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

Saturday, May 31, 2014


A busy week down in the plains – rather book-focused with an initial compulsory pit-stop at the English bookshop where Vlad was able to take a few minutes off to talk with us over coffee. I left with 2-3 ordered books and several recommendations. The Brecht biography (beautiful edition); what looks a masterly Journey to Portugal published in 1979 by Nobel prize-winner Jose Saramago; and Daunderlust –dispatches from Unreported Scotland were in the former category – The Hall of Uselessness – collected essays by one, Simon Leys from Belgium/Australia/China looks very much my sort of book; Ahmet Hamdi Tanpinar’s The Time Regulation Institute;  and a book on Ghenhis Khan were three casual purchases recommended by Vlad.

I had been busy the previous week with my short, smart guide to Romania which has, at the moment, the title “Encountering Romania” and can be read (hopefully) on the link in its present form – and duly printed it out to see what is looks like in that form. Always a test!
The remaindered bookshop yielded a couple of superb productions about William Morris and Tiffany – to inspire Daniela in her glass painting.

Mid-week gave the opportunity to visit the 2014 Bookfest. The opening day was quiet – and yielded only 2 books – a nice edition of Deletant’s "Ceaucesu and the Securitate" for 4 euros and a doorstopper of a book which I bought (for 6 euros) simply for what it might reveal about the Romanian intellectual mind – "The Destiny of Europe" is just an extensive series of booknotes masquerading as a book by Andrei Marga whose 10 page CV should carry a health warning. "Nonsense on stilts" the best review.....

Saturday, May 24, 2014

William McIlvanney joins the Olympians

Today sees my highest monthly viewing figure ever – and there’s still another full week to go before the end of the month. I’ve been rather focused on Romania and Scotland in the last month – so I’m grateful to those readers who don’t necessarily share these interests for their patience.
You can see the 7 top posts for this month (from hits) at the right-hand side – 1 about Europe; 4 about Scotland, 1 on travel – those 6 are all recent. But top billing is still this strange “backbone” one – more than 3 years old – whose title refers to an EC document about aid assistance which I was critiquing then. I have tried to suggest to readers that there are better things to read – but people just keep on punching that button. I don’t understand why!
Paul Mason, one of the BBC economics correspondent (all of whom do excellent blogs), ran a lovely Christmas challenge in 2010 – the 50 books which your library has to have. The challenge was apparently first made in 1930 by an American journalist who received a letter from a friend who wrote: 
"I want no more than fifty books. And none of them modern; that is, no novels that are coming off the presses these last ten years. Are there fifty intelligent books in the world? If you have time send along a list of fifty books, I promise to buy them and have them beautifully bound. I am consulting you as I would my lawyer. I have not time to develop a literary consciousness at my age. So if you were cutting your own library down to fifty books, which books would you keep?"
Mason made the challenge more difficult by preventing us from consulting our shelves or the internet – so I just managed to get my suggestions in before the discussion thread closed (It’s number 81). I then took time to reflect more and consult some booklists and then posted on this blog.
A library should be for consulting – the glories of novels, short stories, poetry, essays should be available there but also art and human knowledge. With only 50 books allowed, novels (of any sort) will have to be excluded - which means no “Buddenbrooks” (Thomas Mann) or “Candide” (Voltaire) let alone any of the powerful South Americans (Jorge Amado's "Gabriela, Clove and Cinnamon", Allende’s “Eva Luna”, Marquez’s , “Love in the Time of Cholera” , Llosa ‘s “The War of the End of the World”) or Yehoshuova’s “The Liberated Bride” from Israel.
However, some books come in multi-volume collections eg Lewis Crassic Gibbon’s “Sunset Song”; Lawrence Durrell’s “The Alexandrian Quartet”; Olivia Manning’s “Balkan Trilogy”; and Naguib Mahfouz’s “Children of the Alley” and therefore give good bangs for bucks. Perhaps they might be allowed to stay.
And remember what Nassim Taleb calls Umberto Eco's "antilibrary" concept - that read books are less valuable than unread ones - a library should be a research tool. Collections of essays, poetry and short stories also give much more reading per book (unless it’s War and Peace) - so the collected poetry of Brecht, TS Eliot, Norman McCaig and WS Graham would be the first four books; as well as the Collected Short Stories of Nabokov, William Trevor, Carol Shields, Heinrich Boell and Alice Munro; and the essays of Montaigne.
If allowed, I would also have a few collections of painters eg the Russian Itinerants. Chuck in an Etymology and a couple of overviews of intellectual endeavours of recent times such as Bill Bryson’s “A Short History of Nearly Everything” and Peter Watson’s “A Terrible Beauty” - and I would then have space for 35 individual titles.

About 30 non-fiction titles then followed – interesting that less than 10 were by British writers. Now I would probably question only the inclusion of Taleb..... 

Thanks to cheating (selecting collections), I was actually left with 6 empty spots – which I never got round to filling. 
Obviously, in the light of yesterday’s post about William McIlvanny, least a couple of his titles would go in to fill those empty spots.

Friday, May 23, 2014

MacIntosh Art School in Glasgow on fire

Just as I shot my latest blogpost into the ether, I discovered that the amazing Glasgow School of Art built by Rene MacIntosh more than 100 years ago was on fire. I feel my soul freeze – this is such a place of beauty. 

Pics here.

My eldest daughter had her education here. 

My partner in Romania uses his designs for her glass paintings.... 

I pray for it................. 

And, forgive me, I'm waiting to see who is the first idiot to draw a parallel with the burning of the Reichstag.......such is the state of feeling.....

