Book Review: A Will to Power

Next year marks the centenary of arguably the most important event in modern Irish history, the Easter Rising. Before 1916 the ‘settled will’ of the Irish people was a home rule parliament; the rebellion birthed ‘a terrible beauty’, that would lead, eventually, to Irish independence, in the process dividing the nation, literally and metaphorically.

Among the 1916 leaders none was more ambivalent – or more divisive – than Eamon De Valera. It was Dev’s rejection of the Anglo-Irish Treaty in December 1921 that set a course for a civil war that still scars the Irish body politic. A Will to Power, the Nietzschean title of Ronan Fanning’s deft new autobiography, is well chosen. Marshalling primary and secondary sources, Fanning carefully paints a picture of a politician driven throughout a long life by a remarkable, almost fanatical drive for power – De Valera died in 1975, aged 92, having left the Irish presidency just a year earlier

9780571312054Born Edward De Valera, in Manhattan, to a Basque father and Irish mother, the young De Valera was raised in Ireland after his father died. Against opposition from his family, he attended the Christian Brothers School, often walking the seven miles to school. He won a scholarship to the prestigious Blackrock College. Unlike many, De Valera had found a way out of the dirt poverty of rural Ireland.

Remarkably for a man whose 6ft 1in figure dominated Irish public life for more than half a century, there is little evidence of any stable political convictions in the first two decades of De Valera’s early life. At Blackrock, his intellectual formation was decidedly Victorian, and Victorian England at that: the young De Valera had little interest in the Irish language revival or Gaelic sports. In the debating society he supported a motion that “constitutional monarchy as a form of government is preferable to republicanism”.

But there are echoes of De Valera the headstrong statesman in his formative years. Teammates attribute an expected rugby cup final defeat to his authoritarian captaincy – he took all the penalties and conversions. Years later, while campaigning for Sinn Fein in America, a travelling companion would remark that the Chief “tends to force his own opinions without hearing from the other fellows and thus thinks he has co-operation when he only gets silent acquiescence”.

De Valera was a man of convictions. Although he only started learning Irish to further his teaching career, he became a passionate advocate for the language, and the cultural accoutrements around it. He married his teacher, Sinead Ni Fhlannagain, changed his name to what became Eamon, joined the Irish Volunteers, and within three years was leading a battalion in the Easter Rising.

That De Valera survived the Rising when most of the other leaders were executed owed more to luck than his American passport. His battalion was late to surrender, and by time he was imprisoned London was already concerned about the public relations disaster unfolding inside the prison walls at Kilmainham. But the Rising was the making of De Valera. The headmaster was perfectly placed to step into the power vacuum “by virtue of his age, education and understanding of the requirements of leadership”, writes Fanning. By the end of 1917, De Valera was MP for East Clare, undisputed leader of Sinn Fein and president of the Volunteers.

As Ireland descended into guerilla war, De Valera left for America, making the case for Irish self-determination at packed rallies across the US for over 18 months. (Despite his avowed passion for an Ireland of ‘cosy homesteads’ De Valera had scant interest in his own domestic arrangements, leaving Sinead to raise their seven children almost single-handedly.)

In December 1920, De Valera returned to a country partitioned, charged with making peace with the British. He is often presented as a diehard republican but his vision of independence was not something even most SNP members would recognize: he envisioned Ireland as an external Commonwealth member still linked to the UK. But he was unable to explain this complex idea to his own colleagues, never mind Downing Street ministers. Instead in December 1921, he made a fateful decision that still divides Ireland today – the undisputed Irish leader decided that he would not lead the peace talks delegation, leaving Michael Collins to sign the Treaty establishing the Irish Free State.

De Valera railed against the Treaty – Ulster would remain outside the new Ireland, and all representatives would swear an oath of allegiance to the King. But, as Fanning argues, “he opposed the Treaty not because it was a compromise but because it was not his compromise”. As Ireland descended into civil war, De Valera embarked on a tour of Ireland, delivering speeches filled with talk of “Irish blood”.

But the Treaty had popular support, and the might of the new Irish government behind it. So, in the 1920s, De Valera began the slow path back to power. He formed Fianna Fail. The party would change the face of Irish politics, and deliver De Valera his crowning achievement, the 1937 constitution making Ireland an independent republic in all but name. De Valera fiercely guarded Irish sovereignty, even during “the Emergency” of World War II when he publicly cleaved to neutrality while privately assisting the Allies at every turn.

An innate conservative, he was an unlikely rebel. He never smoked, almost never drank, and presided over a country where government bills were often rewritten under the watchful eyes of the Catholic hierarchy. Power was his sole motivation. By the time De Valera left the Taoiseach’s office for the ceremonial role of president, in 1959, he was practically blind.

By then hundreds of thousands were emigrating every year. De Valera is often caricatured as a Catholic zealot whose blinkered vision of postwar Irish autarky stood between Ireland and modernity. But, as Ronan Fanning’s insightful biography shows, “the Long Fellow” was a complex, and conflicted, character driven by an unswerving lust for power whose towering frame still casts a shadow across Ireland today.

Eamon De Valera – A Will to Power, by Ronan Fanning (Faber & Faber, £20)

This piece originally appeared in The Herald.

Scottish island prepares for Syrian refugees

Rothesay used to be called ‘the Madeira of the North,’ back in the days when paddle steamers sailed up from the Glasgow coast bringing holidaymakers to the island of Bute. While the palm trees remain, Rothesay now looks like most faded British seaside towns. Paint crumbles on the façade of the Esplande hotel; many of the promenade shop fronts are empty as west coast Scotland rain lashes down.

Rothesay may not be the popular holiday destination it once was, but this town of around 6,000 people is preparing to welcome some new, and very unusual, arrivals – Syrian refugees, fleeing conflict at home to start a new life on a Scottish island 15 miles long and an hour’s ferry ride to the mainland.

While the House of Commons was voting on military action against the “Islamic State” (IS) group in Syria, 450 miles away on Bute locals were getting ready to welcome 15 Syrian families – the first substantial arrival in Scotland under new government plans.

four people pulling luggage along a street

Copyright: Getty Images/Ch. Furlong

A long, long way from home

Locals looking forward

“I’m excited. I’ve already started to learn a few words of Arabic,” Alison Clark, who works as a development officer at a local church, told DW. A former English teacher, Clark hopes to be able to offer English language support to the refugees once they have settled in.

The refugees – around 60 in total – are coming from camps in Lebanon, with a second batch due to arrive early in the New Year. All are being housed by the local council in and around Rothesay, which is the main settlement on Bute. The council estimates that there are around 40 empty properties on the island.

The decision to house the Syrian refugees on Bute is part of a wider Scottish Government commitment to take a third of the 1,000 Syrians that UK Prime Minister David Cameron says will be brought to the UK before the end of this year. The refugees are arriving on five-year humanitarian visas and will be free to travel. Each family has been vetted and given a medical assessment by the UK Home Office and the UNHCR.

With only three Arabic speakers on the whole island, setting up translation services has been a priority on Bute. Around 20 Syrian children will be attending the local school, Rothesay Joint Campus, which has a student body of around 600. A video showing a child’s view of living on Bute has been produced and will be shown to the refugees on the flight to Britain.

a child standing between adults

Copyright: Getty Images/Ch. Furlong

The start of an adventure?

Perfect opportunity

“The majority of the children who are coming over are younger, so it’s the perfect opportunity for them to pick up the language,” Julia Fisher, head teacher at Rothesay, told DW. “Parents have been really positive. They are going to organize a uniform collection to ensure they have all got uniforms for starting in January.”

Local council workers have spoken to a Scottish imam to find out about the religious requirements of the refugees, who are all Muslim. A source of halal meat has been identified and one of the local churches has offered its hall for new residents to worship.

Meanwhile, around 60 locals will run a “pop-up” community center to support the refugees. “We will be there during the day in the background as and when the families want us – but we will very much take our cue from them and what they want to do,” says one of the volunteers, John Duncan.

Bute has an elderly population, and like much of the rural west of Scotland has a major problem with depopulation. Many young people leave to be educated on the mainland. Few return and jobs on the island are scarce. Rothesay is among the poorest places in Scotland and there is even a food bank on the island, giving out supplies to those struggling to make ends meet.

