Deja Vu

Just about the first thing I saw on Twitter this morning was the Scotsman front page with a lurid headline about Sturgeon’s £5 billion Devo Max Bombshell(add your own exclamations) and instantly felt deja vu creep over me.

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Are we still in the campaign, I wondered. Are they still hammering home their relentlessly negative tabloid scary drivel or is the referendum over?

It followed this week’s piece in the same paper from Peter Jones warning that without the Union, Scotland would be facing ruin from falling oil prices as we would lack the equalising impact of the block grant which retains spending levels. He was quoting Brian Wilson who wrote in the same paper the previous day apparently on the same subject.

Odd, isn’t it? My understanding was that Unionists were bleating that Yes was refusing to give up and yet here we are in ‘the national paper’ re-running old arguments after the event and based on the views of one or two campaigners disguised under the pseudonym of Think Tank.

Indeed, on reading the article, it turns out to be none other than former Labour economic adviser John McLaren* who has produced a paper timed to coincide with the Smith Commission talks and dutifully published on the front page of a national newspaper minus scrutiny or analysis in an attempt to derail the SNP’s proposals for extra powers.

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If you thought this fight was over, you’re wrong. The Unionists can’t stop themselves from stamping all over Scottish aspirations and killing stone dead anything that smacks of real autonomy. Every single move has a downside that will damage Scotland and they will never tire of telling us. Only craven adherence to London policy – Labour or Tory – will satisfy these Britnats whose contempt for their own country is collective self-loathing on an epic scale.

Whenever there is a Scottish government statement due or a budget, expect Dr McLaren to have prepared a paper contradicting everything they have to say. The so-called think tank, now named Fiscal Affairs Scotland, is spun out of the Centre for Public Policy for Regions (CPPR) which previously provided cover for his Unionist expositions. You may recall three years ago, this story (reported here in Newsnet)

The row over claims that businesses in Scotland face a massive increase to their business rates of £849 million over three years looked set to escalate today after a CPPR source denied the organisation had produced such a figure.

Newsnet Scotland has been told that the press release and report sent out to media organisations on 22nd September made no such claim of an £849 figure.

The £849 million figure has been used by several Scottish newspapers and broadcasters in order to attack the Scottish government’s three year spending plans.   The headlines and reports led to Finance Secretary John Swinney writing to a Scottish national newspaper and issuing statements denying the claims.

In a letter to the Herald newspaper Mr Swinney called the figure of £849m “misleading” and went on to explain that the real figure is £493m. Around half of this is due to the annual poundage rate RPI increases that are introduced north and south of the border and which businesses know they have to plan for.

So the actual increase as a consequence of inflation totals £250m over the three-year cycle not the treble plus figure implied in the CPPR report.

That little affair was the direct result of a press briefing given by John McLaren at Glasgow University and which I attended. Contrary to what the CPPR said, he did mention the £849m figure and it was leapt on by Angus Macleod of the Times – with his usual relish – who demanded to know, in an incredulous voice, if the figure was correct. ‘Yes’, confirmed McLaren.

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It was broadcast by Douglas Fraser and immediately brought objections and clarifications from the government. The result was the item was pulled from BBC coverage within the hour. McLaren had overshot himself in his haste to a) damage the SNP and b) to gain publicity.

At that time he and his former Labour colleague Jo Armstrong were paid by the taxpayer through the Funding Council and accommodated by the university but it isn’t clear where the funding is coming from for their new vehicle which has a raft of luminaries to provide respectability. Oddly, for a ‘prestigious’ organisation, their website appears not to be functioning.

I don’t believe that Scottish academics – any of them – make up answers or deliberately twist information but I do think that some with strong political affiliations highlight information that serves their political ends. It would be naïve to think otherwise. And if the referendum taught us anything, it is that we have an inter-connected establishment which values the Union above all else. The idea of impartiality and neutrality were torn apart as professors and doctors declared for one side or the other and in the midst of a national debate, that seems an appropriate response from the university sector which is both an iconic contributor to our country’s prestige and an underused resource.

