Ulster Unionism’s on defensive over Scotland – but threats won’t win argument

On September 18, Scotland will hold a referendum on independence. A ‘Yes’ vote would bring to an end the 1707 Union, leaving behind a rump United Kingdom, comprising England, Wales and a Northern Ireland constitutionally marooned from its nearest – both geographically and emotionally – UK neighbour.

Clearly, Northern Ireland has a lot at stake in September’s plebiscite. Nationalists and unionists alike wonder if Scottish independence could have a domino effect, propelling the “break-up of Britain” foreshadowed by Scottish nationalist writer Tom Nairn more than three decades ago leading, eventually, to a United Ireland.

But the response from both sides of the Northern Irish divide to this prospect has been markedly different.

Nationalists have had surprisingly little – at least in public – to say on the subject of Scottish independence. Of course, most would welcome any loosening of the ties that bind the United Kingdom, but they are aware, too, of the politically toxic nature of sectarianism in Scotland.

saltireAn overt intervention from Sinn Fein would be political poison for Alex Salmond and the Scottish National Party. So they stand on the sidelines, issue the odd murmur and cross their fingers for a ‘Yes’ on September 18.

Unionists, on the other hand, seem to be growing restive. Wary of their kin across the Irish Sea flying the constitutional nest, unionists have become increasingly vocal – which is a problem, because their voice is often shrill, their message shallow.

Take Ian Paisley Jnr‘s comments this week. A ‘Yes’ vote in Scotland would, the North Antrim MP said, be a spur for dissident republican violence, destabilising Northern Ireland and unravelling the gains of the Good Friday Agreement.

It is unclear how a democratic referendum in another part of the United Kingdom could give succour to gunmen who have minimal support even within their own communities.

If anything, the SNP’s success proves beyond a reasonable doubt the supremacy of constitutional means. Regardless of the result in September, Alex Salmond and his party have shown that it is the ballot box – not the Armalite – that works.

Paisley said his comments were designed to awaken supporters of the Union from a complacent stupor arising from the ‘No’ side’s commanding poll lead in Scotland. But his reductio ad absurdum is likely to have the opposite effect, marginalising unionists still further from the heart of the Scottish debate.

In fairness, Paisley is not the only unionist who has tried – and failed – to engage with the question of Scottish independence. In 2012, the Orange Order’s Dr David Hume said people of Ulster Scots descent in Northern Ireland should have a vote in September’s referendum.

Speaking to a Grand Orange Lodge of Scotland event in Glasgow, Dr Hume said: “We are stakeholders, as well. Surely a decision such as this should not ignore our input?”

But nobody is denying unionists’ “input” into the Scottish debate. Extending the franchise to people of Scottish descent in Northern Ireland is completely unworkable – by the same token, what about those in Canada? Australia? England? – but unionists are free to make their case for the Union, to appeal to their Scottish brethren’s hearts and heads.

Instead, unionists have pleaded for a vote, or issued thinly-veiled warnings about a return to the Troubles if Scotland decides to go it alone.

Such aggressive tactics are unlikely to prove popular with the Scottish electorate, but, more importantly, they reveal the depth of the existential crisis at the heart of unionism, both in Northern Ireland and across the United Kingdom.

What is the positive case for the Union? This is not a flippant question. Just this week, former Labour Scottish first minister Henry McLeish, writing in The Scotsman, asked why “there is still no sense of urgency about making a positive and modern case for the Union, no sense of grasping the seriousness of the ‘Yes’ campaign and the impact it is making and no sense of the public disillusionment with Westminster politics?”

That is not to say there is no positive case that unionists can make. Historically, the United Kingdom proved so successful precisely because it is so flexible and capable of reinvention, as Linda Colley reminds us in her new book, Acts of Union and Disunion.

But contemporary unionists seem to be lacking invention. Since the Second World War, unionism has struggled to forge a creative sense of shared identity across these islands.

Meanwhile, the constitutional settlement has come under renewed pressure. Regardless of the result in September, power will continue to seep from Westminster to Edinburgh, Cardiff, Belfast and even, perhaps, a separate English parliament.

The year 2014 is the centenary of another, oft-forgotten constitutional upheaval: the Government of Ireland Act. Even if the First World War had not intervened, unionist resistance might have put paid to Home Rule.

But, 100 years on, unionists now need to develop a compelling, non-coercive case for maintaining the Union. If their attempts to join the Scottish independence debate are anything to go by, they have a long way to go.

This column originally appeared in the Belfast Telegraph, 10 January 2014.

Getting away ‘Scot-free’ from alcoholism

Edinburgh, Scotland – Scotland has become the first place in Europe to prescribe a new drug that reduces cravings for alcohol.

Earlier this month, the Scottish Medicines Consortium, a body that approves drugs for use in the National Health Service, gave the go-ahead for doctors in Scotland to prescribe nalmefene, a drug made by Danish firm Lundbeck and designed to diminish the “buzz” drinkers get from alcohol.

Nalmefene will be targeted at people who are heavy drinkers, but not the most severely dependent alcoholics. The drug works by blocking reward centres in the brain that encourage drinkers to over-indulge.al jaz drinking

In trials, men who normally drank eight units of alcohol a day and women who drank six a day halved their consumption over a six-month period when they took the drug.

The decision to prescribe nalmefene free of charge by the National Health Service reflects a growing concern about Scottish drinking habits and their effects on social and economic well-being.

Scotland has one of the highest levels of alcohol consumption in the world. Among Scottish men, the alcohol-related death rate is twice that of the rest of the UK. Drinking costs the economy an estimated £3.6bn ($5.75bn) in everything from lost productivity to increased spending on health care and criminal justice.

‘It causes so much damage’

“We have a massive problem with drinking,” says Gillian Bell, spokesperson for Alcohol Focus Scotland. “We accept excessive drinking as the norm, but we shouldn’t because it causes so much damage. Alcohol does not just affect the person who is drinking, it affects society as a whole.”

[Nalmefene] represents a new option for treating some people with alcohol dependence by helping them to cut down their drinking.

– Jonathan Chick, consultant psychiatrist at Queen Margaret University Hospital

The devolved Scottish government, which has responsibility for the country’s health policy, hopes that nalmefene will help to tackle alcohol abuse. The decision to prescribe nalmefene, which is taken as a tablet before drinking, has been widely welcomed by Scotland’s medical community.

