Sunday 30 December 2012

The ianssmart Review of the Year

And now, the end is near.

With the exception of one week in the high Summer, personally I have not had the greatest of years but at least I've survived it.

However it is traditional at this season to announce awards due, in the opinion of the writer at least, to those of conspicuous the year almost past.

So here are the traditional, inaugural, ianssmart Scottish Political Awards for 2012. All ten of them.

Most Important Sentence of the Year

Most (indeed all) of the other awards go to human beings but this, arguably the single most important award goes simply to 29 words of the English language. They are contained in the fourth paragraph of the Edinburgh Agreement and they read this:

"The date of the poll will be for the Scottish Parliament to determine and will be set out in the Referendum Bill to be introduced by the Scottish Government." (my emphasis)

Now since I am conducting a (relatively) impartial review of the year I won't pause to gloat over how these words come to appear; they mean that there will definitely be a Referendum in the Autumn of 2014. Because the date has to be in the Primary Legislation that then once passed would  require different Primary Legislation to call it off. A majority for which would be unlikely ever to be achievable even in this Scottish Parliament. To that extent one is drawn to the analogy of Marshal Zhukov on the 19th of November 1942. All that is left is to close the trap.

International Politician of the Year

Well, obviously well done to Francois Hollande although, to be honest, he seems to have been elected as the default option without many positives to commend him. And well done to Barack Obama too, although he perhaps needs to realise more that he was elected as much more than the default option.

But my award goes to the Vice-President, Joe Biden. Let's be honest, the first Presidential debate was a disaster and we suddenly panicked that despite all the arguments being on our side we might actually lose to these odd balls and lunatics. In the Vice Presidential debate, Joe Biden reminded us that we had all the arguments on our side. And then went on to get out our vote. Well done Sir. If you were only ten years younger you would yourself have made a great President.

Rising Star of the Year

Back to more domestic concerns. A few contenders here. Certainly Willie Rennie, although he might better be categorised as Survivor of the Year. And a few of the new Labour Group: Jenny Marra, Kez Dugdale, Drew Smith did nothing but improve their reputations. But my winner is my very own MSP,  Jamie Hepburn, even though I most certainly did not vote for him to occupy that position.

To rise in any Party requires a bit of internal Party rebellion, without actual success, and then a willingness after the event to go out and defend the Party line against the "real" enemy. To that extent Jamie has played a faultless hand in 2012, effectively blowing away any of his internal contenders.

Post 2016, he will have a good chance of being the man charged with of picking up the pieces. Assuming, of course, that he is still an MSP at all.

Comeback of the Year

Again, my ultimate winner is a Nationalist, of sorts, but first a word for the other nominees. Brian Wilson is a propagandist of the very first rank and his return to the fray in his columns in the Scotsman has brought a proper heavy hitter back to the front line. He's not going away and the cybernats at some point are going to have to realise that he wont be persuaded to do so by unfocused abuse. Jim Sillars is also a man reborn and his constant, logical, demolition of the current case being made for what some still describe as "Independence", unless accommodated,  will ultimately serve only the interests of the other side of the argument.

But the winner is my old comrade Dennis Canavan. If we are being honest about this, he is the one member of the Yes Scotland campaign my side truly fear. And once the utterly inept Blair Jenkins has been binned (surely soon), the danger is that Dennis will become the public face of that campaign.

But we might console ourselves with the thought that the reason Dennis is so feared on our side is that he is a man of unparalleled integrity. And that, from that position, when he was asked by Isabel Fraser back in October  if he believed Alex Salmond was a man he could trust, he refused to answer. He will however, at some point, be asked again. Or maybe they'll just stick with the Yes man.

Colonist of the Year

Let's be honest, the SNP leadership would have preferred if Alasdair Gray had kept his mouth shut. Just as Nicola makes a speech (hopefully) categorising supporters into exclusively existentialist or utilitarian Nationalists, the last thing they wanted was one of their grand old men popping up to remind us of the third, anglophobic, chip on the shoulder, strand of that persuasion.

My colonist of the year however is a man who I really do not like but who shows the absurdity of the colonist categorisation.

Charles Green, I suspect, prior to eighteen months past, had spent no more than a few days of his entire life in Scotland. Today however you would think he had been born on the Copland Road and spent his formative years fostered to a family from Larkhall on condition that they enthusiastically encouraged his flute lessons.

But nobody, and I mean nobody, while readily cursing him as an orange b or or a ruthless b or even a chancing b, has ever thought for a moment to describe him as an English B. Although English he undoubtedly is. Because, outwith the world of a rather pathetic strand of nationalist opinion, that doesn't matter. Even if he does head back to Yorkshire after he has succeeded....... or failed. Just like Fergus headed back to the Bahamas.

Settler of the Year

It seems to me that one of the big, missed, stories of the year has been the renewal of the Scottish Labour Party.

Now I know there will be those who will be rolling about at this statement. We got gubbed in 2011 and, while Johann has done better than I expected, nobody seriously thinks of her as an alternative First Minister, even after the Referendum. And while we did better in the Local Government elections than expected, the best we could truly claim was a close fought score draw.

