31 December 2012

My top 10 of 2012...

2012 has been a queer, busy old year. Council Elections in May.  Months of legal and political wrangling on the independence referendum, finally resolved in October, with the publication of a draft section 30 order to put the legality of the referendum beyond down, and to kill devo-something stone dead.  In parallel, an often bilious and occasionally bitter argument about introducing same-sex marriage.  The launches of both YesScotland and BetterTogether, neither event exactly capturing the imagination. 

Outwith formal politics, thousands gathered to march in support of independence under a cyan Edinburgh sky, while in Glasgow in November, just shy of a thousand leftie activists assembled for a Radical Independence Conference (a sketch of which, written by yours truly, should be appearing in the next edition of the Drouth magazine).

In a first for me, I was also denounced by a Labour MP as a Nationalist stooge, in cahoots with Isabel Fraser in an anti-Labour conspiracy on BBC "Newsnat".  In the second part of the year, Michael Greenwell and I embarked on our For A' That series of podcasts, which we hope will mature into a constructive space for conversation and arguments about the issues, in the lead up to 2014.  In a gesture towards things to come, we're conscious that a pro-nationalist echo-chamber does not an interesting podcast make, and the inclusion of folk hostile to independence (Ian Smart) and folk who remain undecided but persuadable (Alex Massie) will be the stamp of things to come. All suggestions for guests you'd like to hear more from, and neglected or interesting issues worth discussing, gratefully received. We'll do our best to bend arms and tempt folk into our liberally-stocked green room.

In anticipation of tonight's revels to usher in 2013, I thought I'd take a wee look back, over the most popular top ten posts of 2012.

1.  I don't know if Anderstonians, Partickians, and Hillheadists are particularly interested in their local politics, but coming in in first place, is this post from May on the Glasgow Council Election results in Anderston Hillhead and Partick.  The post fell in one of a series, covering all of the wards in Glasgow, condensing the results into graphs in an effort to make the STV election we use comprehensible, and afford a better insight than is usually available into the closeness of the races. 

2.  In second place, February thoughts on On Labour's Cybernat Problem, tracing the genealogy of this now-familiar, frumious persona, and the psychological compensations for those, desperate to find the "dark heart" of Scottish nationalism.

3. Thirdly, from July, we had Labour for Independence? How can it be that a party of soi-dissant non-nationalists, non-unionists, instrumental socialists(ish), all agree that the status quo is the only practicable mechanism to realise their political convictions. Isn't that just a little queer?

4.  Ecclefechan Mackay will be delighted.  In at number four, in the balmy Olympic days of June,a cross-post from the Kinlochberviee Chronicle, reporting on the forces drafted in by Theresa May to supplement G4S's bungling security provision. A serious bit of analysis, in Crack Womble Squad Drafted in to protect Olympics.

5.  We're back to Labour at number five, with a close reading of an important speech in June, articulating a defence of the Union in England.  Arguably the most interesting quality of Miliband's pro-union analysis was its shift in gear from the usual Labour fare.  We're used to hearing about solidarity between "hard-working families" on both sides of the border, and the rhetoric of shared resistance against perfidious Conservatism.  Historian Colin Kidd has described this as an argument from "instrumental Unionism" - the mirror image of Nicola Sturgeon's recent invocation of a "utilitarian nationalism", driven not so much by considerations of national identity or culture, but a desire for power to be reclaimed by Scottish institutions to shape a particular kind of politics and society.  Interestingly, Miliband's speech took an entirely different tack, and focussed instead on affective British identity, or in Nicola's terms, "existential nationalist" reasons to maintain the union. His message: feel British? Vote no. A clear case, for me, of Ed Miliband: British nationalist.

6) At number six, an untimely little story. 2011 was the year for controversy about the UK Supreme Court, but 2012 arguably presented opportunities which the SNP in Holyrood neglected. In May, I asked, Can Holyrood repudiate the UK Supreme Court's civil jurisdiction? The interesting - and for some, probably surprising - answer is that there is a strong argument that they could, and it lies within the SNP's power unilaterally to cut the centuries old appeal to the House of Lords as was, now the UK Court. One has to wonder, why the inactivity? Why not exert your majority? Concern not to revive the damaging ugliness of 2011's overheated critique? Caution? 

7.  A second entry for the Kinlochbervie Chronicle at number seven.   Ecclefechan Mackay (MA) applies himself to the findings of Professor Mitchell and Lynn Bennie's recent study into the profile of the SNP membership: Study reveals average SNP member is "stunted Jacobite bogle". 

8.  Swithering at number eight. Others regard this year's referendum negotiations as an exercise in arid formalism and shadowboxing, but for me, the critical decision of 2012 was the elimination of any devo-something question from the referendum ballot.  It was always going to be difficult to frame the question, but even for this nationalist-with-regrets, the prospect of asking a devolutionary question was not unattractive.  "Better Together" is not a political maxim I live by, but I suspect many who now support an independent Scotland will vote yes in 2014, mourning Britain's unrealised better history. "A nationalist liferaft, but who is it for?"

9.  2012 was the first full year in which the Offensive Behaviour at Football etc (Scotland) Act 2011 was in force. September threw up this interesting case from the sheriff court, where the new legislation seemed to frustrate a prosecution for disorderly, allegedly sectarian conduct aboard a train, while an old-fashioned breach of the peace charge might well have done the trick. The first peep from a deflating political football?

10. And lastly, in tenth place, the Edinburgh Agreement, which eased years of palpitations on my part about the independence referendum being waylaid in la, and ending up before the UK Supreme Court.  I was particularly struck by how far David Cameron was drawn into the semiotics of the occasion, with all the ritual, bells and whistles, rather than ratifying a memo of ministerial agreement by a more informal exchange of emails, or letters. A little thing, perhaps, but it gave us a compelling, concrete image of what an independent Scottish diplomacy might look like. Cameron: a willing actor in Salmond's drama.

And that, as they say, is that for 2012. Enjoy a dram or two tonight, and a fortifying slab of black bun. Happy New Year!

29 December 2012

Independence Quotation of the Day...

I'm an honours list grinch. I imagine a good few of you are too, and survey the bi-annual dishing out of damehoods and ennobling shoulder-bonking with the regal scimitar without enthusiasm. Within the British state, grousing about such fopperies avails us not at all, but the combination of disgruntlement and powerlessness is not entirely without its psychological compensations. Our egalitarian-minded girning never has to contend with the heavy political weather of actually abolishing the ermine, the gewgaws, the ribbon and the magic names. 

You can imagine the Scotsman headlines, if any parliamentarian had enough brass neck to introduce an Abolition of Nobility (Scotland) Bill. "Outcry as Olympic hero Hoy to be stripped of knighthood"; "Abolishing dukedoms 'violates human rights', experts claim"; "Foulkes 'forced to live rough' if deprived of his Barony".

