Archive for category Ideology

Arguments over how much oil there is are missing the point

An independent Scotland will ban nuclear weapons, we are told. Top stuff. I’m all for it.

Nuclear weapons are amoral and have the potential to kill millions of people if they were ever used, as well as belonging to an age now past.

But there is a bigger threat to  global peace and wellbeing lurking in Scottish waters, one which the more head-in-sand types in the SNP leadership and UK government are all too eager to embrace.

Scotland is about to undergo a second oil boom apparently. At least according to the First Minister.

And in the week that a leaked document accepting the idea of change and adaption as a central component of any society made the headlines, we are told that things shall always be as they have been, for ever more. The boom becomes a beat and the beat goes on.

What is pretty clear is that we can’t just turn off the oil industry. The Scottish economy would collapse, and thousands of people would lose their jobs. Like those peace-loving Swedes exporting Bofors armaments far and wide with a shrug of their shoulders and and a nod to the employment statistics, it is easy enough to take away the pain of responsibility with a few spoons of relativism.

And it is incredibly tempting, because all those guns and all that oil pays for the welfare and investment in the public good which so many right thinking people want in a society.

But the kind of politicians who would take the oil and look away are the same type of person who would use the cheats on Championship manager, only to wonder why winning the European Cup carries no sense of achievement. It’s the Dorian Gray of natural resources, and for every single drop pumped out the official portrait at Bute House will turn a touch more grotesque. Or maybe Faust if you want. They’re all the same basic metaphor.

It’s our oil till we’ve sold it, and then it’s another man’s grievance.

There is no denying that the low-carbon world which we must inevitably transition to – either by design or by sheer necessity – will and must come. I’ve stood in the gallery at Holyrood and watched the whole parliament pat itself on the back over climate change legislation. You can call yourself world leading or pioneering as much as you like, but if you then choose to adopt a position which runs counter to received scientific wisdom and moral defensibility you will find yourself leading a world of one.

Because the emissions from an ever expanding Scottish oil industry will kill more people than Trident, be it in the form of air pollution or crop failure, flooding and conflict.

And because we must transition to a sustainable economy, does it not make sense to do it immediately?  I’ll be voting Yes to change Scotland into the country it can be, not into an unthinking and morally indefensible oil state.

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I have concerns about immigration

ukbaWithout dwelling too long on Eastleigh, it’s clear that UKIP’s doing well by broadening its appeal out from anti-Europeanism and into broader anti-foreignerism.

No longer just against the European institutions, UKIP are now against Europeans personally. They have made a breakthrough with this repellent rhetoric already – actually winning would just have been the nasty icing on the cake.

It’s not just the crack-down coalition that hears this inchoate yelp from what they call Middle England, either. Labour are also listening. They’re going to address voters’ concerns on immigration, they say.

Fine. Address mine: here they are.

I am very concerned at the way immigration is described as a problem. Immigration isn’t a problem, let alone the problem.

Let’s start with the closest thing there is to “an immigration problem”, though, which is a problem caused by slow and incompetent administrative responses to changes in population levels. When particular areas see large numbers of people move into them, whether from within the UK or from the rest of the EU or from beyond, then services and funding for services need to follow them. If not, shortages of school places and longer queues in GPs’ surgeries can lead to resentment and community division. Extra support for translation, interpretation and the provision of English tuition will often be required. Central government needs to be more responsive here.

Next, there are concerns about pay. Does increasing the labour supply cut pay? Well, simplistically applying classical economics may suggest so, but economies and societies are more complicated than that. For one thing, immigrants aren’t just potential employees, they are also potential employers. These are people who have already shown enough determination to uproot themselves and come here, so I’d be astonished to discover they weren’t, pound for pound, more likely to be innovators and hard workers. Why else would the right-wing propaganda machine be so determined to tell us they’re scroungers? And there are solutions here, measures we should be taking irrespective of immigration: don’t strangle the economy with austerity, support tax-paying SMEs and co-ops rather than tax-avoiding multinationals, and above all, in this context, make the minimum wage a living wage and protect employee rights.

We live in a world where there’s virtually unrestricted movement of capital, but still restricted movement of labour. It’s a divergence designed to exploit: workers in country A get organised and demand better pay and conditions? It’s easy enough to shift business to country B, or at least as easy as it can be made for companies to do so. I’d expect any party that’s actually of the left, unlike the modern Labour party, to understand that. A real party of the left would wish to rebalance it.

