Wednesday, 29 August 2012

The Art of Tea

Few political battles rage more fiercely than those we fight to protect what is close and dear to us. Even so, the public outcry over developer Hugh Scott's plans for Glasgow's Otago Lane has been remarkable in its size and volume. The campaign to protect the lane, bringing together people of all ages and backgrounds, has raged for three years. Today, despite all that - and in defiance of its own planning regulations - Glasgow City Council's planning committee voted to let the development go ahead. Some have said that the machinations around this recall Sun Tzu's The Art Of War. Yet there is another tradition perhaps more pertinent - perhaps more worrying for those who have betrayed their voters - and that is the art of tea.

A philosophy expounded by numerous eastern cultures, known in China as cha yi, the art of tea is centred on an understanding that there is more to the human experience than the material. It has an aesthetic aspect and a political one. Understanding the art of tea - or seeking to understand it - is vital to understanding how human affairs change and develop, and how certain ideas come to dominate, once we step beyond the battlefield.

“In the small [tea] room, it is desirable for every utensil to be less than adequate. There are those who dislike a piece when it is even slightly damaged; such an attitude shows a complete lack of comprehension,” said the tea master Sen no Rikyū (according to the Nampōroku). He could be providing a literal description of Tchai Ovna, the tea house at the centre of the lane, as he sums up very neatly the historic appeal of the area. He could also be summing up the blunder that the planning committee has made - that failure to comprehend what, in his native Japan, is called wabi - the aesthetics of imperfection. A generous observer might say that the councillors have been dazzled by an image of gleaming modern development. They have failed to understand what the lane means to people and why, sometimes, our imperfect heritage is more valuable than the slick and slippery.

Slippery, in this case, is also a term that has literal implications. The proposed site on the end of this small, historic lane is on the banks of the Kelvin River. It is a notorious slip zone. One architect has already said privately that he does not expect any new building constructed there, in accordance with the specifications outlined in Scott's proposal, to last for more than twelve years before it begins to slide dangerously into the water. If we run the numbers, we see that this is unlikely to bother Scott, who will have made a tidy profit by then, but it should bother the council and the local people, who will be left with the job of cleaning up the mess.

Some argue that this shouldn't matter - Glasgow needs new homes, urgently. Well, yes, but that's like saying that the world needs fewer children and eliding the inability of some countries to cope with the economic pressure of shrinking their populations too fast. Glasgow needs affordable homes and it needs them in underdeveloped areas. Luxury flats in areas whose infrastructure is already struggling to cope with population pressure are not a solution. They will do nothing to help the poor and they will do nothing to help revitalise those parts of the city that are struggling.

There are so many practical problems with this development that it would be impossible to go into them all in depth here. Alongside the damage to the city's heritage and the pressure the development will put on the lane's small businesses are major public safety issues around traffic - drivers use the surrounding streets as a shortcut between major thoroughfares, and there is a school just across the road, so the last thing it needs is more cars. There are also issues for the natural environment - the riverbank is an important wildlife corridor connecting parks. Without routes like this, animal populations become isolated and are damaged by inbreeding, with serious implications for conservation. The city planning regulations clearly state that all these issues should be cause for concern, so when they are ignored we should quiet our battle cries, sip our tea, and ponder what is going on.

At this stage it would appear that all those who voted in favour of the development are Labour councillors. The problems caused by Labour's grip on the council - and its sense of entitlement in that regard - are legendary and, again, difficult to go into in depth here, but suffice to say that many members of said party regret that influence of certain individuals in that context. At its heart, this isn't about party politics - we see the same issues come up in any number of areas where one group has achieved lasting dominance. It is about a group of people who have lost any sense of relationship with ordinary voters, to the point where they might easily be swayed by other interests.

