Clash of the tartans: English cider at the Highland games in Tomintoul, north-east Scotland. Photo: Martin Parr/Magnum Photos
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How Scotland got crafty with beer and fooled the English with gin

It's not all about whisky north of the border.

Everyone south of the border appears to be terribly worried about the Scots – which makes a nice change – and about their oil, which we prefer to call our oil. Yet that is not, you will be surprised to discover, the northern liquid that interests me. Oh, it’s great stuff, terribly useful, but there’s no getting around this: you can’t drink it, although there are probably a couple of North Sea oilmen who have tried.

New figures show deaths from drinking in Scotland have declined sharply in the past decade, but they’re still ahead of those for England (although these are rising, so watch this space). The Scots have long been champion drinkers: like any sensible country with delicious water and terrible weather, they found creative ways to keep the latter from freezing the former. The best known is uisge beatha, the water of life, pronounced “ooskebay” or, more usually, whisky.

This wonderful stuff has been a combustible matter since at least 1713, when the first campaign to separate Scotland from England – a mere six years after the Act of Union – was provoked by attempts to tax malt equally north and south of the border. Furious Scottish peers pointed out that this tax was intended to pay for the English war of the Spanish succession, which had just ended, and which the act exempted Scotland from subsidising. The Scots stayed largely because of a secret agreement not to apply the tax.

So, a precedent was set: England would make rules and Scotland, with a contemptuous flick of its skirts, would jig round them. The differences between the countries have worked in Scotland’s favour more often than you might think, sometimes for very peculiar reasons. Anomalies – such as stricter rules on drinking – would somehow wind up ensuring longer licensing hours in Scotland and a more relaxed attitude to café drinking.

But then Scotland is a land of anomalies – of shipyards (now rusting) and crags, of rebellious lefties and rigid Presbyterians. They may make bad commercial blends – but they also create wondrous single malts, where cold, bright river water has been softened and warmed with malted barley and oak ageing into a lightly peaty or deeply spicy liquor, as aromatic as it is alcoholic – and it is plenty alcoholic.

Lagavulin and Talisker, my nectars of choice, are both definitely worth seceding over. And yes, Tennent’s Lager is Scottish – but so is BrewDog, the high-alcohol craft beer company that has so successfully repurposed the trademarked Scottish qualities of orneriness and hard drinking that it is overtaking trendy parts of London with wittily named and fiendishly alcoholic brews such as Hello My Name is Sonja (8 per cent), Clown King (12 per cent) and Tactical Nuclear Penguin (32 per cent. Yes, really). The Scots have always been good wordsmiths and marketeers, despite a reputation for taciturnity, which probably arose only because no one south of the border could understand the clever things they were saying. But that’s England’s problem: there are nearly 800,000 Scots elsewhere in the UK and we wouldn’t manage too well without them.

Yes, sorry, folks; it isn’t the Scots who are dependent. We whip out the tonic or the bitters and water our superiority complex with London dry gins such as Tanqueray or Gordon’s, or trendy boutique gins such as Hendrick’s – but the latter is Scottish (its cocktail recipes include a Separatist Gimlet) while both of the former are made by Diageo in Fife: London dry gin is a style, not a location.

Historically, the Scots have had plenty of reasons to drink (if bare knees in a Highland winter isn’t excuse enough to rip the seal on a bottle of strong liquor, I don’t know what is) but surely the best one of all was being colonised by a race of obfuscating drunks.

Next week: Felicity Cloake on food

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 26 February 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Scotland: a special issue

DebateTech
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Politicians: it's no longer OK to know nothing about technology

It’s bad enough to joke about not being "techy"; it's worse to back a piece of legislation from a position of ignorance. 

Earlier this week, facing down a 600-strong battalion of London’s tech sector at a mayoral hustings in Stratford, Zac Goldsmith opened his five minute pitch with his characteristic charm. “I’m not very techy!” he exclaimed. “I understand coding about as well as Swahili!”

Pointless jibe at a foreign language aside, this was an ill-chosen way to begin his address - especially considering that the rest of his speech showed he was reasonably well-briefed on the problems facing the sector, and the solutions (including improving broadband speeds and devolving skills budgets) which could help.

But the offhand reference to his own ignorance, and the implication that it would be seen as attractive by this particular audience, implies that Goldsmith, and other politicians like him, haven’t moved on since the 90s. The comment seemed designed to say: “Oh, I don't know about that - I'll leave it to the geeks like you!"

This is bad enough from a mayoral hopeful.  But on the same day, the Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament filed its report on the Draft Investigatory Powers Bill, the legislation drafted by the Home Office which will define how and how far the government and secret services can pry into our digital communications. Throughout, there's the sense that the ISC doesn't think the department behind the bill had a firm grasp on the issues at hand. Words like "inconsistent" and "lacking in clarity" pop up again and again. In one section, the authors note:

"While the issues under consideration are undoubtedly complex, we are nevertheless concerned that thus far the Government has missed the opportunity to provide the clarity and assurance which is badly needed."

The report joins criticism from other directions, including those raised by Internet Service Providers last year, that the bill's writers didn't appear to know much about digital communications at all, much less the issues surrounding encryption of personal messages.

One good example: the bill calls for the collection of "internet connection records", the digital equivalent of phone call records, which show the domains visited by internet users but not their content. But it turns out these records don't exist in this form: the bill actually invented both the phrase and the concept. As one provider commented at the time, anyone in favour of their collection "do not understand how the Internet works". 

Politicians have a long and colourful history of taking on topics - even ministerial posts - in fields they know little to nothing about. This, in itself, is a problem. But politicians themselves are often the people extolling importance of technology, especially to the British economy - which makes their own lack of knowledge particularly grating. No politician would feel comfortable admitting a lack of knowledge, on, say, economics. I can’t imagine Goldsmith guffawing "Oh, the deficit?  That's all Greek to me!"  over dinner with Cameron. 

The mayoral candidates on stage at the DebateTech hustings this week were eager to agree that tech is London’s fastest growing industry, but could do little more than bleat the words “tech hub” with fear in their eyes that someone might ask them what exactly that meant. (A notable exception was Green candidate Sian Berry, who has actually worked for a tech start-up.) It was telling that all were particularly keen on improving internet speeds -  probably because this is something they do have day-to-day engagement with. Just don't ask them how to go about doing it.

The existence of organisations like Tech London Advocates, the industry group which co-organised the hustings, is important, and can go some way towards educating the future mayor on the issues the industry faces. But the technology and information sectors have been responsible for 30 per cent of job growth in the capital since 2009 - we can't afford to have a mayor who blanches at the mention of code. 

If we’re to believe the politicians themselves, with all their talk of coding camps and skills incubators and teaching the elderly to email, we need a political sphere where boasting that you're not "techy" isn’t cool or funny - it’s just kind of embarrassing. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.