Spanish eyes are on Catalan independence

While opposing factions argue over attendance figures at the Yes rally, Catalonia musters 1.6 million for the cause , writes Peter Geoghegan

EARLIER this month, I spent an afternoon outside the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona. I didn’t go to admire the haunting spires of Gaudi’s unfinished masterpiece – impressive though they are – but to look at a rather different spectacle: the crowds of waving Catalan independence supporters that peaceably surrounded the cathedral as part of a massive “human chain” to mark Catalan national day on 11 September.

At 17:14, the year Barcelona fell to Bourbon forces spelling the end of Catalan autonomy, what sounded like a starter’s pistol fired. Outside the Sagrada, thousands linked arms amid chants of “In, inde, independencia”. A middle-aged man’s T-shirt carried a blunt message: “Catalonia is not Spain”. Posters, in Catalan, called for “Independence to Change Everything”. Drones flew overhead, employed not by the Spanish government but by independenistas, to photograph the “Via Catalana” as it stretched, arm-in-arm, for 250 miles from the France border to the neighbouring region of Valencia. It was a remarkable feat of logistics, organisation and political mobilisation.

How Yes Scotland must envy their Catalan cousins. A reported 1.6 million turned out in this show of separatist strength. Some flew Catalonia’s regional flag, but more waved the esteldada, the starry standard favoured by independence supporters.

Polls lend weight to the suggestion that if anywhere in Western Europe is likely to declare independence in the coming years it is Catalonia. Support for independence has risen from barely a fifth in 2007, to more than half now. Possibly more importantly, Catalan’s sense of identity seems to be shifting, too. In 2009, less than 20 per cent said they felt “Catalan only”. Now that figure is 31 per cent, according to research published by the Catalan government. The number feeling “more Spanish than Catalan” has fallen in consort.120912020406-spain-catalonia-protest-story-top

And yet Catalans can seem like reluctant independenistas. Among the throng on 11 September, and at a nationalist-led, torch-lit procession the previous evening, I met plenty who said they would settle for increased autonomy for their regional parliament. But there seems little optimism that power brokers in Madrid will acquiesce.

“If Madrid wanted to diffuse or confuse this independence movement they would immediately offer a federal package to Catalonia,” says British-born writer Matthew Tree. “But they can’t do it because they have been whipping up anti-Catalan sentiment and making political capital from it.”

Certainly the government in Madrid has given little indication that they are willing to offer a serious autonomy package to Catalonia. In May, Catalan nationalist leader Artur Mas, whose CiU party is the main player in the governing coalition in Barcelona, wrote to Spanish premier Mariano Rajoy asking for permission to hold a referendum on independence. Rajoy, who has had his hands full with a flat lining economy, a moribund banking sector and a series of corruption scandals, replied last week.

“The ties that bind us together cannot be undone without enormous cost,” he wrote, rejecting Mas’ request. “We need to work together to strengthen these ties and move away from confrontation.”

The two leaders met in secret for talks in August, but there still seems to be little sign of a deal emerging. Meanwhile, the momentum towards full independence seems to build.

Spain’s ongoing financial crisis has added fuel to the Catalan independence fire. Nationalists argue that the region, one of the country’s most economically productive, is being asked to shoulder too large a burden. Unlike the Basques, Catalonia has no real fiscal autonomy. In 2012, Catalonia’s fiscal deficit – the difference between what it pays to Madrid and, after taking some funds to pay state costs, the money it gets back – was €16bn (around 8 per cent of the region’s GDP), according to the Catalan government.

Madrid’s clumsy meddling with the language system in Catalonia’s schools has acerbated an already tense situation. Since the fall of dictator Franco more than 35 years ago, Catalan has been given priority in the region’s education system. However, last year, Jose Ignacio Wert, Spain’s education minister, unveiled proposals that all coursework in Catalan schools must be offered in Spanish and Catalan “in balanced proportions”. For many Catalans, even those with little interest in constitutional change, these pronouncements evoked divisive memories of the Spanish Civil War and their language’s suppression under Franco.

It is by no means guaranteed that Catalonia will get a vote on independence – or, even if a referendum did take place, that Catalans would say Yes – but pressure for a vote is growing. A referendum is unlikely, but a non-binding “consultation” is possible.

Some Catalan nationalists believe that holding a vote – even a non-binding one – so close to the referendum here would be a boon for them. “It would be useful for us if the world could see both referendums at the same time – one conducted in a peaceful, legal way in the UK, the other opposed by the Spanish government. That [contrast of] attitudes would be really benefit us,” Alfred Bosch, leader of the Catalan left-wing ERC party in the Spanish congress, said recently.

How Scottish nationalists, particularly the SNP, would react to a Catalan vote so close to the referendum is unclear. Formal relations between the Scottish and Catalan administrations have cooled, with the SNP reluctant to upset Madrid and Catalan independenistas wary of being closely associated with a No vote in Scotland.

One thing does seem certain: the longer Catalan calls for greater autonomy are ignored, the louder the rumble for full independence will grow. As Matthew Tree said: “If this isn’t sorted out now, it will just go on and on and on. The cat is out of the bag now”.

This piece originally appeared in the Scotsman.

Building for a better future

I use Grammarly’s plagiarism checker because I always need another pair of eyes!

Speaking to the Conservative Party faithful in Manchester last week, George Osborne declared: “We are the party of home ownership and we’re going to let the country know it.” The conference may have been festooned with messages about “hard-working people” – and dire warnings for the feckless millions unable to find work in a recession – but at the heart of the Chancellor’s speech he was appealing to a British obsession: houses.

