Archive for category Culture

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.

Three funerals, and a past that refuses to die.

Seamus Heaney in Dublin, 1985, protesting against the South African government

Seamus Heaney in Dublin, 1985, protesting against the South African government

The death of Margaret Thatcher should have been a chance to move on, were it not for the apparent idolisation of the former Prime Minister by David Cameron and, in Scotland at least, a competition between Labour and the SNP over who could distance themselves most from the Thatcher legacy.

Then came Heaney. His funeral was broadcast live on TV, not just a poet but a formidable public intellectual. He was a sane voice in the often dysfunctional politics and public life of the North and the Irish Republic. Heaney protested against both South African apartheid and British policy in the North. Two years after Mandela won the Nobel Peace Prize, Heaney took home the award for literature. The Nobel committee cited ‘works of lyrical beauty and ethical depth, which exalt everyday miracles and the living past’. What, though, happens when the past stops living?

The death of Mandela is of course a great tragedy, but the curious thing about his passing is the rush to remember events twenty years past without paying attention to the present. The world needs new Mandelas, and not just for the sake of renaming public squares and suburban closes but for the sake of changing a future instead of dwelling on the past. This is, after wall, what Mandela sought to do. It needs more Heaneys too, and whatever the sycophants of various political movements like to say the leaders they happen to have at the time can never be of either sort. You can’t copy greatness any more than teenage boys can become revolutionary leaders by wearing berets. It just ends up as a shallow simulacra of something that once was.

With Thatcher, Mandela and Heaney gone, it feels like now is the time to start living in the present and to leave the past where it belongs. Otherwise we do its giants, its villains and ourselves a disservice by fretting on their legacies.

Our Friends In The North: The Nordic dream without the navel gazing

It was with trepidation that I sat down to watch Our Friends in the North, BBC Scotland’s attempt to address the Nordicism that has crept into the independence referendum. It is an important part of the debate and the closest Scotland can get to imagining an alternate reality. Alex Salmond doesn’t really seem to get the Nordic countries in anything other than economistic terms, but as a former oil economist maybe that is to be expected. What Our Friends in the North and its host Alan Little did so well was demand answers to the questions created by the rhetoric. It is very easy to project your dreams onto something you don’t know much about, and is easy to imagine the First Minister sitting at home with a big Norwegian flag on the wall like a teenage boy staring wide eyed at a poster of Che Guevara he’s bought off the internet.

The programme asked a fundamental question: Is the Nordic economic model one Scotland can follow? There was some mention of shared heritage and attempts to problematise Scotland’s position bridging the gap between the British and the Northern, but it was largely an economistic view of events.

The excellent Alan Little began by popping off to Finland to find out about Nokia and childcare. There was an admirable attempt to situate Finland as a post-colonial country like Scotland might become. There was discussion of the economic crash of the early 90s due to dependence on the Soviet Union and a mention of how Scandinavian economies are not that diverse, but parallels could be made with the collapse of the largely London-based UK economy after the last financial crisis – in Finland at least the government had the tools to come up with a policy tailored to the country.

The childcare aspect was a detour into social policies, and these are perhaps the hardest to replicate. It also began a theme for the rest of the show that was never explicitly articulated. Many of the people encountered or interviewed were professional women enjoying high levels of access to both professions and childcare. The integration of educated and working women is one of the things that truly divides Scotland from its easterly neighbours, but as gay marriage so happily proved, that kind of equality is about mindset as much as money. You want it and then you fund it, rather than deciding you have the spare cash for such luxuries.

Next up was Sweden, and Alan Little went to speak to The Spectator’s Fraser Nelson. In London. Nelson is a man who knows very little about Sweden and not an awful lot more about contemporary Scotland. He gave the Cameronite line on the country, painting  the Swedish New Moderates and their liberal coalition partners as guardians of a progressive society. He claimed improved economic performance and employment, ignoring the fact that since the Moderates have been in power there have been serious tax cuts and in increase in temporary, lower paid jobs. Youth unemployment has increased and educational reforms, including the Free School concept, have created myriad problems. Stockholm is also suffering from an acute housing shortage due to the refusal of the Moderates to build accessible housing rather than suburban developments.

Alan popped back to Scandinavia to interview Lars Trädgårdh, a Swedish academic who has spent a lot of time in America and become a bit of a talking head for this kind of thing. Lars took Alan up onto the roof of the Higher Education where he works and pointed at the headquarters of the tax authorities. The problem was it isn’t the headquarters of the tax authorities and has not been for quite some time. I know because I used to live in it, but seeing as the tallest building being the tax headquarters is an established narrative trope in any guide to Sweden it seems a shame to get caught up on it.

 There was an assertion that Sweden doesn’t have a generous welfare state, which was a bit of a lie. It has an extremely generous welfare state, but it is built on a more expansive understanding of welfare than state unemployment benefit. This includes paying people to not work when they have young children, wage-linked unemployment funds and more robust attempts at education and retraining than that provided by either the current or previous Westminster governments, or by Britain historically for that matter. Alan Little’s assertion that “This isn’t the Sweden many on the left imagine” is true in part, but it almost seemed like it was too good a discovery to not make a point of. The truth of the matter is that many of the tenets of Scandinavian welfarism find no points of reference in British models or parlance. It isn’t Robin McAlpine’s William Morris inspired consensual welfarism, but neither is it Fraser Nelson’s utopia of hard work and sticks over carrots.

