Royal Society Summer Exhibition

I made it to the last day of this year’s Royal Society Summer Exhibition on Sunday: a fascinating collection of scientific exhibits and scientists happy to talk about them. It’s a pleasing format, especially if you’re interested in hearing scientists talk about their work – which is one of my favourite things.

I wanted to share some notes on what I learned.

Killer Fungus

Killer FungusMedical Mycology & Fungal Immunology

Apparently around a million people are killed by fungal infections every year – more than malaria. Most victims are those with compromised immune systems, including those with AIDS and transplant patients who have to take immunosuppressant drugs to prevent their bodies rejecting their new organs; one of the intriguing thing about fungal diseases is that many of them are caused by fungal organisms which live on us all the time, but hardly ever cause problems. However, the number of otherwise healthy people who are badly affected by fungal infections seems to be growing. Fungal diseases and the human immune system’s ways of responding to them are poorly understood, so far, compared with our understanding of bacterial or even viral diseases.

I have a long-standing interest in mycology in general, but like most people, I’d never given all that much thought to fungal diseases in particular.

4D Science

X-Ray Tomography

Tomography is the process of turning a series of 2D slices into a 3D image. The people from the Manchester-Harwell X-Ray Imaging Facility are pretty excited about getting to use an X-ray ’10 billion times brighter than the sun’ to extend this into the fourth dimension, showing how things like crystal structures change over time. That lets them track exactly what happens as batteries charge and discharge, or when ice cream melts and refreezes, and they had some nice little 3D-printed models to demonstrate it, as well as a Lego light-tomography machine that works by casting shadows from a model on a tiny turntable.

Antimatter Matters

Trapping Antihydrogen at CERN

Antimatter is almost exactly like normal matter except that it has the opposite electrical charge, or possibly it travels backwards in time (the two interpretations look surprisingly similar in practice). When a particle and its antiparticle collide, they annihilate, releasing a burst of energy; and when new matter is created out of a burst of energy, it comes along with antimatter, allowing the universe’s total electrical charge to be conserved.

It is puzzling that the universe as we know it consists almost entirely of matter, when matter and antimatter are usually created in exactly the same quantities. It looks as if this didn’t hold in the early universe, or somehow the antimatter was destroyed while leaving normal matter behind, which suggests that the universe is troublingly asymmetrical, and nobody knows why. This is a long-standing problem in physics, known as ‘CP violation’, and not very much progress has been made in solving it since I was studying the subject seventeen years ago.

There is currently a fiendishly difficult experiment ongoing at CERN, in which scientists are making molecules of antihydrogen by colliding antiprotons with positrons (antielectrons), and trapping them in order to study their behaviour. The experiment is so difficult because antihydrogen atoms are electrically neutral, so you can’t contain them in an electrical field; you need to use enormously powerful magnets to control them, and even then, they need to be cooled to within half a degree of absolute zero or they’ll escape.  If antihydrogen atoms turn out to behave any differently from hydrogen atoms in terms of the way they absorb and emit radiation, that will give us some valuable hints about CP violation.

Silk Acoustics

The Spider Silk Violin

One of the fun things about the 21st century is that new materials are being created all the time, with interesting properties and applications, including biomaterials incorporating things like spider silk. Luca Alessandrini is exploring the acoustic properties of some of these materials as part of his interdisciplinary research, and has created violins out of some of these novel materials.

The exhibition was a little on the crowded side, so I didn’t get to see nearly everything. Some of the things I’d have loved to get a chance to spend more time on include computational cosmology, quantum secrets of photosynthesis, morphogenesis and surgical robots. At least I have the internet…

A Coup without a Clue

Jeremy Corbyn (photo CC by Plashing Vole
Jeremy Corbyn speaks (photo CC by Plashing Vole)

Here’s the thing about Corbyn: as far as I can tell, his analysis of what’s gone so wrong with British politics, and specifically the Labour Party, is absolutely spot on. So are his prescriptions for how to fix it. None of the attacks he’s faced have addressed these. None of his attackers have ever put forward anything approaching an alternative vision, or even a serious critique of Corbyn’s analysis or policy programme. Whether this implies a total acceptance of the status quo, or simply a failure of imagination, I’m not sure.

I’d be interested in reading such a critique, or about a significantly different, plausible left-wing policy programme. Maybe he’s missed something, you know? Maybe I’ve missed something too.

