Bullets, Bins and Ballots

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Bullets

0620: I walk downstairs with Solveigh a little bleary, but better rested than most days.  After I put the coffee on, I realise that it’s the big day, the 18th of September.  I put Solveigh in her high chair, give her some grapes after checking to see how her first tooth is coming in, and turn on the radio to hear if there’s any news about the referendum.  But instead I hear a report from Syria.  A BBC reporter has been given access to the Syrian Army on the frontline, where they’re battling either IS or the Free Syrian Army – it isn’t clear. The sound of bullets break ripple into our kitchen as the reporter announces that a firefight has erupted between the opposing forces.  Closing his report, he reminds Solveigh and myself of the millions of lives displaced in the civil war.  Shocked by the apparently rapid rise of IS, yet only a year on from bombing Syrian government forces, the US and the UK are at loss as to what to do.  I wonder to Solveigh whether this could be an opportunity to pressure Assad to change his ways, in return for help, but doubt that such creativity has a role in the world of real politik.

Bins

1230: I tie into a spicy pasta salad and login to facebook.  I see that a friend of mine has put up a video of some sad-sack Ukrainian politician being thrown into a bin by an angry mob.  Vitaly Zhuravsky used to be in the government of former President Victor Yanukovich, but now has been relegated to entertaining people on social media.  As we all know, after Yanukovich was also binned by the mob, sparking the civil war in Crimea and East Donetsk.  A referendum of sorts was used to justify the secession of Crimea; the people of East Donetsk have not been so lucky and Europe (if we can call it that – isn’t that  the nub of it all?) has seen the worst conflict since Kosovo.  Of course, it hasn’t been just Ukrainians (or whatever they want to be called) that have borne the brunt of such violence, as the downing of a Malaysian airliner carrying, amongst other innocents, dozens of Dutch schoolchildren sadly shows.  One hundred years after the start of the Great War, one wonders if people learn anything from history.

Ballots

1645: I pick Dashiell up from nursery a little early so I can go vote.  I try to explain to him what an election is and am tickled when he decides that he would like to vote Yes.  We have a typically surreal moment along the bike path that starts when Dash asks me about when we’ll go on a boat again I mishear him and start droning on about the electoral system.  Vote and boat: it’s an honest mistake.  We roll up to the primary school, passing half a dozen Yes supporters and a lonely, slightly creepy No supporter (it’s not his fault he looks like Dave Lee Travis).  After a quick pit stop for Dash – no sense introducing him to democracy with a full bladder – I mark the box next to Yes and let Dash put the ballot into the box for me.  As we leave I feel elated at participating with my son in the most important vote in the history of Scotland.  No one has been shot or been thrown into any bins.  And whatever the result, I think we can all feel proud for that.

5 Questions about Aye or Naw

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It’s less than a week until the referendum and the coverage has been heavier than the mascara on a Miss Georgia contestant.  Recently, it’s occurred to me, after listening to argument after argument for aye or naw that, when you boil it down, 5 questions are determining most people’s decisions.  Here they are:

1) Optimist or pessimist?

Most of Better Together’s approach has been to warn that independence will indubitably lead to disaster: no currency; no defence force; no EU; no economy; no hope.  In contrast, the Yes campaign emphasises the positives: social democracy; becoming the new Norway  (which is actually a place in Saskatchewan – be careful what you wish for); reducing inequality; safeguarding the NHS; renewable energy; the national team reaching the World Cup; happy times.  Which basically equates to whether you are a glass-full or glass empty person.  Now while I do think this explains quite a bit, what people should probably also focus on is whether an independent Scotland would given them more of a voice to change things for the better.  And I think it would.  Voting no is basically glumly accepting that things will always be pretty much the way they have always been.  Which might be true, but that doesn’t mean we can’t try to make things better.  Even if our currency will have to be the bitcoin.

2) Voting for yourself or voting for your country?

