Shetland’s Male-Dominated Public Sphere

The dominance of men in Shetland’s public sphere is a phenomenon I have been increasingly concerned about over the last few years as I’ve grown more politically aware.  Speculating on the reasons why this is the case would most likely result in an ignorant and uninformed conclusion without proper research, so I will not attempt to do so.  However I do want to highlight several areas where I see a problem.

In terms of political representation, Shetland is blatantly governed by men.  Every single Member of Parliament and Member of the Scottish Parliament the islands have elected have been men.  Perhaps this is because few women even make it onto the ballot paper – last year I wrote a letter to the Shetland News outlining the problem:

   “With the selection of party candidates for the upcoming election a relatively topical issue, I decided to take a look back at previous elections to see which parties normally field candidates for Shetland and Orkney.
   Upon doing so I was shocked to discover that every party’s candidate has been a man since at least 1997. There hasn’t been a single woman on the ballot paper throughout all this time.
Wondering whether this was just a fluke, I had a look at Shetland’s constituency for the last four Scottish Parliament elections. In the 1999 and 2003 elections every candidate was a man, while in the 2007 and 2011 elections all the candidates except one were men, the woman both times put forward by the SNP.
   To compare this nationally: 20 per cent of Scottish MPs and 33 per cent of MSPs are women, suggesting that at least a fifth of constituencies had at least one woman on the ballot paper.”

I added:

   “Thus far only the Liberal Democrats and the SNP have announced their candidates for this May’s election, both of whom are men.
   I will be keeping a close eye on future announcements from Labour, the Conservatives, UKIP and any other parties to see whether they will allow yet another election to be contested entirely by men.”

Unfortunately, the Labour, Conservative and UKIP candidates all proved, once again, to be men, making 2015 the fifth Westminster election in a row in which there was not a single woman on the ballot paper.  Although still overwhelmingly men, candidates for the Scottish Parliament’s Shetland constituency have continued to see better balance; for example, Labour fielded the excellent Robina Barton in last May’s election.  Nevertheless, 94% of votes ultimately went to male candidates.

As I stated in the letter, the same problem exists in the Shetland Islands Council (SIC):

“I discovered that only three of the 22 councillors are women – just 13.6 per cent. This is below the still shockingly small national average of 24.3 per cent.”

This inequality also includes leadership positions, with both the current Convenor and Political Leader of the Council being men.  As far as I’m aware, this has always been the case.

The same trend occurs if you look into the Shetland Charitable Trust, arguably the second most important public institution across the islands, controlling significant income from oil revenues.  The trustees are appointed from across Shetland society and include individuals with a background in the SIC (including current serving councillors), the police force, the NHS, the Church of Scotland, crofting and marine policy.  A good range of expertise, but unfortunately only two of the 14 are women.  At 14.2% this is virtually the same proportion as the SIC’s 13.6%.  For an organisation intended to provide funding for charitable causes and projects across the isles, this is a stark gap of experience and background.

The dominance of men also seems to include the press.  The majority of journalists in the Shetland Times and Shetland News appear to be men – although granted, this isn’t unusual in a national context.  It’s also true that, although the majority of The Shetland Times’ editors have been men, between 1990 and 2006 it did have a woman editor in Vaila Wishart.  Nevertheless, the current news team of the Shetland Times appears to consist entirely of men.

Moreover, if you take newspapers as a key forum for debate, the pattern continues.  In the most recent publication of the Shetland Times there were eight letters submitted to the editor, all written by men. (Interestingly, six were about the EU Referendum, with four of the six expressing support for Brexit, despite the fact that almost 57% of Shetlanders voted remain.  Is the male-dominance of the public sphere creating a right-wing, eurosceptic echo chamber?).  Similarly, all of the most recent contributions to the Shetland News letters page were penned by men.  Indeed, these pages tend to feature the same men, arguing with the same people, again and again.  In my experience the Facebook comments of the news outlets see more representative contributions – of both gender and age – but these by their nature are less public.

Perhaps the greatest example of all is the Lerwick Up-Helly-Aa, Shetland’s most famous cultural festival.  Women are prohibited from taking part in the prestigious Jarl Squads which lead the procession, ceremonially burn the Viking longship and tour across Shetland.  Their role is instead confined to catering.  The satirical website Da Bonxie recently mocked this, stating:

  1.  Up Helly-Aa is the perfect time to reflect on your failed marriage or relationship and use the opportunity to freely cheat on your partner.
     Lerwick Up Helly-Aa famously bans women from being in squads, so your indiscretions can be completely secret! Better yet, most Shetland women know it’s going on but no-one seems to care! It’s amazing!.
  2.  Up Helly-Aa is a truly special night for women. Not only do they get to let their husbands off the hook as we noted above, they also get to do housework in their glad rags!
    As women are banned from being in a squad, they attend one of 11 halls throughout the town. At these halls, they’re expected to clean, serve, cook, and help men cheat on their wives. Sounds great? Well get doubly excited ladies – you get to do all of this in your best dress and high heels! Incredible!

