Aficionados of the Scottish independence referendum debate will know how new words and new meanings for words are being created all the time. Some are apposite, some amusing, some offensive, some just plain daft – recently had a discussion online with a nationalist who writes his tweets as if he were Yoda, I have. A weird experience.

But there are words which, while not offensive in themselves, seek to create a misleading impression to the extent that they are actually lies.

One such word is colony, the accusation that Scotland is a colony of England. This canard surfaces frequently online and was used over the last weekend by former SNP leader Gordon Wilson, if I heard the news correctly.

Here I have the advantage over Mr Wilson. As far as I can see he has never lived outside Scotland except for some schooling on the Isle of Man. I have, and I am also old enough to have lived in a British colony (Singapore) and visited others either when they were still colonies or shortly after they became independent.

There was no single constitutional model for a British colony (the Brits pragmatists as ever) but most shared a number of features until very near their end. I would invite Mr Wilson and other perpetrators of the ‘Scotland is a colony of England’ lie to consider which apply to Scotland.

  • In a British colony, formal authority was vested in a governor as representative of the monarch and appointed by the British government.
  • There were often no democratic structures, certainly no elected national government. If there were elected representatives, they were usually confined to local councils and/or an advisory body.
  • Specific political parties, especially those that argued for independence, were often banned. Bans were often supported by imprisonment of party leaders, sometimes by detention without trial.
  • Even if there were some democratic structures, the people had no representation in the UK parliament.
  • The legal status of residents varied but they were not citizens of the United Kingdom and had no right of travel to the UK.
  • The authority of the governor was often backed up by British army units that were used if necessary to quell dissent.
  • In quelling dissent, protesters were dispersed in ways that would not be acceptable nowadays in the UK and people were sometimes killed. Widespread rebellion in some colonies like Kenya and Malaya led to the use of camps where local populations were relocated from their homes.
  • The judiciary was appointed solely by the UK government or the British colonial administration.

I can hear nationalist objections to my list – ‘Ah but there’s another sort of colonisation, of our cultural institutions and of our very minds themselves.’

Well, yes … but language is used in this way not as a form of subtle cultural metaphor but as a blunt instrument to give a false impression that through repetition might become a perceived truth.

There are plenty of arguments for and against independence for Scotland. The lie that Scotland is a colony of England is not one of them.

The Scottish independence referendum is bringing to prominence a whole new area of special use of language. Here are some words I’m getting fed up with.

Afraid – see ‘Feart’

Bias – allegation made, usually without any firm evidence, about the news coverage of the BBC in the belief that ‘No’ campaigners are given an easy ride and ‘Yes’ campaigners are unfairly given a hard time. The allegation often means no more than the views of a favoured politician are subjected to legitimate challenge. The same accusation is also made about Scottish TV and (sometimes with more justification) about the printed media, Scottish and English.

Bullying – any mention of potentially negative consequences of independence by UK politicians, even if backed up by evidence and even if the politicians concerned are Scottish.

Feart – Scots for ‘afraid.’ Glib characterisation by many who want independence about those who don’t, whatever their reasons.

Negative – any reason given against independence.

Project Fear – ‘Yes’ code for ‘No’ campaign, whatever arguments it advances.

Scaremongering – another code word for any mention of potentially negative consequences of independence even if backed up by evidence, although not confined to statements by UK politicians.

Unionist – literally, a definition of anyone who wants to maintain the union (any sort of union) of the UK. Often used to imply a right wing or reactionary viewpoint because of its association with the ‘Conservative and Unionist’ party, much less so by any association with Ulster Unionism.

Westminster – as in ‘parties’ or ‘government.’  Shorthand for United Kingdom parties or government. Used to imply a whole range of characteristics – indifference, irrelevance, hostility, distance, separation and otherness – although ‘Westminster’ government is also UK and therefore Scottish government.  Sometimes shortened to ‘WM.’

Other contributions by sharp-eyed readers to the lexicon are welcome and will be added with due acknowledgement. Comments that do no  more than point out that I have a particular point of view are likely to remain unpublished, especially if abusive.

Elderly manMany years ago I got into a spat with a director of social work in Scotland about the cut-off age for a council’s older people’s strategy.

She was adamant that it had to be for everyone aged over 50. I demurred. ‘It’s too young,’ I piped up from the sidelines – but to no effect.

Today I saw an older people’s forum advertised in leafy Buckinghamshire, 500 miles and one Act of devolution away from where I live – again for anyone aged over 50.

It seems that the definition of older as 50-plus is near universal, at least in the UK and amongst those who purport to promote the interests of and support older people.

But most people are

  • living longer
  • staying healthier longer
  • retiring later, currently 65 (for men – women are ‘catching up’) and rising.

So how come this obsession with older = 50, fifteen years before most people retire? Can anyone enlighten me?

