I'mNotAWriterBut…

I am a 51 year old working mum of five – not all at home thank goodness. Im a member of the Women for Independence National Executive. This Blog is growing and changing as my hopes and aspirations change. I actually DO expect to change the world but I accept that might not even make sense sometimes. I hope you enjoy the read.

Archive for the category “Politics”

Hope and Optimism

together

I haven’t blogged for ages. Partly because my life has been stupid busy – work, studies, family life, Women for Independence, hobbies and a million other things – but also partly because I’m struggling with many of the feelings that I’m sure others are struggling with. Everything is making me cross. I’ve been involved in quite a bit of anti-poverty work this summer, a consultation on what happens to people when they are in crisis or suicidal and looking for help, Brexit and Brexit and… more…bloody Brexit. And across all those things what I have consistently found missing in our wider society, is empathy and kindness.

 

Last week I was utterly appalled at the video that circulated of the young Syrian refugee being attacked by a taller boy in Huddersfield. It broke my heart, not only that a boy who fled a terrible situation in his home country should be so cruelly treated in a place where he should be able to expect to be safe, but because the boy who treated him so badly was just 16. What are we doing to our children in Britain today, that they grow up with such hate in their hearts and such aggression? As the story unfolded it was suggested that the boy’s social media profile was full of links to Britain First posts and Tommy Robinson’s evil mutterings. We are seeing this more and more, I wrote at the time of the EU referendum about the dangers of legitimising the voices of hate and I fear more and more that I was right. It scares me and it leaves me feeling impotent and bleak.

 

All this came to mind as yesterday, I was heading off to an event where I had been asked to read something I had written about movement. This was a civic event organised by Dr Clare Daly who heads up Birchwood Highland’s Highland Migrant and Refugee Advocacy Project.  I was surprised to be asked to write a poem. I play with poetry and words but I write poetry like I sing – for my own pleasure and no one else’s as my long suffering husband can confirm. I certainly never really thought of myself as a “migrant” despite moving from Rochdale to Caithness in 1997. But Clare explained that the event was looking at movement  – the movement of people from one place to another, and that experiences of movement whoever we are and wherever we are moving from,  are stories of shared experiences and are powerful and moving stories of people and their resilience.

 

So I went along yesterday, clutching my wee green book to read my poems – Northwards and Yellow Submarine.  The event was fantastic and inspiring. We heard from Philomena de Lima who is the Director of the Centre for Remote and Rural studies, a writer and a woman who’s work I have been aware of for over twenty years and never met. I felt like I was meeting a celebrity (I wittered a bit to be honest – she looked a bit startled!).  Philomena set the tone of the evening by talking about what connects us, rather than what separates us. She pointed out that history is not the past – we carry it with us whoever we are. People bring with them their own history, the history of their families, their countries, their people here to where our own history is all around us, where the history of the clearances still resonates and shapes us. We are all of us migrants but that is not what defines us – it is not the sum of our experiences. Migrants and citizens alike have shared experiences, shared concerns, shared identities as mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, employees, patients, friends and we share the rhythms of everyday life.  We share the values of friendship, care and community.

 

The rest of the event celebrated exactly that – our shared values and our shared hopes and sense of community. There was the wonderful Heartstone – a project from Dingwall –   who shared their story with us through words and dance. The Wee Choir from Forres who sang a several songs including a song by Karine Polwart that I loved. Its words of welcome ringing out around the Council chambers.  We heard from myself and Kirsty Glass who wrote a moving poem which was also read out in Gaelic, about the clearances and we heard a remarkable musical collaboration between Sarah Fanet and her guitar and Belal on the Syrian Oud. I think though that the person who really caught the spirit of what we were trying to convey and what we are all hoping for was the lady from The Scottish Highlands and Islands and Moray Chinese Association – Monica Lee Macpherson. She shared with us some of her story about coming to Scotland from Hong Kong and then spoke so genuinely, without notes and from the heart, about how we need to be kind to each other and care for each other, looking beyond our differences to what we have in common. She reminded us that race, colour mean nothing because it is humanity which joins us together. She invited us all to join them in their café and she touched me with her message of hope and joy. Something I have found missing in civic conversations recently.

 

Philomena spoke at the start about the need to find shared spaces to connect with each other and a new narrative of social cohesion, because building a society which is better for the excluded, is better for us all. That was what was happening last night. We were building a society which focuses on what we have in common, on what we share and what we can share with others. It has made me feel hopeful and optimistic and I’m delighted about that.

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At home in Caithness with International Women’s Day

Caithness general

8th March is International Women’s Day 2018. This year the UN asks us to reflect on the courage of ordinary women and to celebrate activists who are fighting for women’s equality and rights across the world. In their comments on the International Women’s Day page, the UN focus on sustainability, and specifically mentions the activism of women in rural areas working to  champion rights for women.

These are big issues – massive issues – violence against women, gender pay gaps, poverty, exploitation, climate change and it is of course, important that we understand the worldwide picture but it sometimes means that we can overlook the issues of importance that women are campaigning for in our own areas. These are the everyday battles that women in our own communities are facing. We have seen the important work that @vvfabs and other Women for Independence members have done in highlighting Period Poverty, the WFI Justice for Women Campaign and tonight I met with women from Caithness Health Action Team (CHAT) who are fighting another battle right here in Scotland.

Caithness is a place in Scotland like no other. Some of you might know that I lived there for several years and loved it – still love it. It has a beauty which is stark and raw but it is beautiful nevertheless. It is however, 110 miles north of Inverness.  When I moved there, driving up the road in the late 90s, I thought we were never getting there. What looked fairly doable on a map proved to be a winding, twisting road which went on and on and on – and it was snowing –  and it was May  – and it took nearly three hours to get there from Inverness.

One of the things I checked out on my first visit to Wick were the medical facilities. I was reassured to see that there was a good hospital and doctors and services which would meet the needs of my growing family.  Since then however, the situation has steadily deteriorated with more and more services moving to Inverness. The biggest and most dramatic of these changes have been the changes to Maternity Services which took place in December 2016.  Previously, Caithness General had consultant obstetricians (2 and a locum) but no facilities for on-site specialist neonatal paediatric support or adult intensive care. Following a review, NHS Highland changed the Maternity Service from a consultant led service to a Midwife led Community Midwife Unit. These changes were supposed to provide safer, more reassuring care for the women of Caithness. At the time, Professor Hugo van Woerden, NHS Highland’s Director of Public Health and Health Policy, outlined the findings of his report, saying that the CMU was a recognised option and that NHS Highland “know how to make that model work.”

So here we are a year and half later, and it appears to be ABSOLUTELY clear that the model which NHS Highland introduced is ABSOLUTELY not working for the women of Caithness.

The idea is that where mums to be are deemed to have “high risk” pregnancies they would be required to deliver in Raigmore. Seems sensible right? But in the first year 210 babies were born to mums from Caithness and 199 of those were delivered in Raigmore. This suggests that over 90% of pregnancies in Caithness are “high risk”.  I wonder how that can possibly be the case but assuming that it might just be so, let us examine what that actually means.

It means some women being in Raigmore Hospital in Inverness for days or weeks. This means they are at least 100 miles away from their home, from their other babies, their husbands, their support and their communities. Oh and let’s not forget, from their visitors. Not everyone knows people in Inverness who can visit if you are admitted for a prolonged period of time. Often days might go by without a pregnant woman having a visitor.

It means women travelling over 100 miles in labour sometimes in an Ambulance but often in their own cars. I have had five children and three miscarriages. Each birth was different – long labour, short labour, waters broken at home, emergency section, elective section. In all of them (except the last one) the trip to the hospital was not pleasant – and I only had a twenty minute journey at the most. Imagine two and half hours in a car, in labour.

Now imagine that journey in the dark without access to a loo, in the driving rain or even – as we saw last week in the snow following a snow plough. There is a bit of footage doing the rounds on twitter just now which was put up by Bear Scotland which shows the snow plough followed by two ambulances and a car. You can see it here.

