30 October 2009

A Welsh interlude…

Once, in a bored moment, I indecisively channel-hopped into the midst of the Welsh Assembly during its questions to the First Minister, Rhodri Morgan. While there are only 60 AMs, and thus, the quantity of hot air and Foulkesome baboonisms generated must needs remain lower than Holyrood – I was struck by how placid the exchanges were, how small the room in the Senedd felt and the un(party)political tenor of many of the questions fired at Morgan. Contrasted with wur ain First Minister's Questions from yesterday with its cackling interactions, low abuse and spice of drama – the discourse in the Senedd seemed profoundly different. Some of this can be distilled to the personal. Words such as docile do not instantly snap to the end of the synapses when the Maximum Eck’s name is mentioned. Salmond is more of a flyting fan, himself. Yet even when in the days when wee Jack McConnell had a job and used to shave – he and Nicola used to enjoy ritually gouging at one another in like style.

With this in mind, I went along yesterday to a talk from the selfsame (soon to be ex) First Minister of Wales, Rhodri Morgan. The subject of his disquisition was, perhaps predictably, asymmetric devolution in the United Kingdom in general and the Welsh example in particular. Various things particularly struck me about the man himself – and his arguments – but perhaps a little detail about his central thesis.

Argued Morgan, the “breathing space” devolved arrangements gave to the “Celtic fringe” were a profound triumph of British constitutionalism and what he takes to be its traditions of pragmatism, willingness to muddle through, leaving frayed threads here and inelegant dangly rag-ends of principle poking out there. Contrasting this with formal symmetry and public orderings associated with papery constitutions – article, subsection, clause – Morgan poured (or at least dropletted) scorn on the idea of seeking out answers to constitutional questions in the fustian, moth-gnawed pages of a “constitutional text book”. Part of this, I think, draws on a sensible strand of thought which says – we may arrange our norms like this, but change will mosey over the best efforts of controlling drafters to pre-imagine the fate of a country’s political character. Even textualising and materialising a country’s formal goals cannot be to set them in crystalline form. Along Jeffersonian lines, we might argue that this is so because of the “usufruct of the living” over the present, but also simply because the idea of a solid and immutable constitution is the stuff of wild, tyrannical impulses and the fantasy that flux and fortuna can be excised from our experience of existence.

Another element of this notion and location of “British” pragmatism and virtuous muddle – as opposed a commitment to abstract themes which is generally associated with Continental European mentalités – was emphasised by Morgan by relating an amusing, if apocryphal anecdote – derived from an encounter which the former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright had with a group of French diplomats. Concerning some pressing issue of international concern, Albright told her Gallic listeners that she thought she had laid the capstone – secured the final piece to complete the puzzling picture – and that past turmoils in the region would now diffuse. Assuming an air of French languor, when Albright had completed her presentation, one of these diplomats apparently said to her, “Madame Albright, that is all very well in practice, but how will it work in theory?”

Cue a bit of anti-Froggish guffawing from the crowd. For consistency, Morgan maintained this stance when prodded by a questioner on the so-called West Lothian Question. Although he admitted that if he were a member of Westminster now, he’d entertain personal qualms about voting on issues not directly screwing over his constituents – he pointed out the massive dominance of English members in parliament meant that England prevailed whatever, and hence, rather got the representations and decisions it deserves. What was perhaps most striking about Morgan, however, was firstly how consistently and comfortably he located himself and the political experience of devolution in terms of Welshness, alluding to a Welsh “social democratic” discourse within which (implicitly) English and Tory rhetoric about a small and self-limited state – where less is more – does not obtain. Educated at Oxford and Harvard, Morgan had a sort of plain charm. Not a firework wit, not a shimmerer – but a sort of dogged seriousness which transmitted itself as authenticity.

In common with many indolent Labour politicians, there were several citations of “Labour voters” and a continuing insistence that Labour political failures did not owe to political transformations where these chattel voters exchanged their red livery for blue – but instead was associated with the impatience and boredom these self-same red serfs experience when Labour in government does not live up to its promise and bacon is not brought home. Morgan talked as if the anticipation of return of these Labour-branded souls was governed by some iron-law of political necessity.

What is of interest to me about that argument is that we hear it echoing up from these Welsh valleys to our own heather-frogged glens. Labour sitting, waiting, watching carefully – as the tide seeps out, so it will return with a glad rush of foam and electoral promise. Adjusting by some regular mechanism, this organic metaphor seems to allow for little potential for radical change, for discontinuity and breaking with traditions – and the ending of hegemonies old and rotten.

In that context, and knotted in with his argument about devolution as a triumph of Britishness, I posed the waggish question why Scotland does not seem to be drawing on those resources of Britishness in quite the way he described? His answer, for my money, was rather queer. Devolution, he suggested, sounded like a complex argument. Emphasising the goodness of “Britain’s clout in the world” – while simultaneously lauding more localised decision making – echoing a Clintonian dicta about the 50 states being science laboratories in which creativity and between which creative thefts could operate – quoth Morgan, is a difficult concept to sell. In the context of the SNP, he argued that independence is actually an easier notion to flog to a gormless public. Equally so arguments to ditch devolution altogether and return to some imagined Olympian simplicity of representation in Westminster. Opinion polling tells us that this argument is total guff – and that the public understands perfectly well and can make its judgements on levels of governance which would seem, statistically, to favour devolution, more devolution and continuing membership of some sort of broader, British state. Interesting, however, that he should account for Labour failures in Holyrood in this fashion.

