Monday, December 27, 2010

But...but...the three London parties don't like the idea. How can this possibly work?

I break off from my Christmas blogging abstinence for the 79th time to bring you this unrivalled gem on the subject of tuition fees from Richard Nabavi at Political Betting yesterday.  Unfortunately, I missed his final comment, so wasn't able to respond at the time...

Me : Seth, there was nothing remotely “undeliverable” about a solemn pledge to vote in a specific way in the Commons come what may. All they [the Lib Dems] had to do was locate the ‘No’ lobby.

Richard Nabavi :  As a protest, yes. As a policy, no.  The main point, though, still remains.

Me : Not at all. The idea that it was impossible to avoid an increase in tuition fees doesn’t stand up to much scrutiny - there were a number of alternatives, albeit ones that Tories find unpalatable. But in any case, the pledge the Lib Dems signed - virtually in blood - was about how they would vote regardless of whether they were in government or not.

Richard Nabavi : So you think. But since Labour, the LibDems and the Conservatives have all concluded that there was actually no alternative, your view doesn’t really amount to anything very practical.

If there were an alternative, why has no-one proposed it?

So there you have it, ladies and gentlemen of the jury - if the three London-based parties don't propose alternatives, then those alternatives simply don't exist.  Scotland and Wales must seem like Narnia to these people.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The other side of Reasoned Discourse : "I don't think you're a Nazi, but I do think you're a bigot."

I know I've had more comebacks than Frank Sinatra from my "Christmas blogging break", but it appears my off/on debate with Kevin Baker on gun control has very abruptly come to a definitive end, so I thought it might be fitting to use this post as a monument to the rather telling manner in which the landmark moment finally arrived. First of all, let's recall Kevin's idealistic words when he arrived at this blog out of the blue on 8 April 2009, proposing a debate -

"There are those like you who hold an honest belief that "gun control" works to (somehow) make the world a safer place. There are those like me and the majority of Rachel's commenters who hold an opposing view. There's a vast middle out there who don't know what to think, and a large segment of them don't care, but there are "fence sitters" - and many of them vote. They are interested - and these debates provide an opportunity to show both sides.

I believe that my side - argued calmly, with statistics (with sources!) and logic - is the one that is most convincing.

I did not engage you in Rachel's comment thread because I came to it too late, but I now invite you to actually debate this topic. I suggest that the forum for this debate be our two blogs. We can trade posts, or I'll be more than happy to give you guest posting privileges at my blog.

I'm quite serious. And I promise that you will learn things you didn't previously know. I don't expect to change your mind, but I do predict that you will be made uncomfortable by what you learn...

No, James, it's not about "winning" or "losing," it's about the philosophy. As I said above, I don't expect to change your mind, nor you mine. What I want to do is get the discussion out there where "fence-sitters" can find it.

You seem like the type capable of defending his position, and (given your performance at Rachel's) willing to.

You have no idea how rare that is. On my side of the fence we have a running joke about "reasoned discourse" - it's what your side does here on the internet generally when confronted with facts and reasoned arguments. They close their comments and often delete them. I don't think you'd do that.

Obviously, I think your philosophy is the wrong one. Just as obviously (as you noted) your philosophy is not unknown on this side of the pond. That's what I'm fighting, and - not to put too fine a point on it - I want to use a debate between us as a tool in that fight.

If you think you can defend your position, then accept my invitation. I believe I can defend mine. I have no doubt that in the end we will agree to disagree, but it is my most earnest hope that readers of the discussion will come away believing that my arguments are the more convincing ones.

Can you say the same?"

So there's not much doubt as to the inferences we are being invited to draw about anyone who runs away from an open, rational exchange of views, and specifically their confidence in their ability to defend their corner in such an exchange, and to ultimately prevail in the battle for the hearts and minds of the undecided.  Bearing all that in mind, spot the slight irony in the manner in which Kevin today announces that he's no longer quite so keen on this whole debating lark...

Baker : Yup. Our first principles are completely divergent. And while I'm content to leave his type alone, they cannot leave my type alone, because they feel threatened by us.

Me : Genuinely bemused by that comment, Kevin, given that it was you who came to me all-guns-blazing (if you'll forgive the expression) in spring 2009, not the other way round. Oh, I know that was before you "flipped my rock over", but let me remind you that you also claim not to have been remotely "surprised" by what you found under it.

You may not feel threatened by me or my "type", but you certainly feel threatened by something - isn't the whole raison d'être of this blog "our freedoms and way of life are under mortal threat"? A "decades-long hate crime", and all that?

Baker : James, the reason I blog? Agitate for individual rights? Put my hard-earned money into the hands of people who fight for my rights? Stand up to people like you who are afraid of people like me?

I don't want my headstone to read "He didn't love freedom enough."

Here's the deal, Sparky, which you (also unsurprisingly) can't grasp: I don't think you're a Nazi, but I do think you're a bigot. You're the one who nonchalantly threw out the accusation "It can only be that he feels black people are innately more prone to violence than white people." In no uncertain terms you called me a racist. I doubt you even considered the question for a second, you just put a checkmark in the box that said "gun-toting, knuckle-dragging, redneck racist." It fit your preconceived notions

So I thought I'd give you some of your own back. I should've known better. Water off a duck's back.

Oh, and on that Hiroshima/Nagasaki question. No, that was not "genocide." What we did to the Indian populations of North America was genocide. Try to learn the difference. I'm not proud of either, but I'm not disturbed by the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, for reasons I have no doubt you'd reject. I don't care if you reject them. I do have objections to the genocide of the Indians.

You're welcome to continue to hang around. As someone called you in an email, you are more than welcome to become Scotadelphia, but I'm done with you. You've served your purpose as the quintessential example of type, and for that, again, I thank you.

Me : Kevin, the atomic bombings were genocide. I accept that's a controversial point of view even outside the US, but it's hardly a novel one, so for you to work yourself up into a state of moral outrage as if no reasonable person could ever make that claim is faintly ludicrous. The reason the bombings were genocide is that they clearly fit the definition of genocide. It was very telling that when I quoted that definition, neither you nor anyone else was able to explain why it wouldn't apply in this case. Your own tactic was to ignore the point completely, while others suggested that they (conveniently) preferred another definition entirely.

It's quite clear that your underlying reason for rejecting not only the genocide claim, but also the lesser claim of war crime/atrocity, is very simply that the bombings were carried out by the US to finish off a campaign that has since become an integral part of America's national story, feeding into the country's (partly justified) self-image as a force for good in the world. Indeed, you explicitly invited your readers to find what I said objectionable on the sole grounds that it attacked an action of the country they love - there wasn't even the slightest trace of a defence of the bombings on their own merits. Doubtless that tactic will work in the very narrow sense it was intended to (ie. demonising me as an individual) - but at the expense of any credibility you had left as someone who debates based on reason and logic, rather than on emotion, jingoism, and what in your country you would call 'handwaving'.

Now, onto the issue that clearly led you to lose the plot and write this intemperate piece. No, it is not true that I implied you held racist views on the basis of my own preconceived ideas, and it's categorically not the case that I said it without considering the point very carefully. I made the claim based specifically on a close reading of things you said in your previous post. As I pointed out in my reply, you seemed to me to be very noticeably switching to insinuation and suggestion whenever you got to the bits of your belief system that you felt would be somewhat unpalatable to neutrals in this debate. My intention was to tease out what it was you were so shy about fronting up to - I didn't claim to be 100% certain in the guesses I was making, as can be seen from my words "he can always correct me if he thinks I'm going astray" (which I note you didn't quote). To be fair, that's exactly what you did - it turns out you believe black culture, not black genes, is the problem. I'm not sure that's any more attractive a worldview, as it still pins all the blame on the black community, and runs away from society's collective responsibility for racial inequality. But others can make up their own minds about that. In that sense teasing out what you actually meant - when you seemed strikingly reluctant to spell it out - entirely served its purpose.

In closing, I'll just remind you of your stated reason for wanting a debate with me - it was that virtually all others on my side of the argument refuse to engage in a dialogue, resort to name-calling and mindless abuse upon having their belief system challenged, and go on to practice the fabled "Reasoned Discourse". Well, it's now plain for all to see that it is you who has unilaterally decided, as a result of arguments you've heard from me that your belief system is unable to cope with in a mature way, that withdrawal of engagement after one final abusive post is the way to go. That's fine. Now that you've made that unilateral decision, I won't be "sticking around" as you put it, any more than I have during the previous lulls in this 'debate'. There would be little utility in me doing so, as there are only a very small number of posters here who are any more interested in a meaningful exchange of views than you are. A few hours ago, I had a perfectly civilised debate with Nate (as I've had in the past) on my own blog, but unfortunately those with his constructive approach seem rare indeed.

What I will be doing, however, is posting your above comment on my blog, along with this reply, as a monument to the very telling manner in which this 'debate' finally came to an end. Thankyou for getting angry, Kevin, and a very Happy Christmas to you and all your readers. 


