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Saturday, 30 August 2014

"I'm not a nationalist, but ... "

A few years ago, the lugubrious American comedian Steven Wright was appearing on a chat show. He was known to be a big sports fan and, inevitably, the subject of baseball came up. The presenter said to him: “I understand that you’re a big fan of the Boston Red Sox?”  Wright, in his usual deadpan style, replied: “I have been attending their games for more than thirty years. I buy merchandise and collect memorabilia relating to the team and I have a season ticket. But I do not consider myself to be a fan.”

In highlighting the incongruity between his actions and what he pretended to believe those actions meant, Wright was making an obviously comedic point. Over the last few weeks, however, I’ve noticed more and more folk, either in conversation or through pronouncements on social networks, drawing a similar line between what they profess to believe and what they intend to do in the forthcoming referendum on Scottish independence. There appears to have been a proliferation of posts and declarations in which people make one variation or other of the following statement: "I’m not a nationalist … but I’ll be voting yes.” 

You’ll never, of course, hear anyone saying “I am a nationalist, but I’ll be voting no”, because that would be absurd. Not that absurdity itself would be out of place in a campaign in which both sides have made ludicrous claims and counter-claims, offering bribe and counter-bribe to an electorate they clearly don’t have a very high opinion of.   

Only four years ago, the SNP polled 19.9% on a 63.8% turnout at the general election.  Unless my arithmetic is off, that means that only around 12% of those eligible to vote could be bothered to state a preference for independence. Now, just a few years later, we are on the verge (depending on which polls you read) of breaking up the UK.  The Yes campaign has been extremely effective and has worked diligently to establish clear ground between ‘good’ nationalism (the kind we have in Scotland, where everyone is socially progressive) and ‘nasty’ nationalism (the UKIP kind they have down south, where everyone is reactionary). But however Blair Jenkins and his team might spin it, there is an ugly side to Scottish nationalism. Most nationalists are decent folk, but there is a significant minority motivated principally by the politics of difference. That’s about as succinct and polite a way to describe it as I can manage. And I suspect that it is this factor which has caused some people to feel the need to put a positive spin on their voting intentions.  

Steven Wright got laughs because of the obvious incongruity between the list of things he did and what those things actually meant, but if someone said something like that in normal conversation, we’d probably feel obliged to draw attention to the discrepancies between their actions and their idiosyncratic interpretation of those actions. We might even be tempted to point out that people don’t ordinarily get away with defining themselves by what they say, because -most of the time- we are defined by what we do.          
I think there are some good arguments for independence, just as there are some good arguments for maintaining the union. I make no judgement on the position that anyone chooses to take. It seems to me, however, that if you campaign, and then vote for, Scottish secession from the United Kingdom, you are –by definition- a nationalist. Wouldn’t it be more honest just to accept the ‘warts and all’ reality of that political choice?

Saturday, 23 August 2014

Dominic Frisby - 'Life after the State'

I’d have to admit that the idea of a stand-up comedian writing about a serious topic doesn’t sound all that promising, but Dominic Frisby has managed to pull off a quite startling achievement; he has written a book about the economy that is actually a pleasure to read. ‘Life after the State’ seeks to address these basic questions: What is money? Who controls it? What happens as a result of that control?  

As a keen traveller in Latin America, Frisby undertakes a revelatory visit to Cuba in 1996. Having gone with what he calls ‘preconceived notions about what an amazing place it was’, he starts to challenge his own ideas about government and money after he rents a room with a local professor and his family. His straight-from-the-horse’s-mouth anecdotes about Cuban life and the Cuban economy ought to be compulsory reading for anyone who might still have a rosy view of Castro’s ‘socialist’ paradise.
Frisby found a society “so imbalanced and distorted that taxi drivers and uneducated young people could earn, in one night, many more times than a professor, a doctor, a lawyer or an engineer might earn in a month”, a society where huge numbers of young girls in Havana worked in the sex trade, always for foreign currency. His experience of the useless Cuban peso made him think about how important a properly functioning system of money is to a society and about what happens when politicians use money as a political tool.

