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Jingo Unchained

evening news heroes

Evening news heroes

Not respecting  ’our’ troops is one of the biggest taboos in politics. Armed Forces Day is a most bizarre invention, plucked from the ether by politicians to justify support for various overseas expeditions and to placate the military establishment.

The cult of military heroism in Britain is absolutely bizarre. It has created a climate in which everyone is a hero, even those people who have ambivalently signed up to the military due to a lack of options at home for reasons of class, education or general unemployment.

A few years ago the Army started recruiting via Spotify, running adverts that began with a supermarket checkout beep and contrasted the low-paid monotony of Tesco jobs and dead end college courses with the excitement of sitting on top of a tank with your mates carrying guns. This whole recruitment ethos was lampooned in Gary: Tank Commander and the central character’s bemused reaction to being hailed a hero on his return to Glasgow Airport.

The other odd thing is that we already have a day set aside each year to remember all those lost to war and conflict, though of late Remembrance Day has been appropriated by the jingoistic people who emphasise the Great in Great Britain and turned into a celebration of war which makes it uncomfortable for anyone not into military cheerleading.

Armed Forces day in Scotland is also a chance for the unreconstructed  Union Jack wavers to have a day out and assert some sort of made up connection between Scotland and military expeditions – the recent article in the Scotsman by Major General Andrew Mackay in which Scots were described as ‘a warrior race’ being a case in point.  Since the referendum has been on the radar this also plays in to a particularly nasty kind of militaristic British nationalism, typified by the appallingly small-minded rhetoric of ForcesTogether and its attempts to construct the United Kingdom as some sort of military brotherhood.  Not by coincidence, the report which General Mackay authored was commissioned by a private think tank, the Scotland institute, set up and funded by a multi-millionaire former Territorial Army member.

I’ll respect our troops for the people they are, and I’ll remember the kid I went to primary school with killed by a roadside bomb in Basra, and I’ll support the member of my extended family who went into the RAF after being repeatedly failed by the school system,  but I will not do it on Armed Forces Day.

Would we rather the SNP be sensible or knee-jerk nationalist on welfare?

I do sometimes feel sorry for the SNP. They spend all their time being pilloried by the Scotsman and the opposition benches about not having any vision of how an independent Scotland would work, and when they do try and give a practical answer it is so willfully misconstrued that they probably wish they had done the easy thing and not bothered coming up with a more detailed insight.

The idea that Scotland and the United Kingdom might share welfare administration for a period after independence makes perfect sense. In fact, to the credit of the sections of the SNP who can be fairly absolutist about such things, it is an extremely sensible step.

Independence inevitably means the establishment of separate Scottish structures for the provision of public services in the same way that the country already enjoys control of the healthcare and education systsems. Nobody has suggested that that will not ultimately be the case.

What the Scottish Government have suggested is that welfare administration should be shared until a point is reached at which both the United Kingdom and Scottish Governments feel they can manage their own domestic affairs on home soil. So far, so sensible.

It would be the reverse of the process of German reunification, whereby an initially measured timescale was steamrollered for political reasons with unintended consequences. Whereas the integration of systems in Germany was done far too speedily, the division of something as complex as welfare in Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom on the same timescale as the assumption of statehood would be irresponsible for any government to take.

But this does not change the principle of full autonomy for Scotland in the long term. The discussions of aspects such as pensions are often used as a stick to beat the very idea of an independent state, including some mischief making from the Better Together campaign about Scotland’s status as a subsidy junky, but it is at the end of the day a practical detail to be worked out.

The Forces Together campaign launched by Alistair Darling at The Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party’s conference in Stirling goes to town on this, asking how our brave troops would be paid their defence pensions if they were living in a foreign country, and whether Scotland could afford to pay them. Britain has years of experience paying military personnel resident in foreign countries for years at a time and living abroad does not exclude former personnel from being the responsibility of the British military pensions scheme, as shown by the Irish citizens who choose to fight in the British army even today.

There is a fair deal the SNP are wrong about in terms of the details of independence, but for once let us congratulate them for actually being honest and practical about how Scotland would best engineer a smooth transition which made sure that all of its citizens were well looked after.

Scottish politics’ Old Firm

A few things have happened to me in the last few weeks which have reminded me of the importance of community to every aspect of our lives, and how this can be a wonderful thing.

