Archive: culture

Save BBC 6 Music

If the reports that the BBC will close down 6 Music are true, it is a great shame. Of course, this could be seen coming. The BBC has been utterly weak in almost every respect for the past few years, and it is difficult to escape the notion that it is too big, with too many outlets. Of course, when effectively forced to cut back, it will opt to close down the high quality products, rather than those that are merely popular.

6 Music is the only mainstream radio station where you can regularly hear genuinely experimental and alternative music on a regular basis. It is the only station that confounds expectations and delights in challenging the listener.

The Freak Zone is a jewel in 6 Music’s crown, dedicated to playing esoteric music from today and undiscovered gems from the past. For sure, it is a challenging listen at times — but that is the very point.

Similarly, Jarvis Cocker’s Sunday Service is truly unique. One of the most eclectic playlists I have ever heard is mixed with ponderings on, for instance, the sad beauty of abandoned Christmas trees.

I have effused before about Adam and Joe, which I think was genuinely the best programme on radio. These are just three of the must-listen radio programmes that 6 Music has brought us.

6 Music should have broadened its horizons

There is simply no commercial alternative. In short, it is precisely the sort of thing that the BBC should be doing.

In fact, I have in the past been critical of 6 Music for not being adventurous enough in the past. The BBC does, after all, already have three other major music radio stations, each of which is dedicated to playing different strands of mainstream music. There is, of course, nothing wrong with that. But this should have provided 6 Music with the opportunity to explore the outer reaches of music more freely.

Instead, 6 Music has ended up being slightly unsure of its role. It has come to attain a dual identity. One is that of a genuinely exploratory musical agenda, for discerning listeners who are passionate about the music they already love, and are itching to discover new music.

The other is that of a mere weakened popular music station with a vague indie bent. This aspect made it like a transition station for listeners who have moved on from Radio 1 but can’t yet bring themselves to listen to Radio 2. Hence the travesty of George Lamb. There are plenty of commercial alternatives for these people to turn to. This is an audience that doesn’t need to be catered for by the BBC.

Instead of trying to gain listeners with gimmicky attempts to cater for the masses, 6 Music should have set its sights higher by increasing its quality. It could be transformed into a station that is genuinely dedicated to music that you won’t find on other radio stations.

And there is no need to stop at music. It could encompass culture as a whole. Why shouldn’t such a station also champion alternative comedy, experimental drama and the like? It could be like a well funded version of Resonance FM.

Instead, the BBC appears to have taken the coward’s option. Instead of setting its sights towards enhancing the station so that it becomes a great hub for alternative and experimental culture, it has weakly chosen to throw in the towel. Instead of realising the potential of 6 Music and promoting it properly, the BBC has left it in a corner to gather cobwebs and eventually die.

The BBC’s disregard for experimental culture

This would be palatable if it weren’t for the fact that experimental music has been increasingly marginalised on the BBC’s other radio stations over the past decade as well. As if the passing of John Peel wasn’t enough of a blow to adventurous music on the BBC, the corporation appears to be determined to dismantle every last piece of its experimental music programming.

A decade ago Radio 1’s evening schedule was brimming with experimental music. But the station’s few remaining programmes dedicated to experimental music have all been shunted to shorter, graveyard time slots. To take just one example, Rob da Bank’s programme is on at the truly insulting 5-7am on a Saturday. Meanwhile, Mary Anne Hobbs’s Breezeblock is on at 2-4am on Thursday morning.

New experimental music has all but disappeared from Radio 3 as well. Since Mixing It was removed from the schedules, all that has remained is Late Junction, which has itself been marginalised in recent years.

In short, the BBC is doing less of the sort of programming it should be making, and replacing it with the sort of thing that ought to be left to its commercial rivals.

Absolute to the rescue?

The Times suggested that Absolute Radio may be interested in buying 6 Music should the BBC decide to close it down. It seems to me as though Clive Dickens was merely making a point about the inefficient way the BBC has run 6 Music.

But the idea that Absolute might acquire 6 Music and keep it alive is an interesting prospect. I have find myself being increasingly impressed with Absolute. I am sure that it has taken inspiration from 6 Music as it tries to re-build itself without the Virgin brand behind it.

Like 6 Music, Absolute thinks of itself as a home for good music (although in practice it just trots out middle-of-the-road dad rock). It mixes this with the use of comedians like Dave Gorman, Frank Skinner and Iain Lee as presenters.

This is the exact model that 6 Music has used throughout its existence. The station was launched by Phill Jupitus, who presented the 6 Music breakfast show for several years. Since then, 6 Music has been home to several comedians.

I find it doubtful that a radio station like 6 Music would flourish as a commercial operation. But if anyone can pull it off, it is Absolute. It would be fabulous.

The BBC has failed to convincingly promote digital radio. The lack of publicity is the real reason why 6 Music has so few listeners. Fewer than 10% of Radio 1 listeners are listening on a digital platform. When 6 Music is only available on digital platforms, it is no wonder it appears to perform so poorly. Only one in five people in the UK have even heard of the station. Hence Adam Buxton’s joke that it is “the secret station”.