I’ve seen some criticisms from Greens, of course – Corbyn’s default assumptions tend a little bit towards the statist, although McDonnell’s actual economic policies push strongly towards decentralisation; maybe he slightly understates the importance of the environment; that kind of thing. But I’ve seen very little from Labour that really goes beyond ‘BOO, UNELECTABLE’.

That’s just not good enough. Millions of people in the UK (the DK, I should say) are impoverished, disempowered, alienated from the political and economic systems, and hopeless about them. The vote to leave the EU is widely and, I think, rightly, seen as a symptom of this.

That makes the right wing of the Labour Party far more culpable for the way that vote went than Corbyn’s supposedly lacklustre campaigning. They’ve let the working classes down for decades by refusing to foster hope for anything better than what we’ve got, or to rebuild institutions that would allow us greater control of our own lives.

This lecture from a few weeks ago (available as a podcast and a transcript) is the clearest expression I’ve encountered of exactly where Corbyn’s coming from. Given the time and space, he is capable of expressing himself very compellingly. I’d be interested if anyone could articulate where they think he’s going wrong – in terms of ideas, rather than just delivery.

The House of Calabash


An impressive range of squashes.
A remarkable range of squashes

We met Mr. Chang when we were standing outside his house near the Forbidden City, admiring his squashes. He asked us some friendly questions – do you play music? (a bit) Speak French? (seule un petit peu) What’s the English name of these squashes? (bottle gourds) – and ended up inviting us inside. We’d finished our touristry for the day, we didn’t have any urgent reason to be anywhere else, and he seemed nice enough, so we took up his invitation.

Inside he had more squashes and other plants growing with the help of an impressive amount of natural light, along with a large number of dried bottle gourds, or calabashes, that he’d grown. He’d clearly moulded the space over the decades, with a surprisingly labyrinthine system of steep, narrow stairs, walkways and small rooms tucked away around a courtyard-like central living room.

Narrow, twisty stairways alive with plants.
Narrow, twisty stairways alive with plants

He showed us some of his daughter’s artwork – she was off studying art – as well a painting of his own, a fairly accomplished landscape with birds in the classical style. Then he told us about the ballet school he was setting up in Beijing, the first of its kind, with French ties – he was a dancer along with everything else, and he’d lived in France for many years. He spoke better French than English, lapsing into it when he couldn’t remember the word for something, so our conversation was in an odd mix of English, French and occasional Mandarin. He had a day job working for a big company.

A line of bottle squashes
A line of bottle squashes

After we’d been there for a while I reached to get a card to write my contact details on, only to realise I didn’t have my wallet. I ran back to where we’d come from in case it had somehow fallen out of my pocket, but eventually realised it must have been taken by a pickpocket among the crowds thronging out from the Forbidden City. I came back to Chang’s to cancel my credit cards; we swapped emails, and he gave us ten calabash seeds to take home.

Solar Eclipse 2015

3-1 crop of sliverOn Friday the 20th of March 2015, the moon’s shadow passed over a stretch of the northern half of planet Earth from Greenland and north Africa to Mongolia. I was in its penumbra, where it didn’t quite block all of the light from the sun. Its umbra, where it eclipsed the sun entirely, passed a few hundred miles to the north, bringing a couple of minutes of day-time night to a long strip of open sea, and the northern archipelagoes of Svalbard and the Faroe Islands.

Colander shadowMuch of Britain was covered by such thick cloud that it was impossible to really see what was going on, but we had perfect eclipse weather in Edinburgh – patchy clouds and high winds, so that there were times when the cloud cover was thick enough to look directly at the sun (though good health & safety practice recommends against it), and other times when there was enough direct sunlight to get really clear crescent shapes where there were breaks in shadows. We tried making a pinhole in cardboard, but got better results by just holding up a colander. You need to hold it far enough away that you’re viewing mostly penumbra; the effect is the same one exploited by pinhole photography.

Iridescent cloudsWe were close enough to the zone of totality that only a tiny sliver of sun remained at the maximum point of the eclipse, around 9:30 in the morning, making it about as dark as twilight – ideal for appreciating another thing that made the weather perfect. For a few minutes we had just the right kind of clouds to produce iridescent effects – thin clouds with evenly sized droplets, allowing diffraction patterns to be strongly visible. Iridescent clouds and coronas actually occur very often, but  in the daytime they’re usually too bright to be seen, while at night it’s too dark for us to fully appreciate their colours.

