Brexit: a depressing day

Today is a depressing day for those of us who believe in European integration.

In marking the day, I posted six photos on Instagram from a visit last week to the northern European city of Schwerin, where trade, religion and art from all across northern Europe has characterised the city and the people. All six are reposted below.

The Westminster government is putting all such connections for the UK at risk, and whilst parliaments/assemblies in Edinburgh, Belfast, and Cardiff may yet help their people retain those connections, in England, there are few such prospects, it seems to me.

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Alasdair Codona and Scottish homelessness

Feasgar math h-uile duine – that’s the Gaelic for “good evening everyone”. The first Gaelic speaker I ever met was a music student at Aberdeen called Alasdair Codona. A warm and engaging individual, I shared a flat with Alasdair for a while, before moving closer to the university. We saw each other regularly as we were both involved in the Student Christian Movement, but after I graduated, I lost touch with him. Perhaps, subconsciously, my efforts to try and learn Gaelic now have their origins in my encounter with Alasdair.

A few years ago, however, I saw him completely by chance late one night on BBC Alba, as I was channel-hopping. I don’t now remember what he was singing, but there are some clips available online, for example:

and this one with Jenna Cumming:

and another song with her:

Here he is singing one of his own compositions about Calum Cille (Saint Columba of Iona):

Do take a few minutes to listen to these if you don’t know Alasdair’s music already. Also, if you’ve ever sung ‘Forgiveness is your gift’ in church (no. 361 in the Church Hymnary, 4th Edition, 2005), you’ll see it’s a Skye folk melody arranged by Alasdair.

I wrote to BBC Alba after seeing him on TV, seeking to get in touch with Alasdair, but he never heard from them. And then two evenings ago a friend, Déirdre Ní Mhathúna, not realising that I knew Alasdair, contacted me on Facebook with her page about him: he is on hunger strike, protesting homelessness legislation. The Daily Record newspaper has already run stories about him, but I had missed these: 23.12. and 24.12.

I went to Edinburgh today to meet him, and spent two hours sitting outside the Parliament chatting – we reconnected immediately, and spent some time reminiscing about Aberdeen days, and he then described some of what he has been trying to do. Having experienced homelessness, he has tried to lobby Members of the Scottish Parliament and councillors to change key parts of the Housing (Scotland) Act 1987, which define who is homeless and give enormous leeway to officials to block people from accessing services to which they would otherwise be entitled. In particular, not having a fixed address of course hinders all kinds of access to services, even to basic ones such as the Post Office Card Account (ironically, run by JP Morgan!). Alasdair feels that he now has no choice but to seek to pressure the Scottish Government to address these issues through his own body, hence the hunger strike, now into the third week.

How you can help

If you live in Scotland, do contact one of your MSPs, especially if you have a connection to one of them or you see that they are on e.g. the Local Government and Communities Committee, or the Social Security Committee. You might ask if they will meet with Alasdair – he is quite literally on their doorstep! – and address the concerns he has. Given the nature of his action, this is obviously urgent. It appears parliament is only in session again from 10.1. – but some MSPs may well be around the Parliament before then.

Wherever you live, a suggestion is emerging about setting up a Scottish Parliamentary petition and anyone can sign such petitions, whether they live in Scotland or not. Do join Déirdre’s Facebook page and follow the updates there for news and possible actions that might be taken.

Finally, if you are in Edinburgh, maybe go and visit Alasdair and offer your encouragement and support – though be aware he is weakening all the time, and you may not be able to stay for long.

Judy Murray and her tennis proposal at Park of Keir

Judy Murray has helped her sons to become world stars in tennis, and is keen to support others who might want to play too. This is very understandable.

She wants to push through a proposal to create a tennis centre at Park of Keir near Dunblane. Unfortunately for her, locals are strongly opposed to the proposal, as the BBC reported: “There were more than 1,000 objections to the scheme and only 45 in support.” Stirling Council refused planning permission for her scheme.

