Monday 31 August 2009

New layout

Been playing around with the layout again - though this time for good reason. Apparently, the previous template wasn't easily read on a Blackberry. Hope this one works better.

I've also made use of darker colours, which are apparently more environmentally friendly. Any comments on it gratefully received - I'm still tweaking bits.


Thursday 27 August 2009

Bloggers Meetup - TONIGHT

Courtesy of the organisation skills of Duncan over at doctorvee, we have another blogging social evening going ahead.

The details are this:

TONIGHT (Thursday, 27th August)
Pleasance Courtyard, Edinburgh
From 6pm

If you do not know Edinburgh all that well, here's a map of where the Pleasance is.

In the case of bad weather, we will probably still meet at 6pm at the Pleasance Courtyard, then seek out an alternative venue (with a roof) elsewhere. Updated information on that regard will be available on Twitter via @doctorvee, @malch and probably @stephenpglenn too.

Also, if this is a first for some of you, and you don't know what we look like, we've vaguely thought of that too. Squint at the photos on twitter/ blogs and we look something like that. Duncan says he'll wear a green long-sleeved t-shirt. Stephen's bringing Lionel, his beloved Livingston-supporting bear and Jeff (@SNPTacticVoting) pledged to appear in spandex... though I suspect he may be joking. For my part, I'll wear my Toronto Blue Jays baseball cap, which looks like this (only in light blue). Hope that helps.

Seems like a fairly popular evening. Probably attendees include some of Scotland's top bloggers (five of the Total Politics Top 11) as well as some of the lesser known (but no lesser loved) bloggers out there. And who knows, maybe we can spring a surprise guest, as we did the last time.

Hope to see you all later. Yousuf - keep the rain in Glasgow!


Too many tweets make...

a twat trouble for a Tory.

I follow some random aspiring politicians on Twitter. For the moment, I'll ignore Tory Bear's foul-mouthed rants about the release of al-Megrahi in order to point out something else. Though I will say that if he aspires to anything more than a Guido Fawkes-esq blogger, his language might need toned down somewhat.

Anyway, Conservative candidate for Edinburgh North and Leith Iain McGill is on holiday in Albania at the moment. I know, because he told us on Twitter. He also told us that he watched the Arsenal-Celtic match last night from this tweet:

Now I know that the Old Firm are not everyone's cup of tea, and that the guy is standing in an Edinburgh constituency. But parasites?

Was that really the smartest use of language to describe what is potentially 1/3 of the Scottish electorate and, indeed, probably a sizeable chunk of the electorate in North and Leith? And what does it say about the man's concerns regarding the shocking state of Scottish football that he is not willing to ignore whatever petty bitterness he holds towards Scotland's top two football sides and support them in Europe for the good of the Scottish game?

In the style of a good twitter hashtag, #epicfail.


Tuesday 25 August 2009

Emotive responses are not helpful

I've had an incredibly busy week which has meant I've been unable to comment upon the compassionate release of Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi until now. Which is maybe just as well, given the abusive comments some in the blogosphere have taken in their posts on the subject.

Let me start by saying that, having had a few days to think about it, I think Kenny MacAskill has made the right decision. I say that not as a loyal Nat (you'll know, if you are a regular reader that that is not the case) nor as someone with an emotional connection with the case but as someone who has taken a long look at the facts, the process and the decision and has come to a rational decision based upon my interpretation of that. You may disagree with the decision - and judging by some of the comments over the weekend, you'll be pretty vocal with it - and that's fine. But I just want you to know where I'm coming from with it.

In terms of the decision itself, I think the Justice Secretary explained how he came to it and the process itself today as reasonably as he could. His tone was respectful and dignified throughout, and he explained how he came to decision himself, that it was his decision alone and that he stood by it - and would accept the consequences of that decision. In that, I think, no one could fault the man.

The process, it seems, was fine. Looking at Scots law, a more learned friend of mine informed me that the concept of compassionate release includes only 3 sentences in the statutory provisions. According to said friend, there's no real right or wrong here in terms of the law - once the medical reports have confirmed al-Megrahi's condition as terminal, it is then up to the Justice Secretary to exercise his discretion - with due regard for past precedent. And that - given the case of a predecessor as Justice Minister (Jim Wallace) releasing a convicted child killer - appears to be what has happened.

In my mind, the decision was the right one. My view is that compassion should play a larger role in the justice system - and indeed, society - than it does. Those against argue that al-Megrahi showed no compassion for his victims, thus why should he expect compassion from us. I'm of the view that two wrongs don't make a right, and that we are better than that. He (al-Megrahi) is a convicted terrorist and using him as a yardstick for morality is not just wrong, its plain stupid. It's the same reason governments should not execute people - it lowers society to the level of criminality of the offender and that serves no one.

