Monday, 11 April 2016

In defence of John Whittingdale

Life imitates art, but when it does so it's unsettling. I'm in the process of writing a novel in which the protagonist publicly defends the practice of BDSM. That provides a degree of safe distancing; I am not my protagonist and, in any case, hardly anyone reads my novels so it wouldn't be a great deal of exposure.

I don't normally write publicly about my sexuality, and I am also not someone who's entirely comfortable defending Tories. However, let's start.

A couple of weeks ago in a press interview, Kezia Dugdale said, in simple, dignified terms, that she had a female lover, and this was published without sensation. The press had known the fact, apparently, for years, but no-one had thought it appropriate to 'out' her. Her privacy was respected, as it should have been. In the days after the interview was printed, the Scottish press and the Scottish chattering classes congratulated ourselves at how much we'd grown up as a nation, that we no longer saw someone's sexuality as a matter for public discussion.

John Whittingdale is a Conservative Westminster politician, not a Holyrood Labour one. Like Kez Dugdale, he isn't married to anyone else. Like Kez Dugdale, he has (allegedly) a single lover with whom he has had a moderately long term intimate relationship. Like Kez Dugdale, the press has known of this for some years. And, as in Kez Dugdale's case, the press have, with simple dignity, respected his privacy as they should.

One single journalist, James Cusick, no longer employed by any paper, has decided to break ranks and spread what amounts to salacious gossip.

John Whittingdale's lover is, according to Cusick, a young woman called Olivia King. She is, allegedly, a dominatrix by profession; from her pictures she reminds me very much of a dominatrix friend of mine of whom I think highly. The implication Cusick wants us to draw is that Whittindale is a masochist. There is actually no reason to draw this implication; many people who work professionally as dominatrices do not 'bring their work home', and may have completely different relationship dynamics in their private life.

In any case, it's precisely none of our business whether or not John Whittingdale is a masochist. What consenting adults choose to do consensually in the privacy of their own homes is their own business and no-one else's. Not ours, and not journalists' either. Most especially, it's none of James Cusick's business.

If Olivia King were transgendered, this would not be a legitimate story. If she were male, this would not be a legitimate story. If she were black, this would not be a legitimate story. If she were blind, this would not be a legitimate story. If she were a ballet dancer, this would not be a legitimate story. This is, in fact, not a legitimate story. One person choosing to make what on the evidence presented appears to be a warm, settled, moderately long term relationship with another is not a story. If an MP chooses to take his partner to the House of Commons New Years Eve party, there's absolutely no reason why he shouldn't. Everyone has the right to make the consensual relationships which suit them.

When I was a young man in Scotland, homosexuality was illegal; I knew people who were sent to prison for their sexuality. Now that I am old, the majority of the leaders of Scotland's political parties are - openly - gay, and no-one thinks anything of it. Only one form of consensual sexual expression between adults is still illegal. It's still illegal to hit another person, who invites it, for mutual pleasure. The BDSM community is the last minority whose sexuality could still - in theory at least - lead to prison. And it shouldn't be.

Human sexuality is extremely complex. It's extremely deep. It is fundamental to our beings, to our identity, to who we are as people.  To prevent someone expressing their sexuality consensually with a partner of their choice is to cripple them. We should not do it.

John Whittingdale may be a Tory. He may be a member of a government which I do not hesitate to call evil. He may be guilty of all sorts of things which are of legitimate interest to investigative journalists. But his sexuality is not one of them.

We're grown-ups now, not adolescents sniggering behind the bike sheds.

Sunday, 3 April 2016

Draft letter to Nicola Sturgeon on #BothVotesSNP

Dear Nicola Sturgeon

You know as well as we do that the Scottish National Party is - deservedly - well on the way to an epic victory in the coming election. You know that the SNP will win all - or almost all - of the constituency seats - and will deserve to. But you also know as well as we do that victory in this election - that forming the next administration - is not an end for the SNP: it is only a means to an end.

The end is to create a better Scotland, and you believe - as we do - that to achieve that requires the powers which will come with independence.

In the recent referendum, our side nearly won. We nearly achieved independence. But if you are honest you will agree that the Scottish National Party did not nearly win alone, and that, alone, it would not have nearly won. Rather, a broad movement in which many non-party actors, Women for Independence, the National Collective and the Radical Independence Campaign not least among them, and many other party actors including the Green Party and the Scottish Socialist Party, put their shoulders to the wheel together.

To achieve independence we need to motivate a broad coalition across Scotland. That's why the party you lead - the Scottish National Party - is necessarily a broad church, why for those of us on the left your policies on land reform, on local and central taxation, on fracking inevitably seem timid and unadventurous. We understand that it is necessary for you to be unadventurous in order to not startle the horses on the right of your party, to keep your broad church together.

We greatly respect the competence, focus, hard work and dedication of your government over the past eight years. You, personally and collectively, have done very well and richly deserve the nation's backing.

But competence won't win us independence. Timidity won't inspire people to vote for a big change. The very strategy which is necessary to hold the party together is a strategy which will prevent it winning independence, alone.

It does not have to stand alone. It has natural allies, whom it could choose to foster. The Green Party, RISE and the Womens' Equality Party are all forces which could provide a Holyrood chamber much more supportive of and conducive to the policies you want to advance than the present chamber.

We're sure your recognise in Cat Boyd of RISE, for example, someone far closer to you across a wide range of policy issues than some members of your own cabinet. We're sure that you'd agree that however awkward Andy Wightman would be for any administration as a Green MSP, both the parliament and Scotland's rural policy would be the richer for his presence.

So we're puzzled and disturbed by your support for the 'Both Votes SNP' tag. You must know that tribal politics have been a damaging force in Scotland for generations. But more than this you do know that under the de Hondt system, because the SNP will win the preponderance of the constituency seats, it will win very few of the list seats.

To illustrate this, if everyone votes as current polling suggests they will, we would have seventy nine pro-independence MSPs - sixty nine SNP and ten Green - facing fifty unionists. But if everyone who plans to vote SNP on their first vote also votes SNP on their second, the number of pro-independence MSPs falls to only seventy four, and your allies the Greens are wiped out. Unionists would benefit, and the party which would benefit most from 'Both Votes SNP' is UKIP, up from zero seats to eight.

If, however, everyone who votes SNP on their first vote were to vote, for example, Green on their second vote, we'd have one hundred and eleven pro-independence seats, and only eleven unionists.

Both Votes SNP is a policy which wins the SNP votes at the expense of its pro-independence allies. Worse, it's a policy which actually loses thirty-seven potential pro-independence seats. But worse still, it's a policy which costs any future Yes movement a great deal of money and a lot of full time research and support staff, because as you know, behind every MSP there are two or three staff supporting them.

Both Votes SNP not only removes thirty-seven pro-independence votes from the parliament, it also removes not thirty-seven but about one hundred and twenty nine full time workers from the next Yes movement - and it gifts one hundred and twenty nine full time salaries to the next No campaign.

We're sure that you're confident that, should England vote for Brexit, you can get a motion through Parliament for a new independence referendum. But to win that referendum you will need allies. Now is not the time to be stabbing those allies in the back, but to be embracing them and leading them forward. Now is the time to create a Yes alliance, to agree with Greens and Rise who will stand for Yes on each of the regional lists, to withdraw the SNP's list candidates, and to encourage your supporters not to vote 'Both Votes SNP' but instead to vote 'Both Votes Yes'.

You know as well as we do that Scotland needs this. You know as well as we do that we will not achieve independence without it.

Yours sincerely

Wednesday, 17 February 2016

#BothVotesSNP? That only helps Unionists

The SNP - including the normally-sensible Nicola Sturgeon - have been banging on incessantly for weeks for everyone to vote #BothVotesSNP. This is utter madness, if what you care about is Scotland and our future as a nation. On the current polling, we get the following:


That is to say, pro-independence parties - SNP and Greens - would have a total of only 79 seats at Holyrood, against 50 pro-union seats. That is a majority, but it isn't overwhelming. The unionists will still get plenty of air-time, plenty of coverage, and, most importantly of all, plenty of tax-payers money in the form or salaries for MSPs, researchers and associated staff. With that money they'll be able to campaign.

And notice that seven of those pro-union MSPs are UKIP.

