31 January 2011

Juxtaposition of the day...

Ed Miliband, on the 28th September 2010, on short prison sentences...

“Wisdom is not the preserve of any one party. Frankly, the political establishment too often conducts debate in a way that insults the intelligence of the public. When I disagree with the government, as on the deficit, I will say so loud and clear and I will take the argument to them. But when Ken Clarke says we need to look at short sentences in prison because of high reoffending rates, I'm not going to say he's soft on crime.”

Richard Baker (Swine Pursuivant) on the 31st of January 2011, as a presumption against short sentences comes into effect in Scotland...

“The SNP have proved themselves time and time again not fit to run Scotland’s criminal justice system. They are soft-touch and out of touch and our communities deserve much better than this.”

30 January 2011

Tales from Middlesex Guildhall...

An Englishman, an Irishman, a Scotsman and a woman were called to the Bar...

That, more or less, is that starting point of BBC 4's documentary, The Highest Court in the Land: Justice Makers, available on the iPlayer until the 7th of February. The piece is structured around interviews with, domestic footage following and court shorts showing  four Justices of the United Kingdom Supreme Court at work. It's certainly worth seeing.

England is represented by the jovial Lord Phillips of Worth Matravers, President of the Court, and one discovers, not a man to shirk a challenge as he bravely dons a lyrca bodystocking to play the commuting cyclist across London. We learn that the former Lord Chief Justice of Northern Ireland, Lord Kerr, is a generous domestic house-fellow, his wife enjoying a nice boiled egg with marmite toast and tea of a weekend. Baroness Hale is the only woman sitting on the Court, while Scotland is seen in the slight, rather dowdy and bespectacled person of Lord Hope of Craighead, once Lord President and Lord Justice-General of the Court of Session and High Court of Justiciary, now Vice-President of the UK Supreme Court and patron of Sainsbury's supermarket. Between domestic revels, the documentary asks the Justices about the tensions they experience between law and justice, their ideas about the virtues of a judicial temperament, the spectre of divided appellate adjudications and the Court's deliberations on the legal chimeras of the Terrorism Acts. 

For myself, I can see why the gap between an actor's own values and those they impose in contested legal situations is of interest. However, my sense is that this documentary's focus obscures rather than illuminates the issues at stake by posing the question without clarifying another, earlier one - what is the law? Many folk entertain a sort of Weberian impression that law is merely the operation of rule-based formal rationality. At the level of Supreme Court adjudication, this is exceedingly unlikely to be the case. We should notice, therefore, that when we hear a justice refer to applying the law, he or she is not likely to be referring to the simple mental process some of us might be imagining, of applying a settled rule to a circumscribed collection of facts. As I always say to my anthropologist and sociologist friends with just enough crude Marxism to make them wildly suspicious of authoritative, "symbolically violent" institutions staffed by stuffy, white, male middle-class Westerners - their impatient critique too often misses the more (I'd suggest) anthropologically interesting fact. These folk, who can patiently assess the curious world-views entertained by different people across the world, rarely recognise that lawyers are deeply, deeply strange people with ideological commitments which the average person cannot but find rather bizarre, even implausible.  Certainly, there are doubtless a good many more lawyers of the whatever-you-say-sir stripe, who solve problems for their corporate masters. That said, I'd argue that law's ideological strain finds particularly intense expression in these adjudicative situations. 

Lord Phillips talks exceedingly interestingly (but also rather obscurely, which is the point) about "reaching the right result", and of the dissenting judge in the minority who "sees clearly" while the majority on the panel were benighted. This transcendental legal metaphor was put even more starkly when he describes sitting down to start writing judgments, uncertain of his view. He talks about it as if there was an occult inner logic concealed in the authorities, which is at first only passingly glimpsed and gradually unfolds in the conscious  judicial mind. Like finding some invisible hand on his, directing his judicial prose, by its mysterious operation, an unforeseen legal solution presents itself. I was struck by how conspicuously this echoes the familiar novelist's saw, that they don't know where their narrative is headed, but simply follow the course suggested by their characters.  To the cynically impatient amongst us, this can sound like inveterate mystification. However, I'd suggest we have no particular reason to disbelieve them and I dare say it gives an accurate subjective impression of the process.

I have also previously analysed the new court as something of a "Unionist project", in the sense that the foundation of a new, high appellate Court was seized upon as an opportunity to emphasise a British Unionist semiotics, whatever the institution's actual powers and jurisdiction: 

What interested me in particular, however, is how the architectural and legislative shifts which moved the Law Lords off their red benches and into designated judicial space has accumulated a Unionist semiotics which are strongly political. Glance at the symbol of the Court, left. English rose, Welsh leek, Scots thistle and Northern Irish flax all mingle at the roots, creating a complete circle. About this verdant knot, omega circumscribes, apparently referencing the Supreme Court’s finality. Designed by Yvonne Holton, Herald Painter at the Court of Lord Lyon in Scotland, I think it’s a handsome enough symbol. In context, it is, however, also a highly political account of the new judicial body – the institution of the Supreme Court being re-imagined through a symbolically unionist lens. Unlike the old House of Lords, this imagery explicitly ties Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales in.

The BBC 4 documentary performs a similar trick, although watching it, it was interesting that you would really struggle to learn from it that the United Kingdom is highly legally pluralistic.  While the camera shot north to Lord Hope's neo-Classical mansion house, this afforded an opportunity for some striking visuals of prominent Edinburgh landmarks, rather than a chance to emphasise the complex jurisdictions which  might culminate in the final review of the Supreme Court. In point of fact, as many of you will know, there is no appeal from the High Court of Justiciary on Scottish criminal matters, except insofar as they touch on Convention and Devolution issues. However, as we saw in the Cadder v. H.M. Advocate judgement, the Supreme Court can play an important role in the adjudication of fundamental rights and the legal constraints of Scotland's devolution settlement.

I'm not particularly interested in the soor ploom poor neglected Scotia point. It just strikes me as curious and significant that the documentary would demonstrate so little interest in or consciousness of  the historical and existing different traditions in this Union. While I accept there is a case to be made for the idea of the Union, it is striking how rarely one hears this compelling articulated, never mind argued for or defended. This documentary makes no effort at all, save through its selection of interviewees, to explore the significance of this question. It is hardly particularly Unionistic to talk about the law of the land, even before devolution added further institutional means by which the United Kingdom's jurisdictions can come, still further, to differ. At another point in the documentary, Lord Phillips explicitly situates the Court in terms of the parliament over the road which makes the laws. Certainly Westminster does so, and vitally important decisions and statutes are enacted there. However, at the level of imagination, that the Supreme Court  and United Kingdom legal systems were presented in this way by the BBC is surely not insignificant or simply incidental.

29 January 2011

Boswell's hangover...

I've mentioned To the Hebrides once or twice before. A splicing of Dr Samuel Johnson's Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland and James Boswell's more confiding Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides, the book combines these two rather different accounts of their 1773 jaunt, side by side. While Johnson's tone is generalising and impersonal, Boswell's writing sets down a far more human, observational account of their traipsing  and voyaging (although most of their time seems to have been spent slurping and chomping in the houses of local persons of quality, able to put the beefy pair up for a night or three). With its eye for human detail and its more honest-seeming authorial voice, owning up to life's little scandals and embarrassments, I find Boswell's the more entertaining and engaging of the two. That said, Boswell exults in the long (and stodgily-formed, broad bodied and tun bellied) shadow of the Englishman and obsessively sets down the impression he made on their new friends and acquaintances amongst the Gaels. This was clearly an almost child-like fixation on and admiration for the older man. You get the sense that Boswell was permanently fretting about being in his pulpsome English companion's good esteem, intimate but intimidated.

Blessed with a pinch of humour and I dare say a good deal of impish mischief, manifesting in the permanent intellectual persecution of all he encountered, Johnson himself cuts an irresistibly bumptious figure, who at times bears a striking resemblance to the traditional pub bore, improbably expert in most matters and always keen to dispense his insights into everything from farming, butchery, high literature to matters of piety and sundry Scotch deficiencies. I liked him better after following an editor's footnote to this anecdote from one Reverend Robert Forbes. It's a scene that is easily conjured, and I never could resist a comic spot of social awkwardness...