I understand that one of these ambulances carried a sick baby, one a mum in labour and the car in between another pregnant mum. This is the reality of the experience of women travelling from Wick in labour. Later that same night two women had to travel together in one ambulance with a midwife. Now, there is no doubt that the snow plough driver and the ambulance driver and the dad driving the car in between did a great job. However, expecting pregnant women, at a time when they are at their most vulnerable, to travel those sorts of distances is appalling. It took over four hours to make that journey in the snow. It is not ok to expect a woman in labour to share an ambulance with another woman. It is not ok to ship pregnant women almost wholesale down to a Maternity Unit 110 miles away which, incidentally, is already bursting at the seams.

We know from lots of research that women given privacy, space and a stress free environment during labour need less pain relief and have less complications and yet over 90% of women in Caithness giving birth are subjected to this long and arduous journey.

And there is more.

I heard that some women who have suffered a miscarriage also have to get themselves to Raigmore Hospital. In at least one instance that meant a woman had to drive herself the 110 miles. Again, Ill remind you of the lack of public toilets or any facilities to deal with the sometimes horrific bleeding that can come on during a miscarriage.

I heard about pregnant, labouring women who have had to urinate in a layby or hammer on the door of a closed hotel to use a toilet. The embarrassment and the mortification these women expressed  is huge.

I heard the experiences of women whose husbands work off shore having to leave their other children with relatives and neighbours because they have to go suddenly to Inverness – for days.

I heard of the lack of accommodation at Raigmore for partners and families.  I heard that often women who are more vulnerable or less assertive than others don’t get the help and support that they need for accommodation when they arrive in Inverness because they are not able to speak out loudly enough.

I heard that Raigmore is at capacity and struggling to cope with the extra caseload.

I heard that people are leaving Caithness because they have no faith in the health services for their families. How do we ensure the sustainability of rural communities if we do not provide good quality health care?

I heard that women are rushing to leave hospital because they need to get back up the road for their other children or their partners and that NHS Highland dismiss that as being “their choice” with no recognition that Hobson’s choice is no choice at all.

I heard that women are deciding to limit the number of children they are having, not because of their own preferences but because the experiences have been so difficult, so traumatising and so awful they cannot face going through all that again.

All this makes me furious, but what makes me just as angry is that I heard that these women feel that their voices are not being heard.

NHS Highland appears to have utterly no interest in addressing the fears and concerns of the women involved. They repeatedly tell CHAT that they can’t speak about the experiences of the women involved.  They have failed to share important information with CHAT and they have failed to consult effectively with the wider community,  and its not just over Maternity Services, it is happening with other services too. NHS Highland have been patronising and patriarchal in their approach to the changes they have made and in the way they have failed to engage with women. These are women who should be having one of the greatest experiences of their lives and instead, in many cases,  are having one of the worst.

Women are feeling silenced. They are scared of speaking out in case they get the lovely midwives in trouble when they know the midwives are doing their best but are hampered by policy decisions made by the NHS Highland Board. Women are silenced and disempowered in the decision making process. They don’t speak out because nothing changes, because no one is listening and because, when you have just given birth, you maybe don’t have the emotional and physical strength to shout about your experiences.

Well, We are listening, because we know that it isn’t just the rest of the world that is failing women, it is happening right here. The Scottish Government plans a “Best Start” for all babies and children in Scotland. They say that “Maternity and Neonatal care should be co-designed with women and families from the outset, and put mother and baby together at the centre of service planning and delivery as one entity”. This is not happening in Caithness and there is no sign that NHS Highland has even read the introduction to the plan let alone thought about how they might try to achieve this in Caithness. The Scottish Government must put pressure on NHS Highland to improve services for women in Caithness and hold NHS Highland to account if they continue to fail to do so.

A Best Start is what we want for pregnant women in Scotland going forward – it is part of the fairer, better society which so many of us are working so hard to achieve. We are however, not only failing the women of Caithness  but all women if we do not acknowledge and listen to their experiences of childbirth. NHS Highland need to  take urgent action to do exactly that – listen, and then they must find an innovative solution to the issues I have mentioned here. International Women’s Day isn’t just about what’s happening in the rest of the world – it is about our women here too. These are our women and our children and we must do our very best to make sure they are heard and that their concerns are addressed.

Breast may be best but are we doing OUR best for mums?

This was originally published a few years ago so state might be a bit out of date.

am a mother. I have five children ages 27,26, 21, 8 and 6, I am totally committed to doing the best for my children and I want for all children in society, what I want  for my own – a happy, healthy, nurturing home.  There were lots of differences in having my first baby in 1989 and my last baby in 2009, most of them positive. The antenatal care was better, the facilities were better. Labouring in your own room and not on a labour ward is of course, wonderful. The midwives were fabulous and, despite being both old (I had my last two babies at 43 and 45) and fat, I was supported and not judged the whole way through my pregnancies.

The biggest difference I found as a new mum in the 2007 was the amount of pressure that is placed on new mums. One of the areas where this is most apparent is the issue of feeding and weaning. Feeding our babies seems to have become a stick with which to beat new mums. A stick which, when wielded by inflexible and unsympathetic professionals and volunteers, actually disempowers women and diminishes their confidence and affects that new, and most important bonding relationship, between a mother and her new baby.

Unfortunately this begins with Breast feeding. Now, before many of you get your keyboards out and start telling me about the benefits of Breast feeding – I know them.  I have breast fed 4 out of my 5 children – child number 4 completely refusing to breast feed despite my  experience and persistent efforts! I am wholly committed to promoting breast feeding. I am a trained breast feeding peer supporter and I believe, absolutely, in the benefits of breast feeding for both mother and baby. Articles on the health of people in Scotland do not make happy reading. Heart disease, alcoholism and obesity – cancer and long term health conditions like diabetes, are big problems and so it is important that we try to ensure that babies born in Scotland have the best start, and that means encouraging  breast feeding. What I take issue with is the manner in which Breast feeding is promoted.  The messages seem to be “You must breast feed, you must absolutely breast feed, you must exclusively breast feed, any woman can breast feed it is not true that some cant, you are risking your children’s future health, intellect and achievements if you don’t breast feed and you will be failing to do the best for your child”

If you want to bottle feed your baby, you can feel completely ignored in the antenatal feeding discussions.  At my NHS ante natal classes there was no demonstration of how to make a bottle up, no discussion of the different milks, of what will happen in hospital and of how to sterilise or ensure the cleanliness of the feeding equipment. Now, I – writing this and you – reading this – may very well know how to do all these things but if you are a 17 year old, just out of care, on your own with no experience of babies – how do you know?  You probably don’t even go to antenatal classes, you probably think breast feeding is “yukky” (a commonly used word to describe breast feeding amongst young adults) If you don’t read very well, if English isn’t your first language, if you aren’t very confident then how would you find these things out.  If you are cocky and defensive as many single young mothers are – who would you ask?  The needs of bottle feeding mums are ignored in this frenzy to promote breast feeding to the exclusion of everything else. In 2009 the Medical Research Council said that bottle feeding mums felt “… guilt; worry about the impact on their baby and what healthcare professionals might say; uncertainty about how to proceed; a sense of failure; and anger as a result of feeling under pressure to breastfeed.” (MRC/42/09,14th July) They found evidence to show that mothers were not receiving the advice they need to make decisions about quantity, or frequency of feeds and that this neglect of bottle feeding mums can put the health of the baby at risk.

Mixed feeding is actively discouraged.  In 2009 I was given a locally produced leaflet with the message that “just one feed” is sufficient to undo all the benefits that you have bestowed on your child from breast feeding.  Just one feed can increase the risk of diabetes, under achievement, asthma and eczema. Just one feed, apparently is enough to mean that your wee one will likely never want your breast again.  And this isn’t just confined to bottles – give your new baby a dummy and they are likely to develop nipple confusion.  I have looked at this in some detail and can find no scientific evidence that such a thing exists.  I have gone as far as emailing an old school friend of mine – now a consultant obstetrician and paediatrician in a large teaching hospital and he was unable to give me directions to any research. Many women occasionally swap from one to the other with little effect either on their milk supply or on the baby’s ability to suck. In fact my last baby was bottle fed completely for the first 36 hours and then I put her to the breast and I never gave her a bottle again. Where you have a healthy, full term baby there is no evidence to suggest that a baby will not be able to return to the breast after one or two bottles. Neither is a soother a problem either – and in fact there is research to suggest that a dummy can help to reduce risk of sudden infant death.  The effect of leaflets like “just one feed”  can be to increase the feelings of guilt, fear and failure in new mums.

