Universities and the media future

There’s few Christmas presents quite as unwanted as delayed invoices, but that is the reality for a lot of people trying to make a living from journalism, and it seems to worsen year on year. It has been fairly widely documented that freelancing as part of a flexible labour force has severe impacts on your wellbeing – this is the same whether you are a journalist, a budget airline pilot, an Amazon warehouse worker or (as is increasingly common) an academic on a temporary contract who has to bid to teach courses each calendar year.

Conditions for journalists working in or for traditional media companies simply will not improve under current trends, and as a general rule if you get a lucky break at a magazine or newspaper today it is because you are young, your labour is comparatively cheap and your employer can get away with not tying you into expensive pension and severance packages.  Even click based content churn sites are struggling financially, and despite an initial bubble the whole thing now looks strangely transient as the relative enthusiasm for click media amongst investors has subsided and drowned in a sea of imitators.

There is a tendency within corporate management towards storytelling as a means of defining corporate purpose. Even media companies in the midst of laying off half their workforce like to imagine themselves as arbiters of society and responsible guardians, even when their business and editorial practices suggest otherwise. Sitting here in an academic office at an institution whose tagline is “influencing the world since 1583”, it seems pretty apparent that when it comes to corporate storytelling universities are no different. Because so much of their activity takes place below the waterline, they can struggle to convince people of their worth when all the general public are often aware of is their undergraduate degree courses and the somewhat arbitrary university rankings published each year that upper middle class parents who habitually still buy physical newspapers fret over. The current proposals from the UK government for streamlined degree courses are a case in point, seeming to misunderstand what universities are at a fundamental level.

Universities like to think of themselves as an idealised civic space, a machine of parts which provides expertise in and contributes to all aspects of society. Just as in the real world, universities are increasingly interested in entrepreneurialism and profit over universalism as a guiding principle, yet they still offer a rare platform on which to do two things. Firstly they offer institutional space for non-commercial research on how society works, and secondly they possess an almost overwhelming level of expertise in the important contemporary issues that are the bread and butter of journalistic inquiry.

Should academia seek to save journalism then? My argument is that it can and should, at least in the medium term – in a future where journalism is no longer a wholly commercial undertaking and where media giants have shrunk, media departments and researchers can move from teaching skills to be applied in an industry which no longer exists to actively influencing the future of that industry. There is already some precedent for this crossover in the form of increasing efforts by university press offices to get their academics into the media by authoring pieces for established titles or for The Conversation, the university funded opinion platform. Commercial media companies love academics because they will provide expert analysis but with externalised costs, and The Conversation is actually funded by the universities themselves and does not pay its contributors in anything but bargaining chips for academics seeking to impress their line managers. Last year I was actually told by one editor that they didn’t want me to pitch comment pieces on my areas of expertise as I demanded a fee and academics would happily write about the same subject for nothing. The Conversation is interesting in that it shows there is both money and a desire to bring academic research into public life, yet by modelling itself on click sites and news blogs (including an almost painful addiction to topicality and zeitgeisty headlines) it undermines what it is nominally trying to do.

Another challenge is that many of the best universities with the best resources have considered journalism and media studies to be below them. Much journalism education in the UK has developed from vocational training, so although journalism courses teach people how to be reporters and to gain the qualifications that might get them their first job, they often fail to equip their graduates with an understanding of the social context of journalism or of the complexities of some of the things they might be tasked with reporting on. In a cannibalistic industry, journalism education in its conventional form can all too often also resemble a pyramid scheme designed to ensure employment for those teaching it as much as those on the lecture hall benches.

Tied to this is the question of what and who you want journalists to be. If you want journalists who are versatile and critical you have to train and deploy them somewhat differently to mere news-gathering functionaries. The way the economy works today, there is little incentive for media companies to offer training or personal development to staff, let alone freelancers. There are a few interesting examples around of degree courses trying to create ‘new’ journalists who can be both expert and journalistic practitioner. The University of Toronto for example now has an intensive programme which takes people with high skill degrees and teaches them how to be specialised but flexible freelance operators, with their graduates landing gigs including health reporting in West Africa, climate change and corporate governance.

That all leaves the thorny issue of how the whole thing is paid for. Crowd funded journalism does not necessarily mean running kickstarter after kickstarter with an ever-declining return. Slow journalism is about economics as much as what you produce. If you as a media organisation are in it for the long haul then you can afford to take five years to go from two to twelve journalists. Of the majority of activity in any media organisation, the question always asked by managers is what it is for. You are either generating income (advertising and marketing), attracting readers (journalists with an emphasis on sports and headline news, or human interest), or you provide a sheen of respectability in some other way that enhances the product.

If you look at journalism from the other direction though, and take a journalism first approach, the picture suddenly changes. Media organisations begin to look very different – they can consist of a handful of people, be more horizontal in how they operate, and the journalists who work in them can behave very differently.  From a Scottish perspective, where there have been multiple failed or stalled attempts to provide some kind of diversification in the public media, start ups have tended to either have overly optimistic financial streams, have positioned themselves as counter cultural and thus fundamentally self-limiting, or been run by people with little experience of the complexities and challenges of media work, what is reasonable to pay contributors, and how editorial processes have to work to maintain quality.

Journalism as it previously existed is no more, but in the way it is taught and researched we often labour under the illusion that academia can watch, take notes and relay rather than assuming the burden of developing new journalisms and using the institutional strength of the education system as a foundation for resilient quality media. If the stated leadership aims of universities about influencing, improving and transforming society are going to be made concrete then journalism is a good place to start.

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Locked out of utopia: How Sweden’s Roma became a political scapegoat

The snow is beginning to drift against the chain-link fence that separates the railway line from the woods in the Stockholm suburb of Flemingsberg. The thermometer is below zero and people gaze out from the centrally heated apartment blocks that dominate the valley onto the road and railway below.

