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Saturday, 25 October 2014

Surfing against the zeitgeist



After their triumphant televised gig from Hyde Park, the critical re-appraisal of Jeff Lynne’s ELO continues apace, with articles appearing in various ‘proper’ newspapers testifying to the quality of their music. Although I’m glad to see them get what they deserve, this kind of thing just reminds me how silly it is to pay too much attention to music journalism, to "fashion-monging boys, that lie and cog and flout".
For those not old enough to remember, it was precisely the opposite of ‘cool’ to like ELO in the late 70s, when the rock cognoscenti would heap opprobrium on them at every opportunity. The fact that they were clearly a quality pop act counted against them. Certain bands (usually accomplished musicians who had paid their dues over many years on the club and university circuit) were seen as the ‘enemy’ by portions of the British music press, some of whom believed that punk had ‘happened’ in order to rid the world of light and shade. Surfing against the zeitgeist, ELO represented the epitome of naff. I remember one particularly silly example when the band was butchered on Radio One's Round Table because -in the opinion of some jerk on the panel- the French bit of the lyric on Hold on Tight sounded more French-Canadian than 'genuine' French (clearly a heinous crime). When I was young and impressionable, it was difficult to own up to liking stuff that had not been approved by the taste-makers in the music press, particularly the resident high priests at Sounds and NME. Nobody wants to betray their own generation and there was a time when admitting that you preferred ELO to the Sex Pistols would have been a hanging offence. 

By today’s standards, the band took the long road to stardom. Their early records showed promise, although some of the songs were overwrought and stodgy and the sound was often grittier than it had to be. After three albums in which they couldn’t make up their mind about whether they wanted to be heavy (always seen as a good thing) or light (almost never seen as a good thing), band leader Jeff Lynne finally hit his songwriting groove on ‘Eldorado’. For the first time, an orchestra and choir were hired to expand the musical palette (on previous albums, the cellists had been overdubbed). That fourth album marked the spot where the focus moved joyfully and unashamedly to the tunes.  
By the time they hit the high spots in their catalogue (‘A New World Record’ in 1976 and ‘Out of the Blue’ just a year later) ELO had graduated from the dingy hinterland of prog rock to become a sophisticated pop act on the way to selling 50 million albums. The visual template for tribute acts was set at this point, with Jeff adopting that ‘shaggy perm, beard and shades' look. It’s clearly a disguise, because he is essentially a modest and unassuming bloke who chooses to put his art front and centre of our attention. It’s not about him, the image is suggesting; it’s about the tunes. It’s about the sound of the music. 

I can think of loads of acts that I listened to in the late 70s /early 80s that don't do anything for me now; by contrast, the albums from ELO's imperial phase still sound fantastic. There are many things to love about their music (personally, those ‘major to minor’ chord changes on songs like Livin' Thing and Turn to Stone get me every time), but there is no point in trying to analyse why it has taken some people so long to work that out. There was a time when nobody would have admitted to liking them and at least that seems to have changed. It could be that some folk have mellowed with age, or perhaps new listeners are just experiencing the music without having to put it through the 'cool /uncool' cultural filter that was compulsory in the fallout from the cultural revolution of the late 70s. Either way, I'm just happy to enjoy the moment and hope that it encourages Jeff Lynne to hit the road once more, hopefully with something resembling the spectacular combo that featured at Hyde Park.

In the meantime, here’s a link to one of my favourite internet musical discoveries. It’s the Sunflower Orchestra performing their version of one of ELO’s most beautiful songs. Other than the fact they are Polish, I know nothing about the Sunflower Orchestra. It looks like their gig took place in a community centre with maybe twenty folk in the audience, but the performance was measured, dignified and faithful to the melancholic beauty of the original. For someone not noted for being much of a lyricist, Jeff Lynne comes up with a lovely image on the chorus in which he expresses loss, regret, longing and the ebbing away of hope with this single evocative line: 
My Shangri La has gone away, faded like the Beatles on Hey Jude.” 

Who needs to surf the zeitgeist when you can write like that? 

Monday, 13 October 2014

Sticks and stones



For all that it had its high points and low points, there are things about the referendum campaign that Scotland can be proud of, not the least of which is the fact that so many folk turned out to vote after a debate that was –for the most part- reasonably civilised, if often rather light on content.  Those of us who voted No should be mindful of the disappointment that our friends and neighbours on the Yes side will be feeling.  I honestly don’t know how I would have reacted had the vote gone the other way, but I do know that I felt just as strongly about my vote as my friends on the Yes side felt about theirs. I had to be prodded with a big stick before making my move and it was only in the last couple of weeks of the campaign that I realised just how strongly I felt about it. Had the Yes campaign prevailed, I would have been very disappointed indeed, but I’d like to think that I would have had the grace to accept the result. I’d like to think that I would not have disdained my fellow Scots for deciding to take that leap of faith.  And, if there had been a ten-point margin in the polls and 28 out of 32 local authorities had voted Yes, I don’t think I’d have been asking for a recount.