“I am pleased that Scottish patients will have access to nalmefene, which represents a new option for treating some people with alcohol dependence by helping them to cut down their drinking when they may not be ready, or have no medical need, to give up alcohol altogether,” said Jonathan Chick, a consultant psychiatrist at Queen Margaret University Hospital in Edinburgh.

Peter Rice, the chairman of Scottish Health Action on Alcohol Problems (SHAAP) and a former chairman of the Royal College of Psychiatrists in Scotland, told Al Jazeera he believes the drug will be “a useful addition to the options we have to offer patients”.

Scotland was the first place to introduce routine screenings for alcohol abuse. Now all patients must complete a form about their drinking habits. The programme has allowed doctors to identify a quarter of a million problem drinkers over the last four years, in a region with just over five million people.

Rice said the success of nalmefene will depend on whether doctors use it alongside psychological and personal care. “The evidence base and effectiveness of the brief intervention is better-established than it is for the medication. The medication needs to be seen as working in conjunction with the intervention, the simple advice from the doctor. I would expect that it won’t be just doctors reaching for their prescription pad,” Rice said.

‘The wrong approach’

Drinkers in Glasgow, Scotland’s largest city, were less optimistic about the drug’s potential. “It’s the wrong approach. If someone is an alcoholic, surely the thing to do is to is to make them stop, not encourage them to drink less,” said Josephine, one of a handful of afternoon drinkers in the Vale, a bar near Glasgow’s Queen Street train station.

A chef in a city centre restaurant, Josephine said drinking is a way of life for many, particularly in the hospitality sector. “Everything revolves around alcohol. Staff night’s out, you are brought to the pub. At Christmas you don’t get a cash bonus, you get £20 ($32) in drinks tokens.”

Her friend Maria noted that Scotland’s drinking culture is “very different” from that in her native Canada. “People back home will maybe plan once a month to go out drinking. Here it is every weekend.”

William Smith, who has run the Vale for almost 20 years, said medication to prevent people from drinking too much is “pointless”. “This isn’t the answer. If people want to drink, they’ll drink. They’ll get up in the morning and say ‘I’ll drink’ or ‘I’ll not drink’.”

Instead, Smith believes the Scottish government should be focusing on the problem of young drinkers. “That is where I would be starting … Nobody is going to give [nalmefene] to a 12-year-old in a [housing] scheme in Glasgow. It seems to be me that this thing is aimed at the wrong people.”

Minimum prices

While alcohol consumed in pubs and clubs has fallen by 34 percent in Scotland since 1994, the amount of alcohol bought to drink at home rose by 45 percent over the same period. In an effort to stem the flow of cheap booze, the Scottish government last year passed legislation introducing a minimum price of 50 pence per 10 millilitres of alcohol.

But the measure has yet to be implemented, following a court challenge launched by the Scotch Whisky Association and two other trade bodies, spiritsEUROPE and the Comité Européen des Entreprises Vins, which represent European spirits and wine producers.

Minimum prices are “the most important thing” to reduce drinking in Scotland, argued Rice. “If we don’t have price controls and we got back to the alcohol price wars of three or four years ago, that would undo a lot of the good work done in interventions and other areas.”

The effects of alcohol abuse are all too evident in Scotland, from the street drinkers to the over-zealous revellers in city centres on weekends. Alcohol branding is ubiquitous, too, appearing on everything from the shirts of popular football teams to the names of summer music festivals.

“Drinking is accepted as part of everyday life,” said Bell, the Alcohol Focus Scotland spokesperson. “But the alcohol industry are very good at making it feel like part of everyday life.”

This piece originally appeared on Al-Jazeera

 

Scots rally for independence from UK

Edinburgh, Scotland – In 1992, on the same evening the Conservatives won a fourth successive UK general election, a small group of campaigners started a vigil for a Scottish Parliament at Calton Hill in Edinburgh.

Their constant watch lasted five and half years, until Scots had a chance to vote “yes” to devolution in 1997.

Thousands returned to Calton Hill last Saturday. This time, however, they came not to demand more powers for Scotland, but to call for full independence from the rest of the United Kingdom.

What unites these people is that all their lives they’ve watched Westminster fail to deliver on the things they care about, whether it’s social justice or the environment or proper democracy.

-James Mackenzie, Scottish Green Party

 

“I’m here because I want Scotland to have the same rights, responsibilities and privileges as any other country in Europe or the world,” one demonstrator, Alan Farquhar, told Al Jazeera, as a colourful crowd of independence supporters, estimated by organisers at 20,000, made its way through Edinburgh’s historic Old Town towards Calton Hill.

Farquhar has been a member of the Scottish National Party for “22, 23 years”. “When I joined the SNP, we were at 9, 10, 11 percent in the polls. There has been a great progression since then: winning a minority election [in the Scottish Parliament in 2007], then a majority election [in 2011]. As far as I see it, independence is a natural progression,” Farquhar said.

Whether or not Scotland does decide to go it alone depends on the outcome of next September’s independence referendum. “A yes vote is for self-government, not remote government – good government with independence, not bad government from Westminster,” Scotland’s First Minister Alex Salmond – leader of the Scottish National Party and very much the architect of next year’s historic vote – told supporters on Calton Hill.

“A yes vote next September will not be a victory for the SNP, or the ‘Yes’ campaign, or even the huge coalition of interests and enthusiasm gathered here today,” he said during the three-hour rally.

“It will be the people’s victory. ‘Yes’ will be an act of self-confidence and self-assertion, which will mean that decisions about what happens in Scotland are always taken by the people who live and work here.”

Colourful rally

Saturday’s rally, which was not organised by the official “Yes” campaign, was a decidedly ecumenical affair.

Alongside SNP banners and standards were men in kilts and William Wallace T-shirts, and there were placards for everyone, from “Farmers for Yes” to “Aussies for Independence”. Supporters of both the Greens and the Scottish Socialist Party, both backers of independence, were out in force, too.

“What unites these people is that all their lives they’ve watched Westminster fail to deliver on the things they care about, whether it’s social justice or the environment or proper democracy,” said James Mackenzie, a member of the Scottish Green Party, who recently started a small business in Edinburgh.

