David Cameron, a Pro-Poverty PM for an Anti-Vulnerable Age: or, The Walrus and the Carpentier

Around two years ago, I read Alejo Carpentier’s ‘Explosion in a Cathedral’ (original title ‘El siglo de las luces’, which translates as the Age of Enlightenment). The Cuban writer and musicologist’s 1962 novel deals with the ‘exporting’ of the revolution to France’s Caribbean colonies, and was recommended by a friend as a ‘mood-setter’, before we went to Cuba. Its opening line is haunting and chilling in equal measure: “I saw them erect the guillotine again tonight. It stood in the bows, like a doorway opening on to the immense sky…” The book records the transmutation from Enlightenment to Terror and the mirroring of the wholesale executions on both sides of the Atlantic. Inasmuch as some have argued that Scotland’s Enlightenment role was one of seed to its equivalent in France (rather than simple recipient as elsewhere int he world), I think that is a legacy that most of would want some distance from.

I found myself prompted to think of this by David Cameron’s speech yesterday. Emboldened by his unexpected electoral success, he has increased his austerity target to £12 billion in welfare cuts, but will not say where they will come from.  It is planned to cut Personal Independence Payments – the replacement for the Disability Living Allowance  – by 20%, as apparently the list of disabled deaths resulting from the welfare cuts to that sector (see calumslist.org) as a direct result of the implementation of the austerity measures is not long enough already. As Frances Ryan notes in today’s The Guardian, Iain Duncan Smith and his Department of Work & Pensions is in conflict with the Information Commissioner’s Office over figures showing how many individuals have died within 6 weeks of having their benefits stopped. As has been noted elsewhere, this is not exclusively a Conservative problem, as half of the deaths resulted under Labour, the other half under the coalition government. (Journalists such as The Telegraph’s Brendan O’Neill conveniently dismiss this toll as merely a ‘problem of suicidal people’, thus neatly sidestepping any need for responsibility to be taken. Stay classy, Brendan.)

Yeah, maybe it gets boring, dealing with that old idea that austerity is predominantly hitting the wealthy, when of course Dave told us that “we are all in this together”. Here was Dave’s new message, yesterday: the poor, he says, will be hit much harder, if the deficit is not brought under control. This is the myth of trickle-down economics for a new age – once the economy is stable again, then we can look after the poor….but, if we are still ‘in it together’, is austerity hitting the wealthy? Well…since the 2010 General Election, the wealth of the top 1000 has grown by £212 billion (to reach £547 billion), so I’m not sure how much traction that idea really has. This is not trickle down: this is sucking up.

And with the UK’s debt now at over £1.5 trillion (one correspondent suggested Cameron’s promise to ‘look at Holyrood’s books’ was because he was desperately trying to find handy hints on ‘how not to increase your national debt’ for his Chancellor), and the deficit reduction targets consistently being missed by Osborne since he became Chancellor (see https://50daysofyes.wordpress.com/2014/12/18/a-post-autumn-statement-of-the-obvious-using-a-crisis-as-a-pretext-for-an-ideological-opportunity/ ), it seems unlikely that that aspired to ‘stable economy’ is going to be showing up anytime soon to stop the position of the poor getting worse.

Purely in Scotland, there were 510,000 people in severe (with an £11.5K household income, equivalent to 50% of the UK average, or less) or extreme poverty (on a £9.2K household income, equivalent to 40%), in 2012-2013, with 410,000 the year before. With the forthcoming introduction of Universal Credit (the ‘super-benefit’, replacing six others: including Job Seeker’s Allowance, tax credits, income support, housing benefit – see https://50daysofyes.wordpress.com/2015/03/25/the-labour-conservative-alliance-two-sides-of-the-same-coin/), rent payments will go direct to the household, rather than the landlord, despite the outspoken opposition of many charities: as Social Work Scotland said in their submission to Holyrood’s Welfare Reform Committee, “Increased  homelessness is widely anticipated as a result of Universal Credit being paid directly to individuals.” The recent drop in relative poverty (60% of the UK average) not only is a reflection of the general cross-the-board drop in living standards: it was also reflected in the increased numbers of those in severe and extreme poverty. These people aren’t leaving poverty by being ‘upcycled’: currently, there is no way but down, once you get to that income level.

But more than that, as I have said, there are a further £12 billion in cuts coming, meaning that the current proportion of 1 in 10 in Scotland living in severe poverty is scheduled to rise, with a further 100,000 children in Scotland projected to be in poverty by 2020. Audaciously, Cameron attempted to morally justify this move yesterday, by accusing welfare of being a “veneer of fairness”, papering over the cracks of poverty, as opposed to “extending opportunity”…although quite how opportunity will be extending by precipitating more people into the poverty trap of the ‘in-work poor’ in full-time working austerity is currently unclear. More sinisterly, this speech heralded a move to make a significant legislative change, as The Times reported: “The Child Poverty Act, one of the final pieces of legislation passed by the last Labour government, commits the government to ensuring that, by 2020, fewer than a tenth of children live in relative poverty. According to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, the latest figure is 2.3 million, or 17.4 per cent of children in Britain. Cutting child tax credits, one option under consideration by ministers preparing to cut a further £12 billion from the benefits bill, could add 300,000 children to the total living in poverty, according to the IFS. The prime minister said that the definition of relative poverty enshrined in law meant that even a small rise in the state pension led to an increase in average income and, consequently, the number of children living in relative poverty.” A familiar pattern of goalpost-moving for those who remember the modifications of definitions of being ‘unemployed’ under the last Conservative Government, in order to cosmetically reduce the numbers.

