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Archive for the ‘Politics’ Category

Some things should be beyond politics

ImageThis afternoon I am going to watch the Dalai Lama deliver a speech at the Caird Hall in Dundee. I am not a Buddhist, I have to confess I don’t know a whole lot about Buddhism, but like the Pope, the Dalai Lama is someone you feel impelled to listen to despite not being a follower of his religion: you get the feeling that he might just say something that springs a light somewhere in the recesses of your mind. Maybe that’s just me. It’s just as likely that by visiting the Dalai Lama you have added another interesting anecdote to be recited at family dinners, weddings, or in awkward, boastful chit-chat.

This article isn’t really about the Dalai Lama, however. It’s about the way in which his visit has been politicised by certain members of Scotland’s political community. The SNP have not rolled out the red carpet, Alex Salmond has not returned early from a promotional trip to the US, and Nicola Sturgeon has, apparently, so shamefully not stepped in to welcome the Dalai Lama on our dear leader’s behalf. And Dundee City Council, the Lord Provost in particular, are – apparently – ‘panda’ ing to the Chinese. This is what Scottish Lib Dem Leader Willie Rennie would have you believe.


Now, away from Willie Rennie’s fanciful projection of the world, what is really going on? The Dalai Lama is not on a state visit. Indeed, the Prime Minister nor anyone else from Westminster have met him, clearly accepting that this visit is ‘pastoral’ in nature. This is not a visit about Tibet, about Scotland’s relationship with a wide and diverse religious community, or about anything that would warrant the attention of politicians. In fact, I would go as far to say that politicians’ involvement would have detracted from the nature of the Dalai Lama’s visit.

Willie Rennie’s attacks have been most cutting towards the role – or, in his view, lack of a role – played by Dundee City Council. A relative of the Lord Provost tragically passed away this week, and yet Rennie has seen fit to lambast the Provost for not speaking at the event. Admittedly, Rennie has retracted a little and widened his attacks to the Council at large, but is this unfeeling, undignified jab at a man in grief indicative of Scotland’s political community? Are we so tribal that even the death of an opponent’s loved one can be used as legitimate political capital?

I can see it now. The Lib Dem’s PR agent hunched over the morning news stories and then, EUREKA, the SNP are not meeting the Dalai Lama. We can score points on this one. A little, quivering voice perhaps interjected that this was not entirely fair, pointed out the true nature of the Dalai Lama’s visit, and the circumstances surrounding the Lord Provost’s withdrawal from the event. But the desire to point score, even in the most severe and unfeeling of manners, overruled.

As I said at the beginning of this article, this is not about the Dalai Lama. And it is not to say I am entirely right, perhaps the Chinese have applied a little pressure on the SNP not to make more of the Dalai Lama’s visit than is necessary. But I’m sure I am not the only one to find Willie Rennie’s attacks on the SNP and, particularly, the Lord Provost, as more than a little unsavoury.


Who cares what happened all those years ago?

On the 3rd October, 2011, I wrote an article for Scotland’s best political blog, Betternation, entitled, ‘The use and abuse of history in the independence debate: calling all historians to the table’. In it, I made the case for Scottish historians to step up and play a part in the independence debate, if for no other reason than to debunk the myths which abound on either side of the argument. ‘Too wee, too stupid’, may seem like an outdated argument from the unionist camp, and some of you will revile at this characterisation of their position, but it is an argument that is continually employed. And harking back to the brave Scots’ patriots, the corruption and bribery of those who voted for union, and the Gaelic, Dalriada myth from the pro-independence side may, again, appear glib. But it is harked to again and again. It might often be subtle, but our national myths – our historical narrative – may I even say, ‘Scotland’s story’ – provides the framework for so many of the constitutional debates which are currently taking place in our native land. In fact, in many ways, all political parties are involved in trying to shape a story of Scotland in which they are placed into the centre of the narrative. Just think about the SNP’s claim of being, ‘Scotland’s party’. And if one takes a look at Scottish Labour’s website which has had a cosmetic make-over since the election of Johann Lamont as their leader, then you will notice that little has changed, but the saltire has been emblazoned across it like a jingoistic and slightly eccentric uncle at a family wedding.

