openDemocracy, April 2021
Scotland’s coalfields once sprawled across the central belt, from Ayrshire and Lanarkshire on the west coast to Fife and the Lothians on the east. In 1947, 77,000 people worked in Scottish coal. By 1990, that number had slumped to just 6,000. Popular history dictates that the UK coal industry was rapidly wound down during the latter part of the 20th century by Conservative politicians hostile to organized labour. But as Ewan Gibbs explains in Coal Country: The Meaning and Memory of Deindustrialization in Postwar Scotland, the reality is more complicated.
Competition from cheaper fuels and the emergence of nuclear power pushed British coal into decline soon after the Second World War. In the 1950s and ‘60s, governments and mining unions negotiated the closure of nationalized pits and collieries. In the 1970s, there was a sharp uptick in industrial action. In the 1980s, Margaret Thatcher abandoned the consensual strategy of previous decades in favour of a more militant – and politicized – approach to the sector. Coal mining in Scotland had already shed half its pre-war employee base by the time Harold Wilson became prime minister in 1964. That base had halved again by the time Thatcher entered Downing Street 15 years later.
Sunday National, April 2021
At the end of last month, as the Scottish Parliament was dissolving ahead of the Holyrood election, ministers in Boris Johnson’s government made two announcements related to Scotland and the future integrity of the UK. The first was symbolic: from now on, government buildings across the country (although not in Northern Ireland) would be required to fly the Union flag every day as a “proud reminder of our history and the ties that bind us,” the Conservative culture secretary, Oliver Dowden, said. The second was procedural: in the coming weeks, lawyers for the Johnson administration planned to challenge the SNP’s attempt to incorporate the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child into Scots law.
These announcements were followed by the publication of the Dunlop Review – a report, written by the Tory Lord James Dunlop, looking at strategies for “strengthening” the Union. Johnson should establish a new cabinet position for intergovernmental and constitutional affairs, Dunlop recommended, and there should be “better branding” for Scottish infrastructure projects financed by the UK Treasury. Since taking charge of the Tory Party in 2019, Johnson has launched four separate initiatives aimed at ‘saving’ the Union from the threat of Scottish nationalism. His latest maneuver stalled earlier this year when the head of Downing Street’s ‘Union Unit’, the ex-Vote Leave strategist Oliver ‘Sonic’ Lewis, quit after reportedly briefing against his colleague, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Michael Gove. Lewis had been in post for a grand total of 14 days.
POLITICO, March 2021
Nicola Sturgeon’s position is safe – for now.
A tumultuous week in the long-running feud with her predecessor as Scottish first minister, Alex Salmond, has left Sturgeon more secure in her job. Yet splits in the movement for Scottish independence remain, and crucial Scottish elections could still determine whether the cause founders.
New Left Review, March 2021
On 26 February, Alex Salmond appeared before a Holyrood committee inquiry investigating how and why complaints of sexual misconduct made against him in 2018 had been mishandled by Scotland’s devolved government in Edinburgh – the devolved government that he used to run. The allegations were false, the former Scottish National Party (SNP) leader said. (Salmond was acquitted of 13 sexual assault charges in an Edinburgh courtroom last Spring.) There had been a ‘malicious plot’ in the higher reaches of Scottish civil society to press ahead with them anyway. The plot had spiralled out of control. Information had been suppressed. Key pieces of evidence were ignored. And those involved had tried to cover their tracks. ‘Scotland hasn’t failed,’ Salmond declared in his opening statement; its leadership, from the Crown Office to the cabinet, has.
Five days later, on 3 March, Nicola Sturgeon, Salmond’s successor as Scottish first minister and SNP leader, sat in front of the same committee inquiry. There was no plot, she said. Several women had come forward with serious allegations regarding Salmond’s behaviour. The Scottish government had botched its response to those allegations. But procedure, not conspiracy, was to blame for the flawed investigative process. ‘I had no motive, intention, or desire to “get” Alex Salmond’, Sturgeon stated. Indeed, until recently, Salmond – sixteen years Sturgeon’s senior – had been one of her closest friends and political confidants. The first minister’s marathon eight-hour evidence session marked the apex of a drama that has gripped Scottish politics for months. Between them, Salmond and Sturgeon have run Holyrood for almost a decade-and-a-half. In September 2014, at the head of the campaign for Scottish independence, they came close to dissolving the United Kingdom itself.
POLITICO, March 2021
If Nicola Sturgeon’s Scottish National Party fails to secure outright victory at in May’s parliamentary election, the hopes of those pushing for a second referendum on independence from the U.K. could rest on the success of another party altogether: the Scottish Greens.
With just five out of the devolved Edinburgh parliament’s 129 seats, the Greens should be a marginal force in Scottish politics. Instead, they are the SNP’s main partner in the campaign for a separate Scottish state and, their activists argue, the country’s most effective vehicle for radical legislative reform.
POLITICO, February 2021
In case it wasn’t already clear: Alex Salmond wants to end Nicola Sturgeon’s political career.