A little while ago I had an interesting chat with another Canadian working in a Scottish university about the referendum.  I was hoping to have an engaging conversation about Quebec, 1995 and the notwithstanding clause (google it), but he quickly cut things off by saying that he would be voting no because he was scared about what would happen to the research council funding he currently enjoyed.  Now, as someone starting an AHRC project in a few weeks, perhaps I should be thinking such things myself, but, instead, I found myself just getting annoyed (read previous post for more on why).  Why the hell should some academic in a cushy post (let’s face it, fellow ivory tower residents, it’s not as if we’re dinner ladies) base his vote on whether he has a super great wonderful brilliant career or merely a super great one?  And that’s assuming that Scotland, which ran successful universities long before the Act of Union, couldn’t match or do better than the current UK system.  When I cheekily suggested that he should then vote Yes to avoid another referendum on the UK’s EU membership (which the Tories have promised if they win a majority in a sleazy attempt to win UKIP voters), as it could jeopardise Horizon 2020 funding, he simply shrugged and said that he wasn’t currently funded by them.

I had to hand it to him.  He was honest.  And I’ve got to be honest: one of the reasons I’m voting Yes is because an independent Scotland would have a more accommodating immigration policy which would welcome me and my family a bit more than the UK system; after living here for over eight years, I still don’t have leave to remain and I just spent £2500 extending my visa.  But, for the most part, I will probably pay more taxes, earn a little less and have a smaller pension pot in an independent Scotland.  I might miss out on my beloved BBC, lose track of what’s going on with the England and Wales cricket team and be stuck changing my currency when I head down to Devon for a holiday.  But that would be worth it if the Glasgow effect could become a thing of the past, if Scotland could become a renewable giant and if the value placed on education remained secure.  I’m not really voting for myself or even for my kids; I’m voting for my country.

3) Socialist by name or socialist by nature?

Although the first SNP MSP I ever met, and the only one I know personally, is a fiscal conservative, for the most part the SNP, much like the PQ in Quebec, is a left-leaning party and no bones about it.  And Scotland, again like Quebec, has tended towards the left more so than the rest of the UK.  But how far would they go to the left in an independent Scotland?  Would they actually go whole hog socialist? And would people want that?  This is a question that divides people for a reason most don’t acknowledge: many so-called socialists couldn’t actually cope with socialism.  This first occurred to me when I learned that a famous pair of Canadian socialists lived in a huge house in Rosedale, the most exclusive neighbourhood in Toronto, but it’s been reinforced in me ever since.  The recent university union dispute did little to change my mind, that’s for certain.

As for myself, I realised, somewhat grudgingly, that I am essentially a socialist when I decided that I would be content living in a country where I, having spent 10 years in higher education, made about the same amount of money as a bin man. This isn’t just because I’m a masochist.  Over ten years ago I published a short article entitled ‘Citizenship or Consumerism’, which basically argued that it was possible for people to achieve status and security by being a good citizen, rather than draping oneself with consumables.  I still believe this is true, but it is damn hard when you’re living in an inegalitarian system.  For me, a Yes vote is a step towards a viable socialism, much like what is seen in Scandinavia.  It might not be perfect for everyone, but I’d be happy in such a place.  And, I believe thousands of left-leaning, English speakers whose ancestors left Britain in centuries past for a better life, would be, too.

4) Brit or Scot?

Or do the last 300 years count more than the previous 3000?  For whatever reason, when I moved to Scotland I felt at home again.  Maybe the foot of snow on the ground or the fact it was dark at 4pm had something to do with it, but I suspect it was something more.  It’s probably because I’m Canadian, and Scotland has had far more of an impact on Canada than England.  You just have to compare place names in Canada (anywhere, not just Nova Scotia) with the US.  Don’t get me wrong, I adored Devon, but it always felt somewhat exotic and foreign to me.  Or perhaps it was more that some of the people made me feel like I was exotic and foreign – and not always in a good way.  Scotland has always felt familiar and Scots, as far as I can tell, feel pretty much the same about me.