"You know the famous Doctor Johnson has been amongst us. Several anecdotes could I give you of him, but one is most singular. Dining at the table of one of the Lords of Session [a judge of the Court of Session], the company stumbled upon characters, particularly it would appear of kings.  "Well, well," said the bluff Doctor, "George the 1st was a robber, George the 2nd a fool and George the 3rd an idiot." How the company stared I leave you to judge." (2007, To the Hebrides, 536).

For myself, I find Boswell at his most likeable when he is living up to the frivolous, cheerful, bluff dimensions of his nature - and at his least plausible when he pinches himself with earnest but not wholly convincing conscientious pieties. The following excerpt from Boswell's Journal neatly touches on all of these things. With wonderful preciseness, it takes us to the isle of Skye on Saturday the 25th and Sunday the 26th of September in the year 1773. A 33 year old Boswell reminds us that a hangover as a potentially universal human experience, and a humble hair-of-the-dog wisdom prevailed, even in the 18th century...

"Dr Johnson went to bed soon. When one bowl of punch was finished, I rose, and was near the door, in my way up stairs to bed; but Coirechatachan said, it was the first time Coll had been in his house, and he should have his bowl; and would not I join in drinking it? The heartiness of my honest landlord, and the desire of doing social honour to our very obliging conductor, induced me to sit down again. Coll's bowl was finished; and by that time we were well warmed. A third bowl was soon made, and that too was finished. We were cordial, and merry to a high degree; but of what passed I have no recollection, with any accuracy. I remember calling Coirechatachan by the familiar appellation of Corrie, which his friends do. A fourth bowl was made, by which time Coll, and young Mackinnon, Coirechatachan's son, slipped away to bed. I continued a little with Corrie and Knockow; but at last I left them. It was near five in the morning when I got to bed.

SUNDAY S26 SEPTEMBER. I awakened at noon, with a severe head-ach. I was much vexed that I should have been guilty of such a riot, and afraid of a reproof from Dr Johnson. I thought it very inconsistent with that conduct which Iought to maintain, while the companion of the Rambler. About one he came into my room, and accosted me, "What, dry yet?"

His tone of voice was not that of severe upbraiding; so I was relieved a little. "Sir," said I, "they kept me up".

He answered, "No, you kept them up you drunken dog."

This he said with good-humoured English pleasantry. Soon afterwards, Coirechatachan, Coll, and other friends assembled round my bed. Corrie had a brandy-bottle and a glass with him, and insisted I should take a dram. "Ay", said Dr Johnson, "fill him drunk again. Do it in the morning, that we may laugh at him all day. It is a poor thing for a fellow to get drunk at night, and sculk to bed, and let his friends have no sport."

Finding him thus jocular, I became quite easy; and when I offered to get up, he very good-naturedly said, "You need be in no hurry now".  I took my host's advice, and drank some brandy, which I found an effectual cure for my head-ach. When I rose, I went into Dr Johnson's room, and taking up Mrs Mackinnon's prayer-book, I opened it at the twentieth Sunday after Trinity, in the epistle for which I read, "And be not drunk with wine, wherein there is excess". Some would have taken this as a divine interposition." (2007, To the Hebrides, 273).

27 January 2011

The Punting of the Snark ~ Fit the first...

After the chilling Lay of the Jabbereck, which set out Scottish Labour's electoral strategy for May's Holyrood election, it occurred to me that it might be worthwhile to try to commune with the forces that lie behind the veil that cleaves our earthly world from the realm immaterial. As the gaunt waifs and wights of our ancestors and departed contemporaries wander its muted gardens, so it is said, they often hear tell secrets of things yet to come. Having uttered the relevant incantations, offered propitiatory libation (piously poured down my own throat), the shimmering, gossamer form of Lewis Carroll erupted from the floor and handed me the following, scratched out in green ink on ghostly vellum. Although clearly open to different interpretations, as all such divinations are, it appears to furnish some further insight into the character of the Scottish Labour Shadow Cabinet and their schemes...

The Punting of the Snark

An electoral agony in eight fits

Fit the First


“Just the place for a Snark!” bold John Park cried,
As they huddled in Charlotte Square;
Designing how best their mate Iain to guide
Up the FM’s Bute House Georgian stair.

“Just the place for a Snark! I have said it twice:
That alone should encourage the crew.
Just the place for a Snark! I have said it thrice:
What I tell you three times is true.”

Gray’s crew was complete: it included a Foulkes —
One Whitton, a Peacock includes —
With Wendy brought along to provoke their disputes —
And a Lamont, to lament her moods.

Forget not McNulty, whose thrill was immense,
Though he seemed without guile or flair –
Or their man Kerr who at a time before hence,
Held the whole of your cash in his care.

There was also a Baillie, who with spittle to fleck,
To the Sturgeon-Bird never kow-tows:
And had often (Gray said) saved their bacon from Eck,
Though none of the others knew how.

At his elbow, asked Park, "Why the Snark?"
With boozle-scratch baffling his napper.
"Add one part snarl to one part nark..."
So reasoned their Chieftain Eck trapper.

Curiosity dulled, the crew set to its work
A'-spreading the Snark's frabjous fame
Their task, they conceded, had this desperate quirk:
Most had wholly forgotten his name...

For fame and for fortune Gray gave not a fig,
And got not a fig for his pains.
From "What-was-his-face!" to "Thing-um-a-jig!"
His anonymity knew many names.

For those who preferred a more forcible word,
He had sprightlier titles than these:
His intimate foes called him "Giggity,"
And his enemies "LOLIT-SP."

"His form is ungainly—his intellect small—"
(So the pressmen would often remark)
"But his dryness is perfect! And that, after all,
Is the thing that one needs with a Snark."

He could drone with conviction, returning Eck's hoots
With an impudent wag of the head:
And he once went a walk, paw-in-paw, with a Broon,
"Just to keep up his spirits," he said.

The Snark, who was famed for a number of things
Forgot, when he uttered these quips:
That badinage, banter, aren't the gifts that he brings
As one of life's spanking wagwits.

The last of the crew needs especial remark,
Though he looked an incredible dunce:
He had just one idea— but, that one being "Snark,"
Our Gray man engaged him at once.

His name was R. Baker and gravely he dared,
Off the cuff, the guff-ready impeach.
For all seasons, he had a big cream puff prepared,
And never refrained he from speech.

Most strongly advised that the Baker should be
Conveyed in a separate ship:
But brave Snark he declared that would never agree
With the plans he had made for the trip.

But at length Gray explained, in tremulous tones,
That all Nat-work he deeply deplored.
From toad chorus required a host of gub-lines
By which Salmond would surely be floored.

Oor Baker's best course was, of course, to procure
A second-hand dagger-proof vote —
So that Baker advised it—and next, to ensure
They all got some Office of Note:

"Have scoff-flop students pay through the nose,
Their degrees to purchase and buy..."
But the Snark kept looking the opposite way,
And appeared unaccountably shy.

Mindful of Stevenson's winter tableau,
The man Kerr said, "Summer prevails!
Let's have two excellent Policies, one Against Snow,
And another against damage from hail!"

They had twenty-odd policies, carefully packed,
With Gray painted boldly on each:
And John Park's big wheeze was, in fact,
To leave them all out of his speech.

The Baker, who happened to hear Park's remark,
Protested, with tears in its eyes,
That not even the rapture of punting the Snark
Could atone for that dismal surprise!

26 January 2011

Sheridan sentenced to three years...

After hearing Tommy Sheridan's detailed plea in mitigation this morning in Court Four in the High Court in Glasgow, Lord Bracadale sentenced the former MSP to three years in prison.  To my mind, any prison sentence was going to be harsh, but this result is in the middle range of what was anticipated. Here was the judge's full sentencing statement:

"On any view you were a highly effective and hard working politician. You supported individuals in the community; both in the parliament and in the street, you were able to use your undoubted powers of oratory to press home your cause; you led the Scottish Socialist Party to considerable electoral success; and your contributions to the anti-poll tax campaign and the abolition of warrant sales will become part of the fabric of Scottish social and political history.

