Saturday, 15 December 2012

Gun crime - what should be done?

This is Aaron Sorkin's comment on major gun crime in the US.

Taken from the West Wing episode 'In the Shadow of two gunmen (part 1)'.  CJ Cregg, the White House Press Secretary, addresses a press conference after the President and members of his party have been shot.

Saturday, 8 December 2012

We're doomed - America is finished, Europe's a basket case and the Empire is dead

There has been plenty of chatter amongst the McTwitterati of late about Scotland’s relationship with Europe if we vote Yes in 2014.
The world is changing and the canvas of nations being painted in an age of crisis is very different to the past.  This changing canvas cannot be ignored if we are to consider where Scotland’s future place in the world might be.       
Today the BBC news website reports that Winston Churchill’s 1946 Zurich speech has been featured on The European Council’s YouTube channel.  There are, believe it or not, those who regard Churchill as one of the fathers of the EU.
It is because in Zurich, in the aftermath of the second World War he said, "We must build a kind of United States of Europe” to “turn our backs upon the horrors of the past" and "look to the future".
However, he also said six months before that in Fulton Missouri, "If the population of the English-speaking Commonwealth be added to that of the United States with all that such co-operation implies in the air, on the sea, all over the globe and in science and in industry, and in moral forces, there will be no quivering, precarious balance of power to offer its temptation to ambition or adventure." (This was his famous “Iron Curtain” speech.)
For Churchill believed that peace in the post war world and stability in the face of communism would be guaranteed by three things - the United States, a united Europe and the British Empire.  He was a great European but he was also an Imperialist (born in the 19th century) and an Atlanticist (he had an American mother).  He saw Britain as part of Europe but not of Europe.
Well, that was 1946 and this is now.
In the future, the USA is not going to be the world power it once was.
She must look to the Pacific and China in the east every bit as much as she must look to the Atlantic and Russia in the west.
The Empire is long since dead and the Commonwealth is not what it once was.  In fact the Commonwealth may not outlive the present Queen by much.  It certainly won’t exist in the same form as the last 40 or 50 years.
Europe has an uncertain future as the Euro currency union seems to have failed so spectacularly.
The world we are headed for will not be a world of fixed blocs, rather it will be a world of more transient treaties and alliances.  And these alliances may be with peoples we don’t necessarily have naturally close alignments with.  These will not always be homogeneous groupings.
Britain’s links with the east through our mercantile past and through some of our large companies (many of whom have strong links in the far east) will be very important.  Our trade with European markets will continue to be a cornerstone of our economy and trade and links with China will be vital both politically and economically.
While the United States will cease to be the world’s super power it will remain hugely important for many many years to come.  A close relationship with her will be a lynch-pin of stability but we must be realistic about the ‘special relationship’ as America has more diversified interests than Europe.
We also need to contain the middle-east and support peace where we can.  I say support and maintain because the middle east has been a powder keg for two millennia and I don’t see that changing anytime soon.  However, I sense that if there are to be dangers that threaten us or troubles that will spill over into wider conflict they will somehow emanate from this region.
This means I think there is still an important place for collective security.  True, NATO is an alliance founded in the Cold War but times move on and the landscape changes. 
Denmark, a successful comparable country that Scotland often looks to as a model of what we could be is interesting in this case.  Denmark sought neutrality for 200 years and to free herself from the armed camps of the empires of Europe.  But she was overrun by Germany in the 1940s and suffered under occupation. The war means many in Denmark regretted they were not part of something bigger.  Today many in Denmark feel collective security is very important to them and NATO remains popular.  This doesn’t mean they believe the Cold War is still with us but they value collective security against any enemies – whether they are known or are yet to be known in an uncertain future.
Today, Danish foreign policy is founded upon four pillars: the United Nations, NATO, the EU, and Nordic cooperation.  She is a pretty committed member of NATO – which isn’t true of all members – even though she is a small nation. Denmark is also a member of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and the World Trade Organisation.
She is a mercantile nation who believes in free trade, collective action and collective security.
This means I think there is an important place for collective security for Scotland in the future.  I think this should be as part of what we currently call NATO but that it will continue to move on to take a post Cold War form.
I think also in this uncertain world fragmentation does not help peace or prosperity.
A say in how the globe deals with the forces that affect us is important.
Top table
I have limited care for a permanent place on the UN security council, but a place at the top table with the G8 matters.  Being part of the UK which has such a place is therefore vital.
Consider this picture.  This is the G8 at Camp David earlier this year.  It is a small world and being part of the G8 is to have very personal input with the 7 other men and women who take the fundamental decisions that affect the entire world.  This is much more than mere tokenism, and while power can often be subverted by greater forces,  having a seat at the G8 is meaningful influence.