I have also found that many women who breast feed, also feel these feelings of guilt and failure.  A mother I knew who was a successful breast feeding mum, a confident, professional woman, described still waking up in the night worrying about the fact that she gave her baby formula out of a cup when in hospital. This was despite the fact that the professionals advised this was what both she and her baby needed at the time.  Exhausted after the birth, a hungry and crying baby and a lack of her own milk, and she gave him a  formula feed – he slept, she slept and she was in a much better position to breast feed the following day. And yet this smart and confident woman still felt guilt and pain over “just one feed”

Women who have given up breast feeding are often made to feel like they haven’t tried hard enough. A new mum with a baby who was struggling with feeding mentioned to her health visitor that she was thinking of moving to formula feed to be asked “What??? You are GIVING UP? You know it is best for baby don’t you?  You need to try harder”  I have heard stories about a woman sharing a video of her child  pouring formula milk samples she had been sent in error – down the toilet….  Down the TOILET!!!! A woman who is also a peer supporter, but lives here from another country said in disgust “Only in such a rich country could people treat food with such disdain”.

Another woman I spoke to described her anxiety over timing her baby’s feeds; I suggested that she could give her baby a feed two hours after the last one if she wanted rather than waiting for the routine times she had planned and she asked me “Can I? Would that be alright?” I had to point out to her that he was HER baby and she could organise his feeds whichever way suited her and him. She was so relieved that she almost cried. Another woman was so anxious about her breast fed baby “getting enough” that she fed all the information about his feeds into her computer spending ages trying to figure out how much he was getting.  Time she could have spent just being with her baby and getting to know him. She was under pressure, anxious and desperately trying to understand why she was finding it so hard.

I have heard health professionals say in a horrified voice – “They use ground up tuna fish eye sockets for calcium in formula milk” and seen a whole room of women curl their lip in horror.  This is just mad.  Formula milk may not be breast milk, but it isn’t arsenic in a bottle.  I have heard women suggest that other women who bottle feed their babies are less “mothering” than mothers who breastfeed and seen a room of women sneer and denigrate others who use formula milk as though they – breast feeding mothers – are somehow better or superior.

If these messages were successful in increasing breast feeding across the board, across all different groups of women then it might – just might – have some justification in filling many women with a sense of having failed as a mother before they have actually started . They are however, not successful. Over the last ten years in Scotland the rates of breast feeding have remained static – there have been slight increases of a percentage point here and there, but no significant increase.  Importantly whilst there has been an increase of a whole 6% in ten years, of breast feeding across  the most deprived areas of Scotland  –  in Scotland’s poorest communities there are still  only around 20% of babies exclusively breast fed at 6-8 weeks.  Even when you add in mixed feeding the figure is still only 22.3%.  The government set a target to increase the proportion of new born children exclusively breastfed at 6-8 weeks in Scotland, from 26.2% in 2006/07 to 32.7% in 2010/11 (an increase of 25%). We are failing to achieve this. In 2010/11 the figure was 26.5%.

When we get to weaning the inflexibility of the advice continues. The official advice is that weaning should not take place until the baby is 6 months old.  This advice is lifted straight from the World Health Organisation Guidelines. I want to make it clear that I am not talking about other countries here but Scotland. There are countries where formula milk is not high quality and where hygiene is not of a high standard and this makes using formula milk dangerous. I am not talking about countries with low birth weight babies or without clean places to prepare weaning food.  I’m talking about Scotland.  These guidelines are WORLD guidelines they  offer guidance to countries where infant mortality is high and birth weight low. The average birth weight in Scotland is good at just under 8lbs. Telling mums that breast milk is the best food for children up to 6 months – come what may –  takes no account of your child and their own needs.  I know women whose babies cried and cried and they slogged it out until 6 months – exhausted, wondering where their happy child went, in order not to give give their wee one solid food before six months. Other women had babies who were not the slightest bit interested in food until they were past 6 months. They are all different – they are BABIES not computers.  There was recent research to show that weaning at 4 months can be beneficial and yet the official advice is absolutely NOT to wean your baby before 6 months old.

If you have a health visitor with common sense then you maybe told on the quiet, that starting at four months old is ok. But many mothers report being told absolutely, under no circumstances are they to even think about weaning before 6 months.  When I was first a mum in 1989 and 1990 I was often told by professionals, “You know your baby, what do you think?” I was able to discuss whether my baby was hungry enough for weaning or not… I was advised – not ordered, supported not scared into doing what I was told and my children were all weaned at different ages because they were all ready for weaning at different ages.  I was given credit for being a mother, a good one. In many places in Scotland today that doesn’t seem to happen.

So what are we doing?  What on earth happened to freedom and support? What happened to the nurturing and help, that older women would give to younger women on the birth of their babies?   Surely, as women, we have campaigned to have choices, as feminists in the 21st century, we believe in choice for women and the right to live happy, fulfilled lives. How then can we justify pressurising women over this so that they feel the emotions I have mentioned?  We have women who are finding they lack confidence in mothering, that they have no power to make choices which are right for them and their babies for fear of either being labelled a failure, or of damning their children to a life of ill health and intellectual failure because of “just one feed”. We have a system which does not allow for the needs of individual babies and mums to be taken into account in a positive and empowering way.  We have otherwise well-adjusted women so disempowered by the advice, that they feel that they have no control over the  frequency, type and duration of infant feeding  and we also have socially disadvantaged women, completely unreached by the message that breast is cheap, can be easy and is often fun to do – with the right support. Strikes me  it is the whole approach to promoting breast feeding which is failing – not the mums who use bottles, dummies or wean at 4 months. If we want to make a real difference to breast feeding rates and the health of its population, then we need to empower women to make informed decisions without the use of a big stick – all women –  including those in the poorest areas of our country and if we can do this, then we might just start to change these depressing statistics and improve the health of Scotland in years to come.

Sue Lyons

References.

http://www.bmj.com/content/344/bmj.d8287

http://www.isdscotland.org/Health-Topics/Child-Health/Publications/2011-10-25/2011-10-25-Breastfeeding-Report.pdf?3725832701

http://www.mrc.ac.uk/Newspublications/News/MRC006208

http://fsid.org.uk/page.aspx?pid=416

Yir Ain Pain’s the Sairest

I’ve been in Brussels this week at the European Anti Poverty Network 16th European Meeting of People Experiencing Poverty. An EU sponsored event which brings together the people with experience of poverty and collects their voices  to better inform and develop policy. Because of my work and my life experiences,  I was fortunate to be part of a UK delegation through the Poverty Alliance along with Twimukye Mushaka, Kerrie Friel and Paul Edwards. I will, of course be doing a formal report on my professional experience for my work but I wanted to write a personal account of what I experienced.

Now, many of you will know that this is not a normal event for me. I don’t travel to Europe “on business”. I rarely fly – the last time must have been 2010 so this was a big deal for me. I learnt so much in this last few days, about Europe, about other countries, about poverty and about me.

I learnt that everyone seems to speak English. I learnt that a latte is different everywhere you go. I learnt that Schiphol airport is bigger than Inverness – not Inverness Airport – I already knew that – but Inverness itself. It’s MASSIVE. I learnt that I’m a proper teuchter – wide eyed and overwhelmed by the people, the noise, the bustle of big places in a way that my 18 year old self, worldly wise and working in Manchester would have laughed at.

I learnt that drivers in Brussels honk their horns all the time. It’s so noisy! I learnt that listening and tweeting at the same time makes my head hurt and I learnt that I should have brought more than one plug adapter. I also learnt that small boots are better than big boots when flying and that being a fat, menopausal Woman fae The Highlands means that everywhere I go I am hotter than almost everyone else even when everyone else seems to be wearing woolly hats and scarves but that there is a universal language of menopausal women which lets you know you are not alone.

