Christina Milarvie Quarrell is a Poet Photographer Artist born and raised in the Govanhill Gorbals communities. Her work celebrates the values of people before profit.  Art is her passion and she utilises community arts as a basis for the creation and gathering of working class culture, poems, stories and songs.

John Davis is a professor of Childhood Inclusion at the University of Edinburgh he researches and writes on a range of issues including childhood, disability, inclusion, social justice and anti-discrimination with the aim of supporting children and families to be at the centre of resolving their own life issues.

Following on from the recent mental health awareness week, Christina and John examine the term ‘Man Up’. In so doing, they seek to move beyond unhelpful stereotypes about men and understand the complex causes of mental ill-health.  In particular, today’s article builds on their August 2016 post that sought to understand the political context of illnesses of despair through the life context of Scotland’s first world champion boxer – Benny Lynch (see article here).

In the context of a June 2017 general Election that has become a contest between the SNP and the oft hated Tory Party, this article specifically sets out to utilise socio-cultural and economic explanations of illnesses of despair to counter ‘macho’ and right wing ideas of masculinity that seek to prevent men from discussing their life problems.

For example, prior to mental health awareness week Piers Morgan sent out a tweet that suggested his fellow men should avoid discussing their feelings, ‘get a grip’ and ‘man up’. The hypocrisy of this tweet did not escape us.  That a television presenter who gets paid for enticing celebrity guests to reveal their emotions should tell other men not to show their emotions is not only disappointing, it exhibits the classic double standards we come to expect from the leaching, right-wing, over paid, under-taxed and out of touch parasites that inhabit the London centric UK media.

A quick analysis of this TV presenter’s social media profile indicates that he likes to post pictures of himself taken with older, more powerful men. Indeed, such a trait more than hints of just the sort of inferiority complex and weak ego that might be helped by the very self-expression he appears to be so scared of.

Researchers tell us that hidden and unresolved shame may involve cycles of anger, violence, insensitivity, insecurity, inferiority, revenge and counter-revenge.  The TV presenter in question has previous form on social media including: offering insensitive pronouncements on gender issues, deriding women who seek to exercise their right to self-expression by marching to challenge sexism and posting pictures of himself with known right-wing, misogynistic, self-publicising and charlatan politicians (e.g. he currently pictures himself with Donald Trump – see here Robin McAlpine’s recent post here on why we should call out such charlatans, snake oil salesmen and confidence tricksters).

We are confronted by suicide statistics that tell us men (more than women) can’t survive with what life is throwing at them. No one single issue explains mental ill-health but poverty is a major cause and so is ‘man up’ patriarchy.   When we work with men of different ages and talk about mental health they tend not to isolate one specific issues in their lives as having an impact.  They talk of multiple crisis, feelings of confusion, fatigue, low resilience and of how hard it is to make ‘best life’ decisions.

Death by suicide involves a complex web of economic, social, biological and emotional causes. Yet, patriarchy works across these issues e.g. by sending messages that connect masculinity with physical/emotional strength, economic ‘bread winners’, male ‘stiff -upper-lips’ and the avoidance of open discussion. Stoicism is sold as a virtue, yet a stiff upper lip is dangerous to the health of all individuals.

Patriarchy sets men an impossible role model to live up to. However, what was valuable, was the way that the ‘Man Up’ statement drew immediate social media condemnation.  Twitter users’ swiftly reacted to critically pointed out the important connections between men’s mental well-being and emotional self-expression.  This recognition of the benefits for men of speaking about their emotions is a welcome change but it needs to be continually championed by men, reinforced and supported until it percolates beyond the chattering classes into all of our communities.

Many of those who responded on twitter highlighted research, reported in March 2017, that demonstrated that suicide is the leading killer of adults between the ages of 35 and 49 and accounts for around 1 in 5 deaths in England and Wales (See this Guardian article here: for commentary and the full report for the Office of National Statistics here). This research directly connected death by suicide with occupations, indicating that the likely hood of such a death was: 44% higher for men working in construction, 35% higher for men working in all skilled trades and 20% higher for men working in culture, media and sport.



The pressures that sports participation can brings to young working class people is highlighted by the life of Benny Lynch. In our August 2016 article, we explained how the socio-economic and emotional cards were stacked against the young Benny who, as well as experiencing extreme poverty, also experienced the loss of his brother and disconnection from his parents.  But, when adding Benny Lynch’s life experience to the pressures felt by sportsmen and sportswomen, we feel we were able to identify the various causes that led to Benny Lynch dying aged 33 (when the average age of death in Glasgow for working class men was 48).

The ChooseLife; Suicide Prevention in Scotland web-site (see link here) and the National Records Office (see link here), indicate that nearly 3 out of 4 deaths by suicide in Scotland are male.

Such figures suggest that the ‘man up’ position is a life threatening concept. A dangerous concept that has a lot of history, including use by other prominent men in the media who were in their time accused of hypocrisy.  For example, the American film star John Wayne (who still polls highly as one of the USA’s all-time most favourite actors) is quoted as saying:

‘Courage is being scared to death, but saddling up anyway’

John Wayne was an actor who made a lot of money out of war films. He never faced active service and was accused of draft dodging.  Yet, he stood as a symbol of macho patriarchy and his films sent messages, to men and boys alike, that stoicism not self-expression were ‘manly’ virtues.  Such messages have an insidious, pernicious and malevolent effect – that explains why men are so more likely to die by suicide than women.

Patriarchy sets men an impossible role model to live up to. Our poem and title reflects this.



















Patriarchy expects men to live up to John Wayne, James Bond, Vin Diesel type movie characters. But who can live up to the standards of a character who does not actually exist in real life?

The insidious nature of patriarchy goes much deeper than stereo-typical movie characters. Capitalism has always been underpinned by wars and warmongers (see this Brina video here for a musical challenge to warmongers). And wars need to be fought by people who will repress their emotions. So, the economic system, within which we live, promotes patriarchy for its own financial gain and right-wing politicians peddle patriarchy in an attempt to distract us from recognising the great injustices of capitalism.

brinaIn a predictable and tokenistic attempt to appeal to male patriarchal voters, Theresa May recently appeared on television with her husband and pronounced there were ‘boys jobs’ (such as putting out the bins). Previously in this blog, we have discussed the way that Tory/unionist politicians have sought to play on male/female stereotypes to depict independence supporters as irrational.  E.g. in 2014 they utilised old fashions and gendered stereotypes (e.g. emotional ‘air-head’ women) to promote anti-independence messages (remember the patronising lady video).

The unionist parties deliberately sought to appeal to old fashioned right wing values in middle-aged and older voters by stigmatising and shaming ‘irrational’ independence voter who they depict as voting with the heart rather than the cool, rational, mind.

The June 2017 election has become about the very system we want to live in. Do we want to live in a system that is under-written by a different script that promotes empathy, togetherness, the collective good and collaborative problem solving?  Or, do we want to continue to live in a world that stereotypes men and women, threatens other European countries with war and delights in the opportunity to impose a Tory hard Brexit that will unleash the full right wing excesses of capitalism on us.  The common weal versus ‘bitter’-together – that is the choice that we are faced with.

We can aspire to a different way of being, to live in a system that saves working class lives, rather than, damages people in search of profit. The June 2017 election is a fight between hope over fear, shame over empathy and a patriarchal past over a gender-equity balanced future.  On gender issues, the divide between Theresa May and Nicola Sturgeon couldn’t be clearer (May, in the USA, letting Trump patronise her by holding her hand v Sturgeon, in the USA, speaks at the UN on gender equality).

Yet, voter turn-out, (especially in relation to voters of different ages and classes) will ultimately decide who prevails in this contest and the Tories are backing their old fashioned (and at times sectarian) approach against the contemporary ideas of Nicola Sturgeon. They are also utilising their media friends to throw as much muck as possible at Nicola Sturgeon seeking to shame the Scottish Government on key policy areas such as Education (where Ruth Davidson just makes up figures at will).

Shame can be self-consciously imposed, peer-group ascribed and externally attributed. It has many forms including: disgrace, embarrassment, humiliation, inadequacy, indiscretion and worthlessness, (see link here). Shame is a key tool of unionist politicians and shame has always been employed as weapon of the powerful to keep everyday people in line, to put a break on collective action and to prevent societal change.  Poverty and Shame are inextricably linked.

The Tories utilised shame against the miners in 1984 and they will utilise it against the people of Scotland should they win the 2017 general election in the next few weeks. The emotional impact of the miners strike is set out in Joe Owen’s book ‘Miners 1984-1994’ about the 1980s miner’s strike.

John had the privilege of meeting Joe Owens (with hjoe owens book coveris friend Eddie Donaghy) and discussing politics with him shortly after Joe finished his book on the miner’s strike.   Joe’s book explained how the Thatcher Tory government sought to utilise every weapon of the state to take the miners dignity away: including police brutality, anti-union laws, infringement to freedom of assembly and illegal arrest.

Joe Owens was 19 and a miner at Polkemmet colliery, in West Lothian, when the miners’ strike kicked off. The strike was an experience at the heart of Joe’s very way of being.  He became the youngest NUM pit delegate ever elected in Scotland.  He was a powerful orator and writer (who later became a journalist) but who sadly died aged 44, (see his obituary here). His book gave voice to the working class people that Thatcher sought to silence.

In 1984 the Tories used the media to shame the Miners, they used the same media to shame the people of Liverpool when the police caused the death of 96 football supporters on the 15th of April 1989 at Hillsborough and (in collaboration with the other unionist parties) to shame independence supporters in 2014.  Presently Ruth Davidson’s only political strategy is to throw mud at the SNP in an attempt to shame Nicola Sturgeon in 2017.  Davidson doesn’t care if the truth gets in the way of her attacks.

The Tories continually utilise shame as a shield in a way that lacks empathy, honesty, and self-reflection. This inability makes them unfit for office.  They point fingers at everyone else, in the hope no one notices their inadequacies: it is they who crashed the recovery (resulting in UK government debt increasing by over £450 billion), it is they who mismanaged  the economic tax take (that led the Scottish Government’s budget to be decreased by 12%), it is they who incompetently put prices up in the supermarket (when Brexit crashed the pound), it is they who will take food out of the mouths of children (through the withdrawal of school means) and it is they who now refuse to guarantee pensioners triple lock (that enables the state pension to increase by price inflation, wage inflation or 2.5 % – whichever is higher).

People seek to avoid shame during social-interactions and right-wing politicians play on this fact. Hence, during the 2014 referendum unionist politicians and the media sought to associate shame with community and grass roots mobilisation of the Yes vote by sending out scare stories regarding violence caused by independence supporters.

Ironically it was unionist supporters who were charged with the vast amount of acts of violence and unionist supporters who caused a riot in Glasgow. The unionist tactic worked because it reduced turn out of working class people (a 5% higher turnout of working class voters would have led to a Yes victory).

sun hypocracyShame is not felt by everyone in the same way. Class has an important influence on shame. People, who exploit their fellow man and women for profit, are taught early in life not to feel shame or have empathy for their fellow human beings. For example, the editors and owners of the sun showed no shame when in 2015 printing contradictory headlines on the front pages of the English and Scottish versions of their papers.

The people who pocketed huge pensions during the financial crash demonstrated no sense of shame; whilst costing the country billions (e.g. the debt caused by the crash, lost tax revenues due to unemployment and reduced tax income due to evasion/fraud).  They showed know shame when their Tory mates came in and changed the rules on pensions to ensure the rest of us won’t get a pension until aged 70 (or more).

Nor do Tory politicians show any shame when their decisions kill disabled people. Research suggests that the higher your socio-economic status the less likely you are to show empathy for others. The Tory Government are cutting welfare by 1.5billion by 2020 and ken loach’s film shows us, in no uncertain terms, what a systemic lack of empathy looks like:.

Daniel:    ‘Av had a major heart attack.  I’ve been told by my doctor I’m not supposed ti go back ti work yet’

Benefits officer:   ‘I’m afraid you must continue to look for work or your benefits payments will be frozen’

Daniel:     ‘There must be some mistake’

Scotland has always acted collectively to see off Tory excesses and the likelihood is that over 70% of Scots will again vote for parties other than the Conservative party. Hence, Scotland has always been different to England when it comes to empathy and connectedness to your fellow voter.  This is what the 2017 election will be about.  Unless we, as a society, address poverty and its cultural, economic and social contexts that lead to illnesses of despair, we will continue to fail our fellow men and women.

So what needs to be done? After voting SNP (the only party that can reasonably be expected to, solely, represent Scotland’s interests in the context of Westminster’s first past the post system).

There are three other key things we can do.

  • First, we need to overcome the financial inequality in our society including low wages, poor quality housing, lack of access to land, rent induced poverty and the scourge of unemployment/under employment.
  • Second, we need to address the democratic deficit with the establishment of greater participatory democracy in local authority areas including an increase in citizen led: housing associations, cooperatives and solutions focussed structures (such as intergenerational citizen hubs, camps, juries etc). We need to create flexible systems that enable people living in Scotland to resolve local barriers to equality and foster local decision making.
  • Third, we need to reject ‘Man Up’ cultures and make it the norm for men to talk about their emotions. Working Class men need to lead this attitudinal and cultural change urgently. In simple terms, men must decide to talk to other men about their feelings and the society which they strive to grow up in.

Overcoming Financial Inequality:

Poverty causes shame, for example:

  • Where children go to school hungry and parents wonder how they will cloth them, keep a roof over their head and pay for heating.
  • Were a parent feels judged every time they meet a health professional who doesn’t come from our understand the context of their lives.
  • Where working-class students are talked down to at university because they speak with different accents
  • Where children don’t feel they can invite school friends back to an under resourced home or miss school because the other pupil’s judge the clothes they wear.

Shame is experienced in different ways internally, externally, emotionally and physically and we will not reduce death by suicide unless we address poverty and its socio-relational impact.

The Scottish Government are aware of the link between poverty and suicide (as demonstrated by this statement in the 2013-2016 suicide prevention strategy see link here)

‘In addition to many chronic health conditions and morbidity highlighted in the Equally Well Report on Health Inequalities, suicide rates feature strongly in the most deprived populations in Scotland. The rate is three times higher in the most deprived 20% of the population compared to the least deprived 20%. Over the course of the Choose Life programme there has been a reduction of 20% in the deaths by suicide of males. Deaths by suicide for females have reduced by 10%. Despite this greater reduction in suicide among men, suicide is an overwhelmingly male behaviour. The charts in this document highlight the areas of A&E, acute hospital admission and mental health prescriptions that present particular challenges within our current system and require a developmental approach towards improvement.’

