Thursday, 29 November 2007

Quo Vadis Scotland?

Following on from the previous post I thought I'd illustrate our bleak national character with Alistair Reid's much-vaunted poem 'Scotland'.

The interesting thing about this poem is not just its merciless critique of the Scots but the author's merciless attitude towards it now.

The 100 Poets Gathering in 2007 was brought to an extraordinary close when he stood, read it one final time, and burnt it.

Why? Not only because he felt he was being overly-defined by this one piece of poetry, but because Scotland in 2007, he felt, was very different from Scotland in 1971 when it was composed.

'Scotland', he said, was obsolete because Scotland has changed, moved on, abandoned its Reformation misery for a more cosmopolitan, international, less guilt-ridden existence.
I'm inclined to disagree and say rather that it has only just started to change.
Compared with the rest of Europe it is really rather isolated and inward looking, with fewer immigrants and cultural influences from outside (not counting the Poles who have come in such large numbers that we now have roadsigns and newspapers in Polish).
Furthermore, after devolution and the advent of the Scottish Parliament, it has actually become more parochial in recent years, with a press corps firmly fixated on affairs in Holyrood at the expense of the rest of the world.
This tendency may or may not be exacerbated by an SNP administration which, to give it credit, is at least Euro-friendly (cod wars aside) and has a strong record on strengthening relations with small EU member states on which it often models itself.
But back to our national charaacter. Does a nationalist election victory point towards the need to distinguish a Scottish spirit different from that of our confreres in the south? And if so does that mean turning back the clock and embracing Knoxian puritanical ways as the soul of Scotland? Only time will tell. I wonder what the rest of you think?

SCOTLAND - Alastair Reid

It was a day peculiar to this piece of the planet,

when larks rose on long thin strings of singing

and the air shifted with the shimmer of actual angels.

Greenness entered the body.

The grassesshivered with presences, and sunlight

stayed like a halo on hair and heather and hills.

Walking into town, I saw, in a radiant raincoat,

the woman from the fish-shop. 'What a day it is!'

cried I, like a sunstruck madman.

And what did she have to say for it?

Her brow grew bleak, her ancestors raged in their graves

as she spoke with their ancient misery:

'We'll pay for it, we'll pay for it, we'll pay for it!'

A Marriage Made in Hell?

Scots are ascetic, Calvinist people. You can tell by our dress, our food, our temperament. Plain, unadorned, drab even, at first glance, this grim picture is leavened with an irony and self-deprecation that brings colour to our culture and saves us from ourselves.

Perhaps things are changing now: the glitz of a Glasgow night out, all fishnet tights and sequined tops, bespeaks a society unafraid of enjoyment though still too repressed to be capable of it while sober. Yet Scotland is still very much a product of, and prisoner of, mentalities ushered in during the Reformation. Mentalities which have affected Scottish cultural life in myriad different ways.

George Mackay Brown called us the "Knox-ruined nation". Works of religious art, rivalled only by those existent in Flanders, were destroyed by the iconoclasts in the mid 1500s. Along with them, he says, went a tradition of song, theatre, and story-telling going back to pagan times. After Knox, many argue, Scotland lost its medieval Catholic colour and staggered out of the Reformation in mournful black.

Like a modern-day Iraq or Afghanistan our nation turned its back on the 'heretic' past to embrace the austerity and uniformity of fundamentalist Protestantanism - an ideology that eschewed the power of images or words to bring our fallen humanity closer to God and scorned its ability to comfort in times of need. And it is only in recent times, when the Kirk lost its moral and social authority, that Scotland has opened up to change.

This is one, perhaps even the prevailing, reading of the legacy of the Scottish Reformation on Scottish culture. But is Scotland really as artistically stunted as some critics have suggested? Richard Holloway, former Anglican Bishop of Edinburgh and patron of the Scottish arts set out to explore this question when he gave the St Andrew's Day lecture on "religion and art: a marriage made in hell" at Scotland House last night.

I was aware of Bishop Holloway's rather unconventional approach to religion. After all, he famously said that the Bible was an anachronism that needed to be updated to reflect liberal humanist ethics. He has led campaigns to ordain gay priests and ensure equality for all in the church, regardless of sexual orientation. He is a member of the BMA steering group on ethics and genetics and come out in favour of embryo research. He likes High Anglican traditions and incense, for heaven's sake. So I rather expected he would second Mackay Brown's point.