The Lerwick Up-Helly-Aa is allowed to be discriminatory in this way because, as a private club, it is not bound by equalities legislation.  The issue is becoming a matter of increasing discussion, with a recent (admittedly poorly-attended) Althing debate ending with a vote in favour of gender equality.  More promisingly, the country Up-Helly-Aa festivals allow women to take part, with the South Mainland Up-Helly-Aa even seeing its first female Guizer Jarl in 2015.  Yet, with Lerwick’s Up-Helly-Aa continuing to be the largest of the festivals and possessing the most status, there is still a long way to go for gender equality.  This is not so simple as a misogynistic elite preventing progress, either – there is significant support among the public for maintaining the traditions, as evidenced by this Facebook comment thread.

There are no doubt other areas in Shetland life where gender inequality is also prevalent.  However, I do need to stress that, in spite of this indisputable male-domination of the public sphere, as a whole I do not think Shetland society is significantly more patriarchal than the rest of Scotland or Britain.  Women are as active in the workforce as anywhere else, play key roles in Shetland’s cultural scene, such as in music and literature, are reasonably well-represented in professions including teaching and healthcare, and social attitudes are not generally different to elsewhere.  This makes the male hegemony of several public institutions all the more perplexing, but perhaps also suggests change would not be too difficult to achieve.

Having illustrated the problem, at some point I will probably write a follow-up post in which I try to explain the reasons behind this.  I’ve recently discovered a book called Myth and Materiality in a Woman’s World: Shetland 1800-2000 by Lynn Abrams, the former Professor of Gender History at the University of Glasgow, which looks like a fascinating read I hope will broaden my understanding of gender relations in Shetland.

If you’re reading this and you have any ideas/comments relating to what I’ve written about, I’d be very eagar to hear them!

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2014 European Parliament Election Analysis

I’ve decided to mark my dramatic return to the blogosphere with a couple of election analyses for both the European Parliament election and the UK local elections (coming in a later post) held in the last week.  The media in Britain has been awash with stories about a political ‘earthquake’ that has seen the emergence of a four-party system with the rise of UKIP.  Yet, from the way it’s being reported, you would think that the entire European project has been brought to its knees.  This is not the case.  The media, particularly the BBC, has failed to adequately report the Europe-wide picture beyond picking select examples of countries which have seen a dramatic rise in Euroscepticism.  There has been a growth in Eurosceptic feeling across Europe but, to be clear, the countries which have seen UKIP-style breakthroughs are in the minority.  I’m far from an expert in European politics but I will try to present the general picture as the dust settles across Europe and fill in the gaps that the mainstream media has missed.  I will also aim to take a balanced look at UKIP’s electoral victory and argue that why the results show that the major British parties would be wrong to seek to ‘out-UKIP UKIP’ on issues regarding Europe and immigration.

I’ll analyse the results from a progressively larger scale, beginning with Scotland and Wales, passing through the UK and ending at the European Parliament itself.

Scotland
The European Parliament election in Scotland has inevitably been analysed through the prism of the upcoming referendum on independence, it being the last electoral test for the political parties before September.  It would be inaccurate to pin the ruling Scottish National Party (SNP)’s electoral fortunes to support for a Yes vote, given that many SNP voters do not favour independence while several supporters of independence come from other parties.  Furthermore, the turnout of 33.5% is well below the approximately 80% expected for the referendum.  More accurate would be to view the election as a test of the SNP’s popularity after seven years in power.  Here are the results:

2014 European Parliament Scotland

From a result like this it is difficult at first glance to ascertain which party has ‘won’.  If we’re going simply by vote share then it proves to be yet another instance of the SNP topping the polls, yet I doubt that’s how senior strategists shall be interpreting it.  Since the Liberal Democrats entered into a coalition with the Conservatives in 2010, the SNP have consistently been taking significant shares of the vote from the Liberal Democrats in both elections and the polls, but that hasn’t happened here.  Where did the Lib Dem vote go?  You could argue that it’s gone to UKIP, however notice also the 7.04% lost by the ‘others’ – which in 2009 were primarily composed of anti-EU parties like No2EU, or the more extreme British National Party.  I’d imagine this would account for around half the UKIP vote.  Therefore the unavoidable truth arises that the former Lib Dem vote seems to have gone to Labour rather than the SNP.  That said, there is the not insignificant counterargument that the SNP has managed to remain in the top position of what is traditionally an anti-establishment election seven years into power.  This is a record neither Labour nor the Conservatives in the rest of the UK can claim within the last twenty years, nor most governments in Europe (Angela Merkel springs to mind as one of the other few exceptions).  The result may have been disappointing for the SNP, especially as polls suggested they might attain the mid 30%s, but it’s far from disastrous.

