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Showing posts with label Isabel Fraser. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Isabel Fraser. Show all posts

Tuesday, 25 March 2014

An English MP from a minority party - George Galloway - debates with Jim Sillars on Newsnight Scotland special

George Galloway puts himself about as energetically as ever. MP for the English constituency of Bradford, and therefore an English MP (a description at which he takes great offence!) and leader of a minority party, Respect, he seems to find his constituency and Westminster duties so undemanding that he finds loads of time to tour Scotland campaigning against independence – not exactly a minister without portfolio but more opportunist with a carpetbag.

On this second of the Newsnicht specials, he and Jim Sillars are interviewed by three of BBC Scotland’s finest – Isabel Fraser, Gary Robertson and Laura Bicker, BBC network news correspondent based in Scotland who will be part of the new team for Scotland 2014, Newsnight’s replacement for the Referendum.

What can one usefully say about Galloway? He is unfailingly entertaining, the more so since he has lost any real relevance he ever had to British politics, and this doubtless explain the “thousands – thousands – who pay to hear me speak!”, as he boasts vaingloriously here.

In this intimate studio session, he fails to adapt his mass meeting style – loud blustering, hectoring – and totally inappropriate to such a setting – and trots out all the old rhetorical tricks, failed mantras and soundbytes in his trademark style of faux internationalist socialism that is as dead as the dodo. (It is now the stock-in-trade of the right-wing Labour Party that replaced the People’s Party around 1951, and achieved its apotheosis under Blair, Brown and Mandelson.)

Galloway is not only wrong, he “is wrong at the top of his voice”.

Jim Sillars retains his calm, and his considerable dignity in the face of Galloway’s Monkland’s Labour-backroom-style interruptions and attempts at point-scoring, and wins hands down in intellectual terms. Sillars’ reputation is secure in Scotland, as is his place in Scotland’s history. Galloway, in contrast, will be a footnote in UK history.

He can, of course, aspire to replace Tony Benn as a national treasure of the Old Left, to be patronised by people he affects to despise, but I think the affection quotient for this politician - who squandered his formidable oratorical talents in my view - will be sadly lacking.

Sunday, 28 July 2013

The Black Gold – Scotland’s Oil – media links from Moridura on YouTube

Scotland's Oil: David Bell, Robin McAlpine and Brian Wilson on GMS with Isabel Fraser

 Alex Salmond on Scotland's Oil GMS 23 Jul 2013

 Scottish economy snapshot - July 2013

 Scottish Oil - the manipulations and deceit of the UK to steal Scotland's natural resource

 Ken Macintosh grilled over Scottish economy - and dodgy donation!

 Humza versus Johann and Coalition allies - who fight like ferrets in a sack

 Alex Salmond on Marr Show - 21 Mar 2013

 Scotland's Financial Strength - John Swinney's closing speech at Holyrood

 Oil in the sea? Oil in the rocks? Scotland's natural resources

 Orkney and Shetland - and oil: home rule for Tavish?

Lamont and Davidson, the Bitter Together Sisters, get oil facts and timescale wrong

Two sides of the oil debate - Newsnicht. Swinney and Rennie

 Oil - the Latin American experience and relevance for Scotland - BBC Good Morning Scotland

 Oil and Scotland's Independence - BBC Good Morning Scotland - Isabel Fraser and Derek Bateman

Scotland's Oil and Scotland's future - Alex Salmond – FMQs

 Oil - a finite resource? Newsnicht 2013

 John Swinney and the Lords 6 - the economy, oil and gas - various Lords a-leaping

 Hosie and Macintosh on Scottish oil and the IFS report

 Scotland's oil and the IFS report - Douglas Fraser reports

 Darling and Hosie on oil and independence - Alistair talks down his country

 Gavin McCrone - assets, oil, pensions and embassies

Sunday, 28 October 2012

Democracy and political party democracy

Scientists sometimes talk of the tyranny of the dominant theory, or in another manifestation, the complacent invulnerability of the established system. Theory - scientific, economic, medical, social or political - often plays a key role in decision making, and decision making affects lives.

In religion, theory becomes dogma and as history shows, the tyranny of religious dogma can be oppressive, stultifying and at its worse, murderous. Political theory can manifest all the characteristics of religious dogma, with equally appalling results, as the history of the 20th century demonstrates, and we are well on our way to repeating the horrors with a lethal mix of old religious dogma and new political dogma in the 21st.

But let’s leave religion and look briefly at economic theory, since it intimately affects the geopolitical climate, and appears to have failed humanity in a spectacular fashion in the very recent past. Since I am neither political scientist nor economist and certainly not a mathematician or statistician, bear with in my layman’s analysis as I struggle to understand ideas that perhaps a new PPE graduate could easily expound on …

For most of the last century, the dominant economic theory has been the theory of utility. As best I can express it, utility theory makes the base assumption that all decisions are made rationally, and analyses – and attempts to predict – all decisions based on the value (utility) that the decision maker places on the elements in the decision.

The problem is that this is not how people actually behave when they make real decisions, as the the work of Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman – and many others – has conclusively demonstrated. The work of the games theorists took this further in the 1950s and 1960s, and anyone who enjoyed the Russell Crowe portrayal of John Nash in the film A Beautiful Mind might want to try the dense, complex book on which the film was based about the work of John Von Neumann and John Nash at Princeton and the RAND Corporation (CIA)

Suffice to say that the utility theory didn’t roll over easily and give up when confronted with the incontrovertible new evidence and new theory, any more than the financial traders of Wall Street shut up shop when they were confronted by equally incontrovertible evidence (from their own trading records, rigorously statistically analysed) that stock trading has a success rate over time slightly less successful than random picks, and that, as Daniel Kahneman has observed, a blind monkey throwing darts at a board would have had a better hit rate. Similar reactions came from clinicians when confronted with disturbing analysis of diagnostic and treatment success, and from experts in a wide variety of disciplines who got into deep doo-doo when they ignored the numbers and trusted their experience, gut feel and ‘expert’ judgement alone.

What has all this got to do with a pound of mince and Scotland’s politics? Well …

DEMOCRATIC POLITICS AND POLITICAL DECISIONS

A thought before I continue … The fate of the world may soon be in the hands of a US President, Commander in Chief of awesome nuclear destructive forces, of the CIA, of the American military and effectively of NATO, who believes that a young American had an angel appear to him in the early 1820s in upstate New York and lead him to a place where he dug up gold tablets with a holy book inscribed on them, which amongst other things, said that one of the lost tribes of Israel found its way to America.

The gold tablets mysteriously vanished, there is not a shred of historical evidence of any kind for the claims, and all that is left is The Book of Mormon, translated from the mysterious tablets. The rest of Mitt Romney’s beliefs about the world, current affairs, social matters, economics, etc. are now a matter of embarrassing - and often hilarious – record, but the people who will vote for him appear unbothered by all this.

Perhaps we should bear all this in mind when we remember the SNP’s recent vote to join NATO, and when we are tempted to hope that democratic politics is even half way rational. But I do live in hope …

NUTS AND BOLTS

I have long experience, covering decades, of the political and organisational behaviour of trades unions, including some brief but intense experiences as union member, a union representative and a committee member, including the formative experience of being on strike.

But my experience of political party membership and of party democracy is very much briefer, superficial , and in itself, one from which no deep conclusion could be drawn about wider political behaviour.

My experience of politics and the behaviour of political parties as a citizen and voter, however, crosses eight decades, from the 1940s to the ‘teens of the 21st century, and throughout all of that time I have maintained an active interest in current affairs and politics, both as a voter and a citizen, and in my professional life because of the high relevance of politics to my work. You must judge the relative value of what I say in that context against that of commentators who have much deeper inside knowledge of politics, including activists, politicians and specialist academics.

In making that judgement however, try to bear in mind my opening preamble on the tyranny of the dominant theory – and therefore the dominant theorists and practitioners – and the complacent invulnerability of the established system.

Democratic politics are imperfect, but the alternatives have been consistently shown to be much, much worse by the lessons of history - and democratic processes can be improved. Scotland has a long, honourable record of contribution to democracy, in fact can be seen as a cradle of democracy, and there is no reason why the contribution should stop in the new age that we are entering.