Courtesy of Pater Peat Worrier, my Christmas morning stocking was plump with a copy of the late Stephen Maxwell's Arguing for Independence: Evidence, Risks and the Wicked Issues (2012) this year.  It is a lucid, accessibly-written volume, which will prove invaluable for anyone trying to convince skeptical family members or cronies about the potential benefits of independence, or who risk political conversations down the pub.  Perhaps the greatest strength of the book is the extent to which it tackles the issues of risks and probability head on, without fear, and without apology. 

Maxwell isn't feart to recognise both upsides and downsides, opportunities and challenges, which Scottish independence might bring. Whatever your views on the national question, this candour is refreshing and the level of the debate would be significantly improved, if unionists as well as nationalists leant Maxwell's arguments some of their time. A number of the book's themes resonated with me, but for the moment, let's focus on just one: responsibility.  Over the past year, we've heard a good deal from a number of commentators about Scotland's (often only abstract) social democratic sensibilities. It also came up in our conversation with Kevin Williamson and Rory Scothorne in episode seven of the For A' That podcast, and to an extent, in Alex Massie's prediction that an independent Scotland would not be a "socialist nirvana" as some hope, but a state likely to resort to more "neoliberal" forms of governance.  

In a chapter headed The Cultural Case, (p. 148), Maxwell writes:

"By equipping Scots with the authority and responsibility to act across the whole spectrum of issues, independence would expose Scotland's moralising rhetoric of resistance to sterner tests than it will ever face under the forms of devolution currently touted by the Unionist parties.  It would remove the alibi for inaction provided by the Union and confront the voters with the consequences of their collusion in the politicians' rhetoric.

How much would we be prepared to pay in higher taxes for our opposition to spending cuts? Ho many more asylum seekers or economic migrants would we be ready to welcome to Scotland when the UK Border Agency is no longer there to do the dirty work of control and deportation? How much redistribution of income and wealth are the better off prepared to accept in the name of a fairer and more compassionate Scotland? How many jobs are we prepared to jeopardise in the short term as the price of terminating our role in the UK's delusional defence strategy?

The answers might be unsettling, but our public culture would be the better for being able to subject politicians' rhetoric to the test of practical responsibility."

Rings bells for me. Between the idea, And the reality, Between the motion, And the act, Falls the Shadow.  As Kenny MacAskill almost said, eventually, one really ought to grow tired of just girning. Arise Sir Wiggo.

24 December 2012

2012 in review: We Were Warned...

Holly berries, little ruby bursts. Robin redbreasts frozen to branches. The White Witch abroad. It may be more of a case of in the dreich midwinter, rather than let it snow, let it snow, let it snow in Scotland at the moment, but nothing can dim the Festive good cheer on the For A' That podcast. 

With the apocalypse averted, the year ended, and vast quantities of brandy-laced stodge in prospect, our guests this week embraced the seasonal spirit by casting a suitably leery eye over the last twelve months in politics and the independence debate.  On this edition, Michael and I were joined by a couple of characters from rather different ends of the Scottish political spectrum for the last podcast of 2012. 

Coming up the left flank, we have Robin McAlpine, director of the Jimmy Reid Foundation and editor of the Scottish Left Review.  Drifting rightward on the political spectrum, our second quest was Alex Massie, who blogs over at the Spectator.  How has the independence campaign been shaping up? How are Yes Scotland and Better Together getting on this last year? And for larks, Michael went spelunking among the cuttings to find the most eccentric - or simply batty stories - published over the last year about that perilous future state, an independent Scotland. A provocation to God? An incipient outpost for the international Caliphate? Or a threat to the masculine spirit of the fighting Scotsman, bereft of decent wars to fight in? Your guess is as good as ours.  

We'll be back with more discussion in the new year. Until then, you can listen to the show directly here, or download it, either via your iTunes, or the podcast's home page.  You can also find the whole back run of 2012's nine episodes here, to catch up with any you missed first time around.

Otherwise, it only remains to say, my very best Christmassy salutations to everyone who has leant this blog and the new podcast their time over the last twelve months, and commented, emailed and donated. Both enterprises remain grand fun to do. I hope you've found them diverting and engaging. Have a spiffing Christmas one and all, I hope Santa is good to you, and most essential of all, live tomorrow by this simple rule: don't overcook your bird, and do enjoy a fortifying beaker or two. Shalom!

20 December 2012

The World's End case: Ca'ing Canny...

It isn't exactly a seasonal dish, but ought this blogger to brace himself for a vast slice of humble pie? 

During the Double Jeopardy (Scotland) Act 2011's passage through Holyrood, several parliamentarians, and articles in the press, implied that the legislation would result in the reindictment of Angus Sinclair, accused of committing the so-called World's End murders of the seventeen year old Helen Scott and Christine Eadie in 1977.  As you will likely recall, Sinclair's murder trial collapsed in 2007 after Lord Clarke held that the evidence presented to the jury was insufficient in law, to sustain any conviction. Throughout the process of introducing these legal reforms, I was pretty sceptical about the likelihood that the specific changes which Holyrood enacted to the rules on tholing your assize would see the World's End case retried, despite the political pressure from various quarters to do so.

Today, however, the Crown Office have announced that they have applied to the High Court of Justiciary to have Sinclair's acquittal set aside, and the opportunity to re-indict him for killing Eadie and Scott.  This is the first application made by the Lord Advocate since the 2011 Act came into force.  The application will be decided by at least three judges of the High Court, and their decision is final and not subject to any appeal. So what will the Crown have to argue, if they are going to be granted authority to retry Sinclair?

There are three main exceptions to the general rule that you cannot be tried twice for the same offence in Scotland.  Firstly, your acquittal can be set aside if the trial was "tainted" - for example by someone threatening or bribing, or attempting to threaten or to bribe judge or jury or witnesses.  As far as I'm aware, there is no suggestion that the Crown is making an application under this section. The second exception is where the person admits their guilt after having been acquitted. There are some qualifications to granting reprosecutions under this heading, however.  The Court can only set aside the acquittal if four - prima facie rather stringent - tests are met:

  1. That the admission of guilt "was not known, and could not with the exercise of reasonable diligence have become known, to the prosecutor" by the time of the original acquittal.
  2. The "case against the person is strengthened substantially by the admission".
  3. That "the admission and the evidence which was led at the trial in respect of the original offence, it is highly likely that a reasonable jury properly instructed would have convicted the person"; and
  4. That "it is in the interests of justice to do so".

Imagining myself invested with judicial grandeur, wig and gown, I struggle to imagine the circumstances where almost any credible evidence of a post-acquittal admission of guilt would not be regarded by the Court as substantially strengthening a case and heightening the likelihood of conviction.  Unless, I suppose, the case was fearfully, uncharacteristically weak to begin with. Again, it is worth emphasising that the Crown announcement today contains no information on which of these grounds they are proceeding, but a prison confession would be one possibility.

