Friday, February 17, 2012

All the questions are for the British Nationalists now

So, where to begin with David Cameron's "positive case for the union"? There's a lot of agreement that it's preferable that he has at last switched to a positive tone (albeit this led him to some truly fantastical claims about the magical properties of "my love, our home, this United Kingdom", which I may come onto later), but I do hope he and his followers realise that this new strategy is for life, not just for Christmas. He can't bail out when the going gets tough and revert to his comfort-zone of chortling to himself and his Old Etonian chums that an independent Scotland would be " the seat of your pants!!!!", because that would directly contradict his admission yesterday that Scotland could easily make its own way in the world. Perhaps even tougher for Tory foot-soldiers will be to stop casting doubts on the suitability of Scottish politicians for the position of Prime Minister, because those objections directly contradict Cameron's high-flown rhetoric about Scots leading in the UK. Gordon Brown was the elephant in the room during that passage of the speech - you know, the "one-eyed Scottish idiot".

Another problem is that, as John Curtice has pointed out, although it was a positive case for the union, it was the wrong positive case. The message was not "here is my vision for Scotland's future as a country" - it was "Scotland is not your country, Britain is our country, and by crikey it's fab, please don't take it away from us". He was unambiguously casting himself as a British nationalist, and defining a No vote to independence as a vote for British nationalism. That seems a mildly crazy thing to do, given that most Scots are Scottish nationalists with either a large or a small 'n'. I can't help but wonder if his advisers have been influenced by the effect a positive articulation of Canadian nationalism had in the 1995 Quebec referendum. If so, it's a classic case of learning the wrong lesson from history. A Scottish journalist who attended the flag-waving 'Rally for Canada' a few days before polling day in '95 (I think it may even have been Kenny Farquharson) pointed out at the time how hard it was to imagine an equivalent Union Jack-waving rally in a Scottish referendum having anything other than a counter-productive effect. It's not that there isn't any background attachment to Britishness in Scotland, but our own notion of Britishness is rather loose and multi-national in nature, and entirely alien from the one-dimensional nationalism Cameron is advancing, which is really a kind of 'Greater England nationalism', or 'the-state-London-is-capital-city-of nationalism'. It's not actually true that Scottish independence would rob Cameron of his Greater England "home", as he claims - but that home would certainly be diminished in his eyes. A shrunk landmass, a shrunk population, shrunk clout in international institutions. In short, independence would impair the projection of London power - and nothing can be more alarming to a Greater England nationalist than that. That's what he was getting at when he talked about the 'loss of something very special'. In particular, he gave the game away by placing so much emphasis on Britain's status as a member of bodies like the UN Security Council. No-one is under any illusions that an independent Scotland would have such a status, so it's hard to escape the conclusion that what we're being asked to worry about here is the (frankly very slim) possibility that the remainder of the UK might lose its status as well after Scottish independence. In truth, this isn't an argument about Scotland at all - it's a squeal of pain from a London politician about what he stands to lose.

Besides which, Cameron's promotion of British nationalism as a 'nobler nationalism' was absurdly contradictory. With one breath he insisted it didn't need to base itself on "ancient myths, blood-soaked memories and opposition to others", and with the next he started wittering on about the defeat of Hitler and the Battle of Waterloo! And how precisely does all the inspiring talk about 'solidarity' and 'stronger together, weaker apart' square with his isolationism in Europe? Faced with such irreconcilable contradictions, we can again only conclude that this is really about London's Little Empire, and preserving its sovereign reach.

The reality is that the 'special' things that people in Scotland truly value about Britishness are not contingent on the existence of a British nation state. Indeed, the social union across these islands may well be enhanced once we have jettisoned the resentment-fuelling straightjacket of a political union that works in the interests of one 'partner' more than another.

Of course, the other key feature of the speech was the rabbit out of the hat about the potential for further devolution if Scotland votes No to independence. Depending on whether Cameron actually means a word of it, this could either be characterised as the Douglas-Home Deception Strategy or as the Top Secret Devo Plus Plan, because apparently we're not entitled to know any details about it until after the referendum. Certainly Cameron's efforts to convince us that this isn't a repeat of the Douglas-Home wheeze from 1979 were totally unconvincing. He asked us to reflect on his record in delivering the Scotland Bill, but there's one slight snag with that - it was in fact the coalition agreement that delivered the Scotland Bill. All the mood music before the 2010 election was that a Tory government would kick Calman into the long grass, and there can be little doubt that's exactly what would have happened if the Tories had won a majority in their own right. The personal record Scots will actually be reflecting on is Cameron's failure to respect the SNP's overwhelming mandate from last May to negotiate extra powers in addition to those currently in the Scotland Bill.

