Archive for the ‘Politics and news’ Category
Brave the Scotland
I went to see Brave at the cinema the other night. You’ll perhaps have heard the fuss – it’s a Disney/Pixar film set in a mythical Scotland about a young princess who tries to get out of being married off. With a cast packed full of well-kent Scottish actors, it promised to be a fresh and entertaining film about (if not technically from) Scotland. The Scottish Government, sensing an opportunity to sell the country as a brand, jumped on the bandwagon, and lo, the hype began.
Given the huge publicity, I felt it would be interesting to go and watch it. Not that this blog post is a mere review. Though if I can indulge you for a paragraph, I’d say that the characters were fun and splendidly voiced, the animation was gorgeous, the script was funny in places and generally avoided stomach-churning cliche, and the story a little thin, plodding and uninteresting.
No, instead, my thoughts drifted – and this may be an indictment of the film – towards the marketing hype. Given the lush portrayals of dramatic Scottish scenery (apparently heavily researched by the film-makers), there was a clear opportunity to push the brand of Scotland to a world of potential tourists.
But the problem is, the Scotland of Brave simply doesn’t exist. The setting is entirely fantasy, and is portrayed via animation. While apparently real places, such as castles, informed the shapes and texture of what we saw in Brave, there is nowhere you can visit to say “this is Brave country”. Not only is this a non-starter, it’s actually a potentially dangerous line of thinking – attracting and receiving tourists should be about exceeding expectations, and not about building up unrealistic expectations that will only be dashed by the eventual truth.
It makes me think about the misused opportunity of Tobermory, dressed up to be the setting for the popular childrens’ TV show Balamory. There was a huge tourism boom from the show, but I’ve heard more than a few stories of people whose children were sorely disappointed by the reality. Their favourite characters, it turned out, didn’t actually live there, the weather was miserable, and there’s frankly not a lot to do in Tobermory unless you fancy visiting a pub, the distillery, the arts centre or the chocolate shop, or engaging in hikes and other outdoor activities. That’s not to say that Tobermory is a disappointing destination – far from it, it’s beautiful and there’s lots to do. The problem is that it is Tobermory, not Balamory. Of course it will be a disappointing place when you present misleading or inaccurate images of it.
The problem extends to the big screen, too. Think of the most famous films that aren’t just about or from Scotland but heavily feature its scenery, culture and very essence. They mostly fall in to one of two camps: horror, and cheese.
The horror and cheese camps
In this first category of films, I would argue, are ones like The Wicker Man or Trainspotting. Now by “horror” I don’t mean the horror film genre, though The Wicker Man clearly belongs there. I mean horror in the general sense, in that this category of film presents a horrific view of Scotland. Trainspotting, for instance, is a magnificent film – grim, gritty, funny, poignant, and a brutal potrayal of drug abuse and addiction in Edinburgh. What it doesn’t do, however, is make you want to visit the city or the country. Meanwhile The Wicker Man boasts some lovely scenery, but it’s hardly an advert for warm Scottish hospitality.
I’d even add Gregory’s Girl into this category. It’s a heartwarming story of adolescence, though by the way I found it an underwhelming, boring and incredibly dated film. It’s “horror” for my purposes because it shows a dreadful side of Scotland: the ugly and soulless world of post-war new towns. Nobody will watch Gregory’s Girl and say “that’s beautiful, let’s go there”.
In the cheese camp are those films which misrepresent Scotland visually, culturally or otherwise to an over-the-top degree. Brave, of course, fits in here, as does the historical void that is Braveheart. Brave I have already commented on; and Braveheart gives only a Hollywood picture of Scottish early medieval history; and even the scenery is mostly Ireland.
By misleading people about the scenery, and by overdosing on the tartan and “hoots, mon” cliches, you will either put people off or disappoint them. Though perhaps anyone who wants to visit Scotland on the back of the scenery portrayed in Brave is probably stupid enough to deserve being disappointed.
Striking the balance
Now my point is not to deconstruct the artistic and creative merits of these films, but to put them in the context of Scotland’s tourist industry and the government’s commendable desire to “back a winner” that can turn cinema seats into hotel beds. Whether or not they are good films or not is irrelevant to my argument that they are counter-productive to the idea of selling Scotland to potential visitors.
Sell them horror, and they’ll not want to come. Sell them cheese, and at best they’ll see through it; and at worst they will visit then be hugely disappointed.
What films, then, exist in the middle ground between horror and cheese? What cinematic portrayals of Scotland have the right balance of beauty and realism, painting an attractive picture of Scotland without being way off the mark? And which ones, more importantly, back up that balance with good quality film-making that is likely to sell cinema tickets, stick in people’s minds, and be attractive to Scottish marketing budgets?
There are very few films in this middle ground that I can think of, that are or would have been attractive “riders” for the Scottish Government and tourist authorities to back. So I asked on Twitter, summarising much of the above in a few tweets and seeking suggestions for titles.
Examples of middle ground films
One response I got was Local Hero. With a mix of beautiful scenery and a classic tale of the oligarch versus the everyman, it’s a positive sort of message to get behind. Though I must confess to being less than wowed by the film, and the sad decline of the village of Pennan is testament to the lack of significant impact the film had in terms of tourism to Scotland.
