The audacity of hope and the art of the possible

This is A Burdz Eye View’s 500th post.

Even I’m surprised that I’ve managed to find 500 things to witter on about, though I’m conscious of repeated witterings on some issues, that seem to be aye with us.

I’m also aware that I change my mind – frequently.  What I said about a particular topic last year might differ from the opinion proffered now.  That’s because sometimes, things change, not least my own mood and views.  On some things I’m pretty consistent, but the luxury of having lots of opinions is the ability to change some of them from time to time.  The fact that I’m a woman helps too.

The number of people who read the blog astonishes me.  Views per month regularly surpass 5000, and 138 folk receive every blogpost into their Inboxes, with hundreds more accessing it through RSS feeds and the like.  Most readers are from the UK, but I’m tickled that there are folk all around the world – many expats it seems – who drop by from time to time.  The regulars, readers and commenters alike, are appreciated hugely, especially when debates get going – constructive and respectful ones – on the comment thread.  I thank each and every one of you who gives up their time to read what I write.  It is humbling indeed.

So, this should be a zinging post then, to mark such an auspicious occasion.  But rather, it finds me in reflective mode:  milestones tend to have that effect.

I am not by nature one of life’s shiny, happy people.  I am the sort who worries away into the wee small hours over trivial and existential issues by turn.  What will happen in the Eurozone gets slotted away beside what we’re going to have for tea.  And I’m overly fond of seeing the glass as half-empty, partly because I always think that more can be achieved, if only we’d stop settling for half measures.  Yes, there’s a need for pragmatism – it’s been a long time since I sustained myself on ideals alone – but things can always be better surely.  What I’m conscious of is that this desire often translates on the page as nit-picking and doom-mongering.

Frankly, we’ve got a lot to be pessimistic about.  The sense of unease and uncertainty emanating from the Greeks as they go to the polls again today is palpable and should remind us that whatever we’ve not got here, at least we aren’t being forced to vote for our country’s downfall.  Choose anti-austerity and they will be bombed out of the Euro, left to fend economically and socially for themselves; stick with austerity and the extreme levels of poverty now commonplace will only get worse.  Of course, this election could prove a global tipping point, as doom-mongering headline writers have reminded us.  We’ve been here so many times before that it’s hard to take this seriously, but we’re not in a great place.

And we are still largely adrift politically, with no clear consensus and plan to get us out of this mess.  There are promising signs with the new French President in particular, promoting ideas like Euro bonds, and we may yet get a European wide financial transaction tax, despite the frothing of the Tory half of the UK government.  But here in the UK, we seem to think we can continue to hold back the tide, conveniently ignoring the fact that a huge chunk of our GDP and economic well-being depends on having European partners to trade with.  The Chancellor’s Mansion House speech was yet another in the revisionist style, blaming the Eurozone crisis for all our ills and thinking that the solution lies in throwing money – more of our money – at the banks, exhorting them to lend it on to businesses and individuals.  Just what we all need – more debt.

I often doubt that we’re really feeling the pinch here in Scotland.  Out for a curry with an old friend last week, I was struck – again – by how full the restaurant was.  It’s a common occurrence.  Check out any decent eatery, hostelry or cultural happening in the capital and it’s stowed.  And even in places hurting with higher unemployment, people are still out and about enjoying themselves.  Maybe, we’ve just decided to live for the moment and allow the future to take care of itself.  Manana is our new mantra.

Or maybe things are not quite as bad as they could be.  There are signs of roots and shoots in the Scottish economy, and it’s only when you read speech transcripts, that you realise the energy and commitment of the Finance Secretary and others being invested in keeping the good ship Scotland afloat.  It appears to be working, at least in keeping the worst at bay, but as John Swinney suggests, much more could be achieved with the economic levers of a normal nation state.

Our political spats can often seem peripheral and irrelevant when set aside the big questions currently facing the Western world.  We need to ensure that the modern apprenticeship scheme delivers meaningful training and opportunities, as a thoughtful article by Iain Gray pointed out, but we should also welcome the fact that we have such a scheme at all.  And it’s this ability and willingness of our politicians to find degrees of difference in everything which encourages the public to shrink from engagement and even, voting.

