Thursday, September 18

Yes and no.

If I still lived in Scotland, I would have voted Yes.

There are all sorts of arguments (and I think we've heard them all to bloody death by now) for and against the feasibility of independence, and frankly I don't think any of them matter. Because surely you start with nationhood and then go out and make your country work, with a shared sense of nationhood giving you the impetus to do so. Elizabeth Tudor inherited an England that was destined to become a backwater of one of the European empires, and then she and the English damn well made England feasible. The USA was a precarious experiment that plenty of people thought would fall on its arse after a couple of years, but the Americans dug in and made it work. You don't abandon nationhood because of current economic considerations. You work to fix the economics because you and your compatriots feel a part of the same grand project.

Up to a point.

For, to pull this off, there are several things you really do need: realism, unity, and good leadership.

Realism is starkly absent from the Yes Campaign, whose "White Paper" might as well have ended with "And a pony!" Now, to some extent, that's fair enough: the SNP only have one policy that matters, and I understand that they can make up any old bollocks for the rest, since actual policy would be decided by future Scottish governments, which (we can but wish) the SNP might not even be in. But still, I'd hope that the people who are going to be building a new nation were doing so on the basis of some things that are, you know, at least approximately true.

First, there's the famous "democratic deficit" that is so taken for granted that the phrase has just become background noise. Scotland, we are told, consistently gets governments that it did not vote for. Raymond Weir skewered that here:

At the last general election, as the only explicitly separatist party, [the SNP] got 19.9% of the popular vote. The combined vote of the unionist parties was around 78%, so Scotland can hardly claim to have been clamouring for independence. At the most recent Scottish parliamentary elections in 2011, the victorious SNP actually gathered fewer votes in Scotland than Margaret Thatcher’s hated Conservatives got in the 1979 general election. Look it up if you don’t believe me.

The way this ‘democratic deficit’ argument is presented, you’d think that Scotland has had to endure decades under the jackboot Reich of hard line, right-wing Tory administrations, but that’s far from being the truth. Since the end of the second world war, general elections in the UK have produced 35 years of Tory rule and 30 years of Labour rule, plus 4 years under the present coalition government. In democratic terms, that seems like a fairly reasonable split between what -on paper, at least- are opposing political ideologies. And if the vast majority of Scots invariably vote for unionist parties, what gives us any more right than the residents of Yorkshire, Cornwall or Suffolk to feel aggrieved by the vicissitudes of the electoral process?

When people say, in the context of this independence referendum, that there is a 'democratic deficit', I think what they mean is: “We don't want a Tory government.” There is nothing wrong with thinking or saying that, but to break up a successful political union just because the odd election doesn't go your way seems like rather a selfish impulse.

Quite. Which brings us, of course, to this idea that the Tories aren't welcome in Scotland, something I've been hearing a lot since, oh, 1992, but which has become absolutely constant during the Yes campaign. Which is odd, because I find there is considerable overlap between the people who are planning to vote Yes and people who want electoral reform — and the total hatred of Scots for the Tories is in fact a mere illusion enabled by the first-past-the-post electoral system. Sure, the Tories don't win seats in Scottish elections, but they do win votes. Rather a lot of them, in fact. In the 2010 general election, they won 412,855 Scottish votes, compared to the SNP's 491,386. Introduce proportional representation, and they'll do rather well. And yet one of the constant refrains of Yes voters is that Independence will see Scotland rid of the hated Tories forever. How? Are they planning to drown them?

Then there's the nationalists' portrayal of the UK they're leaving. Look, Scotland is my favourite country and I don't much care for England, but I'm not delusional (no, really) and I can see the good and bad in both. And, like Alex Massie, I simply do not recognise the caricatures propagated by the Yes campaign:

I don’t recognise the caricature of England (and it is usually England, not the rest of the UK) offered by Yes supporters. They see a heartless, rapacious, profiteering “neoliberal” dystopia; I see a relaxed, liberal, ambitious, open-minded, multi-racial, modern country.

