Archive for category Democracy

This is England

burford

Those who squeezed in to the Scottish Green conference this weekend were greeted by thought-provoking image on the front of their delegate packs – an inverted map of the UK with Scotland in the middle nestling comfortably between Norway and Ireland, England fading into the distance.

In England though Scotland is as peripheral as ever. On a Saturday afternoon in rural Oxfordshire people mill about the bus stops and market in Witney, the nominal home of the Prime Minister. This is small town English life as the modern Tories envisage it. Pavement cafes and bistros line the high street, itself furnished with ample parking. Witney is a bus ride from Oxford, and functions as a jumping off point for even quainter Cotswold towns and villages.
A few miles away, just down the road from the RAF base at Brize Norton, sits the town of Burford. Its long street of pubs and restaurants is straight out of the Visit Britain adverts plastered on the white walls of airports across the globe.

The town hall has a noticeboard outside listing all the goings on, a public letter of support about the maintenance of rural bus services in West Oxfordshire taking centre stage among the bulletins. There’s no appeal for food bank donations or invitations to public meetings though. The various crises and pressures hitting contemporary Britain from both left and right are well beyond being felt here. Burford is the final navigable point on the Thames, and it feels a very long way from London.

In the local deli, a phenomenon quickly replacing the dying village shop in places like Burford across the South, a woman is giving out samples of locally grown organic fruit liqueur. “I’m guessing you’re not local” she says, pushing over a thumbfull of red liquid. “It’s very nice here, even if it is a bit Midsomer Murders sometimes.”
Stepping outside on the street it is obvious she is right. This is not the kind of place that needs to put up Union Jacks. Its Englishness is written into the buildings, as is its wealth.

A taxi driver who ferries people from village to village, a British-Asian called Abdul, puts it succinctly. “I mostly just do station runs or take non locals to weddings. Almost everyone here has a car.”

At a local wedding venue you can hear the transport aircraft whine as they race up the runway at Brize Norton, headed for Afghanistan, the Falklands and perhaps now Syria too. Inside a Ceilidh band is starting up and a mixed crowd of nervous home counties partyers peppered with a few Scots nervously practice the dances the band want them to play. The Scots, kilted-up and playing their part, lead everyone else as the good whisky is uncorked on the sidelines. This is the only manifestation of Scotland that could possibly work in this part of the country, detached as it is from the reality of the England outside too.

The following morning the TV at the local pub broadcasts a silent Andrew Marr as guests tuck into their full English breakfasts. The UKIP election victory in Essex is comparable to the shockwave the SNP have created in Scotland, he says. In Burford and Witney though it is very easy to forget what is going on, chillax and eat your cereal.

The Two Faces of Democracy

Today’s guest post is from Duncan Thorp, who’s previously written for us about social enterprise and hate in politics. Thanks Duncan!

12978395593_3fbf45b646_mWe’re living in exciting times, Scotland has changed for the better. Nothing’s changed but everything’s changed. The referendum has been recognised by most people as an exercise in peaceful democracy. It’s true.

In terms of the vote itself, the huge level of popular participation and the technical and legal agreements, it was incredible.

97% of the voting population registered to vote. 16 and 17 year olds enfranchised for the first time, an 85% turnout. A true Scotland-wide debate. More information, slogans and facts flowing like never before. All this over an extended timeframe, far longer than any election.

We should genuinely celebrate this achievement. Only with historical perspective will future generations understand how powerful it was, an independence movement without bloodshed is virtually unheard of. A few bad eggs are as serious as it got.

But there’s another side to this exercise in direct democracy. The environment of the wider society that it took part in was very much anti-democratic. The dominant state narrative of Britishness is ever-present in every aspect of our lives. In this context it’s nothing less than a miracle that 45% of those voting wanted independence.

Much of the mainstream corporate media was of course a blatant case of misinformation, bog standard bias or agitprop. Years of daily, unrelenting, anti-independence news from nearly 100% of the print media can’t be dismissed. Broadcasters often struggled with their values and biases in favour of the status quo. Any media “neutrality” simply means that a story includes views from both sides – it doesn’t cover the decisions to include/exclude certain stories in the first place.

Similarly, large corporations making even vague anti-independence statements, while wielding huge economic power over jobs and investment, were leapt on by the mainstream media. The very fact of the unequal economic power balance in favour of big business meant that any potential relocation was a huge threat (genuine or not).

