A simple test for nationalists.

A simple test for nationalists.

Brexit has changed everything. This seemingly simple referendum on our membership of a trading club has had effects much larger than many had anticipated. These are not just simple economic effects, the strength of the Pound or the change in our GDP, but major political and social changes as well. Our ‘two party’, ‘First Past the Post” parliamentary system has creaked and groaned with the strain of trying to contain the effects. The two major parties have lost their support bases and also their raison d’etre and at the same time the public has witnessed just how tawdry and self-serving the whole mess has become.

However, perhaps the biggest change is that the possible dissolution of the United Kingdom itself no longer appears improbable. It looks increasingly likely that Scotland will vote to secede from the Union, Northern Ireland may consider that a way to remain in the E.U. is to reunite, and following shocks such as these the increasingly ‘indy-curious’ Wales may follow suite. As an opponent of Big Government I will be happy to see all, or any, of these changes. However, while I share the joy of the nationalists in recent events, I am still rather reluctant to consider myself a signed up nationalist.

Nations have been created over the great span of history. While it is true that they represent some common interests such as language, culture or even kinship the main motive force in their generation has been power and authority. Wars and revolts have been fought to draw lines on maps which define nations and state who controls what happens in certain patches of land. This was obvious when it was King against King but it is no less true when it is State against State. Nations are there to define the edges of power; to say who controls what happens where.

However, any boundaries which we create should not be based on power and authority they should be based on assistance and support. Our instincts are to live in communities not political structures or economies. People naturally find ways to band together to their mutual benefit and to share common interests and goals. Such groupings are natural and should be supported. If people of a certain language, or religion, or cultural practice want to voluntarily band together then, as long as they don’t infringe on others, they should be encouraged in their mutual venture. The smaller these communities are, the more democratic they are; as each individuals voice carries a greater weight. Further, as they are voluntary people can vote with their feet if they see changes in their chosen community which they can’t tolerate. Nations tend not to be voluntary. Entry to and exit from the nation tends to be controlled and nation states tend to enforce their view of the national culture on any dissenting members.

Whenever nationhood affords a smaller block for democratic organization this is usually a good thing. If nations seek to expand their areas of control this is universally bad. This is the question for nationalists. Does your vision of nationhood bring democracy closer to people, make the demos a smaller group, and reduce the power and authority that others have over people ? If it does, then your nationalism may be beneficial. Are you also happy that, once nationhood is established, the people may decide that an even smaller unit for self governance makes more sense (e.g. “North Wales”, “Y Fro Gymraeg”, “The Shetlands”, “Yorkshire”, “Gaeltacht”) ? If your answer is not ‘yes’ to this then you are missing the point; you are just redrawing lines on maps rather than expanding peoples’ freedom.

If your view of your nation is monolithic and you see it as something good in itself you are following a dangerous path. There will be the risks that you will enforce your views on the national culture, or tongue, or religion on all those who live in your newly defined patch. There is the danger that you will see yourself as better than others who have the misfortune not to live in your nation and, finally, there is the danger that you might think you have the right or duty to export your nation’s benefits to your neighbours whether they want them or not.

So the question for nationalists is easy. Do you want to take a big power structure and break it down into smaller pieces, or, do you want to take your small nation and make if bigger and stronger ?

If it is the former then go ahead and get on with it but remember once you have created a smaller national group there may be scope for further reductions (counties, cantons, districts) which you should also embrace.

If it is the latter, an urge for a stronger bigger nation, then stop ! Remember it was precisely this drive for power and expanded authority which lead you to want to fight for your nation in the first place. You needed to throw off the yoke of another’s power, don’t start fashioning another yoke for others.

It has been said that “Small is beautiful” and there is truth in this statement. In the age of globalization nations can be the smaller building blocks which allow us to build a better future, but sometimes nations themselves can be too large and need to be broken down into smaller, more beautiful communities. I remain a nationalist but only in as far as I am an anti-imperialist, anything more starts to become rather risky.

Drug Deaths in Scotland

Drug Deaths in Scotland

Deaths due to drug abuse in Scotland have hit an all-time high. In 2018 1,187 people died in Scotland as a consequence of drug abuse a rise of 27% on the already frightening figures of 2017. This places Scotland in a class of its own in Europe with a level of drug-related deaths twice that of the next nearest country (Estonia). It would be difficult to underplay the size of the problem. The drug-related death rate in Scotland is now three times the size of that in the U.K. as a whole and last year more people died in Scotland from drug misuse than from the direct effects of alcohol!