Yet, over 54% of Absolute Radio’s listeners (approximately 31 minutes in) outside of London now listen on digital. The BBC, with all its supposed marketing might, has failed to generate anything like this sort of result, despite having shedloads of cash dedicated to the exercise.

The BBC is now weak and ineffective. It has failed digital radio, and it is now failing to commit to the very adventurous programming it is supposed to be dedicated to.

The country lurches back into its usual routine this week. But with the new year comes changes, and a vital part of everyone’s daily life — the radio — will seem very different.

My parents are concerned about what will happen to Radio 2 after the departure of Terry Wogan from breakfast. They were not happy to hear that his replacement will be Chris Evans. My parents originally stopped listening to Radio 1 when Chris Evans took over the Radio 1 breakfast show. (Quite how they tolerated Steve Wright before this is beyond me though.)

I get the feeling that they will stick with Radio 2. Chris Evans is a very different broadcaster to what he was ten or fifteen years ago and has apparently pleased most people with his performances on Radio 2 so far.

While Terry Wogan’s last show was the one that caught all the headlines, the end of two other radio programmes will be far more disruptive to my routine. I was not a listener of Terry Wogan’s, though I don’t suppose I am really part of his target audience.

The end of Adam and Joe

Much bigger news in my world has been the end of Adam and Joe’s programme on BBC 6 Music. They are raising the drawbridge at the Big British Castle for an indefinite period while Joe Cornish focuses on his new career as a film director.

This programme has been a core part of my week for the past two years. It is also unusual because due to its Saturday morning time slot, it has been the only thing that has managed to get me to wake up at a decent hour on a Saturday.

Adam and Joe have an excellent knack of doing a type of humour which is silly but not stupid — a balance that very few manage to strike. This made it ideal listening for the start of the weekend. It was perhaps something to gently lift you out of a mild hangover. The accompanying podcast was also excellent for lifting spirits during your journey into work.

Their gentle humour was mixed with sharp observations on popular culture. Increasingly, towards the end of the programme’s run, listener contributions were a larger part of the programme. Combined with the programme’s elite listening force Black Squadron and the STEPHEN! phenomenon, there was quite a tight-knit community feel to the show.

This was no doubt helped by the fact that it was on BBC 6 Music, jokingly referred to by Adam Buxton as “the secret station”. Even though it was the most popular programme on the station by quite a long way, due to its location in the outer reaches of select DAB sets, Adam and Joe’s was a cosy and understated programme. It is difficult to imagine Adam and Joe’s programme working so well on another, larger radio station.

Adam and Joe’s replacement will be Danny Wallace, who is not quite in the same league. It will leave a huge gap in my Saturday mornings. What else can I listen to? Saturday Live on Radio 4? Sorry, not for me. Jonathan Ross on Radio 2? Possibly. Or will I return to my old ‘default’ radio station, Radio 5 Live, for Danny Baker and Fighting Talk?

Changes at Radio 5 Live

Speaking of Radio 5 Live, that is the source of the other big change to my radio routine. Richard Bacon has vacated the late-night slot to take over from Simon Mayo, who is moving to replace Chris Evans on Drivetime at Radio 2.

I was a fan of Richard Bacon during his first stint on 5 Live in the weekend late-night slot, and he continued to delight when he returned to the station to do weeknights. Given his background, he is surprisingly good at dealing with big issues as well as light-hearted stuff.

He is also unafraid to use humour. It could be so embarrassing (and some would probably say it is), but I think it works well. The interesting bit after 12:30am was entertaining and brave. I can’t think of many other presenters who would get away with completely doing away with news for half an hour every day on Radio 5 Live.

I am greatly regretful that I never managed to get my hands on one of those badges. It was nevertheless an honour and a privilege to listen.

Richard Bacon’s irreverence is what makes him good as a broadcaster, but it’s difficult to see how he can leverage this in his new mid-afternoon slot, one of the most important in 5 Live’s schedule. Most disappointingly, it will be on during the daytime, meaning that I won’t be able to listen to it.

The replacement in the late night slot will be former Daily Sport editor Tony Livesey. I will reserve judgement until I hear the programme. I gather he is actually quite good. But if I don’t take to it, I might take the unusual step of switching to a commercial radio station during weeknights to listen to Iain Lee on Absolute Radio.

Richard Bacon’s move is part of a wider shake-up at Radio 5 Live, which also sees Gabby Logan getting a daily slot. With the day going from the Nicky Campbell Speak You’re Branes hour to Victoria Derbyshire to Gabby Logan, it’s not difficult to see why some people have started to nickname the station Radio 5 Lite.

It’s not quite the quality station I loved just a few years ago. Just now Radio 5 Live seems utterly bereft of ideas, aside from attempting to stealthily change it into a 24/7 Mark Kermode station. At least Up All Night is still good.

If I was being uncharitable, I might suggest that the presenters that remain at the station are the ones who are prepared to make the move to Salford when the station relocates there next year. The logic behind moving a radio station that covers news (most of which happens in London) to Manchester is still beyond me, I have to admit.

On the bright side…

It’s not all bad news on the radio front. In addition to his new daytime Radio 5 Live slot, Richard Bacon has a Saturday afternoon programme on 6 Music. He promises to take some of the jollity of his late night 5 Live show to 6 Music. But who listens to radio at that time? Not me.

