30 July 2009

Salmond's gravedigger impersonation and the politics of accent

Accent is a funny thing in Britain. Someone, I forget who offhand, suggested that accent is the par excellence class locator. Those who wish to explore newer vistas of middle class life are advised, in this formulation, quickly to dispense with their regionalisms and adopt something more genteel. Obviously, this isn’t a simple matter of centre and periphery – while London and the “safff” of England exercises its gravitational pull, plucking out the exciting vowels and consonants of the regional timbre - similar forces undoubtedly effect their judgements in other regional capitals. I knew a chap who was working in the South of England, who had some hue of ‘northern’ accent, at the English Law Commission. At some sort of soirée for the new folk, a tubby and apparently infinitely self satisfied man asked the fellow why he hadn’t lost his northern accent in the course of his southward progress. Charmingly, the enquirer was one of the law commissioners.

Up to a point, we Scots with pleasant and comprehensible voices seem to escape this sort of judgement. Nobody would insist that you sink your clipped vowels in an estuary of the Thames. Such are the freedoms afforded to the “Other”. Equally, however, when I’ve been in Europe for academic reasons, sinews have been tightened in horror-filled anticipation when I was identified as Scottish. Past experience of the verbal squall of cat-in-a-bagpipe Glaswegians had been a mystifying encounter for my poor hosts. Their relief when they found me comprehensible was palpable.

Why is this relevant to Scottish politics, you ask? Merely this. As all of you anorak-enswaddled political followers will be well aware, the next Holyrood election falls on the decreasingly distant year of 2011. What will happen and why is clouded by significant uncertainties, despite the polling data available to us. Will the increase in the SNP vote prove hard or soft? Alternatively, will the experience of the SNP in government lead to more or less confidence in the Nationalists as a force in Scots politics? Everything is naturally relative. One has to weigh on the same proverbial scales the heft of Ian Gray, Liberal shrinkage, potential Green revival, the context provided of the 2010 General Election, both in terms of the morale of Tory and Labour troops – but also voters’ attitudes to whoever occupies Downing Street and the seats to the right of Mr Gopher Speaker. Once one has mixed these dry ingredients, toss in sticky situations, flung eggs of protest – in short, all of the gleeful and malicious works of the Goddess Fortuna – and then, at the end, matters will be all reduced to a number of tribunes, a slim or more bloated electoral count, inchoate triumph, miserable defeat. We can all go home.

I don’t anticipate being at the heart of it – I’ll be out of the country. Indeed, I’m disappearing from Scotland at the end of September to embark on PhD work furth of the realm. However, when I avidly follow the progress of the Eck (Maximum) and his train of capering angels and grinning demons – I’ll be wondering what effect something as apparently innocuous as accent will have on the unfolding electoral drama. Alex Salmond has a curious voice, with a smudging inclination around particular words. He takes a distinctly Shakespearean tack – speaking properly when loitering around princes, principals and presidents – but lapsing into comic Scotticisms with an ease and a naturalness when among the “common folk”. We’ll call this his “Hamlet’s Gravedigger” approach to linguistic politics, for maximal pretentiousness. If I was a politician, I certainly wouldn’t do it – it would sound drawling, invented, improbable, in short a Jack-McConnell’s kiltish incident – but for my money, the Eck gets away with it. As I’ve commented before, Salmond uses history interestingly, positioning himself and his party in the mainstream of the “country’s constitutional life”, “authentically”. Equally, this canny fellow absolutely, undeniably has a politics of language. These Burns-burlesque Scotticisms don’t detract from his stature the way a nasal West of Scotland wail would. Why? One reason – and a strong reason – may be that such norms of language are sanctioned, annually, by the Burns Supper. Anyone who has attended one of these will note that men and women who speak English perfectly “properly” suddenly run all guttural, growling patriotically in Burns’ familiar voice.

I’m not objecting to this – I enjoy it, regard it as a positive thing – but with a more scientific pair of goggles on, it is interesting to speculate on why the sniffish middle classes can forgive some uses of language and not others. Which brings me – very stumblingly – to the point I was intent on making at the outset. I’m not a scholar of this area, so what follows should be treated very much as lay jottings. Cast your ear – and mind – back to the Government of pre-2007. Listen to its tone of voice, its accents. Further, imagine that you are not the free thinker that you hope you are, liberated from social convention. Put aside the fact that you believe that we should judge people by what they say and not how they say it, keeping up the firm barriers between the rhetorical and the epistemological. Jack McConnell’s inanimate drone, the floppy, charmless howls and barks of Glaswegians and neighbourly cronies. Piercing cries, proletarian voices. Scotland’s voice under Labour was undeniably, primarily, that of the West Coast – with all of its unfair mental ties to sickness, to criminality, vulgarity, ignorance – you name it. Look in from the outside, you see a squadron of polished Glasgow City Councillors who sound like Glasgow City Councillors.

Remember, here, that I’m speaking as the character outlined above, of which I can assure you, there are many in the country. People who want someone who can speak to speak for them. Who are looking for Scotland in a different voice, less Clydeside, more general. Now listen to the government post 2007. Hear the diverse accents of Salmond, or Mike Russell, Swinney, Kenny’s roar, Nicola’s modulated Westie way. That Western electoral monopoly is not just shrinking on the electoral map, the rest of the country ganging up on a diehard and incorrigible Glasgow – we also hear it, day to day, in the verbal politics of parliament. Many, many people who have had doubts about the SNP, who did not vote for them on election day 2007 have commented to me how this Accent Question – dramatised more generally as the rhetorical persuasiveness and respectability of the Government – has moved their perspective on the occupier of Bute House and his labouring ministers in St Andrew’s House. People you’re not embarrassed to hear speaking for you, is how it goes. One can imagine similar arguments being used about the professions - who would feel confident if their doctor spoke like a 'ned', or the lawyer giving submissions on your behalf in the Sheriff Court in an undistinguished whine?

