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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.
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on 27 November 2013
I must declare an interest. I first got to know Lesley Riddoch back in the 1990s when she became involved in the Isle of Eigg Trust of which I was a founder. Two factors helped the seed set by the original trust to grow strong and produce the blossom of land reform now so apparent on Eigg. One was the local community gradually finding its voice and taking over the running of the trust circa 1994. The the second, intricately bound in with the first, was Lesley's involvement and her use of radio and press to help bolster island voices and confidence.

The reason why Lesley knows what she's writing about in Blossom is that she's actually done it. Her chapter on Eigg is brilliant, an important contribution to the social history (even if, as the author, she has to understate her own role as an agent of empowerment). The rest of the book gives many other moving examples. Lesley Riddoch is that very rare combination of a talker, a doer and a thinker - the Scots genius in its most effective expression.

A few weeks ago she gave a launch address for Blossom in the Centre for Human Ecology - you'll find the video on the CHE's website - and what most struck many of the packed audience was her emphasis that Scotland will only ever be "free" inasmuch as we, the people, become free within ourselves. Political independence is the small question. The big question is whether we're willing to rise to what it means to become independent within ourselves. To find the responsibility, develop the capacity, have the humility, even the love that is necessary for the task.

"Blossom" offers many examples of people and groups finding such independence for themselves. It's not rocket science; only people science. Lesley herself has often been a key agent lighting the blue touchpapers. I remember in the early days of Eigg being at the receiving end of her methodology. I'd come out with something about empowerment in the context of "Highland psychohistory", and she'd say (it happened on a ferry crossing), "Psycho-what? Alastair! Can you repeat that in plain language?"

Damn it! She knew how to make you feel stupid and give you confidence at the same time. She pushed me until it boiled down to saying, "We've got to lance our old boils" or something like that, and I was left rubbing my eyes and thinking, "My goodness - is it really as simple as saying it like that?"

In a nutshell, Lesley helps people to find the words to express their feelings in ways that enables them better to understand themselves, and this is what makes Blossom not just a good read, but a vital one in these times. It is a book that deserves circulation far beyond Scotland, and well done to the wonderful Luath Press for taking it on and making such a nice job of the production.
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on 31 August 2013
The Scots are notoriously ignorant about their own country and, by that measure, I found this marvellous book to be an eye-opener, changing my viewpoint and forcing me to reappraise my own attitudes. Lesley Riddoch, who for many years has been observing, writing about and getting involved in Scotland's communities, pinpoints the vast but untapped potential of the people of Scotland themselves to transform their own land. Her theme is that, compared with other northern countries like Norway and Sweden, the Scots have a tenuous grip on their own future because they have so little everyday control over their own lives and environment.

The power of the book lies in her grasp of the complexity of this question. Unlike so many books which concentrate on a single factor, such as political parties or our relationship with the British state, she looks at a whole range of ingredients like class, geography, land-ownership, psychology, local hierarchies and concentrations of power. She takes a series of topics -- the effects of inequality on health, patterns of house-ownership, the humble tenement, access to land, the size of our local councils, the variety in our language, the exclusion of women and children from a central place in Scottish life, and our notions of Scottishness and Britishness-- to provide some terrifically penetrating insights into the Scots' character and culture. She knows and understands the Nordic countries, and the comparisons are often very exciting and thought-provoking.

In case this all sounds worthy and heavy, I should say that Riddoch really knows how to tell a story and use it to make a point. She's often very funny, and her affection for, and pride in, the Scots shine through, as do her faith and belief in people to change their own lives. She believes there will not be a transforming moment, such as a vote in a referendum, but a large number of small changes that will snowball to produce a big change. If we want progress, it's up to us.

Wherever you are on the political spectrum, if you want Scotland to be a better place, by reading this book you will understand Scotland a lot better, and you'll be inspired.
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on 18 October 2013
An interesting book by someone who has experience of many aspects of Scottish life. Not your usual take on Scotland and well worth a read if you want to understand Scotland's challenges regardless of the outcome of the 2014 referendum.
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on 3 March 2014
I found this a brilliant analysis of Scottish culture. Easily read, chatty, opinionated (as would be expected of Lesley!) but very sharp & persuasive picture of why we Scots are as we are. Unlike the Nordics, we didn't own our land as peasants - this & other factors have led to a general disempowerment, and a willingness to be ruled top-down. Land ownership has never been tackled, and we seem content to be ruled by the biggest and most distanced local authorities in Europe (and have the lowest turn-out at elections, and the lowest level of involvement in our communities too). Scotland is deeply unequal, despite what we like to think about ourselves, and our first steps towards local community control, housing cooperatives, land buy-outs etc are small and faltering. It's not a pretty picture, not helped by the traditonal statist 'solutions' by Labour's old left in Scotland. This isn't so much an argument for independence (although she clearly supports it as a first step), more a call to get off our knees, become involved, and stop doubting our capacity locally & nationally to run our own show.
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on 25 February 2014
I was born in Scotland and left there 50 years ago to move to London. I have been following the independence arguments from a distance as I won't get a vote. I had tended towards the argument for Scotland to remain part of the UK. Since reading this book I was reminded of things that exist in Scotland and no where else, such as 1,000 people own more than 60% of Scotland and that this seems to be fine with the political class. Scots are capable of running their own country and their own lives, unfortunately, and I am a case in point, you have to leave Scotland to do it. This book, probably because it is written by a woman, adds a different dimension to the argument. Well worth reading.
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on 15 October 2013
Scottish Independence is frought with so many daunting concerns. Riddoch's book offered a view of the intimate social fabric of Scottish society that more technical writings on economics and government decision making leave out.
She lets us understand the needs of those on the margins - those living in Council Estates who have been neglected in much of the larger debates. She tells us that the only thing keeping the Scottish people from realizing a rich vital future for Scotland is the people themselves disbelieving in their own potential.
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on 7 November 2013
As a tenant of a smallholding on the Island of Arran, having to tolerate an intransigent landlord whose estate (Strabane Enterprises Ltd.) is registered in the Channel Islands, I have to say that I found Ms Riddoch's views reflect those of myself and others like me. The book was a refreshing read and reflected the considerable research that she has undertaken beforehand.
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on 12 February 2014
I warmed to this book for it's liveliness and accessibility. The real examples of Scottish experience whether regarding land poverty in the Highlands, community power changing things in Westwhitlawburn or the Eigg buy-out really helped to put in perspective why people in Scotland might not feel confidence in voting Yes but many many reasons why, having read the book, they might feel brave enough to do so. A great read for the undecided.
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VINE VOICEon 5 August 2014
Heralded as an argument for Scottish independence in reality this is more of a collection of essays on various aspects of Scottish political life and an argument for grass roots politics, with a vague case for independence tagged on the end. It's an interesting read in parts as social commentary, but rambling and not well written, indeed at points it's really not clear what point is being made. Riddoch clearly distrusts Politicians but makes no coherent case as to why those in Edinburgh would be any better than those in London.
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