International Day of Solidarity With the People of Palestine

Today marks the globally recognised day of solidarity with the people of Palestine. This is a UN organised observance that was officially established in 1977 to start in 1978. The following year they requested the issue of commemorative postage stamps. Outside of the performative gestures of solidarity there are a number of grassroots organisations that use the day to bring attention to the plight of the Palestinian people and the Trade Union Council here in the UK is an outspoken supporter of the people of Palestine. Instead of a lengthy article detailing the long and harrowing history of the ongoing apartheid we would instead like to show appreciation for the organisations that have been tirelessly advocating for the people of Palestine and hopefully to point you, dear reader, to a place that you might think you could get involved in to make a difference.

Palestine Solidarity Campaign

The Palestine Solidarity Campaign is currently the biggest organisation in the UK dedicated to advocating for the human rights of the Palestinian people. Their goals are stated on their website as follows –

  • In support of the rights of the Palestinian people and their struggle to achieve these rights.
  • Against the oppression and dispossession suffered by the Palestinian people.
  • To promote Palestinian civil society in the interests of democratic rights and social justice.
  • To oppose Israel’s occupation and its aggression against neighbouring states.
  • For the right of self-determination for the Palestinian people.
  • For the right of return of the Palestinian people for the immediate withdrawal of the Israeli state from the occupied Palestinian territory.
  • In opposition to racism, including anti-Jewish prejudice and Islamophobia, and the apartheid and Zionist nature of the Israeli state.

Today they held an online Rally jointly with Jewish Voice for Peace and the BDS National Committee.

You can become a member of PSC and get more involved in their campaigns. They also rely heavily on donations as they don’t accept money from governments, political parties or big businesses. If you’re interested in getting involved in some capacity check them out here.

Scottish Palestine Solidarity Campaign

The Scottish political campaign for solidarity was established in September of 2000 in response to the second Palestinian uprising (intifada) against Israeli settler colonialism. They do similar campaigning and have been continually active in opposing the sale of Israeli goods in Scotland. To get more involved with this group check them out here.

Jewish Voices for Peace

Something that can quite easily be overlooked in the discussions about Palestine are the many Jewish voices that speak out in support of their right to self-determination and against Zionism. The US based Jewish Voices for Peace is one of the biggest organisational homes for Jewish activists. Starting in the mid 90’s they are ‘inspired by Jewish tradition to work for a just and lasting peace according to principles of human rights, equality, and international law for all the people of Israel and Palestine.’ Check them out here.

Celtic Supporters

Although never far from controversy, the ‘Green Brigade’ ultras group of supporters of Celtic FC have consistently protested in support of the people of Palestine and against the rise of Fascism. Despite warning from Police Scotland that there would be consequences, supporters of the club arranged for hundreds of Palestinian flags to be flown during a game against the Israeli team, Hapoel Be-er Sheva in 2016. When interviewed about the protest one of the supporters involved is quoted as saying –

‘We took a stand last night because we had to. This was an Israeli team, one whose town is built on occupied Palestinian land.

They were allowed to travel here freely for the game. Israeli football clubs can go anywhere they want, from Israel to any country in the world. That freedom of movement is not shared with Palestinian teams and players, who have restrictions imposed on them.’

With Israel’s continued efforts to undermine international law and encroach further on the lives of the Palestinian people it has never been more important to show real solidarity and try and affect change. If you can spare the time and/ or money, please do so. The word ‘solidarity’ is at risk of becoming the left-wing version of ‘thoughts and prayers’. It should be a call to action; a statement of intent.

Photo by Ahmed Abu Hameeda on Unsplash

What Does The Poppy Represent?

Today is Remembrance Sunday and you know what that means, you had better be wearing a British Legion red poppy or you’re a loony lefty traitor worse than Jeremy Corbyn meeting with the IRA and Hezbollah. The poppy has become so ingrained in the culture in the UK that it makes the news if anyone in the public eye, especially politicians, are seen in public without one on the run up to Remembrance Day and opens them to criticisms of hating either the UK or the soldiers that died in muddy fields to defend the country. Historically the poppy was a symbol of remembrance for the soldiers that died in the First World War and was quickly adopted by the Royal British Legion in 1921 but what this symbol represents has skewed slightly in the years since then, and now that this meaning has been overtaken this has influenced a desire to show respect and remembrance in other ways.

The inspiration for using the poppy as a symbol of remembrance can be traced back to the poem “In Flanders Fields”  that was written by Canadian physician John McCrae on the 3rd of May 1915, the day after he witnessed the death of his friend. The poem refers to the poppy’s growing amongst the graves of war victims in Belgium and is from the point of view of the fallen soldiers. Moina Michael, a volunteer working with the American YMCA Overseas War Secretaries Organization, was so inspired by the poem that she published her own entitled “We Shall Keep the Faith” in 1918. Afterwards she vowed to always wear a poppy in respect of those that fought in and assisted with the war effort and she would go on to campaign to have the poppy adopted as a national symbol in America, this was successful and by 1920 the National American Legion adopted the flower as their official symbol of remembrance. 

A key figure in bringing the poppy to the other allied nations was Madame Guerin. Noted at the time as one of the greatest of all war speakers she would raise funds for the ‘Food for France’ organisation as well as separately for French widows and orphans, veterans and the American Red Cross. The poppy was first linked to her when she was tasked by the French government with travelling to the US to found the American branch of the ‘American-Franco Children’s League’  in an effort to raise funds to help orphans in the war torn regions of France. This organisation used the poppy as its emblem, and she would start holding poppy days in which she would distribute paper poppies in exchange for donations. Her work would take her to Canada, Newfoundland and eventually to the UK in 1921. Here she approached the British Legion and explained her plans to have an ‘Inter-Allied Poppy Day’. They were sceptical at first but came around to the idea after Madame Guerin paid for the British Legions poppies herself, vastly helping the extremely poor organisation at the time. The rest is history, the poppies were incredibly popular in 1921 and so from 1922 onwards British veterans made Remembrance Poppies at The Poppy Factory to be sold every year to fund the British Legion. Madame Guerin was very rarely mentioned in the British press and when they did nod to the original makers of the poppy, they usually referred to them as French “peasants”, further obscuring her incredibly important contributions to the poppy movement.

As well as for remembrance of military personnel, the yearly poppy appeal is to raise funds for charity that supports both previous and current personnel of the armed forces. As stated on the British Legion website – 

‘We are the country’s largest Armed Forces charity, with 235,000 members, 110,000 volunteers and a network of partners and charities; helping us give support wherever and whenever it’s needed.’

This has caused some to feel uncomfortable with what the poppy has come to represent. The poppy appeal is directly sponsored by companies that profit from war such as BAE Systems and it has built a highly charged nationalist aura around the wearing of the poppy. It’s not only for remembrance of those lost due to wars it is to show how much you support the troops. An appeal to protect those who were victims of their own state’s militarism into a jingoist competition to show who loves their country most. For those critical of the way the army has been deployed over the last few decades this can make the symbol of the poppy a bit of a mixed legacy, and difficult to weld with your own political views. . 

In 2010 a group of Army Veterans sent an open letter in which they complained that the Poppy Appeal had become ‘excessive’ and ‘garish’. They said it was being used to gather support for military campaigns and to pressure people into wearing them. A few years later the same group held a separate remembrance service by walking to The Cenotaph with a banner that read “Never Again” and laid a wreath of white poppies to acknowledge not only the military cost of war but the civilian cost. They wore t-shirts brandished with the phrase “War is Organised Murder” on them, in an action far closer to the true, original meaning of the poppy. This is a quote from Harry Patch, the last survivor of the First World War. 

The white poppy has been used since the 30’s as an alternative symbol of remembrance for all victims of war and to reject the glorification of militarism and its consequences. Nowadays in the UK the Peace Pledge Union distributes white poppies and holds an alternative remembrance service called the ‘National Alternative Remembrance Ceremony’. As they state on their website – 

‘White poppies commemorate all victims of all wars, including wars that are still being fought. This includes people of all nationalities. It includes both civilians and members of armed forces. Today over 90% of people killed in warfare are civilians.’

With the red poppy becoming a symbol for support for the harmful military industrial complex, having alternative ways to show respect to those that have lost their lives due to conflict are especially important. The last justifiable war that the UK has taken part in was the fight against fascism in the Second World War, most subsequent involvement in wars have been about power or money. As a society we should reject the endless wars that serve the interests of the rich.

To support the peace pledge union and find out how to get involved check out their website here.

Photo by David Clode on Unsplash

Tories Vote Against Free School Meals Extension

Over the past week the political discourse in the United Kingdom has taken a sharp downturn. On Wednesday 21st the Labour party proposed a motion that called for an extension of the free school meals program until Easter 2021. The motion was defeated as more than 300 Tory MPs voted against it. If not for the tireless work of footballer Marcus Rashford and the kind generosity of already struggling cafes and restaurants, over 1.4 million children could miss out on what is potentially an essential part of their daily nutrition.

A cursory glance at the policy history of the Conservative party shows that they have a long history of making life more difficult for poor children as they do all they can to make their friends that bit richer.

Margaret Thatcher

One of the most notorious examples of this was in 1971 when a little known politician by the name of Margaret Thatcher, that held the position of Education Secretary in Edward Heath’s government, decided to stop the provision of milk to any junior school pupils over the age of 7. A shameless bid to cut costs at the expense of the poorest in the country, understandably there was outrage. Five years before she adopted the title the “Iron Lady” she would be anointed another title, one that was used in school playgrounds all over the country – “Milk Snatcher”. She reportedly hated the nickname and 19 years later when she discovered that Health Secretary Ken Clarke was proposing ending the free milk program for nursery children, she wrote him a handwritten note that said –

‘No – this will cause a terrible row – all for £4m. I know – I went through it 19 years ago’

Jump forward to as recently as 2017, just one year after Theresa May had taken over as Prime Minister despite never having been voted in. May idolised Margaret Thatcher so much that she decided she would try to emulate her. Firstly, she proposed scrapping the free school meals program entirely in England with the quote from the education department at the time being that the party does not believe “a free school lunch for every child in the first three years of primary school… is a sensible use of public money”. This one earned her the nickname “the meals snatcher”. Then, a year later she had another pop at it with the proposal to cut the free milk for nurseries scheme. It seems that stopping nursery age children from having a drink of milk is the true white whale for the Tory party, the one policy change they just always want to make. For this she started to be directly compared to Thatcher with the “milk snatcher” title. I’m sure, deep down, she loved the name, anything to relate her to her hero. Even if that did mean taking away more provisions for the most vulnerable children.

This brings us to 2020, and the country limping its way through the covid-19 pandemic with Boris Johnson at the helm. In June, the young footballer from Manchester, Marcus Rashford, used his platform to raise awareness about the depth of the food poverty problem in the UK. Speaking from personal experience Rashford wrote an open letter to MPs urging them to reverse their decision to not award free school meals vouchers to over 1 million children who were eligible. To be eligible for a free school meal a child’s family has to earn a maximum income of £7,400 a year after tax so it was always the most vulnerable children that relied on the free school meals service.

