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MH 17 and Russia 2018

The shooting down of airliner MH17 over Ukrainian airspace was a tragedy – but more likely arising from the cock-up rather than the conspiracy wing of history. Surely no-one seriously thinks that the powers behind either side in the Ukraine fighting intended their minions to shoot down a passenger aircraft? It was clearly done by a trigger-happy clown not subject to much in the way of discipline or command and control as in a regular army. Unfortunately this sort of thing happens in civil conflicts.

The consensus that it was “Russian” rebels who did it is probably correct. That they ought not to have had the weapons to allow them to do it is also a given. But I suspect that Vladimir Putin is raging that it has put him – as the overwhelmingly likely ultimate source of the arms involved – in the wrong. One more reason for the US and EU to portray him as a villain and to increase sanctions.

Yet, unless it blows up into something bigger – in the hundredth anniversary year of the devastating fall-out of an assassination in the Balkans that prospect cannot be overlooked – in four year’s time will most people, apart from the families of the deceased for whom it will linger forever, remember it? Very few gave a toss about the contretemps Russia had had with Georgia in 2008 during the Sochi Winter Olympics earlier this year.

Yet we have our Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, calling for the World Cup due to be hosted by Russia in 2018 to be stripped from that country. I wish him luck with that. The site of World Cups is in the purview of FIFA and that organisation doesn’t take kindly to outside interference.

What makes his remarks even more counter-productive in terms of his stated objective is that Clegg has said that England might host the tournament instead. Anyone who had any knowledge of FIFA at all would know that is a non-starter.

Twonk.

Scotland’s Literature and Scottish Independence

Last Saturday, in its Review section, the Guardian printed the views of a few Scottish writers on the Scottish Independence Referendum taking place on September 18th this year. Most of them seemd in favour of splitting from the UK.

Alan Warner, while in favour of a “yes” himself, pondered on the implications of a “no” vote. Think on this: if there was a no vote, has there ever been another European country where a “progressive” – and to use two pompous words – “intelligentsia”, has united in a liberation movement, yet the majority has finally voted against the aspirations of this movement? With a no vote, a savage division will suddenly exist between the values of most of our writing – past and present – and the majority of our people.

Leaving aside the question of whether inclining to yes is necessarily progressive does he have a point? While the tradition of the country has been to strive towards literacy it is undoubtedly true that reading has declined in my lifetime – as it has elsewhere in the UK, and beyond. Many Scots nowadays do not read and – as Warner himself acknowledges – probably don’t care that those who cater for those who do are “progressive” and favour yes.

But does it necessarily follow that a no vote will negate the whole Scottish literature “project”? Warner sees independence as a liberation from the internal war in the Scottish psyche that has raged since the Act of Union. (I presume he means being on the one hand Scottish but with no institutional focus for that identity and on the other not “really” being British as by sheer force of numbers English attitudes/attributes overwhelm all others in the UK.)

Might it be, though, that it was precisely that lack of institutional focus that fuelled Scottish literature? That, in the absence of a country to call their own, Scottish writers clung ferociously to what they saw as their distinctiveness? Would that same imperative not still apply in the event of a no? Might it even become more important?

It is at this point that the promises of the no campaign are relevant. All three main UK parties say that Scotland’s Parliament will be granted greater powers in that event. (Those of us with memories of the 1979 devolution referendum might greet that with a hollow laugh.) Even in the minds of younger voters these powers can by no means be guaranteed. There hasn’t been a Bill to enact them. Even if there had it is an established tenet of the informal UK (lack of) constitution that no parliament can bind its successor. Consider the return of a Conservative Government in the General Election of May 2015. Can we seriously believe they will cede power away from themselves? Will Scotland’s relative insulation from the creeping privatisation of the NHS and the dismantling of the education system down south survive a no vote? Even under a Labour Government the Barnett Formula (under which Scotland is granted a slightly higher sum per head of monies from the UK Treasury than elsewhere in the UK – but this takes no account of government spending on things like defence and procurement) will most likely be abandoned. Hard(er) times may be ahead – as, of course, they may be if the vote is yes.

