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VINE VOICETOP 500 REVIEWERon 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.
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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 February 2015
This book was written in the run-up to the Scottish Independence referendum. As it happens, I didn't read it until after the vote had taken place. Lesley Riddoch is a well-known and respected Scottish broadcaster and I found "Blossom" very interesting. She was in the "Yes to Independence" camp - as I was. But she presents some solid arguments too about how Independence would not be enough to achieve real freedom and improvement in how Scotland is governed. She presents convincing arguments about the over-centralisation of government which would need to be tackled whether Scotland was within or outside the UK. She has clearly spent a lot of time in Norway and contrasts its style of government very favourably with ours.
She presents fascinating insights into the differences in housing and land ownership patterns between Scotland and the rest of the UK and the effects these have had on cultural and political views. The referendum, sadly from my perspective, produced a No vote. But this book shows graphically how much could be improved within Scotland's governance, if the will was there, even with this outcome. I do strongly recommend it.
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on 26 March 2014
bought the book because I like Lesley Riddoch as a BBC journalist. The story is quite frightening although full of facts and figures going back hundreds of years. A well written history of Scotland and the attitudes and demeanour of its habitants, at least all those born in a very restrictive and controlled Scotland. I haven't quite finished the book as it has enormous chapters and diagrams, full to bursting with useful information, but I hope towards the end of the book there will be comment on the proposed Referendum in September 2014.

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on 13 March 2014
I suspect that if all those favouring a solution to many of our ills had this book as part of their essential reading, then Scotland would become a really vibrant country. The debate about land ownership is very contemporary, but perhaps Leslie Rhiddoch should extend her research a wee bit to bring in the very diverse patterns already existing. The constant reference to the Duke of Buccleuch rather belittles the scope and his peculiar example is also a very complex one, even when it comes to grouse moors. Generally the book offers a great challenge to those who regulate our lives. If only they would listen!.
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on 25 August 2014
A very readable book. Lesley uses real life cases to illustrate the optimistic points she is trying to get across. I don't share her love of tenements having lived in one for 3 years but I accept her points about why they would appeal to some people. It's a very positive book looking ahead to how a future Scotland could develop.
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on 23 October 2015
This is a fantastic book which explores why Scotland, despite being one of the most naturally rich countries in the developed world, has some of the worst outcomes for her people. Lesley looks to the Nordic countries and land reform to offer some ideas for an alternative future. Well worth a read.
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on 1 February 2015
Just Brilliant. Lesley refers a lot to the Nordic Model and makes tit easy to see why. Buy thois and giove it to someone who voted No. and you'll need one for yourself too because you won't get it back
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on 13 July 2015
Great book looks in detail as to why Scotland is as it is now, what has occurred in the past and how this is still influencing the opinions of Scots. We need to be much more proactive about changing things. Also gives a wider view on how other small countries flourish under their own rule.
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