Cameron heads north to woo Scotland. But is he his own worst enemy?

With his Eton education and clipped vowels, David Cameron is often seen as quintessentially English. But lately the British prime minister has been talking up his Scottish heritage – with particular emphasis on Clan Cameron’s motto, “Let us unite.”

As September’s referendum on Scottish independence from the United Kingdom draws closer, Mr. Cameron is becoming increasingly concerned about a burgeoning shift among Scots towards the pro-independence side, which prompted a rare visit to Scotland today to press the unionist case in person.

But observers warn that the Conservative prime minister may be in a no-win situation north of the border, where he crystallizes Scotland’s nationalist and anti-Tory sentiments while not yet offering a constructive alternative to undecided Scottish voters.

“These token trips mean virtually nothing,” says Karly Kehoe, a senior lecturer in history at Glasgow Caledonian University. “What the politicians at Westminster need to demonstrate to the Scottish public is that they understand the level of debate taking place here and that they are engaged with the issues.”

A Tory in a Scottish land

Cameron told reporters in Glasgow today that he would be making an “unrelentingly positive” case for the union over the coming months. Speaking at the start of a two-day visit, the Conservative party leader said: “My message is simple. We want Scotland to stay. We are all enriched by being together. Scotland puts the great into Great Britain.”David-Cameron-001

But his appearance in Scotland’s largest city was a low-key affair – hardly surprisingly given his party’s travails in Scotland. The Tories, the largest party in England, holds just one of 59 Scottish seats in the UK parliament at Westminster. Many Scots still blame Margaret Thatcher for the deindustrialization that ravaged many Scottish cities. When the former Conservative leader died last year, hundreds attended a celebratory street party in Glasgow’s main square.

The Scottish National Party (SNP), which controls the devolved parliament in Edinburgh, has described independence as an opportunity to end Tory rule in Scotland forever. SNP deputy leader Nicola Sturgeon dismissed Cameron’s visit, saying “We will be better off if all decisions on our future are made here in Scotland rather than by an out-of-touch Tory elite at Westminster.”

Although polling has consistently put the unionists ahead so far, there has been disquiet about Better Together, the cross-party “No” campaign supported by Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats. Opponents of independence have been accused of relying on a lugubrious message and of failing to make a compelling case for maintaining the union.

Recent reports that Westminster suppressed the findings of a government-funded opinion poll thatindicated a rise in nationalist sentiment have fed this narrative.

Bane or boon for the “no” vote?

But with the Sept. 18 vote to end the Union of 1707 only months away, Cameron is caught in an awkward position when it comes to Scotland, says James Maxwell, a Scottish political commentator at the New Statesman.

“The SNP accuse Westminster of bullying whenever they have something to say. Then they accuse Westminster of being feart [afraid] when they say nothing. [The SNP] are quite good at playing that populist anti-Tory card.”

While Cameron’s visit could possibly be a boon for his independence-supporting opponents, the British leader had no choice but to risk an appearance, says Maxwell. “If [Cameron] just systematically avoids Scotland for four months it would be awfully embarrassing, not just for him and for the conservative party but for the no campaign more broadly.”

Cameron has consistently rejected calls from Yes Scotland to participate in a live TV debate with SNP leader Alex Salmond. Some, like Arthur Midwinter, visiting professor of politics at the University of Edinburgh, believe that Cameron should go further and keep out of the independence campaign completely.

“My view is that Cameron should leave it to the Scottish secretary [Liberal Democrat MP Alistair Carmichael] to argue on behalf of the UK government and for [Labour MP and Better Together leader] Alistair Darling to speak for Better Together,” says Professor Midwinter. “Cameron should stay away from the campaign. I don’t think it’s helpful to have him coming here and presenting arguments. This is really a matter for Scots.”

But the prime minister’s visit could end up benefiting both sides in the independence debate, says Alex Massie, an experienced watcher of Scottish politics and a commentator for the Spectator.

“We are accustomed to viewing politics as a zero-sum game in which there is an identifiable winner and an equally identifiable loser. But the prime minister of the United Kingdom coming to Scotland to talk about the strengths and the advantages of the union is an exception to that general rule of political punditry,” Mr. Massie says. “I think it’s actually a win-win for both sides. Both sides will get out of it what they want.”