Pensions will supposedly be protected in this new round of cuts. One might cynically say that this is because the demographic that will be recipients are traditionally a core Conservative-supporting group, but in reality (if looked at by share of average earnings) the UK pension ranks 23rd out of 27 in the European Union. Instead, tax credits are widely viewed to being in the frame for a significant part of the cuts…as Alison Garnham of the Child Poverty Action Group put it: “No moral mission involves taking away tax credits for our poorest children. No serious plan for the low-paid begins with making them poorer by cutting their tax credits.”

Mike Danson, Professor of Enterprise Policy at Heriot Watt University, warned us before the General Election that the remaining austerity cuts would be implemented regardless of the impact on the poor, because they were ideologically-driven – and this was reinforced by Osborne not backing away from further austerity in his last budget 50 days before the General Election (https://50daysofyes.wordpress.com/2015/03/25/the-labour-conservative-alliance-two-sides-of-the-same-coin/), as well as the recent noises that they will go even further. Other than meeting purely ideological objectives, these cuts achieve nothing…in fact, they further contribute to low growth and extend the life of this (increasingly-localised) recession. Simon Wren-Lewis, Professor of Economics and fellow of Merton College University of Oxford, criticised the austerity ‘strategy’ for this very reason before the General Election: “The main impact of lower growth – including that caused by fiscal austerity – has been on living standards.” Lower growth caused by fiscal austerity would normally mean higher unemployment or lower living standards: “Austerity in itself has increased child poverty…Nicola Sturgeon’s statement on the economic impact of austerity on the UK is correct, with no qualifications.”

It is scenarios like this that start to give one a glimpse of the anger of the people that simmered under the former European aristocracies, eventually causing the people to take to the streets and later execute those aristocrats. Working in China during the last couple of years, I saw the gauche evidence of China’s new rich, driving their Maseratis past the subsistence farmers, who were struggling with their donkeys along the same stretch of motorway. Culturally, rural China might well have been long indoctrinated through the Cultural Revolution into believing in their inherent agrarian nobility – but how long can you expect such flaunted wealth to not provoke a reaction? Perhaps the most powerful – and most likely the least-intended – lesson that I derived from Carpentier’s novel was that, bloody as the Terror was, at least the aristocrats did not smoothly slip back into their previous roles within a short space of time, restoring the status quo that had been so comfortable for them at other’s expense. True, others eventually did – but it took much longer than in France, and at least was not the originals.

Cameron states the continued existence of the deficit would harm the poor in the long-run – that, in effect, the increased poverty (and – inevitably – deaths) are ‘for their own good’: he plays the part of Lewis Carroll’s Walrus to Ian Duncan Smith’s Carpenter…sobbing crocodile tears and feigning sadness, while keeping right on eating. Except the lives affected are not oysters, but those of real people, successively demonised by the press since the recession began, and now ripe for victimhood. The difference being that, by the end of Cameron’s gluttonous meal, there will be far more impoverished and suffering than at the start of his ill-advised walk upon the sand. Does Cameron really understand the keg of nitroglycerine that he is kicking around? Does he see the abyss, or is he too drunk on the heady intoxication of his unanticipated electoral majority to remember to care?

Perhaps he can act with complete impunity. But he would do well to heed the warning: Sands shift.

 

“It has been astonishing, from a US perspective, to witness the limpness of Labour’s response to the austerity push. Britain’s opposition has been amazingly willing to accept claims that budget deficits are the biggest economic issue facing the nation, and has made hardly any effort to challenge the extremely dubious proposition that fiscal policy under Blair and Brown was deeply irresponsible – or even the nonsensical proposition that this supposed fiscal irresponsibility caused the crisis of 2008-2009.” (Paul Krugman, Nobel economist 2008, The Guardian, 29/4/2015)

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Coming out of the Attic: Rejoining the Family of Nations, or Putting Scotland Back in its Box?

I’ve stopped watching the television. I’ve even stopped reading some of the blogs. I am now four weeks behind on even Referendum TV, and Derek Bateman seems to have become about as incoherent a blogger as myself, having similarly run out of ‘big issues’ to write out as essays, and instead using kneejerk reactions to individual small developments. I confess – he probably has similar issues of sleep deprivation, exacerbated by coffee, excitement and anxiety. So forgive this mess of a fiftieth post – I have half-finished posts on the ‘Economic Dangers of Dependence’ (cool title, huh?) and the scorched earth legacy for the Union from the ‘No’ campaign. But it seems that I have run out of time…and posts.

