Thursday, 19 June 2014

Scotland risks deep splits with bitter independence debate

Towards the end of April, acclaimed composer James MacMillan – I can heartily recommend his hauntingly beautiful Miserere, a successor to Allegri’s masterpiece – wrote, in a somewhat withering essay in The Scotsman that he, along with other prominent Scottish artists, were keen to keep their views on Scottish independence private.

The main target of his piece (found here) were those Scottish artists who have aligned themselves with the Yes campaign, and failed, in his view, to consider, or understand, the full implications of such a decision – or to be willing to countenance the views of others.

In the crucial passage of his essay, he warns:

‘Youthful idealism or patriotism can sometimes give succour to dark, lurking forces in our collective psyche… artists can be good in society, but we can see that some of them end up supporting evil, blind to the roots and inevitable ends of their thinking’.

He mentions, in particular, the National Collective, the pro-independence alliance of artists.

‘A visit to their website shows them to be young, shouty and completely unquestioning about their cause. Some worry that their black-and-white perspective on things may damage the quality of their work. Some of their poetry seems risible and thin, and certainly light on nuance and subtlety. Are they simply producing propaganda masquerading as art?’

Singled out for criticism was the writer Alan Bissett and his ‘monologue Vote Britain’ in which he, MacMillan claims, stereotypes ‘the English “Establishment” and Conservative voters’ – a typical passage reads:

‘Vote for Robert Burns being called by Paxman ‘sentimental doggerel.
Vote for The Iron Lady. Such a strong leader, gave this country backbone
(you didn’t really want the unions, industries or council homes, just made the place look tatty’).

The full poem can be found here

MacMillan detects ‘crass rabble-rousing’ in the piece and says Bissett’s earlier work is ‘much better’. And he warns that artists such as Bissett ‘are putting off the whole debate and having a negative effect on everyone else too’. Indeed, he compares artists’ commitment to the Yes campaign with the Scottish 20th century poet Hugh MacDiarmid’s flirtation with Fascism.

It was hardly surprising that MacMillan’s caustic text prompted quite a reaction. Bissett replied:

‘If MacMillan believes art and politics shouldn’t mix, that’s up to him, although I would find it odd if Scottish artists had nothing to say about the seismic changes their country is undergoing. For me, the world would be poorer place without the likes of Orwell, Steinbeck, Atwood, Zepheniah, Angelou, Morrison, Loach, Picasso and countless others politicising their art to challenge the official narratives of the powerful. In this case, the powerful is an increasingly cold, elitist and unequal British state, which the majority of artists believe Scotland, if given the chance, can improve upon.’

How he can be sure what the ‘majority of artists in Scotland’ believe, I am not entirely sure.

It is not hard to castigate MacMillan in going so far as to suggest that supporting the SNP was backing ‘evil’ or approximating Fascism. And surely he did not mean to imply that art should never be political. But, his warning about the dangers public figures face when putting their heads above the parapet in this debate has to be taken seriously. It was explicitly highlighted last week when Harry Potter author, JK Rowling, announced she was backing the No campaign, in the process giving the cause £1million. The writer was subjected to a vile torrent of abuse, Ms Rowling being called a ‘Union cow bag’, a ‘traitor’ and a ‘whore’. One wrote on Twitter, with almost impressive colour, ‘fuck jk Rowling and that wee gadge harry potter’.

And just last week, though less noticed outside of Scotland, Alex Salmond’s own senior political adviser, Campbell Gunn, was drawn into this ugly side of campaigning after Clare Lally, a mother of two-year-old twin girls, one of whom has cerebral palsy, found herself under attack for speaking at a Better Together campaign.

Ms Lally, who became a ‘Carers Champion’ in the  Scottish Labour back in 2012, appeared the conference saying she was ‘just an ordinary mum from Clydebank campaigning for Scotland to stay in the UK’ and she explained how grateful she was to health care workers for the attention her daughter received.

Mr Gunn, however, wrote an email to the Daily Telegraph’s Scottish political editor Simon Johnson saying: ‘You are no doubt aware that the “mother-of-two” who described herself as “just a normal person” …. is actually a member of Labour’s Shadow Cabinet and daughter-in-law of former Labour Lord Provost of Glasgow Pat Lally’: so, by implication, not a normal person at all and certainly not one allowed to have the normal right to an opinion.. Similar accusations appeared on a Nationalist website and, predictably, Ms Lally received typical abuse on Twitter.

