17 February 2012

Salmond fishing

I don't often give much thought to Scottish politics, as it doesn't often give much thought to me. Even rarer is it for me to feel much sympathy for David Cameron. But both these things happened yesterday, so I thought I should write something down before I forgot to mark it on the calendar.

Despite being blessed with a Scottish name, Cameron is not blessed with many Scottish supporters. So more or less anything he says on the topic of the independence referendum north of the border will be swatted away by the native Big Beast of the SNP, Alex Salmond, with an ad hominem swipe.

Cameron came apparently bearing divisive gifts: reject independence, he cooed to the voters, and we'll see what we can do about extending devolution. This was the political equivalent of stuffing a roll of banknotes into the electorate's bra and telling them to go Up West and treat themselves to a new dress. Salmond said such breezy promises were worthless because they'd been offered something similar in 1979 that never materialised. I was promised a PlayMobil knight in 1979 that I never received, but I've rebuilt my life since then. Salmond obviously remains scarred. I'm surprised he didn't bring up the Highland Clearances.

The point Cameron had gone all the way to Scotland to make seems a fair one to me: for the referendum, the ballot should contain only the yes/no option on independence. By contrast, the SNP seems intent on building a menu of options to cover so-called 'Devo-Plus' (or 'Devo-Max') - extra powers for future Scottish administrations if the independence vote goes a bit Rangers FC on them. Would sir like fiscal separation with his devolution? How about a sprinkling of military autonomy?

I think there's good reason not to muddy the waters. Say the ballot does give multiple options: What happens if 55% of Scots choose independence but 65% choose 'Devo-Plus' (which I reckon is quite likely)? Does that mean independence trumps all, and subsequent questions are redundant? Or does it, in fact, undermine the case for full independence by saying more people prefer devolution over full separation? As anyone who's designed even a basic questionnaire will tell you, the answers to multiple related questions are dynamic: the responses to some will impact upon the outcome of others. Hypothetical questions about aspects of Devo-Plus are built upon an assumption of the failure of a full independence vote, which will build in a predisposition toward that failure. The act of answering the question will affect the result you reach. It's Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle as a political instrument.

It begs the question why Salmond would want to jeopardise getting a mandate for political independence for Scotland - something that has supposedly been his lifelong political dream. Maybe now it's within touching distance, the prospect of the reality of grubby day-to-day politics for an independent, not-quite-so-rich nation in a recession is making him think twice. Maybe the prospect of a bit more power without the responsibility for underwriting it is, in fact, far more enticing for a career politician. If the people of Scotland suffer a decline in living standards as a result of independence (or even as a perceived result of it) they'll be looking for someone to blame. It's nice to have an independently wealthy Old Etonian English strawman to blame for preventing Scotland from reaching its destiny, instead of someone closer to home.

11 February 2012

Child's play

Professional sport, it may be argued, is an oddly childish way to make a living. And nowhere was that better demonstrated than today at Old Trafford, where one man's selfish immaturity brought out the worst in everyone. As depressing a spectacle as this was, it's merely one of a succession of stupid feuds, tantrums, rancorous spats and general pettiness that keep the sports pages bubbling over between matches. More than just bickering, this behaviour, as embodied in today's brouhaha between Patrice Evra and Luis Suarez, is also characterised by judgement so poor that is almost autistic in its lack of awareness of other people.

Leaving aside the more serious offences committed by these athletes, let's not forget the frequent car crashes, affairs, tattooing, preening and house-pimping that goes barely noticed by a general public desensitised to the concept of a teenager earning a million pounds a month for kicking things. Mario Balotelli is the poster boy for this behaviour; stories about his follies are legendary, from setting off fireworks in his bathroom to wandering unannounced into schools to use the toilets. We raise our eyebrows, or shake our heads - but should we be amazed at such jejune antics from our leading sports stars?

It wasn't always this way, and before we all get nostalgic about the Corinthian Ideal, it's easy to forget how we ended up like this. When I was a child, my professional footballing heroes earned little more than an office worker. Around the time I was born, it was commonplace for pros to work a second job in the off-season to make a living. This week, when everyone has been imploring the FA to pay Harry Redknapp £4million a year to be the England manager, we might reflect as a player he used to stack supermarket shelves in the summers between football seasons. The man who will most likely manage England on a temporary basis, Stuart Pearce, used to advertise his electrician's business in the Nottingham Forest programmes when he first played for the club in the 1980s.

In the 25 or so years that have passed since you could call "Psycho" to come and wire your house, the game has improved in ways that would have seemed fantasy in my childhood. Technical standards, fitness levels, preparation and planning - nothing is now left to chance in pursuit of excellence. The quality of football played is vastly superior, but the trade-off is the increasing infantilisation of its players. By removing the distractions from a player's life that allow him to focus single-mindedly on kicking a plastic sphere, you are forcibly removing him from all reference points of reality. From the moment he gets up until when he goes to bed, he is told what to do, what to wear, what to eat, where to go and where not to go. His finances, diet, catering, household are all managed for him. If his on-field behaviour sometimes goes beyond the cynical, it's because he knows both the price and value of nothing.

In return, the price for spine-tingling football played at breakneck speed by the human equivalent of thoroughbred racehorses is their continued existence in a child-like state of opulence. In a profession full of Peter Pans, we shouldn't wonder why they behave so appallingly on occasion. Instead we should marvel that they don't do it more often. Racism is not a price worth paying for such sporting rewards, but even at their most sophisticated, games rarely stray far from the playground.