Saturday, July 31, 2010

Summer quiz no. 1 : Find the MSP!

I may not be around much to blog in the coming days and weeks, so it occurred to me that I could keep things ticking over by writing a few posts in advance and pre-scheduling them to appear at regular intervals. One obvious snag, though - it's impossible to know what's going to be topical a couple of days ahead of time, let alone a couple of weeks. So instead I thought I'd try something completely different - quizzes! Mind you, there's a snag with this as well - if the first one goes down like a lead balloon, it'll be too late because I've already pre-scheduled a whole batch of them. In that eventuality, never fear - there will be an end in sight at some point!

The idea is very straightforward. Answer all of the following simple clues, and write down the first letter of each answer. (If the answer to a particular clue is a person's name, you're looking for the first letter of their first name, not of their surname.) Then, rearrange those letters until you have the name of a sitting member of the Scottish Parliament. The first person to name the correct MSP will win the fabulous prize of...well, nothing, really, but don't let that put you off - the world is materialistic enough as it is.

Here are the clues -

1. The name of a political party that was once a 'Representation Committee'.

2. A Welsh political leader in whom the BBC spotted some distinct alien potential.

3. A central African country that the son of a former British Prime Minister had designs on.

4. The adjective Neil Kinnock used to describe the nature of the chaos caused by Labour-run Liverpool city council hiring taxis to deliver redundancy notices to its own workers.

5. The constituency of an MP who, as a Murphy, finds that it breaks his heart to feel compelled to tell us so regularly what a rubbish country Ireland is.

6. The wife of the man who was the youngest Cabinet minister in John Major's government.

7. The scene of a famous 'Liberal revival' in 1962.

8. A TV celebrity talent show, which both the current Business Secretary and his immediate predecessor have expressed an interest in appearing on.

9. The government department which the Chancellor Norman Lamont refused to be demoted to in 1993, preferring instead to return to the backbenches.

10. The Scottish location for the 2005 G8 summit, which was the focus of the Live 8 concerts.

11. A political party in the UK that was in government for 51 consecutive years during the 20th Century.

12. The opponent of a newt-lover in a forthcoming internal party selection.

13. A former England football manager who once practiced headers with Tony Blair for the cameras.

I'll reveal the answer when it's time for the second quiz!

It is not logical, Mr Chekov

It suddenly occurred to me that it was overwhelmingly likely that self-styled "liberal unionist" (ie. zealous Brit Nat and Tory cheerleader) Northern Ireland blogger Chekov would have been bound to weigh in on the Megrahi affair at some point over the last few days. I wasn't disappointed - and needless to say, there was plenty of predictable guff about a blundering 'regional executive' creating problems that our hard-pressed 'national' leader Mr Cameron has to mop up for us. Just for once, I tried to leave a comment there, but I wasn't sure it went through, and as Chekov has a "perhaps, perhaps, perhaps" moderation policy in any case, I thought it might be an idea to post it here as well...

As ever, Chekov - utterly desperate. A few points -

"he didn’t expect that his ruling would cause the SNP to crash in the polls"

Just as well there's no reason to think he was wrong, then, isn't it? To the best of my knowledge there hasn't actually been a Holyrood poll for ages, but even on the assumption that the SNP vote is not as high as it was, have you got the slightest scrap of evidence that there's a causal link between that and the Megrahi release? Thought not. It's not a particularly plausible proposition anyway, given how split Scottish public opinion was on the subject. From the way you talk you'd think there was unanimous opposition.

And I fear you might be in for a nasty shock about the effect of the current controversy - so far I can detect nothing but quiet satisfaction at the way Alex Salmond is very respectfully rebuffing the US Senate's arrogance.

"A nationalist Scottish Executive, flexing its muscles and styling itself a ’government’"

'Styling itself'? Do you want to have a little think about what the word "executive" actually means in this context?