But throughout this slightly surreal period of Scottish Politics, nobody has ever disputed that in the big elections, the elections where most people actually vote. Labour remains the overwhelmingly dominant Party.

And nobody, thinking about it for a minute, doubts that if Labour wins in 2015 (and I accept that is an if) Scottish MPs are likely to be major players in any Labour Government; just as Brown, Cook, Reid, Darling and Browne were between 1997 and 2010.

And, at that level, Labour has surely renewed itself. For not only would Douglas Alexander and Jim Murphy be likely to have prominent places but so also, surely, would be many of the 2010 intake: Gemma Doyle; Ian Murray;  my own MP, Greg McClymont.

But the primus inter pares, for the moment at least, is surely the MP for Rutherglen, Tom Greatrex, who happens to have been born in Kent.

On any occasion he appears with Stewart Hosie to discuss Energy Policy you sense. long before the end,  the unspoken demand fot "Haunners" on the Nationalist side but he's also more than up for the greater challenge presented by the Coalition. Definitely one to watch in 2013 and beyond.

Journalist of the year

A few contenders but one obvious winner here again. Robbie Dinwoodie remains the man most likely to be first to a major political exclusive. Isabel Fraser is surely on her way to being the new Kirsty Wark, the only fear being that, like Kirsty, she'll conclude that she's too large a fish for a small pond. All of the Scotland Tonight crew are also entitled to take a well deserved bow.

But the winner by a country mile is David Maddox, who wins for having his own newspaper apologise for a story he wrote that turned out to be true! Barroso did think that automatic EU membership for an independent Scotland was a non starter. And he had  written a letter to that effect.  Poor show on the Scotsman for temporarily backing down in the face of protestations to the contrary from people who were already established to be practised liars.

Columnist of the Year

Now, when I trailed these awards on twitter someone on "my" side suggested that this must surely be Euan McColm. And, if the category had been  "Columnist I most readily agree has expressed my own ideas more succinctly" then Euan would undoubtedly be the winner.

And for those of us who read "serious" newspapers, there remain the usual other contenders:  the imperious Angus McKay; the impertinent Alan Cochrane; McWhirter and Bell at the Herald; Severin Carrell, when he get the space, at the Guardian. Ian Jack, also of that organ, who. when he wants to, cuts through Scottish politics like a knife through butter.

But, in my opinion, whether by accident or otherwise, the most perceptive political columnist in Scotland is the guy who writes for Scotland's biggest selling newspaper, the Sun: Andy Nicoll.

Now, of course "nobody" reads him, meaning nobody among the twitterati. But actually, more people read what he has to say than probably all of the others above put together. And the single most incisive column I have read all year was one he wrote about why, in the aftermath of a no vote, devo max would be dead in the water. In half the words that would be allowed in a broadsheet.

So the accolade goes to him. He can add it to his "Scotland's most underrated novelist" award.

Scottish Politician of the Year

And so we come to the penultimate award, the biggie. And I'm afraid it goes to neither of the big Parties, Anas, even his opponents would concede, is a man on the rise; Nicola remains the single most impressive politician at Holyrood by something well beyond a country mile. Catherine Stihler can probably claim the single biggest political coup of the year.

But the winner, on any categorisation, is the man I myself admit having once denounced as a "numpty". Just shows I'm not always right.

Looking back on the year past the one politician who can truly claim he has achieved everything he set out to at it's start is the Secretary of State, Michael Moore

The "Edinburgh Agreement", more correctly the "Westminster Terms", have been forced on the Nationalists.

Thanks to his efforts, in Scotland at least, and despite the best efforts of Danny Alexander, some distinction remains visible between the Liberal Democrats and the Tories.

Most importantly of all, to him at least, he is established in a position from which he could be moved only of his own consent.

And not many Scottish politicians can claim that.

Scottish Role Model of the Year

And so to my final award, which isn't a political award at all, or at least not a Party political one.

There was no more telling episode about the current insular nature of Scottish politics than the debate over the political significance of the Olympics being almost entirely acted out over what it meant for the Constitutional argument.

The real political lesson however was the visible demonstration that we are hugely privileged to live now in such a diverse country. Not only racially diverse in one way obviously visible but when it came to enthusiastic support, completely invisible; but diverse also in the failure to make any distinction in support for the Olympians and the later Paralympians, And the whole thing brought to our screens by a very posh lady who also happened to be openly gay. But amidst all this, the other outstanding feature was the success of women athletes. I hesitate to name them individually for they were so many but their real achievement was almost beyond the medals in providing such positive role models for other young women that there was no need to be trapped by stereotype or outdated social convention.

And none more so than our own Katherine Grainger, finally getting her Gold Medal at the fourth attempt.

So she gets my final award. If Scotland had a few more Katherine Graingers it would surely be a better place.

See you in 2013

Saturday 22 December 2012

Ten Christmas Paintings

So, it's nearly Christmas and I have therefore, in the spirit of goodwill, decided to forgo my political blogging this week in favour of a more festive topic.

