Rebellion on North Bridge

You get a hell of a view from North Bridge. This artery connects Edinburgh’s north and south: the old and the new. It spans the chasm of Waverley, bringing commuters and tourists up from the bustling commercial centres and Georgian grandeur of the New Town, to the ancient quirkiness of the Old Town. Its symbolic importance for our city cannot be overstated. On Tuesday, we had the pleasure of imagining that space as something else, as what it will have to become if we are to survive the coming crisis. We all-too-briefly ended a tyranny that governs us so absolutely, we cannot imagine life without it. The reality of a public space so central to our city’s identity and utility, governed by the tyranny of the automobile: small metal boxes which carry an individual, or at most five or six people, to wherever they desire. All the while burning dirty fuels that are running out; fuels that are rising every year in cost – not just in dollars but in human lives and the ecosystems upon which we all, ultimately, rely for our survival. The symbolism of cars: their waste, their expense, the consumerist self-satisfaction that is inseparable from their design and conception, the individualistic ethos that they incubate and emit, along with all those other toxins. That is something we can surely learn to live without. And indeed we will have to.

Extinction Rebellion certainly thinks so. On 16thApril they shut down the bridge. At 3 pm two co-ordinated roadblocks interceded at the north and south end of the bridge. Traffic was stalled, and protesters flooded the road holding banners aloft. This was done with the co-operation of the police, who formed up into a rank facing us. This so-far, so-friendly stand-off was duplicated down at the north end of the bridge. Above their faces – generally expressionless and professional – I could see gulls circling down South Bridge, in a sky that seemed grey and passive. Pretty soon the atmosphere became more relaxed, and a carnival mood started to take hold. A samba band stirred us with their incessant, uncompromising rhythm; a skeletal puppet held several feet in the sky wandered between the two camps. It seemed a ghoulish premonition of things to come. Looking around, I couldn’t help but despair at the correlation between concern for the environment and white people with dreadlocks. But this is too flippant: those protesting our government’s shameful dereliction of duty don’t fit so easily into these stereotypes of privilege. Tuesday was witness to a rich tapestry. I tried to investigate this a bit further and see to what extent these protesters really do fall into the age-old trope. I spoke to a few people on the bridge, some protesting and others just passing by. I tried to get a feeling for their optimism, or the lack thereof. One man leafleting had come through from Glasgow for the day; I asked him if this gave him hope for a resolution. “I’m not convinced, to be honest. But I’m not going down without a fight.” Interestingly, he said he’d seen this coming in the ‘70s. Well, you’ve got that in common with the overwhelming majority of scientists, I thought. Others were angry with governmental inaction. More than anything, there was contempt for the lack of honesty that our leaders continue to display. “It’s the only hope we have” one guy said. I remembered a chant I kept hearing that day: “Climate change and exploitation/ are not caused by immigration/ bullshit, come off it/ the enemy is profit!” I asked him if this risked alienating some supporters, or whether they were on to something bigger. “Profit is definitely part of the problem. The idea of infinite compound growth is a fantasy. We need a change in the modes of production.”

A few hours later tensions came to a head. After suffering our presence for about 3 and half hours, the police decided they had had enough. From the ranks of high-vis at the north end of the bridge came a loud-hailer declaration: that we were disturbing the peace and that it was their intention to re-open the bridge. At the briefing before the action, we had been given detailed instructions as to our legal situation. The police had been informed, they said, and Extinction Rebellion’s police-liaison officers were trying to establish a relationship built on trust. The police had been told we would be there until 9, but it was stressed that we didn’t really know what they would do. We were told what to do in case of arrest; we were even graded according to “arrestability”. This was all very exciting to a naïve, untested activist. But as the reality grew starker, and as the loud-hailer went through the various stages of legal warning, my thoughts got a little clearer. What would getting arrested really achieve, apart from ruining my evening? The hypocrisy of that realisation, resting alongside my self-confessed willingness to disrupt a great many other people’s evenings, continues to sit uncomfortably with me. We’d been hanging around, refusing to move, but eyeing the high-vis with a wary eye, when the barked order was given for the police to advance. We walked slowly backwards, leaving behind those seated heroes who had refused to budge. Among them were an older couple that my companion and I had briefly talked to.

