Thursday, 21 May 2015

My Eurovision Top (and Bottom) Fives

Everyone who is obsessed with large events of global significance like the Olympic Games, the World Cup or the Eurovision Song Contest, has lists. It's the one thing that unites us all. We're showing our autistic side, that's all, and quite frankly, WDGAFF what the detractors think - this is our prize cow and we're going to milk it within an inch of its life. The one thing Eurovision nutjobs like me always do is ask others what their top 5 are. But we don't just talk about the songs...

Top five venues?

The one thing Eurovision always does, every year, is try to outdo the year before. To be honest, I think this year's is the best I've ever seen. The stage is magnificent, the background images divine and the sumptuous opening showed it all off. But apart from that?

Copenhagen - Parken Stadium (1993)
Nobody would ever leave this off the list. The biggest Eurovision ever, hosted not in a glorified conference centre or ice hockey hall, but a stadium. It was a lovely sunny evening and the atmosphere created itself.

Millstreet, Ireland - Green Glens Arena (2001)
Think it sounds like a place for a horse show? Yes, you'd be right. The most oddball place for any Eurovision ever, it was a huge tent erected over the show jumping area, and the whole thing could have been an unmitigated catastrophe, but on television, you would never have known.

Vienna - Hofburg Imperial Palace (1967)
Yes, Vienna again. If aliens landed somewhere on the planet I think Vienna is the place they'd think we'd chosen as our capital city. The glorious buildings give it that air, but the cream on the cupcake is Hofburg. Having the Eurovision Song Contest take place there, in the home of music, was the equivalent of having a Star Trek convention in Leonard Nimoy's kitchen.

Copenhagen - B&W Hallerne (2014)
Aaaand Copenhagen once more... But wait until you read why - this was a huge undertaking. A former dock warehouse, it was converted into a 10,000-capacity concert venue with its surrounding area being dubbed "Eurovision Island". We all thought it was barmy. In the end it was a stroke of genius.

Baku - Crystal Hall (2012)
Probably the finest setting for all Eurovisions, the Crystal Hall was a truly remarkable venue and the fact they even lit the building with the colours of the flags while that nation's entry was singing just makes it all the more embarrassing that the UK sent Engelbert Humperdinck that year.

Top five winners?

This is always a contentious one with lots of us Euronuts. My cut-off point is how comfortable I would be if my earphones fell out of my ear on the bus and my fellow passengers were to hear what I was listening to, and all of these pass. I have my own rule: whatever song is in my head when the performances are over I'll vote for. Funnily enough, these below were all in my head, and the songs I hoped would eventually win that evening. I'd say it depends on the day as to who I think was the best of all time, but I can at least rummage up a top 5:

"Molitva" - Marija Šerifović, Serbia (Helsinki, 2007)
The simple choreography, the backing group, the unpretentious staging, the powerful voice and the anthemic build-up made this for me a simple choice for this list. The fact it was the only winner not in English since 1991 is unimportant. I believe the song is important, not only the lyrics, and often a song is made more beautiful if it is sung in the language of its genre. This is a perfect example.

"Love Shine A Light" - Katrina and the Waves, UK (Dublin, 1997)
This is no bias. Even 18 years later, this song's upbeat message containing those two vital winning Eurovision ingredients of hope and friendship, still make this the most deserving winner of the 1990s. I am a great fan of simplicity and unpretentiousness, and once again, this act contained no drop-dead gorgeous people, no strobe lighting, no silly dancing and no idiots losing clothes. Although the green collar was a bit OTT, it stood out a country mile and won by a 70-point landslide.

"Fly On The Wings Of Love" - The Olsen Brothers, Denmark (Stockholm, 2000)
In the grand scheme of things, this song is another triumph for the simple. Just two old guys on their guitars. Like the other two songs I have listed, it's got an unforgettable anthemic nature about it and like the UK song above, is about hope and friendship. On the night, though, nobody thought it had a cat in hell's chance. But it blew everyone else away with a 40-point margin.

"Insieme: 1992" - Toto Cutugno, Italy (Zagreb, 1990)
I have always liked Italian when it is sung. I have often hoped the Italians would do well at Eurovision as they send in quality songs, mainly due to their Sanremo festivals, which turns up some very important and long-lasting quality artists. This time was different. In 1990, this song ticked a lot of boxes: two years before the Maastricht Treaty, Europe was gripped by revolution to the east. The Germanies were reuniting, and the idea of European integration was becoming reality. This song, almost totally in Italian, had importantly three words in English: "Unite Unite Europe". The song is not a classic, but it has the same characteristics as the others above: rousing anthem, simple choreography and a memorable chorus, even if the singer makes some appallingly embarrassing moves, and the brass section of the orchestra plays some excruciatingly kitsch high notes. It won not on quality but on being the right song for the right occasion.

"Fairytale" - Alexander Rybak, Norway (Moscow, 2009)
I had a little difficulty choosing my fifth: Finland's Hard Rock Hallelujah and Ukraine's Wild Dances would round off a top seven, but I chose Fairytale because it fits the theme of the others I have chosen: memorable melody, simple choreography and no cheap gimmicks. It went a step further though: the guy could really play the fiddle. He won by the biggest margin in Eurovision history, 169 points ahead of his nearest rival, Iceland. I voted for it, and so did the rest of Europe.

Bottom five winners?

I would say at this point, whoever wins the Eurovision, despite tactical voting, still needs the support of the rest of the continent, and generally the best song always wins. For me, though, there are years when the voting public has got it terribly wrong. Most of the ones I've chosen come from the period when there was 100% public choice. It's got a lot better since they started jury votes again, but here are some that should never have won:

"Believe" - Dima Bilan, Russia (Belgrade, 2008)
If anyone won because of a gimmick, it was this guy. I hated the song, the mercenary Olympic ice skater, the stupid choreography, Bilan's heavy breathing and the utter fix that year seemed to be. There were such very bad songs that year, that it was actually the least worst of the rest. Remember Greece's "Secret Combination"? Armenia's "Qelé, Qelé"? Ukraine's Shady Lady? Nope. Nor do I - much. It could have been worse had they won. But they were the runners-up in what for me was, musically, the worst Eurovision of all time. The economic crash had just happened and I think most of Europe was glad to give hosting a miss the year after. My favourite of that year was France's Sébastien Tellier with "Divine", a train-crash of an act, that actually made it pretty good.