Marcus Rashford

Rashford gained so much support that the government was forced into a U-turn. The prime minister’s official spokesperson said at the time –

‘Owing to the coronavirus pandemic the Prime Minister fully understands that children and parents face an entirely unprecedented situation over the summer. To reflect this we will be providing a Covid Summer Food Fund. This will provide food vouchers covering the six-week holiday period. This is a specific measure to reflect the unique circumstances of the pandemic. The scheme will not continue beyond the summer and those eligible will be those who already qualify for free school meals.’

This original scheme was reported to have cost around £120 million. Over the course of the summer the Tories decided to implement the ‘Eat Out to Help Out’ scheme, to make sure that the people that could afford to go to restaurants would get back out there with the government footing half of the bill. This scheme cost more than £522 million.

As well as this the government decided to set aside £10 billion of public money to spend on the failed test and trace system. Most of the money made its way into the hands of private companies such as G4S and Serco and amounts to more than 100 times the annual budget for Public Health England which tops out at £90 million. Newcastle University public health professor Alysson Pollock described the budget as “shocking” and is quoted in the Independent as saying –

‘This money should have been put into supporting the established system of public health services instead of going into new parallel centralised and privatised services run by private companies where much of it is squandered and wasted.’

Unsurprisingly the Tory government believes that public money is better spent on middle class leisure and the interests of private companies, rather than ensuring the health and wellbeing of all of the people of this country.

In typical fashion the Tories have lied and played the victim since the backlash to their decision to vote against the free school meals extension. MP Jacob Young claimed that he’d been told that parents had used their £15 a week food vouchers on “alcohol, tobacco or on unhealthy food”. In support of comments made by MP Ben Bradley, MP Mark Jenkinson tweeted “I know in my constituency that, as tiny as a minority it might be, food parcels are sold or traded for drugs.”

So determined to justify letting children go hungry they will invent stories about struggling families.

They have retreated behind the barrier of respectability politics. Claiming to have their feelings hurt by being reminded that the decisions they make will hurt a lot of children. Maybe if Tory MPs wanted to avoid being called scum they should stop acting like it.

Bottled History: Museum Acquires Rare Shipwreck Whisky

A piece of Scotland’s bottled history was recently acquired at auction by the Scottish Maritime Museum, based here in Ayrshire; A bottle of whisky salvaged from the wreck of the SS Politician, along with the helmet of diver George Currie, who retrieved the bottle, and two bricks that were also part of the cargo of the ship are now part of the Museums national maritime collection.

 The story of the SS Politician was the basis of the widely popular book, written by Compton Mackenzie, and film of the same name Whisky Galore!, in which the residents of the tiny Scottish Island of Todday are horrified to learn that they have run out of whisky; soon after, the SS Cabinet Minister runs aground nearby during heavy fog, carrying a cargo of 50,000 cases of whisky. Theft and hilarity ensue as they try to hide the whisky from the officious English commanding officer Captain Waggett. As it turns out, the true story that Whisky Galore! is based on may be even stranger and more interesting.

Life was particularly difficult for the Island communities in Scotland during the Second World War; the introduction of rationing in 1940 meant that anyone over the age of 5 had a ration book which contained tokens to be used for various items such as butter, sugar, eggs, meat and clothing. This was done to prevent stockpiling and while the Islands in the Outer Hebrides were mostly self-sufficient, it still meant supplies they could not cultivate for themselves were running low. The small island of Eriskay, just south of South Uist, was mostly crofting land at the time and the residents were feeling the brunt of the ongoing war; the constant threat of German U-boats meant that it was dangerous to send out puffers to the islands, so life became quite difficult.

In February of 1941, the SS Politician was heading north to pass the Outer Hebrides on its way to Kingston, Jamaica and then New Orleans. Once past the Isle of Man they hit a spell of bad weather with gale force winds forcing the ship off-course. The captain, Beaconsfield Worthington, attempted to change course to compensate but ran aground on sand banks just off the Isle of Eriskay, rupturing the engines and causing the ship to flood. The crew survived with the help of the islanders but after learning of the contents of the cargo and believing it was perfectly legal to take it under marine salvage laws, the islanders decided to salvage as much of the precious cargo as they could.

Although the ship was carrying all manner of trade goods such as medicine, biscuits and even £145,000 in Jamaican 10-shilling notes, the islanders were mostly concerned with the contents of Hold 5 – around 264,000 bottles of whisky. People from all around the island and others gathered to take part in night raids of the wrecked ship to rescue as much whisky as they could.

The UK Customs and Excise Officers did not share the islanders view on marine salvage, declaring their activity illegal as the whisky was destined for America, so no duty had been paid on the cargo. This prompted a swift response with the authorities raiding villages and crofts to recover the untaxed spirits. The islanders made a valiant effort to hide as much of it as they could – be that by storing it where it could not be found or simply drinking as much as they could. It was estimated at the time that around 24,000 bottles had been stolen and some of the islanders were successfully charged with illegal salvage and black-market trading offenses for which they could spend up to 6 weeks in prison in either Inverness or Peterhead.

In spite of this many of the items recovered from the ship were never seen again, and after the official salvage operation was called off the decision was made to scuttle the SS Politician using dynamite to deter any further temptation. Interestingly, included in the cargo that was initially completely written off were the Jamaican bank notes; after recovering what they could, it was believed the rest couldn’t have survived being in the water and the head of the official salvage operation even handed out the few that were recovered as souvenirs. Only four months later, branches of Barclays in Liverpool started reporting being presented with water damaged Jamaican notes and over the next couple of years these notes would show up from the south of England all the way to the north of Scotland. It took a further fifteen years before Crown Agents decided to make a final tally and what they discovered was that of the 290,000 notes on board, 211,267 had been recovered in some capacity. They calculated that around two thirds of the recovered notes were presented around the world legally which left 76,404 bank notes (£38,202) allegedly salvaged and used by the islanders.