If everyone planning to vote SNP on their first vote also votes SNP on their second (the pure #BothVotesSNP which the party are currently so keen to promote), we get this:

No Greens at all, only 74 pro-independence MSPs (all SNP), and now we're up to 55 pro-union MSPs including now 8 UKIP. The Tories also gain one, and Labour gain three.

By contrast, if all SNP voters give their second vote to the Greens, we get a very different pattern:

This time there are one hundred and eleven pro-independence MSPs, and only eighteen unionists. And all I've done is move SNP second votes to the Greens.

So the clear outcome of this analysis is this: every list vote the SNP gets robs us of pro-independence MSPs, and sets the cause of independence back - badly. #BothVotesSNP is, quite simply, stupid, partisan, tribal politics, psephologically illiterate. It's a vote for the union.

Wednesday, 27 January 2016

Let's hear it for Mugabe-style land-grabs

Those opposed to a substantive redistribution of land in Scotland accuse those of us in favour of substantive land redistribution of 'Mugabe-style land grabs'. The white people of Zimbabwe, we're told, 'own' lots of land on which they have productive farms. The elected president of Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe, is, we're told, a bad man because he wants to seize this land off the nice white people and give it to his supporters (who are black).

Let's just recall a little history. Between 1810 and 1831, the Marquis of Stafford drove the people of Sutherland off the good land they had customarily farmed onto poor and marginal land, and replaced them with imported farmers. The common folk of Sutherland did not consent to this; no legislative assembly in which they were represented gave authority for it.

Between 1881 and 1900, the Canadian Pacific Railroad drove the Dakota and Métis people of Saskatchewan off the good land on which they had customarily lived, and replaced them with imported farmers (including my grandfather - this is not ancient history). The common folk of the Dakota and Métis did not consent to this (and actually, neither did any representatives of theirs). Instead, they revolted, but it didn't help them, because the railroad company had the guns and they didn't. No legislative assembly in which they were represented gave authority for it.

At exactly the same time, Cecil Rhodes (with help from the British South Africa Police) drove the Matabele and Shona people of Zimbabwe off the good land which they had customarily farmed, and replaced them with imported farmers. The common folk of the Matabele and Shona didn't consent to this. No legislative assembly in which they were represented gave authority for it.

Rhodes' apologists claim he had an agreement - the Rudd Concession - signed by King Lobengula of the Matabele. But what neither side appears to dispute was that the verbal agreement which the king made was for 'at most ten' white men to come, and it gave them rights only to dig for minerals, but that the English written document which he was persuaded to sign made no mention of any limits. Rhodes' apologists are even rather proud of this sleight of hand; it's evidence, apparently, of hard-headed business acumen.

I digress.

What the British Empire was doing, just as much in Sutherland as in Saskatchewan and Matabeleland, was imposing an entirely new concept of land ownership which had never existed before. It gave to members of the new (British) elite exclusive right to determine the management of extensive tracts of land, and to determine who could live on and work that land. And - in Sutherland just as much as in Saskatchewan or Matabeleland - it imposed that new concept, against popular resistance, by force.

You can take a range of views of the relationships of pre-modern peoples with their elites. At best, common folk paid their local elites in return for services of protection from raiders and administration of justice. At worst, local elites ran protection rackets, parasitising off the economic activity of common folk. In almost all cases, the truth was somewhere between these two extremes. But I know of no pre-modern society where elites had a right to throw the commons off the land. Rather the contrary; the elites needed the labour of the commons to extract value from the land, and consequently, in many parts of medieval Europe, common folk - serfs - were actually forbidden to leave the land.

In any case, a legal system constructed by the elite in assemblies of the elite for the benefit of the elite cannot be legitimate. It isn't acceptable to say 'yes, this was unjust; but it happened in the past and we cannot change it now'. On the contrary, from the unaddressed injustices of the past spring the wars of the future. We can and we must rebalance the scales.

Rhodes took the best land off the common folk of Matabeleland and gave it to white farmers. The Marquis of Stafford took the straths off the MacKays and Gunns and MacLeods, and gave it to 'Cheviot shepherds'. The Canadian Pacific Railway took the flatlands of Saskatchewan off the Dakota and the Métis and gave them to the scaff and raff of Europe, including, inter alia, my Grandfather. The Ndebele and the MacKays and the Métis and the Gunns and the Dakota and the Shona and the MacLeods received no compensation when their land was annexed. If what Robert Mugabe is accused of is taking the land back off the white farmers and redistributing it to the common folk of the Ndebele, then, surely, no-one has any gounds for complaint.



(Of course, what Mugabe is actually accused of is giving the land to his cronies, or keeping it for himself. But I don't think anyone seriously supposes that Nicola Sturgeon intends to extend her back garden by annexing Perthshire.)

Saturday, 2 January 2016

The Irresolution: on software, quality, and why one works

Meters, object oriented, with proper multiple inheritance.
Doesn't look very impressive? Well, this is Interlisp-D. In 1983.
I don't make new year resolutions; I never have. This year I almost did...

Some weeks ago, working on a project which has gone horribly badly wrong, I tripped on one of those nasty ugly non-orthogonalities which litter Microsoft software. In frustration, I wrote a very sarcastic comment in my code. In code review, a colleague whom I very much respect chided me: a bad workman blames his tools.

Yes, I thought but did not say, but a good craftsman chooses his tools. And I decided then that by the end of 2016 I would be working only in pure functional languages and only on competently-written platforms. That was going to be my first ever new years resolution.

I'm sixty, dammit. People are not going to pay me to cut code for very many more years. I started my career, thirty years ago, working on Interlisp-D, a development environment technically streets ahead of anything commercially available now. A thing of real beauty and a joy to work with.

The general idea of 'progress' is that things get better over time, not worse. I'm damned if I'm going to end my career writing on Microsoft's fit-of-pique clone of an ALGOL-derived language which Sun consciously and deliberately crippled because it was intended as a special purpose tool to develop programs for small-footprint embedded systems with very limited memory.

A meter I wrote this year, in SVG and Angular. No multiple
inheritance, so much less reusable code.
It's crap. Writing software is about solving problems, about finding elegant ways to solve problems. But it isn't and shouldn't be about finding elegant ways to solve the problems caused by the shoddy workmanship and poor technical design of platform you're working on. If the platform you're working on is shoddy, don't bloody work on it.

That was a good resolution. A wise resolution. A resolution it would have been sensible to adopt.

Just after Christmas it was tested: my attention was drawn to a job advert a friend of mine has posted: Clojure, my preferred language, on UNIX, my preferred platform, in Glasgow. I know the office, I've done coding dojos there. It's very slick, very comfortable, with standing desks I much admire; I know several of the team, and I like them. It should be a dream job.

And I'm not going to apply.

Why not?

Cowardice? Possibly.

An old man's reluctance to move? Well, certainly that. I find settling into new places and building new networks of relationships stressful and difficult, so that is a real consideration.

Engagement in the work I'm doing? Well, I do believe in what we're doing. I do believe that what we do, as a company, makes the world a better place. And I do suspect that the company is quite likely to make it very big indeed, and I'd be quite interested to watch that happen - even if this time I'm just an employee.

But what it really boils down to is loyalty. Loyalty to a key group of the people I'm working with; a desire not to let them down. Not that I imagine I'm irreplaceable; I'm nothing like as good as I used to be, and I'm much less good working with tools I dislike than I could be.

I know this is a bad decision. I know that some months down the track I'm going to find myself falling into another sinkhole of Microsoft shite and I'm going to regret this decision bitterly.

But this is my decision, and I've made it.

Afterword: on why tools and their quality matter

Yes, I know all computer systems of any significant size contain elements which seemed like a good idea at the time and which later turned out not to be. Interlisp is a LISP-2 - it has separate value and function pointers on every symbol. It also has subtly different binding mechanisms between interpreted and compiled code, which means that the scope of variables is different leading to semantic difference - which was an uncommon but horrible pitfall when your code worked when interpreted but broke when compiled. It has an awkward inorthogonality between older functions which have abbreviated names in ALL UPPER CASE and newer ones which have LongerNamesInCamelCase. Oh, and there was the curious CLISP feature which you could either see as magical or a well of despair, depending on how you used it (I didn't). 

