Friday, 24 May 2013

Cycle helmets, and road safety: a letter to the Lord Advocate

I've written about cycling helmets and safety a couple of times before. See 'Using, not losing, your head', and 'Lies, damned lies, and cycle helmets'. But more often, as you know, I write about things which relate to public policy in Scotland. Now, sadly, I'm having to combine the two topics.

In brief, in August 2011 a driver named Gary McCourt mowed down a 75 year old cyclist, Audrey Fyfe, on the Portabello Road in Edinburgh. She was killed. Nor was this the first time that McCourt had mown down and killed a cyclist; in 1985 he had been jailed for killing 22 year old George Dalgity.

McCourt stood trial this month for the death of Audrey Fyfe. He was sentenced to 300 hours of community service, and banned from driving for five years. In passing this remarkably lenient sentence, Sheriff James Scott commented that Audrey Fyfe "...was not wearing a safety helmet and that in my view contributed to her death."

Audrey was a very experienced cyclist, and like most experienced cyclists of her generation, she did not choose to wear a cycling helmet. As I've evidenced in the two posts I've referenced above, the evidence such as it is supports her in that choice: there is no conclusive evidence either that helmets significantly decrease the risk of injury to cyclists, or that they significantly increase it. There is a small correlation between increased rates of helmet wearing and increased (yes, you read that right, not decreased) rates of injury, but that's probably because the same fear factor which drives people to wear helmets also deters them from cycling at all, and we lose the 'safety in numbers' effect, rather than helmets actually killing people.

I'm not personally greatly in favour of custodial sentences, for any crime. But I do think that it should be automatic when a motorist causes injury or death to a pedestrian or cyclist, that they should be given at minimum a suspended life sentence, and, as a condition of its suspension, a lifetime driving ban. That way, they do not serve any prison time unless they are caught driving a motor vehicle again, but they know that, ever after, if they are found driving a motor vehicle, they will go to prison without the need for any further trial. If McCourt had been given a sentence of this kind on killing George Dalgity, he would not have killed Audrey Fyfe.

The Cyclists Touring Club are encouraging people to write to the Lord Advocate, urging him to appeal this over-lenient sentence. Here is the letter I have written:

As a matter of public policy, it is important to decrease the amount of car use in our cities, and to switch journeys from modes of transport which consume a great deal of energy and of public resources such as road space to those that do not. Further, there is a public policy interest in improving the general health and fitness of the population. Encouraging cycling fulfils both these aims. The main deterrent to increased cycling is the threat to cyclists from irresponsible and inattentive drivers. 
In the light of this, the decision of Sheriff James Scott to impose a non-custodial sentence as penalty for Gary McCourt's second killing of a cyclist is against the public interest and should not be allowed to stand. It is particularly notable that Scott cited Mrs Fyfe's lack of a helmet as a reason in his unduly lenient judgement. There is no evidence whatever that cycling helmets offer any protection in collisions with motor vehicles, and those who manufacture and sell helmets do not pretend that there is. They are designed to mitigate simple falls at low speed, and nothing more. The sheriff was therefore ill-informed, wrong and and prejudiced in his judgement. 
More importantly though, this fact had no bearing on the matter before him, namely the criminality of McCourt's driving. Hence he had no legal basis for referring to it when explaining his sentencing decision. 
Given McCourt's previous conviction I feel that a much stronger sentence should be applied, with at least a lifetime driving ban imposed.  
I urge you to appeal this unduly lenient sentence. 
Yours sincerely, 
Simon Brooke

May I encourage you to write one also?

Tuesday, 14 May 2013

Savings, and loans

This morning I got an email from a woman in the United States of America. She designs 'infographics', and does marketing. She's done an 'infographic' (left) about the size of homes in the USA. She has obviously done a quick web search to find people who blog about housing, and so she's mailed me. I don't think she's actually read my blog, if she had she might not have chosen it. But her 'infographic' does raise interesting issues. Note - I haven't verified her data is correct, but whether it is or not, the issues raised are the same. Before I go on to discuss these issues, I'd like to write a little about the text and subtext of her graphic, as I see them.

The text is obvious. Homes in the US are big - really big. Everyone has a big home. They're big in city centres, bigger in the suburbs, simply huge in the outer suburbs, still big in remote rural locations. They're also, claims the graphic, growing rapidly - the last panel claims the median home has grown in size by 50% in just twenty five years - interestingly, up to 2007, a date we'll come back to later.

The graphic shows, but doesn't explicitly say, that they're also staggeringly expensive. In New York, where the median size is apparently around 1500 square feet, the price is given as US$1295 per square foot, or about 1.9 million US dollars for an ordinary family house. That's not the extreme - Phoenix, Arizona is shown as even more expensive (why?!?). At the other end of the scale, housing in Dallas, Texas is stated to sell for US$59 per square foot, with a median size of 1650 square feet implying a price of just under a hundred thousand US dollars.