More broadly, I’m concerned that politicians from Labour, the Tories and the Lib Dems seem not to realise the broader cultural contribution immigration makes. Imagine a Britain that had somehow barred the various waves of post-war migration, or a Scotland without the Italians, the Irish, the Bangladeshis, the Poles, the Sudanese. Depressing, isn’t it? Many of our institutions are still “too male, stale and pale”: if the whole country still looked like that I’d be looking to get out of it myself. When was the last time you heard any politician from any of those parties be just plain positive about immigration or immigrants? Sure, sometimes they make a token nod in the direction of positivity, but you know a “, but…” is going to follow.

I’m also concerned that when British residents move abroad for work they’re called “ex-pats”, and it’s seen as their absolute moral right to do so, which is fine, except that the same people are told that someone making the exact same move in the opposite direction for the exact same reasons is an immigrant, come simultaneously to take the jobs they’ve left behind and to scrounge off benefits. Let’s use the same term for everyone doing the same thing, in whichever direction. “Ex-pat” is a more positive term, so let’s go with that.

Finally, without wishing to blur the two issues like the right do, there are asylum seekers and refugees. In those cases, we see all the same benefits, plus the fact that we’re offering a safe haven to someone whose own country has become unsafe for them. It’s a basic moral principle. I have a couple of friends who came to Scotland as refugees from Sarajevo. I remember the day they got their status through: I cried. And they are now EU citizens, but they call Scotland their home. That makes me proud, prouder than any nationalist’s praise for his or her own country. “You just happened to be born here”, I think, “whereas these two made a positive choice”. Imagine a civil war here, or the rise of a truly fascist state: wouldn’t you want the French or the Chileans or the South Africans to offer vulnerable British people a safe haven?

Overall, though, my main concern that we’re missing out on the economic and social benefits that more immigration, with the protections set out above, would bring for this country. Are you listening, John Denham?

Jumping into bed with the Swedes

Shetland's hybrid Scots-Scandinavian flag

Shetland: Already halfway there

There have, in the past week, been a few noteworthy articles regarding the Scandinavian shadow which looms large over the issue of Scottish independence, as well as the future and makeup of Scotland’s economy, welfare system and society more generally.

Now I write this as somebody who knows a fair deal more about Scandinavia than most, for both personal and professional reasons.  A colleague of mine in the Greens remarked that the next Scottish Green manifesto should just be called ‘Scandinavian Nirvana’, such is the appetite in the party for increased welfare, greater social freedoms, gender equality and local democracy. I wholeheartedly agree.

Which brings me to something said by Blair McDougall in a BBC interview on the independence referendum. He accuses his opposite number in the Yes campaign, the significantly more articulate and less hackish Blair Jenkins, of wanting ‘57 per cent tax like in Norway’. There are indeed people in Norway paying that much tax, but these kind of people are not the salt of the earth working men and women which McDougall thinks will be crushed by the weight of Kaiser Salmond’s iron taxation, if he did indeed have such plans.

Then there was a report in The Economist which made the odd logical step of collating the radical reforms by centre-right governments in Sweden and formerly in Denmark with the high living standards and safe economies of the Nordic countries. As the Swedish journalist Katrin Kielos noted, there is an awful schizophrenia about the new craze for the Nordic centre-right, in that it assumes that being Scandinavian is a virtue in itself and argues that the path forward for these secure and durable systems is to follow a more British or American model . It is a trend which wishes to dine on the fruits of the Scandinavian countries’ labour whilst seeking to undermine it at its foundations.

The whole thing is illustrative of the fact that there is a huge amount of ignorance about the way in which Scandinavian society functions, and that this ignorance can be used to significant political advantage. It is also debatable to what extent it is even appropriate to address the Nordic countries as a single unit. There are however certain things which underpin  ‘the Scandinavian model’ which Scotland would have to adopt were it to develop in such a direction.

The first is a strict ethos of universalism. Not all services are free in Sweden or its neighbours, but notable by its absence is the incredibly British notion of selective assistance. Britain seems to implicitly accept that there should be huge gaps in income between different levels of society, and that one of the roles of public welfare is to alleviate this. It is a mode of thinking which the New Labour project perfected with its targeted alleviation, support for bright pupils from state schools and university access bursaries, without ever tackling the structural causes of poverty and discrimination.

Secondly, the way in which Scandinavian trade unions work is different to the British model. The nostalgia for the 1970s which pervades much of Britain’s left ignores the fact that old British models of trade-unionism were what allowed public support for the radical reforms of the 1980s. The systems of collective bargaining employed in Sweden and relatively high levels of unionisation amongst what might be termed normal people means that it is both destigmatised and can claim to represent large portions of the population.  This system has come under attack from centre-right governments in recent years but has survived relatively intact. The Scandinavian countries do not have a legal minimum wage, but they do have an effective minimum wage proportionally higher than Scotland, leading to a reduction in income inequality before the tax system has even played its redistributive  role.