Later in that same Guardian Review in a companion piece (the website contains an extension compared to the printed version) Colin Kidd reflected on the link between literature and nationalism in Scotland stating that for the first two hundred years of its existence the union was unquestioned and largely uncontroversial. [If that was so might it have been due to the fact that any questioning was beside the point? Until universal adult suffrage - which, don't forget, did not arrive until less than one hundred years ago - what mechanism existed to attempt to alter the union? (Apart from rebellion; and that option didn't work out too well for the rebels.) Efforts to change things were understandably channelled into extending the franchise.]

Kidd also says the great unionist novel doesn’t exist but he adds Nor, surprisingly, has a lost nationhood been the dominant subject of the modern Scottish novel. The morbid excesses of Calvinism provided a far more meaty bone to gnaw, from Scott’s Old Mortality and James Hogg’s The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner in the early 19th century to James Robertson’s ingenious updating of these themes in The Fanatic (2000) and The Testament of Gideon Mack (2006).

I haven’t read Old Mortality but the others I have and they certainly do address nationality; in Hogg’s case prototypically so (and I might add bang in Kidd’s “unquestioned” period.) As I wrote to the Guardian once before and I alluded to above; what struck me on reading his Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner in the early 1990s was the doppelgänger concept as a metaphor for the Scots psyche. Probably since the Union of the Parliaments in 1707 that creature has not known what precisely it should be, neither wholly Scots, since the country lacked an institutional focus, nor indeed British, notwithstanding the attachment some Scots may have felt to the Union – Britishness was to a large extent hijacked by the overwhelming bulk of England and English concerns in the so-called United Kingdom.

This crisis of dual identity was of course memorably explored by another Scotsman, Robert Louis Stevenson, in his Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and the tradition of doppelgänger literature still looms large in Scottish writing.

I suspect a no vote (which is the most likely outcome as I write) will see that fissure in the Scots psyche sustained, if not exacerbated.

The Member and The Radical by John Galt

Canongate Classics, 1996, 263 p, including 2 p glossary, 6 p notes (The Member) and 4 p notes (The Radical) plus 8 p Introduction.

The Member and The Radical cover

Galt was a Scot born in Ayrshire whose novels mainly dealt with the impact of the industrial revolution and has been called the first political novelist in the English language. The Member was the first example of the Parliamentary political novel, The Radical deals with Parliamentary matters only towards its end. These two works of fiction were first published in 1832 (in January and May respectively) and subsequently in one volume as The Reform that November but apparently not republished till 1975 (The Member) and this edition (The Radical.) The two hundred year old idioms do take some getting used to but it is worth persevering.

The Member: An Autobiography.
This is prefaced by a “Dedication” to one William Holmes, wherein Scot Archibald Jobbry laments the imminent passing of the Great Reform Act and the inevitable depredations which it will bring in its train. Many years before Jobbry had returned from India where he had made his fortune and decided to purchase a seat in the House of Commons despite it being technically illegal to do so. He shows himself a sly and acute bargainer. During this process he opines, “a Tory is but a Whig in office, and a Whig but a Tory in opposition.” Some things don’t change. In this regard Jobbry later says MPs have been, “inveterate to retain the distribution of places and pensions – the natural perquisites of Members of Parliament” and, “The democratical think state salaries always exorbitant, and the aristocratical never think wages low enough.”

The shenanigans accompanying elections in those days are amusingly described. On this point Jobbry tells us, “It is by no means plain why paying for an individual vote should be so much more heinous than paying for a whole borough.” These vices are still with us, if in altered form. To my mind selling off state assets is an even higher category of bribe than either of those Jobbry mentions, promising lower taxes only slightly less so.

Galt often uses the utterly obsolete form “quo’ I” for “I said” when Jobbry is relating his own direct speech.

In talking to fellow Parliamentarian Sir John Bulky, Jobbry – despite being a Tory (even if of a restrained sort) – says, “It is not a time to reduce public appointments when there is a national distress; the proper season is when all is green and flourishing.” (Tell that to the present UK coalition!) Sir John replies, “lessening expenditure during a period of general hardship – is paving the way to revolution.” Fat chance.

We also have, “a wild and growing notion prevails that governments … are of less use than had always been supposed; a doctrine (in) which the most civilised and refined communities will be driven to the wall.”