The subtext is less obvious. This is my interpretation, and my interpretation is subject to my own biases - which, if you've read this blog, you know. But the infographic was designed for, and advertises, a business called 'Quicken Loans'; their business is selling mortgages. The subtext seems to me to be, everyone else has a really big house. If you don't have a really big house, you're missing out. Borrow lots of money from Quicken Loans, and you too can have a really big house, like everyone else. And that seems to me, for most people, a really bad idea.

Of Size

OK, let's step back a moment, and talk about size. How much room do you need to have housing which is spacious and comfortable? This house (I've just measured it, to be certain, because I normally think in square metres) has 308 square feet of floor space. Of course, part of its feeling of spaciousness comes from the relative lack of internal partitions - the only one is the water tank cabinet that screens the bathroom - and the relative height: as I sit here typing this the ceiling is sixteen feet above the floor. Finally, of course, the latrine is outside, and adds effectively another sixteen square feet of floor space, or 324 total. Furthermore, this is Scotland. It isn't warm, and it isn't dry. You can't usefully use outdoor space - yard, patio, terrace, decking, whatever - to extend living space for many months of the year, as you can in much of the US. So that 324 square feet is not extended by any significant outdoor living

This is, of course, strictly a one person house. I don't think I could comfortably share it, long term, with anyone else. But to produce a comfortable two person house, you wouldn't need to double it; for three or four people, you certainly wouldn't have to treble it. 

However, according to the graphic, the median home in the US has 800 square foot per person. That's more than twice what I have. More than twice what I need. Bigger homes? Really? What do you plan to put in them?

Of Energy

For equivalent levels of insulation, for an equivalent target indoor temperature, a bigger house needs more heating than a small one. Yes, of course you can do things with passive solar gain and so on to mitigate this, but they all scale with size - or rather, strictly, with surface area. A small house can have just as efficient solar gain and just as efficient insulation, area for area, as a large house, and if you double the floor area of a house, you substantially more than double the surface area - the area through which heat can be lost. So smaller houses are not just more efficient to heat because they're smaller, they're also more efficient to heat per square foot.

Of course the geometry of a house influences this. A circular house has less surface per unit area than a square one, and a square one has less surface per unit area than a long narrow one. But that's detail. The big picture is that a big house consumes proportionally more energy to heat than a small one.

And energy, for heating homes, is still primarily from fossil fuels. Burning fossil fuels introduces fossil carbon back into cycle, increasing the atmospheric burden of carbon dioxide and accelerating climate change. The alternatives are passive solar gain - but that works less well in winter, when it's needed most - or in-cycle carbon, which means firewood. Heating the average US home, according to Oklahoma State University, takes the production of about nine acres of hardwood forest. The USA has 313 million people in 114 million households but only 745 million acres of forest, so there simply isn't enough firewood to go round. So, in summary, bigger US homes inevitably mean more climate change.

Of Money

Which brings us around to money. The graphic doesn't give us a median price for a home, perhaps deliberately, but the US Census Bureau quotes US$186,000 as the median value of an owner-occupied home.  The median household income is quoted by the Census Bureau as US$52,000 (Ibid). That implies that the median house value (according to the census) is 360% of the median household income.

I said, earlier, that the date 2007, the date used as an indicator of median size increase in the graphic, was significant. Why? It's the year the subprime mortgage collapse really got going. What's a subprime mortgage? It's a mortgage where the borrower is under extreme financial stress - where any worsening of the financial conditions means that the borrower will not be able to repay. Of course, if one borrower  can't repay, their house is dumped onto the market, lowering the market price for housing locally and consequently increasing the negative equity, and consequently the financial stress - on neighbouring householders. Consequently, there tends to be a snowball effect - as the first borrowers fail to pay, and are foreclosed, more stress is placed on the next most vulnerable tier, who fail to pay and are foreclosed, and so on. 

This is what happened in 2007-2008. The collapse of the US subprime mortgage market lead to the collapse of major banks first in the US, but then, progressively, across the world. This had two consequences.

First, the whole world was tipped into a recession which we still, five years later, have no prospect of getting out of.

Second, governments around the world bailed out failing banks with simply vast sums of taxpayers' money. Enormous sums. Trillions of US dollars. Money taken, effectively, from ordinary taxpayers, and ending up, largely, enriching the already super-rich - including the same people who had profited from selling imprudent home loans in the first place.

What this boils down to is the fact that the whole economic crisis we're now living through, which has cost ordinary people across the world dearly, has ultimately been caused by people buying houses they can't afford.

