Civic Scotland: nationalism by proxy?

The launch of a new civil society campaign in support of "a broader debate" about Scotland's future

Yesterday, leaders of Scottish civil society met in Edinburgh to launch a campaign aimed at promoting a wider public discussion about Scotland's political, social, economic and constitutional future. The civic Scotland coalition is made up of the Scottish Council of Voluntary Organisations (SCVO), an umbrella body for third sector bodies, the Scottish Trade Union Congress (STUC), think-tank Reform Scotland, the Scottish Youth Parliament and the National Union of Students Scotland, the Institute of Directors Scotland and representatives from various religious institutions like the Church of Scotland and the Catholic Church.

Speaking at the launch, Alison Elliot, Convener of the SCVO, expressed frustration at the way the main political parties had conducted the discussion so far: "(It has been) inadequate. The purpose of our initiative is to enable the debate about Scotland's future to make a connection currently lacking with the things which actually matter to people in this country". Although the coalition insists it is completely apolitical and holds no view on whether or not Scotland should become an independent nation-state, it also says that, over the next few months, it is going to examine alternatives to the status-quo, including devolution-plus, full fiscal autonomy and federalism. As Dave Moxham, assistant secretary of the STUC, indicated, it is highly likely that it will eventually come out in favour of multi-option referendum: "We believe that a significant proportion of (STUC) members are interested in options other than the status-quo and independence, and we believe there is space to take that debate forward."

In doing so, civic Scotland faces two substantial challenges. The first is that of running a politically neutral campaign around a highly politicised and divisive issue. The second is that of making the case for a referendum which offers voters a maximum devolution or devolution-plus option without actually endorsing any single constitutional position. In time, these balancing acts will almost certainly prove impossible to maintain.

Take the debate over the format of the ballot paper. The UK government seems set to oppose anything other than a simple Yes/No question, while the Scottish government has repeatedly hinted at its willingness to consider a two or three option system. This makes a confrontation between Holyrood and Westminster more or less inevitable. When it occurs, civic Scotland will have to back the former, thereby strengthening nationalist claims that they are more in tune with Scottish public opinion than their Unionist rivals.

There are a couple of other reasons why the launch of the civic Scotland campaign works to the benefit of the SNP. Firstly, it exposes the awkward position Labour and the Liberal Democrats currently find themselves in with regard to the constitutional debate. Both parties appear to agree that the powers of the Scottish Parliament should be significantly increased, yet they also maintain that the referendum should consist of nothing more than a clear-cut choice between independence and the status-quo. This is completely inconsistent. If they are genuinely committed to an enhanced devolutionary settlement, they should join civil society in insisting on the chance to vote for it in 2014. Secondly, it gives Alex Salmond - arch gradualist that he is -- the mandate he needs and wants to stage a multi-option ballot. In the event voters reject independence, this would guarantee Scotland gained a high degree of fiscal autonomy in the very near future.

Clearly, civic Scotland is keen to avoid straying onto the minefield of Scottish party politics. Given how treacherous the territory is at present, this entirely understandable. Unless the Unionist parties give ground on the format of the referendum, however, it probably won't have any choice.

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Inside Big Ben: why the world’s most famous clock will soon lose its bong

Every now and then, even the most famous of clocks need a bit of care.

London is soon going to lose one of its most familiar sounds when the world-famous Big Ben falls silent for repairs. The “bonging” chimes that have marked the passing of time for Londoners since 1859 will fall silent for months beginning in 2017 as part of a three-year £29m conservation project.

Of course, “Big Ben” is the nickname of the Great Bell and the bell itself is not in bad shape – even though it does have a huge crack in it.

The bell weighs nearly 14 tonnes and it cracked in 1859 when it was first bonged with a hammer that was way too heavy.

The crack was never repaired. Instead the bell was rotated one eighth of a turn and a lighter (200kg) hammer was installed. The cracked bell has a characteristic sound which we have all grown to love.

