Tuesday, 31 July 2018
Sunday, 15 July 2018
The ceramics works are now heritage museums. Which would be fine, if this was part of a successful diversification of industry. But it is not. The scene is desolate, crumbling, bleak. Walking through the city yesterday, Saturday evening, there were too many boarded up and empty shops, with the only thriving retail business, the betting shop. The grocer, who serves as the local branch of Western Union, has his windows barred and meshed so that it appears more like a cop shop in Blade Runner than a place to buy your greens. The roughly-painted restaurant set up by - from what I can read of the flaking signage - a Polish couple has been closed for months. A Wetherstones pub provides a cheery change, its bulky, white, clients spilling out onto the pavement to sing football songs.
But it is the buildings I notice most. Nineteenth century brick buildings, with the carved and moulded additions that signalled ostentation, English-style, with what were once neat little sash windows and once-gay window-boxes for flowers. Now? The buildings are rotting. The roof of one - occupied, with tattered greying curtains at the windows - is curving inward, broken-backed. The brickwork on all of them - made from the clay that also fed the potteries - is crumbling. Clay is returning to clay. How long will it take? How long before this once busy town melts into the earth again?
The census - England is dilligent in charting its decline - tells us what is happening here. The data is from Nomis, based on the 2011 census. This is a poor town, with almost two thirds of the population in socio-economic grades C2, D and E (overall in England, just over 45% of the population is in these grades). One person in five (20%) is on benefits (England 13%). Worse, young people are being abandoned. Amongst 16 to 24 year olds, one in three has no educational qualification whatsoever, and 48% have either no qualification or a Level 1 qualification - the lowest grade (England, 35%). Their future is bleak.
This town has all of the illnesses of the neoliberal economy, the preferred model of Westminster governments since Margaret Thatcher. The state has not intervened, except to pay, grudgingly, the increasingly faulty and impoverishing benefits that its citizens are due. The state has allowed London, its financial quarter and its southern-county hinterland to flourish, while it has left the north to rot.
Why did the state not intervene? The decline of the ceramics works was well-signalled. Their carefully collected census data showed Westminster, long before it became physically obvious in the crumbling façades of the buildings, that this town needed help, needed to diversify, to build a well-educated young population, to be given a hand to climb out of poverty. But Westminster, hypnotised by the snake-oil sellers in the City and the tax-dodging barons of the tabloid press, abandoned the north of England to focus on the comfortable homes and voters of Surrey.
What now? Like the Scottish Highlands, this town has been cleared. Not by the Duchess of Sutherland and her ghillies, but by Margaret Thatcher and her dodgy economists. A young person with gumption will have caught the privatised Virgin train to London and have looked for work there. It's a town, built on clay, sinking.
Tuesday, 1 May 2018
London! Trading in stolen artefacts! Why does so much immoral trade circuit through London?
This week’s Commons vote illustrates part of the problem. London is the node in a network of former colonies including the British Virgin Islands, which have allowed people to set up companies whose ownership is opaque, or directly anonymous. So whether you are dealing in stolen statues or offering ‘riot control’ equipment to dodgy regimes you can trade through London’s former colonies, or its Crown Dependencies.
Westminster could have stopped this years ago. But they didn’t. It took 14 rebel Tories, including the increasingly belligerent Ken Clarke, to force a Government climb-down.
Why? Because we are badly governed. We have a bad government in Westminster, a rotten government. I don’t mean the Tory party, although they are fully part of the problem. I mean the government. Westminster bends its ear too easily to the lobbyists – from the arms trade, from the City, from the architects of tax-avoidance schemes, from the multinationals… Westminster is too full of clubbable chaps who went to school with the chaps who are now doing the dodgy deals.
Westminster is corruptible, and corrupted.
And Westminster rules Scotland. ‘Rules’ in the imperial, Britannia sense, as the Brexit power grab shows. Rules in the expectation that the people of Scotland will be grateful for the crumbs from Westminster’s very fat loaf.
The big decisions – who we go to war with next, how we control the power of wealth, what we do or don’t do about climate change, which American multinational we let off the fiscal hook, how we set quotas for immigration – are all taken by a rotten government on behalf of Scotland.
Scotland needs an independent modern government. A government that is transparent, open and representative, so that everyone can walk into Holyrood and feel that someone there shares their interests or their concerns. We also need, as Lesley Riddoch keeps reminding us, good local government with the power and the money to resolve local issues. We need to pass our own laws, to work out how we live and love together, through a parliament that is not held in the palm of the lobbyists. We need independence.
