Saturday, April 11, 2009

Your starter for ten

How refreshing it is to at long last be able to get back to the innocent pleasures of AM2-watch, I've been having withdrawal symptoms. This week the self-styled Alpha Male of Scottish political blogging plays Bamber Gascoigne (what fun) and challenges his readers to spot that the current economic crisis is truly global. In the light of which, he suggests it is a "rhetorical inanity" for Alex Salmond to claim that the fate of Scottish banks "is a legacy of the Union". But has it been any less inane for so many people (not naming any names of course) to conveniently attempt to re-cast a global crisis as a Scottish-made problem that can only ever be addressed by a British-made rescue?

As I'm feeling generous, a small tip for AM2/Scottish Unionist - if he's ever looking for a particularly outstanding example of "rhetorical inanity", I do seem to recall an astonishingly ill-advised use of the expression "game over" a few weeks back...

Friday, April 10, 2009

Cameron - the Tories' last chance?

Mike Smithson is pondering the intriguing question - what happens to David Cameron if he doesn't win the next election? Are there circumstances in which he might be forced out as party leader?

In actual fact, I think it's almost inevitable that if Labour emerge from the next election as both the largest party and the governing party that Cameron will either fall on his sword or find himself ejected. The last leader of one of the two main parties to survive an election defeat was Neil Kinnock way back in 1987, and even that probably only happened because expectations had been so low all along. So perhaps the even more interesting question is - what happens to the Tories if Cameron departs? Would they be able to hold their nerve as Labour did after an unexpected fourth defeat in 1992, or would they lurch to the right as a reflex? If the latter, the stakes in the next election could hardly be higher. The Tories may be on course to sweep to victory as things stand, but if they slip up the price they pay might not be just a fourth term in opposition - it could be a fifth and a sixth term as well.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

A little oath goes a long way

Chekov at Three Thousand Versts of Loneliness is pondering the Conservative Party's plans to strip Sinn Féin MPs of their relatively recently won right to claim MP expenses, which they enjoy despite failing both to take the oath of allegiance to the Queen and to take up their seats at Westminster. The Tories' Northern Ireland spokesman Owen Paterson approvingly recalls former Speaker Betty Boothroyd's ruling that there could be no 'associate membership' of the House of Commons. But that ruling was always a nonsense, because to all intents and purposes associate membership of the Commons was exactly what Sinn Féin held even under the 'Boothroyd doctrine'. They were denied parliamentary offices, and the financial support to properly represent their constituents. You might reasonably think the logic of such a stance is that they were no longer MPs at all. They should therefore have been instantly debarred and their seats put up for re-election, as would automatically be the case if an MP were to be declared bankrupt or sentenced to a jail term in excess of twelve months. But of course Sinn Féin MPs were not debarred, and it's not difficult to see why - because in most cases the constituency would simply have re-elected a Republican in the subsequent by-election. Unless the government then took the incendiary step of banning Sinn Féin from even putting up candidates for Westminster, it would just have gone on and on as an eternal farce. So we were instead left by necessity with a kind of purgatory situation in which Sinn Féin representatives were neither full MPs or non-MPs. "Associate membership" does indeed seem like a very good way of describing such an arrangement.

But however such a situation came about, it seems to me that by not debarring such people and putting their seats up for re-election, you are tacitly conceding the point that they are in fact ultimately legitimate MPs. And, that being the case, it's only logically consistent for them to be given all the facilities and financial assistance to represent their constituents that is afforded to every other legitimate MP.

I'm left with the impression that rather than taking a rational approach to the effective and just distribution of resources, the Tories - perhaps unsurprisingly - are instead transfixed by their belief in the mythical significance of the oath of allegiance to the Queen. After all, it would be perfectly possible for an MP who has taken the oath to then never turn up to the Palace of Westminster again and to be considerably more lax than the five current Sinn Féin MPs in taking on his or her constituency responsibilities. And yet under the Tory plans, as far as I can see such an MP would not lose a penny.

The only freedom I'll ever understand

After my recent post on gun control, Kevin Baker of the blog The Smallest Minority left a comment inviting me to take part in a debate with him on the issue across our two blogs. I was reluctant to accept for two reasons – firstly, I'd only just taken part in a full-scale debate on the matter and it was difficult to see the purpose of instantly embarking on a second one which would probably cover much the same ground. Secondly, having visited Kevin's blog it became clear that the honeyed words in his comment here about the value of such a debate and my contribution to it were somewhat at odds with the rather more caustic assessment of me he had made over on his own patch –

"Not only more free that he's ever imagined, more free than he can ever possibly understand."

