Saturday, 27 July 2019

Far too long. Far too detailed

I know many people treat Twitter as an echo chamber gravitating towards following others who share their own views and then spending much of their time agreeing with each other. That has never been my objective on the platform. I follow many of quite different views and am happy on occasion to respectfully agree to disagree.

One of those with whom I most often disagree is Henry Hill, @HCH-Hill, the assistant director of the Tory Website, Conservative Home.

It would be fair to say that our politics could hardly be further apart for Henry isn't just a Tory, he is an ardent Brexiteer and, when it comes to Scottish politics, makes no secret of his belief that the Holyrood Parliament should be abolished altogether!

But he is always polite if combative in our exchanges and we rub along friendedly enough. And very occasionally find ourselves in agreement. No more so than when we found ourselves agreeing that you can't explain British politics since the 2017 General Election without understanding how the Fixed Term Parliament Act of 2011 has completely changed the game.

Prior to 2011, peacetime UK Parliaments had a maximum term of five years. But the governing Prime Minister had the right to seek an earlier dissolution from the Queen which was invariably acceded to, theoretically at least unless there was any prospect of another person being able to command a Commons Majority.

Excepting the special circumstances of October 1974, when Labour, although the largest Party the previous February had no majority or route to a majority, and 1979 when the Government "fell", a broad pattern had emerged whereby a Government sensing victory would go to the Country after four years while one fearing defeat held out the full five. As examples of the former, the Tories in 1983 and 1987, New Labour in 2001 and 2005 and of the latter, the Tories in 1997 and Labour in 2010. Of course things didn't always go to as expected, as discovered by Wilson in 1970 and Heath in February 1974. Or indeed more fortuitously as John Major, having put things off to the very last minute in 1992, found himself to his own pleasant surprise (at least initially) re-elected.

Partly because of these latter arbitrary events, most partisans of the two big Parties were happy enough about this but the Liberals and then Liberal Democrats never were, as they felt controlling the date of the next election gave the Prime Minister's Party an unfair advantage. And when they went into coalition in 2010 they had an additional worry. That David Cameron could call a subsequent election at a time of maximum advantage to the Tories and (potentially) maximum disadvantage to them.

So, as part of the coalition agreement, they insisted that Parliament should sit for a fixed term, eventually agreed at five years, although, to be fair to the Libs, their own initial preference had been for four.

By virtue of the Fixed Term Parliament Act, 2011 this then became the law of the land. Crucially, it still is.

There are now only two ways a Parliament can serve a shorter term. The first is where Parliament itself votes for an early election by a two thirds majority and the second is where the Governing administration is defeated in a vote of confidence in the Commons. Crucially, the right of the serving Prime Minister to go directly to the Monarch to seek an early dissolution by "Royal perogative" has been abolished.

So let's look at the two "worked examples" since 2011.

The first is easy. The 2010 Parliament sat for five years and there then was an election as envisaged which the Tories won and not just Labour but the Liberals also lost.

I assume you already know the disastrous consequence of that although that is not an interpretation Henry would share.

However, come 2017, the Tories believed they would benefit from another, early contest. This was a belief shared across the Parties but the principal opposition Parties could hardly concede that, so, when the Tories proposed going down the two thirds majority route, they could hardly demur. As indeed they didn't. Indeed in normal political times, no opposition Party ever could.

I assume you also know the outcome of this Theresa May masterstroke.

But it is in the aftermath of the 2017 election that the impact of the Fixed Term Parliament Act really strikes home.

As you know, after the 2017 election, Mrs May had a (just) functioning majority for day to day Government thanks to her alliance with the DUP. She had however nothing like a majority for her stated Brexit policy of an orderly exit, particularly after the details of her proposed deal with the EU became known.

But, as she tried to get that deal through the commons she was denied a vital weapon, Prior to 2011, it was open to Prime Ministers, assuming they had cabinet support, to declare any vote a vote of confidence. Members sitting in the name of the governing Party had to support it in the knowledge that, if they didn't, there would be an election. An election where they could hardly expect to be allowed to stand again on the governing Party's ticket. For they, expressly, had no confidence in that Government. But Mrs May didn't have that club in her bag. A vote of no confidence under the 2011 Act must be in particular terms and stand alone from any other issue. So the Tory rebels could happily vote against Mrs May's deal and then, nonetheless, keep her, and more significantly her Party, in power by supporting her in any no confidence vote. As was precisely what happened when Labour laid a vote of no confidence after her defeat on the second "meaningful vote".

Which brings us up to today. And Prime Minister Johnson.

And here is where another piece of legislation comes into play. The European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018. I know this is boring but it is important. Section 20(1) of that Act defines "Exit Day" as 31st October 2019. That date can be amended by virtue of s.20(4) of the same legislation (as it has been twice already) but it can only be amended by a "Minister of the Crown". And, even if an election is called, then "Minister(s) of the Crown" would remain in post unless until removed at the request of the current Prime Minister, who remains in turn in office until he resigns or (less likely) is removed from office by HMQ at the behest of an alternative candidate who can, as he cannot, command a Commons majority. I appreciate this all seems arcane but it is, believe me, really important.

For, assuming we are talking about the here and now,  Boris Johnson is now Prime Minister until he is somehow replaced. An election occurring (I'll come back to this), he is still Prime Minister. Even an election resulting in no clear victor, he remains Prime Minister unless he resigns (cf. G. Brown for a few days post the 2010 election). And during all this time, the Ministers of the Crown remain Ministers of the Crown at his recommendation and none of them is ever going to invoke s.20(4) above. So, in summary, if Boris is still Prime Minister on 31st October we are leaving, with or without a deal. Even if he had a damascene conversion to remain, without changing the law, we are leaving with or without a deal.

