Musings from The North

We were duped. Sold a pup. The wool was pulled over our eyes. Or to be more specific, the tartan.

That was my reaction this week when, for the first time in many years, I watched the movie Braveheart. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve watched the film in the 24 years since I sat awestruck in the Odeon Cinema on Renfield Street, Glasgow. But for my daughter, it was the first time.

braveheart.jpg
Braveheart was released in 1995

And what a film it is. It has everything: gory battles, not one but two captivating love stories, an evil king, a valiant protagonist who is a cross between a warrior, a poet and a freedom fighter, and of course, the great ideal of Freedom.

I realised watching it this time around just how much the film actually means to me. You see, the story it tells – the real story, not the made up bits – of the battles the Scots of the 13th and 14th centuries had to face in order to claim an identity of their own from an over-reaching English aristocracy, have been interwoven with my life since I was in Primary School.

My life is soaked in this story. I grew up in Renfrewshire, the birth place of the real William Wallace (no more a Highlander than Mel Gibson himself). At both Primary and Secondary School we studied the story of the Scottish Wars of Independence. I read books about this period given to me by my grandparents. And then, as I reached the mid-point of my undergraduate degree at Glasgow University, came the movie and my trip to Renfield Street on more than one occasion in the summer of 1995.

There is no question that the movie was – and some would still say, is – a phenomenon. It took at least $213 million at the Box Office worldwide. It’s the staple fair of the home movie platforms even today, hence why I was watching it. Sitting amongst 1000 Glaswegians as they roared Wallace’s army on at the Battle of Stirling Bridge remains to this day the most ‘interactive’ cinematic experience I’ve ever had.

Yet my personal connection is deeper still. Just before the movie came out, I was a budding journalist, and trying my hand at writing, both for the Glasgow University Guardian and other publications. And so, it came to pass that my best friend – a budding, and now professional, photographer – and I had found ourselves, aged 18, in a press pen on the slopes leading up to Stirling Castle as we covered the World Premiere of Braveheart. That night, I interviewed the actors, celebrities and hangers on, as they made their way to the premiere after-party in the castle itself. Amongst those on the guest list, and who I interviewed that night, were Catherine Zeta Jones, Patsy Kensit, Mel Gibson, a host of lesser stars, and a certain Mr Alex Salmond.

Alex Salmond Braveheart
Alex Salmond at the Braveheart Premiere. I’m just out of shot over his right shoulder (mercifully)

As I watched the movie with my eldest daughter this week all of these memories came flooding back. I still think it’s a great movie. What’s changed however is the feeling it gives me. Don’t get me wrong, it still gives me goosebumps at certain points. In the end, I’m as patriotic as the next Scot. Yet now it leaves me feeling somewhat queasy about just what the movie has represented for many Scots.

For a generation of Scots brought up with the same stories as me, Braveheart was both a climax and a catalyst for what has ultimately become the Yes Movement, and the rejuvenated SNP. Say what you will about Alex Salmond, but he was not at that movie premier by accident.

Almost 6 years ago in December 2013, reflecting on the upcoming Scottish Independence Referendum, I wrote the following in my first blog, Musings from the Island Line:

I believe that many Scots feel like they should vote Yes because they are essentially Patriotic. They are drawn to the grand claims and romantic language which Nationalism uses. But I have a message for my fellow Scots: it’s ok to vote No. You won’t lose your identity, and you’re no less a Scot than those who plan to vote Yes. Moreover, it’s a fundamentally wise decision to choose to maintain our Union with Wales, England and Northern Ireland.

It’s this Nationalism that has been so nourished by the activism of the Braveheart Generation. The potent combination of an historic romanticism and a common, identifiable enemy is an ephemeral phenomenon, but a very real one at work in the Yes Movement, and the SNP which is interwoven with it.

Although any self-aware Independence activist will frame their rationale within a narrative of civic nationalism and social justice – aspirations for the most part that I do not doubt – the symbolism, heart and emotion of the Scottish Independence movement is as firmly rooted in Scottish history, real and imagined as can be. It’s only necessary to be around one of the many Yes Marches or rallies to catch a glimpse of this reality:

Yes March May 2019

And as we experience the chronic travails of Brexit, it seems to me that a striking parallel has emerged. Although the SNP and the current leadership of the Conservative Party would each claim to have very little in common, both are supporting a political programme which is fundamentally about a retrenchment back into what they hold as their primary identity – whether British (by which they mean, English to all intents and purposes) or Scottish. It is in drawing a tighter net around the political identity to match what each regards as The Nation, that they see a way to ‘take back control’. To both camps – the SNP and Conservative leaderships – the unilateral nation-state is the silver bullet. In this reality, each is looking backwards, either to a mytholigised 19th, or even 14th, century.

Neither will admit this. Each will talk about the bright, modern, technological, welcoming, inclusive societies they want to build. And I do not doubt the sincerity on either side. But it nevertheless remains that in order to do so they are going back to the future, so to speak, and building their vision on the concept of the nation. Nations are important: I have confessed that I myself am patriotic. But there is a better way, and it’s closer to home than we realise – a renewed United Kingdom.