Finally, in Medley, it had Common Lisp bodged onto the side. Common Lisp is a bit of a mess anyway, but the attempt to make one system interoperate functions written in two different syntaxes must have made for interesting debugging. But I had moved onto Prolog before Medley was released, so I never really had to deal with that.

Similarly, Clojure is partially crippled by the JVM's limited, fixed size stack (back to that notional 32 bit minimal-memory set-top box Java was designed for). And there have been some bizarre decisions in the language design:
  • the default arithmetic operators do not gracefully switch to bignums on arithmetic overflow (although there are alternative operators which sensibly do, if you know about them);
  • nil is not the empty list (both (nil? '()) and (empty? nil) return false) and is also not false ((false? nil) returns false); also, bizarrely, the car of the empty list is nil ((first '()) returns nil) but the cdr is the empty list ((rest '()) returns ());
  • the decision to remove a layer of brackets from cond and case  means that pretty-printing does not give a rational code layout (and also makes translation of code from other Lisps that bit harder);
  • the decision to notate arg-lists and let binding lists as vectors is also bizarre and again introduces needless inorthogonality (yes, I know that as compiled for the JVM they're implemented as vectors, but that's an implementation detail)...
And so on. There is no perfect computer language.

But anyone who has looked at a fern-moss, or a frond of bracken, or a waterfall, or a birch tree, or a cloud, or a prawn, or the development of a human embryo, has to acknowledge that if God does not write Lisp, God writes some language so similar to Lisp as to make no difference. The physical world is built in all its aspects and at all scales of simple functions recursively applied. It physically hurts me to work on systems whose underlying architecture is a bag of hacks kluged together.

A good workman chooses his tools.


Sunday, 6 December 2015

Inquisition: frustratingly close to good.

Cassandra Pentaghast
It's about time I wrote my first review of Dragon Age Inquisition. Not because I've finished it; I haven't. Not because I've explored all possible paths - I certainly haven't, almost certainly won't, and probably couldn't: this is a deep and rich game. But because I've now explored it enough to uunderstand its strengths and weaknesses to a considerable extent, and it's time to reflect on how the experience affects my own ideas about game design.

I've played, so far, about ninety hours. That's equivalent to about two and a half working weeks, which is a very hefty investment of time; I imagine that in that time one could have read War and Peace through at least twice. And I'm not by any means finished. I'm still clearly in the second act, although I think I must be in the second half of the second act. If I do
finish I imagine the total time - for a single path - will be between one hundred and twenty and one hundred and fifty hours. But Inquisition is not a creative product of the same class as War and Peace. Does it merit that sort of investment?

To look at it a different way, a fan of Coronation Street invests over one hundred and fifty hours a year, and Inquisition is certainly a more interesting cultural product than Coronation Street. Inquisition, like any other immersive single-player computer game, is a solipsistic, solitary, and antisocial use of time, but it's also in some ways challenging, intriguing and occasionally delightful.

There have been two points at which I've very nearly given up and decided not to play any further, which I'll come to and explain.

So let's get the core criticisms out of the way first.

The initial load time is quite extraordinary - it takes about 40 minutes between switching my 8 core, 3.2GHz, 16Gb RAM machine on and having a loaded game ready to play. Given that if you do other things on the machine when the game is loading you risk crashing the graphics card, this is in itself a serious disincentive to playing. Inquisition is also not an open world game, although, to be fair, the area to area load times are only long the first time in a given session you visit each area. But that first load time is long - and I imagine on a machine with less RAM than mine, which could consequently cache less of the game in RAM, it would be longer.

This is a BioWare game, and it suffers all the core faults of BioWare games. Despite the fact that the areas are now fairly large, they're cluttered with unclimbable barriers which seem to be there just to force you to run around further. By contrast to CD Projekt Red games, the moral decisions are clear and bland. You can play as a goodie or you can play as a baddie, but there it's never difficult to decide what to do; this is not a murky, ambiguous world. The character progression system is extremely complex and not at all immersive. And the inventory system is bizarrely wrong: a finger ring occupies just as much space or weight in your baggage as a suit of armour.

It also suffers from new faults that older BioWare games didn't have. For example, the user interface to the inventory system has been oversimplified to the extent that there is not (or if there is, I haven't found it) any means to dump crafting materials from your inventory. Once you've picked them up, you have no choice to carry them until you find something to use them on. And, of course, a single sample of a herb takes up as much room in your baggage as fifty bear pelts. You can only carry on conversations with your companions when you're in 'base camp'; out in the field they won't respond to you. And so on.

But the core fault - the one that almost breaks the game - is one I've blogged about before in relation to other games: Voice Acting Considered Harmful. Every line spoken by any character in the game is voice acted, and consequently, because good voice acting is expensive, most characters have no conversation at all and the majority of those that do have very little. This shows up worst in the plot line 'Wicked Eyes and Wicked Hearts', which takes place in a palace in Val Royeaux clearly modelled on the French court. There are literally hundreds of characters present - and virtually none of them can speak. Consequently, the plot line resolves to a puzzle game with too few clues, and one, furthermore, which it appears you actually can't complete unless you do something non-obvious right at the very beginning, which you cannot go back to later. That nearly broke the game for me.

I have started playing again, but for the present I've abandoned that plotline. I suspect I'm going to have to do it before I can procede to act three, but if I do I'll do it with an open crib sheet in front of me, which isn't a lot of fun.

But the other - and more significant - fault of the fact that most characters cannot speak is the fact that most encounters in the game can only be resolved by violence. To progress, you have to kill a lot of people, as well as monsters. There are very few opponents who can be reasoned with, persuaded, brought on-side. Most are just immediately and implacably hostile. That does not make - for me - for an engaging game.

For the rest, the scenery is pleasant but - with the exception of the Skyhold Castle set - not special; again, the CD Projekt Red art team leave BioWare in the dust here. The monsters are monsters - yes, of course there are dragons and you can fight them. There is a lot of varied loot, if that's what interests you; there is a potentially interesting crafting system, if that's your bag. There are lots of different costumes, and you can customise them. I haven't really explored what the modding community has to offer, yet, but it's nowhere near as rich as the Skyrim or Witcher modding communities.

So why am I still playing? Well, frankly, story. And I realise I'm frustrated by how sparsely it's doled out, how much graft I'm being made to do to earn the next snippet.

The bit of the story that's caught my interest?

No, it isn't closing rifts in the sky or defeating an immortal talking monster; that story is cod. The real world has neither personified good nor personified evil, and stories built on them are peurile and not worth anyone's time. The real world is like the Witcher's world, a grey world, a world of least-worst choices, not like BioWare's harsh black and white.

The first time I almost stopped playing was about that. The main plot story - your own character's story arc - is that you have mysteriously acquired a unique and non-transferable magical gift, which is the only thing that can save the world from its new embodiment of evil. And the introduction to the game is entirely linear: go here, do this, go there, do that, with little opportunity for either interaction or choice. Yes, I do understand that the introduction of a game has to lead the player through the game mechanics, but that excessive focus on mechanics often leads to poor writing, and it does here, I think.

So why, actually, am I still playing?

Cassandra.

The character Cassandra - in this game, anyway - is an angry, aggressive, clearly damaged female warrior (no pretty young girl), distrustful, private, emotionally closed; but clearly of strong moral principles and capable of strong loyalty. She's very well written and well voice-acted, with an accent which is at once foreign and unplacable.

There's also a great deal of well written, amusing and character driven interaction between Cassandra and another non-player character, Varric. Varric is a dwarf merchant and part time writer of fiction, including romances which it is heavily implied are extremely steamy. In back-story - actually in Dragon Age 2, a game I haven't played - Cassandra had interrogated Varric with at least an implication that a degree of torture was used. Consequently, at the start of the game there is considerable dislike and distrust between the characters, which gradually thaws during the game in interesting ways.

In brief, both of these were well-drawn characters I quickly came to appreciate. I believe that some of the other companion characters are probably equally well drawn, but they haven't interested me so much so I haven't interacted much with them.

At the point I was seriously considering abandoning the game because I was utterly frustrated by 'Wicked Eyes and Wicked Hearts', I browsed the Dragon Age wiki (moderated by my old friend and companion in crime Carrol Dufault) to check on a few things which might help me to decide whether to continue.

