30 April 2011

Gray's crocodile-skin shoehorn...

This morning's Herald Magazine indulges in a spot of gentle levity by asking the Holyrood parties' respective high heid yin (or in Patrick Harvie's case, male co-convenor; hence, half-heid-yin) a series of staccato personal-ish questions. Do you believe in God? Are you a lush? Are you a domestic chore? What half-finished book is propped up beside your cot? And so on.

Tavish Scott's imminent electoral immolation now seems even more richly deserved, as his first thought on being asked who makes him laugh, was Michael MacIntyre. For shame! Questioned on their extent of their tippling habits, Gray confessed to a weekend Rioja with his wife (excellent choice, if I may say so, Mr Gray) while Salmond's tastes apparently run to a beaker of non-specific red, now and again. Tavish's answer betrays a certain nervousness, quavering that he quaffs only "a moderate amount" of an undisclosed liquor. As a Shetland sheep-farmer, no doubt he's a khalua and coke man. Or perhaps toppers on a tumbler of malibu on the weekend, while popping a prolapse back in with a nudge of his bony elbow. Patrick Harvie answered with admirable frankness, conceding that he slurps "a bit too much", while Dame Bella of Doilly thoughtfully confirmed all of our suspicions, owning up to "a sherry or a gin and tonic" before her Sunday lunch.

The incongruous extravagance of one answer to the humble inquisition - What's in your fridge? - afforded a morning chortle. None fell for the obvious ploy of listing excessively frou-frou or self-indulgent groceries. The electoral peregrinations of the rest, unsurprisingly, have kept them from inspecting in detail the contents of their respective refrigerators. If, however, you are the Gray albatross, every idle question is an opportunity to re-iterate heroisms past.   In what has become a characteristic tick, the Snark felt the need once again to connect the quotidian to the exotic in a none-too-subtle punt. Just as the herbily sweet miasma of Subway apparently evoked the charnal reek of killing fields; its footlong rubberised sandwiches the firearms of insurgent would-be dictators - fling open Gray's fridge door, pass through its cooling, lambent light - and you find yourself in Africa, feasting on fierce creatures. Like the gap year student, always that bit too keen to produce his buffalo-scrotum bongos, and slap them about at public gatherings, Gray answered...

"Ground coffee and great bacon from Ballencrieff and eggs from Knowes Farm Shop. I had crocodile in Zimbabwe and caterpillars in Zambia. Neither of them are in my fridge but I'd recommend them!"

Sir, I believe you misplaced your crocodile-skin shoehorn...

28 April 2011

Kinlochbervie Chronicle: "Labour launch re-launch launched..."

The sun is shining, the streets are heavy with footfalls. Activist hands are painted inky and the letterboxes of Scotland are singing. Up in the north west, the presses at the Kinlochbervie Chronicle - Scotland's only quality tri-monthly newspaper - are hot from their newest edition, with all the most up-to-date coverage from the Holyrood campaign. On Easter Monday, no doubt optimistically channelling the Passion Play of sacrifice and redemption, Scottish Labour relaunched its hirpling campaign by revealing, to universal surprise, that the Scottish National Party are nationalists. The Kinlochbervie Chronicle's political correspondent, Ecclefechan Mackay (MA), was on the scene. However, unlike the so-called "quality press" of Scotland's chubby midriff, Mackay followed Gray to the relaunch of his relaunch, held yesterday in the Highlands. In association with the Chronicle, therefore, I give you his exclusive coverage of the event...

"Labour launch re-launch launched"
The Kinlochbervie Chronicle 27th April 2011

The rain was shining over Culloden moor yesterday, as Scottish Labour leader Iain Gray relaunched his party's relaunch with a keynote speech, attacking what he called the SNP's "execrable Jacobitism". In a passionate harangue delivered to a packed audience of five American tourists, Gray said "voters of Scotland, hear the message of hope I bring. Alex Salmond is a Jacobite relic of Scotland. Labour stands strong behind the House of Hanover and the 17th century Whig hegemony which has secured the Culloden visitor attraction for Scotland so well." Criticising the SNP's custodianship, Gray continued, "this centre was built to celebrate the triumph of His Majesty's loyal forces over the Young Pretender. Under the SNP, that message has been totally distorted. It's a scandal."

Widely interpreted as an attempt to shore up Labour's Hanovarian base, Gray warned that "the SNP's plans are not so much for Scottish Water, as for the King over the Water" and pledged that Labour would "speak up for ordinary, middle class public sector employees, loyal to the King and the best traditions of the Constitution". Reminding the electorate about "real threat" posed by Salmond's "junto of Jacobite knaves" after the Nats' famous victory in the Jimmiekrankie by-election of 1689, the Labour leader cited a range of SNP measures from Holyrood's last term, building up a comprehensive indictment of the disloyalty of his Nationalist opponents. Calling the SNP's register of tartans a "plaid-pretext for rebellion", Gray questioned the SNP's "claymore, targe and blue-bonnet apprentice" strategy, promising that a Labour administration would introduce "higher quality" apprenticeships, giving young Scots the opportunity to work in Brown Bess musketry production and in scarlet-coat dyeries. Pointing to the clear symbolism of the white roses, worn by SNP parliamentarians at the opening of Holyrood in 2007, Gray argued that "Alex Salmond's first thought on taking office in 2007 was to pin the Pretender's white cockade to his tit. Why should Scots expect any different in 2011?"

Notoriously neutral academic observer, Professor Mogg-Tallagher, believes that Salmond's conversion to Jacobitism occurred during a visit from the French ambassador in 2006, who promising the First Minister the title of Viscount Linlithgow and a tasting directorship in the East India Company, an Edinburgh currymerchant specialising in Gujurati and Punjabi cuisine, if the House of Stuart could be recalled from exile and successfully restored to the Scottish throne. "It's as plain as the korma in your tin platter", Mogg-Tallagher said. "Decent Hanovarian voters have to realise that a vote for the SNP is a vote for the Young Pretender, Charles Edward Stuart. Frankly, I don't see what's so Bonny about that and I believe most loyal Scots will agree with me and not that grovelling lickspittle, Alex Salmond."

Accompanying Gray's second keynote denunciation, Labour launched a slew of new celebrity endorsements. William Augustus, the "Red" Duke of Cumberland, said "the Honourable and right-trusty Member for East Lothian is the only Scottish politician who realises that this  election is, first and foremost, about maintaining the Hanovarian succession. That's why he is my choice to lead His Majesty's Scottish Ministers". Calton Graveyard-based Labour voter, David Hume, 300, told the Kinlochbervie Chronicle, "I'm delighted to see that Scottish Labour is offering real solutions to our 18th century problems. Frankly, the SNP's dereliction of duty over the last four years has been nothing short of a disgrace." The Duke and Hume join Sir Walter Scott, manager of the Waverley United football team and Labour's only current supporter.

Interviewed by the Chronicle, Gray appealed to Scotland's liberally-minded Episcopalians of wavering loyalty to the Hanovarian line, identified by pollsters as the key "bobbing John" demographic in this election. Gray said "If you don't want Lizzie Windsor exiled to Germany and replaced by an effete, autocratic scion of the House of Stuart, don't vote SNP. It's that simple."

An SNP party spokesman insisted "Labour just don't understand that the real choice facing Scots is one between a Scottish or a German diaspora tyrant. The SNP stands up for Scotland". Labour's campaign co-ordinator defended his leader's speech, saying "All we hear from the SNP these days is their excellent new song of rebellion, stirring up Jacobite feeling. Iain has pledged to focus on what really matters: defending the Hanovarian succession from Nationalist predations." Sources close to 10 Downing Street say that the possibility of a Nationalist majority in Holyrood continues to provoke real concerns in London, but the Prime Minister's spokesman dismissed the claims. "Alex Salmond may be a great man for the gee-gees, but he'll be turned back at this Derby", he quipped.  Prince Charles Edward Stuart inclined to comment. The campaign continues.

