Category Archives: Scotland

A timetable for Catalan Independence

It is January 2016. By June 2017 Catalonia will be independent

The independence movement in Catalonia is back on track following, eventually, the investiture of a new Catalan President.  After months of negotiations Artur Mas stood aside to allow the consensus candidate and 130th Catalan President Carles Puigdemont to take the driving seat. Closely mirroring Nicola Sturgeon replacing Alex Salmond post referendum, a younger less controversial political figure will be tasked with ultimatley bringing the independence process to its conclusion.

A timetable for Catalan Independence

In Catalonia that conclusion is for many tantalisingly close. In what would no doubt make every #Indyref2 supporting Scottish nationalist drip with envy, in Barcelona there is a roadmap to independence. Within 18 months Catalonia will – assuming of course there are no major bumps or roadblocks – be ready to  declare itself to be independent.  The new President is already working to that timetable. There’s very little doubt in Catalonia or in Spain: the countdown has started.

For the Catalan nationalists this timetable is a rallying call. It is a call to arms with an end in sight. It is a clear and shared vision by supporters of the many political parties and civic groups that support Catalan independence. The Catalan independence movement is far from a united one but this timetable is holding this movement together. Conversely there is little doubt that a lack of a timetable in Scotland is currently splitting the pro indy campaigners. The First Minister’s  recent comment in the Scottish Parliament on winning a second referendum “In the next few years” has only really mudded the waters. The Scottish Ship’s Captain – when compared to the newly charged Catalan Captain – seems a tad lost at sea.

A similar journey until now

Up until now Scotland’s and Catalonia’s journeys have tacked roughly the same course as pro indy parties have risen to power only to hold referendums that ultimately won nothing but the status quo. The sea has been rougher for one and then the other. The gift of the referendum from Westminster to Scotland was in stark contrast to Madrid’s refusal to allow a Catalan plebiscite (which they just ignored and Madrid in return just ignored the result). However the September election victory by pro indy parties in Catalonia released a new lease of life into the movement in the north of Spain. In Scotland last years UK election deflated many nationalists despite the SNP routing the Unionist parties; it was a shallow victory, as a heartless London centric Tory Government remained in Westminster.

But it is a new year and a very big year for both Scotland and Catalonia. Both Parliaments are packed with pro independent representatives. However at the moment one Parliament speaks with a loud and united voice “18 months” and the other, talks of something, well, sometime in the future.

The Scottish independence campaign is stuck in the dry dock the Catalan Cruiser is off. Their destinations appear to be the same but the routes at the moment appear very different.

The hidden agenda of #Indyref2

“Those who have knowledge, don’t predict. Those who predict, don’t have knowledge.”

–Lao Tzu, 6th Century BC Chinese Poet

On the 18th May 2015 I predict the following: That during the next Westminster parliament:

1. There will be no #IndyRef2
2. There will be no UK exit from Europe
3. There will be no electoral reform

Bold? Maybe.
Daring? Perhaps.
Foolish?

Only if I assume that everything fed to me by the major news channels is the whole news. These issues are chewing up inches in our papers and pixels on our TV screens. They are playing their role; shifting focus on to meaningless debates, disproportionately filling our newspapers and news bulletins. Think of them like three Nigel Farages – scary though that is.

It is not that these constitutional issues do not merit consideration. In time, they will deserve proper scrutiny. But now? Now, it is a charade. A merry dance led by the Tory Government, cheek-to-cheek with the main stream media. While we consider the impact of any of these three constitutional upheavals, Westminster acts on its quite separate and real agenda.

We can see this as a certainty because the mood music has only recently stopped playing. The Indyref2 lament is still ringing in our ears.

#IndyRef2 – The Referendum that never was

Throughout this Spring, a second referendum on Scottish independence haunted the UK General Election campaign; a bogie man created for political purpose. Indyref2 lay under the bed ready to jump out and grab you in the middle of the night, before heading downstairs and raiding the house of £7.6 Billion of your money,  then driving away in your car. With your wife.

You lost. Forget about it. Stop going on about it. Why do you keep mentioning it? Losers. This narrative, as played out, for example by Caroline Flint in her appearance on Question Time, served as the aperitif – the boxer’s jab before the left (or right) hook.

That hook was straightforward – repeated by Labour, Tory and Libdem alike. The referendum was supposed to be “once in a generation.” IndyRef2 is bad. SNP is bad. Seperatism is bad.

Yet, the only main UK political party not talking about Indyref2 was the SNP.

In interview after interview Nicola Sturgeon with equanimity, both here in Scotland and in England, fielded questions on the “imminent referendum.” The mainstream media bought the narrative sold by Tories, Labour and LibDems. The absence of any manifesto commitment from the SNP for IndyRef2 was wilfully ignored.

