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.