The Radical: An Autobiography
.
The life story of one Nathan Butt (try saying it in a Scottish accent,) an individual poles apart from Alexander Jobbry in outlook and here presented in a much less favourable light than Jobbry was in The Member – though he is much disturbed by his Radical friends indulging in bribery to get him elected. Again there is a dedication, this time to Baron Brougham and Vaux, late Lord High Chancellor. Butt’s enthusiasm for Napoleon turns to a feeling of betrayal by “that very bad man.” The narrator refers to his “friend” John Galt and quotes one of his poems. Metafiction in the 1830s. There is a harsh schoolmaster called Mr Skelper* – no doubt inspired by Mr Thwackum.

Several phrases resonate with the present day. “The age required that men who had large private properties should have resigned what they withdrew from the public purse.” (For this nowadays read Amazon, Google, Starbucks evading tax?) “The newspapers now and then tell us of this gentleman, who on his audit-day remitted so many per cents to his tenantry; but I doubt if the fashion has yet become common.” Quite! “There is something in their” – priests and clerics – “office which leads them to imagine themselves superior to the commonalty of mankind.” One of the characters has “a prophetic vista of the time when the English language, by the American States, and the Oriental colonies, would be universal all over the Earth.”

There is a glossary in the final pages which strangely only goes up to the letter “l” – at least in my copy.

*See skelp in the Dictionary of the Scots Language. Type in “skelp” in the search box and then click “skelp,v”.

Mr Irresponsible Does it Again

I see our esteemed Prime Minister David Cameron (aka Mr Irresponsible) has put his foot in it again.

In what sort of a world can the UK be governed by a man who has no notion of the need to refrain from comment on trials or the people involved in them while they are still taking place?

BBC Bias

I see Conservative Party chairman Grant Shapps has been sniping at the BBC.

Well, sniping isn’t quite the word. Threatening would be nearer the mark.

If you recall before the last General Election I predicted this sort of thing would happen if the Tories were to win office. The only surprise is it’s taken this long for them to get round to it. Too busy demonising the unemployed and telling lies about the mess they inherited (the UK economy was growing in May 2010 when they took over. They immediately set that into spectacular reverse.)

In any case what have they to complain about? I rarely hear much criticism of the government or its policies on the BBC news. It might not be 100% suppportive. But it’s not supposed to be.

I read over the weekend that during the last government Gordon Brown was seen on the BBC twice as much as David Cameron – aka Mr Irresponsible. At the moment it’s four appearances for Cameron against every one for Ed Miliband. As I remember a similar ratio applied during John Major’s time as PM. (Now there’s the return of the undead.)

Whenever there’s a Tory government the letters BBC might as well stand for Bend over Backwards to the Conservatives.

Grangemouth Again

While it is welcome that INEOS has reversed its decision to close the petrochemical works at Grangemouth and that the threat to the oil refinery’s future and to jobs has been lifted I wonder how long for.

It seems likely that INEOS really wanted to close the plant and has only relented because both the UK and Scottish governments pressed hard for this and UNITE, the union, has accepted all their conditions – in effect allowing the management to do whatever it likes in future. So what are these jobs worth now?

Whether the commitment of INEOS to a presence in Grangemouth will survive beyond the short term is seriously in question.

I suspect that once the monies contributed by the taxpayer to the investment apparently required has been spent they will up sticks anyway.

Whatever, I expect total employment in the Grangemouth complex to be substantially lower in five to ten years time. If, that is, there is any at all.

In the wider context it is profoundly worrying that necessities of modern life such as energy provision and oil refining are in the hands of companies not domiciled in the UK. The irony is that especially in the energy sector past UK governments insisted that state provision of energy was not to be encouraged – indeed it was to be frowned upon and eradicated – yet a large part of the energy supply industry in the UK is now in the hands of state-owned companies. Unfortunately, however, not owned by the UK state.

Grangemouth

One of the mysteries – to me at any rate – of the dispute between management and workers at Grangemouth petrochemical complex is that the company that owns it, INEOS, says it is losing £10 million a month there.

The workers are faced with signing up to significantly reduced terms and conditions or the prospect of redundancy.

But…… Losing £10 million a month running an oil complex? One, moreover, that is capable of supplying all the petrol stations in Scotland, Northern Ireland and much of the North of England?

What sort of mismanagement led to this situation? How can anyone in this day and age not make money from owning an oil refinery and its associated petrochemical works?

On Reporting Scotland tonight a glimmer of an answer appeared.

It seems INEOS has been expanding rapidly. We were told – in passing – its owner Jim Ratcliffe has incurred debt in doing so even though otherwise he appears to be doing all right.

