Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Budget Thought

Too many thoughts about the budget to put them down now, but there's one piece of spin which deserves to be nailed right here and now.

I'm going to pick on Alex Massie. Not because his is or will be the most egregious example of it at work - far from it - there'll be plenty Labour and Lib Dem figures trotting it out with varying degrees of skill and understanding between now and the election. Simply, I'm singling him out because his is the link I have to hand.

The contention is that a cut to the Scottish block grant is justified, since if efficiencies have to be found elsewhere in the UK, then they should have to be found in Scotland also. Fair enough, but one based sadly on the incorrect premise that the Scottish Government isn't already seeking to make efficiencies.

In fact, the Scottish Government is looking for savings of 1.5% each year within its budget, and using the savings to help fund initiatives like the council tax freeze and the Small Business Bonus scheme. Rather, what's coming down the line is an actual cut to the Scottish budget, which will mean having to find even more efficiencies over and above those already being found if current spending lines are to be continued.

It's a legitimate argument to say that more efficiencies could be found, but to start from the premise that none are being found currently and will only occur as a result of a budget cut, is misleading to say the least. I don't suppose it will stop Jim Murphy trying to argue it, though.

Incidentally, it's interesting to see congruence between Labour at Westminster and the SNP Government that the true scale of the spending cuts facing Scotland will, as the SNP has always said, be in the order of £500m, which kind of destroys Iain Gray's apparent freelance contentions yesterday that the Scottish budget would continue to grow in real terms. If Brown accepts his own premise that you can't cut your way out of recession (as his deputy appears to), it's strange that that's the course he's decided to set for Scotland.

UPDATE: Alex Massie responds.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

A Twitterer Twitters

Like Jeff, I've finally given in and set up a Twitter account. Not to get down wiv da kidz or any of that rubbish – just simply because it's caught up with me as something that it might be fun to try out.

My uptake of social networking stuff has sometimes been slow, but always deliberate and definite when it's happened. I never saw the point of IM and still don't, even though the program probably still lurks somewhere on my computer. It's like an unimportant email, except carrying with it the impertinent expectation of an immediate reply else you convey the impression that you're ignoring the person who has just intruded into whatever it was you were doing. If it's a short message you want to pass on immediately, send a text. If you want a chat, why not just pick up the phone?

Texting I got from the off, having harumphed for a year or more previously that my pager was expensive to use and wouldn't let me reply similarly. Consequently, I was texting away as early as 1995 when it was still very much a minority sport - with instructions for use buried away at the back of your phone manual. You couldn't even send texts between UK networks to begin with, unless you surreptitiously used an overseas message centre. When Vodafone put a stop even to that for a time in 1996, I remember being told on complaining that 'there was no demand' to send texts between networks. Hmmm... they caught on in the end, though.

'Friends Reunited' I signed up for right away, but got bored with very quickly. It was like a virtual school reunion, sparing you the horror of ever actually having to attend one yourself. All it needed was a checklist of whether you were married, had kids, your job title and income bracket, the car you were driving and holidays planned, and you could be reinforced as a success or crushed as a failure from the comfort of your own home. Job done, but not worth more than a log in or two a year at most.

It's the personal recommendations that counted most to me when it came to social networking proper, which is where Twitter comes in, after getting a gentle nudge from a friend in the comments a few posts ago. I still don't really get it, except at the level of a Facebook status update, or for a short blast about something newsworthy. If you're Iain Dale, it lets you advertise your latest meeja appearance, although whether anyone would hang similarly for details of my next appearance on Original 106 news is perhaps debatable. Using it as a feed to tell people about your latest blogpost I don't really get – mainly because I always just go to the blogs I'm interested in anyway so if I see the post being advertised in a tweet, I've probably already seen it, or would have seen it anyway. As for using it as a news wire, we shall have to see. I think I'll still be relying on my radio and the BBC News site for some time to come.

So, despite a lingering suspicion that the past participle of tweeting would be post-watershed, I now do so, adding to the relentless electro-chatter of trivia being fired around the globe. I've even done the obligatory following of Stephen Fry although scandalously, he's thus far declined to reciprocate. I've no idea if it will be of any interest to others, but it costs nothing – let's see how it goes.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Is Labour becoming the 'Nasty party'?

