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Ruth Davidson's patriotism shows how nationalist Scotland and England have become

The Scottish Conservative and Unionist leader was warning against Orwellian nationalism. 

"In Scotland, political nationalism has introduced the idea that only one side of the constitutional divide can be the authentic voice of 'the people of Scotland'," Ruth Davidson said at the Orwell Foundation in London. "That only it has the right to be heard."

A moment later, a man in the audience sitting at the back of the hushed lecture theatre began to shout. Davidson, a former army reservist, carried on. The implication, she said, was that "those who are not orthodox" are "are alien, we are other". And then, veering off the pre-written speech, she added: "We deserve to be shouted down."

The heckler didn't get it. But we did. Davidson may have come to prominence for her imaginative photo ops, but she is one of the Tories' most reflective thinkers. It is her understanding of Scottish unionism that has propelled her to centre stage, and puts her party - officially the Conservative and Unionist party - in sight of a dozen seats in the general election 2017. 

In a tribute to George Orwell, Davidson borrowed his distinction between patriotism and nationalism to dissect the current state of Scotland. Patriotism, in her eyes, is an attachment to a place that simultaneously acknowledges you could be born anywhere else: "Patriotism simply says: Here’s great. Come on in, the water’s lovely."

Nationalism, on the other hand, is "a state of mind where one ideology, one myth, must take precedence over all else and which demands people support one camp or another". It is "the dichotomisation of a population into the authentic and the inauthentic".

In Scotland, she contends, "nationalism runs deep", and is "a part of the Scottish psyche". Even paid-up Unionist politicians like the early 20th century novelist John Buchan declared: “Every Scotsman should be a Scottish nationalist.”

Davidson believes this kind of nationalism is out of control, and she has plenty of evidence to back it up (the heckler was Exhibit A). In her speech, she quoted the former Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond, who declared that “no self-respecting Scot” would accept a “Westminster Prime Minister…undermining Scottish nationhood”. His successor as First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, responded to the Tory gains in the local elections at the expense of Labour by declaring "Labour let Scotland down."

What makes the half a million who voted Tory so unScottish, Davidson wanted to know. She was born in Scotland and spent her entire career there but "apparently, I have to choose between being Scottish or Conservative."

Davidson knows how to skewer nationalism. Her definition of patriotism matters to pro-union Scots who believe the saltire has been politicised and their identity hijacked. She cares so much about the question that she travelled down to London in the middle of an election campaign to speak to an audience of London academics. When I asked her if there wasn't any political benefit to her position, if she wasn't in fact the perfect enemy for the SNP (another Orwellian trope), she said:

"Genuinely, if it came to a choice between the country or the party, for me, it's the country every day of the week and twice on a Sunday. If we sort this, and the Tory party goes downhill, obviously I'll be sad about that, but I'll still be proud about the part we played in standing up for our place in the UK."

But her analysis could easily apply to English nationalism post-Brexit as well. Davidson shied away from parallels between Scotland, and England. She argued that Theresa May's "strong and stable" campaign message was a world away from "Make America great again" or Marine Le Pen's "In the name of the people". 

Yet Davidson's moderation throws the current nationalist mood into sharp relief. Challenged by a former refugee on the xenophobia she now witnessed, Davidson responded: "If public figures don't speak up and this is allowed to go unchecked, it will get worse. And public figures do need to step up, and I agree with you, and I take responsibility for that."

Which public figures she did not say. But it is surely something the woman inspiring "Crush the Saboteurs" headlines might wish to ponder.


Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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The deafening killer - why noise will be the next great pollution scandal

A growing body of evidence shows that noise can have serious health impacts too. 

Our cities are being poisoned by a toxin that surrounds us day and night. It eats away at our brains, hurts our hearts, clutches at our sleep, and gnaws at the quality of our daily lives.

Hardly a silent killer, it gets short shrift compared to the well-publicised terrors of air pollution and sugars food. It is the dull, thumping, stultifying drum-beat of perpetual noise.

The score that accompanies city life is brutal and constant. It disrupts the everyday: The coffee break ruined by the screech of a line of double decker buses braking at the lights. The lawyer’s conference call broken by drilling as she makes her way to the office. The writer’s struggle to find a quiet corner to pen his latest article.

For city-dwellers, it’s all-consuming and impossible to avoid. Construction, traffic, the whirring of machinery, the neighbour’s stereo. Even at home, the beeps and buzzes made by washing machines, fridges, and phones all serve to distract and unsettle.

But the never-ending noisiness of city life is far more than a problem of aesthetics. A growing body of evidence shows that noise can have serious health impacts too. Recent studies have linked noise pollution to hearing loss, sleep deprivation, hypertension, heart disease, brain development, and even increased risk of dementia.

One research team compared families living on different stories of the same building in Manhattan to isolate the impact of noise on health and education. They found children in lower, noisier floors were worse at reading than their higher-up peers, an effect that was most pronounced for children who had lived in the building for longest.

Those studies have been replicated for the impact of aircraft noise with similar results. Not only does noise cause higher blood pressure and worsens quality of sleep, it also stymies pupils trying to concentrate in class.

As with many forms of pollution, the poorest are typically the hardest hit. The worst-off in any city often live by busy roads in poorly-insulated houses or flats, cheek by jowl with packed-in neighbours.

The US Department of Transport recently mapped road and aircraft noise across the United States. Predictably, the loudest areas overlapped with some of the country’s most deprived. Those included the south side of Atlanta and the lowest-income areas of LA and Seattle.

Yet as noise pollution grows in line with road and air traffic and rising urban density, public policy has turned a blind eye.

Council noise response services, formally a 24-hour defence against neighbourly disputes, have fallen victim to local government cuts. Decisions on airport expansion and road development pay scant regard to their audible impact. Political platforms remain silent on the loudest poison.

This is odd at a time when we have never had more tools at our disposal to deal with the issue. Electric Vehicles are practically noise-less, yet noise rarely features in the arguments for their adoption. Just replacing today’s bus fleet would transform city centres; doing the same for taxis and trucks would amount to a revolution.

Vehicles are just the start. Millions were spent on a programme of “Warm Homes”; what about “Quiet Homes”? How did we value the noise impact in the decision to build a third runway at Heathrow, and how do we compensate people now that it’s going ahead?

Construction is a major driver of decibels. Should builders compensate “noise victims” for over-drilling? Or could regulation push equipment manufacturers to find new ways to dampen the sound of their kit?

Of course, none of this addresses the noise pollution we impose on ourselves. The bars and clubs we choose to visit or the music we stick in our ears. Whether pumping dance tracks in spin classes or indie rock in trendy coffee shops, people’s desire to compensate for bad noise out there by playing louder noise in here is hard to control for.

The Clean Air Act of 1956 heralded a new era of city life, one where smog and grime gave way to clear skies and clearer lungs. That fight still goes on today.

But some day, we will turn our attention to our clogged-up airwaves. The decibels will fall. #Twitter will give way to twitter. And every now and again, as we step from our homes into city life, we may just hear the sweetest sound of all. Silence.

Adam Swersky is a councillor in Harrow and is cabinet member for finance. He writes in a personal capacity.