You see, the United Kingdom is not a nation. It’s a voluntary arrangement of shared government between multiple nations. There is no such thing as the British Nation, but there is a British State. And this state should serve the people of the UK. It needs massive reform: but within it lies the possibility of a new kind of politics, one which truly unifies beyond borders whilst honouring and retaining the identities which mean so much to us.
If it’s possible to completely deconstruct the Union through Scottish independence and build a harmonious future, then it’s even more achievable to renew and re-build this Union which has made us who we are. Equally, if it’s possible to extract ourselves from the European Union in order to reassert the UK’s ‘place in the world’, it’s just as possible to build a new kind of United Kingdom.

So what we need now is a political vision which can transcend nationalism, authoritarianism, narrow sectionalism and self-interest. We need a political vision which cultivates flourishing, confident communities that cross national boundaries whilst even at the same time recognising them, in order to advance social justice and the common good. What we need, is a truly United Kingdom.

Northern Light?

Watching from the side-lines of the Labour leadership contest it seems that, so far, very few big ideas have been declared by our four candidates. Of course, the tabloid caricatures have been cast: from so-called Looney Left to so-called Blairite Revisionist. Meanwhile we wait for something to happen.

But the reality is that so much is up for grabs. Will we move back to the Centre? Will we return to the comfort of Blairism or continue the more radical critique of Miliband and beyond? How will we reconnect with the electorate of Middle England whom it seems we failed to persuade in the General Election? How on earth will we come back from the debacle of the Scottish result soon enough to perform well in next year’s Holyrood election? The political landscape has changed. And we somehow have to chart a course through it over the next five years.

Perhaps the first step in determining our direction of travel is to work out where we’re starting from. One of the most instructive articles prior to the election was by Paul Mason. He argued that the country is now dominated by three groups; ‘Scandi-Scotland’, the asset-rich south east and post-industrial Britain. He argued that the Scots, south-eastern England and the post-industrial North and Wales are now living out conflicting narratives. The danger for the Labour Party is that while Blairism recognised this trend and adapted to it, winning seats in the south, we were wrong to assume that post-industrial Britain and Scotland would come along for the ride.

Mason also points out that the SNP and the Tories have captured the zeitgeist of their heartlands well. Labour has not, ceding votes to Ukip, the SNP and the Tories. The upshot is the loss of Scotland to the SNP, the loss of the South East to the supposedly more aspiration-friendly Tories, and the huge increase in the Ukip vote in the North. If Ukip were as good at politics as the SNP would Labour have lost more seats in the North? Almost certainly. Labour needs to ensure that we don’t miss the writing on the wall: as well as developing a narrative that wins back Blair-era southern voters and reclaiming our place in Scotland, we need to talk about The North.

The long-term status of the North as a Labour heartland cannot be taken for granted. The tribal loyalties and family connections which used to define our presence in the North are waning. It’s arguable that, like the industry which once defined it, Labour’s roots in these communities have loosened. The roots are not gone. But we cannot afford to go any further without tending to them.

True, all is not lost. As accurate as that Maggie Simpson electoral map was, there remains strong support for Labour in the North East, and in urban centres like Sheffield, Liverpool and Manchester. Indeed, in areas like Wearside – first to declare on polling day – incumbents Julie Elliot, Sharon Hodgson and Bridgette Phillipson all increased their majorities considerably. Labour is still the party which can best represent the North. But to do that we will need to both up our game and lobby for changes that will allow the North to flourish again.

Sandwiched between the resurgent nationalisms of Scotland and Wales, pressured by protest votes, underwhelmed by deepening apathy and left behind by the relative affluence of the South East, the North has been taken for granted; not just by Labour but by the country as a whole.

That we have a dysfunctional economy, far too dependent upon London and the South East, is obvious. This imbalance is evidenced in the inequality that we find all over: from the East End of Glasgow to the docks of Sunderland, from the valleys of North Wales and, ironically, to the outskirts of London itself. Our politics also remains heavily-weighted to London with Westminster, and to some degree the London Assembly and the Boris Effect, creating a self-fulfilling gravitational pull for investment. This fact was only partially-acknowledged during the election campaign, even although it affects the whole country.

But crucially, whilst Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have Parliaments and Assemblies to represent their voice and some of the powers needed to stimulate their economies, the North has been left with only local, and not regional, government.

The North has a problem. It has been taken for granted and ignored. But even now the Labour Party remains the best hope for a transformed, empowered and dynamic North. So what should we do?

In Glasgow, to be ‘Clyde-built’ was once a badge of communal pride, something that helped shape the identity of an entire city: it’s now a nostalgic reference to the industrial heritage of ship-building. At one time, the relationship in parts of the country between local education, employers and the wider community was so inter-related as to be inseparable. Even football clubs were part of this eco-system, with teams like The Blades, the Potters, the Cobblers or the Brewers named after the local industries. This socio-economic model is no more. All we have left are traces and disconnected parts. And it’s not just the loss of jobs and consequent wealth of previous generations which leaves a hole, but the dilution of the very sense of identity which many communities found at least in part from the ‘Made in’ stamp.

So what’s the lesson here? Firstly, communal identity can be an important factor in socio-economic success. The community that works together, stays together, it seems, even after most of the work has gone. Secondly, if we are to create the modern equivalent to the old communities centred around local industries and stimulate integrated local economies, focussed on creativity, hard work and shared identity, then more power needs to be held more locally. This is the opposite of the individualistic approach of neo-liberal economics in which each ‘producer’ is a singular widget in a vast economic machine. It’s an alternative to the creeping authoritarianism of the SNP in Scotland or the Conservatives in England.