Many had hoped that the shock Labour got at the last council election, when it briefly seemed they might lose overall control, might precipitate a shift in attitudes. Instead, a last minute surge in support (surely nothing to do with the city having now given permission for twenty two annual Orange marches) not only secured them but seemingly increased their audacity. Although campaigners plan to mount a legal challenge to today's decision, the councillors involved will no doubt feel secure in having had the last word. They have, for the time being at least, secured the ground. People are beginning to discuss when they should go for their last cup of Tchai Ovna tea.*

What has been missed, as so often, is the significance of the immaterial, of the lingering feelings this has set within those who feel that they have been betrayed. Those feelings are likely to lead to more than just legal contestation. They will entrench in a significant portion of the population a suspicion about council decisions that will last, that will spread, that will inform the investigation of planning matters across the city. From now on, everything those councillors do will be watched. They may come to regret their easy dismissal of the humble tea-drinker.

*The planning proposals would allow Tchai Ovna to remain open, but a probable decrease in custom whilst it is surrounded by construction work means its survival is still in jeopardy.

Thursday, 16 August 2012

Before the Law

Amid all the clamour around Julian Assange, it's proving dangerously easy for parties on both sides to forget why the law matters - and what it is for. We must not let political games or cults of personality distract us from its vital role in protecting the innocent - and even the guilty.

When all this first blew up I, as a journalist, was extremely worried about what looked like a plot to extradite an individual who had made enemies through his pursuit of the truth to the US, a country with a terrible record on the treatment of (unofficially) political prisoners. I was suspicious about the rape allegations as the nature of the crime, coming down to one person's word against another, makes it a common choice for framing individuals with powerful enemies. That changed for me when I read Assange himself describe, almost casually, how he had sexually penetrated a woman he was staying with without her consent. Now either Assange is a liar, in which case he cannot be trusted when he proclaims his innocence and anyone should be able to see that he must face trial; or he is an honest man, in which case he is a self-confessed rapist and must face trial. His victim (and possibly a second victim) is the only innocent here.

That doesn't change the fact that issuing an international arrest warrant for rape is an exceedingly unusual move. Several factors need to be taken into consideration here. Yes, Sweden could be trying to obtain custody of Assange so it can hand him over to the US in exchange for political or diplomatic favours. It could be taking the case more seriously because Assange's high profile means it can use him to set an example (something any good defence lawyer should challenge). It could even be that, in light of the popularity of the Millennium books and films, which challenged Sweden's record on the prosecution of crimes of violence against women (in specific relation to the protection of an individual perceived as a foreign policy asset, no less), it is anxious to redeem its reputation. And there is the possibility that it has simply decided it ought to take rape more seriously. There lies the rub. Why doesn't every country take rape more seriously? Why is it still so easy for people to get away with it by skipping across national borders?

Now Ecuador enters the fray. One wonders, what did those who raised bail money for Assange think they were supporting? Was it Wikileaks and the principle of freedom of speech? Now that they have lost it, as he has forfeited his bail conditions to take refuge in the Ecuadorian embassy, it's painfully clear that Wikileaks was, for him, never the priority (imagine what it could have done with that money - or what a difference it might have made to Pte. Manning's defence fund, something Assange keeps claiming to support whilst actually doing very little). The superb work that Wikileaks has done in many areas no longer makes headlines; all the focus is on its sometime leader, with the self-styled martyr's image that probably helped him to get access to his victim(s) in the first place. Of course, a martyr can be a political asset like any other, and many people are assuming that's why Ecuador has taken him in (and now granted him asylum) - to make a grand statement and stick two fingers up at the United States. If I were them (and if I were Assange) I'd be more wary. The value of assets varies over time. Can he really guarantee that Ecuador won't choose to sell him on in the future? In 2006 the IVK PAX study found that Ecuador had the fourth highest kidnapping rate of any country in the world. In such a context it would be easy for a valuable asset to disappear and turn up in American hands without anybody being able to prove who was responsible. No law could protect Assange from this.

Then there's the matter of Assange's current self-imposed house arrest in that embassy. How could he get to Ecuador without first traversing UK territory and being arrested? He might be smuggled out, but where to? No Ecuadorian ship will be allowed into UK waters in this situation, so he'd need to undertake quite a journey under the eyes of multiple expert security teams and journalists. Giving him diplomatic status is not an option as that would require the permission of the nation in which the embassy is based, i.e. the UK. That country retains the option of announcing that it has found a new home for the embassy, reassigning its protected status to that building, and arresting Assange during he transfer, but it is unlikely to undertake this because the precedent it would set could endanger its own diplomatic staff in a number of other countries. So everybody waits.

