Always be a Poet, Even in Prose

Ah! You want to know why I hate you today…

An interesting opening gambit – though one unrelated to how I am dealing with the rejection of an idea very close to my heart by the Scottish electorate. Instead, in honour of National Poetry Day, I use this by way of rejecting an idea we often hear in politics, and one I heard a lot over the campaign. ‘Campaign in poetry, govern in prose’ it goes. Sounds about right – until you meet a sad person like myself who happens to know a bit about prose poetry, seen in the opening line by Charles Baudelaire.

The campaign aftermath, to extend another unnecessary literary metaphor, has been a bit like a gritty detective novel for Yes people of a forensic disposition. The Edinburgh results looked like something Rebus should be investigating (not in the sense they were rigged,mind) . Reading the breakdown of Fife and other parts of Central Scotland was like reading one of these torture scenes from a Val McDermid novel – and the less said about the blood on the walls in rural Scotland, the better.

Did we somehow mistake what people in these parts of Scotland wanted? The poetry (more the metaphorical rather than literal) of the Yes campaign may have stirred us into action, and allowed many people to dream – but while you cannot shoot butterflies, you can catch them in a net composed of a million questions, and woven with the thick fibres of uncertainty. Project Fear will now be calling themselves Project Butterfly Net.

The opening line of this piece is from Baudelaire’s Les Yeux des Pauvres – a jaunty morality tale, set in Baron Hausmann’s rapidly transforming 19th century Paris, where the medieval streets which had for ended the revolution were giving way to the modern city of broad avenues, famously devoid of public squares in which to protest. A couple sit at in a new café, lit by the wonder of electric light. Their view of the future is somewhat spoiled, however, when a wretchedly poor family comes to gawp at the beauty from outside the glass, causing the partner of the narrator to ask the maitre du café to move them on – incurring the wrath of the narrator, as witnessed by the opening line.

Now, my moral is not quite the same as Baudelare’s: just as modern Scotland is not as unequal as 19th century Paris – but you’d not know it from listening to those critical of No voters on September the 18th. ‘One Scotland’ should be one in which everyone benefits – and where we realise that independence is not once-size-fits-all. Gerry Hassan recognised this last week: ‘The politics of Scotland’s future has to entail getting into the heads and hearts of the middles classes, with all their varieties and different sub-parts.

Could it be that these middle classes, with so much to gain from independence – in terms of jobs, opportunities and status – were put off by the radical sales pitch? Was a 19th century approach to class outdated in a Scotland where 50% of school leavers go onto university, and ‘working with your hands’ means clicking a mouse? The natural allies of the Yes campaign, as has been explained to me many times, are the people in the ‘bought hooses’ of middle Scotland, the type of people who, like myself, find their roots in the working class, but not themselves. How do we get into the heads of these people?

This is where the point about prose poetry comes in. We must gain their trust, not through beautiful words, but through our deeds as a government: using the powers of the Scottish Parliament (whatever they may be, whenever they come) to continue to make the case, that a Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh is the one that will make the best decisions for Scotland: let’s be radically competent, and revolutionarily good at getting things done – this is the way we will build on the very real victories won two weeks ago.

It’s a view put forward by Marco Biagi: ‘Such a view can inform and guide the decisions we take with the limited powers we have, as well as giving the public a clear idea of who we are’. Or, as Baudelaire might put it ‘Sois toujours poète, même en prose’ (‘Always be a poet, even in prose’).

Beyond a government in Holyrood continuing to forge a radically competent path, we must do our bit too. We have to make sure the energy created in the debate does not fizzle out: as Lesley Riddoch said in her podcast this week, we must go out and continue to be the change we want to be: start our community projects, make our alternatives work: achieve through deeds what the beautiful words of the campaign could not.

Finally: the Baudelaire prose poem ends in a way which underlines the imperative all in the Yes movement now have – to reach out to those who voted No, many of whom are our family, friends and even partners, and to try and understand why they did so. If it is indeed true that 47% of No voters voted so because of the fears of what independence could bring, then we must listen to these fears.