Accordingly, it has been disappointing to hear and read some of the things that have been said in the aftermath of the vote. It’s as if some folk are unwilling, or unable, to appreciate that it is possible for people to look at exactly the same information but arrive at completely different conclusions.
One common observation is that No voters somehow forced Scotland to miss an opportunity. This overlooks the fact that something is only an opportunity if the person who is offered it perceives it to be one. I might, with the sincerest intentions, offer you an ‘opportunity’ to invest in my new business. In such a case, you’d expect to consider the pros and cons before making a judgement about whether or not the likely outcomes of that opportunity outweighed the possible risks. Most people would apply this logic in their everyday lives, so why shouldn’t they have applied it in a decision about the fate of their country? It was incumbent upon the Yes campaign to persuade enough people to vote against the status quo; for a variety of reasons, most of the Scottish electorate was not convinced that the opportunities outweighed the risks.

Surely only the most deluded Yes supporter can believe that the way to rebuild an independence campaign (which is a perfectly legitimate aim) is to start by traducing 55% of the population? But voting No, according to some, was equivalent to expressing a desire to see more food banks, the dismantling of the NHS and the west coast of Scotland obliterated in a nuclear attack.  Reading and hearing some of the more hysterical stuff, I’ve wondered if the folk who say these things are aware of the contradiction between, on the one hand, their claim that they want to create a newer, fairer, more compassionate Scotland and, on the other, the fact that they are willing to describe 55% of the electorate as fools, quislings, cowards or – my personal choice of nadir- victims of Stockholm Syndrome, a psychological condition in which hostages start to have positive feelings towards their captors. Presumably the folk who level that accusation are angry about all of those English tanks rolling down our streets and the occupying troops arresting anyone who has red hair or who is wearing a kilt. Pathologising the enemy within was an old Stalinist trick.  ‘If you don’t agree with us’, so it went, ‘there must be something wrong with how you think. Perhaps some time spent in a correction centre will help you to see things our way.’ This is, in essence, a totalitarian impulse and one which has no place in a civilised polity. 

It is clear that, for some folk, political discourse is underpinned by a received narrative which allows that the left somehow occupies the moral high ground. It’s a nonsensical idea, but at least one of the positive side effects of the referendum is that more people will now recognise it as such. Some of my No-voting Labour friends were stunned at the extent to which their intentions were impugned during the campaign, but I merely welcomed them to the club; for anyone who sits to right of, say, Andy Burnham, this is what it’s like all the time.   

This desire to dismiss opponents as stupid, selfish or uncaring has long been one of the great limiters to mature political debate and we’d all be much better off without it. Many people don’t seem to understand that to attribute negative emotional or intellectual characteristics to folk who don’t agree with you is not a political argument; it’s the absence of a political argument.  I can understand why it might make people feel good (and by ‘good’, I mean ‘superior’) to dismiss their opponents as stupid, selfish, or –in the case of the independence referendum- ‘scared’, but all that does is absolve the accuser of the responsibility of actually winning an argument. When you use tactics like that, it doesn't say anything about the other side; it says something about you.

Politics isn’t a vanity contest about who purports to ‘care’ the most; it’s a marketplace of ideas, a push and pull of competing philosophies focused on how best to manage resources.  And, however some folk might choose to deny it, the truth is that these conflicting philosophies generally want the same thing: the greatest outcomes for the greatest number of people. A political stance that, primarily, makes you feel good about yourself is hardly a political stance at all, because politics isn’t about you and it isn’t about me; it’s about us. It’s about how we come to an accommodation with each other, how we find ways to co-exist peacefully with people with whom we may have very little in common.
History tells us that there is no such thing as a perfect world and no possibility of perfecting humankind. In the imperfect world we inhabit, politics is -and always will be- a series of compromises between intention, imagination, utility and will. Sometimes it will be pretty and sometimes it will be ugly, sometimes poetry and sometimes prose. Grand ideas are all well and good, but the little details are usually what count the most. As PJ O’Rourke succinctly puts it: ‘Everyone wants to save the planet, but nobody wants to help mum do the dishes.’

All of the available evidence tells us that the left is correct about some things and that the right is correct about others. Anyone who thinks that politics really is as simple as ‘agree with me = good, disagree with me = bad’ simply hasn’t given it enough thought.

