Sunday, 30 November 2014

State of the nation

On the 18th September 2014, approximately 45% of Scotland's population voted for independence. A minority, yes, but a significant one. You'd think, then, that with such a vast number of people all supporting a similar cause, there would be a number of pro-independence newspapers to support their viewpoint -- just as there are newspapers that support the Tories or Labour -- right?

You'd be wrong. Throughout the independence campaign, just one single newspaper supported a Yes vote, and it wasn't even a daily. It was the weekly Sunday Herald, whose sister publication, the Herald, published Monday-Saturday, ultimately backed a No vote, as did the vast majority of the newspapers published in Scotland, either explicitly or implicitly. (The Scottish Sun was one of the only newspapers to make a resolute declaration of neutrality at the eleventh hour.) Almost half the country's population had their opinion reflected by a single weekly paper. A scandalous state of affairs, as I imagine most sane people would agree.

Last week, that gulf narrowed in a small but significant way with the introduction of the first weekly newspaper to explicitly support independence, The National. When it came out for Yes, the Sunday Herald defied all expectations and achieved something that no other newspaper has managed for a very long time indeed: it increased its sales figures. Not merely increased them, but DOUBLED them. Sensing that they were on to a good thing, the publishers behind the Herald and Sunday Herald, NewsQuest, decided to commission a pro-independence weekly using the same editorial team and most of the same contributors. What started off as a week-long trial run was confirmed on Friday to continue indefinitely as the paper broke all expectation in terms of sales figures. In fact, it proved so popular that, by as early as Tuesday, the publisher doubled its print run. There is a healthy appetite, it seems, for a paper that explicitly supports the concept of independence and challenges the establishment narrative.

Myself, I took advantage of the rather generous digital subscription offer of a week's worth of issues (i.e. five -- the paper doesn't publish on Saturdays and Sundays) for £1.50. I'm not, by any stretch of the imagination, an avid newspaper reader. For as long as I've had any interest in current affairs, I've been able to get all the information I need online, which I find vastly preferable to picking up a physical paper -- not just because it's less cumbersome to read and I don't get ink on my fingers, but also because it means I can get my information from a variety of sources instead of being restricted to the editorial line of a single publication. In fact, before the Sunday Herald started supporting independence, the only times I'd ever bought a paper were when I was looking for job advertisements. I bought the Sunday Herald most weeks more as a means of supporting the endeavour than because I had any intention of reading it cover to cover (most of their articles are available online anyway), and have decided to do the same with the National. In fact, I just took out a three-month subscription to the digital edition for a very reasonable £16.99.

As far as its content goes, someone -- accurately, I feel -- described it as essentially a Scottish, pro-independence version of the i Newspaper. It's more or less a tabloid, albeit not of the cheap, tawdry variety -- there are no Page 3 girls, for instance, and celebrity gossip is more or less non-existent. (The covers are really its most sensationalist aspect.) The style is accessible, with clear, direct language and lots of large pictures. A few advertisements too, at the moment mostly for pro-Yes outfits like Glasgow's Yesbar and Deacon Blue's upcoming tour, though that appears to be changing, with Friday's edition having been expanded from 32 to 40 pages because of an increase in advertisers wanting to hawk their wares within its covers. Starting tomorrow there's even a crossword puzzle, along with cartoons from the brilliant Greg Moodie. The content is overwhelmingly focused on Scotland and Scottish politics in particular, but there is a decent amount of international content as well. I particularly like the inclusion of a profile of a different world leader each day.

It seems bizarre to be celebrating the fact that independence now has the backing of 3% of the print media, but that's the situation we're living with. Whereas Catalonia has its own television networks and press, which are able to take a pro-independence line, Scotland has for a long time been extremely poorly served by its media, with the establishment (i.e. Westminster, unionist) line being piped in on a daily basis... and nowhere was this more apparent than during the final two-week anti-independence blitzkreig, where the BBC News channel essentially turned into a 24-hour rolling propaganda broadcast, prompting at least one former contributor to condemn it for its Pravda-esque antics. 3% vs. 97% is still a sad indictment of our media, but the tectonic plates are shifting. Where the National has led the way, other publications like the Scottish Independent and Scottish Statesman look set to follow. The times they are a-changing...

Friday, 28 November 2014

A snapshot in time

Clearing through the contents of my photos folder today, I came across this little work of horror. It's my desk while I was in the process of revising for my finals circa April/May 2005. I'd like to say I'm more organised now, but the reality is all that's changed is that most of my paperwork is now of the digital variety.

Tuesday, 25 November 2014

Quote of the day...

...comes from, of all people, Scottish Conservative deputy leader Jackson Carlaw, commenting on the fact that three of the four "main" parties in Holyrood are now led by women:
In a back-handed compliment to that huge Hollywood blockbuster Three Men And A Little Lady, this parliament is now fronted by three ladies and a little Willie.
The "little Willie" he mentions is, of course, the Liberal Democrats' non-entity of a leader, Willie Rennie.

