Archive for the ‘Politics and news’ Category
It’s widely argued (by people like me) that being in the United Kingdom is harmful to Scotland’s interests. However, it’s a lesser-voiced, though no less valid, argument that Scotland being in the UK is actually harmful to the other nations of the UK as well.
One of the more obvious examples of this is how England (outside London) is often neglected in the political and economic decisions at UK level, with the lack of significant autonomy within England allowing the economic and political might of the private sector-obsessed London to dictate the show. Of course, the first moves towards regional assemblies in England were defeated, but I am sure that many in England would argue that the issue is worth revisiting these years later; if not in the same form then some other, perhaps involving stronger local government.
Another argument – perhaps less well-founded factually, but still often heard – is that of the UK’s supposed subsidy of Scotland. Why, some in England argue, should we continue to subsidise Scotland’s high public spending? Surely, they continue, Scotland cannot keep going down the road of having its cake and eating it? Now, this argument is flawed because of course Scotland more than pays its way in the UK and therefore instead the subsidy flows the other direction. But the assumption is clear for many who do not accept that fact. And so they ask why England should suffer because of Scotland’s place within the UK.
Two further examples of how Scotland harms the other parts of the UK emerged in recent weeks, and politically they are more real and more damaging than the ones I cited above.
Corporation tax in Northern Ireland
The first is the reluctance of the UK Government to give Northern Ireland the corporation tax powers it has long demanded. This issue strikes me as remarkable because it is one of the few areas that has widespread endorsement across Northern Ireland’s fractured political landscape, and is an example of how devolution can be a success in creating “normal” political discourse.
Neighbouring the Republic of Ireland as they do, Northern Irish politicians and businessmen see the effect of lower corporation tax across the border, with business being more attracted to the Republic than to the North. If only we could have corporation tax powers devolved to the Northern Irish administration, advocates argue, we could level the playing field and start taking more responsibility for attracting business.
No, says the UK Government. Not for any cogent economic arguments, but for reasons of brazen political desperation. Read this recent article in the Belfast Telegraph. It describes a debate about the Northern Irish economy at the recent Conservative Party conference, and contains an interview with Mike Penning, a UK Government minister in the Northern Ireland Office. He says:
“This is not just about Northern Ireland, it’s about the Union, and the tax system inside the UK.”
“Scotland is going for a referendum on the break-up of the Union.
“As a unionist, I will do everything in my power to make sure we do not just win the referendum, we smash it for the next generation of people.
“I fully accept that corporation tax is of massive importance to the people of Northern Ireland, but it’s not a silver bullet. There are myriad ways in which Alex Salmond would be able to utilise the argument. What we do not want to do is to help give momentum.”
It’s a surprisingly honest and frank appraisal of the role that cynical politics is playing in the work of the UK Government. In effect, the minister is saying “you can’t have this power, because it could fuel the independence lobby in Scotland.”
To put it even more simply, Northern Ireland’s economic development should be sacrificed in the fight to beat Scotland’s independence movement.
The second example of Scotland harming the other nations is on the issue of defence cuts. Scotland has had more than its fair share of defence cuts under the UK Government, with wave after wave of cuts to its regiments, air bases and so on. There has been widespread condemnation of these moves, and there is a perception that such cuts are seriously undermining the argument that an independent Scotland could not defend itself, or that Scotland benefits from UK defence expenditure.
However, there are cuts in England too, and according to this BBC News article it is causing resentment. The article refers to plans to abolish the Second Battalion, the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers (2RRF) – an English regiment. The article says that 57 MPs backed a motion (fruitlessly) to stop it happening. The article reports:
MPs accused the government of cutting 2RRF, an English battalion, as a “political fix” to avoid scrapping Scottish battalions ahead of the Scottish referendum.
Conservative MP John Baron, who served in the regiment and who proposed the motion, is quoted as saying
“The government is wrong. Military logic and not political calculation should determine Army cuts.
“I’m a firm believer in the Union but this is not the way to achieve it. In my view, the government’s culpability is demonstrated by its reluctance to justify its decision.”
And he had apparently earlier said
“Government interference to save poorly recruited Scottish battalions smacks of a political fix in the lead-up to the Scottish referendum.”
Now, I’ve no idea about the facts of this, and whether this English regiment really is better recruited than Scottish ones, or whether it is better militarily to cut a Scottish or an English regiment.
Either way, though, John Baron is right in principle to say that “military logic and not political calculation should determine Army cuts”. The problem is, however, that Scotland being a part of the UK makes the political calculation unavoidable for the UK Government. Why cut a Scottish regiment if it fuels the argument that Scotland’s defence needs are poorly served by being in the UK? Surely it’s better to upset England, which is securely within the Union, than another part which is considering leaving?
The UK Government’s view, then, is clear. English army regiments and Northern Irish business growth are both to be sacrificed in an attempt to stop Scotland becoming independent.
Are English soldiers and Northern Irish businesses really more important than Scotland’s place in the Union?
Well, that’s probably an unfair question to have to answer, and that’s precisely my point. Scotland being in the Union is creating unfair and impossible dilemmas, where the risk of staying in is not just felt by Scotland but also extends to other parts of the UK.
Why shouldn’t English regiments be kept if there is military logic behind it, and why shouldn’t Northern Irish businesses be given a competitive edge if that’s what they and their politicians want?
Why should the aggrieved parties in both examples be forced to be pawns in wider political considerations that are not their concern?
It’s a potentially ugly scenario that the nations of the UK could be set against each other like ferrets in a sack. So why, in short, can’t Scotland, England, Northern Ireland and of course Wales not each make reasonable decisions locally without being held back by the others?