Indeed without straying into silly conspiracy theory territory, it would be naïve to suggest that HM Government and all the apparatus of the British state, were not deployed (under the radar) to save the state itself in its most critical moment of need. Would you lie back and allow your own power to be fragmented and taken away?

It’s also perplexing that the British nationalists of the far-right were absent until after the votes were counted. It was upsetting to see a mob performing Nazi salutes, singing Rule Britannia and burning a Saltire in George Square, Glasgow. They clearly didn’t get the memo about the “war against nationalism”. Where were they in exercising their democratic rights during the campaign?

It’s certainly unfair to suggest that every no voter was simply fooled or voted out of fear. Some were emotionally dependent on the British narrative and some were basically happy with the way the UK had turned out. Many people voted no because they didn’t think that the economic case had been made. They just disagreed with the other side. Acceptance of the referendum result is vital; we can identify flaws while still abiding by it. It’s all relative. We must move on. But getting back in the box is not an alternative. “One Scotland” unity, while well-meaning, is easily abused. Orwell’s Unity is Strength springs immediately to mind because unity is often a code word for compliance and conformity. There’s no place for eat your cereal politics.

There is only wisdom in crowds, not in elite decision-making. The huge participation wasn’t simply because of the subject, it was because we, the people, were making the actual decision ourselves. Unlike in elections, we were not voting to choose other people to make decisions for us. One of saddest things I read on 19 September was Happy Dependence Day, a slogan but also a defiant recognition of the need for autonomy.

We’ve been too conservative in using the powers that The Scottish Parliament already has. By using current and newly devolved powers a real difference can be made. From the missing link of radical devolution to local communities, land reform, community energy and building our own community organisations to real public sector reform. We need creativity and commitment. We also need to drive forward social media and democratic, inclusive, unbiased media. We don’t need alternative media that just reinforces our own views without challenge.

There are many incredible people-led movements across the world and there’s also a wider war against democracy. We should be aware of these many campaigns against elite, minority rule and for direct people power. It’s only with mass and persistent action that fundamental change happens.

While the UK state infrastructure remains powerful, the unionist campaign was temporary. The Indy infrastructure is now thriving. Energised, motivated and determined, they’re going nowhere. Much of this has thankfully gone beyond narrow nationalism and indeed beyond narrow independence. It’s not about the 45%, it’s about the 100%. We now need this to be a democracy movement.

But forget the challenges, the truth is self-evident. Autonomy and authentic, direct democracy is addictive. One taste and people want more. This vote was important but it was just one step as part of an ongoing journey.

Forget governance, Scotland is more of a nation than ever.

IMG_0128

In the end it was a fairly even match, but not a question of right and wrong. The results meant tears for some in my living room, but by the end of this afternoon there were two emails in my inbox and three voicemails by people galvanised to do something as quickly as possible. They were no voters, yes voters and non-voters.

There were soft and hard nationalism on both sides, loyalties to structures and institutions and patterns that saw Labour councillors from England and Greens and secessionists from around the world shipped in to fight the good fight.  There was old-nationalist graffiti on polling stations and union flag waving, no-voting Gaelic crofters and yes voting English academics. The thing they shared was a franchise and residency in the same almost-country.

What the referendum has done is give Scotland a greater sense of itself. Calling in those councils one by one mapped the nation. There was a moment when it seemed the future of an entire country might hang on the RNLI lifeboat on Barra.

The last two years have put me back in touch with a country I thought I knew. I visited places I had not seen since I was a child, sometimes for journalistic reasons and sometimes because I simply felt the need to see it afresh.

The day before the vote I was in a tower block in Coatbridge, knocking doors with a Danish film crew and talking to disaffected Labour voters about whether they could be swayed. In the end not enough of them were, but a No does not mean that the empty shop units and discount stores on the town’s main street will suddenly  vanish.  Danny, a stair cleaner and former taxi driver tasked with rinsing down all thirteen floors of the sixties high rise, saw it not as a personal gain but as a step forward for his children’s children.

In the centre of Glasgow, people thronged to George Square in the expectation that something was about to happen. Independence was the question but nobody quite knew what the consequences of either outcome would actually mean.  The Yes/No dichotomy was a battle for different personal futures, but it is the process that means Scotland has changed.

