Wednesday, February 24, 2010

“I Hope He Gives You Hell”

It’s not been a good week for Labour. A Prime Minister accused of bullying colleagues and staff, questions of his equilibrium under pressure going mainstream, and now a Cardinal saying that he ‘hopes the Pope gives Labour hell’ when he next visits Scotland.

Cardinal O’Brien might perhaps have been more inclined to keep his thoughts to himself, had it not been for Jim Murphy’s extraordinary and egregious attempt in a widely trailed speech to portray the Labour Party as being the natural political home for people of faith. Quite rightly, Murphy has taken an absolute kicking from opponents and in the press for his trouble.

In response to the speech, the Cardinal issued a statement which said:

"Any recognition of the role played by faith and religion in society is to be welcomed. However, a tangible example by the government over the last decade that it acknowledged or endorsed religious values would also have been welcomed. Instead we have witnessed this government undertake a systematic and unrelenting attack on family values."

Murphy has managed to provoke a fiercer reaction than even Margaret Thatcher managed with her infamous ‘Sermon on the Mound’ in 1988 to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland. On that occasion, the Moderator merely confined himself to remarking to the Prime Minister that she had probably never before appeared in front of an audience which had so many members who were actively praying for her.

Although I’m uncomfortable with public declarations of faith when it comes to politicians, tending to be of the view that their faith or lack thereof is best kept as a private matter, I do not subscribe to the view that religion and politics do not mix, because they can scarcely do otherwise. The experiences which people have and the beliefs that they hold will always inform how they respond to the issues of the day and will always shape their views on how the world should be. While it’s plainly wrong to pretend that religious belief can lead only to one single ‘correct’ viewpoint or that someone's faith should lend their views any additional weight, it would be equally wrong to pretend that our public debate would be anything other than greatly diminished were no religious perspectives to be found.

However, Murphy here has crossed a line. Rather than acknowledge the strength and comfort which he doubtless finds personally in his faith, and explaining how he reconciles his faith with the need to represent others of different faiths and of none, he has tried to claim that his party is the natural home for people of any faith. Even allowing for the fact that we’re just weeks from an election, as political gambits go, it’s shoddy, shabby and sadly, entirely in keeping with Murphy’s MO.

The portrayal of Murphy in the Scottish press as some kind of political genius is something I’ve long puzzled over, probably because I remember him from his days as a hack in the NUS, busily selling the interests of students down the river while trying to secure a seat in parliament for himself. Of course, you could cite the very fact he managed to get away with it as evidence of a genius of a sort. Nevertheless, given his propensity to assert ‘that which is not’ and to continually misrepresent his opponents with any number of straw man arguments, I spent a good number of years trying to work out if he was serially dishonest, or simply lacking in his ability to understand what was really going on around him.

I remember barking him into an uncharacteristic silence during a debate at Stirling University shortly after he was elected in 1997. Banging on about priorities in politics, and explaining to the assembled studentry why it was a good thing that his government was about to withdraw their grants, he described Scotland’s universities as bastions of middle class privelige, to which access could only be widened if young people without financial means were prepared to go heavily into debt to pay their own way. There was, we were told, no money to pay for grants in future, and that the £150m which this move saved would be better spent elsewhere.

At this point, I interjected that just a week earlier, the MoD had agreed to spend £150m on upgrading Trident nuclear warheads. What, I wondered, did this tell us about Mr Murphy’s priorities?

With wisdom worthy of Confucius, the bold Jim pronounced that that money had already been spent, so wasn’t there any more. Indeed so, I acknowledged, but didn’t this show that the money had indeed been there; could have been used to maintain the grant had his government so wished; and that it was simply untrue for him to try and assert otherwise? To this, the answer came that it had already happened and that people needed to ‘move on’ – a plea we’ve heard many times since whenever his government has been caught in a lie.

