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Tuesday, 31 December 2013

My top posts of 2013

Here are my top posts - at least in terms of pageviews. Oddly enough, they all seemed to make sense at the time...

1. Does Better Together care about free speech? I suggest the "no" campaign should distance itself from Ian Taylor.

2. Are we a party that supports Northern Isles separation? A pertinent question following a vote at Scottish spring conference.

3. 50 Lib Dems you must follow on twitter. A list of Lib Dem twitterati I find interesting, entertaining or otherwise compelling.

4. Is there a need for a UK Constitutional Convention? I suggest there is, but that what is needed is an extension of democracy, not technical chit-chat and political machinations

5. David Steel's speech to the Blackpool Assembly. The leader's speech to the final Liberal Assembly, revisited 25 years later.

6. The real significance of Glasgow University's mock referendum. I ponder the meaning of the students'  mock independence referendum, which the media at the time were claiming was of enormous importance but has now been entirely forgotten.

7. Review of Scottish SLF Conference 2013. Recalling the lively discussions at Social Liberal Conference.

8. SNP minister announces he is gay. Society is changing, but it still takes courage to come out.

9. We have to tackle these misconceptions - misconceptions about benefit dependency.

10. Why I'm disappointed in the new Lords appointments. We were a little unadventurous to say the least.

11. Tim Farron is either "wrong or compellingly correct". I ask whether our party president is able to separate his personal faith from his secular responsibilities.

12. How do you solve a problem like UKIP? The jury's still out on that one, I think.

Thanks for reading, and best wishes for 2014!

My predictions for 2014

Clyde - will the mascot be quickly
forgotten after the games?
As is customary at this time of year, I make public a number of my predictions for the coming year. Enjoy them - before they come true!

Politics

The Labour Party – Ed Miliband will struggle to convince the British public that he is a Prime Minister in the making. His party will continue to maintain a lead in the polls, but his personal credibility will take a battering when he concedes that a Labour government would effectively have its hands tied on the spending front. He will also lose popular support when he refuses to condemn a shadow minister embroiled in a financial scandal.

The Conservative Party – it won’t be such a bad year for the Tories. The economy will continue its steady improvement, but insufficiently for George Osborne to make the claims he wants to for the Tories’ role in reviving it. The party will remain openly divided on Europe, immigration and marriage equality, with a backbencher resigning the whip in anger at “creeping liberalisation”. Esther McVey and Theresa May will put on a united from in their quest to convince the public the Tories are nastier than ever. In spite of the obvious drift rightward, the Conservatives will do moderately well in the European elections, playing off the threat from UKIP with skill and a fair degree of success.

Boris Johnson will resign as London mayor to stand for a safe Tory seat in a by-election. He will win comfortably and dedicate himself to undermining ministers and openly declaring his ambitions to become Prime Minister “at some point in the future”.

The Liberal Democrats – the party will face a real test in the European elections, but will be buoyed when they retain all but two of their MEPs. It seems a corner has been turned. It also becomes apparent that many British people have used the elections to send a message of support for continued EU membership. A strong performance in a by-election appears to confirm that, electorally speaking, the worst is over. Voices within the party express further concern about the direction of the coalition and the Lib Dems’ role within it – and not merely Matthew Oakeshott. Tensions will be increased when the government approves new illiberal measures to curb immigration.

There will be an acceptance from the leadership for the need for more distinct messages to be communicated. This will have some effect, which will be inevitably aided by Conservative MPs complaining vocally about our ruinous effect on their key policies. Clegg’s standing will improve moderately however, with the Deputy prime Minister going to great lengths to avoid the language of business and politico-speak that has characterised him so far and instead adopt a more human, in-touch approach.

Here in Scotland, Willie Rennie will attempt to portray the Lib Dems as the only real alternative to an SNP government that he perhaps a little unfairly describes as incompetent and ideologically redundant. He doesn’t completely convince, and isn’t helped by one or two untimely interventions by Tavish Scott. Rennie will find it difficult to communicate the Lib Dems’ progressive views on Scotland’s constitutional future as his voice is drowned out by the unimaginative negativity of his Better Together partners. Fortunately Nick Clegg will decide not to visit Scotland, which helps both the Scottish Lib Dems and the “no” campaign.