I might make space in my Sunday afternoons for 6 Music though. Jarvis Cocker will have a new programme alongside the already-excellent Freak Zone.

But weekend mornings will still be a problem. And I’ll need a new comedy podcast to replace Adam and Joe. Does anyone have any suggestions? (Not Collings and Herrin — I tried it, and it was crap.)

What a stooshie there is over the Scottish budget and John Swinney’s plan to scrap the Glasgow Airport Rail Link. I have found the reaction from Labour very interesting. Their strategy appears to be to attempt to paint it as an anti-Glasgow policy from an Edinburgh-centric party.

Jeff thought that Steven Purcell may have jumped the gun by describing the SNP’s budget proposals as “anti-Glasgow”. But if he did, Labour certainly weren’t embarrassed about it, and enthusiastically jumped on the bandwagon. Already during the budget debate Margaret Curran had asked a pointed question about just what was in the budget for Glasgow.

Separate parts of Labour soon latched on to the idea. For instance, Tom Harris was very quick to tweet the following: “Gutted by the SNP’s decision to axe the Glasgow Airport rail link. Serves us right for not being Edinburgh, I suppose.” I also noticed an update from the official Scottish Labour Twitter account which said, “Glasgow is being ripped off by the SNP in Edinburgh.”

Will “the SNP in Edinburgh” became a nice little catchphrase, just as “London Labour” effortlessly rolls off the tongue of any nationalist? I predict that it won’t. “The SNP in Edinburgh” is slightly clunky-sounding, while “London Labour” has an alliterative, almost symmetrical quality.

Trying to associate the SNP with Edinburgh is also a bit strange given that the SNP occupy just one of Edinburgh’s five seats while Labour MSPs currently sit in two of them. At least in this respect it makes about as much sense as “London Labour”, which was always quite a curious turn of phrase given that Labour have their greatest concentration of support in Scotland, not London.

You can say one thing — Labour’s move into the realm of regional politics is an interesting strategy. But as far as I can see, most people seem to just be rolling their eyes at the anti-Glasgow claim. The relative merits of Garl aside for the moment (and I think it is a mistake to scrap it), there surely can’t be many cities that have had more public money poured into them in recent decades than Glasgow.

Do Labour risk painting themselves into a Glasgow-shaped corner? Is there any real point in Labour playing this card? If there is one place in Scotland where their vote is safe, it is Glasgow. I fear that by focussing so strongly on Glasgow, they could easily make themselves less electable in the rest of Scotland.

I mean, in what way is wailing for yet more pork in Glasgow supposed to appeal to the rest of Scotland? Most people were quite heartily sick of the Glasgow-centric nature of the Labour party, as Lallands Peat Worrier explains quite well. And the Glasbolisation of the Scottish media is as tiresome as any London bias.

But it will be interesting to see how the SNP cope with the anti-Glasgow accusation. They cannot really afford to give up on Glasgow. Nor can they reject Labour’s line of reasoning, because this sort of territorial whining is their bread and butter.

That is one of the things that puts me off the SNP so much. They try to exaggerate the cultural and political differences between Scotland and the rest of the UK, while playing down any differences within Scotland. Take, for instance, top SNP blogger Jeff, who on Friday scoffed not once but twice:

…as if there is any significant difference between Glasgwegians and Edinburgers.

Let’s all settle down shall we, factionalism is what tore Scotland apart in the early 1700s. Let’s not go back to those days.

It’s kind of funny to hear the SNP pleading against tearing a country apart. After all, it is normally de rigueur for the SNP to constantly make out that there is a significant difference when in reality there is just a bit of normal human diversity — just as long as the dividing line is the Scottish / English border.

The constant SNP refrain that a democratically elected Conservative government should not have the right to govern over Scotland because they have slightly less support north of the border is one of my biggest bugbears. As I have pointed out before, there will be regional differences within any democracy, no matter how you draw the borders.

So in Scotland you have Labour’s famous dominance of the West of Scotland. Meanwhile, the further north you go, the more likely you are, generally, to be in an SNP seat. There are no SNP constituency MSPs south of Kilmarnock and Loudoun, with the vast majority coming from north of the central belt. The other parties have their geographical cleavages of support too.

But for the SNP, the only important regional divide is the one that divides Scotland from the rest of the UK. They would have you believe that other regional differences don’t exist, or at least that they are not nearly as important.

This is one of the reasons why I reject nationalism. It is fundamentally disingenuous. At least Labour’s tactic has this going for it: it could show up the major contradiction of the SNP’s world view.

I’ve been thinking about getting involved in podcasting for a while now. So when I saw a favourite blogger of mine asking for contributors to a new podcast he was setting up, I thought it was the ideal opportunity to dip my toe in the water.

The podcast is the idea of James O’Malley, a fine chap with a jolly good blog. His thinking is to have a number of contributors chipping in to a weekly podcast which will be around 15–20 minutes long. The podcast will be along the lefty / liberal / atheist / skeptical / rationalist lines. Read James O’Malley’s explanation for more.