Now, one of my other twitter pals is Kevin Hague @kevverage. He and I are much politically closer than Henry and I.  But he does draw some good natured criticism from our side of the constitutional divide for his blind faith in the value of graphs and diagrams. I'm more of a words man but the occasional diagram has its place. So here it is


Alright, basically you can't read it. I get that. So let me tell you what it says. It applies the statutory provisions of the Fixed Term Parliament Act. On the assumption that a vote of no confidence is laid and passed successfully on 3rd September, the first day Parliament returns from recess, the earliest date (by law) on which a General Election could take place is Friday 25th October.

Now, even assuming that happened. Even assuming the election resulted in a landslide victory for the Liberal Democrats, granting them an absolute majority, the timetable for forming an administration, reconvening Parliament and engaging s.20(4) is so tight as to be practically impossible.

In summary, Boris has already run out the straightforward vote of no confidence route to stop a hard Brexit.

But what if he wants to call an election using the two thirds majority route under the 2011 Act, as Mrs May did in 2017? Well, apart from the man himself ruling that out, for the opposition to play ball would be a mug's game. Sure, if he opted for that on 3rd September, the theoretical Lib Dem landslide might just have enough time. But the Lib Dems aren't going to win a landslide and if he's not now proposing to do it all, he's certainly not going to do it on 3rd September. Within a week even the likes of Richard Burgon would work out that "A socialist Labour Government" would only arrive in office already out of the EU. And having conspired at that end, be even more unlikely to ever be arrived at all. So Parliament needs to continue to sit, which an immediate election specifically rules out.

So checkmate to Boris?

In summary, if he is Prime Minister on the date of any Autumn election before or after 31st October, then yes. We are out without a deal even if he loses that election. That is the import of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018. Even if we have by then a Government which, given time would repeal it in its entirety. That's the way legislative democracies work.

But there is one way out and it comes back to the Fixed Term Parliament Act.

Section 2 essentially provides that there will be an election called within 14 days if Parliament declares it has no confidence in the Government unless within that 14 day period Parliament declares itself to have confidence in a (by implication alternative) Government.

So suppose we vote down Boris but then declare confidence in somebody else? That somebody would have to be in the Commons, have no interest in a (future) long term occupation of the office of Prime Minister yet be patently capable of discharging the role of PM short term. They would almost certainly have to be a Tory and yet not intend to continue in elected office. They would have no interest in appointing an alternative cabinet let alone a host of junior ministers, Their Government would last no longer than a week with one simple task, to invoke section 20(4) of the Withdrawal Act to declare the "Exit Date" to be some time next year. They wouldn't even have to appoint a full administration to do that. Or even a single Minister of the Crown.  For which Minister is better than the Prime Minister? And then, once that was done, they'd declare, as they had in advance of office that they'd happily go down the two thirds majority route for an early election. In which they wouldn't stand and in the aftermath of which they would contentedly stand aside. Their obligation to the Nation done. There is one man who, by now, you have hopefully worked out could fill this role. The Rt. Hon Kenneth Clarke Q.C. M.P.

Now, I'm reasonably sure the Libs and odds and sods remainers would be up for this. Even, for a single vote of confidence, the SNP. But it needs the Labour front bench. About that I'm not so sure. But we'll deal with that if we have to.

Postscript. Since I wrote this a number of others have reached the same conclusion as I do. In the process a number of technical issues have arisen on which it would be appropriate to comment.

The first is what happens to the government and Prime Minister immediately if they lose a vote of confidence? My own view is in practical terms, nothing. The Prime Minister does not have to resign and in my opinion would be daft to do so. The country needs to have a Prime Minister and, if Johnson resigned, the Queen would of necessity have to appoint someone else, even if she knew they did not have a Commons majority. Even if Johnson offered to resign, my inclination is that the Queen would ask him to stay on in a caretaker capacity, a request  he could could hardly refuse.

The second is however how a temporary government could come into being, the suggestion that this would draw the Queen into political controversy? I don't agree with this. It wouldn't be for the Queen to pick some random and invite him or her to "have a go". The approach would have to be the other way, with someone who already had the numbers going to the palace with number and verse on that and then inviting Johnson's dismissal and their own appointment. If necessary, the Commons could hold an indicative vote to show that these numbers exist.

It's important however to note that the Fixed Term Parliament Act requires confidence to be expressed within fourteen days in an actual alternative Government and not simply a hypothetical alternative one. So the sequence requires the Temporary PM to have been appointed before the Commons holds that vote.

Thirdly, there is a suggestion this is all a dead duck as the Labour Front Bench won't play ball.
Corbyn's functionaries are certainly saying that publicly. But if any vote of confidence is delayed even by a few days when Parliament returns, any General Election would have to (by law) take place after a hard Brexit. Nobody gets that better than Dominic Cummings.  If Labour refused to support a temporary halt to that Brexit eventuality it would be expressly clear that this had been what they had done. The electoral consequences of that for (what remains, just) my Party would be cataclysmic. We could easily be the third Party in any such contest.

So it is, in my opinion, still all game to play for.

Sunday, 21 July 2019

Enough (Part 1)

Almost thirty years ago I first visited a restaurant, Antica Osteria L'Agania, in Arezzo.

I have written before on this blog as to how it was my favourite restaurant in the whole world, and it was.

It had the look of a typical Italian Trattoria. Dark wood half panelling on the walls, with emulsioned walls above decorated with photographs of famous visitors or testimonials from famously satisfied customers. Together with sepia portraits of past padroni. 