But even if we were naive enough to take these incredibly vague hints of jam tomorrow seriously, Cameron has just got himself into a bit of a bind. At the heart of the unionist strategy until now has been the constant demand that the SNP must answer a series of detailed questions (almost all of them already answered umpteen times) about what independence will look like. But at a stroke, we're now in a position where we have infinitely more clarity about the effect of a Yes vote than we do about the effect of a No vote. There are an endless series of questions that need to be put to Cameron about how powers will be divided between Westminster and Holyrood under the Top Secret Devo Plus Plan that will supposedly be triggered by a No vote in the referendum - and incredibly he seems to think an adequate response is that the Scottish people don't have a right to know until after they vote for it. It's no use arguing that the referendum is about independence and not enhanced devolution - he has explicitly linked the two issues himself by including the prospect of delivering the Top Secret Devo Plus Plan in his list of reasons why people should vote No. There's no way back - from this point on, all the hard questions on detail are for the Brit Nats.

A few other miscellaneous points from Cameron's speech...

"I am a classic case.

My father’s father was a Cameron.

My mother’s mother was a Llewellyn.

I was born and have always lived in England."

A great many things can be reasonably said about a multi-millionaire Old Etonian Prime Minister who is a direct descendant of William IV and is married to a baronet's daughter, but I'm not sure "classic case" is one of them.

"Scottish pilots helped us to free Libya from tyranny and prevented a failed pariah state festering on Europe’s Southern border…"

But Danish pilots helped even more. Denmark, let's not forget, is an independent country with roughly the same population size as Scotland. It is also in the enviable position of deciding for itself which international military adventures it wants to get involved in, and which it doesn't. An independent Scotland might well have freely chosen to assist in Libya - I strongly suspect we wouldn't have touched the Bush/Blair invasion of Iraq with a barge-pole.

"We’re safer, not just because of the expertise and bravery our armed forces to which Scotland makes an immense contribution…

…but also because of our policing expertise and security services respected the world over.

When a bomb went off at Glasgow Airport the full resources of the UK state went into running down every lead."

Would it be terribly insensitive of me to point out that if only we had been decoupled from Britain's slavishly pro-Bush foreign policy, that bomb in Glasgow Airport would probably never have gone off in the first place?

"…but a common system, rules and currency which has helped to make us the 7th largest economy in the world."

Down from 4th just a few years ago, David. Do you think he'll finally be too embarrassed to parrot that rather desperate line when the ranking is 14th?

"One issue that is very close to my heart is aid.

And this is an issue where Scottish people have a huge influence...through the UK, Scotland has global reach."

It's hard to escape the conclusion that he's suggesting that Scots care more about overseas aid than others in the UK - but if so, it's difficult to see what difference we can possibly be making given that this isn't a government Scotland elected. The logical conclusion to draw is that the combined overseas aid budget of Scotland and the remainder of the UK would increase after independence, because a Scottish state would accord it a higher priority, and the UK government would carry on much as before.

"I believe in real devolution and want to make devolution work better.

I want a Scotland where more people own their own homes.

Where more people keep more of their money."

Another part of the speech that makes me deeply suspicious about the Top Secret Devo Plus Plan. This is thoroughbred Thatcherite language - she also used to regularly talk about 'real' devolution in place of, well, real devolution. Thanks all the same, Dave, but the kind of devolution we're looking for isn't a play on words.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

For the attention of George Robertson : a cut-out-and-keep guide to the difference between Cybernattery and fair comment

Not too long before Tom Harris made his infamous Downfall video about Joan McAlpine (which with delicious irony triggered his own downfall rather than hers), the two parliamentarians had an exchange on Twitter about 'Cybernats'. I can't recall the exact words used, but basically Joan was pointing out that there were just as many online unionists making abusive comments about the SNP, which led to a typical Harris Harrumph as he said something like this : "Oh yes, Joan. The problem here is too many unionists being horrid to the SNP on the internet. Dear God." The fact that the observation was intended to be sarcastic didn't make it any the less true - the abuse from one side of the divide is no more or less of a problem than abuse from the other side.

