Independent Thinking

Give independent scholars their funding due, says Peter Geoghegan: while the academy is ‘rethinking’, they are busy doing.


Outside edge

Credit: Miles Cole

A few years ago, I attended a panel discussion on “the challenge of non-university researchers”, held at Queen’s University Belfast. The British Academy-sponsored event boasted a venerable roster of speakers addressing a worthy – if verbose – set of questions: the need “to rethink the central role of the university in the establishment of knowledge”, how “new processes of knowledge creation” are “bypassing established university controls”, and the like.

I arrived at the imposing Sir Charles Lanyon-designed Great Hall at Queen’s with high hopes: Northern Ireland has a strong record of research beyond the academy; Belfast alone houses a plethora of independent researchers, free-floating research units and thinktanks. I left – more than two hours later – thoroughly disheartened, as the catholic sweep of independent scholarship was reduced to a succession of anecdotes about “terrific” amateur historians and retired genealogists.

“Independent scholars come in many shapes and sizes”, a recent Times Higher Education feature noted (“Free-range thinkers”, 3 May). “Some work between disciplines, or in disciplines that are not yet fully established, and so have no natural niche within traditional academic structures.” Others have defined academic loci but find themselves, for whatever reason, operating outside the aegis of a third-level institution.

If the term “independent scholar” smacks of PR-speak, the notion of researchers working outside formal university structures has a long lineage: after all, what was Charles Darwin, who lived on an income from his investments and other non-academic sources, if not an independent scholar?

The independent scholar became a widespread, if often only grudgingly accepted, part of the academic ecosystem in the US in the late 1970s and early 1980s. As universities disgorged ever-increasing numbers of PhD graduates on to a stagnant job market, many highly trained researchers became (by choice or necessity) freelance researchers, working within non-academic organisations or under their own steam to produce scholarly articles, books and discussion papers without university administrators breathing down their necks, or any chance of tenure.

The US’ National Coalition of Independent Scholars (NCIS) has around 200 members and publishes a quarterly newsletter, The Independent Scholar. The Princeton Research Forum boasts some 75 independent scholars, who meet once a month to exchange ideas and critique members’ works in progress.

While a broadly equivalent situation has existed in the UK for almost as long, we have been much slower to recognise the number – and often, the quality – of independent scholars. Their image as bookish retirees or trust fund beneficiaries is no longer fit for purpose. Many, like me, hold PhDs, engage in journalism and other freelance writing, and will have, or have had, unpaid affiliations with universities and academic centres.

Beyond the obvious instability of researching outside the academy – who pays the rent? How do you progress in a career where promotion is almost an oxymoron? – independent scholars face logistical challenges, too: how can you access journals without university affiliation? How can you support independent research?

Bodies such as the NCIS in the US have been able to lobby for greater library privileges for their members, even producing natty membership cards to assuage fastidious bibliocrats. Access to funding remains a significant stumbling block, however.

Regardless of the quality of their ideas or the value of their proposed work, independent scholars often find themselves elided by funding structures, as I discovered recently when attempting to apply to a UK research council for a grant under a scheme to promote know-ledge transfer with non-academic audiences. After several phone calls and emails back and forth, I was told that although my original research had been university funded, I did not meet a crucial funding requirement: I was not in the employ of a university.

Post-financial crash, “small is beautiful” has become a popular motto. Sadly, it is not an aspiration shared by our research councils, where funds are being consolidated into a greatly reduced number of larger awards. This benefits university hierarchies far more than it does researchers, independent or otherwise.

The “challenge of non-university researchers” has still to be met. Nevertheless, research beyond traditional university structures is here to stay: indeed, in subjects where overheads are low and cutbacks are high, such as the humanities and social sciences, we could be on the verge of a new age of independent scholarship. While the academy is “rethinking”, independent scholars are busy doing.

This piece originally appeared in the Times Higher Education, 31 May 2012.

LRB Blog: Yes Scotland

‘Go on, Dougie,’ the man beside me shouted. His silver and blue lapel pin twinkled in the wan light of Screen 7 at Cineworld in Edinburgh. To my left, a woman beat her foot as Dougie MacLean shuffled with his guitar across the makeshift stage at the launch of Yes Scotland last Friday. In the front row, Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s deputy first minister sang along to ‘Caledonia’; Alex Salmond grew lachrymose, or at least appeared to in the footage broadcast on the evening news.

