Wednesday, December 27, 2006

There's nothing for us in Belfast

Is it possible for anyone to think of anywhere in the democratic world where it is so difficult to be a socialist/social democrat/progressive than here in Northern Ireland? I can't. And it hurts. I'm not questioning why some hare-brained Stalinist or Trotskyite sect here hasn't broken the political mould. I'm talking about a labour party. A modern, popular centre left movement. As another year ends and as I get a little bit older I still find myself as a political vagrant. Needless to say, I'm a bit depressed this Christmas.

My politics have been left of centre since the early nineties when I was in my teens. These years were a particularly gruesome chapter in the history of the northern troubles. The period between 1989 and 1994 saw hundreds killed in tit-for-tat sectarian violence with a string of massacres turning what were in many cases previously unheard of villages and townlands into bywords for the most extreme manifestations of hatred. Teebane, Greysteel, Castlerock, Shankill, Ormeau, Loughinisland and numerous other places became neat little brand names for the world media to use for their semi-interested audience when they covered the 'situation' here. Less interesting but just as tragic were the individual killings - Maurice O'Kane, Kenneth Newell, Barney Greene and Fred Anthony are some of the names that spring to mind personally.

The reaction of many young people in Northern Ireland to this violence was to take sides, maybe even join a local paramilitary faction. Others reacted by deciding to keep their heads down and stay out of it. Others left the country completely when the reached the age to 'get out' as it was often put. In this atmosphere, my reaction was none of the above.

I developed a profound (and probably unhealthy) interest in politics, current affairs and history. I reckoned the path forward lay with the tens of thousands of people who turned out at pro-peace rallies, with the workplaces who would down tools in protest at the killing of a fellow worker and with that small but principled segment of the electorate who would stubbornly refuse to vote for none of the parties from the sectarian camps. The real opposition to the violence wasn't emanating from nationalists or unionists or the Dublin government or the London government. It was coming from the ordinary man on the street and it was being organised primarily by trade unions. Surely, I reckoned naively, a properly organised non-sectarian party of the left could break the deadlock?

I still stand for this. I still yearn for a day when a dynamic, broad based, socialist party can cause the political earthquake necessary to shake up the established system here in Northern Ireland. I may have been naïve but I certainly wasn't alone. From the outbreak of the troubles in 1969 hardly a year went by without a group of left leaning figures attempting to forge some kind of social democratic party.

The formation of the Social Democratic and Labour Party did give a lot of people hope in the early years but as time passed and the nationalists rose to assume leadership of the party the leftists jumped ship. The name stayed the same, but there would be little to distinguish the policies of the SDLP today from those of Fianna Fail in the south. The old Northern Ireland Labour Party at one time had the support of over 100,000 voters. It could get candidates elected both in mainly Catholic west Belfast and in the Protestant shipyard heartland of east Belfast. The start of the troubles drove those working-class voters back into the arms of Paisleyites and Provos. The NILP died a quiet death.

After the Official IRA ceasefire in 1972 Official Sinn Fein put the idea of a united Ireland on the backburner in favour of a new three-stage policy to a 32 county socialist republic. Stage one was the goal of 'working-class unity'. Thirty-five years on, the Officials have not yet reached stage two. The Labour Party of Northern Ireland was formed in 1985 in a futile attempt to win back all the votes the NILP had lost. It did manage to recruit former leading SDLP member Paddy Devlin but it was to be in vain. The party merged with some other miniscule forces to form Labour 87. Unsurprisingly, Labour 87 came to nothing. There were numerous other attempts that I won't mention, and probably many more I've never even heard of. In the footnotes of various history books you can read about the United Labour Party, the Independent Socialist Party, the Socialist Labour Party, Democratic Left and a whole alphabet soup of failed left initiatives and this is leaving out the contributions made by the far left.

The Good Friday Agreement offered some new hope. However, it is almost ten years since the agreement was signed and we seem to have gone backwards. The realignment of politics which was touted back in 1998 never took place. Where did all the forces of progress go?