The Conservatives, said Mr Osborne, were a “party of aspiration and home ownership”, ready, willing and able to come to the aid of those “still being denied their dream of owning their own home”.george_osborne_aga_1014479c

That the “dream” of homeownership has turned into a nightmare for so many after the sub-prime mortgage crash just six years ago doesn’t seem to concern the Chancellor unduly. Indeed, in his March Budget, Osborne unveiled a scheme that has seen the government actively involved in inflating house prices.

Under Help to Buy, prospective buyers south of the Border can avail themselves of interest-free loans worth up to 20 per cent of the purchase price. The second stage of the scheme – which began yesterday, ahead of the original schedule – will provide mortgage guarantees for buyers of properties valued at £600,000 or less with just a 5 per cent deposit. In all, the government is expected to be guarantor on around £130 billion worth of mortgages. The Scottish Government runs its own Help to Buy scheme, with a limit of £400,000 purchase price. Both schemes apply only to new-build homes.

Leaving aside for a moment the political contortions involved in a party committed to privatising everything from the NHS to the postal service putting the state on the hook in the property market, there are very real fears that Help to Buy will only serve to further inflate the UK housing market.

Business Secretary Vince Cable has warned: “We don’t want a new bubble.” But it may already be too late for that. In London, house prices are up 10 per cent year-on-year. It’s not just the south-east that is starting to look frothy: prices are up 10 per cent in Manchester, and 8 per cent in Newcastle-upon-Tyne. The Bank of England announced a five-year high for mortgage approvals for August of 62,226.

What we need is more houses, not higher prices – but it has taken a man of God to say publicly what many politicians will only admit privately. “Help to Buy is like tackling a food shortage by issuing food vouchers rather than getting more crops planted,” said David Walker, Bishop-designate of Manchester, recently.

Osborne himself tacitly admitted that Help to Buy is a flawed policy when he announced recently that he has asked the central bank’s Financial Policy Committee to review the programme every year – initially this was to be every three years. But the first review is not due until next September, and by then the housing market is likely to be a whole lot boomier.

Howard Archer, UK and European economist at HIS Global Insight, has warned of a “mounting danger that house prices could really take off over the coming months, especially as a shortage of new properties for sale could be a significant factor in some areas, notably London and the south-east.” Archer cited Help to Buy as a significant factor in the escalating house prices expected over the next 12 months.

Help-to-Buy – and the wider government rhetoric on home ownership – betrays a simple, but increasingly politically uncomfortable, fact: our houses are already overpriced. And not just in the south of England.

British house prices are 31 per cent too high compared with rents and 21 per cent over-valued against incomes, according to a study by the OECD. In the decade from 1997 to 2007, UK house prices trebled. At the same time, the length of mortgages increased dramatically: between 1993 and 2000, less than 2 per cent of mortgages were for more than 25 years. Now a fifth are for 30 years or more.

As home ownership becomes the preserve of those willing to take out mortgages far in excess of income or those fortunate enough to be born to home-owning parents, maintaining rising house prices becomes a political imperative. If UK house prices were to fall (as they should, according to OECD statistics) millions would lose out in the “investment” they call home. The political imperative for policies that appeal directly to those either on the housing ladder, or those scrambling for a toehold, is clear.

Adam Posen, a former member of the Bank of England Monetary Policy Committee, has written of the economic folly of giving an incentive to “middle-class households to leverage the bulk of their savings into a highly volatile, difficult to price asset, which is subject to disaster risk both idiosyncratic (fire, tree falling on the roof) and general (flood, local industry closure), and which – based on the economic fundamentals – should return at best the average rate of local wage and population growth”.

Houses are not productive assets. In encouraging yet more investment in the property market, Osborne et al are diverting away capital that could be used to create jobs and growth in the real economy.

At the root of this lies a facile assumption that renting is “throwing money away” and a person’s house is their “castle”. This belief in the economic and existential value of home ownership is not a singularly British phenomenon, but among developed nations it is more pronounced in the Anglo-Saxon world. Home ownership in the UK and US stands at around 65 to 70 per cent, against around 50 per cent in France, Germany and Japan.

The OECD’s Better Life Index shows that no relationship exists between home-ownership levels and average housing satisfaction and quality. Germany and the Scandinavian states, in particular, enjoy a more diverse housing market, with the state playing an important role in the rental sector, and a concomitant fear of the rising house prices so lauded by British politicians and, too often, the press.

There are more creative ways, too, for government to increase revenue from property beyond the stamp duty that accrues from a booming housing market. There is much to commend a Land Value Tax (LVT) levied not on the value of a property but on the value of the land on which it sits. After all, it is not houses that are expensive but the land on which they are built: house prices reflect more the value of social goods (transport links, schools, infrastructure, location) than they do the cost of bricks and mortar. A house is scarcely more costly to build in London than Linlithgow.

The Scottish Government is working on a land and buildings transaction tax that could see aspects of an LVT subsumed within it. The idea of an LVT is not new – indeed, it found favour with one of George Osborne’s predecessors: Winston Churchill. He once said that rising land values “are derived from processes which are not merely not beneficial, but positively detrimental to the general public”.

Creative solutions to the problems in Britain’s housing market are possible. But to work they need a government willing to move away from a regressive vision of home ownership based on rising house prices. As this past week demonstrated, that is one essential building block not yet in place.

Scots rally for independence from UK

Edinburgh, Scotland – In 1992, on the same evening the Conservatives won a fourth successive UK general election, a small group of campaigners started a vigil for a Scottish Parliament at Calton Hill in Edinburgh.

Their constant watch lasted five and half years, until Scots had a chance to vote “yes” to devolution in 1997.