Of Madness

You'll know, if you follow this blog at all, that housing isn't the only thing I write about; I also write about madness. In researching for my recent post on the new Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, I came across a startling fact. There is an extraordinarily high statistical correlation between borrowing and mental 'illness'. According to the Royal College of Psychiatrists, 'one in two adults with debts has a mental health problem, [and] one in four people with a mental health problem is also in debt'. There's particular evidence of strong links between mortgage debt, especially foreclosure, and madness.

Of Cost

I've shown evidence, in this essay, that housing debt is enormously costly to us all, both in terms of the larger economy and in terms of health. I've shown that larger houses are more costly in environmental terms than smaller houses. I've claimed - and reading through other articles in my blog will I hope persuade - that living in a well proportioned smaller house is perfectly comfortable.

The question is, what need a house cost? Well, I can answer that. I can answer that with confidence, because I've recently built (this) one. In its initial form, habitable but not yet comfortable, it cost £4,500; altogether, as it stands now, less than £7,000, or US$10,700 - and about three man months of my labour. A family home would cost about twice that, both in money and in time. Of course, that doesn't include the land. Land in an urban area with mains services inevitably costs. But, for example, it didn't take me much web searching to find a plot in Dallas, Texas for US$4,000. Interestingly, I was easily able to find plots in upstate (not urban) New York for much the same price. Very nice plots are available for around US$30,000. So the reasonable cost of a family home, including land, is somewhere between US$25,000 and US$50,000, and about six man months of labour.

Of Savings

There's a very big difference between the median price, according to the graphic, of US$100,000 for a comfortable house in Dallas, Texas, and the reasonable cost of US$50,000 for a comfortable house in Dallas, Texas. If you build your own small house simply and economically, that's a saving of at least US$50,000. To put it differently, for a Texan on median income, it's a saving of two whole years salary.

That's a lot.

It's even more in more highly valued areas of the US, since the price of 'building lots' doesn't vary nearly as much across the country as the price of completed houses.

If you can save that much, you may not need a loan. If you do need a loan, you'll need a much smaller loan, which you'll be able to pay off much more quickly and with much less stress. Furthermore, because your house cost less you are much less exposed to the risk of  rising interest rates, and, if house prices around you fall, of negative equity. You're at much less risk of foreclosure in the event of unemployment. Because you're under less stress, your health is likely to be better. And finally, as your smaller house is cheaper to heat and cheaper to tax, not only do you save on mortgage interest but you also save on other running costs. Win, win, win.

Of Reason

So if people in the US (and the same very much applies here in Scotland, too) could live comfortably in far cheaper houses than they do now, under far less financial stress than they do now, why don't they? The old myth - which I suppose some people still believe - is that a house is a safe investment, that buying a house is a good way to get richer. The other certain issue is status, the display of wealth, conspicuous consumption. People want to be seen to be successful, to be doing well, and I think this is perhaps especially so in the US. A big house is at least partially a way of advertising your success, and choosing a noticeably smaller house would perhaps be seen as 'being a failure'. That certainly seems to be the angle that Quicken Loans, sponsors of the 'infographic', are playing on.

But the housing crash of 2007-2008 should surely have shaken people out of the belief that houses are a safe bet. Of course, salesmen will be saying, now, that after the heavy falls of the past few years, they're bound to rise. They aren't. As I've shown, the current prices are about 200% - or more - of the reasonable cost. Ultimately, the price must fall to the reasonable cost, especially in the US where land is not inherently at a premium. That's the nature of the capitalist market. If you thought the crash of 2007-2008 was bad, baby, you ain't seen nothing yet.

Monday, 13 May 2013

On psychiatry, homeopathy, and the medicalisation of distress

I'm a damaged person; I know that. I know that that damage happened mainly in (and because of) my first six months of primary school. I know that because of that damage, I'm much more vulnerable to stress than most people are - or than I would be if I hadn't been sent to school. I'm now reasonably confident that I will carry this damage - this vulnerability - for the rest of my life, that I will never be free from the risk of another major breakdown, never free from little breakdowns such as the one I had last week.

In 1998, I broke my back for the first time. As I was driven in the ambulance to Ayr infirmary, I thought it was a foregone conclusion that I would be paralysed; in a wheelchair for the rest of my life. Suppose I had been right. Suppose I had had the spinal damage which would forever prevent me from walking again. Would you consider that an 'illness'? Would anyone?

The answer is clearly 'no'. There's no infectious agent. There's no underlying biological cause. It's damage. Something is broken. It can't be repaired. It's an injury.

My mental damage is not like a broken back. It doesn't permanently prevent me from doing anything. But it is like - it's very like - a shoulder that's been dislocated. A shoulder that's never been dislocated is pretty hard to dislocate: it's very strong. But once it has been dislocated, there's permanent damage to the soft tissue that binds it together. Most of the time the shoulder works well, moves smoothly and has the full range of movement it had before. But it's much weaker; if exposed to the wrong stress, it dislocates again. Again, this is not an 'illness'. There's no underlying biological cause. There's no infectious agent. Drugs may ameliorate the symptoms (pain, inflammation  swelling), but they won't cure the problem. There's damage - permanent damage. Something is broken. It's an injury.