Recent events have forced me to focus, as a voter, on some aspects of that democracy and, since I am a nuts and bolts man by background and instinct, I’ll leave the endless theorising about neo-liberalism and macro-economic theory to the think tanks, academics, assorted lefties, righties, gandy dancers and railroad men who revel in that kind of arcane discourse. But there is a kind of dominant theory of how political parties operate in a democracy, about their role in elections and in government, and a feeling of complacency about the way the party and branch systems operate, especially in relation to policy formation when a party is in government. 

Perhaps that dominant set of assumptions should be challenged.

Consider the role of parties in an elective democracy. The Founding Fathers of American democracy didn’t want them, because party is faction – groups with a core common political agenda who act in concert when they can. The Founding Fathers did their best to avoid them, by separation of powers between the judicial, legislative and executive functions, by federalism, and by having a President elected indirectly by an electoral college.

Despite all this, political parties are what they wound up with.

In the UK, a constitutional monarchy, at least the fiction of being without faction, i.e. party, could be maintained, and while first-past-the-post still operates at UK level as the system of election to Westminster, the pretence can be maintained that voters elect the person, not the party. In the case of someone standing as an independent, this is still true. The ballot paper asks the voter to choose between named candidates, not political parties.

But with the advent of proportional representation in its various forms, this ceased to be true, and party now has an overt role. Indeed for many years there have been electoral rules governing party election expenditure and other matters in the UK.

PARTY AND SCOTLAND

The method adopted for proportional representation in the Scottish Parliament is the d’Hondt method. Candidates stand either for an individual constituency seat or are placed on a list by their parties. After the initial results are in, the  parties are ranked on by the number of votes cast, the votes in each region are divided by 1 + number of seats won, and each party is ranked and re-ranked on a ranking list by an iterative process

One example should suffice to demonstrate how the d’Hondt method works. Party gets 100,00 votes and wins one seat - 100,000 divided by 1+1 = 2. Party’s vote is now 50,000, and it is re-ranked on the list, and so on until process complete and list seats allocated.

Voting in the Scottish Parliament

If you don’t understand this, don’t worry – all you need to know is that some MSPs are elected as individuals (73 in total) by voters for a specific constituency, and some are allocated a seat by the outcome of a list computation (56 in total), and are known as list MSPs. Each voter therefore has two votes – the constituency vote and the regional vote – and one constituency MSP but seven regional list MSPs for each of the eight regions.

Under the d’Hondt system, the fiction cannot be maintained that party has no role in the electoral process – it clearly has, and a crucial on at that.

Do you get to choose the person you vote for?

Answer: No, you get to choose among the people chosen by the political parties, and if you always vote for one party, only the person chosen for you by that party.

Of course, if there is a candidate standing as an independent, a choice of the individual can be made. Among Scotland’s famous independents we may number Margo Macdonald and Dennis Canavan, both of whom are about as individual as one can get …

Or you can stand for election yourself – all you need is a deposit, and the willingness to lose if too few vote for you!

So in most cases, a voter is voting for the party and its policies and programme as outlined in its manifesto when they vote for an individual, although dependent on how deep party loyalties run, the character and record of the individual may also influence voters, especially floating voters.

To be able to stand under the banner of a political party as a candidate for a constituency, a prospective candidate must first persuade a party selection board to adopt them as candidate. To do this, they obviously must be a member of the party in good standing and agree to ‘take the party whip’ if elected, which means voting the way they are told, except on the rare free votes on matters of conscience.

(In theory, this process is controlled not by the national party but the constituency party and branch structure: in practice, party HQ often has a significant and sometimes dominant input. Gerry Hassan and Eric ShawThe Strange Death of Labour Scotland – give the following insight on page 119 into the 2006 by-election in Dunfermline and West Fife -

Labour was not aided by allegations of attempts to get the candidate the leadership wanted, with evidence of ‘a high-level “fix” to select the [Labour] candidate. This had transpired because party bosses sent out a leaflet on behalf of Catherine Stihler’s campaign hours before she was selected to fight the seat. (Sunday Herald 29 January 2005 ?)

Gerry and Eric seemed to have slipped a year here on the 2005 date of the Sunday Herald story – it must have been 2006. Catherine Stihler lost that election, but she is now an MEP, elected on a list by the d’Hondt system. When the Party wants you elected, the Party gets you elected – the voters are incidental to the process. Catherine is, of course, much in the news over the FOI request and allegations against Alex Salmond.)

Similar requirement exist for ‘getting on the list’ for possible election as a regional list MSP, with the key difference that the electorate play no role directly on electing a list MSP except by their choice of party for the regional vote. On the constituency vote, the voter may feel they have some kind of choice influence over the individual elected, but on the list appointee they have none – it is entirely in the gift of the party.

POLITICAL STRUCTURES AND MECHANISMS

Members of political parties understandably feel they have some rights over policy in the party of their choice, rights not shared by supporters who are not party members, and certainly not rights shared by the wider electorate. The world of politics belongs to the active, the committed, the involved. Even within a political party, the active branch members and officers and the active campaigners - who give up so much of their time and energy – feel that they may reasonably claim rights not shared by the wider, passive branch membership.

This is the way our democracy works – it is the way all democracies work – and one may draw close parallels with the trades unions, who operate with similar structures and who share a set of similar assumptions.

Now the true democrats in political parties and in trades unions are prepared to face squarely the sometimes unpalatable truth that democratic principles enshrine absolute power in the individual voter - the vote, and its collective expression when exercised in elections. This principle requires that the wider, passive, less participative membership of a political party or a trade union must be given clear information of choices to be made, encouraged to become involved in those choices, and to cast their vote when they are entitled to.

But observance of this principle requires an almost heroic selflessness from activists who have sacrificed time, energy - and perhaps money - to the cause, often at the expenses of their personal lives and objectives. So it is understandable that the involvement of a wider membership in vital matters that the activists understand deeply is sometimes given no more than token recognition at best, and at worst, is marginalised or deliberately ignored.

Examples of deliberate entryism in politics and trades unions abound, and simple levers and mechanisms are there to be pushed and utilised by individuals or groups who want to exercise an influence that is essentially undemocratic over nominations to office, to proposing and adopting of resolutions, to the selection of delegates or members of key committees and ultimately to the nomination of candidates.

A danger has always existed in politics and trades unionism that democratic politics shade imperceptibly into Tammany Hall and machine politics. At a time when corruption in UK political and financial institutions has brought trust in these institutions, in politicians and in democratic government itself to an all-time, highly dangerous low, it is vital that the danger signs are recognised and dangerous trends nipped in the bud before we slide towards something ugly in our national life and our democracy.

SNP POLICY FORMATION AND THE NATO VOTE

In my view, the SNP is the most truly democratic party in UK politics, with the possible exception of the Greens. Until now, they have managed to contain certain centre right (that’s being kind!) views within what is broadly an anti-nuclear, social democratic party of the left, under the over-arching objective of independence for Scotland.

But under pressure of the opinion polls, which despite the enthusiastic, optimistic and infinitely creative interpretations of supporters and the party spin machine, remain stubbornly intractable, they have begun to slip inexorably down the Blairite route of placing electability before core belief, albeit with rather more justification than Blair. The monarchy, Britishness, sterling, the social union – all defensible as policies individually– have come to seem to many as, collectively, a dangerous blurring of the line of what an independent Scotland is all about.

The wider core support, uneasy but loyal, have resorted to what I call the magic wand solution – all criticism, all differences must be subordinated, the leadership must be credited with infinite wisdom and have blind trust placed in them until 2014 and the referendum, because everything can be magically undone, modified or changed once independence comes.

In the even wider, non-SNP support for YES and independence, this manifests itself as the variant that in 2016, somehow the SNP may be magically dumped in an election which may be – if negotiations are concluded with rUK - for an independent Scottish Parliament, and similar miraculous transformations of policy can be accomplished by a government of a different political complexion. This is a two-pronged magic wand, which not only ignores the complex nature of the commitments given and the long-term, binding agreements that will be entered into to achieve that independent Scotland, but additionally conjures up a magical realignment of the parties who have up to this point constituted Better Together, the bitter opponents to independence.