Projecting the eclipseAnother technique for looking at the sun indirectly is to use lenses to project an image onto a flat white surface. We tried using a macro lens-extender I normally use to take extreme macros. It projected a pleasingly clear image of the sky and its clouds, but the image of the sun was too small to be much use. We should really have used more than one lens – one to focus, one to magnify. A friend in London, also a science teacher, took the opportunity to make a projecting telescope. He reports: ‘Shame it was cloudy but under a hood you could get a clear image of buildings miles away. Kids loved it, the hood added mystery.’

Projected Eclipse by DeeAnother teacher at my school had a proper heavy-duty astronomical telescope set up to project an image of the sun about 10cm across, and 80 or so solar viewers with special film that one of the younger classes had fashioned into flimsy but effective glasses.

Scaffolding and Crescent SunThere are a few more of the pictures I took in our garden in this album. If you missed this one, the next total eclipse visible in Europe will be on the 12th of August, 2026, in northern Spain.


Shanghai is a long way south of Beijing – about 750 miles, the distance from Dundee to Paris, which still only gets you half-way down China’s coast. It’s even hotter than Beijing in the summer, and it’s even bigger, too – in fact it’s now considered the biggest city in the world, depending on how you count it. So we travelled south from the capital, already vast and overheated, with some trepidation.

IMGP2227_02Our train pulled in at the tail end of a thunderstorm, which was a good start – the air was cleaner than any we’d tasted in weeks, and cooler. Beijing’s air pollution is uniquely terrible, largely thanks to industry in the surrounding countryside; despite its even bigger population and comparably congested streets, Shanghai’s air never got so bad. Being wetter, it is also better able to sustain greenery, without teams of people regularly watering every roadside verge and replacing all the tufts of grass in neat lines at least once a year, so many more of the streets are lined with trees to provide shelter from the sun.

Crow and OstrichOne of the first things we did on arriving was visit a sculpture park with many large, inventive and varied sculptures and a remarkable number of outdoors-living but evidently well-fed cats.IMGP2275_01 Bowls for them were scattered throughout the park, and we passed more than one person in the process of feeding them. Shanghai turns out to be a pretty cat-rich city.

IMGP2259_01Some shopsAnother thing the city is well endowed with is tiny, oddly specific shops, whole neighbourhoods crammed full of them: plumbing pipe shops, one selling only fans and fan accessories, one selling a wide range of fruit and veg – but only ones which are green, white or both.

FishingWe happened across a bridge where people were fishing by reaching down from above with nets on enormously long poles. I found it hard to believe they would catch anything at first, but with the help of a small crowd of people who shouted and pointed when they spotted something coming, they soon netted several turtles and a fish or two.


IMGP2341It’s the giant commercial buildings that everyone notices, of course. Shanghai has the biggest, shiniest business district I’ve ever seen, Pudong – endless rows of towering skyscrapers clad in coloured glass, and frequently topped by something round with a spike sticking out of it. The biggest tourist attractions are the Oriental Pearl Tower, a particularly tall building with a notably long spike at the top and two big round bits; and the Bund, a well-maintained waterfront area that seems to exist mainly to offer a view of the big glass buildings across the river, and their giant animated ads and light shows.

IMGP2475I recently listened to a fascinating episode of the Sinica podcast on ‘Shanghai and the Future Now‘, which filled me in on some of the background to the city centre’s aesthetic, which is so determinedly modern that it verges on retro-futurism. Most of that has come about since the 1990s, and the city is still very visibly under construction.

View from the flat
Just on the right of that square down there was our local cafe, a Japanese bakery

We stayed on the edge of the French Quarter, which still has a lot of old colonial buildings, with some pretty nice cafes, in a skyscraper with quite nice views, mostly of other skyscrapers.

In the evening we met Sonya’s friend Oli at a pretty good vegan restaurant before going to KTV, where I experienced a karaoke booth for the first time. They’re a huge thing there, rivalling bars for popularity. I sang two or three songs; most of the songs were in Chinese, half of our party being native speakers. I enjoyed the singing, and seeing the characters while they were sung, but it was a fairly disorienting experience overall.