Thousands returned to Calton Hill last Saturday. This time, however, they came not to demand more powers for Scotland, but to call for full independence from the rest of the United Kingdom.

What unites these people is that all their lives they’ve watched Westminster fail to deliver on the things they care about, whether it’s social justice or the environment or proper democracy.

-James Mackenzie, Scottish Green Party

 

“I’m here because I want Scotland to have the same rights, responsibilities and privileges as any other country in Europe or the world,” one demonstrator, Alan Farquhar, told Al Jazeera, as a colourful crowd of independence supporters, estimated by organisers at 20,000, made its way through Edinburgh’s historic Old Town towards Calton Hill.

Farquhar has been a member of the Scottish National Party for “22, 23 years”. “When I joined the SNP, we were at 9, 10, 11 percent in the polls. There has been a great progression since then: winning a minority election [in the Scottish Parliament in 2007], then a majority election [in 2011]. As far as I see it, independence is a natural progression,” Farquhar said.

Whether or not Scotland does decide to go it alone depends on the outcome of next September’s independence referendum. “A yes vote is for self-government, not remote government – good government with independence, not bad government from Westminster,” Scotland’s First Minister Alex Salmond – leader of the Scottish National Party and very much the architect of next year’s historic vote – told supporters on Calton Hill.

“A yes vote next September will not be a victory for the SNP, or the ‘Yes’ campaign, or even the huge coalition of interests and enthusiasm gathered here today,” he said during the three-hour rally.

“It will be the people’s victory. ‘Yes’ will be an act of self-confidence and self-assertion, which will mean that decisions about what happens in Scotland are always taken by the people who live and work here.”

Colourful rally

Saturday’s rally, which was not organised by the official “Yes” campaign, was a decidedly ecumenical affair.

Alongside SNP banners and standards were men in kilts and William Wallace T-shirts, and there were placards for everyone, from “Farmers for Yes” to “Aussies for Independence”. Supporters of both the Greens and the Scottish Socialist Party, both backers of independence, were out in force, too.

“What unites these people is that all their lives they’ve watched Westminster fail to deliver on the things they care about, whether it’s social justice or the environment or proper democracy,” said James Mackenzie, a member of the Scottish Green Party, who recently started a small business in Edinburgh.

Independence referendum will be held in September 2014 [Peter Geoghegan/Al Jazeera]

“Independent Scotland would be run closer to the people, even simply on a geographical basis. The idea that Westminster is ever going to deliver social justice, sustainability, proper democracy, I just don’t believe it. I’m not saying it’s guaranteed in an independent Scotland, but at least we’d have a chance.”

As the marchers gathered at midday in Edinburgh, a busker played a cover version of Dougie McLean’s Scottish folk ballad “Caledonia”. A little further up the cobbled High Street, a woman with a microphone led a group behind a “Radical Independence Campaign” banner in a call-and-response: “What do we want?” “Independence.” “When do we want it?” “Now”.

“People don’t want more of the same, they want radical change,” Cath Boyd from the left-wing Radical Independence Campaign told Al Jazeera. “We need an economic change and a social change. Internationally, what Britain has come to represent is abhorrent. There is a place for a progressive Scotland with no nuclear weapons, which doesn’t participate in illegal wars,” she said.

Opinion polls suggest many Scots remain to be convinced about the virtues of independence. One poll at the beginning of September gave the “No” side a 30-percent lead, prompting claims from unionists that the battle was all but over. But then the SNP hailed a survey that showed support for a “Yes” vote had taken the lead for the first time since 2011.

Large-scale rallies could help galvanise independence supporters ahead of a crucial 12 months of campaigning, said Peter Lynch, a lecturer in Stirling University and author of SNP: A History of the Scottish National Party.

“Showing to each other how many ‘yes’ supporters there are is good for morale,” he said.

“If you are a ‘yes’ supporter seeing endless polls saying ‘you’re only 30 percent’, oh, ‘you’re only 35 percent’, ‘now you’re down to 25 percent’, you feel like a beleaguered minority that is never going to win. These are the kind of events that make [‘yes’ supporters] see that there are actually a lot of ‘yes’ supporters, and if they can mobilise and grow then they are in with a chance of winning in September next year.”

Reaching out

Not everyone agrees. Tom Gallagher, emeritus professor at Bradford University, said nationalists are not doing enough to reach out to the undecided voters who are likely to decide next year’s referendum.

For the Nationalists, the misery of the people isn’t a wrong to be corrected – it is a chance to be exploited. For them, grievance is not to be addressed – it is to be nurtured.

-Johann Lamont , Scottish Labour Party

 

“The big challenge for ‘Yes’ campaigners is they need to stop dialoguing with themselves. They need to engage with the fears and anxieties that a lot of people have, instead of just brushing them away and saying ‘it’ll be alright on the night,'” the author of Scotland Divided: Ethnic Friction and Christian Crisis said.

Among the Scottish saltires on Saturday were flags from Catalonia, Corsica, Flanders, Sicily, Wales and other nationalist movements across Europe.

Franco Rocchetta, twice a member of the Italian Parliament, was among a group of about 50 supporters of Venetian independence that made the journey from northern Italy to the Scottish capital.

“For us coming here is like swimming in the fountain of youth,” he said. “We are also fighting to get a referendum for independence.”

While Scotland’s independence campaign has garnered foreign admirers, so far it has struggled to attract supporters of the Labour party, once the dominant force in Scottish politics and still the second-largest constituency in the devolved parliament.

Scottish Labour, strongly opposed to independence, is part of Better Together, a cross-party unionist campaign calling for a “No” vote in 2014.