He started as if he were going to do so, by claiming that Scotland had never understood the basic distinction between the artist, and their often dubious morals, and the majestic sublimity of their work which, despite its lowly origins, could speak the language of beauty and truth. 'Love the sinner, hate the sin' wasn't in vogue in Knox's fire and brimstone sermons. Scots were taught humanity was weak, fallen, and above all, never to be pitied by an angry God demanding vengeance. Art could not mediate the divine, or even reflect its atributes. And therefore it too, must be corrupted and ultimately without value.

Yet, Holloway postulates that it is precisely the overwhelming rejection of human comfort, beauty, and weakness by Scotland's established church which led to the development of a strong, counter-cultural literary movement - one which had many adherents in a population with few other outlets for imagining. It led to the Scottish enlightenment, to David Hume and Walter Scott, to a 'literate, argumentative nation that exalted words, and still does'.

What Scotland's great writers did, he feels, was make room for weakness, for comfort, for hope while still retaining the Reformation sense that life was destined to be miserable, difficult, and short. That is why so much of our literature, labeled 'miserabilist' by some, is in fact infused by the empathy which comes from those who are used to suffering, who know they have fallen, who have sympathy for the failings of others - of artists whose lives were often broken and difficult.

In this respect, he argues, the Reformation had misunderstood its own sacred texts. Jesus preached compassion and mercy, not fear and terror. Scottish literature was simply reclaiming the moral ground that the official religious authorities had squandered - and it was its compassion that made it morally valid.

To that extent, Holloway believes, art and the Bible share a common purpose: to explore the tension between good and evil, between despair and hope, that is an integral part of human existence and needs to be explained somehow, whether through poetry, myth, or sacred writing.
Although he believes personally that the Bible is a human creation which reflects the values and (often misogynist) expectations of its time, putting him at odds with more mainstream literalist Christians), he also argues that the overarching themes it addresses - the themes, after all of all great literature - are universal and relevant to all human beings.

As such, he says, it makes no difference whether ethics are explored in the Bible or any other artistic work. The important thing is not the origin, divine or otherwise, but its usefulness to making our lives, and the lives of others, as beautiful, just, and fair as they possibly can be.

To which all I can say is 'Amen to that".

Wednesday, 28 November 2007

Desert Dreams

It doesn't happen often that the words 'parliamentary hearing' and 'inspirational' go together. Indeed I was moved to laugh as I listened to the range of activities sponsored by our members this morning, which ranged from beer tasting to the place of Jesus in modern policy making and someone presenting a 'real' Austrian Christmas Tree to the President. Not exactly earthshattering stuff.

Something, however, did catch my eye and that something was 'Clean Power from Deserts', a conference co-hosted by the Greens, the Club of Rome and big business (another unusual combination). As I was feeling quite hungover after the two spectacular bottles of montepulciano consumed last night over dinner, I decided to go along for the duration and 'take notes' so I could retain the appearance of working without having to use my mind overly much.

On arrival, however, I was refreshed and surprised by the presentations- so surprised I even woke up and paid attention. The speakers were a range of scientists and politicians, notably the former head of the Club of Rome Prince Hassan bin Talal of Jordan. They were petitioning parliament to give its support to the DESERTEC concept for generating clean electricity and water, as outlined in a white paper published today.
The concept is remarkably simple and, I must say, stood up to some rigorous scrutiny from energy experts and sceptics in the audience at question time. Basically it relies on generating electricity from solar panels placed in the desert - large mirrors that face each other, reflecting sunlight that is then turned into energy.

It acts just like a usual coal powerstation, providing electricity on demand, security of supply, and storage capacity, but with an enhanced fuel, and thus, CO2, saving to reduce carbon emissions. It is tried, tested, and cheap to maintain. Most importantly it has the potential to provide more than double the projected energy demand for the EUMENA region (Europe, North Africa and the Middle East) by 2050, at lower relative prices than we currently pay.

