Tuesday, 9 September 2014

This post is not about #IndyRef

Well, the above tweet has got 36 RTs at the time I write this, so it gives an impression of what the ferment of the #IndyRef debate on social media is like at the moment. Therefore, I'm not optimistic that a blog post about my recent paper will have much success. But here goes...

Most of my research and writing outputs to date have been on urban policy and urban regeneration with a distinct interpretive policy analysis approach (here, here and here) with some dabbling in discourse analysis (here and here) and most recently in my work on middle class community activism with Prof Annette Hastings (herehere and here). My most recent paper is dabbling into the world of urban sociology a bit more, published in Housing Studies.

In this post I want to shamelessly promote my writing by producing a synopsis of the paper, but also reflect a bit more on the process of peer review, as I am wont to do. The paper comes out of the AHRC Connected Communities project, led by Prof Chris Speed at Edinburgh Uni that was involved in called Ladders to the Cloud, along with RCAHMS and community partner organisations in Wester Hailes. You’ll have probably heard about this project before because of the totem pole that was partly a result of it.

The paper essentially takes further the analysis and argument made in blog posts for the social history blog From There to Here, here and here. If you look at the comments on the photos on the From There to Here Facebook page, I argue, you see residents and former residents of Wester Hailes collaboratively writing stories. There’s two main formats: “Do you remember this?”, “Yes, it was X in Y”; or “Is that you and X”, “Yes and that’s X we were doing Y”. These stories add a little more evidence as to how working class people understand their sense of home and place.

In the first version of the paper I focused on two aspects of sense of place in particular – firstly, coming out of the coproduced fieldwork and my research background, was how these stories resisted widespread stigma to Wester Hailes and reframed the neighbourhood in a positive light. Secondly, I drew on the concepts of selective and elective belonging to explore how committed these commenters were to their neighbourhood, or former neighbourhood.

The very positive, useful and extremely in-depth comments from the peer reviewers also allowed me to bring in a broader literature on working class sense of home from Chris Allen among others. This massively improved the paper, though due to work commitments at the time, it did delay the process of producing the revisions.

The process of peer review was very good indeed (although a little bit lengthy, but hey-ho). The original paper focused much more on the aspects of stigma, but also tried to bring in the broad literature on social capital, social class and community activism. I sort of knew it wasn’t working, but thought the paper was ready for peer review. The reviewers comments made me realise this part of the argument really wasn’t working and I just dropped it and focused on a much slimmer argument.  And luckily, mashing together the chopped stuff with some stuff from this paper that was rejected by a journal with some quite staggeringly bad comments, has left me with another paper ready(ish) to go to a community development journal.

However, what was most surprising was the paper went from “Reject and resubmit” to “accepted” following one set of revisions. I was absolutely gob-smacked. The last time this happened was with my first ever paper from my MSc dissertation. Anyway, I can’t complain as reading through the paper to correct my proofs, it isn’t half bad, if I say so myself. Also, unlike some reviewers (me not included) my reviewers focused on improving the broad sweep of the argument being made, rather than providing corrections line-by-line. As a result when I submitted corrections I’d almost run out of my 50 spaces manuscript central would allow me.

Anyway, I hope you do read the paper and enjoy it. To summarise the argument, it is:
  • If we look at historic, naturally shared narratives of working class belonging then they are complex and nuanced with various degrees of selectiveness to their belonging; 
  • Facebook sites can be a really good source for “natural” talk about neighbourhoods and belonging;
  • Facebook is media and the content of it shapes responses - beware the algorithms.

Tada! As ever, copies available if you drop me an email.

Wednesday, 3 September 2014

Poverty and social networks

I don't usually put images on this blog (I know I should) but for once I have one to hand that is very appropriate:

Regularly readers of this blog might recall back earlier this year I was writing about doing my review on the evidence around social networks and poverty for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (including this handy guide to key concepts). Well, it’s finally had the sign-off, so as requested by the JRF I’ve published it myself here, with all the “findings” of the reviews collated into one document here (big PDF).