Independence referendum will be held in September 2014 [Peter Geoghegan/Al Jazeera]

“Independent Scotland would be run closer to the people, even simply on a geographical basis. The idea that Westminster is ever going to deliver social justice, sustainability, proper democracy, I just don’t believe it. I’m not saying it’s guaranteed in an independent Scotland, but at least we’d have a chance.”

As the marchers gathered at midday in Edinburgh, a busker played a cover version of Dougie McLean’s Scottish folk ballad “Caledonia”. A little further up the cobbled High Street, a woman with a microphone led a group behind a “Radical Independence Campaign” banner in a call-and-response: “What do we want?” “Independence.” “When do we want it?” “Now”.

“People don’t want more of the same, they want radical change,” Cath Boyd from the left-wing Radical Independence Campaign told Al Jazeera. “We need an economic change and a social change. Internationally, what Britain has come to represent is abhorrent. There is a place for a progressive Scotland with no nuclear weapons, which doesn’t participate in illegal wars,” she said.

Opinion polls suggest many Scots remain to be convinced about the virtues of independence. One poll at the beginning of September gave the “No” side a 30-percent lead, prompting claims from unionists that the battle was all but over. But then the SNP hailed a survey that showed support for a “Yes” vote had taken the lead for the first time since 2011.

Large-scale rallies could help galvanise independence supporters ahead of a crucial 12 months of campaigning, said Peter Lynch, a lecturer in Stirling University and author of SNP: A History of the Scottish National Party.

“Showing to each other how many ‘yes’ supporters there are is good for morale,” he said.

“If you are a ‘yes’ supporter seeing endless polls saying ‘you’re only 30 percent’, oh, ‘you’re only 35 percent’, ‘now you’re down to 25 percent’, you feel like a beleaguered minority that is never going to win. These are the kind of events that make [‘yes’ supporters] see that there are actually a lot of ‘yes’ supporters, and if they can mobilise and grow then they are in with a chance of winning in September next year.”

Reaching out

Not everyone agrees. Tom Gallagher, emeritus professor at Bradford University, said nationalists are not doing enough to reach out to the undecided voters who are likely to decide next year’s referendum.

For the Nationalists, the misery of the people isn’t a wrong to be corrected – it is a chance to be exploited. For them, grievance is not to be addressed – it is to be nurtured.

-Johann Lamont , Scottish Labour Party

 

“The big challenge for ‘Yes’ campaigners is they need to stop dialoguing with themselves. They need to engage with the fears and anxieties that a lot of people have, instead of just brushing them away and saying ‘it’ll be alright on the night,'” the author of Scotland Divided: Ethnic Friction and Christian Crisis said.

Among the Scottish saltires on Saturday were flags from Catalonia, Corsica, Flanders, Sicily, Wales and other nationalist movements across Europe.

Franco Rocchetta, twice a member of the Italian Parliament, was among a group of about 50 supporters of Venetian independence that made the journey from northern Italy to the Scottish capital.

“For us coming here is like swimming in the fountain of youth,” he said. “We are also fighting to get a referendum for independence.”

While Scotland’s independence campaign has garnered foreign admirers, so far it has struggled to attract supporters of the Labour party, once the dominant force in Scottish politics and still the second-largest constituency in the devolved parliament.

Scottish Labour, strongly opposed to independence, is part of Better Together, a cross-party unionist campaign calling for a “No” vote in 2014.

At the weekend, Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont told attendees at the Labour Party’s annual conference in Brighton that next year’s referendum was a chance to defeat the “virus” of nationalism.

“For the Nationalists, the misery of the people isn’t a wrong to be corrected – it is a chance to be exploited. For them, grievance is not to be addressed – it is to be nurtured,” Lamont told the group.

“And that cynicism, that calculation which leaves families suffering now is a price worth paying if it translates into votes next September. It’s a cynicism which corrodes our politics. It should create in us a revulsion.”

Unsurprisingly, Lamont’s assessment of Scottish nationalism did not resonate with the marchers in Edinburgh. “I feel it’s all inclusive,” said Tarlika Elisabeth Schmitz, who moved to Scotland from Germany 17 years ago.

Schmitz travelled from Lochaber in the Highlands to the capital for the rally. “It’s great to be here,” she said as she walked towards Calton Hill, accompanied by her Scottish terrier, Nechtain, in a blue “Yes” shawl.

“I think we will do it. I am pretty confident we will win.”

This piece originally appeared on Al-Jazeera. 

Should Scotland’s famous arts fest join the independence debate?

August in Edinburgh in synonymous with the arts. This August over 25,000 performers have descended on the Scottish capital, offering everything from stand-up comedy and one-act plays to jazz, opera, and poetry readings as part of several separate festivals that are collectively known as the “Edinburgh festival.”

But while the cobbled streets of Edinburgh’s Old Town will be littered with flyers and street performers until the end of this month, the program for next year’s festival is already causing a stir.

The 2014 Edinburgh festival – which bills itself as the largest arts festival in the world – is scheduled to end just weeks before Scotland goes to the polls in a historic referendum on independence.

But the Scots’ historic constitutional choice won’t be on agenda at the oldest of the festivals, the Edinburgh International Festival (EIF), according to its director, Sir Jonathan Mills.

Mr. Mills told a Scottish newspaper earlier this month that he was “not anticipating anything in the [program] at all” next year about the independence debate. The program will concentrate on the Commonwealth Games – due to take place in Glasgow next summer – and the centenary of the start of World War I.

“We would not wish our festival to be anything other than it has always been, which is a politically neutral space for artists. It is important that it remains that,” Mills said in an interview with The Scotsman.

Founded in 1947, the EIF has a budget of £10 million ($15 million), around half of which comes from public funds.fringe

The reaction to the director’s comments about next year’s program was quick, with many in Scotland’s artistic community questioning the idea that the arts are “politically neutral.”

“I don’t think the EIF is going to be able to keep this issue out. We’ve got a year to make use of this opportunity to start a proper discussion,” novelist Denise Mina told the Sunday Herald, a popular Scottish newspaper. “The discussion has become really narrow and people are stating their positions. Nobody is really listening to each other and the festival would have been a great opportunity to listen.”