By the turn of the century, he has become fascinated by the world of finance and has reached alarming conclusions about the massive Ponzi scheme that is the western economy. He anticipates the crash of 2005-06 (taking preventative measures with his own assets) and is amazed that so many politicians, economists and journalists didn’t see it coming. The bad news is that he thinks there might be worse to come.   
His argument is that our fiat monetary system (in which governments, regardless of their assets, print money whenever it suits them) doesn’t just encourage massive debt or stifle innovation and self-reliance; it is doomed to fail. Through the grubby racket of central banking, we are made to exchange goods and services in a currency that is constantly devalued through the dubious practice of money printing (now euphemistically re-branded as ‘quantitative easing’). It's a 'smoke and mirrors' trick designed to obscure the real cost of their debts.
Frisby makes a distinction between the actual free market (which he’s very much in favour of) and ‘crony capitalism’, our current system in which bankers, politicians, large corporations and special interest groups are subsidised by the tax-paying majority. He is highly critical of ‘rent seekers’, meaning individuals and organisations who are able, for one reason or another, to exert influence over politicians. The banks provided the most notorious recent example of this when they pulled off the spectacular trick of privatizing their profits, but socializing their losses. In a genuine free market economy, these bad businesses would deservedly have gone under. Unfortunately, the system encourages rent seekers, lobbyists, quangos, bureaucrats and special interest groups who all benefit from subsidy (at the expense of those who don’t). It's quite clear that the closer you are to the people who control money, the better off you’ll be.   

The author writes with passion and clarity to counteract the ridiculous argument that only those who espouse leftist-liberal views on health, education, employment etc. care about people. He believes that human nature, left to its own devices, is invariably a force for good and that, when we limit the freedom to trade and exchange, we limit our possibilities.  Describing himself as a ‘bleeding heart libertarian’, he unashamedly espouses his libertarianism to champion ideas that would be familiar to many so-called progressives, although most of his proposed solutions will be anathema to those of a statist mindset.    

“All those people agitating for change should forget marches or demonstrations, or calling for this or that regulation or ruling; if they all just concentrated on one thing –reforming our system of money- then … freedom, justice, equality of opportunity and everything else they want can follow.”   

But first of all, he argues, we must separate money and state. A recurring theme of ‘Life after the State’ is the inefficiency and inadequacy of big government. If you’re wondering what ‘big government’ means, then here’s one revealing statistic: Before the outbreak of the First World War, an average British household typically spent between eight and nine per cent of their earnings on government. Today, it is around forty six per cent. Some will argue that our society benefits from this and, to an extent, that is true. But, according to the author, the problem is not just that government spends too much money and does too much stuff; it’s the fact that it invariably spends money on the wrong things and does the wrong stuff.

There is a chapter devoted to the decline of Glasgow, entitled ‘How the most entrepreneurial city in Europe became its sickest’. The story of the city’s rise and fall provides a perfect illustration of the fate of industrial Britain. From being known as the ‘second city of the empire’ and considered to be one of the best-governed places in Europe, Glasgow became one of the sickest cities on the continent, with high unemployment rates and areas of deprivation wherein life expectancy was comparable to that in Palestine and Albania. For all the huge amounts that have been spent (with the ostensible desire to do good) on infrastructure, housing, benefits, health, education and various other subsidies, more and more people have fallen into welfare rather than escaping from it. The more the state has provided, argues Frisby, the worse Glasgow has fared. 
(I should point out, in the passing, that the author is in favour of Scottish self-determination, mainly because he thinks that independence would force the country to rediscover its entrepreneurial roots and forge a small, vibrant, dynamic economy). 

The book contains some interesting ideas on taxation, but Frisby’s big idea is that we should be able to exercise the freedom to choose between competing currencies; this alone would begin to dismantle the power of the state. In a genuinely free market, we could trade in gold or metals or virtual currencies like bitcoin (which –surprise, surprise- HMRC has now started to take an interest in). 
But for all the economic analysis in this book (and elsewhere), the truth is that none of us really know where all of this heading. You can’t help but feel, however, that the odds are against it being somewhere pleasant. For all the received ‘austerity’ narrative of the last four years, the fact is that the coalition government has only managed to slow down the rate at which the deficit is increasing. That sentence alone should send a shiver down our spines. We are nowhere near addressing the question of government debt and that is surely a moral issue, because the generations that have benefited most from deficit spending (i.e. anyone reading this article) are about to bequeath something awful to their children and grandchildren.    

