30 January 2010

Painful memories of a flat-footed wean...

I got a phenomenal early education in a very small, rural, Scottish state primary school. Many of its virtues were attributable to teachers of above-average talent and intelligence who shepherded the school’s 30-odd students towards the elements of literacy, numeracy; creativity and learning.

My enthusiastic recollection of these women does not extend, however, to the vengeful harpy who thrust skipping ropes into our wee hands or goaded us across the scrub as fast as our little feet would carry us. She looked like a carrot subject to vengeful tanning procedures; her contorted, tyrannical features perennially set like a mummified scrotum. This beldam was not terrifically keen on yours truly, that melancholy fact owing to my persistent failure to dash fleetly, to skip, to forward roll – unforgivable sins in a child. Come the yearly suffering of Sports Day, my class stood to our marks – all four of us. Flat feet generated a flat pace – and I invariably lurched across the line at the rump of the column. My fellows would snag stickers proudly proclaiming them #1st ! #2nd ! #3rd ! … while my non-optimal performance was annually honoured by another rosette reading – I kid ye not – “Well done, you finished the race!

The position of #4th is, as a result, a comfortable and familiar one for me. And I’m cheerful to note that old familiar has recurred in the SNP/Cybernat category of the Scotsblogs Awards 2010.
My thanks to all and any who cast their votes for me. The full roll of nationalistic honour is as follows...

1. SNP Tactical Voting

2. J Arthur Macnumpty

3. Go Lassie Go

4. Lallands Peat Worrier

5= Indygal Goes to Holyrood

5= Subrosa

7. Ian Hamilton QC

8. The Universality of Cheese

9. Calum Cashley

10. Bella Caledonia

29 January 2010

World ceilidh!

Some of you might recall Sunday Herald journalist Paul Hutcheon’s ad hoc fizzily hostile column that appeared in that publication last August. Attacking what he styled “Salmond’s Cod Nationalism”, the piece roved and raved - and at the time, shook up a bees’ nest of comment, critique and reply. Young Malcolm Harvey had a particularly good, section-by-section look (and rebuke) of the argument Hutcheon presented. At the time, I thought to use the vision of nationalism which Hutcheon espoused as a leaping-off point for a bit more detailed, alternative account of the features of my own nationalist inclinations – but the article mysteriously slipped from internet availability and hasn’t migrated over to Herald Scotland. The intention lapsed. Weltanshauung went unelaborated.

These thoughts involuntarily returned to me last night as I watched (and spun) in internationalist Eightsome Reels which hooched into skirling Dashing White Sergeants and blundered into slightly bruised but spry Strip the Willow sets. Folk from across the globe, who I suppose had never been to a ceilidh in their life before, gamely set to. Indeed, there were only a flourish of Scots in the room, stoating about in full kilted fig. Humorous disasters not infrequently followed, but good fun was had by all. All of this fell on the heels of a Burns Night celebration, with its haunting apposite (and for me, invariably moving) refrain, "Its coming yet for a' that / That Man to Man the world o'er / Shall brothers be for a' that." Quite how much of Burns’ immortal memory this event impressed on these (relatively) youthful minds from across the globe I couldn’t say – but there was an unerring sense in the dancing that followed that we were doing ‘a man’s a man for a’ that’, not just mouthing the epithets. Would-be dignity savers stood around gloomy and stiff – for the rest, unbending, there was the brute materiality of grasping arms and hands and fingers, rhythmic inclusion and expression. Although at times I find his peat worrying tendencies a bit wearing, Perthshire folkie Dougie MacLean wrote a song about just this egalitarian, levelling, elevating capacity of communal dance, entitled ‘All Together’. Although the temporarily dissolving social divisions which inspired MacLean were primarily those of class, this finds expression in a humanist lyric which resonates profoundly with yesterday’s curious ceilidh floor.

Anyone who has spent any time in one of the country’s larger universities, particularly at graduate level, will find their social field populated by persons from innumerable nations. This contrasts, almost to comic extremes, with my early childhood, which was spent in the rural West Coast. Certainly, one would encounter the occasional, temporary, isolated adult soul from Australia, South Africa, New Zealand – but all of the folk my own age were white and Scottish. Later, I lived in the Netherlands for a year, often being startled on a personal level when common sense, under-informed humanism on my part thumped into Dutch self-consciousness, their storied and alternative accounts of themselves. In any discussion about nationalism and its merits or demerits, I’m always interested in exploring the speaker’s experiences of other places and peoples. Not in the spirit of a cheap ad hominem – not even because such experiences will justify or defeat a nationalist account of politics – but because they invariable fertilise the human experience underwriting discussion. For my own part, one of the reasons I called this blog (probably unhelpfully obscurely) Lallands Peat Worrier was because that peaty sentiment often underwrites an account of nationalism with which I’m profoundly uncomfortable. Although broadly harmless in folk songs, talk of the love of our land's sacred rights will invariable make me fidget something awful, usually followed by an attempt on my part to hasten the succession to the love of our people as quickly as is possible. In this context, I was particularly struck by a small, largely unnoticed section of the Maximum Eck’s recent Edinburgh Lecture, Choosing Scotland’s Future. Quoting Hugh MacDairmid (writing as Christopher Murray Grieve) in Albyn or Scotland and the Future, Salmond said the following…

“Grieve’s examination of Scotland's future from the perspective of 1927 is interesting for revealing both where progress has been made - and where it hasn’t been made. For example he complained that, quote: ‘A passenger bridge and vehicle bridge across the Forth is refused to Scotland by Englishmen, but Scots must contribute towards the £7,000,000 or £8,000,000 granted for a bridge across the Thames.’ Time moves on.

