Iconic cities at threat from catastrophic flooding

If nations like the USA and Japan can’t escape apocalyptic scenarios after hurricanes or tsunamis as events over just the last decade have shown, what would be the situation in Lagos, Dhaka, or Jakarta?

The greatest invention of humanity is, inarguably, the city. The city has been the catalyst and engine of economic and intellectual development throughout human history – whether the progenitors of those developments loved or hated it. Cities form their distinct identities, collectively established by and yet projected upon their inhabitants, and are endlessly compared to one another – Buenos Aires is the Paris of the Southern Hemisphere, Edinburgh a rather rainier Athens.

Over the last few weeks, two of the world’s most well-known cities were hit by extreme weather. The New York metropolitan area bore the brunt of Hurricane Sandy in the week before the US election, with a whole concatenation of disaster encompassing flooding, power cuts, and the wholesale destruction of coastal communities. Less drastic (if only because the place is already so waterlogged) was the flooding in Venice two weeks later, a result of heavy rains in northern Italy, and in contrast to the images of utter devastation of the Atlantic seaboard, newspapers and websites ran photos of tourists good-naturedly wading through waist-deep water.

New York City and Venice both have extraordinary histories. New York, the best harbour on America’s Atlantic coast and one of the best in the world, was the conduit between the goods produced in the heartland and the markets of the Western world. Even more famously, it was the point of entry for millions of immigrants over many decades, endowing the place with its notorious cosmopolitanism. Venice has a much more sedate, genteel image of decorated palazzos and piazzas, but in its day was as much an economic heavyweight as New York is now.

As different as the two cities are, they, along with the mushrooming populations of the world’s coastal cities, are under increasing existential threat. Statistics from the Venice Commune’s Tide Monitoring and Forecast Center show that of the fifteen or so occasions over the past hundred years when high tide breached the 140cm mark, six occurred since 2000. The governor of New York, Andrew Cuomo, has spoken of the challenges he has faced as three successive hurricanes roared up from the Caribbean into the United States. And though it passed with little remark in parliaments around the world, this summer saw an unprecedented thaw in the Greenland ice sheet. All indicators, of global temperatures, precipitation, and the likelihood of extreme weather events continue their steady climb upwards.

New Yorkers are resilient in the face of adversity, Venetians are resigned to it. Governor Cuomo and New York City’s mayor Michael Bloomberg have both called for investment in building levees and flood defences in preparation for further deluges, cheaper surely than spending billions of dollars in rebuilding every time disaster strikes. But the damage caused by Hurricane Sandy is likely to linger longer in the American memory than did, for example, the tsunami on Boxing Day in 2004 in the Indian Ocean in which hundreds of thousands of people died and millions were displaced, mostly in Indonesia, India and Sri Lanka. It might even be better-remembered than was Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans in 2005, given New York’s position as the country’s economic and media focal point.

As Venice was a past keystone of the world economy and New York is a current one, in the developing world other coastal cities in key areas are catching up fast. Shanghai is vying with Tokyo to be the financial centre of East Asia. The port cities of South America and Africa are modernising and expanding as the mineral and agricultural products of those continents are produced and traded with increasing efficiency. But while coastal cities in the developing world are growing quickly, both spatially and economically, many of their inhabitants continue to live precariously on the edges of these conurbations, in shanty towns and slums that lie outside the neat rules of city planners. Moreover, local and national governments may not be able to summon resources or may not worry overmuch if such communities are affected by storms or flooding or any of their after effects. If nations like the USA and Japan can’t escape apocalyptic scenarios after hurricanes or tsunamis as events over just the last decade have shown, what would be the situation in Lagos, Dhaka, or Jakarta?

The narrative that has gained traction over the last few decades is that economic supremacy is shifting away from the developed world to the developing. While there is more nuance in the economic picture than that, the worsening effects of climate change are anything but subtle. Although the media dwells far longer on the damage caused in well-equipped, well-prepared places, it is people living out of sight of Western media that face the most immediate threat from the effects of climate change now and in the future. In order to preserve the cities that are only just realising their own economic prosperity, there should be as much focus internationally on protecting them as there is on preventing climate change further.


The US election prediction the world has been waiting for…

So, as I know people the world over were waiting for with baited breath, I have made my prediction for the United States’ presidential race. Of the swing states detailed in the BBC’s interactive election prediction tool, that is: Nevada, Colorado, New Mexico, Wisconsin, Michigan, Iowa, Ohio, Florida, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Virginia, and New Hampshire. I’ve said North Carolina and Florida will go to Romney, while the rest will side with Obama, meaning that the latter will win with 303 electoral college votes to 265. Really, I would say the BBC is being overly cautious with such a long list – Michigan and Pennsylvania are practically dead certs for Obama, and North Carolina looks like its slim Democratic majority from 2008 will be ceded back to the Republicans.

