Winter has come

After several days of persistently strong, and latterly northerly, winds which have seen birds flying backwards shortly after take-off, and havoc wrought amongst the early daffs, Ardivachar has a covering of snow this morning. Wet snow, and unlikely to hang around for too long even if the forecast is for more snow later, but enough to bank up on the windward side of rockery stones.

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Further afield, where they can be seen under the low cloud cover and poor (and again deteriorating) visibility, the hills are covered in the white stuff and, as a result, stand out a little more sharply against the greys and greens of the skies and the seas, the latter topped by white horses on top of waves still being driven into the bay despite a tide which is in retreat.

A day to hunker down around an early-lit stove, I think. Toasted crumpets. Hot chocolate. Gentle Cuban and west African sounds coming from Cerys’s Sunday morning radio show.

It’s took its time.

UPDATE 3pm: Better put, this is of course not the arrival of winter, but of that of summer ( (c) Daily Gael). Visibility continues to improve revealing Harris’s snow-covered hills, also aided by a cap of snow against grey skies. Here is a shot north-east from Ardivachar towards a snow-flecked Eabhal (347m) on North Uist, above and beyond Benbecula’s Dark Island turbine and Ruebhal (124m):

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And here, with a bit more landscape context, is Eabhal and the two Li hills which rise above Lochmaddy (Li A Deas – South Lee – at 281m slightly higher than Li A Tuath):

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Book Review: The Wall

John Lanchester’s The Wall is frequently, and indeed best, described as ‘dystopian’ – relating to or denoting an imagined state or society where there is great suffering or injustice.

Lanchester’s vision is of a future somewhat shrunken UK surrounded by a 10,000km wall built, primarily, in response to the impact of ‘the Change’ – climate change resulting in dramatically raised sea levels which have destroyed every beach, led to the destruction of food chains and food security, and made fUK a place of cold weather much more closely associated with our latitude than is currently the case; and patrolled by Defenders on a two-year stint of compulsory national service whose job it is to keep out – with extreme prejudice – all those who seek to get over it. This is not because the fUK within resembles anything like a promised land – inter-generational conflict, a society based on the racist exploitation of others, population collapse and a vast level of its limited resource sucked into security see to it that fUK is a place of cold, hatred, totalitarian control, guilt, bitterness and barely-disguised fear – and in which ‘Sweet moderation/Heart of this nation‘ has, finally, deserted us – but it does highlight the desperation motivating those seeking nevertheless to enter.

fUK society is divided into a globalised Elite still able to fly; the elderly, blamed for the disaster since it was on their watch that the Change happened; Defenders, some of whom, like Kavanagh, the central character, dream futilely of joining the Elite but whose more realistic future is to become a Breeder whose key role in staving off further population decline is rewarded with time away from the Wall; and Others – those managing to get over The Wall and who are, once caught up with, given the choice of enslavement or euthanasia. Those who are judged responsible for influxes of Others over the Wall are de-chipped – essentially, they are ‘enemies within’ – and put out to sea on a one-in-and-one-out basis. The prospects of any sort of redemption for Kavanagh and his colleagues appear bleak.

The novel is opaque as regards just how far into the future this vision takes place. Some will see Lanchester’s fUK as a continuation of several trends already present in society (all dystopian novels, including The Road, 1984 and Brave New World are essentially versions of the present). With this in mind, calls for non-intervention in the case of the tiny numbers of migrants crossing the Channel in small boats, on the grounds that such action might encourage others, are being made; while the dehumanising nature of our political discourse and the normalisation of hate speech facilitated by social media platforms and given full voice by Brexit, with Stephen Yaxley-Lennon’s Facebook page taken down only yesterday and with Shamima Begum’s image used in ‘light-hearted fun’ at a type of shooting range aimed at young children, give Lanchester’s fiction a very real footing. Unmistakeably, this is also a ‘post’-Brexit novel – its language is the language of Brexit – to add to a burgeoning list. What he is outlining in The Wall is not the future – but it does indeed feel a lot like a version of the future towards which we are currently headed.

Lanchester does not seek to describe the state of fUK. (Incidentally, this is not a term that he uses, but the UK seems still to exist in some way given that Scotland appears to continue to be a part of it, although how much of Scotland is actually left is a moot point given that it is also referred to as ‘the north’.) Indeed, this is not a grim tale of what we have become but to take this, in a quite matter-of-fact way, as a given. This provides a solid starting point for the novel’s exploration of human reactions to their state and to question how on earth it is we have got there. Whereas the history of the present up to September 2001 had been the tearing down of walls, as Lanchester himself has commented, the post-World Trade Center history of the present has represented a dehumanising of the ‘other’ coupled in the last ten years with a post-crash austerity politics which has sought to use the ‘other’ as a target for blame; and on which the present-day version of inter-generational inequality – our children’s generation being the first to transfer resources back to their parents (a reversal of the accepted inter-generational inequality of the past) – has much to comment.

A slightly more ambitious novel than this one might have sought to establish The Wall as a character in its own right but, here, its role is simply a physical barrier while yet underscoring a clear point about our obliviousness to our environment – our inability to learn and to act in its defence. Given the known CO2 emissions involved in the manufacture of concrete, the construction of 10,000km of concrete wall, five metres high on the seaward side and involving ‘millions of tons’ of the stuff, erected in response to the destruction wrought by climate change, provides an acutely ironic comment on our own lack of understanding of what we are doing when it comes to green issues. As indeed, given the environmental impact of air travel, does Kavanagh’s appreciation of the elite as being those that are still able to fly.