From the back entrance to the commuter station, a woman in a headscarf carrying a blue IKEA bag stuffed with cushions heads off between the hoardings of a building site and a yard for industrial machinery along the icy cycle path.

Her destination is an abandoned bridge abundment stacked with caravans and wooden shacks. Improvised chimneys kick wood smoke out into the frigid February air. This little parade of homes houses around 40 Roma migrants, many of whom are busy trying to shift a trailer that has slipped in the freezing and thawing mud.

One of the people with their weight under the trailer is Elvis, 23, who is dressed in a woolly hat and thick jacket. It is a name he has adopted as he has moved across Europe – Elvis Presley was supposedly descended from Roma migrants to the US. He arrived in Sweden via Germany. Switching between English, Swedish, German and Romanian, he talks about how he and his family came to be in the tiny ramshackle encampment on the edge of a planned Nordic suburb.

Sweden’s new EU citizens

“We’re all from Romania. We have come to Sweden to earn money, but it is hard to find a job,” he says. Instead, most of the people at the camp get by through begging in Stockholm’s inner city. Coming for a few months at a time, they can then take what they make back to their families. In Sweden’s new Roma communities, children are conspicuous by their absence.

“It gets cold. We live in the caravans together where it is warmer,” he adds. With the temperature usually well below zero, being outside any length of time in the long Nordic winter is not pleasant. He gestures toward the nearest caravan and opens the door, presenting the other members of his family.

Inside, a group of mostly older men and women are sprawled across the tiny space, including Elvis’ father. “He has lost his leg in an accident,” Elvis says, pointing to a man in a knitted cardigan. The big man on the improvised sofa pulls up his trouser leg to reveal where it stops just below the knee. The injury is the result of an industrial accident working illegally in Eastern Europe, they claim.

The inside of the caravan is cosy, heated by the wooden embers in a stove added to the vehicle by some ingenious spatial improvisation. Outside, express trains zip past on the main line from Stockholm to Gothenburg, Oslo and Copenhagen.

The existence of camps like the one in Flemingsberg, and the people who live in them, has become an increasingly divisive issue in Sweden. Legally entitled to be there but often deeply unwelcome, Sweden’s Roma are caught in limbo. They fit into neither the EU ideals of skilled mobile labour, nor into the diverse group of political and economic migrants whom Sweden’s generous asylum policies seek to aid.

Trapped in the cracks

Sweden also has a highly regulated housing market with a low level of private rental. Access to its institutions and bureaucracy often requires a social security number and finding long-term housing from outwith the system can be difficult for non-Swedes. The same is true for non-emergency aspects of healthcare. As a result, those arriving in Sweden without financial means are forced onto an unregulated black market or compelled to live in temporary camps.

Modern Sweden has pursued a strongly integrationist agenda to migration, in recent years extending to higher demands on language learning for new arrivals. It also recruits skilled immigrants to its research and healthcare sectors and has historically had high levels of immigration from Iran and the Middle East. Most recently, the ongoing conflict in Syria has led to an increase in the number of refugees travelling to the country.

Roma have lived in Sweden for hundreds of years and are officially a national minority, enjoying certain legal protections to language and support for culture. The reality, though, is somewhat different. Roma children underperform in school and structural discrimination is common. Roma children were only allowed to enter the education system in the 1960s and knowledge of Roma culture in Sweden is still low. Maria Leissner, the head of a board on Roma issues appointed by the last Swedish government, described their situation in Sweden as “worse than a developing country”. Her report outlined how fewer than half of all Roma children in Sweden attend school.

Niklas Orennius, a journalist for the leading Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter, recently revealed the existence of a database of more than 4,000 people with a Roma background compiled by the police. The database included children and pensioners and was en example of “the last sanitised racism”, according to Orennius.

Despite the long legacy of Roma in Scandinavia, the most prominent in the public eye are the newly arrived EU migrants. Earlier this year, the governing Conservative and Progress parties in neighbouring Norway attempted to introduce legislation that would have banned begging anywhere in the country and criminalised people giving them help. In theory, it would have applied to all begging, but its link to Roma migration was obvious, its critics argued. The legislation was eventually withdrawn after criticism from churches, opposition politicians and the Council of Europe.

Like elsewhere on the continent, Sweden has a chequered history in its treatment of the ethnic group. In 1948, a riot in Jonköping led to vigilantes hunting travelling Roma and attacking their homes, encouraged by a local press and a passive police force. More recently, individual politicians in the Swedish Conservative party have voiced support for criminalisation of begging and the far-right Sweden Democrats posted adverts in Stockholm’s metro system with the slogan “stop organised begging”. The dissonance between the good-hearted, generous Sweden of popular perception and a deeply closed society is tangible.

First steps

On a Monday afternoon, the white tiled passage linking Stockholm’s central station and the metro hub next door is thick with people rushing from overground to underground. As they stream along the corridor, it is the people not moving who stand out. Commuters keen to catch their trains are met by a human wall selling mobile phone sim cards, handing out flyers and, most noticeably, begging for money from the floor of the hallway.

Clutching laminated signs with pictures of their family and stutteringly translated pleas in English and Swedish, the Roma trying to earn enough to stay alive are hard to miss. Many of the people running to the metro will already have encountered them on the local trains where they patrol carriages and will probably encounter them again on the metro. The passage is a prime position – not only is it full of people, but it also offers some respite from the bitterly cold weather.