Sublime writing

These last few days I have been doing something I rarely do – I have been “savouring” a book – word by word as distinct from my usual habit of flicking. …..laughing out loud in delight at the language; marking sections every few pages with a pencil. And this is a novel – not my usual fare! A detective novel to boot – "Strange Loyalties" (1991) - the last of a trilogy. I hinted a few posts back that the technical aspects of the great Scottish debate were decreasingly to my liking - and the rare taste of William McIlvanney – one of the most underrated writers not only of the British Isles but perhaps in the English-speaking world! - perhaps shows how words can better be used. I wrote about him last September
I start therefore with a few of the phrases I marked  on this novel of his – 
The thought was my funeral for him. Who needs possessions and career and official achievements? Life was only in the living of it. How you act and what you are and what you do….  are the only substance. They didn’t last either. But while you were here, they made what light there was – the wick that threads the candle-grease of time. His light was out but here I felt I could almost smell the smoke still drifting from its snuffing….(p80). 
It was one of her partners who answered (the phone). When she knew it was me, her voice – always distant – more or less emigrated…..(p112) 
Attractiveness facilitates acquaintance, like a courier predisposing strangers to goodwill, and my mother had acquired early an innocent vanity that let her enjoy being who she was. But the kindness of other people towards her made her as idealistic as my father in her own way. She tended to think the way people treated her was how they treated everybody. She thought the best of them was all there was (p 128). 
Why do the best of us go to waste while the worst flourish? Maybe I had found a clue….Those who love life take risks, those who don’t take insurance. But that was all right, I decided. Life repays its lovers by letting them spend themselves on it. Those who fail to love it, it cunningly allows very carefully to accrue their own hoarded emptiness. In living, you won by losing big; you lost by winning small (p 134).   
Where I had come into what I took for manhood….meant much to me, not just as a geography but as a landscape of the heart, a quintessential Scotland where good people were my landmarks and the common currency was a mutual caring. Why did it feel so different to me today, a little seedy and withdrawn? p 183 
(Some might have thought her mad). But she wasn’t mad, just too sane to play along with the rest of us. She had awakened from her sleep-walk long enough to recognize the minefield we call normality. She had found a way to admit to herself the prolonged terror of living. Some people never do. p 206 
The invention of truth, no matter how desperately you wish it to be or how sincerely you believe in the benefits it will bring, is the denial of our nature, the first rule of which is the inevitability of doubt. We must doubt not only others but ourselves. (p 210) 
You offer him a vague perception and he takes it from you, cleans off the gunge and gives it back, having shown you how it works. He clarifies you to yourself. (p258)

McIlvanney is still going strong in his mid-70s but generous tribute was paid last year to him by another great Scottish writer - Allan Massie – a writer mainly of historical novels
McIlvanney, born in 1936 in Kilmarnock, Ayrshire, established himself some time ago as the best Scottish novelist of his generation. Docherty (1975), a social-political family novel set in a declining mining community, won the Whitbread award for fiction.
Long before any but a handful of people had heard of Alasdair Gray, and before James Kelman had published anything, McIlvanney was recognised as the man who spoke authentically for the Scottish working class, out of which he had, like so many, been educated, being a graduate of Glasgow University and then a schoolteacher. So perhaps he wasn’t surprised when another teacher, encountered in a Glasgow bar, told him he had disgraced himself by stooping to write a crime novel – namely “Laidlaw”
The charge was ridiculous; crime is a serious matter. Of course, most crime fiction is ordinary fare, read for amusement only. It may trivialise what is not, and should not be, trivial. But crime is at the heart of many great novels. Bleak House, which is a crime novel, is not trivial; Simenon’s novels are not trivial or mere entertainment; nor are McIlvanney’s three Laidlaw books.
Their subject is the ruin of the body, the distortion of the soul, and the corruption of society.McIlvanney never allows us to forget that the damage crime does is not merely physical. Murder is always a form of betrayal, a denial of the respect with which we should treat each other. It infects everything around it. 
Laidlaw, an intellectual policeman, is damaged by what he experiences. He believes in communities; interviewing an elderly, loyal, but saddened mother in "Strange Loyalties", he reflects that there is nothing he wouldn’t do for the working-class women of that generation who held families together. But he himself is driven into isolation.
McIlvanney is an existentialist writer, like Camus, whom he admires, has learnt from, and matches.He has never been prolific. If he had taken the advice he was given – to write an annual Laidlaw novel – he might be a rich man in his old age; but he has always gone his own way.
The republication of these novels now will revive interest, and perhaps lead him to write another, as he has sometimes talked of doing. But his reputation, not only as the father of tartan noir, is assured.
 “Docherty”, almost 40 years on, is established as a modern Scottish classic, and I have no doubt that “The Kiln” (1996), which is, in one sense, a two-generations-later sequel, is a masterpiece. It confirmed him, to my mind, as the finest Scottish novelist of our time. It is one of those rare books that does what Ford Madox Ford thought imaginative literature could do better than any other art, making you think and feel at the same time.
The “Kiln” is a novel of a hard-won maturity. Its hero, a novelist lost in the dark wood of middle age, sits, looking out at a cemetery, in a rented flat – in Edinburgh, not Glasgow (a sign of his displacement) – and gazes back on the summer when he was 17, in limbo between school and university, a magic summer which saw his passage to adult life.The evocation of that time is beautiful, but now, behind him, is a broken marriage, memories of erratic social behaviour, and he is perplexed, as we all must sometimes be, by the question of what he has made of his life. He broods on the problem which is perhaps central to all experience: how to reconcile his sense of what he owes to himself with his knowledge of what he owes to others.
There is then a vein of melancholy in the novel, but this is relieved by the often joyous vitality with which that summer is recalled, and enlivened by the acute social observation and darting shafts of wit. It’s a novel that tells you how it is, and therefore enriches your imaginative experience.
As a novelist myself (Allan Massie), I admire its craft. As a reader I can only be grateful. Almost 2,000 years ago, the younger Pliny wrote that “a man’s life contains hidden depths and large secret areas”. The thought is common. In Faust Goethe says: “Die Menschen sind im ganzen Leben blind” – men are blind throughout their life. True enough, but the best novelists offer us a means of opening our eyes, peering into these depths, and exploring these secret places, and they do so whatever their subject. 
William McIlvanney is one of the rare novelists who help us to know both the social world and our innermost selves. He is both moralist and artist, and a writer to be cherished.

