Monday, June 8, 2015

Northern Ireland: Less Troubled Today

Growing up in the 1970s and 1980s, Northern Ireland was a scary place. There’s no way I would have ever imagined visiting, let alone willingly lead a group of students on a study abroad trip. Today, 17 years after the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, I have visited both Belfast and Londonderry, two towns scarred deeply by the Troubles. The communities are quiet and economically vibrant. One can’t help, though, that it will still take another generation for the wounds of the past violence to really begin to heal.

The Europa Hotel, a block from our lodgings
A sign of the times: We are staying one block from the Europa Hotel, once the most bombed hotel in Europe. We move freely in and out of the city center here in Belfast regardless of the time of day. During the troubles, the City Centre was barricaded after 6 PM. The only way in or out was through a single turnstile. In Derry, a watch tower sat on the City Walls overlooking the Catholic Bogside, scenes of so many protests and violent police attacks. All signs of those towers are gone.

Pieces of the Troubles remain, of course. The apartment building that once housed IRA snipers—and later—a British military barracks. The “peace walls” that blocked off Protestant and Catholics from each other. The murals paying tribute to those who fought on both sides, and the murals painted today reflecting current political issues.

From Derry's city walls where a military tower overlooked the Catholic Bogside

And then there are the psychological scars. Our tour guide in Derry grew up in a prominent Republican family, and recounted for us the weekly raids at 3 am on his house—hiding in his bed while a British army officer stood, unmoving, staring at him with a barrel of a gun raised. 

The gentleman manning the Museum of Free Derry’s tour desk saw his brother shot and killed during the Bloody Sunday March in 1972. We saw the rag on display used to mop up his blood. We were also treated to a display of various rubber bullets and ammunition used by the military and police to maintain order. 

Weapons used by British Military and Police during the Troubles
We witnessed the abject hatred both sides felt for each other in the form of a letter sent to the families of one of the Bloody Sunday victims shortly after Bloody Sunday. I took an image, but the language is too profane to post here. I will share the conclusion of the letter:

“’The Wray family,’ get out of your home or be burned out. Ulster is British, God Save the Queen. No Surrender.”

A mural on the Peace Walls along Falls Road
Signed “your enemies.”

Some of my students commented on how amazing it is, given the intensity of the hatred, that the Peace has held up so well and such considerable strides have been made. Just as important to ponder, however, is how such deep-seeded hatred took root in the first place. I certainly hope that we can learn from the terrible experiences of the Irish so that we may never again witness such depravity, discrimination, and injustice.
Derry City Hall, site of the Saville Inquiry into the events of Bloody Sunday

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Scottish Independence: Answering the Tough Question

We met yesterday with two members of the Scottish National Parliament, Annabel Goldie and Linda Fabiani. Ms. Goldie is a Tory, and in fact is the former head of the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party. Ms. Fabiani is a member of the Scottish National Party. Both were elected to serve in the Scottish Parliament since its inception, and both served on the Smith Commission on devolved powers to Scotland. After that, the similarities end. Ms. Goldie was a strong supporter the Better Together Campaign, whilst Ms. Fabiani continues to fight for Scottish independence.

Meeting with MSP Linda Fabiani (SNP)
Our visits with both were thoroughly enjoyable and we learned an awful lot from each perspective about Scotland. What struck me is how both encapsulated two very different approaches to the question of independence and how each framed the debate. In many ways, the frames both used to discuss independence demonstrate quite clearly why No won and why Yes did not.

University of Edinburgh Professor Nicola McEwan showed us data that very clearly explained how Better Together managed to keep Scotland in the United Kingdom. People who voted No, for the most part, did not do so because of any great love of the United Kingdom or any deep sense of Britishness. They did so because many questions remained unanswered. These include the currency question, the reliance of Scotland on oil revenues, and how independence would affect personal finances. Quite simply, the move was considered too risky. The silver lining for SNP is that the question of risk could be assuaged if SNP could offer reasonable solutions. This suggests, of course, that independence might indeed be possible in the future because folks could be convinced on the merits. Had most respondents indicated that remaining with the UK for sentimental or emotional reasons tied to the notion of Britishness, then it would be much harder to move them with rational argument.

