Skiing, Social Capital and Scottish Independence

Posted by on May 31, 2012 in Commentary, France, Ski | 16 Comments
The mogulled delights of the Grand Couloir in Courchevel
Late March in the French ski resort of Courchevel. We shared a gondola with a group of well-heeled English women. They were discussing their offspring, one of whom had a job interview that day.
“How did Timmy get on at his interview?”
The proud mother responded. “He’s got his second interview with Deloitte Consulting today. He’s giving a presentation this time.”
“What’s the topic?”
“It’s on opportunities to profit from the Arab Spring.”
“Did you help him with the presentation?”
“You know Timmy, he likes to do his own thing.” She laughed then paused. “Luckily we have a family friend who looks after North Africa for (insert name of major bank) so he was able to use him as a bit of a sounding board.”
I thought how nice this was for little Timmy. The family friend would no doubt have access to the latest thinking of highly paid consultants on the very topic of his presentation. Imagine the advantage this inside information would give little Timmy in the interview process. Perhaps he would be competing against other candidates from less privileged backgrounds who had had to do their own research and come up with their own ideas. They wouldn’t stand a chance.
My mind shot forward twenty years. I visualised Little Timmy as a fully fledged Tory, clad in blazer, Oxford shirt and slacks, asserting arrogantly that he had worked bloody hard to earn his money and didn’t see why he should be paying taxes to support lazy scroungers. Why couldn’t they learn to stand on their own two feet, as he had done?
This is the concept of social capital in action, the mechanism that explains why the moneyed elite are so successful at ensuring that their offspring get the best jobs in the most lucrative professions, why social mobility is so difficult to achieve and why inequality in our society deepens with every generation. When I was young and naive enough to believe that I lived in a meritocratic, classless country, this may have angered me. Nowadays I regard it as an inevitable part of human society. After all, who wouldn’t use their network of friends and professional contacts to help advance their children’s careers if the opportunity arose?
Social capital is nothing new. I recently read the abstract of a paper, the authors of which had analysed the bones and teeth of skeletons found in high status neolithic burial sites. They found high levels of strontium in the teeth of the high status skeletons, indicating that as children they had dined on food produced in loess, the best, most productive soil. The authors used this observation to support their thesis that inherited wealth dated back to the very dawn of agriculture, a prime example of using science to support the bleeding obvious. Privileged children grow up into privileged adults. That is why rags to riches stories belong in fairy stories, they are very much the exception.
On a recent episode of Question Time or some other late night discussion programme the musician and social commentator Billy Bragg presented the argument that there was something amiss when so many of our leaders come from such similar backgrounds, public (for any foreign readers this means private) school then Oxford or Cambridge. A lady representing the Labour party challenged him. Surely he wasn’t proposing that our leaders should be poorly educated? In any case, she continued, an increasing proportion of the Oxbridge intake now comes from comprehensive schools. To his great credit Bragg quickly clarified his point. It doesn’t matter if anyone with the right grades can, in principle, get into Oxbridge. It remains a deeply unhealthy situation that, no matter which political party one votes for, one can be pretty sure that the resulting leaders will be drawn from the same small and deeply unrepresentative pond, and that once in power they will legislate for the benefit of their pond mates rather than in the best interests of the country. In what sense can democracy be said to be working if an overprivileged clique are consistently over-represented at the highest levels of government?
This is why I am disillusioned with Westminster politics, with Old Etonian millionaires pedalling the myth of meritocracy while brazenly hammering the poorest in society and using the proceeds to award tax cuts to the super-rich. The fiasco of the referendum on the Alternative Vote shows that the Westminster system is unlikely to change for the better any time soon.
I will vote ‘Yes’ to Scottish independence when I get the chance, not because of any sentimental Braveheart-based reasons, but because I am sure that an independent Scotland, whose voting system already nods in the direction of proportional representation, will elect a representative, progressive government that will be more effective at reducing inequality in our society than any Westminster government, regardless of colour, will ever be. At the very least it might try.


  1. Andy Wightman
    May 31, 2012

    Public school in Scotland means what it says on the tin – a school for the public. The english usage derives from the time when the aristocracy decided to stop using governesses and to send their offspring to “public schools” where the public of course were restricted to members of the aristocracy!

    Good article. Thanks.

  2. Jamie
    May 31, 2012

    We argued.
    But you only have to look into the background of the Rangers situation – as an example – to see the smoke filled masonic lodges of the Scot’s political, legal and corporate establishment hierarchy – the pathetic response of its 4th estate, and to appreciate that Scotland’s oligarchic pool of privelege is even more stark and sinsiter than that in Westminster. Mark my words, therein even darker forces and more entrenched, narrow minded and vested interests are at play.
    Frankly, the Scottish establishment cannot even be trusted to regulate a sport with any level of transparency, consistency, or integrity, so you can forget about letting them loose with a free hand when it comes to policing my livelihood and my children’s future.