So much for its environmental credentials. What about its political ones? Wouldn't locating the source of Europe's future energy reserves in an unstable Middle East at the time of a so-called 'clash of civilisations' be dowright stupid? Well, there are two answers to that according to the organisers.

The first is that we are already horribly dependent on dangerous oil rich nations, from Russia to Saudi Arabia. So no change there - although sceptics would say that one aspect of the drive towards renewables is Europe's energy autonomy.

The second is that interdependence on the energy front would improve peace and cooperation between the north and south Mediterranean. Mare Nostrum, or 'our sea', as the Romans called it, shouldn't be a cultural dividing line but a meeting place, and shared energy investment and infrastructure would concretise this.

Would it work? Look no further than the European Coal and Steel Community, which harmonised relations between France and Germany five years after the worst war in Europe's history. In 1945 citizens from those respective countries couldn't have a civil conversation, let alone get along. 50 years later, as politicians never fail to remind us, the EU has built peace and prosperity for 450 million Europeans. Why couldn't enhanced EUROMED cooperation do the same for the EUMENA region?

Good questions indeed. So why has DESERTEC been so slow to catch on? Why, amidst the general handwringing about climate changed and Middle East peace has this apparent miracle-cure attracted so little political support? It was first mooted back in the 1970s, for heaven's sake, and has been tried and tested in California for the last twenty years. Plants are being built in Morocco and Spain. It has been earmarked for EU pilot funding for the last decade. But it has never really taken off.

MEPs blamed lack of support from industry; lack of interest from the powers that be - as was, of course, the case for environmental policy in general until a few years ago; a powerful, and growing, nuclear lobby; and cynicism about investing in an unstable Maghreb and Middle East.

That's why they called for politicians across Europe to give their vocal and consistent support to this project. For the true costs to be put forward and - if acceptable - part funded by the EU budget and part from government backed tariff systems, such as those used so successfully in Germany to stimulate new markets, that guarantee long term investment and reassure private investors.
A symbolic gesture might also be called for. For me, the most poignant and pragmatic idea put forward was to fund a pilot solar plant in Gaza, currently experiencing dreadfully electricity and water shortages, to show both what this technology is capable of and how it could help heal the rifts between people. I hope you agree.

Tuesday, 27 November 2007

Boycott Beijing?

When China was making its bid for the 2008 Olympics there was a general expectation , reinforced by Communist Party officials, that these would produce a climate of greater openness, freedom and respect for human rights. Instead, figures from Human Rights Watch suggest that violations have increased markedly in the last seven years.

In Beijing the beefed-up security bureau, run - not uncoincidentally - by the same man in charge of the Olympics, is clamping down on dissenters, with many placed under house arrest or even in mental institutions. Workers on Olympic sites have been labouring in conditions of modern slavery while Beijing residents have been evicted, and their homes demolished, to make way for sporting venues. And media freedom - a key commitment from the Chinese hosts to the International Olympic Committee - is nonexistent despite a new 'temporary regulation' that supposedly guarantees this to the international press corps, if not Chinese journalists.

Not only are these developments entirely against the spirit of the Olympic Charter which demands hosts uphold "fundamental ethical principles" like human dignity and freedom of expression - for undermining which, apartheid South Africa was banned from competing - but they are in direct contravention of Chinese government commitments.

China is a signatory to the International Declaration on Human Rights and revised its constitution recently to include a Human Rights clause. Most damning of all, its Host City Contract, signed with the IOC, commits it to improving its record on democracy, human rights and free speech prior to the 2008 Olympic Games.
It is telling that this contract - made public by all other Olympic Hosts - has remained outside the public domain . And equally telling that the international community - which never loses an opportunity to eulogise Human Rights - has steadfastly avoided demanding that the Chinese authorities publish it and respect the commitments it contains. For such demands could lead to only one conclusion: a boycott. Failing to live up to their promises in the contract would make it difficult for the IOC to give the go-ahead, so both sides, it seems to me, have agreed to keep it quiet.

As such, the Chinese have pulled off an amazing coup. Not only do the Olympics legitimise the ruling Communist Party in the eyes of the world and Chinese citizens but they have gone some way towards convincing dissenters that the international community is on the side of their oppressors instead of standing up for democracy, human rights and the rule of law.