For hundreds of years people with sincere good will, careful study and confident professionalism, have treated illness using homeopathy. We now know that this discipline is based on a mistaken model of the world: a model that denies the atomicity of matter, which assumes that no matter how much you dilute a solution, a proportion of the original solute remains. Because we know this, we know that despite the homeopathists' confident professionalism, their careful study and their sincere good will, the cures they prescribe are bogus. They can't work. And, because people in urgent need take their prescriptions in place of more scientifically grounded treatments, they actually cause harm.

For hundreds of years people with sincere good will, careful study and confident professionalism have tried to cure mental 'illness'. They have prescribed drugs. They have hunted for the infectious agents, the underlying biological causes. As David Kupfer, Chair of the American Psychiatric Association committee responsible for the new edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, writes 'we've been telling patients for several decades that we're waiting for biomarkers...'. That's what you do with disease. You find the infectious agent, or the underlying biological process of the illness, and then you find a chemical compound - a drug - which will interfere with that agent or process. But the problem is, they have been hunting for a Snark. As Kupfer goes on to say '...we're still waiting.'

It's an article of faith for Kupfer as for all psychiatrists that there must be some underlying biological cause, because if there weren't, mental illness wouldn't exist. So they cannot admit that their Snark actually is a Boojum. That their entire profession is based on category error, just like that of the homeopaths. It's sad for them. I feel their pain. But they must be stopped, because like the homeopaths they actually cause harm because people in urgent need take their prescriptions in place of more scientifically grounded treatments.

It's time to consign psychiatry, like astrology and homeopathy, to the dustbin of scientific history, where it can do no more harm.

Saturday, 11 May 2013

Review: Unraveled, by Alda Sigmundsdottir

If I had written a review immediately I finished reading Unraveled, I would not have written this review. But I have been turning it over in my head for a couple of weeks...

The book is not what I expected. What did I expect? It's explicitly set against the background of the Icelandic kreppa, the meltdown of the banking system, and I expected that the events of the economic catastrophe would interweave with the collapse of the protagonist's marriage, acting, as it were, as a post-modern take on the pathetic fallacy. This doesn't really happen. The two collapses proceed at different paces and don't really counterpoint one another.

Again, the protagonist's husband is the British Ambassador to Iceland. As such he had to be involved in the most startling development in the whole economic mess - the British government's (almost certainly illegal) decision to declare the Icelandic banks 'terrorist organisations' in order to freeze their assets. I had expected the protagonist to see this as a profound betrayal, something which would completely overturn all trust and respect she had for him. Again, it doesn't really happen.

Would it have been a better novel if it had fulfilled my expectations? Read on.

This book isn't really a novel about the meltdown, despite what is says on the cover. The (economic) meltdown happens, but it happens in the background. It's scenery, not plot. And it isn't even, really, a novel about the breakdown of a marriage. It's a caustic retelling of the Cinderella myth.

Frida - the protagonist - is a girl from a poor background in Iceland. After a traumatic childhood, she escapes to London, where the course she had set her hopes on lets her down. In this vulnerable state, Cinderella - Frida - meets Prince Charming. He's rich, urbane, cultured, handsome, beautifully dressed, twice her age, and called - naturally - Damien. Damien, for me, didn't ring true for the first several chapters he inhabited. Filtered through Frida's eyes, he seemed a cardboard cut-out emotionally cold English aristocrat, almost a Fifty Shades of Grey character. But as Frida's own understanding and perception develops through the narrative, suddenly one sees why this sophisticated man would choose to marry a young woman at such a low ebb: he wanted someone malleable, whom he could mould, Pygmalion-like, into a perfect wife. This revelation is chilling, and makes the character of Damien more believable, if not more likeable.

But this isn't a book about Damien. It's a book about Frida, and Frida's is a delicately and beautifully drawn portrait; she's a very fully realised, believable and - yes - likeable character. It's a book about Frida's growing up, a growing up which is delayed from her broken childhood and through the frozen years of her dysfunctional marriage, to flower quite suddenly against the stark background of Iceland's west fjords. And it is an interesting detail, I think indicative of the construction of this text, that the incident which sets her free to flower is a mistaken inference.

I'm not sure, now, whether or not the failure to use the obvious counterpoint in a more formal way is a deliberate choice - 'I could do this, but I shan't' - I'm interested. It's not the choice I would have made. It isn't the novel I expected. But that does not make it a poor novel. On the contrary, it's a very fine portrait of a woman coming of age, and well worth reading for that.

