27 September 2012

"What contemptible scoundrel has stolen the cork to my lunch?"

It is not for glory, nor riches, nor honours that I blog, but for cheerful diversion alone, for that alone, which no honest man gives up but for having other stuff to do. A sober year, the coming one for me. A doctorate to finish, and then adrift on the choppy waters of the economy, hoping to alight on an outcrop with sufficient supply of fodder and water to keep me going.

Although much knuckling down will be called for, I'm hoping to keep the blog going over the next twelve months in reasonably vital form. I'm also mooting another project while I'm still down south, shifting from the visual range of blog text, to the aural.  Recording the recent episode of the Scottish independence podcast with Michael Greenwell was a genuinely entertaining process, which I'm toying with extending.  

More concretely, I have it in mind to put together a series of England on Scotland podcasts, buttonholing interesting folk around Oxford, and exploring independence, devolution, and the reverberations which can be felt (however faintly), across the United Kingdom. Living in England, one of the more interesting features of day to day political conversation is how regularly you talk to folk, entertaining a whole gamut of perspectives - sympathetic and unsympathetic, more and less well-informed - towards Scottish independence and nationalism. 

I've previously documented, with anonymity preserved, some of the analysis I've been treated to at College dinner tables.  Although whether or not Scotland elects to become a sovereign state is a matter for those living in Scotland, it matters how people elsewhere in these islands see the process the country is going through, and which we are, to great extent, subjecting the often bewildered population elsewhere in the United Kingdom to. These thoughts and feelings matter if the referendum is carried, or defeated. They obtain if we're negotiating the end of our political union, or if we remain within the UK after a potentially bruising and divisive defeat for YesScotland. British identity, English identity, the people and places governing England, the promise and challenge which the jolt of an independent Scotland might have for the political unit which remains. These seem themes worth exploring.

It's a commonplace to suggest that the UK press has, to great extent, drifted away from an increasingly distinct, albeit still crude and sketchy Scottish public sphere. The ties are fraying, the concepts used to describe Scottish politics - and Scottish nationalism - are hackneyed, crude, romantic, and often basically misinformed.  Faced with such misinderstandings, a measure of Scottish nationalist snarkiness is understandable, but it isn't terrifically productive. I don't envisage the podcasts as a vast endeavour of documentation, but it could, I think, provide an interesting alternative voice to the debate, adhering to Michael Greenwell's worthy dictum of attempting "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." I may not agree with many of the folk I hope to speak to, but the aspiration will always be towards the civilised, reflective, and hopefully informative. That's my idea anyway. Comments, observations, or wry notes of discouragement concerning the whole endeavour, gratefully received.  

In other news, as regular visitors will know, I don't host advertising or suchlike, but a couple of folk have recently asked me about making modest financial contributions to support the blog, having enjoyed my scribbling. Although initially a little leery about the idea, I've succumbed. If you'd like to buy me a glass of wine, and inch me closer to finishing my doctorate, beaker by industrious beaker, all contributions will be very gratefully received.

26 September 2012

Baccymongers, bankers & the Supremes...

Last week, I took a critical look at the evidence supporting the claim that the European Court of Human Rights has some sort of "grudge" against the United Kingdom, and is excessively keen on "intervening" in our political affairs. In the event, the proof proved even more threadbare than you might expect. Even if we factor in the 97% of cases against the UK which the Court rejects as inadmissible, of the remaining 3% of cases, the UK Government loses the fifth-lowest percentage of cases, only trailing behind Denmark, Sweden, Andorra and the Netherlands.

Back in Scotland, a similar idea has recently been gaining currency in some nationalist circles, with the First Minister and the Cabinet Secretary for Justice implicated art and part.  The United Kingdom Supreme Court, it is said, is taking an unhealthy interested in Scotland, deciding too many Scottish cases, and in general, are sticking their Lordships' collective nebs where those nebs aren't wanted.

