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.

Wednesday, September 03, 2014

Yes Scotland's biggest lie

At the core of nationalism is the idea of a people in a given territory are bound together by a shared culture that demands the boundaries of the state should be the same as the nation in order for this to find its true expression.  One has been struck by the way how little of culture, in the sense of language, literature, art and music, has featured in this debate at all.  There are a couple of reasons for this.  One is that what cultural differences there are, we enjoy these this in the mix of a wider British culture, which in turn is part of a bigger still trans-Atlantic culture.  'Friends' has had immeasurably more influence on the way young people speak than Burns.  Like, totally.  The other more important reason is that no-one could seriously claim that Scottish culture has been oppressed by membership of the Union.  What self-respecting dictatorship wouldn't have Alan Bissett shipped off to a gulag to give him something to complain about?

Rather, the dominant idea in this referendum is the notion that the national culture that has been held back is a political culture.  Britain has locked left-wing Scotland into a neo-liberal constitutional prison and we need only put a cross in a box to liberate us from the cold-hearted Thatcherites south of the border.  That's the narrative we're being sold so it's worth asking two questions: how left-wing is Scotland and how left-wing is an independent Scotland likely to be, should it be Yes on the 18th?

If being disinclined to vote Conservative is left wing then Scotland certainly is but I'm increasingly convinced that this is not necessarily so.  It's something that goes beyond the observation that Scotland does not vote as a homogeneous block (more Scots voted for the coalition parties than the SNP in the 2010 Westminster election) and neither does England nor, of course, Wales.  There has been a tribal hostility to the Tories in my part of Scotland for as long as I can remember.  It was never the epitome of rationality but at least it was based on the politics of class and party.  Now it has taken on an ethnic tinge that should worry everyone.  I'm increasingly wondering if tribalism is all that's left of it.  One aspect of this is the social attitudes of Scots to things like Europe, immigration and welfare that are not as nearly as different to the rest of the UK as the flattering self-image of ourselves that the nationalists like to sell.*  There's some data here.   One in five Scots want to quit the EU altogether and a further 40% want to stay but repatriate powers.  Only 11% seem committed to 'ever closer union'.  

Perhaps part of this is attitudes to immigration.  The irony is the notion that an independent Scotland could do with a different immigration policy to the rest of the UK is one of the few policies of the SNP that makes any sense.  Their problem is, as the data shows, it wouldn't necessarily be welcomed by the Scottish electorate.  Nearly half the population fear that greater immigration from Eastern Europe or by Muslims would pose a threat to national identity.  One could only imagine what these percentages might be if we had immigration anything like on the scale of the south of England.  

A similar pattern can be seen in attitudes to the unemployed.  More than half of Scots think unemployment benefits are too high, twice as many as think they are too low.  

The reason Scots don't have traditionally left-wing policies is that people in Scotland don't vote for them, not because we are in the Union.  It certainly is not the position of the SNP.  This point cannot be stressed enough.  They have not enacted one single redistributive policy in the last seven years.  The obvious response to those who cite free prescriptions, university tuition and elderly care is that the point of universal benefits is everyone gets them.  I tend to favour some of them on the grounds of efficiency but the point is, if they are redistributive at all, it tends to be towards the median voter.  Some sharper nationalists have been candid enough to acknowledge attitudes to the welfare state in Scotland are an indication of our conservatism as a nation, at least as much as our supposed socialism.  There's a whole bunch of people going to vote Yes because they want things to stay the same, not because they want change.  

So how left-wing would Scotland be if it were independent?  If your idea of left-wing is simply having a larger, more generous welfare state, not very, if Scottish social attitudes are anything to go by.  But there's another dynamic, which one might call the Slovakian paradox.  I'm wondering if there's lessons in the break up of Czechoslovakia that neither side in this debate wants to hear.  There was in Slovakia, as in Scotland, a fairly widespread discontent with the neo-liberal path being taken by its bigger neighbour.  While the break-up is described as a 'velvet divorce', it had in its initial stages some features that Yes Scotland are desperately insisting are inconceivable in their plan for a seamless, almost imperceptible shift to independence: bank runs, borders thrown up practically overnight, and a currency union that lasted only thirty-eight days.  

However, the initial disruption did not prove to be a lasting disaster.  Both countries joined the EU and adopted the Euro and the borders were brought down.  The Slovakian economy recovered and even closed some of the gap in terms of income per capita compared to the Czech republic.  But here's the paradox; it seems to have done so in part by adopting the very kind of neo-liberal policies that its electorate were largely hostile to.  Nobody knows what's going to happen in Scotland votes Yes on the 18th but something like this neo-liberalism out of necessity is quite likely.  The currency issue is a bit of a distraction from the fact that regardless of its monetary arrangement, an independent Scotland is going to have to run a tighter budget than has previously been the case in the context of the UK, especially so in the (hopefully unlikely) event that we opt for the lunatic dollarisation and default option that our First Minister seems to be seriously considering.  It is, in other words, completely unrealistic to think that if Scotland hit its target for being an independent state in March 2016, it would be able to announce in April that it had extra money to splurge on public services.

There are a number of reasons why the Czechoslovakian experience does not quite fit a putative break-up of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the UK but the most important for me as someone for whom this is not primarily about economics is that the Czechs and the Slovaks did not have to endure a divisive referendum.  There are some on both sides who think this debate has been, regardless of the outcome, a jolly spiffing energising experience.  This isn't a feeling I share.  It has, apart from anything else, shown some of the worst features of modern politics - personalisation of abstract economic issues and unbearable short-termism.  "It's not about Alex Salmond!", cry people who want to break-up the Union on account of a government that may not last beyond 2015.  And what has featured in this short-termism has been the biggest lie told in this campaign.  This is not a national independence movement that requires any struggle or sacrifice but rather one that promises that nothing and everything will change.  Keep the Queen, the open border, the currency - you'll hardly notice a thing, except your wallet becoming a bit fatter.  It is the lie of painlessness and that it is so widely-believed is storing up trouble for the future for this country, regardless of the outcome.  For who do you imagine the nationalists will blame if they're denied this decaffeinated national rebirth, or if they get it  and then realise it isn't how they were told to imagine it?  Certainly not themselves.

*I'm taking 'left-wing' policies to be those that are conventionally designated as such.  But I'm aware that there are good reasons why, for example, membership of the EU isn't everyone's idea of a left-wing position.

Correction: As pointed out by one commentator, whose comment I deleted by accident, Slovakia joined the Euro but the Czech Republic did not.

Friday, August 08, 2014

The perils of post-modern nationalism

Like the Conservatives and the Labour Party, the SNP has had a shifting attitude towards the European Union over the decades.  In the 1950s, they were supportive of Scottish membership of the proto-EU ECSC.  I'm not old enough to remember that but I am to recall their position in the 1970s, which was impressively isolationist.  As well as being opposed to membership of NATO (a position changed only very recently), the SNP actively campaigned on the No side in the 1975 referendum on British accession to the EEC.  There were a couple of reasons for this.  One was that they did not consider that Her Majesty's Government was the legitimate representative of Scotland's interests in this matter.  The other was that the EEC seemed to represent a larger version of  the sort of bureaucratising centralism that they were trying to break away from in the UK.

The anti-Europe position was never entirely unambiguous and was, in any event, dropped at their party conference in 1988, where they adopted the policy of "Independence in Europe". This marks the point from which the Nationalists' version of independence became what has sometimes been described as 'post-modern statehood'.  I'm not sure how satisfactory this term is but I take it to represent an awareness that in the late 20th century and into the early 21st, you don't get to be 'independent' after the pattern of states formed in the 19th century but rather the choice has become what kind of interdependence you want.  The Nationalists embraced the idea of inter-European dependency even more enthusiastically with the introduction of the EMU.  This 'independence in Europe' never really appealed to me but at least it made some kind of sense.  Why look to Westminster to represent the interests of Scotland in Europe when it could do that directly?  Disengagement was made simultaneously safer and apparently more outward-looking.  Membership of the EMU would free Scotland from the 'millstone' of Sterling membership and access to European markets would be secured by the treaties of the European Union.

Naturally, after the Euro-crisis membership of the EMU is impossible to sell to the Scottish electorate, even if Salmond thought it was a good idea, which he probably doesn't.  This is the background - and the explanation - to the mess that Salmond and Yes Scotland have got themselves into over the currency issue.  The Nationalists are still arguing for 'post-modern statehood' but the problem for them is that what they are now arguing for is 'independence within the UK'.  Both versions of post-modern independence required the agreement of other parties (something the Nationalists never seemed to have grasped) but the new position has two additional problems.  One is that it the continuity-UK currency union has no precedent, whereas EMU obviously did.  The other is that Salmond and the Yes Scotland camp have taken an extraordinarily belligerent attitude to the successor state with which they hope to make mutually-agreeable monetary and fiscal arrangements, which they never did with Brussels in their 'Independence in Europe' phase.  Discussion of how any such currency union might work is entirely superfluous when you have the leader of the Yes campaign who thinks it's a reasonable proposition that 55 million people in one country are obliged to enter an international monetary arrangement because it is the 'sovereign will' of another country of 5 million that they should do so.

I can't quite decide if Salmond is talking like this because he has, as some have suggested, effectively given up or if he's gone slightly bonkers but his response to the fact that the Chancellor, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury and the Shadow Chancellor have ruled out a currency union has led the Yes campaign down a blind alley.  Historically the SNP have favoured two forms of post-modern independence but the position that Salmond now seems to have taken would result in Scotland getting neither.  There is no particular reason to think that the government of the UK are bluffing about a currency union, although I might be wrong.  What I am assuming definitely is a bluff is Salmond's crazy comments about walking away from Scotland's share of the UK's debt but just in case he isn't, it would be worth pointing out the implications of this.  Nevermind the obvious problems an independent Scotland would have borrowing money after it had behaved like this.  It would settle for certain Scotland's membership of the European Union, which is to say membership is something Scotland would not have because it would set a precedent for other heavily-indebted putative independent European nations to do the same.  'Worried about debt?  Help is at hand.  You can get rid of it all through the power of constitution change!'  This is just one of the reasons that I think no-one is really taking Salmond's 'dollarisation and default' line seriously.  The Yes campaign will not acknowledge any of this.  It's probably too late for them to do anything other than lash out at anyone who interrupts their dream with inconvenient facts.  Such is the fate of Nationalists who promote a version of statehood that is not in their power to deliver.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Against TV debates

Political debates on television are a terrible idea.  Given their history of giving undesirable candidates potentially decisive boosts prior to elections, you wouldn't think you'd need to make this obvious point but in the context of the referendum debate in Scotland, apparently you do - to both sides.

In American Presidential elections, the story is pretty familiar.  In 1960, Kennedy debated with Nixon on television and won.  No bad thing in itself, perhaps - but the manner in which he did so had absolutely nothing to do with the quality of either the arguments or the candidates.  Kennedy - then the underdog - appeared at the studio looking fresh and suntanned.  He declined the offer of make-up for the studio lights so Nixon felt obliged to do the same.  But Nixon was pale and sweating profusely, recovering as he was from a recent illness.  Kennedy won the debate - in the eyes of those who watched it on television.  Those who heard it on the radio thought Nixon had won.

They've had them in US Presidential elections ever since.  Among the candidates who have done well out of them include Ronald Reagan, Bush Snr, Bill Clinton and George W Bush.  It isn't an argument that would appeal to me but at least in this context I suppose people could claim the personality of the candidate is important.  Less so, however, in the context of our parliamentary democracy - yet they insisted on having them here too.  If you recall, Nick Clegg did rather well in 2010 only to go from being, in terms of popularity, Churchill to Chamberlain.  You'd think that in itself would be enough to illustrate the superficial nature of these media arm-wrestling contests but Clegg certainly didn't seem to get it, which is why he decided it might be a good idea to appear on national television with Nigel Farage, who of course won. 

