Saturday, June 4, 2011

Andrew Reeves

Just a quick note to say how shocked and sad I was to discover via Caron's blog that Andrew Reeves has died.  In fact, I had to do a double-take when I saw the name, because I couldn't quite take in that it was the same Andrew Reeves I was thinking of - I knew that he was only in his early forties. 

I must admit I know absolutely nothing about Andrew's real-life political work for the Liberal Democrats other than his job title, but I discovered his blog about eighteen months ago after he left a comment here, and I've been a regular reader ever since.  He was undoubtedly one of the leading lights of both the Scottish and Lib Dem blogospheres, and he'll be greatly missed.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Foulkes : the answers

The wait is over - here are the nineteen words, names and phrases you were looking for in Wednesday's long-overdue George Foulkes word-search puzzle...

Baron : That's what George is.

Cumnock : That's where George is Baron of.

Lothians : The region George used to represent in the Scottish Parliament.

Belize : According to Wikipedia, George is chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for this hot Caribbean country.

The Dominican Republic : According to Wikipedia, George is chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for this hot Caribbean country.

Trinidad and Tobago : According to Wikipedia, George is vice-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for this hot Caribbean country. Please don't be cynical - George simply takes a keen interest in Caribbean affairs.

Cybernats : For George, it's a love thing.

Oswestry : The town in Shropshire where George was born. No wonder Richard Briers and Penelope Wilton moved there in the final episode of Ever Decreasing Circles.

Iain Macwhirter : In what I can only assume was the worst case of vote-rigging since Glenrothes, Macwhirter "defeated" George to become Rector of Edinburgh University in 2009.

ID Cards : George is a fan. He has nothing to hide, and therefore nothing to fear. Can you say the same?

Disorderly : George resigned as Shadow Defence Minister in 1993 following a conviction for being drunk and disorderly. Quite clearly a fit-up.

Xenophobic : George famously called Alex Salmond xenophobic on an edition of Question Time. This controversial outburst appeared spontaneous at the time, but of course a master tactician leaves nothing to chance. It was revealed in Michael Portillo's recent documentary that this key moment in the Foulkes Story was meticulously pre-planned, and rehearsed the night before in the bath.

Hearts : George was the chairman of this football club.

Vladimir Romanov : The reason George is no longer the chairman of the aforementioned football club.

Clare Short : George's boss at the Department of International Development. They got on like a house on fire until George realised she had some weird problem with Tony Blair's illegal wars.

Senior Labour MSP : This is George's official name. "George" is a nickname that stuck, but the Scotsman and the Herald generally favoured formalities.

But is it wise? : At a 1990s meeting of the Scottish Grand Committee, George assured us that if Scotland became independent, he'd do his best to make it work. He then paused, and asked in hushed tones "but is it wise?". The subsequent hysterical laughter from the SNP benches remains a source of bafflement to this day.

Arrogant little : In the early 90s, George stood up in the Commons and referred to Tory cabinet minister Douglas Hogg as "that arrogant little s**t". The Speaker Bernard Weatherill immediately demanded that he withdraw "that word", to which George replied "which word - arrogant, little or...?". "Don't say it again!" screamed Weatherill at the top of his voice, in an apparent attempt to re-enact the stoning scene in Life of Brian.

Deliberately : As we know, George simply says it as it is. And in one celebrated BBC interview, he spoke a truth that most would have shirked from - that there is nothing wrong with the SNP government making Scotland's public services better than England's, but the problem is that they are doing it deliberately...

So there we are. My heartiest congratulations to anyone who found all nineteen. You are indeed a Foulkesian worthy of the name.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Tony Kelly's lawyerly inconsistency

Just as a quick follow-up to my earlier post about the Supreme Court controversy, I was more than a touch bemused by Tony Kelly's defence of the status quo on Newsnight Scotland tonight. He has a very confident air about him, as if it can be taken as read that he's talking common sense, but in fact with each answer to one of Isabel Fraser's questions he seemed to be cheerfully contradicting what he'd only just said in the previous answer. For instance, when she asked him if it wouldn't be a good idea to ensure that the Supreme Court had a majority of Scottish judges when it dealt with Scottish cases, he made a high-minded 'juges sans frontières' point that it shouldn't be about checking a judge's passport or birth certificate. But then Fraser countered by suggesting that Scottish judges would have a better understanding of the context in which the decisions of lower courts had been made, to which his rather startling reply was "exactly". He added that this was why the presence of Lord Hope and Lord Rodger in the Supreme Court line-up was so important. OK, so suddenly it is about "passports and birth certificates" after all, Tony?