I looked with interest, therefore, at the Supreme Court's planned programme of sittings for their Michaelmas term, running from the first of October until the 21st of December. Running an eye down the roll of hearings, the Supreme Court intends to hear six Scottish cases out of the twenty three to be heard (I've excluded Judicial Committee of the Privy Council cases from this total, of which there are twelve, including appeals from Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, the Bahamas, the British Virgin Islands, and Mauritius.) Just over quarter of the cases being examined in the remaining part of 2012 are Scottish.

To take a very crude basis of comparison, the UK Supreme Court spends more time on Scottish controversies than a simple per capita Scottish contribution might suggest. 

But is Michaelmas 2012 representative of the Court's work in general? Is this is a particularly active period of review? Since 2009, Scottish judgments have made up just 17.2% of all judgments handed down.  Even if we assume (probably erroneously) that the Court manages to reach conclusions in all of its Michaelmas term cases by the end of December, we're talking about the number of Scottish decisions being issued increasing by - at most - a smidgeon. 

Since it got going in the October of 2009, the Court has entertained just 37 Scottish cases.  Much of the controversy surrounding the institution has concerned appeals from the High Court of Justiciary in criminal cases, albeit primarily on the grounds of fundamental rights, rather than the definition of crime.  Of the total across the Court's four (incomplete) years of operation, criminal appeals has represented a goodly (but minority) proportion of the UK Court's work.

Equally importantly, much of the rhetoric around the UK Court's interventions in Scottish criminal cases has implied meddlesome judicial mischief.  It is pertinent to ask, who invited the UK Court to decide their cases? It would, for instance, be a bit rich to slam an institution for deciding cases which a member of the Scottish Government - its law officers - actually referred to the Justices for a decision. The answer is: it's pretty eksie peeksie between accused or convicted persons, and appeals and references lodged by the Lord Advocate and prosecutors.

To shift from the quantitative to the qualitative, what will Lords Hope, Reed and their English and Northern Irish colleagues be looking at this term, and what, if any particularly incendiary cases can we expect to be argued? First up, on the 3rd of October, an appeal from the Court of Session in Morris v. Rae, an action for damages in breach of warrandice, when buying property. Towards the end of the month, another bench will convene to hear RM (AP) v. the Scottish Ministers, seeking judicially to review of the failure of Scottish Ministers:

"... to draft and lay regulations under sections 268(11) and (12) of the Mental Health (Care and Treatment) (Scotland) Act 2003 before the Scottish Parliament".

Into November, the topic changes from those detained in state hospitals to allegations of assault made against officers from Strathclyde Police in 2004. In Ruddy (AP) v. Chief Constable Strathclyde, the pursuer sought £10,000 in damages, and argued his rights under Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights had been infringed. 

It is the hearing of the 12th of November which promises to be the term's most political controversial case. Back in February this year, Lord President Hamilton, and Lords Reed and Brodie rejected Imperial Tobacco's submissions that Holyrood's Tobacco and Primary Medical Services (Scotland) Act 2010 - which banned the sale of tobacco products using automated vending machines and prohibited tobacco displays - was outside the parliament's legislative competence. The tobacco-merchants attacked on a range of legal fronts, including arguments that...

  1. the provisions "relate to" the reserved matter of "regulation of the sale and supply of goods to consumers, within the meaning of Schedule 5, Section C7 of the Scotland Act.
  2. that they "make modifications of Scots criminal law as it applies to a reserved matter, namely regulation of the sale and supply of goods to consumers, and are therefore to be treated as relating to a reserved matter, by virtue of section 29(4); and even that:
  3. the vending machine provisions modify article 6 of the Union with England Act 1707 so far as it relates to freedom of trade, and are therefore outwith Holyrood's powers.

The Inner House rejected Imperial's arguments on all points, but it remains to be seen how the UK Supreme Court will deal with it, in extensive hearings pencilled in to last four days. Significantly, as the Court's newest Scottish justice, Lord Reed, sat on the Court of Session bench appealed against, Lord Hope will be the only justice trained in Scots law sitting on the five judge bench, which will instead include Lords Walker, Kerr, Sumption and the Court's only female Justice, Lady Hale.

