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What is the Elf on the Shelf?

A sweet Christmas tradition - or a toy that trains children in the logic of the police state?

It seems to be the year that the Elf on the Shelf has broken the UK. Over the past few days, social media has been alight with a particular demographic of young people - no kids, but plenty of friends with kids - wondering who this wee red fella is, any why he's suddenly all over their Facebook feed in a variety of strange poses.

So what is the Elf on the Shelf? Well, depending on who you ask, it’s either a nice Christmas game or the worst thing that’s happened to a) the season and b) your friends’ social media feeds.

The Elf is a stuffed toy that comes with a book promising a new Christmas tradition. Every night, parents hide the Elf somewhere in the house; in the morning, it’s up to the children to find it.

But this rather sweet diurnal ritual has a twist: the Elf is, in fact, a “scout elf”, sent from the North Pole to watch the children for Santa. Once in the family home, the Elf gets to work monitoring their behaviour in the run up to the big day. He is always watching, and every night he sends back a report. The children are not allowed to touch the Elf.

Parents credit the toy with helping to instil good behaviour, often joking that they need all the help they can get in the demented capitalist whirlwind that is Christmas. (Although obviously there’s plenty of elf-related tat to nag for on the Elf on the Shelf website).

So what's the problem? Is this not just a relatively innocuous toy slash parenting aid which children and adults can both enjoy? Is it really fair to think its pert, rosy cheeks and smiling eyes resemble the faux-naivity of something a child might find in the attic during one of Stephen King’s early novels?

Yes, yes it is. Here's why.

1. The Elf turns parents into monsters

I polled friends and colleagues about this, and the results are not good.

My friends first posted about him on Facebook a year or two ago. They’re always unstoppably creepy and end with, “he’s watching you, winky face

His job is to grass on you to Santa. But there are people turning him into a pimp, or putting him in a hottub with Barbie. Honestly he’s a bit of a perv... our kids knew it was bollocks

It just seems really creepy – I think there’s a lot of creativity and imagination that goes into it but the idea that the elf is always watching is rather unpleasant.

I don’t know if it’s part of the thing to post updates online, but yeah, you do get a blow-by-blow account of the kids’ behaviour. I mean, a lot of parents do that anyway...

The Daily Mail even has an article where parents (or should that be co-conspirators?) call the thing “the bane of [our] December” – although one dad, who dressed as the elf every day to infuriate his teenage son, may be my hero.

Photo: Amazon screenshot

2. It extends Christmas to the whole of December – but only December

I’m by no means anti-Christmas (I make mince pies! I went to a carol concert! I have a tree in my flat!) but I’m not sure even the most dedicated nativaphile can hack a month of it.

In early December, children are still in school every day, parents are still in work, and America is still recovering from Thanksgiving. Advent calendars are one thing – a daily elf-hiding ritual sounds exhausting.

On the other hand, the ritual may end too soon, with parents reporting that the Elf only manages the child’s behaviour during December. There’s always the chance a month of good deeds will form new, virtuous habits . . . but there’s also a chance children will suppose that their moral compass ought to be oriented Elfwards, and January will turn them into tiny, anarchist nightmares.

Photo: Amazon screenshot

Which brings us to the final, most worrying, point.

3. The Elf on the Shelf: capillary of the police state?

The Elf is also possibly, to use the internet parlance of 2015, a bit fash.

Dr Laura Pinto and Dr Selena Nemorin, based at the University of Ontario’s Institute of Technology, have co-authored a paper entitled ‘”The Elf on the Shelf” and the normalization of surveillance’.

Their study explores the possibility that this all-seeing, ungovernable “police” presence might be preparing children to live in a totalitarian state.

The paper contrasts the notion of the Elf “game” with a more sinister reality. The does not allow the child to be imaginative, or indeed, since they cannot touch the Elf, to “play” in any real sense of the word.

Rather than being consigned to fantasy, Pinto and Nemorin argue that the Elf can potentially disturb the child’s sense of comfort in the real world. In this respect, its panoptic gaze is comparable to Jeremy Bentham’s famous design for a model prison in which the inmates, unable to tell when they are being watched, constantly feel the threat of surveillance and discipline themselves accordingly.

Several case studies, they suggest, show that the “help” parents receive with their child’s behaviour is gained at the expense of happiness and security. (One little girl even called 911 after she touched the Elf).

Pinto and Nemorin include a video clip of Michel Foucault conversing with the Elf.

Personally, I think there’s more to be done here. Is the Elf included in the household by its exclusion? Is a child who touches the Elf engaged in the politics of redistributing the sensible?

There’s your January essay, students. Happy Christmas.

Photo: Amazon screenshot

Stephanie Boland is digital assistant at the New Statesman. She tweets at @stephanieboland

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Scotland's vast deficit remains an obstacle to independence

Though the country's financial position has improved, independence would still risk severe austerity. 

For the SNP, the annual Scottish public spending figures bring good and bad news. The good news, such as it is, is that Scotland's deficit fell by £1.3bn in 2016/17. The bad news is that it remains £13.3bn or 8.3 per cent of GDP – three times the UK figure of 2.4 per cent (£46.2bn) and vastly higher than the white paper's worst case scenario of £5.5bn. 

These figures, it's important to note, include Scotland's geographic share of North Sea oil and gas revenue. The "oil bonus" that the SNP once boasted of has withered since the collapse in commodity prices. Though revenue rose from £56m the previous year to £208m, this remains a fraction of the £8bn recorded in 2011/12. Total public sector revenue was £312 per person below the UK average, while expenditure was £1,437 higher. Though the SNP is playing down the figures as "a snapshot", the white paper unambiguously stated: "GERS [Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland] is the authoritative publication on Scotland’s public finances". 

As before, Nicola Sturgeon has warned of the threat posed by Brexit to the Scottish economy. But the country's black hole means the risks of independence remain immense. As a new state, Scotland would be forced to pay a premium on its debt, resulting in an even greater fiscal gap. Were it to use the pound without permission, with no independent central bank and no lender of last resort, borrowing costs would rise still further. To offset a Greek-style crisis, Scotland would be forced to impose dramatic austerity. 

Sturgeon is undoubtedly right to warn of the risks of Brexit (particularly of the "hard" variety). But for a large number of Scots, this is merely cause to avoid the added turmoil of independence. Though eventual EU membership would benefit Scotland, its UK trade is worth four times as much as that with Europe. 

Of course, for a true nationalist, economics is irrelevant. Independence is a good in itself and sovereignty always trumps prosperity (a point on which Scottish nationalists align with English Brexiteers). But if Scotland is to ever depart the UK, the SNP will need to win over pragmatists, too. In that quest, Scotland's deficit remains a vast obstacle. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.