Sunday, June 18, 2006

Give it a break Gordon - we know that you’re backing Britain. You don’t have to name your next child Wayne Rooney Brown.

In 1996, in a rather desperate bid to head off Scottish home rule, the then Tory Scottish Secretary, Michael Forsyth, decided to return the Stone of Destiny. Seemed like a good idea at the time. What better way to symbolise the permanence of the United Kingdom than for England to hand back this relic of Scotland’s ancient monarchy after eight hundred years of captivity in Westminster Abbey. The fact that was probably a fake hardly mattered.

As the wee magic stane trundled over the border, followed by a pipe band and Forsyth in a kilt, everyone but the Scottish Secretary could see that the move was comically counterproductive. The gesture was as tawdry as it was transparent. If anything, the stunt served only to remind Scots of their country’s historic independence. A year later, Scotland voted three to one in favour of restoring the Scottish Parliament.

Could a similar fate await Gordon Brown’s decision to mint a #2 coin to mark the three hundredth anniversary of the Act of Union ? The intention is clearly to remind Scotland that it has benefited hugely from the union with England and that Scotland’s flowering, intellectually and economically, dates from the extirpation of its national parliament. But the danger is that, like Forsyth and the Stone, the Chancellor’s coin will invite Scots to reflect on their historic subordination to England.

It would be ironic indeed if the 2007 Scottish elections turned out to be the beginning of the end of the Treaty which the coin commemorates. I don’t know if Gordon Brown has looked at the arithmetic recently, but Labour are on course for a pretty severe drubbing at the Scottish elections in May 2007. The Dunfermline by election showed that Scottish voters are not happy with Labour right now, even in the Chancellor’s own home constituency.

Of course, people don’t vote on things like commemorative coins, and we can be pretty sure that the Union of the Parliaments is unlikely to be a big issue on the doorsteps. However, small things do matter. To many Scots the coin affair looks like yet another contrived gesture by a Chancellor so apologetic about his nationality that he has to insist, not only that he supports England in the World Cup, but that his greatest sporting moment was Paul Gascoigne’s goal against Scotland in the 1996 Euros. It’s not wrong, it’s just naff.

There was, of course, much wry amusement in nationalist circles at yet more evidence that Brown is “morphing into an Englishman” as Alex Salmond recently put it. The new coin was denounced by the SNP leader as the: "Brownie - full of brass, not very popular, soon to be devalued". But it should surely be called the “Roguie” after Robert Burn’s commentary on the union: “Bought and sold for English gold; Such a parcel o rogues in a Nation”. Now you can put it in your pocket.

The Union was massively unpopular in Scotland in 1707 and seen by most Scots as a sell out - that’s what it says on the BBC’s own website so it must be true. Burns' "parcel o rogues" were, of course, the Scottish nobility - this was long before universal suffrage - who valued their own wealth rather higher than their nation’s independence. A chest of coin amounting to #20,000 sent to Scotland for distribution by the Earl of Glasgow. Cheap at the price.

Some Scots believed that what they were signing up to was a reversible treaty rather than an incorporating union - shades of Maastricht here. But Queen Anne and the English Whigs were in no doubt about what was happening: Scotland was ceasing to exist politically in order to ensure a Protestant succession in England. The elimination of the Scottish Parliament represented a fundamental and irreversible shift of power from Edinburgh to London.

Now, I don’t want to get involved in the “what if” questions about how Scotland might have fared outside the Union. There is no doubt that the repeal of the Alien Act allowed Scotland to participate in the British empire, and enrich itself through everything from colonial administration to the slave trade. It’s hard to argue that Scotland would have done better on her own. Would those great Scottish philosophers - Hume, Fergusson, Smith - have been able to extend the boundaries of human enlightenment had they been confined to a backward peasant land? Probably not.

However, the Chancellor may find that provoking a debate on the consequences of union with England at this time, doesn’t go entirely his own way. Especially since so many English commentators, the latest being the Guardian’s Simon Hoggart on Saturday, are calling for a dissolution of the United Kingdom. As this column noted last week, the World Cup has provoked an extraordinary level of latent hostility to the Scots among people who should know better. Hoggart regards the ironic support of Trinidad and Tobago by many Scots as an offence which should be punished by a red card and an early constitutional bath. The sports commentator Alan Green agreed.

I still can’t see why people get so worked up about this. The “Soca Warriors” of Trinidad and Tobago were a noble if hopeless cause, in the best Scottish tradition. No one seriously expected T and T to win the tournament, or even beat England. Indeed, in supporting such no-hopers, Scots were expressing that very quality of sportsmanship that used to be so highly valued by the English amateur tradition. It’s not the winning that counts but how you play. And how they played! A team of enthusiastic unknowns with more passion in their boots than skill, held off the mighty English football machine for 83 minutes, and only lost after a bit of shameless hair-pulling by Crouch in their penalty box.

Look, football’s only a game, of course, and let’s keep it that way. But it was the Chancellor who chose to make it more than that by turning the World Cup into an opportunity to broadcast his Britishness. Trouble is, there’s no British team in Germany, so when Brown arrives in Cologne next week to cheer Beckham’s boys in their Group One final against Sweden, it may look to many Scots as if the Chancellor is simply supporting England.