This is the difference between a claustrophobic and imbalanced United Kingdom, and a community of independent nations cooperating with each other as equals. With the former, each administration within the UK is constrained politically or constitutionally by external factors that are none of its business. With the latter, Northern Ireland could raise or lower its corporation taxes to its heart’s content, facing up to the consequences of that power and responsibility, while England could cut or create army regiments according to its own military needs and make judgements on this without recourse to other powers.
These are just the normal powers of normal independent countries. This is not to say, of course, that independence means a blatant disregard for the well-being of neighbouring countries, and that defence or tax levels should not be changed without an awareness of regional and global repercussions. But that’s precisely where friendly partnership and cooperation comes in. Why can’t the independent nations of the former UK work together where they choose to rather than where a unifying authority dictates they must?
The longer Scotland stays in the UK, the more often these problems will arise. The UK’s claustrophobic constitutional arrangements has created constraints. These constraints in turn lead to competition, resentment and hostility.
If it’s a choice between the nations of the UK being in competition or partnership, and between them resenting each other or respecting each other, then the answer should be clear for all four nations.
Why do Ed Miliband, Tony Benn and George Galloway appear to have a problem with foreigners?
No, really, that’s how it seems.
For instance, read these words from Tony Benn, the great elder statesman of the Labour Party, this summer:
“If Scotland wants to be independent they have the absolute right to do so. But I think nationalism is a mistake. And I am half Scots and feel it would divide me in half with a knife.
“The thought that my mother would suddenly be a foreigner would upset me very much.”
When asked about Benn’s views in a recent Holyrood magazine interview, Labour leader Ed Miliband had this to say:
I am not the only person with family ties abroad and family is family, whatever the accent or postcode. But the Scottish people with family in England, or vice versa, will be living in a foreign country if Alex Salmond gets his way, that’s just a fact. We live in an increasingly interconnected world; we shouldn’t be building artificial barriers, we should be working out how to work more closely together.
And while I am struggling to find a written source, I remember seeing George Galloway in a television interview a few months ago, in which he was discussing the issue of Scottish independence with Yes Scotland chair Dennis Canavan. Galloway strongly opposes independence and talked of the concept of solidarity between working class people, which Scottish independence would damage. He felt just the same solidarity, he said, with bus drivers in Glasgow, Bradford and Belfast (there might have been other cities in his list, I can’t quite recall, but they were certainly all within the UK).
To which the obvious answer is what about bus drivers in Dublin, Oslo, Marseilles, Toronto or Lagos? Or indeed any other bus driver around the world. Does George Galloway not have the same sense of solidarity with them? Clearly not, if he feels that Scottish independence is somehow contrary to his solidarity with bus drivers either side of the border. If Scottish bus drivers somehow becoming citizens of a different country to bus drivers in his own Bradford constituency has any relevance to his ability to be in solidarity with them, you have to wonder about the nature of his socialism and his solidarity.
The same is true of the faintly sinister undertones in the above quotes from Benn and Miliband: that they regard family members becoming “foreigners” as something qualitatively worse than them not being foreigners. One of two things, then, is true: first, that they would find it hard to be as close to a “foreigner” as they would a fellow citizen, or they would reserve such a distinction only to Scottish people. Either way, there is more than a whiff of xenophobia.
Do I believe that Tony Benn, Ed Miliband or George Galloway are racist? Of course not. Given they are socialists and humanitarians (of varying shades), and that two of the three have strong Scottish connections, I am sure that their concerns about Scots becoming foreigners is not borne out of a distrust of foreigners but from a misguided adherence to the traditional Labour opposition to independence. But the thing is, it certainly sounds like racism. And that’s what makes their words all the more curious.
The solidarity of nations
I have family in Spain and Canada, for example. Are they “foreign” to me? Well, I suppose in a purely abstract, technical and administrative sense, yes they are. But it’s not a word I’d really use to describe them, because they’re… well, family. I might be a long way from them, but our distance is geographical, not national. I can – from a bureaucratic point of view – visit them very easily. And even if I couldn’t, they’d still be family.
How about people in other neighbouring countries? Do I regard the people of the Republic of Ireland as foreign? Again, on a very technical level, yes I suppose they are. They live in a different sovereign country from me, they hold a different passport to mine, and are subject to different laws and a different government to me. Do I think any worse of them as a result? If I describe them as “foreigners” do I do so in a derogatory or pejorative way? Is it a problem to me that they are in a different country? Am I less able as an individual to be friends or business partners with them? No of course not – there are cultural, linguistic, economic and historic links between Scotland and Ireland as long as the longest arm in the world, and the UK and Ireland are great allies bilaterally, in the European Union, and in many other arenas.
Take another example: Norway. Just over the water from Scotland, with strong historical ties, but a different language. Are they foreigners? Well, yes. But they’re lovely people and great neighbours.
How about the people of the USA, then, or Brazil, or Nigeria, or Burundi, or Laos, or Malta, or… well, I’m not going to name all the countries in the world. Look them up for yourself. They’re all foreigners. Is that a problem to me? No!
All the people of the world are human beings like me, and I have loads in common with them, even though I might occasionally distrust their governments, pity or envy their personal circumstances, or disagree with them on an individual level about the nicest beer or best film. We probably have a huge amount more in common as human beings in our daily travails than what divides us. Recognising and acting on that commonality is when the world is at its best, and when nations end up being friends rather than enemies.
And so why are Benn, Miliband and Galloway in that case implying a distrust of the concept of foreignness? Why is there a pejorative inference in their use of the word “foreign”? If they worry about the people of Scotland becoming foreigners, what does that tell us about how they regard the Irish? The Americans? Australians? The French, or Germans or Spanish or… there I go again, I’m just naming countries at random.
Countries at random, though, which we should not think of as worse for their being “foreign”.