Rickety chairs and tables, the latter covered with red chequered tablecloths with cutlery and napery already in place. You couldn't book and had to turn upon a first come first served basis but the treat ahead justified an early arrival or a long wait for a table.

The whole establishment was presided over by a formidable signora who, even when I first visited, was already of a certain age. She would take your order from a a menu that, despite having a virtual infinity of combinations, consisted of a much photocopied single sheet of A4, with dishes added or deleted according to the season. Antipasto, that was all. Della Casa. Which it would have been a crime to omit. Brushcette, local hams and cheeses, small torte, perhaps a miniature frittata which you suspect varied day to day according to the mood or inclination of the chef. But that was, of course, only the appetiser.

As for the pasta? Six choices, all fatta in casa, together with a similarly numerous choice of sauces with which to combine them. But the discerning diner passed on them all, for, at this stage, the real treat was zuppa. Minestrone or fagioli or...............ribollita. Ribollita to die for. More, truly, a vegetable stew than a soup, for liquid, other than soaked into  the vegetables themselves, was hard to come by. All topped with a single raw young onion, stalk and all, not to be consumed in its entirety but nibbled to refresh the pallet.

And then? The secondi. Roasts or grills or stews of almost bacchanalian choice. But with two personal favourites. Funghi, huge, "portobello" mushrooms grilled or more likely fried in a pan matching the dimension of the mushroom head itself  and...........coniglio in porchetta. Rabbit, stuffed with chopped egg, surplus rabbit meat and every herb known to mankind, all bound together by twine around fennel stalks and then coated in olive oil to keep it moist and so slow roasted you suspected they may have first placed it in the oven while you were still back in Scotland.

And contorni? Di stagione of course but I always opted for the fagioli bianchi. "Butter beans" that did actually taste of butter and were improved even further by the local olive oil.

And while all this was going on? The signora would take your order, nodding, or occasionally frowning, at your choice and, as you ate, inquire "tutto bene?" at polite intervals. If any dish went unfinished only "posto" was an acceptable response. Even about the onion.

I don't ever remember seeing a wine list. The wine was always simply Rosso or Bianco although you always got the impression that anybody opting for the latter would mark them down in the signora's estimation. I always passed that test.

For the dolce?

Frutta or Macedonia certainly, but personally I always opted for Panna Cotta. Those who know me will also know I am a creature of habit in that regard.

And with coffee and (of course) an amarro, the meal was done.

And then for the bill.

The Osteria was five minutes walk from the provincial court in Arezzo's main square. So it became quickly apparent midweek that many of your fellow diners included judges, lawyers and policemen with business there. You would therefor assume it would all be done by the book. Formal invoicing and receipts.

Only it never was. At best, a price would be written on a scrap of paper. Commonly, the signora would simply whisper it in your ear. Always far less than you expected and, equally always, ridiculously cheap. And, without saying, only to be paid in cash.

Hopefully, by now, you will understand how much I loved this place.

I also love, very much,this part of Italy. So much so that I visit it more or less every other year.

Andi and I had been there two years ago but had never got to Arezzo on that occasion.

So we returned this year for the first time in three years.

The place looked the same but even an early arrival found it strangely empty.

There was no signora and while the young man who served us seemed perfectly pleasant we were rather taken aback to be given menus not of the A4 sheet but rather laminated pre printed card. The dishes seemed the same but, ominously, also featured English translations. A wine list was also handed over from which the continued survival of a house wine had to be carefully worked out.

The antipasto consisted of, on the one hand, nothing that you couldn't have bought in Lidl in Kilsyth but even then in meagre quantity disguised by half a plateful of Panzanella.

Andi opted for a mushroom as a primo. She actually got several small mushrooms that would, to be fair, have provided a reasonable garnish to a full Scottish breakfast. I had the ribollita, which was alright but under seasoned and the whole onion bulb and stalk had been  replaced with a quarter of.....a raw onion.

Andi's roast duck was utterly tasteless while my coniglio was lacking stuffing of any sort and over roasted to the point of tasting, and having the consistency of, sawdust.

As for the fagioli bianchi? I suspect they came out of a tin.

All brought to us efficiently but indifferently, even when it was clear we had eaten so little of the main course.

But, almost more to the point, the whole establishment, where people used to queue to get in, remained no more than half full throughout. And those who were eating were almost entirely tourists, lured, one suspects, by historic tripadvisor reviews. The local lawyers and the like were clearly well gone.

The "new management", which we had only now encountered, was obviously already well known to them.

There was a proper bill and, to be fair, it wasn't expensive, although still more than in years gone by.

From the street the establishment looked the same but it wasn't the same. In truth nothing like the same. I doubt if I will ever be back.

I'm really quite upset about that.

Now, you say, why does a guy who writes mainly about politics write about this?

That's what the (Part 1) in the title is about.

Wednesday, 12 June 2019

Problem shared, problem solved?

Everybody seems to me to be asking the wrong question about Labour's brexit policy.

All of the focus is on whether or not we should be backing a second referendum but, with respect, this is almost irrelevant.

A significant number of Labour MPs will not vote to hold a second referendum, whether or not that becomes Party policy, and no more than a handful of Tory MPs will ever support a second vote, so there is no prospect of that proposition securing a House of Commons majority.

I should note, in passing, that there might have been some prospect of the Kyle/Wilson plan coming to fruition whereby the government conceded a second referendum in exchange for Labour support for the Withdrawal Agreement but it is clear that, with Mrs May's departure, the always very faint prospect of this has gone.

However, it is also clear that there is no majority in the current House of Commons for leaving the EU without a deal or any appetite at all on the part of the EU to remove the backstop. So, if we discount the farcical idea of proroguing Parliament, and the equally improbable eventuality of the EU throwing us out, one of two things will eventually happen. Either Mrs May's deal will pass, making a referendum irrelevant, or there will be a general election.