Which returns us to the division I mentioned - and the idea that we should distinguish between how people say things (rhetoric) and what they say and know (epistemology). If my thesis is correct, it would seem as if, in the empirical world, this aspirational division is not what drives the social life. We associate how people say things with what they know and if people can't speak, we assume they are being forced to keep silence because of their ignorance. Of course, exceptions always occur, but a generalisation admits exceptions. For some voters, these two notions are intimately connected. I'd argue to the benefit of the SNP government over their Labour opponents.

How many people will have their minds changed by this? How many linguistically sensitive souls does Scotland boast, ready to relocate their ‘x’s because of it? That is hardly the point. As I noted at the beginning, many are the reasons which buffet the moveable voter this way and that. For some, this confidence and the social authoritativeness of particular voices will, undeniably, add to the ease and comfort of voting SNP.

27 July 2009

David Kerr: Thoughts on God in politics...

An act of informed voting is always going to be a trade-off among the voter’s priorities. Yes, the candidate is in favour of independence, but he is a schmuck. No, she doesn’t think that there should be a poll tax, but she also is against gay adoption. Another candidate has exemplary ideas on criminal justice, but cannot fathom climate change and is disposed to deny its significance. Nuclear power, wars, guns, free care for the elderly, graduate endowments, tuition fees – the informed voter is drawn by the nose this way and that by individual candidates’ opinions, which are never easy simulacra of the exact political positions of the voter who decides on them. You have to fudge – at least a little, sometimes a lot.

I think its in this context one has to see the warm words and interesting discussion around David Kerr’s candidacy in Glasgow North East, and precisely what weight his religious opinions should have in the decision to vote for or against him. Some, including the man himself, suggest that they shouldn’t, that it doesn’t matter, or indeed that it is villainy to enquire. I disagree, strongly.

Here is why. As has been reported, David Kerr was asked, predictably, what his views were on abortion. Avoiding providing a direct answer, Kerr justified this evasion by saying that he was not there “to talk about theology.” The quote is truncated, excised from a wider context, and hence, one ought to be cautious about being too expansionist about what he means to imply. But put it this way. Think of the many ways one can label the debate on abortion. A political issue, perhaps – one of public health – of ethics and morals – of an epistemology of embryology – in the final analysis, also one of law. To this, we can add another calculation – and cannot accuse Kerr of being exhaustively evasive of his views on the abortion question. After all, to reply that he wouldn’t talk about theology entails that if he was to talk about abortion – he would be in the theological realm. His wasn’t an absolute non-answer, since he candidly frames how he would discuss abortion as a personal and religious issue.

That said, if we were firmly in favour of abortion, it being a high priority on our voters catalogue of interests, we would probably want to know other things. For example, would he oppose or support particular approaches to public policy in this area, based on these religious norms? Alternatively, would he suspend judgement, conscious of the privacy of these feelings, and abstain on the relevant votes? Or would he go further, submitting to the party whip and follow the political commitments of his overseers, despite his personal views? One can envision similar tribulations in any number of areas where the godly norms Kerr perceives conflict with the pressing political directions taken by party and parliament. What would he do? These are relevant questions, fairly asked. There really are no protest votes – if your candidate and party win – the individual voter is implicated in giving those characters their mandate and social authority. We’re not exhaustively responsible, clearly, but if our men and women begin making mischief, or oppressing others, our continuing support for them in that knowledge is blameworthy. Given that the ideology of Opus Dei - quite consistently - seems to deny any division between public and private, just as Catholic theology generally insists that God's laws are objectively true and hence, ethics isn't as atheists imagine it - Kerr faces a problem. If he is unable to deny the religious call to wholeness in public and private life, voters who disagree with him on these issues have every reason to reject his candidacy. Depending, of course, on the priority among their individual preferences. Folk maybe don’t consciously think of it in this way, and perhaps don’t reduce these preferences to writing, but they play out in every Labour voter who gave up on the Red Rose Brigade after Iraq, or every Tory who turned UKIP on Europe.

Lets look at the religious norms in public life issue atheistically. Assume, for the moment, that God is false, that the Bible and the rules of the Church are man-crafted and without divine sanction or objective resonance. Say instead that every person has an individual notion of ethics – but some people are more individual that others. When Kerr says this is right, he is making a statement of the same sort as my statement this is right. He may feel less responsible as the originator of this ethical ejaculation – attributing it to a magic book or the word of an invisible spirit – but if his surrounding cosmology is false – he is reduced to the same, plain human level my moral views must be couched in. There is no substantive category difference.

That being so, consider the following hypothetical scenario. I am a would-be lawmaker and hate homosexuals, but for resolutely secular reasons. Heaven knows what these might be – but given man’s irrationality – anything is possible. I argue against adoption, against civil unions, even against gay teachers. For some, this is not an issue to rouse them from their lethargy, and my other virtues and views may overbear and prove conclusive. Not so for those who place equality of this sort higher up their agenda. They would vote against me with feeling, and would be correct to do so. Change this scenario only in one particular – that the aforementioned hatred and activism was animated by a religious sense rather than a godless one – and the same conditions obtain.

While it doesn’t matter whether Kerr believes in the Almighty, if you the voter do not believe in God, you have every good reason to reject him based on his views. Since the boundary between religious ethics and ethics simplicter must be fictional in an atheistic world view – it is simple consistency to hold Kerr to account based on those opinions. Faith matters, precisely because morals matter. You can’t have politics without politics. Crucially, however, how significantly particular moral positions matter will be a point of variability between different people. That is why it is erroneous to insist as a universal truth that one can excise personal faith from the political agora. While for some people, this may well be true, for others, it must be of the most intimate consequence.

Recognising this diversity is to take ethics – and religion – seriously. As we ought to.

26 July 2009

A summer blog summary...

To enliven your lives through the gloomy, rain-streaked summer days, I've performed the cold collation of Scotland's political blogging spirit for this week.

Replete with lots of cheerful posts about the unwilling and perhaps unwitting photo-chap for Opus Dei in Scotland, David Kerr, the aforementioned trying out his John Wayne impression in an urban car park, figures from Norwich North, castigations of Edinburgh city council, proposals for a communal bucket of Scotland's crude oil and much, much more...