An interconnected world
Let’s accept that the people of Scotland and the rest of the UK will, technically, be foreigners to each other upon independence. We may have different tax systems, different governments, different welfare policies or foreign policies.
But does that give us the right to think any less of each other? No.
Will we still be able to travel to, trade with and live or work in each others’ countries? Yes!
Will family across the border still be family? Yes!
Is this an unusual arrangement? Absolutely not.
There are about two hundred sovereign countries in the world (don’t worry, I’ll not start naming them again). All of them are populated by foreigners. The set up is not new. New countries become independent all the time. Scotland joining that list will be nothing particularly exceptional.
Let’s go back to Ed Miliband’s quote near the top of this article; in particular the last few words:
We live in an increasingly interconnected world; we shouldn’t be building artificial barriers, we should be working out how to work more closely together.
If Ed Miliband thinks that Scottish independence is an artificial barrier to that interconnected world where we all need to work more closely together, then by logical extension he believes that any independence is an artificial barrier. Including that of the UK. But I don’t see Miliband campaigning for a merged Europe or a world government. And rightly so, because that interconnected world works well when countries come together as mutually supportive, respectful partners, and don’t fear each other because they are “foreign”.
If certain unionists in the UK can think of the other six billion people on earth as foreigners without thinking less of them, why can’t they do that about the five million people of Scotland?
Since publishing, this post has been reproduced here by the popular politics blog Wings Over Scotland.
A common argument against Scottish independence is that Scotland would be swapping the United Kingdom’s extensive diplomatic presence, through its network of embassies around the world, for something much smaller. How could Scotland, critics argue, sustain a diplomatic network as a much smaller country? Surely Scotland’s voice in the world would be weaker without the powerful togetherness that the UK’s diplomatic representation commands?
Such questions presuppose two things.
1. That the current arrangement serves us well and is geared to Scotland’s interests. Yes the UK passport is one of the most valuable things global travellers can have, and yes there are few parts of the world where British diplomatic representation won’t be a reasonable distance away. But what does this diplomatic network represent? What’s the foreign policy behind it? Well, it’s one driven by interests that are often contrary to Scottish public and political will, as many of the UK’s foreign activities, such as Iraq, would demonstrate, and which make the UK an unpopular country in many parts of the world. What’s the point of this supposedly vast array of embassies representing the UK’s interests, when they’re (quite rightly) not working primarily for Scotland?
2. That there is some magic bar of size, population or wealth above which a country becomes good at representing its own interests, and below which a voice in the international community becomes unsustainable. Just ask the countries that have become independent of the UK over the last couple of centuries or so – most of whom are smaller than the UK and many of whom are even smaller than Scotland. They manage just fine representing their own interests diplomatically. I wonder whether New Zealand or Ireland feel they’re managing to represent themselves on the world stage, or if they’d prefer London to do it for them. Yes there’d be some economies of scale, but at what price?
Well, if you follow the fascinating and enlightening Asset Scotland on Twitter, you’d realise that, actually, Scotland could quite easily sustain a good level of international diplomatic representation. Asset Scotland is a project that, by drawing on official documents about the UK’s resources, highlights Scotland’s proportional share by population of various state assets – including embassies. You can read the stream for yourself, but there are surprisingly large shares of assets in some surprisingly obscure parts of the world. It’s quite a network, and Scotland’s share should be more than enough to ensure adequate diplomatic representation around the world.
Although, if you believe the news, the UK itself is in danger of not being able to afford its own embassy network. The other day there was a story (here it is on the BBC and Guardian websites) about the UK and Canada proposing joint embassy facilities where each country might not be able to sustain separate premises.
The UK! Supposedly one of the great world powers, this behemoth of international influence… resorting to one of its former colonies as a means of sustaining a diplomatic presence! Ah, the irony.
Actually, let’s not mock the UK. It’s quite a reasonable move, and quite common too. The European Union, for instance, undertakes a number of diplomatic representations. The Visegrad Four (Poland, Hungary and the Czech and Slovak Republics) often share embassy facilities to save money. I’m sure I’ve heard of Australia and Canada doing the same in the past. And note that this is not a shared foreign policy or pooled political power – it’s just sharing facilities. Each country’s own rules on how they engage with the host country and support their own citizens in trouble remain, presumably, quite separate.
And so if the UK is using this perfectly acceptable model, then how dare unionists complain that Scotland couldn’t survive on its own on the world stage? If you regard absolute independence on the world stage as impossible – and the UK requiring to share embassy space in certain cases demonstrates this – then no country, strictly speaking, is sustainable.
That’s not a problem though. It’s an opportunity for cooperation, and you can well imagine Scotland reaching similar deals with close allies and neighbours like, say, the remnant UK, Ireland, or perhaps Scandinavian countries.
To illustrate this point, read what UK Foreign Secretary William Hague said as he announced the joint UK-Canada plans:
“As David Cameron said when addressing the Canadian parliament last year: ‘We are two nations, but under one Queen and united by one set of values’.”
“We have stood shoulder to shoulder from the great wars of the last century to fighting terrorists in Afghanistan and supporting Arab Spring Nations like Libya and Syria. We are first cousins.
“So it is natural that we look to link up our embassies with Canada’s in places where that suits both countries. It will give us a bigger reach abroad for our businesses and people for less cost.”
Now I don’t often agree with William Hague, or David Cameron who he quotes, but he’s quite right. Leaving aside the fact that action in Afghanistan and Libya might have been of debatable merit, it’s certainly the case that the two governments have had many a common cause and have fought alongside each other over the centuries.
Take out any references to controversial policies, though, and the general principles behind Hague’s words are marvellous: common values, common heritage, common aims. I particularly like the phrase “first cousins”. But this does not necessitate political union, but rather cooperation.