As other reviews have indicated, the style of Lanchester’s writing is ‘affectless’ (see here and here – both ££) and its dispassionate nature makes the characters’ role in their own misery somewhat hard to work through until we reach the final section. fUK is an individualised, post-collective society – a reminder that this is a state which those driving Brexit seek further to entrench – and the implications of that for the UK’s current direction is clear. There is no collective organisation in response to the conditions in which people find themselves and neither, does it seem, is there any attempt at riots and revolution.

Such attempts may of course have already been defeated and, as I say, it is not Lanchester’s aim to describe what we have become but to use this is a platform to contemplate why. One of my earlier thoughts while reading the first two of the book’s thirds, aided not least by the almost complete lack of typos on the pages, was that this was a novel written by artificial intelligence; or that the characters we meet within it are actually cyborgs. Neither is true (at least, I don’t think either is true) but key to understanding how the characters interact with their society, and therefore to how Lanchester contemplates our current state, is our increasing lack of empathy. The Wall is, here, not without hope. Re-learning, in the first place, and then re-establishing empathy – the key also to addressing a lack of collective awareness and solidarity – may yet give Kavanagh and his colleagues the key to overcoming their state. It is a long way back from there – but if we are to avoid that state, re-establishing empathy before we have to re-learn it, and while we still have time to appreciate precisely what it means, may yet help us avoid such a state’s worst excesses.

Recycled independents

I watched with bemusement and a certain sense of déjà vu the decision of seven Labour MPs (now apparently eight) yesterday to resign from the Party and sit as independents. The echoes of the formation of the SDP back in 1981 are strong – and well explored elsewhere, most recently by Keith Flett in a thoughtful post on unintended consequences – not least with the SDP also having sought, and failed, to ‘break the mould of British politics’.

As someone who also resigned from the Party on a point of principle (the ludicrous scenario of the party of labour digging up long-lost legislation from the statute book to get around the 2000 firefighters’ dispute), though I’m not sure that anyone actually noticed back then, I understand that discontent sometimes comes to a point of no return. And, some members of the group are clearly highly uncomfortable with, and angry at, aspects of the Party’s direction and approach. Not currently being a member of the Party, however, it’s really not up to me to comment on what is someone else’s point of principle other than to say that such departures are always regrettable.

The SDP had its Limehouse Declaration, but the gang of eight appear to have very little as regards an attempt at policy direction. Braving the ‘Whoa! are you sure you want to go there?’ pop-up from my McAfee Web Adviser tool which, somewhat comically, rated the group’s website as ‘slightly risky’ when I dialled it up earlier this evening, I can see a set of fairly loose motherhood-and-apple-pie values – but, on the issue of the day, very little as regards what the group might be calling for on Brexit. 1981 still casts a long shadow on UK politics and it might be that the group is extremely hesitant to engage with policy formality in terms of anything resembling a Council for Social Democracy. The fate of (rightly) much-derided blue Labour/red Tory initiatives also has a comment to make on this. Perhaps, on the other hand, this is still coming – and it may be that the realignment of UK politics in the wake of the Change wrought by the 2016 referendum may still come about if UKUP entryism into the Tory Party represents more than just the usual relentless self-promotion; or if the current crop of cabinet ministers ever actually have to make good on their threat to resign in the face of a no-deal Brexit – and it may be with these things in mind that any attempt at a policy programme has yet to appear.

I’d suggest, however, that this group’ll be a long time waiting, splits by moderate Tories continuing to be a somewhat less likely outcome, even if Brexit does change everything, particularly given what seems to be the major driver behind the group’s decision: discontent with their own party never looks attractive to members of another, even if there are reasons for discontent over there, too.

Given that Brexit was one of the prompters of their decision to leave – all are supporters of putting the terms of the UK’s departure from the EU to the people (as, in principle, am I) – I might have expected a bit more. Or, actually, quite a bit less – since it’s not only the programme which is somewhat nebulous; the timing of their departure from the Party is also extremely puzzling.

Their departure may not make the mathematics on a people’s vote any different – but it does deprive the Parliamentary Labour Party of a strong voice on behalf of a people’s vote; and, furthermore, it may well undermine it among the Party’s loyalists who would not want to espouse policies supported by breakaway MPs. It also, for the same potential reasons, complicates the arithmetic around Yvette Cooper’s attempt to compel the Prime Minister to request more time from the EU to prevent the UK crashing out on 28 March, as it will by default unless something is done to prevent it. Furthermore, the Party’s conference programme is clear and encompasses a referendum, reiterated regularly (and most recently on Sunday) by John McDonnell, should no deal be possible or should the terms of the deal fail to protect jobs and the economy – regardless of the fall-out from Honda, among others – workers’ rights and environmental protection standards. That is, at least, still on the table and, the circumstances for resignation should that policy be ignored are clearly therefore not yet in place. The departure – on these grounds – is evidently premature.

And, furthermore, like all breakaways, it has redirected the pressure within Westminster away from the government’s farcical Brexit negotiations process and preparations; and away from the Prime Minster’s albeit incredibly half-hearted attempt at political engagement among MPs. It might, in extremis, lead to Theresa May seeking to exploit the split by calling a snap election – though it may be that she has learned from the last time. Nevertheless, with this in mind, discipline remains the key since a loss of focus will represent a loss of opportunity. Ultimately, such intense failures of policies and of personality from the Prime Minister need to be continually at the centre of attention and continually ratcheting up the pressure if there is to be a proper, decent deal on Brexit or, otherwise, a people’s vote. Any such breakaway provides a valve to relieve that pressure, with the Prime Minister thereby able to get one step closer to a crash-out which will keep the hard right in the ERG on board and a Tory Party together, if not exactly united; splits from the moderate side of the Tories being, when push comes to shove, a somewhat less likely outcome, in my view, whatever the rumours.