Incidentally, it's worth pointing out that one of Kevin's readers, who fully agrees with him on the substantive issue of gun rights, nevertheless suggested that he'd gone too far in his latest essay, noting that "referring to 'flipping over a rock', calling him a bigot - these are not the tools of reasoned debate". My suspicion is that, on reflection, Kevin knew perfectly well that he'd made a tactical blunder, hence his hurried attempt not only to draw a line under the whole debate (having first declared a total, crushing victory, naturally), but also to 'clarify' his abusive comments in the following hilarious terms - "Here's the deal, Sparky, which you (also unsurprisingly) can't grasp: I don't think you're a Nazi, but I do think you're a bigot." But hang on - in exactly what sense have I failed to grasp that? Did I ever actually give any indication that I thought he was calling me a Nazi, and not just a bigot? I can't help wondering if that's the very revealing slip of a guilty mind...

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Baker blows his top

Well, it seems I've made considerable progress - Kevin Baker actually read my response this time, as evidenced by this intensely funny 4,300 word ranting retort which repeatedly brands me a bigot.

When someone starts equating your opposition to private gun ownership with anti-Semitism (yes, really) it's probably high time to heed Marcia's advice, and get on with enjoying Christmas. Just before I do, though, one of Kevin's grandiose assertions is so exquisitely ironic in the light of recent history that I simply can't resist having a very small nibble...

"That's because James does not understand the difference between warfare and despotism. Governments (and terrorists) use WMDs on other populations, not on their own soil."

In that case, clearly Saddam Hussein's chemical weapons attack on his own people at Halabja - used endlessly as a justification for the invasion of Iraq in 2003 - was a figment of Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney's imaginations. Just to refresh Kevin's memory, here's the Wikipedia account of an incident which blows a hole in one of his articles of faith, ie. that privately-owned handguns are a meaningful protection against 'governments gone bad', because tyrannical governments always sportingly refrain from using WMDs against their own people...

"The Halabja poison gas attack (Kurdish: Kîmyabarana Helebce), also known as Halabja massacre or Bloody Friday, was an incident that took place on March 16, 1988, during the closing days of the Iran–Iraq War, when chemical weapons were used by the Iraqi government forces in the Kurdish town of Halabja in Iraqi Kurdistan.

The attack killed between 3,200 and 5,000 people and injured around 7,000 and 10,000 more, most of them civilians; thousands more died of complications, diseases, and birth defects in the years after the attack. The incident, which has been officially defined as an act of genocide against the Kurdish people in Iraq, was and still remains the largest chemical weapons attack directed against a civilian-populated area in history."

Oh, but wait - Kevin has suddenly remembered this rather huge problem. A few paragraphs later he hurriedly backtracks -

"James does not understand that governments tend not to bomb or gas their own population centers. Oh, Saddam did it, but he only gassed Kurds, not, say, downtown Tikrit."

So despotic regimes only "tend" not to do the blindingly obvious and quell revolts using the weapons at their disposal. Or, to put it another way, they don't do it, except when they do. Oh-kaaay...

Oh, and to answer Kevin's final question - "coming from a bigot, this is not a surprise. How's it feel, James?"

How's it feel to have so much in common with the likes of Alan C Baird? It feels fabulous, Kev. Thanks for asking. Happy Christmas!

The Day of the 'Combat Expert' cometh

Of all the many, many jaw-dropping contributions to the latest train-wreck of a comments thread on gun rights, one by the poster Sandro Rettinger takes the biscuit. It's of course standard fare for the Kevin Baker Fan Club to inform us letter mortals that we simply don't understand that guns are no more dangerous than other "tools for killing" such as lampshades, wedding cakes, event planners, thimbles, etc. (which begs the obvious question of why wedding cakes aren't more than sufficient for 'self-defence' purposes, but I digress). What makes Sandro different is that he styles himself a "combat expert" and deems that anyone who does not share his expertise is not even entitled to express a view on the relative deadliness of guns when compared to other items.

You might remember Prince Philip's spectacularly ill-judged contribution to the post-Dunblane debate on gun control, when he suggested on radio that if the massacre had been carried out with cricket bats, it would have been irrational to ban cricket bats. A member of staff at Dunblane Primary School (and a prominent supporter of the campaign to ban handguns) reacted with fury, pointing out that if Thomas Hamilton had only been armed with a cricket bat, it's quite likely she and other staff could have overpowered him before he'd even got close to killing as many as 16 people. So I put it to Sandro Rettinger that he was even denying the right of this woman, a witness to the tragedy, to hold a view on the topic. Extraordinarily, he didn't demur -

"If she's got all of your experience with the subject, then you're absolutely right I'd say she isn't qualified to hold an opinion on the matter, any more than I'm qualified to have an opinion on how best to design a supersonic airplane.

If recognizing limitations isn't humble enough for your tastes, well, that's just too bad...

And also, no, "having been nearby when something horrible happened" doesn't count as "combat experience". You seem to be under the mistaken impression that everyone's viewpoint has equal validity, irrespective of actual knowledge. Since you've provided no evidence that at the time of the attack, said staff member had any more idea of how to deal with being attacked by a baseball bat than by someone with a handgun, I can't say as I'm especially willing to consider her commentary on the subject as anything more than wishful thinking on her part.

If she wanted to be a truly effective defence for her charges, she'd be demanding to be armed herself, now."

Words fail me. Evidently it's high time we considered dismantling democracy and replacing it with a benign (ahem) dictatorship of the 'combat experts'.

Monday, December 20, 2010

"This I Believe" (but you might have to work out the unpalatable bits for yourself)

As I mentioned in my previous post, I've been swithering over whether I should try to respond to Kevin Baker's latest contribution to the gun 'debate' now, or leave it until after the festive period so I can take my time over it and do it justice. However, in my heart of hearts I know that if I leave it that long, I may never get round to it at all, and there are just so many cavernous holes in Kevin's argument that I really feel it's begging for some kind of response, even if it's just a very abbreviated one and not very polished. So, as my mum always used to say, here goes nothing. Let's start with a few points on which Kevin seems to be deliberately misleading his readers -

"James has posted a few more times since then [spring 2009], but these posts cover the majority of the topic."

In fact, Kevin went on to concede in the comments thread that he hadn't even been aware of some of my most recent posts, let alone read them. It's of course entirely his prerogative if he doesn't want to bother doing his research properly, but it does make something of a mockery of his earnest attempts to psychoanalyse me for the benefit of his credulous readers later in the post. Specifically, he doesn't need to rely on his "feelings" about the underlying reasons for my opposition to the death penalty when I've discussed that topic here many times. For the record, his "speculation" is only half-right - yes, it's a "sanctity of life" issue for me, but no, it hasn't got anything whatever to do with "poor, misunderstood criminals". Conflating those two possible reasons is a fairly obvious example of Kevin's woolly thinking in characterising the motivations of "liberals" - someone who feels that the state has no business taking the life of a citizen in any circumstances (a libertarian worldview which, perversely, Kevin appears to reject) would not be remotely fazed if the criminal concerned was a monster. Sanctity of life means exactly what it says on the tin.

Next, Kevin flatly denies that he has ever said something that he has, in fact, said repeatedly - namely that his philosophy (rather like that of Karl Marx) is literally "provable".

"Not exactly. The difference is, I believe that statistics can disprove one philosophy, but not the other. James seems to think so, too, because in one of his later posts, he asks for statistical proofs!"

On the latter point, he's either consciously misleading his readers, or he can only have taken a very cursory glance at the post he's linking to. The point I actually made was that the onus is on those who claim their philosophy is literally provable to back that up convincingly when logical objections are put to them, rather than stick their fingers in their ears and plaintively cry "why isn't being right good enough for us?!". The silence when I raised several such objections was, indeed, deafening.

The third point of distortion (and this is the most brazen of the lot) is when he uses this quote of mine out of context to try to illustrate that I do not "use my full capacity for reason" -

". . . 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."

Now, can anyone detect just a trace of irony in those words? The point, of course, is that those of us who live in Britain read about horrific murders in the US all the time - and, more pertinently, there are far more such incidents per head of population than in the UK. Just like Rachel Lucas, we shake our heads in disbelief that they can't see where they're going so obviously wrong - but the difference is that we have a greater rational basis for doing so. The American philosophy on self-defence simply does not work - the defensive utility of guns self-evidently does not even begin to offset the greater risk of being attacked that is an obvious consequence of having millions upon millions of guns sloshing around.

"Mr. Kelly is convinced that only by disarming his neighbors can society enhance its collective "freedom from fear," and any attempt to illustrate to him that his simple and obvious solution is wrong is an exercise in "voodoo statistics" or is "incomprehensible." It has to be, because to acknowledge a flaw in one's basic philosophical premise means questioning the entire philosophy. As Nate noted, few people can do that."

And Kevin certainly isn't one of those people. Having harangued me for so long to engage with him on the statistical front, what do you imagine his reaction was to being presented with powerful evidence from the US and the rest of the world that gun legality increases both the gun homicide and general homicide rates? A vague mumble about how the funding of the studies calls their findings into question. Now, it is sorely tempting at this point to make an observation along the lines of -

"Not fair using FACTS against my BELIEFS!"


"Of course you don't believe those statistics - your philosophy won't let you."

But that would indeed be very childish.