Now of course, it is not an Englishman but a Scotsman in Downing Street who is hindering us from financing the Forth Bridge development in the most effective manner through long term loan finance; and, indeed, someone, as a Scot, in Downing Street who believes that the London Olympic Games should be financed by the whole United Kingdom, but the Glasgow Commonwealth Games should be financed by the Scottish Government and City of Glasgow Council alone. But that underlines how the debate about Scotland's future has nothing to do with nationality or antagonism. It has everything to do, in my view, with achieving sensible constitutional structures that will lead to sensible decisions.”

Interesting also to see here where the Eck (Maxissimus Mirabile Dictu) deviated and fiddled with his script on the hoof, when the spoken remarks are compared to the issued text of the speech. In particular, the surprising section – nothing to do with nationality – reads in draft ‘And that underlines how the debate about Scotland's future has nothing to do with antagonism towards other nations. Of course, what constitutes a ‘sensible’ decision is subject to deviating preferences, but in the shadow of the Chilcot Inquiry, we need not strain mental sinew to begin composing our list. To that we may quickly add the continuing detention of children following brutal raids that come with the dawn. For an extensive (indeed, very impressively thorough) account of the cares which ought to animate seekers after a more virtuous Scottish republic, have a read of Power and Its Minions’ interesting Scots colony theory. This is justice in small places, close to home. Although the essential human, reeling and laughing in a world ceilidh compels, and I'd say, imparts an important lesson - the workmanlike unities of the nation remain indispensable (at least for the present) and a potent, pragmatic basis on which to ground our aspirations for a just republic.

27 January 2010


The good news is that a more pacific spirit has instigated a coup against the ruling kleptocracy that has of late been presiding in my belly. The body politick responsible for drafting the epistles that appear here is thus restored to its traditional, harmonious constitution. Which is all to the good. That said, the rest of my week will be spent making sure that I've fully committed to the blank sheet of memory Robert Burns' Address to a Haggis before delivering the rousing, culinary ode to the assembled come Friday. To that effect, lest anyone hasn't seen it, I wanted to mention a BBC wheeze of last year, in celebration of the 250th anniversary of Burns' birth. Various warm-voiced actors and brass-throated orators came together to create an archive of his poetry, not rendered in simple text, but accompanied by warm, mellifluous recordings. There are now 410 works distilled in this collection.

25 January 2010

Views from the vomitorium...

Urk. A bilious lurgy as claimed me and my guts are in a sorry state. You’ll forgive me, therefore, if I don’t spend much time squinting at the computer screen this morning, constricted by nausea. Regular readers may recall a while back that I discussed the new UK Supreme Court, its political carpet – and its new Unionist steer. At the end of that semiotic journey through a contemporary re-imagining of British constitutional institutions, I referred to a report that was being compiled by the University of Edinburgh’s Professor Neil Walker. His Final Appellate Jurisdiction in the Scottish Legal System report was finally published on the 22nd of January and contains much to satisfy neither legal nationalists, nor those with a fudging political Unionism in mind. Although I’m not sufficiently chipper to compose my thoughts, over at the UK Supreme Court blog (Yes indeed, there is such a thing. How a la mode has the judicial pillar of our state become!) Scots QC Aidan O’Neill (of late referenced on the ongoing asbestos Act litigation) discusses some of the constitutional and political ambivalences implicated in the document. Hopefully I’ll reclaim ownership over my gastric tract imminently.

22 January 2010

Assisted dying: Catholic legal bunkum

Where to begin? The debate on assisted dying and the End of Life Assistance (Scotland) Bill will be an interesting – and extended one. For the moment, I just wanted to return to the question of parliament’s legal entitlement to legislate along the lines that Margo outlined. Although it received little coverage in the media – and I think nobody but yours truly mentioned it in the blogosphere – Care Not Killing attempted to silence Holyrood on the basis of the European Convention on Human Rights and the limitations it imposes on the Scottish Parliament’s legislative competence. Now the Catholic Church is up to the same enterprise. Per the Hootsmon this morning, apparently there...

“... is anger within the Catholic hierarchy that the bill has been allowed to proceed at all. It has received a certificate of competency from Presiding Officer Alex Fergusson – that means it has been judged by parliamentary lawyers as legal for MSPs to vote it through as legislation.”

