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Why Scotland is still trapped in limbo-land

Constitutional deadlock has become a familiar state for Scotland, perhaps even the nation’s “settled will”.

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However expected, a fourth consecutive victory is a stunning achievement for the SNP. For Nicola Sturgeon to gain votes and a seat after 14 years in government, and months of lurid scandal, is almost eerily impressive. The story of progressive Scotland she seeks to embody receives a much-needed boost. For the first time, Scotland has elected women of colour to Holyrood (the SNP’s Kaukab Stewart and Conservative Pam Gosal), and its first MSP who is a permanent wheelchair user (Labour’s Pam Duncan-Glancy).

A clutch of dynamic socialist and ecological campaigners, mainly women, are becoming MSPs on an expanded franchise which gave votes to legally resident foreign nationals (but not to asylum seekers, as the Greens had proposed). Largely by coincidence, many of Holyrood’s loudest voices against trans inclusion have left parliament, and the new reactionary party actively campaigning on the issue – Alex Salmond’s Alba – was a resounding flop. Fans of sturdy social liberalism will continue to marvel at Scotland, seemingly coalescing against the anti-woke culture war being waged by the UK government.

Beyond the headline sheen, what has changed? The Scottish Parliament of 2021 is almost identical to 2016’s, with only a handful of seats changing hands. Turnout jumped from 55 to 63 per cent, but it was a nondescript campaign, with a record showing of yawns and shrugs. Whether the SNP could reach an outright majority – fiendishly difficult in Holyrood’s proportional system – was the central question, drained of its tension by counting the vote over two days.

On paper, it was a nail-biter: the SNP fell a single seat short, and the UK government was quick to argue it has no mandate to call a second referendum on independence. Sturgeon plans to call one anyway, because the SNP and the Green Party – up two seats to eight – make up a comfortable pro-independence majority. In truth, even the what-ifs are underwhelming: had the SNP reached the magic number of 65 seats, very little would be different in London’s response, or in the resulting political dynamic. It’s not that nothing can change in Scottish politics, but that what little does change tends to be a by-product of intractable deadlock.

In a number of marginal seats there were wide Labour-Tory swings (or vice versa) depending on which pro-UK party was best-placed to foil the SNP. Though concealed by the final seat tally – Labour losing two and the Tories unchanged – the scale of anti-nationalist tactical voting is the most significant development of the election. It points to a deepening integration among pro-UK voters, though neither party has a stomach for merging into a formal unionist bloc. (This would pyrrhically weaken each party’s cross-UK identity, risking what is increasingly their main selling point, especially for the Conservatives.)

Tactical divergence was the story on the nationalist side, with an open split between the SNP leadership and various hurry-up and wildcat groupings, impatient of a legally watertight process for seeking indyref2 in which Whitehall sets the pace (and shifts the goalposts). Whether this rift deepens, or the dissidents return to the fold, will tell us a great deal about the future of the “YeSNP”.

The election’s main new character, the Alba Party, scored 1.7 per cent and no seats. Bullish as ever, Alex Salmond predicted his vehicle for “real independence” would only grow as a "home for the lost souls of the national movement”. This curious image positions Salmond as the mayor of purgatory, sometimes known as the “Paradise of Fools”, home to restless spirits excused hellfire on the grounds of witlessness. Two Westminster MPs elected on the SNP ticket in 2019 have defected to Alba, and chose the Wings Over Scotland blog to announce their plans to continue as part-time dissenting parliamentarians. It's a novel interpretation of their democratic mandate, and a sign of deepening "alt-nat" discontent. Alba’s future depends on a huge increase in lost souls.

In truth, all of Scotland is getting comfortable in limbo-land, as constitutional deadlock becomes a familiar stasis, perhaps even the nation’s “settled will”. Not even a global pandemic, in which close to a million Scots were moved on to the UK government payroll, has shifted the divide. The unstoppable force of SNP dominance has generated its own immovable objects: both in the caution and probity of the leadership’s approach, anxious not to spoil their best chance at independence, and the willingness of No voters to support anyone who looks capable of arresting their advance.

