Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Blair's Beastly Beatitudes

Menachem Begin was a magnificent defender of Israel whose spirit lives on in the settlement movement in Gaza. The heroic Palestinians have a just cause for their intifada on the West Bank. The courageous cadres of Chechnya have no alternative but to fight. Down with Robert Mugabe.
The Easter Rising in Dublin is a beacon for Irish liberation from direct rule. Nelson Mandela was a glorious man whose example should be emulated today by freedom fighters across the world. Hurrah for the Peshmerga guerillas and their battle for freedom in Kurdistan!
Ok, I’ll come quietly. For I have just broken the new law against glorifying terrorism seven times. You think I’m joking, but this is far too serious for that. These statements are, each one of them, actionable under laws passed by Westminster last week because they glorify contemporary terrorism. They indirectly advocate violent action against presently elected governments.
For example, the Israeli terrorist-turned-premier, Menachem Begin, may be long dead, but linking his Irgun guerilla activities in the 1940s to Israeli settlers indirectly advocates the use of violence against the elected Palestinian authorities
Similarly, applauding the intifada could be interpreted as advocating violence against the Israeli government. The Kurds may be ‘on our side’ in Iraq, but they also fight for independence against Turkey.
And it goes on. Such is the absurdity of the new laws that it may be impossible for Madonna to use the iconography of Che Guevara in her pop videos. Jenny Tonge, who was sacked from the Liberal Democrats for expressing support for the Palestinians, could find herself in jail.
Even Cherie Blair will have to think carefully in future before saying - as she did three years ago - that “As long as young people feel they have got no hope but to blow themselves up you are never going to make progress in the middle East”. Of course, the PM’s wife is most unlikely to be banged up under her husband’s law. But that’s not the point.
Self-censorship will have a chilling effect on freedom of speech. Whenever any person speaks on any liberation struggle anywhere in the world, hanging above them will be the threat of prosecution for glorifying terrorism. This is thought crime.
The argument that we need these laws to prevent people carrying banners around calling for the beheading of Danish cartoonists is utterly specious. The laws against incitement to murder are already in existence and should have been used against these individuals, just as they were used against Abu Hamza and the British National Party.
Yes, I know that Nick Griffin, the leader of the BNP, managed to get off scot free a few weeks ago for his remarks against Islam. But that is precisely the point. Griffin is a clever man, been to Cambridge, knows how to express his racial hatred obliquely. The jury in his trial could not decide whether he had actually broken the law and they will be even more puzzled if he is prosecuted under the new laws on glorifying terrorism. How is accusing blacks of being sex offenders glorifying terrorism?
I suspect that very few juries will ever convict people of this new offence because the concept is subjective and defies legal definition. As the Labour MP Bob Marshall Andrews said in last week’s Commons debate: “we do not do beatitudes in the Old Bailey”. One man’s glorification is another’s moral evaluation.
Take a play I saw at the Edinburgh Festival last year, “Manifest Destiny” by Keith Burstein. This compared a Palestinain suicide bomber to Jesus Christ and feature her singing a hymn to the death of Israel. Now, the message of this work was meant to be anti-war. But sections of it undoubtedly glorified violence against the state.
Similarly, the John Adams opera “The Death of Klinghoffer”, about the PLO’s hijacking of the cruise liner Achille Lauro in 1985 was accused of “romanticising terrorism” when it was premiered in Los Angeles in 1992. It has never been performed in America since.
The government insists that it is not against freedom of expression, merely incitement to terrorism, and that it is absurd to say that it will lead to censorship. But what else can you call it? Tony Blair said that failing to pass the glorifying terrorism measure would “send entirely the wrong message to the world that we were soft on terrorism”. But it isn’t the role of the law to send messages. To do that it you can publish a press release or make a speech.
The real message is that we are constructing a police state. This was only too apparent when an 82 year old man was bundled out of the Labour Party conference for heckling the foreign secretary, Jack Straw, over Iraq. When Walter Wolfgang tried to re-enter the conference he was detained under the 2000 Prevention of Terrorism Act. According to the legal watchdog Liberty, this legislation is frequently against peaceful protesters outside military bases, against animal rights activists and even squatters.
Now we are to have identity cards and detention without charge or trial. The security minister, Hazel Blears, told us last week that the war on terror was now permanent, and I think we know what she means. The government has decided to abolish habeas corpus, freedom of speech, freedom from arrest, freedom from surveillance.
How could this have happened under a Labour government, even one led by Tony Blair? How could such a fundamental erosion of civil liberties be tolerated by the party which has historically defended them? Whatever happened to the Labour backbenches, which rebelled so momentously against the 90 day detention provisions last year? Well, it seems that they lost heart after the intervention of Gordon Brown, who spoke in favour of identity cards, detention and the glorification statute. Labour’s defeat in the Dunfermline and West Fife by election may have had something to do with it also.
Brown apologists have always argued that the Prime Minister in waiting has been reluctantly refraining from criticising Tony Blair’s policies on Iraq and Terror because he cannot be seen to breach collective cabinet responsibility. If he doesn’t observe discipline, how can he expect his own ministers to do so when he is leader.
However, last week, Brown crossed his own personal Rubicon. He has unwisely staked his own future on the success of these laws and will now find it very hard indeed to reverse them when he comes to office. The Chancellor has lost a great deal of moral capital by so conspicuously endorsing Tony Blair. As questions are raised about Brown’s electoral popularity following the Dunfermline by-election, we could soon be seeing the start of a reassessment of his fitness to rule among his many radical supporters in the press and parliament.
But for now, the fight must begin against the glorification laws. At this year’s Edinburgh Festival it should be the duty of all writers and producers to test the limits of this abhorrent law. If the government is sincere, and doesn’t wish to abolish freedom of speech, then let’s test it out.
Then perhaps someone should compile a list of “beastly beatitudes”, glorifying freedom struggles across the world, and read them out at the Cenotaph in Whitehall. Except, of course, that that the last person to do that, Maya Ann Evans, who read out the names of Iraq war dead, was arrested for demonstrating within half a mile of parliament.

You've Been Dunioned

It is a tribute to the effectiveness of Scotland’s first Freedom of Information Commissioner, Kevin Dunion, that after only a year he has become a verb. The warning: “Watch out, you’ve been Dunioned”, is apparently enough to spread fear and trembling among the pen pushers and shiny bottoms of Scottish officialdom. Or at least among those whose first instinct is to conceal rather than reveal.
It’s no exaggeration to say that, in little more than twelve months, Dunion’s Commission has already altered the climate of official information in Scotland. It has introduced transparency into public life beyond the dreams of the civil libertarians who campaigned long and hard for the Freedom of Information Act. Dunion’s advocacy has been imaginative and intelligent, and his rulings - often on very sensitive issues - have generally been regarded as considered and fair.
Mind you, I would say that wouldn’t I, since hacks like me have been the first to benefit from the free information Mr Dunion generates. In fact, you sometimes wonder what journalists did before the Freedom of Information Act.
In the month of February alone there has been a score of stories, from the plague of birds in the Scottish parliament (“a multi-million pound pigeon loft” according to information revealed under FoI) to the numbers of under-sixteens hooked on heroin. From Kirsty Wark’s employment status with the BBC to the mortality rates of Scottish surgeons. From the artistic merit of the 7:84 theatre company to the high drop-put rate among student nurses. Oh, and of course the publication, on line, of MSPs taxi destinations.
Given the resignation of the Scottish Tory leader David McLetchie last year, following revelations about his travel expenses secured under the Freedom of Information Act after an appeal to Commissioner Dunion, it’s hardly surprising that many politicians have come to regard FoI as a snoopers charter. A license for nosey hacks to go on fishing expeditions into the private lives of people in public life. In fact, this is one of the great myths of FoI.
Of the 571 appeals heard by Kevin Dunion since January 2005, when the Act came into force, only 7% have been from journalists. The vast majority, 55%, came from ordinary members of the public and a further 20% came from solicitors. This is not the story we have been hearing about the FoI. These figures, published today in the FoI Commissioner’s annual review, contradict the view that FoI is only used by hacks on the make - a view held by not a few hacks.
Politicians will take a bit more convincing, nevertheless. The Parliament Minister, Margaret Curren, launching a review of the operation of the Act last month saying that “lessons had to be learned”, especially about the cost of frivolous inquiries from journalists on the sniff. Well, she didn’t quite put it quite like that, but that was what she meant.
One of the modifications being proposed is slapping an upfront charge on inquiries, or capping the cost of those which go forward for answer. Charging for information may seem perfectly reasonable, especially if the information derived is being used to fill column inches. However, it could be the death of the new openness.
The experience of countries like Ireland which have introduced charging limits is of a 75% reduction in the use of the act by ordinary members of the public. Hacks will still use it, if the story is good enough, but the punters will go elsewhere. Well, I sincerely hope that the Executive - if they’re still minded to curb the Commissioner - will reconsider in the light of today’s report.
Instead of muttering about misuse, the Scottish Executive should be embracing FoI as one of the great success stories of devolution - one which has captured the imagination of the Scottish people and has forced the UK government to take note. Lord Falconer’s promise to extend freedom of information in England has been in large part a consequence of the trail blazed by Commissioner Dunion and his team.
But the real achievement is to be found, not in the actual rulings of the Commissioner, or the misfortunes of politicians, but in the wider impact of Freedom of Information the culture of Scottish public life. For generations, the instinct of officialdom in Scotland, faced with legitimate public concern, has been: say nothing, do nothing, keep stumm. Dysfunctional agencies have been able to conceal their dismal performance behind a blanket of official secrecy. Think of the Scottish Qualifications Agency or the Scottish Criminal Records Office.
There is no guarantee of course that freedom of information can prevent miscarriages of justice like the case of Shirley McKie case. But what we can be sure of is that officials will think very carefully indeed before they try to cover anything up in future. Even honest mistakes. As they reach for the red tape, the fear of being Dunioned will weigh heavily on their minds. Better, on the whole, to come clean, open up, explain and be accountable.
You can understand why many public sector professionals have, in the past, wanted is to maintain a discrete distance between themselves and the public arena. Surgeons, to take a recent example, were intensely worried that the publication of surgical death rates would lead to newspapers “naming and shaming” those who, for perfectly good reasons, might have a higher number of mortalities. The Royal College feared that league tables might be drawn up; that surgeons might be reluctant to take on difficult operations for fear of increasing their ranking.
In the end the newspapers handled the new intelligence pretty - well - intelligently. It now seems faintly absurd that important medical statistics like these should have been secret in the first place. People are perfectly capable of understanding that certain procedures carry greater risk. What they don’t understand, is why the medical profession are so keen to keep these things secret. That breeds suspicion.
It’s the same across most of public life. Why should the number of school teachers sacked in Scotland since 2000 have been secret? (9 out of 52,000 if you want to know). Or the price of minister’s television sets (#12,000 as it happens). There are many areas of Scottish public life which remain inexplicably secret - PFI hospitals who claim commercial confidentiality, housing associations, the commercial clients who lodged 1100 solicitors queries about Cal Mac.
Dunion is not above criticising journalists, particularly those who fire off emails with little thought to the amount of work that goes into answering them. He keeps a close eye himself on “vexatious” questioners, and he is quite right so to do. It may be that journalists will have to explain some of their requests more coherently in future.
But there is no doubt that the quality of Scottish public debate can only improve by greater openness and accountability. We’ve all been Dunioned now.