It reminded me of an interview John Major gave on daytime television as Prime Minister, when he defended his party's obsession with "pro-Labour bias" at the BBC. The interviewer pointed out to him that there had been a poll showing that the public felt that the BBC were in fact biased towards the Tories. Major laughed, and said with an air of incredulity "well, I'd be interested to see the poll". But of course the poll existed, was a serious one, and reflected what people really thought. The Tories had made the mistake of buying into their own mythology, and couldn't believe that the public at large were capable of seeing beyond it. So it is now with the unionist parties and the 'Cybernat' mythology - what the public actually see on online forums is unacceptable language being used by all sides of the political debate, not just one.

So George Robertson is whistling in the wind with his latest rant about Cybernats, although what leapt out at me more was the paragraph in which he gave examples of the 'vile language' that had been used about him, which represented a brazen attempt to lump together lots of genuinely abusive language with quite a bit of absolutely fair comment, and to paint it all as being one and the same thing. For George's benefit, here is a cut-out-and-keep guide to the difference. An important disclaimer : the observations that potentially belong in the 'fair comment' category are of course still very blunt and derisively expressed, and wouldn't wisely be uttered by a representative of the SNP itself. But of course they weren't - and neither George nor anyone else knows whether they were even made by card-carrying members of the SNP. And to answer your question, George, that's why comments on online forums aren't usually disowned by political parties - they were never 'owned' by those parties in the first place.

'Robertson is an idiotic, pompous traitor to Scotland and the Scots' - ABUSIVE.

'the vermin who inhabit the House of Lords' - ABUSIVE.

'establishment lackey' - Derisive, but hardly an unusual use of language, and with a serious point to make.

'Westminster traitor-jock-Lords' - ABUSIVE.

'keep his Westminster polished nose out of Scottish politics' - A bit rude, but if Robertson can't cope with this on an online forum he's in the wrong trade.

'two-faced liars and deceivers' - ABUSIVE.

'unelected hypocrite' - Well, Robertson certainly is unelected, and it's scarcely beyond the pale (outside the confines of parliament) to accuse a politician of hypocrisy. It's probably better to say someone is 'being hypocritical' rather than directly calling them a 'hypocrite', but there's a potentially legitimate point here, rather than a mindless insult. Borderline.

'American puppet' - FAIR COMMENT. For heaven's sake, George, you were one of Tony Blair's Defence Secretaries - that's practically the dictionary definition of 'American puppet'.

'inbred arthritic Labrador attempting to complete the Total Wipeout course' - Highly abusive, but special dispensation for also being extremely funny.

'Lord Gormless' - Abusive, but most seven-year-olds have to put up with playground taunts far worse than that.

'yoos Unionist trash' - ABUSIVE.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

OK, so it looks like neutral reporting from Reuters is a lost cause

Via Yahoo, I've just caught up with a Reuters report on the independence referendum that reads like a Labour or Downing Street press release -

"Parliament threw down the gauntlet to Scottish separatists on Wednesday, challenging them to answer a series of questions about how an independent Scotland would work before they ask Scots to vote on whether they want independence or not."

"Parliament"? Which parliament? After all, as any self-respecting Brit Nat will tell you (when it suits them), "Scotland has two parliaments". And I'm not convinced that "separatists" is a sufficiently vivid charaterisation of what these bloody people are all about - maybe "divorce-seekers" or "home-wreckers" would be better? (Or how about "animals"?)

"Some campaign battle lines have already been drawn, with the SNP demanding 90 percent of Britain's North Sea oil revenues for Scotland..."

Just how much oil revenues does the London government expect to receive from beneath the waters of another sovereign state? By contrast, the SNP is "demanding" 100% of Scotland's own oil revenues, and 0% of other countries' oil revenues. How very dare they?

"Questions sent to the lawmakers by ordinary voters ranged from whether their welfare provisions would be cut to whether they would still have access to BBC television and whether they could still use their British passports for foreign travel."