One final note and then I’ll end. In my ignorance, I’d not heard of the All Wales Convention, chaired by Emyr Jones Parry. This Convention is exploring new law-making powers for the Assembly – and will produce a report on the subject on the 18th of November, just a few weeks away. Although he did not comment on whether he would support such powers and changes in the constitutional phizog of Wales – Morgan did have this to say. Bend your ear and strive to detect a Scottish echo. Assume that the aforementioned Convention produces some suggestion of legislative powers. These would, argued Morgan, have to be put to the public in a referendum. But, paused he, what of the economic circumstances? Eyes on the penny’s lads, some might cry, decrying constitutional speculations. Sound familiar? A counterargument, suggested Morgan, would be that constitutional changes and realignments of authority in Welsh public life may assist rather than hamper responses to the recession and scheming for the upturn. Wait, now, I’m sure I’ve heard something similar to this somewhere before…

Although Morgan is on his way out – and I don’t have the local knowledge to tell whether Welsh Labour and London Labour would be up for such further devolution of legislative energies – it does look like the makings of yet another embarrassing tale to waggle provocatively before the benches of their Scottish cronies in Holyrood.

28 October 2009

A strategy suit with a jelly pocket?

So tailor Gray has been giving the inner seam of his party a good feel. Nimble, nicotine-yellow fingerlets moving apparently with purpose, aiming for an ultimate political parp at the next Holyrood election. Brushing off the outfit’s shoulders, smoothing the bunching of responsibilities around the gonady tumescence of Andy Kerr, letting the raptoresque Rhona Brankin return to her family roost and summoning jolly Jackie Baillie from the political underworld to which she was consigned when the earth’s crust opened under Wendy Alexander. A strategy suit, this, do we think?

According to the brief accounts of Gray’s choices which have seeped into the papers’ coverage, the party seem to be making certain claims to deliberation and agency. For myself, the maddest prospect is pushing Des McNulty into the looming, ruffled shadow of the Angry Pigeon, Fiona Hyslop. Why? Assume that we accept, for argument’s sake, the contention that educational issues are proving problematic for the SNP government. Personally, I’m in no position to evaluate that contention. Equally undeniably, however, Hyslop does look rook-haunted and the beady-eyed scallcrows of media and opposition politicians are winnowing a narrative that ends with them pecking out her bonny blue e’en and her slumped behind a dyke. Try to launch yourself into the corvine consciousness of Gray, asking his croaking cronies “where shall we gang and dine the day?” How best to make something politically of this potentially wounded beast?

What does Gray cark? For which of his cawing comrades does he call to mercilessly peck Hyslop to death in parliament and in the media? Er … Des McNulty? Of course, the obvious choice! If you feel as if you have your foe on the ropes, it is traditional to finish them off with a man as compelling as an unbuttered spud. While McNulty is accompanied by a boil in the bag bunch of underspokespersons including Ken McIntosh, wee Claire Baker and Karen Whitefield – the new face and soporific voice of Labour’s opposition and articulator of Labour’s critique of governmental orthodoxies in education must be its new High Heidyin. Various phrases about the failure to achieve spontaneous combustion among the heather and the edifying distractions of watching paint harden occur to me.

Equally, to harp on a worn string, I notice that this refit and adjustment in Labour’s vital statistics finds room for John Park with an “elections and campaign’s portfolio” – but old Margie Curran’s role as party policy tsarina remains unfilled. I suppose it is old fashioned to assume that in order to campaign in an election, one ought to have policies. Of course, this may also be a sort of Jacobite conceit in Labour ranks, keeping her chair empty for the policy over the water, memorialised in that ancient and moving Scottish Labour lament “Will ye no’ come back again?”

27 October 2009

On the private memoirs and confessions of a justified sinner...

One of the irritants about coming south this year is that I’ve missed Edinburgh Royal Lyceum Theatre’s production of one of my favourite books – James Hogg’s Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner. First published in 1824, the novel has been adapted for the stage and propelled across the boards by the Lyceum’s artistic director Mark Thompson and has, to my chagrin, been receiving grand reviews, underlining what I’m missing.

Those of you with artistic inclinations and Edinburgh roots may already have toddled along. Those of you in near proximity might consider doing so. For those of you who, like me, are either furth of Scotland or simply furth of Edinburgh, I’d like to do my bit as a partisan for the novel, and induce at least someone who hasn’t read it before to give it a try. Iain Crichton Smith once described it as "a towering Scottish novel, one of the very greatest of all Scottish books".

I'd agree with that brisk, laudatory analysis. Yet the book suffers, I think, from a familiar range of buyer's prejudices. The puffy title sometimes puts people off. Or negative book cover associations strike, despite popular proverbs, if publishers make daft and unimaginative choices. Certainly that was my first feeling when I drew down a copy from the shelf several years ago and saw the tweedy, rustic figure of James Hogg on the cover, gazing politely and middle-agedly back, looking mustardy and drab. Ordered to absorb it for school, I didn’t appreciate it on the first go. I had to grow up and grow into it. Indeed, not until I'd lived in Edinburgh for a reasonable period, furnishing me with the gentrified, smoky skeleton of Hogg's setting, that my imagination could set the scene and Robert Wringham and Gil-martin could walk this ideational Edinburgh with confidence. I recently bought a copy for my father, published by Penguin Classics, covered by a groaning, sweaty, tormented scene springing from the mind and brush of Goya.