But we need to go above the level of the immediate town and the Local Authority. It’s the impact of that core Labour ideal – solidarity – which will help the North as a whole find its voice, not just in the UK, but throughout the world.

Politically this puts Labour in a complicated situation. We began devolution but we didn’t see it through, side-tracked by wars and declining radicalism after years in power. The result is a half baked devolution which is itself the cause of some of the tension felt in Wales and the North. Why shouldn’t Wales have the same powers as Scotland, ask Plaid Cymru? Why should the North be ignored or need to resort to ‘take us with you Scotland’ pleas after a Tory victory? George Osborne’s ‘northern powerhouse’ whether real or imagined is clearly intended to begin the decontamination of the Tory brand in the North and to centralise power in the hands of a sprinkling of city Mayors. To oppose it looks like meanness, yet if Labour is to reclaim the strong support of the North we will need to be much bolder than Osborne.

It is too soon to be setting policy for 2020. We have a leader and deputy leader to elect first and a defeat to digest. At the same time we must not cede the North to the Tories or to UKIP. For that to happen we must develop a strong narrative that offers hope to communities too often left behind; the non-voters, UKIP voters and those in Pudsey, Colne Valley, and Keighley that don’t like what Labour had to offer this time round. The offer must give hope to communities which have had little since before Thatcherism, communities New Labour too passed by.

And it has to be about more than devolution; it has to involve power and money. Bad decisions made locally are just as bad as bad decisions made far away. Labour needs to be content with the direction set by the North being different from that of London, the South, Wales or Scotland. This will require ambitious policy and a clear settlement for the other parts of the UK. The risks are real, the rewards – not least for the people of Newcastle, Liverpool, Leeds and Grimsby – are huge.

We end with some tentative suggestions. If power and money are needed in addition to deliberation, any devolution must involve tax raising powers, a demarcated area that is ‘the North’, and the ability to make choices which are different from those of surrounding regions.

We believe that this would be best realised by the creation of a ‘Mayor of the North’, a First Minister of Northern England. This role would have powers and budget akin to the Mayor of London, would be directly-elected every five years in line with Parliamentary Elections, and would be scrutinised by a Northern Assembly comprised by 100 Councillors from the Local Authorities of the North. This new tier of ‘super-Councillors’ would be paid a full-time wage and would split their time between their Local Authority responsibilities and the Northern Assembly.

Assembly Members would be elected by their peers in the Local Authority which would form an Electoral College, itself reflective of the popular vote in each Local Authority election. The Assembly (which would be at least as powerful as the London Assembly), and the Northern First Minister would operate a significant budget garnered from both Central Government and a proportion of Local Government Council Tax receipts and Business Rates. These funds would be used across the range of powers currently devolved to Local Government. But, significantly, the budget could also be allocated to one-off infrastructure or other flagship projects.

There are of course questions to be answered: How would such an Assembly and First Minister work in partnership with London, Cardiff, Belfast and Edinburgh? Where in the North would they be based? What would their exact powers be? How would the relative responsibilities of the Assembly and the councils of the North be integrated? Should this form part of a wider new constitutional settlement that finishes the incomplete devolution of New Labour and that benefits other regions?

These questions cannot be answered definitively without some degree of trial and error. But this is nothing to be scared of. These proposals are less dramatic than the waves of devolution the Celtic nations have experienced since 1999, continuing up to this day. And those waves are only moving in one direction.

Our challenge is to continue to outwork our mandate as the unity party; the party which transcends nationalism, authoritarianism, narrow sectionalism and self-interest, and which instead cultivates flourishing, confident communities that are rooted in social justice. To achieve that we have to do something that political parties don’t like to do with power: we have to give it away.

Till a’ the Seas Gang Dry

She was born at 11 o’clock at night, in the Royal Hospital, just off the Falls Road in Belfast. My wee girl. No moment has ever caught my breath so much, been such an overwhelming emotional surge, as when the Nurse passed Eve to me.

A few years later, and I’m standing in another Royal Hospital maternity ward. This time, it’s Sunderland. And this time I’m being passed my gorgeous wee boy. Not a new experience now, but no less breath-taking. Joseph. The wee Mackem with a Scottish daddy, an English mummy and a Norn Irish big sister. The quintessential British family.

Recently I realised that this wasn’t a first for my family. True, on my mum’s side, we can trace our Scottish ancestry back through Henderson’s and Mackintosh’s, through Glasgow and Renfrewshire, all the way back to a little village on the northern tip of Harris in the 1700s.
But my dad was born in Birkenhead. His mammy was a wee lassie from Dumfries, and his daddy a Scouser. It was only a couple of months ago I learned for the first time that the Grandad I never met (he died when my dad was two) was also born in Belfast, to Scottish parents. Incredible.

Why should we fight for Scotland to remain part of this United Kingdom? Sure, we can talk about the risks to independence – the implications of Currency Union, the costs and uncertainties to establishing a new country, the long-term prospects for oil etc – but that’s not why I’m fighting to save the Union. I’ve no doubt that, in the long-term, Scotland could do just fine as an independent country, even if social justice would be the casualty in the short-term.

