Thursday, 1 October 2015

The SNP: Fiction & Reality (Part 3) by Dr Phil Larkin

Edinburgh IMG 3994 (14732734838).jpg
"Edinburgh IMG 3994 (14732734838)" by Reading Tom from Reading, UK - IMG_3994. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

In the final part of his survey of the SNP, Dr Phil Larkin looks at the party's future and concludes by emphasising the importance of Scotland to the rest of the UK.  

The SNP’s Future?
As any military manual will tell you, a salient, or bulge, into enemy territory is a dangerous position for an army to be in, since it can be attacked from three sides. The 56 seats won by the SNP in May constitute just such a salient. Had they won, say, 30-40 seats, it might actually have been better for them, since they could continue to enthuse their core support with the cry that there “is still more work to be done.” A victory of such a resounding nature means that there is only one direction for the SNP’s electoral fortunes to head, namely, southwards. The present UK Government, with its small but workable majority, is not beholden in any way to the SNP, does not require their support, and is unlikely to offer any further devolution measures to Scotland beyond the ones presently being worked out. After that, there will be increasing calls for the Scottish Parliament and Executive to use the tax raising powers they already have if they hate austerity as much as they claim to. Indeed, for a Party who have persistently called for equality of citizenship, and railed so vociferously against austerity, the SNP Administration in Scotland has been curiously loathe to raise income tax: they realise instinctively, as a populist organisation, that this would cost them middle-class support. I suspect that the SNP will also be reluctant to use any future revenue raising power which they may be given by Westminster, for the same reason. So where does this leave the block of 56 SNP MPs? It is true that they can make a lot of noise, and strike plenty of agitated poses, but behind the flummery and hot air, they are essentially impotent. Unlike the Labour opposition, they do not even have the comfort of being able to form a Shadow Cabinet. The SNP would probably prefer Conservative government in Westminster, to demonstrate just how different Scotland is from England, and this is why Salmond helped to shatter Miliband’s chances of victory before the May election by talking up the prospects of a Labour/SNP coalition and asserting that he “would be writing Miliband’s budget for him.” It also explains why Sturgeon has endorsed Corbyn as Labour leader: in effect she is giving him the kiss of death before the English electorate (not that he needs this). However, how long will it be before the slogan “Vote SNP to ensure Tory Victory” gains currency in Labour circles north of the border?

Only by keeping the prospect of a future second referendum “around the next corner” can the Party keep its faithful enthused, and this is exactly what Nicola Sturgeon has been trying to do by sketching out nebulous conditions which would, in her opinion, “trigger” another referendum. The reality is, however, that the prospect of another referendum in the short to medium term terrifies the SNP, since they would be bound to lose it, and their chances of retaining political hegemony after that would plummet. In a perceptive FT article, Janan Ganesh argued that the UK would not leave the EU unless the exit campaign could show that the population would be demonstrably better off outside, a case that they simply cannot make. Ganesh drew parallels between this and the reasons why the Scottish electorate ultimately rejected independence: the majority of Scots were unconvinced that secession from the Union would make their lives any more prosperous or happy. They still remain unconvinced, especially with the example of Greece fresh in peoples’ minds. Yet how long can that core of diehard Scottish nationalists, the backbone of SNP support, who are itching for round two of the independence battle, be assuaged? There is plenty of scope for internal conflict within the SNP, and these splits are bound to come to the fore before too long.

This is why the SNP’s bluff now needs to be called on a number of different levels by the unionist parties. Far from resisting the idea of another independence referendum, unionists should, perhaps in the aftermath of next year’s Holyrood elections, should be saying with one voice, “bring it on!” My guess is that the SNP hierarchy would blanch with fear at such calls, while the more fiery party foot soldiers would be spoiling for the second round. Sturgeon will have a tremendous job on her hands reconciling realism with fervent enthusiasm. Whether she is capable of holding the Party together in these circumstances is anyone’s guess.

It is this author’s unwavering belief that Jeremy Corbyn’s election as Labour leader will be disastrous for the Party in electoral terms, yet even disasters can be mitigated. His leadership will allow Labour to call the bluff of the SNP’s left wing. Mhairi Black, the Party’s youngest MP, made an impassioned Bernadette Devlin-type maiden speech in the House of Commons, in which she excoriated the policy of austerity, and explained that she had parted company with the Labour Party because it had ceased to adhere to the ideas of figures like Tony Benn, whose memory she specifically invoked. While this speech was lauded at the time (the House of Commons being a sentimental institution), it left Miss Black open to attack on a number of different fronts. The point that an independent Scotland would be forced to adopt fierce austerity measures has been made above. In addition, she laid out no viable alternative to austerity in the speech, and has not done so since. However, the main charge her speech laid her open to is, with Corbyn (a disciple of Tony Benn) as Labour Leader, and John McDonnell as Shadow Chancellor, why does she not simply return to the Labour fold? This author is surprised that the argument has not already been made by any of the unionist parties. Furthermore, Ms Black’s far left credentials are difficult to reconcile with the actions of certain of her SNP colleagues. It was recently disclosed that Michelle Thomson,[1] the SNP’s frontbench business spokeswoman, built up a buy-to-let property portfolio with her husband by buying homes at knocked down prices from families struggling to pay their mortgages. Some of the properties targeted and purchased were local authority homes bought by tenants under the right-to-buy scheme, which is to be banned in Scotland by the SNP next year. While this article does not suggest that Thomson has done anything illegal, her actions stink of hypocrisy: a senior SNP MP who had campaigned against social deprivation looks to have profited handsomely from those who suffered from it. Is Mhairi Black going to condemn Thomson publicly for these actions? I doubt it. The revelations also underscore the reality that the SNP is scarcely a genuinely left-wing party, but rather a catch-all confederacy of different personalities and views bound together with one solitary aim, to end the Union.

As Alan Massie has argued, there may, ironically, be an opportunity now for the Tories to revive in Scotland. They have a very capable leader in the form of Ruth Davidson, whose stature was actually enhanced by the Referendum campaign. She is far too young to be tainted by the nastiness which characterised previous Tory government attitudes towards Scotland, and whether one agrees with her or not, she comes across as an ebullient and engaging personality, just the sort of person the Conservatives need to detoxify their image north of the border. She has spoken convincingly of the chronic need for technical education and an expansion of industrial apprenticeships in Scotland, and suggested creative ways in which a Scottish Parliament might lower income tax to entice wealthy English and other professionals to settle and invest their skills and cash in Scotland, a policy likely to find at least some favour among canny Scots. None of this is to minimise the task that lies ahead of her and her Party. One thing in her favour is that she can characterise the Tories as a Party passionately dedicated to preserving the union, something that Labour under Corbyn will find it much more difficult to do.

