Sunday, 21 August 2011

Celebrity politics

This article was originally published on Amansaman.

It’s on Five, the word “celebrity” has been redefined so that it now includes anyone who’s been on a reality TV show, and the fee clearly means more to most inmates than the exposure – but Celebrity Big Brother is back, and we’re just going to have to accept it.

And following in the footsteps of everyone’s favourite demagogue George Galloway and the people’s day-glo champion Tommy Sheridan, this year sees another politico entering the house in the hope, one can only assume, of emerging with an enhanced reputation and offers of safe seats strewn at her feet. Sally Bercow is a Labour activist and a high profile Twitterer (@SallyBercow), but the reason she is famous is that she’s the wife of the former Tory MP, now Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow.

Now I like Sally. She’s smart, she’s witty and she will one day make a very good MP. She tries not to play on her husband’s position, though without it she would have a far lower profile, and she gives as good as she gets from the (many) folk who attack her for being who she is. But I wonder whether she’s made the right decision here.

One thing in her favour, which marks her out from Galloway and Sheridan, is that she is doing the celebrity bit first, and will then do the politician bit second. This is plausible. Celebs can turn political successfully. Ronald Reagan is a high-profile example – a former film actor turned advertising spokesmodel who was recruited by the Republicans as a saleable character and went on to become the wildly successful frontman for a set of free market ideologues. In the UK we have the likes of Seb Coe and Glenda Jackson, who forged serious, if not stellar political careers.

But the fundamental issue, for me , is that politics and celebrity aren’t just different, they’re effectively opposed to each other. The more elections become about name recognition, the less democratic and representative our politicians become. And the more politicians feel they need to expose their personal lives, the less likely it is we will end up with the sort of serious, diligent people in parliaments and councils that we need. Politics is, ultimately, about representation and leadership. Elections should be the selection of candidates we think can best represent and lead. The closer they come to being a personality contest, the less chance we have of decent government.

One of the saddest moments in the run up to the 2010 general election was seeing Gordon Brown appearing on Piers Morgan’s Life Stories. Not because he gave an emotional and upsetting account of his and Sarah’s loss of their child – affecting though that was – but because he had been put there in the first place. His PR people clearly thought that his personal life needed airing with the public to make him less aloof, more “celebrity” and thereby more electable. I think it was a dreadful mistake, and a horrible thing to do to a decent man. Gordon got where he was via politics, not celebrity, because he is clever and politically astute, not because he looks good on TV. I wish he’d told them where to stick the Morgan interview. He’d still have lost the election, but he’d have kept his dignity.

I wish Sally Bercow the best for her stint in the Big Brother house. I hope for her sake it’s a short one. I hope she can then go back to being a decent, principled politician electable for what she thinks and says rather than what she does on the telly.

Sunday, 14 August 2011

Marriage is so gay

These puppets have no opinion on gay marriage
This article was originally published on Amansaman.

The release of the Scottish Social Attitudes Survey is an annual opportunity to be depressed at the number of morons who call Scotland home. The most recent results show that more people now dislike gypsies, foreigners and transgender people compared to the previous year. Oddly, self-loathing doesn’t appear to be measured, though I suspect it’s on the rise too.

One piece of good news for people who believe in not being a moron is that support for gay marriage has shot up. 61% of Scots now think marriage should be open to all, and only 19% were dead set against the idea of two people who love each other being able to legally call themselves husbands or wives. And with both the government and opposition parties making positive noises, it does seem that marriage equality for same sex couples might be delivered by the current Scottish Parliament.