The basis for this spans a few different themes. I contend that Mitt Romney hasn’t really communicated much of substance as far as his policy positions are concerned – we’re aware that he wants to cut taxes by 20% or some other wildly irresponsible percentage, and make up the difference through the elimination of loop-holes (but we don’t know which). We know that he would move to abolish Obamacare, the president’s state-backed health insurance that means millions have access to care they did not previously have (and which is based on Romney’s own fairly success programme when governor of Massachusetts). We suspect that he might be pressured by radical social conservatives to nominate deeply right-wing Supreme Court justices when a few slots might be left vacant in his term – who might then overturn Roe vs Wade, the case that made access to abortion a constitutional right. On the other hand, Barack Obama has presided over a slow but sure recovery from the economic disaster from 2008-2010 – the budget deficit has been reduced ever so slightly, and unemployment is below eight per cent. Whether most voters know that – they should know that – is another question.

Michigan and Ohio, both states where the auto industry is key, have seen increasing jobs as a result of the recovery of that industry across many cities in both states. Additionally, Michigan, Ohio, and Wisconsin have all been under mismanagement of Republican governors. John Kasich and Scott Walker of Ohio and Wisconsin both tried to dismantle unions in their states, places which have a strong history of union activity; Wisconsin in particular is spectacularly proud of the fact that their state is the birthplace of unionisation in the US. Even more amazingly, in Michigan Republican government brought in measures that could overrule local government in economically unsuccessful cities – and even more controversially, cities where the majority of the population is African-American.

Legislative missteps by Republicans may well drive voters out for the Democrats in other states. Bob McDonnell, governor of Virginia, fully supported up until the point where it became politically dangerous (ie, when it appeared that it might throw into jeopardy the likelihood of his being picked for the Republican vice-presidential candidate, which he didn’t get) a bill that would force women seeking an abortion to get a medically unnecessary transvaginal ultrasound. The bill was passed, but effective and vocal (or otherwise) protest by Virginian women saw Bob McDonnell round on his previous position and insist that the involuntary aspect of the law be amended, and then signed it into law in March. This was among a whole raft of anti-abortion legislation brought in by Republican governments since 2010, including in Texas, Pennsylvania, Kansas, Mississippi…

An issue that might provoke people to try to vote Democratic, even if they find they are stopped, is the voter restrictions that states have also been a feature of the Republican-controlled state governments, as well as throwing existing voters off the rolls for the fear of fraud. Among these are several swing states – such as Pennsylvania and Florida, the two most populous and two of the most likely to end up Democratic. In addition, because Florida and Ohio have over the last decade or so had so many issues with holding orderly elections where everyone who wanted to got to vote, these measures might be the best hope the Republicans have of clinching the election.

Would that I had more time for this article, but the results keep rolling in and I would like to post the article before my prediction, likely as it is to be proved incorrect, is shattered completely. Maybe some more thorough examination of my reasoning will be provided another time, but hopefully I have encapsulated some of the reasons both why I believe Barack Obama should and will be re-elected. Here is a final thought – my prediction, as ill-informed as it is, is informed by what I wish every American voter knew. Barack Obama is far from the perfect candidate, as far as liberals or progressives are concerned – he is not one of them, and neither is he a Marxist-Socialist-Communist-Nazi. However, he has seen an economy grow fitfully and anaemically, with similar jobs numbers – due in part to insufficiently courageous ideas of his, as well as the intractability of Congress after 2010. Mitt Romney, if elected, would fling away the recovery in favour of enormous tax cuts, reductions in regulations, a reversal of the social gains of the twentieth century, and, perhaps, a new war in the Middle East. I just hope enough people know or suspect that and, crucially, that they are permitted to express it at the ballot box.

Independence isn’t as simple as a yes/no question

Defensive as I am over Scotland’s ability to be successful economically, I do not see how Scotland and Scots can maintain a role anywhere near as pivotal as that currently held by the UK.