By pursuing, and persisting in the pursuit of, a defamation action against the proprietors of the News of the World you brought the walls of the temple crashing down not only on your own head but also on the heads of your family and your political friends and foes alike.

You were repeatedly warned by the comrades that it would come to this.

I have considered the various cases to which you have referred me. These are helpful, though in considering them it must be borne in mind that each case turns on its own facts.

I also note the case of Singh which was a perjury case considered by the Court of Criminal Appeal in Scotland in 2005. In it the Court made the following statement:

“Perjury must always be seen as a serious crime, since it strikes at the fundamental basis of our system of justice and at the integrity and accuracy of the decisions reached in courts. It follows that when perjury is established, it must be dealt with seriously for the benefit of the courts and the public generally. Everyone should be made fully aware that, when an oath is taken in a court of law to tell the truth, that is what must be done.” (Singh v HM Advocate 2005 SCCR 604)

In your case you embarked on an action in the Court of Session knowing that for it to be successful you would require to tell lies under affirmation. You went on to commit perjury in the course of successfully pursuing that action, as a result of which you were awarded a very large sum of damages. In these circumstances the only appropriate sentence, as you yourself recognise, is one of imprisonment.

I leave out of account your previous convictions which I do not regard as relevant.

I take into account the terms of the social enquiry report; everything that you have said today; and the references which you have produced. I take account of the significant reduction in the scope of the charge against you. In all the circumstances I impose a sentence of three years imprisonment."


25 January 2011

Sheridan answers from Scottish ministers...

I must have been napping, but ahead of schedule, the Scottish Government have answered two of the queries put to it by the Liberal Democrat justice spokesman Robert Brown.  The text of the three questions was as follows, followed by the two answers Kenny MacAskill has provided thus far:

S3W-38760 - Robert Brown (Glasgow) (LD) (Date Lodged Wednesday, January 12, 2011): To ask the Scottish Executive what guidelines cover the release of information and documents by the (a) police, (b) Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service and (c) courts to the press or public in connection with criminal prosecutions.

On Monday, Kenny MacAskill gave him this answer:

Answered by Kenny MacAskill (Monday, January 24, 2011): 

The police, Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service (COPFS) and the courts are required to comply with the relevant legal requirements such as the provisions of the Contempt of Court Act 1981, the Data Protection Act 1998 and the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002. The Lord Advocate has issued guidelines to police on releasing information to the media in relation to criminal investigations. These are publicly available on the COPFS website at:

Internal guidance is available to Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal staff to deal with routine enquiries.

Internal guidance is available to Scottish Court Service (SCS) staff to assist them in handling enquiries received from either the press or public on accessing court records or on other aspects of criminal proceedings. Further advice is available from SCS senior staff or SCS communications where required.

Secondly, Robert Brown wondered...

 S3W-38761 - Robert Brown (Glasgow) (LD) (Date Lodged Wednesday, January 12, 2011): To ask the Scottish Executive what documents were released by the police, the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service or the court to the press or public in connection with the prosecution of Her Majesty’s Advocate v Thomas Sheridan and Gail Sheridan.

This query has not yet received its answer, which falls due tomorrow.


The Solicitor-General, Frank Mulholland, answered this query on Wednesday. He told the Liberal Democrat that...

Answered by Frank Mulholland (Wednesday, January 26, 2011): The Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service made the following documents available to the media for use in the event that Thomas Sheridan was found guilty.

These were:

i. Barbara Scott''s handwritten notes from 9 November 2004 meeting;

ii. Typed draft minute of 9 November 2004 meeting;

iii. Photograph of Thomas Sheridan and others at his wedding;

iv. Photograph of diary entries for week 27 September 2002.

v. Copy transcript of the McNeillage tape (released during the trial to assist the media in following the evidence).

This material was led in evidence and was the subject of a request by the media. This request was considered and approved by Crown Counsel.


S3W-38762 - Robert Brown (Glasgow) (LD) (Date Lodged Wednesday, January 12, 2011): To ask the Scottish Executive whether recordings of interviews under caution with Tommy and Gail Sheridan by police officers of Lothians and Borders Police were officially released to the BBC and, if not, what action has been taken regarding the use of this material in the BBC programme, The Rise and Lies of Tommy Sheridan.

On which point, the Cabinet Secretary for Justice responded thus. The answer alluded to inter alia (S3W-38760) is in fact simply the first of Robert Brown's enquiries, quoted above.

Answered by Kenny MacAskill (Monday, January 24, 2011): Recordings of interviews under caution with Tommy and Gail Sheridan were not released to the BBC by the police or the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service.

Both the police and the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service must adhere to strict requirements around the release of information. I refer the member to the answer to question S3W-38760 on 24 January 2011. It is for Lothian and Borders Police and the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service to consider whether these requirements have been met.

All answers to written parliamentary questions are available on the Parliament''s website, the search facility for which can be found at


Sheridan: "time just lands in prison & there it is held fast..."

"Was this the face that sunk oor Tommy's ship
And burnt the topless tan of Sheridan?"

Stripped of the superstitions surrounding its form, at its most basic, pronouncing sentence must be a surreal experience.  Ums and aws can't be tolerated. The judge simply has to make up his mind. For the convict stood mutely in the dock, every exculpating and excusing word having been said, there is only paralysis, anticipation and the final deadening weight as your sentence is uttered. I wonder if either party gives thought to the diffuse choices which brought the pair of them to this particular pass. The jury may blame the prosecutor for making it decide, the judge can blame the jury for their verdict, the executioner blames the judge for handing down a sentence of death, and secondarily, perhaps, the axe he employs to put a grisly end to proceedings. Each, in their own way, can say with some justification "it wisnae me"

Happily, we no longer live in times where judicial decisions have such fatal consequences, but many weighty burdens of conscience still fall on the contemporary sentencing judge. Particularly so when that judge must decide what to do with an offender who poses no risk to public safety but who has been convicted of a crime of fraudulently manipulating courts for financial gain, thereby, at least at the level of theory, laying an axe at the roots of public justice.  One year, two years, three years, four? Five? Each takes only a faint judicial breath to form and the immediate enormity of the time suddenly stretches out before the convict. His lead away. As Ewan MacColl wrote, in his Lag's Song...

When I was a young lad sometimes I'd wonder
What happened to time when it passed,
Then one day I found out that time just lands in prison,
And there it is held fast.

Perjury is a common law offence, whose maximum sentence is one of life imprisonment. It is difficult to envisage what circumstances, if any, might attract such a maximum.  The 1983 case of Gerald Hagan v. H.M. Advocate may be relevant in terms of coming to some computation. Seventeen year old Hagan gave perjured evidence in a rape case, in which he was a material witness. Lord Hunter had imposed a four year sentence on the youth, which was reduced to three years by the Court of Criminal Appeal in "reluctant" consideration of his youth and a background of threats and intimidation which he had been subjected to before bearing his false witness. Lord Justice-General Emslie's general remarks are of particular significance here. He said:

"The trial judge proceeded to sentence. He very properly took the view that the consideration of general deterrence in the public interest was of importance in dealing with the crime of perjury. It is a crime, as has been said before, which strikes at the very roots of the rule of law and the administration of justice."

Who knows what view Lord Bracadale will take tomorrow at Tommy Sheridan's sentencing hearing. That said, it probably isn't splendidly strategic to pre-empt the decision of the man who will pass sentence on your friend and ally with the language of "vindictiveness". There has been some suggestion that if you are sentenced to serve a jail term of more than a year, you are forever thereafter disqualified from holding parliamentary office. Electoral law isn't my thing, but I delved into it and can find no basis in law for this claim. Indeed, it seems most obviously to be a misreading of section two of the Representation of the People Act 1981, which reads, emphasis mine...