This is a serious question. Does the cut-off have any standing in law? Is there scientific or medical evidence that this is the age at which people really do become ‘older’? Or is the assumption just a lazy carry-over from the past that is never reviewed?

Answers on a (virtual) post card to the HelpGov blog please.

There was an interesting if tetchy exchange between UK Government minister and Conservative party chairman Grant Shapps and Clive Betts, Labour MP and chair of the Commons Communities and Local Government Select Committee on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme yesterday (10 January).

The Committee has just published a comprehensive and thorough report on the future role of councillors which says amongst much else that remuneration and support for local government councillors should be increased. People are reluctant to stand as councillors because the compensation is so low and the average age of councillors is now sixty.

In his loaded contribution to a patchy discussion Shapps described councillors as ‘volunteers’ five times.

…councillors are brilliant volunteers for their community…councillors shouldn’t be on paid terms and conditions…on the basis that they’re volunteers and volunteers aren’t usually paid…volunteering for your community and being involved in the neighbourhood you live in is I think a very important role for people…on the same basis of Clive Betts’ argument you would start to pay volunteerss in every different walk of life…like Scout leaders.

They say everyone writes the history that suits their purpose but this is pernicious nonsense, and Shapps should know it.

The equation of councillors with Scout leaders (and any other sort of volunteer) is complete bilge. Councillors have a role defined in statute, are democratically elected to public office, nearly all spend a lot of time doing the work often at unsocial hours, and are responsible, even in these straitened times, for major spending of public money. They are subject to a whole raft of requirements unlike volunteers. Anyone heard of a Scout leader who publishes their financial interests in a statutory register?

If councillors are volunteers then so are MPs, 100 of whom have just told polling organisation YouGov that on average they deserve a pay increase of 32%! Apparently Conservative MPs thought they were most deserving of more money. Nice money if you can get it guys.

The Shapps rewriting of history – and law – just doesn’t stack up. I hope Conservative councillors up and down the land are having a quiet word in his shell-like ear.

This post began as a jokey exchange on Twitter. As part of confirmation that he was taking part in Movember, someone I follow tweeted a link to the UK government’s NHS Direct web site and a ‘checker’ there on Male sexual health.

The principle seemed sensible

If you would like confidential advice about a sexual health problem, you’re in the right place. There’s no need to feel embarrassed or shy if you are concerned about a sexual health issue.

I thought I’d give it a try – and to forestall inappropriate comment, no, I don’t have a ‘sexual health issue.’ I’m interested in government web sites – honest, officer.

Click through to the next step on this helpful ‘checker’ and you’re asked

Before continuing with this health and symptom checker you need to make sure that the person is conscious and reacting to you normally, or if they are asleep, that they react to gentle shaking.

What?! I’m about to check my sexual health and I’m unconscious or asleep?

The next pages ask for my age and where I live. Fair enough.

Then, straight down to business in the next page with the first question – those of a delicate disposition turn away now

Have you been bleeding from your genital area in the last 6 hours?

Whoa, steady on, I thought this was about ‘male sexual health.’ This seems like getting down to business just a tad too soon.

For the sake of research I answered ‘No.’ That took me through to a page giving me twelve further options – none of them implying good news.

If you want to see a better – no, a brilliant – government web site check out GOV.UK, the UK government’s new site that’s supposed eventually to incorporate all their other current sites.

The contrast with NHS Direct couldn’t be greater

  • Clear simple layout and graphics – unlike the dense clutter of NHS Direct
  • The things most people want to know about each subject highlighted in clear language – I cannot believe that most men looking for information on sexual health need as their first port of call a  shock-horror question about whether they’ve been bleeding from their ‘genital area,’ and not only bleeding but within the last six hours. If they’re not unconscious before they read that they might be after.

In fact the NHS Direct pages would more honestly be headed ‘Do you have a serious sexual problem?’ They’re all about sickness, not health.

UK health aficionados will know that NHS Direct covers England only. It advises Scots, correctly, to visit their own NHS 24 site for advice. But before the Scottish NHS get too smug about how they’re doing, a search for ‘male sexual health’ there throws up no fewer than 175 links. On the first page of ten, not one is to do with male sexual health. So a big fail there too.

I can now add abhorrence of NHS web sites to my phobia of what I’ve called elsewhere the  NHS’s ‘disease of poster-itis and advanced leaflet syndrome.’

As British readers will know, a London police officer – PC Simon Harwood – has just been found not guilty by a jury of manslaughter.

The incident that led to his trial received wide publicity at the time in 2009.

There is a widespread disturbance in the City of London against the G20 summit.  In one spot demonstrators stand a few yards from a police cordon. A middle aged man wanders into the space. He is, it turns out, Ian Tomlinson, an innocent newspaper seller on his way back to the hostel he lives in.

Someone filming on their phone catches the incident.

