The Emperor’s new clothes

So, the first priority for the Emperor is to get himself some new clothes. His suit is no longer a la mode; folk point to him in the street and whisper. Some even openly guffaw. The old clothes have to go, but what to replace it with?

Fortunately, the Emperor has employed a tailor of some renown and expertise.  Though there are many who doubt his talents, and in fact question whether he has any at all, the tailor is perceived in most quarters, as being one of the best there is.  What he appears particularly to be good at is invisible mending, a skill which is indubitably going to be required in looking after the Emperor’s attire.

The tailor shows the Emperor some fine cloth options but the Emperor is not happy. To cut, shape, fit and sew an outfit from scratch?  That would take too long and there’s a big event in May for which the Emperor needs to be properly booted and suited.

Instead, he spies some items hanging at the back of the tailor’s shop, waiting for collection. “What about those”, he asks.  “Ah”, says the tailor, “they’re orders for other people. I can see why you like them. They’ve been skilfully made, beautifully cut, expertly sewn. Because these people took time to choose, to research the right clothes before deciding on what to wear.  Also, they picked styles that suit their personality. Perhaps, Emperor, you should do the same?”

But the Emperor had no idea what might suit him. He had a few suits hanging in the wardrobe but wasn’t sure they fitted anymore. They just didn’t seem the right thing to be wearing.

Then the Emperor spotted something vibrant hanging on its own. “Bring me that”, he instructed the tailor. The tailor began to protest: “But that is for quite a different customer, one with a real sense of their own style, who knows what they like and what they should be wearing. I really don’t think…”

No matter. The Emperor insisted the clothes be brought to him.  He tried them on and posed in front of the mirror.  So it was a bit tight across the chest and a bit baggy on the bum. Nor was he sure that purple suited him – even if he was the Emperor – but he liked it and liked how it looked.  He felt good in it.

The tailor rolled his eyes. “Really, Emperor? I really do think you should at least think about wearing a colour that suits you, that you can call your own.”  “Nonsense,” replied the Emperor, “Let out the seams here, tighten the fit here and I’ll take it.”

And so, the Emperor stepped out onto the stage for his first public engagement and the crowd gasped. The women in particular were astonished. “That’s our clothes he’s wearing,” they muttered. “What made him think he could just take our clothes and not tell anyone where they come from?” asked one. “That’s the new Emperor for you,” added another, “Doesn’t care whose clothes he’s in, he only cares that he’s wearing something, anything to dazzle the crowds.”

“Ah well,” the women agreed, “He’ll get found out soon enough.”

And guess what? He did.




Whose votes matter most to Labour? Clue: it’s not ours

In Scotland today, over 1 in 5 children are growing up poor. And over 1 in 10 adults are growing old poor. And one in five adults in work are poor.

That’s a lot of people.  That’s 250,000 children, over 100,000 pensioners and at least, an astonishing half a million people who go out to work everyday.  Here in Scotland. In the 21st Century.

If ever we needed a reason to get rid of the Tories – and indeed, the Lib Dems – they bring us one, on a platter, today.  Because today in the House of Commons, they are bringing forward proposals to potentially increase poverty and to make the lives of those of us who use public services – that’s us all then – worse.

The motion today on the Charter of Budget Responsibility will increase the ratio of cuts to tax rises from 4:1 to 9:1.  Which means more austerity, not less.  More attacks on people’s benefit entitlement.  Less for Scotland to spend on all its public services – education, health, transport, social care, children.

The Charter is a wheeze of this Tory-Lib Dem government designed, apparently, to introduce more transparency into how public finances are managed and also to govern how the Office of Budget Responsibility operates. It is a creature of statute and consequently, it is a powerful thing indeed.

One of its dual purposes is to set out the UK Government’s fiscal policy framework – how it will manage the debt, what it will do with our money in the annual budget and so on.

That fiscal policy contains a clear cut commitment to manage our national debt levels down to ensure “sustainable public finances”.  What this means is that they are going to cut, cut and cut again.  And just in case we were in any doubt about whether this was political pragmatism or because they actually believe in a smaller state, the Charter makes this a key objective:

” a target for public sector net debt as a percentage of GDP to be falling at a fixed date of 2015-16, ensuring the public finances are restored to a sustainable path”.

Which brings us to the motion before the House of Commons today, which proposes to accelerate the level of cuts.  Because despite four years of austerity, our debt levels are rising.  The Tory-Lib Dem coalition for cuts hasn’t worked. All those people – poor and vulnerable people – hammered by bedroom tax, by benefit sanctions, by frozen wages, by zero hour contracts – suffering and it ain’t working.

So they are turning the screws and they have legislation to help them do it.  And an ideological belief that this is what we need. Less for the likes of us, more for the likes of them.

Which would all be fine if we had voted for this in 2010.  Except here in Scotland, we didn’t.  We voted Labour, in big numbers.

And what are Labour going to do today?  They’re going to traipse into the government lobby to support more austerity.  Why?  Because the party – of the people, don’t forget – cannot be seen to be supporting what will be presented as economic profligacy by the right wing press.  Because in the marginal constituencies that count in this Westminster election – the ones down south – they like this sort of thing (or at least the voters they need to win over like this sort of thing).

If we had a direct say in today’s vote, would we opt for more cuts, for less spending on public services?  I think not.  So can we rely on our MPs to vote for what we want and what is in our best interests?  Will our lone Tory outrider and his 11-strong Liberal Democrat posse ride to our rescue?  That’s a rhetorical question by the way.