Perhaps a slightly more clear cut image emerges if we look at seats won.  The only change here is that the Liberal Democrats lost their only seat to UKIP, who saw David Coburn elected as not only their first MEP in Scotland but their first representative anywhere.  Both the SNP and the Greens had been hoping to snap up this third seat, and the fact it’s ended up going to UKIP – a party opposed to many of the SNP’s and Green’s values – will be a disappointment to both.  The Scottish Greens can take small consolation that their vote has increased for the four European election in a row, with 8.06% providing them their highest result ever in a national election.  We must also not overstate the scale of UKIP’s victory in Scotland.  Not only did UKIP receive the lowest vote share in Scotland of any of the UK’s electoral ‘regions’, but also the lowest growth of their vote share anywhere in the UK.  Given the national context, the big shock isn’t that UKIP finally broke into Scotland but actually that they still only managed to achieve fourth place.  Scotland is no longer immune to UKIP but it still remains well behind the rest of the UK in its support of the party.

In terms of the wider implications, it’s interesting to look at how these results might reflect Scotland’s views towards Europe – if we are to assume that the election results can tell us anything this detailed, of course.  70% of Scottish voters voted for pro-European parties (which can rise to 77% if we evenly split the Tories into pro-Europe and Eurosceptic positions).  This contrasts with the UK as a whole where the figure is only around 43%.  This will be welcome to supporters of independence, who can use these figures to argue that Scotland is less Eurosceptic than the rest of the country and that there is less demand here for a renegotiated relationship.  A less welcome figure would be the fact that the pro-independence parties, the SNP and the Greens, only achieved 37% of the vote between them, though in an election dominated by debate over the country’s place in Europe rather than independence it’s hard to view these results as any reliable indicator of voting intention come September, especially given the low turnout.

Wales
Wales is a very small ‘region’ for the European Parliament, electing only 4 MEPs.  If the four main parties manage to achieve very roughly similar levels of the vote then they will all gain a seat and, because of the way the system works (it’s fairly simple – you can see a guide here) there’s quite a large margin of votes which would produce the same result.  This is what we saw happen in this election.

2014 European Parliament Wales

As you can see, despite there being a rather dramatic trend to UKIP and a less so but still significant trend to Labour, the seat distribution is unchanged.  This does betray one problem of the European electoral system: the D’Hondt system of electing MEPs, although marginally favouring larger parties, will generally give a proportional seat distribution; however when there’s only four seats to distribute it’s impossible to do so in a way that’s completely fair.  The regional system the UK uses is essential in ensuring that parties which don’t contest ever seat get represented, otherwise Plaid Cymru would win no seats, the SNP be severely unrepresented while the national parties would be over-repesented.  I can’t see a solution to this other than increase the number of seats for each country – which would make the European Parliament a complete mess – but this should be kept in mind.  This will be a welcome result for Labour, which suffered a terrible defeat in its traditional stronghold in 2009, though it’s still failed to make up all the ground lost.  It’s more bad news for the Liberal Democrats, who have gone from being an already minor force in Wales to virtual wipe-out.  The result also confirms UKIP’s position as a major party in Wales.  UKIP has grown in Wales during the last decade but it’s always been a step behind the rest of the country, whereas now their vote share is almost directly in line with the national average.  But perhaps the greatest relief is for Plaid Cymru, which managed to hold onto the seat by the skin of their teeth after numerous polls suggested they’d lose it to Labour.  Nevertheless, this result is more evidence that Plaid Cymru is failing to tap into discontent with the major parties in the way the SNP has achieved up in Scotland.

If we then take our European lens to this result, we see that 51.9% of Welsh voters voted for pro-European parties (around 60% once the Conservatives are split) – not as high as in Scotland, but still above the national average of 43% and a clear majority.  Once more, this fact brings to light the limitations of the UKIP ‘earthquake’.

Northern Ireland
I won’t pretend to have anything resembling an adequate knowledge of Northern Irish politics (I don’t think any outsiders truly understand what goes on over there!) so I’ll just make up a pretty table and give some basic observations.

2014 European Parliament Northern Ireland

There don’t seem to be many big changes here.  Sinn Féin and the DUP have both reasserted themselves as the major parties of Irish republicanism and unionism respectively, at the expense of the UUP and the SDLP.  UKIP have failed to make particular inroads into Northern Ireland, presumably because there’s not the gap in political nationalism it’s managing to fill in much of England and Wales.  The overall nationalist vote was 38.5% (-3.7), the unionist vote 50.9% (+1.9) and the ‘other’ vote 10.5% (+1.7).  The unionists achieved a majority, though the politically neutral parties have also managed to make gains.  Given demographic trends I doubt the population is becoming more unionist in ideology, so I suspect any other trends are quirks of turnout and represent no real change in political feeling within Northern Ireland.  Once again, the problem of seat distribution is raised, given that unionist parties took 67% of the seats compared to just 33% for the nationalists, but I also can’t think of what would be an easy solution to this.

United Kingdom (excluding Northern Ireland)
Watching region after region declare spectacular gains and victories for UKIP would either have been an exhilarating or thoroughly depressing experience depending on your perspective.  There is no doubt that UKIP won the election, this being the first time neither Labour or the Conservatives won the most votes in a national election since 1910.