Free trade is vital to us if we are to have growth around the world once more and if we are to adapt to and make the most of the opportunities brought by the changing balance of economic power across the planet.
Preserving the UK and what is in effect an established and successful single market and currency union is also important.  The EU is uncertain, and our relationship with it is also uncertain.  I hope it survives with us as part of it because I think the EU has probably done more to ensure peace in Europe after the war than any other body.  However, Europe’s precise course is uncertain. 
And since the UK operates as a single market and a currency union and we are not envisaging changing that bit, it seems all the better to have some political say in it and some chance of influencing affairs.
But I believe this is best served by the UK following a system of government which allows for the expression of the different interests and identities within it and, at the same time, has the influence and strength which comes with the common purpose that I have been describing. This means a distribution of powers among the nations and regions of the UK, for joint action where we need it, and for significant democratic choice and opportunity where that best serves our interests.  This should be combined with the responsibility that comes from significant financial powers.  Whether you call this subsidiarity,  decentralisation or federal government it should, I hope, go some way towards reducing the alienation many feel in the political process and re-connecting political power to people and communities.
In the world of the 21st century with its transient alliances and changing balances of power, being cut adrift as part of the fragmentation of nations will not serve Scottish foreign interests or trade well.  That way is best served by British unity, collective international interests and subsidiarity or decentralisation at home.

Monday, 3 December 2012

Britain - more than the sum of its parts

On Friday I went to hear Jim Wallace speak.  He spoke of many things including how he believes Scottish devolution should be developed.  As part of this I thought he was particularly eloquent in his passage about why Scotland should remain part of the UK.  He not only made the case well but he touched the emotions of his audience - a mixed one of proud Scots and people from other parts of the British Isles.

There are many different ways into this argument; cultural, political and economic - but on the night Jim Wallace quoted this passage from the 2006 Steel Commission.

"The United Kingdom has been one of the great success stories of
the world. The Union between England and Scotland joined
together nations who had been warring with each other for
hundreds of years. It took a small island country on the fringe of
Europe to a position where its influence covered a quarter of the
globe. It established a formidable commercial, industrial and
financial position. It spawned new nations in all parts of the
globe. Its language has become the lingua franca of the world. It
developed ideas of liberty, democracy and the rule of law which
were widely emulated. Its people produced much of the
philosophy and many of the ideas which shaped the modern
world. The contribution of Scots in philosophy, in science and
engineering, in medicine, in administration and finance was
disproportionately high. For example, it was a Scot, William
Paterson, who was the principal driving force in the establishment
of the Bank of England (1694), before playing an influential role
in the establishment of the Bank of Scotland (1695). The Union
enabled Scotland to punch above its weight on the world stage,
and allowed Britain to be more than the sum of its parts."

As we debate our future it is important to understand who we are and what we have got here in Britain.  This is of course a historical argument but it captures something of what Britain is and of how Scotland works - extremely effectively - within that.

Thursday, 29 November 2012

Who is the best Doctor?

It is a great TV programme, loved the world over by millions including me.  Dr Who is a marvellous creation and thanks to re-generation can keep on re-inventing itself and changing the actor who plays the lead role.  But which Doctor is the best Doctor?

Well, it's another one which is a matter of personal opinion rather than a question which comes with a definitive answer.  It's also one driven very much by the era you probably became first entranced by the Lord of Time.

For what it is worth here, in reverse order is how I rate them.  What do you think? Leave a comment!

10 Sylvester McCoy

One of the two Doctors who played the role when I didn't watch much TV.  But by this time Doctor Who had lost a lot of its magic and much of its edge.  For me the programme had become too silly and surreal.

9 Peter Davison

Another one from an era when I didn't watch much TV but also another Doctor who lacked an edge and wasn't hard enough for me.  The second of the two Doctors who don't really count for me.

8 William Hartnell

The original and on-screen the day after JFK was assassinated.  Very dated and before my time but the original and with him the brilliant theme tune.

7 Matt Smith

The current Doctor does a decent job and is a credible Doctor.  I don't think he has fully established himself yet and I don't think the stories are as strong as classic late 60s and 70s Doctor Who or the writing as strong as the often poignant Ecclestone or David Tennant era.  I also think he is a little upstaged by the wonderful Amy Pond.

6 Colin Baker

A return to Baker-esque form after a weak period.  Baker was a fine Doctor who didn't get enough episodes at a time when the BBC were toying with dumping the series.  He also suffers with me as he is another Doctor on screen when I didn't watch much TV.

5 David Tennant

For an awful lot of people he is Doctor Who.  Along with Tom Baker he is probably the most popular Doctor of the series.  He made the role very much his own and has oodles of charm.  For me he isn't quite dark or quite hard enough, though the stone angels are a particularly inspirational and horrifying monster.  I think he also suffers for being after my era.  Others will place him higher.

4 Christopher Eccleston

I thought he was an utterly inspired choice for new Doctor Who.  An almost perfect mix of quirky edginess, eccentricity, unconventional rebelliousness and a passionate idealistic heart.  He plays the loneliness and drive for justice almost perfectly.  And it gets it just right for a new era.  And yet he did it all too briefly, was perhaps too intense and came to be eclipsed by David Tennant.  

3 Patrick Troughton

The first modern Doctor.  He played the role just before my time but I think he is well worth a re-appraisal by many fans.  With Troughton all the classic monsters are there and like Ecclestone he has a dark, eccentric edginess.  He began to set the standard for the programmes charming malevolent charisma.  (He is also a great priest in The Omen)

2 Jon Pertwee

The first Doctor I saw a lot of and the first to catch my imagination.  He is a bit of a Dandy and a poseur and he has a very silly car.  But, as I remember him, he had truly scary adventures with some truly scary monsters.  His encounters with The Master are brilliant and in the Brigadier and UNIT he has excellent allies. 

