Monthly Archives: June 2018



Brexit. Trump. Putin. The Chinese. Terrorism. Fundamentalism. Et bloody cetera. You’ve got to say, the late teens of the twenty-first century do not look like a great time for the whole rational-progressive project.

Endarkenment Now seems the much more accurate title for this book, given that the world seems to have ground to a halt on the march of social progress and taken several big strides backwards. Without offering anything by way of silver linings or lights at the ends of tunnels. But at this darkest of times, here’s Steven Pinker holding high the torch of the Enlightenment and its values and casting the light of knowledge and reason on our current engloomiment.

This present conflict between reason and its enemies is one that has important Scottish roots. On the one side, alas, there’s President Trump’s Scottish mother, and Alex Salmond’s exciting new career as a broadcaster for Russia Today. And on the other, there’s the Enlightenment itself – not quite completely made in Scotland, because France, Germany, even England did make their occasional contributions to what was of course a pan-European movement, but a remarkably high number of the Enlightenment’s key personnel were Scots.

Which begs an interesting question – how? How did a country on the fringe of Europe, with a population of 1.25 million, manage to produce, in one generation, two core members of the European Enlightenment in David Hume and Adam Smith, and a host of others, so many of them that they can just peter out in an apparently endless list – Hugh Blair, William Robertson, Lord Kames, Adam Ferguson, Robert Adam, James Hutton, Joseph Black . . . So? How come? How did Scotland produce such a golden generation? Thanks to Steven Pinker, I think I’ve got a better appreciation of the reasons – more of which anon.

In the meantime, there’s Pinker’s book to consider, and it is a genuinely considerable work – a proper, full-on defence of the Enlightenment and a decisive rebuttal to all those who think progressive values are either old hat or have turned out to be mimsily weak when confronted by today’s demagogues and populist revolts. Not so, states Pinker – the Enlightenment project is alive and well. Despite what you might reasonably assume, that march of human progress is still going strong – in fact, it’s picking up pace because things are just getting better and better.

What things, I hear you ask, would these be, exactly? Well, just about every thing you could think of, would be Pinker’s answer and he would have the statistics to back it up. Because his defence of the Enlightenment has a very twenty-first century emphasis – on data. Lots and lots of facts and figures, with lots and lots of charts and graphs, all backing up his every contention.

He musters so much evidence because he knows that each and every claim he makes about improvement and progress is actually quite shocking – because even when progress is blatant and dramatic, as with life expectancy, we either take it for granted or just don’t acknowledge it or somehow assume exactly the opposite.

Maybe that’s just innate human ingratitude for you but I think it’s mainly because our culture doesn’t give us any chance to accentuate the positive. The only versions of our world that we’re given are negative – war, conflict, disaster, trauma, more war. And almost all the versions we are given of the future are as negative as versions can get – Armageddon, species-wipeout sort of negative.

The most insistent and persistent of these negative versions are provided by the news. Which Pinker reassigns from the first draft of history to, more accurately, the reality equivalent of a sports commentary, where the day-by-day account is biased towards the horrible and the terrible. Looked at with dispassionate, white-lab-coated objectivity, the news is mostly about the worst things that have happened closest to the news-provider, featuring lots of bad things and very few good ones because the bad ones offer drama (Four Killed in Avalanche; Local Person Dies in Accident) whereas the good news is about ongoing trends (Happiness Continues To Rise) or the absence of bad things which doesn’t make for very exciting headlines – Man Saved From Potentially Dangerous Workplace By Health and Safety Legislation, Smallpox Still Eradicated. As Morrissey so rightly observes in his recent single, ‘The news contrives to frighten you’, because the news feeds off dramatic, bad stuff. And its relentless focus on the dramatically bad creates a skewed version of reality.

Shrugging on the lab coat of objectivity, Pinker offers his unskewed version. Looked at calmly and rationally, over the piece, in general, the graph of just about every aspect of human progress turns out to show a dramatically upward curve. One of the most dramatic of all is of life expectancy – worldwide that’s gone up from 30 to 71 in a century, and in the UK and other developed countries, it’s still increasing at its ever-steady rate, of eight hours a day. (Just to repeat that – eight hours. Every day.)

An even more startling graph appears on page 81 – showing the estimated GDP of the world over the past two thousand years – a line that bumps along the bottom for 1,950 of these years and then climbs steeply from just above 0 to 110, where the vertical axis is showing global GDP in trillions of dollars.

