Tuesday 14 March
As the Scottish parliament debates the SNP's proposals for a second referendum on independence, are you excited or depressed at the prospect? Those in favour are likely to be energised in anticipation of a re-run of the campaign, perhaps already digging out their old placards and trying to come up with snappy new slogans. Then there are the rallies of the faithful with their evangelical zeal to look forward to, some of which are likely to make the Church of Scientology seem open-minded. Worship of Saint Nicola, who is going to lead them to the promised land, will be much in evidence.
On the other side, there may be a temptation to personalise the debate. The first minister is not everyone's cup of tea. Like her predecessor, Alex Salmond, she is perceived by some as rather too enamoured by the power of her office (note the number of times she begins statements with the phrase 'As the first minister of Scotland'). And in her answers to questions at Holyrood, she can come across as narky – not a good look.
But pro-union supporters would be better advised to keep hammering away at the hard questions to which nationalists have so far given sketchy answers (the economy, currency, border control, defence, post-Brexit relations with the EU). They also need to talk about winners and losers in a post-independence scenario. In the short term, the main winners will be lawyers and 'consultants', collecting fat fees for the complex task of renegotiating constitutional and institutional arrangements. They will be followed by the politicians themselves, who will almost certainly create an upper chamber of the parliament – ostensibly in the interests of democracy but, in reality, to open up new career opportunities for themselves. As for ordinary citizens, they will have to be content with warm words, soothing sentiment and a vague promise of better things to come.
Wednesday 15 March
While munching my breakfast cereal, I was surprised by a phrase used in a radio report on the embarrassment of the Bank of England following the resignation of Charlotte Hogg, deputy director, brought about by her failure to declare that her brother held a senior position at Barclays. The reporter referred, without irony, to 'the great and the good of the financial services industry'. That is not a group of people I would normally associate with either greatness or goodness. In fact, the phrase made me think of other forms of words that might elicit a similar reaction: 'the reputation of politicians for honesty and integrity'; 'the wit and wisdom of accountants'; 'the modest and self-effacing character of football managers'; 'the enlightened membership of Muirfield golf club'.
It is quite difficult to convey irony on radio. On television, there are clues other than intonation which can be used to indicate that statements should not necessarily be taken at face value – a hand gesture, a sardonic smile, a raised eyebrow. Despite this, I increasingly prefer radio. The seeming obsession of TV producers with 'celebrity' presenters and unnecessary visual effects detracts from the substance of many programmes.
Friday 17 March
We live in a boastful culture which encourages people to 'sell' themselves. Thus, in certain circles, a little embellishment of one's CV when applying for a job is not regarded as ethically questionable. At the sharper end of the business world, it might even be seen as evidence of initiative and creativity. In professional fields, however, the demand for formal qualifications and relevant experience limits the scope for misrepresentation. Nobody could be appointed a high court judge on the basis of once having taken a course in human rights. Equally, reading a few self-help books would be insufficient to obtain a post as a consultant psychiatrist.
Nevertheless, some people do have a remarkable capacity to secure a series of well-paid posts on the basis of limited achievement. Step forward George Osborne, former chancellor of the exchequer. His main claim to fame is that he was a chum of the former prime minister, David Cameron, who may go down in history as the man responsible for both the UK's withdrawal from Europe and the break-up of Britain. Mr Osborne is still an MP, for Tatton in Cheshire, but he has been overwhelmed by job offers since Theresa May decided not to call on his services.
Although rather a lacklustre performer, he is reputed to have earned some £600,000 from speaking engagements. In addition, his financial acumen has been recognised by BlackRock, an American investment company, which will be paying him £650,000 a year for four days' work a month. And to fill in any idle moments he may have, he has just been appointed editor of the London Evening Standard, despite having modest journalistic experience. I wonder what the old hacks on the paper think of that. As for any issues about potential conflicts of interest between his political and editorial responsibilities, these have been brushed aside. I wonder, however, if his constituents will not be concerned that George will bring a degree of tatt to Tatton.
How is this remarkable portfolio of jobs to be explained – exceptional drive, talent, charisma? Or would it be better accounted for with reference to his comfortable background, attending the 'right' school and university, having a network of powerful contacts, and an untroubled conscience in the face of public criticism? I hope, with all these demands on his time, he will not over-stretch himself. Perhaps he should take some advice from Prince William on how to limit his commitments.
Sunday 19 March
I am currently reading a crime novel in which one of the characters is a pathological liar. This emerges gradually and, to begin with, the disturbed nature of her personality is not evident. One of her sons has committed suicide, a tragic event that naturally elicits sympathy. But, as the novel progresses, it emerges that she has constructed a false account of her personal history, routinely lies about her relationships with others and manipulates the lives of her family to gratify her own desires. When the extent of her lying is exposed, she becomes hysterical, refusing to engage in rational discussion. It is a clever portrayal, which raises disturbing questions about the reliability of self-reporting and the nature of trust.
There are some people we expect to lie routinely – career criminals, for example, who are anxious to avoid detection and prosecution. Some studies suggest that compulsive lying may develop in childhood within dysfunctional families: children, fearful of blame or punishment by inadequate parents, make up stories in an attempt to protect themselves. Soon the strategy becomes habitual, even where it is not needed. Then there are expedient liars, people who are well aware of what they are doing, but are quite prepared to tell a few porkies if it is in their interest to do so. These are to be distinguished from complete fantasists who convince themselves that their false accounts are gospel. I once knew a man who fell into this category. He was a sad figure who made Walter Mitty seem like a realist.
What of our old favourites, politicians? A capacity to lie – or, at least, to 'reconfigure the narrative' – seems to be part of the job description. The name Donald Trump has suddenly entered my consciousness. Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton's main rival for the Democratic nomination in last year's presidential election, put it rather well in a recent tweet: 'We have a president who either lies intentionally or, even more frighteningly, does not know the difference between lies and truth'.