And once tax is collected, where does it go? Not into benefits as they might be normally understood, but rather into the provision of universal services.  Childcare, incredibly well funded education systems, transport and infrastructure and healthcare.  The biggest challenge to Scotland is whether it is possible to transfer to this type of system given the appalling disparity evident in the country and present. It is in the interests of every Scottish woman to vote for a scenario which will provide the funding and structures for them to work and live on the same terms as men (and from a male feminist perspective, in men’s interest too).

Now to return to Blair McDougall and his mythical 57 per cent tax rate, I would say that it would only become an issue when you earn as much money as a senior press adviser or an MP.  Having large tax reserves means that in times of crisis governments are able to effectively deal with them, unlike the British model of medium taxation on an out of control financial system without any thought as to the after effects.

So to be realistic, adopting a Scandinavian social model would involve higher rates of tax, but it would also involve higher wages and better public services. In real terms incomes might well be higher, or at least remain static whilst providing for higher levels of public investment.

The whole thing is also dependent on a grand narrative. People vote for things because they believe in their viability, and the Scandinavian system is underpinned by a notion of functional redistribution different from the dominant discourse in Britain, and even in Scotland. It isn’t about smashing the rich or shooting bankers at dawn, but rather about building a cohesive society which works in the interest of all. As Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg says, “to create we must share, and to share we must create.”

David Leask’s excellent ‘As Others See Us’ column in the Herald, in which a group of Norwegians were asked for their opinion on independence, was revealing. The lack of interest in Scotland’s constitutional future was unsurprising – I frequently find myself explaining to Swedes the ins and outs of the independence movement – as Scotland is not politically visible. The Swedish daily Dagens Nyheter  recently published a feature on Europe’s contemporary independence movements which mentioned Scotland in the same breath as the Northern League in Italy and Flemish separatism in Belgium, entirely ignoring the broadly leftist motivations found in the majority of pro-independence groups and parties in Scotland. The challenge will be to explicitly build the construction of a sustainable and humane welfare state into the Scottish cultural narrative at home and abroad.

Neither would we or should we transform Scotland into Scandinavia overnight. When talking with a good friend of mine about how I hoped to live in a Scotland where I felt the state and society treated me and any potential wife/partner equally she smiled wryly and wished me good luck, with some justification. But that isn’t to say that we shouldn’t try. I answered that to combine the best aspects of Scotland and Sweden would create something beautiful, but that it would require the type of radical social change not seen since the 1960s. It would be a national project which larger countries would be entirely incapable of, but which might just work in Scotland. Scandinavia might be a fluid concept with many faces, but the values which it ostensibly represents are what we should really be aiming for. Both financially and morally, we cannot afford not to.

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The unbearable lightness of being petitioned.

Slavoj Zizek lecturing in Liverpool

Slavoj Zizek: Taking stock from the Eastern bloc

Another email into my inbox from one of several campaigning groups, asking me to lend me name to an undoubtedly worthy cause. The mechanisms of such campaigns are fairly familiar – an issue is located and a campaign started to make those who hold power realise that it is in their own interests to listen. It is a strange manifestation of a vaguely democratic mode of thinking with its basis in the idea of a benign but uninformed leader, or if you are more cynical, of a government desperately sensitive about the ability of single issues to define or destabilise.

It is similar to what Slavoj Zizek has called the humanisation of capitalism in his thinking on the way which society is required to ‘highlight’ certain issues through consumerism, the support of charity and the construction of individual everyday people as a moral guide in the behaviour of governments, corporations and institutions. It relies very heavily on the centrist addiction to general social doxa and public opinion which has come to define contemporary British politics, evidenced by the protestations of senior politicians that they are ‘listening’.

It must be said that dogma is just as dangerous as the apparent contemporary  lack thereof (though one might argue that centrism is a kind of dogma in itself). As Milan Kundera writes on the nature of mass protest in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, “behind all occupations and invasions lurks a more basic, pervasive evil and that the image of that evil was a parade of people marching with raised fists and shouting identical syllables in unison.”

The heart of Kundera’s argument is that any movement reliant on the orchestration of thousands of people shouting in union has closed its mind to the possibilities of dialogue, nuance, and independent thought. It is not desirable to live in a society in which problems are solved by shouting loudly – by protest instead of construction – even if we might happen to loosely agree with what is being espoused.

The same might be said for the process of governance by headline and petition. Pressuring politicians into making the decisions we might wish them to make implies a sense of resignation, or perhaps a lack of self-confidence, when it comes to thinking and speaking for ourselves.