The man was originally from Gloucestershire, but had made Scotland his home. I had the most cogent, clear-headed, and hopeful political conversation with him that I have had in some time. Student politics too easily falls into the broadcasting of moral outrage for social brownie points. This man had no time for such shenanigans. He compared the attention that climate debates got in the Scottish parliament with what they received in Westminster. I agreed that Scotland seemed a friendlier political atmosphere for progressive ideas. I said I was loathe, on account of my family background, to split up our union, but that with every passing day there seemed a stronger case for it. “It’s going in the wrong direction really, isn’t it?” he said. “We should be coming together, not splitting apart.” As you read this, it is worth remembering that at the time of writing, 682 people have so far been arrested in London for similar acts of civil disobedience. Now as the gulls circled, and a rank of police stared on, I stood on tiptoes to peer behind them. That old man had bundled up his jacket and was sitting calmly with legs crossed, beside his wife, in a line of ten or eight others. Their grandchildren’s well-being and prosperity were at stake. This was very much their fight, and they weren’t going anywhere. About 30 minutes later my companion and I watched, as the evening grew colder, with a curious mixture of pride and shame, while they were carried away one-by-one into a public bus to be searched prior to being taken into custody.


The object of this action was disruption: a halt to business-as-usual. This is a point that truly needs making. The gravity, severity, and immediacy of this problem mustbe brought to public attention. Climate change is an issue which occupies about a tenth of our public discourse. It should be nearer to nine tenths. Its effects are already being felt by the world’s poorest and weakest. Those of us in the Global North have a rapidly diminishing time-frame in which to change our ways. Meanwhile our political conversation has been hijacked by the pet-project of empire-revival fantasists. The greatest tragedy of Brexit is not the event itself, it is the time wasted talking about it. In so many respects, we are moving foolishly, steadfastly, and perhaps irrevocably in the wrong direction. If there is one message that the people of Edinburgh – and of the UK – should take from this week’s disruption, it is the urgency that brings us to this protest. This action is not taken lightly, and this is not a struggle we sought: it has been forced upon us. The disruption to people’s lives is something of a nuisance, but the scale of the tragedy we are facing is immeasurably greater. Complaining about not being able to get to work on time, one day in the calendar year, when some of the world’s major cities will soon be under water, and when whole species have been driven to extinction, shows an appalling lack of empathy or understanding. It is the clearest manifestation of the selfishness and ignorance with which we will have to contend in order to tackle climate change. We have known about this problem since the 1970s. If power refuses to heed science, then we must find another way to grab its attention.

Extinction Rebellion has three demands. The first: that our government tells the truth about the scale, the sheer magnitude, of the crisis we are facing. This would be a clear departure from previous policy. Second (and perhaps most controversially): that we achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2025. Thirdly (and perhaps most intriguingly): the establishment of Citizens’ Assemblies. These consist of 100 or so citizens, all on the electoral register, chosen randomly across a representative spread of the population according to several demographic factors, such as age, gender, ethnicity, region, etc. This idea has an undeniably glamorous ring to it. In one stroke, it promises to cut through the tangled mess that our politics have become. An apocalyptic vision of our political development might be sketched as a mounting, dangerous dichotomy between parliament and ‘the will of the people’. The former represents privilege, authority. and the educational elitism that voters have been trashing recently; the latter an ill-defined, hazy, and vague populism that easily accommodates the whims of demagogues and the rhetoric of xenophobia, not to mention policy ignorance. Extinction Rebellion wants Citizens’ Assemblies to ‘oversee’ the changes brought about by their first and second demands.