Last Sunday I joined tens of thousands of other Hibs fans at the Scottish Cup Final in Glasgow. To see half the stadium singing Sunshine on Leith – a crowd made up of people who you recognised from bars and shops and the local swimming pool – underlined what a powerful thing community can be. Hibs went down 3-0 to a Celtic side with a global fanbase and several times more money composed of players from across the globe.  A defeat, but one which cemented the feeling that Leith is a very special place with a very specific identity and community.

A few days later came another defeat dished out by the big boys, but this time it was Edinburgh and not Glasgow putting an end to a long and hard fought campaign. The City of Edinburgh council’s Labour/SNP administration made the decision to sell the local fun pool to a private developer instead of the preferred community option that it should be taken over by a community organisation and run on a non-profit basis with a public subsidy. The council have opted to sell it to a property developer with plans for a generic indoor play zone, despite the area already having indoor play facilities.

Now, to return to the question of Hibernian FC, it has a fine tradition of producing footballers who are then purchased for apparently irresistible  money by Glasgow teams, the rationale being that the payoff is too good to refuse and that it will help the team build and move on in the long term.

As long as I have been a supporter of Hibernian FC this has demonstrably failed to happen, and I am worried that the same will be true of the Leith Waterworld saga. Were that one million pounds ploughed directly back into the local area it would be welcome, but it won’t be. That one million pounds could cover the whole of Leith in safe cycle and walking projects to keep kids fit, or it could be used for community startups or form the basis of a cooperative energy company which would more or less print money for the community to reinvest. Hell, it could even pay for a few metres of the tram line down Leith Walk, which we are in far greater need of than the poverty-stricken residents of Edinburgh Airport are (on this note it is also worth pointing out the council masterplan to develop the greenbelt land around the tram line by the airport when we have a huge number of brownfield sites which are either underdeveloped, underused or contain housing so bad it should probably be torn down anyway).

Leith is not a suburb of Edinburgh – it is a cosmopolitan place in its own right full of wonderful people. We have been let down by decision makers who do not know what the needs and desires of the local community are, in a failure of both democracy and common sense. The decision has cemented people’s dissatisfaction with structures of governance which view our assets as belonging to the city chambers and not to the people of our communities. We may not to be able to afford Leigh Griffiths, but we can definitely afford to invest in our collective resources.


Scotland 2.0, or why the nation needs a new operating system.

Today a guest post from Lee Bunce, a Green with a keen interest and academic expertise in the relationships between information, democracy and technology. 

Whitelee wind farm creative commons

Scotland is uniquely placed to take advantage of the new technologies that together will shape the future of our planet. It is both geographically and technically well-positioned to place itself at the forefront of  renewable energy and information technology. But to make the most of these new technologies it most avoid repeating old mistakes. Rather than handing the benefits, and profits, over to a handful of corporations Scotland should direct its efforts towards its communities.

Scotland’s renewable potential is well understood. It has some best resources in wind, wave and other renewable energy sources of any country in the world. Perhaps less appreciated is Scotland’s potential to be a leader in technology. Scotland’s ICT industry already directly employs around 40,000 people (according to ScotlandIS ), compared to 11,200 in its whisky industry for example, and its games industry in particular is thriving. Government support combined with access to a highly skilled workforce, as well as geographical advantages such as proximity to both the rest of Europe and America, and indeed its renewable energy sources, could help make Scotland a world leader in the field in much the same way that Iceland is to the north.

Development of these industries has so far been carried out along traditional corporate lines.  Scotland has hugely ambitious targets for renewable energy, aiming for 100% of Scotland’s electricity to be produced by renewables by 2020 . The majority of this energy will be produced by large scale top-down onshore wind projects, which largely means a continuation of the trend whereby the ‘Big Six’ energy companies provide around 99% of UK energy. The Scottish government meanwhile envisages  that around 500MW of this renewable capacity will be community owned, or just around 3% . It’s a start, but nowhere near ambitious enough. In Germany around 65% of its turbines and solar panels are community owned, and Scotland could aim even higher.

Community owned renewable energy comes with a number of benefits. It creates local jobs, keeps money circulating within local economies and builds community cohesion. Projects that are community owned are also more likely to be supported by the communities they serve, which is important at a time when resistance to wind-farms is prevalent. By taking a more ambitious approach to community energy, Scotland reap these benefits on an enormous scale.