Another person standing still in the crowd is Sven Hovmöller. A semi-retired chemistry professor at Stockholm University and a Social Democrat in local government, he is the vice-president of HEM, a volunteer group that collects clothes and provides what help it can to Sweden’s Roma. Hem is Swedish for home, but the acronym is symbolic in another way too. It stands for Homeless EU Migrants, the name with which activists have sought to humanise Romanian Roma and highlight the huge inequality in access to help compared to other immigrants from the EU.

In his rucksack he has a stack of magazines and printed paper slips in Romanian explaining what he is doing. “The idea is that they should sell the magazine instead of begging. They can make between two and five times as much.”

Hovmöller has only been working with HEM since last spring, but is now fully engaged in the project.

“You see beggars, you wonder what’s up and what their story is, so I went out to one of the camps where they were living and got to see how poor they were. It started by taking them water and making sanitary facilities. Now we organise Swedish classes every Sunday. These are EU migrants who can’t get any help at all. Occasionally they might get a place to sleep,” he says.

In the coldest months of November and December, when temperatures plummeted, churches across Sweden opened their doors to provide temporary shelter.

“The state could open a place for them to stay, just like with other refugees,” thinks Hovmöller. “They are refugees from a thousand years of oppression and racism. Illiteracy is high, so they are in a worse situation than many of the people who come here from Africa, for example.”

Nobody knows exactly how many EU Roma have come to Sweden. Hovmöller gives an estimate of a few thousand, but even the authorities have little idea.

Telling a different story

The idea of the pamphlet Hovmöller is distributing is to change the way people interact with Roma and to give some context to why they have come to Sweden. It is a similar strategy to that taken by Felicia Iosif, a Romanian Roma immigrant to Sweden, and Sara Olausson, an illustrator and comic writer. After meeting in the Stockholm suburb of Liljeholmen, the two became friends and produced a book, Felicia, about the background of Roma migrants across Europe using Iosif’s own experiences.

Sitting in the white sterile premises of a coffee chain in a municipal shopping centre, Olausson waves to another Roma woman she knows passing by. Further along the pristine white mall, two women sit charging their budget mobile phones. “We told each other about our lives and we couldn’t speak each other’s languages, but you can communicate. With the help of a Romanian friend we translated and got Felicia’s story out,” says Olausson.

Iosif is currently back in Romania, and Olausson is about to join her. This will be Olausson’s fourth trip to visit the members of Roma families who stay at home, with the children left behind the subject of a new series of comics so that Swedish children can learn about their Roma peers. Part of this involves tackling the stereotypes about Roma perpetuated by populist media outlets and online, she says.

“I was lucky enough to already have a publisher, and to tell her story we had to go there… you hear about big palaces in the media and there are indeed some beautiful houses that families build, but inside it is just as poor as everywhere else. Racists use this as proof, but these are people who have never commanded respect at home. It is understandable that some of them might like to live in a good house, like anybody else.”

This, believes Olausson, is the real battleground – to get both the public and politicians to better understand how and why Roma have come to end up on Stockholm’s streets. This balance of cultural understanding and economic assistance is tricky, though.

“Sweden has come a long way, but just as the goodwill has increased, so has the hate,” says Olausson, ominously. Another female activist working to integrate newly arrived Roma was forced to stop media engagement because of threats and misogynist hate speech, while Olausson herself was manhandled by bailiffs when trying to rescue clothes and blankets from a Roma camp being torn down by the authorities.

A Romanian government minister recently caused consternation when she visited Sweden and claimed that Roma are not discriminated against in their home country. A changing Europe and changing domestic politics in Sweden mean that even in a society viewed as a model of tolerance and integration, old prejudices have re-emerged.

Sweden’s new right

As they have become increasingly visible, the Roma have become an easy target for Sweden’s resurgent populist right. In the autumn elections, the Sweden Democrats, who emerged from Sweden’s neo-nazi movement in the 1980s, became the third biggest in parliament. They also won their first seats in Stockholm’s city hall. Their pledge to ban beggars was a central plank of the campaign.

In her centrally heated and publicly funded office Maria Danielsson sips a cappuccino on the sofa, surrounded by her American college diploma and photos of her family. The group leader for the party in Stockholm switches between California soccer-mum English and Swedish as she explains why the party think a begging ban is needed.

“The begging issue has gone from somewhat problematic to immensely problematic… it is causing problems with sanitation. We’re the only party in Stockholm that wants to ban begging.”

Danielsson goes to pains to point out that she and her party have nothing against Roma immigration, but claims that it is not Sweden’s job to deal with the “systematic problem” created by poverty in Eastern Europe. “I have members of my own party and others contacting me and saying ‘I am tired of this, I want to hit them’, and people are pushing them around.” In the logic of the Sweden Democrats, immigration rather than ignorance causes racism.

Danielsson does not think that her party or politics are being treated fairly, yet the Swedish media is dominated by discussions of immigration. In November 2014, the Sweden Democrats very nearly toppled the government by backing the opposition budget. Her arguments are the same used all over Europe by the new populist right.

“We want to be able to be nationalist without being called fascist, and talk about immigration without being called racist,” she says. “I would actually say that right now Sweden is not a democracy.”

She has ambitions for the Sweden Democrats to become the biggest party and form a government that “puts Sweden first”. Her role model is Norway and the success achieved by the anti-immigration Progress party. All four of the mainland Scandinavian countries have seen the growth of such parties, with the Danish People’s Party and the True Finns in Finland also commanding support on a populist message of economic realism, cultural exceptionalism and resistance to globalisation. The Sweden Democrats, though, are unique in emerging from the traditional white power movement.

Not all members of the Sweden Democrats are as diplomatic as Danielsson. Previously, candidates have described Roma in Sweden as a “cancer” and the party has engaged in a process described by Danielsson as “cleansing” to expel its most outwardly racist members.