The independence referendum should be providing a platform for real debate over our future, with a range of political and policy options being posited about the different options available to us – from the status quo to full independence and everything in between. Yet, already it has degenerated into posturing, scare-mongering and wagon circling.

The dominance of the confirmed yes-no camps in the campaign is polarising and sterilising everything, turning people off when they should be experiencing light bulb moments.  This is a once in a generation opportunity which people voted for in 2011 and it’s almost becoming too precious to be left to the parties to boss.  If people can stake ownership and build truly grassroots movements – more rather than fewer is better – to explore and convince of the art of the possible, then we have a chance of a fully engaged and informed electorate turning out in 2014 to record their preference and determine a clear view of where we are headed.

To get there, we need the type of political leader we’ve not seen on these shores for a long while.  Alex Salmond is still king of all he surveys, but recent incidents and headlines are chipping away at his invincibility, showing him in a less favourable light to voters.  Johann Lamont is turning harrying into an artform, with a gift for biting one-liners, but that does not a stateswoman make.  Ruth Davidson is starting to show what she can do but is held back by the toxicity of her brand and the adherence to made in UK beliefs rather than wholly Scottish ones.  Patrick Harvie has a lot to commend him in terms of politics and principles but his willingness to turn every drama into a crisis is wearing.  Willie Rennie is a consummate media performer but no one takes him or his party seriously anymore.

We have a politicial vacuum – some good performers on the stage but no one bringing the house down.  And given the aspirational nature of the big political question before us, oh for an Obama type to offer us the audacity of hope.  Dreams and ideas and thrills are what we need in the independence debate, from both sides, as well as impartial information on the pros and cons.

Yes, we can point to Obama as being the ultimate wearer of Emperor’s clothes.  The rhetoric has proved largely hollow and if we feel disappointed, imagine how all those thousands of black, disadvantaged and marginalised voters in America, who queued round the block to vote for him, must feel.  But there are still glimmers:  his recent speech offering an amnesty to young illegal immigrants suggests he hasn’t totally lost sight of his beliefs, even if commentators are more exercised by the political implications of the announcement.

But in a world where nothing is certain, where the future is a great big black hole, when fret is the feeling we go to sleep with and wake to, when even the weather is determined to frustrate us, surely the stage is set for a politician to step forward and offer the audacity of hope and the art of the possible.  To point to a different way and to offer to lead us there.

Now’s neither the day nor the hour

It’s a puzzling paradox.  Having put the prospect of a referendum on independence on the furthest edge of the political horizon, the SNP seems rather in a hurry to launch the Yes campaign.

According to newspaper reports today, the “Yes, Scotland” campaign will be launched later this week, with two and a half years of activity to persuade the populace to back the shift from devolution to independence.  Part of me is thrilled;  you don’t spend much of your life, believing, hoping and at various points, campaigning for Scottish independence not to be excited that its prospect is within reach.

Which is why the timing of the campaign to secure a Yes, vote is crucial.  As is its launch.  And I fear the SNP, caught up in its own sense of indefatigability as well as in the minutiae of its own issues, has called it wrong.

From the party’s and the leadership’s perspective, there are sound reasons for launching the campaign this week.  The team is in place, as is the war chest, the messaging and the furniture of modern campaigning.

But there are also narrower political considerations.  Euan McColm suggested, in the aftermath of the local government elections, that “Salmond’s ‘unstoppable’ juggernaut seems to have its first roadblock”.  Certainly, the momentum has slowed;  Labour proved that it is not down and out;  in some areas, the SNP did spectacularly well but in others, it failed to make the gains it and others expected.  What better way of re-gaining the initiative than to launch the biggest campaign for hearts and minds we have ever seen?

Then there is the small matter of Leveson.  The First Minister heads there shortly, apparently willing to share with the Inquiry all that he has so far failed to discuss here in Scotland.  There is a chance that what the FM has to reveal, under oath, draws a line under the Murdoch thing and shows that he, his Government and Scotland are so far removed from shenanigans “down there” to enable everyone to move on.