More that this though was the experience of the event itself. I learnt that to be introduced at a European event as the UK delegation raises a wry eyebrow but to point out that you are from Scotland raises a smile and an occasional cheer. I learnt that the minimum wage in countries across Europe ranges from 60 euros a month to around 1500 euros a month. I learnt that the markets for subsistence farming produce is becoming smaller and causing great hardship and poverty. I learnt that there are lots of young British people working in Brussels and that many of the ones I spoke to had a connection with Scotland. I learnt that many of the delegates had been to university in Scotland. I learnt that I regret not being more ambitious as a young woman. I learnt that I truly feel European – especially when meeting my son who is currently living in Antwerp. I learnt that George from Romania has an English friend called Sue who lives in Crawley – he face timed her and introduced us!

I learnt that Scotland’s voice is of interest to many other Europeans. I learnt that people in Europe think the British have no sense of humour but that the Scottish “style” was appreciated. I was a bit confused by that as my experience of everyday Scottish style is that it’s black jeans and black t shirts for men and not much different for women ( not counting the kilt of course). Closer questioning revealed that what was being talked about was “the craic” and we spent a funny few minutes teaching our new friends about “the craic” and the “banter” and sent them off to share those new words with others – cultural exchange indeed! I learnt that not only does Scotland look to Europe and Scandinavia for innovation and inspiration, but that many countries feel that Scotland has a lot to offer too. The Danish delegation specifically said that Scandinavia looks to learn from Scotland – maybe they were just being nice but I’d like to think not. I learnt that there is a feeling of relief that Britain is on its way out of Europe because those people involved in developing social policy at a European level feel they will get more progressive work done without Britain’s obstructive behaviour. I felt a bit ashamed of that. I learnt that the British Government had promoted Universal Credit as an exemplar to other countries in Europe and I spoke about the stories that I had heard at Drew Hendry’s Universal Credit Summit in Inverness as often as I could to delegates, the EAPN, representatives of other Governments and the EU itself. I spoke about the work which is ongoing to design a Rights based Social Security System in Scotland with dignity and respect at its heart. 

I learnt that there is so much more that connects us than divides us; that the power of the collective voice is important as a way to bring about social change and that the EU must support the development of that collective voice if they want to see real transformation. I also learnt that whilst there are many different experiences of poverty in different countries, the common denominator in every case, is the exploitation of the working class by the wealthy. For those of you who might find class politics stick in your throats a bit I would look you sternly in the eye and tell you straight – in a week when we saw the Panama Papers released and the scale of the avoidance of tax by those at the very top of the pile it is hard to see any other explanation for the continuation of poverty in the 21st century. Poverty is a political choice.

Finally I learnt that there are many people who would give their eye teeth for some of the things we take for granted. Many people who have nothing, but in knowing that I also know that the fact that others are suffering too doesn’t make the suffering of those people in our own countries any less appalling. If you are destitute in Britain, destitute in Spain, destitute in Estonia, France, Sweden, Ireland; if you are working and not earning enough to pay your bills and facing eviction in Scotland, in Belgium, in Denmark, Lithuania, Romania it is no comfort to you that someone, somewhere else is “worse off”. My delegation colleague Kerrie Friel who spoke passionately about the experiences of lone parents and Carers at the opening session said her mum used to say “Yir ain pain’s the sairest”. And she was right. All over Europe people are feeling their “ain pain” – the pain and hopelessness of poverty and we must continue to demand that the EU and individual Governments work together to tackle this across Europe.

Oh, and rich people ….. PAY YOUR TAXES!

If not us, Who? 

There is a naivety about me that I find really annoying. I have to work really hard to overcome it and ensure that I stay in the real world rather than the one that’s in my head.

See – the world in my head is a nicer place. People care about each other deal with each other in a fair way. Public servants particularly councillors and MSPs and MPs, civil servants, local authority employees, all work hard to ensure that they do the best for the people they are employed (with public money) to serve. I know many who do exactly this, our MP Drew Hendry speaks up for those most affected by Universal Credit, Women for Indy sisters focus on reducing inequality, We have some fabulous new councillors who are indeed there for the “we” not the “me”.  I am however, regularly faced with reminders that many more are not like that. And yet in my naivety, I am always shocked when I see this and cross with myself for not being more realistic and less stupid.

Over the last year I have seen people who on the face of it share my political goals, put their own self interest before the good of the community, the cause, and the parties they represent. I have seen first hand, spiteful, selfish behaviour from people who should know better. I have seen self promotion win over team working several times and I have seen examples of bullying and cheating which have left me furious and open mouthed at the absolute bloody cheek of people and completely aghast that they think this is an ok way to behave.

I have, of course also seen committed and caring people supporting each other and working together for a better community. I am fortunate to work for an organisation which does that every day. I am part of a wonderful group of activists with the desire to create something better at the heart of what they do. There are, of course, arguments and heated discussions just like any other group of people trying to make a difference to something when they really only have their own voices.  We don’t always all LIKE each other but we share an understanding that what we are doing is not about “me” but about “we” and this means we work together to try to affect change – regardless of our own situation. We help if we can and we want the best for our communities, and for each and every man, woman and child within it. I like to think that most people want this and it is this naivity which means that I am always surprised when confronted with behaviour like I described previously.

The fire in the Grenfell Tower has shocked me as it has many others. It has horrified us all. If, as the residents of the area are saying, these Tower Blocks are not to the standard that people paying for their homes would accept, why the hell not? Now, I can understand that people paying millions of pounds for a fancy flat expect a higher standard – but surely that is in room size, decor, finish.  Surely it’s full length windows and a fancy balcony; it’s whirlpool baths and sound insulation for the hardwood floors; it’s top of the range kitchens and being fully wifi’d up the yin yang; it’s fancy garages with automated doors and a concierge to doff his cap and call you sir or madam whilst smiling, accepting your Harrods order for you and keeping the “atrium” clean so that they can call you a cab when you need one.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with that. It is entirely acceptable for someone paying hundreds of thousands of pounds for a house to want nice things, more space, top of the range facilities and beautiful fixtures and fittings and space age security.

When it comes to fire safety, surely there isn’t a compromise worth making? When you come down to the bones of a building it is either as safe as it can be or it is not? If the posh block down the road is safer with sprinklers, then the council block is also safer with sprinklers. If the penthouse flats have hoses on each floor then so should the council flats. If each flat in the million pound development has fire alarms outside each front door or inside each apartment, then the council block must have the same.

Cars are a good example of this. I drive crappy cars. I have always driven crappy cars and whilst I accept that the very nice Mercedes Benz is likely to have much fancier braking system than my 10 year old Skoda, I still expect my Skoda to have brakes that work and do the job they are supposed to do. No one would think it ok to leave out the brakes in a cheap new car or let an old knackered car pass it’s MOT if the brakes don’t work so why is it ok to do that with housing? If we allow poor safety systems to exist in social housing we are clearly saying that the lives of people who rent these properties are not worth as much as those who buy their properties, that safety and therefore, life itself has a price which we as a society are not prepared to pay for those people who need to rent their homes.

This is utterly shocking. But is it actually surprising? When you remember what has happened over the last few years it’s perhaps not so surprising at all. People have been prodded and poked to make sure we remember who our “enemies” are. Miles and miles of newspaper has been printed with divisive, racist, classist shite which has repeatedly told us all that it is the poor, the refugees, migrants, immigrants, the alcoholic, the drug addicted, the single parent, the homeless person, the sick and the disabled who are the people our society needs to be frightened of. They are the people we need to keep under the cosh because they are dangerous and they are dragging our country down.

We have been told by successive governments that supporting “these people” is a waste of money, that the welfare state is bloated and that what “these people” need is more stick and less carrot. We are told that the gold standard of being a good citizen is owning your own home and that anything short of this is failure. We are encouraged to see those that don’t own their homes as somehow lesser and,  having allowed themselves to become a burden on the rest of us, they are therefore to be sneered at, looked down on and dismissed as not important.

Given this attitude we can see how a decision could be made that it was acceptable to put cheaper cladding on a council high rise rather than the more expensive fire retardant stuff. We can see how a decision could be made not to install sprinklers,  because this block, these people, were not worth it. We can see how the local council could decide there was no point in organising support on the ground.  After all – everything we see, hear and read – the Government, our Daily Papers, programmes like Benefits street – tell us that these people are less worthy. So what does it matter if we cut a bit here, trim a bit there, look the other way,  they are not important.