In the end, I stopped puzzling over the nature of Mr Murphy’s dubious political attributes, and settled on his simply possessing a feral, mendacious cunning and a neck of brass; his inexplicable rise to the patronage of a Scottish Labour Party desperately short of talent, and to the support of a Scottish press corps with a curious willing to puff him up in public to a level of credibility well beyond that which his talents could tolerably sustain by themselves.

The brass neck is to some extent part of a politician’s DNA, of course, even if cunning and mendacity aren’t necessarily qualities to be admired. Having been given the bum’s rush by Cardinal O’Brien for his unsubtle attempts to equate his party with faith and morality, I wonder whether this rather dramatic falling to earth will lead to our inquisitors applying a little more rigour, and in taking a little less obvious pleasure in their own deception, where Mr Murphy is concerned.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

It's Not Me, It's You

It may only be mid-February, but already we've got a contender for blogpost of the year. Take a bow then, SNP Tactical Voting, for a cool-headed, forensic and long overdue demolition of the Glasgow Herald and its recent political 'coverage'. As the man himself says: "Put simply, a lack of rigour has become de rigeur and when challenged for being sloppy our newspapers decide to just get stroppy."

The late Oliver Brown crafted a great many aphorisms in his time. His comment about the effect Winnie Ewing taking her seat in the House of Commons had on Scottish Labour MPs has entered legend. However, his remark that "All a man needs in life is a good cause, and the enmity of the Glasgow Herald, and he can be sure if he has the first then the second will automatically follow", has seldom in my lifetime seemed quite so apposite.

I'm not going to reel off an extended lament about how much better the Herald used to be than it is presently. Nor is it worthwhile rising to their tedious editorial whinge, in the aftermath of the past week, about “SNP-supporting bloggers and posters who attempt to colonise newspaper comment sections and letters pages”. It's nice to know where you stand, after all, and that your views are henceforth to be regarded by the newspaper as somehow unwelcome.

I don't ask for much in a newspaper. Political impartiality over the piece is preferred, as is a recognition that there's a world which exists beyond the City of London or Babbity Bowsters. Even just one or two interesting columnists will help me tolerate the blinkered shrillness of the others, whose main purpose in life seems to be to keep the letters editor busy rather than to dispense elucidation and enlightenment. A recognition that the SPL exists is always welcome, as is a realisation that it takes more than four teams – the Old Firm and whoever they happen to be playing next – to help make up our national game.

I can just about tolerate the relentless eulogising of Gordon Brown, in both print and picture, in which the Herald has seemed to specialise over the past two years. Its focus on Glasgow may be a betrayal of the broad vision which the late Arnold Kemp had for the title and out of place for a paper with pan-Scottish pretentions, but at least you can understand it in the context of a core readership comprised historically of the West coast mercantile classes. Even its relentless knocking of the SNP might be understandable – it is the government, after all, and it is there to be shot at. Nevertheless, no matter how much it pains me to say it, my patience is just about through with a title which I've read almost daily since I was a student.

The relentless cheerleading for an overpriced rail link to an airport, on the wrong side of the city, which would be isolated from the links which the majority of Scots enjoy to Queen Street rather than Central, and which would only save 5 minutes over the existing bus service, might be forgivable if it weren't dressed up in such an obvious political agenda. The 'Scarred Scotland' strapline over Beauly to Denny was simply a perversion of reality. But even the virulence, absurdity and histrionic self-justification in aspects of recent coverage pales into insignificance when considered beside the Herald's greatest and most debilitating flaw. Quite simply, and there's no way to sugar coat this - it has become deeply, soporifically, almost terminally boring.

It's become a sorry, if latterly infrequent ritual. Skip over the slanted page one lead. Flick past the crime stories. Ignore the Labour puff-piece on the politics page, strain your eyes for the much more important stories relegated to a couple of column inches, if you're lucky. Snooze through the lifestyle pages. Yawn at the banality of the editorial page. Skim past the usual suspects on the letters page. Remember how much funnier the Diary was when Tom Shields did it. Have a glance at the obituaries, see what's on telly later, look in vain for any coverage of the mighty Aberdeen FC in the sports pages and then, if the cat's litter tray is still fresh, consign it to the nearest recycling bin.

