Thursday, July 14, 2011

A decade-and-a-half of institutional pigheadedness at the MoD

Many years ago, Sir John Day and Sir William Wratten, the two RAF Reviewing Officers who found the deceased pilots of the Mull of Kintyre crash guilty of gross negligence, appeared before a House of Lords committee that was inquiring into the affair. Barely had the chairman managed to finish uttering his first question before Day and Wratten's astonishing arrogance was on full display. The question was irrelevant, they insisted, because it was about safety issues relating to the Chinook fleet, which had nothing to do with their rationale for finding the pilots guilty. All that mattered was that the pilots had been flying dangerously low in their approach to the Mull of Kintyre - no-one need trouble themselves with any details beyond that. And if anyone took issue with that proposition, it was because they lacked the Reviewing Officers' immense expertise.

The irony, of course, as yesterday's report makes abundantly clear, is that there was a key factor that the Reviewing Officers themselves should never have looked beyond, that should have utterly precluded them from finding the pilots guilty, and that was only set aside because of their own lack of expertise in the relevant area. That factor was the incredibly high standard of proof required to find deceased pilots guilty of gross negligence, ie. "absolutely no doubt whatsoever". You only need to look at the difference between that and the standard criminal test of "beyond reasonable doubt" to understand the implications - even an "unreasonable doubt" may be sufficient reason to acquit. OK, perhaps not the possibility that the aircraft was hijacked by pixies, but just about any other conceivable doubt you might care to raise. As it happens, the report lists so many potential grounds for doubt that the Reviewing Officers chose to ignore that it's hard to see how even the "beyond reasonable doubt" test could be said to have been satisfied.

The real disgrace, though, is not the original verdict, but the way that the MoD have pig-headedly attempted to defend it to the death over the last decade-and-a-half, in spite of the obvious flaws in the Reviewing Officers' reasoning. It's also been incredibly telling that every single Defence Secretary (and indeed every junior Defence minister) over that period has "gone native" and obediently defended the verdict, rather than engaging their own brain cells and examining the issues objectively. The worst offender (unsurprisingly) was John Reid, that obsequious loyalist to "the British way" and venerable British institutions like the MoD, who we learned on Channel 4 News acted like a petulant "two-year-old" when two aviation experts had the audacity to raise concerns with him - he apparently sat in his chair with his finger to his mouth, refusing to acknowledge or engage with anything that was being said.

Given her known views about Mr Reid, it's a rather delicious irony that Helen Liddell, of all people, sat on the panel that finally cleared the pilots, and savaged the MoD's conduct over the years.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Will the last Murdoch apologist to leave the building please turn out the lights

On the morning of the 1992 general election, The Sun ran one of the most infamous headlines in British history -

"If Kinnock wins today will the last person to leave Britain please turn out the lights"

Curiously, however, we learned from a Murdoch apologist on Newsnight last night that this was in no sense an attempt to tell people "not to vote for Kinnock".

Crikey. It does rather beg the question - what on earth would a proper anti-Kinnock headline have looked like?

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Questions for Alex Gallagher (to which the answer may well be "I no speak so good zee Eengleesh")

I've just caught up with Councillor Alex Gallagher's latest "contribution to the debate" on independence over at Labour Hame. Some of his musings do give rise to a few intriguing questions, if he can spare the time...

"But they are sure that we must have referendum. Nae buts, nae mebbes, it’s the seasonal right of the Nat Triumphal that s/he must have a single/double/triple question consultation with the – it has to be said – largely uninterested populace.


Wait a wee minute. Aren’t we leaping ahead just a tiny wee bit? Do we really need it?"

D'you know, Alex, I seem to recall a time, not so long ago, when Labour told us that "we were getting ahead of ourselves" by seeking an independence referendum before winning a specific mandate for it. There now is an utterly unambiguous mandate for a referendum. If that is no longer the test for determining if a referendum is appropriate, just exactly what is? Whether Mr Alex Gallagher, Labour councillor for North Coast and Cumbraes, personally approves of it? Forgive our sniggers as you sheepishly admit the answer to that question is "yes".

"Nor have I heard any positive, comprehensive and coherent case made by any Nationalist from any wing of the party that would convince anyone, on mature reflection, that it is better for the people of Scotland that we sever our links with our neighbours"

Given that opinion polls consistently show a significant minority of the Scottish people are convinced by the arguments for independence (indeed there has sometimes been a plurality in favour), does that mean you are by definition branding every single one of those people "immature" and incapable of "reflection"? Once again, forgive our sniggers as you sheepishly admit the answer to that question is "yes".

"But that fact in itself doesn’t seem to me a sufficient argument for breaking the subsequent, and successful, union of these countries"

Don't we first have to establish whether it actually is "successful" or not, before we can take that as read? Once again, we appear to have something of a problem with benchmarks here, because it's only a matter of weeks since Councillor Gallagher informed us that if the majority of people rejected the notion that the union is "successful" by voting against its continuation in a referendum, that was neither here nor there - Scotland should be forced to remain in the union, because the minority of people "mature" enough to understand (snigger) are apparently the only ones entitled to adjudicate upon the question. I believe scientists would call this a falsifiability problem - how do we know if someone is sufficiently "mature"? Why, by checking if they agree with Mr Alex Gallagher, Labour councillor for North Coast and Cumbraes, of course.

