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Dust. Settled. Go Scotland: a 7 item to-do list

For two years up to September the country was in fever pitch with friends, colleagues, families and strangers debating and cajoling each other on every issue we have.  It was all encompassing and it was fascinating – but ultimately it was leading up to answering a binary question.

After we got our answer on September 19th the pieces made their moves.  Two party leaders resigned.  A key leader of the No campaign, Gordon Brown, then announced his intention not to return to Westminster.  And inside of two months the Smith Commission met, argued, and agreed limited new powers for the Scottish Parliament.  It has been quite a storm.

Scotland remains in political ferment. But the dust is starting to settle.

Politics in Scotland is complicated again, but not everyone has yet come to terms with that change.  Independence, the issue that changed everything, is still the number political issue on the street.  But many people have jumped into the ferment for other reasons: to alleviate poverty, to strengthen their communities, to stop fracking, to start talking to one another, to stop austerity and to grow alternatives.

The two biggest game changers are now on their way to settling: we have a new First Minister and a new agreement on powers for the Scottish Parliament.  Soon we’ll also know the Leader of Scottish Labour.

We know enough to get organised again.  What can we do?

Many things are vital.  Some of these things are especially vital right now.  The following is a list of things Scotland needs to do right now.

1. Nationalise our railways

“The power will be devolved to the Scottish Government to allow public sector operators to bid for rail franchises funded and specified by Scottish Ministers.”, p.21, Smith Commission report.

Well?  What are we waiting for?

Public support for renationalising the railways is historically high and considerable anger is mounting over the East Coast sell off, due this Spring.  This is the perfect time to reclaim the railways.

The Green alternative is not just about reversing the past. Public transport in public hands has been working effectively since privatisation including the Glasgow subway and the Edinburgh buses.  But we can go further.  Public transport is a basic need for many people: so why not make it free?

Who to talk to?

2. Champion the welfare state

Labour and the Conservatives are trying to out-do each other about who can make the biggest cuts.  Among other pledges, Labour have promised to scrap welfare for the under 25s.  Conservative plans will lead to “colossal” cuts, according to the IFS yesterday.  The 2015 General Election will be the first chance we’ve had to vote for an alternative for the UK.

The contract for work capability assessments is to be auctioned off in early 2015 following ATOS’ early termination. Labour say they want to “reform Work Capability Assessments to help more disabled people into work“(1).  But these assessments weren’t just mismanaged: they are plain wrong.

A small proportion of powers over welfare are to be devolved to Scotland.  These will allow the SNP to block things like the bedroom tax, but their overall impact may not be big.

Welfare is our vital infrastructure for a functioning society, as Adam Ramsay puts it.  We need the Scottish Government to know we’re watching how new powers will be used and we must join up with groups across the UK to defend the welfare we have.

We have positive stories to tell.  Greens have campaigned successfully to stop workfare and the bedroom tax in Scotland.  And we have a clear alternative to benefit cuts and means testing: a universal basic income.  This is the right time to talk about it.

Who to talk to?

3. Stop TTIP

A truly European-wide campaign has been born this year against two dangerous trade treaties which will codify new rights for US and Canadian corporations over UK markets. The NHS being exempted from TTIP is not enough – the treaty must be stopped.  Nicola Sturgeon has signalled some concerns about TTIP.  In 2015 it will either be signed or torn up.  Scotland could lead the opposition.

Who to talk to?

4. Tax the rich

At a time of austerity the UK Government’s response has been to cut taxes for wealthy people and wealthy companies.  In the first years of the Coalition UK Uncut did a brilliant job of reminding people what austerity was all about: we need to resurrect their energy and make redistributive taxation part of the debate in the 2015 General Election.

The Scottish Parliament is to receive new powers over income tax.  Although, as Iain Macwhirter points out, there isn’t much money to be raised from changing these rates, it is crucial that the SNP rethinks its low tax approach.  Corporation tax cuts, a key plank of the Independence White Paper and a continuing theme of Conservative Government, need to be clearly opposed.

Nicola Sturgeon has chosen to make land reform a key issue of her new leadership.  We need to make tax part of the debate: aspirations to redistribute land would clearly be advanced with a land value tax.  This is a solid green idea that also responds to another question raised by the Scottish Government: how to replace the council tax.

Who to talk to?

5. Defend migrants

The London media have set the stage for the 2015 General Election and Nigel Farage will be their leading star.  Immigrants are already getting the blame for most of society’s ills but never in our lifetime has a general election campaign had immigration as the central issue.  The SNP will claim they are pro-immigration by rejecting Labour and Conservative policies: that is not good enough.  We need a just and welcoming Scotland, to show that Scotland and the world would be better off if we opened our borders.

Who to talk to:

6. Stop fracking and unconventional gas

Scotland is facing an especially dirty wave of new mining.  Unconventional gas drilling, including shale, coal bed methane (CBM), and underground coal gasification, using new techniques such as fracking are on their way.  They have developed slower in Scotland having been met with caution from the Scottish Government but their time is coming: Ineos announced plans last month to bid for new drilling licences in central Scotland; there are new plans to get gas from lighting coal seems; and the enquiry on CBM in Airth will report in the Spring.

New powers are now due from the Smith Commission which said:

“the licensing of onshore oil and gas extraction underlying Scotland [and] responsibility for mineral access rights for underground onshore extraction of oil and gas in Scotland will be devolved to the Scottish Parliament.” p.21, Smith Commission report.

These powers could be used to stop extreme energy technologies but this will only happen if we get organised – now.

The Green alternative is clear: a green new deal with jobs from clean, locally-owned renewables and energy efficiency improvements to stop fuel poverty.

Who to talk to:

7. Discuss, critique, plan, prepare and join in

There has never been a better time to be organised in Scotland. There are some suggestions about places to start in the paragraphs above.  Here are some more:

Many people were brought into the conversation around remaking Scotland in the context of the referendum.  Today’s politics need to be different.  A yes vote is not coming our way to answer all our problems.  The new Scotland is so much more interesting than that.

We need to take the time to be critical of the SNP’s proposals for independence and build long term support for a more radical, coherent vision of change in this country – on currency, on energy, on tax, to name but a few examples.

Through radical action that’s needed now, and debating our vision for what’s next, we will become better organised than ever to build a just Scotland.

At the Radical Independence Conference in October 2013 Leslie Riddoch said Scotland was a socially democratic cat-in-the-bag, and it was time to open the bag.  A lot has changed in these 13 months.  Perhaps the cat could pop out for an adventure?


Extra!

It’s been pointed out that this is also a very good time to be getting active on housing in Scotland, with a consultation on Scottish Government reforms out and support from Labour for some private rent controls.  There’s more info at the Living Rent Campaign.

References

(1) October 29, Kate Green MP, Labour’s Shadow Minister for Disabled People.

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Hope as Resistance: 16 Pictures of Dissent to World War One

The last surviving British veteran of the First World War, Harry Patch, died in 2009.  With him dies the collective memory of a generation that fought, resisted, endured and dreamed.

Living memory is a powerful thing.  It can assert itself in ways the dead cannot.  Patch himself met Tony Blair.   He told him “war is organised murder” (1).

Now he sleeps, the experience of his generation are up for grabs: a quote for a statue, an artefact for a museum, a sound-bite for a speech.  With their voices gone, our leaders are free to resurrect the same old lie: it is sweet and honourable it is to die for one’s country.

Yet we can all be custodians of their memory and we can all reclaim history.  When the Government announced a year of “celebrations” to mark the start of the First World War, some of us started a radical history project to uncover more about the War to End All Wars.  Here is a picture of what we have found so far.

Britain’s entry to the First World War was opposed by many, including the then Labour Party under Keir Hardie, pictured here speaking in Trafalgar Square, 2 August, the day before Germany declared war on France. Image: Magnoliabox.

Entry to the war was opposed by campaigners in the Central Powers too.  A 1914 Hungarian Social Democratic Party poster calls for the people of Budapest to “march against the horrors of war”. Image: “Posters: A Concise History” Thames and Hudson.

Britain entered the war having learnt total brutality from its imperial adventures.  Prior to the new European War the British Army’s most recent experience of large-scale combat was in South Africa, where Field Marshal Kitchener pioneered a scorched earth policy and the use of concentration camps against civilians.  Lizzie van Zyl (pictured) died in British custody in the Boer War, aged 7.  Image: Wikimedia.

After early advances and retreat the Western Front moved only a few miles between Winter 1914 and Spring 1918.  Allied tactics insisted on repeated pushes into German lines totally fortified far beyond the front lines.  Advance through such fortifications was near-impossible.  Allied Trench maps show the detail of understanding of the futility of these advances.  Image: National Library of Scotland.

