Wednesday, 10 December 2014

A viva in English Literature

I just had my PhD viva last week and I'm happy to say that it went very well: it was one of those great times in life when the best case scenario comes true. I did notice though that there was very little advice (that I could find) specifically on English Literature PhD vivas and the finishing stages so here are some of my thoughts on the matter. My PhD was on science fiction specifically, so I had various fields to consider in advance: my author (William Gibson), the field of science fiction studies, the various theories that I'd brought into each chapter, critical theory and philosophical issues. This could feel a bit overwhelming at times, but I managed to get through it without too much worry.

In a lot of the advice I read about vivas in preparation for my own they emphasise the importance of a good PhD thesis to the viva process. Of course, having a good thesis is the best way to stand yourself in good stead. However, recognising that your thesis is a good one can be difficult after the years you've spent on it and the fear that may be building as the viva approaches. I found that the nature of viva preparation brings your focus to the shakiest parts of your thesis. I'm not just talking about the places where your writing falters, or where you've misspelled someone's name - I'm talking about the parts where you've used a theory that you don't know encyclopaedically, or where you name-dropped a novel in the 'Future Research' section that you haven't actually read. Focussing on these shortcomings or wobbly areas can make you feel like you don't know much. You need to bring your focus to what you do know if you start feeling overwhelmed. This is the vast majority of your thesis, the bulk of your original work, and the topic your examiners will ask you about in most detail. I found it helpful to run through these questions the day before, it really made me realise how much I had to say. If you can manage these questions in a relatively fluent way then I think your viva prep is done and it's time to relax and get some sleep.

The most important thing to do in the days running up to the viva is to stay calm. I was in a strange situation at my viva, in that one of the examiners was having some problems which threw his availability into doubt. I had a phone call the day before warning me that we might not be able to go ahead with it at the scheduled time - in fact, it might have had to be rescheduled for after Christmas. Needless to say this uncertainty was not welcome in the moment, but it did allow me to stay calm. Every time the nerves started to ramp up I just reminded myself to cheer up, because it might not even happen. Of course, not everyone finds themselves in this position and most people wouldn't want to, but it might be a useful tactic to imagine that your examiners may come down with a flu and have to cancel - this way you can stop yourself from freaking out more than necessary.

When I was talking about the viva with my dad and my sister the week before I mentioned being nervous about being asked a question that I had no idea how to answer. My sister suggested that I bring a pocketful of glitter with me and throw it in the examiners' faces to confuse and distract them if I was at a loss. I did have one 'glitter moment' when I was asked how I would develop the relationship between William Gibson's work and posthumanism, a connection that I begin to describe in the thesis. I had no idea, in that moment, of how I could possibly say anything more than had already been said in the thesis. I could have prepared for this if I'd had the foresight, but it wasn't something I'd contemplated in advance. If this happens to you, do not panic! Help is at hand in the shape of your trusty thesis. Don't be afraid to repeat what you've already done, and any developments you suggest for future research in the conclusion. In the moment it's hard to focus on what you've already achieved in your thesis because you know that the examiners have read it, and you imagine that they don't need to hear you going on about your theories all over again. However, part of the goal of the viva is to check that you wrote your thesis yourself, so repeating yourself is not a crime. It gives you some familiar ground to walk on in a moment of uncertainty while showing the examiners that you really know your stuff.

Good luck to anyone going through this process, I know it's not easy - but it will feel so worth it when you make it through to the other side.

Monday, 30 June 2014

Why I'm a feminist Wings Over Scotland fan

To be honest, I started writing this post a couple of months ago but I didn't have the guts to finish it until I read this amazing blog post by Wee Ginger Dug. He really inspired me to get a move on and publish this, so here's why I'm a feminist and also a dedicated reader of the site Wings Over Scotland and a supporter of its founder, Stuart Campbell.

Some readers will be aware of accusations against Stu Campbell of 'transphobia, homophobia and misogyny'. I won't get into the first two claims too much since I think that conversation is for gay people, such as Wee Ginger Dug, and trans people too, but as a life-long feminist and someone who has taken part in feminist activism over the last few years I can say that Campbell isn't a misogynist in my eyes. Of course, like all of us he's been raised in a patriarchal society and he has doubtless internalised some misogynist values, as have we all, but his behaviour in public life is nearly always laudable and, in my view, always at least excusable.