I’m very glad I got the opportunity to do the review. It really expanded my knowledge and understanding of what poverty is, particularly the difficult dividing line between economic inequality and poverty. The position I now find myself in intellectually is understanding that economic inequality drives poverty, but the two are distinct concepts.

As I was applying for the review I had a few discussions about doing research for the JRF with other researchers. One thing that was emphasised was that the JRF want two things that scholars often find very difficult to deliver – unequivocal findings and practical recommendations on what could be done now to make things better. And this is very much the case, I found out, particularly with these reviews that were designed to feed into a strategy to tackle poverty in the UK.

One aspect of this was an invite down to the JRF office in London earlier this year to present my headline findings I five minutes. To brag about myself shamelessly, I think I did rather well here, managing to get through them in three minutes. I presented them in “slide-pack” format: a slide packed with information that you can use as a sort of precis, available here. I managed to summarise my findings so briefly because there was so little to talk about, essentially the main finding was, in the short term, if you want to tackle poverty don’t bother focusing on social networks.

What was extremely reassuring at the JRF event was one of the panel members wholeheartedly agreed with me and summarised the point better than I could. Intrinsically you want to think social networks must matter for tackling poverty – it’s not what you know, but who you know, right? If you know richer people, they’ll give you money at the most basic, right?

Not really; or there’s no evidence to show that’s the case. Poverty is most likely to exclude you from social networks due to shame and financial exclusion. The idea of strong working class communities of poorer people rallying around to support one-another just doesn’t seem to be supported by the evidence.

However, one frustration with our review was because it was one of the smaller reviews and was very tightly circumscribed we had to miss out lots of evidence we could see was there. For example, the evidence around social networks, health and wellbeing, and poverty are extremely strong indeed, but these could not be included within the scope of the review.

It wasn‘t all negative though – one thing that did come through clear from the evidence was the importance of passive interaction. This article in Discover Society about my favourite public space in the world, City Park in my home city of Bradford, exemplifies this excellently. Freely provided, open and accessible spaces such as schools, parks and libraries provide areas for us to rub-up against difference, including poverty. This is more likely to make us understand poverty a lot more and be more sympathetic to policies to tackle poverty and integrate people into society. So, alas my main finding was actually the usual one provided by lefty academics – don’t cut expenditure on public services.

Friday, 29 August 2014

More on the Big Society

Just like Lothian 22 buses – you wait for one academic paper on the Big Society to come along and then two arrive at the same time. This time it’s Homo Economicus in the Big Society, not Bourdieu with it: ‘Homo Economicus in a Big Society: Understanding Middle-class Activism and NIMBYism towards New Housing Developments’ in Housing Theory and Society. It’s for a special issue of the journal that came out of the first of a set of ESRC-funded seminars on the Big Society, Localism and Housing. I presented my work on middle-class activism at the first seminar in Sheffield and this became this paper. The final paper ended up being co-authored with Prof. Glen Bramley and Prof. Annette Hastings.

The paper is actually two bits of empirical work brought (smashed?) together. The argument is:
  • British Social Attitudes Survey (BSAS) data demonstrates alarming opposition to new housing
  • This opposition tends to be in suburban, or non-remote rural locations, the sorts of places stuffed full of middle-class community activists
  • The only thing that would really overcome this argument is if the development offered more local employment, which housing developments very rarely do
  • The logic implicit in neighbourhood planning and the associated financial incentives is that this opposition is driven by peoples’ opposition to costs that affect them individually
  • Actually, we argue that the opposition is driven by the threat to peoples’ identity as it is expressed through their housing choices and sense of home.

The two bits of work were actually done separately. Prof. Bramley had done the analysis of the BSAS data, including modelling at a local level. I’d started to think about the other theoretical analysis. We realised we could bring the two bits of empirical analysis together for this paper.

The trouble is, the paper is based on 2010 BSAS data. Since then, the 2013 BSAS data on attitudes to new housing have been published (pdf) and it shows a bit of a different story. The extremely good news is opposition has dropped from 46% to 31% and support grown from 28 to 47%. Now, if I were Eric Pickles I’d be thinking “woo, neighbourhood planning has worked! Everyone wants new housing!”.

