Sunday, 21 September 2014

Indian Summers (and the death penalty)

Earlier this week my car was showing 26C outside.  I braced myself for the inevitable "Indian Summer" comments in the press and on Twitter... and yep, they came.  So, let's clear this matter up once and for all.  I trust you're listening carefully!

Define It

So what is an Indian Summer?  The first thing to point out is that it's nothing to do with India, as I once thought.  It's not because people in 1800 happened to look on their iPhone weather app and said "Oh it's sunny and the temperature here in London today is the same as it is in Bombay.  Let's call this an Indian Summer!"  Nope, it's the other Indians: the "Red Indians" of the cowboy movies - or more properly the Native American "Indians" in the eastern part of the New World.  The phrase was already kicking around in the 1780s, but it's clear it was in common usage by colonial settlers already by then.  The phenomenon is expressly and inextricably linked to the Native Indians after whom it's named.  It probably refers to the fact the warm, dry weather allowed them to continue hunting.

It's definitely nothing to do with this India

The US National Weather Service definition for an Indian Summer is a period of unseasonably warm, dry weather, occurring after the end of summer.  Conditions are sunny and clear, with temperatures above 70°F.  The phenomenon follows a brief early period of wintry weather that occurs in the autumn (a "Squaw Winter") during which there has been the first sharp frost (and possibly snow).  This usually occurs, for obvious reasons, in November or December.

Here's an exact description of the phenomenon in terms of the winds, air pressure and locations involved:

"A typical weather map that reflects Indian Summer weather involves a large area of high pressure along or just off the East Coast. Occasionally, it will be this same high pressure that produced the frost/freeze conditions only a few nights before, as it moved out of Canada across the Plains, Midwest and Great Lakes and then finally, to the East Coast. Much warmer temperatures, from the deep South and Southwest, are then pulled north on southerly breezes resulting from the clockwise rotation of wind around the high pressure. It is characteristic for these conditions to last for at least a few days to well over a week and there may be several cases before winter sets in. Such a mild spell is usually broken when a strong low pressure system and attending cold front pushes across the region. This dramatic change results from a sharp shift in the upper winds or "jet stream" from the south or southwest to northwest or north. Of course, there can be some modifications to the above weather map scenario, but for simplicity and common occurrence sake, this is the general weather map."
Right.  I could stop this blog right here.  But I shan't, because I really quite enjoy needlessly labouring an unimportant point.

New England, where this glorious weather phenomenon actually exists

Applying the Definition

Let's get these key pointers listed in no particular order:
  1. High pressure off the East Coast of North America
  2. Occurs after early wintry weather and the first sharp frost
  3. After the end of summer
  4. Unseasonably warm and dry weather
  5. Temperatures above 70F (that's 21C in proper money)
How many of these fit the period of warm weather we enjoyed in Britain this week?

Well, last time I checked, I live in East Anglia, and that's several thousand miles from North America.  It's like saying a monsoon or a sub-tropical cyclone happened in Ipswich.  No, this is actually a weather phenomenon that's linked geographically to a particular place.  Indian Summers happen in New England.  That's why it's expressly named after the Native Indians from there.  Answer to 1 = FAIL.

However, if we have to continue... did we have a sharp frost and snow last weekend?  Must've missed it.  Answer to 2 = FAIL.

Was it even after the end of summer?  Well,  there are two different definitions used for when the seasons run.  The first is the one used by the Met Office.  It uses the months, and according to it Autumn begins on 1 September.  Autumn runs through the whole of September, October and November.  Winter begins on 1 December; Spring begins on 1 March; Summer begins on 1 June.

The second, more traditional, definition focuses on the Earth's journey round the Sun.  It uses the solstices and equinoxes, and is the one I was taught at school when I was but a wee pedant.  According to this, Autumn begins on the Autumnal Equinox, 21 September.  Winter begins on the Winter Solistice of 21 December; Spring begins on the Vernal Equinox of 21 March; Summer begins on the Summer Solstice on 21 June.

According to this, the beautiful season of Autumn, the transition season between summer and winter, which is characterised by the changing colour of leaves and the bringing in of the harvest, began just today.  I prefer this definition.  The leaves really are still mainly green on the trees and are still partly on the trees well into December.  If we get any snow it comes in January and February, never in December.  On 1 March it often still feels like Winter, whereas by 21 March the flowers are out, the frosts are going and it's warming up.

Therefore by one widely accepted definition we were still in Summer until today.  Answer to 3 = FAIL.

THIS is autumn.  Look outside: autumn has barely begun.

Was it unseasonably warm and dry last week? Well September certainly has been dry this year in many parts of Britain (though 1997 and 2003 were drier in England).  But was it unseasonably warm?  Was it bollocks.  September is one of the warmest months of the year.  I always tell my German relatives it's the best month to come and visit.  Temperatures have actually hit an amazing 35.6C in September before, and even 29.9C in October (the latter was in 2011 in Gravesend).  Looking at recorded temperatures for London, they've been a bit warmer some days than the historic average, but there's no freakish deviation from the norm.  August was crap this year, September has been nice.  One isolated day of 26C is hardly a record-breaker.  Unseasonable means what it says on the packet.  Answer to 4 = FAIL.

So, by my reckoning we've fulfilled one of the five tests I've set out.  It was indeed 21C on several days.  STOP THE HEADLINES.

The Headlines

Oh yes, I'm not joking.  The Press loves this shit.  As I've noted before, we're just obsessed by the weather.  A quick Google search shows that the Daily Express has been running an Indian Summer related article at least once every year in 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013 and surprise (!) they even did one this year too.   How exactly can this be called unseasonal weather when they call any sunshine in September an "Indian Summer" every single year?  If it happens annually at the same time every year it can't be an unseasonable phenomenon.

While we're at it, every noticed the formula they use when we have a warm day?  Someone looks at world holiday destinations on the internet and tries to find a place that is having an off-day.  For example, Sharm-el-Sheikh will be 32C, Majorca 29C, Bahamas 34 C, Cancun 31C, Malta 31C, Crete 30C and somewhere that's usually really, really warm is having a milder day.  BINGO, FOUND IT: it's "only" 24C on the Costa del Sol.  Prepare the headlines..

It makes me want to torture cute little innocent fluffy animals.  Every paper, every year.  Never mind that this is happening on one isolated day, and the weather in Spain is far warmer and sunnier 99% of the rest of the time.  "Oooooh Ethel, did you see?  I read it's warmer here than in Marbella?"  "Ooooh, I know! Bit too hot for me."  Even quality papers like the bloody Daily Telegraph and The Guardian do it routinely.

The Met Definition

Some smart arse will be reading this and will already have looked up what the Met Office's definition of an Indian Summer is.   It was first published in 1916 and is "a warm, calm spell of weather occurring in autumn, especially in October and November."  The Met Office mentions it here as being a warm, calm spell from the end of September to the middle of November.

