Thursday 31 December 2015

Universalism versus exclusivity

Beware of journalists telling you what SNP policy is. Even National columnists and respected commentators such as Lesley Riddoch. Whatever their other qualities, they can all too often be too susceptible to the cosy consensus of the establishment media clique to avoid its distorting influence. Even when the person referring to "the prevailing SNP orthodoxy" is as illustrious as Lesley Riddoch, we should not be deterred from questioning their assertions as to what that "orthodoxy" is.

Whenever journalists critique some supposed SNP policy, that policy tends to be represented as whatever fits neatly with the writer's criticisms and conclusions. In the words of the great lyricist, Ira Gershwin, it ain't necessarily so. (Note to editors: I can do David Torrance-style name-dropping too. Gie's a column!)

I do not speak for the SNP. But I understand party policy from the perspective of an actively involved member and an engaged voter. I also speak as an ardent advocate of universal provision of fundamental public services. In neither capacity do I recognise the "orthodoxy" described by Ms Riddoch. I do not maintain that "popular public services must be free for everyone, even if that means other, more vital services are withdrawn or rationed as a result". And I strongly suspect that Nicola Sturgeon would also reject this as a description of her party's attitude to universalism.

In the first place, I would avoid the word "free". It is, in this context, a pejorative or, at least, an emotive term. I would not be shy about using the more accurate and honest phrase, "provided by the state".

More importantly, I do not accept that universal provision must be at some cost to other services. And certainly not "more vital" services. The idea that we might want to fund services that we regard as important at the expense of services that we hold to be even more important is, quite frankly, nonsensical. The suggestion that this is "orthodoxy" for either the SNP or proponents of universalism such as myself would be offensive but for Ms Riddoch's charming reputation,

Such simplistically mechanistic modelling is not appropriate to something as complex as an economy. Nor even the tax/benefit system within that economy. It simply is not the case that spending money on one thing means that you have to stop spending on something else. If, for example, spending on "free" prescriptions leads to lower rates of chronic illness and fewer hospital admissions, the policy can more than pay for itself.

A cost benefit analysis is aptly described as a complicated way of getting from a preconceived idea to a foregone conclusion. It all depends on what is included as a cost or a benefit.

Apart from the all too frequently discounted "ancillary" benefits of universal provision - minimal administration cost, better uptake rates etc. - there are two things that should be borne in mind when considering universalism versus means testing.

Where there is a genuinely progressive tax system, universal benefits will tend to be self-financing.

If we want a cohesive, inclusive society, a proliferation of artificial distinctions creating ever more exclusive groups is hardly the way to go about it.

Monday 28 December 2015

The circus is in town

Ladies and gentlemen! Fluffy Mundel's Lying Circus proudly presents, David "Trapeze Man" Torrance!

Watch with barely suppressed ennui as, resplendent in his smug-spangled leotard, he swings in graceless arcs between clumsily contrived name-dropping and ill-informed commentary!

Gaze in perplexed wonderment as he turns intellect-defying somersaults of illogic in mid-air while flitting from dull incomprehension to clunking misrepresentation and back again!

Hands dusted with the rosin of self-righteousness the better to grip his prejudices, David performs his tired old routine for an eager audience of adoringly uncritical hard-core unionists.

He can, of course, afford to be both bold and inept. He has the safety net of the British media to ensure that he won't ever land on his arse in the sawdust and elephant shite of reality.

If only they'd told us!

If I cared in the slightest what Brian Monteith's views were on the issue of the British parties in Scotland becoming more like Scottish parties then I would come away from this article feeling somewhat frustrated. Having read it twice now I'm still not sure whether he thinks Scottish Labour and/or the Scottish Conservatives breaking away their "maternal parties" is a good idea or a waste of time and effort. He seems to suppose that the Davidson-Dugdale double-act "showing the courage to challenge their own UK leaders" would be a good idea, but acknowledges that this is unlikely to impress voters in Scotland.

Monteith seems to recognise that the people of Scotland are clued-up enough to be unimpressed by cosmetic changes to the North British branches of the establishment parties. Which is odd given that he evidently supposes us to be singularly stupid in other regards. Too stupid, apparently, to have noticed a "substantial body of evidence" supporting claims of the SNP's serial incompetence. We are, it seems, smart enough to immediately spot Tory and Labour attempts pass off their operations in Scotland as "autonomous" parties. But we're way too thick to notice that we're living in a failed stated, courtesy of the hated SNP.

It would have been nice if Brian Monteith had made some attempt to enlighten us. Perhaps by detailing just a little of the "substantial body of evidence" which supposedly proves the gross failings of the SNP administration that we are so dumbly unaware of. But no. In common with his fellow British nationalists, Monteith regards SNP badness as a given. The voters who insist on supporting the SNP are, by Monteith's account, blind to this badness despite it being so glaringly obvious as to require no illumination.

But we are, it appears, not entirely to blame for being oblivious to the ongoing chaos in our public services. Monteith bemoans the fact that the media has done so little to point out the catastrophic failings of the SNP. Only a massive cover-up could explain our continuing to trust the SNP despite their being unable to do anything right. If only they'd told us!

If only somebody in the media had dubbed the SNP record "scandalous"!

Because, of course, that NEVER happens.

Tuesday 22 December 2015

Legal depravity

When I hear Scottish Labour justice spokesman, Graeme Pearson, refer to the need to "choke off supply" I despair. He seems to be under the impression that the "War on Drugs" is an experimental approach whose efficacy has yet to be tested, rather than a project with a decades-long record of very costly failure.

The novelty here is the fact that Pearson's response is an exception to British Labour in Scotland's usual knee-jerk disagreement with the SNP administration. Although I'm not sure there is anything like complete agreement between the two, Pearson has managed to resist the Bain Principle imperative which would normally have had him taking a position diametrically opposed to the hated SNP. Well done him!

The statement from the Scottish Government spokesperson inspires slightly less despair. Although I am with Kenny McAskill on the issue of decriminalisation of drugs, I accept that the SNP would have to be sure they could carry the party with them on such a contentious issue. They must also be aware that the slightest hint of a will to reform drugs legislation will be seized upon by British nationalists and portrayed as a dastardly SNP plot to turn Scotland into a hotbed of drug-fuelled depravity.

Not that anyone would notice. At this time of year they're likely to be distracted bu all the drink-fuelled depravity that is perfectly legal.

Monday 21 December 2015

The transition

English: Logo of the Scottish National Party (SNP)
One might reasonably expect that the British establishment's cheerleaders in Scotland would learn something from this poll. But that fails to take account of the British nationalist mindset. The notion of British exceptionalism precludes them accepting that anything they do might be wrong. The closest they get to a reflective assessment of their performance is the thought that they aren't doing enough of whatever it is that failing.

And it is glaringly obvious to sane, sober and sensible observers that the anti-independence / anti-SNP propaganda campaign is failing catastrophically. Voters in Scotland are simply too engaged and aware to be swayed by what is essentially just a crude extension of Project Fear. Lessons were learned on the Yes side, even if none were learned by unionists.

Reading the below-the-line comments here and elsewhere, as well as articles by some journalists, is revelatory. A common theme is that the British parties might as well resign themselves to another humiliating electoral slapping next year, but that's OK because come the next election - or, maybe, the one after that - the SNP support will collapse.

Interestingly, this doesn't involve the British parties actually doing anything to win the trust of voters. The "theory" relies entirely on the SNP losing support, rather than the others winning it. It assumes that the electorate are getting it wrong and that all it will take to set us straight is another few years of the same grindingly negative tactics which have thus far only succeeded in bringing the British parties into ever greater disrepute.

Some fantasise about a "Grand Alliance" of unionists that will sweep the SNP from the electoral map. More acute intellects will reflect that this would hardly be much different from what we have now. There is no doubt that the three main British Parties in Scotland - aided and abetted by the media - are already coordinating those "attacks" on the SNP, and on institutions such as NHS Scotland, Police Scotland etc. This is part of the reason people have stopped believing any of it.

