LRB Blog: Yes Scotland

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

LRB Blog: A Moment of Clarity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Local Currencies

My latest blog on the London Review of Books site, on local currencies, runny Spanish omelettes and ‘the Miracle of Worgl’:

Death to the Euro.’ The handmade sign was pinned to the wall of a community centre in San Luis, a gentrified neighbourhood just inside the boundaries of Seville’s old city. It was a balmy Friday evening, but inside a crowd of around a hundred people were listening to a 45-minute PowerPoint presentation on puma, a new local currency for San Luis launched last month. Puma is the third local currency to be introduced in the Andalusian capital this year. Pepa and jara already circulate in Macarena, a working-class district on the other side of Seville’s city walls.

After explaining how the new currency would work – euros can be exchanged one-for-one for puma notes, which are valid in designated San Luis shops – the speaker took questions from the floor: an elderly man with a straw hat wanted to know if his local café would acceptpuma; a young mother asked how she could sign up for the scheme on-line.

Repeated doses of EU-enforced austerity have hit Spain hard. Last week, the country officially slipped back into recession. The Spanish economy, the fifth largest in Europe, is expected to contract by 1.7 per cent in 2012.

In the slipstream of the Eurozone crisis, local currencies – perfectly legal, so long as income tax is paid – have proliferated across Spain. Thezoquito has circulated in parts of Galicia since 2007. Local currencies are proving popular in the UK, too: the Totnes pound has been around since 2007; the Brixton pound, with a natty picture of Ziggy Stardust on the tenner, emerged in 2009; the Bristol pound is about to launch.

Local currencies tend to circulate more rapidly than national (or transnational) currencies, as well as keeping money in the area, with the result that local economic activity increases. In 1932, the mayor of Wörgl in Austria replaced the faltering national currency with specially printed ‘Certified Compensation Bills’. Inspired by Silvio Gesell’s theory of ‘free-flowing money’, the Wörgl bills were designed to depreciate by 1 per cent of their value each month in order to promote rapid circulation and dissuade hoarding. Within weeks Wörgl had almost full employment. A new ski jump was built. Roads were repaired. Six neighbouring villages soon copied the ‘miracle of Wörgl’. In 1933, the Austrian Supreme Court upheld the Central Bank’s monopoly over the issuing of currency. Thirteen months after it began, Worgl’s experiment was over; within weeks joblessness in the town returned to around 30 per cent.

At the end of the evening in Seville, plates of runny omelette were passed around the room. An activist in his late twenties – a member of Spain’s M15, or indignados, movement – said the presentation was ‘fantastic’: ‘He wasn’t just talking about money, he was talking about trying to create a new society. We need another system. The currency is just a tool.’