Our 2016 article:

  • Discussed the connection between poverty, class and illnesses of despair in Scotland.
  • Questioned why the ineptitude of unionist politicians allowed premature mortality rates for those under the age of 65 in Scotland to become 20% higher than in England & Wales.
  • Highlighted the scandal that 300,000 more people died prematurely in Glasgow over a 60 year period than in Liverpool and Manchester (5000 people a year).
  • Our 2016 article also considered the socio-economic context of illnesses of despair in relation to Benny Lynch the first Scottish World champion Boxer:

‘The 2003 documentary sought to explain Benny’s death at the age of 33 as being caused by personal grief and the constant drain that boxing placed on his body. But this explanation fails to place Benny Lynch life in context. Such explanations prevent us from understanding and addressing the fact that inequality and decades of political mismanagement have caused ill health and premature deaths in Glasgow – for every Benny Lynch there are thousands more who died prematurely and who possessed less celebrated names but were, no doubt, just as equally loved by family and friends.’

In 2016 we indicated that the ‘Glasgow Effect’ report found that a series of issues led to increased illnesses of despair including: discrimination relating to housing of migrants; poor housing stock; a lack of development of derelict land; a lack of a healthy environment (e.g. local parks, leisure facilities, etc.); a lack of local decision making (e.g. housing associations led by local people); and the imposition of political decision making by Westminster and pre-devolution Scottish Office ministers (we might call this unionist dis-empowerment). Poor city planning decisions led to the brake up of supportive local relationships.

Hence it is not simply money but a lack of investment, selfish top-down political decision making and a culture of disempowerment that has caused and still causes illness of despair. The report specifically states that one of the key causes was ‘much lower per capita investment in housing repairs and maintenance of the public housing stock’. (see link here)

Similarly, the opportunity for local people to utilise land to develop their own solutions to their life problems is extremely low. Scotland has the worst record of land ownership in the western world with 432 private land owners owning 50% of the private land in rural Scotland and 1,380 private land owners owning 90% of Scotland’s land area of 7.9 million hectares.

If we analyse the politics of disempowerment we can hear echoes of the ‘Man Up’ philosophy. In political terms, for decades Glaswegians had to get up the back of the bus and shut up.  The message they were sent by unionist politicians was that they were too poor, too wee and too stupid to influence local and national decision-making.

Voices of complaint were defined as irrational, local feelings wishes and aspiration were deemed unimportant (particularly in the Thatcher era) and Glaswegians were sent the message they should just get on with things; whilst the state attacked, brutalised and dismantled the social, cultural and economic aspects of their lives.

Our 2016 article advocated an intersectional analysis of the contexts that foster illnesses of despair amongst Scots and specifically Glaswegians:

‘Why is it that the ‘well to do’ folk (including those of the main stream media) feel the need to constantly pick on Glasgow and its citizens in an individualistic way that does not recognise the context in which generation after generation have been forced, by inadequate politicians, to live their lives? None of us are ever free from transgressions, shortcomings and failings, but by blaming people’s ill health on their own flaws – such commentators overlook the root and intersectional causes of health inequality in Glasgow.’

These root causes were identified in 1913 by the social reformer John MacLean as the inability of the city ‘fathers’ to build adequate and high quality housing in the appropriate places and their selfishness in seeking to make housing decisions that profited the few, at the expense of the many:

‘Mr. Peter Fife; Sanitary Inspector, contributed his quota by informing the world that in Glasgow there are 20,000 “ticketed” houses, houses so bad that his staff has constantly to supervise them. These pig-sty erections shelter between 70,000 and 80,000… …But Peter thinks it neither safe nor practical for the city to erect cottages round the suburbs! I can imagine the capitalist builders and factors of the neighbourhood whispering with sighs of relief, “Peter, faithful Peter.”… … The Corporation has already special powers to deal with slums, and has special committees galore to handle the various phases of housing. And yet, up till now, it has done nothing. Why is it going to move at last? One reason is the growing determination of the workers to have better house accommodation. Another reason is the 19,000 unlet houses in the city owing to the migration suburb wards, this latter is the more powerful If many slum areas are bought and used for air spaces the owners will gain handsomely, whilst their brethren will get a larger number of lets. This game is absolutely transparent when we consider the motion proposed by the Lord Provost and carried at the meeting. (John MacLean ‘Justice in 1913’).

MacLean connected inequality with top down decision making by local authorities and we still have one of the least democratic local authority structures in Europe.

Enabling Local Democracy:

It is easy to blame ourselves for our health failings but such an approach masks the impact of culture, politics and economics. The Glasgow Effect report (see link here) confirmed MacLean’s proposition that housing had never been adequately resourced and that decisions were made by unionist politicians in a way that disempowered Glaswegians.

A lack of participatory democracy starts at the early ages with children’s first experiences of schooling. Recent research in Scotland demonstrates that structures such as pupil councils do not enable participatory democracy because adult hierarchies in Schools inhibit real participation (see Common Weal report here and University of Edinburgh report here). It’s not surprising that some schools are anti-democratic, don’t engage with pupil voice and do not enable empathy when the policy context around them has forced to become ‘exam factories’

We need to question our surroundings, such as school rules. A questioning approach is important because it moves from a focus that blames individuals to a focus that emphasises the context within which our lives are located (including our ideas of self).  This shift is important because it does not locate the solutions only in the individual, it associates solutions with changing our socio-economic environment and the power of the collective.

Some local authorities have been working hard to address death by suicide but there is a tendency for policies and toolkits to focus on technical rational solutions at the service end of the issue, rather than address the root causes of suicide.

See for example this toolkit for local authorities (see link here) which advocates solutions such as suicide prevention strategies, local training, post-suicide primary care services, the suicide proofing of local areas, multi-professionals planning, local information exchange, local suicide stigma reduction and monitoring of the causes of suicide in local areas.

These are important issues and the follow the World Health Organisation (WHO) guidelines for preventing ‘chain-reaction’ suicides (see link here). The WHO guidelines highlight the importance of ‘enhancing the mental health literacy in the community’ and indicate that anything from 50% to 75% of suicides the person did not have recent contact with mental health services.  Yet, their recommendations tend to focus on the immanent or post-suicide aspect of people’s lives, rather than the societal causes of suicide.

Such policies lacks a critical, radical or political edge, for example, at no point does the Scottish local authorities toolkit employ the word poverty or seek to understand how working-class communities can develop their own solutions to illnesses of despair.

The Scottish Governments argues that a 18% reduction in suicides in Scotland between 2002 and 2012 was achieved due to greater training of front line staff, greater listening and by better targeting of local patients with alcohol and depression issues. Yet, improvements were gained by treating the symptoms not the causes of illnesses of despair.

Indeed, the first main aim of the government’s suicide prevention strategy is to respond to people in distress, not, to change the conditions that lead to distress. We need much more focus on anti-poverty strategies, developing local community empathy, establishing informal supportive relationships and ultimately, growing stronger communities.

To be fair to the Scottish Government, they have been confronted by a Westminster Tory administration hell bent on increasing poverty, harassing unemployed/disabled people to the point of suicide and sowing discontent in our communities. The Scottish Government has one hand tied around its back when trying to reduce the impact of poverty that is caused at a UK level. The only sensible solution is to create an independent Scotland that is based on empathy not shame and set out to achieve a more inter-connected and participatory nation.  Thankfully, our young people seem to understand this and seek to follow the words of Nelson Mandela.

Overcoming poverty is not a task of charity, it is an act of justice. Like Slavery and Apartheid, poverty is not natural. It is man-made and it can be overcome and eradicated by the actions of human beings. Sometimes it falls on a generation to be great. You can be that great generation. Let your greatness blossom.” Nelson Mandela

We cannot let our greatness blossom if we do not overcome our economic and our emotional poverty. Our emotional poverty is also man-made in the imposition of ‘Man Up’ cultures, in patriarchal film characters and in national stereotypes. Indeed, boys also tell us that friends and family play as much a role as the media in reinforcing these stereotypes.

tough guiseThe hard, athletic, independent, respected, virile, ‘real’, ‘tough-man’ stereotype comes with a ‘doesn’t measure up’ discourse (a man who is a, ‘woose, wimp, fag, sissy’ etc, see video link here to Jackson Katz discussing Tough Guise: Violence, Media & the Crisis in Masculinity 1999).   Such stereotypes have, since the 1990s, been consistently challenged and more recently  MC, poet and educator Guante  put forward a very poetic rebuttle of the phrase here in his  ‘10 responses to the phrase’ ‘Man up’)

Such videos suggested that not only do the victims and loved ones of victims of violent crimes have much to gain if we reduce male violence in our society, but, ‘male perpetrators’ will also gain because ‘tough guys’ are constructed in way that means they are forced to simply suppressing deeper unaddressed emotions that they would be able to release if our societies were not so grim, insensitive and violent. And, of course, all men gain if they are able to live in a society that is less violent and more open about emotions.

In Scotland, the ‘Hard Man’ stereotype is often portrayed in film but it may have a much more ancient basis. For example, the ancient people of Scotland were referred to as the Caledonian.  The name has Celtic (and even pre-Celtic) origin meaning people of the *kal- “hard” and *φēdo- “foot” which could refer to the rocky land or the hardiness of the people.

Similarly, the word Pict comes from the Roman reference to the people of what is now Scotland being painter warriors. So war, aggression and hard men (people of the rock) would appear to be in our history and make up.

In our work, we have seen the impact of suppressed grief-emotions; the “just put grief in deep freeze” approach that occurs when people are unable, due to multiple-issues, to process grief. When people are unable to move on because their life circumstances leave them “punch drunk” from the impact of a combination of economic, social and cultural blows.

Very often we have encountered people, especially men, who have withheld their need for a strong show of emotions in order not to upset other people (including their families). It is the sense of people feeling overwhelmed by life and having no escape that leads to suicide. Such feelings are exacerbated by Tory welfare policies that unfairly sanction people for the most pathetic and mean spirited of reasons.  Around 599 extra suicides have been found to be connected with the changes to assessment for work, 4000 people have died after being assessed fit for work and the UN reported there had been grave and systematic violations of disabled people by the systems put in place by this Tory government.

Benny Lynch won the world champions prize but in reality he failed to win the longer term prize of a stable emotional life.   He was part of a boxing stable that did not last and gradually felt he was disempowered, disenfranchised and deceived by specific people in the boxing establishment.

He was also constantly haunted by the fear of failure and is reputed to have said that prior to winning the world championship he was concerned that he should not let his fellow countrymen down. Benny Lynch died young and a multitude of factors led to his, at times, lost spirit of resistance.

This is a phrase that Christina in her first book of poetry in 1995 “ To Heal A Wounded Spirit” wrote a dedication to her own parents (Sadie and Jimmy) both born in the Gorbals of the 1900s.

‘It is their (often broken) spirits of resistance that haunts and inspires me , and my achievements are shared with them, and in their memory’

It is unacceptable that people should lead such lives, it is unacceptable that we should test people’s spirits of resistance to the limit and it is unacceptable that Scottish culture does not do self-expression. For example, we discussed the issue of male emotions with a leading commentator in Scottish politics who advocates participatory democracy.  We were dismayed to find that he proclaimed himself to be old fashioned and to dislike the modern request for men to be more open.

We are not suggesting men go onto TV programmes to express their emotion. We are suggesting that men talk more to their loved ones, friends and community members.  That, they find the mediums of self-expression words, music, art, poetry drama song, that suits them best and that they strive to express their pain so that it does not overcome them.  The contest that men need to win concerns local self-expression v suppression.

The lives of men matter. For the many families who have suffered tragic, often unexpected, loss of brothers, sons, partners, friends and many more, this is a statement of truth

We have sought (with others) to enable the discussion of Benny Lynch life problems to opens doors for men to talk about their lives. Benny Lynch was courageous and kind, famous and failed, and tough and talented, he was not simply a ‘macho’ boxer.

In Benny Lynch, many working class men see a reflection of their-self and redemption of best aspects of their-selves.   In time, the Benny Lynch legacy may be that of contributing to a reduction in suicides through the development of social policy that is based on a more rounded understanding of the factors that cause loss of life through mental health suppression in Scotland.

green man 2 image

THE GREENMAN HOMSTEAD HOUSE CLARKSTON © Christina Milarvie Quarrell 2017

Suicide rates in Scotland are high, yet it need not be that way. Suicide rates in Scotland began to differ from England in the late 1960s (just as the excesses of the disastrous housing policies began to bite). Hence, what is socially and culturally engineered can also be re-worked and reduced.  And, we can also call on our maternal history, our strong history of community storytelling, sharing of the soup pot and local humour as antidotes to the ‘hard man’ stereotype.

The ancient history also bequeaths us shaman, the Cailleach, the Carlyn, the seer and the storyteller, who encourage us to share our emotions; paint our story with words; illuminate; and resonate.


Such cultures sit deeply within working class people waiting to be celebrated, recognised and utilised to open up the hearts and emotions of men.

Moving From ‘Man Up’ Cultures To Relationships of Empathy

Christina has written a poem to encapsulate the need for a shift away from ‘Man Up’ cultures:

Troon beach early morning 13.2.2017

let go of anger

which we are all trained in

let go of prejudice

which we are all trained in

let go of sadness

let go of pain

let go of conditioning

let go of past





to the Sea

All wisdom is here

We need to connect with our deepest historical traditions and value each other’s contributions to the common weal. In contrast to Bitter together project shame, Tory Anglo-Saxon taciturnity and Theresa May’s ‘waspishness’, traditional societies have always understood the importance of working through in a relationship based way.  This idea also comes out in therapeutic and humanist approaches to modern life.

‘To truly be committed to a life of honesty, love and discipline, we must be willing to commit ourselves to reality.’ John Bradshaw, Healing the Shame that Binds You

Yet, modern life separates individuals from their communities and the media constantly sets out to shame people e.g. sports men and women who do not fulfil expectations, mothers that can’t breast feed, schools that do not rate highly in league tables, fathers who can’t provide consumer goods for their children, people who live in ‘sink’ estates and families who require welfare.