The local council sees the refugees as part of an attempt to repopulate the area. “Rothesay is not full up, Argyll and Bute is not full up, Scotland is not full up,” says local SNP MSP Mike Russell.

Migration history

Bute itself has a history of migration – Poles came to settle there during World War II with Germans and Russians arriving soon after. Clelland Sneddon, executive director of community services for Argyll and Bute Council, said the families have been selected to try to make sure that there is not too much of a culture shock.

two women on a street

Copyright: Getty Images/Ch. Furlong

The islanders have been very positive about the new arrivals

Sneddon said that the refugees were not “city dwellers” from Damascus so hopefully won’t find it too difficult “suddenly pitching up in Bute in a rural idyll. We have got people who are from smaller towns or rural backgrounds and therefore we think the transition, the match, is a little better,” he said.

Not everyone is convinced that Bute will benefit from the new arrivals. Grace Strong, convener of the local community council, says there are “a couple of concerns” about the Syrian refugees, mainly around healthcare provision. Others complain that the local council has not provided enough information about the plans for the new arrivals.

But pupils in the local school are looking forward to sharing their classroom with young people from a completely different part of the world.

“It is such an interesting thing and it is great to be a part of it,” 17-year-old Jamie Murray told DW. “There is genuine excitement in the school. I didn’t understand the scale of the refugee crisis before – I was quite naïve in that sense. You just don’t realize how big it is.”

This piece originally appeared on Deutsche Welle.

Which is the world’s most segregated city?

The city where segregation increased the most among the 13 studied was Madrid, not due to an influx of property speculators, but because rather a lack of affordable housing.
Segregation has shot up in Madrid – due less to property speculation than a lack of affordable housing. Photograph: Alamy

“Reclaim your community,” declared the posters. “Hipsters beware.” Pinned around London’s East End last month, they announced Fuck Parade, an anti-gentrification demonstration that culminated in an attack on a café selling bowls of cereal. Long the first port of call for cash-strapped new arrivals in the city – Irish, Jews, Bangladeshis and many others – the East End was changing, said Fuck Parade’s organisers. They explained that they were protesting against increasing economic segregation: the construction of “luxury flats that no one can afford” instead of “genuinely affordable housing”.

London certainly is a very inequitable city. The richest 10% of its residents own 60% of the city’s assets. The top 10th of London earners take home around 4.5 times as much as the bottom 10th.

However, according to new research, and unlike many European cities, between 2001 and 2011, London did not actually become more economically segregated … largely because the city was so divided to start with.

“In the central parts of London, housing is extremely expensive and segregation is already high,” says Maarten van Ham, professor of urban renewal at Delft University of Technology and the University of St Andrews. Van Ham co-authored the study, which measured a range of variables associated with segregation: income, occupational status, education and more.

Peabody housing estate just off Poplar high street in East London. Canary Wharf is in the background.
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Peabody housing estate just off Poplar high street in East London. Canary Wharf is in the background. Photograph: Photofusion/Rex Shutterstock

The research found that, in the decade from 2001, segregation increased in 11 of 13 major European cities (the other exception, along with London, was Amsterdam.)

In Scandinavia, for example, the traditional Nordic model seems to be fraying at the edges. In Stockholm, social housing is being sold into the private sector; even in famously equal Oslo, rich and poor are increasingly living parallel lives in different parts of the city.

Across the Baltic Sea, Vilnius and Tallinn have gone from Soviet cities with limited private ownership of housing to hyper-capitalist ones in just 25 years.

Throughout Europe, inequality is on the rise. Our cities are looking and feeling very different, as middle-class professionals flock to central neighbourhoods while immigrants increasingly congregate together, often in suburban enclaves. “Without inequality, there wouldn’t be any segregation by income,” says Van Ham. “If inequality increases in a city, you expect segregation to rise, too.”

For example, the city where segregation increased the most among the 13 studied was Madrid – not due to an influx of property speculators, but rather a lack of affordable housing, which, for example, forced young people to stay living with their parents. In Vienna, the number of professionals has doubled in the past decade, squeezing out poorer residents.

In 2005, riots broke out across the Parisian banlieues. The insurrection was, in part, a protest against inequality, and yet segregation has increased in the years since.

Over the past three decades, it has increased in most US cities, too. The most extreme economic examples are concentrated in college towns – in part because the vertiginous cost of American university education attracts only the wealthiest. But it affects larger cities, too: New York, Philadelphia and Chicago are segregated along economic lines and are getting worse.

North of the border, in Winnipeg, a “great divide” has opened up between the 80,000-strong indigenous population and the rest of the city’s residents. Most of Winnipeg’s First Nations community live in the inner city and the North End, two of the poorest postcodes in Canada. On a whole host of indices, from access to housing to exposure to violent crime, aboriginals fare worse.

Research shows that Detroit is the most racially unequal metropolis in the US.
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Research shows that Detroit is the most racially unequal metropolis in the US. Photograph: Rebecca Cook/Reuters/Corbis

But for the starkest examples of segregation, we have to look beyond Europe and North America. In Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, hundreds of thousands of erstwhile nomads live in felt-covered “ger” tents on scrubland on the outskirts of the city, while downtown, the nouveau riche shop in expensive designer stores. And in Johannesburg, walls – often topped with broken glass and surveillance cameras – separate the wealthy from the hoi polloi. The South African city, once strictly segregated along racial lines, is now divided by income.

Cities, of course, are not just divided by money. Belfast, too, has walls – in this case iron “peace walls”, some almost 20ft high, built to separate nationalists and unionists. In the Indian state of Gujarat, scene of vicious anti-Muslim riots in 2002, many Hindus and Muslims live in separate, sprawling ghettos. Parts of the Saudi Arabian capital, Riyadh, are split along gender lines, with women-only shopping centres and restaurants, and even a dedicated women’s day at the local zoo.

Indices of dissimilarity – which measure the evenness of two groups (such as ethnic or occupational) in any given area – can be used to chart segregation. According to one study, Detroit is the most racially unequal metropolis in the US, with a dissimilarity score of almost 80: a largely black inner city, with whites living predominantly in the surrounding suburbs.

Belfast’s “peace walls” are almost 20ft high, built to separate nationalists and unionists.
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Belfast’s “peace walls” are almost 20ft high, built to separate nationalists and unionists. Photograph: Antonio Olmos for the Observer

And yet, racial segregation may not be inevitable in large multi-ethnic cities. In Los Angeles, for example, segregation has actually decreased, according to new research. In 2000, 40% of LA’s population lived in strongly segregated neighbourhoods; by 2010, it was one-third. The biggest fall has been in the number of heterogeneous white areas. “Diversity and heterogeneity is the new structure of urban society,” the authors conclude.

In Europe, however, cities are likely to become more divided as the impact of the 2008 financial crisis really starts to bite. “The crisis has probably caused inequality to rise in Europe,” says Van Ham. “But there is a serious time lag – five to 10 years – between rising inequality and when it affects cities.”

Compared with other cities around the world, however, Europe’s capitals are still relatively mixed. The oil-rich Angolan capital of Luanda has been, in some measures, the world’s most expensive city for each of the last three years. The super-rich live in gated, high-rise apartments; hotel rooms cost upwards of £250 a night for the most rudimentary. Poorer residents, meanwhile, struggle to survive in makeshift housing, unable to afford the eye-watering prices for basic staples such as milk and tomatoes.

This piece originally appeared in the Guardian.

Will Northern Ireland’s Peacewalls Ever Come Down?

In 1971, a secret report by the Northern Irish government criticised the speed with which walls, gates and fences were being constructed in Belfast to separate Catholics and Protestants. The so-called “peace lines”, it said, were creating an “atmosphere of abnormality” in the city. But the Stormont report writers did “not expect any insurmountable difficulty” in bringing down the barricades once the violence had subsumed.