Even without the Sweden Democrats, Sweden can be a tough society for newcomers. It is the ultimate irony that a system specifically designed to provide security for the majority acts as a barrier to the integration of those outside it. This is just as true of those within Sweden as new arrivals from outside.

The Swedish government, meanwhile, has restated its opposition to racism and emphasised the place of Roma as one of the country’s officially recognised national minorities. The previous administration also instituted a commission on anti-Roma prejudice, due to report next year. The new minister for culture, Alice Bah Kuhnke, who also bears some responsibility for integration and multicultural policy, has said that increased crimes against both Swedish Roma and newly arrive EU migrants “are further proof that the measures we are taking are needed”.

The question of whether restating a commitment to multiculturalism can solve the complex structural inequalities affecting Swedish and EU Roma, though, remains largely unanswered. Swedish civil society has begun to show a will to understand its suddenly prominent minority. The real test will be whether the Swedish government can reach a solution different to the ones being touted by populist politicians across Europe.

Originally published in Contributoria. 

Sweden’s plan to relocate an Arctic city, with or without its citizens

Kiruna, Swedish Lapland – “If you want a cheap kitchen fan or some radiators get in there”, chuckles Kjell Törmä, editor of the local newspaper in the Swedish city of Kiruna.

Sat behind the wheel of his well-heated car, he points at the red brick apartment blocks on the edge of his hometown, high above the Arctic circle. The Ullspiran, a district of red brick municipal housing, is about to be pulled down to make way for one of the most ambitious projects in the Scandinavian nation’s history – the moving of the entire city.

This April marked a turning point for the residents of Sweden’s northern outpost, sitting at the same latitude as Siberia and Northern Alaska. With the melting of the heavy winter snows, Kiruna is finally on the move after almost a decade of careful planning. Last week the first apartments were bulldozed to make way for expansion of the city’s lifeblood; a huge iron ore mine that winds almost a mile underground on the other side of the valley.

The Swedish state owned mining company LKAB dominates Kiruna. Last year it made a profit of 700 million dollars from its Arctic mines, though in reality the income is higher as the state effectively pays tax to itself. These huge profits keep Sweden’s schools and hospitals running and the north of the country alive. After more than a century of extraction, LKAB have now begun tunneling under the old city to reach more of the high grade mineral. Unfortunately this means it is no longer safe to live in.

“In 2004 LKAB produced their first estimations, and then a lot of people said ‘nothing is happening’. There’s been a lot of preparation, and then infrastructure work such as the new railway and power system. Now though you’ll begin to see it properly as they tear the old town down and they start building”, says Törmä over a cup of thick Swedish coffee at his office inside the Sami Parliament. The building is a focal point for the local indigenous community that herd reindeer in the surrounding mountains.

From the parking lot outside the mine is clearly visible, as is the crumbling empty ground above the current mineworkings. The rate of extraction is breathtaking. Around the clock the most powerful electric rail locomotives in the world pull trains of iron ore across the border to Norway and the Atlantic ocean for export to China, the Middle East and the US. It is the global demand for steel products that keeps Kiruna going.

Eventually Törmä’s office and every other building in central Kiruna will vanish into an expanding sinkhole that is already biting at the city limits. As the mine digs deeper into one of the world’s largest iron ore seams, cracks are beginning to work their way towards downtown.

On the other side of the city though the first signs of the new Kiruna are emerging. A few miles east and out of the bite of the cold Arctic wind, a large sign stands by the roadside proclaiming the construction of the new settlement.

Over the next decade the empty woodland around the sign will be transformed into a model community of the future, all designed by the world-renowned White Architects from Stockholm, the Swedish capital fourteen hours south.

Last spring the municipality signed a deal with LKAB for 3,74 billion Swedish crowns, around 375 million dollars, to build much of what will replace the current downtown area.

“Most people I spoke to thought they had got a good deal there”, says Törmä. “The following summer is when it really kicks off – that’s when they will build the entire new centre”, he adds, pointing out the window.

Elements of the architects’ vision for a new Kiruna are straight from a science fiction novel, including a seven-mile long cable car that will lift passengers above the trees and winter snows, transporting them from the airport to the local railway station and the huge ore mine. Temperatures in the winter can regularly dip below minus 30 centigrade, and the new city will be triple glazed and ‘climate smart’. In the Arctic it stays completely dark for a few weeks each year as the sun never rises, so the new town is also intended to be a light and sociable place.

At the centre of this modern marvel will be the new city hall, The Crystal, with public rooms and bright white lights to beat the winter blues. It will make Kiruna into one of the most efficient, modern and environmentally friendly cities in Europe.

Another key element of the masterplan is that no home should be more than three blocks from the city centre or three blocks from the Arctic woodland surrounding it on all sides.

Half a mile underground, Britt Olofsson is enthusiastic about the new city. Dressed in a hard hat and the branded LKAB overalls, she leads visitors along abandoned mineshafts on a tour of the huge facility. In her fifties, she moved back to Kiruna from Stockholm with her family, attracted by a better quality of life.

‘The mine is the most important thing in Kiruna”, she says. “Without the mine there would be no city, almost everyone has some kind of connection to it.”

“I’m born in Kiruna and there’s always been talk of moving the city. I think it’s a fairly natural thing for us so we don’t see it in such dramatic terms as people from outside do. My hometown is vanishing and my memories will go with it, but it will be a better city environment.”

Olofsson’s mixed emotions are at the heart of the trade off the town is making with its own history. The new city will try and preserve some of the past by moving a few signature buildings, including the old wooden church dating from when Kiruna was an inhospitable frontier outpost.

“They’re going to take care of some of the older stuff and try and mix it. I think most people are positive to it and think it is going to be a big improvement. I’m happy that LKAB exists and that they are here to stay”, she says optimistically.