Half an hour earlier, the first minister, in an uncharacteristically subdued speech, had told around 500 cheering supporters packed into the multiplex that he wanted one million Scots to sign a rather bland declaration of support for independence before autumn 2014: ‘I believe that it is fundamentally better for us all if decisions about Scotland’s future are taken by the people who care most about Scotland, that is, by the people of Scotland’. Salmond was the first to put his name to it, signing a ten-foot high replica of the declaration at the front of the stage before a scrum of photographers.

Young volunteers in light blue ‘Yes’ T-shirts shepherded press and supporters past the ticket booth and concession stand and into the cinema. From behind a blue lectern, assorted well-known Scottish phizogs made impassioned calls for independence. The political rhetoric was interspersed with singers, poets, playwrights and a short film featuring shots of Edinburgh Castle, Scottish rivers and children at play, all set to the sound of Big Country’s ‘One Great Thing’ (previously used, like ‘Caledonia’, in an ad campaign for Tennent’s lager).

The biggest challenge facing the SNP and the Yes campaign – the two are practically synonymous, although the Green leader Patrick Harvie, who shared the stage with Salmond, was among the morning’s most impressive speakers – is that the party is more popular than its flagship policy: the SNP holds 69 of 129 seats in Holyrood, but a recent YouGov poll (commissioned by Alistair Darling, a fervent opponent of independence) found only 33 per cent of Scots in favour of secession.

Yes campaigners evidently hope a post-national appeal to Labour values and voters will reverse this trend. Half a dozen speakers invoked Thatcher. For Dennis Canavan, the former Labour MP for Falkirk West, who won a seat in the Scottish Parliament in 1999 as an independent after New Labour mandarins rejected his candidacy as far too old Labour, independence is ‘a means of achieving greater social justice here in Scotland’.

Among the new supporters unveiled by Yes Scotland, Tommy Brennan, a former shop steward at Ravenscraig steelworks in Motherwell, spoke most directly to the former industrial heartlands that are still largely the bailiwick of Scottish Labour: ‘As a life-long trade union member with no political affiliation and speaking in a personal capacity, I am happy and comfortable to say yes to an independent Scotland.’ Brian Cox was less circumspect. ‘I come to this campaign as a democratic socialist,’ he said, before berating the ‘betrayal’ of ‘the self-serving Ramsay MacDonald’, and lauding Keir Hardie and the Independent Labour Party he founded.

Business voices were muffled, if they were heard at all: I recognised only George Mathewson, the former CEO of RBS, among a plethora of artists, athletes, environmentalists and socialists in a lengthy endorsements video. There was no mention of the SNP’s long-stated desire to lower corporation tax in Scotland (although, in fairness, there was little substantive policy discussion of any kind); no name check for such multimillionaire backers as Brian Souter, the owner of Stagecoach.

‘That was great, really great,’ said Paul, a retired social worker from Perth, as we stood in the cinema aisle waiting to leave. Paul is that rare thing: a Scottish Tory. He campaigned for Thatcher in Finchley, supported Hague and Howard, but last year gave his vote to Salmond. I asked if he was worried by all the talk of socialism. ‘Oh no, not at all. We’ll just need a healthy, active centre-right party after independence. But first we need to get independence.’

This blog originally appeared on the London Review of Books blog.


Despite Yes Vote, Fiscal Treaty Outcome Still Uncertain

The people of Ireland have spoken. But what exactly have they said? The vote to accept the Stability, Coordination and Governance in the Economic and Monetary Union – or, more snappily, the fiscal treaty – was certainly decisive: around three in every five ballots cast were in favour of the treaty. There were no great regional differences in the ‘yes’ vote across the country. Turnout was low, but not drastically so.

Yet, despite all this, it difficult to say what the implications of the yes vote will be, both for Ireland and for the rest of Europe. As the results rolled in on Friday lunch team, a sanguine Eamon Gilmore told RTE News at One that the referendum result will provide a platform for Ireland to get back to the magical ‘g’ word, growth.

The Tanaiste, sadly, gave no indication of how accepting a treaty designed to enforce ever-tighter fiscal strictures across a Eurozone in the midst of a deflationary cycle would bolster the Irish economy. Indeed on its own terms the treaty is more likely to cost Irish jobs than provide the scaffolding for employment growth.

The treaty, ostensibly designed to alleviate the Eurozone crisis, commits member state governments to maintain budgets that are either balanced or in surplus. Under the terms of the treaty, annual structural deficit that exceeds 0.5 per cent of Gross Domestic Product will run the risk of a fine from the European Court. Meanwhile, government debt is not to exceed 60 per cent of GDP. Any state whose debt is in excess of this figure must reduce it by an average rate of one-twentieth per year.