Given the febrile suffering and existential angst which the Confessions are shot through with, this is a far more apt and more tone setting visual cue. Give some horror like George Elliot's Silas Marner your typical “Classic text” alienating frontpiece to remind the reader that he or she must brace for boredom – for Hogg, Goya’s clammy horror is ideal. Sometimes when you see dramatisations of some of these 18th Century “classics” on telly, you wonder how the present generation is even possible with these artificially unfornicating, unfleshy souls as our progenitors.

Equally, when pressed for a compressed notion of the book’s themes – frequently the (somewhat) alienating response of the “Calvinistic doctrine of predeterminism” will be mentioned. Quite right too, but not, perhaps, the way to coax the uncertain into opening Hogg’s pages, casting their eyes across his words and giving him a chance to relate his story of the human consequences and the diabolical agency which lends religious fanaticism in a weak man its potential horror. While sometimes claims for “contemporary relevance” of literary voices from alternative ages and societies can seem a bit forced, not so to my mind of the Confessions of a Justified Sinner. Indeed, it’s a hideous shame that, given its resonances, its crystallising of plausible but also wildly vivid characters, its frisson of the supernatural – even its ironic humour – that so few people will have heard of it, never mind read it, both inside and outside of Scotland. This particularly because another charm of the text (from the outsider perspective) is that it overcomes claims that Scottish art in general and Robert Burns in particular is inaccessible to the broader, English-speaking community.

Written in English with characteristic forays into the vernacular, I defy any careful and sympathetic reader not to be drawn into its web of themes and its spidery, inky substance. A novelist to be cherished – and read – is James Hogg. If I’ve managed to tempt you or to alert you to his presence, do please consider acquiring a copy or seeing the play. Never to bring it to mind and to thoughtlessly erase Hogg’s genius from our literary life is to deny ourselves a creative and alternative Gothic history of Scotland and its religious life.

26 October 2009

Ethnicity, racism & the SNP

Scottish politics does seem like an echo room at the moment. Following that principle of mutual citation, to get this brisk, first morning of the week off to an echoic start, I wanted to draw the eye and bend the ear to this and that.

Firstly, I’ve made tapped nary a single key here to comment on the so-called British National Party hoohah and the easy effort of not being a racist or pandering to racists when you are on a Question Time panel. Rather more difficult, it seems to me, is sticking to those estimable sentiments when Labour Governments and Tory Governments are formulating and regulating their policies on immigration and the seekers of asylum – and representing these to the wider public. For me, as a quasi and occasional scholar of the historical phenomenon of racism in particular communities, what was particularly of interest (not strictly interesting, but of interest) was how different panellists constructed the question. What is this racism and why is it bad? Who do we think of as our archetypical racist, and what error is he or she making?

Some answers emerge from the language. An easy place to begin is the older discourse of race relations, still tacked to the top of the current U.K. legislation from 1976, elucidated sociologically by Michael Banton in his book Race Relations (1967). Implicit in this tack to the issue and “construction” of the “problem” of racism is the maintenance of the categories of race. This sort of approach is now far more common in America – and in its long penumbra, we sometimes find ourselves encompassed. The idea of being “mixed-race” has taken on a lurid prominence since Barack Obama became a real prospect for the American elected kingship. Numerous, utterly fatuous inquisitions follow. Is he really black? Is he white? In what sense is it justifiable to call him a black man? The more pointed answer to this is firstly to point out – race is socially constructed. Race has no given conceptual ordering, no benign, ininterpretative “truth” which can be found outside of our own, social and philosophical concepts. Once these sinister conceptualisations have slithered into our minds, the world begins to take on a racist shape. We ask questions of the world – like those asked of Obama – which assume the basic validity of race as a conceptual tool. In short, we become to dupe of the ideas we create and recreate day to day by seeing the world in a racialising way.

This, I’d suggest, from an anti-racist perspective is a distinct and continuing problem. Rather than scorching the roots of a false ideology, we merely trim the savage plant, constrain its growth within an orderly box, and hope all past blights cannot return. I’d suggest, as a sine qua non, we should stop talking about race as if it had a meaningful underlying referent. Period. Certainly, we might want to analyse the social phenomenon of race-thinking in public life – of which there are extensive examples – but as a political project and a conceptual frame, race and race relations ought to be hastily junked. I look forward to the day when our lexicons will read only:

race (n) (archaic)

However, a hasty change in our terminology won’t do of itself either. I’ve attacked social research before which draws on discourses of ethnicity, and promptly asks me whether I’m white or black – not, I notice the wobbly, peelywally pinkish hue typical of unsunned Scots. If our emphasis is cultural, and ethnicity recognises in the way a racist cannot that ethnic categories are socially begot and none the less valid for all that – then why do the guilty terms of black and white reappear, bashfully pretending they do not draw on a racialising discourse which might explain their presence. At which point, to the promised echo room. The august Lord Rector of the Universitas Academica Edinensis – first class – Iain MacWhirter has an excellent article this morning in the Herald which tied my tongue and stole (albeit without the reticent mens rea) much of what I had wanted to say about the inevitable kilting and Scotticism of the issues raised by wider awareness of the BNP’s platform and how that relates to the SNP. All of this particularly pertinent in the context of Professor Tom Gallagher’s suggestion that Darth Salmond is dabbling in the dreich arts of “mass manipulation associated with Europe in uglier times.” Other sceptical pronouncements include:

“This is replacing civic nationalism with the blood-and-soil variety. I’m angry that such ideas might see the light of day. How would an English child or an internationally minded Scottish one feel on such a visit?” ... “Scotland is a country where the texture of society is still authoritarian and certainly conformist” ...