However, I’d suggest that, as I argued a couple of years ago, the problems of never-ending house price rises and the growth of the incredibly poor quality private rented sector, means housing is becoming a middle-class issue and rising up the political agenda as little Sebastian or Tabatha struggle to get a decent home on a professional salary. And we all know that these housing problems are a combination of: a lack of regional planning, meaning the market focuses growth in London and the Southeast; low interest rates and thus the low cost of mortgages and increase in effective demand for housing; as Danny Dorling has argued, the lack of housing supply due to under-occupancy in the owner-occupied sector by older people (my mum in her four-bedroomed house); and a lack of new building.

A couple of the findings of the latest BSAS data do continue to support our thesis. Opposition among homeowners to new housing is still far higher than for renters in either private or social sectors. These are the people we suggest would have most to lose if their sense of elective/selective belonging – their identity – was threatened by 200 Barratt/Bellway boxes turning up on their doorstep. Also, although overall opposition in the highest income decile fell from 49% to 33%, supporting my housing-as-a-middle-class-problem thesis, it remained high, at around a third, in the places we’d expect – suburbs and non-remote towns.

Rather interestingly, this time around BSAS asked questions directly about the so-called “Boles bung”; or to be precise they were asked if they would support new housing if extra money was provided for local public services. Again, I’d argue, the results support our thesis: 47% said it would make them support; 50% said it wouldn’t. If homeowners were homo economicus, making rational decisions based on the immediate costs we’d expect to see much greater support if local public services were improved. These results suggest a much more pyscho-social homo democratus is at work here, positioning themselves in society with their residential choices and having and internal and external debate about anything that would affect this. 

Friday, 22 August 2014

Bourdieu and the Big Society

Writing this I’m thinking “if my A Level Sociology teachers could see me now”. I studied sociology in school but really didn’t think I’d return to it, but now it seems a lot of my academic output wrestles with social theory.

The latest output from my work with Annette Hastings on middle-class community activism has now hit the presses – Bourdieu and the Big Society: empowering the powerful in public service provision? In Policy and Politics(£). And very good it is too, in my humble opinion. I really cannot claim that much credit for it. Annette did the hard theoretical work (including all the reading of Bourdieu), and it was a lengthy process of rewriting and bashing it back-and-forth between us. At one point it was a 13,000 word unruly beast and I recall sending an email stating that we weren’t trying to write a book. Editing out a third of it and responding to the excellent comments from Bourdieuan scholar Pat Thomson and from the reviewers has made it a very nice final polished paper.

Essentially the paper riffs from one of the four causal theories we identified in our overall review and published in our paper for Social Policy and Administration.* This was that the alignment between the cultural capital of service users and service providers means that middle class people benefit disproportionately from the state. We return to a richer discussion of how Bourdieu conceived of class interests and how they operate in society and then bring the range of evidence we review to this theoretical structure to demonstrate it in action.

The title including the words “The Big Society” might seem a bit odd or dated, but essentially this was just a policy to hang our ideas off and give the paper salience. However, what did interest us was the continued move towards local empowerment in policy, as implemented in Big Society ideas and practically in localism and the Localism Act in England, without concomitant investment in community development, might lead to greater empowerment of middle class groups. The evidence we reviewed showed pretty conclusively that it is very likely it will.

I remember just at the time we were going to submit the paper a conversation on Twitter along the lines of “does anyone even talk about the Big Society anymore”. And it is a very good point. After the umpteenth relaunch failed the government stopped talking about the Big Society and now the policy is increasingly mired in scandal.

However, as you’ll see from the reference list, for once, when the coalition government, with its commitment to localism and the Big Society, academia actually did quite well at getting a swift response out to these policy moves. I think partly because there was a lot of stuff in the pipeline about former community policies by the Labour government which could easily be changed, but also because community engagement and participation had become such a substantial area of research in the UK, people were ready to step up to the mark fairly swiftly and offer strong theoretical and evidence-informed critique.