Now, more than 40 years after the British Army constructed the first of those barriers, Belfast is still scarred by them: corrugated iron fences, some as high as 18ft, topped with barbed wire. Defensive architecture, it turns out, is far easier to erect than tear down. The city’s gates and walls have become “part of the built environment”, according to Jonny Byrne, a lecturer in politics at the University of Ulster. “The Berlin Wall had to come down for Berlin to be normalised. We have normalised Belfast without taking down the walls.”1938

Indeed, Belfast’s defensive walls are arguably the most famous of those many “divided cities” riven by ethnic conflict. When I was in Mitrovica, Kosovo, another divided city, ethnic Serbs informed me what a putative peace-building trip to Northern Ireland had actually taught them. “We need bigger walls,” one said.

In fact, the number of barricades in Belfast has actually increased since the Good Friday Agreement brought the Northern Irish conflict to an end in 1998. A 2012 study found almost 100 walls, fences, gates and roads forming “interfaces” between communities across the city.

It can seem baffling to outsiders. Why does Belfast still cleave to its walls? In 2008, then New York mayor Michael Bloomberg said that bringing down the barriers would open “floodgates of private investment”. Northern Ireland’s power-sharing government has vowed to remove all the peace walls by 2023.

Yet the scale – if not the impossibility – of that bold promise is all too apparent in North Belfast, a four-mile-squared patchwork of sectarian enclaves and divided loyalties that is home to almost half of the city’s peace walls. North Belfast witnessed some of the worst violence: a fifth of the more than 3,000 people killed during the Troubles died among these streets, where kerbstones alternate between nationalist green and unionist red, white and blue. Most people live on streets that are 90% Catholic or Protestant. The neighbourhood is also among the most economically deprived areas in Northern Ireland. Unlike the bustling city centre, there are no upmarket bars or expensive cafes serving flat whites.

“People say that when the walls come down, the investment will flow in. But they can’t even put in light bulbs here,” says Rab McCallum, a republican ex-prisoner who works for the North Belfast Interface Network (NBIN).

NBIN has been working for the better part of a decade out of a low-ceilinged office in a red-brick terrace near Cliftonville FC’s ground, Solitude. The group has studied peace walls, created an interactive map of them, and worked tirelessly to improve communication and prevent conflict across the “interface”, the city jargon for where Catholic and Protestant communities abut. McCallum and the small team are in touch by telephone with community workers on the loyalist side of the peace line, working constantly to defuse tensions, especially during the contentious summer marching season.

There have been some successes. In 2011, a “peace gate” was installed in the 3.5-meter-high corrugated iron fence that cuts through the tidy Victorian grounds of Alexandra Park. The foundations of that fence had been laid on 1 September 1994 – the day after the Provisional IRA announced a “complete cessation of military operations”.

Since opening, that “peace gate” has operated largely without incident. On a quiet weekday afternoon, dog walkers stroll from the Tiger’s Bay end, where Northern Irish flags fly from lampposts, to the republican Antrim Road, and vice versa. Nearby, a car turns down Newington Street. Until a few years ago, this was impossible: a steel gate, erected in the late 1980s following a spate of sectarian murders, barred the entrance to the nondescript row of terrace houses. Now the gate is open for most of the daytime: the hours have recently been extended.

Numerous other attempts to break down North Belfast’s defensive architecture, however, have run into the sand. Despite residents on both sides agreeing to a peace gate in the metal barrier that divides Flax Street, road authorities have refused to introduce expensive traffic-calming measures.

Even though segregation is estimated to cost Stormont £1.5bn a year, most of the funding for such “community relations” work comes from international donors, who are in the process of pulling out of Northern Ireland. “There is no momentum, there is no resources and the government haven’t provided a vision of a united community. They haven’t sold the benefits and opportunities” of taking down the peace walls, says McCallum. “We are in a situation where deadlines are constantly being put back, quite often because of an inability to secure the resources required.”

The peace walls were constructed, sometimes overnight, under anti-terrorism legislation. No formal mechanism exists for dismantling them. Lack of clear ownership – and legislative control – is compounded by the absence of clear guidelines for community agreement. A single resident’s opposition can be enough to maintain the status quo. “One voice can veto change for the many,” says NBIN’s Brendan Clarke.
Stormont is dominated by once-sworn enemies Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). There is little agreement about how to deal with the past, including peace walls. “There is no political need to build consensus,” says Norman Hamilton, a Presbyterian minister and member of the Community Relations Council.

Tensions between the parties threatened to bring down Stormont this summer, including the involvement of IRA members in the August murder of onetime republican gunman Kevin McGuigan. There have been ongoing anxieties over parades, with occasional incidents of violence. As I was sitting in the NBIN office, an email pinged into Clarke’s inbox. “There’s been a pipe bomb on the Oldpark Road.”

About a mile away, in West Belfast, on the opposite side of the peace line, shoppers on the Shankill Road pass storefronts selling mugs emblazoned with the Queen’s face. A mural depicts Belfast in its industrial heyday: Samson and Goliath, the iconic yellow cranes at Harland and Wolff. A little further down the street is another mural, this time in darker colours: two men bow their heads in honour of slain loyalist paramilitaries.

For four decades, an imposing, 800-metre-long, multilevel barrier has divided the loyalist Shankill and republican Falls Road. “The British Army started putting barbed wire to separate communities, then it was corrugated iron to separate communities, then brick walls that were added to and added to, even after the Good Friday Agreement,” says Ian McLaughlin of the Lower Shankill Community Association.

Men bow their heads in honour of slain loyalist paramilitaries on a mural lining the peace wall on Shankill Road in West Belfast. Photograph: David Levene for the Guardian
At the same time as barriers were going up between Catholics and Protestants, the decrepit terrace houses of the Shankill were being torn down. In 1961, more than 70,000 people lived in the area; now it’s fewer than 25,000. Most left for loyalist estates that ring the outskirts of the city. Similar movements took place across working-class Belfast. The result is that demand for housing is, in general, far higher in Catholic areas than Protestant.

“Catholics see peace walls as a problem to their community developing. For Protestants, peace walls protect their way of life, their bonfires, their flags,” says Byrne. “The question is, how do we create the conditions in which Protestants don’t see the removal of the wall as a threat to their existence as a community?”

McLaughlin, too, would like to see all the peace walls removed. “But reaching that point is a huge journey,” he says, particularly for Protestants who fear that their areas could go from orange to green almost overnight if the barriers were gone. Meanwhile, many unionist politicians fear that building new homes in Catholic neighbourhoods could dilute their electoral base.

“The difficulty in any peace wall conversation is that a lot of the initial conversations revolve around a sense of loss. What will I lose?’ asks McLaughlin, who has worked with republicans on the Falls area to improve access across the peace line.

The answer to Belfast’s peace wall conundrum lies in regeneration, says McLaughlin. A new housing development in the Shankill area is going up, after an agreement was reached with the local community. “Our core business at one time was peace-building, but now we have a dual approach – regenerating our community and building relations with our neighbours.”

But macro-political tensions can impinge on attempts to build relationships at street level. At Skegoneill Avenue in North Belfast, loyalist paramilitary flags fly from lamp-posts, even though the streets are mostly mixed and even include Belfast’s synagogue. In the shadow of an Ulster Volunteer Force, lettuce and spinach sprout in Peas Park, a community garden created by local residents. Chickens cluck happily beside a shipping container that has been turned into a shop.

“People just independently started doing stuff,” says Callie Persic, an ebullient American who came to Belfast 20 years ago for her PhD in anthropology and stayed. The garden is particularly popular with young people. In September, there is a harvest day with food, music and face painting.

Peas Park, however, has not escaped Belfast territoriality. Earlier this summer, a fence was erected around the garden. “People have been saying to us, ‘You must feel safer now there is a fence,’” says Persic. “But I felt like, why are we putting up a gate at an interface?”

This piece originally appeared in the Guardian.

Donald Trump Kicked off the Scottish Green

GLASGOW, Scotland — “My mother was born in the Hebrides, in Stornoway, so that’s serious Scotland,” Donald Trump told an interviewer in 2010.

The U.S. presidential candidate has long made much of his Scottish roots. He likes Scotland so much that he chose Aberdeenshire as the location for a controversial £1 billion golfing complex.

But the plutocrat’s relationship with his adopted home has been a rocky one. The Scots appear to be turning on him in the wake of this week’s call for “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.”