Other news in brief

Tory "common sense" policies philosophe-icly undermined

The Scottish Conversative Party's Holyrood campaign has been rocked by expert claims that "common sense is not so common". Monsieur Arouet, a French-born expert based in Fernex, reported his controversial findings in the authoritative Dictionnaire Philosophique in 1764. Tavish Scott has demanded that Goldie refer herself to the Electoral Commission immediately. Playing down any official action against them, John Lamont, Tory candidate for Ettrick, Roxburgh and Berwickshire conceded, "Everybody's awfully embarrassed about this. We thought we were onto something, but the independent research is irrefutable. We can only apologise to the Scottish people." Another senior party aide told us, "we're confident Annabel Goldie's common-senseless relaunch tomorrow will mend the fences."

24 April 2011

Another YouGov poll for Easter Sunday...

No doubt it is mildly impious to devote oneself to the worldliness of politicking on Easter Sunday, but I trust my persistent interest in the profane things of the ballot will be forgiven me. This morning, the Scotland on Sunday published a further opinion Holyrood poll, again conducted by YouGov. It is very much a case of pre-election famine to polling feast. Although I don't intend to discuss it in any substantial analytical way, you can examine the (very) full tables of the  latest Ipsos-MORI poll for yourself here. Since I looked in detail at last week's YouGov poll for the Scotland on Sunday, it seems reasonable to stick with the same pollster and see what, if anything, has transpired over the past week.

We can be sure that these findings will be being dissected in some detail in the papers, on the blogs and in campaign rooms across the country. It does strike me, however, that by skimming over the surface of things and eyeing only the total figures, we might be missing out on some of the fascinating undercurrents suggested by the more detailed data. One of the highlights of last week's YouGov poll, for those interested in such things, were the social gradings. Based on the occupations of respondents, these social grades distinguish between your ABC1s - upper, middle and lower middle classes - and C2DEs - the skilled working class, the working class, and those living at the lowest levels of subsistence.  Ironically, and I think totally neglected in the press, last week's YouGov poll suggested that "the People's Party" were lagging 7 points behind the SNP amongst C2DE voters on the constituency ballot and 6 points on the regional vote. By contrast, Labour continued to lead amongst the middle classes, by 3% and 4% respectively. I produced the data without much comment, however, the irony of this result should be irresistible. When it was first released in early March, I sketched the lineaments of the Labour-voting archetype so neatly depicted and skewered in the SNP's party political broadcast, What has the Scottish Government ever done for us?

"His vague Old left pretensions, lapsed half-Marxism and suspicions of Scottish nationalism are married to a comfortable bourgeois lifestyle, fine personal conscience and a deep well of contempt. There is a reasonable chance that he is a secondary school teacher, a social worker or a middle-to-upper range council employee. He affects a cynical swagger and always votes Labour."

Looking at the social grading in last week's YouGov poll certainly summoned this character back to mind. As ever, I'm also interested to see what has become of the Nationalist gender gap. Closing, yawning, gaping? YouGov have made the fuller tables underpinning today's poll available much more speedily than is typical. Interested though I am in overall results and their persistent trends, it is worth rummaging through the data a little more thoroughly. 1,332 Scottish adults were questioned between the 19th and 21st of April.  The following are the figures adjusted by YouGov for likeliness to vote. The (+/-) given in brackets refers to the pollster's findings of last week...

Constituency voting intentions (total)

  • SNP ~ 45% (+5)
  • Labour ~ 32% (-5)
  • Tory ~ 10% (-1)
  • Liberal ~ 8% (-)
  • Other ~ 4% (-)
  • Don't know ~ 9% (-)

And in gendered terms? The gentlemen replied...

Constituency voting intentions (men)

  • SNP ~ 47% (+6)
  • Labour ~ 32% (-7)
  • Tory ~ 11% (+1)
  • Liberal ~ 7% (+1)
  • Other ~ 4% (-)
  • Don't know ~ 6% (-1)

Meanwhile, the ladies answered...

Constituency voting intentions (women)

  • SNP ~ 43% (+4)
  • Labour ~ 33% (-3)
  • Tory ~ 10% (-2)
  • Liberal ~ 9% (-)
  • Other ~ 5% (-)
  • Don't know ~ 11% (+1)

After deliberating over their regional list votes...

Regional voting intentions (total)

  • SNP ~ 39% (+4)
  • Labour ~ 29% (-4)
  • Tory ~ 12% (-)
  • Liberal ~ 7% (-)
  • Green ~ 7% (+1)
  • SSP ~ 2% (-1)
  • Solidarity ~ 0% (-1)
  • Don't know ~ 8% (-1)

And breaking down those regional totals along gendered lines...

Regional voting intentions (men)

  • SNP ~ 40% (+4)
  • Labour ~ 28% (-6)
  • Tory ~ 11% (-1)
  • Green~ 9% (+3)
  • Liberal ~ 6% (-)
  • SSP ~ 3% (-)
  • Solidarity ~ 1% (-)
  • Don't know ~ 5% (-2)

While the womenfolk...

Regional voting intentions (women)

  • SNP ~ 37% (+4)
  • Labour ~ 31% (-2)
  • Tory ~ 12% (-1)
  • Liberal ~ 8% (-1)
  • Green ~ 6% (-)
  • SSP ~ 2% (-)
  • Solidarity ~ 0% (-)
  • Don't know ~ 11% (-)

And in terms of social-grading? Further movement? Indeed so. Evidence that Labour's defensive strategies are galvanising its working class base? Not at all. Contra last week's findings, Scottish bourgeois respondents now seem to favour the Nationalists, with Labour falling back...

Constituency voting intentions (ABC1)

  • SNP ~ 40% (+6)
  • Labour ~ 31% (-7)
  • Tory ~ 14% (-)
  • Liberal ~ 10% (-1)
  • Don't know ~ 10% (+2)

And what of the C2DES? Perhaps most astonishingly of all, this week suggests that the Nationalists enjoy a 15% lead over Labour amongst working class voters on the constituency ballot, more than doubling the already surprising gap suggested last week. On the regional ballot, according to YouGov, the SNP are leading Labour amongst C2DEs by 10%...

Constituency voting intentions (C2DE)

  • SNP ~ 49% (+5)
  • Labour ~ 34% (-3)
  • Tory ~ 7% (-1)
  • Liberal ~ 6% (+1)
  • Don't know ~ 9% (+1)

Regionally too, the Nationalists may be advancing on last week's findings, suggesting a potentially skeptical bourgeoisie, minded to favour Labour.

Regional voting intentions (ABC1)

  • SNP ~ 35% (+6)
  • Labour ~ 27% (-5)
  • Tory ~ 15% (-2)
  • Liberal ~ 9% (-1)
  • Green ~ 9% (+2)
  • SSP ~ 2% (-)
  • Solidarity ~ 0% (-)
  • Don't know ~ 9% (-2)

And last but not least, the declared regional voting intentions of Scottish working class voters...

Regional voting intentions (C2DE)

  • SNP ~ 42% (+2)
  • Labour ~ 32% (-2)
  • Tory ~ 9% (+1)
  • Liberal ~ 6% (+1)
  • Green ~ 6% (-)
  • SSP ~ 2% (-1)
  • Solidarity ~ 1% (-)
  • Don't know ~ 8% (-)

The full YouGov tables.

23 April 2011

Should we have seen Labour's magpie manifeso coming?

Remember that inveterate trimmer, the Vicar of Bray? When Times altered, so too did the good Vicar's good conscience. The song satirises his politically adroit series of religious reversals, from High Churcher under King Charles II, to Catholic under James II and VII, and loyal too in time to Dutch William. A Tory under Anne, a Whig under George III, and in each instance a zealous party man. That the Vicar's permanent mode is inconstancy ~ "Old Principles I did revoke, Set conscience at a distance..." ~ does nothing to reduce the vehemence of his sequentially held, often directly contradictory convictions.

I was reminded of the pieties of that flexible gentleman early on in this  Holyrood election campaign. Perhaps the campaign's most befuddling early developments was Labour's series of unanticipated policy reversals, from opposing freezing the council tax to incorporating it into their own plans, from insisting that free higher education was "unsustainable" to insisting they can sustainably deliver just that.  Having lead the serried Labour ranks to flatten the Alcohol  (Scotland) Act's minimum per unit pricing provisions, Jackie Baillie is even beginning to talk about consumption and the importance of price.  Like the Vicar, Labour's vehement opposition to these measures in Holyrood over the last four years does nothing to prevent them from crisply counter-marching in the other direction, noisily declaring their good conscience and the constancy of their virtue all the while. Iain MacWhirter styled this Scotland's "me too" election. In his latest Herald column, It's looking black for Gray as Salmond leaps ahead, he writes...