And the key question to be asked is not whether Labour would back a second referendum now but rather what Labour's policy would be at that General Election. It makes simply no sense for that policy to be a "better Brexit" (whatever that is) plus a referendum on that better "Brexit" with an option to remain. Why, if the government had been elected on a promise to Brexit, better or otherwise, would they then wish to give the public the opportunity to reject the government's own policy? How would the Labour Party anticipate campaigning in such a referendum? Against the "achievement" of its own government?

The truth is that calculated ambiguity may be a tactic for opposition but it is inconceivable as the position of a government. The Labour Party manifesto will have to say whether or not we support remaining in the EU. And if, advised by the first referendum, we don't, logically it should say that we would leave. And if we say we would leave, we will also have to say what we will do if the EU refuse to renegotiate the Withdrawal Agreement or at least to concede in full the changes we seek (whatever they are). Would we then leave on the best terms available or would we stay in? I point out that, if it is the latter option, the EU would have no incentive to renegotiate at all.

But of course things are not even as simple as that. For, even with the grip Corbyn and his allies currently have on the organs of the Party, I find it difficult to see how they would engineer a situation where the Labour Party manifesto committed us to leaving at any price. Most candidates wouldn't stand for it and most activists wouldn't work for it. "They did in 2017!" I hear you protest but 2017 was a long time ago and, frankly, nobody thought for a moment we had any chance of getting elected in 2017. Next time will be different (possibly).

Now you might think that the solution was, on a circular argument.........another referendum! But think through the logic of that. The only conceivable options in that other referendum would be Mrs May's deal or remain. But we are on record as denouncing Mrs May's deal as a terrible deal (albeit in rather unspecified ways) and have voted against it as consistently as the hardest of ERGers. Our manifesto could (surely) not say "we will let you have a vote and encourage you to vote to stay but if you don't we will go away and implement this terrible deal."

In the end leaving or remaining is a binary choice. Either Labour is for one or the other. There is no third way.

And by the way, pretty much everything I say above applies with equal force to the Lib Dems. Except that I am in no doubt about what their manifesto will say. "Bollocks to Brexit" works. "Bollocks to Brexit (subject to a referendum)" doesn't.

And also, by the way, Labour has a (relatively) easy way out of this dilemma. They could vote for the deal currently on offer (with some cosmetic changes to the political declaration) and defuse the car crash coming. They would then have to resign themselves to this Parliament going full term but by 2022 it might all just seem a long time ago and in any event a fait accompli. For what it's worth, if you listen carefully to Rory Stewart, that's what I believe, as PM, he would anticipate explaining calmly and logically as is his wont, behind closed doors to my own Party's leadership.

For if, by the time of the next election, we haven't left the EU, that's as much of a problem for Labour as it is for the Tories.

Sunday, 2 June 2019

Question Time

I have a tribal allegiance to the Scottish Labour Party. I joined it forty five years ago and have been a member all of my adult life.

But, to be honest, it's pretty much finished.

I could write lots and lots about why that is, in a kind of melancholic way, but the truth is that Jack wasn't Donald, Wendy wasn't Jack, Ian wasn't Wendy, Johann wasn't Ian, Jim wasn't Johann, Kez wasn't Jim and Richard wasn't Kez. I'm ignoring Henry but would remind you in passing that such a person was, despite his utter mediocrity, capable of being, briefly, First Minister of Scotland. Because of the dominance, and hubris, my Party once enjoyed. But this hasn't just been about leaders. They all (except Henry), on assumption of office, promised a different way of "turning things round", from just about every shade of internal Party opinion. And they all, in steadily increasing degrees of failure, have failed.

But while there may be a point about talking about the past, for those who do not lessons the errors of the past are doomed to repeat them, I want instead to talk about the future.

The SNP administrations since 2007 have been, with one exception, utter failures. Nobody thinks education, or health, or transport have been improved under their dismal stewardship, Nobody. Few, except their most rabid partisans, truly tries to maintain otherwise.

Yet they have enjoyed two huge advantages. The first is their one success. It has been to convince a very significant section of the electorate that things cannot possibly get better until we are "free of the English Yoke". Whereupon things will somehow magically improve. You and I might scratch our heads over this but that's not the point. It is an undoubted accomplishment, of sorts.

However their second advantage has been the lack of a competent opposition and, with that, the lack of a credible alternative.

Back in 2016, Ruth Davidson got that. Her platform was, by her own admission, not to make her, there and then, First Minister, but rather Leader of the Opposition. An ambition in which she succeeded.

But, even then, the Nats relaxed in the knowledge that at any future contest, even if the Tories advanced further still, they would still lack allies to threaten the recent SNP hegemony. For the Labour Party would never enter a coalition with the Tories based, alone, on a common commitment to the continuance of the UK.

And that's probably a fair calculation.

Except that the changed landscape of the Brexit Referendum in 2016 may have crept up on them as the Independence Referendum of 2014 crept up on the Scottish Labour Party.

I was going to expand on this thesis, except that I know I have an informed readership, so I will leave you through to think that through for yourselves.

And also to work out why the SNP decided to set their cybernat dogs on Jo Swinson over what was nothing more than a two minute exchange on last Thursday's Question Time. About which Swinson was, on any objective analysis, subsequently proved correct.

An emerging alternative Government of Scotland is......emerging.

The next First Minister of Scotland will clearly be Mike Russell or Derek McKay, because Nicola clearly wont survive the Salmond trial, whatever the verdict. If Henry could get the job, then why shouldn't they? But the First Minister after that?