The Catholic Church spokesman proceeded to style the Presiding Officer’s declaration as “extremely concerning”. It is all very well to make a political argument – lets do this, lets not do that - but these counterfeit and manipulative legalisms are simply contemptible. This po-faced concern is prompted not by questions about legal precedent - but about the moral implications, as the spokesman seems to see it, of people being permitted to determine their own fatal destiny. Its about crossing a “moral boundary that no society should ever breach”, on his conception. Yet this concern finds expression in an occluding mist of bogus legalism which it will be my pleasure to dissipate. Said the spokesman, sadly misguided...

“Ultimately, it is questionable whether the Scottish Parliament even has the power to legislate in this area,” the spokesman said. “The European Convention on Human Rights recognises the right to life as inalienable, that is, it cannot be removed by any authority or relinquished by any person.”

Contemptible, primarily because any examination of the jurisprudence on the European Convention provides one with no good-faith legal basis to reach the religious jurisprude’s conclusions. In response to Care Not Killing, I wrote up the following, rebutting their legal claims with particular examples. I’d direct my same little sting at the argument made by the Catholic hierarchy in Scotland. Its bogus. Moreover, I’d characterize it as a symptom of weakness, not strength’s full expression. While there is an approach to argumentation that believes every stone should be thrown, every rhetorical handful of gravel flung, most folk recognise that choices must be made about the strategic gist of an argument. What submissions will compel. Which combination of arguments is the most robust, the least internally defeating. Surely, if one felt that one’s arguments about elemental morality were likely to persuade the chamber, you’d make those arguments – not resort to discussion-defying expedients, attempting to enforce a legal silence – which can only insult the tribunes’ sense of their dignity and authority. And of course, fail on the law, as I’m convinced their case must fail in law.

Off the top of my head, the 2001 Census found that Catholics represented a slim 15.68% of the population. Of course, in Catholic, dogmatic moral science – the cardinal et al. think they’ve got special access to objective truth, objective morality. God wrote it all down for them, pat. There need be no representative anxieties on their part, therefore. Such arguments will not be constrained to the agents of the Roman hierarchy. I firmly anticipate religiosity to be at the fore of the debate on this one. Given how ambivalent, generally speaking, we are about arguments of piety in public life – this may be just the place, strategically speaking, that Margo wants opposition to be.

21 January 2010

Margo introduces assisted dying Bill...

The End of Life Assistance (Scotland) Bill (as it is now styled) was introduced by Margo MacDonald in the Scottish Parliament this morning. The BBC has some compelling footage of Margo, explaining her views. An index of relevant legislative materials is to be got here. A copy of the bill as introduced may be consulted here. Also, civil servants have produced an explanatory commentary on the proposed sections and an extensive policy memorandum alongside. On page fifteen of the explanatory notes, we also find the Presiding Officer’s statement on the legality of the proposed measure, Alex Fergusson rebuffing previous attempts by Care Not Killing to squelch discussion of the Bill on the shoogliest of legal bases, that it is beyond the competence of Holyrood under the Scotland Act. Not so, said Fergusson –

“In my view, the provisions of the End of Life Assistance (Scotland) Bill would be within the legislative competence of the Scottish Parliament.”
I’m a trifle busy this afternoon, so have only been able to snatch the quickest of glances through the documents, in particular the accompanying policy discussion and the arguments adduced therein (and equally significantly, what arguments are not made). This is a theme to which I have the firm intention of returning to in the near future.

For those of you who may not have stumbled across my previous analyses of the subject, both politically and legally, there is reams and reams of prose on point to be found in this category.

20 January 2010

Scots criminalisation of HIV transmission...

Intimacy and Responsibility: The Criminalisation of HIV Transmission was published in 2007 and written by Matthew Weait, a socio-legal academic at Birkbeck, University of London. For anyone interested in the area, it is an interesting jurisprudential overview, and simultaneously, a critical exposition of the suppositions underlying apparently straightforward public claims about guilt, responsibility – and criminalisation – of HIV transmission.

How to we think of harms? How do courts distinguish criminally actionable harms from those we leave unlitigated? What about risks and consenting to be subject to them? All of these issues are tangled into this story of Mark Devereaux’s conviction in
Scotland on four counts of reckless endangerment. The conduct on which these charges were based on Devereaux having unprotected sex with four women, having previously been diagnosed with human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). While all four of these women were subject to the risks of transmission, only one woman, with whom Devereaux had a six month relationship, was subsequently confirmed to be HIV positive during pregnancy. He has not yet been sentenced.