"medical experts suggest that Megrahi could live for another decade"

I'll ask the same question I've asked of a good few others - why leave out the crucial words? I believe what you were trying to say is "have suggested there is a less than 1% chance that Megrahi could live for another decade". Giving people the full picture isn't so much use for propaganda purposes, right enough.

"In truth, the Scottish Executive chose the wrong issue to attempt to parade its autonomy in front of an international audience."

As you seem utterly convinced that the UK government was in some mysterious, unspecified way involved in MacAskill's decision, a far better way to "parade independence" and court popularity would have been to say "we're having none of this, the evil mass-murderer stays right where he is". But they didn't take that easy, cheap, opportunistic, populist route. They actually had the courage to take the right decision for the right reasons under impossibly difficult circumstances.

I've never been more proud to be an SNP supporter than I was that day.

Friday, July 30, 2010

My back-of-the-envelope blueprint for an independent Scotland

On the previous thread, Ezio asked for my views on how the political system should be reformed in an independent Scotland. Thinking about it, I realised that I hadn't considered the subject in enough depth to fill a post of any great length, but in broad terms this is what I would favour -

STV for parliamentary elections. The Jenkins committee rejected the abolutism that regarded STV as the "Holy Grail" of electoral systems, noting that there was no such thing as a perfect system. That's quite true - STV is less proportional than a pure list system, for instance. It is, however, plenty proportional enough to be getting on with, and given that it maximises the power of the voter - and minimises the power of the party machines - it surely comes closer to ticking all the relevant boxes than any other electoral system yet devised.

Abolition of the monarchy. Not a huge priority for me, but in an ideal world I'd prefer a republic - mainly for straightforward democratic reasons, but also because it would seem far more becoming of a grown-up country to have a home-grown head of state. However, I can also see the power of the argument that retaining the monarchy would be symbolic of a continuing British "Social Union", and that such a prospect might help reassure sceptics that independence wouldn't be the end of the world.

A directly elected ceremonial president (ie. the Irish model). If the monarchy is abolished, I can't see a credible case for denying the public a direct say in choosing their head of state. The only reasonable concern is that a president with a personal mandate might challenge the legitimacy of the government, but as far as I'm aware that hasn't been the experience in Ireland.

I wouldn't, however, support the idea of a directly elected Prime Minister. It would be a kind of presidential 'cuckoo in the nest' of the parliamentary system, and create an obvious potential for instability if (as could very easily happen) the Prime Minister found it impossible to form a parliamentary majority. It would also exacerbate the already depressing tendency of politics being too personality and image-driven.

A presumption of parliamentary authority unless there are sound practical reasons. What I mean by that is as few equivalents to the Westminster "royal prerogative" as humanly possible.

Of course we would almost certainly have a written constitution, which should probably be ratified (or rejected) by referendum. Which leads me on to a point about which I'm genuinely unsure - whether referenda should be as frequent (and have so many automatic triggers) as in countries like Ireland or Switzerland.

So those are my very vague thoughts - I'm sure I've left out a great many important issues. What do others think?


A couple of little things while I'm thinking of them. Firstly, a few days ago I wrote a number of 'quiz' posts, which I've pre-scheduled to appear over the remainder of the summer, starting tomorrow. So apologies in advance if they're not everyone's cup of tea! Secondly, if you haven't voted in this year's Total Politics Blog Poll yet (hint, hint, cough, splutter, violent sneeze) you've still got just over a day to do it - details of how to vote can be found here.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

American views on compassion are based on "emerging evidence"

USA Today has published an opinion piece on the Megrahi case, which (as you can probably guess without even reading it) is full of the now-familiar ignorance and innuendo. They do, to be fair, reprint Alex Salmond's first letter to John Kerry as an 'opposing view' - although, mysteriously, it's very heavily edited. Anyway, I decided to leave my own comment...

"Perhaps Libya has a better hospice system than anyone realized, or perhaps Megrahi's failing body was revitalized by the hero's welcome he received when he returned home."

