Archive for category Equality

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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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.

A Niceway To Die

 

The ’Niceway Code’ is not just about appeasing cyclists – it is typical of a government increasingly tokenistic and out touch with the challenges it faces.

The Scottish Government recently launched a campaign to improve Scotland’s road safety record called ‘The Niceway Code’. You may have missed this due to the fact that it only has a budget of 500,000 pounds and it is so appallingly lame that Transport Minister Keith Brown’s department seem faintly embarrassed about the whole thing.

The campaign aims to reduce the number of road deaths by asking road users to be nice to one another, which is surprising in that the law already compels people to be nice to and not kill one another on the roads.

The fact that the campaign does not even remind motorists or their legal obligations (and in some cases directly contradicts what road markings tell cyclists to do as shown in the picture below) has incensed active and sustainable transport groups. One Holyrood insider even talked of how an panel of interest groups were left dumbfounded when Keith Brown’s team revealed their grand strategy for preventing death and injury on the nation’s streets. The Scottish Government’s own statistics show that 1 in 14 road deaths each year are cyclists, and only in a tiny minority of cases have the cyclists committed even minor infringements to the highway code.

Don’t go left, even though that’s where the cycle lane is.

The SNP seem to want to keep everyone happy, which is why they seem to view cyclists and cycling as an interest group and not as a genuine means of tackling some of the endemic transport and urban problems of contemporary Scotland. They will happily commit three BILLION pounds to doubling the A9 from Perth to Inverness but cannot muster the couple of million pounds it would require to radically reshape Scotland’s urban and suburban spaces to make them more liveable.

Cycling is not just about lycra and weekend hobbyists – harnessed properly it can create safer streets for children and families in particular, cut air pollution and help meet Scotland’s climate goals. It can save the government and taxpayers money, cut health bills and reduce the strain on public transport networks without extra subsidies. If even a crumb of that three billion were spent on redesigning towns and cities to make them more people-friendly the SNP would be a world leader, but for the time being they’ve just got everyone sniggering into the back of their hand. And I’m being nice.

 

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When civil partnership was radical

My OathJust over ten years ago, the Rainbow Parliament came to town, full of Greens, Socialists and independents. Of the new rainbow intake, just one still remains at Holyrood: Patrick Harvie. His first act, more or less the moment he’d taken the oath, was to propose legislation for civil partnerships – in fact, it was soon enough for the Herald’s cartoonist to draw Patrick with his hand in the air saying “I hereby swear my allegiance to the queens”.

The outrage was widespread, and not just from the usual suspects. Even the less reactionary parts of the media complained that this wasn’t what Greens were elected to do – surely they should just be talking about conservation or climate change? They moaned that Robin wouldn’t have done this, neglecting the fact that it had been a Green manifesto pledge, and that Robin had made the exact same arguments during the previous session.

Just three years prior to that, Scottish Ministers had been the subject of the bad-tempered Keep The Clause campaign, Brian Souter’s hateful effort to try and marginalise LGBT youngsters at school. They’d stuck to their guns, but why would anyone at Holyrood want to kick off another controversy in this area, they asked? It’s too soon. It’s not a big deal. Who cares?

Although Patrick’s Bill wasn’t successful, it did get Holyrood talking about the issue, and it helped ensure that the Scottish Parliament fully debated the issue, and voted in support of the principle, before Westminster passed legislation for the whole UK. Just a year later civil partnerships were approved UK-wide.

Today, as the Scottish Government publishes a bill to deliver equal marriage (with some flaws), supported by the leadership of all five parties at Holyrood, it’s hard to believe how radical it was just ten years ago to propose civil partnerships. This country isn’t free of prejudice or inequality, nor will it be when this bill passes, but on no other issue I care about have I seen such rapid progress. Patrick: you deserve a glass of something fizzy today.