Whatever the gang of eight think are the chances of gaining the actual support of their Party for a people’s vote, their departure not only does not make it more likely, it actually makes it a bit less so. And, at this stage, that’s very frustrating.

Book review: Long Road from Jarrow

I was given this as a present (thanks, Tracy!) a couple of years ago and immediately relished the anticipation of reading it, although it has had to wait more than its fair share of time sitting on my to-read shelf. It ought not to have: it’s clear that Maconie is as much of a fan of Newcastle as I – and I mean here the city, not the Toon. At 17, applying for several of what were then called polys, I arrived in Newcastle and, in an echo of Maconie’s opening paragraphs here, sweeping over the King Edward Bridge with the city spread out before and below me, I was sold on the prospect of living and studying here long before I ever got anywhere near the campus.

Not only that, I was a sand dancer for a while – although that’s not a term I recognised until Maconie’s earlier book, Pies and Prejudice. In the summer of 1984, I had a job working in the South Shields branch office of the Northern Rock, alongside David, Carol, Jean, Lesley, Alison, Anne-Marie (whose maternity cover I was) and June, whose husband was a striking miner up at Westoe Colliery. In almost daily conversations about the strike, I came to realise for the first time the value of taking collective action for something you believed in – June was herself the embodiment of the notion that the miners’ strike was fought equally by strong families as much as by strong miners.

My route into Shields on the metro from my Tyneside flat along Sunderland Road in Gateshead (bulldozed into a new development some time ago, I note) took me through Jarrow (if I was lucky, sharing the ride alongside Elizabeth, who also worked in Shields three doors up at the Newcastle Building Society and whose stop was Jarrow. The Rock – in those days still a building society prior to its transformation by rapacious gold-diggers into a risk-taking ‘proper’ financial institution – is no longer there, of course, but the Newcastle, which remains a building society, has relocated further down Fowler Street, and expanded, while Virgin Money, which took over parts of the Rock, now seems to occupy the place, and the footprint, formerly vacated by the Newcastle).

In October 1986, three months after graduating and newly installed in work on Teesside, I found myself back in ‘Jarra’ and listening to the general secretary of GMB, John Edmonds, at the fiftieth celebration issue yet another apology for the failure of the labour and trade union movements to offer better moral, practical and indeed financial support to the marchers, ahead of the departure the following day (IIRC) of the 1986 version of the Jarrow march. As he invited one of the few remaining 1936 marchers to join him on the stage, there was a small shuffle behind and just to the right of me – and up stepped a man whose name I can’t quite remember, but who might possibly have been Jimmy Foggon. I was standing feet away (and in front of) a living legend, himself (and again) just a part of the crowd. This might have been for personal reasons, but I found it very odd.

The reasons for the lack of solidarity from the organised labour and trade union movements for the 1936 marchers are fairly well explored in Maconie’s book, although his aim here is not to provide a history of the march, of which there are several also referenced here. It would of course not be possible for one man walking alone (and sometimes taking buses and taxis) to recreate the collective endeavours of 200 men – the logistics of keeping that many men on the road for three weeks are clearly considerable; and we should not lose sight that one of the strengths of the original march was its collective nature. However, by following the same route, and on the same days in October, Maconie’s aim was to take the temperature of post-Brexit referendum Britain in a series of conversations with the people he encountered en route. As a sociologist, and a wry but clear-sighted commentator on the foibles of modern day living, Maconie is well equipped for the task even if, on occasion, he appears a little lost and somewhat lonely – an observer rather than a participant – and even though the politics will not be for everyone (on the left, but equally certainly no fan of Jeremy Corbyn).

It was a surprise to see for how many of those he meets that the 1936 march was not a total blank: a relative success for the teaching of relatively recent social (and labour) history, I feel, as well as the presence of the march in the collective consciousness. However, Maconie’s biggest achievement in bringing this book to life is its reminder that we have been here before: the cry of the working class to be heard, and for good quality, skilled jobs – frequently at the forefront of analysts and Brexit apologists – is not a new phenomenon. Capitalism in crisis, bringing devastation to towns dependent for work and a living on a single source (or a series of chained sources), can be seen not just in the outcome of the 2016 vote and in the miners’ strike, as well as in the loss of steel industry jobs in Consett and Corby and Motherwell and Port Talbot and Redcar, and with new jobs frequently being low-skilled, low paid and insecure; it is certainly also there in the decision of 200 men from Jarrow to walk to London carrying their petition about the closure of the shipyard and the need for more work to save the town. And being ultimately fobbed off. That we are still having the same debates eighty-plus years on is evidently a reflection of the continual failure of neoliberal economics based on the laws of the market, alongside its continual success in the perpetual selling of promises and in the trading of lies to the working class by rich elites. The answer to all that is reasonably clear – and there is a message there too for labour organisations.

That Brexit will also lead to job losses amongst the working class is also clear: the cry to be heard is likely to lead to the cry for further investment in working class communities and no-one, ordinary voter or elected representative, ought to be trusting the promises of this government on that. But it is the greatest tragedy that those who responded to the lies of the Leave campaign are those who are likely to lose most from it, while those elites who teased it and led it are those who will be among those who profit the most. It is the outcomes of that which probably need to be feared more than the question of ‘undermining democracy’ by the simple expedient of asking people whether, three years on, the bright future outside the EU sold to them and for which they voted back in 2016 is indeed still what they want or whether they now see it for what it is: a mirage, or a chimera.