There was a great interview with him in a 2010 issue of the Scottish Review of Books

"It's the Economy stupid!"

Should a country of 5 million souls which currently forms the northern part of an “imperial” nation split and go its own way? 
Not exactly, perhaps, the question on the referendum paper – but I’ve chosen this adjective and put it in inverted commas to give a sense of some of the ideological issues involved in the present debate which is currently raging in my homeland….     
Noone disputes that these 5 million people form a country (it has had its own legal, religious and educational systems for centuries) – nor that they have, in the past few decades, become deeply alienated from the British political system which has developed since the 1970s.  
The new Scottish Parliament which was formed in 1999 has significant devolved powers and more are coming its way. But that has not stopped the alienation from the neo-liberal ideology of the British system which has permeated even the Labour party since the 1990s

The question is whether Scotland should tear free from the remaining parts of the “Union” which was formed all of 300 years ago – namely the economic, welfare and defence parts. 

The consensus of opinion in Scotland seems to be that the last two should now also go. The presence on the river Clyde of the British nuclear submarine base is and always has been deeply unpopular (with ongoing public protests for the past 50 years); and the Scots never supported the Iraq war… I will elaborate this aspect in a future contribution.
And the last post indicated how unpopular the welfare cuts are in Scotland.

Basically that leaves the economic arguments….
The best of the “unionist” blogs – called Notes from North Britain - is written by the Professor of Public Law at the University of Glasgow. His latest contribution is a powerful argument -
Fully 70% of Scottish exports are sold to the rest of the UK. Just pause there for a moment: Scotland trades more with the rest of the UK than with the whole of the rest of the world put together. Scotland's trade with the rest of the UK is worth four times her trade with the EU.
In the last decade the value of Scottish trade with the rest of the UK has increased by 62% (whereas the value of Scottish trade with the EU has increased in the same period by a mere 1%). Given the eye-watering scale to which the Scottish economy depends on doing business with the rest of the UK, why would any sane person wish to erect an international frontier between Scotland and the rest of the UK? Why turn this trade from domestic to international, with all the added costs and disincentives that would apply?
A "border effect" would inhibit and diminish Scottish trade considerably. Compare, for example, the US and Canada where, despite commonalities of language, free trade agreements and the relative openness of the border, it remains the case that Canadian Provinces do twenty times as much trade with each other as they do over the border in the US.
The border between Canada and the US has been estimated to reduce trade by 40%. Migration within Canada is fully 100 times greater than migration from the US to Canada.
Here, it has been estimated that the "border effect" could cost each Scottish household £2000 annually. There are 360,000 jobs in Scotland created by companies in the rest of the UK. A further 240,000 Scottish jobs depend on exports to the rest of the UK. That's 600,000 jobs. As many as 200,000 jobs in Scotland depend on the financial services industry. Fully 90% of Scottish companies' financial services business is with the rest of the UK. Nine out of ten pensions sold from Scotland are to customers in England, and eight out of ten mortgages lent from Scotland are to borrowers in England. This economic activity requires a single domestic market with a single currency in a single regulatory regime. 
Scotland's economy is performing well in the Union. Scotland has a higher economic output per head than Denmark and Finland, and significantly higher than Portugal. And Scotland has maintained a consistently higher employment rate than comparably sized countries in the EU. Indeed, Scotland has the highest employment rate of all the nations of the UK -- and there are more people in work in the UK now (30 million) than ever before in our history. We have a higher employment rate even than the USA.Whereas the EU single market is still replete with trade barriers, in the UK our domestic market sees genuinely free trade, meaning that Scots have ten times the job opportunities they would otherwise have.
The United Kingdom is the sixth largest economy in the world, despite being only the 22nd biggest country in the world in terms of population. Who wouldn't want to be part of it?
………………..Trade and jobs are about economic opportunities. But economic Union is also about sharing risks, absorbing shocks, and pooling resources, leading to greater stability and security for us all. Take oil and gas as an example. North Sea oil and gas is a lucrative business, but it is also highly volatile. The oil and gas is expensive even to locate, never mind to extract, and the price of oil can decline sharply. Tax revenues from North Sea oil and gas fell by a whopping £4.5 billion in 2013. That is the size of the Scottish schools budget. That kind of economic shock is much easier to absorb in an economy of 63 million people than it is in one of only 5.3 million people.
The UK Government supported the injection of over £45 billion into RBS in 2008, and offered the Bank a further £275 billion of guarantees and state support. This total was more than double the size of Scotland's economy that year -- it was 211% of Scottish GDP including geographical share of North Sea oil. The Union delivers for Scotland economic security, as well as economic success. The Union is good for Scotland. Public spending in Scotland is £1200 per head higher than the UK average. At the same time, onshore tax receipts are, per person, lower for Scotland than the rest of the UK.
In numerous ways, Scotland does disproportionately well out of the Union. In 2012-13, for example, Scottish universities secured more than 13% of the UK's research council funding: some £257 million. This isn't just good for Scottish universities: it's good for Scotland as a whole. It was estimated in 2010 that Scottish universities contributed £6.2 billion to the Scottish economy (not least through the 39,000 people they employ). It is not just in raw economic terms that the Union delivers for Scotland: it delivers also in cultural terms. The UK's national broadcaster, the BBC, receives some £300 million annually from Scottish licence-fee payers, but makes nearly £4 billion of programming which is free-to-air in Scotland.