Job security is good in Kiruna and wages are high, even by Swedish standards. Mineworkers can earn around 3,600 dollars a month working shifts and there is at least a hundred years worth of ore left. In contrast a privately run mine in Pajala, a few hundred miles to the east, recently closed when the company that owned it collapsed.

Not everyone is happy about the way the mining company dictate the city’s future. Henry Emmeroth, a local councilman and environmental campaigner says that the state-owned mining company expects the city to simply do as it is told.

“The Swedish state is only interested in the huge profits LKAB has made for the national coffers for decades. They blast in the mine until two in the morning so you cannot sleep. They release heavy metals and other dangerous chemicals like mercury, meaning Kiruna has the most polluted lake in Sweden, a stone’s throw from the city centre. Our cultural inheritance, our history and our pride is being torn apart. Traders in the centre of town, homeowners and people renting have no idea what their future is.”

“Older people cannot afford to move into new homes with higher rents. They have to leave Kiruna, and these are the same people who helped build the city when times were hard. They are demolishing more than they can build.”

In Kirunas only bookshop, right in the the heart of the old city, 22-year old Jessica Wennberg sits behind the counter counting the receipts. Another Kiruna native, she came back to the city after attending music college further south.

“I like it here. There’s a lot to do and the nature is wonderful.’, She says . The low 1950s building housing the business will be another casualty of the move though. “We don’t know how long we’ll be here, but everyone will get a new premises.”

For the people who call Kiruna home, it is more than just a mining outpost. “Coming back was not a hard decision, and the business is doing alright”, smiles Wennberg.

The transplantation of Kiruna is not at an easy process. The planners have been tasked not just with building a new residential district but with recreating the old Kiruna in a new form. That means finding a corresponding place for everything the town currently has, including its identity. Alongside Wennberg’s bookshop there will be a new high street with all the familiar names and big Swedish brands like H&M as well as nods to the past.

Up the street in the window of a local architects office a sign boasts ‘Kiruna is like Detroit.’ Just as the troubled symbol of American industry has gone about reinventing itself, this Arctic outpost has realised that you have to change just to stay alive.

“I’m the only Yes in the Village.” Talking to swing voters in the Scottish Borders

The damp air darkens the sandstone of Dumfries as a shower sweeps in from Cumbria over the Solway Firth. In the backroom of the First Base drop-in centre next to the River Nith, Mark Frankland sips a mug of instant coffee, a red Yes campaign badge on his jacket.

The founder of this combined food bank, drugs advice point and family refuge is voting for independence, explaining why in his native Lancashire accent:

“Even growing up in Blackburn, I was taught to have a healthy distrust of London and the power it held. I remember going down as a Liverpool fan in the Eighties and having twenty-pound notes waved in my face… it’s still like that today it seems, and this is a chance to break away from that.”

If Yes supporters are relying on economic realities, the No campaign is keen to stress Anglo-Scottish links. Behind a car park by a retail village in Gretna, the Conservative MP Rory Stewart has financed the Hands Across the Border cairn. There is a ring of stones six feet high, and passersby are invited to place a rock on top to mark the enduring Union. A visitors’ book sits under a gazebo with Stewart’s name printed on it and the messages on the cairn range from painted Union flags to the more unsettling ‘one nation, one blood” engraved on a boulder.
From Gretna it is a short drive up to Langholm, a small town nestled in the hills on the River Esk. This is the birthplace of Hugh MacDiarmid, modernist poet and one of the founders of SNP forerunner the National Party of Scotland. Far from being a hotbed of nationalism though, people in Langholm are tight-lipped about the referendum. At the local arts centre two Scottish women and their English husbands sip milky coffee. All they are prepared to say is that a lot of people are still to make up their minds. Politics is not something the Borders likes discussing.

One person who has made up their mind is Philip Gunn, a Yes-supporting Staffordshire native who runs a gallery on Langholm’s main street.

“There are two main factors of equal importance. The residents of Scotland could elect a government fully accountable to the people of Scotland, and the nuclear weapons issue. As an English person living in Scotland I have no axe to grind – I just think it would be great for Scotland. “

Even this close to the border the labour-drain south is tangible. Both of Gunn’s children have had to move to England for work, and he would like to see the Scottish economy grow and offer them a chance to come home. Above the town a memorial to MacDiurmid faces a row of wind turbines across the valley. It is this combination of old arguments of national self-determination and the promise of a vibrant high-tech economy that the SNP and their Green and non-aligned allies hope can make the difference.

Enthusiastic No supporters are hard to come by though. At the Conservative Club in Selkirk, a member and Better Together activist who wishes to remain anonymous leans over the table: “Dare I say it, but there are people here who will be voting Yes,” he whispers. Of the four men sipping lager at the bar to stay out of the afternoon rain, none look like David Cameron’s kind of Conservative. The agreement is that the vote is going to be extremely close, and the Borders’ traditional ties to England will play a smaller role than popularly assumed.

“The case for No has not been well-made. There are times when Cameron speaks and he just sounds patronising,” he says.

The Conservative Club looks down onto the valley of the Ettrick Water and the Bannerfield Housing Estate. It is in these areas that the “natural majority” for independence described by Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon live; people who independence supporters believe stand to benefit from self-government and a break with Westminster. Although the Borders usually vote Tory or Liberal, those unaccounted for at general elections are seen as vital to a Yes victory.

Over on the English side of the border in Cornhill-on-Tweed, people are watching with interest. John Hardy, a retired surveyor with property on both sides and a grandson of a Labour MP in the first post-war government, says people are wary of the risks.
“There is a worry about things like tax regimes and exchange rates. People cross the border every day to work, and what happens if the Scottish taxman asks you to pay as well as the English one?”

