Tuesday, 4 December 2012


I don't usually use this space for film work so I hope regular readers will forgive me. I'm hosting #mtos on Twitter this week (specifically, 20:00 GMT on Sunday the 9th), so it's something of a special occasion, and according to tradition I'm posing the questions here in advance. Any of you should feel free to join in – just follow the hashtag and let us know your thoughts.

I'd like to extend a warm welcome to those film fans finding their way here for the first time. If you're interested in reading my critical work on a regular basis you should check out Eye For Film. I'm also Chair of Trans Media Watch, a charity that works to improve the representaion of trans and intersex people in the media, and I've been involved in LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) rights related work for twenty six years. Inevitably, there has sometimes been an overlap between these interests and my work as a critic, and so for my #mtos hosting session I've chosen to focus on queer cinema.

You can interpret the term 'queer cinema' as broadly as you like. I don't intend this discussion to be limited to academics or LGBT people. Queer cinema is interesting in part because it has carved out its own space alongside the mainstream before arriving, latterly, at a degree of integration. This means there are lots of different angles from which to approach it. I hope some of you will find in the course of this #mtos that you know more about it than you thought.

The Questions

  • Are there any films that have been pivotal for you in developing your understanding of sexuality and gender diversity?
  • Which pre-1980 films do you think were most powerful in their depiction of LGBT characters?
  • Does queer cinema have a responsibility to challenge stereotypes? Which films have done this well?
  • Has queer cinema helped to push the boundaries of what is acceptable in mainsteam cinema?
  • Historically, queer characters have often been hidden in coded roles. Which actors have stood out in this context?
  • Which films do you think have done the most to challenge mainstream narratives around the AIDS crisis?
  • Do you ever find it hard to suspend disbelief when watching a gay actor play a straight character, or vice versa?
  • Queer cinema has often deliberately undermined the notion that minorities must be represented by 'good' characters. Who are its best anti-heroes?
  • Does the new realism in films like Weekend and Keep The Lights On indicate that queer cinema is moving into mainstream spaces?
  • Are LGBT characters in mainstream cinema starting to have more complex roles? Any examples?

Thanks for reading. I look forward to your responses on Sunday.

Thursday, 25 October 2012

Who Ate all the Pies?

In two years' time, Scotland will be holding a referendum to determine its future as a nation. Watching the news today, one could be forgiven for thinking that, instead, it was holding a bake sale. "Would you buy a used pie from this man?" asks Johann Lamont, pointing the finger at Alex Salmond (one assumes that if Iain Gray were still Labour leader, the offending item would be a sandwich). Whatever one's political inclinations, it's hard to escape the feeling that someone's telling porkies - but to focus on this is to miss the bigger question. Why should anybody contemplating the referendum base their decision on what they think of individuals?

The great man theory of history has always been seductive, and this is certainly a historical moment. It's often easier to contemplate such momentous changes (and there will be changes regardless of which way Scotland votes) by filtering them through the personalities involved. But whilst this may prove useful for students trying to form an emotional connection to the past, it is dangerous on several level when applied to the present.

First of all, we need to take ego out of the equation. The magnetism of particular individuals (whether it attracts or repels) will have little meaningful effect on how events play out after the referendum. Yes, in the short term, it may play a significant role in alliance building (whether that's renegotiating aspects of the union, strengthening our relationship with Westminster or establishing new international relationships), but this decision is much bigger than that. We are voting not just on how issues might be managed in the immediate term but, potentially, about how our country will function for hundreds of years. In that time, everybody involved in today's squabbles will die.

Secondly - and this may seem less obvious - we need to take nationalism out of the equation. Scotland deserves better than to have its future decided by flag-waving, whether that flag is the Saltire or the Union Jack.* This isn't about dead warriors, empire, Team GB, Woolworths or tartan-wrapped fudge. People can feel passionately Scottish and still support the union or can vote for independence without jeopardising their British identity - really, it's okay, that's allowed. I was quite taken aback when I heard members of the No campaign arguing that we shouldn't be independent because people care for each other across the border. Personally, I care for people all over the world (and have family around the world too) but it doesn't influence my political relationship with them. It would be perfectly possible to support an independent Scotland from an internationalist perspective, preferring that option for economic or managerial reasons without according it sentimental value. Similarly, it's possible to support the union without the prerequisite of having best friends who are English.

Thirdly, we need to remember that this isn't about political parties. If it were, why would Labour be working with the Conservatives? The Green Party has allied itself to the Yes campaign alongside the SNP, as has a faction of the Labour Party. Despite their official line, there are LibDems wavering in either direction. And alongside this, of course, there are a great many ordinary people who feel passionately one way or the other but don't worry much about political parties until it comes to marking a cross on the ballot paper on election day (if, indeed, they even do that). Don't like the SNP? Independence would likely lead to them splitting and dwindling as members' other concerns rise to the fore. Don't like Labour? If we stay in the Union you can bet they'll take the blame for every subsequent Westminster-wrought ill. (The Conservatives are probably not long for this world either way.) In other words, it's all rather complicated; and, again, the issue of our country's long term future is bigger.

If we, the Scottish public, allow this issue to be reduced to a spat about personalities, we'll all be poorer for it. So by all means bitch about Salmond (if you don't blame him for the recent confusion over legal advice, you can always remind yourself of his sometime cosy relationship with Donald Trump), but don't base your approach to the referendum on that issue. Despair, if you will, or one or more of the No campaign's strange bedfellows, but remember that they won't be around as long as the consequences of this decision. And let's remember that, when all is said and done, we'll all be eating the same pie, so let's not poison it with spite.

* I realise that, strictly speaking, it's only the Union Jack when it's flown at sea, but I'm trying to keep this simple.

Monday, 8 October 2012

Wolves in Lions' Clothing

There's a lot of concern just now around extremely right wing policies being trotted out at the Conservative Party conference. But how seriously should we take them? How seriously are they intended? And is there a danger that, in steeling ourselves for the worst, we put ourselves in a position where we will too-willingly accede to things that don't seem quite as bad?

With their pre-election promises to protect the NHS and to generally be kind and caring, the Conservatives have been accused of being wolves in sheep's clothing. A savvy wolf, however, has more than one disguise. What's more, it may dress as a lion for more than one reason - to subject the sheep to a different kind of illusion or to make an impression on other wolves. Right now, the Tory Party conference is a battleground in which every wolf is trying to look tougher than the others, scenting the blood of a weak leader and warring over the direction the party might take. This has led to policy proposals that have more to do with machismo than political or economic viability.

Let's take a closer look at a few of those proposals. Firstly, the idea that some people (variously "the unemployed" and "those who are out of work") should have their benefit entitlement gradually reduced if they fail to find work within set periods of time. This may at first sound like a reasonable way to treat the long term unemployed (rather less so if it includes, say, people who are too severely disabled to work), but it rests on the presumption that they are unemployed by choice. If indeed some are (and research suggests this group is small), that still leaves at least two other groups - those who live in areas where there is no work, and those who are effectively unemployable due to lack of skills. The former group can be expected to grow in size with the removal of housing benefit from younger people forcing them back into their parental homes and making it effectively impossible for them to migrate to areas where their prospects might be brighter (something which will also be damaging to employers). In neither case will the prospects of these people gaining employment be increased by reducing their financial means, as this will not only restrict their mobility further but will make it harder for them to dress and present themselves in a way likely to impress prospective employers, as well as making it harder for them to engage in training programmes. In short, whilst it may function as a political distraction from the real problems facing the country, it is economic nonsense. Its political advantage can exist only in the short term as sooner or later high unemployment figures are going to reach a point where they stop being seen as a consequence of inherited economic crisis and start being seen as a consequence of a Conservative government. No matter how desperate things may be, it's better not to shoot that albatross.

Speaking of increasing the unemployment figures (or at least changing people's perception of them), there's the proposal that everybody should be obliged to work for thirty five hours per week, with pert time workers obliged to take on extra hours or find second jobs. The logic behind this one is encapsulated in Ruth Davidson's speech, in which she made clear that she thinks of economic contributions only in terms of income tax, with no conception of the importance of the informal economy. To put it simply, many people in long term part time work are in that position because they have other commitments. If work obligations (under threat of the withdrawal of benefits) mean that they can no longer pick up their children from school or tend to the needs of their elderly parents, etc., the state will have to step in, at considerably increased cost. Then there are those who work part time because they are too ill to work full time. I'm in that bracket. Just now, if asked if I'm fit for work, I'll say yes (though actually even Atos would most likely rule otherwise); I can write and I am able to make some money that way. But if 'fit for work' came to mean being fit, every week, to do at least thirty five hours, I would have to say no (the physical stress of trying would probably kill me within a month); so I and many people like me would be forced to drop out of work altogether, costing the state more in benefits, reducing our economic input, wasting our talents and making many of us miserable into the bargain - for no gain. And then, of course, there is the fact that there simply isn't enough work around to sustain everybody like this. If the government wants people in this position to be more economically active, the secret is not to demand an impossible increase in hours but to push for an increase in wages.