“Serious questions have to be raised about the content of the Labour campaign as well as the leadership. Adopting key planks of the SNP policy on the eve of the campaign – on tuition fees, council tax etc – was counterproductive. It looked like cynical opportunism; and frankly it was cynical opportunism. It was treating the voters with contempt, expecting them to believe that Iain Gray had had a blinding flash of revelation about the need for free higher education that just happened to occur on the eve of the election campaign. These U-turns may have made strategic sense, but you need to take time to review and alter key policy positions, otherwise voters think you’re making it up as you go along.”

For my part, I was actually rather surprised by Labour's naked and apparently unembarrassed volte-faces on policy areas which served to draw clear divisions between them and their Nationalist opponents on a series of prominent issues. Why, folk wondered? What cunning scheme lies behind these moves? The orthodox account attributes the shifts to venal tactical calculations on Labour's part. Eliminate the negatives between me and my main competition, the reasoning runs, and I shall handily triumph.  The prospect of tuition fees reducing your appeal to students? Then re-align your convictions to theirs. Folk not enthused by the prospect of a swelling council tax bill? Promise them you won't inflate it. Easy-peasy.

What this implies, of course, is that Labour had a bank of alternative proposals and policies which they strategically decided to forego putting to the electorate. It strikes me, could there be another explanation why no new substantial new wheezes emerged from the Labour Party? You may or may not recall, but in September 2008, Margaret Curran was appointed Labour's Policy Tsarina in Gray's Shadow Cabinet and "given the crucial job of overseeing policy development for the party's manifesto for the 2011 Holyrood elections". At the time, of Curran's role driving  "the policy development process towards 2011 for Labour in Scotland", Gray said:

“There are many lessons from Glasgow East, and the person who knows and understands them more than anyone else is Margaret Curran. She was on more doorsteps and speaking to more voters than anyone else and she has a very good understanding of what the lessons are and how we need to respond. It is time to close the 2007 manifesto and begin writing the 2011 manifesto.”

In the spring of 2009, Iain Gray re-emphasised Curran's duties in his speech to the Scottish Labour conference. However, just months later, in March, Curran stepped down from this position, saying that she wished to focus on winning back the Westminster constituency of Glasgow East from John Mason. As I noted on this blog at the time, the coverage of her resignation was ridiculously brief. The Scotsman noted in its cursory way that she had "stepped down from her front-bench post", without remarking that only months before, Gray had insisted she was a vital part of the Party's process for researching and formulating new policies for the election we're presently i'th'midst of. The Herald proved equally inept, giving her only a "senior party role", Curran's responsibility for "driving" Labour's policy development (Gray's words, not mine) only receiving a brief and veiled reference in a hostile quote from SNP Glasgow MSP, Anne McLaughlin. After Curran's departure in March 2009, Gray appointed no Shadow-Cabinet level replacement. 

I concede, one should not fetishise formal positions. I'm sure that Labour has a number of extra-parliamentary creatures, tasked with the organised reflection on their policy positions. However, given the subsequent dearth, in 2011, of idiosyncratic, independently-generated and argued Labour policy positions, can we not at least ask if their policy generation processes actually generated anything worthwhile at all? Your policy tsarina having spontaneously dethroned herself mere months into her task, it seems unlikely to be purely coincidental that the policy process she was due to preside over did not generate much that was interesting or novel. Conscious triangulation at least imputes a certain measure of low animal cunning and calculation to the triangulator. A empty policy cupboard of oose and dust that makes triangulation seem the only viable option, by contrast, deprives one even of the ratty dignity of the political scoundrel.

22 April 2011

A passionate icon of transcendence...

El Greco's image of Christ bearing the cross has long been one of my favourites. It is some way from the rent and ragged figure of Mel Gibson's Passion of the Christ, the ghastly green, split and suffering wooden icons I've seen in Catholic churches in Italy and Spain, or Holbein's appalling spent cadaver of The body of the dead Christ in the Tomb. It does little to communicate the real sufferings of the stations of the cross.  Jesus' forehead is only pricked, his wounds issuing only a trickle of blood. Yet the painting is tremendously evocative. Its atmosphere is not hot, but cool and overcast, thunderous and heavy. The Christ-figure illuminates this luminous gloom with a wan wistfulness. Much of the emotion of the image is communicated by Christ's soft expression and his feeling eyes, their gaze fixed on the uppermost firmament.  El Greco offers us a beautiful, passionate icon of transcendence, rather than evoking the pain and pathos of human suffering. 

Last year, I offered you this godless so-and-so's meditation on the power and human significance of Good Friday, which falls today.  I commend it to your interest again this year.

21 April 2011

The War of Brewer's (Sh)ear(s)...

So now we know. Labour is wretchedly befuddled about (a) the number of new prisoners their policy of mandatory prison sentences for knife possession will jail; (b) how much this will cost; and (c) according to independent researchers, seems to have invented its figures on the cost of knife crime to the NHS, substituting "fantasy" for analysis.  However, for a certain section of the electorate, I'm sure mandatory sentencing for knife possession is an appealing message. Its exclusionary logic reassures. All we have to do is bang these bastards up. The terror of the barred cell will nip the problem in the bud.  But will it? What evidence is there that ratcheting up prison sentencing will decrease knife carrying?  The appeal of mandatory minimums relies on a fairly simple account of human behaviour. Would you carry a knife, if you were sure you would go to jail if caught? Not generally going about in martial array myself, I'm not sure. However, since it is a nonsense to suggest that the reason I don't carry a knife about town with me is its illegality, prima facie, it seems equally problematic to suppose that those who do carry knives are scofflaws simply because the offence does not always lead to a prison sentence, and are likely to forego their weapons by introducing inflexible judicial penalties. In both cases, attributing causal force to the letter of the law is to distort the real whys and wherefores of human behaviour.

A much more nuanced image of why young people involved in "gangs" emerges from recently-published qualitative research by the respected Scottish Centre for Crime and Justice Research. In Troublesome Youth Groups, Gangs and Knife-Carrying in Scotland, the researchers conducted case studies in five locations across Scotland.  Interviewing young people, they aimed to "provide an in-depth account of the structures and activities of youth gangs in these settings" and "an in-depth account of the knife carrying in these settings". It is beyond the scope of the present post to summarise their findings in detail, but significantly, the researchers found that while fears of being imprisoned did have a general deterrent effect in some cases, many respondents "were unclear or incorrect as to the precise legal consequences of knife carrying" [Para 6.19] and prison's effect on restraining the violent, knife-carrying career of others appeared negligible. The reasons for knife-carrying were manifold and are worth reading at in-detail.

Labour's “mandatory discretionary” prison sentences...

Much of the criticism of Labour’s “mandatory discretionary” knife crime policy has been, I’d suggest, somewhat wrongheaded.  Encouraged by Newsnicht, there has been some suggestion that Labour's idea of a "discretionary mandatory" minimum jail sentence for knife-possession is an absolutely muddled and confused innovation. The incarcertator's motto - Carry a knife, go to jail - suggests sheriffs will enjoy no wriggle room when sentencing knife-carriers. How then can Gray consistently speak of "extreme mitigating circumstances" which might subvert the demands of Labour's six month minimum sentence, Kerr of a "degree of latitude"? Both proved dismally incapable of explaining their position. However, as I understand their proposals, and their past amendments to the Criminal Justice and Licensing (Scotland) Act passed in Holyrood's last session, what Labour is proposing is a presumption in favour of six month custodial sentences, with statutory language permitting judges to ignore that presumption in circumstances which they are willing to identify as exceptional.  In this, they are simply copying the approach of the 2003 sentencing amendments to the Firearms Act 1968. Applying to the offence of unlawful possession of a firearm, the statute reads as follows:

§51A(2) The court shall impose an appropriate custodial sentence (or order for detention) for a term of at least the required minimum term (with or without a fine) unless the court is of the opinion that there are exceptional circumstances relating to the offence or to the offender which justify its not doing so.
§51A(5) In this section “the required minimum term” means—
(b) in relation to Scotland—
(i) in the case of an offender who was aged 21 or over when he committed the offence, five years, and
(ii) in the case of an offender who was aged under 21 at that time, three years.