We reap what we sow. A Government that cares nothing for those who have nothing and most for those who have everything. We voted them back in only a fortnight ago. Newspapers that see the cost of everything and the value in nothing. They scream their hatred and vileness from their headlines seeing people and their grief as commodities to increase their profit margins and nothing more than that. We still buy them. We still support their existence and we lap up their gossip and hatred. We have news reports that have only bias to offer – the build up to the general election was the most unbalanced across both Scotland and the rest of the UK that I have seen, and yet we still pay our licence fees, our sky subscription. We watch, we snigger and we don’t turn off. We reap what we sow.

I have seen many people say that the people that died in the tower block died because they were poor. And they are right but it’s not just that – they died because our society has allowed money –  profit, to be the priority above all else. Whether there is a case for corporate manslaughter is not for me to say. But every single one of us carries some blame. We are all responsible for allowing society to get to where it is. Even those of us who have tried to change it. We haven’t spoken loudly enough, we haven’t worked hard enough, we have been – I have been – too naive to really hold people, especially the politicians to account.

Those voices that “tut tut” and say we should not politicise this miss the point entirely. It is because we have avoided politicising issues like this, because we have allowed the political class to turn us away from class politics, that our society continues in this manner. This is political and the only way to respond is to politicise it. If we continue to allow politicians, corporations, individuals to put the “me” before the “we” then we fail people like those living in Grenfell Tower. If we allow the powerful to damn us, to silence us for “politicising” this terrible event then we allow them to take away the voices of people living in places like Grenfell Tower, the people who David Lammy described as having ” no power, locus or agency”.

It is ONLY by politicising this that we change things. It is only us who can demand change, us who can challenge those in power to be better. We need to put the blame for society’s ills, not on the poor the disposed or the vulnerable, but on those who seek to profit from making them worthless and those of us who let that happen.

What can we do?

Daniel Blake

Trigger Warning – this blog post discusses suicide and references an article about the experience of people who have been asked to talk about their suicidal feelings during DWP assessments.

Today the front page story in the National deals with my MP Drew Hendry calling for a halt to the roll out of Universal Credit citing the appalling delays leading to rent arrears and highlighting the hardship and poverty that Universal Credit is causing people.

It is the latest in a long line of awful stories which highlight the devastating effect of the last seven years of Tory Governments. Perhaps we should call them testimonies – rather than stories, each one a  personal, miserable story of humiliation, of poverty, of inequality brought to bear on individuals as a direct result of government policy designed to do exactly that.

The havoc that the UK Government are wreaking on the NHS is shocking. The us and them attitude of the UK Government to EU nationals living, loving, working here in the UK is awful. The callousness of the immigration system which deports a wife, mother and grandmother of British citizens who has lived here and been an integral part of her community is breathtaking, but for me, it is the Tory attitude to the poorest in our society which makes me furious. It is the policies that they have introduced which put people directly and immediately into poverty with no thought for anything other than their ideological drive to abolish the welfare state.

The last couple of weeks alone we have been faced with further announcements.  Last week the UK government announced that they are indeed abolishing the right to Housing benefit for 18 -21 year olds, a move which will see an increase in the number of homeless young people.

April sees the reduction in the Bereavement Allowance – a mean minded policy if ever there was one – which will mean that after 18 months the support for widows and widowers with children will stop. Apparently paying this £112.50 per week “stops people from adjusting to a single life” says Richard Harrington – after all, caring for bereaved children stops being challenging after 18 months don’t you know..

We will see the introduction of the two child limit for those having to claim tax credits and Universal credit having already seen the reduction in the Benefit cap to £20000. April also sees the introduction of the rule that says lone parents with a child aged three will be required to look for work in order to get any benefit. There is no value of the role of a parent in the UK’s broken system. Children are seen as barriers to work to be overcome as quickly as possible, whilst parents struggle with poor access to affordable childcare and zero hours contracts which conspire to prevent them balancing the books.

The reduction by £30 per week of the ESA of people placed in the Work related activity group is also beginning in April. These are people that Doctors have decided are not fit for work, unable to go to work because their medical practitioners and specialists have said it would be detrimental to their health. And yet, some “healthcare professional” with no knowledge of the person or their condition, has decided that they can be doing something to “get ready for work”.

We continue to see motability cars removed from people who cannot get to work or shopping without them.  People who are terminally ill cannot get access to the special rules for fast tracking benefits if they are expected to live for more than 6 months – because a diagnosis which gives you nine months to live or 18 months to live is soooo much better!

Sanctions continue to be a daily fear for anyone dealing with the DWP. A late bus, failing to get an answer despite repeated calls to an adviser you have been told to phone, a funeral, an unexpectedly sick child – all these can mean a person overwhelmed, panicking that they will and are facing a sanction. The chances of being late to an appointment increase with every Jobcentreplus office being closed and every demand made for  people to carry out 35 hours of jobsearch. People are being set up to fail by wealthy policy makers who have never had to worry about where their next meal is coming from and to be frank, don’t care about those who do.

And then there is the latest article from the Canary about the inappropriate quesioning of people struggling with mental illness and suicidal thoughts. This article which includes discussion of suicide is confirmation of the stories I have heard directly from people who have been through a PIP assessment or a WCA. It confirms a callous approach to  people at risk of suicide.   Expecting people  to talk about their suicidal feelings with someone they have never met before, don’t trust and who’s aim is to prevent them from accessing the money they need to live is cruel and unbelievably callous. The fact that this is done without any understanding of risk assessment and no strategy for suicide prevention which includes crisis referrals screams out the lack of care and respect which is built into these assessments. These processes are designed to strip every vestige of confidence and dignity from those people undergoing the process. In a previous Blog – Patience   I wrote that the policies being enacted by the Tory Government, are designed “ to subjugate, denigrate and control the population. Does that sound like something out of a futuristic post apocalyptic movie? It does and it might make me sound like Citizen Smith, but it is happening  nevertheless.”

I was right then and I’m right now.

Yesterday I was at a screening of  Ken Loach’s BAFTA winning film,  I, Daniel Blake. It’s the fourth screening that I have been involved in and in every case the question afterwards is the same. “What can we do?” Its tempting to throw our hands up in despair and say we cant do anything but there are plenty of things we can do to make ourselves feel better. We can collect for the foodbank, we can write to MPs and MSPs and take part in the variety of consultations which are taking place inside Scotland to shape our future Social Security System and we can assuage our guilt that we are doing ok by buying DVD copies of I, Daniel Blake and sending them to people we think are ignorant of the things that are going on in today’s society (yep someone I know is really doing this 🙂 It made me smile)

Yet many  activists (myself included) have been caught up in the outrage caused by Sadiq Khan calling us racists. We are busy getting furious at Teresa May’s address to the Scottish Conservative Party Conference, furious by the idea that they think they can dissolve the Scottish Parliament. We have been tied up with the rights and wrongs of a Wings over Scotland tweet about Oliver Mundell and whether racism can be applied to white people or if its racist to suggest that it does.

What we really need to do is to stop getting sidetracked by the endless roundabouts of “he said she said” stuff being thrown at us by stupid ignorant people trying to tie us up in their stupid games and suck all our energy away by throwing around  insults and inflammatory accusations whilst they laugh up their sleeves at us dancing to their tune. We need to ignore this and speak about what really matters to us. For me it will be issues around benefits or poverty, for others it will be immigration or health or the economy. For me it’s the SNP but for others it might be Greens or Labour policies they want want to shout about. It’s not important, what is important is that we shout – loudly and cheerfully.  I’m giving up being offended by people who call me names. I don’t care one iota if someone calls me a traitor or anti English for standing up for an Independent Scotland. I will remind them what we are trying to do with disability benefits, how we are spending £58 million making sure that poor people don’t become even poorer by mitigating the effects of some of the welfare reforms, how we are demanding that EU citizens have their rights protected, how we are continuing to fund the NHS and resist privatisation even in the face of Westminster cuts to our budgets.  I will point them in the direction of the statement Jeane Freeman gave in the Scottish Parliament on the determination of the Scottish Government to set the foundations of the new Scottish System as a fundamental  human right.