Add the UK and Scotland into the speech, and you’ve almost defined what the relationship between the two countries as independent equals could be: and I’m surprised none of his advisers saw the political consequences for the Scottish independence debate when the idea was first batted around in the Foreign Office.
In fact, Hague’s words are a good blueprint for any two friendly countries, not just Scotland and the remnant UK. As a result of what he says, many of the foreign policy arguments against Scottish independence are seriously damaged, and the diplomatic viability of an independent Scotland is made all the clearer.
Brave the Scotland
I went to see Brave at the cinema the other night. You’ll perhaps have heard the fuss – it’s a Disney/Pixar film set in a mythical Scotland about a young princess who tries to get out of being married off. With a cast packed full of well-kent Scottish actors, it promised to be a fresh and entertaining film about (if not technically from) Scotland. The Scottish Government, sensing an opportunity to sell the country as a brand, jumped on the bandwagon, and lo, the hype began.
Given the huge publicity, I felt it would be interesting to go and watch it. Not that this blog post is a mere review. Though if I can indulge you for a paragraph, I’d say that the characters were fun and splendidly voiced, the animation was gorgeous, the script was funny in places and generally avoided stomach-churning cliche, and the story a little thin, plodding and uninteresting.
No, instead, my thoughts drifted – and this may be an indictment of the film – towards the marketing hype. Given the lush portrayals of dramatic Scottish scenery (apparently heavily researched by the film-makers), there was a clear opportunity to push the brand of Scotland to a world of potential tourists.
But the problem is, the Scotland of Brave simply doesn’t exist. The setting is entirely fantasy, and is portrayed via animation. While apparently real places, such as castles, informed the shapes and texture of what we saw in Brave, there is nowhere you can visit to say “this is Brave country”. Not only is this a non-starter, it’s actually a potentially dangerous line of thinking – attracting and receiving tourists should be about exceeding expectations, and not about building up unrealistic expectations that will only be dashed by the eventual truth.
It makes me think about the misused opportunity of Tobermory, dressed up to be the setting for the popular childrens’ TV show Balamory. There was a huge tourism boom from the show, but I’ve heard more than a few stories of people whose children were sorely disappointed by the reality. Their favourite characters, it turned out, didn’t actually live there, the weather was miserable, and there’s frankly not a lot to do in Tobermory unless you fancy visiting a pub, the distillery, the arts centre or the chocolate shop, or engaging in hikes and other outdoor activities. That’s not to say that Tobermory is a disappointing destination – far from it, it’s beautiful and there’s lots to do. The problem is that it is Tobermory, not Balamory. Of course it will be a disappointing place when you present misleading or inaccurate images of it.
The problem extends to the big screen, too. Think of the most famous films that aren’t just about or from Scotland but heavily feature its scenery, culture and very essence. They mostly fall in to one of two camps: horror, and cheese.
The horror and cheese camps
In this first category of films, I would argue, are ones like The Wicker Man or Trainspotting. Now by “horror” I don’t mean the horror film genre, though The Wicker Man clearly belongs there. I mean horror in the general sense, in that this category of film presents a horrific view of Scotland. Trainspotting, for instance, is a magnificent film – grim, gritty, funny, poignant, and a brutal potrayal of drug abuse and addiction in Edinburgh. What it doesn’t do, however, is make you want to visit the city or the country. Meanwhile The Wicker Man boasts some lovely scenery, but it’s hardly an advert for warm Scottish hospitality.
I’d even add Gregory’s Girl into this category. It’s a heartwarming story of adolescence, though by the way I found it an underwhelming, boring and incredibly dated film. It’s “horror” for my purposes because it shows a dreadful side of Scotland: the ugly and soulless world of post-war new towns. Nobody will watch Gregory’s Girl and say “that’s beautiful, let’s go there”.
In the cheese camp are those films which misrepresent Scotland visually, culturally or otherwise to an over-the-top degree. Brave, of course, fits in here, as does the historical void that is Braveheart. Brave I have already commented on; and Braveheart gives only a Hollywood picture of Scottish early medieval history; and even the scenery is mostly Ireland.
By misleading people about the scenery, and by overdosing on the tartan and “hoots, mon” cliches, you will either put people off or disappoint them. Though perhaps anyone who wants to visit Scotland on the back of the scenery portrayed in Brave is probably stupid enough to deserve being disappointed.
Striking the balance
Now my point is not to deconstruct the artistic and creative merits of these films, but to put them in the context of Scotland’s tourist industry and the government’s commendable desire to “back a winner” that can turn cinema seats into hotel beds. Whether or not they are good films or not is irrelevant to my argument that they are counter-productive to the idea of selling Scotland to potential visitors.
Sell them horror, and they’ll not want to come. Sell them cheese, and at best they’ll see through it; and at worst they will visit then be hugely disappointed.
What films, then, exist in the middle ground between horror and cheese? What cinematic portrayals of Scotland have the right balance of beauty and realism, painting an attractive picture of Scotland without being way off the mark? And which ones, more importantly, back up that balance with good quality film-making that is likely to sell cinema tickets, stick in people’s minds, and be attractive to Scottish marketing budgets?
There are very few films in this middle ground that I can think of, that are or would have been attractive “riders” for the Scottish Government and tourist authorities to back. So I asked on Twitter, summarising much of the above in a few tweets and seeking suggestions for titles.
Examples of middle ground films
One response I got was Local Hero. With a mix of beautiful scenery and a classic tale of the oligarch versus the everyman, it’s a positive sort of message to get behind. Though I must confess to being less than wowed by the film, and the sad decline of the village of Pennan is testament to the lack of significant impact the film had in terms of tourism to Scotland.
