Friday, 6 May 2016

The new Scotland

Well, that was an interesting night. Against my better judgement, I stayed up for the whole thing, once it became clear that this wasn't going to be a straightforward election by any means. The SNP, as predicted, have won a historic third term in office, albeit missing out on a majority by two seats. A commendable result after nine years in power and 99% of the media against them.

In essence, the Greens' gains came at the expense of the SNP, perhaps most symbolically in Edinburgh Central, where the Greens' Alison Johnstone's hefty 14% share of the vote almost certainly allowed Tory leader Ruth Davidson to scrape past the SNP's Alison Dickie for a win. This was even more apparent on all important regional lists, where the SNP failed to gain enough seats to make up for some surprising losses in the constituency ballot. Seriously, those results in Edinburgh are just bonkers - Lib Dems soaring to 42% in Edinburgh Western while losing their deposits in all other Edinburgh constituencies bar one. The affluent unionist-leaning constituencies have, it seems, mastered the art of tactical voting.

The big story, unsurprisingly, is the Tories coming second, and not just scraping it either, but bagging a whopping 31 seats. I can't say I'm sorry to see Labour crash and burn - they've brought it on themselves and deserve nothing less than a generation (or perhaps a lifetime) in the political wilderness for their behaviour during and since the independence referendum - and in many respects I actually think having a full-blooded Tory opposition rather than a feckless, infantile Labour opposition might actually concentrate people's minds a bit. The main political fault line in Scotland was confirmed last night as being very much one of a left-leaning, progressive "nationalism" versus a cruel, right-wing unionism. At the very least, I hope the Tories in Scotland now face scrutiny for what their masters in London are doing - something Davidson and her cronies have inexplicably managed to avoid to date. I'm just astounded at how readily such a large swathe of Labour voters gaily embraced their supposed mortal enemies... but then, we saw how happily they worked together during the referendum, so perhaps, for a great many of them, these supposedly vast ideological differences really are purely cosmetic.

Ultimately, with the combined SNP and Green seats, we still have a pro-independence majority, and as far as I'm concerned that can only be a good thing. And, though I voted SNP on both ballots, I look forward to seeing whether the Greens are able to use their likely status as kingmakers to steer the SNP in a more radical direction on issues on which they've been rather timid - council tax and land reform, to name a couple. And words cannot express my delight at the fact that, contrary to what some of the polls were suggesting, the repugnant David "Toad of Toad Hall" Coburn failed to make inroads in the Highlands and Islands, meaning that Holyrood remains a UKIP-free zone. And, in spite of early reports from the ground, voter turnout was actually up compared to 2011, reaching an all-time high for Scottish parliamentary elections. Hooray for democracy! I think.

So, once again, to recap my predictions from the other day:

SNP 71 (+2)
Labour 26 (-11)
Tories 21 (+6)
Lib Dems 6 (+1)
Greens 5 (+3)

And in reality...

SNP 63 (-6)
Tories 31 (+16)
Labour 24 (-13)
Greens 6 (+4)
Lib Dems 5 (+0)

Wednesday, 4 May 2016

Scottish parliament election musings

So tomorrow we go to the polls... or rather, those who haven’t already voted by post go to the polls. This has been a weird and curiously low-key election — one in which all the major parties, bar the one everyone knows is going to win, effectively conceded defeat several months ago, with the Tories actively campaigning on a “vote for us to be the opposition” ticket. Still, I don’t think the result is a foregone conclusion by any stretch of the imagination. The way the D’Hondt system works, the line between a minority government and an outright majority is a very fine one indeed, and the eventual result will inevitably come down to the precise distribution of the vote in the various constituencies and regions.

I’m not a betting man (though I did buy a lottery ticket once, about 15 years ago — somewhat surprisingly, I didn’t win), but these are my predictions for the outcome. Come Friday, we’ll see how close I was.

- The SNP will win another majority, with a very modest increase on their 2011 result of 69 seats. They will not, as some have predicted, take all the constituency seats. I’m going to take an almighty gamble and predict that Nicola Sturgeon will be First Minister next week.

- Labour will remain the second largest party, but their lead over the Conservatives will be reduced to a handful of seats (say 5). Kezia Dugdale will remain in place as leader, if for no reason other than that you can’t go any lower than rock bottom.

- The Conservatives will make modest gains, picking up some of Labour’s hard unionist vote, but there will be no glorious revival... though the media will continue to inexplicably fawn over the unimpressive Ruth Davidson.

- The Liberal Democrats will gain one more seat than they did in 2011, prompting much chest-beating and claims of a Lib Dem revival from the amusing Willie Rennie. Failing that, they will retain the exact same number of seats as in 2011 and will claim that “the vote held up.” No one will listen because no one takes Willie Rennie seriously.