We need to stop dancing to the tune of the naysayers, the trolls and the permanently outraged of little Britain – who cares if they accuse us of treachery, racism or worse. There is no need for us to waste our time contradicting the insults. Whilst it is good to shout our support for each other from the sidelines, the people facing the neoliberal cosh that is the Tory Party’s welfare or immigration policies need our voices much more. We need to shout out our determination that our Scottish Social Security policy will offer dignity and fairness, shout out our welcome of every person moving from NO to YES,  our commitment to refugees, our commitment for and support of those from other countries living here as new Scots.. Let’s not get sidetracked –  let’s get out there and speak up for those who’s voices are being silenced by the threat of poverty starvation, homelessness, deportation for whom an Independent Scotland is their only real hope of lasting change. All the other stuff is just noise.

Footnote – if you are struggling with suicidal thoughts or are in despair or distress,  then here are a couple of numbers you can call for help – please call.
Samaritans  – Telephone 116 123 email jo@samaritans.org .
24 hours a day, 365 days a year for those in despair or distress. You do not have to be suicidal to call.
http://www.samaritans.org/
Breathing Space –  0800 83 85 87
Opening hours
Weekdays: Monday-Thursday 6pm to 2am
Weekend: Friday 6pm-Monday 6am
A confidential phoneline for anyone in Scotland feeling low, anxious or depressed.
http://breathingspace.scot/

The Power of Good People

Waking up is daunting just now. I planned to stop taking my phone to bed with me at night this year. I even bought a cheap radio alarm clock – remember those? And yet my phone is the first thing I reach for – not to see what my friends are up to, not to see who’s in a relationship, out of a relationship or who has liked my recent pictures on Facebook but to check what the hell Trump and May are up to now.

I haven’t blogged for a wee while, I went to see Paul Kavanagh – Wee Ginger Dug  speak in Inverness before Christmas. He was great –  witty, funny and insightful.  He said that there is no such thing as writers block – just “Can’t be arsed”. I went home and managed to write something. I am finding just now that it isn’t so much “writers block” as that I am overwhelmed by the tidal wave of appalling, depressing, disappointing, head shaking things that are happening. It’s not so much that I can’t be arsed, as I have no idea where to start because there is so much awful stuff happening that I am a bit overwhelmed. In addition, if I start writing I’m not sure that I will be able to stop and I have a life, a job, a family, hobbies, studies, obligations to meet. I feel like I would need to be writing full time to even stand a chance of covering all the things that I feel anger, sadness, horror, indignation or incredulity at – the list goes on and on. Dragging me down so that I find myself shouting at the television once again. I am finding it harder and harder not to say “I told you so” when I hear people who voted No to Independence and who voted to leave Europe speak about how they didn’t think that meant Scotland would be side-lined so much; they didn’t think that the UK would leave the single market; they thought there would be more money for the NHS. I have never been one to cast blame around but even I have been struggling with this. And I turn to my laptop to write and I don’t even know where to start.

My daughter is seven. She is a darling – a sweet child who loves her cuddlies, having her straight hair curly and wearing her favourite party dress and her sparkly shoes but she is also developing a no nonsense personality with a rod of steel running through her. She is beginning to find the wittiest comebacks and the sharpest putdowns to the teasing that her big brothers (27, 26 and 21) subject her to as their only sister and the youngest child. Trying to get the ball off her big brother who at 6’2 was holding it high up out of her reach, she realised that a punch to the belly would be effective in retrieving it for her and she was right. Off she went with her prize to play with the dog. I look at her sometimes, especially when I see things like the video of Tasmina Ahmed Sheik reading out the insulting and offensive responses to her appearance on Question Time, and I wonder what my girl will have to deal with growing up today. It makes me worried and fearful and bloody disappointed.

Last week – in the midst of the seemingly endless stories about Trump and his executive orders she brought home some work from school, which she completed last term. Amongst the maths work and the pictures, was a sentence she had drawn in bubbly coloured in writing and cut out of paper in a wavy sort of way. It read

“Bad things can happen but good people can help”

Looking at this, I asked her, “Where did you get this from?” and she said “Out of my head” shrugged and went off to play.

I looked at it for a long time. I put it up behind the sofa – propped up where I can see it and I kept looking at it. I put it in my handbag and I took it out and looked at it for a wee while.  I think I had forgotten. Then over the weekend, several things happened.

Firstly, it was our annual Burns Party. We do this every year in our house. It’s a great night, usually with around the 70 people mark; there is music and speeches and toasts and singing and haggis, neeps and tatties. There are burns songs – all the ones you would imagine, there are Scottish songs, there is ALWAYS Zombie, and an a capella version of Bohemian Rhapsody that is legendary, a Lancashire dialect poem in my sadly disappearing accent, and a Rattling Bog. It goes on until the not so wee small hours and then breakfast is offered to all those that stay around or return to tidy up. We have been doing it for 11 years. The people who come to our party are from all walks of life.  They come from all backgrounds and are all ages from children to grandparents. We have friends from Scotland, England, Wales, and Ireland, from Spain, Poland and over the years from many other places. They share our food, our haggis, neeps and tatties and they sing their own favourite songs or play their own instruments or even play our old piano.

It’s always good craic, but this year I was struck by how much love I felt in the house. People who meet up once every 12 months and have been doing so for five, ten years greeting each other with a hug, chatting like they saw them last week and new friends being scooped up and encouraged to join in. My burly husband introducing everyone to a Lyons Hug – sometimes to their slight surprise – the warmth, the smiles and the good humour of everyone. Not a cross word, in fact we have never had a cross word in all the years we have been doing this. I thought about my daughter’s picture and I smiled. I think I had forgotten how much people love and care for each other, I think I had forgotten that I know such good people.

Secondly, Trump carried out his #MuslimBan. I woke on Sunday Morning – without a hangover – to find that during the night a Glasgow Vet who had been a victim of this appalling policy had her costs met by a crowd funder set up by my wonderful sisters at Women for Independence. I have been involved with Women for Indy from the very start and was a member of their executive until last November. I think I had forgotten how much positivity and good we do. I think I had forgotten that we actually make a difference to individuals like Hamaseh Tayari; to policies like those on women’s justice; to the established media like the BBC by challenging the male dominated political commentary. I think I had forgotten that I know such good people.

Yesterday I met with a group of women with lived experience of mental illness that I have been supporting over the last year or so. Several of the members are experiencing difficulties, emotional trauma, ill health, practical barriers to do with benefits and services and yet there they were, supporting each other even through their own pain. I think I had forgotten how strong and supportive these women are – how much of a difference their support makes to all of them. I think I had forgotten that I know such good people.

Finally, last night all over Scotland, all over the UK, all over the world people put on their coats, wrote slogans on placards and stepped outside to protest at Trumps ban and our government’s reaction (or lack of) to it. The protest in Inverness started to ping onto my Facebook page about 4pm and I couldn’t go along because I run a Rainbows group on Mondays at 6, but there in the pictures from Inverness, from Glasgow and Edinburgh, from elsewhere were faces I know, faces I care about – people I am proud to call friends. I think I had forgotten that people are willing to take action when something angers and horrifies them. I think I had forgotten that I know such good people.

And that’s a lesson for me. In amongst all this shit, in amongst the head shaking that I do, the voices of hate that we see everywhere, the ridiculous behaviour of our elected and unelected politicians, the breath holding that many of us are doing over Brexit and a possibly second indy ref, there are people who are prepared to stand up and say this is not on. People who are saying “you are wrong” and who are standing up for others and for what is right.

It is what we all need to do. Many of you may be feeling as overwhelmed as I do. We need to stand up and be counted. We need to remember that we are not alone in this – that, together with others, our voice is loud enough to drown out the voices of hate and division. We need to remember that across political parties, across the Indy debate – yessers, no’s or don’t knows, those for in, or even out of Europe, there ARE people  who are standing up and saying that this is not how we do things in Scotland. They are saying that this is not how we think about people in Scotland and that this is not what we want here in Scotland. That is how we will win a stronger, better future and it is how we will take people with us. It is how we will change people’s minds. This is how we will be those good people my wee girl wrote about.

