Shots fired in Edinburgh: Many writers and artists who once supported Labour, have abandoned it. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Artists for independence, reading Wilfred Owen and the return of Ian Nairn

Remembering the angst of Scottish writers, a schoolboy's introduction to the poetry of Wilfred Owen, and the eccentric, melancholy genius of the topographer and broadcaster Ian Nairn.

In the early Nineties I was commissioned by a magazine to write a long report on what was being described as the renaissance in Scottish literature and publishing. I found a room in a hotel in Charlotte Square – from my window I could see the front door of Bute House, now the First Minister’s official residence – and spent four or five days wandering around Edinburgh, a would-be flâneur with an expense account.

My visit coincided with an unexpected heatwave and, beguiled by the weather, I thought for those few days at least that there was no better city in which to live in Europe. I was also struck by how few people I spoke to had any sense of a British identity. They were proudly, even militantly, Scottish. OK, most of them were young writers and artists but still their self-identity had been formed in opposition to England and to a Tory government for which none of them had voted and whose policies they despised. It was obvious to me that, given the chance, these people would vote for independence and that a referendum on the issue was inevitable, if not imminent.

A few years later, Blair’s 1997 landslide obliterated the Tories in Scotland (they won none of the 72 seats). The Conservative and Unionist Party had dumped the poll tax on Scotland a year before its introduction in England and myopically opposed devolution. It was a defeat from which there would be no return. Nowadays, Labour is also struggling for credibility in Scotland. The Scottish Labour Party has a likeable but hapless leader and a party machine that has been diminished by the flight of talent south and corrupted by decades of complacency. Many writers, artists and academics who once supported Labour have abandoned it. They are not natural SNP supporters but they will vote Yes in September.

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I spent last week high in the French Alps, where, despite many weeks of unseasonal warmth, the snow fell thickly on the day of our arrival and continued all through the night – the first snowfall I’d seen all winter. We awoke to a windless morning, fresh snow and brilliant sunshine, such a welcome respite from the storms and incessant rain of recent weeks. I returned from France to find an astronaut on the cover of the New Statesman and inside a fine review of Guy Cuthbertson’s biography of Wilfred Owen by Rowan Williams, the former archbishop of Canterbury, who has joined us as a lead book reviewer.

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I can never forget my introduction to Owen’s poetry. One morning the school headmaster strode out before us at the start of assembly and, without introduction, read “Dulce et Decorum Est”, which I later discovered was one of the most celebrated anti-war protest poems. The headmaster was a short, aggressive, bullet-headed man – my father told me he was a communist who had fought in the Spanish civil war (this seems unlikely, in retrospect, though there was a finger missing from his left hand). Now, he was in late career and his idealism had curdled into disaffection. He seemed to hate the school and the children in it. Yet that morning he read Owen’s poem with an emotion I’d never seen from him before. A couple of days later I pulled down from my father’s shelves an anthology of First World War poets – Owen, Sassoon, Gurney, Blunden and others. I was on my way to becoming a reader.

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Towards the end of last year, Matthew Engel published a fascinating essay in the Fin­ancial Times about Ian Nairn, the eccentric and melancholy architectural commentator who became an unlikely TV personality in the early Seventies as he toured the country in his convertible Morris Minor. Dressed in a funereal suit and white shirt, overweight, his receding hair slicked back from a pale, pudgy face, Nairn, who had been a pilot, told the viewers in vivid and uncomplicated language which buildings and towns he liked and disliked and why.

He was often outraged. He was a passion­ate hater and denounced the carelessness and brutality of so much postwar architecture and town planning – “subtopia” was his coinage, a neologism he used to characterise the suburban sprawl he saw stretching all the way from Southampton to Carlisle. At times he seemed to be close to tears – one wag remarked on his edge-of-suicide delivery – never more so than when lamenting the impending destruction of the Emporium Arcade (1901-72) in Northampton. The wrecking balls had done their work even before the programme was broadcast.

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I knew of Nairn’s influence on a generation of psychogeographers and gonzo urbanists but had never seen any of his programmes or read any of his mostly forgotten books. I was still at school in 1983 when he died, aged 52; burdened, it seemed, by some unnameable sorrow, he drank himself to death.

However, since reading Engel’s piece I’ve been watching clips of Nairn on YouTube. I love his conversational style, as if he’s speaking to friends in the pub, his resonant voice, authoritative but not plummy, wavering with regret. And last week – the joy of it – there was an hour-long documentary about him by Kate Misrahi on BBC4. 

It was the model of a kind of documentary the BBC once excelled at before it became fixated on celebrity. It had a narrator but no presenter and featured thoughtful, well-edited contributions from those who had known and worked with Nairn or admired his originality. Now, surely, some enterprising publisher should reissue his out-of-print but much-in-demand book Nairn’s London. I’d buy it. 

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 26 February 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Scotland: a special issue

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle