Saturday, May 28, 2011

An attempt to spread democracy to that unlikeliest of places : the United Kingdom

Thought I'd give a quick plug to an Unlock Democracy petition I've just signed calling on the coalition government to deliver an elected second chamber within the lifetime of this parliament. Although Nick Clegg recently unveiled plans to do just that, there have been a lot of mutterings from the usual suspects suggesting that there isn't a cat in hell's chance of it actually happening, because nobody cares about the subject and it's all far too difficult anyway. There have also been siren voices telling the Lib Dems that they can't afford to preoccupy themselves with 'process' anymore, and need to focus on (if you'll forgive the phrase) the things that really matter. So any small steps that we can take to stiffen their resolve can't do any harm - after all, try telling gay men that 'process' doesn't matter when it was the Lords who blocked equality before the law in the 1990s, on the basis of no popular mandate whatsoever. It's high time the UK was dragged kicking and screaming into joining the rest of Western Europe in the democratic age.

If you'd like to sign the petition, it can be found here.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Try telling the Nordic countries you need to have a single state to retain a multi-national identity

You may recall our old friend Chekov, the self-styled Northern Ireland 'liberal unionist' blogger who curiously chooses to channel his liberalism by being an enthusiastic cheerleader for the Conservative party. Anyway, it suddenly occurred to me that on past form he probably would have had some stern words to say about recent developments on this side of the North Channel, and after a quick search it turned out that I was at least half-right. Referring to David Mitchell's Observer article on a perceived threat to British identity following the SNP's win, he writes -

"It's not an unprecedented state of mind to which Mitchell refers. Many citizens of the former Yugoslavia, for instance, mourn their multi-national state and their multinational identity. Let's hope that there is no opportunity for a similar sense of loss in the United Kingdom. The Scots, Welsh, English and Irish nations can be accommodated within the UK in a way that is simply not possible the other way about."

Well now. It seems the election result has had an impact already - as I've highlighted many times, Chekov has been notably reluctant in the past to concede that Scotland is actually a 'nation' at all. The Scottish Tories got over that particular hang-up years ago, but to Chekov we stubbornly remained a mere 'region', with a 'regional parliament'. If we're now getting the honeyed words treatment even from a liberal unionist, the situation must be grave indeed.

I first read David Mitchell's piece a few days ago, and it was an impressive one - unlike the offerings from so many other scribes in the "UK press", it was clearly written from the heart. But I'm equally convinced he's fretting over nothing in fearing the loss of his British identity. If Chekov is so sure that a multi-national identity can only exist within the straightjacket of a single state, he'll have to explain how, for instance, the shared Nordic identity has proved so resilient following the independence of Norway from Sweden, and of Iceland from Denmark. Indeed, doesn't the close political relationship between all of those countries within the Nordic Council bear a striking resemblance to the post-independence confederal relationship between Scotland and the rest of the UK that is now being strongly hinted at by SNP sources?

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Has Scotland suddenly become one of Labour's weakest areas?

It's been fascinating since the Holyrood election to see how Labour's support in Scotland seems to have slumped to a level closer to that you'd expect in the south of England, rather than one of their heartland areas. As an illustration, here are the party's regional voting intention shares from the last four GB-wide YouGov polls -

18th May :

North of England 52%
Midlands/Wales 43%
London 41%
South (excluding London) 31%
Scotland 28%

19th-20th May :

North of England 55%
Midlands/Wales 44%
London 44%
Scotland 35%
South (excluding London) 33%

22nd-23rd May :

North of England 55%
Midlands/Wales 46%
Scotland 39%
London 38%
South (excluding London) 31%

23rd-24th May :

North of England 56%
Midlands/Wales 47%
London 40%
Scotland 38%
South (excluding London) 31%

Of course, this may well be nothing more than a transitory side-effect of the SNP's honeymoon period. All the same, it's a timely reminder that taking your core vote for granted is all very well - up to the point that your core vote finds somewhere else to go.

The gun control dividend

A few months ago, I suggested that you didn't need to look much further than the disparity between US and European life expectancy to work out that the much-vaunted "choice" and "excellence" of the US health system simply doesn't deliver what is claimed of it. But there is also another all-too-familiar factor at play in the relatively low US life expectancy figures -

"The US remains far behind most other affluent countries in terms of life expectancy. One of the possible causes of this life expectancy gap is the widespread availability of firearms and the resulting high number of US firearm fatalities: 10,801 homicides in 2000. The European Union experienced 1,260 homicides, Japan only 22. Using multiple decrement techniques, we show that firearm violence shortens the life of an average American by 104 days (151 days for white males, 362 days for black males)."

So it seems we can reasonably conclude that male life expectancy in this country is boosted by several months as a result of our saner gun laws.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Nation shall speak irrelevance unto another nation

Joan McAlpine MSP has an excellent article in the Scotsman today about how Scotland is poorly served by a public service broadcaster that has yet to come to terms with devolution - and how that problem may be about to get much, much worse if the proposal to turn BBC2 into a 'network-only' channel goes through (it would, by definition, mean the demise of Newsnight Scotland and a considerable amount of Gaelic-language programming). The piece also includes the new titbit of information (or if it had been previously revealed I wasn't aware of it) that the producers of Question Time withdrew an invitation for an SNP representative to take part in the first edition of the show after the Holyrood election, because the party was unable to put forward Salmond or Sturgeon and offered the Education Secretary Mike Russell instead. I trust no TV interviewer will ever again have the gall to ask about the SNP being a "one-man band" after that little revelation!

