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August 19, 2011

Back to the continental crisis

The EU crisis is deepening. Italy is succesfully managing to get its "I" back from Ireland in the PIGS group. It may be an opportunity to finally move on with fiscal and economic union, or a negative one where capital exploits a good crisis to weaken labour and democratic prerogatives - as it is happening with the Italian reforms apparently forced, in the middle of the August holiday, by the European Central Bank.

In any case - the situation is foggy and Stirling is definitely not a good observatory for the European crisis. So tomorrow I am flying back to Spain, sorry, Catalunya, for a couple of weeks. On my way back, I will stop for a week in Switzerland, for a conference and hopefully some good mountain hiking, but don't take this as a run to the Swiss Franc.

Stirling castle

August 10, 2011

Riots, politicians, sociologists

I am in Scotland, immersed in peace and nature, light-miles away from burning England. But it is impossible to ignore what’s happening there, in particular when former neighbourhoods in Birmingham are affected.

Boris Johnson, London’s Mayor, interrupted his holiday and yesterday was on the streets of London, armed with a groom as if helping to clear up the mess. He didn’t really need a groom though as he could have used his hair, but politicians are there to speak and not to clean up. He said some sensible stuff on the ‘true spirit of London’, and I would add that there is a ‘true spirit of Birmingham’ too, where it appears that three men died tonight while standing to defend their neighbourhood. But then he moved on saying that ‘it is time that people who are engaged in looting and violence stopped hearing economic and sociological justifications’.

What confusion. It is true that academic experts in the heat of events should rather not speak too much – we had a terrible example a few weeks ago with armies of ‘security’ and ‘terrorism experts’ explaining to us that the Oslo bombing was Al Queda’s work. But Johnson caught the occasion for a cheap attack on social sciences and progressive thinking, adding only to confusion.

It is not the job of social scientists to explain individual events – for that there are journalists, police investigators, judges, local authorities, and eventually historians. Even more so for contemporary events. Despite the recent stress on ‘impact’ from research authorities, the best social research actually proves its usefulness only years, sometimes decades after it is carried out: take Becker’s research on youth subcultures in the 1950s, that became topical ten years later. Sociologists, in particular, are interested in patterns, regularities of behaviour, and should never try to explain ‘everything’: human behaviour is just too unpredictable. By the way, even natural sciences can predict very little, and mostly talk of probability only. So, as sociologists we are not so much interested in the Tottenham riots, but in riots as such – in the way Simmel said they were interested in king John and not in King John. Sociologists cannot solve the ongoing riots, but can try to explain why they tend to happen in certain places and at certain time. Explaining has nothing to do with justifying, but it is necessary if we don’t want repetitions, and therefore Johnson should in the future pay more attention.

These riots remind me strongly not so much of those in the Paris banlieus in 2005, which were much more political, but, rather, those of Los Angeles in 1992: which also had as immediate cause a police killing, were aimed at shopping malls, and took place during an economic crisis. In this sense riots are an example of 'succesful' adoption of the American social model - indeed in Southern Europe they are virtually unknown. The racial element was probably stronger in Los Angeles, though: in England now there may be a significant black component, but overall looters from all ethnic groups are uniting, and thank’s God no ethnic group is being targeted by the violence (in Los Angeles it was the Koreans, and in Birmingham in 2005 there was a minor Asian-Black Caribbean riot). And without falling into justification, cuts to community social services did matter in both cases: in Tottenham, the majority of youth centres has been recently closed because of the cuts, and I can see in my Tile Hill neighbourhood in Coventry what difference a youth centre can make.