There is a similar feeling about Madrid. Even the right-wing El País asks whether we should be 'organising public life [by] relying on Mafia techniques.' The corruption, and the extraordinary collusion of the judiciary in locking up elected politicians for their opinions, are leading many Catalans to the conclusion that independence is the only way of getting a government that functions.
An escape from under the heel of a bad government is one of the reasons why half the people of Scotland, and half the people of Catalonia, want independence. We’ve both had more than 250 years of it, and it gives us the dry boke.
Friday, 5 January 2018
Monday, 30 October 2017
Monday, 23 October 2017
Spanish President Mariano Rajoy could not have done a better job. A better job, that is, for Catalan independence.
On Saturday morning he announced a series of measures that raise the hairs on the back of the neck. The aim, he claims, is to restore constitutional democracy. The effect is quite the reverse.
Mariano's government will decaptitate the Catalan government (and as collateral damage, the government of the tiny protectorate of the Vall d'Aran.) Mariano becomes, effectively, the president of Catalonia and his Ministers take over the Catalan ministries. Every cent spent by the Catalans government will be controlled by Madrid. He will take control of the radio and television channels subsidised by the Catalan government, and the Catalan centre for telecommunications (CTTI), and thus the internet. His Ministers will run the schools and the police, the health service and the suburban railway. Every agency, company, foundation or department of the Catalan government will now be controlled by Madrid. The El País newspaper (whose shareholder structure includes the Madrid government) reported on Sunday that Catalan President, Carles Puigdemont, is to be charged with inciting revolution and faces a 25 year prison sentence.
This is the same Mariano Rajoy who led a campaign, whilst in opposition, to overturn the statute that would govern relations between Spain and Catalonia as an autonomous region, the 'Estatut'. The statute had been voted through by the two governments and in a referendum, but none of this was good enough for my friend Mariano, who took the statute to the politically controlled Constitutional Tribunal and destroyed it.
Now this friend of an independent Catalonia has given the Catalans exactly what they needed. By revisiting Imperial Spain, by sending in his violent, militarised police to beat old ladies in voting queues, and by attempting to take over a government that thousands of Catalans lost their lives to defend in the 18th and 20th centuries, my friend Mariano has catalysed a social revolution in Catalonia. People who were undecided have become staunch nationalists. The demonstrations are getting bigger, although they remain, despite the provocations of plain-clothes policeman placed there for the express purpose of inciting violence, completely peaceful.
And people are smiling in wonder at the utter stupidity of Madrid politicians. What are they thinking? How do they imagine that they can control the people? Because this is a people's revolt, something that Madrid has failed to understand. This is emphatically not, as it is painted in Madrid, a few crazed politicians leading a hypnotised electorate to a cliff edge. It is the voices, bodies and votes of millions of Catalans who would rather be poor and free than live under the heel of the Spanish Empire.
Thursday, 12 October 2017
We got the call-out on Thursday. Everyone should be at the old primary school - the polling station for the village - on Friday night. The fear was that the police would seal the polling station. In Catalonia and Spain this official seal (it's done with Police sticky tape) makes it illegal to enter a building. So we had to make sure that the police did not seal us out.
By 6pm on Friday there were a couple of hundred people in the school playground. The numbers grew during the evening. We organised food, there was street theatre from Tortell Poltrona of Circ Cric and a story from the Marduix theatre group. And we watched Pride, dubbed into Catalan. The struggle of the lesbian and gay community in London to support, and be accepted by, the striking miners seemed especially appropriate as our tiny village took on the might of the Spanish Empire.
The film was still running when around 1am on Saturday morning the shout 'Police' went out. We shut off the movie, and crowded round the entrance to the playground. We phoned and texted friends and within three minutes there was a crowd of 250 people and growing, jammed into the entrance of the playground. Two very calm, decent Mossos d'Esquadra (the autonomous government's police force) drove up and told us that they had to read a charge against us. Was there any single organisation behind all of this? 'The people of the village' we replied. Was there any one person who was responsible? 'The people' went the shout. The police then told us that they would be back - and this time there might be four of them - at 06:00 on Sunday morning to 'precintar' (officially seal) the school. But that if there was 'such a big crowd that, in our judgement, we might cause public disorder by closing the school' then they would be unable to seal the gates. They repeated this message so that we all understood clearly.
I slept, fitfully, that Friday night at the school with around 50 other people, waking repeatedly at small noises and shouts in the night. In the morning, with three other volunteers and the generous donation of wonderful fresh croissants from the Valflorida bakery we made breakfast for around 150 people.
