Thursday, June 30, 2011

Don't believe what you've been told about Quebec.

   The Scottish imprint on Montreal is unmistakeble; it’s everywhere.  The civic coat of arms has a thistle on it. The financial district rings to the names of the Scottish businessmen - Angus, Ballantyne, Cameron, McGill, Torrance, McTavish - who turned this fur trading station on the St Lawrence river into one of the great cities of the world.   The oldest golf club in North America was established here by and for the Scots diaspora. You wonder what Scotland might’ve been like today had these capitalist adventurers never left.

   However, the official language here is not Scots but French and  the politics of the province has been dominated for the last thirty five years by attempts by the Parti Quebecois to turn Quebec into an independent francophone state. To leave the Canadian Federation that was itself founded by a bibulous Glaswegian, John A MacDonald, in 1867.  Quebecers don’t seem to see any contradictions here and celebrate their Scottish connection even while seeking to turn themselves into the new France of North America.  Indeed, the social democratic Parti Quebecois has long sought to identify with the Scottish and Catalan civic nationalist movements, if only to define itself against the more racially-oriented right-wing nationalist movements of Europe like the French National Front of Jean Marie Le Pen.

   Quebecers are immensely proud of their success in turning their  province into the most open and egalitarian region in North America.  Immigration has been encouraged - though newcomers are obliged to send their children to French=speaking schools. Quebec has a welfare state that has largely been immune to the wave of North American neo-liberalism.  Parents enjoy universal daycare at $7 a day per child - that’s about £4.50.  Taxes are higher than in the rest of North America, but no one seems to complain very much about that.  Quebecers fiercely reject the claim, made by Canadian federalists, that the national question and independence referendums have damaged the economic and social fabric.   Economic growth has lagged the rest of Canada in recent years, as has population growth, and there are fears that an ageing population could damage future prospects.   But Quebec living standards have improved greatly relative to neighbouring Ontario over the last thirty years and “La Belle Province” is 17th in the OECD on economic performance and 13th in income per capita.   Looking around prosperous cosmopolitan Montreal, it’s hard to believe the picture painted by UK unionists of Quebec as an introverted and impoverished provincial backwater poisoned by cultural narcissism.  We should be so lucky.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Salmond v. Hope. Politics v. Law.

  The highly personal row between Alex Salmond and the Deputy President of the Supreme Court, Lord Hope, gets more astonishing by the week. Further evidence of the enmity between the Bench and Bute House has emerged in an interview given recently to the Holyrood magazine in which the First Minister accused the former Lord Justice General of Scotland, of allowing “some of the vilest people on the planet” to win compensation from the taxpayer. He suggested that Lord Hope was negligent in his previous role as Lord President of the Court of Session. You may recall, earlier in this 'war of the wigs', the Justice Secretary, Kenny MacAskill, accused the Supreme Court judges of “ambulance chasing” and claiming that the English judges on the Supreme Court learned what they know of Scots law from visits to the Edinburgh Festival.

M'learned Friends are giving as good as they get though. In an address to the Scottish Young Lawyers Association, Lord Hope declared that Scots law was under no threat, except perhaps from parochialism. “Pride in our own system is one thing; isolationism is quite another” he said, “We have much to lose if we were to raise the drawbridge and cut ourselves off from the outside world'. Lord Wallace of Tankerness, the Advocate General for Scotland, then waded in to the affray suggesting that the First Minister hadn't even bothered to read the human rights judgements in question. "A fundamental pillar of our society is the rule of law and the independence of the judiciary”, said the former Deputy First Minister. “Surely Scottish ministers are not telling the courts what to do?”

Heaven forfend! It used to be an offence under Scots law for anyone to criticise or “murmur” a judge. That legal remedy appears to have fallen into disuse, which is just as well because Mssrs Salmond and MacAskill might in sterner times have found themselves under lock and key. But the case of Hope v Salmond explodes one of the convenient fictions of our constitution: that the judicial system and the political system are totally separate and independent, and that judges are somehow above politics. They aren't of course, and never have been. Judges interpret – often in very political ways - laws made by the politicians. And there is always tension between the two, especially when obscure clauses in the Scotland Act 1998 appear to have turned the UK Supreme Court into the final court of appeal in Scottish criminal cases.

Who's afraid of the Supreme Court?