At the risk of going on about trans rights when I said I wouldn't, the only criticism I'm going to link to here is that published on the A Thousand Flowers blog concerning Campbell's misgendering of Chelsea Manning. This article, unlike some of the others against Campbell, is based on the evidence of a Twitter conversation and never descends into mindless vitriol. It's the most fair-minded of the criticisms against him and there was one line that particularly stood out for me on the subject of misgendering and trans rights:

We know by now, surely? We know, don’t we?! Apparently we don’t. 

I would just add, 'no, we REALLY don't'. There are communities of feminists and activists who share a detailed and nuanced understanding of trans rights, but outside of these right-on pockets progress continues to be limited. I think Campbell's lack of knowledge is completely unsurprising given his background  and hardly constitutes an incitement to violence; to me, if anything, it suggests the need for awareness of trans rights to be taught in school (I certainly never heard trans people ever mentioned in my school, let alone their rights) and for greater awareness throughout society of concepts like misgendering and the use of pronouns.

His defensive response to being corrected has probably caused as much ire as the original tweet, but it's hardly news that people act defensively when challenged on the internet. Only one side of the conversation is shown on the A Thousand Flowers blog so we're lacking context. Either way though, I think this kind of reaction is something that we, as feminists and as people living in a society, should think about. People don't like being told how to express themselves. There is a debate to be had about how we can promote equal rights and discourage microaggressions without becoming the language police. And this isn't a 'more flies with honey' appeal, it's because there's something a bit totalitarian about judging people on their failure to adopt your language wholesale. A human being is not a sum of all the things they've ever posted on the internet. I study English at university but I don't think you need to have an in-depth knowledge of the subject to realise that treating a person as a text is dehumanizing and in this case has led to efforts (albeit counter-productive efforts) to dismiss someone's life work, to kick someone out of public life and render them verboten on the basis of a handful of out-of-context comments. Remarkably only a handful, given that we are talking about a white, male, videogames journalist who has been on the internet basically since it became available for public use. I've been on Facebook for ten years and I'm pretty sure that if someone were to trawl through my posts in the same way as Campbell's have been analysed they would find many things that could be read as sexist or homophobic, especially when taken out of context. It's a pretty bland life on the internet (or off it, for that matter) that leaves no traces of controversy anywhere in its annals.

There's also something a bit worrying about calls to boycott Campbell's site. Now, if you don't like the tone of the website or if you find Campbell's statements elsewhere to be unacceptable to your politics then fair enough, don't go on his site. But I've been recently made to feel by a couple of people that I'm somehow less of a woman or less of a feminist for failing to adopt their position. It's worth pointing out that there are no ads on Campbell's site for third parties, so he doesn't get paid by the click. He only gets paid if you actively donate money to him or buy his merchandise. It seems like the only reason to 'boycott' the site, therefore, is that it's not your cup of tea (a personal decision that you're totally entitled to make) or because you don't want to stroke his ego. The second reason seems to be cutting off your nose to spite your face - I personally don't care about Campbell's ego and the thought of giving it a wee electronic stroke now and again isn't going to put me off perusing the best and most thorough analysis of the media narrative that we are lucky enough to have in the debate, despite the slightly creepy imagery that I've just used. I feel like that's my decision to make and, once again, I think we should consider our position when we find ourselves proscribing other people's behaviour so closely when no harm can come of using this website.

So, finally to the Wings Over Scotland website itself. I consider this website to be one of the safest spaces for feminists on the internet. Seriously. When allegations about 'misogyny' on Campbell's part first came out I was concerned. I've read pretty much every article on the website for the past 5 months or so, I check it nearly every day, but could something have slipped my attention? My first reaction was to go to the website and search for Johann Lamont's name. Anyone who has spent the shortest amount of time as a feminist on the internet will know that nothing brings out the sexist abuse like a female politician on the 'wrong' side of the debate. However, criticism of Johann Lamont based on appearance or gendered language is notably muted on the site. Not only that, but when one ventures below the line the comments are remarkably short of gender-based criticism. There are a few examples of people saying 'hey, where did my comment go?' so my suspicion is that, rather than Wings readers being universally gender-blind or at least too polite to mention it, Campbell is doing a great job of moderating the website into a nice place to be. This is on a website that had advertising pulled from the Glasgow underground after a single complaint that the site (the site mind, not Campbell himself) was 'transphobic' and 'misogynist'. You can see why Wings fans were a bit miffed about the injustice of that, especially given that the advertising was paid for with their money.