The main aim of this article has been to set out the case that there is really much less to the SNP than meets the eye, and that the unionist parties should be more vociferous in declaring that this emperor really does have no clothes. While I do not intend to speculate on how long Corbyn will remain as Labour leader, if he does survive for any length of time in office the Conservatives look set to win the 2020 election. Therefore the task of preserving the Union will fall to them. This will require a level of tact, sympathy, and understanding which Tories have not always demonstrated in the past towards Scotland. There is definitely some truth in the criticism that the “No” campaign during the 2014 Referendum was overly negative (although one can see why they chose to focus on the reality that the SNP could not formulate anything like a convincing economic case for independence). The unionist parties could have formulated a much more positive case for the status quo, demonstrating just to what extent Scotland and the Scots are a huge part of the fabric of life and history in the entire United Kingdom. For instance, Scotland gave birth to the father of modern economic theory, Adam Smith, while James Watt, another Scot, made possible the rapid advancement of the Industrial Revolution with his improvements in steam engine design. William Patterson was the prime mover behind the creation of that most British of institutions, the Bank of England, while Scottish inventions from television, to the telephone, to the ATM, have improved and enriched the lives of millions around the world. More mention could have been made of the political contribution which Scottish statesmen and women have made to the entire nation: one need only consider the number of Scottish Prime Ministers and PMs of Scottish extraction (including Cameron himself) there have been for this to be proved. Scots like Keir Hardie and Ramsay McDonald were instrumental in the creation of the Labour Party. The poems of Robbie Burns, and the novels of Sir Walter Scott are justifiably world famous because, like the plays of Shakespeare, they deal with eternal themes which touch the whole of mankind, and are not confined to the confines of Scotland. Scotland is too precious the rest of the UK for them to be separated from us. It is high time that this was stated more vociferously.

[1] The Sunday Times, 20 September 2015.

Wednesday, 30 September 2015

The SNP: Fiction & Reality (Part 2) Dr Phil Larkin

In the second part of guest poster Phil Larkin's piece on the SNP, he looks at the party's record in government and the current case for independence.

The SNP: Government and Opposition
It is easy to forget that the SNP has been in government in Scotland since 2007, since they have perfected the art of being in power while simultaneously acting as if they are also the opposition (sometimes to their own decisions). It is also instructive to look at some of the decisions they have made, and measure these against the Party’s self-professed radical left image. The central basis on which the SNP is founded, namely, the theory that “home rule” is better rule, should be relatively easy to test, since it only requires an examination of their record in government. At present, the Teflon quality of the Party seems to make it immune from the reality that their record in government in Scotland has been far from exemplary in many respects.

To begin, the abolition of tuition fees by the SNP in Scotland has served mainly to assist higher income families, rather than ensuring that children from disadvantaged backgrounds can enter higher education. This is demonstrated by the fact that this September more than one in five English students from poor backgrounds will go university, twice the number of poor Scots. A former leading civil servant, Lucy Hunter Blackburn, who assisted in a university study of higher education policy in Scotland concluded that the abolition of fees not only tends to help rich families, but it also reinforces inherited inequalities in wealth. This would not matter quite so much had the SNP Government in Scotland been devoting exponentially more attention and resources to technical education, further education, and apprenticeships, but this is not the case. In fact, since 2007, there are now 30,000 fewer places in further education in Scotland. This stands in stark contrast to the approach of the Westminster Government (and that of the previous Coalition) with its emphasis on creating apprenticeships in technical areas, and its sponsorship of university technical colleges to train new generations of young people skilled in engineering and design. While it is true that there is much work to be done in terms of technical education in England, at least a start has been made. This cannot be said about Scotland, which is an absolute disgrace when one considers that the country was once famous for its great engineers, technicians and inventors. Many Scottish schools, once renowned for their rigour and quality of education are underperforming, and the SNP does not appear to have any strategy to deal with this. Essentially, the Nationalists’ education policy not only favours better off families, but it also means that many educated Scots will opt not to remain in Scotland, but rather move south where there are more opportunities for the bright and ambitious.

The SNP’s policing experiment, which consisted of merging eight discrete constabularies to form one unwieldy force, has become a veritable case study in mismanagement. Not only did the anticipated savings from this venture fail to materialise, but also the huge force has struggled with basic communication and has come under fire for slipshod responses to emergencies. This is epitomised by a notorious incident in July when a man was found dead inside his car near Bannockburn three days after the crash was first reported. His girlfriend, who was found alive, but unconscious, next to him, later died. Had the report been acted on earlier, it is possible that her life could have been spared. Can anyone imagine a UK Home Secretary surviving in office had one of their showpiece reforms produced such a result? The performance of NHS hospitals north of the border have also been below par.

The SNP’s penchant for grand populist measures in the field of land reform has run into difficulties when it comes to detail. The measure referred to here is the Land Reform (Scotland) Bill, which has as its basic aim to allow SNP ministers to force the sale of land to local communities if the owner is deemed to be a barrier to “sustainable development”, and failure to push true such a transaction would be “likely to result in significant harm to that community.” The target of this proposed reform are clearly the great Scottish estates, some owned by aristocrats, and others owned by large land companies and used for purposes such as grouse shooting and deer stalking. While not going into the merits of this aim, Dr Jill Robbie, lecturer in private law at Glasgow University, has stated that the Bill is so vague that it undermines a centuries-old principle of property ownership, and that it is absolutely unclear as to when estates, and whose estates, are to be compulsorily sold to local communities. This attempt at populism has backfired badly.

The Current Case for Scottish Independence
It is a commonplace that the “Yes” campaign failed mainly because they could not construct a credible economic case for independence, and this Achilles heel was, predictably, capitalised upon by the unionist parties. Recent opinion polls have suggested have suggested that support for independence has climbed to over 50 per cent of the electorate. These polls should be taken with a very large pinch of salt. The reason for this assertion is that the legal, economic, and financial picture which prevailed at the time of the time of the referendum has not changed one iota, and looks set to continue well into the future. Prior to the 2014 Referendum, Alex Salmond claimed that he had received legal advice from the government’s law officers that an independent Scotland would automatically inherit the UK’s EU membership and opt-outs, including the opt-out from the single currency. He and his ministers then spent £20,000 of taxpayers’ money resisting a Freedom of Information request to disclose the exact nature of that advice. After losing this prolonged game of cat and mouse, Salmond had to admit that no such legal advice had ever been given. Neither is it likely that the EU will be any more amenable to allowing Scotland automatic inheritance at the time of any future independence referendum. For a start, such a proposal would receive fierce opposition from Spain, which has fought its own battles with Basque and Catalan nationalists over independence for those regions. Since Catalonia and the Basque Country reach into French territory, Scotland may expect opposition from France also. Italy too, with its German speaking population in South Tyrol, would be likely to look askance at any development towards the breakup of the UK. Even if it were desirable for an independent Scotland to enter the Eurozone, it was made clear that this would not be granted automatically either: Scotland would have to go through the normal application process, and then effectively be obliged to join the euro. In any event, given the stagnant rates of growth in the Eurozone, Scottish electors have become cold about the idea of adopting the euro, so it quietly faded from view on the SNP agenda, as did the much vaunted “arc of prosperity” from Norway to Iceland which the Party hierarchy had crowed that an independent Scotland would join, before the onset of the recession.

With the euro having become distasteful to Scottish voters, it speaks volumes for Salmond’s chutzpah that he was able to claim with a straight face before the referendum that in the event of independence, Scotland would then successfully negotiate a currency union with the remainder of the UK, a development which the main unionist parties in Westminster would simply accept without demur, and which would make the Bank of England lender of last resort for Scottish banks. No-one but a politician with a neck of purest brass could make such a claim. On so many levels it is utterly unrealistic to think that such a currency union would be forthcoming, not least because in the event of successful referendum for the SNP, Westminster would simply not be inclined to be magnanimous, and would probably refuse such a suggestion out of hand. If any such currency bargain was struck, one can be sure that it would be a harsh one, favouring Westminster (which would be fighting viciously to guard the interests of the rest of the UK) and ensuring that Scotland would pay its share of the debt to the rest of the UK down to the last penny, and perhaps even more. It is unlikely that an independent Scotland would sign up to such a harsh deal, and would be obliged therefore to adopt the euro.