Another suggestion was a marvellous film I had until then forgotten about: Restless Natives. I watched it once years ago, and while this 1980s film will I am sure it feel dated today, I really enjoyed it and ought to track it down to watch again. It tells the story of two young men in Edinburgh who, seeking a thrill, don ridiculous disguises and begin holding up tour buses on Scottish roads and extorting money. Far from terrifying and deterring visitors, their cheery, non-violent demeanour turns them into cult heroes and major tourist attractions, with visitors flocking to the country in the hope that they might meet them. I don’t remember everything about the film, but remember laughing a lot and seeing a lot of beautiful countryside. Maybe this, with a balance of good Scottish humour and good Scottish scenery, is the key. The film was not successful abroad, but maybe it was the sort of thing that should have been jumped on by the tourist industry and government.
Wracking my brains, only two other “middle ground” films come to mind.
One is Doomsday, which I reviewed here, a science fiction thriller. Admittedly there are elements of both horror and cheese in this film, and while both are done firmly tongue-in-cheek it’s probably not politically correct enough to be the sort of film that would sell Scotland to the masses. Also, although there is a lot of great scenery, key elements of it are filmed in South Africa, which is a disappointment.
The second is Seachd, the first feature film to be made in Gaelic. It made some headlines upon its release, not least because of its pioneering move to bring Gaelic to the big screen. I’ve not seen it, but from the little I’ve heard and read, I understand that it has some fantasy elements but is nevertheless rooted in real ideas, real culture and – importantly – real scenery. And not just any scenery, but some of Skye’s and Scotland’s most stunning. Was this a rider that the Scottish tourism moneymen failed to back?
So with only two films in that middle ground that I can think of, I’m left wondering whether the Scottish Government has been backing the wrong horses simply because there aren’t enough of the right kinds of horse. In which case, that’s a separate debate about the support of film-making in Scotland. Of course, I’m far from a cinema buff, so perhaps I’m missing some titles that would be fine examples of how to sell Scotland.
And please don’t mistake this post as resting on the premise that cinema exists only as a hook for tourism. It doesn’t, and it should never exist as a creative industry purely for economic or political ends. However, occasionally there will be big hits that unintentionally or otherwise have the potential to sell Scotland abroad, and in those instances it’s only right that the government and tourist authorities look at how they can get involved in supporting the film and encouraging people to visit on the back of watching them.
The problem is, of course, and the point I’m hopefully making in this post, is that there is a lack of films that might work as a magnet for tourists that portray neither an ultra-realistic image nor a cliche-ridden schmaltzy image. Brave, I’d argue, fails to do this no matter how good it is as a film.
What, then, would work? What films fit that difficult middle ground?
If you can think of any films that are neither horror nor cheese, and which portray the very best of Scotland in a way that could sell the country better than Brave, Braveheart or any others, then let’s hear them.
For a little over four years, I led a secret double life.
I ran, unknown to anyone, the local news satire site “Inversnecky“. Basically something like The Onion or The Daily Mash but for Inverness, it was a satirical look at local news, giving more than the occasional ribbing to those responsible for the city and some of our wonderful local pantomime baddies such as Tesco.
I really enjoyed writing it, and was determined that I didn’t want it to be about me, so I remained anonymous (only my wife Nicole knew). On a couple of occasions I even found myself in conversation with people about Inversnecky in which I had to be careful to bite my tongue and not divulge more than I should.
In the end, though, I decided to give it up. While Inversnecky gained a small cult following, it really was small and the hit-rate on the site wasn’t all that great. That in part was due to another reason I stopped: I just couldn’t keep up with the rate of articles required for a good, consistent satire site, even with the occasional and very welcome contributor who would write with an article idea. I could have made the site a more professional one, I could have expanded the range of content, and I perhaps could have done extra things like come up with t-shirts or a guerilla marketing campaign offline.
I didn’t though, due to a mixture of a lack of skills and creativity, insufficient knowledge of local goings-on, and also life was busy. I had lots else I did with my time, and I really didn’t want to spend time thinking up and writing articles or recruiting trusted others. Moreover, doing it more seriously would have required keeping up with local news, and that would have meant regularly buying the Inverness Courier and Highland News. I have limits, you know.
Perhaps the biggest reason for stopping Inversnecky, though, was a bit of boredom. You can only squeeze so much original content out of the developments in a modestly-sized city, and there are only so many articles you can write about council incompetence, Tesco hegemony and other local in-jokes before you feel like you’re repeating yourself.
As such, I figured it would be better to quit rather than to keep flogging a slowly dying horse, so I announced in Inversnecky’s final post that I would be “retiring” the blog. I also, in the interests of accountability, “came out” as the anonymous creator and writer.
A few months down the line, I am able to sit back and reflect a little on Inversnecky, and I have to confess I did enjoy writing it and I am very proud of what I came up with. The writing is a bit crude and simple in places, and it’s definitely from the more aggressive end of satire, but it was fun to be able to write something that was “no holds barred”.
So if you’ll excuse the completely self-indulgent blog post, I would like to reflect on all that by sharing what are, at this precise moment in time, my ten favourite posts:
1. The Polish phrasebook – Perhaps my favourite creation was the site’s Polish phrasebook. When I started Inversnecky, the Polish population in the town was still huge – at its peak it was reported to be 10% of the city – and it really changed the nature of Inverness (very much for the better). I figured it would be good to come up with some helpful phrases to help locals engage with their new Polish neighbours, and so the Polish phrasebook was born.
Anyone with a passing knowledge of Polish football goalkeepers will probably be quite familiar with most of the phrases, and it is my biggest regret about Inversnecky’s low readership that “dóbrý dudek” didn’t take off as a local greeting.
2. Year of Highland Culture Comes To An End – …demolition of Eden Court begins. After all the razzmatazz and effort involved in the Year of Highland Culture in 2007, the highlight of which was the redevelopment of Eden Court, I thought it would be nice and ironic to imagine that it would all be demolished again afterwards.