Writing about the American economy, the Canadian political commentator Mark Steyn observed that: It took the government of the United States two centuries to rack up its first trillion dollars in debt ... now Washington piles on another trillion every nine months.”
According to Steyn, ‘reality’ (that is, fiscal reckoning) doesn’t need to win popularity contests or lead in the opinion polls. It doesn’t even have to run for political office because, sooner or later, reality is going to win.    

‘Life after the State’ provides food for thought and will perhaps encourage more folk to think about where the deficit spending model of government is taking us. James Harding, Director of BBC News and Current Affairs, has described the book as “a wake-up call for politicians and economists”.  

I'd like think that some of our opinion makers may yet be influenced by it.

Tuesday, 19 August 2014

What's Gaelic for 'enough, already'?

For various reasons, I decided to delay watching the Scottish referendum debate, electing instead to catch up with it on media player.  It turned out to be pretty much everything I had expected and I’d be surprised if it changed anyone’s mind about how they are going to vote.  The most remarkable bit of the show occurred late on in the proceedings (at one hour twenty minutes into the programme, if you’re interested).  A young woman in the audience –in the context of a discussion about pensions, during which some folk had raised concerns about how independence might impact on them- put this question to the speakers:  

You’re talking about putting money towards pensions, but what’s being done for the Gaelic language?  As a native speaker, I don’t feel that enough of Scotland’s money is being put towards that.

I stared at the screen in disbelief.  Was it really possible that there were people walking the earth who thought that was there was a lack of funding for Gaelic? 

In the last few years, the Scottish Government has spent millions throughout the country implementing Gaelic language plans and introducing bilingual signs. I know I’m not alone in believing it absurd to have imposed these policies on the lowlands, where there has been no Gaelic heritage and where Lowland Scots has been the traditional form of speech. In fact, it’s worse than absurd; it’s an insidious form of cultural imperialism. I used to think that the Partick /Partaig sign at Partick train station was the most ridiculous and pretentious use of public money that I could think of.  Perhaps, I would joke, before that really useful Partick /Partaig sign was erected, thousands of confused folk were mixing up Partick with Habbies Howe or Ashby-de-la-Zouch. God, it must have been chaos back then!  But alas, this pointless signage is par for the course now that the SNP’s Kulturkampf is in full swing. 

According to the 2011 census, there were 58,000 Gaelic speakers in Scotland, with the vast majority gathered in the Western Isles.  Our nation has just as many folk who nominated either Polish or one of the South Asian languages as the one they used at home, but those folk don’t get their own signage or their own TV channel.  Yes … about that TV channel.  A report in the Scottish Review a couple of years ago estimated that the annual running costs of the BBC’s Gaelic language station ‘Alba’ were around £17m.  That represented 29% of the total budget for BBC Scotland, yet it catered for only 1.1% of the Scottish population.  Some of those figures were disputed, but a percentage point here or there doesn’t alter the narrative; Gaelic culture is already massively subsidised.

The Scottish Government (i.e. the taxpayer) funds the Gaelic Media Service. So keen are they to promote Gaelic that funding to this organisation was increased from £12m in 2010 to £18m in 2012. By any standards, that’s a generous hike. A few years ago, the ‘Scots Language Working Party Report’ concluded that: 
"All media organisations, and all agencies in the cultural sector which receive Government funding, should be actively encouraged to develop specific Scots language policies.’"  
The message couldn’t have been clearer: If you want to make publicly-funded art in Scotland, learn some Gaelic.     

In addition to its regular Gaelic programmes, BBC Alba routinely covers football and rugby in what some might say is a cynical attempt to boost its viewing figures.  Fans have to endure the absurd spectacle of games being described in Gaelic, but with all of the pre and post-match interviews being conducted in English, because -guess what- none of the participants speak the lingo. The BBC boast about Alba’s ‘growing’ audience, but the truth is that if a new free-to-air station called Nazi Stormtrooper Animal Experimentation Gold started broadcasting live sport, it would also boost its viewing figures; those  ‘improved’ statistics, in that sense, are meaningless. 