“The arts are one of the places where we can discuss the more abstract notions. It’s a real missed opportunity by Jonathan Mills. It’s fearful and it’s shameful,” Ms. Mina added.

But the director of another of the festivals, the Edinburgh Book Festival, has said that independence will be a part of the conversation at his event in 2014. “Our job is to discuss things that matter, and for me to ignore the referendum would be the wrong thing to do. We want the book festival to be a safe and fair and unthreatening environment to discuss ideas and debates,”Nick Barley told The Guardian.

By far the largest slice of the Edinburgh festival pie belongs to the Fringe. It was inaugurated in 1947 when eight theater companies who were not invited to the International Festival decided to perform regardless, and has grown into one of the most recognizable arts festivals in the world, with a reputation for being more spontaneous and edgy than its more formal sibling. The Fringe has no selection committee and invites all types of performers and materials.

Despite this, Scottish independence remained a rather marginal theme in this year’s Fringe, says Ben Judge, editor of Fest magazine, a publication appearing each August about the city’s festivals. “You can count the number of independence-minded productions this year on the fingers of one hand. So why is it that Scottish artists, comedians and playwrights seem so disengaged – at least creatively – from the debate?”

Not everyone agrees, however, that Scotland’s creative community are disconnected from next year’s referendum. Artists are struggling to find an outlet in mainstream Scottish cultural forums, says playwright and novelist Alan Bissett.

“You have to find your own space – put on a show [and] take it to the Edinburgh Fringe or put it on YouTube,” Mr. Bissett says.

Bissett believes that the arts have a particularly important role to play in the lead-up to next September’s vote. ‘‘Because [independence] is so complex, the arts is the ideal place to have that discussion,” he says. “Artists aren’t beholden to ‘the truth.’ We are much more about exploring the emotional complexities. People who experience a play, or a poem, or a novel about nationalism recognize more of it because it’s not black and white.”

As well as providing a forum for debate beyond the febrile, often partisan, atmosphere of the official “yes” and “no” campaigns, the arts can also act as an alternative record of next year’s vote, Bissett says.

“When we look back at the Treaty of Union [the agreement which led to the creation of Great Britain in 1707], one of the first things we think of is Robert Burns and his angry poem ‘[Such a] Parcel o’ Rogues [in a Nation].’ So now we can look back and see, ‘ah, not everyone was happy about the Treaty of Union.'”

Posterity is not the only aspect of the independence debate engaging Scottish artists. Many artists will also be actively fighting for a “yes” in the referendum in 2014.

“What artists sense with independence is that it can revitalize not just Scotland but the rest of the UK as well,” Bissett says.

Scotland’s Epic Media Fail

EDINBURGH, Scotland — When parliament opened here in 1999 with new powers thanks to the devolution of control away from London, it was expected to herald a golden age for Scottish journalism.

Back when Scots were ruled directly from Westminster, they already bought more newspapers per person than the rest of the British population. Circulation at the Herald, the largest broadsheet in Glasgow, regularly topped 100,000 issues, and tabloids such as the Daily Record sold many times more.

But today, just 12 months before people go to the polls in a historic vote on full independence, worries are mounting about the survival of the country’s newspaper industry.

The September 2014 referendum on whether or not Scotland should leave the United Kingdom after more than 300 years may be grabbing international headlines, but it’s doing nothing to counter a long slump in Scottish newspaper sales.

papersInstead, the press has found itself at the center of many bitter online debates about its perceived bias, particularly on the part of “yes” supporters who tend to accuse editors of failing to provide balanced coverage of the potential benefits of Scotland’s going it alone.

Stories about the possibility of London seizing the pandas at Edinburgh zoo and bombing Scottish airports in the event of a foreign threat have added to their sense of grievance.

“The unionist campaign has never knowingly undersold the scare stories around independence,’ writer Iain Macwhirter says. “And the media, in the eyes of the ‘yes’ campaign, has been happy to broadcast them.”

However, perceptions of bias are misplaced, says Julian Calvert, a lecturer in journalism at Glasgow Caledonian University.

“It’s very hard to find a newspaper that tries to look at both sides of the debate because [independence] is such a broad issue,” he says.

Unlike in similar political situations in Spain’s Catalonia and Quebec, Scotland has no avowedly pro-independence newspaper. The last such effort, the Scottish Standard, launched in 2005 and ended in dismal failure.

The weekly, middle-market tabloid aimed at nationalist-inclined readers — it featured a column from Scottish National Party (SNP) leader Alex Salmond, who has spearheaded the referendum — shut down after printing just seven issues. Circulation never climbed above 12,000.

Opinion polls suggest that around a third of Scots will vote “yes” next year, and a significant number remains undecided.

However, most experts believe the vote will fail.

Calvert believes the fact that no newspaper has come out in favor of independence owes more to bottom lines than editorial agendas.

“Most of the print media will take a commercial decision based on the most likely outcome,” he says. “They are probably sensing that there isn’t an enormous atmosphere for pro-independence stories.”

The mainstream Scottish press position on nationalism is less negative than its detractors claim, however. A number of newspapers, including the tabloid Scottish Sun and the broadsheet Sunday Herald, backed nationalist candidates during the last parliamentary elections in 2011.

“It is not quite true to say the press is opposed to the SNP,” Sunday Herald editor Richard Walker told an audience at a debate about independence and the media at the Edinburgh festival this week. “Our aim is to create a place where we can have a grown-up and responsible debate about the issues and independence.”

Regardless of the sides they support, newspapers are unlikely to be a deciding factor in next year’s referendum. “I don’t think the press will have a terribly influential role because people know what they are buying and they are re-enforcing their biases,” Calvert says.

Nevertheless, when it comes to the debate about independence, the mainstream media still sets the agenda, says Andrew Tickell, who blogs about law and politics.

The blogosphere still remains “quite reactive,” he says. “Bloggers respond to what’s happening in the broader press.”

How long that’s true remains to be seen. As newspaper sales continue to fall, many publications are subsisting on shoestring budgets.

Author and freelance journalist David Torrance says the real issue for the Scottish press isn’t covering the referendum, but a global problem in the internet age.

“The elephant in the room is the structural issues facing the press,” he says. “Even now, newspapers and proprietors haven’t figured out how to make journalism pay.”

