The Independence Debate

A couple of weeks ago, I attended the launch of a Fabian pamphlet by Gordon Brown. Stronger Together puts the case for continuing the union between Scotland and the rest of Britain. Embarrassingly, Gordon and I were wearing the same tie, but that did not seem to put him off his speech.

There was a muffled scoff during the Q&A session, when Douglas Alexander suggested that, even though the SNP were ahead in the polls, the strength of the Labour argument (or rather, the weakness of the SNP argument) would shine through. Interestingly, however, it looks like this might be happening. According to The Times:

It is only in the past fortnight — largely because of previous opinion poll findings — that Scotland has had to ask itself whether the pleasure of giving Tony Blair a last kicking is worth the price of putting the SNP in office. It is not.

I wonder how much of this is down to Brown and Alexander’s (and McConnell’s) powers of persuasion, and how much is down to a change in voter tactics, influenced by opinion polls. There is no doubt that in every election a kind of electoral Heisenberg effect occurs, whereby advanced polling that seeks to predict the result, actually alters it. I’ve often worried that this is anti-democratic, although I suppose making a choice is as much about who you do not want to lead you, as opposed to who you do. Recall once again the old adage about governments that lose elections, rather than oppositions that win them…

Much of the Fabian pamphlet focuses on the econmoic benefits that Scotland gains from being in The Union, and how much would be lost if the people chose Independence instead. This may be persuasive, but I cannot help feeling that the economic argument should not matter. Dyed-in-the-wool Nationalists and Unionists alike cite a greater, moral imperative for their point of view, whatever it happens to be. Never mind the administration costs of leaving the Union: I have more time for the argument which says that Scotland and England should remain together because we share common values (whatever they may be). Just like marriage, these links should be worth saving, even if greater economic prosperity were to be found through a divorce.

Likewise, I think the most honest Nationalist argument is that which says that the Scots and English are culturally different. It is their belief in this premise which motivates their political activity, not some economic calculation. As it happens, I disagree with them, as I tried to point out in a post at The Sharpener. I think the notions of Scottishness and Englishness have converged somewhat in these past 300 years. This is by no means proven, however, and the independence debate should be fought over this ideological battleground, rather than over some calculus of the North Sea oil revenues.

Blast off

Hooray! We’re off to the moon. UK scientists are working on the deisgn of a moon lander that would also be used on Mars missions.

It seems to me that if we are to spend billions of pounds on firing rockets into the air, how much better it would be if they flew off to the moon or Mars, in a spirit of discovery and exploration. Instead we develop rockets designed to vapourise hundreds of thousands of people. We are a very silly species.

Of course, supporters of Trident cite the unreliable regimes of North Korea and Iran as proof that we need to maintain a deterrent. But I reckon a trip to the moon would be better than a deterrent – it would be a demoraliser. Can you imagine a bigger “fuck you” to send to Ahmadinejad, than an YouTube message from the moon?

As an incentive, countries that disarm would be offered a seat on the spaceship. The sight of your country’s flag, billowing in the vacuum by means of a support wire. What could bring greater glory to your land and people?

Your Country Flag Here

Voting for minorities

Thinking about women rulers, it is interesting to see how progressive South-Asia has been in this regard. Pakistan, India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka have all had female leaders. In fact, the latter two have had more than one, as has India if you were to count Sonia Ghandi.

Critics of Asian culture in general, and Islam in particular, do like to remind us of the essential backwardness of the regions and religion, with a general misogyny being the primary exhibit. To those Muslims who voted for Benazir Bhutto, say, this might seem a spectacularly unfair accusation… especially when the USA (moralizer-in-chief) is turning itself inside-out over the question of whether the country is ‘ready’ for a woman (or a black man) to lead.

