Acknowledge the Fact of the Union

Guardian Front Page 27-07-12

The front page of the Guardian on the 27th of July is a page with an interesting contrast. It is dominated by a half-page picture of Jennifer Saunders and Jonna Lumley in the guise of Patsy and Eddie from Ab Fab with the Olympic torch and a gushing article by Jonathan Freedland, extolling joys of being British, discussing how the Olympics will bring Britain together as a nation and suggesting that hosting the cream of the world’s athletes will show us the place of Britain in the modern world.

Towards the bottom of the article is a rather chilling piece, overshadowed by the glitz and the glamour of the Olympics, but potentially far more important as the regards the future of Britain:  the announcement by three Irish Republican paramilitary groups that they are forming a new IRA and plan to increase the now sporadic terrorist attacks in Ireland. An account, later in the paper, of how the message was delievered to the press – on a country road, in the dark, miles from Derry – makes chilling reading after so much positive work has been done thanks to the Good Friday Agreement.

It is not difficult to see why previously isolated groups in Ireland feel the need to come together, despite their seemingly disparate aims. The Real IRA, vigilante group Republican Action Against Drugs and the handful of smaller post-Provisional IRA have sat and watched for several years as first the Brown and then the Cameron Government promoted an agenda which emphasised Britishness, culminating in the joint celebration of the Diamond Jubilee and London 2012.

Both the Jubilee and the Olympics have been positive events for the UK as a whole. While the Jubilee is partially responsible for the continued negative growth of the British economy, it has resulted in investment in a number of communities in the UK, the creation of new forests and given a lot of people an enjoyable day off work. Likewise, the Olympics has helped to sustain jobs in construction and engineering in London, should increase tourism to the city and will leave a legacy of new sports facilities, albeit a legacy concentrated in the south of England.

However, those living in the UK have repeatedly been told that these events are about Britain.

This ia a problem because a large number of those living in Britain do not identify as being British. This include Scots and Welsh who don’t believe in the independence of their home nations, a large number of those living in Northern Ireland, a significant and growing percentage of those living in England, some migrants and descendants of migrants and foreign nationals living in the UK, such as Edinburgh’s large North American population.

There is plenty of evidence which backs this assertion up, including this datablog article from the Guardian, which gives a simple visual oversight indicating that an overwhelming majority of those living in Scotland, Wales and Nothern Ireland regard themselves as being Scottish, Welsh or Irish rather then British. Even in England, it’s about 50-50 between those who identify as English and those who identify as British. Surveys carried out by IPSOS-Mori and YouGov regularly show that a majority of Scots consider themselves Scottish rather then British, with a growing trend in England for English to identify as English.

In Scotland, England and Wales, being called British if you don’t regard yourself as being British just leads to an insulted look and a quick correction from some, while others brush it off (although they probably won’t sing God Save The Queen). In these three nations, civic nationalism has prospered, creating inclusive nationalist movements like the SNP and Plaid Cymru. That said, overt “Brit-ification” of major events can still lead to a feeling of alienation.

In Northern Ireland, nationalism is a different beast. The conflict spans generations and combines religion with nationalism. It’s less then twenty years since parts of Ireland were still active warzones, peace walls are still in place throughout the country and marching seasons remain a flash-point for violence. Being called British or being told you are British is a deadly insult to many in Ireland. Yet, with royal visits to both Northern Ireland and the Republic and the visit of the Olympic torch to Derry (or Londonderry as the BBC repeatedly referred to it), with the blanket coverage of the Jubilee and the London Olympics, with the glorification of the British military following the conflicts in Afganistan and Iraq, that is what Irish Republicans are repeatedly being told.

This over promotion of British-ness, rather then acknowledging the strengths and uniquenesses of the component nations may well be a contributing factor in the decision of these Republican groups in Northern Ireland to coalesce. Northern Ireland does have other problems – high unemployment, the need for considerable investment in housing, scars from the Troubles – which will have contributed to this move. It could also be that the remains of the militant Republican movement have become so small individually that they need to band together for strength, especially if they feel the need to use intimidation tactics.