“I find it creepy that a movement’s future is so bound up with such a talented, impulsive and autocratic leader. The SNP would get more value out of Salmond if they made him accountable for his policies rather than crowning him the unofficial King of Scotland at each party conference. If independence is full of disappointment, then weak democratic institutions could be menaced by a demagogue.”

While a reasonable tactic to popularise Gallagher spanking new (and presumably, hard sell) book The Illusion of Freedom: Scotland Under Nationalism – we ought not to be too brisk to call the man a wobbling numpty. If there are answers to these claims, and easy answers at that, we ought to be able to produce them. Personally, I see in Gallagher’s suggestion about the force of the Maximum Eck’s mass manipulation a manifestation of the traditional Scottish cringe. Even our masses are crapper and less massful than everyone else’s, our manipulations rather … er … incomplete. I’m more interested in his suggestion about the conformist and authoritarian tack of Scots culture – that is an issue about which we can – and ought to have - a real discussion.

Yon article by Mr MacWhirter is not a bad place to start.

23 October 2009

Update: Salduz appeal torpedoed?

When I was fingertipping out my post yesterday on one Duncan McLean's appeal against his conviction on the basis of Salduz v. Turkey judgement, I did not anticipate an immediate response from the septimal bench sitting judgementally at the Court of Criminal Appeal in Edinburgh. Although I've been unable to verify this from other sources, the Aberdeen Press and Journal is reporting, under the banner "Human rights case rejected in Edinburgh" that McLean's argument has failed to convince the bewigged bigwigs of the High Court of Justiciary.

The coy judgelings have not yet produced the whys and the wherefores of their decision - and assuming the verity of the Press & Journal article, have coquettishly limited themselves to informing McLean of his defeat. The Senators of the Colege of Justice will no doubt lodge their arguments and reasons at a later date. However, if the gist of the Herald report on the case isn't ill-informed, this decision won't be making an end to matters, and further judicial analysis of the legalities of the situation will continue under the Scotland Act 1998 in a London court.

In short, Scots ministerial sphincters cannot slacken quite yet.

**Update** The final written judgement of the court in Duncan MacLean v. HM Advocate was handed down on the 15th of December and can be read in full here.

22 October 2009

A legal ping on the Scots political radar...

The case of Salduz v. Turkey may not be familiar to most of you. Indeed, the court which made that decision – the European Court of Human Rights – is in general, a rather mysterious prospect to ordinary citizen and lawyer alike. Formed under the auspices of the old Council of Europe – and distinct from the European Union whose court is the European Court of Justice – the ECtHR has cajoled, prodded and smacked participating member states into (broadly) a fairer shape, witnessed injustices inflicted by states and suffered by individuals and meted out some measure of recognition for some those wrongs. Scotland is, as the Herald reported in detail the other day, faced with the consequences of the Salduz decision of the ECtHR Grand Chamber. The central issue? That familiar scene from police drama, when the smooth, smarmy, middle-class accused silkily insists that his lawyer is present during any interrogation. This self-basting character typically imagines he has an absolute right to such representation. Not so under Scots law. Or so we thought...

I don’t propose to go into my own account or prediction of how the case will fare before the arrayed seven-strong troupe of judges. Read the original text of the Strasbourg court’s judgement here and see for yourselves. An advocate, Niall McCluskey, has also written the following mild exegesis over at the Scottish Human Rights Law Group site, putting the Salduz case into a Scottish legal context much more proficiently than I could, and raising some of the issues which will be addressed in the course of the appeal.

Given the potential consequences of a decision adverse to the state – and the sudden, very political interest and consciousness which it would surely provoke in an anteriorly uninterested public (enter Richard Baker, wet and hot and bothered) – I imagine ministers are keeping a weather eye on the outcome of this. Some of you may recall the Starrs v. Ruxton decision, which determined that the judicial operation of temporary sheriffs in Scotland was incompatible with rights to trial by an independent and impartial tribunal under Article 6 of the European Convention. Convictions by those sheriffs fell by consequence. Legislative changes followed. Whatever the final judgement – whether by the present court or under a Devolution Minute provided for by the Scotland Act - I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the Holyrood parliament finds itself revisiting and formalising the rights of an accused or suspected person to legal representation during police investigations in due course.

Perhaps it will come to nothing and be forgotten – but I can already see the low embers of outrage forming like broken blood vessels in the Swine Pursuivant’s eyes ...

20 October 2009

Labour: Two Roads Taken

Party political conferences always struck me as pretty dull dos. I’ve never inflicted my presence on any party’s delegates and don’t intend shifting my position for the foreseeable future. Well, save for an amusing outsider’s trip to take in Iain Duncan Smith’s “Compassionate Conservatism” conference in London a few years past, during baldy pow’s tenure, which was festooned with sexually repressed Tory Boy lechers with union jack ties (and I dare say, undergarments) who asked me questions including “everywhere north of Manchester is basically the same, isn’t it?” Charmers, they were. No doubt the young thrusters are even now tonguing their way into servitude to the shadow (soon to be illuminated) Conservative cabinet. A melancholy thought, that.