Yesterday was a slow start. Not so much cumulative fatigue, as a foray into the darkness of an unlit, soot-filled 1870’s attic. Peering into the gloom, balancing on joists barely detectable underneath the (regulation) two layers of loft insulation, like an entry level X-Files episode. Boxes piled and scattered across the fibreglass, vestiges and an archive of a former life…at first I could find nothing, old primary school books, boxes of university political campaigns, and I retired back downstairs. You see, there was an international assembly for Yes on The Meadows scheduled last night after the legend that is the Marchmont Yes stall closes for the last time, and we were encouraged to bring international flags along. A fellow undergrad at Edinburgh, Monika, had first got me involved in politics, and I had campaigned with her for Croatian self-determination back in the late eighties, seeing (as I have mentioned before in this blog) a lot of parallels with Scotland’s situation. Monika has always been a staunch supporter of Scottish independence, and although now based in Brighton, I know she would love to be here right now.

So I had gone into the attic in the morning – that filthy, unlit 1870s attic – to look through the mass of boxes accumulated throughout my life, to try and find the Croatian flag that we used to use together for campaigns. Frustrated in my first attempt, I went back up, armed with a more powerful torch (iPhone illumination is not perfect) and tried again, arranging long planks in the space in order to move the boxes around, to sort them as they were checked. The second attempt worked, after going through Primary 3 jotters and far too many Edinburgh University Students’ Association files: with much stoor, the large Croatian self-determination box appeared, and there was the flag, stuffed down the side. I grabbed it and headed out for the bus, Monika’s proxy presence assured.

The bus went up past Elm Row, and I spotted a lone Better Together supporter, attempting (unsuccessfully) to thrust leaflets into the hands of those sitting at the bus stop. Then, my eyes refocused on the background: the entire length of black railing at the interchange had been covered with little red ‘End Tory Rule Forever Vote Yes’ leaflets neatly impaled along its length. It looked spectacular – as so often during this campaign, the bus took me past before I had the chance to take a record shot through the window. Then I was getting off at Princes Street, and heading up towards The Meadows. Several international TV crews were filming down the side of the National Gallery of Scotland and the Royal Scottish Academy – one BT supporter was stammering as he declaimed to one camera ‘well, in terms of scaremongering, I think Yes have been at LEAST as bad as No’, and I failed to stifle a laugh as I went past. It was noteworthy that the only people with No badges that morning were in front of cameras – every member of the public that I passed wearing a badge was a Yes.

Arriving at the stall for the last time, a 4-way ‘crossfire of Yes’ developed at the foot of Middle Meadow Walk: Yes Marchmont, next to English Scots for Yes and Green Yes stalls, later joined by National Collective with Amy & Jamie. The previous afternoon, a Yes supporting masseuse (Valaska, Caribbean) had come along with her massage chair and offered us all free massages. Unusually (honest) I was first in the queue then – my incessant whining on this blog about my back and joints perhaps means that is not so surprising to you – and she was great…and was back for the last hours of the final day, as we counted down to the International Yes event.

Slowly, the flags started to assemble, as the media began to throng around the media (only RTE – of course – being English language): although the abstract international ramifications of a possible Yes vote had been discussed before, the reality appears to be dawning around the world. I had been Skyping with a good friend in Portugal – she was so excited about how many of her political friends were discussing it, and in the context of it being a profoundly positive message for the world: that there is Another Way, that does not involve the NeoLiberal Consensus (that must be what George Robertson meant by ‘the Forces of Darkness rejoicing’…). Scotland – right now – is the single most politically literate country on this planet. How bizarre is that? Maybe that whole ‘Enlightenment 2.0’ post was not so out there, after all…

And then it began…a Russian photographer was there: “I am here for the moment from Berlin – really hope it is Yes”.

A Cuban friend e-mailed me quoting Che Guevara in the subject line ‘Hasta la victoria’ – and applying to move to Scotland from England if there is a Yes.

A Swiss friend sent me a message that he would be delighted if we would vote for independence on his birthday.

A Polish woman from the University of Edinburgh approached the stall: “I have been here for 23 years, and this is the first time in 25 years that I have experienced anything like Solidarnost”.

A fervent Englishman who regularly dismissed Scots and their independence for decades told me this morning that we would be deluded fools to vote No.

Today more messages, from Chile, France – even two from China hoping for a Yes vote.

And yesterday, just before the crowds built to 4,000 on The Meadows (not bad for something only advertised by Twitter), an English student approached the stall. She had her two friends with her – all three of them had come to Yes from No. She was so fired up and enthused, demanding a last Wee Blue Book from the stall, in order to go out and convince more Undecideds. “I know I’m English, but I feel so much a part of this, that now I feel I’m more Scottish than English.” That really got me – and I had to turn away, or I knew I would just start crying.

