Tuesday 28 February 2012

Conference Days

I'm in a generally cheery mood. Chiefly this is because I am well on the way to organising a long weekend in Rome at the end of March, even if opera tickets for the occasion appear to be beyond the deep pockets of even the Scottish Legal Aid Board.

But I'm also cheery because the Party Conference is approaching this very next weekend.

I used to regard the Scottish Labour Party Conference as the single most important highlight of my year.

Always (then) held on the second weekend in March, its occurrence marked the coming of Spring. A new suit would be bought specially for the occasion and, every second or third year, a new red tie of a width to accord with current fashion.

There was a ritual to events. "Compositing" (an art now as almost as lost as sail-making) would take place on the Thursday afternoon. In this manner would the general "betrayal" of the mood of the constituencies begin. This would then be followed be the meeting of the Scottish Executive to decide the recommendations on the "Composites". Here "the Right" would show their true colours, sorting those wilder demands which could be met with a recommendation of straight rejection from the more cleverly worded propositions which, while equally unacceptable, had to be offered a "remit to the Scottish Executive". That remit, if accepted would consign them to oblivion but if it were rejected would justify their equal fate of outright rejection by the Executive and, more importantly on the floor of the Conference, by the Union block vote.

But, at this point, the night was still young.

Following the conclusion of the Scottish executive took place the "Left Meeting". Anybody who thought themselves on "the Left" was entitled to attend this event, even those who were clearly actually on "the Right". This was invariably a beanfeast. Allegations would be exchanged in the most intemperate terms about betrayal both at the compositing meetings and the Executive. Nothing would ever be agreed except that we had all been betrayed by somebody. And then we'd listen to all of the betrayers and the betrayees making their case for re-election either to the Standing Orders Committee (who managed the compositing) or to the Executive itself.

But the night (or possibly the early morning) was yet young.

At this point the assembled activists divided. like Gaul, into three parts: the drinkers; the printers and the shaggers.

I was always a printer. Leaflets, denouncing the betrayal earlier in the day, and commenting on its consequence required to be written, printed and then, if energy remained, distributed. As the Chairman commented, the longest journey still needs a first step.

The drinkers however were the most numerous in number; possibly due to the large number of delegates there from Trade Unions or affluent (i.e. with a Social Club) Constituencies who enjoyed the luxury of being "on expenses". And anyway, a few drinks always helped build up a proper steam of betrayal.

The last group, the shaggers, were however a closed world to me. I can honestly say that I have never had sex with anybody at a Labour Party Conference. There are surely another 51 Weekends of the year to indulge in such activity. I did once, I should make clear as a younger, and single, man, set off to conference with an intention to join their ranks, having set my eye on a particular comradess in advance, but, once I got there, the lure of the printing was just too strong.

And all this before the Conference even started.

Friday, the UK Leaders speech. Saturday, the Scottish Leaders Speech. The fraternal delegates from the Co-op Party and the STUC. The General Secretary's address. In between, the debates, full of passion, and then the votes, full of betrayal. And then the final Sunday morning session. Never has so much Irn Bru been drunk in one place by so many in such little time.

And every year, as we sang the Red Flag, a regret that the next Conference, and the next betrayal, seemed so far away.

And yet, by this archaic process, we changed Scotland. By committing Labour, post '79, to not abandoning devolution. By taking us into the Convention and by then, Conference by Conference, negotiating a mandate for the Convention scheme. By making it clear that Home Rule was not negotiable as an objective for the Scottish Labour Party and then, in a bizarre last hurrah, electing Donald Dewar to lead us into the first Scottish Parliament Elections by 99.8% of the votes cast.

Conferences don't really feature betrayal any more. They are more professional events, staged managed for the media. As much drinking still goes on and, for all I know, so does as much shagging, but the printers are largely no more.

So I suppose I should be depressed at the thought that what awaits me in Dundee is no more than an echo of a lost world. But my first Labour Conferences coincided with the high water marks of Thatcherism. Pamphlets were circulated, and not just by "the Right" with titles such as "Can Labour ever win again?"  Even Eric Hobsbawm seemed to have concluded for the moment that the pessimism of the intellect was superior to the optimism of the will. The only redeeming feature of The Forward March of Labour Halted? was the question mark itself.