3. 30 minutes’ less drinking time on train – With more than a little personal experience informing this article, I decided to paint the announcement of shorter train times to Edinburgh as being about cutting down on drinking time.
4. Police patrol railway line for LibDems – A story about police attempts to stop trespassing on the trainline past Culloden happened at around the same time as the massacre of the LibDems in the 2011 Scottish Parliament elections. A connection was just begging to be made.
5. Something interesting happens in Milton of Leys – Yeah I know. I think I took satire into the realms of the unbelievable here.
6. Tattooists protest against defence cuts – One of the lesser-considered factors when Fort George was under threat was the effect on the industries that depend on the military.
7. Balvonie encampment urged to move on – One of the numerous stories about illegal traveller camps coincided with the controversy about the Scottish Housing Expo. I decided to merge the stories.
8. Outbreak of beard-stroking sweeps Inverness – There’s a curious, and I am entirely sure quite coincidental, habit of the city’s abandoned old buildings to catch fire in unexplained ways. As I say, curious.
9. NHS prepares for outbreak of Gaelic – Two healthcare stories emerged around the same time a few years back. One was about preparing against swine flu; the other was a controversy about Gaelic signs at Raigmore Hospital. You can guess what I did with that.
10. Tesco chairs Asda enquiry – More sad than satirical, but there you go. Tesco (The Evil Supermarket Company) were one of my favourite targets in Inversnecky.
So that’s a wee taster of the news satire site that claimed to be “Inverness’s least regular and worst informed news source”. No more Inversnecky, but it was quite fun while it lasted. I’m glad I quit when I did, though, as all good things come to an end.
If you’ve followed this blog for a while, you’ll be aware of a couple of posts I wrote a while back on the issue of the completion of the Inverness west link. I’ll not bore you with the full details here (the posts themselves should be an adequate backstory), but just want to quickly summarise things here.
- The most popular option, a bridge across the Ness and Caledonian Canal to link the A82 with the Southern Distributor, was rejected by the council in favour of a route that went through Canal Park.
- The high-level bridge was costed at £67m (and was known as option 7) and the option chosen was costed at £27m (known as option 6).
- I noticed that option 7 included extra work at Tomnahurich bridge that didn’t seem essential to the completion of the link, so I wanted to know how much lower the £67m could be if it wasn’t for that extra work at Tomnahurich.
- I also noticed that option 6 was announced alongside new funding for sports facilities at Canal Park; partly to compensate for the road ploughing through it and partly to take the opportunity to develop things further. I wanted to know how much extra this money was, and therefore how much higher than £27m option 6 actually would be.
- I wrote to my four councillors and the city provost with these questions, and disgracefully I received a (fairly incomplete) response from only one of them.
- I also wrote to my MSP to ask for his input.
Thankfully, my MSP (with some chasing) managed to get the full and comprehensive answer I was looking for. Almost, anyway. Through him, a council official sent a very helpful response (I’ll happily upload it if anyone wants) that included a lot of good information, not least the fact that actually many cars travelling north into Inverness did not actually want to bypass the entire city; just avoid the congested city centre. Fair enough. That’s new information that it would have been good to know, and presumably would have been easy to supply.
The letter didn’t, however, supply the figures I wanted to answer the questions I outline in points 3 and 4 above. So I wrote back to the official who is away for a few weeks (as am I). I’ll blog again later in the summer once I hear back.
Of course, keen watchers of local matters in Inverness will be aware that there was an entirely different model being advocated all along – that of a tunnel. It seems to have merit yet to have not received any serious consideration by the council. This is worrying and represents a pretty poor approach by the council. Though it’s good to know that, according to the local rag, this will now be looked again, at least briefly. And that article notes what I fear, that the £27m v £67m may not have been the true comparison after all.
The saga continues…
So, the “no” campaign has finally launched for the Scottish independence referendum. Of course, they’re not calling themselves the “no” campaign, or indeed anything to do with the word “no”. Partly they’re trying to avoid anything negative, but partly of course it’s reflecting that, at the time of the launch, the Scottish Government’s consultation on the referendum had not yet reported so the question itself was still unknown. As such, they’re going with the title “Better Together“.
Safe to assume, though, that the question and the debate in the coming two years will be about independence for Scotland, so Better Together won’t be able avoid the “no” word for too much longer.
I could do this blog post the quick way, pointing you towards Newsnet Scotland’s excellent response to the Better Together launch’s keynote speech from Alistair Darling. Especially, I could draw you to the important point made in that article that this debate isn’t about making Scotland a “separate” country, because it already is a separate country. It’s independence that is the issue, not separation.
But I do have some further thoughts to add. And I want to make them by reflecting on some of the different generations of arguments against independence, and setting that as the context for today’s “no” arguments.
The intellect argument
Years ago, people would argue that Scotland could not manage as an independent country because we had second-rate politicians who just were not of the calibre required for the job of running a country. This was always insulting to hear – doubly so, and equally disappointing, to hear from Scots – because any country is capable of making the best decisions it can. Scots are an intelligent bunch of folk, responsible for the Enlightenment, disproportionately influential in the creation of the British Empire, and heavily present in UK Governments.
All the main UK parties have had hugely intelligent, heavyweight politicians from Scotland among their front benches, and to say that Scotland couldn’t draw on the finest minds from across the political spectrum in shaping its own discourse is bizarre.
Which reminds me of one of the strangest arguments against independence that you hear – criticisms of Alex Salmond and the SNP. So, you don’t like Salmond or the SNP? Fine. Make sure you never vote for them. It’s quite feasible that in an independent Scotland the SNP never gets a sniff of power. You never hear Unionist politicians asked to describe how good an independent Scotland might be if their party ran it. I’d love to hear their answers – do they trust their own talent?