One thing that fascinates me about Kevin's argument is the way he relies on insinuation and suggestion when he gets to the parts of his belief system that he (I suspect) fears would be unpalatable to some of the people he's trying to convince. So, as a public service, I'm going to try to join the dots and see how attractive Kevin's philsophy is when translated into plain English. He can always correct me if he thinks I'm going astray.

"I believe that John Locke was correct when he named three corollaries of that right as "life, liberty, and property," and that Thomas Jefferson was a brilliant rhetorician when he substituted "the pursuit of happiness" in the Declaration of Independence."

In other words, Kevin does not believe that the 'pursuit of happiness' means what it says, which is important, because that is crucial to justifying his contention that nobody has any business infringing his negative freedoms to enhance the general quality of life of the populace, ie. through the freedom from fear of having fewer guns around. But unfortunately for Kevin, it appears that Jefferson actually borrowed the phrase "pursuit of happiness" from Locke himself, who framed it in this ideologically unsound manner -

"The necessity of pursuing happiness [is] the foundation of liberty. As therefore the highest perfection of intellectual nature lies in a careful and constant pursuit of true and solid happiness; so the care of ourselves, that we mistake not imaginary for real happiness, is the necessary foundation of our liberty."

Which begs the obvious question - is Kevin's rather narrow definition of freedom making him happy? Is it a true or imaginary happiness? And if it isn't making him truly happy, is he authentically more free than those of us he imagines to be in "bondage"?

Kevin also suggests that all authentic human rights are corollaries of the 'right to life'. I have some sympathy with that idea. The right to life certainly has no meaning without the right to food, shelter and decent health care. And yet Kevin would perversely regard those fundamental requirements as illegitimate on the basis that they 'take something away' from others. But doesn't his 'right to private property' infringe the theoretical freedom of others to walk across his lawn if they so choose? Doesn't that 'take something away' from them? Not very much, of course, but then the sacrifices required to meaningfully protect the right to life of everyone needn't be the end of the world either.

Moving on, this is Kevin's response to my suggestion that a massive policy effort to raise the educational and living standards of black people would wipe out the differential in the rates of gun crime between ethnic groups -

"Like gun bans, it's blindingly obvious to James that poverty is the driving force behind crime, everywhere. He might want to talk to Richard Cohen about that. We've had a decades-long "massive policy effort" the intent of which was to "raise the educational and living standards for black people up to the national average." Like gun control, it has failed utterly at its stated goals. The actual outcome has been a larger population living in poverty than we started with, and a poverty rate that's just about flat. Among that population are more broken homes, more fatherless children and a homicide rate six times greater than that of the rest of the American population.

But correlation isn't causation, and its implementers meant well and that's what really matters. And if they failed, it wasn't because the philosophy was wrong . . ."

And what is the inference here about what is so wrong with the philosophy? It can only be that he feels black people are innately more prone to violence than white people. No wonder he doesn't feel like fronting up to that.

A secondary inference is that people are responsible for their own poverty, and that government action is powerless to change that. From a UK point of view, it really is quite difficult to accept that worldview as credible, when you compare the rigid class system of the 1920s and 1930s which really did trap the bulk of the population in lifelong poverty, to the imperfect but improved situation of today in which those born into modest circumstances at least have a degree of hope.

Kevin repeatedly projects onto me the belief that people are essentially good (as opposed to his own conviction that they are born morally neutral) and that if you can only take away the factors in their environment that lead them to commit crime, they will no longer do so. But in truth, it doesn't much matter what your view of human nature is - what matters is the empirical evidence that if you improve people's lot in life, the crime rate falls. Not to zero, but very substantially. Who cares whether a positive environment is shaping the behaviour of a morally neutral individual, or if that essentailly good individual is reverting to his true nature? All we need to care about is that it works. Kevin's gloating about the failure of the policy drive to improve the living standards of black people might tell us something about the effectiveness of the methods used, but it tells us precisely nothing about what the dividends would have been had the objective been achieved.

Another point where Kevin relies on suggestion rather than fronting up to his beliefs is in his throwaway remark about my characterisation of the atomic bombings of Japan as "atrocities" -

"Yes, ladies and gentlemen, the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were genocide and indefensible! Once again, don't confuse him with facts and "voodoo statistics.""

But if Kevin doesn't think the bombings were atrocities, what does that tell us about his beliefs? That it is justifiable, in a conflict with the government and armed forces of another country, to mass-murder the innocent civilians of that country. What an extraordinary position to hold for someone who claims to view the individual as totally autonomous from the state. Precisely what quarrel did the children slaughtered by the thousand in Hiroshima and Nagasaki have with the US?

Last point for now (I could go on for weeks) - it's amusing to note that, despite Kevin's rejection of the idea that the safety of individuals can be adequately safeguarded by the collective action of entrusting powers to the state, he nevertheless feels that a collective approach is the only way of protecting individuals against the state. He feels that only if enough people arm themselves with guns can the hypothetical threat of the government turning against its people be headed off. As this is purely voluntary, he doesn't actually specify what can be done if people aren't willing to play ball in sufficient numbers - all in all, it seems like a bit of a wing and a prayer safeguard. He quotes 9th Circuit Judge Alex Kozinski -

"The Second Amendment is a doomsday provision, one designed for those exceptionally rare circumstances where all other rights have failed - where the government refuses to stand for reelection and silences those who protest; where courts have lost the courage to oppose, or can find no one to enforce their decrees. However improbable these contingencies may seem today, facing them unprepared is a mistake a free people get to make only once."

Quite so. What else can the citizenry do when faced with a tyrannical regime armed to the teeth with weapons of mass destruction? Just as well they'll have their trusty handguns.

"I believe the gun isn't necessarily civilization, but it is most definitely responsible for the existence of modern democracy."

Now, given that there are any number of modern democracies with strict gun laws, and many with a US-style free-for-all, Kevin might as well be asserting that heat, cuckoo clocks or the Spanish language are a necessary precondition for democracy. Of course, what he means is that UK democracy is bound to eventually falter - well, it's been several decades and it hasn't happened yet. Kevin is entitled to be an adherent to the Zhou Enlai interpretation (that it's too early to tell) but what he can't claim is the slightest evidential basis for believing that he is any more likely to be proved right than the rest of us.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

An Über-Christmas awaits? Mebbes aye, mebbes naw...

Kevin Baker's long-awaited 'Überpost' in response to my series of posts on gun control has arrived, weighing in at just under 5000 words. To give him his due, it's a more thoughtful piece this time, and doesn't rely on the familiar 'statistical bombardment' technique. Something of an irony that, because for my own part I'd wearily given in to the inevitable and started discussing the statistical evidence in a number of posts this year (eg. here and here). Indeed, it's striking that Kevin is basically responding to things I said way back in the spring of 2009, rather than in my many posts this year on the subject (notably this one) although to be fair that's probably due to information overload.

All in all, he's presented me with something of a dilemma - having posted on an almost daily basis for most of this year, I'd more or less decided to take a break from blogging over the festive period. But in the light of Kevin's attempts to psychoanalyse me (not least in relation to my support for the SNP) it might be difficult to resist an earlier response. We'll see...

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Guardian brought to its knees by US Air Force ban...or not

I was about to write a post saying what a moral outrage it is that the US Air Force has banned its personnel from accessing not only the WikiLeaks site, but also the 25 mainstream media websites that have published the leaked cables. I was also going to ponder the question of what the decision tells us about the true nature of America's "open society" and the supposedly sacred principle of free speech. But in truth the decision is just very, very silly, given that anyone wanting to access the information will still be able to do so if they just wait a while (or phone their Mum).

Does the Air Force imagine they're "punishing" the websites in some way? If so, I'm sure the Guardian will just about be able to survive the blow - somehow I don't think US military personnel are that newspaper's natural demographic...

Monday, December 13, 2010

Out of their depth? Not in the cables.

A few days ago, I left a comment on Daily Record journalist Torcuil Chrichton's blog post about the Megrahi WikiLeaks cables. I had a sneaking - and accurate - suspicion it would never appear given that none of his posts seem to have any comments on them, so I'd intended to post it here after a few days if it never showed up. Unfortunately I completely forgot to save it! However, the gist of it was that Torcuil had essentially "gold-plated" what was actually in the documents - as far as I could see, there was no basis for his claim that Alex Salmond "did not expect" Hillary Clinton to criticise him. Nor, for that matter, was it accurate to imply that Clinton ever did criticise Salmond personally. Torcuil also claimed that the Americans felt the Scottish government were "out of their depth", and the use of quotation marks suggested that was a direct quote. Indeed it was - but from the Guardian's over-excited interpretation of the cables, not from the cables themselves. Nowhere did Torcuil make that clear, and I've little doubt many of his readers would have gained a false impression as a result.

Of course, it's entirely Torcuil's prerogative if he wants to let comments through, and indeed I ended up blocking a handful on this blog at the height of my run-in with the gundamentalists, but I wonder if he's noticed that it is actually possible to switch the comments facility off altogether? I mean, if he's literally not planning to let any comments through at all...

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Incontestably contradictory

I'm slightly bemused by the insufferable Daniel Hannan's list of twelve "incontestable" reasons for voting No in the AV referendum, not least because two of them directly contradict each other. Observe...

