A Catalan UDI? Reasons to be Fearful

The day I left Barcelona an open letter appeared hundreds of miles away, in a central European republic, calling on the local government to condemn the Spanish authorities’ violence in Catalonia. The letter – which also demanded the European Union recognise the outcome of Sunday’s vote – appeared in a nation all too familiar with the challenge of starting a new state: Slovenia>

The first signature on the Slovene letter was a telling one: Milan Kučan. In January 1990, Kučan effectively ended Yugoslavia’s federal system when he led his Slovene communists out of the Party Congress. Multi-party elections swiftly followed. On 25 June, 1991 Kučan announced Slovenia’s independence unilaterally – despite not having the backing of a major international power.

Slovenia’s story is often repeated in the bars and cafes of small states seeking independence. The day after Kučan’s declaration, the Yugoslav army began troop movements on the Slovene border. All out war was avoided. Almost three decades later, Slovenia is a peaceful, reasonably prosperous EU state.

That Slovenia managed to escape from the collapsing Yugoslavia relatively unscathed has been adduced by some who say that Catalonia should just declare independence. Surely after the brutal violence meted out by the Spanish police the Catalan government has no option but to breakaway from Madrid, unilaterally if necessary?

That view is gaining traction, in Barcelona and beyond. On Thursday, Spain’s constitutional court suspended a Catalan parliament session planned for Monday for fear that Catalan president Carles Puigdemont might issue a unilateral declaration of independence (UDI).

Madrid, of course, has refused to allow a legal Catalan referendum. Last weekend, I met elderly people effectively locked inside polling stations waiting to vote who visibly trembled with fear as images of the Spanish police brutality circulated on mobile phones.

Since then Spain has doubled down. Catalan calls for mediation have been rejected out of hand. On Sunday, Spanish premier Mariano Rajoy, having delivered on his promise to disrupt a referendum vote deemed unconstitutional by the courts, praised the police and talked high-mindedly about defending democracy.

The narrative that Spanish authorities were simply defending the integrity of their laws and constitution is popular with many Spaniards outside Catalonia. During the week King Felipe in a rare televised address. told Spaniards that the Catalan leaders had showed their “disrespect to the powers of the state”.

But states, as Benedict Anderson pointed out, are “imagined communities” that exist more by legitimacy than through their laws. It is not the legislation in the books at Westminster that wills the United Kingdom into being afresh each day, it is a popular belief that is the legitimate government (a claim, of course, that is contested in Scotland and elsewhere). In using brute force to disrupt a visibly non-violent vote – even one banned by the courts – Madrid lost its legitimacy to speak on Catalonia’s behalf.

What can Catalans do now? Under legislation introduced before Sunday’s vote, the Barcelona parliament can recognise the massive ‘yes’ result as binding. Many, including many Scottish independence supports, feel that a Catalan UDI is now morally justified. But there are reasons for Catalonia – and anyone else – to be very wary of unilateral declarations of independence.

Let’s go back to Slovenia.

In late June 1991, a conflict did begin between Ljubljana and Belgrade. Troops were killed on both sides. The stage seemed set for a full blown war between a breakaway nation and the Yugoslav federation, one of the world’s largest militaries at the time.

Major war was avoided. The then European Community brokered a ceasefire but it was never enacted: within barely a week Yugoslav army forces had effectively withdrawn. Slovenia was free.

But it wasn’t the international community that permitted Slovenia to secede – it was the far darker forces brewing in Belgrade. In 1991, Slobodan Milosevic was concerned with one thing – creating a Greater Serbia. Slovenia had almost no Serbs and huge internal support for independence. Better to let Slovenia go and assert control in Croatia and Bosnia, Milosevic wagered. Slovenia got its independence and within months the Balkans was plunged into an orgy of violence unseen in Europe since the Second World War.

Unlike in Slovenia there seems little prospect of central authorities in Madrid allowing Catalan to just go its own way. Catalonia occupies a far more important place in the Spanish state than the Slovenes did in Milosevic’s dark vision of Yugoslavia’s future. Not only is Catalonia a significant net contributor to Spain’s budget but keeping Catalonia Spanish is an integral part of Madrid’s image of itself.

Unionism is a fundamental tenet of the ruling Popular Party. The president’s hardline position – aided by a partisan media – chimes with a hardening of attitudes towards Catalonia among many in other parts of Spain. The images from Sunday have doubtless damaged Rajoy’s international reputation but might actually improve his standing at home. The Spanish flags that appeared in the windows of homes across Madrid this week were not planted by the Guardia Civil.

In issuing a UDI the Catalan government would instantly lose the legitimacy for its cause won last Sunday. Support for Catalan independence is far from universal. A few weeks ago, polls conducted by the Catalan government itself gave the union a narrow lead. That may have evaporated after Sunday but there is unlikely to be the kind of overwhelming support for secession that there was in the new states born in the Balkans and the Baltic. Against this backdrop, independence will need some form of democratic process beyond Sunday’s chaotic poll.

But democracy alone is not sufficient for independence. New states only survive by international recognition.  After a UDI Catalonia would likely find itself outside the European Union, with a hostile neighbour on its border. Kosovo had the same situation in 2008 – and still does – but unlike the Kosovans, Barcelona would not have the United States, or anyone else, as a sponsor.

Post-UDI everyday life – and business – could become very difficult, very quickly.

Catalan nationalism stretches back centuries but has often struggled for a hearing in Europe’s corridors of power. A relatively wealthy region with a measure of devolution hoping to secede from a poorer nation is not the most endearing tale.

Madrid’s violent response last weekend changed this dynamic, but Barcelona should be very wary of taking that as a basis for a declaration of independence. The road from Catalonia to Slovenia is a long, and winding one.

Brexit’s Irish Problem – A Semi-Personal Reflection

It is inconceivable that a vote for Brexit would not have a negative impact on the (Irish) Border, bringing cost and disruption to trade and to people’s lives.

Theresa May, June 2016

Nobody wants to return to the borders of the past.

Theresa May, July 2016

Around three hundred roads bisect the circuitous three-hundred-and-ten-mile border that separates the six counties of Northern Ireland from the twenty-six of the Irish Republic. Some are barely paved country lanes that snake over and back from one jurisdiction to another multiple times in a matter of miles. Others – like the motorway that connects Dublin and Belfast – are major arteries, as seamlessly asphalted as any German autobahn. The only way you can tell which side of the border you are on – as British television reporters have become so fond of telling viewers back home on ‘the mainland’ – is whether the speed signs are in miles or kilometres.

I grew up about thirty miles into the southern side of the border line, in a drab market town called Longford. For an over-eager child in a monochrome 1980s Irish home, Northern Ireland was strikingly exotic, simultaneously always present and continually absent. Each night it seems the news was filled with macabre tales from Belfast, less than a hundred miles away. But we seldom ventured north. When I was about seven years old my mother took us shopping in Enniskillen, the closest large town across the border, in County Fermanagh. We must have passed barbed wire and concrete look outs manned by acne-scarred teenagers from Derby or Newcastle touting automatic weapons, but I have no recollection of any of these. My only memories are remarking to my mother about how smooth the northern roads were – I was a serious boy – and how colourful was the window display in Enniskillen’s Woolworths. Northern Ireland seemed so much more modern. There were no Woolworths in Longford.

By the time I went to university in Dublin, in 1998, the border that had been erected in the early 1920s had started to disappear. The customs posts had already been dismantled. Most of the green wooden border huts were gone. Those that remained rotted slowly in the countryside. The signing of the Good Friday Agreement effectively brought an end to the thirty-year-long Troubles. The IRA’s war was over. So was the British state’s. The imposing watchtowers that hugged the hillsides of the southern reaches of Down and Armagh were dismantled. The squaddies went home, or eventually ended up in Afghanistan or Iraq. Roads that had been closed during the violent years – or simply bombed into uselessness – were opened. In the early 2000s, by which time I was living in Belfast, I often travelled on a rickety country bus back to Longford to visit my mother. I would occasionally pass the time by trying to figure out if we had crossed the invisible line based on when my cellphone switched providers. I was seldom certain.

Politically, the border started to fade, too. As southern politicians no longer had an immediate need to worry about the insoluble ‘national question’ attention turned towards getting filthy rich. The Celtic Tiger roared. Property prices doubled, then tripled. Semi-detached houses in Longford sold for €400,000. Now it was Dublin that was modern, all wine bars and hundred grand sports cars. I often headed south from Belfast at the weekends, escaping a half empty ghost city where people were still fearful of venturing after dark. By the time the boom turned to bust – form 2008 – most Irish voters had forgotten about the ‘black north’. Even Sinn Fein, the party of the IRA, campaigned on working-class demands for higher wages and social security not the need for “Brits Out.”