The final ground to set aside an acquittal is that "new evidence" materialises in the meanwhile. This ground is only available where the original trial was on indictment in the High Court.  Practically speaking, this means that acquittals pronounced in the Sheriff Court, whether by judge alone, or sheriff and jury, can't be overturned on the basis of "new evidence", pertinent or persuasive as it might be.  Critically, however, not just any additional evidence will do to knock an acquittal flat.  In echo of the strictures we saw around subsequent admissions of guilt, the Court may only set aside the acquittal if it is satisfied that:

  1. The "case against the person is strengthened substantially by the new evidence";
  2. The new evidence "was not available, and could not with the exercise of reasonable diligence have been made available" at the first trial.
  3. On the new evidence and the evidence which was led at that trial, it is highly likely that a reasonable jury properly instructed would have convicted the person.
  4. And lastly, that "it is in the interests of justice to do so".

A few general observations about these qualifications. Firstly, it remains to be seen how expansively or restrictively the High Court will interpret these provisions, but the phrases which I've highlighted above at least gesture towards the Court taking a fairly strict line on what sort of new evidence might justify quashing an acquittal.  It certainly should not be taken for granted, for example, that the Court will agree with prosecutors' assessments of the significance and novelty of any new evidence which they wish to adduce. We might be able to agree, for instance, that additional evidence might strengthen an Advocate Depute's case, but it's a matter of judgement and context, rather than strict rule, what a "substantially strengthened" case might look like. Or for that matter, whether supplementing the prosecutor's case with the new evidence would make it "highly" likely, rather than simply more likely, that the jury would find the charges proven against the acquitted person. You might well think, however, that any additional material would have to be pretty darned incriminating, or at least, capable of an incriminatory reading.  

In particular, notice too that under the Act, the new evidence must not have been available at the time of the original trial. The evidence would not, for example, be "new" if it was available but simply not lead before the jury by prosecutors.  Similarly, want of diligence in ferreting out evidence on the part of the prosecutors and the police cannot be rewarded by a fresh prosecution, though the question of what sort of investigative techniques a "reasonably diligent" copper might employ is obviously open to interpretation at the margins. Our legislators, minds full of "cold cases" from the telly, and advances in forensic technologies, were probably thinking about evidence which it was scientifically impossible to obtain in the past, but are now the common currency of law enforcement.  

This paradigm doesn't seem to fit neatly with the facts of Sinclair's acquittal. While the murders of Eadie and Scott occurred in 1977, Sinclair's first trial did not take place until thirty years later.  It will be for the Lord Advocate to substantiate, between 2007 and 2012, rather than 1977 and 2007, that some additional significant evidence has come to light warranting the reactivation of criminal proceedings against Sinclair. While it is easy to envisage big changes in the investigative techniques available between the 1970s and the early 2000s, it is a bit trickier to see what radical technological innovations may have occurred over the last half decade, generating evidence where evidence formerly was unavailable. 

I've no insight whatever into the substance of the Crown's case, and it may well be that they have uncovered credible evidence of a confession, or new evidence within or outwith the natty fields of forensic science. No doubt we'll hear in greater detail, when the application is presented in open court some time in the new year. On the basis of what the Double Jeopardy (Scotland) Act says, however, there are still plenty of reasons to ca' canny at this stage about the High Court granting authority to the Crown for a second World End's trial to proceed.

17 December 2012

For A' That ~ 8 ~ "Who's flagging now?"

Is Alex Salmond flagging? Losing his political touch a bit? Is he just another tall Scottish poppy, at risk of being "untimely plucked, soon vaded"? That's the thesis we kicked off by examining in this week's For A' That podcast. On this, eighth, edition of the show, Michael and I were joined by self-styled "lefty lawyer and Scottish Labour Party hack", Ian Smart.

We also took a look at the evolving political statures of three of Scotland's leading female politicians. What might the future hold for the careers of Nicola Sturgeon, Johann Lamont, and Ruth Davidson and their parties, whatever happens in 2014? To give you a sneak peek inside the can, Ian's assessment of his party's and leader's future fortunes is, to say the least, rather bleak.

In a week in which the Scottish Government published its draft equal marriage Bill for consultation, we reviewed the last year's debate on the issue, and discuss the broader issue of whether it is a problem that Scottish political institutions are failing to represent conservative sections of public opinion.  I also took the opportunity to ask Ian, who is a former president of the Law Society of Scotland, about the recent controversy about Kenny MacAskill's proposed changes to the legal aid regime north of the border. Ian also afforded an interesting insight into the struggles of legally unrepresented litigants in court, and the challenges which their participation in legal proceedings can pose to both judges, and lawyers briefed for the other side.  Otherwise, we also touched briefly on the flag protests in Belfast, which was mirrored by a union-jack festooned protest outside the City Chambers in Glasgow.

We'll be back next weekend, with our For A' That Review of the Year. As we tend towards the Festive season, and the (almost) end of our first calendar year of podcastery, I also wanted to say many thanks to all those folk who've supported this project, either by lending their ears to the shows, supporting it financially via our donate buttons, telling their pals about it, and of course to the guests who've given of their time to come on. They're very entertaining to do - and I hope a beneficial and diverting addition to Scottish political commentary, at a time when we need to pull together every scrap of useful discussion which we can.

As usual, you can listen to the latest episode online here, or download it from the player, or from iTunes, for later.  

9 December 2012

For A' That ~ Episode 7 ~ Creative Recountancy...

With December drawing in, bare branches and rime-edged mornings, we're onto episode seven of the For A' That podcast, dishing up weekly doses of timely and untimely thoughts about the state of the nation, as we inch slowly towards 2014.  Today, Michael and I were joined by Kevin Williamson, who is a gentleman with a finger in many artistic and non-artistic pies, including the Bella Caledonia blog, and Rory Scothorne, who is a co-founder of the National Collective project, who joined us on the show from the other side of the Atlantic ocean. 

This week, questions of Culture emerge as our major theme, in a blether ranging across the latest challenges faced by Creative Scotland, comfort and discomfort with a Scottish voice in film, literature and music, and how artistry and political conviction marry (and may not always comfortably marry). 

In more conventional political terms, we also chewed over the virtues and vices of the thinking underlying Nicola Sturgeon's latest speech. What challenges might it pose to the Labour party and the Better Together campaign? More generally, is it helpful to think of Scotland a more left-inflected nation, politically, than our southern neighbours, or is this a unconvincing myth? How does thinking - and perhaps divergent thinking - about class in England and Scotland feed into this?

Lastly, Michael spotted a tale in the Scotsman about funding being funnelled by the Economic and Social Research Council into academic fellowships to study the implications of Scottish independence.  We discuss his anxieties. As usual, you can lend your ears to the show directly here.

