Archive for category Culture

The Scottish Greens’ Nordic Future

Patrick Harvie's Swedish opposite number Gustav Fridolin. Notice the dissimilarities from Alex Salmond and Johann Lamont

Patrick Harvie’s Swedish opposite number Gustav Fridolin. Notice the dissimilarities to Alex Salmond and Johann Lamont

The Scottish Greens’ conference in Inverness last weekend was dominated by one theme, and one question. Why is Scotland not like its neighbouring Northern European countries in terms of living standards, life expectancy, wellbeing and sustainability?

Three of the plenary speakers chose variations on the theme and all of them spoke glowingly about the potential for moving away from the Anglo-Saxon obsession with big economics and moving toward a government and financial system more similar to Scotland’s Northern European peers.

The effervescent Lesley Riddoch has made it her mission in recent years to persuade Scotland of the advantages of decentralisation, localism, empowerment and Nordic levels of public service provision. In the Greens she has obviously found a receptive audience. She was joined by Mike Danson  from Heriot Watt University whose time seems to have finally come after years of proposing alternative economic models of Scotland, and Robin McAlpine of the Reid Foundation fronting the work done by a team of academics and researchers to develop a blueprint for an autonomous Scottish parliament.

The Reid Foundation’s Common Weal project is gaining momentum, and Robin McAlpine paid the Greens a compliment in saying that they already have the policies to make it work. The challenge lies in convincing the SNP and Labour of the validity of such an approach or making sure that the Greens gain enough seats at the next Holyrood election to at least begin to implement it in government with another party.

Talk of the Arc of Prosperity may have vanished from the lips of the First Minister, but over in the Green and Independent corner of the chamber the vision is very much alive, and it is hard to argue against Scotland pursuing such a course when all the evidence suggests it would lead to a decidedly better country for everybody.

The list of potential polices is almost endless, but the Greens are committed to increasing investment in strategic public transport infrastructure, re-regulation of bus services to give local authorities more say, increased basic wages to both help people and increase tax yields for investment in services, municipal energy companies and education reforms based on Finland’s proven globally leading example.

The Common Weal project is a welcome addition to the Scottish political scene with its stress on common consensus rather than socialist revolution, and its use of existing similar states to Scotland which clearly illustrate that it is possible to tackle some of Scotland’s endemic problems in an inclusive and democratic way.

The Greens now find themselves in the strange position of having a more cohesive and coherent vision for Scotland’s future than almost any other party in Holyrood, the SNP included. Next time you’re stuck in a traffic jam on the way to pick up your kids from an overpriced nursery and worrying about the 8.2 per cent price rise your energy company have just foisted upon you, take a moment to consider that Scotland has an alternative modern future ready and waiting.

Love Voltaire us apart, again

One of the questions regularly raised in discussions of independence is what would happen to Scotland’s globally prestigous universities.

Senior figures at my own place of work, the University of Edinburgh, have voiced concerns about the impact of being cut off from UK government research funding. More publicly Louise Richardson, the American-inspired principal of St Andrews has attacked elements of Scottish higher education policy as unsustainable and believes that universalism and universities do not go together.

What many people do not know is that, although higher education is devolved to Holyrood, the research funding which keeps many universities topped up and allows them to employ some world class academics is still allocated from Westminster. In the early days of the Cameron government there were attempts to politicise university research through directed funding of some of the main research councils, Arts and Humanities, Economics and Social Science, Biotechnology and Biological Sciences,  Medicine, Natural Environment and Science and Technology. Thankfully, a great many academics resisted such efforts and despite the crisis of tuition fees the structures of research funding are still relatively intact.

Now given that Scotland’s universities are already regulated and funded at an undergraduate level by Holyrood, the research funding pool is the one remaining structural link to Westminster. People such as Louise Richardson buy into the idea that severing this link would be a disaster for Scotland’s universities, and the forensic and nuanced Labour MSP Malcolm Chisholm pointed out the benefit of large research pools in this week’s independence preview debate in the chamber.