There is no point in continuing with behaviour which at best causes discomfort to a hefty slice of the UK population and at worst antagonises a significant minority. Instead, we should all acknowledge the strengths and uniquenesses of the components of the UK, acknowledge the fact that the UK is four nations united by two acts of union and act like a modern, inclusive country. Making reference to Scotland, England, Wales and Ireland will not lead to the dissolution of the UK, but it will lead to a better, more cohesive society.


Day 92 – Two Days, Two Issues

I’ve had two completely unrelated issues on my mind for the past few days: China and domestic abuse.

My meditations on China largely come from a meeting between a group of Parliament assistants and Ambassador Song Zhe. The meeting was arranged by a Chinese-born assistant to a European People’s Party MEP in order to foster a greater understanding in China-European dealings.

I went to this meeting because my main source of information regarding politics within China is the Economist, supplemented by occasional articles in the Guardian and the Herald on high-profile Chinese citizens who have been placed under arrest or executed by the regime. The picture built up by these sources is not necessarily the most balanced, ignoring, for example, how the controlled economy deals with the overwhelming poverty in areas of China.

The meeting, as it turned out was terribly balanced either.  The Ambassador made a twenty-minute presentation on how China and the EU could work together in the 21st Century, highlighting various cultural similarities and differences. This was actually quite educational, and I learnt a few things I didn’t know about Chinese culture. Unfortunately it was also very much a party line. I’ve read propaganda from the Soviet Union and from Nazi Germany which struck a similar tone.

Following the presentation, the floor was opened to questions. Given the enormity of China’s human rights violations, I suspect no-one will be surprised that this was one of the main issues raised. Several specific cases were referred to, with the Ambassador largely stonewalling on them. It was interesting hearing him attempt to justify the human rights violations as being down to differences in perceptions of human rights in China and the West. I don’t buy the idea that exercising freedom of speech endangers the rights or quality of life of others in China. In fact it would seem to be the opposite of what freedom of speech results in.

After the Ambassador left, one of his staff opened up a lot more. He talked at length about his negative experiences growing up during Mao’s Cultural Revolution and certainly seemed to indicate that China is liberalising slowly (something which would seem to harmonise with my reading in the Economist and diplomatic trends over the past decade). One point which he made which has stuck with me was that the Chinese people remember Mao too well and they don’t want another violent upheaval. The phrase he used was “evolution, not revolution”. I can sympathise with that sentiment given historical precedent in China, Russia and Iran.

I wouldn’t say I view China particularly favourably. I dislike the CCP’s environmental policy, their nuclear policy, their attitude towards human rights, their continuation of the cult of Mao and I’m very nervous about the rate of Chinese resource consumption and European reliance on Chinese imports. I can certainly see room for working with China to deal with these issues in a mutually beneficial way while building up a stronger European export market.

As regards domestic abuse, this something I’ve been doing some research and writing on the past few days. One of the things which came up was a recently launched campaign by Scottish Women’s Aids, simply called Stop. I’ve signed up to their pledge to help stop the abuse of women, as have Alyn and my manager. I also signed up to the White Ribbon Campaign, which is a male-orientated campaign to end domestic abuse against women.

This is an issue which I have very strong feelings on. There is no excuse for the fact that one-in-five women in Scotland will experience domestic abuse of some time during their lives. Sign up to the campaigns, raise awareness and remember that domestic abuse can be perpetrated against everyone, not just women (although they are the main victims).

Day 83 – The New Benefits System

This week, I was party to a briefing by a senior civil servent on the future plans for the benifits system in the UK. The plans haven’t been formally released yet, although given the open invite to the briefing, I can surmise that they are in the public domain.

Since the benefit system is of interest to so many in the UK, I’ve reproduced my notes in longhand. It’s worth noting that I may not have all details quite 100% correct.