On BBC Newsnight last week, Paul Krugman gave a succinct, acerbic analysis of the folly of cutting public spending (the main motor of growth in a contracting economy) during a time of depression. ‘Austerity in these conditions doesn’t even work in fiscal terms, because it shrinks the economy now and also shrinks the economy in future,’ the Nobel Prize winning economist said, before going on to compare the behaviour of UK and European governments to the medieval practice of bloodletting the ill.

The latest Euro treaty does little to address arguably Ireland’s greatest problem: the tsunami of household debt contained within the country’s failed banking sector. Writing in the Financial Times recently, Irish economist David McWilliams noted that both Ireland and Spain had lower public debt ratios than Germany when the crisis hit in 2008 – the problem is that private debt had soared during the boom. Since Ireland joined the euro a little over a decade ago, levels of household debts more than doubled.

If treaty is, in Eamon Gilmore’s words, to ‘stimulate the economy and create jobs’, it will only do so to the extent that it helps to create greater cohesion within the Eurozone and, ultimately, a change in German policies.

The fiscal compact makes no provision for much needed initiatives to ease the burden on indebted states and individuals, such as the issuing of Eurobonds, the adoption of an expansionary monetary policy or European-wide backing for the banking sector. Some, or all, of these measures will need to be enacted if the Eurozone to return to something akin to economic health.

In the end, Ireland’s comfortable yes vote was motivated as much by fear and uncertainty as any belief in the intrinsic wisdom of the treaty itself. A bad-tempered campaign, marked on both sides by accusation and counter-accusation did little to assuage an electorate that has every right to be worried, having witnessed a cataclysmic boom and bust, a protracted EU/IMF bailout and, now, a flatling economy.

A closer look at Thursday’s vote also reveals a growing rift in Irish society, between those at the razor’s edge of austerity policies and those relatively more cushioned. Solidly working class constituencies, such as Dublin North-West, voted No in far greater numbers than middle class or rural areas. This should be a huge worry for Eamon Gilmore and his Labour party, whose support has halved to just 10 per cent since last year’s general election.

Ireland’s yes to the fiscal treaty is unlikely to change the course of the crisis in the Eurozone, but the referendum could mark a turning point in Irish politics. Sinn Fein, the driving force behind the well organised No campaign, seems to have established itself as the anti-austerity party. Opinion polls put support for the republicans at 24 per cent, behind only Fine Gael. If Ireland’s economic outlook does not improve in the coming year, the next election could really change the country’s political map.

This article originally appeared in the Irish Post.

Growing divide in an austerity-stricken Ireland

ALMOST as soon as first ballot boxes were opened yesterday morning, it was clear the fiscal treaty referendum was not going to go the way of the rerun Nice and Lisbon votes. Just a handful of constituencies voted No, even then by small margins in most cases.

Overall around three in every five ballots cast were in favour of the treaty. Turnout was low, but not spectacularly so.

But while government politicians, and their temporary allies in the opposition Fianna Fail, can be forgiven for congratulating themselves, it remains unclear how, or even if, the new treaty will aid Ireland, or the ailing eurozone.

Labour leader and deputy prime minister Eamon Gilmore told national broadcaster RTE yesterday that the treaty would provide stability, allowing the coalition to “proceed with its plan to stimulate the economy and create jobs”. Quite how a treaty that will enshrine tight fiscal strictures in the midst of a deflationary cycle will bolster the economy remains unclear.

Ireland, and Europe, remains mired in economic quicksand. Unbridled austerity and a weak currency union has created a perfect storm that EU policy makers seem unable, or unwilling, to think their way out of. The fiscal treaty makes no provision for much needed initiatives to ease the burden on indebted states and individuals, such as the issuing of Eurobonds, the adoption of an expansionary monetary policy or European-wide backing for the banking sector. Some, or all, of these measures will need to be enacted if the eurozone is to return to health.

Ireland’s Yes vote was comfortable but Irish voters are anything but contented. Many were motivated as much by fear as any belief in the sagacity of the treaty.

Thursday’s referendum also revealed a growing rift in society, with affluent areas voting Yes and turning out in bigger numbers than in poorer areas. This should be a huge worry for Mr Gilmore and his Labour Party, whose support has halved to just 10 per cent since last year’s general election.

