A question of risk

17 09 2014

In the late 80’s I went for a job as a sales rep and was horrified that the selection process required me to complete a full day of profiling at some swanky management consultants in Amersham. The tests suggested that I was a risk taker. I am not.

In making any decision I analyse all of the available information carefully and dispassionately and then make my choice. Having made a decision I then act upon it. I think that it is this willingness to act promptly and without further hesitation that came through and allowed the assessment that I am a risk taker. However, acting decisively and taking risks are two completely different things.

This methodology doesn’t guarantee that I will make what others might feel to be the right decision but what it does ensure is that I always make the best decision I can based on the information that is available to me at the time I’m required to make that decision.

Of course as soon as the decision is made more information becomes available. The very act of making a decision changes the landscape. Time passes and more information emerges. A different option may emerge. This is the nature of decision making.

So why is this important?

At the start of the referendum debate I had an idea that, being an avid supporter of co-operative community development and local democracy, I ought to vote yes. Bringing decision-making as close as possible to those affected by those decisions and getting as many people as possible actively involved in the decision making process is a central tenet of co-operative development. As I listened and read, more information emerged and I became persuaded that, for reasons that I have detailed in other pieces throughout this process, a yes vote was the better option.

What has surprised me is that choosing independence has been portrayed as being riskier than staying within the union. The no campaign has focussed on the risks associated with separation while the risks of staying have been overlooked or understated.

Take this last minute offer of further powers being devolved to Holyrood. This ‘pledge’ has been made by three leaders who as individuals now seem to agree that Scotland should have some more power over it’s own decisions but who have very different ideas as to what those powers might be. Their parties have vastly differing views too. Even if the leaders had got together much earlier than just a week away from the vote there is no guarantee that they could have taken their parties with them. Leaving it until the last moment to come up with the offer to talk about more powers makes it impossible to be sure whether they are speaking for their parties and for Westminster or simply for themselves. UK government works by parliament not by presidential style diktat. Take David Cameron. He is already fighting to keep his party together in the face of challenges from Ukip, who may well have there first MP sitting at Westminster within the next few weeks. With a general election to fight in 2015 is he really going to persuade his back bench MPs, many of whom would like to see devolved powers decrease rather than increase, that they should support the transfer of more power to Holyrood? I’m sure that the leadrs will have to come up with something, if only to save face, but it will not be significant. If there was an appetite for further transfer of power it would have happened by now.

One of the rules of leadership and decision-making – know where you are headed before you set out.

A no vote will not retain the status quo, it will plunge the union into a prolonged period of confusion as leaders seek to deliver something to Scotland in the face of opposition from within their own parties at a time when those parties will be looking to fight a UK general election. And as the no campaign is fond of saying, the markets don’t like uncertainty.

Far less risky then to vote yes. There will be lengthy negotiations as the details are discussed and the i’s dotted and t’s crossed but the destination is clear and known; full independence. Not everything, of course, is known. Not everything is yet knowable. But we will know where we’re head when we set out.

So, as a confirmed non-risk taker I’ll be voting YES

A final thought….
I make decisions with my head but as we approach the 18th one feeling rumbles away in my gut.
Imagine waking up on Friday morning to a no vote. We know what the rUK establishment had to say when Scotland decided against devolution in ’79 and it will be the same now.
I have huge faith in the Scottish people to come together irrespective of the outcome to build a better Scotland. I have much less faith in the establishment and, in particular, the English press.
BpSmgt7CIAA6zRu.jpg large

Fear is a liar

14 09 2014

I am not what my parents imagine to be the typical yes voter.
That is to say I do not have a saltire painted on my face and I don’t wander round shouting freedom and I don’t hate the English (or Welsh or Northern Irish for that matter as, for those who haven’t noticed there are currently 4 nations in the UK).
Until very recently, I might even have failed the Tebbitt test in not shouting for the Scottish football team when they played England.

In the 80’s I didn’t even like Scotland and if my work took me to Glasgow or Edinburgh I’d do all I could to make sure that it could be completed in a day so that I could be up and down the M6 and safely tucked up in my Cheshire home by bedtime. Scotland was emotionally immature; content to live off scraps from the UK table. Devolution changed all that. Scotland as a nation existed before the Act of Union and had an established iconography of tartan, ships and shortbread. Devolution engendered a sense of self and possibility of what it might be to have full expression of a national identity.

I’m not a natural SNP voter but YES is not a party – it is a movement to ensure that Scotland’s future will no longer be decided somewhere else. This is what allows me, being born and raised in England and having lived in Scotland for pretty much all my working life, to vote and campaign for a yes vote. A nation is not defined by ethnicity or geography. Being a nation is something that the people who live here all do together.

The no campaign seeks to return Scotland to the pre-devolution mindset. To use a good Scottish phrase, “to put us back in our box”. We have seen this most clearly in the last week as the political establishment has scrabbled about recycling old statements from business leaders, rushing over the border for a day and offering bribes in the form of talks about the possibility of further powers moving to Holyrood. Rather than leaving the Scottish people to decide when there is a chance that we might vote “the wrong way” and choose independence, there is suddenly another offer on the table. Devo-max, if you will, as specifically refused by David Cameron when he insisted that the Scottish people should face a simple yes/no at the ballot box. If Scotland becomes independent, it will be despite the efforts of almost the entire UK establishment.