24 July 2009

The Sheridan Case II: The Implications of Corroboration

After the trumpeting ballyhoo attending Tommy and Gail Sheridan’s appearance at Parliament House on the 13th of July, I don’t anticipate much further coverage of the matter until proceedings begin in earnest at the beginning of 2010. The press get reasonably jumpy about finding themselves up before a stern-eyed Senator of the College of Justice, lest their little articles show contempt for the court, and ruin the accused’s chances of (modestly) unbiased justice. We bloggers face similar risks of admonition, therefore it behoves us to be mildly cautious.

Eschewing my usual, broadest-brush approach to things, I thought I might indulge in a sliver of forensic precision, and return briefly to the detail of the indictment – and how the Scottish law of evidence might suggest that the suborning of perjury charge narrated might produce something explosive at trial. The theme is a blawgish one, but I trust, with more general interest for those with half an eye on Tommy’s proceedings. The theme may be of academical interest to the man himself, who is, as we know – allegedly a full time law student at the University of Strathclyde. If it was ever his intention to practice, one of the major consequences of any conviction for perjury is the death of this dream. In short, if he’s convicted, he’s screwed. As my lecturer on this subject, Robert Black QC once growlsomely insisted in his grandiloquent way – “you must know your law of evidence”!

But let’s toddle back to the primary theme. As I blogged at the time, I was surprised by the “subornation of perjury” element on the indictment – which as far as I can tell, has emerged, as our American cousins would say – “from left field”. Here is the precise wording of the charge:

(1) you THOMAS SHERIDAN having raised an action of defamation in the Court of Session, Parliament House, Parliament Square, Edinburgh against News Group Newpapers Limited, 124 Portman Street, Kinning Park, Glasgow, a company incorporated under the Companies Acts, being the publisher of the News of the World newspaper, in which you alleged that on 21 November 2004 the said newspaper had published an article communicating the false idea that you had visited a “swingers club” with Anvar Begum Khan, c/o Lothian and Borders Police, Police Headquarters, Fettes Avenue, Edinburgh, and knowing that a civil jury trial had been fixed for the hearing of said action on 4 July 2006 and having on 9 November 2004 at a meeting of the Executive Committee of the Scottish Socialist Party held at 70 Stanley Street, Glasgow, attended by, among others, Colin Fox, c/o Lothian and Borders Police, Police Headquarters, Fettes Avenue, Edinburgh, admitted attending such a club and in particular Cupid's Healthclub, 13-17 Sutherland Street, Swinton, Manchester on two occasions in 1996 and 2002 and knowing that accurate minutes of the said meeting existed and had been lodged on 16 June 2006 at the said Court on behalf of the said defender and that said Colin Fox was to be called as a witness at said trial did on 18 June 2006 at the premises known as The Beanscene, 67 Holyrood Road, Edinburgh attempt to suborn said Colin Fox, to falsely depone as a witness that the minutes of said meeting were not accurate and you did thus attempt to suborn said Colin Fox to commit perjury
That is the wording. Here is the question. How will the Crown prove this charge in law? There is obviously the human, rhetorical component, and the jury’s mood – but there are other constraints which are not simply reducible to jury attitude. We must also take into account questions of sufficiency of evidence for a conviction. In Scotland, this is generally known as the corroboration rule, and has been subject to critical attention primarily in the area of sexual offences which are subject to a paucity of evidence. However, certain statutory offences excepted, corroboration remains the general rule across the offences prosecutable in the criminal law.

What does the rule require? Basically, corroboration means that in order for there to be sufficient evidence for the accused to be convicted – whatever the jurors happen to believe about that person’s guilt or innocence – the crucial facts have to be supported by two, independent sources of evidence. Importantly, not all facts which are involved in determining the accused’s guilt are categorised as crucial. In general, the crucial facts of a charge, requiring to be proved with corroborated evidence, are that the crime was committed, and that it was the soul in the dock whodunit. This sufficiency of evidence can be achieved in a number of ways. You can have the direct evidence of two witnesses who testify to the same fact – “I saw him stab the victim”. Alternatively, corroboration can be achieved by producing two or more material facts which can support the inference that such a crucial fact exists – “The accused was found carrying the bloodied knife – the blood type and blade type matching the injuries found on the victim. Another woman saw him fleeing the scene in a distressed fashion, carrying his cutlass.” Finally, and perhaps obviously, a mixture of these types of facts can be in evidence, where direct witness statements are stirred into a pot of circumstantial facts from which a reasonable inference of culpability can emerge.

Those are the Crown’s options. If we assume, with giddy good faith, that the Crown aren’t just stoking their indictment, and have marshalled corroborated evidence for the subornation of perjury charge, what will it be? Obviously, the first and primary source of evidence must be Colin Fox ex-MSP. That seems clear. What will the corroborating proof be, however? Perhaps a barista in the Beanscene saw them talking. However, that is circumstantial to the point of vapidity. It doesn’t prove that they were talking about the minutes of the SSP Executive meeting, nor does it imply that Sheridan was making a stab at inducing Fox to fictionalise his account. Add a bit more detail, perhaps. An earwigging soul seated a few tables away – or perhaps the few words caught by the waiter as steaming double espressos were brought to Sheridan and Fox’ table. (This has suddenly turned all Regency London. I am reasonably certain, however, that Charles James Fox and Richard Brinsley Sheridan would have gone in for something a little stronger than vast, bitter tubs of coffee if they were a’plotting.)

My point is, if the suborning perjury charge is to proceed, it must have a surrounding evidentiary architecture which can withstand the weight of the legal tests put on it. The Crown, knowing this, couldn’t have indicted in good faith otherwise. Because of the crucial importance of communication in the charge, accumulating material evidence which proves or could prove that they were more than talking – but that the talking amounted to the suborning of perjury – would seem a profoundly difficult undertaking, with a high hurdle of evidential sufficiency to o’erleap.