Substitute guns for knives, and five years for six months, and you arrive at some understanding of what Labour proposes. Contra Brewer, sentencing under the Firearms Act, or a knife-crime proposal of the same kidney, is clearly different from the current dispensation, where judicial sentencing discretion is not structured in this way. It is one thing to ask oneself, what sentence should I impose in all of the circumstances of this case? It is clearly another to start your deliberations from the presumption that you will impose a six-month prison sentence, only then considering if the excuses proffered by the friendless miscreant in the dock are "exceptional" in character. None of Scottish Labour's various mouths, advocating this policy, have managed to make any of these perfectly salient points in their own defence. Their dismal eloquence seems to have been exhausted at the level of um, aw… 

The interesting thing about the ‘exceptional exception’, it seems to me, is its implicit recognition that there are circumstances in which applying the mandatory prison sentence will be palpably unjust. Remember the case of Gail Cochrane? She was the Dundee woman who kept her father’s World War II service revolver under her mattress. When her house was raided by the polis, hunting Cochrane’s son, they discovered the firearm. Tried for the illegal possession of this gun, Cochrane’s sentencing was governed by these sections of the Firearms Acts, instructing judges to send those convicted of gun possession to jail for a minimum term, if the convict cannot demonstrate exceptional circumstances. Were the circumstances of Gail Cochrane’s illegal possession of the firearm exceptional? Not really. Was her punishment, one of a five year term in prison, ridiculously excessive? Without question. Cochrane only escaped the snare of this mandatory minimum sentence thanks to a divided Court of Criminal Appeal, who decided that exceptional circumstances existed, substituting a community penalty in the place of a half decade in prison. Undoubtedly, I’d suggest, a just judgment in the individual case. However, it was only achieved because two of the three judges hearing her appeal effectively disapplied the law which parliament enacted.

Elsewhere in the world, the American approach to criminal justice furnishes a salutary example of other oddities, generated by mandatory minimums. Prompted by concerns about crime and attempting to fence in the discretion of a feeble and indulgent judiciary, mandatory minimum sentences have been introduced in a number of areas.  Famously, California has a three-strikes rule, which provides that on a third conviction for a felony, Californian judges must impose a 25 year to life term in prison, whatever the nature of the felonies or the felon. Similarly, the American Anti-Drug Abuse Act 1986 introduced a series of mandatory prison penalties for drugs possession. The list of mandatory federal penalties makes grim reading.  Interestingly, research on how these sentences have worked in practice reveals that discretion has not been extinguished by mandatory minimums, as the legislators intended, but has simply been displaced. By depriving judges of the capacity to deal differently with different cases, the crucial decision becomes whether or not to indict the accused of an offence with a mandatory minimum penalty. The vital decisions are shunted down the decision-making tree, to prosecutors who decide whether or not to take forward criminal proceedings and police officers on the ground, who often have a greater degree of latitude in the exercise of their duties than is often admitted or imagined. Critically, how prosecutors and police behave is liable to be informed by an awareness of the potentially draconian nature of mandatory penalties. However, as Gail Cochrane's case demonstrates, in some cases, such an awareness will not prevent prosecutors from taking forward proceedings whose results will be foreseeably unjust.

Mandatory minimum sentences & their chimeras: the case of Brewer's shear...

So what about the Gail Cochranes which Labour's knife-possession proposals would generate? On Newsnicht, Gordon Brewer put a readily envisaged scenario to Andy Kerr. What if Gordon was in his garden, hacking a hedge into  a heroic, leafy echo of his own likeness. The hardy roots defying his shears, its two blades come apart. In his frustration, Brewer shoves the shard-shear in his pocket, and hies him to a nearby hostelry, there to drown the sadness and frustration of his unfinished topiary. Zip forward an hour and a half, and a now lager-breathed Brewer gathers his nerve to return to his pruning. But hold! Brewer's purposeful march is arrested by a police intervention in the street, constables having espied the handle of his "weapon" hanging out of his pocket. His collar felt, Brewer becomes an unexpected statistic exemplifying Scotland's booze and blade culture. 

Should he go to jail for six months? In his Newsnicht interview, Andy Kerr seemed to imply that Brewer's case would be exceptional, and thus escape a six-month term. Is it really? Just as Cochrane had no truly exceptional excuse for her possession of the firearm, her reasons were perfectly commonplace, it seems to me that Brewer too would struggle to make the case that his idle knife-possession was sufficiently distinguishable from other cases, to warrant a departure from any presumption in favour of imprisonment, passed by Holyrood.  Indeed, I'm surprised that Kerr didn't insist that Brewer be locked away. After all, what more draconian lesson could one be given that knife-possession will not be tolerated? No excuses, sir. Off to chokey you go.  That, after all, is the purpose of mandatory minimum sentences. They strip away the context, the justifications, and the excuses which might arise from individual cases, substantially pre-judging what penalty is to be imposed. There is a very real possibility, therefore, that the pruning Brewer would serve out half a year in a cell, for his slip, if Labour's proposal is implemented. However, focussing on these potential chimerical instances in extreme cases shouldn’t distract us from the more fundamental issue – the question of whether or not it is right nor beneficial to summarily jail  (almost) all persons caught with a knife in public. As Kerr said, of Brewer's scenario:

Andy Kerr: "Your case is not what we see in Glasgow, what we see in Inverclyde, what we see elsewhere in this country. What we see is kids - largely kids - going out -"

Gordon Brewer: "The law's not going to be that its mandatory for young people in Glasgow but not anyone else, is it? ..."

Andy Kerr: "What I'm saying is your scenario is quite unique or different in terms of what we're seeking to do...."

It's the "kids" we read about in the Scottish Centre for Crime and Justice Research report which Gray and Kerr are after.  We certainly don't need to bang up Gordon Brewers and Gail Cochranes. I ask anyone, tempted by the simple logic of Labour's policy on knife-possession, to read the accounts given by those young people, their reasons for carrying knives, their limited consciousness of the law, the criminal penalties and the researchers' ambivalent assessments about whether serving prison terms did them or the community any good. Labour are asking us all to put all of our faith in the crude determinative capacity of law and prison to solve our problem with knives. They offer no evidence. Their costings are revealed to be ridiculously inflated and borrowed from the pages of the Beano. The number of new prisoners they envisage locking up ranges from 500 to 2,000, depending on whether you ask their finance or justice spokesman. Either way, they seem to think £20 million quid will do the business. If I was an exponent of this policy, frankly, I'd feel deeply aggrieved by the slap-dash, insultingly unserious way in which the Labour Party have worked out how this policy would work in practice and how much it will cost to fund in these straightened financial times. You'd almost think this was a crudely populist electoral expedient, that they have no intention of introducing. Surely not?

19 April 2011

That latest YouGov Holyrood poll...

You will doubtlessly all now have seen the headline results from the Scotland on Sunday YouGov poll on Scottish voting intentions. For those of you who like sinking up to your oxters in the actual data, and attempting a spot of amateur psephology, YouGov have now published the full tables here. While the topline results certainly bear reiteration, I thought it might be interesting and instructive to hop back atop one of my hobby-horses, gender and the SNP, and see what the poll might suggest about the breakdown of support along gendered lines. Does the gender gap persist, or is it closing? What role, if any, do perceptions of the Maximum Eck have in sustaining such a gap? From a sample of 1,135 people taken between the 13th and 15th of April, on the Holyrood constituency ballot, the pollsters found...