As for Britishness, it’s more difficult to understand.  I can see how during the two world wars feeling British was bloody important (not so much in recent conflicts, of course, which Scots haven’t supported).  But perhaps that sense of Britishness was borne more out of necessity than reality.  Britishness can be too tied up in fairly recent imperial, colonial legacies for many people, including many Scots.  In post-colonialism, Britishness is more identifiable in institutions, such as the NHS and the BBC, than in any cultural, social, economic or political traditions.  In contrast, Scottishness, Walter Scott’s tartan gloss notwithstanding, is more identifiable with a particular way of looking at and living in the world and modelling society.

There’s also what the English think of Scotland leaving.  Ed Byrne joked on Mock the Week recently that if the referendum was like a trial separation for a marriage, the English were essentially saying ‘Good riddance, you’ll never make it on your own!’, rather than ‘Come on, honey, we can make it work!’  Things couldn’t have been more different towards the end of the 1995 referendum campaign, when it looked like Quebec was leaving.  Thousands of Canadians traveled to Quebec basically to pledge their love for the disgruntled, estranged province, rallying in Montreal under a Canadian flag the size of a football pitch.  And rightly so. There is simply no Canada without Quebec.  Each province has a sense of identity, more than non-Canadians realise, but Canada comes first and the essence of that is the marriage of convenience between French and English that has, among other things, kept Canada from becoming the 51st state.  For the English, Scotland doesn’t matter in quite the same way and that basically means that Britain doesn’t matter quite so much either.

5)  Europhile or Europhobe?

Well, this one is a little bit of a fudge, since if there is one thing Yes and No voters can agree on, it is that being in the EU is a pretty good thing.  Those who think otherwise should try to look past the economic troubles of recent years and compare the current state of affairs to what was going on 70 years ago in Europe.  But, on the day that Nigel Farage came to Scotland to boost the Yes campaign (inadvertently – or not), it’s worth mentioning that a Yes vote, red tape notwithstanding, is a very palpable vote for Europe and what it stands for both politically and socially.  It is a vote for independence that also affirms that Scots are willing to cede some of their independence for the greater good of the EU. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

***

Although a very simple question is being posed on the 18th of September, there are no right or wrong answers.  Each person will have their own reasons for voting and should be allowed to have them.  But people should also be honest about why there are voting the way they are and people outside of Scotland should take the time to understand these reasons, too.  As an ardent federalist in the Canadian context, I would be distraught if Quebec left Canada.  But, after listening to a middle-aged man in Quebec City describe why, 10 years after the last referendum, he still wanted Quebec to be its own country, I had to empathise with his reasons.  I didn’t want it to happen, but I would understand if it did.

A Oui Confession

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I stormed down University Avenue, having attended a Q&A about how research might be affected by a Yes vote in the Scottish referendum, hosted by the Royal Society of Edinburgh and featuring Universities Ministers (just) past and present, David Willetts and Greg Clark, feeling about as angry as I felt in a long, long time.  The message provided by the ministers, as I had expected, was decidedly negative.  An independent Scotland would risk losing out on UK and EU funding opportunities, and be left to its own devices.  All that Scottish universities had achieved in recent years would be lost irrevocably.  Doom and gloom, thy name would be Scotland.  The risk of leaving the UK was simply too great.

Indeed, the word ‘risk’ was the keyword extraordinaire in Clark’s speech.  If the RSE had designed a drinking game featuring that word to make his presentation a little more exciting, well, they would have had to wheel everyone out in a flotilla of shopping trolleys.  And yet, I realised halfway through Clark’s talk that if one replaced the word ‘opportunity’ for ‘risk’ (apparently in Mandarin, one word conveys both meanings), a completely different, and much more hopeful, idea would have emerged.  One simple little change that could make all the difference.