What struck me was how both representatives continued using the same arguments for why independence can or cannot work. Ms. Fabiani generally dismissed the economic arguments outlined by Ms. Goldie, who noted that the collapse of oil prices proved the Better Together campaign right. Independence would have been financially disastrous. Ms. Fabiani emphasized that such a position distracted from first principles. Other countries figure out ups and downs economically; so could Scotland. In essence, Ms. Fabiani claimed that arguments made against independence belittled the capabilities of Scots. As she said this, I was instantly reminded of a piece of pottery shown to us at the National Museum of Scotland. This particular work of art showed a dimwitted Scot sitting with both legs in a toilet, suggesting that Scots were so stupid, they couldn't even figure out how to relieve themselves. The Yes campaign strongly believed, and still believes, that Scotland's potential has been crushed and suppressed by its union with England.

At its crux, the arguments for Scottish independence focused on pride in people and a culture with an optimism for the future. Arguments against independence focused on pride, too, but with a careful examination of where Scotland had been in the past. Many of my students pointed to the Darien expedition, the cost overruns incurred on the Parliament building and the Edinburgh tram as examples, perhaps, of the consequences of overly optimistic exuberance. There are two ways to think of Scottish history. One is through the lens of Scottish successes and achievements whilst the other is through memories of Scottish overreach and disappointment. Methinks until SNP can provide concrete data and answers to the Scottish skeptics, independence will continue to elude their grasp.

Unless, of course, the current government manages to irritate enough Scots so that their pride and passion overrides any presentation of concrete facts. Some told me they don't envy David Cameron. And neither do I.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Incumbency, Casework, Electronic Voting, and a Failed Expedition: What Scotland Can Teach us about Political Science

The Scottish Parliament and Scottish politics have been the focus of our visits both yesterday and today. We toured the Scottish Parliament this morning, sat in on a committee meeting, and met with Susan Deacon, a former member of the Scottish Government and Member of the Scottish National Parliament for eight years.Yesterday, we took a tour of the Scottish National Museum focused on Parliament and had a lively discussion with Dr. Nicola McEwen, an expert on territorial politics at the University of Edinburgh.
MSU Brit Politics Rocking the Debating Chamber at the Scottish Parliament

I have three roughly formed insights about what I've observed/learned, and some questions I'll probably try to answer in some future blogs.

1. Incumbency and Pork

It has been noted by Gary Jacobson that the incumbency advantage, particularly in the United States Senate, has been eroding for quite some time. Essentially, as the parties have become more polarized, it is ever-harder for centrists members who have developed strong constituency service reputations and an ability to bring pork back to the district/state to attract cross-partisan support. Add to that the difficulty pork barrel Republicans have faced recently with the rise of the Tea Party, and it has become less clear that bringing goodies from Washington back home has quite the political punch it once did. So it was with Labour and Liberal Democrats in Scotland. One of our commentators remarked that Labour thrived in Scotland, in part, because they could go to Westminster and bring back a bunch of goodies. It appears, however, that with the movement of Labour to the right under Tony Blair, the repeated successes of the Tories, and a belief among many that Labour no longer represents the interests of Scotland, here, too, it appears that a pork barrel reputation is less useful than it once was.

2. Constituency and Casework

In Scotland, every individual in a given region is represented by eight members of parliament: one is elected to a particular constituency in a plurality election, the other seven represent the region and are distributed based upon a complicated single transferable vote system. Essentially, Scots cast two votes: one for a member to represent the constituency, and then another for the party. These second votes are then roughly distributed--taking into account the plurality election results--to yield a party distribution roughly proportionate to the votes cast by party. In short, this allows Scots to vote both for a person and a party--and avoids the nettlesome issue of wasting votes for minor parties.

There's a bunch to unpack there, but the observation I found interesting was made by our tour guide, Elizabeth. Constituents can approach any of their members of parliament in their region for assistance with casework concerns and matters, but generally speaking, members selected specifically to represent a geographic constituency in the plurality elections tend to get the bulk of the constituency service casework. Regional representatives, who are placed on lists by parties and are selected if their parties perform well on the second ballot, receive far less constituency service work. The interesting effect of this seems to be that even though there is a unicameral Scottish legislature, some members "behave" more like House members in the US context while regional members behave a bit more like senators (i.e, focus on policy more broadly than casework concerns). I thought this was utterly fascinating, and drove home the point that people are more likely to approach a member of a legislative body for help untangling bureaucracy if a) they have a clear geographic link to them and b) that member was physically listed on a ballot rather than a party list. Member selection, then, has a causal effect on the representational styles members can adopt.

