24 December 2011

♫ Noël nouvelet! ♫

Fastidious sprites polishing holly-berries, the frosty carcasses of Grinches buried in snowdrifts; Scrooges redeemed, Marleys damned; strain-eyed shoppers haunted by commercial spectres and the demanding voices of their children; glistering grub, bubbling beakers from the north-east of France; bubblyjocks throttled and blushing robins rouged up for their annual performances; gin o'clock striking at noon. 'Tis the season! Christmas is upon us! An apt moment then for me to suspend all peat worrying for a few days, hang up my oxter-flaughter, abandon my bothy for a warmer and more convivial berth, pluck the Tom Weir bobble-hat from my brow, and sink into jovial relaxation.  

Also, it seems a fine hour to say a wee word or two about the past twelve months.  2011 has been a interesting year for the blog, with a Holyrood election to contend with, agitating for my party, critiquing our opponents - and subsequently trying to unpick the whys and wherefores of the SNP's triumph, and what it might or might not presage for independence. Notable too, my sheep-trail-blazing association with Ecclefechan Mackay and the north west's organ of record, the Kinlochbervie Chronicle.  To focus on what I see as my core utility as a blogger, 2011 has also been a year of trying to deal with the slew of interesting Scottish legal-and-political stories in an intelligible and informative way, whether on the UK Supreme Court's judgments on the legality of Holyrood's legislation on pleural plaques, to Cadder and Fraser and the subsequent political rumpus these decisions caused. Elsewhere, the SNP majority in the Scottish Parliament has prompted long-deferred questions about the legality of proposed Holyrood's referendum on Scottish independence finally to be posed in the mainstream media. Otherwise, probably the profoundest politico-legal controversy over the last six months has concerned the SNP's illiberal and misconceived Offensive Behaviour at Football (etc) Act.

For the future, pregnant questions include, what will come of Carloway's Review? Is Scotland's distinctive corroboration rule counting down the hours to its abolition? Having passed its Football Act, how will procurators fiscal and police use the very extensive powers it gives them? Will we see an increase in the number of football banning orders granted, given the named-offences and the heightened political atmosphere? In the high-end judicial line, with Lord Reed taking up Lord Rodger's vacant chair as a justice of the UK Supreme Court, who will be appointed to replace Lord Hamilton as the Lord President of the Court of Session?  Interesting times, by any measure. There has also been the novelty of dewigging myself live on telly and shedding my-long-standing pseudonymity. Perhaps the most amusing consequence of this new and discombobulating experience was being described as a "boffin" by the academically discerning folk of the Daily Star

The main reason I blog is because of the pleasure it brings me: the scribbling, the argument, hopefully contributing something otherwise absent from the Scottish public sphere. And I've exceedingly enjoyed the past year. I hope you all have too. So to my regular and irregular readers, to folk who've taken the time to comment and to blisteringly critique the propositions I've advanced here over the past twelve months, and to those who've kept mum, nodding along with or shaking their fists at yours truly, a very Merry Christmas and a Guid New Year one and all!

It may be that a tale irresistibly captures my imagination between now and then, momentarily prompting my lapse from the port-fug to rattle out some words. Otherwise, I'll be sharpening my goose-quills by the fire and giving the ink another stab come January.  Slàinte!

22 December 2011

Holyrood: less transparent than Westminster?

The Westminster parliament is hardly renowned for its transparency, even after late scandals.  However, a quarter-decade ago, the House of Commons established its Register Of Interests Of Members' Secretaries And Research Assistants. I first discovered it thanks to Twitter during the ignominy of the Liam-Fox/Adam-Werritty/taking-my-mate-to-the-UK's-bomb-party-and-getting-plastered affair. Maintained by the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, nowadays, it requires that...