Another suggestion was a marvellous film I had until then forgotten about: Restless Natives. I watched it once years ago, and while this 1980s film will I am sure it feel dated today, I really enjoyed it and ought to track it down to watch again. It tells the story of two young men in Edinburgh who, seeking a thrill, don ridiculous disguises and begin holding up tour buses on Scottish roads and extorting money. Far from terrifying and deterring visitors, their cheery, non-violent demeanour turns them into cult heroes and major tourist attractions, with visitors flocking to the country in the hope that they might meet them. I don’t remember everything about the film, but remember laughing a lot and seeing a lot of beautiful countryside. Maybe this, with a balance of good Scottish humour and good Scottish scenery, is the key. The film was not successful abroad, but maybe it was the sort of thing that should have been jumped on by the tourist industry and government.
Wracking my brains, only two other “middle ground” films come to mind.
One is Doomsday, which I reviewed here, a science fiction thriller. Admittedly there are elements of both horror and cheese in this film, and while both are done firmly tongue-in-cheek it’s probably not politically correct enough to be the sort of film that would sell Scotland to the masses. Also, although there is a lot of great scenery, key elements of it are filmed in South Africa, which is a disappointment.
The second is Seachd, the first feature film to be made in Gaelic. It made some headlines upon its release, not least because of its pioneering move to bring Gaelic to the big screen. I’ve not seen it, but from the little I’ve heard and read, I understand that it has some fantasy elements but is nevertheless rooted in real ideas, real culture and – importantly – real scenery. And not just any scenery, but some of Skye’s and Scotland’s most stunning. Was this a rider that the Scottish tourism moneymen failed to back?
So with only two films in that middle ground that I can think of, I’m left wondering whether the Scottish Government has been backing the wrong horses simply because there aren’t enough of the right kinds of horse. In which case, that’s a separate debate about the support of film-making in Scotland. Of course, I’m far from a cinema buff, so perhaps I’m missing some titles that would be fine examples of how to sell Scotland.
And please don’t mistake this post as resting on the premise that cinema exists only as a hook for tourism. It doesn’t, and it should never exist as a creative industry purely for economic or political ends. However, occasionally there will be big hits that unintentionally or otherwise have the potential to sell Scotland abroad, and in those instances it’s only right that the government and tourist authorities look at how they can get involved in supporting the film and encouraging people to visit on the back of watching them.
The problem is, of course, and the point I’m hopefully making in this post, is that there is a lack of films that might work as a magnet for tourists that portray neither an ultra-realistic image nor a cliche-ridden schmaltzy image. Brave, I’d argue, fails to do this no matter how good it is as a film.
What, then, would work? What films fit that difficult middle ground?
If you can think of any films that are neither horror nor cheese, and which portray the very best of Scotland in a way that could sell the country better than Brave, Braveheart or any others, then let’s hear them.
For a little over four years, I led a secret double life.
I ran, unknown to anyone, the local news satire site “Inversnecky“. Basically something like The Onion or The Daily Mash but for Inverness, it was a satirical look at local news, giving more than the occasional ribbing to those responsible for the city and some of our wonderful local pantomime baddies such as Tesco.
I really enjoyed writing it, and was determined that I didn’t want it to be about me, so I remained anonymous (only my wife Nicole knew). On a couple of occasions I even found myself in conversation with people about Inversnecky in which I had to be careful to bite my tongue and not divulge more than I should.
In the end, though, I decided to give it up. While Inversnecky gained a small cult following, it really was small and the hit-rate on the site wasn’t all that great. That in part was due to another reason I stopped: I just couldn’t keep up with the rate of articles required for a good, consistent satire site, even with the occasional and very welcome contributor who would write with an article idea. I could have made the site a more professional one, I could have expanded the range of content, and I perhaps could have done extra things like come up with t-shirts or a guerilla marketing campaign offline.
I didn’t though, due to a mixture of a lack of skills and creativity, insufficient knowledge of local goings-on, and also life was busy. I had lots else I did with my time, and I really didn’t want to spend time thinking up and writing articles or recruiting trusted others. Moreover, doing it more seriously would have required keeping up with local news, and that would have meant regularly buying the Inverness Courier and Highland News. I have limits, you know.
Perhaps the biggest reason for stopping Inversnecky, though, was a bit of boredom. You can only squeeze so much original content out of the developments in a modestly-sized city, and there are only so many articles you can write about council incompetence, Tesco hegemony and other local in-jokes before you feel like you’re repeating yourself.
As such, I figured it would be better to quit rather than to keep flogging a slowly dying horse, so I announced in Inversnecky’s final post that I would be “retiring” the blog. I also, in the interests of accountability, “came out” as the anonymous creator and writer.
A few months down the line, I am able to sit back and reflect a little on Inversnecky, and I have to confess I did enjoy writing it and I am very proud of what I came up with. The writing is a bit crude and simple in places, and it’s definitely from the more aggressive end of satire, but it was fun to be able to write something that was “no holds barred”.
So if you’ll excuse the completely self-indulgent blog post, I would like to reflect on all that by sharing what are, at this precise moment in time, my ten favourite posts:
1. The Polish phrasebook – Perhaps my favourite creation was the site’s Polish phrasebook. When I started Inversnecky, the Polish population in the town was still huge – at its peak it was reported to be 10% of the city – and it really changed the nature of Inverness (very much for the better). I figured it would be good to come up with some helpful phrases to help locals engage with their new Polish neighbours, and so the Polish phrasebook was born.
Anyone with a passing knowledge of Polish football goalkeepers will probably be quite familiar with most of the phrases, and it is my biggest regret about Inversnecky’s low readership that “dóbrý dudek” didn’t take off as a local greeting.
