what you get here

This is not a blog which opinionates on current events. It rather uses incidents, books (old and new), links and papers to muse about our social endeavours.
So old posts are as good as new! And lots of useful links!

The Bucegi mountains - the range I see from the front balcony of my mountain house - are almost 120 kms from Bucharest and cannot normally be seen from the capital but some extraordinary weather conditions allowed this pic to be taken from the top of the Intercontinental Hotel in late Feb 2020

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Wealth Creation - the elephant in the Scottish Room??

This is probably the only blog written by a Scot which is still neutral about the issue of independence – the subject of a referendum  on 18 September. It’s neutral for three basic reasons –
·       I’ve been out of the country (Scotland and the UK) for 24 years – almost as long as I was politically active within Scotland and don't therefore find myself thinking about Scotland's future very often 
·       I come late to the discussion   
·       I am a natural sceptic – particularly of prevailing consensus (and most Scottish scribblers seem to be separatists)

So far this series of blogposts has made the following points –
·       A significant amount of power was transferred to the Scottish Parliament and Government in 1999
·       More will transfer when the 2012 Scotland Act is implemented
·       The Scottish government has still to use its existing tax-raising powers – let alone the additional ones contained in the 2012 Act
·       The Scottish Parliament and its people can be proud of the way the new policy-making capacity has been handled. Distinctive policies have been developed – and the respect of its citizens earned.
·       It has still to build on some of that innovative work – eg in the fields of community ownership of rural land; and of renewable energy
·       The post -2007 “Nationalist” government is hardly nationalist – it stresses the importance of remaining within five of the six Unions with which it has suggested Scotland is currently associated.
·       and, ideologically, it seems more social democratic than anything (although its absence of a tax base means that it has not really been tested on this count)
·       the uncertainties and risks associated with negotiations with the UK, the EU and other bodies are generally ridiculed by the yes campaign.
·       The Scottish and UK media do not support the idea of independence but journalists generally have given an increasingly sympathetic treatment to the yes campaign and have ridiculed the No campaign
·       It is indeed now difficult for anyone with a different view to be taken seriously
·       The betting is now that the vote will be for separation

As someone who has been a social democrat all my life and not well disposed to the business class, the following piece in today’s inimitable Scottish Review about wealth creation seems a really important contribution to the debate -
As a Scot with almost no sense of being 'British', the Yes campaigners should have little problem convincing me to side with them. In fact, over the past year, I have become even less enthusiastic about the idea of an independent Scotland – as it is being proposed........If we want to a glimpse into the future, we need to look not just at what is set out in the white paper but at what the SNP has done as the Scottish Government in the past seven years.Two specific objections have become clear in the past year's campaigning; first, the enormity of unravelling a 300-year-long administrative union. Second, the uncertainty over which currency an independent Scotland would use. Greece has shown how the wrong currency can destroy an economy and then a society.
More generally, Alex Salmond has championed independence to create a fairer, social democratic Scotland. This tells us little. Who promises a less fair Scotland? Social democratic has become shorthand for the society that politicians and commentators – the distinction between the two has almost evaporated – would like to create. Sometimes 'progressive' is used in the same way.
Significantly, there has never been a social democratic party in Scotland. Across Western Europe such parties are common. There, it is understood to involve a productive economy underpinning a welfare state. The first part has rarely concerned Scottish politicians. In fact, too many Scots have an instinctive aversion to wealth creation, even as they enjoy its fruits and promise the rest of us we too will share them.The SNP would deny it, but its track record on wealth creating is on a mediocre par with the Labour Party.
There is no firmly rooted understanding that a successful capitalist economy is necessary for the future prosperity of Scotland. In social democratic Sweden or in Germany it is taken for granted. 
Lacking a coherent view of wealth creation the SNP – like Labour – fell into enthusiastic support for prosperity based on financial services. There was no ideological basis for this. It was merely that, for a number of years, roughly 1992-2008, this sector seemed capable of producing the profits – and tax revenue – needed for higher public spending. It also created a large number of clean, comfortable jobs for people sitting at computers at a time when the alternative was low-paid work in in cleaning, catering and caring. While it pays lip service to the idea of a high skill-high wage economy, the reality has been a continuation of hand to mouth policies that date back to the 1950s.Tax-dodging Amazon is lured here because it can provide jobs. That these are low-skill jobs, even in comparison with those provided by multinationals in the post-war era, is secondary. Where previously, NCR and Caterpillar brought skilled manufacturing jobs, now Murdoch's Sky brings call centre employment. 
The promise of low corporation tax is clear evidence that this policy is intended to be a core feature of the economy of an independent Scotland. (The irony is that Ireland has already cornered this niche market as a small, English speaking outpost of the European continent. Hi-tech companies choose Ireland. Amazon chooses Scotland for its giant warehouse.) When it comes to fostering an equal society, the record of the SNP is similarly poor, even as Alex Salmond laments the fact that Scotland is the fourth most unequal country in the world.
In the early 2000s, there was such a huge increase in public spending that Steven Purcell, when running Glasgow Council, could talk of councils 'awash with money'.This spending made little impact of the endemic social problems of urban Scotland. New entitlements were added to old ones. In almost every case, the already prosperous gained most. 'Free' university tuition gives more to prosperous East Dumbartonshire than to Glasgow where a far small percentage of pupils achieves university entrance qualification – although pupils in both areas attend comprehensive schools. (In fact, schools in deprived areas are encouraged to adopt a non-academic curriculum; de facto junior secondaries.) The area where the disparity between Scotland as 'progressive beacon' and the less attractive reality stands out most clearly is in tax revenue raised from oil and gas. This money, £10 billion in 2011-12, is at present shared between some 60 million Britons. Post-independence, it would be shared between 5.3 million Scots. This is not my idea of social democracy; it is closer to its antithesis. Professor Paul Collier raised this point in the Herald and, sadly but predictably, he was denounced online.
The painting is one of the Stanley Spencer series of Port Glasgow shipbuilding during the war years.

