Wednesday, 27 May 2009
Something I'm working up is a demolition of the idea that there is some kind of "distinctively Scottish" "doctrine of popular, not Parliamentary, sovereignty". But give me strength, it's dull. (The very topic, not my demolition of it, natch.)
But here's a wee teaser.
One of the key sources for this nonsense was one George Buchanan, early Church of Scotland cleric and tutor to James VI/I. He wrote an account claiming that Scotland had this tradition of removing unsatisfactory monarchs. Thing is, most of the cases he mentioned were entirely fictitious - deriving from the same source that led to all those portraits of non-existent monarchs in Holyrood Palace.
And a quick glance at the real historical record shows how much codswallop this claim really was.
Between 1320 and 1603, Scotland had 11 monarchs. 3 of those (James I, James III, and Mary) were removed through assassination, civil war or deposition.
In the same period, England had 18 monarchs. Of which no fewer than 7 (Edward II, Richard II, Henry VI, Edward IV, Edward V, Richard III, and Jane) were removed through civil war or deposition. (Hint: "Wars of the Roses".)
So who, exactly, had the richer tradition of overthrowing monarchical power?
Thursday, 14 May 2009
In fact, let's get bang up-to-date.
Nuclear weapons. Boom-boom! (Sigh. Stop it.)
It is an article of faith for the SNP, CND etc. that the UK's nuclear deterrent is "useless" because it is not "independent" - "the Americans have the launch codes" and so on.
This would mean that every Prime Minister since Harold Macmillan, who negotiated the Nassau Agreement with Kennedy in 1962, has been lying. You might think, as I do, that this is a little far-fetched.
In fact there shouldn't really be any room for debate on this topic any more (apart from the fact that SNP and CND adherents base their position entirely on emotion, and not facts) because some enterprising soul made an FOI request to the MOD back in 2005. The key passages of the response are:
"2. Does the government of the United States of America have any involvement in the use of nuclear weapons by the British government?
No. But in the event of the contemplated use of UK nuclear weapons for NATO purposes,
procedures exist to allow all NATO Allies, including the US, to express views on what was
being proposed. The final decision on whether or not to use nuclear weapons in such
circumstances, and if so how, would, however, be made by the nuclear power concerned.
3. Can the government of the USA prevent, veto or forbid the UK to use its own nuclear weapons?
4. Does the British government have to tell the US government if it intends to use nuclear weapons?
No. But the US would be involved in any consultation process at NATO as described in the
answer to your second question."
In 2006 the the Commons Defence Select Committee went into all this in more detail.
The key testimony was from (the now late) Sir Michael Quinlan, former Permanent Secretary at the MOD, and Commodore Tim Hare, former Director of Nuclear Policy at the MOD.
"80. It is important to distinguish between two different types of independence: independence of acquisition and independence of operation. We heard that independence of acquisition is what the French have opted for at a significantly higher cost to the defence budget. Independence of operation is an alternative concept of independence and it is this which the UK has opted for at a lower price.
81. Sir Michael Quinlan told us that the UK's decision to choose independence of operation meant that "in the last resort, when the chips are down and we are scared, worried to the extreme, we can press the button and launch the missiles whether the Americans say so or not". He argued that the decision to fire is an independent, sovereign decision. The United States "can neither dictate that the [UK's] force be used if HMG does not so wish, nor [can it] apply any veto—legal or physical—if HMG were to decide upon [its] use".
82. Commodore Hare told us that "operationally the system is completely independent of the United States. Any decision to launch missiles is a sovereign decision taken by the UK and does not involve anybody else". He told us that the United States does not have a "technical golden key" which can prevent the UK from using the system.
83. The potential disadvantage of the UK decision to forego independence of acquisition is that "if, over a very long period, we became deeply estranged from the Americans and they decide to rat on their agreements, we would be in… great difficulty". Commodore Hare told us that such a risk was, in reality, "very low" and that, ultimately, "one must balance that risk against the enormous cost benefits that we have in procuring an American system to house in our submarines. That should not be underestimated"."