The SNP - it will be a tough year for the Scottish National Party but they have reasons for optimism with the independence referendum looming and the public showing an increased appetite for change. Alex Salmond will remain the most popular leader at Holyrood and will continue to outsmart both Johann Lamont and Ruth Davidson with ease. The SNP will, however, become unstuck over the question of an independent Scotland's prospective membership of the EU and also wider questions of an economic nature.

The SNP will take full advantage of the Commonwealth Games and the Bannockburn commemorations to talk up Scotland's potential, which will have some effect. The SNP will also look to take credit for falling unemployment, while Derek Mackay will look increasingly like a future leader as the year progresses.

UKIP – 2014 will see UKIP taking a move backwards for the first time ever, with them making losses in the European elections. Nigel Farage will place the blame firmly with the media, which he accuses of savaging them and making his party look like a club for homophobes, misogynists, racists and Tories who don’t like blue. In truth, UKIP will have been found out by a combination of their own unimaginative campaigning, a slick and canny Conservative election machine, the positive case for the EU made by other parties and their own shallowness on the policy front. They will also have massively overestimated their appeal to right-wing Tories. Nonetheless, they will remain a potent force and in addition to retaining a considerable number of MSPs will also continue to have a strong influence on political discourse (with Nigel Farage appearing on Question Time at least once a month).

The BNP – Nick Griffin will lose his seat in the European parliament and will exit as leader of a party drifting towards obscurity. He will make an appearance in “I’m A Celebrity – Get me on TV!” where he will prove himself to be even more insufferable than Nadine Dorries and will be voted off at the earliest opportunity – but not before being taught some valuable lessons in race relations from fellow Jungle-mate Linford Christie.

Independence Referendum – this will be much closer than many imagine, aided by a feel-good factor following a hugely successful Commonwealth Games and Better Together’s inability to articulate precisely what a “no” vote will mean. The result of the referendum will simply be the beginning of a new chapter in Scotland’s constitutional history, with many uncertainties still requiring to be addressed. What will not happen is for a new era of co-operative politics to be ushered in. The SNP will proclaim victory in either eventuality.

The Monster Raving Loony Party will finally win a council by-election, at which the only others standing are the Labour, UKIP and continuing SDP candidates – the latter claiming that the Socialist Workers’ Party aren’t sufficiently left-wing. In a close-run thing, Ed Miliband ruins the Labour campaign by confirming he doesn’t have an alternative proposal to the government’s spending plans while the Loonies successfully win over Tory voters with the slogan “U-kip if you want to, the loonies aren’t for kipping”.

Equal marriage will become law in the UK (except, wrongly, in Northern Ireland). Expect outrage from conservative religious types who fail to appreciate that the extension of marriage is not a redefinition. Included in the protesters will be Tory MP Peter Bone, who will complain that his own relationship with Mrs Bone has now been compromised by “the success of the militant gay lobby”. In spite of these objections, the sky will not fall down, the earth will continue on its orbit and no-one will be forced to marry anyone they don’t want to.

International

Romanians and Bulgarians appear not to have the appetite for emigrating to Britain assumed by UKIP and the Daily Mail. Fears of invasion are proved to be false and, as with marriage equality, are shown to be little more than the product of scaremongering tabloids.

Pressure will continue to grow on Russia on human rights issues. Putin will blame his country’s poor performance in the Winter Olympics on various demonstrations, which he will claim “distracted and disadvantaged” Russian athletes. He will also refuse to answer any questions on Pussy Riot, freedom of speech, LGBT rights and Dobby the House Elf.