Just take a minute to think about that. Election campaigns are so much about events and dazzle these days. Fancy 250gsm gloss-finished brochures. Pages of policies, promises and pledges. All delivered with with a flash, bang wallop in front of a room full of adoring acolytes. In all those fresh-smelling pages there was nothing about a Scottish referendum. At no stage-managed event did Nicola Sturgeon call for it. There was no manifesto commitment. The electorate could not vote for IndyRef2. So why all those questions and all that time discussing something that no one was suggesting? Weren’t there more important things to discuss?

In Scotland, we knew that we were being led up the garden path. 56 seats for the SNP. 50% of the popular vote. Scottish Labour rejected by an electorate that had awoken during the referendum campaign, by an electorate that had grown tired of the charlatan mainstream media. We are staying up all night so that we can cast further light into the dark shadows.

Cast some light on to the Indyref2 narrative and what do you find?

A good story that has legs. “David Cameron rules out a second referendum” screams the Telegraph. Of course, David knows that he can make no such promise and anyway no one is asking for a second referendum, but hey, it plays well doesn’t it?

This story is even more diaphanous when you consider that the chances of the SNP calling for a second referendum before 2018 are as likely as Scotland returning from the World Cup with a wee golden globe statue and a look of baffled bewilderment on the faces of players and an entire nation.

The SNP will not seek a new mandate until the polls prove beyond any reasonable doubt that there will be a wide margin of victory. This story – if it really ever was one – is dead, maybe not for a generation, but certainly for a whole World Cup qualifying campaign.

The story of how IndyRef2 was used during the election campaign is a clue. It is a smoking gun which shows how the Conservative Party will drive a right-wing agenda. It is smoke and mirrors and slight of hand. The election result in England in May proves its potential. So much so that the new Tory leader, when he arrives in a few years, will be more like David Blaine than David Cameron.

This is the murky prism in which the media coverage of the entire five years of miserable Tory rule will seek to debate an IndyRef2, voting reform and the consequences of the UK exit from the EU.

EU referendum

Another referendum beckons, but this time we have recent history to help us with the outcome. When the UK government agrees to a referendum the cards will be stacked in its favour.

The establishment parties will come together with one clear voice. The media will be on-side. Money will pile into the Yes campaign from the big businesses which rely so heavily on a single market to allow them to generate large profits. They can not afford to lose the flow of a well-educated, cheap, eastern and southern european workforce that helps them keep wages low in the UK. They will do everything to stymie an exit.

David Cameron will return with concessions. Small ones. But through the lens of the media they will appear large. The status quo will be saved and we will march on as before. But before we do – imagine the scenarios to be played-out, the what-ifs put to the MPs and the pundits and the experts.

Be Prepared. Hunker down. Put on your tin hat and don’t play the game.

You can spend hours and days watching and listening to people discuss something that will not happen. You can be diverted. Or you can focus on the real politics. To do that there is one further Establishment feint to be tackled.

Electoral reform

A truly proportional electoral system would change the way the UK is governed. It would, lets be clear, be the most fundamental democratic overhaul seen in the UK since universal female suffrage. The very thought places the Establishment on edge.

The route to power in Westminster would be very different. The polarised red and blue, two choices for Downing Street swingometer would cease. Perhaps there would be a body of support for political parties less pre-disposed to the US-style capitalism seen in the UK since Thatcher. That alone is reason enough to suggest that true electoral reform will never happen. 2020 will come and go with a Westminster Government elected under the First Past the Post system.

The fact is that electoral reform is not in the Tory manifesto. And they won. Labour and the SNP have nothing to gain from reforming the Westminster voting system. Perhaps the issue is considered less important in Scotland and Wales due to devolution.

Electoral reform is a ship that’s stuck in port, waiting for a captain and cargo.  Even those who would gain from it know that their efforts are better spent fighting the elections in Wales and Scotland where a list system offers a chink in the armoury protecting the two main UK parties.

The problem, for many, is that although the system may not be very good, its preferable to the alternatives. So their will be talk and debate and the ramblings of UKIP will offer further diversion on this issue.  However, when the dust has settled and we remain where we were, the real issues will have been relegated.  Again, attracted by diversionary tactics the media will place one, two or all of these chimerical issues high on their list of priorities.

The role of the three constitutional issues

By generating enough noise they will play a major role in this government’s planned programme simply by deflecting scrutiny from their policies (or lack thereof.) This Sunday morning’s papers and political programmes were brim-full of EU, PR and IndyRef2 stories.

What is absent?

Instead three, deliberately conceived, blind alleys.

The IndyRef2, EU exit and PR will draw flack from the public and shift the the attention from where the UK media – whose job it should be to hold the UK Government to task – should sit. Articles, papers and research will be carried out to fan the flames; a whole industry chasing non stories. 24 hours-a-day, in high definition and full technicolor, a kind of shadow press leading the electorate down dark alleys and dead ends.