The possibility of this cooperation developing into a formal electoral pact is vanishingly small. And, even if it did happen, it would only confirm the collusion that voters already disapprove of. We can also pretty much discount informal tactical voting. Experience tells us that few participate. And those taht do tend to cancel out each others' efforts resulting in a negligible overall effect.

So, all we can expect from the British parties is a ramping up of the SNP BAD! rhetoric and ever more contrived and blatant anti-SNP propaganda in the media. With a heavy dose of British nationalist jingoism thrown in.

As an SNP member, I am delighted. Why should I be anything less than gleeful if the British parties choose to commit electoral suicide?

As a lifelong advocate of the restoration of Scotland's rightful constitutional status, I should be ecstatic. Because the SNP is the essential political arm of the independence movement. At this juncture, what is good for the party is good for the independence campaign.

As a democrat who aspires to a better politics for both Scotland and the rest of the UK, however, my elation must be tempered with regret at the path down which the British establishment is taking us. Their idea of politics is an astronomical distance from what I hope for.

Neither is it healthy, in the longer term, for politics to be dominated by one party. This is not ideal. But it is necessary. And we have cause to be grateful that the dominant party is the SNP. We have to go through a transition to the new politics and independence - not necessarily in that order. To make any kind of accommodation with the British parties, who flatly refuse to adapt to the new reality, would be to turn away from that transition and take our politics backwards.

The polls indicate that we have the momentum. We have an opportunity to transform our politics. The SNP is our big stick. It is the lever by which we will move our nation. All that is required is that we put our weight behind that lever.

Both votes SNP!

Quality journalism? Still but a Christmas wish!

In his usual shallow, blinkered fashion David Torrance acknowledges that the media in Scotland is generally regarded with a profound contempt which, if novel at all, is so only in terms of a more widespread readiness to express that contempt. Being blinkered and shallow, Torrance doesn't trouble himself unduly with the matter of why journalists are held in such low regard by the public. To the extent that he addresses the question at all, he contrives an answer which is entirely shaped his prejudices. An answer which, moreover, lends no credibility whatever to his comical claim to some special insight into the "mindset" of independence supporters.

His verdict, unsurprisingly, is that the media is innocent in all of this and that the charges of distortion of facts and downright dishonesty can simply be dismissed for no other reason than that are levelled by Torrance's curious trio of "Scottish Nationalists, Corbynistas and supporters of Donald Trump" - the last of being included, one supposes, lest we should in any doubt that the intention was to suggest a shared "eccentricity".

Apparently, we are supposed to disregard the lies and the smears peddled by journalists in the service of the British establishment on the grounds that those journalists are actually a convivial bunch who work hard and don't get paid as much as they imagine they're worth. Torrance's feeble defence of the media is, not that it doesn't wantonly sensationalise and wilfully mislead, nor even that there is some justification for such behaviour. He offers no defence or plea in mitigation because he doesn't accept that the media can do anything wrong.

His argument appears to be that, if we want a "free press", we must accept whatever we're given in the name of this "press freedom". Apparently, the proper functioning of democracy requires that there should be no constraints whatever on the media. We are told that "press freedom" means the right to exert political influence, however minor, with total impunity. A "free press", by Torrance's self-serving definition, is a press which has an unfettered right to push a particular political agenda, by absolutely any means, without being answerable to anyone.

Torrance makes the bold assertion that the Scottish media "has heaps more self-awareness and integrity than many of those who zealously traduce it". A claim which he seems to imagine is conclusively proved by the fact that diverse journalists are prepared to have the gentle piss taken out of them while they enjoy the doubtless generous hospitality of the junket's sponsors. I'm going to be so bold as to suggest that not everybody will find this "evidence" as persuasive as Mr Torrance does.

We are told that, "the problem is the capacity and ability to carry on producing quality journalism, not the media’s constitutional stance". But who is to judge what constitutes "quality journalism"? Not the consumers, that's for sure. Torrance is at pains to tell us that, should our opinions be less than flattering to the media clique, then those opinions are either misguided or irrelevant. The media itself is a "great issue". And newspapers must be free to judge the great issues of the day on their own terms.

The fact that increasing numbers of us do not recognise what we are being offered as "quality journalism" has, according to Torrance, no bearing on the matter. There is more to quality journalism than good writing. A lie is yet a lie when it is couched in the prettiest of prose.

