Archive: Economist

In my previous article, I argued that the problems that are hitting journalism are more to do with the quality of the content than with the fact that it’s difficult to charge for content these days. “Why pay to read Telegraph Digg-bait when you can read BBC churnalism for free?”, I asked.

I am sure plenty of journalists realise this if they stop to think about the situation. The fact that so many professionals blame bloggers for the industry’s ills says it all. Despite journalists’ qualifications, experience and resources, their entire business is supposedly being dismantled by a bunch of hobbyists who spend the odd hour of their spare time opining on the internet.

A few weeks ago I met a journalist at a party and I engaged him in a conversation about the future of his industry. He told me he hates bloggers (whoops! — I kept schtoom). But he told me that in his view the biggest problem was people scooping him on web forums! If the professionals see online discussion forums as not only competing with them but doing better than them, that surely must make them wonder if the product they are asking people to buy simply is not good enough.

Anyone who thinks that bloggers and the mainstream media are competing is wrong. If they are competing, the media simply isn’t doing its job properly. Let us face facts. For the most part, bloggers don’t have the contacts, the resources or the expertise to do, for instance, a big investigative story.

If the media is worried about amateur bloggers, it is a pretty bad reflection on the professionals. Perhaps to distinguish itself, the media should be focussing on those aspects of content production that bloggers cannot do.

The supply of mediocre content is too high. Too much of the same sort of content is as readily available to news junkies as sea water is to beach-goers. In effect, for the past decade or so newspapers have been driving up to the beach with a tankful of sea water, then pumping their water into the sea. Later they started stretching out their hands like beggars wondering, “why won’t these beach-goers pay us for all this seawater we’re providing them?!”

So what is the answer? In my view, less is more. What newspapers need to do is offer something distinctive and different. They should specialise more and differentiate their content from everyone else’s. They need to offer less, but better, content.

Newspapers should forget about reporting all the same hard news as every other outlet is. It is a crowded marketplace so there is no money to be made there. Instead, they should work on more exclusives, investigative reporting, analysis and features.

Actually, there is a problem with that idea, which is that it won’t save all newspapers as we know them at all. It points to a future where many daily newspapers may wither. But weeklies, monthlies and specialist publications are more likely to thrive. It wouldn’t stop the press from having a difficult period of job losses and paper closures. But it would mean those who could get it right would be able to charge for content quite comfortably.

Evidence suggests that this shift may already be happening. Speaking personally, there is not one daily newspaper that I would be happy to pay for. But up until recently I was perfectly happy to pay for the weekly Economist (and in truth, I only stopped because I didn’t have the time to read it). As for specialist publications, I still like to read the monthly F1 Racing if I get the chance.

It may be the same for other people too. Recent evidence seems to suggest that many specialist publications are doing well at the moment, even amid all the turmoil in the press and the worst recession in living memory. According to Malcolm Coles, 216,000 people are perfectly happy to pay £7.75 per month for an online subscription to Which?.

Yesterday I also read about two major news websites relaunching — with less emphasis on news. On the new LA Times website, Hamilton Nolan at Gawker wrote:

Scroll down from the top of page at the new LAT site and you find: Health, Food, Education, Technology, Sports, Blogs, Columns, Opinion, Photos & Video, Summer Hot List, and “Your Scene, Your Comments.” Did you miss the, say, ‘International news’ section? It is way up at the top in tiny tiny type. Below the top fifth or so of the page, there is no “hard news” at all.

As for the new Newsday website… well, just take a look.

Someone still has to do the worthy news stories though. Maybe that can be better left to agencies or major broadcasters. But maybe a simple reduction in the number of newspapers would suffice. Iain Hepburn recently estimated that as many as 17 major media outlets are all aiming at the same audience in Scotland. We make do without 17 major supermarket chains — five or six different ones satisfy most consumers. So do we need more than five or six major news outlets?

A merger here, a takeover there and even the odd shutdown or two might be a good thing. Fewer outlets can have a higher market share, more resources, more of the best journalists — and they’ll produce a better product as a result. Five or six excellent news sources would be much better than 17 so-so ones, which is more or less what we’ve got at the moment. Surely that is what’s needed to make news a viable business going forward.

Erk. I had a big pile of things I wanted to write about. But a lack of time and a mild bout of blog depression have meant I haven’t been updating. I didn’t realise my last post was as long ago as last Wednesday, but there we go.

Anyway, before I can get motivated enough to write something decent, I thought I’d mention an interesting article I read in last week’s Economist. It touches on a similar topic recently covered on this blog — student apathy.

In addition to the idea that students are politically motivated in general, there is also a stereotype that most of them tend to be left-wing. The statistics in The Economist‘s article then make for very interesting reading.