"A person found guilty of one or more offences (whether before or after the passing of this Act and whether in the United Kingdom or elsewhere), and sentenced or ordered to be imprisoned or detained indefinitely or for more than one year, shall be disqualified for membership of the House of Commons while detained anywhere in the British Islands or the Republic of Ireland in pursuance of the sentence or order or while unlawfully at large at a time when he would otherwise be so detained."

Reading the sections of the Scotland Act 1998 which deal with disqualifications from standing for Holyrood (sections 15 - 18) I can find nothing even remotely touching on a conviction for more than a year eternally consigning you to the category of unelectable. At least formally speaking. If any of my readers have a more marshalled command of electoral law and can direct me to some legal source that I've neglected on point, it would be appreciated*. That said, if generally reported predictions are correct, this will be little comfort to Mr Sheridan, who may have five years in which to echo the last refrain of MacColl's song...

Got time on my hands I've got time on my shoulders
Plenty of time on my mind.
There's no summer or winter when once you land inside here,
Just that old prison grind.


*I've consulted a soul much more learned that myself in matters legal and electoral. He has confirmed that the foregoing is an accurate interpretation of the Representation of the People Act of 1981. As a result, contrary to the view being expressed in some quarters, there seems to be no legal impediment that would prevent Tommy Sheridan from returning to parliament after he has served his time in prison (although bankruptcy may still do so, but is likely to be discharged if he is engulfed by it in the near future and his sentence is sufficiently long). Similarly, while other incapacities are set out in section 173 of the Representation of the People Act of 1983, these don't seem applicable to a conviction for perjury, concerned as they are with statutory offences of corrupt and illegal practices, as defined in the Act.

24 January 2011

A sticky situation...

I can only surmise that I lack imagination or that I'd have a racier life if I was less of an abstruse, reptilian creature.  However, it is with deep regret that I note that in all my days, I've never adhered to any sort of building, public or private, place of business or charitable institution. As a consequence, a much longed for and lucrative career as a professional barnacle impressionist still eludes me.  Not so for some musically-minded environmental sorts, who literally stuck themselves to an Edinburgh bank last August. They explain the circumstances:

"On the 23rd of August 2010 we superglued ourselves to The Royal Bank of Scotland in Nicolson Street in Edinburgh. Meanwhile a group of our friends regaled customers and staff with a musical explanation of why RBS's will lead to climate catastrophe. The action was part of a day of action called by the Camp for Climate action.

The responses were varied. Some people were supportive, some were angry at RBS because of their role in the financial crisis, some joked about this being like a Fringe performance. Others simply wanted to use the bank. Our tone was always polite and friendly. After some time the bank decided to close, presumably not wishing their customers to be fully informed of the bank's destructive practices.

Despite the clearly 'fluffy' nature of action and clear evidence that RBS complicity in climate crimes, we have been charged with Breach of the Peace and will appear before the courts in January."

This soi-disant "Superglue 3" are up before the courts in Edinburgh this Friday, charged with committing a breach of the peace. It is my understanding that it is only the gluey clutch who actually stuck themselves to the bank's door who will meet the judicious gaze of one of Her Majesty's sheriffs. By contrast, their hullablooing, root-tooting and strumming associates have escaped the attention of the Procurator Fiscal and at most risk receiving a stern epistle from Lady Gaga complaining that they've murdered her song. The case promises to add another answer to that seemingly incorrigible source of questions, is X, Y, or Z a breach of the peace? Does it depend on the building? For example, would it unlawfully discombobulate the lieges if I sellotaped myself to a public monument, or if I gathered some chums and we nailed each other to bus stops, or if one stapled one's vitals to the Royal banner at Balmoral and fluttered from the flagpole (in both senses of the term)?

As many of you will know, in Scotland breach of the peace is a common law offence, defined as “conduct severe enough to cause alarm to ordinary people and threaten serious disturbance to the community” conjunctively interpreted. Those following this case and curious about the underlying law may be interested in this judgment of the Scottish High Court of Justiciary from 2004. It deals with five separate breach of the peace appeals, three of which arose in the context of public demonstrations, from the Scottish Parliament to naval bases in Helensburgh and Coulport.  Footage of this allegedly peace-breaching incident in Edinburgh is (I suspect only partly) captured in this contemporaneous recording of the sticky scene ...

23 January 2011

SG: No Lockerbie Case inquiry...

Belated, but worth mentioning that the Scottish Government has finally replied to Holyrood's Public Petitions Committee on its attitude towards an independent inquiry into the Lockerbie Case. After their November session, taking oral evidence from Jim Swire and others on the Justice for Megrahi petition, the Committee posed three questions. The petition itself calls:

"...on the Scottish Parliament to urge the Scottish Government to open an independent inquiry into the 2001 Kamp van Zeist conviction of Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al-Megrahi for the bombing of Pan Am flight 103 in December 1988."

Robert Black QC has described the following response as a "wafer-thin pretext for inaction". Judge for yourselves.


Thank you for your letter of 12 November 2010 which asks the Government the following three questions in respect of this petition. I apologise for the delay in replying.

Will you open an independent inquiry into the 2001 Kamp van Zeist conviction of Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al-Megrahi for the bombing of Pan Am flight 103 in December 1988 as called for by the petitioner and for the reasons given in the petition?

If not, will you provide a detailed explanation why not, specifying whether there is any legislation which would prevent you from holding such an inquiry, what this legislation is and how it prevents?

Who would have the power to undertake an inquiry in the terms proposed in the petition?

The Government’s response to these questions is as follows:

The Cabinet Secretary for Justice made clear in his response of 16 September to a Parliamentary Question (S3W-35844) from George Foulkes on this issue that the Government have no plans to initiate an inquiry on this issue.

The Government does not doubt the safety of the conviction of Mr Al-Megrahi. He was tried and convicted by a Scottish court before three judges and his appeal against conviction, heard by a panel of five judges, was unsuccessful. A second appeal, following a referral from the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission, was abandoned by Mr Al-Megrahi. The conduct of his defence during his trial and the appeals, including his decision not to give evidence at trial and the decision to abandon the second appeal, was entirely a matter for Mr Al-Megrahi and his legal advisors.

The Government’s view is that the petition is inviting the Scottish Government to do something which falls properly to the criminal justice system i.e. inquire into whether a miscarriage of justice has taken place. The criminal justice system already provides a mechanism for that to happen. The fact that Mr Al-Megrahi chose to abandon his second appeal rather than pursue it is entirely a matter for him and it would not be appropriate for the Scottish Government to institute an inquiry as a result.

The Inquiries Act 2005 provides that, to the extent that the matters dealt with are devolved, and criminal justice is devolved, the Scottish Government would have the power to conduct an inquiry. However, the wide ranging and international nature of the issues involved (even if the inquiry is confined to the trial and does not concern itself with wider matters) means that there is every likelihood of issues arising which are not devolved, which would require either a joint inquiry with or a separate inquiry by the UK government.

Separately, the Scottish Government intends to bring forward legislation to allow the SCCRC to publish a statement of reasons in cases such as Mr Al-Megrahi's where an appeal is abandoned, subject of course to legal restrictions applying to the SCCRC such as data protection, the convention rights of individuals and international obligations attaching to information provided by foreign authorities.

Karen Rodger
Committee Liaison Officer

21 January 2011

A second Corbie cark...

While I was fretting away yesterday night, trying to find the crow wummin's opening disquisition from Lochhead's Mary Queen of Scots Got Her Head Chopped Off, I received a number of interesting suggestions for alternative Liz Lochhead pieces, worthy of mention. One came from the helpful Sean McP (whose blog I commend to all of those who haven't already taken it in) who suggested the following poem. Being unfamiliar with the piece, its subject matter struck a chord with me and echoes a familiar phenomenon I've encountered in my own life.  Looking back on what has become of the small band of sticky-fingered, scraped-kneed pupils who took in our first formal learning in a very small primary school in Argyll, their adult fates proved to be very much determined by their parents' attitudes and whether they could envisage universities as places for them, places they could be welcomed at and belong to.  I don't want to conflate academic learning with happiness or fulfilment - but as a soul who sets great store by our public institutions of knowledge, reflection and education - I can't entirely lose the sense that folk I knew didn't come to study for poor reasons that had little to do with a lack of interest or the want of capacity, but which were largely the consequence of feeling an abashed, constraining disavowal epitomised by the phrase "that's not for me". Lochhead's poem neatly captures some of the anxieties of the alternative choice, leaving one thirled to books and the papery comfort of tomes, and the reader reads alone. Although I no longer live in the area, from sundry scraps of scuttlebutt that navigate their way out of Dalriada, my sense is that that atmosphere may be changing.