A new party of the democratic left – or right - is going to spring fully formed from the head of - who or what? Henry McLeish? Jim Sillars? The Jimmy Reid Foundation? Reform Scotland? Civic Scotland? The CBI? The Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations?

I won’t go over all of the lead-up to the NATO vote – my analysis and the reactions to it are well-documented in my back blogs, which I can confidently assert are revisited by a negligible amount of SNP supporters, many of whom (not all!) have a marked distaste for having their shining certainties being blurred by anything resembling facts or detailed analysis, an approach that they share with the media they hate so much.

What can be plainly seen by anyone who examines the timeline objectively is that the SNP leadership driving the NATO U-turn did not expect the reaction they got, and in fact they planned a quick, low-key debate and a conclusive endorsement of the NATO proposal. They got something rather different …

My concern here is to examine the events and the party structures that led to the voting patterns that resulted at Perth on 19th October.

Having launched their superficial little paper on NATO in July - having spent  the earlier part of the year trying to pretend that no U-turn was planned - Angus Robertson and Angus MacNeill were stunned by the broad-based coalition against it that sprang up almost instantly. But they still appeared to retain their confidence in recent polls they quoted, but principally in the outdated Mitchell Report, (questionnaires sent out between 16th and 19th November 2007, when the SNP memberships stood at  13,203, with two other mailings up to March 2008.) which appeared to give them a 3:1 majority for their viewpoint. They appeared unconcerned by the fact that the membership had grown from 13,203 to 24,000 or so, and a number of major events had occurred since the original poll.

The point that neither they nor their support in the party seemed able to grasp - then or now - was that as the party of government, the one that would be charged with negotiating the terms of Scotland’s independence after a YES vote in 2014, they could not and should not treat such a fundamental policy shift as though it was in the gift of a few hundred party delegate to an SNP Conference, to be quietly railroaded through without consulting at least the full SNP membership, the key members of the YES Coalition and ideally the electorate.

The branches, from my anecdotal evidence gleaned from correspondents and on Twitter, were slow to react, more than a little uncertain about the significance of the NATO proposal, and substantially under-informed. This was hardly surprising, since some leading SNP figures (e.g. Alyn Smith) were boasting of their lack of knowledge – and patently of interest - in defence matters. This was not helped by the commentariat and the media, who by and large, with a tiny number of honourable exceptions, showed the same lack of interest and knowledge.

In marked contrast, the NO to NATO campaign, especially CND, were highly informed and produced detailed fact sheet after fact sheet, which appeared to remain entirely unread by at least half of the SNP membership and perhaps a significant majority, judging by the Perth debate and vote.

In among all this was a wriggling, radioactive worm in the SNP/NATO rosy apple – the question of safe havens for nuclear submarines of other NATO countries, including those armed with nuclear weapons. Put at its starkest – as it was by the sole media commentators to appreciate its significance, Gary Robertson on BBC Radio Scotland and Isabel Fraser of the Sunday Politics Scotland and Newsnicht to the First Minister – this meant that an independent and notionally nuclear-free Scotland would allow such WMD-laden vessels to come and go freely on a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ basis.

Not only did the press and media fail to pick up or follow up on this, the NO to NATO campaign and the SNP conference speakers against the NATO proposal also missed it, or failed to see its vital significance.

And so the lead-up to the Perth conference and the debate.

An increasingly nervous leadership group steeled themselves for a harder time than they had planned, as the word came back that at least some of the branches were awakening from their Mitchellite trance of being ‘relaxed’ about NATO membership, Bill Ramsay of the SNP CND group was devastatingly articulate on the media, a disparate range of groups under the NO to NATO Coalition were omnipresent, a group of dissident MSPs had more and more to say, and the best efforts of SNP proxies such as George Kerevan weren’t cutting the mustard on media.

Having tried to slide the NATO U-turn paper through low key, after initially pretending it didn’t exist, Robertson and MacNeil were now trumpeting the debating and democratic party virtues of the SNP. Instead of being a triumph of party democracy, Conference was now to be celebrated as a triumph of debate.

What followed was fascinating, uplifting and encouraging in one sense, yet profoundly depressing in its outcome.

The delegates (759 from the voting outcomes) arrived in various states of preparedness for the great debate. Some were there with a free vote, presumably permitted by their branches. Many were mandated in advance by their branches. I have no statistics or information on what went on in the branches, other than anecdotal, from Twitter exchanges, and from emails and comments, many of a confidential natures.

But what I can say with reasonable confidence is this -

1. No general detailed, specific effort was made by any SNP branch to canvass and collate the views of the wider, non-active branch membership. (If there was, there was no evidence of such a consultation)

2. Some branches thought the whole affair very low key and gave it little attention or thought. They were, to use the phrase quoted again and again, “relaxed about NATO membership”.

3. Some branches gave it a lot of discussion, voted on it, and mandated their delegate or delegates accordingly. Some delegates had a very narrow mandate, based on a narrow margin, some were virtually unanimous.

4. No mandated delegates were given authority to change their minds, based on the arguments they heard in the debate. (Bear in mind, there had been no pre-conference debate mounted or indeed encouraged by the party – the debate drivers all came from the NO to NATO camp.)

The delegate group of 759 permitted in the conference hall for the debate therefore included delegates with no mandate who were at least in theory free to decide on their vote based on what they heard from the platform speakers and delegates who were pre-mandated and therefore had to be immune to reason and argument from the platform.

The debate itself was a triumph of passion, cogent argument and principled belief, but the context of the debate, especially what preceded it, was close to Tammany Hall politics. Some anti-NATO speakers came close to saying this. Some have said it to me in confidence, one which I respect. All were torn between their horror, not only at what the party was doing but also how they went about it, and an overriding imperative to close ranks for the sake of the YES campaign.

The outcome was quite simply this -

759 members of a political party that constitutes the Government of Scotland have voted to take 24,000 party members, a much wider number of party supporters who are not members, and a Scottish electorate of millions into a first strike nuclear alliance if independence is secured, and - without any vote, discussion or consultation whatsoever  - into a grossly hypocritical and perhaps lethal arrangement to permit nuclear submarines armed with Trident WMDs to come and go freely in the waters of an independent Scotland.

If this is what the dominant theory of our party politics has brought us to, then that dominant theory and all its related assumption, practices and procedures require urgent revision, because this is not democracy as I want to see it in an independent Scotland. I hope my fellow Scots agree with me.

POSTSCRIPT

Christine Grahame – and others – have called upon John Finnie and Jean Urquhart to resign their seats as MSPs because they were elected as list MSPs on a party vote.

On the contrary, any SNP list MSP who supported the NATO U-turn should resign, because the voters who placed them in Holyrood voted for a party that was clearly opposed by policy to NATO membership, and committed to Partnership for Peace.

Get your dubious principles right, please …

Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Scotland’s NATO membership – a deeply flawed concept and a retreat from principle

Five key facts -

1. NATO is firmly committed to nuclear weapons and the concept of nuclear deterrence, and only a unanimous vote by all 28 member states can change that policy (29 member states if rUK remains a member and Scotland becomes a member after independence.) In other words, the three nuclear member states can veto any attempt to abandon nuclear weapons.

2. From NATO site: "Whilst the North Atlantic Council (NAC) is the ultimate authority within NATO, the Nuclear Planning Group (NPG) which meets annually in Defence Ministers format is the ultimate authority within NATO with regard to nuclear policy issues."

3. A democratic vote or consent to use nuclear weapons by the member states is not required to launch a nuclear strike. (The authorisation of the Kosovo bombing provides a salutary example of how things might work. Effectively, the USA military decides, supported by UK and France)

4. The situation of Scotland is fundamentally different from that of any other member state - it hosts the UK nuclear deterrent, and if it insists on the removal of nuclear weapons from Scotland, rUK cannot host them and will cease to be a nuclear power. This poses a threat to NATO's nuclear stance that is posed by no other member state.

Although Scotland will reiterate its non-nuclear policy after independence, it must negotiate the manner and timescale of the removal of Trident and nuclear-armed submarines from Scottish waters.