How difficult understanding is, my angel, and how thought is incommunicable, even between lovers.


The People’s Postcode Lottery

Seemingly innocuous drop-down menus can be cause for a lot of head-scratching. I grew up in a place called Netherlee. The postcode and telephone number put it in Glasgow, but it isn’t. I should technically pay a boundary charge of 33% when I get a black cab home after a night out because its actually in East Renfrewshire, and my parents’ house is about 500m over the boundary. So, most of the time I have to render my address online as [City] GLASGOW, [Region] EAST RENFREWSHIRE, which really makes no sense as the town is bigger than the region. It’s even more annoying when occasionally confronted with a website that doesn’t recognise the almost 20 year old existence of unitary authorities in Scotland, and gives instead only the dreaded LANARKSHIRE. Netherlee, and indeed Glasgow haven’t been in Lanarkshire since when William Wallace was a lad, and for the last 300 years Lanark has been in Glasgowshire if anything.

Netherlee isn’t the only example – people in Cumbernauld, for example, have a Glasgow postcode despite being in North Lanarkshire Council (HQ in Motherwell, ML 01334) They are represented at Westminster and (more reliably by Jamie Hepburn) at Holyrood by the same people who represent Kilsyth, in the East Dumbartsonshire council area. You see where this is going – Scotland is a mish-mash of health boards, postcodes, Fire Brigades and councils, a rich tapestry. The current devolved Government is getting round to dealing with the worst anomalies, and it doesn’t really matter. We get by. Even if no one, from the man on the street to the MEP/MP/MEP they write a complaint to is always entirely sure who does what and why.

I first started to realise that my little hang up about Glasgow not being in Lanarkshire wasn’t that daft after all when I lived in France. I lived in the 10th arrondissement of the commune of Marseille, in the département of Bouches du Rhône, in the région of Provences-Alpes-Côtes d’Azur. Each unit was related the others in a way which, for example, East Renfrewshire Council is not linked to Greater Glasgow Health Board. While the last two can quibble over allocation of, say, the care of mental health patients in the community, because the provisions are all wrapped up in an act of parliament (or even worse, they aren’t). France gets round all of this by having a constitution which sets out exactly who does what, and who you can make an angry phone call to when they don’t. Further, these territorial units have existed pretty much unchanged since 1792 – French governments don’t often talk about local government reorganisation.

This may seem a bit facile – we didn’t have a revolution, and the Gallic need for bureaucratic order can often create entities that exist only on paper, and stamp all over local and regional identities that our relatively asymmetric system has protected. There is no reason to say that we can’t continue to get rid of the worst excesses with devolution, whether it be creating a single Police force, or letting some local councils pool resources to make efficiency savings. And Westminster has allowed Scotland to do as it sees fit in the past in terms of local government (even if that meant cutting two of its largest cities off at the knees through the removal of their respective tax bases).

Except it not really facile. The dogs dinner that is the provision of our local services speaks not only to the death rattle of the British Empire, but to a much deeper problem – that of a deeply centralised British state that (in all of the UK) never seems unduly bothered about a lack of engagement in local democracy, because it knows the prospect of reorganising it would be too gargantuan a task to even consider. I accept that France too is, for different reasons, over centralised, but institutionally there exists the mechanism for power to be moved away from the centre.

Pre-devolution, the passive-aggressive relationship between (Labour and Tory) Scotland Offices and (soft nationalist) Labour councils led to the formation of a local government system that was already fairly different to the one in the rest of the UK. Holyrood came along in 1999 and added 129 politicians often drawn from the ranks of local government, who have succeeded not only in allowing the most cunning and idle of our 72 MPs to fade into half-cut obscurity, but also further confused any idea we had of who did what.

Many people have pointed out that MSPs are doing things that would be much better done at a local level without proposing exactly what could be done about it – so indulge me for a moment: the simplest and most efficient way to stop this happening would be writing down what the jobs of each respective layer of government are on a piece of paper and calling it a constitution. The UK doesn’t have anything to do with such things, so if you’re like me and get peevish about inconsistent information about Scotland contained online, you’re most likely to get it in 2016, after a yes vote.

