Archive for category Culture

Some different ideas to go with your referendum: Scotland 44

scotland44-page001Better Nation does not have a publishing arm, and despite ideas of a Better Nation film being mooted over some drinks last year the realities of living a normal life bit. I have not however, been sitting idly on my hands for the past eighteen months, instead putting most of my effort into the Post Collective publishing project.

The Post Collective was set up last year to provide a forum for progressive green journalism in Scotland. Made up of a merry collection of academics, sometime journalists, economists and science professionals  the project regularly writes about contemporary Scotland, science, culture, politics and democracy on postmag.org. Post also publishes printed books and magazines, and though we do not have any clear view on the referendum itself as a group, we decided to try and make a collective contribution. The result is a forthcoming book about the future: Scotland 44.

Scotland 44 is not designed to argue for independence, instead it sets out a number of different possibilities for Scotland’s next thirty years that would improve the lives of Scottish people in areas from how we build our cities to how we fund the arts, manage information and privacy and generate energy. Arguing for independence as an end in itself will not do much to change Scotland without the will or ideas to significantly restructure the way the country works, and a no vote is no excuse for political stasis from either side.

That said, independence would seem to be the most opportune moment to rip it all up and start again, including an areas the independence debate is yet to touch on. One of Scotland 44’s writers, the urbanist Stacey Hunter of Edinburgh University, will for example be writing about an area the Scottish Government already has full control of. Could independence mean an end to the SNP’s love of suburban estates and motorways over communities and sustainable transport?

And how can power be taken from the Scottish Parliament and given back to people? What would decentralisation mean for democracy and the economy? How do you come up with an arts policy for a nation as diverse as Scotland? Who gets to be Scottish, and what will Scotland in 2044 mean compared with the Scotland of 2014 and 1984? If you could put science and education at the centre of society, how would it work? What does citizenship mean in post-2014 Scotland?

These bigger questions transcend a decision between Yes and No and demand answers from ourselves as much as they do politicians. If you want to pre order a copy of Scotland 44 or find out about and contribute to the ongoing work of the Post project you can do so here.

Londoners and Leithers, struggling together

Ocean terminal – More shops than ships

Walking around Westfield Statford City, a sweeping arc of restaurant chains and pretend outdoor highstreets with speakers pumping out Rihanna to keep the shoppers moving, you see a sports shop with England’s Wayne Rooney in the window. In front of Wayne (who is just a Wayne-sized poster) is the new England shirt, and around it in a neon crest is the motto ‘Risk Everything.’

I’m not an expert on  life guidance, but ‘risk everything’ strikes me as a particularly bad motivational slogan unless you’re on the Rangers board or are a compulsive gambler. It’s definitely a long way from the ‘work hard and you can achieve your dreams’ rhetoric espoused by Michael Owen in the popular Children’s BBC series Zero to Hero. In the latter, Owen appeared out of a lifesize poster to give the show’s young protagonist pep talks. In Westfield Stratford City Wayne bursts forth, and he seems to be asking me to remortgage my house and put the money on the ‘orses.

The particular piece of London where Westfield have set up shop(s) is a footballing heartland, with West Ham and Leyton Orient within spitting distance of the Waitrose, John Lewis and Body Shop outlets of new Stratford. This is what Glasgow City Council hope the new East End will turn into (just as was the ambition with new Leith and the rather forlorn Ocean Terminal), but you need not go far to find people with little to lose.

Fifteen minutes away on the Docklands Light Railway and you are in Beckton, the end of the line. Step off the train and there is a flat vista of car parks and slip roads ventilated by the stiff breeze of the Thames estuary. Across the street is a huge single-story ASDA, a car park surrounding a pretend shopping street where all the outlets are owned by the supermarket. In the window of the supermarket pharmacy is a display made in the run up to the 2012 Olympics by local school children. Eagerly painted flags hang in stasis over magazine collages of athletes and football stars. Presumably they’re still there because nothing has yet come forth to replace them, as if the anticipation just before the event were the high point. It is that kind of promise that can sustain people, and then comes the long tail.  Perhaps not risking everything, but investing everything in nothing is what the people of East London’s outer rim have done. The yuppie flats are changing the skyline in Stratford, but in Beckton the flags still hang limply, sealed off from the Thames breeze by plate glass.

