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Sensemaker: Union trouble

Sensemaker: Union trouble

What just happened

Long stories short

  • A collapsing glacier in the Indian Himalayas killed at least 170 people as it swept down a valley near Tapovan, northwest of Nepal.
  • Two US carrier strike groups conducted exercises in the South China Sea in a show of force condemned by the Chinese foreign ministry.
  • Haiti’s opposition named a 72 year-old magistrate as the country’s interim leader after reports of a coup aimed at toppling the president, Jovenel Moise.

Union trouble

Scotland’s politics are deeply weird. The next session of the Holyrood parliament will take place in May and the current sitting will end in March. Between them elections will be held that are unusually important. If there is a pro-independence majority, it will be a big step towards a dissolution of the United Kingdom’s internal union.

But the Scottish National Party, the pro-independence party, is gripped by a committee inquiry into the conduct of the Scottish Government in response to complaints of sexual misconduct by Alex Salmond, the former first minister. Salmond is accusing his successor and former deputy, Nicola Sturgeon, of lying to parliament about what she knew about the charges against him. For the first time, her position is in jeopardy. 

It is now not clear when he will give evidence: his session, planned for today, has been delayed over a dispute with the committee over what may or may not be published. He wanted it to publish his allegations about her. Sturgeon is scheduled to defend herself on 16 February. Her husband, Peter Murrell, the SNP chief executive, has been savaged by the committee for his attempts to cover up what he knew.

This in-fighting will occupy the SNP for the coming month at least. But its discipline has broken down because it is not a party under pressure – unlike Labour, which with just weeks until the campaign starts is running a leadership election. It is likely to choose Anas Sarwar as its new leader – a big improvement on what went before.

The potential universe of outcomes between now and May is broad. We can be pretty sure that the SNP will win. But an impressive new Labour leader, given a fair wind, could plausibly knock enough points off the SNP to deny them a majority – especially if the SNP seems locked in an internecine battle which destroys the strongest brand in Scotland: Nicola Sturgeon. 

Meanwhile, elsewhere in the union, it is worth noting this very serious story – which deserves proper attention. Border inspectors were stood down in Larne in Northern Ireland apparently on the advice of police after threats to their safety. They were at the port as a consequence of the sea border erected by the Johnson government between Great Britain and Northern Ireland as part of their Brexit deal – a border hated and opposed by unionists across the board.

Except: they were actually stood down at the request of a unionist minister who opposes the sea border. Edwin Poots, the agriculture minister, then immediately took a leave of absence from his post. The police have said there were no significant threats and the workers have returned to the job. The stakes are very high: it looks like playing politics with terrorist threats.

Belonging identity, society, beliefs, countries

Impeachment begins
The Senate impeachment trial of former president Donald Trump begins today in DC: the New York Times ($) goes through the permutations and combinations. The agreed rules allow each side up to 16 hours to make its case and give the House managers the option of forcing a debate and vote on whether to include witnesses at the trial. It will take two thirds of the Senate to convict – which would require 17 Republican votes. But it is grim for Republicans nonetheless. Expect a detailed retelling of the events of 6 January, when a mob stormed the Capitol to overturn the election process – plus for a lot of the wilder fringes of the party to apply pressure on senators to protect the former president. Liz Cheney, one of the few Republican members of the House of Representatives to vote for impeachment, has already been censured by her home party in Wyoming.

New things technology, science, engineering

Vaccines and big tech
Facebook is finally going to take action on vaccine disinformation of all types – not just in relation to the coronavirus. The company will not permit any claims that “vaccines are toxic, dangerous or cause autism”. This is a good thing, and seems a win-win. We know that existing disinformation networks have been repurposed for this pandemic – and it is not as though the anti-vaxx campaigners are giving good healthcare advice when you look at other topics. The challenge will be how Facebook polices the borders of this debate: there are sensible conversations about the risk-reward benefits of vaccination programmes and allergy, for example, that ought to be kept safe.

The 100-year life health, education, living, public poliCY

Robotic antics
Sarah O’Connor in the FT (£) writes that she is worried about the rise of robots in warehouses: “I had interviewed warehouse workers who would smear their blistered feet in Vaseline to get through the day. The sooner we invented robots to perform these robot-like jobs, I figured, the sooner humans would be free to do something less grim. But now the robots have arrived, I realise I was wrong.” The problem, she reports, is we now use people as elements in a production chain that works at the speed of robots: we have fewer people roaming warehouses, but injuries are higher among staff in high-end robotic warehouses. 

Wealth investment, fairness, prosperity

Bitcoin madness
Elon Musk put $1.5 billion of Tesla’s cash on hand into Bitcoin, the not-really-a-currency cryptocurrency. In a regulatory filing, Tesla said it purchased the bitcoins after changing its investment policy last month to “diversify and maximise” returns on its cash. It said the purchase was not part of the money it needed to preserve its “operating liquidity”. In short, it’s a punt. The reason it matters is it might prompt regulators to start thinking about proper rules for accounting for these things.

Our planet environment, natural resources, geopolitics
A Bryde’s whale feeding

How did we miss this?
So I understand not noticing a new species of tiny chameleon until this week. The nano-chameleon is small and, you know, hard to spot. But a whale? We have found a new species of whale? The scientist in charge of the discovery of the Rice’s whale, named after an American biologist of that name, said: “At night you wouldn’t see them… A ship traveling past could come right up and hit them.” He speculates that the whales might once have been more widespread in areas with deeper water, but they are now holing up in an area that sees less ship traffic.

Stay safe, wash your hands, open windows when you can.

Chris Cook

Photographs by Getty Images