What was missing was a name for the podcast. A bit difficult to come up with a name for something that only exists in your brain. But with the vague template in mind, I set to work, along with the other contributors, to think of a suitable name.

Suddenly, it came to me. After I had been lying in bed literally unable to sleep for hours, it suddenly came to me: The Pod Delusion. Yes, I know. I’m a genius. Not quite a living legend like James O’Malley though. Nonetheless, the fact that I came up with the excellent name means that The Pod Delusion is definitely my podcast. The fact that I put no effort whatsoever into creating it, producing it or commissioning pieces for it is frankly neither here nor there.

Anyway, I am quite excited about The Pod Delusion. With the stellar line-up of contributors, it seems like it’s going to be ace. If everything goes to plan and this week’s pilot goes down well, you can expect a new episode every Friday. My plan is to publish all transcripts of my contributions, or an accompanying article, on this website as and when each podcast is published.

Here is the first episode of The Pod Delusion. I have just listened to it myself. Since it’s the first ever attempt, it is a tad ramshackular, but that will get better over time. All-in-all, I think it’s a fine listen.

Hopefully sometime soon it will be available over iTunes too. You can follow @poddelusion on Twitter.

My first little piece for The Pod Delusion is about product placement. When I first set about doing it, my intention was to try and make it serious. I had actually been planning to write here about the product placement hoo-ha, but then decided I could kill two birds with one stone by making it my Pod Delusion contribution too.

Unfortunately, I got a little bit carried away with the fact that I was working in an exciting new audio medium. I inserted a few audio jokes which won’t work in writing. From then on, the whole thing became just a collection of bad jokes about product placement, strung together by the flimsiest of wafer-thin serious points.

So, bearing that in mind, here is my contribution to this week’s Pod Delusion.

It was announced last week by Culture Secretary Ben Bradshaw that product placement will soon be allowed on commercial channels. I suppose there was an inevitability in this. After all, commercial broadcasters finding it harder to sustain themselves through traditional advertising in a multichannel world. Plus, we are living in an era where so many people use PVRs to fast-forward through the adverts anyway.

There has to be some way to fund commercial television. After all, what would we do without ITV? Okay, that’s a bad example. But what would we do without Channel Five? Well okay, but you get my point.

Many worry about the effects that product placement will have on the viewing experience. With product placement, there will be a question mark over the purity of the programmes we watch. Will our programmes be peppered with subliminal advertising that attempt to brainwash us into changing the brand of soap powder that we use?

I’m not so sure that will be such an issue. After all, we are well used to product placements in major films. Television programmes from other countries are filled with product placements already. I am sure that most people are savvy enough to tell what’s going on.

For instance, it can be disconcerting to watch an episode on Neighbours when one of the characters decides to open the fridge. Inexplicably, the fridge is filled from wall to wall with nothing but cans of Sprite! That is obviously a nonsensical scenario. It would have been far more realistic if the fridge was filled from wall to wall with cans of tasty Dr Pepper — “what’s the worst that can happen?”

The odd thing about imported programmes is that due to the stricter laws in the UK, our broadcasters have to blur such product placements out. But this only brings attention to the fact that there is an alien blob floating around on the screen.

Focusing on the blobs on American Idol, for instance, you can clearly see that the judges have large cups on their desk. These cups are predominantly red but with a distinctive white swirl that can only be associated with Coke. Mmm… fresh, ice cold Coke.

The new product placement rules do not affect the BBC. But it would be interesting to consider what it might be like if one day the rules were relaxed for the BBC too. After all, is there anything more ridiculous than the slightly awkward attempts to avoid using brand names during makes on Blue Peter? Referring to “sticky back plastic” may be quaint and traditional, but it is also distracting and sets off a klaxon in your brain that sounds something like: “SELLOTAPE! SELLOTAPE!

I once saw a Blue Peter make where you had to use a “crisp tube”. What on earth is a crisp tube? Crisps come in packets don’t they? What they were talking about was a pack of Pringles. Given that Pringles are the only make of crisps to be sold in that style of tub, you can more or less guarantee that sales of Pringles went through the roof anyway — all because of the BBC’s massive abuse of power.

Well I think I have said all there is to say about product placement. I think what I will do now is take off my Specsavers glasses and shut down my Asus Eee PC. Then I think I will listen to my Apple iPod, while eating a fresh sandwich from Subway.

Or perhaps I will just go for a piss in my Armitage Shanks toilet.

It is notoriously hard to get to grips with the youth. Advertisers hate it. The age group of 15–24 — of which, incidentally, I am still part — is notoriously fickle. They define themselves almost in terms of what they are not rather than what they are.

That is the explanation being given to the counter-intuitive finding by Ofcom that the proportion of 15–24-year-olds using Facebook has decreased in the past year. Facebook as a whole is still growing. But the problem is that it’s now full of parents and teachers, and it would be deeply uncool to be using a website like that.

In the same week, a Nielsen study has shown that teenagers don’t use Twitter. It has been long suspected that they never did use Twitter in large numbers, but now there are figures to prove it.

That came just weeks after a 15-year-old doing work experience made a splash with Morgan Stanley who were trying to get a grip on what the future might look like. Matthew Robson said, among other things, that Twitter is for old people only.