"4. AV IS ‘EVEN LESS PROPORTIONAL’ THAN THE CURRENT SYSTEM: So concluded the independent Royal Commission chaired by the senior Liberal Democrat Roy Jenkins in 1998.

11. AV WILL MAKE POLITICIANS’ PROMISES EVEN MORE MEANINGLESS: AV is a system which will deliver more hung parliaments and therefore necessitate more coalitions. Coalitions mean political leaders picking and choosing which parts of their manifesto they seek to implement after you’ve voted for it, meaning you cannot have confidence that they will stick by any of the promises they have made if they enter government."

Simple question, Mr Hannan - how precisely will AV make hung parliaments more likely if it is EVEN LESS PROPORTIONAL than the current system? More pertinenently, if the (laudable) premise of question 4 is that too little proportionality is an inherently bad thing, how can the (bogus) prospect of greater proportionality under AV become an inherently bad thing by question 11?

The most nonsensical of all the reasons, though, are numbers 2 and 3 -

"2. AV IS UNFAIR: Supporters of fringe parties can end up having their vote counted five or six times – and potentially decide the outcome of the election – while people who backed the mainstream candidates only get one vote.

3. AV IS UNEQUAL: AV treats someone’s fifth or sixth choice as having the same importance as someone’s else’s first preference – but there is a big difference between positively wanting one candidate to win and being able to ‘put up with’ another."

Memo to Dan : many people are voting for a candidate to 'put up with' as it is. It's not as if we get to choose the shortlist, is it? In each count of an AV ballot, everyone's vote counts just ONCE - exactly as present. Indeed, votes for the 'mainstream' parties remain more meaningful, as they are successfully preventing those parties from being eliminated in the early counts. But what does change is that in the later stages, everyone has an equal chance to choose between the two leading candidates. That's not a fifth or a sixth choice - it's a first choice between the candidates remaining in contention at that point, and is therefore indistinguishable from the routine process of plumping for the best (or least worst) candidate that happens to be on offer in any election. FPTP votes are not weighted according to the enthusiasm of each elector for their choice, but if they were you'd find variations every bit as stark as anything you'd encounter under AV.

And what is Hannan's alternative? Most FPTP contests are de facto two-horse races, just like the final count of an AV ballot - the only difference being that a huge chunk of the electorate are effectively excluded from having their say on the outcome. So Hannan favours a continuation of the current tyranny of forcing supporters of smaller parties to choose between voting in the 'real election' that consists of the top two candidates, and voting honestly but disenfranching themselves in the process. The fact that the likes of Hannan and David Blunkett evidently regard that disenfranchisement as a thoroughly desirable thing is really quite startling.

It's equidistance, Jim, but not as we know it

I don't know if it's just me, but every time I hear Tavish Scott speak about the SNP government these days, I get the feeling he's mixed them up with the Khmer Rouge or the Ba'ath Party somewhere along the line. Is he cynically attempting to prepare the ground for his personal preference of an uncomfortable post-election alliance with Labour by relentlessly exhorting his party to view the alternative as unthinkable? Perish the thought. Here's the latest example of constructive opposition in the wake of Stewart Stevenson's resignation -

"Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Tavish Scott said: 'The people of Scotland deserve an awful lot better than they're getting at present from the SNP.

'The first minister needs to stand up and take responsibility for the shambles his government is in.'"

"a lot better than they're getting at present from the SNP"...given the context, I can only assume he's talking about snow? If by any chance the Scott/Gray Dream Team is in harness by this time next year, that might just prove to be something of a hostage to fortune.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Meanwhile, in a parallel universe, it was the voters who let the Liberal Democrats down

Of all the spurious justifications for the Liberal Democrats' breach of faith on tuition fees, this one has to take the biscuit : a post by Mike Smithson entitled "Did the students renege on their side of the deal?". After pointing out that one of the reasons the Liberal Democrats underperformed in the general election was that 18-24 year olds turned out to vote in lower numbers than other age groups, Smithson poses this question -

"Why, to put it bluntly, should politicians be arsed for a section of the electorate that might make a lot of fuss about things but can’t be arsed themselves to go down to the polling station and put a X on a ballot."

Dear God. Where to begin? How about with the bleeding obvious - the pledge the Lib Dems signed was not in any sense conditional upon students voting in a particular way, let alone in sufficient numbers. That's why it was, indeed, a pledge, not a "deal". Secondly, if Mike is seriously suggesting that the mistake students made was not to produce more votes for the Liberal Democrats, I have a sneaking suspicion students themselves might just beg to differ - they almost certainly feel they gave the party far too many votes. After all, does Mike honestly believe that the student vote didn't deliver for his party in any way? If so, I'd suggest he may be in for a rude awakening at the next general election, with the Lib Dems facing a likely massacre in university seats.

In any case, the fact that young people are disproportionately less likely to vote is hardly a startling new revelation - it was known at the time the tuition fees commitment was made. Memo to all Lib Dems : if you want to make a cynical calculation to neglect the concerns of one section of the electorate, feel free to do so before giving a solemn pledge to those voters without any qualifications, and signing it in blood.

More broadly, it's all very well lambasting 18-24 year olds for not participating in the democratic process, but politicians have a responsibility for that problem as well. It's extremely hard to persuade young people that their votes are meaningful when the empirical evidence is that promises made to them in an election campaign are tomorrow's fish-and-chip paper.

(Note : "Can't be arsed" appears to be one of Mr Smithson's favourite phrases at the moment. A few days ago, he told us hopefully that the SNP and Plaid Cymru often "can't be arsed" to stick around at Westminster until Thursday evenings. Sadly for him, the division lists on the tuition fees vote tell a somewhat different story.)

Thursday, December 9, 2010

It's still mathematically possible for Scotland to qualify, no. 2837

I've been happily immersed in the European Curling Championships all week, although a few hours ago I stupidly took the Eurosport commentator's word for it that the Scottish men's team's loss to France meant that they were out of contention for the play-offs. Having looked at the standings, it instead appears we're into another of those ever-rewarding "it's still mathematically possible for Scotland to qualify" scenarios. If they beat Sweden tomorrow, and if Denmark lose to Switzerland, they'll be into a three-way tiebreak for the fourth and final play-off place. I'm not holding my breath.

On the plus side, the women's team skipped by Eve Muirhead is going great guns, having finished top of the round-robin. If by any chance they go on to win the competition, it won't be before time - Scotland haven't won gold in the women's event since the very first European Championships in 1975. As usual, there's unrivalled coverage over at Bob Cowan's blog.

Fresh hopes for modest electoral reform at Westminster

The conventional wisdom that the 'No' side are coasting to victory in the AV referendum has been blown apart by a new ICM survey that shows 'Yes' ahead by 35% to 22%. Whether or not these figures are any more credible than the YouGov ones showing the opposite picture, one thing that does seem eminently plausible is the huge number of 'don't knows' at this stage on an issue about which there has been very little publicity so far. The referendum is therefore wide open and out there to be won by either side.

My suspicion is that, with the current toxicity of Nick Clegg's party, the more non-Liberal Democrats become openly associated with the Yes campaign (and do so for their own reasons) the greater the chances of success. It will be fatal for it to be seen as a Lib Dem baby. I also firmly believe it's vital that Yes campaigners don't give in to the temptation to say that AV must be allowed to 'bed in' before any further changes to the electoral system are considered - the danger that supporters of PR will feel uninspired by the prospect of this timid reform far outweighs the need to reassure others who might fear they are voting for the thin end of the wedge. The latter group are scarcely natural Yes voters in any case.

Furthermore, establishing a narrative well in advance of polling day that (whether Clegg and Cameron like it or not) a 'Yes' is a vote for the first small step in a process of electoral reform will make it much easier for PR supporters to build on any victory afterwards. So it's the right strategy twice over.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

'Wishart makes me boak' - how about supporting fiscal autonomy then?

Over at my old haunt Political Betting, there's been a fair bit of wishful thinking recently about the prospect of SNP abstentions on tuition fees helping to get the Lib Dems off the hook. Mike Smithson noted that simply holding the vote on a Thursday night might help, because the nationalists sometimes "can't be arsed" to stick around that late in the parliamentary week (translation - their constituencies are further away from Westminster than most), while a couple of posters claimed this morning that the SNP's policy of not voting on domestic English affairs ought to guarantee an abstention anyway. When it was pointed out that Pete Wishart had already confirmed in the Herald that the SNP would be sticking with previous practice and voting against higher tuition fees due to the impact on Barnett consequentials, it provoked these rather colourful reactions...

"Sorry but this ‘have you cake and eat it’ attitude makes me grrrrr."

"Boak - Wishart makes me sick."

Now, here's a novel suggestion. Instead of grumbling about the SNP following the inescapable logic of an inadequate devolution settlement that leaves Scottish funding totally at the mercy of the side-effects of "domestic English" policy decisions, why not do something about the system itself? These posters can rest assured that under full fiscal autonomy, the SNP would have no need or wish to ever again intervene on English tuition fees.

Also, isn't it curious that, in the eyes of PB Tories, Inverness MP Danny Alexander's vote in favour of the coalition proposals doesn't seem to have the same boak-inducing qualities, or indeed to fit the definition of a politician attempting to possess an already-consumed cake?