How do we increase wages? At base, by ensuring that employees are properly valued and that they understand the value of their labour. In contrast to this, George Osborne has proposed that employees agree to waive certain rights in return for shares in the companies for which they work. This is an interesting one. Many people have, understandably, rushed to criticise the erosion of rights (which encourages a rush to the bottom), but even some of them would probably agree that employee-owned companies are a fantastic way of promoting responsible Capitalism (as per the Japanese model). One wonders if Osborne has linked the two in order to toxify the latter. Many Conservatives would traditionally have supported it, but of late the party has increasingly moved away from its focus on supporting aspirational working people. Osborne may think he can sidestep EU red tape by persuading employees to give up their rights voluntarily; the legal reality is likely to be rather different. And there is one other key problem with this policy - the fact that in a recession, when apparently stable companies are going to the wall on a regular basis, employees signing such deals can have no guarantee that the shares they settle for will retain any value at all.

What's likely to come of all this? When the lion sheds its skin, it's all too easy to relax and think, well, it wasn't a wolf after all - it won't maul me too badly. So if we see less drastic benefit reductions that target only those on Jobseekers' Allowance; if we see only a subset of those in part time work forced to take on extra hours; and if we see employees effectively stripped of their rights by being legally disempowered (ref. the ongoing cuts in legal aid) rather than seeing the laws changed outright, a party which had a wolf's agenda from the outset will seem positively ovine.

Meanwhile, David Cameron should be as wary as the rest of us. As teeth are bared in Birmingham, he's in danger of looking woolly to his erstwhile friends.

Thursday, 4 October 2012


Last night, it seemed most people I knew were watching the documentary about Jimmy Savile. I couldn't. I had to wait until this afternoon, when it was daylight and I had trusted company and wouldn't have to face sleep for a while. I hope by the time you finish reading this, you'll understand why. For me, one of the most disturbing things in he documentary was the revelation that Savile had gifted one of his (alleged) victims a copy of his autobiography signed 'your keeper'. It's that aspect of perceived ownership of people and of experiences that I want to talk about here, because despite the many recent pieces I've seen written on this subject, it's something that I haven't see discussed in any depth. I think it's important to breaching the gulf between those who watched that programme wondering why nobody took action and those of us who live in a parallel world where we'd have much much more surprised if somebody had.

I haven't slept much over the past two weeks. It wasn't the programme itself so much as all the talk surrounding it, that triggered once again the flashbacks and the mornings where I'd wake up with my body full of fury as if I were in the middle of fighting someone off. That, and the build-up of recent cases of publicly discussed sexual abuse, rape and exploitation (whether alleged or confirmed, malicious or just plain stupid) from Julian Assange to Ched Evans, from Jeremy Forrest to the disappearance of little April Jones, never mind the perpetuation of rape myths by people like Tod Akin and George Galloway. All these cases merited media attention but it can be difficult when one is unable to go for a day without such reminders. So, I'm going to touch on some of my own experiences here, but I'm not after sympathy (which I struggle to know what to do with) and I certainly don't wish to suggest that everyone's experiences or reactions are the same. I simply wish to explain my perspective and to ask for your patience if I'm a little more emotional than is usual in my writing.

One question I have seen arise persistently in relation to that Savile case is "If they're true, why didn't these women report these incidents sooner?" Of course, some of them did, and were ignored, but let's focus on the others. I can see how this might be hard to grasp for some people - after all, would one hesitate to report a burglary or a traffic violation? - yet to me and many people like me the answer is so blindingly obvious that it's difficult to get across with the patience and restraint necessary to promote understanding. First of all, let me clarify that the person who abused me when I was a young child was not famous, yet I, like a substantial portion of those who experience child abuse, said nothing directly to anyone for almost twenty years. The reason was twofold. Firstly, whilst I was still in contact with that person, I wanted to avoid a confrontation. Secondly, I didn't want to think about it. I didn't forget, but whenever those thoughts arose I stomped them down. I'd have gone crazy otherwise. I felt I had a right to get on with my life, and it wasn't until I had psychologically adjusted to being in a safer environment that it all bubbled back up to the surface.

When one does start talking, there are consequences. For most of us that's centred on family relationships and friendships, but in a case where the assailant is famous, there must also be the understanding that it could easily end up all over the papers. Yes, complainants have a legal right to anonymity (which two in this case have bravely chosen to waive) but that can't make it any easier to see the intimate details of sex acts in which one was an unwilling participant splashed all over the news. This can make it impossible to get any time off from those persistent thoughts and memories, and it also makes a desperately personal part of one's life into public property.

This is one of the reasons why I didn't go to the police when, as an adult, I was sexually assaulted by a celebrity. I was walking back from a shopping trip when it happened. He was so drunk he probably doesn't even remember it. It was broad daylight. He approached me in the street and subjected me to a tirade of homophobic abuse, then grabbed at my genital. There wasn't much I could do about it. I have a muscle wasting disease and fragile bones. My priority had to be staying on my feet. Later I mentioned it to a friend who said he knew someone who had been persistently harassed by that particular guy. Just like with Savile, there are rumours. I know there were witnesses in my case. They did nothing. That's usual. People who could talk about it at no personal cost, but don't. I'm not convinced it would do any good for me to say something now. I'd have no material proof. And my experience has been that on the occasions when I have reported assaults to the police, nothing has come of it. I still suggest that option to others, so maybe I'm a hypocrite, but it's more hat I want hem to consider the choices available to them. I've also helped others to escape ad recover from abusive situations without reporting.

Another reason why I kept quiet about my experiences when I was younger is that I don't have a binary gender identity (I realise this may not be obvious from my physical appearance - although I am actually intersex, it's hard to look butch with a muscle wasting disease) and I didn't want to be forced into an ultra-feminine poor-helpless-little-thing role, there to be protected - effectively objectified. It wasn't until later that I came to understand many women loathe this too. It's illustrative of how victims of sexual abuse and assault are written out of their own narratives. It's easy to lose control, especially when there are so many people eager to step in and 'save' us (always after the fact), to be heroes, to win social acclaim without making a fraction of the effort that we've had to make just to survive. Of course this doesn't mean we never want or need help, but we can do without being told what to think.

One of the things I've been told is that I should forget about what happened to me. I should look to the future. I'm sure everyone who says this means well, but there's that gulf of understanding once again. Whilst I want very much for those memories to lose their power - it's been thirty five years and I still wake up screaming sometimes - they are my memories, part of my life, and if I disavow them then I lose part of myself. I want to be a fully integrated, whole person capable of coping with all my diverse experiences, not a book with pages missing. I can't help but feel that, some of the time, the request that people in my position forget is more about sparing others from having to think about our problems than it is about what we live with ourselves. Just like the way that other people try to manage the social stress of child abuse by placing undue focus on, or eliding, the sexuality of the victims.

I'm sure that even those who are guilty of it can understand why others get upset at the suggestion that children seduce their abusers. More difficult to deal with is the elision of young people's sexuality - and a type of focus on sex that misses the point of some of the ways in which abuse causes harm. Studies suggest that sex is indeed the prime motivating factor for some abusers (as opposed to, say, a desire for power); unwanted acts can be acutely distressing both to experience and to remember, as well as (in some cases) causing physical harm, so I don't want to minimise that. What I do want to do is expand the picture.

In a tangent to these recent discussions there has been a lot of focus on the age of consent. On of the failings of the way this works in the UK, to my mind, is that it doesn't take into account age gaps. In many countries it is legal, for instance, for someone aged fourteen to have sex with someone aged sixteen but not with someone older. This means that young people are not criminalised for having sexual relationships with their peers but that such relationships are understood to be different from those they might have with significantly older people. And there's that word - relationship. Because the age at which we start to desire and can cope with (and enjoy) sexual experiences is rarely going to be the same as the age at which we become capable of navigating complex power dynamics in a relationship. Young people can be at significant risk of exploitation and emotional abuse from older adults who understand the dynamics of human behaviour much better than they do.

Let's take the Forrest case - the maths teacher who ran away to France with one of his pupils. He seems to have believed he was doing it for love (or to have successfully persuaded himself of that). Perhaps his pupil felt that way too. Perhaps, had she been a few years older, no-one would have seen it as a sexually exploitative relationship (and I hope for her sake, in her experience, it wasn't - and that no-one obliges her to feel violated). But it was still abusive in other ways, because Forrest was old enough to understand that this action, at the point when she was studying for vital exams, could seriously screw up the rest of her life. In that context, regardless of anything else, his actions were self-centred and callous.

