Friday, 27 February 2009

Smoking bill should be stubbed out

If there's one thing where the SNP and Labour are united, it's in sharing a nannying approach to subjects such as smoking and drinking.

The latest example of this came yesterday when the Scottish Government published its anti-smoking bill, which contains proposals to ban cigarette vending machines and prevent the display of tobacco-related products in shops. I've blogged about this subject before when the Labour government came up with similar proposals to implement at Westminster and I stand by the comments I made then.

Banning the display of tobacco products and vending machines will not make much difference to the incidence of smoking. Indeed, I note in The Herald report a claim that the New Zealand government decided against introducing such a ban on the grounds that there was no real evidence that such a ban was effective in reducing smoking.

There is also a cost implication for retailers, with the Scottish Grocers Federation saying that it believes that will be between £5,000 and £10,000 on average.

And worst of all, it's a completely nannying measure. The ban on smoking in public buildings could be justified on the grounds of preventing harm to others through passive smoking. But vending machines don't cause any harm to others and nor does the display of tobacco products. That's why I'm disappointed that Scottish Lib Dem health spokesman Ross Finnie seems to be backing the bill in principle, even if he does criticise the Gnats for wanting to introduce a blanket ban.

Although I'm not a smoker, I'd be quite happy to see the new smoking bill stubbed out.

Thursday, 26 February 2009

Think of a number, any number

If the number you thought of was 8,664, the chances are your name is Alex Salmond.

That's the figure the Chancer in Chief has come up with for the number of jobs lost should Scotland have to accept a budget cut of £1 billion over two years thanks to the 'efficiency savings' proposed by Alistair Darling.

If you do the calculation, that gives a figure of £115,420.13 per job. The mean average full-time earnings last year in Scotland were £28,296, while median average earnings were approximately £23,925 (weekly figure of £460.10 x 52). If we assume that all those who lose their jobs would be on average wages, then Salmond is basically assuming a multiplier effect of 4 or 4.5 times the wages lost.* That seems rather high to me.

Salmond seems to be assuming that if posts are lost, none of those involved will find alternative employment or would retire. There also seems to be an assumption that those affected would see their spending drop to something close to zero, which is very unlikely to happen. Even if only a quarter of those who lost their jobs found other work and the rest continued to spend at 25% of their previous level (on esssentials such as food and electricity), then that would lift the multiplier effect that Salmond's assuming to well over 5 times the wages lost, which seems even more unrealistic.

But of course, the Scottish Government could only have come up with such a precise figure like 8,664 if they'd done a thorough study of the services to be affected and knew exactly where the axe would fall in every department. But if they'd done such a thorough study, I'm sure they could have come up with areas where things could be done more efficiently - maybe about £1 billion over 2 years, perhaps. With a public sector as large as Scotland's, that shouldn't be that difficult.

Now, I wouldn't want you to think that Salmond had just plucked a large figure for job losses out of the air and was using it to scare people and score political points. Perish the thought. But I would be really interested to see whether anyone can justify such a precise figure as 8,664 jobs lost. I suspect the reality would be rather different - maybe more, maybe fewer jobs going. But I doubt very much it would be 8,664.

* There is of course the factor that people who lose their jobs would then be on benefits and the cost of those may be included in this figure. But equally, people on benefits would still have some spending power, so those factors may cancel each other out.

Monday, 23 February 2009

Singing from the Tony Blair songbook

The Tories have clearly been listening to Tony Blair's Greatest Hits.

One of the best songs on that record is the snappily-titled 'Let's Think Up A Tough-Sounding New Initiative On Crime To Grab A Few Headlines And Then Quietly Forget About It When Its Impracticality Becomes Clear.' I'm sure you must know it - Blair was singing it all the time. It became his signature tune.

Well, the Tories have released a cover version, thanks to Chris Grayling And The Shinyheads. And, like most cover versions, it's not as good as the original. Yeah, the lyrics are just the same - Blair was singing about child curfews and the like for quite a while, but even then the words never really made sense.

But Grayling's new arrangement leaves a lot to be desired. For a start there's a new percussion section in which the police have to apply for a court order to enforce the curfew. It sounds good initially, but when you listen closely it just falls apart. How The Police drum up the evidence that such a curfew is required and what safeguards teens have against being wrongly snared aren't very clear.

But the real problem is the guitar solo of enforcement. Will The Police really want to play a gig every night at the youngsters' homes? And would the kids really want to be in the audience for that concert? Some might say The Police could get a better paying gig by playing as the support act to the Real Criminals. There are others who would point out that a duet with The Parents might be more harmonious. Of course, some members of The Parents are letting their children into gigs for free and allowing them to give the paying punters a hard time, but I think The Police and The Parents could make a formidable supergroup if given the opportunity.

