Tag Archives: politics

Where We Are Now. (Or Why We Still Need The Labour Party in Scotland – Heaven Help Us).

9 Feb

I don’t really like politics and, as a rule, I’m wary of people who do.

On the other hand, I have little patience with people who ‘don’t do politics’.

That’s because, while I don’t like politics, I do recognise that politics matters and the reason for that is because when things go wrong in politics, people get hurt and when politicians are allowed to operate without proper scrutiny, you can guarantee that things will go wrong.

So there we are.

Political engagement is necessary in the same way that locking your front door and guarding the PIN for your bankcard is necessary.

And, of course in political terms, we’re having some interesting times in Scotland at the moment. Not perhaps quite as interesting as they were during the Independence Referendum campaign, but they’re still interesting.

There’s been a lot of comment about the aftermath of the referendum and, in particular the peculiar ironies of the respective prospects for Labour and the SNP.

Put very simply, and just in case there’s someone out there who hasn’t noticed, the SNP should be in the doldrums because the Scottish electorate (in their collective wisdom) rejected independence, and Labour should be doing very well. As it is, however, all the available evidence suggests that it’s the SNP who’re doing well while Labour is in the doldrums. More than that, some polls suggest that Labour may be facing a complete disaster in the forthcoming election.

Reactions to this oddity vary from elation, on the part of some SNP supporters, to perplexed indignation on the part of a good few unionists. And not all of those perplexed indignant unionists are Labour supporters.

Now, I’d have to say that I have no great love of the Labour Party.

Having lived my whole life in West Central Scotland I think I can claim to have seen the worst of Labour. I’ve seen Labour dominated local authorities behave with callous arrogance towards the people who voted them into power and I’ve watched local democracy being reduced to petty vicious squabbles between different factions of the Labour Party. I can’t say I’ve enjoyed the spectacle and I don’t think any of it has been healthy for democracy or for the people of Scotland.

Having said that, I don’t think this malaise was due to some peculiarity of the Labour Party as opposed to any other party, I think it’s the inevitable consequence of any party staying in power for too long.

This is why I think that, in the longer term, the most significant even in Scottish politics since Devolution wasn’t the Independence Referendum, I think it was the replacement of the Labour/Liberal Democrat coalition with, firstly and SNP minority administration and then by an SNP majority.

Obviously, it was this event that allowed the referendum to take place in the first place and the general consensus seems to be that, whatever the referendum result, the campaign itself brought a huge number of people into politics who would otherwise have been disengaged and, therefore, disenfranchised.

(As an aside, I would mention that, while many of us think this was a good thing, there are some career politicians, notably Jim Murphy in a recent interview, who still like to present the referendum as being nothing more than a distraction. The theory seems to be that Scottish independence was nothing more than a vanity project on the part of the SNP in general and Alex Salmond in particular. I would have thought that the 84% turnout would have been pretty conclusive evidence against this theory, but apparently not.)

The significance of this change of administration, for m, isn’t so much about the wonders of an SNP government, although in general and with some grumbles on various issues I do think the SNP have done reasonably well in

government, it’s far more to do with removing Labour from power.

The response of the Labour Party to this loss of power has not been intelligent. Firstly we were treated to the unedifying spectacle of Wendy Alexander trailing down to the Labour Party Conference in order to, in so many words, apologise for the Scottish Electorate having failed to follow the established script by not voting Labour.

(It’s tempting to describe this behaviour as ‘sheep-like’, but whenever you’re appalled by the votes cast by the electorate; you have to consider the available alternatives. Back in the eighties the re-election of Thatcher was described by at least one American commentator in terms of an exercise in masochism, but this simply ignored that fact that for much of the eighties the Labour Party was divided and shambolic and totally incapable of inspiring any degree of confidence in anyone but their most partisan supporters. Similarly the past 70 years or so of Labour rule in Scotland has partly been due to the lack of a viable alternative. The SNP, until the advent of the Scottish Parliament, was little more than a pressure group, much like the Liberals in the rest of the UK, who could cause the odd by-election upset but not form a government).

This particular incident might not have mattered too much if Labour had shown any recognition that there was a reason why they were voted out of government. (And it’s worth noting that in the 2007 election that resulted in the SNP minority government the Lib Dem vote held up quite well, it was the Labour vote that fell away).

Of course, we’ve heard all the usual platitudes from Labour politicians about ‘listening to the Scottish people’ and addressing the ‘real’ issues. (As opposed to what? Addressing the ‘unreal’ issues, presumably those that the people who beat them in the election are addressing).

What we haven’t seen is any lessening in the Labour Party’s collective sense of ownership of Scotland. Essentially the Labour Party in Scotland still seems to see itself as the ‘natural party of government’ in Scotland (in much the same way as the Conservatives have tended to see themselves in the UK as a whole).

This is not healthy. It’s not healthy for the Labour Party and it’s not healthy for Scottish politics more generally.

The reason it’s unhealthy is very simple. It effectively denies the Scottish electorate a viable alternative to the SNP as a party of government.

Essentially the position is this.

If Labour regains power in Scotland as things stand, they will simply assume that the past few years in opposition were just some inexplicable glitch that they can now ignore. It will, in short, be back to politics as usual so far as they’re concerned.

To me, and I think to anyone who really gives a damn’ about Scotland, as opposed to blindly following the interests of any one party at the expense of Scotland and the people of Scotland, this is not acceptable.

So for me, Labour is unelectable. And they will continue to be until they accept on a profound level that they are simply one of a number of options available to the voters. And, more to the point (and here’s the really important bit) that they have to work for the Scottish people in order to earn the power they’re given. (This is something all politicians will claim to believe, but few really believe if they can only get themselves elected into a safe enough seat).