The Conservatives have profited from this dynamic, though making anti-nationalism the heart of their pitch is paradoxically corrosive to any meaningful Unionism (which would accommodate nationalism within Britishness). The new Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar had a good campaign, seeking to change the subject from independence to child poverty and education, but that losing two seats counts as a creditable performance is an indication of the party’s deep decline.

The Alba split allowed Sturgeon to passively expel her rebel faction, and restored a degree of calm and control at the top. The election as an MSP of the SNP's former Westminster leader Angus Robertson will strengthen her leadership further, and counterbalance the Alba-friendly faction around Joanna Cherry MP (silent throughout the campaign, and presumably recalculating the route to Bute House). But the impeccably constitutional road to independence is not a victory lap unto itself, and must start to look as though it leads somewhere concrete. For now, it is something of an Instagram destination, an aspirational vista rather than a place you can imagine living. The moth-eaten arguments of 2014 will need a serious overhaul to change this impression if and when a second referendum is called.

[See also: Chris Deerin on whether Nicola Sturgeon will get a second independence referendum]

Any such call is years away – after the pandemic recovery is on track – but will dominate politics in the interim. Scottish elections are increasingly a proxy vote on independence, meaning the policy differences between Labour and Tory – what is known in the rest of Britain as “politics” – are increasingly irrelevant. For decades Scotland’s political culture has been growing distinct from that of Westminster; at the moment it feels like a negation of it. In place of a populist majoritarian government merrily smashing the comfort-zones of academics and human rights lawyers, we have, in Sturgeon’s SNP, a kind of educated liberal populism of hope and diversity.

In place of tabloid trolling, warm avatars of inclusive, thoughtful, bookshop-dwelling Scotland are tactfully deployed to buff and slowly expand the bubble of tolerant consensus, re-presented (via Holyrood) as the chosen national ethos. As professor James Mitchell remarked, Holyrood has been "a middle-class parliament for a middle-class population", and it has the spiritual decor to match. For the SNP in its most successful post-devolution period, political divergence between Scotland and England is not enough on its own. The differences themselves must be politicised, and Sturgeon’s version of Obaman uplift plants the flag in progressive symbolic gesture and the amenable discursive style of the evening book group.

There is great skill (and guile, and a degree of groupthink) in this side of the SNP’s success, but its crowning moment in this campaign was unrehearsed, occurring on election day, as Sturgeon was confronted in the street by Jayda Fransen, a far-right activist from London running as an independent in Sturgeon's Glasgow Southside seat. In a viral video, we see Fransen barracking the First Minister over her imagined “Marxism”, calling Sturgeon a disgrace to Scotland, and attempting to chase her down the street.

Resplendent in election-day yellow, looking every inch the no-nonsense bourgeois, Sturgeon stands her ground and calmly demolishes her heckler. The restrained bluntness of her message – “You are a fascist, you are a racist, and the Southside of Glasgow will reject you” – has the poise of a crafted line, but is clearly a spontaneous reaction. For one shining moment between rain showers, appearance generated reality, and Sturgeon became the emotionally unifying democrat her polling lead suggests. As the clip sped around Twitter and Facebook, everyone you’d want to share a country with felt real pride in the First Minister.

During the fracas one of Fransen’s henchmen shouts, “I’m a proud Scotsman and I don’t like my country being turned into another country”, a rancid allusion to the SNP’s embrace of immigration. Hating foreigners is a fringe position in Scottish politics, but the combination of settled identity and implacable resistance had a broader resonance. The real prospect of becoming “another country” has Scotland frozen in suspended animation, with few signs of a spring thaw.

Scott Hames is the author of The Literary Politics of Scottish Devolution: Voice, Class, Nation (2019)

Is the launch of William and Kate’s YouTube channel the beginning of a royal rebrand?

The threat of celebrity has always loomed over the royal family. Now they are finally leaning in.

