Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Sex, lies and perjury: the strange case of Tommy Sheridan

There are obvious differences between Vince Cable and Tommy Sheridan and the state they've got themselves into - the most obvious being that Cable at least had the sense to lie in an election campaign rather than under oath in a court of law. But they also have two similarities: both cases raise serious questions about the conduct of our media - and both cases leave me shaking my head in wonder, asking how it is possible for supposedly intelligent men to be that stupid?

It's difficult to identify the exact point of Tommy's downfall, but I don't think anyone would put it after the moment he arranged a liaison with a tabloid journalist in circumstances that have become excruciatingly familiar, apparently working on the assumption that he could count on her discretion!

Some people have suggested that the story breaking provided an opportunity for Sheridan to declare himself unbound by the constraints of bourgeois morality. This was never a very realistic strategy for a politician who was hitherto happy to portray himself as a paragon of this very morality when the tabloids - non-Murdoch ones, of course - required it from him. He would have been better advised to ignore it altogether. Instead he decided to sue for defamation. That he did so knowing that the allegations were in substance true is a foolishness that has been widely noted. That he did so in the knowledge that his comrades in the SSP did not see perjuring themselves as part of their revolutionary shift is indicative of a recklessness that can only be borne of sheer hubris.

Ego worked for the SSP as there can be no doubt that it reached the level of electoral success that it did largely out of the sheer force of Tommy's personality. But now only the deluded deny that his ego made a significant contribution to its nemesis. Pride cometh before this... There remains only to ask the inevitable question of what all this means for the broader left?

I don't know but I'm not sure that any lessons one might draw are particularly encouraging. One aspect of this case that has stood out is the marginal propensity of the far left to believe conspiracies as a default position. People lie in court all the time - why Sheridan? Dark forces at work, clearly...

But why not Sheridan? Most people don't get £200k as a consequence of their perjuring themselves. But I'm wondering if there isn't a more unpalatable truth that people find difficult to accept. Don't be paranoid: they might be out to get you, if it wasn't for the fact that you're just not that important. Well, not as a politician anyway. Celebrity is a different matter...

One keeps reading that the SSP at their high watermark of 6 MSPs made them the most successful hard left party in Europe. Apart from the fact that it's not exactly a strong field in which to compete, what did this actually mean in reality? About 5% of the seats in a provincial Parliament with no tax-raising powers. And Sheridan himself, despite standing in Pollok where he was raised, only gained his seat on the list vote. While I wouldn't rule out a conspiracy, or some kind of vendetta, one is inclined to assume that conspirators behave rationally and doing this raises the question: what would the conspirators hope to gain? Nothing much, as far as I can see. Maybe if people could dispense with the egoism that is an often unremarked but nevertheless essential ingredient in the conspiracy theory of society, they would be better placed to answer the question of why it is that the message of the SSP did so poorly at the ballot box, the rhetorical gifts of their leader not withstanding?

I've also been wondering if there is a wider message for Scotland. Gerry Hassan certainly thinks so:
"But Scotland made Tommy Sheridan. He springs from our political and public culture. He was only possible because of it and ultimately because of us. We the people of Scotland made Tommy Sheridan possible; we gave him power, potency and status.

And because of this today, as Tommy Sheridan faces the prospect of a life behind bars, while he seems incapable of self-reflection and self-knowledge, we should not go down the same route. We should instead pause and reflect on our own inadequacies and the flawed tribunes and demagogues who we choose to believe in."
I'm inclined to say, speak for yourself - especially given the evidence in the previous paragraph. Still, there's something in what he says. There is something quintessentially West of Scotland man about Sheridan - the machismo, the swagger, the uncompromising rhetoric, the sentimentality. People saw something they recognised. Beyond that, there was an apparent contradiction that Hassan also notes: although ostensibly radical, there was something strangely comforting about Sheridan's rhetoric. He gave them the old-time religion and people felt an affection for what is familiar.

While some insist his Olympian credentials are more or less intact, for many Sheridan has gone from hero to zero. Others who perhaps never held either opinion regret that our public life will be duller without him. While agreeing with this last point, I'm wondering what it is about us that needs to be entertained by our public life and whether this isn't part of the problem? What is certainly part of our problem is this need for heroes - although whether it can be dispensed with, I couldn't say.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Weather and climate

George Monbiot in Jan 2010: Weather is not climate. "Is this really so hard to understand?"

George Monbiot in Dec 2010: Weather is climate. "The snow outside? That's what global warming looks like."

Knowing nothing about this subject myself, I'm quite prepared to go with the scientific wisdom of crowds. But the case needs a better spokesman than Monbiot, what with him being something of an asshole.

If you disagree with this, you are an asshole-denialist and almost certainly a Nazi.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

WikiLeaks and one from the archives

Like Paul I find myself changing my mind about all this. They are exactly the sort of documents that are of immense interest to the historian when the usual 30 year secrecy period has elapsed and some of the present ones being leaked out reminded me of the 2004 British government papers that revealed Nixon and Kissinger considered invading Saudi Arabia after the OPEC price hikes, which followed the Yom Kippur War.