Now this is good as it really does cover all the issues (and you can also read the various witterings from Greenpeace, CND etc elsewhere in the report, and note that they do not actually disagree in anyway on the topic of operational independence).
The UK nuclear deterrent is entirely independent of the US in the operational sense - i.e. we can fire the thing if and when we like.
However, it is also "less independent" than the French one, since we do not own, and have not designed and built, our own missiles. Instead, we have title to 58 missiles at any one time out of the combined US/UK Trident missile pool, on a sort of leasehold basis. The missiles are maintained at the USN base at King's Bay, Georgia. We have, however, designed, built and own our own submarines and warheads. And at any instant, 32 (i.e. two sub-loads) of missiles will be physically present on UK-owned submarines, plus an unknown number at Coulport.
This would only become relevant on a longer timescale. I.e., if we fell out entirely with the Septics, then over the course of a few years the UK deterrent would gradually become less usable as the Trident missile bodies became due for maintenance in the US. Eventually - after four-five years? - the UK deterrent would be unusable in its present form.
One can imagine various forms of emergency - and expensive - remedies. Crash-development of indigenous UK missiles. Purchase of French missiles and mating to the Trident subs. Conversion of ex-Trident warheads to air-droppable form. All technically possible.
The upside of this capability-sharing with the Yanks is that we've ended up with a deterrent which is much cheaper than the French one, and also much better - i.e. more throw-weight, longer-ranged, more warheads per missile, etc. The French are only acquiring a similar capability to Trident as they replace their M45 missiles with the M51 - which is only due to happen over the next decade.
Now I realise that some may not believe either of the above two sources as they both emanate from the UK government. You know, it's the usual "It's all lies!" response.
So it might also be beneficial to look at some media coverage of the issue, in particular the Radio 4 / Peter Hennessy documentary "The Human Button" broadcast in December 2008. This contained some very interesting, sensitive and even sensational material. It is notable, for example, that the UK regards ministers as being outside the military chain of command, and so PMs and Defence Secretaries cannot "order" nuclear strikes, only authorise them. It's also interesting that, in the context of the Cold War threat from the Soviet Union, the UK had such a fatalistic view of things that we assumed that if deterrence failed, the PM and the cabinet would be gone. The decision to retaliate (or not) thus fell on the captains of the bomber subs at sea, hence the "Last Resort Letters" locked in their safes.
More pertinent to this topic, though, is the statement by Denis Healey (Defence Secretary in the late 60s) that he would not have authorised a British nuclear retaliation, even if the Soviet strike was already on its way in or, indeed, landed. By contrast, Jim Callaghan would have retaliated, although with a heavy heart.
The key thing is that neither of them say "Of course it wouldn't have mattered because we'd have needed American permission anyway." Clearly because that simply wasn't the case.
Those interested in more are directed to the recent Peter Hennessy book "Cabinets and the Bomb", which includes a vast amount of declassified PRO documents on the UK deterrent over the years. Again, no mention of any "US veto". Various chunks of the book and a transcript of an associated discussion meeting - involving a bunch of former Defence Secretaries and MOD Perm Secs - are available here.
So, the only conclusion I can reach is that, whatever one thinks about the morality and/or cost-effectiveness of UK Trident, it really is "independent" in the sense that the UK government has the technical ability to fire the thing off as and when it likes.
That makes it an effective deterrent.
It is less "independent" than, say, the French one only in the sense that if we fell out with the US over missile maintenance then we would lose our deterrent capability over a timescale of a few years. That's the price for getting a deterrent which is both cheaper and qualitatively better than the French one.
Given that it's something we hope never to use - and indeed if we had to use it, it would have failed - that looks like the right choice to me.
Tuesday, 5 May 2009
Not exactly "Mythbusting", but I felt this deserved a bit of an airing.
"Cybernats highlight dangers of web anonymity
Hazel Blears has lambasted Labour's keenness on the Internet but the SNP has a problem too
HAZEL Blears, the fiery haired Communities Secretary, is not the first person you would think of as mistress of the elegant put down. But her disdainful "YouTube if you want to" swipe at her boss's cringeworthy appearance on the web to promote his plans for MPs' expenses was a killer and may be written into his political obituary.