Because she GOT it. And she was the perfect example of what we have built here, and how it is NOTHING to do with this mythical ‘anti-Englishness’. (However, you can easily check out the reverse attitude, directed at Scots, by looking at the below the line comments on almost any online version of a mainstream newspaper. Lovin’ those lovebombs, Guys…) Her brief, beautiful, glorious enthusing at the stall just made me so profoundly happy – and in a way said so much more than the many messages of support we took during the celebration, from speakers from Wales, Eire, Galicia, Basque, Catalan, Quebec… I watched the sun go down, and felt that something really special was about to dawn.

Have we moved comfortably into the lead? Are we (or am I, more accurately) deluding myself? Apparently Jim Sillars reckons its 55:45. I don’t know anymore. I’m too tired to process information – too long on polling station duty today (4 hours), with too little sleep last night. I don’t know what is going to happen anymore – despite the fact that I have no reason whatsoever to doubt my previous calculations in the earlier posts. I just need to sleep.

I just keep hearing Peter Gabriel’s ‘Come Talk to Me’, the glorious opening track on his ‘Us’ album – with that bagpipe opening effect (so sue me for being a cliche). It’s the song of victory…and then the lyrics for negotiations starting. Right now I just need to sleep.

Oh, yeah…and remember to vote.

 

“When the people fear the government you have tyranny. When the government fear the people you have liberty.” (Thomas Jefferson)

“The greatest awakening of political thought in our lifetime” (Derek Bateman, Broadcaster)

“Not since Iraq have I seen BBC News working at propaganda strength like this. So glad I’m out of there” (Paul Mason, former Newsnight correspondent)

“There are 250,000 children living in poverty in Scotland. That’s a moral outrage and economic stupidity.” (Jim Sillars)

Taking Education Higher: The Bright Prospects for Research in an Independent Scotland

Among the many Westminster cabinet ministers parachuted in for an afternoon hectoring the Scottish public before running away back to Westminster, was David Willetts. As Universities Minister, his job was to declare that the end of university education was nigh in an independent Scotland, as – clearly – anything good that we had possibly achieved in this sector could only possibly have come with the Union.

This is a somewhat hard argument to support, as Scotland regularly seems to have achieved more through its own initiatives than its comparators in the rUK. Research has shown that, even going back to the earliest decades within the Union, Scotland’s remarkable historically important role in the global development of the modern world was due to its culturally-distinct emphasis on education: the parish schools (under the auspices of the church in Scotland) had achieved 75% male literacy in Lowland Scotland (significantly higher than the 50% figure south of the border). This facilitated the spread southwards of the Enlightenment from the University of Glasgow, with the core texts of Frances Hutcheson, Adam Smith, Adam Ferguson and David Hume subsequently reaching America and forming a basis (along with the 1320 Declaration of Arbroath) in the founding documents of that nation. What is even more surprising is that Scotland still seems to have that leading edge, the Office for National Statistics recently showing that Scotland’s figure of 45% of those between 25 and 64 having gone into higher education, makes it the best educated country in Europe, and close to the highest in the world (The Independent, 6/6/2014). So we are similarly well-placed again.

Because Scottish education has always been separate within the Union, the majority of higher education policy is already set in Scotland. This is not only reflected in the Scottish Government’s philosophical opposition to tuition fees and the subsequent debt that students shoulder (one estimate is £53,000 of debt per student in England compared to just £2,025 in Scotland), but also appears to have reaped parallel dividends, with Scottish universities fairing better than their rUK counterparts in a number of areas: firstly, Scotland has diverged from the rUK’s policy of under-investing in higher education (the rUK falling behind global investment trends), particularly with the rUK’s real-term cuts in the science budget. Professor Paul Whiteley (LSE) noted: “Britain under-invests in higher education in general and since it plays a key role in stimulating growth, this is a very unwise policy in the long run”, and UNESCO’s Education at a Glance 2012 shows that the UK invests less in Higher Education than medium-sized independent countries such as the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden and Denmark. Scotland’s stronger research and education base thus means that it has five universities in the top 200 in the world, the most per head of the population anywhere (England would need 50 to boast the same level of success). Similarly, in 2007, Professor Anne Glover, the Chief Scientific Adviser to the President of the European Commission was able to demonstrate that the research impact of the scientific work done in Scotland, relative to GDP, was second to none in the world, noting that “good science done in Scotland is of value to everyone in the world, not just Scotland”. And it is that international relevance of Scotland’s research that will determine our future research significance – not being administered by Westminster’s opposing educational philosophy.