And it is not, as Torrance supposes in characteristic blinkered and shallow fashion, a matter of "constitutional stance". Across the independence movement, during the referendum campaign and since, people like myself genuinely craved honest and factual engagement in the constitutional debate from the British establishment - in particular, the British political parties and the British media. It was, and continues to be, one of the great frustrations of that debate that the unionist side simply does not participate in any meaningful way.

I would love to be responding to some rational analysis or dispassionate commentary from unabashedly pro-union journalists. If only I could find any. Instead, I find myself replying to the shallow, blinkered drivel that David Torrance hopes will pass as quality journalism.

Talking sense

Cabinet Secretary for Justice Kenny MacAskill
Kenny MacAskill (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
I have always had a degree of admiration for Kenny MacAskill. He always struck me as someone who was not afraid to tackle the kind of issues that politicians normally skirt around. It is, therefore, not too surprising to find him putting his head above the parapet on the issue of reforming drug legislation.

Only those with their heads stubbornly buried in the sand will dispute that such reform is necessary. The "war on drugs" has been a decades-long squandering of resources for no discernible social gain. But for the resistance of vested interests, there would have been a total rethink long ere now. There is always a tipping point in such matters. It would be gratifying to think that McAskill's intervention might prompt other senior figures to speak out.

But there is another point being made here. Kenny McAskill also highlights the need for control over drugs legislation in Scotland to be brought home. We have now moved past the stage where we had to argue the merits of devolving powers. The onus now is on the UK Government to justify the withholding of powers that should logically and rightfully be vested in the Scottish Parliament. Increasingly, the British establishment's insistence on denying power to Scotland's parliament looks perverse and obtuse. Where people used to wonder whether devolution of particular powers was a good idea, more and more they are coming to question why, when Scotland has its own democratically elected parliament in Edinburgh, those powers are still in the hands of British politicians in London.

Friday 18 December 2015

The madness of Jenny Hjul

A catalogue of distortion, lies, ill-informed comment and mindless hatred. Or. as it is otherwise known, an article by one of the more bitterly fanatical British nationalists, Jenny Hjul.

I read vile diatribes such as this and I am put in mind of the kind of demonising propaganda pumped out by the British state on the all too frequent occasions when it is seeking to justify some murderous overseas military adventure for the purposes of "regime change".

In tone, if not in the precise detail of language, Hjul's rant is barely distinguishable from the British establishment's fulminations against Saddam Hussein, or Muammar Gaddafi, or Bashar al-Assad. Or, in an earlier era, Mohandas K Gandhi, or any of many others subsequently acknowledged by the world as honourable and brave leaders of the struggle against brutish imperialist domination and exploitation.

Some will dismiss the comparison. But, apart from the stylistic parallel between Hjul's bilious bombast and state-sponsored hate-mongering, there are valid similarities in respect of the motivation for such intemperate vilification. In all cases, it is primarily about protecting the interests of the ruling elites of the British state. What the episodes of demonising propaganda have in common is that all are mounted against perceived threats to the structures of power, privilege and patronage which define the British state.

Jenny Hjul is clearly not clever enough to realise it, but the one thing that is clear from her rancid raving is that this is a political union which cannot possibly last. No union in which one of the parties is subject to this level of abuse can conceivably survive. It is not a matter of whether the union ends, but when.

And how. The SNP and the wider independence campaign have sought an orderly, amicable dissolution of the union in which those aspects which are commonly valued may be preserved, in some form and as far as possible. A break-up of the UK brought about by pedlars of hate such as Hjul is a very different matter. And a prospect relished only by those on the extreme lunatic fringe of British nationalism.

Sunday 6 December 2015

Moving on

Just what we needed! Another London-centric politician demonstrating how little he understands Scotland's politics. Or even the fact that Scotland has a politics which is distinct from that in England. Livingstone seem to imagine that it is all a simple matter of degrees of apparent left-winginess. Like many in British Labour's North British branch, he clings to the notion that the SNP's electoral success is merely a matter of the voters giving British Labour a wee slap to get them back on track. He genuinely seems to believe that all it takes to restore normality north of the border is a wee wave of the red flag.