This is not something the Yes campaign can just ignore, and being a Scottish university is not a virtue in itself without the funds to back up the country’s claims to be at the top table of world education. You would hope that the future of higher education in Scotland, which is crucial to the country in terms of both its economy and its ability to meet its aspirations as a highly developed state, receives a significant amount of attention in the Scottish Government’s forthcoming white paper. In Scotland being the education minister also involves safeguarding and developing crucial national institutions for the benefit of all.

Nothing, however, is impossible, and there are various options for Scotland’s universities to take after independence.

The first would be to propose a joint research pool with Englash, Welsh, Irish and Northern Irish universities that would better allow specialisms to flourish and facilitate cross border academia. There is already a limited cooperation agreement between the UK and Ireland on pooling of research resources, whilst a great deal of higher-end science research now happens within the context of European funding organisations and research networks anyway.

The other option is that Scotland, in line with the aspirations of some SNP and Green thinkers to seek membership of the Nordic Council, should attach itself to the Nordforsk research pool which coordinates funding and specialisation across Northern Europe from Iceland to the Baltic states and Western Russia. This would move Scotland away from what Scandinavians term the Anglo Saxon educational tradition and integrate the country more closely with its Nordic neighbours. This might seem a horrific idea to the Ivy League obsessives in the country’s top universities but would apparently be more in line with the collective mood in Scotland generally.

The third option is that Scotland goes all out in developing itself as the go-to country for education by mixing high levels of access and participation for its own citizens with state backed research. It could aggressively pursue international funding and utilise the advantage of having several top class universities within a few hours of one another to create a world-leading research cluster across a range of disciplines. When Voltaire fell over himself to praise the Scottish intellectual climate he did so in a world without research councils and American exchange students. Ideas, and not oil or Scotland the brand, could be what comes to define the first century of a reconstituted state.

The last of these three scenarios is probably the most fanciful, but it is also the most enticing. Given the increasing dysfunctionality of universities in England independence might give Scotland the chance to develop a distinctive educational paradigm which could become a national cause celebre to dwarf flogging golf hats and whisky to wealthy tourists.

Separatism Voltaire us apart

The problem with Scotland’s press… in an American newspaper.

The journalist Peter Geoghegan has written an excellent summary of some of the issues surrounding the press and the independence referendum. Its basic points are a lesson to people on both side of the debate and sum up much of what is problematic about the contemporary Scottish media scene.

Jingo Unchained

evening news heroes

Evening news heroes

Not respecting  ’our’ troops is one of the biggest taboos in politics. Armed Forces Day is a most bizarre invention, plucked from the ether by politicians to justify support for various overseas expeditions and to placate the military establishment.

The cult of military heroism in Britain is absolutely bizarre. It has created a climate in which everyone is a hero, even those people who have ambivalently signed up to the military due to a lack of options at home for reasons of class, education or general unemployment.

A few years ago the Army started recruiting via Spotify, running adverts that began with a supermarket checkout beep and contrasted the low-paid monotony of Tesco jobs and dead end college courses with the excitement of sitting on top of a tank with your mates carrying guns. This whole recruitment ethos was lampooned in Gary: Tank Commander and the central character’s bemused reaction to being hailed a hero on his return to Glasgow Airport.

The other odd thing is that we already have a day set aside each year to remember all those lost to war and conflict, though of late Remembrance Day has been appropriated by the jingoistic people who emphasise the Great in Great Britain and turned into a celebration of war which makes it uncomfortable for anyone not into military cheerleading.

Armed Forces day in Scotland is also a chance for the unreconstructed  Union Jack wavers to have a day out and assert some sort of made up connection between Scotland and military expeditions – the recent article in the Scotsman by Major General Andrew Mackay in which Scots were described as ‘a warrior race’ being a case in point.  Since the referendum has been on the radar this also plays in to a particularly nasty kind of militaristic British nationalism, typified by the appallingly small-minded rhetoric of ForcesTogether and its attempts to construct the United Kingdom as some sort of military brotherhood.  Not by coincidence, the report which General Mackay authored was commissioned by a private think tank, the Scotland institute, set up and funded by a multi-millionaire former Territorial Army member.