1 Tom Baker

For me Tom Baker is the best Doctor.  he made the role his own with his long scarf and booming, almost Brian Blessed like, voice.  Like Pertwee his adventures are scary and the suspense filled ending of each episode rarely disappoints.  The classic stories are his like Genesis of the Daleks, The Keeper of Traken and Pyramids of Mars!

And I've not even begun to discuss Sarah Jane or K9!


I'm not counting Paul McGann or Peter Cushing who respectively played the Doctor in a one off TV special and in a film.

And I'm sure the Doctor is a Liberal if he ever votes on earth or if the have them within the Council of the Time Lords.

Well that's my opinion.  It probably dates me.  I'm sure you disagree with me.  Why not add your thoughts or memories as a comment.

Monday, 12 November 2012

Nate Silver is a genius!

As a political junkie I have been closely following the US election these last few months.

A key part of my regular reading has been Nate Silver's Fivethirtyeight blog attached to the New York Times..

Nate Silver is a statistician and a geek, I'm sure his alter ego has a starring role on Big Bang Theory.  He made a bit of a name for him by building a statistical model for predicting baseball results. Following success with that he turned to politics and predicted the US election incredibly accurately in 2008.  I discovered him towards the end of that campaign.

Now lets be clear - Nate Silver is a genius. And so are the guys at Votamatic and a couple of other stats based poll analysis sights.  They got their predictions on what was going to happen in the US elections absolutely spot on.  (And that by the way is the point - he was giving statistical probability of given events happening based on the data and a multitude of factors coming together)

I can't believe how right Nate Silver was right about everything in this election.  Not only that but also how he described accurately the shape of the race at every stage and identified the underlying cause and effects.  And in his use of data he was able to show what was happening not just give a politically loaded narrative or a best guess gut feel.

I did wonder if there was some under counting of shy Republicans - if Romney was going to do a Bush and pull out the numbers on election day.  But the polling was scientific and their statistically significant samples called it right. It was a couple of the Republican polls who got it all wrong by trying to weight the electorate.  
Because not only did Silver describe the race at every turn perfectly but his understanding about different polls and how they work is first class.  This added another dimension.  And he explains everything, comprehensively and lucidly.

Quite frankly throughout the race if you wanted to really understand what was going on all you had to read was Nate Silver.

And he didn't do that awful thing American's do and say everything is a toss up or too close to call.  Silver told us what was happening and how probable each outcome was - state by state - day by day.

Using data dispassionately - and patiently waiting for the numbers to come through - Nate could explain how much difference each debate made, what effect the conventions had - even individual speeches and accounted for economic factors as well as noting any trend or momentum in an ever changing environment.

The accurate enlightenment of the body of work by Nate and his team was breath taking to behold.  Not to mention how it exposed douchebag in chief Karl Rove as being a bag of spin and partisan narrative.

Political punditry may never be the same again.

Data and evidence based commentary!

All hail King Nate!

Sunday, 11 November 2012

What does Remembrance Day mean for me?

The following is much of a post I wrote last year.  I thought it might be worth posting again today.

The Remembrance Days I attended at school in Edinburgh in the 1970s left a big impression on me.

First it was some of the teachers.  Several had seen action. One, a French teacher who was hopeless at keeping order, had been at Arnhem and was a bone fide war hero.  Another had been at Monte Cassino.  One of the primary teachers had been imprisoned by the Japanese and bore the mental scars as a result.  Another French teacher had taken a shrapnel wound.  And Bill Knox, the legendary and ubiquitous janny (janitor or care-taker if that term means nothing to you) had been evacuated from Dunkirk after a close shave.  Bill proudly wore his medal ribbons on his janitor’s uniform every day. 

It was obvious that Remembrance meant something to these men.  Sometimes a former pupil would attend the ceremony and they would stand in solemn thought considering their fallen classmates.  Once I saw the Deputy Head – a tough Aberdonian – escort one of these veterans who he had fought with to the memorial with his wreath.  I saw their faces – a stern stoicism masking deep emotion – as they walked out in the cold.

The second thing that affected me was the war memorial at the school with its names covering all four sides of a rather fine stone needle.  I stood and studied them more than once during my school days.  These were young men just like me – just like me!  They came from exactly the same place, from exactly the same background, with exactly the same life experience as me – just a couple of generations earlier.  But for the Grace of God...

These had been wars of national survival with a total mobilisation of the country.  If I had been alive I would have been there and so would my friends.  Something struck me that these boys deserved to be remembered.
Finally, as a young man I read a lot of history – I even went on to study it at university.  I read a lot about what these men went through, what they faced, what conditions were like.  I read the horrific combat statistics.  I read the accounts of battle.  I read the soldiers’ stories.  Many deaths were heroic but often they were just sad or tragic!

My Granny also left an impression on me.  Her husband (my Grandfather who I never knew) Hugh Young had been on the Somme (in one of the earliest tanks in fact).  He came back, but many of their friends and family did not.  Remembrance Day meant a lot to my Granny – or the 11th hour on the 11th day of the 11th month as she called it.

My Granny and the teachers at my school left and indelible impression on me.  Remembrance Day was about remembering the people who had died and it was about raising money to support those who had been scarred by war.