The Alliance Party, once thought of as the cavalry who would come over the hill to liberate us from the corrosive influence of bigotry, is now a middle-class clique confined to the pretty private developments of county Antrim and north Down. The small but promising Northern Ireland Labour group of Alan Evans and Malachi Curran that helped negotiate the GFA folded after it failed to pick up any notable support at subsequent elections. The Women's Coalition was officially dissolved last year after a disastrous Assembly election in 2003. The Ulster Democratic Party vanished in 2001, while its bright young star Gary McMichael is probably at home in Lisburn this festive season still contemplating where it all went wrong. The Progressive Unionist Party still has a pulse but it is David Ervine's pulse. It is difficult to see the PUP now as little other than a one man band. The Workers Party has no base whatsoever to speak of. Even in areas where it was once able to get candidates elected, such as west Belfast and north Armagh, it is now virtually dormant. The SWP-led Socialist Environmental Alliance had a crack at the election game but it fell apart due to the fact that it had little support outside of Derry. Incidentally, the SEA now appears to be getting dumped in favour of yet another SWP-led front based, it seems, on Galloway's Trotskyite/Islamist RESPECT coalition. This one is called People Before Profit. Don't expect much from it.

So, after that brief overview of four decades of fruitless attempts at building a mainstream party of the left where are we now?

In the past two years both the Irish Labour Party and the British Labour Party have allowed people resident in Northern Ireland to become members. In the case of the latter they have done so somewhat reluctantly. Andy McGivern of the GMB trade union in Belfast finally forced party HQ to lift the ban on members in Northern Ireland three years ago. According to McGivern around 13,500 trade unionists in the province donate money to the Labour Party and aren't getting much in return. At the moment McGivern is taking legal action to permit the 200 or so members living here to organise into a constituency party that could forward motions to conference and act in all the other ways a standard branch would. The Irish Labour Party has been more active on this front. They have had a Northern Ireland Labour Forum - similar to that which McGivern desires - functioning now for more than two years, the chair of which is former Newtownabbey councillor Mark Langhammer. Langhammer is also now on the party's National Executive.

So there may be light at the end of tunnel. Could we surely not build a party from the members of the British Labour Party and Irish Labour Party here in the province, together with some of the more progressive minded people within the SDLP and any other labour orientated persons in Northern Ireland? The NILF of the Irish Labour Party has already spoken about establishing 'formal structures' with the British Labour Party. In fact, there is no barrier to someone here holding membership of both parties. While a labour party for Northern Ireland with the support of Labour leaders in London and Dublin may still be a few years off it is possible to see the arrangements being laid by Langhammer and McGivern as some kind of starting point.

The barrier will eventually turn out to be the SDLP. It remains the officially recognised party of the Socialist International and the Party of European Socialists in Northern Ireland. While it would not be impossible to have two social democratic parties contesting elections in the province it would be unwelcome for both sides. In my view, we have to see the end of the SDLP as we know it. We need to see it fracture, with the left wing from the split becoming part of a new social democratic formation and the rest (most likely the majority in any such split) going on to become the voice of moderate constitutional nationalism.

Whatever takes place in the coming years in relation to this a lot of manoeuvring will have happen for a party of the centre left to establish itself in mainstream Northern Irish politics. Until then my political vagrancy shall continue.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

New Year's resolutions

The end of the year. Despite being on this earth now for more than a quarter of a century it may come as a surprise to you that I have never made even one New Year's resolution. Not one. Never have. Don't intend to. It isn't that I somehow always forget to make them, but rather it is a conscious decision not to be sucked into keeping meaningless promises that, on the whole, are really only designed to prevent me from enjoying myself over the course of the next 365 days. My advice: don't make any resolutions. The following is an example of how pointless they are. Just to prove for no other reason other than he could actually do it, my brother abstained from eating crisps for the duration of 1997. He quit on December 31st 1996. He resumed his crisp muching activities on New Year's Day 1998. Pointless? You bet.

I noticed a list of the top ten New Year's resolutions earlier this morning on a Pittsburgh-based website. While I cannot be 100% positive, I think I would virtually bet my house (well, my rented accommodation) on it that these resolutions are something similar to the drivel people in these islands will be making in the course of the coming days. Right, here they are.

The number one resolution was to spend more time with family and friends. Apparently, more than 50% of Americans (I believe that’s somewhere in the region of 150,000,000 people) will solemnly make this pledge. Why though? Now don't get me wrong, I have no problems with my family. We all get along fine. We don't fight. And unlike most Irish families, we have no long running disputes over property. But spend more time with them? I think we see each other enough. And they have children too. Why would they want to see me? Rubbish. Next!