The global response to this has, for me, been ridiculous. US President Barack Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Admiral Mike Mullen and Director of the FBI Robert Mueller have all not just firmly stated their opposition to the move but outright condemned the decision. The FBI Director's criticism, in particular, suggests the decision is "detrimental to the cause of justice" and "makes a mockery of the rule of law." I'm sorry, but from an American - particularly one in charge of the FBI - that is ludicrously hypocritical. And then we had former US Ambassador to the UN, John Bolton on Newsnight last night telling us that the US "should never have allowed him to be tried in Scotland. He should have been in an American court and he should have been executed by now."

Ah yes, America - the world leader in moral authority, executioners of the mentally ill and juveniles. America that tortures terrorist suspects. America that, when the UN could not agree on a Security Council resolution in Iraq, said "screw this" and decided that they were doing it anyway - ignoring everyone else's view in the process. It seems that America can consult - and then ignore others' views, yet when someone else decides that America's view is not the right one, they throw the toys out of the pram. Boycott Scotland? Really?

UPDATE: An American friend of mine had this to add to the debate:

"Bolton's right though, we could have had a coviction by lunch and a funeral by dinner. He never would have had the chance to get cancer here, so ask yourself, who are real humanitarians?"

Americans are compassionate because they would have killed him without a second thought. We're the bad folk who let him get cancer. Just a bizarre argument really.

Look, don't get me wrong. I love America. I'd love to live there (for a while at least). I even think their foreign policy is more right than most others on these shores (I'm a "Realist" in foreign policy circles). But I just think, at times, they need to let go of their world view that they are superior to everyone and everything else in the world. So this is not an attack on America, or on American ideals and values. It's pointing out the glaring holes in the argument that somehow America is morally superior to Scotland because we released a dying man and they would have made sure that he was already dead by now.

Of course this is an emotive issue, and one which will raise heated debate around the world, not least among the families of the victims themselves. I cannot begin to imagine the suffering felt when the scenes of al-Megrahi's return to Libya were played, though it must pale into insignificance when compared with the loss they suffered when Pan Am Flight 103 fell from the sky over Lockerbie in 1988.

However, true justice cannot be served by allowing emotions to cloud decision-making. That Kenny MacAskill consulted widely, with relatives of those lost in the tragedy, with experts both medical and criminal and with government figures in America suggests that he would have known how difficult the decision that he was to take would be. But in making the decision, he had to do so without allowing these emotional responses to get in the way of justice. Thus, when he decided to release al-Megrahi, the decision was sound in law and in justice.

A man who committed a terrible atrocity and in so doing took 270 lives on a winter's night in 1988, suffering from a terminal illness, sought and was granted, compassionate release from a Scottish prison. Those are the facts. And I think it was the right thing to do.


Friday 21 August 2009

6th Best Scottish Political Blog (apparently)

I have guests staying at the moment and no time to give my blog the measured attention that it needs/ deserves. I particularly want to write a bit about the release of the Lockerbie bomber and the reaction, but that will take a good while given the nature of the post and trying to construct my thoughts in an articulate manner.

In the meantime, I want to thank those of you who voted for Malc in the Burgh as one of the Top 50 Scottish Blogs. I made it in at number 28 last year and have risen up the rankings to sixth this year - a hefty rise and one I'm quite proud of. If you were one of the 1500 people who voted in the poll (and particularly, if you were one of those who voted for me) thanks very much!

Well done to all of those who found a place in the Top 50, particularly those whom I read almost daily and those whom I voted for myself. Hoping to see many of those illustrious Scottish bloggers represented in the Top 200 UK list when it is published later this month.

Here's the list in full:

1 (1) Tom Harris MP LAB
2 (3) SNP Tactical Voting SNP
3 (25) Underdogs Bite Upwards LIB
4 (2) Mr Eugenides CON
5 (8) Two Doctors GREEN
6 (28) Malc in the Burgh N/A
7 (30) Caron's Musings LD
8 Yapping Yousuf LAB
9 Scottish Unionist N/A
10 (4) J Arthur MacNumpty SNP
11 (11) Stephen's Linlithgow Journal LD
12 (5) Kezia Dugdale's Sopabox LAB
13 Lallands Peat Worrior SNP
14 Grumpy Spindoctor LAB
15 Rantin' Rab LIB
16 (15) Blether with Brian MEDIA
17 (36) Andrew Reeves LD
18 The Steamie MEDIA
19 (7) Ideas of Civilisation N/A
20 (16) Doctor Vee N/A
21 (6) Scottish Tory Boy CON
22 Al Jahom's Final Word SNP
23 (9) Scots & Independent SNP
24 (29) Sound of Gunfire LD
25 Willie Rennie MP LD
26 (12) Freedom & Whisky LIB
27 (31) Scottish Roundup N/A
28 (22) Fraser Macpherson LD
29 (13) Indygal SNP
30 Planet Politics N/A
31 Calum Cashley SNP
32 (20) Andrew Burns' Really Bad Blog LAB
33 Anything Caron Can Do LD
34 Didactophobia RIGHT-WING
35 Microshaft N/A
36 Wardog SNP
37 Kevin Schofield MEDIA
38 (39) Political Dissuasion N/A
39 Shuggy's Blog LEFT-WING
40 (33) Aitken's Edinburgh LAB
41 Cybernat SNP
42 (24) North to Leith SNP
43 Aye We Can N/A
44 (18) Clairwil SNP
45 (35) Katy Gordon LD
46 (37) Bellgrove Belle SNP
47 Advanced Media Watch SNP
48 Prats in Power LIB
49 Holyrood Patter SNP
50 Another Side of Lesley Riddoch N/A


Wednesday 19 August 2009

Does Holyrood matter to the Tories?

I learn from Andrew Reeves and Tory Bear that John Lamont MSP has been selected to replace Chris Walker as the Conservative candidate for the Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk Westminster constituency.

He becomes the second Conservative MSP to seek a House of Commons seat at the next election - Alex Johnstone being the other, in West Aberdeenshire & Kincardine.

I would suggest that John Lamont may have a better chance given that he overturned the Lib Dem majority in the corresponding seat in the Scottish Parliament while Alex Johnstone lost out to the SNP's Andrew Welsh by a considerable margin in Angus.

Both stood as candidates in the 2005 UK election in these respective seats - Johnstone dropping the Tory vote in West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine by 2% while Lamont increased the Tory vote in BRS by nearly 7% (and took advantage of that by winning the Scottish Parliament seat in 2007) albeit those figures are notional given boundary changes.

Couple of questions though. What does this say about the Conservative party's commitment to the Scottish Parliament when 2 of their 16 MSPs - that's 12.5% of their representation in the chamber - want to turn their back on Holyrood for a life of moat and duck-pond allowances at Westminster? And what does this say about Annabel Goldie's leadership - that she could potentially lose two key members of her parliamentary group because central office thinks they'd have a better opportunity to win UK constituencies with MSPs as candidates?

Also, Annabel Goldie has been fairly vocal in shouting down Alex Salmond as a dual mandate MP MSP, despite the First Minister's commitment to stand down at the next UK election. If either of the two Tory MSPs were to win a House of Commons seat, where would this leave her ability to challenge Salmond on this?

The bottom line is, I think, that all hands are on deck for the Tories. They are taking nothing for granted despite polls placing them well into 40+% UK-wide. The disproportionate FPTP system means that, even if they dominated the vote (and won over 45%) they still may only have a Commons majority of 20 or 30 seats. Which means that any seats that they can gain in Scotland to add to David Mundell's sole seat at the moment is a much-needed bonus for David Cameron. Selecting well-known, experienced candidates is a means to that end and if it undercuts the Tories in the Scottish Parliament, what does that matter? I mean it's only Scotland, right Maggie?


Wednesday 12 August 2009

Bloggers meet (yet again!)


As you may have already read elsewhere, there's some chat about having another wee gathering of those blog-minded folks (and indeed, those who comment on blogs - so as not to exclude anyone) at some point before the end of August.

As I (apparently) did such a good job the last time round (journo and occasional blogger Iain Macwhirter made a swift appearance late on) Duncan nominated me to put it to the blogosphere to suggest some dates/ times/ places.

The current suggestion that is kicking around is that, given it is Edinburgh Festival time (and that those of us who live/ work/ blog in the city were chatting about it) is that we meet somewhere here, take in the sights and sounds of the Fringe - perhaps even a show - sometime in the last couple of weeks of August (being either the week beginning the 24th or the 31st of August).

I'm going out on a limb on my own here, and suggesting that, like last year, we find somewhere near the Udderbelly at Bristo Square on the basis that it is fairly easy to find and pretty close to a couple of venues. As for dates etc, I'm fairly flexible - if you have any suggestions or are particularly interested in going to see a particular show, you know where to put your comments (that is, below the article - or direct them to Duncan, Will or Jeff who seem to be the organising committee). We just seem to be gauging interest at the moment.