Where Is West Lothian Anyway?

Why is it that the only people who don’t seem to care about the West Lothian Question are the English voters themselves? The political and media classes are forever agonising about the anomaly of Scottish MPs voting on Commons legislation which only affects England, like the smoking bill. But there is silence from the shires.
Yesterday, the SNP MP Peter Wishart declared that all Scottish MPs should exercise constitutional coitus interruptus and withdraw from such votes. What right do Scottish MPs have deciding health policy in England, he says when English MPs have no say on health policy in Scotland? How would we like it if English MPs decided we were not going to have a ban?
Well, actually, for three hundred years, that’s exactly what happened - as nationalists ought to know. As recently as 1988, Scots had the poll tax imposed upon them by a parliament dominated by English MPs. The Scottish Conservatives had been eviscerated at the 1987 general election, but that didn’t stop Margaret Thatcher imposing the community charge on the strength of English Tory MPs' votes .
So, why don’t the English now get similarly annoyed at the prospect of there being a Scottish Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, who will be calling the shots in England when the English have no say over what happens in his constituency in Scotland? Isn’t it Thatcher in reverse?
Well, the answer is really contained in the question. Think of the converse: the proposition that Gordon Brown should not be Prime Minister because he is Scottish. Scotland is part of the United Kingdom; we have a unitary parliament, so it would be absurd, indeed, racist, to suggest that he could not be Prime Minister.. Gordon Brown would be entitled to go to the European Court of Human Rights if he were denied entrance to Number Ten because of his ethnic origin.
Not that Brown hasn’t been worried about his nationality. He’s been going to extraordinary lengths to demonstrate his commitment to Britishness recently, wrapping himself in the flag. Rumour has it that he’ll be turning up for next month’s Budget with a union jack waistcoat leading a bulldog.
Mind you, the English seem increasingly to prefer the Cross of St George. One of the by-products of devolution has been the reassessment of symbols of Englishness, like the English flag, which has been wrested from the clutches of the far right.
This is all well and good. But it does again raise the question of why, if the English are becoming more nationalistic, they allow a situation to continue whereby Scottish MPs can decide their legislation. Take the forthcoming education bill. Scottish MPs may vote for the restoration of selection to English schools when these very reforms have been rejected in Scotland.
Actually, a number of Scottish Labour MPs last month made clear to the Labour whips that they had real trouble supporting the Education White Paper for precisely this reason. The forty or so Scottish MPs happen to be roughly equivalent to the likely number of English Labour rebels. It looked as if a situation might arise in which a measure, rejected by English Labour MPs, might still be imposed in England by the Scots. Were that to happen, there might indeed be civil war - between the Scottish and English Labour backbenchers.
However, the only people that don’t seem to be particularly bothered by all this are, I say again, the English voters themselves. The very people who are likely to be affected. Where are the street demonstrations? The petitions against Scottish Dictat? The campaigns for an English parliament?
Prior to devolution, I spent ten years living and working in London and I never once heard anyone - outside Westminster - complain about the West Lothian Question. I heard complaints that the Scots were always whinging, got too much public money. I came across a lot of casual racism from Londoners who would never dream of calling Asians or Afro Caribbean's “awkward” , “mean”, “congenitally aggressive”. But no one ever turned to me at a dinner party and said: “Look, until you people stop voting in our parliament there will be no peace in this land”.
This isn’t because people in England are ignorant of constitutional change. They know perfectly well what is going on. English students have been eager to get into Scottish universities to take advantage of free tuition fees, even though variable fees in England were actually passed in parliament on the strength of Scottish Labour MPs.
So, why are they unfazed? Well, firstly, the English are far too sensible to go looking for a fight, especially over a constitutional abstraction. Scottish MPs may get privileged treatment in the Commons, being allowed to vote on English affairs. But is it really worth the hassle of ejecting them every time there is a vote on a devolved matter? Wouldn’t the anomalies of addressing the WLQ be worse than letting sleeping Jocks lie?
If, for example, Scottish MPs were to be withdrawn for every nominally English bill - as the Tories propose - you could end up with a situation where the government of the UK was unable to rule over four fifths of the country. The government’s writ would not run in England, where the Conservatives won a majority of votes at the last election. There would be a de facto English Parliament. This is why every constitutional authority, from the Hansard Society to the Constitution Unit, has argued against addressing the WLQ by certifying English bills and excluding Scots from voting on them.
The only true answer to the West Lothian Question is a federal system of government, such as America’s, where there is a formal division of powers, a federal UK government and distinct parliaments for England, Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland, each with their own clearly defined spheres of responsibility. Oh, and a supreme court to oversee disputes.
But does anyone really want to go there? Certainly not the English, who showed their distaste for further constitutional change when they rejected regional parliaments in the North of England. The reality is that England already dominates the UK, regardless of constitutional anomalies. It has the bulk of the population, the wealth and the national media. No one wants to have an ethnic dimension introduced to the House of Commons.
The same goes for Prime Ministers. English people want the country to be run by the best politician available, and they don’t really care where he or she comes from. Gordon Brown has been the most successful Chancellor of the Exchequer in ninety years. His ethnic origins just don’t come into it.
The West Lothian Question is the dog that didn’t bark in the night. In Scotland we have failed to understand the message of England’s silence. The truth is, they just don’t care. So, why should we?