BBC News, Graph of drug deaths by EU country

The figures did unnerve me but unfortunately they did not come as a surprise. In the decade before I moved to Wales, I worked as a consultant psychiatrist in a deprived area of Scotland and had witnessed first hand the growing problem. More importantly, I had also seen the developing drug strategy which was being pursued. This policy seemed doomed to failure and almost guaranteed to increase the amount of death and injury due to recreational drug use.

The main reason for this was that the strategy in Scotland had only one string to its bow and that string was Harm Reduction. This took a number of forms including needle exchanges, methadone prescribing, safe spaces and the like. While harm reduction can be valuable it is not enough on its own unless you can reduce the harm to negligible levels (which is not going to be the case with something like drug use). The simple logic is that if you reduce the rate of harm to half of what is was before then this will look impressive, but if at the same time you triple the number of people taking the risk then you will have increased, not reduced, the total amount of harm done. The evidence is that Scotland has many, many more people abusing drugs than previously and thus as a consequence many more deaths. It is important to note that about half of these deaths involve methadone which is the prescribed opiate which was intended to reduce the harm.

More people taking these drugs leads to more deaths and a false sense of security by harm reduction strategies may compound the problem. The need is to reduce the harm, but more importantly, to reduce the usage of drugs. It is unlikely that laws against usage will make any great headway, there is little evidence that laws deter people from drug use. Indeed, there is a little evidence that illegality enhances the cachet of drugs in some groups and promotes their use. This cachet is further enhanced by our culture’s tendency to glamourize drug use; watch any late evening chat show or read any interview with a modern media star and see the use of drugs being used as a badge to garner respect. In the recent race to become the Tory party leader, and hence Prime Minister of the UK, had the unedifying spectacle of all the candidates competitively ‘confessing‘ their drug misuse in an attempt to win the youth vote.

In addition to this cultural acceptance of drug use there is the further problem that, now, drug misuse is an access route into welfare benefits. In a country, such as Scotland, with high levels of unemployment and poverty there will be some pressures to look at the problem of addictions differently – when being on the sick role as an addict could mean being prescribed opiates (methadone) by the state and receiving money in the form of Personal Independence Payments. (Addictions UK for example have a service to help secure payments when you have an addiction). The biggest problem facing those with addiction problems is securing autonomy and independence again, compounding a drug dependency with a welfare dependency will simply amplify the problem.

In an ideal society people would be free to decide on their use of drugs but also responsible for the consequences of taking them. There is little to suggest that the state will be able to make this aspect of our behaviour disappear but there is good reason to think that it has the capacity to make problems worse. Prescribed opiates are now killing as many people as illicit ones, and we have developed a large industry which lives on the backs of those trapped in cycles of dependency. The last decades have seen Scotland move to a much more authoritarian and controlling nation state. This change has important social and cultural effects and these figures showing a dreadful loss of life, and hinting at even worse disability and hurt, should act as a wake up call to the risks involved.

Resource

Closeup of young girl in heroine overdose holding syringe and lying on pavement. Copy space

What are you for ?

What are you for ?

Sometimes it is simple things which encourage the deepest contemplation within us. Last night I went walking while my wife took the larger of the two dogs to their dog training class. As I walked around the town I was struck by the similarity of it to the many towns I recalled from Scotland, before our relocation to Wales. This similarity brought home to me what they meant by the “flyover country“. Although this term was initially American in origin it is equally applicable to swathes of the United Kingdom. The name relates to patches of the country, on which people might look down through their aeroplane window, as they fly from one major city to another, and are areas of the country of which they have no real knowledge.

The central belt of Scotland, where I grew up, and north Wales, where I now live, have very many towns like this. In Scotland they had grown around the pit-head while in Wales they grow around the slate quarries. The only reason these towns were where they were, often in the middle of beautiful countryside, was the natural resources buried under the ground. In Wales it was the slate and gold, in Scotland the coal and iron. I grew up in these coal mining towns and remember them fondly. They were, during my childhood, vibrant communities buzzing with industry. The towns had everything one needed to live well. The town centres had shops, banks, schools and churches. Professional services of doctors, dentists, veterinarians and lawyers were all available. The society was boosted by the presence of churches and chapels and communal life improved by the working men’s and miners’ institutes which did so much to improve the communal life of the area.