Stick InsectOn our second day we went to the Insect Museum. It has a lot of wonderful insects with rather scant information accompanying them, mostly about their popularity as pets. Downstairs they have turtles in too-small boxes, sad snakes and a workshop where kids get to stick insect specimens on cards, with fake flowers, and put them in frames.

We visited a couple more vegan restaurants, the best of which turned out to be three floors up in an electronics mega-mall in Pudong, ‘If Vegan‘. We had truly excellent smoothies and Vietnamese-influenced food there, and marvelled at the audacity of the couple who sat down at the next table with a bag of barbecued meat to go with the few vegan dishes they ordered, and munched their way through their chicken while one of the waitresses valiantly tried to convince them this was unacceptable.

Obligatory tourist shot at the Pearl Tower (we didn't go in)
Obligatory tourist shot at the Pearl Tower (we didn’t go in though)

We stuck around in Shanghai for a few days – visited the mostly quite good science & technology museum and some the main tourist traps, got lost trying to find a way over the river, mostly just explored. After that we took the opportunity to go somewhere with fewer people and more interesting tea, heading a hundred miles southwest, to Hangzhou.

The Greens and the Left

tippingpointahead-sign-readyThis is a guest post from my brother Leo Murray, creator of the climate change animation Wake Up, Freak Out – then Get a Grip and various others. We’re in broad agreement about most things.

Interesting times! Today, Green Party membership has overtaken both UKIP and the Lib Dems (editor’s note: this was first written on the 16th of January; four days later the total membership figure for UK Green parties is now over 53,000 and rising):

Greens:    44,713
UKIP:        41,943
Lib Dems: 44,526

You may well have noticed David Cameron’s recently announced cynical position on the TV debates, which is obviously about ensuring that if he has to contend with UKIP then Labour should have to contend with Greens.

There are some very interesting implications from all of this. The Tories have recognised the opportunity the rise of UKIP represents for their own agenda, and leveraged it to shift the middle ground of political discourse in the UK over to the right.

Meanwhile the Labour party, having now only really a barely recognisable semblance of left wing politics or representing labour (= workers) following their total acquiescence to neoliberal economic doctrine under Tony Blair, have had the opposite reaction to the rise in popularity of the Greens – they are shitting themselves, and acutely aware that the Green Party are basically embarrassing them on a daily basis by being proper socialists, and showing up Labour as the rootless flunkies of neoliberal capital interests that they have become.

Unlike the Tories, whose core agenda of dismantling the welfare state, advancing corporate power and protecting capital and elite interests remains unchanged, and have hence been able to use UKIP to help advance this agenda, Labour (at least, the Labour high command, notwithstanding questions about Miliband himself) no longer have any agenda at the core to advance.

Consequently, Labour have entirely missed the opportunity to use Green support (including in Parliament itself via Caroline Lucas) to move the middle ground of political debate to the left. I don’t think they ever saw it as an opportunity! Instead of welcoming a Green voice in the Commons as an ally in the same broad agenda, Labour have chosen to throw everything they have at un-seating Caroline Lucas from Brighton – it’s one of their top target seats! Not a Tory seat, not a Lib Dem seat, but the only serving MP to the left of Labour. They’ve also appointed Sadiq Khan to mount a fightback against the Green vote, and this week got Miliband to sign a letter to broadcasters – an identical letter to the one written by Nigel Farage – saying the TV debates should go ahead with or without Cameron, with no mention of the Green Party.

BUT because of the way politics works here, Labour do recognise the threat the Greens pose to their vote share, and it is already forcing them to make concessions to scramble to hold onto the left wing voter base in the UK.

It is also the case that the BBC and others’ position on the TV debates is starting to look increasingly perverse and untenable now that the Greens actually have more party members than either UKIP or LibDems, both of whom feature heavily in this stuff.
There are some vital tactical considerations for everyone involved in the struggle for social and environmental justice in the UK at this critical juncture. Whether or not you regard the Green Party as an effective vehicle for change here in more general terms (the jury is out – perfectly legitimate to think not!), if there was ever a moment to actually sign up to join the Green Party, it is right now. Even for those of us who are wholly committed to anarchist principles and ideals, there are extremely good tactical reasons for believing that simply adding your name to the Green Party membership at this particular moment in time will help undermine our enemies and take us closer to the kind of world we are working towards creating. And quite apart from all of the party and Westminster political implications of all this, there is a brilliant opportunity here to change popular perceptions of the political makeup of British society.