There's just one thing that makes me hesitate when talking about cases like this - and I'm speaking in the abstract now, because I certainly don't wish to imply anything about specific individuals. It's this: could an individual who leaps at an opportunity to run away from home be doing so in order to escape an abusive situation there? And that's the thing - that's the shift of perspective at the heart of these discussions. I don't want to feel that way. I don't want to be paranoid or to look at the world and perceive everything as potentially hostile (even if that paranoia may have saved my life on a couple of occasions). I didn't want, as an older child, to wince when I saw kids sitting on Savile's knee in Jim'll Fix It. He could be a perfectly decent guy, I told myself. But watching that, even then, triggered that instinct in me. Jim gave out amazing opportunities. Sitting on his knee was the price one had to pay or it. At that age, I saw pretty much all interactions with adults that way. If one wanted or needed something, one had to be prepared to put up with a little unpleasantness to keep the adult happy.

Sometimes my instincts will be right and sometimes they'll be wrong. At a practical level, I'll always try to assess people calmly and rationally, but, after so many years, I doubt the way I feel will ever change. This is what child abuse does. If Savile were alive, said a lawyer in that documentary, he couldn't fairly be taken to trial over an incident thirty years ago which he'd be unlikely to remember clearly. That may indeed be fair. Perhaps, right up until his death, he lived in the same world as those of you who have never been hurt in that way. I live in a different world and every time I make contact with the wider one I have to cross a cognitive gulf. I am asking those of you who read this to dare to try and cross that gulf in the other direction. To take a look at my world (which is full of people with similar histories) and to try and rethink your assumptions. Some survivors will fit a more conventional, more comfortable narrative sculpted by others, but those of us on the other side are still human and have a right to be recognised in the human story.

Monday, 1 October 2012

In Development

This Wednesday the Scottish Government will be announcing its new National Parenting Strategy at the Parenting Across Scotland conference in Edinburgh. The policy is aimed at providing better to services to families of all shapes and sizes across the country, to ensure that young people get the best possible start in life. But what can it realistically hope to achieve, what does it need to tackle, and why should wider Scottish society invest in it?

As a queer person I probably know more childless people that average. Whilst Pope Benedict may be taking it a little far when he says that homosexuality threatens the future of the species, the fact is that lgbt people raise significantly fewer children than straight parents and many older gay men, who never had the option of adopting, have adopted a way of looking at the world that entirely elides parenthood. Of course, some straight people are unable to have children, or decide they don't want to, and recent academic work such as that by Sarah Blaffer Hrdy has problematised the assumption that every woman experiences maternal instincts. So I have quite often been asked "Why should I pay taxes to raise other people's kids? What's in it for me?" Like it or not, this is a key question when it comes to policy making.

The answer is not a difficult one but it can be difficult to sell. Children are an investment - not just for their parents but for society as a whole. Most of us will be old some day and age is a disabling process. If we want to retire or have care available for us when we are unable to be self-sufficient, we had better hope there's a new generation of capable people in the workforce, driving a strong economy. "Oh, but I have savings!" said one of my friends in response to this, misunderstanding the flexible nature of the value of money. This kind of attitude, together with the usual tendency to short termist thinking, present barriers that need to be overcome in putting forward a policy of this sort. They are particularly challenging for politicians on the left, who are frequently assumed to be driven by sentimental ideology rather than an understanding of economic issues.

And this is an economic issue. Parenting strategies have been put forward by successive governments. Some have been quite successful, but we have always struggled, as a nation, to raise more than 90% of our children out of poverty. This is because any policy that is going to be effective needs serious money behind it. Not only will this, over time, help us to build a stronger economy; it will also help us to reduce some specific financial burdens. That lost 10% (and more) of children doesn't just represent human suffering. It represents people who are more likely to face long term unemployment and more likely to end up in prison. If we don't invest now, we pay later.

That poverty is the most pressing problem for child welfare in Scotland is pretty much universally acknowledged. It's a problem that is getting worse as Westminster spending cuts disproportionately impact low income families, particularly where there are also disability issues (a key factor in child poverty). Distressing though this is, it would be folly to think that sufficient funds can be raised to tackle it at a stroke, especially in a political climate where there is considerable negativity around welfare; so what can be done right now to tackle some of the most serious difficulties whilst longer-term, larger-scale anti-poverty strategies develop?

Answering this question depends on cross-departmental working, and it's pleasing to see that this is something the Scottish government understands (though how well it will work in practice remains to be seen). Poor coordination, rivalry and duplication of work between departments is one of the biggest avoidable wastes of money in modern governmental structures all around the world, so it's good to see this kind of practice encouraged in any context. It's particularly important here because an effective parenting strategy must have the involvement of health, education and social security specialists at the very least. It must begin with high quality maternity care and helping prospective parents plan before a baby is born, but it mustn't end when children pass the point at which politicians want to kiss them and reach that where they risk being hugged by David Cameron. Children and their parents must be supported even when they're not cute, and we must acknowledge that it's often the least appealing kids - the most easily scapegoated ones - who need the most help.

It is also, very often, the least politically appealing families who are in need of help. This includes single mothers, frequently stigmatised and blamed for their predicament whilst little prejudice attaches itself to fathers who walk out. It includes young parents who often face extra financial difficulties and a steeper learning curve as well as social prejudice (a friend of mine in this situation had stones thrown at her when she was eight months pregnant). It includes alcoholics and drug addicts who need specialised support if they are to overcome their problems and successfully commit to parenthood. And it includes situations in which what is best for the child may be at odds with what is socially valued - supporting unconventional families or even helping troubled couples to separate.

I've heard many people say that they didn't feel ready to have kids until they were with someone whom they could never imagine wanting to leave. Personally, I'm inclined to think that it is advisable for couples to imagine splitting up before they have children. Research increasingly shows that children growing up after amicable divorces do better than children in homes where there is continual, miserable friction between their parents (even where that doesn't spill over into violence). A successful parenting strategy cannot afford to be based on social ideals - it must be based on lived realities, taking account of what works for individuals and, first and foremost, what can be done to make individual children feel happy and secure.

Happiness, despite being the focus of increasing scientific scrutiny, is still an undervalued aspect of life. It is important, in developing a strategy of this kind, to think not only of what children need but of what they want - to make room for play. That means preserving safe outdoor spaces, be they playgrounds or sports fields, in the face of financial pressure on councils to sell off land for development. It means providing social spaces for teenagers where they can spend time safely out of the family home, easing pressure on everybody. It means giving city kids access to the countryside and country kids access to the city. And it means funding specialist youth organisations that work with young people who find themselves marginalised.

The government has acknowledged that there is a lot of good work going on in these areas already and that the important thing is to draw it together, taking best practice examples from different groups and applying them, whether through government initiatives or the third sector, so that proper provision exists for children throughout Scotland. Sadly, many parents in marginalised groups are unaware of the help that's already out there, and this needs to be remedied. Others are afraid of any contact with helper organisations because they feel stigmatised to the point where they fear their children may be taken away. The government needs to send a clear signal that it is on the side of families and to develop communications strategies that inspire confidence - to show that t is there to help rather than to disapprove.

Unifying service provision must also involve an investment in true accessibility. Services must adapt to account for the needs of disabled parents and children, of those who don't speak much English and of those resident in hard-to-reach areas. This isn't just about intervening more specifically in individual cases - it's about building faith, on the part of parents, that services are truly focused on them, and thereby improving outreach and uptake more generally. To truly make this strategy work, the talking must continue once the initial consultation is over - the strategy must reflect the ongoing, changing needs of parents and children in a changing Scotland.

Tuesday, 25 September 2012

Labour Shame

It's no revelation that politicians try to strike a balance between doing what they believe in and doing what will win them votes, the old see-saw between gaining power and being able to do something worthwhile with it. We've heard a lot lately about the 'comforts of opposition' and the 'responsibility of government', as if power were just about being considered important and not about actually doing things that matter. But in all my long years in and around politics, I have rarely seen so blatant or misjudged a bit of vote chasing as Johann Lamont's speech today. It's no wonder lifelong Labour supporters are shredding their membership cards in response. If Lamont's words are what the Labour Party has come to represent, there doesn't seem a lot of point, really.

So it is that, despite having spent all day working on conference planning and consultations, I feel I must return to the fray tonight, because certain things are being said that have been let go for far too long. Excuse me if I don't pull my punches. I'm quite miffed that Labour's policy people can't figure this stuff out by themselves.

Let's start with something for nothing. This is a slogan we've heard a lot lately, a favourite of certain red top newspapers and government ministers looking for scapegoats. The idea is that those of us in work will feel righteous fury at the notion that people who're not working should still be able to get by. It's easy to feel, on first hearing this slogan, that it makes a lot of sense. Why should those who do nothing deserve something?

The answer is this: everybody deserves something, because they are human. Everybody deserves to be safe from starvation, to have shelter, to be warm enough in winter, to have at least a basic level of health care. These truths should be self-evident. What's more, the truth is that they don't cost very much at all. Looked at over the long term, they can save us money, by safeguarding the investment we make in every citizen whilst they are growing up. Spending tens of thousands of pounds to educate somebody and then just letting them die would be stupid, wouldn't it?

