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

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

War, Peace, and Trustee Representation

The Imperial War Museum is on the south bank of the Thames, just a few tube stops away from Parliament. It was established in the 1920s in the wake of the Great War--the war that was supposed to end all wars. Inside, the wars of the United Kingdom of the 20th century are documented--from World War I and II, Korea, the Falklands, Afghanistan, Iraq, and the Troubles in Northern Ireland. The museum is comprehensive in terms of the British perspective, including exhibits devoted the costs of war on civilians and on the home front. I felt that was particularly nice. If I had a quibble, it was the fact that in emphasizing British participation, the broader perspective is lost. That said, I guess a Brit might thing the Yank perspective dominates our American war museums.

The Mickey Mouse Gas Mask
Becoming a father changes you in ways you can't really anticipate. I grew up playing strategic war games--starting with board games and eventually moving to the computer. In that sense, I had a rather antiseptic and patriotic view of war. Visiting the Imperial War Museum and seeing it through the eyes of a father of two young children gave me a totally different perspective. I'm not ashamed to admit it: Seeing the gas masks made to protect infants and young children brought tears to my eyes. And seeing the twisted girders from the World Trade Center brought me immediately back to the horrors of that particular day. Leaving the museum, I wondered how and if we could ever rid our race of this propensity to kill one another. I really wish I could raise my daughters in a more peaceful world were they could focus on developing their potential instead of living in fear.

So, I was bummed out before our next meeting, which was with Lord David Puttnam, who is a member of the House of Lords. I have always viewed the House of Lords with a heavy dose of American skepticism: It is a politically weak chamber filled with a bunch of folks who do really don't do much work and add little to the legislative process. The chamber, I felt, was basically honorific and substantively lacking.

Wreckage from the World Trade Center
Lord Puttnam surprised me because he articulately defended the chamber with reasoned arguments. First, Lord Puttnam himself was appointed as Life Peer in 1997. He himself was not a member of the landed gentry and made his own way in the world as a rather famous and talented film producer. Puttnam passionately argued that the Lords has three important functions as a perfecting chamber, as in initiator of legislation in its own right, and the chamber which makes sure that legislation does not conflict with existing statutory or European Union commitments. Further, he called the Lords a chamber of "experts" who, because of their varied life experiences, are best able to make legislation fit practical circumstances in the real world.

Perhaps most importantly, the Lords are the best at handling lobbyists. As he noted, some of the better lobbyists spend a good deal of time lobbying the House of Lords--not because they can buy members with campaign cash (they, of course, do not stand for election and do not have constituencies) but because they can make arguments for why particular legislation will not work to people who will understand the case practically. Further, as well experienced members, the Lords are not easily fooled by lobbyists because they are well-equipped to detect nonsense.

Lord Puttnam was incredibly gracious with his time. It is also clear he's one of the enormously active members of the chamber--and he helped dispel some common misconceptions about the chamber that I, and perhaps many, Americans have.

Lord Puttnam and my class at Millbank House

Monday, May 25, 2015

Shopping, Tea, and the VAT

Tea time!

Travel can be mentally and physically exhausting. We are walking between seven and ten miles every day, and learning so much that at the end of the day we are spent. I’ve learned it’s critical to take a couple of breaks to rehydrate and re-energize—even for a group of twenty-somethings.

Today is a public holiday in the UK, so I gave students a free day to themselves. Essentially, two groups formed. One decided to do some retail therapy, while others went to Westminster Abbey, the Eye, and the Globe Theater. I decided to lead the shopping exhibition, mostly because I wanted some sharp clothes. I love Montana dearly, but as most would admit, it is a tad challenging to find the cutting edge of fashion in Bozeman. London, of course, is one of the world’s top shopping destinations, so it was foolish to not take advantage of the opportunity.

Princess Diana: Always a princess wrote my students
I took Team MSU to Harrods and Harvey Nick’s, both favorites of the late Princess Diana. Let’s just say we got a good look at how the other half lives. Shoes that looked absolutely impractical costing between 600 and 800 pounds. We also saw the touching memorial to Princess Diana and Dodi Fayed and signed the memorial book. I told my students that I remember that Paris crash quite well as I had been up late that night and saw the news break on the internet (yes, there was an internet back then—barely—and it was over AOL News). I have never been a royal watcher, but I stayed up throughout the night as the news story unfolded and pay attention to the coverage of the funeral during the ensuing weeks. The memorial in the store shows Dodi and Diana walking along a beach with the words “Innocent Victims” emblazoned along the bottom of the sculpture.

One thing that has surprised students is the lack of “tax”. I tell them that there is actually quite a hefty tax, called the Value Added Tax (VAT) that is included in the price. This has caused some sticker shock on the trip, but I also reminded them that if they buy items which they will take out of the European Union (and, importantly, will not use while here) then they can apply to get the VAT returned. For big purchases, this is not insubstantial as the VAT is 20 percent.It's interesting that we've chose in the US to not include the tax in the price of goods but add it after the fact. It's not like we don't have taxes like that--many of us receive cable and wireless bills with the tax included in the final price. I suspect that a VAT-style system would never fly in the US as it would be too easy to "hide" the cost of government. I wonder if it's easier to raise taxes in countries with VAT's because of the "hidden" nature of the cost.

Team Shopping also enjoyed Tea at John Lewis, one of London's mid-range department stores. We shared pots of tea and scones--which we slathered with clotted cream and jam. Unfortunately, I didn't get that you need to split the scone in half until it was much too late....

Does anyone really need this?
We’ve been making great use of public transit, 
and today switched lines three or four times like seasoned pros. Tonight, I’ll meet up with the other group and look forward to hearing tales of their adventures while we nosh South Indian food a blog from our hotel. Tomorrow, it’s the Imperial War Museum and a meeting with a member of the House of Lords.