2. Year of Highland Culture Comes To An End – …demolition of Eden Court begins. After all the razzmatazz and effort involved in the Year of Highland Culture in 2007, the highlight of which was the redevelopment of Eden Court, I thought it would be nice and ironic to imagine that it would all be demolished again afterwards.
3. 30 minutes’ less drinking time on train – With more than a little personal experience informing this article, I decided to paint the announcement of shorter train times to Edinburgh as being about cutting down on drinking time.
4. Police patrol railway line for LibDems – A story about police attempts to stop trespassing on the trainline past Culloden happened at around the same time as the massacre of the LibDems in the 2011 Scottish Parliament elections. A connection was just begging to be made.
5. Something interesting happens in Milton of Leys – Yeah I know. I think I took satire into the realms of the unbelievable here.
6. Tattooists protest against defence cuts – One of the lesser-considered factors when Fort George was under threat was the effect on the industries that depend on the military.
7. Balvonie encampment urged to move on – One of the numerous stories about illegal traveller camps coincided with the controversy about the Scottish Housing Expo. I decided to merge the stories.
8. Outbreak of beard-stroking sweeps Inverness – There’s a curious, and I am entirely sure quite coincidental, habit of the city’s abandoned old buildings to catch fire in unexplained ways. As I say, curious.
9. NHS prepares for outbreak of Gaelic – Two healthcare stories emerged around the same time a few years back. One was about preparing against swine flu; the other was a controversy about Gaelic signs at Raigmore Hospital. You can guess what I did with that.
10. Tesco chairs Asda enquiry – More sad than satirical, but there you go. Tesco (The Evil Supermarket Company) were one of my favourite targets in Inversnecky.
So that’s a wee taster of the news satire site that claimed to be “Inverness’s least regular and worst informed news source”. No more Inversnecky, but it was quite fun while it lasted. I’m glad I quit when I did, though, as all good things come to an end.
If you’ve followed this blog for a while, you’ll be aware of a couple of posts I wrote a while back on the issue of the completion of the Inverness west link. I’ll not bore you with the full details here (the posts themselves should be an adequate backstory), but just want to quickly summarise things here.
- The most popular option, a bridge across the Ness and Caledonian Canal to link the A82 with the Southern Distributor, was rejected by the council in favour of a route that went through Canal Park.
- The high-level bridge was costed at £67m (and was known as option 7) and the option chosen was costed at £27m (known as option 6).
- I noticed that option 7 included extra work at Tomnahurich bridge that didn’t seem essential to the completion of the link, so I wanted to know how much lower the £67m could be if it wasn’t for that extra work at Tomnahurich.
- I also noticed that option 6 was announced alongside new funding for sports facilities at Canal Park; partly to compensate for the road ploughing through it and partly to take the opportunity to develop things further. I wanted to know how much extra this money was, and therefore how much higher than £27m option 6 actually would be.
- I wrote to my four councillors and the city provost with these questions, and disgracefully I received a (fairly incomplete) response from only one of them.
- I also wrote to my MSP to ask for his input.
Thankfully, my MSP (with some chasing) managed to get the full and comprehensive answer I was looking for. Almost, anyway. Through him, a council official sent a very helpful response (I’ll happily upload it if anyone wants) that included a lot of good information, not least the fact that actually many cars travelling north into Inverness did not actually want to bypass the entire city; just avoid the congested city centre. Fair enough. That’s new information that it would have been good to know, and presumably would have been easy to supply.
The letter didn’t, however, supply the figures I wanted to answer the questions I outline in points 3 and 4 above. So I wrote back to the official who is away for a few weeks (as am I). I’ll blog again later in the summer once I hear back.
Of course, keen watchers of local matters in Inverness will be aware that there was an entirely different model being advocated all along – that of a tunnel. It seems to have merit yet to have not received any serious consideration by the council. This is worrying and represents a pretty poor approach by the council. Though it’s good to know that, according to the local rag, this will now be looked again, at least briefly. And that article notes what I fear, that the £27m v £67m may not have been the true comparison after all.
The saga continues…
So, the “no” campaign has finally launched for the Scottish independence referendum. Of course, they’re not calling themselves the “no” campaign, or indeed anything to do with the word “no”. Partly they’re trying to avoid anything negative, but partly of course it’s reflecting that, at the time of the launch, the Scottish Government’s consultation on the referendum had not yet reported so the question itself was still unknown. As such, they’re going with the title “Better Together“.
Safe to assume, though, that the question and the debate in the coming two years will be about independence for Scotland, so Better Together won’t be able avoid the “no” word for too much longer.
I could do this blog post the quick way, pointing you towards Newsnet Scotland’s excellent response to the Better Together launch’s keynote speech from Alistair Darling. Especially, I could draw you to the important point made in that article that this debate isn’t about making Scotland a “separate” country, because it already is a separate country. It’s independence that is the issue, not separation.
But I do have some further thoughts to add. And I want to make them by reflecting on some of the different generations of arguments against independence, and setting that as the context for today’s “no” arguments.
The intellect argument
Years ago, people would argue that Scotland could not manage as an independent country because we had second-rate politicians who just were not of the calibre required for the job of running a country. This was always insulting to hear – doubly so, and equally disappointing, to hear from Scots – because any country is capable of making the best decisions it can. Scots are an intelligent bunch of folk, responsible for the Enlightenment, disproportionately influential in the creation of the British Empire, and heavily present in UK Governments.