There are actually not very many long term unemployed people in this country. There are a fair number of disabled people who are unable to work or can only work part time. There are other people who face unemployment in the short term during economic slumps like the one we're going through at present (when you hear Westminster Tories complain about a rising welfare bill, bear in mind how much unemployment has risen on their watch). But the vast majority of those in receipt of benefits are working. They are contributing to society. They receive supplementary assistance because what they earn is simply not enough to live on. That's not something they should be ashamed of. That's something society should be ashamed of. A legacy of bad policy-making and failure to regulate, by successive governments, has allowed too much money to accumulate in the hands of the rich at the expense of people like these. That's what we need to fix. When you're being stabbed you get rid of the knife rather than angrily discarding bandages because they fail to soak up all the blood.

So let's come to another one. Tough decisions. That's an interesting phrase, coming as it inevitably does between people who've never had to choose between eating and keeping warm enough to stop their toes turning blue. Let's get real, shall we? Taking money from poor people isn't a tough decision. It's easy - like taking candy from a baby (literally, in some cases). Poor people are an easy target because they're generally too desperate and exhausted to fight back. Mentally ill people having their disability benefits taken away often struggle just to fill out the paperwork they need to appeal - they're not exactly a political threat. Politicians know this and, sadly, some of them are not ashamed to exploit it. Perhaps they comfort themselves with the notion that families or charities will step in to fill the gap (I'll be talking about that one in an upcoming post - the short version is, we know it often fails to work). It is perhaps difficult for some middle class people to understand that poverty means having nothing to fall back on. When there's no money for food, you go hungry. When there's no money for rent, you're on the street. There's no-one you can call who will make it all go away.

In times gone by, we used to talk about the haves and the have-nots. Now we talk about the givers and the give-nots. It's insipid. 47% of American don't pay income tax, says Romney, so they can be written off as scroungers, and people are quick to buy into that idea in the UK too. It's bollocks, of course. That 47% includes pensioners who have worked all their lives and are enjoying a well-earned retirement. It includes children whom we almost universally decided, a few decades back, we ought to refrain from sending to the mills. And it includes an awful lot of people who are not paying income tax because they don't earn enough yet without whose hard work society would collapse. It's all very well to pretend that everybody who makes the effort can be saved through the miracle of social mobility. That's no substitute for social justice. It doesn't help the poor and it doesn't help society at large. In this faux utopia, party whips belittle police officers and presidential candidates pay so little heed to their staff they don't notice when they're being filmed. We blame the refuse collectors, the teachers, the nurses and the retail workers for being poor, as if they could ever escape that in those jobs, and as if those in the jobs we esteem could survive without the work they do. Day in, day out, it is the working poor, including those in receipt of benefits, who are the backbone of our society. They give more than many of our politicians will in their whole lives. They deserve our respect.

They do not deserve to be told we all have to give up something. There's another slogan that sounds fair on first hearing, but what does it mean? What has the recession cost you? A tenner is a tenner, you might say, no matter who gives it away. But the value of that tenner is very different depending on your general economic circumstances. If you're on benefits, the loss of a tenner a week means giving up at least two family meals or five days' heating. If you're earning a comfortable wage, it might mean you don't drink as much at the weekend. If you're earning a parliamentary politician's wage, you're unlikely to notice it (unless you can claim it on expenses). So let's stop pretending that we're taking from the poor, the ordinary and the rich on an equal basis. We're nowhere close to that. No politician who insinuates that we are should be trusted with any aspect of the nation's finances, since it is largely a failure to understand the relationship between money and value that has go the world into this particular economic mess.

Labour, one would think, would get to grips with these issues, stand up for the people who have long depended on them. Don't whine that there's no money left. We are a wealthy country. The problem we have is that the wealth is unevenly distributed. Sorting that out requires tough decisions. Labour do have to give up something, but it doesn't have to be their raison d'être. If they want support, they're going to have to get their act together, because the electorate won't give them something for nothing.

Get your house in order, Labour. Don't make me come down there.

Saturday, 15 September 2012

Rock Me Asmodeus

Kate Middleton has breasts. Prince Harry sometimes takes his clothes off in private. Oh, those royals! How fortunate we are that we have a free press which, though it (mostly) has the decency not to show us those intrusive pictures, will tell us about them so we can be sure power is not abused. At least not by naked people.

Today, accidental pornographer and erstwhile drummer boy Richard Desmond, who has pounded the percussion for free speech everywhere but the libel courts, has declared himself so disgusted by The Irish Daily Star's publication of pictures of the topless princess that he's considering closing it down. One might suggest that it would be more proportionate for him to sack the editor on duty - or even to reconsider his own policy of encouraging staff to push boundaries in order to make sales - but perhaps in these post-News of the World days he thinks it'll look positively heroic to make a hundred people redundant. After all, whilst a lot of people read tabloids, everybody hates, them, don't they? From phone hacking to the Hillsborough revelations, they've hardly been making friends this year.

In ancient times the story went that there was a demon called Asmodeus, and this particular demon's hobby was lifting up the roofs of people's houses to peer at what was going on within. Whilst everybody agreed that it was important the public sphere be monitored and politicians held to account, the idea of intruding into the private lives of citizens was considered outright evil. It's important to bear in mind, of course, that not everybody was a citizen. That attitude still lingers in the present day. As long as the more prurient sections of the press are careful to restrict their focus to already stigmatised groups - criminals, benefit claimants, Muslims, transgender people - they can get away with a great deal. It's only when they trouble the powerful that they find themselves at risk - which illustrates both the reason why we need them to be troubling and the fact that they're passing off as trouble what is merely smut.

As Chair of Trans Media Watch, I spend a good part of my time standing up for ordinary people whose lives are sensationalised in the press. By and large, those members of the wider public who are educated about transgender issues are supportive of this. I get rather less support when I raise my voice in defence of the privacy of the royal family. They have no right to privacy, people tell me, because they're public figures. But what does this mean? That their very flesh is public? That, by virtue of their special status, they should not be treated as human? Whilst I cannot help but note that making royals afraid to undress in private might at least decrease the chances of the situation continuing, I don't think any amount of wealth could justify them being, in effect, treated as mere objects. Besides, when we buy into attacks made against them as private individuals we are doing the very opposite of holding them to account. We are allowing ourselves to be distracted from the real questions that need to be asked about the power they wield. It is notable that the recent story about Prince Charles being consulted on a wide range of government policies, and asked to approve them before they became law, received substantially less coverage. One pair of breasts is much like another but to fiddle with soft porn whilst our democracy burns takes a special kind of tit.

It takes, in fact, the kind of person who has no interest in journalism at all but sees owning newspapers merely as a route to personal wealth and power; just the kind of person to whom sacking a hundred journalists means nothing. When people like this are making the big decisions at our major newspapers we need to ask ourselves not why journalists are letting us down but, rather, why journalists are not being heard at all. When we talk about press ethics we need to remember that most journalists - as reflected by the NUJ - have sincere concerns about ethical practice. At certain papers, however, it is only the unethical few who can climb to the top - or stay in a job at all. And when it comes to public redress, the Press Complaints Commission often finds itself hamstrung by a code of practice controlled by a small group of editors whose influence on the industry should be every bit as suspect as that of the politicians everyone fears may take control.

There are other options, of course. My charity has made a series of recommendations to the Leveson Inquiry, as have others, and it is shortly due to report. It's possible that the recent right royal scandals represent a jockeying for position before this happens. We already saw something of that cynicism when transgender exposés briefly disappeared from the papers during the submission period for the inquiry, only to reappear afterwards, as we were invited to document in a second submission later on. Our position is certainly not that control of the press should be given to the government, as any sensible person can see the risks this entails - rather, we would support the establishment of a truly independent body. The problem that I perceive is that a body controlled by a handful of men isn't so very far from a government-controlled organ anyway - it may be that the power base is divided but it is still very much in the hands of the establishment. It lacks the inherent vitality and diversity that journalism needs in order to thrive - in order to do its job.

What is that job? Sometimes it does involve peering into the private domain. There will inevitably be some cases where this is genuinely in the public interest - a little poison, as they say, to cure the greater ill. But we must not assume that because something is prurient it is also, in any meaningful sense, revealing. I suspect most of us - David Icke and friends aside - had a pretty good idea what Prince Harry would look like naked before we were offered the option of seeing it.

We've seen a lot of weak apologies this week. Kelvin MacKenzie saying that he regrets calling Liverpool football fans thieves responsible for their own suffering, but doing nothing to explain why he was so ready to believe it, even whilst he blames others for misinforming him. Richard Desmond thinking that by getting rid of assorted staff members, most of whom will have had nothing to do with the boobs boob, he can enjoy the publicity those pictures have brought to his papers whilst dodging the fallout. I'm not going to add to that - I'll say, straight out, that I wouldn't cry for any of his papers if they were closed tomorrow. That said, my feelings about their staff are another matter. Likewise my feelings about the newspaper industry, which depends on its plurality and is already suffering because so much of that is meaningless. I'm dubious about the idea of restricting ownership because there are practical issues there around how broadsheets can be kept afloat, but there's plenty of room for change in the nitty gritty of how papers are managed and run. Let's stop pretending our press is free in its current form, and start fighting for it.

