Another Country?

On 18th September 2014, the Scots go to the polls to vote on whether Scotland should become an independent country. I hope that they vote to stay part of the UK. Whichever way they go, there ought to be a General Election in the UK. But there won’t be.

I’m not Scottish, but have some affinity for Scotland. When my father first came to the UK at the beginning of the 60s, it was to the Clyde shipyards where he did his apprenticeship and to lodgings in Paisley. Even now, more than fifty years on, there’s a distinct Scot’s “Helloooo” to his telephone answering. The first house my parents bought was in Kilwinning in Ayrshire when I was a baby and I lived there until I was 3. It is only in recent years that we have stopped getting Christmas cards from our old neighbours or indeed my Dad’s first landlady and that is down to some of them having passed away and my Mum’s numerous house moves in the past decade. My earliest memories are of boat trips on Loch Lomond (which I called Loch Mondo, which I still think is a better name) and playing on the beach at Saltcoats, aptly named as every photo from that time, even if labelled “August ’74” has everyone in thick jumpers, wellies and overcoats. I liked going up to visit my sister when she started a PhD at Glasgow University (although in a murmur of what has come since those early post-devolution days, it did seem odd that she and the other students who had come from England were categorised as “International Students”). One of the nice parts of the job that first took me up to Leeds was that I had responsibility for my practice area in Scotland too and got to go up to Glasgow and Edinburgh regularly. And just this year I’ve had a great time skiing in Glenshee and going to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.

For me, Scotland has always in my lifetime had a very distinct identity of its own and clearly has had its own ways of doing many things. At the same time, while feeling like another country in a way which relatively nearby English places like Newcastle and Carlisle do not, it was part of the Britain I felt part of in a way that Ireland clearly isn’t, having been independent for a long time and having fought “us” bloodily for it. I can understand the Team Scotland v Team Westminster rhetoric of the campaign because the reason we moved from Scotland was that my parents didn’t want me to be disadvantaged by being a minority within a minority as Indian and Scots so they moved to England and I got the “Team Westminster” RP accent and education. But this does also show that the divide is false because in a united UK, you can move around and you can take your identity from the part you want. My Dad started as an honorary Scotsman (he must have stood out as a small Indian man amongst the welders and stood behind the goal at Ibrox watching his friend and former fellow apprentice making his debut for Glasgow Rangers) and moved, just as (accent aside) I feel an honorary Yorkshireman having spent 10 years in Leeds. That is just one of the things that a Yes vote would bring in, perhaps slowly, but surely enough.

However, I can understand emotionally why Scots might want independence and even that it might be worth doing despite the potential hardship that may be suffered in relation to using the pound sterling without UK agreement, needing to wait to be admitted to the EU (it is hard to see how countries like Spain which have their own secessionist regions and nations could support Scotland becoming an EU Member State while denying nationhood to Catalonia). Those arguing for UK exit from the EU also tend to believe it would be worth doing even if it had short to medium term adverse effects (although they generally make it sound as if there would be immediate benefits to outweigh these). As an aside, it is curious that when the UK and IP parts of UKIP come together they seem to result in denying the validity of Scotland’s claim to independence from the UK while wanting the UK to be independent from the EU.

What I don’t understand or agree with is the sudden rush over the past couple of weeks, apparently led by Gordon Brown, to offer the Scots a huge increase in powers and preservation of advantageous UK tax funding which mean that Scots per capita get 20% more public funding than other parts of the UK, if they vote to stay in the UK. There is certainly a case for a new settlement, and one which looks fairly at the claims of the other nations in the UK including England and the regions. The success of Scots devolution, the London Mayor and Welsh devolution (this last is successful only in terms of having provided strong local powers – that those elected to wield them have been terrible at so doing doesn’t matter, they can be defeated) and the high public engagement with the independence campaign make it hard to deny a similarly careful look at what everyone needs throughout the UK.

However, none of this, not the “Vow” to Scotland, nor the proper role of Scots MPs in Westminster (the “West Lothian” question), nor even the arrangements for the rest of the UK, has any democratic mandate in the UK. If there is a majority for independence, it is arguable that the Prime Minister should resign as the head of a pro-Union party and government (that perhaps being the distinction from the PM at the time of Irish Independence, another David, Lloyd George, who was not from the Unionist part of the Liberal Party and who did not resign when last the UK lost a constituent member). But, from a practical perspective, as the three main parties have been aligned on the main approaches to post-independence relations with Scotland, it would not be inconceivable that Cameron could start the exit negotiations and run them through to the scheduled General Election in May 2015 with a smooth handover should he lose that election. The one urgent change that would be required would be to pass legislation to limit MPs elected now and in 2015 for Scots constituencies from voting on matters other than those relating solely and specifically to Scotland.

