Faraway, so close!

In Weiter Ferne, so what?

In Weiter Ferne, so what?

25 years ago the Berlin Wall came down. The most physical symbol of the division between East and West was pulled apart by the people that feared it. The spectre of a border dividing what was supposed to be whole lives long in the memory and lingered uncomfortably in the background of the independence referendum. Threats of border posts and razor-wire played on the idea that Britain would be another Korea or Germany, people the same cut off from one another by ideologues.

Today Berlin is not the run down and crumbling liminal city of Bowie and Wim Wenders Wings of Desire and Faraway, so close! The cultural tropes live on though.  Everything from the rebuilding of the Hotel Adler to the demolition of the East German parliament building is designed to pretend fifty years of history did not happen.

Instead Berlin’s history is increasingly remembered through a series of arbitrary official sites, from the Holocaust memorial to the Topography of Terror exhibition on Nazism. The real scars though are covered up under the skyscrapers of Potsdamer Platz and the Dunkin Donuts stores in Mitte, the central district. The decision to put balloons up along the wall to mark its path was symptomatic of one of the ironies of post-89 Berlin: everyone is aware of the city’s history but most of the young hipsters would struggle to tell you exactly where the wall ran, or even its proper history.

Around Checkpoint Charlie, famous because it was the point at which you passed from American to Soviet controlled Berlin, people buy mass produced communist memorabilia. When I lived in Berlin you could see queues of tourists waiting to have their picture taken with actors dressed as border guards. The sentry post in the centre of the street is a fake, made to be more authentic than the larger 80s building demolished on reunification.

From the second world war to the 1990s Berlin was the centre of a frozen proxy conflict. Neither East nor West Germany were truly independent. Now though Berlin is controlled by a different group of outsiders, a youthful international class of people from Britain, the US, Israel, Russia, Poland, Scandinavia and Italy who all move to Berlin on wave upon wave of myth building. For young Israeli’s unable to come to terms with the limitations of living in a religious state or the idea of doing a term in the IDF, Berlin offers a way out. It is a city of many subcultures, but the Israeli expat gay scene is one of the more remarkable ones. Importantly, it is a significant step in Jewish people reclaiming central Europe as a natural home in a more modern guise, but now in the company of a multitude of other European ethnic groups.

This is the Europe that the UK seems reluctant to embrace. Those fanning the flames of an exit from the EU seem intent on resisting the reality of the open and interconnected Europe that has sprung up. For some that is a colonial hangover, for others a misreading of the way the continent has almost always worked with people moving from north to south and east to west. Only through British eyes does it become an instrumental project, interesting when it is useful and derided when not. Britain could play an integral part in the next twenty-five years of Europe, or it could build a wall and tell stories about what is on the other side.

Scoring the Labour candidates

It’s time for a bit of science on the Labour leadership. Or at least an entirely subjective game of Top Trumps. If I’ve missed anything out, do let me know. All scores are out of 10.

Issues Sarah Boyack Neil Findlay Jim Murphy
Record of interest in reforming Labour 7 3 4
Compliance with UK Labour 4 1 10
Media support 2 3 10
Appeal to SNP voters 5 4 0
Appeal to Tory voters 2 0 8
Appeal to Green voters 4 4 0

In terms of the appeal to other parties’ voters, 10 out of 10 is the notional figure awarded for each party’s ideal current person, so 10/10 for the SNP would be Nicola, 10/10 for the Greens would be Patrick, and 10/10 for the Tories would be perhaps a reincarnation of Margaret Thatcher. In my unscientific view (like everything else here) Findlay and Boyack appeal to different parts of the SNP and Green electorates – he reaches the more left segments of both, while she reaches the more centrist part of the SNP voting pool and the more “eco” part of the Greens. Those figures tend to be low, especially for the SNP and the Greens, as both parties are on a bounce in terms of support. You’d have to be really aligned to beat 5 for either group, in my view. Malcolm Chisholm might get a 6 for current SNP voters.

I’ve also not put a figure for appeal to current Lib Dem voters. I really don’t have any idea what they want. The other thing to bear in mind there is that Labour will in part here be deciding whose voters they want to target. Are Tory voters a big enough pool for Labour to want to fish in, at a Scottish level? If I were them I’d want to focus the party’s appeal on SNP voters, perhaps most specifically that fraction who voted No in September, although holding off the Greens is apparently also high on Labour’s list of current objectives.