Thursday, 9 May 2013

It's time tae rise as levellers again

If you follow this blog, you know already that I am an essayist; you know I'm not a poet. So here is an essay. It's an essay that has been boiling up in me for weeks, and I've been trying to do the background research I need to support it. I haven't fully succeeded in that. There hasn't been time. But now the iron is hot, and I must strike. So here it is: an essay.

The wicked witch is lately dead
The tower clock is silenced 
That else had toll'd her to her bed
Ding Dong. Yet when all's said
Her hagiographers are read
She's cast a saint, her people led
To 'freedom', a land promised -
Her people, not us lesser bred
It's time tae rise as levellers again

Margaret Thatcher. I remember her - many people of my generation remember her - with great bitterness. I am not good at hating, I think she may be the only person I have truly hated in my life. Her first - purely ideological - recession was intended to create a 'leaner, fitter Britain', so she said. The business I then owned with my then wife, Auchencairn Pottery, didn't fit in Thatcher's leaner, fitter Britain. We were a small craft manufacturing business, selling mostly to the discretionary income of the middle classes. Came the recession, and the middle classes didn't have any discretionary income. In 1981, nine of thirteen craft pottery businesses in Dumfries and Galloway went to the wall, and ours was one of them. We weren't Thatcher's target, of course. We were young entrepreneurs, the people she claimed to support. But we, and tens of thousands like us, were, to her, acceptable collateral damage.

Margaret Thatcher set out to smash the unions, and provided the unions were smashed, the cost to the rest of the community need not be counted. So, we lost our business, as I've said. We also lost our marriage and our home, in the turmoil of that crash. It was a good marriage - one that could have lasted. I lived for some months on bread, eggs, mussels from the beach, and the occasional rabbit that a friendly farmer would leave on my doorstep.

It wasn't just small businesses that Thatcher's ideological blitzkrieg destroyed, of course. All across Galloway, all across Scotland, good viable businesses collapsed and thousands were thrown on the dole. I went with hundreds of others on buses from Dumfries to demonstrations in Glasgow, Manchester, London. There was a good feeling on those buses. A camaraderie. We weren't all of one party - there were anarchists, trotskyites, Labour party members, nationalists, and people of no discernible affiliation. But faced with this assault on our community, we made common cause, and that was good.

I picked myself up, dusted myself off, got myself highers and went to university. While I was a student, Thatcher took on the miners. I joined a student group which set up holidays for the children of striking miners, and so I gained an honorary life membership of a branch of the National Union of Mineworkers at a pit that's long since closed. But that's beside the point. I succeeded at university, went on to do research in artificial intelligence, and founded a high-tech company selling advanced software into industry.

Just in time for Thatcher's second recession.

While her first was ideological, her second was pure incompetence. I remember doing a sales tour of our major customers in 1989, and every person we were trying to sell to took me aside after the presentation and asked if we had any jobs, because their research budget had been cut and they feared they would lose theirs... and so I lost a second business (and a second house) to Thatcher.

Of course, I was one of the lucky ones. I had intelligence, self confidence, entrepreneurship. Millions of people had none of those things. Millions of people did not have the talents to create their own jobs, build their own businesses. Millions of people were dependent on industry to provide them with employment, with income, with dignity, with hope. And Thatcher destroyed industry. She destroyed the lives of millions.

I have waited decades to dance on her grave.

Yet, when she was dead, the government - the Tory government - decided to give her a funeral worthy of the Nuremberg rallies. The BBC - our BBC, which we the people own and pay for - dignified that funeral with servile and fawning coverage. The Chancellor - George Osborne, a man who treads eagerly in Thatcher's footsteps from recession to recession - wept crocodile tears. Now, a fortnight later, the BBC is still tripping over itself to give airtime to her hagiographers. The Tories are clearly trying to seize the narrative, to make it a hegemonic truth that Thatcher's deliberate decimation of Britain's manufacturing industry, her wanton selling off of all our nationalised industries and utilities, her destruction of the collective institutions of working folk, was a 'reform' which is 'irreversible' and somehow made Britain a better place.

The truth is, Britain is - still - a better place than when she left it. It's a better place because we, the people, have had twenty years to clean up the mess she made, to gradually rebuild Britain from the ashes of her scorched earth. But where now is our industry? Jaguar and Landrover, like the steel mills of Wales, now belong to the Indians. Mini, Bentley, Rolls Royce, to the Germans. Lotus, to the Malaysians. Rover, to the Chinese, and they've already moved the production home. I've concentrated on the car industry, because Britain (not Scotland) still has a car industry. But what of our computer industry, here in Britain where the computer was invented? Where now is the IBM plant at Greenock, the Sun plant at Linlithgow, Hewlett Packard at Queensferry, Marconi in Edinburgh, NCR in Dundee? Well, to be fair, NCR still are in Dundee, by the skin of their teeth. But they no longer make anything there. Our sewing machines have sung their song. The Hillman Imp is dead and gone. Our strength in engineering's done.