But if Labour is unelectable, then in practice the SNP is the only option as a governing party. (My natural sympathies are actually with the Green Party, but at the moment but it would be rank folly to suggest that they’re likely to form a government in the foreseeable future).

If there is no viable alternative to the SNP then they will continue to be re-elected until they become every bit as corrupt and arrogant as the Labour Party has become.

For me that would be a tragedy.

That’s because it seems to me that the worst thing that can happen to the voters in any given constituency is to become a safe seat for anyone. The only politician worth a damn’ is the politician who’s in office, but who sees a real prospect of being voted out of office. Where a politician, or party, sees no prospect of being elected, or where they’re in power and see no prospect of ever being voted out of office, they’re in a position to take the voters for granted. This inevitably leads to self indulgent navel gazing, infighting and all the other nasty habits we’ve seen in Labour (and the Conservatives) in Scotland for years.

Labour must, therefore, learn humility. (Which, in my opinion, they won’t under Jim Murphy’s leadership). For their own good and, more importantly, for the good of Scotland, and even more importantly for the good of the people of Scotland.

All the polls seem to indicate that Labour will face a disaster at the next election.

Maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe that’s what they need. But, even for someone like me who has no great love of the Labour Party, it would be a disaster if Labour was wiped out in Scotland just as comprehensively and (apparently) as permanently as the Conservatives have been.


Every Complex Problem

14 Dec

For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple and wrong. (H.L. Mencken)

To be honest I don’t know much about HL Mencken other than the fact that he gets a mention in The Sun also Rises (Also known as Fiesta) and, on the strength of the comments made in that novel, I don’t think Earnest Hemingway was a fan.

On the other hand, I kind of agree with Mencken on this point at least.

The trouble is, of course, that the world often seems to be full of people who are quite determined to believe that these clear and simple solutions aren’t wrong, in spite of all evidence to the contrary, but are, in fact, the only solution.

And, of course any aspiring politician with more ambition than integrity (which would be most of them, it seems) will latch on to these clear and simple solutions and peddle them for all they’re worth to all the people who already believe them to be right.

One of the most obvious examples of this kind of (non)thinking can be seen in the current urge to curb immigration.

Essentially the line of (un)reasoning goes as follows. You can’t get a house/job/GP appointment/ a place for your kids in the local school. Therefore there are too many people in the country. Therefore the problem is immigration. Therefore if we stop people coming into the country and repatriate those immigrants who’re already here, then everything will be nice again.

Except, of course, it won’t.

You still won’t be able to get a house if there aren’t enough houses being built and you still won’t be able to get a decent job when the economy has been ‘rebalanced’ to provide high paid jobs to the privileged and low paid insecure jobs for the majority. You also won’t be able to see your GP when you want to if the resources that are put into the NHS have been squandered in yet another top down reorganisation (even when you’ve been solemnly promised that no such thing will happen). And you’ll struggle to get your kids into a decent school when Local Education Authorities are starved of resources so that politicians can fund their pet educational projects.

But this is all complicated and problematic and recognising, let alone addressing any of these issues would require a bit of serious thinking. And why should anyone bother with that when it’s so much easier to fall back on the usual exchange of sound bites and slogans and easy to remember, drip dry policies that can be explained in a few column inches or in a brief, stage-managed TV appearance.

This is, of course, a fundamental problem with trying to run a democracy in an industrialised, capitalist society that is dependent on mass media for the communication of ideas.

It’s worth taking a look at the phrase ‘industrialised, capitalist society’.

A society that is industrialised is one that has the capacity to feed, clothe and house a far larger population than one that is pre- or at least non- industrialised. This large population is one that can support and indeed necessitates mass media, word of mouth can only go so far in a population of millions.

A society that is capitalist is one that is defined by the capitalist mode of production (as Karl Marx would tell you, if he was here).

One of the characteristics of capitalism is that it turns everything that has a value into a commodity. (And incidentally devalues anything that can’t be turned into a commodity). In other words, most of the things you might want, including information, will have a price and there will always be someone willing to sell it to you.

As a consequence it is the business of the media to ‘shift product’, be that a physical item like a newspaper or a book, or advertising space or something else that can be sold and therefore raise revenue. (With public service media outlets the need to ‘shift product’ is a little more indirect, but circulation and/or ratings still count if the outlet is to justify its existence to those who control its funding).

Given that the easiest way to guarantee a mass audience/readership is to confirm what the majority of people already think they know, or at least to avoid contradicting anything they believe to be true, those media outlets that reach the greatest number of people will be those that avoid challenging the majority view on anything. They will also be the outlets that keep things simple, that avoid long, involved arguments and that won’t burden their customers with a lot of bothersome facts or figures.

So in the more downmarket hovels of the media, you will seldom find any serious attempt to look at how many people actually come to live in the country, what they do, how they live, what they contribute and whether or not they might enhance or enrich the communities they live in. What you will be offered instead are anecdotes about individual immigrants who might have criminal records, engage in anti-social behaviour or, horror of horrors, actually use public services that they are perfectly entitled to use.

These individual cases will then be held up (explicitly or implicitly) as being typical of all immigrants. This use of facts which may, or then again may not, be accurate in themselves will therefore contribute to a perception of immigrants that is unfair, untrue and of no use to anyone except bigots and racists and those who would seek to profit from them.

You can incidentally see a similar pattern of reporting where other vilified groups, notably benefits claimants, the homeless, people who depend on food banks and, of course, asylum seekers are concerned.

There is a way to correct this irresponsible and divisive kind of reporting.

Don’t buy crap newspapers and don’t watch garbage TV programmes. Complaining is no use, writing to your MP is pointless, simply damage their revenue stream and you’ll soon find the media sorting themselves out.

This leads me to a more general point about politics.