Just by coincidence, my attention was drawn to a forum thread the other day (because someone linked to here from it) discussing the merits of the Scottish Six idea. One of the arguments against it was that countries with highly decentralised political systems such as the USA and Australia nevertheless have nationwide network TV news programmes, just as the UK does. That's quite true, but it's still a red herring. The US and Australia both have fully federal systems, which means that network news programmes will generally focus on what the federal government is up to, and will only deal with state-level matters if it's of genuine nationwide relevance or interest. Otherwise, people have to go to their local media for coverage of domestic state issues. But under the UK system of asymmetric devolution, 'national' broadcasters have a ready-made excuse for endlessly focussing on domestic English affairs - namely that those matters remain the province of the UK government, and therefore must be of interest to a UK-wide audience. Even when they aren't.

Monday, May 23, 2011

The revival of a Grand old tradition : procedural devolution in place of real devolution

One of the much-loved comic traditions of the pre-devolution constitutional debate was that whenever the pressure for self-government was at its strongest, the die-in-a-ditch unionists would always respond by saying - "I know! Let's beef up the Scottish Grand Committee instead!" Incredible though it may seem, Labour's sole proposal for reform in the face of a huge SNP advance at the February 1974 election was to allow the Grand Committee to meet in Scotland very occasionally. It wasn't until the early 1980s that the proposal was actually brought into effect by the Thatcher government - by that point, of course, the boot was on the other foot and it was the Tories who were the constitutional obstructionists. Another decade later, and seemingly mystified that the impossible-to-please Jocks hadn't been bought off by two appearances a year in Edinburgh by a powerless Westminster committee, the Tories sighed and reluctantly handed over the family silver - a few more meetings per year in Scotland (although the extra ones were outside Edinburgh to avoid the unlikely impression taking hold that this was some kind of Scottish Parliament), question times in the Committee with Scottish Office ministers, plus (gasp) adjournment debates. Did the joyous multitudes spontaneously take to the streets to chant the names of "The Liberators", John Major and Ian Lang? Er, not exactly. By 1995, in a state of panic about the seeming inevitability of devolution under a Labour government, Michael Forsyth had one last try by chucking in occasional Grand Committee question times with the Prime Minister and other cabinet ministers.

The reason the arch-unionists always went down the same route was because 'administrative devolution' had been long since granted in the shape of the Scottish Office, so the only bone left to throw at public opinion short of genuine legislative/executive devolution was this peculiar brand of 'procedural devolution' - a few fragmented bits of the shell of self-government without any of the substance. Now, you might have thought we'd seen the last of these silly cosmetic exercises after the Grand Committee was mothballed a few years on from devolution, but not a bit of it. The Scotsman reports today that the old unionist instinct has taken hold once again, and Labour MPs have responded to the pressure for substantial new powers for Holyrood by suggesting a revival of the Grand Committee instead -

"Kilmarnock Labour MP Cathy Jamieson, one of those pushing for it to be reconvened, said: "It would be a wonderful opportunity to bring the work of MPs closer to Scottish voters and help show that what happens in Westminster is important to them too.""

Hmmm. Before Cathy gets too carried away with the wonderfulness of the opportunity, she might want to reflect on the fact that, even at the height of the Tories' tinkering in the mid-90s, a poll was published showing that just 2% of the electorate were even aware of the committee's existence. I'm guessing that the figure might be quite a bit lower than that now.

But let's not be unduly churlish - the chance to watch Jimmy Hood lead an adjournment debate in Dalbeattie Town Hall is, I'm sure, one that few of us will be able to resist.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Middle East peace can't be won by all take and no give

I despair of Benedict Brogan. He claims today in the Telegraph that President Obama's new stance on the Middle East peace process constitutes a "giveaway" to the Palestinians that would leave Israel "where it was before the Arab world tried to drive the Jews into the sea". But let's look at what Obama is and isn't actually saying. He suggests that a Palestinian state should be broadly based on the pre-1967 boundaries, but with land-swaps to square the circle of the enormous, illegal Israeli settlements in the West Bank. He excludes the question of East Jerusalem altogether, even though it has an overwhelmingly Palestinian population, and like the West Bank was ruled by Jordan before 1967. He also leaves open the possibility that the Palestinian refugees from the 1948 war will have to give up the right of return to their homes in what is now Israel. So if all that constitutes a "giveaway", it rather begs the question of what on earth Brogan would see as a just peace. A Palestinian state consisting of just Gaza, and the rump of the West Bank that will be left once the prime swathes of land confiscated by Israeli settlers are ripped out? That wouldn't be so much a "giveaway", as a legitimisation of Israel's slow-motion "takeaway" over the last few decades.

Not even the most moderate of Palestinian negotiators would ever accept such a settlement, so what Brogan is offering is a prescription for ongoing conflict. How that will assist Israel's long-term security is something of a mystery.