But what of the 40 Labour MPs?  Nearly all of them represent constituencies where public services matter – as employers too.  Where significant numbers of their voters are poor, or struggling under this relentless campaign of cut and counter-cut.

Can Scotland rely on its Labour MPs to protect its interests at Westminster today?  Will Scotland’s Labour MPs choose people or the potential of power? Whose votes matter most? The ones that put them in the palace or the ones they hope will keep them there?

What say ye, Jim Murphy?  And more importantly, how will you vote today?

En solidarité

The secret of freedom lies in educating people, whereas the secret of tyranny is in keeping them ignorant.

Watching the last few days’ terrible and terrifying events unfold in Paris has been compulsive. The live filming of the siege on Friday seemed like an episode of Spiral, which made a welcome return to our screens last night. The shooting of 10 staff and associates at Charlie Hebdo and two police officers was shocking in its brutality, but also in the mundaneness with which armed terrorists were able to plan and execute such a terrible atrocity. Just like that.

You go to work like you do every other day, but today you don’t come home. Just like that.

The atrocity has prompted some outstanding journalism and leadership from newspapers, in particular. They always do cover such stories best, having the time and the keen sense of purpose with which to craft the right words. But perhaps, because it is the inky fingered lot whose freedom to express, to print all the news that’s fit to print, is so regularly threatened – sometimes by their own inability to adhere to the values of independence and non-bias which they maintain, matter so much – by regulation, by the removal of those rights, through owners’ patronage and personal proclivities; political interference; judicial tinkering.

I’ve read a lot that I’ve liked in Scottish newspapers since Wednesday. We are fortunate to have some fine journalists and writers working in our parts and our media culture would be lacking without them. Bravo et encore.

There has also been reflection and introspection about the nature of rights, the balance to be struck between and among rights and individuals’ right to exercise them.  Put crudely, whose trumps who’s?  The right of journalists and cartoonists to express themselves freely or the right of believers to worship their chosen faith free from intolerance and prejudice?  One thing on which we can all agree – no one has the right to kill anyone else to assert their beliefs over any individual, community or society.

And while it is good to be reminded of the point of human rights and why they are vital and fundamental to the well-being of a country, must it always be through adversity? Who in the UK thinks now that rights don’t matter?  Good. You might want to let your MP know then, as there’s a bill before Westminster proposing to remove our human rights and replace them with a bill of rights that creates a new constitutional framework for the UK. Whether it will allow us to continue to enjoy the same human rights as say, the French is as yet not clear.

Today France and indeed, Europe will come together in a show of solidarity, marking the murders in the way the French know best. By taking to the streets, exercising their collective freedom to assemble peaceably. Indeed, the populace will be aided and abetted in its efforts by the availability of free public transport and cut price travel from outwith Paris. Touché.

I am struck by the differences in how countries and societies display their public grief and demonstrate their shared sense of pain. After 7/7, plucky Britain and London kept calm and carried on.  Everyone back to work, business as usual. How a country mourns publicly after such a catastrophic event which touches everyone directly and indirectly says a lot about its culture and its belief system.

And sometimes it takes a terrible happening to be reminded of what matters in and to a society. Liberté. Fraternité. Égalité.

I’m sure many French people have taken a moment or two this week to reflect on these values and what they mean in a 21st Century country. When your country has touchstone principles as powerful as this, it’s vital to keep them alive. Sadly, it often takes death to remind us to do so. And to remember what matters – truly matters – in our everyday lives. It does no harm for us all to reflect a little.

On some levels, Scotland’s independence referendum attempted to hold a discourse on who we are, what we believe in and where do we want to go.  We all nodded – whatever side of the binary choice you ended up on – in agreement with notions of fairness and greater equality in our society.

In writing Generation Scot Y earlier this year, I analysed what young people in both camps were saying about their referendum choice.  What mattered to them and how were they articulating that.  The choice of language was remarkably similar:  young Yessers talked a lot about better, about fairer, progressive, opportunity, democracy and future, while young No campaigners also talked a lot about opportunities, choice, future, rights and things being better. A common language then, if not purpose at that time.

And at the end of it all, now we are out the other side, where stands Scotland? What has become of all that yearning for better, fairer and opportunity in our future? Can we find away to make the purpose fit the language? And does anyone even want to? We’re One Scotland no doubt but surely it takes more than trite messaging and imagery to make it so.

We may wish to engage in a little schadenfreude and nod to the rise of the right in France and a level of racism, intolerance and prejudice that does not exist in Scotland as reasons why it could never happen here. But France is a much more multi-cultural country than we are: not only was a Muslim police officer gunned down by Islamist extremists, but it was a Muslim employee in a Jewish supermarket who protected other shoppers, including a child. France has its issues but there is also much to learn from a culture which aims to assimilate and adopt a melting-pot approach to immigration and where identities – as they are in so many other countries today – multi-dimensional.

And today, we will watch – yes, in solidarity – as a nation mourns, as a nation gathers to remind itself of its founding principles and of what truly matters to its society, its sense of self and its well-being.  Je suis. Nous sommes.

We – I – will shed a tear and quietly, timidly ask how do we prevent this happening here –  happening anywhere – again. As Dani Garavelli points out in an excellent opinion piece in today’s Scotland on Sunday, “days later, the indefensibility of the attack on Charlie Hebdo remains, but almost everything else is shadows and fog”.

We may wish to call on the wisdom of Robespierre in our search for some answers and a solution.