Blossom: What Scotland Needs to Flourish (Viewpoints) Paperback – 30 Aug 2013
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Every Scot should read Blossom by Lesley Riddoch before they vote. This book will arm them with all the information they need to fill in the blanks. I'm reading Blossom right now and every paragraph crystallises the nebulous sensations of deep divide inequality and snobbery I have experienced my whole life. We have to make a new more equal Scotland by having our own Scottish value system to aspire to and not a middle British set which asks us to adopt ways foreign to our sensibilities. If we can't build a new fresh Scotland filled with opportunity and without prejudice it might be time to walk way and leave this country to its final disaggregation. --Des Dillon
Reading Lesley Riddoch's Blossom is like inhaling fjord air after being trapped in a sweaty backroom. Just brilliant. --Pat Kane
It's brilliant, every politician in the land should be made to read the chapter on inequality. I love the human stories in the book, but it's rich with evidence too. The most engaging social policy book I've read in ages (ever?) --Jenny Kemp, Zero Tolerance campaign
About the Author
LESLEY RIDDOCH is an award-winning broadcaster, writer and journalist. She writes weekly columns for The Scotsman and Sunday Post and is a regular contributor to The Guardian, Newsnight Scotland and Scotland Tonight. She is founder and director of Nordic Horizons, a policy group that brings Nordic experts into the Scottish Parliament. Lesley presented You and Yours on BBC Radio 4, The Midnight Hour on BBC2 and The People's Parliament and Powerhouse on Channel 4. She founded the Scottish feminist magazine Harpies and Quines, won two SONY awards for her daily Radio Scotland show and edited The Scotswoman, a 1995 edition of The Scotsman written and edited by its female staff. She lives in Fife and is married to an Englishman who grew up in Canada.
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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.
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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