Nonetheless, he doesn’t expect Cameron’s visit to move the needle much overall. “The notion that this will have a major impact on the referendum is, I suspect, exaggerated.”

This piece originally appeared in the Christian Science Monitor.

Kosovo’s ‘Strong Party’ backs most everything – but dull politics

A bold new political platform is arriving in tiny Kosovo: Corruption should be legalized and serious diseases outlawed. A Formula One racing track should be built around Kosovo’s capital, Pristina. Urinals should be installed in the foyer of every public building in the city.

These are just some of the policies proposed by a new, tongue-in-cheek politics that has started bringing laughs to the often stagnant politics of Albanian-majority Kosovo.

Partia e Forte, i.e. The Strong Party, is of course a spoof, an example of Balkan satire and sense of the absurd. The party got founded after a conversation among friends in a Pristina cafe two years ago. But after Sunday’s local elections, it is on course to win at least one seat in the city council.strong party

“There was a need for a party like this in the political scene to bring something new, and not just continue with the same boring politics,” the Strong Party’s so-called “Legendary Chairman,” Visar Arifaj, explained the day after the local elections, which continued into a 5 a.m. post-election party.

The Strong Party taps into a perpetual roiling discontent in Kosovo, especially among the young – and comic relief in what is an often heavy dialogue around the tense Serb-majority enclave of North Mitrovica.

Over half of Kosovo’s population are under 25, and they make up many of the 40 percent unemployed figure. Corruption scandals have been present for years and have fed a disillusionment with mainstream politics, mostly dominated by parties that emerged from the independence struggle in the 1990s.

Like the Best Party in Iceland, Mr. Arifaj believes that farce can be a highly effective form of protest. “If you just criticize you are not doing anything new. By not opposing them, by becoming one of them, we are showing how ridiculous they are.”

Arifaj and the rest of the Strong Party have certainly succeeded in holding Kosovo’s political class to ridicule. Playing off a slew of universities that have sprouted all over Europe’s youngest state in recent years, Arifaj made a campaign “pledge” to build a college in every single neighborhood.

“The prime minister appears to want universities in every village; well, we’re going further,” he said during the campaign.

The Strong Party has a novel approach to solving Kosovo’s unemployment crisis, too. “We don’t think it is a problem that 40 percent are unemployed. We think that the 60 percent who do work are the main problem.”

“What we will try to do is make everyone not have to work. Everything should be done by computers, so people can get their salaries just by sitting at home,” he says.

Strolling around Pristina in Arifaj’s company it is clear the party hit a nerve in a city that does have plenty of creative youth. It is hard to move more than ten feet without someone stopping to shake Arifaj’s hand or pat him on the back. “We were a bit surprised by how people accepted and how they do love [the party],” he says.

“In the beginning we didn’t know how people would react to it. If they would throw stones at us or kiss us. We are glad it went the good way!”

The Strong Party brought “humor to the dull pre-electoral campaign” says Ilir Deta, executive director of the Kosovo think tank Kipred. “It is a success that they will be represented by a counselor or two at the municipal assembly.”

The party intends to contest the 2014 general election. Behind their comic appearance lies a serious message. “Kosovo has one of the youngest populations in Europe. A lot of young people are not represented politically,” says Yll Rugova, a graphic designer and one of the Strong Party’s 1,500 “vice-presidents.”

“There are people like us in countries like Serbia and Macedonia and maybe, maybe we can develop something together that break the borders. That sounds a bit cheesy but it is really something that could happen.”

This piece originally appeared in the Christian Science Monitor

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.

On eve of EU accession, Croatia cautiously optimistic

During the recent local elections in Zagreb, almost every candidate was keen to stress their pro-European Union credentials. In the city’s Cvetni Trg, or Flower Square, some councilors handed out bumper stickers with the EU’s starry logo to passing shoppers. Others appeared on platforms festooned with Croatian and European flags.

Croatia is not yet a member of the European Union but it soon will be. On Monday, the Balkan state of just over 4 million people will become the 28th country to join the EU, and only the second from the former Yugoslavia – Slovenia joined in 2008.

croatia“I am looking forward to joining the European Union. As a young person, I personally think it is the best option for Croatia,” says Danijel Bicanic, a recent psychology graduate working in Zagreb.