Indeed, the ‘benefits porn’ industry ignore the root causes of inequality and blame everyday people for the impact of austerity that was, actually, caused by rich unionists who were given honours and titles at Westminster .

Such perspectives reduce people down to what they can’t do and fail to recognise their capabilities. In contrast, ‘empathetic stance’ is a key aspect of assets-based, strength-based and social justice ways of being.  Such approaches consider other people’s perspectives in ways that recognise that our society creates inequitable access to financial, emotional, professional and legal resources.

Such approaches promote empathy over shame. There are two types of empathy ‘Affective’ Empathy (‘mirroring’) where a person feels what another person is going through and ‘Cognitive’ Empathy (perspective taking) that involves taking another’s perspective.

Researchers have found that empathetic people are more likely to help others (even when it goes against their own interest) and that empathy reduces bullying (e.g. racism), enables intimacy (e.g. in relationships), makes people more likely to stand up against inequality and ignites a willingness to work together across social groups (see link here).

This is an important observation when related to the nil sum (winner takes all) politics of Westminster. Empathy is the resource that constantly replenishes (even when other resources are scarce).  Yet, empathy is the very resource that Theresa May and Ruth Davidson welfare polices lack (e.g. in relation to disabled people, people with large families and women who have been raped).  The Tories don’t care that words matter and the way that words make you feel matter.  Poets know this:

Poetry is an act of peace.

Peace goes into the

making of a poet as

flour goes into bread.


Then let us pray that come it may,

As come it will for a’ that,

That Sense and Worth, o’er a’ the earth

Shall bear the gree an’ a’ that.

For a’ that, an’ a’ that,

It’s comin yet for a’ that,

That Man to Man the warld o’er

Shall brithers be for a’ that.

Robert Burns

John, in his previous blog post of May 2017, explored the suggestion that we are currently haunted by the words and sound bites of politician’s, their tired metaphors, manipulations and myths. We need a politics that has deeper feeling and is more meaningful:

 “Poetry matters more than ever before, because we are more challenged than ever before. Poetry is the essential language that, endlessly branching, enables us to live deeply and envision what matters most.” Arthur Sze, Chancellor, Academy of American Poets Chancellor.

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” Maya Angelou

Therefore, a key aspect of empathy is understanding and using words and processes that connect, rather than, distance our-selves from each other. Music can be a key aspect of that. Think for a minute about the lyrics of the Otis Redding’s song, These arms of mine – see video here:

They are lonely

Lonely and feeling blue

These arms of mine

They are yearning

Yearning from wanting you

And if you

Would let them

Hold you Oh how grateful I will be

These arms of mine

They are burning

Burning from wanting you

These arms of mine

They are wanting

Wanting to hold you

And if you

Would let them hold you

Ohh how grateful I will be

These words, as expressed by a man, demonstrate the need to use our arms to uplift each other, to overcome isolation and to give warmth where there is an isolating cold. We need to enable men to use their arms in such a way that up lifts others, to utilise their arms as a force for good and not as weapons. Arms are for helping, holding and hugging – not for confronting.

Shame involves a process where we write an inner story that we are ‘bad’, ‘weak’ or ‘cowardly’ people. An alternative exists where we recognise the context of our stories, where other’s listen to us with compassion, altruism (self-less concern for others) and we collectively shake off cultures of blame and shame.

In recent years, men’s ability to develop empathy (and more peaceable lives) has been related to shifting societal roles (e.g. attending the birth of their children and being involved in day to day care of children) and there are men out there, in ‘traditonal’ occupations who are trying to help each other.

In Australia a self-help group of construction workers called, ‘HALT – Hope Assistance Local Tradies’, is seeking to reduce male suicide by helping and assisting their fellow workers.  They are offering breakfast rolls tea coffee, kind words, open ears and a chat to save lives by enabling working class men to talk openly to each other (see link here) men leading men to save the lives of men.

gal gael 1

left to right TAM MCGARVEY AND GEHAN MCLEOD  © Christina Milarvie Quarrell 2017

The solutions to issue of male mental health are multiple but cultural barriers can be overcome in community approaches such as those utilised by organisations such as GalGael. Who describe themselves as a social justice organisation:

‘GalGael work on the front line and help to tackle social injustice through training, getting people involved in cultural and natural heritage as well as providing a safe and supportive community. In 2016 we began to look at the Universal Basic Income as a means to provide jobless people with guaranteed income to replace unemployment benefit to give people more security and remove the stigma of being unemployed. More here.

Galgael also provide creative spaces and projects for self-expression. In so doing they work at every level of the issue social, cultural and economic.

Tam McGarvey explains their thinking in this video (see link here). Rather than seeing people as a burden to state, Galgael believe every person can become a powerful resource.  They argue that citizens, if you give them the chance, can do amazing things.

galgael 2

AT THE TALL SHIPS RIVERSIDE MUSEUM GLASGOW 2017  © Christina Milarvie Quarrell 2017

Galgael seek to overcome stereotypes concerning local history (e.g. Local gang territory and culture) by creating stimulating, imaginative and meaningful (not tokenistic) work that connects natural, cultural and family history. Tam McGarvey argues that everyone has a story, we are all part of a story and (in a similar way to Irvin Yalom) that we are all authors of our own stories.

At Galgael people learning about history, are encouraged to reengage with their family history (e.g. coming from Ireland) and are encouraged to reconnect with nature through the collaborative building of the boats with their hands. Tam McGarvey argues that the process enables local people form Govan to learn wonderful things and that when they eventually sail up the beautiful waters of the Clyde in the boat they have built, they are enabled to consider their identities in a wider context.

At the heart of Halt and Galgael is the idea that we can cooperate to build meaningful relationships that move us beyond the anomie (lack of purpose) and the ennui (instability and disconnectedness) of modern life.

Although we have argued that financial issues set a context for suicide, Irvin Yalom, see link here, tends to point us to the understanding that money does not buy happiness nor love, or as is often quoted in Scotland “there are no pockets in a shroud” – so you cannot take it with you. Loving relationships and strong communities are the true human riches of our brief time on this wee planet.

Benny Lynch gave a lot of his earnings away, in a manner that suggests he knew this. Flattery, fame and fortune could not heal his wounds nor resolve his despair. He never forgot his roots from the Gorbals where in the 1900s (and still to this day) the majority of working class people strived to help each other and where a shared sense of community meant people were understanding and compassionate in relation to each other’s harsh life circumstances.

The story of the life of Benny Lynch and his empathy towards” his ain folk” is a message for us all.

Thanks to people like Lynne Lees Gorbals citizen and Founder of The Remembering Benny lynch Statue Campaign along with the generosity of people from Gorbals, Glagow, London, Dublin and across the world. The message will not be forgotten.

We have sought to make meaning for you here today in ways that promote an empathetic approach to our lives – we appreciate you reading our blog post and connecting (or not) with our perspective and ideas.

Gal Holiday and The Honky Tonk Revue, Sunday 11th June Teviot Row House Edinburgh, Doors Open 19.00.

End of Term Celebration  –   All Welcome

Come and dance till you drop!

For One Night Only We Present vanessa-12 (2)

Gal Holiday and the Honky Tonk Revue

New Orleans’ Finest 

Americanna/Ameripolitan Act:

Sunday 11th of June 2017

Teviot Row House, Debating Hall 

13 Bristo Pl, Edinburgh EH8 9AJ

Doors Open at 19:00

Ticket prices;
Student £7.00,
Individual Full Price £12.00
Advanced Purchase Group Reduction; Groups of 10 people £80

Tickets available on the door.

Tables can be reserved in advance for groups of 10 people (or more) by emailing (students) and (non-students)

This is a not-for-profit public event, organised by the staff of the BA Childhood Practice at the University of Edinburgh – ticket price covers venue hire and band – all welcome.

Gal Holiday and the Honky Tonk Revue were at the vanguard of New Orleans’ now-thriving country scene when they formed over a decade ago, and they’ve remained in a league of their own ever since. Combining evocative songwriting, impeccable musicianship, and a twinge of punk sensibility to boot, their infectious Western swing energy has earned them their place in the upper echelon of New Orelans’s favorite acts and helped them grow an avid fan-base around the world.

“The Gal” is Vanessa Niemann, an Appalachian-born songstress who’s powerful voice and magnetic stage presence led to a 2017, Ameripolitan Award – Honky Tonk Female nomination. Over the years, the Revue has counted among its ranks some of the finest musicians in the region. The current Honky Tonk Review roster boasts guitarists Justin L Coyer and Matt Slusher in addition to drummer Rose Cangelosi, and upright bassist Corey McGillivary.

These multi-time Big Easy and Best of the Beat Award recipients have shared the stage with Willie Nelson, Lyle Lovett, the Blind Boys of Alabama, and countless other talents. They come to Europe fresh from appearing at the 2017 New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival (their tenth year in a row) .

They know the ins and outs of the country canon and can even get folks swinging to an unexpected pop cover or two. Above all, vivid song writing is one of the group’s great strengths. Their rollicking foot-stompers and poignant Crescent City tributes alike crackle with an authentic country spirit.

Armed with this kind of versatility and an ever-growing body of original material, they put on a show that never gets old and delights rowdy dancers and buttoned-down diners alike.

New Orleans may be most closely associated with jazz and brass, but Gal Holiday and the Honky Tonk Revue prove that the city celebrates its musical diversity with enthusiasm.


Creating Convincing Narratives: We Are Haunted By Waters and Words:

Thanks to Katie Gallogly-Swann for posting this Orwell article on facebook (see link here). Today’s post – compares Orwell to the American author Norman Maclean (who has often been discussed on this blog). It aims to contrast the headmaster technical rational tone of Orwell with the more meaning orientated advice of Maclean, when considering the political narratives of the forthcoming UK election.

Orwell’s article critiques the rehashing of old narratives, In so doing, the article holds relevance for today’s politics and gives us insight into the key weakness of TMay’s repetitive, robotic and vacuous statements concerning Brexit negotiations, stable government and Scottish Independence. Orwell tells us that creative and evocative writing utilizes visual images to stimulate people’s thinking but that poor writing utilises tired or clumsy metaphors:

A newly invented metaphor assists thought by evoking a visual image, while on the other hand a metaphor which is technically ‘dead’ (e. g. iron resolution) has in effect reverted to being an ordinary word and can generally be used without loss of vividness. But in between these two classes there is a huge dump of worn-out metaphors which have lost all evocative power and are merely used because they save people the trouble of inventing phrases for themselves. Examples are: Ring the changes on, take up the cudgel for, toe the line, ride roughshod over, stand shoulder to shoulder with, play into the hands of, no axe to grind, grist to the mill, fishing in troubled waters, on the order of the day, Achilles’ heel, swan song, hotbed.

Just as metaphors get tired, so do sound bites. TMAY is a serial offender in relation to the over use of sound bites – in coming weeks UK audiencse will tire of hearing the phrases ‘strong and stable government’ and ‘coalition of chaos’. Occasionally TMAY comes up with a new sound bite, yet, the notable thing about TMAY’s terminological extravagances is that they age within seconds and are easily countered (e.g. ‘Brexit means Brexit’ was soon exposed when it turned out there was no Brexit plan). See a how easy it is to explain how the Tories are the party of chaos and disunity in this video here.

What would Orwell have said of TMAY – he would have said she was a fascist who sought to concentrate power through the misuse of language, media and myth.

Orwell’s article had some very clear tips for how to avoid tired speaking, writing or thinking:

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.’

Contemporary writers have referred to Orwell as the headmaster of writing. The fee-paying school aspects of Orwell’s up-bringing, no doubt, influenced his ‘rules’ approach to writing. He regularly attacked other writers on issues of content, meaning and style. Ironically, for someone so opposed to fascism, he too easily imposed his ‘norms’ on other people’s writing. When so doing, he was guilty of reproducing the very unyielding behaviour he despised of other people.

Orwell’s letters and articles could lack generosity and often involved him acting as a self-appointed judge, jury and executioner. Orwell’s approach involved a nil sum game. For him to intellectually win, someone else had to loose. Yet, his work is extremely useful for those of us seeking to critiquing the class of people who populate (and have always populated) the Westminster Parliament.

Orwell’s work was concerned with explaining disunity rather than producing creative prose. Orwell’s straight forward (and some-what pessimistic) writing enabled us to understand the dangerous, absurd, inequitable, self-reproducing and unfair nature of power and politics. However, Orwell’s writing has been critiqued for lacking beauty, emotion and poetry.

Orwell sought to convey messages about the bleak recession hit world he lived in. In contrast to Orwell’s technical rational advice (that stemmed from Orwell being a journalist), the American author Norman Maclean promoted a more artistic style in his writing.

In a previous blog post, I explained that Maclean worked at the University of Chicago where the School of Literary Criticism emerged in the 1930s and argued, following Aristotle, that we should value the unity, structure and form that literature, poetry and art expressed (the way the parts of a work come together as a whole) rather than concentrate on analysing the nature of the language used within a piece of writing.

Maclean, like Orwell, believed that writing and storytelling could have winners and losers but Maclean had a less upper class approach to writing than Orwell. Maclean’s understandings concerning writing did not come from an expensive fee paying school education. Maclean’s advice came from home schooling (especially in the art of fly fishing) and from the bunk-rooms of the woods of Montana (where he worked in early adulthood).

Maclean suggests that if you want people to stay with your story it better have: high adventure, accuracy, and interest.  He also argued that stories should: be speedy; depict what you know best; unpack the feeling of doing (performing); involve beauty; have a unifying structure and utilise the principles of design.

Maclean depicted writing as an inexact craft, as a journey, as process of discovery and as an artistic endeavour. Maclean’s work sought not to judge others (though at times it was judgemental). Maclean sought to understand, represent and give feeling to life’s core meanings. Where Orwell mercilessly taunted his opponent, Maclean sought to mystically enchant his reader, employing the magic of words to kindle, convey and convince:

‘… Writing is painfully difficult at times, and other times I feel like I have a mastery over what I’m trying to do, and of course there’s no greater pleasure than that. But when you feel that words still stand between you and what you want to say, then it’s a very unhappy business…. …When I was young in the West, most of us thought we were storytellers. And of course we all worshipped Charlie Russell, partly for his painting, but also because he was a wonderful storyteller. I feel I learned as much about storytelling from him as I did from Mark Twain or Wordsworth or any professional writer. The tradition behind that of course was the old cowboy tradition—coming into town with a pay check, putting up in a hotel, and sitting around with a half a dozen other guys trying to out tell each other in stories. Whoever was voted as telling the best story had all his expenses paid for the weekend.’

