Sunday, 16 September 2012

Hillsborough and the British disease

I was genuinely shocked by the new report on Hillsborough  this week.

There was already a lot we kinda knew already.

We knew why it happened and where the fault lay – The Taylor report was broadly correct in its assertions - both the initial report and the recommendations.

We knew the Sun lied and published a disgraceful article and that was down to Kelvin Mackenzie personally.

We knew the police tried to sanitise, spin and doctor statements – but it was shocking to see the full extent of it.

We knew the authorities in the 1980s treated fans like cattle or criminals and viewed policing football  as a public order matter not a safety one.

We knew that the 3.15 cut off time for assuming everyone was dead or beyond help was almost certainly wrong.

But I didn’t realise about the failure of the ambulance service and the major incident procedure.

Shockingly and tragically we didn't know that the crush having happened the emergency services could maybe have / should have been able to save the lives of some of the 96 who were not killed straight away.

I was shocked by the pomposity and apparent foolishness of the coroner’s report which I didn’t fully realise about.  Shocked by the way it assessed the evidence and treated the fans. Read about it here

I was shocked by the failure of the FA, Sheffield Wednesday and presumably the local authority. Leppings Lane was a known death trap. After Bradford we knew fences weren’t safe. The ground didn’t even have a safety certificate!!!!

Why did the FA use Hillsborough? And Sheffield Wednesday knew about the problems of the inadequate turnstiles and the dangers of Leppings Lane – its down sloping tunnel, its pen, its inadequate crowd number control, its propensity for crushing that put spectators in mortal danger - its near misses of tragedy at other games in the 1980s.

While the police are – quite rightly- criticised, why are we not asking some very serious questions of the FA and Sheffield Wednesday. We forget how responsible they appear and how foolish some of their actions seem in hindsight.

The authorities failed the fans. The police - a body there to protect us - when push came to shove, just protected itself.   It was shocking – an outrage and profoundly undemocratic and therefore disturbing.

As Alex Thomson of Channel 4 News observed this seems to be the British pattern: disaster, flawed legal inquiry, cover-up, campaign, wilderness years, proper inquiry, and finally an apology.  He cites Bloody Sunday, the Marchioness, the Mull of Kintyre and now Hillsborough as examples.  Repeated state cover-ups when the heat's on and careers are at stake.  It is shocking and it is not good enough.

Which is why it is still important today and why it is important to move onto the next stage in the pursuit of justice.

But lets not forget the FA and Sheffield Wednesday, who I think have as many questions to answer as South Yorkshire Police for the Hillsborough disaster.

Bursting Salmond's Baloon

Alex Salmond was jeered when he appeared in front of the crowds welcoming Scotland's Olympians and Paralympians in Glasgow on Friday.

So, just like Gideon Osborne, a crowd jeered at Alex Salmond.

To quote yesterday's Times, "Returning athletes were greeted like rock stars, but Alex Salmond was jeered by the crowd."

This must have been all the more galling because Lord Moynihan, a sports minister under Margaret Thatcher, the sort of Tory who usually gets a knee jerk negative reaction north of the border, was cheered onto the stage and "when he was followed by Mr Salmond the boos rang out".

Now I don't really know what the significance of this is, I don't really know why they booed him, or how much of the crowd booed him.  However what I do know is this: the SNP have really gone through agonies this summer over their identity.  First they were faced with the royal pageant fest that was the Jubilee of someone who is our monarch too - and a popular one at that!  Then they were faced with an Olympics held in our country.  Then they were faced with the success of those games and of Team GB.  And finally the whole thing was repeated again - successfully - with the Paralympics.

Many Scots were to the fore in these games, often succeeding as part of a team or a pairing with fellow countrymen and women from all corners of Britain.  We are both British and Scottish.  Something most of us instinctively understand and are totally comfortable with.  True some are more Brit than Scot, others more Scot than Brit, but we are British as well as Scottish nonetheless.

The referendum is about identity as much as anything else and it is deeper, more complex and ultimately more interesting than a narrow nationalism can accept.

I believe even the more considered and developed ideas of Scottish nationalism that have been expressed are, in the final analysis, quite narrow and limiting too.

Salmond was booed after a summer where he seemed to try to avoid the words Great Britain or Team GB.  After a summer where much of the pro nat chat on social media like Twitter was along the lines of 'it will never work', 'its all far too superficial and commercial' and 'I feel in no way British', then grudgingly admitting, 'I do feel British' but quickly adding that that's a social union - and 'err yes, I really enjoyed the Olympics'.

Perhaps this is why Salmond was jeered by Scots in Glasgow on Friday.

This summer has also been full of hype.  Yes hype for the Jubilee and then the London Olympics, but also hype for the never ending referendum and the cause of an independent Scotland.

There is also all the hype against Osborne symbolised by his boo-boy moment earlier.  The economy is struggling and there are things you can criticise Osborne for, and there are aspects of his approach open for debate.  But like other western economies he faces the issues of a massive structural deficit, sovereign debt challenges and chronic low growth.  There was a strong consensus in 2010 over what needed to be done and some realisation that there was little flexibility to allow for any panacea of easy growth solutions. 