2014 European Parliament UK

In some ways, these results aren’t particularly surprising.  Both the coalition parties took the standard ‘anti-government’ hit to their vote, with the Liberal Democrats bearing the overwhelming brunt of this as usual.  The official opposition, Labour, picked up a strong anti-government vote.  UKIP soared ahead as polls predicted.  Yet it’s being portrayed by the media as a UKIP landslide, labelling every single other party’s performance as a defeat.  This isn’t entire untrue; as previously mentioned, this is the worst result for the major parties in a century, achieving less than half of all votes between them (though, despite the media narrative, their combined share actually increased by over 6 percentage points).  This is an unprecedented result for UKIP and leaves them in very strong stead for the general election.  The Liberal Democrats have been wiped out, barely clinging onto 1 MEP of 11; Nick Clegg’s position as party leader appeared tenuous at best the following morning and, while he seems to have partially secured his position since, there continues to be dissent within the party over the viability of his leadership.  Despite a strong improvement on their 2009 result Labour had hoped to do much better, beaten into second place and only slightly above the Tories.  This prompted panicking among Labour commentators and, I’m afraid, has increased pressure for the party to take an even harsher line on immigration in a foolish bid to ‘out-UKIP UKIP.’  The Greens will welcome their extra seat, and enjoy the prestige which comes of having triple the number of MEPs as the Liberal Democrats, but the drop is national vote share will surely be a disappointment.  Despite losing votes, David Cameron seems to be in the best position of all major party leaders.  If he can count on much of the UKIP vote returning to the Conservatives next year, this result indicates the party has a decent run at winning next year’s general election.

The parties will respond to this in different ways.  The Greens and the Liberal Democrats, assuming the latter doesn’t suffer a coup in the next year, will probably stick to their pro-EU, pro-immigration messages, and rightfully so.  The Conservatives have already made attempts to placate UKIP voters by offering an in-out referendum which, despite apparently failing to stem the rise of UKIP, will probably be the route they continue down.   Labour, in contrast, appears poised to take a much more UKIPesque line on various issues.  In the last couple of decades Labour seems to have become a party intent upon chasing the centre-ground rather than leading public opinion, and if it assesses that anti-immigration feeling is the current centre-ground I would fully expect the party to adopt such policies.  This would be a mistake.  I know you’re not supposed to agree with Tony Blair these days but he hit the nail on the head when arguing Labour should confront UKIP, not pander to it (while also correctly diagnosing the Lib Dems’ problems as being unrelated to their stance on Europe but instead a result of their lurch to the right within the coalition, something Labour strategists seem to have forgotten).

Here’s why.  Across the UK, 43% of voters supported pro-EU parties (55% when the Conservatives are split) compared to the 31% which is avowedly anti-EU (44% once the Conservatives are split).  Opinion seems to be divided in half across the country, though the pro-EU vote still has an edge over the Eurosceptics.  It is not true that a vast majority of the British public support withdrawal, and Labour should realise this.  Rather than join the side of the Eurosceptics, Labour should seek to dominate the pro-EU ground.  If it doesn’t, it should expect to see much more of its vote slip away to parties which do offer a counter to UKIP’s policies – most likely to the Greens. Over half of the UKIP vote came from former Tories, compared to just 20% from Labour; it would be foolish to seek votes from a group whose natural persuasion is not Labour.  Furthermore, this result cannot claim to be a fair representation of opinion in the UK with merely 34.19% turning out to vote – only just over half of the people who tend to vote in general elections.  Chances are, the majority of people who have strong anti-Europe, anti-immigration views would have turned out to vote for UKIP, but there’s still that whole 75% of voters who didn’t feel strongly enough to vote at all.  This is the group Labour should be targeting.  No matter how hard they try, they’ll never be able to take a stronger line on Europe and immigration than UKIP, but they can appeal to the majority of people who currently see no purpose in voting.

There is no doubt that the European Parliament has proved to be an anti-establishment vote in the UK, but that’s evident more from the dismal turnout than UKIP’s electoral gains.

European Parliament
It disappoints me that the greater picture of the European Parliament election hasn’t been adequately represented in British media.  The mainstream media, especially the BBC, have been intent on painting it as a great revolt against the EU, pointing to examples of countries which had a strong rise of anti-establishment parties such as the Front National in France and Syriza in Greece.  We hear less of Germany, where the ruling Christian Democratic Union dominated the election and kept the only significant Eurosceptic party down at 7%, or of Sweden where the Social Democrats and Greens, both pro-European, together came close to taking a majority of the seats.  Nor do we hear about the success of Europhile parties in eastern Europe, where attitudes towards the EU tend to be much more positive.  Here’s the overall result of the European Parliament election:

2014 European Parliament

Majority = 376 seats.