I was the only person I knew from my school who spent any time living in Northern Ireland. Over Christmas pints in the local pub nobody asked about life in Belfast. In the south, Northern Ireland had become an an embarrassment. A place famous around the world for bombs and bitterness. Thirty miles away, but another world. A Lacanian ‘Other’ that can never be assimilated, nor totally disavowed. Better to ignore and move on least the atavism proves contagious. So the Republic spent the best part of the last decade struggling to emerge from a self-inflicted mountain of bank debt while the north continued the slow struggle to emerge from its brutal past.

Thirty thousand people cross the Irish border every day for work. The border has not withered away but it is far less noticeable. There are still the fireworks stores on the northern side, and the incongruous petrol stations, often said to be illegally passing off industrial fuel for commercial use. Every so often, the Irish and British police team-up for a raid on republicans opposed to the peace process. But, for most, the border has ceased to matter a great deal. People in Donegal give birth in hospitals over the border in Derry. When my brother needed to get his driving licence at short notice he took the test in Enniskillen, where waiting times are far shorter.

In March 2016, I was in Dublin for the centenary commemorations of the Easter Rising, a rebellion which led to the war of independence and then to partition. The fiftieth anniversary of the Rising – a story of blood sacrifice still told in gruesome detail when I was a school child – had been celebrated with high nationalist pomp. The rebels of Easter 1916 were the heroes. The villains were the British. Everybody else – the vast majority of the population who had little interest in insurrection – were ignored. The IRA even got in on the act, blowing up Nelson’s Column on Dublin’s main thoroughfare, O’Connell Street, in March 1966. Out of practice, the republicans misjudged the amount of explosives needed, leaving behind a stone stump that the Irish Army was left to dispose of. The tone in Dublin a half-century later could scarcely have been more different, or more ecumenical. There were solemn silences and visiting dignitaries from well beyond the republican family. There had even been talk of an invitation being extended to the Queen. Almost a century after independence, ‘Official Ireland’ showed itself off in the Dublin sun, a mature state, reconciled with its former colonial power beneath the European Union’s starry flag. There was little talk of Irish unification, or the border.

———————–

A few weeks before the European Union referendum I went on a reporting trip to Belfast. Elections to the devolved assembly in Stormont had taken place a fortnight earlier. Round-faced middle-aged men still smiled down from placards on lampposts. The Democratic Unionists and Sinn Fein once more topped the polls. Barely half the electorate had voted. There seemed even less enthusiasm for the EU referendum.

“We’re not allowed to vote in that. It’s only England,” Sean Morgan told me inside his souvenir shop on the Falls Road in republican West Belfast. I thought better of correcting him. His shop was called Fenians after the 19th century Irish republicans committed to a United Ireland. Replica guns and copies of the proclamation of Ireland adorned the walls. There were rolls of red, white and blue union flag toilet paper at £2.50 a pop. “You’ll never never believe how many of those we sell,” Morgan laughed.

Sinn Fein – long the dominant political force in West Belfast – reversed its historic opposition to the EU to back a remain vote but there was little sign of pro-EU sentiment on the Falls Road. No starry European Union flags flew alongside the Tricolours. None of Northern Ireland’s parties spent more than £10,000 on their pro-EU campaigns. I counted a single Leave poster, on the Shankill Road, on the opposite side of the 15-foot-hight corrugated iron “peace wall” that has cut off Catholics from Protestants in west Belfast for more than four decades.

In the interests of balance – or so I told myself – I called into Ulster Souvenirs, halfway up the Shankill Road. Across the street, faded images of hooded loyalist gunmen looked down from a gable end mural. Inside the narrow shop, a portrait of a serious-looking Edward Carson, Northern Ireland’s Dublin-born founding father, hung over the till. David Reid, the shop’s owner, looked about thirty years old. I asked how would be voting in the referendum. “Oh aye, out!” He smiled. “People are fed up with the way the country is run, with being in the European Union.”

As if on cue, a trio of customers arrived. All wanted to buy Northern Ireland football jerseys for the upcoming European championships. How will you vote, I asked, a little too aware of which side of the border my accent placed me on. “Leave,” Greg Benson bellowed. The “Now That’s What I Call Loyalist Music” CDs and the Apprentice Boys flags behind the counter almost shook with the reverberations of his voice.  “You can’t say too much or you’re a racist, but immigration is the big thing. It’s having a massive affect on our health system,” Benson told me.

Northern Ireland remains one of the most ethnically homogenous places in the UK. Non-white faces are still something of a rarity in Belfast. But the squat capital has changed since I left for Scotland in 2009. The city centre is no longer a dead zone after dark. The rebirth of Belfast as a “cool” destination has been celebrated by journalists from around the world. Where once even a cup of coffee on a Sunday afternoon was hard to find now there is a plethora of cafes in the modish fashion, all exposed brick and customers with fixed gear bicycles.

Yet Belfast still carries the scars of the Troubles, particularly in the near-inner city districts such as the Shankill and Falls Roads. Here unemployment is high. Long term out of work even higher. There are still gap sites, and much of the new private housing is beyond the reach of local residents. And there are still the “peace walls”. These barricades, ad hoc at first, emerged with the start of the Troubles in the late 1960s. In 1971, a secret Northern Ireland government report expressed concern that the barriers, gates and fences springing up in West Belfast in particular were creating an “atmosphere of abnormality”. However, the report writers added that they did “not expect any insurmountable difficulty” in bringing down the walls. The following year, Stormont was suspended as the violence worsened to descend into civil war. The peace walls continued to appear. Only a handful have ever been dismantled.

When Britain first voted on Europe, in 1975, Northern Ireland was the most Eurosceptic of the “home nations”. Where two-thirds of English backed the then European Economic Community, just 52 per cent of Northern Irish voters supported membership. In 2016, positions were basically reversed. Where English opposition to the European Union swung the Brexit vote, fifty-six per cent of Northern Irish citizens voted to remain part of the EU in June 2016. In the border counties, the remain vote rose to 65 per cent.

 

My mother rang the day after the Brexit vote. It must have been the afternoon because she asked about Scottish independence. (In the morning, Nicola Stugreon had said that a second referendum was “highly likely”.) But she was mainly interested in the border. “What will it mean for Northern Ireland?” she asked. “Will I need to bring a passport to go to Belfast?” I said that I did not know but was sure it would not come to border controls. I was only half honest. I wasn’t sure it wouldn’t come to that. Already that morning Boris Johnson, one of the leaders of the Leave campaign, was distancing himself from the referendum result.

 

That nobody on the BBC’s rolling referendum coverage was talking about what Brexit might mean for the Irish border was hardly surprising. Northern Ireland rarely features in news headlines anymore, in Britain or in Ireland. There was little said about Northern Ireland – or the border – during the campaign. The Democratic Unionists supported a Leave vote, without providing any discernible rationale, while almost every other local political party opposed Brexit, mainly on the basis that anything that might unsettle the notoriously fragile political and economic ecosystem could hardly be a good thing. Such caution seemed particularly justified when, a few weeks before the referendum, then home secretary Theresa May warned that a leave vote could create border chaos, “bringing cost and disruption to trade and to people’s lives”. In 2015, Northern Irish farmers received 87 per cent of their income direct from European Union grants. Polls suggest many famers subsequently voted Leave.

May’s pre-referendum fears about the impact of Brexit on Northern Ireland were quickly forgotten, however. In July, the new prime minister, declared that there be would be “no return to the borders of the past”. That sound-bite would quickly assume the role of a mantra, trotted out as often, it seemed, as “Brexit means Brexit”. Concerns about the cross-border trade and travel were blithely dismissed by references to the Ireland-wide Common Travel Area. (The CTA, Irish political leaders pointed out, has existed since the early days of the Free State but never before has one jurisdiction been inside supranational body with free movement of people and the other outside.)

In her first cabinet reshuffle, May defenestrated Theresa Villiers, David Cameron’s Brexit-supporting Northern Ireland secretary. Ms Villiers, generally perceived as detached from local affairs, caused consternation in Belfast by openly campaigning with the DUP ahead of the EU referendum. Villiers’s replacement, James Brokenshire, has smacked of nominative determinism: since the Brexit vote Northern Irish politics has, after a decade of relative calm, collapsed. Divided on the most significant issue facing Northern Ireland since the peace process, relations between DUP first minister Arlene Foster and her then deputy, the late Martin McGuinness, quickly deteriorated. When a botched green energy scheme was revealed to have massively overspent – apparently largely on grants to DUP-supporting farmers – Sinn Fein pulled the plug on Stormont.