I'm a bit perplexed by Kinloch (AP) v. Her Majesty's Advocate, the solitary criminal case on the Court's docket this termThe High Court of Justiciary's judgment seems to be alluding me. Answers on the proverbial postcard, anyone in the know.  Good news! As I've summarised in a new post, I've been able to get little more information about what is at issue in Kinloch, and an explanation for why a written judgment alluded me. More details, here.

Finally for Michaelmas, the Court will be looking at Lloyds TSB Foundation for Scotland v. Lloyds Banking Group LPCLitigation prompted in great part by the banking crash, the Foundation is pressing Lloyds to pay out a whopping £3,500,000, to be disbursed to charitable causes.  The bank, by contrast, is keen to keep its lucre, initially cutting and intending to eliminate its contribution towards the Foundation.  The BBC had this pithy sketch of the issues at stake late last year.  The case has already enjoyed something of a chequered judicial career. At first instance, Lord Glennie favoured the bank's argument. On appeal, the Lord President of the Court of Session preferred the Foundation's claims, and overturned Glennie's judgment.  It remains to be seen what the Supreme Court will make of it all - two days of hearings are pencilled in, for the stub end of November.

23 September 2012

A hanged man's lesson for Holyrood...

In his Sunday Herald column this morning, Ian Bell takes blasphemy for his theme, dipping into the Scottish history books to recount the case of Thomas Aikenhead, who was prosecuted and hanged for the offence in Edinburgh in 1697, during the reign of William and Mary.  The student, killed at the age of just twenty, was indicted in the following terms by the Lord Advocate of the day, James Stewart who gives several instances of Aikenhead's often witty, tragically fatal analysis of the Bible, of Jesus and of Moses. The libel isn't exactly pithy, but I reproduce it in its entirety, for historical interest. Three-hundred-and-something years gone by, the stately, ponderous prose of the Scots lawyer remains recognisable...

Thomas Aikenhed, sone to the deceast James Aikenhead, chirurgeon, in Edinburgh, prisoner in the Tolbuith thereof.

YOU are indyted and accused, att the instance of sir James Stewart, his majesties advocate for his highness interest, and by speciall order of the lords of his majesties privy council, that where by the laws of God, and by the lawes of this and all other well-governed Christian realms, the cryme of blasphemy against God, or any of the persons of the blessed Trinity, or against the holy Scriptures, or our holy religione, is a cryme of the highest nature, and ought to be severely punished:

Lykeas by the act of parliament, first parliaments Charles 2d, act 21, Intituled, act against the cryme of blasphemie, it is statute and ordained, that whosoever not being distracted in his witts shall raill upon or curse God, or any of the persons of the blessed Trinity, shall be processed before the cheife justice, and being found guilty, shall be punished with death; and by the 11th actm 5 session of the present current parliament, the forsaid act is not only ratified, but it is farder statute, that whosoever shall in their wryteing or discourse denye, impugne or quarrell, or argue, or reason against the being of God, or any of the persons of the blessed Trinity, or the authority of the holy Scriptures, of the Old and New Testaments, or the Providence of God in the government of the world, shall for the first fault be punished with imprisonment, ay, and while he give publict satisfaction in sackcloth to the congregatione within which the scandal is committed; and for the second fault to be ffyned, besydes his being imprisoned as above, and for the third should be punished with death, as ane obstinat blasphemer: 

Nevertheless it is of verity, that you Thomas Aikenhead, shakeing off all fear of God and regard to his majesties lawes, have now for more than a twelvemoneth by past, and upon severall of the dayes within the said space, and ane or other of the same, made it as it were your endeavour and work in severall companies to vent your wicked blasphemies against God and our Saviour Jesus Christ, and against the Holy Scriptures, and all revealled religione, in soe far as upon ane or other of the dayes forsaid, you said and affirmed, that divinity or the doctrine of theologie was a rapsidie of feigned and ill-invented nonsense, patched up partly of the morall doctrine of philosophers, and pairtly of poetricall fictions and extravagant chimeras, or words to this effector purpose, with severall other such reproachfull expressions;