Jeff Breslin writing at Better Nation touched on an aspect of this consensus as it affects Scotland, 

'The Scottish economy’s fortunes are currently noticeably clearly intertwined with the rUK economy’s, making a mockery of the back-and-forth breast-beating between Governments over which is doing marginally better than the other"'

"After all, what is Alex Salmond proposing – a low tax, fiscally conservative, light touch economy. It won’t be music to many Nats’ ears, but you’d struggle to fit too many Rizla papers between Osborne’s vision for the UK and the SNP’s apparent vision for Scotland."

Perhaps the significant thing about people booing Salmond is that helps to burst some of the hype.

Salmond is not our 'Dear Leader' - he is a politician with an agenda.  And most Scots do not support that agenda.  And furthermore there are more issues that face us than Scotland's national question and we are not on the march to inevitable independence.

Wednesday, 5 September 2012

My British Identity

Watching the Paralympics this week made me think about all the column inches I have seen written about the Olympics helping the image of being British in Scotland.

I've read a lot about us all getting behind team GB and their achievements somehow affecting the way Scots feel about their nationality.  Maybe it has, but if it has I think something more fundamental has been happening than getting enthused about the Olympics and the Paralympics.

You see, I believe many of us have a sort of two pronged nationality - we are both British and Scottish at the same time - they are not mutually exclusive.  Britain is a very old country and has grown organically that way.  It is quirky and ancient.  Great Britain and Northern Ireland - the United Kingdom to give it its Sunday best title - is a country of nations and regions.  That is just the way it is - but it is a nation state and one that makes plenty of sense.

After the remarkable victory of the SNP in 2011 I was beginning to think that maybe - just maybe - the SNP might be on the right side of history and maybe there was an appetite for independence.

I began to hear the arguments repeated loudly over and over again: 'The Union has had its day', 'Independence will solve our problems', 'The union is broken and dysfunctional', 'Scotland is just like the last colony and the Secretary of State is like a Governor General', 'We must stand up and look after our own affairs', 'Where is the positive case for the Union?'

I thought - ok, these people have a cause, and it has gone on for a lifetime! Every argument has been refined, every line trialed and every objection answered.  The National question has not pre-occupied the other side, and the other side, although probably bigger, is a more disparate group.  The case for the union will come - instinct tells me there is plenty to say here.

But, for a while, I thought maybe the case for the union would stumble and would never become clear?

But, this summer it has begun to come and it has begun to deepen and it has begun to spread out.  The case for Independence on the other hand has begun to look a little threadbare, a little predictable in comparison perhaps.

For me the Olympic opening ceremony began to express some of it.  Someone tweeting about it (not a Scot and not hooked in to our National question) noted just how much there was to being British.  We captured that sense of a quirky, eccentric spirit and a sense of humour.  We captured a sense of invention and ideas - in science, in technology and in engineering.  We captured an off the wall, open, dare I say it - liberal - spirit that helps fuel our diverse arts and music.  We captured our political progress - and this is a hard one - but we have always been able to progress on a journey improving and making better what needs to improve - adult suffrage, the fight against slavery, religious emancipation, a dignified retreat from empire, rights for women, the welfare state, the journey away from racial discrimination and to a multi-cultural society - one we are probably still tackling.  The list can go on.  But what a marvellous, open, liberal, progressive, inventive people we are.

And no - we are not a dysfunctional Tory conspiracy, we are not some regressive Westminster power block somehow alien to Scotland and holding her back.  We are so much more than that.

And nor is Scotland a colony or something grafted onto a foreign and alien body.

Many nationalists regard Scotland as a separate entity to England and Wales.  They regard the UK as a union of separate parts.  It is almost as if they are separate pieces stuck together like a couple of Lego bricks - related but separate.

Scotland is absolutely part and parcel of Britain and Britain is part and parcel of Scotland.

That inventiveness has so much to thank Scotland for.  Scots engineering is widely respected and that feeds into British engineering.  Scots financial governance has a high reputation and that contributes to the success of the City (and I'm talking about high standards of banking and accountancy here, not the casino banking that has contributed so much to our troubles).

Scotland and all the constituent parts of the UK have their traditions intermingled like waters from different streams converging together into a great river.  And that is something you can't simply separate.

Gordon Brown talked about some of this recently.  He argued that “Scottish ideas of justice and community” combined with “traditional English ideas of ordered liberty and individualism” to create not only “common political rights” but also “common social and economic rights”.

I believe quite a view nationalists are romantics at heart.  They have a patriotic vision of what Scotland is and of what a separate Scotland can be - sometimes a little Ruritarian perhaps.  But we are an essential part of Britain and I want to argue that Britain is a nation state.

One language, one integrated economy, one island (almost).  And while there are cultural differences they are not large enough to amount to being a separate country.  Indeed much of our culture is a fully shared culture - and again an intermingled one.

Danny Boyle showed that to be a very modern and dynamic country - not something where we are always looking into the past.

I believe Scotland is a marvellous place, a great nation and a distinctive part of the United Kingdom.  But so much of who we are is as British people, not just Scottish people.  And its not so easy or particularly desirable to separate that out.

For Britain is a nation state - a nation of nations and regions - its quirky that way!