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The royal family is having a bit of a marketing moment. On 5 May the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge uploaded the first-ever royal YouTube video: a 30-second trailer entitled “Welcome to our official YouTube channel!” They are sitting on their sofa; Kate in a black turtleneck, William in a jumper. For the first time we see the couple in a casual setting. The video opens with a playful out-take: “Be careful what you say now,” says William pointing into the camera, “these guys are filming everything.” Kate laughs. Cue stock music.

This “quirky” trailer could be ripped straight from any good influencer’s playbook. The soft lighting, the warm music, the off-the-cuff sound bites when William and Kate “forget” that people are watching. Except, they were watching: in 24 hours the video amassed more than one million views. 

The royal family is one of the most successful brands in the world, but until recently Kate and William seemed intent on playing a fairly passive role in its marketing. This sugary video marks a gear change, but it also looks like it could be part of a new trend. Just a month earlier, to mark their tenth wedding anniversary, the couple released another family film to their social channels. Or was it an ad? The video came complete with sandy Norfolk beaches, wax Barbour jackets and laughing children playing in their garden; an image of family paradise. The film-maker, Will Warr, has coincidentally also shot ads for some other well-known brands: Microsoft, Puma, Tatler.
 
It’s probably not a coincidence that these promotional videos come so soon after Harry and Meghan released a trailer of their own; a masterclass in the sort of manufactured warmth that will feel either soothing or jarring, depending on your age and whether you’re from the UK or the US. Instead of a YouTube channel, Harry and Meghan are promoting their new Spotify podcast, Archewell Audio, named after their son Archie.

We hear Meghan teasing Harry for his British accent. They playfully hum a Christmas song together while softly describing their year full of “kindness and compassion”. And that was only two minutes. Just like millennial influencers across the land, Harry and Meghan’s delivery is geared towards displaying their authenticity. With every small joke shared on the recording, we are encouraged to buy into their performance and forget that this is carefully choreographed branding. That brand, across the world in California, is markedly separate from the one back in Buckingham Palace. 

The monarchy has always had a confusing relationship with modern media. Prince Philip’s conflict with TV was well-documented; in 1953, as chair of his wife’s coronation committee, he over-ruled fierce opposition to have the royal coronation televised to the world. Just like William and Kate, he believed that humanising the monarchy would generate better PR for the institution. Yet eight decades later, in line with his wishes, the Duke of Edinburgh’s funeral was barely filmed. After years of increasing media exposure (including a behind-the-scenes documentary in 1969, which proved so controversial it has never been broadcast again) the late prince grew to regret his early embrace of video, something he eventually deemed intrusive and untameable.

For now, though, this royal media rebrand seems to be working. Just days after the launch of their new channel, William and Kate have almost 500,000 YouTube subscribers, with 130,000 likes and thousands of adoring comments from across the world. By curating their image and sharing more “authentic” content on their social channels, the royal couple have an opportunity to take their place in the ranks of socially relevant celebrities. Is this the makeover "Brand Windsor" needs to stay relevant in the modern era? We’ll have to tune into the first episode to find out.

Eleanor Peake is the New Statesman’s social media editor. 

For those of us recovering from eating disorders, calorie-labelled menus will be devastating

As an anorexic teenager, I could tell you the calories in a Communion wafer. Plans for calorie counts on menus are a danger to anyone with experience of disordered eating.

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How many calories are in the Body and Blood of Christ? Fourteen years ago, when I was an anorexic teen letting a Communion wafer slowly dissolve on my tongue during Catholic mass, this was a pressing question. By then, I’d figured out the calories in a single clementine segment; in a quarter of a cereal bar; in a piece of gum chewed for an hour; in a splash of squash poured over ice.

Throughout my teen years, numbers haunted my head. I used to write the calories I’d consumed in a day on my palm in thick black biro and stare at it in class. Hours on Google meant I could tell you the calories in practically everything, from a single chip-shop chip to a handful of lettuce leaves.

