred to me the other day that the sole advantage of Eurovision's recent notoriety for political voting is that the contest is now virtually immune (or at least ought to be) from the paranoia over vote-fixing that plagues so many TV talent and reality shows. If the EBU were going to rig it, they'd surely go about it in a slightly more subtle way.

He's back!

A welcome return to the cut-and-thrust tonight for star Scottish Labour blogger Councillor Alex Gall...sorry, "Braveheart", as he offers the SNP an invaluable pep-talk on the challenges of the five years of majority rule that lie ahead -

"Anyweys, you are right to be trepidatious. So many difficult decisions to be taken and nowhere to hide and no-one to blame.

And a referendum not to be dodged this time....

It's cauld oot there....."

Now, you might recall that this is the very same Braveheart who thoughtfully took the time to caution me against drawing any false hope from a TNS-BMRB poll back in March -

"Not such a consolation: it has Labour on 59 seats (up 13 and the same as an Ipsos/Mori poll
(sic) two weeks ago) and the SNP on 39 (-8).

The SNP complained that the Ipsos/Mori poll
(sic) had used adjusted figures to show Labour's lead.

The TNS-BMRB poll uses "unadjusted", raw figures. But it still produces the same broad result......."

Yup, there's no denying it - two months is a long, long time in politics. But it seems that one thing has remained reassuringly constant over that period.

It's still a bloomin' disaster for the SNP.

Monday, May 16, 2011

'There will always be a United Kingdom'

In this whole debate about "independence-lite" that has suddenly sprung up, one catchphrase that is really beginning to get on my nerves (purely on the grounds of a lack of accuracy and linguistic precision) is Professor James Mitchell's "there will always be a United Kingdom in some form", which he repeated again tonight on Michael Portillo's documentary about Alex Salmond. Portillo was evidently so taken by it that he used it himself on This Week last Thursday.

Stripping away all the speculation about how a new confederal arrangement with the rest of Britain might work, I presume what Mitchell is really getting at is simply that the SNP support the retention of the monarchy. But that doesn't in itself assure the United Kingdom of a future. After all, we currently have the same Queen as Canada, New Zealand and Jamaica - does that mean these countries are all part of the "United Kingdom"? Of course not. The constitutional relationship between the different Commonwealth realms is, to all intents and purposes, what used to be described as a 'personal union' - different kingdoms ruled by the same monarch. (And of course the concept of being 'ruled' is a purely nominal one in the age of constitutional monarchy.) That's almost certainly the model an independent Scotland - whether of the 'lite' or 'full fat' variety - would follow.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

When will Mexico stop this imaginary barbarity?

One of the joys of having an extended family in the US is that I occasionally catch sight of pearls of wisdom on Facebook such as this -

"Check the law again. It is a felony to be in this country illegally. Try being in another country illegally and see what happens. Most places imprison and some, like Mexico may even execute."

Which would be a truly fabulous point, but for one small detail - nobody has been executed in Mexico since 1961, and capital punishment was formally abolished in 2005.

And you'll fly over lands where your eyes can't find the end

Well, if I had any sense I would hang up my Eurovision prediction shoes at this point, but I don't think I'll be the only person feeling that way tonight! Although few anticipated Italy's runner-up spot, with the benefit of hindsight it's not hard to understand how it happened, because stylistically the song stood out an absolute mile. But Ukraine in fourth? I'm still scratching my head. OK, they're one of the countries who traditionally benefit from political voting and that was certainly the case tonight, but that can't be the whole of the explanation. It's hard to escape the conclusion that people were voting for the sand-artist rather than for the song or the singer.

Even though it wasn't the outcome I anticipated, I'm reasonably happy with it - at least the Azerbaijani song had a bit of charm and warmth about it, which is more than can be said for the typically formulaic Swedish offering. But it's interesting to see that Azerbaijan didn't win their semi-final (they were second behind Greece), so clearly there was nothing inevitable about the result. I was also really delighted when Italy pipped Sweden to second place with the very last vote cast. Hopefully this success should now cement Italy's place in the contest after a fourteen-year absence - although it has to be said that when they called it a day after 1997 it was off the back of an excellent fourth-place finish, so you just never know!

As I find myself saying at this point every year, it's undeniable that political voting continues to plague the contest. It probably didn't decide the winner this year, as all of the top-placed countries had natural allies (even Italy had San Marino and Malta), so it would have evened itself out to some extent. And we also know from Finland's victory a few years back that it's possible for countries with few allies to overcome the bias and win big. But there's no getting away from the fact that it's a significant disadvantage for some countries, and unquestionably affected the final rankings tonight. It's hard to see an obvious solution other than something very contrived such as giving each country a 'blacklist' of neighbours and friends they're not allowed to vote for. Even returning to a 100% jury vote wouldn't necessarily resolve the problem - Greece and Cyprus used to routinely swap twelve points every bit as much in the old days.

Incidentally, my one small criticism of Graham Norton (who in general was excellent again) is that I wish he would study a map of Europe before commentating on the voting. I couldn't believe he didn't pick up on the significance of Romania and Moldova voting for each other!

My own votes went to France and Spain - and funnily enough I think I might have done that even without my personal rule of only voting for songs not performed in English. I hadn't previously paid a huge amount of attention to the Spanish entry, partly because it wasn't involved in the semi-finals, but I completely fell in love with it tonight. Sad to see it didn't get the support it deserved - and the lowly ranking of Austria disappointed me a bit as well.

Last but not least, I'm really chuffed to say that this blog received the biggest number of visitors in its three-year history yesterday (ie. Saturday) as people landed here after searching for Eurovision predictions. Thanks to everyone for dropping by - I just wish I could have been more accurate for you! Ah well, at least I can cling to having got Denmark in the right place...