When the time came for questions, it became clear that most of my fellow audience members, many of whom were English, were of the No persuasion.  ‘Tell us more about how dreadful an independent Scotland would be for research and universities’ was the general gist.  Now, I certainly understand why people – both Scots and particularly left-leaning English folks – are ardent No supporters.  As I’ve discussed in an earlier blog, the process by which I eventually decided to vote Yes was a long and painful one, characterised by much soul-searching and thought.  But the self-serving nature of the questions I heard filled me with dismay.  Here were the leaders of the Scottish universities sector, and yet there was no discussion of PG funding, widening access to higher learning or tuition fees, let alone the purpose of such institutions (they should be places of useful learning, if you were wondering).  No, the questions gravitated towards the specific, that is, how they and their particular research interests would fare in an independent Scotland.

And that, in many ways, is the nub of the problem.  Of course we all want to know an independent Scotland would mean for us.  But it shouldn’t stop there. What would it mean for the less fortunate?  Children?  The environment?  Health?  Sport (hey, the Commonwealth Games have just started)?  Culture?  History?  If you’re not considering these issues as well, well you should.

So, why did I get so angry?  Well, it started with Clark suggesting that Scotland would miss out on research related to defence and the arms industry.  In a week that saw a Malaysian airliner filled with nearly 300 innocent travellers (including 80 children) shot down by Ukrainian separatists using good ol’ sophisticated air defence technology, I couldn’t believe that he didn’t edit this out of his speech.  Then, towards the end of the Q&A, someone finally asked a selfless question: what about all the foreign researchers and students unable to access the UK academic system because of xenophobic immigration policies?  Why wouldn’t foreigners working in Scotland vote Yes in the hope that such policies might change for the better.  To this, no satisfactory answer was provided.  And that got me steaming because, for me, that’s where it was personal; that’s where I became selfish.  Because, after living in the UK for 8 years, my immigration status – and that of my family – is still in limbo.  If I can’t get my visa extended at the end of the summer, that’s me and my family gone from the UK.   I don’t believe this would be the case in an independent Scotland, a land of immigrants and emigrants, a country that understands the ebb and flow of human capital more than most.

But that’s not the only reason I’m voting Yes.  Scotland, for me, is the first place I’ve truly felt at home.  Despite being thousands of miles away from family and friends I care about, it is here that I feel welcome, comfortable in my own skin and optimistic about the future for me, my wife and my kids.  It is a special place, a place about which I feel optimistic, where I feel that opportunity outweighs risk.  A place that could become, like my birth province of Saskatchewan once was, the only English-speaking socialist jurisdiction in the world.   Of course it could all go Loch Long (wee bit of Scottish rhyming slang for you there), but I hope it won’t.

By the time I’d got to Hyndland Station, I had calmed down a bit, but I had also made a decision: I already knew I would vote Yes, but now I would let others know.  Not necessarily to convince anyone to change their mind, but to be honest and forthright about why I had made up mine.

Broken Heart

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Recently my 91-year-old grandmother passed away.  While this shouldn’t have been a tremendous surprise, given her age and health problems, it was a shock, and her funeral in Ottawa was difficult to get through.  Such occasions change the way you think about life and people, and this was no exception.

At the service, my Uncle John did an amazing job of putting the long life of my grandmother, Olga Lentz, in to perspective.  Here was a woman from a poor, Acadian background in PEI with seven siblings and an eighth-grade education.  She married partly out of love, but also to make a better life for herself and to get out of Summerside, its quaint name notwithstanding.  Despite her lack of formal education, she managed to read anything and everything that was put in front of her, loved music, understood Canadian politics intimately (huge fan of Pierre Elliot Trudeau) and had a great social conscience.  She raised four very different, sometimes challenging, children and was the hub of the local community, making friends as easily as scratching her nose.

For many reasons, reasons that I don’t need to go into, Grandma’s life was pretty damned hard.  Her saving grace came in the form of her friends, particularly her best friend, Mrs Crowder.  When Grandma had to go into a nursing home, we thought that being away from her friends, many of whom had died, would be unbearable.  But after a difficult first year, a little miracle happened.  Mrs Crowder moved in right across the hall.  What could have been a very dreary deteriorating demise suddenly got a lot brighter.  The last two times I visited, it was clear to see that Grandma was looking forward to, rather than dreading, the coming days: a very basic, but also highly accurate way of determining whether life is going well or not.