Consider this weeks’ statements from RBS. Westminster, apparently, refuses to even consider sharing the pound, so to remain backed by the Bank of England, RBS would need to move registration to London. This is a purely technical, legal move, as the CEO confirmed there would be no operational change, but no campaigners were happy to make people fearful for their jobs and for the Scottish economy.

Retailers raising the possibility of price changes post-independence were portrayed as saying that prices would rise. This is what Morrisons actually said “We are neutral on the issue of Scottish independence. We have consistently said that if the cost of doing business was to change in an independent Scotland due to government policies then Morrisons would have to consider raising or indeed lowering prices in that independent Scotland to reflect those differing costs.”

The argument that Scotland can be economically independent was won long ago. David Cameron himself has said on many occasions that Scotland could be economically viable. Standard & Poor’s has said that wealth levels in an independent Scotland would be comparable with countries that enjoy a Triple-A credit rating – even without North Sea Oil revenue. Yet still the no campaign work to instill fear that we cannot manage without rUK support.

Scotland pays 9.4% of UK tax income while having 8.4% of the population so we are not, contrary to Westminster, my mother, the no campaign and the Daily Mail, subsidised by rUK.

Scotland’s share of defense spending is £3.5 billion, less than £2 million of which is spent in Scotland. An independent Scotland, therefore, would have an extra £1.5 billion per year if it kept defense spending at current levels – which personally I hope it wont.

And do you know what? There is more to life than GDP.
I would be prepared to pay a little more in taxes, a little more in the shops to ensure decent public services for the disadvantaged and vulnerable in our society. There is no doubt that public services are being dismantled in the rUK. Chief Medical Officer Harry Burns says that the UK faces increasing NHS privatisation and there is little Scotland can do about it if we remain in union. Independence won’t in and of itself guarantee services in Scotland. The elections in 2016 might, heaven forbid, return a Tory majority or the Labour government which presided over NHS privatisation. Independence is, however, the only way to guarantee that votes cast in Scotland will count. It is the only way we can influence the provision of public services. We decide the kind of country we want to be. Over the past 100 years votes cast in Scotland have influenced the outcome of UK general election only twice. With a yes vote Scotland will get the government – and the services – it voted for.

There is a constant feed of fear and scaremongering coming from the no camp. Fear is a liar and fear is the worst possible ground upon which to decide Scotland’s future.

So are there any good reasons to vote no?
As someone born in Liverpool and sharing it’s desire for a more equitable society, the only seductive argument is that Scotland should remain in the Union to save England from itself; that we shouldn’t abandon our fellow citizens to the Tories and their corporate pals. Well, the Union isn’t just England and Scotland. Scotland has a chance to become independent and the 5 million or so people north of the border should not be asked to forego this opportunity. There is no chance of political change within UK if Scotland votes no. There is a chance that, should we vote yes, Scotland can show what can be done and restore some hope to the embattled northern cities in particular. There is a massive amount of political apathy in rUK. The spirit of inclusion and engagement engendered in Scotland by the referendum debate has demonstrated that if there is something worth fighting for people can be tempted from their sofas. Those who have traditionally been bystanders have become organisers and politics has become inclusive and creative. Yes voters, those who want change in society have found a voice, a common language, and that’s very powerful. It didn’t start with politicians and their speeches. It began on the streets, on social media, in kitchens and pubs. In an independent Scotland we can, and will, stand alongside friends and colleagues seeking change but we cannot, and indeed should not, do this for you. People in England, and Wales and Northern Ireland have to take note of what has been achieved here already and fight their own battles.

There is no good reason to stay in the union.
Scotland can not only survive, but can thrive, as an independent small nation.

A thought for those thinking of voting no.
Suppose for one moment that Westminster is being entirely truthful in their threats about an independent Scotland. That they wouldn’t sanction currency union and wouldn’t help to fast-track EU membership. That they wouldn’t support the democratic will of 5.5 million people. Is this a system that you want to be part of? A system where what you think and how you vote has no impact upon the Westminster politicians and ruling elite? If we vote No on the 18th September we can never again blame Westminster for our plight. We are no longer ignorant of the way they are prepared to behave in regard to Scotland. A no vote will cement a new dependency.

Fast forward 20 years.
What will you tell your children? How will you tell them you voted?
I can think of nothing worse than telling our children that this was the best they could hope for and that fear caused us to fail to seize this opportunity to let them make their own decisions for their own country.

This is an election where our vote, every single one, will count.
We can vote yes. We can make a difference. We can do this and for the sake of our children and generations to come, we really must.

The Buddha’s new clothes.

13 08 2014

I’ll start by stating an interest. I practice mindfulness and meditation. I have done so for over 15 years. While mine is a personal practice, I do lead mindfulness meditation at yoga workshops. I make meditation stools for friends and family. I have become accustomed to the accusation that this is hippy shit.

However, over the past few months my inbox has become a magnet for newsletters promoting courses in mindfulness courses for businesses.

My first question is why? What is mindfulness for?
Mindfulness is a practice that encourages compassion and loving kindness, as distilled in metta bhavana meditation. Mindfulness is practiced in order to become more mindful. Full stop.

Compare and contrast. Adriana Huffington, one of several senior executives who have embraced mindfulness says, “”there’s nothing touchy-feely about increased profits. This is a tough economy. … Stress-reduction and mindfulness don’t just make us happier and healthier, they’re a proven competitive advantage for any business that wants one.”

Mindfulness, in that it instills contemplation and calm, may reduce stress. But that isn’t what it is for. In reducing stress and improving focus it may help people to become more effective at work. But that isn’t what it is for.