Big Ben strikes. UK Parliament.

Instead, it is the Elizabeth Tower (1859) and the clock mechanism (1854), designed by Denison and Airy, that need attention.

Any building or machine needs regular maintenance – we paint our doors and windows when they need it and we repair or replace our cars quite routinely. It is convenient to choose a day when we’re out of the house to paint the doors, or when we don’t need the car to repair the brakes. But a clock just doesn’t stop – especially not a clock as iconic as the Great Clock at the Palace of Westminster.

Repairs to the tower are long overdue. There is corrosion damage to the cast iron roof and to the belfry structure which keeps the bells in place. There is water damage to the masonry and condensation problems will be addressed, too. There are plumbing and electrical works to be done for a lift to be installed in one of the ventilation shafts, toilet facilities and the fitting of low-energy lighting.

Marvel of engineering

The clock mechanism itself is remarkable. In its 162-year history it has only had one major breakdown. In 1976 the speed regulator for the chimes broke and the mechanism sped up to destruction. The resulting damage took months to repair.

The weights that drive the clock are, like the bells and hammers, unimaginably huge. The “drive train” that keeps the pendulum swinging and that turns the hands is driven by a weight of about 100kg. Two other weights that ring the bells are each over a tonne. If any of these weights falls out of control (as in the 1976 incident), they could do a lot of damage.

The pendulum suspension spring is especially critical because it holds up the huge pendulum bob which weighs 321kg. The swinging pendulum releases the “escapement” every two seconds which then turns the hands on the clock’s four faces. If you look very closely, you will see that the minute hand doesn’t move smoothly but it sits still most of the time, only moving on each tick by 1.5cm.

The pendulum swings back and forth 21,600 times a day. That’s nearly 8m times a year, bending the pendulum spring. Like any metal, it has the potential to suffer from fatigue. The pendulum needs to be lifted out of the clock so that the spring can be closely inspected.

The clock derives its remarkable accuracy in part from the temperature compensation which is built into the construction of the pendulum. This was yet another of John Harrison’s genius ideas (you probably know him from longitude fame). He came up with the solution of using metals of differing temperature expansion coefficient so that the pendulum doesn’t change in length as the temperature changes with the seasons.

In the Westminster clock, the pendulum shaft is made of concentric tubes of steel and zinc. A similar construction is described for the clock in Trinity College Cambridge and near perfect temperature compensation can be achieved. But zinc is a ductile metal and the tube deforms with time under the heavy load of the 321kg pendulum bob. This “creeping” will cause the temperature compensation to jam up and become less effective.

So stopping the clock will also be a good opportunity to dismantle the pendulum completely and to check that the zinc tube is sliding freely. This in itself is a few days' work.

What makes it tick

But the truly clever bit of this clock is the escapement. All clocks have one - it’s what makes the clock tick, quite literally. Denison developed his new gravity escapement especially for the Westminster clock. It decouples the driving force of the falling weight from the periodic force that maintains the motion of the pendulum. To this day, the best tower clocks in England use the gravity escapement leading to remarkable accuracy – better even than that of your quartz crystal wrist watch.

In Denison’s gravity escapement, the “tick” is the impact of the “legs” of the escapement colliding with hardened steel seats. Each collision causes microscopic damage which, accumulated over millions of collisions per year, causes wear and tear affecting the accuracy of the clock. It is impossible to inspect the escapement without stopping the clock. Part of the maintenance proposed during this stoppage is a thorough overhaul of the escapement and the other workings of the clock.

The Westminster clock is a remarkable icon for London and for England. For more than 150 years it has reminded us of each hour, tirelessly. That’s what I love about clocks – they seem to carry on without a fuss. But every now and then even the most famous of clocks need a bit of care. After this period of pampering, “Big Ben” ought to be set for another 100 or so years of trouble-free running.

The Conversation

Hugh Hunt is a Reader in Engineering Dynamics and Vibration at the University of Cambridge.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.