I wouldn't know who has learned anything from this in the rest of the UK but I have yet to read one single comment anywhere in Scotland suggesting that a debate of this nature on the independence referendum would be a truly awful idea.  The Yes campaign realised some time ago that Alex Salmond is like Marmite: SNP voters - or most of them anyway - like him a lot; those of us who are neither SNP nor Yes voters can't stand him.  As a consequence, one of the most frequent refrains from Yessers is to cry, "It's not about Alex Salmond and the SNP!".  The same people invariably insist that it is, however, all about David Cameron and the Tories - which is, of course, why Salmond wants to have one of these daft TV debates with him.  The Prime Minister of the UK is usually told by nationalists to "butt out" of the debate over whether Scotland secedes from the Union, except in this context.  What they want is a staged event that would be the very incarnation of the SNP narrative about being ruled from London by a posh Tory elite they didn't vote for.

Cameron would lose before he even opened his mouth.  I'd like to think that he understands this is the reason he's declined the idiotic invitation to prove he's not 'feart' but for whatever reason, it's a good thing that no such event will take place (hopefully).  No so Alistair Darling who will - or perhaps won't - debate with the First Minister prior to the referendum.  I am dismayed that so many people on my side of the debate seriously think this would be a good idea.  "He'd run rings round Salmond".  No he bloody well wouldn't.  When he was Chief Secretary to the Treasury and later Chancellor, I half seriously wondered whether he had been chosen for the job because he was so boring that he could deliver quite bad economic news without too much controversy, on account of the fact that his audience had fallen asleep before they'd had a chance to absorb it.

The one pro-union politician who could wipe the floor with Salmond in a debate of this kind is George Galloway and if this doesn't serve to illustrate the point that these events lend themselves to populist pugilism, I don't know what would.  Alex Massie has just been tweeting that a Spectator debate in Edinburgh has been host to an unironic audience of lawyers and bankers cheering a barnstorming performance from our George.  Such is the nature of these things.  It's supposed to be about profound changes to the constitution that will endure long after Salmond, Darling, Cameron and Galloway are worm-food but the fact of the matter is that the short-term politics of personality are the order of the day.  If any of these debates go ahead, there will not be one single piece of new information  presented.  This is one of the many reason why I find the prospect of anyone changing their mind after watching any of this on colosseum TV pretty depressing.

Monday, June 09, 2014

Nationalism: means versus ends

One of the disfiguring features of the referendum debate is that it is dominated by arguments about economics by people who aren't, in the final analysis, particularly interested in economics.  What is not well understood - particularly by London-based commentators who enter the fray - is that there is in Scotland roughly about 25% to 30% of the electorate who are nationalists that would support independence no matter what the consequences.  They may believe all this stuff about Scotland being like Norway or Sweden and becoming a beacon of social democracy for the rest of the UK but at base relative poverty is for them preferable to maintaining a relationship that they liken to the occupation of Poland circa 1940.

The softer, and for me more congenial, support for independence comes from means-ends nationalists who view separation as a mechanism to get the sort of policies they want to see.  This I've said this already but most of these are socialists and greens.  The overwhelming majority of Yes voters in my acquaintance belong to this category. If there is a Yes vote in September, it'll be because the Yes campaign have persuaded enough Scots to be nationalists like this, at least for a day.  I understand this but it is desperately naive, which is why I was grateful to Torquil Crichton for reminding us of a lesson from the Irish experience: when socialists hitch their wagon to nationalism, the former invariably lose:
"There have been 29 general elections to the Dàil, Ireland’s parliament, since independence. Ireland’s Labour Party have won precisely none. When socialism goes up against nationalism in a country where all civic politics is about the nation, then Labour doesn’t stand a chance."
This is one in the long list of reasons I have to answer the Nationalists' rhetorical question: what are you afraid of?  Politics that is 'about the nation' creates forever a cross-cutting axis over the normal politics of class, which smothers the latter.  As Alex Massie and others have already suggested, a post-referendum battle between the SNP and Labour is going to be essentially one to see which becomes the Fianna Fail of Scottish politics.  In this I have no doubt the Nationalists would win.  Understood like this, Labour for Independence - along with the other Labourists prepared to throw their lot in with the separatists - are signing their own death warrant.


Thursday, June 05, 2014

On hyperbolic historical comparisons

In a New Statesman interview, Alistair Darling has caused a bit of a fuss by using the term 'blood and soil' to describe the sort of nationalism represented by the SNP.  Okay, he didn't actually use the phrase but I'm not sure the supposed clarification takes much away from the original complaint.  The journalist suggested it and he appeared to agree with it.  The expression actually predates National Socialism but since it is now forever associated with the Third Reich, I don't think there's any point in arguing that Darling's way of expressing himself was anything other than unwise, to say the least - as was his comparison of the First Minister with the late North Korean dictator.  However, there are two observations one could make.

The first is obvious enough and has already been made by several people.  What is behind the faux outrage of some nationalist commentators is absolutely jaw-dropping hypocrisy.  If there is anything in Goodwin's law - the idea that the first in any debate to make a Nazi comparison is the one who lost it - this applied to the nationalists years ago.  It was the SNP's Alex Neil who got a standing ovation at the SNP party conference for comparing the then Shadow Scottish Secretary George Robertson to a Nazi collaborator.  More recently, Salmond himself described a BBC journalist as a Gauleiter.  

That the journalist in question was a sports journalist serves to reinforce another point.  Some have taken the latest outburst of Twitter stupidity as a symptom of how ill-tempered the independence referendum has become.  Well, it has - but the fact that anyone could come up with a 'law' to cover the frequency with which people use Nazi comparisons in arguments shows the extent to which people seem to have absolutely no other historical analogy with which they can express their disapproval of something.  

An aggressive foreign policy is always 'like what Hitler did in the thirties' - never something else, even something obvious - like Napoleon or something.  (It might be worth noting in this context that the purpose of the comparison in this context is to de-legitimise any response other than one that involves the use of military violence.) 

We also saw Egypt's government toppled in a bloody military coup - justified on the grounds that the Muslim Brotherhood were dismantling democracy from within, just like what Hitler did in the thirties.  No other comparison - say, a Latin American one - would do.  Or maybe Putin?  Oh hang on, he's just like Hitler too.  It is in this context we should understand this latest nonsense.  Making a plea for people to try and cut down on the number of Hitlers they see is probably pretty pointless but I would insist that it shows, not that people know too much about the Nazis, but that they don't know very much at all.  If they did, they might have a better sense of proportion.