I wrote some time ago about my ten favourite paintings and I thought tonight I might indulge myself with ten favourite Christmas paintings. As before, the rule has to be that they are all paintings that I have actually seen, although, as before, I actually break that rule once if only in the sense that it is not a painting I have seen, yet.

It's only right before beginning that I should say a bit about where I stand religiously.

This Summer we took a very devout friend to see Orvieto Cathedral. We had been there before many times but it was her first visit. It is in fact not my very favourite Cathedral in Italy, that distinction belongs to Trani, whose stripped Romanesque style probably still resonates with my Presbyterian upbringing, but Orvieto is only a half step behind. One of the more recent Popes observed that it would surely also be transported up to Heaven on the day of judgement.

Anyway, the late Norman Buchan, just about the most convinced of atheists I have ever known, who saw the Cathedral for the first time when fighting with the 8th Army in 1944, famously observed that you could only be sure of your atheism if you had survived seeing Orvieto Cathedral.

By Norrie's test I have failed, for I remain determinedly agnostic.

So, unlike Sister Wendy*, I commend what's follows in a sort of "make up your own mind" spirit.

*The one's who's a Nun, not the one who was former leader of the Scottish Labour Party.

Fra Angelico: The Annunciation 

Diocesan Museum, Cortona (Ar)

Annunciation, 1433 - 1434 - Fra Angelico

I saw this painting as recently as August. Obviously there are a choice of Fra Angelico Annunciations and the most famous are probably in San Marco in Florence. Indeed, I could accompany them with a better anecdote for we saw them on the same day, God knows how many years ago, when we shook hands with Prime Minister John Major in the Piazza della Signoria. He was there for an Anglo-Italian summit. We were there for wee Mo's birthday. Anyway, back to Cortona, and to this painting. 1430 something, early Renaissance. The genius is not in the figures, which are far from perfect, or even in the perspective of the colonnade but rather in the way it conveys the spirituality of the subject matter. Even as I write I realise the hopelessness of the task. It's like trying to provide a written review of a live band. You really need to have been there. The good news is that on this occasion it is a permanent performance.

Perugino: The Marriage of the Virgin

Musee des Beaux-Arts, Caen

File:Pietro Perugino 016.jpg

You may wonder how I might have seen this when it is Caen, where it ended up after it was pinched by Napoleon, but  I saw it when it was part of the big Perugino anniversary exhibition in Perugia many years back. It was for Perugia's Cathedral that it was originally painted. Indeed, it features prominently that town's Cathedral's most spectacular relic, the wedding ring of the Virgin Mary, which I take great delight in showing off to anyone who happens upon my company there. All I can say beyond about the relic is that is that if it is indeed Her ring, Our Lady must have had very fat fingers.That nonsense aside however, the inspiration comes from St Matthew and that is truly miraculous in its language.

Let's move on.

Botticelli: The Virgin Adoring the Sleeping Christ child.

Sandro Botticelli, The Virgin Adoring the Sleeping Christ Child

National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh

Now, if your wondering about the jump here from conception to contemplation then I would refer you to one of my earlier blogs but this being Christmas it is no time to be challenging tradition.

There are a number of reasons I have chosen this painting. The first is simply that it's a great painting in absolutely classic high Renaissance style. Google it and you're told that it is unusual to the extent that the wean is asleep. A good few new parents of my acquaintance might share that sentiment. But Our Lady wears blue and appears remarkably fit in the aftermath of childbirth (make of the word "fit" what you will) so, to that extent it is typical.

But I've also chosen it because wherever you are in Scotland (within reason) it is never more than a couple of hours away. And worth the effort to travel.

It cost a fortune to acquire this painting for Scotland. And yet if that money was to be spent on art (a wider question) then surely that money was better spent than in acquiring this than a hundred or even a thousand "Scottish" paintings on the same subject. Although that's not necessarily everybody's view.................sorry, nearly forgot my no politics promise.

Sempre avanti.

Gozzoli: The Journey of the Magi

Palazzo Medici-Riccardi, Florence

File:Gozzoli magi.jpg

Now at this point you have to jump either to St Matthew or St Luke. For, contrary to common cultural perception, if you want the wise men and the shepherds, you cant have both, I'm going for the Tory troop first. This is just an amazing painting, spectacular in its colour, ambition and scale. But that's not the really amazing bit, that comes from the dramatis personae. For the Magi and their followers are in fact portraits of the House of Medici. We complain about the arrogance and self promotion of our current political class but even Michael Gove might have hesitated at this. The irony is that most of these people are now more famous for appearing in this painting than for anything else, although Lorenzo the Magnificent is lurking among the foot-soldiers.

Gentile da Fabriano: The Adoration of the Magi

Ufizzi, Florence

File:Gentile da fabriano, adorazione dei magi.jpg

In some ways "just" another great Renaissance painting. At some point in my art blogs however I like to talk about where to have lunch and as this is the half way point I thought that might be appropriate. In some ways it is invidious to choose a restaurant in Florence, as I've never eaten badly anywhere there, but my purely anecdotal experience is that the food is slightly more "tipico" (and cheaper) on the far side of the Arno and, having dug out my old Gamberro Rozzo guide, I remember this establishment particularly fondly. Don't have the Fiorentina though. You'll never finish it.