Number two in the list was a vow to keep fit. There isn't a hope in hell of this when it comes to me. I admire people who keep fit. Fair play to them. Now, I'm not fat or obese or anything of that nature. But I am content. I appreciate that this is a level of contentedness that will most likely lead to diabetes sooner rather than later but there is just not a hope in hell of me putting on a pair of shorts and going for a jog in the freezing cold. Nor will I join a gym. Joggers are fine. People who play football or take part in a sport of some kind are fine. Even people who use the gym as a way of training for the sport they play - fine. But bloody office workers who use their staff discount at the local fitness centre to go and fuck around on a treadmill for an hour in the hope of picking up an easily impressed 'chick' deserve a good slap around the head.

Number three can be skipped as it was to do with losing weight. We've covered this.

Number four was quit smoking. I did this in 2006. Not because I particularly wanted to, but because of a lethal cocktail of rising prices and threats from my beloved partner (I am, however, strangely allowed to smoke when on holiday). Also, the smoking ban in the workplace starts in Northern Ireland in April 2007 which means that all of Ireland will be smoke free. In theory. Though as anyone who regularly drinks in pubs in rural border areas will testify this theory does not always translate into practice. If you enjoy them smoke them. I realise that isn't the most fashionable advice to give to people nowadays and I was luckier than most to the extent that I quit them immediately (no patches for me!) but I suppose in a year when North Korea exploded a nuclear bomb there are worse things around than 20 Carroll's.

Number five can be skipped as this a vague oath to 'enjoy life more'. You really have to wonder who (since the death of Ian Curtis) would actually make a resolution to be more miserable.

The sixth most popular pledge was to quit drinking. Oh, be serious.

Number seven: get out of debt. Not in debt.

Number eight sums up what New Year's resolutions are all about: learn something new. Now this is a good one. Learning something new is a great idea. Turn over a new leaf. What does it really mean? An unopened set of basic French Linguaphone CDs come the end of January. It never works out.

The final two are 'help others' and 'get organised'. What can you say? I am fairly organised as it is so we can cross that one out. Perhaps too organised. Help others? Hmmmmm. I'll have to look into that one. Depends how you define 'help'.

But, if I were to make a New Year's resolution, what would it/they be? Well, how about I pledge to eradicate my spates of irregular blogging? This blog only opened in November and it is the first time I've run one of these things but going from doing two or three a day to not doing one for almost a fortnight is pretty unforgivable. So becoming more prolific in the blogosphere would be up there. Would a minimum of seven entries a weak - one per day - really do any harm? I suppose I could become a tad more environmentally friendly as well. This is one area in which I tend to be perpetually pathetic. Leaving taps on, leaving windows open, forgetting to switch off the heat - I stand accused of them all. If David Cameron can do it then so can I. Keeping up with technology would be another good thing to do. I remember when I was a kid being baffled at how people aged 30 and above couldn't work out how to operate a video recorder. Now, as I myself career helplessly towards that landmark age, I find myself smiling and nodding in thinly disguised bewilderment during conversations about iPods. Someday I will actually muster the courage to ask what a bloody iPod is. And I really reckon I need to go to more gigs in 2007, though as someone who loves a pint of stout and a pub with an open fire that one might require some working on.

Since I don't make New Year's resolutions though none of these really matter. Expect to hear the same sort of stuff next year from this environmentally unfriendly, technically inept old shit. Happy New Year. Merry Christmas. Seasons greetings. Happy Hanukkah. Peace.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

The Men from Mullingar

Agreeing with Michael McDowell is not something which I would usually do with any great haste. To say that I find the man vile, obnoxious and totally detestable would be something of an understatement. However, the point on which I and An Tanaiste agree is not one of ideology or principle. It is actually on that pragmatic - or unimaginative to be more accurate - agreement we know as the Mullingar Accord.

During a speech at the launch of a new book by the McGill Summer School Mr McDowell remarked that the "recent opinion polls constitute a clear rejection of the Mullingar Accord and of the parties which make up that accord". He continued to describe the joint proposals put forward in recent years by Fine Gael and the Labour Party as "handcuffed mediocrity" and that the parties have an obsession with "glossy policy documents" and "glossy press launches", all of which possess "little or no content." Good lord. When Michael McDowell starts calling you boring you know you are in trouble.