Brown thinks he is making himself more acceptable to English voters, and heading off those London newspapers who say he cannot become Prime Minister because of his nationality. But flirting with English nationalism won’t make them like him any more and he seriously risks alienating his own back yard. It’s all so transparent and cynical. Like Michael Forsyth’s inept attempts to embrace Scottishness in the 1990s, it is unlikely to persuade anyone and by trying too hard conveys a kind of desperation. To this day the Tories are regarded as the “English party” by many Scottish voters.

Of course, the Union was a hugely important event in British history, and should be remembered - and I personaly am all for that. However, the coin will inevitably provoke a debate about Scotland's part in the union, past and present. Schools will be teaching how Scotland mislaid its parliament for three hundred years because of the venality of its ruling classes. The SNP will make the most of it, which they are absolutely entitled to do. And no doubt, all this will be interpreted by people in England as further evidence that the Scots are at best ambivalent about the UK and at worse positively
resentful of England's dominance of it.

Well, bring it on, I suppose. But perhaps Gordon Brown would have been better advised to avoid gesture politics, when the gestures can be so easily misinterpreted.

Shetland wants Sakchai Makao, so why is he being deported

Last week, almost the entire population of Shetland united in opposition to the compulsory deportation of Sakchai Makao, a young Thai athlete who has lived in Shetland for 13 years. Makao had been arrested by police officers at his home in Lerwick and flown to a detention centre in Durham to await deportation.

Makao works as a lifeguard and is very popular locally, not least because he’s represented Shetland at three International Island Games. However, he was jailed for 15 months in 2004 after he set fire to a porta-cabin and a car in what was described in court as “two moments of madness”.

But the local MP, Alistair Carmichael, the MSP, Tavish Scott, and the convener of Shetland Islands Council, Sandy Cluness, united last week in demanding that Makao should be released. Mr Cluness said he had “paid his debts to society and had become a valuable member of the Shetland community”.

No, you couldn’t make it up. When Tony Blair fulminated against foreign rapists and murderers, and ruled that all foreign prisoners should be deported on release, he didn’t have in mind valuable members of the community. He should have - after all he’s a lawyer himself and his wife remains a partner in Matrix Chambers, a legal firm which specialises in human rights issues. If anyone should have been wary of making law on the hoof, it should have been Tony Blair.

The media tribunes who had been demanding the deportation of all those foreign prisoners, were strangely silent about Makao. They’ve been equally silent about the case of Ernesto Leal, another valuable member of the community who has been caught by the presumption of deportation. The Edinburgh arts and music promoter, came to Britain thirty years ago to escape persecution by the Chilean dictator, Augusto Pinochet. He was jailed in 2002 after getting involved in a pub brawl in East London. Now he is languishing in high security prison awaiting deportation to - wherever. Campaigners led by the author, Irvine Welsh, are still trying to get him freed.

These are only two of the many victims of this government’s passion for instant justice. Tony Blairs determination to respond to every media scare by creating a new edict. It’s becoming as regular as clockwork, you could almost set your watch by it. Every week brings another crime panic; another immigration scandal; another case of Home Office incompetence.

We’ve had prisoners walking out of open prisons; murderers being released after five years; foreign felons going
undeported; paedophiles being given derisory sentences; prisoners being released en masse because of over-crowding.

The Home Office has given up on keeping track of illegal immigrants, we’re told, and instead is handing out national insurance numbers so that illegals can take up jobs in the Immigration and Nationality Department.

Sounds appalling. Is it safe to walk the streets with the prisons spewing out murderers and rapists? Are our children safe from paedophile perverts; are our women-folk safe from illegal immigrants? Just what is the government doing about all this lawlessness? I don’t know about you, but I’m getting out before this country goes to the dogs...

Such are the kind of anxieties that are likely to afflict anyone who has exposed themselves to the popular press in recent weeks - or listened to government ministers, which nowadays amounts to much the same thing. The Prime Minister has himself adopted the Sun’s super soaraway criminal justice manifesto and intends to implement it this week by introducing tougher rules on minimum sentences. These will be to, er, replace the tougher rules on minimum sentences that the PM introduced in 2003, and in 2001, and in 1999...

Governments used to blame the politicians who were in charge before they came to office; but New Labour blames itself: “This disgraceful regime of lenient sentences and automatic release, which we inherited from ourselves, is irresponsible and constitutes a danger to the public. The immigration policies we have created are a national scandal. It’s about time something was done about us.”

What you don’t hear, of course, is that prisons are already stuffed to breaking point because of the government’s policy of mandatory minimum sentences; that overall levels of crime are substantially down everywhere; that immigrants have been an essential component of the decade-long economic boom; or indeed that prison, very often, just creates more prisoners. Two thirds of those released from jail reoffend within two years - which kind of suggests that prison isn’t working.

Soft sentences? The number of life sentences given out has nearly doubled in the last ten years, according to the Prison Reform Trust, and the sentences actually served by prisoners are fifty percent longer. They did the crime and they are doing the time.

No matter: just have tougher prisons, longer sentences, paedophile registers, compulsory mass deportation of foreign prisoners. Yes, that’s a good idea - send ‘em back where they came from, let someone else put up with their criminal behaviour! Except, er, when they try to send them back here - as was the case recently when Australia deported to Scotland the paedophile William Gallagher, 62, who has a string of sex offences against boys dating back to 1973.

How dare they dump their evil fiends on us after forty years in their country! Send em back to where they didn’t come from! It’s the only language these monsters understand! What is the government doing about this!