The Choosing
~ Liz Lochhead

We were first equal Mary and I
with the same coloured ribbons in mouse-coloured
and with equal shyness
we curtseyed to the lady councillor
for copies of Collins’s Children Classics.
First equal, equally proud.

Best friends too Mary and I
a common bond in being cleverest(equal)
in our small school’s small class.
I remember
the competition for top desk
or to read aloud the lesson
at school service.
And my terrible fear
of her superiority at sums.

I remember the housing scheme
Where we both stayed.
The same house, different homes,
where the choices were made.

I don’t know exactly why they moved,
but anyway they went.
Something about a three-apartment
and a cheaper rent.
But from the top deck of the high school bus
I’d glimpse
among the others on the corner
Mary’s father, mufflered, contrasting strangely
with the elegant greyhounds by his side.
He didn’t believe in high school education,
especially for girls,
or in forking out for uniforms.

Ten years later on a Saturday-
I am coming home from the library-
sitting near me on the bus,
with a husband who is tall,
curly haired, has eyes for no one else but Mary.
Her arms are round the full-shaped vase
that is her body.
Oh, you can see where the attraction lies
in Mary’s life-
not that I envy her, really.

And I am coming from the library
with my arms full of books.
I think of the prizes
that were ours for the taking
and wonder when the choices got made
we don’t remember making.

La Corbie, the Scottish Makar...

I've come to the conclusion that my poetry education in secondary school was hopelessly, even absurdly, old fashioned. Hardly touching the modern masters of  form and verse and sentiment, there was nary a Scottish iambic foot to be seen in our jotters and text, save for the odd scrap of MacCaig and the occasional, seasonal resort to a bit of Burns. Our staples were bundles of Shakespeare and the Romantic poets. As a result, I find myself singularly ill-equipped to respond in a reflective way to the news that Liz Lochhead is to replace Edwin Morgan as the Scots national "Makar".

By contrast, I'm much more familiar with her playwriting. While exceedingly keen on Mary Queen of Scots Got Her Head Chopped Off (1987), recently reinvigorated and re-staged by the National Theatre of Scotland, I'm more ambivalent about Lochhead's whole canon and trademark burlesque Scottifications of the work of Molière. However, it seems appropriate to honour the moment of her appointment with a piece of her writing. Over at Scots Whay Hae, Alistair Braidwood has written a piece including two of his favourite Lochhead poems "Sorting through" and "Opening with the closing". He writes:

"There may be other poets who you prefer. I tend to read Don Patterson more than I do Liz Lochhead these days, but this appointment is not about who is someone's favourite, it's about who is best placed to represent Scotland in poetry and, through that poetry, to promote Scotland to others and to itself. It is this that makes Liz the perfect choice. I raise a glass to her and hope you'll do the same."

For my own part, I wanted to quote more extensively from La Corbie's wonderfully lively prologue from Mary Queen of Scots, but my copy seems to have gone a-wandering and because it is a (relatively) recent work, it isn't available in full online. At any rate, here's the opening cark-caw of Lochhead's inspired, ragbag half-crow narrator...

La Corbie:

Country: Scotland. Whit like is it?
It’s a peatbog, it’s a daurk forest.
It’s a cauldron o’ lye, a saltpan or a coal mine.
If you’re gey lucky it’s a bricht bere meadow or a park o’ kye.
Or mibbe... it’s a field o’ stanes.
It’s a tenement or a merchant’s ha’.
It’s a hure hoose or a humble cot. Princes Street or Paddy’s Merkit.
It’s a fistfu’ o’ fish or a pickle o’ oatmeal.
It’s a queen’s banquet o’ roast meats and junketts.
It depends. It depends ... Ah dinna ken whit like your Scotland is.
Here ’smines.
National flower: the thistle.
National pastime: nostalgia.
National weather: smirr, haar, drizzle, snow.
National bird: the crow, the corbie, le corbeau, moi!
How me? Eh? Eh? Eh? Voice like a choked laugh.
Ragbag o’a burd in ma black duds, a’ angles and elbows and broken oxter feathers, black beady een in ma executioner’s hood.
No braw, but Ah think Ah ha’e a sort of black glamour.

20 January 2011

Events, dear boy, events...

This blog - and I dare say, a portion of its readers - are interested in the connections between Scots law and Scottish politics. With that in mind, I wanted briefly to mention just a couple of events I thought it might be of particular interest to highlight. The Glasgow University Leftist Law Society have organised a public debate on Scottish land law, to be held on the 23rd of February between 18:00 - 20:00. Here's the bumph:

"Andy Wightman, author of recently released book 'The Poor Had No Lawyers', will participate in a debate with Robert Rennie, Professor of Conveyancing and Dr. Andrew Cumbers, Reader in Geographical Political Economy, both at Glasgow University on the subject of the inequities of land tenure in Scotland and possibilities for reform."

The event will be held in Lecture Theatre C of the Boyd Orr Building in the University of Glasgow and is open to the general public. The event's facebook page with the relevant details can be found here.

Secondly, for those who are of more of a criminal and public law bent, the charity Children 1st (which may be more familiar to many of us under its more foosty name Royal Scottish Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Children) are organising a conference on the 10th of February in Edinburgh on "The Voice of the Child in the Judicial System". The Lord Advocate Elish Angiolini will be a keynote speaker. For those particularly interested in the issue, some information:

CHILDREN 1ST is delighted to announce that on 10th February 2011 at the Hilton Edinburgh Grosvenor Hotel, Haymarket, Esther Rantzen CBE, journalist and founder of ChildLine, and the Rt Hon Elish Angiolini QC Lord Advocate will be keynote speakers at 'Voice of the Child in the Judicial System'.

Esther Rantzen CBE will draw on her considerable experience and passion as a campaigner for child welfare to look at what needs to be improved for children involved as witnesses or victims in court.

The Rt Hon Elish Angiolini QC, Lord Advocate brings her significant commitment to improvements for vulnerable witnesses to a keynote address that will look at recent developments on this issue and the challenges that lie ahead.

As well as these high-profile and influential keynote speakers, this event will also hear from young people about their own experiences, from speakers with in-depth knowledge of recent policy and practice developments around children's participation in court or in Children's Hearings, and will debate what change is still needed.

To secure your place, go to: http://www.children1st.org.uk/event-types/1/conferences-seminars

For more information on this event, please contact info@children1st.org.uk or T: 0131 446 2300.

18 January 2011

"Winning over female voters crucial to SNP ambitions...."

Hamlet, Hamlet, loved his mammy
Hamlet, Hamlet, acting bammy...

One of the perils of being suspected of being a calculating so-and-so is that the suspicious section of your audience has its eyes and ears always upon you, lending even your smallest gesture a sly, premeditated significance. Many folk have interpreted Alex Salmond's recent Desert Island Discs appearance and music selections in this way. Not, as the venerable format suggests, a chance for tight-buttoned public figures to be disclosing and personable, but another way for the strategising political creature to calculate what sort of "inner life" and species of relaxed candour they'd like listeners to imagine they have. Only a rather elementary liar would imagine only two faces are required, mask and phizog. The real past masters recognise that at least three personas are necessary, and there is no more effective way of hoodwinking the credulous than by giving them the impression they've "seen through" your front and have discovered, by simple operation of their own wit and clarity, some bashfully concealed real quality of your character. In most cases, when the vanity which  accompanies apparently clear-eyed perception vies with suspicion, the latter rarely triumphs. 