Leo’s conclusion is that as many people as possible on the British left should be joining the Greens (or Scottish Greens). I would also add to that if you disagree with their characterisation of the Green Party of England and Wales and the Scottish Greens as ‘minor parties’, it would be worth responding to the OfCom consultation on their official guidelines and the BBC’s draft guidelines on electoral coverage. You might also like to contact other media companies directly to protest the exclusion of Greens and other relatively radical voices from debates and coverage.

To Vote, Or Not To Vote

MPs debate Queen’s Speech
Count the women! Spot the non-white people! Guess how many of those pictured are millionaires! Parliamentary copyright images are reproduced with the permission of Parliament

The House of Commons is hopelessly unrepresentative of the population of the UK, both politically and demographically. It has been dominated from its inception by wealthy older white men belonging to one of two or three political parties, and the policies of those parties have converged in recent decades on a so-called ‘centre ground’ which is in many ways far to the right of popular opinion, and which takes for granted a set of economic assumptions which are at best questionable, and at worst both harmful and evidently false.

Although I am focusing on the UK here, the same points can be made in a disturbingly large number of other countries.

So I have a fair bit of sympathy with lines like  ‘don’t vote, engage with politics‘ and ‘if voting changed anything, they’d abolish it‘. I can see why people would want no part in a system there is so much wrong with, and far too many people mistake turning up at a ballot box every few years for meaningful democratic engagement. However, none of this is a good argument for abstention in national elections. Don’t fall for the lazy lie that politicians are all the same, and don’t lose sight of the fact that sometimes they achieve tremendous things like founding the NHS, or exceptionally bad things like starting wars of aggression. We have a shared responsibility for holding them to account for their wrongs, and letting them know what we think they should be doing.

Unless you’re a rich white man, the fact you can vote at all is probably thanks to direct action. There are at least three important lessons in this, the first of which you will doubtless have heard many times before, although it is probably the weakest: (1) Many people have thought it was worth fighting extremely hard for voting rights; (2) Direct action can fundamentally change the way society is run, especially when it forces those with the most power to sit up and take notice; (3) Extending the franchise beyond rich white males is clearly no guarantee that the main power structures will not continue to be dominated by them.

Abstention does not imply apathy, but it is far too easily mistaken for it. Only 44% of 18-24-year-olds voted in the 2010 UK General Election, and the politicians know it. Turning up to vote is not just a way of expressing approval for a particular party or candidate, or disapproval for others. It is a plea for you, and your demographics, to be represented – a message that you won’t just go along with whatever happens, and that elected politicians stand to gain something from taking you into consideration. This works even if you spoil your ballot paper or vote Monster Raving Loony Party, though I would encourage you to rule out the existence of a serious party worth voting for first.

Don’t be put off by the apparent improbability of your preferred candidate winning – there’s no such thing as a wasted vote. When victories like Caroline Lucas’s win for the Green Party in 2010 do come along, it’s possible largely because enough people in previous elections refused to vote for ‘the lesser of two evils‘ to convince much of the rest of the population that it might be worth  doing the same. In recent years, Spain has seen the decades-old dominance of its electoral system by two parties abruptly ended by the rise of Podemos, a new party formed as a result of the Indignados movement that presaged Occupy. In Greece, the ascent of left-wing Syriza has gone some way towards counter-balancing the simultaneous rise of the far right, and may yet see the country find a way out of its current difficulties that works for most of its people and not just its wealthiest. Long-standing political assumptions are often shakier than they look, and profound changes can take place in a surprisingly short time when people get together and demand them.

Britain is not being run well, and that is largely because we have collectively been letting our rulers get away with it for far too long. Voting is a painfully weak mechanism for holding them to account; it’s not enough, but it’s something.  The UK parliament has great power over our lives, for both good and ill, and we have some power to steer it. Huge gains were made for the people of Britain in the decades after the Second World War, which thirty-five years of neoliberal rule have still not fully undone. We can do much better than this, if we’re prepared to fight for it on multiple fronts. If not, we should expect to see it get much worse yet for most of us.


It's a good place to take photos
It’s a good place to take photos

On our first full day in Beijing, partly by way of helping me get a feeling for the city’s geography, we climbed up Jingshan, the large artificial hill in the historical dead centre of Beijing, overlooking the Forbidden City. The views are stunning from the pavilion at the top of its highest peak, but it’s one of those spots which somehow manages to attract more locals than tourists. We arrived a little while before sunset to find it crowded, but with a relatively peaceful air.