But once that campaign is over, do we expect them still to be politicking at public expense? For example Adam Tomkins first advised the Tories on devolution – a reasonable use of an academic to a project of public interest –but should he now also be representing them in the Smith Commission? Has he not crossed a line from offering expert advice to assuming the mantle of identity of a political party and arguing their corner against other politicians? Should the taxpayer be paying his salary while he turns himself into a political party representative? (Perhaps he has surrendered his salary pro-tem. What do you think?)

At least Tomkins makes no effort to hide his affiliations so you can judge him and his work accordingly. (I know I do). But shouldn’t we expect the same declaration from other academics like John McLaren who, it seems to me, is a committed Unionist and anti-SNP voice but who states he is unaligned? If the think tank is also unaligned, as it claims, perhaps we’ll see some evidence of this soon…

Meantime, I recommend this from Bella for further reading. http://bellacaledonia.org.uk/2012/02/23/the-professor-the-think-tank-the-black-black-oil/

The McLaren defence will doubtless be that he produces a balanced report and it’s the media that decides the storyline and the heading. But are we to assume that so media-savvy an individual with hours of television experience and direct media contact had no idea what line a journalist might take? Wasn’t he already preparing to appear on Radio Scotland in the morning? Did it not occur to him that it coincided with the Smith Commission meeting and would therefore sabotage that event and lead journalists to demand answers from the SNP? Put it another way – isn’t this exactly what Labour Party headquarters would want?

And is this what Robert Black and others in Fiscal Affairs Scotland want – to be front men for campaigners bent on disrupting even the low-level devolution process that all of Scotland wants to succeed now that independence is shelved? I suggest that John McLaren knows exactly what he is doing. To me this looks like cynically manipulating the media to present a case that damages the Sturgeon leadership, derails the more powers process and makes a name for John McLaren and his latest think tank. And, of course, it’s another triumph for the Scotsman, surely the most inappropriately-named newspaper in history.

*John McLaren was a civil servant at both H.M. Treasury (1985-1988) and at the Scottish Office (1989-1998). During this period he had no political affiliations.

John worked as a researcher for the Labour Party for a year leading up to the first election (1999) of the new Scottish Parliament, being subsequently appointed as a Special Adviser by Donald Dewar, and then by Henry McLeish, for the period up to 2001. John was a member of the Labour Party from 2000 to 2005. In 2006 John was hired by the Labour Party on a consultancy basis to undertake work leading up to the 2007 election. Since 2002 John has worked as an independent economic consultant and member of CPPR. Since 2005 he has had no political affiliations.

 

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Nurse! Hurry!

If we lost the referendum, I was going to change the name of this blog to I Told You So…

Well, we did lose but I’ve decided just to be smug instead. Sadly there isn’t even fun in being right after the vote since it’s all too late and I’m left feeling helpless as our future is kicked around by uncaring Unionists.

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Still, somebody’s got to point out that the emerging narrative of the TTIP deal is that it seriously threatens the viability of the National Health Service…Unite is now campaigning on this point with widespread support. Yet, if you can muster the effort, drag yourself back to September.

Better Together released a press statement signed by 200 No-voting health professionals accusing Yes experts of breaking up the NHS and of ‘ constantly peddling lies.’ They were thanked by Jackie Baillie, no doubt for revealing ‘the truth’. Bruce Keogh, the medical director of the NHS England popped up to warn that there was no threat to the Scottish service as it was entirely devolved.

Even after the referendum, the Labour strategist John McTernan was writing that one of the lessons learned from the campaign was that if you tell a big enough lie you can change opinion – ironically he meant the Yes case on the NHS, not the multitude of Unionist myth and smear.

Yet it does seem the transatlantic deal is designed to open up the NHS to American corporations. TTIP does not allow them to bid for contracts in any fully-public sphere – for example the protected Scottish NHS, particularly if we voted Yes. Yet the law affecting health services in England has been radically re-ordered by the Health and Social Care Act 2012 which allows doctors’ consortia to control about £60bn of the NHS budget and commission local services –which take place through competitive tendering. Contracts are open to the voluntary and private sectors, a process that is currently outsourcing hundreds of millions of pounds of services.

