Saturday, November 20, 2010

Want to choose the Queen? You may be missing the point here...

So the tedious issue of whether Camilla could one day be Queen has been reignited by Prince Charles' slip in an American TV interview.  I tend to think the people questioning whether a woman they don't happen to like very much "should" become Queen are a bit like the outraged TV talent show viewers who think that Wagner "shouldn't" win The X Factor just because he can't sing very well, or that Ann Widdecombe "shouldn't" win Strictly Come Dancing just because she can't dance very well.  What, you mean that in a public phone vote, the person with the most votes wins?  What, you mean that in a hereditary monarchy, the wife of the heir to the throne gets to become Queen?  Who'd have thunk it?

If Camilla does become Queen (or indeed if Wagner wins The X Factor) it's the sign of a system working exactly as it's supposed to.  If you don't like that system, let me suggest the remedy has been staring you in the face all along...

Friday, November 19, 2010

SNP opt out of the tartan tax charade

I'm getting slightly confused by the attacks on the SNP government from the right-wing press.  The usual refrain is that they're irresponsible spendthrifts who refuse to take the tough choices necessary to protect the public purse (neatly ignoring the fact that they're working within a fixed budget anyway).  But now it appears that the Telegraph think it would have been highly appropriate in the current economic climate to throw away £7 million on the purely symbolic upkeep of a tax-varying power that even the dogs on the street know isn't going to be used in the foreseeable future, no matter who wins the election in May.

There's no great mystery about why all the major parties have been so reluctant to use the tax-varying power - it only applies to the basic rate of income tax, and therefore is a blunt instrument that isn't progressive enough.   Calman doesn't actually offer much of an advance on that - higher rates of tax can be raised or lowered, but only in direct proportion to changes made on the basic rate.  So the central problem remains - if the UK government sets a regressive income tax framework, Scotland has no meaningful way of breaking out of it.  The unionist parties have deliberately set this trap to neuter Scotland's 'rebellious' ideological impulses, so grumbling about the SNP's hard-headed acceptance - for the short-term only - of the logical consequences of that seems a trifle odd.

Patrick Harvie is perhaps one of the few people in a position to attack the Scottish government on this issue with any credibility, as his party would actually use the existing tax-raising power.  But his claim that the SNP shouldn't even think about demanding extra powers for Holyrood until they use the ones they've already got simply doesn't stack up.  The SNP have their own analysis, and the fact that they have no interest in using a power that in their view is barely worth having should scarcely preclude them from seeking meaningful powers that would be of considerable use.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Here we go again

I wonder if I was the only person today who saw the headline "Prince William announces engagement" and then spent the remainder of the day avoiding newspapers and the TV news at all costs.  (It's a coping strategy I perfected when England won the Rugby World Cup.)  I think I'll probably just about be able to cope with the horrors of the day itself - with plenty of notice and medicinal assistance.  But when it's a bolt from the blue, 24 solid hours of Royal Syrup is more than I can take.

The only breach in my defences was that I saw about ten seconds of David Cameron doing his "I know I speak for the whole country" bit (no-you-don't) with the sound down, and even that was enough to make me feel distinctly nauseous.

Monday, November 15, 2010

The electorate should have the right to freely express their rejection of Woolas in a rerun election

Given Political Betting's fixation with the Phil Woolas case over the last few months, I didn't exactly faint with amazement at Mike Smithson's instant dismissal of Iain Dale's stated reasons for (improbably) backing the ex-MP's legal fund. In one sense I agree with Mike - I don't think it's inappropriate for the courts to step in and nullify an election result in a case where the electorate's right to "free expression" has been infringed, and I also think this is clearly one of those cases. But there are so many separate issues bound up in Woolas' application for judicial review that I don't think it's good enough to just curtly say, as Mike does, that "Iain is wrong". You don't have to want to see Woolas reinstated to think, as a matter of principle, that -

* It's a denial of natural justice that there appears to be no right of appeal in this process.

* The democratic process is not enhanced by barring Woolas from standing for election for three years.

On the latter point, while the voters may have been denied their right to free expression in May, it's hard to see how that could be the case if Woolas was permitted to stand in a rerun election - they now have all the information they could possibly need to form a proper judgement of him. That being the case, shouldn't they revert to being the boss from now on, instead of having one option artificially denied to them?

