Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Over at the Sharpener - and other news

A post about boxing, would you believe it.

In other news, we had Britain's quietest Christmas here, with no Christmas decorations, no cards sent and relatively few received, and a general feeling of unreality lent by the fact that I didn't get back from my last pre-Xmas trip (to Malta) until late on Saturday. I had intended to come back on Friday, but that would have been via Heathrow, and due to the complete inability of British Airways to run anything approaching a 'service', would probably have led to me spending either 12 hours in a coach from LHR to Edinburgh, or a very uncomfortable night on the floor in Heathrow. It seemed, therefore, infinitely more sensible to spend an extra night in Malta, and come back on Saturday direct to Glasgow in a virtually empty Air Malta flight. I did have to pay a bit extra to alter the flight, but given that it meant me giving up my BA segment from Heathrow to Edinburgh, and given that I didn't clutter up LHR on Friday and Saturday, I frankly think BA should have paid me to go on the Air Malta flight. Anyway, it was nearly 20 degrees in Malta, and just as soon as I upload a picture, you will understand my willingness to spend an extra night there, rather than in grey and foggy Edinburgh.

Aside from blogging (when I should have been marking), today has been a day of planning and booking travel. First, to Leicester tomorrow, on the train, to honour the memory of this friend, whom I have known since my days in Exeter in the 1980s. Second, to Montreal in May, for a conference (and a few extra days). And finally back to Malta in July, for another stint of examining. In the latter cases, I will be accompanied by BB. The trip to Montreal will be BB's first venture across the Atlantic, and I fear that it might not be the most relaxing trip I have ever made, as he is a notoriously bad traveller. That is just about tolerable on a short hop to Ireland, or even a slightly longer hop to Croatia via Frankfurt, but across the Atlantic. I fear I may have been less than sensible.

Finally, out of loyalty to my co-resident at the Bond, I should note that BB has another venture. The aptly named Rantorium. I will update my blogroll just as soon as I finish the Giant Kakuro in The Guardian, which was confiscated from me earlier on, in order to give me an incentive to do some blogging. It appears to have worked.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

The tipping point

It has been fascinating to see reactions to the spoof announcement of the break up of Belgium broadcast by RTBF, the Belgian French language state broadcaster on Thursday evening. In the programme, which many viewers apparently thought was for real, it was announced that Flanders, the richer, Flemish speaking, part of Belgium had announced its unilateral separation from Belgium, leaving behind Wallonia, and the French speaking part of Brussels (oh and the German speaking bit) as a rump Belgian state. Now, as it happens, Belgian federalism is so fearsomely complicated, with both territorial and community elements housed within it, that the constitutional ramifications of a split in Belgium are rather complex and could not be so easily effected by the simple secession of one territory within the state. But that is not the main point of the story, which was rather about shocking Belgian people, especially the French speaking community who were necessarily the primary audience for the programme, into thinking about issues that might be rather closer to reality than they thought, given the general election due in June 2007 and the current unhappiness in Flanders about what are thought to be subsidy junkies in Wallonia.

Now, where have I heard that before? Ah yes, in the UK. Could one imagine a similar situation arising in the UK, but not - paradoxically - with a unilateral secession by Scotland, which is what has always been posited as the most likely option, but rather by England, the richer part of the Union? It's hard to imagine, but one thing that emerges from the discussion is that Belgium is certainly getting much closer to the tipping point after which the slide towards the break up of the state could be inevitable and unstoppable. However, given the depth of the federalisation of Belgium, that tipping point is a rather long way down the line from where the UK stands at the present time. Here is a quote (handily translated into English by the German euro-topics service) from a report in the French newspaper Liberation:

"The increasingly affirmed desire for independence of The Flanders region, the most populated and richest region of the kingdom, is no longer really anything new. But the French-speakers (Brussels and the Walloon regions) have for a long time refused to look the problem in the face, believing that they would manage to hold 'Daddy's Belgium' together by giving away more and more power to regions at each election. The problem is that, henceforth, after 40 years of federalism, Flemish demands, notably in social matters, bare more and more resemblance to a real dismemberment of the State. The 2007 spring elections are therefore going to be tense and no doubt decisive for the country's future."