My hope is that enough Scots and the awakening electorate in rUK will finally realise that the mood music is phoney. This mind-numbing but hypnotic Muzak will end and a story with a passionate and politically-enlivened soundtrack will take its place. If you don’t like the music you change the channel. See the light and remove yourself from the narrative of the mainstream media.

Labour’s patriot games

I couldn’t help shifting uncomfortably. Despite the pre game beers and an atmosphere expectant of something special I felt detached from the crowd. It was Scotland v Ireland at Hampden, the first post referendum international and words sung strongly by the crowd felt hollow, carved out, meaningless.

Approximately 40,000 Scotland football fans packed the stands at Celtic Park. Decked in their Scotland outfits and Scottish garb the throng easily melted into one massive and passionate mass. On the surface I was one of them. But beneath we had parted.

For the first time at a Scotland game I just didn’t fit. Normally passionate and powerful in song a silent pall had descended. I hadn’t forgotten the words, the beer had made no dulling effect; the Scottish football anthem “Flower of Scotland” had just lost its scent.

Assuming that the crowd reflected the referendum result then more than half of my fellow fans, less than a month before, had rejected an independent Scottish nation. This thought percolated in my mind and simply wouldn’t sink. The feeling would last considerably longer than the heartburn from the half time pie.

For 20,000+ there was no issue in voting “No” and supporting Scotland as they took to the pitch, and very clearly in my mind nor should there be. No one voice has the right to call a “No” voter any less of a Scot and within the most fervent wing of the Tartan Army you’ll find many in the status quo camp. Passionate supporters one and all, but only thing they are not are patriots.

Labour’s patriot games

A supporter is one thing. A patriot is another. Both can display a passionate belief in the power and prowess in ones own country. Both can recite their nations’ verses; historical achievements and display an encyclopaedic knowledge of their countries geography. They can flawlessly make the national dish; can wear their national dress with a pride that drips from their eyes. But only a patriot wants an independent Scottish nation.

Similarly a political party can make all the noises, wear the outfits and pound its chest but a party which does not support independence can not be a patriotic party. Jim Murphy’s claim is a bubble that has already burst.

Labour as the patriotic party is like the bakery which opens and doesn’t sell any bread. It’s bun-less oven, built on a false premise: that somehow you can be a patriot and not support an independent nation. Using this false logic a patriot is someone who does not believe in a nations independence. Thanks to labour’s reworking we now have new and helpful labels for historical characters.

William Wallace and Robert the Bruce were not patriots. Neither Washington. Not Bolívar, San Martín or Martí. Nor the millions who fought for these leaders against their subjugation as they strove to become independent nations.

A partisan but not a patriot

I have no doubt whatsoever that a large percentage of those who voted “No” in the referendum did so because they considered they would be better off and so would their nation. The motivation was exactly the same for most “Yes” voters. Two different parties had come to the same cross roads and simply chosen different routes. One can argue about the path chosen, as much as the destination, but one thing we can say is that both saw the signpost “Patriot” but only the “Yes” voters could take that route.

Patriots throughout history have known that independence wouldn’t automatically lead to a materially wealthier nation just the hope of a better one. Patriots choose social justice over wealth on every occasion.

Every nation builder has their doubts that their new state would be safe and secure. Central and South American Nations who rejected imperial Spain foresaw decades of internal struggle. The Haitians who throw out the French knew that building a nation was not easy. The African and Asian states who jettisoned the Europeans saw dark times ahead. The Americans knew that a civil war would likely take place soon after the British were sent packing.

Wealth creation is never the driver in national building and a patriot knows it. Central to a patriots decision is the belief that their nation should be independent. This trumps every single other issue. You can stack the scales so high that they scrap the sky but it will never tip to that side if self determination is placed opposite: this weight is what defines a patriot.

A “No” voter can not claim this position and a party which does not even offer independence can not own the word: the word like the actions belong to those supporters of an independent nation. Pretending otherwise is just a game.

Scotland’s oil the bigger picture

In the autumn of 1999 I gatecrashed a presentation by a newly hired Department of Trade And Industry recruit. I was working at the Department of Environment at the time so it was more of a sneaking under the rope than breaking through the door type of gate crashing. But, nevertheless, I was in the DTI offices on Victoria Street, without an invite but with bated breath to hear a presentation. A presentation about North Sea oil.

My desire to nip away from the office to hear a closed door presentation on some fossil fuel wasn’t my normal form however the DTI recruit was a close friend from University who was now proudly and authoritatively presenting to a room full of senior civil servants. And this I had to see!

Every young graduate has these moments when they see for the first time their drinking partner, flat mate, football colleague, magically, almost suddenly enter normal life and become a professional. It’s a sobering prism to look through for all young graduates.