John is typical of the transnational Border dwellers who until now have never been forced to consider where their national and financial loyalties lie. His concerns are mirrored by Jock Law, a retired picture-framer in Coldstream where the border hugs the River Tweed.

“I’m not saying I wouldnae like Scotland to be independent, I just don’t think it could be”. Jock, like many on the Scottish side of the border, feels the practicalities of independence are the problem, not the idea itself.

Due north from Coldstream lies the prosperous town of Duns, home to Green Yes campaigner Pauline Stewart. Life is good for most people at this end of the border, but the activists are still out in force. Irrespective of the result, she says that the independence referendum has blown away the old the certainties of Borders politics:

“I know many people, none of whom are young, who will be voting for the first time in their lives.”

Like Mark Frankland in Dumfries, she is affiliated to the Radical Independence Campaign and not the SNP. She rejoined the Scottish Green Party after it decided to back independence, and is one of the many activists re-engaged after years in the political wilderness. Although she remains pessimistic about whether the Borders can swing to Yes, there is a feeling that the two sides of the border are already diverging in terms of political engagement and belief that change is possible.

In Peebles, an hour south of Edinburgh, Yes and No activists are out on a Saturday afternoon vying for people’s votes. “It’ll be a catastrophe,” shouts a man towards the Yes Scotland stall opposite the Post Office. This is not fertile Yes country, but the gains are steady. Even in this wealthy corner of the Borders, there is still a local food bank, and just like in Selkirk there are people the Yes campaign has its eye on who are disillusioned with Westminster and London. Thursday 18 September will determine if Scotland becomes independent, but the campaign has already transformed debate on the north side of the Tweed, and old loyalties are fading in the new world of Scottish politics.

Union busting Socialists? The SNP and the aesthetics of resistance

The summer rain is threatening to to turn into sunshine above the Thames as Natalie McGarry, MP for Glasgow East, opens the window on the balcony of her wood-panelled office opposite the Houses of Parliament.

“I think the SNP victory has shown people around the UK that there can be alternative messages, and that with the right catalyst you can break the system,” says McGarry, whose first weeks in London have seen a media storm around her party’s challenging of convention on everything from where to sit in the chamber to clapping speeches. She is one of 56 Scottish National Party (SNP) representatives in Westminster following their best election ever, replacing the Liberal Democrats as the third party in UK politics.

The newly elected SNP MP represents one of the poorest constituencies in the UK, while her office occupies a prime address in one of the richest. Many of McGarry’s constituents rely on government services and in recent years food banks that run on private donations have become a regular fixture as the UK government has sought to reduce social security spending. It was against this background that the SNP soared to victory in May’s elections, capitalising on a feeling that the main UK parties were indifferent to the problems of Glasgow’s working class communities and Scotland more generally. Ten months on from the narrowly lost all-or-nothing referendum on Scottish independence, the main political driving force of the movement to leave the UK has reached new heights of political dominance on a simple message of change.

With the right catalyst you can break the system. – Natalie McGarry MP

“I think it has kind of shaken up politics in the UK at the moment, regardless of us playing our cards and being defeated in votes,” she says. “I was speaking to to Caroline Lucas [the UK’s only Green MP] last week and she said that having a large group of SNP MPs had changed the dynamics within the parliament, and that empowers the smaller parties too. Prime Minister’s Questions is quite intimidating if you are in a small block.”

Resisting austerity

The SNP has been keen to foster a reputation as rebels on the UK political scene, declaring itself part of an anti-austerity alliance in the general election campaign together with the Green Party in England and the independence-focused and green-tinged Plaid Cymru in Wales. Just two days before meeting for an interview, the square outside McGarry’s office had been filled with anti-austerity protestors and Caroline Lucas had made a stirring speech to the crowd. McGarry herself had been at a similar demonstration in Glasgow.

Opposition to UK government cuts became a key part of the SNP’s message in the run up to their election landslide. The party’s slick media team had used the twitter hashtag #redtories to attack the Labour Party for being too close to the Conservatives, a label eagerly taken up by Scottish voters. “Labour no more” pin badges were printed and distributed to party members and the public alike, together with the more folksy identity marker, “See me, I’m SNP”. The result was a catastrophic night for the one party in Britain with a claim to represent its disparate parts. Hounded from Scotland and pushed out of the south of England by a voting system that exaggerates the gains and losses of parties, Labour has been beaten back to the middle of Britain.

Whatever the bigger political picture, Glasgow East is suffering heavily from economic stagnation and a lack of basic services.

Since her party’s landslide north of the Anglo-Scottish border in May, McGarry’s staff have been working on laptops out of a community centre in one of the most deprived areas of her constituency. On the index of multiple deprivation that maps living conditions across the UK, the area is consistently hard hit and notoriously has a male life expectancy of just 54 in one district. It is clear that whatever the bigger political picture, Glasgow East is suffering heavily from economic stagnation and a lack of basic services.

Six weeks earlier the prospective MP had been out canvassing hard in the constituency under the banner “Stronger for Scotland”. The SNP cast itself not as a pro-independence party but as standing up for normal people’s interests better than the Labour Party had done. McGarry took her seat from Labour’s Margaret Curran, a former Scottish minister and senior member of the Labour Party.

“Yes, the feeble 41,” says McGarry, referring to the former 41 Scottish Labour MPs whom she believes did not do enough to look after Scotland before most of them lost their seats. Although the SNP and its allies in the Scottish Green Party narrowly lost September’s referendum on Scottish independence, it gave the SNP in particular a critical mass that it carried into Westminster. Across the country people received SNP leaflets in their letterboxes on which Scotland’s First Minister and SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon boasted that she would “stand up for Scotland”. It was a turn of phrase that passed from the pens of campaign managers to the mouths of the general public.