"Those holding a parliamentary pass as a Member's secretary or research assistant are required to record on this Register, commonly called the Members' Staff Register, any other occupation or employment from which they receive income exceeding half of one per cent of a Member's salary from the same source in the course of a calendar year, if that occupation or employment is in any way advantaged by the privileged access to Parliament afforded by their pass. They also have to register any tangible gift (eg silverware) and any other benefit (eg. hospitality, service or facilities provided) which they receive, if the value of the gift or benefit exceeds that sum and the gift arises from or relates to their work in Parliament."

You can search the list by member of parliament, and see who has lobbed a job to one of their councillors; whose staff also work part-time and ad hoc for pressure groups, charities, corporations or unions; how many buzz about part-time as party political Moscas; discern whose employees is paid for by CARE or the like, and any jaunts the staff have gone on, including trips to Tunisia, Egypt, Portugal, Germany, Rwanda, Azerbaijan, St Andrews - and so on. While in most cases, the Register only lists the names of those employed who have no other outside, declarable interests, more eccentric details are revealed in other entries.  For example, Tory MP for Devon South West, Gary Streeter, unaccountably employs the director of the Christian Socialist Movement, Andrew Flannagan. Attorney-General Dominic Grieve rejoices in the company of a "self-employed political coach". While hardly densely textured information, the register at least allows one to see who is employing who on the public penny, which strikes me as no bad thing.

What about Holyrood, I asked myself? Since the institution prides itself on drawing flattering contrasts with Westminter's traditional perfidy and insular sense of entitlement, ever keen to burnish its credentials for transparency and public accessibility, I assumed I'd be able to find the parallel roster of Holyrood's parliamentary staff whippity-quick. But no. Not a sausage.  In 2010/11, under the prevailing Members Expense Scheme, MSPs' staffing costs ran to some £8,841,339, with a "cap" of £59,500 on each member. In some cases, a tiny sprinkle of information is available.  For example, Darth Murdo Fraser declares the "gift" of a CARE intern in his interests. If you look into the individual expenses claims of MSPs, which are extensively catalogued online, sometimes the payee is listed, but not if members "pool" resources and share staff through the SNP support group, and the like.  After the 2009 ban on MSPs employing family members, Scottish parliamentarians who hire the relations of other MSPs are required to declare the association.  As of November this year, this micro-register of inter-tribune child support read as follows... 

Staff member
Related MSP
Neil Bibby
Jacqueline Henry
Hugh Henry
Christine Grahame
Euan Ingram
Adam Ingram
Bill Kidd
Christopher White
Sandra White
Parliamentary assistant
Joan McAlpine
Gail Lythgoe
Humza Yousaf
Siobhan McMahon
Laura Baillie
Jackie Baillie

Late-May's list showed that the practice was rather more widespread earlier on in the year.  For the main, however, there's no simple public ledger whatsoever of who our MSPs employ, nor any public declaration system, by means of which staff's external interests which might impact on their parliamentary work could be declared. One ought to be sanguine about the practical limits of these official catalogues of connections. Absolutely. They will never exhaustively map the often undisclosed and unofficial networks of potentially influential relationships our politicians have, nor should they.  However, it does strike me that this is a modest set of data which it would be worthwhile to make publicly available.

I dare say one could contact each of the MSPs individually, soliciting the names of their employees, but that's hardly straightforward, and hardly enshrines abstract ideas of transparency by adopting practical measures effectively to realise it. If Westminster feels that it is necessary and worthwhile to publish this information about MPs' staff, it seems clear to me that the burden lies on Holyrood and its Corporate Body, to explain why conditions obtaining in London require the disclosure of this information, while transparent Edinburgh ought to be exempted from the necessity.  Colour me unconvinced.

Anyone up for a mild spot of agitation come the new year?

21 December 2011

Johann's shadow "ministry of all the talents"?