Alternatively, you can download the latest edition of the podcast here, or lay your paws on it via iTunes.

3 December 2012

"My nerves are bad to-night. Yes, bad. Stay with me. "Speak to me..."

I confess, Nicola Sturgeon has never before struck me as a likely devotee of Thomas Stearns Eliot, but I'm always happy to be surprised. Subverting the tyranny of Robert Burns, Hugh MacDiarmid and Edwin Morgan in the First Minister's book of quotations, his Deputy today opened a speech at the University of Strathclyde, with an epigram or two culled from the poet's Little Gidding:

"We shall not cease from exploration and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time..."
Her topic was, unsurprisingly, Scottish independence, and Sturgeon's title "Building a Better Nation".  I dare say a scrap or two of her remarks might find their way into the Scottish press, or be briefly recounted in the sagging corner of a Scottish edition here or there, but they are unlikely to impinge on the consciousness of a UK audience, one way or the other.  On one level, this is perfectly creditable omission on their part, and it would be a surprise if Nicola's thoughts were to invade kitchens across Britain, to be consumed avidly  alongside a gulp of coffee or hasty crumb of toast. On another level, however, that Telegraph or Mail readers will not encounter the sort of nationalistic case Nicola is articulating, is a pity. 

One may wonder what impact, if any, Ed Miliband's "Defending the Union in England" speech over the summer made on the public consciousness.  His remarks were, however, interesting and important in another respect: they attempted to frame understandings and the debate about Scottish nationalism in England in a very particular way. Around half-way through, the Labour leader made the following observation.  He said...

"Why does this matter to the debate about the United Kingdom? In my view, it is absolutely central.  Of course, there are economic and political arguments advanced for Scottish separatism. But even though they often don’t admit it, the logic of the nationalists’ case goes beyond politics and the economy. It insists that the identification with one of our nations is diminished by the identity with our country a whole. After all, they want to force people to choose. To be Scottish or British. I say you can be both."

"Clean-up in aisle five. The stuffing has fallen out of Mr Miliband's straw man." That "of course", dispensing with economic and political reasons for independence, is doing an awful lot of work, and the general gist of Ed's argument seems pretty plain. For Ed, the resolution of the national question in Scotland ought to turn, finally, on the question of identity. His formulation is simple: if you feel British - even a smidgeon, a smudge, a frisson, a flutter - vote no.  That's some heavy-duty gloss he's applied to the "really-existing Scottish nationalism" whose constitutional hopes Miliband hopes to extinguish. The devil of it is that this highly misleading account of the character of contemporary Scottish nationalism is arguably the dominant understanding of the phenomenon which you meet here in England.

As those of you who regularly follow our For A' That podcast series will know, the state of the Scottish independence debate across the UK is a well-worn hobby horse of mine.  There are several reasons for my interest, not least that I have lived in England since the autumn of 2009, while retaining a strong interest (often via this site and the conversations it has sparked) in what has been going on in Scotland. Squinting north from the lee side of Hadrian's wall affords a certain perspective, and chatting to people in England about the prospect of independence, you come to a view about the sorts of images and accounts of Scottish nationalism which are gaining purchase among thoughtful, inquiring people. They're generally unrecognisable to me, or sketchy beyond measure. If you accept the Miliband model, Scottish nationalists are pre-eminently seen as a rather suspect, bamboozling, ragbag, potentially even slightly sinister, band united around the lurid tat of tartan kitsch and howling Braveheartism.  "I say, old chap. Steady on."   

Let's bring Nicola back in here, and consider the following section from her lecture today...

"One of the great intellectuals of the nationalist movement - and someone we all miss dearly – the late Professor Sir Neil MacCormick, distinguished between what he called the existentialist and the utilitarian strands of the nationalist movement. The former described those who thought Scotland was entitled to be independent simply because we are a nation, the latter that independence was a tool to deliver a better society.

While I recognise the distinction Neil drew and realise that there are some in our national movement who base their political beliefs more on the fact of nationhood, I would suggest that today most SNP members are an amalgam of these two strands.

For my part, and I believe for my generation, I have never doubted that Scotland is a nation. And while I might not go on about a thousand years of history and that sort of thing I take it for granted as a simple fact that Scotland is a nation with an inalienable right to self-determination.

But for me the fact of nationhood or Scottish identity is not the motive force for independence. Nor do I believe that independence, however desirable, is essential for the preservation of our distinctive Scottish identity. And I don’t agree at all that feeling British – with all of the shared social, family and cultural heritage that makes up such an identity – is in any way inconsistent with a pragmatic, utilitarian support for political independence.

My conviction that Scotland should be independent stems from the principles, not of identity or nationality, but of democracy and social justice."

On twitter, the journalist David Torrance described the speech as a whole as "the most lucid statement of modern Nationalist thinking [he'd] seen". And with due credit to Nicola, I'd concur with that assessment. The frustration, however, is that this lucid account will - inevitably - struggle to dent the accumulated woad-smacked, plaid-bound banalities which thrive in the images of Scottish nationalism cultivated by the UK media.  It is significant, too, I think, that not only is Sturgeon's logic lucid - it is also representative of the thinking which underpins a much wider, popular nationalist analysis: if independence is the answer, what is the question that it answers?

At the Radical Independence Conference in Glasgow two Saturdays back, a couple of features of the debate were particularly striking. Firstly, the broad gamut of speakers were absolutely united by their fatalism about their ability to realise anything like the sort of politics they wanted within the confines of the British state. More significantly, perhaps, was the mostly unarticulated, undebated, taken-for-granted proposition that an independent Scotland would be better placed to begin realising delegates' left-leaning goals. This found expression in simple, but I think telling ways.  The big crowd-pleaser in plenary and workshop sessions was not independence, per se. The ideas which merited spontaneous cheers and applause included the collective ownership of renewable energies generation, opposition to austerity and welfare cuts and to Nato and to nuclear weapons. 

The critical point is this: here was an assembly of some nine hundred folk, none of whom the reader, lead by the nose by the UK press to expect romantic impractical Bravehearts, would have found remotely recognisable.  Although Sturgeon and the anarchist-marxist-feminist-socialist-environmentalist campaigner who sat in the Radisson Blu last week would likely find a great deal to disagree about politically, and how the institutions of independent Scotland ought to exercise the liberty which constitutional change would afford them, it is fascinating how far these two core assumptions about the case for Scottish independence are i) shared between mainstream and "left-radical" proponents of Scottish independence and ii) both are largely misunderstood and left out of UK press reports only occasionally dipping in to Scottish affairs.