The rest of the goods that went down with the ship remained largely untouched until June 1987 when Orkney resident George Currie decided to dive to the wreck after completing a repair on a sub seas cable between Eriskay and South Uist. Five bottles of whisky were recovered that had lain there for over 40 years and he kept one in his possession until just recently.

Inside the Scottish Maritime Museum

The Scottish Maritime Museum was able to acquire the bottle along with the diving helmet used by George Currie, two bricks that were part of the ship’s cargo and a poster of the 2016 remake of Whisky Galore! thanks to funding from the National Fund for Acquisitions. This brings another important part of Scotland’s rich cultural heritage back to the public. In their own press release on their site the Senior Curator of the Maritime Museum, Abigail McIntyre, is quoted as saying –

“We are thrilled to add this bottle of whisky which has become so embedded in Scottish island folklore to the collection.

“There are so many fascinating topics we can explore with our visitors through it, from island life during the war period and underwater archaeology and recovery through to challenging our understanding and portrayal of smuggling in Scottish waters.

“The wreck of the SS Politician had a profound effect on the life of the islanders of Eriskay, many of whom felt keenly the injustice of being prosecuted. As well as looking at the impact of the shipwreck generally, we will also explore maritime laws and their implications through this wonderful new artefact.”

The bottle of whisky- along with the diving helmet- has been put on display for free in the museums boat shop, and there are plans for the objects to be used in the 2023 exhibition ‘Smuggling and Swashbuckling’, where it will contribute to a discussion around the history of smuggling in Scotland.

At a time when so many cultural and heritage organisations are facing hardship, it’s great to see that the work to protect and maintain Scotland’s cultural heritage continues.

Does Shetland Want Independence?

If you read many of the mainstream media’s reporting on the council vote that was held recently on the Shetland Isles, you might’ve been led to believe that the people of Shetland want full independence from Scotland. As is the case with most stories sensationalised by the modern media, the actual story is a bit more nuanced than a gotcha to be thrown in the face of the SNP government and the wider movement for Scottish Independence.

On September 9th, the Shetland Council voted 18 to 2 in favour of supporting a motion to explore options for gaining “financial and political self-determination”; the most likely form this would take would be for Shetland to take on a self-governing Crown Dependency status- much like the Isle of Man or the Channel Islands- or, less likely, to be a British Overseas Territory. These were part of the demands made by the Wir Shetland movement that launched in October of 2015. The group has been greatly opposed to Scottish Independence, as well as the European Union and so has found a lot of support from the Tories in their bid for island autonomy. The Highlands and Islands Conservative MSP Jamie Johnston is quoted as saying –

‘Over 13 years of SNP Government in Edinburgh, countless promises have been made to our island communities, but few are ever delivered. It’s no wonder islanders have run out of patience.’

In spite of the hypocrisy of a Tory sympathising with a community that wants to take its future into its own hands, the frustration felt by islanders is not unfounded; being a part of one of the smaller communities in Scotland can be isolating and many residents feel that their needs are not adequately addressed in Holyrood. A large part of the frustration also comes from the severe budget tightening across all local authorities in Scotland since the 2008 financial crash. These cuts have hit hard in Shetland, particularly in regard to its ferry service. The Shetland Council is responsible for running its inter-island ferry service, which the Scottish Government partly subsidises. The Shetland council has felt that the government has not funded the service well enough and it claims this is the main reason they have had to dip into their reserves to the sum of £8.5 million.

On the other side of the issue the Scottish Government has regularly shown sympathy for the desire for more autonomy on the islands. In 2013 they made the Lerwick Declaration, claiming an intention to further decentralise power to the three island council areas (Shetland, Orkney and the Western Isles) and stating that in the case of Independence for Scotland they would allow the islands even more autonomy if that’s what they desired. More recently in 2018 the Scottish Government passed the Islands Bill. This legislation meant that ministers had a legal duty to prepare a “national islands plan” to address the long-term improvement of the island communities and to extend powers for the island councils over areas such as marine licensing. Whether the government will hold itself to these promises is yet to be seen and this is likely contributing to the islander’s frustrations.

They find themselves in an awkward position. The Northern Island communities seem to be against Scottish Independence in the majority but want greater autonomy for themselves, in spite of the fact that Scottish Independence would mean achieving greater autonomy over all. The Scottish Government could definitely be doing more to support the island communities, but we should be wary of any UKIP style pushes for independence. Wir Shetland has no desire for a radical change in politics to better deal with large problems like wealth disparity and failures in democracy; they simply want more financial autonomy and stricter control of the borders around Shetland. While I’m personally a fan of dismantling large power structures, the Shetland Islands are running the risk of becoming a Little Britain.

Photo by ella peebles on Unsplash

In Respect of Stuart Christie: A True Anarchist

On the 15th of August, in the midst of the strangest year in recent memory, Stuart Christie, an important Anarchist figure, activist, writer and publisher passed away at 74 years of age. I say figure because Christie was probably the most famous Anarchist to have come from Scotland. In 1964, at the age of 18, he would be arrested in Spain after being found with explosives that were intended for use in assassinating the Fascist dictator and Nazi collaborator, General Francisco Franco. Outside of his physical activism Stuart Christie’s writing has had a profound effect on many in how they view the world, including this writer. His story is an interesting one and shows the contrast in the sentiment of activists of previous generations compared to those of todays.