  3. jamie
    May 31, 2012

    Well argued btw. Typo. please edit.

  4. Cameron McNeish
    June 1, 2012

    Agree with you totally Gavin. That’s largely why I’ve signed up to the Yes Scotland campaign. Several times in my lifetime I find myself governed by a party that no-one in Scotland voted for. Scottish politics and society might not be perfect but at least in an independent Scotland we can make our own decisions based on what’s happening in Scotland.

  5. Robin Sen
    June 1, 2012

    I find the post very engaging but flawed. I don’t see how your conclusion follows: your argument seems to be that the privileged in any society perpetuate their own advantage through access to better material resources and social networks. Hard to argue against. Yet in your conclusion you suggest an indpendent Scotland will somehow buck that trend: surely that’s sentimental Braveheartism of the highest order?

  6. Donald
    June 1, 2012

    Great post Gav and well argued. There are so many reason I want independence and none of them are based upon being anti anything other than the myth that everyone is equal.

    Scotland will buck the trend Robin as it isn’t hampered by a massive conservative (small c) establishment which neither wants to listen, understands or is willing to change. The latest news from the Leveson enquiry demonstrate this – slow, no power and totally unrepresentative – it wont change. Westminister is an a dead dinosaur of democracy.

    Anyway, the reason I want independence is for social reasons, democracy, infrastructure and less war!

  7. Robin Sen
    June 1, 2012

    Hmmm. I actually think there’s a possibility that an independent Scotland could follow a more progressive politics than England. What I object to is the assumption that the Scottish system or its voters are inherently more progressive : in the 1950s Scotland was a loyal Tory enclave with greater proportions voting Tory than most of the rest of the UK (over 50% in the mid-50s). Sure this was some time ago, but it suggests to me that the current Scottish political alignment is better explained by contextual factors rather than the Scottish national character. What’s more the assumption of Scottish progressiveness is probably its greatest obstacle: if you don’t want to replace the ‘Timmy’ in Gavin’s anecdote with ‘Fraser’ and ‘Oxford’ with ‘St. Andrews’ then you’re going to have to fight for a more progressive politics in Scotland rather than just assume it will flow naturally from independence.

  8. Gavin Macfie
    June 1, 2012

    Thanks for all your comments.

    To address Robin’s comments above – I don’t base my hope for a more progressive independent Scotland on a belief that the Scottish elite are somehow different from that of the UK as a whole. This is manifestly not the case, anyone in any doubt about this should read Andy Wightman’s book for an account of how the legal and landowning classes have used the machinery of state to protect their own interests over the years.

    Nor is my optimism based on blind (or indeed any) faith in Salmond and the SNP, they are merely a necessary stepping stone to a Parliament composed of members of all political persuasions.

    Rather my hope rests on the ability of the Scottish electoral system to delivery a truly representative government, by which I mean a government in which differing views are represented such that the mix of opinion is reflective of that in the population at large. At the present time this would be a parliament in which the majority of members would be towards the left or centre left, with minority parties such as the Greens and Conservatives represented in proportion to their share of the vote. Holyrood is already more capable in this regard than Westminster and has the potential to move towards full PR in due course.

    Any such representative government would surely be a progressive one, for the super rich are an increasingly small minority and I find it hard to believe that any truly democratic process could end in the election of a government more concerned with tax breaks for the wealthy than with reducing social inequality.

  9. Gavin Macfie
    June 1, 2012

    Another one for Robin, do you have a source to back up your assertion that over 50 % of the Scottish electorate voted Conservative in the 1950s?

  10. Robin Sen
    June 1, 2012

    As an academic of the highest repute I get all my information from wikipedia:

  11. jamie
    June 1, 2012

    The specific system by which elections are conducted is a red herring here. The fact is that – by and large- we get the politician’s we deserve whether using FPP or PR in its guises. The 4th estate is actually a far more important determinant in ‘who gets to serve’ and ‘who gets to eat’ (to quote Leonard Cohen.)
    For this is the vehicle by which ‘manufactured consent’ (quoting Noam Chomsky) is delivered. Salmond is a master of this pernicious art -its about all he is good for in fact- , and the reveations of him courting Murdoch so cosily should come as absolutely no surprise to anyone. Levenson has thrown a light on this aspect in Westminster and I sense a cleansing daylight forthcoming in that neck of the woods, as Fleet street sets about cleaning up its act a little, with the Guardian, Indy and even the BBC polishing their halos, smug that some elements of the London (or Manchester) press at least are capable of doing a proper job.
    Conversely in Scotland, we have a media that is either compliant and conservative to the establishment to the level of obsequiousness, or sensationalist claptrap like the daily record that will print anything that will sell papers (Did you know Craig Whyte was a billionaire?) and could not usually be accused of journalism in any meaningful sense.

    The forces of privilege and patronage will thrive and flourish in the very dung of just such a post-separation environment.