In 2004–2005 the Liberal Democrats were, perhaps unsurprisingly, the most popular party among students. What’s surprising is the fact that they apparently had the support of over 50% of students! Amazing. Of course, that period saw them at the height of their powers due to their stance on the hugely unpopular Iraq War. Since then, in a reflection of the wider trend, support for the Lib Dems has fallen a fair amount.

That probably correlates a lot with my political views. Back in 2004–2005 I was quite an ardent supporter of the Lib Dems. Now I am more lukewarm.

What is also perhaps surprising is that Labour’s support has not decreased all that much. Even though Labour are limping around, the long-term trend among students is more topsy-turvy and the fall certainly isn’t as dramatic as the Lib Dems’. Nevertheless, fallen they have.

So the Conservatives now apparently have the support of 45% of students. Interesting. The Economist has been having a bit of fun and games with this. “A man who is not a socialist at 20 has no heart, whereas one who is still a socialist at 40 has no head” — so are today’s students heartless?

I suppose one obvious response to this would be to say that Labour are not socialists. But nor are the Conservatives. You would expect a surge in support for the Greens or another far-left party (SSP / Respect / what-have-you). But the Tories?

I think the answer lies more in this:

For today’s young rebels in search of a cause, the Left is the establishment: an 18-year-old starting university this autumn will have been just seven when Labour came to power.

Students are not disproportionately left-wing in my view. If they were, then they aren’t now. I think most people my age are pretty weary of socialism because a basic reading of its history should tell you to be weary of it. In my highly unscientific and no doubt prejudicial straw poll that I have conducted in my head, many of the most left-wing people at university were also the ones who probably had the highest incomes.

Just as for those who grew up in the 1980s the Conservatives were the establishment party not to be trusted, today’s youngsters are growing up with a deep, deep resentment towards the Labour party. These days it is almost certainly cooler to be a Conservative supporter than a Labour supporter. And given Labour’s record in government, who can blame students for thinking so?

As a side-effect, if it finally means the world will finally be rid of those deeply hypocritical Che Guevara t-shirts, then thank goodness for that!

Ideas of Civilisation has written a really interesting post about the state of the Scottish blogosphere compared with the dodgy comments that get posted on The Herald‘s website, Scotsman.com and the like.

The Scottish blogosphere is indeed, by and large, a pretty good place for a debate. Nowadays it is probably dominated a bit too much by SNP supporters, but I think the debate is usually pretty respectful. IoC asks, why does this respectful atmosphere not cross over into the mainstream media comment sites?

The answer is that they are mainstream media comment sites. As I have pointed out before, trolls, flamers and knuckle-draggers are attracted to MSM comment sites like flies on a shit. The blog spEak You’re bRanes, a blog I mention many times, does a good job of compiling the most ridiculous comments posted to MSM outlets.

The thing is that IoC is right when he says that the debate in the Scottish blogosphere is good. But this isn’t peculiar to Scotland. The debate in the blogosphere world-wide is also good. Meanwhile, the phenomenon of extreme comments in MSM websites does not just exist on Scottish websites (although Scotland does have a distinct phenomenon with its ‘cybernats’). It is known to media outlets the world over, and even some big websites such as Digg and YouTube.

So why is there such a difference? After all, the point of blogging is meant to be that it’s really easy to get involved in. So why don’t people with poisonous views pollute the blogosphere so easily?

The answer is that it’s so simple to avoid poisonous people in the blogosphere. Does someone have a terrible blog? That’s okay, because no-one will read it. Knuckle-dragging extremists find that they will reach a far wider audience if they post on a website like Scotsman.com or the BBC.

There is another answer. Even though in theory it is easy to set up a blog, the reality is slightly different. You still have to put in quite a lot of effort. It can be time-consuming and you have to come up with the goods to make sure people read it. If you are not interested in having a genuine discussion, you will soon find that blogging is quite costly. But for those who are willing to put the effort in for there to be a good debate, the pay-off can be good. For this reason, bloggers tend to be more articulate, reasoned and intelligent than your average Have Your Sayer.

Does this mean that we should give up on the idea of having comments on the BBC’s blogs or The Herald‘s political stories? Far from it. All you have to do to improve the nature of the debate is create the right mechanism to ensure that the cream will rise up.

Websites such as Digg and YouTube have implemented a voting mechanism in an attempt to get rid of trolls. You can choose to give a comment a ‘thumbs up’ or a ‘thumbs down’. The BBC’s Have Your Say has a similar voting mechanism. However, this doesn’t work in my view. In fact, if anything, it exacerbates the problem. It just makes the comments section even more of a hotbed of demagoguery — the loudest attention seekers, not the most reasoned and articulate, will grab the most votes.

Some websites are just lucky enough to have a good audience that respects debate. The Economist‘s website is said to be relatively free of HYS-style trolls. That is probably due to the target audience of the publication. I suspect many HYSers aren’t even aware of the existence of The Economist and if they are, they aren’t interested in posting there because it’s not a publication for them.