German use of gas on the war field was frequently used to make the case for continued British sacrifice.  Yet chemical weapons were adopted by all sides and allied chemical attacks caused 300,000 causalities.  Winston Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty during the war reflected in 1919 “I am strongly in favour of using poisoned gas against uncivilised tribes. The moral effect should be so good that the loss of life should be reduced to a minimum.” Image: Wikimedia.

On the home front white feathers were distributed to shame men who has chosen not enlist.  Official poster campaigns asked ‘what will you answer when your children grow up and say “father, weren’t you a soldier too?”‘.  Conscientious objectors, promised some rights as part of the Conscription Act, were persecuted.  Image: National Library of Scotland.

On Christmas Day 1914 many battle lines went quiet and, in places troops left their positions, climbed into no-man’s land, and shook hands with their opponents.  Some played cards, some drank together, some sang together.  Near the town of Ypres a football match was held (which German troops won 2-1).  To mark the centenary of the match the English Premier League is funding for a new pitch for local clubs in Ypres, Belgium.  In subsequent years of the war such meetings were banned.  Image: Wikipedia.

In 1916 1,200 women from Britain, Germany, Austria-Hungary, Italy, Poland, Belgium and the United States met in the Hague to campaign to stop the war.   This photo shows the American delegation.  The International Congress of Women plotted an alternative, non-violent form of conflict resolution and demanded mediation and peace.  Image: Swarthmore College Peace Collection.

The British front line in Dublin.  In 1916 British troops were sent in to crush the proclamation of the Republic of Ireland in the Easter Rising.  The rebellion was over in five days with 466 killed. Image: Wikimedia.

Unrest was rife elsewhere at home.  Three years after the Easter Rising tanks were sent in to the ‘Battle of George Square‘ in Glasgow when 60,000 rent and wage strikers took to the streets demanding better conditions. Image: Wikimedia.

Organised resistance took its toll on both warring sides. As Paul Mason recalls in October 1918 German workers and soldiers organised to bring down their own army, shutting down factories, the navy, and eventually taking Berlin.  Organised workers began a German revolution making continued fighting impossible.  On 9 November the Kaiser was forced to abdicate ending the First World War. Banner readers “no war”. Image: Libcom.

With hope for internationalism President Atatürk of Turkey told the families of the Allied dead of Gallipoli “your sons are now lying in our bosom and are in peace. After having lost their lives on this land they have become our sons as well.”  His words are recorded in a memorial at Anzac Parade, Canberra, Australia. Image: Flickr.

How many lost their lives? Many more than we care to remember.  In 2014 responding to calls for the extension of the Tower of London’s installation of ceramic poppies (marking British fatalities), the Quakers mapped how much of central London would be covered if all the war dead were commemorated in this way. Image: Quakers/Google Maps.

Flags_of_the_British_Empire_in_Africa

Was all of this sacrifice made for the liberty of plucky Belgium?  A legacy of the First World War was the beginning of 96 years of decline of the British Empire – but territorially it was a huge victory for the allies.  By the end of the war Britain had gained control of modern day Iraq, Kuwait, Jordan, Palestine/Israel, Namibia, Tanzania, Cameroon, Togo, and Papua New Guinea. Images: atlasofbritempire.com

The Third Battle of Ypres, also known as the Battle of Passchendaele, was one of the deadliest battles in history.  70% of the dead, 35,000 men, were never found: their bodies sinking into the mud.  Image: Wikimedia.

In 1919 Paul Nash records the desolation at Ypres with awesome precision in his painting “The Menin Road” (click to view).

95 years on the British Prime Minister David Cameron stands in front of Nash’s picture to announce a year of “celebrations” to mark the start of the first world war.

Now they are dead the memories of the First World War generation belong to us.  Don’t let the Government take them over.

 

References and further reading

  1. No Glory: the Real History of the First World War (pamphlet). Neil Faulkner. Stop the War Coalition, 2014.  Available from here.
  2. To End All Wars (book). Adam Hochschild. Macmillan, 2011.
  3. Opposing World War One: Courage and Conscience (pamphlet).  Fellowship of Reconciliation, Pax Christi, Peace Pledge Union, Quakers and the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, 2013. Free download here.
  4. No More War (website), Peace Pledge Union project for 2014-18.

Postscript

Other great projects I’ve been made aware of are the White Feather Diaries (http://www.whitefeatherdiaries.org.uk/) and Campaign Against the Arms Trade’s “Arming All Sides” project (http://armingallsides.on-the-record.org.uk/).  Both arms profiteering and conscientious objectors are ill-covered by this piece and should be revisited.

The quote from the the Prime Minister is from his IWM speech which you can read here.  In the speech he says:

“Our ambition is a truly national commemoration, worth of this historic centenary. I want a commemoration that captures our national spirit, in every corner of the country, from our schools to our workplaces, to our town halls and local communities. A commemoration that, like the Diamond Jubilee celebrated this year, says something about who we are as a people.”

The use of the word celebration here, alongside the direct comparison with the Jubilee, which was intended after all to be a big national party, is surely deeply inappropriate.

I was also sad to learn that the MP overseeing these commemorations, Andrew Murrison, is debating at Exeter University on Friday in favour of the motion “This house believes that World War One was a great British victory.”

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Crisis in the Scottish media: finding the phoenix

The Scottish media is in crisis.

Except for the Sunday Herald (exceptional for other reasons too) every national newspaper has seen dramatic falls in circulation in recent years. They have become machines for reprinting corporate and political press releases, stripped of journalistic resource and critical analysis.

BBC Scotland has been under relentless attack, quietly from unionists, and very publicly from Yes campaigners this year, and it’s not going away. Hundreds on Twitter have pledged to cancel their licences over perceived bias and misreporting.

This is to say nothing of the scandals that have rocked the media UK-wide and the embarrassment of the Levenson enquiry.

The credibility of the mainstream of Scottish media has rarely been so low. They are trusted by perhaps fewer people than every before.

The last year has of course been one of success for alternative media sources, including pro-Yes blogs such as Bella Caledonia and National Collective.

Much is also said of the role of social media. A new world of citizen journalism where Twitter lets everyone report what they’ve just seen or just thought, which everyone can read, anytime anywhere. In this world the morning news in print is already long out of date. If a a week used to be a long time in politics, a day often now seems like an age.

What does this new world pay to meaning, investigation, professionalism or verification? Not much. Barely anything is kept and recorded. The ephemeral is all, substance and reputation are cast aside. And the money and resource to fund our media keeps falling.

Must we choose between a dying bloated dinosaur and a swarm of flies?

Of course we mustn’t. In fact it is an imperative that in this hour, right now, we get to work on building a media that is fitting of a democratic country.

Robin McAlpin (Common Weal), Dom Hinde (Post Mag), and Sarah Beattie-Smith (Bright Green) discussed these problems and offered their ideas for the future at the 18th Independence and Radical Bookfare in Edinburgh on Saturday.

Book festival panel.

The Edinburgh Radical Bookfare on Saturday with Sarah Beattie-Smith, Robin McAlpine, Dom Hinde. Image: Alys Mumford.

They charted the dire state of our print media, with rumours of 50% job cuts coming at the Scotsman following years and years of decline for the paper, mirrored by the Herald’s similar decline.

We heard of the sad loss of organised radical media such as IndyMedia and Schnews.

We heard of the frustration of the public in the referendum debate, unable to find a source of information that gave them the honest news they needed (Sarah told us about a taxi driver who said he watched three news programmes every day but still didn’t feel he had enough information to vote for independence).

We heard of the rise of new blogs in distributing comment and opinion, and equally their inability to provide news and investigation, something only professionals can do sustainably, and is sorely needed – Robin McAlpine said there were now around 1.5 full-time investigative journalists in Scotland.

We also heard that there is no media business model out there which is working in the 21st century.

Where do we go from here?

These are exciting, fractious and tectonic times.  Something must rise from the ashes.  But what?

A number of organisational structures were proposed. Dom Hinde was interested in creating a new media group in Scotland as a not-for-profit trust, similar to the Guardian in England.

Robin McAlpine appears to be thinking along the same lines, but his primary concern was to focus on news. He announced that the Common Weal is creating a new media platform called “Common Space”. The core of the project will be the employment of 4 full-time staff who will write and research “the news stories which are currently being ignored”: on radical, non-party, politics, economic and social policy, poverty, alienation, and new forms of organising.

Bella Caledonia (whose Director Mike Small was speaking later at the festival) have announced a new role in media training.   Common Weal and Bella Caledonia have also announced many other, sometimes overlapping, proposals and plans (click the links to read them).