These changes, by any stretch of the imagination, will have to be drastic: drastic in a sense unprecedented to the usually slow-moving, gradual-evolution style of politics that the British Isles (at least on this side of the Irish Sea) have become accustomed to. Think less Atlee’s ’45, more Stalin’s 5 year plans. But even in that flippant summary, there is a PR problem that we will have to deal with. We are accustomed to thinking of radical change as the preserve of authoritarian politics, and perhaps not wrongly. History is littered with examples of fast-paced change brought to bear by tyrants. Extinction Rebellion represents a challenge to this convention. There is something in their organisation, doctrine, and culture that speaks of change from the bottom-up: autonomy is central to their belief structure. However credibly you take this, a bottom-up approach is what we will need to fight this crisis. Citizens’ Assemblies represent a chance to synthesise the popular will with concern for the facts, to give a voice to the voiceless and bypass the poisonous dichotomy previously mentioned. They are not a silver bullet, but they are a crucial part of the picture, which we neglect at our peril.

*Illustration by Erica Zaja*

Could a federal UK work?

Perhaps Brexit has done us a favour. There is no denying that it has thrown our politics into shambles. Our internal dialogue has now become increasingly dark, introspective, and confused. Our politics seem in terminal crisis, as pressures are put upon our body politic that threaten to rip it apart in several directions. It is an intractable, stability-threatening, and hellishly confused issue which has renewed attention to the inadequacy of our constitutional arrangements. A once mighty but now embittered England, clinging to lost imperial grandeur, threatens to drag its bed-mates out of the largest trading bloc on earth against their wishes. Scotland voted overwhelming to stay in the European Union, the margin being 62% in favour of remaining in the EU. Perhaps more significantly, the support for the EU wasn’t concentrated in privileged, metropolitan urban areas. Instead, all 32 council areas across Scotland voted to remain.[1]

In Northern Ireland the situation was similar. Perhaps sensing that a key plank of the delicate peace that has prevailed in the country since 1997 is the maintenance of a soft border with the Republic of Ireland, 56% voted to remain.[2] In this vote, as has been noted by Cambeul in his article, the constituent nations of the UK were not given any kind of individual powers. They voted in aggregate, as a unified whole. The referendum result, however, has thrown that unity into greater question than it has faced for many years.

The British constitution is murky, and perhaps deliberately so. In legal terms, we live in a modern form of hyper-democracy, set within the crumbling structure of a feudal empire. Our constitution is not forged of Enlightenment ideals but is instead an uneasy and pragmatic compromise. The union of England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland was not a spontaneous joining together of equals for mutual benefit. It was a union achieved and maintained through periods of bloodshed, domination and uncomfortable co-existence. Of course, the story is more complicated than that, but it is not the purpose of this essay to recount how we got here. Suffice to say that the UK is not the standard candidate for a federal union. Britain has never known a written constitution, despite enjoying the longest history of unbroken parliamentary democracy in the world. Where power really lies has always been unclear. Today, we have a central Westminster parliament that agrees, by virtue of the Sewel convention, not to legislate on areas given to the national assemblies, whose powers are so unevenly devolved that only one of them is called a parliament. All of the nations within the UK have a devolved legislature but England must be content with ‘English votes for English laws’, a frankly gimmick-like measure for substituting the English MPs at Westminster for an English parliament without having to bother building a separate one.

There is something very British about such a gimmick. Avoiding ideological purity in our governing arrangements, we prefer to stick with what works. Our lack of a written constitution allows for such flexibility, and the disparity of devolution perhaps allows for discriminatory policy to fit diverse circumstances. We have become, or perhaps we have always been, somebody trying to keep their roof from caving in by adding another timber beam to hold it up, whenever a section of the wall starts sagging. This will work up to a point (and I’m not sure there isn’t something to admire in the intent), but there are moments in history when the roof does come crashing in. If Brexit isn’t handled properly, we could soon be standing amongst rubble. And even if our roof does remain standing, we will hardly be able move in our own home from all this timber. If we take as a given that we want to continue living in this house, with the same flatmates, then we can discuss renovation. If our flatmates are just plain sick of us- which perhaps they have a right to be- then the following exercise will be futile. We should also consider what we mean by ‘what works’.

We should also be asking who our government works for. At the moment, our governing arrangements, with their careful and reluctant delegation of power outwards from the centre, are intended to maintain ultimate control for the centre. Our lack of a written constitution gives us flexibility, but perhaps it gives flexibility to the wrong people. We are now one of the most centralised states in Europe.