It’s impossible to deny that there has been a shift away from the four major pro-European parties, collectively losing 89 seats.  Many of these seats have gone to parties like UKIP and the National Front, though it’s worth pointing out that the group UKIP sits in only gained 7 seats (which is much less of an ‘earthquake’ than much of the media would have you believe).  This anti-establishment backlash has most greatly harmed the EPP and, to a lesser extent, the Liberals; the Socialists and Greens have more or less held their ground.  Although the EU will undoubtedly come under pressure from national leaders who faced domestic defeats, including David Cameron and Francois Hollande, it must be acknowledged that 69% of the European electorate voted for parties in groups with a positive attitude to the EU.  Yes, this is down from 80% in 2009, but given the scale of Europe’s successive economic crises in the last five years it’s remarkable the drop wasn’t greater.  The European people have not voted against the EU.

Therefore, the EU mustn’t let Eurosceptic national leaders seek to portray this result as a mandate for unravelling the European project.  This is already happening with the debate around who will be the next President of the European Commission (effectively, the European Commission).  A candidate for this position must be nominated by the Council of Europe, which comprises the 28 heads of government across the EU states,  which must then be approved by the European Parliament.  As of the 2009 Lisbon Treaty the Council of Europe have been instructed to take into account the democratic will of the people, as represented by the elections to Parliament, in selecting their nomination.  It is unclear exactly what this means, but as each political group selects their own candidate to be the new President (unless they decide to be awkward) I think the assumption is that the group with the most votes ought to have its candidate be elected.  In this case, then, the next President should be the EPP’s Jean-Clause Juncker.  However I see David Cameron already seeking to prevent him from achieving the Council’s nomination on the grounds that his policies are too  supportive of greater expansion for the EU.  I believe Francois Hollande has taken a similar position.  The collective leadership of the Council should not acquiesce to these leaders reeling from their own domestic humiliations when the democratic will of the European people is for a pro-European President, of which Juncker received the greatest mandate.

————-

Okay, reaching 3,000 words is usually a good place to stop.  I’ll finish with another disclaimer that I’m not an expert on anything I’ve written about; these are simply my responses to both the election result and the way it’s been portrayed in the media.

Joining the Electorate (plus 2014 election predictions)

Earlier today I voted for the first time in my life, for the European Parliament election.  It’s an event I’ve been looking ahead to for several years now.  In a strange way, it was like some rite of passage that finally confirmed me as an adult in the view of society.  I felt very powerful emerging from the voting booth with the ballot paper, as though I held the political future of the country in my hand.  I knew that my vote only counted for 0.0000066% of the overall result (add an extra 0 if you include Europe) but for a political geek this is one of the highpoints of political engagement.  Waiting until Sunday for the results is going to be painful indeed.

Until then, I will have to satisfy myself by making predictions for the result.  Or rather, as accurately predicting the election is nearly impossible, most of the time I can only say what won’t happen.  So please don’t hold me to this if I get anything spectacularly wrong!

Scotland
I’ll start with Scotland, as it’s the part of the EU I know in most depth.  The general trend of opinion polls has had the Scottish National Party in the lead by varying margins but typically passing the 30% threshold, tailed fairly closely by Labour though I find it hard to envisage Labour actually taking a lead.  If it did that would certainly be an interesting moment for the independence campaign, proving to be the first non-Westminster defeat for the SNP in twelve years.  The Conservatives have been wavering at the 12-15% margin, with UKIP, the Greens and the Liberal Democrats each rolling beneath 10% competing for fourth place  – though recent polls have shown it being a tighter race between the Greens and UKIP, as Scottish voters seem poised to continue punishing the Liberal Democrats for their record in government.  

In terms of seats, it gets rather interesting.  Right now the SNP and Labour have two seats while the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats have one each.  Votes are distributed proportionally using the D’Hondt method, a practice that in theory should produce proportional seat results.  Scotland, however, only has six seats to distribute, too small a number to divide in an exactly proportional away.  Going by the polls, the SNP and Labour will easily keep hold of their two seats and the Liberal Democrats will almost certainly lose theirs.  That leaves two seats up for grabs.  There’s a strong possibility, though by no means a given, that the SNP might pick up a third seat.  I would be surprised if the Conservatives lose theirs, but there is the slight chance of a UKIP surge taking their votes and grabbing the seat by a narrow margin.  Alternatively, if the SNP don’t pick up a third seat and the Conservatives manage to keep theirs, the final seat could be a direct competition between UKIP and the Greens.  I really can’t say which way this would go – the Greens have a deeper level of support in Scotland, but if turnout is as low as predicted then things could be tight indeed, given the tendency of UKIP supporters to be more likely to vote (not entirely sure how what works, but it seems to be widely accepted).