The political system we have in this country can be characterised as government by millionaires on behalf of billionaires and a great many people are sick to death of it.

A healthy democratic political system depends on the quality of the politicians who participate in it, and the media that report on it. And both of these, in turn, depend on the extent to which members of the general public (that’s us, by the way) are willing to engage in politics.

If we won’t take the trouble to pay attention then we will allow lazy, complacent journalists to allow politicians to spout off their lazy, complacent platitudes. And if we do that then we have very little to complain about if democracy descends into the shallow pretence of free choice where all we’re offered is two or three versions of the same thing wrapped up in different packaging.

It is very easy to despair of politics and politicians and far too many people fall into despair or indifference or the lazy, cowardly assumption that nothing we can do will make a difference.

But at the heart of all this there is the fact that when our political system doesn’t work properly people get hurt.

So it’s not good enough to say, ‘politicians are all the same’ and ‘they all lie through their teeth so what difference does it make?’ or to fall back on the old Anarchist slogan, ‘don’t vote, the government will get in’ because the government will get in anyway.

The only difference will be that the government that will be elected when the majority of us don’t vote will be a government chosen by those few zealots, activists and ‘bee in the bonnet’ merchants who can still be bothered to put their cross in a box.

And what that means is that we’ll get a worse government than we could have had if we’d all paid attention and actually tried thinking about what we need and what we want instead of just assuming that all we can do is make a selection from the limited set of options that the political parties choose to offer us.

And, say what you like about the result, our recent Independence Referendum was pretty effective in getting

people stirred up and getting them involved.

As an aside, I note with interest that whenever you hear anyone complaining about the referendum, it’s alleged divisiveness, the abusive and stupid behaviour that some (a tiny minority) just couldn’t resist, the way that the referendum allegedly brought the work of the government in Scotland to a standstill, you’ll find that they’re always Unionists. They are, in fact, those who are, or those who support, those who are already well established within the Westminster system. (Or in the case of UKIP those who, for all their attempt to cultivate rebel chic, would dearly love to become well established within the Westminster system).

On the other hand, some of us are willing to put up with the odd internet troll and the occasional egg being thrown (not that I would advocate or excuse either) if that’s the price of getting people involved in making the decisions that will affect their lives. I should scarcely need to add that I would very much prefer it if none of us had to put up with this kind of behaviour, but it’s better than a sulky, brutish apathy that allows politicians to do whatever they like.

I think it’s perfectly obvious by now that the majority of our politicians are willing to put up with low turn outs and declining party membership if that means that they can carry on offering their clear, simple solutions without having to worry too much about whether or not their wrong.

But there is an alternative, and it is this: the only politician worth a damn’ is the one who has good reason to fear losing his, or her, job. And, of course, the way to instil that kind of fear is to make sure they know that you’re a/ paying attention and b/ willing to vote them out of office if they don’t behave themselves. (NB and this is really crucial, voting a politician out of office cannot be done by NOT voting. It can only be done by voting for someone else).

So if we want to make things better in our country (and it is OUR country) then we have to start, or continue, to pay attention to what appears in the media and what our politicians do and say. More than that we need to be willing to punish those who behave badly. If you don’t like the crap that appears in your newspaper, stop buying it. If you don’t like the crap you see on TV, then stop watching it. If you don’t like what you MP. MSP, EMP or Local Councillor does then pick someone else and vote for them.

The kind of tribal loyalty that the established parties have depended on for generations (in the West of Scotland that means Labour, but elsewhere it will be other parties) is worse than pointless it’s counter productive. All it means is that one party will ignore you because they think they already own your votes, while the other parties will ignore you because they don’t believe you’ll ever vote for them regardless of what they do.

So the last thing you want to do is be a party loyalist in a safe seat, because if that’s what you are, you’re a complete irrelevance in the political process.

And if you think on the basis of any of the above that what I want to do is to subvert the way we do politics in this country, then you’re dead right. I can’t think of anything else you can decently do with it.

Me and the Telegraph Pole

8 Apr

It was about thirty years ago that I was given rather a lot to think about one reasonably sunny afternoon.

Most of us in the United Kingdom had just become acquainted with the fact that we were in possession of a small group of islands in the South Atlantic called the Falkland Islands. Unfortunately, before we’d had much of a chance to assimilate this information, we then learned that in Argentina they already knew all about the Falkland Islands. Except that they called them the Malvinas, and there was a general consensus that the Malvinas were actually the rightful property of Argentina and that the UK really ought to do the decent thing and give them back. Apparently there had been negotiations going on between the UK and Argentina over the Falklands/Malvinas for years, but virtually no one in the UK knew anything about it and the Argentinians were fed up because they were pretty sure that the negotiations were going nowhere and as far as the UK was concerned, they never would go anywhere.

Having just become aware of these facts, we in the UK, then became aware of some scrap metal merchants who had landed on South Georgia, with dubious legality and probably no real interest in salvaging any of the scrap metal on the island.

Shortly after that we had Argentinean troops landing on the Falklands/Malvinas and all sorts of diplomacy was going on in the hope of trying to resolve the situation. I won’t bore you with the ins and outs of the diplomacy. Obviously it failed and we had a war.

Even at the time, I wasn’t desperately hopeful that diplomacy had much chance of success, in this situation, given the nature of the governments in both the UK and Argentina.

(They had a military Junta with dwindling popularity and a hideous record of human rights abuses and we had the Thatcher régime, whose popularity was also waning at the time. Neither of these governments ever showed much interest in negotiation or compromise).

So it looked as though we were heading for war and, whatever anyone might want to claim now, people in the UK were not, as far as I could see at the time, particularly cheerful or united at the prospect. As a matter of fact, most of the people I was talking to at the time seemed to veer, as I did, between disbelief and nausea at the prospect of a war over a distant group of islands that most of had never even heard of only a matter of a week or two before.