At the weekend, Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont told attendees at the Labour Party’s annual conference in Brighton that next year’s referendum was a chance to defeat the “virus” of nationalism.

“For the Nationalists, the misery of the people isn’t a wrong to be corrected – it is a chance to be exploited. For them, grievance is not to be addressed – it is to be nurtured,” Lamont told the group.

“And that cynicism, that calculation which leaves families suffering now is a price worth paying if it translates into votes next September. It’s a cynicism which corrodes our politics. It should create in us a revulsion.”

Unsurprisingly, Lamont’s assessment of Scottish nationalism did not resonate with the marchers in Edinburgh. “I feel it’s all inclusive,” said Tarlika Elisabeth Schmitz, who moved to Scotland from Germany 17 years ago.

Schmitz travelled from Lochaber in the Highlands to the capital for the rally. “It’s great to be here,” she said as she walked towards Calton Hill, accompanied by her Scottish terrier, Nechtain, in a blue “Yes” shawl.

“I think we will do it. I am pretty confident we will win.”

This piece originally appeared on Al-Jazeera. 

Catalans form human chain for independence

BARCELONA, Spain — People in Catalonia formed a 250-mile human chain across this Spanish region in the latest push to create an independent state.

At least 400,000 people took part in the event on part in Catalonia’s national day.

On Tuesday evening, a crowd walked slowly through the narrow streets around Sants, a neighborhood west of Barcelona, singing, “In, inde, independencia.” Many waved torches or carried the starry esteldada, the flag favored by supporters of Catalan independence.

“We don’t feel respected about our language and our way of life,” said Jemina Albesa, a housewife who was among the pro-independence marchers.

She says she didn’t always support Catalonia’s leaving Spain, but recently changed her mind. “In the past I thought it was possible to make a compromise with the rest of Spain,” she said, “but I think that’s impossible now.’

Such views are becoming increasingly common in Catalonia, a region of around seven and a half million in the country’s northeast. Last year, on September 11, an estimated 1.5 million people took to the streets of the regional capital, Barcelona, in a huge rally for independence.catalonia_human_chain_spain_4_09_11_13

Today’s demonstration started at 5:14 pm to reflect the year 1714, when Barcelona fell to Bourbon forces. All symbols of Catalan autonomy were destroyed after the defeat. The university was closed and all writing and teaching in the Catalan language forbidden.

Almost 300 hundred years later, Catalonia is one of the country’s most developed regions with a large amount of autonomy.

Still, around 80 percent of Catalans favor holding a referendum on independence. Carles Boix, professor of politics and public affairs at Princeton University, believes 60 to 65 percent would vote yes and another 35 percent would vote no or abstain.

“For 100 or more years, Catalans have tried to have autonomy within Spain, but these autonomy demands have never been fully satisfied and because of that people have become progressively tired and now they are in favor of doing something bigger,” he said.

The latest clamor for independence can be attributed to a number of factors: Spain’s on-going financial travails, growing anger at cash transfers from prosperous Catalonia to poorer regions, and widespread frustration with the central government’s reluctance to grant more powers to the Catalan parliament, which was re-established in 1980.

“Catalan people have realized over the last 15 years that Spain doesn’t really want to reform itself, doesn’t want to change itself,” says Roger Albinyana, secretary for foreign and EU affairs in the Catalan government. “Therefore their aspirations cannot be met within Spain.”

More from GlobalPost: Planet Pic: Catalonia’s human chain

Others argue that independence would be the wrong choice for a region with strong economic and social links to the rest of Spain.

“For many, independence has become a magic option that will solve all economic problems,” says Murici Lucena, speaker for the Catalan Socialist Party in the regional parliament. “I think it’s a huge fallacy.”

In the aftermath of last year’s successful September 11 demonstration in Barcelona, Catalan premier Arthur Mas called a snap election in a bid to copper-fasten support for independence. But while a majority of pro-succession parties were returned, Mas’s right-of-centre CiU party saw its representation fall. The nationalists have since struggled to govern a divided Catalan parliament.

A referendum without Madrid’s blessing is unlikely — for now, at least. But by taking to the streets today, Catalans will be hoping to keep the issue of Catalonia’s constitutional future firmly on the national, and international, political agenda.

This piece originally appeared on the Global Post.

Should Scotland’s famous arts fest join the independence debate?

August in Edinburgh in synonymous with the arts. This August over 25,000 performers have descended on the Scottish capital, offering everything from stand-up comedy and one-act plays to jazz, opera, and poetry readings as part of several separate festivals that are collectively known as the “Edinburgh festival.”

But while the cobbled streets of Edinburgh’s Old Town will be littered with flyers and street performers until the end of this month, the program for next year’s festival is already causing a stir.

The 2014 Edinburgh festival – which bills itself as the largest arts festival in the world – is scheduled to end just weeks before Scotland goes to the polls in a historic referendum on independence.

But the Scots’ historic constitutional choice won’t be on agenda at the oldest of the festivals, the Edinburgh International Festival (EIF), according to its director, Sir Jonathan Mills.

Mr. Mills told a Scottish newspaper earlier this month that he was “not anticipating anything in the [program] at all” next year about the independence debate. The program will concentrate on the Commonwealth Games – due to take place in Glasgow next summer – and the centenary of the start of World War I.

“We would not wish our festival to be anything other than it has always been, which is a politically neutral space for artists. It is important that it remains that,” Mills said in an interview with The Scotsman.

Founded in 1947, the EIF has a budget of £10 million ($15 million), around half of which comes from public funds.fringe

The reaction to the director’s comments about next year’s program was quick, with many in Scotland’s artistic community questioning the idea that the arts are “politically neutral.”