5. The 25 non-nuclear member states are members of a defence alliance that can - and would - launch a nuclear strike in their name without their authority.  The 25 non-nuclear states cannot vote to remove nuclear weapons from NATO or make any changes to its policy because of the veto power of the three nuclear states.

What is the SNP proposing on NATO membership and why?

I posted the full Newsnight Scotland interview between Angus Robertson MP and Isabel Fraser, incl. the short but useful analysis that preceded it. In total it lasted 6m 40 secs, with the interview section being only 5m 10 secs. (For that edition of Newsnight Scotland, the producers clearly though same sex marriage was a much bigger topic than membership of a nuclear alliance that has the capacity to exterminate millions. But I believe they have a longer, more in-depth analysis planned of the SNP’s defence policy. God knows, such a programme is overdue – and vital.)

However, I have split the vital content up in edits to point up the individual contribution. Nothing has been edited out of these sections. Here is Angus Robertson’s full contribution – 3m 45 secs -  minus Isabel Fraser.

Here is Isabel Fraser asking all of her five questions -

Here are the five questions individually -





Angus Robertson answered none of them to my satisfaction. His approach was what I call the torrent of words approach – a kind of mini-filibuster style adopted by politicians when they don’t want to be pinned down. It was partially effective, and perhaps understandable, given the ridiculously short time available, but to me it was consistent with the half-truths and evasions that have characterised the lead-up to this revelation of the SNP leadership’s real intentions on NATO membership.

But the questions still hang there, waiting for an answer.

Since Angus Robertson’s contribution did not fully answer my question above - What is the SNP proposing on NATO membership and why?I must try to fill the gaps myself.

WHAT IS THE SNP PROPOSING?

“Scotland will inherit its international treaty obligations including those with the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) and will remain a member, subject to agreement on withdrawal of Trident from Scotland.”

“With agreement on the withdrawal of Trident and retaining the important role of the UN, Scotland can continue working with neighbours and allies within NATO.”

“ … An SNP Government will maintain NATO membership subject to an agreement that Scotland will not host nuclear weapons and NATO continues to respect the right of members only to take part in UN-sanctioned operations. In the absence of such an agreement, Scotland will work with NATO as a member of the Partnership for Peace programme, like Sweden, Finland, Austria and Ireland. …”

The Faslane base will remain, as Joint Forces Headquarters, and will be central to the SNP’s defence structure.

I believe that summarises the essence of the SNP’s NATO position – the full defence paper contains a great deal more than this about other aspect of Scotland’s defence plans.

Before looking at why the SNP are doing this (and I believe that they are being disingenuous about at least some of their reasons for abandoning a long-held anti-NATO policy) let’s examine the feasibility of them achieving membership of NATO while removing Trident and maintaining a non-nuclear policy.

“Scotland will inherit its international treaty obligations including those with the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO)”

Well, will it? On what is this assumption based? One would assume that it is legal advice based on examination of international law on newly independent countries.

I’m no lawyer, but the Vienna Convention on Succession of States in respect of Treaties must be relevant here, however it is a deeply controversial document in its relevant clauses. (I am indebted to a Danish contact, Troels, for much information. Troels is interested in Scottish affairs but does not take a position on them, feeling that it is Scotland’s business.)

Article 16 states that newly independent states receive a "clean slate", whereas article 34(1) states that all other new states remain bound by the treaty obligations of the state from which they separated. Moreover, article 17 states that newly independent states may join multilateral treaties to which their former colonizers were a party without the consent of the other parties in most circumstances, whereas article 9 states that all other new states may only join multilateral treaties to which their predecessor states were a part with the consent of the other parties.

Scotland, in separating from the UK, would seem to come under article 34(1) and article 9. Among the many perceptions of this must be the possibility that Scotland would be bound to NATO obligations under article 34(1) but could be turfed out under article 9. If so, they presumably cease to be bound by NATO obligations.

Let’s look at what Lord (George) Robertson, a former general secretary of NATO says in today’s Herald. Under the headline Nationalists’ Nato policy shift branded a ‘cynical’ ploy the noble Lord of Islay is quoted as follows -

Lord Robertson, former secretary-general of Nato, was contemptuous of the SNP leadership's planned policy shift, saying: "This is a cynical exercise to get rid of another electoral albatross. Membership of Nato involves accepting its Strategic Concept, which clearly sets out a position and policy on nuclear defence, so countries in Nato will greet the Nationalist approach with derision."

Angus MacNeil, the co-signatory of the SNP NATO proposal has today reminded George Robertson of his  remarks during a speech to the Moscow State Institute of Foreign Relations in 2001 - "In the Founding Act, NATO committed itself to the famous three nuclear "no's" - no intention, no plan and no reason to establish nuclear weapon storage sites on the territory of the new members - a commitment still valid."

I think, Angus, that the wee Lord of Islay will speedily invoke the Vienna convention relevant articles (above) to refute that one – but we’ll see

NATO’s strategic concept includes the possession and use of nuclear weapons of mass destruction, and any member state signs up to that, even if they are non-nuclear. They cannot amend that, nor can they veto their use. NATO is not a democracy – it is  a military alliance dominated by three nuclear states.

A real question exists over whether NATO could demand that Scotland honour aspect of  its treaty obligations, e.g. provision of safe havens to nuclear-armed NATO submarines, while refusing to allow an independent Scotland to join or remain in  NATO. (Angus Robertson conspicuously avoided answering Isabel Fraser’s question on that topic.)

“An SNP Government will maintain NATO membership subject to an agreement that Scotland will not host nuclear weapons and NATO continues to respect the right of members only to take part in UN-sanctioned operations.”

I can see no problem with the second half of that, the right of Scotland to refuse to take part in non UN-sanctioned operations, but the first part – the key part – sure as hell does pose problems. The difficult question to address is the negotiating dynamics of such a negotiating objective – for that is what it is.

Put bluntly, the SNP leadership want to maintain their nuclear virginity by getting rid of Trident while joining a nuclear alliance committed to retaining and using it without Scotland’s permission, or that of the other 25 non-nuclear member countries. Bear in mind that if Scotland is successful in removing Trident, the high probability is that the rUK would cease to be a nuclear power. Angus Robertson stated on Newsnight Scotland, “nuclear weapons being stationed in another country is a matter of bi-lateral arrangements between the two countries concerned – it doesn’t involve NATO at all, and in this case, that would be the relationship between Scotland and the United Kingdom – it’s not a matter for NATO at all …”

That is either naive or disingenuous. The idea that NATO would not have a significant influence on the rUK Ministry of Defence, and on any negotiations over Scotland’s NATO membership and Trident doesn’t stand up for a moment – in my view.

In essence, if we take the SNP’s negotiating stance at face value (I don’t) they will be saying to NATO – “Let us remain under the NATO defence umbrella and in return we will destroy rUK’s status as a nuclear power and remove at a stroke a major part of NATO European nuclear strike capacity.”

That is how it is being presented to the membership – it is how it will be presented at conference on October – a nice, clean-cut offer – or take-it-or-leave-it ultimatum, depending on your viewpoint. And from my Twitter exchanges, that is exactly the simplistic interpretation placed on it by many SNP supporters – Trident out and we’re in NATO – say no, and Trident goes anyway and Scotland joins Partnership for Peace (an organisation founded by NATO, incidentally).

My belief is that the SNP strategists’ position is far more complex than that – if it was not, they would be eaten alive in the negotiations. What I believe it really is disturbs me deeply, but whether it is or isn’t right now, here is my scenario of where we will wind up if we do go down this deeply misconceived route.

We will wind up in NATO, with at best, a token disarming of Trident warheads - something that can happen quickly and be reversed just as quickly – a commitment to a long period of theoretical decommissioning of ten to twenty years, and will be committed provide ‘safe haven’ to NATO nuclear-armed submarines. The high likelihood is that if a deeply unstable world survives 10/20 years without a nuclear war,  the vaporisation of Faslane and a large part of the West of Scotland and permanent pollution of the rest of it, the decommissioning will never happen, and Scotland will remain home to WMDs and Trident.

