Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Taking offence

The debate about free speech following the Charlie Hebdo murders has followed a now familiar rights vs obligations narrative.  "Yes, of course people have the right to express themselves but is it wise for them to do so?"   I don't find the 'of course' in some people's usage entirely convincing but I've been wondering if the question might be posed in a different way: is it either possible or desirable to have a legal framework that protects people from offence, and specifically from that sense of hurt derived from others desecrating what they hold to be sacred?  The answer is no, for two reasons:

1) Taking offence is a far too subjective experience to be worked into any rational legal system.  Some found Charlie Hebdo's cartoons deeply offensive whereas I have found the fact that some people couldn't even wait for the artists to be buried before they smeared them as racists obscene.  I don't want to do a sermon about this.  Peter Ryley summed up what I think as well as anyone.  France has a long tradition of leftwing politics with a strong anticlerical strand.  It was in this tradition Charlie Hebdo stood.  We just don't have that in Britain - and boy doesn't it show? 

2) A legal fence can't be built to protect what others consider sacred because that enclosure would be so wide as to suffocate free thought.  Do we really need to demonstrate this?  It's not just about cartoons, or, as others have pointed out, any representation of Mohammed but whole fields of intellectual enquiry.  I was glad Nick Cohen mentioned the dearth of form criticism in Koranic studies in his article at the weekend because it's a point that should be made more often.  Form criticism is basically lit crit techniques applied to the Bible, an field of theological study pioneered - like so many - in Germany.  Wikipedia will inform you that this technique is 'in its infancy' when it comes to the field of Koranic studies.  It is in its infancy because it is extremely dangerous, as Professor Nasr Abu Zaid discovered to his cost.

Whipping out the inverted commas to put round free-speech doesn't make closing down fields of intellectual enquiry, whether it be academic research, writing books or drawing cartoons anything other than intolerable.  And neither do the charges of hypocrisy, as if those of us appalled at this atrocity are in some way supportive of the various restrictions imposed by the governments represented at the Paris march.  The obvious solution to the hypocrisy of the uneven application of free expression is to have more of it, not less.  Anyway, what is hypocrisy but the tribute vice feels obliged to pay to virtue?   Perhaps we should fear more if our corrupt rulers didn't even feel the need to do this?

Finally, there's the question of whether seeing the origin of all this in the audacity of free speech does justice to the situation.  As well as the attack on Charlie Hebdo there was the assault on the kosher supermarket.  God preserve us from anyone attempting to discern what offence the victims had caused since it should be plain it was their very existence.  I'm not going to ask the rhetorical question, what does it take for people to realise what they are being confronted with?  The answer is something other than a fascist gang with automatic weapons killing unarmed journalists and Jews, obviously - and that is deeply depressing.

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

A guide to modern management

Have an issue at work?  Understand that the modern manager is like a guitar-player that only knows a few riffs.  Here's two of the most common:

a) "We hear what you're saying but instead of the issue you raise, let's focus on your failure to observe the approved bureaucratic protocol".  This means in practice that you probably didn't inform the correct people in the hierarchy in the officially-sanctioned order.  This is always and everywhere a more serious matter than the one you originally raised.

b) "We hear what you're saying.  Let's work out why any problems you're having with this are actually all your fault".

Translation: "We have power and you don't - what are you going to do about it?"  This is why trades unions are on balance a jolly good thing.

Monday, October 06, 2014

Against 'devo-max'

This is just a brief note.  I'm told I voted No because I was promised something called 'devo-max'.  I've already said I find this objectionable.  I would have voted No without the unseemly rush of the leaders of the main UK parties to promise 'more powers' because I am not the least bit interested in giving a party as intolerant of disagreement as the SNP one ounce more power over my life.  But now we're all being told the 'Westminster parties' must deliver on this thing that no-one can quite agree on.

What does 'devo-max' actually mean?  The maximum devolution possible whilst preserving the integrity of the UK, one assumes.  If it means 'fiscal autonomy' in the sense that the Scottish Government is responsible for all revenue raised in Scotland and is part of the UK only in the sense that we would pay a subscription to a common foreign and immigration policy, it is an absolutely dreadful idea and one can only assume the Nationalists are advocating it for the reason Willie Rennie says: they are Nationalists and their prime objective is the destruction of the UK.  No-one should be surprised if they see 'devo-max' as a means to this end.

'Devo-max' just isn't feasible.  I know no-one can name me a state on the face of the planet that functions in the way described above because there isn't one.  Even if it was feasible, it isn't desirable for all the same reasons a currency union wasn't desirable.  For the sharing of a currency to work, you need automatic stabilisers in the form of cross-border fiscal transfers.  Salmond's back of the fag packet plans for an independent Scotland's monetary policy to be run from London ruled these out; 'devo-max' just recreates the same problem.