  12. RTC
    June 2, 2012

    Cameron McNeish said “Several times in my lifetime I find myself governed by a party that no-one in Scotland voted for.” I don’t like exaggeration. What he means is that before the Scottish parliament we had occasions when Scotland was run by a Conservative Government in Westminster when less than 20% of people in Scotland had voted Conservative.
    Also, its true that in early 1950s Conservatives won over 50% of vote in Scotland. A lot of this was to do with religion / Northern Ireland when Conservatives in Scotland were better known as Unionists, as in keeping Northern Ireland part of Britain, and were associated with Protestantism. In local council elections Conservatives described themselves as “Progressives”. I saw a TV programme in which an ex-Conservative councellor from Glasgow said that he used to canvass as “your local Progressive Protestant candidate.” To be fair, he was embarrassed about it.
    The person who talked about the Rangers situation and the Masonic influence made a fair point but don’t forget about the influence of the Catholic church in Scotland, especially in the west. A plague on all their houses!

  13. Jamie
    June 2, 2012

    RTC said:

    “but don’t forget about the influence of the Catholic church in Scotland, especially in the west. A plague on all their houses!”

    Agreed. I used the Rangers example as a topical one. But this could equally be applied to any organisation which tries to undermine the political process by exerting secret influence ‘on the fly’, whether we are talking about a Church, a corporation, a body like the masons, or the boy scouts for that matter. Or Even the Son of an unelected monarch. All of these orgainsations and people are entitled to make any representations they like, but in a public arena, where such representations can be subjected to public scrutiny by the electorate. Any cosy, behind the scene relationships that can be used to finesse the public interest in favour of any vested interest are what we must be on our guard against. And the Scottish establishment has these aplenty. Moreso even than the Westminster one in my view. And that is one reason why I shall be voting against independence.

    There are others.
    Fundamentally, Nationalism of any sort as a political concept is a force for evil in my view. Many make a distinction between the rabid excesses of the BNP, the National Socialist movement and other far right Nationalist movements and the ‘progressive Nationalism’ espoused by Salmond and his ilk.

    I see no need to make such distinctions, recognising that it is the underlying motivations that are at fault, as much as the methods chosen to promote them or the colour of the political spectrum to which the organisation claim their affinity.

    I make a massive distinction between patriotism, which is a benign love of ones cultural heritage which is to be applauded, and nationalism. Nationalism seeks to promote the interests of one ethnicity over all others.
    Nationalism is evil, and fundamentally is founded on a ridiculous artificial construct:

    I recently heard my 9 year old (Scottish born) youngest threatening (albeit in a semi-lighthearted way) her elder siblings and parents with deportation after independence, in response to some mild rebuke that she had suffered.

    Whilst this is fatuous anecdote from within a child’s eye view of the world, I believe it nevertheless betrays an underlying inevitability about the level that such unhelpful and ugly sentiments which seem to be a fundamental feature to some extent of all nationalistic organisations – will be fostered and allowed to prosper while a separatist agenda is pursued. Pretty sure we have all witnessed a very similar discussion as pub banter among those richer in years at lest – if not wisom – than my progeny. There is a serious side to this. I’ve no doubt similar pub banter was a commonplace occurence in the hostelries of Srebrenica many years back between those of a serbian heritage and their bosnian compatriates.

    Maybe its because – as someone born in england of exclusively Scots parents, married to an englishwoman with 2 england born and 1 scot’s born child, I see myseld as neither Englsih nor Scots, and feel I have lost nothing, and gained a great deal, by such lack of an entrenched national identity.

    Nationalism and national identity is about the worst excuse that could be advanced for anything, in my view.

  14. blueskyscotland
    June 5, 2012

    Very interesting and detailed post.
    Just from my own observations every time a conservative goverment gets in power in the UK its usually during a recession yet its the same old story. They consistantly squeeze the less well off using a few instances of major benefit abuse to make sweeping changes that affect the masses,increasing the gap between rich and poor at every opportunity.
    I dont think that will ever change.
    Sadly the labour front men look and act more like conservatives every passing year.

  15. Robert Craig
    June 6, 2012

    Gavin – let’s hook up – I could do with some of that social capital rubbing off that you have gained from going skiing in the French Alps and sipping gluhwein with investment banker’s wives 😉

    It is one thing to give everyone theoretical opportunity of outcome by providing a basic state education, but it is obvious that the poor stay poor and the rich stay rich (in general – there are always exceptions). I have thought about it and the only way I can see round it is for the rich to provide themselves, at their own time and expense, as mentors to the poor, in some sort of community run scheme or national service. How that would be implemented I have no idea, and I am sure there would be resistance to such a scheme from both sides.

    As for the Scottish establishment, good on you for wanting to change things and good luck. I share Jamie’s cynicism about its incestuous, closed nature, but don’t see how your Scottish nationalism is any worse than his British nationalism. Perhaps he prefers, for whatever reason, a different definition of the word to what I understand it to be – wanting the best for the place you live.

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    June 13, 2012

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