Born in Partick, he would move around a lot, staying in Ardrossan, Arran and eventually settling in Blantyre. It was in the political hot bed of Glasgow that Christie would form his world view. Growing up in the highly sectarian city had given him an early indication of injustice in the world. In 1964, out of a strong desire to actually do something, he jumped on the opportunity to help the cause in Spain. He told his family that he was going to pick grapes in France and set out for Paris. Here he was equipped with everything he was to need, including explosives that he kept taped on his person under a heavy jacket. This would prove to be his first hurdle as he had to keep the jacket on in Spanish weather and was concerned that his profuse sweating would cause the tape to come undone and the explosives would fall. Luckily they never did but his mission was not to succeed as it turned out that the organisation he was working with had been infiltrated and he was arrested alongside his collaborator Fernando Carballo.

An amusing myth had formed around Christies arrest; one that he himself had dispelled in later years. It was said that Christie was arrested while wearing his kilt that he had with him to make hitchhiking easier (people tended to be more trusting of a Scotsman than an Englishman), which confused the Spanish press who described him as a “Scottish Transvestite”. This is what Christie had to say on the matter in an article written for Bella Caledonia last year –

‘Also, for the record, although it’s a good canard, I wasn’t wearing my kilt when arrested — or indeed at any time during my travels; it was folded, neatly, under the flap of my Bergen.’

Under the circumstances he would be treated fairly well; after the Allies had won the Second World War, Franco did his best to keep a good relationship them and even opened up trade with the UK. (There was a lot of support for Franco in the upper echelons of British society at the time, he was seen as having saved Christianity in Spain) This meant that he did not want to be seen mistreating a British National. Christie would be sentenced to a 20-year sentence but was released after only 4. While in the Carabanchel prison he was heartily accepted by fellow anarchists and old republicans that appreciated his commitment to the Spanish cause. During his time in prison he studied for his A-levels in English, History and Spanish and worked as a Nurse. His mother would consistently send letters to General Franco pleading for his release which he granted after 4 years. In Christies own words this gave Franco the perfect opportunity to project the image of a gentleman while still being a brutal dictator –

‘He was trying to pass himself off as an old avuncular gentleman on a white charger while in fact he had all these political prisoners, thousands of whom were tortured and some killed.’

After being released from prison he would move to London and find work as a gas fitter. It wasn’t long before he was accused of being a member of the Angry Brigade, a radical group that had planned for bombs to be set off in strategic places to attack the government. Through the trial it was discovered that Christie had only been picked up because of his reputation and the police had planted detonators on him. After being acquitted him and his wife decided to get out of London so as to avoid any further targeting by police. They moved all the way to Orkney where they started the Cienfuegos press and later the Refract press. This would lead to his prolific catalogue of written works, including his memoirs titled “Granny Made me and Anarchist”. He would also set up an online bookstore ‘Christie Books’ documenting Anarchist struggles through books, pamphlets and videos.

Stuart Christie was at the heart of a political movement in the 60’s that genuinely believed it could challenge the power systems of government. It seems a stark contrast to the general apathy that seems to have infected the generations of today. There is a lot we can learn from the life and story of Stuart Christie. We’ll end on another quote from the man himself from an earlier article in Bella Caledonia. Something to think about –

Where are today’s angry young people? They can’t all have been muzzled by debt or seduced by the idea that freedom is somehow linked to property ownership. What if anything are they doing to vent their anger about Britain’s criminal military adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan, the blatant infringement of habeus corpus, the stifling of free speech, the medievalising of the public realm with the so-called anti-terrorism laws which allow police officers to shoot suspects dead and detain people without trial, charge or even explanation. Or to halt the present onward march to an undeclared permanent state of emergency – and the constant, grinding erosion of our liberties.

But I don’t worry too much about it. As the American psychologist William James wrote “The ceaseless whisper of the more permanent ideals, the steady tug of truth and justice – give them but time – must warp the world in their direction.”’

Community Ownership On The Isle of Eigg

The ownership of Land in Scotland has been a contentious topic over the decades. For many years Scotland still had a Feudal Tenure system; private landlords could buy large pieces of land or islands, becoming that lands “Laird”, essentially controlling everything that happened on that land, including housing, jobs and infrastructure. Nowhere were the failings of this system as readily apparent than on the Isle of Eigg in the Inner Hebrides. Throughout the latter half of the 20th century, the Eigg saw a massive decline in population due to the difficulties of island life and serial mismanagement by the various owners. As a result of this string of bad landlords, the people of this small west coast island banded together to create the Isle of Eigg Heritage Trust, the vehicle by which they would raise the money necessary to buy the Island and later to “govern” it democratically.

Possibly the most notorious of the Lairds to control Eigg was Keith Schellenberg, a former Olympic bobsleigher and businessman from Yorkshire. He bought the Island on the 1st of April 1975 and would keep control of it for the next 20 years. By all accounts Schellenberg treated the Island as his own personal holiday retreat, having his toff friends visit in the summer where he would drive them around the island in his 1927 Rolls-Royce.

In spite of this the islanders were pleased at first when Schellenberg took over ownership of the island; he promised to bring tourism to the island and re-opened the community hall so that the islanders could take part in some indoor sports during the winter and ceilidhs in the summer. He had buildings renovated into holiday homes and sent out adverts for jobs around the island, bringing the population back up and renewing interest in the small island.