The Scottish Green Party is currently gathering ideas for a new cultural policy which surely must consider the role of the media.

It could include big ideas like devolving the BBC, setting up a government voucher scheme for media, and finding public money to fund journalists, rather than newspapers, also discussed by the panel.

Sarah Beattie-Smith reminded us of the gains to be made by working within existing mainstream – in the last two weeks BBC Radio Scotland and TV’s Scotland 2014 have had seven Radical Independence and Green Party spokespeople on different days.

And what of the tradition of the objective journalist? Robin was unequivocal: “objectivity is dead. No honest journalist can pretend they’re neutral. Instead we need to be honest about where we’re coming from.”

Where does this leave Bright Green?

In the next few weeks we’ll be unveiling our bright new editorial team, a new design and designers, a new manifesto document, and much more and varied content – including news straight from the social movements we are a part of.

It’s just a small part of making a better media. What do you think?

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What Scotland Looks Like Now

After the Referendum: A Gazetteer for Scottish NGOs

For Scottish civil society two weeks ago was day zero of our political calendar. Two weeks later the impact of the referendum campaign and the result is becoming clearer. The result has set the platform for political campaigning in Scotland for years to come. We need to understand what’s happening and be prepared for what’s coming.

With this in mind this is a brief summary of events and analysis, designed to give a big picture of where we stand and where we’re going.

Seven key issues

There are a number of key issues which for the next while will be the top things to consider in Scottish politics:

#1. New loud civil society voices whose direction of travel is no longer clear. Many influential new groups which sprung up during the referendum are continuing, including:

  • Common Weal have had around 1,000 people offer help after the vote, according to one staff member. They are building support for “a network of venues across Scotland; cafe bars where the movement can meet, discuss and organise”; a new social media engine called “CommonSpace” to allow people to “get easy access to the best writing and thinking”; and a “Common Weal Policy Unit to do research, policy development and analysis” (presumably taking this role away from the Jimmy Reid Foundation) which may include a paid lobbyist at the Scottish Parliament. Their “National Council for Scotland” project, which was about gathering varied voices for a Scottish constitution and was supported by various key Yes voices, appears to have been shelved.
  • The Radical Independence Campaign (RIC) has had huge post-vote support including over 7,000 people expressing interest in their November conference (see Civil society events planned so far), and are set to continue in some form. They still count key activists from the Scottish Green Party, Scottish Socialist Party and International Socialist Group in their leadership. Perhaps related to this they have not agreed to become a new political party, despite murmurings.
  • National Collective, the artists for Yes group, will be continuing “the Yes campaign’s legacy of a politically engaged and educated electorate, regardless of the result.” Full details will come shortly and they’ve been having lots of busy meetings.
  • So Say Scotland, a deliberative democracy project which held events asking people to discuss their priorities for a better Scotland, is continuing. They had previously said that “regardless of the results of the referendum this September, So Say Scotland will continue to build its networks across the country [to make] Scotland a global hub for democratic innovation.”
  • Bella Caledonia, a blog website led by Mike Small, as with Common Weal are planning to expand their blog into a full media website with a full-time editor and “six editorial posts in the following areas: international, community, arts, innovation, social justice and ecology”. They are also planning to create “regular Video News Coverage”, “Citizens Journalism Training”, and a print magazine “Closer”.
  • 45+ is a very loose grouping of Yes voters keen to continue the#3. Forthcoming elections. campaign for independence immediately. They lack support from other major groups but are likely to continue their street campaign and will be putting pressure on the SNP to offer another referendum. The name of the group, among other things, has met criticism (e.g. Rich Shore). Some of their events are collected here.

#2. Huge upsurge in “Yes” party membership.

  • The SNP have had a huge upsurge in membership. With 75,000 members they are now the third largest political party in the UK, far surpassing the Liberal Democrats, and have members of more than 1% of the Scottish population.
  • Scottish Greens have gained 4,000 members in the last two weeks bringing their total membership to over 6,000. Individual branches in Glasgow and Edinburgh now have more members than the entire party had going in to 2014 and they are now the clearly the fourth party in Scotland by membership.
  • Conservatives, UKIP and Labour have made no claims about increased membership. The Lib Dems reported minor increases in membership earlier in the year UK-wide. It’s fair to assume not much has changed for the “no” parties, else they’d be telling us if it had.
  • There is a considerable amount of chatter about the dire state of support for Labour in Scotland, centred around suspicion that Labour voters who voted Yes have been put off by the negative aspects of the Better Together campaign and will fund it hard to vote for Labour in the future. Here’s a hypothesis (Adam Ramsay) and a rebuttal (Mark Ballard) about their prospects for Westminster elections in 2015.

#3. Forthcoming elections. The full impact of these membership and activist upsurges on parliamentary politics will not be clear until the next Scottish Parliament elections (in 2016), where proportional representation will give us a decent idea of how these new members are getting votes. Westminster elections in Spring 2015 are hard to read. Since the formation of the Scottish Parliament in 1999 the SNP, Greens and socialists have not used Westminster as a major point of mobilisation. The introduction of new Yes and left wing activists, battle hardened from the referendum campaign, to a Westminster election could be very significant. And then of course there’s the possibility of an EU referendum, promised to us by the Conservatives (and UKIP), who may have some chance of forming a majority in Westminster next year.

#4. The SNP leadership. The First Minister, Alex Salmond, has resigned, and Nicola Sturgeon seems likely to take his place. There will be internal elections including for deputy leader, and there will be much discussion of changes in direction. Stewart Hosie MP and Keith Brown MSP (backed by, amongst others, Humza Yousaf MSP) have announced their candidacy for Deputy Leader. It’s worth noting that if elected Sturgeon would not only be the first woman First Minister, she would make the Lib Dems the only Parliamentary party in Scotland without a woman leader.

#5. The Smith Commission is tasked with triangulating Labour, Conservative and Lib Dem policy on constitutional reform to recommend new powers for the Scottish Parliament before the 2015 UK elections. In the referendum campaign these policies were outlined as including new powers to vary tax and benefit rates and to borrow and today it was suggested that these powers will be fully available by 2017. Civil Society has been invited to contribute to the Smith Commission by the end of October, and groups including NIDOS and Stop Climate Chaos Scotland have suggested they will input. There is considering public scepticism about the process fuelled by UK Government proposals to link the reforms with “English Votes for English Laws” in Westminster (there are a number of constitutional problems this would raise) and things have already gotten messy with Gordon Brown accusing David Cameron of trying to hijack the process. This debate could spurn more serious discussion about federalism in the UK and the creation of a new English Parliament – a “constitutional chain reaction”, as Eve Hepburn puts it – watch this space. The Electoral Reform Society’s “Democracy Max” project may provide some useful ideas.

#6. Iraq War III. David Cameron has admitted he held off a vote about re-invading Iraq until after the referendum vote for fear of jeopardising the result. The bombers have been sent in and we’re told they’re likely to be there for the long haul. This is likely to be a recurring issue for campaigners and could be a major point of mobilisation (see Civil society events planned so far).

#7. Austerity… and another referendum. It seems likely that there will be another referendum on independence within the next decade. A generation has now taken independence seriously, even if they didn’t vote for it, and many will view the events of the years to come through the following lens: “I wonder how things might have been different if we’d gone for yes?” Promises of further cuts by all three big Westminster parties are likely to bolster SNP support and drive the idea that “Scottish politics is different”. As Gerry Hassan says “The British state has bought itself some precious time. If it does not use it wisely, this debate will be back in a decade and Scotland will produce a second referendum rather different from the first.”

If we take the likelihood of another referendum seriously NGOs should start thinking, albeit quietly, about how we want to position ourselves in such a vote. More cautious organisations may reflect on the gains made by the likes of the Scottish Refugee Council and CND who, although didn’t get their preferred outcome, won a lot of public support from their engagement in the debate.

So that’s the political landscape. With all this going on we will have to fight hard to get airtime for TTIP, fracking, UN climate talks, and other thorny Thorn House issues.

Further reading

Some interesting thoughts on related topics from the last two weeks.

