07 May 2010

A Hung Parliament: What now?

If you've been following the elections on our side of the pond, you may have noticed that it's a particularly significant one over here. Labour have (British English for "Labor has") been in power since 1997, when Tony Blair became Prime Minister and launched what he called "New Labour." His Chancellor of the Exchequer, the guy responsible for economic policy, was Gordon Brown, who became Prime Minister himself in 2007. Brown is also a University of Edinburgh alumnus. In fact, my professor this term advised on Gordon Brown's PhD thesis, on Labour party organizing in postwar Britain. We asked what he thought about Brown. The professor was, shall we say, diplomatic.

In an article I read yesterday making their personal choice for the election, The Economist praised Brown's handling of the recent financial crisis, but pointed out that it's sort of unfair to praise him for doing pretty well in a situation he essentially created by not regulating banks or controlling funding effectively when he was Chancellor of the Exchequer. It's like saying, "Wow, you did a great job putting out that fire. Of course, you're the one who started it, or at the very least you're the one who didn't tell people to stop smoking next to the gasoline." The Economist, therefore, went pro-Tory. Tory is the same as Conservative - it's like saying "GOP" instead of "Republican." This party is led by David Cameron.

There is a third party, the Liberal Democrats, but they've been hampered by the structuring of the UK system. If you're interested, read the next paragraphs. Otherwise, take my word for it and meet me again under the *********.

In the US, representation in Congress is first divided by state, and then divided into districts (or, for the senate, just two per state). In the UK, the country is divided into constituencies purely by population. The Parliamentary web site says that there are 650 constituencies for this current election, with about 69,000 voters each. It's a winner-take-all system (called "first past the post" here) similar to the U.S. electoral college.

The Liberal Democrats have a tendency to come in second in very tight races - in Edinburgh South, for instance, the Lib Dem candidate lost by just 316 votes. Currently, the Lib Dems are polling at 22% of the popular vote, which in theory would translate to 130 of 650 Parliamentary seats. Because of these tight losses, they've so far won just 53. Labour's 29% of the popular vote would, in a perfectly proportional system, would win them 188 seats; they have 252. You can see why electoral reform was a major Lib Dem party platform.

A last thought on electoral divisions: England gets 533 of the 650 seats in Parliament. Scotland gets just 59, Wales 40, and Northern Ireland 18. This is a serious thorn for voters outside of England, who will never, even if they all ally with each other, be able to force serious government policy. Scottish anger at this system contributed to devolution, or returning certain governing powers to a local Scottish Parliament, but that's a whole 'nother blog post.


Welcome back.

The UK Parliament is, believe it or not, even more partisan and party-driven than Congress. The reason is that the Prime Minister, instead of being elected separately, like the U.S. president, is the leader of the majority party in Parliament. (President Nancy Pelosi, anybody?)
David Cameron's Conservative party has a plurality of seats (the most of any party) but even with some returns coming in, will not reach 326, which is needed for a majority.

When this happens in the UK, parties start putting together coalitions. Cameron could ask the Lib Dems to join him, adding their 53 seats to his 306 and creating a majority, but he'd have to give concessions to the Lib Dems to do it. (They might, for instance, insist on important positions in the government, or on Conservatives adopting some Lib Dem political platforms). And looming behind this is the threat that the Lib Dems could take their 53 seats and ally with Labour. It wouldn't at the moment be enough to win a majority, but it might be with some extra parties added in or some new returns. Nick Clegg, the Lib Dems' leader, is therefore a bit of a kingmaker. He has suggested in speeches that he'll go with the Conservatives because of their overwhelming popular vote victory.

There's a lot more to talk about here - what each party stands for (try here or here), listing some wacky UK fringe parties (the Pirate Party - electronic, not eyepatch - or the Monster Raving Loony Party, which supports, among other things, outward-pointed air conditioners to reduce global warming) but my pizza is ready.

05 May 2010

The East is... Plaid?

Does this picture of me from our trip to the Highlands remind you of anything?

How about now?

If this is what happens when you study East Asia and fashion history, then I'm not looking forward to the moment I'm inspired by sumo.

(Poster courtesy of http://chineseposters.net. This flurry of posts courtesy of a survived dissertation proposal deadline and a serious lack of work ethic.)

04 May 2010

Scone Palace: The Stone of Scone

(Scone, by the way, is pronounced "skoon" by the guides at Edinburgh Castle but "scohn" by my Shetlander friend - see here for more on accents)

Scone Palace, which I briefly mentioned before, belongs to the Earl of Mansfield. It's a 19th century building on the site of the old Scone Abbey. General rule of thumb when dealing with British architecture: if it looks the way you think something medieval should look, it's 19th century (and usually Victorian). Genuinely medieval things are, for the most part, ruins.

The interior at the Palace (technically more of a manor house, but that doesn't draw the tourists) is quite interesting and a fun visit. You can see the chamber where Queen Victoria slept, a remarkable collection of ivories and porcelains, and pictures of the family past and present. You can't take photographs inside, however, so we just have some shots of the grounds.

The kings of Scotland were traditionally crowned at the former Abbey while seated on the Stone of Scone, reputed to be Jacob's pillow from the Bible. It's also called the Stone of Destiny, which I always hear in my mind in the same squeaky voice as the pigs from Babe saying "PIG..... OF..... DESSTINYYYYY." But we already know I have problems.