A man in riot gear emerges from the group of policeman without apparent warning. He strikes Tomlinson from behind on the legs, then pushes him forward. Tomlinson falls to the ground and is left there by the officer, who returns to the group he emerged from. Someone from the crowd comes out to help the man to his feet. Within hours he has died.

Two legal processes later return apparently conflicting verdicts. A jury at a coroner’s inquest said the man died by unlawful killing. The trial of PC Harwood finds him not guilty.

After the acquittal it is revealed that PC Harwood has a record of complaints against him, some involving the sort of behaviour described here. Most complaints remain allegations but curiously at one stage in his career he resigns as a police officer then is immediately engaged as a civilian employee by the same force. Later he becomes a police officer with a neighbouring force and transfers back as an officer to his original employer, the Metropolitan Police.

In a different time and a different place I was a member of another jury.

It was a simple, some might say routine, case.

A young male driver was accused of two alternative counts of, in effect, causing or contributing to the death of a woman in another car.

His car and the other vehicle collided at a junction where a number of accidents had occurred. He was driving too fast and crashed into the other vehicle. A middle-aged woman in the other car, the mother of some of the other passengers, died.

During the trial the young man’s lawyer painted a picture of a single aberration by an otherwise serious young man who was a student at a critical stage of his studies. A guilty verdict, especially on the more serious charge, could have a serious impact on his future.  His girlfriend, who was a passenger in his car, testified on his behalf.

The family of the dead woman attended the two days of the trial and were visible to the jury.  Not surprisingly, they looked distraught at various stages of the proceedings – the description of the accident (some of them had been in it), the expert witness who had calculated the excessive speed of the other car, the defence lawyer’s characterisation of his client.

We were told by the judge that we could return a guilty or not guilty verdict on either charge. After an hour or two’s deliberation we gave the young man the benefit of the doubt and found him guilty of the lesser charge. The legalities of it slip my mind now but our verdict was akin to saying he was guilty of careless driving but not much more.

When the verdict was announced the young man was required to return later with his driving licence (which he should have had with him) for sentencing. The jury was also required to attend. The family of the dead woman were, again, in the public gallery.

Before the sentence was given, it was revealed that the guilty man had previous offences for dangerous driving and speeding.

If that moment could have been frozen in time it would have shown

  • gasps and looks of disbelief on the faces of the family of the dead woman in the public gallery
  • one of the women in the group, probably a daughter or daughter-in-law, crying into a handkerchief
  • another looking accusingly at the jury as if to say we had betrayed them
  • a collective feeling of unease amongst the jurors
  • a blank look on the defendant’s face
  • the judge looking at his papers: he must have seen this many times before.

As one of the jurors I shared that collective unease.  I still feel it. I wonder how the jury in the Simon Harwood case are feeling.

A prime minister and chancellor said to be out of touch with ‘ordinary people.’   Party leaders rushing to publish details of their meetings with donors.  The main parties trashed by ‘Gorgeous’ George Galloway in the Bradford by-election.  They’re at it again, aren’t they?  B****y politicians!

Well, that’s the common perception.

But who’d be a politician?  Everyone’s whipping boy (and girl) and ranking somewhere between pimps and estate agents in public perception of worth.

Who’d be a politician is an interesting question because given our party system, one answer is that damned few are qualified to even seek election, let alone achieve it.

The truth is the gene pool for our politicians is alarmingly small.

Back in 2009 the House of Commons library published some interesting statistics on political party membership.

In 2008, membership of the three largest UK-wide political parties was estimated to be

  • Conservative – 250,000
  • Labour – 166,000
  • Liberal Democrat – 60,000

In the same year, there were 46,147,877 people on the electoral roll in the UK (Source: ONS)

In other words, 1.03% of the electorate were members of the three main parties.

From that number, the parties need to find candidates for thousands of elected positions for the EU, UK, and Scottish parliaments, the Welsh assembly and for hundreds of local councils.

Consider also that most members of political parties will never be candidates for election.

Many won’t want to seek election.  Some may want to but would not get past their party’s selection procedure.

Let’s assume that the ‘non-candidates’ are 90% of a party’s membership.  It seems a reasonable figure although I have no evidence for it and would welcome better information if anyone has it.

These assumptions mean that the political ‘gene pool’ for the three main parties to seek electable candidates is no more than 47,600 people, or 0.103% of the UK electorate.

No wonder BBC Radio 4’s Broadcasting House programme today was able to find an Asian woman from Bradford whose interest as a candidate for election had been solicited at different times not only by Tories, Labour and LibDems but even by Respect, which is where we started with George Galloway (she turned them all down).

When we have it, we are neglectful of and indifferent to democracy.  What a contrast to countries where people yearn to be free and turn out in vast numbers, when they can, to vote.  A few years ago South Africa reminded us of this.  Today – literally – Burma fulfils the same role.