Better to have as an option UK welfare providing a floor - and if Scots want to pay more tax to top this up, let the Holyrood parties put this to the electorate.  Even better still, why don't we have some proper local government in these Islands?  My colleagues in 'Teachers for Yes' rather grudgingly admitted that Westminster have absolutely no control over Scottish education whatsoever but nevertheless favoured a Yes vote because the UK 'controlled the purse-strings'.  Fact of the matter is, Holyrood controls the purse-strings via the council tax freeze with the connivance of Cosla.  Why don't we have some local autonomy instead?  Here's how it would work: in local government elections, the various parties could put forward differnt proposals for the level of taxation and service provision and the one that the electorate like the best would win.  It's called democracy and not one of the major parties in Scotland - either Nationalist nor Unionist - think this is a good idea.  Sad, but there it is.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Some reflections on the referendum

Not jubilation but just overwhelming relief that it was over - something I felt about 98% certain of at the back of eleven on Thursday.  It's been a roller-coaster.  I find going on roller-coasters deeply unpleasant and pointless experiences and so with Indyref 2014, only it went on much much longer.  A few thoughts in no particular order, starting with what is for me the must read post-indy post from the Flying Rodent.

1) What he said.  Just to reinforce a couple of points he makes. Thank goodness someone else said this too: I couldn't be doing with all this positivity about how engaged people were.  People were engaged all right, but not in a good way.  More specifically I've been personally told on more tha one occasion that various ugly scenes we've witnessed on the campaign are explicable because people feel passionately about the issues, man.  My response would be that if 'feeling passionate' is what leads people to scream 'quisling' in people's faces and stand in a parking lot on a Sunday afternoon calling for journalists to be sacked for being rude to the First Minister then I'd have thought it was an obvious point to make that feeling passionate isn't necessarily, or even usually, a virtue in itself.

2) FR's right about the turnout too.  If change is big, clear and irreversible, then it's going to be much easier to mobilise people - even if, as in this case, it's to stop it from happening,  I hope people aren't too disappointed when they realise there's not the least chance of this being transferred to the beige world of parliamentary politics.

3) I declare myself vindicated on anything I have ever said about referendums.  I thought I had written something longer than this, and I may have but can't be bothered looking for it.  One of the many objections I have to them is they absolutely do not do what they say on the tin.  Politicians usually advocate them because they claim they'll settle an issue 'once and for all'.  We've already seen numerous international examples where the exact opposite happens.  We should be clear about this: they are repeated because the people who lost didn't accept the result.  The Irish with Europe and the Quebecois in Canada are obvious examples.  I have to say the speed with which Salmond & Co. have gone cold on the whole "sovereign will of the Scottish people" thing is pretty impressive, although we have a particular Salmond/Sillars twist with the idea that plebiscites are no longer a good thing at all, what with this one not yielding the desired result.

4) Salmond's departure is a wonderful thing, even if the manner in which he's doing so is more graceless than even I expected.  Nick Cohen is bang on the money here.  I can't do nuance with Salmond.  I consider him to be a sinister Putinist bully who has been an entirely malignant force in Scottish politics.  I can find nothing good to say about Alex Salmond at all.  His departure is a deliverance.

5) Many of the footsoldiers of the Yes movement were lions led by donkeys.  I was a little apprehensive about going into work on Friday wondering how my Yes colleagues had taken defeat.  They conducted themselves with grace and dignity - an impressive feat for the committed and the sleep deprived.  I'd imagine others have had similar experiences and I think it needs to be acknowledged.

6) This hasn't been universal, to put it mildly.  De Nile ain't just a river in Egypt - it's also the first in the stages of grief and I suppose it's understandable that we've seen a fair bit of this in the last couple of days.  But the speed with which some have formulated a betrayal narrative is truly awesome.  "They promised new powers and they lied!"  It's just a suggestion but I've have thought the weekend after the referendum was a little early to be pulling out a stab in the back myth.

Couple of points on this: any promises made in a referendum campaign are unenforceable.  All a referendum does is give a mandate for negotiation and people need to understand this.

The other thing people need to understand is the Nationalists don't want devolution to work because they don't believe in devolution.  I'd have thought it would be a better strategy not to make this so obvious, but that's just me.

The last point is I find it objectionable to be told as a No voter promises of 'Devo-mair' or whatever was all that stopped me voting Yes.  Hell would have frozen over before I voted Yes and I wasn't too fussed on more powers, personally.  One of the reasons for this is there's been precious little proper scrutiny over the exercise of the powers that the Scottish Government already has in Holyrood.  I personally wouldn't want a party as intolerant of disagreement as the SNP to have even a little bit more power over my life.  Again, that's just me but I know I'm not alone in feeling like that.