They see the rise of UKIP and are frightened by it; I see UKIP as a bug not a feature because the feature is the manner in which the UK is open to the world and, actually, quite happy about that thank you very much. A UK which, despite its difficulties, has managed the transition from a white country to a multi-racial polity with, in general, commendable ease. They see a broken, sclerotic, unreformable Britain; I see a cosmopolitan country that’s a desirable destination for millions of people around the world.

I have, over the course of this three-year debate, become sick to the back teeth of hearing about how inclusive and welcoming and anti-racist the Scots are, unlike the insular racist Daily-Mail-reading little-Englanders. The only evidence any Yes campaigner has for this supposed awfulness of the English is the recent electoral success of UKIP — a party who, contrary to the propaganda of their enemies, are not even anti-immigration, and who, of course, want exactly the same thing for the UK that the SNP want for Scotland. Living in England, you see, unsurprisingly, a bit of racism — but not much compared to most of the rest of the world. In Scotland, you see a lot. I lived in Govanhill, the centre of Glasgow's Asian population, for seven years. I lost count of the number of times Scots said to me, "Isn't it a problem, living with all they Pakis?" What got me wasn't so much the racism as the casual assumption that it was acceptable, that I, as a fellow white guy, of course wouldn't be offended. I saw black people having abuse hurled at them in the street, something I've never seen in twenty years of living in England. And, of course, Glasgow still has routine violent clashes between Protestants and Catholics, something that only happens in England in history books.

And that's before you even get started on the treatment of the English in Scotland. A commenter to this blog put it well (years ago, before all the comments were destroyed (sorry)) when he said that you can wear a Union Jack T-shirt in Germany, a country that, within living memory, was razed to dust by the RAF, and the most that's likely to happen to you is that a German may approach you to say what a lovely time they had on holiday in Buckinghamshire last year. Whereas no-one in their right mind would wear a St George's Cross in Scotland without first checking ambulance availability — because of grudges borne over some shit that happened before the Renaissance. While Braveheart was in the cinema when I was at St Andrews, it became dangerous for the English to walk the streets after dark. Some poor student would end up covered in blood most nights. How many Japanese were beaten up in America while Pearl Harbour was showing?

And no, this is not a condemnation of all Scots. Scots are great people, which is surely why they constitute most of my friends. But just as it is possible for me to notice the bastards in Scotland without condemning the whole country, or to love living in Northern Ireland while not being able to help noticing that some of the people here are fucking murderous lunatics, or to have Welsh friends while still donating generously to sheep rescue centres, it ought to be possible for Scots nationalists to hate UKIP or The Daily Mail or David Cameron without declaring that England is a hateful racist unredeemable reactionary country. But apparently it isn't.

And I'm not convinced it's a good idea to try to build a nation on a foundation of delusion.

Unity has been effectively destroyed by the divisiveness of the campaign. I'm still sure it'll be Yes tomorrow, but that's immaterial now: whichever way it goes, it's going to be damn close, which means the losing side aren't going to feel like they've been defeated by a proper mandate. For a decision this important, you don't want close; you really want the winners to get at least 65%, ideally more. A country with a near-enough fifty-fifty split of people who disagree about which nation-state they belong to is... well, it's Northern Ireland. The nationalists like to talk about how, after the Referendum, everyone in the country, having had a lovely debate, will bury their differences and work together for the betterment of all. Sorry, but it doesn't work like that. You can't call people "traitor" and "quisling" and expect it all to be shrugged off the next day. The residual bitterness will hardly make things easy.

And as for leadership, Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon have from the outset shown themselves to be the last people you want anywhere near power: mendacious, weasley, smug, paranoid bullies. Now, I know a lot of Yes voters who agree with me on this point, and whose attitude is that, once Scotland's independent, the SNP's job is done and Salmond should fuck off. An admirable sentiment, but, let's face it, that's never going to happen. Politicians, once they have power, grip onto it like grim death. There are rare exceptions to this, but Salmond is no Gorbachev.

So, absent the SNP leaving or losing (fat chance of either), Scotland is to be founded and run by the sort of people who think they can use threats to default on their share of the national debt as a bargaining chip and that this won't have wider implications for the country. Best of luck, Scotland, when your newly independent state needs to borrow money and the man doing the asking has a record of publicly boasting about his intention to default. Credit ratings do actually matter.