Most Croatians agree: Last year, two-thirds voted “yes” to joining the European Union, and a majority still support that decision according to recent surveys.

Europe’s ongoing economic and political difficulties do raise some concerns in Croatia – which is suffering its own economic woes. But many believe that membership in the EU will help reinvigorate Croatia’s economy and tackle its corruption.

“I am not really concerned with the problems that are now in the European Union, because there are also so many internal national problems. I am more concentrated on those,” says Mr. Bicanic.

Tight times in Croatia

Croatia certainly has its fair share of local problems. The economy, which has scarcely grown since 2008, is back in recession and is expected to shrink by 1.5 percent of GDP this year. In March, unemployment stood at 21.6 percent.

Croatian politicians have been keen to stress the benefits of being part of the world’s largest trading bloc, but are playing down expectations that EU membership will bring an overnight reversal in the country’s fortunes.

“We are very aware that the European Union will not solve all our problems,” says Andrea Zlatar-Violic, Croatia’s minister for culture. “But it is very useful for us not to be one closed society, one closed state but to be open and without frontiers.”

Although any expansion of the EU in the Balkans is unlikely in the foreseeable future, Ms. Zlatar-Violic believes Croatia has an important role to play as a standard bearer for the region in Brussels.

“We really don’t want to be a wall between the Balkans and the European Union. We want to be completely open,” she says, “to organize a new Balkan space, a new public space, for all our experiences.”

New markets

EU accession will have a significant effect on the Croatian economy, says Vuk Vukovic, lecturer in political economy at Zagreb School of Economics and Management.

Clustering, where groups of inter-related industries are encouraged to locate close together and collaborative, has been a popular economic strategy in Croatia. But Dr. Vukovic says that businesses that have not adapted to entry into the European Union by forming clusters”will experience great difficulties and most likely go under.”

“On the other hand,” he adds, “there is a possibility that the new increased competition from the EU will encourage new innovative solutions among Croatian entrepreneurs and thus contribute to more wealth creation.”

A number of EU members – including Britain, Germany and the Netherlands – have placed restrictions on Croats traveling to work. Despite this, many in Croatia are worried about rising emigration, especially among young people, in the wake of the increased freedom of movement that EU membership will bring.

Vukovic believes that such a rise in emigration might actually help Croatia’s labor market – at least in the short term. Young people leaving for jobs in the rest of the EU would reduce unemployment in Croatia and lead to an increase in remittances sent back home. However, with an aging and diminishing population, Croatia can ill afford to lose its best and brightest for good.

Still, it might not come to this, says Vukovic. “The poor labor market situation across Europe may after all keep the people at bay.”

Arguably Croatia’s greatest asset is its 1,100-mile Adriatic coastline, peppered with spectacular islands. Hopes are high that EU membership will be a boon for the country’s tourism sector, although there are fears that increased numbers of foreign visitors will put prices – and particularly land values – beyond the reach of most locals.

‘A chance to move on’

Opposition to EU membership has risen since the eurozone crisis, but most Croatians still support joining the EU. The Associated Press reported earlier this month that according to recent surveys, some 60 percent of the population are in favor of entry, though only 49 percent believe that their country will benefit.

Some Croatians cite the EU’s role in strengthening transparency in Croatia and tackling the corruption that flourished after independence.

In 2012, former Prime Minister Ivo Sanader was convicted of accepting bribes. The onetime head of Croatian Democratic Union is still on trial facing further corruption charges. “Without outside pressure, the people feel this would have never been revealed,” says Vukovic.

Back on the streets of Zagreb, Bicanic typifies the cautious optimism that characterizes many Croatians’ attitudes toward EU membership. “Europe is our chance to move on” from the past, he says.

“It’s a chance to develop our society, to meet new people. I am really trying to look forward and not look back, because there is no sense to doing that.”

This piece originally appeared on the Christian Science Monitor.

Aye or nae? Scottish teens will vote on independence

Most days after school, Sean Garcais and his friends ride their BMX bikes in North Kelvin Meadow, a patch of scrub land in the west end of Glasgow. They build ramps, try new tricks. Sean and his friends are like 15- or 16-year-olds anywhere else in the world, but with one difference: Next year they will all have a say on the future of their country’s independence.