And shipbuilding? Remember shipbuilding? All that's left is British Aerospace, building on the Clyde two aircraft carriers for which we'll have no planes, and at Barrow submarines which don't work and can't steer.

But that's industry, big industry, and big industry is essentially urban. This is a rural rant. Let's come home to Galloway.

Ilk' pauper pays their Vee Aye Tee
On aa they need tae live or dee
Fae whilk the lairds aa dip their fee
Their 'agriculture subsidy'
On land they lang syne stole fae ye
Land they hae cleared o sic as we
Land that they haud, whit's mair, scott free
Sall we bide douce, an let this be?
It's time tae rise as levellers again

So. Now. Here. In this wet green land of Galloway. What livelihood is there here for our young folk? Damn little. But worse, what homes are there for our young folk? None. And why? We have all this good, well watered, productive land, and there's no work for people, nowhere for their housing? Back in the second war, Britain subsidised farmers to produce food to feed the population. Later, when the European Economic Community came into being, the Common Agriculture Policy was set up to help keep the rural poor on the land - to make small farms viable.

But Britain, by and large, doesn't have small farms. All our land has been enclosed, long since. Runrig and common has been swept away, cottars driven off their land, to make way for large farms. So the funds from the Common Agriculture Policy are paid largely to the owners of large farms - who are (of necessity) already hugely wealthy people.

In France, in their revolution, one of the major grievances of the people, one of the primary sparking points for revolt, was the fact that the taxes on the poor went to pay for the subsidies of the aristocrats. Now, two hundred and thirty years later, what do we have?

Everyone pays VAT. We pay it on practically everything we purchase, things which are essential to life. And because it's levied on consumption not on income, it's hugely regressive - the poor, who live from hand to mouth, pay out far more as a proportion of their income in VAT than the rich. And for what does this tax on the poor pay? Yes, you guessed it. Inter alia, it pays for the EU, and, among other things, for, yes, the Common Agriculture Policy.

I'm told, and do believe, that my neighbour across the dyke happily trousers a million pounds each year, paid for out of the taxes on the poor. Taxes on you, and taxes on me.

Meantime, on the land they hold, they pay no tax. Not a penny. Land they hold as theirs, as the basis for their inflated claims for subisdy; land on which you may not grow your food, on which you may not build your house. For the privilege of excluding you from that land - you, me, all of us - they pay into the public purse precisely nothing.

Where now will we find lamp-posts for these aristos?

Nae dykes stood when this land was new
An when enclosit for the few
On ilka barn the red cock crew
The new big't dykes we overthrew
I tell ye, swear ye, this is true
And though thae dykes are raised anew
As we did then sae we can do
It's time tae rise as levellers again.

Levellers. Levellers are part of the tradition of Galloway, part of our proud history of resistance, of popular politics. Because Galloway was the first province of Scotland in which enclosures took root.

Let's give that some background. Until the invention of the cheap, reliable firearm, the aristocracy were able to provide a 'service' to the peasantry  in the form of a protection racket. You pay us the rent we demand, and we'll protect you from the depredations of our neighbouring aristocrats. But in the aftermath of the civil war, many peasants had fought, and had muskets, and weren't in the least bit afraid of horsemen in armour, and so didn't any longer need protection. But the aristocracy still controlled the parliaments, and they still controlled the courts, so they controlled the law; and they used the law to cement their control over the land, and dispossess those tenants who were no longer so willing to pay any rent demanded.

In England, enclosure of common and in-bye lands was clearly and unambiguously illegal. But the aristocracy used their control of parliament to pass their local enclosure acts, on an 'I scratch your back, you scratch mine' basis. This was 'justified' on the basis that the new, enclosed farms practised more intensive agriculture, which was more productive - it produced more food, and, as the peasants weren't there to eat it themselves, the new 'land-owners' were able to sell a higher proportion of it; and, as the dispossessed peasants didn't have any land of their own to grow food of their own, they had to buy food from the 'land-owners', or starve. So they had to make money in the cash economy. So the 'land-owners' were able to construct manufacturies in which the dispossessed could be exploited as wage slaves to earn the money to buy the food they were no longer able to produce themselves. And this, of course, was immensely profitable. This, of course, was progress.

In Scotland, things weren't anything like so clear and unambiguous. Enclosure wasn't certainly against the law. It was certainly against custom, because it hadn't been done before, but as to law? Law is decided by judges, and judges are drawn from the aristocracy... Be that as it may, the soi-disant land-owners of Galloway didn't trouble with legal niceties. Patrick Murdoch of Cumloden started enclosing land in Galloway for extensive beef ranching. Other 'land owners' quickly followed, evicting cottars and whole villages from their homes and lands. But Galloway - our Galloway - didnae stand for that. The new barns burned, the new dykes were thrown down. And so the land-owners sent out for the army, and the army came and crushed yet another of Galloway's popular, radical revolts, and now the walls stand.