(Source: STV News)

Saturday, 22 November 2014

The 50/50 cabinet

Yesterday, Scotland's new First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, unveiled her reshuffled cabinet -- the first cabinet in the world to achieve complete parity between men and women. Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill and Education Secretary Mike Russell are out -- replaced by Michael Matheson and Angela Constance respectively -- while Health Secretary Alex Neil has become Social Justice Secretary, his old role now filled by Shona Robison. As was trailed by last weekend's Sunday Herald, John Swinney will step into the shoes of Deputy First Minister, in addition to continuing in his role as Finance Secretary.

I'm not surprised to see MacAskill and Russell go. Both were pilloried heavily in the media and on the opposition benches for a number of reasons -- MacAskill primarily for his rather ill thought out (and currently iced) plans to remove the requirement of corroboration that is unique to Scotland's legal system, and Russell for his less than universally popular education reforms (though it goes without saying that the ire directed towards him pales into insignificance compared to that received by Gove south of the border). Neil too was on the receiving end of an infantile smear campaign cooked up by the Labour party (over his intervention to stop the closure of a mental health ward in his constituency), so in a sense his sideways move could be seen as an attempt to clean the slate. (Incidentally, it was observed by Alex Salmond in his final First Minister's Questions last Thursday that Labour had, at one point or other, called for the resignation of every single member of his cabinet... with the exception of himself.)

As regards the new cabinet's gender equality, while I think it's a laudable achievement, I must admit that I have very mixed feelings about the idea of gender quotas, or indeed quotas of any kind. Given the low number of women in politics in the UK, they may to an extent be a necessary evil, but I'm always left feeling rather uncomfortable with the idea that a person's gender could potentially have played a greater role in their appointment than their suitability for the job. I don't for a minute wish to suggest that any of the women promoted to the cabinet got the job at the expense of a better qualified male counterpart, but such accusations are inevitably going to surface in these situations.

Today Nicola Sturgeon, Alex Salmond and Stewart Hosie addressed a crowd of 12,000 independence supporters at the packed out Glasgow Hydro. I was working and so wasn't able to go, but my dad did and was good enough to bring me back a giant foam hand, which unfortunately I'm finding rather difficult to type with.

Sunday, 16 November 2014

Musical musings: The Hypnotist

This evening, I watched THE HYPNOTIST, a not particularly remarkable slice of Nordic noir from director Lasse Hallström, based on the novel of the same name by Lars Kepler. The film itself may have been underwhelming, but I did appreciate the score by Oscar Fogelström, in particular the piece that played over the closing credits, available here:

Saturday, 15 November 2014

Changing of the guard

Yesterday, the first day of the SNP's annual party conference in Perth, saw the reins of party leader formally handed over from Alex Salmond to Nicola Sturgeon, in what was easily the most seamless transition of power I've ever witnessed. I'm certainly struggling to think of any other political leader in recent history elected on 100% of her party's vote... though it certainly helped that no-one was foolhardy enough to stand against her.

Sturgeon and Salmond share similar backgrounds. Born in a council house (in Prestwick rather than Linlothgow), she attended a state school and benefited from a free university education (she studied Law at Glasgow University, while Salmond studied Economics at St. Andrews') and joined the SNP at the age of 16 (she was already a member of the CND). She has always been an incredibly shrewd and capable political operator, and opponents underestimate her at their own peril. For instance, in a now-notorious STV debate, she famously reduced Scottish secretary and supposed "bruiser" Alistair Carmichael (seriously, Google his name and "bruiser" and see how many hits turn up) to a blithering wreck who asked moderator Rona Dougall to intervene on his behalf. (Her weary response -- "Answer the question, Alistair" -- was the icing on the cake.) The unionist parties may like to smugly characterise her election as a "coronation" and point out that she has spent the last seven years being groomed to step into Salmond's shoes, but there's little sense of political nepotism in her appointment -- she really is, by a country mile, the best person for the job.

Sturgeon's ascendancy also leads us to the unprecedented situation of all three major parties being led by women. (I'm including Labour even though, strictly speaking, Westminster MP Anas Sarwar is currently standing in as branch officer following Johann Lamont's applecart-spilling resignation. In any event, Labour's interim Holyrood spokesperson is also a female of the species, Jackie Baillie. And as for the dear old Lib Dems... well, does anyone outside of their own rapidly contracting party even remember who their leader in Scotland is?) I'm not so naive as to suggest that a party being led by a woman is automatically preferable to its being led by a man (just look at Margaret Thatcher, or her spiritual successors, the current leader of the Scottish Tories and the outgoing leader of Scottish Labour), but anything that breaks the political stranglehold of the old boys' club has got to be a step in the right direction. More pertinent, I feel, is that Sturgeon, like Salmond before her, wasn't born into a life of privilege and has got to where she is today through a lot of hard work rather than because she went to the right university and rubbed shoulders with the right people.