Allow me to offer this as a preface. I feel, and have always felt, British and Scottish. My grandparents, from whom I derive no small part of my identity, were born in Scotland, England, Ireland, and what is now Belarus. Two of them were immigrants to Britain, three saw service in the Second World War, in the armies of Britain and Poland. I was born in Glasgow, Scotland’s biggest and most diverse city, and went to school with Scots of a host of different heritages – Chinese, Indian, Pakistani, Persian are just some of the ones I can name.

I feel Scottish and British. Therefore, the issue of Scottish independence in the upcoming referendum pulled me squarely in two directions. I voted for the Scottish National Party at the last Scottish election, in part possessed by a sensation of not really being able to vote for any other party on the ballot, but also with the dim perception that the SNP might be able to shield Scotland somewhat from the austerity politics then and now in vogue in Westminster. Cautious though my rationalisations were I knew that what I didn’t want was independence, not because of doubts of Scotland’s ability to succeed as a separate nation state, but because I value being a British citizen.

Whenever anyone asked me about independence I would tell them that I would not vote for it, but that I would vote for some form of a further devolution of powers. This admission was typically followed by an impassioned case for how, if the unthinkable happened, Scotland wouldn’t be so badly off as talking heads in politics or the media might think. Yet, it was decided yesterday in the document developed by David Cameron and Alex Salmond known as the ‘Edinburgh agreement’  that the referendum will take the form of a simple yes or no to independence, no mention of further devolution, specific or otherwise. This means that I will no longer be able to offer my now familiar caveat.

In addition, it has made me not only regretful, but annoyed. As has been pointed out, further devolution commanded widespread popular support along with those either fervently pro- or decidedly anti-independence. Those people will now have to be split between the other two camps, and I think if they are anything like me, they will opt for the latter.

There are several reasons why I would have liked to see further devolution on the ballot, as well as my natural caution. The ability to raise taxes specific to Scotland to pay for a Scottish budget would have been, for me, the best outcome of devolution of powers. In this way the Scottish Government could experiment with the Scandinavian social democratic model that the SNP champion. Scotland is quite politically distinct from the rest of the UK – Scotland is no great lover of the Conservatives, and is, given the results of the last Scottish election, rapidly souring on the Liberal Democrats. Why then shouldn’t Scotland be able to direct its economic policy in a different direction to the rest of the UK, even fewer Scots than Britons overall support the current government? Federalism in this mould would suit the UK well, with its politically and culturally disparate regions.

What problems would further devolution have solved or lessened? For a brief list, there is Scotland’s share of the UK’s debt and deficit, membership of the EU and the need to take up the euro on joining, and the ownership of North Sea oil. Scots would retain British and EU citizenship, and would not have to create many of the trappings of an independent nation from the ground up. Defensive as I am over Scotland’s ability to be successful economically, I do not see how Scotland and Scots can maintain a role anywhere near as pivotal as that currently held by the UK internationally. (Though, cynics might point out that Scotland would never again be brought along for the ride on such ventures as the war in Iraq with the rest of the UK).

It is clear to me that further devolution is viewed as not a real viewpoint, but the holding pen on people who cannot make up their minds. David Cameron essentially said as much on Newsnight where he expressed his relief that the referendum would be an either/or question:

“What we have is what I always wanted which is one single question, not two questions, not devo max, not different options, a very simple, single question that has to be put before the end of 2014. So we end the uncertainty, we put beyond doubt Scotland’s position either within the United Kingdom as I hope, or separating itself from the United Kingdom. One single simple question; that for me was always the key.”

A poll in January 2012 conducted by ICM and the Sunday Telegraph showed as many Scots supporting a Scotland with its own tax-raising powers as independence. Other polling demonstrates consistent support for some form of further devolution. Further devolution was a real option that people really wanted, and David Cameron is ignoring it. Alex Salmond is as culpable, for not fighting for an option that would enable much of his the policy positions he would like to enact, without the uncertainty that full independence would endow.

Just as depicting would-be further devolutionists as indecisive and tentative is ridiculous, there is no point trying to treat independence-yes and independence-no groups with broad strokes. They both include a great variety of people motivated by a great variety of concerns. It would probably have been easier for them to migrate into the potential third group, rather than for inhabitants of that group to try and split themselves between the two black and white options. Further devolution might have been an opportunity for Scotland to experiment with a better way of organising and paying for a fairer society safely. Now that that’s gone, I and I many others, whether they are Scottish or British first, will have to align ourselves with a choice that is imperfect and does not fully represent how we feel.

The Opening Ceremony: the ultimate cure for cynicism

Thereafter, a flock of nurses and children on hospital beds, some actual staff and patients of Great Ormond Street Hospital and some actors, flowed onto centre stage – a reminder that in the same year that London last held the Olympics, the NHS came into being.