From what I saw of the coverage of the Megrahi leaks on the ITV lunchtime news, it couldn't have come out much worse for Scottish Labour - the message was that the London government had been quaking in the face of threats from Libya, while in contrast the SNP government had turned down each and every inducement offered by the Gaddafi regime. Having said that, I do have to question the quality of the reporting when it was suggested at the end of the piece that the cables "reveal" that Megrahi is expected to live five years - it should be clear from even the most cursory glance that talk of that kind of timeframe predated the decline in his health, and even at that stage five years was thought to be unlikely.

Americans even spun themselves on Lockerbie

One thing I've found slightly amusing about the WikiLeaks cables so far is the entirely superfluous efforts of the authors to paint the US in a saintly light, despite the (intended) highly restricted audience. For instance, in the now-notorious write-up of Prince Andrew's boorish behaviour, we have the American ambassador "gently reminding" the prince that her country's presence in Central Asia is not in any way a continuation of the "Great Game", ie. competition with Russia for spheres of influence. Well, if you believe that you'll believe anything, but it appears the US has a self-image to maintain at all costs.

In the light of which, we shouldn't be surprised that the newly-published documents relating to the Megrahi release generate more spin than light, and seek to bolster the favoured US narrative despite the - quite literally - total absense of supporting evidence. One cable is dramatically titled "Qatar's Involvement in Al-Megrahi's Release" - but that 'involvement' seems to consist solely of the Qataris speaking to the Scottish government. It's fairly plain that there's an intense longing on behalf of the author for something far juicier, but instead all he/she can do is faithfully record the Qataris' entirely plausible denials of wild (and seemingly rather vague) US allegations of "any financial or trade incentives to induce Al-Megrahi's release".

Another cable purports to relate the Scottish government's "underestimation" of, and Alex Salmond's private "shock" at, the US reaction to Megrahi's release. But once this light dusting of spin is brushed away, what we actually learn is that Salmond's private statements were near-identical to what he was saying in public. It seems his "shock" related primarily to FBI director Robert Mueller's public letter of protest, and given that the widespread view in these parts was that Mueller's intervention was astonishingly thuggish, ill-conceived, self-indulgent and unprofessional, it's hard to see what reaction other than "shock" would have been appropriate in the circumstances. It's gratifying to learn that the Scottish government's representative made abundantly clear to the US that the shock was of the "offended" rather than "humbled" variety, although you'd be forgiven for thinking otherwise from the cable's billing (not to mention the Guardian's credulous summary).

Of course, it's the little details that give the authoritativeness (or otherwise) of these documents away, so it's also somewhat amusing to learn that the Americans were clearly basing their understanding of the Scottish Parliament's procedures not, as you might expect, on a close reading of the Scotland Act, but instead on the media's entirely erroneous belief that a two-thirds majority was required to pass a motion of no-confidence in the government. And this is supposed to be the world's most sophisticated intelligence-gathering outfit?

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

I'll be voting for independence on May 5th

The debate over Bella Caledonia's idea to turn next year's AV referendum into an unofficial vote on independence flared up again yesterday at Better Nation, with Jeff Breslin confirming that he will not be supporting the campaign, and will instead be voting Yes to AV. He put forward two arguments that hadn't previously occurred to me - firstly, that if the SNP endorsed the campaign they'd be playing with fire by turning it into "the" independence referendum, and secondly that it would harm the party in the Holyrood elections if they were seen to be sabotaging the vote. I think the latter concern is probably unfounded - doubtless such a course of action for the SNP would attract scathing criticism from opponents, but I'm not sure the electorate really care enough about AV for it to occur to them to punish a party for 'sabotaging' it. However, having reflected on the other point I think it has considerable validity. If the 'write-in independence' campaign was sufficiently high-profile and officially sanctioned by the SNP, it would be very easy for the unionist parties to say for years afterwards "you had your referendum, and it failed". And why am I so sure it would fail, if 'failure' is defined as not achieving majority backing? Simply because it's so much tougher to persuade people to vote for something that isn't on the ballot paper (especially when what actually is on the ballot paper bears absolutely no relation to the topic you want them to express a view on).

So, as Simon Cowell might say, here's the dilemma. As I've noted before, without the SNP's endorsement, the Bella campaign is doomed to make little or no impact. But with the SNP's endorsement, the campaign could easily end up harming the prospects for a genuine independence referendum in the years to come. Bearing all that in mind, I'm becoming ever more confident that I'll be doing the right thing by answering the question that's actually in front of me when I vote in the AV referendum.

A little while ago, I had another look at the original post at Bella announcing the campaign, and I spotted a rather pointed editorial comment that I hadn't noticed earlier -

"It’s disappointing that some of these bloggers aren’t supporting this but hundreds are. Some of these people can’t decide whether to sit on the fence, to paraphrase Cameron."

Now, call me paranoid, but I think that might just have been aimed at the likes of me. That being the case, I couldn't help but raise a smile at this riposte from Jeff -

"By all means try to bring some dynamism to whatever it is you’re doing but don't have a go at people who don't join in with your specific endeavours. I hope you can see that it’s mildly offensive to suggest that any of us here don’t believe in a 'Better Nation' just because we plan on voting Yes (or No) in an AV referendum rather than scrawl 'INDEPENDENCE' over the ballot slip, as you would have us do instead."

Quite. It was the suddenness and relative randomness of the Bella announcement that struck me, and to criticise anyone who didn't instantly and dutifully fall into line behind it for not being able to "decide whether to sit on the fence" seems a touch bemusing, not to say ironic. From my own perspective, devoting a great deal of time to concocting the most improbable way to spoil your ballot paper in an electoral reform referendum seems like the very definition of struggling to make up your mind how to be undecided on an issue. I can see how such an approach might just be rational for those who genuinely don't give a monkey's about the difference between FPTP and AV (and admittedly there seem to be a lot of people who fall into that category), but for the rest of us it's a somewhat different matter.

For my part, I'll be voting full-bloodedly for independence on 5th May, and I'll be doing it in the way that actually promises to be effective - by voting SNP in the Scottish Parliament elections.

The discombobulation of being on the 'wrong' side of the argument

My post yesterday about Joan Bakewell's BBC article on aging research was picked up by the Fight Aging website, and I must admit I was slightly startled by the comments it attracted. Evidently life extension is a prospect that strongly appeals to many right-wing libertarians, ie. precisely the sort of people I've spent a fair bit of the last two years battling on the topic of gun control. It's slightly disconcerting to find yourself seemingly arguing the same corner as people you're in general ideologically opposed to, and in my case it's happened before on certain issues relating to gender politics, civil liberties, and to a very limited extent abortion (although in the latter case the partial agreement would probably be more with the non-libertarian right). It always tends to make me step back and question whether there's some inconsistency in my thought-processes that I hadn't previously spotted.

However, on this subject I don't see why there actually needs to be an ideological divide, at least at this stage. The bulk of the left are united with the bulk of the right in generally favouring scientific progress as long as it is ethically acquired. The true division will arise if and when anti-aging therapies actually become available, and we need to collectively decide what use to make of them - doubtless the people who were agreeing with me at Fight Aging would be disgusted to know that I would be arguing strongly in favour of such therapies being made available free to all via our "socialised" health care system! I gather that's the position of Aubrey de Grey as well. Perhaps the reason some on the left are instinctively disquieted by this field of research is that they fear the post-breakthrough battle for 'longevity equality' would be lost, and I must admit that without a crystal ball there's no way of knowing for certain that's a baseless concern. But I don't see how it's a rational response to that fear to try to impede the research or wish it away - if it turns out increased lifespan is scientifically feasible, then we can be absolutely certain society will have to face up to the moral dilemmas posed by that reality sooner or later. Given the immense potential benefits for everyone, from my point of view it might as well be sooner.

Monday, December 6, 2010

WikiLeaks exposes the democratic deficit

A thoughtful post from Labour MP Eric Joyce on the ongoing WikiLeaks saga -

"Wherever you stand, it seems to me that there’s been too little said so far about what Wikileaks means for the future of official government data classification and management. There’s a host of other questions lurking beneath that too. Like will governments in future choose to accept that people will know a lot more about the sometimes difficult-to-stomach compromises which nevertheless keep citizens safe? And will those citizens accept that the price of these new information flows is that they will need to face up more that before to the moral contradictions and compromises which lie at the core of they way they live?"

I think my own questions would be - has the issue of whether those contradictions and compromises actually need to be at "the core" of how we live ever been properly tested? If that's about to happen, isn't it long-overdue? And even if Joyce's premise of necessity is correct, doesn't the fact that we've never been asked if we want to "face up to it" call into question whether we've in any meaningful sense been a democracy all this time?