By the 1980’s the island had established many tourist attractions but struggled to keep them staffed. The people that were hired for these positions were housed in poor conditions so turnover was high. Outside of this Schellenberg himself had divorced from his 2nd wife so found himself in a more precarious financial situation with an island to look after. The Farm manager quit and tractors that ran out of diesel were not being refuelled. Buildings- especially the older islander homes- were becoming more and more dilapidated and the only way Schellenberg could keep money for anything was through specific government tax breaks, one of which requiring that he introduce environmentally harmful plantations of non-native trees to the island habitat.

A lot of the people Schellenberg hired and then fired did not leave the island. They had fallen in love with the community so decided to stay and eke out a living any way they could, usually on small self-sustaining crofts. A sense of solidarity grew out of this between the older islanders and the newcomers. Schellenberg started to claim that Eigg had a growing population of no good hippies, characterising the people that he had let down as wasters that could not handle the real world so had come to his island. He was not doing a particularly good job of coping with island life himself and was taken to court by his ex-wife over his mismanagement of the island. It was around this time, in 1991, that the Isle of Eigg Heritage Trust was founded, and an appeal was started to raise the millions of pounds needed to buy the island. The following year Schellenberg was forced to put the island up for sale but simply bought it back himself. He had planned a victory lap of the island in his Rolls-Royce when it was roadworthy again but only a couple of years later the sheds on the pier where he was keeping the car burned down with the car inside. When later interviewed by the American TV program ’60 Minutes’ and asked about this event local woman and administrator of the Heritage Trust Maggie Fyffe simply replied, “a mysterious fire, spontaneous combustion, who knows.” The culprits were never found.

Determined not to let the islanders claim ownership, Schellenberg sold the island to a German artist that went by the name Maruma. In one last act of selfishness, Schellenberg went back to the island to take an 1805 map of the island from the craft shop. Hearing of his imminent arrival, the islanders parked an old community bus across the doors to the shop to stop him from entering. He left again by boat shouting “you never understood me!” and did not return to the island.

Again, at first, Maruma seemed to want to do great things with the island; he promised to implement a renewable energy grid and remove old rusty cars; he was to build a swimming pool and improve opportunities for the local residents- none of which came to pass. Even outside of the fact that he only spent a total of 4 days on the island (He remained resident in Stuttgart), it turned out that he was not who he said he was and had used Eigg as security on a £300,000 loan.

The Trust restarted its efforts to raise the money to buy the island, this time gaining a lot of attention. They had captured the imagination of many as a modern-day David & Goliath story, a whopping £900,000 was donated from one wealthy woman from England whose only condition was that she remained anonymous.

The islanders victory eventually came on the 4th of April 1997; after Maruma had defaulted on his loan, his creditor went through the Scottish courts to force him to put the island back up for sale and his solicitors accepted the islanders offer of £1.5 million. The chairman of the trust is quoted as saying at the time –

‘a triumph for all that is good in humanity and certainly one in the eye for everything that is mean spirited and self-seeking.’

Eigg has been owned by the community now for over 20 years and since it has been freed of the greedy objectives of private landlords it has flourished in many ways. The Trust operates its own housing association which provides housing with much cheaper rent, about half the level of affordable housing in the rest of Scotland. They also have a self-sufficient energy grid that is mostly renewable that provides electricity for the community all year round.

There is a lot to be learned from the community ownership on Eigg. Partly due to the success on the island there has been a push for land reform in which local communities get first dibs on the land that they call home, a big change from the previous feudal system. This, along with the push towards workers ownership of businesses is an exciting positive step for the future of Scotland. Unsurprisingly, it seems that once any enterprise is freed from the grip of private, profit driven individuals and given back to the community that cares for it we tend to see a dramatic increase in life satisfaction and positive environmental outcomes.

Crazy right?

SQA Results: Class Bias In Education

The long-awaited results from the Scottish Qualifications Authority are finally in and they seem to have revealed a bias in how students are graded. The SQA had refused to disclose how they would decide pupils’ final grades, at least until the results were published. This despite the fact that the Equality and Human Rights Commission expressed concerns that the proposed grading system may have been illegal.

On Tuesday of this week, as young people around Scotland received their results, the SQA finally revealed their methodology; it appears they decided that the professional opinion of the teachers that work with the pupils was not enough, electing to include taking the historical performance of the schools in which pupils attended. In essence, the grade pupils achieved was altered based on how other people had done in the years before them. If the school had no historical data, they simply went with the teacher’s recommendation.

What this means is that pupils from deprived areas saw their grades lowered at a much higher rate than pupils from wealthy areas. The estimate for the number of poor students that had their final estimate reduced from their teachers estimate was around 15.2%. In contrast, the wealthiest pupils saw only around 6.9% of their grades reduced from teacher estimates. In general, the poorest kids across Scotland had their marks downgraded from a pass to a fail at twice the rate of the richest kids.

This has resulted in many pupils that have worked hard- many of them harder than their wealthier counterparts- having that hard work thrown away by a system that cannot be described as anything but classist.

One pupil from Coatbridge tweeted –

“I’m really trying to understand how the SQA think it’s okay to mark me from a predicted A to an F in psychology because I come from a deprived school with low results despite having four A’s at Higher already. If that doesn’t show I’m a capable student then what does?”

As a result of the backlash the SQA has received, one of their Chief Executives, Fiona Robertson, will give evidence to the Education and Skills Committee on Wednesday. The deputy convener of the committee had this to say –

“Today’s events place teachers in a horrendous position… The failure of the SQA to publish their methodology in advance is solely [to] blame for that.”

The only thing the First Minister has had to say on the subject when confronted about it was that an unprecedented rise in their pass rate would not have been ‘credible’.