So, indulge me even further: why don’t we make this constitution split Scotland up into 8 regions. (Let’s just make them the Scottish Parliament regions for now, that’s easiest) Each of these regions would be split up into Burghs (many of which still exist if you know where to look) and then these into Districts. (for which a catchier Scots or Gaelic word must surely exist) The Constitution would deal with which jobs each would have have, and make sure the relations with each were as rational as possible. I could draw a diagram, but I’m sure you get the picture.

Districts would be administered by voluntary, Community Councils, for which there exist some encouraging models; and the Burghs and Regions by directly elected members, who would be paid a bit more than out existing councillors in order to fulfil a dual mandate.

Each would know its relation to the other, and also to the national parliament at Holyrood – real democracy would come closer to the people, and I’d never get annoyed by another drop-down menu again. All from one piece of paper – Quality.

This piece first appeared on the 2016 Wish Tree blog in October 2013

Dutch Lessons

The World Cup started in a normal fashion for me this year. The team I was supporting didn’t have high expectations – but then they went and beat the reigning champions 5-1 in the opening game, and my world was turned upside down: I was living in a country that actually believed it could win the competition. In the end, the Oranje had to make do with a second successive semi final – and their fifth overall: not bad for a country with a fraction of the population of the other semi finalists.

Now, those of you familiar with Dutch football, having read Simon Kuper’s Ajax, the Dutch, the War; or David Winner’s Brilliant Orange would have recognised the tactical astuteness and versatility that brought Louis van Gaal’s unheralded elftal so far: their determination and abilities underlined by the performance of veteran Dirk Kuijt, usually a striker, but who played in some five or six positions over the course of the tournament. The manager, now moved on to Manchester United, is direct, headstrong and has an unshakeable faith in his own abilities, along with a terrible tan: embodying the best virtues of the Dutch nation, and also its football team.

Students of Dutch football history will know that they weren’t always this great: the Eredivisie only became fully professional in the late 1960s, as a new era was heralded by the Ajax Amsterdam club, and a young man from the working class Jordaan district, Johan Cruijff. How did they change it around so quickly? Simon Kuper has a theory he puts forward in Soccernomics: Because the Netherlands was such a small country, with no real league of its own, coaches and players were forced to go abroad to find work, to the largest European leagues at the time.

They came back having learned from the different footballing cultures they had encountered, and assimilated them into their styles back home. The 1970s were also a time when the Netherlands began to receive TV signals from abroad, and thus Match of the Day on the BBC, and its German equivalent, were beamed into homes, long before the age of satellite television. Smallness, and having to look beyond their borders was transformed from a strength into a weakness.

It’s a common thread throughout Dutch history. That famously flat landscape is also very easy to invade, and a tiny upstart has been frequently at war with its three large neighbours: England, France and Germany. It was unsustainable, and so the Dutch developed a culture of balancing their larger neighbours’ interests, trading and keeping friendly relations with them all. These flat lands are also exceptionally vulnerable to flooding, from its rivers and from the sea: but you rarely see any anymore, because these crafty Dutch decided to build the world’s largest system of flood defences, a modern wonder of the world. On the way became the world experts in water management – after the recent flooding in Somerset, the UK government’s first call was across the North Sea.

The more you look into it, the relative smallness of the Netherlands hasn’t held it back at all. It has turned vulnerabilities into strengths in many other ways too. The port of Rotterdam in the busiest in Europe, and fourth busiest in the world. Schipol airport is the fourth busiest, with seven runways, and connections for passengers and freight all over the world. It’s the world’s fifth largest exporter, and the Dutch are incredibly the world’s seventh biggest foreign investors, despite being only 61st in terms of population. I could go on, but you get the point.

Somehow, a small country, vulnerable to flooding, and with hardly any natural resources has become the fourth most developed state in the world, the most international, the thirteenth richest…yet incredibly, they work the fewest hours on the continent (29), and take some of the longest holidays each year – thanks to a system which ensures that flexible working, especially for women, is the norm.