Further, I think that the Big Society and the associated localism policies caused such an immediate response because at its kernel there is a lot of interesting stuff to get at. The most shallow level of analysis would suggest that it uncomfortably combines a one-nation Tory belief in the power of civic society in the tradition of the Primrose League and Rotary Societies, and a more Thatcherite, neoliberal redistribution of responsibility and risk to individuals, albeit recognising they are in communities. Because of the coalition it also brings in a liberal attitude to government more generally. Much as the label “the Big Society” has died a death, it’s a good metonym for all of this sort of stuff, including policies such as the Scottish Government’s Community Empowerment and Renewal agenda (which I discussed in relation to this research back here).

Further, and this is the crux of our argument in our paper, there is the very real and present danger that community empowerment initiatives just empower the vociferous middle classes. As many of the critiques of the government policy highlight, this is particularly the case in our current period of austerity when, apart from the community organisers programme, very little investment in community engagement is going into the most deprived neighbourhoods. It is an example of middle-class norms dominating policy-making to the benefit of the middle-classes themselves; the middle-class state.

We believe that using a Bourdieusian understanding of social class adds to our understanding of policy-making and the unequal operation of the state. Hopefully our paper will lead to a broader research agenda along these lines, moving beyond education policy, the traditional focus of Bourdieusian analysis.

*as ever, most journal articles by me available in my institutional repository here though in this case you’ll have to wait a year. Do email me if you want a copy though.

Tuesday, 12 August 2014

My first book chapter

My first book chapter is coming out soonly. It’s entitled Time, belonging and development – a challenge for participation and research and is part of a collection edited by Nick Gallent and Daniela Ciaffi called Community Planning and Action published by Policy Press.

I was honoured to be asked to offer the chapter by Nick and Daniela. My chapter is one of the front three theoretical thinkpiece chapters and I’m in illustrious company with Nick and Daniela and Yvonne Rydin. The chapter was my first book chapter and I relished the opportunity to do a bit more “blue-skies” thinking and theoretical work in my writing. However, at the start I was slightly paralysed by fear. Some of the book chapters of this ilk I have read and have been some of the most inspiring and influential writing for me – was I up to the job? I’d also only really written my thesis and many journal articles in my academic career. At this time I was particularly into the swing of journal article writing and this style of writing is very different indeed. Luckily Pat Thomson came to the rescue after a plea from me with this very useful blog post that enabled me to frame my chapter as a contribution to a “topic based edited collections”.

The chapter itself moves some of the theoretical work I started doing in my Very Difficult Theory Paper forward. Essentially I play around with the temporal points I was making in that paper – that much as moments of community planning and engagement can be highly antagonist it seems, from my empirical work, that over the longer term debate tends towards Habermasian communicative norms, particularly in land-use planning because the tangibility of the outputs means they become part of the discourse itself; literally buildings speak. They are also imbued with meaning. This is theoretical work I’d like to take further considering the listing of modernist buildings and the controversies around this, but also the meaning-full-ness (I’m using wanky po-mo construction there deliberately, forgive me) of demolition.

(There’s also some interesting arts stuff here about “invitations” to participate and participation on a spectrum from witnessing to engagement which I learnt about yesterday, but that I’m still processing that I want to bring into this theoretical debate…)

Of particular interest in writing the chapter, and something I am definitely going to take further, was the idea of critical temporalities, which I got from Michelle Bastian’s fantastic Temporal Belonging project and the outputs of the Power, Time and Agency workshop. This is basically the idea that our sense of time – our temporalities – are highly varied, subjective, and unequal and created by power structures in wider society. These power structures can be conceived in Foucauldian or structuralist ways. If you go back to the old title of this blog – Urbanity and History – this focus on the nuances and experiences of time greatly appeals to me.

A final note of thanks has to go to Nick Gallent, the editor. He was enormously helpful in providing ample and extremely useful critical feedback on drafts of the chapter and has helped make it something that when I go back to look at it again, as I did when I was reviewing the proofs, I actually thought “hang on, this isn’t too bad at all.”

So, if you’re interested in purchasing the book – the other chapters are excellent as well – if you download this flyer you can get a substantial discount. Once I know the rules (i.e. whether I can) I’ll pop a pre-print version on my page of the Stirling institutional repository as well.

Now I just have to crack on and edit my first book with Dr Dave O'Brien. With Nick's example, this will be a very tall order to follow!