The Great Forth Bridge Disaster


Where stands Labour after the Great Forth Bridge disaster? Last month, Tony Blair suffered the humiliation of his most embarrassing parliamentary defeat, on the anti-terrorism bill, when he failed to make it to the vote. This month the other architect of New Labour, Gordon Brown, has been humiliated in a by-election where he almost made himself the vote. Could it be the beginning of the end for both of them?
As the recriminations begin over the loss of Labour’s 11,500 vote majority in Dunfermline and West Fife, there must now be a real question about whether Labour is unravelling like the Tories in the 1990s. No vote in the Commons is safe; no vote in a by-election is safe, not even in the Chancellor’s turf. We have to think seriously about whether Labour could lose the next general election.
The Dunfermline and West Fife by-election was an extraordinary political event for a whole host of reasons: it was the first Liberal by election gain over Labour since 1918 ; the biggest by-election upset since Govan in 1988; the worst by election performance under Tony Blair’s premiership. Dunfermline held a stark message for the Scottish National Party who can’t afford to be allow the LibDems to steal mid-term protest votes, not least because the LibDems are in government in Holyrood.
It was a rebuff also for newbie leader David Cameron, whose self-evident charisma didn’t prevent the Tories coming fourth. And of course, it was a personal achievement for the ex-Liberal Democrat leader, Charles Kennedy, whose much-acclaimed cameo role in Dunfermline showed that voters can be more tolerant and forgiving of human failings than party bosses.
Nor did the gay rent boy scandals of the Liberal Democrat leadership seem to ruffle any feathers in Fife, any more than Charlie’s battle with the bottle. Who says provincial Scots are homophobic? Even the socially conservative former mining villages of West Fife, where Labour’s vote has traditionally been weighed rather than counted, turned to the “Limp Dems” as the Sun styled the party. The politics of diversity has arrived in Scotland.
Fife voters ignored the lurid publicity and kept their attention fixed on the issues that mattered to them. They voted for the party which really, really wanted their support, and which worked hardest for their votes. And they warmed to the couthy candidate, Willie Rennie, who campaigned as “Our Wullie” complete with bucket.
This has been some comfort to Labour, who say that the Dunfermline debacle was a parish pump affair which has no real resonance nationally. People were voting about hospitals and post office closures, not about who runs the country.
Except that, in a very real sense they were voting about who runs the country, because Labour turned this campaign into a kind of referendum on the personality of Gordon Brown, the prime minister-in-waiting. The Chancellor’s image was everywhere; he appeared in every significant photo opportunity; hosted the press launch; and of course, took on the Scottish Executive over the Forth Bridge.
Tony Blair’s acknowledged successor has been given a severe battering in his own backyard by people who have been voting Labour for generations. These are supposed to be Brown’s people. He lives in the constituency, and now faces the humiliation of being represented in Westminster by a Liberal Democrat MP.
The Dunfermline debacle cannot be blamed on slick New Labour metropolitans abandoning Labour traditions, or being insensitive to the grass roots. Tony Blair didn’t set foot in the constituency through the entire campaign. This was the Thane of Fife’s very own peasants revolt.
On the hundredth anniversary of the Parliamentary Labour Party, Labour has been defeated in one of its own heartlands. It confirms the trend in English local elections, where the LibDems have been winning city councils in old Labour strongholds like Liverpool and puts the Liberal Democrats in very good shape for the English local elections in May. Labour had hoped that the leadership crisis in the Liberal Democrats meant they could be written off at the next election. But Dunfermline shows that the LibDems haven’t lost their capacity for down and dirty street-fighting.
So the Scotland Secretary, Alastair Darling’s, claim that Dunfermline and West Fife is a little local difficulty in a far off land, won’t wash. Strangely, it might have been better for Labour if the SNP had won, since the metropolitan press might than have been prepared to write Dunfermline off as just another sign that Scottish obduracy.
Instead it is being seen as a sign of the Chancellor’s fallibility. And just at the moment when it has become accepted by everyone that Brown will indeed be the next Labour leader. The UK press - fed up with Brown’s economic success story - will leap on this new, unexpected vulnerability. The Labour story now is not only that Tony Blair has outstayed his welcome, but that Gordon Brown may already have peaked.
Certainly, to mix metaphors, a spell has been broken. One of the reasons the press pundits - myself included - were so reluctant to contemplate a Labour defeat in Dunfermline was the very presence of the Chancellor. Only eight months ago, Gordon Brown had ridden to the rescue of the Labour general election campaign after Tony Blair’s unpopularity had been revealed by an opinion poll meltdown. They were famously “joined at the hip” in April. Brown hardly left the PM’s side for the entire camping, and it seemed to work.
It looked as if Brown’s solid Presbyterian values, his economic competence, his very Scottish respectability, had restored Labour’s political credibility. Given people a reason to stop thinking about the Iraq, spin, Cherie. Surely, we thought, the Chancellor could not now be rejected in his own home town; where he lives in a modest terraced house with his attractive wife expecting his third child?
Well, now we know. Labour’s strategy group, convened by Alastair Campbell to massage the Chancellor’s image, now has its work cut out. Brown isn’t one of nature’s losers. He doesn’t do humility, and he acks Tony Blair’s capacity to laugh off misfortune with a self-deprecating remark - such as his comment at Prime Minister’s Question Time a fortnight ago that he really ought to turn up for votes in future.
Brown’s formidable image has been bound up with his magisterial management of the economy. His personal awkwardness, Scottishness and relentless interviewing style, have been seen by Middle England as a small price to pay for eight years of economic growth. But for how much longer? Already the cartoonists are portraying Brown as a kind of Dr Hyde figure - a dark and threatening character with a lantern jaw. Someone you wouldn’t want to meet on a dark night. He is now up against David Cameron, one of the smoothest political operators seen in British politics since, well, Tony Blair.
Brown has undoubtedly earned the right to lead Labour; the question is whether the voters will keep their side of the bargain. As Winston Churchill discovered in 1945, when he lost the general election after winning the Second World War, there is no gratitude in politics. It just doesn’t apply. When Brown finally wins the keys to Number Ten he may find that the voters have gone elsewhere. They certainly have in Dunfermline.
Any government which has been in power as long as Labour ends up with a litany of failures. The public have notoriously short memories for government achievements. Britain’s middle classes may never have had it so good, thanks to Brown’s ability to avoid recession. Workers on low incomes may owe the Chancellor a debt for things like tax credits, the minimum wage and increased child benefits. But don’t expect any thanks at the ballot box.
Bored with Labour, and made complacent by prosperity, they may turn equally to the Liberal Democrats and the rejuvenated Tories and steal away Labour’s majority in 2009 or thereabouts. A punishment for the folly of the Iraq war, for the pensions debacle, the name it. It would be a personal tragedy for Brown if he were to win the Labour leadership and then lose the election. But now, anything is possible.
The words of ex Labour voters in Fife must be ringing in his ears: “Labour has taken this place for granted too long”, they say, ignoring the fact that the Chancellor has been so not taking it for granted that he was micromanaging the election campaign when he should have been preparing for the world economic summit in Davos. “Labour don’t deserve to win”, said another ex Labour switcher - as if the booming house prices in Dunfermline and the highest employment rate in history were somehow signs of government failure.
The ultimate humiliation is that Labour voters turned to the Liberal Democrats to express their synthetic distress about road tolls and hospital cuts. It is the Liberal Democrats, in the Scottish Executive, who have been collectively responsible for the very transport and health policies Fifers resent. Dunfermline voters were expressing their protest by voting for the government. The LibDems have managed to become government and opposition at the same time - a neat trick.
Not surprisingly, there is fury from the Thane’s inner circle and many are blaming the Scottish Parliament, Jack McConnell and his “numpty” MSPs for not doing their bit to expose the Liberal Democrat double dealers. For forcing Labour to fight “with one hand tied behind its back”. The First Minister’s people reply that this was all Brown’s own work and that they played no part in the campaign. That the Chancellor chose to make an issue of the Forth Bridge, not them.
Even before the campaign proper had begun, Brown trampled over the constitution by ordering the Scottish Executive abandon the Forth Estuary Transport Authority’s recommendations on variable tolls on the Forth Bridge, even before they had been properly considered. “Dead in the water” said Brown. He even demanded a new bridge should be built before FETA had reported on the structural integrity of the existing one.
Now if, as some suspect, Brown’s people were trying here to capitalise on the unpopularity of the Scottish Parliament, and the Liberal influenced coalition, then it backfired badly. It looked as if Brown was treating the Scottish Parliament with contempt - an irony since he was one of the leading advocates of devolution. But this wasn’t about the constitution; voters were looking for any excuse to kick Labour.
Party insiders realise just how serious this is. It is beginning to look as if Labour has become electoral anathema - that voters are fed up with the sight of them, and will vote for whatever party is best placed to give them a boot up the backside. This is exactly what happened to the Tories in the 1990s, when seats fell to whomsoever happened to be second on the list.
Labour has been citing the professionalism of the Liberal Democrat campaign as another excuse for failure in Dunfermline - rather as if that gave them an unfair advantage. But the real question is why Labour has lost its capacity to fight campaigns in safe seats. They don’t have the troops for a start.
Dunfermline revealed the extent to which Labour has ceased to be a mass party, with a strong activist base. The moral backbone of the party has been broken by a decade of Blarite modernisation. Even in the Chancellor’s patch, Labour has lost the plot.
Their consolation is that the SNP didn’t do particularly well on Thursday. Alex Salmond didn’t get a bloody nose, but it was a slap in the face, nevertheless, for the Scottish by-election party par excellence to be relegated in a seat like Dunfermline. The Liberal Democrats haven’t won a seat from Labour in living memory; the nationalists did in Govan in 1988.
Has SNP lost it? Is nationalism finished? Is Alex Salmond history? It’s too early to say, of course. But his detractors in and out of the party are already grumbling about absentee landlords and losing focus. Not that the leader of the SNP was absent from Dunfermline - he was everywhere. But the heather did not ignite, and the prospect of those 20 promised gains in the Scottish Elections next year looks, well, ambitious.
And are the Tories becoming respectable again Scotland? Answer: ‘No’. They may have asked for David Cameron’s autograph, but Fifers aren’t going to start voting Tory in the near future - at least not in any significant numbers. . This wasn’t a bad result for the Conservatives, but nor does it suggest any breakthrough.
Becoming prosperous no longer means turning Tory. There have been huge social and economic transformations in Scotland in the two decades since Jim Sillars won Govan. We have a new political landscape where old tribal and class loyalties are breaking up. Dunfermline is a dramatic illustration of this, showing that middle class radicals can now win safe old Labour votes without being nationalists.
The old certainties in the media need to be challenged also. This has not been a good result for the Scottish press, myself included, who universally failed to call it. The Scottish voters are becoming much more sophisticated, and tactical voting has made forecasting elections a lot harder than in the old days of party tribalism. People simply won’t be taken for granted, either by the press or the political parties.
This is all to the good. Our embarrassment, along with the relatively good turnout, is a sign that electoral politics still has the capacity to surprise. And that there are votes out there if anyone cares to look for them. The Liberal Democrat MP for Dunfermline and West Fife, Willie Rennie, has shown that people will come out to vote if you work hard and show that you care. Just as long as you aren’t the Chancellor of the Exchequer, that is.