Things couldn’t be more different today. Put me on Mastermind! Offer me £100,000! I couldn’t tell you the calories in an egg; in a chicken burger; in the two pastries and quarter bottle of prosecco I had for brunch last Saturday. After years spent recovering from my disorder, I am ignorant and it is bliss.

This is why I am deeply troubled by new government measures forcing hospitality businesses to display calorie counts on their menus. The proposed legislation, announced on 11 May as part of the Queen’s Speech, affects businesses with more than 250 employees and will soon force me to confront numbers I have successfully ignored for years. While I think this information should be available (either online, or on separate menus) for those who want and need it, I don’t want these numbers to frighten those teetering on the edge of an eating disorder; I don’t want them to undo the hard work of those who have recovered.

These measures are ostensibly designed to tackle obesity, but evidence has shown that labelling calories on menus has little to no effect on the average person’s ordering habits. One 2014 meta-analysis from academics at the New York University School of Medicine found that “calorie labels do not have the desired effect in reducing total calories ordered at the population level”. A more recent 2020 working paper from the US National Bureau of Economic Research found that calorie-posting laws are linked with small reductions in average BMI, but that these reductions are “unlikely to impact health conditions related to BMI and obesity”. On top of this, scientists are still debating whether calorie counting as a whole is an effective way to tackle obesity.

There is very little evidence that calorie counts on menus will improve public health, and experts believe that these counts are dangerous for people with eating disorders. One 2017 paper published in the International Journal of Eating Disorders asked 716 adult women to order from menus with and without calorie counts. Participants with anorexia and bulimia ordered “significantly fewer” calories when the menu was labelled, while participants with binge-eating disorder ordered “significantly more”. The paper’s authors concluded that there is “a critical need to evaluate the impact of obesity prevention policies on individuals with eating disorders”.

And then there’s the anecdotal evidence. My social media timelines are flooded with upset comments from people with experience of eating disorders, and a number of petitions have sprung up asking the government to reconsider the legislation (some of these were created in 2020, when measures were first proposed).

“We know that including calories on menus causes great distress to those affected by eating disorders and could exacerbate eating disorder thoughts and behaviours, which have the potential to be devastating,” says Tom Quinn, the director of external affairs at the eating disorder charity Beat. He adds that the charity is “urging” the government to “listen to those with lived experience of eating disorders and scrap this dangerous and ineffective policy”.

I understand that this is a complicated issue, that – as with many health initiatives – what helps some can hurt others. But to me, this is (another) example of our government’s wilful ignorance. There is no reason calories need to be printed on menus instead of published online; there’s no reason calories should be the measure of health over fat, salt and sugar content. Why should the onus be on the individual to reduce their calories – why not prevent restaurants from serving a single chicken wrap with three times your recommended daily sodium?

When visiting fast food restaurants in the States, I’ve already had a taste of how it feels to be confronted by calorie counts: the way it immediately robs me of choice, gives me heart-pounding guilt, and strips the enjoyment from eating out. For the briefest of moments, it can take me back to being that teen girl contemplating spitting out God. Thankfully, I’m now recovered enough that these sensations last just a moment – I have no qualms ordering the most calorific item on the menu out of some strange kind of spite.

For those who aren’t as lucky as me, calorie-labelled menus can and will be devastating. Those numbers on a page will plunge many back into the darkest times of their life and rob sufferers of calories they desperately need.

If you are affected by the issues in this article please visit beateatingdisorders.org.uk or call its adult helpline at 0808 801 0677

Amelia Tait is a freelance journalist, and was previously the New Statesman's tech and digital culture writer. She tweets at @ameliargh

Who is St Vincent?

On her excellent sixth album Daddy’s Home, the guitarist lays out plenty of possibilities.