Constituency voting intentions (total)

  • SNP ~ 40%
  • Labour ~ 37%
  • Tory ~ 11%
  • Liberal ~ 8%
  • Other ~ 4%
  • Don't know ~ 9%

Before the election campaign, I devoted several posts to the issue of the SNP's gender voting gap. Polls recording thumping Labour leads generally suggested that the Nationalists were not doing terribly well with the female electorate. All change? Did Scotland's female population go lassie go and change their minds? Here is the gendered preferences on the constituency ballots, according to the latest YouGov research:

Constituency voting intentions (men)

  • SNP ~ 41%
  • Labour ~ 39%
  • Tory ~ 10%
  • Liberal ~ 6%
  • Other ~ 4%
  • Don't know ~ 7%

And on the distaff side...

Constituency voting intentions (women)

  • SNP ~ 39%
  • Labour ~ 36%
  • Tory ~ 12%
  • Liberal ~ 9%
  • Other ~ 5%
  • Don't know ~ 10%

On the regional list, voting intentions, adjusted in the same fashion, were as follows:

Regional voting intentions (total)

  • SNP ~ 35%
  • Labour ~ 33%
  • Tory ~ 12%
  • Liberal ~ 7%
  • Green ~ 6%
  • SSP ~ 3%
  • Solidarity ~ 1%
  • Don't know ~ 9%

And again, divided along gendered lines:

Regional voting intentions (men)

  • SNP ~ 36%
  • Labour ~ 34%
  • Tory ~ 12%
  • Green~ 6%
  • Liberal ~ 6%
  • SSP ~ 3%
  • Solidarity ~ 1%
  • Don't know ~ 7%

And for the lady?

Regional voting intentions (women)

  • SNP ~ 33%
  • Labour ~ 33%
  • Tory ~ 13%
  • Liberal ~ 9%
  • Green ~ 6%
  • SSP ~ 2%
  • Solidarity ~ 0%
  • Don't know ~ 11%

There is plenty of other fascinating snippets in the elaborated tables, including how different age groups and wealth groups polled. The socially graded responses warrant a closer examination. The results are curious. YouGov use the NRS social grade scale, briefly explained here. On the numbers adjusted for likelihood to vote, in constituency preferences, Labour continues to lead the SNP amongst the "middle class" contingent of ABC1s, the nationalists polling 34% to Labour's 38%. Amongst working class (C2DE) people polled, YouGov record that the SNP are leading Labour by 7%, at 44% to Labour's 37%. This is even more striking in the regional preferences, which show only 29% of ABC1s reporting that they'll likely vote Nationalist, compared to 40% of C2DEs who say that Salmond and shoal will carry off their ballots. By contrast, Labour attract 32% of ABC1 voters on the regional ballot, compared to 34% of respondents, assessed by YouGov as falling into the C2DE social grade. There was also the question, which of the following do you think would make the better First Minister of Scotland? Given the foregoing, I thought it might be interesting to tease out how different groups responded, including women and men, and the two social gradings of ABC1 and C2DE. Here was how they answered...

"Best First Minister" (totals)

  • Alex Salmond ~ 52%
  • Iain Gray ~ 27%
  • Don't know ~ 21%

"Best First Minister" (Men)

  • Alex Salmond ~ 56%
  • Iain Gray ~ 30%
  • Don't know ~ 14%

"Best First Minister" (women)

  • Alex Salmond ~ 48%
  • Iain Gray ~ 27%
  • Don't know ~ 27%

"Best First Minister" (ABC1 social grades)

  • Alex Salmond ~ 50%
  • Iain Gray ~ 26%
  • Don't know ~ 24%

"Best First Minister" (C2DE social grades)

  • Alex Salmond ~ 53%
  • Iain Gray ~ 29%
  • Don't know ~ 18%

Oh, and for folk with a burning interest in it, the more detailed results of the Scotsman poll on the AV referendum, conducted in the same bout of Scottish fieldwork, can also now be read here...

14 April 2011

SP2011: That SNP manifesto...

Today in Glasgow, the Scottish National Party launched its manifesto for the 2011 Holyrood election. Swankily put together, folded neatly in the party's bumblebee colour-scheme, I must say. For those who prefer to take the document page by page, the party has set up a dedicated manifesto website. For those of you who like to peruse PDFs, the manifesto is downloadable as a single document, here. Do feel free to share any thoughts, criticisms or happy encomiums you may have in the comments. In the Scotch blogosphere, the speedy Burd is the first to have taken to wing, fluffing the bits of the manifesto she approves off, and seizing the opportunity of a peck or two at less appreciated elements. No doubt I'll be sticking my own beak in in due course, not least on one of my own key areas of interest, justice.

SP2011: "Bloggers & the Leviathan..."

"Yes, we're getting a terrible response on the doorsteps in [insert local area]. One [insert sturdy, homespun Scottish character] told me that he'd rather nail his genitals to a speedy inter-city train than stain his soul and defame the memory of his departed father by voting for us. Another said that if I showed my ugly phizog in that part of town again, she'd punch the living tit off me. Our canvassers all return with cauliflowered extremities and are astonishingly demoralised. I'm confident that we'll be handily defeated here in [insert constituency]. On a particularly stinking night, we may well lose our deposit - funds I'd earmarked for a depression-dousing dram. It's all bloody depressing." ~ Sir Reginald Sittish-Standish, Scottish Liberal-Unionist and Labour-Conservative party candidate for Universal Scottish Constituency (West).

Nobody ever says this, do they? No matter how hopeless their electoral situation appears, no matter how general the knowledge that the election is closely divided, every candidate is full of breezy reassurances that all is well, and triumph impends. If you believe the rhetoric, all are greeted warmly at every door, every voter a friend of their party. Practically, of course, I do understand. No would-be parliamentarian wants to appear in the next morning's press, making bloodhound-faced predictions about electoral calamity and disaster. No campaign terrier wants to share their demoralisation and feelings of political insecurity with the public. Understandable, without question. However, it is just another example of one of every embattled election campaign's least attractive qualities - their pervasive dishonesty.

I do love elections. They are more fascinating, in many ways, than their common sense familiarity allows us to recognise. Using relatively simple technologies of pen and paper, the great shapeless and muddled body of our collected opinions are gathered, simplified - and actively inscribed on the social fabric. Obviously, there are those who refuse to take up the pen, on principle, or out of disaffection. However, in elections, we ask millions of people to take an affirmative view, to make a choice. Millions do so.  The French sociologist, Bruno Latour, nicely demonstrates the quotidian interest of the democratic endeavour. In Reassembling the Social, he shows a series of photographs of "Alice", a French voter. In the first, she examines political discussion in Le Monde. The second shows her in the bureau de vote. From the third, her feet peep out, as she casts her ballot behind the obscuring veil of the voting cubicle. In the fourth, her vote is cast into the ballot box - and so on, ending with Alice watching coverage of the result on French television. Latour is making a theoretical point about how we envisage scale, but the paragraph is worth quoting, if only to afford a reflective pause on how our polity is constituted and reshaped using such apparently elementary connective technologies:

"Consider for instance this series of photos that show Alice voting in France for a general election. Go from the first to the last and try to decide which one is more local or more global than the other. The first, where Alice ponders the newspaper Le Monde to make up her mind about which party to vote for, cannot be said to be local simply because she is alone reading at her breakfast table. The same issue of this newspaper is read that day by millions. Alice is bombarded by a flood of clichés, arguments, columns, and opinions out of which she has to make up her own mind. But the last image that sums up the result cannot be said to be global either under the pretext that it's the "whole of France", that is summarized in one pie chart on television (with the surprising result that the left is winning). On the television inside Alice's apartment, this pie chart is a few centimetres wide. So, once we realize that none of the successive images in the photomontage can be said to be smaller or bigger than any other, the key feature of their connectedness becomes fully visible - though is not graspable on any single photograph!

Something is circulating here from the first to the last. In the opaque voting booth, Alice's opinion is transformed into a piece of paper certified by her signature and then placed by scrutinisers into a ballot box, where it is then ticked off as one anonymous dot in a tally whose sum is wired to the Ministry of the Interior's central bureau to be merged inside other double checked additions. What is the relationship been the "small" Alice and "France as a whole"?
This path, laid down by this instrument, makes it physically possible to collect, through the circulation of paper technologies, a link between Alice and France whose exacting traceability has been slowly elaborated through two centuries of violent political history and contested voting reforms." Bruno Latour (2005) Reassembling the Social, p. 222.