Livingstone simply cannot appreciate that British Labour in Scotland is being punished for more than just the aberration of Blairism and the betrayal of Better Together. And he surely could never admit that the SNP might be winning on merit. Compromising of principles and collaborating with the Conservatives are merely symptoms of the deeper malaise which has occasioned Scotland's increasing disaffection with British Labour. The problem is not that British Labour hasn't been left-wing enough, but that it hasn't been Scottish at all.

And I don't mean Scottish on any saltire and tartan sense. I mean Scottish as in being relevant to Scottish politics and society. Former Labour voters used to say that they didn't leave the party, the party left them. But we've now moved on a few episodes in that soap opera. We're now at the bit where British Labour tries to come back, only to find that their one-time partner has matured, moved on, and formed a new relationship.

British Labour in Scotland is the second time suitor pleading that it could be just like the old days and unable to accept that we are delighted to have left those days behind us. They're trying to return to a place that no longer exists. It's not us, it's them. They just don't fit in our lives any more. And in their forlorn frustration they lash out at their replacement thinking to undermine our new relationship with insults and malicious gossip, but only managing to alienate us even further.

Ken Livingstone seems to think that all "Scottish" Labour needs to do is put on that old record we used to dance to and we'll swoon again like we did last century. Sorry, Ken! We still love Slade. But we're listening more to Young Fathers these days.

Thursday 3 December 2015

The war I want

Let there be no doubt that I want to see Islamic State obliterated. Whether that is actually possible or not, my instinctive reaction to this vile cult is to want it destroyed. Eradicated. I abhor Islamic State with a fervour that disturbs me, lest it resemble in any degree the fervour which drives these murderous thugs.

Let's be clear that I entertain absolutely no illusions about the repulsive nature of Islamic State's odious ideology. No more than any other sane individual do I relish the prospect of humanity being dragged by black-clad, sword-wielding psychopaths to ultimate oblivion via a purgatory that compresses all the horrors of ancient religious ignorance, intolerance, zealotry and brutality into the shortest period of time possible as it rushes towards the obscene embrace of Armageddon.

Let's have none of this nonsense about it being "nothing to do with religion". Let's dispense with the fallacy (which I confess to having been lured towards on occasion) that Islamic Sate is not Islamic. Or non-Islamic. Or, even, anti-Islamic. The reality is that it is too Islamic. It is excessively Islamic. It is a manifestation of what we can only call hyper-fundamentalism, ugly as that term may be. Only in that sense is the Islam of Islamic State alien to the Islam known and practised by millions of perfectly decent, caring, peaceful, hard-working law-abiding Muslims throughout the world. The people who are our neighbours, our colleagues, our friends and, crucially, our allies in the fight against a cult which is at least as much of a threat to "ordinary" Muslims as it is to anyone else. Statistically, a vastly greater threat.

Let's have no self-satisfied smugness or self-righteous condemnation, either, from adherents of and apologists for the other Abrahamic cults - Christianity and Judaism. It is only by serial accidents of history and various catastrophes of geo-politics that this hyper-fundamentalism has arisen where it has. Had circumstances been no more than somewhat different, either of these creeds is perfectly capable of throwing up its own brand of hyper-fundamentalism. Indeed, it might well be argued that both have already done so, albeit on a scale that cannot rival the massive madness of Islamic State.

There is no such thing as benign religion. What we are pleased to regard as "moderate" religion is the fertile soil in which grow orthodoxy, absolutism and fanaticism. Religion sows the seed of blind faith - belief against evidence - and the world reaps the whirlwind of hyper-fundamentalism. Religion bids us abandon our intellect and put mediaeval superstition, proud ignorance and the dogma of long-dead scribes before progressive enlightenment, accumulated knowledge and intuitive awareness of the constraints on our behaviour derived from our shared humanity and sociability.

For the most part, we cope with this incipient malignancy. For the most part, we keep it in check. Islamic State is what happens when we fail.