Saturday, 20 September 2014

Think of a number you don't know



My youngest son, who is 16, was voting for the first time in this referendum. He was really interested in the issues and often asked me what I thought about this or that. As a parent you have to walk a fine line between, on the one hand, passing on some of the stuff you have learned and believe to be true and, on the other, avoiding dumping your prejudices on an impressionable young person. Just because I’m a jaded old fart doesn’t mean that I want my son to believe everything that I do. I earned my degree in scepticism through age and experience, but I certainly wouldn’t wish to deny my boy his right to youthful idealism. Whenever we talk about stuff, I do my best to point out both sides in an argument and encourage him to make up his own mind, rather than take his old man’s word for it.      

In the last few days of the campaign, with the country seemingly at fever pitch, some of his friends posted pictures and videos from a ‘Yes’ rally in the centre of Glasgow. He was obviously excited by these events, intoxicated by the overwhelming positivity and sheer sense of occasion. Scotland, it seemed, was on the verge of something momentous. “Wow” he said, “look at the number of people who are in George Square.” There were a few things I thought of saying at that point, but I settled for posing him what seemed like a slightly abstract question. “That’s impressive” I said, “but how many folk aren’t there?” I wanted him to understand that impressions, opinions and moods are formed through how we respond to the information we choose to absorb. If that information comes from only one or two sources, our view of the big picture is likely to be incomplete. Without wishing to come over all Donald Rumsfeld, I wanted my son to be aware that, in every situation, there are things you think you know, things you know you don’t know and, sometimes, things you don’t know that you don’t know. There were lots of excited and committed folk in the square, celebrating their common cause, but elections are not necessarily won by the people who take to the streets. The numbers registered for this referendum were well in advance of anything witnessed at recent elections, but what did we know about all of these ‘new’ people who had never voted before? And, more to the point, what did we not know about them? 

It seemed to me that the people who favoured Yes were generally quite happy to let you know about it; they certainly outnumbered the people who were willing to state a preference for No. But lots of folk were keeping conspicuously quiet about the referendum. It was clear that not everyone was being swept up in that seemingly unstoppable tide of momentum. As the campaign built to a climax, I concluded that many of the folk who were playing their cards close to their chest were likely to be No voters. I pointed out some time ago that the Yes campaign had gambled with their ‘No Tories in Scotland’ policy. It seemed to give out a clear signal that a certain section of the electorate (i.e. disaffected Labour) was being targeted and that another section was being told that their votes would not be required. I understand why the Yes team felt that they had to take that gamble; they simply could not have captured that disaffected Labour vote by also attempting to woo big and small ‘c’ conservatives. But the picture they based this calculation on was only focused on the things that they knew. 

The Yes team knew that 16.7% of the Scottish electorate was willing to vote Conservative at the last General Election. What they perhaps hadn’t considered was the fact that these people consistently voted Conservative in the full knowledge that, in a 'first-past-the-post' system, they had absolutely no chance of winning. That’s quite a significant statement to make, one that should perhaps have made the Yes team consider the possibility that even more people might have voted Conservative if they felt they had a chance of getting representation. And what the Yes team didn’t know they didn’t know was just how many of those newly-registered referendum voters might naturally be inclined to take a conservative (small c) option on such a contentious issue as the break-up of the United Kingdom.

The fall-out from the Thatcher years has encouraged some people to take it as an article of faith that Scotland has an inbuilt left-leaning majority. Many seem to have forgotten that the Conservatives are the only party ever to have won a majority vote in Scotland in a general election. The country may have changed a lot since 1955, but not to the degree that the Conservatives have been wiped from the political map. Admitting to being a Conservative in Scotland is viewed by some as akin to admitting to being a child molester, but some traditional ‘conservative’ values (hard work, self-reliance, financial prudence) are actually held by many Scottish people. The perception that conservatism is a toxic brand may be true when it comes to public declarations of political allegiance, but it can hardly be described as electorally toxic when the Tories -in spite of everything- consistently poll similar numbers to the LibDems. In private, many folk hold ‘small c’ conservative views, so the Yes team was not only writing off the votes of that committed 16.7% of the electorate (412,855 people); it was writing off the votes of an unspecifiable number of people who: 
a) may have been inclined to espouse conservative values 
and b) may have been incentivised by the prospect that their vote, for once, might actually make a difference in Scotland.   
The Yes team couldn’t possibly have known what that number was, but they appear to have overlooked the possibility that it might have been quite big. As it turns out, the number was big enough for Yes to lose in 28 out of 32 Scottish local authorities. The more voters that turned out, the more likely they were to vote No; of the 24 regions with the biggest turnouts, 23 of them voted against independence. The two regions with the lowest turnouts –Glasgow and Dundee- both went to Yes.     