It probably comes a surprise to some. Even Mashable implies it wouldn’t have believed it if it hadn’t seen the figures. I am sure there are lots of people out there who imagine sites like Facebook and Twitter being full of youths donning virtual hoodies and organising virtual knifings. But young people are not so easy to pin down. The Ofcom report declines to tell us what young people actually are spending their time online doing, although we know for sure that they are online in their droves.

Mine is the first generation to have grown up with the internet. And like every shift in in youth culture, from rock and roll to video games, it gets people thinking about the possible downsides of growing up in a new environment. So they say that the internet gives you a short attention span. Or it dehumanises community life and leads to suicide.

I was recently emailed by a reader and occasional commenter here, Fran Walker. She was curious to know, what with me being a youth and all, if I have a life outside the computer?

As the worry of tinies not being able to interact with other humans, and the problems this may later lead to, is current news, it makes me wonder how you get on, as I regard you as one of the first of the “totally familiar with computers generation”? My son, who is 39 and lives in Taiwan, uses them for specific tasks, dislikes emails, prefers phone calls, and was in the first lot at school when computers were introduced, but he had a computer free childhood before that (say before 12 or 13), whereas, I suspect you had access to your parents’ computer since you can remember?

Like, I suspect, most people my age, I do indeed have a life outside of the computer, although it’s true I spend a lot of time on it. Partly this is because most of my work requires me to use the computer. Then, much of my spare time is consumed by the search for work, which is easiest to do on the internet.

There is also the plain fact that I love being connected to the internet for a whole host of reasons. Most of all, it brings me into contact with so many people I otherwise would not have. And it enables me to contact existing friends easily and comfortably. As Shane Richmond pointed out in his response to Vincent Nichols, the internet “enriches communication, it doesn’t destroy it.”

It is definitely the case that people in my generation are more familiar with computers. When I was young my parents had a BBC Micro, although it was quite old-fashioned even then. As far as I was concerned it was only really good for playing quite rudimentary games, when I could have been playing more sophisticated console games.

We only really got a contemporary computer in the late 1990s, and access to the internet came after that. By that time I was into my teens, so I can definitely remember a pre-internet era. I think for my generation, there were still a lot of people who didn’t have experience with the internet until they were fairly old.

I certainly remember when we started using the internet at school during my standard grades, aged about 15 or 16, there was at least one person in my class who had never used the internet before. Mind you, it’s true that I remember it so vividly because it was so unusual.

People often pose the hypothetical question, “could you survive for a day without the internet?” I recently went away for a short break, and I probably spent longer away from the internet than I have done for years.

Mind you, I expected to still be connected. But thanks to O2’s shaky 3G service it wasn’t to be. That was quite annoying because I wanted to contact people through Twitter. But it wasn’t the end of the world. I had a lot to do anyway, and was focusing on doing the things I wanted to do on my break.

As for voluntarily foregoing access, I think it would be difficult but not impossible. Certainly, one of the first things I do when I get up in the morning is check the internet, and it’s one of the last things I do at night. Would there be any point in not checking? I don’t think so.

A thought experiment like this is not terribly useful. You could try to “survive” a day without the internet, but what would it prove? Could you go for a week without reading your post? Or a month without reading newspapers? I certainly couldn’t survive a day without listening to the radio — I would go round the bend very quickly if I was deprived of it. Is that healthy or unhealthy?

For my generation, having a life outside the computer is no problem. Certainly, I spend a while on the computer. But many people might spend that time watching bad television or getting steaming drunk down the pub, which is much less healthy than spending your time reading Wikipedia.

But — and this is where I start to show that I am at the older end of the “youth” bracket — there is a but. My generation is not the first to grow up having not known a pre-internet world. In fact, I haven’t even had access to the internet for half of my life. So the real people to ask about the worry of an internet-obsessed world would be those who are currently 10 or under, and have never known a pre-internet home or school.

However, I would predict that, like Elvis’s dangerously swinging pelvis, we will come to view as quaint the fact that there was ever any concern.

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.

I reckon this could be the issue that brings down the curtain on the SNP’s honeymoon period. They seem to have messed up a bit when it comes to universities, on two different issues.

Firstly, the universities say they are disappointed in the amount of funding they will get. The universities asked for £168 million extra and said that a minimum of £40 million extra was required for levels of funding to remain the same in real terms. What they actually got was £30 million — a real terms cut.

I have never been to any universities except for Edinburgh, so I couldn’t say how it compares to other institutions around the world. But I can’t help but wonder if the continued public funding of universities in this manner is unsustainable.

There is already a perception that Edinburgh University is increasing the number of international students it enrols. International students are the only students they can make money out of, so Scottish students will begin to be squeezed out.

It already disadvantages us in at least one high-profile way. The move to semesterisation has been seen as an attempt to attract international students who want to be back home for Christmas — but had a range of negative consequences for other students (additionally, that document doesn’t mention the fact that sometimes there can be just a few days between your last lecture and your first exam in December).

If it is true that Scottish universities are facing a real terms cut in funding, then this trend will continue. Then Scottish students will be worse off.