While having full control over research funding in Scotland would be an opportunity to improve on the current system with a consistent approach, many of my research colleagues understandably have concerns that independence might in some way compromise – rather than expand – Scotland’s access to research funding. Fortunately, nothing could be further from the truth: such claims have been contradicted by Sir Michael Atiyah (former president of both the Royal Society and the Royal Society of Edinburgh), as well as the UK Research Council, which notes that “Through the RCUK International Strategy, we outline the ways in which RCUK helps the best researchers work together, wherever they are in the world. We recognise that research is critical to solving grand challenges, and that increasingly the solutions will require work across boundaries, crossing disciplines, and borders between nations.” Furthermore, Sir Ian Diamond, former chairman of the Research Council executive group (currently Principal of Aberdeen University), noted that there was “no question” that Scottish universities would continue their relationships with the current research councils: “I can’t see it’s in the interests of anyone in the rest of the UK to want to exclude Scotland, nor is it in the interest of Scotland to be excluded from collaboration. You need to freely and easily be able to collaborate across the UK. Knowledge does not know state boundaries. It seems to me it could be done fairly straightforwardly.” This is hardly unprecedented, with the Research Councils having many existing relationships with other countries (including Ireland). Universities Scotland concur, noting that it was in everyone’s interests “that this important and vigorous cross-border collaboration is supported to continue, whatever the result of the constitutional referendum.”

Access to European funding has further dimensions: on the one hand, the EU Horizon Project (aimed at expanding research cooperation across the EU) as well as access through the European Research Area funding has been assured by Professor Anne Glover, Chief Scientific Adviser to the President of the European Commission. In contrast, the greater danger and risk comes from the potential withdrawal of the UK from the EU in three years time, which would come with a guaranteed cost to our university research base.

Higher education both in terms of quality graduates and quality research is a key strength for an independent Scotland to build upon, and it would indeed be astonishing if Scotland were to turn its back on such a defining character of the nation after a ‘Yes’ vote. If the level of education is what defines the limitations of a society, and it can be guided by its social democratic values, then one can be confident not only in the ability of Scotland’s people to build a future, but also the shape and character that the society in that future will have.

 

“in 2007, [we were] able to demonstrate that by independent analysis, relative to GDP, the impact of science done in Scotland was number one in the world. That is just mind blowing.” (Professor Anne Glover, Chief Scientific Adviser to the President of the European Commission)

My Family and Other (Political) Animals

So it is said that in such political struggles, even when there are violent political wrongs that should make it clear where oppression comes from, that families will be divided. My family is no exception, and I thought it might be worth sketching that out a little, as some families seek to never raise the question at all. I’ll start with one family member who, although probably the most passionate supporter of independence, will definitely not be voting in September.

I remember the last time that my father spoke to me about independence for Scotland. He was someone who had been taken in by the personal assurance of the former prime minister Lord Alec Douglas Home that if the Labour devolution package contained in the Scotland act 2012 was rejected, the Conservatives would bring forward a better version when they gained office. My father worked in financial services, for the Scottish Widows Fund, so was naturally ‘right’ leaning – but of course, when Margaret Thatcher took power, devolved government for Scotland singularly did not happen (although one can argue that she did much to pave the way not just for devolution, but even the rise in support for the independence opportunity that we have today). My father felt cheated and lied to by a party that he had trusted, and he never really forgave them for it. So when we spoke on the matter that last time, he said that although he would not see it, he was confident that independence for Scotland would happen in my lifetime. He died in 2005, two short of the SNP’s first Holyrood win, still angry at what he felt was a profound betrayal by the party that he had trusted in 1979.

My mother is a little different – although also ‘somewhat’ to the right, she, unlike my father, voted against joining the European community. This made her a bit of a special case, when it came time to try to fulfil Margo MacDonald’s challenge (delivered at the first September independence rally at Princes Street Gardens in 2012) for each of us to convert one other person to Yes. Margo’s rationale was simple – if all of us current supporters converted just one other person each to Yes, then we would win the Referndum at a canter. (Frankie Boyle’s counter-suggestion was that we each convert 10,000 people…) So my mother seemed the best target to go for. First of all, I got her involved in the Scottish Government’s online consultation exercise, and obtained a copy of the White Paper for her (she is 86, and neither a silver surfer nor Kindle-adept). What I have found interesting, is her instinctive rejection of Better Together representatives as untrustworthy, regardless of how much their position should intuitively fit with her beliefs. In the process, I have seen her drift away from ‘No’ – and Alistair Darling’s performance in the first debate was particularly effective in this regard. (‘They said he was Chancellor, but I don’t remember him – was he really?’ ‘Yes, Mum. He was the one in post when the banks went under.’)

In opposition to my mother’s drift to ‘Yes’ sits my sister, with weekly telephone calls to try and turn that tide backwards. A former (successful and long-serving) LibDem Councillor in Fife, she was shamefully stabbed in the back by a clique in her party during a deselection exercise, and was removed from the seat that she had held for years. She then went to work for a local LibDem MSP – just before the party’s near-total 2011 wipeout at Holyrood. She campaigns for a ‘No’ – and, in part, I feel that her campaigning is almost one last attempt to try to prove her loyalty to her party, so that they will take her back – but that may be unfair. In terms of reasons beyond that, she spoke to me once of a friend she had from Bosnia, who said that ‘there were no good nationalisms’. As much as I understand where her friend was coming from, my sister knew that I had done a fair bit of research on that part of the world and its history (ancient and modern), and it did not alter my perspective at all on the Referendum in Scotland. Ten years older than myself, I’m fairly sure that she understands that there is a distinctive Scottish political identity – she once joked with me that the reason that ‘the English’ tried to demean Scotland was because we had had an Enlightenment, and they had not. It’s certainly an interesting perspective…but as someone with political awareness I completely respect her opinion, even if I think it is misguided. She once told me she similarly respected Lesley Riddoch – so I (perhaps mischievously) got her ‘Blossom’ as a present for last Xmas.