The Herald, one of Scotland’s largest newspapers, carried a front page advert Tuesday for another of Trump’s Scottish golfing interests, at Turnberry. By Wednesday, almost all of Scotland’s political establishment, and even its universities, had made clear their disapproval of Trump’s latest outburst.

US tycoon Donald Trump (C) is escorted by Scottish pipers as he officially opens his new multi-million pound Trump International Golf Links course in Aberdeenshire, Scotland, on July 10, 2012. Work on the course began in July 2010, four years after the plans were originally submitted.  AFP PHOTO / Andy Buchanan        (Photo credit should read Andy Buchanan/AFP/GettyImages)
US tycoon Donald Trump (C) is escorted by Scottish pipers as he officially opens his new multi-million pound Trump International Golf Links course in Aberdeenshire, Scotland, on July 10, 2012. Work on the course began in July 2010, four years after the plans were originally submitted. AFP PHOTO / Andy Buchanan (Photo credit should read Andy Buchanan/AFP/GettyImages)

Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s first minister, announced she was withdrawing the U.S. mogul’s membership of GlobalScot, an international business network, with “immediate effect.”

Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen stripped Trump of an honorary degree awarded in 2010, describing his comments as “wholly incompatible” with its values.

The Scottish government’s International Development Minister Humza Yousaf, himself a Muslim, called Trump’s comments “hate speech” and warned that his proposed policy, if implemented, would transform the U.S. into an “apartheid state.”

By Wednesday, almost all of Scotland’s political establishment, and even its universities, had made clear their disapproval of Trump’s latest outburst.
Trump’s comments were “divisive, hateful and designed to cause division between communities,” Yousaf said.

Patrick Harvie, a Scottish Green MSP, lodged a motion at the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh, condemning Trump for comments which he said appear “increasingly fascist.”

“This bigoted blowhard of a man is being rightly condemned far and wide, and I’m confident that Scotland will reject his extremist rhetoric,” said Harvie, who had previously clashed with Trump over a proposed wind farm near the Aberdeenshire golf course.

In light of the Republican hopeful’s latest remarks, Harvie said he could not imagine any “self-respecting person wanting to spend money” in any of Trump’s business interests in Scotland.

Scottish ministers and Scottish National Party MPs urged Theresa May, the U.K. home secretary, to consider banning Trump from traveling to the U.K.

Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh, the SNP’s trade and investment spokeswoman at Westminster, said Trump should be barred for “hate preaching.”

“While we cannot control what he says on U.S. soil, we can demonstrate leadership in relation to this issue and say: Not in the United Kingdom do we want people making Islamophobic, racist, anti-Muslim remarks that are completely unfounded and unhelpful when we continue our fight against terrorism,” the Scottish MP, who is Muslim, said.

* * *
The Scottish government, and the Scottish National Party, have not always held Trump in such low esteem. Back in 2008, the Edinburgh administration stepped in when Aberdeenshire Council rejected Trump’s bid for planning permission for his £1 billion luxury golfing complex.

Construction of the sprawling development on the scenic Aberdeenshire coast went ahead in the face of vociferous local opposition.

In 2012, Michael Forbes, a farmer who refused to sell his land to Trump, won the Top Scot award at the Glenfiddich Spirit of Scotland Awards. Trump responded by calling the awards a “terrible embarrassment to Scotland.”

Forbes’ struggle with Trump became the centerpiece of an award-winning documentary by the name of “You’ve Been Trumped.”

Trump and then Scottish first minister and SNP leader Alex Salmond were on good terms, with the pair photographed together on a number of occasions. But the relationship turned sour after a decision was made to build 11 wind turbines near the golf course.

Trump didn’t hold back, and accused Salmond of being “hell-bent on destroying Scotland’s coastline and therefore Scotland itself.”

The Apprentice star went on to take out adverts comparing the development of wind farms to the Lockerbie bombing, which killed 259 passengers on board Pan Am Flight 103 and 11 residents of the Scottish town in 1989.

In June, an Edinburgh court dismissed Trump’s request for a public inquiry into what he says was the Scottish government’s unfair approval for the wind power project.

Scottish judges concluded Trump’s lawyers had not come “anywhere near” substantiating his suspicions.

Here too, Trump claimed that the wind farm project — which is intended to test offshore wind technologies while producing electricity for commercial sale — threatened “the destruction of Aberdeen and Scotland itself.”

Trump’s investment in Aberdeenshire has so far been much less substantial than originally billed and he has repeatedly declined to say when he might start planned construction on a second golf course, hotel expansion and more than 2,000 holiday and residential homes.

Following the June judgement, Salmond, now MP for Gordon in Aberdeenshire, said he was “delighted by the decision of the highest court in Scotland to turn down Mr. Trump’s case.”

“The Trump organization has now been beaten twice in the Scottish courts and I hope that he will now accept the decision with good grace,” he said.

This piece originally appeared on Politico Europe.

In Scotland, ‘no’ means ‘yes’

GLASGOW — At 6:30 a.m. on September 19 last year, Natalie McGarry sat alone on the pavement outside the glass-fronted Emirates Arena in this city’s East End. Inside, the counting of votes in Scotland’s independence referendum had ended a couple of hours earlier — Yes had won Glasgow but lost overall, by just over 10 points. Scotland would remain in the United Kingdom.

“I was the last person left in a very sad and lonely Emirates,” recalls McGarry, who spent months campaigning with Yes Scotland in the run-up to last year’s ballot. “I was devastated.”

McGarry’s despondency did not last long, however.

A few days after the vote, the then-33-year-old policy advisor was due to speak in Brussels, at a meeting of stateless nations from around the world. As she prepared her speech, the big story in Scotland moved from the 55/45 referendum result to the tens of thousands joining the pro-independence Scottish National Party.

“I had prepared to talk about this heartbreaking loss but instead I was talking about this huge new engagement in politics,” says McGarry.

* * *

A year on from the independence referendum, Scotland and its politics has “changed, changed utterly” — as former SNP leader Alex Salmond, paraphrasing W.B. Yeats, remarked in his resignation speech last year.

On September 18, 2014, the SNP’s rolls numbered just more than 25,000. Today the nationalists have more than 110,000 members — and, in May, increased their representation at Westminster from just six seats to 56, winning all but three Scottish constituencies.

“The political landscape across Scotland has changed completely,” says McGarry, who is now the SNP MP for Glasgow East, overturning a Labour majority of more than 10,000 to win with a swing of more than 32 percent on a greatly increased turnout, a post-referendum trend repeated across Scotland.

In May’s general election, the SNP managed to attract the support of the vast majority of the 1.6 million Yes votes, including many in traditional working class areas disillusioned at the inability of Labour governments to solve the problems that plague much of post-industrial Scotland. Polls put the nationalists on course to win an unprecedented third consecutive term in the devolved parliament at Holyrood in Edinburgh next year.

“It is now self-evident to most Scots that decision-making should happen — on most issues — in Holyrood not in Westminster,” says Scottish political commentator Iain Macwhirter.

Although Scots voted No, the referendum hastened the unraveling of the Act of Union that joined Scotland and England in 1707, says Macwhirther.

“The independence referendum of 2014 was the most transformative political moment in Scotland in 300 years. It marked the beginning of the end of the Union of 1707, the consolidation of a distinct Scottish political culture, the end of Labour’s political dominance of Scotland.”

* * *

Alex Salmond previously declared last year’s vote a “once in a generation” opportunity. But, in the febrile arena of Scottish politics, a generation could prove as short as a few years.

Calls for another referendum are growing. Thousands of Scottish nationalists are due to rally in Glasgow this weekend.

Amid polls showing support for independence gaining strength, Scottish First Minister and SNP Leader Nicola Sturgeon has come under pressure to include a commitment to a second referendum on the party’s manifesto for next year’s devolved elections.

A loose pledge on another vote is likely, but having built its success on a “gradualist” strategy, the SNP is unlikely to rush a second referendum. Sturgeon has said that a “material change” in Scotland’s constitutional position would trigger a ballot — if the U.K. votes to leave the European Union and Scots chose to remain, for example, or even the election of another Conservative government in 2020 with no mandate north of the border.