(At the time the more vainglorious warmongers in the media and politics tended to confabulate this reluctance to go to war with a lack of patriotism, or a failure to support ‘our boys’. This was, and still is strictly bullshit. You do not undermine the men and women in our armed forces by hating the idea of putting them in harm’s way without a compelling reason. As a matter of fact, I think the alternative is to insult service men and women by treating them as an expandable commodity).

I don’t recall that this reluctance had much to do with any fear that the UK would lose the war. I think we all more or less took it for granted that we would win.

(This turned out to be sheer prejudice. It became apparent during the conflict that the UK was heavily dependent on the United States for logistical support. Some time after the conclusion of hostilities it became apparent that the UK armed forces actually came very close to running out of ammunition and that the whole war was far more of a gamble than most of us knew at the time).

Of course I had a certain interest in these events from the moment that the crisis first arose, but I would have said that, just at first, it wasn’t a terribly personal concern for me. It was current affairs. Not personal.

Then, for about twenty minutes, it became personal. Very personal. And I don’t think my view of current affairs has ever been quite so impersonal ever since.

Every now and then when the UK gets itself into trouble, rumours start to fly around about the reintroduction of National Service (Conscription).

At this point in my life I was aged 18 and I hadn’t come across this phenomenon before. I have come across it a number of times since, however.

So when I came across this rumour for the first time, I was also acutely aware that I was about the same age as a lot of the soldiers who had been conscripted from the United States into the Vietnam War. More to the point, I was also aware that many of the men and women who were being mobilised to serve in the South Atlantic, were also about the same age.

Of course common sense set in after a relatively short time. Whichever way things were going to go in the Falklands/Malvinas, it was all going to be over before anyone could even enact the legislation for conscription in the UK and long before anyone could be selected, drafted, trained etc.

There was also the fact that the British military have never liked conscription and would have fought against it tooth and nail. (For good reason, except in a national emergency, conscripts tend to be poorly motivated and therefore hard to discipline and train. For most purposes you’re much better off with a relatively small military establishment staffed by highly trained and motivated professionals).

And then again, I was also a university student at the time and would quite possibly have been exempt on those grounds alone. (Students very often are exempt from conscription. I frame no hypothesis as to why this is the case. You can draw your own conclusions if you want to).

So my concern was irrational and short-lived. But then again, it was also quite real, if rather selfish, and in the end rather instructive.

You see, quite far from being gripped by patriotic fervour, my immediate reaction to the prospect of conscription was to suggest that if anyone wanted to put me in the army then they’d need to find a bus with doors wide enough to take me and the fucking telegraph pole.

Rank cowardice, you may say.

Well, I won’t deny that.

I was certainly concerned about my immediate welfare and I wasn’t at all convinced that, what I saw as the diplomatic stupidity of Thatcher’s government in failing to avoid the conflict was a cause worth the loss of my life, or indeed anyone else’s. As a matter of fact I didn’t even think it was worth the loss of a finger, let alone an arm or a leg.

(It was apparent even at that point that the warning signs had been quite apparent for some time before the landing on South Georgia and that previous UK Governments had responded to similar warning signs and headed off armed conflict at various times in the past. These facts were known at the time although the subsequent enquiry seemed to have remarkably little to say about any of this and Thatcher’s eulogists, or should I say hagiographers, have never wanted to know anything about this aspect of the story).

I suppose if my country had been in real danger, I might have knuckled down to the business of military service, stopped whining about saving my own skin and got on with whatever had to be done.

I have sometimes wondered how many young men felt pretty much as I did when they were called to fight in World War II, but then went on to serve their countries with courage and resilience.

Maybe I would have done the same.

Maybe not.

I don’t suppose I’ll ever know, and I certainly don’t have any examples of heroic activity in my life to offer in support of any claim I might want to make on my own behalf.

What I would say is that I’m not sure I was as afraid of being killed or injured as I was afraid of having the person I had spent my time trying to become, and hoped to go on shaping through my ongoing education, shaped by other forces and for other purposes than my own.

I had an idea of what I wanted to be. I haven’t become that person, maybe I never could have, but I really didn’t want the project of my life to be taken out of my hands as a result of the stupidity and arrogance of a bunch of politicians. (And Generals usurping the position of politicians).

So you can say I wasn’t exactly heroic, and I was a little short on selfless devotion to duty. (Or at least some people’s ideas of what my duty might have been).

But one thing I’d say in my own defence is that at the very least I’ve always made my reaction to the prospect of conscription (however illusory) inform my attitude and behaviour in the years that have followed.

As a consequence I have the greatest respect for anyone who’s willing to serve in the military.

After all, they’re doing something I wouldn’t (probably couldn’t) do, so they deserve my respect.

They also deserve my support, which is why I make a point of contributing to the Earl Haig fund. I don’t see it as supporting militarism. I see it as making a small contribution to filling the gap left by the long-standing tradition of neglect and parsimony that has been followed by governments of all persuasions when it comes to looking after the people who are harmed as a result of war’s they choose to fight. (And, whatever they may say in public, governments generally choose which wars they fight. There are exceptions, but not many).

I am also consistently opposed to sending our armed forces to fight (meaning to kill, maim, get killed and maimed and generally participate in a localised form of hell on Earth) unless the alternative really is worse. (And very often it isn’t really when you look behind the political rhetoric).

I also favour a very simple expedient that might curb the willingness of politicians to send other people out to kill and die for them.

I think that as a matter of law, no politician should be entitled to vote in favour of armed intervention until they’ve been to one of the trouble spots of the world, not for a photo opportunity, but in order to fill a body bag. Preferably with the corpse of some civilian casualty who has been left out in the open for a few days.