Common sense solutions to complex criminal issues generally turn out to be the reverse - particularly stupid. By leaping on every tabloid scare and creating instant policy to deal with it the government is making a nonsense of criminal justice.

Take the deportation of foreign prisoners. The government discovers that hundreds of non-British felons are being released from jail without being assessed for deportation. Shock! Horror! Foreign murderers and rapists being let loose on British streets.

Get rid of ‘em, cry the press. The government agrees, and Tony Blair issues a new legal doctrine: “the presumption of deportation”, meaning that all foreign prisoners who have served prison sentences for serious offences are sent to their countries of origin no matter the particular circumstances of the case. Sun approves. Job done. Except for the unintended consequences. In Shetland.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Hey, Reid leave them judges alone

“There appears to be a disconnect between the public's common sense view of right and wrong and how it sees that reflected in judicial decisions” according to the Prime Minister’s spokesman yesterday, referring to the five year sentence handed down to paedophile, Craig Sweeney. Disconnect there certainly is, though I’m not sure common sense comes into it.

It seems that a Downing St factotum can now second-guess the judiciary with impunity. And only a day after the Attorney General himself, Lord Goldsmith, had censured the Home Secretary, John Reid, for doing the same thing. This looks like war.

Couldn’t happen here of course. Scottish judges are jealous of their privileges and no mere minister, or newspaper editor, would dare to second guess them. Well, think again. In fact it is happening here. Not only are politicians second-guessing judges, they are threatening them with the sack.

In a recent consultation paper, the Justice Minister, Cathy Jamieson, proposed disciplinary action for judges and sheriffs who are too lenient. Sanctions which could be imposed on judges or sheriffs would include a formal warning, a reprimand, transfer to another court or an order to undertake "judicial studies or training". They're expected to feature in a forthcoming bill.

North and South of the border, there is a full frontal assault on the principle of the separation of powers. Indeed, the government seems to have decided that the judges are the new class enemy. The Prime Minister has expressed contempt for “liberal” judges who have criticised his anti-terrorist legislation. One Law Lord suggested that the government was more of a threat than the terrorists.

But in taking on the courts directly in the Craig Sweeney case, Dr John Reid has escalated the conflict. Reid felt that five years was too short and said so. The Attorney General, Lord Goldsmith, replied the Home Secretary’s intervention was “not helpful” - which, roughly translated, means “get your tanks off my lawn, Jimmy”.

But there are a lot of people in the legal profession in Scotland and England who believe that the tanks have already flattened the constitutional separation between the judiciary and the government . Roy Martin, the Dean of the Faculty of Advocates believes that the Scottish Executive is introducing political direction in a way that would have been unthinkable ten years ago.

The Executive is setting up an independent appointments board for judges, which sounds benign but isn’t . Appointments to the board will be made by Scottish ministers. It will be Judge Jack decides who sits on the bench. The fear is that the FM will ensure that, in future, judges are only selected if they have the “right stuff’, and approve of things like mandatory minimum sentences, abolition of early release of prisoners and tightening up the bail regime so that murder suspects can’t go on holiday to Bulgaria.

But does this matter? Should we worry? Why should judges be able to sit in their ivory towers handing down judgements which don’t find favour with the public or politicians? Why should judges be above the law?

Well, think about the alternatives. If politicians make the law, which is what increasingly seems to be happening, then the law will become the hostage of yesterday’s newspaper headlines. Politicians live in the short term. They don’t have time to reflect on the significance of any particular ruling - they just want to look and sound tough on crime, and aren’t particularly bothered about the complexities of the case.

Take Craig Sweeney. Appalling crime, undoubtedly. Kidnapped and raped a three year old girl. Bang him up and throw away the key. In fact, it’s not quite as simple as that. Sweeney was given an 18 year minimum sentence for his crime, but he got a discount of one third in mitigation for pleading guilty without reservation, and for expressing extreme remorse. That’s the law.

The headline five year sentence was actually twelve years, (taking account of the time he had already spent in prison on remand) with the possibility of release after six. But Judge John Williams told Sweeney that it was very unlikely that he would be let out after six years. So, already, this isn’t quite the absurdly lenient sentence that got the tabloids into such a lather.

Now, perhaps you believe that even the possibility of a paedophile getting out after six years is unacceptable for a crime of this magnitude. But such an approach would make a nonsense of the policy of rehabilitation. It also makes little sense when the prisons are so overcrowded that the Home Office and the Scottish Executive are planning for the “administrate release” of thousands of prisoners to make room for the thousands who are being banged up. (Contrary to popular belief, the courts in Scotland are handing out much tougher sentences, which is why there is up to 65% over crowding in Scotland’s jails).

Now, both in Scotland and England - cases like that of Craig Sweeney are reviewed by judges on the appeal court. And indeed only last month, another paedophle, Alan Webster, had his jail term increased from six to eight years by the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Phillips. There is already a machinery for reviewing light sentences.

But the Lords of Appeal are too slow for Judge Reid - he wants action this day, in order to appease the High Court of Fleet Street. The risk is that newspapers are effectively handed the final say on sentencing. Cathy Jamieson’s proposal for disciplinary action for lenient judges came after the appeal court refused to increase the three year jail sentence imposed on Steven Weir last year for knife crime.