I realise that the Herald's problem is me, and those like me. I used to buy the Herald and its Sunday stablemate 7 days a week. In fact, I've never consciously stopped buying it. However, my 100% loyalty has dwindled over the past couple of years or so to the point that, thinking about it, I last bought a Herald 3 Sundays ago. I can't even remember the last time I tried to use the dreadful website. Frankly, there's nothing I've seen over the past fortnight which will be encouraging me to reverse the trend any time soon.

It's a title which no longer speaks to me, even if it's taken until the last few weeks for me to realise it. I dare say I'll still pick it up from time to time, maybe at the station or the airport, or if badgered sufficiently by my SO. I won't say goodbye, just like I never said hello, and my 80p or whatever it is it now costs each day will just stay in my pocket. The only bit I'll really miss is Ron Ferguson's column, and I can read him in the P&J anyway.

It's commonplace to remark that the Scottish media is in a sorry state. I'd like to think that it's worth saving, but it's going to take more than subsidies and retreating into entrenched geographical and political prejudices to achieve that. Let's start with a more generous spirit in reporting culture, trying to have a wider world view, learning to challenge your readership without antagonising them and most important of all, in trying to improve the bits in between the adverts. Maybe someone could let me know if the Herald starts to improve – it would be a great shame to lose touch entirely with an old friend, after all, no matter how much they've begun to grate latterly.

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

A 'Yes' for Wales

Some important news from Wales which you almost certainly won't have seen on our glorious British 'national' news. This evening, the Senedd passed a motion which triggers the process for a referendum to be held on transferring legislative powers to the institution from Westminster. The motion, which required the support of at least 40 AMs, succeeded in garnering the support of 53 in the end, with no abstentions or votes against.

And so begins a process which will see First Minister Carwyn Jones write to Secretary of State, Peter Hain, informing him of the result. The Secretary of State then has 120 days in which to consider the request, and lay a draft order for the referendum, or to respond in the negative explaining why a vote can't go ahead.

A rejection seems highly unlikely. Hain has already said this evening that he looks forward to “beginning the preparatory work”. His Conservative shadow, Cheryl Gillan, has also made it clear that the Tories, should they win the general election in the meantime, will not stand in the way of a referendum. Plaid Cymru, as you would expect, are in favour, while for the Lib Dems, Kirsty Williams has argued that the present settlement is “unsustainable”.

There's no doubting the progress that the self-government argument has made in Wales since the knife edge referendum result in 1997. I stayed up to watch the results coming in that evening, and went to bed in the wee small hours, despondent that the 'No' campaign looked to have won the day. In the event, it took the final declaration from Carmarthenshire to swing it. Seldom has a student hangover disappeared quite so quickly!

The argument for the transfer of legislative powers ought to be unanswerable. The current system whereby Legislative Competence Motions have to be passed in order to give the Senedd powers to legislate on particular matters, is clunky and cumbersome. However, the challenge, at a time of cynicism about politics and politicians, is to set this in a context and narrative which resonates with people. Done properly, and with the cross party support already in evidence, it can give the Senedd, and indeed the whole idea of self-government for Wales, the emphatic legitimising endorsement that so many loud voices have always sought to deny the institution.

While I wish my many Welsh friends and colleagues likely to be involved in the 'Yes' campaign all the best, it's hard not to draw a parallel with Scotland. Here, we're told by our regional franchises of Labour, the Conservatives and the Lib Dems that a referendum on the constitution is no-go. Thanks to this evening's vote in the Commons on electoral reform, that's two referendums which now have the go-ahead to take place during an economic downturn, when people's minds are focused on [insert own self-serving excuse here].

It really shouldn't need to be pointed out, but the legitimacy of our political processes and their ability to respond to people's concerns has arguably never been more important. It's not just about who governs or how they govern, but also the ability we have to influence how we ourselves are governed. Here's to a successful referendum in Wales, and to a similarly successful vote on Independence in the not too distant future.