The size argument
Believe it or not, some people think that Scotland is too small to be independent. Yet about a third of the world’s independent countries are smaller than Scotland, and with the exception of France the UK is surrounded by small countries – Iceland, Norway, Denmark, the Netherlands, Belgium and the Republic of Ireland. Size is no guarantor of viability, and in the list of richest countries by GDP only the USA stands out as a big country in the top ten, and there are barely a handful you could describe as such in the top twenty.
Many small countries are key actors on the world stage, including in the European Union and NATO. By saying that a small country is not a basis for independence, Unionists are actually insulting some of the UK’s closest allies and many of our former colonies.
Yes the UK is one of the world’s largest – though not richest – economies, and has a large voting weight in the EU and a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. But what good is that, if the foreign policy of that UK is marred by scars such as the Iraq war? Many small countries are much better advocates for international peace and security than the UK. And in any case, an independent Scotland and remnant UK working together would pack a bigger punch in the EU and on the diplomatic stage on the occasions they agree on things (which, I reckon, will be the majority of the time).
The principle argument
This argument is quite a theoretical one. Many argue that in an era of increased cooperation and interdependence, countries should be working together not coming apart. This contains both capitalist arguments (it is bad for business for countries to be kept apart and for boundaries to be erected) and socialist arguments (in the face of globalisation, there should be no new barriers to solidarity between working people).
The problem here, though, is that it is an argument against independent countries all over the place. It’s an argument against having a distinct United Kingdom and in favour of something like a European superstate or a world government. Now those are perfectly intellectually sustainable arguments, and from the point of view of a strong internationalist or a classical anarchist, removing the concept of independent countries and governments is one to consider. But you cannot argue that while at the same time advocating the continuation of a United Kingdom. If you believe that independent countries are the main currency of global cooperation, then the question is simply whether Scotland or the UK as currently constituted should be one of them.
The economic argument
This is probably the most frequently heard one: that Scotland simply couldn’t manage economically. Well, if that is the case then it’s a damning indictment of the UK’s economic policy that its northern corner remains so economically backward and undeveloped that it couldn’t stand on its own two feet. Surely it should be the job of the UK economy to generate prosperity for all its parts, not leave one part as a helpless backwater whose constant subsidy by richer parts is morally and economically unsustainable.
Of course, we all know that’s not the case, and even Unionists broadly agree that Scotland would survive economically, and indeed do quite well, if it was independent – they just question whether that’s the best way forward.
The facts are even clearer than this. Scotland would be the sixth richest country in the world if it was independent, and that is based on independent figures. Read this article for a bit of background.
The bureaucratic argument
This is the argument that, separate from questions about its viability once it is independent, the mere process of creating an independent Scotland is too costly. There would need to be a new BBC set up, a new armed forces, a new DVLA, a new welfare state, and so on.
There are three ways to look at this. Firstly, how can it be justified that there are already distinct bureaucracies in Scotland, for instance relating to health or education? If we should avoid unnecessary duplication then we should abolish political and administrative devolution in Scotland. Taken to its logical next step, it’s an argument against local government having any sort of power, if decisions are best taken in a centralised way and resources are best used in a pooled way.
The second approach is to consider that much of the infrastructure already exists for Scottish services. There are already facilities for running a welfare system in Scotland; it’s just a case of doing so in a way that suits Scotland. There are already Scottish parts of the armed forces: it’s just a case of ensuring they are run from Scotland.
The third approach is, of course, to consider that you do not need an independent Scotland to end up with sub-standard public services and bureaucracy. Just look at how the United Kingdom has served Scotland, with a disgusting welfare policy introduced by a government in London with little mandate in Scotland, and with cut after cut to our armed forces. The UK, it seems, is a terrible threat to our public services, and with Scotland’s increased wealth independence is likely to address this.
The historical and cultural argument
This came through strongly in the Better Together launch, and there is a lot about it on the Better Together website. In their “positive case“, you can read a lot of odd statements. There is the implication, for instance, that Scotland would somehow be less multicultural – and to bring demographics into this is dangerous territory.
There is the argument that we have come through so much historically, such as the World Wars. As if independence would erase that history. And is that not insulting to the countries we fought alongside, who we were not in political union with? Unless Alistair Darling would have preferred that we fought WW2 as a 51st US state or as a republic of the Soviet Union.
Scotland will be as close socially and culturally as ever to the other nations of the British Isles, if not closer. It is a rather totalitarian and isolationist argument to suggest that countries require to be politically united in order to have good social and cultural links. It’s also, incidentally, jingoistic and big-headed for Better Together to claim that “As Scots we believe there’s nowhere better”. This is the sort of chip-on-shoulder, “wha’s like us?” attitude that holds Scotland back. The idea of independence is not that we are better than anyone, but that we are good enough to do a good job for ourselves and our international allies.
Think of the connections we have with English-speaking countries like Ireland, Canada, the USA, Australia or New Zealand, and Nordic countries such as Norway, Denmark and Iceland. We get on brilliantly with these close allies, and the fact that we are not in political union with them bears no relevance upon that.
So, what now?
I am keenly open to good arguments in favour of maintaining the United Kingdom. But if the above is the sort of standard we should expect, then slowly but surely people will be persuaded.
If there are good “no” arguments I’ve missed, then I’d love to hear them and will of course treat all comments respectfully.
I voted today in the local council elections. Being something of a politics and electoral systems geek, I always enjoy voting. Especially when it is the Single Transferable Vote, introduced for Scottish councils in 2007.
STV is by far my favourite electoral system, because it is roughly proportional, it gives you multiple representatives (a good thing where a single representative, like with our MPs, may be hated or mistrusted by a signficant minority), and allows you to make preferences rather than a stark, absolute choice. Politics is about relativity rather than absolutes, and our voting system should reflect that too.