Under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement, Northern Ireland is governed by a “consociational” system. This approach – in which ethnic blocs are given vetoes and balances – was initially devised in the Netherlands, to deal with regionalist demands. Since the 1990s it has become the solution of choice for post-conflict societies: Bosnia, Lebanon, Iraq. Under the Northern Irish iteration, the largest unionist and nationalist parties must share power. But in government the DUP and Sinn, always uncomfortable bedfellows, have drifted further apart, not closer together. The DUP has consistently blocked Sinn Fein legislation, including a law to permit gay marriage. While Foster was first minister, grants under a community halls scheme were bestowed on groups linked to the Orange Order, and largely denied to Gaelic Athletic Association clubs. The DUP’s culture minister refused a small grant to a Belfast community group which planned to take some children to an Irish-speaking area. The DUP leader’s fondness for majority rule echoes that of Theresa May. Brexit means Brexit. That most Northern Irish voters rejected the prospect of leaving the EU is incidental. The United Kingdom has spoken. But such majoritarianism has run into a major obstacle – not the Armalite, but the ballot box.

In March, Northern Ireland held another round of devolved elections. This time there was a notable sense of expectation. In the weeks leading up to the vote, Adam Ramsey and I published a series of articles on how the DUP had received £425,000 for its Brexit campaign and was refusing to name its donors. The story caught the Northern Irish public imagination. I found myself on nightly news programmes, where anchors explained that the murky story of the DUP’s funding fed into a sense that the party were untrustworthy. In Ballymena, the buckle in Northern Ireland’s bible-belt and the powerbase of DUP founder Ian Paisley, I met traditional Protestant voters who accused the party of having “lost touch with its religious base”. In Belfast, younger voters were angry at the prospect of losing their ready access to the other 27 European Union states, including the country on the other side of the invisible border. The election proved dramatic. Turnout was up almost ten per cent on 2016. For the first time since partition, unionism failed to secure a majority in a Northern Irish parliament. Sinn Féin won 27 seats to the DUP’s 28. The Democratic Unionists lost seats across the border counties, including in Foster’s home, Fermanagh, where Sinn Fein took three of the five seats on offer. At the time of writing, no arrangement has been reached on a new governing coalition. Sinn Fein insist Foster must step aside. She has refused. The prospects of a swift re-instatement of power-sharing look slim.

Brexit has put the border back into Irish politics, in ways that would have seemed impossible only a couple of years ago. In Belfast, senior people from Alliance – an avowedly ‘cross-community’ party borne of a split in the Ulster Unionists in the Troubles’ early days – talk of the need to make plans for Irish unification. The Fine Gael government in Dublin held up as a major victory the Brussels’s confirmation that a post-unification Northern Ireland would seamlessly rejoin the EU. Having emerged from the pro-Treaty side after the civil war, Fine Gael has long been the most fiercely anti-republican force in Irish politics.

Along the border, life goes on, in its own quiet way. After Ulster Gaelic football championship games, queues of traffic still snake out from Clones, in County Monaghan, over the border into Northern Ireland. The questions of who did what to whom during the three-decades-long dirty war remain, waiting for answers. Peace, however, has not given way to prosperity. The border remains one of the poorest parts of the country. The large houses dotted across the drumlins belie a general shift from the rural to the urban, from the towns to Dublin and Belfast, that has characterized Irish life in recent decades. Where there has been sustained – and sustainable – investment in the border counties it has often come with a large sign bearing the European Union’s starry standard.

My first proper job, at the University of Ulster, was funded by the European Union. It was 2008, just before the financial crash. We were not so starry-eyed as to imagine that our attempts to reconcile Catholics and Protestants on either side of a peace wall in Derry would bring the barriers down overnight, but there were minor moments of success. A film night on Derry’s walls. A talk on social enterprise well-attended by both sides. Small steps. Nobody expects that London – or Dublin – will replace the £500m that Northern Ireland receives from the EU each year, especially for the slow, difficult work of rebuilding communities after conflict.

This spring I was back home for a wedding. The reception was in a stunning colonial castle nestled by a lake in rural county Leitrim, barely fifteen miles from Northern Ireland. The road signs were peppered with destinations on both sides of the border. The following day, I visited my mother. She was planning to get her teeth fixed, in Enniskillen. She had the name of a dentist there who charged only a fraction of the price on the southern side of the border. “The NHS is great,” she told me. “We should have it here, too.”

——–

Scotland’s Revenge

Scotland’s Revenge

INVERNESS, Scotland — Last September, Scotland held a referendum on independence from the United Kingdom. The campaign was lively, colorful and, it seemed, decisive: Scots voted by a 10-point margin to stay a part of Britain. But just seven months later, another nationalist earthquake looks set to hit Scotland, shaking the foundations of British politics and even the union itself.

On a pedestrian street in the heart of Inverness, the largest city in the Scottish Highlands, a small shop shows the extent to which the independence movement is still alive in many hearts and minds — and, soon, ballot boxes. The “Yes shop,” as it’s known, is still selling badges, key rings, and even dog neckerchiefs bearing the blue-and-white “Yes” to independence logo. Basque and Catalan flags (fellow long-sufferers) hang in solidarity with the St. Andrew’s Cross on the wall. The foldout tables that run along one side of the store are stacked with posters and election leaflets for the pro-independence Scottish National Party (SNP). On a recent weekday at lunchtime, the store was packed with volunteers and activists.

“People sometimes come in with their children,” said Norman Will, the force behind the shop. “In cold weather people bring in soup and stovies [a Scottish dish made with meat and potatoes]. We have collections for the local food bank and political discussions.”

The SNP may have lost last September’s referendum but it’s emerged energized as Britain gears up for a big, national election. Indeed, the party’s new leader, Nicola Sturgeon, is just about the only popular politician in the country. Despite holding power in the devolved Scottish Parliament for eight years, the nationalists have profited from a disenchantment with established parties that persists across Europe. And now the SNP is poised to translate that frustration into political power.

The U.K. general election is scheduled for May 7. The SNP is poised to become kingmakers. In the last general election, five years ago, the nationalists won just one-fifth of the Scottish vote and only six of Scotland’s 59 seats. Now, opinion polls give the SNP almost half the Scottish vote and put the party on course to win up to 50 seats.

Such an unprecedented result would have ramifications far beyond the corridors of Westminster. The SNP surge would virtually wipe out Scottish Labour, which has won every Westminster election in Scotland since 1955. The rise of Scottish nationalism greatly increases the likelihood of a hung Parliament, too, but even more significantly it has put the question of Scottish independence — and the future of the union — front and center once more.

Since the referendum, SNP membership has quadrupled to over 100,000, making the nationalists Britain’s third-largest party, despite the fact that Scotland has only around one-twelfth of the U.K.’s total population. Among the SNP’s new supporters is Ciarn MacFhionnlaigh. The 32-year-old supermarket worker has become a regular visitor to the Inverness “Yes” shop. The referendum “was amazing,” he told me. On May 7 he will vote for the SNP, in part because he wants another referendum on independence, but he also believes that the party is best placed to “stand up” for Scotland at Westminster.

Inverness, a small, picturesque city popular with tourists setting out to explore the Highlands isn’t historically a stronghold for Scottish nationalists. The Highlands voted against independence in September, and the SNP received less than one-fifth of the votes cast here in 2010. But polls put SNP candidate Drew Hendry well ahead of the incumbent, Danny Alexander of the Liberal Democrats. Alexander, who has been the second highest-ranking official at the Treasury for the past five years, is one of the most recognizable faces in Scottish politics. His profile, however, might not save his seat.

Such unlikely electoral challenges are being repeated across Scotland. The Labour Party, in opposition in London for the last five years, have long dominated Scottish politics. Labour currently holds 40 of Scotland’s 59 seats in Westminster. But the nationalist tsunami now threatens every Labour constituency in Scotland, potentially robbing Labour leader Ed Miliband of seats he would need to form a majority government after May 7.

The town of Paisley, seven miles southwest of Glasgow, is illustrative of the scale of the challenge facing Labour. A once prosperous industrial town whose Victorian grandeur has faded since the textile mills started closing in the 1960s, Paisley has been rock solid Labour territory for decades. The party has won every general election contest here since the end of World War II, often without much of a fight.