Listen to buffoons such as Stephen Daisley and you'd suppose all those whose voices were raised against the UK joining in the bombing of Iraq were as absolutist in their opposition to military action as the warmongers were in their pursuit of armed conflict. Not so. I do not claim to speak for others, but my opposition was not to action against Islamic Sate, but to action that was ill-conceived, needlessly murderous, utterly pointless, and almost certainly destined to be ineffective.

The British war-machine may have hitched a ride on the wave of fear and revulsion that Islamic State has provoked, but it would be naive to imagine that Cameron and his British establishment cronies are acting from anything that might pass for honourable motives. The British state's puny contribution to the bombing in Syria has precious little to do with striking at Islamic State and a great deal to do with ensuring Britain is not excluded from the game being played by the big boys in the playground of a strategically important and resource-rich region.

It is about status. It is about the increasingly desperate and unseemly scrabble to maintain the British state's place at the "top table".

And, of course, it is about laying claim to a share of the spoils once Islamic State is "defeated" - whatever that may mean. Not just oil, but influence. British nationalists simply cannot abide the thought of other members of the imperialist club carving up the remnants to suit themselves. It's about power. Power is relative. In this game, it is as important for each player to prevent others gaining power as it is to gain power for themselves.

Those who oppose the intervention in Syria do so for a variety of reasons. They are not, as some of the more shallow-minded commentators seem to suppose, a homogeneous group. These reasons are generally worthy. Or, at least, more worthy than the short-sighted, self-serving motives of the warmongers.  My own view is that, even if Islamic State could be vanquished in a military sense - which is a questionable proposition at best - it would not be wiped out. Something of it would survive. And that something could be even more dangerous and problematic.

When incidents such as the Paris attacks happen, or military intervention is proposed, apologists for the imperialist powers instinctively and vehemently deny any historical context. Any suggestion that the past policies and actions of British state and others are related in any way to the morass that is the Syrian conflict will be met with flat denial and hysterical accusations of terrorist sympathies. Being wilfully blind to history as a process, and thus to the connections between and among past events, there can be no extrapolation to future developments.

Pretty much every one of the imperialist military adventures of recent history, from the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan through the "War on Terror" to the invasion of Iraq and "regime change" in Libya, had "unfortunate" outcomes which were both entirely foreseeable and, in every case, well predicted. But the ruling elites, obsessed with the pursuit of power, would not be warned and could not be induced to pause and think - any more than the British establishment could be dissuaded from its latest doomed adventure in Syria.

The likes of Hilary Benn will make rabble-rousing speeches filled with jingoistic historical references of dubious relevance while remaining stubbornly oblivious to the lessons of history which hold the most valuable lessons.

The most fundamental lesson of history is that military defeat of Islamic State - to the extent that this is a realistic prospect - will not be an end point. Something else will follow. And if you do not seek to understand what might follow there is little chance of being prepared to deal with it. What you have then is a recipe for perpetual war. The perpetual war in which we are now embroiled.

I object to UK participation in the bombing of Syria on a number of grounds. (Such as the serious constitutional issues that have been raised. Of which more anon.) Not the least of these grounds is that it is a move which contributes to this perpetual war, rather than offering the possibility of a route out of it. It is a diversion. A side-show. A squandering of effort. And an unforgivable waste of the innocent lives that will be be part of the price of the British establishment's hubris.

I would have preferred to see the effort going into starving Islamic State of money and weapons. I wanted a massive effort, not only to block Islamic State's propaganda channels, but to counter its propaganda. Islamic State will not be destroyed by bombs and missiles and artillery. Islamic State will not be dead until its pernicious ideology is dead. It will not be defeated until it is exposed for the abomination that it is. Exposed in such a way as to arouse revulsion rather than curiosity in those to whom its appeal is directed.

Islamic State will not be defeated until the disaffected, disillusioned and dis-empowered see a viable alternative to the comforting certainties and promised empowerment that Islamic State touts. Until they see a space in which reason can function and be effective.

Islamic State exists because those who possess the power to shape the world have created an Islamic State-shaped space that had to be filled. The decision to bomb Syria is a decision to continue making it a space where hyper-fundamentalists survive and thrive.