Saturday, November 5, 2016

Freedom to silence

I had a short Twitter exchange with the Spectator's Alex Massie earlier tonight, which was sparked by his observation that "a free press requires accepting the freedom it will write things you find distasteful or even deplorable" - a reference to the pro-Brexit media's appalling reaction to the High Court judgement. I pointed out to him that freedom of speech also requires the press accepting the freedom of others to criticise the press. He innocently denied that anyone had ever disputed that point - and so I reminded him of the furious reaction from journalists to the measured criticisms a couple of SNP politicians made of Stephen Daisley. Suddenly the goalposts shifted - somehow the criticism of Daisley wasn't legitimate after all, because that was 'beyond' criticism. It was a 'silencing'. I'm puzzled by that distinction, because although the sequence of events is hotly disputed, one fact that no-one can reasonably deny is that the Scottish Government and the SNP have no power whatever over broadcasting. Even if it's true (and it doesn't seem to be) that John Nicolson and Angus MacNeil had something to do with STV's decision to change Daisley's role, the only weapon they ever had at their disposal was the strength of their own arguments. If that alone proved sufficient, doesn't it suggest that their arguments were actually rather persuasive, and probably correct? A cynic might conclude that Massie doesn't so much have a problem with the freedom to criticise journalists, but rather with the freedom to do so convincingly and non-impotently.

The other point that occurs to me is this : if Massie thinks that the freedom to criticise journalists is not absolute, but must always fall short of his own arbitrary definition of "silencing", shouldn't exactly the same exception apply to the freedom of the press? Why should the press be allowed to intimidate judges, for example? It doesn't seem terribly outlandish to suggest that the real target of the reporting in the Daily Mail and the Sun was not so much the three High Court judges who were vilified, but rather the Supreme Court judges who will hear the appeal. The message was effectively : "you're next, unless you make a decision we approve of". Does Alex Massie think the freedom of the press extends to the right not merely to 'silence' judges, but to actually subvert the law of the land?

By the way, a little memo for the press : a direct democracy involves the electorate making decisions by referendum, and those decisions being automatically implemented by virtue of the rules laid down by the constitution. Theresa May getting to decide whether and when to invoke Article 50 is not direct democracy, any more than parliament making exactly the same decision would be. If you don't like it, campaign to change our constitution to make it more like Switzerland's. There's no point in moaning because judges refuse to ignore the law.

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As you may already have seen, the Tories scored two local by-election gains in Aberdeenshire on Thursday.  Both were in wards where the SNP topped the popular vote last time around, although thanks to the now-familiar quirk of the STV voting system, the Inverurie result was technically a gain from the Liberal Democrats rather than the SNP.  (And I'm sure we've all noted that Mike "can't be arsed" Smithson is considerably less eager to propagandise about technicalities when it's the Lib Dems on the receiving end.)  Weirdly, the SNP vote more or less held up in Inverurie but dropped steeply in Banff - I don't know if that contrast can be wholly or partly explained by personality factors.  In both elections, though, it looks as if the Tories ultimately have unionist tactical voting to thank for their triumph (along with the traditional tendency of Tory voters to be more inclined to turn out in low-interest contests).

Inverurie and District by-election result :

Conservatives 38.8% (+21.4)
SNP 34.6% (-2.6)
Liberal Democrats 22.5% (+5.2)
Labour 4.1% (-9.1)

Banff and District by-election result :

Conservatives 44.0% (+20.9)
SNP 36.2% (-19.2)
Liberal Democrats 19.8% (+8.7)

There's actually nothing radically new in these results - they follow the same pattern as the Holyrood election in May, with heavily No-voting areas coalescing around the unionist party best-placed to beat the SNP.  To the extent that some ex-SNP voters are switching direct to the Tories, those are highly likely to be people who voted No in 2014 and who have little prospect of changing their minds at the next indyref.  What we're seeing, then, is simply a mirror-image of the phenomenon of Yes voters in working-class Scotland bringing their party allegiance into line with their constitutional preference.  That's not a cause for concern for the Yes campaign in a referendum (we're chasing floating voters, not the unpersuadables), but it might well pose a problem for the SNP in the snap general election that now seems to be a distinct possibility.

For the first time in my life, I must say that I can't muster much enthuasiasm for the prospect of an early election, because I struggle to see how it can possibly leave us in a better position than we're already in.  The likelihood is that the SNP would remain dominant, but would shed a few seats - to the Tories, and possibly to the Lib Dems as well.  The crude projections suggesting Labour could be wiped out are almost certainly wide of the mark - unionist tactical voting would once again save Ian Murray's bacon.  And the seemingly inevitable Conservative landslide at UK-wide level would rob the SNP of the balance of power they currently hold on a small number of key issues where the Tories are divided.

Would there be any advantages?  Well, it would be an opportunity for Nicola Sturgeon to further amplify the mandate she already has to hold a second referendum if she deems it to be in Scotland's interests.  And it's possible that a 1983-style crushing UK-wide defeat for Labour might lead to 'constructive despair' among the progressive unionist vote in Scotland, thus boosting support for independence.

So, yes, there are pros and cons, but on the whole I hope Theresa May continues to bottle it.

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"But what will [the Tories] do about the Fixed Term Parliaments Act?" asks Mr Smithson in big bold letters.  Hmmm.  Would "repeal it" be too obvious an answer?  The other options would be to obtain a two-thirds majority for an election by daring Labour to vote in favour, or to deliberately lose a vote of no confidence in the government.  One way or another, though, there isn't really much of an obstacle to an election if May decides to go for it.