In the midst of this, Assange's supporters claim he has offered (a) to be questioned by Swedish investigators within the embassy; and (b) to go to Sweden if they can guarantee he won't be extradited to the US. Both of these offers look reasonable on the surface, but let's look more closely. What kind of precedent would it set for Sweden to be bullied into shifting part of its judicial process overseas? What damage would that do to Sweden's international reputation? More than it could afford, as it would undermine any future international arrest warrants it might feel the need to issue. And could Sweden realistically rule out all possibility of a future extradition under the terms of a warrant it may as yet have no inkling of? Of course not - in fact, it may very well find that it lacks the legal power to resist such a warrant.

Swedish justice has been extensively demonised in the course of this case. Nevertheless, the fact remains that the UK has effective extradition treaties with the US - ones particularly amenable to the latte party, in fact, as they even allow the extradition of UK citizens with learning disorders that leave them ill-equipped to cope in the US judicial system. If I were seriously worried about being extradited to the US, I'd far rather be in Sweden than in the UK.

Temporarily, we have a stalemate. Unless it has got ulterior motives (which may include bargaining over Assange whilst he's still in London), Ecuador has bitten off more than it can chew. Sweden cannot be seen to back down and the UK cannot escape its duties to Sweden. Everybody seems hamstrung by legal restrictions and we come back to that question, what is the law for?

At the bottom of this are three sets of abuses. The first is the abuse of due process at Guantanamo Bay and in the trial of Pte. Manning - if the US had not chosen to go down that road, nobody (except possibly Assange himself) would have a problem with him being sent there. The second is the abuse of diplomatic process by Assange and by the staff at the Ecuadorian embassy who chose to shelter him, which places at risk the embassy's greater duty, to promote its national interests and thereby to support Ecuadorian citizens. Thirdly, there is what started all this - an allegation of rape. The ugliest thing about the case is that this is now rarely discussed in anything other than political terms. People are forgetting that, if it happened as Assange described, it was an act with real human consequences - and not just for its perpetrator. It is treated as an inconvenient detail in a much bigger political game.

What is the law for? It is for this: to give an individual who has been the victim of injustice some hope of mediated restitution. It is there to persuade a raped woman that she has options beyond picking up a knife and plugging her attacker full of holes.

We all benefit from the rule of law, whether innocent or guilty. And no matter how tempting different bargaining strategies may seem to the various governments involved in this case, it would behove them to remember that when faith in the rule of law disappears at that very basic level, so does the foundation on which the whole edifice of civic society is built. Regardless of the other issues here, none of us can afford to perpetuate a process whereby powerful men can get away with abusing others because there is always something more important to deal with. There is nothing more important than justice, and if we can't secure it for victims of rape, we can forget about trying to remedy injustices between nations.

Wednesday, 8 August 2012

No More Double Negatives

The double negative: in some languages it strengthens the negation; in English it contradicts itself, becoming positive; in Scotland it just embarrasses all concerned.

Last night's spectacularly misjudged Newsnight performance by Ian Davidson MP brought several months of histrionic debate over Scottish independence into sharp relief. It was particularly embarrassing for the unionist side, whose sincere concerns were reduced to mudslinging nonsense, but of course there are those who take a similar approach in the pro-independence community. So we get the pseudo-ironic comments about how those on the other side would react negatively to particular things, which isn't supposed to be negative in itself because it's humour (a lame defence in any context); and when called on, the perpetrators usually resort to claiming their opponents started it. This wouldn't be acceptable in primary school classroom and it's not acceptable in public life. One thing I am confident the majority of Scots can agree on is that it has to stop. If Scotland is to move forward as a nation, either independently or within the union, our politicians must act like grown-ups.

