Archive: constitution

I was sorry to read that Scottish Unionist has decided to stop updating his blog.

I know from email correspondence that he has, from time to time, thought about the future of his blog. Now he appears to have decided to call it a day for good.

What a great shame that is. Scottish Unionist did a fine job of exposing the rotten nature of nationalism. His eviscerations of the borderline illiterate Cybernats who pollute the Scottish blogosphere were excellent.

This may have led to the blog been a bit one-note and too negative. Plus, the knuckle-dragging nature of Cybernats is somewhat self-evident. But the case cannot be made too often.

The personal experience that Scottish Unionist has gone through while facing up to the aggressive nationalists has been truly shocking in some cases. It spoke volumes of Scottish Unionist as a person that he always conducted his debates with dignity, treating his opponents with respect — much more than a Cybernat could ever achieve.

I echo the sentiments of Jeff. I doubt that the Cybernats really need to be tackled — they discredit their ideology enough with their own words.

But Scottish Unionist was more or less the only person who frequently visited the constitutional issue, at a time when we could be facing a fundamental referendum in the next couple of years. Perhaps the rest of us should step up to the plate.

I was delighted when Scottish Unionist asked if I would write a guest piece for his blog earlier this year. You can still read my piece about a vision of a federalism in the UK.

Last week the SNP set out its legislative plan. The headline grabber was the long-promised independence referendum bill. Today I saw Caron’s post asking, “why bother with a referendum?” She has a good point. It is widely recognised that the result of any referendum would almost certainly reject the SNP’s favoured proposals.

“Ah, but!”, say proponents of a referendum. Opinion polls consistently suggest that around three quarters of people would like there to be a referendum on independence. This is supposedly a good enough reason to actually hold a referendum.

It strikes me as a bit daft though. Imagine the scene. You’re sitting on a park bench eating your lunch. A chap with a clipboard approaches you. He’s from a polling organisation. “The Monster Raving Loony Party,” he begins, “plans on giving everyone a slap on the face.” Your eyebrows raise. The prospect of the Monster Raving Loony Party being in a position to give everyone a slap in the face feels a bit distant. But the pollster continues: “Would you like a referendum on face-slapping to be held before this policy is pursued?” Yes, of course, you reply.

Of course people say they’d like there to be a referendum. If you asked people if they wanted a referendum on legislation about chewing gum wrappers, they would most likely say yes. In fact, I wonder what is going through the minds of the quarter of people who say they would not like a referendum. They probably can’t be bothered with the campaigning. Perhaps they dread the prospect of politicians hogging the box, or maybe they think their vote isn’t worth anything.

Nevertheless, in general, ask people if they would like a right, they will take it with both hands. The right to vote on Scotland’s constitutional future is appealing. But it is just one appealing thing out of an infinite number of appealing things that may be offered by a government. We have unlimited wants, but the government has limited means.

That is the essence of the argument put forward by those who would rather there wasn’t a referendum on independence. Opponents such as Alistair Darling say there are more important issues facing the voters, not least the economy. It would be wise to tackle them first before concerning ourselves with “distractions” like the independence debate.

I don’t quite agree with that perspective either. It is perfectly valid (though, in my view, incorrect) to say that economic and other woes may be fixed by Scotland becoming independent. In fact, I think it is quite dangerous to dismiss any analysis of the constitutional position as a “distraction”.

I am in favour of constitutional reform. I do not agree with the sort of extreme reforms that the SNP would like to make. But certainly I would favour some degree of fiscal autonomy. I would like the UK to adopt a federal structure. And I think there is a pressing need for reform of the voting system.

I do not support such reforms because I think it would be a bit of distracting fun. There is nothing particularly satisfying to me about the calculations the single transferable vote system would entail (though it might be another matter for some political geeks). No, the real reason I favour constitutional reform is because I believe it will fundamentally improve the governance of the country. To dismiss constitutional debates as “distracting” is a bit of an insult. The constitutional structure is fundamental.

The reason to oppose a referendum on independence is not because people don’t want a referendum. And it is certainly not because it is a distraction. The reason is simply that there is no appetite for independence.