This piece originally appeared on the Global Post.

Aye or nae? Scottish teens will vote on independence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More nationalistic?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An eye toward the future

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

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

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

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

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

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

Among the Orangemen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Great Migration

This feature on Irish migration to the UK was the lead story in the Sunday Business Post‘s Agenda magazine on 16 January.

Standing at the edge of the McNamara Suite in the London Irish Centre, it’s difficult to believe you’re in cosmopolitan Camden town, and not a function room somewhere in Tipperary or Waterford.

Well-thumbed copies of The Munster Express lie abandoned near rounds of sandwiches and half-drunk cups of tea on nearby tables while, on the opposite side of the room, a lone accordionist plays King of the Road to the delight of the crowded dance floor.

The dancers are mainly in their 60s and 70s,members of just one of myriad Irish social clubs that use the space; almost all of them left Ireland for Britain in the 1950s.

Their arrival coincided with the foundation of the London Irish Centre.

Set across a pair of renovated Georgian terraces in a once down-at-heel but now stridently middleclass slice of north London, it has been the epicentre of Irish life in the city ever since.

For more than 55 years, the centre has doled out advice and assistance to thousands of young Irish men and women, but in the last 12 months there has been a slow, if steady, increase in the numbers of new Irish emigrants looking for help.

‘‘During the good times in Ireland, we probably got five or six people a week coming through our doors, but now it’s easily twice that number,” says the centre’s director Peter Hammond, who is originally from Dublin but has been living in London since 1975.

Ascertaining the exact number of Irish emigrants arriving in Britain is a tricky task.

At 11,000,the number of Irish nationals who applied for British National Insurance numbers in 2010 was not significantly up on 2008 and 2009 levels.

However, this figure is expected to grow in 2011,with many experts predicting that Irish emigration to Britain could increase dramatically in the coming years.

According to the Central Statistics Office, during the period 2006 to 2010, emigration reached a level that had not been seen since the late 1980s,with Irish citizens accounting for 42 per cent of those leaving the country.

The Economic and Social Research Institute expects the numbers to rise as high as 120,000 by the end of this year, while the Union of Students in Ireland estimates that as many as 150,000 students will emigrate in the next five years.

It’s not hard to see why jobless Irish men And women might head for Britain: it is easy and cheap to get to, there are no visa requirements, and, despite its on-going economic difficulties, employment opportunities in many parts of Britain are still better than in Ireland.

The prospect of a new wave of Irish émigre ¤ s in Britain has already become something of a political football in Westminster.

In late December, a report published by the Institute for Public Policy Research, a respected London think-tank, suggested that Irish emigration would contribute to an overall rise in immigration in 2011, thwarting prime minister David Cameron’s election pledge to bring Britain’s annual net immigration below 200,000.

At the London Irish Centre, where the youthful cast of 1916 The Musical are rehearsing in the top floor annex, Peter Hammond acknowledges that the centre’s role – and the very nature of Irish emigration – is changing.

‘‘The traditional model was that people would physically show up at our door and say: ‘Can you help us?’. We’d send them off to Mrs O’Reilly, who’d give them a bed for the night, and then we’d send them down to Mr Smith, who’d give them a start in a bar. Now, people are more educated and are able to set themselves up with jobs.

They are looking to us for advice rather than direct support, and they’re contacting us over email or the phone, rather than coming here in person,” he says.

Gary Dunne, the centre’s artistic director, has rejuvenated its cultural programme, bringing in popular Irish acts such as Des Bishop, John Spillane and Declan O’Rourke, and seeing them play to sell-out audiences. Dunne, who left Ireland in 2002 and is now married in London, believes that new Irish emigrants have very different expectations to those who came before them.

‘‘They’re not coming here to dig holes or work in bars – most of them have skills and training, and want to use them,” he says.

Louise McHenry is typical of this new generation of Irish emigrants.

Originally from Ballycastle in Co Antrim, 24-year-old McHenry completed a master’s degree in journalism at the Dublin Institute of Technology, but after a year of fruitless job-hunting she left Ireland for east London.

‘‘When I was in Dublin I applied for lots of different jobs, but I didn’t even get a single response.

Then I came over here – two weeks later I got a job, and a week later I got promoted. I had my pay increased three times in the first three months; that would never have happened in Ireland,” she says.

Only two out of McHenry’s master’s class of 20 have found work in Ireland, and while she initially took a job in a bar, within four months she secured a position as a reporter on a trade paper. ‘‘I’d never have got a job like that in Ireland.

Over here, there are lots of jobs for people who are starting out, there’s nothing like that in Dublin,” she says.

McHenry would like to return to Dublin or Belfast eventually, but feels that the Irish government has failed to provide opportunities for graduates. She is equally scathing about the quality of assistance offered at Irish job centres.

‘‘In Dublin, the job centre was awful, really awful. In my first week in London I was sent on a course about how to write a CV for media jobs – that’s how tailored it is here.

In Dublin the courses were useless, if there were any at all.”

One of the main reasons Britain remains the destination of choice for so many would be emigrants is its cultural similarity to home.

Sinead McEneaney, a lecturer in American history, has worked mainly in Britain since graduating with a PhD from NUI Maynooth in 2004, and finds little substantive differences between living in Britain and Ireland.

‘‘My life is exactly the same as it would be if I lived in Dublin. It would feel as odd to live in Kerry or Cork as it does to live in London,” McEneaney says from her office in St Mary’s University College in Twickenham.

With a moratorium on public sector recruitment in place, academic positions are at a premium in Ireland, leading many PhD graduates to look across the Irish Sea to further their careers.

Highly educated workers are a great loss to the Irish economy, not least as the state invests significant sums in their postgraduate education, an investment that is unlikely to see any return for the foreseeable future.

McEneaney makes regular trips back to Dublin, and has noticed increasing numbers of Irish people commuting from Ireland to work in London during the week.

Aside from separation from family and travel expenses, such workers must deal with another, often hidden, cost: exchange rate fluctuations.

With most of her outgoings in euro and her wages in sterling, McEneaney knows better than most the vagaries of the currency markets. ‘‘I remember when sterling hit parity with the euro [in December 2008], I almost cried. It meant that I was making less than I would have been in an entry-level academic position in Ireland.”