Saturday, May 31, 2014

Counting the cost of independence

When people complain about how much the Queen earns, or the expense of the civil list in general, what's almost always behind it is not a belief that the British monarchy could do things more cheaply but rather a disapproval of the idea of having a monarchy at all.  The same is true of the current argument about how much setting up the the infrastructure of an independent Scotland would cost.  'Alex Salmond is under increasing pressure to reveal the likely start-up costs of independence'?  Well, I dare say he is but what good would it do if he did because he doesn't have a clue.  Neither does HM Treasury, nor Professor Dunleavy.  Nobody knows what is going to happen in the event of the unravelling of a three-hundred year-old Union and surely I am not alone in growing more than a little tired of those who believe they do?  I am more likely to believe the higher estimates than the lower simply because that tends to be the pattern with government projects.  The most obviously relevant example here is the construction of the Holyrood parliament building.  It was completed at around 10 times the originally estimated cost - but since I supported devolution, the price of it was not the decisive factor.

The same is true of Scottish independence.  I have absolutely no doubt that the cost of disentangling Scotland from the Union will be more expensive than the Nationalists estimate.  This is not entirely irrelevant given their disingenuous protestations about public spending cuts but fundamentally it is not at the core of the issue.  No, it doesn't matter what it costs; even if it can be done cheaply, setting up the infrastructure of an independent Scotland is for us not worth a red cent because we do not believe it is a very good idea.

I wish people had read to the end of the FT editorial that was quoted by both sides in this particular indy-spat.  [I'll quote from the paper copy rather than providing a direct link to the piece, if you don't mind.]
"These sterile exchanges may fill column inches with accusations and counter accusations.  But they must not decide the outcome.  More is at stake this September than hypothetical arguments about pounds, shillings and pence.  In the heat of the battle, Britain's politicians should not forget the deeper ties of history and shared political experience that link us."
That it is the Financial Times exhorting us to be less narrowly economistic should give more people pause.  As it is, the cost of independence can be measured more easily in the quantum growth in bullshit we've witnessed recently, rather than in pounds sterling.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Against the politics of certainty

Whenever I am asked why I'm voting no, I usually say, "Because I don't believe in nationalism".  This is partly because that's what I think, partly because it is surprisingly effective.  It closes down conversations with boring people who just want to recite a load of SNP slogans to you - and those conversations that do continue start from a point that gets to the heart of the issue of what this referendum is about.  It is surprising how many people respond - I'd even say recoil a little - and insist, "Ah, but I'm not a nationalist either but I'm voting for independence".

Allow me to demur.  Political nationalism is the idea that the boundaries of the state should be congruent with the nation, the latter defined in various ways but has conventionally been understood to be a people who share a common culture.  The problem with this as far as I am concerned is that while culture and organisations are human universals, nations and states have not been.  It is a supremely important fact yet nationalists almost always argue as if the marriage between the two is the unquestionable natural order of things and any deviation from this is something that is impossible to justify.  This, I think, explains the utter incomprehension of nationalists when confronted with an alternative view; they don't treat it as a position to argue against but rather as a symptom of mental disorder - hence what is for me easily the most tiresome rhetorical phrases in this neverendum: nationalists endlessly repeating the line, "What are you afraid of?" to anyone who has the temerity to disagree with them.  This incomprehension is also what is behind the notion that any opposition can only be another form of nationalism; that some of us like Britain the way it is partly because it is not a nation-state has not occurred to them - but even if it had, they would not be able to understand it.

The answer, then, to the question, "What are you afraid of?" is exactly this - this politics of certainty, of blind faith, which always and everywhere treats dissent as deviance and heresy.  It is this that is always behind any of the economic arguments that we are told will decide this debate.  That might be true of the undecided but it is not what animates the foot-soldiers that are doorstepping for the Yes campaign.  They might sincerely believe Scotland would flourish after independence but in the way that an abused child would if they were released blinking in the sunlight after some kind of subterranean incarceration.  Might take them some considerable time to function properly but the escape is the overwhelming imperative.  I appreciate some might find this extreme but it is, I think, the base belief among the hardcore of the nationalist movement.  Economic prosperity will follow independence, most of them believe, but even if it didn't, they would still prefer relative poverty to what they see as servitude.

My concern is this is not well-understood.  Certainly not by the waverers who might be persuaded by the frustratingly vague promises of jam tomorrow and also not by the 'non-nationalists' for independence.  Most of these are socialists and greens.  They argue that independence is not a political expression of national identity but rather a means to achieve the sort of policies that are frustrated by membership of the Union.  But at the heart of this is a belief in Scottish exceptionalism: Scots are just so social democratic but will never be able to realise this whilst locked into a Union with these cold-hearted, foreigner-bating southerners.  In other words, this is a national political culture that makes a separate state essential, which brings it full-circle to the original definition.  I'm of a pessimistic disposition so I would argue that the best one could expect is perhaps some mild improvements but without any fundamental shift in Scotland's long-term growth rate.  And I wouldn't expect any Scottish government of whatever party to be that different in their attitude to the power of business and the press.  It certainly wouldn't be with Alex Salmond at the helm.  Whatever happens, it would be accompanied with a heavy dose of disillusion among those on the left, once they realise that the reason we don't have the sort of socialist policies they want to see is because people don't vote for them and not because we're part of the Union.

What the Euro elections showed, ironically, is that Scotland is not that much different from any other European country and what we are experiencing here is part of a wider nationalistic trend in politics.  You do not need to think it will end in catastrophe to worry where this fundamental misdiagnosis of our problems might take our country or the rest of Europe.  It is frankly absurd to believe, as some seem to, that nothing but good can come of all this flag-waving nationalism and if saying so is a tenet of what the more unthinking nationalists like to call 'project fear' then sign me up.  I'm saying no to nationalism.


Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Currencies as symbols

George Osborne's threat that the rUK would be unwilling to enter a currency union with Scotland in the event of a Yes vote in September has "backfired" according to the Nationalists.  Quite why the suggestion that an independent Scotland should have an independent monetary policy counts as a threat is not something the SNP have bothered to explain - although to be fair, I am not sure I can recall any journalist nor politician asking them to do so.  But in as far as the intended aim of ruling out a currency union was to make Scots less likely to vote for independence, it seems that it is indeed right to say that it has not 'worked'.  Voting intentions, in as far as one can tell, have been unaffected by the issue.  If anything, it gave a marginal nudge towards the Yes camp.  The question is why?  The one favoured by the Nationalists is that Scots agree with the SNP when they say HM Government are bluffing.  Their other explanation is that voters resent being bullied.  There is some evidence for the former claim - not a lot, as far as one can tell, for the latter.  But there is a another possibility: the reason why the currency issue has not had the impact that politicians and pundits thought it would is simply because the issue does not resonate with the average voter.  People generally do not have a great deal of interest in, nor understanding of, the economics of currencies and currency union.  This is hardly surprising - it's not as if the political class are likely to engage with them on the matter in any meaningful way.

"Vote No, keep the pound" may yet prove to gain traction with voters in Scotland but I doubt it.  It reminded me too much of  William Hague's unsuccessful tenure of leader of the Conservative Party when he made opposition to the Euro a key plank of the 2001 manifesto.  He was, as it turned out, quite wrong to assume that a Labour government were going to sign Britain up to EMU but he was also wrong to think this was a burning issue for most people, regardless of their political inclinations.  Euro-sceptics saw membership of EMU as an unacceptable capitulation of national sovereignty, whereas Euro-enthusiasts associated it with a rejection of "little-Englanders" and an embrace of all that they perceived to be funky and cosmopolitan about the EU. I'd suggest that most of the British electorate saw the euro currency issue in this symbolic way too but the polling evidence would seem to suggest that, however they saw it, it was not anything like as important to them as it was to politicians and pundits.  It's a bit like the pervasive attitude to religion; people are very suspicious of enthusiasm.

There's a sense that this is being repeated in the independence 'debate'.  What 'keeping the pound' means to people in Scotland is difficult to say.  For the Nationalists, the prospect of remaining in a sterling zone is the flagship of their 'independence by stealth' strategy; they hope that it will give the wavering voter the assurance that Scotland's departure from the Union will be achieved with a minimum of disruption.  For those of us who are implacably opposed to independence, it represents the unwillingness of the Nationalists to make an honest and unambiguous argument for what they claim to believe in.  But there's a danger that both sides are devoting energy to a rather arid conversation that passes most people by.  This is not to say that the currency issue doesn't matter.  I think it matters a great deal but there's little chance of engaging people in any kind of conversation without a willingness to be candid on the matter.  Can I give what is, I hope, a non-partisan example?  A currency union is less likely than some people assume because those responsible for arranging it would assume such an agreement would require a sort of mini-stability pact that set mutual limits on government borrowing and such like.  Even if he was so inclined, what sort of agreement of this type would George Osborne be able to keep to?  None that would have any credibility in the present situation, as far as I can see.  But it is not in the interests of any of the participants in the independence debate to point this out.  Not the Tories, for obvious reasons - and not anyone in Better Together either.  Neither would the Nationalists lest they concede the possibility that rUK might just have reasonable grounds for ruling out a currency union after all.  What we're left with is indeed bluff and bluster, although not necessarily for the reasons that people are suggesting.

Friday, February 28, 2014

Salmond vs Independence

Alex Massie was surely right to say that George Osborne's ruling out of a currency union with the rUK would polarise the debate?  Hardcore Nats would become even more inclined to accuse their opponents of treachery than they already are whereas the unionists would be increasingly convinced that Salmond and the SNP are a bunch of dangerous lunatics.  This has certainly been my experience.  On seeing Salmond's address to 'business leaders' in Scotland where he went all Obama, I genuinely wondered if he wasn't losing the plot.    "Yes we can!", he said.  Yes we can what?  As an independent country of around 5 million people impose on 55 million people a currency union, even if they don't believe it to be in their interests? "Man's lost his damn mind", I thought - yet the response, depending on whose interpretation of opinion polls you believe, is a slight boost to the Yessers.

Whenever anyone points out the obvious problems with King Eck and his back of a fag-packet plans, nationalists frequently say that the Yes Scotland campaign is not about Alex Salmond.  This is technically true in that not all nationalists are SNP.  But the question remains: why then are so many of them prepared to defend his strange contortions over the issue of currency?  We should be clear that a currency union would not mean full independence.  The SNP's ideas lacked credibility anyway, as if you can pull a few fiscal and monetary levers and - hey presto! - you have a Scandinavian social democracy.  Salmondites have too much faith in government for my liking but the point is that under 'plan A' Scotland wouldn't even have control of these 'levers'.

This story in the Scotsman today is, I suppose, a logical extension of Salmond's weird notion that the government of the putative rUK would in some way obliged to agree with the opinions of his 'Fiscal Commission'*.
"In the event of Scottish independence, people in England, Wales and Northern Ireland should not be given a formal say on whether Scotland enters a currency union with them, according to First Minister Alex Salmond."
Here's something else we should be clear about: a currency union would require both parties to cede some of their sovereignty, as the governor of the Bank of England said. You might ask why English, Welsh or Northern Irish voters would agree to surrendering this to a country that has just rejected them but Salmond is clear that it is not necessary to ask them.  It also might be worth pointing out that any set of rules for a sterling zone that limited government borrowing and so on would be something that George Osborne would not be able to operate within at the moment.  No matter, according to the Nats - he doesn't get a say in this.

There is an honest case to be made for Scottish Independence but it is certainly not being made by the Yes campaign.  As it is, the 'debate' is becoming an increasingly futile and angry one because it is being conducted, not between nationalists and unionists, but between those who know what 'independence' means and those who do not.  The twist Salmond has introduced is that there is also a distinction to be made between people who are entitled to it.

*Bunch of economists employed by the Scottish Government who agree with the Scottish Government, although not as much as Salmond would like.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

The Madness of King Alex

In the event of a Yes vote in September, I've favoured a currency union with the rest of the UK for three reasons, two of them (or all three, depending on your point of view) for entirely selfish reasons:

a) Saying a currency union 'would work' is not the same as saying that it carries no risks nor that it would work better than the system we presently have.  The answer to these points is that it would and it wouldn't respectively, Rather it would be the least bad option because while it carries risks, these would be borne disproportionately by the rest of the UK and not Scotland.  This is congenial to me because I live in Scotland.

b) If Scotland launched its own currency, it would undoubtedly see an increase in the cost of borrowing - to a degree that is unpredictable if  the (admittedly extremely unlikely) event that King Eck carried out his lunatic threat to walk away on Scotland's share of the national debt.  I don't like this idea because I have a mortgage and credit cards.

c) Currency union is the option post-Yes vote that looks the least like actual independence and I don't believe in independence.  I'd put it more bluntly: if Scotland and the rest of the UK agreed a currency union, Scotland wouldn't really be independent.