Since they clearly thought better of it, I wondered what good would it have done for this to be known at the time? But as I was clicking around looking for links, I discovered that the Sunday Times had run with the story as early as 1975. This I did not know. I wouldn't know how much attention was given to the story at the time either, what with only being 9-years-old.

But perhaps with WikiLeaks we can say there is nothing new under the sun - it's just the sheer scale of the document dump that makes it different from previous leaks? Dunno - would be interested in your thoughts...

Friday, December 17, 2010

How 'stupid' is the 'war on drugs'?

I see Ed Miliband has 'rebuked' Bob Ainsworth for suggesting that the liberalisation of drugs should be considered as an alternative to the 'disastrous' policy of prohibition.

I'm more inclined to agree with Mr Ainsworth than his critics but I'm not comfortable with the way in which people who take my view seem to suggest that the argument for liberalisation is unarguable and that to insist on the continuation of prohibition is merely stupid.

The language of the 'war on drugs' was certainly a fairly silly semantic trap to fall into - involving as it does the declaration of hostilities on inanimate objects, and then being seen to lose.

But laying so much weight on unfortunate rhetoric is hardly taking on the policy of prohibition at its strongest point and it involves itself the formulation of arguments that are themselves rather weak. Amongst these I would include the following:

1) That the 'war on drugs' demonstrably 'hasn't worked'. No, obviously - but I think people are taking their cue from the rhetoric that they have already dismissed as nonsensical. It wouldn't make anymore sense to say that the 'wars' against rape and murder have been lost and should therefore be abandoned either. They wouldn't say this because they are making an implicit distinction of harm to self and harm to others. The argument against prohibition should rest on a more explicit formulation of this point.

2) The argument that prohibition empowers criminal gangs as they flourish as suppliers of a product that people want but are unable to obtain through legal means. I don't really disagree with this - I just think people should be a little more circumspect. Criminal gangs are also heavily involved in enterprises that are perfectly legal, such as nightclubs and private car hire firms, as well as illegally supplying legal products such as tobacco. Also, if a move away from prohibition is to be 'evidence-based' there should be some kind of assessment of how the harm caused by criminal gangs supplying drugs compares to the potential harm that might arise from new crimes. There is, after all, a colossal crime problem associated with the legal drug of alcohol. Do gangsters cause more misery than these?

3) The argument that prohibition doesn't limit supply. Here you often get bloggers and journalists waving their street-wise credentials. Drugs are easily available to them and people they associate with and since they obviously move in a very narrow circle, they universalise the experience. "Is there anyone who doesn't know where to get drugs?" Well, I think my mother, even if she were so inclined, would find it a bit tricky. But the point is, even when people don't, it is not just the lack of availability that limits demand. There is the (admittedly small) chance of detection, which people might not want to risk - and there's constraints imposed by the relative inconvenience of acquiring the product and the inability to guarantee the quality of the product, which deters potential customers.

The 'war on drugs' obviously 'doesn't work' according to its own definition but it doesn't follow from this that it doens't work in some other more realistic sense. Better to argue more straightforwardly that it isn't justified from a liberal point of view. The utilitarian case can be made also but I don't understand why people make it with such certainty, which brings me to the weakest point in the pro-liberalisation argument:

4) The argument for complete legalisation makes an assumption about a future that cannot be known from the pre-Misuse of Drugs Act days and is therefore by definition not 'evidence-based'. This is why liberalisation, were it to be attempted, should be done - and argued for - more carefully.

This is not to say I find the arguments for prohibition any more convincing than I did. They certainly aren't in the hands of James Brokenshire, the crime prevention minister:
"Legalisation fails to address the reasons people misuse drugs in the first place or the misery, cost and lost opportunities that dependence causes individuals, their families and the wider community."
When looking for a 'cure' for behaviour they disapprove of, people often over-rate the importance of finding the motive. Even if you do discover them, they can often disappoint. I think it was Irvine Welsh who said, "People take drugs because they like them. Everything else is sociological window-dressing."

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Other people's stuff

Time is pressing so just a wee pointer to a couple of excellent posts, in case you missed them.

There was a time when opposition to the inflated salaries of CEOs was anger at what it represented. You could take it off them and redistribute but you might end up with only enough to buy all the workers in the company a couple of pints. Emotionally satisfying but essentially symbolic.

With the bankers and their bonuses this is no longer the case. That they have fiscal implications is one of the points made here:
"The government currently under-writes one industry, which is about to pay £7bn in bonuses to individuals. Meanwhile, it is withdrawing less than half that sum from another 'industry' (on which our 'competitiveness' is, by the government's own estimation, no less important), and is prepared to endure the worst civil disorder in 60 years to do this. It's hard not to conclude that political excess, ultimately manifest in violence, is now a normal part of our governing logic, and not an exception."
The 'other industry' is of course higher education. The merits or otherwise of increasing fees is, I'm afraid to say, something I haven't paid a great deal of attention to but it increasingly looks to me like another example of how successfully this government has shifted, as Samuel Brittan put it in June this year, the debate from 'whether' to 'how'. The problem isn't an £850bn bailout that nationalises risk but privatizes profit, it's people cheating on social security; it's students expecting everyone else to pay for their education? Hang on. There may be debates to be had on any of these sort of issues but a little fiscal context is surely called for?