3. Party Unity

In the UK Parliament, MPs do not vote electronically. Rather they gather must pass into the "yes" or "no" lobby and have their votes recorded there. As they pass into the lobbies, they must physically go by party whips who watch them as they vote. In the United States House and Senate, voting is electronic--members must put their card into the appropriate slot in order to cast their vote. But, those members must still go to one of the voting machines located throughout the floor to cast their votes where they can be buttonholed by party whips--and as votes often take some time, these members can be persuaded to change their vote. In the Scottish Parliament, all voting takes place within thirty seconds and is done at the member's desk. One wonders what effect these different voting mechanisms have on the propensity to toe the party line.
This chest once held something like 20 percent of the Scottish National Wealth
Final interesting observation of the day: The Act of Union in 1707, which unified Scotland and England, came about in large part because of--a failed colony in Panama. That's right. Scotland tried to establish its own colony in Darien, on the Isthmus of Panama, and the promoters raised a tremendous sum of Scotland's wealth to pull the trick off. It failed miserably, and many of Scotland's political and economic elite were ruined. England was willing to pay off the debts incurred of Scotland's elite, but the price would be political union. It found it fitting that Queensberry' House was physically incorporated into Scottish Parliament building. The Duke of Queensberry was one of the individuals who had lost his shirt in Darien and was one of the chief advocates and eventual signatory to the Act of Union that extinguished Scottish independence and its parliament until 1999. It is an early example, too, of the influence of big money in politics.

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Building a Nation, One Symbol and One Legend at a Time

The Stone of Scone (Destiny)
The Stone of Destiny. It's the rock upon which the kings and queens of Scotland are coronated. In the late 1200s, the King of England (Edward I, or Edward the Longshanks) stole the stone from Scotland, hauled it to England, put it in Westminster Abbey where it lay for more than 700 years. The thinking was if the Scots believed that standing on the stone made one King of Scotland, that Edward and his successors would become the monarchs of Scotland if they were coronated whilst sitting on the stone.
Robert the Bruce, outside Stirling Castle

In the 1950s, the Stone was stolen by four university students from Glasgow in a daring heist, returning it to Scotland. Eventually, they turned the Stone over to authorities and was returned to Westminster Abbey where it again lay in the coronation chair.

Until 1996.

In 1996, the Stone was returned to Scotland as a gesture of goodwill. It is officially on "loan" to the government of Scotland, displayed in Edinburgh Castle. We got a good look at it yesterday, but were not able to take pictures. When a new king of the United Kingdom is crowned, the Stone will be returned to Westminster Abbey for the ceremony. It is unclear if it will then be returned to Scotland.

Today, we spent the day touring some sights important to Scottish national pride and nationhood, so it was fitting that our driver just happened to be one of the Scottish policemen who drove the Stone of Destiny back to Scotland in 1996!

The Scots have built a strong and distinctive national identity, which they relish in. They keep it alive with their powerful stories and national mythologies. The United States, too, has a strong sense of national identity. The difference is that national identity was created from scratch and has only really existed for about two hundred years. The Scots, however, have a national identity far older--going back to the Kenneth Macalpine, the so-called first King of the Scots.

View from The Wallace Monument, looking at the site of the Battle of Stirling Bridge
National identity rests on places, symbols, and stories. We visited Stirling Castle and the William Wallace War Monument, which overlooks the site of Wallace's victory over the English at Stirling Bridge in 1297. Stirling sits at an important strategic crossroads where the Highlands meets the Lowlands, and at a narrow spot on the Forth river which represented one of the best crossing points. Many pitched battles for Scotland have been fought here or nearby, including Stirling and Bannockburn. We've read or heard about the story every day we've been in Scotland--from our tour guide, our driver, and a gentleman dressed in 13th century battle garb at the Wallace Monument. They relish in telling the tale of how the poor, outnumbered Scots crushed the hapless and witless English. And, truth be told, the English did seem to make some rather questionable military decisions.

In thinking further about the future of Scotland, what is striking is the presence of so much pride the Scots have in their symbols, story, and national character. It's often said in Modern European History classes that the 16th-18th century represents the rise of the nation-state, and in the process of building nations, new national identities and connections were forged while old allegiances were either assimilated in the new identity or ruthlessly crushed.