Excessive compliance with UK Labour for me does not count as a positive for a Scottish Labour leader: Johann Lamont’s criticism feels spot on, and fraternal operational independence seems the only structure that can help with the deep problems there. However, to be generous, I’m not convinced that vociferously opposing Miliband on a wide range of policy issues (as Neil Findlay would do – and I would tend to agree with him) would necessarily help with any hypothetical Labour revival. I think about 4/10 is in fact potentially the sweet spot there. I also find it hard to tell whether the media, especially the bits edited in London, are backing Murphy because they think he’ll help Labour or because they think he’ll sink them.

The upshot is this. If I were a Labour member, my policy heart would be inclined towards Findlay (despite the serious problems cited here by @3psteve), but my head would be decisively in favour of Boyack. Both head and heart would be united in the view that Murphy would be Scottish Labour simply doubling down on all its problems: the privatising, warmongering, tuition-fee-introducing legacy of Blairism, the clammy hand of London controlling the Scottish party, and the a obsessive focus on the SNP rather than Labour’s own offer.

Declaration of interest: I have, in a vote of confidence in the Labour membership, who still oddly only get a third of the votes, put £100 down on Boyack at 9-1.

De-pressing depression: a personal reflection

A brave and very personal guest post from Malc Harvey, one of the original founding team of this blog. Thanks Malc!

MalcTaking a leaf out of the book of John Woodcock, the Labour MP for Barrow and Furness (ironically, part of the world where I visited on holiday last week – lovely views, shame about the weather) I’m just going to come out and say this:

I have depression, and I’m dealing with it.

I write this not for sympathy or support, but for myself and for others who suffer from the same condition.  I’ve been struggling with this for a reasonable length of time in private and I’ve found writing about it, and being open and honest about it in public, has been usefully cathartic for me.  Much as everyone experiences depression in different ways, so too solutions present themselves differently. While this works for me, it wouldn’t work for everyone, but other things which do work for others – like CBT, or talking through things with a specialist – don’t appear to be things which would work for me.

If this sounds a bit confused, that’s because there’s nothing about this that isn’t.

Why am I depressed?  In the last 18 months I have (in no particular order): become a dad, defended my thesis, started a new job, co-authored and published a book, published chapters in other books, taken research trips in some of Europe’s fine capital cities, moved house, bought a house, appeared on live TV and radio around the referendum, and run a marathon.  In 18 months.  Sure, not all of it has been easy, but that’s a lot of successful stuff to be noting – a lot of milestones reached, a lot of bucket-list things ticked off.  So why so sad?

If you’re asking that question, you’re falling into the same trap as I did.  Depression isn’t about success or failure (though, in some cases, it can be).  It just is.  It just happens.  What is important is to recognise it – not to bury your head in the sand and ignore it – and tackle it head on.  I’ve spent a lot of (what I realise now to be wasted) time trying to figure out why I’m depressed.  There’s been no trigger, no trauma, no crisis.  I just am.  And that’s partly where the frustration lies.

The thing is, it took me ages to identify it too.  I was irritable, lethargic and eating more than I usually would.  I overslept and grabbed naps in the afternoons at my desk.  I obsessively checked my emails, Facebook and Twitter feeds for replies, even though my phone would provide an indication of a new interaction.  Something wasn’t right, but I was just ignoring it.  Then, a turning point came, and it wasn’t anything that happened in my immediate vicinity.  Someone who made their life about making others laugh succumbed to depression and took his own life.  I’ve always tried to bring the fun, whether I’m working, playing or whatever, and the realisation that someone as brilliantly funny and (seemingly) with a heart full of laughter could suffer from such a deep depression really hammered home to me that something wasn’t right in my own head.  And so, to the GP I went.

I’ve been on anti-depressants for a couple of months now.  At the start, they had limited effect – they take some time to absorb into your system, and for a while, the side-effects are pretty gruesome.  But after a while, they seemed to have a pretty decent go at making me feel better about myself – I got through referendum night with a buzz of adrenaline, and a similar thing kept me going at the Loch Ness Marathon 10 days later, in spite of the depression limiting the training I’d endured.  But in the last couple of weeks I’ve seen a few more bad days – lethargy returning, concentration slipping, irritability increasing.  Not quite back to square one, but a reassessment required.  Another GP appointment to discuss options, and a slight increase in medication dosage.  We’ll see how that goes, but I’m positive at least about doing something to help myself improve.