But let's be clear about this: the soil of Scotland was not created with title deeds attached. No single square inch of Scotland has passed peaceably from parent to child over the twelve thousand years since first it was settled. Rather, every grain of Scotland's soil has been seized, stolen, conquered, embezzled, fought over - not once but dozens of times. No land in Scotland - not even my own ten acres - is held with any moral right. Not even estates granted by kings, for wherein lies the source of their moral right? If there's any right in this, the Levellers were right. It is not right to take the livelihood of the many to provide a surplus for the few.

The model army, tired of war
Sat doon wi Cromwell, days of yore
There wis yin grief at irked them sore
If maisters rose still as before
If folk weren't equal 'fore the law
One vote for each, though rich or poor
'Twas but mercenary arms they bore
It's time tae rise as levellers again

But Galloway's levellers weren't the first people called so - and not the first to claim the title. At the end of the first phase of the English Civil War, the new model army hadn't been paid; they refused to disband until they had been paid, and had received indemnity for crimes committed during the conflict. But they had another grievance which, as time and discussions went on, became increasingly the focus of their negotiation.

The civil war - the English civil war, although there was also civil war in Scotland and the two intertwined - was a bloody business. The military elite were aristocrats, and very largely took the side of the king. The parliament needed to raise a new army, a professional army which would go anywhere, rather than the rather undisciplined local militias who would only defend their own home areas. Because this army was not recruited along feudal lines, promotion was on merit, not on social class. So poor men rose through the ranks. More, folk mixed; and, as this was a time of great religious ferment, folk discussed religion, and morality, and why they were fighting. They discussed what they were fighting for. And so, as in the two great wars of the twentieth century, the army became radicalised, became a force of the Left.

They were, they felt, not mercenaries fighting for pay, but a citizen army, fighting for the freedom of all. That meant, critically in those days, freedom of conscience - freedom to believe and worship as they would. But it meant something more. It meant the right to equal vote. It meant, most of all, that there should not be new masters. That there should not be a new privileged class. They were levellers not of dykes, but of men.

Of course, the Left lost the Civil Wars, both north and south of the border. We - we the people - lost. It was in the aftermath of that defeat - a consequence of that defeat - that the land was enclosed. Seized  Stolen. We lost the war, and so we lost the land.

But - is the Civil War really over? Will we sit here and let this be?

The Queen sits in far London toon
(Dunfermline's lang syne tummelt doon)
Yet owns the pairks for miles aroon
Her cronies, tae, in hose and shoen
Haud lands fae here tae Castletown
An siller, aye, round as the moon
That's taen fae ilka honest loon
Its time tae rise as levellers again

Because in the settlement we achieved - when we were all too weary to keep fighting - there was still a king. There is, now, still, a monarch, so called. She and her immediate cronies own 12% of all private land Scotland; just 608 people now own half of Scotland - and most of them aren't resident. This ties back to what I said earlier about the taxes on the poor subsidising the rich. Of course not all private land is agricultural land; of course not all of that land attracts public subsidy. But nevertheless, a very large proportion of Common Agriculture Policy subsidy - the first of whose objectives is 'to ensure a fair standard of living for farmers' - goes, in Scotland, directly or indirectly, to further enrich those 608 mostly absentee individuals.

But land is not the only property wherein the few have arrogated the commonwealth. Wealth itself is extraordinarily concentrated. And it's getting worse, fast. 10% of the population of Scotland now take 30% of the total income, so they're getting richer faster. Furthermore, the share of income going to the richest tenth is also increasing rapidly, so the rate at which they're getting richer faster is accelerating. This inequity accumulates over time, of course, through successive intermarryings and inheritances of the wealthy classes. Our generation has seen the largest transfer of wealth from the poor to the very rich in human history.

The myth of capitalism is that by hard work and enterprise, a child from a poor background can rise to join the wealthy elite. Andrew Carnegie is frequently cited as an example. And the reason he's so frequently cited is this: he's practically unique. The children of the wealthy have all the advantages. They have the connections. They have, within their family circle, the mentors and advisers  Most importantly of all, in these days when the banks won't lend, they have the seed capital. Wealth, in Scotland, is locked into a very small proportion of families, and if you weren't born into one of those families, you will never share in the wealth. Worse, in a land with a hugely overvalued housing market, you're likely to find yourself in debt - through student loans, housing debt, negative equity - through most of your life.

Debt makes people docile. They dare not revolt, for fear of losing what little they have.