Born in Canada to Irish parents and raised in Celbridge, McEneaney doesn’t consider herself particularly Irish, and seldom seeks out the company of compatriots in London, but she keeps up to date with Irish current affairs through Twitter and online news outlets.

Like many emigrants, the young lecturer is phlegmatic about her future in Britain. ‘‘I don’t see this as permanent. I still figure that I will move again, either back to Ireland, or someplace else,” she says.

The demise of the Celtic tiger has had an unexpected knock-on effect for many of those who emigrated during the boom years.

Having left in a time of prosperity, with the implicit assumption that they could return one day, the economic downturn has forced many to realise that going back is not an option, at least in the short term.

Increasingly, these emigrants are turning to places such as the London Irish Centre to express facets of their Irish identity that, until recently, were little-used or needed.

Gary Dunne has seen a surge in interest from Irish nationals with young families who have been in London for a number of years, but now want their children instructed in Irish dancing or language courses.

‘‘I think we are going to see an explosion in this kind of thing in the coming years.

People who came here thinking they’d stay for a year or two are now realising that they are not going back, and are trying to define themselves as being Irish in Britain,” he says.

Marc Scully, a social psychologist at the Open University who has written about Irish identities in England, believes we could be witnessing a nascent ‘‘third great wave’’ of Irish emigration to Britain. ‘‘We are starting to get back to the paradigm of collective emigration, which we haven’t seen since the 1980s,” he says.

But he cautions against making early presumptions about the shape of current Irish emigration to Britain.

‘‘It’s a fallacy to assume that every migration will follow the pattern of the previous one.

The 1950s generation built Irish associations and clubs, but those that came in the 1980s formed networks that didn’t have the same interest in occupying a physical space – they connected in bars and on the phone,” he says. ‘‘Now, migration patterns are more fluid, people are migrating in cohorts and with very different skills. It’s hard to predict in what way they will organise themselves.”

Recent Irish emigration reached its peak in the 1950s,with the majority of the 50,000 people that left the country each year that decade heading for Britain.

After a fall-off in the 1970s, emigration ratcheted up in the 1980s,with almost 35,000 leaving the state every year.

Once again Britain was by far the most popular destination.

But with so many Irish men and women Now heading for Australia, Canada and even the Far East, will the next wave of emigration to Britain really be as significant as previous generations? ‘‘In terms of numbers, I doubt it,” says Scully. ‘‘But in terms of psychological impact, very possibly.”

Emigration might be Ireland’s ‘‘great national trauma’’, but so far the Irish government has made little attempt to stem this flow of human capital. Indeed, the assumption that emigrants are leaving in search of fun and excitement – and not for economic reasons – still seems prevalent in certain political circles.

Speaking to the BBC’s Hardtalk programme in February of last year, Tánaiste Mary Coughlan opined that emigration for some was ‘‘not a bad thing’’.

Characterising emigrants as highly educated and mobile, she said that, ‘‘the type of people who have left, some of them find they want to enjoy themselves and that’s what young people are entitled to do’’.

Coughlan’s words partly reflect the radical shift in popular representations of the Irish abroad during the boom years. As the country prospered, images of Irish labourers in London and bar staff in Glasgow were replaced by pictures of stylish, suited executives in Singapore and backpackers chilling out on Bondi beach.

Marc Scully traces the origins of these new images of the successful, transnational emigrant back to the late 1990s.

‘‘As circumstances in Ireland improved, the diaspora came to be seen as a project of a modern, successful Ireland,” he says. ‘‘But the truth is that Ireland’s image of the diaspora was as based in fact as many IrishAmerican’s images of Ireland were.” Mary Gilmartin, a lecturer in human geography at NUI Maynooth, agrees.

‘‘There was a celebration of mobility during the Celtic tiger era – a celebration of the ‘Global Irish’ with all this cultural capital trotting around the world, doing the best jobs in the best places,” she says. ‘‘But this ignored the reality that emigration to Britain to work in manual jobs continued throughout the Celtic tiger – we just never spoke about it.”

While many young, talented Irish men and women took high-paying jobs in places like the City of London during the boom, less fortunate emigrants continued to come through the London Irish Centre’s doors.

According to Peter Hammond, even during the good times people came to the centre seeking help, ‘‘but they tended to be people with other problems: drugs, crime, family’’.

There is also still a sizeable number of Irish born men and women sleeping rough on London’s streets.

Mary Gilmartin draws attention to another oft-forgotten aspect of Irish emigration to Britain – the fact that it is heavily gendered.

Throughout the past 20 years, more women than men have left Ireland for Britain, mainly due to the private sector opportunities available for men as the country enjoyed record growth.

Traditionally, in times of recession, there is a spike in the number of men emigrating as private sector jobs dry up, but Gilmartin predicts that the trend for greater numbers of females moving to Britain is unlikely to abate any time soon.

‘‘Britain offers opportunities for women that they might not get here.

Women are far more likely to be employed in the public sector – as teachers or nurses, for examples – and it is this type of occupation that is being squeezed in Ireland,” she says.

Back at the London Irish Centre, Gary Dunne is taking a break from chaperoning the afternoon dance to reflect on the centre’s future.

‘‘This place is going to have to change totally to cater for the next generation,” he says, sellotaping shut the biscuit bin that holds the day’s raffle proceeds.

‘‘We’re seeing more and more people every week looking for help, and we’ve got to be proactive to be there for them. It’s going to be a challenge, but I do think this is a good time to be Irish in London.”

Celtic Connections

Scotland and Ireland have always been close. At its shortest, the distance between the Mull of Kintyre and the north Antrim coast is only 20km.

The ancient Gaelic overkingdom of Dalriada stretched across western Scotland and the north of Ireland during the 6th and 7th centuries, but large-scale migration between the two countries only really began in the 1840s. As the famine ravaged Ireland, increasing numbers escaped across the Irish Sea to Scotland: according to census results, in 1841 4.8 per cent of the population of Scotland was Irish-born, within a decade this figure stood at 7.2 per cent.

The list of Irish-Scots is as lengthy as it is illustrious: James Connolly, Arthur Conan Doyle, and Sean Connery are just some of the famous names born in Scotland to Irish parents.