To put the charge in its context, the general charges of reckless endangerment of the lieges and culpable and reckless injury criminalise any number of diverse undertakings. A quick flick through the Stair Memorial Encyclopedia yields the following examples

“… recklessly driving a horse and cart or other vehicle, recklessly navigating a ship, recklessly throwing or dropping a glass bottle from a high building, recklessly discharging firearms, recklessly releasing a dangerous animal, and recklessly burning stubble in a field, all in a manner and in circumstances which endanger the public … administration of cantharides to women (presumably as an aphrodisiac and not as a diuretic or vesicant); the administration of alcohol or other narcotic to young children; the removal of a dangerously ill person from his sick-bed, compelling persons to leave a ship embedded in ice; denying to a police officer about to conduct a search of one's clothing that one had a sharp object in that clothing, with the result that the officer was injured by that object…”

The first person in the UK to be convicted of an offence related to HIV transmission was Stephen Kelly, charged with and convicted of causing reckless injury in 2001. The 2007 case of Giovanni Mola attracted significant public attention at the time, and resulted in Mola being sent to prison for 9 years. It remains to be seen what tariff will be imposed on Devereaux. What do we think about it? Certainly, if you read Lord Hodge’s condemnatory obiter during sentencing in H.M. Advocate v. Giovanni Mola “… what you did to Miss X was chillingly callous and showed an utter indifference to her welfare…” Please note, I'm not suggesting by any manner of means that allegations of this sort are impossible, that we could scour the face of the globe and yield no examples. That said, tabloids are contemptible enthusiasts for this sort of account and discourse, the accused depicted as inhuman, premeditated, his inner life and the complexities of real life stripped of their uncertainties, their weaknesses. The Daily Record carries a classic example of the genre in its commentary on the case this morning.

That said, this is a detailed problem. Ought mere failure to disclose an HIV status to constitute culpably reckless conduct? What efficacy, if any, should wearing a condom have in exculpating a person when HIV transmission nevertheless occurs? This is a legal question, but it is not just a legal question. Lord Hodge again, from his sentencing statement,

“I do not consider that you can be criminally culpable and reckless on the ground only that you did not disclose your viral status … Non-disclosure of viral status and then sexual intimacy when using a condom may expose a partner to a relatively small risk of infection to which she has not consented. But medical practitioners are no doubt very aware of the damage to an infected individual caused by social isolation…it is not for me to judge the medical advice that you received…”

So, what is the law? What is in, what out? Change the fact-pattern just a little. Mola went out of his way to convince his partner to dispense with the prophylactic. Say he hadn’t, say they’d employed one – and transmission had nevertheless occurred. Hodge’s remarks seem to suggest that this may have operated as a defence – perhaps indicating the absence of recklessness. So much for the law – what about morally, is that blameworthy conduct? Even if it is blameworthy, is that sufficiently so to warrant prosecution and length prison sentences? Tweak the facts again. Say that the accused does disclose a known HIV status and proceeds to have unprotected sex. Criminal? Generally speaking, consent is no defence when an illegal act is subsequently prosecuted (as discussed at length in the celebrated case, in scrotum-tightening detail, of R v. Brown). If so, however unimportant it would prove in the ordinary life and in the ordinary bedrooms of people, the effect of such a law would be to absolutely prohibit sexual encounters if one of the people was HIV positive. (There are, as I understand it, also other complexities. There are different strains of HIV. As such, two HIV partners cannot necessarily engage in unprotected sex with impunity, as might be supposed if we imagine HIV along binary lines). And of course, a prohibition on such intercourse would effectively prohibit everything which flows from that – conception, childbearing, childrearing. Of course, its important to realise the large-scale autonomy of the social from the dry detail of the legal – of course, in the circumstances I’ve mention, folk will be able to bear children if they desire. Equally, however, is this a satisfying standard for our law to enshrine and dignify? I think not.

After all of this, reflect on the Devereaux case again. On your philosophy of criminalisation, on your theoretical justification for state sanction, is exposing someone to risk of HIV transmission a harm worth prosecuting? Is it truly the parallel of firing a blunderbuss in a crowded room, but miraculously, no soul was struck by the shrapnel? In three out of the four counts against Devereaux, no transmission occurred. Ought this to matter, legally, morally?

Numerous other issues can be ranked alongside these. In particular, there is a concern that if criminal recklessness relies on the accused’s HIV status being confirmed by medical science – wont those concerned at such prosecutions simply not get tested, recklessly avoiding allegations of criminal recklessness? Personally, I’m not persuaded that the level of legal consciousness is sufficiently high for this to be an overweening concern, but one must admit, it presents a sly mechanism for creative compliance which ought not to be encouraged. In this context, in response to these uncertainties (I’d say both morally and legally), that voices are speaking up from HIV Scotland and the National AIDS Trust, calling for clarification. Deborah Jack, Chief Executive of NAT recommends “that the Scottish Executive change the law so that people with HIV cannot be charged with culpable and reckless conduct if no transmission took place.” On a slightly different tack, with a slightly different public authority in view, HIV Scotland in the person of its Chief Executive, Roy Kilpatrick, said the following...

“We are particularly worried about the fact that prosecutions were brought in this case in respect of three sexual partners of Mr Devereaux who had not contracted HIV. We recognise that the primary motivation for bringing this prosecution must have been the actual transmission of HIV and that the prosecution would have felt it necessary to put the full context before the court. However, it would be alarming if the charges brought in this case open the door for future prosecutions in cases where no harm has been caused.”

Ending on a debbiepurdyesque point, Kilpatrick called for clarity in the prosecuting guidelines. In some respect, what is really sought is clarity in the law as much as anything else. Perhaps a Lord Advocate’s Reference – where points of law are put to the Court in the abstract, sans a particular accused and a particular victim – may be the very thing to sort this out. It’s a sufficiently knotty issue that I doubt Parliament and Ministers would want to touch it with the proverbial bargepole.