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The Act actually ended a key aspect of the NHS by ending the Secretary of State’s duty to secure or provide health services throughout the country, a duty that has been in force since 1948 and is the key underpinning of a free at point-of-use, comprehensive and democratically accountable health service. That means it is no longer the job of the elected minister for health to take responsibility for health services. Remember that appearing in a manifesto?

The government will no longer be responsible for providing for all your health care needs free of charge. Instead, a range of bodies not accountable to parliament, including for-profit companies, will decide which services will be freely available and to whom.

This plays into TTIP because it is a deal signed by both the US and the EU – to which the UK, not a separate Scotland, is signatory. There is no Scotland opt-out and arguing that a region of the country (UK) has a different administrative system is hardly grounds for exclusion. A TTIP lawyer can simply argue that the UK Parliament is sovereign and has total jurisdiction over all Scottish affairs. As Scotland is not an independent country, TTIP encompasses the entire member state.

The UK has refused to apply for exemption of health services and would be doomed to fail in any case because the 2012 Act which paves the way for private provision, surrenders the case for a publicly-run service.

Scotland’s only serious hope of rescue from a system that privatizes health and allows companies to sue the government for loss of earnings, is that our services is too small in scale to be worth a multi-national competing for…a forlorn hope.

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Here is Caroline Molloy of OurNHS… ‘privatisation of the English NHS accelerates towards the tipping point where it will be judged to be a fully-fledged market, no longer allowed to exclude the private sector even if it wanted to. Will it drag a non-independent Scotland with it, with or without the TTIP Trade Treaty? We won’t know until a court challenge comes along – and by then it could be too late.’

And Labour, she says, has been far too quiet on the issue – Andy Burnham apart – as Ed Balls looks desperately for ways to save money. Balls is advised free of charge by the accountancy firm PWC which helps companies seeking contracts.

Perhaps this is where Margaret Curran’s new Socialist Labour Party will take its first stand, standing up for the rights of all Scots to a fully public NHS whatever decisions are made by Labour in England? But surely it was Margaret and Labour who told us there was no danger – no threat – and there was nothing to worry about. Tricky reversion for Labour there. Still I told you so.

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Carve-up

‘The age of two-party politics is over. These televised debates should be a true reflection of the choice facing people.’

‘Broadcasters have shown themselves to be out of touch by clinging to notion that there is no alternative to a Westminster elite’

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The quotes are from Leanne Wood, the impressive leader of Plaid, and I agree with both. The closeness between the executive level of journalism and the British state is incestuous and dangerous and don’t think the on-screen lot are any better.

Just because someone appears to be a fearless reporter, doesn’t mean they aren’t fully corporate-compliant when it comes to dealing with the powerful. The launch event for Andrew Marr’s latest book was held in Number 10. Now to Poppy and Venetia in Marketing that’s a bit of media luvvie flummery to buff his political credentials. But to the viewing public who pay Marr’s exorbitant wages it looks very different. It looks as if he’s close to the Prime Minister if not actually in his pocket. And the very fact that Number 10 agreed suggests a mantel of acceptability was thrown over the Marr project.

Incidentally, Marr, like many of the trusted faces and voices who bring us the News From London – as opposed to the parish pump drivel that passes for news Where You Are – is coining in thousands in extra earnings sucking up to any organisation with cash. He’ll come and speak to your local SNP branch for £10,000. Or go one better and ask for Jeremy Paxman and you’ll get a bill for £25,000. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/tvandradio/5066977/The-BBC-presenters-earning-thousands-of-pounds-for-after-dinner-speeches.html

The second Leanne quote reveals the real problem because the culture of both government and media is overwhelmingly metropolitan and simply fails to grasp that life and experience outside the M25 is so completely different. (Well, I suppose they do actually know that because most of the London-centric crowd are themselves from the regions of the UK, it’s just that once they walk through the doors at Millbank or Westminster, they are seduced into forsaking their background).