There's no mention of the fact that strictly speaking it's only really a North American weather phenomenon, and there's no mention of it coming after wintery weather and a frost, which is one of the key points in the original definition.  However what's clear is that calling warm weather in the first week of September an "Indian Summer" is just wrong even by the Met's definition.  Really, really, really wrong.  Helena Kealey of the Daily Telegraph, I refer you to the portrait of Homer by Edvard Mvnch above for my views on your article.

Now I'm enough of a linguist to realise that if enough people go round calling an orange a "banana", the accepted word to describe the orange will change to banana.   That doesn't make it accurate.  It doesn't make it right.  It doesn't make it clever.  But it will happen eventually.  That is what happening with the definition of Indian Summer - thanks in part to the Met Office and thanks in part to our beloved Press.

If YOU object to oranges being called bananas, now is the time to start taking a stand.  When it's warm and sunny in September for a couple of days, that's because it's just late summer and every single year it's warm and sunny for a couple of days at this time of year.  I'm a liberal man, but there are limits.  I refer you, dear reader, to the suggestion in parentheses in the title of this piece.

Happy autumn!


Thursday, 11 September 2014

An Independent Scotland

Until a month or so ago, it seems relatively few people were considering the ins and outs of what an independent Scotland (and by extension a rump UK) would look like.  That's not least because of the assumption most of us have had that it wouldn't happen anyway.

BOOM! One recent poll showing "Yes" in the lead and that's all changed.  I don't have a vote to cast either way, and as an Anglo-German Europhile I also don't really have too much of an axe to grind in either direction.  I find the whole thing utterly fascinating though, on multiple levels.  Not least of these are the practical details of what independence might look like: the little things in our lives and how they tie in to the bigger issues.  I've cobbled some thoughts on some of these below.

United Kingdom, rUK, or simply FUK?

There's currently a little GB symbol along with the European flag in a strip on my car licence plate.  You're allowed to display a number of symbols there (including the English or Scottish flags), but it's only the European one that exempts you when you're on the continent from carrying a big ugly GB oval sticker on the back of your car in addition.

Great Britain is simply the name of the biggest island in the British isles and it's not called that because we're somehow considered fabulous.  Ptolemy used it over 1850 years ago and it was originally coined to distinguish it from Ireland (Little Britain).  In French it still serves to distinguish us from Brittany.  It also, of course, has a political meaning too: the Kingdom of Great Britain was the name of our State after the 1707 Act of Union between England (which since 1536 had included the principality of Wales) and Scotland. When Ireland joined in the fun on 1 January 1801 the whole thing became the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland; when Eire obtained independence our State took the name the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, or UK for short.

It's infuriating how many people don't understand the above and (particularly Americans and Germans) who refer to the whole thing as "England".  No wonder half the Scots want out. I constantly have to select "Großbrittanien" as my country of residence in German drop down menus on the internet, which leads me to temporary outrage on behalf of the Northern Irish, even though I've not even been there.  I really ought to go, not least to see if they really do pronounce power shower like everyone says, though.

One thing is clear: if Scotland goes independent, there won't (or shouldn't logically) be a GB signifier for the remainder of the state.  That's because a lark chunk of the part of the island of Great Britain will be an independent power.  What will what's left over be called?  I heard a Scots nationalist arguing that the UK no longer had the right to call itself a United Kingdom after independence.  That's balls for two reasons. 1) The "United" actually clearly refers to the union with Ireland, if you look at the paragraph before last.  When it was just England and Scotland that was no "united" in the title. 2) Harsh as it may sound, we're entitled to call ourselves whatever we like after secession by Scotland.  That's the whole point about independence: we're not supposed to interfere in the sovereign affairs of a foreign state.

The "United" bit therefore survived the independence of Eire, so there's no reason why we shouldn't be called the United Kingdom in the future: it's the union of a kingdom, a principality and the remainder of a kingdom.  It would probably be called the United Kingdom of England, Wales and Northern Ireland in full.  I've seen "United Kingdoms" suggested as an alternative but fail to see the logic in that.  It made much more sense in "name our country" postal competition that took place in 1801 than it does now.

The signifier rUK is just being used now to signify the UK post-independence and no one is suggesting it seriously as a sexy new option.  Thanks to my friend Peter who suggested "FUK" (former United Kingdom) would be a good alternative.  I can imagine that was the reaction in Westminster when news of the YouGov poll came in.  And even more thanks to Catherine for suggesting "FUK EW" (former United Kingdom of England and Wales).  We should probably get a petition going for that one.

I'd expect UK to start replacing GB everywhere on car licence plates etc in due course.  As for iScotland? Well, S has been taken by Sweden, so SC or SCO are obvious choices and I'd imagine plenty would be keen to get these on their cars sooner rather than later.


Countries have a country code for telephone communications.  The one for the UK currently is +44.  The International Organization for Standardization (ISO) keeps a record of these at the United Nations under ISO 3166-1.  When new countries obtain independence, and after they've been listed in the United Nations Country Names Bulletin, they have invariably wanted to obtain a new code.  For example, Slovenia took the number +386 after breaking away from Yugoslavia (+890).  When Czechoslovakia (+42) ceased to exist, the Czech Republic took +420 and Slovakia took +421 respectively.

Would iScotland want a new country code?  On the contrary, it seems they wish to keep the UK code of +44.  It's true that the United States, Canada, Bermuda etc decided to go together under the +1 regional code when the system was set up way back when, but this is interesting.  Every other new state that has come into existence since the ISO system was created has taken a new country code.  It is, if you like, an obvious international symbol of statehood and independence.  It's a statement to the world.

When the .Scot Internet domain launched in July 2014, Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon seemed to get exactly that point and welcomed the launch.
"It is entirely right that Scotland should have its own distinctive and recognisable internet domain - in particular, one that will resonate internationally, helping to promote Scottish business and culture throughout the world," she said.
Hmm.  I develop thoughts on this below.

Could iScotland change its mind and later apply for its own country code?  Of course.  However, could it force "rUK" to take a new country code on the Czechoslovakia model (eg. rUK takes +440 and Scotland takes +441)?  That all depends on whether this is viewed as a secession by iScotland or a complete break-up of the existing state of the UK and creation of two new ones.  That didn't happen when Eire left the then United Kingdom: a new Republic came into existence and the UK jollied on as before.  I imagine the act of independence would be done by means of a declaration by iScotland and an Act of Parliament in Westminster in essence simply undoing the 1707 Act of Union.  rUK would certainly strongly argue it was a secession, not a creation of two new states and it's my guess that it's the obvious conclusion the international community would share.  Therefore the answer is no.

Passports and the Queen

There's a set of quite liberal proposals about obtaining Scottish citizenship, but there's no question the physical passport would change for both countries.  This wouldn't be a replacement job (too expensive and it would swamp the system) - you'd just get a new design when you came to renew in due course.  The rUK one would in all likelihood carry either the "United Kingdom" or "United Kingdom of England, Wales and Northern Ireland" with one probable difference. 