The problem is this process seemed, in some instances, to have failed quite spectacularly and national identities and symbols that were once thought relegated to the distant historical past are reemerging to fuel a new drive of nationalism. I remember when Yugoslavia broke apart in violence in the 1990s, and many commentators at the time noted that Yugoslavia was a bastardized state created from the ashes of World War I--a conglomeration of many different nationalities that had very little in common to bind them together. Once Communism collapsed and Tito died, those national impulsed which had been quashed came flooding out in an orgy of violent hatred.
Our intrepid storyteller, regaling us with the tale of Wallace's victory over the "Anglish"

What's interesting in the case of Scotland is those very strong national feelings--tied to stories, legends, and symbols--have always been nurtured in Scotland at home and in school. We asked our driver today if it's possible to remain a patriotic Scot and, at the same time, be proud of being British or a part of the UK. He believed it was--and so did Gordon Brown. But looking at that long history of violent struggle against England and efforts of the United Kingdom to extinguish the Scottish national identity, it's hard to square that with a pride in a nation that seems itself at odds with what Scots want, especially if British becomes synonymous with Tory.

I noted in my last post that perhaps monarchy is enough to keep the United Kingdom together. But now I wonder if perhaps the best chance for survival is for the United Kingdom to more explicit acknowledge and appropriate Scottish nationalism into its own greater national identity. Maybe the next monarch of England should consider two coronations: one in Westminster, and one in Scotland--leaving the Stone of Destiny where it is.

Oh, and yeah. I did shout out from the top of the Wallace Monument, "You may take our lives, but you will never take our Freedom!" Had to be done. And so did this:

Really. Did you expect any less?

Friday, May 29, 2015

Scotland: An Uncertain Future?

We woke early this morning in Edinburgh to very different weather, a very different city, and a very different political world from London. London was warm and muggy; Edinburgh can't decide what the weather should be. It began cold and gray, the sun came out and warmed us up, then we got poured on, hailed on, the sun came back and then retreated. It never got above 55 degrees as we walked the city throughout the day.

Edinburgh is much more compact. We never set foot in a car or bus, while we took the tube every day in London. The city is quiet--we never fought crowds save for the moment we huddled in archway at Edinburgh Castle during the hail storm and during rush hour. I kept my window open last night and very little of the city filtered in through the night, while there was a constant bustle outside my room in London. Edinburgh is much smaller and comfortable than the bright lights, big city of London.

And then, the politics. Our guide noted that voter turnout for the independence referendum was 85 percent and, in the recent 2015 Westminster elections, it stayed about the same. In other parts of the UK, turnout was lower--at the normal 60-65 percent rate. Scotland seems more abuzz with political energy and restlessness than England, and the future here is still quite uncertain. The SNP represents 56 out of 59 seats--and controls every seat in Edinburgh, a region of Scotland that was a strong "No" in the recent independence referendum. The Saltire (or Scottish flag) is everywhere, and the Union Jack--when it flies--seems defiant and out of place.

At the top of Edinburgh Castle, the Scottish Flag
Our guide believes that the return of the Tories to power might hasten the end of the union, noting that if SNP remains in power in next year's Scottish Parliament elections, it will be another mandate for a second referendum (which will be part of the party's manifesto). Remember, a powerful argument made during the independence campaign centered on the fact Scotland votes for leftist policies but gets Conservative governments in Westminster. The Tories have a tricky balance to pull off--avoid alienating their English supporters while trying to maintain their tenuous grip on the union. Not an easy feat to pull off.
The Scottish Parliament, with emphasis on the left on member offices

I suspect the union's fate is less in the hands of Cameron and the Tories than it is in how the SNP behaves. As our guide noted, it is likely in the interest of the SNP Party to make sure the current devolved arrangements don't work--because if they do, it will undercut their argument for independence. But, if SNP is seen as too willing to throw sand in the gears of government, it can backfire, too, making SNP appear too opportunistic. Furthermore, it is unclear to me that Alexander Salmond will stay on point down in Westminster with whatever First Minister Nicola Sturgeon decides is best for the party as a whole.

There are so many moving parts it is hard to predict what will happen. I still think the Union will survive, but most certainly not it its present form. More power will flow Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland at a minimum, but I still think a federal solution is the only way to hold the constituent parts of the United Kingdom together. Even then, there are considerable differences in terms of defense and foreign policy between Scotland and the rest of the nation. Key, it seems, is how the European referendum shakes out. If there's a majority vote in Scotland to remain in and a majority vote in England to leave, it's hard to see how the union can survive intact long term.