But there is also a risk that what is revealed at Leveson sparks a potential firestorm around the FM which grows in heat and intensity during the long grass of the summer recess.  For the media strategists, this week offers a clear window where the launch cannot get buried by other issues or agendas.  This is true only if you take a very narrow view of what matters in domestic politics, and sadly that is what we have been doing in recent years here in Scotland.

But I’m not sure, people will agree that the timing is right.

You don’t have to stray far this weekend in the news agenda to find the doomsayers.  While there are hopeful signs that a way ahead for the Eurozone has at least been signposted, it remains to be seen if Greece’s participation in the currency can be maintained.  And if it leaves, what then happens to the other economic dominoes waiting to fall – Spain, Portugal, Ireland and even Italy – is almost too scary to contemplate.  Some are suggesting we need more bank bail-outs;  others are calling for them to be allowed, this time, to fail.  Only Germany appears willing to hold the austerity line;  remarkably, the UK has snuck in the back door of the G8 summit and emerged out the front at the side of President Obama, giving the impression that a strategy for growth was theirs all along.

Having read my fill of analysis of what is going on and consulted a few who know about such things, I am none the wiser.  It’s all too complex but like most other ordinary punters out there, I can discern that in the big scheme of things, we’re not in a good place and it could be about to get a whole lot worse.  As we saw last week, with downgrading of banks’ ratings and plummeting share prices, things move fast.  We may or may not be where we started, with Greece still teetering on the brink and Spain still staggering along.  By Friday, we could, however, be in a very different place in geo-economic and political terms.

There was good news for Scotland this week, with unemployment falling faster here than in the rest of the UK and announcements on jobs.  And the outcome from the G8 looks like a victory for the Scottish Government’s call for investment to create growth in the likes of its “shovel-ready projects”.  But the Scottish Government has been largely silent on recent developments on the international economic and political stage.  When we need it to assume the mantle of a government with pretensions to full potency, it prefers not to actually.

Yet, I reckon people would be very interested in hearing the Scottish Government’s view of what is happening in Europe, and what the implications are for Scotland, now, and as we might be, as an independent country with a seat at the European table.   And I’m guessing they’d like a little honesty about our current and future prospects – from all politicians.

In 2011, the SNP received an overwhelming mandate from the Scottish people to carry on doing what it had done so well.  With the other parties posted missing in action, only the SNP had offered leadership – and competent leadership in which they could trust.

Now, with the economic ringwraiths circling at macro level, as well as micro for many households, many people want to be reassured that we have a Government absolutely focused on the job at hand.

What matters to many of the so-called persuadables right now is the threat of joblessness, of mortgage hikes, of drowning in a sea of personal debt proving too stubborn to shift, of having to put the heating on in May because it’s so cold and can we really afford to be doing that, of how to service and MOT the car at the end of the month, of what can be cut back from the food shop to keep the cost down and how to afford new shoes for the kids and a night out for the anniversary.

And this is just what is keeping those with means and some level of security awake at night.  The worries and concerns of those sitting below this waterline are even more fundamental.

But whatever their circumstances, chances are, few people outwith the political bubble are excited about the imminent launch of the Yes, Scotland campaign.  Two and a half years might not seem very long to the SNP’s team, when there’s so much still to do to achieve independence, but for ordinary voters, it’s a lifetime away. And they’d really rather their Government concentrate on what’s bothering them this week than their own political priorities.

The timing of the launch of the Yes, Scotland campaign is important, particularly if the timing is wrong.  And choosing to launch at the end of this week is the wrong time. Now’s neither the day nor the hour to see the front o’ battle lour, to shamelessly misquote Burns.

Wanted: a little fraternal solidarity

One of the reasons many Labour folk cite for not supporting independence is because they care as much about the child growing up in poverty in Camden as much as the one in Calton.  They just about manage to stop themselves from breaking into song on how children are our future.  I jest, but I do accept they make a serious point.  We should care about the fate of all the people on these islands – and I agree.