Perhaps an alternative measure of democratic maturity is not the length of time a country has sustained democracy, but the point at which the populous begins to elect leaders whose sex, race, and religious combination differs from that of the traditional ruling elite.
Continue reading “Voting for minorities”

Wandering around corridors

Over at the Demos blog, Duncan O’Leary notices that several politicians have been invoking the metaphor of a house in order to convey whatever political point they wish to make that day. David Cameron’s renewal of the Tories is being built “brick by brick“, while Gordon Brown wants to raise educational standards by “raising the floor and removing the ceiling.”

I am reminded of how often it is that buildings are used as a by-word for institutions. We do not talk of the office of the Prime Minister: We say Number Ten. When we hear of interference from those next door, we hear of The Treasury. Either might incur the displeasure of The House of Commons. If a member of the Royal Family does something noteworthy, Buckingham Palace or Clarence House issues a statement. It is The Bank of England that rises interest rates. The United States’ Foreign Policy is conceived and implemented by, variously, The White House, Congress and The Pentagon.

These are all familiar, innocent, journalistic short-cuts, but they can be unhelpful. By embodying the institution in the building, they give the impression that these institutions are inpenetratable. It is as if to influence them, we would literally have to penetrate the six-foot thick walls. When we hear (as we so often do), of a feud between “Number Ten” and “The Treasury”, this conjures the idea of two megaliths colliding in a kinetic, titanic battle – Mere flesh and blood mortals do not stand a chance against them. In reality, the ‘clash’ is between less than half a dozen civil servants, men and women shorter and older than you or I, sending curt e-mails via Outlook Express. The Great Failures of the New Labour (read: Alastair Campell’s) spin machine, were precisely those instances where the facade of the institution crumbled, and the profoundly human cogs that drive the system were exposed. Jo Moore’s memo to “bury bad news” and the David Kelly affair are the most memorable examples of this.

A few years ago I spent a short time working for a think-tank in Westminster. One valuable lesson I learnt is that politics and governance are not a high-brow interactions between great institutions of State. It just a load of people wandering around corridors and pavements in the SW1A vicinity of Central London. Most people who spend time working in the ‘Westminster Village’ are already aware of this, but for a provincial suburbanite such as myself, it was a welcome revelation.

Often, ‘taking on the government’ need not mean a well-financed campaign planned with military precision. It just means getting the e-mail address of the civil servant who is best placed to help you: no battering ram required.

 

That hypothetical B&B

The argument over the proposed gay rights legislation, already in force in Northern Ireland, has been brought to the boil once again. Much of the debate centres around a hypothetical Bed & Breakfast, where the ‘deeply religious’ proprietor would be having to go against their own beliefs in order to legally provide serivces.

Critics say the regulations would mean hotels could not refuse to provide rooms for gay couples

This is a popular argument for those arguing against the laws, because it conjours sympathy for a single person (probably white and middle-aged) being persecuted for their religion. However, it is a highly problematic hypothetical, for several reasons, and should be questioned.

First, it is not just homosexuality that all the major religions label immoral. They also say that any sexual intercourse outside of marriage is immoral too. So, the aldulterers who sneak away to a seaside hotel for the weekend are also offending religious beliefs of the owner, and could be denied service on this basis. For the sake of consistency, we would expect that the same hotel would also ban a couple with children who were not married.

To this, the ‘deeply religious’ proprietor might say “well, I didn’t know that the first couple were adulterers, or that the second couple were not married.” This would be an unwittingly ironic, since it evokes the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. If it is good enough for the US Military, it should be good enough for the good old British B&B! If they do not know for sure that those two men will be having sex, then it cannot be said that the proprietor endorses such behaviour, unless it is also said that they endorse the extra-marital heterosexual activity mentioned earlier. There is a definite hypocrisy here, and ‘religious belief’ is merely a politically correct shield behind which plain bigotry can hide.

If the claim to religious belief is genuine, then these service-providing adherents might find themselves in even more trouble. There are passages in the bible and Qu’ran which forbid inter-religious marriage and can even be interpreted to mean a ban on inter-racial marriage (for example Deut. 7). Are such couples – immoral in the eyes of the religious – to be denied services too? If not, why not?

