Archive for category International

From the river to the sea: on the desperate need for a just peace in the Middle East

Thanks to April Cumming for today’s guest post on the situation in Gaza.

3286249224_22f71a902c_zThe images playing across the screens of the world today and over the previous week are nothing new; children are rushed to hospitals, with bloodied limbs and screaming parents by their sides.  Grief-stricken widows with palms to the air offer up a plea to the heavens for some reason, some explanation.  A densely populated street scarred by the bombing of yesterday, littered with car parts, crumbled walls and crimson stains on charred earth.

This is the Gaza Strip and this is the entire world for thousands of captive Palestinians, hemmed in by the ever-tightening UN Armistice line to one side, and the glittering Mediterranean Sea to the other.  The bountiful waters are, of course, off-limits to the Palestinians who would once have fished there.

The response of the international community is also nothing new, with calls for a ceasefire, strong condemnation, and yet no meaningful sanctions against an occupying force that day by day restricts even the basic human rights of many innocent people.

This shattered land, once part of a united Palestinian territory, now exists in isolation of the West Bank.  The former, ruled by Hamas, and the latter ruled by Fatah.

Israel overtook the territories of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, from Jordan and Egypt respectively, in the Six Day War of 1967, and has maintained control of them from this time.  The threat of violent retaliation in response to occupation coming from the territory of Gaza has allowed an increased use in military interventions while at the same time drawing attention away from the continued expansion beyond the UN sanctioned borders.

Over the course of the three aerial bombardments of the strip, starting in 2008 with Operation Cast Lead, The Israeli military has succeeded in destroying vital domestic infrastructure in a manner deliberately designed to intimidate and undermine beyond the targeting of military strongholds. Water infrastructure has been disabled, sanitation has been destroyed, schools and hospitals have been damaged, and the cumulative effect of this is to wipe out any chance of a stable and sustainable state infrastructure to be developed. In a report to CNN a spokesman for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) explained that this current bombardment alone more than 500 homes in Gaza have been destroyed or severely damaged, more than 3,000 Palestinians are displaced and hundreds of thousands have been affected by damage to water infrastructure.  Electricity has been cut from major areas of Gaza City, and at least one major line was struck, repaired and promptly struck again. Nine UNRWA schools have been damaged.  Fatalities, including the young, continue to mount.

Is it any wonder that generations of citizens who have known nothing but this intimidation and whom have never looked an Israeli in the eye as an equal vote for a pro-retaliation administration?  Only when both the Israelis and the joint Hamas-Fatah Palestinian body come to the table as something approaching equals will this rancorous relationship be addressed meaningfully.

One positive step was taken in the formation of a coalition between Hamas and Fatah in advance of the peace talks that took place in April.  This showed that both the moderate West Bank representatives and the more territorial Hamas are willing to provide a united front for finding a peaceful resolution, and gives an indication of their recognition that diplomatic means are always favourable to military intervention.  This was not reflected in the Israeli response.  Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid stated that Hamas’ joining the Palestinian government would be “a game-changer” and that Abbas had violated Israel’s trust by reaching the agreement with Hamas.  “Hamas is a jihadi terror organization that is proud of killing civilians – women, children, the elderly – just because they’re Jewish.”

I have never met a Jewish person who believes that the current situation is just or sustainable.  It is not Judaism but Zionism and apartheid that fuels the endless violence and the hatred that comes from Hamas is a product of this.  Without understanding and communication this barrier cannot be crossed.   The use of binary oppositions, ‘us vs them’, is so common on both sides of the divide that it has become part of the everyday language and lives of the civilians who toil under a brutal and manipulative leadership.  They are the victims in the occupation and they exist, to a greater or lesser extent, in Israel, Gaza and The West Bank.

All lives are damaged and this rhetoric will continue to burn hatred and misunderstanding into the hearts of civilians on both sides of the wall.  There is no small voice of calm, only the soaring oratory of the hawkish premier and the bitter resentment and retaliation of an angry, oppressed people.  Nothing but the withdrawal of Western support from Israel, and a push towards the re-establishment of the UN agreed 1969 Armistice line, will start the process of reconciliation.  The United Nations established this boundary and agreed to monitor it and ensure it was upheld. The armistice enforcement led to the signing of the separate Tripartite Declaration of 1950 between the United States, Britain, and France. In it, they pledged to take action within and outside the United Nations to prevent violations of the frontiers or armistice lines.  This has not happened.