In case my readers think I am being one sided – let me offer a stimulating read from the National Collective website in which a contributor offers us 25 punchy reasons for voting yes

One of the books I’m now waiting to read is by an academic who was for many years the top civil servant dealing with economic issues in the Scottish Office – Guy McCrone. Here is an excerpt from the summary of his book Scottish Independence – weighing up the economic issues given by one reader who, like me, is striving to be balanced.
……the economic issues surrounding Scotland’s prospect of independence remain too fluid to call. What I mean by this is that the book (like many other sources) presents historical and contemporary economic data which is fine and good, but by necessity it is then forced to speculate as to likely outcomes. This for me is the key problem surrounding the plea by members of the voting public who I have witnessed on various television debates and investigative programmes surrounding the referendum, who ask for more certainty.
Neither McCrone’s book, nor in my opinion any others are going to be able to provide that kind of certainty. The bottom line is that McCrone helps the reader identify some of the key economic issues in the debate, but he also highlights how complex and interconnected the range of economic issues are surrounding an independent Scotland compared to business as usual in the Union.
………Given a Yes vote for Independence would have its impact felt for many generations of Scottish residents, too fine a focus upon the question of whether independence, greater devolution or business as usual will deliver a better or worse Scotland seems artificial and dishonest to me.
 The truth is nobody knows. Voters can weigh up the economic issues and this book can help identify many of their peaks, but the outcome will be determined by policies and environments that unfold over the coming decades.
If one looks back at history and reviews the then existing government policies and plans for the future, most of them turned out to be wrong or were subsequently change to take account of shifting environments and surprises.
The reality of the economic and political landscape is that whilst one can plan specific projects, such as whether to build more wind farms or nuclear power stations, it is a very different proposition to try and plan the likely outcome and impact of proposed macroeconomic policies and expect them to be right.
As McCrone’s book emphasises without certainty about the nature of a final currency and monetary structure, then in the event of a Yes vote wining, many of the other economic issues examined in his book are subject to considerable uncertainty.
However, this is the political reality and anyone wanting to get a handle on some of the key economic issues at the centre of the Scottish referendum issue is likely to find something of interest here. Just don’t expect certain answers.

Thursday, May 22, 2014


The Open Democracy website is an exemplary source of sensible voices which (in its own words) 
challenge the corporate media.  It seeks out and debates forms of democratic change…. delights in good ideas vigorously debated and argument backed by investigation…..opposes fundamentalisms, including market fundamentalism….

For some strange reason, however, it is not a site I often choose to access – and the same is true of the equally well-intentioned Social Europe. Perhaps I just find the writing too bland and predictable? I need something with more “oomph”.
As a result, I have overlooked one of the Open Democracy’s sub-sections entitled Scotland’s Future -
a platform for the best articles and essays which will cast light on the issues as they arise, and help people everywhere understand what's really being talked about. ….ensuring key voices in the Scottish debate can be heard outside Scotland; that the plurality of the conversation is heard; and that democrats from England, Wales, Northern Ireland and further afield who want to understand and discuss have a space to gather. Independence has profound implications for all of the Home Nations of the UK.

The editorship is shared between a Scot and.. Angle (?) and the site is currently running a series written by the Scot on “40 reasons for supporting Independence” (he’s reached the half-way mark)

One of the other pieces which caught my eye was written by an ex-Leader of the Iona Community John Harvey and his wife Molly whose contribution very much reflects the ethics and style of the Community 
At present, for example, the disgraceful attack on the most vulnerable of our fellow citizens, through the so-called 'welfare reforms', is something we can do very little about; this could change with independence. What it will also require, we believe, will be an increased acceptance of responsibility at a personal and a local community level to address the growing inequality in our society; a responsibility which we have seen grasped in a number of ways already through bodies like the Poverty Truth Commission
For too long, Scottish society has lurched between a dependency culture on the one hand and a scapegoating culture on the other.
The vote on September 18th will entail risks, whichever way the decision goes. We see it as a once-in-a-lifetime chance to take responsibility for ourselves, in this interdependent world, into our own hands; we believe that we have in Scotland both the personal and the corporate ability to attempt this with a reasonable degree of success.
We have to remember of course that even if we do get independence, we may not take this chance to make some difficult changes; but we believe that we have to take the risk. And we further believe that doing this will send an encouraging signal to other communities to follow suit, thus leading, hopefully, to a more appropriate sharing of power and responsibility all round, for the benefit of everyone living in these islands. 

The Iona Community is the radical wing of the Church of Scotland and I first encountered it in the 1960s – in the form of the young Minister of a church in the housing schemes of Greenock. (He became better known in later years as the Leader of the Community in his own right – and father of Douglas Alexander, currently Britain’s shadow Foreign Secretary). There's a nice celebration of the community in this book
I actually met my wife in the amazing abbey which graces the tiny Scottish island (off Mull, itself a Scottish island) and which is at the heart of the Iona Community. I was one of the invited speakers at a school on community development the Community was running and she was a community worker in Glasgow’s East End…  Anna came from a quaker background whose values are similar to those of the Iona Community.

