Why the Yes Camp in the Scottish Referendum don’t want you to think about the Cultural Union (or think)

Sun Setting on Union

The story of Ohio morgue attendant and necrophile, Kenneth Douglas, rightly shocked all that read it. We’re repulsed by the idea of a degenerate drunkard fostering further indignities on women whom, in many cases, had been murdered the same day. Crimes like Douglas’ are an affront to society, they undermine civilisation, yet – and here’s the leap, so brace yourself – we’re relaxed about other kinds of opportunist desecration; the practice of pawing over the corpse of dead states in a bid to appeal to its hereditary population’s worst instincts, for example. That’s right, I’m talking about Scottish Nationalism.

There’s just a month to go until the referendum on Scottish independence and all the talk’s been of currency unions, democratic deficits and oil revenues. These are all important questions but they’re also administrative. The debate about the United Kingdom, because that’s the country under threat, and you could be forgiven for missing it, should be more fundamental. The talk should be of cultural union, integration, a shared history – but for the nationalists these are inconveniences, dismissed with a little disingenuous rhetoric.

No one in the Yes camp wants to think about these things, else their fantastic narrative, making Orwellian mincemeat of once clearly defined terms such as “progressive” and “future”, would disintegrate. Salmond’s army of saltire waving, pound note rolling, phonetic tweetin’ gumps, imagine they’re on the right side of history. They talk about their message of hope, contrasted with Better Together’s fearful pragmatism. That’s a compelling argument, provided you don’t scrutinise it.

Arguments with nationalists are dispiriting affairs. It feels like quarrelling with a cult, because it is. In virtual spaces, on social media, they gang up on you, like delinquents in an alley, peddling their positive message with underlying aggression and hate. “We don’t get the governments we vote for”, they say, but if you argue this is less considered psephology, more a provincial state of mind, for surely other parts of the UK don’t get the governments half their populous voted for either, yet are mysteriously unmoved when it comes to thoughts of breaking up Britain, and wouldn’t argue (with a straight face) that you’re only enfranchised if your party wins, they say you’ve misunderstood the point. This is handy because it disobliges them from thinking about yours.

“Scotland’s a separate country” they say, which was true once but hasn’t been, in sovereign terms, for 300 years – not in their lifetime, nor the lifetimes of their parents, grandparents, great grandparents, great great grandparents, and the child snatching couple their great great grandparents imagined to be their great great great grandparents. If you won’t accept this category error, arguing that what they really want isn’t the future but a romantic past and country forged on 18th century political grievances, as relevant to today’s world as measures to control highwaymen, you’re a colonial apologist, an obnoxious imperialist, exhibiting the kind of English arrogance and by extension, imagined racial characteristics the SNP insist are nothing to do with the referendum question.

Quite right too, for were it so, if the Yes camp had set themselves up as a movement to liberate Scotland from London’s evil grip, they’d be fighting a divisive campaign, but as everyone who’s read the propaganda knows, Salmond and Sturgeon may have rushed to join a party that was relaxed about hating the English as saplings, but they certainly don’t feel that way now. No sir, they simply want to destroy the cultural union with England and Wales so they can, er, better enjoy the cultural union with England and Wales.

Don’t feel bad if you’ve not heard anyone talking about the cultural union; perhaps it’s so obvious, everyone forgot to mention it. This, some would say, prominent aspect of the political and economic union is verboten for the Yes campaign, as it’s a snapshot of England and Scotland as they exist today, not as they existed during those acrimonious periods in history that better fit the separatist narrative. To speak of the cultural union is to talk about the present, and facts, like two formally independent states with pooled sovereignty living in peace and relative prosperity, a shared heritage and, to the nationalist’s despair, a million Scots living in England and Wales, who don’t consider they’re strangers in a foreign land.

Because nationalists loathe people with a pluralist and inclusive mentality, for such thinking’s the enemy of the parochial mind, they’re quick to dismiss these outliers as an irrelevance. The racket that is the referendum’s residential franchise was imposed with a view to excluding these legitimate voices from any say in the independence debate.

The Yes brigade, who get very hot and bothered when you mention the Scots that live elsewhere, argue these people don’t have any understanding of today’s Scotland, that they’re divorced from the zeitgeist, so they aren’t entitled to vote. Sure, they could live in Berwick, or have left a month ago to take up a new job, or have moved to Caerphilly to live with the partner they met on a camping holiday, but what do they know? Why should they have an interest in the legal status of their homeland and themselves?