Anyway, for anyone who hasn't been to one of these things, they're usually pretty good fun. Folks have strong views (otherwise - in most cases - the blogs would be pretty boring!) but in "real" life they are all pretty approachable, laid back and fun to have a drink and a chat with! So, if you can make it along, its worth it. And for those who have been before, its always nice to see you all again!


Less Barmy Army, more Barmy Harmy

I've taken a week to comment on Harriet Harman's comments regarding male leadership of the Labour party in particular and the country in general.

For those of you who may have missed them, here's what the Deputy Leader of the Labour Party had to say last Sunday:

“I don’t agree with all-male leaderships.”

“Men cannot be left to run things on their own. I think it’s a thoroughly bad thing to have a men-only leadership.”

“In a country where women regard themselves as equal, they are not prepared to see men running the show themselves.”

“I think a balanced team of men and women makes better decisions. That’s one of the reasons why I was prepared to run for deputy leader.”

Those comments are - verbatim - what she said, paraphrased by The Times as "You can't trust men in power."

Now others, including the mighty Iain Dale and the less-mighty-but-still-quite-mighty SNP Tactical Voting have taken her comments to task and are worth reading (if only because my attempted critique will fall short of their high standards). However, I'm commenting anyway, because Harman's comments made me think of something interesting.

It made me wonder whether she remembered a certain election in November 2008. No, not the one that Gordon was too scared to hold. The other one - the one on the other side of the Atlantic, the one that made headlines across the world, the one that "The One" won. I seem to remember that a woman contested that election (albeit not at the top of the ticket) but did not win.

What is your point, you ask? Well merely that here was an opportunity for the American public to do what Harriet Harman thinks we should do here - namely appoint a woman to one of the two top posts in the country - and they did not.

Now I know there were other factors at play (Sarah Palin's views on religion, guns, her view of Russia - from her house - and various other things didn't make her a strong candidate, not to mention the candidature of "The One" on the opposing side) but it would strike me as odd that Harriet Harman would not support a woman standing in an election against a man given what she has just said about men in power. In this Question Time clip she says just that: she would not have voted for Palin if she could - she would have voted against her - which, at that point in the campaign would have meant voting for a man.

At the time John McCain picked Sarah Palin as his running mate, I thought it was a terrific choice - spoke to the conservative base, executive experience as a governor, maybe attract the female vote that Clinton seemed to have tied up for Obama - but that was before we got an opportunity to scrutinise her politics up close. Indeed, I remember remarking to a colleague at the time that this was an opportunity for women to get one of their own elected to the White House - a heartbeat from the Presidency - and she laughed at me. She asked if I honestly expected women to look beyond her politics and vote for her simply because she was a woman.

At the time I can honestly say I had thought so, yes. I mean, if women do actually think like Harriet Harman (and, let's be honest, it's tough to know what women think at the best of times!) and expect that one of the two top offices in the land should be held by a woman, then yes, they should probably vote for her on that basis.

However, with more experience of politics and a recognition that what/who a person is does not necessarily shape their political views, I'd be mortified if someone thought I voted for someone simply because they were a straight, white, Celtic-supporting, Protestant (I know - bizarre eh?), able-bodied male. The offence that my colleague took to my indication that if she thought there should be more women should be in politics she should vote for the ones that do stand (ie - Palin) regardless of their politics was warranted.

Politics is about making an informed decision about a candidate based on what you know about their politics and whether you think they could do the job better than the other candidates. That's it for me. Nothing to do with their gender, religion, sexuality, whether they can walk or not. And yes, I do realise that we have a significant under-representation - particularly of women - in politics, as I've discussed before. And yes I think something needs to be done about it. But handing something over on a plate without earning it? Well, as the Barmy Army would say, that's just not cricket.

Don't ask me what Barmy Harmy might say.


Wednesday 5 August 2009

A Marathon Effort

With less than 60 days to go until Audrey and I embark on the huge challenge of the Loch Ness Marathon, I thought I'd take this opportunity to write a wee update, publicly record our gratitude at the help we're had thus far and maybe try to prise a couple of quid out of some tight Scottish (and other!) wallets.

July saw us top 100 miles each as we build up our legs for the long distance event. Without wishing to tempt fate at all, we both seem to be in good health and spirits (no, not those spirits - I'm aff them til after the race) and enjoying determinedly taking on the challenge through.