A Festival for Democracy
Saturday morning was a festival. The group organised dance classes (I took part in tap-dance, and Menorcan 'ball de bot'), drawing classes and talks. There was music, and people contributed food and drink - we were all avoiding alcohol so it was soft drinks all round - to sustain the crowd. There was another visit by the Mossos with the same message about the timing of their Sunday visit, and the relevance of the crowd. And so into Saturday evening, now with some 500 people in the school and the playground. I retired home for a few hours sleep, and then came back at 05:00 to make breakfast. At 05:30 we served over 200 breakfasts to the volunteers - so many that the local café's coffee machine broke down with the demand. By 05:00 there were at least 500 people there, and by 06:00, the appointed hour that number had grown to represent more than half the number who would eventually vote.
The police did come back, but made the sensible judgement that the crowd was too big to control (it was two friendly Mossos, and 800 people at the school.) The Mossos stayed with us all day, parked just a little way away from the school, watching the entrance to the playground.
The Voting BoxesJust before 08:00 the shout went out 'Police!' By then we had been drilled to block the entrance, and climb onto the barrier fence surrounding the playground. The crowd was enormous, all of us facing outwards, packed along the fence. Behind us, and thus completely hidden from the two Mossos in their patrol car, three people appeared with black bin bags. The voting boxes! The famous voting boxes that had been hidden so successfully that the entire Spanish police force had been unable to find them! They were smuggled into the school behind our backs and out of sight of the Mossos. And then, realising what had happened, realising that this had been a false alarm designed to distract attention, we all cheered. The boxes, with the voting slips and envelopes were safely in the polling station.
Now an enormous queue formed. We heard that - another masterstroke by the Generalitat - the Catalan government had introduced a universal census so that people whose polling station had been shut down could go to any other station to vote. This depended on access to the web, and so the team had organised IT specialists to be on hand, backed by a team of hackers somewhere in Catalonia, to keep the census open against attacks by the Spanish intelligence service.
Then we started to see the videos. The awful videos of brutality by the Policia Nacional and the 'Civil Guard' against defenceless voters. The rubber bullets - banned across Catalonia two years ago after an incident in which a woman was blinded. We were all thoroughly scared. WhatsApp and texts began to arrive from friends in other places who had been attacked or seen the attacks. We reorganised the queue to ensure that the oldest people could vote early and leave. And we did more drills to prepare for what we presumed would be an armed attack by Spain's militarised police.
We uncovered a secret police officer. She was identified (in our village, everyone knows everyone so it was particularly stupid of the Civil Guard to send in a plain-clothes cop), surrounded by a group of women, and gently moved away until she left the village.
The Farmers (and Firefighters) Save the DayThen the tractors came. The local farmers came out in force to support the referendum, and used three tractors to block the main access to the polling station. One farmer parked a livestock truck across a fourth entrance and the fifth was closed with four tonnes of sand, courtesy of a local building supplier. The firefighters arrived - the roar of pleasure from the crowd must have been audible a kilometre away - and added to the blockade by parking a fire tender across the road.
That was all a relief, but it did not stop us being vigilant, especially when, during the afternoon, we heard that more than a dozen Policia Nacional vans were parked on the main road a few kilometres from the village. People were still frightened - at one point in the afternoon an old lady asked me, from outside the playground, if it was safe to come in and vote; I reassured here that here, now, it was safe.
The young people of the village were incredible, reinforcing a weak section of the fence around the playground with street barriers, and zipping around on their scooters and bikes to watch out for arriving police.
As the referendum closed, the brim-full voting boxes were smuggled out of the school in a reverse of their arrival, and the counting team was taken to a safe house in the village to compile the results.
Democracy WinsIn the end, aside from the plain-clothes police officer, no-one came to assault our village. The people of the village, together, saved the day. The evidence is in the figures - in a village of a couple of thousand voters we achieved the highest ever result for voting in an election or referendum; 85.36% participation, and 95.8% (1,525 people) voting Yes.
It was an extraordinary day. A day of mass participation, of powerful emotions - fear, laughter, many, many tears of pain (when we saw how the Policia Nacional hit old ladies to try to prevent them voting) and joy (at the farmers, the fire fighters, the four tonnes of sand). It was a day of new friendships, of many hugs and much dancing. And a day when democracy, the will of the people, proved that it was stronger than the 'argument of force' from Spain. A day to remember forever.