Wednesday, 23 July 2014

ScotRail have defeated me

So two weeks ago I posted this email that I'd sent to ScotRail. This is the response I got back:

"Dear Peter

Thank you for your email dated 9 July 2014. I am sorry you have had cause to complain.

The specific number of cycle spaces can vary from train to train as we operate different types of trains on the same route. Our policy is clear - that although we welcome cyclists, the space available is limited. Therefore, if two spaces are available and these are in use, we would expect passengers to wait for the next available service. On longer distance and infrequent routes we require cycle reservations to be made in advance so that cyclists can have certainty about their planned journey. Since taking over the franchise in 2004, we have invested in increasing the amount of cycle parking available at stations to make it easier for cyclists to avoid having to take their cycle on the train.

I note your comments regarding the storage of cycles by train doors. We do not generally allow bikes to be stored outwith the designated storage areas as they could cause an obstruction for other passengers on the train and block doorways and aisles. However, the conductor can use his or her discretion to allow the carriage of extra cycles in spaces that would not be considered an obstruction and in this instance we advise customers to stand beside their cycles at all times throughout their journey.

ScotRail welcomes suggestions for improvements and are always keen to incorporate passengers' views and ideas in our services.

Your comments have been forwarded on to our Train Planning department for their attention and ScotRail will be reviewing all customer feedback on a regular basis, to allow us to identify any areas where there is a clear need for improvement.

Thank you for contacting ScotRail."

Which I basically interpret as "sorry, that's the way it is". Well today I've realised ScotRail have won. So here's my reply to them which I won't send, I'll just post here.

Dear ScotRail,

Thank you for your apology, it genuinely almost sounds sincere. I've now done my commute seven times. On the majority of these journeys I've seen cyclists left at the station. The most recent was this morning. Yesterday morning I spent my morning racked with guilt as I'd accidentally taken the spot of a wee lad on the train who had arrived at Waverley before me and then was turfed off and I don't know how he got to Stirling. 

I realised, even over this short time, that I was waking up at 6:30am in a panic even though I didn't need to be up for another twenty minutes, because of the stress of whether I could get on the train. This morning I was first at Waverley. I'd arrived at the station 13 minutes early. And because you don't open the doors until the 8:00am to Dundee sets off, I just stood there staring into space. I then spent the journey with a gnawing stress in my stomach as people were refused travel at all subsequent stations.

When stupid, nonsensical policies like your policies around bikes on trains, impinge on my life I try and fight them, get them changed in some way. But this time, you've won ScotRail. I'm going to do up my crappy old bike and leave it as my heap-of-junk to get me to work at Bridge of Allan. 

I chose to do my 40 mile commute by train and bike because it's the most environmentally sustainable choice. I also thought that with my new commute and work habits I could crack on and get two hours work done on the train each day I'm on campus.

However, three weeks have made me realise my initial plan would not have been sustainable to me and my health. The stress of not knowing whether I could make that train in the morning or evening would just eat away at me and make my life miserable.

So this is how you've defeated me ScotRail. I'm now going to stick to lobbying my MSPs for improved provision for cyclists on the next franchise.


Peter Matthews

Saturday, 12 July 2014

Why I'm a swithering yes voter

I accidentally spoke at a Yestival event yesterday. I say accidental, I agreed to the gig invite, which I was honoured to accept as it sounded very interesting, without fully looking into the background. It was good, but I felt a little bit of a fraud as I’ve not explicitly “come out” as to which way I’m going to vote on 18 September. Partly this is because I think it’s no one’s business, and partly it’s because the tenor of the debate means I was likely to be called “UNIONIST SCUM” or “EVIL CYBERNAT” depending on which way I swithered. But the Yestival speaking event and a few other things (ahem) have made me think I should nail my colours to the mast. Well, I say nail; more pin with rusting drawing pins in hurricane force winds…

So, yes, at the moment Better Together have the unique accolade of being the only political campaign to ever actively lose my support. I even still vote Labour (I’ll come onto that below). I have never voted SNP; they’ve not even had any of my lower preferences in the STV elections in local government. In opinion poll question style, if the referendum was tomorrow I’d vote yes. Back in 2011 when the SNP won their surprising majority at Holyrood I was a no voter with inclinations to a yes. I thought that in a neoliberal, globalised world, independence would offer Scotland few extra powers or abilities and in fact could leave us more vulnerable. Basically I was just waiting for the no campaign to present their argument to reassure me of their views. But they have utterly failed to do this. To structure this post I’ll go through some of the big issues in turn.