Or perhaps USA Today should have read the statement Kenny MacAskill made when he released Megrahi, making abundantly clear that it was possible he might live longer than three months. That was merely a reasonable estimate, based on the best medical evidence from impartial doctors. That's right - doctors. Not prophets.

"Emerging evidence suggests the release was, at best, based on misguided notions of sympathy and bad medical advice; at worst, it involved a sleazy deal by British businesses — including, yes, BP — to improve commercial ties with Libya."

What evidence? At what point did it "emerge"? This is the whole problem with much of the US media on this story - and indeed with many of your politicians. It's as if you just have to say the words "evidence" and "suspicions" often enough and that'll do to be getting on with. For the four Senators (who as Alex Massie has identified have been peddling almost laughable inaccuracies about this story from the beginning) it's apparently sufficient to point out that there is an awful lot of "coincidence" at play in this case. Well, I'll tell you the biggest coincidence of all - Megrahi just happened to become gravely ill at a time when BP were lobbying for the PTA to be concluded. By the senators' logic, does that mean God was also nobbled by BP?

In any case, how can there be "emerging evidence" that the compassion shown to Megrahi was "misguided"? If you think the values Scots Law is founded on are wrong, that's fine, but it's also an utterly subjective opinion, of no greater or lesser validity than anyone else's. It's not based on evidence, "emerging" or otherwise. An abuse of the language, by any standards.

Finally, if the only link anyone can find between the Scottish government and BP is a single ill-advised letter from Lord Trefgarne, expressly written on his own behalf as a member of the House of Lords as much as on behalf of a council of which BP is only one member, then this conspiracy theory really is looking pretty threadbare. That letter, incidentally, says a good deal more about Trefgarne - a senior member of David Cameron's Conservative Party - than it does about Kenny MacAskill, who I'm quite sure read it dutifully and then promptly disregarded it.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Why is the Scottish government even cooperating in writing with this committee of clowns?

I was going to try to resist the temptation to write yet another full post on almost exactly the same subject as the last one, but it has to be noted in passing that Menendez's latest pronouncement on the Megrahi affair is bordering on the deranged. He's clearly impugning the integrity of Kenny MacAskill and Dr Andrew Fraser by suggesting that "all" witnesses who have declined to appear before the Senate are "stonewalling" and need "to clear their names". The latter point shows an arrogant disregard for UK/Scottish sovereignty by implying that a US committee is the appropriate (and indeed final) arbiter for who is or is not "guilty" in this matter.

He also warns us that he and his colleagues will be "publicly" and "frequently" requesting further documents from the Scottish government. Evidently the world is meant to shudder before America's righteous and tireless pursuit of truth. But what do you want to bet that these requested documents will be - just like the last batch - ones that were published on the Scottish Government website months ago, or ones that haven't been published for the simple reason that the US government denied permission? The man's refusal to do basic homework and his need for others to point out elementary facts that are in front of his eyes - sometimes many times over before the message finally gets home - utterly beggars belief. And any sign of a gracious apology when he realises that one of his previous sanctimonious rants was based on false information or outright ignorance? Don't be daft. This man who presumes to adjudicate upon the integrity of others demonstrably has precious little of his own.

From initially having thought that Alex Salmond should testify in person, I'm beginning to wonder why he's even bothering to cooperate in writing with this committee of clowns. They don't want "The Truth", they want a show-trial with a transparently predetermined outcome. I'm glad that the Scottish government is at least showing strictly limited interest in playing along with their little game.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

OK, Senator Menendez, you've convinced me - you're a buffoon

When I first heard about the four US senators demanding a probe into the release of Megrahi, I was giving them a limited benefit of the doubt, in the sense that I assumed that their cavalier attitude to fact was based on typical American insularity - ie. if something hasn't been reported in the US media, it might as well never have happened at all. But the more I've followed the pronouncements of Menendez, Gillibrand, Schumer and Lautenburg over recent days, the more I've recognised their offensive buffoonery for what it is. Witness this statement from Menendez at a press conference just a few hours ago -

"some independent reports suggest that he [Megrahi] may well be alive for another ten years"

These "some reports" of course refer to the musings of Dr Karol Sikora - a fact that poses a couple of rather huge problems for Senator Menendez. First of all, Sikora has made clear that while it is theoretically possible that Megrahi may survive for another decade, the chances of that happening are less than 1%. Now, does that justify the characterisation "may well be alive for another ten years"? The most charitable thing that can be said about that statement is that it's consciously intended to mislead.