19 January 2010

Reviewing the Scottish Left

The Scottish Left Review was established in 2000, styles itself ‘a journal of the left in Scotlandand appears bi-monthly. While published in full online, I find that for those of us increasingly disposed to consult material digitally, unlike the easy page-thumbing of paper and the accidental encounter, it can be easy to overlook sources which don’t give you a prod and announce their presence. For those of us whose browsings are governed by our blog connections, consulting the SLR just got a whole lot easier, the servitors at their end having activated the familiar forms of syndication which knot us all together.

For those of you who haven’t consulted the Review before, here is a taster of issue 56, on which the ink is still wet. For those of you keen on a reflective, leftie approach to Scots politics, this may be of interest. I’d strongly encourage you to add it to your links, to whit, I’ve noted the Atom and RSS references at the foot of the post. In other tittletattle of like sort, I gather that the Scots blogosphere will soon be gaining a clutch of boon, Greenie commentators, a few of their alfalpha males having banded together to form the self-effacingly entitled Bright Green Scotland. I look on with interest.

Whae’s Like Us?

In Issue 56 we launch a year-long look at other small countries and regions which have similarities to Scotland to explore if there are lessons Scotland can learn – and to try to do something to bridge the political isolation that Scotland suffers in international terms. In this issue we have an analysis of the state of politics in Iceland by party group chairman for the Movement, a member of the Icelandic Parliament, activist and poet Birgitta Jónsdóttir. We also have an overview of left politics in Holland by Tiny Kox, Senator for the Socialist Party in the First Chamber of the Dutch States-General.

In each issue of the Scottish Left Review in 2010 we will include at least one similar article from countries around the world.

Also Margaret and Jim Cuthbert on how PFI criticisms have turned out to be correct and that mistakes are being repeated by the current Scottish Government; Tom Nairn on the Scottish nation as an expression of trends embracing the whole globe; Daniel Gray on the popular response to his study of Scots volunteers in the Spanish Civil War; Carole Ewart on UN Human Rights Treaties and public expenditure priorities; Jim Phillips examines the devolution campaign and asks What now? It’s time to shake off forty years of establishment manipulation says Andy Anderson.

Subscribe to SLR



18 January 2010

Speaking Braxfield Scots...

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been reading about a certain 18th century Scottish judge, Lord Braxfield (1722 – 1799). Described by Henry Cockburn as the ‘Jeffreys of Scotland’, while sitting as a criminal judge in Edinburgh’s High Court of Justiciary, Braxfield sent Deacon William Brodie to be throttled by his own gallows and ordered the Scottish Martyrs to Botany Bay for their agitation for popular enfranchisement and reform of the constitution. He was a rough fellow, ruddily fond of his drink, crackling with diabolical mirth. Robert Louis Stevenson is said to have been exercised by a particular curiosity towards this scaly old Edinburgh coelacanth, famously adapting him into Lord Justice-Clerk Adam Weir in his unfinished novel of 1896, Weir of Hermiston. One aspect of this interest derived from Braxfield’s tone of voice, his accent and vocabulary. Said Cockburn, ‘his accent and his dialect were exaggerated Scotch; his language, like his thoughts, short, strong, and conclusive.’ While David Hume nervously footered with his Scotticisms and Edinburgh was instructing itself in the proper English elocution, the brisk authenticity of Braxfield has its charms, a fossil of old Scotland. One amusing anecdote of the difficulties his brogue could pose is handed down to us from Braxfield’s egregious sedition trial of the English radical Maurice Margarot in the 1790s.

To Margarot, Braxfield barked, ‘Hae ye ony coonsel, man?'
Quoth Margarot: ‘No’
Braxfield: ‘Dae ye want to hae ony appointit?’
Margarot: ‘No, I only want an interpreter to make me understand what your lordship says.’

He came to my mind this morning as I took a closer look at the recent research, published by the Scottish Government, whose stated intention was “…to explore public perceptions of, and attitudes towards, the Scots language amongst the general public of Scotland.” Any student of social change must regard it as a curiosity how history presides over social and cultural shifts, as different dignities and snobberies supplant and reverse each other. Scots used to be the language of the Court of Session and of the ermined Lord President and his enrobed companions in law. How things do change.

The study asked 1,020 members of the adult population – defined as 16 years or more – various questions about their definition of Scots – is it a language, is it slang, is it just a way of speaking? If you do speak Scots, where do you do it? What should be the place of Scotticisms in the education of children? Should it be encouraged or quashed? What other aspects of public life should Scots feature in, or feature more strongly? Familiar categories are imposed on the data, including suspicious judgements about respondents ‘socio-economic group’.