It is believed by many commentators that the SNP is going down this route solely because they believe that it will play well with a sector of the electorate for a YES vote in the referendum, and those opposed to NATO membership but supporting independence (like me) will still vote yes. They are right on the second assumption but perhaps not on the first. While I believe the referendum vote is part of the SNP’s rationale, I don’t believe it is anything like the prime reason. If I did, I would resign right now at such cynical expediency.

There is a lot more I could do – and may well do – on examining the negotiating strategy on defence, but for the moment I’ll wind up.

Here is the total Angus Robertson/Isabel Fraser interview -

Monday, 16 July 2012

Creative Scotland, Art and the Arts

Wikipaedia excerpt

Creative Scotland (Alba Chruthachail) is a development body for arts and cultural industries in Scotland.

It inherited the functions of Scottish Screen and the Scottish Arts Council on 1 July 2010, and has an additional remit for the Creative Industries. The Scottish Government brought it into being in 2010, and an interim company, Creative Scotland 2009, was set up to assist the transition from the existing organisations.

 

I had some thoughts on art and the arts some time ago – perhaps some of them are relevant to the discussion and criticisms in the video clip.

But is it Art?

Anyone with any interest in the arts will recognise that recurring situation, a sort of Groundhog Day moment, when one is cornered by someone who, with wide-eyed innocence, says “But don’t you think all art is just a matter of opinion – of personal taste? And what about modern art? Do you really think …?”

And you know that you are headed for an utterly sterile discussion, one in which the innocent will gradually reveal himself to be deeply hostile to the idea of art, and will unburden himself (it usually is a ‘him’) of opinions formed from Daily Mail headlines, a primitive world view that effortlessly encompasses homophobia, racism, sexism, paranoia about young people, crime,  a desire for the restoration of capital punishment and a denial of man’s contribution to global warming, or perhaps even a denial of global warming itself.

But inexorably I get drawn in, in the almost invariably mistaken belief that this person may just be a truth seeker, wanting to understand …

My knowledge of the arts may best be described as limited and partially informed. Certain art forms are virtually a closed book to me – ballet, some musical forms and some aspects of literature. I do appreciate literature and music, but my experience and preferences tend towards what is sometimes called popular culture – cinema, popular music and jazz – but with a limited knowledge and appreciation of orchestral and chamber music and literature.

I do also have a very definite bias towards form and structure in the arts, and a respect and admiration for technique in art. This question is like asking What is Jazz? – one that prompts an Ellingtonian response along the lines of “That kind of talk stinks up the room …” But the question will continue to be posed, because art is a multi-billion dollar business and art is always political, not least in the area of arts funding and education.

I would venture to to say that most artists, like most jazz musicians, never ask themselves this question – they are driven by an imperative to create, not by definitions and labels. But once they want money, want to sell their art, or want a job in the arts, the question will arise in one way or another.

Walter Pater’s dictum that all art aspires towards the condition of music may be a useful point to start, although it is one of the most over-worked clichés about art, trotted out by every arts critic and blogger at every opportunity.

A musical anecdote -

In the mid-1970s I took up a new appointment in the Newcastle Breweries in the Personnel Department. A colleague, Derek English was a passionate lover of classical music, and quickly assessing my limited knowledge in this area, set out to educate me by generously offering to loan me items from his treasured LP collection.

“I’ll start with Beethoven,” said Derek. I then crassly replied that I didn’t like Beethoven. I got a long speculative look, then the observation that was a kind of Damascean moment for me.

“It’s OK not to like Beethoven, Peter, so long as you realise that the problem lies with you, not with Beethoven …”

So - what is Art?

I reach for my New Oxford dictionary, realising that I have never read a dictionary definition of art, and the content surprises me.

art noun 1 (mass noun) The expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power … works produced by such skill and imagination – creative activity resulting in the production of paintings, drawings or sculpture.

No mention of music, literature,  or drama  - they come under the arts.

This takes me full circle, because this is what I understood as art as a child and as a young man, and it is perhaps what most people understand as art – painting, drawing and sculpture. The arts, a concept I came to later, embraces music, and drama. And of course, Goldsmith’s offers much more than painting, drawing and sculpture – it teaches music, literature, drama, design and more besides. The art college is simply part of the Visual Arts department. Much art - including my son’s art - includes text, music and dramatic elements as well as painting, drawing and sculpture.

So I must offer my thoughts on the question What is Art? in the wider definition of the arts.

Let me start with jazz, now generally accepted as an art form.

Immediately, we run into the definitions problem – what is jazz? – and the firm assertion of many ‘jazz’ musicians that they play music, not jazz, and are not prepared to be restricted in their creativity by a label.

What is jazz? Well, I know it when I hear it, but my judgement perhaps  reflects my age and my generation, although I believe that I could establish a consensus with most jazz musicians and committed listeners on what is and what is not jazz.

Most Edinburgh  aficionados of ‘jazz’ over about sixty five years of age would,  in my experience define it as so-called traditional jazz to mainstream jazz. as performed by a legion of small groups of musicians and vocalists of a similar age and era. I suspect that most Glaswegians would define it as mainstream or bebop, and most younger people would recognise  it as bebop - or later dialects of the bebop language - or as smooth jazz, although they might not recognise the terms – hard bop, fusion, etc. Some in both camps would reject utterly one or other of the forms as being jazz, echoing the narrow-minded divisions of the 1940s triggered by the emergence of bebop. Asked to define the music, they would tend to fall back on concepts of improvised or not improvised and instrumentation, none of which define jazz, and few would think of it in terms of art.

Yet jazz, almost uniquely, has the capacity to crystallise in a moment - for me at any rate – the answer to the question What is Art?

That moment has been repeated a thousand time since then, often with musicians simply warming up before a performance, but always with that instant recognition of the art of jazz – not a matter of technique or study, but an innate artistic and musical sensibility and something called at its lowest level talent and at its highest, genius.

But here I must make a fundamental distinction. It is possible to play so-called traditional jazz (a very British term) with very basic instrumental technique and little or no theoretical knowledge but huge emotional intensity, but without a relatively high level of technical skill, and a sound understanding of harmony allied to a good ear, you won’t play bebop, or as it used to be called, modern jazz, a term now inappropriate for a musical form that is about seventy years old.

Another question therefore presents itself – Is art enhanced or inhibited by technique – by technical proficiency?

THE NATURAL ARTIST – TALENT versus TECHNIQUE

Goldsmith’s College of Art and Design, for example, has never emphasised technique, concentrating instead on helping the artist to define his or her objectives and artistic concept, and it can certainly point to a glittering record of success of its alumni, a record of both prestigious art prizes and commercial success. The names are a kind of litany of British art – Damien Hirst, Antony Gormley, Lucian Freud, Mary Quant, to name but a few – and many Turner prize winners are in this number.

Goldsmith’s, for better or worse, is also associated with the art collector Charles Saatchi … So the tutorial regime and policy seem to work, insofar as one accepts the art world’s definitions of success.

(My son Michael has a first in Fine Arts from Goldsmith’s and is a working artist based in London.)

Does technical facility in itself deliver artistic validity? Does a well-made painting, drawing or sculpture equate to art?

The New Oxford definition again - the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power … works produced by such skill and imagination – creative activity resulting in the production of paintings, drawings or sculpture.

Not a word about technique, unless you regard it as being implied in creative skill – and note that “beauty or emotional power” which seems to imply that a work of art can have emotional power without necessarily having beauty. If that was the intention, the converse could not have been intended, since (I would argue) a work of art cannot have beauty without also having the power to stir the emotions. There also nothing about the intellect or intellectual power, but then the mathematician would argue that a fundamental mathematical proposition can have intellectual and emotional power and beauty …

Let’s take for the purposes of analysis technically skilled ‘artists’ who produce work for corporate clients, ‘artworks’ that will be placed in public places, in the foyers of public buildings, that will stand or hang in boardrooms. I place the words artist and artworks in parentheses so as not to beg the question.

(As an aside, the phrase begging the question, currently widely misused as meaning requesting or demanding that the question be asked, in fact means presenting a proposition that demands proof without actually presenting proof. In other words it means avoiding a necessary justification.)

