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?