Tomorrow, we go to the heart of Scottish Nationalism--Stirling, and the William Wallace Memorial.
A monument erected by Scottish Nationalists, a torch that would burn until Scotland had its own Parliament. It is now dark.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Sorry!: The Queen's Speech Debate > SOTU

The Queen arriving at the Sovereign Gate

When President Obama gives the State of the Union address, he goes up to Capitol Hill, is politely received, and drones on for about 60 to 75 minutes about what he plans to accomplish in the upcoming year. He is applauded frequently and often, especially by his party. When he’s done, he leaves the chamber and then, in some other place, Republicans air their response to the President’s proposals. It’s neat, it’s tidy, and it’s---boring.

At the State Opening of Parliament, it’s much more exciting. Multiple carriages enter through Sovereign’s Gate in the Victoria Tower carrying the State Crown, the Prince of Wales, and the Queen of England. Once the Queen arrives in the House of Lords, Black Rod—with great ceremony—approaches the House of Commons to request their presence in the Lords for the speech. The door is slammed on Black Rod initially, demonstrating that the Commons is independent of both the Lords and the Monarch, who is not allowed to enter the House of Commons. After knocking on the door with a staff, Black Rod enters and then the House of Commons proceeds to Lords to sit and listen to the Queen’s speech.

The Queen then addresses the packed Lords chamber and gives a speech—written by the Prime Minster and his government—outlining the legislative program for the year. The speech lasts about ten or fifteen minutes. The Queen departs, and later in the afternoon, the House of Commons and Lords meet to debate the contents of the speech over the next few days.

Today, on our last day in London, we went to Westminster to see the Queen arrive for the State Opening, watched the speech in a nearby pub, and then—thanks to the Speaker’s office, the British American Parliamentary Group, and the Commonwealth Parliamentary Group—we watched the House of Commons debate the Queen’s speech for an hour. We had front row seats in the distinguished visitor’s gallery, where we saw Alexander Salmon and his 55 SNP colleagues, former Lib Dem Leader Nick Clegg, Interim Labour Leader Harriet Harman, Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne, and Prime Minister David Cameron.

Simon Burns, MP for Chelmsford
Traditionally, the debate leads off with two speeches from members of the governing party—one of whom proposes to accept the Queen’s speech and another who delivers a seconding address. MP Simon Burns from Chelmsford gave the first speech, and Sheryll Murray gave the seconding speech. Both speeches are supposed to be full of humor, as both these speeches were. After the proposal has been made and seconded, debate is opened by the main opposition party with the government’s response given by the Prime Minister. We witnessed this entire exchange before we left to attend a meeting with John Spellar.

My overwhelming reaction, aside from an amazing sense of awe and an enormous amount of geeking out over witnessing history unfolding before my very eyes, was one of sheer delight at personal and raucous nature of the whole affair. It was anything but boring. The speeches were at once funny, cutting, and serious. The chamber erupts in laughter, cheers, and groaning. It is lively and exciting—much more so than the President’s State of the Union address. I’m glad that I and my students got to see it up close and personal.

The Queen's Guard
After watching the debate, we met with an MP from the Labour Party, John Spellar. He said many interesting things to us during our time together, but it was an observation about the Queen’s speech that stuck out. He reminded us that the omissions in the speech are just as important as the contents. In this case, he noted that the omission of a proposal tackling changes in the Human Rights—an important campaign promise made by the conservatives during the campaign—hints at some of the early challenges Cameron faces with a slim majority and indicates a fault line with in the party that might cause the government headaches down the road. Add to that a campaign which purposely pitted England against Scotland in order to depress support for Labour, and one wonders how long the Tories can govern a nation restless over its future together.

But just as important, I think, is what the opposition party chose to accept in the government’s proposal, and that’s a referendum on the UK’s future within the European Union. That signaled to me, loud and clear, that Labour recognizes it has just as much of a problem with UKIP in the long term as the conservatives do. If Labour can’t hold onto the working class vote and confront fears over wages and immigration, Labour’s future will be dark indeed. 

Taking the long view, this past election may very well not only be a last gasp of union, but of the two main parties as well.

Meeting with MP John Spellar