"Running Scared" - Ell & Nikki, Azerbaijan (Düsseldorf, 2011)
Cheesy, schmaltzy, saccharine, whimsical rubbish of the lowest order. It could have been so much better with a few tweaks of the scoreboard. Italy was second with a storming number called "Follia d'Amore" and Denmark's A Friend In London was not far behind in 5th place. But then again, Jedward was there in the mix, as was Sweden's Eric Saade, with, I believe, the worst rhyme in music history: "Stop, don't say that it's impossible / 'Cause I know it's possible." Who thought of that one? Can you imagine the writers sitting there? "So guys, we need a word that rhymes with 'possible'. Any takers?" So let's not beat ourselves up too much.

"Every Way That I Can" - Sertab Erener, Turkey (Riga, 2003)
This, for me, was the most unjust result of the 21st century. Sertab Erener's copy+paste of a song did nothing to enhance the beauty of music. It was weak, fatuous and lacking in any feeling at all. Totally the opposite end of the spectrum from the two above, which exaggerated emotion. This one was all about the act, which, when levelled against some of the other competitors that year, was never going to fail. The act was also high on the list of t.A.T.u. that year, a fake lesbian duo who arrogantly blustered into the competition claiming they were going to win. In the end they came third, but when I tell you only three points separated the top 3 places, it was close. In fact, if the Irish hadn't had a telephone meltdown and the viewing public had their say, Russia may have won - who knows? Avery injustice should have a counterbalance, and Sertab denying the Russians that year was it. But the greatest injustice of all was who came second. Belgium's Urban Trad, with their atmospheric folk song "Sanomi" should have won, were it not for the Swedish votes in the second-last round of points. They gave eight to Turkey and two to Russia, and none at all to Belgium, meaning the phlegmatic Slovenians stood in the way of Belgium's first win, and I couldn't see them giving points to Belgium. Inevitably, they gave their ten and twelve to Turkey and Russia respectively and Belgium got only 3 from them. Sanomi, for me, is the best song never to win Eurovision. But more on that shortly...

"Rock 'n' Roll Kids" - Paul Harrington & Charlie McGettigan, Ireland (Dublin, 1994)
This was Ireland's most unusual win of all. During their "Reign of Terror" in the 1990s, they tried everything to stop winning. Channel 4's comedy Father Ted played heavily on this in one episode, when the Irish broadcaster decided to rig their national champion and send an atrocious song to Eurovision. It worked in a fictional comedy, but it didn't in the real thing and this duo sang a sad and wistful number about when they were young. If the Olsen Brothers were two old blokes with instruments, these were their anathema. A dirge of a song, but what gave Ireland the victory was not, I believe, that song. It was their interval act, Riverdance. I'm wrong, of course, but imagine if most of the juries had thought the Irish entry was their interval act and voted for that instead...

"Rock Me" - Riva, Yugoslavia (Lausanne, 1989)
For the fifth one, this is truly a fart at a funeral. It requires a build-up before I write about this one, as it is so unbelievably bad that I think typing too much could cause my head to implode in on itself. In 1989, following on from Sandra Kim (Belgium, 1986), Johnny Logan (Ireland, 1987) and Céline Dion (Switzerland, 1988), came the musically inept "Rock Me" by Riva from Yugoslavia. Barely half a decade having passed after the hit film Amadeus, this one seemed like a carbon copy (copy+paste was a new thing in those days) of Falco's Mozart-inspired eponymous theme tune, but without the class or depth of thought. It was just an empty vessel carrying a tune and some vacuous girl in a hideous red-white-black outfit gandering in and out of all the other performers like an unruly kid that's cramping the style of a cheap wedding band. Feel free to watch the video, but be warned: it will stay in your head for a long time afterwards...

Top five non-winners?

Out of all the categories, this is the one I could fill with my top 50. But I won't, as the Semi-Final starts in 5 and a quarter hours, and I want to see it. As you know, if you've been paying attention, Sanomi from Urban Trad was my Best Song Never To Win Eurovision, so these are my top-top five after that one:

"Calm After The Storm" - Common Linnets, Netherlands (Sweden, 2014)
After Sanomi, this is the Next Best Song Never To Win Eurovision. Many people's favourites are formed from their most recent memories, but in this case, I am sure, just like Sanomi, that I will think the same in 20 or 40 years' time. Calm After The Storm was a triumph of simplicity and moodiness that brought the hairs on my arms, neck and chest to a standing position. I had this song in my head two weeks after the competition ended. I was devastated it didn't win, but as Conchita won with her Shirley Bassey-style Rise Like a Phoenix, I could accept second place. It is timeless, unpretentious and soulful. Get out the tissues before you play it.

The next one is actually a person and not a song. Željko Joksimović is an inspirational and deep-thinking songwriter and singer.
Here are two of his entries: 
"Lejla" - Hari Mata Hari, Bosnia and Herzegovina (Athens, 2006)
"Lane Moje" - himself, Serbia & Montenegro (Istanbul, 2004)

Everyone was playing for second in 2006. Lordi's Hard Rock Hallelujah was a shoe-in, and rightly so. It brought metal to the people. But this song was the one I wanted to win if Lordi didn't.
In 2004, B&H came a close second with another haunting melody written by him. Ukraine's Ruslana took it with her Wild Dances, and I have no beef with her of the song - it was so full of energy and activity, I was surprised she was able to hold a note by the end. But Joksimovic epitomises everything good about folk, and like Goran Bregovic, he doesn't compromise on making music buried deeply in the soil of his homelands.

Balkan music is fabulous. It is very technical, with its own character and often-unusual number of beats per bar, and it saddens me when people talk about block voting at the Eurovision. I have often voted for songs from this neck of the woods, and most certainly for these two. Listen to the songs, feel the melancholy energy and stop knocking it!
AND HERE (Lane Moje)

"Dancing Lasha Tumbai" - Verka Serduchka, Ukraine (Helsinki, 2007)
Verka Serduchka was a Teletubby fairy in tinfoil and dark glasses who sang in several languages. A roly-poly, camper than camp phenomenon in silver, he/she souped up another traditional melody and made it into sublime Ukrainian turbofolk. I loved it and still do. The controversial lyrics seemed to say "I want to see / Russia goodbye", but they were given the benefit of the doubt on the night.

"Et S'il Fallait Le Faire" - Patricia Kaas, France (Moscow, 2009)
I have often voted for France at Eurovision, and this was the year the larger Western European countries put up a fight to wrest the competition away from the Scandinavians and Easterners. The UK sent Jade Ewen, with her Lloyd Webber power ballad "It's My Time", but France sent this terrific number. I've seen Patricia Kaas in concert, incidentally, also in Moscow, and she certainly puts on a show. This one is a typical chanson à la française and deserved a much, much higher position than 8th, but not bad, considering she sang third, usually a very bad place in the running order, when people at home are still getting their dinner plates washed and putting on the coffee. Still, I love this song, and it deserved better.