But what about the pound and Euro membership?

Better Together lost this argument as soon as David Cameron started to be a full-on posh nob with EU policy and promised a referendum in 2017. As far as I’m concerned, there is now more risk of Scotland leaving the EU if it stayed part of the UK then if it went separate. Of course Spain and other countries with internal independence struggles are going to question Scotland’s membership, but Scotland’s law at the moment is very closely aligned to EU legislation. In fact, because the UK follows EU Directives ridiculously slavishly, we’re probably more aligned than other countries. I cannot see why there would be impediments to Scotland being a member of the EU, even if it was a process that took a few years via EEA membership. We might lose the rebate, but hey, we’d be losing something that I’m frankly embarrassed about and reflects firstly the grand-standing of Margaret Thatcher and Eurosceptic loons in the Tory party, and secondly the utter failure of the EU to properly reform the Common Agricultural Policy.

And as for the currency. This reflects a wider problem I have with the whole referendum which I will discuss below. For all the Euro’s problems, if the independence White Paper had actually gone for Euro membership then I would have been a firm yes voter. I think keeping the pound is actually slightly daft as it does leave most of the economic levers of a modern capitalist country in the hands of the Bank of England. I think it would have been fun to say we’d have our own currency – an ‘Eck divided into 100 Sturgeons perhaps? It would tank on global currency markets on independence day, sending Scottish exports shooting up, then everyone would realise it was a petro-currency and it’s value would soar and we’d be plunged into a brief sharp recession, and then things would balance out.

I also think it’s a bit daft to presume that the UK will keep the Pound for eternity. I recall the debates about Euro membership back in the late 90s and the CBI and other business organisations being strongly in favour of membership versus a horrifically Eurosceptic Tory party. My dad made the point that if the Tories had won the 2001 election they probably would have been forced by the business interests that back them to introduce the Euro by the back door – peg the pound at 1-1 against the Euro and call it the “EuroPound” just like Ted Heath had “stopped” decimalisation by keeping the sixpence coin. Given the UK is one of the greatest supporters of the TTIP I think it’s as likely that we’ll end up with the US Dollar as our currency if we stay in the UK.

But won’t big business move away?

Every now and then there’s a scare story that one of the major “Scottish” businesses will move if we’re independent. Then the Yes campaign find a business person who supports independence. It’s a pretty facile tit-for-tat. But ultimately, for me, large businesses with growing profits are going to be inherently conservative. Any change to market conditions is something they will worry about as it could erode the profitability of capital. It’s why big businesses campaign against things like weekends, annual leave, flexible working, equal pay, health and safety not killing your workers on a regular basis. Sorry, I’m a socialist, so big business can go and fuck itself up it’s ear with a Donkey’s nob. Excuse my French. Capital in a modern world is flighty. This argument also misses the fact that Scotland still massively suffers from branch-plant syndrome, with very few businesses actually headquarted and registered here. They can bugger off elsewhere in the world whenever they want.

We also have absolutely no idea of what the economic policies of a post-independence government might be. If the SNP were to form that government, then it looks like it will be hell-for-leather, deregulated, low taxed neoliberalism. I’d be fighting against this with every political bone in my body. I suspect the Chief Executives of quite a few global companies would support them quite handsomely.

One argument Better Together could use is a fear I have – that an economy as small as Scotland’s could become far too corporatised like the economy of Denmark, which is dominated by Maersk shipping, Arla dairies and pig farmers. I’d be extremely concerned if we ended up with an economy dominated by oil companies, banks, Scottish and Southern Energy and A.G. Barr.  Free Irn Bru and Tunnocks teacakes in an independent Scotland!

