A blockhead in three countries

buddha
Buddha at night in Portmeirion village (image: Graham Brown)

We’ve been on holiday in three countries – England, Scotland and Wales. You think perhaps that they are one country? I think they are becoming increasingly separate. More of that later, both in this blog and in the news over coming months and years.

My holiday reading was Mr Churchill’s Profession by Peter Clarke, a fascinating insight into Winston Churchill’s work as a writer of historical books, newspaper articles and one not very successful novel. Writing was for the majority of his life his main income, not politics as you might imagine.

I was struck by a quote which underlines how lucrative writing was for him. Though he fashioned many famous phrases, this one was not Churchill’s but Samuel Johnson’s. But Churchill was fond of using it: “No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money.”

So, here I am, a blockhead writing my holiday reflections for nothing (though I have in the past written for money). Incidentally, may I reassure you, this will not be a blow-by-blow account of the holiday.

ironbridge
The first iron bridge in the world at Ironbridge, Shropshire (image: Graham Brown)

In brief, Mrs Brown (Kathie Touin) and I travelled from our home in Orkney, down through Scotland, with an overnight stop at Cumbernauld near Glasgow, then on to Ironbridge, Shropshire for three nights. We then spent three nights in Ludlow, Shropshire – coinciding with our friends’ wedding weekend – before spending a week in North Wales, one night in Portmeirion village (a special treat) and the rest in the delightful coastal town of Criccieth.

Friends in England may not realise how England and Scotland are drifting apart (see Andrew Marr’s excellent BBC Two documentary Scotland And The Battle For Britain for more about this).

The EU referendum result is an obvious example of this process, Scotland overwhelmingly voting to stay in the EU and England voting to leave (though not London). Party politics is another example. To briefly explain to overseas readers, the right-wing Conservative party is the majority party in the UK parliament at Westminster, taking most English seats in the process, and forms the UK government. Meanwhile, the left-of-centre Scottish National Party took all but three Westminster seats in Scotland and forms the Scottish administration through being the largest party in the Scottish Parliament.

But it is not just these crude party political indicators that show Scotland and England drifting apart. England seems to be leaning towards a more American-style society while Scotland looks more to Europe and the EU. The two countries are starting to feel different in a way that goes well beyond tourism cliches of kilts and bagpipes versus village greens and Morris dancing.

And Wales? Truth be told, a week’s stay is not long enough to form opinions on how politics or society work there and, no doubt, it will differ in different parts of Wales.

But I was really struck in North Wales to see the progress of the Welsh language compared to our previous visit some ten years ago. When we were last there we saw bi-lingual road and other signs and we heard people speaking in Welsh.

But in 2016 it seems that Welsh has become the dominant language, the one that people routinely speak to each other in shops and at work. Virtually all signs are bi-lingual and some are only in Welsh. The English speakers seemed to be nearly all English people. Fascinating.

So why did Wales vote to leave the EU? As I said, I am not qualified to comment on Welsh politics and I would be interested to know more about that.

Here’s a quick run-through of some of the days out we enjoyed on our trip…

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Fancy a fireplace like this? One of the beautiful exhibits at the Jackfield Tile Museum, Ironbridge (image: Graham Brown)

The Ironbridge Gorge Museums celebrating the industrial revolution are wonderful and, as there are 10 of them, more than it is possible to see on a brief visit. But we got to Blists Hill Victorian Town, the wonderful Jackfield Tile Museum – I never realised tiles could be so beautiful and fascinating – and the Coalbrookdale Museum of Iron.

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Great Western locomotive Erlestoke Manor on the Severn Valley Railway (image: Graham Brown)

Railways were a bit of a theme for our trip, I am sure my late father would have approved. In Shropshire we travelled for a day on the Severn Valley Railway, which has a long, scenic line, two museums, beautiful stations and a large number of working steam locomotives.

Across the border in Wales we spent two days on the narrow gauge Ffestiniog and Welsh Highland Railways which now meet at Porthmadog station. Seeing the traffic stopped for steam locomotives crossing the road into the station is quite a sight.

One day we travelled on the Ffestiniog Railway to Blaenau Ffestiniog. The line was originally built to bring slate down from the quarries to ships at Porthmadog. It has been carrying passengers since 1865.

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No.143, built in Manchester in 1958, worked in South Africa, now on the Welsh Highland Railway, here crossing the road into Porthmadog station (image: Graham Brown)

On another day we took the Welsh Highland Railway in the opposite direction from Porthmadog, passing Snowdon (the highest mountain in Wales) and arriving in Caernarfon close to the Castle.