Ghirlandaio: The Adoration of the Shepherds

Sasseti Chapel, Santa Trinita, Florence  

So anyway, back to St. Luke. Regular followers of my taste might be expecting the Caravaggio at this point, for there is Caravaggio and I've seen it. It's in Messina, as far mezzo as you can go in the Mezzogiorno. But, somehow, I don't really think of Caravaggio as a Christmas painter, Easter is much more his thing. And I really didn't like Messina. It struck me as a sort of sunny Greenock and you will appreciate that for a Paisley man it is difficult to think of a greater insult. So, instead, nonetheless spoiled for choice, I have chosen a Ghirlandaio. The "problem" with Florence is that there is so much great art, indeed Stendahl found it all just too, too much. So you can easily miss this, in Santa Trinita. If you ever go however, don't. The crowning glory of a wonderful fresco cycle by a slightly neglected genius. And a wonderful subject matter.

Botticelli: The Mystical Nativity

National Gallery, London

Now, if persevered to this point, you are entitled to "the full bhuna" and here it is. I really shouldn't have a second Botticelli but nobody does it better than this. The Holy Family; the wise men; the shepherds; more angels than could ever dance on the head of a pin; even the ox and the ass. Brilliant. If your interested in the wider iconography I strongly commend this

Duccio di Buoninsegna: The Massacre of the Innocents

Museo dell'Opera del Duomo, Siena

File:Duccio di Buoninsegna 056.jpg

Where to start. First of all to observe that this is, properly, pre-Renaissance art, painted at the start of the 14th Century. And then to observe that it is both a work of genius and (in the proper sense of the word), a terrible painting. Some years ago I started reading a much acclaimed novel about the holocaust and in the end I had to stop because it was giving me nightmares. This painting had on me the same effect, albeit on a lesser scale.  It is an evil, evil subject made all the more so by the genius with which it is brought to life. The real terror is not in the murdered children or even the anguish of their mothers but rather in the banal, almost routine, way the soldiers are going about their business. It is a reminder of how, while all this great art was being created, ordinary people at least were subject to random and mindless acts of barbarism. If only we could say that, for all our comfort in the west today, elsewhere in the world that does not too often remain the case.

Giotto: The Flight into Egypt

Scrovegni Chapel, Padua

File:Giotto - Scrovegni - -20- - Flight into Egypt.jpg

Anyway, to cheerier things.

This is the painting I have not seen for, and here I make a shameful confession, I HAVE NEVER BEEN TO PADUA!

I love Giotto not for all the technical guff about his use of space and framing but rather because of the simplicity of his style. And this is a perfect example. I'm not quite sure who the other punters are but the principal players are instantly recognisable, even the donkey.

I have resolved that I will see this in reality at some point in 2013, then again I've said that many times before. Nonetheless,  if anybody fancies a wee trip to the Veneto, they should get in touch.

Raphael: The Madonna della Sedia

Palazzo Pitti, Florence

File:Raffael 026.jpg

And so to the final scene.

When it comes to Madonnas, in the end, I remain a Bellini man. To that extent I favour doctrine over scripture. For Bellini Madonnas have an ethereal, transcendental quality. Our Lady is always hovering between this world and the next and the troubles of this world seem almost secondary to Her. And sometimes that can make you gasp at their outright beauty, But this is a Raphael Madonna, a late Raphael. And it tells a different story, one that can still appeal to us mere agnostics. At the very end of his account of the Nativity, St Luke writes this (2.40).

For in the end, the Christmas Story is an adventure, and one, for the moment at least, with a happy ending.

But you also can't look at this painting without thinking also that the child could be any child and the mother could be any mother. The form requires that they look directly out of the picture but the intimacy is in the body language. The comfort of the mutual embrace but equally the impression that Mary is holding the child just a little too tight, perhaps reluctant to let him go out into the world. For this child, that may have been to a unique destiny but that sentiment is surely a more universal one. And never held more strongly than at Christmas.
And with that, I'm done.

It only remains for me to wish you all  a very Merry Christmas (or even Buon Natale!) and to assure you that I will return to more mundane subjects after the festivities.

Sunday 16 December 2012

A Debacle

Too much to do today for a long blog.

I am, as my Twitter followers will know, a devotee of Strictly Come Dancing but it was my office Christmas "do" last night so into an already hectic day I need to find time to watch last night's show before tonight's results programme. Then there is, of course, the Sports Personality of the Year, for which I would enthusiastically endorse Jessica Ennis, were that certain not to be the kiss of death. And then the penultimate episode of Homeland.

And before that I've suddenly realised that some of the people I'm meeting up with next week are likely to expect presents. Which I've not yet got.

So, were it not for a promise made, I would have forgone "the blogging" altogether.