This is me.  Why others should favour it is more of a mystery.  Two groups within the British Isles spring to mind:

1) Scottish Nationalists.  At this moment in time their behaviour is tending to reinforce the impression I've always had; there's a fair chunk of the SNP high command that don't really believe in independence.  How else can we explain their behaviour in the last few days?  We should be clear about this: the 'threat' by George Osborne can only be considered a 'scare-tactic' to the extent that, not 'the peepul', but the nationalists are scared of what independence means.  Currency union was the flagship of the 'independence by stealth' campaign.  Vote independence and you'll hardly notice the difference.  This has been holed below the water-line, hence the rage and the pathetic accusations of 'bullying'.

2) The rest of the UK.  It has repeated endlessly, apparently to no avail, that a currency union requires the agreement of both parties involved.  The truism that nationalists care about no country other than their own is illustrated in this case.  Is it not significant that at no point have the nationalist even given the faintest clue that they realise the rest of the UK needs to be persuaded to join this arrangement?  The madness of Salmond and the SNP lies not in their economic analysis but in the assumption that everyone else is under some kind of obligation to agree with it.  Even if they were so inclined, I'm not sure they could persuade anyone.  It's not just the fact that the rest of the UK would be obliged to bail out Scotland but Scotland would never be able to reciprocate - there's also the political dimension.  Mark Carney clearly said that a monetary union would require both parties to surrender some of their sovereignty.  It was all text-book 'optimal currency area' stuff but the nationalists missed the both parties bit.  One wonders if any nationalist could tell me how a democratically elected English or Welsh politician would be able to sell the idea that the rest of the UK should surrender a part of their sovereignty to a country that has just rejected them?  Because in the unlikely event that they were so disposed, the most recent evidence would suggest that they would receive a hostile reception.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

In defence of negativity

There's something of a consensus emerging on both sides of  the referendum debate and it is that the No campaign is far too negative.  Take the Scottish liberal Tory Alex Massie for example:
"I have plenty of issues with the Yes campaign and the SNP and they offer us plenty of guff too but at least their imbecilities, most of the time, look to a sunny future rather than endless drizzle.
I know what he means - there is a catastrophising* tendency in the No camp that is undoubtedly counter-productive but a certain amount of negativity is unavoidable if one is to do justice to the situation. My own 'vision' of a Scotland in the Union is positive for me. I like Britain. The Union that the Nationalists despise so much is what made me. I am its very incarnation. I like to visit England to see my family and friends, going somewhere that is very different and yet somehow the same. I have a strong affection for what is familiar - but I can't reasonably expect to sell this to someone else. How am I supposed to compete with people who think that when Scotland is independent we will have Scandinavian public services alongside American levels of taxation and we'll all hold hands and celebrate the gorgeous mosaic of our diversity - because xenophobia is an English problem, don't you know?

A 'sunny future' indeed but I'm afraid I'm not happy with this demand to be all upbeat and positive.  Why should I be?  I'm not an American.  Whether literally or metaphorically it's going to continue to rain a great deal in Scotland after September 2014 and if it's considered 'fear-mongering' to point out that there's no pot of gold at the end of the constitutional rainbow then that's just too bad.  I would even take the negativity a stage further and state my concern that there are now no good outcomes to be had from Referendum 2014 because it is impossible for it to yield a result that people will be happy with.  One of the reasons for this is an intrinsic problem with referendums; they are usually sold as a mechanism for dealing with an issue 'once and for all' yet this is exactly what they don't do.  It has rightly been argued that one of the reasons the Yes side may still win in September is their committed army of  foot-soldiers.  Labourish Scotland has only woken up to the real possibility of independence since 2011 and are struggling as they are competing with believers who have been preparing for this their whole lives.

What happens to the soldiers on the losing side when the war ends is a question that has been asked too infrequently in history.  If Scotland votes no, are they going to accept defeat, admit it was a fair fight and just go home?  I thought the most likely outcome from a No was some kind of evolving 'devo-max' compromise where we ran the risk of becoming as tedious as Belgium.  A Yes vote wouldn't have looked that different.  For the hardline Nats, an independent Scotland would be neither independent nor Scottish enough.  When are we getting rid of the Queen, why are we in the Sterling zone?   George Osborne's intervention ruling out currency union is a 'game-changer' in some senses yet in other ways not.  I'll leave it to others who know a lot more about economics to discuss the details but as far as I can judge, an independent Scotland launching its own currency, possibly pegged to the pound or the Euro, is now the least mental option.  This would carry risks obviously and certainly produce higher borrowing costs.  If  I were a nationalist, I would prefer this to a Sterling currency union because the latter would mean Scotland wasn't really independent at all.  But something that you might think should be an option that people who really believe in independence would favour is as I write being presented as an outcome of 'bullying'.  It is for this reason my answer to the nationalists' question "What are you afraid of?" is that I fear this will not end well - because I'm afraid this might never be a settled issue.  It certainly won't be by September 2014.

*Note: The way Western political discourse slips into the language of the apocalypse is something I've always assumed comes from Christian eschatology and have tried to correct it in myself accordingly.  But there's always a nagging doubt: we don't know exactly what happened in Pompeii because by definition no-one survived to tell the tale but there must have been at least one person who said "Ach, it'll be fine" who won the argument... 

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

A short (nationalist) economic history of UK currency union

I'll keep this very brief.  I don't understand the fuss about Governor Mark Carney's comments about the prospects of a currency union in the event of a Yes vote in September because what he actually said was uncontroversial but also entirely predictable.  But it seems to be only Jim Sillars reminding people that it was Salmond himself who argued for years that the UK was not an optimal currency area.  The suggestion made during a more buoyant time for the UK economy was that Scotland was locked into a deflationary monetary straight-jacket because of the high interest rates needed to cool an 'overheating' South of England.  The alternative, lest we forget, was membership of the Euro, which Salmond presumably thought was an optimal currency zone.  Therefore by Salmond's own analysis, a currency union with the rest of the UK would be less in Scotland's interests than it was before because one of the key ingredients essential to a properly functioning currency zone is cross-national fiscal transfers.