Maybe that would make them a little bit less heroic when it comes to sacrificing other people’s lives.

Unlike some, I give Thatcher no credit at all for courage in sending the Task Force down to the Falklands.

In fact, I blame her for not preventing the war.

But once Argentinean troops had landed on the Islands I think war was unavoidable. I think Thatcher only did what any other UK Prime Minister would have done under the circumstances.

I also think that whatever the rights and wrongs of Britain’s possession of the Falklands (And even the Duke of Wellington thought our claim was shaky to say the least). It would have been wrong in principle to allow the Argentinean Junta to profit from armed aggression. (I’m well aware that many other countries have been allowed to profit from their aggression before and since, but the fact that we sometimes allow the wrong thing to happen is no excuse for not even trying to stop it when we can).

As a curious footnote to the above, I learned some time after the fighting had ended in the Falklands that one of the guys I’d known at school had been involved in the fighting.

I was horrified at the thought.

He was such a nice guy; I could never picture him with a gun in his hand.

He wasn’t a lifelong buddy of mine and as a matter of fact I never really knew him all that well, but I used to play football with him from time to time. These weren’t organised matches; they were silly ad hoc games with improvised facilities and pretty fluid rules.

Generally speaking we would use a tennis ball, because it was easier to carry around than a proper football, but if we didn’t have a tennis ball we’d use a bottle top.

(You have to stamp on the bottle top to flatten it then you don’t exactly kick it, you put your foot on it and sort of flick it).

On one (brief) occasion we tried using a golf ball.

(Don’t try it, unless you’ve got a really high tolerance of pain).

Anyway, this guy came back from the South Atlantic without a scratch on him, as I later found out, and he used some of his back pay to buy a bicycle. The first time he took his bike out on the road, some idiot in a truck ran him off the road.

He survived this too, with only minor injuries, but the point remains that riding a bike in any major city in the UK can be more hazardous to your health than fighting in a small war.

Maybe I’m being facetious.

I could pretend to be more serious by quoting statistics about the casualties of the war, 649 Argentinians killed, 1068 wounded, 258 British killed, 775 wounded, but what does that tell you?

If you don’t know any of those people it’s hard to see these figures as anything more than statistics. Maybe that’s why I was so upset about my old school chum going to war and why I wanted to mention him here. The fact is that I lost track of this guy almost as soon as I left school and only learned that he’d joined the army by pure fluke, but that isn’t the point.

If he had been killed or suffered life changing physical or mental injuries in the Falklands War that would have been more than a statistic for me.

In that one instance the casualty would have had a name and a face for me. He would have been a human being and not a number and I would have had to remember his jokes, his agility, the times I got in his way and we scuffled around a bit and swapped a few insults. (This was always an integral part of the game as we played it).

So maybe that’s the real lesson to take from all this.

Maybe when we read the statistics about so many people killed and injured in some incident or accident we should try to picture some of the people we know. Not heroes. Just people.

After all, every one of those statistics was a human being before history dropped feet first all over them.

Of course another casualty of the war was the slight, faint hope of a negotiated settlement to the dispute over the Falklands/Malvinas.

Sean Penn can fulminate as much as he likes (and who knows? On some level he may even be right). But the point remains that after shedding so much blood, it will be many years, (decades? generations?) before any government in the United Kingdom will ever be able to even consider any kind of deal that the Argentinians might find close to being acceptable. (And that’s before you even try to factor in considerations about possible oil reserves and claims to Antarctic territory).

So did the war do any good for anyone?

It virtually guaranteed Thatcher’s re election. (Which was looking unlikely before the war).

It brought down the military Junta in Argentina and opened the way for democracy.

It has been credited with restoring the UK’s battered confidence and wiping out the ignominy of the Suez Crises. (Does any of that even mean anything to anyone younger than me?)

It made a negotiated settlement over the disputed islands virtually impossible. (And it will remain virtually impossible for the foreseeable future).

It gave my motorcycle instructor a useful terminology for one of the hazards faced by bikers (The Exocet Dog).

It totally failed to resolve the dispute between the UK and Argentina (Which at the time of writing is still causing friction).

It was a major, formative step on my path to becoming the seditious, obnoxious, iconoclastic, not quite pacifist that I have become.



Talking About God (Or Not) Part 3

6 Feb

“Religion is unique in its power to make good people do bad things.”

This is, in my opinion, one of the sillier things said by more or less intelligent people on the subject of religion.

The reason I think it’s a silly thing to say (in spite of the many hideous things that have been done, apparently, in the name of religion) is because it seems to me that this apparently uncomplicated sentence takes a number of complex ideas and treats them as though they were very simple.

To begin with, what exactly do we mean by ‘good people’.

Most of us have met people that we think of as being ‘good’ and in general we tend to think that we would know a good person from a bad person when we meet one (or at least that we could make some kind of assessment once we’d been able to get to know them), but how would you define a ‘good person’?

Is a good person someone who is entirely free from any bad qualities? (Hopefully not, because then we’re going to be a bit short on people that we can call good).

It seems more plausible, then, to say that a good person is someone who, in spite of a few flaws and failings, is generally speaking more good than bad.

That being the case, even a good person will have some qualities or attributes that are not good, so it shouldn’t require too much explanation if, every now and then, they do something bad.

It’s also true to say that opinions differ as to who’s good and who’s bad. After all there are some people who see Osama Bin Laden as a virtuous and heroic figure. (Not a view I share, but it has to be noted that it is certainly a view held by some people).

When we’re talking about ‘bad things’, as in things that people do that are bad, there will be similar problems. Opinions differ as to which things are good or bad depending on your perspective, and opinions also change over time.

So we can say with certainty that William the Conqueror invaded England in the year currently designated as 1066 CE.

That is a matter of fact, and it always will be.

