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Monday, 31 January 2011

That was the week that was

Yes, it was an interesting week. Sadly, all the news items of real interest such as the future of control orders, the surprise downturn in the UK economy and events in North Africa were sadly overlooked by the press, which preferred to concentrate on the misdemeanours of two sexist sports commentators and the outcome of the Sheridan trial.

The issue of sexism in football I've dealt with elsewhere. As for the egomaniac who is Tommy Sheridan, why is his trial of such interest and perceived significance? Other than giving Sheridan a platform from which to spout his class prejudices and rather disturbing delusions, it seems this circus has served mainly to provide the media with "good stories". Of course, it's in their interests to play up Sheridan as some kind of heavyweight politician whose fate is somehow linked to the future of the Scottish nation. Absolute tosh. Sheridan is not (and never has been) a serious politician. He might believe he is the champion of the workers and the saviour of Socialism, but there weren't too many workers passing much of an interest in the trial, let alone expressing solidarity with him. The masses are hardly in protest over the verdict.

He is a has-been, a man whose career lies behind him and whose ostensible political philosophy belongs firmly in another era. It might be a mistake, however, to assume he actually has a political philosophy; I've become more and more convinced that he now represents nobody's cause other than his own.

Sheridan was jailed for three years for perjury. He could perhaps have got more. He claimed this was "a result" - the fact that he may only serve six months of the sentence indicates he's probably right. This hasn't prevented that great man of integrity, George Galloway, from claiming a miscarriage of justice has occurred: "This is a dismal end to a dismal chapter in Scottish justice", he said. "A politicised and unnecessary prosecution has become a lengthy and expensive incarceration. I hope Mr Sheridan will appeal against both conviction and sentence."

He's right - it was a politicised trial, but only because is was politicised by Sheridan himself in a vain attempt to portray himself as the victim of political conspiracy. He's also right that the trial was avoidable: perhaps someone wiser than Sheridan would have simply ignored newspaper articles rather than take legal action knowing full well he would have to lie on oath to win.

The media allowed Sheridan's family and friends ample opportunity to demonstrate their lack of insight into reality. Sheridan's mother referred to him as "the man who could not be bought". Yeah, right. His wife, Gail, mused that "the real reason he has been imprisoned today is because he has fought injustice and inequality with every beat of his heart". Obviously not for lying in a court of law then? The rapidly diminishing band of fans that calls itself Solidarity issued a statement declaring that the sentence "will reinforce the widespread view that this is the culmination of a brutal vendetta carried out by the rich and powerful against Scotland's most prominent socialist." I almost choked on my Scotch Pie reading that one. Paranoid delusions of vendetta are one thing; imagining that such delusions are widespread quite another.

The bottom line is, as the judge (Lord Bracadale) stated in his summary, that Sheridan "embarked on an action knowing that for it to be successful [he] would require to tell lies under affirmation." Sheridan claims to be a strong advocate for justice but in truth he has little actual interest in justice as demonstrated by his actions. It didn't seem to matter to him that telling lies in court in is itself a very serious offence and one which threatened to undermine the entire justice system.

I hate to agree with Frances Curran, our former regional MSP for Sheridan's former party, the SSP. But she's right when she argues that Sheridan "still shows no sign of taking responsibility for his own actions". Another ex-MSP, Rosie Kane, used Twitter to post a barely legible tweet, the substance of which was that Sheridan had "put celebrity before integrity".

The big question, however, is "is this justice?" On one level, justice has been done and Sheridan has got exactly what he deserved. Fortunately, Solidarity will also get exactly what it deserves in the May elections.

On another level, I'm not too sure whether "justice" can be said to be done. The News of the World certainly doesn't come out of this with much credit intact. Most worryingly, it appears that most of the evidence for the prosecution had been bought by the newspaper. It strikes me as particularly concerning that so much evidence can be paid for and, while I reject Sheridan's more florid claims of conspiracy and vendetta, it is true that few other individuals and organisations would have the means or the willingness to pay out so much in order to obtain "justice".

What happens next for Sheridan? No doubt, he will attempt to use his time in prison to recreate himself as a martyr for the cause of Socialism. This leopard just doesn't know how to change his spots.

Onto more important developments (in my view) with the news that economy has contracted and the most recent figures show negative growth. Of particular concern is the health of Scotland's construction industry, high unemployment among graduates and the interest rate increase which will do nothing to stimulate economic growth.

Clearly, these figures have both surprised and concerned the Westminster government. They provide a real test for chancellor George Osborne who has repeatedly insisted that this decision to cut quickly and deeply would help the UK economy. I have personally never been convinced by this, or any approach to economic matters that fails to take into account either the human dimension or the inescapable reality that actions generally have unintended consequences that should be planned for. Osborne gave a string of interviews last week during which he seemed understandably keen to place the blame firmly with the previous government and refused to consider the possibility that his own policies were helping to create a double-dip recession. While Labour's economic credibility has hardly been lower, continually pointing to his predecessors' fiscal mismanagement isn't likely to provide the solutions Scottish people deserve.