All the main UK parties have had hugely intelligent, heavyweight politicians from Scotland among their front benches, and to say that Scotland couldn’t draw on the finest minds from across the political spectrum in shaping its own discourse is bizarre.
Which reminds me of one of the strangest arguments against independence that you hear – criticisms of Alex Salmond and the SNP. So, you don’t like Salmond or the SNP? Fine. Make sure you never vote for them. It’s quite feasible that in an independent Scotland the SNP never gets a sniff of power. You never hear Unionist politicians asked to describe how good an independent Scotland might be if their party ran it. I’d love to hear their answers – do they trust their own talent?
The size argument
Believe it or not, some people think that Scotland is too small to be independent. Yet about a third of the world’s independent countries are smaller than Scotland, and with the exception of France the UK is surrounded by small countries – Iceland, Norway, Denmark, the Netherlands, Belgium and the Republic of Ireland. Size is no guarantor of viability, and in the list of richest countries by GDP only the USA stands out as a big country in the top ten, and there are barely a handful you could describe as such in the top twenty.
Many small countries are key actors on the world stage, including in the European Union and NATO. By saying that a small country is not a basis for independence, Unionists are actually insulting some of the UK’s closest allies and many of our former colonies.
Yes the UK is one of the world’s largest – though not richest – economies, and has a large voting weight in the EU and a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. But what good is that, if the foreign policy of that UK is marred by scars such as the Iraq war? Many small countries are much better advocates for international peace and security than the UK. And in any case, an independent Scotland and remnant UK working together would pack a bigger punch in the EU and on the diplomatic stage on the occasions they agree on things (which, I reckon, will be the majority of the time).
The principle argument
This argument is quite a theoretical one. Many argue that in an era of increased cooperation and interdependence, countries should be working together not coming apart. This contains both capitalist arguments (it is bad for business for countries to be kept apart and for boundaries to be erected) and socialist arguments (in the face of globalisation, there should be no new barriers to solidarity between working people).
The problem here, though, is that it is an argument against independent countries all over the place. It’s an argument against having a distinct United Kingdom and in favour of something like a European superstate or a world government. Now those are perfectly intellectually sustainable arguments, and from the point of view of a strong internationalist or a classical anarchist, removing the concept of independent countries and governments is one to consider. But you cannot argue that while at the same time advocating the continuation of a United Kingdom. If you believe that independent countries are the main currency of global cooperation, then the question is simply whether Scotland or the UK as currently constituted should be one of them.
The economic argument
This is probably the most frequently heard one: that Scotland simply couldn’t manage economically. Well, if that is the case then it’s a damning indictment of the UK’s economic policy that its northern corner remains so economically backward and undeveloped that it couldn’t stand on its own two feet. Surely it should be the job of the UK economy to generate prosperity for all its parts, not leave one part as a helpless backwater whose constant subsidy by richer parts is morally and economically unsustainable.
Of course, we all know that’s not the case, and even Unionists broadly agree that Scotland would survive economically, and indeed do quite well, if it was independent – they just question whether that’s the best way forward.
The facts are even clearer than this. Scotland would be the sixth richest country in the world if it was independent, and that is based on independent figures. Read this article for a bit of background.
The bureaucratic argument
This is the argument that, separate from questions about its viability once it is independent, the mere process of creating an independent Scotland is too costly. There would need to be a new BBC set up, a new armed forces, a new DVLA, a new welfare state, and so on.
There are three ways to look at this. Firstly, how can it be justified that there are already distinct bureaucracies in Scotland, for instance relating to health or education? If we should avoid unnecessary duplication then we should abolish political and administrative devolution in Scotland. Taken to its logical next step, it’s an argument against local government having any sort of power, if decisions are best taken in a centralised way and resources are best used in a pooled way.
The second approach is to consider that much of the infrastructure already exists for Scottish services. There are already facilities for running a welfare system in Scotland; it’s just a case of doing so in a way that suits Scotland. There are already Scottish parts of the armed forces: it’s just a case of ensuring they are run from Scotland.
The third approach is, of course, to consider that you do not need an independent Scotland to end up with sub-standard public services and bureaucracy. Just look at how the United Kingdom has served Scotland, with a disgusting welfare policy introduced by a government in London with little mandate in Scotland, and with cut after cut to our armed forces. The UK, it seems, is a terrible threat to our public services, and with Scotland’s increased wealth independence is likely to address this.
The historical and cultural argument
This came through strongly in the Better Together launch, and there is a lot about it on the Better Together website. In their “positive case“, you can read a lot of odd statements. There is the implication, for instance, that Scotland would somehow be less multicultural – and to bring demographics into this is dangerous territory.
There is the argument that we have come through so much historically, such as the World Wars. As if independence would erase that history. And is that not insulting to the countries we fought alongside, who we were not in political union with? Unless Alistair Darling would have preferred that we fought WW2 as a 51st US state or as a republic of the Soviet Union.
Scotland will be as close socially and culturally as ever to the other nations of the British Isles, if not closer. It is a rather totalitarian and isolationist argument to suggest that countries require to be politically united in order to have good social and cultural links. It’s also, incidentally, jingoistic and big-headed for Better Together to claim that “As Scots we believe there’s nowhere better”. This is the sort of chip-on-shoulder, “wha’s like us?” attitude that holds Scotland back. The idea of independence is not that we are better than anyone, but that we are good enough to do a good job for ourselves and our international allies.