Maconie concludes with a fairly rosy passage on the liars and the bullies, the loudmouths and the puritans, the pub bores and the ineffectual commissars not being the best of us and, while that’s true, it’s also true that our public discourse has chosen to put the views of these same groups in an elevated position. The referendum itself, the way it was conducted and its aftermath in naturalising the telling of lies and in the trashing of political standards and discourse, as the Article 50 process speeds towards its irrevocable conclusion, will continue to reverberate not least in terms of a decision over whether the Scottish working class, which is fundamentally pro-EU, will continue to align itself with an English working class which is anti-EU stemming, at least in part, from an unresolved and boorish English nationalism* or, instead, with the working class on the rest of the continent. Inevitably, there are many in Scotland who will see the establishment of a hard border on the island of Britain, to the north of Carlisle and Berwick, as A Good Thing.

The more telling passage in Maconie’s journey perhaps came a little earlier, however, when Maconie, an Italophile, discovers that Bedford has a population of 15-20,000 Italians – around one-fifth to one-quarter of the population – originally as a result of the brickworks needing labour in the 1950s in the literal reconstruction of Britain and many Italian men from the Mezzogiorno needing work. They were given four-year contracts with the right to stay at the end and many did – though many also returned home for personal reasons. During that time, their continued presence would have been at the whim of the brickworks managers and, despite tough living and working conditions, workers would have needed to keep their noses clean or lose the right to stay – a post-Brexit future based on a return to the past and to the exploitation of migrant labour for which no trade unionist can be in favour but with which we continue to be ill-equipped to deal. We can note that Bedford probably voted for Brexit in around the same proportion as the UK as a whole and a little higher than in the rest of the south-east (c. 53%). Building solidarity among the working class continues, it seems, to be a long-term project, as much now as in 2016, and as in 1956, and as in 1936.

*text in italics originally included in the draft mapped out in my head but which then failed to make it on to the page.

Now: for a People’s Vote

So, now we know that:

(a) a sizable proportion of Tory MPs have no confidence in Theresa May as leader of their own Party; but they all have confidence in the government she leads; and that

(b) a similar proportion of Tory MPs have no faith in the practical outcome of the major, political project of our time, which has utterly consumed government for the last two years and in spite of all the other social and economic issues which desperately need to be addressed; but they all have confidence in the government itself.

Yesterday’s vote was astonishing not in the defeat of Theresa May’s deal itself, which was entirely predictable, but in the manner and scale of it. A loss by 230 votes was not only a parliamentary ‘record’ for a government (to add to that which May already has – time will look on her as leader of the government in a way about as friendly as it already has of her immediate predecessor: Theresa ‘strong and stable’ May compared to David ‘chaos with Ed Miliband‘ Cameron). It also, by one reckoning, attracted the support of fewer than 50 MPs not on the ‘payroll’ (i.e. with government jobs and who are mandated to vote for something the government supports, or else resign). For a policy issue on which a three-line whip was imposed on Tory MPs, this is astonishing. And, three of those who did vote in favour were Labour MPs (alongside three more sitting as independents). And, finally, the 196 Tory votes she did get – the 202 votes in favour minus these six – were actually three fewer Tory MPs than voted for her in the first round of the Tory leadership contest in 2016.

Yet not, apparently, a matter for the resignation of May herself. Now, after the loss of the vote of confidence by 19 votes tonight (the DUP of course has 10 MPs), we know that the government cannot be compelled to resign, it’s time for a People’s Vote (yes, Brenda from Bristol, another one).

This necessarily needs to follow an application to the EU to extend the Article 50 withdrawal process specifically to encompass a further consultation with the UK public and would need a majority of MPs to vote in favour, perhaps as one of the four ‘indicative options’ for which the Exiting the EU Committee called today. (It’s also worth noting that Dominic Grieve has also submitted his Second Referendum bill.) Not a ‘re-run of the 2016 vote’, not a ‘second chance to get it right’, not ‘the elite overturning the will of the people’ though some will clearly choose to spin it in any or all of these ways – but a referendum based on the practical issues which now confront us in early 2019, not those which applied back in 2016. Divisive it may be thought to be – but this country is already deeply divided under the Tories and the likely out-turn of a Tory Brexit is a deepening of those divisions.

A People’s Vote – among other options following the failure of this evening’s vote of confidence – is Labour conference policy on Brexit, and it is also clearly the policy of others, such as the SNP, but it now appears to be the only viable one that can provide a solution to the chaos which has engulfed government. Furthermore, given that, otherwise, we will crash out of the EU on 29 March by simple operation of the law, there is no time for a war of attrition based on repeated, confidence-sapping votes of confidence, no matter how legitimate such a tactic would be in more normal circumstances. There is an absolute deadline here – which is also written in the EU Withdrawal Act – which will dump us out of the EU automatically on that date, regardless of the politics, unless we do something about it.

We don’t yet know what May will bring back to parliament on Monday – the end of the three working days she is permitted by virtue of the efforts, again, of Dominic Grieve – but the early signs of her being willing to consult within parliament do not look good from the perspective of ensuring a Brexit that parliament could support. She seems to be standing by her infamous ‘red lines’, for example on a customs union and an independent trade policy, which have trapped her as a natural consequence into making this deal – the only one that could be signed, as we know from Michel Barnier’s very clear slide – as well as by a refusal to seek an extension of the Article 50 process. To say nothing of effective environmental protections and workers’ rights, as opposed to mere forms of words. Quite what a process of consultation means when – at least earlier on today – it apparently doesn’t involve the leader of the opposition – or any other otherwise sympathetic (on this issue) Labour MPs, it seems – is anyone’s guess. But as we also know, claiming to be listening is her go-to statement in times of defeat. To anyone else, it’s more can-kicking. Objectively, she’d be better off losing certain cabinet ministers than retaining these red lines at this point in the Brexit process – and, if the cross-party talks announced tonight are to have any meaning, those red lines, and the possibility of a no-deal Brexit, will have to go. Perhaps that is the purpose of the statement due at No. 10 shortly.