Even the IOC, jointly responsible for the conduct of the games, has stated that there is 'no proof' of deteriorating human rights conditions in China and that it is too soon to measure the effects the Olympics will have on the political situation there.

This is clearly nonsense. The Chinese have had seven years to clean up their act, seven years in which the IOC and the international community should have been pressurising them to uphold their commitments. They failed to do this and now we are told that the threat of a boycott would fatally undermine Western relations with the People's Republic.
As such, EU leaders are now keeping well and truly stum. Keeping quiet while a blacklist is prepared that will keep media and NGO representatives, as well as vaguely defined 'dangerous elements' (for which read any and all critics of the Communist Party) out of the country during the Games. Keeping quiet as the clampdown on dissenters intensifies, condemning AIDS patients, starving villagers and jailed Tiananment victims to a future without hope. Keeping quiet while state-sponsored slavery, murder, genocide and torture carry on unabated.

The only issue on which the West has been prepared to lift this veil of silence is over CO2 pollution levels in the Beijing air which, they claim, will negatively affect their athletes. Thanks to last minute pressure from governments Sarkozy now claims he has clinched a deal on environmental standards that will resolve this problem. It is a shame similar pressure could not be brought to bear by the self-proclaimed champion of human rights to ensure China respects its international obligations and protects its citizens.

Should we boycott the Olympics? Morally speaking yes. But then, morally speaking, we should have agitated much longer ago for the fulfillment of China's empty promises. At this late stage in teh game, the West is implicated as much as the Chinese are. With less than a year to go, the lease they can do is say, "A Deal is A Deal" and demand that Beijing publish, and accept responsibility for, its Host City Contract and the commitments made therein.

Monday, 26 November 2007

Liberals: Doomed to Defections?

Has Liberalism lost its way? Certainly defections from the Lib Dem to Conservative Camp this week suggest something is amiss´at the heart of liberal democracy. But is the change of heart by Jean Pierre Cavada, chairman of the European Parliament's influential Civil Liberties Committe and Lib Dem Sajjad Karim, indicative of an ideological loss of confidence or simply the fear of electoral failure?

In the case of both men, the temptation to join forces with a revived conservatism just before the elections may simply have been too great. Certainly Saj Karim's distant second place on the Lib Dem list behind Chris Davies MEP was a sting that was hard to ignore. Harder still may be the brute electoral facts. At Lib Dem conference in Brighton his aides talked openly about the unlikelihood of having both men re-elected in 2009 when the party's share of the vote is expected to fall sharply. Cavada, fighting for a municipal seat in the 2nd arrondissement in Paris, clearly feels that Bayrou has lost his way and is putting his faith in the winning side.

But is this the same as idelogical disintegration, as Karim alleges? I think not. It is true that both the MODEM and Lib Dems have found it difficult to steer their parties' priorities of late, but that is due in large part to the opposing currents - and therefore factions - inherent in Liberalism rather than an ideological loss of nerve. Indeed, just as the Labour and Tory parties have undergone periods of introspection in recent years to resolve internal disputes over the place of market liberalisation or attitudes towards Europe, Liberals, who perhaps over-emphasised their unity over the last decade, now need to do the same with regards to the economic/social liberal divide.

Even then, I don't believe the gulf is as big as the media suggests. Huhne and Clegg's appearance on Question Time was memorable, if at all, for the remarkable similarity of their positions which led one viewer to ask 'How can we tell you apart'? The Calamity Clegg incident days later may have been bad publicity but it wasn't really based on policy divergence either, although you could argue that Huhne is the ideological leader and Clegg the follower. If this leadership contest is the sign of a party in ideological crisis, then what standards do we set for unity?

It may not be the best time for Liberals in Europe, with convergence to the centre by both socialists and conservatives squeezing our vote. But that does not mean we are an irrelevance. Our battles will be fought on the issues, the ideological issues, that the other parties neglect or tacitly consent on in their quest for electoral dominance. Whether it is the security state , abdication of human rights , euroscepticism, warmongering, scaremongering over immigrants, or nuclear rearmament beloved of left and right we will be there offering voters choice, where otherwise none would exist.

The Liberal Democrats, whatever their faults, have at their heart an ethos of internationalism, openness, environmental sustainability and respect for fundamental rights that the other parties, whatever their propaganda, simply do not share.