The debate, as framed, grants the religious a special privilege which is not extended to those with other kinds of beliefs. If an exemption were made for those of a particular religious creed, an aetheist proprietor who also happened to disapprove of same-sex relationships would still be subject to the law, and would rightly claim to unfair treatment under that law. Whether or not one subscribes to the effectiveness of anti-discrimination laws, one must concede that they be applied equally. If the religious complain that their beliefs are under attack, then we who support this legislation must begin by saying “well, yes, necessarily”.

Next, supporters must assert that the debate is not between two minority groups (gay libertines and religious prudes, say)… but between the majority view (which says homosexuals should be treated equally) and the minority view (which says homosexuals should be treated differently). The onus is on those who support the legislation to explain why the values of the population as a whole trump the values of those with religious belief. Unity at Ministry of Truth has already taken a tweezer to this issue.

In balancing the respective rights in such a case; those of the hypothetical plaintiff, who has a ‘public right’ not to be subjected to discrimination, against those of the hypothetical defendent, who has a ‘private right’ to manifest their personal beliefs, one must first consider whether the matter at the heart of the complaint belongs to the public or private domain. If the matter is ‘public’ then the public rights of the complainant take precendence, if it is private, then the private rights of the defendent should win out.

I am inclined to the idea that if you charge money for people to stay in your house, you are opening it up to the public realm. I think it is difficult to argue the opposite, since you will be bound, and indeed protected, by the public laws of commerce. Furthermore, the regional development agencies will have spent tax-payers money to encourage punters in your direction – an especially pertinent point in the case of the rural or seaside B&B. If you choose to provide services, then you have to give equal access to all tax-payers, even the gay ones.

Update: bookdrunk at the Rhetorically Speaking blog is always lucid on gay and women’s rights. ‘Revisiting Asymetrical Prejudice’ was written last year, reposted as the cherry atop a couple of other blogs on this issue.

An Idle Sunday With The Papers

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Ah, Edinburgh! This Athens of the North, this home of the Enlightenment. What perfect Sundays you provide for its denizens. Snuggled beneath a warm blanket of idleness, a shroud of irresponsibility, I am free to sit in the re-vamped Cameo Cinema Bar and take advantage of their gratis wireless, and complimentary newspapers.

And for a blogger, a 21st Century gentleman-pamphleteer, what could be a more perfect afternoon than this? I scythe through The Observer, and the myriad possibilities for unsolicited opinion leap out at me. I am spoilt for choice. I could muse on Scottish Independence, perhaps? Or comment on the USA’s relentless march towards totalitarianism? It is, in a way, surprising that Blogistan becomes so quiet at weekends. Isn’t everyone else making electronic notations on the Sunday papers?

Jasper Gerard caught my eye, with a short piece on the Countryside Alliance:

And while I opposed banning hunting as I oppose banning anything without overwhelming reason, I also suspected those who enjoyed killing for its own sake were tossers. Like deposed dictators, perhaps foxes need to be killed, but huntsmen seem to snuff out life with all the tearful regret of the Iraqi prison service.

This precisely captures my feeling. I don’t care particularly for the fox, which is a pest. But killing things for fun seems an affront to nature, and if one is going to do it then you should have the decency to eat what you have killed. This is possible when you shoot game birds, deer, or when you go fishing. But since the hounds rip up the prey beyond what is edible, I do think “hunting with dogs” is a sensible distinction to make.

Should we have banned it though? Reconciling this “illiberal liberalism” (as Gerard has it) will no doubt occupy my thoughts for the rest of the afternoon (I suspect my answer would have something to do with our laws on animal cruelty and bear-baiting). With my back to the window and the outside world, I sink deeper into this leather armchair, and philosophize.

Saddam's Death: The Revolutionary's Cut

Saddam on the GallowsOf course, in the past few days, we have been presented with a more sinister example of how new technology is creating a ‘digital revolution’. The official film of Saddam Hussein’s hanging was undermined by alternative footage, videoed on a mobile phone.