But he saved the best for last. When asked if it wouldn't be better to bypass London altogether and go straight to Strasbourg, he said no, because all the judges would be "foreign" - presumably in this instance meaning anyone from outside the UK. Yup, that inspiring, idealistic point you made about judges leaving their passports and birth certificates at home is really looking in fine shape now, Tony.

A proxy argument for British nationalism? Perish the thought.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

The human rights red herring

Has anyone noticed how the 'defence of human rights' has suddenly been seized upon as a convenient proxy for unionism? The legal experts wheeled out on Newsnight last night seemed to have an unanswerable point when they claimed that the SNP's politics were blinding them to the benefits of a system that allows for speedy human rights appeals to the UK Supreme Court - unanswerable, that is, until you remember that a Scottish court could easily perform precisely the same function. As Alex Salmond pointed out, the 'speed' issue is also a red herring, because a dedicated Scottish bench for human rights cases could do the job just as quickly as the UK Supreme Court, with the possibility of a laborious appeal to Strasbourg still there as a final safeguard, just as it is in every other European jurisdiction from Ireland to Russia. When you bear all that in mind, the experts' argument is stripped down to the basic assumption that they daren't utter aloud - that a predominantly English court is bound to be superior in quality to a Scottish court. The cringe rears its ugly head again.

That very assumption led Isabel Fraser into an amusing circular argument on the same programme. She suggested to the First Minister that the Scottish courts couldn't possibly be left to their own devices, because they had been shown to be wrong before. But how precisely had they been shown to be wrong, Isabel? Because, she explained, the UK Supreme Court had overruled their decisions, therefore they must have been wrong!

To sum up :

1) This isn't about human rights, because the European Convention is incorporated into Scots Law and no-one in government is suggesting that should change.

2) This isn't about speed, because a Scottish court could act just as fast as the UK Supreme Court (or faster).

3) This isn't even about the Supreme Court's ability to adjudicate on genuine devolution matters. The problem is the way that the Scotland Act irrationally defines anything relating to the European Convention on Human Rights as a devolution issue. Since the High Court of Justiciary performs exactly the same function in Scotland as the final court of appeal for criminal cases that the UK Supreme Court performs in England and Wales, it would be far more logically consistent for a Scottish court to also deal with human rights appeals in criminal cases, and for the Supreme Court to do the same for cases in its own criminal law jurisdiction. The present (or should I say emerging) set-up is colonial in character.

Word-Search Wednesday : a George Foulkes spectacular

I don't know about you, but I'm beginning to despair of the Labour blogosphere. Just how long are we supposed to wait for a word-search puzzle that celebrates the life and work of George Foulkes? Aren't we entitled to expect that Kezia, of all people, would have got round to it by now? Frankly, my patience is at an end, and I've decided to go ahead and do the deed myself. Sue me.

(Click to enlarge)

OK, you're looking for nineteen words, names or short phrases associated with His Eminence - the Wikipedia biography will be able to help you with most (but not all) of them.  The answers will be revealed on Friday.  Incidentally, any thoughts on the idea of having a regular 'Word-Search Wednesday' slot?  Be warned - I may interpret silence as enthusiastic assent!

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

If you're a sex worker or cleaner and think you know your own mind, forget it

Is there a more satisfying sight known to man than that of Labour outcast Denis MacShane making a prize idiot of himself - again? My previous favourite example was when he wrote an article in the run-up to the 2004 Spanish general election, gloating that his own party's socialist allies were going to reap no reward for opposing the Bush/Blair invasion of Iraq. A few days later, the socialist leader Zapatero was Prime Minister-elect of Spain, and the country's troops were looking forward to an unexpectedly swift departure from Iraq. MacShane characteristically brazened it out, hastily redefining the outcome as yet another unalloyed triumph for the Third Way!

His latest foot-in-mouth moment came when he went off on one in the House of Commons about an LSE professor of feminist political theory who asks her students as part of their course to consider whether there is any difference between women hiring themselves out as "low paid and often badly treated cleaners", and hiring themselves out as prostitutes. MacShane denounced this as the peddling of "poisonous drivel", but there was just one snag - the professor in question, Anne Phillips, actually does believe there is a fundamental distinction between the two concepts, as her extensive writing on the topic confirms. To a degree, therefore, she is actually on MacShane's side, but was he intelligent enough to spot that? Was he intelligent enough to even consider the possibility? To him, someone who isn't prepared to close down all thought and debate on the subject must be an apologist for the trafficking of women and exploitative prostitution.

