Wednesday, 7 March 2012

It's been a week to celebrate stupidity

It's been a week in which prominent people have been eager to outdo each other in saying stupid things.

First, there was the "most senior Scottish Catholic", Cardinal O'Brien - oddly enough not the inspiration for Orwell's character of the same name who takes pleasure from "curing" others' "insanity"- who foolishly weighed into the marriage equality debate, branding same-sex marriages as "grotesque" and "madness". As if that outburst wasn't sufficient demonstration of his intolerance and inflexible mindset, O'Brien has today gone further - writing a letter to all Catholics in which the most sensible thing he argues is that "changing the legal definition of marriage would be a profoundly radical step." Indeed it would - a radical step in the right direction which is why I am proud of the Liberal Democrats and politicians of other parties who have championed marriage equality. As for whether most Catholics see fit to recognise O'Brien's polemic as authoritative is questionable; I for one would imagine the majority of the "faithful" couldn't care less.

By fascinating coincidence, O'Brien's ill-judged remarks hit the headlines at the same time as Scotland's third most prominent homophobe (after O'Brien and Brian Souter) Bill Walker MSP was alleged to have physically abused his three former wives. Walker claims that respect for marriage lies at the heart of his personal philosophy but I wonder which shows more "respect" - empowering committed same-sex couples to celebrate their love in a marriage ceremony or a record of having committed acts of violence against multiple spouses? The allegations have already forced Walker to resign from two Holyrood parliamentary committees, and he has been suspended from the party with an SNP spokesperson confirming that "the SNP's strong and consistent position is one of zero tolerance of violence against women".

I could argue that it's also the SNP's position not to compare LGBT rights activists with Nazis, something that Walker did last year and escaped any form of sanction. Although these allegations show his professed compassionate Christianity to be something of a sham and I find it ironically appropriate that his past has returned to haunt him, it does seem odd that offences committed before entering politics should merit greater punishment than his behaviour as an elected MSP. However, that's not the point I'm making. It does seem strange given these revelations that another SNP MSP, Joan McAlpine, should use her first column in the Daily Record to make an unwise comparison between Scotland and the victims of domestic abuse.

McAlpine's article - Time to end Scotland's culture of dependency - claimed that Scotland was "a talented, well-educated girl with good prospects and her own income" married to a "domineering old sexist old dinosaur who insists men should handle the finances". It was an argument that I understand even though I find it simplistic, more than a little naive and not the kind of work I'd expect from a journalist of McAlpine's quality and experience. What I don't understand is why she felt the need to insensitively and carelessly use this kind of unhelpful allegory to illustrate her point. There were predictable complaints yesterday, including several from SNP members, who felt that her comments were in poor taste and insulting to the many real victims of domestic abuse who were having their problems trivialised for the purposes of party politics. At one time I would have expected so much more of Joan McAlpine but she is rapidly becoming something of a liability for both the SNP and the pro-independence cause. She is too canny a figure not to have appreciated the likely reaction to her comments and best thing I can say is that she enjoys being unnecessarily controversial.

And of course we have our own Alan Reid, the less than colourful MP for Argyll & Bute, whose intervention at Scottish conference included making a comparison between the First Minister and Stalin. I can only imagine the outcry within the Lib Dems if an SNP parliamentarian made the same claim about Willie Rennie (not that the mud would be likely to stick). Fellow Lib Dem MP Malcolm Bruce also made some unwise and uncharacteristic comments in relation to Alex Salmond and Scotland itself which suggested the Lib Dems are more pre-occupied with frustrating the First Minister than they are achieving what is in the best interests of the Scottish people.

UKIP have also been very keen to get in on the act. The euroskeptic party has aspirations of overtaking the Liberal Democrats as the third party of UK politics, something it feels opinion polls suggest to be a realistic possibility. They are keen to depict themselves as libertarian, tolerant and modern - yet today issued a statement in which the party's National Executive declared itself to be "opposed to the move to legislate for same-sex marriage". Why? They're not homophobes of course, it's just that "through some kind of political correctness, David Cameron is picking a fight with the millions of people whose religious faiths do not recognise same-sex marriages. That, in our view, is an aggressive attack on people of faith, and an act of intolerance in itself." UKIP goes on to explain that it is concerned about criticism of same-sex marriage being classed as a "hate crime" - which would be "a grotesque assault on people's freedom of conscience". So that's that one settled then. UKIP are a libertarian party so long as you're not gay and wanting to get married, in which case your freedoms are less important than those of the less than enlightened individuals who oppose your union from a position of intolerance and prejudice. Well, I'm glad we got that one out of the way, as are hundreds of people at this minute using twitter to highlight UKIP's hypocrisy, inconsistency and outright idiocy.

However, all this stupidity pales into insignificance compared to Alex Salmond's growing association with Rupert Murdoch. Please do not misunderstand me - I am not taking an easy swipe at the First Minister. Neither do I think it is right for other political parties, especially those with records of intimate relationships with News Corp, to jump on the rather convenient bandwagon. Even we in the Lib Dems are not without sin and should take no glee in casting the first stone. But when the First Minister appears to defend, or at the very least overlook the phone-hacking taken out on behalf of News Corp, he does himself, his office and the country a huge disservice. Stating that "the questions the probe is looking at relate to the industry, not one newspaper or company" is technically correct, but is disingenuous in that the brunt of the Leveson Inquiry's activity is taken up with allegations relating to Murdoch's various newspapers and that the News of the World has already been shown to have carried out some of the worst instances of hacking including that of Milly Dowler's phone. It is not difficult to see why Salmond's opponents have been keen to suggest that his dalliances with Murdoch amount to a kind of mental prostitution - or what Willie Rennie calls "dining out with the Devil". Quite why a man riding high on the crest of a wave called popular appeal feels the need to court such a pantomime villain as Rupert Murdoch I can't say, but the association could have a damaging impact on the way the First Minister is perceived. It's a move that doesn't sit comfortably with the popular image of Salmond as an astute and shrewd politician.

Finally, the Monster Raving Loony's London Mayoral Candidate Chris Dowling is keen to appeal to voters to back him in May and hopes people will "vote for insanity - you know it makes sense". He hasn't got round to deciding a policy platform yet but has turned his ire on the main parties' ability to "buy democracy". At least that argument makes sense up to a point. But the main difference between Chris and the aforementioned individuals is that the others were serious when they made their respective points or gave their speeches and have so far not seen fit to retract their comments, issue an apology or even make an effort to rearticulate their points in such a way as to avoid misinterpretation.

I'd like to see some kind of acknowledgement from O'Brien, McAlpine, Reid, Bruce, the collective genius of UKIP's NEC and Salmond. Sadly it seems they neither understand how offensive their words have been or patently, like Edith Piaf, have no regrets. And the political scene is all the worse for it.

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