I heard a guy on the radio form the White Poppy movement.  Now pacifism is a laudable and absolutely legitimate position to hold and to campaign for.  But this man was ungenerous, mean spirited, ill informed and talked complete and utter guff.

In a funny way I have never understood those who say Remembrance Day is militaristic.  Because the day focuses on remembering the people who have died I have always thought pacifists and those who are uncomfortable about our foreign adventures should be amongst the most passionate exponents and participants in Remembrance Day.  It is after all a day we focus on the true cost of war and the pity of war!

It is about remembrance whether we approve or disapprove of any given war.

Kate Higgins told the story of the origins of Remembrance Day and the Poppy in her blog 'Poppy Cock' earlier this week.  I think she is spot on in what she says.  The one big difference is that the meaning of symbols and ceremonies do evolve, like language, over time.  

So, I always wear the poppy because I believe:
  1. We should never forget what happened in two world wars in the 20th century and try to learn the lessons from them.
  2. In remembrance of those who died in those wars – even if not known personally.
This means thinking of the 2nd war which was a war of national survival for us – a war which pulled us and so many other countries into a conflict with tyranny.  This means thinking of the 1st war where the slaughter was on an almost industrial scale – a much more complex conflict to understand but still a war of national survival although with a real sense of millions dying in the war games of a ruling elite.  This means thinking of the young who had their lives torn up to face fear and for many of them sacrifice.

Today wars are not of national survival and sometimes appear morally ambiguous. Iraq was wrong! Afghanistan was probably the right thing to do but has become less clear cut as time has gone on.

Nevertheless, these are security actions and it is important that they are undertaken and more to the point that we have men and women who are ready and willing to go into combat if called on.  And we should remember those people who die and we should look after those who are maimed or suffer mental torment afterwards.

Remembrance Day – lest we forget!

Sunday, 4 November 2012

Which is the best Bond film ever?

I went to see Skyfall this week.  It is an absolutely fantastic film.  But is it the best?  Where does it sit in the pantheon of a great series of films?

Here is how I currently rate the Bond films from least to best.  It is of course a personal view and some of the placings will be a bit quirky to me (and I may even have got some of the details mixed up).  Have a read and tell me what you think!

23 For your eyes only

It feels more like a TV movie than a top Bond film.

22 Quantum of Solace

It is trying to be Bourne not Bond.  And it's all action and therefore lacks characterisation and story somewhat.  Good car chases though! (if a little like something out of Grand Turismo)

21 Moonraker
It is a good fun Bond but not a great.  In fact I am never entirely sure if Moore's slightly camp, played a bit for laughs Bond altogether counts as James Bond to be honest.

20 View to a kill
Same as Moonraker - I just find View to a kill a little more memorable.

19 Octopussy

It starts well and has great exotic Indian locations, mood and atmosphere.  The story line and characters are good but it ends up being another that feels like a TV movie - filmed on a railway line near Peterborough masquerading as East Germany.

18 Man with the Golden Gun

Decent enough Bond and good villain's assistant, but it's a Moore - so at the weaker end.

17  The world is not enough

Brosnan was a decent Bond.  He has that cruel quality.  But I think he suffers from not having as good scripts as some of the others - though the films are all well made and enjoyable.

16 Die another day

As above

15 Tomorrow never dies

As above again

14 Licence to kill (they should have called it Licence Revoked)

Dalton is a great actor.  And he plays the theme of revenge very well.  He is a better actor than Brosnan, though I think Brosnan is a better fit for Bond than Dalton.  Dalton is altogether too sympathetic and sensitive.

13 Dr No

This is a great spy thriller and begins to bring in some of the elements of classic Bond but altogether it is rather dated and doesn't stand the test of time for me.  Since the genre was just getting started it is a bit shallower in some of the Bond elements compared with later films.

12 Goldeneye

Brosnan's best Bond

11 From Russia with Love

Again a bit dated otherwise it would be higher.  A great thriller and Lotte Lenya (Rosa Kleb) is one of the great villains.

10 The Living Daylights

Dalton's best one.  A really enjoyable film and great story.  I enjoyed it a lot and have seen it a couple of times.  The chase on the Cello through the snow, the fight hanging out the back of a Hercules and the Mujaheddin when they were enemies of the Russians and before anyone had ever heard of Al Quaeda are all memorable moments in a memorable film.

9 Casino Royale

Daniel Craig's first outing.  Craig is the best Bond since Connery.  He has that sense of isolation, of matter of fact ruthlessness, of being resourceful and hard as nails - and yet flawed and vulnerable, with a sense of a suppressed character lying dormant behind those piercing blue eyes.  It is also a strong story with a good piece of personal history to James Bond.

8 The spy who loved me

A good one from Moore.  Good locations, a good female character, Jaws and the underwater Lotus (though the Lotus is not my favourite Bond car)

7 Live and let die

A personal favourite and one of the best theme tunes.  Solitaire is one of the best female characters in the series and the voodoo storyline has real menace.  I think I'm also right in saying the funny southern American cop appears for the first time in this one!

6 Diamonds are forever

Not everyone's favourite but one of mine!  Its a great story with some great character parts.  I think it also has my favourite Bond girls.