Just a couple of days ago, on the 19th March, a historian answered my call. Boston College PHD student, Craig Gallagher, made his contribution on Betternation in an article entitled, ‘The challenge of historical preconceptions’. In it, he argued that the Darien Scheme – Scotland’s failed attempt at setting up a colony – was far more complex than the simplistic glorious failure that is so often portrayed, and as it appears in the collective consciousness of modern Scots. Gallagher claims that Darien is often harkened to as an example of what happens when the Scots are left to their own devices. In effect, the unionists cry, Scotland needs England, Scotland is indeed, ‘Too wee, too stupid’. In the comments thread, unionists and nationalists (note the small ‘n’) alike became rather heated in their responses to one another. You could be forgiven for dismissing this as the usual crass and offensive to-and-fro of political anoraks who have nothing better to do than traipse over the same old ground; over and over again. But there is something deeper going on here. If you take the time to really think about it, these are the battles – the exchanges of words – between two markedly different Scottish identities. This is not a new phenomenon and, as I argue in much of my research, it is perceptible throughout the seventeenth century. But recognising the independence debate as, at least in part, a confliction of rival identities, will, in my opinion, allow us to better understand what is going on. And if you’re partisan, as this writer is, then it may – just may – allow us to frame arguments from our respective camps which tap into the bigger picture; into the real reason certain people find the whole debate so inflammatory.

So what am I saying here. Well, not terribly much. I welcome Craig Gallagher’s contribution and commend him for what was an excellent article. I also recognise the rival Scottish identity which is currently entrenching itself, each day feeling a little more surrounded by those who would so quickly wrap themselves in a saltire. Most importantly, however, I’m making another impassioned argument for the importance of history. There is a reason why we find alzheimers – or for that matter, any other disorder where one loses their memory – so terrifying. Primarily because without memory, without a history, we are no longer who we believe ourselves to be, we are stripped of our identity. This is why history is so important in all aspects of our lives and particularly important to the ongoing Scottish constitutional debate. I just hope more historians follow Gallagher’s lead.

Cameron must be on the pay roll

Me in Lanzarote

It’s once again been awhile since my last post, but I hope you can understand the Christmas holidays are hardly conducive to blogging. In the intervening period I have been back in Scotland, have taken a jaunt to the Canary Islands for New Year, and I am now back in the cold, rather dark, fairly bleak, but surprisingly welcoming Uppsala. After the events of late last year my head is a little more, ‘back in the game’. So bring on some history, a bit of blogging, and my half-hearted attempts at learning the lingo.

But I have a little confession. It’s not events in Sweden that have caught my interest this week, but rather the tumultuous roller-coaster that is the run-in to the independence referendum.

I am somewhat out of the loop in my self-imposed exile. The occasional glance at the British media tells me things are hotting up back home, and my former flat mate has gone ‘super-nat’ on me with his updates from his own little exile in Belfast. It’s funny how it’s the nats I know who have left Scotland. Anyway, as Gary put it, we’ll be flocking back before 2014.


David Cameron and Alex Salmond

Well, for the independence referendum of course. Westminster have decided to intervene in Scotland’s constitutional quagmire and I am left thinking that David Cameron must be on the SNP payroll – or at very least Salmond has something juicy on him. Why would a Tory Prime Minister believe it a good idea to tell the Scots what to do? Because let’s be honest, that is what he has attempted. And what has been the result, a surge in support for independence and a sky-rocketing in the level of new recruits to the SNP. The whole affair has shown the utter ignorance that Westminster MPs have of Scottish public feeling and sensibilities. Or rather, the ignorance of the Tories. I still believe the Liberal Democrats have a little more awareness, but having sold their souls, they are left tagging along behind their blue masters like some pathetic wretch – images of Nick Cleg merged with Gollum come to mind.

What of Labour? Well Tom Harris MP decided to make a video parodying Alex Salmond as Hitler – now that was a wise move. At no point did he stop and take a breath, have even the slightest of clarity, and realise this was going to back-fire big time. Ed Miliband has done, well, nothing other than coalesce London-Labour’s position to the Tories. And Johann Lamont (the Scottish Labour leader for those who don’t know) has been less than clear. In fact, her press statement – all the more worrying because it must have been written by a communications team – left anyone who heard it rather confused, certainly less clear on Labour’s position than when she started muttering, and let’s face it, a whole lot less intelligent for having had to endure the speech.