It would, at almost literally any point in the last two years, have been possible to construct a Brexit deal which would have gained the support of parliament and which could have implemented the 2016 referendum vote had May chosen to consult widely and construct a Brexit policy, on the softest possible basis, which not only MPs could have supported but which also reflected the narrowness of the 2016 vote itself. Even dyed-in-the-wool remainers like myself would, if not capable of actually supporting it, at least acknowledge it as being required to implement the referendum decision. Furthermore, this is what the UK public voted for in the 2017 snap election, by taking away May’s parliamentary majority and handing her instead a minority government (though, clearly, we didn’t know we were getting the DUP). The loss of the parliamentary majority was, by the way, evidence that our democracy does work. The people voted in 2016 voted for Brexit but with a substantial element of ‘remain’; and they voted in 2017 for consensus. At this late stage, they are getting, instead, it seems, a hard Brexit to appease the hard-liners in the Tories’ own ranks; and a political approach to Brexit governed by party dogma inspired by winner-take-allism and Tory infighting.

As Keir Starmer said last week, no consultation has ever taken place (£) within parliament – at least, not until tonight and, so far, only partially. We have, in its place, May’s red lines substantially based on her own interpretation of the 2016 vote and which have led us, inexorably and ridiculously, to this point. Without those red lines, a different deal would have been possible. It could yet be, were we to call a halt to the process and seek – via a general election – a pause in the political process in which to construct a different approach to Brexit to take to the UK people in search of their support. But, at this point, with no apparent way either of compelling May to abandon her red lines, or her government to quit, and if the talks starting from tonight turn out to be as fruitless as I imagine them to be simply because of May’s own intransigence and the continuing splits within the Tory Party, a People’s Vote is the only way out of this ‘shambles’. At this eleventh hour, there is no time left to explore a new deal based on parliamentary consensus around the art of the possible – which should have been done after the 2017 election – and a series of different red lines (were May so inclined to agree, and her fundamentally split Cabinet to agree as well).

Meanwhile, the catastrophe that a ‘no deal’ Brexit would represent is still a possible outcome, given our current position, and given that it is essentially the default should nothing else be done by 29 March. Whatever May is about to announce tonight, it needs to be at the very least that she will seek an extension to the Article 50 process. Even after a People’s Vote, by the way, there would still need to be a general election not least since the existing parliament, with party manifestos drawn up and MPs elected largely on the basis of implementing the 2016 referendum mandate, would clearly at that point have little further authority.

But we have now a political impasse, and a major deadline looming; and unless these cross-party talks are able to pull a rabbit out of the hat which also unites the Cabinet and the DUP, it is only right that we look now to the people to take us out of it via the only means available now that a timely general election is, apparently, not going to happen.

Bliadhna Ùr Mhath (from up south…)

Weeks of bad weather, of ragin’ gales and rain falling either in torrents or else as mist, followed by 10 days of calm, unseasonable warmth (8C/46F, and currently 11C/52F), and even sunshine, has led to more than a few garden daffodils deciding that spring is on the way. Despite – or perhaps because of – a lack of snow anywhere in South Uist, including on the hills and certainly down here at sea level, winter is, however, a long way from over yet.

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But on this New Year’s Eve, with excitement already building of plans for the evening and for the future, and as darkness begins to fall, signs of hope, such as these, are more than welcome as symbols of the continuing cycle of the seasons – or,  in human terms, of what goes around, comes around.

So, Happy New Year to everyone (or Bliadhna Mhath Ùr, if you’re from down north); and may 2019 bring again a sense of peace, of tolerance and of a willingness to adjust to the lives, and the hopes and dreams, of other people. All of us are migrants, as we travel through this life; not always in the physical sense (though that’s true of more of us that some are prepared to acknowledge) but certainly in the spiritual and the emotional. And may the challenges of recognising the journeys of others become once again what defines us as individuals and as a people.

UPDATE 1/1/19: With the six-hour 86-song party playlist in full swing, and  – unusually, since I put a lot of work into constructing a coherent, flowing playlist – on shuffle, the New Year was brought in by Cathy Ann McPhee’s beautiful arrangement of Chi mi’n Geamhradh (I See Winter), followed immediately after by Mary Ann Kennedy (Mise Fhuair). Make of that what you will.

Book Review: Winter

This, the second volume in Ali Smith’s ‘four seasons’ quartet of novels, emerged in November 2017 just fifteen months after the publication of Autumn (the next – Spring – is due out next March, i.e. with a very similar time interval). The novels are complete entities in their own right and can be read as stand-alone novels, but there are clear links between them both in terms of characters and in terms of theme, adding depth to both (somewhat buried in the first case, unless you are really paying attention; but overt and strong in the second). This is a unified major work, produced not as one book but in instalments.

Here, we have a family coming together over Christmas in a delapidated house (itself standing as metaphor for the series’ theme of the post-Brexit state of the UK) located in Cornwall. Sophie and Iris are sisters, the first formerly a successful businesswoman now sonewhat embittered and showing the first signs of dementia, living alone in the house; the second, and older of the two, a veteran of the women’s camp and protest at Greenham Common, currently working among refugees in Greece, and previously part of a radical commune in that same house; Art is Sophie’s son, a fairly feckless 30-something copyright researcher (for the same conglomerate security company which also featured in ‘Autumn’) by day and nature blog writer by night, who arrives on Christmas Eve having fallen out with his girlfriend but who has managed to procure Lux, whom he had met at a bus stop on the winter solstice, in her place.