She and her financial backers decided to ignore the views of local people and the Council’s planning committee, and have taken their case to the Scottish government.

If this is beginning to sound familiar, that’s because you may be thinking: “didn’t Donald Trump do the same thing at Menie in Aberdeenshire?” – and, of course, the answer is that yes, he did.

Ms Murray does not like this comparison, as a Twitter exchange with her today shows. It began when I added a comment to a tweet from Andy Wightman MSP (click the images to see the original tweets):

Andy Wightman tweets about Judy Murray

Andy Wightman tweets about Judy Murray

My tweet, with Judy Murray’s reply:

My tweet, with Judy Murray's reply

I did, of course, respond, with the BBC link above:

My reply to Judy Murray

My reply to Judy Murray

I have had no reply. I understand that she might not like being compared to Donald Trump, but as Andy Wightman notes, she really is pursuing similar tactics.For more information from the local campaign group opposing her plans, see Protect Park of Keir, who say:

What this decision is definitely not about is whether Scotland would benefit from a new tennis centre. Of course the country would benefit from this. But to sacrifice Park of Keir for this purpose is to suggest it is the only place available. Of course it isn’t. There are countless brown field sites that could be used. But there is only one Park of Keir. It has stood here undeveloped since the last ice age. Once it has gone it will be gone forever.

Walter Roberts and 100 years of British militarism

Today is the anniversary of Walter Roberts’ death: 1895-1916.

Roberts studied architecture and was a Christian pacifist and socialist; his brother Alfred was also a conscientious objector. He refused to fight in World War One, but was not granted conscientious objector status by the British state. He was imprisoned in Wormwood Scrubs before being sent to a labour camp in Aberdeenshire where he was forced to work in a quarry in Dyce, breaking rocks for 10 hours a day. Camp conditions were terrible and inmates were not looked after properly: exposure to incessant rain in inadequate clothing and living under leaky canvas (probably left over from the South African War of 1899-1902) meant a cold rapidly developed into pneumonia and Roberts died within five days of arrival. The Dyce camp was closed as a result of his death; it is now a car park for Aberdeen airport.

Walter Roberts (photo via Peace Pledge Union, from the article in the Manchester Evening News - click image to read it)

Walter Roberts (photo via Peace Pledge Union, from the article in the Manchester Evening News – click image to read it)

Many courageous men and women resisted the drive to war alongside Roberts: another notable campaigner was Catherine Marshall, who developed her campaigning skills in the suffragette movement. In World War One she became the Honorary Secretary for the No-Conscription Fellowship as a result of her campaigning talents (though we might reasonably assume that she was in part also appointed to this role because the male leaders of the NCF were constantly being imprisoned by the British state). Amongst other things, Marshall successfully campaigned to save the lives of numerous conscientious objectors in France that the British state had intended to execute. She argued: ‘… all the horrors of war … do violence to the whole spirit of civilisation, the whole teaching of Christianity…’ (PPU, p4).

These conscientious objectors were tremendously courageous individuals – opposing the public mood of the time, which was overwhelmingly pro-war, would have been very difficult. The public mood in Britain has long continued to be broadly pro-war, no doubt arising from continual military engagement overseas for over 100 years. No other country in recent times has been at war for this long, and it is only possible because the public mood allows politicians to get away with pursuing continual war. In other words, the public needs to be either ignorant of what is being done in their name, or seduced into accepting militarism as a viable tool of international diplomacy (which recent British governments have all clearly believed to be the case). I was reminded of this by an article published today by Ian Cobain entitled Britain’s Secret Wars. He begins with an account of British soldiers fighting in Vietnam immediately after World War Two (26,000 men with 2,500 vehicles and air support committing horrific acts of brutality – but hardly discussed in public):

Back in the UK, parliament and the public knew next to nothing about this war, the manner in which it was being waged, or Britain’s role in it. And it appears that the cabinet and the War Office wished their state of ignorance be preserved.