Paisley’s MP is Douglas Alexander, a well-respected former Scottish secretary under Tony Blair and the current shadow foreign secretary. Last time out, Alexander won just short of 60 percent of the vote. Now he is trailing Mhairi Black, a 20-year-old politics student with no political experience.

“I think this constituency is quite representative of what is happening across Scotland right now,” Black told me. “What we witnessed during the referendum was a political awakening across the country. It was always going to be the case that the general election was going to be different.”

Labour’s popularity in Scotland has plummeted after joining forces with the politically toxic Conservatives to campaign against the independence referendum. Around 180,000 Labour supporters voted “yes” last September and many of them are now expected to switch their allegiances to the SNP in the general election. Labour is now on the defensive: The party has withdrawn resources from some seats in order to concentrate on Glasgow and the West of Scotland. “I’m set to Defcon fucked,” a sitting Labour MP from Scotland recently said.
While Labour comfortably won every Westminster election, the party’s standing in the Scottish Parliament has fallen steadily over the last 15 years. In 1999, Labour secured 53 of 73 seats. The party won just 11 seats in 2011. At the same time, the SNP’s share in the Scottish Parliament continued to rise. Now Scottish voters seem set to repeat their devolved preferences in a Westminster election for the first time, which could produce a nationalist landslide under the U.K.’s first-past-the-post system.

Labour has failed to appreciate that most Scots actually like the SNP, said Gerry Hassan, a research fellow at the University of the West of Scotland and author of The Strange Death of Labour Scotland. “Ever since the modern SNP was created, around 1974, opinion polls have shown that Scottish people have a positive view of the SNP. They think the SNP stand up for Scotland’s interests. The Labour Party doesn’t understand that.”

Under Sturgeon, who took over as the party’s leader last November, the SNP has tacked leftwards, directly appealing to disgruntled Labour voters who increasingly see little difference between the party of their grandfathers and the Conservatives. At a recent event in Edinburgh launching the SNP manifesto, Sturgeon promised to “end austerity,” by increasing government spending by 0.5 percent a year. The SNP’s manifesto backs a 50 percent top tax rate, an extra tax on homes worth over £2 million, new levies on bankers’ bonuses, an increase in the minimum wage, and formal recognition of Palestinian statehood.

The SNP has ruled out joining a formal coalition with Labour as long as Miliband’s party continues to support the Trident nuclear submarine program, which is housed near Glasgow. But Sturgeon has called for a looser “progressive alliance” with Labour to keep the Conservatives out of office. Meanwhile, Labour, wary of losing English voters, has insisted that there will be “no deal” with the SNP. Such obdurateness might play well in London but it is doing Labour no favors in the Scottish heartlands. Critics have accused both Labour and, particularly, Conservatives of alienating Scottish voters by demonizing the SNP.

The post-election arithmetic in Britain looks increasingly complicated. Every poll suggests there will be no clear winner, which makes a Labour deal with the SNP more likely. The Conservatives — sensing an opportunity to make gains from Labour in up-for-grabs English constituencies where Scottish nationalism is looked upon with disdain — have decried any deal with the SNP. Home Secretary Theresa May even said an arrangement with the nationalists would spark the worst constitutional crisis since the abdication of King Edward VIII in 1936.

Even if the SNP was invited into a coalition with Labour, the Scottish party might have good reason not to join. The SNP’s primary focus remains on Scotland, in particular the 2016 elections for the Scottish Parliament. The party is unlikely to want ministerial seats in London, which would make the task of differentiating themselves from Labour more difficult next year. At the same time, the SNP are wary of facilitating the formation of another Conservative-led government by failing to support Labour. “The SNP can’t sign a blank check to Labour, but they can’t be seen to bring a Labour government down so they have to play a very careful hand,” said Hassan.

The SNP’s record-high poll ratings have fueled speculation that Sturgeon would like to hold a second vote on independence. In order for that to happen, the party would need another majority in Edinburgh next year. But that’s still a long way off. The SNP will not go to the polls again until they know they can win, said Paul Cairney, professor of politics at the University of Stirling.

“The SNP won’t win enough votes [in the general election] if they look like the independence party and nothing more,” said Cairney. “And they have dealt with that problem well. Long-term referendum chances hinge on them remaining a credible party of government in Scotland and, for now, a positive force in the U.K.”

Nonetheless, pro-independence sentiment remains energized ahead of the election. In the “Yes” shop in Inverness, Emma Roddick, a 17-year-old student, said she has “lost count” of the number of hours she has spent making pro-independence badges and pins. She is too young to vote but has no doubts about Scotland’s political destiny.

“The union is always going to lose its purpose,” she told me. “The only argument is not are we going to be independent but when are we going to be independent..” For its supporters, a resounding SNP showing on May 7 will be another important milestone on the road to the break-up of Britain.

This piece originally appeared on Foreign Policy.

How Labour Lost Ground to the Scottish National Party

“Which way will you be voting in May?” I ask a table laden with lunchtime half pints and nips in the members’ bar at Loanhead Miners Welfare and Social Club in Midlothian, half a dozen miles or so from Edinburgh. “We’re all Labour,” says one man with a broad smile.

“Are we fuck!” roars his drinking companion across the table. The sound of televised horse racing fills the room, breaking the momentary silence.

“This has been a Labour seat for years. That’s the way it will stay,” says Henry. His shoulders are noticeably hunched from almost three decades down the pits.

Across the table, Bill, a Scottish National Party supporter, shakes his head. “No way, no way.”

Midlothian has been rock solid Labour territory for decades. Thirty years ago, Loanhead Miners club was at the coalface of the ultimately futile battle against Margaret Thatcher to keep Scotland’s mining industry alive. Today, it is quieter, more sedate. There is a flawlessly manicured bowling lawn. Posters advertise Thai Chi and country music. In the main function hall the weekly bingo session has just finished.

This unremarkable room has an important place in the modern political history of Scotland. It was here, on September 8 of last year, that Gordon Brown made a promise for greater devolution if Scots rejected independence. What became “the Vow” was credited by many with swinging the referendum in the union’s favor.

But just seven months later, Midlothian is an SNP target seat. Local Labour MP David Hamilton, who spent months on remand 1980s miners’ strike, is standing down. Polls suggest it is a straight two-way tussle between Labour and the Scottish Nationalists next month.

Such unlikely electoral clashes are being repeated across Scotland as tens of thousands of one-time Labour supporters flock to the SNP. Labour has long been the dominant force in Scottish politics. The nationalists currently have just six MPs. Labour has 40.

Labour’s popularity has plummeted after joining forces with the Conservatives—a toxic brand in Scotland—to campaign against independence. This earned them the moniker “Red Tories.” Recent polls suggest the SNP could win 50 of Scotland’s 59 Westminster seats. Today, a poll suggested they could win 57 seats, leaving Labour with just one MP.

Scottish Labour, increasingly cash-strapped, have withdrawn resources from some seats they hold to concentrate on Glasgow and the West of Scotland. A sitting Scottish Labour MP recently described the state of the party as “now set to defcon fucked.”

Among the former Labour voters now swinging behind the SNP is Keith Aitchison. As a young man growing up in Glasgow, Aitchison was a staunch Labour supporter. At general election time he even campaigned for the party. Now retired and living in the Highland city of Inverness, Aitchison will be voting Scottish Nationalist on May 7.

“I came to the conclusion that within the Westminster political system you can’t change things because everything is pointed towards the need for votes in the south of England,” says Aitchison in Inverness’s “Yes” shop—a city center store created before last September’s independence referendum.

Despite that defeat, the shop is still open, selling badges and key rings, and even SNP dog neckerchiefs and high-vis jackets. “The only party around that has a proper attitude towards creating social justice seems to be the SNP,” he says.

Alex Mosson spent 23 years as a Labour councillor in Glasgow but no longer backs the party he joined as a Clyde shipyard worker in 1978.

“A lot of people have lost faith in the Labour party,” says Mosson, a former Lord Provost of Glasgow who supported independence. “In the months leading up to the referendum there was a mood among people. There was a feeling that something could be done. That will not change now.”

Even Labour supporters who voted no in September seem uncertain about the party. “I always voted Labour but not now,” says Anne, who returned to Glasgow six years ago after several decades in Canada. She likes SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon but “cringes” when she watches Ed Miliband on television.