But I did make a promise and that was to respond in some way to the new Nationalist line on Europe first articulated in .Jeff Breslin's  piece in last week's "Comment is free" section of the Guardian and, as it turned out, the similar line taken by Daniel Kenealy in the Scotsman and subsequently by Nicola Sturgeon in the Scottish Parliament.

They all essentially said: "Alright, we might not automatically be members of the EU in the event of a vote for Independence, but why wouldn't they let us in? We've got oil and lots of fish." Fish, for some reason, features big in this argument.

The increasingly incoherent Blair Jenkins, who must surely shortly receive the dreaded "vote of confidence" from his Board, seems to have tried to make the same argument when debating, or probably more correctly appearing with, Alistair Darling on Friday's Daily Politics. And do you know, they are probably right.

Except they are asserting a counter-position that nobody actually holds. Nobody, to the best of my knowledge, has ever said Scotland would be refused entry. What they (we) have always said is that the key issue is terms and timescale of that entry.

And here is where things start, from a Nationalist perspective,  to fall apart.

First of all, it is inconceivable that all the necessary negotiations could be concluded in the period October 2014 to May 2016 when it remains the position of the SNP (but interestingly not the Greens) that the first "Independence" Election will be held, particularly since most of the major players, will supposedly also be engaged in negotiating with the English over Independence and (essentially) the Americans over NATO during the same period. never mind actually running Scotland.

And the problem with that, as I've already pointed out, is that the May 2016 Elections would otherwise become a second referendum, which, if Unionist Parties won a majority would lead to the whole Independence project grinding to a halt. Some of the madder Cybernats reacted to my pointing this out on Twitter by suggesting these elections would then just have to be postponed, ignoring the fact that Countries where elections are postponed would be unlikely to be allowed into the EU on any terms.

But that's just the start of the Nationalist dilemma. For it remains their position that not only will they be in the EU, they must be in the EU. Now, that's no basis for any negotiation.

When I was drafting this blog in my head, I was intending to give some examples of that but I was beaten to it by this piece in today's Scotland on Sunday. You'll see it shares the recurring fish theme.

So I'll just give one further very obvious example. It has always been the objective of the UK Eurosceptics (as opposed to the out and out "outers") to secure a situation whereby the UK not only does not currently join the Euro but effectively secures an outcome whereby, while continuing to enjoy the benefits of the single market, it never will join. And it has always been the objective of the European integrationists to deny them that option. This is big politics, much bigger than the position of one small peripheral Country. Against that background it would be a complete non-starter for Brussels to contemplate two multinational currencies within the boundaries of the EU, not least because it might give other non-euro Countries a strategic alternative to the Euro. Yet the SNP (again not the Greens) propose that Sterling becomes precisely that!

And before anybody thinks we could just have our own currency they should consider why that has been rejected as out of the question by such a die hard Unionist as John Swinney, Standard Life anybody?

The Nationalists must know that the idea that we can not only not join the Euro but even keep Sterling while still being happily invited into the EU is nonsense, or at least surely they must know that.

But again, we are just asked to stick our fingers in our ears, and hum "Flower of Scotland" very loudly. As we are over the USA being entirely relaxed allowing into NATO a Country insistent on the closure of the strategic submarine base of their principal ally; or indeed the English continuing to enjoy a benign attitude to a Country whose departure (on a different Nationalist narrative) will remove a substantial subsidy it has been providing to them for years.

By the end of the week, the Nationalist spinners had moved on to try and  portray this debacle as at least meaning more people were beginning to consider what a Yes vote for Independence might mean. In that one respect I agree with them but not in a way that would make them happy.

Sunday 9 December 2012

Morally Unacceptable

In terms of getting right exactly what I want to say, this is been one of my most difficult blogs to write.

Indeed, I almost abandoned the idea altogether, choosing instead to indulge my "hobby" of Italian politics. For in that latter regard it has been a disastrous weekend. The decision of Monti, the support of the PdL having been withdrawn, to stand down as Prime Minister is not only catastrophic for Italy but might well sound the final death knell of the Euro, at least as far as southern Europe is concerned. And, believe me, that is very, very bad news for us as well.

When I was on the radio last weekend I found myself expressing some sympathy for, of all people, George Osborne. Certainly, he is responsible for his own earlier conduct of our own Nation's finances but he most definitely would not be responsible if the US House Republicans opt to jump off the fiscal cliff or if, in the ultimate example of Berlusconi's cult of personality, the Italians opt, expressly or at least implicitly, to return to the Lira. Either eventuality would almost inevitably throw us back into a recession, leaving to the judgement of history any argument as to whether it needed to be "triple dip" recession or, given a different approach since 2010, could merely have been a "double dip" one.

But, and it is a big but, any sympathy I had for Osborne disappeared on Wednesday.

It's a disguised part of our current political discourse that all Parties are committed to cuts in public expenditure. I'm not, tonight, interested in peculiarly Scottish politics but, in that regard, I include John Swinney, who, strapped to a lie detector would admit such a state of affairs would still subsist in an Independent Scotland.