Civil society events planned so far

  • Sat 4 Oct, Glasgow
    Stop the War March, Stop the War Coalition
  • Sun 5 Oct, Edinburgh
    Global Justice / Open Space, Edinburgh (World Development Movement, NIDOS, Jubilee Scotland, People & Planet)
  • Tue 7 Oct, Edinburgh
    Post Referendum: A New Scottish Democracy?
  • 30 Sep – 20 Oct, Edinburgh
    Edinburgh World Justice Festival
  • 11-12 Oct, Edinburgh
    Scottish Green Party Conference,. Greens annual meeting in Edinburgh. Conference booking for fringe meetings now open. Branch meetings also happening. “The Scottish Green party reported a parallel surge in membership, with 3,000 supporters joining since Friday.” (Guardian)
  • 23 Oct, Edinburgh
    NIDOS AGM and Annual Conference, “The Path Ahead”, Festival Theatre.
  • 13-15 Nov, Perth
    SNP Conference 13-15 November, Perth. “More than 18,000 people joined the party since Thursday, lifting its overall membership to a record level of 43,644.” (Guardian)
  • 20 Nov, Glasgow
    Third Sector Summit,. SCVO.
  • 22 Nov, Glasgow
    Radical Independence third annual conference,. Venue tbc due to level of interest. Over 7,000 people planning to attend on facebook! Also meeting regularly in local branches.
  • 23 Nov, Edinburgh
    Activist Skills Share with the World Development Movement, People & Planet, Friends of the Earth Scotland, Jubilee Scotland and friends.
  • Lots of local meetings for post-Yes/”We are the 45” groups (see here)

Ric Lander
askriclander@gmail.com
www.riclander.wordpress.com

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Every Day’s Election Day: Referendum Blogs

10AM

The spoils of 308 years of struggle

Last night, referendum eve, I was at a local Greenpeace talk with Benny Wenda, exiled West Papuan leader, speaking to our little crowd of 15 or so about how he escaped his Indonesian Jail, ran for two weeks to the border, and escaped using a fake passport to Britain. Benny has been fighting for his people’s freedom from the oppression of the Indonesian government and European mining companies, watching from a distance while activist after activist has been murdered. They have given up their lives for one cause: for West Papua to have a referendum on independence.

It certainly put things in context.

After the meeting I left out onto the Grassmarket. This part of the Old Town looks its most mediaeval in the mist, and there was thick fog last night. I was reminded of the violent mob of Edinburghers who roamed the streets some 308 years ago, seeking the meeting of MPs where the Treaty of Union was being ratified. At the end of the way, on the spot where prisoners at the time were executed by hanging, a group of folk in matching red t-shirts were chanting at passers by, something like “please vote no”, in an aggressive tone. Perhaps tonight had echoes of history? As I got closer I realised the mixture of fog and political fever had played a trick on me: this was not a NO THANKS mob: Napier University freshers students were chanting “drink the shoe, drink the shoe”.

Whilst utterly historic, this is an independence referendum apart. No blood-loss, no struggle. And a lot less nationalism than outsiders might expect. This has not been a battle of Britain vs. Scotland, Union Flag vs. Saltire, and anyone who sees this is viewing conveniences and missing joyful subtleties. The Police even intervened this week to tell us all just how civil this debate has been.

As I climbed the cobbles along mostly quiet streets, all passers by were discussing politics in bright terms, despite the dark and the weather. Phrases like “written constitution” and “tax reform”. Not an ordinary night.

I passed Parliament Square and Moray House, rumoured site of the secret signing of the aforementioned Treaty. I thought of all the people who devoted their lives to give the people their due rights. 18Th century reformers like the Edinburgh Society of the Friends of the People exiled to Australia, and the chartists, the suffragettes, and those who campaigned for Scotland’s parliament.

As Justin Kenrick points out no matter how we vote today we continue this historic tradition. We will be the first people to have the chance to vote on what was signed 308 years ago. And in doing so we will create a new Scotland: a country which, joined to the UK or not, has the approval of its people.

What a privilege we inherit, that after all this struggle we may put a cross in a box.

Tomorrow we must honour this inheritance. In West Papua, in Scotland, and across the world, the fight continues.

6PM

Wow! And that was just the start!

On a sunny day two years and four months ago in a multiplex in Fountainbridge (the sort of sunny day Spring day where you’d think “this is no day to be cooped up in a cinema”) Alex Salmond, Sean Connery and celebs and politicians launched the Yes Scotland campaign. It was slick, carefully scripted, comfortable, reassuringly respectable. It was everything the campaign turned out not to be. We were not inspired.

Enter the Radical Independence Campaign. A ball of young socialist energy, RIC got organised in 2012 holding two incredible conferences in Glasgow, building support around proper, radical political ideas, registering working class voters by the thousands and galvanising a support base of confident, internationalist fighters. RIC always said that independence could just be the start. Well it’s been an amazing infancy – taking part in its blossoming promises to be something incredible. We’re seeing the rise of an organised left in Scotland. It’s been a while.

So many wonderful ideas have come to print over this campaign. Blogs have positively buzzed with brilliant radical discussion from all political hues. Writers and journalists have given us much to cherish, mentioning Lesley Riddoch, Gerry Hassan, and Iain Macwhirter to name but a few.

The Jimmy Reid Foundation, now at the brink of a split (or more accurately, a productive explosion) over the referendum, has provided much needed clarity of purpose. Their Common Weal project is the closest thing we have to a manifesto for a better politics, and is an essential contribution to Scottish political discussion no matter what happens in the vote. We are now equipped to talk seriously about land value tax, breaking up the banks, nationalising transport, a renewal of Scottish industry, and many other crucial ideas.

And there’s the dreamers: the artists! Wow! Have you ever seen such a creative outpouring? The artists got organised in National Collective, and what a force it’s been. The Yestival tour solidified independence as a creative movement for change as well as a solidly political one. I have been amazed by the poetry, the music, the public art, the wonderful posters, badges, and murals. There has been brilliant comedy too. Art has an ability to get to the heart of an issue in a way cold text always falls short. That goes for comedy too, as the wonderful Jonny and the Baptists proved.

The Green Yes campaign has shown much needed alternative from within the elected parties. The Greens, who risked much taking on the fight despite their traditional light-green base, are now full of fresh momentum. Without the Scottish Greens there would be no voice espousing a wealthy, equitable, green powered Scotland as an alternative to the black black oil bonanza of the SNP (and most other UK parties). A party official told me yesterday they’d had 50 people join in one day. Brilliant.

I’ve had the pleasure of hearing speakers from Women for Independence, Farmers for Yes, Third Sector Yes, So Say Scotland, Christians for Yes, English Scots for Yes, and many, many other national groups and local branches of the same over the last two years.  Even my devout anarchist friends joined the campaign – and voted.

This is a genuine mass movement, of the likes we’ve not seen for a long, long time. Walking by the National Gallery yesterday I was surrounded by strangers having deep conversations about political change. In the context of history, the significance this nation-wide discussion should be fully understood to be on a par with the Putney Debates.

Today in Scotland the left is better organised, more energetic and clearer minded than it ever has been. Why?

Someone recently asked me why the AV referendum didn’t spark such excitement. I have also heard folk say “why should we need a referendum to have all of this excitement about politics”. The reason is not opaque: we were being offered meaningful change. Being given the opportunity for something different, no matter how risky or challenging it might be to bring about, was was the starting gun for this spectacular constitutional carnival.

The clarity of purpose of friends joining the campaign from elsewhere has buoyed us no end. Joe Greenwood, who campaigned with us last weekend, told us why this could change England too. To put it simply: “we have a chance to quake the British state and establishment to its core – how could we pass it up?” Along with the contributions of other rUK groups such as Red Pepper and Open Democracy, momentum is building around the idea that this could be the starting gun of England’s own renewal movement. To answer Josie Long’s call for “England to have its own referendum”, Scottish independence could yet provide the space for political imagination, so sorely needed south of the border.

So as Ken Ferguson points out in the excellent Red Pepper magazine, either way we have won. The referendum has unleashed colourful and powerful political forces which will not be contained.

We are better organised and ready to make a difference. Today turnout will be the highest in Scottish history. These new voters will not be voting for business as usual when we are next asked to elect a parliament.

We have built a movement for change that will no longer be satisfied with slick, carefully scripted, comfortable, and reassuringly respectable politics of two years ago. We are anarchic, creative, radical, powerful and utterly earth shattering and, no matter what happens tonight, we are now ready to change these islands for better.

6AM

Every day’s election day

6am. Rain and fog. Edinburgh Park and Ride. Defeat.

It’s a long way home from there.

We had just witnessed the count for the Scottish independence referendum and we lost. Unambiguously.

I had often felt it unfitting to end this two year carnival with a simple yes/no X on a slip of paper. The definition of an anti-climax. Such a process is utterly incapable of containing the hopes and dreams we have for our country.

And yet of course it did matter. A lot.

On the tram journey home we tried to talk ourselves out of despondency. Sometimes we slipped back. A tear was shed, or two. Yes posters we passed didn’t help. I had a feeling that after all the excitement someone had pressed a reset button. Back to square one. No more political imagination.