During my working life I had watched these towns in Scotland die and had mistakenly thought it was a localised problem; a facet of the death of the UK coal industry. However, as I walked around the ghost town, while my wife was at her class, I realised that this town was exactly the same as the ones I had left, and also the same as towns I visit in northern England when we visit our son and his family. It is not one industry that has fallen, it is all heavy industry that has gone. I had personally seen the effects of the death of coal, now I watch the effects locally of the death of the slate industry, and on my travels it is the death of the steel industry, or ship or car building. Whatever the industry the effects are always the same.

These towns are sad reminders of our industrial past. Often a government money has been used to try and use the scars of heavy industry as exhibits for a new heritage industry. As I walked around there were signs describing the powerhouse that previously had been here and old pieces of heavy machinery were pressed into service as art for the benefit of tourists who rarely call. The shop fronts were mostly empty, a mini-market or corner shop might survive but all the banks have closed. There are no drapers, butchers, bakers, or ironmongers. The only shop fronts lit at night on the high street are the fast food take-aways; there are no restaurants and very few pubs. During the day it is left to the charity and second-hand shops to try and give a semblance of commerce in the main street. The only professionals still represented on the high street are the funeral directors as people continue to die. The working men’s clubs and churches are derelict or, if lucky, pressed into service as storage units. If one looks up at the door-frames and lintels, if one looks closely at the heavy stone architecture, you can still see the buildings that once stood imposing and grand. These buildings designed to stand proud as symbols of permanence and importance look especially depressing. It is hard not to think of the proud lady descended into harlotry when one looks at the marble and granite frontage of the building society now framing the take-away for kebabs and chips.

However, the most striking similarity between this old slate town, and the deserted coal towns I knew, was the change in the population. Those able to work, the young and the fit, have moved to find it. The elderly are left behind as are the disabled and ill. As one walks around the time the levels of disability are visibly high. If your income is limited to welfare benefits then there is less cause to move, indeed as a cruel twist of fate it is possible that collapsed property prices and lower rental rates may make your staying in the town make economic sense. The poor are hindered in leaving by the disparity in property values which mean they can not either sell their property, or afford higher rents, and move to where there may be work. The streets of cheap property and vacant houses also acts as an attraction for others who are less economically able to move into the area.

One has the feeling, as one meets people, as if everyone is in limbo, waiting for something to happen. Waiting for the old times to return or waiting for the young people who left to come back with news of plans for a better future. There are no signs of faith or optimism. We have exported our wage poverty to Asia. People there now work for low pay doing the work of heavy industry in the factories or mines. But that doesn’t mean we have seen the end of poverty. While there is plenty of food diets are poor and unhealthy with an epidemic of diabetes coming in its wake. Likewise, while there is plenty of “entertainment”, with round the clock television and internet, but it is rarely uplifting or improving. There is plenty of medication, both prescribed and self-organised, but still the rates of depression and anxiety continue to rise. We have inherited a poverty of the spirit. No amount of fast food, video games, nor reality television will plug the hole left by having no job. No amount of opiates, or other psychotropics, will remove the feelings which arise from having no purpose in life. People often talked of the dignity of labour and its importance is now becoming horribly clear – this type of ‘life of leisure’ will suck people down into despair and depression.

Agriculture in these areas no longer provides the levels of employment needed to support these towns. The raison d’ếtre of these towns has now gone and can’t easily be replaced by other industries. The new light industries and digital economy thrives best in cities where the mass of people and connections help them grow. These towns need to find a way to return to being villages with the quality of life that can offer its inhabitants The hardship faced by people living through this change needs to be understood. Ignoring their worries about unemployment, the destruction of their communities and their dislike of damaging cultural change needs to be recognised. If we fail to do so then these towns, which make up a large fraction of our population, will be easy targets for extremists peddling glib and easy answers.

I don’t know what the answers are. How do we restructure our economy ? How do we regain optimism and faith in the future? How do we support communities which thrive and prosper? But I do know what is the major questions we must face : “How do we ensure people have purpose in life ?” Our pleasures and material needs are important, but above these we all need to feel that there is something we must do, otherwise what are we for?