This got me to thinking about where the 'tipping point' might be in the UK, the point of confrontation or constitutional change beyond which the slide into the break up of the state would become inevitable, and it seemed to me that the answer lies somewhere in the English responses to the West Lothian question, and especially in the idea of an English Parliament. This is not because of the relative wealth of England in comparison to Scotland, or the rest of the UK (although this should be posited more accurately as the relative wealth of the south east of England in comparison to the rest of the UK, because of the persistent failures of UK regional economic policy), but because of the difference in size between the different component elements, so that a full federal system with a UK parliament for certain matters, plus regional parliaments for each of the four nations of the UK for others would not create a viable and durable federal state. Thus the situation differs from that pertaining in Belgium, where the main components of the federal settlement are more or less equal in size.

Anyway, I look forward to BBC Scotland's response to the challenge thrown down by RTBF.

Monday, December 04, 2006

The fate of the Union

Things seem to be hotting up in Scotland in the advance of next year's election, with polls showing the SNP currently ahead of Labour. The nastiness of last weekend's Scottish Labour Conference attacks upon the nationalists, with John Reid continuing to spout the most idiotic nonsense about how independence could be a sop to terrorist (I mean, please....) throughout the last week has brought some unlikely defenders of sense rather than nonsense out of the wordwork, as these reports show. Possibly the most thought-provoking piece of commentary I have read is this comment in the Sunday Herald, by Iain MacWhirter, which focuses on English nationalism as much as it does on the Scottish variety:

However, I have been acutely aware in recent conversations with metropolitan editors and commentators of a resentment, an irritation with Scotland right now which is as unmistakable as it is puzzling. It is not my perception that Scotland is going through one of its anti-English phases, yet I keep being told the Scots just won't stop moaning and attacking the English. That we ask for more and more subsidies and then claim London is responsible for all our problems. That we "run" the Cabinet and are over-represented in Westminster. Yet, Scottish public spending is in relative decline and Scottish MPs were reduced by one sixth after devolution.
This has little to do with the Barnett Formula or the West Lothian Question. It's personal. Simon Jenkins wrote in The Guardian that: "Gordon Brown, probably the next prime minister, wears his distaste for England on his sleeve, and English voters sense it." That was an astonishing thing to say, when the chancellor has gone to such lengths to stress his love for the union and support for England in events like the World Cup.
There is a note of condescension, even contempt, creeping into a lot of media commentary which is becoming more than a little disturbing. This hostility is reflected in rather more Anglo-Saxon terms in emails and internet comments, many racist and unprintable, on my pieces. When will the Scots learn to stop complaining? Why don't you just Jock Off?

Indeed, having done it, having mentioned English nationalism in the text of this piece, I will probably be subject to the same barrage, as Bondbloke has been before, both here and in his other place.

The other thing that struck me recently was the overwhelming hysteria that seems to attend any debate about the future of the Union. It would seem that a vote on the part of the electors of the Scottish Parliament next May is equated in most people's minds with the automatic break up of the Union. This is clearly nonsense. There are many who might vote SNP in May who would do so in order to signal a dissatisfaction with the status quo, without necessarily expressing a firm desire for independence. Moreover, any SNP-led government will be a coalition government, and independence would still be a distant prospect. There is more to the debate about the government and governance of Scotland than simply the question of voting SNP, or not, in May 2007.

Nonsense and hysteria, I'm afraid, also tinged a short conversation I had at a dinner last week with a prominent radio presenter, who is Scottish, but who resides currently in London. I was first told that if I suggested that arguments about the relevance of passports to the issue are made, then such arguments should also include reference to passport unions and such like, then I was being "academic". I plead guilty as charged, if that's the case, but it's still an important argument, because it about using balance in arguments, rather than raising scaremongering which is as likely to drive voters into the arms of the SNP as it is to put them off. Second, when I suggested that the government of an independent Scotland would not necessarily be composed of the current leadership of the SNP, this argument was waved away as truly ridiculous. Who else, I was told, could comprise the leadership of Scotland? Well, I suppose the argument does need to be made that an independent Scotland would have political parties, and would be a liberal democratic state, so who knows who its political leadership might be, especially if a form of PR is used for national elections. Oh well, at the end of the day the significance of my views (bear in mind, please, that I still remain pro-Union) was dismissed because I've only been here two years. Consequently, I am not only "academic", but also "romantic". Oh dear. Good job said radio presenter tends to use stronger arguments when broadcasting.