- The Greens will make respectable gains, albeit not to the extent that many of the polls have predicted. They’ll probably double their 2011 result of 2, but not much beyond that, and as such, will fail to overtake the Lib Dems as the fourth largest party, more’s the pity.

- RISE, Solidarity and UKIP will all fail to win a single seat. David Coburn will be deposed as UKIP leader.

So (and in the famous last words of Paddy Ashdown, I’ll eat my hat if this poll is accurate), here are my guesses:

SNP 71 (+2)
Labour 26 (-11)
Tories 21 (+6)
Lib Dems 6 (+1)
Greens 5 (+3)

Thursday, 11 June 2015

RIP Christopher Lee

While there's never a good time for a person to die, I think it's safe to say that Christopher Lee led a considerably longer, fuller and more varied life than most. As such, rather than be too sad at his passing, I'm more than happy to celebrate his legacy. I feel a rewatch of THE DEVIL RIDES OUT coming on. I've had the Blu-ray on my shelf for months now unviewed, and now seems like the ideal time to crack open the cellophane.

Tuesday, 2 June 2015

Film review: Munich

I'm one of a minority of ardent champions of Steven Spielberg's 2005 dramatisation of Israel's response to the massacre of eleven of its athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics. In fact, I'd go as far as to say that it's probably my favourite of his "serious" films (i.e. those with a more "worthy" bent, as opposed to more crowd-pleasing blockbuster fare like the Indiana Jones movies. Ironically, the main reason I like it so much is arguably because it seems so unSpielbergian, with a cold, calculated sense of brutality and a distinct lack of the sentimentality for which the director has become known.

While the source material, the novel Vengeance by George Jonas, is unabashedly partisan — a fact willingly acknowledged by its staunchly pro-Israel author — it seems to me that Spielberg and his two writers, Tony Kushner and Eric Roth, have succeeded in identifying and teasing out the moral quandaries that Jonas was unwilling (or unable) to acknowledge. That's not to suggest for a moment that there's any ambiguity as to whether the murder of the athletes was wrong; indeed, I'm not even certain that the film seeks to portray the Israeli government's response as wrong. It does, however, raise significant questions both about the cyclical nature of violence and the futility of revenge, and about what enacting state-sponsored executions and acts of terrorism ultimately do to a person's psyche. Vengeance is replete with passages in which it is asserted (rather too often and adamantly to be entirely convincing) that "Avner", the Mossad agent played by Eric Bana in the film, experienced no qualms about the murders he carried out, but Spielberg and his writers take the opposite approach, depicting the complete mental breakdown of a man who begins his mission with a sense of utter certainty both about the justness of his mission and his own identity. The entirely fabricated encounter between Avner and a Palestinian operative, Ali (Omar Metwally), provides not only the film's midpoint but also its emotional core, articulating in the strongest terms that violence can only lead to more violence, and that both sides — in spite of their irreconcilable differences — are ultimately in pursuit of the same goal. As Ali puts it:
You don't know what it is not to have a home. That's why you European reds don't get it. You say it's nothing, but you have a home to come back to. ETA, ANC, IRA, — we all pretend we care about your international revolution, but we don't care. We want to be nations. Home is everything.
Beyond that, though, it's a tense Cold War thriller it's a first rate piece of cinema, with its mature, reasoned approach to the Middle Eastern conflict merely serving as the icing on the cake. The whole thing looks incredible thanks to Janusz Kaminski's steely (and very authentically 70s) photography, and the unusually minimalist score by John Williams knows when to retreat and when to come in for the maximum impact. I've seen Eric Bana's performance described as overwrought, and it's certainly true that it's anything but subtle, but as a portrait of a man gradually undergoing a crisis of belief and identity, I find it hard to criticise. The rest of the Euro-pudding cast are on fine form too, with Mathieu Kassovitz particularly impressing as the mild-mannered toymaker recruited to build bombs, and Mathieu Amalric fabulously ambiguous (in more ways than one) as Avner's contact, "Louis".

Many of my favourite films are ones towards which I was initially lukewarm and came round to on repeat viewings, and this is definitely one of them. When I first saw MUNICH, I thought it was decent but overlong and overwrought. Now, I wouldn't lose a second of it... even the much-criticised "sex and death" scene towards the end. While most people point to SCHINDLER'S LIST or SAVING PRIVATE RYAN as Spielberg's great "serious" work, for me MUNICH will always be by far the more mature and more satisfying film.