Ideology - not nationalism

How to make sense of the citizens of a country who in the 1960s viewed nationalists as “bampots”, 55 years later, contemplating separation? A bampot, by the way, is (according to this delightful small lexicon of the great Scottish vernacular words you find in everyday conversation) “a somewhat combustible individual”
I well remember the couple of characters in my (shipbuilding) town of the 1960s who were prominent nationalists. We regarded them with benign amusement harking back to the 1930s

So why have things changed?
The discovery of oil off Scotland’s eastern waters in the 1970s was the game changer – which brought electoral fortune to the nationalists. “It’s our oil” was the simple but powerful slogan which played a significant part in bringing down the Labour Government of 1979. Actually that was the electoral arithmetic of the time – the wider mood music was an ode to a government and social ideology which seemed to have lost its way.

And that’s the point – ideology not nationalism is the issue.
Scotland was left in 1707 with its own proud institutions – the legal system (based on Roman law); its educational and church systems. It remained therefore a nation - and developd a strong attachment to egalitarian values which have always been more contested south of the border. In that sense, it’s the rest of the UK that changed in the late 1970s– rather than Scotland.
Margaret Thatcher’s pro-market stance alienated the Scots – her encouragement of greed offended us. And, after 18 years of that, New Labour clothed itself for another 13 years in that same neo-liberal mantle. The 1999 devolution settlement gave us the chance to demonstrate a different type of politics – and, as I wrote recently, that opportunity was taken by the much-maligned politicians
It was the Labour and Liberal politicians who controlled the Scottish Parliament from 1999-2007 who gave the Scottish Government its distinctive policies – eg free residential care for the elderly (when in England they are charged 300 pounds a week); free university tuition (when in England they are charged 9,000 pounds a year); almost free drug treatment; health services remaining in the public domain while the subject of profit in England; support of initiatives in community ownership of rural land. Renewable energy……. all legitimised by a clear and strong commitment to “social justice” and community empowerment.
I’m proud of that record and would wish to see it extended. It’s a superb example of the sort of federalism which has proven so powerful a system for countries such as Germany.
But we can no longer identify with the divisive ideology at the heart of London government. In the 1960s and 1970s the strongest movement I was part of was the anti-nuclear one. The nuclear submarines were based on my river just across the water from my town. I was part of several large protests about this. I was also proud to support the plays of radical John McGrath and his 7.84 theatre company
Let’s remember what 7.84 stood for – that 7% of the people (ten) owned 84% of the wealth. 40 years later the percentage is more like 1:99.

That’s a critical part of the reason for the current mood in Scotland. The question, of course, is whether people can stop the world and get off. We are part of a wider system which has to be changed. Can we do it better in – or outside of – the UK.  And what happens if and when the English say they want to leave the EU?

The books I received yesterday and which I will read this week are -
·       The Road to Independence – Scotland in the Balance; Murray Pittock (2008). With a preface by the Leader of the Nationalist Government, the author - an English Professor of Cultural Studies now based in Scotland - has an agenda - but it is a thoughtful book which helps explain the frustrations in the post-war period of the sort of nomadic Scot who had benefited from a British imperialism which quickly collapsed.  
·      The Battle for Britain – Scotland and the Independence Referendum; David Torrance (2013). A neutral book by a journalist. Not as dry and technical as some others, it still lacks some fire 
·      Evidence, Risk and the Wicked Issues – arguing for independence ; Stephen Maxwell (2012). Stephen who came to Scotland in the early 1970s was initially an academic; then a Lothian Councillor; then Head of PR for the Nationalist Party and Deputy Head of the Scottish Council for Voluntary Service. He died, sadly, in 2013 and this is the book to which I look forward the most.
·      Class,Nation and Socialism – the Red Paper on Scotland 2014 ed P Bryan and T Kane. As one of the authors in 1975 of the first Red Paper on Scotland (edited by a young but already ambitious Gordon Brown) I also look forward to this collection - not least because John Foster ( a co-author with me of the 1975 Red Paper) is one of the authors.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

The game's a bogey! The Scottish debate - part 8

For 9 months I have been boycotting  Amazon but I broke that boycott a week ago – my Bucharest bookshop couldn’t get me some of the books I needed for the Scottish debate. And so - 17 (!) books duly arrived this morning – four on Scotland; a couple of Sebastian Haffner’s on 1930s Germany which had also proved problematic; and 4 on Greece (which I consider a neighbour given my continuing rent of the Sofia flat).  