I’m writing this on the very morning I return to Scotland to campaign for a Yes vote in the referendum next month. I’ve seen the frustration from friends on social media, and from other undecided or no voters, about the way that Yes Scotland frequently asserts that things will automatically be better, or that they bang on too much about how great it is to live in a small country, as if Northern Europe is Alex Salmond’s own private Narnia. Maybe these nay-sayers have a point, but I find it hard to see, because I’ve been living in a country like that for almost 2 years.

This point came crashing up to me when I was sitting in the dressing room at half time during a match for my Saturday football team. We were actually playing against Dirk Kuijt’s first club, the wonderfully named ‘Quick Boys’ from Katwijk, a shabby fishing port-cum-tourist resort near where I live in Leiden. The club had invested the money from his transfers wisely, and we were sitting in a spanking new dressing room in a huge complex built to house on of the 30 (!) or so adult teams that this small club from a small town was able to field every Saturday. As I looked around at my teammates, smoking, and talking about their hangovers, I realised that, despite the myth, the Dutch weren’t genetically programmed to be great footballers – they’d embraced knowledge and techniques from all over the world, and then gone out and built the facilities and the clubs, from the bottom up.
And its not just football. The Dutch have produced world class speed skaters, track stars, cyclists and tennis players, and their hockey and volleyball teams have won world championships and Olympic golds recently too. Size is not a barrier to ambition: in sport, in the economy, or in creating excellent infrastructure. And when your nose is small enough to see past the end of it, that can be a good thing too.

The Dutch like to say about themselves ‘God created the world, but the Dutch created the Netherlands‘. In Scotland, many still seem to be convinced that our terrible health outcomes, rampant inequality and consistently terrible football team is just God’s idea of a joke. Maybe I’ve let my love of the Netherlands blind me to how terrible a place it really is – and after all, what can we learn from a generally post-religious but formerly Calvinist majority / Catholic minority country with crap weather, a proud reputation for stinginess, and terrible cuisine revolving around sugar, fried things and worship of the potato?

A shorter version of this article first appeared on on 21 August 2014.

No Nationalism Please – We’re British

They say you should never meet your heroes – they never tell you the part about not listening to them talk about politics either. Last month, Simon Schama decided to turn his usually sensitive grasp of the sweep of time towards Scottish independence, or as he calls it ‘a catastrophe that somehow came about in our political sleep‘. (He has a way with words, that’s what I like about him)

In doing so, and repeating the same mantra this week, he illuminated a part of the #indyref that I’d been aware of, but unable to fully articulate, until recently – the fact that what is essentially a debate between two different nationalisms has been framed in such a way as to seem like the assault of a narrow (Scottish) nationalism on the ‘precious’, ‘splendid mess’ of (British) non-nationalism.

Most of the the discussion at present seems to be around whether Yes Scotland’s nationalism is either ‘ethnic’ or ‘civil’ (it is both, read Anthony Smith), after David Torrance’s elaborate piece of trolling in the Herald from April – a false battle which obscures the real point that no one is really discussing the debate as one between two nationalisms.

It only really hit me between the eyes when I read Schama describing ‘legions of die-stamp patriots – whether Nigel Farage of the UK Independence party, Russian President Vladimir Putin or Scotland’s own first minister, Alex Salmond – for whom similarity is identity‘ being unable to appreciate the beauty of: ‘a nation state whose glory over the centuries has been precisely that it does not correspond with some imagined romance of tribal singularity but has been made up of many peoples, languages, customs, all jumbled together within the expansive, inclusive British home‘.

Here was a statement that I’d seen countless times, in different guises, but never presented as beautifully as this – a foundation myth, but a very modern, very British one. The United Kingdom is different, it says. It is a nation, but above nationalism. Now, as foundation myths go, it is pretty good, certainly more believable than the Hungarian one about Csodaszarvas, the magic deer and Turul, the giant falcon bringing the Magyars to Central Europe, but one that is as replete with the invented traditions or imagined communities that Hobsbawm and Anderson wrote about – and don’t just listen me, even the LSE politics blog got in on the act this morning.