Situation at Present

  • Approximately 5 million people are jobless and on benefits.
  • The largest group of claimants is those on disability benefits.

Coalition Goals for Welfare Reform

  • Reduce the number of benefit claimants.
  • Get people into sustainable employment.

The New Welfare System

All benifit claimants will be subject to twelve months on Job Seekers Allowance and other benefits as at present. During this time, they will receive support from the Department of Work and Pensions through JobCentre Plus.

If employment has not been found within this period, claimants are handed to private service providers. Private employment providers will receive a small payment for each individual taken on. They will then provide claimants with support in order to find long-term, sustainable employment. This support may include training, provision of treatment for mental health issues or a variety of other services. These will vary considerable depending on the providers.

When claimants have found sustainable employment, the private service provider receives a large payment. It is envisaged by the DWP that companies will lower the required payment on successful employment in order to remain competitive with each other. These payments will come from savings made through getting benefit claimants into work. Free market economics will (in theory) ensure that any inefficient providers will go bust (NB. this was the same argument used during rail privatisation).

There appears to be a high risk of those who are considered too unemployable being left behind as private companies race to make a quick buck using those who are more employable. This may result in those in need of greater support suffering.

This system is intended to be implemented by Summer 2011. Full plans are due to be announced in the next two weeks.

Named Potential Providers

  • Serco
  • Working Links
  • “A Local Authority”
  • “A college”
  • “Various Third Sector Parties”


Day 43 – Speaking At Conference

This year was the first time I attended the SNP conference. I spoke on Motion 4 at the conference, which was on the grow your own movement:

Conference welcomes the efforts of the Scottish Government since 2007 to support individuals and communities who wish to grow some of their own food.
Conference notes the many beneficial effects that allotments, private gardens, Community Gardens and orchards can have on the environment, healthy diets, exercise and recreational activities.
Conference calls on the next Scottish Government to build on this work, by working with local authorities to ensure more land is made available for allotments, that schools and schoolchildren have access to garden space, and that support is given to development of Scotland’s orchards and historic varieties of fruit.

This is an issues I have a strong opinion on and which I feel I have a bit of a stake in. First of all, I’d quite like a garden, but as an unemployed 20-something, I don’t have the income to buy or rent a property with a garden. I’ve also spent much of the past 6 years living close to land which is largely abandoned – the site of a former school in Glasgow and the site of Shrubhill Bus Depot in Edinburgh. This land has great potential to be put to use by the community, but instead they sit there looking ugly (NB. I recently learnt that the site in Glasgow is being developed for social house by a housing association).

Good afternoon. I’d like, if I may, to tell you a short story. I was lucky enough grow up in a little village called Ballater, in north-east. Surrounded by Munros and Commission forests and full of Victorian houses, it is a green and leafy place. Nearly everyone has a garden and the horticulture society fête is a highlight of the year for many in the village.

When I was 17, I moved to Glasgow. The dear green place. It is a city I am very fond of. But in many ways, it doesn’t live up to it’s reputation. Adjacent to my flat was an acre of concrete wasteland, the site of a former school. It is only in the last few months, after at least five years sitting empty that building work began to construct social housing on the site.

Five years that land could have been cultivated for. Wooden planters full of veg for the local community, projects for the local kids and the nursery beside the plot of land could have been on the site.

Glasgow City Council, however, prefers to let land lie fallow than to allow it’s use. In the last few months they’ve even forcefully evicted a community group who’d set up a community allotment scheme on apparently abandoned land in the north of Glasgow.

Instead, Glasgow CC is content to let people who wish to grow-their-own to sit on waiting lists for years and in some cases decades so they can get an allotment. they are not the only one. There is useful wasteland and allotment waiting lists in Edinburgh, Ayrshire, Lanarkshire.

I want to see the children in inner city Scotland to have the same experiences I had when I was a child, growing up in leafy, garden-filled Ballater. In order to give them that right we need to give the people of Scotland greater rights to make use of wasteland and vacant plots.