It's hard to fathom how someone he regards as being so intellectually challenged in this way could also simultaneously be regarded as someone worthy of entering into intelligent debate with. A suspicious person might almost think I was being looked upon rather more as a willing patsy. He also made a suggestive remark about the conclusions he might draw if I declined this entirely out-of-the-blue invitation from a website which, after all, I'd never even heard of before – "I've invited 'Scotgo,' Mr. James Kelly, to debate the topic of gun control. I hope he is more willing than the last half-dozen invitees." I trust, on reflection, that Kevin as a fair-minded man would accept that there are in fact a million and one perfectly good reasons why someone might be unable or unwilling to accept an unsolicited invitation to do something that at the very least would be extremely time-consuming?

With these severe reservations in mind, I didn't make any commitment about entering into an ongoing debate, but I did offer to write at least one article drawing my thoughts together on the gun control issue, and allowing people to take issue with me if they so wished. So here it is.

Imagine that you are a child being brought up in a very isolated place, your home miles away from any other settlement. The only people you ever see are your parents, who school you at home, and warn you that if by any chance a stranger should come to the door, you should keep a discreet distance from them and avoid making physical contact. Just to be on the safe side, you should also wash yourself thoroughly after any such encounter. They explain the reason – strangers carry germs, and can make you ill. Sometimes very seriously ill, sometimes you can die. Just to drive this important lesson home, they show you photographic evidence of people suffering from TB and other easily communicable diseases. There can be little doubt – these poor people are suffering terribly, and all because they had done something that was so easily avoided. They had just got too physically close to strangers. But if you make sure you don't do that you can keep yourself safe.

So having learnt and understood this valuable lesson, you have no difficulty accepting and valuing your life as it is. The limitations don’t seem that great – after all, with modern technology you can make friends on the internet, and interact with them almost as if they’re in the same room. You realise how minor these compromises are when weighed against the awful alternative you had seen in those photographs.

But as you interact with more and more people and find out more about the world around you, a strange realisation hits you. Other people simply aren't making the same compromise, or taking the same precautions. They're not in a remote room communicating with others remotely, they're out and about in crowded places brushing against people, shaking their hands, sitting next to them for long periods on long-haul flights, sometimes even kissing and hugging them, etc, etc. Are these people completely nuts? Don't they know about the germs and the diseases, haven't they seen the photographs? Don't they realise their behaviour is leaving them totally exposed to this danger? Well, yes they do. And yet they carry on doing it, seemingly without a care in the world. To you, whose way of life had always been defined by the need to protect yourself at all costs against these risks it seems utterly inexplicable.

This (admittedly colourful and extreme) example seems to me roughly analogous to Rachel Lucas' bafflement in encountering a society where it's not simply the case that ordinary citizens are legally thwarted from owning guns for self-defence purposes – for the most part they simply have no wish to do so. After all, she comes from a society where it's taken as a given that people will be constantly aware of potential threats against them and will want to directly protect themselves against those threats, in many cases by owning and even carrying a gun. But upon arrival in Britain, she cites examples where innocent people have been attacked and have been unable to adequately defend themselves. Isn't it obvious, she asks, that these individuals would have been more likely to survive if they'd had a gun handy? On the face of it, the answer can only be yes. So haven't other people in the society around them heard about these attacks, haven't they read the newspapers, haven't they seen the photographs? Yes they have. So don't they want to possess a gun to lessen the risk of the same fate befalling them? On the whole, no they don't. Utterly inexplicable.

But of course, the reason why people in Britain don't want to carry guns even though there are hypothetical situations in which they might 'need' them is exactly the same as why people get physically close to others even though they might pick up deadly germs. It's not that they're fools or that they haven't spotted the risks – it's just that they choose not to allow their way of life to be defined by those particular risks. I was mercilessly mocked the other day for suggesting the cornerstone of true personal liberty is the freedom from fear. This was a childish fantasy I urgently needed to grow out of, I was told – freedom from fear is a literal impossibility, because it is a simple law of nature that we are all at constant risk. But this is to completely misconstrue the point I was making. Women who walk the streets without the gun in their handbag that they might 'need' to defend themselves against a potential assailant, or just anyone who shakes hands even though there's a small chance it might make them ill...all these people in a small way have achieved that freedom from fear I was talking about. Not because the risk, the source of the fear isn’t there any more, but because they’ve recognised as rational people that it's an acceptably small risk and that their lives therefore don’t need to be defined by that fear. Isn't there freedom in not feeling you need to be practically chained to a gun, in the same way there's freedom in not feeling compelled to avoid shaking hands with others?