Scottish Labour leader Jim Murphy, appointed late last year, has been unable to stem the bleeding. Polls suggest that Sturgeon is far more popular with voters than the former Blairite Scotland secretary.

The SNP has aimed its election pitch squarely at Labour supporters. Nicola Sturgeon has promised an end to austerity and a greater rise in the minimum wage than Labour. At the SNP manifesto launch in Edinburgh last Monday, the Scottish First Minister Sturgeon pledged that nationalist MPs would “lock out” the Conservatives from government and “help Labour be bolder.” That message chimes with many Scottish voters.

“The SNP is a soft-left, social-democratic party on the mainstream European model and they have a constitutionally radical position. The combination of these two things is an attractive proposition,” says the New Statesman’s Jamie Maxwell.

“Labour in Scotland has one election slogan and one election platform: ‘Vote SNP, Get Tories.’ I think they’ve miscalculated this.”

Labour’s sudden decline in Scotland looks stark. The party won 42 percent of the vote here in the last general election, in 2010. The SNP finished third on barely a fifth.

But Labour’s supremacy in the devolved Scottish parliament has been on the wane for over the last decade and a half. In 1999, Labour secured 53 of the 73 Scottish Parliament constituency seats. In 2011, the party won just 11, with only “top up” list seats saving it from annihilation.

Meanwhile, many of Labour’s Scottish “big beasts,” including former Prime Minister Gordon Brown, are leaving the Westminster political scene. Their departures have further weakened the party’s appeal to its one-time supporters as it looks like a sad tribute act.

The weakening of Labour in Scotland might not be all bad news for the party, says Tim Bale, professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London. Labour has long been over reliant on its Scottish contingent, he says. “Some Labour people think that if the party was more English it would help it.”

Jim Sillars, a former Labour MP who left the party in the mid 1970s and eventually joined the SNP, says that defeat for Labour in Scotland next month could hasten independence. “If we can remove Labour from central Scotland this will be transformational and could lead to independence in a much shorter time frame than people realize.”

That’s something Labour will be keen to avoid, but the more immediate problem for Scottish Labour isn’t the death of the union, so much as staying alive as a political force.

This piece originally appeared on Vice.

UK elections and the shift from ‘tribal’ politics

feafea349263405dad36c9ac9efa79df_18The historic multi-party debates in the UK have rekindled political diversity [Reuters]

Glasgow, UK – Some seven million viewers across Britain tuned into the first, and only, televised multi-party debate ahead of May’s general election. What they saw on April 2 was a stark illustration of how much UK politics has changed in recent years.

Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron fielded questions from the live studio audience, and parried blows from opposition Labour leader Ed Miliband.

But the real winners were the five smaller parties also on the stage.

Polls declared Scottish National Party (SNP) leader Nicola Sturgeon the victor of the night, followed by the eurosceptic United Kingdom Independence Party’s (UKIP) Nigel Farage.

British politics has long been a two-horse race. But the field for May’s general election is increasingly open, potentially spelling a permanent end to centuries of single-party majority rule at Westminster.

In 1951, 97 percent of the UK electorate voted Labour or Conservative. At the last general election, in 2010, that figure was just two in three, leading to a historic coalition between the Tories and the Liberal Democrats.

This time around, the prospects of one party winning overall control look even slimmer.

We have about a quarter of the electorate saying they are going to vote for someone other than Conservative, Labour or Lib Dem. That is just off the end of the historical pattern.

John Curtice, Strathclyde University professor

Labour and Conservatives are tied at 34 percent each, according to aBBC poll of polls.

The Labour party would need a lead of around five points to win a majority, said John Curtice, professor of politics at Strathclyde University.

Due to the vagaries of Britain’s first-past-the-post system, the Tories, who draw most of their support in the richer south, would require a seven-point margin of victory to emerge with the 326 seats needed to command a majority in the House of Commons.

The reality, said Curtice, is there is unlikely to be a clear winner on May 7. “We have never seen an election like this.”

“We have about a quarter of the electorate saying they are going to vote for someone other than Conservative, Labour or Lib Dem. That is just off the end of the historical pattern. You can go all the way back to 1832 and you won’t beat it,” Curtice said.

Horse-trading and deal-brokering

A hung parliament would necessitate something on which British politics has traditionally not been strong: horse-trading and deal-brokering.

The coalition government has long been the norm on the continent, but in the UK it is still a relative novelty. A predicted collapse in the Liberal Democrat vote – and theFixed Term Parliaments Act introduced in 2011 to make dissolving Westminster almost impossible – could make the business of forming a new government even more tricky.

This all means that the party that emerges in the strongest position may have to reach an arrangement – either a formal coalition or a looser deal – with one or more of the UK’s insurgent parties.

The most likely kingmaker is the SNP, which is campaigning on an anti-austerity message. Despite defeat in last September’s independence referendum, the nationalists have seen their support surge.

Membership has quadrupled to more than 100,000. Polls suggest that the SNP may win dozens of seats from Labour, making it far more difficult for Miliband to secure a majority.

Last year’s independence referendum fundamentally changed Scottish politics, said political commentator Gerry Hassan.

“Something has profoundly changed about how the Scottish public see and do politics and their role in the union. Passivity, acceptance and belief in traditional elites – Labour included – now seem a thing of the past.”

UK parties have struggled to understand the SNP surge.

Last weekend a leaked memo purportedly revealing that nationalist leader Sturgeon had told a French diplomat that she would prefer another Tory administration, appeared in the right-wing Daily Telegraph.

But the smear appears to have backfired, with both sides flatly denying the claims. Questions have been raised about how the civil service document was released. An inquiry will now be held.

 


While the SNP will take votes from Labour in Scotland, the Conservatives in particular face a threat from the UKIP. The party, which campaigns on a hard-right platform based on clamping down on immigration and leaving the European Union, is particularly popular with socially conservative, white working class voters.

Cameron has promised a referendum on EU membership in a bid to stem the UKIP tide. UKIP’s best chances of success rest with its colourful leader Farage in South Thanet.

On the opposite end of the political spectrum, the Greens believe this could be their breakthrough year. Having polled barely one percent in the 2010 general elections, the left-wing environmentalists are hoping to add to their solitary seat in Brighton Pavilion. 

However, the winner takes all nature of the British electoral system means both UKIP and the Greens are struggling to win more than a handful of seats.

All the same

Darren Hughes of the Electoral Reform Society, says that the “lottery” nature of the May’s election shows that the time has come to replace first-past-the-post with a more proportional voting system.

Regardless of the prospects of electoral reform, the duopoly in British politics could be coming to an end as voters leave Labour and Conservatives for small, identity-based parties.

Across the UK, traditional class structures, and the political affiliations that went with them, are breaking down, says Professor Curtice.

“Fewer people now feel a strong sense of identification with a political party. There are fewer people who say ‘I am Labour, I am Tory or whatever.’ We are less tribal about our politics.”

At the same time, voters see little to choose between Miliband and Cameron, or between their respective parties.

“The Conservatives and Labour in recent elections have tended to look more similar to each other in the eyes of the electorate,” says Curtice.

Whoever wins in May, the likelihood is that when the UK general election next swings around in 2020 television producers will need to invest in larger studios. The panel of party leaders could be even bigger.

This piece originally appeared on Al Jazeera.

Election Posters Banned Across Scotland

Competing “yes” banners and “no thanks” posters were among the most colourful features of the referendum campaign, but as May’s general election hoves into view there will be less political posters than ever on Scotland’s streets.

Experts fear that the lack of posters could depress turnout.

Just a handful of Scottish councils permit candidates and parties to display election material on lampposts and other “street furniture”.

Of Scotland’s 32 council areas just four – Shetland, the Highlands, the Western Isles, and Argyll and Bute – now allow political posters on council property.

The number of councils passing legislation banning political material on their property has increased dramatically since the last general election in 2010.
lamppost posters
Last year, Inverclyde, West Dunbartonshire and North Ayrshire all moved to outlaw election posters. South Lanarkshire will follow suit in a matter of weeks.

The main reason cited for the bans is the expense of removing election material from council property after the country goes to the polls.

But an expert fears that the lack of posters could contribute to lower turnouts and have a deleterious effect on Scottish democracy.

“People often don’t pay attention to politics. They need every reminder they can get (to turn out to vote). One way of reminding people is by posters in localities. It is important for democratically getting people out to vote and mobilising them,” says Alistair Clark, senior lecturer in politics at Newcastle University.