Things can only get better.


Friday, 19 April 2019

Ten Easter Paintings

I used to write about art quite a lot. It is one of my great passions. But "things happen" and I have largely given up since.

At the end of 2012, I wrote a blog, "Ten Christmas Paintings", fully intending to follow it up with a companion blog for Easter, if not in 2013, then certainly much more recently than now. But life is life and without a very long diversion to explain, that has never happened. But now, whether you wish for it or not, that blog is finally to be prevailed upon you.

The handful of you, if that in itself is not an exaggeration, who follow my art blogs, will know they follow certain rules.

They must all be of paintings I have actually seen (with one allowed exception) and they must be from ten different artists (again with one mulligan allowed). And at some point we will stop for lunch. These are the rules but the reader also doesn't take long to realise that my chosen paintings are entirely dominated by Italian Renaissance and Pre-Renaissance Art, for that is with what I am most familiar. Whatever "Pre-Renaissance" means anyway. But that is an argument for another day.

And you might find the occasional reference to contemporary politics dropped in on the way. For that's what I mainly write about. Who knows whether that will happen as I type this, for I haven't finished. Or even really started. So let's get going.

1 Lorinzetti. The Entry of Christ into Jerusalem. Basilica di San Francesco, Assisi.

 Image result for lorenzetti palm sunday

Where to start is part of the problem. All the concentration in high renaissance art is on the three days (we'll get on to that) but earlier painters saw the wider picture. There is a wonderful Duccio di Buoninsegna cycle in Siena which traces events from before Holy Week right through to the Ascension which I don't even have time for here. Here I only have time for this. I can't even remember which Lorinzetti painted this. Him or his brother. Obviously I could do a bit of googling and sort that out. But it wouldn't matter. It's very early, from the start of the 14th Century. Just to put that in context for Scottish people, around the time of Bannockburn. Like the Duccio, also Sienese. And just, I don't know why exactly, wonderful. At this point I could write another 10,000 words about Lorinzetti and his bro. Not least his (or the other one's) triptych in Arezzo within walking distance of my favourite restaurant in the whole world. But you will be relieved to learn I don't intend to do so.

2. Leonardo da Vinci. The Last Supper. Santa Maria delle Grazie, Milan.

So, let's instead just jump forward. This is where things start, for the first time, to get a wee bit difficult. I get that this is a good painting. A very good painting even. By a man who was, beyond peradventure, a genius. But, I don't know, it just seems a bit.....overrated. I spent twenty  years or so wanting to see this and yet , immediately afterwards, I found myself slightly disappointed. It's all just a bit staged. Nonetheless, few paintings have so many conspiracy theories attached. Not least that the the disciple immediately to Jesus's right looks like a woman. (look it up!)

3. The taking of Christ. Goya, The Prado, Madrid.

Image result for the taking of christ

Now here, lads, you might have been expecting the Caravaggio in Dublin, it is truly grand. However I've already planned ahead to another Caravaggio and would remind you of my own rules above. So this is by Goya. No artist probably painted in such a mixture of styles but this is a fairly traditional image from a very Catholic culture painted at the end of the 18th Century. And, although it is not Caravaggio, you don't need to look very far to spot his influence. More to the point, the painting is in Madrid. I love Madrid for many reasons but principally because it has not one, not even two, but three great art galleries. This is from the Prado, probably the greatest of the three. Nowhere better in the world for Goya, or Velasquez. Or indeed for a wee row on the boating lake just behind.

4. The flagellation of Christ. Palazzo Ducale, Urbino.

Piero della Francesca, Flagellation of Christ, c. 1455-65, oil and tempera on wood, 1' 11 1/8" x 2' 8 1/4" (Galleria Nazionale delle Marche, Urbino)

"The greatest small painting in the world". It is tiny, less than two feet across. But so much going on. Analysed expertly here . Urbino is a bit out of the way, over the Mountains of the Moon from southern Tuscany. For as long as I have been going to Italy, they have been constructing a viaducts and tunnels autostrada to cut the journey time. They probably still will be long after I've gone. That's Italy for you. If ever a country needed a strong man leader to bring a bit of ordine and get these great infrastructure projects completed...........I may have taken that too far.

5. The Crucifixion, Velasquez. The Prado, Madrid.

I'm struggling here a bit to contain the narrative, so Simon the Cyrene and Saint Veronica and various other major players will have to wait for any sequel. For the subject at hand, no writer has been more spoiled for choice. Obviously however there are many, many depictions featuring miscellaneous other actors at the foot of the Cross. But, with respect to them, I think that kind of misses the point. This doesn't. A work of genius.

6. Cristo Morto. Mantegna. Pinoteca di Brera, Milan.

The dead Christ and three mourners, by Andrea Mantegna.jpg

Again, for reasons of space, any number of great Depositions have had to go. Similarly Pietas, the greatest of which anyway, to my mind at least, is not in paint but in marble, in the form of Michelangelo's masterwork in St Peter's in Rome. Instead I give you this. I'll confess, I'm not the greatest fan of Milan. It is too "modern" a city for me. And a kind of "Imperial" city, in the model of London or Vienna, without ever having had the Empire to go with it. If you left it up to me, I'd be happily be rushed in and out to see the magnificent Gothic cathedral and the Pinoteca di Brera. Where you will find this. The perspective is stunning. The wounds at centre stage and the grief of the mourners only too real. Reminding you that, for two days, they really did think it was all over. That's all. Although it is obviously not all.