It is a point I've made a few times before, but on a day when Sturgeon's persuasive statement of contemporary nationalism will likely find itself stoppered within the confines of Scottish commentary, it is important to understand we can already detect the straining signs of the UK's accelerating "social disunion". For those who favour the status quo, this drift must surely be concerning.  While it may seem to suit partisan anti-nationalism to see folk like Sturgeon reduced to convenient cyphers and straw (wo)men to be flattened, that the United Kingdom doesn't even appear to be interested in the possibility that all will be changed and changed utterly for it in 2014, hardly speaks to a lively social and political union of reciprocal interest and concern.  Indeed, it perhaps recalls another frustrated passage, from another, arguably more famous, Eliot poem...

'My nerves are bad to-night. Yes, bad. Stay with me. 
'Speak to me. Why do you never speak. Speak. 
'What are you thinking of? What thinking? What? 
'I never know what you are thinking. Think.'

For A' That, Episode the Sixth - the Meedja...

Sixth time, the charm.  The start of another week, and inevitably, another edition of the For A' That podcast. This time around, Michael and I were joined in our plush studio by freelance journalist Peter Geoghegan (whose cover story about disability you may have seen in yesterday's Sunday Herald) and Philip Challinor, a London-based curmudgeonly blogger and self-published novelist.   

What future does the media have in an independent Scotland? Might independence prove reinvigorating for the rusting Scotch presses, or like devolution, see the paradoxical shrinking in the scope and ambition of its productions? What, if anything, might Levesonian developments have to say to that? And back in a wider Britain, what are we to make of UKIP's upward political momentum? Ought we to be consecrating public holidays in a secular state to old, dead sainted men? And to flip the ordinary logic of our debates, just why might Britain want to hold onto Scotland anyway? Michael has a telling, somewhat time-worn quotation from Jack Straw on the theme, which kicks off a little debate.

As usual, you can also download the show from here, or, as preferences tend, on iTunes here.  This is the sixth in our series of weekly podcasts. If you'd like to dip into our back catalogue, and revivify past conversations, you can listen back to episodes one, two, three, four and five here.

27 November 2012

For A' That - Episode 5 - All Aboard!

This week, on the fifth episode of For A' That, Michael and I hazarded our first four-headed panel, inviting both Carolyn Leckie, former SSP MSP and mover and shaker in the emerging Women for Independence movement, and Mike Small of Bella Caledonia onto the show to discuss the latest developments in Scottish politics and the upcoming independence referendum.  

Dominating the schedule this week, Saturday's Radical Independence Conference, which both Mike and I were able to attend.  We chat about what the conference is for, how and how far it might contribute to a win in 2014, what the meaningful next-steps for the 900 souls who gathered in Glasgow and generally answer Michael's burning (rather jealous) questions about the character and content of our big leftie nationalist day out in the slightly improbable surroundings of the Radisson Blu hotel.  We also discussed the curious phenomenon of the left's unity around the independence project and the challenges this might pose for pro-union activism amongst the left-leaning Scottish working class, the Women for Independence's ongoing "listening exercise", the marginalisation of patriarchy and gender in discussions of Scottish politics, and on pan-UK efforts by the Conservative Party to drum up doubloons to save the union by eating their way to referendum victory at lavish party dinners.  As usual, you can lend it your lugs here.

Alternatively, to save the podcast for savouring later, you can download it here, or from iTunes here.  We''ll be back to our normal time this Sunday without another guest or two, and I rather expect we may be discussing devolved aspects of press regulation, in the week that Lord Justice Leveson shall hand down his report, in the wake of the phone-hacking scandal which engulfed British politics earlier this year. 

23 November 2012

Scottish Labour's Samson strategy?

Back in 2011, a waggish nationalist friend half-seriously suggested that, failing everything else, Scottish Labour's best strategy to defeat independence was to be as crushingly, dishearteningly mediocre as possible. 

There is a sort of bleak logic to it.  Fostering a collective sense of confidence in Scottish political institutions is the sine qua non for those who favour independence. Part of the SNP's governmental and parliamentary strategy must be to promote, wherever possible, images and examples which make it easier for folk to envisage an independent Holyrood, and an independent Scottish government in which they can repose confidence, operating effectively in their interests. Arses must be consistently distinguished from elbows. Government must be poised, parliament at the very least credible, at best, something which one could be optimistic about. The major opposition party can play an important role in creating - or despoiling - that atmosphere.

And here's where Labour's "Samson strategy" might come into its own. Your argument (and I'm not endorsing it, merely stating it), probably looks something like this...
"Isn't this level of political discourse dismal? You needn't make the argument that daft wee Scotia can't fend for herself.  Just watch First Minister's Questions. We can't even sustain a meaningful debate on the powers within our competence at the minute.  What sort of future can Scotland have, when the national defence, when foreign affairs, when tax and welfare decisions are to be made in this vacuous, bilious climate of rank stupidity and corrosive partisanship? If only we were like the sober souls on the Green benches in Westminster.  At least there you get serious debate, not like Holyrood. If this is the best we can do as the official opposition in parliament, how the devil can you have confidence in Scotland's future, with us lurking about as the only government-in-waiting? Doesn't it all just dishearten you? Sod it. It's all too depressing. Just vote no and put us all out of our misery."

As another crony pointed out to me this week, this strategy may be - much more destructively - elaborated upon. Why not pull the temple down around your ears? Like the Biblical strongman, it's a self-sacrificing tactic, but not necessarily ineffective for all that. If the credibility of devolved institutions is an important part of the pro-independence argument, why not rob them of that advantage altogether, by striking out at the pillars of its credibility?  Finger the Presiding Officer for bias, call for her to be sacked, attack not only the government, but the committees, the chamber, everywhere spreading the notion that Holyrood is collapsing under the weight of its own amateurism and incompetence, finally revealed to be the "wee pretendy parliament" and dysfunctional parish council that some always believed it would be. Certainly, this sort of political strategy may bring the roof crashing down on all of yours heads. Collateral damage might be inflicted on things you value, but that's all to the good, so long as the separatist serpent is satisfyingly crushed when the roof caves in. 

It is not, perhaps, accidental, that we simultaneously hear the likes of Gordon Brown making speeches which give every impression that devolution was really something of a mistake, with a whisper of nostalgia for the old days of Scottish governance by the Queen in Parliament, untroubled by devolved parliaments and their governments. None of this should be understood as an unqualified defence of how Holyrood discharges its duties, or to suggest that a majority government in a unicameral parliament, and the unremitting loyalty of SNP backbenchers doesn't pose challenges. Clearly they do, and I've been critical about some manifestations of that before, but the challenges of majoritarian government are hardly unique to Scotland. Yet an increasingly hysterical, Labour-dominated opposition in Holyrood would have us believe that the SNP administration is some unique, terrifying, oppressive, unprecedented chimera, gnawing away at the roots of Scottish democracy.  

Increasingly, this looks like a classic case of projection to me. Johann Lamont is weel kent as a formidable woman, but given the political atmosphere of the last month or so, I'm beginning to wonder if she doesn't also have more shades of Samson than Delilah about her...