Reading between the lines it seems he wants to make the workers at Grangemouth pay for it.

The most disturbing thing about this whole rigmarole is that little mention has been made of this aspect up to now. Politicians and the media have been shying clear of criticism of the company’s conduct. Serious questions ought to be asked of the company and politicians – UK wide. I doubt the Scottish Government has much real clout in a situation like this. I’m not holding my breath for the UK coalition to do anything about it though.

But still.

Is Jim Ratcliffe a fit and proper person to be in charge of any commercial enterprise? Have the losses been built up deliberately to engineer a diminution of workers’ conditions and pay?

How on Earth was such a chancer allowed to get anywhere near control of Scotland’s largest industrial asset?

The whole thing stinks.

Poppy Watch 2013

First spotting of the season, BBC Scotland News on Friday 18/10/13. Just shy of one week less than a month before Armistice Day.

At the SNP Conference, Alex Salmond addressing the devotees – complete with poppy.

The next news item featured a farmer or something (he was in the great outdoors, whatever) who sported a poppy in his lapel. I wonder if the BBC supplied it to him.

Curiously the presenters in the studio were sans poppies. Give it time.

SF News

I see this year’s Hugo Award for best novel has gone to Redshirts: A Novel with Three Codas by John Scalzi, which I reviewed for Interzone 245 and posted on my blog in May.

Must have been a bad year…

Meanwhile Paul Kincaid has blogged about why hard SF is inherently right wing.

This reminded me of my feelings about Robert Heinlein’s short story The Roads Must Roll.

Syria and Parliament

It seems that an outbreak of sanity has occurred in the UK Parliament with its vote against military action in Syria.

Now, chemical weapons are horrible things (even if you are just as dead being killed by high explosive or shell fragments or blast or a bullet; it is difficult to see a moral difference) but I fail to see how attacking Syrian government forces can make life better for the average Syrian even if responsibilty for the use of such weapons were to be established beyond doubt.

Not to mention the wider implications. Pour oil on to a fire, why don’t you? Bombing yet another mainly Muslim country will only encourage those Muslims who have a grievance against the UK already.

[And don't forget there are many reasons for that grievance. I noted only yesterday that British forces were involved in killing locals in Iraq in the 1920s. This followed the Balfour Declaration of 1917 which laid the path for the eventual Jewish takeover of most of Palestine. Then there was the overthrow of Mossadeq in the early 1950s. The collusion with Israel over Suez in 1956, the Suez invasion itself. The illegal invasion, on totally spurious pretexts, of Iraq in 2003. This is just those instances of UK intervention which impact on the Middle East. (A term which is itself anglocentric.)]

Quite how adding in another external faction to what is a civil war in Syria would help in resolving the situation there is also beyond me.

Just because people say something must be one doesn’t mean you can do anything you like.

Mr Irresponsible (aka David Cameron) has once more shown himself up to be a blustering bully. I suspect his enthusiasm for miltary intervention in Syria is that he believes sending in the armed forces helped both Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair to be re-elected. (A belief in which he is probably mistaken.) What he hasn’t learned is that the Iraq invasion – or, more accurately, its aftermath – poisoned the opinion of most British people against the assertions of Government spokespeople and Prime Ministers over the reasons for using troops and weaponry.

Military action against Syria could be like stirring up a hornet’s nest with a stick. There is no telling what the consequences would be.

A better response to use of chemical weapons, or any atrocity, would be to make sure that anyone responsible for what are considered war crimes is held to account by the international community. This would mean instant arrest should they stray outside whatever jurisdiction is keeping them safe from it and then arraignment before an international court. This stricture ought of course to apply to anyone, from whatever country, not just those our politicians say they don’t like.

And as to the effects of chemical weapons it might be best to deluge Syria with kits containing antidotes to the chemicals likely to be used – which would render their deployment pointless.

It wouldn’t stop the killing though.

I’m afraid this has been a somewhat unfocused rant. I can’t see a quick way out of the present Syrian imbroglio, the two sides seem too far apart for that.

Civil wars tend to be intractable. Intervention in them needs to have a purpose beyond, “Something must be done.” I didn’t think any of our politicians – least of all Mr Irresponsible – had enough wisdom to see beyond such simplicities. Parliament has at least resolved not to do more harm.

For the moment anyway.

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