I discovered that Cassandra was 'romanceable'.

There have been romanceable characters in a number of BioWare games, and I'd assumed there would be in this one without a great deal of interest. Romanceable essentially means that there's a plot variant to be discovered which allows the protagonist (that's essentially you) to have a romance with the character.

For Cassandra to be romanceable has to give her a very interesting story arc, to develop in unexpected ways; and that thought is keeping me playing. I also do want to see the further development of her odd freindship with Varric.

In summary, this game isn't the equal in plot or setting or art or dialogue or even character to any of the Witcher games (although it is considerably easier to get into than either Assasins of Kings or Wild Hunt), and it isn't nearly as ambitious as Skyrim, but may have better character and plot. But it's interesting, intriguing, and a lot of the story is well written. Yes, it has been worth the ninety hours I've spent so far. I shall almost certainly complete Cassandra's story arc, because I want to know what happens; whether I'll play on to the end... well, we'll see.

Monday, 23 November 2015

Colateral damage

Dear Richard Arkless,

I feel confident that I have no need to write you this letter; that you, and all your fellow SNP Members of the Westminster Parliament, will remember Hamish Henderson's words:
Nae mair will our bonnie callants
Merch tae war whan our braggarts crousely craw...
Broken faimilies in launs we've hairriet
Will curse 'Scotlan the Brave' nae mair, nae mair
I feel confident that you know that adding to the 'air power' deployed in Syria only increases that most cynical and most empty of modern euphemisms, 'colateral damage'. In Syria as in Iraq, Yemen and Afghanistan, only one person in ten killed by western bombing and drone strikes is a 'target'.The rest are civilians. Women. Children. The old, the sick, and the injured.

No-one's child should be colateral damage. No-one's mother should die because someone dialled in the wrong co-ordinates. No-one's grandfather should be mown down because some 'target' just happened to be passing down the road in a Toyota pickup.

And to the parents of the children we kill, to the children of the mothers we kill, to the families of the gandparents er kill, what is the moral distiction between the fanatic who detonates his explosive belt in a Paris music venue and the young pilot who unloads his payload of indiscriminite death on their village, before flying comfortably home to a slap-up dinner and a quiet night's sleep, only to do the same on the morrow?

You cannot bomb an idea. Indeed, Daesh's idea is that there is an inevitable war between the West - what they call 'Rome' - and Islam. Daesh's battle plan is that to bring on the end of days, they must 'eliminate the grey zone', to divide the world starkly into those who are with them and those who are against them. To wage war against them  is to lend credence to their ideas, to bomb them is aid them in their battle plan.

The way to defeat an extremist movement is to win over the population among whom they live and from whom they recruit, by addressing reasonable grievances and building personal connections and friendships, as Scotland's regiments learned so painfully in Malaysia. The way to end a terrorist campaign is to sit down with the terrorists and talk, as we learned so painfully in Northern Ireland. You cannot win hearts and minds from the cockpit of a fighter jet. You cannoy negotiate with a drone. You cannot kill an idea with bombs and bullets.

This week we are welcoming Syrian refugees into Scotland. That makes me proud. But let us not now make more refugees, by bombing drive more of Syria's people to flee their homes, their towns and villages, to make the long, desperate treck to hoped for safety.

As I said at the beginning, I'm sure I don't need to write you this letter. I feel sure you will not be swayed by the testosterone fueled jingoism of the Tory braggarts. I'm sure you are as keen as I am to see that no broken families in Syria will feel the need to curse 'Scotland the Brave'.

But if you can use my words can help you persuade other MPs from other parties that bombing Syria, like bombing the Bataclan, is a moral outrage which will only set peace backward and advance the black flags of the Daesh, then this letter has been worth writing.

For man tae man, the whole world oer, shall brothers be for aa that; and it it Scotland's job to make it so.

Sincerely

Simon Brooke

Sunday, 22 November 2015

Feu Duties, and Dereliction

A Norman knight, like Walterus le Brun
I am a person of place; what in Scots we call a hamebodie. My place is between the granite and the sea, between Bengairn and Heston Island. My home is a matter of great importance to me. In 2010 I went mad, and, as one of the consequences of going mad, lost my house; and the darkest days in my life were when I realised that, with the money I had left, and given my age and my very unreliable mental health, I'd never again be able to afford a house between the blue line of the granite and the grey line of the sea.

Being mad is in some sense liberating. When you know that the balance of your mind is disturbed, when you know that your judgement is not to be relied on, when you know that any decision you take make may be bad, you can give yourself permission to make risky decisions; and when you're suicidal anyway, the consequences of any decision you make turning out to be really, really bad cannot make things worse.

So I bought a field and a little bit of wood, without planning permission, and built what a dispassionate observer might describe as 'a hut' or 'a shack'. For me it's home; somewhere I'm safe, on land which I own and on which I owe no debts. But I understand well that for many people - perhaps not for everyone - being forcibly driven from their home is perhaps the worst psychological injury they can face.

In the world now many people are being forcibly driven from their homes, most notably in Syria and the Levant; waves of refugees fleeing to hoped-for safety in Europe are testimony to this. It makes me proud that Scotland is eager to welcome some of these people, to offer them new homes in which they can be safe.

But the reason I'm writing this essay today is that in just one week from now, three more families will be driven from their homes, not in far-off Syria but here in Scotland; driven out of their homes onto the streets, literally as refugees. They are being driven out because their local laird has quite arbitrarily decided they should go. The laws of Scotland were not meant to allow this; the Agricultural Holdings (Scotland) Act 2003 was crafted quite specifically to prevent this.

That was the law, democratically agreed only twelve years ago by the democratic will of the politicians democratically elected by the polity of Scotland.

But the unelected UK Supreme Court overruled this. The rights of a landowner arbitrarily to do as he pleased with his land overrode, in their opinion, a tenant farmer's right to home and livelihood. In doing so, they sentenced the farmer in the case, Andrew Riddell, to death, since he shot himself rather than leave the home where his family had lived for over a hundred years.

Law is, at best, a lagging indicator of social consensus. At worst, it's a means for people with privilege to protect the privilege of privileged people from the seething mass of the great unwashed. Politician-made law, democratic law, at its best, tends to the first of those positions. Judge-made law - for judges are drawn systematically from the privileged classes - tends towards the second.

Andrew Riddell is dead, and his family home is lost. Andrew Stoddart's isn't - yet. He's still fighting - for his home, for his family's home, for his workers and their families' homes. Like Andrew Riddell before him, Andrew Stoddart says he's not leaving. The law of Scotland, though, as bowdlerised and mangled by the UK Supreme Court, says that he is. And his laird says he's leaving in a week from now, on the 28th November.

On the streets. In winter. In Scotland.

Is our Scotland - our Scotland that is this week welcoming a thousand Syrian refugees into their new homes - going to allow this?

The UK Supreme Court's ruling is that the laird's right to property in the land overrides the tenant's right to a secure home. But on what basis can the laird claim to have a right of property at all? Land, in Scotland at least, is not man made. We may claim of an invention or of a work of art that I made this, therefore it is mine, but we cannot claim that of land.

Nor can we claim - for any inch of Scotland - that we were the first settlers, or that it has passed peaceably from parent to child down the ages from the first settlers. All of Scotland's land has been fought over, seized, stolen, not once but many times over the past seven thousand years.

But the lairds of Colstoun's claim to ownership it particularly easy to trace; they could, in fact, be poster-boys for Scotland's lairds. Because Colstoun has been owned by the same family for nine hundred years. How did they come by it? One Walterus le Brun, described as 'a mercenary' from France, was given the land by King Alexander I.

What the medieval Kings of Scotland were doing when they gave tracts of land to tough, competent, well armed mercenaries wasn't just generosity and open handedness. There was an explicit contract on which the whole feudal system was based. The King, as the personification of the state, provided the land, and the lairds in return provided local justice, civil administration, civil order, and defence of the realm. The same contract which gives the descendants of Walterus le Brun the power to throw Andrew Stoddart and his employees and their families out onto the street also requires them to meet the full cost of running East Lothian council and Haddington Police station out of their own pockets, and to provide one fully eqipped and crewed fighter bomber for the Royal Air Force.