Sinn Fein, the force behind the No campaign, could emerge as the big winners. Polls put support for the republicans at 24 per cent, behind only Fine Gael. If the outlook for Ireland does not improve, the political map could be redrawn yet again.

This article originally appeared in the Scotsman, June 2.

Uncertainty prevails as Irish vote on fiscal treaty for eurozone

Ireland went to the polls yesterday in the only referendum being held on the new fiscal treaty in the European Union, which it hopes will alleviate the ongoing eurozone crisis.

The fiscal treaty, agreed by leaders of 25 of the 27 European Union member states in January, introduces tough fiscal rules across the union.

Under the terms of the treaty, budgets must be balanced or in surplus. Annual structural deficit must not exceed 0.5 per cent of gross domestic product. Government debt cannot exceed 60 per cent of GDP.

Opinion polls suggest that the “yes” vote will win when results are announced this afternoon. Turnout is expected to be low, reflecting in part uncertainty and fear among the Irish electorate about what the treaty, or rejection of it, will mean. The Irish economy is still struggling in the wake of the 2008 crash and the subsequent €85 billion (£68bn) International Monetary Fund/European Union bailout for its ailing banks.

Unemployment stands at around 15 per cent, with thousands emigrating every month. Forecasts for growth have been revised downwards, according to official government statistics.

On the streets yesterday, views were split about how important Europe will be in aiding recovery.

“I voted ‘yes’ because Europe are kind of the boss, and we need to stick with them. I don’t see any benefits of saying no,” said Claudia Sculley, 23, in Dublin.

For others, after four years of successive austerity budgets, the appetite for further cutbacks is fast diminishing.

“Austerity means just more cuts to people, that’s not going to work,” said Dan Dowling, 30, speaking outside a polling station in Tralee, County Kerry, where he voted “no”.

Ireland has rejected two European treaties in the recent past. The Nice treaty required two referendums, as did the Lisbon treaty, which was rejected in June 2008, before being accepted 18 months later.

Even if the treaty is passed, Sinn Fein looks set to be the big winner from the referendum. An Ipsos poll earlier this week put the republican party’s support at 24 per cent, making it easily the second most popular party in the state, behind the ruling Fine Gael.

Meanwhile, Labour, the junior party in Ireland’s coalition government, has seen its support halve to 10 per cent since last year’s election.

Few believe that ratifying the fiscal treaty will solve Ireland’s economic and, increasingly, social woes.

The government campaign raised the spectre that a “no” vote would see the country locked out of a new €700bn bailout fund – the European Stability Mechanism – for indebted eurozone countries.

Berni Ni Maolfhachtna, who voted “yes” in Tipperary yesterday, fears that rejection would leave Ireland effectively bankrupt if the country is unable to return to the international bond markets when it exits its existing bailout strategy at the end of 2013.

“I think ordinary folk in Ireland are just concerned that voting ‘no’ will mean a lack of available funding if we happen to need it in future, and that is not a reality anyone wants to face,” she said.

This article originally appeared in the Scotsman, June 1, 2012.

Irish set to lose either way

Whatever voters decide on the stability treaty, the figures don’t add up, the words won’t last long and it won’t help the eurozone crisis, writes Peter Geoghegan

Few people have had such a major impact on recent Irish political life – and yet remain so unknown, inside and outside the country – as Richard Crotty. In 1987, Crotty, an economist and historian, took the Irish state to court, arguing that the Irish parliament’s proposed ratification of the then-upcoming Single European act would represent a change to the constitution. Then, as now, any alteration to the constitution requires a referendum.

The Irish Supreme Court sided with Crotty. It was a landmark judgement that has had repercussions for the last twenty-five years. Whenever there is a major amendment to an EU treaty, the Irish Republic is obliged to put it to a referendum.

While the Single European Act and the Treaties of Maastricht and Amsterdam were passed with ever reducing majorities, more recently Crotty’s interjection has caused serious problems for Dublin’s panjandrums. The Nice Treaty required two referendums, as, more famously, did the Lisbon Treaty, which was rejected by more than 53 per cent of the electorate in June 2008, before being accepted by 67 per cent after a fractious re-run less than eighteen months later. Ireland goes to the polls to vote on another EU treaty, tomorrow. This time it’s the Treaty on Stability, Coordination and Governance in the Economic and Monetary Union that is before the Irish electorate. Better known as the stability treaty or the fiscal compact, the treaty, which was agreed by leaders of 25 of the 27 EU member states in January (Britain and the Czech Republic refused to sign), is seen by many as a German-led attempt to enforce ever stricter monetary policy across the increasingly crisis hit eurozone.

