Edinburgh Castle. Photo: Getty
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I’m back in Scotland and isolated – the only sensible option for me these days

One looks at the news from points further south and despairs. 

I am in a cosy place: a self-catering cottage next to the small castle/large house I was staying in last October. There is a wood-burning stove to my left, warming the place up, as well as the teapot placed on top of it. Outside, the fallen leaves have carpeted the ground with gold, but above it is grey, cold and rainy as only Scotland can be, and at 2.40pm the evening is beginning to draw in, thus only serving to emphasise my cottage’s Gemütlichkeit.

I am reminded of that locus classicus of childhood comfort, Mr and Mrs Beaver’s home in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, and by an amazing coincidence I am but three minutes’ walk from one of the first colonies of beavers to be established in this country since the 16th century. (I was disappointed to learn that, unlike the beavers of CS Lewis’s imagination, beavers do not eat sardines, or marmalade on toast, and neither do they operate sewing machines. You would also not want to visit their homes, which are basically half-flooded.)

Isolation in the north strikes me as the only sensible option these days. One looks at the news from points further south and despairs. No wonder one wants to retreat into a warm, safe haven. (Is “safe haven” tautological? Do write in.) London, I hear, is haemorrhaging professionals of all kinds these days, especially doctors and nurses; it has also lost me, and I thought I was going to be there for ever.

I could imagine living somewhere else but only in the sense that I could imagine making love to Beyoncé, or, to pick a more plausible analogy, driving a pick-up truck. That is, something doable in theory, but unlikely to become a permanent habit. I would dream of moving to Paris, or New York, or Venice, then realise that one day I would wake up and say to myself, “But this is not London,” before going back.

As it is, the only thing tying me to London these days is the youngest son, the last of my brood to retain a permanent foothold in the city. And for how much longer, I wonder?

The other day, we went on an open day to the University of Birmingham, where he is thinking of studying maths. It struck him, even after I’d suggested he spoke to the professor of mathematics called Sergei (everyone should speak to a charmingly wild-eyed professor of mathematics called Sergei at least once in their life), that he did not perhaps need to go on the next scheduled open day, in Sheffield, on the grounds that maths courses across the land are pretty similar, and he did not think that shelling out for two adult returns to Sheffield constituted a wise investment. Smart kid. Anyway, he’s probably going to go to Leeds, like his mother did.

“But Leeds is in Yorkshire,” I said. (Such English roots as I have are in Lancashire.)

“I know,” he said, sadly. I hope I have not complicated matters for him.

Meanwhile, back to my little cave. I am paying a reduced rent because I have been given some duties to perform here. The chief one is warming up the yurts. Yes, you read that correctly. There are a couple of yurts in the next field that the owners of the estate rent out to the kind of people who like yurts. Yurts are designed for the somewhat drier climate of the Mongolian steppe, as opposed to Perthshire and Kinross, where it has been known to rain a bit, so keeping them warm and dry is a priority. As the ancient Mongolian blessing has it: “May your yurt never grow mouldy.”

I’m not sure a yurt is for me, though. Have you ever been in a yurt? Of course you have, you read the New Statesman. But I hadn’t, not until today. There’s a strange smell to them I can’t quite identify and they’re awfully round. Are Mongolian children badly behaved because they cannot be ordered to stand in the corner? The doors to them are rather low, too, and I banged my head on one of them and said a rude word, but not in Mongolian. (Interesting fact: you cannot say “cockwaffle” on the Mongolian internet; or not, that is, without getting into a certain amount of trouble.)

Anyway, I look forward to my new duties. Maybe one day they will reward me with a permanent position. Then I can change my name to Bert, so people will be able to say to me, “How are your yurts, Bert?” Or I may be known, after the fashion of the Welsh, by my occupation, as in Bert the Yurt. This is how one’s mind works in the countryside. There is an awful lot of time for idle speculation. 

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 30 November 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The most powerful man in the world

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Labour’s renationalisation plans look nothing like the 1970s

The Corbynistas are examining models such as Robin Hood Energy in Nottingham, Oldham credit union and John Lewis. 