And all this trouble for what? As Mark Steyn puts it:

The Scottish people are being invited to decide whether their cradle-to-grave welfare state will be more flush as a semi-devolved entity dependent on subventions from Westminster or as a reborn Kingdom of Scotland dependent on subventions from the European Union.

So, if I still lived in Scotland, I would vote No.

Lord knows, the No campaign have been awful: disorganised, limp, ineffective, stupid, patronising. There is a good case to be made for the Union, and our idiot lords and masters have largely failed to make it. There is no way on Earth such a tongue-dragging shower of lukewarm farts could have persuaded me of anything. But, in the end, they didn't have to.

It is the Yes campaign that have persuaded me. Because there is also a damn good case to be made for Independence, and they have singularly failed to make it. And, whilst the No campaign failed through incompetence, the Yes campaign appear to have been extremely competent. And what they've been competent at is spreading a quite monumental mix of bromides and fantastical wishful thinking while claiming that any unhelpful information can only be the result of a vast conspiracy. I can no longer bring myself to associate with such people.

Not that I have a vote. Those of us who don't live in Scotland aren't allowed a say in whether our own national identity is destroyed. Democracy? Pff.



Thursday, September 11

Scotland and identity.

Some of you may remember the 1992 general election. I do. I missed being old enough to vote in it by six days, so was annoyed. What was interesting about it was the stark difference between the predicted result and the actual result. I mean, yeah, sure, predictions are often a bit wrong. But in 1992, they were staggeringly wrong.

Every opinion poll said Labour would win. Labour were so confident — in fact, not even just confident, but sure — of victory that they openly celebrated, producing footage that looked a bit embarrassing a few days later. The media were sure of a Labour win too. On election night, every time a Tory lost their seat, they would be interviewed not only about the loss of their seat but about the loss of their government. If you went to bed about ten or eleven, you were fully expecting to wake up to a Labour government.

And then the Tories won the largest number of popular votes in British history.

Sure, the vagaries of the electoral system meant that they only had a narrow majority in Parliament, which is fair enough, but MORE VOTES THAN ANYONE ELSE EVER! is exactly the sort of thing that opinion polls should be able to detect, and they didn't. They didn't come close. So there was much discussion at the time about what the hell was wrong with the bloody opinion polls, and how they might be fixed. There was proper academic research done too. And the academics discovered something quite interesting, and something quite obvious. The interesting thing was that pollsters were asking the wrong question.

What they ask is: "If the election were tomorrow, how would you vote?" Turns out, the problem with this is that it registers vain protests. And this is the obvious thing that the academics discovered: A lifelong Labour voter whose parents voted Labour and whose grandparents voted Labour might well tell a pollster they're going to vote Conservative because they're a bit pissed off with Ed Milliband this week (who isn't?), but, once in a polling booth, will never ever do such a thing.

The question polls should ask is: "Which party do you identify with?" People who feel like they're a part of the Conservative Party, who feel that a Tory is who they are, will vote Conservative. Some polling organisations now try to take account of this by asking people how they voted in the last election.

The important finding here is that, for the most part, people vote based on identity, on tribalism. It's which group you feel you belong to that influences how you vote.

So, the moment the Scottish Referendum was announced, I said, "That's it: Scotland's leaving the UK." There has never for one moment been any doubt in my mind that Scotland will vote to leave. I have been frankly surprised that so many professional politicians — who, whatever you may think of their policies, should at least know a bit about politics and elections — have been convinced that the No campaign would win and are apparently genuinely surprised now that it looks like they won't. I never trusted the opinion polls that showed that No would win, and I don't trust the latest polls that show that Yes will win, despite their happening to be right by sheer luck. Obviously Scotland will vote to be an independent country. Because there is simply no way to separate a referendum like this from the question of identity, and Scots' primary identity is always Scottish. Yes, plenty of Scots are proud to be British — but they're Scottish first.