I can almost imagine the conversations that occurred in Westminster a few weeks ago. First between the cabinet, then some calls from staffers making sure all London parties were singing from the same song-sheet. It’s almost possible to hear David Cameron saying,

‘We need to have a full frontal assault on the SNP.’

‘Let’s force them into a corner.’

‘We can outsmart those Scots, they’re just jumped up councillors after all.’

‘I mean, who gives a damn about Scotland, but we need to keep them in the UK: there’s all that oil and what if we were forced off the security council?’

Salmond, for his part, has run rings around Westminster this week. The SNP have played an absolute blinder. There is of course a lot more two-and-fro to come. There will be times that independence looks inevitable, and times when the union looks stronger than it ever has.

These are the musing of an outsider, a patient – and sometimes not so patient – observer. But one thing is for sure, I’ll be out knocking the doors with the best of them. Westminster has thus far underestimated the SNP. I think they may have learnt their lesson this week. But then, never underestimate the ignorance, contempt, and sheer egoism of Cameron et al. They would do well to note that this is the moment the SNP was born for. But then, I would rather they continue the way they’re going.

Humanities are a thing of the past

A humanities student in Sweden is worth a third of a science student. This may sound like a provocative statement but in cash terms it is completely accurate. The humanities are suffering from chronic underinvestment not only in Sweden, but across the West. Harvard President Drew Gilpin Faust recently noted, that we have ‘eroded our support for humanities‘ and that ’emphasis on the short term can mean especially painful cuts for disciplines whose value, though harder to measure, is no less real.’

Anyone involved in Higher Education is aware of this issue but seem either unwilling, or unable, to counter this trend. As Scottish universities try to survive with less funds, senior management teams have looked first to the humanities to make savings. There are no headlines of ‘Life Science Department to lose 100 members of staff’, ‘University axes partnership with pharmaceutical company’, or ‘Professor of Signal Transduction role made obsolete’. But in the UK as a whole, we have seen Middlesex University terminate its philosophy department, Sussex limit their history scope to post-1900, and the only British Professor of Palaeography role removed from existence.

You will not be seeing the University of Edinburgh History Department going into partnership with an arms manufacturer or pharmaceutical company, and perhaps herein lies the problem. Economic short-sightedness and a fetish with the present, has seen universities elevate science over the humanities. There has been an intellectual attack upon the humanities, to the extent that I have witnessed humanities’ students themselves downplaying their degrees. I will not get into mud slinging contests with the sciences – because that would paradox the intentions of this article – but we must try and take a broader perspective when considering the societal, economic, and cultural benefits of all academic disciplines. A doctor saves a life, that is a real benefit. A scientist discovers a new immunisation, that is a real benefit. History, philosophy, and political science can help to frame legislation to alleviate causes of poverty, sectarianism, war, and provide the tools to explore the big questions of who we are and where we fit into the world. Harder to measure, but these are real benefits.

Universities who fail to understand this equation, in admittedly testing times, run the risk of undermining the essence of what a university is. Rather than fostering a desire for discovery and knowledge, they become engine rooms – laboratories motivated simply by producing the next multi-million pound drug. Harvard, Oxford, Cambridge, and the other elite universities understand this. But we risk a situation where the study of the humanities becomes the playground of only the very rich.

There is, however, one country who better understands the future and necessary balance of Higher Education: China. Whilst their growth in the sciences has been noted, sneaking in under the radar is unprecedented investment in the humanities. At institutions which have hitherto been the domain of the sciences, the Chinese are restructuring to bring in the humanities. One such example is Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou who have introduced a liberal arts college. Two thirds of students in China currently study science, a mirror image of the UK where two thirds study humanities, and perhaps as we try to balance – and risk outweighing the other side – so the Chinese are looking to balance their graduate output. Although I’m inclined to think more is going on here.

China is emerging as a super-power (if not already there) and have emulated the West in many areas. But in some distinct ways they are emulating our strength of fifty years ago. They seem to understand that a price tag cannot tell you the true worth of everything. So, to bring hope and ambition to their populace, the Chinese have spent billions on developing a space program which includes a manned lunar station by 2020 and this week saw the launching of their space station. They join America and Russia as the only other countries to have achieved this unilaterally. The Chinese also understand that to develop a strong society which is aware of its heritage and its potential future, so it must invest in the humanities.