So many strong opinions about Scottish independence – so few people expressing the uncertainty which I feel. So I’m grateful to this (anonymous) respondent to a Guardian discussion thread a few days back
Personally, I regard myself as just competent enough to realise that I am entirely incompetent to make a valid, rational judgement on whether independence would be a good or a bad thing. It's just too complicated. There are too many variables.My suspicion is that 90% of both the 'Yes' and 'No' camps are too incompetent to realise that they are too incompetent to make a valid, rational judgement. ....
I doubt that anyone is actually competent enough - with enough information and with the brain to put it all together - to make a rational judgement.And even if there are any such people, the rest of us are too incompetent to judge their competence.It's a mess.Which is why it is irrational to base one's decision on what one thinks it will be like after independence. The only rational question to ask ourselves is whether it's really so bad, really so broken the way that it is, that we should risk changing it.
That's a neat way of putting things - although I would question the comment that we should not explore the Yes scenario – that’s precisely the focus which seems to be missing from the discussion. The different scenarios for a post-Independence world do need to be sketched out - their probabilities, risks and opportunities assessed. I only see the discussion threads in The Guardian - which seem to be 80 % supportive of Yes. It would be useful to do a typology of the reasons which have driven people to this position.

I have the feeling now that the Scottish referendum is a foregone conclusion – that mid-September will see a strong vote for independence. Support for the union is still a few points ahead of the separatists - but the gap has almost vanished.
A month ago I felt that – despite the evidence of the internet which strongly supports the Yes campaign - the privacy of the voting booth would act as a brake. But these last few days in the mountains I’ve been surfing and simply can no longer find voices supporting the link with England and Wales. Andrew O’Hagen, Tom Gallagher and Adam Tomkins are the only independent voices I find – lone writer, historian and constitutional lawyer, respectively. Oh and also this blogger "veering to no" whom one of the Yes websites, by virtue of her rarity value, rather caustically called his “swing constituency” 

Other serious websites supporting independence are Thoughtland – big ideas from a Small Nation; National Collective (artists for a creative Scotland); and Common Weal 

A rare - but rather unctuous - example of one supporting the union case is A Force for Good. In the neutral corner The New York Review of Books has a fairly light take on the debate from Jonathan Freedland 

Two strong names supporting separation are Tariq Ali - in CounterPunch - and Craig Murray - the latter making the good point that the strong UKIP showing in the English local election polls next week  is likely to give an even bigger boost to the ongoing momentum behind separation.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

A Romanian Wedding

A Franco-Romanian wedding yesterday – Sylvan, the Head Chef of the Renault-Dacia factory at Pitesti, and Elena invited us. They have been regulars at our old neighbour’s house down the hill and are now finishing a charming house with a hill-site overlooking the village - with Transylvanian “eye” windows and the traditional (schitza) roof our house also boasts .  
The journey started with my first drive down the new asphalt road through the neighbouring (equally scattered) village of Tohani to Dimbovita – I rate it as Romania’s most spectacular scenery – and that is saying something! And that’s even before we reach the sinuous climb from there to Campulung.

I’ve posted already about Campulung which was on our route – one of my favourite small Romanian towns with its old bourgeois houses –and was equally taken with the lovely stretch in the plains which followed.

The enormous concrete Cathedral of Mioveni (the suburb where the plant is located) was much less to my liking. Nor is the Orthodox priesthood – although their representatives yesterday were very friendly – perhaps the kilt helped!
And the ceremony was delightful – this is my third Romanian wedding but the first where I’ve been able fully to indulge my photographic inclinations – young kids, crazy hats and legs tend to be much more interesting although the crowned heads of my two friends were certainly very sweet.

I now try to avoid the sort of civil celebrations which follow – mainly because I know so very few people at them and, in this case, don;t speak the language. This was true even at my daughter’s wedding in 2012. After the high of my own speech, I felt pretty low (not helped by a cold) and was reduced to reading copies of London Review of Books alone in a sitting room while waiting for a lift home. 
This time I avoided sociability by immediately striking for home while it was still light – the last half-hour of curves in the mountainous still visible in the darkness was quite an experience…….

Very appropriately, I have come across this article in today's Guardian about the making 20 years ago of Four Weddings and a Funeral - which film I am now settling down to view - here. The plot is here.
For the record, this is my third Romanian wedding (compared with my 3 (family) Scottish weddings and about at least 10 Scottish funerals) But I wonder where else can couples get such wonderful crowns for their weddings?

Friday, April 25, 2014

The accidental Man - and Traveller

The books about Scotland’s political future did not engage me - too dry and technical. I need more poetry! The 2-year timetable for the referendum discussion certainly gives the chance to concentrate the mind - although few seem to have risen to the occasion (save the sole (disciplined) blogger and websites I've mentioned). 
I turned instead to a novel from one of the several amazing contemporary Scottish writers - James Robertson and, specifically, his seminal And the Land Lay Still ( "a portrait of modern Scotland" the blurb says). In the last 12 months I've done a series of posts on Germany, Romanian culture and Bulgarian painting. Perhaps the next series should be on Scottish writers?  Andrew O'Hagen's essays would be a good start.
Before that, I was distracted, on my return to Bucharest, by material on Naples (where I hope to go soon); by Joseph Roth's riveting A Life in Letters - principally from France and Germany in the 1920s and 1930s - by a travelogue; and by a biography. A year ago, when browsing in the Koln bookshops, I came across a marvellous remaindered book about him with amazing photographs from that era.....Excess baggage costs deterred me from the purchase - as it was I paid an excess 50 euros to KLM!!! I regret the opportunity!!!!