I’m fighting for the Union because we’re family. Sometimes, granted, we’re a bit of a dysfunctional family. But which family isn’t from time to time? I’m fighting for the Union because this wee island that we live on in the North Atlantic means we’re stuck with each other anyway. I’m fighting for the Union because for over 300 years it’s been a glorious experiment in the removal of national borders, and yet somehow managed to enable all of us to retain our distinctiveness. I’m fighting for this Union because I don’t want a trip back to a 19th Century past in which the Nation-State is the paradigm for how we live in community. I’m fighting for the Union because without it Scotland and England and Wales and Northern Ireland would have been competing with each other for centuries, and not co-operating.

Please Stay Scotland

There aren’t many of us who don’t have family from another part of the UK. And that’s not a product of globalisation or upward social mobility: it’s been the case for generations. The Union has broken down barriers between us, and still enabled us to be who we are. It’s Union that is the future, not division.

But we do need a different kind of Union. The shared spaces which have knitted us together – particularly the political ones – need to be reformed and refreshed. We need more subsidiarity: decision-making at a local level. We need an elected second chamber in Westminster. We need a written Constitution. We need a new electoral system, a version of proportional representation that removes the binary choices of First Past the Post. We need greater autonomy for the nations and regions, including in England. In short, we need a Federal state.

And, so long as there is a No vote on Thursday, I will be forever grateful for the Independence Referendum debate for the new energy and engagement it has injected into the democratic coma which all of us had slipped into. It’s true to say that the UK will never be the same again. Let’s take this energy and invest it in reforming our political system, renewing our bonds, getting to know each other again. But let’s do it working from a principle of Unity, not one of each to their own. Let’s remember that we really can be greater than the sum of our parts.

Because, like a lot of families, even although we don’t say it that often, we really do love each other. And I love you Scotland. You gave me birth, gave me education, gave me that stubborn streak that’s served me so well, helped me not to take myself too seriously, and gave me that accent that is a conversation starter the world over.

And I’m not ashamed to say that I love the rest of the Union too. Every part. You’ve nurtured my kids, given me work, taught me who I am as a man. I’m so thankful that I’ve been privileged to spend my life all over the UK – Glasgow, Belfast, Sunderland, London and more.

One of my favourite poets, Robert Burns, sums up my feelings in so many ways. In To a Mouse, Burns, speaking as the Ploughman who’s just turned a mouse out of its nest says:

I’m truly sorry Man’s dominion,
Has broken nature’s social union,
An justifies that ill opinion,
Which makes thee startle,
At me, thy poor, Earth-born companion,
An fellow mortal!

It’s a stanza which for me sums up our need to live well with all, to build a world that bestows honour upon the vulnerable, and reminds us of both our shared humanity and our capacity to mess things up. We would do well to remember the words of Burns, whatever the result on Thursday.

Lets Stay Together Trafalgar Sq

In a classic track, the band Faithless capture the feeling when a relationship has gone sour. On Monday night I stood with thousands of other people from all around the Union at the Let’s Stay Together rally in Trafalgar Square as we sought to demonstrate our love for Scotland. If I may be permitted to speak for them, as well as myself, these are the words I would send to my fellow Scots, and in particular those planning to vote Yes:

You’re packing your bags like people in the movies do, all severe, not saying a word.
And I’m sitting down here just watching you and I’m thinking, where has all the love gone, where’s it all gone to? Don’t leave.
You know it’s never been easy to love someone like me.
Trying to find who am I, and what you need me to do? Don’t leave.
Where did all the love go? Where’s the love gone to? Don’t leave.
You got me hurting. Don’t leave.
You know it’s never been easy to love someone like me. Don’t leave.
Don’t know how to write a love song. Don’t leave.
You know it’s never been easy to love someone like me. Don’t leave.

And it’s not too late for this Union of ours. We can start again. If it’s possible to completely deconstruct the Union through Scottish independence and build a harmonious future, then it’s even more achievable to renew and re-build this Union which has made us who we are.

Perhaps I’ll leave my last words on my feelings for both Scotland and the Union to Burns:

O my Luve’s like a red, red rose
That’s newly sprung in June;
O my Luve’s like a melodie
That’s sweetly played in tune

As fair art thou, my bonnie lass,
So deep in luve am I:
And I will luve thee still, my dear,
Till a’ the seas gang dry

The Politics of Otherness

 

“It is now long ago that I learned this lesson from General Armstrong, and resolved that I would permit no man, no matter what his colour might be, to narrow and degrade my soul by making me hate him. With God’s help, I believe that I have completely rid myself of any ill feeling toward the Southern white man for any wrong that he may have inflicted upon my race. I am made to feel just as happy now when I am rendering service to Southern white men as to when the service is rendered to a member of my own race. I pity from the bottom of my heart any individual who is so unfortunate as to get into the habit of holding race prejudice.”

Booker T. Washington, Up from Slavery, 1900

Tourtoirac is a beautiful wee place, if in a kind of ramshackle way. Its intriguing maisons and petit chateau have a grandeur which, if somewhat faded, nevertheless retain a charm which deliver the sort of mystique that I was looking for on a maiden family holiday to France. Throw in a meandering river running through the centre of the village and the chance to buy fresh bread every morning from the bona fide boulangerie opposite the medieval Abbey, and you could say that I was happy with my holiday choice.