Anyway … back to that nice girl in the audience at the referendum debate. As I stared at the screen in bewilderment, I realised that I was experiencing a ‘Colonel Kurtz’ moment.  Kurtz is a character in Francis Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, which tells the story of an American Army Captain (Willard) who is sent on a secret mission into the Cambodian jungle during the Vietnam war. His task is to assassinate a renegade colonel -Walt Kurtz, played brilliantly by Marlon Brando- who has completely lost the plot and set up his own kingdom in the jungle, lording it brutally over a local tribe.  Willard (played by Martin Sheen) is captured by Kurtz and subjected to a number of rambling monologues about war, heroism and the nature of morality. The mad colonel, explaining his conversion to the darkside, relates a story about the US Army’s attempts to win the hearts and minds of the local population. He explains that his platoon had been sent on a mission to a local village to inoculate children against polio. The troops carried out their task but when they returned to the village a few days later, they found a bloody pile of tiny arms. The Vietcong had hacked off the limbs of every child who had been vaccinated by the hated Yankees. 
"And then I realized ... like I was shot.  Like I was shot with a diamond ... a diamond bullet right through my forehead.  I thought, my God... the genius of that! The genius!  The will to do that!  Perfect, genuine, complete, crystalline, pure."

This realisation convinces Kurtz that his side are merely playing at war, while the Vietcong actually mean it. From that point, he starts to pursue his own agenda, free from the phoney moralistic constraints of the American chain of command. 

What’s being done for the Gaelic language?" said the young woman, firing that diamond bullet right into my skull. "As a native speaker, I don’t feel that enough of Scotland’s money is being put towards that.” 

I saw, in that instant, a perfect, complete, honest, crystalline statement of an absolute truth. I realised, with blinding clarity, that that there is literally no amount of money that will satisfy special interest groups. None. However much money you give them, however much ground you concede, they will always want more. They are so focused on their special interest that they are unable to look at the world in the way that most of the rest of us do. They are incapable of any degree of objectivity, because every aspect of their experience has to go through the filter of that special interest. 

I’m not saying that there is anything wrong with that. And I’m not saying there is anything wrong with having a Gaelic TV channel. I’m all for it, although I don’t see why it should have become the BBC’s role to help re-establish a culture through the medium of television.   
All I’m saying is that the next time you hear someone from a special interest group claiming that their special interest is under-funded, remember that nice young woman in the audience. In her world, ‘more’ is never going to be ‘enough’.  

Saturday, 9 August 2014

Principles, schminciples

If the number of petitions and statements circulating on the various social networks are anything to go by, a lot of people appear to be happy that Glasgow City Council has decided to fly the Palestinian flag above the city chambers.  Perhaps they see this as a principled display of solidarity with an oppressed people; others might see it as a tawdry example of gesture politics.  A statement from Lord Provost Sadie Docherty said that the flag was raised ‘in solidarity’ with people who had been affected by the conflict in Gaza.  She added that “We hope that peace can be found to ensure the human rights for the people of Palestine."

This concern for the fate of Palestine’s children is admirable and, no doubt, sincere.  We should all be concerned about what is going on in Gaza.  We should all be hoping, praying and, where possible, working towards a peaceful solution to the conflict.  It is important for any civilised society to have a set of common values and principles that it is prepared to stand up for.  We are right to feel frustration and horror at the suffering of innocent people and, wherever children are suffering, that frustration and horror should be all the more profound.  

There have been a number of reports in the last few years of Hamas using child labour to construct the Gaza tunnels.  The most commonly quoted figure is that at least 160 Palestinian children died during the construction of said tunnels.  During this time, I don’t remember seeing a single facebook or twitter petition about it; nor can I recall any statement of condemnation or outrage from Glasgow City Council.  

If we were that principled about preserving and protecting human rights, you’d think that multiple deaths through forced child labour might have registered on our radar at some point.