Sunset from JingshanOnce the highest point in the whole city, it is still the highest point for a couple of miles around thanks to strict controls on building height in the city centre. Outside the official city centre seems to be a free-for-all though, with the result that from the Pavilion of Everlasting Spring, you get uninterrupted views over the whole of the oldest part of the city, and beyond it a seemingly unbroken wall of skyscrapers. Beyond those, on a particularly clear day – and this was one of them – you can see rolling hills out to the west.

SwiftsAs the sun goes down, swifts swing lower and lower in the sky till they are swooping right under the arches of the pagoda, chasing the evening’s insects. Big butterflies settle on photographers too focused on distant views to see them.

Once the sun was fully set, we set off down the hill to explore more of old Beijing.

Sonya at Jingshan

Coming to Beijing

This summer gone I had the rare chance to spend almost two months in China with Sonya – mostly in Beijing, but with some travel towards the south.

XituchengWe arrived in Beijing exhausted but not exactly sleepy. While we waited for our sleep deprivation to catch up with the difference in time zones, we went for a walk in the local park, Xitucheng (literally ‘Western Earth City’, more or less). It’s a long thin park that runs along a canal, incorporating an embankment that was once a city wall. When we visited it was around 9 at night, but it was busier than most British parks get even during the day time – the only times I’ve seen that kind of concentration of people in parks there would be things like Festival fireworks or New Year, but this was just an ordinary Saturday in June.

People in parks
These people aren’t dancing, they’re just sitting around or walking. I’ll post some pictures of dancing later, but not in this park

Still, most of the park wasn’t exactly crowded, just… busy. Most of the people seemed to be congregating for the purpose of public mass-dancing, with groups of about thirty to fifty locals assembling around small sound systems, moving with varying degrees of synchrony. Once I’d ruled out that they were doing Tai Chi, I first assumed they must be actual classes, but they don’t seem to have anyone leading them; it’s more like everyone just copies everyone else in a seemingly self-organised fashion.

They were dancing in a range of styles, but nothing I could really pin down – one group seemed to be doing ceilidh dancing with elements of ballroom thrown in, while others were arguably doing line-dancing, but probably only by the broadest definition, ‘standing in lines, dancing’. We suspect that anyone who turns up in a park with their own music and just starts dancing will soon attract a crowd of people trying to learn their moves, but we haven’t put this hypothesis to the test yet. It may be that it would only work with bad Chinese pop music. Further research is required.

It's like badminton you play with your feet! Or just hackey sack with feathers, depending how you do it
It’s like badminton you play with your feet! Or just hackey sack with feathers, depending how you do it

Besides the dancers there were also an impressively large number of bats; at least two choirs, one of them singing a selection of well-known revolutionary hymns; several groups of people playing Chinese hackey sack, which uses a shuttlecock rather than just a weighted bag; one group practising percussion; and just one old guy doing Tai Chi on his own.

china38_037We returned to the park on our very last afternoon, which is why the photographs here are all taken in daylight. It was less busy than on that first night, perhaps mainly because public mass-dancing is a night time activity. With the benefit of sunlight it became clear what a carefully sculpted and generally well-maintained park it is, and I also had the opportunity to read more of its fascinatingly odd signs.

We're fairly sure 'Simon Park' is meant to be 'west gate (xī mén) of park'.  'Redolent Thistle' and 'Ancient Boat with Tea Fragrance' sound more interesting than they really are.
We’re fairly sure ‘Simon Park’ is meant to be ‘west gate (xī mén) of park’.
‘Redolent Thistle’ and ‘Ancient Boat with Tea Fragrance’ sound more interesting than they really are
Do not Pamage Public Property
No pamaging! Also prohibited: dogs, diving, squatting next to plants and titting about on ladders.

Resonant Herdsman's Song in Ancient City of Yanjing
I didn’t get to hear the Resonant Herdsman’s Song in Ancient City of Yanjing unfortunately, we only found this map just before we got the plane

On Democracy and Hope

The atmosphere in the run-up to the referendum was electric.
The atmosphere in the run-up to the referendum was electric.