Whittle in the dark

An anonymous poster has responded at some length to my thoughts on Bill Whittle's video about gun rights, so I thought I'd reply in a fresh post. I had taken issue with Whittle's suggestion that a gun ban in the US would punish law-abiding people, by pointing out that the authorities would simply be taking guns away from people who would otherwise be breaking the law. The anonymous poster had this to say in response -

"Um, in actual fact they're not, these laws are not (and will never be) enforced against the major criminal gangs like MS13 or the Latin Kings that reside in the larger U.S. cities, for obvious reasons. No, they're aimed at those people that the lawmakers imagine they can coerce easily into compliance."

Which may or may not be true, but it's gloriously irrelevant either way. The point I was making was a very simple and - as far as I can see - irrefutable one : Mr Whittle cannot credibly claim that people who seek to hold onto illegal weapons are "breaking no laws". That fact does not change however selectively or unsatisfactorily the law is enforced.

I had also talked about the desirability of gun rights advocates "fronting up" to the terrible loss of human life that flows from their absolutist philosophy of personal freedom. This was the anonymous poster's reaction -

"That would be 'the personal freedom to defend one's own life (as well as others lives')'. Which makes your position one of 'people must have their freedom to defend their own lives interfered with and thwarted, in the name of 'protecting lives' (yeah, if I pretend to be interested in protecting lives I will haz the moral high ground not them!)'."

I'm intrigued by this notion that I'm not actually interested in protecting lives. Isn't the constant refrain from the Kevin Baker Fan Club that I'm a "wussy", ie. that I'm scared of guns? Now, why would that be the case unless - whether rationally or irrationally - I genuinely felt that guns put lives at risk? They really can't have it both ways.

I, for my part, have no problem accepting that many gun owners earnestly believe they are protecting themselves, but I've also explained at length why I'm convinced that belief is, indeed, totally irrational. But even if it wasn't, I would absolutely think that it was appropriate to interfere with this particular aspect of certain individuals' freedom, in the interests of protecting the public as a whole. I consider myself a libertarian (not in the American sense of the word), but the basic principle is that freedoms can only be absolute insofar as they don't harm others or interfere with their freedoms. There is ample evidence that the freedom to own firearms does both, and in any case it simply isn't an important enough freedom when weighed against the immense public good of a lower homicide rate (thus protecting the right to life), and an enhanced freedom from fear. The idea that the right to own one specific luxury item should be regarded as being on a par with a fundamental right like free speech is risible. As I've pointed out umpteen times, few gun rights advocates would seriously argue that everyone should have the right to own semtex, or smallpox samples, or nuclear weapons. So if you concede that the right to possess dangerous items is not absolute, what makes guns so special? It comes across as more of a fetish than anything else.

Next, I had quoted from the abstract of an academic study which concluded that -

"States with higher levels of household gun ownership had higher rates of firearm homicide and overall homicide."

The anonymous poster said this -

"One wonders how the researchers arrived at that figure. Did they, for example, check only those homes that had seen a homicide take place, for evidence of (legal*) gun ownership, or did they endeavour to find out how many of the approximate 47-53 million households that have legally owned guns on site, to see how many homicides took place with (legally*) owned guns?"

What peculiar questions, given that the answers (which are mainly in the negative) are there to be found in the short quote I gave. Clearly the researchers were not distinguishing between murder victims on the basis of whether they were gun-owners, or between murders that were committed with legal guns and those that weren't - and nor should they have been. The object of the exercise was to assess the effect of gun laws (or, strictly speaking, the rates of gun ownership) on the overall homicide rate. I don't actually believe for a moment that having a gun at home is much of a deterrent to crime, and in a sense the studies I've cited bear that out - unless criminals have some kind of sixth sense about who does and doesn't possess a gun, why would any murders be attempted at all in a state with lax guns laws? And yet they are, to a frightening extent. But even in the unlikely event that it could be shown that gun-owners do somehow enjoy a magical exemption from the general trend, the overall homicide rate would still be the only relevant issue from the point of view of public protection - unless of course our poster is suggesting that everyone should be pressured into owning a gun, which wouldn't be terribly consistent with a philosophy of personal freedom.