The emblem on the passport is technically the Queen's Royal Coat of Arms. As such, it predates the Act of Union of 1707, and goes right back to the Union of Crowns of 1603.  That's when King James VI of Scotland also became King James I of England because someone had chopped his Mum's head off.  The Lion represents England and the Unicorn is Scotland.  They switch positions according to which country they're used in.

Now there's absolutely no intention (currently) to dissolve the 1603 Union of Crowns: the Queen will become the Head of State of iScotland, just as she is the Queen of independent Australia, Canada or Jamaica.  However, keeping the very identifiable symbol of the UK on passports for both countries seems somewhat odd in the long run, after the Unicorn has pranced off into the moonlight.  The Australian passport doesn't have the Royal Crest: they've got a much cooler version with a kangaroo and an emu.   Here's a more detailed explanation of the issue and the place I've lifted the rather wonderful suggestion above of a Lion and Red Dragon for the rUK and two Unicorns for iScotland.  That could well appear on your passport some time in the future.

Just a passing thought on the Queen.  She's officially neutral and I believe that she may not be quite as upset about the "break up of the Union" as the press is assuming.  What ultimately matters far more is the survival of monarchy and the crown.  The key point is that the Windsors be assured to sit on the throne of the new kingdom.  Some SNP politicians are of course republicans, and polls show support for republicanism is somewhat stronger in Scotland than elsewhere in the UK, but it's still nowhere near a majority.  

Nonetheless, when Princess Elizabeth was born the British Empire was at its zenith, and her parents were a King-Emperor and a Queen-Empress.  She may well live to see the UK as it currently is bite the dust.  How times change, so very rapidly.

The Union Flag

Scotland has a flag: the fair Saltire.  If you haven't already seen it, watch Downing Street bollocks up hoisting the thing on live TV earlier this week here.   The UK also has a flag which includes the Saltire.  There have been various horrific suggestions for what might replace it.  I've included my personal favourite below, which brings to mind what watching Magic Roundabout on a bad acid trip with a hangover from the night before must be a bit like.  GOD IT'S HORRIBLE.

The answer is of course that it's entirely up to rUK what flag they want and no pressing need to ditch the Union Flag... though keeping it in the long run would definitely seem odd.  That in turns makes you wonder what all the other ex-colonial countries with the Union Flag incorporated into theirs might do.  New Zealand is already considering a completely new flag with the super cool silver fern.  It might just be the impetus for anyone else to cut ties with the "Motherland" if the Union Flag has technically become an anachronism.

Car Licence Plates

UK licence plates currently can have that GB/EU symbol discussed above.  I can't imagine it lasting with the meaningless "GB" on there for too long.  Since 2001, vehicles first registered in Scotland bear an S as the first letter of the registration (just as those in Wales bear a C for Cymru).  What would the situation be post-independence?  Here's Scotland's deputy first minister, Nicola Sturgeon of the SNP, on the subject:
“The thing about independence is that it gives you the ability to do these things differently if you want to. But it also gives you the ability, in discussion with others, to share your sovereignty. And I think the DVLA is one of those things we would sit down and have a grown-up discussion with the UK government and decide that’s something we should do”. 
Hmm again.  This is interesting.  In the case of the break-up of other states I can remember in my lifetime (Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia) and the unification of Germany (the other way round) there was a rush to emphasise nationhood by the rapid adoption of obvious symbols such as licence plates.  Even during the Bosnian war of independence, when Sarajevo was being blown apart in daily bombardments, I remember seeing a car that showed someone was even issuing licence plates with "BIH" for Bosnia and Herzegovina on them during the shelling.  It's similar thinking to the +44 phone number issue, and it definitely doesn't seem to match the statement on the .Scot domain.

DVLA is based in Swansea.  It's a UK governmental agency.   To say that you want to "share sovereignty" (i.e. use a foreign country's governmental agencies) implies a number of possibilities.  One is that neither side in this debate thought with a week to go we would realistically be dealing with a "too close to call" situation.  Therefore issues like this just weren't ever given serious consideration.  Another is the intention is actually to deal with issues such as this over time, but there's a realisation that many people are inherently conservative, and it's considered a vote loser to emphasise too many changes in things people are familiar with.  

Personally it seems to me a weird stance to want fully fledged national independence and not want to deal with every day symbols of national identity like this.  If I were a Yes voter, I don't think I'd want foreign licence plates on my car: I'd want ones of my newly independent nation.  The last possibility runs counter to that and suggests that this is actually a very different movement to other nationalist movements that we've seen across Europe.  I'll develop that though further when I come to some thoughts on the type of people who are voting Yes.

European Union

The politicians in both camps have been spinning this question left, right and upside down to suit their own ends.  The SNP position is that Scotland is already a member of the EU, so it wouldn't need to reapply for membership.  Based on very loud noises from Brussels, that seems unlikely to be the case.  Of course the EU has its own vested interests in a "No" vote (stopping similar independence movements across the continent) and so common sense dictates that anything any politician says before a "yes" vote may well not end up being the case afterwards.

I'm a mere lawyer with some understanding of the EU treaties and law.  It seems to me that a new application for membership is the most likely course and find this summary by Professor Murkens of the LSE to be quite persuasive.  The simple fact is none of us knows for sure, though, and I don't quote that to add to the fear-mongering of the No campaign.  Faced with a prosperous Western European nation asking for membership, with all the necessary EU rules in place, I don't think there's any prospect of the answer being "no".  The EU will want iScotland as a member.  When other countries joined (even the likes of Sweden and Austria) they had to pass literally thousands of pieces of legislation.  That won't be the case here, so in theory the process should be more straightforward than for any other new member.

There is a big "but" though: EU law sets out as clearly as it could be that all new members have to join A) the Euro; and B) the Schengen Open Borders Agreement.  I really wonder why hasn't this been discussed more, because it's pretty significant.  Reading Süddeutsche Zeitung, iScotland's obligation to sign up for the Euro isn't even a discussion point: it's assumed they will join up. 

Only the UK and Denmark have an opt out from the Euro, which they secured at the time before the currency was a reality.  To secure a similar concession, Scotland would have to get the unanimous agreement of all 28 EU members.  Getting admisssion to the EU in principle might not be tricky, but obtaining an opt-out could well be.  I don't see why Spain and Belgium (and to some extent, Italy), fearful of their own independence movements, would be terribly well-inclined to give Scotland special favours on admission.

There's a 18 month period between any Yes vote and independence.  That represents a huge time pressure to lobby and convince all 28 governments if there is to be a seamless transition that avoids iScotland being outside the EU for some time whilst this is resolved.  In politics anything is of course possible, but as a lawyer, I'm clear what the legal situation is (assuming new admission is required).  It presents a very real challenge to get the job done in time.

What about rUK's position in the EU?  We were just given a top economic job at the EU Commission.  Scotland would expect its own Commissioner in due course and there would inevitably be some loss of influence in Brussels by the reduction in size of our state.  However given it would still stand at 58.8 million population (a loss of 5.3 million), with 90% of its GDP intact, I can't imagine this will be too significant.  The continuing attitude of our Europhobic government pissing of all of its partners is much more of a factor in my book.