A defining memory is running into Jim Murphy in the grey drizzle of the quayside on East Loch Tarbert, waiting for the boat to Uig. He looked like a city boy uncomfortably forced to spend time somewhere he would much rather not be, standing there without a jacket next to a No Thanks banner designed for a windless community centre in Lanarkshire. It was jammed against a recycling bin for support, bright red against the grey pebbledash of the tourist information.

Until David Cameron visited Shetland to talk about oil as the campaign clock ran down, the most important political visitor had been the Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg. On the side of the museum in Scalloway is a small plaque commemorating the event. Shetland has been able to use the referendum to argue for itself, but like elsewhere in Scotland the edges have also been put in firmer contact with the centre.

I watched otters diving in Sullom Voe in the shadow of the huge oil terminal, dolphins off Arisaig, and deer in an unharvested field of beans in the shadow of the RBS headquarters, set against the perimeter fence of Edinburgh airport. I climbed the Fintry Hills and saw the turbines scything out of the mist in pure silence, followed a fox down Leith Walk at rush hour and interviewed teenagers and committed treason with schoolkids on the shinty pitch in Fort William by playing football.

I talked to the guys in the changing room at the local swim centre in Scotland shirts with No Thanks badges on. We stood there drying off as the noise of Britney Spears’ Toxic boomed through from the women’s aquafit next door and talked about where Hibs could go next. I climbed Ben Vrackie in deep snow and crouched just below the summit with a group of Glasgow mountaineers talking about land reform, listened to people visiting Eigg hatch plans to buy out a bit of their own local estate and was told by a farmer in the Borders to get off his land.

I saw London-based journalists mispronounce place names and recycle the tropes of the nineties, I sat drinking tea in a Conservative Club listening to someone lament the decline of industry, and I saw a gulf open up between Nationalists and unionist party hacks to be filled by people fowhom the question they were asked was not always the one that needed asking.

This is the new Scotland that the referendum made. This is where we are.

Sweden enters a brave new world

Olof Palme, the last Social Democrat to enjoy a full majority

Today Stefan Löfven, a former industrial welder from northern Sweden, expects to begin moves to assemble a Social Democrat-led government. As the latest in a long line of Social Democrat prime ministers, Löfven assumes not just the trappings of power but an office of both party and state that defined Sweden for the latter part of the 20th century. But the party that led Sweden through its golden age of economic and social prosperity after the Second World War and made the country a role-model across Europe and the wider world is not in good shape.

It used to be said the Social Democrats were in control even in opposition. Now the question is whether they are in control when they are in government. In coalition with the Greens, they no longer have the ability to lead and make others follow. When former Social Democrat leader Göran Persson left office in 2006, Sweden still possessed many of its Nordic economic and social features, from a monopoly on the nation’s chemists to extremely high levels of sick-pay eligibility and a relatively protected public healthcare system. In the past eight years many of the old certainties have vanished, and the country the Social Democrats should inherit is, for the first time in over half a century,  not a land for which they have written the rules.

Since 2006 Sweden has been led by the conservative-liberal ‘Alliance for Sweden’, a joint front of the Moderate, Christian Democrat, Liberal and Centre parties. By far the biggest partner in the coalition were the rebranded ‘New’ Moderates, who successfully overhauled Swedish conservatism under the leadership of Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt and proved a big influence on David Cameron’s reinvented British Conservative party.

Elected on a promise to safeguard the Swedish model,  the Alliance for Sweden have fundamentally changed key aspects of the Swedish system. Since the 1950s the country has been famous for extremely high levels of employee protection, gender and economic equality and a robust economy that has weathered global trends.

Since 2006 the expansion of profit-driven free schools has increased educational division, and tax cuts for both the wealthy and the restaurant sector, intended to stimulate employment, have had little impact on the overall prosperity of the country. Combined with an affordable housing crisis in Stockholm and well-publicized scandals involving private healthcare companies, the Moderates look set to limp over the finish line with just two-thirds of the support they won at the previous election.

The complex maths generated by Sweden’s combination of open national lists and a 4% barrier for entry to parliament means that a likely Social Democrat-Green coalition could horse trade with the Left, Liberal and Centre parties to form a majority. Unfortunately for Löfven, the Feminists failed to make it past the finish line, robbing them of a natural ally. Traditionally Sweden has operated as two electoral blocs, with the Social Democrat-dominated left competing with what Swedes label ‘bourgeois’ parties in coalition.