Then, I got the call. Grandma had died of a heart attack.  Two days before, she had been told that Mrs Crowder was going to be placed in a palliative care unit.  This was simply too much.  Mercifully, symmetrically, Mrs Crowder – Ruth – died the very next day.  The professional opinion of my uncle, a pathologist, was that she had died of a broken heart.

We spend a great deal of time fixing the heart with surgery, drugs, exercise, diet, meditation, God knows what else.  But we forget about the most important key to its health: happiness, love, purpose.

1914-2014

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Do dates matter?  I got into a bit of a debate with a colleague about this the other day concerning Canadian history.  I, as a Canuck, was roped into doing some lectures on the topic – despite having little but the most obvious qualification – and, observing that I had gone beyond the period I had promised to cover, I made a throwaway comment about tricking myself into thinking that dates matter.  My colleague, more of a stickler for dates, went into a little rant about how dates did matter and I, arguing silently back, kept thinking that for, at least what I do, dates can be misleading, suggesting beginnings or endings that really aren’t that at all.

Anyway, that was before the crisis in the Ukraine erupted.  I can’t have been the only person to recognise that Russia’s forays into the Crimea are 100 years after the start of another conflict, which began with a squabble over a small(ish) country on the periphery of Europe.  Now, God willing, this won’t amount to that, but the neatness of those 100 years are frightening nonetheless.  Sure, much more terrible things have been going on elsewhere not too much further than Ukraine – Syria, to name the worst calamity – but the stakes in Ukraine are higher, partly because of all the other former Soviet republics that might also look tempting (including ones that are members of NATO), but also because Ukraine is – or, at least, could be – European.  And the two world wars, if anything positive came out of them, was the sense that Europe was past nineteenth-century style wars.  Let’s hope so.

But as much as Putin is behaving irresponsibly in all of this, and possibly forgetting his history (I do hope Russia’s poor performance in the Olympic hockey hasn’t anything to do with it), it does strike me that the two wars that characterised the first ten years of the twenty-first century don’t do much for the West’s (broadly speaking) position when it comes to Ukraine.  It’s all well and good decrying Russia for sabre-rattling and ‘protecting’ its brethren in foreign lands when your conscience is clear; it is quite another thing scarcely a decade after you have invaded two other countries, resulting in wars that have killed tens and tens of thousands of lives.

If anything, the current crisis tells me three things.  First, war remains good for nothing.  Second, this is why we need a strong unified Europe with the UK as a member state (or Scotland and the UK, as the case may be).  And three, self determination, for all its warts, needs to be a democratic possibility for all nations within nations.  If the Crimea wants independence, there should be a way for them to vote for it without having the bully of the neighbourhood weigh in with guns blazing.  In an increasingly interconnected, federalised world, that sort of independence doesn’t cost anyone all that much.  Certainly less than the cost of fighting for it.

Persuasion

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I think I might have been washing dishes when I heard it.  Coming through the radio was something exciting, inspiring, even moving.  And what’s more, it was coming from a politician. The politician in question was Alex Salmond, the First Minister of Scotland, and he was talking independence.

As a Canadian, the very phrase ‘independence movement’ can be chilling.  This is because, as an ardent federalist in the Canadian context, I would absolutely hate to see Quebec become independent.  I remember the 1995 50.5/49.5% referendum vividly and it really was frightening.  I thought (and think) an independent Quebec would be a disaster both for Canada and la Belle Province; as a country, we are much, much greater than the sum of our parts, and, moreover, provide an example to the world of how two distinct societies can work together.  While I understand Quebec nationalism, I don’t grasp Quebec separatism.  I think Canadian nationalism trumps it, especially given our juxtaposition to the US of A.  Equally, though I see the value of giving Quebec powers to keep it happy, I value a strong federal government in Ottawa, although having Tory majority governments in power makes this much less attractive, of course…

One could make the same argument about the UK and Europe, I suppose, but I think the context is completely different.  There are plenty of small, successful countries in Europe (Norway being the one Salmond and the SNP refer to regularly) and the EU is certainly not a unified force in the same way the US is.  More importantly, and this is what really came out in Salmond’s speech, is the cultural and historical argument for independence.  He made a powerful case for Scotland being able to make its own decisions, come what may.  In practical terms, this would boil down to less bellicosity in international affairs (no nuclear deterrent in Scottish waters; no waging wars in Iraq) and more socialism, two things of which I am completely in favour.

