On the Campaign Trail

On Saturday, with only days to go before the independence referendum, thousands of Yes supporters gathered on Buchanan Street in Glasgow, waving Saltires and singing ‘Flower of Scotland’. At around the same time, more than ten thousand Orangemen staged a pro-union march in Edinburgh. The standards at the head of the flute bands hailed from Portadown and Coatbridge, London and Liverpool, Leeds and Stockport.

Elements of the Yes campaign – including the egg-throwing and name-calling – are disquieting. The Panglossian vision of a post-independent Scotland has been accused of silencing dissenting voices. But on the other side of the fence, Better Together has run one of the most vacuous, cynical campaigns in British political history. Beyond the tawdry threats to erect border posts at Coldstream or the ludicrous suggestion that the pandas in Edinburgh zoo would be deported if Scotland votes Yes tomorrow, the No campaign has failed to make a case for the union that wouldn’t fit in the ledger of a Fife accountant. The ‘Let’s Stay Together’ rally in Trafalgar Square on Monday was treated with contempt by everyone I met in Glasgow. ‘If they love us so much why don’t they come up here?’

On Sunday, I visited a stall festooned with blue Yes balloons on a street corner a mile from my flat. Passing cars beeped their horns. The organiser was a local SNP councillor, helped by a middle-aged woman who worked in a bio-tech firm. She said she’d never been involved in a political campaign before but had spent months knocking on doors, delivering leaflets and standing in the cold talking to people. Thousands of political neophytes with little or no party allegiances have mobilised in the largest grassroots campaign the country has ever seen. Activists at my local train station have been handing out flyers, balloons and stickers. I recently spent an afternoon in Easterhouse, one of Glasgow’s most deprived housing schemes, with an eloquent 17-year-old socialist. He has spent months canvassing and organising voter registration drives in an area where fewer than 35 per cent voted in the 2011 Holyrood election.

On Monday, the former home secretary John Reid and the Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont held a press conference with shipyard workers and union leaders across the Clyde from BAE Systems’ Govan yard. On a dreich morning, Lamont and Reid descended from ‘the indyref express’ to be met by banks of photographers and party hacks in matching blue Better Together rainwear trying to pass as concerned citizens. Reid did most of the talking to the press. Afterwards I grabbed a word with a ‘continuous improvement coach’ at BAE. He was voting No, but not because he thought he would lose his job: ‘I’m saying no to division. I don’t like the concept of nationalism.’

But what are the seemingly unending stream of ‘emotional pleas’ that David Cameron et al have inflicted on Scots in recent weeks if not nationalism? On Monday night, Tom Nairn made a rare public appearance, in a haar-enveloped Edinburgh. ‘The moment is right for Scotland to have, in a relatively short time, the chance to contribute to nationality politics and not nationalism in the old, traditional sense,’ he said. There was lots of passion from the floor, but a feeling, too, that most people there were preparing themselves for disappointment.

The choice tomorrow didn’t have to be binary, but the third option – more powers for Holyrood without full independence – was left off the ballot paper. Then on Tuesday, just two days before the vote, Scotland woke to news that ‘devo max’ was back on if they voted No. The specifics of the additional powers seem both vague and unworkable, but the medium was more important than the message. The pledge, which could effectively usher in federalism across the UK, was delivered not after months of discussion, or even in person by the prime minister. Instead, ‘the vow’ was splashed across the Daily Record. If Westminster thinks that the front page of a tabloid is the best way to talk to Scotland in 2014 then it really has learned nothing from the referendum.

This piece originally appeared in the London Review of Books.

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

In Belfast

Apparently there were 43 illegal roadblocks in Belfast on Monday night. In a bar with Christmas lights on the ceiling, a hundred yards from a City Hall not flying the Union Jack, most drinkers were glued to their smart phones. The man beside me was scrolling through the #flegs hashtag on Twitter. (So was I.) His friend was trying to work out if his bus was running. In the end they decided to share a taxi home.

That night, in East Belfast, a firebomb was thrown at a police car outside the constituency office of the local MP. Naomi Long is the deputy leader of the Alliance Party, which came up with the compromise solution to the problem of the Union Jack on Belfast City Hall: the flag will now fly on 15 designated days a year, not continuously as it did until last week.