Now, once more, Irish men and women are coming to live and work in Scotland’s towns and cities.

Oliver Ralph, 25, originally from Upper Church in Tipperary, arrived in Edinburgh 18 months ago after losing his job as a carpenter in Limerick. Sitting in a crowded bar a stone’s throw from the city’s fabled castle, he explains why he made the move.

‘My brother was living here and it seemed like a good place to go. And it has been. I’m happy here now. I’ve made a life for myself and I’ve no plans to go back,’ he says firmly.

After a brief spell cleaning gutters when he arrived, Ralph has now settled into a job as a waiter in Edinburgh. Although he sometimes misses the ‘daft money’ that he made during the boom years he enjoys his work, and with Ireland only an hour’s flight away he seldom feels homesick.

‘There’s so many ways you can keep in touch. Facebook, email, telephone,’ he says. ‘And if anything happened you could be back in no time.’

Before the crash, Ireland’s overheated housing market was another push factor for some emigrants. Paul Jakma spent most of his life in Leixlip but when he found himself still residing with parents in his early 30s, despite having a good job as a programmer at an American multinational, he decided it was time to move on.

After a couple of years spent trying to buy a house in various parts of north county Dublin, ‘the middle of nowhere really’, in late 2006 Jakma moved to Glasgow, where he had lived briefly as a teenager. Initially he simply transferred his job but has since returned to university and is now studying for a PhD in the University of Glasgow.

Jakma feels ‘lucky’ to have avoided Ireland’s property trap. Within a few months of moving he bought in the east end of Glasgow city centre. Although he lives close to Celtic FC’s ground, in the traditional heartland of Glasgow’s Irish community, the student consciously avoids ‘the flag waving stuff here’.

Like many Irish emigrants, Jakma would like to go back home one day but is unsure if that will be possible.

‘My family is there, it’s the place I know, but the question is will Ireland be in any state for me to go back to anytime soon? I’ll be finished my post-grad in four years but will there be any jobs then? I don’t know.’

Votes for Emigrants

Those living in Ireland are not the only ones anxiously awaiting the forthcoming general election. Across the world hundreds of thousands of Irish citizens are following the political debates and discussions back home – even though they won’t be able to participate in the vote itself.

According to the law, those not ‘ordinarily resident’, that is living in Ireland on 1 September in the year before the voting register comes into force, cannot cast a ballot in Irish elections.

Many Irish emigrants, however, are not aware that once they leave they quickly lose their electoral voice. ‘It never occurred to me that I wouldn’t be able to vote,’ says Sinead McEneaney, a lecturer in American history at St. Mary’s University College Twickenham. ‘I never knew.’

At present Ireland is the only country in the EU, and one of only 50 countries around the world, that does not allow passport holders living abroad to participate in national elections.

Noreen Bowden, a Diaspora consultant who was born in New York but spent the past 12 years living in Ireland, believes that Irish emigrants’ have paid the price for their own generosity. ‘Irish people aboard are very generous to Ireland in so many ways so there’s never been much of a need to go the extra mile to engage with them politically. Many countries have allowed emigrants to vote as a way to encourage them to contribute economically. Ireland has never needed to do that,’ she says.

Emigrant voting rights have been on the political agenda before. In the 1990s there were serious proposals to elect representatives of the Irish abroad to the Seanad, in much the same way that universities hold six seats in the second house. This suggestion was never followed through, mainly on account of a split between advocates of immediate full voting rights for all emigrants and those who saw the Seanad as a first step towards this broader goal.

More recently a mandate to prepare a proposal to allow the Irish abroad to vote in presidential election was included in the current coalition’s Programme for Government. But this proposition was not followed through.

Opponents of extending the franchise to the Irish abroad have raised numerous objections: Who would qualify to vote? Would everyone of Irish descent be eligible? And what about Northern Ireland? Would Irish citizens there be included?

Bowden thinks these concerns, while valid, are overplayed. ‘The way to resolve these problems is not to say that no one can vote. We need to sit down and figure out a fair, workable system.

‘We ask so much of the Diaspora yet we don’t even give them a vote. It’s shameful’.

Time for a Default?

“There is no reason why Ireland should trigger an IMF or EU-type bailout”, Irish Minister of State for Europe, Dick Roche, told the Today program on BBC Radio 4 this morning. But despite such government protestations, the scale of Ireland’s sovereign debt crisis is such that it seems only a matter of when, not if, the country requests a bail out. Indeed it could happen as early as 5pm this evening.

But is a bail-out such a bad thing? Not if it leads to much needed debt restructuring – or even a full default – it isn’t.

Last week German chancellor Angela Merkel said that bondholders to troubled countries would need to share the pain. Remarkably Irish premier Brian Cowen called Merkel’s comments ‘‘not helpful’’ – but the reality is that Ireland should accept its debts cannot be repaid in full and take the opportunity to make a strong deal for debt restructuring from a position of at least reasonable strength.

And Britain should do the same.

Currently our banks are exposed to zero risk, as the state is using the tax payer to insure against any risk. This is a morally – and economically – wrong situation.

Why reward those who lent recklessly to our banks? Why cripple a country with generations worth of debt?

As more and more people lose their jobs, fall into arrears in their mortgages and begin to repudiate their personal debt the social stigma around defaulting on debts seems certain to change. Many of these bad loans were made in bad faith, and it is the huge cost of shoring up the financial markets – in the UK, Europe and around the world – that has provided the economic (if not the ideological) rationale for austerity.

So what’s the answer? Well fair debt restructuring would be a start, negotiating a reasonable pay off with creditors rather than maintaining the fallacy that all creditors will be paid off in full.

Indeed there is even a strong case to be made for – whisper it – repuditating sovereign debt completely. Look at Iceland, as Irish economist David McWilliams did in a newspaper column a few weeks back. Here our troubled Nordic neighbour defaulted on its debts, closed its banks, and allowed its currency to fall. The result? Lower bond rates than Ireland and a serious increase in quality of life for ordinary Icelanders.

Maybe the difference between Iceland and Ireland really is one letter and six months after all.

Campaign for Spending Increases Starts Here (A Hack Gets Political!)

Journalists are supposed to stay well away from Politics (and the capital ‘P’ is no typo). The fourth estate’s putative duty is to ask awkward questions, to speak truth to power, to avoid political biases, etc. etc….