But what about terrorism/warfare/the refugees? is the inevitable rejoinder to any such rosy account. To each conceivable topic, Pinker proves our current fears to be misguided, by presenting the data, crunched to show the always-heartening reality.
Warfare – down. The refugees – today’s four million Syrian refugees are dwarfed by the even more cataclysmic upheavals of the past, such as the 14 million displaced by the partition of India in 1947 or the 60 million refugees created by the second world war in Europe alone. Terrorism? For all the terror terrorists create, the statistics are unsettlingly reassuring – an American has a greater chance of being killed by a wasp than ISIS. And for all the fear they can spread, terrorist groups are historically fringe movements doomed to failure – and the terror they temporarily create is actually, Pinker convincingly argues, a symptom of the generally incredibly high levels of safety and security enjoyed by citizens of developed democracies.

How about inequality then? Because there are a couple of undeniable hard facts about contemporary inequality which are very unencouraging – the one about the six richest people in the US owning as much as the bottom fifty per cent, or the other one about the US being a measurably less equal society than the Romans, who, let’s remember, had slaves. Well, as a North American, about inequality, Pinker has a Mandelsonianly relaxed attitude – just as well given that the dust jacket carries an endorsement from Bill Gates (‘My new favourite book of all time’) – and he is careful to remind any ungrateful reader at this point that the poverty graph has been going down, and at a steep angle. In any case, the poor have become much richer – and cue another fact-filled page proving that almost all Americans below the current poverty line now enjoy the mod cons of mobile phones, flushing loos, refrigeration and pizza-delivery serves, all beyond the dreams of a Vanderbilt or Rothschild 150 years ago.

So swamped are we by the doom and gloom of the news and by forecasts only of oncoming disaster, that, for all the graphs and stats, all this sunny assessment can still be oddly hard to accept. The most unacceptably cheering good news of all – even including the eight-hours-a-day life-expectancy one – is the upward trend of intelligence. Because, measurably, people have been getting smarter – IQ tests show that across the world, over the course of the past century, scores have been rising, at the rate of about three points per decade. Which means, preposterously, that an averagely intelligent person now teleported back to a hundred years ago, would be in the top two per cent of the Edwardian population … Strange but, and Pinker has the scores to show it, true.

Pinker’s data-crunching provides the firmest possible foundations for his assertion of pragmatic optimism, of proper appreciation of what we have achieved as an enlightened civilisation and what we might do to make things even better. Or if you prefer, less bad. The converse of Pinker’s enlightened view of the present is a proper appreciation of just how crap things were in the pre-enlightened olden days. Our progress since, let’s say 1700, has been so sensationally upward on all those graphs because the starting-points were always so dismally low.

Which brings me back to the strange arithmetic of Scotland’s golden generation in the eighteenth century – all those original thinkers from such a small population. I think Scotland was such a hotbed of original thought because although it didn’t have much else going for it, it did offer two basic features, which were, appallingly, new. Both were inadvertent legacies of John Knox’s democratic version of the Reformation. One was that Scotland offered an intellectual climate where wisdom was not received, where authority was questionable and free thinking was encouraged. The other, very specific legacy was the School Act of 1696, which meant that this was the first mostly literate and numerate country in Europe, and one that also offered university education at prices affordable to tradesfolk and the like. It wasn’t all-inclusive by any means but three hundred-odd years ago, Scotland gave the first glimmers of what a decent education system could do, producing a firework display of talent successfully tapped and potential gloriously fulfilled.

High time we celebrated the progress we all have made since then, says Pinker – rightly so and importantly so. That Bill Gates quote might sound over the top – but he’s got a point: this is a genuinely great book.

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Were John Ruskin alive, you would hear him cheering at the Court of Session decision in March against Dr Reiner Brach, a steel trader, who wanted to keep his Highland estate off bounds to the public. To that end he had erected high gates and warning signs to prevent their access. As Ruskin wrote, ‘of all the small, mean and wicked things a landlord can do, shutting up his footpath is the nastiest’.

He may have been right. As the facts in Mark Cocker’s impassioned account of our stewardship of the natural world accumulate, however, to that accusation could be added the criminal disregard, from the days of the enclosures to our own, of landowners who cared far more for their bank balances than for the wildlife that roamed their parish. No doubt to them there was little difference between the peasantry and the marauding creatures, be they caterpillars or deer, that threatened their livelihoods. All were vermin of a sort.