I suspect the highlight of the trip for Kathie was our two visits to Portmeirion village, an architectural wonder created by Sir Clough Williams-Ellis on the estuary of the River Dwyryd. You may know it as the setting for the 1960s TV series The Prisoner – “I am not a number!”

We also spent a night in the village, staying in the Bridge House and enjoying afternoon tea, a fabulous dinner and a great breakfast at the Portmeirion Hotel. Kathie especially enjoyed the chance to look around the village when it was closed to the public, even though the staff were clearing up after a particularly muddy Festival No.6 in the grounds which had finished the day before our overnight stay.

For the rest of our North Wales stay we were at a more modest but friendly bed-and-breakfast in Criccieth, a pleasant seaside town which is the gateway to the scenic Llyn peninsula as well as an easy drive to the likes of Snowdon and Caernarfon.

When we were last in the area we were considering it as a possible move from London. In the end we opted for Orkney and we are delighted we did so, we made the right decision. But North Wales would have been a lovely place to live and it was great fun to go back for a holiday.

Graham Brown

A Californian and an Englishman taking part in momentous Scottish events

Flag of Scotland: Saint Andrew's Cross, or the Saltire
Flag of Scotland: Saint Andrew’s Cross, or the Saltire

So, after weeks and months of campaigning – years and decades for some – we are coming towards the end of the Scottish independence referendum campaign. The vote on 18 September is three weeks away and the pace of debate and argument is more frantic. Many of us watched this week a heated, that is code for shouty and ill-tempered, debate between First Minister Alex Salmond, speaking for Yes Scotland, and Better Together’s Alistair Darling.

When my Californian wife Kathie Touin and I, an Englishman, moved to Orkney four years ago we never imagined we would be participating in the biggest vote in Scotland, and in the United Kingdom, for more than 300 years. It could lead to the biggest change in the United Kingdom since Ireland became independent, perhaps ever.

It is a privilege to live here at this time, and it is wonderful that – some social media abuse from a minority aside – the campaign has been conducted peacefully, politely and democratically. And, if friends in England are not sure, yes, as British citizens resident in Scotland Kathie and I do get to vote in the referendum.

There have been many public meetings to debate the issues – we went to one such event in our small village of Quoyloo. And Kathie went to a women’s conference in Kirkwall. How many years since political campaigns have inspired public meetings? I can vaguely remember as a child going to one such meeting, in Huntingdon, I think, to see Huntingdonshire MP David Renton speak at an election meeting – that must have been about 50 years ago.

Of course, the vote on 18 September will not settle everything, whether Scotland decides to go independent or to stay in the United Kingdom. Either way the future for Scotland, and the UK, is uncertain, but exciting as well. I get the feeling that folk in England are only just starting to realise and consider the possibilities. Those living in Wales and Northern Ireland, I suspect, may have given it more thought.

On the day I will be voting for… against… come now, you would not expect an old-fashioned ex-BBC employee brought up on impartiality to give that away would you?

But I will tell you this. I am concerned about the Scottish Government’s proposals for broadcasting in an independent Scotland.

Broadcasting was not mentioned as a topic in either Salmond v Darling TV debate and has only briefly, for a day or two, been in the media coverage of the debate. But, for me, it is important.

In summary, the Scottish Government, ie the Scottish National Party, proposes a Scottish Broadcasting Service (SBS), funded by the existing TV Licence fee, at the existing rate of £145.50-a-year. The SBS will provide TV, radio and online services, working in a joint venture with the BBC – not something the BBC and Licence payers in England will necessarily want.

We are told that we can expect to retain BBC Alba (Gaelic TV channel) but also to receive a new TV channel (details unspecified).

On radio, we will continue to receive the existing BBC stations Radio Scotland and Radio nan Gaidhael (Gaelic), and a new radio station (details, again, unspecified).

The SBS will also provide online services, to include a news website and a catch-up player.

In addition, SBS will have the right to opt-out of BBC One and BBC Two, as BBC Scotland does now. This proposal also has issues, will the BBC want to cede editorial control for chunks of its BBC-branded channels?

We are assured, under these proposals, that popular programmes like EastEnders, Doctor Who and Strictly Come Dancing will still be available. Leaving aside the question of why EastEnders is popular – every trail I see for it seems to be unmitigated gloom – I think this is correct. Even if BBC channels were not available in Scotland, programmes like these can easily be bought in by a Scottish broadcaster.

But how do these proposals add up when we think of the full range of BBC services? Somehow, without increasing the Licence Fee, and without taking advertising (as RTE does in Ireland), viewers and listeners in Scotland will get everything they do now plus a new TV channel and a new radio channel.