As an agnostic for all my adult life, I respect these two organisations very much. They represent all that is decent and worthwhile in life…They honour the word “serve”
I was indeed  happy for almost a decade to be a “host” in the quaker-based Servas network which gave me the privilege of having foreign visitors in my home for a couple of days. There were only 3 requirements of them – that they (do a basic minimum to) help in the house; that they share some aspects of their lives; and that they stay no longer than a couple of nights without expressly being invited!

And during the first decade of my nomadic life (the 1990s) I made use of the Servas network in Sweden, Russia, Poland and Bulgaria. More about the quakers here ....I hope to invite them in future to my Transylvanian and Sofia bases.......

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Getting to the heart of the matter

I expressed surprise in yesterday’s post that so little of the debate I have seen about Scottish Independence dealt with the viability and success (or otherwise) of “Small States” and referred to a couple of rare publications on that question – one a book from 1947 (!), the other a more recent paper. 
This very morning, by one of these typical serendipities, I came across a new book – co-authored by Michael Keating whom I knew in the 1980s in Glasgow and who, in the intervening 30 years, has occupied academic chairs on regionalism in such places as Canada and ?. His co-author has written one of the best posts I have seen so far -  
In just four months’ time, Scotland will decide whether to become an independent country or to remain as a component nation of the United Kingdom. The constitutional arrangement is the only outcome which will be decided by September’s referendum. However, the constitutional options are only one part of the story. For neither a Yes vote nor a No vote will be a panacea, an answer to any and all economic, social or political issues Scotland faces. 
There are, broadly speaking, two distinct model types which inform how states operate on a global stage, and each entails their own internal logic. The market liberal model accepts the reality of global markets-  keeping taxes low to attract inward investment and de-regulating strongly - with a result that social spending is limited and inequality tends to be high. The Baltics, after independence, moved towards this type of system.
The social investment model sees public spending as part of the productive economy, levying high levels of taxation to pay for investment in education, research and infrastructure. Combined with social democracy, universal services, high levels of social solidarity and low levels of social inequality tend to be the result – as evidenced by the Nordic states.
These are, of course, ideal-types, and no state fits snugly into either model. The Baltics provided some (albeit limited) welfare spending in the aftermath of the global financial crisis, while the Nordics (particularly Sweden) have scaled back the breadth of their spending. Ireland operated something of a hybrid model, though this ran into some difficulties for various reasons – even prior to the crash, this combination of models proved unstable. 
While the market liberal model has appeal for some, Scotland appears to be much more inclined towards the social investment model. The SNP, Labour and the Greens are all – to various degrees – promoting variations on social democratic themes, while the Jimmy Reid Foundation has designed the Common Weal programme to stimulate thinking about a fundamental shift in Scottish political thinking. 
However, the Scottish Government’s White Paper on independence lays out spending plans consistent with a social investment model – but without the taxation levels to support it. Indeed, plans are to reduce corporation tax and air passenger duty – encouragement for business investment, to be sure, but without asking for anything in return.
Herein, a lack of a bargaining system – which in the Nordics includes business, trade unions and the government – is apparent.
Bargaining helps build social cohesion and trust between those institutions, and between institutions and the public. This is one basis for public acceptance of higher tax levels – and without such a system it is difficult to see how the public might be persuaded of its benefits. Irrespective of the referendum outcome, the social investment model could be pursued.
If independence is the outcome, a lot of internal change would be required (particularly with regards to wage bargaining, as alluded to above) and hard policy choices would follow.
If (extended) devolution prevails, social investment could be achieved, dependent on the mechanisms made available to the Scottish Parliament.However, in either case, a social democratic social investment model is not cheap, and Scotland would have to pay the cost in order to recoup the benefits. Institutional as well as attitudinal change would be required – would Scotland be ready for such change? Time will tell.  

The Better Nation blog on which this appeared is, for my money, the best blog on the Scottish issue. I particularly liked its statement of intent -
even the most cursory glance around Scotland shows continued poverty, movement away from sustainability, a business sector hardly thriving, a nervous public sector, stretched voluntary organisations and shortcomings in our democracy.
Our MPs and MSPs all seek to improve Scotland in the way they each best see fit, no matter what colour of party flag they wave or particular leader they serve under. However, for a country of our size, that is a daunting task, so this blog will aim to be, at worst, constructive criticism of their exploits, and, at best, a show of support for our politicians from interested Scots. Most in politics do have a genuine desire to improve how their country runs, and we will try to give a fair wind to their intentions, even when we have to disagree profoundly with their methods

It has a good list of the blogs worth consulting but does not include several I would recommend -
Wealthy Nation      

The painting is a Stanley Spencer (an "English" painter as the site tells us) - "plumbers" and I think its actually part of the Port Glasgow shipbuilding series he did in the war years    

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

The Breakdown of Nations

I appreciate that my (global) readers are not necessarily interested in Scotland …or Romania…or Bulgaria…or Germany – which have all been subjects of (separate) series of posts in the past year. That’s why I’m rationing such posts – choosing a mixture of representative and original contributions. 