In Scotland, the flags are all one colour. As the referendum approaches the Saltire has taken on a different significance for many people. The 18 September is the day the events kick off and Scotland undergoes regeneration on a national scale. An awful lot of people are investing their hopes for the future in a few short months. The bigger risk is not that independence won’t be achieved, but that its execution will fail to have the transformative effect its most ardent supporters promise and believe. In 2015, as money floods into Edinburgh from around the world, will the country look much different to the single parent dragging their shopping to the car at the ASDA in Newcraighall in the January wind? Will Leith’s Yes posters and fly-posted socialist battle-cries flap in the breeze as Edinburgh’s West End gears up for cheap credit, Dublin style, or will something good be made to come of it? If you’re asking people to risk everything, you need to make sure every one of those people sees the transformation their support deserves.

I, nationalist.

I’ve never been one to call the Deputy First Minister by her first name, as if we’re just mates. The SNP freesheet with the Yes Scotland branding that popped through my door this week promised me an ‘at home with Nicola’ interview, and there she was just chilling out in a comfy jumper.  Nationalism with a human face. The whole of the freesheet was as laughable as the fake newspapers handed out by the No campaign where every headline simply read ‘[noun] better together in UK, say experts!’.

The fact is, a lot of the stuff kicked out by both sides is cheap and ridiculous, and rightly deserves to be laughed out of town. Now writing newspaper articles calling Alex Salmond a fascist is the other extreme to hailing him as a genius and a saviour. He is, at the end of the day, just a middle-aged man in a casual sports jacket. The problem is that people are getting increasingly defensive of things that don’t need to be defending, so when a Telegraph hack phones in some copy calling Alan Bissett an agitprop extremist, people on the Yes side defend him as if he were Scotland’s greatest living playwright, the SNP conference performance included. He’s written some pretty good novels and his Andrea Dworkin-inspired introduction to feminism was patchy but well-conceived, but he can probably look after himself. The last thing we need is a homogenisation of the voting public into two camps where Greens are the SNP with a bit of recycling thrown in and Labour are the Conservatives. The #bittertogether hashtag stopped being funny about ten minutes after it was invented.

Because we have to admit that there are ridiculous things about both sides, from Alex Salmond’s taste in substanceless ‘poignant’ art, as hangs in his office, to George Robertson’s postcard to the apocalyptic. We probably need to find amusement in the ironies of both sides at the expense of the overly zelous and the impressively naïve. We need to accept that Christopher Grieve was a gifted but often tragi-comic figure and not an unsung hero. We need to realise that Nicola’s cuffs of Ayshire lace provided an unexpected comic touch, and that the Yes Scotland film using Big Country on the soundtrack first shown at the Declaration of Cineworld was not the stuff that aspring nations are made of. Quite rightly, we should also laugh (though not in the way they intended) at whichever Better Together staffer thought the best way to respond to the National Collective Yestival was with a ‘joke’ straight from the Top Gear annual. Laugh at far-left splinter groups arguing about whether nationalism is the antithesis of communism or the path to true liberation, and take heart in the fact that the guy sitting in an armchair in Perthshire with ‘Free Scotland’ on his twitter profile is as ridiculous as the guy tweeting from his sofa in Renfrew with ‘British AND Scottish’  under the picture of his face.  We live in a country of complexities and overlaps, divided loyalties and shared values. Pretending there is a big dividing line down the middle of two exclusive groups is equivalent to the Edinburgh-Glasgow jokes trotted out every night in comedy club warm-up acts. Diversity is a good thing, and that means realising you don’t have to be part of Yes the identity, just Yes the voting preference. And if you’re reading Nicola, my favourite thing to do on a night in is cook a curry, have a cheeky glass of red and  watch Michael Fassbender films.

National or Northern? One is far healthier than the other

There was, for a space of about six months between the release of the White Paper on Independence and the Easter break, a huge upsurge in interest in the Nordic aspects of Scotland’s independence movement. Assorted documentaries on TV and Radio, some SNP rhetoric on ‘Nordic’ childcare and a plethora of newspaper columns ranging from the meticulously informed to the blatantly phoned-in all sought to either support or criticise the idea of Scotland’s Nordic dream.

But then silence.

Criticism of the Nordic Way (a regular and quite conscious trope of the Nordic Council) has come in from the unionist side with their talk of massive tax hikes and from the far left who see the Nordic model as a Faustian pact with capitalism hiding under a friendly veneer of Moomin and mid-century furniture. One of the big problems is that nobody is quite sure what Nordic means. If you’re a political scientist the it refers very specifically to a unique system of tax-based growth economy ploughing profits back into human capital. If you’re of a more cultural bent it is mid-century classicism and nice cakes and Carl Malmsten chairs, or on a more dubious level a perceived heritage shared by Scotland. If, like me, you occupy the that third space between the policy wonks and economists and people munching on Kanelbullar in the West End and going to crayfish parties, it is a useful tool in Scotland’s political lexicon.