At the time the indictment was published, I speculated that Fox might have tucked a Dictaphone slyly about himself. While not immune to interrogation about the “independence” of recording evidence taken by the witness – and added to that, difficulties about determining the time the recording was taken, and ascertaining beyond reasoned doubts who is who on the recording – this would seem one of the few ways, depending on what was said, to confirm confidently the witness testament of Fox. This is obviously only speculation. The detail of the legal requirement to convict on corroborated evidence, however, is not. The Crown must have found an evidential something which it considers sufficient, with the jury convinced, to justify in law a conviction for suborning perjury. We’ll have to dangle about until the new year to see what this is. Nestled in the dry lifelessness of the indictment text, mysteries reside. The unwrapping of the enigma will be vivid, dramatic stuff.

21 July 2009

The "Cirv Project" and gangland masculinities...

“Gang warfare has to stop” is not, perhaps, a headline which will provoke much dissent. On the press side, we must all be familiar by now with these unfashionable youths, each a snarling simulacrum of the last, wielding some make-do bludgeon with a spare shank tucked down his stained white trainers. The ned, the bam, the disaffected youth. Hatchet faced, unappealing, he is typically presented without context and without an explicable personal life. His motives are unguessable, sometimes inhuman. This isn’t the jazz-hands gangsterism of West Side Story, but a blood and tear stained scroll of torments, griefs and punishments. Our archetypical gang youth marches onto our simplifying stage both as perpetrator and victim, a symbol of intense contradiction.

In the Herald society pages today can be found an interesting account of a Community Initiative to Reduce Violence - Cirv, apparently pronounced ‘serve’. I’d strongly suggest those interested in these questions to read about it here. It is presented as an attempt to “confront people with the consequences of gang violence for themselves and for others.” Held at the Sheriff Court, involved in Cirv’s initial project were self-identified folk who are involved in such groups, police officers, a sheriff, facial surgeons replete with ghastly pictures of the torn flesh which knives have left behind, a man who was convicted of murder in his late teens and the mother of a boy, attacked with a machete.

One anonymous doubter is quoted in the piece, wondering what the good is of “getting teenagers in a room and shouting at them for an hour”. I have sympathy with this sort of hesitation. In school, we were subjected to a similar sort of thing, but about drugs. Hideous, harrowing images – the worst of all stories – short, sharp shocks. This was presented as “the reality” of drug use by a stout copper, with a paternal air of certainty and lack of hesitation. In point of fact, I have never ever entertained the sense that I haven’t tried this drug or that because of pictures we were presented with. Indeed, for me, much of the authority of the speaker was diminished by the dreary, fictionalising insistence that all drugs, wherever, whatever, once, twice or eighty times a year were bad. This is clearly total rubbish, daftly to overstate the case, and treated us like children to be haunted rather than reasonably intelligent people who would recognise the fact that some substances presented very real perils, and one should have that in one’s mind when one is making choices about how to include intoxicants in one’s life.

I wonder if the Cirv project may provoke similar reactions. Indeed, I was particularly interested by the characterisation of Assistant Chief Constable John Neilson in the piece, and the roaring overtones of masculine performance, domination and rhetorical violence he used. “Carry on fighting? I’ll give you the jail. I’m in charge of the gangs task force and I’ve got 5000 street cops in Glasgow. It’s a far bigger gang than you’ll ever have.”

On one level, one can see the point of this. Its even mildly amusing and potentially gently subversive. However, it reeks of testosterone. While undoubtedly many factors induce violence, clannishness, territoriality – looming large in that calculation must be ideas of masculinity and masculine performances in groups. The Assistant Chief Constable seems basically “outmanning” these youths, both literally in numbers and in terms of his macho, thumping rhetoric. Is this the way to improve men’s behaviour, to encourage them to think, to relinquish the more odious, oppressive and violent norms of their frail and reactive masculinities? To me, and with my feminist membership card in my top pocket, this seems like a father’s solution, and its instruments are the strap, a brass voice and its admonition of violent authority. Concerningly, it may well reinforce precisely the ideas which provoke the slashings over the wrong person straying into the wrong groups “territory” - rather than combating and transforming them. To say that ideas are the mainspring of much of social life isn’t to be tower-bound and abstrusely theoretical. Each of us is a social theorist and a lay philosopher when we talk about ideas and make decisions and choices based on concepts which mean something to us.

To put the alternative case, one may well say – stand back, lets see if it works, if violence is reduced and the book of the dead and the injured has fewer red names written in its pages, the initiative will have succeeded. Its impossible to deny that this would be a good thing. However, I will not stand down from my lingering doubts about the approach in terms of wider public attitudes. How persuasive one finds these little doubting thoughts will, I suspect, depend in part on how convinced one is that one can affirmatively and deliberately change people’s minds about central ideas which seem meaningful and harmless and given in their own life. For those who see development and evolution on this score as only meaningfully achieved by “organic” growth, the breath would be wasted.

To my mind, however, strong identification with hostile and aggressive masculinities are a crucial part of the problem, generating the walls of knives - and 'find a dog to kill a dog' is a silly aphorism. Are these hesitations making the best the enemy of the good? I don’t think so. If we want to excise brutality and irrational violence from our society, we must excise it exhaustively, and tear up the roots. Not appoint our own, stronger, rougher bullies.

20 July 2009

Ethnicity, Racism, Culture: A mild mannered meander...

I’m a secret and highly selective statistics enthusiast. The insight into the wider society – the surprise that lies concealed and undetectable beneath our everyday experiences – irritation about the categories the researchers have gathered information around - and, as a sparkling chaser, endless potential disputation about the causal force driving the numbers reported in the raw data.