The other place where the SNP is feeling the heat is over their ditched plans to “dump student debt”. If you were a student, it was difficult to avoid the SNP’s ‘debt monster’ character. A number of blogs were even decorated with graphics of the creature. It was clearly a key policy in attracting student votes. So it’s hardly a surprise that a lot of students feel a bit miffed now.

I can hardly blame the SNP for not implementing this policy, which in my view (speaking as someone with £7,000 and counting to pay back to the Student Loans Company) was stark raving bonkers. They shouldn’t have promised it in the first place.

Both of these areas link into the fact that students have it far too easy. Proponents of free higher education miss the point of higher education. A degree is supposed to be a signal to employers that you are talented. For this signal to work, a degree has to be costly to attain.

After all, if it was easy to get a degree, any old fool could get one. This would lead to the ‘devaluation’ of degrees that people so often talk about. The point of making a degree costly is to separate the wheat from the chaff, as it were. If getting a degree pays off for someone who is not so smart, then degrees are no longer a useful indicator to employers and everyone is worse off as a result.

Of course, degrees are costly anyway. Not in a monetary sense, but in a time sense. Theoretically, examinations are (hopefully) hard enough to deter the not-so-smart from spending four years of their life studying, and the opportunity costs that entails (i.e. four years spent unable to work full time).

However, it doesn’t quite work like that. When people are growing up, nobody is told the truth about university. Parents always push you into going into university due to pride. They don’t want their several years and piles of money invested in a life to come to nothing. Schools are the same — if a lot of a school’s pupils go to university, it reflects well on a school’s reputation. Meanwhile, governments like to encourage people to go to university because it reflects well on their reputation and it helps keep a lid on unemployment figures.

For this reason, there are many students who are walking around like headless chickens, not knowing what to do next (I would include myself in this group). So many people are forced by societal pressure into going into university. A lot of people grow up knowing having been told by parents, schools and governments that they will go into university. These people simply don’t consider any other alternative. Then when they are about to graduate they are stumped.

The obsession with persuading young people to go to university has also led to the fetishisation of “student culture”. Thanks to this, those four years are not seen as a cost at all. They are seen as the best four years of your life. Four years spent getting drunk. The degree is seen as a nice bonus. Fair enough if people want to enjoy themselves — but this is at the expense of taxpayers’ money.

How do we know that degrees are not costly enough? Because some graduates — mostly male arts students (who? me?!) — end up earning less than people who do not go to university. (This is part of the reason why this issue angers me a bit. If I knew I had to pay, I would have been forced to think through my choices a bit more, and would probably have made a better decision.)

Before statists and socialists start moaning, let me point this out. If degrees are costly, this need not preclude poor people from getting one. For one thing, poor people are the very people who benefit the most from university education, so they have the biggest incentive to invest in it.

Also, I still think it would be unfair to make poor people pay upfront. I would not be averse to the introduction of university tuition fees as long as they did not involve up-front monetary costs. Instead, the money ought to be paid after graduation (or drop-out) in line with your ability to pay. This is how student loans work, so I don’t see how it couldn’t work with tuition fees.

Besides, any pretence that free higher education helps poor people would soon be shattered if you spent five minutes on a university campus. Students are overwhelmingly middle class anyway. Instead of helping the poor, public funding of university education hinders the poor. It takes working people’s tax money and ploughs it into the pockets of middle class Tarquin and his Classics degree.

This is not necessarily to say that I am completely opposed to any state involvement in higher education. I would understand if there were a clear need to provide an incentive for people to attend university (although surely the prospect of a highly-paid job ought to be enough incentive). But today, 52% of 18–30 year olds either have a higher education qualification or are currently studying for one. There is hardly a shortage of graduates, or people wanting to graduate.

I have never really got into student life. Despite the fact that I hate summer, I love the holiday aspect of it. This is not because I am a lazy bum, because in my opinion I have actually been quite busy this summer. And the busiest bit (two weeks in Cumbernauld) was the bit I enjoyed the most.

Ever since I started at university I have noticed a pattern. The first Christmas after starting university felt amazing. I couldn’t work out why, but I just went along with it. After all, you oughtn’t worry about feeling good. Then, between Christmas and New Year it hit me again: I realised that I would have to go back to university in a couple of weeks.

Since then, every university holiday has felt the same. It’s not just having time off. Like I said, I am just as busy when I am away from university, just doing different stuff. But just not having to be there is such a weight off my mind. I must really hate university.

At this time of year a lot of people ask me if I’m looking forward to going back to university. The answer, “Actually, I’m dreading it,” is mostly met with confusion. It’s a bit like the “how are you” conversations. You’re not actually allowed to say what you actually feel about university. Student life is meant to be amazing — the best years of your life. I have spent them depressively gazing at my feet.

Student life is way overrated if you ask me. Maybe part of it is down to the fact that I still live at home, so I don’t get to sample much in the way of student life. I don’t get the fun bits. I just get the work. Plus three hours of commuting hell every single day. I don’t get to do all the cool things students do, whatever they are.