If rUK returns a Tory government next May and they hold a referendum in 2017 on the EU, pro-Europeans will be faced with the loss of supporters in iScotland.  The Scots are generally held to be far more pro-EU.  That could well be a game-changing problem for those of us who want the rUK to stay firmly in the European Union.

The Scotto, the Pound, or the Euro

This shit is complicated and my A-level Economics isn't really up to it.  I refer instead to Frances Coppola's very clear and sensible (if anti-Euro) piece, written over 2.5 years ago, on the "currency conundrum".  Little has changed.  It is, as Frances is keen to point out, not a "No" piece: she simply ultimately believes Scotland requires its own currency.  That's one option, and it's what Slovenia did with the Tolar, and what Croatia did with the Kuna: let's call it the Scotto.  It has its obvious risks, but on the other hand there are plenty of far small economies that survive with currencies of their own quite successfully.

The other options are 1) a currency union (all English party leaders say no - who knows if they will change their position post a Yes vote); 2) the "Panama"/ "Kosovo" model of using the British £ unofficially (an EU commissioner unambiguously said entry to the EU would be impossible if this were the case because of the lack of a central bank); and 3) entry to the Euro.

Latvian €1.  Will the Queen's head make it onto a Euro after all?

What interests me is whether the Euro is not the stealth option that Salmond has up his sleeve.  He repeatedly said he favoured this option until the 2008 crisis.  The press in the UK has thoroughly and probably fatally poisoned popular opinion towards to the Euro, including in Scotland where just 4% favour it as a currency as soon as possible post independence.  This isn't the case everywhere in the EU however.  Estonia joined the Eurozone on 1 January 2013, Latvia became the 18th member on 1 January 2014, and Poland's government is broadly in favour of entry in 2016.  All are successful, dynamic, growing economies.  It is the default legal position on entering the EU, as discussed.  It would be truly fascinating to see Salmond returning from Brussels telling Scottish voters "we have to join the Euro, or we don't join the EU".

The simple fact is none of us has an idea which option will happen post independence.  It's a leap into the unknown, but then so is life.  The global economy unexpectedly went down the plug-hole in 2008 and there's for sure no guarantees of a "safe-existence" in life.  It's down to voters whether pro-independence supporters think the risk of the unknown is fatal to their voting Yes.  I can't make their mind up on that and wouldn't presume to.

As for rUK?  Yeah we'll be stuck with the Pound Sterling for the foreseeable future.  I know that if Scotland did join the Euro, and Schengen, (and went fully metric for good measure) I'd seriously consider moving up there.

Border Checks

How to win hearts and minds?  Threaten to put border guards on the Scottish border.  Bravo, Ed!  That certainly isn't going to happen overnight, but thinking things round it is a possibility.  It is an exercise of a State's sovereignty to control its borders in whatever way it thinks fit, subject to any international agreements it has made on the subject.  The reason there isn't an external border crossing with Scotland currently is that we're one State.  That will clearly change on 24 March 2016 if there's a Yes next week.  Put bluntly, if the rUK wanted to introduce border checks with its new foreign neighbour, iScotland couldn't stop it.

When Eire became independent there was a desire not to impose border controls, and therefore to require people to carry passports, when crossing into Northern Ireland.  Accordingly in 1923 what later became the "Common Travel Area" was born between the UK and Eire.  The Isle of Man, Jersey and Guernsey are also members.  The SNP says it wants iScotland to be a signatory to this agreement, and on the face of it that's a likely and desirable outcome.  Some of our politicians can be desperately petty, but the prospect of people having their passports systematically checked on the London-Edinburgh East Coast train, or on the M6 just north of Southwaite services, isn't an attractive one for anyone involved.

Actually, Mail, the border would have EU flags on it. Bog off.

However, we've got the complicating issue of Schengen.  It's just like the Common Travel Area, but bigger.  You can set off in a car from SE Portugal and drive 6000 km up to the Russian border in NE Finland without having your passport checked.  Every member of the 26 member Schengen Area has the obligation to check people entering the zone from outside, and then they're free to travel about in accordance with the EU principle of free movement of people.  As we know from above, all new entrants to the EU have to sign up to Schengen.  Only the UK and Eire got opt-outs at the time of incorporation of the agreement into EU law, because the UK didn't want to join (yay, Daily Mail!) and Ireland didn't as a consequence want to erect a physical border with Northern Ireland that the Common Travel Area had prevented for over 70 years.

So, unless Scotland can secure an opt-out on Schengen by getting all 28 EU members to agree to it, it's going to be in the zone.  That means it has, by law, to secure and check its land border with England - this will be an "external border" in Schengen terms.  Committees of the House of Lords have twice recommended that the UK sign up to Schengen in order to improve border security, by the way.  The primary advantage is full access to the vast electronic Schengen Information Systems that keep police records and data on prospective entrants to the area.  There's also a huge advantage to travellers who don't appreciate hour long queues at airports when they're on a 35 minute flight over from Amsterdam to London.  Our entry to Schengen is of course currently about as likely as Nigel Farage wearing a European onesie singing Ode to Joy on the 6 o'clock news, given the present "the immigrants are invading" mentality most Brits seem to have.

As with the Euro, we don't know whether iScotland would get a Schengen opt-out.  Anything is possible.   I hope they don't, and that it will spur Eire to ditching the Common Travel Area to join Schengen too.  It would put massive pressure on rUK to join the rest of the EU and stop pretending we're an impenetrable fortress because of a load of Border Agency staff holding up the millions of legitimate travellers entering the country.  I can but dream.

The other issue is iScotland's stated intention of a far more liberal immigration policy.  They need to do this to attract more tax payers to support spending plans (particularly pensions).  The Common Travel Area relies on broadly similar agreed immigration policies and levels.  If iScotland became an "open door" to immigrants, who then in significant numbers sneaked across the border at Berwick without checks, in time an rUK government might consider border controls.  Realistically I think this is a very distant prospect and potential problem, but it has been mentioned by politicians.  The Schengen issue looks much more likely to me.

Residence Permits and Visas

Don't be silly.  You don't need residence or work permits as an EU citizen in any other EU state (unless you're a Croatian, in some states, just for the moment, because they only joined last year).  You won't need one for iScotland, assuming they get into the EU as is almost certain, and they won't need one for the rUK.  Nor will you need a visa: you don't require one for Romania, so why would you?  It's far from certain there will even be a border control as we've seen.


It seems the plan is for iScotland to have around 100 embassies or consular offices around the world which is similar to Eire's number (97).  That compares to the UK's 270.  Fair enough.  One would be in London, except it would be called a High Commission, just like all other members of the Commonwealth.  Similarly rUK would have a High Commissioner (ambassador in all but name) based in Edinburgh.  We would be separate, foreign nations and so diplomatic representation and consular services for citizens abroad would be required. Weird to think of going to Edinburgh as "going abroad' isn't it?  But that's what it would be.