Wednesday, 14 November 2007

Denmark Down the Drain

Well it seems the Danish people didn't take notice of my last minute plea for tolerance (ha ha). They voted in overwhelming numbers for extreme right and left wing parties, essentially collapsing the moderate centre and creating a politics of antagonism which could have worrying consequences for Denmark's domestic stability.

Fogh Rasmussen's centre-right 'liberal' party will struggle to form a government after losing six seats yesterday. With the Danish People's Party on board, as well as a rogue Faroese, and the possibility of five seats from the recently created 'New Alliance' he will just reach the 90 seats needed to form a minority government. However there is an enormous political distance between the New Alliance and the revitalised DPP, especially on key issues like immigration, which could spell troubled times ahead for the government. Since both parties essentially hold a veto over any Prime Ministerial proposals it could mean that nothing of substance gets the go-ahead.

As far as some social liberals in Denmark are concerned, giving both sides ministerial positions and watch them descend into civil war might be the best way out of the current mess. To a certain extend I think they are right. Early new elections would at least resolve the current impasse. However if they happen too soon they might also give extra strength the extremist currents already visible in Danish society. To regroup and revitalise the centre needs a little time to lick its wounds and wait for this unholy alliance to trip itself up.

Tuesday, 13 November 2007

Save Denmark!!

Denmark. Used to make me think of happy blonde people, fairy tales, pig farms, mermaids, and yeah, I'll be honest, nude sunbathing. All in all the picture of a stable, tolerant European country. These days, it must be said, the reality is somewhat different. The first thing that might spring to mind is the Mohammed Cartoons, followed by the (rather inexplicable) ban on Danish exports, which - it must be said - made me a Defender of Denmark back in 2006.

However, the aftermath of the cartoons crisis suggested that the 'freedom of speech' mantle I had picked up wasn't entirely the true story. After all, Jyllands-Posten, the newspaper which ran the infamous cartoons had also commissioned them. It had done so as part of its self-chosen role at the forefront of right wing anti-immigrant media propaganda. It had been accused - prior to the cartoon furore´- of inciting racial hatred. It had promoted a toughening of Denmark's - already quite insane - immigration laws so that they would be in breach of European Human Rights legislation. Danes - perhaps not such innocent symbols of the tolerant European ideal after all.

However I hadn't quite lost all hope in this nation until last night. One of my best pals is Danish and had been contemplating loping back from Brussels to the wilds of Copenhagen of late. Until, that is, the Danish election campaign which she 'experienced' on her recent trip home. I should point out that this is about the blondest blue eyed Dane you could possibly imagine. But so strict is the measure of national conformism in Denmark these days that she was pretty much branded a foreigner: accent didn't sound quite right, lived in foreign parts, had failed to start a family early enough with another Dane...umm....its all a bit too kinder, kuche, kirche for my liking, with more than an inkling of national socialism about it. Imagine, therefore, how difficult life would be if you were called Aicha and weren't blonde... These campaign posters are very telling. The one on the left reads something like 'Immigrants should give, not just take, from Denmark" - a reference to the idea that they are all scroungers really.

Things get worse. The country is in the grip of extreme Euroscepticism and the radicalisation of politics, with a large and growing extreme right which - due to its support for Rasmussen's government over the last seven years - has been increasingly mainstreamed. Non-whites are essentially second class citizens, denied equal access to housing, welfare and job opportunities. The state has put in place rigid policies controlling who you marry, where you are allowed to reside, even your child's citizenship status.

In Denmark, if you are Danish and you marry a foreigner you aren't even allowed to live with your spouse in Denmark if it's possible for you to live in their country. Now I am sure it would be possible for me - in theory - to live all kinds of places from Kabul to Kazakstan. The question is, would i want to? would they be safe places to bring up my kids and raise a happy, secure family in - and this is important - the European culture to which I belong??? (Of course I am not Danish but you know what I mean - for my friend, for anyone, this is a fundamental consideration).