5 Thunderball

We are now getting to quintessential Bond films here. The awesome taking of the Vulcan bomber, the man in the mask, the Health club scenes, and the menace of an evil organisation trying to hold the world to ransom.  Is this the one with the brilliant, surprise elimination of the failed Spectre executive in their leather and chrome lair?  I think a couple of others are stronger only because I think they have slightly better endings.

4 Skyfall

The only later one I am placing with the quintessential Bonds.  As a stand alone film in terms of characterisation, the themes it explores and the inter relationships this is probably the best film.  It also has some quite stunning cinematography of London, Shanghai and Glencoe.  But it doesn't quite out Bond the top three.

3 On her majesty's secret service

Lazenby in his sole outing - but this is still quintessential Bond.  The drive by shooting of Tracey, the genuine sadness of the scene and the Louis Armstrong sound track make this oh so memorable.  And I haven't even mentioned the mountain top villain's lair, the sky chase and a particularly fiendish plot to take over the world.  This is classic Bond and a great spy thriller.

2 You only live twice

Others will probably place this lower but I love this film.  Ninjas, a futuristic spy chief's base, a great entrance by Bond - and it has a villain's lair inside a mountain with a mono rail and a piranha invested pool - what more do you want!!  Deserves a high billing alone for Donald Pleasance uttering the lines "good bye - meester Bond!"

1 Goldfinger

The quintessential Bond.

If you don't believe me go and watch it again!

Well that's what I think.

What do you think?

Sunday, 16 September 2012

Hillsborough and the British disease

I was genuinely shocked by the new report on Hillsborough  this week.

There was already a lot we kinda knew already.

We knew why it happened and where the fault lay – The Taylor report was broadly correct in its assertions - both the initial report and the recommendations.

We knew the Sun lied and published a disgraceful article and that was down to Kelvin Mackenzie personally.

We knew the police tried to sanitise, spin and doctor statements – but it was shocking to see the full extent of it.

We knew the authorities in the 1980s treated fans like cattle or criminals and viewed policing football  as a public order matter not a safety one.

We knew that the 3.15 cut off time for assuming everyone was dead or beyond help was almost certainly wrong.

But I didn’t realise about the failure of the ambulance service and the major incident procedure.

Shockingly and tragically we didn't know that the crush having happened the emergency services could maybe have / should have been able to save the lives of some of the 96 who were not killed straight away.

I was shocked by the pomposity and apparent foolishness of the coroner’s report which I didn’t fully realise about.  Shocked by the way it assessed the evidence and treated the fans. Read about it here

I was shocked by the failure of the FA, Sheffield Wednesday and presumably the local authority. Leppings Lane was a known death trap. After Bradford we knew fences weren’t safe. The ground didn’t even have a safety certificate!!!!

Why did the FA use Hillsborough? And Sheffield Wednesday knew about the problems of the inadequate turnstiles and the dangers of Leppings Lane – its down sloping tunnel, its pen, its inadequate crowd number control, its propensity for crushing that put spectators in mortal danger - its near misses of tragedy at other games in the 1980s.

While the police are – quite rightly- criticised, why are we not asking some very serious questions of the FA and Sheffield Wednesday. We forget how responsible they appear and how foolish some of their actions seem in hindsight.

The authorities failed the fans. The police - a body there to protect us - when push came to shove, just protected itself.   It was shocking – an outrage and profoundly undemocratic and therefore disturbing.

As Alex Thomson of Channel 4 News observed this seems to be the British pattern: disaster, flawed legal inquiry, cover-up, campaign, wilderness years, proper inquiry, and finally an apology.  He cites Bloody Sunday, the Marchioness, the Mull of Kintyre and now Hillsborough as examples.  Repeated state cover-ups when the heat's on and careers are at stake.  It is shocking and it is not good enough.

Which is why it is still important today and why it is important to move onto the next stage in the pursuit of justice.

But lets not forget the FA and Sheffield Wednesday, who I think have as many questions to answer as South Yorkshire Police for the Hillsborough disaster.

Bursting Salmond's Baloon

Alex Salmond was jeered when he appeared in front of the crowds welcoming Scotland's Olympians and Paralympians in Glasgow on Friday.

So, just like Gideon Osborne, a crowd jeered at Alex Salmond.

To quote yesterday's Times, "Returning athletes were greeted like rock stars, but Alex Salmond was jeered by the crowd."

This must have been all the more galling because Lord Moynihan, a sports minister under Margaret Thatcher, the sort of Tory who usually gets a knee jerk negative reaction north of the border, was cheered onto the stage and "when he was followed by Mr Salmond the boos rang out".

Now I don't really know what the significance of this is, I don't really know why they booed him, or how much of the crowd booed him.  However what I do know is this: the SNP have really gone through agonies this summer over their identity.  First they were faced with the royal pageant fest that was the Jubilee of someone who is our monarch too - and a popular one at that!  Then they were faced with an Olympics held in our country.  Then they were faced with the success of those games and of Team GB.  And finally the whole thing was repeated again - successfully - with the Paralympics.

Many Scots were to the fore in these games, often succeeding as part of a team or a pairing with fellow countrymen and women from all corners of Britain.  We are both British and Scottish.  Something most of us instinctively understand and are totally comfortable with.  True some are more Brit than Scot, others more Scot than Brit, but we are British as well as Scottish nonetheless.