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The broadcasters have done more than any voter to get UKIP elected. They have given exposure out of all proportion to Farage and presented his party as a threat to the main parties because they liked the story, but without ever analyzing the policies or the motivations. I have no doubt the BBC was principally responsible for the election in Scotland of the UKIP MEP. Their exclusion of news about the Greens in the election was striking and contrasts with the relentless UK news coverage of UKIP which gives Scottish voters a double dose of exposure.

The BBC has a problem when it comes to a UK election and televised leaders’ debates. The debates in other countries are essentially used in presidential systems where there are usually two contenders. In a non-presidential system with multi parties, this becomes problematic. The reason why the SNP is excluded in this case is that they don’t stand in the whole country, only in one part. They are therefore deemed not to be representative of the whole UK and not relevant to a large section, no matter how big they are in Scotland.

But with the SNP actually in power in Edinburgh and with a massive mass membership (and six MPs) it looks perverse to allow UKIP into a debate based on one (defector) MP and opinion polls. Also, what does it say that in part of the United Kingdom, Labour, Tory and Lib Dems don’t stand candidates at all. If the whole representation argument is to be consistent, why doesn’t it apply to Northern Ireland?

There is a rush in the broadcasters boardrooms for audience and for that they need Farage. He is box office so representative democracy can go hang. They have collectively turned the format of using potential Prime Ministers into a Channel Five ratings joke where Dave fights Ed and then Nick joins in. But in next week’s episode they’re joined by Nigel…

It becomes impossible to argue they aren’t doing a disservice to the Greens and to the SNP whose voices will go unheard in what is becoming a replacement for real politics. And here’s a thought. It is possible the SNP will have more MPs that UKIP and could hold the balance of power.

This latest tableau shows how little Scotland matters again and how the casual insult to the Scots comes so easily to them. But then, this is what we voted for. We said by majority we preferred London to look after our interests and here we are, being shown the contempt we deserve.

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Who’s Kidding Who?

The death of Angus Macleod reminded us of the contribution trenchant journalism makes and how so much of what we consume in the conventional media pales by comparison. The thought arose when reading the Herald which contains a piece that marks the inauguration of the campaign to reinstate Labour as a credible party of progressiveness. (What would the Herald be without a regular dose of Bell and Macwhirter?) http://www.heraldscotland.com/comment/columnists/lamont-is-right-to-put-focus-back-on-children.25534548 It is a Pollyanna piece in which we are invited to be glad – glad about Johann, glad about her policies and glad about Labour and (furrow brow with mock concern) glad that we can forget all about that dreadful referendum business.

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Catherine MacLeod, former adviser to Alistair Darling, has opened the case for resurrecting both the Tory-reconciled Labour Party and the career of Johann Lamont whose invisibility during the referendum was matched only by her ineptitude when she did appear. That is not only my view, it is widely shared among the Labour-minded who couldn’t understand why MSPs, and especially their leader, played such a minimal role in what is after all a Scottish issue, albeit with UK ramifications.

I know many are tired of discussing the failed mainstream but we should be aware of what motivates them and the MacLeod article delivers, as ever, a clear pointer to Unionist thinking. First, it is to write off the past by dismissing the mendacious, hysterical and anti-politics campaign which the Union ran. It is consigned to history and no longer matters. It is time pretend that never happened. There was no threat, no bullying, no lying, no orchestration of foreign governments, the EU, NATO officials or businessmen. Labour didn’t really work hand in glove with the Tories, did they? Best forgotten.

Second, on the back of an SNP defeat, it is to promote relentlessly the interests of Unionism so it can reclaim the ascendancy and turn the dial back to Everything Normal.

Nominally the column is about childcare and how pleased we should all be that Johann has found the vision to put this grand idea centre stage. But in reality it is to praise the Union and devolution, admire its representatives and brush aside anything that deluded Yessers out there imagine is a changed landscape. When we say Things Will Never Be The Same Again, this piece says: Oh Yes, They Will.

