This week's big questions: How best to react to Woolwich? Has Miliband got what it takes? And is Stephen King right about ebooks?

This week's questions are answered by the author Ian Rankin


What can we do to reduce the threat of terrorism in the wake of this week’s incident in Woolwich?

I’m wary of knee-jerk responses. At the time of writing, we don’t know whether the attackers were part of an organised group or simply unhinged individuals. It is obscenely difficult to legislate against the latter. Psychopaths do not come bearing warnings tattooed on their foreheads – for the vast majority of the time they look and act like everyone else. It may transpire that there were signals that the authorities (or friends, or neighbours) might have noted, but we can’t know yet. If society changes its patterns of behaviour, becoming less trusting and less open, then those who advocate terror will have gained partial victory. I am happier to focus on those bystanders at Woolwich who chose not to stand by – who tried to help, who spoke reason to the killers. They show that terror isn’t winning.

Alex Salmond said this week that Scotland can “more than afford” to be a successful independent country. Can it?

A few facts and figures wouldn’t go amiss. Whenever anyone comes up with economic projections, someone else will dispute them. I’d like to know more about GDP, public sector costs, tax proposals, etc. Scots are being asked to take a leap of faith, yet we are famously “canny” (meaning cautious). My gut instinct is that independence can work – with a deal of sustained effort – but the larger electorate seems to need convincing of this.

Even if the Better Together campaign is victorious, is Scotland now spiritually and morally an independent nation?

Scotland has always been different from England and probably always will be. Independence could not make me more Scottish than I already feel myself to be. The revival of the SNP’s fortunes, along with disillusionment with the general drift to the right politically in the South of England, has hardened feelings of disenfranchisement north of the border and led to much self-examination and historical reappraisal. Scotland continues to evolve – and still has more pandas (two) than Conservative MPs (one)!

Is the Conservative Party on the brink of disintegration?

I doubt the Conservative Party is on the brink of disintegration. It may end up assimilating the views of parties it sees as a threat to its core vote, but there are too many people in the UK who think “conservatively” for it to go away or self-destruct. Europe will always be a thorn in its side, but it is extremely difficult for David Cameron to say that the UK doesn’t need union with Europe while also stressing that Scotland and the rest of the UK need to be yoked together.

David Cameron says the Coalition “will last”. Do you believe him?

The only way the Coalition wouldn’t last is if the Lib Dems decided to walk away from it. Judging by recent polls, their popularity has nosedived since getting into bed Eric’n’Ernie style with the Tories. Yet Nick Clegg continues to appear sanguine (if not supine) about the arrangement. Whether grass-roots supporters share his equanimity I’m not so sure. The Conservatives may find that they can form a government after the next election by replacing Lib Dem support with that of Ukip. (A note of caution: Ukip shares can go down as well as up; I’ve been researching the 1983 election, where the SDP were expected to break the mould. They didn’t.)

Has Ed Miliband got it in him to be Prime Minister?

Oh, dear, I’m just not sure about Ed Miliband. Did he himself expect the leadership of his party? Did anyone (the unions excepted)? I try to visualise him on the world stage, making momentous decisions, handling global crises, answering questions from the press corps alongside the leaders of the United States and Russia and China… and all I can see is a vacancy. Is this a problem of perception? Do our leaders need to be media-friendly, soundbite-digestible, unflappable, and as slippery as any product placement?

How do we engender some sense of moral responsibility in the big tax-avoiding corporations?

Can we ever engender moral responsibility in corporations? Corporations are capitalist entities, their raison d’être profitability. I doubt that a rap over the knuckles by a select committee will change their minds. But on the other hand, if profits were to slip… Consumer boycotts, the consistent naming and shaming on social media – these might just have an effect. Jittery shareholders might begin to ask questions. When doing the right thing is good for business, businesses will change their modes of practice. If you don’t like what a corporation is doing, look around for a competitor who is more your sort of thing, then get vocal on the web about your decision.

Police chiefs are recommending that the identities of arrested people should not be revealed. What do you think of that?

I’m really in two minds about this. There is always the possibility of false, malicious or mistaken accusation, but it is the arrest itself which tends to get the coverage rather than the eventual acquittal. On the other hand, one could argue that the public has a right to know, and once an arrest has been publicised, other victims may feel able to come forward. I’m sure brilliant legal minds are pondering the pros and cons and will present their findings in due course. What is most interesting, I think, is that it is police chiefs who are proposing this, rather than defence lawyers.

Stephen King wants his next book to be available only physically, not as an ebook. Where do you stand?

People, hopefully, will always have a thirst for stories. Whether the delivery system is an electronic screen or good old-fashioned paper, as long as there are readers out there, I’m relatively happy. I say “relatively” because the rise of the ebook has meant that anyone who writes is now publishable: traditional publishing can be ignored, as new authors sell direct to Amazon – and with no editing, print, warehousing or delivery costs, Amazon can afford to be lazy. There is no filtering, meaning a lot of poorly written and unedited works are available, and these can be detrimental in several ways, not least because they are often given away gratis, meaning a generation of readers may evolve who are unused to paying for the privilege.

Ian Rankin is the creator of the Inspector Rebus crime novels. The latest in the series, ‘Standing in Another Man’s Grave’, is out in paperback next month

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