A series of newspaper stories of lenient sentences like that one convinced the Scottish Executive that they needed, effectively, to have the power to direct the courts. And make no mistake this is what is happening. The forthcoming Sentencing Bill will end automatic early release. Indeed, Cathy Jamieson appears to be calling for mandatory sentencing. Sentences, she says, should “mean what they say”. The Scottish Labour Party is planning to make this a major plank of their campaign for the Scottish parliamentary elections next May.,

Now, I don’t have a lot of time for judges myself - they are often out of touch, conservative and insufferably pompous. But speaking personally, I’m not sure that I am better equipped than they are to decide on important matters of law which could affect the lives, not just of the people involved in any particular case, but the people affected by the consequences of any rush to judgement. Like any other father, I become slightly irrational whenever paedophiles rape children and tend to think that hanging’s too good for them. However, the law is the law. If politicians and journalists make it up as they go along, then we go to hell in the proverbial hand cart.

Sunday, June 11, 2006

This flag worship isn't progressive nationalism, it's national laddism.


The most extraordinary sight of the week, indeed the year, was the leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition riding into Westminster with a Cross of St George Fluttering from the back of his bike. We’ve all gone flag crazy - except in Scotland where it’s viewed with more than a little unease.

Tessa Jowell, the Culture Secretary, is flying two, or is it three. Tony Blair announced, after initial wariness, that the Cross of St George would fly above Downing St. for every Engerland match for the duration of the World Cup.
Politicians of every hue are wrapping themselves in the flag.

And if they aren’t then the guardians of English nationalism are soon on their backs. “Tony Has pledged to fly the flag”, taunted Boris Johnson in Thursday’s Daily Telegraph, “Will Gordon have the nerve to do the same? Will Gordon have the nerve to resist”. It’s not enough for the Chancellor to back the England team, he has to bow before the flag too.

There is a hectoring and bullying note creeping into this the new English nationalism. Middle class intellectuals, who have clearly forgotten everything George Orwell wrote, are embracing the flag like teenagers on a bender. They pretend that it’s ironic, a laugh, an affectionate revival of antique passions. But this isn’t progressive nationalism, it is national laddism.

I hate to be a killjoy, but I find it tasteless and faintly sinister. I’m all for rediscovering national symbols and I can even accept a little post-modern patriotism. But there are limits. The attitudes and emotions unleashed by flag worship can rapidly become oppressive. Look at America, where the flag is a kind of fetish - a piece of cloth imbued with almost mystical significance.

And I don't like Saltire worship either, with all the blood-soaked "Braveheart" romanticism. But it’s one thing for a small nation like Scotland, with a tenth of the population and a fraction of the wealth, to be flaunting national symbols - a kind of regional attention-seeking; when the dominant partner in a union of nations starts stuffing its flag down our throats, day after day, on a London-dominated media, I reach for my sick bag.

And I have no problem with people supporting the English football team - my own twelve year old son does. And by the way he isn’t bullied or fire-bombed at his state school in Dalkeith for doing so. But I’m fed up being asked where my own loyalties lie. Scottish politicians can’t approach a microphone without being challenged to say whether they support England. This isn’t football - it is a new version of Norman Tebbbit’s cricket test.

And why does every television programme and every article about the phenomenon seem to include a dig at the Scots for being unpleasant spongers? There was Max Hastings on Question Time on Thursday accusing the Scots of being “nasty to the English even when we pay their bills”. On Tuesday, the London Mayor Ken Livingstone girned about how London continues to “pay the Scots to live in the manner to which they are accustomed”.

Boris Johnson announced in his own flag-waving piece that Gordon Brown couldn’t be Prime Minister because he is Scottish. That isn’t funny - it’s racist. The UK parliament is a unitary one in which all MPs are supposedly equal. You cannot deny an elected politician high office because you don’t like his ethnic origins. Or is this now an English parliament?

Ken Livingstone’s idea that London is subsidising Scotland is economically illiterate. Tens of billions are being spent on public projects like the London Olympics and the cross-rail link funded in part by Scottish taxpayers. And before Max Hastings mouths off about subsidising the Scots he would do well to remember that the UK Exchequer is currently benefiting from #12 bn a year in oil revenues.

This is nasty nationalism - the patriotism of fools. And in brings out the worst in all of us. The SNP leader, Alex Salmond, went totally over the top in the Commons last week when he accused Gordon Brown of “morphing into an Englishman”. The nationalists are willing the England team to do well or even win the World Cup, because every extra day of this brings an SNP victory in the Scottish elections in May closer.

There’s nothing wrong with people exploring their national identity and even rediscovering symbols. And there’s nothing wrong with football that a change of rules and lower salaries wouldn’t cure. But when we start importing the passion of the terrace into British politics it turns into tribalism.

Or chauvinism. Love of flag has blinded Americans to the fact that across half the world the Stars and Stripes has become a symbol of imperialism and military supremacism. The Cross of St George has some unfortunate associations also. Like the Salford Councillors, I was distinctly uneasy about Labour cabinet ministers wrapping themselves in a flag which was, in the not too distant past, the emblem of the British National Party. Ten years ago, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown wouldn’t have been seen dead near a Cross of St George. Now they’re getting their underpants made of it.

Yet when the deputy chief constable of Wales dared to suggest that waving this flag might be a little provocative in the principality, he was hounded by the new patriots. Schools in England have been instructed to fly the flag with pride.