Recalling these past joys, and having a squint at bits and pieces of the SNP conference, various thoughts swim into view. Firstly, splendid choice of venue in Eden Court. I’d never been before until my work took me up there over the summer. The main hall feels like the inside of an ocean liner, sans portholes, but is a stonking good space elegantly restored. Secondly, I wanted to warm a little to the theme of Labour’s argumentative “tactics” on ideology, the SNP and English Toryism. In a suitably pretentious vein, lets commence with a wee, bastardised poem, illustrating the problem…

Two Roads Taken...

Two roads diverged in a reddish wood,

And sorry I could not travel both

And be one traveller, long I stood

Before I tried to push my luck

And cut myself in two


- Lallands Peat Worrier, after Robert Frost

In argumentative terms, it is generally a sage proposition to avoid holding two mutually contradictory views simultaneously. Someone might notice. Criticism might follow. Electoral prospects might suffer. Quoth Iain Gray, SNP is a campaign not a government. Salmond is merely using Scotland for some nefarious scheme of his own – meanwhile, apparently, the SNP also have no ideology. Even if we assume that usual rules apply – and only those who disagree with us are benighted by ideology and false-consciousness while we are free, ethical and informed – how to explain this familiar Labour analysis of SNP opposition to private finance initiatives in the funding of public projects? Time for a spiteful juxtaposition.

Yousuf Hamid, Sunday 31st May 2009 “I wonder if the SNP will be willing do to a u-turn and end this ideological roadblock to Public Private Partnerships. I know that some people in the party will be angry and will have to stop using their soundbites in FMQ's but I think far from being shameful it would show a responsible Government who accepted that they have got this very, very wrong.”

Yousuf Hamid, Tuesday 20th October 2009Never mind having an actual reason to vote SNP or a policy to support but I suppose it's easy to avoid being a proper political party when you have no ideological beliefs whatsoever. It's where you see a Government who will play to the gallery on abandoning the Right to Buy despite it being highly questionable how progressive that actually is and then slashing rates on property and business taxes.”

You have no principles, and you stick too zealously to them! Shame. This isn’t just the young man from Strathclyde being a confounded shallowpate – though it is a stonking example – but is simply representative of the far more general vacillations in Labour’s argumentative tactics against the SNP which are, at bottom, riven with mutually contradictory impulses, played out in laughably fatuous ways.

Take another example. Again, from the gurning desk of Mr Gray, we were once advised that the SNP are really “tartan Tories”. The heat of this allegation must be ideological. It must credit Toryness with negatively appraised ideological characteristics. Needless to say, to pursue this thread of reasoning with a second allegation of essential ideological emptiness is precisely to rob the first stab of much of its energy. You have to choose which road to travel by. By turns, Labour and Scottish Labour have in brisk succession taken both – and I think, cut their argument into ribbons. It is, perhaps, symptomatic of malaise and their lack of confidence. Not content with the force of a single argument, they fiddle and muddle to make them all, just in case, whatever damage this lack of finesse does to the overall cogency and honesty of their message. Two roads diverged in a reddish wood, you numpties. Only a moron would attempt to walk both at once.

14 October 2009

Brown ≠ Oedipus

There once was a man walking under the leafy boughs of the West End of Glasgow, searching for the Kelvingrove art gallery and museum. With him he brought a furry associate. His padding guide dog. Losing his way in the highways and byways, he stopped a passer by, asking her how to get to the red sandstone building from where he was now. After a moment’s thought, the lady sagged at the middle, and bending down beside the Labrador retriever’s lugs, proceeded to advise the hound to take the first right, second left, then straight on ahead.

Its sounds apocryphal – but similar little dramas of folk’s awkwardness and daft misconceptions about disability are common in our society. I’ve met a wheelchair user who frequently finds would-be Christly souls laying their uninvited hands on him. Another woman I’ve encountered, who has a bone anchored hearing aid, recounted to me similar experiences of the lunatic pious and their busy hands. Although not every member of society thinks they can personally instil divine energies, our more general, powerful discourses about disability continue to emphasise medical models, the dramatisation is one of tragedy and the thing devoutly to be wished is not social change but the dim and anticipated mysteries of cure. The politics of disability has striven to reject these tales and these policy priorities, and instead ask – what does society do to make impaired people’s lives more difficult? What does our built environment assume about the modal characteristics of its users? How can we plan our social life more effectively, both architecturally and procedurally? In what ways do our attitudes pose barriers which are unfair, unjust and unnecessary?

Among politically active disabled people over the recent political past, forging common cause among those who have been disabled by social choices has been a central rhetorical device. Implicit in this argument is a public and properly unembarrassed avowal of your status as a disabled person. It is in this context that I’m interested in how folk have been talking about Gordon Brown’s retinas – and more sharply, how Brown himself has historically contrived to conceal his disabilities in a reactionary way, pandering to the stereotypes of a clueless and gormless public. I wanted to start us off with a piece I found on the BBC’s section on disabilities, called Ouch, drafted by Disability Bitch in 2007. She does not mince her words, but does mince Mr Brown for what she regards as his connivance at disguising his disability as though it were something about which he ought to be ashamed.