However, the range of promises being made to Scotland if it decides to stay in the UK are a different matter. They involve large changes which were not in any party’s manifesto and which will have had no public scrutiny, particularly if, as suggested, they are rushed through ahead of the 2015 election. The opportunities and proposals for a broader constitutional resettlement and localisation can’t just be magicked up in a few months. The overall package of changes surely has to be mandated and this can only be done by dissolving Parliament and calling an election in which all the parties can set out what they propose to do for the UK as a whole, having retained Scotland within it. There are procedural difficulties due to the Fixed Term Parliaments Act which limit Prime Ministerial discretion over calling elections, but these could be overcome by agreement (for example, in the circumstances, there could be an unopposed motion of no confidence). It wouldn’t have to be immediate, but it should be before May 2015 and before any attempt is made to have a new Scotland Act granting further devolution to Scotland without doing anything for the rest of the UK of which Scotland will be a long term part.

But I’m not holding my breath. There seems to be no sign that this will happen and ultimately that would be the thing which meant that both Alex Salmond’s Team Scotland and Dave, Ed and Nick’s Team Westminster won with the losers being everyone else.

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Easter 2014

Back to school and work in spring rain? Remember the holidays!

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Swinton Park Easter Egg hunt – a lovely place for a day out near Masham. A bit of a hidden gem as it never seems to be particularly busy but has great grounds and family events for a couple of pounds. Masham itself is worth visiting too. Apart from having the Black Sheep Brewery it also has Bah Humbug, a traditional sweet shop.

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A butterfly sunning itself on our patio.

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Robin Hood Bay near Whitby. Last time we went, even though it was a bright sunny day all the way up from Leeds across the spectacular North Yorkshire Moors the village itself was shrouded in fog so seeing the long sandy beach was a surprise. It also has no restrictions on dogs, unlike many beaches. We had a couple of drinks at The Bay pub and could easily have had more if we didn’t have to drive home! We drove back along the A170 to the A1 to enjoy the views at the vertiginous Sutton Bank near Helmsley. If you like camping, I can recommend Rosedale Abbey near Pickering for a few nights. You can also catch a steam train from Pickering to Whitby over the Moors so there’s plenty to do in the area.

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These were taken on a walk between Bursledon and the Horse and Jockey pub in Hampshire.

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Back home, looking out towards the “American Garden” in Meanwood Park, Leeds. Despite walking the dog there every day over the last year I’m still amazed that there is this beautiful open space so close to Leeds city centre. OMB and I rode our bikes out along the Meanwood Valley Trail one afternoon to Adel, where we were greeted by fields of lambs which made it feel like we were in the middle of the countryside rather than just outside Leeds Ring Road. The trail itself stretches from the centre of Leeds at Woodhouse Moor (commonly known as Hyde Park) to Golden Acre Park. The walk out that way is one of the best free days out you can have in Leeds, taking in nature and local history (you can see the remains of the mill workings and quarries from Leeds’ early industrial days 200 years ago as well as the memorial to polar explorer Captain Oates, who owned Meanwood Park when it was still a working farm).

England doesn’t Expect

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The Euro 2012 tournament in Poland and Ukraine is an unusual one for England because, for possibly the first time since 1990, expectations in the media and amongst fans are low. Normally there’s a football frenzy and tabloid calls to emulate the 1966 spirit. Even though in reality England’s sole World Cup victory is today about as meaningful for current chances as the two World Cups won by Uruguay are for their position in the world of football now.

Italia 90 started with England being relatively unfancied and the media highly critical of Bobby Robson and his team. This was not helped by the lacklustre team performances in the group stage which we limped through and how close the team came to failing to win in the first knock out round against Belgium. Yet after that there came the pulsating game against the surprise package of Cameroon who had shocked the holders Argentina in their opening game and the semi final against West Germany which came down to the metaphorical coin toss of a penalty shoot out. It was by a long margin England’s best tournament performance other then 1966.

However, the European championships are in many ways a tougher challenge than World Cups. There are no real minnows even in the group stage, and with Greece having won the tournament in 2004 it would be foolhardy to write anyone off even if they looked as poor as the Republic of Ireland did against Croatia. If England qualifies through the group stage it will face, most likely, one of the last two winners of the World Cup, or a team which has managed to beat one or both of them.

Today, England faces a France team which is on a fine unbeaten run of 21 games with 15 wins in that time. Since 1990 and both England and France’s nadirs of failing to qualify for the 1994 World Cup, England has had a solitary semi final at home in the 96 European championship and no other tournament performances where (perhaps barring their exit to Argentina in 98) realistically you could say that the team merited progression to the semi finals.

So, England can take the unaccustomed role of underdog. The team has a lot of younger players who are far from household names, several being not even regular starters for the Premier League clubs they play for. They have a serious and thoughtful and, unusually for England, experienced and English manager in Roy Hodgson. Having few stars parading themselves like worldbeaters and missing Rooney through a typically needless suspension might mean that the team that actually plays can be unencumbered by their own egos and which might just appreciate the great honour of playing for England.

I hope, but don’t expect, and, for once, that healthy state seems to be shared generally.

