Why David Cameron is finding it difficult convincing Scotland to stay in the UK

EDINBURGH, Scotland — When David Cameron was here last week to call on Scots to reject independence from the United Kingdom, he did it by promising more powers for the devolved Scottish parliament.

Scots could have the “best of both worlds,” the prime minister argued. Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom would be “stronger, safer, more secure and more successful” inside the union if they vote “no” in a referendum planned for September, he said.

But that’s a message he’s struggled to get across.

With polls suggesting support for leaving the UK is slowly growing — even though the opponents of independence still maintain a clear lead — many are asking why the prime minister appears to be doing the minimum to save a three-century-old union.Cameron

Some of his obstacles are obvious.

The Conservative Party leader, who was privately educated and has a background in public relations, is often caricatured here as aloof and remote from Scottish concerns.

The Conservatives hold just one of Scotland’s seats in the British parliament in London and are deemed irrelevant in the devolved parliament here, which is dominated by the pro-independence Scottish National Party.

The internal party politics are less visible.

Cameron’s allies among Scottish Conservatives — whose official title is the Conservative and Unionist Party — have traditionally resisted the kind of devolution the prime minister is offering Scotland. The party called for a “no” vote in the 1997 referendum that led to the establishment of a Scottish parliament.

Pro-union parties have also been unable to agree on the shape further powers for Scotland would take in the event of a “no” victory on Sept. 18.

Independence supporters, for their part, point to history to argue the case that the prime minister can’t be trusted to keep his word: When Scots voted in an unsuccessful referendum on devolution in 1979, then-Conservative leader Margaret Thatcher promised to deliver an improved home-rule settlement if they voted “no.”

In the end, Scotland had to wait almost two decades for its devolved parliament.

“If a bearded transvestite can win Eurovision, I suppose anything is possible,” commentator Iain Macwhirter wrote in last weekend’s Sunday Herald about this month’s popular Europe-wide song contest. “But believing in more powers is a bit like believing Scotland could win the World Cup: it’s theoretically possible, but vanishingly remote and ruled out for the time being.”

The Scottish National Party (SNP) says only a vote for independence would guarantee more powers for Scotland.

“Nobody will believe Tory promises of more powers for Scotland because the last time that happened the only thing Scotland got was Thatcherism and 18 years of Tory governments we didn’t vote for,” Scotland’s first minister Alex Salmond said last week in response to Cameron’s pledge.

The prime minister has also been put in a difficult position by the way the referendum campaign is shaping up.

While he’s refused to become seriously involved — maintaining the decision is for the Scottish people to make — and has rejected repeated offers to participate in a televised debate with Salmond, a “yes” vote would seriously damage his credibility.

Cameron is “caught in an awkward position,” says James Maxwell, a political commentator for the New Statesman. “The government don’t quite know how involved to get.”

The SNP has been good at playing the populist anti-Tory card, Maxwell adds. “They accuse Westminster of bullying whenever they have something to say,” he says of the UK parliament in London. “Then they accuse Westminster of being feart [afraid] when they say nothing.”

Although Cameron has a “clearer ear” for the Scottish debate than many of his Conservative colleagues, Maxwell says, “he is a right-wing patrician Tory with little or no electoral legitimacy in Scotland, so he is never going to play particularly well with the electorate here.”

Not everyone’s a critic, however.

Some have welcomed Cameron’s cautious approach to the referendum, including Sir Malcolm Rifkind, a former Scottish Conservative MP who’s called it “extremely wise.”

“Alex Salmond wants to turn this into a Scotland versus England issue, and particularly an SNP versus the Conservatives issue,” says Rifkind, a onetime Tory defense minister. “There’s no reason why the rest of us should play that game.”

Paradoxically, the independence vote may offer Scottish Conservatives their best chance in a generation to improve their dismal electoral fortunes at home.

A party commission is due to publish its proposals for further devolution in Scotland in the event of a “no” vote.

With previous proposals from the Labour and Liberal Democrat parties having received decidedly lukewarm receptions, the Scottish Tories have an opportunity to put some eye-catching suggestions on the table.

Measures thought to be under consideration include the full devolution of income tax.

“The Tories have a chance to stake out the radical ground,” Maxwell says.

Of course, any new powers for Edinburgh would depend on Scots heeding Cameron’s pleas and saying “no” in September.

This piece originally appeared in the Global Post. 

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.

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.

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.