How do we create a federal United Kingdom? Federalism entails a democratic union of composite parts, each with their own state government and a unified central government in which they each have a guarded stake. There would be some areas of policy-making reserved to the federal government, and some that are left to the composite parts to decide on their own. Crucially, these policy areas must be carefully set out in a written constitution, and they must be uniformly observed. This ideal is a world away from the piecemeal, haphazard and asymmetrical devolution that we have now. A vital distinction must also be made with regard to terminology; ‘devolution’ entails power granted downwards from a central government that remains officially sovereign; ‘federalism’ entails power being granted upwards from the composite parts, with consent, to the central government.

The elephant in the room is England. By far the largest of the four nations, with 85% of the UK’s population and the lion’s share of its economic output, England threatens to derail our plans for renovation. A federal union can work with inequality between the members, but this is usually within unions of several more states than four. If a federal UK government gave an equal vote to each of the four nations, England would suffer a severe democratic deficit. Despite containing the overwhelming majority of the UK’s population, it could be outvoted on any issue. Furthermore, a two-versus-two scenario would lead to inevitable and probably frequent deadlock. When examining plans for UK federalism, a four nation approach always appears unworkable.

Alternatives to the ‘four nation’ approach usually involve dividing England up into smaller segments so that a semblance of equality could be maintained between the UK’s composite parts. On paper, there is much to commend in a plan that could bring tax raising and spending autonomy to England’s beleaguered regions. However, this brings its own problems. Firstly, attempts to devolve power to England’s regions have been met with public apathy, and in some cases hostility. An example of this is the 2004 North East England Devolution Referendum, where 78% voted against the idea for a regional assembly for the North East of England.[3] We must be careful when we read into this. It may well be that the inhabitants of North East England were simply fed up with politicians and didn’t want to hire another group of them. Cynicism and disillusionment with Westminster politics is now a unifying force for people all over this country. More likely, I think, there is little understanding in England of the necessity of making federal plans. From an English perspective, our current arrangements look pretty palatable, without any pressing need to dissolve themselves. If such a dissolution did take place, it must be seen to be equally born by each of the four nations.

There is a map on my wall. It shows the British Isles in the 1920s (the Irish Republic is yet to be born, and the land south of the Irish border is charmingly labelled ‘Free State’). The four nations aren’t coloured differently. There is no pretence of smoothing over the complex, intricate and overlapping destinies of the peoples of these islands by pigeon-holing them into four distinct categories. The cartographer has chosen counties for her dividing lines. Sussex is a different shade to Kent, and Angus is different to Fife. Armagh retains its character next to Down, and Yorkshire’s three Ridings don’t have to bare the embarrassment of being confused with each other. Issues of identity are always too complex for the constitutional lawyer to fully grasp. And perhaps they shouldn’t try. A sound rule of thumb is to prefer the local to the national, and to bring power as close to the people as can be feasibly arranged. The county lines of the United Kingdom bare close relation to historical, ethnic, linguistic and cultural facts. They certainly, at least in administrative terms, bare closer relation to structures that have existed continuously for a thousand years. Unlike nations, they are numerous, small and diverse enough to be workable composite parts of a federal union. Such an arrangement would be fitting with local identities, and would avoid provoking the divisive forces of nationalism. Local identities are too small to be destructive of the whole, but fierce enough to enact loyalty to the new governing structures that we would need.

The counties of Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales and England would combine as roughly 90 federal units. Each already has its own administrative structure and legislature. These local governments could be combined with a national government formed of representatives of each, perhaps to replace our archaic House of Lords. The problem with a four nation model is that the needs and interests of Hull differ immensely from those of Torquay; lumping these diverse locations in together is unnecessarily problematic. My county model is merely a suggestion, intended to shine a fresh light on a tired subject, but much more work needs to be done, especially with fleshing out how this arrangement could realistically work. It could provide the opportunity to secure a lasting union, and act as a genuine and radical move towards localism. The United Kingdom’s shift to federalism is an issue that needs careful and immediate deliberation. Brexit has thrown us into a fit of confusion, but perhaps in the long run, we will be grateful for the reminder that our democracy and stability cannot be taken for granted and that instead, they require careful and continuous work. Federalism would be a huge change to our governing structures, which have evolved, with a remarkable degree of continuity, from the Middle Ages. In the end, whilst I admire our national habit of piecemeal preservation of a sagging wall, this is a time for regeneration.