Both Orwell and Maclean understood the importance of history, experience and structures. But, they were not similar people.  Orwell, at his worst, was a snobby grumpy headmaster.  Orwell employed his anger as a fuel from which to ignite his political criticism of societal disharmony, exploitation and injustice.  Yet, Orwell could be very prejudiced.  For example, did not hold a great view of Scots people. He did not like Scotland (some writers say he ‘hated’ Scotland) and he did not like his original surname (Blair) because it sounded too Scottish.

Maclean, loved his Scottish ancestry, loved matriarchal Scottish women, associated Scottishness with using your hands (as well as issues of migration, strength and faith) and yet also promoted a somewhat simplistic caricature of Scottishness.

When representing women, Orwell was ahead of his time. Some feminist writers have valued Orwell’s ability to differentiate between sex and love in ways that did not blame, chastise or castigate female characters (e.g. in the book 1984).  In contrast, Maclean could often represent women as saints or sinners.  His Presbyterian upbringing leading him to make humour at the expense of sexually overt female characters whether they be prostitutes or the wives of the wealthy.  Maclean celebrated strong Scots women but he did not celebrate all women.

Orwell and Maclean were men of their time, they held in common the fact that they wrote about lived experiences; that they could get to the heart of an issue; and that they could represent a specific issue in ways that other authors could not.  Yet, neither Orwell nor Maclean was perfect; and when imposing textual or moral codes their work could be equally thoughtless.

Maclean’s sought to convey an artistic impression of the rural world that he inhabited. Maclean’s strength was that he utilised connections, movement and time when seeking to invent a convincing narrative. Maclean also sought to stimulate the reader’s senses, invoking sight, smell, touch, sound, and taste to produce a text of great beauty.

As identified by John G. Cawelti in this article (see link here) Maclean set up complex relationships between layers of action and themes running through his stories. Cawelti provides the quote below as evidence of the way Maclean connects symbols (such as water and words), plays with different meanings, yet seeks a form of resolution that is both powerful (because it overcomes false dichotomies) and beautiful (because it uses metaphor, movement and rhythm to convey feeling):

“As the heat mirages on the river in front of me danced with and through each other, I could feel patterns from my own life joining with them. It was here, while waiting for my brother, that I started this story, although, of course, at the time I did not know that stories of life are often more like rivers than books. But I knew a story had begun, perhaps long ago near the sound of water, and I sensed that ahead I would meet something that would never erode so there would be a sharp turn, deep circles, a deposit, and quietness’

Here, Maclean connects ‘life story’ and ‘rivers’ but underneath and in his final words he gets to the essence of and expresses a notion of the concept of ‘life-time’ (with all its twist and turns). Maclean is a master of making bed fellows of difference and similarity – he seeks to create unity not division. Maclean’s narrative has power and beauty that Orwell might see as frivolous and that no current Tory spin doctor is likely to appreciate.

Both Maclean and Orwell understood the importance of history. For Orwell every injustice had a historical beginning. For Maclean every meaning and feeling had a historical starting point.  These authors are the opposite of today’s right wing politicians who (without a care for their polluting effects) seek to crudely reinvent, manipulate and manufacture historical truths in ways that seek to wash their own hands of any responsibility for the cruelty that such narratives instigate. The Tory party supporting media keeps up a constant flow of divisive stories in an effort to divert us from realising that we are surrounded by a politics of oligarchy, environmental destruction and mass exploitation.

It is important for the writer, politician and voter to recognise: that things playout in specific ways because of the histories that bring us to where we are now. Water always moves downhill and it can create havoc on its way or we can work together to creatively and constructively channel its course.  As the anthropologist Merleau-Ponty might have said – thought, meaning and culture always have a prior context.

In previous blogs, I have utilised a quote for Maclean’s book, ‘A River Runs Through It’, that states he is haunted by waters. I have connected this quote to problems at Standing Rock, countless (and sadly on going) deaths in the Mediterranean and the gulf between the present president of the USA and other countries.  In so doing, I have argued that our current politics is haunted by waters.  It is worth restating Maclean’s quote here so that we consider its beauty at the same time as reconsidering it’s meaning for our current political times:

“Eventually all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world’s great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs. I am haunted by waters”

In essence we are haunted by waters and by words (especially divisive sound bites). TMAY and DTRUMP are insipid weak people – who don’t care who they hurt in their attempts to project themselves as powerful.  TMAY calls for stronger government but her words hold no water.  Our current Brexit induced elections do not require strong authoritarian government, they require Scotland to remember the Tory history of ‘strong government’ that destroyed our jobs, towns and economic infrastructures.

We are haunted by the times in Scotland’s recent (and past) history when Tory political tidal waves have overcome the sandbags of Labour opposition and wiped out our communities, persecuted disabled people, diminished our pensions, attacked women’s incomes, forced children into poverty and required our citizens to use foodbanks.

Maclean, like Orwell, would have little time for Tory sound bites because those sound bites have been over used and because, at their essence, those sound bites point to a lack of unity. The Tory ‘give us the power of stable government’ narrative (for this election) implores voters to ignore the fact that the Tories have created disunity.  As such, it lacks a structure and history that is unifying.

TMAY’s ‘stability’ story lacks authenticity (and should easily be exposed) because the Tory party are the party of ‘No Brexit Plan Chaos’, ‘Red, White and Blue Brexit Chaos’ and ‘Brexit Chaos means Brexit Chaos’.  The simple truth of the current political situation is that TMAY called the election to hide her own weak and chaotic political situation.

TMAY’s project fear narrative may work in England (because of Labour weakness) but it will be unlikely to work (again) in Scotland, nor overcome the liberationist narratives of Scotland’s independence parties. Scotland has imaginative politicians and citizens who are ready to turn back the tide of Tory oppression.  Such liberation narratives are not open to the Tories because they have created the pain, discomfort and anxiety that Brexit induces.

The reason TMAY needs to stay away from debates is that her position will not survive scrutiny, it will be swamped by more contemporary positions.  Rushed by events, (not least the fleet footwork of Nicola Sturgeon) the Tories have made an important mistake, they are fighting the current campaign using the narratives of the last election.  Their mistake is that they are addicted to the late 1960’s narratives of Nixon that contrasted stability with danger.

Their narrative is stale and weak because it was previously employed by discredited politicians (not just Nixon but Cameron and Brown) and it can be reworked to remind voters of who actually called the election, who actually caused the pain of austerity  and who actually put a time bomb under the flood barrier of lies that were told in 2014 (when Scottish Independence last threatened to wash away the failed state that we call the UK).

The flood gates that were put in place the last time the union was at risk (in 2014) are now under extreme pressure and many commentators believe that Scottish Independence and a united Ireland is inevitable.

In contrast to the Tories’ negative English Nationalism, independence supporters in Scotland and Ireland have a stronger liberationist script at their disposal. The Tories are promoting an anti-EU, pro English nationalism without realising that it makes them look desperate to go back to a time before the 2nd Word War.  Contrast Tory desperation to hide in the past with the youthful independence of Scotland and Ireland.

When attempting to poke holes in TMAY’s flood defences, the independence parties in have many more narratives open to them than are open to TMAY.  Scottish political parties can choose from more contemporary, creative and convincing narratives about independence because independence has always been their specialist subject (they are the Olympic swimmers of independence) – the Tory party can not win a race to independence against Scottish opposition  (The Tories still have their arm-bands on when participating in this new found event).

The Tories have forgotten Maclean’s advice to create narratives about what you know best. Granted, many a good book has been written about a topic an author is seeking to comprehend (like Maclean’s book on the Mann Gulch Fire), but, Scottish voters are aware that TMAY’s Tories have no in-depth understanding of independence and that only 2 years ago the Tories were scathing of the concept (their hypocrisy concerning the English nationalism of Brexit knows no bounds). First past the post UK politics is  a nil some game and when elections become about English nationalism – Scotland/Ireland win and England/Wales lose.

Strong political narratives can also be created when authors seek to better understand, to be released from, or to overcome a historically painful issue.  Social justice narratives will be important in this election, many independence supporters have experienced the worst excesses of austerity and/or feel they were conned in 2014.  Recognition of past political injury is an important aspect of social justice.  This aspect of social justice is something that even David Cameron (in relation to Hillsborough) and Tony Blair (in relation to Northern Ireland) understood.

Yet, TMAY cannot understand why she should recognise the emotional history of those who do not agree with her. You only have to read about the experiences of Tory members in TMAYs constituency to understand that she doesn’t care about, listen to or respect other people’s feelings.  TMAY lacks empathy and is far too willing to inflict injury on those she sees as enemies (e.g. Gove, Osborne and Hammond)..

Gender politics will be very prevalent in this election. The contemporary, buoyant and internationalist gender politics of Nicola Sturgeon will be contrasted with the Stepford wives politics of TMAY.

Both Maclean and Orwell had their failings and were just as flawed human beings as the rest of us. Yet, Maclean found it easier (than Orwell) to come to terms with his imperfections and to use his self-awareness as a tool from which to celebrate the imperfections of himself and other human beings. Sturgeon has this ability – recognising and making light of your imperfections is a core value of working class Scots.  This is an aspect of Nicola Sturgeons personality that is very appealing, she is very happy talking straight to the public in the street and answering direct questions from pundits.

In contrast to Sturgeon, TMAY and Ruth-D seem incapable of accepting their flaws as politicians, answer direct questions with pre-prepared meaningless phrases  and seem unable to countenance opposing views.  Trying to hide your imperfections by not engaging in discussions (e.g. on Tory welfare policy) is what Ruth-D and the Tories did very badly last week.

The Tories are appalling on the issue of gender. Their sexist welfare reform is a very serious issue that will hurt the Tory vote in Scotland (particularly when coupled with the removal of women’s pension rights at age 60).  Rather than apologising for Westminster dodgy policies on welfare, Ruth-D has fracked her way into deep political hot waters.

The Tories (as is the way of that class of people) connect imperfection with self-loathing and anger.  The Tories currently point the finger at everyone else rather than accept that it is they who spread division, they who sickeningly use rape as a political game and they who are breaking up the United Kingdom.

Jobs is the other political topic that will scald the Tories. Maclean’s writing teaches us that there is strength in being able to work with your hands, voice or text; and therefore, that no single ability should be privileged over another.  The Tories of the Thatcher era created an economy the destroyed the lively hood of those who worked with their hands in factories, shipyards, steal works and mines across Scotland.  More recently, George Osborne and David Cameron put the bullet into Scotland’s oil industry (they also greatly inhibited the growth of green technologies).  TMAY’s Brexit legacy will destroy the livelihood of countless others who currently work with their hands in Whiskey, Food, Agriculture and Fisheries.

The audacity of TMAY is that she has adopted a headmistress tone (that chastises the Scottish people for having the impudence to discuss independence), at the very time when English nationalism is so arrogantly espoused in her own political party and English nationalism has been given life at Westminster (economically through Brexit and politically through EVEL – English votes for English laws). It is English nationalism that will break up the United Kingdom and lead to an independent Scotland and united Ireland.

TMAY is likely to pay a toll for seeking to give lessons to Scots on the morality of independence (a toll that might well signal the death of the UK).   At some point the ferryman from the underworld will require TMAY to pay his price and a silver coin will be placed in the mouth of the UK state as it is taken from this world and transported down to the bottom of the sea to be laid to rest next to the shipwrecks of all the other failed empires.

On that day, a rejuvenated Scottish nation will spring forth – and a raft of positive political policies will come to the aid of the people, including: land rights, pensions, banking, childcare, renewables, citizen’s income, currency, citizenship, welfare, housing, etc., .


The First Steps To A Universal Early learning and Care Service?

Professor John Davis, Professor of Childhood Inclusion at the University of Edinburgh compares the Scottish Government’s plans for a quality, flexible, accessible and affordable early learning and childcare service to the Common Weal’s proposals for a universal service.

Last Thursday, the Scottish Government published its action plan for how it will double the amount of free early learning and childcare for all 3-4 year olds and ‘eligible’ two year olds. The SNP have set out a strategy for how they will meet their 2020 manifesto committed to deliver 1,140 hours per year of early learning and childcare (30 hours per week for 38 weeks) and enable hard pressed families to save up to £4500 per year.

Readers will be reminded of the Common Weal ‘An Equal Start’ report published in 2016 which sought to highlight the key issues and barriers that might hinder such an aim and that set out an ambitious longer term proposals for developing a universal early learning and childcare service by for 2-5 year olds by 2025 (which would include a blend of provision offered by centres and childminders).


capacity challenge


In his statement to parliament, Mark MacDonald, The Minister for Childcare and Early Years explained that quality, flexibility, accessibility and affordability would be the cornerstones of the Scottish Government’s action plan for early learning and care services.  So what are the issues that the government need to overcome if they are to meet their target?

The Common Weal ‘An Equal Start’ report suggested that there was a lack of capacity in the sector to meet the requirement for 45000 new places, 1125 new childcare centres and 11000 full time (or up to 20,000 part-time) posts by 2020.  It argued that there were:

  • barriers to private sector involvement in the free hours scheme (e.g. around 30% of funding went to the private sector providers who became ‘partners’ with local authorities)
  • insufficient all day provision (e.g. 8am to 6pm) due to issues with the costs per hour paid to providers
  • a lack of training for staff on how to work with disabled children and ‘eligible’ two year olds
  • huge pay inequalities between private and public sector employees and a lack of national pay scales commensurate with other degree level professions
  • a need for a national framework/organisation to strategically plan capital investment to expand the number of buildings
  • a need to advertise and raise public knowledge of the new Childhood Practice degree that around 2000 managers had completed or were now studying for.

We argued that the huge amount of funding available to early learning and childcare provided a unique opportunity to develop and regenerate local town and village centres and produce quality early services that were embedded in wider local and community-based integrated services:

‘There being little point in developing high quality early years centres if we do not, at the same time, address the whole system around the child and family.’