While this aspect of elections excites me, I find the pervasive mendacity of our discourse and its hollow factiousness, however understandable from the partisan perspective, deeply dispiriting. On all sides, people engage in the ludicrous re-publication of party press releases. The Scotsman's Steamie blog seems primarily sustained these days by reprinting tales of Annabel Goldie tonguing a cone or Tavish visiting a creamery and arguing that an opponents policy is bunk. Blogging, it is not. NewsnetScotland has indulged in the same antics, publishing a series of only slightly re-configured Nationalist notices, laying into Labour. I'm all for gouging one's foes, where gouging seems indicated. However, much of this is without substantial comment, detailed critique - and worse - this committed political stupidity is wholly earnest, bereft of even the smallest tickle of humour.

Some bloggers prosper well during elections. I've often wondered why I feel a certain dread as electioneering approaches. Having given it a bit of thought, I think my reticence to great extent derives from the character of my party commitments. As someone writing about politics, it only seems right that I declare my allegiances, such as they are, prominently at the head of the page, so readers may consider themselves forewarned. Come elections, where the composition of the Scottish Parliament is at stake, I obviously wish to see the Scottish National Party romp to triumph. There is much of the ban and censure caught in the phrase there is an election to win. Much of the vexation of this is precisely because such conformity is not externally imposed. I suspect other writers in the Cinquième Etat who are properly unaligned do not feel these pressures. They are able to exercise a constant critique, uninterrupted by elections, continuously pointing out fallacies, stupidities, inadequacies wherever they detect them. Stuart Winton is an excellent Scots example of how well this universally distributed political cynicism can prosper. For the declared partisan, I find things are not so easy, and an election calls for a profound disruption in the ordinary habits of your political writing, assuming you aren't already an all-consuming "party man". With the imminent prospect of the election of a new parliament, all that is likely to change is the pitch of his fulminating loyalty, rather than calling for something of a mental re-orientation. I'm reminded of George Orwell's essay "Writers and the Leviathan", first published in 1948. It would be grotesque to suggest that the pressures discussed by Orwell exactly align with the contemporary political partisan. However, I find that there is much in Orwell's reflection, that remains directly pertinent for bloggers of whatever colour, who find themselves sharing some of my inchoate qualms about elections, writing honestly and independent-mindedly - and how these interlace with specific party ties. Interestingly, in this respect, bloggers strongly associated with a particular political party are unlike members of the press, who are at least theoretically (but often totally implausibly) inoculated with the idea that they are independent from advancing the Labour, Green, Liberal, Tory or Nationalist cause. Much more than journalists, we are directly exposed to struggles with our leviathans...

Excerpt from George Orwell, "Writers and the Leviathan" (1948)...

"To accept an orthodoxy is always to inherit unresolved contradictions. Take for instance the fact that all sensitive people are revolted by industrialism and its products, and yet are aware that the conquest of poverty and the emancipation of the working class demand not less industrialisation, but more and more. Or take the fact that certain jobs are absolutely necessary and yet are never done except under some kind of coercion. Or take the fact that it is impossible to have a positive foreign policy without having powerful armed forces. One could multiply examples. In every such case there is a conclusion which is perfectly plain but which can only be drawn if one is privately disloyal to the official ideology. The normal response is to push the question, unanswered, into a corner of one’s mind, and then continue repeating contradictory catchwords. One does not have to search far through the reviews and magazines to discover the effects of this kind of thinking.

I am not, of course, suggesting that mental dishonesty is peculiar to Socialists and left-wingers generally, or is commonest among them. It is merely that acceptance of ANY political discipline seems to be incompatible with literary integrity. This applies equally to movements like Pacifism and Personalism, which claim to be outside the ordinary political struggle. Indeed, the mere sound of words ending in — ism seems to bring with it the smell of propaganda. Group loyalties are necessary, and yet they are poisonous to literature, so long as literature is the product of individuals. As soon as they are allowed to have any influence, even a negative one, on creative writing, the result is not only falsification, but often the actual drying-up of the inventive faculties.

Well, then what? Do we have to conclude that it is the duty of every writer to “keep out of politics”? Certainly not! In any case, as I have said already, no thinking person can or does genuinely keep out of politics, in an age like the present one. I only suggest that we should draw a sharper distinction than we do at present between our political and our literary loyalties, and should recognise that a willingness to DO certain distasteful but necessary things does not carry with it any obligation to swallow the beliefs that usually go with them. When a writer engages in politics he should do so as a citizen, as a human being, but not AS A WRITER. I do not think that he has the right, merely on the score of his sensibilities, to shirk the ordinary dirty work of politics. Just as much as anyone else, he should be prepared to deliver lectures in draughty halls, to chalk pavements, to canvass voters, to distribute leaflets, even to fight in civil wars if it seems necessary. But whatever else he does in the service of his party, he should never write for it. He should make it clear that his writing is a thing apart. And he should be able to act co-operatively while, if he chooses, completely rejecting the official ideology. He should never turn back from a train of thought because it may lead to a heresy, and he should not mind very much if his unorthodoxy is smelt out, as it probably will be. Perhaps it is even a bad sign in a writer if he is not suspected of reactionary tendencies today, just as it was a bad sign if he was not suspected of Communist sympathies twenty years ago.

But does all this mean that a writer should not only refuse to be dictated to by political bosses, but also that he should refrain from writing ABOUT politics? Once again, certainly not! There is no reason why he should not write in the most crudely political way, if he wishes to. Only he should do so as an individual, an outsider, at the most an unwelcome guerilla on the flank of a regular army. This attitude is quite compatible with ordinary political usefulness. It is reasonable, for example, to be willing to fight in a war because one thinks the war ought to be won, and at the same time to refuse to write war propaganda. Sometimes, if a writer is honest, his writings and his political activities may actually contradict one another. There are occasions when that is plainly undesirable: but then the remedy is not to falsify one’s impulses, but to remain silent.

To suggest that a creative writer, in a time of conflict, must split his life into two compartments, may seem defeatist or frivolous: yet in practice I do not see what else he can do. To lock yourself up in an ivory tower is impossible and undesirable. To yield subjectively, not merely to a party machine, but even to a group ideology, is to destroy yourself as a writer. We feel this dilemma to be a painful one, because we see the need of engaging in politics while also seeing what a dirty, degrading business it is. And most of us still have a lingering belief that every choice, even every political choice, is between good and evil, and that if a thing is necessary it is also right. We should, I think, get rid of this belief, which belongs to the nursery. In politics one can never do more than decide which of two evils is the lesser, and there are some situations from which one can only escape by acting like a devil or a lunatic. War, for example, may be necessary, but it is certainly not right or sane. Even a General Election is not exactly a pleasant or edifying spectacle. If you have to take part in such things — and I think you do have to, unless you are armoured by old age or stupidity or hypocrisy — then you also have to keep part of yourself inviolate. For most people the problem does not arise in the same form, because their lives are split already. They are truly alive only in their leisure hours, and there is no emotional connection between their work and their political activities. Nor are they generally asked, in the name of political loyalty, to debase themselves as workers. The artist, and especially the writer, is asked just that — in fact, it is the only thing that Politicians ever ask of him. If he refuses, that does not mean that he is condemned to inactivity. One half of him, which in a sense is the whole of him, can act as resolutely, even as violently if need be, as anyone else. But his writings, in so far as they have any value, will always be the product of the saner self that stands aside, records the things that are done and admits their necessity, but refuses to be deceived as to their true nature."

12 April 2011

Kinlochbervie Chronicle: "Gray's gift of the gaffe..."

Continuing my association with the worthy public annalists of the north-west, another article for you, pulled from the pages of the Holyrood election coverage in the latest edition of the Kinlochbervie Chronicle.  As usual, the redoubtable Mr Ecclefechan Mackay is willing to whiffle through tulgey political woods where the big boys and hatchetmen of the Herald and Hootsmon dare not tread...

"Gray's gift of the gaffe"
The Kinlochbervie Chronicle 9th April 2011

The latest on the Scottish Parliament election campaign, from our reporter in the field, Ecclefechan Mackay (MA)

Universally derided in the Scottish media as "a socially-inadequate feartie" for fleeing from a hardbitten phalanx of Glasgow pensioners, sources in the Labour campaign are now claiming that the "public response on the ground" to Gray's flight has been much more encouraging for the party than many commentators supposed.