Lykeas you scoffed at, and endeavoured to ridicule the hole scriptures, calling the Old Testament Ezra’s fables, by a profane allusione to Esop’s fables, and saying that Ezra was the inventer thereof, and that being a cunning man he drew a number of Babylonian slaves to follow him, for whom he made up a feigned genealogie as if they had been descended of kings and princes in the land of Canaan, and thereby imposed upon Cyrus who was a Persian and a stranger, persuading him by the devyce of a pretendit prophecy concerning himself; and as for the New Testament, you not only scoff at it, but in your scoffing did most blasphemously raill upon our Lord and Saviour Jesis Christ, calling the said New Testament the History of the Impostor Christ, and affirming him to have learned magick in Egypt, and that coming from Egypt into Judea, he picked up a few ignorant blockish fisher fellows, whom he knew by his skill and phisognomie, had strong imaginations, and that by the helpf of exalted imagninatione he play’d his pranks as you blasphemously term the working of his miracles:

Lykeas you affirmed Moses, if ever you say ther was such a man, to have also learned magick in Egypt, but that he was both the better arteist and better politician than Jesus; as also you have cursed Ezra, Moses and Jesus, and all men of that sort, affirmeing that the holy Scriptures to be so stuffed with madness, nonsense, and contradictions, that you admired the stupidity of the world being soe long deluded by them;

Lykeas you reject the mystery of the blessed Trinity, and say it is not worth any man’s refutation, and you also scoffe at the mistery of the incarnation of Jesus Christ, affirming blasphemously that Theantropos is as great a contradictione as Hircus Cervus, or a quadratum to be a rontundum; and as to the doctrine of redemptione by Jesus, you say it is a proud and presumptious devyce, and that the inventars thereof are damned, if after this life ther be either rewaird or punishment; you also deny spirits, saying that the notion of a spirit is a contradiction, and you have maintained that God, the world, and nature, are but one thing, and that the world was from eternity; and you assert that man’s imaginatione duely exalted by airt and industry can do any thing, even in the infinite power of God: 

you have lykwayes in discourse preferred Mahomet to the blessed Jesus, and you have said that you hoped to see Christianity greatly weakened, and that you are confident that in a short tyme it will be utterly extirpat, and you have been so bold in your forsaid blasphemies, that when you have found yourself cold, you have wished to be in the place that Ezra calls Hell, to warme yourself there: 

and these blasphemous raillings and expressions in the words above sett dwn, or words to like purpose, you have wickedly uttered in severall companies without the least provocatione, but meerly prompted by your irreligious and devilish malice against God and our blessed Saviour, and the most concerning truths of the Christian religion. By all which, it is manifest that you are guilty art and pairt of a horrid blasphemy, railing against and cursing our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, and impugneing and denying the truth of the Holy Scriptures, and the quarrelling and argueing against the being of God and against his providence and making and governing the world, which being found by the verdict of an assize, you ought to be punished by death, and the confiscation of your moveables, to the example and terror of others to committ the lyke in tyme coming. 

Sic subscribitur, JA STEWART.

Convicted, for these provoking, skeptical assessments of scripture and the godhead, the Scottish authorities hoist young Aikenhead from a rope.  But that was hundreds of years ago. Surely we've dispensed with these sorts of laws in contemporary Scotland, surely blasphemy has been scrubbed from our law codes? The curious answer is, apparently not. While Holyrood abolished the offences of sedition and lease-making (lèse majesté) in 2010, no doubt putting the spirit of another young Scotsman profoundly ill-used by the state to some sort of rest, the offence of blasphemy has never actually been abolished.  Here's what the Stair Memorial Encyclopaedia says on the topic:

 It is a crime at common law to publish or expose for sale blasphemous works which are intended to asperse, vilify, ridicule and bring into contempt the Holy Scriptures or the Christian religion. The last reported Scottish case of blasphemy was in 1843. Blasphemy is not now the subject of prosecution in Scotland although it cannot yet be said to have been extinguished by desuetude. The reason that blasphemy was criminal at common law was that the Christian religion and the Bible were said to be part of the law of the land and that accordingly any vilification of them was an infringement of the law. It follows that blasphemy protects only the predominant religion in Scotland and is not available to shield the sensitivities of other non-Christian faiths. As such, in a pluralistic society, it is open to criticism. Whether it is necessary in modern society must now be a moot point. In any event, it seems tolerably plain that a prosecution for blasphemy, were one ever to be mounted, could contravene article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

Even so.  When our tribunes next gather in Holyrood to reform the criminal law, they might consider making a post-mortem tribute to the sad, dangling figure of an Edinburgh student, whose little blasphemies earned him a noose, and finally expunge this ancient, unused, reactionary offence from our criminal law.

21 September 2012

Podcasting Scottish independence ...

Back in the middle of August, Michael Greenwell popped over to Oxford to record the second in his itinerant series of Scottish Independence podcasts, which...

"... 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."

Michael's first episode was a conversation with Donald Adamson of the University of Cambridge.  His second was with me: a wide-ranging discussion on the contemporary ums and ahs around the independence referendum, a little on the polling and the legalities, we also attempted a few coarse prophecies about the political future after 2014, whether Scotland steps back onto the world stage as a sovereign state, or continues, a stateless nation, within the circumference of a disjointed, but still more or less United Kingdom.

You can listen or download to our full conversation here.

If you prefer, you can also download our discussion via iTunes.

20 September 2012

The first peep from a deflating political football?

There's a couple of wee snippets in the Herald and Scottish Star (not online) today about an abortive prosecution in Falkirk's Sheriff Court yesterday under the Offensive Behaviour at Football Scotland Act. The details in the brief reports are sketchy, but the accused - Steven Dickson - was alleged to have been the worse for drink and to have turned the air blue aboard a train back to Glasgow, returning from a Celtic match against Dundee United.  Witnesses suggested that the words "hun" and "Pope" were used or sung. Dickson was put up before the sheriff in Falkirk to answer for the conduct imputed to him, which was alleged to have put elderly fellow travellers in fear, alarm and "distress".  The reports indicate that he was charged under the new legislation, in preference to your old fashioned "breach of the peace". 

As you will recall, the Football Act criminalised "offensive behaviour at a regulated football", which explicitly included behaviour "on a journey to or from the regulated football match" s2(2)(b)(iii).  So what's the precise ambit of the offence? As for the behaviour itself, it must either "express" or "stir up" hatred against a religious group or social or cultural group with a religious affiliation, or colour, race, nationality, ethnicity, sexuality orientation, transgender identity or disability, or be threatening, or "other behaviour that a reasonable person would be likely to consider offensive".

The second test which must be satisfied is that the offensive behaviour alleged is or would be "likely to incite public disorder" 1(1)(b). Here, however, Holyrood worked a queer little incantation.  It added a subsection which makes clear that:

1(5) For the purposes of subsection (1)(b)(ii), behaviour would be likely to incite public disorder if public disorder would be likely to occur but for the fact that -
(a)  measures are in place to prevent public disorder, or
(b) persons likely to be incited to public disorder are not present or are not present in sufficient numbers.

The situation this section aimed at were well-policed football grounds, where the strains of the Sash ring out, say, but order is undisturbed. Ministers were absolutely frank: they want the singers nicked, and this is the section which they hoped would allow police officers to do so, on the theory that sectarian ditties, of themselves, have a tendency to disturb the public peace. You could even - at least theoretically - commit this offence in a room by yourself (once the judicial imagination has supplemented your audience with a suitably provocable crew). So what happened in Falkirk? Sheriff Caldwell appears to have found that there was no case to answer against Dickson, and he sauntered free from court. His defence agent, Tony Callahan reportedly submitted that:

"We have heard he was seated, no problem at all. Derogatory does not mean offensive. Nor was his behaviour likely to incite public disorder".  