What made me most upset was the fact that it was Simon Schama writing this – a man who is no slouch as a historian (some people think he’s terribly populist, just because he’s on the telly) letting his nationalist sentiments get in the way of the evidence. This is a man who knows that the UK isn’t unique as multicultural, inclusive jumble in Europe, because he first made his name writing about the French Revolution. A revolution that was of course the basis for popular sovereignty over divine rule, but it was indeed popular sovereignty over a land made of many peoples, languages and customs, that was still to be united.

He will surely have read Eugen Weber’s classic Peasants into Frenchmen, about the struggle of the French Third Republic, after the farce of the Franco-Prussian war, to bring the assorted Breton, Catalan, Alsatian, Occitain, Provençal and speakers of innumerable patois into an inclusive French home – an idea probably embodied best by General de Gaulle’s ‘How can you govern a country which has two hundred and forty-six varieties of cheese?‘.

The more you read about large, modern nation states, the more you realise that they’ve all had a hard time making ‘E pluribus unum‘. I’m sure Schama knows this – he will have read about the difficulties of bringing Protestant Prussia and Catholic Bavaria into a united Germany, and how the most destructive nationalism in history was born in order to find a way to unite them around a singularly German gemeinschaft. He will know about the way Southern Italians feel betrayed that their once great capitals of Naples and Palermo saw their riches literally stripped and wheeled off to fill the coffers of a national, Italian, bank further north, laying the seeds of an inequality that exists to this day. Even (whisper it) ‘die-stamp patriots’ like Putin preside over diverse, multi-faith, multi-ethic states. And while he may be a chauvinist and a homophobe, I don’t think he’d give up Europe’s largest Muslim population to make a smaller Russia more ethnically Russian and Orthodox.

And while it would be correct to say that Scots in the United Kingdom are not like Tatars in the Russian Federation (because the Tatars get to keep more oil money, boom-boom), and I for one have been grateful that we have been held in a more benign grip, never tiring of reminding people when abroad that Scotland was never conquered by force, but willingly entered into an Act of Union. But the United Kingdom wasn’t even the first to do that – the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth beat it by 30-odd years.

Now, I actually agree with David Torrance about our own little foundation myth – that an independent Scotland will be automatically a fairer place than at present. We must not be complacent in thinking that a rebranded Scottish right-of-centre party won’t gain more votes than its present incarnation – but I don’t agree with him when he said in that piece in April that ‘British Unionism…by and large, does not attempt to occupy the moral high ground.‘ The foundation myth that says the UK is above nationalism because it is, in some ways, supra-national, isn’t just occupying the moral high-ground, its building fortifications around the moral high-ground to make sure no one else can get onto it.

Critiques of nationalism tend to hit a brick wall when you consider that the world is solely composed of nation-states, and any attempt at finding an alternative has not ended well. That doesn’t make what Hobsbawm, or Gellner, or Anderson wrote any less true, because belief in, or a sense of belonging to a nation is irrational. Following that logic, sadness at the demise of a nation is just as irrational as loving that nation. That’s why I was so disappointed to read the article from Schama, and hear the same logic from others – because while I might expect such intellectual sloppiness from the @UKaForceForGood guy, I didn’t expect it from one of our greatest living Historians.

In short, we’re dealing with a campaign making hard-to-substantiate claims about the future, against a campaign making hard-to-substantiate claims about the past. Recently we’ve had the last two British Prime Ministers invoking the words of John Smith by saying that it is possible to be both Scottish, and part of something bigger, which, as British nationalists, they are bound to see the United Kingdom as. That that bigger United Kingdom is one of the most unequal societies in the Western world is unacceptable to me, and means I’ll be voting to be part of something smaller, but fairer. I get to be part of something bigger, because I want that fairer Scotland to be playing a full part in the European Union, not sniping from the cheap seats. That is my foundation myth – and I’m sticking to it.

A shorter version of this article appeared on on 14 July 2014