Focus Groups on Independence

I am currently researching the contribution of Practical Theology to Scottish public life. This is in response to a request from one of the editors of the International Journal of Practical Theology which typically carries an 8,000 word report on a region or country in each volume. The editor has asked me to give special attention to the role that Practical Theology has played in discussions that anticipate the referendum being held later this year.

As part of this project I have been convening a few small focus groups in different parts of the country with one scheduled to take place in Eaglesham (near East Kilbride) on Saturday 28th June 2014, and a different group in Oban on Saturday 5th July 2014. Both events commence at 10.30am, concluding at 4.30pm. A few spaces remain for more participants. [Update 2nd July 2014 – no more spaces available.]

I want to emphasise that the research is not directed towards a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ response in the ballot booth but to exploring how personal decisions about which way to vote might be reached. It is not a campaign or hustings event but a facilitated group conversation.

The focus groups will be ecumenical but, in order to ensure good conversation, need to be rather small. Also, the groups only work if participants are able to be present for the whole time.

If you are interested and available to participate I have more detailed information about the process and will gladly forward that to you. Simply email me at

[Update 2nd July 2014 – there will be an opportunity to discuss, via this blog, some of the observations made by the focus groups. Please check back from Monday 4th August when a series of short posts will be appear.] 

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Review of Doug Gay’s ‘Honey from the Lion: Christianity and the Ethics of Nationalism’

[One of the projects for my current semester of research leave is to write a report for the International Journal of Practical Theology on the state of practical theology in Scotland, my discipline’s contribution to public life and to the debate over independence in particular. In preparation for this article I’ve been reading Doug Gay’s new book. Given that reviews can take many months (even years) before they appear in print in academic journals I’m posting here some initial observations on Doug’s important text. Comments – hopefully from Doug too – are welcome but will be moderated before being made public.]

Below is just the opening of my review, the full 1600 words are available as a pdf: ES review of Gay Honey From the Lion.

The majority of voters in Orkney and Shetland opt to retain the Union in the September 2014 referendum on Scottish independence. The political implications – they will be bound by the national outcome – will be much more straightforward than the ethical implications. Why should one perceived ‘democratic deficit’ (Scotland in the rest of the UK) be addressed at the expense of introducing another democratic deficit (Orkney and Shetland in the rest of Scotland)?….

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English people now for sale

Personal data harvested from GP and hospital records are shortly to be made available for sale in England. Today’s Guardian report highlights concerns of privacy advocates that data will be available for purchase by not only medical researchers but by organisations with wider commercial interests in healthcare provision and insurance.

The Guardian quotes NHS England’s way of describing one of the key aims of the project: “[to] drive economic growth by making England the default location for world-class health services research”.

There are multiple questions of which the following are but a few:

  • At a fundamental level, do English people wish to be turned into data-commodities, marketable around the world?
  • How are important lines of medical research (requiring mass data) made scientifically and economically possible in a context of limited financial resources?
  • Quite how confidential are data that are not fully anonymised when organizations external to direct patient care may have copious information already on identified individuals?
  • What level of knowledge about medical data-gathering does an English person require (and is provided with) to make a truly informed  decision to opt-out from a scheme that by default assumes participation consent?

Of course it could be argued that many of us (and not just English people) have already been commodified and marketed by our governments and private corporations to the highest bidders. However, our medical history and our possible medical future is perhaps qualitatively different given the potential for discrimination.


[The BMA guidance to GPs includes this leaflet.]

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New review available

Jolyon Mitchell’s review of my book, Theological Perspectives on a Surveillance Society: Watching and Being Watched, has been published in the new issue of Studies in Christian Ethics (27.1, February 2014).

Journal subscribers (institutional and individual) can read it here.  Sorry, it’s not available on open access.

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Scotland’s Surveillance Future

The Scottish Government has published its White Paper, “Scotland’s Future,” commending a vote for independence at the referendum on 18th September this year.

Surveillance is by no means limited to issues of national security but it is worth considering what the White Paper proposes.

An independent Scotland would have its own, newly established, security and intelligence agency (p. 261). There is the question of whether or not it could be ready by day one of independence, as the White Paper anticipates, to “be responsible for and capable of functions including: investigation of threats…intelligence gathering…cyber security functions” (p.262).

The new agency will be “unconstrained by historical structures and precedent” (p.263). Now, that is a bold claim. Just how freed from “historical structures and precedent” can any agency ever be? The new agency would be operating in a security marketplace that will continue to develop rapidly under commercial and political agendas and influences of which the small country of Scotland will figure rather insignificantly.

Critical to these aspirations seems to be the level of investment. The White Paper draws on an assessment that, based on population, Scotland contributed £206 million in 2012 to the UK agencies’ costs of round £2 billion. The Scottish Government anticipates “maintaining a comparable level of spending under independence” (p.266). It seems to me that simply redirecting one’s share of a large UK security project is not likely to be sufficient because of the loss of economies of scale.

Let me put it this way. The per capita cost of 30 people travelling to the seaside in one bus is much less than the per capita costs for 5 people travelling in one car whilst the remaining 25 continue to travel in the bus.   Costs will be incurred by the 5 “independent” travellers such as insurance (not necessarily proportionately less), vehicle purchase (quite an additional cost in itself), maintenance, running and taxation.  Simply spending 5 times the original per capita costs may well get the 5 “independent” travellers little further than the first service station en route to the seaside.