There is a strong link between the visibility of political campaigns and higher turnouts, says Clark.

The decision to ban political posters is “a peculiarly self-denying ordnance from councils,” Clark says.

While councils cite the cost of removing posters, there already exists legislation requiring parties to remove election material after polls close.

There appears to be little party political variation on the decision to ban political posters with councils of all strips across Scotland outlawing them.

“Most Scottish councils are run by a mix of parties and coalitions. You can’t say it is one party against another,” says Clark. “It is a broader council issue. It just seems to be that this will cost us money.”

The outlawing of election material on council property means Scotland is out step, both with rest of Europe, where political posters are a common sight, and even other parts of the UK.

“Northern Ireland in the run-up to May you’ll find is postered from one end of the street to another,” says Clark.

“Scotland somehow has become an outlier here. It is strange given the democratic experience of the referendum that this is something that is being allowed to happen.”

Juliet Swann, campaigns and research officer at Electoral Reform Society Scotland, says that election posters add colour to political campaigns but that the best way to ensure that the enthusiasm of the referendum is not lost is to make sure people feel that their vote counts.

“Perhaps celebrating elections more as a carnival of democracy, complete with colourful election posters would bring some public enthusiasm back into politics. But the only way to be sure of re-engaging the people in politics is to make them feel like their vote counts for something,” she said.

Alistair Clark called on Scottish councils to overturn the ban on election material on their property.

“The danger is that people just won’t go out and vote. It is pointless complaining about turnout unless people are given every encouragement to vote. And among that encouragement are posters being permitted to be placed in places where people might see them.”

Britain’s last communist

Councillor Willie Clarke …
Councillor Willie Clarke … Photograph: DC Thomson & Co Ltd

Clarke is the only self-described communist holding elected office anywhere in the UK. Although now technically an independent, Clarke has for more than 40 years sat as a communist councillor for Ballingry, a former mining town of pebbledashed terrace houses laid out on the escarpment of Benarty Hill near Cowdenbeath in Fife. The craggy-faced septuagenarian’s politics have survived the fall of the Berlin Wall, the break-up of the Soviet Union and the loss of his left ear to cancer. “I am still a communist. My beliefs haven’t changed,” the former miner says as his small grey Renault Clio trundles through the pit villages ribboned along the low hills of central Scotland.

Cowdenbeath was once the centre of the Britain’s largest mining enterprise, the Fife Coal Company. For decades, the most serious threat to Labour’s electoral supremacy here came not from Scottish nationalists, but the communists. West Fife returned Britain’s last Communist party MP, Willie Gallacher, between 1935 and 1950. A housing estate on the outskirts of Cowdenbeath with a street called Gagarin Way is nicknamed “little Moscow”.

The Communist Party of Great Britain soon declined from its postwar peak of 50,000 members and over 200 councillors. But in West Fife “the Party” remained a political force. In 1973, the Communists won 12 seats on the then Lochgelly and Cowdenbeath council. Clarke was among those elected. There is footage of him during that election night. The Communist candidate looks tired, his tie askew, his face puffy and red. But he smiles and receives the interviewer’s congratulations on his unexpected victory over the Labour incumbent in a firm, bass-heavy voice that had by then already become a fixture at miners’ rallies.

Two days after his election, Clarke received a phone call. He had to come to the Seafield Colliery right away. A roof in a steeply inclined coalface beneath the Firth of Forth had collapsed. Five miners were dead. It took rescue workers a week to reach the last three bodies. “You were away up here. And then bang, you were back to reality.” Clarke lifts his right arm in the air. The sleeve of his jumper falls away slightly to reveal a thin, bright blue scar caused by trapped coal dust in a five-decade-old wound from his own stint in the mines.

Clarke began working in the pit at 14. His first job was separating stone from coal on the surface for 40p a shift. He soon joined the Communists. “I was always rebellious. Always asking, ‘why?’. ‘Why should that happen? Why has that not happened? [The Communists] caught your imagination. They were radical, wanted change, they were not prepared to accept things as they were.”

Clarke grew up in an unconventional home. His mother was a young, unmarried domestic servant when she became pregnant. In school, classmates would tease: ‘Who is your father?’ The Clarke house, like many in the area, had a subscription to the Daily Worker and during the war his uncle, also a miner, collected short paperback biographies of Russian generals and pinned up two maps of Europe on the wall so that he and his nephew could mark the progress of the allied and axis forces.

Clarke’s uncle died in 1947. That same year, the coal industry was nationalised. Its future seemed as steadfast and dependable as the hard Fife soil on which it rested. In 1957, the Queen travelled to the Fife town of Glenrothes to open a new colliery. Mining seemed in rude health but, beneath the surface, the ground was starting to shift.

The Glenrothes colliery was a failure, and by the time it shut the following decade, mines across Scotland were being closed. In 1973, the National Union of Mineworkers declared a work-to-rule. By then most of the pits in Fife were closed. Nevertheless, Clarke and his colleague kept the communist faith.

Clarke still speaks fondly of weeks spent in Moscow at the height of the cold war. Denunciations of the Soviet Union, he maintains, were motivated by anti-communism, not a desire to shed light on repression. “They just wanted to attack it. We saw the Soviet Union as the vanguard of the working classes of the whole world.” Today, the material conditions that sustained Fife’s pit villages – and its communists – are gone. Clarke is able to win votes not because of his belief in a new socialist order but because of his tireless work for the local community.

Willie Clarke and Gordon Brown at an official event in 2012.

Pinterest
Willie Clarke and Gordon Brown at an official event in 2012. Photograph: Fife Council/Fife council

“People like Willie, he’s a great guy and he gets things done,” says Michael Payne, who works at the Benarty community centre in Ballingry. The Benarty centre is, in part, a testimony to the ageing communist’s political effectiveness. Clarke was instrumental in securing funding for the state-of-the-art facility that replaced a series of disparate, often dilapidated facilities dotted across the pit villages.

As we sit in the centre’s cafe before one of Clarke’s weekly constituency meetings a mobility scooter silently sidles up to our table. An elderly woman in a heavy coat complains that her front door was so stiff she could barely open it. Clarke nods. He takes out a scrap of paper and a small, stubby bookmaker’s pen. (He likes a bet on the horses.) “Leave it with me, I’ll get it sorted.”

Later Clarke takes me to a picturesque lakeside park built on what was the former dump for the pits. “The Meedies” was once the largest land reclamation scheme in Europe. Now it is Fife’s most popular tourist attraction. A group of teenagers on mountain bikes cycle across what had been a rail line for coal wagons. The white wooden frame of the old pit shaft peeks out behind a smattering of trees and brambles. When the park was built many locals wanted all traces of the mines removed. Clarke successfully lobbied for the shaft to remain: “Now if you tried to take it away there’d be a revolution.”

Clarke has not lost hope of a communist insurrection, but these days his main political goal is probably more achievable: Scottish independence. In the months leading up to September’s referendum he worked flat out facilitating meetings and debates, organising canvasses and leaflet drops. “Independence will come, whether it comes now or in 20 years. It’s like the tide you cannot hold it back, it’s going to happen. People will have to look at what is going to provide a fairer society, and it’s certainly not the capitalist system.”

This piece originally appeared in the print Guardian.

Britain’s Green Party surge

Once a marginal political player, the UK Green Party has growing popularity amid dissatisfaction with the majors.

The Green Party is expecting to make gains at the United Kingdom general election in May [Getty Images]

As 2005 turned into 2006 in London, journalist Natalie Bennett did what many of us do at New Year’s. She cast a critical eye on her life – and the world around her. She didn’t like what she saw.

“I looked at the state of the world and said, ‘this doesn’t look very good, I should do something'”.

Bennett’s response was far from typical, however. With more time on her hands after finishing working nights, the 39-year-old Australian made a New Year’s resolution to join the Green Party of England and Wales.

Less than a decade later, Natalie Bennett is the leader of the Greens in Britain. Her party is party riding high in opinion polls. Membership has more than doubled in the past year.    

“I never would have predicted it would end up with this,” says Bennett with a laugh as she recalls her 2006 New Year’s pledge.

The United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) has been the big insurgent political story of British politics this year. UKIP’s stridently anti-European Union message and its charismatic leader Nigel Farage have attracted countless column inches and record levels of support.

But, quietly, the Greens have been making inroads at the opposite end of the British political spectrum.

Growing green

Having polled barely 1 percent in the 2010 general election, the Greens have consistently been registering 5-6 percent ever since this summer’s European elections. One recent poll put the party on course to win 8 percent when Britain goes to the polls next May. Party membership stands at more than 30,000 and growing by the week. 