There can be little doubt that much of this kind of ‘art’, however technically impressive, requiring considerable technical skill, is not art in any real sense of the word. If a work of art results from this process, it is either serendipitous, or the patron has found a true artist, not just a skilled technician. For example, the music, painting, sculpture, drama and film produced during the Third Reich was in the main competent and well-executed, but was not usually art. But the propaganda documentary film of the 1934 Nazi Party Congress in Nuremburg, Triumph of the Will, was high art and an enduring masterpiece of cinema, because the Nazis chose a highly gifted artist to make it.

(The film incidentally showed many examples of execrable Nazi art, something that Riefenstahl must have been aware of, whatever her personal allegiances.)

Of course another position may be taken on artworks – that they are all art, but some are bad and some are good. The only criterion is – did the artist intend them to be art? But then we are back to the question – can a work of art be produced inadvertently by someone who had no such intention? A photograph that was  perhaps simply intended to be an accurate record of a scene or events, may turn out to be art, and utilitarian objects and buildings may likewise be judged by an experienced and expert eye to be art.

Other perennial questions arise, among them -

Can art result from unintentional or random effort?

Are beautiful patterns in the sand on a beach or ice crystals on a window art? They may certainly be beautiful – beauty does not necessarily require intent or creativity, unless one invokes a Creator – a Supreme Being – or a Gaia principle, but they are not art. From the Lascaux Palaeolithic cave paintings through to Damien Hirst, art requires a human creator and an artistic intent – a vision.

Must an artist also have a motivation to communicate with an audience?

Most certainly do, but I have known artists who, for all or part of their creative lives, seemed to wish to communicate only with themselves. Some indeed appeared to be satisfied with the process of producing the artwork, and destroyed it after completion. And historically there have been artists who wished only to communicate with their God.

My son reminds me that Samuel Pepys had no apparent intention to communicate with anyone during or after his lifetime, yet undoubtedly produced a great literary work of art. That other great essayist, Michel de Montanus – Montaigne – initially had no thought of producing art or literature, but he achieved both, and did publish in his lifetime, but with no intention of achieving a wide circulation. Since I cannot conceive of life without either of of them, I can only be grateful that their intentions were frustrated by posterity.

Must a work of art communicate with and be appreciated and enjoyed by a large number of people before it can be considered as art?

I would answer a pretty definite no to the question, indeed some artists only achieved success posthumously, but the works were clearly art even before the judgement of posterity. And some great works of art have only ever been appreciated by a comparatively small number of people, but a small group that could tell shit from Shinola – people who have devoted their lives and their energies to art, and who know what they are talking about.  An elitist argument I know, but although as a citizen I am a democrat and believe in the voice of the majority of the people, in matters of taste I am unashamedly elitist.

To the argument that it’s all a matter of taste, I reply, yes – good taste and bad taste. The problem lies with you, mate, not with Beethoven, or Van Gogh  or Leonardo Da Vinci or Goethe.

SOME TENTATIVE STATEMENTS ON ART

The production of a work of art demands -

An artistic concept, idea or vision

A wish to realise that concept tangibly and to communicate it to an audience, however small, and perhaps consisting only of the artist

Sufficient technical capacity to realise the concept or vision, however imperfectly

The verdict on the artwork by art experts, leaving aside entirely commercial judgements will usually include seeing the work in the context of its intentions, its impact on the observer, the artist’s other work (few artists achieve a reputation solely on the basis of one work, although its does happen) and to some degree its technical competence.

When a work of art has been consistently highly regarded by experienced art critics and collectors over an extended period of time – decades, perhaps centuries – then it may well be styled a masterpiece. Some art is very much of its time; it is in vogue then it becomes part of art history, but perhaps no more than that.

Bear in mind that all of the above represent the thoughts of someone who is not an artist, has a rather narrow range of artistic understanding, but to whom art has always been a vital part of life. In that sense, I perhaps understand the ordinary man’s perception of art better than the art expert, and I may have an insight into the thinking of the art Philistines, whilst rejecting their negativism.

Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Television debates on independence – do we need a better format?

Last Sunday’s Big Debate on BBC1 was unsatisfactory from a number of perspectives: I’ve posted it in full on YouTube in two parts, and viewers will draw their own conclusions. It exhibited the structural problems that beset all such debate formats, on BBC, on STV and on Sky, so rather than analyse this particular one, I’ll try for generic comment covering all that I have seen.


POLITICAL DEBATES IN A DEMOCRACY

Before television, political debate was simpler – in America, politicians went on the stump, and in Britain on the husting. Both referred to the platform mounted by the speaker or speakers to address voters, which could quite literally be a tree stump, but more often was a specially erected platform in a public place, or even the platform in a village hall. A humbler version was the soapbox, whether at Hyde Park or the Glesca Barras. (My political awareness from childhood was honed by listening to the wonderful Barras soapbox orators in the 1940s)

Sometimes there was only one speaker, with one political viewpoint, sometimes there were multiple speakers with different viewpoints. There was occasionally a chairman of sorts for the multiple speakers versions, who had the unenviable job of trying to maintain order, often backed up by the polis in case he failed. Sometimes there were stewards to deal with the unruly hecklers who were invariably present.

Scotland - Dundee specifically - may lay claim to originating the term, which comes from the jute trade hecklers who teased and combed out the flax. A heckler performs a similar role, by interrupting, by raising embarrassing points, by puncturing pomposity and exposing humbug, by departing from the agenda, and often by abuse and taunts in a deliberate attempt to disconcert the speaker. A good heckler teases out the truth. Disruptive hecklers obscure the truth and inhibit free debate. Political extremists use heckling to destroy democratic debate, and right-wing hecklers move quickly to violence, as history shows all too clearly. So heckling is a mixed blessing – sometimes vital in a free democracy, sometime inimical to that very democracy.

Politics has many similarities to advocacy in a court of law – the law, the facts and the rules of procedure matter vitally, but so does charisma and the ability to appeal directly to the emotions as well as the intellect. An electorate – or a jury – may assimilate the arguments and understand the law, but the force of the argument depends in significant part on the style and personality of the person delivering the argument and citing the law. And in both situations, the jury or the electorate may choose to ignore the facts and the law and deliver a verdict based on emotion or gut feel – call it what you will.

Why do we permit this as a society? Because the law is a process that does not always deliver justice, and emotions and deeply felt convictions are sometimes not shifted by facts. Both the law and political argument in the United Kingdom are adversarial in nature: both sides claim to be in possession of immutable, incontrovertible facts, both sides – or in politics, multiple sides – produce experts of unimpeachable authority who in effect call each other idiots, if not outright liars. Of course, there are real facts, objective truths in there somewhere, but we only perceive them through distorting prisms of personal belief and experience, and through competing interpretations of these very facts by people with an axe to grind.

In law, a judge considers, then decides, although sometimes constrained by a jury’s contrary decision. In politics, the ultimate judge is the collective voice of the electorate.

The electorate are not all of the people, however, they are only some of the people: many have no franchise, usually because the law so dictates, but on occasion because they have spurned their right to vote because they distrust the system under which it is granted. In certain situations, therefore, the voice of the people overwhelms the voice of a manipulated electorate, and their voice is heard by other means.

If the opposition is weak, even though large in numbers, the protest movement is simply ignored, e.g. the Iraq War. Otherwise this leads inevitably to one of four outcomes – reform of the electoral system, overthrow of the government by revolution, or suppression of the protest movement, and perhaps the complete suspension of democratic rights.

So political debate has always mattered, because the alternative are not attractive. But the old concept of politicians on the stump and the hustings changed for ever with the advent of television and the Nixon-Kennedy debate over half a century ago. This new medium and this seminal debate revolutionised US politics and political debate, and had an incalculable impact.

But it has taken the UK all of that fifty years to really catch up with the American model of political debate, and the 2010 general election campaign and the 2011 Scottish Parliamentary elections were the first real television debates based  on the American model. There had of course been extensive television coverage of politics and politicians and other televised forums where politicians debated, sometimes with an audience present, but they had tended to be focused on a narrow range of issues.