One hobby horse ridden mercilessly over the years by Scottish nationalists has been that Scotland has never received its fair share of North Sea oil revenue, and in effect was being fleeced by London. However, the fact that Scotland receives considerably more spending per head of population than England under the Barnett Formula became abundantly clear to the English electorate during the pre-Referendum period, exploding one long-standing myth. Remaining with the theme of oil revenue, the SNP hierarchy attempted to play down the absolute centrality of these funds to any independent Scotland, with Salmond declaring that they would be simply a “bonus” to Scottish prosperity. Developments in the international oil market have not played out in favour of the cause of Scottish independence. With the slowdown in the Chinese economy, amongst other factors, cheap oil is presently abundant in the world, selling at $48 per barrel at the time of writing, and this may dip even further if Iranian oil comes on the world markets in significant quantities in the future. For an independent Scotland just to break even, the revenues gained from oil sales would have to rise by several thousand per cent. Goldman Sachs has suggested that this present era of cheap oil could last for the next five years. It is true that oil prices, like any other commodity, can go up as well as down, but to attempt to make a case for independence based on the present situation is surely a political kamikaze mission. On the figures cited above, it has been estimated that an independent Scotland, after paying its share of UK debts, would be some £8 billion worse off annually on secession. So how is this shortfall to me made up? Working on the assumption that an independent Scotland would have to join the Eurozone, it is probable that before long the fledgling nation would have to go on a cap-in-hand mission to the troika (the European Commission, ECB, and IMF) in order to negotiate a substantial loan. In return for this, swingeing cuts in public expenditure would be demanded, making the current austerity policy pursued by Westminster pale into insignificance by comparison. The first policy that would have to be scrapped would be free University tuition. This would be an ironic situation for the SNP to find itself in, given the amount of railing it has done against UK-wide austerity. Furthermore, Scottish voters have already seen this situation play out over this summer on their TV screens in relation to Greece. How likely is it that they will want to see a similar scenario replicated in Scotland?

Tuesday, 29 September 2015

The SNP: Fiction & Reality by Phil Larkin

Periodic guest poster, Dr Phil Larkin, has contributed a penetrating overview of the SNP, which I've taken the liberty of splitting into three separate posts.  This is a detailed dissection of the nationalist vision for Scotland and why it isn't tenable.  Today, why the 'commentariat' has lost its mind over Scottish nationalism and why electors in Scotland voted for the SNP.

Queen Elizabeth and Alex Salmond
By Dr Phil Larkin


Every few years, elements of the media and political commentariat seem to lose their power of reason over a particular issue. At present, this issue is the SNP’s victorious 2015 General Election. If some sources are to be believed, the end of the UK is nigh, and the SNP are set to continue from glory to glory until this wondrous event takes place. They are deemed by some commentators to possess a masterful political vision, and have a crystal clear strategy mapped out to achieve this. They are ready, willing, and able both to end the austerity policy and to turn Scotland into a sort of northern Dubai minus the great weather, where all citizens enjoy social and economic equality: a veritable Celtic paradise.

 It is my view that if there is a speck of truth in all of this, it is about the height of it. While it is true that the SNP did score a great victory in May’s election, and probably has sufficient momentum behind it to perform well in next year’s Scottish Parliamentary election, it is the case that the Party is fast approaching the crest of a political hill, and once this is reached, it will be downhill over the course of next five to ten years. In fact, that the Party won so many seats back in May could do it, and the cause of Scottish independence, more long term damage than good. These assertions will be developed in this article. It will also be argued that Jeremy Corbyn becoming Labour Party leader does not bode well for the SNP for the short to medium term. In reality, as will be set out below, much of the SNP’s success is based, quite simply, upon the politics of illusion. Nationalism itself is an extremely emotive subject, against which logic and reason often finds it difficult to prevail. Nevertheless, in this article I will attempt to shine a light on this topic.

 Why did Scottish Electors vote SNP?

 “A farmer went out to sow his seed…Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root.” Mathew Chapt 13. The Parable of the Sower.

 The build-up to the Scottish Independence referendum on 18 September 2014 was a long one, announced in March 2013, and ample time for both pro- and anti- camps to set out their case. The pro-independence campaign was stretched out over a long period, whereas the “No” campaign was characterised by a sharp burst of activity in the run-up to the referendum. There was some merit in the approach of the “No” camp. The order given to the American troops at the Battle of Bunker Hill was “don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes”, in other words, don’t act until the opposition has burned itself out and their arguments have become exhausted. In the end, this approach prevailed, with a convincing 55 per cent of the population voting “No” to independence (although they did not reach the 60 per cent that some had hoped for). The result demonstrated clearly that there was no overwhelming desire to break up the United Kingdom among the Scottish electorate, although it was a great political achievement for the SNP to have convinced 45 per cent of voters to opt for independence.

 The drawback to the “No” camp’s low-key tactics to winning the referendum was that it provided the “Yes” campaign, spearheaded by the SNP, with enormous publicity, allowing them to become household names north of the border. This was to have a devastating effect on the Labour Party in the 2015 Election, permitting the SNP to capitalise on the anti-Westminster establishment feeling, and the weariness with austerity politics prevalent in various parts of the UK, and from which UKIP and the Green Party also benefitted. For many years, Scotland has lacked a Labour leader of the stature of Donald Dewar, and the Party’s image was damaged by instances of governmental incompetency, such as the debacle over schools’ examination marking which happened when Henry McLeish was First Minister. The SNP therefore took control of the Scottish Executive in 2007 (although to listen to them sometimes one would not know that they had ever been in government). Furthermore, between 2010 and 2015 the Labour Party in Scotland haemorrhaged members (partly a by-product of Labour’s complacency in Scotland over a period of years), which meant that when the time came for election canvassing there was a chronic shortage of willing volunteers. This author’s brother, who lives in a suburb of Glasgow, said that prior to the 2015 election the only political party representative who actually came to his door was the SNP representative. The momentum behind the SNP thus took on the force of a bandwagon, and many people who would otherwise naturally have voted Labour got caught up in the emotion and clamour of the Nationalists’ campaign. Ed Miliband’s ineffectual leadership of Labour, and the fact that he appeared unconvincing and lacklustre to the Scottish electorate compounded a disastrous campaign for the Party. Yet, I am not entirely convinced that many Scots who eventually voted SNP knew exactly what policies they were voting for, beyond a sort of vague, populist, anti-Westminster-ism. This was demonstrated in a Guardian video made in the run-up to the 2015 Election, when a journalist interviewed a group of young Scots in their late teens/early twenties about their voting intentions. One replied that she was going to vote SNP, stating that their policies were “definitely best for Scotland.” The journalist then casually asked her “which SNP policy in particular do you favour?” She could not answer, and giggled in embarrassment.