We can expect the coming debate to be characterised by the following sentiments. On the one hand:
  • Marriage is a religious construct, and it’s not for the state to tell religious people what they should believe. That should be left to mistranslations of ancient texts and the people we pay to indoctrinate our children about them.
  • Marriage is defined as being between a man and a woman, and changing that definition will rend the very fabric of society, destroy the concept of family and turn the country into a morally relativistic wasteland.
  • Gay people already have civil partnerships, so they don’t need marriage, the greedy buggers.
On the other hand:
  • Marriage is a construct defined and regulated by the state, and the fact that religious groups have their own, separate interpretation of it shouldn’t impact on the state’s ability to redefine it whenever appropriate.
  • The definition of marriage has been changing constantly for centuries, in terms of recognising the rights of those of different races to marry, changing the age at which marriage is permissible, and most recently changing marriage from a contractual ownership of a woman by a man to the more equal contract it is today.
  • Civil partnership marks out same sex relationships as less significant than mixed-sex ones.
Detailed and honest assessments will be made of all of these claims and a fair and equitable settlement reached with an emphasis on our shared goal of social justice.


Wouldn’t it be nice if that was how politics worked? Evidence-based decision-making, open and honest discussion, consensual conclusions? How lovely. No, in reality the items above will be largely invisible under an avalanche of slander, sensationalism and fear. Politicians will be terrified of invisible constituencies and their next election result. Pressure groups will promote myths about gay “lifestyles” and religion will be pilloried as a force for evil. Human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together… mass hysteria, as Dr Venkman might say.

We’ve already seen the opening shots of this. A couple of MSPs have stuck their heads over the parapet to prop up and then shoot down some straw men about forcing churches to marry gay people. The heat generated in the responses has been greater than the light. Polarised ranks are already forming, positions being entrenched, demagoguery being polished. It’s pretty depressing to be honest. And we know it can be incredibly damaging, because we remember the Section 28 debate and the Keep The Clause campaign. Thank goodness Brian Souter, the man behind that hate, no longer has any sway in the politics of this country. (What’s that? He’s a major party funder and has just been nominated for a knighthood by the Scottish Government? How extraordinary.)

Here’s hoping we can rise above it this time. Here’s hoping no-one tries to buy off democracy with a chequebook this time. Here’s hoping religious disagreements can be dealt with without fear and anger this time. Because really, this is about love. And with all the shit going on around us – riots, economic meltdown, the Fringe – we need a bit of love.

Monday, 8 August 2011

Too many bananas will kill you

This article was originally published on Amansaman.

There’s a very good reason for government health warnings and TV campaigns: some people are too stupid to understand, and then act on, facts. But there’s another slightly more subtle reason, and it’s the same reason why packets of peanuts say “contains nuts” on the back. It’s an arse-covering exercise. If they’ve assumed you’re an idiot and told you about everything that might be dangerous, you can’t sue them or blame them on those rare occasions when something goes wrong.

Most of us will have grown up with one particular health warning very prominent in our lives: Drugs are bad. M’kay? And most of us will have eventually understood that that’s not true. Some drugs are lovely. Some drugs are really, really excellent. And we’ll have called out the hypocrisy and taken another step toward becoming the cynical, worldly wise souls that we are today.

Of course we know that drugs can do harm. Amy Winehouse is not the first, nor will she be the last person to destroy her or himself by taking too much, too fast. And for every Amy there are a thousand anonymous deaths that are no more than statistics to us. So we do need to understand and act on the facts around drugs.

There are a lot of ways to objectively assess the harm done by different drugs. A recent study in the Lancet classified drugs on the basis of what they do to the person taking them, plus their effect on others around that person. No prizes for guessing that heroin and crack were judged pretty bloody dangerous, while cannabis and ecstasy were comparatively much less harmful. Maybe some slight surprise to find that the ever-popular and legal drug alcohol was judged the number one most harmful, being both incredibly toxic and incredibly socially damaging. I’m sure we’ll come back to minimum pricing for alcohol in a future column, so let’s just leave that there just now.

But a measure which I’ve always thought just as critical as the harm done is whether it is physically possible to get enough of the stuff inside you to kill you. Because I think that tells you a lot about the danger you are putting yourself in when you indulge.

For example, if it takes you four pints to get drunk, then it’s estimated that it would take between five and ten times that amount of alcohol – 20 to 40 pints, or the equivalent in shorts – to kill you. The factor for heroin and crack is even lower. But the factor for cannabis is around 10,000. 10,000 times what it takes to get you stoned before it kills you. And there’s no way around that – you’re going to be asleep before you reach 3, no question.