But having a residential franchise isn’t just about reinforcing an archaic idea, namely that the world stops at the border, nor excluding the rest of the UK from the conversation, it’s about ensuring that those who have real experience of the union, who’ve lived it, enjoyed it and feel part of it, aren’t allowed to poison with experience, those marching toward independence. As long as the Union’s an imposing abstraction divorced from the values and interests of the Banffshire farmer, it’s a doddle to dismiss. For those of us who’ve trod it, lived in it and been in love with it, it’s the country we live in – not separate states but one state with historic demarcations.

Nationalists believe that all of this is easily unpicked, and they can’t wait to start. But even if redundant clannishness triumphs on September 18th and the politics of the 18th century clamber on top of the 21st and violate all that’s been achieved in the intervening years, Yes voters may find it harder to extricate themselves from our United Kingdom than they think.

A sixth of their countrymen will be marooned in what’s left of the UK and just under half of those that remain in Scotland, including, if polls are to believed, a majority of the middle class, will have been divorced from it against their will – people who know that Britain isn’t just a word but an inclusive mentality; an idea that’s always belonged to the future not the sectarian, nationalist past. Imagine waking up in a new country that had voted to look inward and jettison all that. For some, it just might be unbearable.

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Please Sir, can I have a better State Education System?

Crown Woods Demolished

During a recent trawl of the internet I happened upon an article by my A-Level English teacher, Patrick Yarker. His piece for Workers Liberty lamented the death of Crown Woods, my old, elephant man comprehensive, and its replacement with a selective quad of colleges, built by business and in hoc to its mercenary preoccupations. For Yarker this was the death of the comprehensive dream and the commodification of childhood.

I found my old teacher’s attack on edu-business sound; no parent worthy of the name wants their son or daughter’s textbooks sponsored by Pepsi (Coke, perhaps), nor to have their child segregated according to specious points of differentiation. But as a child who spent three years in the school Yarker venerates, I found many of his conclusions regarding comprehensive education naïve, which is what we call idealism that’s been tested against experience and found wanting. The following is a response to the piece you can read here.

Dear Patrick,

As my former English teacher I hope you’ll take responsibility for any errors in spelling and grammar below.

You began with your first experience of Crown Woods, so let me briefly tell you about mine. I came to the school from Humphry Davy, a former Cornish grammar with an intake of 800. In my first two years there I was educated on a “lower site” with a small group of around 150 pupils. That school felt like a community, everyone was friendly and personable – in short, it felt like a school as I imagine a school to be. In contrast Crown Woods was impersonal and anonymous. In addition to being unwieldy I thought it was an ugly sausage factory, not a building one could take pride in or forge an emotional connection with.

This is superficial of course but it speaks to something fundamental, namely how the ethos of a school, as manifest in its intake and space, effect the psychological disposition of the children who attend (then later choose not to). You lamented the destruction of the school’s “classrooms, labs, gyms and workshops” but they were characterless spaces and it’s just possible they fostered characterlessness.

You talk about the values of comprehensive education, but I suggest the delivery model was at odds with the principle. Comprehensive education implies, perhaps demands, a full or total education, but in the last century we rightly came to distrust any system prefixed by “total”. Social integration, which must be a part of any total system of development, seems noble in the abstract, but how can such a system be tailored to the needs of individuals? You say Edu-business reduces children to an abstraction – an “it”, but doesn’t a catch-all model do the same?

No one, buoyed by idealism, would create a system that wilfully segregated children, but here schools are fighting social forces far stronger than a state education provider. Trying to militate against such forces using state power is like holding an umbrella up to a tornado. Social segregation begins in the home; it starts with domestic indoctrination, class consciousness, and whatever passes for parental values. In the playground children self-segregate for the most part – they’re compelled, in a bid to shore up their fragile identity, to seek out children ostensibly similar to themselves.

It would be sublime to believe that kids can transcend their “type”, that they can break out of the straightjacket they’re put in at birth, but as children get older they begin to note the fabric of this straightjacket on other kids, delineate the edge of the straps. Typically young bucks and does that grew up with a mixed group of friends will hone their process of selection in late adolescence, looking for those who share their outlook and interests as they socially position themselves. In other words, by the time comp-kids are adults they’ve typically rolled back the forced integration of their school years. All they have to show for the experience are memories of children that they found either effete or degenerate and senseless. This is a child’s one true shared experience: playground streaming.

I’m cheered by the idea that there’s no such thing as general academic ability; that everyone’s born with limitless potential. No child feels that, you understand. The pupils of the old Crown Woods had an intuitive understanding of intelligence, honed from primary school onwards. Of course innate ability, whatever that means, isn’t something other kids can measure. If it’s not known to the children themselves, as it’s uncultivated, then it won’t be obvious to other tadpoles.