A central tenet of the treaty is that government budgets must be balanced or in surplus. Annual structural deficit must not exceed 0.5 per cent of Gross Domestic Product: the European Court would fine a country up to 0.1 per cent of GDP if this condition was not met within a year of ratification. Government debt is not to exceed 60 per cent of GDP. Any state whose debt is in excess of this figure must reduce it by an average rate of one-twentieth per year.

The problem for Irish voters – and for politicians supporting a ‘Yes’ vote in tomorrow’s vote – is twofold. On the one hand, the economic rationale behind the fiscal compact just doesn’t stack up; on the other, many believe that the treaty itself will be renegotiated before it is ever put into place.

As it’s currently constituted, the treaty will do little to alleviate the crisis in eurozone countries, particularly those on the periphery. The reason is straightforward: Europe’s economic travails are founded primarily on private, not public, debt, and the tightening of government budget will only serve to exacerbate the problem.

As Irish economist David McWilliams writing in the Financial Times noted, both Ireland and Spain had lower public debt ratios than Germany when the crisis hit in 2008 – the problem is that household debts had soared during the boom. Since Ireland joined the euro a little over a decade ago, levels household debts more than doubled.

The response to the crisis – massive austerity – has practically killed the patient. Irish government spending has been cut for each of the last four years and yet the structural deficit continues to rise. According to statistics compiled by the Irish government in 2011, it was expected to fall to 111 per cent of GDP by 2015. In 2012, this figure was revised upwards to 117.4 per cent and will rise further under the terms of the compact.

“Imposing more austerity now will be as useful as putting an anorexic on a diet and expecting her to become voluptuous,” writes McWilliams.

In Ireland, the fiscal compact would require a further retrenchment of already threadbare, and extensively privatised, social services. Meanwhile, emigration and unemployment continue to rise. Unemployment in Ireland has trebled in the last four years, with more than 14 per cent of the population out of work. A deeply worrying 29 per cent of 18 to 25-year-olds are not in education and are without work.

The Yes camp, led by the Fine Gael-Labour coalition, in power since last year, and supported by the ousted architects of the crisis, Fianna Fail, have urged voters to back the treaty to protect Ireland’s putative recovery. Speaking in a televised national address on Sunday, Taoiseach Enda Kenny said that the pact “will create stability in the eurozone”.

“This is essential for growth and job creation. A strong ‘yes’ vote will create the certainty and stability that our country needs to continue on the road to economic recovery,” he continued. Opponents of the treaty, led primarily by Sinn Fein and the United Left Alliance, argue that a Yes vote would result in billions of euro of cuts and further job losses.

Regardless of how Ireland votes tomorrow, the treaty itself may be radically altered before it is ever implemented. Most significantly, France’s new Socialist president Francois Hollande made a commitment to renegotiate the compact top priority in his successful election campaign.

Irish politicians have been at pains to reassure the electorate that the fiscal treaty will not be changed. However, their ability to keep such promises is doubtful, however.

Monsieur Hollande has demonstrated a willingness to confront Angela Merkel’s economic orthodoxy, calling for a new plan to stimulate growth and the introduction of eurobonds to address the worsening sovereign debt crisis. The French leader could yet force through changes in the terms of the compact, too. In Ireland, the tenor of the “yes” message has gradually shifted over the course of the campaign. Last month, finance minister Michael Noonan said Ireland would not need a second EU/IMF bailout.

Now Kenny is warning that only a vote for the treaty will guarantee Irish access to bailout funds, via the European Stability Mechanism (ESM), implicitly undermining the argument that the treaty will deliver growth. Prospects of a “yes” have been damaged by a serious of high-profile gaffes.

Two weeks ago, while addressing the Bloomberg Ireland Economic Summit in Dublin, Noonan dismissed concerns about Greek contagion affecting Ireland, saying: “If you go into the shops here, apart from feta cheese, how many Greek items do you put in your basket?” Later in the week, Fine Gael minister for enterprise, Richard Bruton, said during a debate on the treaty on Irish radio, that the referendum would be rerun in the event of a “No” vote.

Nevertheless, opinion polls suggest that the government will win the day: a Red C poll in last weekend’s Sunday Business Post put the ‘yes’ vote at 49 per cent, compared to 35 per cent against the treaty, with 16 per cent still undecided. But with tensions growing between France and Germany and a Greek election due to take place on 17 June, regardless of the result, Ireland’s referendum is unlikely to assuage the turmoil in the eurozone.

