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?