But as we chatted and pondered a clearer picture began to emerge. One of a Scottish electorate standing up to take part. One of millions of people making bold decisions. A story of people not doing what they were told, and believing in something different.

Despite folk being told that voting Yes would mean migrants being thrown out of the country, exclusion from the EU and the pound, indeed the very demise of the Scottish economy, despite all this an incredible 85% of our people voted and gave 45% their vote to starting a new state.

As the dust settles that fact will remain. And with it, Scotland is a changed place.

The many thousands of new people who took part in this election will shape our politics completely beyond recognition in the coming months and coming elections. It is vital we encourage and help them in doing so. This is a time for movement building. We need to be asking Yes voters to join a political party, join an activist group, join lot of groups. Time for holding a meeting or starting an email thread. Let’s conspire, plan, do things and with new people. The momentum can build from here. Get your favourite books and blogs back off the shelves. Find the politics we can build on with the opportunities we do have.

Constitutional reform, a renewables revolution, citizens income, land value tax, free child care, democratic local banking – all within our reach if we can stay organised and reaffirm our ties (and make new ones) with organisations across of the border.

We must be prepared for a UK General Election where all the “main” parties are pledging further austerity. With new tax powers a Scottish Parliament could block this to a point, but we’ll need all our momentum from this campaign to win.

Of course the election mattered. It was huge. It was amazing. It scared the crap out of UK politics. But as Danny Chivers puts most wonderfully “every day is election day”. We are not done yet.

Need some inspiration on what to do next? Here is just a smattering:

National Collective, Radical Independence and People & Planet are all hosting meetings in the next week to decide what to do from here on. Others will be too. Take the weekend off. Then get ready to get involved in something.

UPDATE: For more information what’s happened after the vote, read my “two weeks later” guide, here.

These blogs were originally published in three parts. You can access them in their original form through this article on Bright Green.

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Extreme Energy Inquiry begins in Scotland


Green Councillor Mark Ruskell with local community representatives and Friends of the Earth members outside the Inchyra Hotel this morning. Photo: Friends of the Earth Scotland.

The UK’s first public inquiry into unconventional gas drilling is underway in Polmont, Falkirk.

The Scottish Government called the inquiry after the troubled Australian firm Dart Energy appealed to speed up Falkirk and Stirling Councils’ planning process for their coal-bed methane drilling proposals.

The month-long process will have major ramifications for new gas drilling across Europe.  Photographers and TV crews gathered as well-wishers welcomed communities members participating in the inquiry (pictured).

Concerned Communities of Falkirk have collected objections to the proposals from 2,500 local residents.  They will submit evidence through a variety of experts, as will Falkirk and Stirling Councils, Friends of the Earth Scotland, and Dart Energy themselves.

The first session begun this morning with evidence from Dart’s own engineers.

John Spears and Andy Sloan, who admitted they expect to work on the developments if the application is approved, told the inquiry:

  • Water treatment facilities will be built with spare capacity to allow considerable expansion beyond the proposed operations.
  • Horizontal drilling already carried out at the site has taken place through un-cased shafts outwith the coal seems.
  • They were unable to say how much gas might be vented in an emergency situation.
  • One tanker a day of toxic sludge will be produced from the site.  They noted this could be reduced, but no assurances were given.

The Reporter (Chair) from the Scottish Government agreed that the closing statements alone will take two days.

While Day One of the the proceedings unfolded at the Inchyra Hotel, MSPs in Holyrood debated the current planning framework.

The Scottish Government have proposed to introduce buffer zones around onshore drilling sites to protect homes and businesses, but are yet to announce how big they will be.

Today in Parliament Claudia Beamish MSP announced Scottish Labour want these buffer zones to be 2km from drilling sites.

The inquiry continues and you can follow events in the room at #dartinquiry.

This article was originally published on Bright Greeen.

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The Green in the White Paper

What does the Independence White Paper tell us about how the environment would be protected in an independent Scotland? In one sense, not very much. The SNP’s document is a manifesto for a future election to run a state that does not yet exist. A lot of the contents is old news, and of what is new we can rightfully question the SNP’s resolve to deliver it.

However this document does bring together, for the first time, a complete vision of what the Scottish Government would do with the powers afforded to it by independence: what it would change, and what it would not.

Naturally the document focuses on areas of policy which are currently reserved, that is to say they are not currently within the power of the Scottish Government. This had led some environmentalists, who note the devolved nature of environmental regulation, transport policy and climate change legislation, to consider the referendum debate largely irrelevant. The White Paper shows this false. In fact sustainability is at the heart of the debate on Scotland’s future and this document shows us how.

Oil

The White Paper is screaming about oil, to be specific offshore oil and gas. This is neither novel or surprising given that including oil and gas revenue from Scotland’s GDP adds £5,853 per person and according to the White Paper “in excess of 90 per cent” of UK oil and gas revenues derive from Scottish waters (p.31).

The Scottish Government makes no case for reining in the industry offering “no plans to increase the overall tax burden on the oil industry” (p.18). Instead it says its tax regime will “support and incentivise production” and offer future reforms “that encourage exploration and help maximise economic recovery rates” (p.303).

An example is later given of a Norwegian policy to “reimburse the tax value of exploration costs for companies not in a tax-paying position” (p.304).

The purpose of this fresh production and exploration drive? The White Paper says it will raise revenue for a sovereign wealth fund which is invested in when prices are high, cushioning the blow of dwindling reserves and price volatility.

The document asks “is continued oil and gas production consistent with Scotland’s commitments on climate change?” “Yes.” it says. Science disagrees. On first principals we can say that as the world has five times more fossil-fuels than we can afford to burn and therefore any additional extraction is incompatible with halting global climate change. As Stuart Rodger points out in the Herald we must also wake up to Scotland’s numbers: “if 12 billion barrels of North Sea oil were to be burned this would emit 5.2 billion tonnes of CO2, dwarfing domestic efforts [to cut CO2]”. In other words, Scotland’s climate change legislation is pretty meaningless when you add in the impact of our oil.

The Scottish Government says it wants to “steward our oil and gas assets for the benefit of the nation, as well as supporting the growth of [the] industry” (p.301). It also wants to be a world leader on climate change. The problem with this approach is that sustainability and stewardship, require a sovereign wealth fund and a gradual winding down of the industry. Yet these tasks are directly at odds with the policies which seek to maximise output and create a new drive for exploration.

There is no other mention of other kinds of energy extraction in the body of the document. The word “coal” is not mentioned and onshore oil and gas is only discussed in the appendices.

What the document does say of onshore gas and fracking simply reinforces the Scottish Government current policy position: it is neither welcomed or rejected, and the updated planning policy (which includes proposed “buffer zones”) is referenced (p.513-514). Anti-extreme energy campaigners fighting new extraction from coal bed methane and fracking may be reassured that at least the Scottish Government hasn’t attempted to sideline the issue.

Electricity generation

Renewable generation of electricity, a headline SNP policy for some years, gets a lot of air time in the White Paper.

The document reaffirms the target of 100 per cent of electricity demand to be met by renewables by 2020, and a “2030 electricity decarbonisation target to achieve a carbon intensity of 50g CO2/kWh of electricity generation in Scotland.” (p.518) The caveat here of course being that you can meet domestic demand with renewables without turning off your coal-fired power stations: you just sell the high-carbon electricity to England. This is the SNP’s plan and they have gone some way to achieving it under their current devolution settlement.

The same big energy companies that are hoovering up our rising domestic bills are also the primary beneficiaries of this policy, something that local anti-wind farm campaigners have not been slow to pick up on.

As a response the Scottish Government makes its case that it is supporting community ownership by helping them to acquire assets and land (p.290) and by “developing new models of community ownership” for energy generation” (p.295).

Unfortunately any detail is lacking. Wind and tidal get a mention (p.57) but solar power, touted as an excellent solution for water heating in Scotland, appears nowhere, and district heating is also not discussed.

What of our coal and nuclear stations?

The White Paper reminds us that the “Scottish Government is opposed to the building of any new nuclear power stations in Scotland and will phase out existing stations in Scotland over time” (p.514).

As for coal and gas: “it is likely there will be a need to maintain and build new power stations run on traditional fossil fuels. The scheduled closure of existing power plants, and the construction of a minimum of 2.5 GW of new or replacement efficient fossil fuel electricity generation plants progressively fitted with carbon capture and storage , will satisfy security of supply concerns and, together with renewable energy, deliver large amounts of electricity exports” (p.515-516). Good news for the energy industry. Not so great for our environment.