This piece originally appeared in the Scotsman, May 30.

LRB Blog: A Moment of Clarity

On Wednesday afternoon, excerpts from a speech by the Irish finance minister Michael Noonan to the Bloomberg Ireland Economic Summit in Dublin, purportedly copied from the Irish Times website, appeared on The contributor, PaddyJoe, accused the newspaper of removing a paragraph from an earlier version of the story, in which Noonan, speaking about the Irish government’s ability to secure a ‘Yes’ vote in the upcoming referendum on the European fiscal compact, was apparently quoted as saying:

In all other countries people are concerned about growing inequality. In Ireland we need to keep focus on more important issues of corporate profitability and tax protection we offer international organisations. This is not the time for drastic moves to the left simply to suit populist demands for simplistic idealism of ‘social justice’.

The story quickly spread on social media. Most people, including me, interpreted Noonan’s surprisingly frank comments as yet another example of the Irish political phenomenon that Conor Cruise O’Brien, paraphrasing Charles Haughey, called GUBU: grotesque, unbelievable, bizarre and unprecedented. And, by extension, almost certainly true.

Noonan, a pugnacious Fine Gael member of the Dáil since 1981, was already on record as having told the same Bloomberg event that there was no threat of contagion from the crisis in Greece spreading to Ireland: ‘If you go into the shops here, apart from feta cheese, how many Greek items do you put in your basket?’

By yesterday evening, it was clear that Noonan’s unbelievable quotes about his government’s commitment to corporations over citizens couldn’t be believed. An Irish hacker and anarchist claims to have inserted the paragraph into the original news report of the Bloomberg speech. He says that he removed the interjection, but not before it had been copied from the Irish Times website. The Irish Times denies that the initial report was hacked or that its website ever carried the quotes attributed to it on The most likely source of the paragraph was a mash-up of the original news report of the Bloomberg speech. [Text amended on 28 May.]

‘The quotes were so surreal but utterly plausible,’ says Gavan Titley, a lecturer in media studies at the National University of Ireland, Maynooth. On Thursday, the Fine Gael minister for enterprise, Richard Bruton, during a debate on the treaty on Today FM, said that the referendum would be rerun in the event of a ‘No’ vote. He quickly retracted his ‘mistake’. Bruton’s comments ‘are regarded as a gaffe’, Titley says, ‘but actually are just an exceptional moment of clarity.’

One thing Noonan definitely did tell the Bloomberg summit is that ‘the Irish economy is in a much better position that it was this time last year.’ His optimism isn’t borne out by official statistics: In April 2011, the Irish government predicted an annual GNP growth rate to 2015 of 2.4 per cent. This year, that figure has been reduced to 1.4 per cent. In April 2011, it was estimated that 101,000 jobs would be created by 2015. The projection has now been reduced to 61,000. In 2011, public debt, supposedly the core focus of austerity policies, was expected to fall to 111 per cent of GDP by 2015. The figure has now been revised upwards to 117.4 per cent.

As recently as last month, Michael Noonan was saying that Ireland would not need a second EU/IMF bailout. The taoiseach, Enda Kenny, is now warning that only a ‘Yes’ vote in the referendum on 31 May will guarantee Irish access to European bailout funds.

This post originally appeared on the London Review of Books blog.

Local Currencies: The Road to Financial Safety

As small businesses struggle to find support from the banks, Peter Geoghegan suggests now is the time to look at an alternative way to finance retail firms

It’s official: the UK is back in recession. On the day Rupert Murdoch was appearing in sack-cloth and ashes before the Leveson inquiry in London, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) announced that Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in the UK had shrunk by 0.2 per cent in the first three months of 2012. Following a similar contraction in the final quarter of last year, we have returned to recession, at least technically.

In stark contrast to the juicy revelations from Leveson, the news that the UK is in recession caused barely a ripple in the media pond. Some commentators argued that the ONS figures were misleading, adducing an increase in manufacturing activity in recent weeks. Others asserted, with some justification, that GDP is a remarkably unsophisticated measure of economic vitality, best taken with a generous pinch of salt.

Health warnings aside, the fact remains that the UK economy is in pretty poor shape. Overall employment across Britain stands at 8.3 per cent. A recent labour market report from the Scottish Trades Union Congress (STUC) shows joblessness among people aged 18 to 24 at a five-year peak. But you don’t need to be a policy wonk, or wade through reams of statistics, to realise that the economy is flatlining: just saunter around almost any Scottish city or town. On once-thriving shopping streets, retail units lie either empty or under-used. The “for sale” signs, so ubiquitous during the credit bubble, have been replaced by offers to rent property, often at bargain basement prices. According to the business consultancy the Local Data Company, shop vacancy rates in Glasgow are currently running at 21.2 per cent, a rate surpassed in some West of Scotland towns.

