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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Forget sniffer dogs. To stop drug abuse in prison, fight the real enemy – boredom

Since I left prison in 2011, the system has had £900m sucked out of it. No wonder officers are struggling to control drug use.

It’s rare to go a day in prison without someone offering you drugs. When I was sentenced to 16 months in 2011, I was shocked by the sheer variety on offer. It wasn’t just cannabis, heroin, and prescription pills. If you wanted something special, you could get that too: ecstasy for an in-cell rave, cocaine for the boxing, and, in one case, LSD for someone who presumably wanted to turn the waking nightmare of incarceration up to eleven.

Those were sober times, compared to how things are today. New synthetic drugs – powerful, undetectable, and cheap – have since flooded the market. As the Ministry of Justice itself admitted in its recent White Paper, they’ve lost control: “The motivation and ability of prisoners and organised crime groups to use and traffic illegal drugs has outstripped our ability to prevent this trade.”

The upshot is that, rather than emerging from prison with a useful new trade or skill, inmates are simply picking up new drug habits. According to a report released on 8 December by drug policy experts Volteface, on average 8 per cent of people who did not have a previous drug problem come out of prison with one. In some of the worst institutions, the figure is as high as 16 per cent.

Why are people with no history of drug abuse being driven to it in prison?

There’s the jailbreak factor, of course. All prisoners dream of escape, and drugs are the easiest way out. But, according the report, the most common reason given by inmates is simply boredom.

Life when I was inside was relatively benign. On most days, for instance, there were enough members of staff on duty to let inmates out of their cells to shower, use a telephone, post a letter, or clean their clothes. Sometimes an emergency would mean that there might not be enough hands on deck to escort people off the wing to education, worship, drug therapy, healthcare, family visits, work, or other purposeful activities; but those occasions were mercifully rare.

Since then, the system has had £900m sucked out of it, and the number of operational staff has been reduced by 7,000. All such a skeleton crew can do is rush from one situation to the next. An assault or a suicide in one part of the prison (which have increased by 64 per cent and 75 per cent respectively since 2012) often results in the rest being locked down. The 2,100 new officers the MoJ has promised to recruit don’t come anywhere close to making up the shortfall. Purposeful activity – the cornerstone of effective rehabilitation – has suffered. Inmates are being forced to make their own fun.

Enter ‘synthetic cannabinoid receptor agonists’, or SCRAs, often more simply referred to by brand names such as ‘Spice’ or ‘Black Mamba’. Over 200 of them are available on the international market and they are, today, the most popular drugs in British prisons. A third of inmates admitted to having used ‘Spice’ within the last month, according to a recent survey conducted by User Voice, and the true figure is probably even higher.

As one serving prisoner recently told me: "It's the perfect drug. You can smoke it right under the governor's nose and they won't be able to tell. Not even the dogs can sniff it out."

The combination of extreme boredom and experimental drugs has given birth to scenes both brutal and bizarre. Mobile phone footage recently emerged from Forest Bank prison showing naked, muzzled prisoners – apparently under the influence of such drugs – being made to take part in human dog fights. At the same establishment, another naked prisoner introduces himself to the camera as an ‘Islamic Turkey Vulture’ before squatting over another inmate and excreting ‘golden eggs’, believed to be packets of drugs, into his mouth. It sounds more like a scene from Salò than the prison culture I recall.

The solution to this diabolical situation might seem obvious: but not to Justice Secretary Liz Truss. Her answers are more prison time (up to ten years) for visitors caught smuggling ‘spice’, and new technology to detect the use of these drugs, which will inevitably fail to keep up with the constantly changing experimental drugs market. Earlier this week, she even suggested that drug-delivery drones could be deterred using barking dogs.

Trying to solve prison problems with more prison seems the very definition of madness. Indeed, according to the Howard League for Penal Reform, over the last six years, inmates have received over a million days of extra punishment for breaking prison rules – which includes drug use – with no obvious positive effects.

Extra security measures – the training of ‘spice dogs’, for example – are also doomed to fail. After all, it’s not like prison drug dealers are hard to sniff out. They have the best trainers, the newest tracksuits, their cells are Aladdin’s Caves of contraband - and yet they rarely seem to get caught. Why? The image of a prison officer at HMP Wayland politely informing our wing dealer that his cell was scheduled for a search later that day comes to mind. Unless the huge demand for drugs in prison is dealt with, more security will only result in more corruption.

It might be a bitter pill for a Tory minister to swallow but it’s time to pay attention to prisoners’ needs. If the prodigious quantities of dangerous experimental drugs they are consuming are anything to go by, it’s stimulation they really crave. As diverting as extra drug tests, cell searches, and the sight of prison dogs trying to woof drones out of the sky might momentarily be, it’s not going to be enough.

That’s not to say that prisons should become funfairs, or the dreaded holiday camps of tabloid fantasy, but at the very last they should be safe, stable environments that give inmates the opportunity to improve their lives. Achieving that will require a degree of bravery, imagination, and compassion possibly beyond the reach of this government. But, for now, we live in hope. The prisoners, in dope.