Ultimately life is chock full of eminently avoidable risks – but for the most part those risks are small and the available protective strategies are extreme. A woman can significantly lessen the risk of being raped if she never allows herself to be alone with a man – similarly a man can lessen the risk of a devastating false rape allegation by never allowing himself to be alone with a woman. You can avoid drowning by never going near the sea. You can ensure you survive a sudden nuclear war by living in a bunker. Few people would think these steps were worth it, even though they are all perfectly effective, practical strategies to deploy against genuine risks. Why not? Because the sacrifice is too great, the richness of potential life experience missed out on too worthwhile. So instead we all at times make ourselves vulnerable when we don't have to – that's the only way we can truly live. The more we feel able to do this the richer life is, and the more free we are. That's what I mean by freedom from fear.

But of course for this to work people need to know that the risks we're talking about genuinely are acceptably small. It's not rational to feel 'free from fear' to walk in the woods if in reality there's a 90% chance you're going to be eaten by a wild animal. But this is where gun-owners whose way of life – admittedly only to a degree – is defined by their fears have got themselves and the society around them into a terrible bind. Because the actions they are taking to alleviate that fear are in fact increasing the level of risk from one that would otherwise be acceptably small to one which is perhaps not. Think about those unfortunate individuals in Britain who Rachel Lucas observed would have been safer with a gun – if it was possible to look at those situations as entirely self-contained, she might be right. But the inevitable implication is that if those particular individual citizens have a gun, so do millions of others. The UK would have transformed itself from a largely non-weaponised society with what is still a much, much lower level of gun violence than the US to a highly weaponised society with...well, I don't think it's really too big an assumption to suggest our level of gun violence would be bound to increase dramatically. And with the greater risk to individuals' safety comes – ironically – the greatest curtailment of personal freedom, one which the 'right' to carry guns is a very poor substitute for. If guns became so suddenly ubiquitous, isn’t there an inexorable logic to every household needing to have one to protect itself from those other 'defensive' weapons that are suddenly absolutely everywhere? What about my timid elderly aunt who lives alone and would probably faint at the thought of having to learn how to handle a gun – is she going to be told she simply has to get into the 'real world' in the same routine way she's currently told she needs to make sure her locks are secure? Won't she be terrified by the sudden cold message that her personal safety is no longer measured by the efforts of the community around her to collectively be secure but instead by her own (perhaps very limited) proficiency with a gun? Where's the freedom in that?

So there we are. I haven’t even covered a fraction of the areas I was planning to, but that'll do for now. I’m not promising there'll be a follow-up article (or a response to any 'verbose rebuttal'), I'll just see how I feel. In any case, I'm sure I've come up with enough serf-like compelled helplessness in the preceding few paragraphs to allow the fun and the relentless mockery to get well and truly underway. And that's what it's all about at the end of the day, isn't it lads? Enjoy!

UPDATE (Friday, 1am) : Kevin (perhaps wisely) suggested to me yesterday that I shouldn't respond directly to points made in the comments section. I've found, however, over the last few hours that I haven't been able to resist the temptation. And after seven solid, rather mentally exhausting days of participating in exchanges on this topic, I now feel definitively it's time to stop. I'm an occasional blogger, largely on the subject of Scottish politics (and to Montague Burton's annoyance sometimes the Eurovision Song Contest as well) so in contrast to Kevin and others it's very difficult for me to envisage maintaining an indefinite dialogue on this one particular issue. I'll be interested to read Kevin's rebuttal, and although I won't be entirely surprised if it makes my blood boil in some way (or even in a whole multitude of ways), I don't plan to respond to it. Thankyou to everyone who has left comments and feel free to continue doing so (although please note automatic moderation will kick in after a week).

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Populus : SNP lose ground, but still lead Labour

After two consecutive Populus sub-samples showing huge SNP leads, the April figures show them down to a more plausible three-point lead over Labour.

SNP 35% (-8)
Labour 32% (+5)
Conservatives 21% (+10)
Liberal Democrats 8% (-10)
Others 5% (+3)

There does seem to have been something of a split between the polling companies in recent weeks - YouGov has been consistently showing a Labour lead, while both ComRes and Populus have repeatedly showed the SNP in front by varying margins. I should make the point that the YouGov Scottish sub-samples are typically much larger, at not far off 200.

Toff Guy

Mike Smithson at is speculating about whether Labour's apparent plan to draw attention to the class background of senior Tories can possibly work. That strategy of course failed spectacularly in the Crewe and Nantwich by-election last year, and I share Mike's gut feeling that the goodwill towards David Cameron means that Labour will have severe difficulty making it any more effective in the general election. The irony is, though, that in a way the attack deserves to be effective. Not because an individual Old Etonian has any less right than anyone else to seek an individual high office, whether that office be Prime Minister, Chancellor of the Exchequer or anything else. The problem is rather more that we happen to have a whole group of Old Etonians seeking a group of high offices simultaneously. I can already hear the Tory retort - "in the Conservative Party we appoint people on merit, we can't discriminate against people just because they happened to go to the same school". Hmmm. If I (in a parallel universe) became Leader of the Opposition, do you think that line would work for me? If half my appointed Shadow Cabinet had all attended the same comprehensive school as me, would anyone be able to keep a straight face if I asked them to accept that as 'appointment solely on merit'?