To sign a petition asking the Prime Minister for clemency in one area or another is, on a purely functional level, a good thing. Demonstrably so in fact. The well-orchestrated campaign to save woodland in England and Wales proved that there is indeed a point in letter writing, and that governments do indeed care about what voters think, albeit perhaps only as a means of self preservation.

But to look at the genesis of these petitions is to understand how the spread and cultivation of political campaigns work. There are very few people who see politics as a distinct part of their identity, though they are generally good and fair-minded, and would indeed probably find their views in line with a particular political party when asked. By inviting people to lend their support to various worthy causes they become not instigators but respondents.

Furthermore, the petition-writing masses who operate on an issue by issue basis cannot fundamentally change the way in which a society works. This is why we have elections, and this is also why certain quarters are so terrified by the idea of the British parliament operating a system of fair elections. You might call it the illusion of empowerment. We are invited to approve or reject someone else’s ideas, but rarely are we asked by ourselves to produce a blueprint for the future.

Like Zizek’s analysis of the pitfalls of ethical consumerism, causing a bad government to make one fewer bad decision is as transformative as buying a cup of rainforest alliance coffee from a company which dodges billions in tax, and comes no closer to giving people the agency which should be their democratic right.

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Hollow lies the head that wears a weightless Crown

One of the long standing arguments against British Republicanism (and, by extension, Scottish Republicanism in a post-Independence Scotland on the current prospectus) is that the monarch has no actual power.

To quickly deal with a few other arguments:

  • Nobody actually comes to the UK to see the Queen, she isn’t publicly accessible at Buckingham Palace. We could use it for other things, like housing the homeless.
  • Yes, it will mean that we need to come to an accommodation about the current Crown estates and other assets. That’s ok. They didn’t earn them. Those assets were acquired illegitimately through violently undemocratic means. There’s a national debt somebody mentioned we have to deal with and surely it’s better to appropriate unearned wealth that should be held for the nation from the ultra-rich rather than punish the least well off and ruin the economy?
  • The head of state being head of an established national church  is clearly problematic in a multi-religious nation, never mind the rise of secularism, agnosticism and atheism .
  • Yes, the Queen is very old and does a lot of public engagements. So what?

Leaving aside those and other arguments against a constitutional monarchy, such as the inherent injustice and preservation of unearned privilege, the absence of real power has always been one of the central arguments on the pro-monarchy side. It is an argument which is now demonstrably false. A series of stories in the Guardian have exposed that, far from the legally inert and ceremonial role the Queen and her heirs and successors are said to enjoy since  the mid 70’s (between the Australian constitutional crisis and the rather murky goings on around Alec Douglas-Home she played a role in appointing the executive up until then), the monarchy has clearly continued to play some sort of active part in government legislation and policy up until… errr… now.

The “oh, but they don’t really do anything, it’s purely ceremonial” argument prioritises the admittedly useful political and legal fiction of the dignified part of government over the varied and often unclear, vague and nebulous alternatives presented. Admittedly most of the alternatives have drawbacks: an effective President either elected or selected by lot undermines the supposed legitimacy of the Prime Minister (those of an avowedly Nationalist bent can substitute First there and carry on regardless);  a Prime/First Minister accountable to no one save the legislature they control by definition may grow over mighty; a ceremonial President changes little in practice except the abolition of the hereditary principle although I’d argue that this would be worth the candle in and of itself.

The fact the monarchy does do things, and apparently does so with notable frequency and vigour, rather torpedoes that argument for inertia.

However, the current situation has by and large served us well. An elected President, on either the Franco-American or German-Italian models, would fundamentally change the way the country works. One selected by lot, while appealing to my Erisian sensibilities, doesn’t really change much. And it is actually quite useful to have a Crown which, in the idealistic conception advanced by constitutional monarchists, acts as a proxy for the best interests of the people.

Those who protect us from threats mundanely domestic and exotically foreign do so in the name of Her Majesty. The civil servants and elected members who write the laws and the police officers, tax inspectors, lawyers, judges and prison officers who enforce them serve the Crown. They do these things not in the name of the government of the day, although obviously they are accountable to them to a greater or lesser extent.

One of the things that being a programmer has taught me is that when you have a functioning system, and you don’t want to disrupt your existing users unnecessarily, small incremental improvements are better than rewriting from scratch. Given that the Royalist argument that the monarchy doesn’t actually play a role in the government is clearly untrue (and disregarding the counter argument that who cares, they theoretically could and that’s not ok) but removing them would mean unpicking some fairly useful conventions a simple solution occurs to me.

Keep the crown, dispense with the wearer.

If the monarchy doesn’t play a (fundamentally undemocratic) part in government that won’t affect things. If she does play an undemocratic part in government removing her is a clear win. She does, her heirs and successors will. Time to be rid.