Even the BNP

I never thought I would find myself agreeing with Nick Griffin of the British National Party, but he should never have been prosecuted for what he said about Islam. The trial has been a massive propaganda victory for the BNP; it has turned Griffin into the people’s fascist, the acceptable face of racism.
Griffin’s comments were vile, inflammatory, unthinking and stupid. But that doesn’t mean he shouldn’t have been allowed to express them. The test of freedom is the extent to which you can tolerate the expression of ideas which you despise.
George Orwell said that if liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear. And I’m afraid that there are passages in the Qur’an which could be construed as evidence that Islam is a “vicious, wicked faith” as Griffin put it. Women and homosexuals get a particularly rough deal, and non-Muslims are considered sub human. But you can find similar sentiments in the Old Testament of the Bible, which advocates genocide as a means of destroying rival religions.
It would be absurd to prosecute preachers of either holy book for stirring up religious or racial hatred; the hatred comes with the faith. It is similarly absurd to try to prosecute someone for emulating or replicating this discourse of intolerance, which is what Griffin was accused of. Indeed, the BNP’s romantic, English racialism is itself a kind of religion.
Griffin’s remarks about black paedophiles and Asian rapists were also offensive, and wrong, as was his colleague, Mark Collett's description of asylum seekers as “cockroaches”. However, these were not all that different from the kind of sentiments you find in the tabloid press during its frequent bouts of moral panic. Calling people names is nasty, but it shouldn’t be illegal. There are other ways of dealing with racial prejudice than throwing the law at them.
The dangers of the new censorship regime being promoted by this government are now plain to see. By trying to impose correct thinking, laws against religious hatred simply end up turning bigots into moral champions, martyrs to free speech. If Tony Blair’s Religious Hatred Bill had been passed last week unamended by the Commons, Griffin would almost certainly be facing a prison sentence, which would have made him even more of a popular hero.
The new law would have made it illegal, not just to incite religious hatred - which is already illegal - but to abuse or ridicule religion. It would probably have made it illegal to reproduce in Britain those Danish cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad which have aroused the wrath of muslim fundamentalists across the globe. It would have made Salman Rushdie’s “Satanic Verses” illegal too, at least that is the view of Iqbal Sacranie of the British Council of Muslims who campaigned for the bill.
This constituted as serious an assault on freedom of speech as we have seen in Britain, outside wartime, in the last hundred and fifty years. We should all be glad that the original Religious Hatred Bill is dust, and aware of our debt to the House of Lords for destroying it. As amended by the Lords it is now only illegal under the act to abuse religion if you can show that it was intended to threaten people.
The Home Secretary, Charles Clarke, wasted no time in accepting the new bill, to the evident relief of many Labour MPs. But what was a secular party like Labour doing in the first place trying to suppress freedom of speech? Why is Tony Blair so keen on censorship? Why does a social democratic government want to insulate religion from criticism or satire? How is it left to the BNP and the unelected Lords to defend free speech?
Had it not been for the farce of Tony Blair failing to turn up for his own vote, we would have found ourselves with legislation more typical of Bahrain than Britain. Not so much a chilling of free speech as a deep freeze.
We need more freedom to criticise religion not less. We need the right to abuse, traduce, slander and lampoon religion - all religion - just as we require the right to abuse and slander atheists, communists, creationists, Darwinists, saints and Bob Geldoff.
Nor should it be an offence to poke fun at different races. It’s not nice to hear Scots accused of being mean, dour drunks - but it shouldn’t be illegal. Yet under the existing laws, a Scottish councillor was fined for calling someone a “Welsh boyo”. That’s thought control.
Yet, it was disturbing to see commentators in the supposedly free-thinking Guardian last week suggesting that Westerners didn’t have the right to attack Islam. It was even more alarming to hear Stewart Lee, the stand up comedian and author of “Gerry Springer the Opera”, saying on BBC’s Today that comedians did not have the right to make fun of the Prophet because “they don’t understand Islam”. I don’t understand Orange Protestantism, but I don’t see why I shouldn’t laugh at Mason Boyne.
The Independent newspaper said the Danish Prophet cartoons were disrespectful to Muslims and that responsible media should avoid insulting peoples' beliefs. Well, papers like the Indie and the Guardian make fun of democracy every day by portraying George Bush as a chimp and Tony Blair as demented, but no one would suggest that Steve Bell should be gagged because he is insulting democracy. The Independent made things worse by advising its readers to look the cartoons on the internet, as if in some way, they were cleansed by the web.
I’m afraid that the hysterical and blood curdling response of much of the Muslim world does indicate that there is something rotten in the state of Denmark - and it isn’t the Danish cartoons. For so many Muslims to take such grievous offence betrays a profound insecurity. A great religion, which Islam undoubtedly is, should be above satire. Threatening death to cartoonists, burning flags and threatening Danish citizens abroad, is childish emotionalism, out of all proportion to the alleged insult to the faith.
And I know that it is considered sacrilege to depict the Prophet, let alone show him with a bomb as a skull. Fair enough. It might be wrong to give such offence were Westerners to publish the cartoons in Iran or Saudi Arabia. But religious people simply have to accept that there are people in the world who don’t share their faith, don’t have their irrational sensibilities and consider liberty to be more important than the risk of giving insult.
I’m afraid that the forecasts of a class of civilisations my be coming coming true. There are some issues on which it is simply impossible to compromise, and freedom of speech is one of them. A handful of indifferent cartoons has forced Europe and the Muslim world to confront a profound philosophical difference between their respective cultures. I’m not sure where this goes now.
But one thing is certain, it won’t be resolved in the courts. I don’t know what is worse, the historian David Irving being charged in Austria with Holocaust denial for a speech he made 17 years ago; the Muslim cleric Abu Hamza on trial in London for inciting racial hatred; or the Crown Prosecution Service’s decision to retry the BNP leader, Nick Griffin, on the same charges. This way madness lies

Very Liberal Democrats


Forget Big Brother, the most compelling reality show on television is the Liberal Democrat leadership race. We’ve had alcoholism, rent boys, gay chatlines, secret sex and bare faced lies. Who will fess up next?
Will Sir Menzies Campbell admit he was on dope when he ran for Britain at the 1964 Olympics? Will Chris Huhne confess to wearing fur? Does Lord Steel dress up as a cat?
Talk about an elimination contest. The way things are going the Liberal Democrats may find themselves, not so much a party without a leader as a leader - Ming - without a party. Half are thinking of defecting to David Cameron’s Tories and the rest are consulting their lawyers.
Their last hope is Sir Menzies Campbell, who looks at least to be made of firmer moral fibre. It will do no harm for them to have a rather old-fashioned, small-’c’ conservative lawyer at the helm right now. So far as we know he has nothing in his closet but brooms.
My man of the week, though, has to be Peter Tatchell, the gay Labour candidate who lost the Bermondsey by-election to the Simon Hughes in 1983 after a disgracefully homophobic campaign. What extraordinary self-control Tatchell demonstrated. Imagine keeping quiet for all those years when he knew - as many others did - that Simon Hughes was also homosexual.
A lesser man would have outed the Liberal President as a hypocrite and a liar. That Tatchell, an impoverished gay rights campaigner who lives in a South London council house, refrained from revenge shows him to be an individual of the highest moral character. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for Simon Hughes.
Now, of course, his private life is his own affair and no one should be barred from office by because of their sexuality. But what is so sad about the Hughes affair is that it almost certainly wouldn’t have barred him from office. Being gay is no longer a crime in British politics, certainly not in the Liberal Democrats where it’s difficult to find anyone who isn’t. But dissembling and leading a reckless double life is unacceptable. Hughes has been exposed as a liar, who had gay affairs, even as he campaigned as the “straight” candidate in Bermondsey.
Hughes’s belated emergence from the closet has almost certainly denied him the leadership of the Liberal Democrat Party, but handled differently it could have been his greatest asset. Had he come out at a time of his own choosing, and given a generous apology to Peter Tatchell, he could have made his sexuality a moral statement about modern liberal values. He could have made history as the first openly gay leader of a mainstream political party.
He had 23 years to unburden his conscience. In the end, Simon Hughes left it until very last moment, the eve of his nomination as a leadership candidate, after repeated public denials. He then ignominiously caved in to the Sun, who found evidence that he used gay chat lines, and styled him as the “Limp Dem”.
What a disaster, for himself and the party. His outing of course followed the resignation of the party’s home affairs spokesman, Mark Oaten, after revelations that he had been having a relationship with a male prostitute. Again, his sexuality is his own affair. However, as a high profile politician, married with a family, he should have taken greater care - especially when he made all his family values pronouncements. When he declared himself a “tough Liberal”, rough trade wasn’t what we thought he meant.
That the Liberal Democrats should be brought down by a succession of sex scandals is profoundly ironic. This is the party whose former leader, David Steel, campaigned for the legalisation of homosexuality in 1967. The Liberals are the most open-minded and, well, liberal party in the country. They have campaigned for civil partnerships and lowering the age of consent. They fought homophobic prejudice in the armed forces and politics. Now they are ruined through a combination of alcoholism and gay sex. The only people who will take comfort are religious fundamentalists who no doubt believe this is all God’s wrath being visited upon them as upon Sodom and Gommorrah.
But their downfall require no supernatural agency; it’s all their own work. You Gov last week put them down at 13%, down ten points in a month. Hardly surprising of course given the lurid publicity lurid publicity since the resignation of their former leader, Charles Kennedy, over his drinking problem. It is going to be very hard for the party to recover from this.
How they must all wish they had Charles back now. Whatever his party colleagues said behind his back, Kennedt functioned rather effectively as a leader even with his alleged alcoholism. I have yet to find anyone outside the Westminster village who thought that Charles Kennedy looked or sounded like a drunk.
Yet, senior LibDems connived with the tabloid press to expose Kennedy for a problem which, any way you look at it, was under control. They have made complete fools of themselves. They have exposed themselves as unreliable, incompetent, malicious amateurs. Worse, as hypocrites who have made a fetish of their own self-righteousness, and are now revealed as ugly infighters driven mad by their own vanity and ambition. They make George Galloway look like the the Prince of Wales.
The Scottish Liberal Democrats, who of course are in government in Holyrood, have so fare avoided being tainted by this ridiculous scandal. But Willie Rennie, their candidate in the Dunfermline and West Fife by-election where the LibDems came second last time, has cause to curse the antics of Hughes and co. Perhaps he should declare UDI.
It is going to be a very hard job for anyone to sweep away the dirt, let alone a 64 year old Scot only recently recovered from cancer. With the rejuvenated Tories trampling all over their centre ground policy agenda, and Labour set to exploit their difficulties at the English elections in May, the Liberal Democrats could be out of the running for a generation. This is bad news for British politics. The Liberal Democrats were an important element in our political ecology, standing for civil liberties, the environment, constitutional reform, social justice, racial integration. They opposed the war in Iraq and defended the rights of the individual against the strong state.
The Tories under David Cameron may pose as enlightened reformers, but they have form dating back to he days of Margaret Thatcher. Cameron supports the Iraq war and has ordered MEPs to sit with the far right in the European parliament, The traditional party of the Left - Labour - is disintegrating into fratricide over a Prime Minister who took us into an illegal war, wants compulsory ID cards and tried to suspend habeas corpus. This is no time for the Liberal Democrats to go awol, cruising on Clapham Common when they should have been engaging with the enemy in parliament.
I’m tempted to say that they are drinking in the last chance saloon, but apart from being in poor taste, that would have been incorrect. They have gone past the solitary drinking phase and are now lying in the gutter wrapped in newspaper, trying to forget what might have been. The Liberal Democrats present a sorry spectacle. This is one reality show where eviction means more than just having a chat with Davina McCall.