The referendum is about identity as much as anything else and it is deeper, more complex and ultimately more interesting than a narrow nationalism can accept.

I believe even the more considered and developed ideas of Scottish nationalism that have been expressed are, in the final analysis, quite narrow and limiting too.

Salmond was booed after a summer where he seemed to try to avoid the words Great Britain or Team GB.  After a summer where much of the pro nat chat on social media like Twitter was along the lines of 'it will never work', 'its all far too superficial and commercial' and 'I feel in no way British', then grudgingly admitting, 'I do feel British' but quickly adding that that's a social union - and 'err yes, I really enjoyed the Olympics'.

Perhaps this is why Salmond was jeered by Scots in Glasgow on Friday.

This summer has also been full of hype.  Yes hype for the Jubilee and then the London Olympics, but also hype for the never ending referendum and the cause of an independent Scotland.

There is also all the hype against Osborne symbolised by his boo-boy moment earlier.  The economy is struggling and there are things you can criticise Osborne for, and there are aspects of his approach open for debate.  But like other western economies he faces the issues of a massive structural deficit, sovereign debt challenges and chronic low growth.  There was a strong consensus in 2010 over what needed to be done and some realisation that there was little flexibility to allow for any panacea of easy growth solutions. 

Jeff Breslin writing at Better Nation touched on an aspect of this consensus as it affects Scotland, 

'The Scottish economy’s fortunes are currently noticeably clearly intertwined with the rUK economy’s, making a mockery of the back-and-forth breast-beating between Governments over which is doing marginally better than the other"'

"After all, what is Alex Salmond proposing – a low tax, fiscally conservative, light touch economy. It won’t be music to many Nats’ ears, but you’d struggle to fit too many Rizla papers between Osborne’s vision for the UK and the SNP’s apparent vision for Scotland."

Perhaps the significant thing about people booing Salmond is that helps to burst some of the hype.

Salmond is not our 'Dear Leader' - he is a politician with an agenda.  And most Scots do not support that agenda.  And furthermore there are more issues that face us than Scotland's national question and we are not on the march to inevitable independence.

Wednesday, 5 September 2012

My British Identity

Watching the Paralympics this week made me think about all the column inches I have seen written about the Olympics helping the image of being British in Scotland.

I've read a lot about us all getting behind team GB and their achievements somehow affecting the way Scots feel about their nationality.  Maybe it has, but if it has I think something more fundamental has been happening than getting enthused about the Olympics and the Paralympics.

You see, I believe many of us have a sort of two pronged nationality - we are both British and Scottish at the same time - they are not mutually exclusive.  Britain is a very old country and has grown organically that way.  It is quirky and ancient.  Great Britain and Northern Ireland - the United Kingdom to give it its Sunday best title - is a country of nations and regions.  That is just the way it is - but it is a nation state and one that makes plenty of sense.

After the remarkable victory of the SNP in 2011 I was beginning to think that maybe - just maybe - the SNP might be on the right side of history and maybe there was an appetite for independence.

I began to hear the arguments repeated loudly over and over again: 'The Union has had its day', 'Independence will solve our problems', 'The union is broken and dysfunctional', 'Scotland is just like the last colony and the Secretary of State is like a Governor General', 'We must stand up and look after our own affairs', 'Where is the positive case for the Union?'

I thought - ok, these people have a cause, and it has gone on for a lifetime! Every argument has been refined, every line trialed and every objection answered.  The National question has not pre-occupied the other side, and the other side, although probably bigger, is a more disparate group.  The case for the union will come - instinct tells me there is plenty to say here.

But, for a while, I thought maybe the case for the union would stumble and would never become clear?

But, this summer it has begun to come and it has begun to deepen and it has begun to spread out.  The case for Independence on the other hand has begun to look a little threadbare, a little predictable in comparison perhaps.

For me the Olympic opening ceremony began to express some of it.  Someone tweeting about it (not a Scot and not hooked in to our National question) noted just how much there was to being British.  We captured that sense of a quirky, eccentric spirit and a sense of humour.  We captured a sense of invention and ideas - in science, in technology and in engineering.  We captured an off the wall, open, dare I say it - liberal - spirit that helps fuel our diverse arts and music.  We captured our political progress - and this is a hard one - but we have always been able to progress on a journey improving and making better what needs to improve - adult suffrage, the fight against slavery, religious emancipation, a dignified retreat from empire, rights for women, the welfare state, the journey away from racial discrimination and to a multi-cultural society - one we are probably still tackling.  The list can go on.  But what a marvellous, open, liberal, progressive, inventive people we are.

And no - we are not a dysfunctional Tory conspiracy, we are not some regressive Westminster power block somehow alien to Scotland and holding her back.  We are so much more than that.

And nor is Scotland a colony or something grafted onto a foreign and alien body.

Many nationalists regard Scotland as a separate entity to England and Wales.  They regard the UK as a union of separate parts.  It is almost as if they are separate pieces stuck together like a couple of Lego bricks - related but separate.

Scotland is absolutely part and parcel of Britain and Britain is part and parcel of Scotland.

That inventiveness has so much to thank Scotland for.  Scots engineering is widely respected and that feeds into British engineering.  Scots financial governance has a high reputation and that contributes to the success of the City (and I'm talking about high standards of banking and accountancy here, not the casino banking that has contributed so much to our troubles).