Well, I rather think the latter question has more to do with the passport policy of a post-independence London government. Perhaps Ian Davidson and his fearless committee of truth-seekers should be "throwing down the gauntlet" to their own side on behalf of the common man?

* * *

If you've read the thread on which the PB Tory hordes descended the other night, you'll have been given a crash course in one of the most fundamental articles of faith of the right-wing group-think that permeates their 'home site', namely that comments from a Scottish nationalist perspective are above all else extremely "boring", and that this is the all-purpose get-out clause that permits censorship to be sought without compromising any principles about open debate. For future reference, here is a handy extract from the PBspeak-to-English dictionary...

PBspeak : "You're being really boring, James/Mick/Oldnat."

English translation : "'re talking about a non-Westminster topic! Again!"

Yes, the PB Tory Herd do seem to view the world through the Dimblebyesque prism that "Westminster is God", and that by definition all Westminster village topics are of constant and universal interest, no matter how navel-gazing and repetitive. By contrast, non-Westminster topics are perhaps OK for an "and finally" piece on News at Ten once in a while (or perhaps one of those condescending animated items on The Daily Politics with hairy Picts and icebergs on the Firth of Forth), but anything more than that is just tedious, quite frankly.

A vivid illustration of this mindset was provided on Monday, when I took the (thankfully now defunct) ban on posts about Scotland at face value, and wrote about an entirely different topic. But the PB Tory brain just couldn't seem to discern any difference - my discussion of Welsh language education was just a continuation of my 'crazy, tedious obsession' with non-Westminster topics...

"You think the debate here is nuanced?

Where Mr J Kelly cannot talk about the Macbeth situation, so talks about Welsh language independence instead?

That's not nuance. That's obsession."

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Breaking : Scottish posts allowed on Political Betting again

In the wake of seeming to break his own rule of disallowing off-topic comments on Scottish politics, Mike Smithson now says that the rule was only ever intended to apply to the thread on which he introduced it. Quite why it was utterly intolerable to have Scottish posts on a single Sunday morning thread about Ron Paul, but perfectly OK at all other times, remains something of a mystery. But let's not be churlish about a small outbreak of common sense.

Naturally, I would never dream of encouraging a Nat invasion of PB by way of celebration, but you are certainly free to draw your own conclusions about the best way to proceed.

It's consistency, Jim, but not as we know it

Mike Smithson, proprietor of Political Betting and the man who on Sunday introduced a new rule that comments on Scottish politics are strictly forbidden on PB threads not directly relating to Scotland, has just left this comment on a PB thread about Tony Blair -

"If Scotland was an independent country would Salmond bail Rangers out?"

Don't worry. I'm sure it all makes sense in his head.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Scotland joins the Holocaust as one of only two banned topics as Political Betting's Smithson completely loses the plot

In the early hours of this morning, the popular former SNP blogger and Political Betting poster Stuart Dickson sent me an email alerting me to a 'behind-the-paywall' article, which revealed that Scotland does not receive a net subsidy from the London exchequer. I decided to post a very brief summary of the article on PB. The thread in question concerned Ron Paul, but there was nothing remotely unusual about posting something off-topic - the overwhelming majority of comments on PB are wildly off-topic, and in particular posts about off-topic newspaper articles of interest are extremely common. And it could hardly be claimed that the article I summarised was not of any interest, given that the CEBR's conclusions about Scotland's fiscal balance go to the very heart of one of the most important political debates of our time.

Predictably, several of PB's resident Nat-bashers (including among others Richard Dodd, Moniker of Monza, Chris g00 and "Devo Max", the latter of whom I strongly suspect to be another poster in disguise) started laying into me for having the temerity to suggest that an independent Scotland would be anything other than a basketcase. As I normally do when I have the time, I replied to all their comments and challenged them on some of their bogus arguments (although to be honest the word 'arguments' dignifies the whole thing a bit too much). But then this familiar pattern was brought to a shuddering halt by an extraordinary intervention from the site's owner, right-leaning Liberal Democrat Mike Smithson -

This is not a thread about Scotland and future thread-hopping comments will be deleted.

There will be plenty of threads on Scotland but this is not one of them.