Regarding Britain’s long-standing military engagement, Cobain goes on to say (my emphasis):

For more than a hundred years, not a single year has passed when Britain’s armed forces have not been engaged in military operations somewhere in the world. The British are unique in this respect: the same could not be said of the Americans, the Russians, the French or any other nation.

Only the British are perpetually at war.

It is hardly a surprise that much of Britain is completely desensitised to the militarism that the state propagates (nor is it a surprise many people argued the British state’s militarism was a key motivation in seeking Scottish independence in 2014). Britain is one of the world’s most militarily aggressive states – a rogue state, by many definitions.

We do well, therefore, to recall with gratitude the courage and commitment of those who resist this militarism, whether this be people in the past such as Walter Roberts and Catherine Marshall, or those today who resist the relentless drive to war and the state’s dedication to illegal weapons of mass destruction, such as:

The most appropriate way to honour Roberts, Marshall, and all who suffered as a result of their pacifist convictions is undoubtedly to support those opposing war today.


Postscript: a few hours after posting this blog, I read an excellent piece by Louis Allday in the Monthly Review: The Imperial War Museum in London: A Lesson in British state propaganda. I would have included this in the main text had I read it sooner. If you want to better understand how the British state encourages its militarism, this is a good place to start.

Brexit – what next? Thinking about the outcome.

I regard the referendum outcome to leave the EU as a disaster for many reasons, as will be clear from my last blog posting, written shortly before the vote. I’ll maybe write something short about my reaction to the outcome in the coming days.

Brexit: what happens next? Click to download the report.

Brexit: what happens next? Click to download the report.

In the meantime, the report from the House of Commons Library makes for fascinating reading (tweeted in the early hours of 25.6.16).

There are countless useful resources here, such as this note (p12) about devolution and how this situation may affect Scotland, citing Sionaidh Douglas-Scott:

It would still be necessary to amend the relevant parts of devolution legislation. But this would be no simple matter and could lead to a constitutional crisis. Although the UK Parliament may amend the devolution Acts, the UK government has stated that it will not normally legislate on a devolved matter without the consent of the devolved legislature. This requires a Legislative Consent Motion under the Sewel Convention. However, the devolved legislatures might be reluctant to grant assent, especially as one feature of the ‘Vow’ made to the Scottish electorate was a commitment to entrench the Scottish Parliament’s powers, thus giving legal force to the Sewel Convention. So the need to amend devolution legislation renders a UK EU exit constitutionally highly problematic.

Section 7 on the future options for Scotland are also very interesting for me (pp17-19), given that England (and to some extent Wales) voted to leave, but Scotland voted overwhelmingly to stay. It will be for Holyrood and Nicola Sturgeon’s government to chart a course through this situation; I am confident that she and her allies in Holyrood will do this well. Her speech after the referendum indicates as much:

I think it is safe to say that independence for Scotland looks much more likely in the meantime.

Sleepless in Stuttgart, Stockholm, Stirling…

The stupid EU referendum that the Conservative Party have called is causing me – quite literally – sleepless nights. The danger that too many people, especially in England, are falling for the lies peddled by the demagogues controlling the right-wing press, is deeply worrying.

As so many have done, I grew up and live as a European:

  • my mother is from Germany, my father is from Britain;
  • I have both passports, and have lived in both states;
  • I am married to a someone from Germany who has a German passport, but has lived and worked here since the early 1990s;
  • our son has both passports and like his parents speaks both English and German fluently;
  • my wife’s family all live in Germany;
  • my parents, who both now have only British passports, have retired to Germany, and can do that because of reciprocal healthcare arrangements and the like;
  • we visit family in Germany with ease – in fact, my wife is visiting her sister in Hamburg right now.
My British and German passports

My British and German passports

I am very aware that purple passports are markers of incredible privilege in the global context – and having two means I can choose which one to use when, so I’m even more privileged than most! This freedom to travel is a privilege that I would rather everyone could share.