Scotland and all the constituent parts of the UK have their traditions intermingled like waters from different streams converging together into a great river.  And that is something you can't simply separate.

Gordon Brown talked about some of this recently.  He argued that “Scottish ideas of justice and community” combined with “traditional English ideas of ordered liberty and individualism” to create not only “common political rights” but also “common social and economic rights”.

I believe quite a view nationalists are romantics at heart.  They have a patriotic vision of what Scotland is and of what a separate Scotland can be - sometimes a little Ruritarian perhaps.  But we are an essential part of Britain and I want to argue that Britain is a nation state.

One language, one integrated economy, one island (almost).  And while there are cultural differences they are not large enough to amount to being a separate country.  Indeed much of our culture is a fully shared culture - and again an intermingled one.

Danny Boyle showed that to be a very modern and dynamic country - not something where we are always looking into the past.

I believe Scotland is a marvellous place, a great nation and a distinctive part of the United Kingdom.  But so much of who we are is as British people, not just Scottish people.  And its not so easy or particularly desirable to separate that out.

For Britain is a nation state - a nation of nations and regions - its quirky that way!

Saturday, 5 May 2012

That went well!

Well, that went well!

The local elections were an unmitigated disaster for the LibDems in Edinburgh, where I live!

I scribed most of my thoughts on a comment on the Better Nation website, so I thought I would lay them out on my own blog.

We all knew this was coming a year ago. Things were always going to get worse for us before they get better and fighting locals as the lead party what with the Trams, some big budget challenges and LibDem group’s ‘talent’ for self promotion was likely to lead to another pasting.

Well, we got that, but it was slightly worse than I expected. I had hoped for 7 and feared for 4 – we got 3!

Interestingly, I don’t think the liberal (small l) vote has disappeared. In large part, it has gone Green and to the National Party of Scotland.

Places like Meadows, Fountainbridge and Stockbridge have always had an inbuilt liberal block. People who are in touch with their inner tank-top and eat vegetables. Since we have blotted our copy book it has helped the Greens get 6 councillors and some big wins.

The Nats are the opposition to Labour – there to give scrutiny and an alternative way to do things. I think Labour need that. As such they carry the responsibility of representing many who are cautious about how a Labour administration will perform.

So in a non tribal sense I don’t despair for our city.

I’ve been a Liberal for a long time and I’ve met in both taxis and in large halls. I had always felt things to be ok because the ‘market’ demand for a centre party was there. A pragmatic party with a perfect mix of individualism and collectivism, strong on the environment and civil liberties and positive about Europe and the need for effective devolution within the UK (Federalism even).

I’m a bit more worried this time – in Scotland at least. I saw the Greens come through in the late 80s but they faded. Today they are much more coherent, rounded and a mature proposition. I think they have potentially more staying power as we look jaded and yesterday’s party.

There has always been a strong place for a non socialist alternative to the Conservative party – that is in a nutshell what the LibDems were in the 20th century. The Nats and the LibDems (Alliance in the 80s) have ebbed and flowed around this one over the last 40 years – over time and over different regions of Scotland.  Well currently the Nats have well and truly blocked us out of that one. It doesn’t help that we have blotted our left of centre copy-book with the coalition and everything that that involves during an era of global financial crisis.

The point is there isn’t really an opening there as the Nats are currently much more than just a nationalist party or the party of Independence.

So where does that leave us – in Edinburgh terms.

Well, I think we need to go back to our areas and form Focus action groups and get on with some of the things we do best – community action. We need to stay engaged and involved. I think in Edinburgh a core of activists and members will remain in the parts of the city where we have been strong.

For us in a lot of ways politics was re-booted 12 months ago. So we now put this behind us and move on.  This means we can start to hold the big groups on the council to account. Including the Nats and the Greens as they represent the interests of liberal minded voters (amongst others of course).

We can free of being in administration during a difficult period promote our ideas for the city and constructive criticisms of what goes on.

I actually believe the LIbDems have done a lot of good across Edinburgh in recent years. The LibDem councillors increased nursery places and care for older people and started building houses again. They also increased recycling, and importantly sorted out the financial mess the city faced after the previous administration. (Leaving aside the costs associated with the Tram project).

In the manifesto the group put together they developed a lot of detailed and valuable thinking of where the city should go next and what the priorities are.

The point is that stump politicking or internet trolling aside there is some good thinking there to continue to contribute albeit as a depleted group and to continue to think and develop ideas is a key thing we should continue to do proudly.

I don’t know what is to come in the years ahead. The Nats may decline if they loose the referendum in 2014. They may face pressures and fissures between those who see independence as building a new socialist Utopia in Scotland and those who see themselves as an effective disciplined centre left alternative to Labour. Who knows.

The point is we have re-booted the computer and the LibDems should get out there and campaign in this city.

Monday, 9 April 2012

Public sector pensions is not the issue!

All power to Steve Webb with his work on looking for alternative pension methods for British workers in the years to come.  This is the real issue, not public sector pensions.

Final salary pensions are dead.  They have been for over a decade now.  The public sector unions are either being King Canute like or don't understand the economics of providing pensions - or both!

A number of factors but primarily increasing longevity - we are living longer - means final salary pensions are no longer affordable.  No large company offers them any more.  Some are even moving to withdraw them for existing employees or members of the scheme.  They are too expensive.