A community energy company in Nottingham, a credit union in Oldham and, yes, Britain's most popular purveyor of wine coolers. No, this is not another diatribe about about consumer rip-offs. Quite the opposite – this esoteric range of innovative companies represent just a few of those which have come to the attention of the Labour leadership as they plot how to turn the abstract of one of their most popular ideas into a living, neo-liberal-shattering reality.

I am talking about nationalisation – or, more broadly, public ownership, which was the subject of a special conference this month staged by a Labour Party which has pledged to take back control of energy, water, rail and mail.

The form of nationalisation being talked about today at the top of the Labour Party looks very different to the model of state-owned and state-run services that existed in the 1970s, and the accompanying memories of delayed trains, leaves on the line and British rail fruitcake that was as hard as stone.

In John McDonnell and Jeremy Corbyn’s conference on "alternative models of ownership", the three firms mentioned were Robin Hood Energy in Nottingham, Oldham credit union and, of course, John Lewis. Each represents a different model of public ownership – as, of course, does the straightforward takeover of the East Coast rail line by the Labour government when National Express handed back the franchise in 2009.

Robin Hood is the first not-for-profit energy company set up a by a local authority in 70 years. It was created by Nottingham city council and counts Corbyn himself among its customers. It embodies the "municipal socialism" which innovative local politicians are delivering in an age of austerity and its tariffs delivers annual bills of £1,000 or slightly less for a typical household.

Credit unions share many of the values of community companies, even though they operate in a different manner, and are owned entirely by their customers, who are all members. The credit union model has been championed by Labour MPs for decades. 

Since the financial crisis, credit unions have worked with local authorities, and their supporters see them as ethical alternatives to the scourge of payday loans. The Oldham credit union, highlighted by McDonnell in a speech to councillors in 2016, offers loans from £50 upwards, no set-up costs and typically charges interest of around £75 on a £250 loan repaid over 18 months.

Credit unions have been transformed from what was once seen as a "poor man's bank" to serious and tech-savvy lenders where profits are still returned to customers as dividends.

Then there is John Lewis. The "never-knowingly undersold" department store is owned by its 84,000 staff, or "partners". The Tories have long cooed over its pledge to be a "successful business powered by its people and principles" while Labour approves of its policy of doling out bonuses to ordinary staff, rather than just those at the top. Last year John Lewis awarded a partnership bonus of £89.4m to its staff, which trade website Employee Benefits judged as worth more than three weeks' pay per person (although still less than previous top-ups).

To those of us on the left, it is a painful irony that when John Lewis finally made an entry into politics himself – in the shape of former managing director Andy Street – it was to seize the Birmingham mayoralty ahead of Labour's Sion Simon last year. (John Lewis the company remains apolitical.)

Another model attracting interest is Transport for London, currently controlled by Labour mayor Sadiq Khan. TfL may be a unique structure, but nevertheless trains feature heavily in the thinking of shadow ministers, whether Corbynista or soft left. They know that rail represents their best chance of quick nationalisation with public support, and have begun to spell out how it could be delivered.

Yes, the rhetoric is blunt, promising to take back control of our lines, but the plan is far more gradual. Rather than risk the cost and litigation of passing a law to cancel existing franchises, Labour would ask the Department for Transport to simply bring routes back in-house as each of the private sector deals expires over the next decade.

If Corbyn were to be a single-term prime minister, then a public-owned rail system would be one of the legacies he craves.

His scathing verdict on the health of privatised industries is well known but this month he put the case for the opposite when he addressed the Conference on Alternative Models of Ownership. Profits extracted from public services have been used to "line the pockets of shareholders" he declared. Services are better run when they are controlled by customers and workers, he added. "It is those people not share price speculators who are the real experts."

It is telling, however, that Labour's radical election manifesto did not mention nationalisation once. The phrase "public ownership" is used 10 times though. Perhaps it is a sign that while the leadership may have dumped New Labour "spin", it is not averse to softening its rhetoric when necessary.

So don't look to the past when considering what nationalisation and taking back control of public services might mean if Corbyn made it to Downing Street. The economic models of the 1970s are no more likely to make a comeback then the culinary trends for Blue Nun and creme brûlée.

Instead, if you want to know what public ownership might look like, then cast your gaze to Nottingham, Oldham and dozens more community companies around our country.

Peter Edwards was press secretary to a shadow chancellor, editor of LabourList and a parliamentary candidate in 2015 and 2017.