However, for the more mass-market audiences of the likes of the BBC, The Herald and The Scotsman, it’s too late to do anything about this. They made a decision long ago to appeal to the masses, so its audience will have that demagogic element that will be reflected in the comments.

Another alternative might be to force users to post under their real names. It is generally believed that once people’s cloak of anonymity has been removed, their online debating style becomes more respectful and considered.

On the other hand, many bloggers and commenters have genuine reason to wish to remain anonymous. And, barring the universal adoption of an OpenID-style system, it would be nigh on impossible to police. A decent ‘middle ground’ option might be to place OpenID comments at the top of the thread and hide the anonymous comments towards the bottom of the page.

Another possible solution is simply to make it costly for the ill-informed jokers to take part. For some, it may be an anathema to make people pay to post comments — almost against the culture of the web. But it needn’t be.

There is one big website that is known for having decent comments sections that avoid the numbskullery of sites such as YouTube — MetaFilter. There it costs $5 to post comments. That is a one-time life-long fee. Pay $5 and you can post to your heart’s content. There is also a one-week time lag between signing up and being able to post.

This ensures that only the people who are interested in contributing properly get involved. $5 is quite a small fee for those who really value MetaFilter, but it is enough to deter time-wasting trolls. A one-week time lag also prevents people from just posting a crazy extreme rant in the heat of the moment. Just like blogging, MetaFilter is costly for the time-wasters, but beneficial for those who want to make a genuine contribution.

The solution for the MSM websites if they want to clean out their comment sections is therefore to somehow create a mechanism that makes it costly for extremist ranters to post, but makes it beneficial for those who want to take part in a reasoned debate.

Perhaps a MeFi-style one-off fee or a time lag might do the trick. If you had to pay, say, £5 to open a lifetime account on Scotsman.com to allow you to post, you might just go for it if that £5 was enough to deter the ranting trolls. It could also be a handy (though potentially small) additional source of income for the media outlets.

IoC’s issue isn’t just with the media websites though. It’s also with the Scottish Government’s website. If a government website becomes an outlet for extreme views, that is undoubtedly a problem. The Scottish Government’s “National Conversation” has been accused of being “a chatroom for cybernats“. That was probably always inevitable. After all, a “conversation” about independence initiated by the SNP is bound not to last long or be very meaningful.

Nonetheless, I have to applaud the Scottish Government for going ahead with the project. To have user-generated content on a government website is pretty big stuff if you ask me and it’s probably the right thing to do — engaging the citizens in the policy-making process and all that.

But the contributions have to be meaningful. I’ve not been following the National Conversation very closely. Skimming through it just now, it doesn’t look too bad, but obviously it’s caused concern among some.

Perhaps for user-generated content on government websites there should be an expectation that you do not contribute anonymously. I think that is probably a reasonable expectation for someone who wants to take part in civic society. People who write a letter to their MP or MSP or another figure in public office can’t expect a reply without supplying a name and address. The Government’s e-petition website also requires you to enter a name and address. The authenticity of some of these names is questionable though.

Perhaps future projects like the National Conversation might require people to supply real names and addresses (not publicly viewable of course) in order to participate. This would remove the cloak of anonymity and improve the likelihood of there being a sensible debate. Looking at the National Conversation website, it looks like most (but not all) participants are contributing under their real names anyway. Still, it’s a thought.

Economist audio edition logo Am I the only one who thinks that the logo for The Economist‘s audio edition looks like a bomb made out of Economists?

(NB. Posts will remain at this low standard until around the 25th. I am currently writing my dissertation, and it is these little things that keep me sane. Yesterday I got really excited when the author of one of the journal articles I was reading was named Orley.)

Update: I happened to notice just then that the 5,000th legitimate comment on this blog was recently published! Jose takes the honours. No prizes unfortunately!

There are only two things in the world that give us absolute total happiness. One is seeing other people fail. The other is unwrapping a newly-bought CD.

–Armando Iannucci

In the wake of all the upheaval that the recorded music industry is facing, a lot of people have been predicting the death of the CD. After all, the very reason why music is cheap or free these days is because they don’t need to be put on a physical object which then has to be transported around the world. Surely digital downloads are the only conceivable future for music distribution.

I don’t like the idea of this. If I was five years younger it would probably make perfect sense to me. Last week’s edition of The Economist tells the story of a focus group that EMI held. It was aimed at understanding yoofs better. At the end of the meeting, the teenagers were invited to take as many free CDs from a pile on a table as they wanted. Not a single person took a CD.

It’s just the latest example of a recorded music industry that has always found it difficult to adapt to new technology. Historically, consumers have gone for the most convenient and cheapest format rather than the technically excellent one. So says Fredric Dannen if you scroll a long way down.

