Free Oor Wullie?

When I was in Edinburgh, today’s referendum was definitely a popular topic of conversation and angst – then again, I was staying in quite a political household.  Upon my return to the deep South, you would barely have known anything was happening – or you wouldn’t until just over a week ago when it suddenly started to saturate the media (in a manner normally only possible if it involves Nigel Farage).

That’s the amazing power of one poll result.  As always, last week’s More or Less was fascinating, showing just how worried the pollsters were about the accuracy of their numbers.  They are not hoping for either YES or NO, but just that they won’t look too stupid when the results are announced.  Nevertheless, this one – decidedly uncertain – number was enough to move markets and PMQ.

As a neutral – or if not an actual neutral, then at least one of the un-consulted (a group which seems to include Scots living abroad, so Mr Connery will not be able to vote Yesh), there has been much else of interest in this whole process.

For a start, the degree of public engagement in the democratic process has been extraordinary – well, on the basis of registrations at least, the actual turnout still lies in the future.  It would seem that the public can be interested in something other than a mediocre singer with a mildly tragic past: who’d have guessed?  I suppose that unlike the vast majority of opportunities to exercise our franchise, the result is not a foregone conclusion and your vote might actually make a difference (a situation normally reserved for a lucky – or unlucky – few who happen to live in the right marginal constituency and which focus groups suggest could be swayed with the application of appropriate spin).  Could there be lessons for the future here?

It is also interesting that, at best, a tiny proportion of the electorate can possibly understand the implications of their vote.  I have tried to an extent (as you will see below) but would have no rational basis on which to decide, so I am in many ways grateful for my disenfranchisement.  Would I go with my deep-seated risk aversion or be tempted by devilment and the desire to see if something new and better could come?  So, I assume most voters are making a largely emotional (or party political) choice.

It has been fascinating to see how bad at politics all the main political parties are.  The SNP seems to rely on a combination of nationalism, the idea that change is good and we should ditch the Westminster elite (who are certainly well worth ditching, but do seem awfully similar to their brethren at Holyrood) and vague promises about the future being better (but also the same) backed up by some dodgy numbers.  The combined might of the remaining political elite seems to have worked on the basis that “we can change” whilst strongly demonstrating that we haven’t (and probably won’t) and attempting to terrify the Scots with the prospect of life without us, backed up by some dodgy numbers.  The UK does seem to have chosen to act as though they were the abusive spouse in a violent relationship (which I’m not convinced we are) – perhaps, Jerry Springer should have chaired the televised debates?

More recently, the Yes campaign has moved up a gear – with senior politicos molesting the Scots in the flesh, presumably to leave the bitter taste of the Westminster elite fresh in their mouths as they go to the polls today.  They have even tried to tempt the Scots to stay by offering Holyrood increased tax raising powers!  Now, I’m no political strategist – but promising the potential for higher taxes for all doesn’t strike me as an obvious vote winner.

One of the main bones of contention had been the admin that will have to take place as you turn one country, with one set of institutions et al, into two.  Mr Salmond would have us believe this will be a cinch, whilst his opponents suggest it will be virtually impossible and Scotland will be left as a smoking wasteland if you so much as try.  I’ve tried to think of any recent example of countries decomposing voluntarily, and the only one which came to mind was Czechoslovakia – however, in this case both sides voted to leave.  I don’t recall any major issues in this case, but then again it is hard to remember the last time the Czech Republic (let alone Slovakia) had any coverage at all in the main UK media – so it may have been a mess for years for all I know.  Czechoslovakia had also only been a country for a rather shorter period of time – only since 1945, rather than 1707  – and was probably only part way through moving from Communism to Democracy, so the process may have been a little easier.