Think of the connections we have with English-speaking countries like Ireland, Canada, the USA, Australia or New Zealand, and Nordic countries such as Norway, Denmark and Iceland. We get on brilliantly with these close allies, and the fact that we are not in political union with them bears no relevance upon that.
So, what now?
I am keenly open to good arguments in favour of maintaining the United Kingdom. But if the above is the sort of standard we should expect, then slowly but surely people will be persuaded.
If there are good “no” arguments I’ve missed, then I’d love to hear them and will of course treat all comments respectfully.
I voted today in the local council elections. Being something of a politics and electoral systems geek, I always enjoy voting. Especially when it is the Single Transferable Vote, introduced for Scottish councils in 2007.
STV is by far my favourite electoral system, because it is roughly proportional, it gives you multiple representatives (a good thing where a single representative, like with our MPs, may be hated or mistrusted by a signficant minority), and allows you to make preferences rather than a stark, absolute choice. Politics is about relativity rather than absolutes, and our voting system should reflect that too.
The problem today, however, came in with deciding who to vote for. I believe our council to be thoroughly deficient, filled mostly with second-rate councillors who lack much in the way of vision and creativity for this city and the wider region. That’s evident in some of the terrible planning decisions made over the years in Inverness, plus the spectacular lack of leadership in representing our city externally.
From the poorly-managed development and transport infrastructure of our city, to backwards decisions like Inverness’s absurd and repressive midnight curfew, and then of course the disgrace that was the decision about the completion of the city’s bypass that I’ve blogged about before (and will do again in the coming weeks).
Inverness getting its own local authority, like most of Scotland’s other cities, would be a good way of starting to address this mismanagement; would directly-elected mayors. That’s one constitutional issue where I am impressed by developments in England.
More than anything, then, the council needs fresh blood. Last time in 2007, when I was living in Glasgow, I gave my first preference to the one SNP candidate and second preference to the Greens. This time around, as part of the SNP’s nationwide push to win more councils, they are putting up two candidates in a lot of places, including my constituency here in Inverness – one an incumbent, the other a new face. The latter got my first preference.
Disappointingly there is no Green candidate to then transfer to, the only other party standing besides the untouchable Labour, Tory and LibDem options being the terrifying Scottish Christian Party. So my second vote will go not to the incumbent SNP member, but to an independent candidate who is standing again, for whom I have a great deal of time and who I consider an exception to the rabble of incompetence that purvades Highland Council. It’s the first time I’ve ever rejected the opportunity to vote for an SNP candidate in any election. What’s happening to me?
The SNP are working hard, I understand, to win Highland Council, as they are in many places, not least in the well-publicised battle for Glasgow City. STV being a bit more complicated to count, however, means that the results will not come through until later on Friday by which time I will be away for the weekend. Perhaps I’ll blog again next week reflecting on what could be some very interesting results. It’s an exciting time in Scottish politics, and while I don’t hold to the view that these council elections are a litmus for the independence referendum, today’s vote will certainly have an impact on vital local services in the years to come and the relative strength and confidence of the political parties.
Whether or not it will improve the quality of decisions being made about Inverness, however… well, hope springs eternal.
“Don’t let politicians interfere in marriage” the campaign group Scotland for Marriage tells us, at least according to an email someone has forwarded to me that includes the above image. This is in response to the Scottish Government’s consultation on legalising gay marriage, something the government has expressed they are likely to come down in favour of.
Absolutely. I couldn’t agree more. Marriage is something politicians should have nothing to do with. Imagine – passing laws that might impact on marriage! A truly dreadful idea! But to prevent politicians interfering in marriage, I’m afraid we will need to do more than simply prevent gay marriage:
- We need to remove all laws on domestic violence, so often perpetrated within marriages by those who regard spouses as possessions rather than equals, because it’s just political interference.
- We need to repeal all legislation that prohibits forced marriages, because this is simply political interference.
- We need to remove the laws that prevent child marriage, because the right to marry a child is something that politicians have stopped us doing.
- We must get rid of the political decision that polygamy is wrong, because who is a politician to decide how many wives you can have?
- We should stop all this crazy bureaucracy about who can perform a marriage ceremony and when, because the prohibition of sham marriages is just politicians interfering!
- Laws about when and how you can divorce should be scrapped, because any legal protection of your right to leave a marriage is just political interference!
- Laws that incentivise (or indeed de-incentivise) marriage through tax or benefits are just wrong, because that’s just politicians interfering in marriage!
- Any state funding for relationship counselling services should stop now! Otherwise it’s just “big brother” interfering in our marriages!
- The official registration of marriages by local authorities must stop now, allowing us to declare ourselves married to whoever and whatever we want, whenever we want. Some bit of paper we’re forced to apply for in advance that tells us that we’re married is just politicians trying to run our lives for us.
I could go on, but I would only devastate myself with the appalling realisation of the extent to which politicians are interfering in marriage. Right now, in this country, perhaps even in your community and involving people you might know – politicians are dictating how marriage works! It must stop now!
Save marriage from politicians. This could be your last chance.
In another piece of local history I knew nothing about until I visited its site, here are some photos from Ormond Castle, which I walked around the other weekend.
It’s not really a castle any more – in fact, not even “not really”, more “not at all”. It’s just a hill, flat at the top, that you think might once have been a good location for a castle. Which you would be right in thinking, because indeed it once was.
In the thirteenth century, according to both Wikipedia and the plaques adorning the cairn, the castle was where Andrew de Moray raised his standard during the Wars of Independence. He was a key ally of William Wallace, though died from injuries sustained at the Battle of Stirling Bridge in 1297.