United Kingdom
I’m not knowledgeable enough about the local workings of each region so I can’t offer much comment on seat predictions, but this will be an interesting election to watch for national shares.  UKIP have form for performing well in European Elections, coming second in the last election of 2009 with 16.5% of the vote.  The main source of discussion for this election (bar Scotland) is on how well UKIP will do; they’ve been consistently reaching the high twenties, even frequently passing 30% in opinion polls.  Considering the Conservatives ‘won’ the 2009 election with just 27.7% of the vote, this is nothing short of staggering.  With Europe being UKIP’s main source of policy it’s not surprising that their vote will be inflated above their performance in other elections and in comparison to other parties, but even with that in mind this is an impressive level to reach.  There’s no reason why they shouldn’t reach this result in the actual election.  Whether they will actually surpass Labour’s vote, also predicted to rise dramatically, and reach first place is more uncertain.  More polls have shown UKIP ahead than Labour.  I think the turnout could prove to be vital – Labour tend to benefit from high turnouts, UKIP low turnouts.  Could the thunderstorms across the south of England be in UKIP’s favour?  Time will tell.  If Labour are robbed of first place by UKIP, expect some severe discontent within the party as it prepares to fight next year’s general election.

Although the Conservatives have undoubtedly been relegated to third place, which must be quite a humiliation, their vote share hasn’t actually fallen that much in polls, consistently reaching around 20%.  That’s only a fall of about seven percentage points, and is still above what both Labour and UKIP achieved in 2009.  Despite this fact, I don’t envisage Sunday being a happy day in Tory HQ when the results come in.  They can rest assured, however, that the tone in LibDem HQ will be considerably worse.  The Liberal Democrats have never performed well in European elections, gaining only 13.8% in 2009, but polls now suggest they will struggle to even reach 10%.  There’s a real risk to the party that it could be beaten by the Greens into fifth place.  I reckon the Greens may, in fact, be the dark horse of this election.  The party has been experiencing a bit of an unreported surge recently, over doubling its polling share for the next general election and frequently surprassing the Liberal Democrats in Europe.  I’ve heard suggestions that the Greens might struggle to keep their two seats even with a rise in their vote – it depends where their votes are distributed.  It’s also possible they could pick up a seat or two elsewhere.  As with Labour, expect much discontent within the Liberal Democrats over the question of nothing less than if they’ll ever be electable again.

Europe
I know even less than politics across Europe as a whole than I do the UK so this will be a very short section.  Polls have suggested the European People’s Party and the European Socialists and Democrats (which includes Labour) will by vying for both places, though the EPP appears to have a slight advantage, though its plurality would be largely reduced.  In the wider picture of the European Union’s existential doubt this probably won’t have significant repercussions considering both groupings broadly support the European project.  The Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe and the Greens-European Free Alliance have both shown small reductions in support but nothing catastrophic.  The European Conservatives and Reformists may well suffer the most of all European groupings, predicted by polls to lose a quarter of their seats.  This will be a result of the poor performance of the British Conservatives, the main party in this grouping.  The European United Left-Nordic Green Alliance group will probably do quite well, as will the Europe of Freedom and Democracy grouping, supported by UKIP, though polls have shown conflicting results regarding the extent of this improvement.  The biggest shock to the European Parliament could be the growth of the number of MEPs not represented by any grouping, known as ‘non-inscrits’.  Worryingly, far-right parties verging on neo-Nazism, such as the National Front in France and Golden Dawn in Greece, are likely to do very well as a result of continuing poor economic conditions across Europe and a perceived lack of legitimacy of the EU.  As many as 1/7 seats could go to these non-inscrit parties.  They are unlikely to hold a balance of power and the other groupings will most likely be able to work around them, but it will pose significant implications for the future of the European project.

All in all, I await the results on Sunday with great interest.  I could be completely wrong with these predictions, or perhaps I shall be vindicated.  I look forward to finding out.  Exciting times lie ahead!

A Brush with Nationalism

flying flag

As I mark two weeks of living in Edinburgh I finally have something to  post!  I’m planning to write a summary of my ever-growing experiences at some point, but as I walked through the bustling crowd of today’s independence march I knew this post would have to take priority.  Also, I apologise for the quality of the pictures – I only had my phone with me and I later realised that I left my USB connector back at Shetland, so I had to take second photos with my other camera.  Not the most efficient method…

activityI was only able to briefly witness the initial gathering before the march to Calton Hill, which seems to have become a focal point for Scottish nationalism, as I was due to attend an ‘activism training day’ (I love Edinburgh).  Even so, with the march in a semi-formed state, this was still the most significant political event I have ever witnessed.  Flags were waved, some in frantic excitement, others rippling gently in the wind; whistles blew all round, often by children too young to understand the politics but clearly enjoying the carnival atmosphere; and bagpipes filled the air.  I once wrote about a fictional demonstration – which is, admittedly, a completely different context to here – and I’m glad I at least got the tone right.  Such joy, hope; visions and dreams were palpable through the crowd.  Whether these are justified is a different matter, yet almost didn’t seem important at that moment.  This march created an idyllic vision; cold reality can come later.