You might think 'okay, so the guy isn't a bigot. But still, why have you spent all this time defending him, don't you have better things to do?'. Well the answer to that question is probably, but I couldn't help myself. I have never met Stu Campbell irl, but when I do I'll be shaking his hand. I am utterly grateful to him for the work he's done. Over the last few months his site has been one of the best resources for me as a campaigner and as a fledgling nationalist. The site is funny, and moving and passionate - partly because of the distinctive tone adopted by Campbell, one that some of his critics seem to have confused with a wish to make the site all about him. It's well-researched and referenced and accessible. Basically, the site represents part of the future of Scotland that I want to see. Let's remind ourselves (or, in case any of those folk are reading who proudly say they don't visit Wings while lambasting those of us that do, here you go for the first time):

On gay marriage and the SNP:

This blog can think of no greater tribute to bestow on any government than that it’s prepared to lose votes, and considerable numbers of them, to do the right thing. We salute it without reservation.

On feminism:

It's traditional when one is male and advancing supposedly-controversial arguments like this to proclaim oneself to be a feminist. Well, I'm not. I despise all forms of sectarianism and discrimination and I always have. I'm an egalitarian – I believe men and women of all colours and persuasions to be fundamentally and self-evidently of equal worth and merit and entitled to all and exactly the same rights.

Of course, I would love it if everyone understood the goals of feminism and proclaimed themselves unreserved allies - but being for equal rights is my second favourite choice. This is the man who has been subject to so many, many accusations on the internet over the last wee while in the name of feminism. I can't remember such vitriol ever being aimed at David Cameron from the feminist community, even though his policies are closing rape crisis centres, and leaving women unable to feed their kids, and getting rid of public sector jobs that would otherwise be giving security and decent pensions to women in Scotland. This is why critics of Wings are thought, by some, to be unionists in varying levels of disguise. Why else would Wings be your target? He's just a normal guy with a very special website. Don't use it if you don't want to, but please respect my choice to consider him a friend. He's helping us get closer to a Yes vote, to childcare that doesn't cost an arm and a leg and a would-be career. Towards a society that doesn't target women by bringing in policies that specifically discriminate against them. I see Scottish independence as a step towards a more equal society, and I know Wings does too from all the hours I've spent on the site. Campbell is an honorary ally in my eyes, whether he likes it or not, and there's a pint with his name on it if he ever finds himself with some time on his hands in Dundee.

Sunday, 25 May 2014

Universities: After Independence

I generally do my very best to keep my referendum debating on an intellectual level, rather than giving in to the passions. But that's a very difficult thing to do when people use this debate to put their own vested interests before the greater good of Scotland and its people. I had a moment of animosity when I heard about the group of 14 medical academics who have written a letter repeating the scaremongering claims of Better Together who claim that Scottish universities would lose out on funding in an independent Scotland. I will say up front that what follows in this post is based on my experiences as a final year PhD student and some people might dispute those experiences - but the voices of postgraduate students and early career researchers should not be sidelined from this debate; after all, it is us more than any other group who will have to deal with new funding structures or the continuation of Westminster control of the universities.

University funding has been cut by Westminster over the last few years, and this is set to continue as every mainstream party is committed to the ideological imposition of austerity. In England this has been partly compensated through student fees, but the Scottish government's commitment to free higher education means that we don't have that cushion, and nor should we seek to subsidize universities by ransacking students' futures. With the powers of independence we can make sure that our universities are properly and publicly funded.

We can also reverse the marketisation of funding allocation itself. I don't think many people know this, but since 2009 universities have been controlled by the same Westminster department as businesses through the Department of Business and Innovation. Universities have been infected with a business-led mindset, with researchers required to prove the financial potential of their projects before they get their funding. This does not make any sense. All scientific discoveries begin life as theories with no practical applications. Projects with clear applications decided in advance benefit from this, but more innovative, explorative research does not. Even more ridiculously, the humanities are forced to follow this model. I heard of a poet working with a university whose poetry was displayed throughout the Chinese transport system. When this was included in the impact statement the board simply said it was worth nothing because the university couldn't prove that pounds and pence had been generated by the project.

The UK university sector is also crippled by the country's weakened manufacturing sector which leaves it unable to take advantage of innovative patents through research into applications. The coalition's immigration policies are damaging to further education as non-EU students find other places to study; they don't particularly wish to spend their postgrad years filling out endless visa forms, being persecuted because of their country of origin, and then being forced to leave as soon as they finish their studies. Scotland could benefit by inviting these young, talented, and well-educated people to stay on and contribute to our communities.

