Category Archives: featured

This time it’s personal

IMG_20160730_102409
Selfie with weans.
I was a keen and eager participant in the first independence referendum campaign, and I was as devastated as everybody else on Friday the 19th when we realised we had lost.

Campaigning was about creating a fairer Scotland that would be a great place for my weans to grow up in, but I didn’t really expect the result to have massive implications for my family and myself in the short to medium term.

This time it’s different, however: My family depends on this country remaining in the EU (or at least in the EEA) because we are a truly European family. I am a Danish citizen, my wife has a UK passport, the kids we have together are Danish/UK and the kids from my wife’s previous marriage are French/UK (however, for the under-18s getting a French passport might depend on cooperation from her ex, and this might not be forthcoming).

Brexit means that I could lose my right to live here (or at least lose some rights, such as access to the NHS and getting a pension), but at the same time my wife could lose the right to live in the EU. There could also potentially be problems moving my stepkids to the continent if their father doesn’t cooperate. Furthermore, my parents would lose the right to come and a live with us in Scotland when they get frail, and the same would happen to my mother-in-law if we move abroad. Furthermore, permanent residence gets nullified after more than six months abroad, so I would also lose my right to work abroad temporarily, or to spend more than six months with my parents if their health requires it (they’re staying in a tiny village in the mountains of Italy). It could also make it financially impossible for the kids to study abroad if they so desire. Retiring abroad together would probably also become an impossibility for us.

My wife and I have thus been feeling utterly distraught because of Brexit (and not least because of the UK government’s decision to use me and others in my situation as bargaining chips), and if it hadn’t been for Nicola Sturgeon’s wonderful speech the morning after Brexit, we might have left for the continent already.

I therefore felt absolutely delighted that Nicola yesterday announced that the new Scottish referendum will be held before the UK leaves the EU. Finally somebody is offering us a solution to our worries.

This might be our last and only chance to keep our family together, so it’s hard to describe in words how important it is for us to win this. All I can say is that if we lose, the consequences are too horrible to contemplate.

So it’s no game. We have to win it. Scotland in Europe has to happen before the Tories wreck our family.

This time it’s personal.

UK vs EU

People who voted Yes and then Leave (the Yellow Tribe, as I’ve described them in the past) often talk of the UK and the EU as if they were almost the same, and they’re thus often keen to postpone Indyref2 till Brexit is done and dusted. “Why leave one union just to join another?” as they like to say.

However, is this fair? To what extent are the two unions alike? I thought it’d be useful to compare them topic by topic:

UK EU
The Houses of Parliament consist of two chambers. In the House of Commons, 59 out of 650 MPs are representing Scotland (9%). It’s hard to calculate the equivalent for the House of Lords because they don’t represent constituencies, but the Scotsman put the number at 61 out of 760 (8%) in 2015. This should be seen against the fact that Scotland makes up slightly more than 8% of the population of the UK. The European Parliament consists of 571 members. As an independent country, Scotland would probably have 13 MEPs (like Denmark), rather than the current 6, because small countries are over-represented. That would mean that Scotland would have 1.7% of MEPs on a population share of 1%. In the European Council, Scotland would have equal representation with all other member states (1 out of 28), so the same as Malta, Denmark and Germany.
There isn’t a specific number of Scottish ministers in the UK government. At the moment there is only one (David Mundell), but even that isn’t guaranteed (for instance, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland isn’t Irish). The European Commission consists of one commissioner from each member state, so Scotland would always have one.
Westminster is sovereign, so if they want to change Holyrood’s powers, they can do so without consulting Scotland, although in the past they have done so. For instance, abolishing Holyrood altogether would be entirely within their powers if they thought that would be a good idea. The powers of the EU are described in the Treaty of Lisbon, and it requires unanimity to change it. This means that Scotland as a member state would have to agree before handing over any more powers to Brussels. There is absolutely no way that the EU could get rid of Holyrood.
Using the Pound Sterling is obligatory. In theory, Scotland would be required to adopt the Euro, but in practice it would be easy not to fulfil the criteria and thus stay out indefinitely, like Poland and Sweden.
It would be politically difficult for Westminster to refuse a new Scottish independence referendum, but they would be entitled to do so. The EU allows any member state to leave using Article 50. As we’re finding out at the moment, this is not easy, but at least it’s a guaranteed right.
The UK has one single foreign policy, and Scotland is not allowed to have its own. EU member states have their own foreign policy, but they have lots of meetings to coordinate their efforts. The EU has a nascent foreign policy, too, but this is in addition to the member states’ own policies, not instead of them.
The UK hasn’t negotiated its own trade agreements for many years and will have to do this from scratch after Brexit. The EU has great trade agreements with most of the world, and these apply automatically to all member states.
Westminster raises most taxes in the UK and then sends block grants to the devolved administrations. Each member state raises its own taxes and pays a membership fee to the EU.
The military is a British institution, and it’s completely controlled by Westminster. NATO membership is very important to the UK. As an EU member state, Scotland would be responsible for its own military forces. EU countries cooperate a bit. NATO membership is not obligatory.
The Tories are talking about walking away from the European Declaration of Human Rights and the jurisdiction of the ECHR. EU countries have to sign up to the ECHR, and the European Declaration of Human Rights forms part of the EU treaties.
The UK has over the centuries invaded most countries of the World. The EU hasn’t invaded any countries at all.
The UK used to do its best to get rid of Welsh, Gaelic, Scots and the other indigenous languages of the British Isles. It seems to have been mainly European influence that has led to improved support for minority languages. Linguistic diversity is in the EU’s DNA. As a full member state, Scotland will be able to designate either Scots or Gaelic as a full working language of the EU with translation of all texts and interpretation of all speeches in the European Parliament.
All oil revenues go straight to Westminster. EU member states keep their own energy revenues, and the EU might help member states build energy infrastructure, such as pipelines between member states.
British citizenship completely replaced Scottish citizenship in 1707. EU citizenship is additional to citizenship of a member state.
Anthem: God Save the Queen. Anthem: Ode to Joy.