However, we unionists shouldn't crow too much because there's two good pieces of news for the Nationalists:

1) Carney's comments show a currency union is feasible, if not desirable, and tends to reinforce the impression I already had that talk of 'Scotland won't be allowed to use the pound' was just plain daft.

2) I'm not sure how much attention anyone's paying to any of this outside the Twittersphere.  I keep reading that 'it's the economy, stupid' with regards to the likely outcome of the Referendum but despite this train-wreck of a currency argument, it doesn't seem to have harmed the Yes campaign's poll ratings, despite how much some of us think it should.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Voting and the age of consent

I see that Labour has copied the SNP (and the Greens, I think) policy of extending the franchise to 16 and 17-year-olds.  The express purpose is to overcome 'voter apathy' and they hope to do this by enfranchising a section of the population that are at least as apathetic and disengaged as those who are just one rung above them in the age-bracket ranking?

It is a policy favoured by those who have had teenagers described to them or who have only met them in the context of staged events with minders and media advisers protecting them from any stray words that might cause them discomfort.  They might want to look at that... But it highlights a wider issue.  I wouldn't mind so much if this suggestion sprung from a wider consensus about when the transition from childhood to adulthood actually takes place.  But you will find neither in law nor in the position the various political parties take on various issues any consistency.

As far as the Labour party is concerned, for example, in recent years they have taken the view that the sexual age of consent should be 16, regardless of orientation, but the age at which you can either leave education or buy tobacco should be 18.

The SNP, who to be fair have consistently advocated votes for 16-year-olds, rejected the idea of compulsory education past this age.  Thank goodness for that.  However, this was the party who also tried but failed to raise the drinking age to 21!

The Conservatives might have a claim to be reasonably consistent - if it wasn't for the fact that they seem to be brewing plans to extend childhood to 25 with their housing benefit plans.  Those who think this is outrageous are right but they might want to remember that childhood was extended to 25 quite some time ago when it came to the issue of regarding parental income in relation to student grants (remember those?).

Can we discern any pattern?  It is that these parties have a concept of an age of consent only for things they approve of.  "Join the army, enter a war zone - but have a fag and a pint?  Oh, we can't let you do that!  It would be too dangerous".  Understood in this way, enfranchising 16-year-olds is an act of paternalism and I wouldn't be surprised if 'our young people' stuck two fingers up in response.  I wouldn't blame them either.


Friday, January 17, 2014

Tough Young Teachers

'Tough Young Teachers': not quite 'Reservoir Dogs', is it?
I saw this last night.  I usually avoid 'reality TV', especially ones that have anything to do with teaching.  They aren't good for my blood pressure and last night's programme was no exception.

What to say about the 'Tough Young Teachers'?  Well, they're certainly young... It's difficult to know whether and to what extent this programme bears any relation to the actual reality of English schools but assuming the classes weren't actually staged and that the staff who appeared in it weren't actors, one aspect of the programme - and the internet chat about it - really stood out.

This is the extent to which teaching and learning in England is understood to be an individual enterprise.  All the talk on Twitter was about who was good, who was bad, who was a posh twat and so on.  Yes, yes - but what about the environment they were working in?  This was the blood-pressure raising point for me.  Certainly Meryl wasn't very authoritative, to put it mildly.  But what kind of school is it where a Headteacher and a 'Vice Principal' - whatever they do - can 'observe' a lesson and the only person who fears them is the teacher?  Then the Headteacher point out that the student has dropped a 't' in 'daughter'?  A phrase about straining a gnat while chomping on a huge camel-burger springs to mind.  Instead, ask yourself why it is the pupils in your school misbehave with impunity, as if you were not even there!

The programme seemed to feed into the wider notion - one that seems to have assumed the status of cross-party orthodoxy in England - that what the school system needs is more virtuosos.  The extent to which this is the case can be seen in the pronouncements of Labour's tough young Shadow Education Secretary Tristram Hunt.  He seems to have been copying Mr Gove's homework but has added some thoughts of his own.  One of these is his latest weird idea that classroom management would be helped by training ninja-teacher discipline specialists.  What is this nonsense?  It is the function of the institution to maintain order, in which every teacher plays but a part.  And at the top of the hierarchy is, of course, the management.  If they are unable to maintain order, instead of suggesting they should be able to outsource their responsibility, I would have thought more people should be asking what on earth are they for?

Sunday, January 05, 2014

Referendum 2014

Oh I know.  But, well...  Anyway, from lovely Paul Evans via the book of the face I have learned that (in as far as I could understand it, gambling being one of the few vices I just don't get) the bookies aren't offering very good odds on a 'Yes' vote in the referendum.  This being as it may, I'd still reckon it's worth a punt.  The respective campaigns have conspicuously failed to make a dent in Scots' voting intentions. I have a few thoughts as to why this is happening with regards the 'Yes' campaign but I agree with those who, despite the polling evidence to the contrary, do not think the referendum is a foregone conclusion.  In the interests of even-handedness, here's two or three problems the 'No' campaign has:

1) Negativity. Don't get me wrong, much of the accusations of negativity and 'scaremongering' from the Nationalists are absolute bullshit - as if it were scaremongering to ask questions about the obvious difficulties that disentangling one state from another would entail.  Rather, there is an intrinsic negativity to the 'No' campaign that few people are willing to defend - and the reason that this is so is because there are so few people who are prepared to declare themselves to be sceptics and conservatives with a small 'c'.  It's so counter the spirit of this age.  You need to be positive, man!  Someone, I can't remember who, made the sharp observation that even when a politician's political views are cautious, conciliatory and centrist, they nevertheless feel the need to come out with some horse-shit about belong to the 'radical centre'.  Many of us who are Unionists are of such a sceptical disposition - so when Nationalists say, "We Scots are just as good as anyone else!", we respond, "Aye, and we're just as bad as everyone else".  This leads to the second problem:

2) Inertia.  One of the most boring and stupid lines from the 'Yes' camp is this notion that those of us who are Unionists are obliged to come out with a 'positive vision for Scotland'.  Please!  I'm not a very positive guy and I leave visions for those of a religious disposition; you want me to do both?  But again it's the scepticism that under-pins the problem.  I don't agree that it's complacency that is behind the rather relaxed attitude of the 'No' camp; it's that it is difficult to mobilise people to fight merely to maintain things as they are.  Nationalist campaigners are motivated into action with the hope that there's a bright future ahead.  Don't think I don't know.  My son's mother is a Nationalist and does lots of local organising leafleting stuff in areas of Glasgow where the rule of law is but a faint rumour.  Things are going to have to get pretty desperate before you catch me doing anything as mental as that.