Update: Hamish Macdonell adds his slant in the Caledonian Mercury.

Friday, February 05, 2010

Underreacting - Again

Brace yourselves, people. Start looking out those candles and remember to wrap up warm. It seems that a mishap has just hit Torness Nuclear Power Station, causing one of the reactors, our most 'reliable' source of energy, to shut down. What? You mean that the lights don't go off without nuclear after all? Oh...

It should be pointed out that the fault affected a transformer, rather than anything more critical, and that the reactor shut itself down automatically only as a precaution. However, it does highlight one of the biggest drawbacks of nuclear as a source of power, at least when it comes to Scotland.

The conventional wisdom of the nuke fanatics is that it generates 50% of Scotland's electricity, a myth which I've stamped on before. The truth is that when both Torness and Hunterston are going at full output, they generate something like 35% of our total output, meaning that if one of either station's two reactors shuts down, we lose nearly 9% of our normal capacity. If either station has to shut completely, as happened to Hunterston B over 2006/7, that's the equivalent of losing all the power Scotland exports routinely through the interconnector.

That nuclear is inflexible to demand is one of the reasons it is spoken of in hushed tones of reverence as a way of meeting 'base load'. The flip side of this is that any sudden and unexpected loss of a big chunk of capacity like this can be hard to deal with. The same of course is true of any large power station going out of service. However, the problem is magnified many times where nuclear is concerned, not least because the down time for conventional stations in the event of a shutdown is seldom as lengthy as it is for nuclear.

The loss of a reactor affects the 'levelised' cost - the total cost of the station over its lifespan. Given the astronomical construction costs associated with nuclear power, and even allowing for the fact that the brave, swashbuckling capitalists of the nuclear industry still need the taxpayer to take the decommissioning liabilities off their balance sheet, the lengthy outages common to the UK industry do nothing to convince that nuclear can be considered either cheap or reliable.

In contrast, tidal flow and waves are as predictable as the moon orbiting the earth. If the wind doesn't blow in one part of the country, it will generally be blowing somewhere else. Demand is generally predictable, as is the ability of conventional fossil fuel powered stations, hydro, pumped storage, tidal, wave and wind to match it. A decentralised grid, flat connection charges, feed in tariffs to encourage take up of domestic microgeneration, and greater energy efficiency represent a much more sensible approach than putting so many of our eggs in the nuclear basket.

Nuclear might well be a wise option for countries lacking the ability to sequestrate carbon, or without access to significant resources of wind, wave, tidal and hydro power. They can choose that course if they wish, and be saddled with the financial millstone of decommissioning. In Scotland at least, our comparative advantages, and greatest opportunities, lie elsewhere.

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Transmission (Re)vamp

Now that the dust is settling on the budget (passed today - still nothing constructive from Labour, and with fence splinters characteristically needing removed from the Lib Dem body politic), it's time to revisit the brouhaha over Beauly-Denny.

With a great big tip of the hat to the Caledonian Mercury, here's a map which shows the route that the new, upgraded line is anticipated to take:

In all, some 53km of 132kV overhead transmission line between Boat of Garten and Cairnmore in the Cairngorm National Park will be removed. 40km of 132kV overhead transmission line between Etteridge and Boat of Garten in the Cairngorm National Park will be removed, to be replaced by 33kV overhead lines supported by wooden poles, or underground cables. Meanwhile, a further 10km of 132kV overhead transmission line around Whitebridge and around Amulree will be replaced with underground cables.

The new 400kV overhead line between Beauly and Denny won't pass through any of Scotland’s designated National Scenic Areas, meaning that the section of the Beauly-Denny line passing through the Cairngorm National Park will be reduced from 35km to 28km, and will be much closer to the western boundary of the Park.

While mitigation details have still to be worked out, this does rather put some of the more lurid claims about the impact on the National Park into sharp perspective.