Well, quite. So why should be people be any more forgiving - or any less sceptical - just because the school in question happens to be Eton? And yet somehow they are. Suggests to me that class prejudice is alive and well in Britain, and that contrary to the belief of some, it still ultimately works rather more in favour of the likes of David Cameron and George Osborne.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Tonight, Matthew, I'm going to be George Foulkes...

I mentioned earlier my foray into the lion's den by arguing about gun control on Rachel Lucas' blog. Even as I speak, other posters on the blog are busy archly agreeing with each other that I am 'dishonest' and comparing notes about exactly what point in the discussion they had first realised I wasn't 'arguing in good faith'. One of the posters even noted Ms Lucas' patience for allowing the discussion to go on - the implication being that my 'behaviour' was so beyond the pale that she had been extremely generous in even permitting me to have my voice heard. Since I was, in fact, being very honest and arguing from deeply-held principles throughout this is obviously rather hard to swallow, but this time I'm going to resist the temptation to respond because I've finally realised what a monumental waste of time it is. There just seems to be something in the mindset of many right-wing Americans that refuses to acknowledge legitimate philosophical or ideological disagreement - as you can see from the relative tolerance shown at the start of the discussion, you're fine as long as you're a good boy or girl and argue within certain acceptable bounds (bounds which of course they and they alone are permitted to define), but once you step over a certain mark what you say just 'does not compute' and you are automatically transferred to the 'liar'/'bad faith'/'troll' zone. At one stage I tried to introduce an alternative concept of personal liberty (one, which as it happens, I genuinely and passionately believe in) that doesn't define itself so narrowly as being entirely dependent on the capacity to defend yourself with a gun - that, it was immediately pointed out to me, was a "bridge too far".

Anyway, winding down from what I now realise was an utterly pointless discussion, a couple of reflections -

1) The sometimes bemused, sometimes angry 'does not compute' reaction I stirred up was so intense that I began to realise that the posters on that blog simply have very little exposure to the type of arguments I was - for the most part in a fairly restrained manner - putting forward, even though millions of people in their own country (let alone beyond their shores) would broadly agree with me. And, when I think about it, that actually makes perfect sense. If you look at the average American political blog, it's either conservatives talking to other conservatives or liberals talking to other liberals, and never the twain shall meet. It's little wonder the cultural divide in the US is so sharp - left-wingers and right-wingers in this country may disagree and may sometimes even take a dislike to each other but at least they can bear to engage in some kind of dialogue (or should that be perpetual slanging match?).

2) What is it about arguing with right-wing Americans that temporarily transforms me into George Foulkes? No-one who's read this blog can doubt my nationalist credentials, but over the last few days I veritably started waving the Union Jack at them! At one point I even referred to the UK as "my country". AM2 would be proud of me...

Monday, April 6, 2009

Death of an SNP great

I'm not quite sure how it happened (these things tend to have a life of their own) but I've spent an unhealthy proportion of the last three days on a right-wing American blog having one of those Alice in Wonderland debates on the topic of gun laws with people who seem to believe that black is white, and that the huge quantities of guns washing around in their society somehow prevents violence, rather than being in any way responsible for their appalling murder rate. Anyway, having finally had quite enough of that, I naturally looked to AM2's blog for something else to react to as some light relief! Tragically, all I found instead was his sincere condolences at the death of Professor Sir Neil MacCormick.

This is a particularly upsetting loss - he was one of the SNP's finest, but he's a loss to a great many walks of life other than politics, and of course most of all to his family and friends. I'm proud to say I voted for him not only as an MEP, but also in his unsuccessful attempt to be elected Chancellor of Glasgow University a few years ago.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

YouGov : Labour lead in Scotland slashed

I'd started to lose faith that such a thing could exist, but at last here is a YouGov poll with some moderately good news for the SNP! Labour remain ahead in the Scottish sub-sample, but their lead has been halved from twelve to six points.

Labour 36% (-)
SNP 30% (+6)
Conservatives 19% (+1)
Liberal Democrats 11% (-5)
Others 4% (-2)

Meanwhile, the debate on the UK-wide figures is whether Labour should be enthused or in a state of despair at their modest bounce following Gordon Brown's G20 'triumph'. Mike Smithson at falls into the latter category, but Frank Luntz - who to be fair was spot on in his prediction of a boost of 3-4 points - seemed to feel on Friday that such an outcome would be sufficient to bring a snap election onto the horizon! I remain dubious, but it is true that a Tory lead of just seven points is not sufficient for David Cameron to be fully confident of securing an overall majority.