Reporting of the Sheriff's remarks were limited to the observation, directed to the PF, that:

"You have to prove his behaviour was likely to cause a reaction of disorder in others".

From these very sketchy reports, it isn't entirely clear precisely what the Sheriff found wanting in the prosecution's case.  Assume, for the sake of argument, however, that both he and the procurator fiscal  faithfully applied the law as it was drafted, and did so in full understanding of subsection 1(5)(b)'s curious provisions, inviting the court to imagine fictional, potentially inciteable persons when assessing whether the conduct complained of was criminal or not (although it is impossible to say, on the facts before us, whether or not either might have fallen into error, and missed the significance of the subsection).  

Imagine you are a prosecutor. How the devil would you prove that words or ditties - such as Hun, or Papal lyrics - are likely to incite public disorder in the absence of any disorder, in the absence of likely insitees? Find a police officer willing to say that she's witness brawls break out or a stramash be provoked by their invocation in the past? Is it taken to fall within judicial knowledge, whether a given aspersion cast or vocabulary used is, of itself, "likely to incite disorder"? As s1(5)(b) of the Act makes plain, prosecutors don't have to show that anyone actually on the train was likely to be encouraged to mischief by references to the Bishop of Rome, or to Huns. In this case, responses to the accused's conduct seem to have ranged from abandoning the coach he was seated in and complaining to train staff, to (most likely) staring fixedly at the wall in an effort to ignore the antics of which he was accused. Certainly, no disorder in the carriage, no mêlée on the train resulted.

Defenders of the legislation would likely argue that the intellectual challenge this imposes on courts doesn't substantially differ, for example, from the older common law of breach of the peace.  A breach prosecution must demonstrate "conduct severe enough to cause alarm to ordinary people and threaten serious disturbance to the community". Significantly, the Crown don't have to prove that any actual fear and alarm resulted from the conduct either.  Legally, it is an "objective test", and asks whether the conduct would be genuinely alarming and disturbing to any reasonable person, rather than whether anybody in the real world was actually alarmed or disturbed. 

You might well argue that the Football Act calls for an essentially similar exercise of the judicial imagination, albeit on a question of disorder, rather than alarm. I'm not so sure. For one thing, judges are invited to consider conduct alleged to breach the peace in context. The public train, the private house, the doorway to a high street bank, and so on. The Football Act explicitly requires sheriffs to populate the context with imaginary additional characters, to chock the peaceful train full of irate "the Rangers" supporters on the bevy, in reaching any conclusion about whether disorder is liable incited. That's a different, altogether trickier, species of speculation to engage in.

It's still early days in the enforcement of this legislation, and thus far, no cases have made it to the Court of Criminal Appeal on the nicer legal arguments which it might raise, and like this Dickson case, summary cases aren't generally reported in detail in the Scottish press. It would be an irony, however, if this piece of legislation, so rapidly clattered through Holyrood with such hot rhetoric, were to miscarry and actually prove a less effective instrument than the common law to prosecute some forms of generically "offensive" conduct with a loose football affiliation, like making a post-match boozy racket aboard trains. 

It also puts prosecutors in a tricky situation. For political reasons, you might well expect procurators to feel compelled - or at the very least encouraged - to prosecute football-related misconduct under the Act.  Ministers have to report back to Holyrood on its operation.  Folk will, understandably, be keen to demonstrate that it was a "vital tool" in the prosecution of football offenses, rather than a dud, agenda-driven reform that was only half thought through.  It is too early to say for certain, but the Dickson acquittal at leasts suggests - no doubt worryingly for the ministers involved - that the new legislation may prove less effective, and provide trickier legal standards for procurators fiscal to navigate, than the common law breach of the peace which they will now, understandably, be more reluctant to charge. 

19 September 2012

A Tory victim-fantasy...