"Stone of Destiny" is "Lia Fail" in Gaelic, and, as many Scottish icons do, has a beer named after it. (Justin's verdict for said beer. which he sampled last fall - "Meh.")

In any case, in 1296, the English King Edward I (the bad guy from Braveheart) pilfered the Stone and took it back to England as part of his campaign to subdue the Scots. No crowning stone, no crowned king, as the logic went.

According to my grandfather's genealogy research, my family is vaguely descended from Edward I. Blood, as they say, will out, and overcome by family tradition, I attempted to make off with the replica Stone.

I may have been more authentic than I knew, as my great-great-whatever-grandfather may also have targeted a replica. It is said that Edward's stolen Stone was a substitute, sneaked into Scone by Scottish subversives, while Scone Abbey monks secretly submerged the original in the River Tay.

The Stone generally believed to be the original resides today at Edinburgh Castle, but it has been a bit of a circuitous journey. It was lodged in a chair used in the English coronation ceremony at Westminster Abbey, thereby integrating (or coopting, depending on your point of view) the Scottish tradition for the joint monarch of England and Scotland after the 1707 Act of Union. It remained there until the 1950s, when radical students stole it, but eventually gave it back. There's a move about this called Stone of Destiny; for trivia buffs, it stars not only Billy Boyd, but also Kate Mara, descended from the American families which own the Steelers and the New York Giants.

The Stone finally made it back to Scotland in 1996 in what the Edinburgh Castle tour guides describe as a failed attempt by the Conservative Party to buy off Scottish voters. The agreement states that the stone will be loaned back to Westminster for the next royal coronation; Scots like to joke that they will send it back tied to a string.

Here in the cafe beneath the palace, Justin consumes a scone. A Scone of Scone. (Justin's verdict: "6.5/10. I prefer crumbly. The jam was good, though.")

We're pretty sure this means that Justin is now the king of Scotland.

Betting on the British Election

If you've been following international news lately, you've probably heard something of the upcoming British general election. This one's a doozy for a variety of reasons, the foremost being that projected success by the centrist Liberal Democrats threatens to upset the longstanding two-party system.

A lot of the recent news, however, has been about the most recent TV debate has shifted the odds in favor of a Conservative (aka Tory) victory. Previously, bookmakers had put their money on a hung parliament.

Which begs the question: how many people actually bet on election outcomes in the UK? I haven't been able to find any hard data, but marketing campaigns by the big gambling chains suggest that they actually expect to make some money off those bets. As an American, this seems kind of odd to me: gambling is really not a huge part of American life, and is usually limited to the more conventional bets and games. But here in the UK, it's hard to walk more than a couple blocks on any commercial street without passing a betting parlor or two, and many of the bets advertised in the window are pretty exotic.

Stranger still is the use of published gambling odds in political advertising. Nana spotted a sign touting a Liberal Democrat candidate's odds as a come-on to potential voters: Labour, it seems, has been claiming that Lib Dem candidates can't win and any vote for a Lib Dem candidate is as good as a vote for a Tory (American third-party supporters will recognize this argument), so the Lib Dems have been very vocal when bookmakers have given them good odds of success.

An interesting bit of bandwagon propaganda . . . but could you imagine an American politician doing the same thing?

03 May 2010

Scottish Accents

Due to its highly regional history and multitude of foreign linguistic influences, the UK has a mindboggling density of accents. When you think "Scottish accent," you probably think of Sir Sean Connery. But Connery's accent is only one of many Scottish accents - in the UK, accents are so regional that even regions like Scotland have their own regional accents.

Connery's accent (voted favorite UK accent in a 2005 BBC survey) is an Edinburgh accent. He grew up working-class, but his voice has posh-ified over the years. For a more current example of the Edinburgh accent Justin and I hear daily, try Jenny (at about 1 minute), who right now is on the BBC reality show Over the Rainbow competing to play Dorothy in the West End. The Edinburgh accent has a lot in common with the northern English accent, especially the letter "O," which sounds a lot like Yorkshire. My favorite thing about it is the way they say Edinburgh: "Eh-din-barrah."

Glasgow, however, has a different accent from Edinburgh. You might recognize it as the accent of Billy Boyd playing Pippin in Lord of the Rings. I have no technical linguistics-y terms for the difference, but it's rounder, less nasal, and the Os and Rs are different.

But even these are only two major regional variations. The Highlands and Islands (Western Scotland, including the Isle of Skye,) have an accent of their own (number 13), which to me sounds quite like an Irish accent. Maybe it's because both of those areas have a much longer history of Celtic languages. One of my coursemates has my favorite Scottish accent, the Shetland accent, which retains not only sounds but also some slangy vocabulary expressions from Norwegian. The BBC accent archive is being snippy with me because I don't have RealPlayer installed, but it's one of the few places I've found a Shetland accent.

And if you're really geeky, check out the George Mason speech accent archive: they've recorded hundreds of native and non-native speakers of English from all over the world. They only have two Scottish accents - Glasgow is here, Edinburgh is here - but the worldwide ones are a hoot. Check out a Yinzer here. You can also check out this Norwegian and learn why Justin and I are constantly mistaking English-fluent Scandinavians for people from some part of Britain we haven't been to yet.