​The Left Must Learn to Speak the Language of Ownership and Belonging

Our politics seem to be in terminal decline. The calibre, tone, and content of our politics is sliding inexorably down into an abyss of constitutional crises, climate denial, and democratic dysfunction: all the inevitable result of a financial elite with their hands very firmly on the reins of power. In America, the political process is seized and shut-down by Republican state legislatures that are determined to deny ethnic minorities their voting rights. At the top of this pyramid of shame sits a toddler with a cheap fake tan, conducting foreign policy through tweets and denouncing climate change as a Chinese hoax.

How are we to make sense of this malaise? On the one side, we have an establishment still hopelessly wedded to an economic orthodoxy that has made a wreckage of our social contract, and will soon make a wreckage of the environment upon which human existence depends; on the other side, a most convincing and powerful challenger: a resurgent right-wing populist nationalism. This is a Rightism that speaks powerfully in the language of ownership and belonging: ‘Take Back Control’, ‘America First’, with various deviations in Brazil, the Philippines, Russia and Turkey. The rising tide of anti-globalisation has thrown the Left into confusion and disarray. It seems the liberal international order is under siege from the Trumpists and the Brexiteers, and the Left are in the acutely uncomfortable position of defending an international order that they formerly decried.

The Left is used to speaking the language of internationalism, but it cannot exist long-term as a defender of international capital. The Labour Party, who is supposed to defend the marginalised, downtrodden and left behind, is now realising that in Brexit Britain, that group of people is increasingly defined by its forlorn and perhaps hopeless attachment to national identities. Cosmopolitanism has always been an elite pre-occupation: it requires money, connections and a world-class education to be a ‘winner’ in globalisation. Most people do not have these privileges. Their lives and world-views are still defined by the idea of a national attachment.

This attachment may be to a particular nation; more likely to the physical, cultural and economic characteristics of their locality. Their locality is defined by any number of things, but its crux is the physical, shared environment. The trees you walk by everyday to work, the pond at the bottom of your garden, the harsh North Sea that batters and bloodies the cliffs, or the overhanging, ethereal mist that clings to the glens and Lochs of western Scotland like a damp rug. These are the things we are defending.

Climate change has now been pushed to the top of the agenda. The window within which we can afford to keep dithering and delaying our response has, in fact, already closed. Urgent action is required not tomorrow or next year, but today. This requires a mobilisation of cultural, political and economic capital on a grand scale. It requires that individuals change their daily habits. Far more than that, it requires that corporations and governments heed the warning and change their behaviour. We need sweeping new legislation; we need a shift from the consumer mentality that has defined our economic life for decades; we may even need a new economic model.

This will require human beings to work together for a shared cause. The tragedy of our climate dilemma is that it requires vital global, unanimous action; but so far there is no force beyond a national force that we know to be capable of such rapid mobilisation. The Left may speak the language of a universal humanism, but in truth its achievements have always been built within the framework of the nation state. So far we have no other framework for citizenship that is convincing and powerful enough to mobilise human beings in shared sacrifice for a shared cause. To fight climate change, we need a shared cause.

It is extremely difficult to find a historical parallel to our current climate crisis. (There are plenty of examples of societies overwhelmed by resource depletion and environmental degradation, but perhaps these are not the examples we need). We are facing an existential threat that could radically undermine who we are. Perhaps the closest recent crisis we can come to is 1939: Britain and the world faced a deadly threat from the rise of Nazism on the continent. The Second World War threatened Britain with extinction, and it threatened the world with a terrifying ‘Thousand Year Reich’. The people of Britain and of many other nations came together in shared sacrifice to face that challenge, but I think it unlikely that the brave men who landed on Normandy beaches were motivated by internationalism. I’ll wager it was a dirty fight in which their home, their family and their country were threatened by something utterly monstrous. We can learn from them in our own struggle. The pond at the bottom of your garden - in fact your whole fucking garden - is under threat. So go forth and defend it.