Following this, a space for compromise must be created by UN-agreed peace brokers.  I believe this will only be possible with a more moderate Israeli government, as they hold the upper hand.  Hamas will not approach the table as moderates as they are not equals; therefore the concession and hand of peace must be made first from the side with most power.  The window of opportunity for peace, for all of those who wish for it, is closing rapidly.

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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.

Labour’s chance to seize on a radical Holyrood agenda

April Cumming is Vice-Chair of the left-wing think tank the Scottish Fabians. Here she writes for Better Nation about the opportunity for Labour to seize on a progressive agenda and change the way transport works in Scotland.

The Danish Parliament has its own fleet of staff bikes

The Danish Parliament has its own fleet of staff bikes

I cycled to my office this morning.  There’s nothing remarkable in this fact, thousands of workers across the country also prefer to take the bike where it is possible rather than its more cumbersome road-fellow.  What is remarkable, however, is the number of times on a weekly basis this activity brings me close to an unpleasant and untimely demise.  It’s not that I’m an unsafe cyclist; I indicate, I use the correct lanes, and I keep a safe distance from the frequently indifferent or incensed cab drivers, vans and buses.  The issue, I believe, is that those who prefer ‘active travel’ as a means of navigating Edinburgh’s streets are still perceived as an awkward inconvenience rather than a road user of equal status.  This is reflected in the lack of any real infrastructure to facilitate safe cycling in the city.  Without the provision of a network of well-maintained cycle routes, cyclist will continue to exist as second class citizens on the roads of our nation’s capital.

But why is it that as a country that invests so heavily in roads and large scale public sector infrastructure projects we continue to fall behind our more pro-active European neighbours in investing in relatively inexpensive but hugely effective active travel networks?  We appear to be besotted by the idea of the extravagant glamour project, for example HS2 and the Forth Bridge Replacement project; these are the status builds that mark the era of an ambitious government.  However, ambitious projects do not always a wise investment make, and in this time of stretched budgets we must look at expenditure choices that cover a wide range of policy objectives.  Active travel infrastructure in Scotland is not only a necessary facility for allowing citizens of all backgrounds to transport themselves and their families on short to mid-range journeys.  It is a vital mechanism for reducing our carbon emissions and vastly improving the health and wellbeing of our nation.  Effective town planning can vastly improve the living standards of urban residents, bringing diverse communities closer and acting as a social leveller; this is no less the case with active travel infrastructure as with housing and public spaces.  As a resident of Leith the capacity for good transport networks to create a more coherent flow between city centres and respective limbs of Edinburgh is not lost on me.  However, this does not simply mean catering to the needs of drivers above all others.  Short trips need to be made by alternative means, for the good of every Edinburgh resident and to achieve the long-term goal of an improved, accessible and human-friendly city.  Only central policy that pushes local authorities into action can ensure this is achieved, with adequate budgets put in place now to start that long-term modal shift.  Spend the money now and reap the rewards in future.  For a government whose focus has long been on endorsing a model of preventative spend this should not be rocket science.  As a case in point, a study in Copenhagen showed that when the health benefits, time saved and reduction in congestion and car crashes are taken into account, society makes a net profit of 1.22 Danish kroner (around 13p) for every kilometre cycled by one of its citizens.

This is a process that starts with good policy at the centre, and encourages local government to bring forward plans for action that meets the needs and characteristics of specific localities.  The case for active transport networks was argued vociferously in the transport and infrastructure committee and through the forum of the cycling CPG, with bodies like Sustrans and Spokes highlighting that a more hands-on approach was necessary. But to this point the rhetoric of successive governments with regard to building the infrastructure and vigorously promoting healthy and active travel options has fallen far short of the actions taken.

We live in a time where household budgets are being stretched and the cost of maintaining and running a car has become gradually less affordable.  At the same time a growing number of issues relating to health inequalities are yet to be tackled, and the infrastructure of our major urban hubs has been left in dire need of repair.  Most importantly, for the second year running we have failed to meet our emissions reduction targets.  The Scottish Government has set laudable and challenging targets to reduce carbon emissions by 42% by 2020 and by at least 80% by 2050.  The need for a more resilient and accessible active transport network, linked in with our local public transport routes, has become glaringly obvious and yet we are still to see the kind of focused attention on bringing forward a workable and practical plan that we see in other pioneering countries like Denmark.  This is a country whose government has tapped into the psyche of cyclists, has understood the specific needs and problems faced by travellers and has reacted with innovative technologies that not only assist but promote active travel.  Trains have entire carriages that may be adapted to accommodate cyclists.  Points of cultural interest have stations where bikes may be left and public transport hubs have facilities to hire bicycles to explore the city further or get to work.  There are even resting curbs specifically designed for cyclists at traffic junctions.   One third of journeys are made by bicycle, while car usage is falling. A quarter of two-children families own a cargo-style bike to get around the busy streets, encouraged to use the 346km (215 miles) of segregated cycle lanes, maintained by the relatively low budget of €10 million (£8 million) per year.