Some people have a peculiar obsession with referenda. But it’s worth remembering that they are actually quite a recent addition to British democracy, and have only been used a handful of times. The UK’s first referendum was held in 1973. Since then, a further eight have been held. Only one of them was held across the UK. Only another two have been Scotland-wide.

The idea behind holding a referendum is to make bloody well sure that the major constitutional change which is proposed is actually favoured by the people of the country. So rather than having a mere parliamentary majority, you make sure there is a majority favour among the people too. If you like, a referendum seeks a second mandate to go ahead with the change.

You see where I’m going with this? There hasn’t even been a first mandate yet. Although the SNP forms the Scottish Government, it is a minority administration. A majority of MSPs oppose independence.

You cannot even convincingly argue that the 2007 election result demonstrated momentum towards MSPs that favour independence. Although the SNP made large gains, this was mostly at the expense of other parties that favour independence. The Greens had their representation cut by two thirds. The SSP were totally wiped off the map. These two parties saw their share of the vote cut more than any other parties. Meanwhile, the three main opposition parties saw stagnant levels of support — they dropped, but not by that much.

That is why I oppose the idea of holding a referendum on independence. There simply isn’t anything going for it. There is no groundswell of support for independence among the voters. And there certainly isn’t enough appetite for it within the Scottish Parliament.

Those in favour of a referendum cling on to the fact that most people would like there to be a referendum. But that in itself is pretty meaningless because, as I have said, people will always prefer to have a referendum on anything, even if it’s on getting a slap on the face.

A Useful Fiction coverHave you noticed that there is a lot of introspection about devolution just now? I suppose it underlines the fact that devolution is a process rather than a settlement that everyone is still looking at how to tweak it. Maybe it is just the newness of it. The Scottish Parliament is very young as these things go, just ten years old. As such, there is inevitably a sense that we haven’t quite got it right yet.

Mind you, you can never get it “right”, in the sense that everyone will be happy. Westminster is as well-established as they come, and yet people are constantly suggesting reforms from every angle imaginable. That has, of course, gained even more momentum in the past year or so, particularly with expenses scandals and the like.

So it is only natural that people should be wagging their jaws about devolution all the time. But the chat has seemed particularly intense of late. The SNP are having a National Conversation, while the other major parties have thrown their lot in with the recently published Calman report.

I guess you can put a lot of this down to the fact that the SNP are in government. That was an epoch; completely new territory that demanded introspection. What are the reasons for the SNP being in power? Unless it is an anti-Labour vote (which, to be fair, is highly likely), it may be because people are unhappy with the constitutional situation as it stands. An SNP government is perceived to be a major step towards independence, even if a number of major hurdles remain.

The tenth anniversary of the Scottish Parliament is also a good excuse to look back on how devolution has panned out so far and to work out how to refine the system for the future. All of this has been a useful hook on which to hang Patrick Hannan’s latest book, A Useful Fiction, of which I recently received a copy to review.

But that is largely a marketing device. The tenth anniversary of devolution is barely, if at all, mentioned. Meanwhile, thoughts on the Calman Commission feel as though they have been slightly shoehorned in, rushing to mention it lest the book feel out of date by the time people get round to reading it.

But the book could not have been written six months ago. Indeed, the sheer amount of important events that actually happened in the past year or so (chief among them the credit crunch and the collapse of RBS and HBOS) become quite clear as you read the book. For that reason, it probably will feel out of date by the time many people get round to reading it. But that is the peril of writing a book about current events, especially a process as unpredictable as devolution.

Mind you, not all of the book is about current political events. That is simultaneously the book’s main strength and its main weakness. On the one hand, it ensures that the book isn’t completely preoccupied with political points that are very salient in 2009 but will be fish wrapper come 2010. On the other hand, any politics geeks who read the blurb and expect to be able to immerse themselves in interesting constitutional arguments will be disappointed.

While the second half of the book focuses very much on the politics of devolution, it takes a while for the book to reach that point. Much of the front end of the book is preoccupied with more general points about national identity. I spent a lot of my time thinking, “well there’s plenty about cricket, rugby, the meaning of flags and other cultural issues; but not much of the politics I was looking for”.