Just a short thought for today.  A "ministry of all the talents".  Historically, the phrase is owed to William Greville's abortive 1806-1807 Napoleonic wartime ministry, installed after the death of Pitt the Younger.  In recent times, a version of the idea what revived by Gordon Brown, whose vision incorporated like likes of Paul Myners and Digby Jones, rather than Charles James Fox, into his government.  The impression intended was presumably one of non-partisan catholicity, confected to imply that Labour would not be bounded by the bubble Politics, with its snarling and often pointless caballing, porous to external influences and wisdom.

Generally, the stratagem is shamelessly manipulative.  Beneath the uncontroversial vocabulary of goodness and good sense, such invocations of "talent" often as not appeal to delusions of apolitical excellence, implying that ideology there is none, as if a plutocrat's opinions become simple common sense when they are solicited by a government with increasingly vague social democratic credentials.  It is to feign transcending the grub of politics, primarily to secure political advantage. And let's be blunt. Scottish Labour requires all of the advantages they can get their numbed political hands on. Gordon Brown's example does not appear to have dissuaded Johann Lamont, who has appointed her shadow ministerial team this week, with a promise that...

"Over the coming weeks, additional appointments from outside the world of politics will be made to bring specialist advice in their areas of expertise to shadow cabinet discussions."

On a more mordant reading, this is a cabinet of all the talents, notable in its dearth of the latter, with Labour's livelier new folk in Holyrood having too much green sap at this stage to spice up their party's fortunes alone. The party's thoroughly-rusted machine politics having been exposed, where crashing mediocrity is no barrier to gaining and retaining political positions, Lamont's references to the addition of external souls is a clear attempt to foster an air of novelty, revision, and renewal. As an aside, I see that Lewis Macdonald, third-placed in the party's recent deputy leadership election, has been appointed the party's justice spokesman.  Happily, he's no Richard Baker, but I was a little surprised by the appointment, since in recent times, I can't recall hearing a peep out of Macdonald on any of the bigger justice debates in Scottish politics. Let's see how he does.

To use a familiar press cliché, one account of the business of a shadow cabinet is to persuade the electorate that the opposition are a plausible government in waiting.  And here's why I wonder if an all-the-talents tack really assists Labour towards this goal. Johann, we have a legal problem.  In Westminster, you can always invest unelected folk with the ermine zoot-suit of a member of the House of Lords, co-opting them into your cabinet, counsels and even ministerial office. Not so in Holyrood. Being a creature of statute, Scottish Ministers are all appointed under the Scotland Act 1998, which is extremely specific about who can and cannot be a Scottish minister...

s47(1) The First Minister may, with the approval of Her Majesty, appoint Ministers from among the members of the Parliament.

The only exceptions to this are the Scottish law officers - the Lord Advocate and the Solicitor General for Scotland - neither of whom need be MSPs, but who nevertheless may participate but not vote in Holyrood's proceedings, answering parliamentary questions, making statements and the like.  Until devolution, Lords Advocate tended to be either MPs or hastily appointed members of the House of Lords, to get around this problem. What's the point in having a shadow ministry of all the talents, when the talents in it can't be ministers?

Certainly, you might think that taking good advice, and identifying individuals able to identify and articulate your aims compellingly and lucidly is a good idea. I'd agree. You might even determine to ensure that your choice souls find themselves nominated to stand for winnable seats come the 2016 Holyrood election. If, however, these talents aren't willing to campaign for political office, under our constitution, there is no possibility they can serve as ministers and cabinet secretaries. Isn't there a risk, if your most persuasive advocates and talented characters aren't standing but are standing around in television studios and the like, that all one achieves is putting your own shadow cabinet in the shade? The point becomes less problematic, by contrast, if Labour's realistic goal is not to win back office in 2016, but merely to stave off Scottish independence and strive to refit the political outfit for a successful 2021 run.  Don't expect anyone to own up to that, of course. Nobody won an election on the slogan, however sincere, of "we're shit and we know we are..."

19 December 2011

Beyond stranger-danger: Scotland's amicicide statistics...