The empty high street store – most likely erstwhile home to a branch of a major retail chain that has either gone under or downsized dramatically – provides the starkly eloquent image of this spectre of uselessness today.

The retreat of retail can be attributed to a plethora factors – the rise of online shopping, an overall reduction in disposable income in straitened times – but among the chief culprits is the difficulties faced by those key drivers of the economy, small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs).

Last week, the Bank of England released a three-year assessment of “trends in lending” by banks to businesses and individuals. The findings were stark: lending to SMEs has decreased markedly since mid-2008. Lending to all small and medium sized enterprises has been negative since 2009. All five major high street banks in Britain have failed to achieve their government-agreed targets for lending to small firms.

To be fair, it’s a problem that the Scottish Government has acknowledged. During a Holyrood debate back in February, finance minister John Swinney excoriated the failings of Project Merlin, the Westminster-backed scheme which has led to just 4.8 per cent of gross lending going to Scottish SMEs, despite small businesses in Scotland accounting for 6.4 per cent of the UK total. “It is clear that Project Merlin has failed to address poor lending conditions for Scottish companies and this needs to be addressed by the UK Government,” said Swinney.

As Britain sinks into the dreaded double-dip recession, it’s obvious – or at least it should be – that creative solutions are required to reinvigorate small businesses (and the economy more generally). Banking reform, and the redirection of capital away from speculation and into productive activity, is an imperative. But beyond waiting for root and branch reform that might never happen, how can we stimulate Scotland’s local economies quickly?

Issuing local currencies is one innovative option. The theory behind local currencies is straightforward: national notes are exchanged (usually on a one-to-one basis) for a specially created local denomination that can be used to buy designated goods and services in a geographically defined area. Local currencies are perfectly legal and can be very efficient ways of increasing economic activity, especially in times of economic or political crisis. Since they don’t accrue any interest, local currencies generally circulate at a much faster rate than national currencies. They also retain money in the local economy and encourage consumers to buy local produce.

When they work, the effects of local currencies can be impressive. In Switzerland, the WIR Bank has existed as an independent complementary currency system for small and medium sized businesses and retailers since 1934. Having begun with just 16 members, WIR has grown to 62,000 users with assets of around 3bn Swiss francs (£2bn).

Germany currently has about 30 local currencies. Damanhur, an eco-community of about 900 people in northern Italy, has been using its own currency for decades, tied first to the Italian Lira and, more recently, the euro.

Damanhur runs on a similar model to Scotland’s oldest and most successful local currency, the eko, which circulates among shops and businesses in the Findhorn eco-community in Moray. Established in 2002, the eko has proved remarkably resilient: about £20,000 worth of currency is currently in circulation. The notes have a set life-span, usually between three and five years, at the end of which they can be redeemed for new issue ekos or, in rare cases, sterling. Capital raised by each eko issue is used to fund low or no interest loans to community projects such as wind farms and affordable housing.

In the wake of the financial crisis, local currencies have gained traction elsewhere in the UK. In 2009, the first urban local currency was launched in Brixton, London. The Brixton pound has been one of the success stories of the area’s regeneration: more than 70 local businesses accept the stylishly designed notes, which have become a symbol of the area’s burgeoning cultural confidence. The Bristol pound is due to launch soon.

Local currencies, popular in the US during the Depression, have also been making a comeback across the pond. The most successful, BerkShares, circulate in Berkshire County, Massachusetts, with the participation of five local banks. BerkShares retail at 95 cents for a $1 share, an attractive saving that increases the currency’s appeal to customers.

Edinburgh, with its proud history of independent retailers and niche shops, seems like an excellent testing ground for a local currency. The notion of a special currency for the capital is not exactly new. Last year, Transition Edinburgh drew up plans for an Edinburgh pound, which the council broadly supported.

Unfortunately, enthusiasm for a local currency in Edinburgh was muted, not least due to a lack of confidence amongst business people and shopkeepers. A Portobello pound, due to launch this year, is currently on hold. A similar local currency scheme in Hawick in 2010 had limited success.

Arguably the main reason why local currencies have struggled to get off the ground here is a paucity of information on how they work and why.