But we did come back. And we did so because we didn't give up. And conferences in an odd way reassured us that there were others who were not for giving up either. So here's to Dundee. And to the future.

Sunday 26 February 2012

Default won't do

It's been quite a quiet week, so much so that, on Friday, I half wrote a blog about having a hole in my jeans. (Don't worry reader, it will never see the light of day.)

Today, the bizarre alliance between the SNP and Rupert Murdoch might have been worthy of my attention but, to be honest, Kenny Farquharson got things exactly right when he commented last week that the National Question was already really only about the degree of devolution. Giving the Murdoch press a (wrong) steer on the date for a referendum that most probably will never take place at all might be regarded by somebody as a way to curry favour but I'm a bit bemused as to why anybody thought it would sell newspapers. Still, what do I know about favours needing returned for stories not published. Odd, mind you, that of all the politicians who have litigated over phone hacking not one has ever been from the SNP.

When I first started writing this blog however my principal target was never the Nationalists. Their house of cards was always going to collapse at some point of its own accord. Lunchtime today's performance by Stuart Hosie on the Politics Show when he announced that the SNP believed in a single UK energy market, just not in a single UK, was only the most recent example of this slow disintegration. All credit to Tom Greatrex for his speaking more and more slowly in the hope that Mr Hosie might eventually, if dimly, perceive the absurdity of his own proposition.

My principal blog concern however has always been that the collapse of Independence as a serious proposition would not, as it appears many in our own ranks assumed, lead inevitably to Labour's return to dominance of Scottish politics. And that some actual (what's the word?) thinking might be needed in that regard.

So I turn to the matter which first distracted me from the perishability of denim.

I received a communication from the Party at the end of last week which informed me that we are engaged in a consultation about how we might select more women, BAME or disabled  Scottish Parliamentary candidates.

They really, really do not get this. It simply does not matter what the sex, ethnicity or physical ability of Labour Candidates might be if they are not elected. Unless of course you hold some perverse view of equal opportunity which believes that it is important that there requires to be equal opportunity to participate in failure.

But of course that's not the underlying assumption here. The underlying assumption is that "We'll be back". And the more worrying assumption is that "We'll be back" no matter who our candidates might be. So there is no reason that we can't also engage in some social engineering in the process.

Now, I am not opposed to there being more diversity in our candidates. Indeed, if the current Group of 37 MSPs was sufficiently diverse to contain within its ranks a single credible candidate for First Minister that could only be a good thing.

But, instead, we all know that our only hope lies with the Deputy Leader who does not even sit in the Scottish Parliament.

Now, I am a great partisan of Anas Sarwar but, had he not sought the Deputy Leadership position, we had at least half a dozen new Westminster MPs who could have done so with equal credibility. We had however not a single new MSP intendedly elected who could as much as run for a bus, never mind run, ever, for that position. (Sure, the list, by virtue of our own disaster, brought in a few bright sparks but, ironically, the Labour Party did not actually intend these people to be elected).

And in the meantime, let's look as who has gone. Donald by fate but Jack, Henry, Wendy, Susan, Peter and Sam entirely voluntarily. Angus McKay and Brian Fitzpatrick by the decision of the electorate but with no wish to return. Margaret and Cathy to move on to "more important" things.

And in the search for their replacements the Labour Party viewed the Scottish Parliament as a "big Cooncil" and thus concluded that if anybody was up to the task of serving at Council level then that, in itself, qualified them to serve in the Parliament.  Only it didn't. And the electorate knew that it didn't.

But since the current Leadership operates on the basis of appeasing every internal interest group and since there is no bigger interest group than the councillors, we are consulting about different selection criteria solely with regard to diversity. Regrettably however, until we recognise that ability might also be a factor, candidature, rather than actual election, is likely to remain the only position on offer.