Watching the political coverage, I was surprised by the vocabulary Brown used to discuss the issue with Andrew Marr. On subsequent Politics Show Scotland pieces, Nicola Sturgeon rather drably described the speculations on his sight as “distasteful” and I think, she largely misses the point. Distasteful is aloofness distilled, a word saved for grubby sex tales among those contriving to be lofty and above such “gutter politics”. The correcting ointment for those who think the speculation is distasteful is typically a resort to the language of privacy and a personal medical history. It leaves matters concealed and lets off innuendo-totting speculators with the allegation they are simply naughty or scatological souls.

They’re not. They’re grotesque. By peddling vindictive and patronising stories about disability for purely political purposes, in their pursuit of one stodgy man, they trample on the public involvement of innumerable other visually impaired people in Britain. Moreover, they foster an oppressive, spiritualising approach to blindness. The story is presented like a Greek tragedy. Benighted politically, the Fates conspire to dim Brown’s eyes, a metaphorical conjunction and a divine judgement. Brown isn’t Oedipus. Retinal tears are not the vindictive rendings of the Furies.

The answer to such narratives is not limp citations of privacy. It isn’t distasteful. Rather, the whole spun tale is an unmitigated assault on the stature of visually impaired citizens of the United Kingdom, which ought to be recognised for the unjust priggery it is. It is exemplary of Labour’s heartlessness and heatlessness that their responses on this issue have been so flat, so bereft of any crusading sense of the injustice of the thing. Who then to blame? Turn your eyes to the fat spider in the middle of it all, to Brown himself. I’m with the Disability Bitch on this point. Brown cannot find inner magma to spew. If once the volcanic energies gathered in him, they have now hardened into bare rock and the pervasive inauthenticity which has been that man’s bane. He cannot fire hot answers, and due to his slipperiness, he has furnished the baying baiters with their material. I'm sure visually-impaired citizens won't be thanking him for that.

9 October 2009

Are you on the list, Mr/s MSP?

A while ago, I scribbled something here about how contradictory it seems to me to strive towards proportionality in Holyrood yet instantly spike that proportionality by goading some poor willing gull to take up the presiding officer’s gavel, and sit.

In the second(ish) of an occasional series of mild structural speculations about Scottish democracy, I wanted to discuss an often unsung benefit of the Holyrood list system for selecting regional tribunes. The hostile case is probably more familiar. Souls on the list frequently try their best to coax the public to vote for them in the constituency – and are frequently rebuffed in favour of another candidate. Rejected, even, some might say. Yet, despite the best efforts to keep this would-be cuckoo out of a parliamentary chair, the party can fix up matters slyly behind the painted scenery. If we anticipate some measure of continuity in the electoral fortunes of parties, they can basically appoint one, two or perhaps three MSPs, despite popular loathings and public contempt. Although the positions do not attract a lordly or baronial title, the proposition runs, the principles animating the choices are similar. Thereafter, attention is unlikely to drift to the arcane party internal reasonings and barterings that compose the list as it finally appears. That being so, resort can be made to similar arguments. The list can be a way of briskly elevating the talented and the bright – while crouching toads in constituencies can be more difficult to deflate. Of course, merit is not an innocent calculation and intellect no guarantee of virtue or virtuosity in government. Other criticisms include the alleged non-localism of list members and a vindication of the idea that the representation of geographies – as well as party affiliations and ethical and political commitments – across a country is a valuable thing.

Although I’ve never really argued it fulsomely here, one big problem for me in the Westminster political banner-waving is that everyone is trying to represent too many, internally contradictory views. Broad based, certainly, but supported by two shoogly legs. One of the best arguments, for me, for some form of proportional representation in Westminster is that it could remove the pervasive inauthenticity which UK political parties now resort to. Obviously, electoral progress would mandate appealing to other party’s voters – but the desperate need to form dissembling coalitions within a party would at least find reasons to ease off. There are complex relations between representation and sharing the views of your candidate. Given that voting for anyone except yourself enforces this partial alignment of views and the sorting out of priorities and a hierarchy of political commitments – your parliamentary representative cannot be a mirroring simulacrum of the self.

Some of these complexities recently crept to the surface after a certain young labour student from Strathclyde recently argued that SNP MSPs from Glasgow were failing to represent their city. The point was made that these two strands – representation and the sharing of views – are not reducible to one another. Angela Merkel made the same point when she insisted that she wished to the Chancellor for all Germans, political views despite. Westminster elections conducted on a first past the post basis furnish us with 646 instances of similar problems. How should we conceptualise electors whose representatives voted to invade Iraq but who disagreed with them vehemently? Not in our name, the slogan directly aimed at disrupting the division and insisting that representation and sharing of views cannot neatly be divided. Take another example. Anne Widdecome frequently stodged through parliamentary lobbies based on her personal Catholicism. What of those in her constituency who did not share those views? What options had they? Move, certainly. Continue to vote against her – and insofar as they failed to tip her into the fens – stuck with the majority’s preference for her which obliterated the disagreeing minority’s voices.