Last up was Norway, though Denmark wasn’t allowed a mention for some reason. Norway is the most prosperous of the Nordic countries, and as Alan strolled around Oslo’s redeveloped waterfront of speedboats and yuppie flats straight into the Nobel Peace Centre everything looked rosy. Norway is undeniably a great place to live, and definitely a much better bet than contemporary Britain by all kinds of measures. He visited a former industrial area reborn through a private business school. At an employment fair members of Norway’s so-called ‘dessert generation’ (because they are young enough to have only turned up for the sweetest part of the country’s journey from poor to rich and are known for wanting to have their cake and eat it) flocked to tables to become investment bankers or recruitment agents. The conclusion though was fairly unambiguous – even a tiny public oil fund would do wonders for Scotland’s economic and social rebirth.

There then came a very important question: why couldn’t Scotland pursue this Nordic model with further devolution? It was a question Little did not try to answer, but looking back over what was said some of the conclusions were self-evident. Could devolution make a Scottish oil fund, help protect Scotland from the economic collapse of a larger neighbour or allow it to radically reform its welfare and monetary policy? Probably not.

The best contribution though came in the show’s final lines. Alan Little is in the privileged position of speaking as a Scot who has gone not just to London but all over the world. He understands the context of change and political evolution, and his final question was the right one to ask. Should we not see the referendum in its broader, European context? Is this cutting Scotland off, or is it a repositioning at the nexus between two sets of neighbours?

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Scottish education’s trust fund.

I wrote recently about some of the challenges and opportunities facing Academia in the context of both the independence referendum and in the drift toward an economistic approach to higher education more generally.

One of the ideas regularly turned to by the Better Together campaign is the idea of Scottish research excellence being inhibited through withdrawal of UK research funds and in the more abstract but equally important concept of somehow being external to the research community.

It is not without irony that the President of Science Europe is the St Andrews academic Paul Boyle, an Englishman working in Scotland who now resides in Brussels. He is also head of the ESRC, the body responsible for allocating state funding to economics and social sciences in the UK.

Science Europe exists as part of the European Research Area, an initiative of the European Union designed to facilitate a single market in higher education research. The use of the word market in EU parlance is slightly misleading, as the ERA exists to increase the movement of academic labour and knowledge exchange over encouraging universities to shop around. It is designed to facilitate a Europe-wide knowledge economy in which the benefits of world class research can be spread across Europe as well as providing support for Europe’s existing research capacity.

Furthermore, there is a long and noble tradition of academics moving away from the UK to work at leading centres elsewhere, whether it be the Max Planck institute in Germany, MIT in America, Sciences Po in Paris or Asia. For what it is worth the University of Edinburgh currently occupies 17th position in the QS World University Rankings, due in large part to its consistently high research impact as typified by the recent Nobel Prize award to Professor Peter Higgs.  As the jokes went around the internet with Alex Salmond and his magic pocket flag superimposed on Peter Higgs, they illustrated that knowledge is not  bound by national borders. This can be applied to both to the hypothetical new Scotland and the watertight, unitary British state that opposes it. That Professor Higgs’ work on particle physics was proven in an international underground superlab that actually straddles an international border is a case in point.

There is another truth not told here too. Both Oxford and Cambridge keep their reputations and mead cups topped up via huge amounts of private funding. Don’t tell anyone, but Edinburgh also has a lot of money down the back of the sofa and the University of Aberdeen has in recent years proactively pursued sources of income external to the British state funding model with a high degree of success.  The amount of funding allocated by the state to universities in the UK is also below other countries. Denmark spends 2.4% of its GDP on research compared to only 1.7% in the UK.

We are also, it is to be hoped, entering an age in which the open provision of scientific and intellectual knowledge can lead to an international commons. The neo-liberal model of globalised university education assumes that knowledge and its producers exist in a Malthusian universe of finite elites who can be bought and sold. The structures of knowledge creation, however, can be replicated. Scotland’s enduring commitment to publicly funded education means that it is slightly further toward advancing that generalist dream of the knowledge commons in which everyone might participate.

The knowledge economy is a misunderstood concept which in its clumsiest articulation makes it sound as if you can put a direct price on research skills. Although it can be monetised in some cases, academic research does not take place on an investment and returns basis, and both the Scottish and European knowledge economies rely on their citizens spending money on things they do not understand in the belief that there is a good to be had in facilitating such output.

Paul Boyle summed up the challenges and potential of Europe-wide research in a recent editorial for the journal Nature, writing “The European Research Area should be an evolving, flexible and creative space in which researchers, ideas and knowledge can circulate freely to respond to society’s challenges. At its heart will be trust.”

So in this new Scotland we may have a social contract, and hopefully a renewed working relationship with both The United Kingdom of England, Wales and Northern Ireland alongside the rest of Europe. All will be relationships built on a belief and trust in the ability of intangible things to produce tangible benefits that go beyond the bottom line. That’s an educational paradigm we should all believe in.