And is there likely to be any movement on this at next week's Conference?

You might as well hope to hear something important about where we now stand on the powers of the Scottish Parliament.

Sunday 19 February 2012

The exchange of ideas

Twitter is interesting.

People who do not share your politics pick up on things you've written and, having commented on it, commend their own thoughts to you.

Various nationalists engage with me on that basis.

Generally they are not the much derided "Cybernats". Their discourse is civilised and measured, even if the younger of them harbour a naive belief that they might yet persuade me of the merits of Independence by the passion of their argument alone.

There is less likelihood of that than of Craig Whyte being invited to join the Celtic Board.

In looking at what is commended to you however does give something of an insight into the mentality of even the more intellectually engaged sections of the SNP.

You do obviously only engage with those prepared to come out to play but even that makes you feel slightly sorry for these individuals, because they are being treated as mugs by their own, more realistic, leadership.

There are lots of (UK) Labour commentators out there in the blogosphere. They break down into essentially two groups: those who defend what the Leadership propose as being as much as might reasonably be achieved and those who attack the leadership for being too cautious. For what it's worth, I'm in the second category.

There are none however who believe that any conceivable leadership is about to bring about the socialist transformation of society.

However, many, although to be fair, by no means all, of the SNP bloggers labour under the misapprehension that Scotland is about to be led to independence by Eck. So, I am asked to comment on how the Labour Party might conduct itself "after independence"; invited to resign myself to the inevitability of independence; even, curiously, offered gratuitous advice as to what Labour must do if we want to prevent Independence.

These poor souls are encouraged in this by the unwillingness of their own leadership to bite the bullet of telling them that they only won the election by not mentioning independence; that there has never been any reputable survey suggesting the Scottish people will vote for Independence and that the reason the SNP Government want to delay the referendum is that, if it ever held, they will lose. As Alistair Darling observes in today's Scotland on Sunday, nobody has ever chanted on a demonstration "What do we want?" [whatever] "When do we want it?" [In a few years time]. Lenin did not get off the train at the Finland Station and announce that he proposed to give the Tsarists three and a half years to consider their response.

Now, that's not to say that the SNP Victory last May was unimportant. It has taught my Party that you can't insult the electorate with either your candidates or your platform and it has created space for a more powerful devolution settlement. It has also provided us with a perfectly competent technocratic government in the meantime. We even have the consolation that the task of trying to hold on to the Labour votes they won will stop that Government veering too far to the right.

So, as they say, every cloud has a silver lining.

But, to be frank, I'd rather people stopped bothering me with suggestions as to what Labour might do "after Independence". They might as well ask me what Labour proposes to do after the socialist transformation of society.

Thursday 16 February 2012

Cameron in Scotland

One of the things you realise with an unfortunate flash when the likes of David Cameron makes a speech to a Scottish audience is how poor is the stodge that is served up by day to day Scottish politicians.

Now that's not to be "anti-Scottish". I have previously conceded that Eck is a politician of the first rank but, to be honest, he stands out in domestic Scottish politics like Henrik Larsson once stood out in domestic Scottish football. Unlike Henrik however, you never wonder why Eck is content to display his talents to such a small audience. Political Parties don't have transfer windows, at least at their higher levels.

But just like the glory years in Europe, when the visit of Real Madrid or AC Milan might have forced even the most diehard Old Firm Fan to acknowledge that their were (at least) opponents in town worthy of their best efforts, Cameron's visit today was a major occasion and his speech, while not quite Barcelona (an accolade surely reserved for Obama alone) was certainly up there in the Manchester United or Bayern Munich class.

And he didn't just bring with him the name or the reputation, he also produced the performance on the park. Although he did give away one stupid late goal.

Cameron's speech was about as good a defence of the Union as could be produced by a Tory Prime Minister in current circumstance. It was self-deprecating when required, non-hectoring throughout, but unapologetic at the same time. It did not put, up front, warnings of doom and disaster but rather in its few notes of caution, planted sufficient seeds of doubt for others to nurture, in time, into abundant growth.