The BBC report on how these cheap and portable cameras are being used as a key weapon in the propaganda war is not news to me – I had to watch several hours of insurgent-filmed shootings and bombings in order to find suitable footage for inclusion in the Black Watch video design. To watch unsuspecting marines wander haplessly into a sniper’s cross-hair is chilling. When they are hit, they fall quickly.

Despite the unpalatable subject matter, I think there is an interesting point to be made about how film and video is used here, which is the importance of the sound-track to moving images. In the case of Saddam’s hanging, notice how a particular audio track totally changes the tone of what we see, and the emotions evoked. Film makers and TV producers constantly manipulate us in this way.

An interesting aspect of the commentary that has surrounded the emergence of this bootleg video, is the ‘winner-takes-all’ conception of truth, and history. When the official video of Saddam’s demise was released, it was considered an accurate historical record. How can the camera lie? When the grainy bootleg emerged later, it replaced the official video as the definitive ‘truth’ of the event.

We would do well to consider the possibility that this video is unreliable too. The footage is grainy and shot from a distance. We do not hear the more muted of Saddam’s mutterings, nor the words of those standing right beside him at the moment before death. I have not watched the video all the way through to its grim finale, but I understand that there are cuts in the timeline. What was missed? It is essential that we remember that the footage has been released by someone who wishes to foist a particular historical narrative upon us, one obviously informed by a different agenda to the Iraqi Government. With this in mind, other questions arise.

  • Might not Saddam’s pious recitations at his moment of death – the invocations of Mohammed that we did not hear on the ‘official’ recording – actually enhance his image, rather than humiliate him?
  • We do not witness what happened immediately before the footage was shot. Perhaps Saddam or others provoked the abuse, and the now-famous taunts were more out of anguish than vindictiveness
  • Are we sure that the audio was not doctored or enhanced before its release? Were the names of other leaders chanted, in addition to Moqtadr Al-Sadr?

These new fangled technologies, generating their subversive, low-resolution footage, have become the thorn in the side of those wishing to control a political situation. There may never be another time where a government can control the media as it did during previous conflicts. But the new technologies are just as suceptible to abuse by the purveyors of propaganda as the old.

Primary sources can be illuminating, but they can also be decieving. This historical constant remains true.

Christopher Hitchens, writing in Slate, calls the execution a ‘lynching‘. (via The Daily Dish)

Stalinist Santa?

Tis now the season to be jolly, so I have posted something festive over at The Sharpener: Would you let this man into your home?

It concerns the politics of Father Christmas, who by my analysis is a dangerous Stalinist. If you think he is of a different political hue, then please do visit The Sharpener and set me straight.

Update

Now reproduced in full, below.

There’s a crude and simple way to distinguish, should you care to, your right from your left. Waistlines.

I’ve been reading Paul’s polemic, which states that Left-wingers are fatter than Right-wingers. It occurs to me that Father Christmas is a well-known fat bastard, famous for (among other things) scoffing mince-pies and slurping sherry that is not his own, at fire-places up and down this land. He would definitely be a ‘Lefty’ by Paul’s criteria.

This hypothesis is certainly backed up by other facts too. He wears red tunic, long time favourite colour of the revolutionary left. And of course he is interested in the systemised redistribution of presents, in apparent disregard of market forces.

Don’t let that beard and Norwegian charm fool you. This guy is no hippie. He is a dangerous authoritarian. If you do not conform to his insidious conception of ‘nice’ you risk being classified ‘naughty’ and denied basic presents. Everyone is kept under surveillance, parents are turned into informants on their own children and Santa catalogues the good deeds and the bad. What is more, he can only deliver his presents if he keeps a comprehensive computerised database of names and chimney locations. It is only a matter of time before this information is shared with the Tooth Fairy and the Easter Bunny, and before you know it a cheeky request on a Christmas list from five years ago could see you lose all profits from your tooth harvest.