But if the outcome of practicing mindfulness is a more compassionate person does the reason the person started to study really matter. Does the ends justify the faulty intent?

Thich Nhat Hanh, considered by many to be the father of mindfulness in the west, is typically generous and feels that as long as business leaders practice “true” mindfulness, it does not matter if the original intention is triggered by the drive for bigger profits. I’m less confident. Can it really be OK to teach mindfulness to US Marines before they are deployed overseas in order to make them more focussed killers? Is this true mindfulness. Surely if they had learned fully the concepts of compassion they would leave the army rather than simply head off in a more relaxed state?

In true mindfulness the question is irrelevant as the means and the end are the same thing. The key is in the word “true” and in true mindfulness. If the original intent is solely for personal or corporate gain are the practitioners really practicing mindfulness or just subscribing to the latest business fad?

Which leads me to my second question is, who’s doing the teaching. Becoming a Buddhist meditation teacher takes many years of dedication, commitment to practice and study. Notice that I said earlier that I lead meditation practice at workshops. I do not teach mindfulness. I introduce people to the concept of meditation and encourage further reading and study. I myself was originally taught by Buddhist monks, practiced regularly with the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order, read ancient and modern works and have a dedicated personal practice yet I do not feel that I can teach mindfulness. Yet it would appear that anyone can, and does, set themselves up as a mindfulness trainer and charge handsomely in the process.

Corporate mindfulness training is tailored to meet the needs of an organisation. Training is not offered as a movement towards personal compassion but as a way of accessing some of its possible by-products, such as dealing with stress or meeting increased productivity goals. In doing so it has become a corporate tool, along with other methods of increasing profits and far removed from the Buddhist concept of ‘right livelihood’.

View from across the border

12 08 2014

One of the strangest experiences of my life was standing next to my son before the start of a rugby international and hearing him belt out “Flower of Scotland”. Why strange?

Well, I’m English, in that I was born and educated in England.

As far as I can remember I have never sung “God Save The Queen”. Being brought up in a socialist household in the north of England, why would I? I’m not at all nationalistic, or patriotic as it is often euphemistically termed. While living in England it was common to support any “home nation” team at a sporting event when England weren’t playing.

I moved to Scotland and have lived here for 25 years; half my life. While I have never encountered any personal animosity I was shocked by the ‘anyone but England’ mentality north of the border. My feeling is that this has changed over the past few years, though it may be that I have grown used to it and so notice it less after all this time, but the warm support given to all athletes at the recent Commonwealth Games and the respect shown whenever the English national anthem was played suggests that the zeitgeist has changed.

However I do regularly encounter nationalism. My parents live in Cheshire; politically and geographically you don’t get much more middle England than that. Reading the English press and watching the local news and listening to people in coffee shops and bars it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that English nationalism is on the rise. This is not only expressed in support for right-wing parties such as UKIP and a more euro-sceptic Tory party, but in an increase in anti-Scottish sentiment. The referendum is seen, at best, as a colossal waste of time and money.

My own parents, fuelled as they are by the Dailies, Mail and Telegraph, believe that they are paying for free prescriptions and a lavish welfare state in Scotland through their taxes. There is little enthusiasm for using the decisions made by Holyrood to lobby for more generous provision for citizens throughout the rest of the UK but rather the feeling is that Scotland is benefitting at the expense of English taxpayers. With the press moving further to the right in supporting the ConDem’s attacks on the welfare state and privatization of healthcare and education, I can’t see this perception changing any time soon.

Since this is the case, what happens if Scotland votes to stay in the union?
My fear is that anti-Scots attitudes will be re-enforced.

There’s a good chance that the feeling will be. ‘you had your chance, you voted no, now shut up’. Any attempt to create a different type of state in Scotland, to have a society based more firmly on equality, inclusion and social justice, will foster further resentment.

English voters are already tending towards the view that Scottish spending should come solely from taxes raised in Scotland. In the event of a No vote it is unlikely that changes in devolved powers will go this far, as Alistair Darling recently conceded, but rather some sort of formula will remain in place to allocate monies to Scotland based upon UK Treasury spend. Therefore the amount that the UK treasury decides to spend will still impact Scotland.

I read a good explanation of how this works; lets pretend that Holyrood is responsible for just three things and the treasury decides to cut funding for all three of these areas in England by 10%. In this instance the block grant to Scotland for provision of these services will be cut by 10%. If the treasury decides to cut just one of the areas by 10%, leaving the others unaltered, the block grant falls by 3.3%. The Holyrood parliament is free to decide whether to cut the service in that area by an amount equal to the reduction in the block grant, to spread the deficit across several service areas or to make up the shortfall from elsewhere. So it is clear to see that spending decisions made in Westminster do affect services in Scotland. To put names to services, imagine they are NHS, education and policing. All devolved services. The treasury may put forward proposals for spending in these areas for England. Westminster MPs will debate the issue but exactly which MPs will be able to vote?

Earlier this year the McKay Committee report concluded that MPs from Scottish constituencies should not be allowed to vote in the Westminster Parliament on issues that affect only England and Wales. For example, Scottish MPs should not be allowed to vote on matters affecting English Schools as the education systems are separate; control over education in Scotland is already in powers devolved to Holyrood. On the face of it, fair enough. MPs representing rUK constituencies cannot vote in Holyrood and, therefore, cannot have a say in how Scottish Schools are run so why should Scottish MPs have an influence in matters concerning the education system in England and Wales?