Sinn Fein’s support for a British flag having any presence at all on a government building on the island of Ireland could have been interpreted as yet another co-option of republicans into a state they spent decades trying to violently overthrow. But many unionists didn’t see it that way. As councillors were voting in City Hall on 3 December, angry loyalists gathered outside. They have been on the streets ever since.

Earlier this week a protest timetable was circulated online. It seems to be genuine: on Tuesday, an hour after a demonstration was scheduled to begin at Mount Vernon, a loyalist estate in North Belfast, I was forced to make a U-turn on the nearby Shore Road, an arterial route into Belfast, which was blocked by around 25 protesters with Union Jack scarves tied across their faces. Behind them, a row of battered white PSNI Saracens kept a safe distance.

Billy Hutchinson, the leader of the Progressive Unionist Party, which is aligned with the Ulster Volunteer Force, has called the unrest ‘a revolution with a small r’. The PUP and, to a lesser extent, the Ulster Political Research Group, the public face of the Ulster Defence Association, have been on the streets. But many of the demonstrators seem to be recent online recruits, organised by a new group calling itself United Protestant Voice, which sounds like a throwback to the 1960s or 1970s.

After a protracted text message conversation, one of the leaders of the protest at Belfast City Hall on 3 December agreed to be interviewed by email. The council’s decision to remove the flag was, he said, ‘like someone stabbing you through the heart’. The 32-year-old, who lives on the outskirts of Belfast and asked to remain anonymous, is a member of the Orange Order and the Democratic Unionist Party. In the weeks leading up to the vote, he set up a Facebook page called ‘Save Our Union Jack (City Hall)’. More than 1500 people signed up.

Most of the protesters are young men from Protestant areas, where educational attainment is low and employment scarce. The perception that their culture is being eroded is pervasive:

We had the UDR, that British Army Regiment was Disbanded, We had the RUC changed to the PSNI, The Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast was Changed to the Royal Hospital but even that isn’t welcomed they want the Hospital renamed again. The Royal Mail they want changed to the Northern Ireland Postal Service, Anything British they want removed.

Unionist leaders aren’t exactly trying to allay such fears. A statement released by the Ulster Unionist Party this week claimed that there ‘is a fundamental issue regarding the chipping away of people’s identity as British citizens’. Basil McCrea, a liberal UUP MLA, has lost his party’s whip for his ‘lack of self-discipline and teamwork’ after he suggested that taking the flag dispute to Stormont was a ‘stupid idea’.

The loyalist angst seems misplaced. The 2011 census results, released on Tuesday, show that only a quarter of Northern Ireland’s resident population define themselves as Irish; 40 per cent self-identify as British. A recent Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey found that 52 per cent of Catholics wanted to keep the Union and only 35 per cent wanted Irish unification.

The Union may be safe for the time being, but loyalists’ grip on the past is looking less secure. The Pat Finucane Review – which found ‘shocking’ evidence of state collusion in the murder of the Belfast solicitor – raises more questions than it answers: why was Finucane not told about threats to his life? Was the killing authorised by the RUC or MI5? How was it possible that, in 1985, 85 per cent of UDA intelligence came from the British security forces? Meanwhile, the PSNI Historical Enquiries Team is investigating a number of Troubles deaths linked to loyalist paramilitaries.

On the streets of Northern Ireland, the protests look set to continue. There’ll be another rally in Belfast tomorrow; demonstrations are also planned on the mainland at council offices in Margate, Glasgow, Fife and Livingston. ‘We will not Surrender to Republicans within this county,’ my loyalist contact wrote. ‘Our flag will fly again 365 days a year over Belfast City Hall.’ A seasoned Northern Irish political analyst who has worked with the Progressive Unionist Party predicted that the unrest would last until Christmas. ‘What happens in the New Year is the big question.’

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

What’s Mined is Theirs — Ireland’s Oil and Gas

Earlier this month, Providence Resources announced that an oil field at Barryroe, off the coast of Cork, is expected to yield 280 million barrels. The company’s CEO, Tony O’Reilly Jr, the son of the media mogul, told the Today programme that this was ‘very good news for Providence shareholders and the Irish economy’. The first part of his statement is undoubtedly true: Providence’s share price rose sharply on the back of the Barryroe news. That Ireland’s economy will benefit is much less likely.