Wednesday, 29 August 2012

The Art of Tea

Few political battles rage more fiercely than those we fight to protect what is close and dear to us. Even so, the public outcry over developer Hugh Scott's plans for Glasgow's Otago Lane has been remarkable in its size and volume. The campaign to protect the lane, bringing together people of all ages and backgrounds, has raged for three years. Today, despite all that - and in defiance of its own planning regulations - Glasgow City Council's planning committee voted to let the development go ahead. Some have said that the machinations around this recall Sun Tzu's The Art Of War. Yet there is another tradition perhaps more pertinent - perhaps more worrying for those who have betrayed their voters - and that is the art of tea.

A philosophy expounded by numerous eastern cultures, known in China as cha yi, the art of tea is centred on an understanding that there is more to the human experience than the material. It has an aesthetic aspect and a political one. Understanding the art of tea - or seeking to understand it - is vital to understanding how human affairs change and develop, and how certain ideas come to dominate, once we step beyond the battlefield.

“In the small [tea] room, it is desirable for every utensil to be less than adequate. There are those who dislike a piece when it is even slightly damaged; such an attitude shows a complete lack of comprehension,” said the tea master Sen no Rikyū (according to the Nampōroku). He could be providing a literal description of Tchai Ovna, the tea house at the centre of the lane, as he sums up very neatly the historic appeal of the area. He could also be summing up the blunder that the planning committee has made - that failure to comprehend what, in his native Japan, is called wabi - the aesthetics of imperfection. A generous observer might say that the councillors have been dazzled by an image of gleaming modern development. They have failed to understand what the lane means to people and why, sometimes, our imperfect heritage is more valuable than the slick and slippery.

Slippery, in this case, is also a term that has literal implications. The proposed site on the end of this small, historic lane is on the banks of the Kelvin River. It is a notorious slip zone. One architect has already said privately that he does not expect any new building constructed there, in accordance with the specifications outlined in Scott's proposal, to last for more than twelve years before it begins to slide dangerously into the water. If we run the numbers, we see that this is unlikely to bother Scott, who will have made a tidy profit by then, but it should bother the council and the local people, who will be left with the job of cleaning up the mess.

Some argue that this shouldn't matter - Glasgow needs new homes, urgently. Well, yes, but that's like saying that the world needs fewer children and eliding the inability of some countries to cope with the economic pressure of shrinking their populations too fast. Glasgow needs affordable homes and it needs them in underdeveloped areas. Luxury flats in areas whose infrastructure is already struggling to cope with population pressure are not a solution. They will do nothing to help the poor and they will do nothing to help revitalise those parts of the city that are struggling.

There are so many practical problems with this development that it would be impossible to go into them all in depth here. Alongside the damage to the city's heritage and the pressure the development will put on the lane's small businesses are major public safety issues around traffic - drivers use the surrounding streets as a shortcut between major thoroughfares, and there is a school just across the road, so the last thing it needs is more cars. There are also issues for the natural environment - the riverbank is an important wildlife corridor connecting parks. Without routes like this, animal populations become isolated and are damaged by inbreeding, with serious implications for conservation. The city planning regulations clearly state that all these issues should be cause for concern, so when they are ignored we should quiet our battle cries, sip our tea, and ponder what is going on.

At this stage it would appear that all those who voted in favour of the development are Labour councillors. The problems caused by Labour's grip on the council - and its sense of entitlement in that regard - are legendary and, again, difficult to go into in depth here, but suffice to say that many members of said party regret that influence of certain individuals in that context. At its heart, this isn't about party politics - we see the same issues come up in any number of areas where one group has achieved lasting dominance. It is about a group of people who have lost any sense of relationship with ordinary voters, to the point where they might easily be swayed by other interests.

Many had hoped that the shock Labour got at the last council election, when it briefly seemed they might lose overall control, might precipitate a shift in attitudes. Instead, a last minute surge in support (surely nothing to do with the city having now given permission for twenty two annual Orange marches) not only secured them but seemingly increased their audacity. Although campaigners plan to mount a legal challenge to today's decision, the councillors involved will no doubt feel secure in having had the last word. They have, for the time being at least, secured the ground. People are beginning to discuss when they should go for their last cup of Tchai Ovna tea.*

What has been missed, as so often, is the significance of the immaterial, of the lingering feelings this has set within those who feel that they have been betrayed. Those feelings are likely to lead to more than just legal contestation. They will entrench in a significant portion of the population a suspicion about council decisions that will last, that will spread, that will inform the investigation of planning matters across the city. From now on, everything those councillors do will be watched. They may come to regret their easy dismissal of the humble tea-drinker.

*The planning proposals would allow Tchai Ovna to remain open, but a probable decrease in custom whilst it is surrounded by construction work means its survival is still in jeopardy.

Thursday, 16 August 2012

Before the Law

Amid all the clamour around Julian Assange, it's proving dangerously easy for parties on both sides to forget why the law matters - and what it is for. We must not let political games or cults of personality distract us from its vital role in protecting the innocent - and even the guilty.

When all this first blew up I, as a journalist, was extremely worried about what looked like a plot to extradite an individual who had made enemies through his pursuit of the truth to the US, a country with a terrible record on the treatment of (unofficially) political prisoners. I was suspicious about the rape allegations as the nature of the crime, coming down to one person's word against another, makes it a common choice for framing individuals with powerful enemies. That changed for me when I read Assange himself describe, almost casually, how he had sexually penetrated a woman he was staying with without her consent. Now either Assange is a liar, in which case he cannot be trusted when he proclaims his innocence and anyone should be able to see that he must face trial; or he is an honest man, in which case he is a self-confessed rapist and must face trial. His victim (and possibly a second victim) is the only innocent here.

That doesn't change the fact that issuing an international arrest warrant for rape is an exceedingly unusual move. Several factors need to be taken into consideration here. Yes, Sweden could be trying to obtain custody of Assange so it can hand him over to the US in exchange for political or diplomatic favours. It could be taking the case more seriously because Assange's high profile means it can use him to set an example (something any good defence lawyer should challenge). It could even be that, in light of the popularity of the Millennium books and films, which challenged Sweden's record on the prosecution of crimes of violence against women (in specific relation to the protection of an individual perceived as a foreign policy asset, no less), it is anxious to redeem its reputation. And there is the possibility that it has simply decided it ought to take rape more seriously. There lies the rub. Why doesn't every country take rape more seriously? Why is it still so easy for people to get away with it by skipping across national borders?

Now Ecuador enters the fray. One wonders, what did those who raised bail money for Assange think they were supporting? Was it Wikileaks and the principle of freedom of speech? Now that they have lost it, as he has forfeited his bail conditions to take refuge in the Ecuadorian embassy, it's painfully clear that Wikileaks was, for him, never the priority (imagine what it could have done with that money - or what a difference it might have made to Pte. Manning's defence fund, something Assange keeps claiming to support whilst actually doing very little). The superb work that Wikileaks has done in many areas no longer makes headlines; all the focus is on its sometime leader, with the self-styled martyr's image that probably helped him to get access to his victim(s) in the first place. Of course, a martyr can be a political asset like any other, and many people are assuming that's why Ecuador has taken him in (and now granted him asylum) - to make a grand statement and stick two fingers up at the United States. If I were them (and if I were Assange) I'd be more wary. The value of assets varies over time. Can he really guarantee that Ecuador won't choose to sell him on in the future? In 2006 the IVK PAX study found that Ecuador had the fourth highest kidnapping rate of any country in the world. In such a context it would be easy for a valuable asset to disappear and turn up in American hands without anybody being able to prove who was responsible. No law could protect Assange from this.

Then there's the matter of Assange's current self-imposed house arrest in that embassy. How could he get to Ecuador without first traversing UK territory and being arrested? He might be smuggled out, but where to? No Ecuadorian ship will be allowed into UK waters in this situation, so he'd need to undertake quite a journey under the eyes of multiple expert security teams and journalists. Giving him diplomatic status is not an option as that would require the permission of the nation in which the embassy is based, i.e. the UK. That country retains the option of announcing that it has found a new home for the embassy, reassigning its protected status to that building, and arresting Assange during he transfer, but it is unlikely to undertake this because the precedent it would set could endanger its own diplomatic staff in a number of other countries. So everybody waits.

In the midst of this, Assange's supporters claim he has offered (a) to be questioned by Swedish investigators within the embassy; and (b) to go to Sweden if they can guarantee he won't be extradited to the US. Both of these offers look reasonable on the surface, but let's look more closely. What kind of precedent would it set for Sweden to be bullied into shifting part of its judicial process overseas? What damage would that do to Sweden's international reputation? More than it could afford, as it would undermine any future international arrest warrants it might feel the need to issue. And could Sweden realistically rule out all possibility of a future extradition under the terms of a warrant it may as yet have no inkling of? Of course not - in fact, it may very well find that it lacks the legal power to resist such a warrant.