3) The doctrine of absolute anti-Toryism.   It's not really a doctrine and it's pointless to ask whether and to what extent it is rational; what is required is to acknowledge that it exists north of the border and is very deeply felt.  "We're not English, we're not Tories" doesn't count as a positive campaign in my book but it doesn't do to underestimate its appeal.  David Cameron, despite his expensive private education, has never struck me as being the sharpest tool in the box but at least he isn't stupid enough to fall for the elephant trap that is the invitation to debate Alex Salmond on the issue of Scottish independence.  But it doesn't end there.  Like so much of the Nationalist rhetoric, the notion of constitutionally ruling out any possibility of Conservative rule is shallow, short-termist and absurdly partisan but only a fool would underestimate the emotional potency of this message.

As for the 'Yes' campaign - ah, but where to begin?  I can't even pretend to be able to distinguish the aspects of their strategy that are genuinely causing them problems from those that are merely annoying to me but assuming that there's a possibility that there's an overlap between the two, here's a few things the Nationalists might want to consider:

1) Pathologising the opposition.  It involves no exaggeration to say that the Nationalists think Unionism is a species of mental illness.  No, really.  We're not talking psychosis, merely neurosis.  "What are you afraid of?", they cry when they're not hashtagging 'ProjectFear' after ever Unionist query.  It doesn't seem to have occurred to any of them, as far as I can see, that some of us are Unionists merely because we quite like being part of Britain; we have an affection for what is familiar and are completely and utterly unconvinced with this political project that wants to collapse all of Scotland's problems into the constitutional question.  The strategically significant point here is that Nationalists are ill-equipped to convert anyone expect the undecided because they treat anyone who disagrees with them, not as an opponent to be persuaded, but as someone in need of psychological help.  This used to annoy me - now I'm convinced it forms part of the reason why the Nationalists are losing.          

2) "An independent Scotland would be more left-wing and more like Ireland".  This appeals to quite a lot of my colleagues because they're both left-wing and Catholics of Irish descent.  They don't care much for the monarchy and the British army they like even less, for fairly obvious historical reasons.  The problem is that I don't think these feelings are that widely-shared by the Scottish electorate.  I don't know if the Nationalists will lose in September but if they do, part of the reason will be that they've succumbed to the myth of Scotland as a significantly more left-wing country than England.

3) The currency question.  Only a true believer could see the protean position of the Nationalists on the issue of what kind of money an independent Scotland would use as anything other than a slow-motion car-crash.  Membership of Sterling has gone from being something that trapped Scotland in a deflationary monetary straight-jacket to being so obviously desirable that an independent Scotland would persist with it, with or without the permission of Westminster.  "It's our currency as much as theirs and no-one can stop us using it".  This is one where it's difficult to assess whether and to what extent it is doing damage to the Nationalist cause.  It's an issue that form part of a wider phenomenon where the SNP argue, in effect, that an independent Scotland could join any international arrangement they like on their own terms.  They'd keep Sterling and the Bank of England would be obliged to give them representation on the MPC; stay part of NATO but no nukes; automatic membership of the EU but no Euro for the time being, thank you very much.  This, surely, is the talk of children?  Damaging the Nationalist cause?  I think so but not as much as it should be...

Friday, January 03, 2014

Gove on WWI

Education Secretary Michael Gove has taken issue with the interpretation of the Great War as nothing more than industrialised mass-slaughter in the following manner:
"The conflict has, for many, been seen through the fictional prism of dramas such as Oh! What a Lovely War, The Monocled Mutineer and Blackadder, as a misbegotten shambles – a series of catastrophic mistakes perpetrated by an out-of-touch elite. Even to this day there are Left-wing academics all too happy to feed those myths."
The Twitter response has been as you might expect - most of it along the lines of, "Ah, but it was a misbegotten shambles and anyone arguing otherwise is an idiot". It pains me to say so (really) but I'm not sure that Gove is entirely wrong. Not in his particular take on the Great War, I would stress, but in his suggestion that what might be termed as the 'War Poets' view has been accepted rather uncritically. The reaction to his comments rather reinforce this impression - suggesting that the only conceivable lesson one could possibly draw from the conflict is one about the futility and horror of war.  Expressions about the flip-side of the same coin spring to mind...

No, the problem with what Gove said lies not in his interpretation of history but his idea that you'd have to be a leftwinger to take issue with what he says.  We've seen this before.  He has, for example, explained opposition to his education reforms as attributable to the prevalence of 'Marxist ideology' in the teaching profession.  This struck me as being a little like that; one gains the impression that Gove is engaging with a cartoon - one that he has drawn in his own mind.  Who are these 'left-wing academics' that he refers to?  I wouldn't know if they dominate history departments in English universities but I'd make a sizeable wager that they certainly do not dominate the field of military history.  As it is, Gove has named only Richard Evans, an academic that he seems to have a rather schizophrenic attitude towards, given he praised his work on the Third Reich on a previous occasion.

The description of the Great War as 'industrialised mass-slaughter' is hardly original but is one I quote verbatim from Norman Stone's short history of World War One.  No leftwinger he and neither is Niall Ferguson.  One wonders if Gove would have invited him to advise on the history curriculum had he been aware of his views on Britain's role in the Great War.  The other possibility, of course, is that he is perfectly aware of them and is being disingenuous.  It's not Gove's views about history that should be concerning people so much as his red-bating.

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