Grayling has also added in one or two lines of his own to the original. But the lyric about 'taking kids home if they're misbehaving' certainly isn't original, and indeed is a standard one throughout the music industry. But the Shinyheads' lead singer really needs to explain the whole song to me, as I don't understand why if the kids aren't alright, they're not facing the music from The Magistrates.

In short, I think the Tories need to come up with their own songs, not rely on Tony Blair's old tunes. I can't see this record selling.

And the award for Best Rant goes to...

... former Labour leadership contender Bryan Gould, for this splendid effort on Comment is Free.

Friday, 20 February 2009

Lib Dems benefit from Labour's collapse?

Two interesting articles in today's Guardian, which taken together point to a real opportunity for the Lib Dems.

In the first, John Harris, not someone I always agree with, points out that many Labour cabinet ministers are positioning themselves for the inevitable leadership election following their party's likely defeat at the next election. However, none of them are showing why they'd be any different or have any real understanding of the hole Labour finds itself in. Nor are they showing that they have any real ideas about what Labour should stand for in the future.

Harris calls all this positioning the inevitable noise before defeat, which seems a fair enough assessment. And if Labour is beaten at the next election, does anyone think that a Miliband, Balls, Harman or Cooper would be the sort of inspirational figure who could lead a Labour revival? No, thought not. That's the sort of talent pool you get when you have a party which is interested in power purely for its own sake.

And that points to the opportunity the Lib Dems have got, which is amplified in Martin Kettle's article. He notes that recent opinion polls have been more favourable to the Lib Dems (a couple have had us back up to 22%, the figure we polled at the last election) and that we could be set for an unexpectedly decent result come the election if that continues.

Come the next election, the question is going to be whether people trust the party that got us into our current mess to get us out of it. For all Labour's rhetoric about the recession being a global problem, no-one seriously believes that policy decisions in the UK had no impact on our current problems. The failure of the financial regulatory system put in place by Gordon Brown and the housing bubble created by the government's refusal to include house prices in its measures to tackle inflation were both Labour's fault.

And Kettle is right to highlight that the Lib Dems may be benefitting at last from Vince Cable's economic expertise. If that continues, not only do we have a real opportunity to have a good election - and Kettle is right to say that second place in the popular vote is not beyond us if Labour really does collapse - but we would also be well-positioned when Labour indulges in its ritual blood-letting.

Roll on the next election - and beyond!

Labour in its death throes

If you thought the idea of Harriet Harman as the next leader of the Labour Party was ridiculous, then how about this one: Yvette Cooper. Truly, the Labour Party is in its death throes.

Thursday, 19 February 2009

The Convention on Modern Liberty

I'm not going to be able to make it to the Convention on Modern Liberty, which is taking place on February 28 in London and at locations around the country.

But I would urge anyone who is able to take part in whatever way they can. Liberty has been under attack for some time in this country, with Tim Garton Ash noting in today's Guardian the extent of the freedoms we have lost, with no compensating gain in security or efficiency.

If you want an indication of just why the Convention is so necessary and so timely, just look at today's story about an asylum-seeking gay man who was illegally deported from the UK and has since faced ill treatment from the authorities in his native country. And yet the Home Office, despite admitting the illegal nature of his deportation, were arguing that they had no duty to take him back. Thankfully, the High Court thought better.

I've added a sidebar on the Convention, or alternatively click here.

Wednesday, 18 February 2009

Where do we go from here?

My article on what the Scottish Lib Dems should do in the wake of the SNP's abandonment of abolition of the council tax is now up over at Lib Dem Voice.

Sunday, 15 February 2009

On causing offence to religion

The debate over the Geert Wilders controversy has put the spotlight on to what extent it is acceptable to cause offence to religious feelings and beliefs. And I wish to amplify why I think it's a very dangerous road to go down to accept restrictions on freedom based on offence to religious sensibilities as opposed to incitement to hatred.

Let's indulge in a few thought experiments. Suppose I were to write the following sentence: "Jesus sodding Christ! That fat bastard Buddha ripped the turban from a Sikh's head to slaughter the sacred cow, in order to celebrate the gay wedding of Moses and Muhammad."

In that sentence, have I potentially offended all the world's major religions? Yes, probably. Is what I say true? No, as Moses and Muhammad weren't gay and didn't live at the same time, for instance. Does that sentence incite hatred or violence against religion? I don't think so, but if the test for deciding whether or not something can be said is whether it gives offence, then I wouldn't be able to say that.