Wednesday, 13 May 2015

Bookshelf: So Deadly, So Perverse - 50 Years of Italian Giallo Films, Volume 1

The first of two tomes charting the giallo film from its inception to the present day, Volume 1 of Troy Howarth's SO DEADLY, SO PERVERSE: 50 YEARS OF ITALIAN GIALLO FILMS is the sort of book fans of the giallo have been crying out for. Its spiritual predecessor is arguably Adrian Luther Smith's excellent (if now surpassed) BLOOD AND BLACK LACE, and indeed structurally it owes a clear debt to that earlier book, but Howarth goes considerably further and into far more detail than that pioneering work.

Covering the first 20 years of the giallo film's lifespan, 1963 to 1973, Volume 1 begins with the expected introductions (provided by veteran giallo screenwriter Ernesto Gastaldi) and attempts to define that most ambiguous of genres, before launching into an examination of early prototypical gialli, films with giallo elements but which don't quite make the grade as "true" gialli, and the literary gialli from which the filmic movement derives its name but to which it bears only a passing resemblance. This latter chapter, written by film historian Roberto Curti, is particularly insightful and breaks genuinely new ground. It provides the book with a unique selling point, charting an aspect of the giallo's development that hasn't been adequately explored elsewhere, since English-speaking authors lack the context necessary to unpick it.

The "meat and potatoes" of the book, however, is the 190 pages' worth of film reviews, cataloguing and appraising every known giallo to have been produced between 1963 and 1973. This section is truly exhaustive, digging up a number of titles I'd personally never even heard of, and even one or two that are now believed to be lost to the ages. For each review, the structure is the same: Howarth provides the main cast and crew credits, a brief (spoiler-free) synopsis and a more detailed review, concluding with a discussion of the careers of some of the more significant players on both sides of the camera. The reviews are insightful, in-depth and well-observed. Howarth isn't afraid to make it clear when a particular film isn't up to scratch (and says one or two scathing things about some of the, shall we say, less outstanding actors and directors associated with the movement), but he's also fair, pointing out the individual moments of pleasure that can be found in even the schlockiest and most ineptly made of giallo (and, let's be honest, there are quite a few which fit that category). The films of "big beasts" like Argento, Fulci, Bava and Martino understandably get the lion's share of the praise, but little-known gems also get their moment in the spotlight, including the likes of Fernando Di Leo's NAKED VIOLENCE and Damiano Damiani's A RATHER COMPLICATED GIRL.

It's worth pointing out that Howarth omits certain titles that some readers might expect to be included since he doesn't consider them to be part of the movement. This is unavoidable, since "giallo" is a vague term and much disagreement exists as to its precise parameters. Personally, I would have included Aldo Lado's SHORT NIGHT OF THE GLASS DOLLS (omitted here) and left out the likes of the western/giallo hybrid RINGO, IT'S MASSACRE TIME, but such is the beauty of a movement that, like film noir, is easier to recognise than to define (the "I know it when I see it" principle).

Any flaws are minor and don't impact substantially on the overwhelmingly positive qualities of the book; however, I feel that they should be acknowledged for completeness' sake. These are largely structural, stemming from the decision to separate the films by year of release and order them alphabetically within each year. This results in some slightly odd moments in that individual reviews often "refer forward" to another film that was actually released before the one currently being discussed -- for instance, we read about Sergio Martino's second giallo, THE CASE OF THE SCORPION'S TAIL, before his first, THE STRANGE VICE OF MRS. WARDH (both 1971), which is slightly confusing given the extent to which the latter set the template for Martino's subsequent gialli. That's perhaps the downside of attempting to read a reference tome like this from cover to cover. However, the lack of any page references in the index of titles at the end, and the fact that production dates aren't provided in the reviews themselves (the year is listed only once, at the start of each "section"), makes it difficult to dip in and out.

But these are minor organisational quibbles. In his foreword, Howarth acknowledges that he didn't set out to write the be-all-and-end-all book about the giallo, and while it doesn't replace the likes of Mikel Koven's excellent LA DOLCE MORTE (which addresses a different audience and serves a different purpose), SO DEADLY, SO PERVERSE feels entirely at home among such lofty company. Experienced giallo aficionados and those new to the genre alike will want to pick this up without delay, and get their pre-orders in for Volume 2, which promises to explore the rather more sporadic output of the last 40 years.

Sunday, 10 May 2015

A tale of two elections

"My God, what have we just done?"