But what happens when a cynical hack wakes up one morning and realises that the government he lives under is passing off myths and rumours as truth? That the country he lives in is about to be torn asunder not in the best interests of the people but for the sake of ideology?

Spending cuts are not inevitable, and what’s more they will destroy the livelihoods and futures of millions. This is a journalist making a statement of fact that can be supported by evidence (some of it below) but it is also a concerned citizen waking up and smelling the coffee.

The time has come for me, and you, to cross the Rubicon, to openly question the economic orthodoxy that threatens to decimate the UK. We need to make a political stand, many of us for the first time in our lives, before Britain cuts itself back into the 1930s.

On October 20 Chancellor George Osborne set out proposals to cut government spending by some £81 billion in the next four years. Osborne said that only such drastic spending cuts would bring Britain back ‘from the brink’. But is this really true?

Well, almost every non-aligned economist (those not in the pay of think tanks, government or pressure groups) disagrees.

David Blanchflower, a former member of the Bank of England’s Monetary Policy Committee, describes the cuts as ‘unnecessary, misguided, doctrinaire’. Paul Krugman, winner of the 2008 Nobel Prize for Economics, has warned that, ‘the best guess is that Britain in 2011 will look like Britain in 1931, or the United States in 1937, or Japan in 1997. That is, premature fiscal austerity will lead to a renewed economic slump’. Leading UK economist George Irvin calls the Chancellor’s argument ‘a mixture of fact and myth’.

The economic case against cuts is manifold, but arguably the most important point is that for vast swathes of the population the economic crisis that began on Wall Street in late 2007 is nowhere near over.

Unemployment is already increasing across most of the UK (only the Conservative heartland of south-east England bucks the trend). With joblessness on the rise, what has our government decided to? Why, cut two million public sector jobs – directly and indirectly – of course.

Osborne’s argument that the private sector will simply ‘grow’ to fill the gap left by government is totally unproven and goes against the advice of everyone from the OECD and the IMF to the think-tank Compass, who have said that, ‘the government’s hope is that this will come about by simply creating ‘space’ for private initiative. It has an agenda for cuts but not for growth’.

Meanwhile, house prices are still far below pre-crash levels, economic growth hovers below the developed world average and is expected to fall in the next quarter.

So why are the coalition carrying out these savage cuts? Their answer is that without cutting the country’s budget deficit bond markets will lose faith in the UK’s ability to pay back its loans and interest rates on government borrowing will rocket to uncontrollable levels.

All available evidence suggests the exact opposite. Those countries that have radically cut public spending – Ireland, Greece – have seen their interest rates go through the roof, while those who have resisted the urge to self-flagellate have been rewarded with interest rates around 3 per cent. (Last week the yield on Irish government debt hit a record high of 7.19% after the government announced a further €15 billion cut in spending.)

Bond markets do not reward reckless deficit cutting: it radically erodes a country’s tax base (as Ireland is finding out) and leaves a massive black hole in tax receipts, both now and in the future.

Paul Krugman called it right when he recently described economic policy makers as ‘like the priesthood of some barbaric cult, demanding sacrifices in the names of invisible gods’. These ‘invisible gods’ are global financial markets, the ‘sacrifices’ gargantuan spending cuts.

If we no longer believe in pagan ritual, why are prostrating ourselves before an altar constructed out of smoke and mirrors?

Of course, economics does not easily set the blood racing. The dismal science is too often presented in opaque, jargon-filled prose that most are unwilling – or unable – to engage with. However, instead of accepting the cuts as ‘inevitable’ and the ‘only option’, the economic arguments against the cuts need to be presented as clearly as possible. When they are the holes and fallacies are all-too-clear.

Many economists agree the only way out of the black hole that we are in is sustained, massive increases in government spending. Not quantitative easing but government spending on capital and non-capital projects. This will produce employment, tax revenue and growth. Only then can we talk about deficit reduction.

But economics is not the only reason to oppose the proposed spending cuts.

Walk through any Scottish town today and you will see boarded up units on the high street, pass streams of jobless young men and women. Scotland, and many other parts of the UK, needs investment: imagine what these towns and communities will be like after five years of continuous disinvestment? What it will be like for a generation to grow up into unemployment? As many vital services are either pared back to the bone or cut altogether, the social glue that keeps the nation together will be pulled apart, inducing a downward spiral of poverty, crime and drugs.

Opposing spending cuts is not a matter of left or right. Wanting to stop our leaders’ grotesque experiment in political economy is not about socialism or capitalism: It is about our own, and everyone else’s, right to a reasonable future.

There are plenty of oppositional politics out there – as the endless reams of flyers and inky, black and red posters attests – but this cause is different. It is precisely this difference that means we must make the case against cuts and in favour of stimulus spending as cogently, as forcefully, and as creatively as possible.

Instead of shouting ‘down with this sort of thing’ we will explain to people the economic argument against deficit reduction in a language everyone can understand. But we also need to organise, to be bright, to be new, and to appeal across classes and affiliations.

I am still not exactly sure what I am proposing but it might go something like this: a broad-based campaign, involving everyone from pensioners and community groups to students and parents. This campaign will take the argument in favour of increased government spending right into the public domain, publishing economic data in pamphlets and online, and arguing our case in the media and elsewhere.

Of course mobilisation is vital, too. Old-school street protests and demos have their place but for this campaign to work we need to move beyond the tried and the tired. We need to be creative, to get our message across in a clever, innovative, and unpredictable fashion, from inventive PR stunts one day to reasoned public debates the next.

The time has come for all of us to take what belongs to us all – our future. If you want to call this a Tea Party go ahead, but this is not about getting ridding of government per se – government is the only way out of this mess – but changing government policy.

We already have the support of several leading UK economists, why don’t you come onboard, too?

This is probably the first considered, overtly political act in my life: I am calling on anyone reading this to help start something new, to imagine a better way. If it all sounds incredibly idealistic for a hack on a Monday afternoon, well it is, but if this is something you think you want to get involved in (and why wouldn’t you?) drop me an email, get in touch or follow me on Twitter (@PeterKGeoghegan).

Spread the word, the cuts may be coming but we are too.