In the meantime, support from family and friends has been incredible.  I “came out” about my depression in the wake of finishing the marathon last month.  On Sunday, I reflected upon the support I’d had, and thanked those who’d helped.  Privately, I got no fewer than 10 emails and phone calls saying “I’ve been through/ am going through similar things, I’m really not ready to share it publicly, but I wanted you to know that you’re not alone, and you can talk to me about it if you want”.  There remains a stigma attached to mental health issues which slightly baffles me.  If you break your arm, you get medical attention – a cast for support, medication and time tend to fix the break.  Depression should be seen in a similar light – and treated in the same way: support, medication and time.  It isn’t – it’s seen as a personal weakness and it really shouldn’t be.  It’s time we fixed that, and much work is being done in this area at the moment.

So yes – this is cathartic for me to write, but if it also helps others who experience similar things, I’m glad.  I’ve found writing and talking helps, and on good days I’m happy to do more of it.  On bad days, however, I need a bit more help.  Hopefully though, there will be fewer of those in the near future.

There is only one coherent solution to Scottish Labour’s problems

jpegPrior to Johann Lamont’s doomed leadership, there was no leader of Scottish Labour, just a Leader Of Labour In the Scottish Parliament, a mere LOLITSP. Iain Gray, a much better politician than he ever gave the impression of in that role, wasn’t the formal leader of the Scottish Labour MPs: that was still run through Westminster. And it showed.

Labour’s priority, as everyone has been observing ad nauseam, has remained on Westminster throughout, with Holyrood mistakenly regarded as a stepping stone to winning UK general elections, or in some cases, at an individual level, to a Westminster seat.

Scottish Labour MPs regarded their MSP colleagues with utter disdain, and the feeling was (with more justification) mutual. But the 2011 changes were meant to resolve that. From that point on, Johann Lamont was formally the leader of the Scottish MPs. Except Ed Miliband was her leader. And selection for Labour MPs remained with the UK party, as did their loyalty. All that had changed was a formality, a line on an organisational chart. The previous situation, although broken and in need of reform, was at least more honest.

It’s clearly not working. And giving Lamont’s successor some nebulous “more powers” over the Scottish party (sound familiar?) won’t help either. There is only one structural solution within which Scottish Labour could flourish, and, ironically, it’s closer to independence than federalism. A true Scottish Labour Party, with links to rUK Labour more akin to the partnership in Germany between the CDU and the CSU: both part of whatever the centrist ex-socialist European grouping calls itself nowadays, but closer than Labour are to the SPD or the French PS. All policy, selection, fundraising, expenditure – the lot – run in Scotland.

It’d allow a coherent set of policies to be constructed in Scotland for Scotland, perhaps an inch or two to the left of rUK Labour. It’d end the back-stabbing and sniping which have gone on since Dewar died, or at least limit it. The leader would be in Holyrood, but the group leader at Westminster would be a key role too – perhaps the deputy, until Scottish independence. If rUK Labour need Scottish Labour MPs to make a majority (or even if they don’t – up to them) they could work together just like the CDU and CSU do in Germany. Scottish Labour MPs could still serve in a UK administration. If the talent sent down was exceptional, which may be hard to imagine when you look at Brian Donohoe or Ian Davidson, maybe one amongst them could still be a good choice for a Labour PM. There might sometimes be a need for a little policy compromise if the two parties set different courses, but that’s manageable. Possibly even constructive.

The alternative is more of the same. It’s not just the Sunday Herald gloating about the party’s travails: even this weekend’s Sunday Mail editorial said it was time for change or “hell mend Labour”. In a way, of course, it’s none of my business, although this isn’t intended unhelpfully. I’ve not identified as a Labour voter since about 1992. One part of me thinks they can’t be saved, and (given the continued power of Blairism and Blairites) isn’t upset about that – but another wants to see Labour get its act back together and provide a proper opposition to the SNP. If Labour want to do that, they should be listening to Andrew McFadyen, not falling for John McTernan’s complacency. That way lies the wasteland, or even the graveyard.