Under the Edinburgh Agreement, which sets out the terms for Scotland‘s independence referendum in 2014, 16- and 17-year-olds will have a vote. The legislation that will enable them to vote in a United Kingdom plebiscite for the first time ever is currently making its way through the Scottish Parliament atHolyrood, in Edinburgh.

Today, the Referendum Bill Committee will report to Parliament, and a debate in the chamber is scheduled for the following week. But the lowered voting age is almost certain to be passed into legislation later this summer. It is longstanding policy of the pro-independence Scottish National Party (SNP), which dominates Scotland’s devolved Parliament.

The SNP has said that it backs lowering the voting age in order to enfranchise more youth in a decision that will affect the rest of their lives. “No one has a bigger stake in the future of our country than today’s young people,” said the SNP’s Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s deputy first minister, when the bill was introduced in March. “And it is only right that they are able to have a say in the most important vote to be held in Scotland for three centuries.”

But some see a political interest in the SNP’s support.

Politicians only gave young people a vote “because they think we will be more radical,” says Sean, who is a student at Glasgow’s Hillhead High School. “I’m not sure about it myself. I might vote yes, I might vote no.”

Some of his friends share his ambivalence. Others say they are firmly in favor of independence for Scotland. But when asked if they will actually vote in the referendum, the youthful bikers respond with cacophony of “ayes” and “yeses.”

Annie McFadyen firmly supports the proposal. “I think we should get a chance to vote – we can drive a car, get married, but aren’t allowed to vote.” The 15-year-old Glaswegian is in little doubt about how she will vote. “I’m for it. I’ve got strong views on the whole topic but I’ve got friends who aren’t bothered either way,” she says.

More nationalistic?

Young Scots, like their peers across the world, increasingly get information from social media rather than from traditional sources such as television news or newspapers.SNP-Scottish-independence-referendum-debate

This is an important change, says James Mitchell, professor of politics at the University of Edinburgh. “The big issue rather than the election is how we engage with this new generation that is coming through that don’t read newspapers.”

Access to information will be an important factor on how 16- and 17-year-olds vote, agrees Isla MacLennan, head of modern studies at St. Margaret’s Academy, Livingston, a school of around 1,200 students in central Scotland.

“Young people, generally, are more likely to be nationalist. It comes from a place of Scottish pride and the Tartan Army [the supporters of the Scottish national soccer team],” she says. But that nationalism “may be not that thought out. That’s what we are trying to do in our classes,” she says.

Recently, Ms. MacLennan staged a debate and a mock vote in class. Before the debate, a majority of students said they were against independence. After the discussion, 60 percent voted in favor.

But Professor Mitchell rejects the popular assumption that young people are likely to be more nationalistic, and more likely to vote for independence. “It will be very interesting to see if 16- and 17-year-olds vote differently, but I don’t think that will happen,” he says.

And even if they do swing one way more than the other, Mitchell does not expect the youth vote to be a difference-maker. The age bracket makes up around 3 percent of the Scottish electorate. With such small numbers, young people are unlikely to be a decisive constituency in 2014. Just getting them to the ballot box could prove a challenge.

“Young people are less likely to vote than older people, so I’d expect turnout among young people to be low,” says Mitchell.

An eye toward the future

Among the advocates of votes at age 16 are the Scottish Youth Parliament, a non-party political assembly that meets three times at the Scottish Parliament in Holyrood to discuss issues that affect young people and suggest solutions.

In the 2009 Scottish Youth Parliament elections, 65 percent of the 32,000 14- to 25-year-olds across Scotland who voted backed a proposal to extend the vote to 16-year-olds.

Allowing young people to vote “will give the referendum, whatever the result, more credibility,” says Kyle Thornton, vice chair of the Scottish Youth Parliament. “For 16- and 17-year-olds this is something that will change their entire life – the effect of it will be seen 30, 40, 50 years from now.”

One factor that may sway the minds of young voters is the promise of greater participation for 16- and 17-year-olds in an independent Scotland.

“If Scotland votes yes, I find it inconceivable that we won’t have votes at 16 and 17 in Scotland after that,” Mitchell says.

“But it is also possible that many of the people who think that votes at 16 will bring the sky down will wake up the morning after a ‘no’ vote and say, ‘maybe it’s not such a bad idea. We gave votes to women, votes to the working class, maybe we should give votes at 16.'”