In isolation this is bad enough, but when you look at the wider context of the education system in Scotland it becomes clear that this is just one event in a history of discrimination against students from deprived backgrounds; in a report in 2018, Professor Sir Peter Scott, the Scottish Government’s Commissioner for Fair Access found that students from the poorest areas are typically 5% less likely to complete degrees than those from elsewhere. Poorer students are defined as being from the 20% of areas at the bottom of the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivations (SIMD). Professor Scott is quoted as saying –

“Part of the reason for ‘underperformance’ by SIMD20 students may be that our current definitions of academic ‘performance’ are deeply interwoven with largely unacknowledged assumptions about behaviour linked to class and culture… it is commonplace to talk about ‘institutional racism’ that is so deeply entrenched it may go unrecognised, the same is true of class.”

Any pupils that are unhappy with their results have an opportunity to appeal the decision for free once (although this process in itself can take up to 9 months). We can only hope that positive steps are taken to rectify this national embarrassment. A good step forward might be for Nicola Sturgeon to take Professor Scott’s advice and set out a route map for closing the attainment gap by 2030. He argues that merely improving access to universities is not enough- more must be done to support marginalised students who face barriers to entry not based on aptitude or ability, but on financial and social factors. This latest debacle shows how far we have to go to to address inequality and prejudice within education.

Photo by Element5 Digital on Unsplash

The Russian Report, State Failure and Corruption

On the 21st of July, the Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) finally published its long-awaited report on Russian interference in the UK’s democratic process. Allegedly the report has been ready since before the election in 2019 but the Johnson led government has been accused of deliberately delaying its release until after they were elected. The chair of the ISC himself, Dominic Grieve, said that the reasons given for the report’s delay were “bogus”. The version of the report that is available to the public has been heavily redacted as it contains a lot of information related to the Intelligence Services, but it still shines an interesting light on the way the government has failed to mitigate the threat of Russian cyber attacks and political interference. It also points out a serious issue of Russian Oligarchs with ties to the Russian Government using London as a haven while also helping to fill the Conservative Party’s coffers.

Since the 9/11 terror attacks, the amount of resources allocated to protection from Hostile State Activity has rapidly fallen; twenty years ago, MI5 devoted around 20% of its resources to this cause. As the threat of terrorism grew, Hostile State Activity resources continued to dwindle; by 2008/9 around 97% of all of MI5’s resources were tied up in counter terrorism activities. It was not until 2013/14, in response to an increase in Russian cyber activity, that resources increased back to 14.5%. The report states –

‘Since 2014, Russia has carried out malicious cyber activity in order to assert itself aggressively in a number of spheres, including attempting to influence the democratic elections of other countries.’

In spite of an increase of resources in the intelligence community to try and deal with this problem it is obvious that the response has been completely disorganised with many different agencies expected to deal with the issue with no clear chain of responsibility in place. After describing all the different agencies involved, the report goes on to state –

‘Overall, the issue of defending the UK’s democratic processes and discourse has appeared to be something of a “hot potato”, with no one organisation recognising itself as having an overall lead.’

This shows a worrying lack of cohesion and a clear weakness in the supposed stated goal of the UK’s intelligence agencies in “the defence of the realm”. It is clear that since the inception of these agencies the definition of what the ‘realm’ is has changed and more needs to be done to update what it means to defend it.

In the years since the collapse of the Soviet Union there seemed to be a genuine hope that Russia could be seen as a potential partner in the upper echelons of UK businesses and political parties. As a result, the UK has been incredibly open in accepting Russian money and investment which has resulted in London becoming something of a recycler of illicit finances and has been referred to as “Londongrad” or the “London Laundromat”. On this matter the report states –

‘Several members of the Russian elite who are closely linked to Putin are identified as being involved with charitable and/or political organisations in the UK, having donated to political parties, with a public profile which positions them to assist Russian influence operations.’

Probably of little surprise to most it also describes a possible issue of corruption within the House of Lords –

‘It is notable that a number of Members of the House of Lords have business interests linked to Russia, or work directly for major Russian companies linked to the Russian state – these relationships should be carefully scrutinised, given the potential for the Russian state to exploit them.’

So, in which direction is all of this Russian money and influence going then?

Since 2014 the Conservative party has received millions of pounds in donations from Russian oligarchs, nouveau riche that emerged like vultures picking apart the corpse of the USSR for profit.

The largest donor among them has been Lubov Chernukin, the wife of a former Russian deputy finance minister. In the last year she has donated more than £450,000 to the Tories (more than £1.2 million since 2014) and has repeatedly purchased one on one time with high ranking Tory members. In February while attending the Black and White ball- an event held for major Tory donors in Battersea Park- she paid £135,000 at an auction to have dinner with Theresa May. Chernukin also gave almost £15,000 to the constituency office of the Conservative Party Chairman Brandon Lewis MP who is now the Minister of State for Security. In 2014 she also paid £160,000 to play tennis with Boris Johnson and David Cameron and £30,000 so that she could have dinner with Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson. We don’t deal in conspiracy theories at ACU but various Tory MP’s prostituting themselves to Russian elites seems very strange indeed.

Another prominent Russian donor is former arms tycoon Alexander Temerko. Over the past 7 years Temerko has gifted over £1.2 million pounds and speaks kindly of his “friend” Boris Johnson. He revealed how close he is with the now Prime Minister when talking with Reuters, claiming that when Johnson was the Foreign Secretary the pair would often “plot” late in to the evening over a bottle of wine on the balcony of Johnson’s office at parliament. The two men reportedly call each other “Sasha”, the Russian nickname for Alexander, this being Johnson’s real first name, which only close friends call him. Alexander Temerko has links to the highest levels inside the Russian government.