England has long taken a positive attitude to negative politics - just look at Westminster. Prime Minister's Questions at noon on Wednesdays routinely sees hundreds of people we are meant to respect reduced to troop of shrieking gibbons - often the principals can hardly be heard and, when they can, their pronouncements have more to do with performance than coherent argument. Those who challenge this are usually told that it's traditional, but is a traditional embarrassment any less of an embarrassment? This kind of behaviour is an insult to every member of the public who turned out to vote because they thought their candidates had an interest in seeing the country well run.

This is not to say that remaining in the union is detrimental to good conduct. Right from its inauguration, Holyrood has shown itself to be a more civilised place. There's backstabbing and dubious political manoeuvring, of course, but overt bullying and shouting is not tolerated. This is something we should celebrate and aim to extend into other venues where political discussion takes place. It is something we should build upon, dispensing with the ideologically-focused bickering that gets in the way of honest discussion. Like Westminster, Holyrood is a small place with a big job to do. There is too much real work MSPs could be getting on with for time wasting posturing to be considered acceptable - in any party.

It seems no coincidence that the Newsnight drama was initiated by a Westminster MP - somebody who spends too much time among the rabble to appreciate that we do things differently here. It's not the first time Ian Davidson has been accused of bullying, with Eilidh Whiteford withdrawing from the Scottish Affairs Select Committee last year amid allegations that he threatened to give her 'a doing', and others have accused him of bullying women in particular. Would he have treated Newsnight presenter Isabel Fraser differently if she had been male? That's difficult to say, but the dismissive way he began responding to her before letting her finish her argument speaks volumes. He was not only aggressive, he was unwilling to countenance that anything she said could be of value. Still, from a political perspective, the most problematic aspect of his actions was the lack of control they implied.

Like David Cameron red-faced at the despatch box on a particularly rough Wednesday, Davidson gave the impression of a man so emotionally swept up by the moment that he could not articulate the political message he was there to put across. Passion can be valuable in a politician - it provides the drive to get things done - but ultimately we pay our politicians to think, to reason, to negotiate. If a politician feels that a programme is biased, they should assert that politely and take it up with the proper authorities (indeed, BBC Scotland is currently being investigated for alleged bias against the SNP). Getting in a flap about it and taking out anger on a presenter is not only inconsiderate behaviour, it makes one look like a buffoon.

Alongside the likes of Davidson's performance, we have the so-called Cybernats who attack anybody on the internet whom they perceive to be dissing the SNP or independence, and an equally rabid group of unionists who attack those seen to be doing the opposite, accusing them of being Cybernats. On occasion I've been attacked by both sides over the same remarks, which at least persuades me I am getting something right. Like street gangs, these groups are really most interested in attacking each other, and each presumably feels its actions are justified by the existence of the other, though each seems to have a significantly magnified idea of the size of its rival. In reality there don't seem to be very many of them but their voices are disproportionately loud and have a distorting effect on Scottish politics. Sometimes journalists and commentators who ought to know better get caught up in this phony war. We need to accept that those who snipe at each other like this have removed themselves from meaningful debate. They need to stand back and understand that such aggression is not going to influence anyone; and nor should it. If one wishes to influence people, one has to actually talk to them, and make a real case. Simply discouraging others from speaking is not only obnoxious, it's ineffective.

When people behave like this, or like Davidson, it is tempting to simply ignore them and find a way of routing discussion around them. That's one thing online; it's a little harder when it happens in parliamentary select committees or on national television programmes. But there is a simple solution, and that is for the rest of us to refuse to engage in the first place. A man who cannot conduct himself respectably on Newsnight should not be invited back. A committee whose spokesperson conducts himself in such a manner should not be heeded. Real authority comes not from institutions but from the people. Those who do not respect that cannot expect to play any meaningful role in our political culture.

It's time for an end to negative politics. I don't want to hear any whining about who started it. Each of us should be concerned first and foremost with our own conduct. We should aim to set an example, not partake in a race to the bottom. Scotland deserves better. The Scottish people should be able to say to their politicians - whatever side they sit on - yes, yes, yes!