That is not to say the early part of the book is useless; far from it. These reflections on Britishness and the nature of national identity are fundamental to the subject, not to say interesting to read about. But I did feel as though the book was taking its time to deal with the questions I was seeking answers for.

But when the book does move on to ask these questions, answers are few and far between. In his review of the book, Will Patterson said that A Useful Fiction is a book for moderates, which is a good way of putting it.

It is not exactly to say that Patrick Hannan constantly flits cowardly around the middle ground. I did raise my eyebrows from time to time in the course of reading this book. But after making an interesting suggestion, he often fails to commit it. The reader feels almost like the victim of a practical joker who looks like he is passing you something only to snatch it away as you reach out for it.

This left me finishing the book feeling as though I had read an interesting book, but one that lacked any central themes or arguments. It makes me wonder what Patrick Hannan sat down to write the book for, other than to set out an interesting collection of thoughts on Britain’s constitutional situation.

Nonetheless, I would say it is well worth reading A Useful Fiction because it is an interesting collection of thoughts. It certainly provided me with some fresh perspectives and Mr Hannan is an engaging enough writer.

But if you think you’ll want to read it, I would hurry up before it gets overtaken by events.

The crisis currently facing politics in the UK is massive. Citizens feel detached from the political process and trust in politicians is rock-bottom. It’s been widely noted that this is a perfect opportunity to reform the rotten system.

I only want to briefly cover the main ideas for reform, so I will use The Guardian’s “A New Politics” supplement (PDF link) as the basis for this article. It gives a good overview of the most common suggestions for political reform in the UK.

One thing before I start though. Ten years ago in Scotland, when the Scottish Parliament was set up, there was a lot of talk about what the “new politics” would look like. I think it’s fair to say that most of us have been disappointed with what the political elites came up with.

On with The Guardian’s suggestions.

Written constitution

For a while now, I have been sceptical of the desirability of a written constitution. I’m sceptical about rules in general. After all, it was rules that got us into this expenses mess in the first place. Politician after politician lined up to excuse their behaviour: “it was completely within the rules”. In many cases, their behaviour was in the rules. The overwhelming message to the voters was: screw the morals, I only care about the rules!

Think to yourself, why is murder taboo? It certainly isn’t because murder is against the law. It is because murder is absolutely abhorrent. You don’t need rules to tell you that. So what would a written constitution do? It might give people with dubious morals a set of loopholes they can exploit, with a ready-made excuse for their behaviour.

As for Timothy Garton Ash’s suggestion that every schoolchild should be taught about the importance of such a constitution, can we not leave that sort of cheesy crap to the Americans?

The monarchy

I am no monarchist, and I really wouldn’t mind if the monarchy was abolished. But who really believes that doing away with the Queen would restore trust in politicians? The Queen is probably the one person involved in the government that anyone has a modicum of respect for at the moment.

Electoral reform

As you may guess from my previous post, I have a strong interest in electoral reform. For several years I have felt that the voting system is the most important part of the system to get right.

For me, the First Past the Post voting system is the thing that stinks the most about Westminster. As I pointed out, it is the sort of system that allows a party to gain a thumping majority having gained the votes of just 16% of the population.

It also means the creation of safe seats, the modern equivalent of rotten boroughs, where voters are utterly neglected. Incidentally, there appears to be a correlation between the safeness of an MP’s seat and their likelihood of being implicated in the expenses scandal.

John Harris seems happy to settle for the Additional Member System currently used in the Scottish Parliament. But this system has enough problems to merit its own post. His other suggestion of Alternative Vote Plus is not ideal as it has the same problems as AMS, but with the added “bonus” of being rigged in favour of the larger parties and having a relatively low level of proportionality.

For me, little other than Single Transferable Vote will suffice. STV vastly reduces the number of safe seats and places more power into voters’ hands, and takes it away from the smoke-filled rooms of political parties. I am quite perturbed that John Harris neglected to mention STV at all.

Parliamentary protocol

Here, Hugh Muir seems most concerned with the quaint traditions such as Black Rod and “blather about “honourable” and “right honourable gentlemen”?” As with the monarchy, though, I see little harm in these things, and it really isn’t the issue at hand. I would certainly like to see a less stuffy approach though, and I think the Scottish Parliament has just about got the balance right on this sort of thing.