Assassin's Gate - Review

ASSASSIN'S GATE, by George Packer. Faber, #14,99, published 2/2/06

Why did the Iraq war happen? How did an apparently sane and mature country like the USA persuade itself that it could pitch up in the Middle East and impose, almost overnight, a new democratic order by force of arms alone? It was simply madness.
George W. Bush may have been out to lunch for most of the time, but Washington is crawling with military analysts, intelligence agents, generals, diplomats, academics and policy wonks. Surely they could see that Iraq was a quagmire, a senseless engagement, the Vietnam of the new Millennium. Where were they when their country needed them? It would never have happened on the West Wing.
It was surely obvious that a Christian "crusade" (as George W Bush artlessly put it) against a Muslim country was a risky enterprise, more likely to destabilise the Middle East than bring it into the moral universe of the democratic West.
The evidence for weapons of mass destruction - the casus belli - was thin to the point of absurdity, as Tony Blair's ‘dodgy dossiers’ confirmed long before Americans went in with guns blazing. If Iraq had any WMD at all, it was almost certainly not in a weaponised form.
The sensible course, the obvious course, would have been to let Hans Blix and his United Nations
weapons inspectors finish their work in 2003. Track down any remnants of Saddam's nuclear programme and put it beyond use. You didn't need to invade the country to do that. But invade they did.
Of course, President Bush had a personal agenda. He wanted to get Osama bin Laden "dead or alive" as he famously put it. But bin Laden was never in Iraq, and Sadaam Hussein loathed al Qaeda. US military planners and the CIA understood this perfectly well and even warned Bush that military invasion was likely to made international terrorism worse. And so it proved. Iraq has become a breeding ground for Islamic extremism, a training camp for suicide bombers.
So, again, why?. Why did America embark on this lunatic adventure which fractured the international community, undermined US prestige, squandered 2000 American lives and will probably end up costing around three trillion dollars. We need an answer. Unfortunately, George Packer doesn't provide one.
"Why did the United States invade Iraq?”, he asks. “It still isn't possible to be sure - and this remains the most remarkable thing about the Iraq War. Before the Invasion, Americans argued not just about whether a war should happen, but for what reasons it should happen". But happen it did. America won the war, and then proceeded to comprehensively lose the peace.
Packer, star writer of The New Yorker, had a ring-side seat. "Assasssin's Gate" recounts how hubris clashed with self delusion as the most powerful military force in history discovered that it was unable to defeat an insurgency mounted by a few muslim extremists and Baathist die hards.
Packer was there in the days after Bush declared “victory” and the real war began. He watched the Iraq dissolve into anarchy and looting, thanks to criminal irresponsibility on the part the provisional administration. He joined the marines in Ramadi and Fallujah and watched them turn from heroic liberators to tetchy, trigger-happy occupiers.
Packer has respect, affection even, for more lowly Americans administrators trying to make sense of the chaos. And for murdered diplomats, like the UN’s Viera di Mello. He applauds the heroism of the Iraqis who joined the Americans, in the naive belief that they were bringing a new dawn of democracy to a country brutalised by thirty years of dictatorship. But good and bad, all are consumed.
The Iraq insurgency is something new in military history. It isn’t guerilla warfare of the Maoist kind, still less a conventional national liberation front. It has no ideology or programme. There is no organisation, leadership, secretariat or press office. America has stirred up in Iraq a primitive passion, a violent religious ecstasy, that owes more to the Middle Ages than the new Millennium.
It’s been a long road from the seminars of the Neo Conservative intellectuals who saw the liberation of Iraq as the defining moment of the new American Century. From the idealistic salons of expatriate Iraqis, like his close friend, the writer Kanan Kalikya, who persuaded the Neo Cons that Iraq was their New Jerusalem.
George Packer was a liberal supporter of the war, still is. ‘The administration’s war wasn't my war”, he says. “It was rushed, dishonest, unforgivably partisan and destructive of alliances - but objecting to the authors and their methods didn't seem reason enough to stand in the way. One doesn't get one's choice of wars”. Perhaps not, but there comes a time, surely, for cutting one’s losses.
Packer’s conclusion that it is too early to tell whether or not the Iraq war has been a success echoes Chou En Lai’s claim that it was too early to tell whether the French Revolution had succeeded. But sometimes you just have to get off the fence, especially if you’ve devoted nearly five hundred pages to the most detailed, authoritative, first hand account of a military and political catastrophe.
“Assassin’s Gate” has been compared to Michael Herr’s Vietnam “Dispatches”, but it is a much better book than that. Packer doesn’t just give us the pornography of war. He has thought very carefully about the issues, spoken to many key figures, watched the whole thing unfold with his own eyes.
Packer is too intelligent not to see that Iraq is America’s greatest foreign policy disaster since Vietnam. That the war has profoundly weakened America both morally, in the eyes of the international community, and militarily, in the eyes of America’s many enemies. The greatest superpower in history is bogged down in a war it can’t win. A stupid war, prosecuted by stupid men who celebrate their own ignorance and are too arrogant to recognise their mistakes.
But Packer isn’t stupid and he owes it to himself to condemn this atrocity. This humane and intelligent book is more than this war deserves. “Assassin’s Gate” is an important work of contemporary history which has all the tension and narrative force of le Carre. But unfortunately it is fact not fiction. We are all the worse for that.

Rendition, Rendition

The Labour MP, Brian Donohoe, was emphatic. “I can give a cast-iron, categoric assurance” he said on BBC TV on Wednesday “that there have been no CIA flights whatsoever through Scottish airspace carrying prisoners at least since 1997, and I have just been to a meeting where the Foreign Secretary has personally assured me of this”.
Well, you can’t say fairer than that. As a rebuttal, it was copper-bottomed. The SNP MP Angus Robertson, who had just produced a dossier listing ten CIA “front” firms which had allegedly been using Scottish airspace, was left speechless - at least for a nanosecond or two. He gathered his wits and pointed out that the British government has been singularly reluctant to give the assurances now being offered by the MP for Central Ayrshire.
Unfortunately for Mr Donohoe, three hours later, the New Statesman magazine hit the streets. It produced a leaked foreign office memo making clear that the British government had been intensely reluctant to give any such guarantees. Indeed, the memo suggested that there was a classic spin operation underway designed to prevent the government having to give any assurances at all. "We should try to avoid getting drawn on detail," it says, and "try to move the debate on . . . underlining all the time the strong counter-terrorist rationale for close co-operation with the US". Not so much cast iron as teflon-coated.
The memo stressed the need to stick to the care fully-chosen wording of the statement made by the US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice on her recent European visit, when she insisted that America had not been allowing torture in its offshore interrogation centres. America’s definition of torture is a little more, well, ‘liberal’ than ours and seems to condone cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment, outlawed in Britain under he UN Convention on torture. The New Statesman claimed this was firm evidence that the government had something serious to hide.
Now, of course, this memo didn’t actually prove anything. Certainly, it provided no evidence that America has been ferrying prisoners to secret torture centres using Scottish airspace. The trouble with leaked documents is that they always sound suspicious - especially when they are talking about news management.
However, the Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, didn’t entirely help when he tried to “move the story on” on Friday. "We have found no evidence”, he said responding to the New Statesman memo, “of detainees being rendered through the UK or overseas territory since 1997 where there were substantial grounds to believe there was a real risk of torture." Hmm.
That sounds very close to the words Brian Donohoe heard, but it doesn’t quite amount to a cast iron assurance. First of all, there is the ambiguity of the word “torture” (see above) and the rather passive “there no evidence”. The New Statesman document suggests that the government has been trying not to look too hard for any evidence unless it comes across something nasty in the woodshed. Let sleeping spooks lie.
But the government is going to have to do a very great deal more than it has done so far if this row is to die out. The reason is Europe. Not only has a European parliamentary committee launched an investigation into extraordinary rendition, at least two countries - Spain and Sweden - are contemplating legal action. Austria actually scrambled fighter jets when CIA rendition flight penetrated its airspace. There is profound suspicion throughout Europe at what has been going on and there is hostility toward Britain for apparently conniving in it.
What is not in doubt is that “extraordinary rendition” takes place and has done for many years. The CIA has long exploited the looser torture laws in north Africa, the Middle East and Eastern Europe to allow “robust” interrogation of suspects like the suspected terrorist Khaled Sheikh Mohammed. There is no secrecy about it. Condoleezza Rice described rendition as “a lawful weapon” in December.
The US government has boasted of the quality of information gained from these interrogation centres, which run on similar lines to Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have numerous documented cases of mainly Muslim men, such as the German national Khaled al Masri, who was apprehended in 2003 and transported for severe and degrading interrogation which involved beatings and drug injections. The US government has apologised to him.
The advantage of off shore rendition, as in Guantanamo, is that suspects cannot take the US government to court under its own laws. The US has admitted using practices as sexual humiliation, as demonstrated in Abu Ghraib, and the infamous “waterboarding” which involves simulated drowning of suspects. It says it no longer uses these techniques.
But if they don’t you have to ask why they are so keen on moving their detainees around the world to countries which do? The old justification was that the US wanted to “spread around” the spoils of interrogation and give other countries - especially in “new” Eastern Europe, a stake in the war against terrorism. There may indeed be something in that.
But following Guantanamo, this simply won’t do. The US really cannot continue with this covert human trafficking when it has proved itself so ill-prepared to secure the welfare of prisoners even in high-profile centres like Abu Ghraib, which used to be Saddam Hussein’s personal torture camp.
Scotland and in particular Prestwick Airport appear to have been used extensively in this traffic. Amnesty International has documented cases of CIA planes using Scottish airports as refuelling stops. The SNP’s Angus Robertson has compiled evidence of the CIA traffic from anonymous sources. It should be relatively easy for the British government to investigate these cases and set the public mind at rest.
But it will not do so without political pressure. The danger is that rendition fatigue is affecting the media and the political classes. There is a sense - I feel it myself - that we have heard it all before. So, the American’s are charged with mistreating terrorists suspects. What’s new? Hasn’t anyone seen 24?
But this is an important matter and one that affects Scotland directly. We cannot allow the suspicion to be spread abroad that we have allowed our country to connive in torture by proxy. The Scottish Parliament has been silent too long. It has been left to a few determined Green and SSP MSPs to try to get the Scottish Executive to take the issue on.
Once the European inquiries have run their course, Holyrood will have to take a serious look at this whole issue. Then we will have much more to go on. Perhaps Scottish airspace has not been used in these flights. Perhaps it is all plane spotter paranoia. But until we get those unequivocal assurances - of the kind that Brian Donohoe tried to give but couldn’t - then the suspicion will continue.