Ken Clarke's replacement as Lord Chancellor, Chris Grayling, was one of the blacker suits promoted in David Cameron's recent reshuffle. Clarke's moderating influence shouldered out of the way, the Daily Mail and their ilk are salivating at the prospect of Grayling "showing his mettle" to those pesky Euro judges which every authoritarian British nationalist seems ardently to believe are "taking over" - or "waging war" - on British justice. At the very least, with Grayling in charge, we can expect more rhetorical firecrackers of this hue to be thrown, no doubt attracting volleys of applause from the UK's right-wing, nationalist press. 

But to be fair minded about things, is there any evidence whatever that the UK has been subjected to particularly harsh, or intrusive review by the European Court of Human Rights as Grayling as his ilk believe? This is a central contention of the now-familiar argument advanced by parts of the Conservative Party, and significant segments of our national press.  And, if you dip into the statistics, it's inveterate nonsense.  

I've a wee post up at the UK Human Rights blog this morning, comparing Britain with the other forty seven member states in the Council of Europe now subject to the Court's jurisdiction.  It turns out that the UK government actually loses a smaller percentages of cases in Strasbourg than forty two other states, enjoying the fifth lowest percentage of adverse judgments, finding at least one violation of the Convention has occurred. Embattled Britannia? Just a victim fantasy.

16 September 2012

How to monetise that angst...

She broke through the crowd with the expansive, encompassing gesture of a performer announcing her presence on the stage, with the memorable invocation, “priority boarding”, addressed to nobody in particular.  

He hirpled after, through the sudden space she made between bodies, conspicuously less conspicuous, clutching the party’s hand luggage. Of the two, he was done up with more care. Angular spectacles, a grey sprout of a soul patch beneath his lower lip, trussed up stiffly in a Ted Baker shirt: an uncomfortable-looking inflexible verticality of stripes, sleeves rolled down, ending untucked above new jeans. I took him for a flashy dentist.  

His wife was a blonder, harder-mouthed Maureen Lipman, and firmly in control of the couple’s itinerary. She’d clearly donned her holiday flowers – a mottled arrangement of insipid pastels and livid pink, with a sort of pale-khaki coatee – presumably to pull rank over the vain-seeming hubby whose style little suggested he was shortly to be crammed into a Ryanair cabin, no doubt disturbing his stripes and the careful crease of his swank denims. 

The passengers have clumped at the gate, the plane will shortly be shot full of them, the cabin rocked by their ungainly lobs as outsize bags are pitched into the overhead lockers.  But not yet.  For now, the way is shut, and vignettes of middle-age, middle-class angst predominate.  There is much anxious footering.  Although by this point, all will have successfully navigated a score of portals, terminals and desks, several continue to fondle and squint at their boarding passes, or cod-mouthed, throw glassy-eyes over the terminal, still half expecting to be on the wrong flight, or turned away at the gate. Some spice this up by overburdening themselves with a free copy of the Daily Mail, snatched up from an unmanned stand.

People leave almost comfortable chairs to queue precipitously, clutching their luggage for grim death, clearly imagining that the flight has more travellers booked than seats, and that they risk being left behind. They stand around miserably bored, having secured the largely pointless but clearly coveted advantage over their fellow fliers, further back. At this stage, ongoing angst about their travel documents seems the only means by which the numbing tedium can be alleviated. That and casting lugubrious looks at the second, shorter “priority boarding queue”, which the Striped Shirt and his sharp-elbowed missus are now ostentatiously wafting about in. Another woman, with a friendly, ottery face, only now discovers that this flight is unseated.  She is discombobulated, and proceeds to spend fifteen fascinating minutes, wargaming strategies with her spouse if they are forced to separate.  

None of this, however, for our gallant couple, who swept through the mob, ghastly figureheads of the Priorities. For the idler, lounging, and travelling alone, the temptation to rubberneck on your neighbours is acute, and watching this pair was exceedingly entertaining.  For all of their grand gestures, the self-important look-at-me swish – We are the Priority Boarders, People of Quality, this Way – they were clearly gloriously uncomfortable to be flying on Ryanair at all. When asked about their holiday plans by friendly acquaintances, you can be sure one of them insisted, “of course we usually – we’d obviously prefer – to travel British Airways – but there just wasn’t a convenient route, unfortunately”.  