According to the World Bank, Ireland offers ‘very favourable’ fiscal terms for oil and gas companies. At 25 per cent, Ireland’s government take is among the lowest in the world. Norway’s, by comparison, is 78 per cent; Yemen’s is 95 per cent. Ireland also boasts some of the most generous tax-write offs in the industry: companies can offset all costs before they declare profits, including any ‘incurred in the 25-year-period prior to commencement of field production’, from such activities as drilling unsuccessful wells in Irish waters.

When a company finds oil or gas in Irish territory, ownership and control of the resource is transferred in full to the company; no royalties are paid to the state; the company can choose to export the oil or gas; they do not have to land the resources in Ireland or use Irish services or personnel.

In the late 1950s, the minister of industry and commerce (and future taoiseach) Seán Lemass sold the first exclusive exploration drilling rights in Ireland for £500 to Madonna Oil, a shell company owned by three American representatives of the Messman-Rinehart Oil  Company of Wichita and the Ambassador Oil Corporation of Forth Worth. In 1961, a two-thirds share in the rights was sold to Continental Oil and Ohio Oil International for $450,000.

In 1971, Marathon Oil (as Ohio Oil International had become) discovered gas off Kinsale, Co. Cork. The terms of the government deal under which the gas was extracted were so favourable to the company that it became an issue in the 1973 general election. Influenced by Norway’s creation of a state oil company, the new minister for industry and commerce, Labour’s Justin Keating, set about recalibrating Ireland’s relationship with oil and gas companies: the state would have a stake in any commercial find; corporation tax on oil and gas revenue was set at 50 per cent; production royalties would be levied.

Keating’s amendments did not last long. In 1987, the energy minister Ray Burke – who in 2005 was jailed in relation to corrupt payments received in office – abolished royalty payments and state participation in oil and gas development. In 1992, the finance minister (and another taoiseach in waiting) Bertie Ahern cut corporation tax for the industry from 50 per cent to 25 per cent, where it broadly remains, despite some alterations to the new licensing terms made by the Green party minister Eamon Ryan in 2007.

Ireland’s oil and gas regime reflects the dominant logic of Irish economic policy: low taxes will make Ireland attractive to foreign companies, even if they are simply harvesting the country’s natural resources and creating little in the way of jobs or tax revenue. That speculative Irish licence holders get rich in the process is no cause for concern.

A year ago, the minister for communications, energy and natural resources, Pat Rabbitte, announced that 13 new offshore exploration licences had been awarded. ‘Ireland must continue to communicate the message to international exploration companies that Ireland is open for business,’ he said.

In 1973, the Union of Students of Ireland published a pamphlet entitledWhat’s Mined is Ours! The Case for the Retention and Development of Irish Minerals under Public Ownership. According to the foreword, ‘those with a vested interest in the development of Irish mineral resources appear to have access to unlimited finance for public relations purposes.’ One of the text’s three signatories was the USI president, Pat Rabbitte.

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

Scotland Rallies for Independence

How George Robertson must regret saying in 1995 that ‘Devolution will kill Nationalism stone dead.’ Robertson, then the shadow secretary of state for Scotland, was trying to appease sceptical unionists. Last weekend, 13 years after a devolved parliament was established at Holyrood, somewhere between 4000 and 10,000 people attended a ‘March and Rally for Scottish Independence’ in Edinburgh. Organisers said that it will be an annual event until the independence referendum in 2014.

Squabbling over numbers – whether of crowds, revenue or voters – has been a feature of a campaign that has so far managed to be both shrill and low-key. ‘Seriously, is this #indyrally a secret gathering? I have seen better turnouts at bowls tournaments,’ the Labour press officer James Mills tweeted. Writing in the Scotsman, the former Conservative MSP Brian Monteith said nationalists had scored ‘the mother of all own-goals’. Whether either of them attended the event is unclear.

The SNP and the Yes Scotland campaign have gone in for some raucous hyperbole, too, but Saturday was hardly a disaster. Indeed, in the mix of people and perspectives on show, the rally marked a refreshing departure from dreary tribalism. Among the sea of Saltires assembled on a bright, warm morning on the Meadows there were Welsh flags, Senyeras and a huge banner carrying the face of the Edinburgh-born Irish Republican hero James Connolly.

‘Scottish independence would be the best thing for Scotland, the best thing for women, the best thing for everyone,’ said Sarah Currier fromVillage Aunties, a socialist feminist collective (‘We are vigilantes. We are village aunties’). Venetian nationalists in full military regalia marched on the spot. In the background a mix of Orange Juice and Tartan rock (Yes Scotland’s theme song is Big Country’s ‘One Great Thing’) blared out of a campaign bus.