You do know Scotland won’t be a socialist utopia

No shit, Sherlock. One of the things that angered me most about the independence white paper when it came out was many of the headlines from it, such as the expansion of childcare, were actually a manifesto for an SNP government. We have no idea what the political complexion of the government of an independent Scotland could be.

There’s a tired joke that there are more pandas in Scotland than there are Tory MPs. This ignores how awful the electoral system for Westminster is, and also the Tories reasonable levels of representation in the Scottish Parliament and across local councils. And I might be a diehard socialist, but the one thing that concerns me about Scottish politics, particularly since 2007, is the fact that we have a government and opposition that are both largely of the centre-left. There is a vast constituency of natural Tory voters in Scotland who are disenfranchised by geography (they’re disparate) and the shame that is attached to the party in here. It’s why I wished Murdo Fraser had won his bid to become Scottish Conservative leader with his plans to separate and rebrand the party, in the manner of the old Ratepayer’s Parties and Progressive Unionists of days of yore.

So, I’d welcome a strong, new conservative party in an independent Scotland as every representative democracy needs a health, pluralistic opposition.

But an independent Scottish Government would be broke!

Well, that depends. It depends on how you cut up the tax and expenditure figures currently produced by the UK Government. As the referendum debate has demonstrated, these numbers are basically the financial equivalent of a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure; they’ll tell you want you want them to tell you. It also depends on how much of the UK debt an independent Scotland takes on, and it’s currency – both complete unknowns at the moment (Better Together won’t give us a definitive, sensible answer on either, despite the scare tactics of the Osborne-Balls-Alexander unholy triumvirate). It also depends on the tax and expenditure policies of an independent Scotland. Again, we don’t know what the political complexion of an independent Scottish government will be, so we might as well just be pissing into the wind.

But an independent Scotland could never have bailed out the banks!

Yeah, because that’s worked out so well for the UK. Socialising risk and cost and privatising profit. Go UK.

And you do know that the sun won't always shine in an independent Scotland?

Oh, but in the Independent Eckdom of Caledonia the sun will always shine! Sorry, I'll start being more serious now.

But what about the north of England?

Right, we’re moving away from the #projectfear nonsense arguments now, and onto ones that actually don’t just anger me in their pointlessness. I do worry that I’d leave my socialist parents in the north of England, and fellow left-wing northerners in a perpetual Tory state. Just like they’ve left us in a perpetual SNP state, I suppose. What I’d actually hope is that Scotland going independent might be a bit of a wake-up call to the UK that the status quo at Westminster cannot remain.  Parliamentary politics at Westminster is entirely broken and needs vast reform. Maybe independence for Scotland would bring about a drive for that sort of change to happen in England?

But what about solidarity with the workers?

Right, I’m going to stop being utterly facetious and try and be serious about this one, as it’s the best argument I’ve heard. Gordon Brown did one take on it, with the idea of a British mission, including some great institutions as the NHS, which Scotland should continue to be part of. It’s been covered better by @how_upsetting and Socialism First. I could completely buy into the argument if…A big if. I think the people who share this view would disagree with this, but it does seem based on the assumption that the current constitutional settlement in the UK can either accept radical change to allow socialist solidarity to flourish in the UK.

And I just cannot see that happening. As far as I’m concerned the non-constitution of Westminster is completely broken. It’s completely unrepresentative, the fact we still have the House of Lords is a farce and this week’s events around civil liberties infringements really show it up to be the corrupt, venal place that it is. And the Gordon Brown line of argument also stems from a bizarre argument from the left, that I heard most often from Tony Benn and Betty Boothroyd, that because the Commons is elected “democratically” (to be incredibly unrepresentative of the views of the electorate) it is somehow sacrosanct and above criticism.
I want international solidarity for socialism to continue; but I see the UK as hindering this not helping it and I cannot foresee it being stopped by Scotland becoming independent.

So why are you swithering to voting yes?

Well, yes, you might be wondering that; I’ve not exactly convinced myself with my list of might-bes. Basically it’s the constitution question. I’m a republican socialist. Ever since I first learnt about the French Revolution age 17 I’ve also been a constitutionalist. Every time we have yet more obsequious fawning over the royal family on TV and I’m referred to as a “commoner” I just want to hurl bricks at the TV. The UK constitution is a joke (do read the pdf behind that link, it’s superb). So when the Scottish Government produce a document which states in section two “In Scotland, the people are sovereign.” my heart swells with the giddy excitement I had as a na├»ve 17-year-old wearing red socks to be rebellious.