"Once we stopped asking plucky airline pilots for their opinions, we really started getting somewhere," explains John Park, Labour's election coordinator. "Iain was clearly under immense pressure in Glasgow. Some of those folk had those hard west-coast faces. You know the ones I mean. Like boney scrotums, tarred with a lifetime's tobacco smoke.  Voices like a bagpipe with emphysema. Look, I don't mind admitting that. Neither does Iain. But the fact is that voters looked into his fear-smitten face, deep into his damp weasel's gaze - and they liked what they saw. Fact."

Shortly after the incident, one unaligned public sector employee, Margaret Curran, told the Chronicle: "The killing fields of Cambodia really put things into perspective for me. I thought I would be haunted by those foot-long sandwiches for ever, but Iain gently soothed my fears by conjuring up the bloodied and broken bodies of hundreds of thousands of people. He's Glasgow's choice for First Minister." Another campaigner, impressed by Gray's charismatic retreat and subsequent braggadocio, spontaneously exchanged her hand-painted anti-cuts placard for a doorstop of vulcanised Subway luncheon-meat, pledging to "protest no more" and "come home to Labour". After the strategy's astonishing success in the city, Gray now plans to tour the bloodiest sites in Scottish martial history, calmly commenting how mildly they compare to the terrors and heroism of his personal biography.

Kicking off his tour in Edinburgh's hag-ridden Mary Queen's Close, Gray will make a touchingly self-deprecating speech about his fortitude in the face of slight adversity, before travelling on to the key battleground constituency of Culloden. Labour confirm that the melancholy placidity of the scene will be interrupted by a spontaneous and sustained altercation with a hand-picked local pensioner, selected for her physiological and neurological deficiencies, and bussed up from Clydebank for that purpose.  Having manfully dispensed with the voter's concerns in front of the assembled press, Gray will exhibit an impromptu flash of  wit, suggesting that the exchange was a "Highland picnic" compared to the Duke of Cumberland's brutal military occupation of the region, putting the population to bayonet and sword and substituting their close friends and relations for sheep, without telling them.

Having gulped down a blistering plate of soup in the battlefield's award-winning visitor's centre, Gray boldly insisting that he's had "hotter pots of broth in his puff", Alex Salmond's challenger will round off the day's campaigning with an evening event in Stirling. In his keynote address, to be unexpectedly interrupted by the loud cries of a distressed infant, Gray will casually shrug off the wails, contrasting them with the horrors of the Battle of Stirling Bridge which Gray personally witnessed, aged only 15, in 1972. In the division of the spoils of battle, the English tax baron Hugh de Cressingham was famously flayed by the triumphant Scots, his hide being transformed into various attractive bespoke leather-goods for the American market. In an unscripted display of panache, it is understood that the Labour leader will loftily disdain the sufferings of being skinned, reminding the crowd of his tearless eye as he pried a particularly sharp shard of oose from his stomach button just as the military Junta seized power in Burma in 1962.

Sources in John Smith House confirm that urgent extra funding is now being sought from the Scottish Labour membership to enhance the international profile of the party's understated First Ministerial challenger. Top aides are putting together an ambitious itinerary of events in a range of tragic and harrowing international sites before polling day on May the 5th. The first photo opportunity is scheduled to take place next week, the Scottish Labour leader contriving to look jaunty in the midst of the Somme, while nonchalantly musing on the cruel pinch of his bunion. "It's no Glasgow Central station", Gray's off-the-cuff quip. The campaign continues.

11 April 2011

Scotland's useless racist incident statistics...

I've railed on several occasions before against the racialising concepts used all too commonly in government-sponsored, quantitative social research. White is not an ethnic category, it is a racialising category. These old, guilty, pigment-obsessed familiars dominated the 2011 Census and furnished the analytic categories deployed in the recently-published Scottish Government statistics on Racist Incidents Recorded by the Police in Scotland, 2009-10.

Not only are these categories objectionable in theory. In terms of trying to understand the phenomenon of racism and racist abuse in Scotland, they prove totally useless. Squeezing useful information out of this document is about as straightforward as milking a bull, casting almost no light whatever on how and why bigotry and intolerance are practised in Scotland. We should also record the clear caveat that here we're only dealing with incidents recorded by the police, doubtlessly excluding a great deal of racist sentiment and conduct and presenting a limited picture of the phenomenon. Immediately implied here is the question, how parsimonious should we be about using the term "racism"? What should the definition be, the grounds of inclusion or exclusion? To pose this question should not be taken to imply that abuse or recrimination which falls outside the category is fine and dandy. However, it may be analytically useful and normatively important to distinguish different kinds of hatreds and loathings. For example, one might be an enthusiastic Scottish chauvinist with a hatred of the English, without any belief that the latter is a categorically different, organically-constituted "race". Alternatively, one might be an old-fashioned biological bigot, with a selection of books on phrenology and a delight in intellectual bell curves, confident that your black fellow citizens are essential inferior, and are allotted their subordinate social position by the unerring operation of physical and racial necessity.

In both cases, the villain might be an abusive thug, but the mental springs and cogs of his thuggery differ substantially in their motions. In many other cases, the ideological content of "racist" hatred may be significantly less clearly delineated, however obvious or odious its effects. For example, it is very easy to envisage ways in which different issues come to be blurred together. For a devotee of the Battle of the Boyne and a great hater of Irish Catholicism, religious perceptions and perceptions of nationality seem likely to intertwine. However, if we conceive of any subsequent violence as wholly motivated by Irishness, we clearly miss the real significance of the conflict. Similar difficulties attach to the compound religious-national identity of a "Muslim Scot", and so on. 

What one is all too often left with is an impenetrable, pitiful muddle of hostile perceptions associated with (a) pigmentation (b) "ethnicity" (c) nationality and often as not (d) religion, all of which are clumsily labelled "racism". Oho, but isn't this simply reflective of a knotty, tangled Reality? you might well ask, and ask fairly. I'm certainly not contending that unravelling these threads is an easy enterprise, not least because many or even most may not have neatly delimited, consistent ideas about why and how they hate particular groups of other people. However, in terms of understanding the phenomenon of groupist abuse, if I can use that rather infelicitous phrase - whether based on perceptions of creed, colour, religion, sexuality - these fine-grained distinctions can be exceedingly important.  I realise that it will be little comfort for an individual to know that the person who assaulted them did so on the basis of cultural-ethnic ressentiment, rather than due to biological-racist assumptions. However, if we're to understand the phenomenon of Scottish racisms, it is manifestly insufficient simply to tabulate the number of ugly scenes on our streets and the incoherent, contemptible bawlings of bigoted cretins. It matters how and why such scenes arise at all.

The Scottish Government figures attempt no sort of internal distinctions, employing this entirely shapeless definition: "a racist incident is any incident which is perceived to be racist by the victim or any other person."  Data is recorded by the self-declared ethnicity of the victim of racist incidents, rather than in terms of the content of the abuse suffered. As a result, the data does not allow anything useful to be said about discrepancies between the self-declared ethnicity of the victim, and the animating bigotry that lead to the abuse . For example, when my father was a boy, outdoors all day, he was of decidedly dark colouring. If a passing old bigot had  mistakenly persecuted him for being Pakistani, these figures wouldn't capture that. This example is not as idiosyncratic as it might seem.  In terms of pigmentation, I've heard stories of folk from Mediterranean countries being persecuted by pale-skinned Scots youths, inaccurately accusing them of a jumble of things, from being "Pakis" to members of the Taliban. What is the nature of this incident? Mistaken, certainly - however, the way this data is recorded at present makes its implications for our understanding of the real nature of racism is Scotland unreadable. A similar point has been made by many others before about related "hate crime" datasets, emphasising that it is important to include perceived homosexuality or disability, as well as counting those who self-identify as disabled or homosexual - and so on. To do so is to emphasise the character of the incident, rather than its victim. Take, for example, this table from the publication, on the ethnic origin of the victims of racist incidents recorded by the police:

Ethnic Group 2004-05 2005-06 2006-07 2007-08 2008-09 2009-10
White British 826 1,030 983 1,030 1,094 1,145
White Irish 63 91 139 121 124 87
Other White 130 122 414 477 509 531
Mixed 127 149 170 152 150 128
Indian 443 431 507 488 609 557
Pakistani 1,773 1,545 1,833 1,654 1,584 1,452
Bangladeshi 67 26 67 48 54 61
Other Asian 508 984 532 559 505 499
Caribbean 92 171 59 53 58 46
African 321 325 404 443 478 543
Other Black 118 68 111 181 160 70
Chinese 151 153 183 117 152 126
Other 295 379 339 290 290 326
Unknown 145 346 222 177 226 187
Total 5,059 5,820 5,963 5,790 5,993 5,758

The largest group of victims, by ethnicity, are "Pakistani", numbering 1,452 of the 5,758 or 25% of the total victims recorded in 2009/10. The group containing the second highest number of victims was "White British", 1,145 of 2009/10's 5,758 recorded victims or 19.9% of the total. This second category is made up of the undifferentiated combination of "Scottish White, English White, Welsh White, Northern Irish White and British White". "Irish White" are recorded in a distinct category, as are "Other White" victims, which "includes Gypsy/Traveller, Polish White and Other White". Instantly, this strikes me as a continuation of the outmoded race relations model, which unjustifiably homogenises the racial category of "white", while finely analysing "non-white" categories. Given the research's "definition" of racism, though to style it thus is thoroughly charitable, this approach is wholly unjustified. I dare say a good many of you will have been rather surprised to discover that according to these figures, the second most "racially" victimised category in Scotland are "White British" persons, albeit with the vast majority of victims whose ethnicities were known were other than "White" (3,808 of 5,758 recorded incidents, or 66%).

So what the devil is afoot? Because of the research's undifferentiated category of "White British", it is impossible to say who is victimising who, or why.  However, the bare figure suggests, at least to me, that we should be paying much more attention to the phenomenon of anti-English abuse in Scotland. There have certainly been a number of exceedingly ugly scenes reported where little Scotlanders indulged in grotesque anglophobia, sometimes to physical injury. It is intolerable.  In no respect am I suggesting that the bare statistics on the number of White British victims of racist incidents are simply attributable to Scottish anti-English bigotry. We have no data on that point, but I am both curious and concerned to discover what percentage of racially victimised "White British" persons were mistreated as a result of Anglophobia. However, if we are properly to identify the scope of this phenomenon, and come to some understanding about its intensity and prevalence, then the Government is going to have to do a damn sight better, in picking out and presenting its data.*

*This last paragraph has been amended slightly post publication, better to express what I was trying to get at.

10 April 2011

Politics Show Scotland: mediocrity, vacuity & mendacity...

Today, my whole spirit has been prodded by a non-specific sense of general irritation with life, the universe - the plants, the flowers - the sunshine. It is most uncharacteristic and I blame the Politics Show Scotland, rather unfairly, which was monstrously awful this morning. Annabel Goldie, Gray, Salmond and Tavish Scott were all jostling with Isabel Fraser, flinging in snidey little asides, being obscurely jargon-governed and insiderish - each doing their weather best to make the whole panel look like the four finalists in Scotland's Political Cretin of the Year 2011.   The format encouraged the four folk involved to behave like horrid bullying weans, tweaking each other by the tit and howling discord. Watching them, I conceived of the gummy, sneery lineaments a crowd of  hobby-horse mounted brats, snarling their peals of dirty mirth, kicking sand into the eyes of their opponents and lodging sneaky knees in the soft portions of each other's anatomy. Edifying, it was not.

I overfloweth with vexed similes. They were a scabby nest full of shrill, overfed chicklets, yammering for attention, making one long for a larcenous feline to rob the nest, and bring back blessed silence. Downy little lives be damned. Like hyenas tearing into the putrefying carcass of some hapless gnu, each was keen to spatter themselves and their fellows in the loose mucus and gore of totally vacuous partisanship - and everything which makes me, and I dare say much of the population, come to despise elections.  I enjoy the flyting of FMQs. I like a bit of spirited to-and fro. Today's Politics Show Scotland cut a simply contemptible scene. You could almost see the wholly mistaken calculation take place, the heavy, rusted cogs of the politicians' consciousness clanking thickly. I know how to make myself seem like a terrifically robust fellow, wielding my blunt little foil in debate - I'll handily bludgeon the buggery out of my limping foes - triumph will be mine! Annabel Goldie was arguably the worst offender. She seems to imagine that it makes her seem splendidly robust and doughty to brain her opponents with an outsize rhetorical  handbag - lest she lose her position as the foremost doily-thuggee in the country - her shrill invocation of common sense the ritual demonstration that she has all the discrediting unreflectiveness of a brick. All the rest were equally contemptible, squalling, shrieking, interjecting. This unfettered gobshitism made me hope that one of the eight elbows which were so endlessly being thrown could have caught in a throat or plugged a single sodding gob - how I would have rejoiced at the muteness!  It was enough to turn this particular Peat Worrier into a vinegar bottle of ever advancing acidity, as this understated account of proceedings demonstrates with characteristic mildness.

An utterly loathsome parade of mediocrity, vacuity and mendacity. An excruciation, sans charm, sans grace, sans substance. Shut the hell up.

9 April 2011

Memorials of his time...

Henry Cockburn (1779 - 1854) was a Whig, an advocate and subsequently Solicitor General and a judge of the Court of Session. Once before on this blog, I've mentioned Cockburn's candid account of the Scots judicial lushes of his day, who, whether on the bench or in an Edinburgh tavern, seemed habitually surrounded by punished and drained bottles of claret, grogblossom clinging to their craggy features. I've recently been re-reading his Memorials of his time, posthumously published, which is full of interest and detail on the life of a particular segment of Edinburgh society during Cockburn's lifetime. I've a great fondness for historical scenes, however quotidian, which sustain their sense of humour and humanity generations after the event.  The gentle comedy of this account of fobbing off an interfering minister of the Kirk, harassing a poor old fellow on his deathbed, defies time.

“I have known of some peaceful deaths not unlike this; but one that was even more than tranquil was that of Dr. Henry the historian - about 1790, I think. I had an account of it from Sir Harry Moncreiff, who I believe was his favourite younger friend. The Doctor was living at a place of his own in his native county of Stirling. He was about seventy-two, and had been for sometime very feeble. He wrote to Sir Harry that he was dying, and thus invited him for the last time “Come out here directly. I have got something to do this week, I have got to die.” Sir Harry went; and found his friend plainly sinking, but resigned and cheerful. He had no children, and there was nobody with him except his wife. She and Sir Harry remained alone with him for about three days, being his last three; during a great part of which the reverend historian sat in his easy chair, and conversed, and listened to reading, and dozed. While engaged in this way, the hoofs of a horse were heard clattering in the court below. Mrs Henry looked out and explained that it was “that wearisome body”, naming a neighbouring minister, who was famous for never leaving a house after he gone got into it. “Keep him out,” cried the Doctor, “don't let the cratur in here.” But before they could secure his exclusion, the cratur's steps were heard on the stair, and he was at the door.

The Doctor instantly winked significantly, and signed to them to sit down and be quiet, and he would pretend to be sleeping. The hint was taken; and when the intruder entered, he found the patient asleep in his cushioned chair. Sir Harry and Mrs. Henry put their fingers to their lips, and pointing to the supposed slumberer as one not to be disturbed, shook their heads. The man sat down near the door, like one inclined to wait till the nap should be over. Once or twice, he tried to speak but was instantly repressed by another finger on the lip, and another shake of the head. So he sat on, all in perfect silence, for above a quarter of an hour; during which Sir Harry occasionally detected the dying man peeping cautiously through the fringes of his eyelids to see how his visitor was coming on. At last Sir Harry tired, and he and Mrs. Henry pointing to the poor doctor, fairly waved the visitor our of the room; on which the doctor opened his eyes wide, and had a tolerably hearty laugh; which was renewed when the sound of the horse's feet made them certain that their friend was actually off the premises. Dr. Henry died that night.”