Archive for category Democracy

From the inside, the referendum is almost too close to call

Working at a university I count the year from September to September. The last few days of August have the same timeless quality as the lull between Christmas and January.

As the Scottish Parliament convened for the final time before the independence referendum a thunderstorm swept across Edinburgh and into the windows of my office, looking out over the Crags. You’ve been able to smell autumn in the air these last few days, and though the seasons may not be what they used to be they have still rolled around in more or less the usual order from last September to this.

What has changed though is Scotland, fundamentally so. Eighteen months ago I would have counted the chances of independence actually happening as virtually zero. There was a sense of inevitability that the SNP, misreading their defeat of Iain Gray as a ringing endorsement of their own policies, would plough a lone furrow. Some of the conversations that had begun to happen in the background were politically interesting but showed little sign of reaching the general public.

Having followed Yes and No activists, written about them and got to know some of them, the rising hope on the faces of the Yes side has been mirrored by a fear on the No side that everything could unravel. Nowhere was this clearer than when I ran into a wet and single-minded Jim Murphy on the harbour in Tarbert, surrounded by Labour aides and with no apparent public interest.

Whereas the Yes campaign, if not the SNP, has been able to galvanise support and activists, the No campaign has ended up going no further than where the Yes side were two years ago at Cineworld in Fountainbridge. Back then some retrograde patriotism and some minor celebrities made the Yes campaign look like an overeager and under-thought Visit Scotland ad, with Colin Fox drafted in as a fig leaf for the SNP’s centrist economics.

In the same way that the expansion of Yes has diluted the presence of some of the diehard nationalists in the SNP, the No campaign has inadvertently fuelled Scotland’s latent unionism. The Orange Order’s decision to march in Edinburgh in the days running up to the vote and the rhetoric of British or foreign produced by senior campaign members has served to isolate a great many people. I recently interviewed one English resident of Edinburgh who said they could not bring themselves to vote No, even though they were undecided as to whether they would vote yes.

The No side are unfortunate that the campaign has coincided with a fragmenting of British politics generally. Old loyalties are fading with both UKIP on the populist right and the Greens on the middle-class Left sucking up votes. Although they have huge financial resources, both Labour and the Conservatives are engaged in an electoral fight for survival to come anywhere near the dominance both crave. What chance the Liberal Democrats might have had to articulate a robust and egalitarian British federalism seems to have vanished, and given a choice between Holyrood and Westminster people are beginning to show a distinct preference.

Inside the No campaign it is just a question of hanging on till polling day and hoping the Yes side do not arrive within the one per cent margin of error. If they do, and they may well do, then there’ll be an autumn storm over Edinburgh that could wash over Scotland and leave it changed forever.

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.

Selling out to the lowest bidder: Serco and the SNP

One of the things the SNP like to talk about at length is their commitment to ridding Scotland of nuclear weapons. The anti-nuclear stance is one of the few pieces of political radicalism, along with free education, to have remained in the SNP manifesto pack. It is then all the more surprising that the same government is happy to award contracts to an outsourcing company actively engaged in the maintenance of the United Kingdom’s nuclear arsenal. Serco, accurately described as ‘the biggest company you’ve never heard of’ are one of the largest outsourcers in the world, running public contracts in myriad areas from transport to weapons technology, data management and prisons. Late last year they were the subject of an investigation by the UK Serious Fraud Office  for their work electronically tagging prisoners (along with private security contractor G4S). Through a partnership contract, Serco Denholm, the company also provides a range of services at HMNB Clyde, of which the Faslane nuclear base is part. The contract with the Warship Support Agency, an arm of the MoD, includes support to the movement and training excercises of Vanguard nuclear submarines. The Faslane submarines are the delivery mechanism for the UK’s roaming Trident nuclear deterrent. Only people within the SNP can say whether anybody failed to see the link between a lucrative contract for the Caledonian Sleeper and Serco’s nuclear and defence work, but it makes the SNP hardline on public services and moral superiority look a little weaker. Serco already run the ferries to Shetland and Orkney after winning the contract from publicly-owned Caledonian MacBrayne a few years ago, banking £254m pounds in the process. The new Caledonian Sleeper franchise also sees an injection of £100m of public money toward new trains, to be owned by a private rolling stock leasing company.

Swedish pluralism means Nigel might get some friends in Brussels and the Greens soar higher than ever

How the European elections play out in different countries is highly dependent on which system of election the member state uses. The British regional list system (including Wales and Scotland, but not Northern Ireland) still guarantees a significant advantage to larger parties with a very high threshold for gaining a regional seat (upwards of ten per cent), meaning parties can gain nine or ten per cent across the country yet still fail to achieve a single MEP.

                             In Sweden, however, there is a single national list, and the Swedes have thrown up a very diverse range of parties to send to Brussels. There are two bits of good news from Sweden in a Europe otherwise mired in a far-right resurgence and a directionless but emboldened populist movement. The first is that the Swedish feminist group Feminist Initiative cleared the four per cent hurdle and made history in the process. Should they repeat the feat in September they will enter Sweden’s national legislature with twenty members forming the first feminist parliamentary party in European history.

                             An even bigger piece of positive news is that the Swedish Green Party overtook the Cameron-inspiring Moderate party for the first time, making them the second biggest party on almost sixteen per cent. The Moderates are now doing a lot of soul searching, polling one of their worst results in any election since the 1970s. The division of parliamentary mandates means that larger parties do not win as many seats as smaller parties do per percentage point, so the victory is mostly symbolic for the Greens, but like Feminist Initiative they go into September’s national elections with a good chance of becoming a fairly equal partner in a governing coalition. The secret of their success was becoming the biggest party in all three of Sweden’s large cities and harnessing the youth vote.

                             The national list system also meant that the far-right (though increasingly respectable) Swedish Democrats (SD) secured two seats. Their friends in the far-right Danish People’s Party are keen on cooperation with the British Tory-led group in the European Parliament, but this leaves the Swedish Democrats without too many friends.  The talk in the Swedish media is that SD fancy their chances with Britain’s favourite non-racist party. If this comes off it will mean UKIP sharing photocopying budgets with a party who went into the election promising to combat extreme feminism among other evils. Previous japes involving SD include one of their MPs attacking someone with a metal pole after a night out and some choice words about Roma that would make Nigel Farage turn away in shame.

                             What the Swedish elections to Brussels show best is what a pluralist media and election system looks like. With nine different parties represented from radical left to extreme right, via pink, Green and blue, it is representative in a way Britain’s system is not. With a similar system Greens in the UK would probably have around six MEPs, UKIP nineteen (not twenty-four) and one or two fewer for Labour and the Tories. This does not of course take into account Britain’s complex regional politics (The SNP and Plaid would vanish on a single national list), and the only way to solve that one would be to increase the seats allocated to Wales and Scotland and keep them separate. With its four UKIP MEPs and ten seats, the South of England could surely lose a few anyway.  And if the SD’s Björn Söder pops up next to Nigel Farage in Brussels, just remind yourself that UKIP are not a racist party.

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.