We may scoff at the Chinese lack of democracy, human rights record, or other aspects of their culture which we find worrying. But one thing is for sure, they are not so quick to destroy their cultural and historical hearts – the humanities departments of universities.

Home Sickness

It’s only been a couple of days since my last post, so I’ll keep this brief. Homesickness is in no way what I expected. It’s rather like any time in your life when people you care about move away, or perhaps you’re really busy and don’t have the time to do the things you would like to do. I miss Irn Bru, Dundee United, my friends, girlfriend, family, and general calamity of life in Scotland. The hardest part is feeling that you are out of the loop, somehow life seems to move on without you and you’re stuck static. Whilst none of that is true, it’s how it feels during the increasingly long, creepingly cold, nights.

This post is really a shout out. I’ve always been a bit of a political anorak, so I was delighted to be introduced to the blog BetterNation last year. Whilst watching the election results trickle in on that fateful eve in May; Iain, Andrew, Gary, and myself were glued to BetterNation for a bit of analysis. Gary and I (the two SNP members in the room) were apprehensive to believe what we were seeing, we couldn’t risk the notion that a majority could be possible, lest it disappear in front of our eyes. We needed affirmation from our favourite political blog.

Now that I’m in Sweden a helpful alleviation of that, ‘I’m out of the loop feeling’, is to follow BetterNation. Ironically, the authors of BetterNation are ex-pats themselves, exiled in London for their sins. But it helps me keep track of the goings on in Holyrood. So thanks.

Do you think there’s enough links in this post? Here’s one more for good measure: http://www.betternation.org/





Inside the pro-Palestinian campaign

On the 1st September the Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra played the BBC proms concert in the UK. For the first time in its history, the BBC had to cease broadcasting due to protests in the hall. In an article in the Telegraph, Steven Pollard slammed the protests as ‘anti-semitic’ and described

‘an air of Weimar Germany, and the way Nazi party members broke up meetings.’

Having been involved in the student protests against the Israeli bombardment of Gazza in 2009, I have an intimate knowledge of the pro-Palestinian campaign. Like many people, I was shocked by the scenes on our televisions as the Israelis indiscriminately targeted schools, hospitals, and the basic infrastructure of an already pitiful land. And like many involved in the protests, my disgust and contempt was borne out of human compassion. I’ve shared a stage with Hajo Meyer, surviver of Auschwitz and anti-Israeli campaigner, and I invited George Galloway to speak about Palestine at Dundee University. I’ve been outraged at the ‘anti-semitic’ label being thrown about; a seemingly reasonable defence, but really a way to avoid any criticism of Israeli policy. But I have also seen the darker side of the pro-Palestinian campaign, because the label ‘pro-Palestinian’ is not a reasonable description. Rather, ‘anti-Israeli’ would be closer to the mark.

Hajo Meyer

Anti-semites, left-wing extremists, and Islamic fundamentalists take shelter under the umbrella which also includes those, like myself, who merely wish to see a peaceful resolution to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. This campaign is often likened to the South African anti-apartheid movement. But where South African sport was isolated on the world stage because of its racist rules – all white teams were mandatory – the protests against the Israeli Orchestra are different. These protests attack and disrupt the performance of a musical group not because of racist rules, or any actions of those involved in the orchestra, but because the members are citizens of Israel and children of Abraham. To avoid the term ‘anti-semitic’ would be duplicitous.

When Hamas launch rockets into Israel, or Israeli settlers are murdered by Palestinian ‘martyrs’, it is not good enough for the pro-Palestinian campaign to maintain silence. For the campaign to have any credibility it must outright condemn these actions, realising that every rocket that lands in Israel makes our argument less sustainable and on the wrong side of morality. When drunken fools racially attack an Israeli student in St. Andrews, the pro-Palestinian campaign must stand shoulder to shoulder with that young victim, turn away from the perpetrators, and welcome their criminal convictions. Because if the pro-Palestinian movement is to have any credibility, it must be built upon the foundations of anti-racism, human decency, and pragmatism.

These will be unsavoury words to those involved in the campaign. Like many left-wing movements, it characteristically lacks self-criticism or inner dialogue. But to have a future, to continue to argue for a peaceful solution, where Jew, Arab, and others can live side by side in equality, then these issues must be addressed.