On the 18th of September, 1.6 million people in Scotland voted to break away from the United Kingdom. When asked, about three quarters cited dissatisfaction with Westminster politics as one of their main reasons for voting Yes to independence. No big surprise there: just a quarter of the population here is happy with how the current government is running the country, and our electoral system keeps electing tory governments in spite of how the Scottish population votes.

Evidently, we felt that being shot of the political system we’re saddled with, once and for all, was worth all of the economic and social risks and costs associated with breaking up a country and starting many of its institutions from scratch. That means a lot – independence was never going to be easy, and change is almost always scary.

Democracy cairn
Still, the dream of democracy lives on.

But this is a country where less than a fifth of the population trusts politicians to tell the truth, where the electoral system is set up in such a way that politicians can safely ignore the wishes of the great majority of its citizens if it garners favour with the few who live in ‘swing seats’, and where it has been widely taken for granted that a vote for anyone but the two or three main parties is a ‘wasted’ vote, since the first-past-the-post system makes it so unlikely anyone else will be elected. Less than two thirds of the country even bothered to vote in the 2010 general election; of those who did, most voted against the Conservatives. Only 36% voted for them, country-wide, and only 16.7% in Scotland – far, far behind the 45% who went for Scottish independence, although the media’s been describing that as an ‘overwhelming defeat’. Even if you add up all the Scottish votes for both of the parties ruling us from Westminster, it only comes to 878,326 – not much more than half of the 1,617,989 who voted for independence. It is pretty clear that the Westminster system does not deliver governments, or policies, that most of us particularly want to vote for.

I say all this not to suggest that we were robbed, although some demographics, particularly on social media, were so pro-Yes that many people were genuinely shocked by the result. My point is that this level of engagement is extraordinary in British politics, and we must not allow it to be a one-off.

Less than 64% of people in Scotland voted at all in the last General Election, and only 39.1% in the latest round of council elections. We are very used to politicians and the media bemoaning this as ‘voter apathy‘, as if people didn’t vote because they don’t care, but the 85% turnout for the referendum suggests that overwhelmingly, people will turn out to vote if we think our vote will make a difference. The referendum didn’t just get people voting – it got us debating, researching and imagining. We started taking seriously the idea that that we could help shape the future of our country, and probably should.

Sarah Beatty-Smith, Edinburgh Co-convenor, at Edinburgh Greens
The first post-referendum Edinburgh branch meeting of the Scottish Green Party had to shift to a bigger venue to accommodate all the new members, but then that one filled up too so we had to split up and also fill the original venue.

In light of that, it makes perfect sense that the SNP and the Scottish Greens have both seen massive surges in membership since the referendum, with both parties more than quadrupling their numbers in the space of less than a month. All of that energy, all of that creativity and hope  had to go somewhere – and it was hardly going to go to the big Westminster parties, who all opposed independence with such inspiring slogans as ‘IT’S NOT WORTH THE RISK.’ The ‘Better Together’ campaign started out with that nice, cuddly title, but it turned out to be almost the only glimmer of positivity in a campaign overwhelmingly focused on killing aspirations and playing up fears.

We might object that there are also some fairly alarming risks associated with being ruled by a parliament elected through a hopelessly undemocratic system, dominated by three parties who still take broadly neoliberal economic assumptions for granted in spite of all the evidence against them, most of whose MPs come from profoundly privileged backgrounds and won’t challenge the great transfer of wealth from poor to rich that they like to call ‘austerity’. But these are familiar risks. Better the devil you know, right?

So most of us voted against Scotland becoming an independent country. This was always the likeliest result, whatever social media might have led us to believe – change really is scary, and before the referendum campaign started, the polls showed overwhelming opposition to independence. Factor in all three of the biggest parties currently in Westminster, along with almost the entire mainstream media and several large corporations working to convince us the economy would be terribly imperilled by independence, and scoring as much as 45% of the vote looks like a remarkable achievement.

Independence, for now, cannot be our route to a more just and democratic society. But for many of us it was always a means to an end, not the ultimate prize. We will not stop fighting for more power to be in the hands of the people who are most affected by it; we will not stop fighting for accountability in government, for a fairer economy, for a system and a public discourse which acknowledge that a better world is possible.

Because here’s the thing: with enough of us fighting for it, a better world really is unmistakeably possible. If we don’t keep fighting for it, a much worse world seems pretty much inevitable.