Thing is, unlike in a general election, this is actually a good thing: this Referendum should be about identity. The campaigning on both sides has been some of the stupidest I've ever seen (and I saw Labour try to persuade the country that Michael Foot would be a great Prime Minister), as it has all been about policy, or about the next five to ten years, or about whether Scotland is viable as a nation. Utter bollocks, the lot of it.

The decision to secede will last for centuries. No-one knows what'll happen over that time. Trying to claim that it's a good or a bad idea on the basis of some current concern is much like basing your opinion of the Union on Whig policy. This Referendum has nothing to do with policy, for how on Earth can it? It is, simply, about what Scotland is, about what being Scottish means — not about what any Scottish government might do. Gut feeling about identity is probably the best way to vote. It's certainly better than taking Alex Salmond or the God-awful Nicola Sturgeon seriously.

Scotland will do very well by itself, eventually. It might even do very well immediately, though I think that's less likely. But good luck regardless. The Union was bloody great (and bloody, and great) and demonstrated that the English can achieve great things with help from the Scots and that the Scots can achieve great things with help from the English. But this is a democracy, and it doesn't look like the Union is really wanted anymore.

Course, if I'm wrong, this post is going to look as embarrassing as that celebratory Labour footage. Nearly.



Wednesday, October 2

Something to look forward to.

I'm now really looking forward to the next US election, so I can have fun reminding lefties that they claim to be deeply opposed to ad-hominem attacks or criticisms of candidates' families. Because I think we all remember how Trig Palin and Ann Romney were treated. Oh, this'll be fun.



Rudeness and precedent.

As a person of the right-wing persuasion, I have, like most right-wingers, been routinely accused by left-wingers of hatred on a near-daily basis for many many years. They tell me I hate the poor, I hate women, I hate black people, gay people, Muslims, Catholics in Ireland and the UK, the opponents of Catholicism everywhere else (I honestly can't quite figure that one out), the old, the sick, children, teachers, nurses, immigrants, Jews, Arabs, Scots, and, yes, Britain. Any right-winger will tell you that these slurs are so routine that they've become mundane. Mark Steyn and PJ O'Rourke joke about them. We shrug them off, because they're so ordinary they've just become background noise.

So it was interesting to read today a large number of left-wingers claiming that to accuse someone with whose politics one vehemently disagrees of hating Britain is completely unprecedented, that doing this crosses some new line of political indecency that no-one has ever crossed before. Really, it doesn't. From Left to Right, this slur happens a hundred times a day. If it's really so shockingly unprecedented in the other direction (and this isn't just a load of feigned outrage), what does that tell us?



Wednesday, November 14

Pumpkin chutney. (Really. Actual chutney. Not a figure of speech.)

I know what you're thinking: this intermittent political ranting is all very well, but how do I go about making a truly superb condiment? Well, this is your lucky day. Here is my family's pumpkin chutney recipe. It is excellent.

Firstly, for those of you who don't know how to make chutney, it's easy. Whereas jam requires a certain carefulness with the order in which things go into the pot and with judging exactly the right point to take the stuff off the heat just before it crystalizes, chutney just involves chucking everything into a big pot and boiling it down until it looks like chutney. There are no doubt some more detailed instructions elsewhere on the Web, but it really is simple stuff.

Ingredients:

a 2.5 lb pumpkin (that's weighed whole, with the stem and seeds)
1 lb peeled tomatoes (tinned are fine)
1.5 lb onions
2 oz sultanas
0.75 lb dark brown sugar
0.75 lb caster sugar
2 tsp ground ginger or about 1 inch of root ginger
2 tsp black pepper or black peppercorns
2 tsp allspice berries
2 cloves garlic
1.25 pints cider vinegar

Obviously, you can adjust the amounts for a different size of pumpkin using the wonder of arithmetic. The amounts of spices are of course to taste. I think I typically put in quite a bit more ginger than the recipe calls for, but I couldn't tell you how much, exactly.

Method:

Peel the pumpkin and remove the seeds and the stringy crap around the seeds. Chop the pulp in to a good mixture of small and large chunks. The end result should be a lot like a mango chutney, with some nice big slices of chewy preserved fruit in it.

Slice the onions.