What’s more problematic is whether or not William himself was a good man and whether or not his invasion and subsequent reorganisation of England was a good or bad thing.

And as if that wasn’t enough, we then come to the idea that religion ‘makes’ people do things.

We can be absolutely certain that some people will claim that they are motivated by their religious faith. And to some extent, I suppose, faith must play some part in the motivation behind someone’s actions if religion is at all important to them. But the extent and nature of the role played by faith as a motivating factor can be hard to assess.

For example, Hernan Cortez was certainly a Roman Catholic in the sense that he was raised in that particular faith. My understanding is that he did have some genuine religious faith. I don’t think he was a complete hypocrite when it came to religion, so you could argue that religion played some part in his motivation when he invaded Mexico. (As I recall the Pope at the time was quite pleased with his efforts in delivering so many new souls to the faith).

On the other hand, we also know that ambition and greed also played their part in Cortez’ thinking.

(As did a fair amount of fear, I suspect. He was disobeying orders in launching his expedition and he was not well liked by all of his superiors so he could have expected pretty short shrift if he had returned with anything less than a dazzling success. His force was also vastly outnumbered and he could expect no mercy from the Aztecs, or even some of his allies if he’d been defeated).

Cortez may seem like a bad example, in a way, because religion never seemed to be his major motivation, but you could look at the leadership of the First Crusade and see a similar messy tangle of motives.

For example, there seems to be little doubt that Raymond of Toulouse was motivated very largely by his faith. He was a wealthy and important man in France and he sold up all his interests in order to go crusading with the clearly stated intention of never coming back to France.

Having said that, he also had more secular interests as well. (Other leaders of the Crusade, notably Bohemond, were clearly much more venal in their outlook, but even Bohemond probably wouldn’t have set off for Jerusalem without Urban II’s call for Holy War).

So to put it briefly, all sorts of people do things for all sorts of reasons and to say that religion ‘made’ them do something is naive to the point of stupidity.

One last point.

Even if we ignore all the complications that I’ve cited above, there is one final point that should be painfully obvious to anyone who’s paid the slightest attention to the history of the 20th Century.

Religion isn’t the only thing that ‘makes’ people who might generally seem to be good, do some hideously evil things.

Think about the Cold War for a moment.

Not only were our political leaders willing to blow the entire planet to hell over a difference of opinion regarding relatively transient socio/political and economic systems ( I’m not for a moment trying to understate the sheer horror of Stalin’s USSR, but think about it, the Soviet system was never going to last for more than a few decades, while global thermonuclear holocaust would have been about as permanent as anything I can think of), but both sides in the conflict played some really nasty little games in their Third World proxy wars.

(As a matter of fact, even though I would always agree that the West was preferable to the Soviet Union in terms of how people were treated on either side of  The Iron Curtain, when it comes to the reality of their policies in, and towards, developing countries, I’m really and truly not sure there was very much to choose between the two sides).

But then again, the Cold War was never really about a debate over political policy or economic theory.

It was just the same old same.

Young men killing to keep old men in power. Innocents dying in their millions of violence and contempt and the whole thing praised as ‘duty and service’ by a bunch of self-righteous clowns who are always willing to pay any price for the particular brand of exploitation that they call freedom. Just as long as it’s paid out in other people’s lives.

But the worst of it is that the footsoldiers on either side  of the Cold War (as in all wars) were not necessarily evil people.

Some of them probably were just bad people doing bad things because that’s what they wanted to do and Cold War politics just gave them an excuse for it. But many of them must have genuinely believed that what they were doing was justified (or at least necessary) in the context of the historical situation that they found themselves in.

So back to good people doing bad things. (Yet again). 

And this time it was all for truth, justice, freedom and the folks back home (wherever that home might have been) and religion, if it played a part at all, was really only a bit player.

So all I can really say in conclusion is that when you’re so right that it’s worth killing someone, then you’re wrong.

Scottish Independence (What’s the point?)

14 Jan

One of the interesting features of the reaction of most English people to the creation of the Scottish Parliament was that it was not one of hostility or resentment, as much as it seemed to be one of puzzlement.

This would have been due to the fact that the debate around devolution that was going on in Scotland was one of those things that the UK media didn’t pick up on.  Because the UK media tend to be based in and around London, events aren’t happening in and around London have to be pretty dramatic to make the headlines.

 So when it was suddenly announced that it was ‘the settled will of the Scottish people’ that there should be a Scottish parliament it would have come as a bit of a surprise for anyone who doesn’t live in, or regularly visit, Scotland. (Awareness of the devolution debate would have been greater in Wales, Northern Ireland and even Cornwall, due to their own ongoing debates about what their relationship with the rest of the UK should be).

And now here we go again, Scottish Independence is back on the UK political agenda and I expect it’s come as a bolt out of the blue for the majority of the non Scottish people in the UK.

So maybe it’s a good time for someone to offer a few comments on why constitutional reform of the UK might not be such a bad idea.

First, let’s get rid of a few idiotic misconceptions.

1/ The fallacy that the English can be blamed for all Scotland’s woes. (Some Scots do believe this. We have a word for them, ie ‘numpty’)

As a matter of fact, anyone who has a passing acquaintance with Scottish history knows perfectly well that many of Scotland’s ills, past and present have been inflicted self-inflicted.

2/ Scottish Nationalism is based on anti-English sentiment.

Alex Salmond (MSP and leader of the SNP) has been quite emphatic in rejecting anti-Englishness as a basis for Scottish Nationalism and any kind of Scottish Identity. (I’m not necessarily in Mr Salmond’s fan club, he seems to me like a walking definition of the Scots term ‘sleekit’, and I’m really not sure I’d want to buy a second-hand car from the guy. Having said that, I do agree with him on this, and one or two other points).