The travelogue is Nick Hunt’s Walking the Woods and the Water – a retracing in 2011 of Patrick Leigh Fermour’s steps from Hook of Holland to Constantinople taken in 1933 and enshrined in a trilogy which started in the 1970s and finished only a year after his death in 2011. Leigh-Fermour (“Paddy” as he is known amongst cognoscenti) was one of a trio of English travel-writers who inspired a generation of travel writers – the other two being Norman Lewis and Eric Newby.
One article which listed a few of the greats suggested that travel writing is a neglected genre. It is actually one of my favourite genres – being about the serendipidy of encounters, landscape and social history. An annotated list of 86 travel books doesn’t include what for me is one of the best – Gerald Brennan’s South of Granada (nor Robert Louis Stevenson’s jaunts)

Leigh-Fermour's biography came out just a year after his death. If ever someone typified the eccentric English traveller it was Paddy L-F. The various reviews are all worth reading – but I start with one of the most immediately informative -
In 1933 ‘a rather noisy boy’ with near-empty pockets and a head full of poetry set out from the Hook of Holland to walk to Constantinople. Paddy Leigh-Fermor was eighteen years old, fizzing with romance, curiosity and animal high spirits – eager, as his biographer explains, to step away from a fractured childhood, a chequered school career, and a remote suggestion from his even remoter father that he should try chartered accountancy if the army didn’t appeal.As he tramped across the Low Countries and down through Germany to Bratislava, two letters of introduction hoisted Paddy out of the hedgerows and into a half-forgotten world of castles and old libraries. Margraves and counts cheerfully passed him along, with hunts, and gallops, and long nights talking by the fire, and friendships forged, in the Ruritanian twilight. 
That world was swept apart by the war, and it would be forty four years before Paddy related the first part of his journey in "A Time of Gifts", followed seven years later by "Between the Woods and the Water". Artemis Cooper reveals (in the biography) what Paddy left out, changed, or never quite wrote – including his tumultuous love affair with a beautiful Romanian countess, and the final leg of the journey, which took him beyond Constantinople to Greece, the country that was to shape his life. He was in Moldavia, and in love, when war broke out. Too wild and singularly gifted for a regular commission, he fetched up in occupied Crete, where in 1944 he carried out the daring kidnap of a German general, an exploit unpicked in one chapter of this biography; the story entered popular legend through the book Ill Met by Moonlight, written by his companion-in-arms Billy Moss; in the film Paddy was played by Dirk Bogarde. 
Paddy’s own rich and energetic writing was an extension of the life, of a man who seized the world around him and shook it till it rattled. What dropped down in late nights and laughter, liquor and lovers, were the gems and diadems of his life and prose.He had eight languages and friends in all of them, from Cretan shepherds to waitresses, Vlachs to Duchesses, gypsies and kuss-die-hand German aristocrats. Some friends were lovers: horrid old Somerset Maugham, brooding on some perceived slight, defined Paddy as a middle class gigolo to upper class women, a mean twist on Paddy’s cheerfully seductive generosity. ‘Most men are just take, take, take – but with Paddy it’s give, give, give,’ said Ricki Houston.They could be generous in return – above all Joan Rayner, his lover and amanuensis, whom he married in 1968 (‘I don’t believe in long engagements’, he remarked; they’d been on and off since the War). Maurice Cardiff was astonished when Joan dropped money on the table at a Nicosia cafĂ©, ‘enough if you want to find a girl.’ 
The books came slowly, growing through layers and revisions inspired, perhaps, by a 3000-word magazine commission: Paddy drove editors crazy. In The Traveller’s Tree, P L-F anatomised the islands of the Caribbean; A Time to Keep Silence explored the monastic world, through which he often derived peace and solace; but it was with Mani and Roumeli, in a projected series that would cover the whole of Greece, that his intense and multi-layered fusions of style and passions emerged at their fullest extent.The style – turreted like Guelf fortifications, bristling with knowledge, speculation, humour and keen observation – was the fruit of deep learning, which he wore lightly and absorbed freely, with dazzling leaps of imagination.
Until Joan and he built a house at Kardamyli, on the Mani peninsula, in 1965, his abode was never fixed for long: a succession of places lent or rented as need arose – a castle outside Rome where the rats attacked the butter, a cottage in Devon, a Greek villa, a small hotel, an Irish house, palaces and hovels in Spain, France, but of course especially Greece. For the wandering scholar Kardamyli was the answer. It contained what John Betjeman called ‘one of the rooms in the world,’ filled with books and stoked with friendships and drink, overlooking the sea. Everyone came, of course: Chelsea and Grub Street, toffs and dilettantes, drawn by Paddy’s gift for friendship and surprise; Bruce Chatwin moved in next door. Joan allowed stray cats to wander about ‘as free as air currents’: they ran their claws over the divans and Paddy found the right expression: he called them ‘born down-holsterers.’Not everyone got it: some people resented his bumptiousness and ebullience, and he could have a tin ear for the mood at times, as Cooper tells us.  But Paddy left most people feeling stronger (bar a hangover), their prose enriched, their humour and sense of wonder sharpened; and this marvellous biography, aptly named An Adventure, has the same tonic effect. Paddy’s exuberance could have overwhelmed his biographer, but whether describing a night attack on Crete, a love affair, or the political tensions over Cyprus that poisoned Anglo-Greek relations after the War, Cooper writes with a cool hand and clear head. Her book lives up to the majesty of the man who died at the age of 96.
This review of the biography gives some of the basic facts of his life and the Scotsman also has a good review but the real meat is in this one from the Times Literary Supplementary which is the only one to emphasise that "he learned, very early, that to sing successfully for his supper, not just personal charm, but having a genuine interest in the lives and activities of his hosts, were tremendously helpful”. 