Who's afraid of the Supreme Court?  Some nationalists are worried that judges might stomp all over Scotland's forthcoming independence referendum. The Conservative MP, David Mundell, suggested at the weekend that if the wording of the SNP's question wasn't clear the issue might be put before the UK Supreme Court – the very legal body that aroused the ire of the First Minister, Alex Salmond, for what he called its “aggressive” interventions in Scots law.

Well, in Canada, where I have been this week, the Supreme Court did indeed rule on the wording of the independence referendum in the French speaking province of Quebec in 1998. Not only that, in a landmark ruling that has become internationally recognised as a definitive statement on the rights of secession by disgruntled minorities, it ruled that there was no right at all in international or domestic law for one part of a state to leave unilaterally. And even if independence were to be agreed by the other parts of the state, there would have to be absolute clarity of what the independence question meant, and a substantial majority favour of independence, not just a simple majority. In other words, it isn't in the gift of a “regional” government to decide to break away without everyone else having a say in how it is done.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Welcome to the University of Kerrching

 You must be joking, I thought. £18,000 for a degree at maverick philosopher, Christopher Grayling's, new for-profit university? Why? when, for only £9,000 you can get a degree from Oxford or Cambridge, and in Scotland a degree from one of the best universities in the world, Edinburgh, for nothing. Many of the courses at the “New College of the Humanities” appear to have been taken off the peg from other institutions, and as for the “star” academics, like Professor Naill Ferguson or Richard Dawkins, some of them will only be lecturing a couple of times a year.

But then I stopped laughing, and thought about it for a while. Only a very few students can get into Oxford or Cambridge because of the high entrance qualifications. Edinburgh is twelve times over-subscribed and anyway, you have to be Scottish to get a degree here free – one of the best bargains in history. And anyway, when it comes to education, common sense goes out the window. Parents are prepared to pay ten thousand a year to send a child to one of Edinburgh's private schools, when the education they get there is no better than in the city's excellent state schools, and when  there is strong evidence that students from state schools do better at university. They pay out of a misguided belief that “you get what you pay for”.

So apply the same logic to higher education, and you can just about begin to see that some wealthy parents might buy their mediocre offspring a prestigious degree, taught by celebrity academics. Moreover, for foreign students, £18,000 a year isn't all that steep. At Edinburgh most undergraduate courses cost over £15,000 already and medical students pay up to £33,000 a year. At a reception for international parents at Edinburgh's Playfair Library recently, I commiserated with an American soft-ware engineer having to fork out forty grand for his kids. “Heck no!”, he replied,”Couldn't believe how much less it costs than in the 'States. And look at the place. It's like buying a piece of history”.  

Thursday, June 09, 2011

Why stop at only having two referendums on Scottish independence?

The row over the Scottish Secretary, Michael Moore's call for a double-headed independence referendum took me back fifteen years to the torrid summer of 1996 when Labour wrestled with the same problem. Tony Blair had decided that a referendum was required to ensure that a Scottish parliament was indeed“the settled will” of the Scottish people. At a stormy meeting of Labour's Scottish executive in Stirling, the shadow Scottish secretary, George Robertson, as he was then, announced that Labour was minded to have two separate referendums on devolution. The idea was shot down almost as fast as Moore's twinarendum on independence this week. Which only confirms that those who fail to learn from history are condemned to make the repeat the mistakes of the past.

Sunday, June 05, 2011

I don't want my twelve year old singing about sado-masochism.

When I first heard it on the car radio, I nearly hit a bus.  “Sticks and stones will break my bones, but whips and chains excite me”.  “S&M”, by the Barbadian popstar, Rihanna, is a celebration of sexual sadism, in which she invites here lover to “give it to me strong”.  Her video depicts life in a fetish bar where everyone is dressed in bondage gear and where the chanteuse whips the customers.  She ends up literally hogtied and half naked saying how much she loves “sex in the air”.

   Now, I’ve been around the block a few times, and I’m all for sexual openness, but I was astonished to learn that this was freely played, even on on BBC radio.  Changed days - I remember when Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s single “Relax” was banned by the BBC for a reference to coitus interruptus which was so oblique I hadn’t even noticed it.  I’m even more astonished that  parents haven’t been talking more about this supposedly playful invasion of sadistic bondage into the lives of young girls who learn these lyrics  by heart.  I’m sorry, but I don’t want to hear pre-teens inviting men to whip them, even if itis 'ironic'..