When the long-playing record (LP) format was introduced by Columbia Records back in the late 1940s, the industry as a whole resisted it, and many predicted it would never take off because 78s sounded better. Without question, early LPs did not sound nearly as good as 78s. But given the choice of listening to all of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony on two sides of one record versus sixteen sides of eight records, the consumer opted for convenience and simplicity (not to mention less shelf space).

…You can always count on the record industry to cling to the past, and to fight innovation.

So does the arrival of MP3 mean the death of the CD? I personally hope not. I love CDs. I am of that generation, probably a small five–ten year window of people who wouldn’t consider vinyl but had no access to file sharing as they grew up. Napster came onto the scene in 2000, when I was 14 — well into my music-consuming life.

I have been collecting CDs since I was nine years old. I haven’t counted, but I must have around 600 CDs. I only bought my first vinyl records a few years ago. I bought them grudgingly, only because they were not available on CD. I reckon today I have 30 vinyl records.

I have only ever bought around a dozen MP3s — again, because they were not readily available on CD or vinyl. (I have downloaded a few dozen more because they weren’t commercially available at all — mainly live bootlegs and demos.) I would consider buying more. But although MP3 is the format du jour, there is a big block in my mind preventing me from buying something that I will never be able to see or touch.

I suppose this makes me a collector. (Yes, my collection is in alphabetical order — or it was until I ran out of space.) Collectors tend to be fans of vinyl though, which makes me an anomaly.

It would be nice to think that the CD will limp on and eventually survive another day in the MP3 era just as vinyl has done in the CD era. I have grown up with CDs and I love them. I’m not an audiophile, so the sound quality issue doesn’t worry me too much. And to be honest, I can’t be bothered with the faff of vinyl.

Whether it is CD or vinyl, there will always be people like me who treasure the physical presence of an album. It’s not just about a collection of notes. It about an event, a happening. It’s the artwork, the packaging. The sleevenotes, the lyrics. The smell of the booklet. It has an aura. When you hold a copy of a good album, you are transported to its space without even having to put it on. Could all of this really die because of the internet?

When Radiohead released In Rainbows, the pricing structure grabbed all of the headlines. But that wasn’t the interesting thing for me. The pay-what-you-want method is just a belated recognition of the fact that people could choose to pay nothing anyway.

The other aspect of the release of In Rainbows interested me much more. I didn’t pay anything for the MP3s. I downloaded them for free when they were released on 10 October. That’s because I got them as part of the £40 “discbox” set.

The discbox is a premium edition of In Rainbows. It comprises a CD of the album, an second CD with eight extra tracks and enhanced content, a 2× vinyl edition of the album, and generally all-round badass packaging.

In Rainbows discbox packaging

£40 is the most I have ever paid for an album. I hesitated before I ordered it — but not much. Although I am sort of a collector, I have never been a completist. I am usually happy to have the CD version on its own. But I couldn’t resist the awesomeness of the discbox — despite the fact that I hadn’t even heard the album.

This was largely ignored in the media coverage of the album, but to me it was the most notable aspect of the unconventional release of In Rainbows. When I first posted about In Rainbows, I neglected to even mention the fact that the MP3s were free. I didn’t find it that interesting.

People like me, who love the physical formats, will be continue to be catered for. It is easy to make money out of us. Slap a sticker saying ‘limited edition’ on a record and suddenly demand for it will become price inelastic. Suckers like me will buy premium versions of albums at higher prices than we would otherwise consider. And this will become ever more important for the record companies as physical sales continue to get eaten into by the internet, where profit seeking is impossible.

In Rainbows wasn’t the start of this. Limited edition versions of albums have been around for a very long time. But in an age where it is becoming increasingly difficult to make money out of recorded music, it is becoming more and more prevalent.

When I went shopping for Sigur Rós’s Heima DVD I thought £17 was a bit steep. Then I saw the limited edition version for £25 and bought it.

The deluxe multi-format edition seems to be becoming more common as well. Björk’s latest single, ‘Declare Independence’, is available as a deluxe edition, yours for only £19.99.

Formatted in the same extravagant packaging as the Volta double LP, this contains all conceivable formats of the single: double vinyl, CD and DVD.

Something else that is becoming more and more common is for people to automatically get the MP3 version for free when they order a physical version. For instance, Nonesuch has started doing this. You can choose between standard 128kbps MP3s or maximum quality 320kpbs at no extra cost.

It makes sense to me. Being able to have your entire music collection on a portable device is becoming an expectation these days. Since vinyl is a bit more tricky to get onto your iPod, it would be good to get the MP3s of music that you have already bought automatically for free. Hopefully more record companies will adopt this approach.

A lot of people have wondered aloud if the fact that we can now get music for free from the internet is devaluing music. But it seems to me as though the internet is not only driving the price of music down — it’s also driving the price of CDs and records up.

The internet is said to have made a lot of people’s jobs more difficult. Record company bosses, for instance. Or insurance companies. Or publishers. Surely another should be added to the list: lexicographers.