While British Prime Minister David Cameron has insisted that he would not countenance another referendum, last year’s vote “will be the focal point of Scottish politics for the future and will continue to be until the next referendum,” says David Torrance, the biographer of both Salmond and Sturgeon.

Nationalists are highly unlikely to risk a second referendum until polls show a consistent support of at least 60 percent for leaving the U.K., but independence “is now the inescapable prism of politics” in Scotland says Torrance.

“Once things are framed in those terms [independence or the union], it is very hard to shift the focus back onto “normal” politics. That is reflected in the fact that the Scottish government doesn’t have that fantastic a record in areas like health and education but is wildly popular.

* * *

In 1995, then Labour Shadow Secretary for Scotland George Robertson predicted that “devolution will kill nationalism stone dead.” Two years later, Scots voted overwhelmingly for a devolved Parliament in Edinburgh — but far from ending demands for independence, the clamor to leave the United Kingdom has grown stronger in the almost two decades since.

Westminster has struggled to accommodate growing demands for Scottish self-determination. The cross-party pro-U.K. campaign during the independence referendum — so negative that it was nicknamed “Project Fear” — began with a commanding 40-point lead and ended up relying on last minute promises of fresh powers for the Scottish Parliament to secure victory.

The Smith Commission, established in the wake of last September’s vote, recommended more devolution, but for many nationalists the new levers proposed do not go far enough. Meanwhile, Conservative plans to introduce specific voting rights for English MPs in Westminster have drawn the SNP’s ire.

Adam Tomkins, professor of public law at Glasgow University and a Conservative candidate in next year’s Scottish elections, says that “the union isn’t going away anytime soon” but unionists need to make more of the benefits of the three centuries-old relationship between Scotland and England.

“People need to know what the union does for them. The union feels very abstract; it feels very distant from the life of, say, a working class man in Glasgow.”

Tomkins’ solution is two-fold: to nurture common cultural bounds across the border through proposals such as twinning pupils in English and Scottish schools; and to build an “architecture of shared rule” that would give Scots greater representation in the institutions of Whitehall and the British state.

“The ingredients that held the union in the 20th century are not going to be the ones that held the union together in the 21st century,” says Tomkins. “But some kind of replacement glue is going to be needed.”

* * *

Despite the SNP surge, victory for nationalists in a second referendum is not a given. The economic and political uncertainties that contributed so much to the Yes side’s defeat — particularly over what currency an independent Scotland would use — are no closer to conclusive answers.

Political developments elsewhere in Britain might also change the dynamic in Scotland. The SNP’s social democratic rhetoric has played well at the ballot box, but with the election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader, Scottish nationalists could face a threat from the left.

“Corbyn is a huge black swan that has sailed into the middle of the constitutional debate. Suddenly, the SNP cannot claim to be the sole inheritor of social democratic politics in Scotland,” says Macwhirter.

“The nationalists have done very well by adopting all the policies — like free tuition fees, council housing, prescription charges — that Labour abandoned under Blair. But now Corbyn is coming along and reappropriating them, which is a fascinating development.”

This piece originally appeared in Politico Europe.

War by other Means

BELFAST — So far, 2015 has hardly been a vintage summer in Northern Ireland — and not just on account of the unseasonably cold weather. In recent weeks this small corner of the United Kingdom has witnessed clashes between police and pro-union marching bands, and ongoing attacks against security forces by Irish republicans opposed to the peace process. Now the murder of a former IRA man, ostensibly by his onetime comrades, threatens to collapse Northern Ireland’s power-sharing government.

Northern Irish police have said that they believe members of the Provisional IRA were responsible for the killing of Kevin McGuigan in East Belfast earlier this month. The IRA was supposed to have “left the stage” 10 years ago when its weapons arsenal was decommissioned.

Northern Irish First Minister and Democratic Unionist Party leader Peter Robinson says Sinn Féin, the political voice of Irish republicanism, must be excluded from the power-sharing government at Stormont if IRA involvement in the murder is proven. On August 26, the smaller Ulster Unionist party announced that they would be resigning from the Executive.

British Secretary of State Theresa Villiers has been more circumspect, commenting that the continuing existence of the IRA “didn’t come as much of a surprise,” but that there was no evidence that the organization was involved in paramilitary activity.

The current crisis is the latest in a long line of disputes between Irish nationalists and pro-U.K. unionists in the devolved government that was set-up in Northern Ireland in the wake of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. That deal brought an end to the 30-year-long “Troubles” that cost more than 3,000 lives.

The once quotidian violence is gone, but this remains a deeply divided society. Belfast is among the most segregated cities in the world. Across the city, rival union flags and Irish tricolors denote separate Protestant and Catholic neighborhoods.

“People don’t hate each other, but Sinn Féin and the DUP hate each other” — Alex Kane, unionist political commentator
The state of play in government is little different.

Even before the McGuigan killing — believed to have been carried out in retaliation for the murder of another former IRA member in Belfast earlier this summer — nationalists and unionists were at loggerheads over proposed welfare cuts for the population of just under two million mandated by the British government in Westminster.

Sinn Fein says reductions in welfare payments would hurt the most vulnerable. Both major unionist parties, the Democratic Unionists (DUP) and the Ulster Unionists, warn that failure to do a deal would leave a £600 million (€825 million) hole in the Belfast Parliament’s budget. Northern Ireland receives an annual subvention of around £12 billion (€16.5 billion) from the U.K. Exchequer.

Earlier this summer, First Minister Robinson insisted that if no deal is struck on spending cuts he would ask the secretary of state to repatriate control of welfare policy back to Westminster. Such a move would probably lead to the collapse of Northern Ireland’s power-sharing administration — if it has not been toppled already by the aftershock of the McGuigan killing.

And yet, Belfast does not feel like a city that could soon be without a government.

Tourists throng the streets, despite the summer showers. The colorful rainbow flags festooned outside bars and clubs ahead of the recent gay pride festival attest to changing attitudes in the once puritan Northern Irish capital.

“I walk around this town and people aren’t saying to me ‘the union is in danger.’ Nobody. People are more interested in jobs and health,” says Alex Kane, a unionist political commentator based in Belfast.

“But there is a general sense of despondency with the assembly. People don’t hate each other, but Sinn Féin and the DUP hate each other.”

* * *

This July marked the 10th anniversary of arguably the most important step in Northern Ireland’s road to peace — the decommissioning of the Provisional IRA’s huge stockpile of weapons. The republicans’ long campaign, which cost more than 1,800 lives, was supposedly over.

The cessation of widespread violence has not, however, meant the end of hostilities between nationalists and unionists. In Northern Ireland, von Clausewitz’s famous maxim is turned on its head: here, politics is war by other means. Clashes over putatively minor issues such as the Irish language provision and the routes for pro-union Orange Order parades are common.

“The Good Friday Agreement managed the end of the conflict. It didn’t give us a blueprint for normal politics,” says Jonny Byrne, lecturer in criminology at the University of Ulster. The past remains deeply contested by all sides. Politicians “have never resolved the fundamentals of the conflict,” says Byrne.

Northern Irish politics is characterized by “an inability to accept losses and gains through normal political mechanics.” Instead politicians of all stripes blame the British or Irish governments for failing to provide resources or solutions to local problems.

The drive for consensus in the peace process also begot a system prone to cronyism. Police are investigating claims that a Belfast law firm held £7 million (€9.6 million) in an offshore bank account for a local politician in a major property sale.

“The question is: When should you complain after 20 years that an absence of violence is not enough?” asks Byrne. “We should want more. We should aspire for more. This is not what we should settle for.”

“Paramilitaries are still active in the community” — Phil Hamilton, community worker
Northern Irish politics is still dominated by many of the same actors that trod the boards during the Troubles. Peter Robinson was elected DUP deputy leader in 1980. Five U.K. prime ministers have held office since Gerry Adams became Sinn Féin president.

“It feels like Cuba,” says Byrne. “Where is the opportunity for new thinking?”

While old stagers dominate party politics, on the street tensions have ratcheted up.

Alongside the union flags, paramilitary standards flutter in the breeze in many loyalist parts of Belfast. Illegal outfits such as the Ulster Defence Association and the Ulster Volunteer Force have been accused of recruiting new members. Earlier this summer a new loyalist terror group announced its presence.