UK embassy in Berlin.  Start looking for office space, iScotland?

Government Agencies

In a fantastic admission that the Westminster establishment never expected independence to happen, Cabinet Secretary Jeremy Heywood admitted on Monday that absolutely no contingency plans had been drawn up if there's a yes vote.  "Whitehall won't know what to do".  Untangling the mass of intertwined civil administration would be a massive task.  In Keynesian economic terms it could represent a wonderful boost to both economies in terms of the multiplier effect of reversing all the austerity cuts in the public sector in order to deal with it all.

Let's go back to the DVLA.  Vehicle licence plates are one thing that the UK-wide agency handles.  The other is it issues driver licences and keeps driver records.  That means that unless the Scottish part were untangled, Scottish driver licences would be issued by a foreign country's governmental agency.  Isn't that genuinely odd? 

With their infinite Little Englander wisdom, the Tories have opted out of an EU directive that allows cross-border data sharing for speeding and other motoring offences.  Next time a German or French car goes at 90mph through a 30mph speed camera endangering your and everyone else's lives, you'll know who to thank. How would fines and points work with iScotland?  If DVLA continued serving both countries, and there were a cross-border treaty on mutual enforceability, there would presumably be no issue. 

Free Speeding for all EU nationals c/o our government. Yay!

But that isn't by any means assured.  Why? Because there seems to be a certain naivety in assuming that an rUK government would agree to any use of any of its agencies and institutions.  Despite all the smarmy protestations from English politicians currently that we are best friends and that they will love Scotland beyond the grave, I wouldn't be terribly surprised to find both a Tory and a Labour led Westminster government remarkably short of goodwill, particularly regarding sharing their national governmental resources and institutions.  Remember this will be in respect of an SNP administration that had just successfully broken up the Union.  When I pointed this out to a Yes supporter I was chatting to on Twitter, he seemed genuinely surprised and disappointed. 

Back to the original point, this doesn't just apply to the DVLA of course: there are hundreds of governmental institutions that do work across the UK currently.  None of this is, of course, of itself to vote one way or the other.  It can be sorted out without question.  If Scotland needs its own DVLA it can set one up.  Every other newly independent country in Europe has created a complete set of its own institutions, after all.  What's of note is that we don't know the answer to any of it - and with a week to go that in itself is perhaps a little remarkable.

24 March 2016

The date for independence has been set for 24 March 2016.  It's a date resplendent in historical significance.  It's the day in 1603 when Elizabeth I died and with James' accession to the throne of England, the Union of Crowns occurred.  It's also the date in 1707 when the Act of Union was signed and the Kingdom of Great Britain was "born".  It will be exactly 309 years old when it kicks the bucket, if Yes all goes to plan.  It's perfectly likely to become a national holiday for iScotland.

James VI/I's shag buddy, George. Why not?

24 March is also the Old New Year's Eve under the Julian Calendar, and is the reason why the tax year still ends on 5 April.   The Old New Year's Day was 25 March, which is when Mary apparently got up the duff, exactly 9 months before Christmas Day (a totally fictitious and arbitrary date as everyone knows: no one knows what date Jesus was actually born).  So there's a neat symmetry in it all.  Kinda.

Nationalism and Support for Yes

During the spadework for my rambling discourse I've picked up on several practical examples of something I hadn't expected.  It is the point that came up first with the telephone codes, then with the car licence plates, the continuing use of DVLA and other government agencies, the retention of the British £, membership of the Common Travel Area, and even wanting the Queen as the Head of State.  This seems to me to be a remarkably conservative and not at all typically "nationalist" movement in many respects.

This isn't by any means the aggressive, symbol-rife, old-fashioned nationalism which was found in plenty of independence movements during the collapse of the Empire, when emblems of Britain were pulled from buildings and statues of monarchs removed.  This isn't even Slovenia, a quiet Alpine nation which moved, as rapidly as it possibly could, to introduce all the outward signs and symbols of nationhood: "SLO" on its licence plates, its own currency and its own border crossings.  There's (apparently) remarkably little of the (not unreasonable) sentiment that Nicola Sturgeon expressed about the .Scot domain to be found anywhere else.

The Auld Bitch as Joyce called her. Once in Dublin, now in Sydney

There are of course plenty of vocal "frothingly nationalist" Scots about (I've encountered some myself on Twitter, and have heard stories from Scottish friends of aggressive Anglophobia at the moment) who seem driven by hatred of the English. 

I've been amazed, though, at the amount of people I know and respect from all manner of backgrounds who are Yes supporters.  They're Green party members, liberals, Europhile cosmopolitans, feminists, moderate open-minded lefties.  These are people you'd never lump into any traditional understanding of "nationalists".  As Suzanne Moore pointed out in a superb piece today, the knocking of "Scottish nationalism" by the elite is in any case inherently a bit ridiculous:
"The language of the no camp – Westminster, bankers, Farage, Prescott, the Orangemen and Henry Kissinger – is innately patronising. Do not give in to petty nationalism, they say.  Just stick with the bigger unionist nationalism; it’s better for you."
What I'm therefore getting from my observation of the whole debate is that many people who support "Yes" in Scotland actually just fundamentally want Westminster out of their lives and that's pretty much the extent of it.  They want to have full control of taxation, immigration, nuclear weapons, benefits and privatisation (the last four of which they incidentally wouldn't receive under Devo-Max).  They don't necessarily want to cut all ties with rUK at all: in fact, being the inherently conservative creatures that many of us are, they would rather most things stayed exactly the same as they are now.  The SNP may be exploiting that fact by deliberately not being open about what changes they do intend to bring about, or they may share the sentiment.  I don't know enough to judge. 

Those wanting everything to remain as it is, absent Westminster's control, may get a rude awakening in the first few months of iScotland.  That might come when they realise they are part of a country with a foreign, Tory run neighbour that is feeling rather bruised by its rejection, and isn't terribly generous or well-disposed to allowing use of its governmental agencies, for example.  Time will tell. 

Inevitably, also, as things go on the two nations will develop separately and will grow apart.  You can already clearly see that in Czech Republic and Slovakia just 21 years after the "velvet divorce".  My friend Paul asked if those English who are currently vocally expressing a personal bond with Scotland, feel the same connection to Eire, 90 years after its independence.  The answer was generally no, which is quite interesting.  Being part of two separate sovereign states will lead to differences growing.

Best of Luck

I really get how divisive this debate is for many people.  I've had people genuinely upset about what is going on (as well as excited and engaged, it must be said).  It looks like the outcome is going to leave almost exactly half the population deeply unhappy and that's a sad thing.   I understand and have sympathies with both sides of the debate.  It is a massive leap into the dark, with plenty of problems and pitfalls, and in addition I personally really cannot stand Alex Salmond.  On the other hand it's an exciting potential for change and very much a once in a lifetime opportunity.  It has the potential to bring about change for better in rUK too.