Secondly, Sikora is the doctor whose initial report Menendez and his colleagues (falsely) claimed was used by Kenny MacAskill to inform his decision, a "fact" that was deemed outrageous due to Sikora being paid by the Libyan government. So let me get this clear - Sikora is a Libyan stooge when he's saying what the senators don't want to hear, but miraculously becomes an "independent" source of information when he says what they do want to hear?

But this was the comment from Menendez that really took the biscuit -

"We'd like to know how you can get it so wrong."

Whoever said Americans don't do irony?

Monday, July 26, 2010

If you're good enough, you're old enough (or young enough)

In a new post, Subrosa argues that there should be a minimum age for elected politicians. I entirely agree - and that age should be eighteen. (Arguably it should be sixteen if the voting age is reduced.)

In a way it's strange that I reacted so strongly against Subrosa's suggestion of a minimum age of thirty, because last year I objected equally strongly to Greg Callus' article on Political Betting arguing that 15-20% of MPs should be under the age of thirty, in line with demographic shares. But that was mainly on the basis that it reeked of positive discrimination. Because in practice most people would not put themselves forward as parliamentary candidates - let alone have a realistic chance of being selected - until at least the age of about 23 or 24, Callus was effectively (whether he realised it or not) arguing for the 23-29 age group to be obscenely over-represented in the Commons. His idea also seemed to be pandering to the cult of youth that's become far too prevalent in UK politics. It's extraordinary to recall that a 72-year-old was one of the two leading candidates in the last US presidential election, given that in the current Labour leadership race all of the 'serious' candidates fall within the peculiarly narrow age range of 40-45.

But if there's one thing worse than inappropriate positive discrimination, it's...well, discrimination, of the plain common or garden variety. We're thankfully moving into a new era of legal protection against age discrimination in the workplace, mainly designed to help older people, so it would seem bizarre in the extreme to suddenly start discriminating against adults who are quite mature and 'experienced' enough to make the decision to fight and die for their country, or to bring a new life into the world. Frankly, in comparison to those choices, which futile EDM to sign or how obsequious to be to the whips seem relatively trifling matters.

I'm being flippant, of course, but there's a serious point here. When I see Subrosa claim that someone under the age of 30 lacks the necessary life experience to be an MP or councillor, I can't help thinking that she's misconstruing the nature of the job. There's no doubt that being a member of parliament is an incredibly hard job with terrible hours, and one that carries considerable responsibility. But it's not an executive or leadership role. There's no reason why a diligent and dependable person with relatively limited life experience shouldn't do the job a hell of a lot better than someone twice or three times their age who happens to have an attitude problem. Jo Swinson was first elected at the age of just 25 - and for all her faults (most notably that she's a Liberal Democrat) I have a sneaking suspicion most thinking people would take her as their MP over a bog-standard central belt Labour specimen any day of the week.

Of course, Subrosa is right to point out that Kyle Taylor should never have been elected as a councillor. But that's because he was the wrong sort of person, not because he was the wrong age. To put his failings down to his youth is as lazy a stereotype as suggesting that all older people lack vigour and dynamism, or that all overweight people are unemployable because they lack self-discipline. The beauty of the democratic process is that the electorate can assess each candidate on his or her merits - arbitrarily limiting their scope to make that choice (and indeed to make mistakes on occasion) would be a retrograde and deeply unenlightened step.

If you're good enough, you're old enough - and if you're good enough, you're young enough. End of story.