But these rUK matters DO affect Scotland as they affect the size and allocation of block grant. Do you see the problem here? The relationship between England and Scotland will change from one where all MPs decide how the spending is allocated to one where only English MPs decide on these key issues. And there is also the question of who decides which pieces of legislation have impact in rUK only? Not every issue will be as clear-cut as education or the NHS.

In practice, the ConDems are suggesting that any Bill that affects only England and Wales will have an extra reading. All MPs will be able to engage in the first three stages but in the final vote Scottish MPs will be excluded. Again, this seems reasonable and fair at first glance but it will have the effect of creating two different types of MP. Since Scottish MPs would not have the right to vote on all Bills passing through Westminster they would become a second-class member and, since they would be unable to vote on all key issues, it would be unlikely that they could sit at the political top table, the Cabinet.

And surely it wouldn’t be too long before the parliament in Westminster started to wonder just what use these second-class Scottish MPs really were? Westminster will be acting as an English Parliament with Scotland having representation but vastly reduced voting rights.

Perhaps at that point England, and particularly considering the rise of English nationalism, would be looking to sever relations?

Putting Co-operation at the heart of the community

21 07 2014

Across the country and across the political spectrum everyone agrees that building sustainable communities should be at the core of any initiative for social impact. Community cannot be imposed by government directive. It is an active condition reinforced by active membership with people choosing to identify with and support community values and purpose.

Throughout the last century, the model of community action has been one of volunteering and heavily reliant on grant-funding and individual philanthropy. This is not sustainable. As an entrepreneur of some 25 years standing, I believe that the key is enterprise. I see co-operative community enterprise as a real alternative to the market failures in the private sector and the continual withdrawal of funding from the public sector.

Community co-operatives are organisations set up to provide services to a particular community which use co-operative principles to guide their activities. Co-operatives help to organise and sustain social movements and the people in them and find expression in, for example, wholefoods, housing, credit unions, fair trade and renewable energy.

Community investment allows members of a community to buy shares in an enterprise that serves that community. It gives people a stake in the success of that enterprise. Common ownership puts the assets of the community co-operative in a similar relationship to its members as the village green is to the inhabitants of a village. Everyone has use of the asset but no-one person has title or claim and no-one person can dig it up and take it away.

The alignment of shareholders needs to the needs of the community enterprise promotes long-term sustainability over short-term profit-taking. At a time when many communities are faced with the loss of local amenities this change in focus is, I think, crucial.

And community shareholders are also far more likely to get involved; to become active supporters of the enterprise, and not just remain as consumers of products and services. Shareholders become customers and suppliers and employees and owners. It is a true stakeholder model and one that promotes sustainability.

The challenge to the Big Lottery Fund is to find ways to help the disadvantaged and disenfranchised to genuinely buy-in to their local community enterprises; to find ways of using the fund to enable everyone, not only those with their own capital to invest, to have shared ownership of community assets and community enterprises.

When members of the community become genuine stakeholders and not simply clients or service users sustainable community enterprise can flourish.

Being invisible

4 07 2014

Some 25 years ago I went to buy my first car. I went with my husband, not because he knew any more about cars that I did but because we were newly wed and joined at the hip. I’d had my eye on a cherry red Triumph Dolomite and on getting my driving license we went to the garage to make the purchase. On seeing us looking at the car the salesman sauntered over and asked Steve, “What kind of car does she want?”

It was like I wasn’t there. I’m pretty outspoken now but in my younger days I was like a very fizzy bottle of pop; one little nudge and the top would blow off. Truth be told I had no idea what kind of car I wanted, as long as it was red, but the fact was that it was my money, my car, my decision. I think I managed to make that pretty clear to the salesman and I bought the wonderful red Dolomite (which I spent the next two years sticking bits back on as they fell off) at a discount.

Fast forward 25 years. I was sharing a drink with a friend only yesterday and she related a similar incident. She’s a very experienced woman and currently General Manager at a leisure complex. A guest came to reception to ask for a particular issue with their room to be resolved. In outlining the problem the guest didn’t talk directly to my friend but addressed their comments to the part-time maintenance man who was standing just to one side. My friend had to point out that she was the manager and, therefore, the one that the guest would have to talk to if the issue was to be resolved. The guest wasn’t being rude but simply assumed that, despite the fact that my friend was dressed like a manager and the maintenance guy dressed only in a pair of dirty old jeans and steel capped boots, the man was in charge. My friend was invisible.

Over the years I’ve had plenty of times where people have asked to speak with my manager when I have been the manager. I used to put this down to the fact that I did very well in my career very quickly and that people were surprised to see one so young in positions of authority. I now believe that it was more likely to be an expression of sexism, not expecting to see a woman in a position of power. In my friends case it was alarming to find out that the guest in question was also a woman.

So things haven’t changed. Or haven’t changed much. And certainly haven’t changed enough.

I’m a founder member of a group, based in Scotland, whose aim is to increase board effectiveness by increasing board diversity. Clearly one of the ways that this can be achieved is by encouraging more women onto the boards of public, private and third sector organisations. Since this is the case, the majority of members of the group are women. Women who have already achieved senior positions within organisations and who are seeking to develop an non-executive portfolio. But it is not just an organisation to boost individual attainment, it is one seeking to change the landscape around equality and diversity. At the moment here in Scotland we are in the final couple of months campaigning leading up to the referendum on Scottish Independence. Whether the outcome is yes or no there is widespread agreement that things will change significantly after 18th September. Issues such as equality and welfare, for example, are likely to be further devolved even without full independence. It has been suggested that the group hosts a meeting to discuss these issues in the context of diversity and board effectiveness. I have been alarmed at the number of women who are not interested in the debate.