"No No Never" - Texas Lightning, Germany (Athens, 2006)
In 2006, I still lived in Belgium. A friend of mine took me in his car to his village near Berlin (Brussels outskirts-Berlin outskirts in 6 hours, including a stop for dinner - not so much driving fast, as flying low). The next day he took his family and me to the supermarket and there was this up-tempo country number playing in the building. I heard it several more times that weekend, and it really made me stop what I was doing and listen. When I enquired about it, they told me it was Germany's entry for Eurovision that year. I liked it a lot, but in the period of time when the music really did die, I gave it not a cat in hell's chance. Germany was later that year going to host the World Cup and this was a kind of pre-tournament theme. I still hear it played on the radio 9 years later, and that's the sign of a good song - no matter where it comes in the Eurovision, if it's good, it'll survive long after they've put the glitter and sequins away.

Top five hosts?

There is only one: 
Petra Mede!


I rest my case :-)

Sunday, 3 May 2015

Why the electoral system in Britain is broken and how to fix it

In the beginning, the Labour Party went barking mad. Then the Conservatives got sleazy. One party in power alone, and the dangerous ideology that it implements, has caused untold damage to the nation, and now many people are reluctant to allow either of them to govern alone. Where do we go next?

The Labour Party of the sixties and seventies was full of paranoid militants and fist-pumping demagogues that were able, at the drop of a foreman's hat, to hold the country to ransom with one-out-all-out strikes and hard-cheese speeches if they didn't get their way. People saw through it all and Margaret Thatcher's Conservative Party won by a thumping landslide. Even my left-leaning father voted Tory in 1979. Due to their utter profligacy, Labour had left the country in a serious financial crisis. They were also being held to ransom by firebrand union members who had seen to it that the electric regularly went off and the shops weren't fully supplied if they didn't get their way. With Labour unelectable, the Tories just ran roughshod over those they could bully and cajole (the unions, Northerners, Scots and the poor among others) and alienated whole swaths of the electorate that they didn't care about. Sometimes this was for the good of the nation (hence the swift but ruthless reduction in the national debt) but often the upshot was the sale of another government enterprise for a fraction of its asking price to a friend of a friend of the minister responsible, who also got a cut somewhere along the line.

The swivel-eyed lunacy of the left kept them out of power for 18 years, until the back-stabbing sleaze of the Major administration made Labour understand that by rebranding itself, it could win once more. Tony Blair realised socialism was a dirty word, but people wanted to throw out the Tories, and they voted for New Labour in their droves. Sworn capitalists, bankers, even right-leaning newspapers gave their blessing to the new set-up. The country went into a deep euphoric trance brought on by spin doctors' magic touches and Tony Blair's messianic speeches, which made the nation realise that at last they had a leader they could say was punching above the country's weight abroad and redressing the balance at home. The trance was so deep, Blair even got re-elected despite a highly unpopular war in the Middle East.



What we didn't realise, on that day when Blair gave up Number 10 saying, "it is over, goodbye," was that he had handed over the keys to the nation to Gordon Brown on the eve of a financial meltdown and a global recession that would have far-reaching consequences for some time to come, probably a generation. It didn't have to be like that. Other countries, like Canada, Germany and Australia, avoided it. He was, quite frankly, spending his way into people's affection. Buying popularity. The most narcissistic and deluded Prime Minister of a Western democracy there has ever been decided to bail out when the money dried up. Nice.

And in stepped Gordon Brown, the last Prime Minister of a one-party government we will have for a very long time. It wasn't his fault. This was Blair's ultimate revenge for his great rival: leave him to pick up the pieces; let him take the hit. And so he did. Officially voted the single-worst PM in living memory (after Callaghan and Heath that's quite some doing), Brown made sure Labour was to lose the 2010 election by being indecisive, dithering and looking gloomy even when he was smiling. He had no real policies, just improvised "ideas" from the many think tanks New Labour employed at the taxpayer's expense.

And finally in May 2010 the electorate decided there was another way. Out went old confrontational politics, in came consensual politics. The Con-LibDem coalition that formed held together pretty well for the full 5 years, and I think, according to the polls, David Cameron and his two-party government didn't do badly, getting the UK out of some pretty tricky situations. But during the last 5 years, several things happened that have transformed the landscape of UK politics forever:

a. the Scottish referendum mobilised a whole nation, and despite the failure to secure their own nation state, the SNP is poised to win nearly all the seats in Scotland. Labour made themselves toxic in the country by siding with the hated Tories in the referendum debate. I fail to grasp why the Scots should think this, because it's only on this one opinion, which was demonstrated by all the parties except the Greens. I'm sure Labour and the Tories think trees are green and the sun is bright: it doesn't mean you have to hate one party because they agree with your enemy.

b. This has caused other parties to seize their moment. Plaid Cymru in Wales, the Greens in England and UKIP have cajoled their way into mainstream politics to such an extent, that they found themselves sharing a stage with the Big Three (well, the Big Two and the little coalition partner) during the recent leaders' debates. The smaller parties proved themselves worthy of being there too. To such an extent, in fact, that in some polls even the Greens are ahead of the Lib Dems.

c. Labour and the Lib Dems have lost credibility - the former due to Scotland and the last time they were in power, the latter over broken promises to cancel tuition fees. This has let the others in. The majority of party swingers are Lib Dems to the Tories or UKIP and Labour voters to the SNP, Plaid Cymru or UKIP.

The problem now is that the parties and their leaders really don't have a clue how to operate in these new conditions. Miliband and Cameron are refusing to talk about the deals they would do with any coalition partners; Miliband has said emphatically that he would rather the Tories got back in than be part of an SNP-Labour coalition in any shape or form. How many of us really believe that? He was stupid to say it, because he will be held accountable after Thursday, if the mathematics mean it is the only option. Cameron is tight-lipped about his party's future, just like Miliband, and dodges any question about coalition. These two are the living embodiment of a country experiencing the death throes of two-party politics. People's allegiances have changed, much like their shopping habits. No longer do we go to the same shop for the product we want; we look around for a better deal, and at the moment, we think the better deal is a combination of parties, to keep checks on the bigger ones.

What is likely to happen after 7th May is anyone's guess, but I would hope that whoever is there will be grown-up enough to fix the electoral system. These are two scenarios:

1. All parties' leaders choose their brightest minds who are to remain impartial and non-partisan, to discuss how to implement a better and more representative chamber, maybe where you get the same percentage of MPs as the electorate voted for you. It is ludicrous that the Greens, if they get 7% of the votes, might still only get one MP.