 

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The first 15 seconds of Daddy’s Home, St Vincent’s sixth solo album, introduce the numerous – and furiously fluctuating – modes of Annie Clark. An old-school honky-tonk piano opens the show, underwritten by unsettling gasps for breath. Then the piano disintegrates and a dirty synth takes over. Clark mimics Mariah Carey with an intricate vocal riff, before she leads her cavorting ensemble, big-band-style, into the main body of the track. If, on her previous record Masseduction (2017), St Vincent was a “dominatrix at the mental institution”, on Daddy’s Home she is an out-and-out shape-shifter.

At first, this unpredictability suggests that there is a freedom about this new era of St Vincent. Over the course of a 14-year career, the guitarist and producer Clark, who grew up in Dallas, Texas, has enchanted both indie and pop fans with her scintillating art rock, and has collaborated with Taylor Swift, David Byrne, Sufjan Stevens and Dua Lipa. With each record, she has taken on a new persona: at the time of her debut, she was a down-to-earth Kate Bush devotee; on her breakthrough Strange Mercy (2011), she was a nineties grunger, aggrieved and abrasive. By the time of Masseduction, it was all about control: the guitar riffs were so sharp they could slice you open; at her live shows, for which Clark wore head-to-toe latex and sang and played along to a backing track, you looked upon someone who had forcibly constrained herself in order to feel utmost power. 

There is no such singular character on the excellent, fervent Daddy’s Home. With its rollicking Wurlitzer melodies and gospel-inspired backing vocals, the record sounds, for the first time in Clark’s career, like it was an awful lot of fun to make. It’s certainly musically looser. The ultra-confident, jagged beats of “Pay Your Way in Pain” move into the lo-fi wooziness of “Down and Out Downtown”, on which a melancholy lap-steel guitar flirts with a sitar. The sultry “The Melting of the Sun”, an ode to Clark’s heroes Joni Mitchell, Tori Amos and Nina Simone, is the album’s catchiest song, and the most stirring of her career to date. And between every few tracks lies a “Humming Interlude”, hushed snippets of a phantom song that doesn’t appear elsewhere on the record, as though Clark is teasing us not only with the variations of her persona that she is willing to share, but also with those she isn’t.

But how loose can St Vincent ever really be? The record’s detached escapism was co-produced by Clark and Jack Antonoff, who, following his work with Taylor Swift and Lorde, has shown himself to be a master of conviction in the studio. Meanwhile, a recent ruckus concerning an interview St Vincent allegedly pulled prior to publication because she was “terrified” of it coming out suggests she has not one bit slackened her hold over how she wishes to be perceived. 

The supposedly terrifying content of that interview concerned Clark’s father, who was recently released from prison following a nine-year stint for his role in a $43m stock-manipulation scheme. Though she has written music about it now, Clark didn’t make this story public herself; in 2016, during her relationship with the supermodel Cara Delevingne, the Daily Mail dug it up. Taken at face value, then, Clark’s father is the subject of the album title, and the record her attempt to reclaim a narrative the tabloid press took from her. “I signed autographs in the visitation room/Waiting for you the last time, inmate 502,” she sings on the title track, which swings with sleek jazz undertones, and the brazen guitar of 1970s Steely Dan.

But – and trust St Vincent to twist this one into a tight knot – she comes to own that “daddy” title herself, too. Even in a song about her dad, she is the centre of attention: after all, it’s she who her father’s fellow inmates are interested in. The song is far too vaudeville-like to be purely an ode to his return to society: “We’re all born innocent but some good saints get screwed/Where can you run when the outlaw’s inside you,” she sings, her vocal delivery breathy, each syllable overly punctuated. Here Clark is back in the power seat; near pitiful, and then suddenly domineering, as she masterfully toes the line between virtue and salacity, veering almost to menace when the bass really picks up.