Noo Scotland's free! Watch in amaze
The Queen still in her palace stays
Across the sky the rockets blaze
The bankers gang their greedy ways
An ilka working karl still pays
Tae line the pokes o lairds who laze
On Cote d'Azure, Bahama keys
It's time tae rise as levellers again

And now at last, we have a referendum on independence. Scotland has it's chance, it's opportunity, to rise, now, and be that nation again. That nation that wrote:

'Yet if he should give up what he has begun, seeking to make us or our kingdom subject to the King of England or the English, we should exert ourselves at once to drive him out as our enemy and a subverter of his own right and ours, and make some other man who was well able to defend us our King; for, as long as a hundred of us remain alive, never will we on any conditions be subjected to the lordship of the English.'

Think about that. It's a claim, fundamentally, of the sovereignty of the people. By us, the Scots. As long as a hundred of us remain alive, we will not submit to a government which does not represent our interests.



What, actually, in this damaged, fragile world, does independence buy us? Is it merely a distraction, which takes our focus away from the real problems we face - the problems of global inequity, of climate change, of ecocide?

If independence means the same old same old, it's a distraction.

If it means we pump and burn the same oil, and emit the same carbon dioxide, it's a distraction.

If it means we tolerate the same inequities of wealth and income and land, it's a distraction.

There are three totems in this. There's the Queen. There's the pound. There's NATO.

The Queen stands for the old system of aristocracy which fossilises the inequities of land and power. The over-valued pound sterling represents the greed of the usurer class, the concentration of wealth into the hands of the money-men. And NATO is the alliance, now, of the rich world against the poor. And the Scottish National Party, the party which I have supported these forty years, now stands for an independent Scotland which retains all of these things.

As Maggie Thatcher said: "No! No! No!"

An independent Scotland that continues the destruction of the planet's life support systems is not worth having. An independent Scotland that continues the belligerent fostering of conflict across the world is not worth having. An independent Scotland which preserves the unjust and inequitable power, status and wealth of the elite is not worth having.

But it doesn't have to be like that. Scotland has opportunities which allow us to make a real difference to the world.

We have nuclear weapons, so we're in a position to set a world lead by voluntarily, unilaterally disarming - and, actually, we're quite likely to do that. That is a big win, and could be used to apply moral pressure on other nuclear states to follow our lead. That would contribute significantly to world peace.

We have oil, so we're in a position to set a world lead by voluntarily, unilaterally limiting or ceasing our production. The SNP won't do that, but the SNP won't necessarily be the party in power after independence.

It would, of course, make us poorer in the short term, so it might be a hard policy to sell. But, frankly, there's really no point in having independence if the whole world is going to go to shit within a century. Living in an independent Scotland would be a big win; watching Scotland (and the rest of the world) die, not so big. If we cannot put a brake on the world's headlong rush to destruction, independence is a sideshow, a hollow joke.

So once again, Scotland has the possibility of taking moral leadership in the world. We can do this. We should do this. We must do this. And if we do do this, it's an enormous win.

Finally, elites, wealth and power. This isn't tacked onto the end, it's the foundation stone of the whole piece. The current elite are intimately linked into the banking systems, the oil and gas companies, the agrochemicals businesses which are destroying the planet. While they are the elite - while they have the power - no significant progress will be made on ecocide. Power and wealth must be wrested from them, not merely because it is equitable to do so, not merely because it is just, but because unless it is done we all die.

Of course, it must be wrested from them worldwide, not just in Scotland. But once again, Scotland, with its democratic, Presbyterian traditions, with its doctrine of the sovereignty of the people, can make a start. Can provide the lead. Can be a beacon to the world.

We can do this. It is worth doing. But it's going to be a fight.

It's time tae rise as levellers again.

We Scots were ae a motley band
Wallace, Inglis, Erse, Normand
Cam fae ilk pairt intil this strand
But Scotland. noo, is whaur we'll stand.
Sall 'indy' be oor sole demand
While six hunner haud half the land
An aa the siller in their haund?
Aye right. That's no whit we hae planned!
It's time tae rise, it's time tae rise, it's time tae rise, it's time tae rise
We're here tae rise as levellers again!


This is a rant. It's a rant for Scotland, but it's also a rant to Scotland. It's a rant to use. Take. Modify it - my text isn't perfect, it isn't fucking angry enough - add your own bile, your own venom. Verify my claims, do your own research. Rip the verse out of it, fix the duff lines, set it to your music, sing it, shout it. Spread it. I don't want money. I don't want fame. I want change.

This rant is for Scotland. It's for Scotland, because this is our Scotland. Our land. The land we inhabit, that we can change. Scotland shall be free - but freedom means nothing if we don't take charge of it and change it. Scotland free must be Scotland equal. Must be Scotland green. Must be Scotland the peacemaker. If we cannot make a just Scotland, if we cannot make an egalitarian Scotland, if we cannot make a peaceable Scotland, then Scotland itself is not worth the candle.

Rise now!

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The fool on the hill by Simon Brooke is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License