As I say, there is a cairn, with a couple of plaques and a saltire on a flagpole. But not much more to indicate its historical importance, nor had I heard of it before. No doubt in many other countries, sites like this would be part of a nationally-renowned trail, something that commemorates key locations in Scotland’s history.
Not here; such things would be deemed “political”, perceptibly playing into the hands of nationalists. But what sort of timorous country would be ashamed of a period in its past when it fought for its very survival? Whether or not one believes that independence for Scotland was right then or is right now, it was certainly an important era in the country’s development which – thanks to the unhelpful romanticism of Braveheart et al – is not properly known.
Now of course, modern Scottish nationalism is a forward-looking movement and not one stuck in the past. But I can’t help thinking that if – or when – the referendum is won in 2014 and Scotland becomes independent, we’ll see a bit more exploration of our country’s history, turning the subject from a political football into something that is quite normal, as in other countries. Places like Ormond Castle deserve to be less the possession of romantics and distantly-focussed historical nationalists, and be instead the preserve of the entire country’s heritage.
I blogged nearly a month ago about the terrible decision being put to Highland Council to drive the final part of the western end of Inverness’s bypass through a lovely park. As you’ll read in that post, I’d written to my four local councillors, the city’s provost and my MSP about some of the issues around the decision. I’d asked some questions that sought to challenge the claim that option 6, the recommended route, was as cheap as it appeared, and that option 7, the most popular and least environmentally-destructive route, needed to be as expensive as it was.
Since then, I’ve had only two responses, both somewhat “holding” messages. One was a brief email from one of my councillors, saying that she needed to talk to the council staff involved and would get back to me. The other was from my MSP, Fergus Ewing, who gave a bit more details relating to the route never being a part of the trunk route network, and who promised to get back to me with more information about my specific questions once he’d got it from the council.
Now it all seems a little academic, seeing as the recommendation that went to the full council, to go ahead with option 6, was approved on the 1st of March. Although the minutes are yet to be published on the council website, I was astonished to discover just the other day that the decision was unanimous – every single councillor in attendance supported option 6.
That no councillor sought to reflect public opinion or challenge the facts of the recommendation is a most curious demonstration of local democracy. My points still stand, and my desire to get the facts I am seeking remain. If it turns out that councillors have been acting without the full picture, or more worryingly have neglected to seek it themselves, then it would be a terrible indictment of local government.
I really ought to chase up those councillors I’ve yet to hear back from. Nearly a month is too long to go without so much as an acknowledgement of my email. Watch this space.
Debates are widespread in the media lately concerning proposals by the governments in both Edinburgh and London to extend the right to marry to gay people.
I heard Scotland’s – and indeed Britain’s – most senior Roman Catholic clergyman, Cardinal Keith O’Brien, speak on Radio Five Live about the issue this morning. His words were the most bizarre and illogical demonstration of ignorance I’ve heard on the topic for some time.
He kicks off by saying that civil partnerships are available to gay people. On this he is right. But let’s not forget his church spoke out against these civil partnerships at the time of their introduction, and so to suddenly appear to be holding them up as a reason not to be doing something else seems opportunistic and contradictory. And while civil partnerships offer most of the legal protection of marriage, and are a welcome improvement on the lack of recognition of gay relationships that existed before, they really aren’t enough.
When civil partnerships were introduced I was rather against the proposal, because it fell short of marriage and thus prevented lifelong gay couples – particularly Christian ones – to enjoy what the Christian understanding of marriage brings. Even the name being different (“civil partnership” as opposed to “marriage”) makes it out to be something lesser, inferior, a second-rate compensation. So I am glad that there are now plans afoot by both the Scottish and UK governments to permit gay marriage.
Much of the church (though less than you’d think, in my view) has been up in arms about this. Not least the Roman Catholic church – whose clergy, let’s remember, are not permitted to experience this relationship which they claim to understand well and which they seek to deny to others.
Cardinal O’Brien said in the interview that “marriage is a universal human right and recognised as such” – yet it’s hardly universal if he wants to exclude gays from enjoying that human right.
He also tries to appeal to “nature”:
“Natural law would define marriage such as I have said. [It is] not natural, because homosexuality is no way in which one can procreate children.”
Okay, so the cardinal wants to talk about what’s natural. Well, that’s open to all sorts of differences of opinion, but there’s a sinister element to this line of thinking. If we think about natural law, the survival of the fittest is one of the most basic elements to it. The animals that don’t get ripped apart and that find a mate are the ones that survive and whose bloodline form the future. Is the cardinal condoning “survival of the fittest” violence and possibly even unconsensual sex? Of course he’s not, I wouldn’t believe for a second that he would, but that’s the logical destination to his “natural law” line of thinking, so it’s a careless argument to adopt.
However, let’s be generous to the cardinal for a moment and accept hypothetically that if something is unnatural it should not be permitted. On that basis, here’s a proposition for you: swimming is an unnatural thing for human beings.
Think about it. We’re not designed for swimming. Our bodies are the wrong shape, our hands and feet are not big enough, we carry too little body fat for buoyancy and warmth, we have too much body hair for good ergonomics (well, some of us do!), our respiratory system is totally unsuited to the task, and importantly we are not equipped with gills and therefore cannot breathe in water.