Let's move on to a slightly more controversial example. "Monotheistic religions have been responsible for more deaths than Adolf Hitler." Is that offensive to Judaism, Christianity and Islam? Yes, probably. Is it true? Again, probably it is, but I don't know that there are any reliable statistics for number of deaths caused by numerous religious-inspired wars. But does it incite violence against those religions? I doubt it. But again it would be banned if the test were just causing offence.

How about this one: "The Roman Catholic Church, an organisation headed by a former member of the Hitler Youth and which collaborated with fascists during the Second World War, has been responsible for the deaths of countless women and children in Africa due to its opposition to sensible birth control policies."

Now, that sentence will probably offend many Catholics due to the gratuitous mention of Pope Benedict's youthful activities and the implication that the church is a Nazi organisation. Is it true? A case can certainly be presented that it is true, but it is more a matter of opinion than a statement of fact. Does it incite violence? No. Is the intention to disparage the Catholic church and thus possibly increase hatred against Catholics? Possibly, but I think restricting statements like this would be an intolerable restriction of legitimate debate.

And what about: "The Holocaust didn't happen and the gas chambers in Auschwitz were faked by a worldwide Jewish conspiracy." Now that sentence would be a criminal offence in many countries, but not the UK. It's also untrue, as the Holocaust is a matter of historical record. It is also used to incite hatred against Jews. Should it therefore be banned? I don't think so, as the best defence against the scum who peddle this filth is to expose the hollowness of their arguments and not to give them the fake respectability of being able to portray themselves as victims of people restricting freedom of speech.

And finally for an easy one: "Kill the Jews, kill the Christians, kill the Muslims." Should sentences like that be banned? Yes, as there is a clear danger that somebody could act on that. It directly promotes violence and such incitement has no place in any society.

It's in this context that I think Geert Wilders should have been free to come into this country to promote his views.Wilders, as others have noted, is no defender of freedom. His film is repugnant, as it is designed to stir up resentment of Muslims. And it's also untrue as it relies on inaccurate or out of context Koranic translations. But it doesn't incite violence, as even many supporters of the ban acknowledge. And for that reason, the fact that it was offensive to many Muslims and to others should not have been a reason to restrict Wilders' freedom.

Friday, 13 February 2009

Religion and free speech

In the light of the Geert Wilders controversy, it's well worth reading this defence of the right to criticise religious belief from Johann Hari.

Thursday, 12 February 2009

Wilders does not incite violence

Today's decision by Home Secretary Jacqui Smith to ban Geert Wilders from entering the UK is spectacularly inept.

Not only is it wrong in principle (I thought we were meant to have freedom of movement in the EU?), it's also been counter-productive. The decision has ensured far more publicity for Wilders' views than he would ever have got if he'd been allowed in.

Like many people, I looked on the net to see what all the fuss was about and watched Fitna, the video at the centre of the controversy. And, having watched it, I am clear that it does NOT incite violence or hatred against Islam as a whole. It is extremely critical of Islamic extremism, often in quite a graphic way, but there is nothing in it which I think would be likely to incite violence.

That makes Smith's decision to ban him in my view utterly ludicrous. And it also makes Lib Dem home affairs spokesman Chris Huhne wrong to support her decision. I was a supporter of Chris during both recent leadership elections, but I think he's got this one badly wrong.

Wilders' views on Islam are, I think, both wrong and fairly repugnant. And, if you Google for "Geert Wilders video" you will find not only the film itself, but also several refutations of it, which indicate that Wilders has based his views on Koranic translations which may be false and taken out of context.

For me this does raise a question about how we tackle extremist views of all kinds. Banning Wilders from entering the UK is certainly counter-productive and it means that the arguments against his position haven't really been put.

But there is also an issue about how we tackle some of the extremist Islamic views which Wilders highlights in his film. And one of the problems of this whole affair is that the voices of moderate Muslims have been drowned out - both by those Muslims for whom Wilders' presence was a problem and by Wilders himself.

If we are to tackle the very real threat of Islamic extremism, then in future we have to avoid creating sympathy for extremist voices such as Wilders by banning him. But we also have to strengthen moderate Muslim voices, to avoid the sort of fears that people like Wilders play upon.

UPDATE: Lib Dem Voice also has a discussion on the subject, on which I've also expressed my views. It includes a link to something Chris Huhne has previously said on a similar subject. Can we have the old Chris Huhne back please?

What the Gnats said about council tax

"The council tax is deeply oppressive, deeply unfair. We see that, virtually everyone in Scotland I meet knows that. It's wrong and we're going to abolish it." - Alex Salmond, April 2007.