But surely if Prime Minister is so keen on preserving the union shouldn’t they be flying the Union Flag above Downing St., as was the case in 1966. If it was good enough for Harold Wilson, why not for Tony Blair? And, anyway, since when did the government of the country become the property of England? The Union flag, remember, is supposed to incorporate the Cross of St George and the Saltire. Surely that symbol of inclusion should correctly fly above all UK institutions.

You don’t see the flag of St. George flying above Buckingham Palace - at least not yet. Flags are where emotion and politics collide. This is infantile behaviour from a country with a long enough memory to know that it’s wrong.

What are the Liberal Democrats for?

What use are the Liberal Democrats? What are they for? It’s a question which has long been asked by Labour and Conservative politicians, but now even some Liberal Democrats are beginning to ask if they know what they are here for.

Both the Independent and the Guardian, the two newspapers closest to the LibDems, have been critical of the direction the party has taken under Sir Menzies Campbell. “Insipid...directionless” according to the Indie. “Just what - and whom - are they for?” queried the Guardian on Friday, decidedly unimpressed by Sir Menzies Campbell’s latest relaunch. The rest of the press more or less ignored it.

Under Charles Kennedy, the LibDems had carved themselves a niche somewhere to the Left of the political spectrum, as a party of redistribution, civil liberties and opposition to the war in Iraq. But the party has apparently abandoned progressive taxation and has been sounding decidedly muted on the war.

It’s well known that Sir Menzies was never as hostile to the Iraq invasion as Charles Kennedy and that he genuinely believed that Saddam posed a serious threat to the West. Certainly, the party’s antiwar edge has been blunted since Kennedy left. Some in the party are anxious to learn what Sir Menzies’ position is gong to be on Trident when Tony Blair announces the renewal of Britain’s nuclear deterrent. Whatever he is, Campbell is no pacifist.

Last week, the gibe was that Sir Menzies not only looks like a Tory, he is sounding like one too. His big idea for Liberal Democracy has been to join the tax-cutting consensus by ditching the 50p higher rate, and promising #20 bn in tax reductions.

Now, Sir Menzies insists that his tax policy is in fact designed to benefit the less well off, and that the assets of the very wealthy will continue to be taxed. But he knows, and everyone else knows, that the new tax policy is far from socialist.

For a start, cutting income tax and shifting the burden on to green taxes may help the environment, but won’t help the poor. Indirect taxation is much less progressive than direct taxes on income. Taxes on air travel, road transport, home heating are paid at the same rate by all taxpayers, irrespective of their ability to pay. Many low income people depend on their cars and are already struggling with #1,000 a year heating bills. Nor, under the LibDems will they be able to afford that occasional holiday abroad using cheap flights.

Now, this is not an argument against taxing activities which damage the environment. Climate change is something we will all have to pay for and, like the congestion charge in London, it is going to hit poorer people particularly hard. But to claim, as the Liberal Democrats do, that this is redistribution of wealth, just because you fiddle with thresholds, is disingenuous.

If you want to tax wealth, you tax income - it’s the only reliable way. If they’d wanted to be really redistributive, Liberal Democrats could have levied a climate tax on the wealthy in order to pay for public transport improvements. But that wouldn’t have gone down well in the Tory constituencies in England that the Liberal Democrats are targeting.

The LibDems remain committed of course to introducing a local income tax, and perhaps that is where the redistribution is supposed to come from. However, the LibDems have been reviewing the whole idea of scrapping the council tax, on the grounds that it is politically unacceptable to middle income earners, so there is a degree of uncertainty there also.

Indeed, vagueness is the most serious criticism of the present Liberal Democrat image. Under Kennedy, they presented a clear alternative to New Labour, and the Conservatives. No one who voted for the Liberal Democrats at the last election could have been in any doubt about who and what they were voting for. That may be a problem for a small party whose fortunes depend on political visibility. Now, there is a very real question about where David Cameron's 'liberal' Tories end and the LibDems begin. The new Tory leader was also calling for redistribution of wealth last week.

This problem is compounded by the new leader’s uncertainty in the House of Commons. I don’t think Ming’s age as such is a problem - we make far too much of youth in our system, and in America he would be regarded as a politician in his prime. But his orotund courtroom delivery simply doesn’t work in the playground atmosphere of question time. He hasn’t learned how to be brief, how to poke and mock. Sir Menzies sounds a little like one of those patrician Tory knights who were killed off by Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s to be replaced by used car dealers.

But Campbell is improving. His challenge to Tony Blair on “extraordinary rendition” last week was pointed and hit the mark. Indeed, here I think we answer the question of what the Liberal Democrats are for. If it hadn’t been for Sir Menzies, the Council of Europe report into the alleged transport of terrorist suspects by American security services to countries which condone torture would have been completely ignored in parliament. There is strong prima facia evidence that Britain has connived in this “torture by proxy” turning a blind eye to what has been flying in and out of our air space.

In his reply, Tony Blair said that the government had said all they were going to say on this matter and he wasn’t going to say any more. Which is rather like a defendant in court saying that the charge was an old story and therefore he wasn’t going to answer any questions about it. Condoleezza Rice has given a very coded non-denial denial and Jack Straw said he “had no evidence” that there was torture traffic, even though he hadn’t looked very hard. Everything the government says on this reeks of evasion. A report from Europe on an important issue like this cannot just be dismissed.

The Liberal Democrats are an important part of our political ecology. They are the only party which offers a serious challenge to the growing authoritarianism of New Labour. And here’s another use to which the LibDems could be put. According to Proof John Curtice last week, we are “in a new political era’ of minority government. His take on Labour’s recent opinion poll slide is that it is now unstoppable and that Labour will no longer have a working majority after the next election.