Christmas. A time of family and friends. The doors and windows are shuttered against the frost and the cold.  A fire glows in the grate, and all sprites and goblins are shut out.  Traditionally, many people enjoy ghost stories around this time of year.  For those of us who follow them, the Festive season also brings with it the annual release of the Scottish homicide statistics, and their ghoulish and unhappy catalogue of human cruelty and folly over the past twelve months. Often as not, the data is only pressed into service to attack the government of the day and undermine claims made about the efficacy of its policies. It goes without saying, but behind these statistics lies great sadness, squandered possibilities, grave errors of judgement which can never be recalledThe data can never adequately capture that. 

What it can do, however, is challenge and surprise us in a range of ways.  Our public debates are saturated by haunting tales of stranger-danger, and often wildly inaccurate assumptions about the nature of crime. Take a few commonplace examples. Is gun-crime a significant problem in Scotland? Where are people killed, and by whom? Bleak thought it is, this Scottish Government data speaks to these issues in important (and I think for many in surprising) ways. In Scotland, aggressors and those killed are overwhelmingly male, with a substantial majority of folk dying in homes and houses and around them, often at the hands of their friends, family and those they are acquainted with, most on the points of sharp instruments, such as knives. This is a macabre litany, but I'm struck by the extent to which it deviates from dominant ideas of crime, of risk, and who is most at risk of serious violent crime and from whom. I forget the precise source for this thought, but after the police and the army, the family is arguably the most perilous (as well as potentially the most nourishing and supportive) social unit in our society. 

The most basic question is obviously, how many people were killed? In 2010/11, there were 95 cases and 97 victims of homicide, with 138 persons accused of committing them. Below, I put 2010/11 in the context of the preceding decade...


Geographically, a shocking 64% of homicide cases were investigated in the Strathclyde Police force area, with 27.3% of cases occurring in the city of Glasgow.  So who are these victims? The gender-divisions are sharp, both in terms of victims and persons accused...


And accused persons? Of 2010/11's 138 accused persons, 111 were male and only 27 were female...

A grim tale of predominantly male aggression and suffering. Yet vital context is absent. Are these unknown strangers who shank each other in the street? Brutal and drunken pub fights that idiotically send participants to their maker?. Generally speaking, not at all and certainly not predominantly. First, let's look at the relationship of the accused person to their victim. Thereafter, we'll come onto the geographies of homicide in Scotland.

As you'll have clearly discerned, last year over 68% of homicide cases involved friends, relations and acquaintances.  Given the close connection between most victims and their attackers, the geographic data becomes much less surprising.  While nobody was killed in licenced premises in 2010/11, the location data breaks down as follows...

We now have a little better idea about the who and the where of homicide in Scotland.  But how do people die? The figures by method of killing break down as follows...

Percentages can be a little bamboozling. I won't pluck out all every single macabre detail, but in terms of simple numbers rather than percentages, it is worth nothing the exceedingly small number of people killed using firearms in Scotland...

By way of contrast, across the last decade, significantly more people were killed by poisoning than died as the result of guns.

However, and most concerning, the pre-eminent method of homicide in Scotland remains by sharp-implements, including knives.  While 2009/10 recorded strikingly low levels of homicide-by-knife, the figures have shot back up during 2010/11, to the second highest number of homicides by sharp-instrument in the last decade.

How many, how, and who - but why? Causal explanations are always trickier. I don't propose further to explore the data, but the police have summarised main motives for killings, suggesting that some 48.5% of homicides in 2010/11 are accounted for between "rage and fury" (19 homicides) and "fights and quarrels" (28).  Strikingly, two deaths last year have been attributed to "contract killings", with eight apiece attributed to "jealousy" and "financial (theft or gain)".  Finally, data is collected on the alcohol and drug status of accused persons. I'm a touch unclear on the definitions being used (in particular, whether the term "drunk" denotes intoxication to a significant degree, or whether it denotes any degree of alcohol consumption).  That note of interpretation despite, these are our latest figures...