 In addition to the populist, anti-austerity element of SNP politics, there is also a strain of another form of nationalism that can be observed. Due to rapid industrialisation during the nineteenth century, Scotland absorbed an enormous number of Irish (mainly Catholic) immigrants, who tended to form separate communities in the larger cities of Scotland, with tensions often existing between the host and immigrant communities. While many of these eventually came to vote Labour (indeed, they formed the backbone of the Labour Party in cities like Glasgow) there were at least some attempts during the referendum campaign to link residual, subconscious feelings of Irish nationalism with Scottish nationalism and the “Yes” campaign. On one BBC news story, an SNP activist from the Republic of Ireland was interviewed. He talked about the struggle which his grandfather had waged for Irish Independence, and hoped to be able to regale his grandchildren with his efforts on behalf of Scottish independence. The historian Tom Devine also comes from this school of thought. Yet to conflate Scottish nationalism with Irish nationalism in this way is mistaken: Scottish nationalism is a very different animal than its Irish counterpart. There is no history of large scale agrarian disorder and violence, or secret societies in Scotland’s history, and neither is Scottish nationalism fuelled by any form of Gaelic or cultural revival. Struggles in Scotland historically have tended to be linked into those prevalent in Britain as a whole, such as Chartism and the trade union movement. A number of times in the past people from an Irish nationalist background (from both north and south) have said to me that they could not understand why Scots did not “fight for their freedom” as the Irish did. Such sentiments do not go much beyond the emotional “Braveheart” school of nationalism, crumble under any sort of close forensic analysis, and those who espouse such views grossly misunderstand the relationship between Scotland and England, and Scotland’s historical place within the United Kingdom.

 The Conservatives have long struggled to find their electoral feet in Scotland, tainted by historical memories of the de-industrialisation policy pursued by the Thatcher Governments during the 1980s, and the decision to use Scotland as a testing ground for the Community Charge (Poll Tax). Scottish Conservatives really do have an uphill struggle on their hands, but, strangely, I do not believe that their task is impossible. More will be said about this below.

The next part of this series will follow tomorrow.  

Monday, 28 September 2015

Cross party think tank proposes 'new Act of Union'

Two recent articles on Three Thousand Versts have expressed concern that the UK’s constitutional issues have been allowed to drift, since the ‘No’ campaign won the Scottish independence referendum.  With that in mind, it was interesting to read a piece in yesterday’s Sunday Times, proposing a new Act of Union. (Free version here):

The article launches a cross-party group called the Constitution Reform Group and carries the signatures of Sir Menzies Campbell, Peter Hain and Robert (Lord) Salisbury, who belong to the Liberal Democrat, Labour and Conservative parties, respectively.  The group, it claims, consists of “retired cabinet ministers, practising politicians, former parliamentary officials and civil servants, lawyers, journalists and academics”.

The authors express concern about the government’s provisions to create ‘English votes for English Laws’ on the basis that they will create two classes of MP in the House of Commons.  Using parliament’s standing orders as a vehicle to effect constitutional change adds to the impenetrability of the UK’s constitution, they say.

‘The bones of the constitution should clear and understandable to any interested citizen, not just legislative anoraks.’

The Constitution Reform Group believes that nationalism’s threat to the UK is current and serious.  It proposes to write a paper on how a new Act of Union might look, in time for elections to the devolved legislatures in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales, scheduled for May 2016. 

A more urgent debate on the United Kingdom’s future is certainly needed.  Hopefully this group can make a useful contribution to strengthening the Union against nationalist challenges and repairing bonds between the various nations and regions of the UK.  

Friday, 18 September 2015

Offering more and more autonomy will not fend off nationalists' challenge to the UK.

Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s first minister, has warned David Cameron not to ‘disrespect’ the Scottish people’s choice to return 56 SNP MPs at the election last May.

Naturally, Ms. Sturgeon has a selective view of which election results should and should not be respected.  She doesn’t show much regard for the overall outcome of the general election and, just a year after the independence referendum in Scotland, her party is threatening to demand a re-run, so her ‘respect’ doesn’t extend to the 55% of voters who opted to remain within the UK for at least ‘a generation’, either.

The Conservative Party won a narrow majority of seats in the House of Commons in May 2015, but it’s clear that nationalists will offer a rolling challenge to the government’s authority in their nations, throughout this parliament.

In Northern Ireland, for instance, Sinn Féin and the SDLP consistently claim that the Tories have ‘no mandate’ to impose welfare reform.  It doesn’t matter that the parties at Stormont were free to craft their own, alternative welfare bill, so long as the budget balanced.  Nor does it matter that the Executive, insofar as it still exists, could yet agree to allocate money from other departments to pay extra benefits to claimants in Northern Ireland.

Nationalists’ unspoken implication is that the British government has no right to do anything at all which can affect Stormont’s finances detrimentally.  And, given, that Stormont’s finances are determined by the Barnett Formula, which allocates money through a calculation based on the budget at Westminster, that’s the same as saying the British government has no authority to cut spending in the UK, so long as Northern Ireland is part of the Union.

This type of logic doesn’t make a lot of sense, but it is the privilege of the nationalist, who rejects the right of the United Kingdom to exist in the first place.

Nicola Sturgeon is pulling the same trick.  She claims that people in Scotland are entitled to another referendum, if the Conservatives don’t reverse welfare changes and abolish the Trident nuclear submarine programme.  The second demand is fairly extraordinary, given that the Faslane Royal Navy base on the Clyde, which houses the Trident fleet, supports some 4,000 civilian jobs as well as housing 3,000 service personnel and their family members.  But these ultimatums are a movable feast; the content will change with the political landscape.

Nationalists’ philosophy will remain the same. If the government doesn’t give the views of 59 Scottish (or 18 Northern Irish) MPs the same weight as those of 650 overall MPs, it forfeits its authority over those regions.  It makes a nonsense of the UK as an integral political unit but, for nationalists, that is part of the point.

They are within their rights to worry away at constitutional fault-lines, however flimsy the underlying rationale, and their rhetoric doubtless appeals to the chauvinistic streak in the UK’s respective regions.  While they think they can undermine the fabric of the Union, and at the same time voice a populist case against controversial Westminster policies, then that is exactly what they will do.

Nationalists cannot be expected to be fair or responsible when it comes to respecting the political make-up of the whole Kingdom.  They will keep demanding, and they will keep challenging the authority of the Westminster government, whichever guise it takes.

That’s why awarding the devolved regions with ever greater autonomy will not be enough to fend off nationalist threats to the UK indefinitely.  There is every likelihood that, while the SNP is in the ascendency in Scotland, it will continuing asking the same question until it gets the answer it wants.   There has to be a more serious and concentrated focus from the pro-Union side on how bonds, connecting people across our four nations to a common British identity, can be strengthened.

Who makes up the ‘pro-Union side’, now that the Labour party has a leader who supports a United Ireland and says he’s not a unionist, is getting less clear, but that’s for another day.  

Thursday, 10 September 2015

The hunt for Euro qualification goes on for Northern Ireland

Michael O’Neill and Northern Ireland are now tantalisingly close to qualifying for Euro 2016.  The team took four points out of six over a prolonged weekend of action and sit top of Group F, two points shy of booking a place at the finals tournament in France.
On Friday night it looked first like the campaign could stall for the Green and White Army, then it seemed like qualification would be secured as early as Monday.  Playing against the Faroe Islands in Torshavn, Northern Ireland made heavy work of their 3-1 victory, after getting off to a perfect start and taking a 1-0 lead in the twelfth minute.

