All posts by thomas

Je suis Charlie

A Charlie Hebdo cover.
A Charlie Hebdo cover.
When Jyllands-Posten published the now famous Mohammed cartoons back in 2005, I must admit I felt a bit annoyed. The Danish newspaper is consistently right-wing, so it was very fond of Dubya and his War on Terror, and it had no history of provoking people (other than left-wingers) just for the sake of it. I therefore thought their real motives had less to do with protecting free speech and more to do with provoking Moslems. At the same time, I supported their freedom of speech 100%. In other words, my attitude at the time was very well expressed by the quote wrongly attributed to Voltaire: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

However, this time it’s different. Charlie Hebdo didn’t just criticise Islam — they were ruthless in their treatment of everything and everybody (see the cover illustrating this blog post), as a left-wing secular satirical magazine should. It would have been very strange for them not to criticise Islam using their best cartoonists from time to time. In other words, the terrorist massacre of Charlie Hebdo’s core staff is the clearest attack on free speech imaginable, and we all have to join the fight against those people who want to transform our societies into illiberal, totalitarian regimes, whatever their religion and nationality.

Moi, je suis Charlie. Et toi?

Triangulator extraordinary and plenipotentiary

Tony Blair spin doctor Private Eye cover at Victoria & Albert Museum, London
Tony Blair spin doctor Private Eye cover at Victoria & Albert Museum, London by Karen Bryan, on Flickr.
Alea jacta est. Labour’s Scottish Branch Office has chosen Jim Murphy to lead it, and he in turn has chosen his strategy: Triangulation.

It’s already abundantly clear that Murphy intends to steal the SNP’s clothes (or at least the most popular garments), in exactly the same way that Tony Blair used triangulation (or the Third Way) to marginalise and confuse the Tories in the late 1990s. Murphy’s claim in his victory speech that “the prize is a fairer country” is clearly based on the Sunday Herald’s main reasons for supporting a Yes: “the prize is a better country”. Indeed, ever since his election he seems to have focused on saying everything the Labour-SNP swing voters would want to hear.

As I argued recently, Labour’s problems in Scotland to a large extent have been caused by insisting on triangulating only against the Tories, making it ridiculously easy for the SNP to outmanoeuvre them in Scotland.

Jim Murphy seems to have decided to focus solely on the SNP, which makes him much more dangerous for the SNP, but will UK Labour put up with it? Has Murphy really been given free rein to beat the SNP, even if it means having dramatically different policies north and south of the border? Or will he like Wendy Alexander before him be forced into a humiliating climbdown at some point?

I fully expect Jim Murphy to sound almost like a Nationalist from now on — all his previous views will be youthful errors of judgment or something like that. He’ll promise just about anything that would be popular with voters — he knows that there’s no way he’ll get an absolutely majority in 2016, so even if Labour wins, he can blame his coalition partner for any divergences from his promises.

Where Jim Murphy will necessarily be weak will be with regard to reserved policy areas. If for instance UK Labour continues to be in favour of austerity, he can’t be against it while promising to toe the UK line at Westminster. If he decides to go against the UK line, will he force Labour’s Scottish MPs to follow him or Ed Miliband? And if he doesn’t, the SNP will quickly exploit that there are triangulation-free zones that can be used to differentiate themselves from Labour.

I don’t think many people expected Jim Murphy to change his political views so comprehensively. In the short term it’ll make things much harder for the SNP — he won’t simply repeat London’s anti-Tory slogans mindlessly. However, the history of Tony Blair’s premiership has demonstrated that eventually voters will see through triangulated policies, so in the longer term voters will realise that Jim Murphy never wears his own clothes, but always the opponent’s.

The Murphy/Dugdale era

Iain Gray, Jim Murphy, Gordon Brown
Iain Gray, Jim Murphy, Gordon Brown by Scottish Labour, on Flickr.
It’s just been announced that Jim Murphy has been elected leader of Labour’s Scottish Branch Office with a vote share of 22.36% (MPs/MSPs) + 20.14% (party members) + 13.26% (affiliates), and Kezia Dugdale has been elected depute leader.

The Guardian has some interesting information from his victory speech:

  1. he doesn’t intend to lose a single Labour seat to the SNP in next May’s general election
  2. he’s not trying to convince yes voters that they were wrong
  3. he will make clear where he intends to stand for Holyrood in the new year
  4. Kezia Dugdale will take on first minister’s questions in the Scottish parliament in the interim

Let’s have a quick look at these four points:

Firstly, holding on to all of Labour’s Scottish seats sounds about as likely as the SNP losing all of theirs. It’s certainly possible the SNP won’t do nearly as well as predicted by current polls, and I would have thought a realistic goal for Labour would have been to remain Scotland’s largest party in terms of Westminster seats, but he seems to be setting himself up for failure here.

