The Scottish Summer Cabinet 2013

Two days ago I attended a public session with the Scottish cabinet as part of their scheduled visit to the more far-flung locations across Scotland – the “Summer Cabinet”.  Having lived in Shetland all my life I’m always in awe of events like this, I suppose because I’ve been brought up unused to being involved with anything of national importance.  Therefore, it was a really interesting experience.  After an unexplained delay of about 15 minutes, First Minister Alex Salmond came onto stage and made a short speech to introduce the event (which you can listen to here, if you’re interested).

I was surprised by how suddenly and heavily he pushed his case for Scottish independence, which I suppose must be a daily activity for him, though I struggled to find much in his words I disagreed with.  He spoke about the many unions Scotland shares with the UK – social, political, economic and military, largely – and argued that to achieve political independence need not sacrifice the others.  He put particular emphasis on the common-sense defence policy Scotland could adopt, abandoning wasteful endeavours such as Trident and finding a policy which suits our needs.  He also criticised the Better Together campaign, describing their work as this ‘Project Fear’.  He might have a point but I do think that continued rhetoric like this from both sides of the debate threatens to drown out the real issues.  I’m also not sure whether I agree that the islands – or, Shetland at least – should achieve more autonomy under a principle he dubbed ‘The Lerwick Declaration’.  Candidates here tend to stand as independents and we currently have a council comprised entirely down non-party lines.  The problem I see with this is that the candidates can all promise the same, vague ideals without giving any details of their political positions.  This is why we’ve ended up with what appears to be quite a right-wing council, despite the people of Shetland being overwhelmingly Liberal in their outlook.

But that’s digressing.  I found the question and answer session very fascinating.  Some of it focused around local issues, like youth employment, housing debt and high school closures (a very contentious issue; my own school of four years is under threat), and others were about issues on a more national scale.  I was pleased to hear about the Scottish government’s reservations over fracking and their policies towards lowering youth employment sounded encouraging.  My favourite response was to a question asking the government to put the Equal Marriage bill to a referendum, apparently because the majority are not in favour of it.  Salmond politely dismissed the idea but reiterated that any vote on the bill will be one of conscience for MSPs, and explained his own reasons for supporting it.  This was met, I was pleased to see, by wide applause.  Equal marriage is clearly more popular than some would like to admit!   I was too shy to ask any questions myself but I found it fascinating just to absorb everything being said.  I didn’t recognise many of the ministers besides Salmond and Education Secretary Mike Russell, who I’ve met before, though I learned some few new faces.

Afterwards there was this weird period in the lobby which can only be described as ‘mingling’.  The cabinet ministers mingled with the public, taking cups of tea, open to questions – and, in some cases, quite fierce debate.  Despite the unnecessarily large number of suits on display I was impressed by how informal it seemed.  Though they have relative power and influence they really are just plain people who occupy a room in the same way as anyone else.  Salmond actually walked right past me as I sat on a couch at one point, where I could have leaped out and asked him anything.  I didn’t, of course.

I think it’s very important for the government of any country to make its citizens feel involved and acknowledged by the political process, which I certainly think was achieved with this visit.  Granted, their jurisdiction is much vaster, but I can’t imagine the UK cabinet coming up to Shetland anytime soon – or even coming up to Scotland.  Perhaps just as well, considering I expect more people here oppose their government than support it.

The event also reinforced my joy to be living in a democracy.  Could you imagine leading politicians being so open and available in North Korea, or Sudan, or Saudi Arabia?  Long may this tradition continue.

 

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Freedom In The World 2013

Taken from Wikimedia Commons.


Green = Free 
Yellow = Partly Free 
Blue = Not Free

Yesterday, pro-democracy group FreedomHouse published their annual report, ‘Freedom in the World 2013’, which reports on the state of political and social freedom on a country-by-country basis during 2012.  I was very eager to see the results, as their reports have become something of an authority in how I view freedom in the world.  One of many sources, obviously, but by far my favourite.

As you can see from the map, when comparing it to one I wrote about a month ago, not a huge amount has changed.  Europe and the Americas are still almost completely free, Southeast Asia and central Africa not so much, etc.  However the small changes which have occurred are extremely significant.  I made some mental predictions before reading the report, which I can boast were mostly along the right lines although were at times too optimistic or pessimistic.  I’m pleased to see that Ukraine and Venezuela are still perceived to be somewhat free countries, even if only on the fringes, for instance.  Russia and most of the other former Soviet states, particularly in central Asia, have continued their descent into autocracy.  Here are the rest of the countries which made significant changes:

Egypt
For the first time, Egypt is considered a ‘Partly Free’ country, in the wake of the 2011 Egyptian Revolution.  Amid fears that the revolution would be hijacked, first by the ruling military and then by the Muslim Brotherhood, it is comforting to know that Egypt has at least made marginal progress, even if its political freedom rating is precarious at best.