Here is a chance, a once in a lifetime chance perhaps, to really effect the agenda. A chance to make sure that women are seen and heard. No wonder that we are still invisible in the workplace when so many women are not interested in getting involved in creating change. More than ever we need to all get involved to make sure that women and men are seen as equal. In fact to make sure that women are seen at all.

Wha’s like us…

30 06 2014

…damn few – And they’re a’ deid

In the debate that surrounds the referendum it is common to hear that Scotland has a more pronounced sense of social justice than the rest of the UK. Having lived in Scotland for around 25 years I feel this to be the case. But am I falling for a ‘wha’s like us’ mythology?

This vision of a fairer, more equitable Scottish psyche took centre stage at a recent referendum debate in Edinburgh and lots of heads nodded in agreement with the speakers. However, I was challenged to think about this by an American woman who posed the question, “What makes you think that individuals or corporations in Scotland will behave any differently than their English counterparts post-independence?”

I’m writing this from the recently relocated Glasgow Women’s Library in Bridgeton. Travelling to the east end of Glasgow from my home in Perthshire it is difficult to justify the feeling that Scotland is somehow more egalitarian than England. And you don’t have to compare areas 50 miles apart to see an inequality gap. A Save the Children report published in 2013 found that a child born in the east end of Glasgow can expect to live 28 years less that a child born in Lenzie just a few miles away. Twenty Eight years.

It is possible to argue that this inequality is wholly down to the policies of the Westminster government and that an independent Scotland would close that gap, but there has been a parliament at Holyrood with a devolved healthcare budget since 2004 and expecting a massive improvement post-September seems a tad unrealistic.

Scotland, to it’s great credit, has an education system free of tuition fees to Scots who study at Scottish universities. Whether this can be maintained in the current economic climate post-referendum irrespective of the outcome is open to question but even if it is, access to higher education for all young people gives an impression of of equality in education which does not really exist. I live in Crieff just a few yards from the entrance to Morrisons Academy, not the best or most expensive of Scotland’s public schools but well attended nonetheless. Cycling from Crieff to nearby Comrie I passed a small playing field being used as a car park for visitors attending the sorts day of a local preparatory school. The ranks of 4×4’s with tailgates open to reveal picnic hampers and glasses of bubbly resembled more a day at Royal Ascot than the sports day at my son’s primary school. The public school system is as alive and well in Scotland as it is in England. Scotland’s public schools have the same dubious charitable status as English public schools at a time when Holyrood controls charity law and the education budget. A quarter of children in Edinburgh are privately educated. A stroll through St Andrews during term time is an interesting experience and illuminates a place even more remote from the east end of Glasgow than is Crieff. In 2013 St Andrews University took only 19 children from working class backrounds. 40% of the intake were privately educated. For comparison, Oxford and Cambridge University have 43.2% and 36.7% respectively, intake form public schools.

It is common for opinions to be voiced pro-independence in response to the Tory elite in Westminster. But Scotland has always been ruled by elites, from Robert the Bruce descended from Scot-Norman-Gaelic nobility through to the owners of Scotland’s great estates. Fewer than 500 people own more than half of Scotland so to assert that the ruling class in Scotland is different than in England is disingenuous. The Scotland Land Reform Bill goes some way to address land inequality but wont make massive inroads into who owns Scotland and is being opposed by the owners of the large estates.

As things stand, as the American woman suggested, we are not that different to our neighbours over the border. Whatever happens on 18th those of us who would like to see a fairer society need to work hard to create the kind of society we would like to see. The ‘wha’s like us’ delusion just will not do.

The Commonwealth but not a Game

8 06 2014

We the people of the Commonwealth …… “recognise that gender equality and women’s empowerment are essential components of human development and basic human rights. The advancement of women’s rights and the education of girls are critical preconditions for effective and sustainable development.” This is item 12 of the Commonwealth Charter. So how are they doing?

In April this year reports emerged of the death of a 13-year-old girl southern Kenya after she underwent female genital mutilation (FGM). Kenya does have legislation which outlaws FGM, and while the country has been praised for trying to tackle this issue, implementation is patchy. Six years after a wave of post-election violence in Kenya, thousands of women still awaiting justice. The country’s director of public prosecutions only recently announced that his office would bring no cases related to the 2007-08 atrocities before a new international crimes division (ICD) within the high court, leaving the women to struggle to have their voices heard and their attackers brought to justice.

In April of this year, in Lesotho, the high court ruled that chiefs’ daughters could not themselves become chiefs. This judgement confirms that it is still permissible to discriminate against women solely because they are women.

And in Mozambique there is a law which says that “in cases of rape and sexual violation of a child 12 years or younger, the accused can put an end to the inured party’s litigation and pre-trial detention if the accused marries his victim”. In essence, in a Commonwelath country in the 21st century, young girls, under pressure from their own families and the families of the attacker, and supported by law, are frequently forced to marry their attackers even after suffering the terror of being raped.