Fair enough of course, because we are a land-based species: swimming for us is unnatural. So should it be banned alongside all those other “unnatural” things like flying, homosexuality, or even the use of bionic limbs? Seemingly yes, if we deem as legally impermissible anything which is regarded as unnatural practice.
So if an opponent of gay marriage wants to talk about what’s “natural”, it’s a very dangerous route to go down.
The argument I most want to explore, however, is the cardinal’s biggest mistake. He says:
“Marriage has always been recognised as a union of one man and one woman, living together in love for one another and for the procreation and education of children.”
That’s a helpful and concise definition to work with. But it’s also factually incorrect in all sorts of ways. Let’s take it bit by bit:
“Marriage has always been recognised as a union of one man and one woman…“. No it hasn’t. Many cultures and legal jurisdictions permit and indeed encourage children to marry. It’s not uncommon in some parts of the world for older men to marry young girls. Also, some authorities throughout history have barred mixed-race marriages (Nazi Germany and Apartheid South Africa spring to mind). Some countries permit polygamy, which in patriarchal societies is usually the marriage of one man to more than one woman. Regardless of how abhorrent you might regard these practices, they can be within their own jurisdictions entirely legal. So whether you like it or not, marriage has already been, and currently is, more complicated than just a man and a woman.
“…living together in love…” Well, you hear of marriages of convenience, for instance for immigration reasons. Sure, this might not be a practice to be encouraged, but if both parties freely choose to get married in those circumstances, then there are exceptions to this supposed rule that it’s about living together in love. And what about couples who for whatever practical reasons are forced to live apart rather than together? Clearly in Cardinal O’Brien’s view they are not properly married.
“...for the procreation and education of children.” The absurdity of this statement should be self-evident. The cardinal owes an apology to all childless and childfree married couples, especially those who find they are unable to procreate despite a desire to. What a heartless implication, that such a marriage is less valid than one with children.
Two other statements he makes are equally unfounded.
Firstly, “One cannot change the definition of what marriage is,” he goes on, “because you cannot just make one word mean something else.” Yes, cardinal, you can. Just flick through various eras’ copies of dictionaries and you’ll find plenty examples. “Gay” has a meaning today it didn’t in the past.
Secondly, he argues, “Marriage has always been defined as one man and one woman and we cannot just change that.” – well, yes we can. Marriage is defined by law. If we choose to raise the age of consent so children cannot marry, we can do so. If we choose to legislate to bar forced marriage, then, yes, we can “just change that”. It’s a matter of public policy and law, a matter of – in this country at least – an act of parliament. There have been changes to the laws governing the issues surrounding marriage, too – for instance where and how marriage services can take place, the rights of married people, and the laws around divorce.
Marriage is actually a constantly – if slowly – evolving thing. It does, clearly, change. And therefore we can legally change it again to include homosexual couples. If lawmakers deem it desirable, then we absolutely can “just change that”. The cardinal may not like it, but such a move would unquestionably be a constitutionally faultless process.
And here, I think, we get to the core of the point: the difference between civic and ecclesiastical law, or in other words the difference between public legality and private morality.
The cardinal wants to define marriage in one way, and within the realms of his authority he is perfectly entitled to do so. Every explanation I’ve heard of proprosals for gay marriage in this country includes the right for any church organisation not to conduct or recognise gay marriages if they do not want to. They might be criticised for that, but if they genuinely feel such unions do not count as marriage then they should not be forced to conduct such ceremonies.
On this, the cardinal should be assured. If the Roman Catholic Church in Scotland wants never to permit or conduct a gay marriage, then they never need do so.
The law, then, only really affects those beyond their membership (and it would be a very stupid prospective couple that would seek to be married in a church that opposed their intended marriage). And why should those outwith a church have their proposed right to marriage criticised? How dare the church tell people who aren’t its members what to do? Cardinal O’Brien has no more right to tell a non-Catholic couple whether they can or cannot marry, than any random gay couple has the right to tell him what he can have for his breakfast.
As I’ve often previously alluded in this blog, the freedom of belief and worship in this country does not come hand in hand with a freedom to impose the consequences of those beliefs and worship on those who do not choose to be a part of it.
If there are to be sound arguments presented by elements within the church (or indeed by anyone else) against gay marriage, then it’s not enough to say that marriage cannot be changed, because it can. It’s not enough to call it unnatural, because even if it was then let’s ban swimming too. And above all, it’s not justified for the church to tell those outwith its flock what to do.
If there are any arguments that don’t fit the above flawed lines of reasoning, then I very much look forward to hearing them.
To conclude, my final remark on the matter lies with this magnificent comment, widely circulated since it was posted, on a Guardian article about gay marriage:
“I’ve been forced to explain homosexuality to my kids (aged 3 and 4) because their uncle is gay. This incredibly difficult and traumatic experience went as follows:
Child: Why does Uncle Bob go everywhere with Pete?
Me: Because they’re in love, just like Mummy and Daddy are.
Child: Oh. Can I have a biscuit?
We’re all scarred for life. Scarred, I tell you.”
I think Cardinal Keith O’Brien has been an ignorant and bigoted fool for his comments, but a kinder judgement would be that he’s simply making a fuss about nothing. He should go and have a biscuit instead.
If you’re interested in the controversy over the Inverness West Link, since writing this post I have worked with others to set up the Save Canal Park campaign website. There’s plenty up to date information there.
While there is much good about Inverness, there are also many things that need sorting out. Part of the problem is that in the past decade or so the city has mushroomed, with huge development and expansion that has entirely outstripped the pace of services and infrastructure. One example is the fact that transport has lagged behind the city’s growth, with many communities ill-served by buses, and of course the eastern suburbs failing to be served by a rail line that runs right through them.