So you can kill yourself very effectively with heroin, crack and other nasties. And you can kill yourself, given a swift enough swallowing before you pass out from the effects, with alcohol too. But you simply can’t kill yourself smoking or eating cannabis.*

And so, as you might expect, we come to the issue of bananas.

Bananas are a delicious source of vitamins, minerals and tasty goodness. But one of those minerals is potassium and an overdose of potassium can be fatal. For people with certain medical conditions, the risk is increased, but it is thought that for an average person a mere 250 bananas consumed in one sitting could kill you. This makes bananas several orders of magnitude more dangerous on the scale of getting-enough-in-to-kill-you than cannabis.

And yet bananas are sold freely across this great land. Even to children. They are even sold in our schools! And how long will it be before some resourceful mite stashes away a fatal stock and binges one day during playtime? It’s a sweet, convenient, pocket-sized tragedy waiting to happen.

Despite there being no reported deaths from banana overdose in humans, the fact remains that the banana is a couple of orders of magnitude more lethal than cannabis, a controlled substance the mere possession of which is a criminal offence.

I’m not going to end this with a rallying cry to decriminalise drugs like cannabis and ecstasy, removing a huge cost from the justice system, cutting the profits of criminals and opening up a potential new source of revenue for the Treasury. You’ll have your own views on that, and I respect them (as long as they are the same as mine).

No, my point here is this. Until we do have sensible, rational, fact-based drugs laws, I want a label on every banana in this country. I want a skull and crossbones and big scary lettering. And I want you to only be allowed to buy them from the special banana counter in the supermarket, next to the lottery machine and the PayPoint outlet.

Then we’ll be safe from the banana menace. Only then.

Find out more about drugs from Crew 2000

The Lancet study mentioned in the article is at

* Unless you are a child below the age of three, in which case, frankly, you shouldn’t be reading this. And get that out of your mouth, whatever it is, you don’t know where it’s been.

Tuesday, 2 August 2011

Blindcraft: A victim of budgets, not cutbacks

It is to Edinburgh's shame that the doors of the Blindcraft factory in Craigmillar closed last week for the last time. A social enterprise founded in 1793 - yes, 218 years ago - which has provided disabled people in the capital with not just a living but an opportunity to be valued and productive, closed down in the name of "cutbacks".

But the great irony of this despicable decision is that closing Blindcraft, and making all those workers redundant, will cost the taxpayer more, not less, than keeping it open.

What this really is is a cynical manipulation of budgets by the SNP/Lib Dem council, the same misrepresentation that the SNP Scottish government does on a bigger scale on a regular basis.

Make no mistake, closing Blindcraft will save the council budget a substantial sum, which the SNP/Lib Dem council can now choose to spend on flags or propaganda. But the overall cost to the taxpayer will rise as a substantial majority of its 53 remaining employees are left without employment or prospects and are forced to rely entirely on state benefits.

The economic cost of the closure to the UK benefits budget is likely to be approximately twice the amount of the savings made by the council. But the benefits budget comes from central government funds, so neither the council nor the Scottish government care about it. It's still taxpayers' money, but it's someone else's responsibility.

Of course the real tragedy of the closure is the effect on the lives of the employees. For these folk, Blindcraft has been a unique opportunity to build a career in an environment which does not discriminate on the grounds of disability.

Blindcraft was the very definition of a successful social enterprise - both an economic and a social good. But because the SNP/Lib Dem council had the opportunity to offload the cost to someone else's budget, no matter the overall economic impact and no matter the opportunities destroyed in the process, it is now gone.

Edinburgh people shouldn't forget this in next year's council elections. But voters in the City Centre by-election in two weeks (18th August) have the opportunity to break this coalition now, and potentially give a new council the chance to right this wrong. Vote Karen Doran on 18th August to turf the SNP/Lib Dem rulers out of the City Chambers.