I never liked the Mullingar Accord. Firstly, the name. Mullingar. It hardly rivals the Treaty of Versailles or the Sykes-Picot Agreement in terms of immediate impact. Could Pat and Enda not have gone off somewhere slightly more exotic (Dundalk perhaps) to pen their potentially life changing declaration? By the way, I have a very good Fine Gael supporting friend from Mullingar and have been in the town - albiet on the way to somewhere else - so I have absolutely nothing the place. Secondly, and more seriously, it was a statement of the obvious. We all know that if they have the required number of seats in the Dail after the next election that Labour and the Blueshirts will be more than happy to pull together and kick Bertie and co out of office.

Thirdly, it lacked any kind of substance. This for me is the crucial factor. There is nothing at the moment to suggest that an FG/Labour coalition would bring around radical change, which is probably one of the reasons why the opinion polls are showing a drastic lack of support for the Mullingarites. Why should voters go to the bother of changing the government when the very people they are going to put in will do almost exactly the same thing? I remember Proinsias De Rossa criticising this form of politics as "dull managerialism." So, who's up for a bit of dull managerialism in the 30th Dail? A recent statement of principles on spending from Richard Bruton and Liz McManus suggests that both deputies would make adequate dull managers. In a document entitled The Buck Stops Here Fine Gael and Labour propose:

*That the Taoiseach and the Tanaiste will have a central role in setting a limited number of strategic priorities for the Government.
*That the Taoiseach and Tanaiste will have a direct role in setting priorities for the Estimate process.
*That there should be reform of project management process complete with a gateway process and a traffic light reporting system.

And that's just the exciting bits. If you are still awake at this stage you may be interested to know that even Michael McDowell was bored enough to describe these proposals as "banal." I class myself as a fairly moderate socialist. I'm not looking for Pat Rabbitte to nationalise the banks or anything. Unlike some within the trade union movement and the Labour Party itself I am not an opponent of a coalition with Fine Gael, something which I would rejected out of hand just a couple of years back. I would like to see Fianna Fail finally unseated and replaced with a new government - ideally a Labour-led one though that is about as likely as bumping into Pat Kenny in a gay bar.

However, what we need is a proper statement of principles detailing where exactly the two parties stand and, importantly, what it is that sets them apart from Fianna Fail and the Progressive Democrats. 'Principles' and 'ideology' have become dirty words in politics recently but that is primarily because people confuse the them with 'dogma' - something more useless than cow dung as Mao once colourfully put it. FG and Labour need to ditch their inhibitions and commit themselves to offering a proper programme for government well before the coming General Election campaign.

I doubt they will do it. While Pat Rabbitte and Enda Kenny can agree on policies over lunch in the comfort of Ireland's finest hotels the grassroots party members in both camps would find a lot more differences between themselves. What unites them? Getting Bertie and McDowell out. Whats the best way to maintain unity? Don't discuss politics. So in the coming weeks expect more stinging attacks on the government but don't expect any clear alternatives.

Finally, we will let give An Tanaiste the final word:
"Where Fine Gael and Labour can agree, the result is mediocrity. Where either Fine Gael or Labour go it alone the result is usually something the other party will not wear. At best we are offered the paralysis of handcuffed mediocrity. At worst we are offered questionable proposals likely to be vetoed by the other party."

Monday, December 11, 2006

Two recent articles about India and Sudan. Neither likely to appear on Newsnight.

I apologise for lowering the tone a bit here and straying ominously into Carrie Bradshaw territory but I stumbled across this article a couple of days ago on the BBC website. It concerns condoms, the size of condoms and the sexual adequacy/inadequacy of the entire male population of the world's largest democracy. At least you can always count on the BBC to inject some intellectualism into the item - there's a quotation Alexander Pope at the end. Go and have a peek.

And while on the subject of trashy news stories I should remind you of one from earlier on this year about an incident in Sudan. There hasn't been much news coming out of Sudan recently to provide us with much laughs, and it may be absolutely wrong of me to do so, but if a man copulating with a goat and then marrying it doesn't make you smile then something really is wrong with you.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

God or no God?

"I know I believe in nothing but it is my nothing."
Manic Street Preachers

Is it just me or has there been a lot of debate in recent months about the existence of God? Possibly not. Perhaps I'm mistaken. Perhaps I keep an odd circle of friends or read the wrong newspapers. Or possibly it's got something to do with Richard Dawkins, the Oxford-based evolutionary biologist who has been helping to construct a kind of 'atheism with a human face' through his recent appearances on radio and television and the publication of phenomenally popular book The God Delusion.