What you see most of all is how Nordicness allows Scotland to articulate its own better self, and the apparent waning of interest in Northern Scotland is slightly worrying. Irrespective of how genuine Nordic Scotland is, the referendum campaign appears to be in danger of slipping back into a fight over family silver and half-truths. The Northern dream has briefly allowed Scotland to glimpse an alternative to welfare cuts and Taylor Wimpey homes, daring to speculate on a new aesthetic without recourse to nationalist shibboleths.

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Commonwealth and Common Weal: The shape of things to come.

According to Nicola and Alex the world is watching, but the truth is that Britain isn’t even watching. If 2014 does turn out to be a momentous year for Scotland it will happen with a whimper down south. Although it still looks like the No campaign might win it, the Yes side has moved the debate on from where we were two years ago. Some kind of positive outcome for Scottish democracy now seems inevitable, and it can either be done consensually or by splitting the Labour party down the middle and further undermining its already wobbly legitimacy. Anas Sarwar and friends won’t go gently from their 80,000 a year at Portcullis House, especially with the outside chance of getting to sit at the big table and play around with some of those cool nuclear submarines.

There’s also a European election this year. It looks like the SNP and Labour will get two seats apiece and the Tories will likely hang on to theirs. The real battle of interest will be between the Lib Dems in their first election test since the massacre at Edinburgh City Council in 2012, the mustache bearing armchair army of Jaguar driving UKIPers and the Greens. Given that the Greens exceeded expectations last time around and have historically performed better in European polls, it is not too much to expect that Maggie Chapman will be ensconced in Brussels come next summer. From the left of what is already Holyrood’s most left-wing  party, Maggie will be hoping to attract the core Green vote combined with disenfranchised Labour and SNP supporters and the rump of the Socialist left to push past George Lyon and whichever Top Gear audience member UKIP plump for.

A European breakthrough could signify a big year for the Greens, now fairly well established in Edinburgh and Glasgow but still hovering on the edge of several wins in central Scotland and the Highlands. The increased profile given to them by the Yes campaign has allowed Patrick Harvie to more clearly articulate what separates them from both the SSP on the one hand and sandal-wearing Lib Dems on the other. With Alison Johnstone bedding in following the retirement of Robin Harper, the Euros and the long lead in to the Scottish general election of 2016 will be critical in determining whether Green politics in Scotland can copy the relative success achieved in its North Sea neighbours. The dominance of the SNP and the apparent inability of Labour to put one foot in front of the other means that Scottish politics is crying out for a torch bearer for floating progressive voters.

It will also be the year in which Scotland gets equal marriage legislation, in what has been a needlessly drawn out process. One of the side effects of the equal marriage campaign has been to further erode the influence of the Catholic Church in Scotland. The Church has not covered itself in glory in the past twelve months for all kinds of reasons, burning bridges with many progressive Catholics in the process.

Celtic will, somewhat inevitably, storm the SPL. Fingers crossed Aberdeen will come second, one of the few clubs with the resources and fanbase to do something with their European place and the financial bonus it would bring. The game would appear up for Hearts, hamstrung by a combination of apparent corruption, a global financial crisis and the inability of the Scottish Football Association to keep watch on the game. The irony of their Wonga sponsorship won’t be lost on the fans who have had to watch it all unfold from the stands and in the newspapers. Scottish football is still in a fairly sick state, and until the men with suits and 1990s playground haircuts are replaced at Hampden then it probably won’t get better.

Then there’s the Commonwealth Games, Scotland’s mini Olympics. No doubt there’ll be a lot from Glasgow City Council about putting the place on the map, showing it is open for business and reminding us that people make Glasgow, just like people made the dual carriageway to the East End and the over budget motorway that cuts a swathe through the Southside like the spaceship hovering ominously in Independence Day. The sceptic in me says that Commonwealth and Common Weal are different things, but it is to be hoped that some of the shine stays at least once the G4S guards on temporary contracts and the BBC mobile broadcast vans have chugged off south again.

One thing for 2014 is certain though. Peter Capaldi is going to be brilliant in the TARDIS.