Problems associated with this approach are apologised for with a proposal to roll out “carbon capture and storage” (CCS). Although they state that “only independence provides Scotland with the autonomy to make the necessary strategic investments that will support the growth of CCS” (p.302) we should be sceptical, since CCS trials have failed in Scotland in very recent memory and many criticisms of the technology remain unanswered regarding emissions from coal mining and CO2 storage.

Fuel poverty and energy efficiency

Heating and electric supply is couched in terms of keeping prices down in the document, which is not surprising given the current political climate and rising domestic bills.

The document outlines an intention to eradicate fuel poverty although the only measures proposed is that currently being discussed at Westminster to fund green levies such as the Energy Company Obligation and Warm Homes Discount from central government funds (p.18 , p.298). Other programmes such as the much criticised “Green Deal” are to be supported, as is the Renewable Heat Incentive (p.519).

There is little ambition shown about how the Scottish Government would use its new powers to reduce fuel poverty and improve energy efficiency.

Climate change targets

Where does all of this leave Scotland’s climate change targets? The Scottish Government is confident that “the world-leading climate change legislation”, with its target of a 42% reduction by 2020, “demonstrates Scotland’s progressive approach to the protection of the environment” and “ground-breaking work championing Climate Justice, including setting up the world’s first Climate Justice Fund” (p.291) which will allow it to “champion tackling climate change in international forums including the UN and the EU” (p.17).

There is a strong argument that an independent Scotland would have a louder voice on the world stage but this may be more important than is immediately apparent. A returning delegate from last week’s disastrous UN climate talks in Warsaw told me that Climate Minister Paul Wheelhouse’s attempts to showcase Scotland’s efforts were significantly hampered by the UK Government delegation who resisted giving the Scottish Government air time.

Transport

Reducing the price of air travel features throughout the White Paper. The policy, to “reduce APD [air passenger duty] by 50 per cent in the first term of the independent parliament, with a view to abolishing it when public finances allow” (p.98), is designed to increase tourism and international trade. The document complains that “APD in the UK is now the highest tax of its type anywhere in the world” (p.98) and that cutting it will allow more direct routes from Scottish airports (p.119).

The Government fails to mention the role of APD tax in reducing carbon emissions. This is ironic given the Scottish Government’s progressive approach in including aviation emissions in its aforementioned “ground-breaking” carbon targets.

For rail travel, the document is open minded. Stating opportunities for “ different ownership models for the rail network” (p.25) including “public-supported and not-for-profit models” (p.127). Possibilities for renationalisation should be welcomed by campaigners seeking to see private car use replaced by the use of public transport.

There is also some talk of high speed rail in Scotland, although nothing in the way of a specific proposal, other than re-emphasising the Scottish Governments frustration that High Speed 2 is not planned to reach Scottish cities (p.128).

For road travel no fuel duty change is proposed but the document does suggests introducing a “Fuel Duty Regulator” to stabilise petrol prices, something which by itself would be expected to increase car use (p.129).

Currently devolved elements such as road building and so called “active travel” (cycling and walking) are not covered in the document, which is perhaps surprising given the Scottish Government’s enthusiasm for the former and enthusiasm for talking about the later. There is also no discussion of the reform of local public transport.

Despite a planned increase in air travel the document is optimistic that carbon cuts can be achieved with rail electrification, electric vehicles, expansion of renewable energy generation, and smart grid technology “achiev[ing] the almost complete decarbonisation of road transport by 2050” (p.127). This target has been singled out as an exciting new pro-environmental policy, but it should be noted that although it sounds ambitious it is in fact necessitated by Scotland’s pre-existing 80%+ carbon cut target for 2050.

Industry and business

The Scottish Government wants to cut tax and regulation on business, outlining “a clear timetable for reducing corporation tax by up to three percentage points” (p.06) and a simplified tax system “to reduce compliance costs” (p.08). There is also talk of “expanding our manufacturing base” (p.98).

We shouldn’t be under any illusions about the impact of current Scottish consumption, which currently exports most of our environmental impact. In this light an increase in manufacturing could contribute to a more sustainable economy: but we should take a sceptical view of the ability of already devolved Scottish Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA) to control the impact of any new manufacturing boom, especially if the invitation to foreign investment is to come to a low tax and low regulation Scotland.

Nuclear weapons

“We would make early agreement on the speediest safe removal of nuclear weapons a priority.” (p.14)

The White Paper proudly references at almost all opportunities the pledge to remove Trident from Scotland post-independence. This is great news not as a sanctimonious stance but because, according to very convincing research by CND, there is a very high chance this force the UK to unilaterally disarm.

However critical questions remain over the SNP’s dedication to this cause including an apparent “softening” of their stance regarding admitting ships carrying nuclear weapons into Scottish territorial waters (this is excellently reviewed by Nicholas Watt and Severin Carrell in today’s Guardian.

Sea life

Wildlife protection is currently devolved, but fisheries negotiation, which takes place at an EU level, is not. The document pledges to “keep the Scottish quota in Scotland” (p.17) and to “safeguard the future of Scotland’s fishing communities and seafood sectors” by preventing any reduction in quotas (p.282).

This approach may go down well in fishing communities but is considerably at odds with the ecological reality of ailing fish stocks and devastated marine life in Scotland’s waters.

Harmonisation

As well as making commitments on specific policy areas the White Paper has a number of provisions for improving policy harmonisation and governance.

Most conspicuous is a pledge to “seek to enshrine environmental protection in the constitution” (p.293) which could provide a myriad of opportunities for campaigners, for example those seeking to enforce the Aarhus Convention in Scotland to give communities better access to environmental justice, sorely lacking in the infamous Trump vs. Menie saga.

Finally the International Development chapter (p.231) outlines a “Do No Harm” policy which will “ensure that other Scottish Government policies do no harm to developing countries, do not undermine international development aims and ideally contribute to international development success”. Such a rigorous approach, if taken seriously, would open doors for people to challenge Government activity which promotes unsustainable Scottish industry abroad; the impact of Government-owned assets and investments (e.g. RBS); and would provide an additional policy lever for action on climate change.

Verdict

The White Paper’s greatest value is not to answer all possible questions: the outcome of any election is uncertain and a referendum is no different. What it does do is highlight the kinds of choices open to Scots which are currently out of their reach reserved by Westminster.

It also tells us the SNP’s priorities. For example we should infer something from the fact that the phrase “sustainable economic growth” appears 15 times in the document. In it’s “Referendum Challenge” the umbrella body of Scotland’s environmental organisations told the Yes and No campaigns it’s first priority for securing Scotland’s future was to ensure “we measure the success of our society intelligently”. The White Paper is clearly far off this. Economic growth, foreign direct investment and North Sea oil run through the whole document.

On the other hand their anti-nuclear intentions, albeit incomplete, alongside their renewables investment drive and new focuses on policy coherence are to be welcomed.

Aside from specific policy commitments the most encouraging thing about this document is the evidence, peppered throughout, of the impact on the document of democratic campaigning. Already on OurKingdom we have heard about Jubilee Scotland‘s impact on the document. We can also see the stamp of extreme energy campaigners not to mention the constant re-emphasis of the 42% carbon cut target, the great success of the Stop Climate Chaos Scotland coalition. Many things which we might feel are lacking, such as reining in of North Sea oil, are simply not things civil society has been talking about.

Ultimately the credibility of this White Paper would be best judged if we had anything to compare it to. Of course we will not receive manifestos for governing an independent Scotland from Labour until after a Yes vote, but what is the Better Together plan for environmental protection? So far the only other substantial contribution to the discussion has come from the Scottish Greens.

In both its failings and its strength the White Paper shows where the battlegrounds would be for making an independent Scotland a sustainable country. There are still many challenges to the Yes campaign to see the SNP meet their ambitions for a greener Scotland. The question is now to discover if a continuing United Kingdom can respond to these same challenges and show a better path for a green society in these islands.

This post was a commission for Open Democracy.

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News and updates

Knowledge and Power report published

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A new report written by Ric Lander on behalf for People & Planet, Platform and 350.org has exposed the extent to which the fossil fuel industry is financially interconnected with UK universities.

The report, Knowledge and Power – Fossil Fuel Universities, reveals that UK universities have an estimated £5.2 billion invested in the fossil fuel industry, equivalent to £2,083 for every student in the UK. Using data obtained through Freedom of Information requests and crowd-sourced from students and staff at universities across the UK, it also reveals the weaknesses of our university’s current ethical investment policies.