Saturday saw a punishing (short!) 12 miles across the capital, including a clockwise circuit around Holyrood Park (trust me - that's the hard way!). By the end neither of us were feeling particularly good but we had run a fairly decent and consistent pace. And from this week, we've started incorporating some speed interval sessions over 800m, which I am thoroughly enjoying (although perhaps lasagne is not the best pre-training meal).

I have a busy weekend ahead at the Keith Country Show where I'm due to compete in a 10K (6.2 mile) race at 1.30pm followed by a 6 mile hill race... which starts at 3pm. Not much in the way of recovery time there! Those 12 miles are, of course, in addition to the 14 miles Audrey and I have scheduled for Friday. Naturally I'm taking the Saturday and the Monday off running!

And that brings me to our local press. The Keith paper - The Banffshire Herald - did a spread covering our preparations on the 24th of July and ran an update last week (31 July) publicising our fundraising site. Unfortunately, it is not available online, but my mother has scanned the articles and you can (perhaps) read them if you click on the images below. Big thanks to Caron, who has blogged an update on our progress and to everyone who has tweeted their support.

(the article about the "Trailer Theft" is not part of our fundraising effort!)

Finally, I get to the proper thanks bit. Thanks to everyone who has taken out their wallets to sponsor us. We're running for the MS Society Scotland which, if you've read my previous pleas, you'll know is a charity that raises money to help those with Multiple Sclerosis
, a disabling neurological condition which affects young adults and in Scotland there are approximately 10,500 people with the disease - the highest proportion of a population anywhere in the world.

We reached our original target of £500 within 10 days of setting up our site, and decided on a revised target of £1,000. Two weeks later, and we've almost hit that target too. Huge thanks to everyone who has sponsored us. If you haven't yet, there's still plenty time. A couple of quid, a fiver, whatever you can afford - it'll make a huge difference. I can speak from experience when I say that, when training is hard, knowing people have sponsored you some of their hard earned cash to complete this challenge helps to get you through the difficult sessions.

So thanks again - and keep it coming! And if you are on Facebook and want more regular updates, sign up to our marathon group here.


Another Lib Dem leaflet

Like every politico, I do love a good Lib Dem leaflet. They never fail to disappoint, and their most recent one is no exception.

I got the "Edinburgh North & Leith Liberal Democrats Resident's Survey" through my door the other night. (Un)fortunately I was out training when their Westminster candidate, Kevin Lang, delivered the leaflet himself.

I do note that, despite the mess of Edinburgh's streets at the moment as a result of a dispute between the unions and the Lib Dem-led Edinburgh Council, there is no question on the survey regarding refuse collection.

However, I digress. It is a cracking effort at a textbook Lib Dem leaflet though. Rogue capitals, a couple of candidates featured that aren't standing in your area and, inevitably, the dodgy bar chart. Let's look at the graph, shall we?

Mmmhmm. I see what we're looking at here. 2005 UK General Election result in Edinburgh North and Leith (with slightly skewed positions on the chart I think). I guess that's a fair comparison - same boundary, same-ish population. But 4 years ago? Surely there are some more recent numbers we can look at?

Ah yes, the 2007 Scottish Parliament Election. We're working with a fairly similar boundary here (with a couple of minor changes) and obviously electing to a different parliament, but you'd expect that would give a decent barometer of support for different parties in the constituency. This was the result:

Labour 35%
Lib Dem 27%
SNP 25%
Con 13%

I see why we're not using that result - the Lib Dems have dropped a couple of points from the UK election result while the SNP more than doubled their vote share in, granted, what was an exceptional election for them.

But what's that you say? There was another election in Edinburgh North and Leith this year? Just 2 months ago? Oh yes, the European Parliament election. I seem to remember George Lyon's leaflet telling me that "Only the Lib Dems could win here," despite the whole of Scotland being a single constituency for that election! Anyway, the results in Edinburgh were broken down by constituency, so we know the result in North & Leith. And here it is:

SNP (4965) 20.5%
Labour (4324) 17.9%
Lib Dem (4201) 17.4%
Con (4199) 17.4%
Green (4014) 16.6%

Ah yes... again, I see why we're ignoring the most recent poll figure for the constituency. The Lib Dems poll figured has fallen by 10%, and they were THREE VOTES away from slipping behind the Conservatives in the constituency. And with the Greens on the march, they've almost made it a five-way marginal (with the usual caveats about European elections, PR and turnout of course).

So there were go. "It's a two horse race here in Edinburgh North and Leith." Well, if it is, the Lib Dems probably aren't one of the horses...