“I think it is in part due to the referendum, but then it is not just about how you voted in the referendum,” says McGarry. “In my constituency, a majority of people voted Yes, but it wasn’t just about that. On the doorsteps, for example, I met a 73-year old man who said he would vote No if there was another referendum, but that he thought the SNP were best suited to stand up for Scotland. He thought the SNP had stood up to the Tories, and when they looked at the Labour party they did not do it through the rose-tinted spectacles that had given them a loyalty for generations. Looking at that block of MPs whom we sent to Westminster, people did not feel they were raising their voices enough.”

More powers for Scotland

One of the key pledges of the SNP was to secure more powers for Scotland after defeat in the independence referendum, but it finds itself in a difficult position. The UK government is currently pushing its Scotland Bill through parliament, determining which new powers the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh will inherit. There may be more SNP MPs than ever before, but the party is powerless to influence the majority Conservative government.

“Being a Scottish MP is not about nationality, but knowing you have been empowered by more than 50% of people to represent them. You have some great debates in the chamber, only to see them troop through the voting lobby without any real engagement with an issue,” laments McGarry.

Top of the list for the SNP is welfare powers, which it argues would counter the huge cuts to social security for which there is no mandate in Scotland. The government though is reluctant to cede such significant areas of policy to Britain’s second-largest member nation.

“The reason we want welfare is because we want to be able to act on all of these powers and link them up – without joined-up powers we cannot tackle equality at a base level,” McGarry explains.

Running through the hall that divides the House of Commons from the House of Lords, McGarry picks up the presiding officer of the Scottish Parliament, the SNP’s Trisha Marwick. Marwick also happens to be a relative, and the Scottish Parliament’s official representative in London has the support of the 56 SNP MPs. Twenty-four hours later the same hall would be filled with disability protesters and police officers as the protesters attempted to storm the parliamentary chamber in protest at government cuts to disabled support.

“Ultimately we are here to secure the best deal we can for the Scottish parliament,” says McGarry, waving to other members of the SNP 56 as she runs through the Gothic cloisters on the way to the parliamentary canteen.“If you look at some of the media reports it is clear that the London media does not understand some of the complexities of the Scottish situation, but it is a studied ignorance. ‘Scotland has delivered 56 seats’ was one of the headlines, which made me laugh because we have no more seats than before, just a different party has them.”

The SNP’s radical identity

One thing that the SNP and the media can agree on is that it has become a symbol of resistance at Westminster. At the state opening of parliament, McGarry and her fellow 55 colleagues wore white roses in allusion to the Little White Rose of Scotland, a poem by the Scottish writer Christopher Grieve, better known under his pen name Hugh MacDiarmid. Grieve is a canonical figure in Scotland’s independence movement, becoming an early high-profile candidate for the party and a near-mythological figure among certain sections of the nationalist movement. Such displays of black and white political symbolism belie the complexities of the SNP project, however.

Scott Hames is a lecturer at the University of Stirling who has written extensively about the relationship between cultural expression and the independence movement. His office sits in the shadow of the monument to William Wallace, the 14th century military leader who defeated invading English armies and has become a regular fixture in portrayals of Scottish nationalism in the British media.

“Twenty years ago the idea of Scottish cultural radicalism was centered on Byres Road,” says Hames, referring to the cultural set based on the main street past Glasgow’s sprawling university campus. “Now though these people are outnumbered 10 to 1 and are going to find themselves marginalised in what they created.”

Unlike in Westminster, in post-referendum Scotland simply being Scottish is not a transgressive act in the way it once was. In the 1980s and 1990s, Scotland’s cultural renaissance was characterised by self-consciously Scottish – and left wing – voices such as the novelists James Kelman and Iain Banks. It was even the stated and unrealised wish of the late Banks to “die in an independent Socialist Scottish Republic”.

Today’s national project is a far more mainstream affair, and though it campaigned on an anti-austerity platform, the SNP is still vocally pro-business and has advocated cuts to corporation tax and the freezing of local taxation. This created a dilemma for the cultural radicals who helped sow the seeds of the SNP’s rise.

“Scottish writers and activists used to employ authenticity and difference – if you continue to bang the drum then you begin to sound like government cheerleaders whose output is too similar to the official rhetoric,” says Hames. “The SNP has not hitched its wagon to serious cultural nationalism, but it exists at a symbolic level.” The white roses worn in Westminster were an obvious act of political aesthetics, albeit one that relied on Westminster’s own ideas about Scotland.

Choppy waters for radical rhetoric

In Westminster the SNP represents a challenge to the status quo, but in Edinburgh it is now firmly established as the dominant political and social force. Only a few weeks after its anti-austerity election tidal wave, a storm started brewing on Scotland’s west coast that is proving a challenge to its rhetoric of resistance. Caledonian MacBrayne, the government-owned ferry operator whose iconic red funnel is known throughout Scotland’s sprawling chain of islands, was put out to public tender.

The company provides lifeline services to some of Scotland’s most remote communities, including that of one of the SNP’s most senior Westminster politicians. The main beneficiary of private involvement is likely to be Serco, the multinational outsourcing company that already runs Scottish contracts for ferries to the remote Northern Isles and overnight rail services to England at the request of the SNP government in Edinburgh. Previously embroiled in scandals at its immigration detention centres in England, the company also providessupport services for the UK’s nuclear arsenal at the Faslane naval base outside of Glasgow, areas where the SNP has sought to distance itself from the policies of Westminster government and the privatisation agenda.

Patrick Harvie is a pro-independence member of the Scottish Parliament and co-convener of the Scottish Green Party. Despite campaigning alongside the SNP in the referendum defeat, he has been critical of the behaviour of the government in Edinburgh on key issues.