Update 24 June

Well, so far so good! Unflashy, workmanlike performances against France and Sweden in the qualifying group established England as hard to beat but capable of enough invention to threaten up front even without Rooney. They also didn’t fall apart when things went against them or look like they just didn’t have “another gear” to go up when needed. The back four have, Terry apart, had decent pace, Terry’s experience at marshalling them and being able to read things well enough to compensate for when he’s caught out by faster attackers. Gerrard (curiously but not inappropriately autocorrected by my iPhone to Ferrari) has been both outstanding and consistent. Parker has been what in a mmorpg would be called a tank, sticking his body everywhere to stop opponents and balls being played forwards. Although perhaps crawling on all fours to head the ball away from an attacker’s foot is taking things a bit far! Walcott, Young and Oxlade-Chamberlain have provided pace and unpredictability going forward and both Welbeck and Carroll, while perhaps not being world class have done well up front.

Rooney’s return coincided with a dominant performance against Ukraine, sufficiently dominant that we were able to indulge Rooney missing at least two clear headed chances which Andy Carroll would have been likely to have scored. My preference in an ideal world might have been to have left a successful team alone and kept Rooney on the bench but, given the reaction of press and public to things like Graham Taylor substituting Gary Lineker in euro 92 when we needed a goal, can quite understand why Hodgson made the easier choice of reinstating Rooney, who is an excellent player.

Not that he looked anything other than rusty and as off the pace as someone who’d played no competitive football for over a month would be expected to look. Luckily for him and us he was able to put away an easy chance early in the second half to break his long dry spell in tournaments and slightly quieter critics like myself who thought we should make a change if we didn’t score in the first ten minutes of the half. In the event he has now had most of a full game to regain match sharpness and to fit into a team that won’t encourage him to the sort of desperate recklessness in chasing a game that would lead to another suspension and years more whatiffery.

So, now we play Italy for a semi final place against Germany. The Italians themselves have been unspectacular but adequate in qualifying for the quarter final. In many respects they are set up similarly to Hodgson’s England, being based on organisation and graft (no not the stuff of their latest corruption scandal!) which provides a base for creative players like Pirlo and the “unpredictable” Balotelli. Balotelli is clearly bonkers but in a time of dreariness in so much of life I can’t help but like his form of semi-contained chaos. He’s a bit of a contemporary Robin Friday, as the Super Furry Animals homage “Man Don’t Give a Fuck” could equally apply to him as his nonchalant overhead kick goal against the tournament’s weakest team, Ireland perhaps epitomised.

I won’t jinx things as I think Italy will still start as favourites. Their historical strength and record is impossible to ignore, having won the world cup only 6 years ago. Moreover, one of my bugbears is the trend for teams to have a star on their shirts to denote their World cup wins. England has one, spain has one (fair enough as holders). Notably, Italy with FOUR wins don’t bother with putting any stars on their jerseys. When England has won enough not to need to crow about it or hark back to a team whose remaining living members are in their seventies, that will be the point when we should stop being underdogs against the likes of Italy.

That said, although I still don’t think our due is to progress past tonight, England would not be flukes if they got through to the Final. And that is something we haven’t been able to say since most of the team were in junior school.

Update 27 June

So, we lost, on penalties again. Nevertheless it was a decent tournament performance for England. I’ve heard a few delusional people saying that it would have all been different had we appointed Harry Redknapp as manager or brought Rio Ferdinand and a couple of others into the squad. The more realistic will have realised that none of those things would have made a lot of difference. England doesn’t have a Pirlo, Cristiano Ronaldo or Fabregas either in the squad picked by Hodgson or back at home. We also don’t have any “world class” strikers other than the ring rusty Rooney.

The quarter finals are the par for England and we qualified for them well. In terms of recent records in the tournament we were the worst team at that stage (Portugal being beaten finalists in 2004, Greece having won in 2004, and the Czech Republic having made a semi final and a final since 1996; the records of Germany, Italy, France and Spain not needing to be repeated). Indeed, given the records of Russia and the Netherlands it wouldn’t be unfair to say that we were only just in the top ten countries at the tournament , let alone the top 8 or top 4.

So, barring an outstanding performance (which could fairly have taken us further than our rating would suggest) Hodgson’s team did well enough. In reality it is still hard to work out how Italy failed to score in the game so the team should take some credit for being solid enough to have taken the game to penalties.

If Hodgson can find a little more creativity and invention in attacking players at least there is the base for raising the target during qualification for the 2014 World Cup and hopefully carrying that into the tournament (perhaps with a draw as favourable as the one we had in 1990 where we only had to beat Belgium and Cameroon to make the semi-final).

As for the tournament which continues at the semi-final stage tonight at the moment the most comfortable and consistently performing side, as so often, is Germany. Then again that was how it seemed during the 2010 World Cup when they waltzed past England and Argentina before losing to Spain in the semi-final. They should be able to beat Italy who have had less time to recover after the gruelling game against England. Spain have not played brilliantly but may find that Portugal suit them as opponents better than anyone they’ve met so far. It would be historic if Spain managed to be the first country to retain the title but it is too close to call it between them and Germany.