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One vision of a possible future...
on 25 April 2014
The run-up to this September's referendum on Scottish Independence has led to a rash of books on the subject of how Scotland should best be governed, as we all indulge in some intense navel-gazing. Some books attempt to take an unbiased approach, others are arguing strongly for one side or the other. This one is an unashamed polemic, arguing not so much for independence as it's currently being offered, but for a return to localism in politics - a vision inspired by a damning comparison of Scotland to the similarly sized countries in the Nordic belt.
Lesley Riddoch has been one of Scotland's leading journalists for decades, both in print and on radio and television. She draws on many of the stories she has covered in her long career in painting a picture of Scotland that is, quite frankly, bleak. Her position is that the root cause of Scotland's poor showing in any comparisons of health or life expectancy is the people's lack of control over their own environment. In Riddoch's view, simply separating Scotland from the UK would merely mean a change in location of an over-centralised state from London to Edinburgh - instead she argues strongly for a return to much smaller local councils with real powers; and for strong community schemes, particularly with regard to housing and health, where residents are able to decide their own priorities and take control of their own surroundings.
To make her point, Riddoch looks in general at the history of housing and land ownership in Scotland, pointing out that still today 60% of the land is owned by 1,000 people - often the same families as controlled it in the days of feudalism. She highlights the emptiness and lack of productivity of much of the land - carefully managed as 'wilderness' pleasure grounds for the benefit of the few - and contrasts this with the cabin culture of the Nordic states, where city-dwellers regularly own a small piece of the countryside where they can retreat to nature for weekends and summer breaks. In Scotland, in Riddoch's view, city-dwellers have almost no contact with the countryside, thus missing out on the health benefits of a more outdoors existence; but perhaps more importantly, feeling that they have no control over how this vast resource is managed and controlled.
Riddoch offers ideas for solutions to the problems she highlights by giving examples of, in her view, more successful forms of land management and community housing schemes. As a trustee of the Isle of Eigg Trust, she was involved in the successful community buy-out after years of mismanagement by a variety of absentee landlords. She shows the difficulties of bringing the buy-out to fruition, but gives a rosy picture of how community involvement has improved the lives of the islanders and slowed the drift to the cities. She discusses in depth the tradition of tenement-dwelling in Scottish cities, suggesting that with some modernisation this type of shared housing space is a way of keeping community spirit within cities and stopping the spread of housing out into what she clearly sees as soulless suburbs. She suggests that the decline in formal use not just of Gaelic but of the much more broadly based Scots leads to a sense of inferiority and unwillingness to speak publicly on the part of those for whom Scots is still the first language. (She reminds us of one of my own pet hates - that a child speaking Scots will be told to speak 'properly' - i.e. speak English.) And she draws on some successful community health schemes to bolster her argument that local involvement works more effectively than national government in improving health outcomes.
Riddoch states quite clearly at the outset that the book is a polemic and has carefully cherry-picked her examples to back up her arguments. Overall, I found myself in agreement with her more often than not, though I do get somewhat tired of being told how great the Nordic countries are - I read Scandi crime and they seem just as dismally drunken and angst-ridden as your average Scot as far as I can see, and with even worse weather! Riddoch produces statistics to back up her arguments of course and, while I happily believe them, I also believe that statistics can be found to support any argument anyone chooses to make. Sometimes the statistics that are left out are just as revealing. A quick Google search brings up statistics that 'prove' Scotland is pretty much in line with the rest of the Nordic belt in terms of crime, access to healthcare etc; just as much as the ones Riddoch quotes 'prove' the opposite. So I felt Riddoch over-egged that portion of the pudding, but she's by no means alone in that - it's become a Scottish tradition to praise all things Nordic. It's also a Scottish tradition to run ourselves down and I felt Riddoch did a little too much of that. It seemed to me that, while what she said about the gloomy aspects of Scottish health and welfare were on the whole unarguable, she failed to mention that great strides have been made over recent years, especially since devolution. Still a long, long way to go, of course - but I did feel that a little bit of self-congratulation wouldn't have gone amiss amidst the overall message of doom and gloom. But maybe I'm just a glass-half-full kind of gal...
The very fact that Riddoch got me agreeing and arguing with her in turn shows that I found this a thought-provoking and provocative read - not one that's directly related to the independence debate, though definitely on the Vote Yes side, but one that argues beyond that for one kind of society we might aspire to if we're willing to make fundamental reforms to our system of government. Recommended as an interesting addition to our current obsession - but one for Scots only, I would think.