The difficulty for either side in assembling a complete majority has been created by the entry of the far-right Sweden Democrats. The party, which first appeared in 2010 and is rooted in neo-Nazism, was vying with the Greens to become the third largest in national politics, comprehensively pushed them into third place. Both the Greens and the Sweden Democrats had consistently hovered at around 10%, with the Greens promoting their ability to keep the far right from influence to no avail. The Sweden Democrats hit 13% though, making themselves kingmakers if anyone would be willing to work with them.  For now though, unlike in neighbouring Norway where the strongly anti-immigration Progress Party is in a governing coalition, the Sweden Democrats remain political outcasts.

What is happening in Sweden mirrors the fragmentation of European politics more generally, with voters abandoning traditional Social Democratic and Conservative parties in favour of newer voices on both left and right.  In the recent European elections the Greens beat the Moderates into third place, whilst the grassroots Feminists mobilised largely young and female voters to win an MEP. More worryingly for the traditional blocs, the far-right have been able to take votes from both conservatives and white working class voters.

The changed nature of Swedish politics means that a return to pre-Alliance days is firmly out of the question,  and the time when the Social Democrats would haul in upwards of 40% of the vote and make small concessions to other parties are long gone. It also means that the Swedish model so admired by Sweden’s European neighbours is on shaky ground even without the Alliance at the helm.

Government without overwhelming support leaves the Social Democrats with an existential question. Outflanked on the progressive left by Feminists and Greens, but unable to move further right without hemorrhaging their core support, they remain comfortably the largest party but without a clear vision of why they want to be in office. At a time when Sweden’s problems with social exclusion and income distribution risk removing it from the realms of Scandinavia and dumping it firmly within the demographic trends of the rest of Western Europe, Löfven will lead a group with the smallest percentage of Social Democrat MPs since the 1920s.  His government needs to revive the Social Democratic project and make it relevant for the 21st century if the party and the society they created are to survive.

Scotland’s public sphere, not the BBC, is the real problem

IMG_4907 Today, thousands of pro-independence activists gathered outside of the BBC in Glasgow in order to protest against bias in the state-run broadcaster.

How right or wrong they are is debatable – bias is often confused with media organisations being under-resourced or needing to satisfy commercial constraints. What it does reveal though is a larger problem – people in Scotland do not have a great deal of trust in the media.

It works both ways too. I recently interviewed a pro-UK activist for an article I was writing who complained of the partisan approach of the Sunday Herald, the only newspaper to openly declare for the Yes side in the referendum campaign. I have also been called a Yes hack, though my only involvement in the Yes campaign has been playing in a charity football match to raise money for Motor Neurone Disease at their request.

This isn’t helped by some aspects of the media that insist on sorting people into one of two camps, the result being that a very well-known and competent Scottish journalist has recently found themselves cold-shouldered by broadcasters as they did not slot neatly into the demands of five minute vox pops.

The campaign has also seen a growth in a particular kind of anti-journalistic campaigning. For too long Scottish journalism got by on the ‘succulent lamb’ approach typified by the financial scandals involving Rangers football club. Journalists were given a ready supply of stories and were not encouraged to ask questions.  Events such as the phone-hacking scandal and tabloid culture have also made the general public highly suspicious of journalists. When talking to a Yes activist in the south of Scotland, he was reluctant to let me record him before knowing exactly what my article was about and having been reassured that I wouldn’t stitch him up.

One of the shorthands of the referendum is MSM – mainstream media. MSM has become a term of abuse almost, and in some cases there are immediately resistant readings by large sections of the population to anything published in the traditional press. The other side of this is the alternative media, typified by more professional undertakings such as Bella Caledonia and the experimental Referendum TV, but also by glorified blogs such as Wings over Scotland.

Often marketing themselves as citizen media, alternative media usually crowdfunds itself for short periods and attempts to counter perceived bias. In many cases such projects provide much needed diversity to the media landscape, and Bella Caledonia for example have a track record of publishing well-written and interesting articles on all aspects of Scotland by some fairly notable writers and experts. What they can never do is attempt to be media organisations that can carry serious weight in a way that newspapers and TV broadcasters do. Between the BBC and this internet fringe there remains very little of substance.

Scotland’s conventional newspapers are severely limited in their ability to fully cover important issues, relying on wire stories, externally produced content and increasingly thin advertising margins. The people marching outside of Pacific Quay in Glasgow may feel wronged, but they should realise that they’re not the only ones being failed by Scotland’s media. There is a public space that needs to be claimed, and we’ll need an entirely new model of public service journalism to do so. Watch this space.