The Greens remain the only political party actively campaigning for their establishment inScotland.

Local currencies are not a panacea for all our economic woes but they could help lift some of the fug that surrounds our high streets. As the double dip hits, the time to think creatively about our economy – and local currencies – has arrived.

This article originally appeared in the Scotsman, May 9, 2012.

Book Review: Sightlines by Kathleen Jamie.

‘Keep looking, even when there’s nothing much to see,’ Scottish writer Kathleen Jamie cautions, midway through this delicate, thoughtful collection of essays. ‘That way your eye learns what’s common, so when the uncommon appears, your eye will tell you.’

Jamie, an acclaimed poet and essayist, has made attentiveness her mantra. Having trained herself to observe the mundane, Jamie is adroitly placed to bear witness to the wonder: Leach’s petrels swooping over Rona, a blustery, long uninhabited isle 40 miles off the Scottish mainland, or a fibreglass whale jawbone that sits 600-metre high atop Berwick Law, on Edinburgh’s picturesque purlieus.

Sightlines, like her previous collection, 2005’s Findings, comprises a series of carefully constructed essays on the living world. Findings was a remarkable book, and one that defied categorisation: does a Scot writing about winter on Orkney or corncrakes on a Hebridian island constitute travel writing? Nature writing? Memoir? All three? Sightlines retains its predecessor’s unusual shape and structure: there are knowledgeable essays about the whale rooms in Bergen’s Natural History Museum and orca spotting off Shetland, all accompanied by artful black and white photographs.

But Sightlines is an altogether more self-conscious work than its antecedent, aware that it is, in a more definite sense, nature writing. Jamie is also more self-consciously a nature writer. The two opening essays – the weakest in this short collection – find the writer among icebergs off Greenland and shadowing a pathologist in Scotland, respectively. The word nature, and what this slippery term, means is a recurring concern in these early essays. Nature, says Jamie, is ‘not all primroses and otters’; pinning down what exactly it is proves more difficult.

‘The Woman in the Field’, an essay, largely, about a teenage summer spent as a ‘digger’ at an archaeological site, finds Jamie on safer, more revealing ground. Personal, observant and occasionally darkly funny, as when she describes the unwanted attention of ‘Pete the Lech, a patchouli scented, lank-haired hippy, lustily hopping from dig to dig in the late 1970s.

Like Seamus Heaney, Jamie sees a symbiosis between archaeology and poetry, a shared unearthing what others would rather left alone: ‘The opening of the cist under that thunderclap was thrilling, transgressive. So, in its quiet way, was writing poems’. Until Findings, Jamie was best known as a poet and, at times, her spartan, evocative prose could easily pass as poetry. School children filing past the whale room in Bergen are ‘a quick bright shoal darting through’. Stringy sinews from a patient’s liver, ‘reminded me of climbers’ gear abandoned on a rock-face.’

Jamie has said in interviews that British nature writing ‘vanished’ in the 1960s, but in its themes and approaches Sightlines often calls to mind the work of Richard Mabey, the septuagenarian naturalist and author. Both share a strong, almost elegiac, environmentalism that goes beyond conservation into a concern about the future of the planet.

Written in the first person, with a great deal of reflexivity, ‘nature’ is never conceived of as something ‘other’, something ‘wild’ or ‘remote’ – indeed the very notion of the remote is thrillingly deconstructed in a brilliant, searingly honest essay on St Kilda, a rugged island in the Atlantic abandoned by its population in 1930, which has since become a poster child for the unkempt wilderness.

There is a pleasing domesticity to Jamie’s writing, too. Half a short essay-cum-prose poem on the lunar eclipse is spent coaxing her teenage children to look out the window; refurbishing whale bones in Bergen is like ‘spring cleaning your bedroom’.

As in Peter Davidson’s Idea of North, the chimerical north is a constant presence in Jamie’s writing, and her travels: Iceland, Greenland, the Shetlands, the Hebrides all recur. That such places, ‘with such long human histories’, are ‘remote’ is balefully rejected. ‘Remote from what? London?’ Sightlines is of a piece with the recent social and cultural recalibration of Scotland, away from the south and towards the north and Scandinavia in particular, a move that, for many, necessitates political independence, too.

But Jamie’s politics is a far more personal affair. It is a call to arms to watch the world around you, to never forget that non-humans have as much right to the earth as we do, if not more. Sightlines forces you to think anew about your surroundings, to study them with fresh eyes, to take nothing for granted. For that alone, it is well worth reading.