Joan Bakewell's false choice on life extension

You might remember the post I wrote back in September after sending an email to Dr Aubrey de Grey, the controversial theoretician who claims there is a 50/50 chance that we will, within 25 years, achieve "longevity escape velocity", meaning that people who are alive and in a reasonably robust state at that point would be able to live on for centuries. I had queried the credibility of this 25-year timescale on the basis that it seemingly hadn't moved forward an inch in the seven years since it was first mentioned, and de Grey's research assistant Michael Rae wrote back to confirm that it was predicated on the assumption that there would be sufficient funding for research. This seemed to me a hopeless dream given the huge sums apparently needed, and it reinforced my suspicion that the chances of meeting the target date in the real world were more like zero than 50/50. Dr de Grey later left a comment here explaining that the position was essentially somewhere in between the two extremes, and that in his view significant progress had indeed been made in the last seven years - but roughly equivalent to the progress that would have been achieved over two years had full funding been available.

This whole field of research burst back into public view a few days ago with dramatic reports of the aging process being "reversed" in mice - claims that, ironically, de Grey and many others regard as being wildly overblown. But one upshot is that it's sparked off a flurry of debate about the potential consequences of the research, and one of the ten most-read articles on the BBC news website at the moment is a piece by Joan Bakewell suggesting that greater longevity may not be desirable. It's a superficially thoughtful commentary, but in truth it just runs through a series of standard knee-jerk reactions, most of which don't stand up to much scrutiny.

Firstly, there is the implicit assumption that any extra years of life are bound to be of extremely low quality, due to physical and mental frailty. But one thing that actually unites almost all scientists in this area - from the mainstream ones like S Jay Olshansky who seek to slow the aging process by a few years, to the "heretics" like de Grey who seek to conquer it entirely - is that they don't think an increased lifespan would be beneficial unless "healthspan" is boosted to an equivalent (or more likely greater) degree. There's always the danger of unintended consequences, of course, but there's no reason to fear the stated goal of the research.

Bakewell also raises the problem of overpopulation. This is, in principle, a fair objection, but when you stop to think about it, it also applies to just about every other medical advance in history. The eradication of smallpox boosted average human lifespan, and thus left us with a greater global population than we would otherwise have had - does that mean it was intrinsically undesirable? The principal objective of aging research is to head off the horrific diseases of old age, and therefore precisely the same cost/benefit analysis should be applied to it as to any other medical research - meaning, surely, that the potential benefits must be given precedence in the first instance.

Finally, there's the general sense in Bakewell's article that "a fuller life is better than a longer one". This is a superficially attractive philosophy, but once again, it looks somewhat different if you just tweak the implicit parameters a little. What if the "fuller life" lasted a mere twenty years, and the "longer life" lasted eighty? Would anyone seriously suggest that the fullness of the twenty years entirely makes up for the tragedy of the lost sixty years? Some might, but it would be a far tougher case to make, simply because of our perceptions of what a 'natural' lifespan is. And yet the span we fetishise as being optimal is just a random quirk of the stage of evolution we happen to be at - some species live much shorter lives than we do, other species much longer. If we do absolutely nothing, maximum human lifespan is likely to carry on gradually increasing of its own accord (global catastrophes permitting) - are we supposed to believe that process will be an 'unnatural' one, leading to a 'sub-optimal' outcome?

Mind you, if you're looking for a really over-the-top example of knee-jerk reactions, Bakewell is no match for this hysterical profile of the mild-mannered Dr Cynthia Kenyon at -

"We sincerely hope that anything close to what Kenyon is looking for is ever
(sic) found. Distinguished professor or not, this is an extremely myopic view of life on earth — to forget about those who already live an eternal life, albeit in damnation, to extend the lives of the rich who are able to afford such pseudo-science.

We hope that one day Kenyon and others with similar quests will see the futility in their actions. If they truly want to make a contribution to life on earth, then they should find a way to increase equality rather than searching for things that will undoubtedly increase inequality.

We will all be in a very troublesome situation if life is extended beyond what it already is."

Which begs the obvious question - if this really is 'futile pseudoscience' with no chance of succeeding, why the need to fret about such purely hypothetical horrors? It seems they doth protest a little too much. In any case, it's a transparently bogus argument to suggest that aging research is "at the expense" of improving the health of the world's most disadvantaged - they might as well say that funding for the arts or for astronomy is self-indulgent nonsense that is costing lives in Africa. It is actually possible - or at least it ought to be - to do more than one good thing at a time. Moreover, without a crystal ball, who can actually tell whether any anti-aging therapies that come along will be so prohibitively expensive that they will only be available to a wealthy elite? And even if that's the case for a transitional period, doesn't the same problem apply to many life-saving drugs at present? The idea that those drugs should never have been invented in the first place in case they temporarily increased inequality seems utterly risible.

All the same,'s display of doublethink neatly brings me full circle - my own question mark is not about the desirability of the goal, but rather its feasibility in anything close to the foreseeable future. Only time will tell.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

When 'lucky' is the greatest compliment

I've just caught up with an intriguing little post by O'Neill from a few days ago at Northern Ireland blog A Pint of Unionist Lite. The gist of it is that Alex Salmond can count himself extraordinarily lucky on two counts - first of all that the independence referendum didn't take place, saving him from certain "crashing humiliation", and secondly that the unionist parties were crazy enough to concede so much ground in the Scotland Bill when they could instead have been busy delivering that "crashing humiliation" (yes, he really does say it twice). For good measure, our trusty old pal Chekov pops up in the comments section to concur that "the Scotland Bill represents an extraordinary gain for the SNP in extremely unpropitious circumstances".

Isn't it fascinating that unionist fantasy is never content for these entirely hypothetical defeats for Alex Salmond and the national movement to be mere defeats - they always have to be "humiliations" and "routs"? I'm struggling to see what actual rational basis there is for assuming that an independence referendum this year would have resulted in such abject failure for the Yes side. The most recent YouGov poll had Yes on 34%, No on 50% - which would have represented defeat, but scarcely "humiliation". More pertinently, it was a mere snapshot of opinion which almost certainly would have changed over the course of an intensive campaign. I don't know in which direction opinion would have changed - but apparently the unionists know for certain. Who exactly are they trying to convince? Themselves, would be my best guess. Which probably goes some way towards explaining why Salmond's "crashing humiliation" remains purely the stuff of pleasured imaginings. It's all very well for O'Neill to rage at the timidity of the unionist parties, but when all three of them separately conclude that an independence referendum is too much of a risk it ought to tell him something. It also ought to assist Chekov in his calculations of just how strong or weak Salmond's hand has really been.

Incidentally, O'Neill would clearly prefer us to look at the figures from the recently released Scottish Social Attitudes Survey, which has support for independence down at 23%. Just a couple of problems with that, though - it's a multi-option survey, so supporters of greater self-government are split between independence and the prospect of enhanced devolution (the overwhelming popularity of which scarcely supports the contention that unionist concessions were unnecessary), and in any case the fieldwork is highly likely to significantly predate the recent YouGov poll. I can't find the exact dates, but if they're similar to last year some interviews may even have taken place before the general election.

Rather amusingly, O'Neill concludes by observing that despite his "whingeing" about the Scotland Bill, Salmond has been handed a "respectable consolation" in place of his deserved "rout" - not through his own doings, naturally, but by pure 'luck'. But in his preceding sentence, O'Neill had dismissed that very "consolation" as a "dog's dinner". So it seems Salmond's "whingeing" on the subject of Calman is uncannily similar to O'Neill's own!

Question : can there be a more eloquent testament to a politician's talents than to be branded outrageously lucky by his opponents?

Saturday, December 4, 2010

The Scottish Sun tries very hard to remember what country it's in - again

The endless contortions of trying to pretend you're a Scottish newspaper when you're not became apparent again with the appearance of a Scottish Sun editorial urging us to "try again" for a major football tournament. Now, since the "again" can only be a reference to England's failed World Cup bid, clearly the paper has a fight on its hands from the off to convince its readers that the nation of England can be reasonably characterised as "us". Nevertheless, they put up a valiant attempt, with some familiar thinly-veiled "England-is-Britain" logic...

"But the decision to hand the finals to Russia IS a loss to Scotland too.

If - and yes it's a mighty big if - we qualify, what an opportunity it would have been to play on soccer's biggest stage right on our doorstep."

All true, but much the same would have applied if the Belgium/Netherlands bid had prevailed - Amsterdam isn't much further away than London. And with the wonders of modern transport, Spain and Portugal hardly seem like the ends of the earth either. I wonder if, on their logic of simple geographic closeness, the Scottish Sun would have celebrated a win for either of those bids as a boon for "us"? I have my doubts.

But then, weirdly, the editorial undergoes a dramatic Pauline conversion and decides that "us" is Scotland after all, declaring with righteous indignation that if a country as small as Qatar can secure the World Cup, it's "shameful" that Scotland can't even try. Hmmm. Well, just as soon as we can match the Qataris' endless supplies of cash, I'm all for such boldness of thought. Perhaps the SNP's idea of an oil fund for future generations wasn't such a bad one after all, guys?

Friday, December 3, 2010

Dial 999 for ritual humiliation

One of my pet hates cropped up again today, with the police making a song and dance about a woman who called 999 to report a stolen snowman. Given the number of campaigns there have been over the years relating to the misuse of the emergency number, including TV adverts that feature recordings of actual 'stupid' calls, I'd suggest the main lesson we can draw from the persistence of the problem is that humiliating people doesn't actually work as a deterrent. Indeed, there's a danger it might deter the wrong people from calling - faced with a potentially genuine emergency, the more cautious among us might hold off for too long.