But back to the real world. Labour's position is merely "too far and too fast", which, for all it allows us to pretend otherwise to all and any plea of a "special case", still cannot properly be translated as "not at all and, even then, not now".

I'm no naif when it comes to Welfare Reform. The implementation of the Work Capability Assessment in the transition from Incapacity Benefit to Employment Support Allowance has undoubtedly been a debacle in its implementation but it is a reform, in principle, introduced, in my view correctly, by the last Labour Government. Similarly, the idea that suggesting that the long term unemployed, whether they appreciate it or not, might benefit from a period of compulsory work, seems to me self apparent: if only, at best, in showing them that work is not as difficult they perceive or, at worst, in sorting out those who are not truly unemployed at all but actually engaged in the black economy. And, as I've said before, anybody, with no particular personal commitments, in London and the south east, who didn't work at all during the long New Labour boom surely can't have been trying very hard.

But, and it is a huge but, every day at my work I deal with a lot of very poor people. Very poor people already who, last Wednesday, George Osborne decided should be poorer still.

I'm not saying that they are all people with children but they overwhelmingly are. And I am not saying they are all without work, for 6 out of 10 children in poverty have parents who are working,. But the parents, or more correctly the parent, or more correctly still, the single mothers who I deal with professionally are, overwhelmingly, without work. For they cannot work as they have children to look after and no one to share that burden. And I'm not even saying these mothers are without responsibility for their own circumstance because.............., with the benefit of middle class detachment,.............. to a significant degree they are.

Young women with children and no reliable "partners" who would, in an ideal world, have to experience neither circumstance.

Now, here again, I want to jump back into my middle class, comfortable, all knowing, person. Anybody who has ever attended the eighteenth birthday party of a middle class kid can't fail to notice the hormones at play in the room. But they can't also fail to be aware of the barrier contraception lurking discretely in the background or the discrete, distressing but determined, fall back position of early abortion positioned further back still.

And the imagined  but certain conversations that start and end "As your parents, we only want what's best for you but, David and Emma, if you are still together after University, there will be plenty of time for you to have children".

And even someone with reservations about abortion as a morally consequence free solution, someone such as me, must surely pause to wonder if it would not be better if many other unintended pregnancies ended this way.

But they don't. They don't even as the father is already subject to bail conditions as a consequence of domestic violence; they don't even as he's describing, on facebook, the mother of his child to be as a "slag"; they don't even as he's already parading his new "girlfriend" in her face.

This world is so beyond my personal experience that, even after thirty or more years in dealing with it's fall out, I cannot understand it. I cannot understand how any father could drag their child out of bed at 2am for "access" in frustration at being denied sex, as a default option, by their mother. I cannot grasp how anyone would duck and dive over their employment status in order to deny their child (a mere) 15% of their income. I cannot comprehend how anybody given contact rights by a court would then be too busy, or forgetful, to turn up.

But that is the world these kids live in.

And in one respect I blame their mothers for subjecting them to it.

Except. These women really love their kids, at least as much as those financially able to be the most middle class of middle class homemakers. And they would wish them to want for nothing. And, in that regard, every pound is a prisoner. Real mums might go to Iceland but, be in no doubt, it is only because they cannot go to Sainsbury's, or even Tesco.

So, to that extent, Osborne's decision that subsistence benefits for those with children should rise only by one per cent, irrespective of the rate of inflation, is a call neither I nor any Labour politician could ever make. It cannot, ever, be acceptable that these kids suffer by reason of moral disapproval of their parents life choices or by reason of avoiding the case for progressive taxation. For they are just kids.

And, what's more, there is surely no more certain guarantee that this circle of disadvantage will spiral down through the generations than if it is not confronted in this one.

If you look at the comment sections on the internet versions of our press, you see Ed's dilemma in the trap Osborne has laid for him on this. For you see civil servants and white collar local government workers, classic swing voters, posting to the effect that, since they have had no pay increase for the last three years, why should the "feckless" be exempt from similar penalty. The answer is because the self same "feckless" are already at the bottom. There is nowhere further, decently, for them to fall. Ed must make that case and, in fairness to him, it appears he is prepared to do so. And in that he must surely have all our support. And, anyway, no kid is ever feckless.

Tuesday 4 December 2012

Some thoughts on Nicola's speech.

Every so often, somebody makes a serious "State of the Nation" speech and Nicola Sturgeon did so yesterday.

There was  bit of "lucky white heather" about the timing but I suspect not even the rabidest of Cybernat attributed that to anything but unfortunate coincidence.

And even when such a speech is made by a political opponent it is important to note its worth and I readily do so here.

It is equally important not to do so in a carping way. I'm sure that, with a bit of minor internet research, I could find easy evidence that Nicola did not always espouse this civic, inclusive, nationalism but, to be honest, that doesn't really matter. It is, I am happy to accept, whether by reason of experience or political realism, where she stands today.

When I was at University, the Communist Party had a theory of "historical accident" whereby any of us in the different parts of the "Broad Left" had arrived there by different routes but that this was essentially unimportant since we were, for the moment at least, agreed on the way immediately forward. And that is broadly Nicola's message today.