The Islanders capitalised on Stuart Dallas’s defensive howler and equalised before half-time, then, in the second half, O’Neill’s side struggled to break-down a resolute Faroes’ defence.  Only when their opponents were reduced to ten men, after goal-scorer Edmundsson had received a second yellow card, did Northern Ireland dominate convincingly.  Goals from McAuley and Lafferty finished off a tiring Faroes’ team, who looked increasingly ragged.

The victory allowed Northern Ireland to take charge of the group, one point ahead of unbeaten Romania and four ahead of Hungary.  The fans’ attention turned immediately to Monday night’s clash with Hungary, where three points would secure qualification.
It wasn’t to be.

Although Northern Ireland dominated territory and enjoyed the greater proportion of chances, the team’s attacks were predictable and didn’t look likely to break down their opponents.  A goalkeeping error by Michael McGovern gave Hungary a 74th minute lead and then Chris Baird was sent-off controversially for two yellow cards obtained during the same incident.  It looked like the Hungarians had clawed their way back into contention for second place in the group.

Thankfully, deep in stoppage time, Hungary’s goalkeeper parried a Niall McGinn effort into Kyle Lafferty’s path and the Fermanagh man planted a shot into the roof of the net, which means Northern Ireland are still favourites to qualify.  It was a hard won point which came at a price.  Baird, Lafferty and Conor McLaughlin will be suspended when their team plays Greece next month.
The absence of Lafferty is especially worrying.  This campaign has propelled him to second place in Northern Ireland’s all-time goal-scorers’ list, behind only David Healy.  His goals have largely been responsible for a successful campaign so far and it’s difficult to see who else can offer a similar attacking threat.

Michael O’Neill has chosen to use the Kilmarnock forward Josh Magennis in a supporting role from the substitute’s bench.  Magennis offers some physical attributes, but his strike rate is less than prolific.  Whoever fills the striker’s position will hope to have more effective support from their fellow forwards in October.  On Monday evening the bulk of the attacking threat came from set-pieces rather than creative play. 
It might seem blatantly obvious, but Northern Ireland’s main challenge against Greece will be to score goals.  It’s easy to envisage a 0-0 draw and the team travelling to its final game in Finland still needing another point to ensure qualification.  That is a scenario that Michael O’Neill will want to avoid, if possible. 

No-one ever said it was supposed to be easy getting to a major tournament finals.

Sunday, 6 September 2015

The migration crisis is a long-term problem

Migrants on the march in Hungary.
A heartrending photograph of a small boy’s dead body, washed up on a beach in Turkey, has prompted a change of tone from the Prime Minister on the refugee crisis.  David Cameron announced yesterday that the UK will house ‘thousands’ more people from camps around the Syrian border, after suggesting previously that admitting “more and more refugees” offered no solution.

A picture of Aylan Kurdi, a Kurdish boy from Syria, dominated front pages on Thursday.  The three year old had been in one of two dinghies, which left Turkey bound for the Greek island, Kos, a busy hub for refugees in transit to northern Europe.  

Aylan was one of 14 people to die when the boats sank.   The image captured both a personal tragedy for the boy’s family, as well as the misery and desperation involved in a migration described as the biggest movement of people to Europe since the second world war. 

It’s understandable that this powerful photograph has caused an outpouring of public anger and emotion, and the government has responded.  However, committing to take a relatively small number of refugees, under restricted circumstances, is certainly not an answer to the crisis.  Europe is facing a complicated, multifaceted situation, which is unlikely to be resolved easily or quickly.

We know that there are two separate but closely linked streams of people currently amassing in their thousands at Europe’s southern borders.  Firstly, there are refugees, fleeing war in Syria and unrest in the Middle East and North Africa.  Secondly, there is a steady and growing number of economic migrants, intent upon building a better life in prosperous countries in northern Europe. 

It’s easy for politicians to demand that refugees are helped, while economic migrants are kept out, but these two streams of people are by no means discrete and it is not easy to distinguish between them. 
Take Aylan Kurdi and his family as examples.  Reportedly they had been in Turkey for a year, after fleeing the Syrian city, Kobane, when it was attacked by ISIS militants.  Aylan’s father, Abdullah Kurdi, had apparently already been in Turkey for three years and worked as a barber, before the rest of his family arrived. 

The Kurdis fled a warzone and a group of crazed Islamic militants, who regard Kurds as implacable enemies, so by any definition they were refugees.  However, when they left Turkey, where they were not in physical danger, it was presumably with the aim of finding a more permanent, comfortable home somewhere in the EU.  So, they were economic migrants as well and the family took mortal risks to improve their lives.

The UK shares a significant degree of responsibility for ISIS’s spread across the Middle East and North Africa.  In Iraq, Libya and Syria, we were consistently among the most vehement champions of ‘regime change’, helping to dislodge unpleasant, but stable and secular, administrations, and contributing to a political vacuum filled by Islamic extremism.   The notion that western countries should impose values and systems of government worldwide, irrespective of historical, religious and cultural nuances, still drives foreign policy.

Even if the war in Syria were to end and even if relative stability were to return to the wider region, it’s unlikely that the flow of people would stop.  Fraser Nelson has an excellent column in The Telegraph, teasing out the wider reasons so many people are leaving their homes.  The ‘Great Migration’, as he terms it, is a problem larger than the immediate crisis which has propelled it into headline news.

It will only be tackled with any success by long-term policies, carefully balanced and tested.

Tuesday, 1 September 2015

Robinson returns as unionist parties square up for Stormont battle

Parliament Buildings Stormont

“Well, that escalated quickly”, as people on social media are wont to say.  One moment, the rhetoric around Stormont’s latest crisis was predictable and tired, the next, Mike Nesbitt announced his Ulster Unionist party was set to pull out of the executive.  The UUP’s decision put their Democratic Unionist rivals under pressure to withdraw from government as well and collapse Northern Ireland’s devolved institutions, nine months before the next scheduled Assembly election. 

Initially, the DUP responded through its North Belfast MP and deputy leader, Nigel Dodds, who said it would seek to exclude Sinn Féin from the executive, if the republican party did not “deal with the issue” of PIRA members murdering Kevin McGuigan. 

The DUP, Dodds asserted, was prepared to bring down the administration at Stormont “very speedily”, if the “issue” was not “dealt with”, or Sinn Féin’s ministers excluded.  The exact meaning of that bluster, you will have noticed, was not entirely clear, but the tone of his comments suggested that the Democratic Unionists’ withdrawal from government was highly possible, if not necessarily inevitable.

Enter stage left Peter Robinson, fresh from his summer holidays.  The DUP leader quickly dashed off a platform piece for yesterday’s Belfast Telegraph, condemning Ulster Unionists for ‘fleeing the battlefield’ and implying that his party will confront republicans from the comfort of its executive seats.  The content had not changed radically from Dodds’ statement, but its tenor had shifted dramatically.

Mr Robinson expanded on his article this morning, ahead of a scheduled meeting with the Prime Minister, by calling for a four week adjournment of the Assembly and an ‘intensive talks process’ to address Stormont’s problems.  He wants the content to include, not only the murder of Kevin McGuigan and related issues, but also ongoing disagreements over welfare reform and other matters ‘causing deadlock’ between parties.

Suddenly, we’re back in drearily familiar territory, looking at the prospect of another round of crisis talks to overcome problems which, in properly working institutions, would either not arise at all (the fall-out of a paramilitary murder), or else form the everyday substance of government decision-making (reforming welfare and agreeing a budget).