We also suggested there should be an audit of local authorities to ascertain capacity and infrastructure issues and a task force to address these issue. So let us see how far the government have travelled when compared with our ‘An Equal Start’ plan.

The government statement (and accompanying documentation) set out a clear action plan:

‘That involves removing barriers to private and third sector providers delivering funded ELC. The service model for the future must ensure more financially sustainable provision across all sectors – including community-led provision, such as the approach to extending hours being supported through the Argyll and Bute Trial involving the Mull & Iona Community Trust. ‘

That’s a good start and chimes well with our ideas for developing local communities set out in the Common Weal Book of Ideas which asked readers to:

‘Visualise an early learning and childcare sector that provides free childcare for cash strapped parents, involves children spending at least 50% of their time outdoors and revolutionises the way we think about the role of community and local spaces.’

On Thursday, Mark MacDonald confirmed £60 million will be spent in 2017-18 to support the first phase of capacity building to create new spaces for childcare. So it looks like the government has been listening.  In October 2015 in a Bella Caledonia article on the Common Weal Book of Ideas we suggested that the capital spend going into early learning and care could help to regenerate local communities.


book of ideas

We estimated, in our ‘An Equal Start Report’, that 800 million might be required for new buildings. Mar MacDonald stated:

‘we will provide greater certainty to local authorities over multi-year revenue and capital funding assumptions over the coming weeks and months. ‘

So it will be important to keep an eye on the details that emerge and who has access to the capital spend that goes to each local authority area. Speaking to local authorities, the suggestion is that the first phase of spending will look to ensure maximise the repurposing and expansion of existing buildings. We had suggested a national task force was required to ensure capital spend was not wasted and we questioned whether the buildings developed from the capital spend would actually be designed from the perspective of young children.

So, it was splendid news that the Government will partner with the Scottish Future’s trust and Care inspectorate to produce guidance on innovative design (of both indoor and outdoor spaces); that the Scottish Futures Trust will produce regular ELC infrastructure progress reports; and that the government will establish a multi-disciplinary team (co-designed with local authorities) to provide expert professional and technical delivery support to local authorities.

Full marks here for the minister who stated that such a multi-disciplinary delivery support team will enable local authorities to develop the additional service innovation and redesign capacity required whilst producing economies of scale by sharing solutions for common and complex issues. A national team is definitely excellent news for those of us who were worried local authorities might fritter away the money (a la the Edinburgh Trams fiasco) and we are also pleased that this team will be backed up by the Futures Trust who will also have to report, at a strategic level, on progress made.

There was also a positive shift away from Tory ideas on early learning and childcare. Page 11 of the action plan removed the immediate likelihood of the SNP adopting a Tory plan (for vouchers or learning accounts) that might lead to a huge increase in private provision and mean that more local children, at an early age, were channelled into private school nursery provision and therefore divided from other children in their communities.

The announcement of a:

‘feasibility study to explore potential costs and benefits of introducing an Early Learning and Childcare Account in the future.’

Should mean that this idea cannot be implemented unless greatly amended. The delay in implementing learning accounts might enable the Greens, Labour and Liberals to get their act together and produce a united policy that Scotland should, in time, move to a universal early learning and care service, free at the point of use.

Slovenia, who out rank us in the PISA scores that compare children’s educational ability at aged 15, has had a universal childcare service since 1970’s and it was introduced on the back of a huge movement for women’s rights. Mark MacDonald’s plan, by increasing quality and capacity, could act as an excellent stepping stone to a position where the Scottish government announce (e.g. in a future referendum) that a universal service will be the founding block of an independent Scotland that ensures all children are given an equal start in life.

The labour policy on this issue is particularly unclear on their website at present – so here is hoping they remember that their party once thought of a universal childcare service as a positive policy for women’s rights.

An independent Scottish government could move to a universal service by increasing funding to 1900 hours per year (8.00 am to 6 pm provision) or introducing a policy that reduces the working day to 6 hours (as per recent experiments in Finland and Sweden).

The Minister announced on Thursday that his action plan is currently provider neutral (the money will follow the child where ever parents can find provision).   If you ask business people, they will tell you it is very difficult to garner a profit from government funded early learning services that involve being a ‘partner provider’ that adopts local authority standards. The government recognised on Thursday that there are disincentives to the private sector:

‘We know from our Financial Review and responses to the Blueprint consultation that there are two key barriers to private and third sector providers delivering funded ELC: (1) the current partnership agreement process, which can be cumbersome and restrictive; and (2) the hourly rate offered by local authorities doesn’t meet the costs of provision. The new service model will be underpinned by a more open, proportionate and consistent approach, which makes it more attractive for high quality providers to deliver funded ELC.’

This aim could raise concerns that we are moving in the opposite direction from a state run universal service, however, the requirement that private providers can only access government funding if they become ‘partner providers’ (who adopt local authority standards) should avoid any chance there is a race to the bottom where standards are reduced in the search for profit.

impact of early yeras economicsThe ‘An Equal Start Report’ recognised some issues concerning quality in the private sector and suggested a National Child Care Service could be utilised to increase quality, expand the use of outdoor provision and overcome fears that a move to 1140 hours will simply lead to the institutionalisation of early childhood. So, it was also great news that Mark MacDonald announced: a ELC Service Models Working Group to develop the details of the new ‘Funding Follows the Child’ model; a national standard for a more open process to becoming a funded provider; and a common set of standards for quality, availability, affordability, flexibility and staffing.

In so doing, Mark MacDonald began to address fears about the impact on young children’s learning of variations in quality between the private and public sector. Indeed, by stating that the government will work with local authorities to set a national standard for funded provider status and local authorities will continue to have a statutory responsibility to ensure that funded entitlement is available for all eligible children in their areas, he set out a universal approach to quality and accessibility.  The buildings will be owned by a range of private, public and voluntary organisations but what happens in the buildings will have to meet national quality standards set by the public sector local authorities.

One issue of concern about the role of local authorities has been that the huge amount of retirements and job cuts in the public sector mean that their can sometimes be a lack of staff with early years qualifications making strategic decisions in local authorities. Similarly, many services are now co-located with primary schools or teachers are redeployed into early years, or, primary heads manage both the school and nursery but have no qualifications in early years pedagogy.

On top of this issue of a lack of knowledge, skills and experience relating to early learning, by raising the funded provision to 1140 hours, the Scottish Government has also created a need for an increase in the numbers of qualified staff in the sector (e.g. all leaders of early years services now have to have the BA Childhood practice qualification or equivalent to register with the Scottish Social Services council and all workers must have an HNC or VQ3). Hence, there have been numerous calls for increases in budgets for training and qualifications in the sector.

Quality services depend on well qualified workers, therefore the sector will have been relieved to hear Mark MacDonald’s statements on qualifications and training:

‘We are providing local authorities with £21 million in 2017-18 to invest in the first phase of the workforce expansion – both increasing the size of the workforce and equipping existing staff with new skills. This local investment will be complemented by an increase in the number of places available on further and higher education courses in the 2017‑18 academic year. The Scottish Funding Council will provide an additional 350 graduate-level places (which includes places to support the Additional Graduate commitment) and 650 places for practitioner-level qualifications across our further and higher educational institutions…. …We are providing funding of £1.5 million to the Scottish Funding Council to increase teacher training and other ELC‑related graduate places in the 2017-18 academic year. … … As part of our work to develop the Quality Action Plan, we will work with professional bodies to consider how we can further strengthen the role of teachers in delivering learning in ELC settings ‘

Unlike teaching or nursing, this is a sector where employees and employers have had to fund their own qualifications.   This is the first time that a minister in our field has set out such an ambitious plan for qualifications and training.  Again, the devil will be in the detail, but at first glance this looks like a brilliant example of a listening government responding to the requests of its citizens.

Similarly, Mark MacDonald was the first minister to seriously develop research on pay on conditions in the sector. Common Weal raised the issue of pay in our ‘An Equal Start Report’. This led Mark MacDonald to commissioned a report entitled the Financial review of early learning and childcare in Scotland: the current landscapewhich identified that 80% of practitioners and 50% of senior staff were payed below the living wage (as report here by common space).

On the 18th of March Nicola Sturgeon announced £50 million to ensure the living wage for private sector early learning and care workers (see announcement here) and on Thursday Mark MacDonald announced a requirement for the promotion of Fair Work practices across the sector, including ensuring that staff are fairly remunerated and that partner providers agree pay rates with local authorities.

The Scottish Government have been criticised for taking their eye of the day job when: producing detailed Scotland specific responses to the result of the EU referendum, setting out plans for a future referendum and seeking to ensure that Scotland is not dragged off a Tory die-hard Brexit cliff. Yet, in Mark MacDonald’s announcement we can see that the ‘day job’ has not been ignored and that the SNP government have been working very hard to produce concrete, detailed and wide ranging plans for early learning and care. Plans that will raise the status of this sector in ways that will make it more attractive sector to work in:

‘And we will work with delivery partners to develop recruitment and career pathways to assist in attracting and retaining high calibre candidates in the workforce, to raise the profile of a career in ELC amongst under-represented groups and to seek to improve gender balance across the sector… …We will also increase the focus on access to graduate-level early years educators, seeking to strengthen the practice-based element of graduate level training, with clear measures to be set out in our Quality Action Plan.’

Other announcements included a new fund for accessible provision for disabled children; more effective partnership working to support transitions into, through, and out of, ELC; increased funding for childcare for professionals studying for childhood practice qualifications; and a Learning and Development Pathway for all childminders to ensure that the mix and blend of provision is widened.

SCMA logo

The announcement on Childminding is another example of where having a parliament in Edinburgh enables organisations and workers to collaborate closely with Government to ensure their policies meet and respond to local and national concerns. Maggie Simpson, Chief Executive of the Scottish Childminding Association, who has campaigned for a greater role for childminders in local authorities, welcomed the announcement (see SCMA statement here):

 “SCMA welcomes the findings of the Blueprint Consultation on Early Learning and Childcare and an acknowledgement that childminders have a key role in the future delivery of funded entitlement.” Said.  However, there is much to be done to make this a reality. Up until now childminders have played a relatively limited role in providing funded entitlement despite being keen to be active partners… …  The expansion provides an opportunity for childminders to have an enhanced role in the delivery of funded ELC but to achieve this, local authorities need to show willing and embrace this opportunity.

The Government’s action plan is a serious good document that has great potential to improve the sector, increase standards and regenerate communities. In the longer term, we need to keep our eye on the detail of how capital spend will be accessed and how much will go to the private sector. For example, on a recent trip to New Zealand we encountered anecdotal evidence that access to capital spend had enable excess profit for some private sector companies and we need to ensure that such possibilities, for the misdirection of public funds, does not occur here.

We would have liked to have seen an announcement on a longer tem movement to all professionals in the sector (including teachers) registering with the SSSC, all practitioners having a degree and all managers being trained to masters level. But, there is nothing in the statement that would hinder such a shift in the future.

The government commissioned Skills Development Scotland (SDS) to publish a Skills Investment Plan (SIP) to grow the ELC workforce, improve gender balance and increase the number of ELC Modern Apprenticeships. These steps are to be welcomed but they also raise questions as to whether such a plan exists for growing the skills of those who will be involved in developing the buildings that will enable the expansion of the ELC sector?  We are keen that the capital spend is utilised to develop skills that remain in our communities long after the buildings are completed and that this spend is not simply extracted out of Scotland by big business (as has been the criticism of some PFI and PPI projects).

To conclude, in The Common Weal ‘An Equal Start Report’ we asked for a strategy to ensure money is well spent, we asked for fair pay, we asked for a focus on child specific design, we asked for flexibility for local areas, we asked for funding for qualifications and we asked for a greater role for the public sector leading in time to a universal early learning and care service. The Scottish Government has responded emphatically on all of these issues.

A universal service, is the only phrase missing from Mark MacDonald’s plan (and his four pillars of quality, flexible, accessible and affordable). In spite of this omission, we hope to be able to look back at this government announcement and conclude that it was, in fact, the day that the first serious stepping stones to a national universal early learning and care service were clearly set out.


It Is A Matter Of When – Not If – the Union Ends: Demographics, Not Racism, Will bring About An Independent Scotland And A United Ireland

In June 2015 I wrote in this blog post about the ironic way that unionists pointed the finger of extremism at Scotland with out ever reflecting on their own prejudice.

My June 2015 blog piece also pointed out that we are all racist in some way or other. It argued that our racism can be unintentional but it occurs because we can never fully understand every new cultural context we find ourselves in.  In short, the complexity, insidiousness and unrelenting nature of normalism, standardisation, universalism and ethnocentrism means that we all have problems engaging with moments that require us to see the world from another person’s perspective.

So, when Sadiq Khan makes accusations of racism about people in Scotland, he is correct; but not necessarily in the way he intended. He intended to stigmatise a political grouping who support independence but in seeking to injure his perceived opponents, he actually fell into the ethnocentric trap of suggesting proindy Scots are a homogeneous entity.  In so doing, he practiced the very racism he was seeking to oppose.  He stereotyped a group who in the UK context are a minority and spoke as if all members of the SNP are the same or all independence supporters are the same.  It may be that Sadiq Khan’s own recent experiences of racism (e.g. at the hands of Zac Goldsmith) had placed a veil over his senses, or (of more concern) it is possibly the case that people in the labour party asked him to say something like this because they have done the maths and realised that they need to peel off certain demographics from the proindy camp.

Could they really stoop so low?  Unfortunately, we only have to look back at the last Westminster election to see that the Labour party have a problem concerning stereotypes, race and politics and are only too ready to stoop to the politics of the gutter in an attempt to appeal to an imaginary racist labour leaning section of the electorate. I wrote in 2015 that the Labour Party should be ashamed of this type of gutter politics:

It is ironic that Westminster establishment types point the finger at politics in Scotland when their own political sphere has become so extreme. Indeed, so extreme that Labour politicians are scared to voice support for immigration least it loose them votes with the English electorate.  The labour party should be ashamed of its fear – it is this type of fear that enables extremists to flourish unchallenged.