As always with Ali Smith novels, there is much going on here thematically and readers  know what to expect – words tumble from the pages, sometimes apparently incoherently; the timeline jumps around continually and not always clearly; alternate readings of developments are placed in immediate juxtaposition; there are deep allusions to earlier events in how the characters interact; the writing style is witty, humorous, laconic and acerbic, and with knowingly planted literary references; and there are word plays gu leòr. The links to ‘Autumn’ are clear, both in terms of theme and in terms of a link to art (here the sculptor Barbara Hepworth; there the artist Pauline Boty). In short, Smith writes about art but also about life, and with a life-like liveliness and in full, glorious colour; and her characters are not only immensely believeable as a result but with near-independent lives of their own. Thematically, she is absolutely in charge and she handles her thematic material with supreme confidence and vitality.

My difficulty with the book is the rushed publication timescale. I understand the importance of speed in a quartet of this type, while Smith also believes that, when a novel comes, it needs to be trusted and allowed to breathe. The aim is to produce each of the novels just prior to the the season of the title but the danger is that hasty rush to publication imposed by a forced deadline can lead to errors, dropped threads, awkward interferences in the lives of the characters and a potential loss of control over some of the plot material. In a work in which art is a major theme, the existence of forced, and somewhat arbitrary, deadlines comes as something of a surprise.

Iris, for example, has no other family that we know of than Sophie – with whom she has not spoken in nearly thirty years, by the way – but finds herself back in the UK for Christmas and located somewhere close by. Nevertheless, she is able to respond to Art’s early Christmas morning call for help to come over to the house and, of course, she has enough food for all. Lux is indeed the key character, shedding light on all despite her youth and stemming from a complex personal history and current circumances (she is a Croatian refugee from a family which had fled to Canada but who had recently been studying in the UK, the country of Shakespeare), but the choice of name is shockingly, and unnecessarily, mallet-like. (Neither, despite intensely reading a ‘Chicken Cottage’ menu when Art first meets her, does she actually work for Chicken Cottage, though this might reflect a deliberate concealment.) Art’s blog writing is truly awful – that’s part of the point, but it is indeed terribly cliched and unreadably written; you’ll have to trust me on this one, but it’s not actually possible to build a blog audience (or a twitter following) when you have absolutely no feel for what you are writing about. Both Sophie and Art have some kind of unexplained visual disturbance which has a physical manifestation but which appears to come to naught. Despite the (contemporary) action taking place over just one week at the end of 2016, the end of the book extends forward well beyond winter, and into spring and summer 2017 with little apparent purpose other than to shoehorn-in references to events in the UK (and in the US) within the perspective of the series’ desire to echo current events. I’m entirely comfortable with this as a device – but when the novel’s message is already entirely clear, perhaps the proper homes for such observations is a blog post. Or, indeed, future work within the series.

All these are problems symptomatic of a rushed publication timescale in which there is little time to pick up non-sequiturs (this is not a plea that all loose ends must tie up; just one for threads not to be introduced only to be simply dropped) but also, more crucially, mistakes in the text and weak, or poor, editorial choices. These undermine the work which would have therefore benefited from a more extended review of the content, and one hopes that ‘Spring’ doesn’t suffer the same. It may well be, however, that a rushed timetable means we have, if not to overlook the flaws, then at least to forgive them.

Despite the flaws, the themes constitute ‘Winter’ as a magnificent thing. Seasonally: that winter, when everything appears to be dead, is more a time when things are stilled, gathering strength for the renewal of spring; that jaded palettes and people can be restored even when things seem hopeless; and that the winter solstice, while marking the depth of winter, is also the turning point – that, from here, light once again grows in strength; that things do indeed ‘get better’. Politically: that after the:

… poison, mess [and the] bitterness… the balance [does] come back. The lies revealed. The losses compensated

– that there is both reckoning and rectification. And that the greatest truths about ourselves are often told by those who are ‘outsiders’, people with whom we appear on the face of it to have little in common and whose lives and experiences are not our own. At a time when we as a people are turning inwards, and our backs on our fellow human beings, when available technology ought to be making us more open to new messages and to new people with different characteristics and different perspectives, that is a message of which we urgently need to be reminded, at Christmas and in the depths of winter not least of all – but not only then.

Wood briquettes – a new supplier

I spent a part of my day today working up an appetite for lunch by shifting one tonne of briquettes for our wood-burning stove from their usual landing place off the D.R. McLeod lorry and into the shed. For those that like to note these things, this was (again) 96 boxes on the pallet, implying 48 return trips, in somewhat autumnal conditions featuring 30+mph average wind speeds coming from the south and a somewhat unwelcome splash or two of rain at the start. Oh – and one butting of the top of my head on the low shed entrance, two-thirds of the way through and about three trips after I had mentally noted that I had not yet banged my head. I never learn.

Following problems at Verdo, which used to supply our briquettes – they sold their Grangemouth manufacturing plant last August while a flood earlier this year wrecked production to the point that it seems it has still not fully recovered – I went looking for a new supplier. Aided by some excellent meta-tagging, I came across Wood Fuel, based in the Queen of the South (where – little-known fact about me – I once (long ago) played bowls while working for a famously no-longer-existing building society.)

Wood Fuel ticked a lot of boxes for me since it’s a co-operative, which means that it not only offered me great customer service, it also does good things for its local community, including for the Dumfriesshire food bank, as well as guaranteeing that its products – and it offers a sizable range of these things – have done as few miles as possible (they’re made in the UK in Herts and by a small family company) and come from sustainably-sourced timber. They also offer briquettes quite a bit cheaper than Verdo, where per-briquette prices (including delivery to these islands) had gone up by over a quarter in two years (yes – I keep a detailed eye on these things).

Proof of the quality comes with burning and it’s a bit early to report on that just yet. However, I note that the briquettes are hardwood; they come packed in cardboard boxes rather than plastic sleeves; and they look, for a number of technical reasons, a little easier to use than the Verdo ones (which could be slow-burning). Wood Fuel also supply a very helpful A4 leaflet on using the briquettes and getting the best from the stove; and, after being also out of stock when I first contacted them, managed to get them to me within the week and two/three days earlier than expected.