"By that argument, the principalities of pre-Bismarck Germany or 18th century Italy should all be independent. Indeed, if once-upon-a-time difference was a case for independence, why not return to the borders of Pictland or Dalriada or any other of the ancient kingdoms?"

Alex, mate, deep breath here, and I will try to help you understand. You appear to be using the line "Scotland was once independent" as a muddled proxy for the argument that nationalists actually put forward - that Scotland is a nation and thus has the right to self-determination. Not that it must be independent because it once was, but that it has the right to choose for itself. The reason why the Scottish independence debate has absolutely no bearing on the future of the "principalities of pre-Bismarck Germany" is because we have no right to choose for them, and they have no right to choose for us. But if you want to pursue this logic, it certainly has rather profound implications - are you suggesting that we should never alter our income tax rates, without ensuring (by military force if necessary) that the new rates also apply in Peru? After all, how can we seriously argue that something is good for Scotland if we don't have the courage of our convictions by demanding that it must also be good for Peru, or Mongolia, or Equitorial Guinea? Actually, don't bother answering, Alex - the entire planet can see you're havering on this one. Moving on...

"What is the point of claiming sovereignty from the UK only to invest it in the EU? All the arguments about remoteness from decision making and the differences in culture (London’s too far away, the English don’t understand Scotland) just look silly when the idea is to replace London with Brussels and UK law makers with law makers from 27 other countries – including, incidentally, England. It’s frankly nuts."

Excellent, Alex - would you therefore confirm that you now support only pooling sovereignty with the rest of the UK to the far, far more limited extent that EU states pool sovereignty with each other? What do you mean, "no"? In that case, I'm slightly unclear as to what point you think you're making here. What do you mean, "er"?

"Meanwhile, on the real evidence in the real world, there are strong indications that an “independent” Scotland would have significant economic weaknesses as compared to its current position."

What, you mean like the real-world evidence in GERS that an independent Scotland would have a proportionately smaller deficit than the UK does at present?

"The collapse of the Scottish banks and Alex Salmond’s preferred Celtic Tiger model has laid bare (some would say threadbare) the paucity of the Nationalists’ economic analysis."

Given that the collapse of those "Scottish banks" occurred under the regulation laid down by the UK Labour government, doesn't it say rather more about the paucity of Gordon Brown's economic analysis?

"It’s likely that an “independent” Scotland would be weaker in defence and security terms as well"

Just when are the Russians planning to invade, Alex? Given that Labour is (or so Duncan Hothersall assures me) an "international movement", shouldn't you be doing something to warn those in an even "weaker" position to defend themselves, such as poor little Luxembourg?

"Better to pretend that their Scotland wouldn’t have a military or a defence posture or even a foreign policy, a ridiculous position but acceptable to the SNP, apparently."

Could you direct me to the relevant link on the SNP website, please, Alex? Certainly the first I've heard of any of this.

And, last but not least, here comes the biggie -

If you're so happy to post under your own name on Labour Hame and a variety of other websites, Councillor Alex, why are you so mysteriously bashful on your own blog?

Monday, July 11, 2011

Hisse et ho, Santiano...

Way back in the mists of time (well, 1999 to be specific) I was on a family holiday in Brittany, and we just happened to be doing some sightseeing in Saint Malo when the Tall Ships Race was in town.  I mainly just regarded it as a nuisance, as we got stuck in traffic as the procession of competitors went by at a snail's pace.  Later on, I got into a conversation with a couple from Jersey who were enthusing about the whole thing ("oh, isn't it marvellous?), and asking me if I had been down to see the ships "yet".  I didn't have the heart to tell them I had no intention of doing so!  A couple of weeks later I was back home, and as it turned out the next stop for the race was in Greenock, and the media were talking about it as if it was the biggest thing ever.  I started to feel a bit silly for having passed up the opportunity in Saint Malo, so I decided to have a second bite of the cherry.  It was very good, although the organisation left a lot to be desired - there were mile-long queues at the train stations in both directions, no doubt as a result of the over-the-top decision to virtually cordon off the whole of Greenock.

Twelve years on, and the event is back in Greenock, so I went along again yesterday. I'm pleased to report the organisation is much better this time, although when I was making my way back I did feel like strangling someone who forced me to go about a quarter-of-a-mile out of my way because I had attempted to enter Bogston Station by the 'wrong entrance for my destination'!  I later discovered that if I'd just told him I'd been going to Gourock instead of Glasgow I could have saved myself the walk and he'd have been none the wiser - I think it was a health and safety measure that was being over-zealously applied at a time when the station was extremely quiet.

The event itself is a bit curious - it's a bit difficult to soak up the maritime atmosphere when you have a Duran Duran tribute band belting out Hungry Like the Wolf a few feet away!  Other random highlights included 'Four Poofs and a Piano' performing an Abba medley, a dance group called 'The Temptress Girls' (or something of the sort) performing a routine that was a bit on the racy side for an audience that must have been at least 20% comprised of confused-looking children, and last but not least "TV's Colin and Justin" pacing up and down purposefully in very sharp suits.  It may not have made a lot of sense, but at least there was no danger of boredom!