It’s a favourite tactic for Mr Robinson and the parties at Stormont; shifting the onus of deciding what happens next unto the Westminster government, which risks appearing callously cavalier about the ‘peace process’ if it refuses to facilitate more negotiations.  It also raises the highly unlikely possibility of extracting new funds from the treasury to ‘support’ a new agreement, all in the interests of helping poor, benighted Northern Ireland stagger past the latest obstacle to reconciliation.

However, in the current circumstances, Mr Robinson’s call for talks is designed primarily to wrong-foot the UUP.

If the DUP were to negotiate new ways to test political parties’ links to paramilitaries, it would claim that it had successfully emasculated republicans and Sinn Féin, while the Ulster Unionists shirked their responsibilities. And given that Mike Nesbitt’s party has walked away from government, what is its role in helping the executive surmount its difficulties, if talks do take place?  Mr Nesbitt seems unsure.  Meanwhile, the DUP insists that it has remained in the executive to fight for unionism and it will be an exceptionally truculent partner for its fellow executive parties, should it not get its way.

Mr Nesbitt sensibly opposed Mr Robinson’s proposal to adjourn the Assembly.  Indeed, the motion for adjournment has been defeated in the Assembly’s business committee, courtesy of the UUP, SDLP and Sinn Féin.  This deprives the DUP of more time to decide whether it will appoint a minister to replace the UUP’s Danny Kennedy, whose resignation from the executive precipitated the latest round of political tit for tat. 

The UUP’s decision to leave the executive was an intriguing move, though it also highlights inconsistencies in the party’s thinking.  When Mike Nesbitt became leader of the Ulster Unionists he emphasised his intention to stay in the executive, during the leadership contest.  Now his party has framed its choice to withdraw from power-sharing, not only as a principled stand against IRA violence, but also as a way of creating a working opposition at Stormont to improve the way government here functions.

Nesbitt says he doesn’t want the Assembly to collapse and, certainly, the UUP’s strategy relies on the DUP remaining within the executive.  However, the Ulster Unionists clearly intend to attack Peter Robinson on the basis that he hasn’t had the moral courage to withdraw his party from government.   

Peter Robinson will worry away at any perceived contradictions in the UUP’s position.  His return from holiday has certainly coincided with a more confident appearance to his party’s manoeuvres.  There are suggestions that the DUP leader’s powers are diminishing, but he could yet prove to have enough political cunning left to outwit his unionist opponents again.

Thursday, 27 August 2015

The Trigger by Tim Butcher: A review.

The Latin Bridge in Sarajevo
Bosnia and Herzegovina is not top of everyone’s holiday destination list, yet it enjoys warm summer weather, beautiful scenery and its younger residents speak impeccable English.  The country also suffered a bloody and traumatic war during the 1990s and became associated, for many outsiders, with intractable ethnic divisions.

While Nato’s intervention in Bosnia, the siege of Sarajevo and the horrors of Srebrenica shape modern perceptions of the region, younger residents are apparently less aware of its role in the events which sparked World War 1.  That’s one of the conclusions reached by Tim Butcher, a former Telegraph journalist, in The Trigger, which centres on the story of Gavrilo Princip, the young Bosnian Serb who assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand, and plunged Europe into conflict.

The book - part travelogue, part history - investigates how a figure who made such a profound impact on twentieth century history ended up being consigned to relative obscurity, among his compatriots in the southern Balkans.  The author describes attending a concert by Scottish rock band Franz Ferdinand in Banja Luka, capital of the part of Bosnia governed by ethnic Serbs.  The stage features a photograph of Princip, blown up to form a backdrop for the show, which prompts few signs of recognition from the young audience of music fans.

I visited Sarajevo in 2012 and made the pilgrimage to a street corner beside Latin Bridge, where the assassin launched his attack on the Habsburg archduke.  A relatively small museum describes the incident and there is a plaque on its outer wall, recording the most basic account of the shooting.
‘From this place on 28 June 2014 Gavrilo Princip assassinated the heir to the Austrian throne Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sofia’.

In The Trigger, Butcher remarks upon the neutral wording of this memorial, as well as the relatively meagre, and at times inaccurate, material in the museum.  He tries to solicit help to research his book from the museum’s board, but receives a dismissive response. 

Throughout The Trigger its author examines with insight the effects of recent historical events on how Princip is remembered in Bosnia and Serbia.  The teenage revolutionary was an ethnic Serb, which, after the wars of the nineties, is an obstacle to Croats or Bosnian Muslims viewing him positively.  However, he was motivated by Yugoslav nationalism, rather than the specifically Serbian variety, so his memory doesn’t resonate much with modern Serb sentiment either.

Butcher starts his odyssey where the assassin is recalled fondly – in the village of Obljaj, now close to the Croatian border, where he was born and brought up.  The author spends time with descendants of the Serb’s family and begins to follow the route Princip took when he left home to be educated in Sarajevo, a journey which would culminate in his political 'radicalisation' and a plot to kill Franz Ferdinand.

The travel material is enjoyable, particularly for a reader who has visited the region, and Butcher does a fine job of contrasting his hike through a rural idyll with the hellish war-zone the same landscape comprised when he worked there as a reporter in the 1990s.  The author’s journey is a canvass upon which he examines the complicated interplay of twentieth century history, nationalism and identity, in the Balkans.

He clearly admires the political idealism which inspired Princip and his fellow plotters, viewing it as part of a broader struggle against imperial oppression, taking place across Europe at the time.  Butcher is careful to distinguish the assassin’s brand of nationalism, which spanned the various Slav peoples of the region, with Serb nationalism, espoused for instance by Unification or Death, a shadowy group within Serbia’s military, also known as 'The Black Hand', some of whose members were in contact with the Bosnian conspirators.

The historical distinction the writer makes has obvious ramifications for Princip’s current reputation.  He took part in a terrorist plot, but, in Butcher’s view, he doesn’t form part of the lineage of modern ethnic extremism, which created mayhem in Bosnia and Herzegovina during the 1990s.  The teenage radical, the author asserts, would have been horrified by the recent war in Bosnia. 

By delving into his life as a student, a reader and a prisoner, saved from execution only by his youth, The Trigger is a more personal, thoughtful analysis of Princip’s politics and motivations, than traditional accounts of the war’s origins.       

A plot conceived by a group of students in a provincial outpost like Sarajevo could not, by itself, cause global conflict.  Butcher’s book isn’t really about deep and enduring rivalries among the great powers of Europe, which led eventually to war in 1914.  Instead, it ties together strands of history, older and more recent, which saw Bosnia and Herzegovina propelled bloodily, twice in a century, unto the world stage of geopolitics.

It is also an illuminating work of research, casting new light on an enigmatic figure, neglected lately by historians, who planned and carried out an act which triggered a worldwide conflagration.

Monday, 24 August 2015

Stormont might not collapse but paramilitaries continue to disfigure Northern Ireland

The devolved institutions in Northern Ireland are supposedly ‘teetering on the brink’ of collapse yet again. 

After repeated failures to agree a balanced budget or implement welfare reform created months of uncertainty, the Executive’s future is now in doubt because the PSNI believes members of the IRA were involved in murdering a republican hit man.  Despite its apparent seriousness, this particular predicament is unlikely to bring the shaky edifice at Stormont crashing down.

The IRA was supposed to have disbanded its military ‘structures’ and decommissioned its entire arsenal of weapons back in 2005.  It was on the basis of this understanding that power-sharing resumed in 2007 and the DUP entered government with Sinn Féin. 