The study has much to be interested in about how people use language and where it is deemed to be appropriate, even Scots as symbolic of a relaxed, intimate setting – of friends and family. The research puts some empirical flesh on the bones of this idea. In response to a past post on the significance of accent in Scottish politics, one anonymous commentator, rather chiding me for a particular formulation I employed, eloquently pointed out that

“Salmond gets away with using different amounts of broad-ness for the same reason the rest of us do: because we've done it for centuries. For centuries, the educated have used English in public, and Scots (accent, dialect, or language) to their family and close company. I'm sure you even do this today, speaking much more broadly with strangers than with kin.”

On how often they use ‘Scots’, the responses are strategic. 43% say that speak Scots a lot or fairly often, 29% claim never or rarely to do so. In total, 85% of the total claim to speak Scots nowadays, some of the time. Compare this of the use of Scots when writing – and a whopping 68% of respondents said they never did so – the numbers claiming to be regular Scots scribers shrinking to a mere 6% of the total. Definitions are obviously problematic – am I writing Scots if I employ the word ‘furth’, or ‘outwith’? The issue here runs to the unarticulated nub of the questionnaire – how to define Scots itself?

On this point, 64% of the sample did not think that Scots was a language. Equally, the majority sharply reject the idea that Scots is slang, 63% of the total disagreeing with that idea, 40% of them strongly disagreeing. Asking the 867 of respondents who ever speak Scots, the researchers then asked where the respondents use it. Overall, folk mainly employed Scots in domestic and sociable settings – 69% doing so when socialising with their cronies, 63% at home with the family – while only 25% said they ever did so at work.

Although by no means a learned creature in linguistics, I’ve spoken to one in the past about how to analyse Scots, English and how they connect. Difficult questions of accent, dialects and lexical and grammatical differentiation are implicated. The great weakness of this study is that it does not even try to address these questions. Although it is of interest that people don’t regard Scotticisms as objectionably slang, our understanding is sorely constricted if we have no real idea what ‘Scots’ denotes for them. In particular, given the large numbers of those who claim that they ever speak Scots, this wide construction of Scots presents a barrier to external understanding. Equally, it is my understanding that some theorists think of the English-Scots question in terms of a continuum. At one end, Scottish standard English, possessing some of the features and terms which broaden out towards the continuum’s other end. In that context, the either/or type questions asked by the research does not reflect the graduated complexity of reality. The document is of significant interest, despite these gaps and foibles, for those interested in the personal politics of accent and its place in Scottish public life. At the very least, it suggests that we’ve at least partially moved on from the cloying concerns of BBC announcer Scots, abashedly adjusting their vowels.

Do give it a closer look.

17 January 2010

Scotblogs 2010 and the Stoics...

Of the ancient philosophers, I’ve always been particularly keen on the Stoics. Certainly, Plato has his joys, Aristotle his insights. The plays of Sophocles, particularly Antigone, retain a wonderful vivacity and significance if they’re properly staged. If I wear my close-reading, analytical cap – there is perhaps more to think about, and ultimately more to agree with in these more famed ancient writers’ works than in the slim corpus of Stoic texts, of which the remaining books of the liberated slave Epictetus and the Roman Emperor Marcus AureliusMediations are probably the most famous.

I’m certainly not convinced by their idea of living according to nature, their cosmology, nor indeed of the extent to which Stoics invite us to constrict our emotions when it comes to ‘things indifferent’, things beyond our control. It is my understanding that modern translations of his Meditations apparently polish up the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius’ prose, making it seem more cogent to the modern than it would to the ancient. That said, I’ve always found that short series of private musings more spiritually compelling than the Gospels, whether or not I’d strictly adhere to it as a model for a good life. I find something compelling about the Stoic impulses – to level social convention, to think of yourself as cosmopolitan, to avoid staking your happiness on the caprice of social attainments which will leave you unhappy if you fail to realise them, or unfulfilled if you succeed. I once listened to an anthropologist, working in Scotland, who had undertaken research on female converts to Islam in Glasgow. Frequently, this had pursued family connections – marrying a chap who was Muslim himself, for example. Although the catholic and forgiving sensibilities of the anthropologist didn’t object, one of these women’s accounts of her conversion struck me as particularly silly. Said the woman, after a period of unfulfilled curiosity, she determined to read the Qur’an (albeit in English). Leafing through its Surahs, this woman explained, she found she agreed with the morality that the texts suggested to her. Thus, she converted to Islam. This struck me as a decisive non sequitur. After all, say I read the Gospel of Saint Matthew, and think yes

“Judge not, that ye be not judged. For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again.” (Matthew 7 : 1 -2).