Technically this is against European law but the Danes don't give a monkeys. In fact, they are proud of their motto "We don't want to be a multicultural society".That's why there are villages of Danish exiles and their pariah foreign partners living across the water in Sweden and commuting to work in Copenhagen. It's true, there's something rotten in the state of Denmark and make no mistake

The Danish elections are tomorrow. It's a chance for the Danes to choose in favour of the moderate centre ground, and their representatives in the recently formed 'New Alliance Party'- Let's hope it is they, and not the Right Wing crazies who get to prop up 'liberal' Rasmussen's government next time around. And that the extreme right doesn't gain at the expense of openness, moderation, and fundamental rights.

It is extremely worrying when traditionally liberal countries like Denmark and the Netherlands become bastions of the right. For as we have seen in Belgium with the Vlaams Belang, once the extreme right gains a foothold they are extremely hard to dislodge and encourage the spread of such ideas right across the political spectrum in all EU nations. It is no surprise that Sarkozy toughened his policies to gain the trust of growing numbers of Le Pen supporters in France at the last elections. Let's just hope this tactic does not spread, or it could spread very bad news for all of us who love liberty and diversity.

In the meantime, if the Danes do vote in favour of the extreme right I suggest an extreme solution. Short of suspending EU membership, as we threatened to do with Jorg Hyder in Austria, individuals should act - perhaps, mirroring muslim outrage, a boycott is in order ( we go again...dont buy danish bacon!)

Tuesday, 6 November 2007

Airport Etiquette

Customs, as we know, vary from country to country. One very British custom is queuing. People like to joke that we will join a queue even if we don't know what we are actually queuing for, so strong is the emphasis on waiting your turn.
I'm no different. I'm an inveterate queuer and a stickler for politeness, generally speaking. But this isn't always true of Belgians. Here, you must always be on the look-out in case you lose your turn. Nothing can be taken for granted.

I made the mistake of letting my guard down while waiting at Zaventem airport last week. On arrival, tired and dazed after a week of hell in Strasbourg, I joined the back of the line while my friend went to get us a much-needed coffee. On returning ten or fifteen minutes later she commented that I hadn't moved very far in that time. Indeed, on turning round, I discovered I was still very much at the back of the line.

The only thing was, though, that some Indian guys who had walked past five minutes or so before were spearheading a new tributary to the queue which had started from the other direction. I was in a hurry. I hesitated - should I, shouldn't I? Then thought what the hell and went to reclaim my 'rightful' place just behind them.
It caused uproar. I was shouted down by a Flemish gentleman about my lack of manners, and a couple of angry ladies who claimed my action was thoroughly unscrupulous. I tried to explain, in French, that the people I was standing behind had clearly arrived later and that, in the freeforall, the main queue - mine - had effectively been sidelined. Useless. Or perhaps that was my language skills. After a few minutes I decided just to keep silent and stand my ground.

On nearing the partitions for the checkout desk I was surprised by a sharp jab in the ribs. A Belgian couple behind me were clearly squaring up for a fight and before I knew it the man had lifted my suitcase clear over his trolley while his wife took great delight in placing it firmly in the middle of the concourse, at the end of the line. He didnt mince his words either, demanding i 'bouge mon cul' and other equally unflattering remarks.

To reinforce the point his wife then took hold of the trolley and proceeded to run over my foot in an effort to evict me bodily. Realising it was just creating more of a scene her husband took over the reins and shoved me a good four or five metres with it as I protested loudly.
Finally an airport worker came over and threatened to throw them both out the queue. In some ways I had won the argument. But I was very confused and upset.
My question, I suppose, is who was in the right? I wouldn't have asserted myself if I didnt feel I had a point. But then, what seems right and wrong and what are right and wrong are very different. If everyone else felt I had committed a fault, should I have accepted that was just and backed down? Or was I right to stand up to this situation?

Terrified of running into my fellow passengers, I spent some time hovering around the security gate before ducking into the plane at the last possible second. On emerging with my bags in Delhi - without further run-ins - I presumed myself safe.

But bizarrely, I did run into that ferocious couple again, this time 50k or so from the Tibetan border on Shimla's main street. This time, my partner had skipped the queue and - not recognising them - I pointed out they had been waiting before us. I couldn't work out the cold reception at first nor their certainty that I must be 'Belgian' (my accent being a dead giveaway). Maybe that was karma completed for this trip...