7. The Resurrection. Piero della Francesca. Museo Civico, San Sepolcro.

Piero della Francesca, The Resurrection, c. 1463-5, fresco, 225 x 200 cm (Museo Civico, Sansepolcro)

This is my very favourite painting in the whole world, a preference I share, somewhat improbably, with none other than Tony Blair. Notwithstanding Christ's dolorous expression, it is literally, a picture of triumph. Of life over death. I remain firmly agnostic with regard to religion but, when I see the likes of this, I really wish that I wasn't.

By now however you must be starving. And if you've read any of my  previous art blogs, you'll know that I like at one point to stop for a bit of lunch.

I was last in San Sepolcro two years past, when the Resurrection was in restauro and therefor only partly visible. The disappointment of this was only compounded by the ticket office offering to sell me a discounted pensioners ticket. The restoration is however now finished and I'm therefor planning to return by the end of June this year. Looking as young as possible. On my way back, I will most likely stop for lunch in Umbertide (I am a creature of habit). There is a wee trattoria, the Locanda Appennino there that I first stumbled upon more than twenty five years past. The food is everything that you would expect but its main selling point is that you eat under a pergola beside, in Summer, the dried up river bed. The flora and fauna are all around you to the extent that you wouldn't be entirely surprised to find St. Francis himself at a nearby table.

Anyway, after an expresso and a digestivo della casa, back to the action.

8. The Supper at Emmaus. Caravaggio. The National Gallery. London

1602-3 Caravaggio,Supper at Emmaus National Gallery, London.jpg
And, finally, to the Caravaggio.

In the Gospels, appearances of the risen Christ are actually relatively rare. This particular one only features, at least as at a specific location, in St. Luke. It is the painting I have seen most recently, for it was on loan to the Caravaggio exhibition at the National Gallery of Scotland last Summer. There is lots of iconography and symbolism within it but you can google that. I'd only draw you attention to both the realism of the characters and, as always, the wonderful use of light. Caravaggio, eh?

9. Noli me Tangere. Giotto. Scrovegni Chapel, Padua.

Giotto - Scrovegni - -37- - Resurrection (Noli me tangere).jpg

And so, from the very end of the high period of Italian art, back to the very beginning. The Scrovegni Chapel is one of the true wonders of the world situated in one of my very favourite cities in Italy. But I've also chosen this version of the Noli me Tangere for another reason. To show how the development of Italian art drew down inspiration through the generations. This is a complex picture but look at the sleeping soldiers around the tomb. And then look back to Piero's Resurrection above. The latter was painted 1463-65, while Giotto painted this 1303-1305. more than 150 years before. Yet the influence is obvious.

10. The risen Christ appears to the Apostles. 14th Century unknown artist. Notre-Dame de Paris.

Image result for risen christ in notre dame de paris

And that is more or less it.

This is the allowed exception that I referred to above. For, although I have been to Notre Dame, if I did see this then I have lost all recollection of having done so.

You don't write something like this blog without a plan, and my plan originally was to finish with the great mosaic of Christ in Majesty in the Cathedral of Monreale, near Palermo. But then this week we had the tragic fire at Notre-Dame. Where this small work may or may not have been destroyed. The extent to which all Europe, indeed most of the world, was seized by the event as it unfolded ranged far wider than those who were practising Christians but I defy anybody not to have been  moved by the film of the crowds singing the Ave Maria outside.

I don't like the phrase, Judeo-Christian for two reasons. Firstly it suggests a mutual harmony of co-existence which is hardly borne out by history. In one direction of persecution in particular. But secondly, it implicitly excludes from the conversation the third great monotheistic religion, Islam, in a way that is wholly unjustified. The Renaissance itself would have been impossible without the discovery, among Islamic scholars and in Arabic, of many major Greek texts otherwise lost in their original tongue. The preservation, in Spain, of  so many great buildings, originally built as Mosques in the reincarnation of modern Churches and, in Anatolia, of so many great Churches as latter day Mosques demonstrates the appreciation of a common cultural patrimony which exists to this day. As does so much else, not least the "Turkish" influence on as diverse recipients as Holbein, Mozart or, indeed, anyone simply desirous of a humble kebab.

I get annoyed therefor with the suggestion that this is "White Man's" culture from both the side that would claim for it an implied superiority, but equally from the "other" side that suggests that, for that very reason, in the modern age, it shouldn't be routinely taught, or learned, at all.

Easter is the greatest festival of the Christian Church. But, culturally,  it belongs to all of us as well.

Enjoy your lamb on Sunday.

Sunday, 14 April 2019

Not yet.

My mother died forty years ago yesterday. It was Good Friday. And forty years ago today, Saturday 14th April 1979, I went out to campaign for the Labour Party.

At the time, the immediate response when I turned up at the committee rooms was that I didn't need to be there. Nobody doubted my commitment to the cause but that at a time like this I should be with with friends and family. What they didn't understand was that those with whom I'd shortly head off to Paisley Town Centre, equipped with stickers, balloons and leaflets to carry the doomed cause of Jim Callaghan were, in a very real sense, my friends and family.

For more than thirty years the Labour Party was my life after I joined between the February and October 1974 elections. Almost exactly forty five years ago just now. Conferences, rallies, campaigns, elections and, of course, endless (just) "meetings". I have friends from various sources. My job, of course; St Mirren, certainly: but overwhelmingly from the Party. Some have held the highest office in the Westminster or Holyrood Parliaments. Others been prominent figures in local government or the trade union movement. Many however have been content to be humble activists. Many have now left but many more still remain. The phrase "Comrades and friends" ,with which I have heard so many speeches commence, has a real resonance for me. Still does.

But increasingly I have wondered whether some of those who flocked to "our" banner over the last four years are people who I would want as either my comrades or my friends.