It’s the kind of place that seems untouched by the world. But not just by the apparent absence of satellite dishes and Dom Jolly-esque mobile phone etiquette; it gives the impression that the world has always passed it by. There is no urgency in Tourtoirac, and that is something I was very glad to experience.

And yet there is one very visible reminder that the paysage francais has not always been the sleepy, presiding reality in this Dordogne village. Situated beside the Post Office, opposite the village square, is an obelisk-shaped war memorial adorned in French flags, the state of which clearly shows the place of importance that it holds amongst the local population.

Tourtoirac War Memorial cropped

Around the base of the monument dozens of names of local men killed during the First World War are listed, grouped around an engraving which proclaims: ‘Tourtoirac, to her children killed for their country 1914-1918’. On the same level, but on a different panel is a smaller, but still lengthy, list of local men killed in their turn during La Deuxieme Guerre Mondiale.

In a sense, this monument and its rude interruption into my family holiday should not be a surprise. It stands to reason that most towns and villages in France, much like those in the area that I grew up in Scotland, have war memorials to those lost in the two conflicts which were played out largely in Western Europe, and largely in France. But I nevertheless felt a dissonance to the surroundings which I was enjoying and the peace that I was experiencing.

A plaque on the upper part of the obelisk particularly caught my eye. On that plaque are listed five names. The names have a decidedly Jewish tint – Kohn, Aaron, Samuel – and the testimony which accompanies them is chilling: Assassines par Les Nazis (assassinated by the Nazis), Le 1er Avril 1944.

Tourtoirac Jewish names cropped

I have visited a concentration camp. Yet this plaque particularly shook me. Since encountering the Tourtoirac War Memorial, I’ve found it difficult to forget. It may be that I’m feeling nostalgia for my grandparents and their experience of the Second World War, at a time when we as a family are marking the first anniversary of my Gran’s death, a particularly poignant loss for us as the last surviving member of my family from that generation.

However I think that my awareness of war, violence and hatred, and the dissonance to that peaceful place, was particularly heightened because of what was – and is still – going on around the world even as I was reading the names on that monument.

This year alone we have seen vicious civil wars taking place in eastern Ukraine, Syria and Iraq. We’ve seen hundreds of young girls abducted by Boko Haram in Nigeria. We’ve seen Iraq fall apart in a sectarian blood-bath. And that was before the horrors of ISIS and the so-called Islamic State began to be visited upon much of that country. We’ve seen civil unrest in Missouri as yet another young African-American man is shot dead by the police. And, of course, we’ve witnessed the continuation of the ancient conflict in Israel-Palestine with thousands killed, maimed and displaced, predominantly in Gaza.

These conflicts bear witness to the triumph of fear and of scapegoating. They exemplify the politics of division, and the worldview which says; you can’t be part of this community unless you look like us, talk like us, think like us. It is, and always has been the politicisation of the Other: whether the Jew, the Russian, the Kafir, the Palestinian, the African-American – the list is endless and changes depending on where you’re standing.

Where have all the big ideas gone? The ideas which transcend identity – religious, national or racial? Many of the 20th Century’s big ideas, like Fascism or Communism, soon revealed their true colours. They were equally as hostile to the Other, and as equally prone towards using violence to achieve their ends. The Tourtoirac War Memorial shows that much.

Yet I can’t help noticing that the ideals around which we organise our world today are those which either idolise profit-making or seek to define us by the lowest common denominators. We seem to be left with either the Market or the Tradition. Important though these are, they leave me feeling cold as ideologies around which we will build our world. They lack vision, purpose, and often even a narrative. They represent the politics of survival, nothing more.

It may seem like a stretch to mention the Scottish Independence Referendum in a blog in which I’ve also mentioned Boko Haram. However – in a fundamentally much more benign form, of course – these are the terms on which even this debate is being conducted. Most of the key arguments on both sides are being made via appeals to Tradition/Identity (whether, Scottish or British) and the Market (i.e. which settlement will leave Scotland better off financially). This amounts to a great deal of heat and not a lot of light.

What inspires me are the possibilities that we have in this world to transcend otherness whilst recognising our differences; to find our shared humanity when it’s tempting to simply use labels to demean; to work for a whole that is greater than the sum of our parts; to aim for solidarity when it’s easier to divide.

In a word, Unity.

A Seismology of Political Earthquakes

What should we make of the recent European and Local election results? Nigel Farage’s claim that his party has secured the “most extraordinary result in British politics for the last 100 years” is, at first glance, hard to deny. As the party with the largest share of the national vote (around 28%) – the first time that the Tories or Labour have been displaced at the top of the pile since 1906 – UKIP have achieved a remarkable entry into mainstream UK politics. Their 24 MEPs are very hard to ignore indeed.

Likewise in the local elections; although Labour have topped the polls, winning control of six more Councils and adding 338 new Councillors, UKIP gained 161 new Councillors, to give them 370 Councillors overall and make them the 5th largest political Party in local government (after the SNP).

This demonstrable shift rightwards in British politics is a challenging reality for those of us on the political Left. What this might mean for the General Election in 2015 is open for discussion, but it’s certainly not to be dismissed.

Meanwhile, we are well and truly in the countdown to September 18th, the day our friends in Scotland will make a decision on whether to separate from the rest of the United Kingdom and form an independent country. Although the No vote has consistently remained out in front in all polls, there’s no question that a sizeable Yes vote exists in Scotland, and that the referendum result can yet go either way.