Swedish justice has been extensively demonised in the course of this case. Nevertheless, the fact remains that the UK has effective extradition treaties with the US - ones particularly amenable to the latte party, in fact, as they even allow the extradition of UK citizens with learning disorders that leave them ill-equipped to cope in the US judicial system. If I were seriously worried about being extradited to the US, I'd far rather be in Sweden than in the UK.

Temporarily, we have a stalemate. Unless it has got ulterior motives (which may include bargaining over Assange whilst he's still in London), Ecuador has bitten off more than it can chew. Sweden cannot be seen to back down and the UK cannot escape its duties to Sweden. Everybody seems hamstrung by legal restrictions and we come back to that question, what is the law for?

At the bottom of this are three sets of abuses. The first is the abuse of due process at Guantanamo Bay and in the trial of Pte. Manning - if the US had not chosen to go down that road, nobody (except possibly Assange himself) would have a problem with him being sent there. The second is the abuse of diplomatic process by Assange and by the staff at the Ecuadorian embassy who chose to shelter him, which places at risk the embassy's greater duty, to promote its national interests and thereby to support Ecuadorian citizens. Thirdly, there is what started all this - an allegation of rape. The ugliest thing about the case is that this is now rarely discussed in anything other than political terms. People are forgetting that, if it happened as Assange described, it was an act with real human consequences - and not just for its perpetrator. It is treated as an inconvenient detail in a much bigger political game.

What is the law for? It is for this: to give an individual who has been the victim of injustice some hope of mediated restitution. It is there to persuade a raped woman that she has options beyond picking up a knife and plugging her attacker full of holes.

We all benefit from the rule of law, whether innocent or guilty. And no matter how tempting different bargaining strategies may seem to the various governments involved in this case, it would behove them to remember that when faith in the rule of law disappears at that very basic level, so does the foundation on which the whole edifice of civic society is built. Regardless of the other issues here, none of us can afford to perpetuate a process whereby powerful men can get away with abusing others because there is always something more important to deal with. There is nothing more important than justice, and if we can't secure it for victims of rape, we can forget about trying to remedy injustices between nations.

Wednesday, 8 August 2012

No More Double Negatives

The double negative: in some languages it strengthens the negation; in English it contradicts itself, becoming positive; in Scotland it just embarrasses all concerned.

Last night's spectacularly misjudged Newsnight performance by Ian Davidson MP brought several months of histrionic debate over Scottish independence into sharp relief. It was particularly embarrassing for the unionist side, whose sincere concerns were reduced to mudslinging nonsense, but of course there are those who take a similar approach in the pro-independence community. So we get the pseudo-ironic comments about how those on the other side would react negatively to particular things, which isn't supposed to be negative in itself because it's humour (a lame defence in any context); and when called on, the perpetrators usually resort to claiming their opponents started it. This wouldn't be acceptable in primary school classroom and it's not acceptable in public life. One thing I am confident the majority of Scots can agree on is that it has to stop. If Scotland is to move forward as a nation, either independently or within the union, our politicians must act like grown-ups.

England has long taken a positive attitude to negative politics - just look at Westminster. Prime Minister's Questions at noon on Wednesdays routinely sees hundreds of people we are meant to respect reduced to troop of shrieking gibbons - often the principals can hardly be heard and, when they can, their pronouncements have more to do with performance than coherent argument. Those who challenge this are usually told that it's traditional, but is a traditional embarrassment any less of an embarrassment? This kind of behaviour is an insult to every member of the public who turned out to vote because they thought their candidates had an interest in seeing the country well run.

This is not to say that remaining in the union is detrimental to good conduct. Right from its inauguration, Holyrood has shown itself to be a more civilised place. There's backstabbing and dubious political manoeuvring, of course, but overt bullying and shouting is not tolerated. This is something we should celebrate and aim to extend into other venues where political discussion takes place. It is something we should build upon, dispensing with the ideologically-focused bickering that gets in the way of honest discussion. Like Westminster, Holyrood is a small place with a big job to do. There is too much real work MSPs could be getting on with for time wasting posturing to be considered acceptable - in any party.

It seems no coincidence that the Newsnight drama was initiated by a Westminster MP - somebody who spends too much time among the rabble to appreciate that we do things differently here. It's not the first time Ian Davidson has been accused of bullying, with Eilidh Whiteford withdrawing from the Scottish Affairs Select Committee last year amid allegations that he threatened to give her 'a doing', and others have accused him of bullying women in particular. Would he have treated Newsnight presenter Isabel Fraser differently if she had been male? That's difficult to say, but the dismissive way he began responding to her before letting her finish her argument speaks volumes. He was not only aggressive, he was unwilling to countenance that anything she said could be of value. Still, from a political perspective, the most problematic aspect of his actions was the lack of control they implied.

Like David Cameron red-faced at the despatch box on a particularly rough Wednesday, Davidson gave the impression of a man so emotionally swept up by the moment that he could not articulate the political message he was there to put across. Passion can be valuable in a politician - it provides the drive to get things done - but ultimately we pay our politicians to think, to reason, to negotiate. If a politician feels that a programme is biased, they should assert that politely and take it up with the proper authorities (indeed, BBC Scotland is currently being investigated for alleged bias against the SNP). Getting in a flap about it and taking out anger on a presenter is not only inconsiderate behaviour, it makes one look like a buffoon.

Alongside the likes of Davidson's performance, we have the so-called Cybernats who attack anybody on the internet whom they perceive to be dissing the SNP or independence, and an equally rabid group of unionists who attack those seen to be doing the opposite, accusing them of being Cybernats. On occasion I've been attacked by both sides over the same remarks, which at least persuades me I am getting something right. Like street gangs, these groups are really most interested in attacking each other, and each presumably feels its actions are justified by the existence of the other, though each seems to have a significantly magnified idea of the size of its rival. In reality there don't seem to be very many of them but their voices are disproportionately loud and have a distorting effect on Scottish politics. Sometimes journalists and commentators who ought to know better get caught up in this phony war. We need to accept that those who snipe at each other like this have removed themselves from meaningful debate. They need to stand back and understand that such aggression is not going to influence anyone; and nor should it. If one wishes to influence people, one has to actually talk to them, and make a real case. Simply discouraging others from speaking is not only obnoxious, it's ineffective.

When people behave like this, or like Davidson, it is tempting to simply ignore them and find a way of routing discussion around them. That's one thing online; it's a little harder when it happens in parliamentary select committees or on national television programmes. But there is a simple solution, and that is for the rest of us to refuse to engage in the first place. A man who cannot conduct himself respectably on Newsnight should not be invited back. A committee whose spokesperson conducts himself in such a manner should not be heeded. Real authority comes not from institutions but from the people. Those who do not respect that cannot expect to play any meaningful role in our political culture.

It's time for an end to negative politics. I don't want to hear any whining about who started it. Each of us should be concerned first and foremost with our own conduct. We should aim to set an example, not partake in a race to the bottom. Scotland deserves better. The Scottish people should be able to say to their politicians - whatever side they sit on - yes, yes, yes!

Thursday, 26 July 2012

Grasping the Nettle

In standing up for marriage equality, the SNP has not only done what is right - it has drawn the lines for a battle that could define its governance - and Scotland's future.

Last week, everything looked very different. Backing down from an announcement after heavy hints to the press that it was decision time, the government looked weak, apologetic. Its focus on ongoing negotiation made it look as if it was trying to come up with an impossible compromise, more interested in avoiding enmity than in making friends. Of course negotiation is important, and it is vital that any piece of legislation is carefully drafted to ensure no-one is inadvertently harmed by it, but much of that work will take place now, after its direction has been decided. It is also important that a government stand up and speak clearly. It matters that all of us, no matter what 'side' we are on, can understand what we are dealing with. And perhaps most importantly, if we are to have faith in the good intentions of our politicians, we must be able to see that they have faith in themselves.

One of the iconic examples of strong government in these islands has been Margaret Thatcher's handling of the miners' strike. Economically, taking on the miners at the point when she did was unnecessary, perhaps even unwise - although the industry would ultimately prove unsustainable, it was then still some distance from that point. But politically, it was inspired. Why? Because union power at the time was such that it represented an alternative power base, a significant challenger to her authority. No leader who wants to do more than tread water can afford to tolerate such opposition. By grasping the nettle, Thatcher gambled her premiership on victory over a powerful opponent. In securing that victory, she won for herself the type of authority that enabled her to restructure a whole economy.

Authority of that kind is exactly what the SNP needs if it is to lead Scotland into independence. Its current opponents' position on independence is neither here nor there (and their insistence they'll turn their supporters against it somewhat laughable). What matters is the victory, the show of strength. A freshly independent country would need to be governed with guts and vision. It would need to be governed by a party with the independence of spirit to stand up to rivals and act in its interests regardless of threats.