The other thing to be said about the feudal system under which the le Brun family were granted the lands at Costoun is that it was recursive. The tenants held their lands under exactly the same legal basis as the Lairds held theirs: as vassals to their feudal superior, in return for services rendered, and subject to - sometimes very abrupt - termination if those services weren't provided. Neither laird nor tenant held the land as inalienable property. The modern notion of property was never part of the bargain.

But what's happened over the intervening nine hundred years is that we've socialised the duties under the feudal contract - the ordinary folk of Scotland now pay for justice. civil order, civil administation and defence of the realm out of our own taxes - but privatised the benefits: we've left the aristocracy with the rewards. Worse, we've allowed them through a process of legal alchemy to transmute those feudal grants into property rights. The rents of the estate of Colstoun are now essentially a synecure, a monopoly guaranteed by the state in return for no service at all; and thus the lairds of Colstoun have lived fat off the labour of more honest folk for at least the last five hundred years and given nothing back for it.

That simply isn't tolerable.

There's another thing to be said here. In Scotland, good arable land is valuable; even good pasture is valuable. But rough grazing, willow carr, houghland, mire is much less valuable. In Scotland, good arable land doesn't just happen; it isn't just handed down by a benevolent God on a plate. Good arable land is made, by draining, by the laborious and back breaking work of stone picking, by the addition of organic matter, by fencing and hedge-laying and dyke building.

That work hasn't been done by the lairds and it hasn't been paid for by the lairds. But - especially at Colstoun - over generations lairds have encouraged tenants to invest their all into improvement of the land, and then turned those tenants off to relet the improved land to a new tenant at a higher rental.

The lairds have lived rich not only off the tenants labour, not only off the rents, but off the tenant's capital investment.

That isn't tolerable either.

It's not new that it isn't tolerable. It wasn't tolerable in the eighteenth century, when the levellers tumbled the dykes of the lairds' new enclosures. It's never been tolerable. But now, when we are in the early days of building a better nation in Scotland, it's more than ever intolerable.

We need to look again - and much more closely - at what we understand by ownership of land in Scotland. We need to look at the heritability of ownership. We need to look at the limitations to ownership. Because we cannot build a better nation in a land where some people have, by right simply of birth, vast privilege unavailable to the rest of their fellow citizens.

But most of all, we need to look at the duties consequent on ownership. The state guarantees to land owners a monopoly on the right to use and manage a piece of land, guarantees that others will not seize that land off them by force. What duties does the landowner owe back to the state as their side of that bargain?

Walterus Le Brun's descendents still live in the Big Hoose of Colstoun. Nevertheless, it's perfectly clear that for several hundred years at least, the lairds of Colstoun have not been fulfilling their part of the bargain under which the lands of Colstoun were granted to them. They were never given property of the lands in the modern sense; rather, they were granted a vassalage from the state in return for services to be rendered.

Now, how Alexander the Fierce would have dealt with dereliction by a vassal of their feudal duties is a matter of conjecture, but given his nominative epithet my conjecture is that he would have been bloody, bold and resolute. Times have changed: I'm not proposing that the lairds of Colstoun should be deprived of their lives, their heads or even their home, no matter how desirable it might be pour encourager les autres. They have as much right to a secure home as anyone else; I'm not proposing that they should be driven out of it, any more than I think we should allow them to drive Andrew Stoddart out of his.

But the lands are another matter. The lands were granted in return for services to be rendered. Those services are no longer being rendered, therefore the contract is void, therefore the land isn't theirs, therefore they have no power to evict Andrew Stoddart (nor, incidentally, to levy rents, so they may owe him twenty years of rent back).

And just as the state could, nine hundred years ago under Alaxandair mac Maíl Coluim, grant the lands of Colstoun to Walterus le Brun in return for services to be rendered, so the state can now, under Nicola Sturgeon, revoke that grant on the grounds that his descendents are in default on their obligations under the grant.

Friday, 30 October 2015

Of cabbages, and kings

King Alexander I: reverse of seal.
I don't know if you recall King Alexander the First. Personally I don't; he lived a long time ago. I certainly don't know what signal service Walterus Brown, a French mercenary, performed for King Alexander. He may have been his right hand man, his most trusted general; he may have been his enforcer, his personal thug; he may have been his bum boy. I don't know.

What I do know is that, by the time Alexander died, eight hundred and ninety one years ago, Walterus Broun had possession of the rich lands of Colstoun in East Lothian. I know this also: his descendants live there still, as their reward for that far-off, unremembered service. They have lived there, and grown fat on the backs of other mens' labour, for almost nine hundred years.

And over that time they've turned off a lot of tenants. They turned off a Mr Walker in 1817; a Mr Brodie in 1838; William Hay in 1872; David Smith in 1880; William Gibson in 1896; and so on. As their present tenant says, 'no one has ever left Colstoun Mains voluntarily, most have been bankrupted or very close to it.' Their present tenant is, of course, Andrew Stoddart, whom you'll all recall as a doughty campaigner for the rights of tenant farmers, and for land reform.

Andrew is to be evicted in three weeks' time, from land he's farmed and improved for twenty years, into which he's poured quarter of a million pounds of his own money, and the obvious suspicion must be that Andrew, like Brodie before him, is being forced out of his home and livelihood because he holds the wrong political opinions and has the courage to express them.

William Hay in 1872 was driven to suicide. I've corresponded with Andrew a great deal over the past few weeks, and I'm extremely anxious about his mental state.

And the question I have to ask is this: in what sense is it just, equitable, efficient or rational to allocate the management and benefits of a scarce resource, Scotland's land, on the basis of heredity? How can we build a better nation while the undeserving rich still fatten off the backs of ordinary working folk? And how are we to have open debate in the polity of Scotland if folk can be thrown out of their homes for having the wrong opinion?

King Alexander lived a long time ago, I'm not sure that any of us can remember him. How long are we going to allow him to rule over us?

Wednesday, 21 October 2015

Are we going to allow Andrew Stoddart to be thrown out of his home for activism?

Andrew Stoddart - whom many of my friends will remember from the Birnham workshop - is being evicted from his farm at Coulston Mains just outside Haddington. I think there's no doubt that he's being evicted because of his land reform activism, and because of his activism within the Scottish Tenant Farmers' Association.

It cannot be tolerable that a man can be turned out of his livelihood and his home because of his political views: that has to be an affront against any idea of democracy and freedom of speech, whatever you think of the legitimacy of land ownership.

This is urgent. Andrew is being evicted on the 28th of November. Not only will he and his family lose their home and income, his tractorman's family will be losing theirs too. I'm trying to assess how many people are prepared to how much effort into defending him.

Obviously, we can only do things which Andrew and his family are comfortable with. At present I think that means, from the brief exchange I've had with him, that we can lobby parliament and politicians generally, and that we can picket his landlord's lawyers, who are Turcan Connel.

Alex Thomson's excellent piece on land reform covers Andrew's case: watch it here; the segment on Andrew starts at 6 minute 36 seconds in. The Scottish Tenant Farmers' Association have a press release on Andy Wightman's site here.

Quite apart from the immediately urgent matter of Andrew's eviction, there's an even more worrying aspect to the business. Andrew's eviction is made possible by the UK Supreme Court overturning protections written into the Agricultural Holdings (Scotland) Act 2003. The section in question is as follows:
72 Rights of certain persons where tenant is a limited partnership
(6) Where this subsection applies, notwithstanding the purported termination of the tenancy—
(a) the tenancy continues to have effect; and
(b) any general partner becomes the tenant (or a joint tenant) under the tenancy in the partner’s own right,if the general partner gives notice to the landlord within 28 days of the purported termination of the tenancy or within 28 days of the coming into force of this section (whichever is the later) stating that the partner intends to become the tenant (or a joint tenant) under the tenancy in the partner’s own right.
In other words, under the Scottish act, tenants have security of tenure even if they were limited partnerships. The Supreme Court ruled that this is incompatible with the landowner's rights to property guaranteed by the European Convention on Human Rights. The court, in their infinite wisdom, seem to give no thought for the tenants' rights. It seems to me that it is probably this judgement that is making the SNP so knock-kneed and generally useless on land reform.