Yet kids aren’t bad at reading what’s behind the eyes, at sensing who’s curious and who isn’t, which child’s thoughtful and which are forever struggling to catch up with their mouths. In a comprehensive you’re bedfellows with those whose temperaments are anathema to your own. Were the kids of Crown Woods wrong to follow their instincts, categorise and self-select, based on what they found? Or could it be that if potential isn’t cultivated from the get go, it soon becomes limited, like (and here comes a cliché, so apologies, I may get marked down) a muscle that’s never used. Perhaps we’re unfixed at birth, but at fifteen? Thirty? When is it too late to take Danny Shunk, with his scatological fixation, propensity to flash his genitals, and belief that Shakespeare’s a type of weapon, and turn him into a genius?

You alluded to the benefits of the comprehensive principle. As a product of that system I don’t accept I’ve enjoyed any social benefit. I may integrate more easily with people from different backgrounds, but this malleability hasn’t led to an embarrassment of social riches. At Crown Woods these kids almost wasted as much of my time as I did.

So what of students helping others to learn? The basic problem for educationalists that put their faith in that idea is this: every precocious child who takes time out to help his less focused, less thoughtful peer, is a child who’s not been challenged. If the classroom is out of balance; if there’s fewer curious children than curious, student-talk is subject to the compulsory pressure of peer groups, which will often veer toward the tangential and trivial. In a culture where curiosity is viewed with suspicion, because it makes the incurious insecure, the opportunities for kids that want to learn are significantly reduced. The default assumption in your piece is that these structural principles improved schools but I saw no evidence of an intellectually stimulating environment at Crown Woods, just a place where the curious struggled to get on.

If you want to beat the “fixed quantum” principle you need a more holistic education system; one that compels parents and households to be part of the developmental cycle. There has to be a constitution; one that each family is obliged to sign up to – including fundamental principles like social difference as an injustice (if fixed as a problem early, perhaps kids would grow up compelled to solve it, rather than perpetuate it) and the child’s right to learn, in other words, each family would be responsible for the uninterrupted learning of every other, a policy that by extension would prohibit impediments such as bullying and intimidation.

Only by instilling this principle from the start could you hope to address the cultural malaise that sank Crown Woods. No child should be written off young, or labelled, but that requires a nuanced and individuated approach to teaching that the comprehensive system cannot accommodate. In fact, given it’s an exercise in collectivisation, it’s hard to see how it could ever succeed on that basis. Each and every one of us is unique; we have different psychological barriers and respond to different kinds of learning. Crown Woods College isn’t the answer, but nor was the school it replaced.

Best,

Ed

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New Doctor. New Series. New Location. New Letters. August 23rd.

Dear Steven Moffat 1

Dear Whovians,

There’s a new series of Doctor Who on the way. No, really. Seriously, no one said anything? Anyway, when the time comes you’ll want balanced commentary from a well-adjusted mind; a Peter Capaldi tour guide who doesn’t miss points of interest. Well that’s all very well, but what about my reviews instead?

Still not sure what to make of the Matt Smith years? Then why not catch up on the helpful analysis sent to time travel chieftain, Steven Moffat below?

See you soon, freaks.

The Story So Far:

The Distant Past:

Deep Time:

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Theatre Review: Great Britain

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With a title like Great Britain it won’t surprise you to learn that Richard Bean’s play is a state of the nation piece. The National Theatre, alerted to this fact from that placeholder (perhaps unaware that it wasn’t going to change) and excited by its topicality, for here, hot off the press, is a satirical reprise of the phone hacking scandal and its cultural calculi, got it on the Lyttelton stage quick smart. They hoped for relevance; manna for the chattering classes; and in a sense Nicholas Hytner’s production succeeds. Great Britain does indeed mirror where we are now. Not the condition of our press you understand, it’s too broad and glib to be useful in that respect, rather the moribund state of British satire.

Keeping pace with TV’s toothless comedies of recent years, ripped from the headlines and given a comparably superficial treatment – the likes of John Prescott farce Confessions of a Diary Secretary, and Channel 4’s student protest turned commission, The Trial of Tony Blair, Bean’s play brings no new insight to bear on events that have been inevitably reduced and simplified as they’ve made their uneasy passage through the guts of our pilloried press. Great Britain is a dramatized tabloid column, complete with easy gags, clunky didacticism and received wisdom. Bean thinks it’s enough to provide a thinly disguised précis of events, add jokes and bolt on opinion, but this results in a play that tells us what we already know while fluffing our prejudices. The caricatures cement our dinner table conception of newspaper culture, the blunt broadsides leave us in no doubt as to the playwright’s views on press regulation (his News of the World proxy is witheringly entitled “The Free Press”), while the jaunty tone trivialises the treatment of Milly Dowler’s family. In short, it’s a take a Murdoch editor would be proud of, were the organisation formally known as News International not the missed target.