House of Lords

Jonathan Freedland wants an elected House of Lords above all else. But I think more elections and more elected politicians are the last thing we need. Of course the present system is unacceptable in many ways, but there is no denying that it has saved our skin a number of times by holding the government to account in ways which I doubt an elected House of Lords would ever be able to do.

One possibility would be for people to be appointed for a term at random, like doing jury service (this is also one of The Guardian’s separate sections, so I consider it further below). Perhaps it would be good for Lords to be appointed, but by a wider range of bodies, not just the Prime Minister.

Local government

Simon Jenkins suggests that MPs have a dual role, and they must do a lot of local work in their constituencies which would have been “unheard of 50 years ago”. He suggests that there should be local mayors to relieve MPs of these duties. Again, I would be reluctant to introduce more elected officials. Surely the answer is to strengthen the already-existing local authorities.

The speaker

I have no firm views on how the role should be reformed, but none of Jackie Ashley’s suggestions sound undesirable.

MP numbers

Given some of what I have written above, you wouldn’t be surprised to learn that I would be in favour of reducing the amount of MPs. 400-odd sounds about right to me. Again, the increased workload of each MP should in fact be absorbed by local government.

Representation

I would not be against attempts to increase, say, the number of female MPs. But stunts such as quotas have no place in a truly meritocratic system. Moreover, it is well known that voters tend to see such initiatives as an insult, and a backlash ensues. This is certainly not one way to restore faith in politics.

Direct democracy

Julian Glover says, “use the jury system as a model”. That is one suggestion for reform of the House of Lords, so I wouldn’t be totally opposed to that idea. I doubt many would be too keen on that idea though, and I don’t think I’d be up for taking five years out of my life either.

Mr Glover seems to think there is something fundamentally wrong with the concept of representative democracy, but I really do not think so. The role of such juries should be limited, and I wouldn’t give them much of a role in the House of Commons.


I will consider The Guardian’s other proposals tomorrow

It’s a funny time in politics. I have written a couple of times in the past about why I would consider abstaining, or sympathise with those that do. That provoked some interesting discussion.

My degree was in Economics and Politics, and I found that the more I learned about politics, the more jaded with the system I became. Conversations with other people have suggested that I am far from alone in experiencing this. Indeed, it has been one of the central points of the previous discussions here, with James O’Malley offering a contribution that backs the theory up:

I think your experiences of becoming more apathetic with age – essentially more apathetic as you became better informed – are pretty similar for a lot of people. I’ve just finished a degree in International Relations, and as a consequence of learning what a horrible bleak mess the world is, I think we all became cynical about almost anything political.

Events since then have only made me more likely to become apathetic. The credit crunch underlined that what goes on in politics does not matter an iota as much as what happens in the real world of business. Politicians don’t have as much power over the economy as they like to make out, and any influence they do have is probably a negative one.

Now we have the expenses scandal, which in fairness is only surprising in terms of the scale of the problem, not the fact that it existed at all — most people took that as a given. It adds to the impression that the system is inherently rigged against individual voters.

Increasingly, when people ask me how I would vote if there were an election tomorrow, I say that I wouldn’t vote. Making a conscious decision not to vote is not the same as apathy. I still have opinions on issues just as much as I have ever done. But my stance does reflect a more jaded view of party politics.

Next week we will be asked to vote in the elections which people are almost certainly the most apathetic about — European Parliament elections. This will put to the test the idea that I wouldn’t vote. If I were to abstain on Thursday, it would be the first time I have ever turned down the opportunity to vote in a major election. Mind you, I have only had the vote for five years so I haven’t had that many opportunities to turn my nose up (although voters my age are the most likely to).

In the background of recent events, the political elites are now becoming aware of how intense the distrust of political types is among the wider public. As such, there are a number of ideas for how to reform the system floating around just now. As someone who takes an interest in constitutional issues, electoral reform and the like, I think it will be worth investigating them.

I find this an interesting situation. In the wake of a barrage of apathy-inducing news, and in the face of the most stupefyingly boring elections on the face of the planet, can I bring myself to vote? Or, more to the point, can I bring myself not to vote? Will feelings of civic duty trump the temptation to rationally abstain?