And that, in a nutshell, is what is so wrong with Labour's approach (and indeed the approach of some politicians from other parties) to prostitution and other aspects of gender politics. It was no surprise that when MacShane finally made a less-than-gracious apology for insulting Anne Phillips, he revealed himself to be yet another Labour supporter of the Swedish model on prostitution law, which on ideological rather than rational grounds defines even the most scrupulously consensual and non-coercive transaction between a sex worker and client as "male violence against women" - including, perversely, when the "perpetrator" is not male, or when the "victim" is not female. Adherence to this warped logic invariably goes hand in hand with an unshakeable belief that a huge percentage of sex workers are trafficked and/or coerced. When the often patently ludicrous statistical "evidence" offered in support of this belief is challenged by the likes of Laura Agustin, the response is generally the rough equivalent of MacShane's hysterical reaction to Phillips' encouragement of debate. You cannot challenge what we already know to be true! Thinking is not permitted! Those who think are on the side of men who abuse and exploit women!

Any ideology that can only sustain itself by shutting down thought and disallowing awkward questions must be a weak one indeed. With that in mind, it's highly significant that it was the specific comparison with unpleasant cleaning work that hit such a nerve with MacShane. After all, his ideology won't permit the possibility that some prostitutes might legitimately dissent from his view that sex work is always demeaning and can never be consensual - if they believe they feel differently, it's by definition a kind of 'false consciousness'. And yet, of course, virtually any other kind of work is regarded by Labour on equally dubious ideological grounds as an all-purpose boon for the well-being of the individual. Once again, they have the phony evidence at their fingertips to 'prove' it - David Blunkett can recite it backwards. Cleaning toilets for eight hours a day cures depression and banishes all suicidal thoughts! Nothing is better for a bad back than some good old-fashioned manual labour! Any kind of work at all is better for the sick and vulnerable than (gasp) being on benefit. And if they don't realise that, well...they simply don't know what's good for them, do they, and must be 'helped' to see things as they really are. Sound familiar?

So to sum up : prostitutes who take a personal view that their work is not demeaning or exploitative are not entitled to that opinion. But cleaners who take a personal view that their work is demeaning, exploitative or bad for their health are not entitled to that opinion either. Little wonder, then, that some people are so scared of allowing rational thought to be brought to bear on this authoritarian and absurdly contradictory belief-system. Of course, it also begs the question of exactly what pay-grade you have to reach before you're allowed to know your own mind about what you do for a living. Suspended Labour member of parliament, perhaps?

Monday, May 30, 2011

Since when was a 0.32% risk unacceptable?

Without necessarily endorsing the point she is making about abortion, I have a lot of sympathy with how Cristina Odone reacted upon being told that becoming a mother at the age of 42 was a bad idea...

"My jubilation – I had given up all hope of having a child – overcame any practical considerations, such as would Edward be equally happy at the prospect of parenthood, and would I have to work part-time? So I was taken aback when many of my women friends reacted to my news with: “Is this wise?”

What they really meant was: “Is this convenient?” Such thinking is, in part at least, behind the one-third increase in abortions in the over-forties over the past decade. Age certainly correlates with foetal health; but it is only one consideration."

And it isn't necessarily just prospective mothers who have to put up with that kind of reaction. The most bizarre blog I've ever come across (and the competition is naturally stiff) was written by a woman whose sole purpose in life seemed to be to browbeat men over the age of roughly 30-32 into refraining from having children - because of the elevated risk of autism. It was helpfully divided into categories with catchy and subtle titles along the lines of "Older Men Should Not Start Families" and "Men Should Only Have Children Between the Ages of 20 and 32". Well, my own parents were both well into their forties when I was born, and speaking personally I'm actually quite glad they went through with it in spite of the terrifying 0.32% chance that I would turn out to be autistic (which would scarcely have been the end of the world anyway).