Given the company’s advertising, and a few disrespectful assumptions about this couple’s values, you can see why participating in its inexpensive import-export regime would threaten a cherished and cultivated self-image.  Ryanair’s blue and yellow advertising smacks of the polythene bag and the pound shop.  They clung to their priority, purchased at a princely £5 per ticket, the way a shipwrecked mariner would stick like a limpet to bobbing jetsam.  It kept their precarious sense of social dignity afloat. We deprioritised cattle were a marvellous reassurance to them. 

As if to underline the point, when the lines got moving and the flesh was being piped into the plane, each of us were lead past Mr and Mrs, who were inevitably perched right at the front. Of the two, her look of self-basting exultation was the more memorable.  It came as something of a relief that she didn’t speak her mind, and bestow self-delighted benedictions on us dawdlers, bringing comfortably up the rear, “priority boarding”. As I say, when the lonely traveller’s newspaper is spent of news, he has little enough to entertain him, but the tiny cues of their extraordinary performance kept me much diverted.

It isn’t exactly groundbreaking to observe that anxiety can be monetised, but it was curious to actually observe the torment and pleasures of its corporate manipulation so starkly and so frankly.  Companies and their advertisements are working this mischief all of the time, with their cyclical damnation-redemption narratives.  “Have you noticed that people think that a perfectly normal feature of most human bodies like yours is shameful and repulsive?” Intercede, the Product being flogged.  For an ideal, sustainable market in anxiety, it is important that the Product won’t fix your problem after one swig, or one lather. Although the corporate conscience wishes that its tricks were more efficacious, alas, only temporary redemption from the anxiety and unhappiness they’ve fostered and exploited in you is now possible.  At least until the bottle runs out, or the razor blunts, or the electrics fizzle.  And so repeat. 

The sniffish bourgeois affords many opportunities for canny speculators in status-anxiety.  We’ve all seen how supermarkets rolling out whole lines of premium own-label products – grub, drink and the like – which promotes reassuring distinctions between your purchases and those of the common man: Finest, Taste the Difference, Extra Special.  By no means am I suggesting that these things are uniformly without incremental culinary virtues over their other sausages, or sauces, or suchlike - merely that they appeal to ideas of quality, taste and distinction which are fundamentally rooted in anxieties about class, not about the savour of the plate of food being purchased. 

What is extraordinary about Ryanair is the bluntness with which this sort of transaction is made, and the extent to which some naked investors in the status of a few minutes edge over their fellows, a choice of seats on a quarter-empty plane, and a flouncing precedence – are pathetically grateful.  Michael O’Leary turned an easy £20, and Mr and Mrs Khaki-Coatee gained what was clearly for them, beyond price: a coping mechanism in our airborne cattle-trailer, and an undisturbed bourgeois conscience.

15 September 2012

A boo-er's defence of devolution...

On the purely hypothetical subject of booing, and the irreverent heckling of Scottish public figures by crowds, don't lets forget what Walter Scott's characters had to say on the topic, airing their disgruntlement about Captain Porteous' reprieve (shortly before the soldier swung fatally from a rope hoist by the Edinburgh mob...)

"Ah dinna ken muckle about the law", answered Mrs Howden; "but I ken, when we had a king, and a chancellor, and parliament men o' our ain, we could aye peeble them wi' stanes when they werena gude bairns - But naebody's nails can reach the length o' Lunnon." ~ Sir Walter Scott, Heart of Midlothian, (1818).

Scottish devolution has, at least partially, repatriated the peebling. I'm sure the redoubtable Mrs Howden would count that a signal achievement. In unrelated news, I've now returned hale and hearty from my wee jaunt to the southern edge of France, which proved just the spot for the penny-pinched to live the (temporary) wine and cheese addled life of a bon-vivant.  In any case, the end of summer inaugurates a new, revivified peat worrying season. Don't forget your flaughter.