There seems to be many on the left that think that the Russian state deserves support as a great anti-western power in the world. This is a dangerous position to take as the current Russian state power is increasingly shown to be incredibly corrupt, confrontational and has many ties to the criminal underworld. It’s not one or the other, it is possible to acknowledge that both the western governments and that of Russia are at least as corrupt as each other. The findings in this ISC report appear very damaging, despite Johnson trying to downplay the revelations in Parliament. In yet another facet of governing, the Tory party has completely dropped the ball and now appears, pretty convincingly, to be heavily influenced by the elites of Russia.

The NHS Needs Real Solidarity

Today marks the 72nd Birthday of the National Health Service. It officially came into operation at midnight on the 4th of July 1948 and was the first completely free healthcare that was made available anywhere in the world on the basis of citizenship instead of through fees or insurances. It came at a time when the infant mortality rate for children less than 1 year old in Britain was around 1 in 20. Every year saw thousands die of infectious diseases like tuberculosis, diphtheria, meningitis, polio, and pneumonia. There is a common perception that the NHS was gifted to working people by the altruistic tendencies of the ruling political elites. This is simply not true. The creation of state medical services was a hot topic for debate within the Trade Union Council since the early 1890’s. With the incredible popularity of the Labour Party- which became an official party in 1906- and the massive rise in trade union activity around the same time, the two big-business parties now had to seriously address the concerns of the working class.

In an attempt to stop workers from flocking to the newly formed Labour party the Liberal Chancellor of the Exchequer of the time, Lloyd George, introduced the National Health Insurance Act in 1911. This act meant that lower paid workers had medical insurance as long as they paid fourpence a week. They had free access to a GP, medicine, and sickness benefit but it did not include dentistry, opticians, artificial limbs, x-rays, or any other kind of hospital treatment. Crucially, it also did not extend to unwaged workers or women and children. Understandably many workers were not pleased with the bill as it did not go far enough. The Leader of the Labour Party, Keir Hardie, had this to say on its introduction:

‘What was the answer received when a minimum wage of thirty shillings for all and eight shillings per day was demanded for those who worked underground in unhealthy conditions? No, say the Liberals, but we will give you an Insurance Bill. We shall not uproot the cause of poverty, but we will give you a porous plaster to cover the disease that poverty causes.’

From the passing of this Act to the introduction of the NHS as we know it today, there was a period of great tension between the working class and the ruling class; a back and forth of pressure from the working class and the political parties trying to placate them just enough that they would stop striking and pushing for social change. Around 1944 Tory health ministers started to put forward various plans for a National Health Service in response to the Beveridge Report and the worry of a demoralised workforce during the Second World War. There was no detail included as to when anything would be done and so the Labour Party came to power in 1945 in a wave of support. There was dancing in the streets and the Labour Party sang the Red Flag in the House of Commons.

Aneurin Bevan was appointed as minister of health and set out to organise the new NHS. Private practice was never fully disbanded, but healthcare was now available to anyone that needed it.

The NHS has faced difficulty since its inception. The Tory party has always tried to starve it and bring back more privatisation; in the early 70’s the only way the Tory government was willing to spend money on new facilities was by lowering the pay of the already low paid health workers; in the 80’s Margaret Thatcher would oversee massive cuts in public spending, a privatisation of many nationalised industries and a significant drop in funding for the NHS; hospitals were taken out of the control of district health authorities and run by trusts; an internal market was established, meaning that some parts of the NHS purchased services while other parts provided them. This effectively ended co-operation between districts. Between 1989 and 1992, an extra 30,000 administrators were hired for the NHS and the number of nurses fell by 26,000.

All of these decisions contributed greatly to the defeat of the Tory party in 1997. Tony Blair famously proclaimed in his campaign that he would save the NHS, but instead would only continue the process started by Thatcher as soon as he got into power. This new Labour stopped defending a publicly run welfare state and continued Tory spending plans for 2 years. Bit by bit, parts of the NHS have been given away to private companies. Starting in the early 2000’s, any new hospital that was constructed was owned privately and then hired out to the NHS with guaranteed profits for 30 years or more. Interest payments increased to as high as 16% and according to the trade union Unite private companies were estimated to have made £23 billion in profit over the length of their contracts.

This creeping privatisation has never ended. Back-door deals are constantly made to try and privatise more of the industry. Hospitals are even attempting to set up separate private companies to then hire cleaning staff and porters so that they can pay them lower wages and give them more unsociable hours.

All of this has meant a drop in the quality of outcomes, which the major parties use to sour public opinion on the NHS so that they can claim that people deserve “options”- which just means that they get redirected to private practices.

The current pandemic has been a clear indicator of the attitudes the modern political elites have towards the NHS. Supplying PPE has been an utter shambles, with frontline NHS workers only having surgical masks when dealing with seriously sick Covid-19 patients. The health secretary Matt Hancock simply urged NHS staff to stop overusing PPE and refused to discuss the potential of increasing the wages for the NHS staff that fully deserve it. Instead he claimed that nurses have already had a pay rise and so do not need one, a claim for which he has been roundly criticised. In reality, the findings of the independent fact-checking charity Full Fact make clear that nurses in 2020 are worse off than they were in 2010, as their wages have not kept up with inflation.

Around 200 NHS and social care staff have died due to coronavirus. As a people we seem to be perfectly happy to shower these workers in empty gestures and praise but do not push for any real change or recompense for the risks they take to care for us. If you really want to support the amazing staff of the NHS stop voting for the Tory Party and, just as the workers of the past did, show your solidarity by putting pressure on the government and refusing to back down. If the past teaches anything, it’s that progress can come when we speak out as one against injustice.