greensI was also struck by the vast variety of groups coalescing into this unlikely alliance.  I was most excited to see the Scottish Green Party who had a section in the crowd, though I was too shy to say hello.  In addition I came across the Scottish National Party, the ‘Radical Independence’ group, the Socialist Worker newspaper, the Scottish Socialist Party and even a ‘Christians for socialists independence group’.  Some single-issue organisations were there too, including anti-Trident pressure groups.  I think I even saw some Catalan flags, perhaps as a bid for pan-European solidarity.  Yes, a quick Google search tells me this was the Estelada, a flag used by Catalan nationalists.  I wonder if Saltires have even flown in Barcelona, then?

policeWhat is most impressive about my experience of the march is how peaceful and ordered it was.  This feels that it should go without saying, yet my studies of history indicate time and time again this isn’t the case.  For a movement so at odds with the interests of the ruling elite to be granted such freedom must be virtually unprecedented in the majority of human history.  There was a notable police presence* but even this seemed relatively relaxed, their prime concern being to prevent overcrowding.  There wasn’t even a hint of violent tension, which again would have been unimaginable for most comparable political movements in history.

I continue to be impressed by the optimistic vision advocated by the pro-independence cause.  Whether there’s reason to be optimistic is up for debate, but I can’t imagine anywhere near a similar atmosphere at a unionist march (do these even occur?).  I wouldn’t say this brief brush has changed my view of the debate but it has made it seem all the more real and, certainly, all the more exciting.  I am thrilled to be spending the next year here at a time of such debate and political activity.

speaker

“What do we want?”
“INDEPENDENCE!”
“When do we want it?”
“NOW!”

lonely jack

A lonely union flag despairs.

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*I’m aware of section 76 of the Counter Terrorism Act 2008, which brings into doubt the legality of photographing police officers.  Since I’m neither directly or indirectly helping terrorists by the publication of these photographs I know I’m acting perfectly within the law, but it’s unfortunate we must worry about such things in the first place.

Question Time: The BBC’s Obsession with Nigel Farage

I’ve begun down that slippery path of complaining to the BBC.  Don’t worry, it won’t become a habit, but yesterday’s Question Time was rather irritating.  The three topics discussed were state surveillance, Scottish independence and intervention in Syria.  However the Scottish independence issue was clearly at the forefront, the debate being held in Edinburgh with an audience of 16 and 17 year olds (due to the voting age for the referendum being reduced to 16).  If we accept this, can we agree that a panel consisting of four unionists, one advocate and one middle-ground is pretty uneven?  Scottish National Party MP Angus Robertson pointed this out but was dismissed by David Dimbleby, who argued that the audience was split 50-50 on the issue.  But if that’s the case then surely it should apply to the panel as well?

Yesterday, Scottish Green Party co-convener Patrick Harvie tweeted his irritation at the composition of the panel, which included no representatives from the Green Party nor the Liberal Democrats.  Despite the Greens being among the loudest voices in favour of independence, this wouldn’t need to be an issue if the other panelists represented a range of views relevant to the debate.  Instead, we get Nigel Farage and George Galloway.  I don’t wish to add my voice to the chorus of cries at “BBC Bias”, as I don’t think there’s anything malicious in their decisions of panelists.  What I do think is a problem is that entertainment seems to have become a greater priority than providing a good debate.  Farage was clearly chosen because of his recent misadventures in Scotland and Galloway because, well, he’s loud.  No doubt it was hoped that Galloway and Farage, sitting on opposing ends of the political spectrum, would go head-to-head in a ‘highly amusing’ shouting match.  What actually happened was something of an unholy alliance where they agreed on most issues.

This isn’t the first time Farage has been on Question Time.  In fact, according to this article  he has appeared more frequently than any other individual since the last general election -closely tailed by George Galloway.  Why is this?  Both UKIP and Respect do have representation (well, in England) so I don’t object to their inclusion from time to time, but I don’t think either figure is popular or relevant enough to warrant this sort of exposure.  I’m convinced that they only get invited on because they’re controversial enough to be entertaining but not so extreme as to draw immediate criticism and complaint.  But if they’re giving minor parties this level of exposure then it’s only fair it be divided equally to other parties with similar popularity – to the Greens also and, indeed, the BNP.

I guess the ultimate question is: What do we want from the BBC’s main show for political debate?  Entertaining pantomime or reasoned arguments?  It scares me that the answer isn’t clear.

(As an aside, I’m astonished at the level of condescension and scorn towards young people I saw on Twitter last night.  With a couple of exceptions, I thought the audience had very good points and expressed them well.  Should we not be allowed opinions?)

Tuition Fees (And Why I Love the Scottish Government)

I just want to make a brief post in which I gush at how grateful I am towards the policies of the current Scottish National Party administration within the Scottish government which allow students studying for their first degree to be excempt from paying tuition fees.  Yesterday I received a letter from the Student Awards Agency for Scotland in which they promised to pay the roughly £1,800 yearly fee to study at Edinburgh University.  I have to apply again each year, but over the course of four years this will have saved me £7,200.  And the fee of £1,800 is incredibly modest! (I can’t help wondering how much a student from south would have to pay).