Far from his reference to Scottish antecedents being the cringe-fest it can often be from any "foreign" dignitary, rather, by placing it in the context of a multi-culturalism that can't stop at a land border, he begged significant questions of the underlying mentality not of Scottish nationalism but of any nationalism. The suggestion that such attachments as essential to your politics is an idea which is not quite "modern".  (Dare one say it, it would be welcome if he could make such a speech with "Scotland" and "The United Kingdom", substituted by "The United Kingdom" and "The European Union".)

Now obviously, there were bits that I spluttered at. Had I been in the hall I would have been difficult to restrain when he referred to "generous welfare for the poorest" in light of the current Welfare Reform Bill, for example. But he is, in the end a Tory and it is good that he is looking forward. It is simply absurd to dismiss all the good the United Kingdom has done in the past, above all the common struggle to defeat Nazism, as "history" while insisting that the Tories previous sins alone "must never be forgotten".

Above all however this was not a patronising speech. Clearly somebody had done much more than a quick Wikipedia job on the number of historical and cultural references it contained but it also contained a real attempt to grapple with the "why" of a continued Union in precisely the postive terms some have demanded.

That however brings me to the silly late goal given away.

Devolution is a process, not an event, as Ron Davies famously said. But it is a process that needs set out in terms beyond vague aspiration. That's why it took us so long to achieve devolution in the first place. It is not enough for the Prime Minister to say:

"When the referendum on independence is over, I am open to looking at how the devolved settlement can be improved further.
And yes, that means considering what further powers could be devolved."

It is worse still for him to follow it with.

But that must be a question for after the referendum, when Scotland has made its choice about the fundamental question of independence."

These three sentences could so much better have been expressed:

"Now obviously, if Scotland votes for separation, then Devolution will become irrelevant. All that will be left is to manage that separation as amicably as possible.

However, if, as I hope, separation is rejected, that will not mean an end to Devolution. That process will go on, in terms mutually negotiated across our continued United Kingdom.

In particular, it must be worth looking again at how Scotland might be responsible for directly raising more of the money spent in Scotland and, indeed, whether Scotland might also have direct control over more of that expenditure as well"

That then becomes a promise in specific terms and not, as it has been portrayed, a mere temporary concession to get through the Referendum.

I suppose, when you are 3-0 up and playing additional time, there might be some excuse for taking your eye off the ball. That is, however, foolish when you are only playing the first leg.

Tuesday 14 February 2012

Politics, religion, football and Government

Tonight, I tried multi-multi-tasking.

First, and undoubtedly most aesthetically pleasing, I set off to watch Barcelona. Played at its very best, nothing, nothing is more beautiful than football. Faced with the imminent end of the World and with but a few hours to go, who would swap listening to La Traviata, reading Tess of the D'Urbervilles or watching The Godfather for the chance to see, one last time, the 1970 World Cup Final. Or France against Portugal in '84 or indeed this Barcelona team at any time. A thing of beauty is a joy forever.

Secondly however, I tried to follow events in Dingwall where Saints were playing Ross County in the Cup. I suspect the football did not quite match up in quality to that produced by the Catalans and it's a hell of a long way to Dingwall at any time, let alone midweek in February, but 169 dedicated Buds did so nonetheless. I am now  ashamed not to be in the company of that band of brothers (some women among them). I salute their courage, their fortitude, their indefatigability. Safe journey home.

It is impossible to explain why this is, even when it's ugly, the beautiful game, but it is. And yet there is little more ugly than the rivalry between Rangers and Celtic.

It would be great if Scottish Football was like all-Ireland Hurling or English Cricket; organised on a County basis, with your loyalty predetermined by the place of your birth, or at least the place of your residence. And, indeed, for many of us, from Paisley, or Motherwell, or Dunfermline or even Dingwall, Scottish Football is.

But, for good or ill, well actually overwhelmingly for ill, Scottish football also has a tribal element.

Now, entire books have been written on how that has come about. I do not propose to attempt to precis them here.

