Alex Salmond after signing an agreement for a referendum on Scottish independence in October 2012. Photo: Getty
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Alex Salmond visits London, Alan’s friends – and was Orwell on the right or left?

Looking forward to the Scottish First Minister's NS lecture on 4 March, wondering what's gone wrong the BBC's arts programming, and remembering Stuart Hall.

There has been a lot of hand-wringing of late from metropolitan commentators about the threat Alex Salmond poses to the unity of these islands. It’s as if they have belatedly understood that soon they could be living in a permanently Eurosceptic, Tory-led, rump United Kingdom while Scotland forges a new identity as a pro-European social democracy on the Nordic model (“Oh, dear Scots, please don’t go!”).

While many of the London elites – media, business, political, economic – have been complacent about the reasons why so many Scots wish to break from or at the very least reconfigure the multinational British state, we at the New Statesman have not.

A few weeks before the 2011 Scottish election we published a leader warning Labour that it was facing the prospect of a defeat in Scotland that would have far-reaching consequences. A few days later, Ed Miliband, speaking to one of my colleagues, expressed bafflement that we should have published such a leading article. It turned out to be prescient; Labour was deservedly routed in Scotland. We were on the road to September’s independence referendum.

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On Tuesday 4 March, Alex Salmond will come to London at our invitation to make his case for independence. “I am looking for­ward to using this New Statesman lecture,” the First Minister said, “to outline how an independent Scotland will be both a progressive beacon and a powerful economic counterweight to the pull of London, which can help rebalance the social and economic structure across these islands which has seen the UK become one of the most unequal societies in the developed world.”

It is this desire among Scots to create a more balanced economy and a less unequal society that makes it certain that even if a majority says no to independence, the SNP would still have won. The present constitutional settlement in the UK is unsustainable. The centre cannot hold. The desire of the Scots and Welsh for greater autonomy is growing and too many people in England feel disenfranchised and disaffected.

It’s not for nothing that last autumn a radical populist such as Russell Brand was able to dominate the political conversation, or that Nigel Farage is so ubiquitous. The anti-Westminster mood is hardening.

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Alex Salmond is above all a gradualist. He might not win independence this time around – I expect the vote to be close – but he knows that, if Great Britain is to remain a coherent nation state, then federalism is inevitable. He also knows that, even if they lose, the nationalists will come again and again. There is no turning back. The status quo is unacceptable to all except the most insular unionists.

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The Financial Times dismissed Alan Yen­tob’s 8 February BBC2 profile of Hanif Kureishi as an “hour of portentous complacency”. Yentob, who is 66, has been working at the BBC since 1968. He mystifyingly still occupies an elevated position as the corporation’s premier arts film-maker, as if in all that time no one of comparable talent has emerged to challenge his authority or replace him. (Why is it the male presenters who last so long at the BBC?)

Yentob has become a hagiographer. Worse still, the BBC allows him to make indulgent, uncritical programmes about his close friends – such as Kureishi and the architect Richard Rogers, husband of Ruth Rogers, chef-owner of the River Café restaurant in west London, a favourite haunt of the bearded arts supremo and his pals.

It gives me no pleasure to say that the only film in Yentob’s flagship Imagine series I’ve managed to watch to the end was last year’s offering on Machiavelli. But even this well-intentioned programme featured contributions from another of Yentob’s friends, the psychologist Adam Phillips, and ended with the BBC man back at Broadcasting House smugly comparing himself to a Machiavellian anti-hero, as if we hadn’t already seen enough of him in front of the camera. BBC Television – which brought us Monitor, Omnibus, Arena and The Late Show – was once celebrated for the distinction and ambition of its arts programmes. When did it begin to go wrong?

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I first encountered Stuart Hall’s writings when I studied A-level politics at my local sixth-form college in Essex. The lecturer was an enthusiast of the new cultural studies and he used to show us recordings of the TV programmes Hall made for the Open University. He also gave me Raymond Williams’s short book on Orwell to read. “Was Orwell on the right or left?” he asked.

Hall, who died on 10 February at the age of 82, was one of the most penetrating analysts of the emergence of the new right. Through his essays in Martin Jacques’s Marxism Today he reached a wider audience and popularised the term “Thatcherism”. A couple of summers ago I sent my then colleague Jonathan Derbyshire to interview Hall. “When I saw Thatcherism,” he told the NS, “I realised that it wasn’t just an economic programme, but that it had profound cultural roots. Thatcher and [Enoch] Powell were both what Hegel called ‘historical individuals’ – their very politics, their contradictions, instance or concretise in one life or career much wider forces that are in play.”

For Hall, Thatcherism was a “hegemonic project”: she did not merely wish to liberalise the economy, she wanted to change the soul of the nation, and she did. We are still living with the aftershocks of the Thatcher counter-revolution, as events in Scotland remind us.

For details of Alex Salmond’s NS lecture, visit: newstatesman.com/events

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 13 February 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Can we talk about climate change now?

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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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