There have been many arguments against leaving because it would damage Britain’s interests (for example, I liked Carolyn Leckie’s take on this in yesterday’s National and Maggie Chapman’s recent piece on the fallacy behind the so-called Lexit). But it would also damage more than our direct economic or working interests. Given all that I have said about my family, Britain leaving would have profound personal consequences, many of them completely unpredictable, but it’s hard to see how any can be positive. And yet, all these things can be overcome, even if they would be difficult. For example, my parents after a lifetime of constant moving house (my father was in the British armed forces), have finally settled in Germany, but would almost certainly have to move back here – now in their mid-70s – when reciprocal healthcare arrangements end. It’s not great, but it can be done.

No, what worries me even more than the unfolding disaster for Britain or the personal difficulties I or my family might encounter is the complete unravelling of the European ideal (Jonathan Freedland elaborated on this in polemical form recently). Let me add to the family story:

  • my British grandfather (my father’s father, of Irish descent, marrying a woman from Peebles in southern Scotland, and eventually settling in Northumberland) fought in World War Two;
  • my German grandfather (my mother’s father, originally from the Saarland, near the present border with France, eventually settled in the Harz mountain area, later moving to Bonn) also fought in World War Two – on the opposite side.

When my parents wanted to get married, my mother’s father was reportedly somewhat sceptical about his daughter marrying a British man, and a soldier at that. But this did not last, and my father and my mother’s father developed a deep affection for one another over the years. My family is as dysfunctional as many, but it is also a great example of European integration, and the EU has – for all its faults, and I think they are many, as my MEPs will know from my emails and letters to them! – embodied much of that. We need structures, we need frameworks, we need patterns around which to build our lives, and the EU offers precisely that. The Brexiteers are wanting to throw all that away, and the readiness with which people are falling for their lies is what is causing me so many sleepless nights. I am, like so many of my generation and younger, a convinced European, right to my core (I often identify as European before I identify with any nation state):

We are the ones whose future will be most damaged by a vote for Brexit, sacrificed on the altar of Conservative Party internecine rivalry. That is unforgivable, and I’d go so far as to say it is a grave dishonour to all those who, like my two grandfathers, fought in World War Two and yet afterwards found ways to reconcile themselves to changed realities, even letting a daughter marry a descendant of the former enemy. Love across borders – what more powerful symbol can there be of what the European ideal is? And yet, we seem to be at risk of losing it all, in a mad headlong rush towards the Brexit cliff edge.

No wonder I’m having sleepless nights.

Eleven brief comments on the Scottish elections

Scotland Can... the Scottish Green Party's campaign banner

Scotland Can… the Scottish Green Party’s campaign banner

Eleven short comments on the Scottish election:

  1. I’m delighted my party did pretty well, electing 6 MSPs on various list votes, including Mark Ruskell in my own region. It is excellent news that Andy Wightman is now in the Scottish Parliament – serious land reform becomes more possible. I am very sorry that Maggie Chapman and Sarah Beattie-Smith in particular did not get elected.
  2. The SNP did amazingly well, in a system not designed for such large votes (156,000 more than last time). They polled more votes than Labour and the Tories together, and gained 59 constituency seats (previous record: 53 Labour in 1999, 53 SNP in 2011). Most of Scotland’s cities went to the SNP: Aberdeen, Dundee, Glasgow, Inverness, Perth, Stirling. It’s also very good to see that the percentage of women who were elected SNP MSPs has risen from 28% to 43% (we Greens have one woman out of six MSPs…).
  3. The Liberal Democrats did badly, though I wish they had not even won the constituency seats they had (especially Orkney and Shetland, given the scandal of a self-confessed liar in the form of Alastair Carmichael as the Westminster MP): although the LibDems have the same number of seats as before, their constituency vote is down to the lowest level they’ve ever had.
  4. Labour did disastrously badly: the lowest Labour vote in Scotland in living memory. I was at the Stirling count, and was shocked when sampling at how few Labour votes there were – it was clear early on that this was shaping up to be an awful night for them. I agree with Paul Mason to some extent: I cannot see how the Labour party can be relevant in Scotland again until they sever the link to Labour in London and realise that independence is the only way forward. They’ll sink further into irrelevance if they don’t do this. It probably has to happen within 2-3 years – half-way through this parliament – and be genuine. That is going to be tough. I don’t know if it can happen, or if Kezia Dugdale can manage to get her party to do that.
  5. The Conservatives did well in certain regards: it’s still a lower share of the vote than they had in the 1992 general election, but it has been effective, partly because they are clearly the party of the unionists: I suspect most of their support is not about welcoming the vicious policies the Tories espouse, but about wanting a solid unionist bulwark against the SNP. This will become apparent very soon: Ruth Davidson will get to be the first to ask questions at Holyrood’s First Minister Questions, and this gives the SNP a glorious opportunity to make Davidson defend, week after week after week, the pernicious effects of Tory Westminster policies on normal people in Scotland. Whilst Ruth Davidson is good at media stunts, Nicola Sturgeon is far more accomplished as a debater and will relish the challenge, I am sure, of attacking the Tories directly on such a regular basis. This has the potential to cause the Tories considerable harm.
  6. Rejoice: UKIP failed dismally across the board.
  7. Unsurprisingly, RISE did not rise. I still think most people will go for the Greens if they want a party of the clear left with environmental concerns.
  8. Although the SNP are the largest party, they cannot form a majority, so need an alliance. The only realistic party they can rely on are the Scottish Greens (seriously, the LibDems?!). Whilst I cannot see a formal coalition taking place (and the Greens’ co-convener isn’t expecting that either), having the SNP reliant upon SGP votes to get legislation through will help keep the SNP veering to the left. This is important, because an SNP majority with the Tories as second party would probably not do this as they would then pander to the right, the natural home of several SNP MSPs, such as Fergus Ewing. We know that most Yes campaigners and ergo most newer SNP members were to the left of the party’s elected representatives – we’ll see if that has changed as a result of this election – and a connection to the SGP will help to solidify that.
  9. I think it was a mistake for the SNP to try and push the #BothVotesSNP line so hard. It was entirely predictable, after the Westminster election last year, that the SNP would dominate the constituency vote, and that then means to achieve anything significant in the list requires an absolutely massive number of list votes (for my own region, Mid-Scotland and Fife, results were: Conservatives (4 list seats) 73,293, Green (one) 17,860, Labour (two) 51,373; SNP had 120,128 but no list seats). That was always unlikely given the diversity of list parties on offer, and whilst no party will ever say “don’t vote for us”, a more nuanced approach might have led to better results for the broad pro-independence parties and therefore let fewer Tories in. This is something many people tried to argue, but certain die-hard SNP-supporters have done themselves no favours by shouting such voices down. The Scottish parliament is not designed for majority government and I don’t think the system can be gamed to achieve that – as reputable psephologists such as John Curtice repeatedly explained – so the 2011 result should be seen as an anomaly and not an expectation.
  10. In some ways, the future appears to be like the past shortly before the Scottish parliament: the main opponents of Scottish independence (or even constitutional change) are the Tories. The choice, articulated as putative in the independence referendum by many on the Yes side, is now clear: independence or the Tories.
  11. The SNP cannot deliver independence on its own, as the 2014 referendum showed, based as it was largely on an SNP approach. For example, arguments for reducing Air Passenger Duty, blind support for oil and gas with no vision for change, keeping the United Kingdom’s monarchy etc. were not things that most Greens could fully subscribe to, and we therefore had to make complex arguments about all these things being proposals that could be decided upon after independence. There are many who argue this case (for example, here), and I broadly agree with that argument. However, the SNP connecting with the SGP as another clear pro-independence party will help in this regard, and make independence a surer prospect when the next referendum comes. And it will.

Edit 7.5.16:  added Mid-Scotland and Fife results to point 9.