I was speaking to a guy from Sweden a couple of weeks ago, who was part of a group visiting to examine tourism in the north of Scotland. He was accompanying a politician from Gothenburg who happened to be a former member of the Committee of the Regions. Guessing my politics, he suggested that it might be useful for me to know that this politician was a Liberal and that as such, the closest party to his views here would be the Lib Dems.

I set out to explain that because of differing views on the constitution, this wouldn't necessarily mean that the only place his views could be found would be in the Lib Dems here. He laughed and said he already knew this – and so flowed an interesting conversation on conflict management in small state politics and the relative tourist propositions of Scotland and Sweden.

It's the conflict management bit that's set me thinking, though. We're all aware of Labour's sodid smear-blogging attempts to target top Conservatives and their families. However, looking to Scotland, we also, sadly, have our own little outlets of unpleasantness. None have yet attempted anything like appears to have been envisaged for Red Rag, but if you glance at them even occasionally, you can probably guess from their overall tone at what I'm about to start driving at.

Confession time - we all have unworthy thoughts on occasion, even if self-censorship usually keeps the less salubrious of them away from the public gaze. That's neither good nor bad – it's just the way it is. In smaller political units, like Scotland or Sweden, there's usually a tendency towards accommodation or greater passive acceptance of others' views, simply because prolonged and protracted personalised political conflict alongside a determination to always see the worst in your opponents can be so draining otherwise.

Is this a noble thing to do? Does not trenchant 'honesty' and forthrightness give you an air of passionate authenticity and therefore, the mark of the 'straight talker' who simply 'tells it as it is'? If there's attacks to be made, is it not better simply to have these things out in the open?

Part of me says yes, in that it gives neutrals the chance to come to their own conclusions, and therefore the same opportunity as me to feel or express distaste – the 'give them enough rope' argument. However, another part of me wishes it were otherwise.

I don't claim the SNP has always been innocent in any of this – the bitterness of being on the way down as others enjoy the sunlit uplands of public approval has been common to all parties at some point. However, I also believe that recent years have seen the SNP adopt a tone of optimism and consensus-seeking not always reciprocated by others, especially Labour.

As I said, if that leads people to judge them more harshly, to their detriment and the SNP's benefit then from a purely partisan point of view, I should probably be quite content. However, I can't help but feel that the vitriol and increasingly desperate personalised attacks simply leaves us and our collective discourse all the poorer.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Happy Birthday To Us

Today marks the 75th anniversary of the foundation of the Scottish National Party. It might surprise some to learn that the party has been around for so long given that most history books don't have much to say about the SNP until the late 1960's. However, as Scotland's current party of government, there can be no doubt that it's come an awful long way since 1934 – and what a journey its been.

From the early days of the Glasgow University Scottish Nationalist Association and the eventual merger of the National Party of Scotland and the Scottish Party (an offshoot of the Unionist Party), the SNP faced an uphill battle against the prevailing politics of union and empire. However, Dr MacIntyre's short-lived 1945 triumph in Motherwell proved a harbinger of what was to come. The societal changes of the 1960's and parallel organisational advances brought talent to the party, resulting in the steady growth which led to Winnie Ewing's breakthrough at Hamilton in 1967 and what has since been a period of continual parliamentary representation for the party.

Oil fueled the party's fortunes in the 1970's, just as the SNP's success drove Labour and the Conservatives to seriously contemplate home rule. However, the weakness of the Labour Party at Westminster and inability to control its backbenchers saw devolution fall and with it, the Labour government. The SNP fell back dramatically at the resulting election and entered the 1980's a divided and marginalised force.

The party managed to hold itself together, though, and the social democratic strand of thought began to take precedence over centrist tactics. As discontent grew over the lack of a mandate for the Conservatives to govern Scotland, the party began to pick up support once more. Following a triumph at Govan in1988, the SNP saw its vote rise by 50% at the subsequent election, allowing it to enter the 1990's as the main challengers to Labour.

With the Westminster pendulum swinging back to Labour in 1997, the new government legislated swiftly for devolution. While Labour and the Lib Dems formed the first post-devolution administration, the SNP established itself firmly as the main opposition and by extension, the government in waiting. Credibility was built up and although the party fell back in 2003, the organisational reforms made in the interim allowed the party to gain in strength and to capitalise on the unpopularity of the Labour/Lib Dem administration in the 2007 election.