The referendum process excited my son and made him think about lots of things. He’s a wiser and more politically engaged person now than he was a month or two ago. He understood what I meant by that question about how many folk weren’t at the demonstration. He understands that forming a political view isn’t about re-tweeting one-liners from acerbic comedians or posting links to propaganda sites. He understands that the world is more complicated than some folk would have us believe. He understands that it’s not only worth giving a bit of thought to things that he hadn’t previously considered, it’s also worth considering the possibility that there are things he doesn’t know that he doesn’t know.

Scotland is going to be just fine if his generation grow up understanding that when people say something is a ‘no brainer’, it usually means the exact opposite.

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

A 'Yes' vote isn't really about change



Ask yourself this question: If you are going to charge someone with the responsibility of making decisions which will impact on you and your family, who would you prefer to make those decisions? A stupid person who lives next door, or a smart person who lives 400 miles away? The answer to that should be obvious, but the Yes campaign asks us to believe that the person next door –by the very fact that he or she lives next door- will be better placed to make those decisions. The next-doorness of that person overrides any notions of ability, intelligence, vision, empathy or wisdom. In identity politics, it is an article of faith that next-doorness trumps everything. And make no mistake, the Yes campaign contains many of the key characteristics of identity politics: the paranoia, the sense of grievance, the absurd manipulation of ‘facts’ to suit an agenda, the demonising of opponents, the offence-taking, the scaremongering, the cultist absolutism. Some on the left may choose to believe that this is a rainbow coalition, a grass roots movement kicking against a corrupt and out-of-touch political establishment, a populist tide focused on optimism, hope and the invigorating possibilities of change. But to adopt that position requires you to put a blind eye to the telescope, because this is clearly a marriage of convenience between the disaffected left, a gaggle of disparate pressure groups and the Scottish National Party. And, as with all marriages, you don’t get to have much say about the in-laws you inherit. 

Imagine, if you will, that at some point in the last 50 years, Britain had elected a left-leaning government with an unshakeable commitment to political reform and social justice. What do you think the SNP would have been doing? The answer, of course, is that they would have been campaigning to break up the United Kingdom, because that commitment to separation is their raison d’etre. If you could provide empirical evidence that Scotland would be worse off as an independent country, they would still campaign for it, because that’s what nationalists do. The same is true of hard-core unionists, of course, but they are not trying to break a 300-year partnership that, according to every single post-war election, is supported by the majority of the Scottish population. Only a couple of decades ago, the SNP were pejoratively known as the ‘Tartan Tories’, yet they now present as a left-leaning party committed to social justice, greener policies, free everything for everyone, yada, yada, yada. But their radical conversion is little more than an opportunistic re-branding designed to exploit the frustration of disaffected Labour voters. Successive electoral beatings taught them that this was the only way they were ever going to have a chance of achieving their goal, so they changed tack. And it seems to have worked.  

It’s worth looking back to the period just before the devolution settlement to understand exactly how we got ourselves into this fine mess. By the beginning of the 1990s, devolution had come to be regarded by the powers-that-be as a bulwark against nationalism and, in a 1997 referendum, 74% of those who voted favoured the notion of devolved government for Scotland. Once we started down that road, we were assured by the great and the good that the Scottish Parliament would be a ‘parliament of all the talents’. We wouldn’t just have the usual party hacks; we’d have poets, artists, thinkers, business leaders, ordinary people. Believe me, some folk actually said stuff like that. Well, we certainly got 'ordinary', but not in the sense of representing the ordinary man or woman in the street. We got ordinary as in ‘largely devoid of any distinguishing characteristics’. We were also told by the architects of the new Scotland that devolution, with its cleverly-constructed voting system, would effectively neuter the separatist movement by giving Scots the representation they desired. 

Holyrood was set up with assurances that no party would ever have an overall majority, meaning that we’d always have consensus politics. At first, everything went pretty much as the smart politicos intended. We had Labour-LibDem coalitions between 1999 and 2007; so far, so cosy. The SNP upset the applecart by forming a minority administration in 2007 and, four years later, the thing that wasn't supposed to happen, happened: one party won an outright majority at Holyrood. Since that day, Alex Salmond and his team have played their hand brilliantly to the point where they have now pushed Scotland to the very edge of secession from the UK. This in spite of the fact that only around 12% of those eligible to vote in the 2010 General Election could be bothered to express a preference for independence.   