From the outset it was a fairly flimsy pretext.  

Less than a year after John de Chastelain, the retired Canadian general, oversaw decommissioning, the Independent Monitoring Commission reported that the IRA retained a substantial haul of arms.  Punishment shootings in republican areas continued, Troubles-era weaponry found its way into the hands of ‘dissident’ paramilitary groups, and senior police officers, on both sides of the Irish border, acknowledged that the Provisionals were capable of launching attacks whenever they pleased.  Huge smuggling operations, involving laundered fuel and counterfeit cigarettes and alcohol, persisted in heartlands like south Armagh, allowing IRA godfathers to amass fortunes.     

On either side of Northern Ireland’s divided society, former terrorists made a seamless transition into ‘community’ organisations, often drawing salaries courtesy of the state.  The unspoken truth is that their authority derives from a capacity for violence.  It’s almost irrelevant whether Northern Ireland’s infamous litany of terror groups still exists in precisely the same form.  Working class areas of Belfast, Londonderry and other towns remain under the influence of the same people, the tools of whose trade were guns and bombs.

The latest controversy concerns the murder this month of Kevin McGuigan, an ex-IRA member who was widely believed to have been responsible for killing Gerard ‘Jock’ Davison, the Provisionals’ commander in the Short Strand area of Belfast.  The Police Service of Northern Ireland alleges that IRA members helped murder McGuigan, in league with an organisation called Action Against Drugs.

The PSNI has issued a rather confusing sequence of statements, confirming the continued existence of the IRA and its members’ ongoing involvement in crime, while simultaneously claiming that the Provisionals, “promote a peaceful, political republican agenda”.  Action Against Drugs, the police say, is a criminal organisation without links to the Provos.  Yet they also claim that the IRA ‘co-operated’ with AAD, to murder Kevin McGuigan.    

It’s a lesson in the type of ‘constructive ambiguity’ upon which the political process in Northern Ireland has always been built. 

Enough doubt about the provenance of the plot to murder McGuigan has been raised to allow Sinn Féin to deny that the IRA was involved.  In fact republican politicians are rushing to assert that the organisation no longer exists in any meaningful form.  The contrast to Gerry Adams’ famous threat, “they haven’t gone away you know”, has been rehearsed ad nauseum.

From the unionist perspective, the main political parties greeted allegations of IRA involvement with ill-disguised glee.  There is a predictable cast of politicians relishing republicans’ discomfort, irrespective of any serious consequences for Northern Ireland.

The DUP has been talking up the notion of Sinn Féin being excluded from the Executive, but any ‘exclusion motion’ would require cross community support in the Assembly, which is unlikely to materialise in the current circumstances.  The Secretary of State could table such a motion, or act to end power-sharing on the basis that the IRA breached its ceasefire, but Theresa Villiers will take advice from the PSNI Chief Constable, who has already distanced his force from suggestions that the 
Provisionals are still involved in paramilitarism.

The Executive will only collapse if unionist ministers refuse to work with Sinn Féin and that requires an appetite to step away from Stormont, with its salaries, expenses and the sense of self-importance that accompanies the office of MLA.  It will only happen if the parties feel there is a serious risk they will lose voters’ support by continuing to share power with republicans.   

The McGuigan murder might not cause Stormont to fall, but it does expose the disfiguring influence that paramilitaries still have in Northern Ireland.  Rather than political violence, the focus may now be on organised crime and third sector salaries, but whole working class communities, particularly in Belfast, remain firmly in the grip of former terrorists.  It’s an ongoing problem for our society, which politicians have chosen for the most part to ignore. 

Thursday, 20 August 2015

Yerevan: laid-back, pink and an ideal base for exploring Armenia

Yerevan, capital of the Republic of Armenia, is a cheerful place to visit in summertime.  The city, many of whose buildings are constructed out of a distinctive pink stone known as tuff, is laid-back and full of parks and cafes.

Republic Square, Opera Square and The Cascades, a giant stairway decorated with fountains and artworks, form an axis, running at a diagonal to Yerevan’s grid system.  These hubs are linked by a modern avenue of swanky shops.  If you’re tempted to clothe your children at ‘Armani Kids’, Armenia could be the country for you.

At Republic Square, crowds gather in the evenings to watch fountains ‘dance’ to lightshows and music.  Around Opera Square, people mingle in a series of outdoor watering-holes, like VIP Café, where we were moved on for (presumably) not being sufficiently important.  At the bottom of The Cascades they loiter around the artworks, older Armenians staying entertained with the odd game of backgammon and their younger counterparts making do with selfie sticks.

It’s an easy place to relax and an easier place to enjoy.  But it’s difficult not to be confronted (and appalled) by some of Armenia’s darker history as well.

Those dancing fountains are overlooked by enlarged photographs, at the front of the History Museum, depicting notable citizens killed during the Armenian Genocide.  The purple ‘forget me not’ flower, designed to mark the centenary of the genocide, is visible across the city.  It would be a neglectful visitor who failed to visit Tsitsernakaberd, the Armenian Genocide Memorial and Museum, which stands on a hill, overlooking central Yerevan.     

The museum at Tsitsernakaberd describes atrocities committed against Armenians in Turkey, during the first world war, from an Armenian perspective.  The story includes a background of oppression by Ottoman authorities, preceding 1915, and the genocide’s ‘dark aftermath’.  It’s a deeply affecting exhibit, stirring strong emotions among some members of the Armenian diaspora who visited while we were there.     

Like the Holocaust for Jews, the genocide is understandably a defining event for Armenians.  Their sense of grievance is particularly acute, because Turkey denies that genocide took place.

Recognition in the wider international community is also patchy.  The UK’s Parliament, for instance, has never formally recognised that the massacres comprise ‘genocide’, although the institutions in all three devolved regions have.  The situation is similar in the US, where 43 states recognise the Armenian genocide and the President has spoken of his personal conviction that genocide took place, but hasn’t moved to recognise it formally. 

As far as Armenia is concerned, genocide recognition constitutes ‘unfinished business’.

Outside the museum, the memorial consists of a circle of twelve huge stone slabs, representing ‘lost’ Armenian provinces in modern Turkey, which loom protectively over an eternal flame.  A towering, needle shaped ‘stele’, in two parts, symbolises the ‘rebirth’ of the Armenian nation, following the slaughter.

The complex contains reminders of more recent conflicts too.  On the avenue leading to the genocide memorial, there is a monument to the first Armenian soldiers killed during the war in Nagorno-Karabakh.  Armenia and Azerbaijan clashed over the disputed republic, as the Soviet Union fell apart in the late 1980s and early 1990s. 

While the genocide has left an indelible mark on modern Armenians, the most enduring pillar of Armenian identity is the Armenian Apostolic Church.  Armenia is said to be the first nation to adopt Christianity as a state religion.   The country’s ecclesiastical buildings are among its most popular attractions. 

Geghard monastery, for instance, is a short drive from Yerevan.  Its churches and cells are built partly into the rocky mountains which form its backdrop.  Geghard also boasts a fine collection of medieval khachkars, distinctively Armenian flat stones, decorated with the cross and other motifs, including almost dizzyingly intricate interlacing patterns. 