Essentially she argues that it doesn't matter if you had started from a "pure" nationalist position that ethnic identity was the principal issue or, contrarily, started from a position that how to advance the class struggle was the main imperative, surely, in the face of a UK Tory Government, we could all agree that the next logical step forward was independence. And that this could, somehow serve both of these apparently contradictory objectives.

It's an attractive prospectus.

Except of course it has been tried and failed in a very near to hand example.

In the recent past I had a long and increasingly revealing conversation with a lefty nationalist stalwart. Drink having been taken, the discussion turned to song. As I recalled the various songs of my youth: Bandiera Rossa: Jarama Valley; Freedom Come all'ye, they insisted these had been sung as enthusiastically on the SNP left. And as they went on to recount various Irish Nationalist songs: The Town that I Loved so Well; Sean South, perhaps most telling, James Connolly, the Irish Rebel, then I readily conceded these had been sung as enthusiastically by us.

Except that the key man in this dialogue was the self same James Connolly. Nobody on the West of Scotland left is brought up to do anything but revere this man. But such is his aura that nobody stops to wonder whether, with the benefit of hindsight,  he made the right call in marching alongside Patrick Pearse and Eamon de Valera on that fateful Easter weekend.

For, for all the faults of Imperial Britain, who in the period 1920 to 1980 would not have preferred to live here than in "free" Ireland? It is a cheap shot to choose the experience of the struggle against Naziism when Ireland sat matters out on the principle that "England's enemy was Ireland's friend". Cheap but true, when one considers the fact that the Arthur Donaldson Memorial Lecture is still considered an acceptable part of the SNP conference agenda. But let's ignore that and just look at the 1960's, a decade that largely passed "free" Ireland by until about... 1985. And even consider where Ireland still is today on, for example, abortion rights.

I'm in no doubt that when Connolly made common cause with the Nationalists in 1916 he believed he would be advancing the cause of progress. That throwing off the "English Yoke" would in itself open up opportunities for the left.  And I am in no equal doubt that history proved him wrong. De Valera had a very different vision of Ireland than had Connolly. And on any view for 70 years that view won out while Ireland not only struggled economically but was isolated culturally and saw its brightest and best leave the Country at the earliest opportunity.

Why, in the aftermath of Independence, would we have any reason to think things would develop differently in Scotland? For, after all, Nicola's own existentialist Nationalists remain, on any view, the overwhelmingly dominant strand in our Governing Party and while there are certainly other pro-independence voices in the Greens and the Scottish Socialists, since very few vote for them in a devolved context, why would there be any reason for them to be more popular after Independence? And sure, Labour would still have support but is it really the case that the most conservative part of a Party she herself attacks in the same speech for being too conservative would suddenly be transformed into a socialist vanguard, all the while being lead (presumablyby Jim Murphy or Douglas Alexander and all the while retaining its current level of support?

You can argue whether the SNP are a centre-right or centre-left party but nobody would argue about the centre bit. Why would this either magically change after Independence? Or does Nicola herself believe that in that improbable scenario, support for the SNP would suddenly collapse? Of course it might, but is it really the case that all these former Tory voters now voting Nationalist in the North-East would be transformed by the very experience of Independence into Left Social Democrats? Is it not altogether more likely that, if they changed allegiance at all, it would be back to being (Scottish) Tories? Indeed, to a different audience, isn't part of the SNP argument that greater fiscal responsibility would allow a revival of the democratic right, currently held back by their determined Unionism?

The only certainty of Independence is that as a small country, with our currency controlled elsewhere and dependent on the good will alone of our much larger neighbour (who, on the Nationalists own argument, would have been both outraged and impoverished by our departure) we would have much less freedom of action than that available to the British Government at the moment.

Indeed, if her object was truly a government "we" had voted for and which the possessed the maximum degree of economic freedom of action, then  the very logic of her argument would be that if there was a UK Election before Autumn 2014 which Labour won then the Referendum should be called off until the Tories were back in power. Indeed, to extend that logic, if post independence Scotland had, by a narrow margin, elected a right-wing government and England by a landslide a Party of the left, then the same "Utilitarians" should be arguing for the restoration of the Union!

Except that's not her conclusion. For her conclusion is that no matter who was in power at Westminster, and no matter what their political and economic programme, Scotland would do better on our own. That's a perfectly respectable view but it is difficult to see that it is anything other than existential Nationalism. Or truly got anything to do with advancing social justice except for the purpose of temporary electoral opportunism.

Sunday 2 December 2012

Keep the Heid!

So, Leveson has spoken and the world appears to have gone mad.

I simply have no idea why the Prime Minister required to provide a response to the Leveson Inquiry within three hours of it being published.

No matter what (if anything) the Government requires or intends to do in response to the recommendations of the Leveson Inquiry, it is a matter of common consensus that any action, whether requiring legislation or not, will take several months. And it is only common sense that no one person, let alone any Prime Minister with a bit of "governing" also to do could possibly have read the whole, 2500 page report, in the day and a bit between its receipt on Wednesday and Thursday afternoon's statement.