I'll be upfront about it: that was my immediate, instinctive reaction when the exit poll was published at 10 PM on Thursday night. At that point, I wasn't looking at the Tories and Labour's share of seats. They barely even registered on my radar, so convinced was I by the media narrative that there would only be a handful of seats between them either way. All that mattered to me at that point was to see how well the SNP were set to do, and when I saw that number -- a projected 58 out of 59 seats -- a shiver went up my spine as it hit me how seismic this event was. To put it bluntly, the swing was so extreme that it scarcely seemed possible and the challenge to the accepted orthodoxy so brazen that I half-expected divine retribution (or whatever the atheistic equivalent is) to be imminent.

I'll turn to the not so little issue of the UK-wide results and their implications later. For the time being, to hammer home just how truly remarkable the death of Scottish Labour and rise of the SNP is, take a look at this graph showing the share of Scottish seats in every general election since 1955:

In the space of a single night, Scotland has done to Labour what it took 40 years to do to the Tories. We've routed the bastards almost completely, reducing each of the three main unionist parties to a single MP each (meaning that the exit poll WAS slightly out, if only by two seats). We now inhabit a reality in which the heartland of Labour in Scotland is Morningside. BLOODY MORNINGSIDE.

This election was always going to be fought in the shadow of the 2014 independence referendum, hence why, in a previous post, I emphasised how disastrous Labour's decision to campaign alongside the Tories was. Not everyone who voted for the SNP on Thursday was an independence supporter, and vice versa, but the referendum has essentially hardened political thought in Scotland along pro- and anti-independence lines. Between 30 and 40% of Labour's voters voted Yes last year, and from where I was standing, it almost seemed as if Labour actively went out of its way to insult, belittle and alienate these people. (It's telling, I think, that the bulk of Scottish Labour leader Jim Murphy's "high command" is made up of former Better Together staffers, among them odious unreconstructed Blairites like Blair McDougall and John McTernan.) As the results came in thick and fast, with seat after seat falling to the SNP on swings of up to 40%, my jaw was on the floor. In many ways, it felt like long-overdue payback for the night of 18th September 2014, and like many of my fellow Yes voters, I adopted an attitude of "enjoy the schadenfreude tonight, worry about the bigger picture in the morning." MP after MP fell by the wayside in both the Labour and Liberal Democrat camps: chinless wonder Danny Alexander, Labour's sanctimonious campaign director Douglas Alexander (toppled by the brilliant 20-year-old Mhairi Black), thug in a suit Ian "bayonet the wounded" Davidson... and perhaps the sweetest and most unexpected victory of all: the decapitation of the snake himself, Jim Murphy.

And of course, south of the border there was the unexpected spectacle of Ed Balls -- the man who stood shoulder to shoulder with George Osborne and Danny Alexander this time last year to tell the Scots they weren't entitled to use their own currency -- losing his seat to his Tory challenger. This is a crucial point. It wasn't just that the anti-independence parties were saying "Here are the bad things that will happen to you if you vote Yes." They were saying "Here are the bad things WE WILL DO TO YOU if you vote Yes," and then months later expecting those they threatened, bullied, lied to and cajoled to neatly fall back into line and vote them into power again. By mid-morning, when the results for the Balls constituency were declared, the overall picture was looking so bad that I was desperately hoping for as many English Labour MPs as possible, but I was prepared to make an exception for the odious Mr. Balls.

"The Scottish lion has roared," declared Alex Salmond after winning the Gordon seat, and though he's often given to grandiose, poetic turns of phrase, in this particular case it doesn't seem like too much of an exaggeration. The nation perhaps didn't "speak with one voice" (just under half the electorate voted for a unionist party of one hue or another), but those looking for a better, fairer future did succeed in (mostly) uniting behind one banner and kicking the liggers, troughers and assorted criminals of the political class so hard in the ghoulies that they'll be singing falsetto for years, if not decades, to come. I used to think the SNP's victory in the 2011 Holyrood elections, where they achieved a majority in a parliament built on proportional representation, would be the high point of the party's electoral fortunes. On Thursday night they smashed that record. The joke used to be that Scotland has more pandas than Tory MPs. Already I've seen memes on Twitter and Facebook presenting a new variant on the joke in which Edinburgh Zoo's two pandas are "Scotland's second largest political party."

The political landscape has been transformed utterly. Deadwood politicians who for years and decades coasted on the belief that they had a job for life are out on their ear, and Scotland now has 56 MPs who will speak up for it, who won't simply sit on their hands as a hostile government enacts destructive policies designed to punish the most vulnerable in society...