The Liberal Democrats with their sixty odd MPs will very likely hold the balance of power and Gordon Brown, assuming he becomes Labour leader, will have to do a deal with Ming Campbell if he wants to stay in office. This puts enormous responsibility in the hands of Britain’s ‘third party’. How they handle themselves in the next couple of years could decide the future, not just of government, but of the British constitution, for they may be able to demand that Labour introduce proportional representation to Westminster as a precondition of any stable deal. That could change British politics for ever, because leaders like Tony Blair will no longer be able to act like absolute monarchs thanks to artificially inflated majorities in the Commons.

So, the stakes are very high. If Sir Menzies Campbell gets his act together, the Liberal Democrats could be a very useful party indeed.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Putting prisoners back on drugs and then taking away their children away when they are released is madness. There is a better way.

Some issues are so serious that it takes a comedian to tell the truth about them. Ben Elton didn’t tell the MSPs on Holyrood’s drug and alcohol committee anything they didn’t know last week. They are acutely awar that hard drug abuse is one of Scotland’s key social problems. So, why did they feign shock and surprise when he proposed a radical solution - the end of prohibition. It’s not as if they haven’t talked about it themselves

Well, it’s our old friend political acceptability. The voters would be appalled if they knew the truth - that far from combating hard drug-taking the present laws on drugs are actually promoting it. Politicians pretend to fight the war on drugs, even when organisations like the Strathclyde Police Federation tells them that it is a lost cause.

There are over fifty thousand known problem drug users in Scotland, and they’re getting younger - nearly thirty percent of pre-teens have been exposed to drugs, according to Glasgow University. The casualties now include eleven year old girls who are turning up to school stoned on heroin. The Scottish Executive is threatening to take up to 50,000 children of drug-abusing parents into care in what might be called the Pol Pot solution.

Up to three quarters of property crimes are thought to be drug-related and seventy percent of prisoners enter jail with drug problems. The jails simply become smack universities dominated by drugs barons. Of course, prisoners are offered help to get clean and some do. But the final idiocy of our system is that - as BBC Scotland revealed in 2002 - some prisoners who have broken their habit are being given hard drugs by the prison authorities to “retoxify” them before release, so that they aren’t killed by their first fix of high strength street heroin.

When we are actually putting prisoners back on drugs for their own safety, only to take their childen away from them when they get home, it is surely time to start asking whether there isn’t a better way. There is, but it needs economics not zero tolerance.

By allowing the criminal underworld to retain a monopoly on the supply of heroin and other addictive drugs we have allowed it to build a unique trade. Narcotics is the only business in the world selling a commodity which creates its own demand. The consumers become the salesmen as addicts turn into street pushers in order to finance their own habit. The result: a three hundred billion pound a year global industry which is spreading like a disease.

The underworld mystique of drugs, which the film Trainspotting” captured so well, is highly seductive to troubled young people in the West who find that, perversely, addiction gives their empty lives a kind of meaning. It is something to do. A chance to opt out the world of work, training, pensions, mortgages - all the numbing complexities of modern life.

To break into this two things are necessary: the market for drugs has to be tackled at source, and those afflicted by this disease must be prevented from spreading it. Tackling at source doesn’t mean bombing poppy fields in Afghanistan. Four years after the allied invasion of that country, it is producing more opium than ever. The market mechanism is far more devastating than high explosive. Take the money out of drugs and you take the criminals out too.

This requires an alternative supply regulated by the state. As soon as drug addicts leave prison they should be placed under medical supervision and provided with heroin under prescription, as was the case in the 1960s before the war on drugs began. We already dope them with methadone, so why not give them the related chemical, diamorphine, which is generally believed to have fewer side effects?

The deal would be that the NHS would provide reliable safe supply in registered premises provided the addict agreed to voluntary rehabilitation. Regulating heroin in this way would prevent the addict falling back into the cycle of dependency which turns them into criminals promoting the drug to finance their habit. It would wreck the business model of the drug industry which would see its monopoly ended and its sales teams dispersed.

As for the mystique - only by medicalising this problem can drug addiction be exposed for what it truly is: a debilitating psychological dependency rather than a romantic bohemian life-style choice. It is a condition, like diabetes, which can be managed - but is unpleasant, frequently painful and ultimately life-shortening. Addicts are like any other ill person - they need help. It’s not pleasant and it’s not cool.

Most people I speak to who have any knowledge of the problem believe that something like this must happen eventually. However, unlike Ben Elton, I would not immediately legalise all drugs. Non-medical use of heroin should still be a serious offence, and pushing a very serious one. This way the law would help the detoxification programme - as it should properly be called - by increasing the incentive for addicts to use state heroin rather than street heroin.

This way the abusers can be monitored and targetted by all means possible to help get them off. For in the end, it is up to the individual - you cannot force people to be well. Ultimately, if someone is determined to kill themselves, by drugs or other means, society cannot stop them. But society can protect our children from them.

Now, the obvious objection to all this is that the voters wouldn’t buy it. I mean, turning the government into a supplier of addictive drugs? Monstrous idea. Well, it might have been twenty years ago, but attitudes change. Drug use is part of popular culture, as Ben Elton pointed out in his talk, and everyone under the age of forty has either taken illegal substances or knows people who have. The clubbing scene runs on ecstacy and amphetamines - has done since the 1980s. Cocaine is everywhere - in politics, business, the arts. Cannabis is virtually legal already.