My best guess is that there will be an awful lot of admin to do if we bifurcate, and bureaucrats and politicians will be very busy and lawyers will be buying third or fourth homes in the sun.  There will also be an extended period of uncertainty while all this back-room work goes on.  This is supposed to be complete by 2016, but re-organising the UK electricity market has already taken rather more than two years – and that is only one element of the work needed to set up a new, independent state (as but one example, it is not just relations with the UK that will need redefining, but those with the rest of the world which currently arise by dint of being a part of the UK) – so I suspect the timetable is a tad optimistic.  While the admin is underway, there will be a fair bit of uncertainty in the air – with people unsure just what the new Scottish State will be like – and this is likely to put the brakes on investment. Investors are strange folk, willing to gamble huge sums in some areas as we’ve all seen, but oddly shy of a little uncertainty in others.  So my best guess is that a newly independent Scotland will have a few tricky years to endure before the sunlit uplands of independence yield their potential benefits.

This brings me on to another pet theory of mine.  I suspect that independence (if achieved) will do for the SNP what being part of the coalition has done for the Liberals – basically finish them politically.  First they will have the difficult “admin years” as I am calling them, followed by full responsibility for everything that happens thereafter – but with no-one else to share the blame – and with even less control over monetary policy (if they keep the pound).  In particular, they will be responsible for raising taxes for Scotland, rather than just spending those raised by the perfidious English.  As a result, the SNP’s support for independence does seem oddly selfless – if they win, they just become another centre-left party in the new State, but one without its USP.  I also wonder if independence will create a larger space for a centre-right party north of the border?

So, I must admit a part of me does hope for a YES vote – largely to see what happens and whether I’m right about the future (forecasting is, after all, my day job).  However, any Scots reading this in time to have an impact, please don’t feel any obligation to vote just to provide me with interest and/or amusement in the years ahead: I do have Netflix and access to cinemas, theatres and bookshops so I’ll probably be alright even without your (indirect) support.

Munro bagging

In many ways, I wish this post was about ascending Scottish peaks in the steps of Sir High Munro – but it isn’t.  I do have an ambition to bag a Munro or two, but something has always put me off – not the distance nor the hard-work, but the hideous ubiquity of small biting insects which (I fear) would be all too keen to taste of my virgin blood.  So, sadly, my plans to ascend the Scottish heights is on hold until science (or religion – I’m not fussy) comes up with an effective, idiot-proof defence against the midge.

No, over the past couple of weeks I have been “bagging” the works of Saki, aka H H Munro.  Some months ago, I heard an extended snatch of his short story The Stalled Ox on Radio 4 (where else?) and rather enjoyed it.  Since then, I have been rather ineffectually seeking out more of his work – but recently Southampton library delivered his Complete Short Stories into my hands (well, to be completely honest, I did have to take it off the shelf and carry it home myself).  The stories are from the Edwardian era – Saki himself was killed in 1916 sheltering in a shell crater – and I believe he was a tad reactionary.  Nevertheless, the stories are a joy – somewhat like Wodehouse, but with the brakes off and the bounds of taste and decency run roughshod over.  Many are extremely funny and some very dark and a lot of the themes remain surprisingly current a century (and more) after they were written.  Like PG he has a marvellous turn of phrase – and many of the stories feature an aunt.  I do feel that aunts had a much more pivotal role in the first quarter of the 20th century than they do in the present one, and I suspect this may not be a positive development (for comedy, if nothing else).  There was also a lot more bridge played – another negative effect of our soi-disant progress.

Sadly, I have only a very few short stories remaining and tomorrow the book must return to the welcoming bosom of the city’s central library.  Still, I’ve had more than a fortnight of fun and the next time I am in London I shall hold a mini-pilgrimage to Mortimer Street to check out H H’s blue plaque.  Via this post, I can (perhaps) share the joy of Munro bagging with a small (but select, even “amazing” [sic]) new audience.  Slightly concerned that this may lead to a decline in the morals of the GofaDM readership, but Clovis Sangrail is my new hero…

Obliged to the Clydesdale Bank

Infrequent visitors to Scotland may be unaware that whilst they share a currency with the rest of the UK (and some at least wish to continue to do so, despite the issues this could create) they find our banknotes too drab and uninspiring to use.  As a result, they print their own more colourful currency for spending north of the border.

Three banks produce their own notes:

  • The Royal Bank of Scotland: nearly as boring as the English note-wise, could almost pass for real money.
  • The Bank of Scotland: more colourful and interesting, but not out of place in a board game for adults.
  • The Clydesdale Bank: like an explosion in a paint factory.  Clearly aimed at the kids.