Uganda’s government will also come under pressure after passing unashamedly homophobic legislation leading to riots and hate crimes.  The Commonwealth will act by holding immediate, and indecisive, discussions. The UN will be paralysed with indecision, as the situation worsens. Nigel Farage says that Ugandan LGBT people seeking refuge would be very welcome in Britain – so long as they convert to Christianity and don’t shop at Waitrose.

The situation in the Central African Republic will worsen and fears of a potential genocide spark the French into action – they send a peacekeeping force to the stricken African nation with some initial success.

In Egypt, new elections will take place following which ex-President Morsi’s Freedom and Justice Party will again be the largest party. Democracy will thus have failed to resolve many of the significant political problems facing Egyptian society. Elsewhere, Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe will stun the world when he calls a snap Presidential election but surprises no-one when he emerges victorious with 135% of the vote.

In North Korea, Kim Jong-Un will continue to govern in erratic style, with his personal insecurities dictating his relationships with those close to him. In a drunken rage he will purge his entire cabinet, replacing them with pet cats.

Sport

The Commonwealth Games in Glasgow will prove to be an enormous success. All events will sell out – including the hockey matches at Ibrox – as the public fully embrace the games. Alex Salmond will be pictured everywhere, usually near an unfurled Saltire, by the press – who will appear to forget that the games are about athletes rather than politicians. Team Scotland will perform sensationally well, including some notable triumphs over their English counterparts in the cycling competitions. Fortunately everyone will forget the mascot, Clyde, immediately after the games finish.

Football – With the Scottish Premier League now about as competitive as the Ashes, the real question is which team will finish second.  Motherwell will emerge victorious in the tense struggle for the runner-up spot. Hamilton and Dundee will replace Ross County and Hearts. Morton will be relegated from the championship, thus avoiding the dubious privilege of hosting Rangers at Cappielow in 2014/15. Albion Rovers will miss out on promotion, losing to Clyde in the play-offs.

In England, the closest race for the Premiership title in decades will go to the wire. A recovery from Manchester United will bring them back into contention and with Chelsea and Arsenal dropping points in the unlikeliest of places the two Manchester clubs go into the final game level on points. United will win at St Mary’s with a late goal from Wayne Rooney while City slip up, losing 1-0 to West Ham thanks to a Joe Hart blunder, and finish third in the table...behind Everton.

Everton will win the FA Cup, making Martinez the first manager to win the trophy in successive seasons with different clubs.

England will do reasonably well in the World Cup and do what Scotland failed to do previously – they’ll beat Costa Rica. Having scraped through the group stage they’ll go all the way to the quarter-finals where they’ll lose to...Germany. Uruguay will play Brazil in the final, in which Luis Suarez will be sent off for violent conduct after headbutting the Brazilian goalkeeper following an argument about which came first – the chicken or the egg.

Elsewhere...

The Pope will make some further concessions to Catholic liberals but, on the big “moral questions” of LGBT rights and the woman’s right to choose, maintains the traditional line. Rumours that he is having a secret affair with Keith O’Brien will be publicly denied, thus giving them credibility.

There will be some localised bad weather in Southern England that will dominate the BBC’s news coverage for a week.

Justin Beiber will continue to appear on our TV screens far too often. As too will Peaches Geldof and Katie Price, who will be awarded an MBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours List for her services to media.

Friday, 27 December 2013

A 350 year old Christmas conundrum

Is it possible to have lived so long as to positively state you have celebrated 180 Christmases?

This may seem something of a strange question to ask.

However, in Kilearnadil Cemetery on the Isle of Jura (the neighbouring island to Islay, where I used to live), there can be found a curious gravestone that continues to amaze and amuse in equal measure, and has been the source of a great deal of local legend surrounding one man and his reputed longevity.

It reads thus: “Gillour MAC CRAIN, who kept 180 Christmases in his own house, and who died in the reign of Charles I”.

How can anyone live to be 180 years old? Surely this cannot be correct? Most who take the time to read these lines do not believe them to be literally true, although they seem to appreciate the quirkiness of the epitaph.