Increasingly, as Question Time is broadcast, I find that the conversation on Twitter is dominated by discussions about “#bbcqt“. I have not been able to bring myself to watch that programme for a couple of years. That was another thing that has got me thinking. I wrote:

Can’t work out if I want to totally give up on politics, or if now is a good time to get stuck in again. Everyone on Twitter talking [about] #bbcqt

I got one reply, from Chris Hawes: “Get stuck back in!”

So, is it time to get stuck back in? For the next week or so I am going to go on a voyage of discovery. Okay, that’s just a grand way of saying I’m going to write some posts about politics over the next few days. I will start over the weekend by writing some thoughts on the state of democracy, and looking into some of the ideas for reform.

Later on into next week I will write about the upcoming European elections, taking a look at each of the parties standing in Scotland. There will be an election literature review, and I will be asking questions such as, “Who on earth is this Duncan Robertson fellow and why is he suspiciously invisible on Google?”

Most importantly of all, I hope to find an answer to the big question: Will I vote, and if so who for?

The plans are vague because I haven’t written the posts yet, and I genuinely don’t know what the conclusions will be. My post about the democratic system is something I’ve been meaning to get off my chest for over a year now, but I’ve never managed to bring myself to actually write it. Now seems like a good time to do it.

By way of a taster, here is another of the catalysts to this series of posts. It’s a post by The Devil’s Kitchen: Democracy is not a given good. It comes pretty close to summing up my feelings, but you will learn more about that when I publish the next post.

In the wake of Kezia Dugdale’s retirement from blogging, and having noted the often poisonous atmosphere that pervades some of the darkest corners of the Scottish blogosphere, I think now is a good time for me to come out with an idea that has been floating around in my head for the past few months.

This is an attempt to find the common ground in the constitutional viewpoints of SNP supporters and those of other persuasions. It recently struck me that we all have much more in common than we perhaps imagine.

The eureka moment came after I had a discussion in the pub with a card-carrying SNP member and full-on nationalist. We both sought to gain a good understanding of each other’s views and as the conversation went on we found that we had a lot more in common than we felt at first glance.

I set out my federalist position, using the opportunity to point out that the SNP, too, shares my view that having different powers at different levels of government can be a desirable thing. For instance, it is well-known that the SNP would wish for an independent Scotland to be a member of the European Union.

Furthermore, under current SNP policy, a very important policy instrument would never be controlled by Scotland. The SNP recognises that Scotland is not an optimal currency area, thanks to the large amount of trade Scotland does with the rest of the UK and the rest of the EU. Most likely, an SNP-designed independent Scotland would continue to use sterling in the short-to-medium term while adopting the euro in the longer term future. This means that monetary policy would be set either in London or in Frankfurt, not Edinburgh.

Already we see that the independence issue is not so black-and-white as some of the debates might lead you to believe. The SNP do not support full independence. I am sure that there are some people on the fringes who do, but they are thin on the ground and are certainly not represented in mainstream politics.

That means that there is not actually a great deal that separates the SNP from the ‘unionist’ parties. All of the major parties believe a similar thing. Admittedly they do so to varying degrees. At one end we have the Labour and Conservative position of maybe considering a greater degree of fiscal federalism. At the other, we have the likes of the Greens who want more powers for local government in addition to the Scottish Parliament. And the Lib Dems have long supported federalist solutions.

From my perspective, this is actually pretty damn close to being a consensus in Scottish politics. The introduction of a Scottish Parliament was almost seen as a given in 1997, but even then the Conservatives had a good bash at running a ‘no’ campaign. Were there to be a referendum on having increased fiscal powers for the Scottish Parliament a few years down the line, surely any ‘no’ campaign would be a pathetic laughing stock. Certainly, anyone calling for the abolition of the Scottish Parliament would be totally ignored.

It seems to me that most people now have very similar viewpoints on Scotland’s near-future constitutional direction. The differences are almost a matter of semantics, or at least of niggly details.