And the ties go much deeper than purely financial support. The report accuses universities of ‘greenwashing’ a sector whose business model relies on burning 5 times more carbon than is safe to avoid a climate crisis. For example, senior executives from BP and Shell have received 20 awards and honorary degrees from UK universities in the last decade alone, providing them with valuable legitimacy and a ‘social license to operate’.

Kevin Smith from oil and gas watchdog Platform said:

“UK universities have become the victims of corporate capture at the hands of the fossil fuel sector. We are allowing vital public infrastructure to be used to subsidise and expand a dangerous, out-dated energy model that only benefits the profits of oil and gas companies.”

The report is the most comprehensive assessment to date of UK universities ties to the fossil fuel industry, and paints a damning picture of the industry’s influence over research agendas. For example, of the 258 papers published by the Oxford Institute of Energy Studies, only three focussed on renewables, whilst the Institute received more than half of its grants from oil and gas companies. In 2013 Imperial College London has more research funding from fossil fuel companies than any other UK institution, receiving £17.3 million from Shell and BP alone.

The report coincides with the launch of People & Planet’s Fossil Free UK divestment campaign.  In collaboration with 350.org co-founder and acclaimed author Bill McKibben, students will embark on a UK tour to kickstart the divestment movement in a fortnight.

Story courtesy of People & Planet.

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New Gas in the UK: Battlegrounds set at Balcombe and West Burton

Images from the Balcomb fracking protest
The community campaign against Cuadrilla at Balcombe, Sussex, is at a critical point.
Photos from Frack Off.

As the drilling equipment rolls into rural Britain the public debate has begun, accompanied by frequent TV news reports balancing academic consensus against industry bravado.

Scientific and economic clarity on the disastrous impact of New Gas drilling and fracking has arrived. Now in the light of the public eye, the movement against is growing ever faster.

This week in the sleepy village of Balcolme in the Weald Valley, Sussex, the local community has been making a stand to lock the gate to gas firm Cuadrilla.

Sky News have rolled into Balcolme and we’re going to hear a lot about it over the next two weeks. You can follow daily updates at Frack Off and on Twitter at #balcombe, or get a free bus down to join them.

Map of new gas drilling in the UK
New Gas drilling in the UK, from the Frack Off film Doreen’s Story.

Have you seen this map of Britain? Most people will be looking at it to see how near these unsettling blankets of colour come to their home. According to George Osborne, it is a picture of vast untapped treasures which must be acquired as soon as possible. To environmentalists, it’s a battlefield: these are the villages and fields where we will make our stand against New Gas.

The climate change direct action movement is as always, ready to lead the way. After their reprieve in the courts, the group No Dash for Gas are asking you to join them at West Burton Power Station, Nottinghamshire for a weekend action camp from 16-21 August: Reclaim the Power. This is the time when we lock the gate to New Gas drilling. Time to get involved.

Other New Gas developments this month:

• Dart Energy appear to be losing their grip after the loss of their European Director and being told they will have to wait over a year for the Scottish Government to consider their appeal against the planning decision on their proposals in Falkirk and Stirling.

• Renowned journal Science publishes new research showing that underground water injection (as practiced in fracking) has a much greater capacity to cause earthquakes that previously thought.

• A follow-up to Oscar-nominated Gas Land premieres on US TV, and in the UK Frack Off’s short film Doreen’s Story has made waves.

– See more at: http://brightgreenscotland.org/index.php/2013/07/new-gas-in-the-uk-battlegrounds-set-at-balcombe-and-west-burton/#sthash.40RPG4Kq.dpuf

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After 160 years Central Scotland has had enough

After 160 years Central Scotland has had enough

Ric Lander, 11th June 2013. Originally published in Perspectives Magazine and on Bright Green.

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The central belt’s fossil-fuel industrialists: James ‘Paraffin’ Young; John (Lord) Browne, BP; Mark Lappin, Dart Energy.

When new technology offers us great promise – and the new gas boom certainly does, offering up cheap, clean energy and jobs galore – it’s worth taking time to consider what lessons can we learn from history.

Discussing the announcement of a gas industry-financed report proclaiming ‘drill baby drill’ for the UK, Newsnight reporter Andrew Black says Scotland’s shale oil was “a once proud industry that years ago was the envy of the world” (1). We are often proud of getting through traumatic events. Few industries have given a place as much trauma as the fossil-fuel extraction industry. What is remarkable is that the quite small patch of central Scotland where new gas drilling is being proposed is the very place that has perhaps the longest history of this trauma.

From shale oil to coal to the North Sea, the central belt of Scotland has seen it all before. Boom and bust, pollution and catastrophe, and then the inevitable mess for communities to clean-up. Proposals by Dart Energy to drill for coal-bed methane on the River Forth could be just another chapter in this story, but encouragingly, local people might be poised to make history.

Bings and the first booms

It’s been almost a century since Scotland’s shale ‘bings’ (similar to spoil heaps) have been out of use, and much seems to have been forgotten of the true nature of the industry that created them.

Central Scotland’s history of oil and gas began with shale oil, which for a brief period made Scotland one of the world’s largest oil exporters. Beginning in the 1850s, it was a boom industry in the time between the abundance of whale oil and Texan black gold. Entrepreneur James ‘Paraffin’ Young invented a process to produce easily transportable and relatively safe lamp fuel which made him very rich, and in terms of sheer scale left the most astonishing footprint on the Scottish lowlands.

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Shale oil bings at Broxburn, East Lothian. Image: Flickr user bethmoon527 (Creative Commons)

This land is, of course, totally lost to agriculture, but the human cost of the boom was greater. Places such as Burngrange, W. Lothian suffered greatly in incidents like that in January 1947 where rapidly spreading fires took the lives of 15 shale miners. Epidemiological studies from this time reveal considerable damage to health including skin and respiratory conditions (2). Unlike the James Youngs of this world, shale miners did not die old.
Yet shale oil’s impact on the central belt was dwarfed by later developments. The deepest scars in the area were left by the coal industry. At its height it employed over 140,000 people in Scotland. Mining families made up 10% of the population (3).

In the 10 years from 1877 to 1887 Scotland lost 343 people in three disasters with workers killed in mines kept in appalling conditions. The outrage and courage of those they left behind was a major driver to the budding Labour movement (4). Like shale mining, numerous effects shortened life-spans. Although great strides were made by the unions these mines were never safe, with subsequent disasters taking lives right up to the 1960s.

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Official list of deaths at the Burngrange shale mine disaster, 1947. Image from: ‘Report on the Causes of the Explosion and fire at the Burngrange Mine, Midlothian’, Ministry of Fuel and Power

Central Scotland’s deep mines have now gone, but their impact still remains. They left their slag heaps and their bings, and occasionally the mines remind of their presence when a house sinks into an old coal seam, as happened in Edinburgh in 2001 (5).

Remaining open-cast mines have now gone under, and the liquidation of Scottish Coal is providing nowhere near enough assets to pay for the sites’ restoration (6). What a mess.

Communities built for the pits defined themselves by coal and shale. Now all that is left is legacy of poor health and environmental destruction.

Central Scotland and the North Sea

In October 1970 Scotland’s energy industry was transformed anew with the discovery of the giant Forties oilfield in the North Sea. A new boom was on the horizon. Many urban centres on the east coast competed for a piece of the pie. To a considerable extent, the winner was Aberdeen, but facilities were built in many places elsewhere and the largest installation of all came to the central belt: the Grangemouth refinery.

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Grangemouth refinery in the 1950s and today. Photos: RCHAMS (Crown Copyright) / Flickr user Gee01 (Creative Commons)

Just like the coal and shale industries before it, the oil boom brought jobs and cash to central Scotland and Grangemouth rapidly grew with its refinery owned by BP.

Carbon Trade Watch’s film ‘The Carbon connection’ revealed local people’s experiences of the refinery (7): people who can’t sleep at night, strange sickly smells on a daily basis, breathing troubles, and a constant threat of accidents justified a poor safety record. Most recently SEPA fined Grangemouth refinery £100,000 in 2011 after a pipeline leak and fire (8). The last deaths were in 1987 when three were killed by a fire which took hold of leaking gas (9).

Accidents seem to come in spates, and the following year Scotland was the scene of what remains the world’s worst off-shore disaster. 167 died when the giant Piper Alpha platform catastrophically exploded. 49 of the dead were from the towns of the central belt (10). Many of their homes were ex-coal mining towns.

Survivor Jim McDonald from Stirling was the last of his crew to give evidence on the disaster. He told the Cullen enquiry he only knew how to escape the doomed living quarters because he worked on rig’s construction (11).
Studies have revealed the deep pain of Piper Alpha’s legacy: survivors living with post traumatic stress syndrome, families ripped apart, whole communities broken.