Paedophilia - A Confession

I am a potential paedophile; a sex offender. The time has come to tell my shocking tale.
Some years ago, walking with friends in a city park, I felt the need to answer the call of nature. However, the public toilets were closed owing to vandalism. In acute discomfort, I relieved myself discreetly in nearby bushes.
This could have have placed me on a perverts sex list had my crime been witnessed and I had been cautioned for indecent exposure. This could in turn have prevented me from working as a teacher, a social worker, a janitor, a care home assistant or a nursery nurse.
Not only that. If I were a plumber working on pipes in a school I could - if organisations like the National Confederation of Parent Teacher Associations had their way - be exposed or even prosecuted for failing to disclose that I was a sex offender. If I even drove a supermarket delivery van through the school gates I could be committing an offence.
So far, as a mere jobbing hack, my potential paedophilia has not been seen as a threat. However, it can surely be only a matter of time before I am fingered as someone whose scribblings could potentially be read by children, thus insidiously grooming them.
In fact, isn’t this very article proof that society needs to be protected from people like me, who should be removed and placed in an offshore island for processing while the authorities decide if there are any posts which I could perform which would not be a danger to children? I'll go quietly.
You can laugh. But right now thousands of public sector workers who have committed trivial offences, or indeed no offence at all, are living in fear of their very livelihoods. Tomorrow, the Education Secretary, Ruth Kelly - under pain of losing her own job - is expected to rule that everyone on a sex offenders list in England and Wales should barred from working with children, whether they have actually committed a child sex offence or not. Doesn't matter if they've been rehabilitated, have "spent" convictions or just been the victim of ugly rumour. To be on the safe side, they would be out. There is acute pressure on Jack McConnell to follow suit in Scotland.
But, look, why take the risk? If I were a parent, wouldn’t I want to be absolutely sure that my children couldn't be taught by sex offenders? Wouldn’t I want my kiddies to be protected from pervs? Well, I am a parent, as it happens, and do I want my children to be protected. However, of the 2000 recorded sexual attacks on children last year, not one took place in school.
The vast majority of sex offences on children take place in the family home by parents relatives or by trusted friends. The lesson surely is clear: children need to be protected from their families. If we really want them to be out of the reach of paedophiles, children need to be taken from their homes and placed in secure units supervised by properly-vetted, state-registered guardians.
You think I am making light of a very serious subject, and I am. But some things are so serious the only thing you can do is laugh. The alternative would be to join the current witch hunt of paedophiles which is becoming a national psychosis. Sensible people have turned into crazy inquisitors trying to root out an imaginary conspiracy to infiltrate schools with paedophiles and pornographers.
The fact that there may be different lists of sex offenders floating around does not mean that perverts are being employed in schools, as the Scottish National Party appears to believe. If someone applies to teach in Scotland under the existing legislation, the education authority and the GTC are furnished with what is called an "enhanced disclosure". This document includes every scrap of information about the individual. Not just their presence on any official list of those disqualified from working with chldren or on a sex offender's register. Suspicions, cautions and other pieces information compiled by the police are also supplied, even if there is no charge. A body called Disclosure Scotland, was set up under the Child Protection Act precisely for this purpose.
Employers still have discretion about whether to act on all the information they receive, but not perhaps for much longer. The SNP appears to want anyone on any sex offenders list to be automatically barred from teaching or working with children. In the present febrile climate, not unlike Soviet Russia, social workers and teachers are already being subject to repeated disclosures and examinations. Professionals with years of experience in positions of trust are being hauled before sex inquisitions.
But the witch hunters are demanding even more checks, more lists. Under pressure,the Executive is planning to set up a new Central Barring Unit to act as a further gatekeeper against paedophilies. We are in danger of constructing a crazy bureaucracy to snoop and compile information on alleged perverts.
Yet even sex offenders have rights - especially when they could be on a list for trivial offences or because suspicious or vindictive colleagues. There is also something called the rehabilitation of offenders. We are in danger of saying that all sex offenders are beyond redemption.
The Scottish system is supposed to be an enlightened one, passed by cross-party agreement with the support of children's charities. Unlike in England, Scottish ministers do not rule on individual teacher appointments; responsibility is where it should be: with the employers and local authorities.
However, as a result of a bizarre blow-back from the row in England, there is now intense pressure on Jack McConnell to fix something which isn't broke; to introduce a new system which could involve ministers in the employment of teachers. The danger is that they import precisely the ministerial micromanagement which was criticised in England by none other than the Chancellor, Gordon Brown yesterday.
But the real danger isn't bureaucracy but the climate of fear. Parents are becoming fearful of sending their children to school, when school is the safest place for them. A generation of children are being sexualised. All adults are regarded as predators.
When I take my little girl to her gym class, I am told that I have to leave immediately in case I get sexual gratification from seeing young girls in states of undress. There are strip cartoons on the walls advising children what to do if a man speaks to them or if an instructor holds them in the wrong way.
But what really is happening here is that the authorities, in their zeal, are doing the grooming. They are inadvertently creating an expectation among children that adults are only interested in them as sexual objects. This is not protecting children; it is a betrayal of childhood = and it must cease.
Opposition politicians, who should know better, must jump off this sick bandwagon and stop undermining our schools and teachers. The media must stop running sensational stories of non existent epidemics of child abuse. Our children deserve better. And so do people like me who risk being labelled sex offenders for taking a P in the park.

Numpties No More

Not so numpty after all. The Scottish Parliament and Jack McConnell are entitled to take some small satisfaction at Tony Blair’s u turn last week on the partial smoking ban in England. They'd been told that Holyrood’s complete ban was poltically-correct madness, wouldn’t work, nanny state etc..
Scottish politicians who should have known better, like the former Health Secretary John Reid, insisted that the working classes should not be denied their small pleasures. Tony Blair agreed, even to the length of slapping down his own health secretary, Patricia Hewitt, who wanted to go the whole Scottish hog.
Well, after mature consideration, England is now to come into line with Scotland. At least, that’s what most people expect will be the result of the free vote on smoking, which is now to be granted in the House of Commons. Really, it was only matter of time before Westminster realised that Scotland’s comprehensive ban wasn’t health fascism but common sense.
The idea that private clubs could be exempted, as the PM wished, raised questions about the human rights of staff working in them. Exempting pubs which served no food seemed to herald a return to Dickensian drinking dens, where the consumption of alcohol is uncivilised and untamed. On legal and moral grounds, the logic of a total ban was unanswerable.
So, a result for Holyrood, and not for the first time. We’ve been so brainwashed into thinking that the Scottish Parliament is filled with useless time-servers, who can’t tell a statutory instrument from an order in council, that we tend to assume that anything Holyrood does is suspect. But smoking isn’t the only area where Scotland's example is being followed. The Education Secretary Ruth Kelly’s attempt to rewrite education white paper signals a clear move back towards the comprehensive system which Scotland never abandoned.
Even Neil Kinnock, the most loyal Blairite of all, last week attacked the PM’s plans to introduce competition between schools and restore an element of selection. He echoed the views of the Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott, and the hundred Labour MPs who are threatening to rebel against the forthcoming bill.
Now, in Scotland we have been told endlessly that the only way to improve education here is to get rid of the “bog standard” comprehensive and embrace the English reform agenda. We have been sold an image of Scottish education that is failing pupils across the land, that is crippled by crackpot educational theories; that grinds down excellence. A system in crisis which needs to be reformed by the introduction of parental choice.
Largely nonsense, of course. Scottish schools continue to perform rather well on the OECD PISA league tables. There are failing schools, of course, and there is an air of defeatism among teachers who seem to be unable or unwilling to exercise discipline.
However, it was never clear exactly how the English reforms would help change this. Nor was it clear how parental choice could meaningfully be exercised by the large numbers of Scots who have only one local school to choose from. Even where choice exists, there is the problem of what to do if parents all want to go to the same school.
In England, there was - is - a widespread suspicion that the educational reforms were intended ultimately to lead to the reintroduction of academic selection; that taking schools out of local authority control was Blairite device designed to allow English schools to form their own selective admissions policies.
Specialist schools for non-academic subjects are - in the view of many Labour backbenchers - a kind of educational Trojan horse. Once the principle of selection on merit for music, art or sport was established, there would inevitably be pressure for selection to be extended to academic subjects.
Now, the PM insists that his reforms were never designed to do this, still less return England to the days of the grammar schools, but he has been unable to persuade his own party, if Kelly doesn’t return to the comprehensive status quo the bill will be lost. What remains of the reforms are a proliferation of semi-autonomous schools including city academies with commercial sponsorship and faith schools. But would Scotland really benefit from a chain of McDonald’s Middle Schools or Abu Hamsa Primaries?
The other botched reform which Scotland didn’t emulate was competition in hospital provision. The Scottish Executive rejected it in favour of co-operation between hospitals and GPs. This was derided as a cop out, a sell-out to the health unions, a sign of Scottish backwardness. But they’re not saying that quite so loudly now that English hospital trusts and PFI hospitals in England are in financial crisis. Faced with a #1.4bn deficit, wards are being closed and operations postponed.
Enlisting the private sector to help clear waiting lists brought short term relief. But the reintroduction of the internal market by Labour has reproduced many of the inefficiencies of the Conservatives’ internal market which Labour scrapped in 1998. Payment by result encourages hospitals to specialise in the most lucrative operations, to the neglect of fields like geriatrics and preventive medicine.
But the basic problem is that hospitals are not like private firms in a market. Hospitals cannot go out of business - they are hundred million pound public investments and cannot be written off, especially in areas where local people depend and rely on them, as in much of Scotland.
The Scottish system is far from perfect, of course. A colossal injection of public money does not seem to have led to commensurate improvement. But that doesn’t mean the English reforms would have helped. Sometimes, masterly inactivity is the right course.
Of course, the Scottish Executive has the luxury of the Barnett Formula and secure funding. This may breed indolence and complacency. But there is strong evidence that across the range of domestic policy the Scottish Parliament is getting at least some things right. Even the Scottish legislation on sexual offenders was praised by the Bichard Inquiry. Then there’s tuition fees, PR, free personal care, freedom of information.
Looked at objectively, the Scottish Parliament has achieved a great deal. It’s worth remembering that the next time you curse Holyrood as a costly waste of space.

We're All Doomed

We’re all doomed. There is a real sense of seasonal foreboding in the Scottish media this New Year, what with redundancies, takeovers and job losses almost everywhere. Circulations are falling and there are intimations of mortality on the web. Many newspapers are living in fear of their classified advertising migrating to the internet.