So an independent Scotland could bring benefits to the university sector. I've heard someone say that, even if the situation was better in the long term, there would still be some disruption during the 18 month negotiation period and this might bring some people towards a No vote. To me this is like saying that you won't bother going out for a delicious dinner because you might get rained on on the way to the car. We are making a decision that will last for hundreds of years and to throw away the opportunities on offer for the sake of an 18 month period of disruption beggars belief.

So this is why it makes me angry when I hear of senior academics throwing their weight behind the No camp. I went to a careers event recently for PhD students and early career researchers. We were told about the difficulty of getting full time posts. Jobs are being cut in universities thanks to the austerity of Westminster and the business-focused mindset of university managers. Voluntary redundancy will benefit those on permanent contracts nearing retirement age as they are offered favorable conditions - but what does this leave for the next generation as the posts are then deleted? Zero hours contracts are used and often mean that young teachers at universities are paid less than the minimum wage, as they are only paid for contact time, not for preparation. One woman at the careers event told us that she was currently on SIX zero hours contracts which means that she almost never gets a day off, but yet struggles to pay her rent due to the insecurity of her position. We were also told that we would have to decide how much work we are willing to do for free - how far we are willing to be exploited - in the hopes that our free work will result in paid work. Not a contract mind you, but payment alone is something we must now aspire to.

This is the environment faced by PhD students and early career researchers in the UK. And this is the model that senior academics think fit to defend? To me it's an absolute disgrace. They deny young researchers the chance to work, they deny future generations of students the chance to learn in a properly-staffed institution with an emphasis on intellectual environment. Students are already being treated as consumers, their learning is mere intellectual capital, only useful insofar as it directly benefits the economy. Critical thinking, imagination and intellectual creativity are no longer encouraged since they cannot be measured in pounds and pence. Academics speaking out for the status quo should take a good hard look at themselves - our training means that we should be ideally placed to be the architects of a new society. If you want to fight to change the system as part of the UK I can respect that. I personally see real change as achievable in an independent Scotland, but you're entitled to your view. But if you fight to maintain the status quo I cannot see your point of view, I can only imagine that you are acting out of the most base self interest.

Academics should have the imagination to see what Scotland can be, the creativity to make sure universities remain seats of learning, not conveyor belts spewing out more robots to maintain the system as it stands. If we are already too close-minded to see options beyond the status quo, then the marketization of our universities is already complete.

Better Together: The Facts You Need To Know

I was speaking to a friend of mine a couple of weeks ago and she told me that, after a conversation with a Better Together campaigner (apparently they exist!) she'd decided to vote No. We were out with a big crowd in the pub so I didn't manage to find out the specific arguments that had won her over. But, luckily, my mum got a Better Together leaflet in her paper yesterday entitled The Facts You Need To Know that contains the top ten positive reasons for staying in the UK. I decided to write a rebuttal to each of the ten points and email it to her in the hopes that it'll encourage her to do some more research. But then, I spent about an hour writing it so it seemed a shame not to spread it a bit wider in case it could be of use to anyone else, so I'm posting it below. Of course, you could write a thesis on each of these points and I use some arguments that not all Yes campaigners will agree with (corporation tax, for example), but posting anyway. Feel free to pass on/copy/edit as you will.