I suppose what might just about be reasonable is to educate school pupils about the potential benefits of having children at a younger age, so they can go on to make informed choices at every stage of their adult lives. But, in the real world, lives and relationships simply refuse to adhere to military-style planning, so to effectively scream abuse at people for 'irresponsibly' deciding to have children at a perfectly normal age seems vaguely ludicrous, not to mention...well, fascistic.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

The pernicious myth that progressives can't hope to win power at Westminster if Scotland becomes independent

It's beginning to dawn on me that if by any chance we do achieve a positive outcome in the independence referendum, Gerry Hassan will be one of the top ten or twenty people we need to thank - the quality and quantity of his output since May 5th has been a sight to behold. I think he hits the nail on the head on a couple of scores in his latest Scotsman piece - firstly, in identifying what lies behind the intemperate words that have been directed towards Scotland by certain London commentators in recent weeks...

"The polemic and rhetoric of Lott and Letts is almost worthy of an English equivalent of that Trainspotting outburst, of satire and sending up. Sadly, it is more serious than that: they are hurting, angry and want to lash out."

The best example of the lack of self-awareness at play here came from Simon Hoggart. In a recent column he claimed to have previously argued the case for Scottish independence on the grounds that the English don't particularly care one way or the other, but had then received complaints along the lines of "we would quite happily be independent, but we can't bear the thought that you don't mind". Curiously, though, when I checked back to see what it was he'd actually said that raised the hackles, it turned out to be this :

1) That Scotland is "subsidised" by the English to the tune of £8 billion a year.

2) That independence would mean we'd have to pay for our own policies of free prescriptions, higher education and care for the elderly (as opposed to having it bankrolled for us by the fabled "hard-pressed English taxpayer", presumably).

3) That the debts of RBS and HBOS could be "repatriated" to Scotland.

4) That the English would no longer have to tolerate coverage of Scottish football matches they don't give a monkey's about. (What coverage?)

5) That the English would no longer have their licence fee money spent on "unwatched" documentaries about "standing stones near Stornoway".

Now, this list of bitter and largely nonsensical grievances can be summed up in many ways, but not as the mark of a man who "doesn't really care".

Secondly, Gerry homes in on the underlying reason why many left-leaning commentators in particular are so fretful about the prospect of Scottish independence -

"There is an English lament for a progressive Britain that has been fading for decades. Some of these ask the age-old question: when will Labour ever be able to govern the UK without Scotland? This seems to be what Scotland is reduced to: a once-reliable voting block that helps save the English from themselves!"

If that really is the sole factor driving some left-of-centre English intellectuals to man the barricades in defence of the union, there ought to be a simple enough remedy. As someone once said, the antidote to fear is knowledge, and as it happens, the notion that Labour can only form governments at Westminster with the assistance of Scottish voters is an out-and-out myth. To demonstrate the point, here are the results of post-war UK general elections if you take away Scottish constituencies...

1945 - Labour majority
1950 - Labour majority
1951 - Conservative majority
1955 - Conservative majority
1959 - Conservative majority
1964 - Labour largest party in hung parliament
1966 - Labour majority
1970 - Conservative majority
Feb 1974 - Conservatives largest party in hung parliament
Oct 1974 - Labour largest party in hung parliament
1979 - Conservative majority
1983 - Conservative majority
1987 - Conservative majority
1992 - Conservative majority
1997 - Labour majority
2001 - Labour majority
2005 - Labour majority
2010 - Conservative majority

So the only clear-cut example of a different 'winner' is February 1974, when there would have been a Tory as opposed to a Labour minority government. Labour would also have had to make do with minority rule in 1964 and October 1974, but in both cases they only had tiny majorities anyway, so it's hard to see that it would have made that much practical difference - perhaps Mrs Thatcher might have made it into power a year or two earlier than she did, but even that's highly speculative. And finally, there would now be a Tory majority government instead of a coalition involving the Lib Dems - but again, would anyone notice the difference?

There is one small caveat - the Tories used to be much stronger in Scotland (they held more than twenty seats as recently as the mid-80s) so on the face of it the chances of Scotland swinging the balance for Labour are somewhat greater now than they once were. But this effect is offset by the 2005 reduction of Scottish seats, and a further reduction relative to the rest of the UK is planned for the next election.

And in any case, all of this assumes that voters in the rest of the UK would behave in exactly the same way if Scotland was no longer around, which is unlikely. One blessing in disguise for Labour in losing the Scottish contingent is that the Tories would relinquish their advantage of looking like the more thoroughly "English" party, which has been such an Achilles heel for the red team since at least the 1980s.