So, should we hacks all just give up now and become bloggers and day traders? Certainly not. Spend a few minutes on blogspot and you can see why. The blogosphere is a great place for eccentrics, conspiracy theorists, crooks, obsessives and exhibitionists – but for understanding the world, forget it

The BBC news on the web is, of course, reliable and authoritative, but most of it isn’t really news since it comes second hand from newspapers. Think of a story like extraordinary rendition. Long before that appeared on the BBC hundreds of hours were put in by newspaper journalists to break the story of the secret CIA flights. The BBC is a great institution, but it rarely goes in for that kind of newsgathering post Hutton. You still have to go to newspapers for pungent and polemical commentary on current events. The agendas of BBC programmes like Question Time are set by the issues being debated in the press.

We need an independent and critical media today more than ever, precisely because the internet is debasing the currency of journalism. We need organisations that pay people to find things out, report them correctly and engage in a dialogue with the powerful.

There is understandable animosity in newspaper boardrooms at the BBC’s website becoming the electronic “newspaper” of record, where people turn first on the web. The BBC is financed by the license payer, whereas newspapers need to survive on cover price and advertising revenue. But that isn’t going to change and it needn’t kill off the press. In the 1950’s people said BBC news would kill newspapers, but it didn’t. Nor did the coming of ITN, local radio, 24-hour rolling news..

Over the last couple of centuries newspapers like the Herald – one of the oldest continuously published newspapers in the world which reported the peace treaty that ended the American Wars of Indepedence - have acquired the disciplines and culture of accuracy, independence and analytical rigour which are essential to a functioning democracy. These things didn’t just happen. They had to be fought for against governments and special interests groups which thrived on ignorance and absence of scrutiny. They may have to be fought for again on the web

So instead of sitting around moaning, we hacks should start getting our electronic act together. The press is in danger of creating a sense of crisis when there isn’t one. It’s time to accentuate the positive.

First of all, newspapers are not losing money. They remain one of the most profitable areas of the economy. Ask yourself why the commercially astute Johnston Press paid £160 million for the Scotsman group – twice what the Barclays bought it for in 1995. Johnstone, with its string of lean and mean regional papers, doesn’t throw money around.

But there are challenges ahead. Everyone realises that the days of cutting down trees are drawing to a close; that in a year or two Apple, or someone, will produce an iRead device which makes it possible to read electronic text comfortably on the move. The dispute between broadsheet, tabloid and Berliner could be resolved by the death of all three.

However, the advantage for newspapers is that their publications will become very much cheaper because there will no longer be any need for expensive printing presses and distribution networks. There are problems getting people to pay for newspapers on the web, and this gets more difficult the longer people get used to getting their news for nothing. But this is essentially a technical and marketing issue. If people want something enough, they’ll pay for it - look at music down-loads on the internet.

Of course, newspapers rely more on advertising than cover price for revenue. But you can tailor advertising on the web, not just to the individual publication, but to individual articles, so that readers are only offered products they might actually be interested in buying and advertisers don’t waste money pushing things at the wrong markets. The algorithms are already there. As for classified – the newspapers invented it; they can reinvent it on the internet..

The printed word isn’t dead; more people are reading books than ever. Proprietors should be getting together with Apple to help devise a smart electronic reading device which is suitable for the dissemination of serious news and comment; one that can translate the design and layout skills of newspapers onto web pages.

The press could also fight back by invading the broadcasters’ own turf. Newspapers should be using their own websites as broadcasting platforms. Pod casting and other technologies have massively lowered the entry cost of broadcasting. The BBC depends on the press for most of its commentators anyway, so why not turn these publications into multi-media portals exploiting their own collective expertise and producing programmes of their own?.The Economist magazine has shown the way by posting on its website interviews with global figures like Paul Wolfowitz for its preview of the world 2006. You can also make television on the web very cheaply with new technology which is simple to use.

So there are opportunities as well as risks. However, there is something else that the press will have to address in addition to the new technology – the integrity gap. People read the BBC site because it is free, but also because they trust it. Newspapers have been their own worst enemies in recent years, undermining their own credibility by crude sensationalism, distortion and plain lies. Think of Lord Black, Rupert Murdoch, Kelvin McKenzie, Piers Morgan and what do you feel? Exactly

Most “news” in the popular press is generated by PR people hyping their celebrity clients; much of the rest is invention. People are turning away from newspapers because, with the exception of broadsheet publications like the Herald, they have become nasty – just like the Tory Party of old. Notice how journalists are now portrayed in films like Harry Potter, or War of the Worlds – selfish, shallow, unreliable, unpleasant low life. When I first entered the business, journalists were popular heroes.

So we need to clean up our act. Like Google – do nothing evil. What better New Year resolution for the Street of Shame.

Party on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown


When he became Laboru leader in 1994, Tony Blair said that he hadn’t been born in the Labour Party but would he would die in it. What he didn’t say is what he would do if Labour died first.
Can Tony Blair last another year as leader of the Labour Party? The short answer is yes: there is no sign of him standing down. The real question, though, is whether there will be a Labour Party left to lead.
2006 is likely to be a critical year for Labour, perhaps the most important since 1931, when the party split and the Labour PM Ramsay MacDonald formed a National Government. Yes, it really is as bad as that.
Labour is a party on the verge of a nervous brakdown. Unable to coexist with a leader it no longer respects, the party faces disintegration and could lose power for a generation.
Rancour and Indiscipline has now become the rule rather than the exception in the Parliamentary Labour Party. On a whole range of issues - education, nuclear power, trident, smoking, terrorism - the authority of the Prime Minister is being directly and openly flouted.
Indeed, there is almost an alternative Labour government emerging in the House of Commons, composed of senior backbenchers and ex ministers like John Denham and Estelle Morris, busy drafting ‘real Labour’ policies such as the ‘alternative’ education white paper.
As this movement gains strength and confidence, Tony Blair could find himself a leader without a party.
David Cameron’s Conservatives have offered to salvage the Prime MInister’s legislation, but if the PM were to take that lifeline, it would only confirm what many Labourites fear: that Tony Blair really is a Tory in disguise.
Some Labour MPs almost past caring. So sickened are they by the war in Iraq and the PM’s domestic reforms that they are almost giving up on politics. They have been waiting for so long for Gordon Brown to take over that they have almost given up on the Chancellor.
Most Labour people believe that Gordon Brown will be more with the grain of the Labour movement. But when? Brown risks becoming damaged goods; becoming yesterday’s man, even before he becomes today’s.. The fresh face of David Cameron only underlines how worn and shop-soiled the chancellor has become.
Some wonder, dolefully, whether he will be any better than Blair; whether he might turn out to be another neo-conservative in Labour clothing. Last year Brown penned a dedication to a book, Neo Conservatism, but Rupert Murdoch’s consiglieri, Irwin Stelzer. The Chancellor’s allies are saying that he intends to be as much of a reformer as Tony Blair and he has placed spending cuts very firmly on the budgetary agenda for later this parliament..
So 2006 represents an existential crisis for Labour. It could be on the verge of giving up on trying to be the ‘party of government’ and returing to its default as the party of opposition. Labour is to internal dissent of a kind unseen since the 1980s and the high tide of Bennism.
It seems only yesterday that we were all lamenting the way that Labour MPs had all become "pager clones": ultra loyalists who didn't utter a word unless it had been cleared by Alastair Campbell. How times change. MPs have become intoxicated with rebellion. The Labour benches resemble one of those university occupations from the 1970's a seething mass of inchoate dissent.
It all began with the crushing of the ninety day detention proposal in the Prevention of Terrorism Act in November - the worst defeat suffered by a Labour Prime Minister in nearly forty years. If Labour MPs didn’t sing the Red Flag it was only because most of them have forgotten the words. The epic character of the rebellion was encapsulated by the former Labour health secretary, Frank Dobson: 'Fear no more the frown o' the great" he pronounced, quoting Shakespeare’s Cymbeline,"Thou art past the tyrant's stroke" .
It is a measure of how far things have deteriorated that Labour MPs calling their leader a tyrant is no longer remarkable. Ex ministers like Clare Short regularly say he is effectively a war criminal and should resign. Even the Deputy Prime MInister, John Prescott, who used to lecture Labour conferences on the need for discipline, has now taken openly to criticising his leader’s flagship policies. He has even revived the language of class war.
If Prescott has given up on Blair, then the end cannot be far away. Except that it isn’t. Tony Blair simply won’t take the hint. The more his party turns against him, the more dogged seems to be his determination to proceed with his own reform agenda. He’s looking forward with confidence, according to his pre=Christmas press briefing. Hacks were left wondering what he know that they didn’t.
It’s as if he thrives on being hated by his own people. Who knows, following Sinn Fein, maybe we’ll discover that Tony Blair has been a double agent all along. Fantasy of course - but the Prime Minister seems almost an alien in his own backyard.
The Prime Minister has an extraordinarily thick skin and an unrivalled capacity for self-belief. The man's sheer staying power is astonishing. After the disaster of the Iraq war, the collapse of his support during the 2005 general election, the blocking of his public sector reforms by his own backbench, you'd have thought that any normal politicians would be thinking of packing it in. Going off to spend more time with his family, making a packet on the lucrative lecture circuit in America, seeking sinecures in Europe or on the boards of Britain's largest companies.
I mean, why put up with the hassle, what more has Tony Blair got to prove? He has secured his place in the history books by delivering an historic third general election victory for Labour. What is there left to do?
Of course, there is his “legacy” thing. We keep being told that the Prime Minister wants to leave an indelibile mark on Great Britain; that he wants to emulate Margaret Thatcher, not just as a war leader, but as a radical reformer. However, a lame duck Prime Minister, running out of time, he must surely realise that there is prcious little chance of him securing any thing substantoial.
Consider what Margaret Thatcher had achieved after her first eight years at the helm: privatisation, council house sales, trades union reforms. For good or ill, these policies transformed Britain. What has Blair achieved? What monumnets will be left to his administration, apart from the Millennium Dome?
There have been significant economic achievements under Labour like the granting of independence to the Bank of England to set interest rates. Then there is the national minimum wage, tax credits, modest redistribution of wealth, the reibuilding of the finances of the NHS. But these are all down to Gordon Brown, not Tony Blair.
As is what is arguably the most significant achievement of the Labour government - eight years of sustained economic growth. Despite the dot com stock market crash and an astonishing house price bubble the economy has been growing steadily year on year, though perhaps for not much longer.
Brown may have got his most recent forecasts wrong, but across the piece, this Labour chancellor has more than a right to claim that he abolished boom and bust, at least for a decade. The Tories may say that they laid the ground for it, but only someone with Gordon Brown's intellectual mastery of modern economics could constructed built the edifice. .
Tony Blair's own achievements have been modest to the point of embarrassment. The Northern Ireland peace process is stalled; the Middle East remains in turmoil; Africa is still in abject poverty despite the G8 and the PM’s promise to “heal the scar on the conscience of the world” Europe is in a mess with Britian further from the “heart of Europe” than it was under John Major. Britain is on the point of abandoning its targets for climate change and is being propelled into a desperate nuclear gamble.
Tony Blair likes to portray himself as a great public sector reformer who is obstructed by bureaucracy, special interest and - well - the Chancellor. But what has the PM actually achieved? He tried to turn the NHS upside down and has had some success reducing waiting lists, but at the cost of huge deficits for NHS trusts, closed wards and key foundation hospitals going bust. His solution is more of the same market medicine. I don’t hear doctors in Scotland wanting to emulate his reform agenda here.
In English schools he has tried to abolish the 'bog standard comprehensive' but has succeeded in creating a bewildering array of new types of school - faith, beacon, foundation, specialist, city academy etc- Some of them are sort-of selective. Mr Blair insists he doesn;t want to return to academic selection, but his party simply doesn’t believe him.
The row over the education white paper will define the early months of 2006. It really is a battle for the soul of Labour. The party senses that Tony Blair wants to abolish comprehensive education altogether and allow for the emergence of a new tier of selective schools for the middle classes. John Prescott made clear a fortnight ago that he believes the entire choice agenda is purely designed to allow the pushy middle classes to sideline children from poorer backgrounds; and have them cleared off to no-hope sink schools.
If the Prime Minister cannot persuade his own deputy, then what are MPs to make of it? His attempts to place admission policy in the.hands of schools has been blocked by his own backbench. Ruth Kelly has had to re-write the white paper to restore the power of local authorities as a way of trying to reassure Labour MPs that selection is not on the agenda. But this concession this makes a nonsense of the entire policy which was to liberate schools from local authority conservatism.
Having achieved real success in scuppering the PM’s education policy, the next rebellion is likely over smoking. More than 50 Labour MPs have now signed up to a motion requesting a free vote on a total ban on smoking in public places. The Labour-dominated Commons Health Select Committee has said that the partial ban favoured by the PM is “ unfair, unjust and unworkable”. It seems only a matter of time before Tony Blair is forced to concede on this one.
On Trident, the PM is likely to stand firm. He made clear in the election campaign that he intended to maintain and renew the nuclear deterrent, so he can claim it an election pledge. But many Labour MPs echoe the late Robin Cook’s argument that Trident is an expensive irrelevance, and that the government could find better uses for the #20 billion cost. What better way to give the world a lead than for Britain to renounce this weapons system which was designed for the Cold War and targets one of our allies - Russia.
The other issue that will dominate 2006 is Iraq - the war that won’t end. Tony Blair had hoped that the establishment of a free and democratic Iraq would be top of his legacy list At the very least, he will want to stay until British troops are brought home.
But that isn’t going to happen. Iraq remains the greatest foreign policy disaster of modern times, and all the PMs work. He would be better to cut his losses now, following the Iraqi general elections than hang around for a new dawn that will never come.
Perhaps the PM will realise all this over the Christmas break. Come to see that it is futile to go on and on when every cherished policy is blocked. Maybe he will surprise us all by announcing that he intends to stand down as leader at the 2006 party conference in order to allow a leadership election for his successor. You can never rule this out. Tony Blair is impulsive and capable of pulling surprises.
But my bet is that he will stick in Number Ten to the bitter end. He will want at the very least to get back at David Cameron for that gybe that “He was the future, once”. You can never underestimate how important the personal is in politics. The main reason - indeed some would say the only reason to stay on is to wipe that grin of Cameron’s face. Prove to his party and the country that he still is the genuine article - original and best - when it comes to political charm.
Perhaps then Blair will pull the plug on the most successful and the most damaging Labour administration in history.