In April this year Nigeria hit the headlines when Boko Haram abducted more than 200 girls from a boarding school. Terrifying though this is, this is not an isolated incident. There is a precedent for abductions. In May 2013 claimed it had taken women and children hostage in response to the arrest of its members’ wives and children. And who had taken those women and children? The Nigerian authorities.
Nigeria is a state where the rights of women are routinely violated, where, according to Amnesty International, “…Nigerian women are beaten, raped and murdered by members of their family for supposed transgressions, which can range from not having meals ready on time to visiting family members without their husband’s permission.” They call Nigeria’s rate of domestic violence “shocking,”

20 years ago in Rwanda as many as 500,000 women were raped during the genocide. Despite the fact that 64% of parliamentarians are women and gender rights being written into its constitution, the government’s 2010 demographic and health survey suggest that two in five women have suffered physical violence at least once since they were 15. One in five had experienced sexual violence, most at the hands of their husbands.

In South Africa the situation is even worse. According to Lerato Moloi of the South African Institute for Race Relations “If data for all violent assaults, rapes and other sexual assaults against women are taken into account, then approximately 200,000 adult women are reported as being attacked in South Africa every year” Since most cases never are reported the real figure is likely to be considerably higher.
The killing of Reeva Steenkamp by Oscar Pistorius hit the headlines but it is not unusual. In South Africa a woman is killed by an intimate partner every eight hours. This too is likely to be an underestimate as no perpetrator is identified in 20 percent of killings. Professor Rachel Jewkes of the South African Medical Research Council, whose research revealed those statistics suggests that 37% of men (in a survey in Gauteng Province, the most populated In South Africa) admitted that they had raped a woman.

In Uganda reports suggest that 48% of women have experienced physical violence from a partner, while 36% have experienced sexual violence from a partner. This is a complex situation as even though 31% of parliamentary seats are held by women, 58% of women in Uganda still believe that a husband is justified in beating his wife.

But while all of these statistics are shocking it is Commonwealth Zambia that has the worst record on violence against women in Africa. For the record Botswana is second, Zimbabwe third and South Africa fourth. Gold and Silver for commonwealth nations with only Zimbabwe stopping South Africa making it a clean sweep of the medals. In December 2013 it was reported that a staggering 90% of women have been victims of gender based violence and one in every three women was battered by her close relation, husband or boyfriend. An incredible 72% of males have admitted beating up their wives and girlfriends.

And it isn’t just an African problem.

In India, a Commonwealth country, the gang rape and murder of Jyoti Singh Pandey was headline news across the world. Last week two young girls were hanged from a tree after being gang raped in the fields outside their home as they tried to find a private place to go to the toilet. This might, to us in the developed west, seem like an unusual set of circumstances and unlikely to recur, but not so. A report in the Times of India in February this year quoted the police in a district of Uttar Pradesh as saying that 95% of cases of rape and molestation took place when women and girls had left their homes to “answer a call of nature”. You would think that such dreadful crimes would have the Indian Government rushing to improve the situation for women in the country but no.

A senior minister from India’s ruling party, Ramsevak Paikra, in fact the minister responsible for law and order in India’s central Chhattisgarh state, asserted that, “Such incidents (rapes) do not happen deliberately. These kind of incidents happen accidentally.” And his is not a lone voice. In the recent election, Mulayam Singh Yadav, head of the regional Samajwadi Party that runs Uttar Pradesh, criticised legal changes that foresee the death penalty for gang rape, saying: “Boys commit mistakes: Will they be hanged for rape?” I do not agree with the death penalty either. I don’t think anyone should be hanged but his comments that “boys commit mistakes” indicates that the crime of rape is just not taken seriously by him, and I suspect, large swathes of the male population in India.

According to UN Women figures, 8,093 cases of dowry-related death were reported in India in 2007 and an unknown number of murders of women and young girls were falsely labeled ‘suicides’ or ‘accidents’.

Recently, in neighbouring Pakistan, Farzana Parveen was killed in broad daylight in the centre of Lahore, one of Pakistan’s most cosmopolitan cities. She was stoned to death by an angry crowd, including family members and her own father. Her father, apparently, surrendered after the incident and called the murder an honour killing, saying she had insulted his family by marrying without their consent and he had “no regret”. Farzana’s elder sister now claims that it was her husband Mohammad who had killed her. Whatever the truth it is clear that The Women’s Protection Bill which was passed in 2006, has failed to change attitudes and the culture of misogyny in Pakistan. In 2013, 869 such killings were reported in the media, according to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, and the true figure is probably higher since many cases go unreported.

Quite probably when we think of the Caribbean we think of sun, sand, and maybe cricket and Usain Bolt. According to UN Women, however, the Caribbean has one of the highest violence rates in the world and violence against women is widespread. They go on to say that ” increasingly it is being recognised that eradication of all forms of violence will require confronting harmful stereotypes of masculinity”. According to the World Health Organisation their report into Violence Against Women in Latin America and the Caribbean shows that between 41% and 82% of women who were abused by their partner experienced a physical injury, ranging from cuts and bruises to broken bones, miscarriages, and burns.

Gender based violence isn’t just a problem for the less developed world. The UK can hardly rest on it’s laurels in this regard. Here in Scotland government figures suggest that between one in three and one in five women experiences some form of domestic abuse in the course of their lifetime.

I could go on but I didn’t start this blog with the intention of gathering statistics from every Commonwealth country, merely to pose the question “What is the Commonwealth for if not to protect it’s citizens and uphold their human rights?” The Queen is head of the Commonwealth. It is her signature on the front of the Commonwealth Charter. Running fast or being really good at hop, skip and jumping is all well and good but shouldn’t the Commonwealth be for something more than the glorification of a few athletes?