This statement is as relevant now as it was in 2015. 2 years has not been a long time in the ground hog politics of unionist extremism.  The labour party’s anti-migrant mugs at the 2015 election were very mind numbing examples of where nationalism stokes racism.  The racist mugs fitted with Labour politics because Labour were desperate.  The mugs were not only unacceptable,  they were also stupid (they most likely cost the Labour Party core voters).

labour party mugs with green

The reactions in Scotland to Khan’s comments are understandable. The labour Party have lost sight of their values and should sort themselves out before attacking others.  The Labour party seem to have a problem standing up for the social justice and anti-discriminatory values their voters believe in.  Labour party voters voted by over 60% for remaining in the EU but the Labour party fails to hold the Tories to account over Tory red, white and blue Brexit.

brexit by party

Scots have a point, when they suggest it would be worth the Labour party putting its own house in order before throwing muck at other people.  However, Gerry Hassan also warns us not to completely ignore Sadiq Khan’s remarks see this link .

Some pro-independence voices will read and dismiss the above, comfortable in their belief in our civic nationalism. Well, here is a warning from these isles. British nationalism, historically, has been a civic nationalism – one which has articulated a multi-cultural, multi-national union of four nations. And look what it has descended into in recent years: regressive, reactionary, xenophobic and profoundly insular and nasty: something that is beginning to look like in places an ethnic nationalism…. … The politics of ‘my nationalism is more virtuous than your nationalism’ versus ‘our nationalism isn’t a nationalism’ isn’t a very attractive one. Or one that offers much guide to the future choices of Scotland – independent or not independent…. ….If we (the various peoples who live in Scotland) are confident enough about ourselves, we cannot just insist that Scottish nationalism is about the good guys and virtuous story of our nation. Instead, there has to be an awareness of the sociology of nationalisms which involves more than citing Benedict Anderson’s point that all nations and peoples are ‘imagined communities’ or continually referencing how ‘civic’ our nationalism is and how tolerant we are. We should inhabit this terrain, live it, while recognising that there are other nationalisms and Scotland’s out there.

No Nation has a monopoly on social justice, no political party is without its extremes and no one person is perfect, I wrote about this in 2015:

For example, I never thought of myself as a racist, I had black friends when growing up, play rugby with black players, my favourite sports starts were black (Muhammid Ali and Viv Richards), I had huge respect for political figures like Martin Luther King and Malcolm X and I went out with a black girl friend, etc. (I came to realise later this was potentially tokenistic tosh). Whilst growing up, I had picked up some decidedly dodgy views about people from South Asia. Indeed, I lived in a community which celebrated black footballers but assumed people from India and Pakistan were not sporty and ‘all’ wanted to be shopkeepers or doctors.  Our communities at the time were also populated with myths about arranged marriage, housing and food choices. It was not until my late teens that I started to realise that I had racist views.  I learned from an excellent modern studies teacher called Mr Griffiths about the history of immigration to the UK and about political figures from South Asia who promoted Human rights and anti-colonialism. My education was furthered at university in Northern Ireland where I played cricket with South Asian cricketers who would educate me about their family histories and cultural differences whilst strolling round the boundary and lounging about in the sun. I studied anthropology and sociology and came to understand how stigma, generalisations and stereotypes were fostered as part of colonialism as a method of enabling the UK to do terrible things to everyday people in other countries, whilst ripping those countries off for their natural resources.  On returning to Scotland in the early 1990s I was a very different person much more aware of the racist society that we live in and with a completely different view of Scotland to my 18 year old self who had once argued with a friend that Scotland didn’t have a problem with racism. That doesn’t mean I was or am cured of prejudice – the thing about prejudice is it crops up when you least expect it.

As Sadiq Khan has just demonstrated, even when we are attempting to combat racism we can unexpectedly and unthinkingly adopt racist positions. Gerry Hassan tells us that those promoting a notion of English racist bad and Scotland non-racist good, need to wise up to the reality of modern Scotland.

Numerous ‘us’ and ‘thems’ need airing. The writer Henry Bell said last week that anti-Englishness wasn’t racism – a respectable and understandable position – but did so as if there could be no debating of the matter, stating: ‘The English in Scotland – holding a culturally dominant, non-racialised identity – do not experience racism’. This was because, in his view, ‘racism is not just discrimination but power dynamic’. That’s one interpretation, but the racism Wiki entry opens with the following observation: ‘Racism is discrimination and prejudice based on their race or ethnicity. Today, the use of the term “racism” does not easily fall under a single definition’. At minimum, this means there should be a debate about what constitutes racism.

I have heard Henry Bell’s arguments many times.  Put in simpler terms the position is that you can’t be racist against a majority – hog wash. As Gerry Hassan alludes to, definitions of racism are so much more complex than that.

In my 2011 book Integrated Children’s Services I describe a research project where I worked with colleagues to analyse black and minority ethnic families experience of early years services. One method we employed was a survey of professionals – some professionals made explicitly racist comments in the open question at the end of the survey, others lacked knowledge of how to promote anti-discrimination in their work place.  A subsequent study carried out with the SSSC demonstrated that whilst qualifications had enabled leaders of early years, play, family centre and out of school services to gain knowledge concerning anti-discrimination some had difficulties putting this knowledge into practice and operationalising it when incidents occurred.  It is important that politicians and professionals understand the different types of racism they might be promoting when they throw mud at their opponents:

Irish Mariian Young suggests there are differences between racism related to cultural difference and racism that is related to power/structural position:

iris marion young

In my observation, concerns and concepts more associated with the politics of cultural difference have tended to occupy political theorists in recent years, such as issues of autonomy for minority cultures or toleration of religious difference, than have concerns and concepts more associated with a politics of positional difference, such as the status meaning of occupational positions, and the normalization of attributes that count as qualification for them. Failure properly to conceptualize the difference between these two models of a politics of difference may lead to obscuring certain specific forms of group based injustice, such as racism or the normalization of certain capacities, which cannot be reduced to issues of cultural difference.   I think that much recent political theory concerned with group difference has indeed ignored such issues, which were central to the problematics that generated theorizing on the politics of difference in the 1980’s.  Both versions of a politics of difference are important, and they sometimes overlap.  The politics of positional difference is broader in the scope of the kinds of groups whose concerns it brings under inquiry, I will argue.  Both models concern issues of justice.  I will suggest, however, that the politics of positional difference concentrates on issues of structural inequality while the main issues that arise in a politics of cultural difference concern freedom.

Hence discrimination occurs both when people try to inhibit our cultural freedoms (such as saying voting for independence is not ‘normal’) and when structural inequality disproportionately impacts on specific groups in society e.g. for 6 decades working-class Scots (both born here and migrants) have experienced the worst levels of health inequality in the UK because of the failure of unionist politicians to address issues of: poor housing, community powerlessness, poverty, joblessness and subsequent illnesses of despair.

Ideas of structural inequality encourages us to think about the positions and locations in which racism occurs but it does not legitimise the idea that its not racist to attack a majority.  Firstly, analysing racism through the critical lens of power and structure does not take away the fact that in Scotland, English born citizens are a minority. Secondly, it is not racist for Scots to challenge Westminster institutions in relation to the way they exercise power but it would be racist to say that Westminster politicians do so because of their genetic and ethnic inheritance – People born in England (just as is the case in Scotland) are not all the same, biologically, socially, culturally or geographically.  As Gerry Hassan points out, our story of civic nationalism requires us to avoid false dichotomies concerning insiders and outsiders.

In 2015 I challenged Westminster politicians and unionists who sought to scapegoat Scots voters:

The establishment’s modus operandi is to scapegoat people whether it be Scots seeking self-determination, people coming here from other countries, benefits claimants or those who experience ill health. Scapegoating occurs not simply because the establishment are so ethnocentric they can’t recognise their own prejudices but because the establishment require divide and rule tactics to keep us from recognising what the real problems are in the so very unequal collection of nations that make up the UK.

Henry Bell’s approach (potentially) reproduces the scapegoating in the other direction.  Brexit (and the recent vote in Northern Ireland that puts the unionists in the minority) means that this is not a stereotypically English v Scots situation. We need to recognise the different ways that the Westminster establishment will seek to utilise approaches of divide and rule in the forthcoming independence referendum (whenever it eventually is) and ensure that our response is not simply divide and rule in the other direction.

An independent Scotland could act as a way of moving beyond entrenched politics in Northern Ireland but not if it simply reproduces ‘us’ and ‘them’ discourses that misunderstand the complex nature of racism.  In my 2011 book Integrated Children’s Services I drew from a range of authors to explain different definitions of racism that emerged from the enquiry into Stephen Lawrence’s murder:

Davis and Hancock (2007) found that issues of racism in their study were not always overt. This is similar to other writing that suggests that underlying inequalities might remain hidden in early years settings and that disadvantage may be both intentional and unintentional (Siraj-Blatchford, 2010). This writing encourages us not to assume that all members of ‘structurally oppressed groups’ experience the same types of oppression because identity is multifaceted (Siraj-Blatchford, 2010). It also requires us to understand the different types of racism and that those that work with children may unintentionally undermine their self-esteem due to a connection of issues including gender, religion, socio-economic status, language or ethnicity (Figueroa, 1993; Siraj- Blatchford, 2010). For example, cultural racism involves a link between group identity, group worldview and group behaviour (Figueroa, 1993). Individual racism is associated with individuals who hold stereotypical views and interpersonal racism involves discrimination, harassment and the articulation during social interaction of racist terms (Figueroa, 1993). In the case above there were very few instances of interpersonal racism; however, if those members of staff (in private sector settings) who felt people should ‘learn English’ before they come here had articulated this (individually racist) position to a service user and not just written it on our questionnaire then this would be a clear case of interpersonal racism. Institutional racism manifests itself in the institutions of a society such as schools and functions to disadvantage certain groups by failing to take account of the needs of those groups (Figueroa, 1993).

Sadiq Khan probably demonstrated individual racism when he promoted a stereotypical view of Scots who vote for independence. If reports of his statements are true, he ignored the multifaceted nature of identity; the potential for ethnicity to be interconnected to other identity issues and for discrimination to relate to an intersection of issues including age, gender, sexuality, religion, disability, etc..

Sadiq Khan exhibited cultural racism by stereotyping a group of people’s world view (and promoting an alternative world view that proindy scots are racist).  His comments have the potential to promote institutional racism if the people who work for and with him in the London administration utilise his views to change the way they treat Scots (who live in London) in areas such as housing, education, transport or children’s services.  His comments could be interpreted by some as an encouragement to systematically discriminate against Scots in London.  Indeed, the way that he unsophisticatedly articulated his views potentially smacked of interpersonal racism and an attempt to harass Scots who are thinking of voting for independence out of exercising their democratic prerogative.

Indeed, some of the comments on the internet, e.g. about ‘English’ people who voted yes (in 2014) being traitors, demonstrated a distinct misunderstanding of the notion of ethnicity and identity. Such comments seemed to reduce ethnicity to a singular simplistic characteristic.  Such ways of thinking fail to account for the fact that (if you look back far enough) most people in Scotland are not one ethnic race (indeed because of the ice age we are all immigrants).  I myself have a father who was born and brought up in Wiltshire in England.  Which led me to tweet:

tweet on half english

We do not have to share Sadiq Khan’s views concerning independence to be treated as non-racists but equally we do not have to adopt Henry Bells response and argue that anti-English sentiment isn’t racist. The 2104 Indy ref was not about English v Scot.  Whilst on the Yes Marchmont stall at the meadows I campaigned with the next door stall that was set up by English People for Yes.  My English born father voted yes and continues to aspire to vote yes. The 2014 referendum was about who would run Scotland and where we hold those people to account.  It was about Holyrood v Westminster.

Can you really see the Brexit confused Westminster parliament trumping Holyrood next time? Most Scots would admit it is now a case of when, not if, Scotland becomes independent and the unionists in Northern Ireland have finally woken up to a similar reality – demographics are against unionists in both Scotland and Northern Ireland.

Scots and English people are not one ethnicity. All those who live, work and vote in Scotland are rights holders who can exercise their diverse political aspirations in whatever way they so choose. Scot are not a single group of people and In the 2012 book I wrote with Mary Smith we argued that the when professionals and institutions seek to reduce people to one identity they become part of the problem themselves:

In particular it has been argued that notions of equality do not mean that everyone should be the same and that the usefulness of a specific service provision is open to cultural interpretation (Young 1990; Thomas 2009). This type of writing calls for a recognition of a politics of difference (where the individual service user or professional is not reduced to one identity but has multiple identities across different contexts) and the realisation that the ways that institutions define and attempt to resolve people’s life problems can in themselves become further sources of exclusion

Sadiq Khan’s views, and kneejerk reactions by some in the indy movement in Scotland, are part of the problems that a future independence vote will seek to resolve. Scots feel that London centric and Westminster focussed politicians do not understand the realities of their identities, lives and aspirations.  This is also the feeling expressed by voters in Northern Ireland.

The indy movement must avoid falling into Scots v English traps; they must put their own house in order and they must avoid reproducing the tactics of Sadiq Khan.  How sad it is when Goldsmiths desperation leads to Khan’s chilling remarks, leads to indy movement intolerance.  We, in Scotland, have to break such an inglorious circle and we do so by understanding the new political map of these islands and pointing out that unionism has failed (even in its heartland of Northern Ireland).  The opposition are not a different ethnicity to us, they are a different political grouping that currently seek, and historically have sought, to exclude others.

An independent Scotland will celebrate inclusion, diversity, anti-discrimination and social justice in a way that Brexit Westminster Unionism can’t. We, (as Michelle Obama and Robin McAlpine encourage us to) will take the high ground, But, that high ground needs to include the recognition that racism exists in Scotland, if we are to come as near to eradicating discrimination as is possible in our daily lives.