To me, it doesn’t add up. Something would have to give. For example, a BBC that no longer has to cater for Scottish licence payers could decide to turn off, or stop maintaining, transmitters north of the border. Can we guarantee getting the full range of BBC programmes? BBC Radio 4? Or BBC Radio 3? What about BBC Four? Or the BBC News channel?

We are told that people in many other countries receive BBC channels quite happily. But, in truth, they do not get the full range of services, and they are likely to be paying extra to get BBC channels. My friend in Belgium, for example, gets BBC One and BBC Two as part of his cable subscription. If he wanted to get more channels, he would have to pay more. And only some BBC Radio services are available.

I also have a concern about our local service here, BBC Radio Orkney. We get a properly staffed, professional news service, giving us a 30-minute news programme each morning, and a lunchtime bulletin, as well as a weekly request show and, during the winter months, nightly documentary, music and community programmes.

Given that the Scottish Government proposals seem to be trying to get a quart out of a pint pot – or whatever the metric equivalent might be – some cuts in existing output might be needed. Someone (in Glasgow or Edinburgh) might decide to reduce Radio Orkney to a morning-only service, or perhaps a joint service with BBC Radio Shetland, with a dedicated reporter or two in each place? Hopefully not.

Now, you might think my concern about broadcasting is mis-placed and that the Scottish Government proposals make sense. Or, you might think that voting for independence will give Scotland a chance to get its own TV and radio services and losing some BBC channels would be a price worth paying. One person on Twitter – @AAAForScotland – contacted me after I raised this issue to say: “BBC! lived without it for years out of choice I would never miss it, personal boycott in protest anti Scots.”

At the beginning of the referendum campaign I predicted that the result would be close. I stand by my prediction. Here in Orkney I would be amazed if there is a majority for independence. But across Scotland? It might just happen.

The night of Thursday 18 September could be very interesting. And not just for those of us living in Scotland.

To find out more

Scotland’s Future: Your Guide To An Independent Scotland –http://scotreferendum.com/reports/scotlands-future-your-guide-to-an-independent-scotland/

Better Together –
http://bettertogether.net/

BBC Annual Report 2013/14 –
http://www.bbc.co.uk/annualreport/2014/home/

Lord Birt says Scotland would lose many BBC services after yes vote –http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2014/aug/19/lord-birt-scotland-bbc-independent

Scottish independence: ‘Yes’ vote would ‘devastate’ broadcasting –http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-scotland-politics-28863806

Post-independence break up of BBC would be ‘devastating’ says Curran –http://news.stv.tv/scotland-decides/news/288964-post-independence-break-up-of-bbc-would-be-devastating-says-curran/

Scottish independence: BBC services might not be free, says ex-Trust member –http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-scotland-politics-27116556

My previous blog on this subject, Across the Border: Broadcasting In An independent Scotland (2013 article) –
https://grahambrownorkney.wordpress.com/2013/06/27/broadcasting-in-scotland/

How would the BBC be divided if Scotland became independent? (2012 article) – http://www.theguardian.com/politics/reality-check-with-polly-curtis/2012/feb/29/how-would-the-bbc-be-divided-if-scotland-became-independent

We are living in interesting times. So will the world be turned upside down?

Me in April 2010, crossing the border into Scotland
Me in April 2010, crossing the border into Scotland

The Chinese philosopher Confucius said “may you live in interesting times”. And we certainly do in Scotland. Suddenly nothing is certain, everything is up for discussion.

Actually, let’s start with Confucius. Extensive research suggests – well, I did a Google search – that the phrase is in fact a relatively modern and Western invention. So even the validity of this reliable old saying is being questioned in these uncertain times.

To recap for new readers of my blog, I am English by birth and now resident in Orkney. Not familiar with Orkney? It is a group of islands off the north-east coast of Scotland which is part of Scotland, and part of the United Kingdom.

And, in case you have missed it, Scotland will vote in a referendum in the next couple of years on whether to become an independent country, separate to the UK. Because I’m resident in Scotland I will get a vote in this referendum.

These are exciting times. How often do you get to vote on whether the place you live should become a new independent country? Well, strictly, not new, as Scotland was independent before 1707.

It raises all sorts of questions. What about the head of state? Well, that’s quite an easy one. The proposal, if Scotland became independent, is to keep Her Majesty The Queen as head of state, assuming she will have us.

But what about the currency? What about the army? What about my taxes? What about the economy? And there’s more, as we shall see.