“I don’t think the EIF is going to be able to keep this issue out. We’ve got a year to make use of this opportunity to start a proper discussion,” novelist Denise Mina told the Sunday Herald, a popular Scottish newspaper. “The discussion has become really narrow and people are stating their positions. Nobody is really listening to each other and the festival would have been a great opportunity to listen.”

“The arts are one of the places where we can discuss the more abstract notions. It’s a real missed opportunity by Jonathan Mills. It’s fearful and it’s shameful,” Ms. Mina added.

But the director of another of the festivals, the Edinburgh Book Festival, has said that independence will be a part of the conversation at his event in 2014. “Our job is to discuss things that matter, and for me to ignore the referendum would be the wrong thing to do. We want the book festival to be a safe and fair and unthreatening environment to discuss ideas and debates,”Nick Barley told The Guardian.

By far the largest slice of the Edinburgh festival pie belongs to the Fringe. It was inaugurated in 1947 when eight theater companies who were not invited to the International Festival decided to perform regardless, and has grown into one of the most recognizable arts festivals in the world, with a reputation for being more spontaneous and edgy than its more formal sibling. The Fringe has no selection committee and invites all types of performers and materials.

Despite this, Scottish independence remained a rather marginal theme in this year’s Fringe, says Ben Judge, editor of Fest magazine, a publication appearing each August about the city’s festivals. “You can count the number of independence-minded productions this year on the fingers of one hand. So why is it that Scottish artists, comedians and playwrights seem so disengaged – at least creatively – from the debate?”

Not everyone agrees, however, that Scotland’s creative community are disconnected from next year’s referendum. Artists are struggling to find an outlet in mainstream Scottish cultural forums, says playwright and novelist Alan Bissett.

“You have to find your own space – put on a show [and] take it to the Edinburgh Fringe or put it on YouTube,” Mr. Bissett says.

Bissett believes that the arts have a particularly important role to play in the lead-up to next September’s vote. ‘‘Because [independence] is so complex, the arts is the ideal place to have that discussion,” he says. “Artists aren’t beholden to ‘the truth.’ We are much more about exploring the emotional complexities. People who experience a play, or a poem, or a novel about nationalism recognize more of it because it’s not black and white.”

As well as providing a forum for debate beyond the febrile, often partisan, atmosphere of the official “yes” and “no” campaigns, the arts can also act as an alternative record of next year’s vote, Bissett says.

“When we look back at the Treaty of Union [the agreement which led to the creation of Great Britain in 1707], one of the first things we think of is Robert Burns and his angry poem ‘[Such a] Parcel o’ Rogues [in a Nation].’ So now we can look back and see, ‘ah, not everyone was happy about the Treaty of Union.'”

Posterity is not the only aspect of the independence debate engaging Scottish artists. Many artists will also be actively fighting for a “yes” in the referendum in 2014.

“What artists sense with independence is that it can revitalize not just Scotland but the rest of the UK as well,” Bissett says.

Scotland’s Epic Media Fail

EDINBURGH, Scotland — When parliament opened here in 1999 with new powers thanks to the devolution of control away from London, it was expected to herald a golden age for Scottish journalism.

Back when Scots were ruled directly from Westminster, they already bought more newspapers per person than the rest of the British population. Circulation at the Herald, the largest broadsheet in Glasgow, regularly topped 100,000 issues, and tabloids such as the Daily Record sold many times more.

But today, just 12 months before people go to the polls in a historic vote on full independence, worries are mounting about the survival of the country’s newspaper industry.

The September 2014 referendum on whether or not Scotland should leave the United Kingdom after more than 300 years may be grabbing international headlines, but it’s doing nothing to counter a long slump in Scottish newspaper sales.

papersInstead, the press has found itself at the center of many bitter online debates about its perceived bias, particularly on the part of “yes” supporters who tend to accuse editors of failing to provide balanced coverage of the potential benefits of Scotland’s going it alone.

Stories about the possibility of London seizing the pandas at Edinburgh zoo and bombing Scottish airports in the event of a foreign threat have added to their sense of grievance.

“The unionist campaign has never knowingly undersold the scare stories around independence,’ writer Iain Macwhirter says. “And the media, in the eyes of the ‘yes’ campaign, has been happy to broadcast them.”

However, perceptions of bias are misplaced, says Julian Calvert, a lecturer in journalism at Glasgow Caledonian University.

“It’s very hard to find a newspaper that tries to look at both sides of the debate because [independence] is such a broad issue,” he says.

Unlike in similar political situations in Spain’s Catalonia and Quebec, Scotland has no avowedly pro-independence newspaper. The last such effort, the Scottish Standard, launched in 2005 and ended in dismal failure.

The weekly, middle-market tabloid aimed at nationalist-inclined readers — it featured a column from Scottish National Party (SNP) leader Alex Salmond, who has spearheaded the referendum — shut down after printing just seven issues. Circulation never climbed above 12,000.

Opinion polls suggest that around a third of Scots will vote “yes” next year, and a significant number remains undecided.

However, most experts believe the vote will fail.

Calvert believes the fact that no newspaper has come out in favor of independence owes more to bottom lines than editorial agendas.

“Most of the print media will take a commercial decision based on the most likely outcome,” he says. “They are probably sensing that there isn’t an enormous atmosphere for pro-independence stories.”

The mainstream Scottish press position on nationalism is less negative than its detractors claim, however. A number of newspapers, including the tabloid Scottish Sun and the broadsheet Sunday Herald, backed nationalist candidates during the last parliamentary elections in 2011.

“It is not quite true to say the press is opposed to the SNP,” Sunday Herald editor Richard Walker told an audience at a debate about independence and the media at the Edinburgh festival this week. “Our aim is to create a place where we can have a grown-up and responsible debate about the issues and independence.”