Problem: although the Lib Dems, UKIP, Plaid Cymru and the Greens would benefit from this, the SNP, Tories and Labour, crucially the three biggest parties, would not. A fudge would most certainly happen that would please nobody and further alienate an already tetchy electorate.

2. I would favour keeping the constituencies but having a two-round election, where the two candidates in a constituency with the most votes would go through to a second round the week after, thus guaranteeing MPs garnered more than 50% of the votes in their chosen constituencies, but keeping them on their very best behaviour as they may very well not make it to (or through) the second round. This way, we keep the tried-and-tested constituency set-up, which assures MPs remain attached to their electorate, and at the same time ward off that most undemocratic and elitist list system favoured by some countries that should know better. Although proportional representation assures correct apportioning of seats, it distances party grandees from their voters as they know they're top of the lists and thus don't need to do any campaigning at all. They can just hire some party stooges to hand out balloons to passers-by at supermarket car parks. So I would be loath to unleash such a badly thought-out system on such an engaged and active electorate.

Problem: I can already see most politicians being fervent opponents, as this system means their electorate, instead of voting for whom they want, would possibly vote for the other candidate in a sort of "anyone but that lot" exercise. Tactical voting on a whole new level. However, if an incumbent MP has done a good job, most people would put party politics aside and vote with their heads. I know Tory supporters who vote for their current Lib Dem MP because he's been very good for their town.

Considering the looming hung parliament and the unfathomable mathematical hangover it is likely to create, it would not surprise me if the Tories and Labour went into some kind of German-style Grand Coalition just to keep their two wannabe sister parties, UKIP and the SNP respectively, out of government. I doubt it, but it is an interesting scenario. Could you imagine the stunned looks on the faces of the ruling coalition backbenchers, when some wealthy, landed Eton/Oxbridge alumnus with no chin and an accent that could cut glass is reluctantly siding with a tieless, comprehensive school-leaver wielding a thick regional brogue and bus driving and a stint at a supermarket checkout featuring heavily on his CV? Angus Robertson of the SNP would be the Leader of the Opposition. It wouldn't last long... but long enough to cause Scotland to chip itself off. Who outside Scotland remembers The Vow any longer?

Lastly, if big-party politicians want any credibility, they need to stop treating the electorate as idiots. If they are to do deals with other parties, they need to say so, so that the electorate can make up its mind better. This whole campaign has been about nothing but ignoring the vast elephant in the room that is the next coalition. I, for one, am not scared of the SNP; far from it. Considering the efficiency and straighforwardness of the Scottish government, I think the Westminster parties are scared the SNP will come in and sweep up too many of the little comforts the established parties took for granted. Complacency has no place in British politics any more, and I think a dose of SNP in government will do the country good. Leave the SNP out, and they risk Scotland breaking off altogether.

Monday, 6 April 2015

Eurovision Song Contest 2015: it's a very sad year

It seems like nobody wants a party this year. Or at least very few. With the Middle East in its most parlous state ever, Western Africa simmering, Eastern Africa failing to make any progress in stopping the rise of extremism, poverty and destitution on the rise everywhere, and rich European countries (who should know better) acting selfishly over a few lost Shekels in the Aegean Sea, it is no wonder this year's Eurovision Song Contest has a melancholy air about it.

There are a lot of real dirges this year and a lot of awfully miserable lyrics:

This offering from Hungary's Boggie ("Wars for Nothing") sums it up:

"Do you know how many innocents
Are hiding from punishment
For crimes they’d never commit?
All alone, all alone"

I would, however, suggest that the song itself is a very good one. 

Unlike Armenia's, whose lyrics seem to have been hastily thrown together by one of those online rhyme generators:

"We find so many ways fooling our heart
Playing too many games trying to hide
When you follow a dream, surrender the sorrow inside 
Face every shadow you denied

Feels like so many times life was unfair
Will you run and forget all the despair? 
If it’s breaking you down, remember the power inside
Face every shadow you denied"

There are some diamonds in the rough, for example France, whose chanteuse Lisa Angell offers peace, hope, courage and (that old French cliché) solidarity to her listeners when she sings about her village that had been destroyed by war and that she is back to rebuild it. We all need to have dreams - good luck with that...

It's going to be three very long evenings in May, and I have decided not to hold a Eurovision party this year. So let's check the potential winners at the bookmakers:

  • Sweden is about 6-4, even though the song itself, for me, falls very short.
  • Italy, at 4-1, had come with a powerful performance by three tenors and the song sticks in the head, although opera tends not to do so well at Eurovision.
  • Estonia are 5-1 third favourites, goodness knows why, it's a mess.

There are some worth mentioning:

Latvia's singer has a very special voice and the song has some very unique backbeats.
Lithuania, the only Baltic country never to have won, has a happy melody and will do well, even with the kissing gimmick in the middle of the song. A dark horse.
Austria, Poland, Ireland and Belarus all go for pianos in one way or another, as do several other countries.
Finland has sent some men with learning difficulties with another hard rock number, which will garner a lot of votes.
Cyprus has taken a leaf out of the cute shy guy book and sent a pleasant ditty.


The smart money should go on:

Australia at 9-1 - the song is strong, and it's their only attempt at it so they're liable to have an incredible act. At this stage, I think it will place high, but it won't win. I may change my mind on the night.

Denmark at 100-1 - it stands head-and-shoulders above the rest as an anthemic number that won't go out of your head, and is by a long way the best offering from the Nordic Eurovision powerhouses. It's got everything going for it - cute boy singer, no gimmicks and a memorable melody. I think I'm going to vote for this one.

The UK at 40-1 - quirky updated Charleston number with a feelgood beat and some humour attached. Some Louis Armstrong scatting in the middle is the only change in what is a pleasant melody but never really takes off.

The Netherlands at 66-1 - as usual, something different from them, and Trijntje Oosterhuis hits out a song that doesn't make you want to switch over to the news. Probably won't win, but is the best of the ballads.

Belgium at 33-1 - this young man will have the housewives and gay men purring. His video shows water dripping down his face, and I'm sure that's how most people will want to watch him as he sings "we're gonna rrrra ba ba tonight". If the staging is right (and Belgium is notoriously awful at it, although Wallonia less so than Flanders), he'll be sitting pretty in the top half of the final table.

Forgettable songs are aplenty though: Russia seems to have given up and is sending another copy/paste china doll; Greece really doesn't want to host it next year, but it feels left out without an entry; Switzerland is so desperate for votes, it has sent an off-the-shelf number that will appeal to the mediocrity lovers east of the Balkans; Armenia, FYROM, Georgia, Spain, Slovenia, Serbia, Czech Republic are all forgettable. But not as forgettable as everyone else I've not mentioned.