What for me is most striking is how "accidental" his life was - he left Britain, penniless, on a hunch in his late teens; making fortuitous contacts in a society far richer than he could aspire to;  "swanned around" for a few years ( as "we" were allowed to in the early and mid part of the century); took the opportunity offered by the Second World War to extend his networks; and then" swanned around" some more until one of his most committed lovers gave him an annuity......The total antipathy of the career focus which was dinned into most of us in the post-war period...... 

Let the Washington Post have the last word 
When Paddy began his European rambles, he was not quite 19. Up until then he had been an indifferent student, although passionate about reading and gifted with a phenomenal memory. Paddy also possessed, along with good looks, daring and boundless curiosity and a seemingly irresistible charm. He originally expected to doss down in haystacks and barns as he trudged along; in fact, he regularly smiled his way into country houses, consulates and baronial manors — and sometimes into the beds of young women and lonely divorcees. Letters of introduction then eased his way into other homes. As he cheerfully sauntered along, he would belt out each region’s folk songs.At the end of his journey, Paddy met Princess Balasha Cantacuzene, a scion of one of the great dynasties of Moldavia and Wallachia. She was 16 years his senior, but the two fell in love and the young Englishman passed four idyllic years living on her family estate at Baleni in what was then known as Rumania. During these years he read voraciously — history, reference works, MallarmĂ©, Apollinaire, Gide, Proust, Tolstoy and much else. To his personal magnetism and general sexiness, the magpielike Paddy soon added a mind filled with poetry and out-of-the-way knowledge.When Britain declared war on Germany, the stylish young adventurer immediately left Baleni to enlist. He was, at this point, all of 24. But Paddy already knew much of Europe intimately, had made friends everywhere, and could speak French, German, Romanian and Greek. He was a natural for the Intelligence Corps. 
Lieutenant, later Major Leigh Fermor spent much of the war behind the lines in Crete, helping to coordinate its resistance to the Germans. Periodically, though, he would be pulled out for R&R in Cairo, where he partied all night, slept in the arms of exotic girlfriends and drank champagne with King Farouk. During one particularly orgiastic revel, the young intelligence officer came up with a plan to kidnap the commanding German general in his area of Crete. It would give a boost to the partisans’ morale.
After the war, Paddy — now all of 30 — found work at the British Institute in Athens, where his colleagues included the historian of the Crusades Steven Runciman and the translator and novelist Rex Warner. But, despite all his gifts or because of them, Paddy couldn’t hold a 9-to-5 job. He was too free-spirited, too feckless, in some ways, too spoiled. For years he would rely on, sometimes live on, the generosity of rich and aristocratic friends and lovers. And there were many. When he finally returned to England, Paddy cemented his connections with the aging members of the Brideshead Generation.
The second half of Cooper’s biography is packed with the usual names: critic Cyril Connolly, the famous beauty Diana Cooper (the biographer’s grandmother), the Duchess of Devonshire (nee Deborah Mitford), Ann Fleming (wife of Ian), poet John Betjeman and many others. With Joan Rayner, whom he had first met in Cairo, Paddy would settle into a permanent, if extremely open relationship. By the time the two finally married in 1968, they had already bought property in Kardamyli, Greece, and built their ideal house (marble, open air, lots of books, cats), where they would welcome celebrated friends, former Cretan partisans and numerous admirers of Paddy’s books. Easily distracted and as much a perfectionist as Flaubert, Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor — as he eventually became — always found writing difficult. His descriptions are like tapestries, rich in color and intricate design; his bravura diction often requires a dictionary close at hand; and sometimes his weaker pages are clotted and overwrought.
Yet “A Time of Gifts” marvelously evokes an ancient Mitteleuropa now almost wholly vanished. If you’ve never read it, do; and if you have, you’ll certainly want to follow up with this fine biography of its adventurous and romantic author.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Scotland's Default Position?

The last few posts, I realise, have not actually added much to the sum of understanding on this thorny issue of Scottish “Separation” - a more honest term, for me, than “independence”. Noone aspires to dependence – but separation is a tortuous process, generally involving painful choices and difficult negotiations.