I was thinking the other day about how quickly new words enter everyday vocabulary. Before the internet, language evolved slowly and often in geographical pockets. Now? It’s “chav” this and “wag” that and “spam” the other (not to mention omg, wtf, lol, btw). And the fact that I am blogging about this would befuddle the 1990s you.

In fact, spam proves the point quite well. Of course, spam has existed since the year dot as a strange canned meat product. But when you say spam today you think of unsolicited (usually commercial) email. The word spam was first used in this sense in the 1980s, yet it took until at least the late 1990s for it to become a household name.

Today? Some wise guy can invent some half-arsed new term and almost instantly it is all over the internet like a rash. Or a rasher (rashr?). Of bacn.

I first heard of bacn via Gordon McLean. When I saw it at his blog I thought it was pronounced like the word ‘back’ with a rogue ‘n’ at the end. I thought it looked a bit like the name for some dodgy quango. British Autocratic Complete Numpties? (Too honest a name to be a real quango I guess.)

I soon remembered that this is “the age of the stupid removal, for no good reason, of the penultimate letter of a word if the penultimate letter is a vowel and the last letter is a consonant”. This is thanks to those wise guys at Flickr. Wankrs the lot of them. So bacn is like bacon, except now you have to delete the ‘o’ when you accidentally type it out of habit.

I have since learned through Boing Boing that bacn is an overnight internets phenomenon. So what is this mysterious bacn?

Putting it simply, Bacn is email you receive that isn’t spam… And isn’t personal mail. It’s the middle class of email. It’s notifications of a new post to your Facebook wall or a new follower on Twitter. It’s the Google alert for your name and the newsletter from your favorite company.

On Boing Boing it is described as “e-mail you want, just not now”.

The thing about this bacn thing, though, is that this is not really a phenomenon that I identify with. Spam is ubiquitous. We all know what it is. We all get it. We all hate it. Bacn? Not quite.

I can just about see it when it comes to the newsletter from my favourite company. But usually I just (skim) read them straight away so that they don’t pile up. I have signed up to The Economist‘s newsletters, but I almost never read them. Hardly counts as “email you want”, even though I did ask for them. The exception is the indispensable Boomkat newsletter, which is one of the first things I read on a Friday.

So what about the rest of them — Twitter follower notifications, Facebook wall post notifications and the like? Well, I do want to know about them now. I just don’t want to read them.

Google Talk comes with a handy Gmail notifier which tells me whenever I get a new email. I can just look at the subject of the email and pretty much know what it is. Take three recent notifications that I received from three different websites:

  • X sent you a message on Facebook
  • X is now following you on Twitter
  • Please confirm story about X [from Bebo]

In each case I did not want to read the email. What a waste of time. I just marked them as read the next time I logged into Gmail. But in each case I did visit the relevant website immediately to see what was going on.

Maybe I would understand more if I was an omg wtf busy 24/7 21st century lifestyle stressed out city dude. But for me, bacn is not so much email that I want to put off reading until later. It’s email that I either want to read immediately (like the Boomkat newsletter), or not at all (Twitter followers).

I like The Economist. Usually, I particularly like their covers. This week’s cover is meant to depict Europe having a “mid life crisis”.

Europe's nipples

But why did they give her those nipples?!

This is just like those mannequins you see in clothes shops. Why do they have nipples? I hardly think it is as if the mannequins would mind if their nipples were missing.

This is the post about independence that I have been threatening to write for months.

I am seriously considering voting SNP at this year’s Scottish Parliament elections. But I will probably stand in the voting booth thinking long and hard about it, with my hand quivering. And it will definitely be only for the constituency vote — purely as an anti-Labour tactical vote. The SNP are in the second place in my constituency. I’ll see how the local campaign pans out, but for the time being, voting SNP is the only (slim) hope of booting Labour out of Kirkcaldy.

However, I normally wouldn’t vote SNP. Yes, they are probably in my eyes the second least-worst party, but that says more about the shoddy state of political parties than anything else.

There has been an awful lot of talk about independence in the past few months and I wouldn’t blame SNP supporters for getting carried away. I said a few weeks ago, though, that I thought there wasn’t really a proper debate on independence. For most people it has just been an issue that’s been there for decades. As such, it doesn’t get tackled properly by anybody on any side.

Take, for instance, the SNP’s astonishing reliance on oil. Unbelievably, this still sits at the heart of SNP ideology. It is an argument that might have been convincing in the 1970s. But it should have stayed in the 1970s.

Economic report after economic report rubbishes the SNP claims that oil would keep Scotland’s economy afloat. Surely even the most blinkered nationalist has to realise that the oil argument is in trouble when the SNP’s rebuttal to Professor Arthur Midwinter’s report is to cite the GERS report which said much the same thing!