My next contributor, Murray Pittock, was smart enough to use – way back in 2008 – the title “The Road to Independence? Scotland in the Balance” of one of the books I have been dipping into in the past month to help my understanding of the issues involved.
I have a revised and expanded version – produced last year. And a bonnie book it is!
Pittock was Professor of Scottish and Romantic Literature and Deputy Head of Arts at the University of Manchester, becoming the first ever professor of Scottish Literature at an English university – and is now Professor of Literature at my alma mater – Glasgow Univerity. 
He has also been a visiting fellow at universities worldwide including:  Charles University, Prague (2010); Trinity College, Dublin (2008); the University of Wales in Celtic studies (2002) and Yale (1998, 2000–01)
He grew up in Aberdeen and attended the University of Glasgow. His parents were both lecturers in English Literature at the University of Aberdeen).
He is total Celt – immersed in cultural studies – just as I have been immersed in governance issues for an even longer period of time

The article from which this is excerpted was written more than a year ago and explains why the author will be voting yes 
Those who talk about dissolving a 300-year-old partnership ignore the fact that the partnership itself has changed. In days gone by, British imperial markets offered huge opportunities to Scots. Scottish associations were formed worldwide to promote networks to get Scots into jobs,
 The Economist put it last week, “there are compelling reasons for paying attention … to small countries on the edge of Europe … they have reached the future first”. What does that future consist of ? Alternative energy, for one. The run-down in fossil fuels, even taking into account fracking and other controversial practices, can be seen to have begun with oil at well over $100 a barrel with the world economy still in rehab.
Scotland has been blessed with both huge fossil fuel opportunities and huge renewable opportunities in the last 50 years. Are we going to say No to them both? Some will say this is “selfish” or “parochial”. Well, suppose it were: what did Britain spend the oil revenues on, and was the UK as sensible as Norway, whose oil fund – which holds 1 per cent of the global stockmarket on behalf of a country of 4.5 million people – is the economic wonder and envy of the western world?
How can we say the UK spent North Sea revenues wisely in this age of austerity? Did they do better than other countries – than Scotland would have done? But, in fact, Scotland isn’t selfish or parochial, it’s just small. Small countries are adept at networking, and it’s a networking age. They are adept at finding new solutions in education (Finland, for example) or fish farming (Norway) and many other things.
The top five countries in the world for global competitiveness in 2012 are all small, as are four of the top five for innovation and four of the top five for prosperity.They are interested in themselves, but also the whole world: and that isn’t parochial, it’s just normal. Scotland isn’t a parish, it’s a country. And of course it’s interested in itself, but it is interested in the world too, just like any normal country.As it promotes itself, Scotland is finding rising markets for its exports across the world, and will find new markets for its culture too. A Yes vote is a necessary key step forward in that process.
 Independence is not separation: it is about talking to ourselves and the world without going through an intermediary. It itself will be a process: as Jim McColl put it last week “a united kingdom but with an independent parliament”.
Ireland stayed in a monetary union with sterling for 57 years. Every case is different, but the point is that what we will share with our neighbours on these islands will still be a partnership, just a new one. And we need a new one. 
Life is change, and change is gained by how we think, vote and act differently. No change is without risk, but “no change” is full of risk. It is indeed voting for nothing, and we will not be offered something for that nothing.I am voting Yes because I have spent years championing the literature and culture of Scotland at home and abroad. 
There are people throughout the world watching us and waiting for us to join them. It won’t be a free ride: but if we decide we are confident enough to have something to give in trade or niche industries or culture or creativity, we will get something back. 
Does Scotland have the self-confidence to realise what has changed, to realise the opportunities that there are, and to look to the future? There is much more to our quantifiable economic strengths, exports, education, energy and innovation than the power of positive thinking, but without it we will not develop as fast as we need to, or have the voice we ought to, in this rapidly changing world. And that is why I am voting Yes.

I said in a recent post that I would like to see more discussion of the “separation boost” – the possible impact (economic, social, political– if not psychological which separation from Britain would have. I have always had a soft spot for the “Small is Beautiful” argument – best represented in the Breakdown of Nations book produced in 1947 by the Austrian Leopold Kohr. I’m surprised (and disappointed) that no one seems to be mentioning him in the debate.

And one of the few systematic studies of the contribution of “small countries” is this one from the David Hume Institute 

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Scotland - keeping an open mind

I had wanted today to write something about what might be called the “separation boost” – the social and economic advantage which is to flow from Scottish Independence once it is negotiated after what looks to be a successful referendum on September 18th
But I got sidetracked – not least by the various websites and articles I’d collected over time on the issue of Scottish separation but not properly looked at…
And one of the things which disappoints me as I look at how the “great debate” is being conducted is - the absence of websites or blogs devoted to the issue (and there are so many!) which are keeping an open mind. There are some great “dedicated” sites….but few quality ones (it seems to me so far) which try to explore the issues dispassionately….
A rare one which does is the Church of Scotland – which ran 32 discussions in its churches in various parts of the country and produced earlier this year (I think) a useful snapshot called Imagining Scotland’s Future. I'll try to say something about the document soon 
And it is that same institution which produced a few days ago a proposal for a “reconciliation service” to help Scots on different sides of the barricades deal with one another after 18 September…

In that same spirit of reconciliation (which my (Scottish) father undertook in post-war Germany) future posts on this blog will try to "distill" from those sites (for the benefit of this blog's global readers) the essence of the debate. 
In the 24 years I've been out of the country, I'm used to being asked if I'm English. No, I have always replied, "I'm Scottish".  I have never had any doubt about my identity! 
But I am torn in this debate about independence. Last autumn I was in favour. Now I'm not so sure. And bear in mind that Ive spent my whole life thinking (and acting) about issues related to the question of government - four years of university study; followed by a combined career of lecturing about and practising local and regional development. A useful base, many would see, for the 20 years which followed - advising governments in "post-communist" countries on various issues relating to the reform of their machinery of government. With due modesty (I hope), I can reasonably claim to be well-read and experienced in issues of governance. As I don't have a vote in this referendum, I can therefore continue to be dispassionate in any advice and comment I offer.     

