Sunday, October 30, 2011

A short note on Nationalist economics

First it was John Swinney now we have Nicola Sturgeon saying the same bollocks about the state of Scotland's finances - this in a piece that purports to be myth-tackling:
"To take one of the most repeated, pernicious and damaging myths head-on, there can no longer be any doubt that Scotland more than pays its own way in the UK. The latest Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland (GERS) reports shows that Scotland has run a current budget surplus in four of the five years to 2009-10, while the UK was in current budget deficit in each of these years, and hasn’t run a current budget surplus since 2001-02."
Uh huh? Three quick points:

1) There was a thing called the bank-crisis, which accounts for the rather large budget deficit that the UK has. Think you'll find that as a part of that there was a couple of Scottish banks that received humongous wads of UK tax-payer's cash. You know the ones: they were Scottish when they were doing well, but British when the whole house of cards fell down.

2) To say the Scottish Government has been running a balanced budget is to make a virtue out of necessity because the devolution settlement does not include borrowing powers. I wouldn't dream of accusing Swinney and Sturgeon of being disingenuous on this point - perhaps they just forgot?

3) I'll take their word for it that the Scottish Government has run a surplus for four years. It raises the question of why the hell they think this is something to brag about? There's a recession on, dammit! Running a surplus in such circumstances is just plain stupid.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Prejudicial inversions

Find what: Jew. Replace with: Zionist. Result? Through the power of this handy editing tool, you have an article ready for posting on Comment is Rancid. On this occasion it happens to be courtesy of Deborah Orr on the subject of the Israel-Hamas prisoner exchange deal.

I would reiterate Norm's rebuttal of her prejudical inversions - but in rather less subtle and understated terms than the ones he has chosen.

It works something like this: imagine Hamas offered to exchange Gilad Shalit for one Palestinian prisoner. Then imagine the Israelis respond by saying, "This is absolutely unacceptable to us! We absolutely insist that we release many hundreds more of your lot. We are, after all, the Chosen People and such an exchange would be a more accurate reflection of our true value."

Can you imagine such a thought experiment corresponds to reality? Welcome to the world of Deborah Orr. Norm doesn't think it needs spelling out like this. I hope he's right but I fear the opposite.

I've been wondering what it is about this concept of being Chosen - the Elect - that some people seem to find so offensive? By asking this, I trust it is understood that I am in no way conceding that this was a motivating factor in the case discussed above.

The contribution of Christianity to anti-Semitism is well-understood. Or rather, it should be well-understood. But beyond what is familiar about traditional Christian anti-Semitism - the Blood Libel, the conspiracies - there's an aspect that is rarely discussed but which I'm convinced is historically enormously significant, which has to do with this concept of the Elect. For it is not an idea that is unique to Judaism but which is shared by all the monotheistic salvation religions. Given that Christians and Muslims - if they are in any way remotely orthodox - also consider themselves to be the Chosen Ones, why should it cause so much offence when it appears in Jewish thought?

I'm wondering if the answer doesn't lie in a paradox that exists in Western liberal thinking? Because for the modern student of history, proselytizing zeal is something that carries connotations of cultural arrogance, imperialism, domination and genocide - and for good reason. But one wonders if some Christian ideas aren't prowling around the minds of modern Western men like the ghosts of dead religious beliefs? In Christianity the invitation to join the Elect is universal, as it is in Islam. Not so with Judaism. Could it be the problem some people seem to have with the concept of Judaic election is simply that they haven't been invited?

So, what might be considered to be a virtue of Judaism - the absence of a desire to convert - has this, is this, held against the Jews? Unsure but surely it's plausible? What is certainly the case historically is that Jewish disinclination to convert has been bitterly resented - a feeling that has been expressed with fire on numerous occasions in European history.

Whatever the heart of the historical matter, there's another inversion that is being played out in front of our eyes. As an explicit and genetic result of a disposition to proselytize, in human history the responsibility for blood-letting in the name of winning souls for the One God can surely be ranked in an order that no reasonable person would contest? It's Christians first, then Muslims, then Jews. But when it comes to being the subject of prejudice and persecution? This is obviously more contentious but I'd argue that it has been exactly the other way around.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Two problems with plebiscites

Democracy is like liberty, choice, accountability, tolerance and justice; these are Good Things that one should be seen to support, lest your credentials for membership of polite liberal-democratic society be called into question. It is because this is well-understood that hucksters of all political persuasions have learned the rhetorical trick of identifying their desired policy outcome with one or more of the above sanctifying concepts.

The ease with which they are able to do this is something I find frankly terrifying. It doesn't seem to matter how ill-conceived, narrow or vainglorious the project is, declaring it to be about 'freedom', 'choice', the 'will of the people' is astonishingly effective. Which brings us to the topical subject of referendums. The Tory rebels want one - and the SNP want one. While obviously different in a couple of respects, they are both about 'constitutional' issues and both groups of protagonists feel the sense of having the wind at their backs. Because referendums are 'democratic' means by which the 'people' express their 'view'. You disagree with this? At best you're an 'elitist' - but in reality probably something much worse.

There's obviously more than two problems with this nonsense but I haven't written anything for a while and don't want to make assumptions about your attention - so I'll restrict myself to two:

1) Are we allowed to say short-termism is a problem inherent in democracy? Because I wonder how many people who like to quote Churchill's maxim that, "Democracy is the worst system, except for all the rest", actually accept its implication that democracy does in fact have one or two problems. I'd have thought this is obviously one of them - and it is a problem magnified to frankly grotesque proportions with plebiscites.

It is received wisdom that referendums are appropriate for 'constitutional' questions but these are precisely the kinds of questions they are least appropriate for because they involve decisions concerning the membership of institutions which, if they are designed properly, will endure for generations. That this shouldn't be so - that it is the proper function of politics to revisit these questions of membership every generation in a plebiscite - represents nothing less than proposing the institutionalisation of crass egoism, as well as an appalling lack of any sense of history.

And understood like this, aren't referendums a waste of time by their proponents own definition? If the 70s referendum on EEC membership isn't binding now, why shouldn't people apply the same ephemeral criterion to any plebiscite-based decision to withdraw from the EU now?

2) But this is to concede too much to the notion that there's some kind of consistent principle being applied here - in the name of the 'people', naturally. Fact of the matter is, referendums are a mechanism by which party politics takes perhaps its most dishonest form.

I've said it before but it bears repeating: the only time governments and opposition parties call for referendums is when they think they'll yield the result they want. If they don't think this, they avoid them.

Occasionally circumstances - those consisting of internal irreconcilable differences - impose it on them, as was the case with the one on membership of the EEC. But the general pattern is clear - and should a miscalculation occur, regimes usually draw a little inspiration from the legend of Bruce and the spider: if at first you don't succeed...

It's this dishonesty at the very heart of all known referendum projects that really sticks in the throat. It is, I would argue, substantially more mendacious than the more mundane 'bundle' voting discussed by Chris Dillow. Why has the SNP - despite their thumping majority in Holyrood - not set a date for a referendum on Scottish independence? Because they don't think they'll win. They are right to think this, in my view.

They are also right to think that no matter how unpalatable the status quo might be, it would still win in a straight fight against a nationalism that proposed a new head of state, border control, currency and armed forces - hence the multi-option proposal. I don't mind the Catalonia model being the nationalists' preferred option but do we really have to endure all this bluster and posturing merely for it to remain the already badly-kept secret that it is?

These preposterous parties, presidents and politicians of all persuasions with their populist posturing pretending with their propaganda to be at one with the populace through their professed preference for plebiscites? Pretentious pish - of a much more sinister kind than that demonstrated in the last sentence...

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