"You will appreciate how one method gives us a very skewed picture that is nonetheless politically useful to the gun ban nuts, whereas the other method demonstrates how rare murders actually are in households with (legally*) owned guns, which puts the lie to the notion that ownership of a gun leads people to murderous outbursts."

I might 'appreciate' that if our poster had actually produced the slightest scrap of evidence that there's any truth in it. I doubt any such convincing evidence exists. In any case, the problem of legal gun-owners themselves committing murder is just the tip of the iceberg. Lax gun laws also cause the following problems that lead to entirely avoidable deaths : legal weapons falling into the hands of criminals in huge numbers, an increased rate of suicide and accidental death, the clumsy or over-zealous use of guns in the name of 'self-defence', the use of guns as a first resort when other means of self-protection (eg. escape) might be much more effective, and a brutalised culture in which gun violence is 'normalised'.

(* I stress 'legally' because if these researchers are including murders committed with illegal guns into their research, as justification for restricting the freedom to protect one's life for people who do not own guns illegally, then that would be seriously unjust, would it not?)

No it would not. See above.

I had also expressed my scepticism at Whittle's view than guns make people "equal". I noted that it really depended on who was holding the gun at any given moment. This was the anonymous poster's reaction -

"Well that indicates that you would be OK with, say, a person confronted by someone intent on their murder, 'holding the gun' at that given moment, which is not the case as you have indicated elsewhere. Rather, your attitude is that as far as you are concerned, there is no way in hell people about to be murdered should be able to prevent their murder by the use of a gun, and to hell with anyone who might find themselves in such a situation."

Hardly. I'm not in favour of anyone being menaced with guns, which is why I'm rather keen on gun control laws that lessen the number of such incidents - as the stastical evidence I've quoted amply demonstrate they do. Is the average rational person really supposed to accept that a much greater likelihood of being attacked with a gun in the first place is a price worth paying for the knowledge that if they purchase a gun, and if they are trained to use it with a high degree of a proficiency, and if they carry it around with them at all times, they might possibly be able to fend off such an attack? Good luck with that one. As I've observed before, it's an astonishingly self-centred world view - as long as the people who happen to like carrying guns around with them feel more safe and empowered, to hell with (to use the poster's own words) the consequences for everyone else. And the irony is that their own sense of security is entirely misplaced - a gun free-for-all puts everyone at more risk.

Lastly, the poster wasn't impressed by my suggestion that Whittle's real message was that "if you want to be equal in his world - more pertinently, if you want to avoid being considerably less equal than you otherwise would have been but for the fact of widespread gun ownership - you have literally no choice but to own a gun".

"His world? Sorry, Whittle isn't personally responsible for the world having people in it who see others as prey, to be abused, robbed, raped and murdered at will."

No, he's not - and at no point did I claim he is. But gun rights advocates (in the jurisdictions where they hold sway) are ultimately reponsible for the ease with which such people are able to arm themselves with deadly weapons. And the consequences of that? I can't really put it better than Mr. Whittle does himself -

"America suffers an appalling number of handgun deaths each year, perhaps eleven thousand of them."

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Political Innovation event in Edinburgh

It's probably not the wisest idea to go to a six-hour-long conference (let alone a six-hour-long "unconference") off the back of ninety minutes' sleep. When I arrived at Waverley Station I caught sight of myself in a reflective surface, and having realised I looked like death cooled down I seriously considered turning round and going straight back home again. However, I gritted my teeth and pushed on, and I'm glad I did. I'd actually been quite sceptical about attending the Political Innovation event all along, because it sounded extremely 'participative', which is not my natural habitat at the best of times. But the standard of discussion was astonishingly high throughout the whole day, so there was plenty to learn just by listening.