"Ethnicity" data drives me up the wall, largely because of the persistent and irrational intrusion of race thinking in its terms. Since when was “white” an ethnic group, if ethnicity as a notion is based on culture, background, education? Gathering information of this type is sometimes discreetly described as identifying “visible minorities”. From the point of view of studying the causes of racism, and analysing the effect of skin pigmentation as a trigger for racist thinking – this may be useful. Even if I’m not a racist, others may be. This sensitivity moves one from philosophy into sociology, and the question of how particular ideas start to drive the social life this way and that. Such diverting issues are not, I fear, at the core of census takers and governmental information gatherers decision to include this racist “white/black” ethnicity pairing into their pre-selected categories. The “mixed” alternative, is even more depressingly resonant. Indeed, our attempts to emancipate ourselves from the old(ish), villainous idea of race are not assisted by the degree to which our debates are conducted under the long American penumbra, and its idiot and conclusionless discourse about Barack Obama's "race". That, and enactments whose nomenclature – Race Relations Act 1976 – support a dialogue and a vocabulary which supposes the world may cogently be divided along racial lines.

I could go on – particularly about the binary gender categories these researchers frequently employ – but I shan’t. What I wanted to talk about was culture, culture strategy and devolution. Which brings us back to the statistics. Some of you may be familiar with the Scottish Household Survey. Most of you probably haven’t looked at it. As with all quantitative explorations in public opinions, how generalisable the indicated conclusions are may be debated, and are naturally the subject of considerable social scientific exploration and critique. Today I’m particularly interested in the People and Culture in Scotland section of the survey, and what it reveals about the habits, predilections and cultural choices made by the (hopefully) representative sample of people living in Scotland.

There are many curious little corners. 69% of all of the people asked read and/or buy books. Breaking it down into male and female, however, revealed that this 69% was constituted by only 62% of men reading, to 74% of women. Peering further into this 69% by age reveals a fairly stable level of reading for pleasure across all of the cohorts, with 69% of 16 – 24 year old doing so, a fall to 67% of 25 – 34 year olds, 70% from 30 – 74 year olds – before dropping away to 61 % among the over 75s. Perhaps predictably, when mapped onto the Scottish index of multiple deprivation quintiles – 1 being most deprived to 5, least deprived – there is a significant divergence. While 56% of those people coded as most deprived read – 79% of those least deprived do so. A deviation of 23%.

Education undoubtedly plays a part in this. When reading is divided by “highest qualification”, there is a even more marked deviation. If one has a degree, 83% of people are apt to read. Interestingly, that figure doesn’t sink much when the highest qualification is a “higher, A level or equivalent”, with 83% of respondents with such qualifications reading. By contrast, those with no qualifications reported that only 48% of them picked up a novel and gave it a thumbing through.

Of course, the survey doesn’t take into account what folk are reading. It also excludes those under the age of 16, and so can’t tell us how enthusiastic the younger weans are about squinting through their books. The qualitative issue aside, the evidence would suggest that any complaint from the older sections of society that the “young can’t even pick up a book” is false. Other interesting nuggets from the document include that 37% reported visiting a museum or gallery in Scotland over the last 12 months. That 6% of the population amuses itself by writing - and that even if they don't care for reading other people's prose - men are more disposed to scribble than women, 8% to 6%.

With respect to attending cultural events, the report found that 75% of those questioned had attended visual art, film, music, theatre or so on during the last 12 months. Leaving 25% who did bugger all. Going to the cinema proved the most popular with 55% of folk going at least once annually on average. When related to the indicators of deprivation, the least deprived went to the cinema 13% over the average, while the most deprived were 15% below average, with 40% going. This is just one local expression of a sharp theme. Across the study, and attendance at all cultural events, while 60% of those from the most deprived areas had attended anything cultural across the year, among the least deprived this figure is 89%, a radically wide difference of 29%.

Was it what you expected? And why is this true anyway? Although for some people, it is simply a matter of poverty and an inability to meet the costs of access to cultural goods – attitudinal barriers play a part, as do senses of entitlement to public spaces and particular services. It also may raise some questions. For example, only 5% of the population examined indicated that they went to the opera. Similarly, ballet attracted only 5% as well. It is obviously impossible to tell whether these populations overlap, although one might have one’s suspicions. Either way, one cannot confidently say that in total 10% of the Scottish total population like their Nutcrackers and their Aidas.

The merest of explorations, however, reveals the public money which is channelled into the National Companies­ the new National Theatre of Scotland, the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, Scottish Ballet and Scottish Opera. The last two were funded directly by the Scottish Government to the tune of £3,598,022 and £7,896,293 in 2006/2007 respectively, a handsome total of £11,494,315. The figures increased to £4,620,868 and £8,459,091 for 2008/2009 – totalling £13,079,959 – and the indicated but no doubt imperilled plans for 2009/10 and 2010/2011 continue to increase. I’m not making an argument, nor are my greedy paws lingering near the plug, with a manic grin towards the operatically enthusiastic. In point of fact, while I very much enjoy the theatre and try to go regularly, I never tread near ballet or opera. However, I am self-conscious enough to recognise that those preferences are precisely mine and bind others not a jot. I think that the creation of the National Theatre of Scotland was a splendid idea, credit to the previous Labour-Liberal executive for taking it forward. I do, however, find it curious that while the Survey indicates 19% of the population can be coaxed into attending drama – or 35% who attend any theatrical performance including panto and musicals - that the Theatre’s budget is just over half that of the Opera, which respectively seems to interest at most 5% of the public. Or to formulate it another way, a mere quarter of those who may be interested in the National Theatre’s performances.

Of course, to comprehend the wider funding picture, one would have to take into account the funds disbursed by the Scottish Arts Council – or Creative Scotland in the future. Nevertheless, it does raise interesting questions about what should be the basis for funding awards, and what the policy ends? Should popular things be paid for out of public coffers, or should various high-end performances be propped up despite ostensible lack of public enthusiasm based on abstract artistic goods and a broader, “high culture” goal? Alternatively, as opposed to binary questions about money or no money how would we want the allocation to be weighted, and what factors should determine our choices? Should it matter than only a tiny sliver of the Scottish population bothers its posterior with operatic howling or graceful pirouettes?