As the march got underway, activists filed behind their standards. There were SNP groups from Leith, Clydebank and elsewhere; Socialist Party members handed out leaflets and asked for signatures for a petition to have Tony Blair charged with war crimes; a small group of Scottish Labour supporters marched behind a ‘Labour for Independence’ banner. Alan Grogan, a bookmaker from Angus, started the group ‘because I was told every time I mentioned it that a vote for independence was a vote for the SNP.’

‘People have realised that Scottish Labour is essentially a puppet of Westminster,’ the writer Alan Bissett told me as we walked past Greyfriars Kirkyard and along George IV Bridge. In January, Bissett released a caustic monologue called ‘Vote Britain’: ‘Vote for being told you’re the only country in the world that could not possibly survive and that without us you’d fall to pieces like children abandoned in the wild, caked in faeces.’

Our destination was the Ross Bandstand in Princes Street Gardens. With Edinburgh Castle in the background, Alex Salmond led the crowd in a call-and-response (‘What do we want?’ ‘Independence!’ ‘How we gonnae vote?’ ‘Yes!’); the Scottish Socialist leader Colin Fox talked hopefully of ‘the beginning of a Scottish spring’; the independent MSP Margo MacDonald called for a popular front in favour of independence, echoing the Scotland United campaign that followed the 1992 Conservative general election victory, but warned that ‘after the independence vote has been won, then party politics come back into play.’

Whether independence can be achieved without a more fully articulated policy platform remains to be seen. Many in Scotland – I’m one of them – would like to see the tabula rasa of an independent Scotland shaded in, however lightly, before committing ourselves. The SNP has been sending out mixed signals; talking about keeping the queen and the pound on the one hand, while on the other saying that it will be up to ‘the people of Scotland’ to decide policy after independence. As the ‘No to Nato’ and ‘Believe in a Nuclear Free Scotland’ placards at Saturday’s march attested, for many people independence isn’t only about self-determination, but about what we do with it.

The Unionist cause meanwhile is far less coherent than its defenders claim. Better Together, the No campaign, is an unhappy marriage of Conservative, Labour and Lib Dem supporters and unionist-minded civil society that is unlikely to rub along entirely harmoniously (especially while rogue elements such as the Orange Order in Northern Ireland put forward uninvited proposals on how the referendum should be conducted).

Although polls suggest the appetite for independence is flagging – only 32 per cent of Scots are in favour, according to the recent British Social Attitudes Survey – the ballot is still more than two years away. As the late Stephen Maxwell notes in Arguing for Independence, more than £40 billion is due to be stripped from the Scottish budget by 2025. Swingeing cuts, an unpopular Tory-led coalition and a faltering recovery north of the border could yet provide the impetus for the break-up of Britain. ‘This was always going to be a bad year for us, with the Olympics and the Jubilee,’ a veteran independence supporter said. ‘But Cameron will see that it gets a whole lot better from now on.’

This piece originally appeared on the London Review of Books blog

The World’s Last Colonial Museum

The Royal Museum for Central Africa in Brussels has been called ‘the last colonial museum in the world’. It’s not hard to see why: in the marble lobby a statue celebrates ‘Belgium bringing civilisation to the Congo’; the Memorial Room lists the names of the 1508 Belgians who died in Africa between 1876 and 1908 but doesn’t mention the millions of Africans who perished during King Leopold II’s brutal reign in the Congo Free State; the painted wooden carvings from Tintin in the Congo that decorate the restaurant are in dubious taste, to put it mildly.

The first Congo Museum opened in 1898, replacing the temporary Palace of the Colonies constructed on the same site for the previous year’s World’s Fair. (During the fair around 260 Congolese were forced to live in three temporary villages on the palace grounds. Seven died of exposure.) Almost as soon as it opened, the Congo Museum was thought too small for all the ethnographic, zoological and geological artefacts being shipped back from the Congo Free State. Leopold commissioned Charles Girault to design a much grander monument to his colonial exploits. In 1910, the new Museum of the Belgian Congo opened its doors. The slight name change is significant: two years earlier, Leopold, in the face of one of the first major international human rights campaigns, and mounting debts, had been forced to hand over the Congo to the Belgian government.