I don’t know about you, but usually when two studies come to broadly similar conclusions — and conclusions that are supported by the majority of fiscal policy experts — I take that to usually mean that there might be something in those conclusions.

The joke normally goes that if you have two economists you get three different opinions. Here we have economist after economist lining up to give the same opinion — that the oil argument is a complete red herring.

The fact that the SNP are left pointing out differences in the size of estimated deficits is telling. The fact is that these estimates are both deficits. Whether it’s £11 billion or £4 billion, it’s a lot of money to be chucking down the chute.

Meanwhile, the reaction from the nationalist commenters on the Scotsman.com website speaks volumes about how much the average independence supporter actually cares about economic arguments, with such incisive gems as:

I got as far as paragraph three….zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz

Putting aside arguments over balancing the books, for an independent Scotland’s economy to rely almost solely on oil would be incredibly dangerous. I say “almost solely”, although I’m sure most nationalists would soon be able to pull all sorts of other things out of the air that provide “evidence” of how much Scotland’s economy is superior to the UK’s. But why do we never hear as much about these?

The SNP acts as though oil is a panacea to all of Scotland’s economic ills. But you have to be burying your entire body in the sand to believe that it actually would be. An economy that relies upon one single industry — one single natural resource, indeed — is a very unhealthy economy indeed. It’s called putting all your eggs in one basket.

So what happens when the oil runs out, which is bound to happen within a matter of decades? North Sea oil production has already halved in just the past eight years. Since Scotland will have lost its biggest argument in favour of independence within a matter of a few decades, I suppose it will be time to sign a second Act of Union in 2050?

You want more? Let’s leave the economy completely out of the equation. How about the environmental effects? The SNP touts itself as a green party. Yet at the very core of its ideology sits a love of consuming oil. Exactly how environmentally friendly is that? Ryanair would have a more convincing claim to be an environmental group.

Below I have written two lists. The first list is of things we know about oil for a fact. The second list is of things that we just don’t know about oil.

List 1:

  • Oil is a finite resource and is bound to run out sooner or later — we know this for a fact
  • Oil markets are highly unstable and prices fluctuate wildly — we know this for a fact
  • Oil extraction causes pollution and oil consumption is a major contributor to CO2 emissions — we know this for a fact

List 2:

  • Will North Sea oil be enough to plug an independent Scottish government’s budget deficit? — we just don’t know, although the evidence strongly suggests that it wouldn’t

I really don’t understand why the SNP isn’t picked up on this more often. This is a raging, gaping hole that sits at the very core of the SNP’s plans. Moreover, the fetishistic love of oil is at odds with the SNP’s desperation to present itself as environmentally-friendly. And here we sit considering the possibility that they might be in charge come May.

But oil is not my only beef with independence. The main reason why I don’t support nationalist movements of any form is that I just don’t believe that it matters where you are governed from. What matters is how you are governed.

I once read an SNP supporter say that a unionist criticising nationalism is a hypocrite because while a supporter of Scottish independence is a Scottish nationalist, unionists are British nationalists. But this is nonsense. I am not a nationalist of any sort. I don’t have to be “proud” of Britain to recognise that the Union works by and large.

I find it difficult to be proud of Scotland. Being proud of the country in which you are born is as bizarre to me as being proud of this week’s lottery numbers. I certainly have a love of and affinity with Scotland. But I recognise that this is only because I was born here and all of my memories are from here. If I was born in any other country I would love that country also. That is why I can’t be proud of my nationality.

Moreover, while there are many parts of my culture that are derived from Scotland, it is not difficult to find the influence of Britain. It is no inconsistency to say that I feel equal parts Scottish and British, and even European. I find the idea that I cannot be both, or that I somehow have to choose between them, offensive.

And I should make clear here that I am not in favour of London having all of the power. I am a federalist. I was in favour of devolution. To me, it makes common sense for national issues such as defence to be controlled at one level and for issues such as education and health to be controlled by a more local level, just as most people believe that the council is the right body to arrange rubbish collection.

I am also in favour of greater fiscal autonomy. Perhaps the biggest problem with the Scottish Parliament as things stand is that it does not have the responsibility to raise the tax money that it spends. I was struck by an article in The Economist which said:

Holyrood’s politicians… do not, however, suffer the discipline of having to raise their revenue themselves: they are like teenagers on an allowance. And they have no incentive to promote economic growth through taxation.

The Scottish Parliament has only a piddly power to vary tax levels by ±3%, and it is too scared to even use that. The Scottish Parliament needs to mature. Greater fiscal autonomy would allow this to happen.

But that does not mean that we should leave the United Kingdom. It is crazy that in an increasingly globalised world that we should consider building a barrier. And let’s face it, if drawing a boundary isn’t designed to build a barrier, what is the point?