The above wasn’t exactly what I said at Conference. Rather it’s my hasty notes outlining what I intended to say. It comes across as being more openly hostile against Glasgow City Council then I was on the day, as well as placing greater emphasis on my own background.

As for what I’d like to see, well, I recently told a Civil Engineer friend about it and he laughed. I still think it’s possible for councils to put unoccupied land to work temporarily. It’s certainly worth investigating more.

The New Politics of Asylum

After the welcome announcement that the Lib-Con Coalition intended to end the detention of child asylum seekers in prison-like facilities such as Dungavel, (and the climb-down over time scales), we might be seeing a glimpse of how this issue is going to be dealt with. It could be rather bad news as regards the future of immigration policy in the UK and EU.

Last week, the EU agreed, in principle, to various member states setting up reintegration centres in Afghanistan. The centre planned by the UK Border Agency will be based in Kabul, with the facilities to handle 12 deported orphans per month and assistance for 120 deported adults per month. This would represent a massive step up in the numbers of asylum seekers being deported to Afghanistan.

It is worth remembering that Afghanistan is still an active warzone with a high degree of political instability and considerable problems with warlords, rape, murder and general human rights breaches. It is unlikely that British or NATO troops will exit Afghanistan in the near future without chronically destabilising the country. The idea that Afghanistan is safe to return asylum seekers to en mass is obscene and shows a lack of compassion or decency in the minds of our policy makers.

While initially, this is only going to apply to Afghanistan, I am concerned that it might open the doors to further similar projects in other countries. Many of the asylum seekers and immigrants from outside of Europe are here for genuine reasons and will face death or worse if they return to their original countries, something which this initial policy does not seem to take into account. Even with the recession, we should not be valuing the  wealth of state or the appeasement of the right above the value of a human life.

Debunking Climate Change Denial

I am not a climate change denier. My beliefs in this matter are quite straightforward: I have seen the climate of my country change over the last ten to fifteen years with warmer summers every year, there is considerable peer-reviewed evidence to back this up and we need to take concerted, sustained global action to prevent such changes resulting in large areas of the planet becoming uninhabitable and the ecosystem becoming unsustainable due to the deaths of key species.

My favourite argument against climate change is: Well, look at acid rain and the Ozone hole – we thought they’d wipe us out and they haven’t. That’s entirely because global action was taken – limits were placed on the emissions of sulphur and lead, while use of CFCs was banned globally. So far, we haven’t done the same as regards climate change.

Part of this is down to people like Christopher Monckton, a heredity peer who has taken on the mantle of champion of climate change denial. His mission, is effectively the opposite of that of Al Gore – he seeks to reassure people that there is no real change to the climate, that the planet can sort itself out and that generally we should stop worrying so much. While Gore espouses that we can’t afford to be wrong on this, Monckton simply states we are wrong on this, with both men using considerable bodies of statistics to back their arguments up. The climate change deniers are often quick to jump on Gore’s statistics, citing things such as changing technology and increased numbers of monitoring devices in poorly placed areas as a core reason for the higher temperature readings (despite visual evidence such as decrease in the size of both ice caps).

Help is at hand however, because now a scientist from the University of St Thomas has published an eighty-minute long review of a presentation by Monckton. In this presentation, Professor Abraham goes back to the evidence cited by Monckton, reviews it as regards Monckton’s use of the source and in some cases contacting the authors of the work in question to see if they agree with the assertions made by Monckton. I strongly recommend viewing it, as it serves to disprove many of the arguments used by Monckton, proving a number to be absolute fictions.

Sadly, the audience who need to see it most, those who would allow us to walk drive our Humvees into oblivion, likely won’t. Given the links between the Global Government conspiracy theorists and the climate change deniers and the apparent willingness to overlook all peer-reviewed evidence on the basis of mistakes made by one university and an employee of the UN who is a social scientist, not a scientist, it will likely be dismissed by deniers as another piece of propaganda which will allow those devious scientists/government/illumanati to destroy our way of life.