So what does all of this mean? I think that there are a few points worth making:

1. The UK electorate is tired of political business as usual – I think that the drive for an independent Scotland by a large minority on one hand and the remarkable growth in support for UKIP are both indicative of a more widely-held frustration with the way that we do politics in the UK. The lightning rod for this politics fatigue was, of course, the Expenses scandal. But the national furore around this scandal was actually encouraging – if society can’t raise its voice on an issue like this, then there really is no hope for our politics. Instead it’s the widespread apathy and disengagement by huge sections of the electorate which is to me a more worrying phenomenon. It’s the failure of all of the major political parties to really connect with and inspire the great mass of the electorate (and in fairness, we’re trying!) that has been the handmaiden of the rise of Scottish Nationalism and UKIP Little Britainism. If your narrative is that the system doesn’t work, and that politicians aren’t listening, then why not fundamentally alter it and just hope for the best?

2. The UK electorate is feeling fearful and protective – Although supporters of Yes Scotland and UKIP would each claim to have very little in common, both are supporting a political programme which is fundamentally about a retrenchment away from internationalism and collaboration, and back into what they regard as their primary identity – whether British or Scottish. These are political views which have been with us for a long time, particularly in the case of Scottish Nationalism. But their resurgence in recent years is, in my view, closely connected to the economic situation which began in 2007 and which we are still trying to untangle. When we are fearful about our material situation, we tend to withdraw to the familiar. We also tend to think that we can spend limited resources better than ‘them’. There is some truth in this, and I’ll say more about localisation of power below. But this withdrawal often correlates to – or even facilitates – an irrational fear of the Other; and soon some are complaining about the Romanian family who have moved in next door.

3. The Labour Party needs a reformation – I would say this, but I think that the mainstream political party trying hardest to move to a new model of politics is the Labour Party. We’ve always been about community organising and everyday people, but initiatives like Your Britain and the Future Candidates Programme are trying to move Labour Party politics beyond the usual suspects. Nevertheless, Labour needs to go further. As I’ve become more involved in the party over the last three years, it’s been a steep learning curve. Coming in with the zeal of the convert, looking to change the world, it’s easy to quickly get bogged down in a whole new lexicon of in-group language and behaviour, which can tend to dampen enthusiasm. It strikes me again and again just how similar this must be to a non-Christian joining a church for the first time. Like most long-established institutions, people don’t want to engage with the Labour Party in the same way as their parents or grandparents generation. They want to be part of a movement for change, something that focuses less on meeting protocol and more on policies that bring tangible social progress. If we’re going to re-engage our society with a new enthusiasm for the political process, we’re going to have to go deeper and faster in our attempts to change business as usual. Constitutional reform – such as a serious democratisation of the House of Lords, or implementation of a version of proportional representation in General Elections – would help. But the Labour Party can continue to lead by example, by introducing more measures like one member one vote for leadership elections, the Union opt-in and more grassroots campaigning.

4. The country needs to localise more political power – On paper our political system is fairly well set up to balance local and national decision-making. Yet if we can draw one lesson from all of the above, it’s that the common experience of politics in the UK is that it’s too remote. Many people feel like politics is something that happens to them, not through them. The more we can move decision-making downwards towards ordinary people, the better. The hope that ordinary voters can influence their communities around them is a strong card to hold. I believe that it’s the relative lack of that hope and connectedness to the political process which is a major factor in parts of the electorate turning to alternatives like Scottish Independence or UKIP or being turned off politics altogether.

One thing’s for sure, if we don’t do something about it, there are many more political earthquakes to come – and I can’t remember hearing an earthquake described fondly.

What’s in a Name?

This is a big year for the United Kingdom of Great Britain & Northern Ireland. After the preceding 306 years of union, 2014 presents the most serious challenge to the constitutional arrangements of the four nations which make up the UK, with the Scottish Independence Referendum on September 18th.

For some, it’s time to give up on what they see as an anachronistic quirk of the modern world, a hangover more suited to 1914 than 2014.

But in the UK I still see the possibility of something unique, exciting and worthwhile: in short, something I want to keep. Here’s why:

Unity brings Strength: As someone who regards himself as being on the ideological left, I’m firmly aware of the immediate impression that the word ‘Strength’ can give. Citing the UK’s membership of the United Nations Security Council or our position as an influential member within the European Union as reasons to maintain the Union, let alone the fact that we have the world’s eighth largest economy and fourth largest military spending, are derided by many as exactly the kind of 20th Century hubris that an independent Scotland could well do without.

It’s true that power politics is a too-common norm in our world and that there’s not enough empowerment downwards. If the consequence of the UK holding the power that we do is more decisions like the invasion of Iraq, then you can count me out too.

But the truth is also that power has always made the world go round. In all nations and in all eras, from the Phoenician Empire, to the Roman Empire, to the Khmer Empire, to the Spanish and British Empires, from American hegemony to the future Chinese dominance, the possession of power seems to be nine-tenths of the law when it comes to shaping the world that we live in. The question for us is not whether strong countries dominate the way the world works – we can see from the Crimea to the South China Sea that they obviously do.