If you are of a doubt filled disposition, you might think that it was hardly coincidental that Salmond used his radio spot to harp on the string of the debts of affection and influence owed to his mammy,  rewarded with references to the importance of a female influence in his life. This is by no means to take cynicism too far and to imply that he was fibbing. Rather, we might see it as a significant example of sincerity and self interest happily coinciding.  Yesterday's Holyrood poll furnishes us with another, electorally extremely concerning example of the SNP's gender gap, which is by now well-kent phenomenon on this blog. In a Scotsman column published last August, former Salmond aide Jennifer Dempsie contended that "Winning over female voters crucial to SNP ambitions", continuing:

"... gender balance is taken seriously within the SNP leadership. Efforts have been made to soften the party's image. During the 2007 election a major push was made in education and health policy to attract the female vote. However if real gains are to be made in this department a concentrated campaign is needed and the adoption of a more women-friendly approach to campaigning."

If she is correct and the late polling even broadly captures the underlying quality of public opinion, we're in for a drubbing unless real progress is made and made swiftly.  The latest data shows the SNP some 18% behind Labour amongst female respondents in the constituency and 29% behind amongst those women who identify as "committed voters". On the regional list, we are lagging behind Labour to the tune of 15% amongst women, rising to a 24% gap amongst those women voters, committed to exercising their franchise. In the last Ipsos MORI poll which I covered in any detail, published at the end of last November, the SNP were lagging behind Labour in female support to the tune of 18% on the constituency ballot and a significantly smaller 3% on the list. An earlier YouGov poll from August, the "gap" between the SNP and Labour amounting to 6% in constituencies, while the party actually recorded a lead of 1% over Labour amongst women on the list. The data suggests that the gap is shifting and implies something of the complexity of the social phenomenon only partially pinned down by crude quantitative categories. It also suggests that the results from recent polling  diagnose the widest end of any gender gap. Few I think, would seriously suggest that the gap is merely phantasmal, a pollster's spectre. 
In a paper by James Mitchell, Robert Johns and Lynn Bennie, "Gendered Nationalism: Women and the SNP" (2009), they wrote:

"... there has been little research aimed at explaining this gender gap. One possible explanation lies in national identity, which as already indicated is a key mobiliser in support for the SNP. It might be that Scottish national identity has greater appeal for males, not least because of its associations with sport (football and rugby, for example). The evidence here contradicts that possibility. If anything, men’s identities are more British than are those of women, although the differences are small (and only marginally statistically significant). The SNP’s particular appeal to men – or problems in attracting support from women – must have some other basis."

The main focus of the rest of this piece, quite understandably, was on the significant quantity of data unearthed in the course of their ESRC funded project on the SNP party membership.  They need no lectures from me on how generalising from the party membership to the general voting population is problematic. Nevertheless, they tentatively suggest that there may be some relationship between differentially gendered attitude towards the constitution and support for the SNP. Entangled issues of (a) support for nationalism and (b) support for Nationalists. As we are often reminded, support for the SNP is oft-times greater than support for independence, encompassing a number of folk who may be undecided about, or actively hostile to, the prospect of Scottish independence. By focussing on independence by referendum, the party has actively fostered the notion that a vote for the SNP is not a vote for independence per se (at most it is a vote for a vote on independence). Independence being a "detachable issue", Unionists can vote SNP with consciences clear. Mitchell et. al and others hypothesise that women may not vote SNP because of their more conservative constitutional attitudes. For my own part, I'd rather focus the issue in a different way, and instead of rooting the problem of lower female support in women, focus on how the party needs to change its approach, whether substantially or in terms of communication.

Given the urgency of the issue and the necessity to think through these issues - now and in the longer term - I thought it might be helpful to bring together recent discussions of the issue across the blogs and the various other explanations and solutions people have adduced to the N(/n)ationalist problem. Inspired by Dempsie's piece, I set down my initial thoughts in a post on the SNP and its gender voting gap.

Spectator blogger Alex Massie rooted the problem more specifically in the Maximum Eck's personality, styling it Alex Salmond's women problem and suggesting that women may find his style alienating.

Analysis aided by the virtue of being a lassie herself, La Corbie offered her burdz eye view on The SNP's problem with wimmin, earlier writing about the Scottish parliamentary representation of women in Work, Work, Work.

Bella Caledonia hosted an interest range of authoresses who particularly focussed on the constitutional rather than the partisan issue of SNP strategy. Given the (albeit complex) connection between attitudes to the constitution and attitudes to the SNP, these articles contain much that is relevant and worthy of consideration. Caitlin O'Hara was Bella's first Independent Woman, while Lena the Hyena was their second.  Joan McAlpine echoed the title of her blog in Go Lassies Go. It wasn't the wild mountain thyme she was after, but some of the whys and wherefores on Scottish women's attitudes towards the prospect of an independent Scotland and more concretely, towards the SNP .

Scotland Deformed? asks Kirsten Stirling. Analysing the work of Alasdair Gray, she concludes:

"In Poor Things Gray takes a tradition of seeing Scotland as essentially divided and transforms its allegorical potential into something still monstrous yet potentially positive, reappropriating the celebratory approach to the Caledonian antisyzygy found in Smith and MacDiarmid. The deformed body of Bella Caledonia need not be read negatively. Gray highlights the discourses of monstrosity in the cultural and literary construction of Scotland and proposes an allegorical body in which different constructions of Scotland can co-exist. He opens the door to new narratives of Scotland in which both Scotland and women can be theorised without being critically deformed in the process."

Finally, I tried to approach the issue from the side of Scottish masculinities, and their implications for an analysis of Scottish women's feelings and attitudes, in Will you go laddie go?

17 January 2011

Latest, latest Holyrood poll...

Very briefly, I thought it might be helpful to array some of today's TNS-BMRB Scottish polling data for your perusal and examination. The whole tranche of figures can be read here. The research involved pollsters invading the domestic tranquillity of their informers, posing face-to-face inquisitions on their voting intentions in the impending Holyrood election. The hounds of opinion cornered some 1,020 respondents between the 4th and 10th of January.

First, your first votes, in the constituency ballot (totals)...
  1. Labour 31%
  2. SNP 21%
  3. Conservative 6%
  4. Liberal Democrat 4%
  5. Other candidate or party 2%
  6. Undecided 19%
  7. Would not vote 14%

First constituency ballots (women)...
  1. Labour 34%
  2. SNP 16%
  3. Conservative 6%
  4. Liberal Democrat 4%
  5. Other candidate or party 1%
  6. Undecided 22%
  7. Would not vote 13%

First constituency ballots (men)...
  1. Labour 28%
  2. SNP 27%
  3. Conservative 6%
  4. Liberal Democrat 4%
  5. Other candidate or party 2%
  6. Undecided 16%
  7. Would not vote 14%

First votes in the constituency ballot amongst "committed voters" 
(totals, of 650/1020 identified as "committed")...
  1. Labour 49%
  2. SNP 33%
  3. Conservative 9%
  4. Liberal Democrat 7%
  5. Other candidate or party 2%

First votes in the constituency ballot amongst "committed voters" (men)...
  1. Labour 42%
  2. SNP 40%
  3. Conservative 8%
  4. Liberal Democrat 6%
  5. Other candidate or party 3%

First votes in the constituency ballot amongst "committed voters" (women)...
  1. Labour 55%
  2. SNP 26%
  3. Conservative 10%
  4. Liberal Democrat 7%
  5. Other candidate or party 1%

Secondly, your second votes, on the regional list (totals)...
  1. Labour 29%
  2. SNP 20%
  3. Conservative 5%
  4. Liberal Democrat 4%
  5. Scottish Greens 2%
  6. SSP 1%
  7. Undecided 21%
  8. Would not vote 15%

Your second votes, on the regional list (women)...
  1. Labour 31%
  2. SNP 16%
  3. Conservative 5%
  4. Liberal Democrat 5%
  5. Scottish Green 2%
  6. SSP 1%
  7. Undecided 24%
  8. Would not vote 14%

Second votes, on the regional list (men)...
  1. Labour 28%
  2. SNP 24%
  3. Conservative 6%
  4. Liberal Democrat 4%
  5. Scottish Green 1%
  6. SSP 1%
  7. Undecided 17%
  8. Would not vote 15%

List votes, amongst "committed voters" (totals)...
  1. Labour 47%
  2. SNP 33%
  3. Conservative 9%
  4. Liberal Democrat 7%
  5. Scottish Green 3%
  6. SSP 1%
  7. Others 1%

List votes, amongst "committed voters" (women)...
  1. Labour 51%
  2. SNP 27%
  3. Conservative 9%
  4. Liberal Democrat 8%
  5. Scottish Green 4%
  6. SSP 1%
  7. Others 1%

List votes, amongst "committed voters" (men)...
  1. Labour 43%
  2. SNP 38%
  3. Conservative 9%
  4. Liberal Democrat 6%
  5. Scottish Green 2%
  6. SSP 1%
  7. Others 4%

The poll contains a good deal of other information, breaking down avowed voting intentions by age, "class", correlations between constituency and regional preferences, and specific treatments of the polling data culled from different electoral regions. Plenty for the local activist to obsess over, whatever their political hue. Read and rummage through the whole thing here.