So here are my predictions for the winning song this year:

  • The winning song will have at least one man singing.
  • It will be a song that does not mention the current issues: an escape from the world's troubles.
  • It will be close.

To check out all this year's contestants and their songs, visit the Eurovision website.

Saturday, 1 November 2014

Is the West endangered by Russia? No. By an ineffective Germany? Yes.

In recent weeks, there have been murmurs of Russian expansion into Western Europe, both in military terms and economic terms. I for one don't buy the theory that they are preparing for a wholesale takeover of the continent, or even a partial one; we should just keep them at arm's length, get on with trade and leave it at that. I fear Germany and its dismissive inactivity in areas of security and territorial integrity, combined with its grip on Eurozone austerity much, much more.

I live in Germany, a country that looks east and west in equal measures. Because of its self-instilled role as benign regional superpower, it had bestowed on itself a mainly symbolic role in diplomatic affairs. This troubles me, because I see this policy as breathtakingly hypocritical. Germany is a country with a recent history of washing its hands of highly-charged political and economic upheaval, not throwing enough energy into the fight against the international threats of terrorism, disease, poverty, hunger, or saving the planet, and seems to be happy enough to let the poorest EU member states drown in the waters of its own enforced austerity measures. Germany is getting rich off the backs of others' misery. At the same time, despite jittery Poles, nervous Balts and baffled Swedes, all who have been recent victims to Russia's mind games, Germany seems to want to carry on playing the old appeasement tune, as if in some sarcastic way to say "you emasculated us in 1945, now you'll see what the consequences are!" At this time, sitting on the fence is the most alarming thing to be doing. It is making countries who have had a peaceful recent history get second thoughts on their alignments and allegiances.

Poland and the Baltic States have had a long and troubled relationship with Russia, and no other countries are better experienced in trying to second-guess Russia's next moves. They are justified in being worried about the future and believing they need to start preparing for a Russian onslaught. This is not necessarily because they think it will happen - it is because they do not trust the bigger powers, especially Germany, to defend them if necessary. I for one believe that Russia will stay away from Poland, although the Baltic States I am not sure. But we should encourage those four countries nonetheless to increase their military spending. We should also be helping them by bolstering the number of NATO troops in the area even further. This is however not happening. The West is running out of military personnel running around putting out little fires in other parts of the world, like the Middle East and East Africa. What it should be doing is watching its own back.

Russia is loving every minute of this - watching its former underlings criticising the senior NATO members for not providing enough reassurance that they will honour the NATO promise to come to the aid of any of its members. And this is the fundamental reason why we need not fear a Russian invasion: Russia has always believed politics to be like chess - you win the game not by a full-on attack, but by tricking your opponents and making them paranoid about you. Chess is war by proxy. You manoeuvre your pieces in a way that makes the opponent fear and respect you. But it is not about territory, war or invasion. Russia wants NATO and the EU to implode by itself and so it is sowing the seeds of doubt. And at the moment it is winning very comfortably.

The Poles and the Baltic States should rightly worry about the future, and prepare for the worst just in case, but the US and especially Germany should hang their heads in shame at the ambiguous and complacent way they are treating those countries. In the end, Realpolitik may win the day, as it should, where Russia and Europe co-exist and rely on each other for trade, but we should not allow Germany and Russia to ruin us by doing nothing to defuse the situation.

Germany needs to man up, start throwing some of its weight around and act like the geopolitical power it is. 1945 is no longer an excuse; it needs to prove itself militarily. Herein lies the problem - after such a protracted period of demilitarisation, Germany is now full of conscientious objectors: people who are against war whatever the reason. How can any nation justify that in this day and age? We should all strive to avoid war, but sometimes it is the only option. There is no other way to defeat the barbaric 12th-century mob of mercenaries that calls itself the Islamic State. Al-Shabab and the like neither. At the same time, we should not seek war with Russia, Iran or any state where diplomacy would be more appropriate, but we should encourage the defence of all of our borders, no matter what the threat, and with nobody in particular in mind. Germany has shirked its responsibilities in all these areas, and continues to lord it over the Eurozone, enforcing its draconian and remorseless policies of austerity on countries whose governments have become more or less de facto puppet states of Brussels and Berlin.

This is the type of country that goes about its business with nothing in its conscience except saving its own bacon by cuddling up to Russia and China, whilst at the same time looking like the Good European. Germany's ability to persuade countries from Finland to Portugal and Greece to Ireland dance to its tune unquestioningly but with a modicum of fear and reverence, is testament to its stranglehold on European affairs. Countries like the Czech Republic, Denmark and the UK, which have a tradition of being slightly more aloof in the European context, are often isolated to the point of humiliation, the UK often being the last one standing. These are all trade-offs, you see, and the UK doesn't often give in to that, even if others do.

However, I think our feckless and thumb-twiddling politicians need to start acting a bit more streetwise. At the moment, they look like a group of bumbling and out-of-touch buffoons not dissimilar to the two hapless detectives in the ever-relevant Tintin comic strips. If I were a member of the EU Council of Ministers, no matter which country I was representing, I would be trying to persuade or even embarrass Germany into changing its stance of selfish inaction on many fronts, the UK to stop listening to the oil lobby about its objection to creating more wind farms, and also to stop reducing the size of its military, and the rest of Europe to start getting a lot quicker in its response to everything. It is so slow - it often meets and talks about matters that may have happened a week or more earlier and the world has moved on by then.

Russia though is not off the hook. Crimea seems a long way off, and the east of Ukraine has dropped off the newsreels. But it does not mean it is over - far from it. Right now, the people of that region don't know what the world is doing to them. It could be that through Europe's own policy of letting Germany actively do nothing (yes, you can actively do nothing!) we are letting the people of Ukraine down. Who is to say that the same would not happen to Poland or the Baltic countries, if such a scenario were to happen there? And this is where the UK and France come in - if Germany, having its hands firmly squeezed by Moscow due to its patronage of a lot of Russian trade, is reducing talks between Russia and Ukraine to "kiss and make up", what does that tell us about its leadership? As long as its economy is going along nicely, there's food on the table for everyone, its austerity measures kicking in everywhere except in Germany itself, what does it care? It has never acted in the interests of the whole, only its own.