Regardless of the sides they support, newspapers are unlikely to be a deciding factor in next year’s referendum. “I don’t think the press will have a terribly influential role because people know what they are buying and they are re-enforcing their biases,” Calvert says.

Nevertheless, when it comes to the debate about independence, the mainstream media still sets the agenda, says Andrew Tickell, who blogs about law and politics.

The blogosphere still remains “quite reactive,” he says. “Bloggers respond to what’s happening in the broader press.”

How long that’s true remains to be seen. As newspaper sales continue to fall, many publications are subsisting on shoestring budgets.

Author and freelance journalist David Torrance says the real issue for the Scottish press isn’t covering the referendum, but a global problem in the internet age.

“The elephant in the room is the structural issues facing the press,” he says. “Even now, newspapers and proprietors haven’t figured out how to make journalism pay.”

This piece originally appeared on the Global Post.

LRB Blog: Project Fear

Nate Silver told the Scotsman last month that there was ‘virtually no chance’ of a Yes vote in next September’s independence referendum: ‘If you look at the polls, it’s pretty definite really where the No side is at 60-65 per cent and the Yes side is about 40 per cent or so.’ The comments were hardly revelatory, but they were seized on by media on both sides of the border as evidence that the independence campaign should pack up and go home. A few days later, Silver told an audience at the Edinburgh Book Festival that he was less than happy about the way his throwaway remarks had been interpreted. ‘Taking a comment based on a thirty-minute interview that becomes front page news is not the precedent I want to set,’ he said.

With a year to go till the vote, both sides seem more interested in quoting wildly divergent opinion polls than discussing policy. One poll at the beginning of September gave the No side a 30 per cent lead, prompting claims from unionists that the battle was all but over. But then the SNP hailed a survey that showed support for a Yes vote had taken the lead for the first time since 2011.

One reason for the variation in the polls may be that for most Scots it isn’t a straightforward question of in or out. The week before Silver’s appearance in Edinburgh a Panelbase poll commissioned by the pro-independence website Wings Over Scotland found a 2 per cent lead for the No side. More interestingly, it also found a significant hunger for further devolution – and scepticism of unionists’ vague promises of more powers for Holyrood. Sixty per cent of respondents said that welfare benefits should come under the Scottish Parliament’s purview, and more than half said that oil revenues and taxation should be controlled from Holyrood. But few thought any of these powers would be devolved in the event of a No vote in 2014.

The Wings Over Scotland poll received little media attention. (There was a fluff piece in the Scottish Daily Mail about Scots being more scared of a Tory government than space monsters.) More powers for Holyrood – the so-called ‘devo-max’ option that most Scots would prefer to either independence or the status quo – is a conversation few in Scottish politics want to have. Yes Scotland is wary of appearing as defeatist twelve months before a referendum that many have waited a lifetime for; the Better Together campaign encompasses a wide spectrum of unionist opinion, some of it opposed to any devolution at all. ‘The dream consequence of this loss should be a steady erosion of Holyrood’s powers until it can be abolished and the previous efficient unitary form of government restored,’ according to the former Lord Provost of Glasgow Michael Kelly.

Few people would bet on a vote in favour of independence – one Glaswegian punter recently wagered £200,000 on a No in 2014 at odds as short as 1/6 – but unionism is less ascendant than (some) polls suggest. Better Together’s awkward alliance of the Tory, Labour and Lib Dem parties will come under greater pressure as the 2015 general election approaches. Earlier this year, Scottish Labour, anxious to distance itself from the unpopular coalition parties, started a separate campaign for a No vote, United with Labour.

Better Together’s negative campaigning may also backfire. In recent months, they have warned that independence would bring checkpoints at the border, mobile phone roaming charges south of Hadrian’s Wall, and the deportation south of Tian Tian and Yang Guang, the Chinese pandas at Edinburgh Zoo. Privately the official No campaign is said to refer to itself as ‘Project Fear’. ‘Next they’ll be saying there will be seven years of famine in an independent Scotland and that aliens will land here,’ the former Labour first minister Henry McLeish has said. ‘Scots don’t like to be talked to like idiots and there has been a constant haranguing of Scots by Westminster in terms of the type of campaign being run. This could create a backlash as Scots want to know what vision of Scotland within the Union the Unionists are campaigning for. If there’s another year of this people will start to rebel.’

– See more at: http://www.lrb.co.uk/blog/2013/09/18/peter-geoghegan/project-fear/#sthash.hJx0DBJy.dpuf

LRB Blog: In Tirana

The Palace of Culture in Tirana has housed Albania’s national library, opera and ballet companies for almost 50 years. Khrushchev laid the first stone, in May 1959, during what one American newsreel described as a ‘lengthy visit with mysterious overtones’. These days the ground floor of the opera is a count centre during national and local elections. At around 10 p.m. on Sunday, 23 June, three hours after polls closed in parliamentary elections, a queue of officials carrying clear plastic ballot boxes snaked up the steps outside the opera. Policemen in wide-brimmed hats formed a porous cordon around the votes. Party loyalists, with pens and notepads to tally the votes as they were counted, hovered on the terrace, waiting for the lobby to open. Counting had been scheduled to start at eight.tirana-4

One of the tallymen was Erad, a 25-year-old economics graduate. ‘I could be here for two days, maybe three,’ he said, lighting a cigarette. What mattered was that his party, the recently formed nationalist Aleanca Kuq e Zi (Red and Black Alliance), won enough seats to be kingmaker in the new parliament. ‘I think we will do well. If we get three or four seats I’ll be OK,’ he said.