What says Danny Boyle’s masterful Opening Ceremony about our national character and London’s most recent hosting of the Olympic Games? That is the question at which columnists sharpened their pens to parse what it meant, and what it was meant to mean. Having taken in much of the commentary, whether admiring or disdainful, I detail my own reaction having watched the ceremony again on BBC iPlayer.

I did not watch the opening ceremony of the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, but from what I have read it was a monumentally impressive spectacle with a huge amount of money spent labouring the point that the economic pre-eminence of China continues to dawn. The London display, though far more costly than the last time they were held in the UK in the similarly straightened times of post-war Britain in 1948, has been reported to cost less than a third of what was spent in Beijing. As a post-imperial nation with a claim to global importance that perhaps over-estimates the reality, the ceremony seemed to focus on enduring features of the British character past and present.

It began with a giddy rush up the Thames to the Olympic Park at Stratford, passing by the statues of such national figures as Nelson and Churchill; the latter was animated to wave to the helicopter in jolly, grandfatherly manner. The scene that was arrived upon was a mini green-and-pleasant-land in the midst of the Olympic stadium; a cottage, a maypole, a game of cricket, apple-tossing and a herd of sheep. In came a troop of top-hatted capitalists led by Brunel portrayed by Kenneth Brannagh. Brunel-Brannagh climbed to the small hill to invoke the Industrial Revolution with a quote from The Tempest, whereupon the strains of a chamber orchestra gave way to a pagan drumming as smokestacks were rapidly cranked up. The green sward of the countryside was rolled up and packed off by an army of soot-smeared factory workers.

These engines of the transformation of the Britain of the early nineteenth century were accompanied by crowds of immigrants clutching suitcases, suffragists and suffragettes, and Pearlie Kings and Queens march on as supposedly molten steel forms the Olympic rings that were raised aloft to a shower of sparks. A whole panoply of associations were at play – progress, ingenuity, struggle, cooperation.

What followed was a series of anniversary reminders. Denoting both the sixty years of her reign and the fifty years of his, we were treated to the vision of James Bond picking up HRH the Queen at Buckingham Palace and following her lead in parachuting out of a helicopter. Thereafter, a flock of nurses and children on hospital beds, some actual staff and patients of Great Ormond Street Hospital and some actors, flowed onto centre stage – a reminder that in the same year that London last held the Olympics, the NHS came into being. In a demonstration that celebrated both that institution and British contributions to children’s literature we saw villains from Voldemort to Cruella De Vil threatening the little moppets and their devoted carers, an attack that was ultimately foiled by a fleet of Mary Poppinses, claimed to be an analogy for NHS reform.

A brief interlude of Mr Bean daydreaming of athletic glory while helping to play the Chariots of Fire theme tune, and then it was off for a whirlwind tour through British entertainment of the last fifty years, as the Rolling Stones, David Bowie, and Dizzee Rascal provided the backing track for the quintessential Saturday night celebration of British teenagers.

It was on this latter section that many commentators demurred, saying that it was reminiscent of happy-clappy mobile phone advertising of some ten years ago. Although it was not my favourite segment of the ceremony, I felt it was as celebratory and vivid as the rest of the ceremony, and in keeping with its comedic tone. Finally, a memorial for the victims of the 7/7 bombings, that occurred the day after the announcement of the IOC’s awarding of the 2012 Olympiad to London, was both beautiful and grave.

The procession of the athletes is the point at which most of the theatrics end, yet I found it interesting because we so seldom see people paraded from quite literally all corners of our world. Sadly, the shots of various world leaders in attendance at the ceremony left something of a sour taste – particularly Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaijan, who received much press regarding his family’s practically totalitarian control of that country when it hosted this year’s Eurovision, and Sheik Hasina, Prime Minister of Bangladesh, who has been accused of persecuting her political opponents by both the Economist and Amnesty International. One must assume that Kim-Jong Un’s invitation was lost in the post – perhaps he’ll be in attendance at Rio 2016.

My flatmate will tell you that I was initially cynical about going to see the Olympic torch arrive in Edinburgh. I was loath for reasons I can’t explain; I claimed rather carelessly that I will probably live in an Olympic host country at some point in the future and will see the torch pass by another time. That may well be true (and it is certainly what I hope) but it was a strange thing to say. Happily I can confirm that watching the Olympic Ceremony left me with more than a few tears of pride and a great amount of it welling up in my chest.