Contrast this with the Scottish example – and the constituencies which make up Glasgow. The sea is red. Yet look over the following list of ne’er-do-wells, villains, scoundrels and blaggards:

Bill Aitken (Conservative)

Robert Brown (Liberal Democrat)

Bob Doris (SNP)

Patrick Harvie (Green)

Bill Kidd (SNP)

Anne McLaughlin (SNP)

Sandra White (SNP)

Those with keen eyes for pattern recognition – or an archivist’s memory for detail – will recognise this file of smudged shufflers as Glasgow’s seven “list” MSPs, elected in compensating proportion to their constituency associates. If I have a particular policy bugbear to brutalise my representatives with – I can pester all of these souls and Sturgeon besides. Indeed, in the past I’ve done just that, and the gracious Patrick Harvie responded with admirable briskness and detail to my digital inquisitions. Take any number of issues which might excite disagreement. Doughty old social miserabilists like Baillie Bill Aitken would be apt to give constituents petitioning on particular themes the bum’s rush. Much more liberal representatives like Harvie may take more of an interest and articulate that interest in the public setting. And so, vice versa, if you happened to be a social miserabilist yourself. Perhaps your constituency MP is lazy, a lush, bored, too busy having affairs, too stupid to comprehend the proposition you put to them. A longer list – and more people representing a particular community – can give the campaigner or reformer more ears to bend while first past the post might foist heaven knows what on you, with no recourse elsewhere. In short, as it is meant to, there can be a closer identification between representation and the sharing of views of topics of public discourse. Representation need not be such a dubious conjuring trick, conspiring to ideologically dazzle the public into deferring to whatever odious tribune their fellow citizens inflicted on them.

For me, Yousuf’s error is not the misidentification of representation with the sharing of views, as such – but is instead the misidentification of his views and Labour views with the whole representation of Glasgow. Concealing Glasgow’s Tories, its Greens, its SNP voters is the stuff of the past, thank heavens. Along the lines of my post yesterday, invisibility is not to be encouraged. The list allows those whispering minorities to find more robust voices. So when you are bashing, as one can fairly bash, the problems of party ordained lists of toadies and courtiers – have a care for the voter, lumped with Anne Widdecome for all those years, with nowhere else to turn.

8 October 2009

Anthropologies of the English Tory Boy...

Traumatically busy here at the moment, entangled in the first flush of recognition and innumerable painfully introductive conversations. Tragically, I haven’t met too many of the noxious Tory Boy types, though the town is replete with several souls pantalooning along like berks in the designated uniform. Indeed, what I’ve found profoundly striking here in the middle-class south is how confidently and without qualm that section of the English population identifies itself with Englishness itself. Very English, folk glance about themselves at the Oxfordshire atmosphere and nod conspiratorially. I’ve been seeking out (unsuccessfully) people from the North of England to see how the experience – and that claim to representative authority – sits with their conceptions of English authenticity. Similarly, I’ve met some wondrously brisk young women who argue that there are a series of linguistic and symbolic practices about the place which serve to marginalise women and exclude participation as full members of the community. Interesting stuff. Perhaps I’ll be able to churn out a sneaky anthropology of the English on the sly.

All of this is quite in contrast to the Scottish phenomenon (which is not without its contestations) that an “Anglicised” Scots middle class can feel denationalised and invested with less national capital than their working class fellow citizens. Although it’s a complex series of relations – which I’m skimming over here unjustly quickly – I think it is fair to say that few would make the equivalent claim for Edinburgh. We are not without resources to see Edinburgh as very Scottish. Various wonderful, brightly intelligent, bourgeois figures can furnish us with alternative stories about Scottishness which encompasses an idea of Scots middle class authenticity – but these have to be worked out, grounded more thoroughly. While identity politics at this level may seem to some of you abstruse - I'd only note this. Social power continues to be wielded by adamantly middle-class characters in Scotland. Yet, in the representational stakes, the Scots bourgeois is a challenging and unfamiliar character. What voice might he or she speak in? What has she to say? Sit in any theatre. Risk a crick in your neck and glance backwards. Its just another dramatisation of a point made by the scholar of Scottish literature, Christopher White. Discussing the phenomenon of the "hard man" in Scots novels, he argues that much of the curiosity of the genre is that the consumers of texts about this gruff customer are unlikely to be hard men themselves. Although impressionistic as an indictment, I'd say we can see similar things afoot, stalking the boards of the Scottish stage.

Whyte styles this the "textual invisibility" of the Scottish middle class. If you find the idea plausible - whether in whole or part - then it is crucial to return to the more important questions of social power. Unknown quantities are the enemy of representative democracy. Just as we would be suspicious of a figure who wraps up his head in a balaclava, socially empowered Scotland hiding its cranium and the mischiefs that churn there ought to prompt curiosity. And insofar as the climate will permit, disinfectant sunlight.

Just a few, idly sprouting little thoughts. Will return to political blogging in earnest soonish, I hope.

3 October 2009

Labour's Pushmipullyu: Gloating at my prescience

It was bound to happen. The contradictions were inherent in the position. The iron law of Labour’s political expediency expressly required it. At least insofar as the tackety boot of the economy didn’t tend crotchward and flatten all of their hopes. Like a sour germ, nestled in the unfertile earth of Labour policy, it was determined to hatch into a savage plant sooner or later. And like Saturn, is disposed to eat its children.

The particular political thorn (in its own side) which I have in view here is Labour’s fresh-minted case against a referendum on independence in the context of economic drear. Polling undertaken, the idea that we ought not to indulge in constitutional speculations during this time of material uncertainty emerged with an apparently seductive shiny populism. The authority of the poll was gravely cited, the position sonorously pushed, and to the nodding heads who conceived the position, it seemed as if the Maximum Eck’s bucking constitutional broncho had been decidedly headed off at the pass. Its hard to kick against the pricks, they consoled themselves.

Splendid. Tea and crumpets anyone?