18 November 2012

For A' That, Episode 4 ... Hypothetically Speaking...

I'm told that - like grief and alcoholism, and here there may be overlaps between the three - completing your doctoral thesis is a process with many stages, from bright-eyed initial enthusiasm, to grinding, alienated despair, as the prose accumulates, and the months and years tick by.  It's like Stockholm syndrome, where it is impossible to tell whether you or the thesis is the kidnapper. I've been sunk deep up to my eyeballs in this unforgiving endeavour: I hope you'll forgive my quietness here these past two weeks. 

I'm happy to say, however, that we are keeping up the momentum up on our For A' That podcast, recorded with my co-host, Michael Greenwell of the Scottish independence podcast (most recently recorded with Patrick Harvie MSP), and interesting folk from the world of Scottish social and political commentary.  Our guest on this, the fourth episode of the show, was Gary Dunion, currently one of the editors of Bright Green Scotland blog, former candidate and chief press officer for the Green Party in England and Wales.  

Today's discussion covered a range of topics, from Vodafone and Starbucks' interrogation by a Committee of the House of Commons on their economical tax arrangements, and the potential efficacy of protest to effect political change, to yesterday's (unconfirmed) allegations that police were stripping Celtic fans of Palestinian flags as an entre into a broader discussion of policing football, the law recently passed by Holyrood, to criminalise "offensive behaviour" on the terraces and how that may relate to fundamental rights, including free expression, which is protected by the European Convention on Human Rights, incorporated into domestic law by the Human Rights Act 1998.

We closed off our chat with a brief look at the latest independence referendum issues, including the House of Lords Constitutional Affairs Committee's report, published this week, reported in the Telegraph under the inflammatory headline, Lords: Scottish independence referendum deal could be declared "unlawful". Gary also makes an interesting point about campaign funding: is the SNP government actually proposing an overly abstemious regulation of the independence referendum? Is there not a case for nationalists to raise and spend a substantial amount of cash, making the best, most detailed case for independence which can be conceived? We also considered the situation of the civil service in this process: will the state bureaucracy in Scotland and the UK strain at the seams, as a nationalist Scottish Government, and a unionist Westminster Government, use their governmental resources to pursue their constitutional preferences?

In perhaps the podcast's inflammatory admission thus far, I also reveal that, unlike the First Minister, I cannot survey a Tunnocks' teacake with equanimity, nevermind culinary enthusiasm. Lend the podcast your ears here:

For those of you who'd prefer to ferret the show away for later like a concealed, larcenously-acquired teacake in a greedy schoolboy's pocket, you can also download the show via iTunes or Spreaker.  All observations, comments or criticisms on the show, or anything we discussed, very gratefully received.  We'll be back next week with another show, with another guest, and a new range of issues to blether about. Unforeseen, but happily, I'll also be up in Glasgow next week and have squeezed Saturday's Radical Independence Conference into my schedule.  I dare say I might bump into a few of you there.

11 November 2012

For A' That podcast: the Cognitively Dissonant edition...

The American election has swept through the headlines and news bulletins this week, and today's For A' That podcast cannot resist the tide. No guest sitting in with Michael and I in this week's show, the third in our series, but we had an extensive discussion between ourselves. 

Cognitive dissonance proved an insistent theme, in a chat spanning the continents, looking critically at European attitudes toward the re-elected President Obama and his policies, and back across the water, analysing how the reputations and histories of Alistair Darling and Gordon Brown might impact on their effectiveness as pro-union advocates the referendum campaign. Michael and I also sampled a spoonful or two of "tomorrow's jam", plunked down in Holyrood this week by Michael Moore, who once again floated the idea that rejecting independence in the 2014 referendum will precipitate the devolution of more powers to Scotland, however currently ill-defined and indefinite those powers may be.  We also briefly touch on a puzzle - why the appetite for electoral and constitutional reform in England seems so limited?

You can download the podcast for subsequent consumption here via spreaker, or listen to it directly here:


7 November 2012

"Our job is to link the individual issues to the concept of independence..."

Imagine an election hustings, held somewhere in Scotland in early 2011. As you would expect, the political panel was filled out primarily by representatives of all of the main Scottish political parties, both unionist and nationalist, scrounging for votes. Gathered up before the assembled speakers, a modal sort of Scottish crowd, if perhaps, by dint of their attendance at the meeting, more interested in politics than many of their fellow citizens. 

The issue of independence was raised, sceptically, by a voice from the floor. Hostile rhubarbs from the Labour and Conservative representatives, albeit of varying degrees of intensity. Then, up pipes a pro-independence speaker. She asks the panel and the crowd something like the following series of questions.

"Would you rather commit our welfare system into Iain Duncan Smith's hands, or to elect someone - to elect any of us, all of us - sitting here, to ensure we can secure a decent standard of living to the poor, the unemployed, the disabled? Would you rather David Cameron decided if and where the Royal Regiment of Scotland was deployed to fight and die in the field, or anyone on this panel? Are you comfortable with George Osborne's ideas of what a fair taxation system looks like, comfortable with George's ideas of equality, or might you have a more faith in a John Swinney - or for that matter, any of us sitting here to share your values and reflect your priorities on taxation, if we only had the powers to decide?"

It should not, perhaps, surprise us that this form of pro-independence rhetoric was put to me by a Green Party member, who doesn't conceive of himself and his politics as being driven primarily by national sentiment. I've tried permutations of it out a few times with socially liberal, economically centre-left, highly-educated, well-off or soon-to-be relatively well-off Scottish friends.  If we've had our noses in the polls, it shouldn't surprise us that the vast majority of these AB voters - or offspring of AB voters - remain sceptical, and most are minded to give you a negative answer if you ask them pat, "do you support independence for Scotland?"

I've found that if you reorientate your question, however, that robust, reflexive rejection of independence starts to look decidedly shooglier.  Many of these folk share an essentially fatalistic assessment of the possibilities afforded by Westminster politics, and are not optimistic about the prospects of the UK Labour Party, whether in office, or in opposition. Most would, given their first preference, choose some sort of devo-something settlement for Scotland.  Unless they have a taste for tomorrow's condiments, ingredients not yet disclosed, they're deprived of that option. One of the critical benefits of the whole devo-something discussion, kite-flying though much of it has been, is that it has focussed minds and the recent debate - at least in Scotland - on powers not on identities, and it is powers which are of the essence in the intervention which I sketched above.

Who should make decisions impacting on your life? Which institutions and which politicians do you most trust to make decisions which come closest to your core convictions about the role of the state in society, or the scope of its ethical vocation to its citizens? This case for independence emphasises responsibility and faith in Scotland's hidden powers, the potential of its people to make decisions for ourselves, hoisting the burden of political choices - seasoned, admittedly, with just a little old time anti-Toryism. It couldn't be further away from the images which still heftily predominate in the London-based media, envisaging a Scottish nationalism driven primarily by Romanticism, the political expression of which being an atavistic - and essentially suspect - ethnic project. 