The things it seems to me that we could practically immediately do are:

  1. Mount a picket outside the Turcan Connel offices at Princes Exchange, 1 Earl Grey Street, Edinburgh, EH3 9EE 
  2. Organise a flash mob there (but we'd need to be confident we could get a lot of folk)
  3. Organise a mass lobby of Parliament
  4. Attend the Rural Affairs Committee's meeting in Dumfries on 2nd November, and give the politicians a hard time about it.

I'm not saying we should do all these things. I'm just floating ideas. It would be better to do one thing really well than half a dozen things badly. There may be something I haven't thought of which would be better.

But what I'm trying to do is assess how many people are prepared to do something now to defend first Andrew, his family, and his tractorman's family, and to defend the right of the Scottish Parliament to determine the limits on the right to property in land in Scotland.

Are you in? If so, please respond. And please feel free to link to or copy this message on any mailing list or social media you choose.

Thursday, 1 October 2015

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold

The subject of this essay is the Labour Party of which Jeremy Corbyn is leader, and its implications for the left in Scotland.

 I'm impressed by Corbyn, despite his total failure to understand the situation in Scotland and his schoolboy errors - perhaps passed to him by someone else - about the SNP's alleged 'privatisations'.

He is, I believe, genuinely a person of the left; genuinely a person of peace, of sharing, of consensus building, of honesty and of egalitarianism. I suspect that he would name Ghandi as one of his inspirations; I think that he would mean it.

One can imagine him sitting perfectly happily at Harold Wilson's cabinet table, or Clement Atlee's before him. But one cannot imagine Jeremy Corbyn sitting happily at Jeremy Corbyn's shadow cabinet table, and therein lies the problem. Because - with the solitary exceptions of Diane Abbot and his Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell, all of his shadow cabinet would have been sitting not on Harold Wilson's front bench, but on Edward Heath's, opposite him.

And this is the point. 'The Labour Party of which Jeremy Corbyn is leader' is not at all the same thing as 'The Labour Party led by Jeremy Corbyn'. Jeremy Corbyn was elected - overwhelmingly - by the members and supporters of the Labour Party. The footsoldiers who go out and campaign, who knock doors, who fill in canvass returns, who stuff leaflets through letterboxes.

The footsoldiers who, as I reported a year ago, so notably didn't turn out in the independence campaign.

Labour's problem is that it is two radically different parties. Corbyn's party is the footsoldiers' party; 'Old Labour', a party which someone my age has no difficulty in recognising as the linear descendants of Atlee's party.

But Labour elected politicians are overwhelmingly 'New Labour', an Oxbridge educated metropolitan elite. That's come about because Labour had come to be a regular party of power; a party which aspiring carreerist power-seekers saw it as in their personal interests to join. And over at least the past forty years, bright, articulate, self-confident Oxbridge graduates have over-awed ordinary Labour members at candidate selection meetings, and have consequently colonised the Labour benches.

And Corbyn's problem is that actually these elected politicians don't give a stuff about what the members and supporters think: they assume they can use their privileged access to the media to talk over the heads of the members and supporters to the electorate.

It is, sadly but obviously, from these self-centred power-hungry carreerists that Jeremy Corbyn's shadow cabinet are drawn. They overwhelmingly support


To what extent they support these things because these are the things well funded lobbying companies urge them to support I don't know, but that's beside my present point. Let's compare that list, for a moment, to the founding principles of the Labour Party:
To secure for the workers by hand or by brain the full fruits of their industry and the most equitable distribution thereof that may be possible upon the basis of the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange, and the best obtainable system of popular administration and control of each industry or service.
It's common parlance within the Labour party to accuse the faction(s) you disagree with of being 'entryists'. Just now, the Blairites are accusing the 'Corbynistas' of being entryists. But as I've said, it's obvious that it's the Corbynistas who inherit their ideology from the Labour Party of Atlee and Bevan. They are the traditional Labour party: a broad church of unionised workers and leftist intelligentsia. The Blairites - in so far as they have any discernable ideology beyond 'power at any price' - are not. So, seriously, who are the entryists?

The SNP, like Labour, is a broad church; Nicola Sturgeon, like Jeremy Corbyn, is substantially to the left of many members of her cabinet, and, like Corbyn, is, I believe, held back in consequence. But the SNP is bound together by a single overarching goal: the independence of Scotland. It also has the benefit that it is relatively new to being a 'natural party of government', and consequently doesn't yet have the cadre of power-hungry opportunists that Labour has attracted. Labour, by contrast, has nothing to bind it together and is, I suggest, now rapidly unravelling, across the rest of the UK as much as here in Scotland.

There is no natural alliance between socialism, however loosely defined, and neoliberal capitalism. Nothing unites 'the common ownership of the means of ...exchange' with first the deregulation, and then the bailing out, of private sector financial institutions. No-one can find a compromise between securing for the workers the full fruits of their labour on the one hand, and rentiers getting filthy rich on the other. There is no common ground between meritocracy and inherited wealth.

All this, I think, has lessons for the left of the independence movement. We have sought to be a broad, inclusive, unified movement; but currently the main political expression of that movement is the SNP, who talk the left wing talk but are much less good at walking the left wing walk, and who tend to the illiberal besides. We've seen the centralisation of the police; the council tax freeze which has robbed local authorities of discretionary spending power; and they're currently turning their coats over land reform, frightened of the - admittedly considerable - power of the landed interests.

I grant the SNP government have been - surprisingly - competent; the present relatively minor scandals are virtually their first. But the SNP cannot be above criticism. They must be challenged from the left. They must be challenged on land reform and on land tax. They must be challenged on basic income. They must be challenged on public ownership and on workers' co-operatives. They must be challenged on planning and housing law.

They cannot be challenged from the inside. The SNP leadership have stifled debate on the Monarchy and Nato. Tactically, they were probably right to do so; but Scotland needs to hold those debates. They've stifled debate on currency and I'm utterly convinced that was a grave tactical mistake. But again, Scotland desperately needs that debate.

So as there is no place in Labour for both socialists and neoliberals, just as the internal contradiction between those positions is driving Labour to ruin, so it is impossible to reconcile in the independence movement those careful tacticians trying to build the broadest possible consensus, and those wild-eyed visionaries who are trying to create the blueprint of a better nation.

The left, here in Scotland as in England, needs its own party, and in Scotland as in England that party cannot be the Labour Party the neo-liberals have such a firm hold of. We must have our own Scarlet Banner to raise high. The saltire must also be available in red.

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold. But we shall rise, now, and be that nation again!

Friday, 28 August 2015

Breaking young minds

This morning I listened to a radio programme. Before it was half finished I was screaming in anger and anguish at the radio; by the time it was finished I was sobbing. For the rest of the day I've felt headachy and ill.

The programme was called 'mending young minds'. You don't mend young minds, you break them; and once they're broken it's extremely unlikely that there will be any road back. Of the twenty or so kids who were in the Young People's Unit of the Royal Edinburgh Hospital with me forty-five years ago, I'd be extremely surprised if half a dozen are still alive. Those who are will, like me, have suffered a lifetime of mental illness.

Being mad just isn't fun
It isn't fun for anyone
It isn't fun if you are mad
It isn't fun it it's your dad
If it's your child it's just as bad
There is no fun in being mad.

My mind was broken fifty-five years ago in Stamfordham Primary School in Northumberland. I've never recovered. The damage was probably irreversible after three months, but I had three years of it before there was any intervention, eight before there was useful intervention. And by that time it was far too late.

Since then I've made excuses for them. Dyslexia wasn't well understood then, I've said to myself. My parents were trying to do the right thing. The teachers had no way to know the damage they were causing.

Perhaps. But that was half a century ago. What the hell was the point of me and hundreds like me going through all that pain and suffering life-altering injury if lessons aren't going to be learned?

So when I hear on the radio today of a little girl who's now ten, who showed signs of distress immediately on being sent to school... I am overwhelmed with anger and distress and compassion.

Let's be clear about this: we have a lot of ongoing scandals about elite sexual abuse of children. We should treat that very seriously. We should hunt down, prosecute and imprison the perpetrators, because raping a child is extremely likely to lead to life-altering trauma, to damage that cannot be undone. To ruin the child's whole life.

But for fuck's sake so is sending an obviously distressed child to school.