This high ground also requires us to recognise that we are sometimes let down by proindy supporters on social media. If someone told Gerry Hassan (this week) that Stuart Campbell was a plant by unionists to discredit the indy movement, I wonder what his reaction would be.  Slander and liable concerning imagined ‘unionist plants’ helps no one – so this blog is not making such a suggestions.  But, it is important to note that paranoia during indyref 2014 did lead people (on some stalls) to pose questions concerning the motives of apparent indy supporters whose comments and actions (particularly on social media platforms) didn’t do our cause any favours.  Gerry Hassan is frank in his criticism of the recent work of ‘Wings over Scotland’:

Then there was the pro-independence blogger ‘Wings over Scotland’ (aka Stuart Campbell) and his comments during the Tory conference when Oliver Mundell, son of Scottish secretary of state David Mundell, spoke. ‘Wings’ tweeted: ‘Oliver Mundell is the sort of public speaker that makes you wish his dad had embraced his homosexuality sooner’. No doubt ‘Wings’ thought he was being smart, funny and snide all at the same time, but it is a revolting comment. This is the world of ‘them’ and ‘us’, where any comment is fair game about opponents, and Tories in particular, and one laced with connotations of homophobia. Revealingly, ‘Wings’ defended it by saying it was more ‘Toryphobic’, which underlines its ‘them’ and ‘us’ nature.  Not one single senior SNP politician, many of whom follow or retweet ‘Wings’, condemned it or pulled him up, though a number of party members did. In a country which has only in recent years come to terms with homosexuality and gay rights, when previously it was a forbidden subject which produced a major cultural war with homophobes less than a generation ago, this isn’t good enough.

I would go further than that. I say to my fellow Yessers, ‘Don’t ask me to hand out wings material at your stalls, now, or in future’.  Wings can produce its own stuff in its own democratic way (after all we are a nation that advocates free speech), but don’t ask me to peddle their materials.

Iris Marion Young’s work suggested that we can value the politics of difference and institutions should not require people to always come to collective consensus. So the tent should be big enough for everyone.  But, even in my most liberal and ‘let us celebrate diversity’ moments, I have a limit on what I will put up with.  The road to independence needs to be much better articulated if we are to gain our freedom.  Attacking other people by reifying a single aspect of their (or their fathers) identity (satirically or not) just ain’t cool.

Homophobic, sexist, racist, sectarian, size-ist and/or disablist jokes have never been cool. I have been very critical of people who adopt the discourse of inclusion, social justice and anti-discrimination but do not practice what they preach.  It would appear that ‘the Rev’, all to easily, falls (intentionally or not) into this category.   If we are to gain our hard fought independence by garnering new converts to our cause, we not only have to be inclusive in our every action – we need to be seen to be inclusive in our every action .  As Nicola said in her speech at last years SNP conference, the difference between her perspective and that of the Brexiters is the word inclusion.  Sadly, ‘Wings Over Scotland’ seems to have as much difficulty with this concept as the angry Brit Nats.

There Are People in the World with Grace, Poise and Dignity: Learning From American Poetry, Words, and Song

Usually, it’s ‘easy’ to write the first sentence of an article. It’s ‘easy’ because it tells the truth of what’s to follow.  It should be ‘easy’ – even when that ‘easy’ truth may involve many competing truths.  The first line should tell you, very quickly, what the piece is about and start to provide a sign-post for the sections, arguments and conclusions that will follow (well, that’s what we tell our students).  Yet, recent changes in the world have inhibited my wish and ability to write a new blog post, I’ve started many sentences but none have seemed serious and considered enough.

Finally, whilst exchanging emails with my friend and co-writer Christina Milarvie Quarrell concerning men’s inability or unwillingness to express themselves during and about emotional moments, I recognised what was going on. I was supressing a deep sadness at Indyref1, Brexit and the US election.  I was supressing a sadness which needed to be released (Myself and Christina will hopefully be writing on men and emotions soon – watch this space).

Christina had also sent me a link to a recent music and poetry piece by Karine Polwart (which we will also hopefully use in our writing) and it reminded me of that day after indyref1 when Karine’s song, ‘Hole in the Heart’ (see link here) seemed the only haunting anti-dote to the pain of the September 2014 result.


These types of songs seem to free up your emotions and give time for contemplation.  I have also recently been listening to a lot of Allen Toussaint’s New Orleans based music which can be both playful and thoughtful.  It has been very helpful in relation to freeing up words that can be typed on the keyboard.

So, given a sense of freedom to write, this article is about the idea that there are competing truths concerning the USA. It argues that at a time where the media is full of unremitting negativity, we need to remember and recognise American men and women who have not been bellicose; who have liberated different voices; who have conveyed their message in subtle as well as forthright ways; who have had an air of calm determination and confidence about themselves; who have exhibited empathy, generosity and compassion; and who have danced to a tune other than that of hatred.

There ain’t much point moaning our butts off about the present president of the USA.  Even if the current administration sticks in y’ur craw, the lesson you learn from Thatcher, and to some extent Corbyn, is that, sometimes, the more a politician is attacked the more powerful they become.

It is more sensible to quietly put forward alternatives than to run around shouting about everything a politician does.  In particular, last year saw people spending too much time re-tweeting and re-posting stuff that came direct from the, now, president of the USA (thus doing his own PR job for him).  It raised the question, could we have spent more time promoting a different more positive agenda?

Whilst it is important that we challenge unlawful and discriminatory behaviours (such as the travel ban), we need to be thoughtful in our responses. We need the best of Malcolm X, Maya Angelou and Martin Luther King when working out how to oppose tyranny. We need to follow Malcolm X’s encouragement to avoid the pack mentality and work things out for ourselves; we need to remember Martin Luther King’s view that only light can overcome hate; and, above all, we need to think of Maya Angelou’s poem regarding a caged bird:

A free bird leaps

on the back of the wind

and floats downstream

till the current ends

and dips his wing

in the orange sun rays

and dares to claim the sky.

But a bird that stalks

down his narrow cage

can seldom see through

his bars of rage

his wings are clipped and

his feet are tied

so he opens his throat to sing.

The caged bird sings

with a fearful trill

of things unknown

but longed for still

and his tune is heard

on the distant hill

for the caged bird

sings of freedom.

The free bird thinks of another breeze

and the trade winds soft through the sighing trees

and the fat worms waiting on a dawn bright lawn

and he names the sky his own

But a caged bird stands on the grave of dreams

his shadow shouts on a nightmare scream

his wings are clipped and his feet are tied

so he opens his throat to sing.

The caged bird sings

with a fearful trill

of things unknown

but longed for still

and his tune is heard

on the distant hill

for the caged bird

sings of freedom.

We need to ensure that we do not create our own cage of negativity in response to political events.

In November 2015 the American musician, song writer and producer Allen Toussaint died (see Guardian obituary here).  I listened to his funeral live on the internet and was struck by the great love that his musical collaborators had for him and the fine words that were spoken about his way of being in the world.  Here was a man who shone light into the darkness of an industry notorious for fakery and untruths.

Yet, in his own words (in an interview with Larry Appelbaum see link here), Toussaint was also a man who knew what he wanted in the studio and was determined to get it.  A man who sought quality, set standards and yet, learned to listen to others so that magical serendipitous things could happen with the music.


When you listen to Allen Toussaint speak, you can’t help but admire his considered prose. If you watch the interview with Larry Appelbaum closely, you see Allen Taussaint, (on several occasions) resist Appelbaum’s invitation to use stereotypes and to fall into clichés.  Interestingly, when invited to talk about pre 1960s race segregation,  Toussaint also chooses to emphasis the ways that different musicians worked together, rather than take or repeat a stereotypically political position.  In this way, Toussaint is the antipathy of today’s politicians.

Decades before his death Toussaint co-founded the New Orleans Artists Against Hunger and Homeless (NOAAHH see link here).  Yet, he did not seek any acclaim for this act.  Indeed, he is quoted in his Guardian obituary as referring to his comfort zone as ‘behind the scenes’ and other people refer to him in in this BBC program ‘The Allen Toussaint Touch’ (see link here) as keeping his opinions close to himself.


The BBC program manages to capture something of Toussaint’s quiet grace and dignity, Toussaint lived the vast majority of his life in New Orleans and for a city that’s often depicted as dark, exotic and dangerous, it’s amazing how many thoroughly decent people you meet when you go there. See this link here, for a recent documentary about New Orleans which captures different opinions on the place and includes a tune from the Americana/Ameripolitan band I posted about in May 2014 Gal Holiday and The Honky Tonk Review.

When Alistair Grey re-used Canadian author, Dennis Leigh’s line ‘Work as if you live in the early days of a better nation‘ he pointed us towards a more positive way to confront political opponents and the barriers they create (see Alistair grey’s comments on this phrase at this link here).  He didn’t say, ‘lay on the ground screaming till you can cry no more (as tempting an approach as that may be)’  –  he encouraged us to bring about or be the change we wish to be through our positive actions (a la JFK and Obama).  (For our oversees readers – the phrase ‘Work as if you live in the early days of a better nation‘ is chiselled into the Cannon’s gate side of the Scottish Parliament).


There was something about Toussaint’s quiet and graceful approach to the interview setting that, at the same time as resisting the modern urge for superlatives, seemed to epitomise the request to work as if you live in the early days of a better nation.

In the BBC documentary and Appelbaum interview, Toussaint maps out lots of different musical influences but he appears to resist the urge to construct a single truth about his words, songs and the times through which he lived. You may have different opinions on some of the issues he discusses but you have to admire the way he presents his different versions of music and the world.

Toussaint suggested, that when making music, ‘in a way, you are playing god’ – building the world the way you think it should be. But, he also portrayed ‘music making’ as a learning process, suggesting that there was a time, ‘Before I had the sense to learn that people were first not music’.

Many politicians seek to play god with our lives.  It is a pity more of them couldn’t have the grace and humility that Toussaint showed in his lifetime. For a man who wrote so many lyrics, it is ironic that on a personal level he chose his deeds rather than his words to speak for who he was.

Toussaint’s words reminded me of another American writer who showed great grace and humility.  Norman Maclean

Norman Maclean, the American Scots author of A River Runs Through It (made into a film by Robert Redford) also wrote a book called; Young Men and Fire (published 1990), about The Mann Gulch Disaster which involved the death of 13 forest fire fighters.  On the 5th of August 1949, fifteen ‘smokejumpers’ from Missoula Montana flew out in a C-47 to Mann Gulch and met one fire ranger (on the ground at around 4.00pm).  Between 17.45 and 18.00 13 men died attempting to out run an onrushing fire .  In the final paragraph of Young Men and Fire, Maclean concludes:

‘I have lived to get a better understanding of myself and those close to me, many of them now dead. Perhaps it is not odd, at the end of this tragedy where nothing much was left of the elite that came from the sky but courage struggling for oxygen, that I have often found myself thinking of my wife and on her brave and lonely way to death’.

Maclean’s wife, Jesse Burns, had died of cancer in 1968, Maclean himself died in 1990. In this paragraph Maclean connects the death of 13 men to the death of one woman.  He does not employ the fixed category of gender as a barrier to understanding the connection between his wife’s experiences and those of the fire fighters.

Maclean gained plaudits for his ability to investigate and set out a clear and plausible account of the deaths of the fire fighters but he also gained praise for his ability to imagine beyond the specific events of the 5th of august 1949 and provided us with universal metaphors for life and death.

Reviewers of Maclean’s work marvel at his ability to avoid tying up every loose end.  Toussaint’s way of speaking reminded me of this.  There is a confidence with the ambiguity.  Maclean doesn’t just relish ambiguity through his narrative, he applies the idea of ambiguity to the way he lived his life with others:

‘For it is true we can seldom help those closest to us. Either we don’t know what part of ourselves to give or, more often than not, the part we have to give is not wanted. And so it is those we live with and should know who elude us. But we can still love them – we can love completely without complete understanding.’

Maclean’s final lines of his more famous book, ‘A River Runs Through It’ pick up on this theme and talk of a deeper meaning:

“Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world’s great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs. I am haunted by waters.”

We are currently haunted by waters, timeless raindrops, the rocks and their words beneath the rocks.  Whether those waters are claiming lives in the Mediterranean, are employed to created a unnatural barrier between the USA and the rest of the world  or are in danger of being destroyed at Standing Rock.

Maclean worked at the University of Chicago where the School of Literary Criticism emerged in the 1930s. This way of thinking argued, following Aristotle, that we should value the structure and form of literary work; that poetry/art expresses inevitable wholes and that we should value literary works where the parts come together as a whole rather than concentrate on analysing the complex nature of the language used within the work.

There is something about Allen Toussaint’s work that seems to demonstrate this need for balance very well.  There is something calm and very refreshing about his style, especially in an age where dodgy talent shows encourage young singers to over do their licks, runs and riffs .

You can also hear this creative and yet confidant style in the work of Professor Longhair (see link here).   Professor Longhair was a New Orleans’  blues pianists who heavily influenced the young Toussaint.  Professor Longhair  played blues that went all the way to the top of the glass but the liquid never fell over the lip, felt contrived or went out of control .

Similarly, in the present age that places so much emphasis on where a comma is placed in a 120 character tweet, where many twitter critics sit poised waiting to tear apart those who have not had the luxury of a grammatically perfect education, The Chicago School of Neo-Artistotelianism might be worth a revisit.

Toussaint and Maclean understood the importance serendipity, the virtues of writing that attended to issues of over-all-form, the poetic nature of words and the need to avoid the straight jacket of convention.  Maclean argued that convention should go out the window when writers sought to  convey ‘big’ moments – (he specifically explained this in relation to Shakespeare’s King Lear – see link here):

‘Perhaps we are accustomed to thinking of the mot juste as a word giving a definite, irreplaceable image, and certainly the right word should be irreplaceable and in some sense definite; only there are moments so tremendous that their exact size is without any definite boundary. There are moments, moreover, which have a size that is unmentionable, moments which cannot, at least at the instant, be fully faced or exactly spoken of by those who must endure them. Poetry may make a perfection out of what would be an error in exposition, and moments such as these may set at naught the rule of composition teachers ‘

Maclean’s words, explain why I have found it difficult to write in recent months.  The mote juste – just wasn’t there.  The mote juste had escaped me because a cosmology of evetns that included countless simplistic and unjust pronouncements (words) were pounding at our senses.

Maclean’s words emphasise the need to break with convention when unmentionable things happen.  They encourage us to find creative ways to express our sense of deep foreboding, uncertainty and uncomfortableness with what lies ahead of us.

In so doing, Maclean’s words also encourage us to eschew the certainty of politicians, they encourage us to think of a time, before all of us were here, when the elements were so powerful they could rip apart continents, rip apart convention and remake the earth.

Politicians may seek to introduce rules that divide us, but, in the end, there have always been movements of people – because of trade, because of wars, because of disease, because of famine, or because of the impact of the elements.