The Scottish Government of the past 6-7 years has had a very good press but is now, for me, pushing its credibility - and that of the notion of independence - to the limits.
·       The Scottish nationalists (for such they call themselves) refused to play any part in the decade-long process which led to the honouring by the Labour Government in 1997 of its promise to give the Scottish people a referendum on Scottish Devolution. They simply jumped on the bandwagon which duly delivered a resounding yes vote then - and the Scottish Parliament in 1999. And the same was true after 2007 when various commissions set up by other political parties reported on the feasibility of further powers; and Bills were debated and enacted. The nationalists sat on the sidelines.  Verily they have had it so easy!
·       In 2011 they became the majority government and were able for the first time to talk seriously about a referendum on independence – which would not then have suited them. Westminster could have been difficult (in ruling, for example, that the power to hold such a referendum fell outside the “devolved” powers) but the terms of agreement on how such a referendum would be conducted were concluded remarkably easily- in “the Edinburgh Agreement” of October 2012 giving the Scottish Parliament the power to pose a single option question in a referendum - which would be held before the end of 2014. No sweat for the nationalists.    
·       They argued in the November 2013 White Paper that little would change – neither the pound nor membership of the European Union or NATO. British Government and EC responses have suggested otherwise. While I accept there is a lot of “grandstanding” going on (particularly on EU membership), it is clear that there could be no monetary union with England. If the euro crisis has demonstrated anything, it is that that there can be no shared currency without fiscal union. The choice is then a Scottish pound (backed by a National Bank, debt recycling and currency fluctuations) or the euro.  

It was the Labour and Liberal politicians who controlled the Scottish Parliament from 1999-2007 who gave the Scottish Government its distinctive policies – eg of “social justice” and community empowerment; free residential care for the elderly (when in England they are charged 300 pounds a week); free university tuition (when in England they are charged 9,000 pounds a year); almost free drug treatment; health services remaining in the public domain while the subject of profit in England; community ownership of rural land. No sweat for the nationalists.

To be fair to the party which is called the “Scottish Nationalist” party, they have become more left-wing as the Labour Party became more right-wing. They have indeed inherited the mantle of social democracy.
That is what has changed in the past decade. The Scottish people – a social democratic nation – feel betrayed by the Labour Party; and have no confidence in the ideology it shows south of the border.  

The left-wingers in Scotland now part of the yes movement believe this is a unique opportunity to salvage the post-1945 settlement so badly savaged by Margaret Thatcher. Small Scandinavian nations have shown that this is possible – particularly if, like Norway, they have oil and have set up Oil Funds and tax regimes to ensure that the benefits flow to future generations. But oil revenue is now declining sharply…… 

Germany has shown the benefits which  federal system brings. Patently Scotland has very different traditions and culture from the rest of Britain. The majority of Scots would chose to remain in a Federal system - but have not been offered that option. There is a huge risk they will leave by default!  
The New York Review of Books had a useful article last month which summarised the mood and arguments nicely. And this neutral post from an English sociologist is a superb take on the wider British context which gives so many Scots the inclination to go it alone.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Slipping - or sleeping?

The metaphors we use in our speech betray our political anxieties. During the Cold War, the talk was of “the domino effect” as fears were stoked of country after country collapsing into communism. In the 1970s, when the idea of a Scottish Parliament was on the cards, the talk was of “the slippery slope” such a concession offered to Independence.

In the event, the domino pieces collapsed in the opposite direction – it was communism which fell.
But, thanks to the Labour Government of 1997-2010, the Parliament (and Scottish Executive) was eventually established - in 1999 after a successful referendum in 1997. Its electoral system was designed to be more consensual than the Westminster one – and coalition government (Lib-Lab) duly became the order of the day – despite the scale then of the Labour vote. A stronger Committee system was also created in Parliament to encourage a more open and inclusive system of policy-making. 

All of this has helped shape a positive view of the political process in Scotland which is in sharp contrast with the cynicism and anger one finds amongst the English public.
From 2007 a minority Nationalist government has been in power in Scotland – controlling the 60% of public spending in the country which the Scottish government controls. And in 2011 Scottish voters were duly persuaded to give the Nationalists enough seats to form a majority government. 
A year later, after an intensive process of deliberation in both parliaments a major Bill was passed (with Nationalists taking no part and abstaining in the vote). The Bill extended the powers of the Scottish government – although few voters understand that since they will not be implemented (if at all) until after the referendum of September.   

The “slippery slope” may have turned out to be remarkably free from stress or dangerous falls but is still looking dangerous. As the Notes from Britain blog put it last summer -
        What is remarkable in the present state of the independence argument is the vast extent to which those leading the Yes camp are deliberately playing down the very core idea of independence: namely, that Scotland would be going it alone, as her own new State.
In a speech in the summer, the First Minister made a very curious statement which totally played down the significance of independence – he said that Scotland is currently a member of six unions and that of these it is just the one from which he wishes a divorce. This one is the political and economic union with the rest of the United Kingdom.
         An independent Scotland “will continue to participate fully in five unions”, said Mr Salmond: (1) the European Union, (2) NATO’s defence union, (3) a currency union, (4) the Union of the Crowns, and (5) the “social union between the people of these isles” (whatever that means).
         Mr Salmond’s new-found, five-fold Unionism is highly fanciful.
·         While I have little doubt about his commitment to wishing to remain in the EU, that doesn’t make him a Unionist.
·         His NATO policy is new, hated by at least half his own party, and likely to be highly contentious within NATO given the SNP’s determination to rid Scotland of nuclear weapons.
·         His unreliable assertions on the currency union were exposed months ago as something which the rest of the UK would not be able to sign up to without imposing on Scotland the sorts of fiscal constraints that would make her more dependent on London, not more independent (the fiscal crises of southern EU states has demonstrated the design flaw at the heart of the euro).
·         His use of the seventeenth-century phrase, the Union of the Crowns, is anachronistic and inaccurate: what he proposes is that an independent Scotland would become a 17th realm within the Commonwealth (Her Majesty the Queen is currently Head of State in 16 countries around the world).
·         And what this amorphous phrase the “social union” is supposed to mean is anyone’s guess.
One independent blogger put it rather well when he commented that  -
Having listened to the position of those who favour Scottish independence I have reached the view that they are not arguing for independence but for autonomy within some greater union which protects Scotland and its economy. I have yet to hear any voice demanding true independence.
It was only in November that the Scottish Government leaders issued the much-heralded White Paper on Scotland’s future. It may have looked focused (with 500 questions) and well-researched (with 670 pages) but most of it is “aspirational” – with everything depending on what will clearly be hard-fought negotiations.  About such things as the scale of public debt to be taken by an independent country; what will happen to the pound; and the terms of entry to NATO and the EU.