Instead of endlessly running campaigns that I strongly suspect serve the sole purpose of allowing everyone to have a self-indulgent "tut" at the irresponsibility of others, it would be a far better idea to give much wider publicity to the numbers that can be used for non-emergencies.

McLetchie favours tyranny of the linguistic majority

In a predictably sneering report (not to mention the outrageously misleading headline) on proposals to boost the Scots language, the Telegraph quotes Tory MSP David McLetchie as saying -

"I find these ideas absolutely extraordinary, a complete and utter waste of money. Personally, I favour the Queen’s English, as do the overwhelming majority of people in Scotland."

Which, in the literal sense, is absolutely true. From my vague recollection of the figures, approximately two-thirds of the population do not really speak Scots at all. Does that mean the one-third who do speak the language count for nothing? In Wales, two-thirds of the population speak only English, and just 12% are native Welsh speakers. Does McLetchie think that this linguistic minority should obediently bow to the 'preference of the majority', and forget all about their culture, literature and Welsh-medium broadcasting in the interests of saving public money? Apparently so.

Michael White's false memory syndrome

Midway through a meandering and teacherly Guardian article that purports to be vaguely about the WikiLeaks revelations concerning Russia (although we do 'learn' things about the Goths and the Huns along the way), Michael White somehow manages to go off on this bizarre tangent -

"Remember that unsavoury Anglo-Scottish deal to release the Libyan Lockerbie bomber on 'humanitarian grounds', which so annoyed Washington? It makes sense – it always did – to think in terms of better access for BP to nasty Colonel Gaddafi's carbon treasures that may help keep us warm."

Er, no, Michael, peculiarly enough I don't "remember" that "deal". Just remind me again? And naturally you'll have a source, or some kind of documentary evidence?

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Angus Reid subsample : Labour resume lead

After last month's unusual result with Labour and the SNP tied for the lead, the Scottish subsample from the latest UK-wide Angus Reid poll shows a more familiar picture. Here are the full figures -

Labour 38% (+1)
SNP 25% (-12)
Conservatives 20% (+7)
Liberal Democrats 8% (+1)
Others 8% (+3)

Despite the apparent drop in the SNP's support, a 25% rating is healthy enough in a poll for Westminster voting intentions, while the Lib Dems remain at less than half of their general election level. As I mentioned last month, Angus Reid's Scottish subsamples are of slightly more interest than those of other pollsters because the figures have tended to be somewhat more stable over time.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Why the Bella referendum campaign should focus on the SNP in the first instance

Bella Caledonia were kind enough to send me an email yesterday alerting me to their campaign to turn the AV referendum into an unofficial independence vote, and Eric Falconer also asked for my thoughts about it on a previous thread. I may as well put my cards on the table straight away - I signed up to the 'Yes to Fairer Votes' campaign a few weeks ago, and as things stand I intend to vote Yes in May. I will do so with minimal enthusiasm, because I think AV represents an absolutely trifling improvement on the current system. But I've been a supporter of electoral reform for as long as I've been a supporter of independence (slightly longer, come to think of it), and I've increasingly realised that I'd find it psychologically very difficult to stand on the sidelines in a vote like this, knowing - or at least strongly suspecting - the devastating effect a 'No' would have on hopes for future progress. Make no mistake, the Lib Dems have put us in the trap that ensures a rubbish majoritarian system is certain to "win" this referendum, and it's nothing short of outrageous that they've done so - but that just makes it all the more important that others get stuck into the campaign, and not merely win a Yes vote, but also win the 'battle of the narrative', ie. by defining in the public consciousness what a Yes vote would actually mean. We can't permit it to be said that AV represents - to coin a phrase - the settled will of the electorate. It must instead be clear that many people are consciously voting for a very small first step, which they're impatient to see built on as a matter of urgency.

There is, however, a 'but' here. Plainly independence is a far greater prize, so if I felt there was a chance that the spoilt ballot campign was likely to have a significant impact, I'd support it. The difficulty is that I simply can't think of a single campaign of this sort that has ever worked in the UK - it's almost impossibly difficult to persuade people to 'think outside the box' in sufficient numbers. And to make a serious impact, the numbers would have to be huge. It goes without saying that no mass-circulation newspaper is likely to back the campaign (or even to lend much coverage to it), so it seems to me the only hope is an official endorsement from the SNP. Without that, I think Jeff Breslin has hit the nail on the head in his comment at Bella - the likelihood is that only a tiny percentage of voters will spoil their ballot, and the whole exercise will have been futile. Indeed, even with an SNP endorsement, my guess is that the number of spoilt ballots will still not exceed the number of Yes votes or No votes, although they may well be great enough to claim a moral victory.

So for my money, the overwhelming focus of the campaign for now should be on lobbying MSPs and other leadership figures within the SNP. Without their help, I suspect the considerable enthusiasm the campaign is undoubtedly attracting from online supporters will not be anything like enough.

The Scottish Government's new "spiritual" power

I've just been having a first quick perusal of the plans for the new Scotland Bill, and one particular detail made me laugh. The Calman proposal for Scottish ministers to be given the power to appoint the BBC Trust member for Scotland has essentially been rejected, but you'd be forgiven for thinking otherwise from the explanation that is given -

"Following careful consideration of the Commission's recommendation, the Scotland Bill includes a clause that requires UK ministers to obtain the agreement of Scottish Ministers on the selection of the BBC Trust member for Scotland. The UK Government considers that this meets the spirit of the recommendation..."

Really? How? Would simply requiring the Chancellor of the Exchequer to secure the "agreement" of Scottish ministers on the rate of income tax "meet the spirit" of the proposal for a devolved income tax? What utter nonsense.

When the facts don't change, Dave changes his mind

I seem to recall that in the run-up to the general election I made the point that, while on the whole a Labour-led government would be the lesser of two evils, there was one narrow sense in which a Tory victory would be preferable - it might just spare Gary McKinnon the horror of extradition to America. But I also noted that I wouldn't exactly faint with amazement if, once in office, the Tories rediscovered their servile pro-American instincts, and did a complete U-turn on the subject.

Well, if Cathy Newman's reading of the situation on Channel 4 News is to be believed, it seems those words were prophetic. Cameron's position now appears to be identical to Brown's (private) pre-election stance that McKinnon should be extradited, but perhaps be allowed to serve his sentence in the UK. And what startling new facts have emerged that could possibly explain this extraordinarily swift change of heart? Only one that I can see - there is no longer an election in the offing.

As it turns out, then, there was no reason at all for preferring a Tory-led government. In a strange way, that's quite reassuring.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

In the final analysis, can extra powers for the Scottish parliament ever be a bad thing?

The unveiling of the 'Calman Minus' proposals by Michael Moore today marks a distinctly odd moment for the SNP. My greatest worry about the party's election triumph in 2007 was that, historic though it seemed, no constitutional progress at all might be made during their period in office, and that by the time a Labour or a Labour/Lib Dem government returned to power we'd wonder what all the excitement had ever been about. Regardless of the outcome of the election next May, we can safely say that will not now be the case - the SNP government will have its constitutional legacy. An indirect one, certainly, but a legacy all the same. It seems extremely improbable that the Calman process would have been set in train had it not been for the SNP win in 2007, and while the Lib Dems would probably claim they would have pushed for greater powers for Holyrood in the coalition negotiations anyway, it would have been much harder for them to do so successfully had a readymade blueprint not been to hand.

The supreme irony, of course, is that this is a constitutional legacy that the SNP claim not to want, and on the whole I'm inclined to believe they mean it. But if it's true that these proposals will starve Scotland of revenue, I suppose the next million dollar question is whether the public reaction to the resulting squeeze will damage the cause of self-government in the longer-term, as SNP ministers perhaps fear. It's just possible it might go the other way - as the electorate get used to the idea of devolution as a 'process', they might well look to a further substantial enhancement of the parliament's powers (especially over the country's natural resources) as the obvious remedy to the consequences of this cack-handed scheme. It certainly seems thoroughly improbable that they would instead prefer to see the repatriation of the powers to London. And the unionist parties will by that point have deftly deprived themselves of their most cherished fiction - how will they any longer credibly claim that independence or full fiscal autonomy would cost Scotland its "subsidy" when a massive hit has already been taken? We'd be moving into novel "nothing much left to lose" territory.

So, whether the Westminster coalition realise it or not, perhaps their gleeful hijacking of the planned date for the independence referendum will ultimately prove to be a significant milestone on the path to - in the words of the 2007 SNP campaign slogan - a parliament with real power.

Google 1, Yahoo 0

November 30th has arrived.

Google UK logo : decorated with tartan and the saltire.

'Yahoo UK' logo : adorned with the words "2 days - England 2018".

Yahoo England, take a bow.

I could also point out that if London had experienced the amount of snow that Scotland and the north of England have over the last couple of days, it would almost certainly be leading all the news bulletins by now, rather than being tucked in midway through the pecking-order, but I presume that goes without saying.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Time to stop pushing four-year-olds into formal education?