I am being slightly unkind here, Clydesdale notes do also remind me of those used in Australia (though, unlike Aussie notes do not give the impression of being machine washable) – which may be because the bank is owned by the Australians.  However, you would be hard pushed to convince anyone in southern England that they were valid currency (even though they are) – you’d probably have more luck with Euros as they would be more familiar to the likely audience.

As a result, I usually try and dispose of any Scottish notes before I head south.  I did once manage to buy a bus ticket in Cambridge using a BoS note on the basis that Stagecoach (the operator of the bus) were a Scottish company and so really ought to accept payment in “local” currency: an approach which bamboozled the driver sufficiently to get me home.  However, I have never had the brass neck to try “passing” a Clydesdale note “down south” – and the south where I now reside is a long way down!

So, finding myself with Clydesdale notes aplenty last Wednesday evening I was on the lookout for a sensible way to spend them.  Due to mental enfeeblement, I stupidly bought concert programmes for the St John Passion using coins – good news for my balance (my list to port was significantly reduced) and left-hand trouser pocket, not so good for my colourful problem.  Luckily, as I was leaving I noticed that the Dunedin Consort (or their representatives) were selling “merch”.  No sign of the band/tour t-shirt – perhaps something for Alfonso Leal del Ojo to consider for future gigs – but they were flogging CDs, and so I acquired a Dunedin Consort performance of Mozart’s Requiem.

Yesterday, in my sole concession to any of religion, rabbits or chocolate, I listened to the performance.  It was quite stunning, like having the Dunedin Consort in my parlour – but without the terribly cramped and probably embarrassing conditions that would ensue were I to actually attempt to fit that many people and their instruments into my modest abode.  The CD is distributed (perhaps more: my knowledge of the workings of the music business is fairly rudimentary) by an outfit called Linn.  These seem to be quite splendid fellows and I may check out their other wares.  The CD comes in a rather nice, tasteful box, and one without the very sharp corners that have led to so many injuries over the years.  The sound quality of the CD was excellent and it comes with a little card that allows you to download a digital copy (free of charge) in a wide variety of formats.  As a result, I did have to resort to DuckDuckGo to discover what FLAC (nothing to do with Roberta or anti-aircraft fire, apparently) and ALAC (nothing to with ALAS) mean – and decide which I would prefer.  I suspect I may stick with plain old MP3 as I am far from convinced that I have any device that can play xLAC for any x – and as with any high quality, née audiophile, sound recording I doubt that my ears are sufficiently discerning to enjoy all that extra quality.  I sometimes wonder if some high-end audio is aimed at dogs or owls, or some other creature with much more acute hearing than your base model homo sapiens.

So, as well as snaps to Linn for their excellent musical offering, I find I must thank the Clydesdale Bank – without their garish taste in currency, I would probably have missed out on some wonderful music.  I realise this sort of opportunity was probably not uppermost in their minds when planning their notes, but if we only gave folks credit for the planned consequences of their actions I fear there would be far less gratitude in the world.  Let’s all raise a glass to serendipity!

Scottish politics, again?!

I know.  If I love Scottish politics so much, why don’t I move there?  Well, I might – then you’ll be sorry, but not as sorry as the Scots.

Scottish independence has been much in the news, even this far south!  Before he went off for today’s love-in with M. Sarkozy, our own PM was even talking about it.  I don’t claim to follow the full range of arguments he marshalled but I do think he was suggesting that we would both be richer together than apart (this the day after he’d half-inched the Scottish idea for a minimum price for alcohol).  A recent visit to the National Museum of Scotland suggested that not much has changed in the last 300 odd years – being richer was reported as a primary driver from the Scottish side for union back in 1706 (the Darien expedition had not gone so well).

One of the options short of full independence is rather unattractively called Devo Max.  I assume this must be the calorie-free version of Devolution (there’s probably also a Diet Devo for the ladies).  Given the current obesity issues that are popularly supposed to afflict our Scottish brothers, I can certainly see that this might have some appeal for those north of the border.