If I’ve forgotten anything, please leave a comment underneath, and I’ll add it.

Brexit shock therapy

Child Labour Photo Contest 2012_Third Prize
Child Labour Photo Contest 2012_Third Prize.
Ever since the Brexit referendum, I've kept thinking that the hard Brexit plans surely must be due to a lack of understanding of the consequences, that the Tories would eventually opt for a much softer outcome (such as the Norwegian solution) or at least apply for a decade-long transitional deal to give them time to negotiate new trade deals and all that.

I simply couldn't see any benefit in causing utter devastation to so many people and businesses across the UK, so I kept believing the people opting for a hard Brexit must be ignorant or deluded.

Then two things happened. Firstly, the leaked memo showed that people in government do seem to realise what they doing and what the consequences will be. Secondly, I started reading Naomi Klein's “The Shock Doctrine”.

Parts of this book are now a bit dated (it's from 2007, so from before the crash), but the bits where she explains why it's only possible to implement radical neoliberal reforms after some sort of societal crisis are just as relevant today:

It was in 1982 that Milton Friedman wrote the highly influential passage that best summarizes the shock doctrine: "Only a crisis – actual or perceived – produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes politically inevitable." [...]

What [Friedman] understood was that in normal circumstances, economic decisions are made based on the push and pull of competing interests – workers want jobs and raises, owners want low taxes and relaxed regulation, and politicians have to strike a balance between these competing forces. However, if an economic crisis hits and is severe enough – a currency meltdown, a market crash, a major recession – it blows everything else out of the water, and leaders are liberated to do whatever is necessary (or said to be necessary) in the name of responding to a national emergency. Crises are, in a way, democracy-free zones [...]. [p.140]

If this is true – which I fear it is – a hard and chaotic Brexit will be a huge opportunity for the Tories to completely abolish the welfare state. They'll be able to get rid of the NHS, free education, unemployment benefits and whatever else they don't like. They'll be able to do this while looking immensely sad, saying that it's all the EU's fault for denying them the package they wanted (but quietly always knew wouldn't be acceptable to the other EU member states). They'll blame everybody else for the economic collapse, but use it to create a neoliberal wonderland where only the strong survive. Eventually people will realise what has happened, but by then it'll be too late to reverse.

In Ian Dunt's new book (“Brexit: What The Hell Happens Now?”), the conclusion is similar:

Britain is about to experience a toxic mix of weak law and strong lobbying. It is tantamount to switching a country off and on again. Except that it will not revert to its original state. It will revert, in all likelihood, to a low-tax, low-regulation laissez faire economy, more akin to that of Singapore or Hong Kong than the countries on the Continent. [p.161]

More than three years ago, I warned that many people in England wanted to go down that Singapore-style route:

In their book Going South: Why Britain will have a Third World Economy by 2014, Larry Elliott and Dan Atkinson claim the UK needs to make a fundamental choice: Should it move in the direction of a Scandinavian welfare state (similar to the Common Weal ideas currently being discussed in Scotland), or should it become a low-tax state based on free trade (called "Freeport Ho!" and "Freeport Britain" in their book)?

They don't really discuss Scottish independence in their book, and they seem to think that the UK must make the choice as a whole.