According to a recent opinion poll, Germany is the most positively-viewed country in the world. Within 5 years, I think people will see that going down. It is starting to look a lot like Europe in the 20th century, as Germany is adopting a similar air of careless disregard for Poland, but this time as its so-called ally, not its master. If the EU is to survive Putin's mind games, Germany needs to stop relying on the UK and France as the EU's military wing, and allay the fears of Poland and the Baltic States by more than just words. Angela Merkel's dismissal of other nations' concerns, from protection of Polish and Baltic territorial integrity, through British repatriation of powers from Brussels, to Spanish and Greek austerity, could cause the EU to collapse. It is time we either started to take some of the responsibility away from Germany whether it likes it or not, or made it realise it is doing great harm to everyone else through its own lazy and two-faced policies.

Friday, 19 September 2014

Scotland gets to decide who will I be in the morning.

What does it mean to be British? It is an all-encompassing term for a person or thing having ties to, or identifying themselves with, the United Kingdom and its islands and dependencies. It is a very versatile and inclusive name for people who live or were born there. It is another layer of identity lying under that of European, Asian, African, etc. and above English, Welsh, Scottish. But it is more than that - it is possible to be Australian and British, Jamaican and British, Chinese and British, or Eritrean and British, It is a very important part of many people's identity. Including mine. In fact, I don't have a third layer, I have only two: European and British. I do not see myself as English, even though I was born in London; I do not class myself as Polish, despite my surname; I do not see myself as German or Belgian despite my ties to them. I am British first and European second. What will I be if a very important part of my country decides to break away?

As I write these lines, the polls have been closed for 50 minutes. My identity is in the hands of fewer than 5 million people.

I have been trying very hard to understand why over 40% of Scottish people would like to separate from the rest and become foreigners on their own island. And what I have noticed is that many don't want to, but they feel they have to, either because their political views are not being recognised by the British government based in London, or because they feel they are not being listened to, or because they feel disenfranchised by them. There has become a certain amount of mistrust arising from this, and people feel the government in London is not representative of their views.

The Conservative Party is the main bête noire here. Many Scots feel that they often get governments in London that they didn't vote for. What they fail to remember is that, if you look at the European Parliament elections, the whole of the United Kingdom is not represented in the largest bloc of parties, as the European People's Party does not have a British participant: the Conservative Party is in the ECR bloc. At least in the British elections, all parties appear on ballot papers up and down the country, and if people don't want to vote for them, or have them as their government, it doesn't mean they should just leave - that is like selling your car because your road is being temporarily closed for roadworks.

Being disenfranchised is a far better reason, but it is a UK-wide thing. Politics in these times is very boring, full of glorified civil servants rather than visionaries. I think this is caused to some extent by the EU - all the major decisions take place there and so politicians back in their home countries sit playing with their stationery and writing memos to each other about dinner appointments. They are just there to do the bidding of faceless bureaucrats in offices far away. The one thing that needs to happen is a re-engagement of people in the political process. The referendum has certainly done that, and I hope, no I pray, that the political leaders of all colours grasp this moment whatever the result, to start a national debate in all areas, that we head towards a much more consultative political process.

I have always thought power should be more evenly distributed throughout the United Kingdom, and now there is a real possibility of this happening. Politicians can, however, take a good idea and fudge it out of reality. I would be very disappointed if that were to happen, and I truly hope they take everyone's views into account, not just narrow party politics, when they come to the rebuilding of this great country. If the Scottish should vote for independence, I hope London's representatives do not get dazzled by Alex Salmond's silver tongue and hard bargaining. I admire his wily competence but I have found his manipulation of the facts and figures and his really aggressive dismissal of the UK government ("Westminster government") have made me feel very uncomfortable. He said that a vote for the UK was a vote for closed-mindedness and nothing new, and a vote for independence was a vote for a bright new future, without really saying how. I found his aggressive tactics of persuasion very annoying and unhelpful.

Back to the point that concerns me most: I don't want to be from "South Britain", or England - I am British, and I will never feel the same again if that is taken away from me. The United Kingdom has a much bigger reason for staying together than other former breakaway countries like the former Soviet Union, Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, etc., in that the countries that make up the United Kingdom have been together for at least 307 years. The Soviet Union, Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia are really late 19th-early 20th century concepts, whereas the UK is a work in progress and has been for centuries, at one time forging the largest empire the world has ever seen.

Someone today (a German) said, "I hear Scotland is voting today whether it wants to belong to England any more" - which made me furious. Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and England are nations that belong to the United Kingdom, and that is how it has always been. My country, despite the rise of UKIP, and despite the clamour for a reduction in immigration and benefits to foreigners, is still the country of most opportunity in Europe. It is still a very welcoming place, if you come to it with a smile on your face and a willingness to be useful. It is still a very colour-blind nation, and long may it stay so.

Finally, I am, despite the predicament we are in this evening, very proud of my country for the adult way it has gone about this vote. There have been some very inspirational moments, like the BBC debate with just 16 and 17-year-olds, and the party atmosphere created in the land, no matter who you voted for, showing just how civilised the whole process has been. It is now 3 hours since polls closed, and the calmness and good humour I see on the TV as the votes are being counted is a credit to the people of Scotland and the United Kingdom as a whole.

I don't intend going to bed until I know the result.

Sunday, 10 August 2014

Warmongers and peace protesters are sometimes two sides of the same coin

I have been having some almighty regrets recently.

Back in the early 2000s, whilst sitting in a bar in Belgium talking to some Americans and some locals, we (the Americans and me) launched a vitriolic attack on the others for their unwillingness to remove Saddam Hussein from power. What a bunch of white flaggers they were! Well no. Although we knew it back then, the war in Iraq was really about the oil (the US capture of the Ministry of Oil was one of the first things they did in Baghdad) and not the removal of Saddam Hussein. I naïvely thought Blair and Bush should have just come out and said it - we want to remove Saddam from power because of his horrific treatment of the Kurds and other minorities. But in fact they cooked up some cock-and-bull story about him having a deadly arsenal of lethal weapons. I personally thought they would have got a lot more sympathy from the UN Security Council and the EU dove countries (France and Germany in particular) if they had just said they were going in to remove a brutal dictator and liberate the people of Iraq.

How much I regret that now.

I look back and realise what a ridiculous notion it was to try to undermine the very embodiment of Middle Eastern stability that was the four-headed monster of Saddam Hussein, Bashar al-Assad in Syria, the king of Saudi Arabia and the Ayatollah in Iran, not to mention Gaddafi in Libya.