On the roads, too, things are not good. With the growth of the city, capacity cannot keep up with demand. Years ago, a traffic jam was an alien concept, whereas today there are too many of them on Inverness’s main routes at rush-hour.
One long-discussed plan has been to bridge the canal and river at the south of the city to relieve the pressure on the city centre bridges, the current only options to get from the west to the east of Inverness. Look at this map, for instance:
You can see the A82 on the left of the picture, running southwest to Fort William and beyond. On the right, there is the A9 (to Perth) and the A96 (to Aberdeen). The so-called “southern distributor”, marked as the B8082, runs across the south of Inverness, connecting all those major trunk roads and essentially forming a bypass.
Only there’s a gap – you can see on the bottom left that the southern distributor hits Dores Road and then stops, with nothing connecting it to the A82. The completion of this gap is known as the Inverness West Link. Of course, the Caledonian Canal and River Ness are in the way of finishing the link, and this means that if you are travelling from the southwest and want to get east of Inverness, then you need to go through the city centre rather than just skirt the edge of the city via what would be a convenient bypass. The obvious solution would be a bridge. Any vaguely intelligent person can see that.
Obvious (or intelligent, for that matter) does not come into the thinking of Highland Council, however. This bridge has been discussed for years, and finally a consultation was launched last year about a number of options for this missing link, none of which included the obvious route for a bridge and all of which involved a bizarre collection of routes that doubled back towards the city centre (thereby defeating the purpose of a bypass), and most alarmingly carving up Canal Park.
Only after considerable protest was the consultation extended to include more options, one of which, option 7, was the obvious idea of a bridge directly from the southern distributor to the A82.
Have a look at the map above again, and you can see that where the canal and river almost meet each other, there is a green triangle of land called Canal Park. Zoom in, and ideally switch to satellite mode, and you’ll see more of it. It’s a marvellous oasis of green in a busy city and a home to a variety of sporting and other leisure activities. There’s a lovely wee lake with boats, there’s a children’s play park, a miniature railway, plus of course the city’s main leisure centre, and pitches which are the homes of Inverness’s rugby and American football clubs.
And yet it is right through Canal Park that all but option 7 would plough. And it is one of those other options, option 6, that has emerged from a council working group as the preferred option for the full council’s consideration. Compare the two options on the right (and if these images aren’t clear, find them among the presentations here on the council’s website.
You can see that option 6, rather than crossing the river and canal together in a single bridge, sweeps northwards and crosses over into Canal Park and from there crosses the canal next to the existing Tomnahurich Bridge. You therefore need to go almost into the city centre again to come back out – of course, cutting across that once-green space of Canal Park.
Compared this to option 7, which does nothing more complicated than take a direct route over the canal and river in a oner. It looks from the picture on the right that it cuts across green space, but that is in fact nothing more environmentally worthy than a disused quarry.
The working group, as I say, has gone for option 6. What a terrible choice to make. You don’t have to go far to find condemnation of this, with almost every comment you could find on the internet criticising the short-sightedness of this decision.
Of course, option 6 is cheaper. Considerably so. There is, it is claimed, no money in the coffers to pay for the high-level bridge of option 7, especially since the Scottish Government a few years back mysteriously washed their hands of the west link by claiming it wasn’t important enough to qualify for central funding.
But because of the destruction of Canal Park, doing nothing is actually better than implementing option 6. For sure, the traffic problems will remain and the west link will remain uncompleted, but this is better than losing the green space at the park. It would be much better for the council to implement no option at all, hold option 7 as a prospective plan, and do whatever it can to lever money out of the Scottish Government (our local MSP is a minister in the SNP government, after all) or even, if necessary, the private sector.
And option 7 doesn’t even need to be as expensive as it is claimed. Part of the plan for option 7 involves an extra bridge at Tomnahurich (so if one has to close for canal traffic, there is always another open). Great idea, but not so urgent at this stage. Why can’t option 7 be costed and implemented with the extra canal bridge to be installed at a later date when there is more money? There’s no need to ruin Canal Park just because of some poor bean-counting.
One argument in favour of option 6 is that it will not actually destroy the whole of the park: as you can see, it merely cuts along the edge of it. But that’s enough of an impact for some facilities to be lost and for others to be disrupted by the constant noise of a busy road. This presents safety issues for what is supposed to be a family-friendly open space for people to be free to run, walk, play and enjoy the fun of exercise, sport and relaxation.
Moreover, the lovely walk along the thin slither of land between the river and the canal, which takes you a few miles south to Dochgarroch locks, would be made all the trickier for having to cross what is in effect a bypass in order to reach it.
I don’t really get involved in much in the way of active politics these days, but I am absolutely furious at the decision to recommend option 6. It is desperately short-sighted and will have a terrible environmental impact on Inverness. I’m also somewhat concerned at the lack of recent activity from an action group set up to oppose anything other than option 7.
I hate being a “disgruntled of Tunbridge Wells” about things like this, but do feel increasingly angry at the terrible decision-making we are subject to. And to be honest, I don’t even spend that much time at Canal Park – imagine how much more angry people will be who do go there regularly with their children, or who are involved in the clubs that will be affected.
Disgruntled or not, though, I am going to write to my local councillors, to those involved in the recommendation, and to my MSP. I’ll keep you posted as to any responses.
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