Even more important, was what Salmond said about confidence.  Scotland, as many have argued, suffers from a crisis in confidence.  The sick (and fat) man of Europe, crap weather, social inequalities, an often humiliating past: these and many other factors have eroded Scottish self esteem over the years.  Salmond argued, however, that Scotland can transcend such lugubriousness, and that a yes vote in the upcoming referendum is how to do it.

I wasn’t 100% convinced about voting yes prior to hearing Salmond’s speech.  Again, as a Canuck, we take these things seriously.  But he persuaded me.  It was the most effective speech I’ve heard since some of Obama’s in 2008, and I think Salmond betters Obama by a long shot now in that category.  As a historian, I’m also simply curious to see how we get on.  While curiosity might not be the best reason for a divorce, I’m sure it’s been posited plenty of times before.  Perhaps I will be persuaded to change my mind.  But somehow I doubt it.

An Addition

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Summer has whizzed by, a little like Usain Bolt or an Andy Murray backhand.  Unilke 6/7 summers I’ve spent in the UK, this summer has actually been summery.  Well, July at least.  And after 2 weeks in Shanghai, I had my fill of heat anyway.  Now, leading up to the last week in August, there is a chill in the air, the leaves on the trees look spent, and most of the geese in Scotland seem to have left the building, so to speak.

Although I do like summer, it’s not my favourite season, and I’m not usually disappointed when it fades into fall.  This is partly because summer in the UK (refer to sentence number 2) is usually a bust, particularly up here in Scotland.  I prefer spring, in large part because it never disappoints.  The snow eventually melts, the days will get longer and a bit of heat does find its way into the gloomiest vale.  I like autumn for many of the same reasons.  This year I really haven’t minded seeing summer going because once it goes, and autumn follows, we will have a Christmas addition to the family.  If the scans are accurate, she will be a girl.  Which is perfect.  Bring on winter!

 

New Generation Thinker stuff

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This is typical: my time as an AHRC/BBC New Generation Thinker has expired and I forgot to post any of my illustrious exploits on my own darned website.  Doh.  Well, here are a few things anyway.  Better late than never.

Peanut allergy talk (video)

Food allergy talk from Free Thinking Festival in Gateshead (audio)

Dennis the Menace and the history of hyperactivity (you have to get through a lot of Matthew Sweet before you get to me)

Good luck to the 2013 NGTs!

 

Shanghaied

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I have a few excuses for not posting any updates in ten weeks, but probably the best one is that I was Shanghaied.  Literally.  For the last two weeks of June.  It was quite the experience, let me tell ya.

Well, I wasn’t exactly Shanghaied in the traditional sense – no drugs were employed (apart from strong liquor) and I wasn’t forced onto any boats – though I did get on one voluntarily.   What did happen is that I was asked to go to Shanghai for a couple weeks to teach in a summer school there.  It was quite the experience and, once I get my butt in gear, I will be sharing my adventures in true LEJoG de Matt style (which means plenty of long, rambling sentences filled with things that tickle me and probably confuse others – hey ho).  I did think of calling it LEJoG to Shanghai, but I think Shanghaied is probably better and a good deal more self-explanatory.

My primary impulse in writing everything down is partly down to self-indulgence – je me t’amuse – but also to record some thoughts about China, its past, present and future.  I am no expert, that’s for damned sure, but perhaps the musings of a jetlagged, overheated, illiterate layman can shed a wee bit of light on a country that will play a big role in all of our futures.  The first post should be up fairly soon and I hope you like it.