I was particularly pleased to note the use of cardboard boxes to house the briquettes rather than plastic sleeves; we always used to re-use these as bin-liners so they did get one (but only one) extra use: cardboard means not only eliminating that but it also provides us with an additional source of fire-starting material. The drawback is that, despite its strengths, cardboard presents a number of issues when unloading the pallet and storing the boxes, especially since the briquettes are a little different and, consequently, the boxes need to be stacked higher in the shed (they’re up to the roof to ensure I take up no more scarce floor space); while rain is clearly an enemy both to safe storage in this respect as well as to the briquettes themselves (they are made essentially from sawdust and so are, quite evidently, useless when wet.

Today was, briefly, showery – but the pallet comes double shrink-wrapped as well as with a plastic sheet to protect against damp in transit – more of the environment-killing stuff but this is unavoidable in the Uist context and, at least, all that squashed down to an old log bag. Fingers crossed that the boxes’ journey from pallet to shed didn’t compromise them too much. Else my not-so-much leaning wall of briquettes at the back of the shed may yet come tumbling down.

I do like the look of these things not least in that their brittle nature – you can easily break them apart by hand – should mean that they catch quicker once the fire is underway and, quite probably, they could also facilitate some economising on kindling, the need for which remains present with the Verdo ones. We’ll see in the next few weeks but, as long as these go well, I’ll definitely be using Wood Fuel again.

Good news from HIE youth survey

Welcome news this morning from Enabling Our Next Generation, Highlands and Islands Enterprise’s survey of people aged 15-30, that a higher proportion of young people are committed to staying on the islands than when the survey was done three years ago; and indeed also to see their futures here. Migration of young people away from the area is indeed a problem – here on Uist and Benecula, we are an ageing society and the loss of young people represents a major concern as regards both the sustainability and the vitality of these islands.

This is a clear tribute to the hard work being done by many organisations – HIE among them – to provide greater opportunities for young people such that they are able to see a future for themselves in the region. And that means a future not just in 30-40 years time when they are considering retiring ‘home’ again but an immediate future of opportunities while – to put it frankly – people are at their most economically productive.

At 90 pages, I haven’t yet read the full report, which is detailed, in-depth and closely-argued and self-evidently a serious contribution to our thinking on economic development. It is also accompanied by sub-area reports focusing on the findings for each of HIE’s eight offices although these do not yet appear to be publicly-available. I hope that HIE and the report authors choose to put these into the public domain in due course as these will contain important research material.

I do note, however, that the survey is much older than it was three years ago – the proportion of young people aged 15-18 was 29% in this new survey, but 51% three years ago. The 2018 survey might well be more representative in this sense as a result, but consequently, any headline that focuses on a greater willingness to stay compared to 2015 needs to take this changing demographic into account – those aged 25-30 (34% of this year’s survey compared to 21% three years ago) are likely already to have made their plans and their choices based on the opportunities available to them. The key group remains those who are 15-18 and who may or may not see such opportunities as being open to them; and it would be interesting to see the views of how this specific group have changed.

It’s also interesting to note that the proportion of people from the Western Isles has also risen from 2015, to 8% (and actually three points higher than the percentage of people in the HIE area who are in the age group and living here). On this basis, the wider survey might be a fraction less representative, therefore – but the needs of people living in the islands are different to those elsewhere in the HIE area (which is huge, encompassing a vast swathe of land from the Western Isles down to Argyll and then up through Lochaber, Ross and Moray, Caithness and Sutherland to the Orkneys and Shetland). Frequently, those needs are quite specific based on the culture and geography of the islands on which they live. A close look at the response of specifically islands young people would also cast an interesting perspective on the extent to which the initiatives being undertaken are successful in making the decision to stay a meaningful one. And, in turn, what else needs to be done to make that decision one that subsequently rewards those making it.

Here on the islands – as anywhere else, really – the keys remain education opportunities, housing, and good quality and skilled jobs. And clearly, the key target group is not as broad as 15-30, it’s really 15-18 because, at 18, life choices are being made and, if not yet set in stone, will become much more so once young people have left full-time schooling. It remains the case that a decision at 18 to stay on the islands is both courageous and challenging (and one that is frequently subject to negative assessments from peers who regard it as unambitious, which is a different challenge for policy-makers entirely).

Greater opportunities for further and higher education courses via UHI – based up in Stornoway but with satellite centres on Barra, Benbecula and North Uist – and indeed for musicians via Ceòlas’ Cnoc Soilleir project, will help in making a desire to stay and study a more realistic one.

The new housing being constructed in Balivanich will add to the quality of the housing stock, as will – more importantly – the regular housing land audits identifying potential house-building sites which is encompassed as part of the Council’s five-year housing strategy. There remains, nevertheless, a substantial part of the housing stock right across the islands which is left empty and slowly rotting, creating eysores rather than opportunities. Action needs to be taken here as a means of improving the situation for people looking for housing locally.

Nevertheless, with regularly-revived concerns over the long-term future of the MoD range and the in-principle decision to proceed with centralising air traffic control services at Inverness, and operating Benbecula remotely, the threat to substantial parts of these islands’ employment and skills base is significant. Some people do take the decision to return to the islands when they have children – support from grandparents remains an important component of such decisions – but they need good quality jobs and, without those, opportunities for return become objectively much more difficult to make.