I say in my blog introduction that I want to change the world – I think I had forgotten that. My wee girl, the people at my party, my Women for Indy Sisters, the women at the support group, the protesters have reminded me that “Bad things can happen but good people can help”. I’m going to make damn sure that I keep that at the front of my mind and speak up, speak out and speak loudly to ensure that my voice is added to all the other good people who are helping. I may not change things by myself but I don’t have to because together, we surely will.

Identity

 

image

I’m writing this sitting in the living room of the French Farmhouse where my sister, her husband and daughters live. It’s raining but warm and the doors and windows are open. The kids are through the house playing, we have all eaten bacon butties and my brother-in-law is cooking up lasagne – he makes wonderful lasagne. He has been playing a cheesy playlist all morning, ABBA, Gilbert O’Sullivan, Barry Manilow – my sister and I and her girls joining in to sing all the words to the pop music that leaves my husband with his Megadeth and Foo Fighters preferences rolling his eyes at us and my much younger children somewhat bemused.

It’s a lazy Sunday Morning, probably being replicated all over the place, well …. maybe without the Barry Manilow. I feel at home here. I feel at peace which is a valuable thing after the turmoil of the last week and a half. And yet there is something just a little fragile about it all. There is uncertainty when certainty once reigned. There is just a hint of fragility about all our lives and there is fury too.

My sister, my parents, many of those living here have a slightly shaky feeling about the future, what about pensions, what about driving licences, what about health care? Many live here and work in the UK paying UK taxes what about them? The bafflement over the attitude to immigrants in the UK is clear amongst those ex-pats who recognise themselves as immigrants. They ask us “What on earth were people thinking?” and we, we shrug our shoulders and have no answers

I’m English. Despite living in Scotland for almost 20 years I have remained English. Despite campaigning for Scottish Independence, being an Executive Member of Women for Independence and standing for selection as a potential SNP candidate for last year’s Holyrood Elections, I remained resolutely English. I was pleased that when campaigning and speaking publicly, people were surprised at the flat vowels and shortened words of my, now fading, Lancashire accent. I enjoyed countering the allegations that a YES vote for an Independent Scotland was somehow anti-English, somehow a hate filled, historical grudge fest based on Bannockburn and the clearances. How could I, a modern English woman, possibly hate England or the English. I love England and love the place I grew up, love the people who have so much in common with the Highlanders I know and love. My eldest sons are English, I am English – there is no hate here. The Independence Referendum didn’t change that fact, it didn’t change my relationship with the place of my birth. And yet somehow the EU referendum has done just that.

It seems overly dramatic to suggest that somehow I don’t feel quite as “English” as I did but it’s true. Driving the length of England is something that I have done many times but this year it felt like driving through a foreign country. I felt a sense of unease as I was setting off, like I don’t really know this place any more. It seems to have become a place where it’s not okay to be foreign, not okay to be an immigrant, where the rise in racial abuse since the referendum has been visible and terrifying. I warned about a leave vote helping to “make the worst voices in society speak louder” and I’m miserable and disappointed that I might end up being right. The video of some young people on an Oldham Tram, shouting racial abuse and threats at other passengers made me feel sick. I traveled that same journey many times and never heard anything like it. The last time, a year or so ago I found it was busy but easy, with all sorts of people chatting in different languages, the different skin tones not really noticed by anyone except the middle aged teuchter wifey fae Inverness who was simply observing how diverse people were and smiling inwardly at the sounds of her own accent reflected back at her.

I don’t believe that whole swathes of England are fundamentally racist. I know many people who voted leave for reasons that did not include immigration or closing the borders.  For many however, immigration was top of the list and intelligent people, smart, clued up people allowed themselves to be taken in by lies and deceit. Add to that the many people, ignored, struggling to live a decent life, dealing with poverty, poor health, poor housing who were left behind as The Labour Party moved to the right. This left a void which in “little England” has been filled by the beer drinking, fake, back slapping, bonhomie of Nigel Farage and his ilk. Lies and half truths, sleekit voices with sinister suggestions whispered in their ears, words of division and hate spread across their tea room tables, wrapped around their fish and chips by the press, spilling their bile across front page after front page after front page.

People were lied to. They were told repeatedly that the reason they can’t get house/job/pay rise/quicker health care was because of the EU. They were told that immigrants who commit crimes, can’t be deported because of the EU whilst the government was systematically reducing the budget of the Borders Agency so they don’t have enough staff to do their job;  they were told that EU immigration was putting a strain on the NHS whilst the government was privatising and squeezing the NHS to within an inch of its life; they were told that social housing is so scarce because the EU allows immigrants and asylum seekers to come here and take our housing whilst the Government brought in policies which made it easier to sell off and harder to build social housing; they were told immigrants push wages down, are responsible for job losses whilst the government encouraged zero hours contracts and told people that £7.20 was a “living wage”; they have been persuaded that immigrants make our country poorer whilst the government happily spends millions on tax cuts to the wealthiest and increases the number of unelected peers and the money given to the royal family. Poor people are sent off to food banks believing that other poor people are to blame for the fact they can’t live on fresh air after sanctions or benefit disallowances.

These people were pieces on a draught board, jumped over by the rich and the wealthy in a game that many of them were not aware was even being played. The articulate, privileged voices of old Etonians and Oxbridge graduates talked about “taking back control” to people who felt they had no control and who wanted change. Add to that a lack of understanding and familiarity with the EU and its processes and systems and you had a bunch of people voting to free themselves from unelected law makers whilst their Government increases the number of unelected law makers in the House of Lords.

And yet, although I recognise the way the people were manipulated and am angry on their behalf, I find that I feel I don’t belong there, to an England that voted to make itself smaller, closed off, narrow minded, tight lipped, isolated in its imagined superiority. The differences between Scotland and England have never been so stark. The Independence referendum was about becoming a larger voice in the world, an outward facing, modern democracy contributing in its own distinct way to the EU and wider conversations. The franchise for the vote in the Independence referendum was based on residency not on nationality like the EU referendum. The contrast is clear. I have watched the Scottish Government repeat again and again that EU nationals are welcome in Scotland with a pride that I am part of that, that I campaigned for that, voted for that. I am proud that the leaders of all Scottish Parties came together with one voice to counter the lies and insinuations from the Leave campaign. I have heard it said time and again that  “We are all Jock Tamson’s bairns”. I have reassured friends from other countries that Scotland will be a place that fights for them and their rights. I have teased my friends here in France that they can come live with us if Scotland becomes Independent because they will be welcomed.

Jackie Kay’s poem “Threshold” from yesterday’s opening of The Scottish Parliament included the words “And this is my country…” She might have followed that up with “says the English wifie sitting in the French farmhouse pondering where she belongs now”. Because, despite the the sound  of  my own accent bringing a smile to my lips, despite the familiarity of Lancashire’s steep sided narrow valleys, something in me has shifted. Perhaps, for the first time, my Scottish identity, the one that has grown over 20 years, the one that is made up of my politics, my work, my children’s school, my community, my husband, my friends, is greater, stronger, more clear and focused than the Englishness that I never expected to lose, that I held onto proudly and that seems now on the verge of slipping into my own history. And so, I have been practicing “Je suis Ecossaise; Je suis Européenne” and you know what? It’s true.

This land is ours, this language is ours – part one.

skye beaches

Land and language. It always saddens me when there is the suggestion  that somehow I lack the capacity to be a powerful voice for the place I live in, for the Gaelic language because I was not born here in the Highlands. I have come across this comment this week and whilst I know that this is not a majority view and we spoke loudly against the suggestion that the Independence debate was insular and anti english in its nature – I blogged here about it – it is still disappointing  to to have my commitment questioned.

So lets get a few things straight – in the nicest possible way.  I am English, I am from Lancashire, a small town in the foothills of the Pennines called Shaw. I grew up there and when I married my first husband, I moved precisely 3 miles away to another small town called Milnrow before moving to Caithness

I like being a Lancashire Lass  – I’m not ashamed of that – I am proud of it. I believe that growing up in that place, amongst those people, made me the straight talking,  no messing lass that I still am. I have lived here for almost twenty years and I brought my children up here, my youngest two were born here.