Just to reiterate, the notion that off-topic comments or 'thread-hopping' (whatever that might mean) are not allowed on PB is a completely alien one, as can be demonstrated by the vast number of off-topic comments not relating to Scotland that continued to pass without censure on that very thread. But this absurd ruling was not entirely a bolt from the blue, as a number of the usual suspects from the Tory Herd (who of course delight in boring the rest of us with the off-topic subjects that fascinate them the most) have for the last few weeks been relentlessly whispering in Smithson's ear : "This can't go on, Mike. All this talk about Scotland is killing the site. Something must be done." Which of course is rather ironic, given that some of us have been pointing out to him for years what is really killing the site - the all-pervasive right-wing group-think, and endless fatuous thread-headers about non-topics such as "Edward" Miliband's "name-change". His decision about which of these concerns was more important to take heed of tells its own story.

However, given that Smithson had tried to give his imposition of censorship the semblance of logical justification by referring to "thread-hopping", I decided to take him at his word, and press him on whether a short list of other "thread-hopping" posts I'd noticed on the same thread would in future be subject to deletion -

"This is not a thread about Scotland and future thread-hopping comments will be deleted"

Does that constitute a ruling that this IS a thread about -

a) YouTube videos

b) YouGov polls on the NHS

c) Andrew Lansley

d) Cameroons and Blairites

e) Rugby

f) Tim Montgomerie

g) Formula 1

h) Aero regulation

...and that 'thread-hopping' posts about those topics are all perfectly acceptable?

It seems so. Yet more consistency from the top.

Unsurprisingly, there was no direct response. However, an apologist for Smithson did try to justify the contradiction with the customary non-logic that "it's Mike's site and he can do what he likes". He also pointed out that this was not the first time a specific topic had been singled out for a ban - discussions of the Holocaust had also long been forbidden.

Well, that pretty much says it all, doesn't it? There are now just two banned topics on PB - Scotland and the Holocaust. And they have demonstrably been banned not because they are off-topic or "thread-hopping", but because Smithson and those whispering in his ear don't want to hear about them, for reasons of taste or prejudice.

But in truth, this is not really about Scotland in general. No, we can rest assured that the traditional excited posts from Aberdeenshire or Easter Ross about the forever imminent renaissance of the Scottish Tory party will remain very much welcome in PB World. This is about Smithson's dislike of SNP posters, and nothing else. We saw it today when his ruling was 'implemented' in the form of comments from the SNP's MalcolmG being deleted, but comments from those goading the Nat posters being left untouched. We saw it two years ago when two of the leading SNP posters, the aforementioned Mr Dickson and our very own Ezio, were banned seemingly for no reason whatsoever. When we tried to pin Smithson down on the reason for Stuart's ban, he just couldn't seem to get his story straight. First it was because Stuart frequently wrote about 'misleading' Scottish subsamples - but unfortunately it was easy enough to point out that Smithson had done exactly the same thing. Then it was because Stuart had repeatedly misunderstood "Smarkets" - really? "Misunderstanding" something is cause for a lifetime ban? No, clearly that didn't make sense either, so the next explanation was that Stuart wasn't contactable by email. Unfortunately, though, I had access to their email correspondence, and was able to demonstrate that Smithson's charge was a piece of nonsense. Last but not least, he fell back on the trusty old option of "the matter is closed".

Of course, it should also be pointed out that Smithson's own tendency to lash out angrily about the SNP on threads relating to other topics would firmly fall foul of today's ruling - if it was being implemented consistently. But it won't be. What we've seen today is nothing less than a selective 'constructive ban' on all pro-SNP posts, leaving Smithson's claim that his site is a cross-party forum utterly bereft of credibility. Oh, and in case you're wondering, his suggestion that there'll be plenty of dedicated Scottish threads which we can still comment on is meaningless - in normal times, you'd be lucky to get one Scottish thread every three months.

Which only leaves the question of how best to react to this indefensible near-blanket ban. It's sorely tempting to test the boundaries of it by seeing what would happen if I tried posting off-topic material about, for example, Plaid Cymru or Mebyon Kernow. But perhaps Ezio had it right all along - if PB can't be saved as an ecumenical forum, it's arguably better if the small number of us who don't subscribe to the site's group-think get as far away from it as possible, and stop giving it any unwarranted 'cross-party' credibility.

However, I do have one last post about PB up my sleeve - an eye-opening exchange from yesterday about the Welsh language. Stay tuned...