Its not as if the system fosters any kind of equality anyway. We all know that although Santa’s ‘presents for all populism might appear to treat each case on its merits, but when the service is applied on the ground we find evidence of blatant institutional racism. It is a well-known fact that Father Christmas is less likely to visit children from Muslim, Hindu and Sikh families. Yes yes, we’ve all heard the excuse about a lack of available chimneys, but I notice that Santa will gladly slip in through the French windows for middle-class atheist families. He is also happy to pocket the filthy shill from Coca-cola Company for corporate sponsorship, but do you see the elves getting a pay-rise? No, the fat bastard Father Christmas is a Lefty in name only.

Time was when young people would have cared about the questionable ethics of their largest benefactor. But not this generation. Oh no. The ‘me’ generation too busy talking about X-boxes and X-factor to even consider whether Santa’s seal-skin boots were bought Fair Trade or not. They see the presents dangled in front of their eyes, and once again they fall for his patter. They will let him into their bedrooms, and there is nothing the parents can do about it. Only when Santa has sledged off into the night sky will the parents be called to sort out the misery in his wake. Once again, the cumbersome, centralised, present giving system will not have supplied batteries for the presents, and decent, hard-working parents will be called in to pick-up the tab.

The Point of Vanishing Interest

I have said before that the operative word in ‘citizen journalist’ is not the latter, but the former. Fay Young’s short, personal report on the happenings of an Edinburgh City Council meeting seems to be a good example of ‘citizen journalism’ and the importance of new Internet technologies. The happenings at the meeting were probably not newsworthy enough for The Scotsman or even the Edinburgh Evening News, so a reporter might not be paid to file a report on it. Now, Fay is an established journalist, but it was in her role of ‘citizen’ that she was present and able to post her report (“Hot air stifles climate change debate”) on her blog. More information for the rest of us, which we hope leads to a more accountable, participatory democracy.

Fay was not impressed by the councillors’ collective time-management:

The meeting rattles through some fairly important stuff about poverty … Then the meeting spends 25 minutes debating whether to replace or restore the old Davenport desks and chairs. Finally one Labour councillor protests at this waste of time when there is still a motion on climate change to debate, not to mention the capital city’s alcohol problem. Still they drone on, and it is another five minutes before they vote [27 to 29] to replace the old heavy mahogany with something that can be easily shifted and stacked when it is not in use.

I wonder if Fay Young has read C. Northcote Parkinson’s eponymous Parkinson’s Law? This is a fantastic compendium of satirical essays, first published in the Economist, and collected in book form in 1958 (I have a fourth edition from that year, which carries some delightful illustrations by Osbert Lancaster). In his essay, “High Finance; or, The Point of Vanishing Interest”, Parkinson describes a committee that bears a remarkable similarity to that which Fay witnessed last week. Finance committees are, he says, made up of people who know nothing of millions, but well accustomed to thinking in thousands:

The result is a phenomenon that has often been observed but never yet investigated. It might be termed the Law of Triviality. Briefly stated, it means that the time spent on any item of the agenda will be in inverse proportion to the sum involved.

So, Fay’s experience seems all too familiar! Parkinson also presents an amusing essay on the ‘Coefficient of Inefficiency’, definied as the size at which a committee ceases to be of any effective use whatsoever. This he puts at somewhere between 19 and 23 members. It is interesting to note that the number of councillors voting at Fay’s meeting was more than double that estimate…

Whatever the accuracy of his theories, Parkinson’s Law is a great read, and a highly recommended stocking filler for the economist or policy wonk in your life.

Brevity

This week, brevity is all the rage. Labour MP Tom Watson finds that plenty of sites are issuing six word story challenges.

Meanwhile, over at The Sharpener, Bondwoman has posted her take on John Reid’s immigration policies in equation form.

One of the more famous short short-stories is by Augusto Monterroso:

Cuando despertó, el dinosaurio todavía estaba allí.
(“When he awoke, the dinosaur was still there.”)

I always chuckle at that. What sordid goings on occurred the night before?