That was the conclusion I came to in the pub during this discussion. My nationalist sparring partner, if I understood him correctly, was more or less saying that once Scotland had fiscal powers it was more-or-less independent enough anyway. He was telling me, as a Lib Dem sympathiser, that given this huge amount of common ground the Lib Dems ought to be working with the SNP to try and advance these ideas.

In May 2007 I understood and supported the Lib Dems’ decision not to go into coalition with the SNP. There was a damaging perception that the Lib Dems would just get into bed with anyone so it was a good idea to try and put the lid on that. The flip-side, though, is that the Lib Dems are beginning to like an appendage of the Labour Party — and this isn’t the time to be that.

Worse still, particularly given the large amounts of common ground between the SNP and the Lib Dems on a variety of different issues, the Lib Dems are beginning to look like the sulky party. I am starting to think it would be much more constructive for the Lib Dems to start working with the SNP. Of course, given the relative success of the SNP minority administration so far, it wouldn’t be surprising if the SNP just thumbed their nose at any Lib Dem approach.

All-round, it is beginning to look like a huge missed opportunity. That underlines why I think we need to start focusing on the common ground rather than the minor differences and the petty squabbles.

Scotland sorely needs a proper national conversation right now. Unfortunately, the way things have worked out, we are having two conversations in tandem and the risk is that everyone is just preaching to the converted without actually taking in what ‘the others’ are saying. It’s not very constructive.

I think if everyone ditched the political posturing and the party rhetoric, the politicians and the people would probably find a lot to agree with. Am I right, or do you think I’m being a bit wide-eyed and naive? I want to try and find out.

Here is what I propose. As a starting point, I am going to ask if everyone believes that different powers should be held at different levels. This could be Scotland as part of the EU, Scotland as part of the UK and the EU, or whatever other permutations you care to come up with. I have already noted that I think almost everyone agrees with the principle of this. Am I wrong?

Once we get past the first hurdle, I want to understand why people believe that certain powers should be held by certain institutions. What powers should the Scottish Parliament have? In which areas would it be acceptable for Westminster to retain control? What would be the ideal role of the EU? If you think Westminster should be taken out of the equation completely, what is the reasoning behind that? I don’t necessarily want this to be a game of ‘fantasy constitution’. I’m only interested in realistic ideas.

I’ll post what I think the answers to these questions are within the next day. I hope some other bloggers join in so that we can see where we all agree and get a proper handle on where the disagreements come from.

To the extent that the SNP’s current electoral popularity is due to pro-SNP (rather than anti-Labour) effects, it must be remembered that there is much more than independence at play. Does an SNP success in an election mean that Scotland has suddenly converted to the cause of independence? Of course not.

Firstly, support for independence is pretty low at the moment. According to the 2007 Scottish Social Attitudes Survey (which I believe asks a question about independence every year), support for independence (PDF link) was lower than it had been since May 1997. Asked to choose between independence, devolution or getting rid of the Scottish Parliament altogether, just 23% plumped for independence.

The peak of support for independence was actually in September 1997 — ironically, also roughly when Labour were also at the height of their powers. Then, independence was favoured over devolution for, as far as I can tell, the only time in history. Over the preceding decade support for independence has flitted up and down but has been in a pronounced decline since 2005.

Another point to note is that this, the SNP’s most successful period ever, has come at a time when the SNP has played down its support for independence. Take the slogan it has used since last year’s election campaign. Instead of things like “Michty me, we’ll soon be free” and all that sort of thing, their slogan was: “It’s time.” Time for what? Time for bed? The SNP don’t say.

You have to admit, it is a fiendishly clever slogan. Classic dog whistle stuff. So SNP activists and hardened advocates for independence think it’s time for independence. Anti-Labour voters see it and think it’s time for a change, time to kick Labour out. In fact, it can mean whatever you want it to mean.

Crucially, the independence issue was not rammed down people’s throats by the SNP. Given the closeness of last year’s election, that could well have been what swung it for them.

You should also bear in mind that the SNP are very far away from being a single-issue party. A vote for the SNP is not necessarily a vote for independence, and often an SNP activist will be the first person to tell you this. For instance, Richard Leyton got this line from no less a person than Nicola Sturgeon.