Personal bereavement aside, 9th April 1992, when we lost that year's General Election, was probably the most miserable evening of my life. A long, long battle, internally and externally, to restore the Party to nationwide electability had fallen, undeservedly and, to me at least, unexpectedly, at the final hurdle. Neil Kinnock as PM, John Smith as Chancellor. That would have been some team.

I was never entirely resigned to what happened after that for, while I recognised the imperative to win, I always felt that too many compromises were being made on the way. Nonetheless I was proud of the many, many achievements of the three Labour Governments which followed, scarred only by the disastrous decision to support the invasion of Iraq, which I marched against and indeed over which my wife, Maureen, who I had met through the Party, resigned her own membership.

I was always for Brown over Blair and pleased when that succession occurred. When Brown fell, I voted for Ed Balls and then Ed Miliband as his successor for I thought the Party needed to move moderately to the left on economic policy. I would still regard myself as on the left of the Labour Party I once joined.

But I am increasingly coming to the conclusion that that Party no longer exists.

Since Maureen has been ill, now for more than ten years, activism has had to take second place to other responsibilities, so I watched with horror but from afar as the disaster of the 2015 leadership unfolded. I knew exactly what Corbyn's politics were, for they had always existed on the fringe of our Party. Anti-western, at best indifferent to democracy in many parts of the world, and with the whole thing held together with dubious associations and a willingness to embrace conspiracy theorising at the drop of a hat. All summed up in his immediate response to the arrest of the suspected rapist, Julian Assange, a man who is in no way a figure of the traditional left but "at best" a nihilistic facilitator of populism, whatever its colour. For this issue alone I would regard Corbyn as being entirely unfit to be Prime Minister. And there are many others.

But he did, undoubtedly, build a coalition of the angry, attracting to our Party an impressive, on one view, number of new members holding views similar to his own. Including people with no previous associations with our Party and, indeed, in many cases active membership of rival parties on the fringe left. Including, it is now also clear, a good number of whom are enthusiastic anti-Semites. And this was then compounded with a contagion of nepotism and patronage within the Party and among "new media" outlets where anyone willing to say "Yes comrade, no comrade, whatever you say comrade" finds themselves promoted, indeed often employed, with no regard to their ability or even basic honesty. Often even without regard to their previous political sympathies.

This has been hitched to an economic policy based on fantasy numbers and which, when you drill down, amounts to little more than running a siege economy. Which is why it was rejected by Labour in Government as long as 1976. Never mind a return to the untramelled Trade Union power, exercised  with our without democratic mandate, which brought that very Government to its knees.

Excepting 2017, I have campaigned in every election of my lifetime for a Labour Government with greater or lesser enthusiasm but always with a desire for victory. I could not do that for a Corbyn premiership. Indeed , I would regard such a development as a disaster for the Country.

So why don't I resign? As so many have. It is unlikely now than more than 50,000 of those who were in the Party in 2010 are still in membership. Most recently we have lost one of our very best prospects for the future here in Scotland, in the person of Cat Headley.  Partly I have stayed because I had previously the "get out of jail free" card that Corbyn could never possibly get elected. That's still broadly my view but the chaos of the Tories and the potential splintering of their electoral coalition raises the possibility of a Labour Government with as little as third of the popular vote. Possibly even willing to concede a second referendum to the SNP in pursuit of an absolute majority.

So, to be honest, it is partly because there is not, yet, a viable alternative not just to the Tories but to a very nasty version of the Tories. For whom I could never vote. Even I would rather have Jeremy Corbyn than Boris Johnson.

The decision of the Libs and Tigs to stand against each other at the European Elections is a farcical one, guaranteeing, under the electoral system in use, only mutually assured destruction. But it shows the difficulty of "breaking the mould" (to use a phrase) of the two Party system, not just because of First Past the Post.

But abandoning "the" Party is also because it is just a really difficult thing to do personally, for the reasons with which I started. Not least because I would feel I was abandoning those who had, even now, decided to stay. Would probably always stay. Many, many good people among then.

However, that notwithstanding, believe me, if a viable alternative was to emerge, then I'd be for it. Although I still suspect the day I left would still be an even sadder one than 9th April 1992.

Saturday, 16 March 2019

A legal tutorial (part 2)

Well here I am again, this time while hoping not to be too distracted by the rugby.

So, where have we got to?

The accused has declined to avail himself of s.76 to tender an early plea and so the Crown elect to bring the matter to trial by serving an indictment.

At this point, I am going to make certain assumptions for the sake of brevity.

Firstly that the matter will proceed in the High Court where the procedure is slightly different from before a Sheriff and Jury.These cases do go to the Sheriff Court but where the likelihood is, on conviction, of a sentence of five years or more (because of the seriousness or multiplicity of the charges) the High Court is usually the Crown's chosen forum. And it is their call.

Secondly, that there are no particularities in respect of the capacity (physical or mental) of the accused to stand trial.

Thirdly, that there are no preliminary legal issues relating to the relevancy or competency of the charges or as to a challenge to the admissibility of any intended evidence.

The next thing that happens then must happen within ten months of the appearance on petition  The Crown must serve an indictment specifying a date for the case to call for a "Preliminary Diet". The Criminal Procedure (Scotland) Act 1995 (hereinafter "the Act" provides that, when the accused is not remanded in custody, a Preliminary Diet must take place within eleven months of the appearance on petition and the Act also provides that the accused must have twenty eight clear days notice of the Preliminary Diet, thus giving you the ten months I refer to above.

The service of an Indictment is not something automatically in the public domain but it is not a secret either and a practice has arisen of the Crown (I presume) alerting the press to its happening together with the date of the first appearance. That is publicly reportable and the information disclosed at Petition stage repeated but otherwise no further details disclosed.