Libya
More reassuringly, Libya has made significant gains.  Although also only ‘Partly Free’, considering it was only recently scoring the worst possible scores a country can achieve during Colonel Gadaffi’s totalitarian rule, his ouster in the 2011 Libyan Civil War has paved the way for extraordinary political and social progress.

Tunisia
Tunisia’s rating has not changed from the ‘Partly Free’ it achieved in the 2012 Report.  While it’s comforting to see the gains made after the 2011 Tunisian Revolution have been maintained, I had hoped to see freedom extend further.  But I think I was naive to expect such fast progress.

Mali
Mali always was going to score badly after the 2012 coup and conflict though I never appreciated just how badly.  Falling down all the way from ‘Free’ to ‘Not Free’, one of Africa’s most stable democracies has, in the space of a year, completely collapsed.  Not good.

Burma
Burma has now, for the first time, been reported to be a freer state than neighbouring China.  While still marked as ‘Not Free’, it is now at the top of that range rather than at the very bottom, due to political and social reforms being passed by the ruling military.  A slow, tentative improvement, but very encouraging.

Ivory Coast
With the Second Ivorian Civil War over with and democracy cautiously restored, the country has leapt up to ‘Partly Free’, albeit at the lower end of the category.

Other Positive Changes
Other countries to see positive changes are: Lesotho, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Tonga, Armenia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Georgia, Mongolia and Bhutan.

Other Negative Changes
Other countries to see negative changes are: The Gambia, Guinea-Bissau, Iraq, Italy, Kenya, Kuwait, the Maldives, Rwanda, Tajikistan and Turkey.

Worst of the Worst
Countries titled ‘Worst of the Worst’, meaning they have achieved the worst possible score in both the political and social categories, are: Eritrea, Equatorial Guinea, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.

Overall Trend
For the 7th year in a row, FreedomHouse has reported an overall decline in democratic standards across the world.  There is not reason to despair however, as for every decline in one country is, roughly, a gain in another.  The situation is not rapidly deteriorating – many of the declines are in fact a response in authoritarian countries to the rise of pro-democracy movements elsewhere.  Their fear is not without cause.

2013 Predictions

Finally, gonna end this busy day with a list of predictions for next year.  I didn’t plan to publish these – I was writing them for my own interest – but decided to give it a shot, in case miraculously they’re all correct, so I can prove I predicted them!  Rather rushed:

  • UK
    • Our next Holy Monarch of Divine Highness to Rule Over Us All Forever blah blah will be born.  Everyone will go nuts and the republican minority will grumble.
    • The coalition will continue on its path, though plans to create individual identities for the parties will become clearer in preparation for its end.
  • Abroad
    • The war in Mali will see some form of conclusion: Northern Mali will return to government control.
    • The Assad regime will fall.  Failing that, the rebels will increasingly control Syria.  I expect them to receive more support from the West and the government to lose Russia’s backing.
    • Obama’s next year as President will not be dramatic.
    • A war will not start over Iran.
    • Angela Merkel will be re-elected in Germany.
    • Libya will finish its transition into democracy on paper with success.
    • Egypt will head down its route of democracy with a very Islamic tint.  Morsi will bring stability to the country – at long last.
    • Berlusconi will not be elected in Italy.
    • The Afghanistan campaign will appear more and more hopeless.  Peace talks with the Taliban will develop.
    • I expect more crises from North Korea.
    • Iran’s economy will continue to plummet under sanctions.  Possibility of something dramatic happening.
    • This is a completely wild one: Robert Mugabe will no longer be in power in Zimbabwe by the year’s end.
    • There will be at least one coup.  And likewise, at least one country considered a dictatorship will become more democratic.
    • Burma will continue down liberalisation and democratisation.
    • Hugo Chavez: difficult to predict.  I’m gonna throw this out there and say his health improves and he’s able to continue as President.
    • Al Shebab will be almost completely pushed out of Somalia.
    • More than two Arab countries will see increased protests and violence.  Potentials: Syria, Bahrain, Iran, Kuwait, Sudan, Egypt, UAE, Jordan, Lebanon.
    • Julia Gillard will no longer be Prime Minister of Australia.
    • Putin will consolidate his dictatorship in Russia.
    • The Mars Curiosity Rover will make more discoveries which fail to interest the public.
    • Netanyahu will be re-elected in Israel.