The issue that the Greeks (and others) are having with a Euro whose value is set for the convenience of quite different economies is only too familiar to the Scots given the rather London-centric currency they have been stuck with for several centuries now (they do their best, poor lambs, by making their bank notes much more colourful – but I don’t think it’s really helping).  So, I presume the Euro-sceptic wing of the Conservative Party will be throwing their full weight behind Alex Salmond and his desire for freedom from remote government that doesn’t respect local customs and conditions.  I fear, however, that they will be of only limited assistance north of the border: the Poll Tax is still too fresh in Scottish minds (well, let’s face it if Bannockburn is still fairly fresh, and that was nearly 700 years ago).

My big question for the referendum is: who gets custody of Berwick?

A little bit of politics

Fear not, I continue to eschew the shiny suit – and have yet to start work on a musical formed by linking together the songs of a long defunct, but once popular, beat combo using the minimum of plot.

While I was in Scotland last week, it became necessary for me to understand the detail of the voting system used for local government elections north of the border (you may like to consider it a form of weregild for my board and lodgings, as this is all the explanation I shall be offering).  You may recall that, last May, we Sassenachs were offered the chance to switch to a version of Proportional Representation.  I seem to remember that the forces of conservatism (with both a big and small C) opposed the change – and one of their primary arguments was that we, the electorate, were too thick to understand the proposed new system.  I can only assume that the Scots are made of much stronger intellectual material.

Their PR system is vastly more complicated than the very simple one proposed for England and Wales.  It took me a good 15 minutes to understand how it works – the basic principles were laid out on but it was rather sketchy on some of the key details (where, as we all know, the devil lies – though, given just one of his titles, I believe the devil lies pretty much everywhere).  Fortunately, perusal of the detail of the actual results and nine rounds of iteration taken to elect the councillors for one particular ward back in 2007 did help to fill in the gaps in my understanding.  I suspect I am now one of only a tiny band of individuals who actually understand how the electoral process for Scottish local government works – and I’m available for consultancy at a very reasonable rate.  Trust me, you don’t want to be attempting tactical use of your franchise without at least a decent first degree in Mathematics (and some legal training)!

Whilst on the subject of politics, in my continued attempts to support my local library I am currently reading Shirley Williams’ autobiography.  This is a rather good read, and does show the rather cyclical nature of both history and politics (even within a single lifetime).  She is also one of those annoying over-achievers who make the rest of us feel hopelessly inadequate – I fear she had fit in far more living before leaving school than I will in my entire lifetime (unless the singularity arrives pretty soon – and perhaps not even then).  I really must try harder…

Tropical Paradise

I’ve made it north of the border, despite a few minor issues with rolling stock on the way up.   The heating failed on one carriage (fortunately not mine) of the DMU carrying me to Peterborough (and the boiler did not respond to a re-boot) and someone broke the door of coach D at Northallerton.  Apparently, they had put their foor in the door to stop it closing – now that’s what I call a pushy salesman (and rather a feeble door – or an unusually sturdy foot).

As hoped, it is a tropical paradise here in the southwestern ‘burbs of Edinburgh: 6°C people!  T-shirt and shorts weather!  The inside of my house hasn’t reached such a temperature for the last week, let alone the world beyond.  Even better, I am staying in a house where they run the heating for more than 10 minutes a day, so it is quite literally like summer (only warmer and drier).

My only disappointment is that home doesn’t seem to be under several feet of snow.  I can only find one webcam even slightly near Cambridge (in the Market Square) which does show snow, but no sign of woolly mammoth or sabre-toothed tiger roaming CB1.  Even the (now Dutch) trains seem to be running more-or-less normally – which is more than can be said for their new Dutch website which is rather too red (I do hope this doesn’t extend to the trains which are currently rather restfully livered in white and grey) and decidedly erratic: unless HTTP Error 500 (Wrong kind of snow on the web?  Frozen points at the server?) is the look for which they’re aiming.  I trust their inability to run a website doesn’t bode ill for the future reliability of services to (and from) Whittlesford Parkway…