I hope I haven't been too flippant in my blog post and it's been of some interest in bringing together the type of nitty-gritty detail I'm always interested in.  I wish everyone in Scotland, or the iScotland of the future (I should TM that before Apple does) the very best.  This whole thing is certainly absolutely fascinating if nothing else.

Friday, 8 August 2014

A Eulogy for Oscar

My Oscar

Oscar was my world.  He came into my life during a really difficult time for me, on 5 August 2003.   When I got him, he was a frightened, timid 11 month old rough collie who had been returned to the breeder (circumstances unclear) and was due to live out his life in a kennel and a run, possibly as a stud dog, but definitely not as a family pet.  I had wanted to leave London and my soulless job in the City.  I wanted a dog so badly.  I bought the cottage where we both lived on his first birthday.  He is intimately connected with this place and my new life in Suffolk.  It is our home together.   He left my life on 5 August 2014.  We were both in a very different place thanks to the time we had together.

There is something very ancient and deep in the bond between a man and his dog.  It goes back thousands of years to when the first wolves became domesticated.  It's really quite hard to explain the depth of it to someone who hasn't had a dog.  When you live on your own, your dog becomes your soul mate.  Every evening when I was on Twitter, reading a book, or watching a movie, Oscar would be next to me on the sofa, getting a neck message or behind his ears rubbed.  I loved him so much.  He gave me endless, devoted, unconditional love back.  He was the ultimate healing presence for me.

He was my companion through 11 years.  He came to work with me every day.  We travelled Europe on our own together, doing his favourite thing, camping.  He notched up 16 countries from Denmark in the north, down to Spain in the south.  He just loved being in the fresh air, the endless walks, and sleeping pressed right up to me at night.  Every day for those 11 years that I was with him, I greeted him with a good morning and he howled and cried back.  Every night I tucked him up in his basket and he was the last one I spoke to with a "Nighty night, Oscar.  You sleep well, Daddy will see you in the morning."

Oscar was there, observing matters from the back of car in his little collie way, the day I met my boyfriend Ste in May 2012.   Ste cautiously got the paws up, and despite the odd show of jealousy (Ste claims the end of his nose was involved, but Oscar refuted that strongly) the three of us rapidly became a trio.  Oscar, Ste and I walked the Manchester Moors, through the New Forest, and along the Suffolk and Norfolk beaches.  Oscar always slept downstairs in my cottage, but our weekend trips to visit Ste in Manchester meant we were fair game for being joined for a sneaky collie cuddle in bed.  He was particularly fond of being little spooned by Ste.  The best Christmas of my life to date was December 2012, which the three of us of spent together in Suffolk.  We went the whole hog with a real tree, German style, a holly wreath, baking and fresh salmon (of course) for Oscar.  It was truly magical.

On 5 August 2013, the ten year anniversary of Oscar and my being together, a car overtaking on a hill and a bend, drove head-on into us on my side of the road on the A140.  It was such a violent impact, it wrote off my three week old 1900kg Mercedes, and I'm still having treatment for injury to my back and leg, a year after the collision.  Oscar was in the back, safely behind his dog guard, but he was still thrown forward with horrible force.  He started having trouble with walking, and in February this year had a complete muscular break down.  I thought I was going to lose him.  We started an intensive programme of hydrotherapy and physiotherapy, as well as drug treatment for the arthritis that had been exacerbated by the crash.  My Mutti was heavily involved in this, as I had to be abroad a lot with work this year.  Each time he came home from a stay with his beloved "Granny", the results of her nursing were clear for me to see.  A miracle happened: Oscar came back.  In February he had not wanted to go outside at all, he had been hobbling rather than just limping, and when he did go out he hadn't been sniffing anything or raising his head.  Little by little he found his love of life again and became stronger and stronger.  He wore a thick back paw support for walks, but by April he was happily exercising a good hour a day.  He did this right up until the day before he died.

At the end of July Ste, Oscar and I spent a week camping in the mountains in the South of France.  Oscar would have been twelve next month, so it was the perfect holiday for an almost 84 year old (in human terms).  He watched the birdies, the people, and dogs going by from the comfort of his super comfy basket, had a couple of walks along the river every day, and slept under the canvas with his daddies.  Every day at 5 o'clock he was willing us to get up, and start the next day of his collieday.  He did ever so well with the 15 hour car drive (including lots of breaks to stretch his paws): there wasn't a squeak out of him at all.  He was the easiest going dog imaginable.  He was so incredibly happy throughout that holiday.

Last Sunday, less than a week after our return from France, we had two lovely walks in the woods and were lying in the sun together in the garden enjoying the warm weather.  In the evening he brought up his dinner.  During the night he was sick several more times, bringing up bile.  I slept next to him on the floor downstairs.  At 8am on Monday he couldn't get up.  He tried and I caught him just before he fell over on his side.  I took him straight to the vet, where they did blood and neurological tests.  They ruled out poisoning, a stroke and problems with his back.  His reflexes were all still working, but he just couldn't get up.  His heart was racing incredibly fast and he was panting heavily.  He was put on a drip and given strong pain killers.  24 hours later, his condition had worsened.  He just about acknowledged me, and there was still no movement.  I had two vets look at him, and we consulted an expert at one of the country's leading animal treatment specialists.   They all said there was no hope.  It was almost certainly a tumour of some kind.  At 10am on Tuesday 5 August he was put to sleep.  Two days before we'd been sunbathing together.  One of my hands was under his little furry head, the other holding his beautiful white front paw.  It was so surprisingly peaceful.  He died 11 years, to the day, that I had collected him from the breeder.

Oscar had his "Lassie" movie star looks until the day he died.  He had just the slightest white round his muzzle and eyes.  Apart from his poor paw, he was the picture of health, with the most stunning shiny coat.  I'm so grateful he never suffered blindness, deafness, incontinence, teeth problems or any of the other issues old dogs have.  He was such a gentle boy throughout his life.   He was so zen and calm, and looked he spent hours in his basket meditating.  I used to joke he was a Buddhist monk in a former life.  He would get really upset if I killed flies in the house and hated squeaky toys: I think he thought we were hurting them when they squeaked.  I can count on one hand the times I remember telling him off during his entire life.  His departure was so typically Oscar: gentle, quiet, and without fuss.

I've so much to be grateful for: we had 11 years packed full of love and happiness, a dream collie holiday a week before his death, and a swift and painless end, aged just shy of 12.  I don't think any dog, or dog owner, could ask for more than that.  Yet my heart wants to break.  The complete uncontrollable grief I'm feeling is like nothing I've experienced before.  He was my everything: a friend, a son, a brother, a companion.  He wasn't a family pet: he was my family.  He has been with me, through everything, for over a quarter of my life.  Ste and I had already put our name down with  a breeder in Leicestershire to get a puppy collie companion for Oscar in November.  He won't be a replacement for Oscar: nothing could be.  Oscar won't be meeting him and won't be helping bring him up after all.  I like to think that Oscar knew that his time was up, would be happy to know I won't be on my own, and that I'll have a collie by my side again.  The next few months without a dog will be so hard.  I can't even contemplate the void I feel right now without him.