Horns blared from the cars on Skanderbeg Square. Young men festooned with flags for the ruling Democratic Party leaned out of windows and shouted: ‘Sali Berisha, Sali Berisha!’ Berisha, a prominent figure in the Albanian Party of Labour under Hoxha and president of the republic in the mid-1990s, was aiming for a third straight term as prime minister. ‘Corruption is our biggest problem. The system is corruption and corruption is the system,’ Erad said. Transparency International ranks Albania 113 of 176 countries in its corruption perceptions index.

Counting started at 4 a.m. on Monday. Later that morning I returned to the opera. Screens relayed scans of every ballot to around fifty tallymen and women. They looked like punters at a greyhound track. I found Erad leaning against the wall at the far end of the room . ‘How’s it going?’ I asked. ‘Keq,’ he said. Bad. His page was almost blank. He looked exhausted. I asked why he didn’t sit down. ‘I am more vigilant if I stand up.’

The opposition Socialist Party disputed the results of the previous general election, in 2009, boycotting parliament for 18 months and claiming Berisha had stolen the vote. In January 2011, four protesters were shot dead in Tirana. Later that year, in the capital’s mayoral elections, the Socialist incumbent, Edi Rama, lost by 81 votes. He had been declared the winner, but it was then decided that ballots that had been placed in the wrong boxes could be included in the final total. Ahead of this year’s election, one Albanian activist told me he expected the result in ‘a week or two, maybe more’.

Polling day had begun inauspiciously. In the north, an opposition activist was shot dead and a ruling party candidate seriously injured in a gunfight outside a polling station; a TV crew were attacked, their equipment destroyed. But the rest of the day passed in relative peace, and, despite numerous reports of vote buying, especially in crucial marginal constituencies, the OSCE declared the vote ‘quite fair’. By Monday afternoon it was apparent that Rama was on course for a crushing victory.

I paid a final visit to the opera that evening. A fug of smoke hung heavy in the lobby; there were men sleeping on the floor, surrounded by discarded pizza boxes and empty Red Bull cans; someone was running his fingers over the piano. I found Erad where I had left him, still tallying the Red and Black Alliance’s invisible votes. The previous night he had been exuberant – offering to get me ‘whatever I wanted, girls, drugs, guns’ – now he was silent. His friend was also counting for the Kuq e Zi. I asked if I could see his notebook. The thin dashes in the Socialist column outnumbered those for the Democrats by almost two to one. I asked Erad if he would leave Albania. ‘That is a hard question… In 1991, everyone just left. They went anywhere. But things are different now.’

Albanian politics certainly looks different. On 26 June, Berisha publicly conceded defeat, taking full responsibility for his loss. Rama will be the next prime minister: his coalition won 84 seats out of 140. There was no violence, only more cars, this time decked out in Socialist purple, circling Skanderbeg Square. The Red and Black Alliance, like most of the 60-plus parties that contested the election, won no seats. The European Commission is expected to recommend EU candidate status before the end of the year.

Arguably the biggest winners were not the Socialists, who gained only one seat, but their junior coalition partners, the Movement for Socialist Integration (LSI). Until April, when they joined forces with the Socialists, the LSI were in government with the Democrats. The fatal demonstrations in 2011 were sparked by a video of the LSI leader (and former Socialist prime minister), Ilir Meta, appearing to discuss accepting a bribe. His career looked as if it might be over. But he was acquitted of corruption, and now leads a party whose representation has jump from 4 to 16 seats.

As the count closed at the opera in Tirana, I fell into conversation with Besar, a young man tallying for the LSI. He told me that he supported Meta’s party ‘because they support me’. As we talked, a hard-faced man came over and tugged on Besar’s shoulder. ‘He told me to watch closely,’ Besar told me when the man had gone. ‘To stay focused. Not to miss any chances.’

– See more at: http://www.lrb.co.uk/blog/2013/07/15/peter-geoghegan/in-tirana/#sthash.k0EJlHyR.dpuf

Who Owns Scotland?

Scottish Land and Estates, which represents landowners in Scotland, recently released a promotional video to tie in with its submission to the Scottish government’s Land Reform Review Group. The ten-minute film opens with a reassurance from Luke Borwick, the group’s chairman, that Scotland’s landowners aren’t all plutocrats: ‘The vast majority of our members are medium and small owner occupiers.’ As he speaks, the film cuts to shots of a couple strolling beside a massive country pile and an inebriated dinner party. This is Roshven House. Set on 50 acres near Fort William, Roshven is available to rent (for £11,000 a week).

Unusually for a PR video, what the various gilet-clad representatives do say is often as interesting as what they don’t. John Glen, the CEO of Buccleuch Estates, says that Scottish Land and Estates’ members ‘manage a considerable amount of natural resources’. He’s right: between them, the 2500 members may own as much as three-quarters of the land in Scotland. (Buccleuch alone controls around 250,000 acres.) In the clip that follows, Glen rails against youth unemployment (‘the biggest challenge facing us today’). A series of job titles flash on the screen: ‘Mechanic’, ‘Shepherd’, ‘Ghillie’ and, in larger letters in the centre of the frame, ‘Finance Assistant’.

Andrew Bradford, of the Kincardine Estate, makes a shaky case for the efficiency of private landowners in meeting the housing needs of Scotland’s rural population. Landowners ‘can integrate the maintenance of housing’ with other operations such as farming and forestry, he says, ‘so that the chap who is just down there mending a house today might be involved in repairing a fence tomorrow’. Around eight minutes in, Borwick urges the viewer to forget the ‘historic events that have happened, particularly up in the Highlands’ (the Clearances, presumably). ‘What matters now is the future of the Scottish rural sector.’