Er … but wait. Somewhere in the churning gut of Labour strategy, someone clearly failed to factor in the obvious, yammering point. Labour needs an economic narrative which confirms their success at a United Kingdom wide level. They actively require an account of the public accounts which says ‘matters improve’; the tides of your wealth are not continuing to recede under our governance. Gordon has turned the proverbial eddies towards a richer tomorrow – etcetera, etcetera. This was all crushingly obvious. I pointed out the incongruity between the economic arguments against referendum and Labour’s general political interests on the economy at the beginning and the end of June this year, arguing that these niggling contradictions in Labour’s position were sure to squirm their way to the surface of political comment, sooner or later.

The whole vitality of Scottish Labour’s position on the referendum, lashed to this particular argument, required the economy to be in a shabby old way. Their general UK Labour interest required metaphors of rejuvenation. Scottish Labour, in short, screwed up again. By aligning themselves with excuses to oppose a plebiscite rooted in contingent economic circumstances – as opposed to foregrounding other, viable reasons to oppose the referendum – they enslave themselves to changes in the economic circumstances. And in this case – most paradoxically – they enslave themselves to Darling et al.’s interest in representing a positive economic case and pouring cold custard down Iain Gray’s pantaloons.

It’s a political pushmipullyu from which Scottish Labour couldn't but emerge as the weaker tugger – and is a par excellence expression of the dearth of perspicuous strategic thinking in John Smith House. Watching the BBC’s Newsnight Scotland this week – footage below courtesy of Moridura - its clear that the moment is now. All of these ambivalences and contradictions which have always padded alongside an expedient, economic case against the referendum begin to growl, show fangs, and from Gray’s witless display before Gordon Brewer, draw blood. Expect a hasty scrabble to emphasise other justifying reasons for opposition - wrong wording, unconstitutional once-and-for-allisms - too late, alas. Too late.

2 October 2009

Wigs, hats and juicy English spiders...

Fear not, I haven’t expired. I’m now fully embedded in the autumnal south of England, which at the moment feels profoundly Keatsian…

SEASON of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;

The sleepy plants are degged with dew and dappled with juicy garden spiders and I’m tucked in my new Victorian garret. All is well, calmness rules and blogging can now continue. Unfortunately, the bloggus interruptus fell in a phase when a bumper crop of stories of interest rumbled through the public consciousness. The new Supreme Court first swore and sat, sans wigs but with one gratuitous hat, Kenny MacAskill published the Legal Services (Scotland) Bill which promises to generate a good deal of ill-natured banter between Scotland’s groansome legal professions, insisting on their civic intent, and others pushing a discourse of choice, consumerism and the dismantling for monopoly and limitation.

Finally, and probably most significantly, the group chaired by Brian Gill has published its Civil Courts Review. Civil justice reforms and courtly institutional realignments may not be what drags the electorate to the polls. It is however, in my humble submission, precisely was the Scottish Parliament should be concerning itself with. For me, devolution, if nothing else, is a sharp call to public and political responsibility. Glance about the country, it insists, seek out mischiefs, disclose injustices. Change is within your power. Of course, there are limits – these constraints being grist to the nationalist mill and the stuff of the intellectual case for independence. Without underestimating these limitations, Holyrood is already empowered radically to alter swathes of Scotland’s public life. Due to its arid associations, and long roll of pages, I don’t expect too many of you will have read both volumes of the Review, published on the 30th of September. For those who are interested, a brief synopsis is available here.

Gill is the Lord Justice Clerk, an authoritative insider, and he does not mince in words. I particularly want to highlight how trenchantly the pert Gill words his critique of Scotland’s current judicial structures. It is worth quoting the first page of his introduction to the review, which contains many of the overtly and deliberately combustible phrases.

The theme of this Report is that the legal system is a public service and that in the allocation of the resources available to it the public interest is of vital importance. Since resources are limited, the excellence that the system cannot at present achieve must be pursued in the most cost‐effective way.

The basic structure of civil jurisdictions in the Scottish courts remains much as it was in the late nineteenth century. Meanwhile, fast moving changes in the social and economic life of Scotland in recent decades have left us with a structure of civil justice that is seriously failing the nation. Reform is long overdue. The structural and functional flaws in the working of the Scottish civil courts prevent the courts from delivering the quality of justice to which the public is entitled.

The Scottish civil courts provide a service to the public that is slow, inefficient and expensive. Their procedures are antiquated and the range of remedies that they can give is inadequate. In short, they are failing to deliver justice. Public confidence in our system is being eroded. The much admired qualities of fairness, incorruptibility and expertise of our judicial system will have little significance if the system cannot deliver high quality justice within a reasonable time and at reasonable cost. One of our basic propositions is that since the legal system, as a public service, must be adequately resourced, its structures and its procedures must be so arranged as to eliminate needless delay and unreasonable cost. If the civil justice system cannot do that, it perpetrates injustice.

An efficient civil justice system is vital to the Scottish economy. It is also vital to the survival of Scots law as an independent legal system. Some Scottish commercial undertakings have so little confidence in our system that they enter into contracts providing for English jurisdiction and choice of law. If the Scottish civil courts and their procedures continue to fail the public, it is inevitable that Scots law itself will atrophy. We consider that minor modifications to the status quo are no longer an option. The court system has to be reformed both structurally and functionally.

Charged and biting analysis. After such a demolition of the credibility of an institution by one of its sons, change is in the fustian legal air, methinks. If our processes are flawed, let us alter them. If we perform the works of injustice, lets find ways to work differently. Just what devolution is all about.