The efforts which have been made by “unionists” these past few weeks to indicate the risks associated with such uncertainties have, as I indicated at the time, been totally counter-productive.

The problem is that public figures supporting the unionist argument have no credibility. They belong to a political class which is now totally despised – belonging as it does either to rich upper-class, neo-liberal “Conservatives”; despised New Labourites who sold out, under Bliar, to neo-liberalism; or to Liberals who have proved more neo-liberal than them all. 
And the elevation of so many Labour MPs to the House of Lords – such as The Noble Lord, Baron Robertson of Port Ellen, The Noble Lord, Baron Reid of Cardowan, The Noble Baroness, Lady Liddell of Coat Dyke and The Noble Lord,Baron McConnell of Glenscorrodale  – now gives even them a foreign and feudal air which does not sit well in these populist times. Robertson's recent speech is a classic example. One is tempted to say to him what Atlee famously said to Harold Laski in the late 1940s -  "a period of silence on your part would be welcome".
As the "yes" vote swells, it seems almost as if there is no longer anyone serious left to fight!

The “slippery slope” is no more, it seems. The ground is more level - and therefore even more dangerous to “sleepwalkers”

Thursday, April 10, 2014

A Challenge to the Separatists

Two books on Scottish issues were waiting for me at the English bookshop in Bucharest – the first a dry technical treatment of the debate on Scottish independence; the second a much more lively and courageous book which breaks away from the constraints of the “yes-no” framework and looks at various local struggles for more power which have taken place in the past few decades in different parts of Scotland. Housing and land ownership and health inequalities have tended to be the subject of these campaigns.
In the early 1970s, I was one of a small group which pushed (successfully) for recognition of the scale of urban deprivation in the West of Scotland. Our strategy of positive discrimination ran for more than 20 years - with community development as its central accompanying element. The Scottish government of 1997 took over those commitments - and has continued them since.
In those days, we assumed that the scale of the poverty we encountered within such a significant section of the population reflected the heavy industry in the area – with the insecurity of employment which went with it. But more recent research has suggested there is a “Scottish effect” which affects even those who live middle-class lives.
Various hypotheses have been proposed to account for the effect, including vitamin D deficiency, cold winters, higher levels of poverty than the figures suggest, high levels of stress, and a culture of alienation and pessimism

Lesley Riddoch has been an eloquent and campaigning Scottish journalist since the 1980s. Her book - Blossomis inspiring, and makes a clear, coherent case for community ownership and more devolution at a local level. 
Since we Scots gained our Parliament 15 years ago, there has been nothing to stop such developments - except the mind-set of the Scots themselves!

The book is, for me, a unique challenge to explain the persisting disempowerment and inequality in Scottish society - particularly in the excellent use it makes of comparisons with Scandinavian countries -
Through a thorough and enlightening examination of our history Ms Riddoch argues that Scots have an inherited tolerance for inequality. Centuries of feudal land ownership and the many social ills that has spawned – such as unaffordable housing and chronic over-crowding- have taught us not to expect access to our own resources.
As a result we are politically disengaged and completely unaware of our own capabilities and capacity for change. For centuries, Scots living at the mercy of distant landlords meant high rents, bad treatment and insecurity; feudal landownership created a huge landless class, most of whom had no choice but to inhabit industrialised areas where they were further exploited. No poor law meant work or die.
However, this was not a universal experience. In Norway and Denmark, many workers were also landowners- and those who moved with the tide of industrialisation into towns and cities were given access to allotments and small plots of land by way of compensation. Even In England, where many workers had historically been freeholders, the urbanised working classes were accommodated in terraced housing- allowing them access to a front and back garden as compensation for the upheaval from their rural roots. The Scottish crisis in land ownership led to a second one in housing and chronic overcrowding in Scotland’s towns and cities.
The Royal Commission on Housing in 1917 found an ‘almost unbelievable density’ in Scotland compared to England, a trend that continued to grow throughout the twentieth century.In 1951, census results showed that 55 per cent of Glasgow’s population were living in chronically overcrowded conditions – compared to just 0.5 per cent of their counterparts in London. Even in the 1970s and 80s Scots continued to live with an epidemic of dampness spreading through cheaply built social housing. 
The point – according to the author – is this; we are a nation of people accustomed to bad treatment and inequality; ‘such a profound experience of deprivation doesn’t easily leave folk memory.’She goes on to suggest that behavioural patterns and cultural preferences are determined by the an inherited template of inequality. Because generations of our predecessors endured some of the worst living and working conditions, today we tolerate the same injustices in their modern day incarnations – and think nothing of it.The largeness of the country estates owned by a handful of elites has been transferred onto every other aspect of our lives and we blindly trust in distant authority and centralised power instead of the capacity of the average person. 
Scotland has the largest councils in Europe and the lowest level of democratic activity. Staggeringly, in France 360’000 local councils exist compared to our 32.We don’t make decisions about what affects us locally because we’ve never owned and controlled the land we live on, and voter turnout is pitifully low because historically landownership was a precondition of enfranchisement.
Today 25 per cent of Scotland’s estates have been owned by the same family for over 400 years, and tenants of these estates still live in fear of speaking out against landowners should their lease fail to be renewed.Poor Scots don’t exercise or eat well – we are the sick man of Europe and die young because that’s the way it has always been. We continue to live within the fourth most unequal state in the world where the gulf between the richest and the poorest is obscene by any civilised society’s standards.The voices of women are excluded from public life as if it that were absolutely normal and we tolerate some of the lowest levels of female representation in our parliament and public bodies. We also let very rich men who were gifted everything they have by accident of birth tell us that the poor and underprivileged of our country are to blame for their circumstances – and should expect nothing from them.
As a trustee of the Isle of Eigg Trust, Ms Riddoch was involved in the historic 1997 community buy-out of the Island. Prior to the buy-out many inhabitants lived within the confines of one room to conserve heat. Diesel was the expensive and often inaccessible fuel they relied upon entirely. As no land was made available for a rubbish tip, most people shared their already limited living space with rats, and the majority lived without leases.
After years of struggling to finance the buyout, today, the Isle of Eigg is one of Scotland’s most capable communities, tackling problems such as climate change and depopulation head on. In 2008, diesel was finally replaced with a mini grid integrating solar, wind and hydro energy known as Eiggtricity. By 2009, emissions had been cut by a third and the Eiggachs now have a much sought after and elusive asset – affordable energy security.