1.        A successful Scottish parliament AND a strong UK. This argument really focuses on size; it says that being part of a bigger economy we can be more secure. However, of the top 20 most successful countries in the world 9 of them are the same size or smaller than Scotland. The success of an economy isn’t dependent on its size so much as its structure, its regulation, and the priorities of its government. For a successful Scotland we need more working age people, something we are denied under Westminster’s immigration policies (which are not set to improve after UKIP’s recent local election victories). It is also dependent on taxes which are relevant to the country’s needs – under Westminster’s offer of further devolution after a No vote (if they ever come through with it) we would only be allowed to raise taxes, and those taxes would go straight to Westminster, they wouldn’t be kept by Holyrood to use on specifically Scottish initiatives. We can’t create tax incentives for businesses that way, or give tax cuts to the poor.
2.       Higher spending AND Scottish priorities. This point is simply a lie. The main parties in Westminster (the Tories, Lib Dems and Labour) are all committed to austerity that will mean further public spending cuts and job losses over the next 5-10 years.  Also, at the moment for every pound Scotland sends to Westminster in taxes we only get 70p back to spend on our public services. There is *no way* that a No vote will amount to higher spending in Scotland. There is also *no way* that a No vote can result in a greater focus on Scottish priorities than a politically-empowered Scotland could deliver.
3.       More jobs AND more customers. This claim implies that the rest of the UK would boycott Scottish goods in the event of independence. What a load of rubbish! But practically, the rest of the UK would not be able to create barriers to trade between Scotland and the rest of the UK without harming the rUK economy. It would have a more adverse effect on the rUK than the 2008 recession and would amount to economic vandalism. As for more jobs; I already said that Westminster austerity will lead to further job losses (especially in the public sector) over the next decade. As well as this, the Scottish government will still have its hands tied when it comes to implementing tax structures and other regulations that would specifically improve Scottish job prospects.
4.       Influence AND impact. This point relates to Scotland’s place in the world, both through the UN and the EU. Actually the Tories are talking about holding an in-out referendum on the EU in the next few years so chances are that a No vote could lead to us leaving the EU (whether Scotland wants to or not). This is more likely to hamper Scottish exports and Scottish jobs than becoming independent; not to mention putting a stop to that immigration that the Scottish economy needs to grow and flourish. As an independent Scotland we would have more European Members of Parliament (Scotland currently has the same number as Malta, despite the fact that their population is only half a million) and those MEPs could fight for Scotland’s interests. At the moment those interests are too often sacrificed or ignored as Westminster continues to fight for whatever benefits London and the South East.
5.       More security AND a force for good in the world. This one actually makes me laugh. And then rage. The Westminster government led us to war in Iraq – despite the fact that it was against UN resolutions and the vast majority of public opinion. This led to the 7/7 bombings, the attempted attack on Glasgow airport and the killing of Lee Rigby. The idea that the UK is a force for good in the world is laughable and Scotland would actually be safer once we cut the ties from Westminster’s belligerent efforts to maintain a position on the world stage that was, in reality, lost with the empire. What we *could* do to make the world a safer place is vote Yes, which would (if timed correctly) force the UK to give up Trident altogether since they don’t have anywhere to keep it. Nuclear disarmament is a far clearer way towards world peace and security than trying to be the world police with Westminster. It’s also worth pointing out that defence would be better provided after independence. We currently send £3bn in taxes to the Ministry of Defence but only £2bn is spent in Scotland. SNP policy is to spend £2.5bn on defence so that we would have more jobs and better equipment. We could also have a proper navy, something that Scotland lacks at the moment since all the above water navy is based in Portsmouth (not much good if Scotland was invaded!).  We would be safer on every level with independence. We should be thinking about our place in a cooperative international community, rather than trying to hold on to the supremacy of the British Empire.
6.       Lower licence fee AND more programmes. The Scottish government have said that there is no reason for the licence fee to rise after independence. Of course, these things are open to negotiation but the change in price would be negligible. We would also be able to buy in all the programmes we want from the BBC, as Ireland does at the moment. However, this point misses something really important. Scotland really suffers from having an English-centric broadcaster. When you go to Ireland you can see how there is so much more investment in the culture – whether it be arts or sport – and that is partly based on TV interest. We need to have a Scottish broadcaster anyway if we go independent, just so that we can be fully informed of the goings-on at Holyrood and make sure our politicians are held accountable – but spending vastly greater sums of money on Scottish programming will reinvigorate Scottish arts, drama, comedy, sport, films… the list goes on. I think this will create jobs in time, and it will also help us to address Scottish problems by shining a light on Scottish society. Too many people are being left behind at the moment, their stories need to be told so we can think about how to promote integration in our society.
7.       Better universities AND more investment. Our universities are world class and independence will do nothing to change that. Funding goes to projects which will reap the greatest rewards, it’s not allocated on the basis of spite or politics. I actually think independence is a great opportunity to improve the university funding system which, to my mind, has become too market-orientated. We need to protect our citizen’s rights to a free university education and protect the public spending allocated to universities. This has been cut by 10% under the current government and continued austerity, whether under Labour or the Tories, will continue to damage our university sector, costing us jobs and reputations.
8.       Lower fuel bills AND more jobs. Again, this is just rubbish. Westminster shows no signs of capping bills or of building properly-insulated green housing. Taxes on green energy are also based on distance from Westminster, so that the green energy industry in Scotland is stifled. Scotland’s resources are being under-used at the moment but with the powers of independence we can develop these sectors to provide jobs, to help the environment and to have a higher quality of life. I think that a Scottish government, taking account of Scotland’s specific qualities and resources will be better placed to make the most of those resources than a Westminster government for whom we are normally an afterthought at best. We will also have more jobs through the SNP’s childcare proposals as many more child minders will need to be hired. This produces more jobs while allowing more women to rejoin the workforce after childbirth, thereby leading to higher tax revenues and a healthier economy – as well as happier individual women who are not burdened with the full responsibilities of childcare.
9.       A Scottish NHS AND the specialist treatment you need. As someone who works for the Keep Our NHS Public Campaign I’ve watched over the last 8 years as NHS England has been dismantled and prepared for privatization. GPs in England are now debating about whether to charge for appointments, and English patients already paying for prescriptions and eye tests which are free at the point of use in Scotland. The Scottish parliament has managed to protect the Scottish NHS from this marketization so far, but with continued austerity from Westminster I don’t know whether that will be possible in the long term. As for using the English health system, as European citizens we currently have a right to treatment anywhere in the EU so we could still use English services if we were down there on holiday, just as we could elsewhere in the EU.