Tuesday 4 August 2009

Guest Post: Live or Let Die?

I'd been meaning to write a piece about this topic for some time, but could never put it into a comprehensible or articulate manner. Luckily I found someone who could.

Guest post - by Wendy Fraser (aka PJ)

I’ll lay my cards on the table straight away, I’m delighted by the ruling in support of Debbie Purdy and I also wholeheartedly support a change in the laws surrounding assisted suicide and euthanasia. Undoubtedly a number of people will already have decided upon reading those statements that they disagree with me, that I am wrong and they are right. Well that’s okay. This is not an easy topic to discuss, and it’s certainly highly emotive and controversial, but my motive in stating my viewpoint is the hope that it may ignite some sparks of useful debate. My fear is that the debate will yet again fade from the spotlight without progressing beyond previous circuitous arguments.

It’s hard to be challenged on something that feels like a moral absolute, even harder to acknowledge that there is value in the reciprocal viewpoint. I experienced this a few years ago when I was training to work with a charity that deals with suicide. I walked through the door with the complete belief that we were all there to prevent suicide, yet when my training was complete I left with a different point of view. We learned to understand that we couldn’t tell the people we were speaking to that it was wrong of them to consider taking their own lives. How could we possibly understand how they had come to that precipice in their lives when we weren’t living their lives and experiencing their emotional or physical pain?

Our cornerstone was self-determination, that everyone is entitled to the right to decide whether or not they choose to live. Now that doesn’t mean that we didn’t hope that the person we were talking to would change their mind but the key fact was that we didn’t impose our hopes and beliefs upon them. My point in telling this is that all the people on my training course changed their viewpoints, quite radically in some cases, because we were prepared to be challenged and open to being educated about a different point of view.

So how does this serve this debate about assisted suicide? Well firstly I suspect that many people will be able to state deep-seated viewpoints based upon moral beliefs, religious teachings and personal opinions. Those all have tremendous value but my challenge to you would be this - if you found yourself in a similar situation to Debbie Purdy do you think there is a chance those beliefs might be challenged to the extent that you could feel differently than you do now? I guess that’s a bit of a rhetorical question because it’s impossible to say with total certainty how we would react to such an extreme situation but my experience has taught me that I didn’t actually have to change my beliefs, just my perception of the issues.

One of the things that don’t serve this debate well is generalisations and to be honest I think that also demeans the serious nature of the topics being discussed. We can’t possibly compare one life-threatening illness to another, one experience of insufferable pain and anguish to another – and yet we find ourselves discussing guidelines and boundaries to define the legal processes that do just that, they generalise. It is a truly terrifying prospect to imagine that we could create a legal definition whereby life would be defined as being considered no longer tolerable or desirable. What if we got it wrong? What if it was open to abuse? That honestly scares me. But I am more concerned by the prospect of laws that do not recognise that suffering can be intolerable, that life can deteriorate into nothing more than an unbearable existence.

There’s no one-size-fits-all solution to these issues, no easy path to tread to resolve the many moral and ethical challenges. But one thing I am absolutely positive of is that we must make a stand for our beliefs, a stand for those who are truly vulnerable and at the end of their physical and emotional tethers. I won’t agree with all of the viewpoints I read on these topics, but I do believe that we have to listen to all of them, learn from the experiences of those who can contribute personal insights and be prepared to engage in a debate that will undoubtedly challenge all of us.


Monday 3 August 2009

Fisking Paul Hutcheon

Having studied nationalism in general and Scottish nationalism in particular for most of my adult life and given that nationalist parties in government form the central focus of my Ph.D thesis, I read with interest Paul Hutcheon's article on Scottish nationalism in yesterday's Sunday Herald. I decided to have a closer look at what The Herald's leading investigative journalist had to say. My comments in red.

Paul Hucheon

Not exactly a promising title. And good to see The Herald not bothering with accuracy such as, you know, spelling their journalist's name correctly...

know whether last week's Clan Gathering and "diaspora forum" made me want to reach for my revolver, or laugh at the obvious stupidity of it all, but it did give rise to thoughts about politics and Scotland's small place in the global economy.

In the wake of "David Kerr Gun Gate" is the gun metaphor a wise idea? Or simply aimed at shooting down the SNP's by-election candidate? (oh look, I can do it too...)

Cynicism first. Ten years on from the first Scottish parliament election, it seemed depressing that the electorate was being asked to re-engage with clan "chiefs" who had an alleged link to their families going back hundreds of years. Even worse was the idea that we should somehow shake the tin at the global Scottish community in a bid to fund God knows what.