On the other side of the sectarian divide, republican paramilitaries provided a “guard of honor” at a recent funeral in Derry. Claims of IRA involvement in the McGuigan killing have focused attention on the continuing existence of paramilitaries in Northern Ireland. “Paramilitaries are still active in the community,” says Phil Hamilton, a community worker in Rathcoole, a huge Belfast housing estate where loyalist gunmen still look down menacingly from gable end murals.

“A return to the conflict isn’t on the radar but other people are filling the political vacuum,” says John Loughran, a Sinn Féin member who works with former prisoners from both sides of the conflict in North Belfast. The area is among the most economically deprived in the whole of the U.K.

Gridlock in Stormont is fuelling a wider sense of disillusionment with politics. In May’s general election, Northern Ireland registered the lowest turnout in the U.K.

“The good and proper institutions built into the Belfast Agreement are increasingly the very structures that are disenchanting the electorate,” says Norman Hamilton, a Presbyterian minister and member of the Community Relations Council. “This dissatisfaction is deep. We are tired of crisis.”

I meet Hamilton in a bright, airy shopping arcade in Belfast city center. The building was opened by then British Secretary of State Patrick Mayhew in 1992, an early sign of growing confidence that peace was finally coming to restive Northern Ireland.

More than 20 years later there is no sign of a return to the violence of the past. But even if Stormont survives the latest emergency, executive paralysis is eroding faith in the political process, warns Hamilton.

“If democracy cannot deliver stable government, given our history that’s not a good place to be.”

This piece originally appeared in Politico Europe.

Dundee: from black sheep of Scottish cities to ‘living cultural experiment’

Chris Van Der Kuyl set up his first video game company in Dundee in the mid-1990s. “It was an industrial landscape,” he says of the city, which had been bled of heavy industry from the 1970s onwards. “Everything was closing, everyone was leaving.”

Van Der Kuyl’s 4J Studios would go on to help develop the global gaming sensation Minecraft; next year he will open a new digital headquarters on the city’s docks. “It’s not the V&A but it will cost a few million,” he laughs.

In its imperial heyday, Dundee was known as the city of “jute, jam and journalism”. Now, with the mills gone and the printing presses quieter, Scotland’s fourth city has a rather different claim to global fame: not just Minecraft but Grand Theft Auto and other classic video game titles were born or raised on the banks of the River Tay. What’s more, as Van Der Kuyl referred to, the only branch of the V&A museum outside London will open soon on the once-thriving docks.

Indeed, despite pockets of severe deprivation, Dundee’s story is that of a city increasingly defined by its culture and creativity. With a population of just 150,000, it was long seen as the black sheep of Scotland’s cities, languishing behind the architectural drama of Edinburgh and the wealth of Aberdeen, its post-industrial problems often overshadowed by those of much larger Glasgow. But this image is changing.

Some 3,000 people now work in Dundee’s creative economy, generating turnover of almost £200m. Last year, Dundee received the UK’s first Unesco City of Design award, fitting recognition for a city that gave the world everything from Aspirin and orange marmalade to ZX Spectrum. Publisher DC Thomsons are major employers here; an 8ft bronze statue of Dandy comic book hero Desperate Dan stands tall on the high street, his faithful mutt Dawg in tow.

The V&A at Dundee may be over budget – £80m and counting – and behind schedule, but it is expected to open in 2018. And actor Brian Cox is now backing a £120m project to bring a film studio to Dundee.

“What was a post-industrial city now has multiple indicators of inward investment,” says professor Paul Harris, dean of Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design. “There has been a massive transformation for the citizens of Dundee and their ambition.”

The Birmingham-born Harris “hated” Dundee when he arrived in 1991, to work in the local television industry. “The notion in ’91 of three cycle cafes and the V&A? You wouldn’t have believed it,” he says over coffee in an upmarket hotel by the docks. Nearby stand a phalanx of apartments with views over the Tay.

A couple of hundred metres away, along the river, a placard attached to plywood hoarding proclaims: “Your Waterfront Your Future”. Articulated lorries ferry earth from what will be the site of the V&A, located just next to where the RSS Discovery, the Dundee-built research ship used by Captain Scott and Ernest Shackleton’s expedition to Antarctica in 1901, is moored on the Tay. There are plans for a hotel, retail units and apartments, all part of an ambitious regeneration project to connect Dundee city centre to the water.

The decision to open the V&A at Dundee stemmed in large part from long established links between Duncan Jordanstone of College of Art and Design and the pater familias in Kensington. Similar links have been forged between Dundee’s universities and creative industries is many areas, notably gaming. In 1997, Abertay University created the world’s first degree in computer games technology. Today, Dundee is the heart of Scotland’s thriving gaming industry: Rockstar North, creators of Grand Theft Auto, may have since moved to Edinburgh, but there some 40 gaming firms based in Dundee.

Not all have multimillion-pound offices or household name titles. In an alcove in the roof of the Victorian-era City Chambers, a team of designers from a start-up called Spacebudgie is building an educational platform game. “We decided to form our own company rather than just getting jobs with other companies,” says designer Ronan Quigley, whose team are all recent Abertay graduates.

Spacebudgie share their enviable workspace – stained-glass windows, bare rafters, stickers that say “Fundee” dotted on walls – with a handful a small companies. They are part of the Fleet Collective, a community of artists, designers and creative entrepreneurs who work separately or collaborate on different projects. Desks are just £100 a month.

“In Dundee you have to make your own fun. You’re forced to do it yourself,” says Ed Broughton, a 37-year-old Londoner who runs the film outfit Bonnie Brae Productions at Fleet Collective. “It never really crossed my mind to set up a company before I came to Dundee.”

Dundee has made a virtue of its size. The local council convenes a quarterly Cultural Agencies Network, which meets to discuss strategy and concerns. A short walk from Fleet Collective is the impressive curved glass and steel building of Dundee Contemporary Arts. When the DCA was opened in 1999, on the site of an old garage that was being used as an impromptu skate park, the city had no real national cultural presence. Now the DCA boasts a print studio, cinema, gallery space, and one of the best cafes in town.

DCA director Clive Gillman says he looks ahead to the coming of the V&A but, like many in Dundee, mixes optimism with concerns about what he calls “irritable Bilbao syndrome”.

“We have to make the V&A work for the city. And we have to make the V&A work for us in the city,” says Gillman, who will soon take over as director of creative industries at Creative Scotland. “How do you make a massive institution like the V&A work within the context of the local strategy? That’s the really exciting thing. But that’s not easy either.”

The DCA has been widely praised for helping to transform the city’s cultural life. “Dundee Saved My Life” says a T-shirt on sale in the gift shop. “Across Europe there are hundreds, thousands, of small, post-industrial cities trying to understand what their future is. What Dundee has done is shape its future – partly by accident, partly by design, building on what was already here. This is a living experiment of what culture-led regeneration could look like,” says Gillman.

Every year, DCA buses in thousands of kids to attend screenings at the two-week Children’s Film festival. Local communities have long been at the heart of Dundee’s cultural strategy, but Gillman admits that reaching out remains “a fundamental challenge”.

The V&A will have to work hard to connect with the people of Dundee, too, not just the well-heeled visitors who will inevitably flock to it. Despite millions in outside investments, Dundee remains one of the most deprived places in Scotland. One in four children live in poverty. For many children growing up in places such as Lochee or Kirkton, lucrative careers as game designers or visual artists remain a distant dream.

There are significant economic barriers preventing poorer citizens from accessing Dundee’s cultural offerings, says Philip Howard, chief executive of Dundee Rep, the only repertory theatre left in the UK. Howard has worked hard to make Dundee Rep a more national, and indeed international, company. “But you have to offset that with wider, deeper and – crucially – more targeted work in the city.”

That includes taking plays out into Dundee’s small, closely knit communities. Each year, the Rep tours small venues across the city. The material started off relatively light with a collection of Alan Bennett monologues, but has progressed to plays about teenage pregnancy and social problems.