And that tribalism pervades almost every aspect of Scottish life, not least politics. Historically, my Party has been associated with Celtic, despite notable exceptions like Andy Kerr or Brian Donohoe. And the Parties of the Right, despite equally notable exceptions like Roseanna Cunningham or.......(I'm struggling here), have been associated with Rangers.

Now, when one or other of these institutions gets into difficulty about which politicians might have a legitimate view, that causes difficulty.

When Rab C Nesbitt famously described Jim Sillars as "the Hun in the Sun", everybody understood the joke. But when Nicola Sturgeon issues a mealy mouthed regret about the potential demise of a major employer in her constituency everybody also understands her difficulty.

Particularly if that demise is as a result of failure to meet the tax obligations incumbent, personally and sportingly, on the rest of us.

BUT. Senior Scottish Football is kept (just) alive by television money. Much as we all would wish that there was a worldwide television audience for St Mirren v Motherwell, there simply is not. There is not even much of an audience for St Mirren v Rangers or indeed Motherwell v Celtic. The interest, and the money, is in Rangers v Celtic.

And that money ends up in all of our pockets; St Mirren and Motherwell not least. And Celtic above all.

So, tonight, Margaret Curran can appeal to HMRC to have an eye to the wider picture. But the First Minister is on the horns of a dilemma. And silent.

Express support for Rangers and he not only places himself on the side of tax dodging wide boys but he also risks the loss of the long solicited "Celtic" vote. But wash his hands of Rangers and he concedes that never mind Scotland being able to run an Independent economy, we can't even run a viable Football League.

To govern is to choose. Time for Eck to make that choice. And for the press not to allow him to avoid the difficult answer with a chuckle.

Sunday 12 February 2012

Wish I'd said that at the time

I never mind losing to the Welsh at rugby. Starting this blog at 2.45, I already suspect this afternoon that's just as well.

I was on the telly earlier on.

Kate Higgins and I are developing a bit of a double act as semi-detached members of our respective Political parties. Being freed of the responsibility of being invariably on message provides the opportunity to concede that not all of one's political opponents are embodiments of incompetent perfidy, and indeed removes the necessity of  maintaining that all of one's own elected representatives are models of moral virtue and strategic clear sightedness.

You do however always depart from such a media appearance regretting a point not made.

In the usual Groundhog Day manner, with admittedly an apology from Isabel Fraser, we were invited first to discuss the recent twists and turns in the never ending what/when/how Independence Referendum. Believe me, if this is boring Kate, Isabel and, indeed, me, then it is fair to assume there are few in Scotland now desperate for more discussion. Not that this will stop the politicians.

It wasn't that therefore on which I wished I had said more, nor indeed the subject of the Glasgow City Council Labour Group, on which subject, even as a semi-detached Labour comment ator, the preference would be not to be required to say anything at all.

No. oddly, the point on which I would have liked to have discoursed at greater length was the case for negative campaigning in the context of the (eventual) Referendum campaign.

In a General Election context, voters are invited to vote for one Government or another. It is therefor illusory to seek victory entirely by default. you need to give people a reason to vote for you, not just not to vote for them. Dare I say it, in an admittedly different political context, that is why Romney is having so much difficulty closing the deal.

(NOTE At this point (20.33) the triumph of hope over experience requires me to discontinue to give the rugby my undivided attention.)

46.28 Normal service resumed.

So anyway, there is a world of difference between a General Election and a Referendum. Quite expressly, in a Referendum, the Electorate are being asked to vote for or against a specific proposition. That changes the terms of the discourse. Indeed almost by definition you cannot mount a positive campaign for a negative proposition.

There is no need to make a "positive case for the Union". We know, for good or ill, what the Union entails. There is simply the need to make a case against "Independence".

And Independence .................

53.07 Time for a drink.

And independence has any number of easily exploitable negatives.That's why the SNP are trying so hard to ditch those that, they believe, it is possible to ditch: The Future of the Monarchy; Sterling; NATO; the BBC. Regrettably for them,  it will take more than exhortations for my side to be more positive, even from the articulate Ms Higgins, before we'll be inclined to let them off so easily.