However, it appears to me that Scotland and London have already chosen. Scotland wants to go down the Common Weal path (and what we're really discussing in the independence referendum campaign is whether we can convince the rUK to go down that road with us, or whether we should do so alone), and Greater London has practically decided to become a global free port (which is why so many people in the South-East want to leave the EU, dismantle the NHS, and all that).

What I didn't foresee back then was that the Tories would be able to use the chaos created by their hard Brexit to implement this vision, which is so utterly different from the vision of an egalitarian society based of solidarity and fairness that the vast majority of people in Scotland share.

If we can't stop the Tories from administering their neoliberal shock therapy, we need to get out before it's too late. We're about to witness something that'll make Thatcher look like a cuddly socialist in comparison.

The Great Scottish Bake Off

Often you hear independence switherers worrying endlessly about losing their favourite TV programmes, such as the Great British Bake Off, Big Brother or The Apprentice. The reply is often that Ireland has made a deal with the BBC to make their channels available in the Republic, at a lower price than Scotland currently pays through the licence fee, and of course Scotland will be able to do the same.

That's true, of course, but something that's often overlooked is that most successful TV show concepts these days get bought by foreign TV channels. Scotland wouldn't be restricted to watching the Great rUK Bake Off (if it'll still exist by then), but a Scottish TV channel would probably buy the concept and broadcast The Great Scottish Bake Off.

Just to illustrate how accurately the concepts get copied, here are a few foreign Bake Off clones:

Den Store Bagedyst from Denmark:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1oe58y-sd_Q

Das große Backen from Germany:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EK91x01nhKg

The Great Australian Bake Off:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f2xIDHd38PA

Bake Off -- Ale Ciacho form Poland:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yCdXQQcIdy0

The Great Irish Bake Off:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NZqROWTiyNE

Le Meilleur Pâtissier from France:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eEPKElBw9zY

You can see a complete list of international version on Wikipedia.

It would have the advantage for Scots that it would be much easier to get onto these shows because they would be recruiting from a population of 5½m instead of 64m, and as far as I can tell, the quality of the cakes isn't any worse in the Danish version (Denmark has roughly the same number of inhabitants as Scotland).

The Law of Jante and the Lad o Pairts

'Murder Victim' in the Basement
'Murder Victim' in the Basement.
A term that is often used to describe Nordic culture is the so-called Law of Jante:

Generally used colloquially in Denmark and the rest of the Nordic countries as a sociological term to negatively describe a condescending attitude towards individuality and success, the term refers to a mentality that de-emphasises individual effort and places all emphasis on the collective, while discouraging those who stand out as achievers.

There are ten rules in the law as defined by Sandemose, all expressive of variations on a single theme and usually referred to as a homogeneous unit: You are not to think you're anyone special or that you're better than us.
The ten rules state:

  1. You're not to think you are anything special.
  2. You're not to think you are as good as we are.
  3. You're not to think you are smarter than we are.
  4. You're not to convince yourself that you are better than we are.
  5. You're not to think you know more than we do.
  6. You're not to think you are more important than we are.
  7. You're not to think you are good at anything.
  8. You're not to laugh at us.
  9. You're not to think anyone cares about you.
  10. You're not to think you can teach us anything.

Although there are differences, I tend to think Scottish culture can be similar to this -- people tend not to brag about their own achievements (perhaps even to the point of self-deprecation), and they tend to strive to fit in. The Scottish cringe is at least partly a consequence of this, because it is often the result of people standing out by being too Scottish compared to the consensus level. Perhaps the hatred many people feel towards Alex Salmond can also best be explained as a consequence of the Scottish Law of Jante.

However, in the Scottish version there has historically been an outlet for people who wanted to pursue their dreams, namely becoming a lad o pairts (I've seen it defined as "the young boy from humble origins who demonstrates academic talent and is able to achieve success, often in London or in the colonies, owing to the historically superior Scottish educational system").

Of course some Scandinavians have also "escaped" to other countries -- for instance, the Norwegian playwright Ibsen was absent from Norway for 27 years, and the Danish poet Henrik Nordbrandt has spent most of his adult life in Greece and Turkey.

However, one of the consequences of the British Union is that it has always been extremely easy for anybody talented to have a career to London -- in many cases probably easier that achieving the same in Scotland.

Of course, in today's globalised world talented people from everywhere flock to London, New York and other global hotspots, and indeed talented Scandinavians seem to emigrate much more than they used to.

The Scottish lads o pairts therefore don't depend on the UK any more, and it would probably be much better for the Scottish economy if it was easier to have a successful career without having to leave Scotland.

Update (15/01): See also Gerry Hassan's article about the Scottish Tut.

Did universal bilingualism give Scots an advantage in the past?