Just before he died I thanked him for everything.  I want to thank him again, to the world, with this little piece.  I loved you so much, Oscar.  You were the most beautiful, softest, best behaved, loving dog in the world.  Nothing can ever take away from the time we had together and I'm just so grateful to have had you in my life.  I'll remember you until my dying day.  Rest in peace my beautiful boy.

Oscar "Tameila After Dark" Ede

* 23 September 2002  † 5 August 2014

"He might only be there for part of your life, but for him you are his whole life"


Saturday, 2 August 2014

Tesco's Racist Sign

This store is working with police/other retailers to identify thieves."  

In Polish.  How classy.  This lovely sign has pride of place in my local Tesco store at Diss in Norfolk.  I consider it to be completely racist*

Let's talk this through.  It's not unusual to have information signs up in different languages where there's a large foreign speaking minority who will see them.  When you catch the ferry to Calais there are safety signs up in English, French, German, Dutch and Polish.  It's the whole reason the international system of road signs was designed: so that essential information doesn't have to be translated into multiple languages.  If you can't use a symbol though, I've absolutely no problem with this: it's unquestionably sensible.

Let's see whether Tesco thinks it's a good idea to provide essential information for the convenience of its Polish customers.  There are signs up for "Parent Parking", "Reycling", "Customer Service" and "Toilets" in and around the Diss store.  All of them are in English.  Not one of them is translated into anything.  There are all the special offers, the "Every Little Counts" advertising slogan - all of it in English.  There are even signs setting out rules, such as saying you can only park for 2 hours there - but they're only in English too.  Nope, the only sign they've bothered to put into Polish is the "WE'RE WATCHING YOU" one. 

Tesco Diss.  You're welcome, if you're not Polish

Tesco Twitter Intervenes

Is there a corresponding DO NOT STEAL sign in English? Yes, there is.  It's to one side and I had to look for it.  It was the Polish one that caught my eye.  It's right in your face where you walk in.  I tweeted Tesco about the issue on 19 July.  They said they understood why I thought it was wrong and said they'd speak to the branch manager.  Just to be clear, I've no problem with a sign in English.  Every other sign in the store is in English and it is the language of this country.  I doesn't single any particular national group out as being potential thieves.

The net result of this intervention is that a Latvian sign has now appeared too.  If you're in any doubt which nationalities are being singled out as being potential criminals, they've neatly written the language on the back so we're all aware.  How thoughtful.  Lovely handwriting too.

What's more - it gets better - since my complaint they've added a SECOND "We're watching you" sign in Polish and it's double size.  It has absolute pride of place in the store: it's impossible to enter without seeing it.  Look here on the central door that closes and opens.  The single English one is to its right on the fixed panel on the side.

Why is this so offensive? Well clearly two nationalities are being singled out as being suspected of potential criminal activity.  They are being greeted in a sign in their own language (a rarity in this country) that tells them they're being watched.  Polish families with children entering might be delighted to see their own language, only to realise they're being told that Tesco regards them as potential thieves.  Welcome to Britain.  Welcome to Tesco.

What's next - "DO NOT STEAL" signs in Romani to fulfill another nasty, negative racial stereotype?

Local Poles

Perhaps Tesco has a major problem with this demographic locally.  I seriously doubted it, even before I had a delve into the official statistics.

The last census revealed just 1.1% of the population of the whole of the East of England region was born in Poland.   Lithuania registers at 0.3% of the population and Latvia is so small as to not even make the top 15 table.   Together there are more people born in Germany and the US in the region than there are Poles.  In addition, the bigger Polish speaking communities are not in this part of Suffolk/Norfolk, but up in places closer to the Lincolnshire border.  The only Poles I've personally ever come across in this area are the phenomenally hard-working local hand car wash guys, who have put up a large England flag to try to fit in.

What we do have locally is another fellow EU community: the Portuguese of Thetford.  Wikipedia comments : "During the late 1990s, a slow trickle of Portuguese immigrants started to arrive in the town of Thetford, East Anglia.  By 2004, the media were suggesting that there may be as many as 6,000 Portuguese-speakers in the Thetford area, where there are many Portuguese cafés, restaurants, delicatessens, etc.  This figure would represent around 30% of the local population." 

I note there is no "WE ARE WATCHING YOU" sign in Portuguese in the store, if this is all simply about providing information signs for second-language speakers.

Might there be justification?

However, what if the miniscule Polish and Latvian communities are however single-handed and disproportionately responsible for a outbreak of shoplifting in this area?

Well, let's look at the national crime statistics for the area.  It seems that the East of England has one of the lowest regional crime rates in the entire country.   Life expectancy is among the highest in the UK and regional unemployment is one of the lowest.  My local village newsletter recorded a total of four crimes dealt with by the police in the whole of the last month.  FOUR.  It's not exactly the Bronx round here.

Okay, I don't live in the metropolis of Diss (5000 inhabitants!) so let's see their exact local crime figures based on Tesco's postcode.  Here we have it - a total of 82 crimes reported in May 2014.   One third were anti-social crimes (31.7%) and one fifth (20.7%) were domestic burglaries.  Shoplifting made up 3.6% of the total for last month: a grand total of 3 reported instances of it.  Bear in mind there are three supermarkets close to one another that total is split between: Tesco, Coop/Somerfield and Morrisons.

So we have 3 reports of shoplifting a month, typically, split across three Diss supermarkets (offenders' nationalities unknown), and Tesco responds with these in your face signs that give the impression there is a petty crime spree caused by two specific nationalities: the Poles and the Latvians.  It is utterly disproportionate, misleading, offensive, unclassy and I'm afraid, just plain nasty.

Moreover, even if there were a major problem with shoplifting that was borne out by figures, and these criminals were proven to belong to one or two national groups, it still absolutely wouldn't be appropriate to single them out in this way.  Hire more security staff, but do not label all the other members of the group as potential criminals to the world at large in this way.   It's the equivalent of saying that because you've had a problem with certain individuals, you're okay labelling every one of them by shoving up the "no Irish, no Blacks, no Dogs" signs of yesteryear.  Several, or even many members of a particular societal group might objectively give you problems, but in 2014 it is just not acceptable to go on to label all members of that group with a highly negative label because of this.  There's a simple name for it: racism.

And here we all are wondering how UKIP manages to persuade people the country is sinking under the weight of criminal East European immigrants.  I'm a lawyer who bothered to check up on what the actual local statistics are.  I wonder how many other people will just see the sign and just assume there must be a Polish crime wave locally because the sign is there.  It's inflammatory and perpetuates a slur against a national group (actually, two national groups in this case).  It's racial stereotyping, it breeds prejudice, and it's inherently wrong.

Shame on Tesco

Shame on you Tesco Diss.  Shame on you Tesco nationally for not stopping this.