Anna Day, director of Literary Dundee, is all too aware of the “danger of polarisation” that can happen if a wealthy creative sector becomes disconnected from the city it inhabits. “It is about reaching these children at a young age and showing them how design and culture can change their lives,” says Day.

One attempt to do this is Comic School, a joint initiative between DC Thomson and the city’s universities. Due to open this year, it will host resident comic book artists who, in return for reduced rent in the building, will mentor young people. “We need to show people how (culture) can change their lives,” says Day.

Day grew up in Dundee, then left for London and a job on Fleet Street. She swore she would never return, but “then I came and saw how much was happening.” That was nine years ago. A shiny new museum, or a fleet of hipster office spaces, will not solve many of Dundee’s post-industrial problems, but Day believes something profound has changed. “The city is optimistic. How people feel about themselves has changed.”

This piece originally appeared in the Guardian.

Shame in the Shetlands

Shetlanders are fond of saying that their nearest train station is the Norwegian city of Bergen, such is the islands’ distance from the British mainland. Perched on a rocky outcrop surrounded by the wild, oil-rich North Sea, the U.K.’s most northerly archipelago has a very distinctive history and identity.

But windswept Shetland — population circa 25,000 — has not escaped the political gale that blew across Scotland and the rest of Britain in the wake of last year’s defeated independence referendum.

In May’s general election, Shetland and Orkney was one of only three Scottish constituencies not to return a Scottish National Party MP. Incumbent Liberal Democrat Alastair Carmichael held on, by less than a thousand votes, as the SNP took 56 seats across Scotland.

The former Scottish secretary’s political future — and the future of his party in their last Scottish redoubt — now hangs in the balance.

Carmichael is under investigation by Westminster’s parliamentary standards commissioner after he admitted to approving the leak of a Whitehall memo suggesting SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon told a French diplomat she would like to see David Cameron remain as Prime Minister ahead of the general election. He had previously denied any involvement.

Recently passed legislation that allows the recall of MPs is not yet in force, but, if the commissioner finds against him, Carmichael’s position could become politically untenable. At the same time, a separate public petition crowd-funded over £55,000 to launch a legal challenge against the Lib Dem’s election victory. An Edinburgh court is expected to hear the case in September. Either outcome could result in a by-election.

Such political skullduggery is almost unheard of in the Shetland Islands.

“It’s not a particularly political place. People in Shetland just want to be left to get on with things,” says former BBC journalist Tom Morton over coffee in a busy café near the harbor at Lerwick, the Shetlands’ largest town.

Liberals have dominated Shetland politics for more than half a century. Jo Grimond, who first became MP in 1950, is still revered for brokering a deal with international oil companies in the early 1970s that saw the construction of a massive refinery at Sullom Voe under unusually favorable terms for the local community. Almost overnight, the impoverished fishing community was transformed into a prosperous mini-state with local control over its own oil fund.

“People in Shetland just want to be left to get on with things” — Tom Morton, former BBC journalist.

But the Liberal Democrats hemorrhaged support in May, and the Carmichael affair has sparked indignation among many in Shetland. More than once I was told that the MP had “brought shame” on the islands — not by leaking the “Frenchgate” memo, but by lying about it.

“The ordinary Liberals feel betrayed by what he did because they trusted him,” says Shetlander Mary Blance.

Even Tavish Scott, the sitting Liberal Democrat member of the devolved Scottish parliament for Shetland, admits that voters feel let down. But Scottish nationalists went over the top in their campaign to oust the MP, he says, adding: “I think it will rebound on the SNP.”

Scott and his party hope so — Shetland is one of just two Lib Dem constituencies to have survived the SNP tsunami in the 2011 Scottish elections. Polls suggest the nationalists could win almost every seat in Scotland next year. With the Lib Dems currently polling in the low single digits, the party needs all the support it can muster.

* * *
On a blustery summer’s evening on Lerwick harbor, a brass band decked out in British Legion livery plays to a small crowd. The event commemorates more than 250 men who left the islands a century ago to fight in World War I. Many never returned.

As the band plays, a Shetland flag swirls in the breeze. The ubiquitous standard — the colors of the Scottish saltire in the form of a Nordic cross — reflects the islands’ own complex ties.

The islands were under Norwegian control for centuries. In 1468, the King of Denmark pawned Shetland, along with Orkney, to Scotland as part of a dowry for a royal marriage. The Danes never managed to repay the debt.

The Act of Union brought the Shetlands into the United Kingdom, but traces of the Viking heritage remain: St Magnus, St Olaf and King Harald are among the names of Lerwick’s pretty Victorian streets. Udal law, an ancient Norse legal system, still holds sway in the Shetlands’ courts. Solid Scandinavian-style timber houses are dotted across the islands.

With such a rich history, identity is a particularly thorny issue, says Shetlands-born writer Malachy Tallack.

“Most people would say they are Shetland first. Most people would say they are Scottish too, and probably British. There is no contradiction.”

Although a short-lived movement for greater autonomy emerged after the discovery of oil, the Shetlands have long been stony soil for Scottish nationalism. In 1979, the Shetlands voted against Scottish devolution. In the 2010 general election, the SNP finished a massive 41.4 percent behind the Lib Dems here.

But Shetlanders’ antipathy towards the nationalists seems to be softening.

Last September, the pro-independence vote was lower in Shetland than the national average but, at more than 36 percent, was still significant, says Tallack. “Ten years ago you wouldn’t have found 5 to 10 percent who would have voted yes.”

Since the referendum, the SNP’s membership in Shetland has risen more than five-fold.

“You can’t afford to buy a house in Shetland. You can’t afford to rent a room” — Ella Gordon, textile maker.
Often accused of centralizing power, the Scottish nationalist government in Edinburgh has set out a new agenda for the islands, promising more local powers and appointing Scotland’s first dedicated islands’ minister. This approach is proving popular in Shetland, says Mike MacKenzie, an SNP member of the Scottish Parliament for the Highlands and Islands.

“In the past they have felt neglected by the Scottish government (and) by the SNP. That has changed,” says MacKenzie. “I’ve been warmly received. That’s partly the natural island hospitality but also we’ve been taking a pretty good message to the island.”

Shetland News journalist Neil Riddell agrees. “People always say, ‘We are as remote from Edinburgh as we are from London,’ but that isn’t strictly true. We have much more access to Scottish ministers. Before devolution there was just one U.K. minister for the whole of Scotland.”

Ostensibly Shetland has done well from the union. Oil has paid for a road network that is the envy of rural Scotland. Even small hamlets have heated swimming pools and leisure centers. Lerwick boasts both a state-of-the-art performance space and a museum that rivals those of many larger nations.

Meanwhile, a massive gas plant is being built at Sullom Voe. Many of the workers live in huge, static ocean-liners moored in Lerwick and Scalloway.

Some Shetlanders, however, question whether this so-called “second oil boom” is benefiting their community. Beyond the bar owners and the hoteliers, there is little sign of oil money trickling down. House prices have risen sharply, and a new generation of locals find themselves forced to leave.

“You can’t afford to buy a house in Shetland. You can’t afford to rent a room. A friend of mine was renting a one bedroom flat for £900 a month,” says Ella Gordon. The 24-year-old textile-maker lives with her parents.

Most of her friends now live in Edinburgh or Glasgow, hundreds of miles, and an expensive day’s journey, away. “Growing up in the 90s we had it so good. We could do anything we wanted. Now it’s like life is going backwards.”

Bob Gillespie, the SNP and Labour’s primal scream

It’s a bank holiday Monday afternoon in a Glasgow boozer. Busy tables are littered with discarded yellow raffle tickets and half-empty pints. On the small stage, a heavily pregnant woman belts out Purple Rain.

Bob Gillespie stands by the entrance, shoulders filling out a tweed jacket, silently mouthing Prince’s words. The 77-year-old passed his love of a singalong on to his son, the raucous Primal Scream frontman who bears his name. In a gap between numbers, a middle-aged woman with tightly pursed lips stops for a chat. “Don’t worry, I can help,” Gillespie says in a low, gravelly voice, flicking a hand through his white hair. She smiles, reassured.