The present generation knows the score - that drugs aren’t going to go away and that pious hypocrisy is the last refuge of the politician. I bet half the MSPs in Holyrood have taken drugs. Which means this is the first generation of politicians which could finally demonstrate that the drugs really don’t work.

Why the World Cup means a red card for Blair

John Prescott has, in a very real sense, become the unacceptable face of New Labour. Those grumpy jowls, that Les Dawson mouth, the fiery eyes - it’s not so much that people hate him, more that they are fed up with the sight of him.

And the sound of him. They don’t want to be reminded that the Deputy Prime Minister of Britain can barely utter a coherent sentence. Prescott has been sent to Canada to speak about climate change - in which case God help the planet. He is the image of a government which has become a bad joke.

It’s all rather reminiscent of the moment when David Mellor, the egregious “minister of fun” became an emblem of John Major’s dying administration in the 1990s. Mellor came from a very different social background, but his arrogance, his affairs, his alleged incompetence turned him, like Prescott, into the minister people loved to hate.

Mellor also took on the press and lost, accusing them of “playing in the last chance saloon” when he was the one who was drinking after time. Major insisted that he would not allow David Mellor to become a casualty of the tabloid press - but of course he eventually he eventually did. Mellor resigned because he had become “a burden”.

And so surely goes Prescott, who is too great a burden for this exhausted government. He has been stripped of his ministerial responsibilities, his grace and favour mansion and his #133,000 salary, surely, has to be next to go. The race to succeed him as Deputy Prime Minister has already begun, with the ambitious Education Secretary, Alan Johnson, pitching for the job - perhaps seeing himself as a David Cameron figure who might even snatch the Labour leadership against Brown. Who dares wins. Harriet Harman, the Solicitor General, has said a woman should get the job - meaning her.

Of course it isn’t fair. John Prescott is an extremely hardworking minister, despite the croquet on the lawn, as anyone who has worked with him will testify. There is a great deal of snobbery in the way he his being pilloried in the press. There are legitimate criticisms of his conduct - having sex with someone who depends on you for their career is extremely unwise, if only because you can hardly give an objective appraisal of someone's work when you are shagging them behind the office door. However, relationships with secretaries are hardly new in Westminster. Many prominent politicians have fallen in love with theirs, and, like the former Tory Foreign Secretary, Douglas Hurd, married them.

Prescott has paid the price for his sexual incontinence. But he will pay the ultimate penalty for the incompetence of the administration he represents. Not because he is to blame, but because he is there. Prescott has no direct responsibility for any of the recent cock ups over illegal immigrants or the continuing tragedy that is Iraq. But he is a very big target and people who want to kick this government can hardly miss. So, the sooner he goes the better - for his own sake.

The government is beginning to disintegrate, from the top down and from the bottom up. While the leadership crisis remains unresolved, the activities of the government on the ground are blighted. Nothing works. The Home Office staggers from crisis to crisis as incompetence is piled upon confusion. Last week we learned that illegal immigrants are being given national insurance numbers, that conviction rates for serious offences are unacceptably low, according to Lord Goldsmith, and that plans are being laid for a mass early release of prisoners because of overcrowded jails.

The inability of the Home Office to get its act together is threatening race relations in this country. We’ve had inmates walking out of open jails; foreign prisoners not being deported; illegal immigrants cleaning the offices of the Immigration and Nationality Department. Public attitudes are hardening toward all immigrants, legal or otherwise, who are all being regarded as a potential threat.

Dr John Reid’s decision to take on the civil servants is understandable, but high risk. There is evidence that some of the recent revelations have come from within the Home Office from disgruntled civil servants who don’t like his style. His eighth ministerial post looks like being his last.

But the Home Office isn’t the only dysfunctional department in Whitehall. Last week we learned that the IT system for the English NHS is now fourteen billion over budget - yes, that’s #14,000,000,000. The “choose and book” system for putting medical records online wasn’t exactly cheap when it was six billion, but now the cost has risen to twenty - and doctors still aren’t using it.

Then there is the two billion that the Treasury has distributed in overpaid tax credits - for the second year running. The Child Support Agency scandal is finally being resolved - but only by winding up the entire agency and writing off billions in unpaid child maintenance. Fathers who have been paying responsibly are made to look mugs.

I’ve said it before, but this UK administration makes the Scottish Executive look like a model of competent administration. It is hard to find any area of UK government activity which seems to be running smoothly right now. This is a direct result of the collapse in authority of the Prime Minister and the evaporation of political leadership in Westminster. The government has become “accident prone” - has hacks call it - just as in the dying days of John Major. The stench of sleaze, following the loans-for honours scandals is also redolent of a decadent administration which is on its way out.

It is a measure of the government’s desperation that Labour MPs are seriously looking to the World Cup to draw a line under this catalogue of misfortune. Yes, David Beckham’s men are expected to ride to Blair’s rescue by putting up a good show and uniting the country once again - give or take Scotland. You may laugh, but it is imprinted in Labour’s collective memory that Harold Wilson won the 1966 general election on the back of England’s victory in the world cup that year. Perhaps, some Labour analysts think, history might repeat itself. Some hope. Voters aren’t so easily fooled these days.