With the Indictment the Crown will normally serve a "Statement of Uncontroversial Evidence"  which will in the absence of defence objection be taken to be admitted. This is usually just Police procedural stuff, agreement that "paper productions" are what they patently appear to be and that any transcripts of evidence or video footage of interview(s) are accurate. If the defence objects, "normal" evidence is simply led at trial but there are imperatives on defence lawyers not to play games about this. In sex offence cases the Crown will also normally serve "Vulnerable Witness Notices" providing for the special measures such as screens or video links that they propose be used to take the evidence of the complainers or any other persons deemed to be vulnerable witnesses. This in itself could be the subject of a blog on its own but here I will simply assume that no issue is taken.

Seven days prior to the Preliminary Diet the defence must do two things. They must co-operate with and lodge the Joint Written Record I referred to in my earlier blog and they must also lodge a "Defence Statement" in terms of Section 70A of the Act. A defence statement indicates in general terms the nature of the defence but crucially it must give notice of any "Special Defence". Now there are a number of special defences in Scots law. Theoretically, in cases of the nature I am referring to, there might be the possibility of an alibi, or a plea of temporary mental incapacity but the key one here is consent. If the accused wishes to advance a defence of consent, notice must be given at the preliminary diet and if it isn't (and no other special defence comes into play) then the accused is left with the simple defence of "it never happened". The problem of course in cases where there are multiple complainers is that while a consent defence can be lodged in respect of each incident, that complies with the procedural requirement but, at trial, "they all consented at the time but they are all saying something different now" is a pretty high mountain to climb, even to the extent of raising a reasonable doubt.

But what the defence must do is not what the generally need to do. Here is section 274 of the Act:-

274 Restrictions on evidence relating to sexual offences.(1)In the trial of a person charged with an offence to which section 288C of this Act applies, the court shall not admit, or allow questioning designed to elicit, evidence which shows or tends to show that the complainer—(a)is not of good character (whether in relation to sexual matters or otherwise);(b)has, at any time, engaged in sexual behaviour not forming part of the subject matter of the charge;(c)has, at any time (other than shortly before, at the same time as or shortly after the acts which form part of the subject matter of the charge), engaged in such behaviour, not being sexual behaviour, as might found the inference that the complainer—(i)is likely to have consented to those acts; or(ii)is not a credible or reliable witness; or(d)has, at any time, been subject to any such condition or predisposition as might found the inference referred to in sub-paragraph (c) above.(2)In subsection (1) above—“complainer” means the person against whom the offence referred to in that subsection is alleged to have been committed; andthe reference to engaging in sexual behaviour includes a reference to undergoing or being made subject to any experience of a sexual nature.]
Now, to be clear, this applies not only to the leading of third party evidence by the defence but to the questioning of the complainer(s) themselves.
So, if the defence want to suggest, for example, that a complainer had consensual sexual relations with the accused before or after the incident charged, they need to get permission. And the scope for getting that permission is provided by section 275. I won't quote this in full but here's the link if you are interested
A section 275 application must be made seven days prior to the the Preliminary Diet and disposed of there (it's not quite as simple as that but this will do) and once disposed of the defence can only ask questions as allowed to do so. The disposal of such an application is, as you will appreciate, quite often a significant milestone in relation to the prospect of a "muddying the waters" defence.
With that to the Preliminary Diet itself. 
Unlike the appearance on Petition, in the absence of any court ruling to the contrary, this takes place in open court and the press can report the charges in full excepting not only the identity of the complainers but anything that might reasonably lead to their identification. 
Having disposed with the procedural issues outlined above and anything else that might arise, the judge fixes a trial date and trial must then commence within one year of the appearance on Petition. 
Except it is not as simple as that. Quite commonly either the defence or prosecution aren't ready to do that. Defence investigations are ongoing or Crown witnesses aren't available, or sometimes in relation to a potentially long trial, there simply isn't a courtroom readily available. So there is an extension to the twelve months granted by the court. This is much more common than you might think. Indeed,on occasion, can be for several months.
Anyway, finally, to the trial. 
This is in some way the easy bit. There are fifteen jurors. There are no opening statements. The Crown lead their witnesses and close their case The defence then make submissions of "no case to answer" in respect of any charge on which they think there is an insufficiency of evidence*. Assuming there is no  knock out blow, the defence lead any evidence they are inclined to do so. Prosecution and then defence speak to the jury. Then the judge does. The jury retire and, in respect of any charge for which there is a simple majority for guilty, that's what happens. All of the above which the press can report.
Obviously, if the accused is found not guilty, that's the end of it. 
Excepting the rare occurrence however where, although there is a finding of guilt only on trivial matters, more serious allegations having all failed, a finding of guilt is not the end of the matter. 
In Scotland, no-one who has never previously served a period of imprisonment can be sentenced to one without the court having first obtained a Criminal Justice Social Work Report. So sentence has to be deferred for that purpose. And even where imprisonment is more or less inevitable bail is usually continued for that purpose.  
But, generally within four weeks, as the rules provide, sentence is then imposed. 
As I say, imprisonment is almost inevitable for serious or even repeatedly individually less serious offending. But it is not just a matter of the jail. Any convicted person must be placed on the sex offenders register for a period the judge determines. He may also receive an "extended sentence" whereby although he has finished his prison sentence he remains subject to continued conditions of behaviour and/or supervision on his release. 
And then, excluding any appeal, that is finally it.
And that is finally me. 
Well done Wales, by the way.
*In what I have said above, for reasons of brevity, I haven't dealt with the issue of  Moorov sufficiency at all although this is the point where, if applicable, it would come into focus.