For the bespectacled, pin stripped civil servants their questioning and worrying gaze was focussed on my friend’s wild claims that the price of a barrel of crude oil would, in the near future, rise above $25. “Poppycock” someone probably said. Despite the content being clearly derided the presentation was politely applauded by the pinstripes and all too vigorously by the supportive gatecrashing mate.

How things have changed. In April 2011 the average price of oil reached $102 a barrel and that DTI recruit is now a senior civil servant; pinstriped and bespectacled.

Placing our oil in context

With the temporary fall in oil prices to below $60 a barrel the media is reporting that the oil industry is in crisis. There are of course serious concerns for companies, regions, employees, and the UK exchequer (because remember all the revenue from Scottish oil ends up in London). However to focus only on this short term reduction is to miss the much bigger picture. The much bigger picture is something that the mainstream media all too often forgets especially when it relates to corporate subsidies. 

We need to take a measured response to the “crisis” for the UK oil industry and not support the calls from corporations, government and trade unions (which is exceptionally peculiar), to cut taxes for this mature and untimely harmful industry. To call it a crisis and to focus on oil company subsidies as the answer is to ignore three exceptionally important pieces of background: the so called wider picture.

1. Where has all the money gone?

The billions of pounds which poured, slopped and dripped into company accounts and the Treasury coffers were a total boon, unknown and unplanned before the mid 1970s.

According to the ONS, since 1980 £177 billion has been sucked from the coast around the Scottish mainland and its Isles into the UK Treasury. You can guess at a higher figure earned by Oil Companies in the same period. So, let’s say £500 billion in thirty years or so. The Oil Industry and the UK Exchequer has seen a quite unimaginable boom in the profits from oil in the North Sea and from that they should have built a lot of cash reserves!

The job of any enterprise and for any government is to plan properly. The good times will come but surer than that so will the bad. Therefore the job of any organisation in the private sector or in the public sector is to be prepared. This is especially so when dealing with a product where the price can fluctuate drastically.

Before we continue to demand subsidies for oil companies we should be asking:

– what exactly have they been doing during the peak years to support a not unexpected downturn?

We should be asking our politicians:

– is our duty to start to subsidise companies in the lean years?

– is this the free market which they speak of?

We should be asking these questions before reducing their level of tax. However we are already too late as this years autumn statement chopped 2p off the level of tax oil companies have to pay. Again, let’s put this into context: this moves £470m over the next parliament from me and you to oil companies. This is on top of their current subsidy, which The UK Environmental Audit Committee claims is £12 billion a year from the UK Government: a massive corporate subsidy to an industry that has earned hundreds of billions exploiting our natural resources in the past few decades.

So typically with any bump in the road our government’s first response is to subsidise international corporations rather than to demand that they manage their affairs properly.

Oh, only to be Norwegian! Their Oil Fund has grown to a massive $850 billion. Currently this money is sitting, growing in a fund and not being used to pay for anything. However it is inconceivable that the fund would not be used to plug a hole in Norway’s finances should a drop in oil revenues continue and start to drastically affect the population. What has the UK Government done with our money? Where is the long term planning? Where is the buffer? Where is the investment from this boon?

These are the questions we should be asking not how much more subsidy do billion dollar profit companies require?

Both private businesses and the UK Government have failed to property and prudentially manage the money from our seas. I for one do not want to prop up an industry that has managed its finances so badly. No more tax cuts. They incentivise only one thing: more state sponsored miss management of our resources.

2. The oil industry is not a structurally sound industry

“Scotland and the Carbon Bubble” a report by Scottish Environmental LINK was launched in December and focuses on the preparedness of sectors of the economy, government and society should the Carbon Bubble burst. The Carbon Bubble is the reality that no more than 1/3rd of known fossil fuel reserves can be burned before we face a climate catastrophe.

There is a strong possibility that not all of the fossil fuels that the UK has access to will be burned. These ‘stranded assists’ will be left in the ground and oil companies and countries who will be expecting to earn from them will never see them realised. The financial impact of this reality for employees, regions, companies, pension funds and countries would simply dwarf this current “crisis”: picture that as big as the North Sea and this one no more than a puddle.

Scotland is of course especially susceptible to the financial impact of a carbon bubble. Our reliance on oil as an important industry is similar to our love affair with financial services. We must take this opportunity to properly diversify from fossil fuels. We have to learn the lessons from the financial crash that we can not rely on the speculative nature of certain industries to underpin our future.

3. The oil industry is not an environmentally sound industry

It was announced this month that renewables had for the first time become Scotland’s largest source of power demonstrating that our need for fossil fuels is reducing. We now have viable, secure and powerful alternatives to fossil fuels. We now have alternative clean industries for our jobs, pensions funds, regions, companies and our country.