For proponents of next-doorness, who believe that ‘we’ know better than ‘them’, this point is worth emphasising: In attempting to come up with a blueprint to tame the separatist beast, Scotland’s smartest political brains produced the one mechanism that could give the nationalists a tilt at their holy grail. Some people did point this out at the time, but who wants to listen to a bunch of negative vibe merchants with their ‘what ifs’ and ‘have you really thought about thats’? (Does any of this sound familiar?)
So, barely 15 years into that ‘foolproof’ devolution settlement, we’ve got a nationalist government gearing up for its big shot. And, in case you hadn’t noticed, everything the SNP has ever said and done has been focused on this moment.

The Yes campaign argues that at least independence will give us the opportunity to build a ‘fairer’ society. Unless I’ve missed something, we’ve already got our own parliament with significant powers. What’s stopping us building a fairer society right now? What exactly is it that Westminster is stopping us from doing? It’s not as if we’re short of money. If our Parliament really believes that we have got disgraceful levels of poverty and ailing public services, why would they have spent £1 billion on a vanity project like the tram system that barely stretches across six miles of Edinburgh? 

Whatever else Westminster has done, it has certainly not stopped the SNP from exercising an authoritarian streak in attempting to micro-manage the lives of Scottish citizens. A couple of recent examples stand out. Scotland now has a law that criminalises people for singing songs at football matches and the context of whether or not the song you are singing is offensive is ‘at the discretion’ of the officer-in-charge. Which means, more or less: you are breaking the law if I don’t like the cut of your jib. Where does that one sit on the progressive /repressive continuum? Creepier still is their idea to appoint a 'state guardian' for every child born in our country. This state guardian will have the legal right to ensure that a child is raised in a government-approved manner and can report any issues about their upbringing to the authorities. I recall watching a TV discussion about this, during which Aileen Campbell -the Minister for Children- used this telling phrase: “Of course, parents also have a role in this” (my italics). Parents also have a role in bringing up children. Well gee, thanks, Aileen. I can only hope that me and the wife don’t let the government down by maybe giving our kids too many sweets, or by expressing opinions that don’t match the latest dogma. You’ll forgive me if I don’t feel like celebrating when people like this get what they want. 

The truth is that the drivers of this Yes campaign are offering a vision that has already been presented at general elections and been rejected by the electorate. But rather than fight for the ‘change’ they claim to believe in, they wish to set up a cosy northern enclave in which a built-in left-leaning majority obviates the need to win the battle of ideas across the whole country. It’s an extraordinarily defeatist attitude and an abject retreat from universalism.
And at the heart of this grubby accommodation is the biggest lie of all, the idea that Scotland is somehow more compassionate and progressive than anywhere else in the UK. To use that old phrase, it is ‘nonsense on stilts’ and is equivalent to saying that Irish people are stupid or that Germans don’t have a sense of humour. If it’s wrong to attribute negative characteristics on the basis of national identity, it’s also wrong to attribute positive characteristics on the basis of national identity. That many on the left have chosen to go along with the SNP's cynical propagation of the myth of Scottish exceptionalism represents a nadir for the movement which shaped the post-war settlement and which once stood for universalism and solidarity. 

I don’t believe that I’m any less Scottish or any less desirous of change for refusing to buy into the Panglossian cult of the Yes campaign. I happen to believe that the change we need in the United Kingdom is nothing less than a recalibration of the relationship between citizen and state, between the electorate and the political class. There are simple things that we could do now which would begin the process of handing power back to people: Granting power of recall to constituents would be a start; open primaries for prospective MPs would be another. The digital age offers limitless possibilities to enrich the concept of democracy, but we’re still practicing analogue politics. If our politicians really believed in people power -as opposed to just saying that they believe in it- they’d be doing this stuff already.

The disconnection between the electorate and the political class is so profound that it can’t be fixed by shifting a few powers from London to Edinburgh. We won’t be any more independent or better governed after a Yes vote and we won’t be any more independent or better governed after a No vote, because -until we fix that connection- we’ll be electing the same people in the same parties. 
Most folk will have already made up their minds how to vote, so I doubt that this polemic will change anyone’s mind. All I’m doing is pointing out the truth as I see it, using the evidence of my own eyes, my own experiences. I believe that on 18th September, we’re being asked to vote for Holyrood’s independence, not our own. So I’ll be saying: "No thanks".

I think that people can change politics, but it takes more than a leap of faith to believe that, after this referendum, Labour, Conservative, LibDem and the SNP will suddenly start recruiting from a different gene pool and begin to produce visionary political ideas in a new Scotland.

But if you believe that, I wish you luck.

And while you’re here, can I interest you in some magic beans?