Aside from the moral position, you've also not thought for a moment how this will offend and piss of not just law abiding Polish and Latvian customers but everyone else too.  This is idiotically avoidable bad PR that your business should be seeking to avoid.  Instead, after a complaint, you've decided to make the situation worse.

* A couple of people have questioned whether it's possible to be "racist" towards Poles.  Simple answer, yes.  At the highest level, national origins are expressly covered in the 1966 United Nations International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination.  In terms of UK legislation, the definition of a racial group is "A group of persons defined by reference to race, colour, nationality (including citizenship) or ethnic or national origins." If you want an example of the legislation applying in an anti-Polish case of May 2014, please see here.


Sunday, 11 May 2014

Eurovision Triumph

Well, it's all over for another year.  "Gay Christmas" came and went last night with 125 million viewers across the continent.  Initial estimates suggest at least 126 million of these were gay men.  Families at home, bars, and drunken Eurovision parties tuned in for the annual smörgåsbord of camp fabulousness.  It's the yearly celebration of how deliciously bonkers we Europeans truly are. 
It was a delight, for many reasons.  One of these is that show has gone way past the stage of having only cult "irony" value for the sheer car-crash value of the horrendous acts and dreadful costumes.  The Terry Wogan piss-take era is now firmly behind us, with some arguably very good chunes indeed.  Heck, I wasted £4.74 on iTunes this morning frantically downloading some of them, so they must be good.  

Then we had the sets: Ukraine deserves a special mention inventing a whole new sexual fetish.  This involves putting a totally fit guy dressed in a shirt and tie in a giant hamster wheel and asking him to run round and round for you.  If you haven't yet tried it, I recommend you do.  When gay Twitter discovered Hamster Man's amazingly sexy name was <ROMAN> it frankly imploded for several hours.  Well, I had to lie down for a bit anyway.


Eurovision 2014 will go down in history, though, for its result.  Unless you're in some distant village in Outer Mongolia with yak mail being the only connection with the rest of the world, you'll know that a bearded drag queen from Austria, Conchita Wurst, took first prize.  She didn't just win - she romped home with a massive 290 votes. 
Conchita is exquisitely beautiful.  She has a figure to die for.  In her own words, she's a "singer in a fabulous dress, with great hair, and a beard."  The new Queen of Europe is a bearded lady.  Let's pause for a moment to consider her name: yes, it actually means "Pussy Sausage" in a combination of Spanish and German if you were wondering.

The person behind Conchita isn't transgender, unlike Sharon Cohen (Dana International) who took the Eurovision prize for Israel in 1998.  Conchita is the stage persona of a 25 year old guy called Tom Neuwirth, who's from grew up in a provincial town of 3000 people in Styria.  He's a gay man in drag.  With a beard.  
Russian politician Vitaly Milonov, one of the architects of the country's "gay propaganda" law last month called Eurovision a hotbed of sodomy and called for a Russian boycott of the show.  He further called for the "pervert" Conchita to be excluded, and labelled her an "obvious transvestite".  Regarding the latter claim, Vitaly, in other news bear shit was this morning discovered in the woods outside St Petersburg. 
The Votes
Ten million people dialed in across the continent last night to vote in, to add their voice to the professional jury (since 2009 voting is 50/50 jury and popular vote).  What they did was to confirm that this, our continent, is a far more liberal and tolerant place that many ever thought it was.  Let's be honest: Conchita's song was fair to good.  It wasn't a stand out winner if simply heard on the radio.  It was the act that made this phenomenal: last night she looked a million Euro.  
I watched a fascinating voting pattern: one after the other the ten countries with same sex marriage joined #TeamWurst, giving her full or nearly full marks.  Belgium, Netherlands, UK, Spain, France, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Iceland, Portugal: not one didn't do so.  Countries where same sex is very much on the cards (Ireland and Finland) also joined them, as did some other countries you might not have expected to hand over the douze points: Hungary, Greece and Israel.  

Moreover, if you strip out the jury votes and simply look at the popular votes, Conchita's popularity amongst the people of Europe was even more resounding.  Her score goes up from 290 votes (a margin of 52 over the runner up, Netherlands) to 306 votes (86 votes clear).  The juries are there for very good reason and the official score is all that matters - but what's clear from this is a reinforcement of the fact that people across Europe loved her.

It just really struck me: is there anywhere else that would fall over itself to vote for a bearded drag queen if they had such a contest?  I can't imagine this happening in a million years in the USA for example.  
No Politics
The Eurovision Song Contest is older than the EU.  It was created just 11 years after the Second World War.  The armies of Hitler (that other Austrian whose facial hair is really rather famous) and Stalin had decimated Europe.  It was set up to bring the people of Europe together: quite the tall order and amazingly idealistic given the time.  Political statements are expressly forbidden. 
2014 is the year of anniversaries.  It's 100 years since the heir to the Austrian throne was assassinated at Sarajevo, plunging Europe into the hell of WW1. It's 75 years since Reichskristallnacht, when synagogues were burnt across Germany (and Austria): the precursor to both WW2 and the holocaust.  It's 70 years since the D-Day landings and hope spread out over the continent like a slow-burning flame from the beaches of Normandy.  It's also 70 years since the failed assassination attempt on Hitler by aristocratic German officers who paid with their lives.  They had proposed a union of democratic European nations, with its capital in Vienna, the seat of the old Holy Roman Empire.  It's 25 years since the Berlin Wall, the physical symbol of division across the continent, came crashing down, and Austria resumed its natural place at the cross-roads of a Europe that has been healing ever since.

WHAT symbolism then, that Conchita won this year, and next year Eurovision will take place in Vienna.  Rainbow flags were flying everywhere in the audience last night.  Conchita could not say what she wanted to because of the no-politics rule, but everyone knew exactly what she meant when she said:
"This is dedicated to everyone who believes in a future of peace and freedom.  You know who you are.  We are unity and we are unstoppable."
Yes, Conchita, we are.  We are LGBT Europeans and the tens, if not hundreds, of millions of straight friends and supporters right across the continent. 
So Proud to be European 
What a different place this continent of ours has become.  It's so easy to forget when you hear constantly the repugnant views of xenophobic, homophobic politicians reported across Europe and on our own doorstep (yes, UKIP, I'm looking at you).  
The vote was a huge f*ck you of liberal values over the dying voice of social conservatism.  It was an affirmation of anyone who has been different and been stigmatised because of it.  It was the personal triumph of a schoolboy from Gmunden who grew up fancying other boys and wanting to wear frocks. 
It was a peaceful, democratic, liberal Europe slowly but surely taking the lead dragging the world into a new century, exactly 100 years after it had plunged it into militaristic chaos and destruction.  It's a new Europe that has voted for marriage equality in an increasing number of countries.  It's by no means without its problems, but in so many respects, it's just such a great place to be. 
I was so, so proud to be European last night.  What a great side of people this brought out, and what an amazing, symbolically significant thing a camp song contest can be, particularly when a bearded lady wins it.  Who'd ever have imagined it :-)