This week, as part of a Holyrood committee inquiry into the alleged mishandling of sexual assault allegations against Scotland’s former first minister, Salmond accused people close to Sturgeon – his one-time friend and colleague, and Scotland’s current first minister – of maliciously conspiring to “remove” him from public life.
Bella Caledonia, February 2021
It’s amazing how quickly history repeats itself in the realm of economics. In the immediate aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, in both London and Washington, there was a clear political consensus in favour of stimulus policies aimed at rescuing the global economy from collapse. But that consensus disintegrated quickly.
After a period of sustained stimulus spending under Gordon Brown, Britain embraced austerity in 2010, with the election of the Cameron / Clegg coalition government. The US followed suit three years later, in 2013, when Barack Obama – whose initial fiscal response to the Great Recession was already weak – signed off on $1.2 trillion worth of cuts as part of a bipartisan budget deal with the Republicans.
The Herald, February 2021
It’s difficult to take anything Bill Gates says about climate change seriously. Through his trust, the Microsoft co-founder owns $10 billion worth of shares in his friend Warren Buffet’s holding company, Berkshire Hathaway, which invests heavily in natural gas and other polluting utilities. According to Lund University professor Stefan Gossling, he is, along with other celebrities, responsible for ten thousand times more carbon emissions, annually, than the average person. In January, he tried to buy the world’s largest private jet operator, Signature. (Gates has previously described using a private jet as his chief “guilty pleasure.”) And yet, even if the Seattle-based billionaire didn’t have a vast carbon footprint – even if he was the greenest oligarch on earth – the ‘solutions’ to global warming outlined in his new book would still lack credibility.
How To Avoid A Climate Disaster tells us nothing we didn’t already know about environmental break-down. The opening chapters are packed with commonplace insights into the crisis. An average rise of two degrees Celsius in the earth’s surface temperature will decimate crop yields in developing countries. A hotter planet means more intense and protracted wildfires. By 2100, major urban centres like Miami will be underwater. Gates’s solution? Market-driven innovation. With the right combination of state and private sector support, companies can slash the (currently prohibitive) costs of renewable energy, thus reducing our reliance on fossil fuels and dragging the global economy across that all-important zero-carbon threshold.
The Independent, December 2020
A prediction: after 2021, Nicola Sturgeon won’t fight another devolved election as SNP leader. The first minister’s future hinges on the outcome of next May’s crucial Holyrood vote and the UK government’s response to nationalist demands for a second independence referendum.
If the SNP manages to secure and then win that referendum, Scots will go on to elect a sovereign, independent parliament, most likely with Sturgeon at its helm. If the nationalists lose, however, Sturgeon will have little choice but to resign, much as Alex Salmond and David Cameron did following their respective referendum defeats in 2014 and 2016.
Foreign Policy, November 2020
Boris Johnson became prime minister of the United Kingdom in July 2019. Since then, he has launched four separate initiatives aimed at ‘saving’ the Union from the threat of Scottish nationalism. The most recent of these, announced on Nov. 18., is intended to “boost the social and cultural case” for Britain following a “series of missteps” by the Conservative leader, according to the Financial Times.
On Nov 17., Johnson reportedly told a group of Tory MPs that the transfer of partial legislative powers to Scotland from London in 1999 had been a “disaster north of the border.” His remark was clearly not meant for a Scottish audience: two decades after its creation, the Scottish Parliament remains hugely popular with Scottish voters. Opposition to devolution, on the other hand, is a fringe pursuit.
POLITICO, November 2020
The Scottish National Party (SNP) burst onto the British political scene in the early 1970s campaigning under the punchy separatist slogan of “It’s Scotland’s Oil” — a reference to the vast reservoirs of oil and gas recently discovered beneath the North Sea waters around Aberdeenshire.
But five decades on, faced with an accelerating climate crisis, a prolonged slump in global oil prices, and widespread redundancies in the carbon sector, Scotland’s nationalist movement is beginning to reassess its historic relationship with fossil fuels.
The Herald, November 2020
Evan Osnos’s neatly timed biography of Joe Biden, a collection of pieces previously published in the New Yorker, is brimming with insights into America’s president-elect. The insights are not always flattering. “When Barack Obama, newly arrived in the Senate in 2005, heard Biden hold forth in a meeting of the Foreign Relations Committee,” Osnos writes, “he passed an aid a three-word note: ‘Shoot. Me. Now’.” Over more than three decades on Capitol Hill – “the windbag Mecca” – Biden had earned a reputation as a self-important blowhard with a “harrowing tendency” to put his foot in his mouth.
Still, a few years later, Biden found himself serving alongside Obama in the White House, where the two men formed an unusually tight personal and professional bond. “Obama took to telling aides and audiences that naming Biden vice president was the best political decision he had made,” Osnos reports. The trials they faced together – healthcare reform, Republican obstructionism, familial loss – “had brought them closer than many expected.”