The future of the rural sector is, in part, the focus of the Land Reform Review Group. Alex Salmond announced the creation of the three-member panel to examine land reform last summer after a meeting of the Scottish government cabinet in Skye. Around 500 submissions have been made so far, but the Scottish government won’t make any evidence public until the final report is published next year.

Scotland has ‘a particularly concentrated pattern of land ownership’, according to Andy Wightman, a land reform activist and the author of The Poor Had No Lawyers: Who Owns Scotland (And How They Got It). ‘Scotland is rather like pre-1880 Ireland.’ The Land Reform Review Group is unlikely to change this greatly. The body includes prominent, longstanding voices in favour of land reform (most notably Highlands historian professor James Hunter) but its report is due to appear next April, when it will probably be reduced to a couple of short-lived, referendum-inflected soundbites.

Towards the end of the film, Borwick adduces ‘independent research’ in support of maintaining the status quo. Conducted in 2010, this research found, among other things, a ‘general lack of awareness and knowledge of estates among the Scottish public’. That much is true: land ownership is rarely mentioned in Scottish public life. There is no significant land reform movement. Nobody from Scottish Land and Estates says it on camera, but they will be hoping it stays that way.

– See more at: http://www.lrb.co.uk/blog/2013/04/02/peter-geoghegan/who-owns-scotland/#sthash.u6gu9fwa.dpuf

Albania: Can one of Europe’s poorest countries change its ways?

HAJMEL, Albania — Wine production has a long history in the northern region of Zadrima: The first recorded planting of its signature grape Kallmet took place in 1555.

Today, rows of well-tended vines filling the neat fields around this small village bask under a hot sun. It feels as if nothing has changed for centuries.

But appearances are deceptive.

Under the old hard-line Communist regime, the authorities ordered these lush vineyards 45 miles from the capital Tirana be ripped up for planting tobacco and wheat.

After the Communists were toppled in 1991, huge collective farms were split into hundreds of thousands of tiny individual holdings. But they have struggled under Albania’s ineffective, corruption-addled politics.

Last week, however, Albania’s Socialist opposition led by the colorful former Mayor of Tirana, Edi Rama, won a landslide victory in parliamentary elections, ousting the government of Prime Minister Berisha, who had dominated politics for two decades.

That gave people here high hopes that one of Europe’s poorest countries may finally change its ways and put itself on a path toward coveted European Union membership.

Among them is Zef Pashuku. A farmer under dictator Enver Hoxha, he emigrated to Greece before returning in 2000 to take over the family farm.

He quickly realized its success would depend on something that still makes Albanians wary these two decades since the communist collapse: going into business with his neighbors.

The farms are too small to make it on their own, but “if we join together, we can compete,” he says. That led Pashuku to establish Albania’s first post-communist cooperative farm in 2005, with the help from the British charity Oxfam.

Now he hopes Tirana’s new government and the promise of kick-starting a stalled drive toward EU accession will be a boon for his and other fledgling cooperatives.

With a membership of around 60 farmers across three villages, the Zadrima collective specializes in wine and oil olive sold locally and internationally.

Sharing equipment enables farms to maximize productivity, Pashuku says, liberally topping up his interviewer’s glass of 2011 vintage Kallmet, which retails at around $4 a bottle.

albaniaAlthough cooperatives make sense here, where the average income is the equivalent of $330 a month, convincing people of their value has been difficult.

“A few years ago, people used to say that sounds like communism,” says Pashuku’s son Jurgen, who is studying agricultural economics at Tirana University and hopes to follow in his father’s footsteps. That’s now changing, he adds.

Agriculture is important here.

It contributes a quarter of GDP to Albania’s struggling economy, according to official statistics. And with almost 50 percent of the population of 2.8 million living in rural areas, encouraging small-scale farmers to form cooperatives is vital, says Geron Kamberi of Quodev, a social enterprise program in Tirana that’s the successor to Oxfam’s mission in Albania.

“Working together as a single unit is really important,” he says.

However, changing mindsets will be only part of the task if new ways of cooperation are to flourish. The government, which passed a new law on cooperatives only recently, has been slow to encourage collaboration.

Last week’s elections made news when a political activist was shot dead in Lac, near Zadrima, as polls opened. Still, the vote was by far the most peaceful since Albania emerged from Communism.

Conceding defeat on Wednesday, Prime Minister Berisha stepped down as leader of the Democratic Party — the first smooth change of power in the divisive, often violent world of Albanian politics.

Although the country has been a NATO member since 2009, political strife following the previous elections the same year has suspended EU hopes. Last year, the European Commission said fair and democratic elections this time around were a sine qua non for granting the country candidate status.

The EC could now recommend Albania for candidate status as early as December, which would bring significant funds, and, many believe, impetus for reform.

There’s much to be done. Endemic corruption has hollowed out institutions. Bribes are common, particularly in higher education. Few believe that the legal system is fair and transparent. And jobs are nearly impossible to find without money and connections.

“Joining the European Union is our last hope,” Jurgen Pashuku says, taking time out from tending vineyards at the farm at Hajmel. “Even if we know it’s a risk.”

Paradoxically, the ongoing euro zone crisis has helped Albanian farmers. Many of those who emigrated to nearby Greece and Italy are now coming home, bringing new expertise. Cooperatives have recently opened in Saranda in the south, and near the northern city of Shkodra.

For Zef Pashuku, the contrast with life under Communism already couldn’t be starker. “Before I didn’t have a shirt to wear and this field was abandoned,” he says. “Now everything is changing.”

This piece originally appeared on the Global Post.