7) So far the regrouping strategy looks splendidly suicidal - like Yes voters calling themselves the 45.  Dig a trench and behind it you will find the righteous minority, unsullied by the world with white unspotted garments.  On the other side you'll find the 55% who hate Scotland and probably killed Bambi's mum.  Also note that the Sheridan/SWP/hard-left gang are gearing up to do an eighties revival and are planning SNP entryism.  One can only hope that works out as well for them as it did for the Labour Party.

Having a go at pensioners is much the same.  Hardly a smart tactic in a country with an ageing population.  Anyway, we only know from opinion polls how people voted but it is indeed likely that pensioners leant towards No.  So did women and so did English voters.  My mum's an English pensioner who is also by definition a woman.  Someone more impervious to the nationalist message you will never find.  The Nats might want to ask themselves why this is instead of accusing them of being selfish and risk-averse.  However, smarter and cooler heads in the Nationalist camp will ask themselves this very question and then they'll be back.  They'll be back because it needs to be understood that all the piety we heard about this being about democracy and not nationalism is just that - empty piety.  The fact of the matter is the Treaty of Union got something it never really had - an explicit democratic endorsement.  It's patently clear already that they're just not having this.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Why I'm voting No

I'd hoped to do better than this for what is my last post before the vote on Thursday but like Chris Deerin, this referendum has quite literally made me ill.  I was struck how different one's perception of all this depends on the little slice of the world one inhabits.  One of my oldest friends finds the debate to have been a largely good-natured discussion about the sort of country we want to live in.  He was genuinely shocked when I said I thought this has been about the worst thing I have ever seen happen to my country.

It was good to be reminded that all this depends on your Sitz im Leben.  In my street, for example, you could be forgiven for thinking this wasn't happening at all.  There's a couple of posters but those who decline to wear their hearts on their windows are in the overwhelming majority.  Canvassers there has been none, at least not when I'm in, which to be fair isn't that often.  But elsewhere my experience has been this debate has divided our nation quite bitterly with friends and family who normally agree on most things at each other's throats in a plebiscite that reduces complex choices down to a 'you're with me or against me' binary decision.

This, I accept, hasn't been the experience of others but I think the chances of a Scandinavian social democracy at peace with itself emerging from a narrow Yes vote are precisely nil.  I have no idea how many years of austerity would face an independent Scotland.  Deutsche Bank's Great Depression scenario seems unlikely but no more than the suggestion that hard times would last a year or three, as one nationalist colleague suggested to me.  I doubt Scotland would have a functioning independent state in that time-scale and would expect austerity to last at least a decade.  I would feel more relaxed about this if I thought I knew people were aware that this is what they were voting for but as I said here, all the evidence I have suggests that they don't.

This getting the opposite of what people think they're voting for forms part of the reason why I'm voting No.  You don't want to live in a country that has foodbanks?  Well, you better move to one that doesn't have any because you have them now and they are still going to be there if Scotland votes Yes.  Those who don't like austerity better brace themselves for what's about to come.  As for 'neo-liberalism', wait until you see the stance the government in an independent Scotland will be compelled to adopt to replace the capital that will surely flee.  And regarding Europe, people need to understand that a Yes vote is a vote to leave the EU with no prospect of re-entry if Scotland refuses to acknowledge its responsibility for its share of the UK debt.

But while serious, all these are side-issues as far as I'm concerned.  I'm voting No because I'm Scottish and British.  It's not an abstract concept or something that has been imposed but rather what I actually am.  Scotland is my home and so is Britain; it would break my heart to see an international border erected here. Independence would make more acute that feeling I've always had of not really belonging anywhere.  I appreciate this is a bit selfish but Britain is as close as I'm ever likely to get and I don't want to lose it.  The answer to those who say I can lose this common home and keep it at the same time is, I simply don't believe you.  I don't believe the nationalists are okay with with me being British.  They claim I can keep this while their activists spew venom at the very idea on the streets and across social media.

I don't want to get into a boring argument about how representative the goons screaming 'quisling' and 'traitor' into people's faces are.  Most people aren't political activists and most political activists are not crazy like this but there's enough evidence in for me to stick to my original position*: what we are being asked to believe is that in our case, nationalism will turn out to be something other than what we already know it to be.  I'm sorry if this is too negative but I just don't believe them: this is why I'm voting No.

*I hope Chris Deerin will forgive me for re-working his turn of phrase in the piece linked above.
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