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Johann Lamont wants to make childcare her keynote issue. Is it because her priority is social advancement? Possibly. Or could it be she needs a shield to fight behind as her leadership is threatened from within? I grant her both in an act of generosity but why is the issue of her besieged position not even mentioned in this article? Is it a figment of every Labour member’s imagination? Hardly. Here is proof from the Herald’s own political staff http://www.heraldscotland.com/politics/referendum-news/murphy-backed-for-leadership-but-lamont-has-no-intention-of-resigning.25414376

So Lamont’s personal case is being supported here even as her own side plots her removal and the rest of Scotland scorns her failure.

And wait a moment…if Lamont is to be praised for promoting childcare now the referendum’s over, why aren’t we praising those who raised it first during the referendum – the SNP? Why is it laudable for a Labour leader today to major on a subject raised by the SNP eleven months ago?Surely, the story is Well Done, Johann – You’re Catching On.

Here’s a quote. ‘Ms Lamont’s credentials on social justice and equality are beyond doubt. She has fought for them all her political life. She knows too that the keys to prosperity are good health and education…’

Strange then with such credentials she has described universal benefits as ‘something for nothing’. Strange that she voted against free school meals (allowing there was an independence trap contained in the motion but Labour’s amendment still didn’t back free meals). Strange too that she opposed minimum pricing of alcohol, booze being one of the most deadly forces afflicting families.

As for equality, wasn’t it Johann who complained in the chamber that Nicola Sturgeon was a successful woman married to a successful man? Feminist solidarity, it wasn’t.

And didn’t she use a conference speech to venture to the edge of the acceptable when addressing a childless man… ‘But there is one thing which the First Minister has discovered this year. Women give birth to children. Then they look after them. So when his focus groups tell him women don’t like him he discovers childcare. It wasn’t exactly the same as Fleming discovering penicillin. Splitting the atom it was not but I suppose the First Minister learning anything about how real Scots live their lives is some sort of progress. I’m not going to give any theories about why the First Minister has a problem with women.’ That made many uneasy. Still, in the Herald this is all forgotten as Johann is recreated as Emily Pankhurst.

We could also forget that the SNP has been busy delivering on the childcare front. More than a quarter of two-year-olds get 600 hours a year of nursery care, the equivalent of 38 weeks of morning or afternoon session. All pupils in the first three years of primary get a free lunch.

Free childcare provision is being expanded to every two year-old from a workless household in Scotland – around 8,400 children or 15 per cent of all two-year-olds.

But then this is about Johann, not delivery in government.

One of the imponderables of Lamont’s scheme to limit the costs to 10 per cent of average earnings but there is no plan for meeting the cost yet when the SNP opened its offer this is what Kezia Dugdale said: ‘They’re writing policies on the bag of a fag packet. The proposals are uncosted and ill-thought through.’ I didn’t see that in the Herald…

Never mind, Catherine MacLeod tells us this is such a good Labour idea that Kezia went to Finland – home of a world standard education system to fact-find, clearly unaware that the SNP’s Mike Russell went there four years ago to do just that. In fact, I think he’s been more than once.

I too welcome Labour getting serious about policy issues, if they really are serious. As I say, I smell a subterfuge to defend Johann’s threadbare leadership. What I don’t like is uncritical PR spin which fails to ask why our childcare is so expensive in the first place and why small independent countries have better systems. (The answer is they control all tax and spend and set their own priorities which is what we would have with independence).

So there it is – the unchallenged support for a belated, uncosted policy we are all to salute in order to big up Johann and Labour. At the end of the item is the second part of the message. ‘Great energy was expended by both sides during the referendum debate. Hopefully that energy and political commitment will be channeled in a different direction to deliver the policy changes so many wanted to see.’

In other words, give up and stop your grassroots campaigns, demos and mass movements. Stop joining anti Union parties. Stop asking tricky questions. Leave it to the professionals and let us all go back to our comfort zone. We like to tell you what’s good for you and you should listen. After all, we’ve made such a good job of the country, haven’t we?

This is the classic evidence that they have learned nothing and will not deliver anything that meets Scotland’s aspirations. Labour is not being reborn either here or in England and there may be evidence from today’s by-elections that UKIP isn’t only eating into Tory votes but Labour ones too. The return of tired old Labour under tired old Johann is Unionist wishful thinking and wouldn’t have got past Angus Macleod if he’d been in the editor’s chair.