For a party funded solely by its members and lacking the support of any newspaper, taking power, however narrowly, was an astonishing achievement. There's never been any shortage of loud voices over the past eight decades, in Westminster and elsewhere, prepared to use the full authority of their standing to talk the party down and predict its demise. Yet despite all this, it is in government and on the verge of presenting a referendum bill for independence that the SNP celebrates this most auspicious of anniversaries.

Those loud voices have accused the SNP and its followers of many vices down the years. It might have been tempting for some in the party to go down the route of Anglophobia but it didn't, instead proposing an inclusive citizenship policy and an impeccable model of inclusion and civic nationalism. It might have tempted some to go down the road of violence as in Ireland, yet here the party stands, on the verge of achieving what it set out to, without so much as a punch having been thrown. The national movement has always been wider than the SNP, of course, but the party still deserves enormous credit for shaping a civic rather than ethnic goal for independence as part of what has been unquestionably the best behaved nationalist movement in the world.

From a position of imagined moral and intellectual superiority, there are some who will still try to argue that nationalism (by which they invariably mean Scottish rather than their own brand of British nationalism), has inherent deficiencies, or somehow goes against modernity. These assertions are as threadbare as they would be in reverse. Exactly as Scottish nationalism was once caricatured, public expressions of Britishness now more than ever seem to be defined by vacuous platitudes, perceived external threat and misty-eyed romanticism.

There's nothing at all inevitable about independence, yet the ground has shifted irreversibly. Scotland is now closer than it has ever been to re-establishing independence, and with a peaceful majority which will accept the outcome either way. That's not a situation which has arisen by accident – rather, it's the result of decades of patient argument made by Scottish Nationalists of all backgrounds and abilities, imbued with the simple belief that the best people to govern Scotland are those who've opted to make their lives here. The Scottish narrative of a small, prosperous, socially-just, peaceful, culturally rich nation which is respectful of difference, democracy and international law, and which has resolved its political status peacefully, could provide no more compelling example to the rest of the world, and is one which many other stateless nations in less benign circumstances would be wise to follow.

The SNP has given voice to many visionaries and pragmatists down the years to allow Scotland to progress to become the modern, inclusive nation she is today. As Scotland mourns one of her finest scholars and the SNP her most steadfast supporters, here's to those whose efforts have gone before, who despite their patient labours, are no longer around to see the fruits of their work in delivering a Scotland which has become increasingly at ease with itself. Truly, we stand on the shoulders of giants.

Monday, April 06, 2009

Prof Neil MacCormick

Like all nationalists, I’m saddened to learn that Professor Sir Neil MacCormick lost his battle with cancer at the weekend.

Prof Neil was of that rarest breed – MEP, Emeritus Professor, renowned expert on constitutional law, member of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, bagpiper – a successful academic politician with hinterland to compliment his outstanding intellectual achievements.

I will miss his warmth, wisdom and the incredible lightness with which he carried his learning. Particularly, I remember an evening in the Edinburgh SNP club where he spoke to us on the emerging EU constitution, which he had played a key role in helping to formulate.

We approached from slightly different standpoints - he passionately pro-EU, myself perhaps less so. His willingness to engage in a courteous philosophical meander with a truculent young pup on the pros and cons of the extent of the accountability which existed between Commission and Parliament, is something that will always stay with me.

It was that courtesy which was extended to political friend and ‘foe’ alike which I think will be missed most. His was an approach to politics which placed foremost a desire to engage with and convert those with whom he disagreed, rather than bludgeon them with partisan assertion. He was also an uproariously funny speaker, especially in private.

The lament at times like this is that the country is a poorer place for someone’s passing, or that we’ll never see their likes again. In mourning his death, we should also celebrate a life lived well and the outstanding contributions he made to law, politics and his country.

Scotland is a better place for the optimism, scholarship and devotion to sharing knowledge which marked his life. Those who knew him, even if like myself only slightly, can say that they are far the richer for having done so.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

North Sea Tragedy

The news from the North Sea of this afternoon's helicopter crash is just awful. Of the 16 men on board, 8 bodies have been recovered with the remaining 8 so far unaccounted for. The light is now fading and with it, you have to imagine, despite the benign conditions this evening and the best efforts of the rescuers, fades also the remaining chance of finding survivors.

This afternoon's tragedy is a reminder, as if any were needed, of the terrible cost we sometimes pay for harvesting the North Sea. Please spare a thought this evening, if you can, for the husbands, fathers and sons who have lost their lives, and for the families to whom they won't be returning.