Yesterday also saw the party's depute leader elected, with Stewart Hosie coming first with 59% of the vote, from a pool of three candidates. The only Westminster MP to stand for the position, Hosie was my first choice (the election used the single transferrable vote system, allowing you to rank candidates in order of preference), primarily because he's a very smooth, capable operator who comes across extremely well whenever he's interviewed. He strikes me as a hard man to rattle, which is good because he'll no doubt be spending a lot more time in the glare of the media spotlight from now on. There is another advantage, though: it gives the SNP a more prominent profile in Westminster -- something that will no doubt be required if the party is to be successful in its stated goal of winning a majority of Scottish seats in the 2015 election. It also allows Sturgeon the opportunity to choose her own Deputy First Minister for the Holyrood parliament -- effectively two for the price of one.

I'm incredibly sad to see Alex Salmond go, and a part of me still wishes he could have been talked out of falling on his sword. He's been such a staple of Scottish political life for so long that the thought of someone else standing at the dispatch box is genuinely difficult to get my head around. There's also the principle of the matter: Salmond has behaved with integrity throughout his political life, and it seems mighty unfair that someone of his character is stepping down while the assorted pirates and cutthroats of the LibLabCon "Better Together" alliance are (for now, anyway) congratulating themselves and each other on a smear campaign well done and/or being measured for their ermine robes. (Little known fact: he donates a third of his salary to charity every year. The fact that he has never publicised this says a lot about the sort of person he is.) That said, it's becoming increasingly clear that, despite standing down as party leader and First Minister, he has no intention of disappearing into the shadows. And it strikes me that a renegade Salmond, unshackled from the responsibilities of First Minister, could well prove to be far more of a thorn in the side of the British state than he ever was in office.

Sunday, 9 November 2014

Bona sort, Catalunya!

Today, the people of Catalonia go to the polls in a historic independence referendum. They extended a great deal of support and goodwill to the Scottish independence campaign in the run-up to the referendum on the 18th September, so it's only fair to return the favour and wish them the very best of luck.

Bona sort, Catalunya! Hopefully you'll manage to achieve what we couldn't.

Thursday, 6 November 2014

Flaming effigies and flaming morons

Live from the heart of Middle England...

Last night, Guy Fawkes Night, the people of Lewes in East Sussex participated in an annual local tradition of burning effigies of public figures they don't like. This year, one of the star attractions, and the subject of considerable media attention, was a giant Alex Salmond figure, wearing  accompanied by a smaller effigy of the Loch Ness Monster. This event was gleefully trailed on Twitter by the Tory-controlled local council, and provoked a veritable shitstorm of online attention. The official line is that the police intervened and confiscated the effigies following multiple complaints, though eyewitness reports state that the Salmond effigy, or another just like it, was in fact stuffed with fireworks and blown to smithereens.

Ordinarily I wouldn't get particularly concerned about this sort of behaviour. Politicians, for better or for worse, are public figures and invariably end up on the receiving end of a lot of ire, some deserved, some not. As far as I'm concerned, Alex Salmond is that rare breed -- an honourable politician -- and has done nothing to deserve such opprobrium. That said, if you live deep in the heart of Daily Mail-reading, UKIP-loving Middle England, you may well disagree. From their point of view, Salmond is the monster who came close to breaking up Our Glorious Union (TM) -- in their fevered imaginations some sort of modern day Hitler (you know, as opposed to an actual modern day Hitler like that beer-swilling goon they themselves worship in worryingly high numbers). And of course, stunts like this are nothing new. Plenty of effigies of Margaret Thatcher, for instance, have been burned throughout the UK (though, in my not entirely unbiased opinion, she did far more to deserve such treatment). No, the really sick part is the inclusion in the burning of "Yes" and "45%" symbols. By doing that, the people involved were responsibly for symbolically burning not just a politician but also 45% -- 1.6 million -- of a country's population.

Of course, this is far from the most offensive thing the people of Lewes have done. A couple of years ago, they burned an effigy of Angela Merkel, performing a Nazi salute and wearing the Iron Cross. Stay classy, Lewes.

Monday, 3 November 2014

Harper's bizarre

Striking vintage photograph of Jessica Harper from one of my all-time favourite films, Dario Argento's SUSPIRIA.

Sunday, 2 November 2014

Musical musings: Under the Skin

Jonathan Glazer's UNDER THE SKIN is a bizarre and hypnotic film that I'm not altogether sure I actually like. It's certainly unforgettable, though, with a terrific performance by Scarlett Johansson and a view of Glasgow that's totally different from anything I've ever seen before. (It helps, I suppose, that we're seeing it through the eyes of an extra-terrestrial, to whom all human behaviour seems alien.) It's a film I definitely intend to revisit before the end of the year, so I can form a more definite opinion of it before drawing up my annual Top 10.

One thing's for sure, a huge part of what makes the film so eerie and unnerving is the fabulous score my Mica Levi. I normally dislike atonal stuff (I once got into virtual fisticuffs on a message board for rather glibly suggesting that the score to the American remake of THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO, by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, didn't actually constitute music), but for some reason I adore this. The track above, "Death", is my favourite of the bunch.