Secondly, if you don’t convince the (ex-)Labour Yes voters that they were wrong to vote in favour of independence, why on Earth would they vote Labour again? Surely voting Labour only makes sense if you swallow the Unionist bait hook, line and sinker? I’m not at all sure that a argument along the lines of “let’s just agree to disagree on independence, but you must admit Labour’s commitment to continued austerity, as well as our track record on conducting illegal wars, is admirable” will go down at all well with many Scottish voters.

Thirdly, it’s interesting Murphy only intends to comment on where he’ll stand for Holyrood, not when. Surely the most interesting question is whether he can convince somebody to vacate their seat soon (potentially costing them £58.000), or whether he’ll have to remain in Westminster for ages. It sounds like there’ll be a lot of arm-twisting going on around Labour’s Christmas tree this Yuletide. It will also be interesting to see whether he’ll stand for his Westminster seat in May if he doesn’t find a Holyrood seat in time, or whether he’ll state soon that his constituency party needs to find a new candidate now. Also, what will be his role in Westminster for now? Will he be leading the Scottish MPs, or will he basically be a general without an army?

Fourthly, it will be interesting to see how well Kezia Dugdale can present Jim Murphy’s policies at Holyrood. When Nicola Sturgeon did the same for Alex Salmond, at least he was already a household name with well-known views, but Murphy will somehow need to backpedal frantically away from his New Labour past in absentia, which will be fun to watch.

To conclude, it will be fascinating to observe whether the Scottish Branch Office will tread water or collapse during the Murphy/Dugdale era. Murphy is certainly a very capable politician, but also one of the least liked MPs in Scotland — many people here in East Renfrewshire seem to develop an acute rash whenever they see him. Perhaps he’ll manage to ditch all his former views and present himself in a way that will appeal to Scottish Labour voters. Perhaps he’ll present himself as the unifying figure for all right-of-centre Unionist voters, whether Labour, Tory or LibDem, but losing Labour’s traditional supporters in the process. Or perhaps he’ll simply be a failure, presiding over such a catastrophic loss in the next two elections that his leadership will be extremely short-lived. We live in interesting times.

The power of signs

IMG_1868 by Bobby Hidy, on Flickr.

One of the most ridiculed new powers proposed in the Smith Commission’s report today is about road traffic signs::

66. Remaining powers to change speed limits will be devolved to the Scottish Parliament. Powers over all road traffic signs in Scotland will also be devolved.

However, if this really devolves everything to do with road signs to Scotland, it actually is much more significant than most people think.

Firstly, as anybody who has driven through continental Europe in a car knows, nothing signals that you’re in a new country more than when the road signs change. Of course there are international standards these days that prevent them from becoming completely unrecognisable, but the layout, the font and the colours together provide a powerful subliminal message that tells you which country you’re in. So if Scotland for instance changed the typeface from Transport (as used in Cyprus, Denmark, Greece, Iceland, Ireland, Portugal and the rUK) to DIN 1451 (as used in Germany, the Czech Republic and Latvia) or SNV (as used in Belgium, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Kosovo, Luxembourg, Macedonia, Montenegro, Romania, Slovenia and Serbia), it would make a difference to drivers crossing the border — as James Kelly put it, ‘nothing says “London rule” quite like that font.’ (See an overview of road sign typefaces here.) At the same time, Scotland could also swap the use of blue and green backgrounds to mirror the usage in Sweden, Finland, Italy and other countries.

Secondly, I presume metrification could be completed, too, using both the powers to change speed limits and the signage powers. All speed limits and distances could simply be given in kilometres instead of miles. This would make Scotland stand out very strongly as a modern, European country, compared to the rUK.

Finally, these new powers could also be used to introduce signs in Scots, not just in English and Gaelic. However, this would probably be best done as part of an overall strengthening of the support of Scotland’s biggest minority language.

It’s clear that if this new power is used in full, it might actually turn out to have been one of the most important proposals made by the Smith Commission.

Private schools — the Danish model

Sorø Akademi
Sorø Akademi by Alexander Hundegger, on Flickr.
According to Twitter, people are starting to look again at the rather low taxes that private schools have to pay.

However, from a Danish perspective it’s rather interesting that the only support private schools get from the state is a bit of tax relief. Although Denmark can seem rather socialist compared to the UK, private schools have for many years enjoyed huge support from the state to ensure that their fees are affordable for most people.

In the UK, private schools have to charge ridiculously high fees simply to have the same budget as their public-sector counterparts. The result is that private schools to a large extent reflect and reenforce the class system, rather than being about providing different educational experiences.

In England, Michael Gove’s free schools get the same funding as state schools, but they cannot charge any additional fees. Interestingly, the result has been that they exist completely separately from the old-fashioned private schools — I had naïvely expected the two groups of schools to merge gradually, but that doesn’t seem to be happening at all.