Leader of the Green Party of England and Wales Natalie Bennett on the right [Getty Images]

Bennett says the party is fast becoming an accepted part of the British political landscape. 

“About a month or so I got a phone call [from a British morning television show] at 11:30 in the evening asking if I could do a pre-record in the next hour for their morning programme. I thought ‘this is a step forward in recognition for the Green party.'”

While UKIP is doing particularly well among older working-class Britons, the Greens draw support from younger, university-educated middle-class voters attracted by the party’s commitment to social justice and the environment.

“Our message is there is a need for real change. Our current neo-liberal, neo-Thatcherite approach, greed is good, don’t worry about inequality and assume that the planet’s resources are infinite. That’s now clearly dead, and failed. We need a new kind of approach,” says Bennett, who took over as party leader from the Greens’ sole MP, Caroline Lucas, in 2012.

The Greens are profiting from the further decline in the Liberal Democrat vote since the party went into coalition in Westminster with the Conservatives in 2010, and are also attracting some Labour voters, says John Curtice, professor of politics at Strathclyde university and a researcher on UK political polling.

“The Greens are the only game in town for disenchanted voters on the left. They are profiting from those who are looking for something a bit more radical and don’t believe the Labour party can deliver it,” says Curtice.

The Green party in the UK was founded in the 1970s but has long been a marginal concern. In 1990 the party split into the Green Party of England and Wales, the Scottish Green Party, and the Green Party of Northern Ireland. 

Northern support

So far the Greens have enjoyed their greatest success in Scotland. In 2003, the Greens won six seats in the Scottish parliament at Holyrood, and while that number has dwindled, the party has been transformed following its support for a “yes” vote in this year’s referendum on Scottish independence.

In the early hours of September 19, as it became apparent that Scots had voted to stay in the UK, the Scottish Greens’ computer systems collapsed under the weight of new members trying to register. The party’s membership more than quadrupled in a matter of weeks. Meetings that were once held in back rooms of bars now take place in conference halls.

“We have the green surge [in England], they got the green tsunami up there [in Scotland],” says Bennett.

Last week, the Green leader met with her Scottish and Welsh nationalist counterparts to discuss the possibility of joining forces in a future coalition government after the 2015 general election. The Greens, the Scottish National Party (SNP), and Plaid Cymru have all said they will oppose the austerity policies of the three largest UK parties.

“The SNP says – and all their actions indicate – that they are an anti-austerity party, they are roughly opposed to Trident [Britain’s nuclear deterrent], and they want to get rid of the Tories. We roughly agree on all of those things,” says Bennett of Scotland’s largest party.

But while the SNP is on course to make significant gains next May, the Greens face a major challenge if they are to build on their solitary member of parliament. Britain’s first-past-the-post system overwhelmingly favours the two largest parties, Labour and Conservative. 

Major party decline

That duopoly is crumbling, however. In 1951 Labour and the Conservatives combined won nearly 97 percent of the overall UK vote and all but nine MPs. In 2015, less than two-thirds of British voters are expected to vote either Labour or Conservative.

This shift away from the major parties and a wider sense of disillusionment with mainstream politics could help the Greens, says Bennett.

“In 2010, the basic feeling was ‘oh, we’ve had a financial crash but capitalism has financial crashes, things will go back to how they were at the start of 2007 and things will continue on much as they were before’. Whereas now, practically nobody thinks that where we are is economically, socially or environmentally sustainable.”

The Greens have identified 12 potentially winnable seats from York and Cornwall to Sheffield and Liverpool, says Bennett. The party’s best chances are in Brighton Pavilion, which they hold, Bristol West and Norwich South.

Professor Curtice, however, says while the Greens are on course to win a record share of the vote, they are unlikely to take enough seats to become kingmakers in a potential coalition government.

But Bennett says September’s Scottish referendum could provide a template for a new, more engaged form of politics that could radically change the electoral map of Britain.

“If we had a general election in May where we had a turnout of 85 percent of eligible voters turning up to vote – we had a whole environment of strangers at bus stops talking politics to each other as they were in Scotland -then there is a real potential to blow politics utterly wide open.

“We might wake up the next morning in an entirely different political world.” 

This piece originally appeared on Al Jazeera.

UK communists and the fall of the Berlin Wall

Once a hotbed of left-wing agitation, socialists in Cowdenbeath still mourn the beginning of the end of communism.

A November 1989 image shows people celebrating the opening of the border between East and West Germany [EPA]

Cowdenbeath, Scotland Twenty-five years ago the heavy thud of the Berlin Wall falling resonated around the world. The Cold War was over. There were parties and celebrations, laughter and tears of joy.

But among communist supporters in Western Europe, images of armed guards standing idly by as elated East Germans danced on the barricades were a source of consternation, not jubilation.

More than a thousand kilometres from the Brandenburg Gate, in the Scottish mining town of Cowdenbeath, Mary Doherty sat sobbing in front of the evening news on November 9, 1989. For decades she ran the weekly Socialist Sunday School.

“Her world was shattered,” recalls veteran local communist Jackie Allan. “Everything was the Soviet Union, then it was gone.”

A few kilometres away in Ballingry, a small hamlet of post-war suburban pebbledash terrace houses at the foot of green hills, councillor Willie Clarke remembers being “stunned” when the Berlin Wall fell.

“It was something you didn’t see happening, and it happened so quickly. It took a long time to recover,” says Clarke.

[Communism] caught your imagination, they were radical, wanted change, they were not prepared to accept things as they were.

– Willie Clarke, councillor

Standing in Cowdenbeath today, its quiet streets dotted with “to let” signs and bargain stores, it is hard to imagine that this was once a hotbed of communist agitation. In the 1920s, the red sandstone town hall – still the most impressive building on High Street – flew the Red Flag on the anniversary of the Russian revolution. At the time, the government in London feared that any left-wing insurrection in Britain would start in Cowdenbeath.

As late as 1973, communists won 12 council seats in Lochgelly and Cowdenbeath. Clarke was among the councillors elected that day. Remarkably, Clarke, now in his late 70s and having lost his left ear to cancer, is still a local councillor for Ballingry.

Clarke is technically an independent, but he campaigns on an avowedly communistic platform. “All the literature that goes out is communist,” says the craggy-faced septuagenarian. “Nobody can say I’m trying to gild the lily. I’m still a communist.”

In the last local elections in 2012, Clarke was returned on the first round of voting.

Communist curiosity

Communists were not always a curiosity in UK politics. In the 1945 general election, the Communist Party of Great Britain took 14.6 percent of the vote and two seats, including Willie Gallacher, whose constituency included what is now Ballingry. In local elections the following year, the number of communist councillors increased from 81 to 215.

This was proven to be an electoral high-water mark for the party. Members left in droves after the Soviet invasion first of Hungary in 1956, and then of Czechoslovakia in 1968. Nevertheless, the communists remained a presence in outposts of industrial Britain, in South Wales, East London, and in the coalfields of Scotland.

In Cowdenbeath, communism was inextricably linked with the local coal mining industry. In the early years of the 19th century, rich deposits of coal were inadvertently discovered when iron ore shafts were sunk. Almost overnight Cowdenbeath, a tranquil cluster of farmers’ cottages, was transformed into a noisy, dirty, ramshackle settlement. By the turn of the 20th century, the town’s population had swelled to 14,000. Three-quarters of the menfolk were employed by the Fife Coal Company, Britain’s largest mining enterprise.

Willie Clarke was born in Glencraig, a “very militant” village with a reputation for communism. Active communists included Laurence Daly, a prominent miners’ leader who would leave the Communist Party in 1956 in protest at Nikita Khrushchev’s denunciation of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin. Aged 14, he began working in the mine, and not long afterwards he joined the Communist Party.

“[Communism] caught your imagination, they were radical, wanted change, they were not prepared to accept things as they were,” says Clarke.

‘Opium of the people’

Communists were renowned for their iron discipline. Local MP Willie Gallacher, the last communist in the House of Commons, was a lifelong teetotaller.

Willie Sharp, the first communist provost in Britain when he was elected in Cowdenbeath in 1973, did not smoke or drink. Communists decried religion “as the opium of the people”, but party and church often operated along similar lines. Both organised community events and Sunday schools – one teaching the bible, the other political economy and the works of Karl Marx.