3/ Scottish Nationalism will inevitably lead to a ‘Balkanisation’ of the UK.

I’m not even sure what this is supposed to mean, but if the idea is that the UK will collapse into intercommunal violence in the way that the former Yugoslavia, then this is patently absurd. There was an extraordinary depth of hatred between the different communities in the former Yugoslavia that had been held in check by Tito for decades and was then stirred up by a bunch of irresponsible, self-seeking scumbags. (We have irresponsible, self-seeking scumbags aplenty in the UK, but not that same depth of hatred).

4/ The day after Independence Scotland will immediately transform into the land of milk and honey.

Obviously absurd. My best guess is that the first few years after independence will be a hard slog. I’ll come back to that later.

5/ Scotland will necessarily be better governed by Scots than it ever could by any English people.

Even a brief reference to Scottish History will demonstrate that Scotland was not always well-governed by Scots, nor has it necessarily been badly governed due to any inherent failing in the English. As a matter of fact Scots have always participated in the Westminster parliament following the Act of Union and there are times when Scots have been disproportionately well represented at the highest levels of government.

So having rejected a certain amount of nonsense, maybe it’s time to move on and get to the point.

Essentially the reason I’m in favour of Scottish Independence doesn’t really have much to do with Scottish Nationalism. It has nothing to do with any claims to special virtue on the part of Scots, or even Scotland, nor does it have anything to do with any complaints about England, or the English people.

The real reason for wanting constitutional reform is that the constitutional arrangements for the UK, as they stand at present, are a miserable, inefficient, undemocratic mess and I can see no prospect for reform from within.

The Westminster parliament was essentially created by Edward I (Longshanks, the Hammer of the Scots etc). He was not a democrat by any means, and what he wanted was a device that would give his revenue raising measures a veneer of consultation. (He was very successful in this, unlike his French counterpart).

The Westminster parliament has moved on since then, it’s been tweaked about over the centuries by a succession of (mostly non-democratic) leaders to suit their own interests.

Oliver Cromwell was a case in point, he was a great supporter of the concept of the sovereignty of parliament provided parliament was doing what he wanted. At other times he was perfectly capable of using his soldiers to exclude parliamentarians who might oppose his wishes or even dissolving parliament altogether and ruling by dictat when that suited him.

So much for history (and not everyone is going to agree with what little history I’ve referred to here).

The real question isn’t ‘how did we get the parliament we’ve got?’ it’s ‘is this parliament conducive to the good governance of the UK?’.

I think the answer to that question is ‘no’.

Let me explain why.

We talk about the sovereignty of parliament. I have reservations about the proposition that parliament really is sovereign in the UK, (more on that later) but even if it is, the question is ‘should it be?’

My answer to this question would also be ‘no’.

In a democracy the only locus for sovereignty lies with the people. If sovereignty lies with parliament then you have an oilgarchy, not a democracy. (You may feel that oligarchy is okay, but I would prefer a democracy, I agree with Winston Churchill, it’s the worst form of government except for all the others).

In any case does sovereignty really lie with parliament in the UK?

I don’t think sit does. Not fully, at any rate.

Let me refer you to the concept of ‘crown priviledge’. And odd term to use in a parliamentary democracy, I know, but the UK is less of a parliamentary democracy than a constitutional monarchy. But it’s a constitutional monarchy where the power of the sovereign have been delegated to the Prime Minister (Hence the term ‘crown priviledge’. In effect, the Prime Minister has the privileges of the crown delegated to him).

This point probably seemed academic for long enough because the UK was governed for decades (generations even) in line with the convention of ‘Government by consensus’. (IE even if the Prime Minister could implement a particular policy, he would refrain from doing so unless there was a consensus in the country in favour of doing so).

Baroness Thatcher as Prime Minister put a coach and horses through this, amongst other conventions, and demonstrated quite how little power to oppose Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition really has. (Opinions differ, to put it mildly, as to whether or not this was a good thing).

As ever Tony Blair was quick to exploit the work of others, and in this case take it further. Thatcher maintained a facade of ‘Cabinet Government’, even if she made sure that her cabinet was composed of people who would roll over and submit to whatever she wanted, while Blair further eroded any notion of collective decision-making by calling individual ministers into 10 Downing Street and telling them what to do from the cosy vantage point of his sofa.

You may feel that all this  furniture based talk of cabinets and sofas is a bit tedious, so let me boil it down to a simple fact.

In the run up to the invasion of Iraq it became apparent that the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom had the legal power to declare war on his own initiative without let or hindrance from any other human being.

(Gordon Brown talked about reducing this power, but I honestly don’t know whether or not anything came of this).

The fact that Tony Blair would have been foolish to the point of committing political suicide if he had, in fact, declared war off his own bat is beside the point. No single person should ever be allowed this degree of power in any civilised country.

At about this time, comedian and political agitator (I mean this as a sincere compliment), Mark Thomas asked for information as to the full  extent of the powers that could potentially by wielded by the Prime Minister under crown Privilege. He was told by the relevant authorities that they couldn’t tell him. The powers were effectively so extensive that they could not be defined.

Experts in constitutional lore and parliamentary procedures (of whom I am definitely not one) could doubtless provide examples ad nauseam of all the convoluted, involuted and downright absurd customs and practices that bedevil our lawmaking system. I am not qualified to do this and (I suspect much to everyone’s relief) I will not wade through the pointless tedium of making any such attempt. I don’t think it’s necessary. I think my point is made.

Only a fool would invent the system of government we now have and it only exists due to a long series of tweaks to an institution that was never designed to be democratic in the first place.

I don’t believe that our current (unwritten) constitutional arrangements are capable of reform, and I see no political will to even try. There are too many vested interests and too many fustian old clown who claim that, because we’ve been doing things a certain way for as long as anyone can remember, it would be an unforgivable crime against God and nature to make any change now.