The context of the environmental impact of more drilling, more exploration, more production and more consumption of oil scarcely receives a mention in any coverage of the oil industry. The social costs of the industry are made invisible by the main stream media. And that not only blinds the general population but it also dazes politicians.

Within the forty or so pages of the LINK Carbon Bubble Report one paragraph stood out. It was the response from the “Economy, Energy and Tourism Committee” of the Scottish Parliament. Their spokesman said that the committee was not aware of the concept of the Carbon Bubble and they did not know if it presented a risk to Scotland. No matter what you think of the likelihood of a bubble, does that sound like a country in which the full facts and opinions are openly discussed?

Before we look forward lets head back to 1998 and picture the disbelief and pleasure at the rise and rise of oil prices on the faces of those DTI officials. Imagine the glee as the revenues for the UK Treasury from North Sea oil rose and rose breaking the £100billion barrier during the Blair Government. Mirrored of course by a bigger rise in profits for oil companies.

Those billions of pounds poured, slopped and dripped into company accounts and the treasury. The dirty money swelled the coffers as a dirty and structurally unsound industry spent instead of saved.

That is the UK’s past but continuing on this path does not need to the Scotland’s future.

Political dissent Barcelona style

Political dissent lessons from the streets of Barcelona

We’ve all seen and heard the recent discussions around what “being British” means. These debates tend to take place to frame the idea that immigration is threatening these values. I’ve personally never found it easy to define Britishness probably because I don’t consider myself British. However there is a belief that various traits, traditions, beliefs and actions in a community of size can translate into a rough idea of that communities “values”. Say hello to the stereotype.

So by British I mean the often heard phrase of “mustn’t grumble.” Add to that our dislike of a strike or striking and our avoidance of a revolution and we have cultural evidence of this tendency to accept what’s given to us.

We may at times get a bit miffed. We may complain. We may write an angry letter or two and we may even join a demo. But these are the exceptional circumstances rather than the rules. Well, in Spain, and in Catalunya in particular it is quite the opposite. How can I put it? They tend to get well……..a little bit hotter under the collar.

So here’s my guide to political activism from the streets and kitchens of Barcelona and beyond.

1. Play the numbers game

While in Barcelona I witnessed street action against the proposed closing of a local nursery with twenty or so mums and dads marching under one banner. At the other extreme we had a million plus people linking arms across Catalunya. It’s in the blood to take your grievances to the street. And once on the street and with numbers this starts to be noticed as I discussed in a previous post.

Amassing numbers on the street is something for us Scots to consider as we seek to keep the momentum going post referendum. Numbers on the streets – once they reach a tipping point – lead to column inches and minutes on the mainstream TV news. We must start to embrace the street in a way that the Spanish have been doing for generations.

2. Burn bins not books

It was very interesting to see the reaction to the decision of three SNP councillors to set alight a copy of the Smith Commission (be warned this link is to the BBC – it’s included because it is a typical story that the BBC runs about the Smith Commission).

Scottish Labour’s interim leader, Anas Sarwar, said: “This is disgusting and disrespectful behaviour from three SNP councillors.” This is of course expected from a Labour man. However I was very surprised to see that the SNP suspended the councillors. What a shame. They just burned a document they didn’t agree with. In Barcelona when you are pissed off you burn a bin.

Street Confrontations part and parcel of Spanish political struggle
Street Confrontations part and parcel of Spanish political struggle

This escalation of the use of matches is pretty standard for any street bound demonstration in the Catalan capital. Now I’d have a problem with councillors doing this but seeing a bound document going up in flames in a nice controlled environment; not so much.

As we move towards a more enlivened and more motivated political environment we can’t all start to shift uncomfortably in our seats when someone burns a hastily put together westminster leaning report. Major political change is made when things happen. And let’s not shy away from making a strong political statement: let’s not be scared or sanctioned when we fan the flames.

3. Be bold and break the law

Sánchez Gordillo the elected Major of the small town of Marinaleda led raids on local supermarkets during the height of the recession in Andalusia “They marched into supermarkets and took bread, rice, olive oil and other basic supplies, and donated them to food banks for Andalusians who could not feed themselves.” This is taken from a fantastic book “The Village Against the World” by Dan Hancox which I would thoroughly recommend (buying the book not raiding Tesco)

And check out Enric Duran an infamous young Catalan (he simply had to be Catalan!) who “borrowed” €492,000 from thirty-nine different financial institutions. He had no intention of ever paying any of it back. Instead he distributed it among a variety of different co-operatives and revolutionary projects. Now this is activism. And my hat is tipped!

4. An attack on culture is still an attack

One of the biggest protests that took place while I was in Barcelona was against the closing of a previously disused building called “Can Vias.” Social Activists had turned the building into a hub for social and cultural activity. Until the price of land bounced back of course. The Can Vias link from the blog “It’s a Funny Old World” gives some insight into the universal problem of police brutality as an interesting aside.