So, if there are people wondering how a proud Lancashire lass will stand tall for the people of Skye Lochaber and Badenoch, how can she speak up for the language and the land of this place, who think that somehow the only strong voices are those that come out of the mouths of those born here – then let me put your minds at ease.

I will stand up for this constituency and for its language and its land by caring about people – the people that live here and about the things that are important to them. Those things are important to me. I can stand tall and be a loud voice for gaelic speakers even though I don’t speak gaelic because it matters to people here in our constituency. It is because I love here, because I live here, because this is my home, that what matters to you – matters to me.

I also know very well that the gift of a second language is a fabulous gift to give to our children. My sister moved to France when her children were 8 and 3, my eldest niece went straight into school – a french school of course – and they didn’t speak french at home. She was fluent in three months. What I would give for all our children to have the opportunity to have a second language. Gaelic is part of our culture, part of MY culture, my families culture and I want all our children to feel that way.

There has been some great work done on increasing the use of Gaelic and the accessibility of Gaelic medium Education and I have much to learn but I know we struggle to get teachers, struggle in a land which is so rich with Gaelic words to find enough people to do for our children what my sister did for hers – give them that gift of a second language. We need to address that gap if we are going to make Gaelic part of the everyday life of more of the people living not just here in the Highlands or in our constituency but also throughout Scotland.

Every primary school in Highland should teach Gaelic. Not in a sterile and grammar based boring manner but in an inclusive, lets all chat together sort of way so that EVERY child who moves on to secondary school has conversational Gaelic. If a child decides to study Gaelic to exam level there is plenty of time to teach grammar and to write essays and its always easier to do those things  if you speak a language first. To be honest, I’d like to see French and German taught that way too. im sure there are lots of us who having studied a language to higher or A level have a dread of getting the tense wrong or saying la when it should be le or vous when it should be tu. IT seems to  me that these hang ups about grammar prevent us jumping in and chatting.  Speaking the language is what is important, having fun with it, learning rude words, feeling the words in your mouth and realising you can have a secret conversation with your friends which your mum can’t understand. I would love for all our children to OWN Gaelic as their language, regardless of whether they speak it at home.

That would need every PGCE in Scotland to include a Gaelic bolt on for students to choose. Every single one. Teachers who have Gaelic should  be offered incentives or a higher salary to teach Gaelic. In UHI I would expect that every degree course they offer should have a Gaelic module in every year – a module which people can choose to do alongside whatever course they are doing.   We should be offering that to every student – event those studying here from overseas. We have the amazing Sabhal Mor as part of the resources within UHI and so Gaelic should be accessible to every student – not simply those who want to study to a high level but for anyone who wants to understand and speak Gaelic. Only by increasing the accessibility of Gaelic will we increase its use.

And lets not forget Scots and Doric. The Scots language is often,  wrongly I belive, said to be a “dialect” rather than a language but it has its own rules and words and needs also to be protected and supported in addition to Gaelic. We have speakers of all these languages in our constituency – it gives us a rich and distinct culture but within that there is room for those that speak other languages, are from other counties, other countries. At our Burns party – John and I have one every year – it’s a riotous celebration of Burns but also of all sorts of languages in poems and in song  – Gaelic, Doric, Polish, German, and of course I do a Lancashire Dialect Poem every year (and occassionally do a twirling rendition of “Those were the days” but maybe the least said the better)

I  will stand up for Gaelic because I understand the passion of language, understand that wonder of words and I know that the language is part of our culture and our identity here  – a place that I live in and love and am proud of. A place which is now my place, my family’s place – my culture. I’m part of the fabric of our community and because of that, I’ll be the strongest loudest voice you could have. Just try to shut me up!

Homes and Phones

housing

The BBC reported this week that “Homes and Phones are the most important issues which need to be addressed in the Highlands for young people wanting to stay here. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-highlands-islands-33801732

Our young people indeed seem to want to stay here and we need to do as much as we can to enable that to happen through our infrastructure, through education and opportunities for further learning at all levels, through apprenticeships and through attracting business to our constituency and through housing.

But these issues aren’t simply issues for the young – for the under 30s. They are issues for the whole of our constituency. I have spoken to so many people over the years living here and traveling the length and breadth of the Highlands for whom housing particularly, is not simply a question to be answered on a survey but an issue which affects their lives, their business and their health, both physical and mental health. A safe, warm home where you feel secure is so important. Not having that causes a significant amount of stress. It can lead to depression and anxiety. Poor quality housing can make existing health conditions worse, damp can contribute to breathing difficulties and poor insulation can contribute to the fuel poverty many people in our constituency experience. The cost of fuel and energy can be higher here than in many other places, many people rely on solid fuel for their heating and this can makes it difficult to keep your home warm if you are existing on a pension or on benefits or even working and on a low income.

Housing is one of my biggest concerns. How do we make sure that we have enough affordable housing in an area where there are so many holiday lets and second homes? Where prices are so high that it’s impossible for people on ordinary wages to buy a home of their own. But it’s not simply one and two bedroomed houses for young families. I spoke to an elderly couple recently who would love to downsize but in their community there are few suitable houses for them to live in. When you look around the constituency for houses to rent, they are few and far between and quite pricey too. If you check out the Facebook page Skye/Lochalsh properties to Rent there are posts and posts of people looking for a home before you find a property advertised. Some of these posts seem quite desperate and it’s heartbreaking.

I want to make sure that we work within our communities to meet housing need. That we understand it and that we are innovative in using the legislation to make sure that we meet the needs of young and older people  and make good quality housing available whether that is affordable houses to buy, social housing to rent or private rentals.

Shelter Scotland have a private tenant forum that so far they have limited to the central belt but they have plans to take it to rural areas.  I am keen to make sure that they come to our constituency. My family lives in a privately rented house which I was really lucky to get and to be able to afford but there are so many issues around private rents. Lack of a secure tenancy is one. It’s the most terrifying thing to find that the place you call home is going to be sold. I was living in Wick when that happened to me. My marriage had ended and the flat I had escaped to with just my clothes and the  boys had been put up for sale.  I was on the waiting list for the council and on the homeless list but nothing was happening and even though I was working full-time, buying was not an option. I was tipped off by a friend that a house in the village where my children were at school was being handed back so I phoned the council and was told that it would take two weeks to make a decision about the house. I crossed the days off and then phoned them. I can still remember the poor man on the end of the phone saying to me ” I’m sorry Susan – we had to give it to someone else”. I was utterly devastated and felt completely powerless and I never want anyone else to feel like that.

So housing will be a priority for me. I want to see no empty homes in our communities. I want families to be housed and to be able to stay in their communities and keep their children in our local schools. We work now with organisations like the Highland Small Communities Housing Trust which does a fantastic job in supporting the provision of housing to meet an assortment of needs but we need to do more. We need to use the powers in the Community Empowerment Bill and other legislation to make sure that empty properties are upgraded and let or sold at affordable prices, and we need to build on community involvement in deciding what sort of housing our community needs in advance of planning so that objections are overcome before a lengthy planning battle. You will never please all the people all the time but I often  think that housing development is sometimes decided for a community rather than with it.

I would also like to see a bigger charge on second homes in places that have acute housing shortages, when those homes sometimes remain empty for months on end. One house I knew was owned by a Canadian family who came for a month every two years. That does nothing for our villages and communities. Holiday lets are at least bringing people to stay, to eat at local cafes, shop for local produce but second homes – empty for so long contribute little to our economies. I know people love them and often they gave been “grannie’s house” but we have to put our communities and its needs first. Money raised through an extra charge could be used to benefit the local economy and ensure that the place that people love so much remains viable. More charges may not be popular with everyone but we can’t grow vibrant, healthy, economically sound communities when people only visit once a year or less.

My story didn’t end with my going into bed and breakfast with my  boys, having to give up my job and having to leave the area to find somewhere to rent. I was lucky but many people aren’t so lucky. “Working tirelessly” is a phrase you have perhaps read many times this last week or so but I hope you forgive me for using it again. I will work tirelessly to ensure that people never have to feel the way I felt or face the fears that I had to face.  You, your families and your lives will be the focus of the work that I do and being a strong voice for our constituency is the way to do that – I will be that strong voice.

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