I credit this year’s Opening Ceremony, for indulging in Britain’s sense of fun and capacity for self-deprecation and for inspiring some amount of patriotism in advance of the Games. Beijing’s Opening Ceremony may have been impressive, but from all I’ve heard it was also impassive, monumental, and a demonstration of power. London 2012 was funny and heartfelt, and a great start to what will be a great Games.

Have we reached Syria’s Srebrenica Moment?

Contemplating defeat?

…are there sufficient grounds for foreign intervention on the part of the Free Syrian Army, as there were (or were there?) in Libya?

Last week news emerged of a fresh atrocity in Syria, the new focus of the Arab Spring that continues to teeter on the brink of civil war. More than a hundred people, most of them women and children, were summarily executed at close range in several villages in the Houla region north of the city Homs, the scene of much of the violence of the revolution. This week, a similar attack in the city of Hama was reported. Responsibility for both of these attacks has been attributed to militias known as Shabiha who are loyal to the Assad regime, according to the U.N. At the time of writing, the Syrian government is reported to having prevented the U.N. from entering a village called Qubair, where another massacre (as yet unconfirmed) is reported to have happened.

Following the attacks in Houla Syrian ambassadors were ejected from the US and several other European countries, and there have been murmurs of banning the Syrian delegation from the forthcoming Olympics. The incident has been compared to the 1995 massacre of Bosnian Muslim men and boys at Srebrenica by Serbian soldiers. This has also prompted the question once again: are there sufficient grounds for foreign intervention on the part of the Free Syrian Army, as there were (or were there?) in Libya?

In Libya, Colonel Gaddafi was more explicit in his venom for his opponents, as his out-and-out threats against the rebels in Benghazi and Misrata were taken to be just cause for equipping and advising the rebels and enforcing a no-fly zone through NATO airstrikes. Bashar al-Assad has maintained a business-like air of concern and willingness to cooperate with ex-U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, who seems more and more desperate to broker his peace plan. The latest episode of Channel 4’s Dispatches also points to his connections through his British-born wife, Asma, and his training as an ophthalmologist in the UK, that conferred and reinforced his public persona as a conciliator, and, what the international community values most in petty dictators, a moderniser.

So, Bashar al-Assad seems saner and savvier and, supposedly, more willing to try to find a compromise. The influence of the characterisation of each individual Arab Spring dictator upon the international reaction is an interesting thing to consider. Gaddaffi was  the most eccentric, while the others – Mubarak, Ben Ali, Saleh, al-Assad – were and are variations on be-suited elder statesmen or scions of such elders, and hence it is perhaps easier for the international community to persuade themselves that they would listen to reason. Indeed, Gaddafi was one of the few Arab leaders who did not offer concessions to their people such as new constitutions, growth plans, and what amount to bribes to quell dissent. Bashar al-Assad also has rather more geopolitical connections than had the isolated Gaddafi, as president of the only Arab state that maintains a close alliance with Iran. Negotiations with that country over its stated plans to develop domestic nuclear energy, and its presumed intentions to build nuclear weapons and launch them at everyone and their mother, are ongoing and an attack on what is Iran’s closest ally could jeopardise this process.

Commentators note the dim possibility of getting a new U.N. resolution authorising action in Syria as there was in Libya. The main problem is Russia and China stonewalling in the U.N. Security Council; both made the appropriate noises after the massacre in Houla, but are well-known to be more equivocal on human rights abuses than the other permanent members of the council, and both abstained from the vote on Resolution 1973 for Libya. Moreover, Russia still maintains a Soviet-era navy base at Tartus, Syria’s second largest port city, and is the largest supplier of weapons to the country. Another route is the possibility of an indictment for al-Assad in the International Criminal Court, something with which Gaddafi could count among his accolades, but that does not appear to be forthcoming.

One of the contrasts posed between the cases of the two countries, that might have factored into the diplomatic decision-making, has been their reserves of oil. As the civil war sparked in Libya, oil prices climbed in Europe as Libyan wells and refineries shut down. Prices eased off – though not by much – as oil production in Libya began to approach something resembling normality again. The situation in Syria has a negligible impact on oil production and oil prices, so whether or not oil was a factor for intervention in Libya, it will not be so in Syria.