“People are deeply concerned about their futures and their pensions,” he says of Caledonian MacBrayne, “as well the principle of whether a publicly owned, publicly operated public service should be handed over, as so many others have already to the private sector and a company like Serco. It is very clear this is handing operation of a public service to a private company that will run it with profit as its leading motive rather than public service […] all of us should be saying to the European Union and UK government that this should be kept in the public sector.”

The Greens are just one strand of a pro-independence grouping committed to a more radical vision of Scotland than the SNP. In the 1800s, Edinburgh used to style itself the Athens of the North, including building a huge neoclassical monument atop one of the Scottish capital’s hills. It is a visual language that feeds into the idea of Scotland as a special, inherently democratic and progressive country, and for a certain section of the Scottish electorate Greece is the new role model. A number of socialist groupings recently agreed to come together under the banner of a “Scottish Syriza”, vowing to both fight austerity and campaign for independence, and inspired by the popular-left movement in Greece.

Talk without action

The emphasis on difference is an inherent part of the SNP narrative, but away from Westminster it has taken an extremely centrist approach to maintaining its popularity. The safe game being played at home by the SNP also means it is not doing as much as it might to match its rhetoric of equality and social justice, according to one leading researcher who wished to remain anonymous. The researcher, who teaches at a leading Scottish university and studies Scottish government policy says that ambition is rarely met with action.

“If they have to tackle a difficult problem like ‘social justice’, they have an endless conversation about it to avoid making redistributive decisions that leave some people worse off,” they say. “The land reform debate [to tackle Scotland’s unequal system of land ownership] will be an interesting test once the landed lobby starts. The SNP government strikes me as the very epitome of a conservative centrist government. They’re not changing anything because it will lose them support.”

The SNP has been in power in Edinburgh for eight years and looks set to win another term in Scotland’s general elections next May. In that time it has benefited hugely from the lack of opposition from a disorganised Scottish Labour Party that will shortly elect its fourth leader in four years. Labour’s huge losses have meant that many of the old generation of politicians has been cleared out, and what the party now does could determine the future of the whole of the UK.

Labour renewal?

One person hoping to take Labour back to power and save the union is Cat Headley, a young lawyer from Orkney off Scotland’s northern coast. She is campaigning to become a member of the Scottish parliament for Edinburgh Western, an area that takes in the country’s iconic Forth Rail Bridge. Before the SNP election wave swept across Scotland, the party projected its logo onto the structure, perpetuating the idea that it was an insurgent and anti-establishment force. For the first time in half a century, though, it is Labour that is on the back foot, still coming to terms with being a party of opposition. Belonging to the same generation as McGarry, the constitutional upheaval in Scotland has given Headley’s politics new meaning.

“I joined the party in 2013, I had got involved and been interested in the referendum, and had become more confident in my own voice regarding politics after going on Twitter. You get to know people and find new connections, and out of that people said, ‘have you ever thought about going further with this?’ I’d always been a Labour supporter but the referendum made me realise there was meaning to getting involved in politics.”

She was scouted out to stand as a candidate by a party desperate for new blood and was present in the counting hall in May as the scale of Labour’s Scottish defeat became clear to those assembled in the room. Ten years ago Headley could have expected to be a member of the Scottish parliament without much thought going into it, but “I don’t think I have much chance,” she admits of the present situation. “The job now is to rebuild the party and work towards breathing new life into it.”

“There is a huge onus on all of us to really think about it, and I have considered a lot why this all happened,” she reflects. “We’ve not all been sobbing into our cups of tea, but having realistic conversations about how to move forward. There have not just been knee jerk reactions to this and I think there is a realisation now that simple solutions will not work and that we need a whole new kind of politics to respond to the new politics the SNP has brought.”

The SNP poses an existential threat to Labour, pushing it not only from power but even attempting to replace it as the party of trade unions. On the same weekend that protesters filled Parliament Square in London and Natalie McGarry marched in Glasgow, the SNP’s trade union group held a huge conference with some of its 16,000 members – more than the entire Scottish Labour party.

“Labour likes to think it is above the kind of politics the SNP runs,” Headley says, “the problem being that it has not worked and they have been so effective at messaging that the substance of what goes on does not really get analysed. That leaves you with a choice between doing the same or trying to be consistent.”

Perception politics

“Sadly your policies are just half of it. You need to do the perception politics and be successful,“ she admits. “People are not listening. Our policies in the manifesto were right – people voted for our policies but with an SNP flag on it. The manifestos were highly similar. In the longer run they even had the same plans to tackle austerity. We need to hold the SNP to account and rehabilitate ourselves in the eyes of voters as trustworthy.”

This is the heart of Labour’s problem – whatever they do, it has been branded an institutionalised party, suffering the same fate as Germany’s Social Democrats to Greece, which have been caught between radicalism and managerialism. On everything from education to reforming the UK, Labour is trapped between two worlds which the SNP seems able to master simultaneously.

“The UK has unequal parts, and Scotland cannot just decide to be federal on its own. Federalism has the same risks as full economic autonomy. We need to have a UK convention on the constitution where everyone can contribute,” Headley says.

The problem for Headley’s party is that there is little appetite for any meaningful change across the UK. The same impotence felt by the SNP’s 56 members in Westminster is matched elsewhere in the UK. With a full majority the Conservative government can do as it likes. In the long term, this benefits the SNP too, which can protest in Westminster and govern in Edinburgh, strengthening the idea that it is both a radical outsider standing up for normal people and a responsible custodian of Scotland.

The SNP has ruled out another referendum for the time being, but with the caveat that something major could change that. With another five years of austerity from Westminster and perceived indifference from Labour, that something may not be far away.