I bought the The God Delusionlast Wednesday and have been rapidly tearing my way through it since then. A book providing the supposedly definitive argument as to why God does not exist is hardly the sort of thing one should be reading in the run up to Christmas, but then I was an atheist before I bought Dawkins's bestselling tome so it is hardly going to do much damage to my faith.

A few days before my purchase I was in Eason's bookshop on Royal Avenue doing a spot of Christmas shopping when I overheard two people having a chat about the book. Endless superlatives were being used in relation to it. Had they been reviewing it I have no doubt they would given it five stars, 10/10 or whatever other accolades you can give to a book. Then, while paying for my gifts at the counter a man in front of me enquired as to whether the shop "had that new book of Richard Dawkins's in." Amazing. Inside the space of ten minutes in a shop in the centre of one of the most Christianity-obsessed cities in Europe I had encountered three people discussing the pros and cons of a book written by a man nicknamed 'Darwin's rottweiler'. The question of the existence/non-existence of the Man upstairs also came up quite unexpectedly and totally inappropriately at a Christening which I attended recently. I had a heated exchange too with someone at work who provided his explanation for the existence of a higher being as simply that old chestnut: 'there has to be more than this'. Imagine firing that one back at old Richard.

The God Delusion is timely as atheism in the early period of this new millennium needs advocates like Dawkins rather than the less savoury promoters which the previous hundred years threw up with Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot to name but three. A less violent though similarly unpopular advocate of atheism is Northern Ireland's own Eamonn McCann. McCann is usually described as "the writer and broadcaster Eamonn McCann" during his numerous TV appearances as self-appointed spokesman for everything that happens in Derry, though it is more accurate to say that he is a member of the Socialist Workers Party and someone who's trail of lost deposits must now rival that of Rainbow George Weiss. The resident Trotskyist for The Belfast Telegraph, McCann published a book a number years back called Dear God - The Price of Religion in Ireland. The result wasn't great. Instead of a damning critique of the role of Christianity in Ireland - which should have been bloody easy looking at our history - all we got was a few of the usual tales about the Catholic Church and a couple of gags about Padre Pio's mitts and powers of bilocation.

Other than the odd article here and there and a few moderately well known humanist journals, atheism has not really had a popular outlet to the masses. But then many deem that it doesn't really need to have. Atheists tend not to place much emphasis on organised atheism; they just get on with the job of not believing in anything quietly. A by-product of this has been to leave the field open to the Christianity, Judaism, Islam and the other various sects. This also leads to non-religious people with a lack of imagination doing strange things, such as getting married in a church or having their child baptised. How many of you out there know of a person who recently had to make a quick call to their local priest/minister to arrange a wedding/baptism despite having no prior interest in religion? As I always say to these people, what's the point?

Dawkins's contributions are also a necessity to combating the rise of an extremely worrying brand of Christianity which has been on the rise now for some time, particularly in the Republican Party heartlands of the United States. It is sad to think that in the opening years of the 21st century there are people in the administration of the world's most powerful nation who would quite happily roll back the years of scientific progress made by Darwin and revert to teaching our children some half-baked version of creationism in schools. There are concerns that this fundamentalist streak is now making its way across the Atlantic and is about to land with us very soon. For evidence of this look no further than the fact that 'liberal' is now used by some as a term of abuse in common dialogue, not to mention those incredibly tacky Christian television stations on digital TV.

It's tough being an atheist. To describe yourself as an atheist to people usually means that you will be looked at with utter disbelief; as if you have just told the person speaking to you that the earth is flat (though in Northern Ireland to hold that kind of view could potentially win you an election in some areas). Still, you should always look on the bright side. I'll leave the last word on this to Woody Allen:
"I feel that life is divided into the horrible and the miserable. That's the two categories. The horrible are like, I don't know, terminal cases, you know, and blind people, crippled. I don't know how they get through life. It's amazing to me. And the miserable is everyone else. So you should be thankful that you're miserable, because that's very lucky, to be miserable."