The wrong kind of policy on the lines

tubepackedThe weekend before last, to my surprise, the Scottish Greens’ conference rejected a motion calling for free public transport. I don’t know why conference opposed it, but I know why I did, and why I spoke against. Here’s the motion:

We will make a phased introduction of free public transport as finance becomes available. Through both local and national schemes, we will make bus, train, tram, underground and foot-ferry services fare-free, with free bus services the first priority.

I had been pretty anxious about this vote. Everyone at a Green conference loves public transport, and everyone wants to see it displace car and plane travel in particular. But this approach would be thoroughly flawed, and would undermine the existing public transport network while missing opportunities to tackle inequalities.

The first and most obvious problem is the money. Fares on our current transport network bring in a substantial sum of money to contribute to its costs. In 2010-11, bus, train and ferry tickets in Scotland brought in around £750m. I was advised after the meeting that the most recent figures are actually over a billion pounds. That’s equivalent to around half Transport Scotland’s budget, and yes, I’m aware that a lot of that is wasted on vanity roads schemes like the additional Forth Crossing.

A billion pounds, though, is also four times the cost of building Glasgow Crossrail and reopening Edinburgh’s South Suburban railway. Every year. To call for the expansion of the public transport network, as we do, and then to make it all free? Apologies to the comrades, but that’s SSP economics, i.e. uncosted and un-thought-through handwaving. There’s no point even aiming for something if you can’t work out whether you could ever get there.

The second problem is usage. Imagine how busy our buses and trains would become if they were free for all. These networks are creaking already. The preamble to the motion talked about a town in Belgium (note, not an intercity network or one that covers vast rural areas) which saw a 1,300% increase in usage when it made public transport free. I pretty regularly take Scotland’s busiest rail journey: Edinburgh to Glasgow Queen Street. It’s regularly full to bursting, even with four trains an hour at the busiest times. I can’t even imagine what it would look like if it were thirteen times more full, especially without thirteen times the ticket revenue to support expansion. Sure, there are four routes between the two cities, and the others can be less busy, but even so, it just doesn’t add up. To make sufficient capacity for every person in Scotland to use trains, buses and ferries on a whim would cost billions more. Without that, the result would be a miserable and virtually unusable service, one that would cost almost incalculably more, and one where the better off would tend to retreat to their cars. And this plan would use vastly more energy and other resources: a nation constantly on the go on a whim, jammed into continuous trains and buses isn’t a vision of the green future I want to see.

I’m all for radical shifts in spending, mind. But if we want to spend more money on public transport, and I do, that wouldn’t be my preference. It wouldn’t even feature at any point before we have cracked resource depletion, energy costs, and social inequality. Why should we be making it cheaper to get a bus than it is to get on a bike? Counting shoe-leather, this would make a bus cheaper than walking: and those two ways of getting about, for those who can, should be the top priority. Let’s spend some of this same money on proper bike networks and support for much wider active travel.

Let’s also invest more in all forms of public transport instead. Buses get neglected: let’s re-regulate them, and work towards bringing them back in-house (trains too). Let’s subsidise those rural routes even further. Let’s gradually reopen rail lines (one of the modest transport success stories of devolution). Let’s expand the network, not make the current limited system unusable.

And yes, let’s cap fares or reduce them if we can. But before that we should be looking to waive fares for more people. We already have free travel for pensioners: let’s not give a subsidy to companies sending their employees to meetings or tourists heading to the Highlands. We could instead extend that free travel to those on benefits, those earning the minimum wage, those in education, carers – any number of groups for whom this would make a real difference. It’s not like the NHS or education – I don’t think infinite travel for work and leisure should be subsidised for the better off, whereas I do think everyone should be treated for free and educated for free irrespective of income. But imagine if those currently on the wrong end of austerity didn’t have to pay to get to job interviews or the job centre, if they could take their family away to somewhere nice with a beach for nothing of a weekend, or if they could visit friends elsewhere in the country with ease. It’d be transformative. I’d still be paying to go pitch my company’s wares to organisations in Glasgow, too: and rightly so.

Expanding the network, supporting active travel, and ending fares for those for whom it would make a real difference: that would fuse our social justice and sustainability objectives. Pipedreams about free transport are superficially appealing, but would in practice push the wrong way on both those objectives.