It is unlikely that anyone went into Libya thinking that the National Transitional Council would be able to restore stability immediately upon the defeat of Gaddaffi’s forces. However, as The Economist reported and Channel 4’s Unreported World showed, post-revolutionary Libya is a place riven by tribalism, drawn along ethnic and family lines as well as between rival militias who fought in the revolution. Overspill from the conflict has already been implicated in the Malian coup earlier this year, and violence continues away from the Mediterranean coast, in the oil-fields of the Sahara and populated, though sparsely, by the Toubou and Tuareg peoples, who have been battling for control with Libyan Arabs for control of the few towns there. It is not impossible that the conflict could spread to already war-weary neighbours, such as Sudan and Chad. Could the same situation arise with a successful revolution or transition of power in Syria? There are similar splits there along ethnic and sectarian lines; such divides have shown themselves to be horribly apparent in many Arab Spring countries, not just Libya. It may be that such discord can only be mitigated, and not avoided completely, an uncomfortable idea that tarnishes the hope engendered by Arab Spring revolutions.

The international community has on many occasions prioritised stability over concern for the rights of oppressed peoples. Yet the latter cause has been invoked by misguidance and self-interest; witness the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as those cases with better (or perhaps just better disguised) motives – such a debate continues over foreign intervention in Libya. Inevitably, it seems that violence must always be partner to revolution; the role of outsiders is a tricky one, to defuse such violence without compromising the desire for liberty and democracy that, without exception, ignited the Arab Spring. Whether the atrocities at Houla, Hama, and possibly more in Qubair, in addition to all the other abuses perpetrated in Syria thus far, will provide an impetus for meaningful change of Syria’s government remains to be seen.

The Lonesome Right

The country is becoming, if not more liberal, then at least less sure of involving itself in marital beds and family homes.

Same-sex marriage in America has undergone something of a renaissance in the last few years. Since the election of Barack Obama in November 2008, made bittersweet by the passage of Proposition 8 in California the same night that reversed the state’s decision to legalise same-sex marriage, it seemed that marriage equality was fated to remain within the boundaries of socially-liberal Massachusetts. However, it has since spread across these borders into places that might have seemed, if not absolutely opposed, at least resistant to the idea just four years ago.

A bellwether for this trend was Iowa, whose Supreme Court upheld a ruling that there was no reason to deny marriage licences to same-sex couples in April 2009, effectively legalising same-sex marriage judicially rather than legislatively. Although the issue remains contentious in the state, it must smart to Republicans that Iowa, smack-bang in the conservative heartland of the Mid-West, continues to rebuff efforts to introduce an amendment to the state constitution banning same-sex marriage. The state of New York was next, passing a bill in June last year after years of attempts that had met annihilation in the state senate. Moreover, Connecticut, New Hampshire, Vermont and Washington DC all upgraded from allowing civil unions to full-blown marriage after the 2008 election.

February this year has been an encouraging month for the cause. The states of Washington and Maryland both passed bills to legalise same-sex marriage, with their governors promising to sign them into law. The New Jersey legislature has done the same, but Republican governor Chris Christie has refused to sign it, arguing that the issue should be turned over to the public vote as it was in California. Speaking of which, Proposition 8 has received the cold shoulder from the California judiciary, who have ruled that the measure violates the Equal Protection Clause of the United States Constitution. Furthermore, President Obama’s justice department has concluded that DOMA (the Defence Of Marriage Act) is unconstitutional and will not defend it in court.

The message that these last two developments in particular send, that the rights of a minority cannot be voted away by the majority, will prove useful in rolling back constitutional amendments that were voted on in many states over the last decade. It might seem populist of Republicans to say ‘let the people decide’ and leave it at that, but it is clear that the judiciaries on the state and the federal level have replied ‘the people don’t get to decide which rights a minority should and should not receive.’

What else do Republicans think should be put to the public vote? Women’s reproductive health, for one. Last year Mississippi rejected a measure that would have defined life as beginning at the moment of conception. The aim was, clearly, to outlaw abortion; a side-effect, that may or may not have been present in the measure’s proponents but was clearly present in the minds of voters, would be a ban on many forms of contraception.

Far from being cowed by this result, Republicans across the country and at all levels of government have tried to further the issue, introducing restrictions to abortion providers, throwing a tantrum over religious freedoms when the Obama administration suggested requiring that Catholic employers to include contraception in their health insurance to their employees, passing a bill in Virginia that would mandate a vaginal ultrasound to any woman seeking an abortion, without the woman’s consent. Small government, indeed.

It is not that Republicans don’t have some sense on these issues. Legalisation of same-sex marriage in New York, Washington and Maryland saw Republicans voting on both sides of the issue. Republican women have been outraged by their male colleagues’ attempts to legislate for their uteruses. Some Republicans recognise that the culture wars are over, that they no longer curry much favour with the electorate. Sadly, many Republicans seem determined to perpetuate them in order to appeal to an electorate that has been shrinking for many years.