This takes us back to the much broader question of arts, government, cash and society which we rarely trouble ourselves to consider, while the funding streams quietly and consistently drift by. An important issue for devolution - and given the late debates on Creative Scotland, and a Culture Minister who is less than enthusiastic about the cause he is espousing - these considerations are live. Given imminent spending constraints, it is natural that the choices about how much public money to spend on the arts becomes more focussed than in phases of easy economic vigour. One can expect political eyes fixed on the opportunity cost and clichéd comparisons of hearty bread and butter spending - and showy artistic expense. Such brute crudities are disposed to underestimate the value of the arts, and of investing in cultural capital, but such calculations are unavoidable.

What do you think?

17 July 2009

Holyrood's Civic Carnival!

Its always interesting to see how media outlets – and blogs are no exception – stave off the blandery and gappage entailed by a sleepy news cycle. I’d like to seize this relatively still moment to draw your attention to the Holyrood Parliament’s Festival of Politics running from Tuesday the 18th to Saturday the 22nd of August, in fair Edina.

Although familiar with the ‘brand’, over the past few years various complications and the nagging gremlins of other commitments have prevented me from actually attending anything in Holyrood. Picking up a loitering copy of their programme of events last week, I confess myself honestly surprised by the very real breadth of intellectually elevated issues which the learned visitors will be discussing at the Festival. Here a a few, flavoursome morsels from the broader bill of fare:
Burns’s Radical Voice – Politics and Religion in the Age of Enlightenment
European Court of Human Rights: Friend or Foe?
Architecture and Politics – Clash or Love-in?
Devolution and the Arts: To be yersel’s – and to mak’ that worth bein’
The Politics of Festival
Scotland, Diaspora and Empire: Exploring the Impact
Facebook - the new Democratic Forum?
Prominent academics, substantive subjects, real potential for engaging with interesting ideas. There are any number of the various talks and discussions that I’d be curious in going to. Whether or not I’m going to be sufficiently coordinated to get around to taking in one or two of the sessions, however, remains to be seen. Hope springs eternal in the human breast!

If you are curious, please do check out the programme here and see if there is anything which catches your eye.

15 July 2009

Dr Jekyll and Mr Gray...

Its been a busy time with me. Joyously, and through the heavy half-sunlit clouds, I've been doing some work in brave Edina, ex-Auld Reekie, now polished and gentrified and even more exquisitely middle class. On my wending morning way down towards Stockbridge, I've regularly passed the pub Jekyll and Hyde - named after that bastion of binary Edinburghian dualism - begotten by semi-advocate and indubitable author, Robert Louis Stevenson.

In my waggish way, I could not shake the sensation that I had seen this leering and blue furred phizog of Mr Hyde before... Snaggletoothed, clamp jawed and tetanus gobbed - his terse, unrounded Lothians accent ricocheting off walls as fiercely as a sprung squashball - I suddenly had it! With bizarre synchronicity, and a partisan eye to subliminal manipulation, I realised that the aesthetic model for this boozer's Hyde was none other than the vivid Iain Gray. The likeness, to my mind, is striking. They've got him down pat. Not, of course, that I'd peg Mr Gray for villainy and baseness. And anyway, his coat has none of the glossy healthsome halcyon of this pub's socially hostile, peg-toothed footpad...

13 July 2009

Sheridan: "Not guilty, m'lud!"

Lord President Emslie took a dim view of perjury. In the case of Gerald Hagen v. H.M. Advocate he said that perjury is a crime which “strikes at the very roots of the rule of law and the administration of justice”. The Crown Office claim that the aforesaid Thomas Sheridan tugged at those roots in the course of his defamation action against the News of the World, and in victory, upset the foundations of public justice. In law, perjury is defined in a rounded, commonsensical sort of way as the act of wilfully making a statement in judicial proceedings, under oath, which is false.

As of today, we now have the indictment which Tommy will have to answer. It must make pretty bleak reading. In particular, a few points should be keep in one’s mind, when reviewing press reports and thinking about the context. As folk will probably recall, the News of the World alleged that Tommy indulged himself in rutting escapades. Sheridan denied this in a party-litigant tour de force. With grandiloquent pseudo-proletariaterie, the former MSP convinced a civil jury that he was the tragic victim of a malicious, Murdoch-mandated stitch up. Damages were awarded in the amount of £200,000.

The evidence, however, was notably divergent on several key points. In particular, and for politically curious creatures, particularly interesting – was the meeting of the Scottish Socialist Party “chief equals” on the 9th November 2004. In the course of that august convocation, it was claimed that Sheridan fessed up to his libido-stoked outbursts of lusty clubbing. Who danced attendance at this Executive meeting? The list is long. Including most of the Party’s ex-MSPs and apparatchiks – Allison Kane, Keith Robert Baldassara, Alan William McCombes, Allan Green, Colin Anthony Fox, Barbara Jane Scott, Carolyn Leckie, Catriona Grant, Joanna Harvie, and Rosie Kane - who all flatly insisted that Tommy did admit he got up to extra-marital mischief in Manchester.

Note the legal specificity of the charge. They question ‘did Tommy go to the Manchester coital club’ is not being rehashed and isn’t at issue as crucially as it was during the civil trial. Rather, most of the perjury charges rest on whether he told the rest of his party members that it was true – and subsequently lied to civil jury and court about doing so. Arguably, its of no matter whether citizen Sheridan did or did not go swinging, since the focal point of this bit of the perjury case seems to be on what was said about the swingers club, not the grotesque, pendulous question of whether he swung. However, that aside, other allegations of perjury do engage with this question of marital infidelity, in particular, in relation to the alleged affair with Anvar Begum Khan and Katrine Trolle.

Perhaps the most potentially interesting – and unexpected – narrative section of the indictment comes right at the beginning. In addition to the charges of perjury, Sheridan is also to face an allegation of attempting to suborn perjury. The subornee? Colin Fox. The evocative setting? The Beanscene 67 Holyrood Road. The date: 18th June 2006. It is suggested that, well-knowing what Fox would say from the witness box, Sheridan attempted to induce Fox to disclaim the minutes of the controversial SSP Executive meeting as false. Presumably, the event of the 18th was a private affair – my word against his over skinny lattes - unless Fox had the cunning and secretive foresight to tuck a voice recorder down his codpiece for the duration.