The 2010 debates overnight transformed the fortunes of the LibDems and put them into coalition government almost totally because of Clegg’s performance in the final debate, aided by the post-debate poll on ‘winners and losers’ of the debate. The subsequent disastrous impact of coalition on Clegg and the LibDems perhaps points up inherent weaknesses of electoral success thus gained.

How much the televised debates contributed to the SNP’s landslide victory in 2011 can never be accurately determined, but they must have contributed in some measure.

THE STRUCTURE OF DEBATES

The first question that must be asked on television debates is Who decides the structure and format?

I don’t know the answer to that, anymore than I know the answer to related questions that follow. What I do know is that the process must be more transparent than it has been, more open to scrutiny, that there must be more consultation and involvement and a wider range of views sought than has been to date.

The other questions I would like answered – I realise the answers may already be there waiting for me somewhere on a TV company’s website or elsewhere and I just haven’t found them – are: -

How is the party representation chosen by the television companies involved, i.e. the political parties to be given a place?

For example, in last Sunday’s debate, who decided on one Green, one Labour, one SNP, one Tory? Who decided that the LibDems didn’t warrant a representative, or the Scottish Socialists? Was the decision based on the number of representatives in Holyrood? On the number who voted for these parties at the last Holyrood election? Did the UK status of the parties – very different say, in the case of the Tories and LibDems – come into play?

Who decided that the Greens and the Tories be represented by their Scottish party leaders and Labour and the SNP by their deputy leaders? Was it the BBC or the parties themselves? Does one Green or Tory leader equate in status terms to one Labour or SNP deputy leader?

What input do the parties themselves have to the decisions made, if any?

AUDIENCE SELECTION AND QUESTIONS

Similar questions arise in relation to the selection of the audience. The BBC did invite members of the public to apply for tickets and stated that a balanced audience reflecting the range of political views would be selected from the applications. But how is this determined? Do they take the word of those applying as to their affiliation? Were there sex and age criteria?

Audience members are invited to submit written questions – how is the choice made from those submitted, since more are submitted than can be asked? How is the choice made on the basis of spontaneous, hands-up questions by the presenter/moderator?

(I can only offer personal experience from attending a regional Question Time at Meadowbank Stadium many years ago. I received a phone call following my application, and I was asked what issues were important to me. I was not asked to specify my political affiliation. Before the show, audience members had to submit several written questions. How the choice was made, and what criteria were applied is unknown to me.)

THE FORMAT OF THE SHOW

Just what criteria determine the format of the show itself are not clear. Is it an attempt to reproduce a husting – a political meeting in a hall, with all the potential rough and tumble that the real thing involves? Is it an attempt to create a structured debate, with controls of time and content – and behaviour – applied by the moderator?

How is the balance found between informative, structured debate and the excitement of spontaneity that  a traditional husting might provide – that spark, the unexpected questions, the revealing answer, the passion? What makes for good television viewing may make for poor voter information, but too much control can inhibit true debate. These are the challenges that face television producers and presenters in news debates between the parties, but with an audience, the unexpected quotient goes up radically.

If the format is too loose, it may make for good television but poor debate, and leave serious voters frustrated that issues were not examined and key arguments either not presented or buried in cross talk and abuse.

Critical timing decisions are involved. How long should the overall debate be? Too long, and the viewers may get bored, and the practical limitations of television schedules obviously create constraints.

What should the debate theme(s) be and how many topic headings should be covered in the time available? How much time should each speaker be given to reply? Should the time allotted to speakers relate to the size of their party’s representation in the Parliament, or to their voting strength in the last election – or none of these? How rigorously should the guillotine on speakers be applied by the moderator? How much time should be allocated to spontaneous contributions by audience members?

SOME THOUGHTS AND RECOMMENDATIONS

What I have to say here represents my frustrations with some of the political debates, all of which were present in last Sunday’s BBC debate. These frustrations may not be shared by others, and even if they are, they may have different ideas.

TIME

Scottish television news channels and political programmes have found seemingly endless time to discuss the financial affairs of Rangers Football Club. Newsnight Scotland seems to have been temporarily – one hopes – to have turned into Newsnight Rangers, and other slots have been devoted to this hopefully not endless saga.

Could the future of Scotland as a nation – which will also significantly determine the futures of England, Wales and Northern Ireland – be given at least equivalent time in total to the future of a football club?

Either the one hour slots need to be increased in frequency, or longer time given to each programme, dependent on topic reach.

PRESENTERS

The skills of a television interviewer do not necessarily embrace the skills required of a debate moderator. Television channels understandably want an experienced political journalist with a familiar face, but across all the debates that have been held, this has proved – at least from my perspective – only partially successful.

Radical thought though it may be, a moderator does not necessarily require political understanding, but only the skills necessary to authoritatively control a debate within rules. It is the politicians and the audience that must be heard in a debate, and prompts and context interventions are not required from a moderator.

Since I have dragged a football comparison in above, let be say that a football referee has to understand the game and its rules, and have the capacity to apply the rules scrupulously fairly, with sanctions if necessary.  He is not required as a coach to offer useful suggestions as to how the game should be played. I see no reason why this should not apply in debate moderation.

EXPERTS

I noted above that in adversarial politics and the law, all sides will find experts to argue contrary interpretations and offer conflicting ‘facts’.

Since each political party cannot supply its own experts without cluttering the programme, I suggest that for key topics, the political parties must by consensus choose a single expert to offer an opinion on facts at pivotal junctures.

If, as may well be likely, the parties can reach no consensus, then there should be no experts, and the programme moderators should open proceedings by announcing this fact, and the names of the experts considered and rejected. An intelligent electorate – and Scotland does have an intelligent electorate - will draw its own conclusion from this failure.

STUDIO AUDIENCE REACTION AND APPLAUSE

Studio audience reaction at the moment is confined to applause, and since this cannot usefully be analysed except by volume and the infamous clapometer, other methods should be used. For a least twenty years now, audience voting remote control devices have been available, subject to an immediate count. A simple YES, NO choice could be offered at suitable points in the debate, giving a much more accurate idea of how the audience reacted to key points and propositions, with instant display of results.

AUDIENCE QUESTIONS

Some pre-submitted questions are chosen and others are rejected by the programme makers. A list of all questions submitted and the criteria for selection/rejection should be made available after the programme to all those present and be available online soon after.

LIVE QUESTIONS/REACTION FROM THE AUDIENCE

The practice of inviting live responses from the audience, a staple feature of BBC’s Question Time, and on balance well managed by them, does not in my view work well on live TV debates. Although the selection is random by the moderator/presenter, it does leave the way open for deliberate planted question by party hacks placed in the audience for that purpose, and there have been some egregious examples of this recently (my perception).

In my view, little would be lost and much gained by this practice being abandoned. It is a feature of live hustings but has little useful place in studio debates. One gain would be of that crucial commodity, time for debate.

CROSS TALK AND INTERRUPTIONS

No talking over a speaker should be permitted by the moderator – the parliamentary procedure of asking the speaker to give way should be observed, and the discretion of the person who has the floor should be respected.

SEATING ARRANGEMENTS FOR SPEAKERS

There should be a speaker’s lectern – there would very definitely have been one in a live husting, and the television debate should observe this. The politician speaking should be up front and addressing the audience, not looking to the side at others. Alternatively, all the speakers should be standing at individual lecterns, as in the Parliamentary debates of 2010.




Sunday, 1 April 2012

“Events, dear boy, events …” A long, turbulent week in independence politics

I haven’t blogged for a while, although I’ve been active on Twitter and YouTube. The reason is that the events of the last week have been so egregious that not even the unionist media could ignore them, indeed, The Sunday Times – journalists first and unionists second, unlike, say, the Scotsman or Scotland on Sunday - have been the main vehicle for the revelations about our deeply corrupt political system in the United Kingdom. The media coverage has been intense and immense, so there was little I could add.

SOME MINOR THEMES

The Letters Page of the Scotsman provides a vehicle for panic-stricken unionists, especially the Tory variety, to give vent to inchoate cries of pain as they see Scotland moving towards independence. A new note has crept in, that of recognition of the inevitability of the process, which now manifests itself in the extraordinary demand that the SNP should voluntarily disband after independence.