Thursday 9 February 2012

In praise of Rob Murray

I am a great twitterer.

I know that will, in itself, cause a sigh among some readers but, actually, the twitter community (ugh!) among Scottish politicos is a great entertainment.

It would be fair to say that it contains few "don't knows" but, generally the terms of discourse are civilised, intelligent, and often very funny.

Nobody, well nobody outside some in the SNP, claims a monopoly of virtue or wisdom. Indeed many of the most telling points are scored against one's own side.

And, although it is, of course, all publicly conducted, it nonetheless contrasts favourably with what passes for political dialogue among our elected representatives.

So it is in that spirit that I write in praise of Rob Murray, Tory bastard though he undoubtedly is.

Why? Because yesterday he contributed a single tweet suggesting that one aspect of the Scottish Government expenditure programme might have been better spent.

His target was "active transport", that's cycle routes and walkways to you and me.

Now, I don't agree with him. He is after all a Tory. Even though, personally, I would only ever walk if I had run out of petrol, or roads, and although I cannot conceive of getting on a bike under any circumstance,  nonetheless I am persuaded that it is a worthy objective to encourage others to do as I say, not as I do.

But, the crucial thing about Rob's intervention is that unique among this micro community, he was prepared to say where money might be saved to be spent elsewhere. Or, he being a Tory, not spent at all.

And that is an almost unknown experience amongst Scottish political commentators.

Labour, convinced that the Tories are cutting "too fast, too deep", hide behind that sentiment to identify every single cut as one which is either "too fast" or "too deep".

The SNP, hiding behind their own assertion that Scotland's deficit is not quite as serious as that of the United Kingdom as a whole, then use that as an excuse to proceed as if an Independent Scotland wouldn't have a deficit at all.

The Greens argue for a no growth strategy while floating various new projects, such as, dare I suggest, more cycle routes and walkways, which, in the absence of growth must surely be funded somehow.

Even the Tories, generally, keep insisting on the magic bean of greater "efficiency".

As for the Libs, well anything would be possible for them, apparently, if they were not held back by their Tory allies.

Actually, as err...........Mrs T.......... famously said, to govern is to choose.

I'm for a much greater degree of financial accountability for both Holyrood and local government. It should be possible at both levels of Government to have the ability to propose the raising of more revenue and to take your chances with the electorate on such a proposition.

But, for what it is worth, I do not for a moment then think that the voters would be content that every current penny is well spent and that the only issue would be how to fund the additional "essential" public expenditure out of their pockets.

So let's have an honest discourse. If, as Labour suggests, and I agree, more money should be spent on colleges, let's say where less money should be spent (useless degrees), or could be raised. (a Graduate Endowment). If, as Labour again suggests, and I agree, local government needs greater resource. let's see where that might be reallocated (to fewer Councils) or levied (in higher Council Tax). If. as Labour suggests and I agree, the living wage is a worthwhile aspiration, let's accept that it might mean a longer pay freeze (at least) for those higher up the tree, even if they are members of affiliated Trade Unions.

These are only challenges for my own Party but there are equal challenges for the other Parties, above all for the SNP, who have singularly failed to realise that the assertion that an independent Scotland will be a land of unlimited milk and honey, is not only untrue but, strategically, not even in their own interest should independence ever be accomplished.

We need a much greater degree of honesty in Scottish public discourse. So, the next time a politician of any Party appears on a public platform to denounce a particular cut or propose a particular initiative, let's insist that their interlocutor(s) demand of them that they explain where they would propose to find the money. And not move on until that question has been answered.

There is. in the end, no such thing as a free lunch. Even if it need not be paid for by sacrificing active transport. Only a Tory would ever argue that.

Saturday 4 February 2012

Just some whimsical observations on bookshops

Sometimes amid the dross that makes up so much of the internet somebody writes something that makes you grateful for the age of worldwide instant communication in which we live. So it was this week when someone by the name of Emily Temple, who I will almost certainly never meet, published this: her suggestions for the twenty most beautiful bookstores (sic) in the world.