I’ll respect our troops for the people they are, and I’ll remember the kid I went to primary school with killed by a roadside bomb in Basra, and I’ll support the member of my extended family who went into the RAF after being repeatedly failed by the school system,  but I will not do it on Armed Forces Day.

Scotland 2.0, or why the nation needs a new operating system.

Today a guest post from Lee Bunce, a Green with a keen interest and academic expertise in the relationships between information, democracy and technology. 

Whitelee wind farm creative commons

Scotland is uniquely placed to take advantage of the new technologies that together will shape the future of our planet. It is both geographically and technically well-positioned to place itself at the forefront of  renewable energy and information technology. But to make the most of these new technologies it most avoid repeating old mistakes. Rather than handing the benefits, and profits, over to a handful of corporations Scotland should direct its efforts towards its communities.

Scotland’s renewable potential is well understood. It has some best resources in wind, wave and other renewable energy sources of any country in the world. Perhaps less appreciated is Scotland’s potential to be a leader in technology. Scotland’s ICT industry already directly employs around 40,000 people (according to ScotlandIS ), compared to 11,200 in its whisky industry for example, and its games industry in particular is thriving. Government support combined with access to a highly skilled workforce, as well as geographical advantages such as proximity to both the rest of Europe and America, and indeed its renewable energy sources, could help make Scotland a world leader in the field in much the same way that Iceland is to the north.

Development of these industries has so far been carried out along traditional corporate lines.  Scotland has hugely ambitious targets for renewable energy, aiming for 100% of Scotland’s electricity to be produced by renewables by 2020 . The majority of this energy will be produced by large scale top-down onshore wind projects, which largely means a continuation of the trend whereby the ‘Big Six’ energy companies provide around 99% of UK energy. The Scottish government meanwhile envisages  that around 500MW of this renewable capacity will be community owned, or just around 3% . It’s a start, but nowhere near ambitious enough. In Germany around 65% of its turbines and solar panels are community owned, and Scotland could aim even higher.

Community owned renewable energy comes with a number of benefits. It creates local jobs, keeps money circulating within local economies and builds community cohesion. Projects that are community owned are also more likely to be supported by the communities they serve, which is important at a time when resistance to wind-farms is prevalent. By taking a more ambitious approach to community energy, Scotland reap these benefits on an enormous scale.

Likewise, the way in which information technology works sometimes holds back innovation and progress due to commercial monopolisation. Technology is primarily about knowledge, in particular using knowledge for the benefit of society. Again, development in technology has so far followed the traditional route followed by the rest of the UK, whereby this knowledge economy is built on classic conceptions of private enterprise which commodify knowledge using stringent intellectual property legislation that restricts the use of knowledge and information to those who can afford to pay for it. Again, Scotland could benefit by adopting a more community based approach.

Community here means something different of course. It might mean online communities developing free and open source software that is available to all, or building useful applications based on free and open data. It might even mean communities of artists and musicians using information technologies to make their work freely available under ‘copyleft’  licences, or scientists sharing data and collaborating online. The benefits of adopting this ‘open’ philosophy could be substantial. Relaxing intellectually property laws could stimulate a boom in innovation in technology and beyond as ideas are able to freely spread and developers are able to build on the ideas that came before them.

Supporting free software and open data does not mean being anti-business, as is often claimed. It just means being rejecting business models that do not benefit society in favour of other models that do. Taking free software specifically, this might mean that instead of making a profit by selling expensive licenses to use software while keeping the source code hidden programmers can make money by offering their expertise as a service, providing support or bespoke modifications. The result is that the technological benefits can be spread far and wide (the classic example of this is the GNU/Linux operating system, though there are countless others).

Both these approaches towards new technologies, energy and IT, mean doing something quite different to the economic default.  They mean discarding policies and practices that benefit the few in favour of quite radical new ideas that can benefit the many. Given that the future of these technologies and industries will likely shape the future of Scotland, and indeed the planet, any method of distributing benefits as widely as possible deserve to be taken very seriously.


Lee is one of the two founding editors of the Edinburgh green journalism project POSTmag. The text published here is available for reproduction under a creative commons licence with attribution to the author.

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