Jeff Breslin has an interesting piece today suggesting that many Sixth Year pupils and students in the first year of university are essentially marking time, and that valuable education resources could be spared by cutting degree courses down to three years in line with the practice in England, and by encouraging pupils to leave school a year early if they already have the prospect of a job or university place. I understand the point he's making, but it seems to me there's a contradiction there - one of the basic reasons for four-year degrees is to make up for the fact that students are essentially a year less advanced in their studies than their English counterparts, who (as I understand it) are generally not able to become first-year students until the age of eighteen. Under Jeff's blueprint, many students could be starting at sixteen and graduating at nineteen, which I'd assume most people would agree is pushing it a bit.

Of course, there's a double-whammy effect here, because Scottish pupils also start primary school a few months earlier on average than is the case in England. As my birthday falls on the 'wrong side' of the cut-off date, I started at four years and seven months old, which meant that - in spite of seeing secondary school through to the absolute bitter end - I left at the tender age of seventeen years and four months. I suspect if we want to get a better return for the resources put into education, it's this side of the equation we should be looking to reform first. Starting formal education early is bafflingly popular with Scottish parents, but it seems blindingly obvious that pupils would make more of their years at school if they both started and finished a bit later.

PS. I really must salute Jeff's ingenuity in illustrating his point about a 'double dip' loss of interest in education with a graph showing the changes in Californian house prices between 1976 and 2006!

It's in the public interest to understand America's true values

Once again, the US are doing themselves few favours with their hysterical and hypocritical response to the WikiLeaks revelations. If they genuinely fear that lives are being put at risk, they'd be better advised to focus their fire on the disclosure of specific documents, and explain the cause for concern in each case. The blanket condemnation just looks like sophistry - few are going to seriously believe that it isn't in the public interest to know, for instance, that the US have been spying on UN officials (presumably in contravention of international law), or that they've been indulging in petty intelligence-gathering on the private life of a government minister in a country that is supposedly their closest ally. As with the previous leaks, the fascination lies in discovering the distance between the values the US publicly espouses, and the true values betrayed by the actions and words they imagined would be kept secret.

And the US "national interest"? Why on earth should it be the primary concern of foreign or international media to protect that?

Saturday, November 27, 2010

'When you make a bet, you're saying something'

(Quote by Al Alvarez)

Just a quick note to say that I have a guest post at Political Betting today, on the subject of how likely Scottish independence is within 10-15 years. Incidentally, although the inspiration for the piece was the absurdly long odds on independence by 2012 that I saw quoted by the bookies a couple of years ago, I couldn’t actually recall what the precise odds were, and was unable to track them down. I’ve since done some more digging and discovered they were in fact an astounding 150/1 with William Hill in May 2008. And this, remember, was during the period that the Scottish Labour Party were saying “bring it on” to an independence referendum!

How Strictly Come Dancing teaches us that AV would be a mildly good thing

Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight fame has written an article for the New York Times about what he sees as the flaws in the voting system used by Dancing with the Stars (the American carbon-copy of Strictly Come Dancing). It's quite an amusing piece for its earnestness and attention to the finest detail, although given my devotion to the Eurovision Song Contest I may not be in the best position to make that observation! But if you've ever wondered how Ann Widdecombe finds it so easy to survive in Strictly despite being placed bottom by the judges week after week, Nate has the answer for you -

"Suppose, for instance, that late in the season, when there are five couples left, four of the five teams receive 9’s across the board from the judges, and the final couple instead receives straight 7’s. In terms of the way the judges normally vote, that is a rather clear verdict: the low-scoring couple has had an inferior performance, and should be eliminated.

But in reality the low-scoring team would need to receive only 24 percent of the votes from the home audience — just barely better than the 20 percent they would get if the audience voted completely at random — to be guaranteed passage into the next round. It doesn’t matter if 24 percent of the audience thought they were the best-performing couple — and the other 76 percent thought they were the worst one! They would still advance to the next episode."

On the latter point, isn't that one of the obvious fatal flaws with any first-past-the-post voting system? Perhaps that irony wouldn't seem so obvious to an American political commentator more used to two-horse races, but it just so happens that is precisely the problem with FPTP that a 'Yes' to AV would remedy, even if it wouldn't address the far greater problem of disproportionality.

Silver goes on to make a series of detailed suggestions about how the voting arrangements on Dancing with the Stars could be improved, such as encouraging the judges to use the full range of possible scores between 1 and 10, rather than clustering most of the contestants between 6 and 10. That's fine in theory, but if the American show is anything like Strictly, the studio audience would probably start a riot if the weakest couples were routinely being given 1s and 2s.

The real problem with the show's voting system has always been the phenonemon of a couple placed in the middle of the leaderboard by the judges finding themselves being abruptly eliminated, simply because the public have a greater incentive to vote for couples at the bottom of the pile who are perceived to be in greater danger. At least this year with the scrapping of the dance-off we've been spared the tedious weekly ritual of the judges sanctimoniously announcing that "it is a travesty that you're in the bottom two, rather than X, Y or Z", neatly ignoring the fact it was partly the said judges' over-the-top criticisms of X, Y and Z that motivated the public to pick up the phone and save them. The obvious solution to this problem is surely to withhold the judges' scores until after the public have voted. I can't see that would detract from the show very much - The X Factor gets by quite happily without the judges scoring each performance out of 10.

But Strictly is just such a peculiar programme. Whatever the horrors of X Factor, at least it's a talent show in the truest sense of people being there on the basis of their talent. The Strictly philosophy is to randomly round up a group of people who for the most part, quite naturally, can't dance - and then get a smug Australian expert to scream abuse at them for weeks on end about their inability to dance. The producers pick contestants for their fame and popularity, not their dancing potential - and then the judges and the show's more humourless devotees work themselves into apoplexy because other people mysteriously treat it as a popularity contest, not as a "serious dancing competition". Bizarre.

UPDATE : Having thought about this some more, I've realised that either the American show must have a slightly different voting system, or else Silver must have misunderstood it. In Strictly, only the judges' rankings of the couples matter, not the raw scores. If anything, that makes it even easier for Widdecombe to survive.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Mixed news for SNP with Ipsos-Mori

The latest full-scale Scottish poll conducted by Ipsos-Mori contains sobering news for the SNP on the constituency vote, with Labour's lead increasing from three to ten points.  But that story is almost completely reversed on the list vote, with Labour's lead slipping from nine points to four.  Here are the full figures -

Constituency vote

Labour 41% (+4)
SNP 31% (-3)
Conservatives 13% (+2)
Liberal Democrats 11% (-2)
Others 5% (+1)

List vote

Labour 36% (-2)
SNP 32% (+3)
Conservatives 12% (-)
Liberal Democrats 9% (-3)
Others 10% (+1)

Despite the conflicting signals here, and in spite of the fact that the list vote is (in theory at least) the more important of the two, I'd have to say this looks more like bad news than good for the SNP.  The constituency vote is requested first and that will usually give the most accurate indication of the electorate's attitude towards the parties.  However, there's the customary better news on the leaders' ratings, with Alex Salmond comfortably outstripping Iain Gray in the popularity stakes, and with Tavish Scott very tellingly being the only one of the four leaders to suffer a negative rating.  That at least offers some grounds for optimism that the SNP's fortunes may improve once the campaign proper gets underway and the leaders are pushed to the forefront.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Is the ultimate destination of Tavish Scott's logic that Tavish Scott will have to resign?

While most of us were enjoying our Thursday lunch, blissfully unaware of the existential threat that faced Scotland's democracy, Tavish Scott and his hardy band of realists continued with their grim, reluctant preparations for apocalypse.  For a tantalising period yesterday afternoon it had appeared that the scare might just be over - Tavish's now-legendary speech at Holyrood had, it seemed, single-handedly brought about capitulation from the Chief Evildoer (the politician formerly known as John Swinney).  Although the C. E. had impertinently insisted on choosing his own words, Tavish's attack had been so forensic, so devastating, so Obviously True, it was surely apparent to all right-thinking people that the newly-issued apology could only be intended to conform in full with each and every aspect of canonical Tavishian thought on What An Apology Was Required For.

But today, at First Minister's Questions, it became frighteningly clear that may not be entirely the case.  More in anger than sorrow, Tavish had little choice but to return to a war footing on Behalf Of Scotland.  At his fearsome hair-splitting finest, he demanded to know what the C. E. had actually said sorry for - could it really be that the apology was merely for not being forthcoming enough, rather than for actively misleading parliament?  After all, hadn't Tavish provided damning documentary evidence yesterday that the C. E. had repeatedly talked about making decisions on the Scottish Variable Rate when there was no decision to be made?

But, as the First Minister pointed out, there was just one problem here - the SVR had never, at any point, been implementable within less than ten months.  Including the period when Tavish Scott had been Deputy Finance Minister.  So whenever the former Labour/Lib Dem coalition had talked about making a decision not to use the SVR in the following financial year, that had been - according to the inescapable principles of Tavishian thought - a bit of a porky.

By the look on Tavish's face, we were no longer awaiting apocalypse.  Apocalypse had arrived.

Please don't tell me he's the one that's going to have to resign now?  Life's full of these cruel little ironies...