The business park based on small-scale units being built up at the airport will help with those looking to pursue entrepreneurial opportunities (as, indeed, would a site for homeworkers to be able to come together). Welcome as these are, however, they will replace neither the skills base lost through the departure of high-tech employers nor the spending power of those employed by them. And neither, despite the same broad welcome, will jobs working in retail, tourism and hospitality, and the care industry. We might well, even within the same set of islands, take the view that centralising services leads, and on the same basis, to a loss of opportunities for people living more remotely.

Such concerns are clearly broader than the remit of today’s survey report but, in adding to the policy debate around the hard-edged economic decisions influencing island peoples’ choices to stay, it provides welcome evidence giving impetus to the policy tools that we have and to those on which we still need to work.

Queue-jumping: a few points in response

After returning yesterday evening from my trip out experiencing the atypical calm of a Hebridean autumn day, opening my Twitter account brought me denunciations of Theresa May’s reference to citizens from other EU countries coming to the UK as ‘queue jumping’. (And so, from calm to rage.) Quite rightly, too – it was offensive, shameful phrasing at which we can only wonder the reaction had this been said in Brussels, or Paris, or Madrid about British citizens taking advantage of free movement to make their lives in other countries – and no more ignorable for being just the latest in a long line of similar statements from Theresa May. I couldn’t pass up the chance to comment; and all the more so since the No. 10 spokesperson has apparently been trying to deny she said it: a pointlessly fallacious exercise (seemingly about semantics) when video exists of precisely what she said, and helpfully sub-titled, too. Either way, May was yesterday blowing a dog-whistle.

Firstly, the quote itself:

‘Once we’ve left the EU, we will be fully in control of who comes here. It will no longer be the case that EU nationals, regardless of the skills or experience they have to offer, can jump the queue ahead of engineers from Sydney, or software developers from Delhi.’

That is Brexit – right there. A complete misunderstanding of what EU rules and regulations allow us to do as a member; an obsession with queues and with others not following British (and British-influenced) queuing pecularities; and a hark back to the times when our closest links were not with those who with whom we have been building relationships over the last forty five years but with the countries of Empire.

The UK is not currently a part of the Schengen Agreement, so it still has borders at which it can routinely check the credentials of all who enter; and EU law means that those looking to stay beyond three months must be able to support themselves (and have comprehensive sickness insurance). The UK cannot enforce the three-month rule since it has no municipal procedure for registering citizens as do others in the EU (e.g. Belgium) and, while some might argue that this is a good thing from the perspective of the individual freedom of the citizen, it is, nevertheless, a public policy choice which prevents the UK from operating the rules of free movement as the EU actually envisages.

EU nationals working in this country to build their lives and this country are also skilled workers – some might even be engineers or software developers – and many of them were actually invited here by government departments to practise their skills and their professions. Several pieces of evidence – e.g. from the NHS – suggests that public services in particular may struggle in the light of the now-declining numbers of people coming into the UK for work from other EU countries. Furthermore, May’s reference has a presumption that freedom of movement for EU nationals is largely composed of people who have skill sets lower than those of engineers and software developers. Evidence on the skills mix is complicated but it is the case that ex-EU migrants are much more likely to be over-qualified for the jobs they are doing. And none of this is to ignore that care workers are required by the UK’s labour market – and increasingly so as our ‘domestic’ population ages.

The ending of free movement is of course a two-way street. In ending free movement for others to come here from the EU we are ending the free movement of UK nationals overseas, too. It is a truism to think that most ex-UK migrants have retired to Spain – the majority (some 80%) are of working age and, like most ex-EU nationals in this country, are likely actually to be in work. Regardless of the life situation of ex-UK migrants, they have all exercised entirely valid treaty rights and to castigate them, too, by implication, as queue jumpers is a disgracefully reactionary response.

The Migration Advisory Committee recently concluded that – to pick one of its several conclusions – ‘It remains the case that the majority of studies find no or little impact of immigration [i.e. from EEA countries] on the employment and unemployment outcomes of the UK-born workforce’ (para 1.30, p. 29). It is impossible to argue that importing engineers from Sydney would improve or deteriorate this position – but the logical end-point of seeing ex-EU nationals as ‘queue jumpers’ in the future is that the engineer from Sydney is likely to be preferred to the one from Germany. After all, pushing ‘queue jumpers’ back down the queue is the correct procedural etiquette. May’s quote is, in this context, insidious.

And finally, there is, of course, no such ‘queue’ of migrants waiting for jobs to emerge before coming to the UK – nor any such ‘priority’ being somehow given as a result to EU nationals. What there is, is an entirely arbitrary (and entirely baseless) ‘target’ of getting net migration (from all places elsewhere) down to below 100,000 annually first introduced by David Cameron in 2011 and then enthusiastically adopted by Theresa May. This immigration cap – declared recently by Alan Manning, chair of the Migration Advisory Commission, to be a ‘political target’ rather than actual immigration policy – is what is driving the notion that an engineer from Sydney can’t get into the country whereas Pawel the apprentice plumber fresh out of vocational school has no problem in doing so. It is a choice – we can have both depending on the requirements of our labour market, but it suits the government’s agenda to pretend that we can’t.

And therein lies the main issue – this relentless banging on about the problems of EU immigration is how the government is lining up to sell its ‘deal’. Theresa May – economically a remainer but socially and culturally a leaver – has form on this: it is what she knows and we all know that this is the only place where she is comfortable. It is an extension of the ‘hostile environment’ that she instituted when at the Home Office. We can expect more – much more – of this in the coming days and weeks now that the ERG’s loaded rifle has been revealed to be firing no more than blanks: it is May’s only chance of bringing the parliamentary arithmetic into a position that supports her approach.

[Edit: the exchange between journalists and the No. 10 spokesperson has now been published. It is not a meeting of minds – and, as regards the substance? Perhaps we can put it down to Theresa May being, again, very clear. Very clear.]