It’s a balancing act she secures under her other guises too. On “Down”, a funked-up, threat-filled song that acts as a revenge fantasy, she sings of a past lover who has wronged her, and maps out how she’ll get them back. There’s grit in her throat in the opening lines: “You hit me one time/Imagine my surprise/When you hit me two times/You got yourself a fight.” But in the chorus, where Clark makes her threat – the clean, vague “I’ll take you down” – she sounds vulnerable, her voice near cracking under the pressure. Her vocals are even more exposed on “...At the Holiday Party”, a beautiful, loving track on which Clark reminisces about someone who has taken to substance abuse in order to bury themselves. “You can’t hide from me,” Clark calls again and again, as horns play out beneath her. And who, you wonder, as Clark performs these many facets of herself, is she hiding from?

“Daddy’s Home” is released on Loma Vista on 14 May

Ellen Peirson-Hagger is the New Statesman’s assistant culture editor.

Why David Hockney’s Piccadilly Circus is a great piece of public art

Though some might sneer, Hockney’s playful scribble is a testament to the optimism and humour public art can bring to cities.

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It’s 9am on a Monday in Piccadilly Circus. Sweat drips down the nape of your neck as you emerge from the Tube carriage, a sardine tin of people spilling out on to the platform. You wish you could be anywhere but here. And then you see it.

An odd sign, more a scribble than a painting. In pink and yellow, it looks like a child has been set loose on Microsoft Paint; the "s" in "Piccadilly Circus" dropped off at the end, a forgotten addition to a nonsense spectacle. At first you frown, and then you smile. You realise that in those five seconds you have forgotten about the mass of people, the heat and noise of the station. Momentarily, your wish has been granted.

Just in time for a Royal Academy exhibition of his work, the latest addition to Transport for London’s Art on the Underground project is the whimsical handiwork of national treasure, David Hockney. Most famous for A Bigger Splash (1967) and other vivid paintings depicting life as a gay man in LA, Hockney’s work has evolved with technology. An electronic stylus has replaced the paintbrush, and now the 83-year-old artist can be found hunched over a tablet, using the iPad Brushes app to transform the natural surroundings of West Yorkshire and Normandy into a digital tapestry of technicolour. 

As part of a long tradition, commissioned artists from Man Ray to Eduardo Paolozzi and Linder Sterling have transformed the Tube stations of London into bright canvases, adorning the dull commute to work. Some are more impressive than others. Peter Sedgley’s Pimlico Tiles (1972) fade into the background, his yellow circles becoming a backdrop to everyday life rather than an escape from it. Equally, Robyn Denny’s Enamel Panels (1988) barely register, his primary ribbons of colour as forgettable as they are simple.

Hockney’s Piccadilly Circus has also drawn criticism for its simplistic approach. Over on the cesspit of arts criticism that is Twitter, anonymous accounts that decry all art made post-1920 as an abomination have ridiculed Hockney’s scrawl as indicative of the death of art. Other critics have rightly argued that the work feels like a red flag to a bull: fuelling culture-war debates about the legitimacy of public art, rather than encouraging the public to get onside.

But to me, there is something impressive about this silly little drawing that feels like a breath of fresh air in the stale fug of the underground. Walking through London’s Square Mile and further afield, public art so often plays to the safe, sterile tastes of private developers keen to bring artistic flair to artificially created “public realms” void of people or life. These installations act as a polite backdrop, barely gaining attention other than in glossy brochures for luxury housing and developed office spaces.

Successful public art belongs to artists brave enough to forcefully drag people out of the everyday. In Olafur Eliasson’s Ice Watch London (2018) chunks of centuries-old ice, harvested from the Nuup Kangerlua fjord in Greenland, were dumped in front of the Tate Modern. Melting into grey slush over the course of ten days, Ice Watch forced itself into the view of the public, bringing with it conversations on climate change and its impact. This bullish approach didn’t suit everyone, but it succeeded in making people look. Even if only for five seconds, people stopped and wondered what it could mean.

At a time when cuts to the arts are at the top of the political agenda, Hockney’s comic-sans approach feels like a nudge and a wink to the naysayers of contemporary art. Though those more comfortable with a monument to Churchill might sneer, Hockney’s Piccadilly Circus is a testament to the optimism and humour public art can bring. After a year of little joy, I’ll take my moments of laughter where I can.

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