Perhaps she should have been more open about her Labour links, but she is not elected and – in speaking about her experience with her own children, surely her views are perfectly valid? Furthermore, she is not, in fact, related to Pat Lally at all. Mr Gunn, who admits to making a mistake, still denies trying to discredit Ms Lally by suggesting she wasn’t such an ordinary mum after all. It is hard, however, to come up with any other explanation for his rushing into such a crass mistake.

Throughout the campaign, the level of debate has never been great – altogether too ‘shouty’, simplistic, negative and patronising on both sides – but with this level of abuse, any sensible discussion is becoming severely restricted. And are we beginning to see that in the development of such polarised opinions, potentially more damaging splits, with long-term implications, are being nurtured in Scottish society and between the English and Scots? That a No campaigner can be depicted as a traitor for simply holding a different opinion is a shocking intrusion in what should be a civilised debate, especially on such a crucial issue. We are in danger of creating deep fissures between peoples who have lived together, in amity and rivalry, for centuries.

Wednesday, 11 June 2014

'Thou doth protest too much'

An overly keen graphics operator within Oxfam probably got a bit of the hairdryer treatment today. The tweet which emerged from the campaigning charity provoked, if not a ‘perfect storm’, then certainly an unwelcome squall after listing a series of policies which, some may feel, are penalising those worst off in our society and stem from the current government.

The ‘Perfect Storm’ poster from Oxfam was, in my view, overtly political and it wouldn’t be hard to imagine a Labour Party logo being slapped on one side and banner adverts being pasted up across the UK in time for the next General Election. If I had been in charge, the row over the image would have been an unwelcome and unnecessary distraction from the current campaign highlighting the extremes of poverty in Britain. Having said that, once it was out there, I would have defended it to the hilt.

It was unsurprising, therefore, that several Conservative MPs were incandescent by the poster. Leading the way was Conor Burns, who reported the charity to the Charity Commission

In his letter, Mr Burns wrote:

‘Many people who support Oxfam will be shocked and saddened by this highly political campaigning in domestic British politics.

‘Most of us operated under the illusion that Oxfam’s focus was on the relief of poverty and famine overseas. I cannot see how using funds donated to charity to campaign politically can be in accord with Oxfam’s charitable status’

Another Tory MP, Charlie Elphicke, added:

'Political campaigning by charities like Oxfam is a shameful abuse of taxpayers’ money.’

Well Mr Burns and Mr Elphicke, you are both wrong and staggeringly, possibly wilfully, ignorant of Charity Commission guidelines relating to this issue; it is their time now being wasted.

Here are a few highlights from the Charity Commission's advice (the full guidelines can be found here):

‘Campaigning and political activity can be legitimate and valuable activities to undertake.

However, political campaigning, or political activity, as defined in this guidance, must be undertaken by a charity only in the context of supporting the delivery of its charitable purposes.

Charities can campaign for a change in the law, policy or decisions… where such change would support the charity’s purposes.

However, a charity cannot exist for a political purpose, which is any purpose directed at furthering the interest of any political party….

A charity may give its support to specific policies advocated by political parties if it would help achieve its charitable purposes. However, trustees must not allow the charity to be used as a vehicle for the expression of the political views of any individual trustee or staff member.

A charity can campaign using emotive or controversial material, where this is lawful and justifiable in the context of the campaign. Such material must be factually accurate and have a legitimate evidence base.

The principles of charity campaigning and political activity are the same, whether the activity is carried out in the United Kingdom or overseas.

Not only, therefore, is it perfectly legitimate for Oxfam to campaign politically, it is absolutely fine for them to campaign specifically against particular laws and policies; the location of such a campaign is irrelevant. The key is they cannot campaign for a political party. And, as Oxfam didn't mention a political party, they can argue - and indeed are - that they didn't.

As I said above, I think Oxfam sailed close to the wind and I think they probably realised that; subsequent tweets tried to make clear they were referring to the policies of parties of all colours, such as this one:

As for the Conservative MPs, while they may feel justified in their protests, ultimately it is an exercise in futility; they themselves have launched a party political attack against one of the country's most respected charities. Who is going likely to win over public opinion?

While making their protests known would be reasonable, they would have been wiser not to raise too much of a fuss. The Charity Commission will clear Oxfam and there will be a lingering feeling that these politicians protested just a little bit too much. 

Wednesday, 4 June 2014

Are we against Female Genital Mutilation or not? Part ii

One disturbing point on today’s (June 4) Queen’s Speech, this was a measure announced by Her Majesty:

Serious Crime Bill.

'A serious crime Bill wil be brought forward to tackle child neglect, disrupt serious organised crime and strengthen powers to seize the proceeds of crime.’