The first discussion I chose to go to was about how to raise the standard of online debate from the customary slanging-match (which I thought was a suitably ironic choice in the light of my latest run-in with the Kevin Baker Fan Club!). One of the most interesting suggestions was for a kind of blogging 'fact-check' regime (or Cyber Police as someone else dubbed it), whereby each blog could be monitored, and if it was felt that something had been written that was demonstrably untrue it could be flagged up. The blogger in question would then have the opportunity to either accept that a mistake had been made, or to explain why the flagging was unjustified. Someone immediately pointed out that different people have very different ideas about what constitutes a 'fact', although the right-to-reply would probably cover that problem to some extent. I'd suspect the real barrier to such a system would be practical - it's hard to imagine that anything like enough people would volunteer to be monitors (or at least not in such a formalised way).

The second discussion I attended posed the question "can elections be won online?", to which, predictably, the general answer was "no". Having said that, there must be any number of instances where information found on the internet is the determining factor in the votes of individuals. I recently voted by post in the US midterm elections, and found myself faced with a scary-looking ballot paper full of candidates I'd never heard of standing for obscure local and state-level offices. If it hadn't been for the internet I would either have had to abstain on those votes, or take a wild guess about which candidates were most likely to share my views. As it was, I was able to make a reasonably informed choice in all but a few cases - and that was courtesy of a mixture of blogs, mainstream media websites, and the candidates' own sites. OK, my reliance on the internet was partly down to my status as an overseas voter, but I think it's perhaps also true to say that the more complex the choice voters are faced with, the more likely they are to rely on their own online 'research' (although the flipside is that they're probably also more likely to simply throw in the towel altogether). In contrast, the single, one-dimensional choice of British general elections perhaps lends itself more naturally to an overwhelmingly TV-dominated campaign.

Someone (I think it might have been Peter Geoghegan, but I'm not sure) pointed out that one of the limitations of using a site like Facebook for campaigning purposes is that it's a realm of personal relationships in which many people are not expecting to be exposed to political messages, and may react with a degree of scorn if they are. That hit a nerve with me - I've never really used Facebook very much, although I set up an account eighteen months ago mainly for the sake of sticking my Twitter feed on it. But a few weeks back I finally gave in to the inevitable and started broadening my range of Facebook friends, and instantly found myself feeling very inhibited about writing political-flavoured tweets (however innocuous) that I knew they might end up seeing.

The plenary session after lunch covered so much ground that I've probably already forgotten half of it. Caron Lindsay and Joan McAlpine disagreed on how the Scottish blogosphere could most constructively play a role in the run-up to next year's election - Caron thought that it would be by exploring in depth the impact of the planned cuts and identifying scope for alternative (presumably less regressive) cuts, whereas Joan felt that the obvious 'gap in the market' left wide open by the mainstream media is the absence of any serious discussion of the constitutional question and independence. The latter theme also carried over into the last of the smaller-scale discussions I went to. Caron explained that she has some sympathy with the frustration of nationalists in relation to the media, because she gets similarly tetchy when the media lump the Liberal Democrats in with the "unionists", when in fact - in her view - they are not unionists at all, but rather "federalists". I must say I was doubtful about that line of argument - yes, federalism is certainly a distinct constitutional option that deserves 'parity of esteem' with the status quo, independence, and the full menu of proposals for enhanced devolution. But two huge problems - a) the Liberal Democrats are actually in power at Westminster right now and are intent on delivering Calman, not federalism, and b) federalism is undoubtedly a unionist option anyway. There's no need to see 'unionist' as a dirty word in that context - it would be a different, and probably much healthier, type of union, but it would be a union all the same. The USA is a federal state, and the President's annual address to Congress isn't called the 'State of the Union' for nothing.

At the same discussion, Peter Curran of Moridura expressed his disappointment at being criticised by fellow nationalists for pointing out in a blog post that the SNP might not necessarily be the governing party of an independent Scotland. That actually surprises me slightly - from my dim and distant memory of the 1990s, I can recall Alex Salmond going out of his way to say something along the lines of "if you want John Smith or Gordon Brown as the Labour Prime Minister of an independent Scotland, first you have to vote SNP to get it".

There was still one session to go after that, but I decided to call it a day and catch up with a Scotland rugby defeat or some sleep - whichever came first. All in all, a well-organised and illuminating event, attended by very friendly (and very articulate) people. Oh, and to answer the question I posed a couple of weeks ago - is there such a thing as a free lunch? Yes, but it helps enormously if you like haggis...