The Charter is very clear. It asserts the commitment of all member states to the development of free and democratic societies and to improve the lives of all peoples. It talks specifically about Human Rights, Tolerance Respect and Understanding, Rule of Law and Gender Equality amongst other matters of state and governance but talk is cheap.

When is the Commonwealth going to stop playing games and address properly the rights of half of it’s citizens.

On regret and affirmation

26 05 2014

In common with most people who have what could be a characterised as a positive attitude, I am prone to asserting that I have no regrets. In looking at my c.v. as part of my goal of adding another post to my NED portfolio I’ve had cause to contemplate regret in the context of the crazy paving that makes up my career path.

Some of the choices I’ve made seem odd when abstracted onto paper and while some were made for sound professional reasons most were made to suit my personal circumstances. The move from executive to self-employment coincided with a relationship change and relocation to Scotland, for example. I wonder where I would have been had I stayed in the corporate world and continued an executive career in the biotechnology industry. This does not, I think, constitute regret but such contemplation does allow the possibility of regret and regret is a complex beast – inseparable from it’s opposite, affirmation.

People with a profound disability can insist that they wouldn’t have it any other way. They may embrace the disability as a way of affirming the life that they are living rather than regretting the loss of the life that they might have lived. Under these circumstances, new treatments to restore, for example sight or hearing, can be rejected. 

To illustrate by taking another example, someone disabled by injury may commit themselves to becoming a wheelchair athlete of international repute. They may go on to compete at an Olympic games and be so successful as to be victorious in their chosen sport. Possession of a gold medal, I think, would encourage a greater affirmation of the injury compared to someone with similar disability condemned to a life of poverty and dependence. The individual who has gained the gold medal is also less likely to regret the loss of mobility.

Affirmation of the life being lived leads some with congenital disabilities to oppose prenatal screening on the grounds, amongst others perhaps, that being able to choose to abort a foetus with the same condition they have implies that their own life is not worth living. Or is worth less.

On the other hand, I listened to an account only recently of a woman with brittle bone disease who had decided not to have children on the grounds that she did not wish her offspring to suffer in the same way she had suffered, with long stays in hospital and many, many operations. In this case, while the woman acknowledged that if she did give birth to a child disabled in this way she would come to love it and would not regret it’s birth, this would not be, for her, good enough reason to go through with a pregnancy.

Yet, taking this further, she did not wish that they had never been born. She could affirm her own life while denying the chance of the same life to the next generation.

No one else is harmed by choosing not to create another life but what if living the life you want comes at the expense of another?

A friend of mine separated from her husband of 25 years. He decided that he needed to go his own way in order to live the life he wanted for himself. He went back to the life had before marriage and kids; footloose and fancy free. He has no regrets. He may regret having not lived this kind of life throughout all of his life, but does not regret leaving the marriage in order to live this new life.  What of my friend? When questioned she will say very firmly that she wishes that she had never met or married him. When asked about her children she insists that she would have still had kids with someone else, would still have loved them; they’d just be different kids. The affirmation of her own life, even including feelings towards her own children, though her love of them is not in question, is diminished by the choices her husband made. So regret is also sited with others and I would argue that one cannot simply affirm our own life choices without acknowledging some regret for the consequences to others.

In the broader, everyday context none of our choices are without consequence for others. I may buy groceries from my local store or from a major retailer on an out of town shopping complex. If I choose the latter the local store might close, people could lose their jobs which might have catastrophic consequences for them as individuals. It is not possible to measure the impact of every decision we make on everyone else but an awareness is, I think, vital.

I’m guessing that we would all view my friends partner as selfish. He left behind wife and kids simply to shed responsibilities. But what if he had left in order to fulfill some massive creative potential? Maybe if leaving had allowed him time to create a work of staggering genius we would view his choice more sympathetically. The artist Paul Gauguin moved with his family to Copenhagen to work as a stockbroker. In order to paint full-time, he returned to Paris and later moved to the Polynesian Islands, leaving his wife and five children behind.  In all likelihood he would not have fulfilled his potential as an artist if he had remained in Denmark and followed a career in business. Our view of his decision is coloured by admiration of the art created. We are moved to affirm his choices, despite the fact that his family were impoverished to such an extent that Gauguin outlived two of his children.

In a similar vein, I have a friend who recently split from his latest partner and now regrets leaving his first. I suspect that had this latest relationship delivered all that he wanted there would be little regret for the earlier one. So regret is somehow tied up with outcomes and perception too.

In his poem, Sentenced to Life, Clive James talks of  regret, of being “A sad man, sorrier than he can say.” Considering his life achievements we are tempted to take the Gauguin view, that the full achievement of creative potential is beyond regret, but read the poem and you can see that, as he approaches death, it is not how he himself sees it.

It is encouraged in the Buddhist tradition to contemplate death and impermanence as it is only by recognising how short life is that we are most likely to make it meaningful and to live it fully. At it’s most simplistic the sequences of events that make up a life can be affirmed unconditionally compared to not having lived at all. But regret is complex and conditional. Is it possible, therefore, to contemplate the life lived and to look back over that life without regret for things done and left undone? Is there always conflict between valuing the life lived
and regretting what might have been?

So we come full circle.