There is only really one important question relating to our power and that is, how shall we use it? Because the potential of the UK’s combined economic, military, diplomatic and cultural power to be a positive force in the world is just phenomenal. The invasion of Iraq was a mistake; but what about the job our military did to stop a brutal war criminal and his militia raping and pillaging Sierra Leone? Tied-Aid was a mistake; but what about us having the second-largest international development budget in the world? 19th Century cultural imperialism was a mistake; but what about the way we hosted the Olympics in 2012?

It’s only with the collective strength that we achieve in the UK that we can make this positive difference in the world. The strength that we have in the United Kingdom can be a massive benefit not only to us, but to the rest of the world. All that matters are the choices that we make about how to use it.

Unity brings Solidarity: I am a great admirer of Co-operatives, Trade Unions and Credit Unions. These voluntary movements have for well over one hundred years sought to strengthen communities and individuals through the power of the collective. Each of them enable the pooling of resources in order to provide increased security to particularly the poorest and most vulnerable in society through using collective bargaining power in the areas of trading, employment and financial services. When part of the community falls on hard times, or faces the injustice of inequality, the rest of the collective can step in to ease their difficulties.

These institutions are all manifestations of a unity and solidarity that have been and can be reflected in the United Kingdom. Whatever stance you take on the economic viability of an independent Scotland, one thing that’s clear is that pooling our resources on this island makes it possible that areas of greater deprivation – wherever they are – can be supported by areas of greater affluence. Of course, the aim of a socially just United Kingdom should be to level out such inequality in the first place. And it’s clear that we have a long way to go in this regard.

However our ability to do so in the future comes exactly from the possibility of re-directing resources from one part of a larger pot to another. This may be possible to some degree within an independent Scotland, but not to the same degree that it’s possible within the world’s eighth largest economy. As I write, I can hear the howls of the Yes Campaign, pointing out the growing inequality that we’ve seen in the UK over the last 30 years. And they are right – we have to some degree squandered the opportunity for social justice that we have in the UK. But the solution to this missed opportunity is simply political will. Again, it’s not the resources – our wealth – we have that are the problem; it’s how we use it to make our country more equal that matters. And the economy of scale that the UK gives us makes the possibilities much more exciting, offering a solidarity that I believe we should aspire to.

Unity brings Hope: As a fundamental principle, union is always a better aspiration than disunity. Yes, the type of union that is created matters. The United States of America contains some gross economic inequalities. The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics had at its heart an ideology which flattened individual conscience and social freedoms. The European Union can at times have a tendency to require conformity and suppress diversity by seeking to engender a not-always-apparent common European story.

Yet there is something wonderful that happens when human beings overcome our natural inclinations to reject difference or even fear the other, and pursue connectedness. We’ve not got everything right in the United Kingdom; very far from it. But I truly love the fact that, in our difference – national, ethnic, linguistic, religious, regional, ideological – we have stuck with each other on this island, even when it would have been easier to give up and retrench into the familiar.

We live in in the most exciting country on earth: a truly multi-national state which has a respect for the other that, having travelled to about 40 countries of the world to date, I’ve yet to see bettered. This is not to say you can’t find bigotry or racism on these islands. But in truth we are a very tolerant nation. That comes from over 300 years of practice.

It’s this idea of hope in the possibilities of unity on this island that, above all else, makes me want to fight to keep the UK, rather than press the eject button.

United We Stand

What’s at the heart of the Scottish Independence debate? What’s it really all about? In my first post on thedangerouscurve, Musings from the Island Line, I wrote;

“…don’t be fooled by the rationale which claims independence can be a tartan ejector seat from Tory government. It’s not a coincidence that the SNP have risen to power in Scotland under first a Blairite British Government and then a Conservative-led coalition in Westminster. Scots as a whole tend to be traditionally orientated towards left-leaning politics. However, trying to solve the problem of the drift to the Right in British politics through the method of Scottish independence is using a sledge hammer to crack a nut.”

As an out and proud supporter of the No campaign, Better Together, I’ve been taking part in the online discussion through Twitter, arguing the case for the Union. What I’ve discovered has been both illuminating and disappointing in equal measure.

Disappointingly, I’ve discovered that my pro-Union compatriots are much less vocal – indeed much less present – in these online debates. Often it seems that the Yes camp is the only show in town when it comes to social media. Now, I’m not concerned that this is reflective of numbers for and against #indy; in my view it has a lot more to do with the zeal of the evangelist which, as the group advocating fundamental change, is more common amongst Yes Scotland supporters. Indeed, in my experience to date I’ve often found this zeal to spill over into vitriol or disdain when you dare disagree about the best path for Scotland’s future. In fairness, I’ve also found measured, thoughtful and passionate contributors amongst the Yes camp.

This imbalance disappoints me for two reasons. Firstly, Better Together is in danger of conceding that Yes Scotland is the truly grassroots movement, representing what the ‘people of Scotland’ want. We’re giving the impression that the Yes vote is much larger than I believe it actually is. It is certainly giving the Yes camp a sense of momentum at the time of writing. Secondly, the apathy of the silent majority (a majority which has been represented in every poll on the subject of #indy to date) allows Yes Scotland and its supporters to articulate the No vote’s argument for us. Instead of Better Together and its supporters making the positive case for the United Kingdom and everything that it offers, Yes supporters can caricature the campaign to maintain the Union as ‘Project Fear’.