Okay, I'll be fair. The Clan Gathering and tartan malarky is all very "kitch." But tourists - in particular, Americans - love tracing their Scottish roots. It's a very profitable opportunity.

But it did get me thinking about what has been the biggest political development since devolution. Most people say it is the smoking ban. Others believe it to be free personal care or the abolition of tuition fees. These are unlikely contenders as they were policies that were not linked to any larger script, and were introduced by different first ministers.

A more accurate answer may be the way our political culture has moved towards nationalism and embraced everything Scottish. From Holyrood debates on tartan registers and Scottish number plates, to funding our own international aid policy and clan gatherings, national identity has moved centre-stage.

I think that's a fair analysis. But bear in mind, the SNP were in opposition for 8 out of the first 10 years of devolution. That surely attests to effective opposition in promoting their agenda and forcing the government of the day to discuss (or, at the very least, recognise) their view.

This creeping nationalism is only noticeable these days when somebody goes too far, such as when a MSP complains about English cricket on television, or a row is manufactured over which flag should fly above Edinburgh Castle. Now that they're in power, the SNP can use the resources of government to go full-throttle on an idea they could never afford to promote with their own money.

Again fine. But let me ask this. Why, when Labour came to power in 1997 (or the Tories in 1979) were their policy goals not described as "creeping conservatism" or "creeping socialism"? Because they did the same thing - promote their idea of how governance should work by actually implementing what they could through their government status.

But nationalism, in whatever guise, is a distraction from the only debate that ultimately counts in politics: the distribution of power, money and opportunity. What is "Scotland", if not an invented community dreamt up by a bunch of white guys a few hundred years ago? A similar group of landowners invented other countries such as "Belgium", "Austria" and "Wales", but our national narrative is created to pretend that our bit of turf is somehow special.

Every national narrative does that. And it is - or it should be. It's home, Paul. Tell me you don't think of your house as special - or distinct - from other people's? It's the same principle really. Talk about "invented communities" all you want (by the way, I think the academic phrase you are looking for is "
Imagined Communities") but I think most people would agree that they feel some kind of connection to some kind of community - whether that is family, village, town, region, nation, country, continent.

The con-trick of nationalism is to spin a fairytale that a country - Scotland, Timbuktu - has a specific set of characteristics that marks it out as innately different. Its "people" are then conditioned to feel pride in what is effectively an accident of geography, or get dewy-eyed about the random part of the globe they just happened to be conceived in.

And the "con-trick" of journalism is to stick a few words together in a newspaper and report an opinion as fact. See, I can twist things too. Fine, it's an accident of geography where I was born but I don't see what the problem is in wanting to see others from your own "community" do well and a sense of pride in their achievement.

Gordon Brown's promotion of British patriotism - a two-bit, dog-eared version of nationalism - made a laughable attempt at linking "Britishness" to respect for democracy. This in a country that still has legislators and a head of state based on heredity.

Agreed. Though I guess the problem for Brown in doing so is that "Britishness" has never been defined in the same sense that its component nations have - in a historic sense I mean. Their national stories are already constructed while Brown has to start at the beginning.

Salmond's insistence that Scots have always been big on compassion and "community" is equally absurd. A glance at Scotland's contribution to the British Empire, or the Sighthill residents' reaction to the arrival of asylum-seekers, should quickly challenge that perception.

Again, agreed. Reckon there are a few liberties being taken on that score.

Nationalism, including the civic Scottish version, is also a value-free zone. There is no logical Scottish position on wealth inequality, feminism or reforming public services. Most SNP policies are tactical compromises designed solely with the intention of promoting independence. Far from being a liberating force, nationalism is more akin to a ball and chain, or a set of blinkers that prevent people from seeing the world as it is.

Hold on. The SNP is a party. Scottish nationalism is a movement. Conflating the two doesn't help understand them. The SNP have evolved (2007 election) into a
catch-all party - focusing not solely on a part of the electorate (the left, the centre, the right) but promoting policies which would appeal broadly across the political spectrum, just as Labour did in 1997. SNP policies are tactical compromises - absolutely - but the underlying principle of self-determination is not.

These gripes could be countered if Scottish nationalism was a movement based on social justice, but it is not. Around 50% of the SNP's election warchest in 2007 came from right-wing businessmen who supported the poisonous Keep The Clause campaign in 2000. The party's financial muscle also wants a continuation of the same economic philosophy that has dominated politics since the 1980s, the sole difference being that it should be wrapped in tartan bunting.