Instead of asking your dubious pal about independence, file instead through the catalogue of things which the state does or could do, and canvass who they trust more (or less) on the issues and where they'd prefer to see powers exerted and decisions made, if they were cloud-compellers and could work their constitutional will without restraint. I'd wager that you'll find that many of your friends, though reflexively anti-independence, will begin to squirm uncomfortably in their chairs, realising the extent to which the gap which separates independence from the distribution of powers they'd prefer to see is rather smaller than the gap separating their constitutional ideal from the constitutional status quo.  The SNP have been promoting the idea of a "spectrum of self-government" for some time now, most recently in Salmond's speech to conference in October.  Lest we missed it, the First Minister courteously kept it back until the last lines of his address:

"Our home rule journey, begun by so few so many years past, is coming to its conclusion. Together, we say Yes. To Scotland and to Independence."

For obvious reasons, unionists have been making strenuous efforts to denounce this sort of rhetoric in at least two ways. First, simply as an inadmissible category mistake, which conflates constitutional solutions (Scottish independence) to contingent political problems (Tory government).  Secondly, we see pro-Unionists striving simultaneously to dismantle the metaphor of a spectrum of self government, from status quo ante, to devolution, to independence, to European and international bonds - positing the middle two as categorically opposed choices, all or nothing.  It's this sort of childish logic which lies behind the eminently tiresome but regularly regurgitated proposition that the SNP or "Alex Salmond doesn't believe in devolution", feeding quietly on an abiding (but fundamentally disingenuous) Labour myth, that only "we are the true party of devolution", and accordingly, that any credit for establishing Holyrood ought to accrue exclusively to those in red jaikets. 

With this in mind, I was interested to watch Alex Salmond, interviewed by Raymond Buchanan on the BBC this morning. Inevitably, the referendum came up in their discussion.  What was interesting was Salmond's response: for my money, the clearest statement yet from the First Minister about how he strategically envisions the upcoming argument for Scottish independence. Interestingly, it is remarkably similar to the argument advanced above.  It's an important answer too, so I've transcribed it in full below. Emphases mine.

Buchanan: You have, though, an issue if you talk to pollsters, which is: you're very popular, the SNP are popular, but your principal aim of independence still only commands around a third of Scots in most polls. And, in fact, that seems to be going down in recent polls. How are you going to convince people that they can back independence.

Salmond: Well, there is another paradox in the polls. And that is, if you ask people the individual questions like, "should Scotland control its own economy?", the answer's yes.  "Should Scotland have the power to abolish nuclear weapons from our country?" The answer's yes.  So when you ask people about specific policies about independence, then they give an argument in favour. And therefore that gives me great hope that we can combine the specific beliefs that people have and say, well, what that is, is Scottish independence. There's a great yearning wish to have power in Scotland. I think generally, actually, there's a great wish for people in these difficult economic times to have more control over their circumstances, more control over what's happening to them and their communities and families.  And independence, I believe, is part of that process.  It's part of a process of empowerment. 
So our job is to link the individual issues to the concept of independence, and to paint a picture of the future, of what Scotland could achieve, because the other thing that is important in difficult times is hope for the future.  Some people say optimism in politics is something for when times are easy - when the money's flowing - when the economy's going great. I just think optimism and hope and belief in the future is even more at a premium when times are tough. So if we can pitch our campaign to say these individual projects amount to Scottish independence, if you want to have control over these things - like the economy - then independence will give us that, and to show that independence is a proper, optimistic way forward for this country.

When Shakespeare wanted to emphasise something, he included it twice in his scripts. Salmond makes the point three times here, and for me, his analysis is absolutely spot on.  For nationalists, the referendum cannot - will not - be about British or Scottish identities, Braveheart imagery or plucked heartstrings, but must focus instead, foremost and forefront on the question of who exercises political power and to what purpose, and the opportunities represented by independent statehood for Scotland.

This is already shaping up to be one of the great ironies of this campaign: supposedly Romantic nationalists only want to talk about democratic governance structures and political choice, while it is the pro-Union side of the debate who are currently discoursing most and more vehemently on identities and sentiment.  One day, the UK press might notice this queer discrepancy.  Until then, though, it's Scotland through the looking glass...

6 November 2012

Death by the Clyde...

Every year, government statisticians put out a grim butcher's bill of Scotland's homicides, and the statistical detail on the killings is not for the squeamish.  The annual 2011/12 count of deaths was released this morning, recording a total of 90 deaths and 88 homicide cases over the last twelve months.  In the press, you're likely to hear a couple of headline statistics: the total number of deaths is down on last year, falling from 99 to 88 cases.  

A total of 124 persons were accused of committing homicide in the last year, of which 115 (93%) were men, compared to just 9 women (7%).  The vast majority of victims of homicide were also men.  Some 71 of 90 victims of homicide were men (79% of victims), while 19 women were also killed (21% of victims). As ever, alcohol features prominently Once again, the numbers put the prevalent myth of "stranger danger" to the question, particularly for women. Looking at the last ten years, the government statisticians report:

"For homicides recorded in the last ten years, 51% of the female victims aged between 16 and 70 years were killed by their partner or ex-partner, 29% were killed by an acquaintance and 9% were killed by a stranger. For male victims aged 16 to 70 years, only 6% were killed by their partner or ex-partner. Nearly two thirds, 64%, of male victims aged 16 to 70 years were killed by an acquaintance and 17% were killed by a stranger."

This seems borne out by the pre-eminent locations in which homicides occur. In 2011/12, 56 of 88 homicide cases (64%) occurred in a residential setting, which includes houses, but also common stairwells and hostels, hotels and lodging houses.  The vast majority (fifty three of fifty six in 2011/12) of these are confined to houses and dwellings.  That said, things get a wee bit more complicated when we take a decade-long look, and break down cases by recorded motive, gender and location.  Between 2002 and 2012, 840 men have been killed and their homicide cases "solved" by police.  Of these, 442 (53%) have occurred in a dwelling, compared to 397 (47%) which were "not in a dwelling".  In the same period, there have been 2011 solved cases involving female victims.  Of these, 77% occurred in a dwelling, with the remaining 23% occurring elsewhere.

Knives are obviously an important concern in Scottish politics, dominating Labour's agenda in the last Holyrood election. Accordingly, the number of folk killed by "sharp instruments" will likely attract the highest levels of political scrutiny.  Of the 90 victims of homicide recorded in 2011/12 (as opposed to 88 homicide cases recorded, where multiple killings were singly investigated), 52% were slain using a "sharp instrument" as compared to 61 of 101 (60%) of homicide victims in 2010/11.

Death by the Clyde...