In challenging the Scottish government's democratic authority through its position on equal marriage, the Catholic church has given it a gift - an opportunity to prove itself that it might not otherwise have had. In rising to the challenge, the SNP have doubtless recognised their opportunity, but their cause here is one that must attract much wider support, and not just because the majority of MSPs in other parties agree that equal marriage is a just thing. If the SNP should falter, what would become of the next government? Would Labour be willing to go on under the yoke of presumed Catholic authority, of a church - and churches, because it is not the only one that likes to throw its weight around - dictating Scotland's fate regardless of the true will of Scotland's people? Would they be willing to be shackled to the past, borne down by a weight of tradition that makes us at best a quaint curiosity for tourists, not a country speaking for itself, contributing to the world?

Despite their differing positions on independence and the risk of strengthening the SNP's power base, it is in the interests of every Scottish party with a reasonable prospect of finding itself in government to seize the moment and stand with them on this. Scotland's democratically elected parliament cannot afford to suffer the pretensions of its religious rivals. It has gone on too long. From the sectarian mess in Glasgow with its football violence (on both sides) and its intimidatory parades, to the censorship of the arts, the massive hate-based advertising campaigns and, most significantly, the repeated intimidation of politicians who seek to take actions the churches don't like. We've seen it in individual election campaigns where ad hominem attacks question candidates' personal morality and we see it in cases like the equal marriage debate when threats are made to reposition supposedly massive blocks of voters. In this instance, it isn't even about moving those voters to a party which feels differently on the matter, because there isn't one - it's simply about moving them away from a party that has the nerve to say no to them.

All of this would be mitigated somewhat if the churches were actually speaking for a large proportion of Scots, but extensive research shows that they're not, with many of their own members very uncomfortable about the line they have chosen to take on this occasion. Instead, they are speaking for themselves - for entrenched power bases. They are not as strong as they pretend and it is high time a government called their bluff. By moving away from the politics they constrain, Scotland's parliament can better serve all its citizens, including those with strong religious beliefs. Everybody benefits from honesty, clarity and a habit of debate that it based around evidence and quality of argument rather than around presumed moral superiority. In this climate, those who wish to advance particular moral positions must demonstrate their worth.

It is only through embracing this new politics that Scotland can move forward as a nation. That will be in its best interests regardless of its status as a nation, but for supporters of independence it is particularly important. In grasping the nettle, the SNP have shown that they are no longer afraid to step up to the fight. Now is the time for them to show us what they are made of.

Tuesday, 17 July 2012

The Heart of Scotland

The SNP tell us that they're ready to approach Scotland's future with vision. But does today's failure to reach a decision on equal marriage show cracks forming in the party even before the independence referendum takes place?

Scotland is, the SN tell us, ready to become an independent nation. Many would agree. But if that's so, what sort of nation? What ideals will sit at its heart? Will it look to the past - to its romanticised history, its celebrated rural and architectural heritage, its sometimes delightful but sometimes dubious traditions? Or is it ready to look to the future, to speak out boldly in a changing world?

For those campaigning for independence, this ought to be a no brainer. Sympathisers in love with the romantic idea of Scotland past are unlikely to vote for it to stay in the union no matter how modern policy develops; the weight of that inheritance is too great a thing to be more than temporarily afflicted by a single disagreeable decision. Those with a progressive agenda, however, are far more likely to be swing voters, uncertain where their best options lie. The SNP already has a good handle on the traditionalists. It can't afford to alienate those looking to the future.

Further to this, a Scotland that looks back into the past is easy for opponents to ridicule. It would be very hard for such a nation to justify reaching out to claim its space on the world stage. If Scotland is to become independent, it will need to show that it is sharp, modern, realistic and capable of moving with the times.

This ought to make things simple. But the division that exists within the Scottish populace over equal marriage is closely related to the division at the heart of the SNP. I am always amused by people who tell me that they plan to vote against independence because they don't like the SNP. That, I'd say, is a very good reason to vote for it. Not only would their share of the vote be likely to decline thereafter, but there would be far less reason for the two halves of the party to stay together. The northern, rural, agricultural, paternalistic wing would go one way and the southern, urban, liberal wing would go another. They're only staying together now because they have independence as a common goal. In the meantime, as in most instance were opposed parties make a sincere attempt to work together, Scotland benefits from relatively moderate, pragmatic government. But can they stay together that long?

As Scotland's people wait to see what the eventual outcome of the equal marriage discussion will be, the SNP has some serious thinking to do. If it expects us to believe that it is strong enough to carry Scotland through major constitutional change, it will have to show more mettle than it has today. It won't be able to fob people off forever with the line that it just needs more time. And one thing is certain: if it cannot hold its own marriage together, it has no place denying marriage to those who might.

Thursday, 29 March 2012

Let Them Eat Cake

England's NHS is in crisis; a top government advisor has been proven corrupt; there is mass unemployment and many disabled people are losing their only means of support - so why are we talking about pasties and pies? It's easy to ally oneself with those who are crying foul, describing this as a distraction. Indeed, it was very likely intended as such. But for a fair number of people, the affordability of food is the most fundamental issue there is.

It's a testament to the successes we have enjoyed as a nation that most people here rarely have to think about going without food. When they talk about cutting back on their food budget, most mean doing without treats. But there remains a substantial minority for whom finding enough to eat is an ongoing challenge. And whilst there may seem better ways to go about doing that than eating a lump of hot fat and sugar from the nearest Greggs, the fact is that some people depend on doing precisely that.

Foe me, the crisis came way back in 1992. It was my first summer as a student and the rules had been changed just a few years before so that people in my position were not eligible for government support. There were complex (and very personal) reasons why living with my parents was not an option for me. John Major was in Number 10 and unemployment was close to three million; though I would happily have supported myself through work, I simply couldn't find anything. So I sub-let a room and subsisted on a food budget of ten pounds a week; five when the soles of my shoes wore through and I had to save up to buy more.

In that situation, getting enough calories was difficult. I didn't have the skills I would acquire later from an Australian friend whose weekly budget was £2.50, who subsisted on chocolate for calories and cabbage for nutrition. I did discover that I could get free vegetables by visiting a local greengrocer who had to get rid of items that would go off by the following day. But getting enough calories was harder. After six months I would find myself in hospital, weighing less than seven stone, with multiple infections (starvation is hell on the immune system). Without the occasional bit of hot bakery food, I doubt I would have survived that long.

I always assumed that cases like mine were rare, but since I raised my voice over the 'pastygate' debate I have been contacted by a whole heap of people with similar issues. For some it's about poverty. Of course it is usually cheaper to buy ingredients and cook at home, but not everybody has a home to go to. For others it's about disability. Severe anxiety disorders can make cooking terrifying and mean comfort food is important because otherwise one might not eat at all (for a significant number of people, anxiety is accompanied by serious weight loss). Then there are those on the autistic spectrum who struggle to cope with the sequential tasks of shopping, cooking and eating - things that might sound ridiculously easy to others but which they also find it hard to get help with. As people in these groups are more likely to be living on very low incomes, affordable hot food becomes all the more important.

In addition to these, there are the people on low incomes who need to get something to eat during breaks at work. If you're working long hours (as many on the lowest wages do) or if you're living in poor conditions, making a packed lunch can be difficult, and many workplaces have no facilities for heating food. This isn't just an issue for those struggling to survive, it's an issue for those with few sources of pleasure for whom an extra couple of pounds a week in VAT will mean having to give up the hot lunch that makes a grim job bearable on a cold day. Little things like that matter a lot when life is hard.

This isn't a plea on behalf of Greggs, who were bending rules that many other bakeries felt obliged to hold to. It's simply a plea that these issues be treated with the seriousness they deserve. It's all very well to protest that food like this is unhealthy - I'd far rather people could get calorie-dense food without the fat and salt - but if the solution is simply to price that food out of people's reach, with no alternative put in place in the interim, very vulnerable people will have their lives made even harder. We really do need to find ways of reducing the price of fruit and vegetables but we also need to ensure people can get enough calories. Because when you're in that situation, you can't wait for the next piece of legislation. I was lucky. I found somebody to help me. I wouldn't have lasted much longer without.

When Margaret Thatcher was in power, doctors petitioned for the right to prescribe food to patients who kept ending up back in hospital basically because they couldn't afford enough to eat. Last year a young mother starved to death in Dublin. We don't like to talk about hunger in the First World but it does exist. Ultimately we need to tackle it by creating more employment, providing assistance to those with specific difficulties and improving our welfare system. In the meantime, we must think carefully about anything that increases the price of cheap, hot food at a time when inflation is already outpacing wages.

That old story about Marie Antoinette - false, of course, like many of the best historical anecdotes - stems from an old French law which required bakers who had run out of bread to supply customers with cake at the same price. It represents, then, common beliefs about the failure of the privileged to grasp what being out of bread means. Sadly, those beliefs are all too easily substantiated. Of course it doesn't matter where David Cameron bought his pasty (though it might matter that he thinks all Northern cities are essentially the same) but it matters that, to him, that expenditure was utterly insignificant, and he is making decisions on that basis, whilst others make choices between eating, heating and paying the rent.