That isn’t to say that Great Britain isn’t funny; it plays like a perfectly acceptable, if overlong, feature length episode of Drop the Dead Donkey, but the sub judice treatment of the subject, shackled to the headlines, leaves Bean either unwilling or unable to mount a full-blooded attack on Rebekah Brooks or Andy Coulson. Instead they’re background figures; their alleged and proven culpability composited to form Billie Piper’s inhuman, careerist superbitch (characters regularly refer to portmanteaus; the audience primed to subconsciously stow the metaphor).

Piper’s Paige Britain – no really, that’s her character’s name, is a distillate of every knee jerk tweet posted in the wake of this criminal conspiracy. Hacking and Leverson have left us with important questions about the state of newspaper journalism and the cherished principle of self-regulation, but Piper’s cartoon character is the kind of annotation the guilty dream about, for so outrageous is the burlesque, the events that inspired it hardly seem real. But the immorality is real and it needed a story and set of characters unconstrained by biography, informed by the scandal’s themes, to make the audience register the damage to their culture; a play that left them angry rather than amused as they returned to their diminished lives.

Tim Hatley’s set is clever, using a series of sliding walls augmented by video projection to facilitate lightning fast scene changes in keeping with the breakneck pace, and the cast, spearheaded by Piper and Robert Glenister as the quintessential tabloid editor, are committed, but Great Britain’s reductive humour is a profound handicap. One ludicrous moment has an arrested hack using the Nuremberg defence – a turgid joke typical of the play’s thought terminating tendency. No one begrudges Bean’s right to have an agenda, to judge the real world antagonists, but an essential night at the National would have been thought provoking, challenging even. Instead outgoing director Hytner’s chosen a play that’s worked up about recent events but didn’t fulfil its artistic obligation to complete the thought.

Great Britain runs to August 23rd at the Lyttelton Theatre, South Bank.

Related Copy:

More Reviews from the (not so) Cheap Seats:

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Review: Monty Python Live

Michael Palin and John Cleese perform on the opening night of Monty Python Live (Mostly)

The Pythons have never been bashful about repackaging old material to keep the coffers full. As long ago as 1987 they had an LP out entitled The Final Rip Off, but we didn’t mind been ripped off back then; the material on that album was of a certain vintage. It was heyday Python, classic Python, Python with all the energy, vitality, comic cadence and punctuation in tact. It was delicious whimsy, sublime absurdity, literate surrealism. But now the Pythons are old men, too arthritic for silly walks, too calcified to romp around as old ladies restaging the battle of Pearl Harbour. Monty Python Live, their final o2 show of June 20th, tried to cover this with archive clips from the boys’ youth but I’d have preferred an inventive embracing of the troupe’s present day limitations. Instead, Michael Palin, aged 71, reprised his role as the bored accountant who dreamed of becoming a lumberjack, as surely every accountant does, with the line referring to him as a 45 year old dutifully in place.

One could see the mechanical thinking behind the show. You could smell the machine oil. Fans didn’t want a new take on old favourites; they wanted nostalgia – the Flying Circus in its pomp. The problem was that this was impossible. Graham Chapman was singing Christmas in Heaven in heaven and his wizened colleagues hadn’t written these sketches to be performed by their geriatric shadows. Watching the survivors creak their way through old routines it felt wrong to think, the guilt palpable, that this was a revival too far, that these comic heroes of ours were trapped by their own legend, that Live at the Hollywood Bowl’s audience had it so much better.

They gave their loyal fans what they thought they wanted, and what some, who hadn’t thought it through, did want. But was I alone in wishing the Pythons’ age and the mercenary cynicism of the enterprise had been the joke? Could the one-time iconoclasts not have dared to lay waste to their own legacy, taking the sketches everyone knew by rote as the establishment? Could their legendary wit not have been turned upon themselves and a complacent crowd? Purists would have been crestfallen, while others would have realised that subverting expectations was pure Python, and maybe the only honourable course when you’ve outlived your material.

Occasionally a bit of the old young spirit broke through. There were a few plugs for featured holiday destinations, the odd riff on classic sketches, notably a playful mashup of the Dead Parrot and Cheese Shop – but there was no danger. Cameos from Eddie Izzard and Mike Myers were congratulatory but the occasion called for them to be beaten to death by a gang of Grannies or smashed in the face with a giant fish. Seeing the boys together was grand, seeing them struggle to remember their lines was not. Unkind critics had written this was a lazy show, that Idle et all were bone idle, but that rather missed the point – there was little more these inanimate Pythons could do. A comic rethink is what was needed. Sadly the only brains that could do it were 30 years dead.

Monty Python were Live at the o2 in Greenwich, June 20th 2014.

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