But even if I lived in Edinburgh I doubt I would be into it much. Student culture is probably one of the biggest stains on humanity. When it doesn’t involve getting horrendously drunk for the most tenuous of reasons, it seems to be about “ironically” watching Neighbours, “ironically” saying “retrooo” at anything that is vaguely more old-fashioned than an iPod Touch and “ironically” being a total and utter twat.

Plus, for a section of society that is meant to be well-educated and open minded, students are an incredibly reactionary bunch. You meet extremists of all sorts — right- as well as left-wing. I find myself wandering around going, “Where are all the reasonable people?” I can’t remember the last time I heard a student say, “On the one hand… On the other hand.” [Insert obligatory dig at excessive bansturbators People & Planet here.]

All-in-all, it is enough to make me want to “ironically” reach for the nearest gun and “ironically” shoot myself so that I could go to “ironic” hell, because that might be a little bit more pleasant than a university campus.

This year, the dread came a bit earlier than previous years. It came over me like a massive black cloud on a visit to Edinburgh a month or so back. I used to quite like Edinburgh, but now it just reminds me of university dread. On top of all of the usual stuff, I have to contend with a couple of factors that are making me more scared of this year than usual.

First there is the dissertation. Because of my unexpectedly busy summer, I have not done as much preparation over the summer as I would have liked. The deadline is March, but still. I have not come much further forward since April. And next week I have to meet my Director of Studies who is the same person as my Dissertation Supervisor. Meep.

Then there is the fact that I have still not worked out what the hell I am going to do once I have finished university. Given that this is my final year, I had better think of something quickly.

The thing about careers is, you really need to have a good idea of what you want to do from a young age. If you haven’t worked it out by the time you’re about 15, I reckon you are screwed (like me). I used to say to people, “It’s a bit worrying, I don’t know what I’m going to do once I leave education.” Invariably people said, “It doesn’t matter. Nobody really knows what they want to do. You still have plenty of time to think of something.”

This is bullcrap. I found this out the hard way by actually believing it. The thing is, the advice stays like that until you reach the age of about 20. At which point the general advice becomes, “Well you should have decided before then, shouldn’t you!” True, but unhelpful. And then you are stuck with it, all set for a life spent wandering around like a headless chicken.

So given that I have to think up a profession quick-smart, I am going to have to attend every Careers Service event under the sun this year. To have this on top of the dissertation, I have a feeling it’s going to be a pretty tough year.

Nothing against them personally, you understand. I’m sure they are perfectly nice gentlemen. But their music… oh my goodness.

Despite being ostensibly a pretty average folk-pop band, The Proclaimers are, for some reason, held up as some kind of pseudo-Gods in Scotland. Living legends, if you will. I mean, if you were to do a straw poll of Scots and asked them if they liked The Proclaimers, probably around two thirds would say ‘yes’.

Even those people who weren’t even born the last time The Proclaimers wrote a good song would say that they like them. It is a fact that, despite the fact that they are still making music today, they have had no notable new hit songs in well over a decade and a half.

But they are number 1 today due to the neverending popularity of ‘I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles)’, now with some additional help from Peter Kay and Matt Lucas, a couple of once-funnymen who lamentably have both been unable to come up with a new joke for about three years.

I don’t even particularly have anything against the music of The Proclaimers. They have some quite good songs. ‘I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles)’ is among them. Whenever the song is played in a public place it is greeted with mass euphoria. And, yeah, I think it’s all right as well.

But there is one niggling thing that really, really annoys me about The Proclaimers. That thing is also one of the aspects of the duo that makes them so phenomenally popular in Scotland. But it really, really gets up my rear pipe.

The singing.

The singing. Why?

They sing with one of the most contrived accents you will ever hear, twisting every vowel out of shape to an extent that you would never hear in a normal conversation or even in any other song, even a song sung by a Scot. It’s meant to be really patriotic because they are supposedly singing with their real accents, unlike all of those other bands that sing with fakey American accents.

But The Proclaimers do not sing with their real accents. Their hometown is only around thirty minutes from where I live, but I have never in my life heard anybody talk the way The Proclaimers sing — not even The Proclaimers. I have heard The Proclaimers speaking and they actually speak with a normal accent.

If somebody came up to you and spoke with the accent that The Proclaimers use when they are singing, you would think he had special needs or something. That is why you never hear anybody talking like that. Quite why this word warping is celebrated when somebody starts singing is beyond me.

I am afraid that The Proclaimers are right at the arse end of Scottish culture. In a fair world they would be rivals with that silver guy doing the robot. They belong more in some tatty souvenir shop in some piss-stained alleyway off Princes Street than at the top of the charts.

There have been a couple of long responses to my last post on libertarianism and Ukip.

First out of the blocks was Longrider, who takes us away from abstract political ideologies and brings in a bit of pragmatism.

Libertarianism in its pure form is anarchy. If you are to have individual freedom, sooner or later you are going to need commonly accepted rules to govern the limits of that freedom. Put simply, all freedoms are limited to a greater or lesser degree. I do not profess to have the freedom to do as I please if it hurts others or impinges on their freedoms. The moment we accept this principle, we have stepped away from the brink of anarchy that is the absolute of libertarianism.