But sociologists can also tell something to some kind of leftists. I remember people so excited the Los Angeles riots footage (probably the first riot so heavily televised) that they watched them with rap soundtracks. Now, as Merton famously said, there are various kinds of ‘social deviance’, depending on whether it is on the goals or on the means. Gangs of looters are not deviants in terms of goals or values: they just want to consume more in a consumerist society. They are just deviant in terms of the means they use to achieve their socially-shared goals. In this sense, they are not unknowing allied of the Left, but actually it is its exact opposite: the radical Left should be deviant in terms of goals, but, if it is democratic, not in terms of means. And historically, let’s remember that the 1992 riots in Los Angeles finished with the intervention of the army, more repression, and a wave of ‘zero tolerance’ policing across the whole United States.

May 06, 2011

National questions, 2011

While in Québec two years ago, I watched the documentary movie Questions Nationales, comparing three ‘failed’ independent nations: Québec, Cataluña and Scotland (I confess sympathy for all three – and my wife is half-Scottish). It was clear in the public and among my Quebecer friends that the odd one among the three was Scotland: it was not serious enough. Scotland, unlike Québec and Cataluña, is not distinguished by that most important social divide that is language. It hasn’t been independent, nor fought for it, for centuries (now: Québec has never been independent, but at least it was separate 250 years ago – and it had space for some terrorist independentists in the 1970s; Cataluña was virtually independent at some stage in the violent 1930s). Paradoxically, Scotland was the only one with quite clear a constitutional right to independence – but that just proved that it was not serious: they are allowed to split because everybody knows they would never do it.

Robert The BruceFast forward to 2011. Last month, in an informal referendum on independence, just 21% of Catalans bothered to vote (91% voted yes). A couple of months earlier, in the Cataluña elections, the separatist Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya had seen its vote halved, to the advantage of the more moderate CiU and of fringe parties. Last Monday, the separatist Bloc Québécois was all but wiped out in the Canadian Federal elections: down from 47 to 4 seats. By contrast, yesterday, the Scottish National Party, won a surprising absolute majority in the Scottish Parliament. This opens the way for them to call a referendum, for 2014 or 2015, on independence. So Scotland is actually proving more serious on the independence route than the other two.

In truth, Scottish independence sounds less dramatic and attracts more smiles than anger, mostly because, economically, they are the poorer bit (the oil is running out and it is even disputed whether it will fall into the Scottish national waters once a border is drawn). It reminds of Slovakia, whose independence was fomented by the Czechs more than by the Slovaks themselves.

What is striking in all these cases is the volatility of separatist vote. OK, vote for separatist parties is not the same as vote in an actual independence referendum (in the last Québec one, in 1995, the Yes reached 49%). But still, only two months ago the SNP was seen as secure loser: after all, its main message for years had been that independence would allow Scotland to achieve the same economic results as Ireland and Iceland – not a clever thing to say right now. Two months later, people voted for them, just in order to protest against all Westminster parties. If on separatism people can change opinion with the weather (particularly changeable in Scotland...), then this is clearly no longer the serious, life or death issue it was for Garibaldi – or for Croats and Slovenians a couple of years ago. In today’s world, and especially in the EU, national independence matters little and it can depend on the mood. People can switch between multiple allegiances. The best example was Barcelona, last 11th of July. In the morning a million people demonstrated for independence. In the evening, a million people (who knows if the same or not) celebrated Spain’s World Cup victory. Which actually could suggest a good compromise: a time-share independence - Catalans during the day, and Spaniards at night.Pick your own

In such a state, the real fomenters of separatism are those who take it too seriously and provoke it, such as the conservative Constitutional Court of Spain rejecting parts of the Catalan Statute of Autonomy, otherwise approved by 95% of Catalans in a referendum. Yesterday, the same Court very narrowly (a 5-6 vote split) resisted the temptation of banning from local elections the Basque independentist Bildu, a decision which would have only radicalised independentists there and closed the political channels (it would be similar tooutlawing Sinn Féin in Northern Ireland).

As proof of how unserious independence has become, there is the debate on what name the UK should take if Scotland left (Canada and Spain have the same problem: their current names would make no sense anymore, and there are no easy substitutes). “Disunited Kingdom” and “Little Britain” look like the best options...

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