For over four centuries Catalunya has viewed an attack on its culture as an attack on the region and on Catalans themselves. Many of their political demonstrations are to save cultural resources. It’s not all about money, poverty, corruption or police brutality; the defence of Cultural Catalunya has equal weight. I wonder if in Scotland we place our culture in such high regard?

Here’s pictures of a packed square and a plaque from outside my first flat in Barcelona. Every year a few score of Catalans would sing, dance the Sardana and place some flowers to mark the commitment to heroes of the Catalan cultural resistance who during the 1800s continued to dance the Sardana despite bans from Madrid.

Actually closer to a few hundred ready to celebrate past heroes
Actually closer to a few hundred ready to celebrate past heroes

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5. Protest with everything including the kitchen sink

On the Monday before the Catalan referendum a cacophony from outside our window spurred me to jump onto Twitter. I’ve just realised that the natural reaction should have been to just look out the window to find out what was going on, but there you go, that’s the world we live in. Pots and pans were the weapon of choice as thousands of Catalans protested about the Spanish government action in declaring the vote illegal. And what a racket. That continued on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday.

The beauty of this is in its simplicity. It’s easy. And once you’ve taken this little step to activism you could get on a role. It can be done from your home (and owing to the proximity of said pots and pans) this actually helps. And it can be LOUD.

I would love for everyone in Scotland to pick up a pot and with a ladle (my weapon of choice that week in Barcelona) give it a good malky in protest against the increase in Westminster led austerity. Every night for a week, everyone could be active. Every household-  even those ones that Tory Peers think “can’t cook”! – can open their windows and can demonstrate to everyone in their neighbourhood and beyond that sometimes what the establishment thinks is enough is actually not enough.

Stories from Barcelona tell me that political statements don’t need to be about burning, stealing or redistributing anything. It’s just about making a noise and being seen.

Scotland make some noise. And fan the flames.

No State or 51st State – Catalunya or UK?

It was with heavy hearts and heavier suitcases that my girlfriend and I left Barcelona at the end of November.  Almost all of our possessions had been picked up weeks before but with the sheer amount of Jamón, Padrons and Manchego we were carrying the seams of our bags were straining.

Hasta luego Barcelona. In the last week we said our goodbyes to the things we will miss the most. To the beach calmly emptying the final tourists during the dying days of autumn. To strong coffee in small cups. To Tapas. To Vermut. To the sound of agreement being echoed again, and again, and again as Catalan Gentleman nod and say “vale, vale, vale, vale, vale, vale” almost endlessly. Barcelona is a wonderful city full or wonderful people.

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Moving back to Northern Britain – the 51st State

We returned to Edinburgh a day after that recent US import Black Friday. Celebrating with a consumerist splurge the end of a celebration (Thanks Giving) that you don’t actually celebrate has to be one of the strangest diseases that the UK has caught in a while. America has been sneezing at this time of year since the 1960s but only now, powered by the internet and our avariciousness, have we contracted the bug. To witness it – thankfully just on TV – was ghastly. Here’s Buzzfeed’s summary.

We spent “Black Friday” (actually is was just a bit grey) in Barcelona walking round the local market. This is what Black Friday meant to us and it would seem hundreds of others who did their shopping that day.

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Black Friday Catalunya

Every year in the lead up to Christmas food collections spring up next to every single type of food shop. Market stalls, smaller independent stores and the larger super markets all get involved. Large boxes on creates are placed next to or inside stores and quickly fill with beans, pasta, rice, UHT, biscuits and tins of seafood. We decided to donate a few bags of food; pondering over the best items as we weighed up longevity with variety.

During the 20mins or so of our deliberations I’d say that 90% of shoppers donated at least one item. But that’s no surprise as I’ve come to learn the Catalans are a very socially engaged and spirited lot. This food collection tradition is much older than the Black Friday Sales.

So you can imagine what it felt like to return to the UK and witness how Black Friday had been spent here. “The American state across the pond” is a soubriquet that I simply detest to see my country – Scotland – living up to. One of my great hopes for an independent Scotland is that we would cast off two sets of cultural shackles as we split from Westminster’s cultural direction and the UK’s desire to live the life of Americans. No thanks man! Is what I say.

One of the glories of Catalunya and of Barcelona is that the region has this heart shaped by local communities and a local agenda that pumps with pride. It starts in the family, through the barrios, cities and finally at the borders of the region. It may not be a “State” but at least it is not the 51st State.

Votar és normal!

To vote is normal in a normal country says the sugar accompanying my coffee.

It's hard to miss the vote in Catalunya at the moment!
It’s hard to miss the vote in Catalunya at the moment!

This week – the 9th November – a majority of Catalans will cast their votes. They will answer two questions:

“Do you want Catalonia to be a State?