Intellectual ambrosia, then picked up upon and subject to alternative proposals by, amongst others, our own Kenny Farquharson.

I can't aspire to that catholicity of experience. In the end, much as I love bookshops, I am not entirely at ease abroad.

Physically, I like where I am familiar. The West of Scotland. Even Edinburgh makes me slightly uneasy. I often think, temperamentally, I should be in the SNP. Or possibly even in the EEPNP (East end of Paisley National Party).

So you would suppose my own favourite bookshop would be Waterstone's in Sauchiehall Street. And it is certainly up there.

But although I am slightly ill at ease where I am unfamiliar with my physical location, I am never lost when I am in the realm of ideas. So, my favourite bookshop in the whole world is not just my favourite bookshop, it is my favourite place.

And its address is largo Torre Argentina 11, Rome.

Now first a few words about the largo Torre Argentina. It is a square situated on the Corso Vittorio Emanuele. It houses the tram terminus in the centre of Rome, a famous Theatre and, I suppose not unimportantly, the location where Julius Caesar was murdered. If you walk left from the bookshop along the Corso you encounter the Jesuit mother Church, where the spectacular marble tombs of St Ignatius Loyola and St Francis Xavier face each other in a baroque affirmation of the triumph of the counter-reformation. Walking on (avoiding an excellent Guinness Italia establishment where I have, from time to time been shamefully diverted) you come to the Piazza Venezia, where Mussolini cast his spell over a willing populous and, beyond that, the Victor Emanuel monument to Italian Unity which, with a suitable degree both of scepticism and admiration, the locals refer to as "The Wedding Cake".

Back to the bookshop and turn right and you quickly encounter the Church of Sant Andrea del Valle, where Puccini set the first Act of Tosca; carry on and you eventually reach the Ponte Sant'Angelo and over that San Pietro. Walk instead directly ahead from the bookshop and to the left lies the ghetto where, if you can ignore the rather tragic security presence you can eat spectacularly well; to the right San Carlo and then the Campo di Fiori. Student Bars, a flea market and great freshwater fish restaurants.

And all this within ten minutes walk.

But that's only part of the reason I love this bookshop. It has a coffee bar. Now, for all the fixed beauty of Italy: The natural wonder of the rolling countryside and the azure of the Mare Adriatico; the constructed beauty of the hill top towns,  the art and the sculpture and the thousands of years of architecture; the olfactory beauty of the food and wine. For all of that, the real beauty of Italy is the people. And nowhere do you see that to better advantage than in a fahionable cafe or coffee bar.

I am assured this is truly observed to best advantage in "really fashionable" Italy, which apparently exists only from Bologna northwards. My experience is not yet sufficiently comprehensive to comment on that. I can only say that if one wishes to observe the interaction of those who combine the world of the intellect with a residual and unquestioning acceptance of the need to present una bella figura, then, in my experience, you could do no better than to find a quiet corner in this particular coffee bar. Bury yourself in the European Edition of the Guardian and none of the beautiful people will even pay you the slightest attention. Or at least that's my experience.

But even then. that's not really why this is my favourite place in the whole world of my experience.  This man (please, please click on the link) founded Feltrinelli, initially a publishing house, latterly a chain of bookshops. No harm to Tim Waterstone but I bet he can't boast a CV like that.

That's why I love Feltrinelli bookshops. The location is a bonus. The Coffee Bar a further bonus still.

And that's why the realm of ideas will always hold more attraction for me than any mere location on a map. And less uncertainty.

See, I said we couldn't discuss nothing but independence for the next two and a half years.

Wednesday 1 February 2012

Moral judgements

In the course of a discussion about something else entirely over the last twenty four hours one of my correspondents referred to the "non working, working class".

This took place in the shorthand of twitter so I excuse the author who I know at greater liberty of expression would have put matters in more sophisticated terms.

Nonetheless the discourse of liberally minded  Labour  politicians over the Welfare Reform proposals does, it seems to me, betray a degree of miscomprehension (a word I have chosen with considerable thought) of the attitudes and principles our own supporters.