Current central and local government policy advocates investment in active travel (walking and cycling) over the private car, due to the multiple benefits it brings to society. The Cycling Action Plan for Scotland (CA PS) has a vision that “by 2020, 10% of all journeys taken in Scotland will be by bike.”  However, to date only 1% of journeys could be classified as “active” and Scotland’s current transport funding decisions, which largely prioritise major schemes such as the Forth road bridge, promote delivery mechanisms that fail to make the most of our capacity to lead on small-scale, local active travel initiatives.

I believe that in the absence of real progress the onus is on opposition parties, namely Scottish Labour and the Scottish Greens, to come forward with a logical and achievable pathway to real, sustainable change.  This means looking at the models adopted elsewhere and realising that this is an investment worth making.

As a regular attendee of events run by the think tank Nordic Horizons, I am a great advocate of looking to examples of best practice from other shores that may help us to bring forward policy suggestions based on evidence; such an approach allows more ambitious, innovative planning.  There are other cities in the Nordic region that have succeeded in not only creating the necessary infrastructure for modal shift but also lauding the practise of active travel and giving it an immense sense of social worth.  The communal aspect of walking and cycling is seen as something of real cultural value; it is a leveller that provides the individual with the ability to transport themselves and their family across the urban space, regardless of wealth or class background. As such it is not only a practical necessity but also serves as part of the fabric of that nation’s social makeup.  Recognising the need to challenge imbedded cultural attitudes to active travel and promote a shift away from our national vehicular fettish will be part in forcing the hand of central government.  Key to this is emphasising the benefit changes to our infrastructure will have on policy objectives across the board: reducing obesity, achieving carbon reduction targets, promoting social integration, opening up our city centres, making roads safer, and more generally enhancing our personal and collective well-being.  We stand to gain so much and yet have achieved so little.

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Shetland phoney.

If Tavish Scott is serious about Shetland’s Scandinavian heritage, he would do well to consider the advantages of an independent Holyrood.

Tavish Scott is a sort of self-styled Lord of the Isles. As a constituency MSP Shetland is most definitely his, and he seems to have a habit of seeing himself as its de facto president. He also loves going on about the islands’ Scandinavian heritage whenever distancing himself from any whiff of nationalism. Shetland needn’t be independent with Scotland because it has as much to do with Norway as it does with Edinburgh, he claims.

And fair enough perhaps . I was wandering around Scalloway this week and took a look at their shiny museum, opened by Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg last year. Likewise, Lerwick’s magnificent new arts centre would not be out of place on a quayside on the other side of the North Sea. You can sit on the beach and tune in to Norwegian local radio, and Lerwick is the only place in the British Isles to have tourist signage in Faeroese.

But it has even less to do with London than with Edinburgh. Tavish wants Shetland to assert its northerness, but not for Scotland to do so.  Now Scotland will never be a Scandinavian country, just as Shetland will never be entirely Scottish perhaps, but they both share a pervasive Northernness.

But does Tavish speak for Shetland, and if Shetland is serious about some sort of political autonomy, would it really want to be reduced to a Westminster territory? There is a phrase loved by certain Scottish liberals, home rule, which will always be inextricably linked to the establishment of the Irish state, and which is also about the last time liberalism was the hottest ticket in the burgh. Tavish can beat his drum, but considering that less than half of the electorate voted for him, his claims to be the voice of the islands are somewhat tenuous.

To quote a respected colleague, “The SNP are centralising f***ers.”.  There is a serious case to be made for Shetland, Orkney and the Western Isles to be given far greater powers over their day to day existence. The council tax freeze which both of the big parties signed up to is an assault on the ability of communities to take charge of their own futures. What works well in Livingston or Ayr will not necessarily be right for Harris and Lewis.

If Tavish wants to have a genuine conversation about appropriate powers, local devolution and Scandinavianism, he should probably pick up the phone and give Patrick Harvie a call.

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?