If so, do you want Catalonia to be an independent State?”

The turnout will be relatively low expected at around 55% – nowhere near the dizzying 86% turnout in the Scottish referendum – but there will be a majority of voters saying yes to both questions. However no matter the result it will carry as much water as an old fishing net. It’s more of an opinion poll than an election: it’s a ghost referendum.

This vote will be opposed as much as the original “formal” vote was by the Spanish Government ensuring that it will be ridiculed in the Spanish media and discounted by the establishment press across the globe. Maybe Catalans spoke but no one was listening.

Inside the Catalan Parliament
Inside the Catalan Parliament

It is a great shame that it has come to this. There was so much hope – buoyed by the momentum in the #indyref – that a true plebacite would go ahead with a weight that forced the hand of the establishment. But it hasn’t quite turned out that way. Sounds familiar doesn’t Scotland?

Artur Mas the head of the Generalitat thinks it’s still worth having some kind of vote. This watered down version won’t cost that much – everything was in place for the official vote – and it will be run by volunteers, so I am sure he is right but not everyone agrees with Artur: not even those who favour independence.

Whatever the internal wrangling within the Yes campaign a Yes vote will increase the conversation nationally about the situation of Catalunya and other “states” within Spanish.  Anything that demonstrates that there is a desire for more localised decision making has to be good for the democratic process across Europe. This vote on the back of the large Yes vote in Scotland will keep the momentum going.

Maybe the vote in Catalunya will unite the independence parties – although they argue like teenagers – to form a united and consistent front that can represent a majority in Catlaunya.  It’s a small hope for something that had such high hopes.

It would be unfair to say the independence movement failed before it was out of the starting gate because the result isn’t where the victory lies: it is post vote and what the pro independence parties do next. And here the similarity with the Scottish referendum is striking.  November is a big month in these two nation states. 2015 is a massive, gigantic year!

Gigantes!
Gigantes!

The power of localisation

Chatting with a shop owner about the local brewery is a pretty universal conversation. “Muy fuerte” says the proprietor as he points to his favourite Pale Ale: “Very strong” he says and smiles. This guy knows I am Scottish.

From my Barcelona apartment I can peer into this politicised state and observe the political situation around the Catalan referendum and luckily I can do that while drinking locally brewed Pale Ale.

I’ve been here on and off for two years and the barriers that any land has to a foreigner are beginning to fall. The hidden meanings behind phrases – like “quatro gatos” “four cats” – meaning there’s nobody here; the closeness of families and the bizarre breads are all beginning to make sense. However in the way that strong ale loosens the tongue I don’t totally understand things but I can have a stab at them.

With the mist cleaning I see many similarities and many differences between Catalunya’s search for proper and meaningful representation and the similar struggle taking place in Scotland.

With this in mind I’d like Scotland and Scots to get to know Catalunya that bit better. I’d like them to take a virtual walk down the Ramblas which criss-cross the city. Come and see a human tower being built. Join a political demonstration that sucks 100,000 people on to the street. Follow “Gigantes” down the street. Wave their flags, buy the t-shirt and read the books. And above all strive for some of the wonderful things that Catalunya takes for granted.

One of the differences between Scotland and Catalunya is how and where people shop. Now this may appear insignificant at first but I believe it goes to the heart of why many people backed the Yes campaign: an anti-establishment agenda focusing on localisation as the answer to more commerce and more jobs.

Cakes and Bread. And strong coffee.
Cakes and Bread. And strong coffee.

To sum up the differences between Catalunya and Scotland all you need to do is to take a walk down any medium sized street. Let’s pick the metro station of Clot. Think of it as Charing Cross in Glasgow or Haymarket in Edinburgh. It’s just outside of the city centre and is a busy hub for the local community.

Head up the main shopping drag and within one block you will find 30 shops. On this street it’s €1.50 for a coffee and 10c more buys a bottle of Estrella. Within this compact retail space there are six places you can buy fresh bread. There are three bars all serving food cooked fresh on the premises and one restaurant. In seven places in total you can buy that €1.60 beer.

A local bar on Carrer Rogent
A local bar on Carrer Rogent

The other twenty or so shops range from shoe shops to printers, from ice cream shops to a gym. Many of these types of shops would be seen on a UK high street (well maybe not the ice cream shop) but there the similarities end. On Carrer Rogent the main Ramble in Clot there are only five chain stores. There’s a coffee shop called Caracas, a Ham place called Enrique Tomas, Monopa the baker and a kind of pre packed take away meal store called Nostrum. One international store has a pitch: on the corner there is an Orange store. This is of course a striking difference to a UK high street. Twenty of the stores are owned by the people who run them meaning that the money spent in these shops stays in Catalunya.