Yes, we don’t know what the constitution of an independent Scotland would look like. We cannot presume it will be socially, economically radical. We can’t presume it will not be weak and changed continually. But we will have a constitution. We will have a basic document that asserts the sovereignty of the people, protects human rights and enshrines subsidiarity for tiers of government and governance for the country. It will defines the powers, and the limits of powers, of the executive, legislature, judiciary, and the sodding leeching royalty we’ll be left with. We will not have the utter mess of Westminster. Institutions of government do not create politics – the US constitution is an amazing model of radical constitutionalism, and it’s politics is utterly broken. But, when I go to constitutional democracies elsewhere, you just get that sense from speaking to them that their constitution makes them the better country they are.

And, as the Guardian have commented on the most brilliant thing about this time in Scotland is the vast number of conversations happening all the time about politics and really big existential things. They’re happening in pubs, in meetings, in general polite conversation. People are asking really big questions about the nature of politics and power and having really good debates about it. And for that reason, if we do vote yes on 18 September, I really think that the process of constitution building will be exciting, interesting and inclusive.


The debate between the official Yes campaign and Better Together/No Thanks has been utterly appalling, however. In fact the thing that annoys me most is how awful the whole campaign has been. As all the “what ifs” and “buts” in this post make clear, we are voting for nothing. If we vote yes, we actually have absolutely no idea what we’ll be getting. If we vote no, we have absolutely no idea what we will be getting. This point was made by the Electoral Commission back in 2012. To be fair on them, the Scottish Government did then produce their White Paper. However, as I’ve already stated, much of this contained policies that might be possible in an independent Scotland. And the response of Project Fear was “naa naa na naa naa. We’re not playing so we’re going to sulk with our bat and ball”. If the two sides had actually sat down and come to an agreement – just a loose agreement – in advance, then at least we’d have some idea what we were voting for. There’s absolutely no point in debating further many of the points in the blog post because we just don’t know.

This is why, for me, it just comes down to the constitutional question. No one can pretend that independence = radical constitution = socialism and the end of capitalism in Scotland. But a constitution can allow us to elect governments at all levels to make decisions for us. Westminster, and Project Fear and their devomax alternatives, are not offering me this.

And I just want to end with a comment on Project Fear. It has been a woefully run campaign. Whenever they make an announcement, like the one on the currency, they immediately have to back-track when it’s pointed out to them the flaws in their argument, or when people in the campaign brief against them. It strikes me they were very complacent and just thought “all we have to do is frighten people to death and they’ll accept the status quo”. But the yes campaign cannot help but be filled with positivity and nice, so that really isn’t working, still. And No Thanks need to get their grassroots sorted. Back in 2012 Yes and Better Together took it turns each Saturday morning to leaflet the Foot of Leith Walk. Labour No Thanks were at the Foot of the Walk last week, which is the first time I’d seen anyone pro-union there in a year. Yes have been there every week, very enthusiastic, smiling, engaging people in debate and thrusting leaflets into people’s hands. A Better Together leaflet sent through the post by the UK Government with photos of terrified looking families is not going to make me vote no. It just makes me think “fuck off David Cameron you tit”. No Thanks/Better Together need that grassroots personal touch to get a positive message out there and win hearts.

And I won’t go into the possibly illegal spamming of academics email accounts by Academics Together/Blether Together (see the Twitter thread attached to this tweet). That’s one of the reasons I’m writing this.

In conclusion, at the moment I’m swithering to yes. Better Together are offering THE FEAR and pretty much nothing else of substance that makes me want to vote no. I’m not going to rush out and join Academics for Yes, but I have considered this (the fact that Academics for Yes contains people of a variety of ages and TWO WHOLE genders means they automatically beat Academics Together). It might be that in the polling booth on 18 September I get cold feet and vote no; it is a very big step. But right now it’s an exciting step I want to see happen.