10.   Keep the pound AND keep interest rates lower. We could also keep the pound in an independent Scotland, whether as part of a currency union (subject to negotiation with the rUK, but likely given that they’d lose 10% of their economy overnight if they didn’t make an agreement) or we could use it informally (with or without the consent of the rUK government).  Better Together claim that an informal currency union or our own currency would make it more costly to trade with the rUK – all the more reason that they should be in favour of a currency union since more costly trading between iScotland and rUK would hurt them just as much as it would hurt us. I would personally be for creating our own currency since that would mean we could make our own monetary policy without consulting the Bank of England, but a currency union is by far the more likely scenario unless Westminster politicians manage to cut off their noses to spite their faces without the financial, economic and business establishments standing in their way. 

Monday, 5 May 2014

Anti-Englishness, or 'what about teh menz?'

As a feminist keeping a weather eye on the independence debate it's very interesting to see some derailing tactics often deployed against women raising their ugly heads against Yes voters as they try to get their points across with little help from the mainstream media - except for the Sunday Herald, we love you!

One can read the 'cybernats' attacks as analogous to dismissal of feminists as loud/angry/unfeminine: 'How dare you disrupt the polite conversation being had between the nice, powerful men? Please do be quiet, your self-expression and attempts at equality/democracy are unseemly.'

But another more interesting analogy is one that I'd like to make here; whenever I hear an argument about anti-Englishness I think about those uneducated knee-jerk misogynists and dedicated trolls who derail feminist arguments with cries of 'what about teh menz?'

For anyone unfamiliar with the 'what about teh menz' argument, people who hold this viewpoint argue that feminist discussions should be redirected to talk about the problems faced by men. So, if you're having a conversation about unequal pay, for example, a 'what about teh menz' man will enter the conversation to claim that entry level jobs (such as waiting tables or being a secretary) are easier for women to get. What about the problems men face?! These people seem incapable of understanding that a conversation among women about feminist issues might not be the best place to unpack the pros and cons of masculinity. It is the job of the patient feminist to explain gender relations to this interloper, backed up with reports, facts and figures. Or she can tell him to get lost, do his own research and stop whining once he realizes he's being a massive tool.

In the regularly resurrected straw man of anti-Englishness the Bitter Together campaign have found their 'what about teh menz'. Let me explain how I see these arguments as analogous.

In the UK being English is a more privileged position than being Scottish. Or Welsh. Or Irish. We can probably zero in further and argue that being Thames Estuary English and the accent that comes with it is the most privileged background for a citizen of the UK to occupy, geographically. Thames Estuary English people are the implicit audience of BBC broadcasts (as opposed to those of us who get 'the news where you are' - not where the BBC is in London, presumably), and many broadcasts are delivered to them in their own accents. This is the default state in the UK, the assumed citizen, as men occupy the default gender under patriarchy.

One might ask whether the privilege of being a Thames Estuary English person applies in Scotland. Well, there is significant evidence for this. Alasdair Gray was lambasted for his comments about the 'colonisation' of positions by English people and I think that his point holds some truth (even if some people feel that an artist using a metaphor to discuss a heated political issue is wildly inflammatory). Listen to episode 65 of the Scottish Independence podcast featuring George Gunn, he makes a similar point. It isn't surprising that English privilege is still alive and well in Scotland; the Scottish cringe is well-documented and it's easy to imagine an English candidate coming across as more worldly-wise, more confident. It's probably easy to feel more confident when you've grown up nearer the centres of power, when your culture hasn't been sidelined as parochial. It's also worth remembering the ridiculously low life expectancy in parts of Glasgow, even compared with areas of similar deprivation in England.