By now some nationalists will be shrieking, saying things like, “Look at Ireland!”, or, “Imagine if Norway wasn’t independent!” Norway is a favourite example of everybody who wants to advocate a certain policy. I remember a few years back David Farrer praised the prosperity of Norway, suggesting that it might be because it was outside the EU. Though I doubt Farrer would be too quick to praise Norway’s generous welfare system.

Whatever the causes, Norway apparently does well for itself. Nationalists believe that this is because it is independent. The thing is though, we already live in an independent country. It’s called the UK. This brings me on to a point that I have never heard a supporter of independence adequately respond to:

The relevant question isn’t, “Why should Scotland be independent?” The relevant question is, “Why should Scotland be independent?”

What is so magical about Scotland that it should deserve to be independent? Scottish nationalists know full well that if Scotland were to become independent, that wouldn’t be the end of the debate. It would probably just mean that the Orcadian nationalist movement would stamp its feet more loudly.

Maybe Aberdonians would start an independence movement on the basis that “It’s Aberdeen’s oil”. And who would blame them? After all, surely even Newcastle has a stronger claim to North Sea oil than, say, Stranraer.

Latching on to words like independence and freedom tugs on people’s heartstrings and gets people heated. But it ignores one vital thing: we are not oppressed. And if we are oppressed, it isn’t because we are ruled from London.

And this brings be on to yet another bugbear of mine about the independence movement. Nationalists often make the claim that Westminster politics is corrupt and that the only solution to it is for Scotland to become independent. But we are talking about politicians here. It is every bit as conceivable that an Edinburgh-based administration would be just as bad (or good) as a London-based one. As I said before, what matters is not from where you are governed, but how well you are governed.

Just moving Scotland’s politicians from one building to another won’t make politics any rosier. And in case you need reminding, the shitbags that currently run Westminster enjoy their greatest concentration of support in Scotland. As we Scottish bloggers have been noting recently, that support is too unquestioningly loyal.

And while I believe that the claims that there is a “Scottish Raj” are overstated, it is difficult to ignore the fact that the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer were both born in Scotland, and there are more Scottish cabinet ministers. It hardly fills me with a great amount of confidence that an independent Scotland would have inherently better politics.

I could actually go on, but for the good of my readership and my page load times I’m going to call it a day there. But to think that this is the party that I’m actually thinking of voting for. At the risk of sounding like Polly Toynbee (please, no!) I’ll have to get the nosepegs out.

I’m a bit late with this post. It’s old news really, but I still have a few thoughts about this issue of Catholic adoption adoption.

I finally got round to reading last week’s edition of The Economist a couple of days ago, and they had a piece about the issue (link requires subscription I’m afraid), saying that:

…it steps into the mine-ridden terrain where liberty… runs up against equality

This face-off between liberty and equality vexes many. Indeed, who wouldn’t want liberty and equality to be present in a society? If one threatens the other, what a difficult choice to make.

Perhaps surprisingly, The Economist comes down on the side of equality in this instance. But I would have thought that it would be better to aim for liberty. After all, if a society is guaranteed liberty, at least there is still a chance that it could achieve equality. Meanwhile, if equality is the main goal of a society, there is very little chance of achieving liberty as well.

To illustrate this, think about the adoption row. If Catholic adoption agencies are told that they must allow gay couples to adopt, their liberty to decide who they can and cannot serve has been taken away from them. If, on the other hand, Catholic adoption agencies are left to do as they please, there is every possibility that they would one day allow single sex couples to adopt from them. After all, as The Economist notes:

Give it time

Part of the unease over the gay-discrimination rules is that they are new. It would not occur to many to defend the exclusion of black adoptive parents, for example. Churches, like societies, do change. Just as most Christians have reconciled themselves to lending money at interest and most Jews do not examine the labels in their clothes to see if they contain mixed wool and flax, so homosexual parents may come to seem another variety in the bewildering gamut of family structures.

Attitudes change over time. Surely one day even the bigoted Catholic church will find itself accepting homosexuality in much the same way that racism is now seen as abhorrent when not so long ago it wasn’t.

And I want to make it clear that I am not siding with the Catholic church here. I want to say it loud and clear: the Catholic church is a bigoted organisation. But it is for precisely that reason why I find these attempts to force Catholic adoption agencies to allow single sex couples to adopt from them bizarre. I mean, it can hardly be as if there is a huge queue of gay people waiting to adopt children from such a bigoted group.

It was like a few months ago when legislation was passed to allow gay people to stay in the guest houses of bigots. Because gay people were really banging the doors down waiting to share a roof with homophobes. Wow, you really released the shackles there.