Then there is my brother. He followed my father’s wartime footsteps by joining the RAF after qualifying as a chemical engineer, and has competed at sporting events under both GB and Scotland. But, realistically, a lot of people are subjected to the ‘British mindset’ in the armed forces, in a way that few are in the civilian sector, so seems less likely to be persuaded to ‘Yes’. (We’ll leave to one side the letter sent to all civil servants last week urging them that they had a responsibility to vote ‘No’.) Its true that he sometimes ‘Likes’ some of my more pro-independence posts on FaceBook, but that may just be the humour that appeals to him, so I’m not reading anything into it. We’ll see – I’m not going to raise it with him, and he is pretty unlikely of raising it with me, regardless of his personal decision. Fair enough.

So that’s us – 1 definite Yes, 1 definite No…and I’d flatter myself that I can manage to get that to 2-2. A family divided? Well – probably no more than many, and I doubt that it will have much impact on us long-term. I mean, at least one of us is going to be saying ‘I told you so’, regardless of the result.

And that person, I’m sad to say, is probably going to be me…

 

“Trust yourselves – we can and DO make good decisions.” (Kate Higgins, Women for Independence)

Conflation and Personalisation: The Deliberate Blurring of the Leadership of the Yes Campaign

One woman that I spoke to during the mass canvas the other Saturday surprised me when she expressed the hope that the forthcoming debate on the Tuesday on STV would provide more information. Two hours of live television might produce spectacle – but I would have been somewhat surprised if it had produced much information at all.

Fair enough – I may have a slightly different threshold for ‘more information’ than many: by a brief skim through my mailbox, I can see that I have read over 2,000 articles on the Referendum in the last 18 months. To me, the debate was Salmond settling for Cameron’s stooge – possibly a tactical mistake, as it blurred the leadership question in the way that ‘No’ had been trying to do for a while.

On the first hand, the case for Yes rests on Westminster’s mismanagement and different political direction to Scotland’s – and on that basis, the First Minister of the Scottish Government holding the Prime Minister of the Westminster Government to account, and questioning what the case for Scotland staying in the Union was, by asking the leader of that political Union directly, does not seem unreasonable. Cameron has paid lip-service to the idea that it was ‘for the people of Scotland to decide’, at the same time as cabinet ministers were regularly parachuted in for one day missions in Scotland before running away again, and more and more money was sunk into Whitehall producing reports and distributing leaflets to every home. So his intervention and controlling hand has been clear in the campaign, even as much as he avoids direct debate.

But secondly – and perhaps more critically – Alistair Darling, as Chair of the No campaign, should technically only be debating his opposite number in Yes – Dennis Canavan, the Chair of Yes. But No has tried hard to avoid that, as they want to make the Referendum solely about Alex Salmond. This is very much part of the No strategy to (echoed by the media) personalise ‘Independence’ as a solely Salmond (or SNP) issue, to thus try to ignore the wide variety of organisations coming out in support of independence as a way of seeking social justice and a better society for the people in Scotland that cannot be achieved through Westminster. This process deliberately ignores a broader political coalition, and attempts to marginalize the movement as narrow and minority-led. Once Salmond becomes perceived as the face of the Yes campaign (instead of Chief Executive Blair Jenkins or Chair Dennis Canavan), and bodies such as The Common Weal, Business for Scotland, National Collective, Wealthy Nation (and of course the mythical ‘CyberGnats’) can all be ignored or bizarrely (paranoiacally?) portrayed as ‘front organisations’ for the SNP, then Yes becomes a single man to target – which is much easier than the broader target of a nation’s collective aspirations, or a dissatisfaction with the current system of government. Because – as we have all heard at least one person say, as a reason for voting ‘No’ – “Ah hate that Alex Salmond.”

This perceived approach was to a degree confirmed by the academic study of broadcasting bias in referendum coverage on BBC and STV, by the University of the West of Scotland’s Professor John Robertson (MediaLens carries a summary report). A particular strategy that he noted was
‘the conflation of the First Minister’s wishes with the YES campaign seems a classic case of undermining ideas by association with clownish portrayal of leading actors [in the campaign].’
He recalled that this skewing of the coverage was reminiscent of the way that the corporate media demonised previous Labour Party leaders Neil Kinnock and Michael Foot, as well as miners’ leader Arthur Scargill.