Today North Sea oil is in decline. Tax breaks are awarded by the UK Government to encourage drilling of the last untapped acres of the North Sea, but it will do little good. Peak oil was struck in our part of the world in 1999. Lord Browne oversaw BP’s sale of Grangemouth and the refinery is now struggling to make a profit (12). Before long the global oil companies will pack up operations to more lucrative prospects. More towns and villages, and in Aberdeen’s case possibly cities, must lose their heart. The trauma continues.

New gas boom in the Lowlands?

In 2012, Australian gas company ‘Dart Energy’ applied for a licence to start a whole new form of mining in central Scotland. Having drilled 20 test wells already, they propose drilling a 14 commercial wells to tap methane trapped in old coal seams, known as coal-bed methane.

Coal-bed methane poses an number of environmental and health risks including well-founded records of hazardous air, groundwater and surface water pollution (13) (Dart have ruled out the need to use the controversial ‘fracking’ process, but they do use this process at other sites). The industry have admitted that well leakages may be inevitable.

The UK and Scottish Governments say new gas is safe when it is properly regulated, yet elsewhere where regulation has been tightened drilling has stopped (14). It is difficult to escape the conclusion that new gas may simply be “unregulatable”, as UN Advisor Mariann Lloyd-Smith claims (15).

The life-span of a coal-bed methane well is 5 to 15 years, with output typically declining by “between 50% and 75% in the first year of production” (13). Most recoverable gas is usually extracted after just a few years. Given this sheer drop-off in production it is difficult to make a site viable without drilling wells in phases. These 34 wells at Airth won’t be enough: Dart will need to, and may have plans already, to drill further towards Stirling. There could be much more to come.

And the safety fears still abound. Just last year an explosion at a new on-shore gas rig killed 1 and injured 3 in Colorado (16).

The drilling site at Airth is just 5 miles outside of Grangemouth and Dart energy has a habit of reminding planners of its proximity, as if comparison to the refinery should be reassuring.

New gas comes at the right time and place for an industry desperate to find the next big boom, and they have a well funded PR machine making sure we know all about the benefits.

So what about these benefits? As we have seen, coal-bed methane can hardly be described as clean, and its global warming damage is considerable. Low gas prices have abounded on the US market, but crucially these low prices have not reached consumers. Dart’s own website says they have created at most just 37 new jobs (17).

Just as before, what few benefits there are accrue to a very small number of people. And more so than before these benefits will fall away quickly; a get rich quick scheme where once again all the costs are born by local people. In a very short space of time they will drill, spill, take, and leave. The rest of us are left with empty communities and polluted landscapes.

What well informed community could possibly let this happen to itself?

The beginning of a movement

Something may be happening that did not happen when the shale pits were sunk, coal was first mined, and oil was struck: people may be about to stop it.

For whilst the wisdom of their time defined that oil and coal were good for Scotland, there is not much wisdom rooting for new on-shore gas. There are people saying it, certainly, but these are industry people, the few who stand to gain.

This is partly because of the litany of environmental costs identified, the unknown risks, and to some extent the health impacts too. But what tips the balance is the overriding feeling that the benefits of this endeavour are simply not enough to make it worth it. It is too great a sacrifice and a risk to set up this industry only to see it wither in 10 years.

In Scotland, genuine alternatives are making great strides and there is real concern that a new dash for fossil-fuels could sap the energy out of the renewables industry which, evidence suggests, is well placed to sustainably power the country (18). Perhaps we’ve had enough of the boom and bust?

Communities at Airth and Grangemouth are responding. Hard working local campaigners have been out on the streets explaining, informing and encouraging people to take action, and it’s working: over 2000 residents have signed an objection to the proposals at Airth. Partly as a result, Falkirk and Stirling Council extended the outcome of the planning proposal, now referred to the Scottish Government, and in May the news came that Dart had halted its exploratory drilling programme.

flickr-nocsgillawarra
‘Lock the Gate’ demonstration at Seacliff, Australia, October 2011. Coal-seam gas is the Australian term for coal-bed methane. Image: Flickr user Nocsgillawarra

A loose coalition is forming between environmentalists, including in the Falkirk and Stirling Friends of the Earth groups, and local residents associations. The campaign in central Scotland is starting to look like the incredibly successful ‘Lock the Gate’ campaign in Australia: an alliance of community activists, environmentalists, and conservative conservationists that has defied stereotyping. What is all the more remarkable about what’s happening near Grangemouth is that these aren’t conservative people who are simply unfamiliar with this heavy industry: they’re just sick of it.

The Scottish Government is starting to respond too. Whilst a year ago the overriding message was “it’s not our fault: talk to Westminster” (19), change has come in the announcement of the draft National Planning Framework which proposes ‘buffer zones’ around drilling sites. According to Friends of the Earth Scotland if buffer zones were imposed similar to those in place in New South Wales (14) more than half of Dart’s wells would be inoperable.

There is so much to be gained by this campaign. Learning our lesson from history we can turn from boom and bust fossil-fuels towards sustainable industries. We can turn our back on the solutions of rich industrialists and build an economy made for people.

References

(1) Newsnight Scotland, 22 May 2013. Full video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Nw0ST73keNI
(2) ‘Morbidity and Mortality Study of Shale Oil Workers’, Environmental Health Perspectives Vol. 30, Jun., 1979, Joseph Costello / Liddell, F. D. K. (1973) ‘Morbidity of British Coal Miners 2961-62’ British Journal of Industrial Medicine, Vol. 30, No. 1 (Jan., 1973), pp. 1-14
(3) Coal Collections, 2013. Site: http://www.coalcollections.org/
(4) Udstone Mining Disaster and Keir Hardie, 1887. Site: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Udston_mining_disaster
(5) ‘Mines blamed for housing collapses’, 30 July, 2001, BBC News. Site: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/scotland/1463512.stm
(6) ‘Scottish Coal liquidation leads to dispute over clean-ups’, 12 May 2013, The Herald. Site: http://www.heraldscotland.com/business/company-news/scottish-coal-liquidation-leads-to-dispute-over-clean-ups.21050751
(7) ‘The Carbon Connection’ film, 2010, Carbon Trade Watch. Site: http://environmental-justice.com/1615/environmental-justice-campaigning-in-grangemouth-scotland/
(8) ‘Grangemouth refinery operators fined £100,000 after crude oil pipeline leak’, 5 July 2011, STV. Site: http://local.stv.tv/glasgow/261310-grangemouth-refinery-operators-fined-100000-after-crude-oil-pipeline-leak/
(9) ‘Paying the price of safety failures’, 27 July 1999, BBC News. Site: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/405090.stm
(10) ‘Oil Platform Disaster: Disaster dead are named’, 9 July 1988, The Guardian (London).
(11) ‘Piper Survivor ‘Crawled over bodies to get out of smoke”, The Glasgow Herald, 25 April 1989. Site: http://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=2507&dat=19890425&id=hjNAAAAAIBAJ&sjid=RFkMAAAAIBAJ&pg=3432,2613467
(12) ‘Alarm over Grangemouth refinery losses’, 24 June 2012, Sunday Herald. Site: http://www.heraldscotland.com/business/company-news/alarm-over-grangemouth-refinery-losses.17951522
(13) Toxic Chemicals in the Exploration and Production of Gas from Unconventional Sources, April 2013, National Toxics Network. Site: www.ntn.org.au/wp/wp-content/uploads/2013/04/UCgas_report-April-2013.pdf
(14) ‘Coal seam gas buffer zones alarm the miners’, 20 February 2013. Site: http://www.smh.com.au/data-point/coal-seam-gas-buffer-zones-alarm-the-miners-20130219-2epiz.html
(15) ‘Coalbed methane and fracking ‘unregulatable’ says toxins expert’, 20 May 2013, Friends of the Earth Scotland. Site: http://www.foe-scotland.org.uk/node/1606
(16) ‘1 dead, 3 hurt in natural gas well explosion near Fort Lupton’, 16 August 2012, Denver Post. Site:
http://www.denverpost.com/news/ci_21323110/1-dead-3-hurt-natural-gas-well-explosion
(17) Dart Energy, 2013. Site: http://www.dartenergyscotland.co.uk/about-us.html
(18) ‘The Power of Scotland Secured’, Friends of the Earth Scotland. Site: http://www.foe-scotland.org.uk/power-secured
(19) ‘Ministerial Optimism sees Fracking Stumble Ahead onto Uncharted Paths’, 23 January 2012, Ric Lander http://brightgreenscotland.org/index.php/2012/01/ministerial-optimism-sees-fracking-stumble-ahead-onto-uncharted-paths/

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