Again you conflate Scottish nationalism as a movement with the party machinery of the SNP. I accept that, as the main proponent of independence, the SNP drive nationalism in Scotland, but a movement and a party are two different things. On the point of funding, I suspect that those who supported the SNP - Brian Soutar in particular - did so for tactical reasons. They'd probably be more at home with the Conservatives but backed the horse likely to beat Labour in Scotland. But in politics, financial backing is important. I disagree strongly with Soutar's politics, but if he had not funded the SNP, would we be having this discussion?

As for the SNP's many broken promises since entering government, the one policy it did not ditch was the multi-million-pound tax cut for businesses, a policy that has not created any jobs and which did not have an evidence base, but was fully funded and pushed through as one of Salmond's key priorities.

Two things. 1) The SNP are a minority government but campaigned on the expectation that, at the very least, they'd be in coalition government. They can not be expected to deliver on every election promise on that basis. I suspect you know that, but that wouldn't sell papers. 2) Governments don't create jobs. Businesses do. Again, I assume you didn't get to where you are without knowing that. The business rates cut was designed to attract business to Scotland while giving assistance to businesses here in the hope that, yes, they'd be able to recruit more people. But then what happened? Oh yes, a recession - which the Scottish Government had no control over.

A plausible argument for an SNP government could have been that Salmond, a loner and political outsider, would use the levers of power to confront vested interests and take away decision-making from the cliques that dominate public life.

However, the opposite has happened. Rather than challenge the establishment, Salmond has tried to co-opt its leading members into his Nationalist tent. Sir Angus Grossart, Sir George Mathewson and Sir Tom Farmer are all Salmond confidantes, while at times it seems you need three letters after your name to impress our monarchist first minister.

I've heard similar reports from inside the circle.

A recent interview also confirms that Salmond is now supping from society's other poisoned well: organised religion. As well as cosying up to the Catholic Church and Muslim leaders, the first minister has taken it upon himself to declare that he, too, is a man of faith. Not that he takes it to ridiculous lengths, like going to church, but simply that Christianity has had a profound effect on his life.

This combination of nationalism and religion is a recipe for keeping people dumb, poor and unable to understand the rational world that exists outside of their wee bit of hill and glen.

Hang on. I'll accept that the First Minister's recent declaration of faith leave a little to be desired... but I think you are mistaking nationalism for socialism. You know, religion being the "
opium of the people" and all that. I have more confidence in people as rational beings to judge for themselves whether religion or politics in important to them, and which road of faith (in religion or politics) to take.

According to this world view, it matters little that you work 50 hours a week for poverty pay, get treated like dirt by employers or are let down by public services, because at least you love your country and have Jesus in your life.

Drivel. Utter drivel.

For all his Europhilia, Salmond's influence on Scottish politics is pushing us more towards a US-style political culture, where discussions on wealth get less air-time than hand-wringing debates on identity politics and what it means to be an American. The last Holyrood election, like every presidential contest since 1960, was a political beauty contest. And Jack McConnell, let's face it, was no Jack Kennedy.

True - to an extent. But I think you forget Tony Blair. He was the one who originally made politics in this country a more presidential style. Salmond just used it effectively in 2007.

In a UK context, Salmond is perhaps the Tony Benn or Enoch Powell of Scottish politics: a maverick politician who, by force of personality, makes unreasonable ideas seem reasonable to large chunks of the population. Take him out of the equation, as was the case when he resigned the SNP leadership in 2000, and his party nosedives.

And there it is. Couldn't have an article on Scottish nationalism without bringing out the Nazis eh? Salmond as
Enoch Powell? That's an unreasonable idea but nothing short of what you'd expect from the Scottish press. Associate the SNP with anti-immigration and right-wing politicians without actually examining their policies.

In the meantime, Salmond and his ministers are using the powers they have to pump nationalism into the water supply. It may not be poisonous, or even have damaging long-term effects, but the recipe will do little to cure the economic problems that persist in this and every other country.

I'm sorry - is that last sentence a cry that the Scottish Government should have more economic powers? Or simply a criticism of the SNP for not doing something that it can't actually do?


Oh well. I really do look forward to the day when the parties and the press can have a rational, grown-up discussion about the constitutional future of Scotland. Sadly, with articles like this and the reluctance of politicians - from both sides of the debate - to clearly articulate a positive case for their view, I'll probably be waiting a long time yet.



Feel free to get in touch with me if you have an issue with something you've read here... or if you simply want to debate some more! You can email me at:

baldy_malc - AT - hotmail - DOT - com
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