Saturday, December 09, 2006

I surrender

There has been a bizarre twist in the latest round of Groundhog Day-style politics in Northern Ireland. The standard historical cycle goes along the lines of the following:

1. Unionist leader makes compromise.
2. Unionist leader condemned by hardliner critics as 'sell out' and 'traitor'.
3. Hardliner topples moderate for the leadership of unionism.
4. Hardliner decides to compromise.
5. Hardliner eventually toppled by even harder hardliner.
**Repeat cycle once or twice every decade**

What makes the latest 'traitor' so unique is that it is none other than the DUP leader himself, Ian Paisley. I know what you're thinking - if Northern Irish politics is just a series of events constantly repeating themselves every few years why am I surprised that the hardliner has compromised? Well, because he has.

This isn't any hardliner. Other unionists who got the chop you could have seen coming - Terence O'Neill, Brian Faulkner, David Trimble, etc. But not Ian. No way. This man lives for being hardline. It sums up everything he stands for. To say Paisley is intransigent is like saying Richard Littlejohn has some problems with immigration.

Even here in Northern Ireland where we are used to some pretty bizarre things (deranged gunmen breaking into the parliament, pumas roaming freely around north Antrim, etc) this has to rank as one of the strangest. Just last night the United Kingdom Unionist Party leader Bob McCartney took to the stage at an Orange hall in Portadown to criticise the Reverend Paisley for 'selling out' the unionists of Ulster. Bear in mind that this is the same Bob McCartney who two decades ago took to a stage to call the DUP head honcho a fascist.

Earlier this week the Member of Parliament for North Antrim and Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams could be seen addressing each other directly and discussing the finer points of the United Irish rebellion of 1798 in the debating chamber at Stormont. I'm sure they didn't head off for a pint afterwards but for anyone of my generation or my parent's generation who lived in Northern Ireland, especially through some of the worst years of violence, just this small exchange was phenomenal taking into account that both men would have rather seen each other dead (literally) a few years back.

At the moment things are balanced very precariously. The question really is who will blink first. Sinn Fein has taken their supporters this far down the road of compromise so it's fair to say that accepting the Police Service of Northern Ireland will be just another bitter pill which republicans have been swallowing since their recognition of Dáil Eireann in 1986.

For the DUP things are slightly more difficult. In a sense, the right wing of unionism has snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. Instead of trying to portray republicans as having been defeated in the 'war' and forced to accept the institutions of Northern Ireland they have somehow turned the situation on its head and made power sharing at Stormont look like a resounding triumph for Adams and McGuinness. While the Provisionals are clever enough to paint every compromise as a 'new tactic in the struggle', unionists can only view any political accommodation as yet another defeat in some predetermined path to a united Ireland.

A part of me feels that Sinn Fein could have a sinister strategy in all of this. They know the DUP is divided between the reluctant compromisers in the party leadership and the redneck rural Willie Frazer-type grassroots that were visible in Portadown last night. They know the DUP won't agree to share power until republicans accept the policing structures in Northern Ireland. Truth be told, Sinn Fein is happy to take their time on this one. So, after having manufactured the electoral destruction of Trimble and the Ulster Unionist Party, republicans now see the chance emerging to split the DUP and cause the greatest fracture in unionism for many years by keeping this 'will-they-won't-they' debate on power sharing going for as long as possible. Machiavellian? Perhaps. But then this is Northern Ireland.

Things are going to get interesting.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Keep On Rockin' In The Trots World

There was a time when I had a fair degree of respect for the Rt Hon George Galloway MP. Misguided, wasn't I? It wasn't his cynical, self-publicising stunts that turned me off him. In fact, I didn't mind his stunts. At least they give you a laugh every now and then. While never actually an ardent follower, what eventually turned me away from giving Dundee's finest even a modicum of admiration was his hairbrain decision to set up the oddball Islamo-Trotskyite coalition/party known as RESPECT. But that isn't what this is about. Oh, no. No, no, no.

Could he ever overshadow the 'indefatigable' moment with Saddam Hussein? Could he ever outdo himself appearing on stages beside right-wing Islamic fundamentalists? Could he ever top the cat suit appearance on Celebrity Big Brother? Well, maybe not. But it is still pretty bad. Now, not content with the release of his Fidel Castro Handbook for the festive season, Gorgeous George has - I kid you not - got involved in the race for the Christmas number one spot. He plays the part of a copper in the video for War, a cover of the Edwin Starr song, by the band Ugly Rumours. I wonder whereabouts the band got that name from?