Temperance, Temperance


My grandfather worked nearly all his life in Weirs on the Clyde, as a foreman. He was a lifelong socialist, atheist and teetotaller. who lived into his nineties In his day, avoiding alcohol was part of a moral commitment to social improvement. The working classes could never be wholly free, you see, until they were liberated from the drug that rendered them docile and easily exploited; that robbed them of their initiative, strength and even humanity.
Or so he believed. Mind you, Pop did partake of the occasional glass of Crabbie’s Green Ginger Wine on the grounds that it wasn’t actually alcoholic - though of course it was.
Perhaps we could do with a bit of that today - the temperance I mean, not the Crabbies. For Scotland seems to be descending into alcoholic oblivion. Yesterday’s Herald reported that forty people a week drank themselves to death last year in Scotland. Such fatalities have increased by a astaggering 130% in a decade. It was only the latest in a stream of health statistics confirming the damage we are doing to ourselves. According to NHS Scotland last week, eight out of every ten admissions to accident and emergency bed at weekends are now a result of alcohol.
These bald figures disguise the huge psychological cost of the bevy culture, which destroys relationships, careers, self-respect and is a major cause of unwanted pregnancies and the spread of sexually transmitted diseases. We are drinking more, harder, younger and with a kind of abandon that has turned our city centres into hedonistic war zones. There’s even talk of setting up field hospitals in city centres to deal with the casualties
Yes, I’m sorry for this seasonal downer. The last thing you want as you lay in the booze for Christmas is a lecture on the demon drink. But it wouldn’t do any harm for a lot of us to notice just how we areusing this potent drug. Many will not be sober until 2006.
You probably haven’t noticed how much you drink; I certainly hadn’t until I started logging it. The drinks industry has found all sorts of clever mechanisms to disguise it from us. The strength of drink has increased even as the price has dropped. I bought a litre of high quality Scotch whisky in Tescos yesterday for less than #12. Thirty years ago, that would have cost - in today’s money - over #40.
Check the labels and you’ll find that beer and cider is often now 5% proof when it would have been 3% ten years ago, and wine has also increased in strength. Measures have increased too, with a glass of pub wine often containing 250 ml - a that’s a third of a bottle. Practically in one gulp.
Then of course, there are the iniquitous and ubiquitous ‘alcopops’ and their descendants. They’re now called WKD or Breezer, but they are the same things - sweet drinks laced with large quantities of proof spirits. Incredibly cheap to produce and promoted with huge advertising budgets. When these were first introduced fifteen years ago, they were hugely controversial. It looked like a cynical attempt to wean preteens onto alcohol by eliminating the most important difference between soft drinks and alcoholic ones - the taste. Fizzy and sickly, and marketed like sweets, these drinks have done exactly what critics said they would do: made young people drink more, younger.
Now, of course, drinking is part of growing up. I had my first drink in a bar when I was fifteen - and that wasn’t at all unusual. I quite often got drunk as well. However, there were limits. I tended not to drink much during the week because it was too expensive and I rarely drank spirits. Not today. Young people are drinking more and stronger. Supermarkets have a huge responsibility here. You can buy three litres of strong, 5% cider for about three pounds. That is a hell of a cheap way to to get out of your head
There is nothing new about heavy drinking in Scotland, of course - except perhaps that more women are now drinking to excess than in previous generations. The only real difference today is that the agencies which fought against it - the Kirk, the socialist organisations and the state - have lost the will or the capacity to combat it.
Temperance: the very phrase seems redolent of pews and musty Bibles. Of tight-lipped moral killjoys and hectoring self-righteous prigs. After forty years of individualism, of pushing out the bounds of personal freedom, the idea that we should now start condemning people for what they do to their own bodies is anathema.
But how else do you combat this extraordinary social disease? It wasn’t just the Kirk that fought against the bottle, so did the Left. The great socialist politicians, like Keir Hardie, John Maxton, John McLean, were all teetotallers. You can see an echo of this tradition today in the shape of Tommy Sheridan, the former leader of the Scottish Socialist Party who doesn’t drink.
But the Left has all but ceased to exist, and workers organisations have disintegrated leaving a moral vacuum filled by TV, footie and booze. And the tragedy, as the Herald figures, confirmed, is that the real victims continue to be the less well off.
The state has tried to deal with the burgeoning booze culture by trying to civilise it. We can’t tell people how to live their lives anymore, but we can encourage them to be more responsible - to “treat alcohol with respect” as the current Scottish Executive manta puts it, with unintended irony. The phrase almost implies the bottle itself is somehow worthy of respect.
The Scottish Executive, in its new legislation, has sensibly moved against the most egregious aspects of the drink culture - the happy hours and other promotions. It has staggered licensing hours so that there is no longer a mad dash to consume as much as possible before closing time. It sought to educate young people with some rather good advertising campaigns, which were of course attacked in the press as a waste of public money.
But compared with the commercial firepower of the drinks industry they were, well, relieving themselves into the wind. Of course prohibition would be folly, as it was in America. Most people do use alcohol responsibly. But the social and personal cost of booze is becoming intolerable, and something will have to be done; there is a cost and it has to be paid.
The time has come to restore the price of drink to something like the levels in the fifties and sixties. Scandinavian countries never allowed drink to become cheap - and in Norway it costs six pounds for a gin and tonic.
It’s a pretty rough and ready answer, and moral responsibility would bepreferable. But we don’t do moralising any more, so it looks as if swingeing increases in alcohol duty are the only way to bring the party to an end. And I suspect Gordon Brown - biographer of Maxton and other temperance socialists - will have no qualms about taking the battle against the bottle into Number Ten.
Until then, we are drinking in the last chance saloon. Cheers - and a happy Christmas.