Osborne is right on one score, though. The wrong course of action would be to panic or to dramatically change course on the basis of one quarter's figures. He understands markets; in particular, he recognises that markets are not always logical. Maintaining confidence in the UK economy is absolutely vital and any dramatic u-turns would undermine confidence, in turn threatening economic stability due to the volatility of the markets. I am sure there are many who have doubts about the wisdom of Osborne's policy but altering course so quickly may do more harm than good.

The responsibility for Scotland's economy lies partly with John Swinney. It's not an easy time for our well-meaning but ultimately ineffective finance secretary. I empathise with him, as I do with the leaders of councils across the country who have to try to provide as full a range of services as possible while making unpopular cuts because of Labour's poor management of the economy when in government. But Swinney is clearly doing little to stimulate job creation, preferring instead to act negatively in not making cuts to particular popular (i.e. vote-securing) services. His lack of courage in making the tough decisions is one thing; even more worrying is his doublethink on council tax. How is it possible to champion increased localism while actively backing the kind of regressive centralism that supports a council tax freeze?

Serious questions have to be asked about the wisdom of a council tax freeze in the current economic climate. No-one wants to pay more tax. But what are the views of councils? How many services will be threatened by councils' inabilities to set appropriate tax levels to fit their revised budgets? What will be the effect of a freeze on economic growth?

Swinney's budget is set for its final debate on 9th February. It is a far from perfect budget, as even the most ardent SNP supporter would agree. It must, however, be more bold, more daring, more focused on dealing with delivering economic growth and in assuring a strong future for Scottish business. What is particularly irritating is the insistence by the likes of Cameron and Osborne that public sector job losses can be absorbed by the private sector. This is patently untrue, and particularly so in Scotland where the absence of a thriving private sector means that the predicted public sector job losses can not simply be "absorbed": the end product would be increased unemployment. It is this human and economic tragedy that John Swinney must try to avert but, if his budget (as it stands) is anything to go by, there seems to have been little consideration given to meaningful ways of expanding the private sector.

And I didn't even mention the misconceived SNP policy of the "Tesco tax". This sop to populism shows how desperately short of imagination the SNP government is. While I'm not normally the kind of person to support the interests of the supermarkets, questions have to be asked about the wisdom of imposing such a tax at a time when job creation should be the government's top priority. Jeremy Purvis is right to have called this failed policy "shabby"; it's also based on a shamefully prejudiced perception of supermarkets which it singles out in a discriminatory way. Tellingly, the director of the Scottish Retail Consortium stated that the "Tesco tax" would "not [be] in the interests of the Scottish economy or Scottish jobs. The proposed large retailer levy endangers future job growth and investment." These feelings were echoed by the director of CBI Scotland who claimed the SNP was neglecting the "needs of the economy and business".

Last Wednesday saw Home Secretary Teresa May announce the government's plans to abolish control orders. Or rather, rebrand them. This is a significant disappointment for Liberal Democrats who actually wanted control order to be...well, scrapped.

The new "terrorism prevention and investigation measures" still allow the Home Secretary to impose certain restrictions on the liberty of terror suspects without either putting a case against them or securing a prosecution. In this sense all that has been done is a careful redecoration.

However, there was some good news. No longer would terror suspects be held under house arrest (a key Lib Dem election pledge). There would be stricter controls on local authority surveillance, and pre-charge detention has been reduced to a mere 14 days. The unnecessarily authoritarian ban on photography has gone. The terms of restriction have been drastically improved. Stop and search powers are now restricted. Significantly, there has been a welcome shift to ensure that the new system's emphasis would be on gaining eventual prosecution - something inconceivable under the current set-up.

And none of this would have happened without the Liberal Democrats. Let's be clear about this. The Conservatives alone would never have dared go so far. And while the final outcome isn't quite what Liberal Democrats would have hoped for, even the compromised replacements for control orders are a considerable improvement on the status quo and go some way to improving the damage done by Labour. Lib Dems in government fought very hard for an even better alternative but ultimately they deserve a great deal of credit for achieving as much as they have. The worst elements of control orders have been abolished and for that we should be grateful.

However, as a member of Liberty, I am refusing to cease campaigning on the issue. As Shami Chakrabarti summarised, "when it comes to ending punishment without trial the government appears to have bottled it. The innocent may be punished without a fair hearing and the guilty escape the full force of the law." I agree. Here is a question about our justice system that is far more relevant than the outcome of the Sheridan trial, even if a newspaper as respected as The Scotsman didn't feel the need to give it any attention. Those who believe strongly in liberty can not simply remain silent because some overdue progress has been made. We need to keep pressing for an end to the distasteful practice of removing liberty without charge or prospect of a trial, while simultaneously advocating a shift not only in emphasis but also in regards the process. If I was English, I might say "it's just not cricket, old chap!"

Lord Macdonald, the Lib Dem peer, observes that "the British are strong and free people, and their laws should reflect this". We must keep up the fight until they actually do.

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