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A Fond Farewell

I’m always uneasy writing after a death. Clearly you must be respectful and appropriate but I can’t help also being truthful, yet most of the remarks I read about the deceased are impossibly charitable. Nobody is a saint and the last thing (literally!) I want is someone to speak with forced charity about me – once they’ve stopped dancing on my grave.

So with Angus Macleod with whom I partially shared a newspaper past (were both 63) and for some years a Saturday morning radio studio…he was cantankerous, argumentative and a diva. He was also passionate, warm and a professional.

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He would arrive at the BBC before 7 am and after warm Good Mornings – he never failed the greetings test – would launch into a complaint about the BBC. ‘How many reporters do they have and yet they managed to miss the real story yesterday…Reporting Scotland was dreadful…who’s running this place?’

The call would go up ‘black coffee, lots of black coffee’, and once he was settled with a pile of newspapers at his desk I would instigate a political discussion to test my latest theory against his knowledge and insight. I never said so but I cherished his opinion and was genuinely pleased when, occasionally, we concurred. Mostly we didn’t.

My gentle prompts would be dismissed contemptuously. ‘They’ll never give that job to Murphy’, he’d scoff. ‘Someone needs to check Salmond, I’m telling you…’ Mostly we disagreed over independence and the SNP whose administration he quietly admired. He told of civil servants glowing in their respect for their nationalist ministers and of the admiration the Times editor held for Salmond after meeting him with Angus and anointing him Briton of the Year.

But he was a die-hard on the Union and was genuinely afraid of what might happen if there was a Yes. Yet, when challenged I only remember one justification for his stance. ‘I love England and the English people’, he’d say. To which I replied: ‘Me too’. We were as far apart on that one issue as it was possible to be and he certainly wasn’t having me writing in his paper. It was noticeable that throughout the whole campaign, despite having a budget, the Times didn’t utilise a single Yes voice as a regular columnist but did offer space to Unionist writers like Alex Massie and David Torrance. I know he did try to hire an unnamed Nationalist as a columnist in 2011 but was turned down.

He wrote his script in longhand and would come into studio when we were on air to hand it over so I’d know how to lead on to each item – if I could read his writing. Often I couldn’t and would say so live just to wind him up.

I know from many conversations that his energetic Hebridean outpourings delighted listeners and injected a sense of bemusement about the crazy modern world that reflected the common experience of life. If a phrase summed it up it would be: ‘Has the world gone mad?’

I was instructed not to read his last ‘and finally’ in case I was tempted to trump him with a joke. He didn’t like to have his thunder stolen and when we invited him into a political debate on the programme he would listen to the other contributor (Iain McWhirter perhaps) and shake his head in amusement at his answers. And woe betide us if we put him against two guests who disagreed with him. ‘You set me up’, he’d roar. Honest, Angus, we didn’t.

He brought a colour and a distinctive tone to broadcasting which without challenging characters can easily become bland. We regarded him as a star and so did he. When he thought he wasn’t being paid enough, a campaign was begun roping in presenters and producers to the cause until it went to the head of department who eventually caved in. He wasn’t a man to make an enemy of.

He was proud of his class of trainee journalists who had all gone on to have rewarding careers (including James Naughtie) and he moved effortlessly from the tabloid Sunday Mail to the Times. I remember his delight and pride at becoming Scottish editor after Magnus Linklater.

He loved to gossip and shared more than he perhaps should about people’s earnings, their incompetence and backroom dealings. He was forceful and not prone to self-doubt and a member of his staff told of being run ragged with demands, reasonable and otherwise. Patience wasn’t his virtue.

But plain old humanity was. He was as transparent as the sea on the Lewis shore, wearing his emotions like an old jumper, one minute barking at you, the next laughing with you. I last saw him shuffling away down the BBC corridor with the air of one whose journey began in another age of journalism and who had risen to master the new one – shrewd and trenchant, knowing and unbowed.

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