Which brings us to the thorny issue of England, and why I titled this post "A tale of two elections." For as elating as the results in Scotland were, the results in England were truly catastrophic. While in Scotland a progressive, centre-left party standing on an anti-austerity, anti-Trident, anti-House of Lords ticket was sweeping the board, south of the border the Tories romped home in such increased numbers that they confounded (almost) all expectations and secured a majority, albeit a very narrow one. I think the dichotomy is brutally but perfectly encapsulated in John Harris's comments in his video for the Guardian, reporting from Glasgow: "I've got to go back to England now, and we haven't got any source of hope there."

Make no mistake, what happened on Thursday night can't be blamed on Scotland for voting SNP, despite the predictable shrieking of those in the Labour ranks. (And the Lib Dems too -- unless I'm completely misunderstanding what he said, Vince Cable appeared to even blame the SNP for the loss of his Twickenham seat.) Even if the whole of Scotland had voted Labour, the party would still have ended up woefully behind the Tories (once again reinforcing the old complaint that Scotland is powerless to determine the outcome of UK general elections). Indeed, had Labour done better in England, a clean sweep of SNP MPs in Scotland would actually have been more useful to them than a simple re-run of 2010's results, since the SNP not only decapitated Labour but also the Tory-friendly Lib Dems. No, the only people to blame for the Tories' success are the people who voted for them.

And why did they vote for them? I think it's important that we try to understand this. It's too simplistic to simply say that these people are cruel, heartless sociopaths (though many undoubtedly are). There's a good piece at Bella Caledonia by Dougald Hine (which, incidentally, is well worth being read by progressives in England, since it offers some useful suggestions for the way forward) which I suspect hits the nail on the head:
We need to understand the amount of fear in the equation. Miliband used to talk about the “squeezed middle”, but it turns out the Tories can still count on the worried middle. As I’ve said before, there aren’t enough people doing well in Britain to deliver a Tory majority, but there are enough people who are worried, who hope the brittle prosperity of the housing bubble will sustain their way of living a little longer, who hope that what happened to the poor, the young and the disabled over the last five years won’t happen to them. The puzzlement I see in the despairing posts of friends on Facebook over the past twelve hours comes, I think, from the difficulty we have in understanding this. Somehow, we need a space for conversations where people can speak honestly about their fears, their disillusionment, their lack of belief in the possibility of change for the better – without trying too hard, too quickly to convince them they are wrong. Presenting big ideas or retail policies is no substitute for this.
(Emphasis in original article.)

Why were the electoral fortunes of these two countries so diametrically opposed? In part, because there simply isn't a party of the left in England with sufficient power to challenge the might of the Tory machine and its ability to set the agenda. The Labour Party is without direction, purpose or principle, and I fear that the left won't be able to make any real headway until it stops attempting to use that party as a vehicle for progressive change. The Greens are there, along with initiatives like the National Left Action Party and Left Unity, but I fear it'll take years, decades or more for them to build up the sort of power base required to achieve meaningful results, particularly when faced with an awful, archaic voting system designed to squeeze out smaller parties. Remember that it took a century for the SNP to reach their current dizzying heights. They spent most of that century as a tiny fringe party dismissed by their opponents as single issue crackpots. Now they run the country's devolved parliament, have achieved a near wipe-out in a general election, and are led by a woman described by the Daily Mail as "the most dangerous woman in Britain" (a badge I imagine she wears with considerable pride).

The point I'm trying to make is that change is possible, but it takes time, and combating voter apathy and despair are going to be the biggest hurdles. The good news is that we have weapons at our disposal that the SNP didn't have when they were still languishing on the margins of Scottish politics, the most powerful of which is undoubtedly the internet. It's given ordinary people a voice and allows them to organise, strategise and share information in a way that was unthinkable even a decade ago. So to the English, Welsh and Northern Irish left I would say: do not despair. Tighten your belts, get organised and get ready to continue the fight, and those of us north of the border who want the same things as you -- equality, justice, peace, prosperity -- will do everything we can to help. For now, you can start with something as simple as signing some of the petitions highlighted by Mark, my friend from St. Helens.

Apologies if the above comes across as muddled, pretentious or overly grandiose, but I wanted to set down my thoughts on the highs and lows of the last few days while they were still reasonably fresh in my mind. I'll leave you with a look at the new political map of the UK:

A united kingdom? Less so now than ever, in my opinion.

Friday, 8 May 2015

Hope over fear

The dust is still settling on what has been a bloody disastrous election for England but an absolutely amazing one for Scotland. I'm so filled with mixed emotions at the moment that now is probably not a good time to try to set down my thoughts in writing. For the time being, therefore, I'll leave you with this image, probably my favourite from the entire campaign. If nothing else, it sums up the new type of politics that has been born north of the border -- one based on (to evoke the slogan of Tommy Sheridan's campaign group) hope rather than fear.