Have a look for yourself at the whole sorry thing… if you can.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Scots away?

The concept of Scottish independence is one of those things that rears its head every now and then. You'll usually see it crop up just before an election in Scotland, although we are almost always informed by some insightful hack that it isn't the number one priority for the majority of Scots. It'll appear too around the time of year when the SNP hold their party conference. And then it'll just as quickly disappear again. It's also a common topic to throw into one of those standard, tedious debates on the future of the United Kingdom and the knock-on consequences of devolution.

On the whole, Scottish independence isn't something that has ever been treated with much seriousness. The view of the most people has been that while the Scots like to moan about their treatment from London and what they could do if they just got their Tartan mitts on all that North Sea oil, when it comes to the crunch they would never vote to leave the United Kingdom. Would they?

It is fair to say that for the first time in living memory Scotland currently stands on the verge its greatest constitutional change for three centuries. In recent weeks figures such as Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, John Reid and several other big hitters in the Government have been wheeled out to defend the benefits of Scotland's membership of the UK. Obviously, somebody somewhere in Westminster smells someone filing for divorce.

In an article penned last month for the Independent Johann Hari spoke of a "tartan timebomb under British politics" and that now there is a very real possibility that Scottish people will soon be given the option on whether or not they would like to go it alone. The signs are there. The SNP look set to become the largest party in Scotland after next year's elections to the Edinburgh parliament. The next move would be for the Nationalists to use their power in Holyrood to call a referendum on independence. With a recent ICM poll showing a clear majority of Scots (and a clear majority of English it appears) in favour of breaking away from London it appears that the previously unthinkable could actually happen.

I have never before really cared about Scottish independence. With the expansion in both size and influence of the European Union and the concept of the nation state as we know it having undergone radical changes in the past twenty years I've always felt that an independent Scotland not be as divisive a force on the island of Britain as it may once have been - it certainly would not mean 'border guards at Gretna Green' as John Reid recently insinuated. In fact, it could be argued that European integration has meant that Scottish independence would be a fairly meaningless achievement.

For those of you who are unashamedly pro-EU it would be a force for good. The SNP may be nationalists but they are not Eurosceptics, being as they are supportive of an independent state operating within the EU and adopting the single currency. In fact, with the Tories virtually non-existent in Scottish politics and the Sheridanite ultra left beginning to fracture, it is difficult to see where any anti-EU vote could come from in a future independent Scotland. But before you get too excited it is worth exploring the one major downside in all of this. How does a future of eternal Conservative government for the remaining English, Welsh and Irish strike you?

Hari, a Scot and a well known advocate for the abolition of the monarchy, makes a strong case for Scotland remaining in the UK. From his point of view, it is Scotland that has kept Britain in Labour governments down through the 20th century and it would be the loss of Scotland that would condemn the people of England, Wales and Northern Ireland to a lifetime under David Cameron and his successors. As I see it, for a Scot to vote to stay in the UK is almost a gesture of extraordinary goodwill towards his liberal and left-leaning friends south of the border to try and save them from an eternity of Tory rule. Though if I were a socialist-minded Scot the thought of living in an independent state in which some form of left of centre government would be practically guaranteed for the rest of my life would be almost impossible to resist.

Some people have accused Alex Salmond and the pro-independence lobby of trying to get 'revenge for Culloden'. That is a simplistic explanation. The demand for Scottish independence arises out of a legitimate feeling of mistreatment within the United Kingdom. As yet, Blair and his cohorts have resorted to attacking the SNP and ridiculing the idea of independence instead of promoting the benefits of the union. And maybe that is where the problem lies - Scots aren't seeing the benefits anymore. The fact remains that life expectancy is thirteen years longer in the Kensington and Chelsea areas of London than it is for people in Glasgow. An extra thirteen years of life to live if you happen to be born in the right area of London rather than being born a Glaswegian. Incredibly, a boy born in Glasgow has a lower life expectancy than a boy born in Gaza. If you were a Scot who had just read these kinds of statistics before you entered the polling booth I wonder how you would vote.

I'm not a Scot. I live in Belfast. The prospect of years of uninterrupted Tory rule and the inability of me to vote for the Labour Party here in Northern Ireland would be a dismal prospect. Johann is right. If you are opposed to the Tories then this is the time to beg the Scots to stay.