It seems clear, even at this stage, that the Crown case will focus its red-hot attention on this SSP Executive Meeting. For those of you who pine for socialists circa 2003, expect to see the promenade of fierce dames from the SSP marching in and out of Glasgow’s High Court. Expect a sparky encounter. After all, if Tommy is telling the truth – the coordinated phalanx of perjurers is on the other side and Sheridan as the impugned honest man is cast as the stoical victim of machination and intrigue. Tactically, this is cunning stuff from the Crown Office. The meeting seems the least probable part of Sheridan’s case, assuming that the majority of witnesses were being even averagely honest and that in fact, no sly socialist fraudulence was in motion. So a different jury will decide, and given the onus of the indictment, ostensibly on rather different issues.

Whatever the decision, the coverage will be vivid, courtroom drama stuff. Given that a conviction on any count almost guarantees Sheridan a jail term, I’m sure that is sharply focussing his mind. On the evidence at hand, however, it doesn’t seem rosy for Tommy. Although one jury must have accepted his version of events – in particular of the contested meeting – there is no guarantee another will do the same. Particularly since the ‘opponent’ isn’t the scabrous News of the World, who are always worth a good, civilised kicking.

For those of you who enjoy interminable successions of words without punctuation – and want the detail sans my blawging prose, the Herald have the full text of the Sheridans’ indictment here.

12 July 2009

Breaching the peace in intolerant Scotland...

I’m starting to dread idiosyncratic headlines with the words “breach of the peace” in the title. Last year it was a bloke having sex with his bike in a bed and breakfast when a brace of Ayr-based cleaning dames battered their way into his room in order to have their peace sexually interrupted. Every year, it is the naked rambler Steve Gough. This week, apparently, it’s the now ex-Principal of Aberdeen College who was charged with breach earlier this year due to “inappropriate clothes” that prompted “complaints from residents”. The mercy of this case is that Angus will not now make an appearance in Aberdeen Sheriff Court, the matter having been dealt with by the Procurator Fiscal. Unlike the aforementioned cyclesexualist, who was subject to the full patronising process of judicial examination and punishment.

Discretion and embarrassment being what it is, facts in these circumstances are difficult to come by. Vague innuendo prevails, with nudges and winks. Since the facts matter, one should obviously be a touch cautious about overzealous outrage and precipitous condemnation. Nevertheless, the skeletal detail about Mr Angus’ arrest does not augur well. While BBC & Scotsman had almost no detail, the Herald – in an article headlining “Man avoids court over charged linked to ‘cross-dressing’ - got a little more explicit.

Sayeth “Scotland’s leading quality daily newspaper”, “Police were called to his Newburgh home after complaints from local residents, who were said to have taken offence to him allegedly wearing women’s clothes outside his house. After an investigation he was charged with breach of the peace …” Coaxing one of these neighbours into speculation, the Herald reporter induced the “woman in her 50s” to reveal that she believed the complaints had involved three neighbours. “His neighbours claimed to have seen him wandering around in women’s clothes a few times. They’re supposed to have been beautiful tops and skirts. It all started off last year when he was supposedly seen walking around the house in them.” A gobsworth, identified as a friend of one of these neighbours continued “At one point he was supposedly wearing a basque in the window. And another he walked up the street with silky knickers and tights on. When we first heard the rumour he was dressing in women’s clothes, we thought it was funny – he could have been practicing his lines for pantomime for all we know.But then it started to become too much and they decided to call the police in.”

Clearly a flagrant breacher of public serenity then. One had to pull one’s net curtains all the way open, lean out, squint through binoculars – to see the 61 year old chap, done up in his swanky lingerie in his own house. None of what is outlined is, to my mind, even remotely a matter for public order concern, never mind police action. Would these neighbours have responded in the same way if it was a woman wearing the silky knickers and tights? Not knowing the minds and characters of rural Aberdeenshire in general, nor Newburgh in particular – I wouldn’t care to guess. However, when low-grade, narrow-skulled rural numpties find an individual’s clothing selection eccentric – and sufficiently upsetting in all good conscience to enforce their stern-sphinctered gender fixations by calling in the polis – then I get concerned.

I stress – it is perfectly possible that Angus got up to something else which was more offensive than the speculative, fourth-hand account given in the Herald suggests. The out-of-court disposal of the case would suggest otherwise. Indeed, if something graver was indicated, I imagine one of the neighbours might be able to dredge up something giddier when questioned. Their silence may well speak to their regrets. If there really is nothing more to it than a chap wandering down the street in improbable underthings, they should repent. Seriously. Equally, so too should the rest of us, who allow such apparently vindictive, narrow, smug, canting, pious, Presbyterian prudery to retain any purchase in our public life and animate the chastising discipline of state officers. That a man wearing "women's clothes" should be sufficiently interesting to induce the police to come chapping is appalling.

To quote old Tom Nairn, half quoting Diderot, Scotland won’t be free until the last church minister has been strangled with the last copy of The Sunday Post....

9 July 2009

Voices from America...

Trickily busy for the rest of the week, so I thought I might keep everyone entertained and informed by mentioning a few vivid and engaging articles that have caught my eye from the American press over the past week or so.

First up is Abbas Milani writing in The New Republic about Iranian theocracy and Shiism in an article entitled “The New Democrats”. While I’m not in a position to evaluate the veracity of Milani’s thesis, it’s a splendidly informative and interesting analysis which I felt I learned much from reading.

Secondly, and more light-heartedly, I give you Todd Purdum in Vanity Fair and his overview of the improbable case of failed Vice-Presidential Sarah Palin - darkly and suggestively entitled “It Came from Wassila”… Finally, and sticking with Vanity Fair, I found this article by Christopher Hitchens – atheistic, Washington-based brother of Peter – on Gordon Brown and the British Labour Party. Part of the interest of the piece is that it is written for a primarily American audience, but draws heavily on Hitchens’ own experiences and anterior political commitments in Britain. "To see oursels as ithers see us" and all that... Enjoy!