There is a saying in the Middle East: "Better a hundred years of dictatorship than a day of anarchy." And this is what Blair and Bush forgot about when they tried to enforce democracy on volatile lands that don't function like those found in Europe or North America. By trying to install a benign regime on a multi-ethnic, multi-faith country like Iraq, where there were many various victims of Saddam, they were opening Pandora's box. We know that now. I have always believed democracy is not good for everyone, but for some reason I got waylaid by Bush and his British stooge. I thought, OK, the reason is stupid, but that bastard needs to be taught a lesson.


I am quite sure, if we had just left the Middle East alone to sort it out with each other, not just in the nineties, but way back at the end of the French and British Empires, there would not have been half of these troubles as we have now. Quite possibly, the Arab world would have set up an enlightened, tolerant and progressive secular system where Muslims, Jews and Christians would also have flourished. But it would not have been a democracy like ours. It would have been an absolute monarchy run from either Riyadh, Baghdad, Damascus, Cairo or Jerusalem, rich in oil and minerals, trading over time with the Soviets and then the Russians, the US, the Chinese, the EU and Africa. Due to their skills in business, the rulers would probably have made every other nation on Earth strike bargains to get what they wanted. It would have been the richest land on the planet. The scientific research and factory production of the region, stretching potentially from Mauritania in the west to Kuwait in the east, Khartoum in the south and Aleppo in the north, would have outproduced the West. Muslim science was far more advanced than Europe right up until, and in some cases beyond, the Renaissance. Rule by minority, coups d'état and flitting between monarchies and republics might have been the norm, but the people would have been far more peaceful had they had the chance to be united and peaceful. That is the key - a rich country at peace is always going to flourish, given the chance.

No wonder why the Middle East was divided along lines drawn up by the British and the French after the colonial period: keep them fighting each other, and it'll keep them poor and undeveloped for centuries to come. And unfortunately, that's what has happened. The number of wars fought in the name of politics, people or religion in that area is second to none, and the repression, fear and indignation many in those lands have felt at the hands of our rulers in the West is just as strong and must be redressed as soon as possible. It is impossible to redraw the borders now - the leaders in the various countries where stability fortunately reigns would find it difficult to accept - but I think there is a case for doing something practical with Syria, Iraq and Kurdistan now. We forget the hundreds of minorities, both religious and ethnic, spread through the region - Assyrian, Kurdish, Alawite, Yazidi, Druze, Shabak, Zoroastrian, Baha'ï people all living there, getting on with their daily lives, and concentrate our thoughts on the Sunni and Shia, as the two largest groups. And we shouldn't. We should help establish some kind of federation of peoples in that region, with a firm, strong hand on the wheel, steering it towards secular tolerance and non-violent acceptance of all people living there, a society based on a common identity through history and memory, whose inhabitants look out for each other.

But here we need to discuss the real meaning of nationhood. For some, it is a very small thing - the village or region you live in; for others it is about speaking the same language; having the same religion; sharing similar values, etc... And therein lies the fundamental problem - who would be happy now, sharing a state with former oppressors? Who would welcome the rule of someone from another group that does not represent you? It is too late to (re-)establish trust amongst the peoples of Iraq and Syria, and I fear we will only see peace if the various groups are allocated lands and told to go there unless they want to become foreigners in their own homes. Events like the Simele massacre in the early thirties are reasons why it is much too late to do much about it all.

The Islamic State is the result of the constant stigmatising, oppression and stereotyping of Arabs and Muslims by the West. It is the result of a century of mishandling of their situation, needs and values. It is the reason why wars were fought that did not need to be fought. It is why Israel feels justified in its brutal handling of Palestinians. It is why Bush and Blair felt they needed to enforce democracy there. It is why the Islamic State can recruit people from Birmingham, Brussels and Bergen. It is why oil has become so important, that we all have our hands dirtied in the muddy waters of Middle Eastern violence.

And after those awful wars of the 1990s and 2000s, the West has grown weary of it all. There is no appetite for more war. But when I see the reports coming out of Iraq, of the brutal treatment of those who don't want to play any part in the growth of the Islamic State, a truly terrifying and extreme band of militants, I think this is the first time a military strike is justified. And not just that - I think a land war is going to have to happen, in order to recalibrate the entire region. I was utterly horrified when I read that the US was still "considering" dropping humanitarian food and drink parcels to the Yazidi people stuck up the mountains of Sinjar. What did they mean, "considering"? There is nothing to "consider", just do it. But this is all the fault of those politicians who listen too much to peace protesters.

Peace is a good thing - we all want peace - but do they think this group of weapon-wielding nutjobs will say "OK, brothers and sisters, let's smoke a joint and forget it all"? No. This is a group that believes not in diversity or tolerance, but the unswerving and unquestioning devotion of all under their control to allegiance to their supreme leader and ultimately to their values, misinterpreted from the Qu'ran. They will stop at nothing. They even spoke about raising their black flag on the Palace of Westminster and the White House amongst others.

Pacifism in this instance is in fact just the lazy and simplistic way of letting the belligerents get what they want. It is washing their hands of the whole thing and condemning hundreds of thousands of people to die at the hands of those butchers, either through starvation and dehydration up a mountain, suicide out of fear of what is to come, or execution for apostasy. These extremists are brutal and nothing but the total removal of the organisation and re-integration into society of its members is necessary. The West has always been the one that has gone in to re-establish peace in areas of conflict - Bosnia-Hercegovina, Rwanda, Iraq, Afghanistan, Sierra Leone, amongst other places, always too little, always too late, often due to its own self-serving policies in the first place. Well now it's really time for the US and its allies to act, and do something for the benefit of mankind in the cradle of civilisation, and stop humming and hawing about legitimacy and mandates. That didn't stop them in the other wars, why should it now?

The hardest task is going to be trying to re-educate the younger members of the IS militants, so they can once again take their place in civilised society. It can be done, as the conclusion of other wars or ideology have proven, but it will not be easy. And in order to re-establish a proper, lasting peace in the region, a truth and reconciliation council not dissimilar to that in South Africa will be a good start, hopefully allowing the emergence of heirs apparent to take place: people who have suffered and can find room to rebuild their land in the new order.

Furthermore, the old stigmas attached to Islam and Arabic speakers need to be allowed to die. A slow increment in mutual respect needs to be established as soon as possible, and the full integration of all people respecting the law should be allowed to happen. But this will not happen while we continue to advocate the brutal subjugation by proxy of groups such as the Palestinians. We need to press the reset button on the relationship between us and the whole of the Middle East and the Maghreb countries. We need to find a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, we need to stop our hypocritical mendacity towards the Gulf States, and we need to reduce our reliance on oil. All these things require one tiny thing: the US gun, oil, anti-climate and arms lobbyists to bring a halt to their interests for the benefit of mankind. For it is the sale of weapons and arms, and thus petrol, that keeps the immoral fat cats of business in profit. And to get them to change tack is very, very unlikely. We have trashed the Earth to sustain their wealth; why let people get in the way of short-term profitability?