The offers on the table for the public sector seem pretty reasonable.  Average salary schemes protect the lower paid and CPI growth rather than RPI growth at least gives inflation proofing based on the cost of living rather than none.

I'm sure there are still aspects to negotiate over but I hope a settlement can be made that is reasonable for us to pay for - that is 'us' who no longer have such pensions widely available in the private sector!

Where the unions have a point is that it is not a race to the bottom.  The withdrawal of final salary schemes and the oncoming auto-enroled pensions mean employers are tempted to put far less into pensions than they did before.  Employers  running a final salary scheme might have been putting 15% of their payroll cost into pensions.  In the future it could be down to 4%!!

We need alternatives for big British firms that allow them to provide decent pensions but the big issue is - as Tom McPhail the pensions commentator said tonight - that employers need to put more in their employees' pension pots.

Some form of guarantees for workers' pensions may be important but getting employers to pay more is vital.

We can accept that pensions must be paid by a combination of employer and employee.

We can accept that the risk taken by employers should be reduced and that there can be fewer guarantees (which cost and are hard to deliver)

What we shouldn't accept is employers paying a quarter of what they used to into workers' pensions.

All power to Steve Webb.  He is proving to be an outstanding minister.  Auto-enrolment is great and will bring a lot of workers, previously unpensioned, into the fold.  But lets do this work at finding a decent replacement for final salary schemes for larger companies who have always offered pensions, to offer in the 21st century.

This is the real fight for pensions that the unions - and others - should be fighting. 

Sunday, 26 February 2012

What are the Liberal Democrats for?

Earlier this week I had the opportunity to meet with Willie Rennie, leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats, for a bloggers' interview.  So it was that Andrew Page, Nicola Prigg, Douglas Mclennan and I spent an evening discussing everything from the constitution to youth unemployment.

The LibDems have been through a torrid time over the last couple of years in Scotland.  Being aligned with the Tories in government brought the party to the brink of oblivion at the Scottish elections last year.  Being the junior partner in a government dealing with the global financial crisis and an enormous structural deficit has drawn the LibDems to be associated with unpopular NHS reform, draconian changes to the assessment o disability benefits and tertiary education tuition fees.

The question many people ask is that it is all very well having the ministerial cars but what difference have the LibDems made?  What is the point of the Liberal Democrats?

I asked Willie Rennie what he thought the LibDems are for.

He picked out four things
  • Opportunity
  • Community
  • Internationalism
  • Sustainability
 He argued these are four key values all based around the individual.  By way of example he expanded on this by describing how he believes public services can be made more responsive to people.

This is clearly a passion of Willie's and a topic he has given a lot of thought and devoted much reading towards.  I was worried for a moment that we might start to exchange some lame platitudes on this subject but as Willie expanded on his thinking I was pleasantly surprised that there was some real substance as to how we might make public services more effective and there was some real depth to Willie's thinking.

For Willie Rennie making public services more responsive to people is about moving control away from the centre of our providers of various public services and empowering staff.  They know what to do and are well trained.

It is why the Liberal Democrats remain opposed to a single Scottish police force!

Willie is extremely interested in developing some of the latest thinking on the provision of effective public services.  He sees it as a partnership between the consumers and providers of services.  This is getting at the fundamentals.

He went on and gave some examples of what he meant.  We take too bureaucratic, too controlling an approach seeking safety first - we don't innovate enough in this segment of the economy.  He told the story of a housing department in a central Scottish local authority - authority that was top rated regarding achievement of service targets but near the bottom regarding public satisfaction..

"Somebody fills in a form wrong, no one at the desk takes initiative and comments - they just let it go.  It goes to the office and they send it back.  And so it goes on to and fro until the matter is solved 6 weeks later.  But the council feels they have done well which is completely different to the perception of the service consumer!  The council was focussing on its processes not its outcomes.  The form was passed to the department, the form was processed, queries were answered - all within the set SLAs (service level agreements).  They didn't fix the problem but they processed the form in the right timescale."  

A focus on outcomes and allowing frontline staff to make sure the form was right before they sent it for processing would have improved this story. It is also about encouraging and embracing community capacity and voluntary action.

It is also about the need to change attitudes councils to the independent/voluntary sectors, particularly the perception that if the council doesn't directly offer a service it isn't good enough.

I was struck by Willie Rennie's charisma as well as his ability to commuicate.  He has a twinkle in his eye.  As he spoke about how society can work better he looked forward to how Scotland can be better in 50 years time.  It is a liberal vision based on communities and giving opportunities to the individual to improve all our lives.

I will visit some more of what I discussed with Willie Rennie and share some of my thoughts over two or three subsequent blogposts


Wednesday, 18 January 2012

Scottish Roundup 2

As some of you will know, Scottish Roundup does a sort of "What the Papers Say" of the Scottish blog scene every week.  This includes covering some pretty momentous events that will affect Scotland and the entire UK over the next few years.

I had the pleasure of reviewing the Macblogosphere in such a significant week.

You can read the roundup here.

Have a read and discover some first rate bloggers, if you don't know them already.

I also highly recommend Frances Coppola's learned and very informative blog on the currency conundrum facing any independent Scotland.