Just as there have always been rocks with rivers flowing over them.  Just as there have always been deeper, more meaningful words that under pin our ways of being (such as love, generosity, compassion and empathy) .  Just as there have always been men and women like Allen Toussaint who understood that  ‘people were first’, there have been politicians who have not been able to grasp that there are some societal bonds that not even they, and their demi-god like personas, can undo.

There have been politician’s who have sought to reimagine and rip apart the continents, but in the end, they have not been as powerful as the elements, they have simply been incomplete human beings that have been overcome by a greater force – the force for good.

Norman Maclean knew about the limitations of politicians, policy makers and fire-fighters.  He knew how these limitations contributed to the deaths of 13 fire fighters.  And, because he lived through the 1930s and 1940s, Maclean also knew about the limitation of demi-gods who seek to destroy the fabric of our society .

Margaret Thatcher did not grasp the fact that there were some social bonds even she could not break, because she lacked empathy, believed her own sound bites and, latterly, lived in a Westminster bubble .

Maclean’s ability to exhibit empathy may have been connected to the fact that he knew what it was like to have loved and lost (e.g. he lost a loved one, his brother, at a relatively young age and lived for many years after the death of his wife); and he knew what it was like to fight, on behalf of the families, to uncover the partial truths concerning the deaths of the men lost in the Mann Gulch disaster.

I hope it is not too contrived to try to draw out another lesson from the Mann Gulch disaster.  An article written, by Karl E. Weick (in the Administrative Science Quarterly Volume 38 (1993): 628-652) entitled: ‘The Collapse of Sense-making in Organizations’ (see link here), draws on Maclean’s work on the Mann Gulch disaster to explain a phenomena where a shattering collapse of the rational order makes sense-making impossible

A cosmology episode occurs when people suddenly and deeply feel that the universe is no longer a rational, orderly system. What makes such an episode so shattering is that both the sense of what is occurring and the means to rebuild that sense collapse together. Stated more informally, a cosmology episode feels like vu jàdé-the opposite of déjà vu: I’ve never been here before, l have no idea where I am, and I have no idea who can help me. This is what the smokejumpers may have felt increasingly as the afternoon wore on and they lost what little organization structure they had to start with. As they lost structure they became more anxious and found it harder to make sense of what was happening, until they finally were unable to make any sense whatsoever of the one thing that would have saved their lives, an escape fire. The disaster at Mann Gulch was produced by the interrelated collapse of sense-making and structure. If we can understand this collapse, we may be able to forestall similar disasters in other organizations.

This might also explain why people have found recent political events so difficult to respond to – we have been through a series of cosmological events of shattering proportion.  Where do you start when the world order; the social contract between government and the people; and the politics of usual are turned upside down?

Out of all the politicians in the current UK crop, Nicola Sturgeon is the only one with a coherent plan.  We, the people who live and work in Scotland, are (still) here. And, in Scotland, since Indyref1, the staff at Common Weal (the think tank) and Common Space (the on line news-space) have acted as a living reminder of the type of considered grace epitomised by writers such as Angelou, Toussaint and Maclean.  As opposed to the culture of complaint, the have given us a lead in times of extreme uncertainty.  They have produced reams of ideas and articles on how we can live in a better nation. Sturgeon, Angelou, Toussaint and Maclean, in contrast to the right wing political leaders of our age, exhibit intense wisdom. Weick’s article defines Wisdom as the ability to act and think with fluidity:

To put it a different way, “Each new domain of knowledge appears simple from the distance of ignorance. The more we learn about a particular domain, the greater the number of uncertainties, doubts, questions and complexities. Each bit of knowledge serves as the thesis from which additional questions or antithesis arise” (Meacham, 1983: 120). The role system best able to accept the reality that ignorance and knowledge grow together may be one in which the organizational culture values wisdom. Meacham (1983: 187) argued that wisdom is an attitude rather than a skill or a body of information: To be wise is not to know particular facts but to know without excessive confidence or excessive cautiousness. Wisdom is thus not a belief, a value, a set of facts, a corpus of knowledge or information in some specialized area, or a set of special abilities or skills. Wisdom is an attitude taken by persons toward the beliefs, values, knowledge, information, abilities, and skills that are held, a tendency to doubt that these are necessarily true or valid and to doubt that they are an exhaustive set of those things that could be known. In a fluid world, wise people know that they don’t fully understand what is happening right now, because they have never seen precisely this event before. Extreme confidence and extreme caution both can destroy what organizations most need in changing times, namely, curiosity, openness, and complex sensing. The overconfident shun curiosity because they feel they know most of what there is to know. The overcautious shun curiosity for fear it will only deepen their uncertainties. Both the cautious and the confident are closed- minded, which means neither makes good judgments. It is this sense in which wisdom, which avoids extremes, improves adaptability.

The current times call for a lot of wisdom that avoids extremes.  Indeed, we are lucky to have organisations such as the Common Weal that create a space for wisdom in both their policy reports and their news media.  The Common Weal staff provide the mechanisms and equipment for others to put forward their views.  The staff at Common Weal have organised countless events; written about national and international affairs from a new and insightful perspective; and given us numerous well researched and argued papers on the key issues that we can start changing, now, in Scotland.

There are many people in the organisation who do not have a high public profile. Yet, they work tirelessly on our behalf. The organisation, and its local community groups (through out the country) constantly enable local people to get their voices and issues heard by policy makers and the wider public.

The Common Weal policy team and journalists are funded through donations – recent affairs at Bella Caledonia warn us that if we want to have avenues for different voices to be heard, then we need to be willing to fund the organisations who deliver independent news and policy ideas. So, if you know anyone with loud independent voices or long arms and deep pockets (who doesn’t already donate) please send them this link and ask them to help fund this excellent organisation:


The thought of waking up to a Scotland that doesn’t have such an organisation that’s capable of putting forward independent views doesn’t bear thinking about – lets get proactive and ahead of the game on this one, do something positive for a change.


5 Things That Could Have Happened But Didn’t – In 2016.

Over the next two weeks the twitter-sphere and internet will be full of lists concerning 2016’s memorable moments, top ten’s and awkward regrets. Many people would wish that Brexit was not happening, that Clinton had won the USA election or that they themselves had exercised more effective decisions making in their more personal moment (e.g. such as forgoing that tattoo to celebrate that relationship anniversary with their now ex-lover).   So, John Davis highlights what we can learn from 5 things that could have happened in 2016 that didn’t.

1 : Driverless cars and 3D movies could have gained more public acclaim but they didn’tdriverless-cars

We could have had a sudden shift in our trust of computer controlled driving (but we didn’t).  The media keep going on about them and there is no doubt that, in the long run, they will save lives and be a fantastic asset e.g. as a solution to drink driving:

Indeed, it’s predicted driverless cars will take over in the next 10 to 15 years but you rarely hear people talking about them in everyday conversations. The public isn’t buying the hype, people will take a lot of persuading and this year raised a lot of questions concerning the safety of driverless technology.

Unless, safety issues are resolved, computer controlled cars may become like 3d movies. They surface for a moments acclaim; some people jump on the band wagon; most people don’t and they got back to obscurity.

There have been various phases of 3D Movie hype (e.g. 1950s, 1980s and 2000s) but stats tell us they are expensive to make and customers complain about the quality of many of 3-dthe movies. Indeed, this year, a shift to post-production 2D to 3D conversion led to big complaints about quality.  Avatar 2009 may turn out to be peak oil for the 3D movie industry. The 3 things that have put a check on 3D movie growth are: concern over cost, safety and utility.  Would you believe it? These are the same concerns that people have about driverless cars.  Conclusion: they are going to suck the pleasure out driving so they better be damn safe if we are going to be convinced to use them.  Its the same for independence there will be risks in Brexit and in independence – The SNP better have a damn good plan for how we get through this mess, it better be based on honesty, explain clearly what the problems are and also be candid about the ambiguity/uncertainty politico speak, Ingsoc and spin doesn’t work any more (if it ever did).


2 : Acid rain fall could have increased but it didn’t

In the age of global warming, it is important to have evidence that demonstrates that national and international policies can seriously reduce environmental pollution. Good news came this year from scientific studies concerning acid rain. See link here:

Scientist tell us that human generated atmospheric acid pollution is back down to pre-acid-rain-norway1930s industrialisation levels of acidity. It’s a long time since the United States adopted the clean air act (1956 and amendments 1977/1990), which made companies take steps to reduce acid emissions (e.g. by putting filters in factories).  The UK introduced similar legislation (e.g. Environments act 1995 and EU directive 2010) which gave respite for the countries down wind of them.

Lakes in Norway and Sweden have seen some recovery and further recovery is expected by 2030 (depending on non-human acid occurrences such as volcanic activity). This finding is important – it gives hope that we can challenge the big environmental issues of our age – we have learnt from the Tories that they enjoy putting bullets into, and barriers in the way of, the Scottish renewable industries – The Tory post-indy ref behaviour on this issue will be key to explaining the need for independence.  Also a vote in Holyrood for 2nd referendum will require the votes of Green (6) and SNP (63) MSPs – this will be an issue that unites them.

3 : Death rates, for the Big four, could have fallen in Scotland but they didn’t

On a sadder note – death rates should have continued to fall in Scotland but didn’t.    death-ratesDeaths by accidents and probable suicide have dropped which is good news but deaths related to alcohol (though down 34% since 2003) have increased.  Similarly, 2015 stats, released in 2016, saw a stall in the fall in deaths from the four big killers (Cancer, heart, respiratory and strokes).

The most likely reason for this bad news is that we are seeing the impact of inequality on the elderly. Tory cuts, post-Brexit vote living cost increases and increased rent costs have all impacted on our living conditions.  Top English health expert Professor Danny Dorling specifically links English Tory policies to health inequalities in Scotland:

‘Two years earlier, in 2013 it became apparent who in Scotland had most been effected by the welfare cuts. Hospitals in Scotland have been overwhelmed by less affluent elderly patients who are in poorer health, with the health having been harmed almost certainly as a result of austerity in Scotland imposed by the government that took power in 2010 in England’

see link here:

Dorling clearly identifies the cause of Scotland’s increased death rates with the politics of Westminster. His comments are eerily reminiscent of the report into the ‘Glasgow effect’.  We discussed this report earlier in the year in relation to the life of Scotland first World Champion Boxer, Benny Lynch.  See our article on this here:

People living in Scotland continue to die early because of Westminster policies – sadly they have done so for over 100 years. The Benny Lynch article made connections between the life and times of Benny Lynch and Glasgow effect report that demonstrated connection between illnesses of desperation and the policies of unionist politicians and parties.  benny-picDorling argues that the SNP government need to be more proactive in mitigating Tory impacts on health by e.g. providing more staff to support the elderly (which is an admirable policy). But, if we were Better Together in the Union why do we have to constantly take on the Westminster establishment to enable people to live more equitable lives?  Why, if we are supposed equals in the union do we have to mitigate Westminster unfairness?  Why do we pay higher taxes in Scotland to offset Tory cuts? A union that was truly better together would involve dialogue not Holyrood having to tidy up after Westminster’s mess.

Conclusion, when we next get the chance we need to vote for independence so that Holyrood can tackle the health effects of poverty – without one hand tied behind its back, cap in hand and/or as second class citizens. For years Scots have been blamed for their poor health record – such deficit model tactics are used to mask the real culprit which is economic and social exclusion – caused by Westminster induced poverty.

4 : The Italian government could have chosen to have a referendum on equal marriage but they didn’t

The Italian senate chose to show leadership and voted the change lgbt-rainbow-2through in early 2016 and the Italian president signed equal marriage into law in May 2016.  Research into the 2015 Equal marriage vote in Ireland highlighted the negative experiences for LGBT respondents of prejudiced campaigning by No campaigners during the Irish referendum.  75% of respondents felt negative emotions during the campaign, 80% were upset by the negative NO campaign materials and 78% highlighted being very mush upset by the TV coverage of the campaign.  See link here

Conclusion: politicians could have been more courageous in Ireland and voted equal marriage through without the referendum. We need to learn lessons here about SNP support for the TIE campaign and also think about longer term processes of bringing people together over issues like resolving religious denomination segregation in the Scottish school system and sectarianism in wider society.  Leadership is required from all our politicians on these issues.

A referendum is a good thing for settling constitutional issues but for settling rights based issues they are problematic because – rights are indelible. You shouldn’t have to beg for your rights to be recognised.  For citizens of modern democracies, respect for your rights should come as part of the ‘deal’.  Westminster politicians seem to have a lot of trouble understanding this – hence Scotland’s concerns about the Equity Act post-Brexit.

Equally, if SNP MSPs want to show they truly believe in rights – they need to show it where they can e.g. by fully incorporating the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and properly responding to discrimination and bullying in schools and any other area of children’s lives.

5 : The information sharing aspect of the named person scheme could have got through the supreme-court but it didn’t –

The supreme-court prevented representatives in local authorities from being able to pass confidential information about children and parents without their permission. See

In October we wrote of this issue,

‘It should be remembered that the 2014 Act was passed unanimously in the parliament – this is an act owned by all parties – all MSPs have a duty to amend their errors and when doing so, according to the decision, they should take a more human rights focus.’

So even in Scotland, we can make Orwellian ‘Big Brother’ mistakes. The creep of the surveillance culture was resisted by the supreme-court and we are back to where we always were – information can be shared where a child is at risk or with the child andthe-children-and-young-people-act parent’s permission.

Conclusion: At Holyrood, the choice to have committee structure (rather than a revising house) needs to be thought through – if committees aren’t doing their job they need to be beefed up.

We should be very wary of consensus in the Scottish Parliament – We need to watch them closely when there is no opposition to an issue and they all get self-congratulatory – because, it is then, that they collectively pass poor legislation.

Music That Poses Questions For The Year To Come –

Finally a couple of songs, which are oldies but will very well some up the key issues for the year to come and, indeed, the years after that.

Lets not burn our bridges whilst Brexiting: we need to plan a seamless transition and listen more to For The Good Times

Lets ask difficult questions of the Westminster elites that claim they still want us in the union: Arthur Hamilton’s tone here seesm very appropriate ‘Cry Me A River’  And finally –

To all those people this year who said they had shifted their view on independence since the Brexit vote, remember this – Saying your leaving and saying good buy are not the same thing.  When the time comes, take heed of the song, be brave and stay true to your word – ‘nae back sliding here’!