And let me start with the author of one of the books I received recently in Bucharest - Professor Jim Gallagher - Fellow in Politics at Nuffield College, Oxford and adviser to the Better Together Campaign. His book (with Ian Maclean) "Scotland’s Choices" is one in the small library I've been accumulating in recent months on the independence issue. This text is taken from the Polity Press website. 
I warn you – it is a long post – but its tone makes it worthy of being the first of this series - it will be duly balanced by the next post -
Modern British politics has never experienced anything like this campaign. Governments arguing on each side – indeed the whole resource of the devolved government apparently devoted to little else – producing a White Paper remarkable for its length, at least. Longer even than a US presidential election – in reality stretching back to 2011. High reported intention to vote – but so far a remarkably stolid public opinion. One very striking feature is the willingness of today’s UK to empower the Scottish people to decide on their future by voting for a separate Scottish state. Contrast this with Madrid’s deep unwillingness to agree that Catalonia should hold a referendum at all. One might have predicted a bit more sound and fury from the UK before so radical a course of action was agreed, but the logic that Scotland alone should make this democratic choice was followed without question. The threat of secession is being contemplated in a very civilised way, though that does not imply it is in any sense welcomed. 
Perhaps this is one of the reasons why the debate in Scotland is so instrumental. Of course there are Scots for whom nationhood is a gut question with huge emotional resonance.
My taxi driver the other day who hankered after ‘the Bruce and the Wallace’ to run an independent country (honest) was perhaps an outlier, but committed nationalists are clear believers.
 Many, perhaps most, Scots however seem to view this as an instrumental question – what would work best, how in reality would things turn out, and how much would it affect Scotland’s prosperity? Voters’ demand is for ‘more information’, as if the referendum were a particularly important exam to study for. 
The contrast with Spain is striking. In the week in which it was reported that 1.6 million people held hands round Catalonia, 8000 hardy souls climbed the Calton Hill in Edinburgh to rally for separation. The former is a mass movement.This lack of separatist enthusiasm in the electorate might be a weakness for the independence campaign, but it also defines much of its nature, and the debate.esponses to a now notorious Scottish Social Attitudes Survey question suggest that 51% of Scots would support independence if it made them £500 a year better off, while 85% would reject it if they were £500 worse off. So debate has focused on issues that surface in retail politics – jobs, pensions, taxation and public spending – rather than principled questions of independence and statehood. Nowhere was this more striking than in the Scottish Government’s White Paper, Scotland’s Future, published last year. It is notable for length, weight – 650 pages long and 3 pounds heavy – and lightness. Its definition of independence is about as ‘light’ as could be and still merit the name.
lmost as much effort is devoted to explaining the things that would not change as to what would or might. So an independent Scotland would keep not just the Queen as Head of State, but the UK pound, the Bank of England, the Prudential Regulatory Authority, the UK Research Councils, the BBC, the National Lottery, common welfare administration…all the way down, or maybe up, to Strictly Come Dancing. 
The political logic is clear: independence is inherently a deeply uncertain and risky project. That is not a campaigning point, but a statement of fact. It cannot be predicted with certainty how different life would be in an independent Scotland– that depends on decisions that would be taken by Scotland, and in large part by others in reaction to it. For some voters, making things different may be the overriding priority. But for most, risk and uncertainty is to be avoided, not sought out. 
So the SNP’s political imperative is to de-risk independence in voters’ minds, and present it as simply a small, logical, step from devolution – rather than a disruptive separation. The consequent political tactic is to attack as negative or scaremongering any suggestion to the contrary, and to seek to delegitimise whoever makes it: thus the Labour Shadow Chancellor is an ally of the Tories, or Bob Dudley of BP not a business leader but a member of the elite. The suggestion that the interests of rest of the UK could diverge from an independent Scotland’s gets similar treatment. It is an iron law of political discourse that the amount of emotion and abuse used in defending an argument is in inverse proportion to the argument’s strength. Of course this no more than quotidian politicking, and perhaps that is to be expected in the first couple of years of a campaign of extraordinary length.
It began as soon as the SNP gained an overall majority in the Holyrood Parliament, and when the UK government made clear it would ensure the legal obstacles to a devolved referendum did not stand in its way.
A period of SNP prevarication about what sort of referendum they wanted (one question or two, and what options) ended in the only way it could – with the referendum promised in their manifesto. Beginning during this period, and subsequently, we have seen policy contributions from the United Kingdom government weighty in a different sense.
The Scotland Analysis program is a series of papers, avowedly intended to persuade voters of the benefits of the UK, but extremely heavy in detailed legal, economic and policy analysis of the potential consequences of independence. These papers are full of expert analysis of subjects as various as international law, the effects of borders on trade, and the currency options open to an independent Scotland.
Few, if any, policy questions have been subject to such intensive scrutiny. As we approach the final (couple of) hundred days, and then the (long) regulated period of the campaign, voters will focus on the significance of the choice which they are to make, and the importance of its consequences. They are sure to realise that a choice to create a separate Scottish state is not just another issue of retail politics but rather a profound, and irreversible, decision about where they belong, and how they are governed. 
The most significant event of the campaign so far, by some measure, has been the cross-party agreement by UK politicians that the SNP’s model of currency union post-separation is not sustainable, and would not be acceptable in the interests of the continuing UK, nor indeed in Scotland’s.
This is a hugely significant issue in itself – no economic decision is more important for any country than what currency to have, and the implications of the choices which are available for Scotland’s prosperity, for incomes, employment, interest rates and so on go to the core of the economic issues in the debate.
It is not surprising, therefore, that the reaction of Scottish Ministers has been one of emotive abuse. What is perhaps more important about this intervention, however, is that it is an explicit challenge to the SNP’s depiction of independence, implying that it is not really much of a change at all. As the campaign moves into its last 6 months, candour is to be welcomed. 
The intellectual foundation of the Better Together argument, however, does not lie in the incoherence of the independence proposition put forward by the SNP. Bolstered by the analytical work of the UK government, it is possible to see an intellectually coherent and compelling set of arguments for maintaining Scotland’s place in the United Kingdom, as it is today with its own democratic institutions, as well as the strength, stability and security of the wider nation state. 
The argument from economic union is, bizarrely, wholly accepted by the SNP. Everyone in the UK benefits from being part of a large domestic market, in which not just goods and services but workers and capital resources can move without hindrance to take advantage of economic opportunities. Independence, which most economists agree would create a ‘border effect’ of some magnitude, could only hinder that.
An integrated economy, together with an effective banking union and fiscal sharing, allows the UK to sustain a single currency, not just a symbol, but an effective sign of economic union. The UK is however more than an economic union. Economic union, and the fiscal sharing it allows, create the opportunity for social solidarity, so that individual parts of the UK gain security from being part of a larger economic whole, and can manage economic shocks and volatility in a way in which a small nation could not.
This is shown particularly in the UK’s single pension and welfare benefits system, in which the circumstances of individuals, rather than where they live or their nationality, determine their pension or support. Independence would certainly end that. Of course in voting to stay in the UK, Scots would also be voting for continuation of a form of political union which allows for very substantial, and increasing, decentralisation of power and responsibility to the Scottish Parliament, so that Scots can have greater control over their domestic affairs without abandoning the benefits of being part of a larger country. 