Though there is, perhaps, an opportunity here for the government to regroup. From Friday, England will become obsessed with what is happening in Germany and Prescott’s belly will become an unpleasant memory. This is a window through which Labour might be able to toss some of the rubbish that has accumulated in the last few months - such as John Prescott himself. But even a World Cup victory could not salvage his boss - the rot has gone too far.

However, the summer sporting events might just possibly provide an opportunity for Gordon Brown to take over as captain, and for Blair to get a free transfer to the US lecture circuit. It is as plain as the three lions on England’s shirts that the only way to put this government together again is to provide a new leadership, a new start under a new man. There is still time - just.

If England do well, and the country is at peace, Tony Blair might see it as a moment to announce that he is going to go after the Labour conference in September. Unfortunately, that’s about as likely as Trinidad and Tobago winning the World Cup.

McConnell is right not to support England

Football isn’t a political matter - it’s much more important than that. The First Minister, Jack McConnell, was taken severely to task last week for failing to support England in the World Cup. There have been cries of outrage from the guardians of the Scottish media. McConnell is supposed to be a unionist, they cried! Surely he should be able to support our UK brothers in this great endeavour. Where is his patriotism?

For refusing to back England, McConnell has been accused of fomenting anti-english prejudce, of making a cheap bid for the nationalist vote and of demonstraing his immaturity and woeful judgement. And Jimmy Hill didn’t like it much either.

Er, but, hang on. This is a football match we’re talking about, not the war in Iraq. Since when was it obligatory for unionists to demonstrate their commitment to Britain by supporting a handful over-paid prima-donnas prancing around the pitch showing off their latest hair styles?

The First Minister isn’t alone. The redoubtable Scottish Tory leader, Annabel Goldie, told me that she would be waiting to see the “form” before deciding whom to back. She may be an arch unionist, but she certainly wasn’t going to back England until she had had a chance to inspect their fetlocks. Nicola Sturgeon hasn’t ventured an opinion, though I am assured she will be joining the “gone shopping” party for the duration of the World Cup.

As a non-believer, the World Cup largely passes me by, as it does the other half of the Scottish population. But I certainly don’t feel under any obligation to support the English football team, unless they demonstrate that they’re worth it. And I don’t see any reason why the First Minister should lie about something as trivial as who he is minded to support in a sporting fixture.

McConnell said he would be supporting the underdogs, which seems to me far truer to the great British sporting tradition than backing lisping chavs like David Beckham, who seems about as far as you can get from a true patriotic role model. The idea that McConnell has betrayed his country is ludicrous. Were Chelsea supporters weeping when Barcelona defeated Arsenal in the Champtions League? Hardly. Was that unpatriotic?

I think supporting Trinidad and Tobago is a great idea, and not just because they have a goal-keeper whose second name is “Scotland”. The SNP leader Alex Salmond set the TT ball rolling, and I think it will go the distance. Scotland is the ultimate sporting underdog, and we should be supporting outsiders. Surely it would be good for sport in general for a team from this small former British colony to take the title - or even defeat England.

The truth, as everyone knows, is that the vast majority of Scots will not support England and will indulge in Schadenfreude at every set back for the three lions. And no Shadenfreude isn’t a new brand of white beer - it means taking pleasure in the misfortune of others. Many will do so almost in spite of themselves. And the crunch will come if there is a replay of 1966.

I vividly recall having dinner with some Scottish BBC executives in a smart Westminster restaurant patronised by MPs and ministers on the night of the finals in the 1996 Euros. When Gareth Southgate missed his penalty, the Scots rose as one, and then hastily sat down again when they realised that half the Tory party was watching them. It was the funniest thing since Basil Fawlty tried not to mention the war.

The BBC Jocks weren’t being racist or unpatriotic, they were just being Scottish. Is it wrong? - well, its a little childish I suppose, but hardly a sin. I’ve been known to indulge in this vice myself on occasion - often at the expense of the United States of America or Tony Blair, and while I’m not proud of it, I’m not going to pretend that it doesn’t happen.

But what of the English? Will they forgive Scotland for not supporting the greatest heroes ever to walk planet earth? Already Jimmy Hill, the hammer of the Scots, has put the boot in, ably assisted by Jack Straw and the Scottish Labour MPs.

We are warned that a tide of anti-Scottish feeling is mounting over the prospect of a Scot - Gordon Brown - entering NumberTen. What this has to do with football, I’m not sure. However we are told that there is a connexion. The Daily Telegraph says a Scottish “Raj” is ruling England. A poll conducted by the BBC recently suggested that 52% of English voters think Gordon Brown shouldn’t become Prime Minister because he is Scottish.

Actually, this is not football, it’s racialism. Change “Scot” to “black” or “Jewish” and the Telegraph would be in the dock for inciting racial hatred. We are told that supporting England in the world cup is the best was of appeasing this anti-Scottishness that is allegedly running rampant along with the Cross of St George. Well, I say you don’t appease racialism - you defy it.

Anyone who cannot understand the difference between supporting a football team and placing a racial barrier to political office needs to read some history. But look, I am not ruling out supporting England. I’m no great follower of rugby, but when England won the World Cup I couldn’t help but admire their extraordinary skill and courage.

If the England football team prove themselves on he pitch in (where) by their sportsmanship (hah - an archaic concept that) their commitment and their brilliance then they will have earned the support of the Scots. But then, I can’t promise that I won’t turn off the commentary.