So the only real chance to get my country and my people out from under the dead weight of the Westminster Parliament is independence (Or some system of devolution that is the same as independence in all but name). This isn’t to say that I don’t care about what happens to people out with Scotland, it’s just that, as I’ve indicated above, I see no prospect for reform of the UK as it currently exists and I don’t want to make any attempt to tell people in England, Wales or Northern Ireland what they should do in their part of the UK.

I don’t believe that an independent Scotland would have an easy ride from day one (as I’ve indicated above), but I do believe that independence might give Scotland, and more to the point the Scots, exactly the kind of firm boot up the backside that, collectively, we need.

I accept that the public sector in Scotland is far too big as a proportion of the economy. This isn’t due to anything inherent in ‘the Scottish character’ (If there is such a thing). It’s the result of a policy conducted for decades by governments of all persuasions to boost the public sector as a sop to Scots in compensation for the decline in the industries that used to make up our private sector. (I don’t ascribe this to any malice on the part of Westminster politicians, quite the opposite. I accept that it was well-intentioned, but it has left us with a structural economic problem).

I like to think that if we achieve independence in Scotland, maybe it would help pave the way for others in the UK to follow suit. Maybe that might lead to the Westminster parliament, and all that goes with it, fading away into history. If and when that happens, I might even be in favour of reconstituting the UK, only this time under a properly democratic, representative and transparent system of government. (Far fetched, I know. It’s practically science fiction, but the first step is eminently possible if the Scots people don’t ‘bottle it’ in an independence referendum).

In conclusion, Tony Benn once described the UK system of government as an ‘elected dictatorship’.

I find myself in the surreal and disorienting position of agreeing with him.

Dialectics and the Non Stick Frying Pan

17 Nov

My favourite story about Hegel (Georg Wilhelm Friedrich, 1770-1831) is that he used his formidable skills as a philosopher in order to produce a logical proof that there could be no more and no less than nine objects in the Solar System. At the time he enjoyed a near legendary status that we don’t normally associate with philosophers. Shortly after this logical tour de force someone discovered the existence of Ceres.

Call it a triumph of empiricism over the  a priori proposition.

To return to the main subject of this post, Hegel is probably best known as a master of dialectical argument.

Essentially dialectical argument consists of a merger of opposites with a view to producing something new.

In formal terms this means that you start with a statement, or thesis. Then you take the opposite of this statement, the antithesis, and through the conjunction of these two opposite statements a new statement can be derived, the synthesis.

This can be illustrated in a historical context by the following. One of the conclusions of Hegel’s philosophy was the reification of the state, this is part of the reason why he was seen as supporting right-wing political ideology.

His methods were adopted and developed by Feuerbach and Marx, amongst others leading to the development of left-wing political ideology.

These two ideologies came into conflict during the 20th Century most acutely on the Russian Front during World War II and then again throughout the Cold War.

As many of us know, rocket technology developed rapidly during World War II (Courtesy of Werner von Braun and an unknown number of slave labourers employed in Nazi Germany), as a weapons system.

Further development of rockets as weapons was also spurred on by the arms race during the Cold War. The technology was further developed as an instrument of propaganda during the space race, which culminated in the Moon landing.

One of the spin-off technologies from the Apollo project was the teflon coating used in non stick frying pans.

The above is, of course an exercise in absurdity. Something like 22 million people died in World War II and I don’t think anyone knows how many lives were lost as a result of the Cold War. No advance in kitchen ware can redeem that kind of suffering.

I grew up during the Cold War and to me World War II was very recent history. Both now seem to be receding from consciousness.

Call this my small contribution to reminding people of the crass absurdity of  political leaders who sincerely believe that the systems they create and exploit are worth the destruction of  millions of human beings.

Degrees of Freedom

11 Nov

Albert Camus wrote that absolute freedom is simply the freedom of the very strong to enslave everyone else.

One could argue that there can be no such thing as absolute freedom, but this is simply nit-picking, essentially Camus is right.

Have you ever noticed that people who are already very rich and powerful often seem to argue in favour of free choice?

Did you know that both sides in the American Civil War claimed that they were fighting for freedom? (Although they preferred to use the term Liberty). In the case of the Confederacy, this freedom included the freedom to own slaves, while supporters of the Confederacy would have claim that the Union was fighting for the freedom of the Federal Government to deny freedom to individual states within the Union.

Cliff Hanley put it rather well when he said that the freedom of my fist ends at the tip of your nose.

If you dislike Camus’ talk of absolute freedom, then it’s always possible to borrow from the language of calculus and talk in terms of ‘tending towards absolute freedom’.

In this way, it becomes possible to express a paradox in the relationship between freedom and justice. (Two concepts that are often assumed to go together).

Hence one can rephrase Albert Camus’ observation to say that, as conditions tend towards absolute freedom, justice is reduced to zero.

One can also add that as conditions tend towards absolute justice, freedom is reduced to zero. To illustrate this point consider the way we legislate for justice by introducing more and more rules and regulations of ever-increasing complexity.

The above argument may seem to indicate that freedom and justice are essentially incompatible, but this is only true when either is taken to extremes. In moderation freedom and justice are actually mutually dependant. One does not produce any meaningful form of justice by denying freedom, one does not produce any meaningful form of freedom without justice.

This is all very abstract and may seem quite irrelevant, but it does have a certain bearing on how we understand the claims made by politicians and campaign groups for their policies.

So when someone claims that they’re standing up for freedom, it’s worth asking ‘who’s freedom?’ and ‘freedom to do what and to whom?’.

Similarly when someone talks about justice, or fairness, it’s always worth asking how this is going to restrict people’s ability to make their own choices.