The Africa Museum was last renovated in 1958, again for a World’s Fair. Two years later the Congo gained independence; the museum changed its name to the Royal Museum for Central Africa. Since then it has remained largely untouched, seemingly oblivious to shifts in attitudes, or in museology. The rows of dusty glass cases carry very little explanation, although in the section entitled ‘Congo: The Colonial Era’, Patrice Lumumba is described as a ‘destabilising element’.

‘Our museum went through a bit of a crisis after 1960 because no one wanted to be associated with the colonial project,’ says Guido Gryseels, the museum’s director. An agricultural economist who worked in Ethiopia for almost a decade, Gryseels is overseeing a complete overhaul of the museum, which was due to begin this month but has now been postponed until the middle of next year. The new museum will apparently have a greater focus on contemporary Africa, and take a more critical approach to Belgium’s colonial past.

The €80 million renovation project has not been straightforward. Girault’s building and its contents are protected, including around thirty depictions of Leopold in various media. ‘Some will stay, some will go, but they will certainly be put in perspective,’ Gryseels says. There have also been calls for the place to be left as a ‘museum of a museum’, as a reminder to future generations of the way colonial subjects were perceived. For others, mainly older Belgians, the museum is a source of pride that should remain as it is. ‘If someone is prepared to give me the money to build a new museum alongside,’ Gryseels says, ‘I’d be happy to keep it as a memory of the past. But where am I going to find €120 million to build a new museum like that?’

Neal Ascherson writes in The King Incorporated that in November 1908, as ‘the starred flag of the Free State was hauled down in the Congo for the last time,’ Leopold published a document claiming that he had tried to ‘open the darkness of Africa to a ray of light’ and that he had never profited from his colonial holdings. In fact he made vast sums from his private fiefdom, though he never went to the Congo, or even to the Palace of the Colonies during the 1897 Brussels World’s Fair.

Each year, around 150 Congolese scientists and curators are trained at the Royal Museum for Central Africa, but for now there are no plans to repatriate any artefacts to the DRC. ‘At the moment there are no calls for the return of any heritage,’ says Gryseels. During the 1970s, around 200 objects were returned to the regime of Mobuto Sese Seko. Many eventually reappeared on the black market in Brussels.

This piece originally appeared on the London Review of books blog.

Among the Orangemen

Ian Wilson, a former Grand Master of the Orange Lodge in Scotland, addressed the annual Orange parade in Broughshane, Co. Antrim, on 12 July. After describing Martin McGuinness’s handshake with the queen as ‘a humiliating surrender’ for Sinn Fein, Wilson turned his anger on a ‘more cuddly and user-friendly’ nationalist: Alex Salmond. ‘The ultimate aim of Mr Salmond is precisely the same as Mr McGuinness – the destruction and break up of the United Kingdom,’ he said.

The Grand Orange Lodge of Scotland is not the political force it once was – in the 1920s it had hundreds of thousands of members, including the secretary of state for Scotland, John Gilmour – but there are still more than 180 lodges in the Glasgow area alone, and around 8000 people attended July’s annual Orange Walk in the city.

The order was traditionally aligned with the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party, but that’s changed with the electoral demise of the Tories north of the border. Many West of Scotland Orangemen are now solid Labour supporters. According to the current Grand Master, Henry Dunbar, the Order even encouraged members to vote SNP in the 2011 Holyrood elections in protest over a Glasgow City Council policy to reduce parades. The SNP won a number of Labour strongholds in Glasgow in its landslide victory, though it’s not clear what, if anything, the ‘Orange vote’ contributed to that.

The Order’s putative flirtation with the nationalists didn’t last long. Before May’s local elections, the Labour group leader in Glasgow, Gordon Matheson, appeared at an Orange Lodge hustings, apparently telling members that the council’s parading policy was ‘flawed’. TheOrange Torch praised Matheson for his attacks on the SNP – ‘the kind of bullish talk we need to hear more of from unionist politicians’ – and claimed that Labour held control of the council thanks to the help of ‘thousands of Orangemen and their families’.

The possibility of Scottish independence has given the order ‘a new imperative’, Wilson said when I interviewed him recently. He has been appointed head of an internal strategy group to co-ordinate the Orange Lodge of Scotland’s response to the referendum. At present, the Order is not involved in Better Together, the official ‘No’ campaign supported by Scottish Labour, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats.