You can use fresh tomatoes and go to the bother of peeling them if you like, but, really, life's too short. I've used fresh and used tinned and there is absolutely zero difference to the end result.

I put the ginger, garlic, black peppercorns, and allspice berries into a chopping device and whizz them all up together into a sort of paste. Or you can just grind the pepper and allspice and chop the garlic and ginger. The allspice berries can even go in whole, if you like.

Now, put the whole lot into a decent pan with a nice thick bottom and boil it down over a high heat, stirring occasionally with a wooden spoon to make sure it doesn't stick. It can take over an hour — watch the mixture as it gets thicker: it's ready when you scrape the bottom of the pan and it takes a moment for the mixture to gloop back in, affording you a brief view of metal.

When it's ready, take it off the heat and pour it into sterile jars. Since this is chutney, don't use jam jars with metal lids, as the vinegar will corrode the metal. Kilner jars are best, and a dishwasher is the best way to sterilise them. If you're using a ladle to get the chutney into the jars, make sure the ladle is sterilised too. Seal the jars.

Leave for at least one month before eating, but that's only if you're desperate. This stuff only gets better with age; I was eating some of the 2009 batch the other day, and it's lovely.

This is a really good chutney. Enjoy it.



Tuesday, October 23

The complicity of the BBC.

If you sell refurbished dishwashers but claim they're brand new, or if you charge six hundred quid for plumbing jobs which should cost more like eighty, the BBC will send round a crack squad of investigative journalists and industry experts to entrap you into conning someone in front of a phalanx of hidden cameras. They will then broadcast your name and the name and address of your company and any other company you may have ever been associated with, and they will publicly accuse you of a crime or at the very least immorality.

If, on the other hand, all you're doing is raping kids for forty years, apparently the massed ranks of the BBC's award-winning broadcasters will shrug regretfully and say, "It'd be our word against his. How could we possibly prove it?"



Wednesday, September 19

The haves and the have-nots.

If I were in the US, I'd be voting for Romney. I don't think he's a great candidate — the Republicans are shit at picking candidates — but I think he's better than the alternative. And I know quite a few other Republican supporters. And I'm getting sick to death of the deranged characterisation of us offered day in day out by the Left. I needn't give examples; you've all seen it. Some of you have probably done it. The reasoning seems to be that anyone who wants to cut government spending hates poor people, because cutting spending means cutting benefits and benefits are the only way the poor can survive. Romney wants to cut government spending so that he and his friends in big business can keep all the money for themselves and stop the poor getting their grubby hands on it. You know, the usual lefty smear.

See, I could do the same trick with Obama supporters — you must all be antisemitic Weather Underground supporters, right? — but that would be absurd and insane. Party politics is about coalition and compromise; that's its whole point and its advantage. You don't vote for one man because you agree with every single thought in his head; you vote for the representative of a party because, on balance, you like enough of their platform a bit more than you like the other guys' platform. It doesn't even matter what the candidate's real secret thoughts are, because their power is based on our support and our support is based on their professed opinions, not their secret ones. Obama listened to a ranting Jew-hater for years and claims he never really noticed. Aye, right. But plenty of Jews, despite their serious misgivings about the man, will grit their teeth and vote Obama in the next election, because they think lots of other issues are more important than how he feels about them. And it's not like he's got the power to start a gulag or anything. I'm with Byron: "I have simplified my politics into an utter detestation of all existing governments." But I do detest some slightly less than others. Voting is about choosing the lesser of two evils — or two stupids, more like.

I'm not against the welfare state, and neither are the Republicans, as you can easily see by observing whether the welfare state has been destroyed by any previous Republican government; they just disagree with the Democrats about how big it should be. And, if you want to pay benefits, I have to ask, with what? According to the Congressional Budget Office, the US economy will collapse in 2027 if it stays on its present course — that's based on Obama's figures, not his enemies'. When that happens, no-one gets any benefits at all, no matter how needy or deserving they may be. If you've got a baby or toddler just now, by the time they entered the workforce, there would be no welfare state left. One Democrat friend of mine said that a Mitt Romney presidency would take America to a state like the "early middle ages". History's largest economy collapsing in ruins sounds to me quite a lot like the 5th Century.