School is a dreadful, evil institution - a place where we send people to punish them for being young. It's also, of course, an environment in which some young people blossom. But that is the point. One size does not fit all. Mainstream education - in which some flourish and most more or less cope - does dreadful, irreparable harm to many. If we are to have compulsory schooling at all it must be child-centred, highly responsive and individualy tailored. To send a child to a school at which they are clearly unhappy is an act of unconscionable cruelty.

But if the parent who sends a child day after day to a place in which they are being systematically tortured is cruel, how much more so is the educator who inflicts the damage?

This isn't acceptable. It has to stop. If we don't have enough resources to educate the children we have without injuring them, then we just need as a society to have fewer children. If we aren't prepared to have fewer children then we have to put more resources into individually tailored child centred education.

But there is no criminal worse than the adult who sees a child in distress and continues, day after day, week after week, month after month to send that child into the place of torture to be further injured. No punishment which a civilised society could impose would be sufficiently severe to fit such a crime.

You don't mend young minds, you break them. And there's no road back.

Friday, 17 July 2015

#whoseBBC?

Jackie Bird talks over Mhairi Black -
the straw that broke the camel's back.
This is the whole of my response to the government's consultation on BBC charter renewal. You can find the consultation, and make your own response, here.


Q1: How can the BBC’s public purposes be improved so there is more clarity about what the BBC should achieve? 

The BBC is intended to be a public broadcaster and not a state broadcaster, but the actions of successive governments have reversed this and we now have the worst of all worlds: a state propaganda arm paid for by the public.

If anything of the BBC is to be salvaged the link with government must be entirely severed. The BBC should become a co-operative owned and governed by its audience. This means that the license fee can no longer be a universal impost but must become a voluntary subscription, which probably means in turn that content should be broadcast encrypted and that the subscription should include a  decrypter. I know no-one wants this, but so long as the license fee is an impost the BBC cannot be brought under democratic control and will remain a state broadcaster.

I have to say I'm a relatively recent convert to this view; as recently as a year ago I would have been a staunch defender of the BBC. But its naked and unapologetic bias throughout last year's referendum campaign tested my loyalty beyond endurance. Last week's incident of the reporting of Mhairi Black's maiden speech re-emphasised this, and deepened my conviction that the BBC in its present state is not fit for purpose.

Q2:  Which elements of universality are most important for the BBC?

The BBC has no universality; it never has had, having been essentially an elite London-centric institution serving primarily an elite London-centric audience since its inception. It did try to break out of that mould in the eighties and nineties of the last century, but that quest for independence and broad popularity was peremptorily ended in 2004 by the Blair Government, and since then the BBC has been in craven retreat.

It is no longer - if it ever was - the people's broadcaster, and the public are no longer forelock tugging and deferential. The BBC cannot expect the public to defend it.

Q3: Should Charter Review formally establish a set of values for the BBC?

No. No body appointed by government should have any part in establishing values (or anything else) for the BBC. That is for its audience, and for its audience alone, to do.

Q4: Is the expansion of the BBC’s services justified in the context of increased choice for audiences? Is the BBC crowding out commercial competition and, if so, is this justified?

The 'commercial competition', in this context, is a very narrow set of mostly foreign, mostly right-wing and mostly very corrupt media oligarchs. If the BBC has any residual merit it is precisely in crowding them out.

The BBC should provide those services that its audience want and are prepared to pay for. The Government should have no role whatever in deciding what the BBC may, or may not, do.

Q5: Where does the evidence suggest the BBC has a positive or negative wider impact on the market?

It prevents its domination by the media oligarchy. Since the Government is unable or unwilling to tackle Murdoch, Lebedev, Harmsworth, Desmond or the Barclay brothers, it should not interfere with the BBC.

Q6: What role should the BBC have in preparing for the future technological landscape including in future radio switchover?

Radio switchover is a largely failed project. Over much of the British Isles, digital radio offers a substantially poorer service than VHF; only in the cities is it competitive in quality. In any case the DAB standard used in Britain is obsolete and not widely adopted elsewhere, and Internet technologies will have made it wholly irrelevant before it has been completely rolled out.

Q7: How well is the BBC serving its national and international audiences?

The BBC currently serves the Government, not its audience.

Q8: Does the BBC have the right genre mix across its services?

No. The BBC now has very little content I would either trust or choose to consume, and I think in this that I'm representative of a substantial minority of the population.

Q9: Is the BBC’s content sufficiently high quality and distinctive from that of other broadcasters? What reforms could improve it?

Why should it be distinctive? If the BBC is providing the service its audience wishes to pay for, then inevitably other broadcasters will want to supply similar content. If other broadcasters do not want to supply similar content, then it must be because there is no audience for it. In any case this is a matter for discussion between the BBC and its audience, in which no-one else's views are relevant.

Q10: How should the system of content production be improved through reform of quotas or more radical options?

The Government should get right out and stop interfering. The matter for the right system of content production is a matter for a discussion between the BBC and its audience (if it wants to keep one). The Government should have no role whatever in this.

Q11: How should we pay for the BBC and how should the licence fee be modernised?

Those people who wish to consume the BBC's content should pay a subscription fee. The whole of the subscription fee should go to the BBC to use as the BBC sees fit, with no part of it being diverted to other services; at the same time, the BBC should expect and receive no subsidy from the Government.

There might be a scale of subscription fees, with different subscriptions buying access to different mixes of services (for example, those who don't want to watch wall-to-wall football should not be obliged to pay for it). But the setting of fees should be a commercial matter for the BBC, in which the Government should have no role.

I would personally prefer that the BBC remain subscription and not advertising funded, but that too is a matter between the BBC and its audience.

Q12: Should the level of funding for certain services or programmes be protected? Should some funding be made available to other providers to deliver public service content?

That's a matter between the BBC and its audience. Other providers are perfectly able to set up their own subscription funded services - and, indeed, are doing so. The Government has no role and should not interfere.

Q13: Has the BBC been doing enough to deliver value for money? How could it go further?

That's a matter between the BBC and its audience. The Government has no role and should not interfere.

Q14: How should the BBC’s commercial operations, including BBC Worldwide, be reformed?

The BBC should be able to offer subscription charges in any markets it cares to. It's notable that the Guardian and the Daily Mail, for example, now have very large audiences outside the United Kingdom. A large non-UK income base, and possibly overseas centres of operations, would help the BBC better resist interference from Government.

Q15: How should the current model of governance and regulation for the BBC be reformed?

The BBC should become a co-operative, wholly owned by its audience. The governors should be elected by and from the audience, and should determine the management structures. Governors should be elected on four or five year terms and serve a maximum of three terms.

No other body should have any role in this whatever.

Q16: How should Public Value Tests and Service Licences be reformed and who should have the responsibility for making these decisions?

They should be done away with altogether. Only the audience has any role in determining what the BBC does; and if the audience don't like the BBC's output, they should be able to vote with their feet and withdraw their subscriptions.

Q17: How could the BBC improve engagement with licence fee payers and the industry through research, transparency and complaints handling?

Through the ownership structure and democratic process outlined in my responses above.

Q18: How should the relationship between Parliament, Government, Ofcom, the National Audit Office and the BBC work? What accountability structures and expectations, including financial transparency and spending controls should apply?

Parliament, the Government, Ofcom and the National Audit Office have no role or standing whatever in this. Their input has been universally and wholly destructive. They should all butt right out.

Q19: Should the existing approach of a 10-year Royal Charter and Framework Agreement continue? 

No.

Q15: How should the current model of governance and regulation for the BBC be reformed?

The BBC should become a co-operative, wholly owned by its audience. The governors should be elected by and from the audience, and should determine the management structures. Governors should be elected on four or five year terms and serve a maximum of three terms.

No other body should have any role in this whatever.

Q16: How should Public Value Tests and Service Licences be reformed and who should have the responsibility for making these decisions?

They should be done away with altogether. Only the audience has any role in determining what the BBC does; and if the audience don't like the BBC's output, they should be able to vote with their feet and withdraw their subscriptions.

Q17: How could the BBC improve engagement with licence fee payers and the industry through research, transparency and complaints handling?

Through the ownership structure and democratic process outlined in my responses above.

Q18: How should the relationship between Parliament, Government, Ofcom, the National Audit Office and the BBC work? What accountability structures and expectations, including financial transparency and spending controls should apply?