In 2007, the Order sent out a press release calling for undefined ‘direct action’ against the ‘threat’ of independence. It was quickly retracted and the member responsible disciplined. ‘This is not Northern Ireland in 1912, we are not Edward Carson,’ Wilson said. ‘The Lodge has to be careful not to queer the pitch – we do have our fans but a lot of people don’t like us. There is nothing to be gained from having a negative impact on the campaign.’

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

Iceland Myths

Iceland is often held up as the poster child for an alternative approach to the global crisis, but how accurate are the stories about the Nordic nation? My London Review of Books blog took a look.

In April, a video entitled ‘Iceland forgives mortgage debt of its population’ went viral. The 30-second clip, a Spanish-language news broadcast by the Latin American TV network teleSUR with English subtitles, reported that the mortgage relief was ‘a response to citizens’ demands’. Within 24 hours of being uploaded, the report had been watched tens of thousands of times (videos on teleSUR’s English-language YouTube channel often struggle for double digit viewing figures). Activists on Twitter and Facebook hailed Iceland as an example to the world, reposting as they went.

The teleSUR video was not the first story characterising Iceland as David standing up to the Goliath of international finance to go global since the 2008 crash. Last year, an article claiming that ‘this little-known member of the European Union’ had defied the ‘FMI’ and recovered ‘their sovereign rights’ appeared on the popular liberal US blog Daily Kos. The piece was ‘liked’ more than 1200 times on Facebook and reposted on countless blogs.

Like the teleSUR video, the Daily Kos article tells an uplifting story of the population of a small country asserting their collective rights and refusing to kowtow to the demands of bankers and profiteers. If only the stories were true.

Take the claim that Iceland has forgiven mortgage debt en masse. The Social Democratic-Left-Green coalition in the Althingi did indeed introduce a relief package for indebted homeowners, in response to the wave of negative equity and repossessions after Iceland’s housing bubble burst. Under the scheme, mortgage debt cannot exceed 110 per cent of the value of a property (in Icelandic kroner). Any excess is written off. It is a reasonable, well-intentioned policy. But it is not a Biblical debt jubilee. Many Icelanders are still struggling under huge monthly repayments they cannot afford.

Misinformation about Iceland has proved remarkably resistant to correction. Between 2008 and the end of 2010, as the economic crisis unfolded, Alda Sigmundsdóttir regularly responded to inaccurate reports on the Iceland Weather Report. ‘It was like shouting in the desert,’ she says. ‘I was so frustrated, it was just far too much work, it was almost like a full-time job.’

Sigmundsdóttir, a former stringer for Associated Press in Reykjavik, no longer blogs at the Iceland Weather Report, but she still receives emails from all over the world asking about the way Iceland ‘crowd-sourced’ its constitution or let its banks fail (a story that is, at best, only partially true). A man in Greece recently wanted to know if shops in Reykjavik still conducted business in Kroner: an article in the Greek press had claimed that the Icelandic currency was no longer accepted by retailers.

Maybe it’s a language problem: not enough foreign journalists speak Icelandic. Haukur Magnússon, the editor-in-chief of the Reykjavik Grapevine, one of Iceland’s few English-language publications, says ‘that’s a lazy excuse.’ Journalists – whether citizen or professional – should check their facts. ‘People think of Iceland as a Shangri-la, which it isn’t.’

In February, the televangelist Pat Robertson hailed Iceland’s decision to jail bankers and politicians for their role in the finanicial crisis: ‘Iceland is leading the way and their GDP is growing, and all of a sudden, they were in a terrible mess, terrible mess, and look what is happening!’

Prosecutions are ongoing, with mixed results so far. In April, the former prime minister Geir Haarde was found guilty of one out of the four charges against him: not holding enough cabinet meetings. He received no penalty for the offence. There have been more successful prosecutions, though: on 8 June, two former executives at Byr Savings Bank, Jon Thorsteinn Jonsson and Ragnar Zophonias Gudjonsson, werefound guilty of fraud and sentenced to four and half years in prison by Iceland’s Supreme Court.

On 30 June, Iceland goes to the polls to elect a president. The incumbent, Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson, once close to the Viking financiers, has spent much of his last term rebranding himself as the man who faced down the might of global capital.

The Reykjavik Grapevine, meanwhile, after it ran a piece pointing out the errors in the Daily Kos story, was, Magnússon says, ‘accused of being a corporate lackey for trying to debunk these stories.’