One implication of this that I really need to return to is that the issue of student fees has shown the devolutionary settlement in Scotland to be unsustainable. Having a lump of money and just moving it around - taking the credit when the Treasury is feeling flush and then blaming London when it isn't - is not a recipe for political accountability. The fees issue will bring this into sharp focus because Barnett means a corresponding reduction in funding for Scottish education. It is an overstatement to describe the present devolution settlement a dead-duck? Hmmmm...

On the issue of the student protests, you could do worse than have a look at Paul Sagar's space. The latest is here. Read it and tell me it doesn't feel like someone's opened a window in a really fusty room. That young man will go far, I tell you...

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Winter miscellany

Sorry for dearth of posts. Been suffering from a) seasonal bout of crippling self-doubt, b) inhumanly cold fucking weather.

Schools were closed for children for three days but teachers were instructed to attend our nearest school. We were informed that failure to do otherwise would result in our pay being docked. Being unable to absorb any further loss of income, I attended our local primary school. The one with no children in it.

Mentally filed under: what's the fucking point?

Anyway... There's been a run on petrol stations here because people are worried that they'll run out of petrol. Then they do. Who would've have thunk? Honestly!

I have no sympathy for the SNP but I'm an old man and I have never, ever, seen such a large amount of snow fall out of the sky so fast at this time of year - yet there's people who are convinced that this is somehow someone's fault and heads must roll? They might want to consider the possibility that something completely out of the ordinary that is difficult to cope with might just happen to them, if and when they come to power...

WikiLeaks: Don't quite know what to make of this, to be honest. The issue has been overshadowed by the arrest and incarceration of Assange. On this, there's been a rather depressing cyber-spat that I won't link to between feminists who, despite protestations to the contrary, seem to take the traditional view that all men are potential rapists against fans of the conspiracy theory of history. Given that both of these take default positions that are essentially impervious to evidence, the 'debate' has been as unedifying as one might expect.

Refreshingly, Johann Hari suggests a combination that all reasonable people should at least be prepared to accept is logically possible; just because you think WikiLeaks is a good thing, it does not follow that Assange is personally innocent of what he's been accused of. Johann does think the latest WikiLeaks revelations are a good thing on the grounds that they make us safer. How he can possibly know this isn't something he explains - although maybe I'm missing something.

I really don't know what to make of them. They're the sort of things that a historian is very interested in when the usual statute of limitations on secrecy runs out so it seems churlish of me to turn my nose up at them now just because they're an early release, as it were. But I'm not sure. Everyone keeps going on about how they expose 'hypocrisy' - that politicians and diplomats say one thing in public and another in private.

But normal social intercourse, never mind diplomacy, requires this kind of 'hypocrisy' to function. There's a trade-off here: yes, information exposed allows governments to be held accountable - but on the other hand, the fact of the matter is that liberty also requires a little privacy because people need to be able to reveal themselves selectively - and I'm by no means convinced that this shouldn't apply to state officials as well as private citizens. Or to put it another way, one outcome of this might be that representatives of states will be less frank in their private dealings as well as in public. I don't know what the implications of this might be but at this stage I'd just want to record my scepticism that this is necessarily a positive development. It is surely at least possible that more freedom of information now may very well mean less in the future?

Student tuition fees: Another thing I should have strong opinions about, I dare say - but I don't. I am interested in the political implications for the Lib Dems, though - given the way they nailed their 'no tuition fees' to the electoral mast to gain support prior to the election. Over a third of Lib Dem MPs rebelled. I've seen it suggested that such a tight vote early on is indicative of a fractured coalition that is unlikely to last the five years. I'm not so sure. This was the divisive issue, yet the government won the day. If a majority of the Liberal Democrats can accommodate such a screeching U-turn as this, what further humiliation could they not endure?

I'm thinking it depends on how masochistic they actually are? All the available evidence suggests they are very masochistic - but it might not last if they get nothing in return. Certainly the electorate is unlikely to reward them, with successive opinion polls showing they, rather than the Tories, are taking the hit for all this austerity. Why this is shouldn't be a mystery. Historically people have voted Tory, not because they think they are nice people who support communities and cherish the NHS. They think, know, that the Tories are pretty much bastards but that they're bastards who at least know to run the economy. Liberal voters, on the other hand, didn't sign up for this - thinking as they did that the Lib Dems were really rather cuddly. How much shit they're going to take is an open question - as is how much shit the Liberals themselves are willing to endure. Time will tell. Meanwhile, here's one from the archives...

Significantly more embarrassing than the Who singing, "I hope I die before I get old", I reckon...

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