"I have no doubt Scotland will judge harshly any MSP who votes to keep the council tax in the face of the overwhelming benefit that would flow to millions of ordinary Scots" - Alex Salmond, September 2008.

"There will be no misunderstanding. We are determined to abolish the unfair council tax. The council tax is an inherently unfair tax with a very loose connection to people's ability to pay" - Alex Salmond, April 2008.

"The SNP will scrap the Council Tax and introduce a fairer system based on ability to pay. Families and individuals on low and middle incomes will on average be between £260 and £350 a year better off. Nine out of ten pensioners will pay less local tax." - SNP election manifesto 2007.

"The SNP are pledged to scrap the council tax, and Labour's attacks on the SNP in defence of this iniquitous tax is a spectacular own-goal. Labour's unfair council tax and the SNP policy for fair local tax will be a major campaign issue. It is a big winner for the SNP in this election - overwhelmingly, people back the SNP in wanting to axe the council tax." - Nicola Sturgeon, March 2007.

"An SNP government will help pensioners and families too. We'll get rid, once and for all, of the unfair council tax. The council tax that has gone up by 55 per cent under Labour and which hits hardest those who can least afford to pay it. We'll put in its place a local income tax, based on ability to pay. Under our proposals, a majority of pensioners will pay nothing and most people will pay less than they do now. It is called fairness. It is a principle that old Labour used to believe in but that New Labour has betrayed. - Nicola Sturgeon, September 2005.

"There has been talk about helping disadvantaged communities and the need for social justice. I cannot think of a more immediate way to achieve those goals than by abolishing the council tax...On the doorsteps during the election a year ago, that issue was first on their minds. In all the opinion polling since then, a majority of those who say that they will support each of the parties in Scotland support a local income tax and want an end to the council tax. That will be achieved in this year by the Government, which I welcome very much." Rob Gibson MSP, September 2008.

And here's what I say to Alex Salmond: You and your party are a bunch of unprincipled lying charlatans who will say and do anything to get in power and then betray your promises one by one.

Tuesday, 10 February 2009

No sex please, we're Scottish

The news today that the Scottish government is considering making its law cracking down on consensual teenage sex even tougher is worrying on several levels.

Firstly, there is a very strong whiff of authoritarian moralising about the whole business. It seeks to bring girls aged 13-15 on to the same legal footing as teenage boys and open them up to prosecution should they indulge in consensual sex.

On one level, this is entirely fair. If boys are to be prosecuted for having under-age sex, then it does seem equitable that girls should be liable to the same penalties.

But can anyone tell me exactly what the purpose is of criminalising teenagers in this way? Teenagers have sex - always have, always will. Putting them through the criminal justice system for indulging in entirely consensual acts seems like madness to me. To brand a 14-year-old as a sex offender for shagging another 14-year-old seems somewhat daft.

Yes, there is an age of consent, so what those teens are doing is illegal. And yes, the earlier that people have sex the more likely they are to suffer from sexually transmitted diseases or teenage pregnancies.

But that doesn't mean that putting them through the criminal justice system is the appropriate way of dealing with the issue. Indeed, it seems like one of the worst ways of dealing with it. It is a health, education and moral issue - not a legal one. The more you make it a legal matter, the less likely you are to have teenagers coming forward asking for help - with obvious implications for STDs and teenage pregnancy.

And things get worse if you consider the idea that oral sex is to be included in the legislation. If oral sex, why not masturbation? Or any other activity which might in any way lead to teenagers having any kind of sexual thought whatsoever? This sounds to me like a legal minefield and the perfect recipe for a bad law. Defining the various practices which are to be considered illegal for teenagers seems nightmarish and there will also be significant difficulties in enforcing it.

This is legislation motivated more by moral unease about the thought of teenagers having sex than by a serious attempt to address an issue. This is something the Scottish government needs to rethink - unless it really wants to criminalise a whole generation of teenagers for doing nothing more than what comes naturally to them.

Monday, 2 February 2009

Picture perfect

I was pleased to hear today's news that the £50m appeal to secure the future of the Titian painting Diana and Actaeon within the collection of the National Galleries of Scotland and the National Gallery has been successful.

I made a small donation to the appeal, as I believe it's important that investment is made in culture, and having world class art collections in Scotland and the UK is part of that.

Obviously, some people question such expenditure at a time of economic crisis, but many of those people don't think we should ever spend anything on cultural matters. That's a coherent point of view, but not one I share. A vibrant cultural sector actually helps the wider economy, both in terms of the wealth generated by cultural activities themselves and the impact it has on sectors like tourism. I would say we can't afford not to invest in culture.

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