Many of the stores highlight the importance and position of local produce. After browsing a wine store and seeing nothing but wines from the tempranillo grape I asked the wine store owner “Is all the wine from Spain?”, “NO. It’s all from Catalunya”: now that is localisation in action. Stores in Catalunya are different from stores in the rest of Spain. In this sense I wonder how Scotland truly differentiates itself from the rest of the UK? Because it should. And it can.

An independent card and art store.
An independent card and art store.

In the UK a staggering 97% of groceries are purchased from a supermarket. In Catalunya my guess would be that figure would be less than 30%. There are no major players anywhere near the size of the big four in the UK and the majority of streets are supermarket free – and it’s bliss!

In their place local markets appear weekly and are a genuine source of affordable produce rather than simply a site for tourists or the domain of the middle class. The markets are super markets in the sense that they are real markets that are super. A fresh source of fish, meat, fruit, nuts, beans and all manor of things is supplied by scores of owners instead of one. And the food is cheap.

Honey from the local market that occasionally pops up at the end of the street.
Honey from the local market that occasionally pops up at the end of the street.

Supermarkets are the most visible of conglomerates as they are on, literally, every high street. They operate solely for profit, paying little attention to their impact in the community. They have to deliver shareholder value and that comes at the expense of suppliers and staff. Sure they have low prices but they are shy on quality and variety. Money from the community flows in to these shops because their aggressive practices have made high street shopping unaffordable. And it has all been backed by complicit Governments in Westminster and Holyrood. Money flows out of communities to shareholders. Stores close. Decent paying jobs in small stores are exchanged for low paying zero hour contracts in supermarkets. Everyone loses. Apart from senior executives and shareholders obviously.

Many within the Yes campaign in Scotland had a focus on a localised approach to commerce as a way to increase inward investment and boost the local job market. An anti-establishment mantra has to include suspicion and disdain of corporations of all sizes – and supermarkets are front and centre – from their little Corner Metro Stores to their out of town Hyper Markets.

One of the themes in this blog is how we can get active despite a no vote. One way to do that is to support local suppliers and stores. Avoid Tesco, Asda, Morrisons, Sainsbury’s if you can! Buy local produce. Buy Scottish. The power for change lies at the front door and in the wallet of every single person. It’s the decision to walk past the supermarket and go local. Exercising that power, like the Catalans do, by pushing for a localised agenda can have a positive impact in your community that maybe even a Yes vote couldn’t have delivered.

The time is now Scotland

It’s a typical early Sunday afternoon. My girlfriend and I are sat on our Rambla taking a coffee and passively taking in the smoke from fellow patrons. A colourful procession of locals are taking a stroll and enjoying the sun. Today is like any other Autumnal day in Barcelona but one thing is different: the noise. The normal buzz of urban life on a Spanish street is punctured by the tooting of horns and shouts of support as a river of motorbikes pass along Carrer Aragó heading to a mass demonstration in plaça Catalunya.

I finish my coffee and dodging the Catalans on the Rambla I cycle down in my red and yellow “Ara És L’hora” – “The Time Is Now” t-shirt. I clasp myself onto the motor led procession and head west to the centre of the city.

photo

It’s a three mile ride and I join a throng of at least three thousand motorbikes surely snaking back all the way from the plaça. Almost every motorbike is flying the Catalan bandana and as the only pedal powered form of transport in this procession I settle on flying the flag for cyclists.

“Movements” become more than just the word and more than just words when by their sheer numbers, they start to stop traffic, stymie conversations and suck in bystanders. Over 110,000 say the police (link in Catalan) have gathered at plaça Catalunya, which now resembles one massive Catalan flag with almost every person in red or yellow. It’s not just people. It’s dogs. It’s cars. It’s the two colours from the stage, from the metro stations and from the roof tops. It’s two thirds of the traffic lights.

Bandanas

I watch the big screen from a far, taking pictures, occasionally clapping and less occasional picking out words in Catalan, all the while trying to avoid skelping people with the pedals of my bike.  Despite my poor grasp of the language and my bike I feel part of this movement.

The subtleties will always be lost on a non native but as a Scot still feeling the stab of sorrow a month after the no vote in Scotland I connect with this struggle more than most.

It’s easy to get carried away and carried along, to clap and to raise your hand with the pronounced shape of the “V” for victory as you merge into a gallimaufry of people doing the same.  This is what real movements do they compel and command involvement and those calls are answered by those bystanders and supporters from a distance.

If taking part in this demonstration shows me one thing it is that Catalunya moves to a different beat than Scotland. With over 100,000 gathering in a main square it beats at least ten times the frequency.

Scotland you’ve got to catch up: remember movement can be both forwards and backwards, so let’s make sure we go in the right direction. Let’s do it with a force that only numbers can amass. Scotland get active. With a Westminster election next year the Catalans tell us: “Ara És L’hora”

@williamgallus