Obama and the Democrats show no sign of even thinking about avoiding that. They want to keep increasing government spending while funding it through borrowing and quantitative easing. This is why the US's credit rating was downgraded, and why that should worry anyone who lives there. The practice of founding the Dollar on having the Federal Reserve buy bonds from the Treasury using money founded on the fact that the Treasury can keep selling bonds has been a joke for years — I know people were taking the piss out of it in the Sixties, and probably earlier. But it didn't matter, because it was a silly accounting trick being performed by the world's largest and most reliable economy, and everyone knew the US was always good for the money. What the downgrade shows is that the world is ceasing to believe that the US is good for the money, and the reason for that change is that the current government haven't even come up with a plan that might not work — they simply have no plan, and have resisted attempts to push them into making one. Again, my friend says that Romney is "out of touch". Obama apparently hasn't got around to learning from the mistakes of the Weimar Republic yet.

If you want lots of big government spending, you've got a choice between the people who will spend so much over the next couple of years that no government will be spending anything in fifteen years' time and the people who will spend less now in an attempt to ensure that spending remains possible long-term. If you're in your eighties and selfish, that's an easy one: take everything you can get right now. Otherwise, which plan do you think screws the poor harder?

Now, I'm not convinced that the Republicans can avoid the impending cliff-edge — they have a pronounced tendency to talk about small government when they're not in government and then start spending like sailors on shore leave the moment they get in — and yes, I certainly think Bush's spending levels are partly to blame for the current mess. So this election is a choice between the people who will definitely crash the economy and the people who will probably crash the economy.

Like I said, lesser of two stupids.



Tuesday, September 18

The death of the Republic.

The death of the Republic. Exhibit A. First Amendment dead.

Just for the record, this is what it looked like for a man who made a film that made the Obama Administration uncomfortable:



At the end of the day, a written constitution only works if the people who swear to uphold it don't catch on that they have the option of trashing it instead — at which point it ceases to be worth the paper it's written on.

Ah, well. It was nice while it lasted. 236 years is a hell of a good run for a non-dynastic non-dictatorship.



Tuesday, September 4

Whinge, whinge, whinge. Me, me, me.

Imagine, if you will, the following film.

It's a Second World War film. It starts with our "hero" Ken realising that his best friend Peter is being held prisoner by the Nazis. "Woe is me!" says Ken, a lot. "My best friend Peter is in the clutches of the evil Nazis! Alas! Alas! I shall alternate between crying and sulking for the duration of this film!" He then alternates between crying and sulking and telling us why he's crying and sulking for most of the film. We hear reports of the War raging elsewhere, while Ken listens to these reports while moping around and whining. Then he cries about how he misses Peter.

At some point, Winston Churchill himself intervenes. He authorises a mission to send a crack team of commandos into Berlin itself to rescue Peter. "Yes, it's dangerous," he says; "yes, it's counterproductive to the greater war effort; yes, there are thousands of POWs and we're only rescuing one of them; yes, dozens of these brave men will probably die on the mission. But, by God, it'll be worth it if it'll stop Ken whining." You see, most of the people of Britain look up to Ken because he won a fight once, and it is therefore absolutely vital for the war effort that Ken be induced to stop his self-involved whining, because then the entire country will get better at fighting for some reason.

So, this dangerous mission goes ahead. "Aha!" you might well think. "At last, some on-sceen action!" Don't be so silly. We're not going to watch the dangerous and exciting rescue mission; we're going to watch Ken moping and whining while other people go on the rescue mission. When they get back, they tell Ken about it, but not in any detail.

Anyway, at least Peter's back. Oh, hang on: he's got nasty psychological damage from being tortured by the evil Nazis, so — did you see it coming? — Ken does some more sulking and whining. A lot more.

Now, you might well be thinking that it would be a bad idea for me to pitch this idea to a major Hollywood studio, on the grounds that it is clearly the worst film ever and no-one in their right mind would waste time making it. And you would be dead wrong, because change the names and the setting and what you have there is a synopsis of the huge international bestseller Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins, and not only are Lionsgate already planning it, but they think it's so good they're going to make it a two-parter. There probably isn't enough room in just one film for all the whining.