*Illustration by Paola Valentina*

Did Presbyterianism make Scotland a more Socialist country?

In the heart of Edinburgh’s Old Town, a grand old cathedral stands amid the tourist bustle of the Royal Mile. This building stands as a towering testament to Scotland’s tortured religious past. In 1558 the stirrings of the Protestant Reformation were being felt in Scotland’s towns and cities, and in Edinburgh these tensions exploded in the St. Giles Day Riot. A statue of the saint was thrown into the Nor’ Loch, the stinking body of water that lay where Princes Street Gardens are now. This drama was followed, and compounded, with the repatriation from Geneva of the fiery preacher John Knox. In 1559 he marched into the cathedral and claimed it for the reformed faith. A week later he was elected minister of the parish.

To the modern eye, the significance of these events may seem fleeting. How do John Knox and his drama influence modern Scottish society? What, if any, relevance does that story bear to the everyday lives of Scots in the 21st century? To the more discerning eye, the word ‘elected’ should stand out like a sore thumb. These events occurred in an age before our modern, universally franchised democracy could be countenanced. In a highly hierarchical society, in which power, wealth and knowledge were controlled in the hands of a hereditary and ecclesiastical elite, the people of Edinburgh elected their own minister. When the Stuart monarchs tried to re-impose rule-by-bishops, as well as an English prayer book on Scotland, a local woman called Jenny Geddes reportedly interrupted a sermon in St Giles and threw her stool at the preacher. This symbolic act of Scottish irreverence kick-started the Covenanting Revolution of 1637/8. In this revolution, demands for political freedom were inextricably linked with demands for the preservation of Scotland’s Presbyterian settlement.

The power of this action should not be underestimated. In our own age, politics is fought through the prism of our secular religions, of which we have many: liberalism, conservatism, socialism etc. In the age of Reformation, arguments about consent to power and the relationships between God, King, and citizens, were more likely to be fought through the prism of worship. How worship was conducted had a central symbolism to people’s lives. Whether you could read the Bible in your own language, or whether you had it dictated to you by an ecclesiastical, literary elite made all the difference. And whether citizens had any voice in the running of their parish - that most basic societal and administrative unit of the Early Modern World - and in the choice of their minister, again made all the difference.

Before the Reformation came to Scotland, the country, like the rest of Western Europe, had been part of the Roman Catholic Church. Liturgical orthodoxy was established in Rome, and filtered down to the masses through a complex hierarchy of bishops. This hierarchy intersected with the autocracy of kings, as royal authority was projected through the pulpit onto parishioners who had little other source of information about the outside world.

The Calvinist emphasis of the Reformation in Scotland fitted well, some might say, with its national character. The pre-determinism of this grim strand of Protestantism fit with the dourness of the Scots: the resolution that everything might be doomed, but you ought to try your best anyway. The overthrow of the bishops in the 16th century meant the structure of the church had to be re-organised. Power was now devolved locally. The parish was run by the ‘Kirk-session’: a local parish council that included local big wigs - men of stature in the community, and the minister. This was the system characterised as Presbyterian. It wasn’t a perfect form of representation. Women and the poor were still sidelined. But despite its imperfections, this change represented nothing short of a revolution, a significant shift of power downwards and outwards.

Much has been made in the study of Scottish social history of the stultifying, and often paralysing community pressures and puritan morality that the Kirk-session imposed upon individuals. And there is more than a grain of truth in that. Scotland’s cities have always represented a chance for her young people to escape the claustrophobic rural enclaves they hail from and to expose themselves to a more liberating, cosmopolitan environment.

It could be argued that my writing here comes from a place of complacency. Living in a city like Edinburgh gives me freedom: freedom I would never have enjoyed in a smaller, more rural Scottish environment. However, it is an irrefutable fact that the politics of this country, since at least the early 20th century, have been more solidly left-leaning than that of its larger, southern neighbour. In my lifetime, and that of my parents and grandparents, Scots have voted consistently for a more egalitarian and communitarian society. It doesn’t seem such a stretch to suggest that the seeds of that spirit were sown when Jenny Geddes decided that she had finally had enough.

*Illustration by Eun Bin Seo*

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