Compare this to the system in England and Wales: yearly tuition fees which can be up to £9,000 a year, after the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition as Westminster introduced them a couple of years ago.  Over a standard three-year course (it’s generally four years in Scotland) this would leave many students up to £27,000 in debt.  It’s abhorrent, and I deeply pity everyone subject to this hopefully temporary measure.  I can understand why the Scottish government has decided to make tuition fees apply to students from England and Wales – otherwise Scottish students would likely lose out as our universities would become understandably swamped – but I certainly wish there were another way.  It’s as if the young people of England and Wales are being punished for having the misfortune to have simply been born where they were. 

University is expensive.  As I’ll be moving to Edinburgh I will also have to worry about the costs of accommodation and also just the costs of living independently without a stable income.  I’m in the fortunate position of having some money available to me for university and I will never take this for granted, but I know so many other students will find it a financial struggle.  Abolishing tuition fees for a first degree massively reduces this struggle, therefore working to break down the class barrier and, within a generation, improving the skills of the population as a whole.

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Brief University Post: Edinburgh (and the Scottish Parliament!)

Yesterday, my university trip continued with the visitation of the University of Edinburgh. I have long considered Edinburgh to be my favourite UK city (alongside Brighton, which gets ‘honourary mention’).  I feel instantly at home whenever I step along the cobbles and gaze at the skyline dotted with spires, unlike the sense of foreboding and oppressiveness I feel in most cities.  So I dearly hoped the university would thrill me in a similar way.

And, on the most part, it did.  It isn’t quite as visually pretty as the other Scottish universities I have visited, like Glasgow, Stirling or Heriot-Watt, though it has its charms.  I can imagine George Square becoming a splendour of reds, yellows and oranges in the Autumn, and there’s something lovely about Bristo Square (pictured to the left).

Several particular features of the university excited me.  From a literary perspective, there’s such a charged atmosphere: the Literature Society has regular activities, including meetings with a range of figures, from Owen Jones to J. K. Rowling.  Edinburgh was UNESCO’s first ‘City of Literature’, and there’s a wide variety of festivals in which to engage in both reading and writing.  The city contains the National Library of Scotland, and a pretty hefty lending library.  The university library’s pretty nice, too.  These activites make Edinburgh seem an especially good destination for someone not at all interested in the drinking scene.

I was also fascinated by a talk for the History degree (I’ve applied for a joint English Literature and History degree at Edinburgh).  We were treated to an example lecture on the economic history of the UK, which turned out to be far more fascinating than it sounded.  Edinburgh is a city with a rich history, dating its large-scale growth far back before the Industrial Revolution – unlike Glasgow.  Along one street you’ll see Gothic style buildings, along another they’re almost Medieval, and then you’ll come across a classical display of pillars and gold.

There is also a lively political atmosphere in Edinburgh, which appeals to me highly.  Walk along any street, particularly near the university itself, and you’re likely to see a variety of posters advertising protests: to scrap the Trident nuclear missiles, to oppose the ‘Israeli Apartheid’, to oppose the totalitarian regime of North Korea, etc.  We even stumbled upon a petition-signing event protesting against the ‘Bedroom Tax’, organised by the Scottish Socialist Party, though it was wrapping up just as we arrived and so we unfortunately never had chance to put our names down.  There’s a variety of fundraising movements we witnessed, ranging from collections for children’s hospitals to firefighters marching for the National Union of Firefighters (or something along those lines).  I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the the 2011 Occupy Movement in Scotland survived longest in Edinburgh.  Having grown up in a small island where the height of political activity is spars over whether or not to build a cinema, bridge, wind turbines, and so on, this was an amazing environment to find myself in.

This brings me on to the more exciting aspect of the trip.  I fancied a quick glance at the Scottish Parliament, located in Edinburgh, so we took a walk down the ‘Royal Mile’ and ventured in.  After a security check, we took a cautious walk into the public gallery of the debating chamber.  To our extreme fortune, it turned out that a session of the First Minister’s Questions were about to start.  My geek-credentials were proven with the fact that this excited me more than anything has in a long time.  One by one, high-profile figures in Scottish politics began to file in.  Johann Lamont (Scottish Labour leader), Nicola Sturgeon (Deputy First Minister), Ruth Davidson (Scottish Conservative Leader), and, finally, Alex Salmond (First Minister, and the Scottish National Party leader).  We watched him spar with figures such as Lamont and Davidson, and also debate with my own MSP, Tavish Scott.  I noticed Patrick Harvie, one of the few Scottish Green Party MSPs, in the chamber but unfortunately he never spoke.  It was strange, being so close to objects and people of intense interest to me.  I suppose, as I never personally interacted with any of it, the experience was not a lot different from watching the proceedings on TV, except the former never leaves me buzzing in excitement for the rest of the day.

Overall, I truly love Edinburgh.  I liked Glasgow more than I expected, but it would take a lot for me not to choose here as my place of study for four years.  From what I’ve seen of St. Andrews thus far, I don’t think my opinion will be changing.