And then we hear Better Together complaining about anti-Englishness from the Yes camp. I am yet to come across any of this sentiment, despite my many hours of following the #indyref hashtag on Twitter or the many new people I've met on Facebook and irl through the campaign. That's not to say such sentiments don't exist, they absolutely do, but these feelings are more often than not confined to the football pitch. James Foley and Pete Ramand point out in their book Yes: the Case for Radical Independence that English-born people are the largest 'minority' group living in Scotland but yet there is very little evidence of physical violence against them when compared to the number of racist attacks against people of other nations.

For Better Together to imply that Yes campaigners are bullying English people or stoking hate against them is as childish and dangerous an argument as those men who argue that their problems and needs should be at the foreground of feminist debate. In both cases the privileged party has to realize that, for once, it isn't all about them. Just as feminists need space to discuss the issues most pertinent to women, Yes campaigners - and Scots in general - need to use the space opened by this referendum to discuss our problems and how they might be solved, whether or not we get a Yes vote in September. Anti-Englishness should and must be called out if we come across it, but when it is being used as a pawn in Better Together's campaign strategy (assuming they have one) it should be dismissed as the dangerous nonsense it is - and as an attempt to silence a group whose needs have been too often marginalised in the past.

Thursday, 17 April 2014

The importance of 'coming out' and visibility

There's an article in today's Scotsman in which Louise Batchelor describes how she 'came out' as a supporter of Scottish independence. Louise isn't alone, many people find themselves talking about their public support of independence in this way. I've read this phrasing many times online, and I recently had a conversation with a close female relative about starting to talk about the Yes campaign with friends and work colleagues and she readily identified with this kind of feeling.

It's quite bizarre when you think about it - there are just as many people yet to make up their minds as there are people voting Yes, and yet undecideds are not depicted as odd or unusual. There are almost as many of us as there are No voters, in fact. I'm inclined, once again, to lay part of the blame for this feeling on the media as they represent support for the status quo as the 'default' state and anything that deviates from that support as, well... deviant.

However, as well as the attitude of the media, this feeling in the air, to me, exposes the deeply conservative nature of the No campaign and of the unionist argument more generally. It seems to me that they don't just want to preserve the union, they also seem to advocate a socially conservative, conformist position. There is an assumption on their part that the default state is the proper state, they ask the question that Jeanette Winterson used as the title of her memoir - Why Be Happy When You Can Be Normal?

There are two things in particular that I think the Yes campaign and all of us in the movement can learn from this. One of them is that we need to think about this idea of 'normality' and what we want to do with it. We could go about trying to reframe the debate so that the Yes position is the 'new normal' - one could argue that this is what the SNP have attempted with the gradualist approach expressed in the white paper and in their intentions to keep the monarchy and the pound. However, I think it's more important to make this about happiness than about normality. Instead, we should embrace the plurality of our country, and reject the idea of a conservative, unimaginative normality. If everyone is respected for their individuality and for the positive way that they contribute to the community then there is no need for the kind of conformism that the worship of normality imposes.

The second thing that we should take from this is the importance of visibility. When your beliefs are attacked you shouldn't hide away in shame. We should take a leaf from the traditions of gay pride and marches like Reclaim the Night or Slutwalk, we should look at the recent visible celebrations of gay marriage in England (coming not soon enough to a Scotland near you!) and celebrate our joy and excitement at the possibilities of the future. Get your badges on, your Yes wristbands, change your Facebook cover photo or just acknowledge and celebrate your position; not with the intent of making such celebrations 'normal', but in order to do away with conservative normality altogether in favour of the plural collective and of all our varied visions of what an independent Scotland could be like. After all, Why Be Normal When You Could Be Happy?

Monday, 7 April 2014

You know you're a child of 1985 when... (Or, my political autobiography)

My granny used to be a big fan of the old sitcom Keeping Up Appearances. It was about a woman called Hyacinth Bucket (pronounced 'Bouquet') and the main joke of the show was that Hyacinth was a working/lower middle class woman who pretended to be upper class. I think my old Irish granny liked it because Hyacinth was always pulled up on her bullshit, either by her down-to-earth relatives or through her own blindness and her need to put on airs. Of course, Hyacinth also represents a certain kind of person; the aspiring Tory. While Hyacinth isn't wealthy enough to benefit from any Tory policies (save, perhaps, buying her council house on the cheap), you can imagine that she might vote for them as a kind of social pretension - another sign that she was one of the 'top' people.