Tuesday, 29 July 2014

A personal message to the people of Scotland: Don't you forget about us!

The debate over Scotland and its position in the United Kingdom has long been discussed on these pages, and in varying moods, depending on the context of the time. A while back I laid heavily into Alex Salmond for his demagogical bluster, opportunism and whipping up of sentimental feelings. I don't regret this, as I feel his policies after a possible vote for independence in Scotland are still incredibly self-glorifying and for all intents and purposes quite unfeasible. But this article is not about old fishface Salmond and his army of cybernats and spin doctors. This is about what the whole issue will come down to in the end: emotion, a sense of belonging, and ultimately familiarity with the status quo.

Comparable regions and nations inside other national borders would be Catalonia, Wales, Bavaria, Flanders, Brittany, Corsica or the Basque Country, and yet none of these have such a distinct identity as Scotland. There are certain items that people from quite close to those regions and nations would recognise as being typical, for example food or clothes. But with Scotland, there is a whole package, most of which would be recognised by many outside these isles, meaning there is simply no country like Scotland. It is a very, very distinct country within a country, and compared to all others in similar situations, Scottish culture and identity is so evidently unique.

Added to this, there are the everyday things we use that originated in Scotland: tarmacadam, the first passenger steamboat, the cash machine, modern economics, sociology, geology, electromagnetism, oil refining, fingerprinting, the Kelvin temperature scale, golf, curling, the refrigerator, the macintosh overcoat, the lawnmower, the Bank of England, the Bank of France even, the New York Herald, the television, penicillin, the ultrasound... the list is endless. Many of the inventions are based on a philanthropic philosophy that has been prevalent in Scotland for centuries. This is borne of a community spirit forged out of the unique conditions their culture, climate and history have created. That's my opinion, you may have yours.

In any case, you may have noticed, I have used "their", "them" and "they". That's because although they make up part of the peoples of the British Isles, their identity is indisputable. And that is the point. Although they are "they", they are also, due to their contribution to the British story, most certainly "us". And I like it that they are.

Don't get me wrong, I am not saying the United Kingdom needs to go back to the old ways of centralisation - totally the opposite - I am saying that they deserve their own recognition as the great nation they are, but I really don't want them to leave us to our own devices. I want the Kingdom to stay United. They are the down-to-earth counterbalance to the snooty southern English. They provide the social conscience for their southern neighbours' rampant capitalism. They put an anti-establishment middle finger up at the great and the good, which is what those obedient, docile Home Counties people should do more of. The Scottish people I know are also much better educated than any other people in the English-speaking world. In English schools, it's really not cool to be clever, but in Scotland I noticed intelligence is not something to be apologised for there as it might be in England.

I have no authority to tell the Scottish people to stay within the Union, but I would just say this: I have, for as long as I can remember, been British. Not English or Londoner. The universal nature of the word "British" signifies who I am and I would feel the legitimacy of that would be eroded if Scotland were to leave the United Kingdom. No matter what happens, Scotland can do a great job of governing itself. Its ultra-modern Parliament is a uniquely transparent and enlightened institution, with a much more "village hall" feel to it, as a Parliament should be; its policies on education, health and welfare are far more generous and egalitarian than anything found to its immediate south, and quite frankly, its notions of Europeanness are much deeper than that of England. But I don't care about that so much. What I hope, though, that Scotland's political set-up can have a profound effect on England's. I hope England will, over time, take on Scotland's example of the treatment of the poor and needy. I hope England will make strides in opening up academic learning for all in the same way as that in Scotland and I hope England will learn from Scotland that not voting ideologically for the same mainstream parties will result in a much more representative and multi-party parliament in Westminster.

Whatever happens, the referendum in September will have far-reaching implications for the UK. And for that reason, here is my hope for after the referendum: if Scotland votes to remain in the United Kingdom, I hope England learns its lessons, changing its political stance and becoming more attuned to the needs of all people. I hope the nature of the debate that takes place after the referendum will allow us to make the UK much more federalised. Maybe with the knowledge that the Palace of Westminster needs huge renovations, we could even take the House of Commons on the road. Sitting in Edinburgh and Cardiff would be an excellent start to resetting the relationship between all the countries on the island. Parliament would need some logistical backup, but with the technology available to us, this should not be a problem. I would also hope a vote to remain in the UK would see the end of the career of Alex Salmond. His smartypants demeanour and opportunistic ability to articulate his mood whether offended, sarcastic, petulant, super-confident or any other state will have come to nothing, or even been the reason for his demise. My grandmother used to get animated and often threaten the destruction of the television each time Margaret Thatcher showed her face on it. I often feel the same way when that smug megalomaniac's fizzog makes an unwelcome appearance on mine.

If Scotland decides to leave the United Kingdom, I also understand. Let us forget the history of the relationship of the two countries and consider the present: why else would you want to remain in a union where the ruling party never really represents you? Why would you want to remain in a union where the ruling party did things completely against your own instincts? Why wouldn't you want to leave the union that forced the bedroom tax upon some of your most hard-up citizens? I hope the downfall of the Conservative-LibDem government would take place soon after such a referendum, and a lot of English soul-searching would result in the conclusion that England is just too right-wing and London-centric for its own good.

But I cannot stomach that for now. I am sure, if that does happen, I will feel totally devastated. I want Scotland to remain in the Union, not because of the scary scenarios that seem to be the nightmare du jour for the "No" campaign; I want Scotland to remain in the Union because this will do untold damage to my own identity and that of many others. It would make me feel incomplete.

If I were Scottish and had a say in the outcome, I would probably weigh up the pros and the cons and decide still to remain, because (whisper it quietly) I think we are going through a period where we might start learning from each other. The Commonwealth Games, taking place in Glasgow as I write these lines, seems to have had the opposite effect on its people, and provided a new friendship between England and Scotland that politics has so sadly jettisoned. It will be the people who decide the fate of Scotland, and I will not sleep so easily in my bed until I know the results of the referendum.

Finally, I wonder what we would call the UK without Scotland - could it keep the same name? I don't really think so. It would need a new name. Southern Britain and Northern Ireland? SBNI? What a mouthful. The Kingdom of the Isles? More acceptable, but a little bit too Arthurian. Union of England, Wales and Northern Ireland? Well no. So maybe it would keep the name. But frankly, I am not going to even contemplate the idea that the Scottish would vote to become foreigners on their own island.