The problem today, however, came in with deciding who to vote for. I believe our council to be thoroughly deficient, filled mostly with second-rate councillors who lack much in the way of vision and creativity for this city and the wider region. That’s evident in some of the terrible planning decisions made over the years in Inverness, plus the spectacular lack of leadership in representing our city externally.
From the poorly-managed development and transport infrastructure of our city, to backwards decisions like Inverness’s absurd and repressive midnight curfew, and then of course the disgrace that was the decision about the completion of the city’s bypass that I’ve blogged about before (and will do again in the coming weeks).
Inverness getting its own local authority, like most of Scotland’s other cities, would be a good way of starting to address this mismanagement; would directly-elected mayors. That’s one constitutional issue where I am impressed by developments in England.
More than anything, then, the council needs fresh blood. Last time in 2007, when I was living in Glasgow, I gave my first preference to the one SNP candidate and second preference to the Greens. This time around, as part of the SNP’s nationwide push to win more councils, they are putting up two candidates in a lot of places, including my constituency here in Inverness – one an incumbent, the other a new face. The latter got my first preference.
Disappointingly there is no Green candidate to then transfer to, the only other party standing besides the untouchable Labour, Tory and LibDem options being the terrifying Scottish Christian Party. So my second vote will go not to the incumbent SNP member, but to an independent candidate who is standing again, for whom I have a great deal of time and who I consider an exception to the rabble of incompetence that purvades Highland Council. It’s the first time I’ve ever rejected the opportunity to vote for an SNP candidate in any election. What’s happening to me?
The SNP are working hard, I understand, to win Highland Council, as they are in many places, not least in the well-publicised battle for Glasgow City. STV being a bit more complicated to count, however, means that the results will not come through until later on Friday by which time I will be away for the weekend. Perhaps I’ll blog again next week reflecting on what could be some very interesting results. It’s an exciting time in Scottish politics, and while I don’t hold to the view that these council elections are a litmus for the independence referendum, today’s vote will certainly have an impact on vital local services in the years to come and the relative strength and confidence of the political parties.
Whether or not it will improve the quality of decisions being made about Inverness, however… well, hope springs eternal.
“Don’t let politicians interfere in marriage” the campaign group Scotland for Marriage tells us, at least according to an email someone has forwarded to me that includes the above image. This is in response to the Scottish Government’s consultation on legalising gay marriage, something the government has expressed they are likely to come down in favour of.
Absolutely. I couldn’t agree more. Marriage is something politicians should have nothing to do with. Imagine – passing laws that might impact on marriage! A truly dreadful idea! But to prevent politicians interfering in marriage, I’m afraid we will need to do more than simply prevent gay marriage:
- We need to remove all laws on domestic violence, so often perpetrated within marriages by those who regard spouses as possessions rather than equals, because it’s just political interference.
- We need to repeal all legislation that prohibits forced marriages, because this is simply political interference.
- We need to remove the laws that prevent child marriage, because the right to marry a child is something that politicians have stopped us doing.
- We must get rid of the political decision that polygamy is wrong, because who is a politician to decide how many wives you can have?
- We should stop all this crazy bureaucracy about who can perform a marriage ceremony and when, because the prohibition of sham marriages is just politicians interfering!
- Laws about when and how you can divorce should be scrapped, because any legal protection of your right to leave a marriage is just political interference!
- Laws that incentivise (or indeed de-incentivise) marriage through tax or benefits are just wrong, because that’s just politicians interfering in marriage!
- Any state funding for relationship counselling services should stop now! Otherwise it’s just “big brother” interfering in our marriages!
- The official registration of marriages by local authorities must stop now, allowing us to declare ourselves married to whoever and whatever we want, whenever we want. Some bit of paper we’re forced to apply for in advance that tells us that we’re married is just politicians trying to run our lives for us.
I could go on, but I would only devastate myself with the appalling realisation of the extent to which politicians are interfering in marriage. Right now, in this country, perhaps even in your community and involving people you might know – politicians are dictating how marriage works! It must stop now!
Save marriage from politicians. This could be your last chance.
In another piece of local history I knew nothing about until I visited its site, here are some photos from Ormond Castle, which I walked around the other weekend.
It’s not really a castle any more – in fact, not even “not really”, more “not at all”. It’s just a hill, flat at the top, that you think might once have been a good location for a castle. Which you would be right in thinking, because indeed it once was.
In the thirteenth century, according to both Wikipedia and the plaques adorning the cairn, the castle was where Andrew de Moray raised his standard during the Wars of Independence. He was a key ally of William Wallace, though died from injuries sustained at the Battle of Stirling Bridge in 1297.
As I say, there is a cairn, with a couple of plaques and a saltire on a flagpole. But not much more to indicate its historical importance, nor had I heard of it before. No doubt in many other countries, sites like this would be part of a nationally-renowned trail, something that commemorates key locations in Scotland’s history.
Not here; such things would be deemed “political”, perceptibly playing into the hands of nationalists. But what sort of timorous country would be ashamed of a period in its past when it fought for its very survival? Whether or not one believes that independence for Scotland was right then or is right now, it was certainly an important era in the country’s development which – thanks to the unhelpful romanticism of Braveheart et al – is not properly known.
Now of course, modern Scottish nationalism is a forward-looking movement and not one stuck in the past. But I can’t help thinking that if – or when – the referendum is won in 2014 and Scotland becomes independent, we’ll see a bit more exploration of our country’s history, turning the subject from a political football into something that is quite normal, as in other countries. Places like Ormond Castle deserve to be less the possession of romantics and distantly-focussed historical nationalists, and be instead the preserve of the entire country’s heritage.
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