It’s nevertheless been interesting to engage with my fellow Scots from the Yes camp and to learn about their motives for seeking Scottish Independence. If I was to broadly summarise the issues and ideals that seem to motivate them to support Independence, I would suggest that they believe the following. They see Independence as:

  1. An opportunity to create a more socially just nation
  2. An opportunity for Scotland finally to be recognised as a nation in its own right
  3. An opportunity to create a wealthier, more prosperous Scotland
  4. An opportunity to undo historic wrongs done to Scotland
  5. An opportunity for Scotland to cut the Tory apron strings, represented in all of the above

I am sure that there are other motives for the Yes camp which I’ve not listed here. I’m also sure that Yes supporters would articulate these reasons in a more elaborate or different way. But I’m confident that these points summarise the main thrust of their rationale.

If that’s the case, then how do we respond? Well, as I suggest above, we need to do a lot more than just respond. We need to pro-actively advocate for the Union and all the benefits that it brings to us all. The core of our argument needs to be found in the counterpoint to reasons 1 and 5 above. So let me quickly deal with reasons 2 to 4.

As I’ve said elsewhere, it really isn’t necessary in the 21st century for one’s nationhood to be dependent on or equivalent to political autonomy. Is my Scottishness innately diminished because I cast a vote to send a politician to Westminster rather than Holyrood to create Foreign Affairs, Welfare and Fiscal Policy? I don’t think so. Scottish nationhood is so much more than a political jurisdiction. The zero-sum, nation-state equation presented by the SNP and others is an unnecessary and inaccurate shibboleth.

Likewise, the economic argument is to me a distraction. Should the bottom line really be the bottom line in making our decision on Union or Independence? Some commentators have suggested that Scotland could be more prosperous as an independent country. Many more have suggested the opposite. But even if it could be unequivocally proven that the likes of oil, whisky and engineering could buoy the Scottish Exchequer in the seas of economic uncertainty and excessive Bank loans to GDP ratios that independence would bring, is that really the point? Does a few quid (or Euros, or Scottish Pounds) on our wage packet buy us out of our unity and solidarity with our friends from Wales, England and Northern Ireland? The truth is, over time, wealth comes and goes. What’s more important is how we as a society use the wealth that we do have. When it comes to the independence referendum, it really is not the economy stupid.

On the issue of historic wrongs, there is no question that they exist. Edward, Hammer of the Scots, The Highland Clearances, Maggie Thatcher’s Poll Tax; all of these loom large in the Scottish psyche. Indeed, some argue, the origin of the Union itself is tarred by the aristocrats who – on both sides – negotiated it without exactly focussing on the interests of the wider population of Scotland. But – leaving aside the historic wrongs which the Scots visited on England – are we to be bound by this narrative when we imagine our future? What concerns me is where we’re going, not where we’ve come from. What should concern us is creating a more egalitarian, more just, more harmonious, more compassionate society. True, this will include recognising that historic events and decisions have created the unequal society that we live in today. But only so that we know where to focus our efforts in building a more just society. And so, to my main point.

It’s social justice that seems to motivate many of the Yes campaigners whom I come into contact with. The paradox is that it’s also social justice which motivates many of us on the No side. We agree that, under Blairism and the prefix ‘New’, the rump of the Left lost its way towards the end of the Labour Government through mistakes like PFI, the abolition of the 10p tax rate and an unethical foreign policy.

What we particularly agree on is that British politics has taken a lunge to the right since the 2010 General Election: The Bedroom Tax, Atos assessments for DLA, anti-immigrant rhetoric, aggressive benefits sanctions, tax cuts for millionaires and the government’s failure to deal with the culture of the Financial Sector, so brutally exemplified in the Banker’s Bonus and Robin Hood Tax rows. All of these factors unite those of us on the Left who are tired of a culture of blaming the most vulnerable in society for the failings of the elite.

The enemies of social justice are a combination of apathy towards the political process, fear and individualism; the sense that I can’t change the system, and that the state of the economy means I’d be better off just looking after myself. It’s this apathy and fear that ushered the Conservative Party into government in 2010. It’s the (irrational) fear of economic meltdown that is raising the rhetoric against Eastern European immigrants. It’s the legacy of historic grievances and narrow identity politics that catalyses a retrenchment into Scottish Nationalism. It’s the failure to imagine just what could be achieved in our wee multi-national country if those of us on the left put aside our narrow selfishness and strove for solidarity, activism and unity.

Those in the Yes camp have concluded that the game is up. To them, the British experiment has failed to deliver the fruits of social justice. Leaving aside the exponential improvement in living standards across the British Isles in the last 307 years as we became the 7th largest economy on earth (with a smaller population than all above us on the list), we must acknowledge that there is a long way to go in achieving true social justice in the UK. Indeed, it will be a mission that is never truly complete. The search for social justice must be a permanent and indefinite state of mind. And I believe, to paraphrase a fellow-traveller, Dr Dave Landrum, that the fight for the Common Good within the United Kingdom is both missional and possible.

This week the Tory MP, Rory Stewart talked about the need for us to show the love that exists between the four nations of the Union by forming a human chain along Hadrian’s Wall. Well, in the words of Pink and Nate Ruess:

“Just a little bit’s enough. Just a second, we’re not broken, just bent, and we can learn to love again.”