Don’t want an independent Scotland? It doesn’t matter. The SNP have made it very clear that independence will only come after a referendum victory. In the meantime, there is a “national conversation” about independence where you can express your views if you so wish. In effect, the SNP have tried as hard as possible to divorce the independence issue from Scottish Parliament and Westminster elections. The debate over independence now runs separately.

So what explains the SNP’s success? It’s the policies stupid. It is conceivable that Fifers who voted for the SNP did so because they were enticed by their promise to abolish the bridge tolls. Students may have been attracted to their promise to “dump student debt”. And of course, the people who felt that there should be a change in government were always likely to vote SNP because they are the second largest party in Scotland, and the only party in a position to stand up to Labour.

It must also be said that Alex Salmond’s leadership has a lot to do with the SNP’s current success. Yes, he splits opinion. But like him or loathe him, you have to admit that he is a great politician. He is good orator and has the charisma and leadership qualities necessary. The only other Scottish leader that can compare to him in my book is Annabel Goldie, and even she is pretty colourless compared to Alex Salmond.

Particularly when you compare him to the likes of Nicol Stephen and Jack McConnell, who both look permanently nervous, Alex Salmond towers above everyone else in the Scottish Parliament. Wendy Alexander was no match for him either, particularly given the state of disarray Labour are in at the moment. With Alex Salmond at the helm, the SNP should expect an upswing in fortunes, especially since their leader at the 2003 Scottish Parliamentary election was the dull and ineffective John Swinney.

Back in Glasgow East, from what I gather, the issue of independence was not completely ignored, but it certainly did not form a major part of the campaign. Instead, it was presented as a contest where the electorate would pass judgement on the records of the Labour Government in Westminster and the SNP Government in Holyrood.

The SNP were also hugely advantaged by the fact that they were already in 2nd place in the constituency. If my theory about whichever party being in a position to beat Labour will win is correct, then it is no wonder the SNP did well while the Lib Dems tanked.

Most votes are wasted anyway, especially under the FPTP system. But a sure-fire way to waste your vote in Glasgow East was to vote for the Conservatives or the Lib Dems. Only hardened Tories and Lib Dems who despise Labour and the SNP equally will have voted for them (or, indeed, any of the other smaller parties).

In summary, I think that the SNP’s victory in Glasgow East means almost nothing for the union.

That is not to say that I think that the status quo will prevail. I think I am right when I say that all of the parties currently represented in the Scottish Parliament, and the largest parties that are not represented in the Scottish Parliament, all support some kind of increased devolution to varying degrees. That includes the Conservatives, who appear pretty open to the idea of the Scottish Parliament having some leverage over fiscal policy.

Even Labour, painted into a unionist corner by their opposition to the SNP, have toyed with the idea of fiscal autonomy. Mind you, that was under the leadership of Wendy Alexander, who seemed to be a bit of a loose cannon when it came to trying to tackle the issue of the constitution. Who knows what direction Labour will take under their new leader, but I suspect that they will find it difficult to maintain support unless the take the majority view that the Scottish Parliament should have a greater degree of fiscal autonomy.

All of this, though, is almost incidental to the success or otherwise of the SNP. Increased powers for the Scottish Parliament will not come about as a result of SNP success. It can come about as a result of the success of any party.

Flags seem to be in the news a bit at the moment, particularly over that pond. Is there nothing more interesting going on? Obviously not, because I can’t think of anything else to blog about at the moment. Anyway, the World Cup has enough of an excuse for flags to be discussed in the blogosphere anyway!

Anyway, flags. What a load of horse dung. I don’t mean that. I quite like flags themselves, as in the designs of them and so on. While we’re at it, I’ve been reminded of this website about flags that MatGB linked to a while ago. I didn’t link to it at the time because I don’t actually agree with a lot of it. Surely the Brazilian flag is one of the world’s coolest?

But what I really cannot stand about flags is the intense symbolism that surrounds them. Some people act like a flag is the most important thing in the world. I have been led to believe that in some parts of the USA a child could be swimming in his own shit outside a house, yet a passer-by would be more shocked by a tatty stars and stripes. That would probably happen in parts of Britain aswell, come to think of it.