Even if we take this as an insightful proposition, even if I agree with it, that doesn’t make Jesus the Son of God. It is not entailed, not necessary. The convert had, to my mind, made a basic logical error. Not, as this anthropologist pointed out, that that would be of much interest to the convert, nor dissuade her from her view. The point of this wending tale is that, with Stoicism, I doubt myself along similar lines. If I have a nature constituted (loosely) to adhere to my understanding of Stoic philosophy, I flatter myself that the latter is true and not simply an external reflection of what I’m like already. Stupid people regularly cling to an idea which has independently occurred to them, largely out of the vanity and novelty that it occurred to them at all. Mulish cynicism and an assumption that the world is staffed by total fools – the idea that only I see clearly - is a regular symptom of just this sort of thinking. An idea can be compelling without being true. One of the best examples of this sort of thing, to my mind, is Plato’s theory of objective, eternal knowledge. - Now I’ve gone well off the beaten track, to the mainroad, to the point –

Despite not wishing to stake your happiness on the souls of other men (and women), despite intending to write a wee post (and not an indulgent, expansive one like this fellow) I wanted to give a mention to the Scotblog Awards 2010. A significant reel of no less than 142 blogs have been nominated and voting is afoot now for your favourites. This bit of digital democracy will run until Wednesday 27th January. Do hirple over and give it a peek. Place your 'x's as your spirits tend. Here is the long list of nominated blogs…

Scotblogs Awards 2010: The nominations

15 January 2010

Devolution's impact on low-income people...

Nothing cries weekend like a fat piece of social research. In case anyone missed it, I wanted to reference the Joseph Rowntree Foundation's fresh-minted report on the ever-topical question, What has been devolution's impact for people and places in poverty? Published on the 13th of January, the research was conducted by Jim McCormick and Anne Harrop. Anticipatory media outlets ran with headlines, claiming that the document indicates that Scotland is the most affluent country in the UK. One of the authors of the report gives a brief précis of what this 'affluence' amounts to, and what it might suggest for the future. The whole raft of materials and the report itself can be consulted on the foundation's website, here. I've not had the chance to digest the full document myself yet. Hopefully, however, I might have something of interest to say about it by the end of the week.

14 January 2010

Quixotic insurers attempt to dodge democracy (and screw some victims while they're at it...)

Aviva, AXA, RSA, and Zurich’s attempts to stall the democratic will of the Scottish parliament are to be taken further, with confirmation appearing this afternoon that the Insurers are to try their luck with Scotland's higher judicial authorities, appeal ling against Lord Emslie’s judicial review decision on the validity of the Damages (Asbestos-related Conditions)(Scotland) Act, which I discussed extensively last week. The following news release appeared on ABI’s (the Association of British Insurers) website this afternoon. On this issue, the press seems to have got itself caught in an uninteresting version of the story, couched as it is in the apparently technical considerations of legal minutiae and wearying jurisprudential exchanges. The human story - and the political cheek - of what the insurers are up to here has largely passed the broader sheets by.

Not least, you might expect that the usual human rights haters to get exercised about the strategic use of that legal instrument by money-grubbing insurers, who must at least have a popularity rating approximating to those imprisoned for their criminal acts. Particularly when it is a rearguard action in the face of an affirmative campaign to the parliament, resulting in a direct change in the law. Apparently not. There is certainly a Quixotic aspect to challenging primary legislation in this way, much like the pro-fox hunters who did so, impugning the Protection of Wild Mammals (Scotland) Act 2002 on similar grounds. (Otherwise known as your human right to set your dogs on a fluffy fox. Obviously, I'm parsing somewhat...) What this are about is nothing less than attempting to use the courts to subvert the settled will of parliament, or alternatively, dragging out the fatal moment when that will will become enforceable against themselves.

Insurers lodge appeal against Scottish judgment on pleural plaques

Four major insurance companies have lodged an appeal against the recent judgment concerning The Damages (Asbestos-Related Conditions) (Scotland) Act 2009.

On 8 January, following a judicial review brought by several insurers, the Court of Session in Edinburgh ruled to maintain the recently passed Act to compensate people with pleural plaques, despite the medical evidence that the condition does not cause harm or lead to asbestos-related conditions such as mesothelioma.

Nick Starling, the ABI’s Director of General Insurance and Health said: “After careful consideration and legal advice, insurers consider that there are good grounds for this appeal. Insurers have not taken this decision lightly, and it reflects their strong view that The Damages Act is fundamentally flawed as it ignores overwhelming medical evidence that plaques are symptomless, and the well-established legal principle that compensation is payable only when there are physical symptoms”.

The ABI reiterated that the appeal in no way affects insurers continued commitment to pay compensation to people with asbestos-related diseases, such as mesothelioma, which impact on their health.

I shall keep you informed about any further developments as they unfold, no doubt at law's traditional, stately pace.

English jury delusions (ibid)

There has been another outbreak of familiar English jury delusions, as four men in England begin their trial on indictment listing various charges including firearms possession with a view to carrying out an armed robbery, conspiring to carry out the robbery and doing so at a cash depot at Heathrow Airport in 2004 to the tune of £1.75 million. John Twomey, Peter Blake, Barry Hibberd and Glen Cameron will now be tried by judge alone under the provisions of the Criminal Justice Act of 2003. Per the BBC,

“There have already been three jury trials arising from the robbery, the last of which collapsed in 2008 because of what the judge referred to as ‘a serious attempt at jury tampering’”.