A co-operatively owned estate near South Lanarkshire is another success story. Tired of tolerating the damp, badly heated and insecure towerblocks they inhabited, the tenants of West Whitlawburn formed the Steering Committee of a Housing Co-op in 1989.
Describing her visit to the estate in 2010, Ms Riddoch explains the sharp contrast between the west and the neighbouring council owned East Whitlawburn estate where icy paths, single glazed windows and disintegrating brick work were still ubiquitous.
In the west, paths were cleared every morning and alarms fitted in the homes of the most vulnerable tenants. People took it in shifts to monitor CCTV screens and provide cups of tea in the middle of the night to any of the 70 vulnerable tenants who buzzed down for whatever reason. 11 deaths have been prevented because of this monitoring system, and the co-op have produced social accounts providing facts and figures proving that their way of doing things saves lives and cash – for anyone who is any doubt that community ownership is the way to go.
The Eiggachs, tenants of West Whitlawburn and others like them – Ms Riddoch states – were only able to reach their potential once they had full access to their own resources and decision making at a local level. This is a message which will resonate well with independence supporters, and clearly one that the author feels is at least somewhat relevant to the current constitutional debate. 
Nevertheless, it is an indictment that in a country which considers itself a modern democracy: “So much effort had to be expended…to reach a level of fairness that’s been normal in other neighbouring nations for centuries”.Despite the success of the Eiggachs and the tenants of West Whitlawburn, community ownership is still not a mainstream option in housing provision. The Eigg buy-out put land reform on the political agenda, and the Land Reform Act was passed by the Scottish Parliament in 2003, but very few communities have taken advantage of the Scottish Land Fund to finance Buyouts. There is a very practical reason for this – the community buyout model is too intimidating for most, and politicians routinely advocate for community ownership without coughing up the resources to make it happen.
Land Reform is one of the most pressing issues facing Scotland and Ms Riddoch suggests the swift introduction of a land tax would be the most sensible way to bring that about. However, community buyouts alone will not rectify the disempowerment felt across Scotland.Although the author doesn’t devote too much time to the explicit discussion of next year’s vote, there are important messages here for Independence campaigners. Ms Riddoch warns it is possible that “Such a divided, unequal nation is unlikely to push wholeheartedly for a cause like Scottish independence. why bother when folk have smaller fish to fry?”
She maintains that “change will only come when people can visualise things being otherwise” – this is an important point which is frequently made by other progressive commentators such as Gerry Hassan. Knowing what we know about the Scottish psyche, it is essential that the broader Yes campaign move heaven and earth to spark imaginations and – although it is beginning to sound like a platitude – provide a real ‘vision’ for the future of Scotland. This can be achieved by allowing the terms of the debate to be shaped by as many sections of the population as possible. In the process people who might now be disengaged will find the confidence to participate in building the independent country we hope to see. The fact that so many are already by-passing the official campaign in favour of grass roots movements such as National Collective and Radical Independence is of course the strongest indicator we have that a Scotland closer to the democratic and empowered one Ms Riddoch provides us with snap shots of here is possible. 
Trusting the people of Scotland to build a better society from the bottom up is an essential step in empowering them to take the leap towards national self determination.
Don't even try to understand the significance of the painting! I just couldn't find a suitable one for the subject of the post - and therefore chose this opaque but stunning piece by Tony Todorov, a favourite of mine introduced to me by Vihra of Astry Gallery in Sofia. He spends most of his time in Cyprus.......