8 July 2009

A peaty century!

Just a short post (for once...) to belatedly celebrate my first century of posts on his blog. I'm pleased that the place of honour was given over to H.M. Advocate v. Megrahi and the Lockerbie Case. Its a serious subject - one which should vex the ethics and attract the attention of all Scots. Its just the kind of issue which I hoped I might be able to say a little something about, when I made my first tentative posts here at the end of January.

I confess, when I was starting out I was unsure whether the peaty layer would prove rich enough, or my own enthusiasm and creativity would withstand the pressures. While it should be pretty plain that I don't find waxing lyrical (and interminable) particularly difficult - I appreciate those of you who've taken the time to make comments or read my often wending and wayweary postings. Its been a useful - and cathartic - learning process.

I'm also pleased to say that the number of readers has expanded somewhat during these germinal stages, with June being our busiest month so far, by far. So here is to the century! I've sure I've enough puff for a few more...

7 July 2009

A Lockerbie transfer? MacAskill's dilemma...

The press are calling it a “prisoner transfer agreement”. In the brass-voiced, trumpeting rhetoric of international diplomacy, however, it is the Treaty between the Government of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and the Great Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya on the Transfer of Prisoners.

I kid ye not. Such backhand agreements are the common stuff of international cooperation. Why does this particular treaty matter? The answer is simple, and is represented in sum by the solitary, sickly figure of Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed Al Megrahi, sitting as I write and you read in the confines of Greenock Prison.

The implication of the Treaty? The human consequence is on one level simple. The Cabinet Secretary for Justice, Kenny MacAskill must decide whether or not to transfer Megrahi to Libya to serve out the rest of his sentence. Firstly, however, lets look at what the treaty itself says. Amongst other qualifications, Article 3(c) requires that the judgement under which the prisoner is incarcerated is ‘final’. As a result, in order to fall within the ambit of the agreement, the ongoing appeal in the Lockerbie case would have to be dropped. A request for the transfer of Megrahi has now been lodged, the application being received on May 5th 2009. Article 5(2) of the Treaty provides that the decision should “normally” be reached with 90 days of the request. By my reckoning, this gives the Cabinet Secretary till the beginning of August to reach his decision. Alternatively, he could take more time if he required it. Given the monumental pressures involved, he may feel the need of it. But time is a’wasting.

The Scottish Government news release states that

“The application is now being determined on its merits in line with the Agreement and relevant legislation by the Cabinet Secretary for Justice who will take all relevant considerations into account.”
The Treaty agreement is noticeably thin on what the indicated criteria are which might govern Mr MacAskill’s decision. Reference is made to being “prepared in principle” to transfer prisoners, but what the informing norms and ideas are which might constitute that principle are not accounted for. Not, of course, that the Cabinet Secretary will be in wont of candidates for inclusion in his judgement. I do not envy his position.

What sort of principles should we apply? Should Mr MacAskill ponder the evidentiary doubts around the conviction? Alternatively, should the reported cancer of Megrahi’s prostate influence his decision? Or on the conviction itself, should family feeling play some determining role? Or should the particular ghastliness of the crime he was convicted for weigh with the Justice Secretary? What might a philosophical answer to this be? What the determining principles?

It is all too easy for such difficult decisions to become a mush of incoherence. Much of this depends on how – perhaps implicitly, impressionistically – MacAskill defines relevant considerations. In the shadowy corners, off the record, I expect that international éminances grise are vying to apply effective pressure on him. At past FMQs, Alex Salmond insisted that political or economic considerations would not come into it - referring to the “judicial grounds” which would resolve the decision. I don’t much care for politicians playing at being judges, pulling long faces and affecting sonorous manners. Given the exposed position the Government finds itself in however, I can forgive them a little play acting, and the comfort of a costume. Expect to hear metaphors of balance, as if Kenny could simply resolve his mind using easy, objective scales of judgement. Unfortunately for him, there aren’t any. While the press coverage has been relatively low key – and the blogging reflection on this important issue nigh non-existent – all of that can change in an instant.

While he may feign judicial insouciance, denying political considerations, they are there. Arguably, they ought to be there. One doesn’t need to be a feminist to realise that the personal is political, and that a vast quantity of our public life is colonised by political, contestable, debateable ideas. As it very much should be. Being judicious cannot lend anyone objective gravity or simply guarantee that they’re doing the right thing. Beauteous reason is disposed to be less categorical than some folk tend to desire.

That being so, I’d be honestly surprised if MacAskill assented to the transfer of Mr Megrahi. The Herald this morning suggests that Mr MacAskill is expected to allow Megrahi to return to Tripoli”. I’m not so sure. What is to be gained? Libyan good will? I’m sure we could survive without it. Would it improve Mr Megrahi’s life? Arguably, what should that matter to him? Kenny will, presumably, start from the premise that the prisoner is guilty. Whatever doubters might say or however persuasive they find their reasoning. Those are the judicial grounds. Why alleviate the pains of a guilty man? I could give you many good reasons. However, how weighty will these be - a great act of charity to one man – when arranged alongside the resonant voices of those who have lost family members and friends, who insist on his continued incarceration in Scotland? The media have musical ears. Which notes do you suppose they will find easier to identify with? Which melodies will move them more profoundly?

I wouldn’t generally credit MacAskill as a man with the Wisdom of Solomon. Yet I suspect he will detect that he has far more to lose by transferring Megrahi than to gain by it. For those doubters I mentioned, including Robert Black, this must be a difficult situation to judge. In particular, if vindicating the truth means anything, surely the appeal should proceed. Since there is no all-seeing goddess who notes all slights and remembers all wrongs, our poor vision of justice is all we have. Even the creeping imminence of death should not be permitted to draw an exculpatory veil over our failures, our errors, or our injustices. Christian’s talk of witnessing. Given the evidentiary basis for Megrahi’s conviction, this may be a touchy metaphor. Nevertheless, in a godless world, we are under an obligation to bear witness to human justice, frankly, sceptically. We simply must.