Her comment reflected frustration with the obsession of Mr Brown's hangers-on and spindoctors with blogging and the internet which infuriates some traditionalist door-knockers and leafleteers such as Ms Blears.
Her point was that it puts a distance between politicians and voters, unlike meeting them, and it underlined serious concerns about internet campaigning, its poisonous and guerrilla nature carried out usually by anonymous snipers.
This was pulled into the public glare with the "noxious pair"- as former Home Secretary Charles Clarke calls them - Damian McBride and Derek Draper, caught planning anonymous attacks on leading Conservatives using lies, rumour and innuendo.
In Scotland, too, the blogosphere and on-line comment sections of newspaper websites are getting a dubious international reputation as being among the most vicious in the world.
And the issue that has not been properly addressed north of the Border is that the overwhelming number of producers of on-line bile, bigotry and hatred are sympathetic to the Nationalist cause.
There are a handful of others - including the pro-Labour Leaky Chanter and somebody pretending to be Alex Salmond on Twitter - but they are engulfed by the tidal wave of Nationalist angst.
This army, dubbed cybernats by Labour MSP Lord George Foulkes - a favourite target - launch daily, sustained attacks on journalists, politicians and anybody else perceived to stand in the way of their cherished aim of independence, or who raises even the mildest criticism of Alex Salmond or the SNP.
One of the more vitriolic cybernats last week posted a piece entitled 'David Maddox is a c***' because of a piece I had written on Faslane. While I, like many other journalists, take these attacks as abadge of honour, comments about Jewish Labour MPs allegedly blocking coverage on Gaza is an example of the anti-semitism that creeps into these extremist sections of the Nationalist community.
His suggestion that English-born people whom he names should be sent home once Scotland gets independence is a far cry from the "positive Nationalism" that the modern SNP stands for. It is only not racism on a legal technicality.
The Scotsman no longer allows comments on pieces about the Holocaust and Gaza because of such offerings. One of our last allowing comments, on school trips to Auschwitz, drew a classic cybernat remark: "Scottish children should be learning about Scottish history not Polish history."
The SNP always maintains that any member caught doing this sort of thing would be thrown out and insist that it has nothing to do with them.
But it is never able to say whether anybody has been disciplined and I have yet to hear a leading figure in the party disown them publicly.
There was a half-hearted SNP comment about a pro-Nationalist blog that made infantile allegations about Scottish Labour leader Iain Gray's private life which condemned "all such blogs" but mostly attacked Labour and McBride.
There are, though, MSPs who privately take pride in the number of pro-Nationalist postings and agree with some of their lurid comments.
The lack of action is, of course, because the bleary eyed brigade who stay up until midnight to be the first to post vitriol on newspaper websites, always hide behind pseudonyms.
There have been allegations that some of the cybernats work for the party at Holyrood, but that has never been proven.
The SNP quite rightly points out that McBride's plans for an attack blog were the one casewhere a leading spin doctor has been caught at it and as such was a cause for the party leader to apologise, even if Gordon Brown took his time about it.
But there is an issue that the SNP needs to tackle. While Hazel Blears is probably right that YouTube and blogs are no substitute for meeting people on the doorstep, one of the internet's greatest uses is that it provides a window to the world.
The Nationalist window is distorted by daily rantings of supporters as badly as if not worse than the integrity of Labour was damaged by McBride and Draper simply because of its volume.
A reader of many of these blogs or the web comments on Scottish newspapers' political stories would conclude at different times that Nationalists are bullies, filled with hate, anti-English, anti-semitic and obsessed with a 13th century world view.
So while Alex Salmond trots around the globe trying to explain that his party is unlike most nationalist outfits and is interested only in "talking up Scotland", his anonymous supporters on the web portray the SNP as something akin to the BNP.
The doctrine or positive nationalism has been a bedrock for the modern SNP because without it the party would be in danger of becoming a home for bigots who define themselves through their anti-Englishness.