Had I remained in corporate world I would, in all probability, have built a career in the biomedical industry. I would now be viewing that life from a different perspective. I would find value in the life I had led. Looking now at what might have been I do not regret the choice to strike out in a more entrepreneurial direction but I have to acknowledge that my judgment now is coloured by my experiences as a consequence of that decision and affirmation of the life I have actually led. I may have been successful in that different corporate life but may have harboured the regret that I hadn’t ever started my own business. My affirmation of the life I have lived does not preclude the hint of regret that I would almost certainly have been a better artist had I taken my place at art school rather than studied Zoology.

We need to be able to look back on our lives, not without regret, but with a balance between affirming the life that we have lived and an understanding, and acceptance, of the life we may have led had we made different choices.

One reassuring thing is that, in a universe of multiple dimensions, there is a version of me living their life as a successful artist and where Liverpool just won the premiership.

Not the wrong way but not the best way

20 05 2014

I have recently take possession of an allotment, well half an allotment to be precise.

It is a truly fantastic thing, the opportunity to be out in the countryside, to be close to the earth and to have the chance to grow your own food. I’ve already planned what I’ll do with the courgettes and beetroot and the other vegetables I hope to grow. These are early, exciting days but while I am really enjoying having my allotment,  I’m already persuaded that this is the wrong way to go about things. Maybe not the wrong way but certainly not the best way.

I’m not sure how big the piece of land is that houses the allotments, or how many allotments there are, but my guess is between 25 and 30. Whatever the exact size, I am sure that it is in excess of the ¼ acre at Garden Cottage.

I mention this apparently random fact as I studied for my permaculture design certificate with Graham Bell at his home, Garden Cottage, and in the forest garden he and his family have created there. Within a forest garden every piece of land is productive and this small piece of land yielded over a tonne of edible crop last year, plus wood fuel for fire and oven.

Contrast this with the allotments.

IMG_0017For a start, a massive area is taken up by sheds. There is a shed on virtually every plot, despite there being a very large communal shed in the centre of the allotments.

Then there are the paths. Since everyone needs access to their plot the land is a network of grass paths, which we take turns to mow to prevent the grass getting too tall and out of control. And, of course, there are fences. Pretty nearly everyone has marked the perimeter of their plot with a fence.

A massive amount of growing space has been lost to this need to stake out a territory.

And when everyone grows food on their plot in splendid isolation there is glut or famine. Take for example soft fruit. IMG_0019

When everyone has a few plants on the plot they have to be netted against the birds. Consequently,despite being sited next to a small woodland, there are no birds on the allotment. I haven’t had a single robin hopping around my spade as I’ve turned the turf. In the forest garden there are no nets and many birds of many species. When this last years soft fruit crop ripened there was still boxes of fruit in the chest freezer harvested the year before such is the abundance created. Abundance is created by allowing the whole ecosystem to flourish. For the land to be at it’s most productive, and at the same time sustainable, we too should act as a community to create a broader ecosystem and not just be a collection of individuals. But while everyone has their own shed, wheelbarrow and fenced off plot, this will never happen.

Clearly everyone who takes the time and pays the annual fee has an interest in growing food. There is common interest. We all make an undertaking not to use pesticides and to keep the allotment space organic. By desire, but also as a requirement of the Climate Change Fund that helped raise the money to get the land, we are required to share surplus and expertise. So we share values in this respect.

So what stops people with common purpose from coming together to create a community rather than working small pieces of land as like-minded individuals?

I spent a year working in and with dissimilar groups but who shared the common aspiration of creating an intentional community on a piece of land from which they would grow much of their own food. In every case, despite being supported by volunteers with the time, energy and the expertise required to start and grow such a community, none of them did. In each case the communities floundered as individuals were unable to cede land, control or both in order to achieve a shared vision. The sum should have been greater than the sum of it’s parts never was.

The same is true of the allotments. Rather than creating a cohesive community who could come together and decide what to grow and how to grow it in order to maximise output and minimise input, the land is simply partitioned into plots of equal size and everyone gets on and does their own thing.


Likewise  in the wider space. I don’t have a garden with my apartment, which is currently up for sale. I do have a magnificent view over the Strathearn Valley and look over the beautiful and well-maintained garden which is owned by my neighbours. For me, being able to enjoy the view without the burden of ownership is a massive positive. If I want to sit outside I do so in community spaces, the golf course, the local hillsides, the town park, the beer garden of the hotel next door. In doing so I am not fenced in to my own garden but have the opportunity to meet new and interesting people. Not so most house buyers it would seem.

Yet when I walk along the street I see so many neglected gardens. Not neglected in the sense of being filled with rusting shopping trolleys and abandoned kids toys, but neglected as in unused, or at best woefully underused, hosting a barbeque once or twice a year on well mowed patches of grass.

So we are back to the ownership issue; needing to have a garden for the sake of having a garden. We fence ourselves off in our towns and villages. It is that same need to own the land that ensures that all new houses are built with tiny, tiny green patches and prevents the allotment from being used to create real abundance.

As kids we hardly ever played in our garden. We were at in the park, out on our bikes, playing on the tiny triangle of land which was really just a big grassy intersection between three roads but which we called The Green. There were trampolines in the park, but now each garden seems to have it’s own. We walked to school and home again, or caught the bus, but now if my local school is a reflection of wider society, children are individually chauffeured in their parents 4×4. The streets were full of footballs in winter and ramshackle cricket stumps in summer but now when I pass through places such as the East End of Glasgow, former nursery of generations of Scottish football stars there are only Ball Games Prohibited signs. And when you do see kids on bikes they are forming careful crocodiles with adults to front and rear.

So yes, there is waste of growing space in the allotments but even more importantly, a big opportunity to create community is being missed