Bilingual
Bilingual.
There's more and more evidence that being bilingual makes you smarter and keeps your brain functioning for longer. Here's a summary from the New York Times (but there's a huge amount of material on this topic out there, as a quick Google search will demonstrate):

This view of bilingualism is remarkably different from the understanding of bilingualism through much of the 20th century. Researchers, educators and policy makers long considered a second language to be an interference, cognitively speaking, that hindered a child’s academic and intellectual development.

They were not wrong about the interference: there is ample evidence that in a bilingual’s brain both language systems are active even when he is using only one language, thus creating situations in which one system obstructs the other. But this interference, researchers are finding out, isn’t so much a handicap as a blessing in disguise. It forces the brain to resolve internal conflict, giving the mind a workout that strengthens its cognitive muscles.

[...]

Bilingualism’s effects also extend into the twilight years. [...] Individuals with a higher degree of bilingualism — measured through a comparative evaluation of proficiency in each language — were more resistant than others to the onset of dementia and other symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease: the higher the degree of bilingualism, the later the age of onset.

It's also a well-known fact that Scotland punched well above its weight inside the United Kingdom. It appears to me that this started some decades after the 1707 Acts of Union and slowly started to fade out in the 20th century.

Interestingly, most successful Scots must have been bilingual (or even trilingual) during this time -- you needed to know English well to succeed, but in Scotland everybody spoke only Scots and/or Gaelic (depending on where they lived). I'm not sure when Standard Scottish English started replacing Scots and Gaelic as the primary language of large numbers of Scots, but it must have been a relatively recent event. For instance, when Norn was dying out around the time of the Acts of Union, it got replaced by Scots, not by English. On the other hand, the vast areas of the Highlands where Gaelic died out after the Clearances ended up speaking English, not Scots.

It's tempting to think that one of the factors that allowed Scotland to punch above it weight was the near-universal bilingualism. If this theory is correct, making all Scots bilingual again by supporting and promoting both Gaelic and Scots will make Scotland a more successful country in the future.

Indyref postmortem I: What went wrong in Edinburgh and the North East?

I think it's quite likely the next independence referendum will happen sooner rather than later, so it's important to have a look at what we could have done better, not in order to point fingers at anybody, but simply to make sure that we win next time. This is the first of several indyref postmortems.

The colour of each council area shows the difference between the actual indyref result and my prediction. Red means it did less well, and blue means it did better.
Map of disappointing results: The colour of each council area shows the difference between the actual indyref result and my prediction. Red means it did less well, and blue means it did better.
On the 18th of September last year, the good people of Edinburgh were basically asked "Would you like to live in the capital of an independent country?" and proceeded to answer No. How could they?

Also, the SNP has traditionally been strongest in the North East, but places like Moray that I had predicted would vote Yes by 60% instead voted No by a huge margin. Why are the people up there happy to vote SNP in local elections, but when they're asked about the raison d'être of the SNP, they say No?

The map on the right shows the most disappointing indyref results in red. Some of the areas aren't that surprising. I can understand that some people in the Scottish Borders would have worried about creating an international border close to home, and the fact that this area receives ITV instead of STV cannot have helped the Yes vote either. It's also natural that people in Orkney and Shetland are worried that Edinburgh might be too far away to fully understand their needs.

"Let's become independent before 100,000 more children are living in poverty."
"Let's become independent before 100,000 more children are living in poverty."
I wonder whether there was a lack of local campaigning materials. Many of the posters, leaflets and TV ads produced by Yes Scotland seemed to have been designed to appeal to low-income voters in Greater Glasgow and similar areas.

Why didn't anybody produce Edinburgh-only posters with messages such as "70 embassies will be built in this city, bringing a lot of money to the local economy" or "After independence, Edinburgh will be a real capital again, like London, Paris and Washington"? Where were the leaflets reassuring voters in the Scottish Borders? What was being done in Orkney and Shetland to explain to voters there that turning Scotland into a Nordic country would make them a central and crucial part of Scotland? Did anybody serious target occasional SNP voters in Aberdeenshire?

I was campaigning in East Renfrewshire, where we did more or less as well as one could have expected, and the only other area I visited frequently was Glasgow, which did better than most people expected, so I don't know what exactly went wrong in other areas. However, my impression was that the campaign themes were the same all over Scotland, and if they were right here, they must have been wrong in other places. I definitely got the impression that a lot of the leaflets we distributed went down much better in the poorer parts of East Renfrewshire than in the rich neighbourhoods.

Did Yes Scotland suffer from a lack of regional campaign managers that could have identified a need for local campaign materials? Were local groups too passive, expecting to be given materials by Yes Scotland instead of producing their own?

Whatever the reason, it's an error we can't afford to make next time. Of course we need national campaign materials, but we must be better at targeting local areas with messages that matter to people there.