The legacy of Cowdenbeath’s communist past can still be seen today. In the adjacent suburb of Lumphinnans, people live on streets named “Gallacher Place” and “Gagarin Way”. Locals call this “Little Moscow”.

Former communist activist Jack Allan recalls asking his father why the family always voted communist. “His answer was simple: ‘They’re the people who help ye the most.’ I still believe that.”

The demise of communism in Cowdenbeath and the surrounding pit villages was a product of rapid economic and political change. The discovery of huge deposits of oil and gas in the North Sea hastened the demise of smaller, less productive mines across Britain. By the 1970s, most of the mining jobs in Cowdenbeath were gone. Nowadays, the region has one of the highest rates of unemployment in Scotland.

Demise of communism

The fall of the Berlin Wall sounded the death knell for British communism. By the time the party voted to disband itself in 1991, there had already been numerous splits and its vote had collapsed.

People like Willie, he’s a great guy and he gets things done.

– Michael Payne, Cowdenbeath resident

For communists in Cowdenbeath, the fall of the wall was “like telling a Christian there was no God”, as former communist councillor Alex Maxwell put it.

With the barrier between East and West gone, the brutal reality of life in the Soviet Union could no longer be dismissed as anti-communist propaganda.

“What you believed was happening in the Soviet Union wasn’t happening at all. It was something different,” says Clarke.

Four decades on, the material conditions that sustained Fife’s pit villages – and its communists – are gone. The mines are closed and Clarke is able to win votes not because of his belief in a new socialist order, but because he works tirelessly to get council houses renovated and community centres opened.

“People like Willie, he’s a great guy and he gets things done,” says Michael Payne, who works at the local community centre in Ballingry.

Clarke was instrumental in securing funding for this state-of-the-art facility that opened in 2012 to replace a series of diffuse, dilapidated facilities dotted across the adjacent pit villages.

Clarke has one last political wish: Scottish independence. He was very active in the “yes” campaign in the recent referendum. Although the vote was lost, he says Scotland will become independent someday.

“If it doesn’t happen now it’ll be happen in the future. Maybe I’ll not see it, but it’ll happen,” Clarke says.

This piece originally appeared on Al Jazeera.

Spain’s Catalans set to vote on independence

Catalans expected to turn out in droves on Sunday for what is now a ‘symbolic’ independence referendum.

Support for independence has risen dramatically in what is seen as an attempt to curb Catalan power [Reuters]

Barcelona, Spain Sleep has been hard to come by in Barcelona this week – but not on account of the city’s fabled nightlife.

Instead, the narrow streets and old squares of Barcelona have reverberated to a crepuscular cacophony of banging pots and pans. These noisy protests – called cacerolazo, literally “casserole” – started recently after Spain’s constitutional court suspended a proposed non-binding poll on Catalan independence.

A vote, however, will go ahead as planned on Sunday, Catalan President Artur Mas has said. In Barcelona, cacerolazo protesters have vowed to keep beating their kitchenware until it does.

“All peoples have the right to decide their future,” Mas told reporters on Wednesday. The vote was initially intended as a legally binding referendum on independence from Spain, but was downgraded to a symbolic “consultation” after an intervention from the country’s constitutional court.

Now, it has been watered down further. Sunday’s poll will be “a participatory process” with no formal standing, run entirely by volunteers instead of the Catalan government.

Future of Catalonia

Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has called any attempt to hold a vote on leaving Spain “anti-democratic”, saying Spain’s constitution prevents any region from unilaterally taking decisions that affect all Spaniards.

Madrid and Barcelona have been at loggerheads since July 2010, when a new statute on Catalan autonomy was struck down by Spain’s constitutional court.

Support for independence has risen dramatically in the wake of what was widely seen as an attempt to curb the power of Catalan’s regional parliament. Just under half of Catalans are in favour of leaving Spain, according to opinion polls last month. More than one-fifth of respondents said they were recent converts to the nationalist cause.

Rocio Martinez-Sampere Rodrigo, a socialist parliamentarian at the Catalan assembly, is opposed to independence but says a referendum is needed to settle the future of Catalonia, a region of 7.5 million people that stretches for 400km from the French border to neighbouring Valencia.

The Spanish constitution is quite clear on this point, the unity of Spain cannot be questioned.

– Rafael Lopez, Catalan Popular Party MP

Martinez-Sampere Rodrigo, who favours a federal arrangement for Catalonia, blames the Spanish prime minister for unwittingly building Catalan support for leaving Spain.

“Rajoy has never approached this in a political way, he is just saying ‘no, no, no’ to everything,” she told Al Jazeera. “If you say ‘no’ to everything, people will say the only solution is independence.”

But Rafael Lopez, a Catalan member of parliament from Rajoy’s conservative Popular Party, said any referendum on independence would be illegal.

“The Spanish constitution is quite clear on this point, the unity of Spain cannot be questioned,” Lopez said.

Sunday’s poll will have “no legal validity nor democratic guarantee”, Lopez added.

Nevertheless, Catalan nationalists have been busy preparing for the vote. Television adverts and mailshots have carried election information. Pro-independence memes have ignited on social media.

Widespread frustration

An estimated 40,000 people have volunteered to staff polling centres across Catalonia. Expatriates in around 40 cities worldwide – including London, Paris, Mexico City, and Montreal – will be able to vote at offices of international Catalan delegations.

The ballot will have the same two-part question that was planned for the suspended referendum. The first is whether voters want Catalonia to be a state. The second is whether they want it to be an independent state. As in the recent independence referendum in Scotland, 16 and 17-year olds will be able to participate, too.

The clamour for Catalan independence has grown amid Spain’s financial crisis and widespread frustration with the central government’s reluctance to grant more powers to the Catalan parliament, which was re-established in 1980. Recent attempts by Madrid to interfere with Catalan education have further stoked passions.

Catalonia is the country’s most prosperous and most economically productive region and accounts for about a quarter of Spain’s taxes – far more than its share of Spain’s population.

Catalonia’s fiscal deficit – the difference between what it pays to Madrid and, after taking some funds to pay state costs, the money it gets back – runs at between 7 and 10 percent of the region’s GDP. Such disparities have deepened resentment.

‘V’ for vote

On September 11 this year, Catalonia’s national holiday, hundreds of thousands of independence supporters converged on Barcelona, forming a huge “V” – for vote – in Catalan red and yellow. Now nationalists are hoping a large demonstration of strength on Sunday will show both Madrid and the world that their demands are not going away.

“The goal is to keep the pressure on Madrid and to demonstrate to the world that the process is alive and it’s not just an invention of Artur Mas,” said Marc Vidal, foreign editor of pro-independence Catalan newspaper ARA.

I think the fact that the Spanish government is making it so difficult to voice your opinion is making people angry, and making people determined to vote.

– Liz Castro, supporter of Catalan independence

The vast majority are expected to vote “yes”, but turnout will be crucial. Two million votes, about 30 percent of the electorate, would be a “big result” for the nationalists, said Vidal.

Liz Castro, a supporter of Catalan independence in Barcelona, said the attitude of the Spanish government will only strengthen nationalists’ resolve to turnout on Sunday.

“I think the fact that the Spanish government is making it so difficult to voice your opinion is making people angry, and making people determined to vote,” Castro said.

Supporters of the union with Spain argued independence would be disastrous for Catalonia – and for Europe.

“If regions like Catalonia, the Flemish region, Lombardy, Veneto, some German states or Corsica decide to secede, Europe would be cut into pieces, and that would go against its philosophy,” said Josep Ramon Bosch, president of pro-union association Societat Civil Catalana.

While there is little doubt about the outcome of Sunday’s consultation, a long-term solution to the Catalan question is much less clear cut. Spain’s national politics has been turned on its head following a poll this week that put Podemos, a youthful leftist-only party formed in January, ahead of both Rajoy’s Popular Party and the main opposition Socialist Party nationally.

Some Catalan commentators expect Artur Mas to call early elections to the Catalan parliament, in an effort to secure a resounding majority in favour of independence and increase pressure on Madrid. But Mas himself has been weakened by a tax-evasion scandal involving the founder of his ruling Convergence and Union party. A recent poll showed the more fervently pro-independence Republican Left of Catalonia well ahead among Catalan voters.

For Catalan nationalists, however, the big question is how Madrid will react to the latest salvo in the campaign for a referendum on independence.

“There is a general feeling that the Spanish government doesn’t know what is going on here,” said independence activist Castro. “I don’t think they really realise what people are ready to do here.”

This piece originally appeared on Al Jazeera.