The rationale for this is that the SNP was and is a one-issue party, and having achieved its aim now has no role, and should leave the way clear for Labour, Tories, LibDems to lick their wounds and resume business as usual in the new Scotland. Had, for example, India and Pakistan, two of the great nations who threw off the dead hand of the British Empire followed this route, one of the oldest political parties in the world, the party of Gandhi and Nehru – the Congress Party – would now not exist.

(I have some knowledge of the Congress Party. When I got married 52 years ago yesterday, few of the guests who attend our wedding in Drumchapel Parish Church and the subsequent modest, steak pie and chips reception above the City Bakeries in Great Western Road, Glasgow, would have known that the handsome young Indian guest Hari was the son of Lal Bahadur Shastri then Indian Minister for Commerce and Industry, and subsequently the successor to Jawaharlal Nehru as Prime Minister of India.)

The other argument advanced, including by  a tweeter yesterday, is that the SNP “contains left-wing, centre and right-wing politicians” and therefore should leave the field clear after independence for the ‘true’ left, right and centre parties. I had to gently point out that all large parties contain left-wing, centre and right-wing politicians, and therefore by this logic, they should all disband and leave the field clear for – what, exactly? The pure-as-the-driven-snow minor parties, riven by mini-feuds over obscure dogma points?

This also ignores the fact that there are no major left or right parties anymore – the Tories, Labour and the LibDems now all occupy a position somewhere right of centre, and are in effect one large Establishment Party, as the infamous Coalition to defend the Union against Scotland’s independence now exemplifies.

The Save England from the Tories theme

The other theme of the moment is that Scotland should stay in the Union to save the people of England from a permanent Tory hegemony caused by the loss of Scottish Labour MPs after independence.

This specious nonsense was first propounded recently by Douglas Alexander, and has subsequently been taken up enthusiastically by Johann Lamont and, amongst others, Kenny Farquarson, political editor of Scotland on Sunday. Kenny appears to be convinced that a large number of Scots share this unselfish democratic concern for the fate of poor England if Westminster loses its Scottish Labour MPs.

It is a proposition – I will not dignify it by calling it an argument – which most English voters would consider risible, if not deeply insulting. Most Scots fall about laughing at the proposition.

What it says is that the democratic preferences of a country of some 60 million people should be perverted by the political fiat of a country of some 5 million people.

Of course, this is exactly what has happened to Scotland from 1979 to 1997, with a Tory Government that they had decisively rejected.

In 1997, Scotland got a UK Labour Government, and was a Tory-free zone for a time. Unfortunately, this Labour Government out-Toried the Tories, led us into two disastrous conflicts and almost bankrupted the economy, while making many of its ministers filthy rich in the process.

Then in 2010, Scotland again decisively rejected the Tories, returning only one MP, yet thanks to John Reid’s TV interview destroying Gordon Brown’s attempts to stitch together a Rainbow Coalition, we wound up with the present incompetent Tory/LibDem administration.

THE REFERENDUM CONSULTATION DEBACLE

This blew up this morning because of the competing UK and SNP Government online consultations in progress, with allegations by Labour that the SNP online poll is deeply flawed, because it permits multiple responses, anonymous responses, etc. (I call it a poll, because it is online polling through a series of questions to establish the opinions of individual voters).

In a word, it is deeply flawed, and although Labour’s attack is motivated by jealousy over the high responses rate versus that to the UK poll, and they are grinding axes, and are clearly the pot calling the kettle black, my feeling is that the referendum consultation outcome is now badly damaged by this debacle.

I could kick myself for not seeing the consultation’s inadequacies when I completed it, and for not testing its robustness – as I routinely do with other online polls/consultations – by trying additional submissions, etc. Only last night, I was urging voters to respond to the consultation on Twitter, and supplying the link.

I have done this today, and the flaws are patently and belatedly evident to me.

At base, the criticisms come down to failure to require registration or any proof of identity, failure to block multiple submissions under the same or alternative identities, allowing anonymity, etc. I have completed online polls and questionnaires by reputable newspapers, e.g. Financial Times and Guardian, where none of these things were possible, so the technology clearly exists to avoid them.

My spirits rose when Stewart Hosie appeared for the SNP to answer Anas Sarwar’s criticisms (originating with Labour’s Patricia Ferguson) but were speedily dashed when it became evident that he was ill-prepared and had no answers and, most uncharacteristically for this most considered and calm of SNP ministers, resorted to bluster to defend the indefensible.

His arguments came down to that this was how it had been done previously on other consultations by other parties, that some mysterious process by an unknown organisation after the consultation would scrutinise the responses, weed out the problem, and all would be well, and in effect, that we were no better and no worse than the unionist parties, so there – yah boo!

Not remotely good enough as answers for a process on which the SNP, Alex Salmond and the Scottish Government have all placed great significance, and one which will critically influence the structuring of the referendum ballot paper and the referendum process.

I am also deeply disappointed that my party, the SNP, has not appeared big enough to acknowledge their inadequacies on this issue, and that many online SNP supporters seem to prefer bland cover-up to addressing something that matters to Scotland’s democracy.

The rigging allegation by Sarwar is offensive, but some SNP supporters have asked how an online consultation – or indeed any consultation – can be rigged?

The answer is in the analysis of the responses and the acceptance/rejection criteria. I don’t believe for one moment the SNP would do such a thing as rigging the response, but we have left ourselves wide open to such an allegation, and no matter what we do or say now, the outcome will be fiercely disputed and the results possibly discredited – an insult to, and a betrayal of all those who honestly completed the online survey.

Thursday, 15 March 2012

The ‘Scotsman’ propaganda mill continues to pump out the anti-independence nonsense

I meant to comment on this piece from the Scotsman anti-independence propaganda conveyor line on Tuesday, but other events got in the way, notably the Commons vote on the English NHS bill. 

A new West Lothian conundrum

The facts behind this piece are that the referendum is in 2014, the general election (assuming the incompetent Coalition doesn’t collapse before then) is in 2015 and the Scottish Parliamentary elections are in 2016 – and, of course, The West Lothian Question – Guardian

Peter Jones, the author of the Scotsman piece, poses three scenarios -

Prompted by yet another London expert, Prof. Robert Hazel of University College London, he asks what the Scottish SNP MPs elected to Westminster in 2015 for only a year - if the referendum delivers a YES vote in 2014 – will do in that year, before they “disappear back to Scotland to look for another job”. Would they vote on purely English matters. e.g. the UK NHS, and would the unionist Westminster MPs let them?

As Peter Jones well knows, despite his faux-naïf question, they have already “imposed a self-denying ordinance on themselves that they would not vote on anything that didn’t affect Scotland”. But this very week, they departed from that self-denying ordinance to vote against the pernicious UK NHS Bill that will destroy the NHS in the rest of the UK, because it will impact on the Scottish budget, and is therefore not a purely English matter.

Far from being prevented from voting on it, they were actively lobbied to vote on it by Labour and LibDem rebels, and have received their subsequent expressions of gratitude for their principled departure from their normal WLQ abstention.

Jones’ next point asks if in this pivotal year of 2015, the last year in which Scotland will have to send MPs to Westminster, if there was an election outcome that threatened a hung Parliament, would the SNP MPs enter into coalition with a UK party to prop up a new UK Government?

My informed guess is that they wouldn’t, for the obvious reason that, as Jones points out, such a coalition’s coat would be on a one-year shaky nail, and would collapse when the SNP MPs went in May 2016. There is also the fascinating point that such a government would be the one negotiating and ratifying the Scottish independence settlement! But who knows what the tactical demands of that time will be?

Peter Jones’ last point relates to the Scottish Parliamentary elections in May 2016. If the details of the negotiated settlement are known – or leaked – by that time, would this turn the Scottish election effectively into a referendum on the negotiated settlement terms?

Interesting questions – except that Isabel Fraser, interviewing the First Minister, got there before Peter Jones, as this clip reminds us.

Unionist run about in confusion and panic faced with such questions – nationalists just get on and answer them …