But I don’t like the opposite preposition – that you people don’t care about children in poverty anywhere other than in Scotland – being tossed carelessly as a jibe at SNP/independence supporters.  Because it’s false.

It is hard to articulate but in some respects, my passion for changing things, for throwing out the old order and defining and re-imagining a new way for Scotland is absolutely linked to a wish to participate fully on the international stage and to be in a position to contribute more effectively to the lot of other communities.  It’s something shared by many other supporters of independence.

Hence, I would like to think, that an independent Scotland would have a different approach to asylum-seekers and refugees, and a *door more open* attitude to economic migrants too.  Scotland, as we all know, is far from full up.

I’d also like to think that we might commit to a decent sum towards international development activity, playing a full role in addressing absolute want in countries and enabling impoverished nations to grow and build their way to a better future.

Having a seat in the EU and the UN would enable Scotland to speak up and speak out on international issues: I’d even like to think that on occasion, our wee voice might be heard and listened to.  Sometimes, too, we might act not only for our own common good, but for others too.  Wee countries can and do make a difference.

The alternative is to stay as we are, largely as international pariahs, trading on a reputation long since burnished.  We get involved too often in the wrong wars. We throw our weight around.  We like to think we are military players: there is no shortage of belief in the right thing to do when it comes to tooling up.

But when it comes to leading on other matters, we’ve become, under this Conservative-led government, Pontius Pilate like.  Old instincts die hard and this lot learned their craft from the Thatcher creed.  Thus, a distrust of all things European, which often betrays itself as outright prejudice and disdain, is the tie that binds the Tory lot.  Playing hardball with Europe has become the bone which Cameron throws to his dogs to satiate their appetites.  It turns my stomach.

As does the idea that we in the UK can withdraw from what is going on over the water, as being nowt to do with us.  When it is everything to do with us: some of our banks helped to cause it, after all.

We are so tied into the idea of the banks being too big to fail, that instead we are prepared to allow countries and peoples to fail instead.  As long as the paper moneymakers remain unfettered to continue doing what they did, who cares who pays the price.

Well, I care and I know others do too.  What is happening in Greece right now is desperate.  There are real people – little people – hurting and I feel their pain.  The country is being asked to deliver impossible levels of cuts, ones that will effectively destroy its economy and society, in order to meet its debt.  I can see why the other members of the Eurozone have insisted on such a course of action, but frankly, I’m toiling to understand it.

Yes they had to attempt to keep Greece in the Euro, to avoid total meltdown of the currency zone.  Yes they could not allow one country to default on its debts for fear of a domino effect.  And yes they had to try and keep all economies inside the tent of the prevailing economic orthodoxy.

But not at any price surely.  Some have pointed out, that this monster was not of Greek origin, yet Greece is being lined up as the first sacrificial lamb.  The financial institutions now appear to be the arbiters of countries’ activities – they set the rules for nation states, while not accepting any brakes or rules to be applied to their own activities, of course.

At what point does someone – anyone – break cover and say enough.  We are brothers and sisters and we cannot, will not enforce poverty and instability on our neighbours.  Being in this together means exactly that.  We cannot inflict financial torture on others, on innocent individuals, in the hope that doing so spares us, yet the behaviour of our UK Government suggests precisely this insouciance.

Today, I am not only feeling the Greeks’ pain, but also sharing their anger.  I am angry that no politician or country is prepared to stand up and be counted on their behalf.  To offer an alternative solution to the shocking fiscal requirements being imposed on Greece.  To signal that it is does not have to be this way, that if we are to prevent this happening again in future, we must work together – as a family of nations to find a different way of financing ourselves and our economies.  One which does not involve a handful of untouchables dictating to the rest of us how to go about our business while taking no ethical responsibility for how they do theirs.

And I am utterly resolved that things in future must be different.  That there is nothing to be gained from staying within the UK, from remaining part of a union of nations which is prepared to abandon its fellow men and women to their fate.  Whether they live in Camden, Calton or Crete.