Fortunately I am no longer in such desperate straits, but others are, and this isn't all pie in the sky to them.

Wednesday, 11 January 2012

1001 Nights

Yesterday, we were told, was going to be a big day for Scotland's future. In the morning we were to get a statement from Secretary of State for Scotland Michael Moore listing a deadline for the referendum and setting out Westminster's terms. Well, the morning became the afternoon, the statement was more of a ramble and the deadline – well, Mr Moore has put that on hold for the meantime. At least, he tried to, before Alex Salmond stepped in and stole his thunder by announcing, whilst Moore was still mumbling, that the SNP have plumped for Autumn 2014. Does that mean it was an eventful day after all? I'm not so sure.

The thing is – and I suspect Salmond knew this from the start – all this angst about a date is really a bit beside the point. There's horrified talk at Westminster about how Salmond wanted his referendum to coincide with the anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn, which just shows how limited understanding of the Scots is there, because I'm pretty sure I've never met one who would care in the slightest. But the distraction worked, stole away focus, kept the unionists from looking at the issues on which they might actually win hearts and minds. Moore, to be fair, could filibuster himself on virtually any subject even if you gave him all day, and his intervention – forced by David Cameron's – has made it difficult for other unionists to make their voices heard. The consultation produced by the Westminster government is a lightweight piece of fluff (though I would still urge you all to fill it in – you can find it here and it'll only take you ten minutes). Yesterday was noise, signifying next to nothing.

The emptiness of the much-hyped announcement is clearly embarrassing even Moore himself, who looked shattered by the end of a turn on Newsnight, poor thing. And there's one of his problems. If Westminster wants to lead the unionist campaign, it has very few people to do the talking. A Cameron speech on the subject means guaranteed gains for the SNP (which may be Cameron's plan, since his party could benefit nicely from losing Scotland, or so he is liable to think). There's Jim Murphy on the opposite benches, but he's lost a lot of sympathy in Scotland in recent weeks and seems to have his ambitions fixed on Westminster now. Margaret Curran has stepped in but isn't quite singing the same song. So we can watch Moore get increasingly exhausted as the SNP rolls out an endless line of fresh, energised opponents for him – and let's not forget that the Scottish Greens support independence too.

The real problem is that the shift of control over the unionist campaign to befuddled Westminster politicians means that all they really can talk about are things like the date and the legal technicalities (whereby they seem to have confused legal weight with political weight). In Scotland, every commentator I speak to and most of the politicians say they want a Real Debate on the issues. Salmond's date, at least, should allow for that – I'll admit I was confused by Moore's simultaneous demands that the referendum be held as soon as possible and follow deep and meaningful consultation. Yet today the Westminster unionists, in a misguided bid for relevance, continue to flap about how the date must be changed.

Then there's the issue of devo max. On independence, Scots have very different views, and many have yet to make up their minds. Yet a large majority evidence a strong interest in further devolution. If this devolution is to be relatively minor, there's no need to take it to a referendum; it can fairly be sorted out between the Holyrood and Westminster parliaments. But if it is to involve, say, a shift of control over defence sector issues or the provision of an element of fiscal autonomy, it would seem appropriate that the people get to decide. Since referenda are expensive (as several members of the current Westminster administration have emphasised), why not have a question about devo max presented at the same time as one about independence?

I don't believe that Scottish voters would find a two question referendum too complicated, and I wonder at the smugness of politicians who suggest they would. Neither do I care if no political party is pushing for devo max as its favoured objection. Plenty of individuals within those parties are, and, more importantly, so are plenty of ordinary Scots. This is not and should not be a referendum about party politics and petty political allegiances. It must be a referendum that allows the Scottish people to express their views in a simple, fair, and inclusive way.

I would hate to live in a Scotland that remained bound to the United Kingdom against the will of its people. Similarly, I would hate to live in a independent Scotland that the majority of Scottish people didn't really want. It is important that we get this process right not just for the sake of ideologies but for the sake of doing right by everyone affected. This must be a listening process, a responsive process. It must not be about polarisation, about pushing people to absurd political extremes. Because one way or another, within three years, this process will be over. And whatever happens then, Scotland must find a way to bring those who have been disappointed into the fold, to heal itself and move forward as a whole nation.

We have roughly 1001 nights to go until Salmond's promised referendum happens. I think I can speak for the vast majority of my fellow Scots when I say please don't force us to listen to the same soulless story on every one.

Tuesday, 3 January 2012

Race and Justice

Today the killers of Stephen Lawrence were finally brought to justice. Tomorrow they will be sentenced. It is widely agreed that this verdict was far too slow to arrive, and with the racially motivated murder of Anuj Bidve still fresh in the headlines, it can hardly be seen as the end of the road. The question is, has anything really changed since Stephen's death? Is racism still every bit as endemic as once it was? It is my contention that, whilst deep problems remain, some things have improved and that is in no small part thanks to the efforts of the Lawrence family themselves.

I'm a year older than Stephen would be if he were still alive. I'd recently finished my A-levels at the time of his murder; he was in the middle of his. Four years before, I'd started working with an anti-racist campaigning group, SOS Racism. It had been a natural progression for me. When I was a child my mother volunteered for a charity called SAFTA which provided tutors to immigrant women who wanted to learn English in their homes. I helped out and quickly grew familiar with some of the prejudice they and their families faced. Coincidentally my primary school boyfriend was Arabic and the first time I ever encountered direct racism was from our headmistress – hardly a shining example of authority.

I know there are some people who raise their eyebrows at the thought of white people being involved in race politics at all, but there are ways to work outside the ugly colonial structures of the past. SOS Racism was a partnership between local people of various races determined to bring about social change. My white skin meant I was able to do certain things that would have been much more difficult or dangerous for a darker skinned person – namely research with other white people, sometimes including members of far right groups. I was young, slightly shy, wide-eyed; they opened up to me. They told me things that made me want to punch them and I kept smiling. I collected data that could be used to lobby for support.

In relation to that, I tend to agree with others who have summed up the change over the last twenty years as a shift from overt to covert racism. Though I no longer do the same type of research (I have moved on to work, at least primarily, on other equality issues), I still encounter racism. The difference is that I see far fewer direct expressions of hatred, far more excuse-making and attempts to justify discrimination as rooted in something more rational (belief systems, economic concerns or - ironically – a supposed threat to other social minority groups). This is not to say that incidences of direct aggression don't happen or, indeed, that covert racism is any more acceptable. But it's an interesting change nonetheless, in that it tells us the rational case against racial hatred has been successfully made. This is an achievement campaigners should be proud of. It's a step along the way; and it is now necessary to reframe some aspects of the debate.

As I noted, I now work on other minority issues, and over the last few years this has included research work with the police. Attitudes to the police in some minority communities are so polarised that it's hard to do any such work without being perceived as some sort of collaborator, so let me explain that I sympathise with the feelings behind that and I took on this work partially in order to challenge that in myself, to try and shed my own preconceptions and prejudices and see what was real. As a young queer person and an activist, I knew what it was to be afraid of the police, but I felt that research in that area ought not to be left solely as the domain of people who had no such hesitations – who might be too willing to accept that everything was rosy.

Everything is most assuredly not rosy. Of course there is still prejudice (and I continue to hear distressing stories from those on the receiving end). But just as wider society has changed, so has the police force, and in this case the change has more pronounced effects. The existence of police diversity officers and so forth may sometimes be mocked, but in practice it does mean there are safe ports of call for those who fear prejudice. It has also contributed to a much greater awareness of diversity issues among individual police officers. Forces vary, but in many the old macho culture has been substantially eroded, and with it the notion that prejudiced attitudes are the mark of the hard man. Admitting to prejudice is something officers are much more reluctant to do, whilst others like their work environment precisely because they consider it free of prejudices that have always disturbed them, including racism.

One of the difficulties in making change is that examples of successful communication and progress don't tend to get talked about, whereas a single bad experience may resonate for an individual for decades, and resonate socially too. This is often raised as a reason why ethnic minority officers are still under-represented in the police. It's tough to ask individuals to take risks for the sake of long term social improvement. More effective is change through modifying structures and rules, and where this has improved things within the police force, it can more often than not be traced back directly to the original Stephen Lawrence Inquiry. I would venture to say that (alongside rapid growth in the number of women serving) this has changed the police force more than anything else in the last sixty years.

Of course there is a long way to go. Nevertheless, we should celebrate these changes which are a credit to the bravery of a family who became important campaigners at a time of tremendous personal grief. Changing institutions must be part of wider cultural change (with society and the police force reflecting back on one another), but this change was no small thing.

It's just a pity Stephen couldn't have been here to see it. And it remains a great injustice that, though the world has changed dramatically in ways he could never have imagined, one thing he might have guessed with accuracy at the time of his death is that, in 2012, young men in the UK are still being attacked because others hate the colour of their skin.