None of the libertarian bloggers I frequent appear to be offering anarchy as an alternative to what we have. This means that they recognise the need for some form of collective behaviour where individuals are unable to achieve their aims alone. We need government for foreign policy, policing, defence, local services, for example. Therefore, we accept (grudgingly) the need for general taxation to fund these activities. Depending on just how extreme is the individual will decide just how large that list is. So all of those libertarian bloggers are prepared to compromise. It doesn’t damage their libertarian credentials, though; it merely makes them pragmatists.

Longrider is absolutely correct. There is probably not a single (sane) person on the planet who thinks that there should be no government. But this is precisely my problem with a lot of the arguments put forward by libertarians.

It is a contradiction to say that government intervention in the economy is a bad thing, then to turn around and say that the government should do everything it can to control immigration. Either interfering in the economy is bad or it isn’t. Make your mind up.

I am not saying that everybody has to make a black and white choice between having a lot of government invovlement or none at all. Far from it. I sit in between, like most people do. It is not inconsistent to want free trade in goods and services but to want a restriction in the movement of labour.

But this is the thing. Once you accept that some government intervention can be a force for good, you have voided your ability to use “small government” as a mantra, a panacea for all economic ills.

It is no longer good enough just to say, for instance, “the government should reduce taxes because government intervention harms the economy and restricts my freedom.” Because in DK’s instance, he has decided that, in the case of movement of labour, govenment intervention improves the economy and that freedom matters not a jot.

I should now link to DK’s post now as the issues are becoming intertwined. His post contains not a single sweary-word, which AntiCitizenOne in the comments reckons means that “you can tell he was angry”. Heh, sorry about that DK.

DK is at pains to point out that while he is broadly in favour of free trade, he has reservations when it comes to labour.

I have reservations about the free trade in labour for reasons that I shouldn’t have to expand on beyond saying that my reservations are based on the fact that humans are not homogenous. If we were, we wouldn’t be having all this ruckus about Muslims, veils, etc.

The thing is, DK is probably right that there are problems with culture, language and so on that mean that in reality free movement of people can be a genuine problem (even though I think most of the “problems”, particularly with the debate about veils at the moment, are exacerbated and blown out of proportion by the government and the media).

But cultural issues are not the only things that vex DK about migration.

Our policy of poaching trained nurses from Africa and the Phillipines or doctors from India has been criticised, for instance, because it leaves already impoverished countries lacking trained medical staff. And now, of course, many of our medical staff cannot find jobs here and are looking to go abroad (but you can pretty much guarantee that they won’t go to the Phillipines or Africa.

Now, one can argue that this is precisely what the free market is about, but it is difficult to conclude that it does not both countries, in general terms, worse off.

In the short term it probably does make at least one of the countries worse off. In the long term it would probably make everybody better off. A proponent of the free market would usually say that if there is such a high demand for nurses in the Phillipines, surely it will encourage many more people to become nurses in the Phillipines because wages will be increased.

Here’s what The Economist had to say about migration of Poles a few months ago.

Even the emigration of a million-odd Poles has its upside. It is better to wash dishes in London than to be jobless at home. Many Poles abroad are learning new skills, languages and attitudes that will stand them in good stead when they return, as most do. Freedom of movement inside the EU means that, unlike previous generations, most Poles are not emigrating for ever.

All I will say is that short term losses for long term benefits are usually relished by libertarians. Who can seriously argue that cutting welfare benefits would not make anybody worse off in the short term, even if it makes them better off in the long term?

Just as free trade in labour has its problems, free trade in everything has its problems. These are usually played down by libertarians — think of income inequalities. But in the case of labour, DK is placing an emphasis on them.

As I said, it is perfectly fine to hold these views, even if the explanations for holding these views seem inconsistent. But that is the thing. It is not the views themselves that I object to — although I may not necessarily agree with them, that wasn’t the point I was making. It is the explanations of these views that need some fine tuning.

Since DK has revealed that in his opinion government intervention can be a force for good, he has become a utilitarian like the rest of us. It is no longer good enough just to call for smaller government for the sake of smaller government which is what most libertarians spend much of their time doing.

Longrider also puts forward this favourite argument of those who would like more controls on migration.

The argument comparing movement of peoples within the UK and peoples moving in from outside is fine but for the small matter of numbers. Just how many people can we accommodate before it becomes too much?

But people have been predicting such a Malthusian catastrophe for centuries and it has never happened, not in Britain at least (and famously the world has a food surplus). Incidentally, the fact that a Malthusian catastrophe has never occurred is also one of the most popular (and convincing) arguments put forward by climate change / peak oil deniers. Somehow, for some on the right, while it means that nothing should be done about climate change, it suddenly becomes a major problem when it comes to migration. Strange.

DK points at water shortages in the south east as evidence that it is happening, but I don’t buy that. People just as commonly point at climate change or the privatisation of water companies as causes of those water shortages, but DK wouldn’t see it as a reason to nationalise the water industry or treat climate change as a top priority.

Given that population growth in the UK (and Europe) is reaching a plateau, and that population in Scotland has actually been declining, the idea that the UK is somehow running out of space is absurd. Anyway, if we were genuinely unable to accommodate more people, nobody would want to move here, would they? That’s how the free market supposedly works you see.