16 January 2011

Salmond, castaway...

"'Ware ye cursed band o' hornswagglin' dram-slurpers ye! Kick yer heels an' lollop your limbs, ye skinkin' band o' blunderin' blatherskites! The Salmond sloop be sunk, 'tis lead ballooned, wi' a wanion! Sunk, ye girnin' tit-willies! Man overboard, every Salmond for himself, yarr!" [Exit Alex Salmond, wet...]

[Enter a ragged Maximum Eck, blearily surveying the dessicated vista of a hump-backed isle, studded with the odd sprouting tropical tree. In his delirium, a sun and sea-addled Salmond takes them to be fully ripened haggises hanging from the palms' groaning boughs. A few days gnawing confirms coconuts only...] As has been widely trailed elsewhere, today Alex Salmond appeared on the BBC's Desert Island Discs. Those suspecting that his musical choices would confirm Salmond's limited semiotic range will likely not find themselves disappointed.  Taking the Complete Work of Robert Burns as his literary life-raft, I wondered whether as his luxury, he might pick a fully-staffed Tunnock's teacake factory. Not so. Svelt Eck asked for nothing more than a humble sand wedge to tuck down his garter and hoped to find the following records amongst the flotsam and jetsam washed up on his gaunt and lonely beach...

Anne Lorne Gillies ~ "Ae fond kiss"
Gian Carlo Menotti ~ "Don’t Cry Mother Dear from Amahl and the Night Visitors"
Gerry Rafferty ~ "Baker Street"
The Proclaimers ~ "I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles)
Paul Robeson ~ "Joe Hill"
Capercaillie ~ "Coisich, a Ruin"
Johnny Cash ~ "San Quentin"
Dougie MacLean ~ "Caledonia"

The interview's emphasis is personal and biographical rather than political, liable to be of particular interest in the case of a political figure whose public phizog is so familiar.  Listen to the whole programme here.

14 January 2011

Sheridan questions in Holyrood...

Between his stints on the Justice Committee, the Scotland Bill Committee* - and planning for his retirement after his Glasgow Liberal Democratic colleagues effectively deselected him - the party's justice spokesman Robert Brown has lodged the following questions in Holyrood pertaining to certain weel-kent aspects of the BBC's coverage of the verdict in H.M. Advocate v. Sheridan:

S3W-38760 - Robert Brown (Glasgow) (LD) (Date Lodged Wednesday, January 12, 2011): To ask the Scottish Executive what guidelines cover the release of information and documents by the (a) police, (b) Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service and (c) courts to the press or public in connection with criminal prosecutions.

 S3W-38761 - Robert Brown (Glasgow) (LD) (Date Lodged Wednesday, January 12, 2011): To ask the Scottish Executive what documents were released by the police, the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service or the court to the press or public in connection with the prosecution of Her Majesty’s Advocate v Thomas Sheridan and Gail Sheridan.

S3W-38762 - Robert Brown (Glasgow) (LD) (Date Lodged Wednesday, January 12, 2011): To ask the Scottish Executive whether recordings of interviews under caution with Tommy and Gail Sheridan by police officers of Lothians and Borders Police were officially released to the BBC and, if not, what action has been taken regarding the use of this material in the BBC programme, The Rise and Lies of Tommy Sheridan.

Appropriately enough, these questions are due to receive their answers from the Scottish Government on the 26th of January, when Tommy Sheridan will be taking to his hind legs to petition Lord Bracadale for mercy (or in the alternative, to reformulate and re-utter his noisy exculpations). For those expecting an uplifting Chavezesque harangue, bear in mind that Lord Bracadale will hardly be willing to sit quietly through another five hour peroration, particularly if its relevance to the matter in hand is tenuous. Having been convicted, the hearing has significantly less potential for Sheridan to redefine the issues in a manner more convivial to his avowed position that he has been the honest victim of a wide-ranging political conspiracy. A party litigant's jury address is one thing, his plea in mitigation is quite another.

*The Committee's most recent evidence session on the 11th of January was a blistering affair, without any hint of an ennobling, convivial atmosphere. In brief, I think it is fair to say that professors Andrew Hughes-Hallett and Drew Scott got "Wendied". University of Edinburgh academic, Alan Trench, described the exchanges as "highly acrimonious" and has decided to withdraw from giving evidence to the Committee himself.  He sets out his reasons in full in his post. I won't attempt to paraphrase them here.

12 January 2011

Macabre facts: Arizona v. Scotland

As regular readers will know, I have (I suppose) a macabre side which takes a sad interest in human beastliness, tragedy and the cold reduction of life's sufferings to largely inscrutable statistics. I also have a friend who lives and conducts his research in Arizona - in Tuscon in fact - and I dimly recalled pub discussions in Edinburgh a few years ago, in the Bow Bar to be precise, during which he afforded an insight or two into the general character of that arid State. The respective populations of Scotland and Arizona were roughly equated. In point of fact, for a scientist he was decidedly sloppy with the odd one and a half million souls or so. According to United States Census Bureau estimates, the State's population numbered around 6,595,778 in 2009. Scottish demographic statisticians put our own population at 5,194,000 in their end of June 2009 estimates, some 1,401,778 fewer than the Grand Canyon State. Last week's horrid news that six people, including American Congresswoman Gabrielle Gifford, had been shot by a gun-wielding homicidalist made me wonder -  in terms of murder statistics, just how far do Scotland and Arizona diverge? The question seemed to promise some gloomy interest. Its only sensible to introduce a couple of caveats. Accurate comparisons of different jurisdictions can be problematic. Definitions differ, as can forms of data collection. I've no intention of attempting any detailed comparisons to put a squirm of glee in the belly of a statistician. Being humbly inquisitive, I'm primarily interested in the total data recorded in the respective jurisdictions. The differences are striking.

In the middle of December last year, I detailed some facts and figures from published Scottish  homicide statistics for 2009, including potentially surprising statistics about the gender of victims, the fatal sites where the unfortunates perished and the murderous objects which all too often, all too many drink-addled Scots employed to destroy each other. I sought out the pertinent Arizonian statistics, to make a quick comparison. My researches brought me to the Arizona Department of Public Safety website which confirmed that the State recorded some 324 homicides in 2009, down from 404 in 2008. This compares to 79 homicide victims in Scotland last year. Firearms were implicated in 60.6% of Arizonian homicides. On page thirty two, the Arizonian report indicates the distribution of deaths by the instrument that brought them about. In 2009, 165 homicides by handgun were recorded (50.5% of the total), 10 by rifle and a further 10 by shotgun (together 6.2% of the state total) while 13 more people were killed by firearms of an unclassified character. The  non-firearm weapon which caused the most deaths were "knifes or cutting instruments", which killed 60 people in the State of Arizona (18.3% of the total murdered in that year). This compares to only two Scottish deaths as a result of gunshot wounds in 2009 (amounting to 2.5% of the Scottish homicides that year).