In terms of this agenda setting by a media following one side’s narrative, it is perhaps interesting to note Noam Chomsky’s comments relating to ‘Manufacturing Consent’, and the need for citizens to take two specific actions in order to break free of this form of control. Chomsky asserts that in order to break free of Media Control and Agenda Setting, citizens must take 2 actions:
1. They must seek out information from Alternative Media (media outside the mainstream and usually having a particular point of view).
2. They must move toward change by becoming engaged in community action – because people can use their ordinary intelligence to make changes in their lives and communities. Grassroots movements begin there.

When I first came across this a day or two ago (I confess I had never read anything of Noam’s beforehand – noting only his presence as an achievement in some computer games – although I had noted with passing interest that he had come out in support of ‘Yes’), I could not believe how coincident these two actions were with what the Yes campaign has already achieved: the outbreak of citizen journalism, alternative news sites, alternative media broadcasts as part of the campaign external to Yes Scotland certainly fulfils action 1, and the grassroots movement that has taken over from the previous centralised Yes Scotland campaign has wonderfully fulfilled action 2.

The BBC (and to a lesser extent STV) has been shown to be demonstrably biased through academic research, in particular noting the one-sided and classical tactic of personalisation to try and undermine a political movement. Further actions such as ignoring (suppressing?) Yes campaign releases, except through the filter of the No campaign, has created the dissatisfied and restless environment for the rise of ‘citizen journalism’, using online resources and social media, in a way that is truly reminiscent of the Arab Spring (perhaps a ‘Caledonian Spring’, if someone is looking for a title for one of the innumerable books that will inevitably arise in the wake of this Referendum?).

David Hume asserted some 250 years ago that power always rests with the people, but they don’t use it because they are oppressed or manipulated. It remains to be seen whether the people of Scotland have heeded Hume’s warning and fulfilled Chomsky’s prescription for freeing themselves from manipulative media, in time to objectively judge their choice on the 18th September.

 

“There is a reason there is no genuine grassroots movement for No, and there’s a reason Yes has seen an explosion in people power.” (Hamish Gibson, National Collective)

‘It’s about the Democracy, Stupid’: Celebrities, Simplicity and Intervention

Today I watched the Edinburgh Festival Fringe lunchtime show ‘All Back to Bowie’s’, inspired by the thin white duke’s bizarre celebrity intervention back in March, via the even thinner and whiter proxy of Kate Moss. As he asked us not to leave him, we stayed round at his. Thus, the theme of each performance is set each day by a different Bowie song, the venue we inhabit is the yurt atop Dave’s Manhattan residence, and there it is that we witness the political debate from the panel as well as songs and poetry. And Cora Bissett played guitar (as one song – almost – goes), Kate Higgins of Woman for Independence (blogger from burdzeyeview.com) delivered a galvanizing ‘provocation’ for the panel with Stephen Noon (Yes campaign strategist) and the renowned Hollywood actor from Dundee (and voice of Newsnet Scotland’s Duggy Dug, explaining the Referendum issues), Brian Cox.

Brian Cox is no recent parachute into politics purely for the 18th September. He has long been politically active and is a member of the Labour Party. This political activity is not dissimilar to Sean Connery’s membership of the Scottish National Party and establishment (through his fee for 1971’s Diamonds are Forever) of the Scottish International Education Trust, where Scottish artists can apply for funding without having to leave their country in order to pursue their careers. Connery has vowed not to return to live in Scotland until it is independent. Another SNP supporter is the musician Fish (normally referred to with the suffix ’ootamerilyan’), who has long been an advocate of independence, but declined to take part in the current Yes campaign because (although he will be here for the vote – and, contrary to David Greig’s ‘The Yes/No Plays’ will actually vote ‘Yes’) he intends to move soon to be with his German partner and her family in Karlsruhe in Germany, so felt it might be portrayed as hypocritical to actively campaign if he was not intending to stay himself and be part of the subsequent Yes future that he would have been advocating.

These considered politically active individuals made me reflect on the oft-criticised role of the celebrity in politics – particularly in the context of this week’s 200 celebrity ‘Lets Stay Together’ initiative…most of whom have very little in the way of prior political credentials. Their presentation seemed a rather clumsy intervention, based on the questionable model of David Cameron’s bizarre ‘lovebombing’ appeal back in February, that at the time seemed instead to produce so many supportive ‘run and save yourselves’ tweets from the electorate down south. This position of ‘don’t leave us we love you’ is rooted in a fundamental misunderstanding of what the Referendum is about. The constant insistence from the southern establishment-owned press that this is about ‘anti-Englishness’ produces these curious responses – and one wonders whether such an interpretation is really aimed at people in Scotland, or more to support the ‘anti-English’ narrative down south as the sole credible reason for a desire for independence. That, in some way, it would be unthinkable that there might be ANY other reason for voting for independence than ‘anti-Englishness’ – as though this could POSSIBLY be symptomatic of a much broader UK-wide dissatisfaction with the democratic deficit of a Westminster that refuses to change and continues to funnel money down to Vince Cable’s giant suction machine of the (would-be) city state of London. Because accepting that it might be part of an advocacy for broader political change due to a widespread failure of Westminster across the UK would be – horror of horrors – tantamount to Scotland leading a second political enlightenment for London to latch on to. This exposes the crass naïveté of the ‘Let’s Stay Together’ initiative – the Referendum is not happening because of any perceived animosity towards England, the English or any other part of the UK: it is dissatisfaction with the democratic deficit that is the reason for ‘leaving’ (as they curiously like to put it). And this dissatisfaction is widespread and shared throughout the UK.