First, some background for those who do not live in the UK, such as my in-laws in California. Scotland already has a parliament. It was established in 1999 and it has powers over much domestic policy including health, education and justice.

In the most recent parliamentary election, in 2011, the SNP – or Scottish National Party – gained an overall majority of seats. This was unexpected because the Scottish Parliament was deliberately set up in such a way that no one party was likely to gain overall control.

And, as you will guess from its name, the SNP’s main wish is for an independent Scotland. Hence the referendum on independence, expected in 2014.

Now you might think they are likely to get their wish – clearly lots of people in Scotland voted for the SNP in 2011, surely those folk want the country to be set free from the UK. Well, not exactly.

The SNP did well in the 2011 election because they had performed competently as a minority government in the four years from 2007. For various reasons the other big parties in Scotland – Labour, Liberal Democrats, Conservative – did not perform well at the 2011 election.

Opinion polls consistently show the majority of voters in Scotland want to remain within the UK but the leader of the SNP, Alex Salmond, who is also Scotland’s First Minister, hopes he can convince them otherwise.

So what will happen? Well at this point I get out my crystal ball. Would you like the winning numbers for this weekend’s Lottery as well? Yes? Of course, I don’t know.

My guess is that we will have an exciting, lively, at times heated, campaign at the end of which there will be a fairly narrow vote to stay within the UK. But nothing in life is certain – except death and taxes, of course.

What if Scotland overall voted in favour of independence but Orkney said no? In the 1997 referendum on Scottish devolution Orkney did vote in favour of a Scottish parliament but by the smallest margin of all areas – just 57.3 per cent.

Orkney was part of Norway until 1468 when it came to Scotland through a marriage dowry and it retains a healthy independent spirit. There is also suspicion in Orkney about being ruled from Edinburgh and whether it is any better than being ruled from London or some other remote place.

Remember, while tv documentaries about Orkney love to wax lyrical about its remoteness, at the edge of the UK, it is in fact other places that are remote from us. We believe we are at the centre.

In December at the Kirkwall Christmas tree-lighting ceremony, held in St Magnus Cathedral, Tom Christer Nilsen, Mayor of Hordaland – a region of Norway twinned with Orkney – made reference to the King of Norway in 1468 giving away what wasn’t his to give.

So I had been musing for some weeks on the possibility of a revolt within Orkney, a refusal to go into an independent Scotland, when about ten days ago the Earl of Caithness actually proposed that Orkney and Shetland should have the right to remain part of the UK if Scotland becomes independent.

Other changes could flow from the momentous change to an independent Scotland. What will happen to the rest of the UK? Will it still be called that? What might the people of Wales want to do?

What about the people of Berwick-upon-Tweed? This is a town just inside England, south of the Scottish border, which has changed hands many times over history between Scotland and England. Might they decide they would prefer to join Scotland? Would that be possible?

More worryingly, Lord Empey has warned that independence for Scotland risks reigniting conflict in Northern Ireland. I can imagine an independent Scotland being seen as the starting flag for the break-up of the UK, which could lead to pressure for Northern Ireland to become part of the Republic of Ireland.

I have no strong opinion on whether Northern Ireland should be part of the UK or Ireland – let the good people who live there decide – but please let’s not return to the days of terrorism.

And what about England itself? In some ways the Conservative Party is taking an honourable position in this debate. Err, yes, you heard that correctly. I know it is always fashionable to knock the Tories.

But the party is fighting to retain the United Kingdom while simultaneously realising it would have much to gain from a Westminster parliament that has had all the Scottish Labour MPs removed, thereby giving the Conservatives an almost guaranteed majority.

I think also the birth of an independent Scotland would see the nature of England itself change. People would no longer have a split personality of being English and British – they would be English. The politics and society of England might develop in unexpected ways that we can’t imagine.

So, even if Confucius did not originally say it, we are living in interesting times in the UK, and certainly here in Scotland and Orkney. It’s a privilege to be here.

Let’s get strapped in and hold on for an exciting ride into the future.

To find out more

An explanation of what Confucius did not say:
http://h2g2.com/dna/h2g2/A807374

My Who Am I? blog entry:
https://grahambrownorkney.wordpress.com/2011/11/08/who-am-i-2/

Some unresolved questions about Scottish independence explored:
http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-scotland-politics-16636325

What the Earl of Caithness had to say:
http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-scotland-politics-16698626

What Lord Empey had to say:
http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-northern-ireland-16749576

Blogs worth reading, from Brian Taylor, Political Editor, BBC Scotland:
http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/correspondents/briantaylor/