I remember as a young boy trying to make sense of this. I also read local tales about Macraine, most of which had obviously been invented many years after his death. I concluded that the man is simply a myth and that there is no effective way of establishing any factual truth about this mysterious man at all. I have noticed that no-one to date, at least on the internet, has provided a satisfactory explanation as to why this headstone found its way into Kilearnadil Cemetery in the first instance and that is what intrigued me: could it have actually have been erected in this small, insular island community during the 17th century by people knowing it to be a lie?

One thing is for sure, the inscription was not written as an enigma for 21st century tourists to resolve. It is the product of a unique time and place, and written in such a way as its intended readers would fully understand its message.

And so, how could a man living in the 17th century have celebrated 180 Christmases?

The logical answer is that he was a secret Roman Catholic.

This, to my mind, is the only possible explanation if we are to believe the words to be true. The inscription does not state that Macraine lived to be 180, but that he celebrated 180 Christmases “in his own house”. These latter words are not mere appendage, but highly significant. At a time when Roman Catholicism was effectively prohibited to the point that the Mass was forbidden, Macraine clearly was determined to carry on regardless. If he could not celebrate the Christ Mass in church, he would do it in his own home. The plural “Christmases” does not refer to Christmas Days, but the number of illicit masses Macraine celebrated in secret. There is no reason to believe these were necessarily celebrated in 180 different years. 

What appears to be equally significant is the date of Macraine’s death. The man who went to obvious lengths to celebrate so many Christ Masses in his own home died in 1645 – only a year after parliament had gone further than simply marginalising Catholic celebration and had declared all Christmas celebrations illegal.  And so, the message of Macraine’s epitaph is effectively “A Good Catholic, who remained true to his faith in a time of adversity”, with the added purpose of reminding those who knew him that resistance was possible and that no Act of Parliament or wave of Puritan fervour would extinguish their faith. I imagine it served to point to Macraine’s piety, as well as to encourage others to follow in his steps.

It was only after the publication in 1818 of Ayton and Daniell's A Voyage Around Great Britain that the claim made for Macraine on his epitaph came to be interpreted as a sign of his having lived for nearly two centuries.

And so, what is often misconstrued as a barely believable local legend actually points towards a more pertinent historical truth. No doubt this Christmas conundrum will continue to fascinate and intrigue those who interpret it through the limitations of 21st century understandings of Christmas, but hopefully some will be able to appreciate it is a statement of a man’s personal courage and his refusal to comply with the enforced orthodoxy of his time.

That's my take on the "mystery". Of course,  I would be interesting in hearing from those of you with alternative explanations.

Tuesday, 24 December 2013

Alan Turing pardoned...but is it enough?

Good to see that Alan Turing has been pardoned by the Queen.

Better late than never, of course. But it also serves as a recognition of Alan's work, as well as a reminder that the homophobia that destroyed his life was inherently evil.

That is not a word I use lightly. But it must be said that homophobia on the level directed towards Turing, and currently being witnessed in Uganda, can be described in no other way. There are no words sufficiently adequate to define the appalling crime against humanity that rampant homophobia represents.

I have been sent this morning some graphic and utterly horrific images of  homophobic hate crimes recently committed in Uganda. Action must be taken by the international community.

From a British perspective, we must take a lead against the evil being perpetrated in a Commonwealth nation.

In the meantime, while it is right to celebrate Turing's overdue pardon, we must also ask that every other individual who suffered at the hands of British institutional homophobia is similarly pardoned. Many have spoken up for Turing...we must how speak up for all the others.