Whatever happened to that good, liberal, democratic principle of “you are a fucking arsehole but I will defend your right to be a fucking arsehole” (I paraphrased that you know). As Will P says in a strongly argued post:

We agree to disagree. If they want to cite religious reasons for not letting me seek to adopt a child with a hypothetical future partner, then fine, I’ll go somewhere else…

So that I can go to lengths to which I’d never really bother to go to express who I am, devout members of various faiths (and the gay adoption issue is just one example of this, which is why I’ve pluralised that sentence) are no longer free to express their deeply-held religious principles. In short, in our quest to be ever more liberal, we have become illiberal. We are on a dangerous course: we must stop now.

Much of this debate feels like chippy score settling than anything else, much in the same way that the ban on fox hunting was more to do with annoying some toffs more than anything else. I don’t think this really has the interests of gay people at its heart.

This does put me in the slightly odd position of agreeing with The Devil’s Kitchen. Of course, Bookdrunk is right to criticise that Catholic Church for their stance on homosexuality. But that’s kind of the point, isn’t it? Two people can have opposing viewpoints and they are allowed to disagree with each other. What’s wrong with accepting this and ending it there?

Still being a cheeky youngster, it often annoys me when people use old names of things that changed ages ago. You know the sort of thing I mean — people who still say West Germany instead of Germany and the European Cup instead of the Champions League.

Loads of people still say Czechoslovakia, which particularly annoys me because I can actually remember Czechoslovakia existing but I still manage to remember that it is now two separate countries: the Czech Republic and Slovakia. It seems to me as ridiculous as still saying Austria-Hungary, or saying Yugoslavia instead of Croatia.

But as I get older, I guess I’m realising that old habits die hard. The other day I walked in to a room with football on the television and I said, “Is that the Charity Shield?” even though I know it’s now called the Community Shield.

Place names are always changing, and often it is difficult to keep up. I’ve just about got to grips with Peking changing to Beijing. That seems to be official, done and dusted, and everybody accepts it.

But sometimes a place changes its name, yet it doesn’t seem to quite be official. Or worse still, it has two different names, both of which are acceptable! I saw in a recent issue of The Economist, “Timor-Leste, formerly East Timor…”

“Right,” I thought to myself, “I’ll have to remember that from now on. I might even write a blog post about that and everything. Mind you, that would probably be dreadfully dull.”

But has East Timor actually changed its name? Wikipedia redirects Timor-Leste to East Timor. The article introduces the topic as “East Timor, officially the Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste…” Later on it says:

The Portuguese name Timor-Leste and the Tetum name Timor Lorosa’e are sometimes used in English.

Well now I just don’t have a clue what this place is called any more. It has an official name but it doesn’t really seem to be widely recognised. And to further confuse matters the native language calls it something different again. The CIA World Factbook doesn’t really help matters.

Not long afterwards, this was posted on the BBC Editors blog:

Mumbai/Bombay?

One caller to the BBC complained that in the coverage of the bombs in India, the name Mumbai was used without an explanation that it was formerly known as Bombay.

There is no BBC rule about using Mumbai, just guidelines. It is up to each individual programme to decide what to say. Most use ‘Mumbai’ and nothing else; a few use ‘Mumbai, formerly known as Bombay’. The thinking is the city has changed its name (some time ago) and Mumbai is now well known to most, if not all, the audience.

The post has an interesting discussion in the comments about the matter. That is, until the inevitable nutjob wades in with a completely unrelated and bonkers point about the Taleban. And then we have the inevitable Biased-BBCers claiming that the BBC referring to ‘Mumbai’ is to do with political correctness (!!). That is what I like to call political correctness gone mad gone mad. As Ally said,

It WAS called Bombay. It is NOW called Mumbai. This is not a question of political correctness. Many Indians may still call the city Bombay, just as I sometimes call a Snickers a Marathon, but it has changed.

I have to say, I think you must have been living in a cave if you had never heard ‘Mumbai’ before last month’s train bombs. But I can kind of sympathise. I never really noticed the Indian place names changing. It was only a few years ago when I saw the placename ‘Kolkata’ for the first time. Nevertheless, it was hardly difficult to work out what city it was referring to.

But who decides when a place name actually changes? Is it technically correct to say ‘Pa-ree’ instead of ‘Pa-riss’ even though it will make you sound like a pretentious bumhole? Is it technically correct to write ‘Köln’ instead of ‘Cologne’ even though it means going to the hassle of finding the ‘ö’ character on the keyboard?

Who decides this? Does the media do it unilaterally? I doubt it. Does the Foreign Office release a list of places that the British government officially recognises as having changed its name? Or is it just down to local bureaucrats? If some bored paper-pusher at Fife Council decided to re-name Kirkcaldy ‘Winky Bum Poo Jizz’, would BBC journalists suddenly find themselves reporting from ouside Winky Bum Poo Jizz Sheriff Court?

When in doubt, I turn to The Economist, famous for its clear writing style.

Use English forms when they are in common use: Cologne [etc]… But follow local practice when a country expressly changes its name, or the names of rivers, towns, etc, within it. Thus… Mumbai not Bombay

Seems fair enough.