Cue outrage of one sort or the other. Some of the commentary is more nuanced, while other folk seem to suggest that jury trial is (or ought to be) a fundamental right and the 2003 changes represented a wholesale exercise in tyranny. Echoes here of ‘due process’ type discourses, emanating from the constitutional jurisprudence of the U.S. Supreme Court (in particular, Duncan v. Louisiana, in 1968). While I don’t agree with this broad proposition, assume that it is cogent. As I pointed out when the decision to undertake the robbery trial by judge alone was taken in the middle of last year, the reporting and image of criminal justice presented has a deeply distorted quantitative emphasis. Making juries the central image of trials simply isn't justified - not in Sassenach courts, certainly not in Scotland, where rights in this respect are even more limited than in England. While it’s a bit cheeky so simply ‘ibid’ a new post, all of my remarks in June remain cogent in January. Those of you interested in a bit more detail and argument can read it here.

13 January 2010


Cracking on with the New Year’s labours (through the still falling snow), the next week or so will be a busy time for yours truly. To keep you all amused for today, I give you this delightfully ironic article from North America’s leading satirical allium, the Onion, entitled ‘Gay teen worried he might be Christian’…

Regular loiterers about the blogosphere may also have encountered another recent, even more scurrilous piece from that waggish vegetable over at the feast table of a certain Greek baby...

12 January 2010

The Gray Fox and the Sour Grapes

I’ve encountered a raft of greenies on my travels. Hard-boiled to soft, occasional and professional, dread-locked to coiffured, wonderfully bright to pretty dim (perhaps a side-effect of the lights being on, but running off an energy conserving light bulb). I was reflecting on this ragtaggle coalition on Sunday as I spend six-odd hours on a train, whizzing through the snow-scaped north of England. My lap was warmed by a copy of the Sunday Herald, majoring on the Beauly-Denny powerline decision, and a queer tale which was largely lost on me, about the burly ex-copper who haunts the Maximum Eck’s footsteps. (Answers on an e-postcard, if anyone is able to explain its significance to me.)

A pervasive theme in the periodical was the extent to which the approval had “divided the green movement”. Not being close to that movement, I can’t take a sociologically informed view about the plausibility of that thesis. This said, its easy to detect the clear theoretical issues which might cause tensions in the many-coloured greenie ranks. Cognitive dissonance is broadly defined as the tensions arising from holding incompatible ideas simultaneously. Conservation, beavers at liberty, ungnawed trees, renewable energies, craggy-faced glens unspoked, landscape to remain like a Scottish smile, jagged and squint, unbraced by metallic structures – huzzah! While sustainable preferences in isolation, eventually the tensions will be concretised by a situation, a proposal, and have to find some resolution, yea or nea. The more sagacious Green Party folks I know have a ready answer to these problems – they’re public policy utilitarians. What are the consequences? Lets admit the negatives into our ledger and using some sort of felicific calculus (however imprecise), decide what to do. You can see just this sort of thinking at work in James ' WWJMD? piece on the subject over at Two Doctors, echoed by Duncan McLaren of Friends of the Earth Scotland who suggested that “the potential environmental damage from climate change was much greater than any caused by the new line.” A new greenie blog to me, Suitably Despairing, voices a similar sentiment. An unwillingness to enter into this sort of calculation can pose real problems for local developments. “I support renewable energies, but…” becomes increasingly implausible, increasingly shrill, if it isn’t associated with the insight that willing the end sometimes means willing means which wont always have unalloyed positive consequences.

Among greenies, I’ve long wondered at the stark differences between the hard-nosed policy professionals one encounters (I like to think of the men as alfalpha males) who are urbane, urban and tart-up in the modal business dress of smart suit – and the more raspberry layby strand of Scottish environmentalism. Perhaps an insider might give us a bit of insight. Aboard the train, however, I was mostly struck by the amazing virulent piece by Muriel Gray in the Sunday Herald. Referencing slurs which she claims to have encountered on the t’internet, Gray suggests that ‘thousands of people found themselves being called all kinds of childish things, as bloggers, opinion writers and internet trolls began their systematic mocking of those who are anxious about the fragility of our Scottish landscape.’ (Interesting order of priority, I thought. Still, nice to be distinguished from our mere trollish compadres).

Curiously, and without concrete substantiation, Gray implicitly references recent notions of cybernattery. Those accusing dissenters on Beauly-Denny are styled by Gray as “pro-SNP posters”. These posters apparently have one dictum, directly quoted as saying “these idiots who don’t know where their power comes from, and should have their electricity cut off”. Someone correct me if I’m wrong, but a net search didn’t reveal the origin of that phrase, if it was ever typed. Its perfectly possible of course, but how did she determine that its author was broadly pro-SNP? Put it another why, is it pro-SNP to support the consent to Beauly-Denny? If so, someone should tell Patrick Harvie. He might be rather upset to discover that his support is simply a factor of another party’s ideology. Later in the article, she is even more explicit, referencing “the government’s internet henchmen”. Given his post I mentioned above, I can only assume that James Mackenzie is one of these henchmen, an honourary cybernat.

Wearied from her exertions, Gray ends thus. “Where do we go from here?” she sighs heavily, before a twinkling mote of hope glisters in either eye. Her voice more confident now, she crashes to a resounding close … “I really don’t know. Shall we try the ballot box?” Heaven knows who she plans to vote for once she gets there.