I bring her up because you can recognise this kind of aspiration in a certain kind of No voter. There are some No voters I've spoken to who don't really seem to care too much about the nitty gritty of fiscal autonomy or self-determination. They're merely voting No because they think of themselves as a certain kind of person, defined against the type of person they imagine a Yes voter to be. For these people the Project Fear propaganda is working in one respect; they believe that Yes voters are all football hooligans, Braveheart facepainters and cybernat bullies. The Hyacinth No voter is not that type at all, oh no, and they'll vote No just to differentiate themselves from the type of reactionary meat heads they imagine in the Yes camp. They don't want the Yes voters messing up their nice neat houses with their risks and their wacky ideas about self-determination. Not all No voters fall into this category, due to the Catholic relative conundrum, but they certainly are a factor.

I've spoken to a couple of these No voters and they're very surprised to find out that I'm voting Yes; I think because they consider my level of education and ability to speak in full sentences incompatible with their ideas of how a Yes voter should behave. So I thought I'd write another blog about my #IndyReasons, this time as a political autobiography rather than a list of benefits I imagine we'll get from independence. The Yes side has been characterised as zealous, almost evangelist, in its beliefs. Hopefully by showing my working readers will see that the passionate position I currently hold has come from years of thinking about politics, both rationally and from the gut.

I'm 28 years old. My life has been influenced by a series of important public events and all have contributed to my voting Yes on September 18th despite having no desire for independence until the referendum was announced and on the table.

The first big public event I remember was Dunblane. I was in primary school and some radio stations had headlines like 'Gunman opens fire in Scottish primary school', so most of the parents I knew suffered some kind of trauma that day that us kids didn't really understand. Some of the mums cried, others had white, drawn faces. We didn't really understand, but I think most of us, if questioned, would be committed to gun control for the rest of our lives. I wonder if the anti-Trident sentiment of people my age might have been influenced by our early education in weapons of mass destruction.

I remember the death of Donald Dewar, but I didn't understand his significance.

September 11th was the first event I watched repeatedly on the news. From then on I followed international news carefully, I saw the fallout. My first march was the march against the Iraq War in Glasgow on the 15th of February 2013. The hope of that day, the power of such a large gathering, stayed with me long afterwards but our voices went unheeded. The irony of bombing a country in the name of democracy while ignoring that level of public opposition was not lost on me. I always knew I could never vote Tory; after the bombs fell I knew I could never vote for the Labour party.

The years following were marked by small blips of hope now and again - I was naive enough to think that Gordon Brown might improve the party, and cheered him when his comment about 'that bigoted woman' came out at the 2010 election - but he soon apologised to her and disappointed me yet again by kowtowing to the xenophobic consensus of Westminster.

I was one of those taken in by Nick Clegg's performance in the pre-election debates and voted for the Lib Dems. Their coalition with the Tories, the introduction of student fees and the abandonment of their proportional representation pledge all meant that I had another party that I could never vote for again. Even the thought of having given them my vote made me feel a bit dirty afterwards.

Meanwhile in Scotland the SNP were protecting the health service from privatisation. I remember the day after prescription charges were abolished; I had a really bad case of asthma, possibly brought on by an allergy or an infection. I went to the doctor, walking slowly as it was difficult to breathe, and got a prescription. I didn't have any money, but when I told someone at my local library they checked online and told me the prescriptions were free. I went to the chemist, got my inhalers and breathed more easily. I think many people in Scotland have been breathing more easily ever since this policy was introduced.

I voted for the SNP at Holyrood because of socialist policies such as these. I have no one left to vote for at Westminster, and I see people down South trying to champion Labour, as if they intend to offer up anything different from the austerity and market politics we've had for so many years, and I feel sorry for them. I feel sorry for them because, short of revolution, they have very little to hope for from their political system. I don't see how England can change in the near future - but in Scotland the referendum has offered us hope. I finally have something I can vote for that I really believe in unreservedly, something that can finally shake up the politics of the whole UK, an intervention that has been needed for a long time.

This is why I might seem over-zealous or evangelist in my longing for a Yes vote; for the first time in my political life there is real hope on the horizon, hope of the once-in-a-lifetime variety. Of course it's emotional, of course we're passionate - this is our future.