And according to the 105-page accompanying document, one of the things the Bill will attempt to do will be to:

‘Strengthen and update laws to protect vulnerable individuals at risk of child cruelty, sexual exploitation and female genital mutilation.’

This was all released the morning after Afusat Saliu was deported to Nigeria with her daughters, two and four-years-old, who face the very real threat of FGM from members of her own family. The Home Office was so proud of this deportation they refused to say at what time and which carrier was taking her back to Nigeria. This was done to avoid any further protests or disruption against her deportation, stymying the efforts of campaigners such as Anj Handa, who championed Ms Saliu's case so bravely.

Again I ask, is our government really against this abhorrent practice or not? Surely it’s not just a grim PR stunt. Or maybe just no one has told the Home Office as it blunders, with increasing callousness and incompetence, to try and hit an unachievable immigration target.

A timid launch for timid pub reforms

If the press launch is anything to go by, then tied publicans should be wary of the government’s pub reforms plans.

For the first time since the botched coup against Nick Clegg, the Deputy Prime Minster and Liberal Democrat leader met in public with Vince Cable, the business secretary, in a Piccadilly pub to unveil the long-awaited proposals to give tenants a bigger say in negotiations with pubcos - the large, often heavily indebted, property-companies which own about 25,000 pubs across the country.

Such is the level of trust between the two men that the press were kept outside the Queen’s Head, left in the rain, unable to hear a word. All that was released were a few sentences, with Vince Cable saying: ’Far too many landlords feel their income is squeezed by big pub companies, so today we are taking action to make sure they get a fairer deal.’

Even the venue chosen for the launch left a lot to be desired. The Queen’s Head is a very distinguished pub in the heart of the West End, but it is independently owned and, therefore, will not be affected by these proposals.

As for the measures themselves, they are not as sweeping and radical as the campaigners would have hoped. The reforms will allow tenants, tied to companies like Punch Taverns and Enterprise Inns, to request a rent review if they have not had one for five years, and to see the information companies use to increase rents. (For background on the issue, see here)

Tenants would have access to an independent adjudicator who could impose sanctions if a new mandatory code is breached. Tenants would also be able to ask for an assessment to see whether they were better or worse off than free-of-tie tenants.

But there is no market rent option, no relaxation of the tie. Tenants will still face ground rent and be forced to buy supplies through their owners.

The reforms leave the pubcos pretty much as they were. Punch and Enterprise remain ’zombie’ companies, as Greg Mulholland claimed in the House of Commons in 2013. And vocal campaign groups, who many might think would be on the side of tenant publicans, bemoan any intervention by the government.

For example, Brigid Simmonds, the chief executive of the British Beer and Pub Association, said:

'While we welcome greater certainty and clarity after such a long period of debate, we are disappointed that the government is seeking to introduce potentially costly legislation, with the disproportionate costs of a statutory adjudicator, rather than supporting the existing, and evolving, system of self-regulation.'

It would be a tough ask to find any tied publican who would defend the current system of self-regulation.

There will be opportunities as the legislation passes through parliament to amend these fundamentally timid plans and Greg Mulholland, who has been one of the most prominent champions for reform in the House of Commons, has indicated he intends to do what he can. Responding to messages of congratulations, from Lib Dem president Tim Farron, pleased that any proposals were being discussed, Mr Mulholland replied:

We can expect to see the free-of-tie option tabled. It will get the backing of Labour, the Lib Dems and many Tories, so could still force its way into legislation.

But the most significant obstacle facing even these reforms is the fracturing coalition.

While Clegg and David Cameron try and portray an image of back-slapping unity, in truth, this Queen’s Speech sees a series of measures suggested by one side followed by another set from the other. It was noticeable that no Conservative figure has associated him or herself with the pubco measures. George Osborne is certainly nowhere to be seen and the pubs minister Brandon Lewis - who appears to have only a semi-detached relationship with his brief - is invisible. And, of course, there was no Andrew Griffiths MP, who represents Burton, the spiritual home of British brewing, and has spent years campaigning against any such reforms; surely he is not closer to the non-beer making pubcos than the pubs which actually sell the stuff?

While reforms have wide support amongst Tory backbenchers, there is no support from the Conservative benches in government; indeed, the delay to any proposals having been unveiled before now has not been the amount of responses to the consultation, as previously and preposterously claimed, but because of the extensive lobbying campaign by pubcos.

Lib Dem figures accept these measures are very much a ’first step’ - and Labour have already pledged to go further if re-elected - but they face a battle to get even these passed through parliament.