Polls across the country indicate widespread support for access to birth control and family planning. For the first time in May last year, a Gallup poll showed more Americans were for same-sex marriage than against it. The country is becoming, if not more liberal, then at least less sure of involving itself in marital beds and family homes. Why, then, does the Republican party have the field of candidates that it currently does?

Each candidate has endorsed the view that personhood begins at conception, with current front runner Rick Santorum presenting himself as decidedly against contraception. Three of them derided judicial opposition to Proposition 8, and all of them have decidedly un-nuanced opinions on the definition of marriage. Famously, at one of the uncountable Republican debates last year, a question was posed by a gay soldier asking whether the candidates would reinstate the policy of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell in the US military. The question was booed by the audience and shrugged off by the candidates. The Republican Party seems to have fundamentally misunderstood the drift of public opinion on these issues. This will give them no advantage, except among their socially conservative base, in the election this year.

An edited version of this article was published in The Student newspaper, 06/03/2012

Feminist and pro-life societies host abortion debate

Appleton Tower was the scene of a debate on abortion on Thursday 1 March, co-sponsored by the Edinburgh University Feminists Society and the Edinburgh Pro-Life Society.

The debate was chaired by EUSA president Matt McPherson and invited a panel of experts to discuss the issue and take questions from the floor.

The panel was made up of Elain Gallacher, the education offier for the Cardinal Winning Pro-Life Initiative; Breedagh Hughes, the director for the Royal College of midwives in Northern Ireland; Professor Dr Calum MacKellar, visiting professor of Bioethics at St Mary’s University College in Twickenham; and Professor Dr Wendy Savage, a gynaecologist and obstetrician and the former press officer for Doctors for the Womans’ Right to Choose an Abortion.

The debate began with a short introduction of both the co-sponsor’s views on the issue and responses to the opposing view. Hilary Cornish and EUSA VPAA Mike Williamson made the case for the Feminist Society and Christopher Oldroyd and Laura Lynch (the vice-president and an ordinary member respectively) spoke for the Pro-Life Society.

During both the introductory talk and the debate there were instances of laughter and heckling from the audience, prompting Matt McPherson to ask that the debate continue in a respectful manner.

Both Hughes and Professor Savage made reference to the abortion situation in Northern Ireland, which has different abortion laws to other parts of the the UK. As in the Republic of Ireland, abortion is illegal except in cases where allowing a pregnancy to continue would threaten the life of the mother.

Professor Savage said it was “a scandal” that women in Northern Ireland cannot access safe, legal abortion.

Hughes elaborated, stating that women seeking abortions in borth Northern Ireland and the Republic commonly travel to other parts of the UK where they must pay up to £2,000 for the procedure, as they cannot receive the treatment on the NHS.

Professor Savage responded to stories of women suffering post-abortion trauma referred to by an audience member by saying that women she had treated often regretted the act of intercourse that resuled in needing an abortion, rather than the abortion itself.

Gallacher and Professor MacKellar reinforced the case made by the Pro-Life Society that life begins at conception and that abortion is the destruction of a unique human life.

They went on to argue that abortion was a quick-fix solution that would not solve the underlying problems that caused women to require abortions and that women should be presented with a full range of options when having a ‘crisis pregnancy’.

Although the debate was interrupted several times by people speaking out of turn, it proceeded smoothly, with many questions from the audience being answered and panellists responding to one another’s points.

Originally published in The Student newspaper, 06/03/2012

News In Brief, 14/02/2012

More suicides north than south of the border

Researchers from the universities of Edinburgh and Manchester have completed a long-running study that indicates an increase in Scottish suicides since the 1960s.

The study, which ran from 1960 to 2008, saw that suicide rates in Scotland overtook those in England and Wales in 1968.

This gap continued to widen as Scotland’s suicide rate stayed largely constant over time, while those in England and Wales began to decrease at the start of the 1990s.

Scottish suicide rates are 80 per cent higher than in England Wales, and occur mostly among men aged 25-54.

Dr Roger Webb, of the University of Manchester’s Centre for Suicide Prevention, said, “one of the key changes in methods used during the study period, was the marked increase in suicide by handing, particularly among young men in Scotland.”

Professor Stephen Platt, from the University of Edinburgh’s Centre for Population Health Sciences, added, “in a future companion paper we will suggest explanations for the persisting higher rate of suicide in Scotland.”