So why the Government could not simply have said they had received the report, that they would study it carefully and that they would respond within a given timescale is a mystery to me. After all, Government's take similar stances in relation to other externally commissioned reports all the time.

But what's done is done and that seems to me to be a matter of considerable regret on all sides of this debate.

For the Government, it looks like they had decided in advance that no matter how reasoned and reasonable Leveson's proposals might be they were going to be rejected. A similar criticism might be levelled at the press who, with even less time to digest the report before Friday's editorials, obviously also felt that if the Prime Minister responded instantly then so must they. In this regard they were, I think, too easily characterised as having their head in the sand.

But similarly, the decision of the Government to respond instantly has not served the interests of the other "side". Having on Thursday stated that Labour would implement Leveson in full, Ed himself has since worked out that the proposed role of Ofcom is bonkers (sorry m'lud); meanwhile,the otherwise admirable, nay heroic, figure of Tom Watson, the Party's National Campaign Co-ordinator is still firing out emails urging us Party members to sign a peitition demanding the recommendations be implemented in full. I presume it's not his intention to send it to Ed.

And similarly, Hacked Off have also been forced to rush to judgement that Cameron is unforgivably backsliding and that the only way forward is confrontation rather than engagement. Speaking from years of experience, confrontation with any Government mid-term on a single issue rarely achieves more than a sense of self-satisfaction.

And the poor old PM, who, let's be frank, was only unlucky enough to be holding this particular toxic parcel when the music stopped, is now finding his words of only a few hours preparation analysed forensically for any sign of deviation, hesitation or (some at least would hope) repetition.

This was a crisis decades in the making, years in the unravelling and months in the analysing. Why it should then have required only hours in the responding remains, as I say, a mystery.

I am not always the warmest supporter of the current Scottish Government but I do not think it is unfair to give them some credit for the different way they responded (for example) to the Gill Review of Scotland's Civil Justice system. This was a different area of public life which had also proved increasingly unfit for purpose but on the day Lord Gill delivered his equally reasoned and lengthy report, Kenny McAskill said no more than that the Scottish Government had received his recommendations; thanked him for his work and would respond in due course. As indeed they have (not always to my unconditional enthusiasm but that's another matter!)

Oh but had the Scottish Government been so wise on this occasion!

Press regulation has always been devolved. I've said before that a statutory, purely declaratory, appeal when the PCC declined to investigate or apply its own code (which remains the central problem here) was my "policy proposal" when I put my name forward for Labour's Panel of candidates in 1999. And Eck has been in power since 2007. On any day during that period he could have suggested a separate regulatory press regime for Scotland. Indeed, if he truly thought that the case for the same was "unarguable" (as he said today) then it's unclear who has been providing the counter-argument since May 2007. Or why, having not acted for five and a half years he suddenly has decided he must act in the course of an afternoon and on the basis of a report he didn't commission or, at the time of his statement at least, he could not possibly have read.

What is unarguable is that if the need for such a separate regime is unarguable, then, unarguably, the First Minister has fallen down on the job since 2007.

This is all just nonsense. A common UK wide system of press regulation could patently do the job for Scotland. Sure, our law relating to defamation and verbakl injury is (a bit) different  but, as recently as JUNE 2012 (!) in a legislative consent Memorandum relating to the otherwise English and Welsh Defamation Bill Kenny McAskill himself observed:

"8. Given that much  scientific and  academic research is done collaboratively and
without reference to national  borders, limiting these provisions to England and Wales
only could potentially inhibit constructive and robust scientific and academic exchange.
Extending these provisions to Scotland would  therefore  ensure parity of protection in
relation to these scientific and academic activities."

Now I appreciate that this might come as a surprise to someone mired in the Kailyard but so is much journalistic research. And Scotland would also benefit from parity of protection there.

With one exception, every tabloid newspaper published in Scotland is but the English version of the same product "with a kilt on", and even the exception is becoming less exceptional.

So why did the First Minister behave in the manner he did? As with so much of his recent activity (such as, and I do not make this up, calling for a ceasefire in Gaza) it had little or nothing to do with the issue in hand and everything to do with promoting (if you were being generous) the cause of Scottish Independence or (if you were less inclined to generosity) the self-aggrandisement of one A. Salmond.

Perhaps he imagines the day when, if the press step out of line, he will hit them over the head with his Silver Putter.

But, as with so much of what constitutes the mish-mash that now passes for Independence, highlighting the First Ministers demands in this area just demonstrates their absurdity. Even if Scotland was independent, English newspapers could hardly be banned here. (Hopefully at least!) And even if they were banned, some would surely be available on the black market or even over something called the internet. It wouldn't take long for somebody to conclude that the only sensible solution was common regulation.

As with so much else, not so much better together as only common sense together.

So let's wait and see what happens and if, genuinely, the regime proposed for the UK provides inadequate recourse for the victims of press excesses then let's see what we might do. But let's not kid ourselves that we can isolate ourselves from the much wider newspaper market in England. With or without Independence