I’m quite fond of the Danish system because it effectively makes private schools public-sector schools with slightly different educational focuses, rather than being clubs for rich people’s kids.

Wouldn’t it be interesting if Scotland introduced a variant of the Danish system? Basically, private schools should get the same funding as state schools (just like the English free schools), but they should be allowed to charge small fees on top of this (e.g., up to £100/month). At the same time, tax relief and charity status could be removed from existing private schools to force them into the new system. In this way, private schools would quickly lose their poshness, so it would lead to a much more egalitarian outcome than the status quo.

PS: This blog post is based on growing up in Denmark (but attending a state school) — it’s quite possible that things have changed to some extent since I left the country.

Welcome to The National

The kids' owl is reading The National, too
The kids' owl is reading The National, too by Thomas Widmann, on Flickr.
It’s unlikely No would have won the referendum if almost all the media hadn’t decided to support a No vote — of all the newspapers, only the Sunday Herald supported a Yes.

This is of course the reason why many independence campaigners are now looking at starting up new mainstream media ventures, such as the Scottish Evening News, Bella Caledonia’s expansion, and Common Weal’s Common Space.

However, it’s also wonderful to see that commercial companies have noticed the gap in the market, which is of course why the Sunday Herald today launched its daily offshoot, The National.

I would have preferred the Scottish media landscape to be dominated by newspapers without a strong stance on the independence question, but when the reality is that the majority of the existing ones are Unionist, it’s absolutely wonderful to welcome a pro-independence newspaper.

It’s also a good read. I personally prefer somewhat more verbose ones with longer articles and smaller photos (and I hate it when newspapers use letter-spacing to achieve justified paragraphs!), but it’s reasonably priced at 50p, and it has a good mix of stories.

Interestingly, many of the British supermarket chains aren’t too happy about stocking it, according to The Drum:

Supermarket giant Morrisons claimed that it was “unable to stock The National due to a lack of space in store”, and said it would have to remove local newspapers in order to do so. […] Tesco said it would “consider arrangements for stocking the newspaper if the print edition is a success”, while a Sainsbury’s spokesperson said: “The National was not on our system in time for launch today, but it will be available from tomorrow.”

Hopefully they’ll soon change their minds — it would be a shame if these supermarkets decided only to welcome Unionist customers.

I hope The National will have a great first week so that it becomes a permanent part of the Scottish media landscape. Once that happens, will it be long before the Sunday Herald rebrands itself as the Sunday National, I wonder?

Death through hexangulation

donald dewar
donald dewar by Tom Donald, on Flickr.
I moved to Scotland in 2002, so I don’t have any memories of the creation of the Scottish Parliament — when I moved here, it was already a fact of life. However, based on what I’ve read, I believe Labour’s thinking in the ’90s could be paraphrased as follows:

When we’re in power at Westminster, the Scottish Office works great, but when the Tories are in power, they control the Scottish Office, too, which is a problem because they’re not us. So if we create a Scottish Parliament with a Scottish Executive to replace the Scottish Office, it’ll work exactly the same as before when we’re in power in both places, but when the Tories are in power, we can at least rule Scotland and use it as a showcase for our superior policies.

Unfortunately for Labour, there were a few problems with this analysis. For instance, voters tend to get fed up with all parties at some point with the inevitable consequence that the SNP would eventually get into power in Scotland. Also, Scottish voters would naturally expect the Scottish parties to respond to their concerns and desires, so it would become impossible to have the same policies on both sides of the border, which would be a bigger problem for Scottish Labour than for the other parties.

However, I believe the biggest problem is that New Labour is based on triangulation (“the tactic of shifting party policy in to a broadly perceived “centre-ground” in order to increase electability and outmanoeuvre the opposition, who subsequently become associated with extremism and anachronism”), but you can’t triangulate against two different parties at the same time without exploding like a chameleon on a piece of tartan.

The reason for this becomes clear when you consider than triangulation really means moving towards your opponent. However, when you have one opponent on the right and another on the left, doing triangulation towards both — let’s call it hexangulation — will tear you apart.

The alternative is to triangulate only in one direction and completely ignore the other opponent. This seems to have been Labour’s solution, focusing on triangulation against the Tories while allowing the SNP to monopolise all the popular policies in Scotland. The result is that they have deserted the centre-left in the process, making it easy for the SNP to supplant Labour as the dominant party north of the border.

Of course it hasn’t helped Labour that their best talent has always been sent to Westminster rather than to Holyrood, and their disastrous idea to keep the constituency candidates off the regional lists got rid of a lot of their best people at the last election.

However, at the end of the day the decision to sacrifice ideology on the altar of triangulation while introducing devolution must be the main reason for Labour’s collapse in Scotland.