There is no doubt that the leadership of the party has adopted that view, almost to the extant that it is a mantra.
But there are many supporters, who may or may not be party members, who clearly have not accepted this view and, with the safety of anonymity, let their true feelings be known. The uncomfortable question is how many supporters present one face in public which hides a much darker side in private.
Nothing suggests that Mr Salmond is not genuine in what he says about "positive nationalism,' but he and the SNP need to find a way to publicly separate themselves from these cybernats. Otherwise, they risk being tarnished by association."
Temporary casual postie.
First real job
Graduate trainee at the same nuclear power company (and the same building) where Sir Terry Pratchett worked. We didn't overlap, though.
First role in politics
This one, if that's what it is.
Metro 1.3S. W-reg, blue. Dreadful.
Either "The Best of Jean-Michel Jarre" or "Sky Five Live". (Actually, I think they might have both arrived simultaneously as Xmas presents.) I was not cool or trendy. However my musical taste improved / descended later - see below.
First football match
The old man took me to some games, but I never really got into footie.
Oh dear. I was hoping it was Black Sabbath on their "Headless Cross" tour, but I've checked the dates and it looks like it must have been Yngwie J. Malmsteen's Rising Force. (Who even then were known as "Whinging J. Malmsteen's Risible Farce".) Malmsteen was/is a sub-Ritchie Blackmore twiddly guitarist, and his singer at the time was Joe Lynn Turner, who had been with Blackmore in Rainbow. Then, three years later, Turner was (briefly) back with Blackmore in the "Mark V" line-up of Deep Purple - seeing them at the Hammy O was one of the best gigs I've been to. (Other contenders being the Scorpions at Wembley in 91 and Journey at the Edinburgh Playhouse a couple of years ago.)
First country visited
First TV appearance
Did one or two brief talking-head bits on BBC World a few years back.
First political speech
The crush of my late primary school days was a girl called Linda. Then I discovered she'd been quite keen on me. But I didn't find out until AFTER we'd left at the end of P7 and were going to different secondaries. Bugger!
First encounter with a famous person
Slightly drunken conversation with Tony Hewish (Nobel prizewinner) at a tutorial sherry party. I was drunk, he wasn't.
First brush with death
Had a bit of a spin / offroad expedition in a car once, but it was fairly minor. Still don't know what caused it. Wet leaves?
First house/flat owned
2-up / 2-down terrace in the southwest of England.
First film seen at a cinema
Dumbo. Still haven't recovered from the bit where his mum is taken away.
First time on the radio
Interviewed by Ed Stourton on Radio 4 "Today" a few years back. I remember telling the researcher beforehand "Do not ask me about X because I'm not legally qualified to answer." Guess what the first question was...
First politician I met
I don't think I actually met him, but at college went to a dinner and lecture given by Denis Healey. I think the first one I met in person was my cousin-in-law's husband, who is a Liberal MP. Met a few since: Brian Wilson, Tim Yeo, Murdo Fraser.
My mum was a civil servant; only a (very) junior one, but at one point she was working on a fairly high-profile project, so at various times met Malcolm Rifkind, Ian Lang and Michael Forsyth. I think she had a bit of a crush on Rifkind - the voice, apparently - and was a bit disappointed to find him a lot shorter than she thought.
First book I remember reading
The first book I remember getting my folks to buy for me was "Volcano Adventure" by Willard Price. I liked the cover - an exciting picture of an, er, volcano. My folks thought there was no way I was going to read it - a proper novel, no pictures - but I did.
First visit to the London Palladium
Never been. Have seen bands at (talking London venues only) Hammersmith Odeon (now called something awful - Labatts Apollo, or something?), Brixton Academy, Wembley Arena, and Wembley Stadium (the old one), however.
School sent a few of us to help out at the count for the 1986 local elections, but the first I voted in was the 1987 General Election, I think.
EDIT TO ADD:
I've had a think about who to tag about this, and I'm going for mild-mannered cybernat Brownlie and (with some trepidation) the Grumpy Spindoctor.