There was something rather Celtic about the khachkars and there are theories that monks from eastern churches travelled to the British Isles and influenced early Christian art in Ireland and Northumbria.  At Kathoghike Church, the oldest surviving church building in Yerevan, we had a brief conversation with a friendly Armenian priest who implied that there were ancient religious and even racial links between people in Ireland and Armenia.

He rushed away, before we could test a hypothesis that seemed to rest on some dubious theories about the origin of both countries names.  However, there are some striking similarities between the medieval Irish Church and the Armenian Church.  Both drew upon older belief systems and practised forms of Christianity frowned upon by established churches in Rome and Constantinople.

Philip Marsden’s brilliant book, Crossing Place: A Journey Among the Armenians, takes fascinating detours through several heresies that influenced the distinctive and independent form of Christianity which developed in Armenia.  This complicated background of traditions and symbolism made the monasteries and churches we visited, across the country, particularly interesting.

Travelling around Armenia, visitors are reminded that Armenian culture and identity have ranged far beyond the boundaries of the current republic.  It is now a small country, which can be explored comfortably from its charming capital, Yerevan.  It is also a land with varied landscapes and absorbing traditions, which blends the atmospheres of the Middle East and Europe.       

Tuesday, 11 August 2015

Prometheus and Pushkin: visiting Kazbek and Kazbegi

Some of the people traditionally most opposed to the idea that the Caucasus is in Europe were French alpinists.  Mount Elbrus is generally now recognised as the highest European mountain, and five other peaks, including three in Georgia, are taller than Mont Blanc, the only mountain from outside the Caucasus range to make the top 10.  One of these Georgian giants is Mount Kazbek, which towers above the Terek River valley and a small town called Stepantsminda, commonly known by its former name, Kazbegi. 

To reach this region from Tbilisi it’s necessary to take the Georgian Military Highway, whose high passes were the Russian Empire’s overland route into Georgia and Armenia. Charles King’s history of the Caucasus, The Ghost of Freedom, describes postal caravans, heavily militarised and including everyone from diplomats to curious foreign tourists, which formed in Vladikavkaz to take mail south.  The poet, Alexander Pushkin, was one visitor who joined such a convoy.

We travelled in the opposite direction, rounding hair-pin bends in a shared taxi, until we left wooded mountains close to Tbilisi and climbed toward the high peaks.   The road has a reputation for danger and, even on a dry, clear day during the summer there were breath-taking moments: risky overtaking manoeuvres, herds of cattle wandering across the carriageway and roadworks which reduced its surface to miles of undulating gravel. 

Close to Kazbegi we encountered a queue of trucks stretching for some miles, destined for the Russian border a short distance ahead.  They had number plates from countries across the former Soviet Union and beyond, but a high proportion seemed to be from Ukraine, and Georgian officials were working their way slowly down the line.  Our driver swung his car out into the middle of the road and roared past the lot, on into the town.

In Tbilisi, the image of Gergeti Trinity Church, set against the bulk of Kazbek and its snowy cone, is ubiquitous on postcards, fridge magnets and other tourist tat.  It’s impossible, though, for those images to capture the scale of the landscape, viewed in person from Kazbegi. 

Anonymous foothills, rising just above the tree-line, were high; more so alpine meadows and craggy peaks.  The church sat on a promontory of mountain grass and scree, far above Gergeti village, which itself looked down a steep hillside toward Kazbegi, in the distance.  And Kazbek, beyond yet more layers of climbing highlands, loured behind cloud, impossibly high, sometimes silhouetted against the sun and sometimes invisible beyond a long tongue of dirty white glacier.

The most popular excursion from Stepantsminda is to Gergeti Church.  It’s a 6km trek up steep paths and a rutted jeep track, although many people prefer to roar past walkers at high speed in an endless stream of Lada Nivas.  When we set out, the church was obscured entirely but, as we climbed, the cloud lifted and its movement throughout the day meant the views were constantly changing.

Georgia’s Orthodox tradition shares with other branches of eastern Christianity a love of building churches in remote and inaccessible locations.  At 2,210 metres above sea level, Tsminda Sameba, or Holy Trinity, is the archetypal example.  Perhaps the idea of constructing religious buildings in such high, difficult places was so monks and priests would be closer to God, or maybe it was for more practical, defensive reasons.  Supposedly holy relics were taken to the 14th century church at Gergeti for safe-keeping, at times of extreme danger to Georgia. 

Just across a dipping meadow behind the complex, lies a ridge leading up toward Kazbek’s glacier and, eventually, its peak.  Greek myth says that Prometheus, who stole fire from Mount Olympus and gave it to mankind, was chained to a mountain in the Caucasus range, as punishment.  The story echoes a Georgian legend about Amirani, who was imprisoned on Kazbek after challenging God.  Georgia’s tourist board (among others) are adamant that Kazbek is therefore the mountain of Prometheus.  There is a tradition among Georgians that the peak is holy and its snowy cone is a perfect setting for the myth.

The path along the ridge provided some solitude after crowds of walkers we’d encountered on the way to Gergeti Church.  We trekked much further than initially planned, past the high pastures and almost to the bottom of the glacier, which lay just beyond another outcrop and the noisy rush of a mountain stream.  Almost 3,000 metres above sea level, the climb was getting difficult and Holy Trinity lay far below, while Kazbegi was tiny, 20 kilometres in the distance.

It took several more hours before we made it back to the town’s main square, named after its celebrated resident, the Georgian writer Alexander Kazbegi.  We drank a well-deserved beer beneath his statue, in early evening mizzle. 

Stepantsminda’s fortunes declined and then recovered again, after the USSR’s collapse.  The streets sloping down toward the Terek River were still filled with abandoned houses and disused sanatoria, dating from the town’s heyday as a Soviet retreat, but new businesses were opening and we stayed in a stylish hotel, dominating one side of the valley.  There were a clutch of restaurants and bars around the main square, as well as the usual assortment of small-town, post-Soviet mini-marts, one strangely called ‘Google Supermarket’ and (probably) infringing copyright by using the tech giant’s logo!      

The town is a few miles from the Russian border and many of its visitors were from Russia, yet there were still hints of Georgia’s recent politics.  One night we ate in an otherwise friendly and exceptionally jolly bar, packed with Israelis and Russians, which displayed a Banderite, Ukrainian nationalist symbol.  There were other similar curiosities around culture and language. 

Of course Stepantsminda's history is bound closely to its northern neighbour.  The Alexander Kazbegi museum draws upon the author’s life, which took him to Moscow and St Petersburg, before he wrote a novel, The Patricide, about a bandit called Koba.  The Georgian Bolshevik Iosif Jugashvili, later known to the world as Josef Stalin, adopted the name as his revolutionary pseudonym.  

The lore and identity of the Caucasus is famously shaped by its highlands and its highlanders.  This wild southern borderland is a fixture in the Russian imagination as well, infusing the literary works of Pushkin, Lermontov, Tolstoy and others.  No trip to Georgia would be complete without visiting the mountains and Kazbegi is a spectacularly evocative destination in the High Caucasus. 


In Tbilisi take the metro to Dedubi Plaza where there is a bus-station.  Marshrutki and shared taxis leave for Kazbegi from here.

The Rooms Hotel Kazbegi is its only international standard accommodation, though there are plenty of B & Bs.

Shared taxis and marshrutki back to Tbilisi leave from Alexander Kazbegi Square.  A tai should cost 80 lari, otherwise you may be getting ripped off.