Parliament, the Government and the National Audit Office have no role or standing whatever in this. Their input has been universally and wholly destructive. They should all butt right out.

Ofcom has standing only in so far as it leases radio spectrum. The BBC should bid commercially for radio spectrum just like Vodafone or BT. What the BBC does with the spectrum it leases should be a matter between the BBC and its subscribers in which Ofcom should have no role.

Q19: Should the existing approach of a 10-year Royal Charter and Framework Agreement continue? 

No.

The BBC should have no special privileges and should not be dependent on any special deals from Government.

Friday, 8 May 2015

Bright sun, and a bitter wind

Scotland wakes to a morning of bright sun, and sharp, cold wind. To a morning of elation and of shock. We've won an historic victory: but every great victory hides within it a great tragedy. For many - and not just here in Scotland - much has been lost, and many things which were treasured are put at risk.

We must not overwheen. We must keep the heid. This victory - enormous and overwhelming as it is - is a product of an electoral system we all know is deeply flawed: First Past the Post. In fact, only 51.5% of votes cast in Scotland were for pro-independence parties; under a fair electoral system we would still have won - might, in fact, have won a slightly bigger share of the vote - but we would have won only thirty of Scotland's fifty-nine seats.

The seeds of this victory and this tragedy were planted in 1979, when Labour, urged on by old Etonian Tam Dalyell, stole from Scotland the referendum that we had fairly won. They were nurtured in Sedgefield in 1983, when Fettes and Oxford educated Tony Blair was appointed Labour candidate to represent Durham miners. Blair calculated that, given first past the post, the left had nowhere to go and must stay loyal as he moved his party to the right; and so, he destroyed it. Because the left in Scotland did have somewhere else to go, and we went.

In every victory is a defeat, and this defeat is Labour's. They earned it. For Labour to recover it needs to introspect, to own its own errors. It needs to understand  that although the SNP won in part because they outflanked it on the left, the SNP are vulnerable not from the right but from further left. The true opposition in the next Scottish Parliament will not be Labour: it will be the Greens, the Left Project, and even, possibly, a revived Socialist Party. The essential struggle is still a class struggle, not an ethnic struggle; Scotland is slowly turning to independence because we have lost faith in the possibility of socialism across Britain. If we are to build socialism in one country, that country can only be Scotland.

In England as in Scotland, I believe, there is still a left whose voice has been silenced by Labour's journey rightwards. The things which Labour held up as its crown jewels are lost in England. The English NHS is on life support, and Osborne is fiddling with the off-switch. The English welfare state is in tatters. The Tories, like Blair before them, are redistributing wealth from the poorest to succour the rich.

It's a good thing Balls has gone. Without him, Labour - in England at least - can begin to rebuild; but first it must find some cojones.

Wednesday, 22 April 2015

For those in peril on the sea

Migrants, many of them displaced by wars caused by the West's meddling, others driven off their land by climate change, are drowning in the Mediterranean. This isn't a new problem. It also isn't a temporary problem: as climate change makes tropical regions increasingly hostile to human life, more and more people will seek to move to temperate zones, even if capitalism doesn't continue to rape Africa's economy and the West doesn't continue fomenting war in the Middle East.

So stopping people drowning in the Mediterranean is not a quick fix. Population movement out from the tropics is inevitable and will continue, and it will continue to be resisted - as we see with the Zulus in South Africa as much as with UKIP in England.

There are a range of responses we can make. We can kettle people up in Africa and let them cope as best they can, occasionally holding concerts to send some meagre 'aid' over like Lady Bountiful. We can make positive efforts to ameliorate economic conditions in Africa, and to build peace in the Middle East in the hope of slowing the movement. We can work to welcome and integrate migrants into economies across the temperate zone - which, from our point of view, means Scotland, because Scotland is where we are.

But what we can't do, it seems to me, is what the UK government is currently doing: turn our backs, withdraw the search and rescue boats, and let them drown.

So what can we, as ordinary citizens, do about this?

We can send a boat, well equipped, to help. It isn't impossible - folk in Northern Germany have already done it. One boat isn't going to stop the drownings, of course. It would be mainly a symbolic gesture - a gesture by the people of Scotland to shame the politicians of Westminster. And stopping the drownings will not stem the pressure of migrants seeking a better life; if anything, it will, as the cynical Tories calculate, encourage more to migrate. Migration is a bigger problem which we will have to address.

But in the meantime, we can - we practically can - do something to stop the drownings.

A good second hand 24 foot RIB, like the lifeboats use, costs about £30,000. Getting it kitted up and driven to the south of Italy, not more than another £10,000. The boat can cross to Lampedusa or Malta or wherever else it's needed under its own power. Rotating a crew change - crew of four - out to the south of Italy, not more than a £1,000. I'm guessing we could blag accommodation cheap for a project like this, but if we couldn't, people can live in tents in the Mediterranean in summer.

We'd also need fuel, food, large quantities of first aid supplies, and a whole lot of other consumables - say £10,000 worth a month.

So I think you could run this project for the summer - including buying the boat - for £100,000, and that's a practical crowd-fundable amount. I'm confident we could raise it.

The limitation, it seems to me, is crew. They'd need to have good boat-handling and navigation skills and also, ideally, paramedic skills. Some media skills and Italian language skills wouldn't hurt. People who've been through RNLI training would be ideal; some ex Marines and ex Navy people would have appropriate skills. And, of course, quite a few 'ordinary people' - medical people who also happen to be yacht folk; inshore fishermen who know first aid. Adventure training people.

We'd need to have at least four crew on station at any one time, ideally six; and either we would need to raise enough (extra) money to give those people a decent wage for the season, or else we'd have to have four crews (of at least four people each) who would each do about forty days on station, to have some handover time with the crew before them and the crew after them.

So the crew is either sixteen to twenty-four highly skilled volunteers, or it's a matter of raising at least another £150,000, which begins to look ambitious.

Of course, we'd need to check first that the Maltese or Italian or Greek coastguards would welcome the help, and we'd need to organise to work pretty much as they directed us. Of course, one boat, even well equipped and with a skilled crew, isn't going to solve the problem by itself - the objective is at least as much to shame the government into taking action as it is to directly rescue folk. And finally, of course there are risks - one has to assume that many of the people traffickers may be armed.

I cannot do this by myself. Realistically, I'm not reliable enough and I don't have the energy. For it to happen at all, I need to get a group of people together with energy to make it happen.

Will you join me?

Thursday, 19 March 2015

Distant echoes

Predjama castle, Slovenia. Distant, elite and echoey.
I can't remember which Scottish MP called Alexander is the Labour one. It doesn't matter. He - the Labour Alexander - opines (in London, of course) that the reason his party are in trouble in Scotland is because we - the pro-independence element of the population of Scotland - get our news from social media, and we've created out of it a self-reinforcing echo-chamber for our own beliefs. And, of course, to an extent he's right.

But his problem - and ours - is this. The pro-independence element of the population of Scotland is by and large us - the people - the great unwashed. Those whom Labour were once wont to call 'the workers'. In the days when they were the party of the workers. Remember? By contrast, the pro-union element of the population of Scotland - them - is drawn largely from the elite. And it's the nature of the elite that they control many of the principal institutions of the country, including what we've been politely calling the main stream media, but which we ought to call by its true name, the elite media. The newspapers, the television channels, the radio. And they've made of that a self-reinforcing echo chamber which reinforces their own beliefs.

So we look - more and more infrequently - at the main stream media, and we don't recognise what we see. The stories it tells do not reflect what we actually experience as we live and work in streets and workplaces of Scotland. It becomes irrelevant to our lives, a distant, unimportant fiction. We turn instead to the media which do actually reflect the truths of our lives as we experience it: Twitter and Facebook, of course, but also the National, the Sunday Herald, Newsnet, Bella, the Unsavoury Cabal, and even, sometimes, Bonkers of Bath.

Meantime, they look at these channels - occasionally - and are aghast. They don't recognise what they see. What we write does not reflect what they experience as they live and work in the Corridors of Power, in Whitehall, in Westminster, in the Square Mile. They don't recognise it. It is not, in their experience, in their reality, true.

We have created two echo chambers, distant from each other, mutually incomprehensible, intersecting rarely.

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