For the record, I loved the first two Hunger Games books: great stories — so great, in fact, that their greatness outweighed the shamefully shoddy writing. But the third book is all shoddiness, no greatness. Suzanne Collins had some great ideas and insights about reality TV. War and revolution, not so much. In fact, when she tries to write about full-scale war, she still ends up writing about TV programs, which is a large part of the problem. That, and did I mention her protagonist's relentless whining?

When the third film is released, I shall be eagerly looking out for fans moaning about how the bastard filmmakers have wrecked the book. That I would take as a good sign. But, if it's faithful to the book... well, see above.



Friday, August 24

Intent matters.

Much discussion of abortion in the news at the moment, especially — as ever — in the US. Prompted by that, Professor Geras says this, not so much about abortion itself but about the logic behind a certain kind of moral argument. I'll quote the whole thing, as he was terribly succinct:

If my mother hadn't married my father I wouldn't exist. Even if she had married him, I wouldn't exist if they'd not been able to be together during those days in late 1942 when I was conceived - for example, if one of them had taken a holiday then, unaccompanied by the other, in Port Elizabeth or Cape Town. Does this mean it would have been wrong on my mother's or father's part to have married someone else? Evidently not. Would it have been wrong of either of them to go on that holiday? Nonsense.

I raise these profound and unsetlling questions apropos a post at Comment is Free. In explaining why she thinks it would have been better if her mother had aborted her, Lynn Beisner refers to anti-abortion arguments deploying the claim that someone or other alive today wouldn't be had abortion been legal and/or had their mothers chosen to terminate the pregnancy of which they were the issue.

But since there are many things a mother might quite legitimately - legally and morally - have done which would have led to the non-existence of her present children, the circumstance that abortion would have had this sorry effect cannot by itself establish that abortion is wrong, however dismaying the thought of their own non-existence may be for those children.

It strikes me that there's something missing from Norm's analysis here, and that is intent. There is a difference between unintended side-effects and the whole deliberate point of one's actions — an uncontroversial difference recognised in the laws of every jurisdiction on the planet. For instance, let's run with Norm's example of the consequences of taking a holiday.

On the twenty-second of February 2010, the Real IRA exploded a car-bomb a few yards from where I usually park my car at the time I would usually have been walking to my car. As luck would have it, I was working from home that night, so wasn't anywhere near it. But what if one of my colleagues had been on holiday that night? I might have had to be in the office in order to cover their absence, and so I probably would have been near that blast. So there is a very real and plausible chain of events whereby one man goes on holiday and another man, as a result, is killed.

Would the police prosecute my colleague for going on holiday? Would anyone sane regard his holiday-taking as tantamount to murder? No, of course not.

Because intent matters.

There is a hypothetically potential person who does not exist because of that time in 2004 when my wife and I didn't have sex because we were too tired from staying up till the small hours painting the living room. There are of course billions of these hypothetical potential people who have ended up nonexistent — many more of them than actual people. Just as there are people out there who have fallen terribly ill or got their dream job or been in a traffic accident or met their spouse because of chains of events that can be traced back to that time you or I did something inoccuous and trivial. But we don't think about those chains of events because it would drive us all mad, and because intent matters.

We do think about those chains of events where a person sets out to do a thing for a reason and they achieve their aim. The man who plants the bomb is responsible for the damage and death it causes. The reason for this moral culpability is not mere convenience; we're not just assigning blame in cases we can comprehend and ignoring the ones we can't. No, the reason is that what concerns us social primates is the psyches of those among us. People whose actions cause the death of innocents because they kill innocents deliberately are dangerous, and we understandably don't want them around. People whose actions cause the death of innocents because they book a holiday without realising that as a result someone else will end up in the wrong place at the wrong time, not so much.

I hardly think it's a controversial statement to say that the whole point of having an abortion is to ensure that a person does not come to exist. The decision of whether or not to abort is all about the existence of that potential person and nothing else. The decision of whether to go on holiday is not.