I am one of these people who couldn’t really give two hoots about nationality. Sure, I like good aspects of Scotland / Britain / whatever, but that’s only because I was brought up here, and all of my memories are here. If I was born in Slovakia I would probably quite like Slovakia. Even if I was born in Scotland then moved to England when I was two years old I would probably feel more English than Scottish. Nationality is a load of old pish really. I am sorry if this makes me a wet old hippy. So be it.

So I think it would be kind of pointless to go around waving a Saltire. And I am not one of those people who thinks that it’s some kind of choice between the Saltire and the Union Flag and something else. I’m not a particular fan of either flag. The Union Flag is quite cleverly designed, but it looks like a complete mess.

Traditional Saltire Meanwhile the light blue used in the the “traditional” Saltire (to the right) just makes it look washed out, as though it’s been left out in the sun for too long (surely an impossibility in Scotland?!).

For what it’s worth, I quite prefer the design of England’s flag. Red and white is such a simple idea, and it works brilliantly. The English flag is bold, minimalist, and a dream for remixers to boot. So says Chris Applegate at least:

There is an important design element to it; many of the St George’s Crosses flying out there have been modified in many different ways. Corporate logos can be added to promote a brand, lions have been placed in the corners (alluding to the England team’s crest), or worst of all, “ENGLAND” is splashed across it (a big no-no in vexillology).

Defacing a flag like this is probably actually a hangable offence, but being a callous flag-hater I actually quite like the fact that people are claiming their flag in this way by adapting it to their own tastes (no matter how tasteless). I like this comment over at Qwghlm:

I think it shows a healthy lack of deference towards our prime patriotic symbol. The George Cross – unlike the Uion Flag – seems to have emerged as something to be enjoyed, not something to be revered. That’s about as healthy an approach to national identity as it gets, I say!

Davo the Bawbag is more a fan of Angola’s flag, so much so that he has adopted it as the header for his blog!

They also have possibly the most terrifying flag in the modern world – black and red with a fucking machete on it. That flag surely makes a statement. That statement being – “Fuck off or lose your legs. Your choice.”
They chose for their flag the colours of fear and blood, then stuck a fuck off big knife right in the middle of it.

Genius.

Anyway, on to the crux of my post. Given my indifference towards flags, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that I find flag burning one of the most bizarre activities in the world. I don’t blame the flag burners themselves. They want to cause a fuss and get a big reaction, and setting fire to a particular piece of cloth certainly gets them that with the minimum of effort.

And therein lies the problem. People who act as though burning a flag is an act of war or something! In the USA flag burning is so awful that they are always planning on making it illegal (even though they never seem to have a problem with starting actual wars where people die and stuff). Apparently the American flag is such a strong symbol of freedom of speech that they need to curb freedom of speech in order to protect this symbol of freedom of speech, otherwise freedom of speech will be eroded and the terrorists have won!

Here is Longrider:

I’ve always viewed the behaviour of angry flag burning mobs as little more than playground temper tantrums that never quite made it to the adult world. Libertine views the matter similarly to the burning of books and I guess he has a point. There is something repugnant about it, which is why people do it. The desecration of a national symbol is deeply insulting and it is intended to express maximum displeasure. The counter to this, surely, is to ignore it; refuse to rise to the obloquy.

And via Longrider, in the Times Online News Log (dead tree, geddit?):

Speaking for the protection of Old Glory, the Republican Majority Leader Bill Frist said: “Countless men and women have died defending that flag. It is but a small humble act for us to defend it.”

A load of rubbish. I think if anybody died for the sake of a flag then they must have been a bit thick. As Longrider points out:

Surely they died defending what it represented and in passing this amendment to the constitution, it would no longer represent that, would it?

And, via Guardian Unlimited’s Newslog, Jonathan Alter:

For dad – and me – any member of Congress who supports amending the Bill of Rights for the first time in the history of this country for a nonproblem like flag burning is showing serious disrespect for our Constitution and for the values for which brave Americans gave their lives. Such disrespect is a much more serious threat than the random idiots who once every decade or so try (often unsuccessfully) to burn a flag.

Some people obviously care very much about what a flag represents but at the end of the day I say it is just a piece of cloth. And if people didn’t get so worked up about it, flag burners probably wouldn’t burn flags.