This sentiment was perhaps best summed up in the final part of the ‘All Back to Bowie’s’ show: a piece of poetry had been sourced from the audience, who had been asked to each provide a completed sentence that started ‘I want to say Yes to…’. One audience member (I believe from England?) had written down “I want to say yes to…an independent Yorkshire, Cornwall and Rutland: England is London.”

Vince Cable may – or may not – have been in the audience.

 

“For those of us who hold firm to Labour values and believe in a society that has at its very heart a sense of collective responsibility, a Yes is now the only real choice.” (Brian Cox)

Enlightenment 2.0?

Why are we doing this vote? The vote in the Referendum is about taking ownership of our actions, and taking responsibility – Scotland has moved on (and grown up) from knee-jerk blaming others for its problems – and by implication blaming itself for its powerlessness and inability to do anything about it – so well exemplified by the Daily Mash’s article on ‘Scotland to blame Cats after Independence’.  The Referendum debate is not about that or ‘anti-English’ nonsense, so forget that stereotype right away.  As noted elsewhere, this referendum has resulted in a mass mobilization of people who would regard themselves as ‘apolitical’ and not party political, even greater than that surrounding the ‘common cause’ in the wake of the 1992 general election, miners’ strike and anti-poll tax campaigns of the eighties and nineties – the most powerful political engagement of people in a lifetime. So, the debate now is in a dimension where we think about what the different futures are that we could have AFTER independence (rather than ‘Yes’ or ‘No’), incorporating a rich vein of ideas and perspectives across a wide political spectrum, allowing us to see in stark lighting exactly what we don’t like about the British State, and how we would do things markedly differently.  In effect (as someone faster than me put it about a year ago) – a reboot called ‘Enlightenment 2.0’.

‘Enlightenment’ may seem like overegging the situation, and yet against a sea of neoliberal values and nations, it does not take much to stand out from the crowd and once again redefine political, economic and social thought. Indeed, some commentators have reflected on the fact that ‘nationalism’ is an extremely rare argument amongst those campaigning for independence, whereas a rejection of the Westminster political system, widely perceived to have failed not just Scotland, is absolutely dominant. This means that the scope of what is being campaigned for, in terms of building a new country, is far wider than simplistic cultural aspects.

Does this seem like a ridiculously overblown and preposterously inflated idea of what Scotland can achieve?  Well, not really – after all, we’ve done it before.  Scotland’s leading role in the Enlightenment (see quote by no less than Voltaire below) is widely acknowledged, particularly with respect to Frances Hutcheson’s role in Glasgow University.  And given the widespread emigration of Scots around the world, to help build both Canada (Shaw 2003) and New Zealand (for example), as well as their role in creating much of what we recognize as the ‘modern world’, we do sort of ‘have form’, where this is concerned.  It was noted that Scotland’s historical role was due to its emphasis on education – with 75% male literacy in Lowland Scotland, Herman (2001) has noted that ‘no other society was as broadly prepared for “takeoff” into the modern age as was eighteenth century Scotland.’  What is surprising is that Scotland still seems to have that leading edge, the Office for National Statistics recently showing that Scotland’s figure of 45% of those between 25 and 64 having gone into higher education, makes it the best educated country in Europe, and close to the highest in the world (The Independent, 6/6/2014).  So we are similarly well-placed again – if the level of education is what defines the limitations of a society.

Perhaps that is why much of the debate about the Referendum on the Yes side is less about the ‘whys’ and has moved on to the ‘what sort ofs’ – chief amongst them, considerations of equity, including a constitution protecting equity of rights and individual liberties that will be abandoned with the UK’s prospective EU departure, and removing the shame of foodbanks from what would be the 14th wealthiest country (based on GDP per head in the developed world) at the point of its independence. (To see the draft constitution, go to http://www.newsnetscotland.com/index.php/component/content/article/8725-the-constitution-of-scotland ). You did know the UK was the only country within the EU or indeed the Commonwealth without a written constitution, didn’t you?

Or, to answer the question ‘why are we doing this’ in another way: choose a Constitution, choose removing the shame of foodbanks from the 14th richest country in the world, choose redressing the democratic deficit, choose addressing growing child poverty, choose preserving education, choose new business opportunities, choose protecting the NHS as free at point of need to all, choose land reform.

Is that good enough for a starting point?

“we look to Scotland for all our ideas of civilization” François-Marie Arouet (Voltaire)

“This is an opportunity not only of our lifetime, but of many lifetimes, because the journey to this point has been one of generations. It is the opportunity to be true to who we are – and that is the very essence of enlightenment.” (Brian Cox, August 2014)