In his native city, Bob Gillespie’s reputation goes before him. He is the union firebrand who took on Robert Maxwell. He is also probably the most famous Labour MP that Glasgow never had, the man whose defeat in a supposedly unlosable 1988 byelection in Govan was a watershed moment for Scotland, and Scottish nationalism.

Bob Gillespie
Outside the bar, the street is bathed in sunshine, illuminating a series of bright blue posters tacked up in the windows of a council flat. All say just one word: “Yes.” Glasgow voted for independence last year. Now Labour seems set to lose dozens of Westminster seats in its onetime heartlands to the Scottish National party. If anyone knows what that feels like, it’s Bob Gillespie.

In 1988 it was no summer of love in the shadows of the shipyards on the southern lip of Glasgow’s Clyde. Rangers had finished a lowly third in the league, behind bitter rivals Celtic. Margaret Thatcher was in the process of denationalising British Shipbuilders. Govan’s Fairfield yard would soon be sold off. That July, Labour leader Neil Kinnock nominated Govan MP Bruce Millan as a European Commissioner. The ensuing byelection would be a formality. In the previous year’s general election, Labour won a record victory in Scotland, returning 50 MPs. Millan took more than five times the vote of his nearest challenger in Govan. Scottish nationalists finished a distant fourth.

Labour chose Gillespie as its candidate. Gillespie, a vivacious product of Glasgow’s docks, seemed a neat fit with working-class Govan. After returning from the navy with “Hong Kong” tattooed on his knuckles – a memento of a drunken escapade in the entrepot – Gillespie had built a formidable union career. By 1988, he was negotiating with print bosses across the UK.

But it soon became apparent that Govan would not be as straightforward as the Labour hierarchy assumed. Labour was slumping in the polls. The self-styled “fighting fifty” Scottish Labour MPs elected in 1987 were powerless in Tory-controlled Westminster. Split on the issue of a devolved Scottish parliament, the party was equally divided about how to respond to the poll tax. The newly minted levy was to be implemented in Scotland first before being rolled out across the UK. Labour rejected proposals for mass non-payment. The Scottish National party saw its chance.

“Our strategy in Govan was absolutely clear, to pin the Labour party on two points: they didn’t know what to do about the poll tax and they weren’t the party they were,” recalls Jim Sillars, the SNP’s candidate and himself a former Labour MP.

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Jim Sillars, SNP candidate in the 1988 Glasgow Govan byelection. Photograph: Guardian

The SNP had form in Govan. In 1973, a glamorous 30-year-old publican named Margo MacDonald – nicknamed “the blonde bombshell” by an enraptured press corps – overturned a massive Labour majority to win a historic nationalist victory. By 1988, Sillars and MacDonald were husband and wife.

But the political landscape in Govan had shifted in the decade and a half since MacDonald had shocked the Labour establishment. The defiant radicalism of Jimmy Reid and the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders was a fading memory. The SNP was openly loathed, blamed for ushering Thatcher into power after its support for a no-confidence motion precipitated the collapse of the James Callaghan administration in 1979.

“We were despised,” says Sillars, leaning back on a tan easy chair in his ground-floor flat on Edinburgh’s southside. Near his slippered feet lie copies of Marx’s Capital, biographies of Hitler and Stalin, and Alex Salmond’s recent referendum campaign diary.

Initially, the SNP’s aims in Govan were timorous. Reduce the Labour majority to a few thousand. Give the party a scare. But as the short byelection campaign began, the mood changed. Nationalists descended upon Govan. More than 500 turned out to canvass in one day alone. Sillars’s call to refuse to pay the poll tax chimed with an angry electorate. A Labour press officer drafted from London for the campaign later recalled the Proclaimers “driving round Govan on the back of a flatbed truck urging everyone to kick Labour where it hurt”.

Bob Gillespie was struggling. Local Labour party membership numbered just 170. Many were of retirement age. Mirror Group owner Robert Maxwell used his titles – notably the influential and traditionally Labour-leaning Daily Record – to launch withering attacks on his union nemesis.

“Maxwell always put gagging orders on people. He would never have been able to do that if you only spoke as an MP in the Palace of Westminster. So he went after me,” says Gillespie, with a rueful shake of his head. He offered to stand down. Kinnock would not hear of it: “He said: ‘You just have to do the best you can and I’ll have a go at Maxwell.’” The Labour leader would regret not heeding the warning.

Days before the byelection, Gillespie floundered in a live debate on Scottish Television when asked a question about subsidiarity in the European Union. “Bob didn’t want to show his ignorance,” recalls Sillars. “He got so distracted trying to answer that he knocked over the microphone. That television debate was a disaster for Bob. So it was good for us.”

On 10 November 1988, two days after George HW Bush was elected US president, Govan went to the polls. Jim Sillars appeared on the ballot paper as “SNP Anti-Poll Tax Candidate”. He won a majority of 3,554 on a massive 33% swing.

A BBC exit poll showed that 32% of Govan voters thought “representing Scotland’s interests” was the most important issue, followed by 21% citing the poll tax. More than half rated the performance of Scotland’s Labour MPs as “poor” or “very poor”. In London, Tony Benn took to his diary. The Govan defeat, he wrote, was “a reflection of our failure to discuss constitutional questions, which are at the core of the devolution argument”.

I think I did more good for the children in Chernobyl. I thought: ‘God works in mysterious ways.’

Bob Gillespie is a talkative man but he grows quiet, even sullen, when asked about what happened in 1988. “I don’t feel anything about it at all,” he says, cradling a can of sugar-free Irn Bru. “That was only six weeks, seven weeks of my life. I went back to work.” Gillespie never stood for public office again. After Govan, he raised over £1m for victims of Chernobyl. Dozens of Belarusian children were brought to a convalescing home in Ayr. “I think I did more good for the children in Chernobyl. I thought: ‘God works in mysterious ways.’”

Labour subsequently tried to blame Gillespie for his loss. Selection rules were tightened. But some close to the Govan campaign complained they were hamstrung by “the shambolic organisational abilities of those sent up from London”.

Govan 1988 changed Scottish politics, and Scotland. Although Sillars lost the seat at the next general election, he believes his victory put the nationalists back on the political map. “It ended the period of vicious animosity among people towards the SNP. We were back with some credibility.” In the wake of its Govan defeat, Labour finally decided to join the constitutional convention, paving the way for devolution in 1997.

Ten years later, the SNP won its first elections to the Edinburgh parliament. Now the nationalists stand on the verge of unprecedented general election success. The SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon has energised the nation. As a teenager, the future first minister had a poster of Jim Sillars on her wall. Govan 1988 was her very first political campaign.

The problems that plagued Labour in Glasgow more than two and a half decades ago are even worse now. The traditional party of industrial Scotland lacks members, drive and momentum. Gillespie, however, is still unflinching in his support. He campaigned against independence last year. Gillespie’s photograph appears on local Labour party election leaflets. He is smiling, his beloved bichon frise Pepe in his arms.

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Bob Gillespie (left) with Michael Foot, Helen Liddell and Denis Healey at Central America fundraiser event in the 1980s. Photograph: Murdo MacLeod/Guardian

These days, however, Bob Gillespie spends more time surrounded by music than politics. “I’ve always loved music,” he says. In the 1960s, he ran a Glasgow folk club. Billy Connolly was a floor singer. (“He was never a singer, never.”) His son, Bobby Jr, used to lie awake at night listening as the Rolling Stones, Dylan and Muddy Waters spun on the turntable at the parties his parents threw in their council house.

The Primal Scream singer has credited his father with introducing him to rock’n’roll and socialism. “My dad was an activist, he was a trade unionist and he was a Marxist and he was always involved in that struggle and it took up his life,” he said in 2013.

Today, Jim Sillars is on the fringes of the SNP. His wife, Margo, died just months before the referendum. In his spare time he tutors novice SNP general election candidates, including Mhairi Black, the 20-year-old student whose audacious bid to unseat Labour shadow foreign secretary Douglas Alexander in Paisley has unmistakable echoes of Sillars’ win in Govan.

In 1988, there were only a handful of SNP-Labour marginals. Last month, the Electoral Reform Society classified all seats in Scotland not held by the SNP as marginal. Now there are Govans right across the country.

This piece originally appeared in the Guardian.