Likewise, the way in which information technology works sometimes holds back innovation and progress due to commercial monopolisation. Technology is primarily about knowledge, in particular using knowledge for the benefit of society. Again, development in technology has so far followed the traditional route followed by the rest of the UK, whereby this knowledge economy is built on classic conceptions of private enterprise which commodify knowledge using stringent intellectual property legislation that restricts the use of knowledge and information to those who can afford to pay for it. Again, Scotland could benefit by adopting a more community based approach.

Community here means something different of course. It might mean online communities developing free and open source software that is available to all, or building useful applications based on free and open data. It might even mean communities of artists and musicians using information technologies to make their work freely available under ‘copyleft’  licences, or scientists sharing data and collaborating online. The benefits of adopting this ‘open’ philosophy could be substantial. Relaxing intellectually property laws could stimulate a boom in innovation in technology and beyond as ideas are able to freely spread and developers are able to build on the ideas that came before them.

Supporting free software and open data does not mean being anti-business, as is often claimed. It just means being rejecting business models that do not benefit society in favour of other models that do. Taking free software specifically, this might mean that instead of making a profit by selling expensive licenses to use software while keeping the source code hidden programmers can make money by offering their expertise as a service, providing support or bespoke modifications. The result is that the technological benefits can be spread far and wide (the classic example of this is the GNU/Linux operating system, though there are countless others).

Both these approaches towards new technologies, energy and IT, mean doing something quite different to the economic default.  They mean discarding policies and practices that benefit the few in favour of quite radical new ideas that can benefit the many. Given that the future of these technologies and industries will likely shape the future of Scotland, and indeed the planet, any method of distributing benefits as widely as possible deserve to be taken very seriously.


Lee is one of the two founding editors of the Edinburgh green journalism project POSTmag. The text published here is available for reproduction under a creative commons licence with attribution to the author.

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Over your cities Green grass will grow

The Labour party have looked about them, taken stock of the post-Blair wasteland and identified the enemy. which apparently is those well-known destroyers of democracy and oppressors of the common people in the Scottish Green Party.

At Scottish Labour Conference in Inverness this weekend there will be a fringe event entitled ‘Green Splinters’, staged with the express aim of finding out why some people have realised that they would rather vote Green instead of Labour.

Labour peer Lord Bassam, who I am told by Sooth Folk has a flatteringly obsessive distaste for the Greens, tweeted: ‘In Inverness to discuss countering the Green threat to progressive politics.’. It is hard to think of a more obtuse statement given the situation that many people in England find themselves in. I have no idea how much Lord Bassam knows about Scottish politics or the Scottish Green Party, but I would wager that it is significantly less than he thinks.

The Green vote is not a strictly socialist vote, and it is not an anti-Labour vote. The Green vote is a vote for people actually doing their jobs with competence and enthusiasm, and for an ability to bring new ideas into an intellectually moribund arena. Green politics is socialist in certain aspects, normatively seen it embodies the values and aims of social democracy, but it is marked above all by its ability and tendency to challenge institutions from a citizen-based democratic perspective.

Green politics in Germany is a case in point. The German Green Party as it now exists was born from a coalition of environmental and democratic organisations instrumental in the downfall of the German Democratic Republic, combined with the West German Green Party. After first breaking into German regional parliaments, in the late 1990s it provided crucial support to an SDP government looking to form a parliamentary majority.

In Sweden too the Greens have been able to pick up votes from the intellectual middle class and disillusioned former supporters of agrarian and socially liberal parties where those parties have drifted to the right. They often get a hard time from the officially socialist and social-democratic parties respectively, but for the maths to work it is actually in the interests of the red left to work with the Green left in order to form workable governments, rather than expend resources trying to exterminate them and claim 45 per cent of the vote and a lifetime in opposition.

Now the fact that this event is even taking place caused a squeal of delight amongst many in the SGP because it means that the Greens have gone from being a party nobody in politics cared about to one which is obviously threatening the hegemonies enjoyed by institutionalised Labour and unimaginative nationalism.

It would, however, be sad if the Labour party were to decide that keeping the Greens at bay were more important than trying to build workable alternative governments at Westminster and Holyrood.

There is also the crucial matter of Labour failing to embrace either electoral reform or the environment to any significant degree. And devolution, childcare reform, progressive taxation and urban planning. We need a future democracy which looks quite different from today, and all tomorrow’s parties should try to work together to make it happen. The Greens have the ideas and they need viable partners to make it happen.

We’d rather be friends than enemies, but if Labour want to be enemies they should consider the fact that it is a civil war they might well lose.