This year, I thought I'd focus a little more closely on geography in general, and on Glasgow and Strathclyde in particular. First, some introductory demographics.  According to 2010 population estimates, Strathclyde police force area covers some  2,217,880 people, substantially more than double the next largest - Lothian and Borders police - which attended to public order and the investigation of crime for 939,020 souls. 

Although well shy of half of covering half of the Scottish population, over the last decade, Strathclyde has dominated the homicide statistics, never contributing less than half of the Scottish national total of deaths. As you can see, the national totals have tended to follow fluctuations in Strathclyde's homicide count.  For comprehensibility, I've only included specific numbers of homicide cases for the national and Strathclyde and Lothian and Borders in the chart below:

Taking of of these numbers, over the last decade, 62% of all homicide cases have originated in the Strathclyde police force area, fluctuating up and down over time.

One of the interesting aspects of today's statistics is that in addition to breaking down the figures by police force area, they also include information on a few - four - choice local government areas: Glasgow, Edinburgh, Aberdeen and Dundee City areas.  The findings from Glasgow - historically "no mean city" - trace a highly encouraging downward trend in the number of homicides recorded.

At the start of the last decade (2002/03), Glasgow City actually contributed the majority of homicide cases in Strathclyde.  Since, that number as dramatically fallen, to a low of just fifteen deaths this past year. While the number of homicide cases concerning events in Glasgow city has been falling very substantially in the last decade, it is striking that the rest of Strathclyde exhibits nothing like the same decreasing incline of killings. 

These numbers are mute on the human stories behind the columns and the totals, the abstract "sharp instruments" some distance away from the horror and suffering of a life lost on the end of thrust blade, clubbed or choked from you. The objectivity of the numbers, their bare detail, has an obvious distancing effect which is mute on the devastated lives which lie behind them: the mothers and fathers buckled with grief, consigning sons and daughters to the earth, the tears stinging the eyes of loving friends, the lonely children bereft.  These numbers only thinly tabulate tragedy, both for those killed and for their families and friends, but also for many of killers, who were most likely drunk, most likely young men, most likely caught up in a fight or quarrel, all of whom have made a dreadful, tragic mistakes which will alter and afflict the course of their lives, and the lives of many others.

Reading these numbers at an abstract distance, it's important always to remind ourselves of the sorrow and loss that lies behind them.

4 November 2012

For A' That, Episode, the Second...

A bit of the quiescent week here from me on the blogging front, but as trailed last Sunday, our new For A' That Scottish political podcast is still going strong, surveying a few of the week's stories, picking up a handful of stray, neglected threads in contemporary Scottish politics - and generally unburdening ourselves about anything pertinent which comes to mind.

As you'll no doubt be relieved to hear, we plan to invite a new guest on every week, so the meliffluous tones of Michael and I don't monopolise the schedule.  We've several splendid folk lined up already, but if there is anybody in the broad thinking and scribbling public which you'd like to hear from, do let us know and we'll try to press-gang them into headphones and skype-chatter them into oblivion. 

This week, Michael and I were joined by Natalie McGarry, who is a founder-member of Women for Independence, episodic blogger, SNP activist in Glasgow and occasional pumpkin/tumshie advocate on STV's Scotland Tonight.  As ever, no doubt attributable as much to life's complexity as it is to our goldfisheque attention span, our wee chat was wide-ranging in compass, touching on Cardinal Keith's "bigot" stramash, Unionist referendum strategy, and the broader theme of contemporary Scotland's relationship with its historical diasporas down south, and across the water in Northern Ireland.  "Billy Connolly syndrome" - a new one on me, but immediately pleasing - also warrants a mention.  Lend your lugs to it here:

Alternatively, you can download the show to digest it later on via iTunes, or directly from here.

28 October 2012

For A' That: Episode, the First...

It's one thing to lament the smallness of the Scottish public sphere, another to try to make a wee contribution to opening it up and elaborating it. I'm sure several of you have been listening to Michael Greenwell's interesting and diverse series of Scottish Independence podcasts, touching most recently on the environment, but ranging across the land, and across topics, in an...

"... attempt to discuss some of the real choices coming up for Scotland without the jingoism and, frankly, the silliness, that surrounds much of the debate at the moment."

Admirable goals, it seems to me. Michael was kind enough to come to visit me in Oxford on a bright day over the summer, and after recording a session, we got nattering down the pub about ways we might try to foster a bit of debate, and endeavour to hew out some space for a different sort of conversation about Scottish independence, yes, but also about society and politics in general, without the adversarial atmosphere and inevitable compression which characterises the debates we hear all too often on radio, and see even more so on the telly. 

Our new For A' That podcast, launched today, is the fruit of that conversation. An informal discussion format, we intend to record the show weekly and pop the episodes online every Sunday (damnum fatale permitting). Mixing the timely and the untimely, we hope to look at recent headlines and neglected topics in Scottish, UK, European - and why not? - world politics, to boot.  No more than about half an hour long, the episodes will be a more discursive companion to the interview-style of Michael's Scottish Independence podcasts, and my own planned occasional series looking at English perspectives on the political and constitutional predicament which Britain now finds itself in. (Incidentally, I'm pleased to say that I've got my first mystery guest lined up for this, and he's a cracker).

In the podcast's inaugural week, as we tinker with the tech, Michael and I had a blether about the SNP's (still ongoing) EU legal predicament, the prospect of votes for sixteen and seventeen year olds - and for prisoners - in the referendum, and the riotous headlines strapped across the Scottish broadsheets this week, accusing the SNP trying to "rig" the referendum by imposing stringent campaign financing rules. In  future, we're also very keen to jumble up the conversation, and hope to get a new and diverting guest on every week to ruminate and cogitate about the stories which have caught their eye, or the topics which they feel have been or are being unjustly neglected. The same goes for you, our audience. If there are any issues, questions or whatnot you'd like Michael, our guest and I to discuss - do just pop one of us an email.  You can collar me at lallandspeatworrier@gmail.com.

There'll be no cosy Mitt Romney impressions here. We'll be looking to invite on guests of a range of political stripes, and are enthusiastic about provoking a modest - but generous-spirited - stramash where we disagree. Although Michael and I are supporters of independence, and of the left politically, we also come to our politics from rather different perspectives (he'd say he's leftier and more constitutionally cynical than I am; I'd admit I've been debauched by my legal education).  Chalk the outbreak of consensus in this first recording to tentative politeness.

In any case, here's the first episode of For A' That. The sound quality is a bit shoogly at times (some of that attributable to Michael's attention-seeking feline), but we're looking into improving the quality post haste for future podcasts. All responses, recommendations, reactions - gratefully received.  I hope you enjoy it.

You can also listen to the show online here, or alternatively, if you'd prefer to imbibe our dulcet tones at your leisure, download the show from your iTunes or from Spreaker in .mp3 format, here.