Not all of those at the base of the economic pyramid are the same and they deserve better than to be treated (even) the same in terms of economic well being.

There is, in so many ways, a difference between, on the one hand, the man or woman in marginal employment, at the victim of economic events beyond their control but nonetheless trying their best to contribute to society and, on the other, those who are content to make no contribution at all, ever.

I see no reason at all why the latter group should be worthy of any sympathy but that's not really important. What's important is that neither do those who are trying their best. And, in utterly cynical electoral terms, it makes no sense for the Left to argue otherwise.

I worked for many years beside a colleague in a support role whose whole life revolved around her children. She wasn't particularly well paid nor, I suspect, was her husband, who worked in a manual public sector job. Any overtime on offer and she would volunteer but you could always see where the money went. To the best of Christmas presents for her kids; for state of the art computers; to regular family holidays.

Once, at a Christmas Party, drink having been taken, I asked her why she had never had more than two children. Her answer was simple: "We couldn't afford it".

Now, this was before 1997 and Child Tax Credits but I have, nonetheless, found myself thinking over the last few weeks what she would make of those complaining that, having never worked, they will find it impossible to bring up seven children if a benefit cap of £500 per week (net) is applied. Or indeed of those Labour politicians, listening only to the loud voices of those directly affected, who have confused that with the opinion of the overwhelming majority.

It is wholly wrong that those at the top of the tree are rewarded disproportionately but it is equally wrong that those making the effort to struggle at the bottom are not rewarded at all.

Now there are counter arguments, I know them all.

Firstly, that this is nothing compared to the differential between the super rich and the working poor. True, but the numbers of the super rich are remarkably small. Tax them (much) more, certainly, but don't pretend that will by itself make any of this unimportant.

Secondly, that this is irrelevant given the levels of mass unemployment caused by the depression. But it's not. As those wanting work compare their efforts with those of the disinterested it only makes them more furious, particularly if the recently unemployed find themselves not personally entitled to means tested benefits because of modest savings or a working spouse.

Thirdly, that this is not about supporting the feckless but rather only the children of the feckless. This is where a degree of morality must enter the argument. Is it really our position that everyone is entitled to have as many children as they like on the basis that the rest of us will pick up the tab? Certainly there might be nothing that can be done over past events but do we really want to send the signal that this can continue indefinitely? Or to rule out financial sticks in relation to future behaviour. This is, I appreciate, difficult territory in relation to individual "mistakes" but we also have to be frank about this. If it is likely to have a financial consequence then such mistakes are less likely, not because it will financially disadvantage the "child" but rather because it will financially disadvantage the parent.

Fourthly, that cuts in housing benefit might require people to live only where they can afford to live. This is, apparently a choice completely beyond the experience of the Labour front bench. They should inquire of their voters. Thanks to the economic collapse the housing market has virtually ground to a halt but the one bit still, just, functioning, is in relation to those having to sell as they can no longer afford to pay their mortgages. Try telling them that some of their taxes should be going to those relieved of that choice.

And then, finally, there is the question of incapacity and disability benefits. Now, some of the changes the Tories are making are outrageous, particularly the means testing of ESA. And the implementation of some of the changes Labour brought in, particularly the ineptitude of the ATOS assessments, are equally outrageous. But it was Labour in previous opposition who argued that much "incapacity" was in fact disguised unemployment. We were right then and no amount of individual hard luck stories should deflect us from that. By doing so we not only insult both those capable of work, by encouraging them to exaggerate their own "incapacity", but also those who are genuinely not capable of work but who find themselves accused of malingering by association.

Let us not for a moment underestimate the current disastrous state of the jobs market. But, equally, let us not pretend that there was not a hard core, never anticipated by Beveridge, who, even through the long New Labour boom, mysteriously found themselves unable ever to find any work of any sort.

And let us not just shrug our shoulders and pretend that this doesn't matter. It might not to us in the comfortable middle class but it certainly matters to an awful lot of Labour voters. Even before they were struggling themselves.