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.