A pardon for a hero is of course welcome, and credit is due to the coalition government and the Lib Dems within it, but it isn't enough. The evils of homophobia are very much alive: in Uganda, in Nigeria, in Russia and (lest we forget) closer to home. Turing's pardon essentially constitutes an exceptional case based on "circumstances humbly represented unto us", and falls far short of the apology that many persecuted gay people and their families deserve. In fact, it's not an apology at all and does absolutely nothing to right the wrongs suffered by hundreds of thousands of people. Fellow Lib Dem Andy Myles wrote on facebook: "If the 'royal prerogative of mercy' is only being wheeled out because Turing was brilliant, something is deeply wrong. That way round it suggests that it's okay to be gay - just so long as you happen to be a genius at the same time." I agree, what needs to be made explicitly clear is that the sentence was wrong.Turing was a victim and not a criminal, as indeed were many others. The pardon represents one more step on the road to addressing the tragic human consequences of historic prejudices, but there are many more to be taken.

What was done to Turing, and countless others, constitutes a state-sponsored crime that has not - even in 2013 - been adequately accepted or apologised for.  It's justice we need, not merely one highly significant and symbolic pardon: justice for the thousands of people whose lives were wrecked by the actions of the British judicial system and the attitudes underpinning it.

Friday, 6 December 2013

Farewell Madiba

It seems right to make my own tribute to Nelson Mandela, who died yesterday at the age of 95.

There has been so much said in the last 24 hours, underlining the huge impact Mandela had on both the world political stage and, indeed, on social consciousness. In some ways it seems academic to add to the already substantial material in the public domain, much of it insightful and inspirational.

However, I did personally know some of Mandela's relatives - a nephew of Mandela, who became an ANC freedom fighter before becoming an South African bishop, and a great-nephew who studied medicine at Glasgow University. In a very small way this has given me a glimpse into another dimension of the life of Nelson Mandela and served to create a powerful view of a complex individual.

I will not, as some others have done, resort to mourning. I do not mourn for Madiba - I celebrate his life, and the impact he had on those of others.

Similarly, I will not resort to the emotive language of sentimentality. Neither will I exaggerate his domestic political achievements as others have done; the legacy of Mandela-led ANC includes Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma, an increasingly divided and corrupt ruling party and increasing public distrust of the political process - not to mention that the squalid townships and divisions that remain as a result of his government's reluctance to increase the pace of tackling social inequality. The abilities required to inspire a nation are not the same as those to run a government effectively. Often Mandela's successors took the blame for his own policy failures and poorly conceived initiatives.

The man Madiba has become virtually inseparable for the myth. It is understandable why many seek to wrap this great man in the language of mythology, because we lack the words to adequately describe him otherwise. Mandela became a canvas onto which our own hopes, aspirations and ideals were projected. He was a hero created in our own image. He became whatever we wanted him to be. Why was this? Partly because of genuine respect and admiration at home and abroad, partly because of politicians and the media seeking to define his legacy in their terms and claim it for themselves, and partly because the world needed a hero. We needed to believe. South Africa needed a new "father" after the leaderships of Vorster and Botha - and Mandela fit the role perfectly.

There can be no escaping his inspiration and charisma. But in my tribute, I will not turn a political leader, however great, into an untouchable icon. That would be to do him a gross injustice, to dehumanise the man. He does not need such praise, if indeed it is praise.

The act of celebrating Mandela's life involves reflecting and considering his action and decision; his failures as well as successes. It requires intellectual and political honesty - not platitudinous sentimentality. We dishonour him, his memory, his legacy and his life if we revere him as a saint, rather than see him as the exceptional human being he was - with all his weaknesses and flaws.

And so, here is my own tribute to Madiba:

"You were a man who lived fully, loved completely, gave abundantly. In forgiving the unforgivable, and in championing true equality, you served as a true example for those who also profess to follow your Lord. Your courage and hope prevailed, so that others would not need to live in fear and despair. Your light shone in the darkness, a light that - even in death - shall not be extinguished. But your greatest asset was your undeniable, deep and palpable humanity - it was through the fullness of your own humanity that others found freedom.

"Farewell Madiba - a complete human being. There can be no greater epitaph."

It is only via the humanity met in Nelson Mandela that his life can be fully understood - a humanity open to all, a humanity that breaks stereotypes, a humanity that transcends boundaries, a humanity that liberates and a humanity that not only dares to challenge injustice but demands that others do so in turn.