The study was published in the British Journal of Psychiatry on 9 February.

Mummies scanned by Edinburgh researchers for exhibition

University of Edinburgh researchers have been instrumental in a new exhibition of Egyptian mummies at the National Museum of Scotland.

Staff at the university’s Clinical Research Imaging Centre scanned mummies from the museum’s collection, revealing what lay beneath the linen wrappings.

One of the highlights of the exhibition that was treated to a CT scan was the mummy of Ankhhor; a high priest of Thebes who lived more than 600 years before the birth of Christ.

Another 2,000 year-old mummy, which was brought to Scotland in 1857 by Egyptologist Alexander Rhind, was found to contain the skeleton of a woman in her late twenties.

In addition, examination of animal mummies turned up a few surprises as a mummy of what was previously thought to be a baboon was found to contain a mummified ibis, a bird sacred to the Ancient Egyptians.

The exhibition opened on 11 February, and showcases the collections of the Rijksmuseum van Oudheden in Leiden in the Netherlands and the Musée de la civilisation in Québec in Canada, as well as that of the National Museum of Scotland.

Originally published in The Student newspaper, 14/02/2012

University researchers make cancer breakthrough

Researchers at the University of Edinburgh have made new discoveries about the way in which cells divide that could offer better ways of treating cancers.

Scientists working at the university’s Wellcome Trust Centre for Cell Biology have been studying two proteins that are crucial for the division of cells or mitosis. Their findings were published in the journal PLoS Biology in January.

When a eukaryotic cell divides, its chromosomes are separated into two identical nuclei which form the basis of two new cells. The proteins the researchers looked at, named ‘Aurora B’ and ‘Polo’, are key to this process of separating the chromosomes into new nuclei.

Dr Mar Carmena of the Wellcome Trust Centre and one of the authors of the study said that, “there is a lot of interest in the development of new drugs that inhibit Polo and Aurora; so far they are still on clinical trials.”

It is hoped that new anti-mitotic drugs will be developed that will target these proteins in cancer cells, helping to kill off dividing cancerous cells.

Anti-mitotic drugs are currently used in the treatment of some forms of cancer, but Dr Carmena said that, “there is a needs to find better drugs with less undesirable secondary effects and toxicity.”

While some drugs currently used in chemotherapy treatments have been shown to be effective in the treatment of some cancers, they also have serious side effects such as bone marrow suppression (which consequently decreases the production of blood cells which help fight off infection.)

For other drugs, the parts of the cell that they target in order to prevent division can become resistant to treatment, lessening their effectiveness.

The team used powerful microscopes to view the cells in 3D to map the position of proteins within cells. They could then identify how different proteins and enzymes work to activate mitosis.

Dr Carmena said that, “cell division is a complex and tightly regulated process, and when it goes out of control this can lead to cancer. The greater our understanding of the proteins that control cell division, the better equipped scientists will be to design more effective treatments against cancer.”

Originally published in The Student newspaper, 21/02/2012

It seems something’s gone very Wonga

The National Union of Students (NUS) has criticised the payday lending company Wonga.com over what it sees as irresponsible marketing of their services to students.

Wonga loands several hundred pounds at high interest rates – over 4,000 Annual Percentage Rate (APR) – over a short period of time. The NUS press release quoted the union’s vice-president Pete Mercer, who said that it was, “highly irresponsible of any company to suggest to students that high cost short-term loans to be a part of their everyday financial planning.”

The NUS was responding to advertising on Wonga’s website that suggested that students could use payday loans to go on holiday to the Canary Islands as opposed to using student loans.

The advertising has been removed and replaced by a statement, saying, in part, “[we] would like to clarify that Wonga does not target students. Yet we do not discriminate against working, adult students who may choose to apply either, because all applications are assessed in the same robust and completely objective way.”

EUSA’s The Advice Place told The Student that they “would not recommends using payday loans as the interest charge on them is so high, and it can be very tempting to borrow more than you can afford.”

In addition, there are several other avenues that students with financial difficulties can turn to rather than using payday loan companies. The Advice Place itself offers small loans that are intended to cover necessities like food expenses, and there are discretionary funds available from the university, as well as late award loans if students happen to have a delay in receiving their funds.

The Advice Place also said that, “anyone who may be considering these services, we would urge [them] to come and speak to us first. We can advise students on budgeting and managing debt and will generally help in any way we can.”

Originally published in The Student newspaper, 24/01/2012