The report also included a rather bizarre representation of "Arizona crime clock" on page twenty, with associated stopwatch device for the sluggish of imagination. The report reassuringly advises its readers that the device should be "read with care", under the grim contextualisation that Arizona experiences one murder every 27 hours and 2 minutes, a forcible rape every 5 hours and 31 minutes and one arson every 4 hours and 59 minutes.  And so on.  Reminded me of a comic tale I heard a few years back about the earnest Bono, who thought his Glaswegian audience might appreciate some serious-minded social commentary along with their singsong patter. Click, click went Bono's thumb, a grave staccato. Censoriously, he announced to the Glaswegian crowd "Every time I click my fingers, a baby in Africa dies..." The statutory wag in the audience, no doubt paid by Glasgow Cooncil to keep up the city's reputation for quick-minded drollery, immediately piped up - "Well stop clicking your fucking fingers then!" Gas. At. Peep.

I digress.  
In brief, in 2009: Arizona: 6,595,778 people, 198 gun deaths. Scotland: 5,194,00 people, 2 gun deaths.

10 January 2011

On scorning Nationalists....

Over the festive piece, inspired by this from the Philosophical Zombie, I revisited George Orwell's collected essays, including his (1945) Notes on Nationalism. For all of Orwell's attention to the clarity of his prose, it is a piece of writing which is actually quite difficult to understand and understand in a sustained way. Still worse for those eager to extract a stinging quotation to wound a nationalist opponent, who tend to ignore the idiosyncratic way in which Orwell defines his "nationalisms". Calling it a "habit of mind", an "emotion", Orwell emphasises that:

"By ‘nationalism’ I mean first of all the habit of assuming that human beings can be classified like insects and that whole blocks of millions or tens of millions of people can be confidently labelled ‘good’ or ‘bad’. But secondly — and this is much more important — I mean the habit of identifying oneself with a single nation or other unit, placing it beyond good and evil and recognising no other duty than that of advancing its interests. Nationalism is not to be confused with patriotism. Both words are normally used in so vague a way that any definition is liable to be challenged, but one must draw a distinction between them, since two different and even opposing ideas are involved. By ‘patriotism’ I mean devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life, which one believes to be the best in the world but has no wish to force on other people. Patriotism is of its nature defensive, both militarily and culturally. Nationalism, on the other hand, is inseparable from the desire for power. The abiding purpose of every nationalist is to secure more power and more prestige, NOT for himself but for the nation or other unit in which he has chosen to sink his own individuality."

It is not my purpose here to launch into a sustained analysis of Orwell's position or the subset of nationalist sentiment he was analysing. However, Orwell's commentary strikes me as an interesting starting point upon which to found a subsequent discussion. In a piece late last year on the Scottish variable rate ballyhoo, I touched on one curiosity of my Scottish nationalist experience. I joined a group of close cronies who had determined to stow themselves comfortably in a pub with drink and grub to outlast a dreich winter day. One of the folk there was an English chap  who had been educated in the sciences at the University of Edinburgh. Discussion turned to Scottish politics. A comrade in the company was minded to vote SNP in May. His English friend's eyes rolled back into his head, loftily declaiming "Oh God, not the SNP!" before drawling "You can't be serious..." Why, not? my friend demanded, taking this dubious soul through some of the the party's positions on notable public policy punch ups of the last decade with which he might be familiar and interested. I kept my own loyalties and my peace.

ID cards? Iraq? Student fees? Trident? He was unmoved.  Indeed, he agreed with the SNP on almost all of these issues - but his condescension towards nationalists simply could not be rebutted by outlining this series of perfectly reasonable, perfectly mainstream convictions which hardly furnish a solid basis to write one off as an addled fantacist. "What do you think of Alex Salmond?" I added, with just a touch of mischievous asperity. "Alex Salmond!" he huff-puffed. No explanation was forthcoming, merely gusty ridicule and the mute significance of rolled eyes. This struck me as a fascinating phenomenon - in part because it is so familiar. I've experienced a number of discussions with substantially the same content and atmosphere, where only the lines and arguments are re-jumbled and re-jigged somewhat. Nor, I must add, is it an archetypical debate limited to English folk with passing, scanty knowledge of Scottish politics. You can hear a similar refrain north of the Tweed. The tone is at its most striking when it emerges from the mouths of friends who have reason to credit you with a measure of sense and intelligence. It is always tickling fun to learn that you are a shortbread-tin fugitive from "reality" and a scandalously impractical and unserious political neep-heid. This tendency, curiously enough, does not appear to be diminished by the SNP's stint in government.  Like my English Scottish nationalist-bashing acquaintance, the pose seems to have the deep-rooted tenacity of a hardy perennial, defying argument, evidence or even a developed discussion. Eye-rolling dismissal forecloses the possibility. My point is not the tyrannical one that all reasonable persons having marshalled the facts must  support Scottish independence, nor am I suggesting that there are arguable reasons why one might doubt the Scottish nationalist project. It is precisely because this familiar dismissal is not predicated on those sorts of arguments that I find it interesting.  While some of its furth-of-Scotland manifestations can be attributed to a (not unreasonable) disregard and distance from matters Scottish, it is not uninteresting or insignificant that ignorance does not breed interest or a self-reflexive knowing distance - but instead seems to prompt this species of detached scorn so regularly.

It is at its most interesting when those selfsame speakers despise the Labour Party, Tories, Liberals and so. They'd apparently rather have the tidy "realistic" governance of a political party whose opinions they do not share. There is scorn there certainly, but of a crucially different pitch. In a further post later in the week, I'll speculate a little more about this interesting phenomenon. If this first reflective flutter prompted a thought or two,  or you have had similar knockabout experiences, do please share them. Thinking about these issues might be stimulated by snipping a note or two from Orwell's essay which I opened with.

"Obviously there are considerable resemblances between political Catholicism, as exemplified by Chesterton, and Communism. So there are between either of these and for instance Scottish nationalism, Zionism, Antisemitism or Trotskyism. It would be an oversimplification to say that all forms of nationalism are the same, even in their mental atmosphere, but there are certain rules that hold good in all cases."

Orwell further suggests these common features include (1) obsession (2) instability (3) indifference to reality. He further classifies "Celtic nationalism" as positive. This, not in the sense that is was desirable, admirable - but instead argues that:

"A nationalist is one who thinks solely, or mainly, in terms of competitive prestige. He may be a positive or a negative nationalist — that is, he may use his mental energy either in boosting or in denigrating — but at any rate his thoughts always turn on victories, defeats, triumphs and humiliations. He sees history, especially contemporary history, as the endless rise and decline of great power units, and every event that happens seems to him a demonstration that his own side is on the upgrade and some hated rival is on the downgrade."

Of this "Celtic nationalism", he contends that:

"CELTIC NATIONALISM. Welsh, Irish and Scottish nationalism have points of difference but are alike in their anti-English orientation. Members of all three movements have opposed the war while continuing to describe themselves as pro-Russian, and the lunatic fringe has even contrived to be simultaneously pro-Russian and pro-Nazi. But Celtic nationalism is not the same thing as anglophobia. Its motive force is a belief in the past and future greatness of the Celtic peoples, and it has a strong tinge of racialism. The Celt is supposed to be spiritually superior to the Saxon — simpler, more creative, less vulgar, less snobbish, etc.— but the usual power hunger is there under the surface. One symptom of it is the delusion that Eire, Scotland or even Wales could preserve its independence unaided and owes nothing to British protection. Among writers, good examples of this school of thought are Hugh McDiarmid and Sean O’Casey. No modern Irish writer, even of the stature of Yeats or Joyce, is completely free from traces of nationalism."

The central question remains unanswered. Why do people respond in this way? Why did my friend's friend refuse to countenance the idea that the SNP could be taken seriously? What assumptions, ideas, judgements make such a view plausible to those who warmly entertain it? How do different folk feeling the same scorn differ? My sense is that nationalists should take Spinoza's (presumably badly translated) sage saw as our starting point: "Do not weep, do not wax indignant. Understand." I intend to offer a thought or two on the whys and wherefores of the pervasive phenomenon of nationalist scorn later this week.