The portrait is of Henry Raeburn - one of Scotland's best painters - of the 19th century

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Wha's Like Us? Part 12 of the Scottish commentary

It occurred to me this cold, windy morning in the Carpathian mountains that I hadn’t seen any articles subjecting the discussion on Scottish Independence to “discourse analysis” – cold and windy mornings in the mountains tend to bring on such thoughts! 
When I googled, I found three - but written, it seemed, by undergraduates with all the preliminary regurgitation this requires of obfuscating theory – this one’s exploration of the language of the main campaigns was vaguely interesting. Another paper’s analysis (in (2006) of ex-First Minister Jack McConnell’s speeches was simply inconsequential and outdated 
And this one’s application of “frame analysis” to 4 Scottish Leaders’ speeches was very disappointing – the discussion being limited to the four obvious constitutional scenarios rather than a typology of arguments which an earlier post of mine had indicated were overdue in the debate

One contribution (in the discussion thread which the Guardian had a few days ago on the issue) should figure in any such typology. It asked simply why we apparently think that the Scottish political class will be able to shake off the disease which has afflicted all other political classes in Europe in the post-war period – and to which I;ve referred frequently in this blog (in deed only yesterday)
I'm an Englishman living in Largs.  Funnily enough. I'll be voting 'no' in the referendum.I totally understand the desire of Scots (like many, if not most, non-southern English) to be shot of Westminster, but the premise that 'we' would be better off governing 'ourselves' is flawed on a number of levels, not least because it assumes that Scotland doesn't (or won't) have a political class which is emotionally and practically distinct from the rest of its population. This is arguable, of course; but one lesson of 1707 is surely that when it comes to realpolitik, Scotland's leaders are historically no less self-serving than anyone else's.T
his won't be popular, either (especially coming from an Englishman), but part of the problem an independent Scotland faces is that it is a fragmented country. I would be interested to know what most Highlanders nowadays think about national identity, but certainly prior to the Act of Union (and, arguably, for a very long time after that) most Scots did not consider highlanders to be Scottish at all. Surely, the actual political (and even cultural) differences (beyond a simplistic 'Yes' and 'No') between highland and lowland Scots, rural and urban Scots, or Scots from the industrial West and Lothian are far greater than any great unifying national identity. 
From a purely practical point of view, I really believe that devolution has allowed the Scottish Parliament the freedom to do the wonderful things that it has done (from no tuition fees, to freedom from prescription charges, to consistently higher per capita health spending) without having to face some of the hardest choices when it comes to the possible risks of independence.In the end, very little about the realities of an independent Scotland is certain, so it remains a largely emotional debate.
Despite how this post might read, I don't favour the status quo; but swapping one political class for another (just because they're 'our own') seems self-delusional to me.

Scottish Review is the only Scottish journal I know which gives space to critical voices which challenge the conventional wisdom (its tolerance knows no bounds – they have several times allowed the murderous George Robertson a voice). Significantly it’s totally independent and electronic .
And, without the scandalous tone found in newspapers, the Review documents the failings of the Scottish professional class which holds such power in Scotland .
One of the things which makes me keep an open mind during this debate is the over celebratory “Wha’s like us?” tone of the contributions. True that phrase seems self-deprecatory but in fact we can outdo the Romanians any day in the scale of our claims to what we’ve contributed to the world…….
And I find it interesting that when I googled the phrase I came across the thoughtful website of someone who had been Deputy-Leader of the Scottish National Party. Like a lot of others he has now parted with the Party – although he still favours independence.

My conclusion is that we are disputatious people (don't get me started on religion!) with a supine media and bloated professional class with a great sense of its self-importance – elements which we need to bear in mind as we contemplate future scenarios………….

I well understand that this will be construed as defeatist thought by those who hypothesise that Scotland will be given a great psychological boost by its partition – as discussed in the Volokh blog 
Defeatist or realist - it would be useful to see some rather clearer assessments of this "separation boost".........

PS also while googling I found this interesting Guide to the debate.
And also this great background article from Etudes Ecossaises (in English!)