It could be argued that an independent Scotland might – because of its distancing from, for instance, Blair’s ventures in Iraq  – be less of a target for international terrorism. But that is a risk assessment with significant fiscal implications that needs to be carefully considered.

In the dimension of surveillance policy I have argued elsewhere that the Scottish Parliament has had a good track record (see note below). My point here is not about policy but about the economics of surveillance. Were the new Scottish security and intelligence agency to be set up on a shoe string, the outcome could well be an increase in automated surveillance (because of the limited availability of analysts). This would be a natural bureaucratic response to the fear of missing something vital in surveillance data. Alternatively, an under-financed surveillance and intelligence agency could be dangerously ineffective.   Then again, both might occur (increased and ineffective surveillance).

Quite what the contribution of shared intelligence systems and personnel would be to the economics of surveillance in an independent Scotland are unknown.

I am aware that it might appear that I am arguing for a massive investment in a surveillance agency in an independent Scotland. That is not what I’m saying. I merely observe that the impact of global surveillance markets cannot be glossed over nor ought the loss of economies of scale gained through the UK agencies be so easily ignored in the White Paper.


Note: Stoddart, E. 2012 “Scottish Surveillance Policy: Holding the Line”  In Scottish Devolution and Social Policy: Evidence from the First Decade . Leith, M., McPhee, I. & Laxton, T. (eds.). Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing , pp. 11-29

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“Too much information…”

Calorie Counter and Diet Tracker apps allow me share my diligence over New Year’s Resolutions with the world. The capacity to disseminate my progress via Facebook and Twitter is integrated as optional features.

Should I choose to inflate cyberspace with updates you could learn my goals and know when my resolve breaks.

Of course, unless we meet face-to-face how will you know whether or not I really have achieved and maintained my svelte appearance? Perhaps I have run 5km before breakfast – but then again…?

I caught, the other night, an episode of the BBC’s Dad’s Army that, to my surprise, I’d never seen before. Capt. Mainwaring is intent on successfully bidding for one of the three oranges that Hodges is auctioning at the bazaar in aid of charity for the troops. Being tipped off in advance of Mainwaring’s interest, Hodges tries to ‘not notice’ his archenemy’s bidding signals for the first fuit. Private Pike is told by his ‘uncle’, Sgt. Wilson, to bid for the second orange to secure it for the Captain.

Unable to see Pike, who is behind him, Mainwaring enters a bidding war – ostensibly with himself. The bids climb until Pike withdraws and Mainwaring is left paying 10 shillings for a single orange.

Self-surveilllance is a tricky business especially if you are competitive. Your Facebook friend who is setting the bar high with dieting, cycling or running may be spurring you on – but then again…he might be pulling your leg.

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A surveillance Christmas

The biblical story of Christ’s birth is replete with surveillance.

Mary and Joseph make their way to Bethlehem to fulfil the requirements of a census (no mere counting exercise but one riven with political dimensions).

Shepherds are keeping surveillance over their flocks by night (protecting as well as tallying up each morning).

Joseph is all too-conscious of peer surveillance in Nazareth that would cause Mary shame were he to divorce her quietly.

If we stretch the boundaries of the nativity narratives then the Holy Family have to flee to Egypt because King Herod has been keeping the visiting Magi under surveillance and it about to instigate the slaughter of male infants. This programme of infanticide would have relied on rudimentary – but no less brutal – surveillance of the area.

Beneath the surface of the story lies God’s careful surveillance of this vulnerable family and we can perhaps posit the angelic host as, amongst other roles, God’s surveillance agents.

Watchtowers, a wall, CCTV systems, ‘border’ controls and more opaque technologies of surveillance are today targeting the town of Bethlehem. Surveillance is the lesser-told tale of the first and the latest Christmas.

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Canaries to combat surveillance

Wired are carrying an interesting opinion piece by Chris Finan today. He sees the negative impact upon the reputation of IT services companies who have been entangled in the NSA’s surveillance activities as a primary motivator for them to press for change.

These companies’ fight back to reassure their customers (us) that our information is safely guarded will include use of transparency reports and ‘warrant canaries’ (signalling when a government agency request for data-access has been made).

With the publication of the report commissioned by President Obama to review the NSA’s activities (available here via The Guardian),  it will be interesting to see what turns out to be most effective in bringing change: the Executive, the Judiciary, or shareholders.

I’m not sure if it will qualify as ironic if the capitalist motivation for constantly expanding surveillance technologies also proves to be the best restraint of its over-reaching.

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It’s behind you!

“It’s behind you!” has connotations peculiar to audiences familiar with the British pantomime tradition. The warning perhaps takes on a new cadence for Google-dependent internet users.

Google has bought Boston Dynamics to add to Google’s portfolio of robotics companies. Google has reportedly pledged to honour existing military contracts to which Boston Dynamics is committed.

The BBC tells us that Boston Dynamics has developed the world’s fastest running robot. I have yet to work out how comfortable I feel knowing that Google has involvement in this field. I’m even more puzzled how this might fit with Google’s mission statement. Even just noting the first on its list of ten is sobering: “Focus on the user and all else will follow.”

Hopefully Google Glass will have the an add-on “here’s what’s coming up behind you” facility.

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The surveillance business, Scotland

Excellent BBC Radio Scotland programme featuring extended section on businesses in Scotland that are providing or designing surveillance systems around the world. Available on BBC iPlayer for the rest of this week.

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