Our Place is the renowned bird specialist and naturalist’s latest attempt to wake the slumbering citizenry of these isles and make them smell the stench of nitrate fertilisers and the greed of the rich elite’s self-interest. As Cocker writes, ‘The people of this country, subjects rather than citizens, have an inbuilt deferential reflex to the landed, and have allowed the same powerful minority to continue to enjoy massive unequal fiscal benefits and political privileges for 70 years. We may all have the vote, but those who own land have more votes than others.’ It is as true of Scotland, which wrongly prides itself on being clear-sighted in regards to privilege, as it is of the other nations, all of us in thrall to social and economic prestige.

There is plenty of material in Our Place to send the populace to the barricades in fury at the ruling classes, be they fortressed in ancestral homes or occupying the benches at Westminster and the House of Lords. In the end, certainly as regards their treatment of environmental issues, they amount to much the same group. It took near popular revolt in the 1930s, over the issue of the right to roam, and the end of the Second World War, when people decided things had to change, before Parliament gave any thought to the rights of the natural world. Until then, it was the landowners who mattered, not what they blasted, poisoned, or wiped off the face of the earth in order to maintain their fields, forests and heaths. Closer to our own times, Cocker points out that: ‘For almost two generations forestry became an exercise not truly about growing trees, but of strategic tax avoidance and substantial profits underwritten by government grant…’ It is, he suggests, a form of modern feudalism. Whereas in Europe tree-ownership crosses the classes, in Scotland, ‘forestry is the preserve of the state, landed estates and wealthy investors’. Witness recent outrage at attempts to replace sheep grazing on hill farms with forestry. Subsidies for afforestation are being promoted by governments keen to improve air quality and meet their eco-obligations. Fair enough, but in so doing, the humbler hill-farmer is left behind, these modern-day, small-scale clearances echoing historic wrongs.

But the ways in which forestry has been managed until relatively recently, has been astonishingly inimical to the environment.  In one instance, various landowners in the south, including the National Trust, were encouraged by the Forestry Commission to fell old woodlands and plant conifers instead. It was, writes Cocker, whose imaginative and lucid style sets him apart from many green campaigners, ‘an act of desecration comparable with dismantling an ancient library to supply oneself with kindling’. Add to this the fact that government and European subsidy has encouraged harmful agricultural practices, whose impact has been in places catastrophic, and the scene is set for ever-declining species of birds, insects and plants.

In the past century there has been a catalogue of egregious and destructive acts – political and individual, for as Cocker reminds us, we all – ‘even David Attenborough’ – play our deleterious part. Decisions on a state level, but also at the kitchen sink, have brought Britain to a point where our habitat might never be the same again. Our Place is somewhat misleadingly subtitled ‘Can We Save British Nature Before It Is Too Late?’ I say misleading only because rather than directly address that question in any depth, the book instead shows the current situation, how we got here, and those organisations which, though established to protect nature, have made relatively little headway. But the question that underpins it all, and the one which every chapter is designed to answer is, ‘How could a people who appear to love nature almost more than nationality have still destroyed so much of their richest countryside in so short a time?’ To judge by the number of us who are members of wildlife and conservationist agencies, we should almost literally be living in clover. The truth, of course, is very different.

Cocker takes as his starting point the dismal and daunting facts contained in the document, State of Nature Report, in 2013. Examining 3148 species, including birds, fungi, reptiles, plants and mammals, ‘it concluded that of these, 60 per cent had declined in the last half century, and 31 per cent had declined badly. More than 600 species were considered to be threatened with extinction’. These are staggering figures, and render that subtitle redundant from the outset, because quite obviously, some of what we have lost can simply never be replaced. Take the disastrous political decisions around the Flow Country in Caithness and Sutherland, an expanse of peatlands and wetlands likened in natural importance to the Serengeti and the South American rainforest. Forestry won that ‘Battle of the Bogs’, thanks in no small part to the aid of Malcolm Rifkind as Secretary of State for Scotland, who vetoed any halt to afforestation. Then there was the creation of the Cow Green reservoir, in Teesdale, another landmark failure for the environmental cause, and too many others to name. The numbers of lost causes are such you might weep.

Cocker is neither a pessimist, nor a doom-merchant, but you would have to be on hallucinogens not to feel your stomach sink at his conclusion on our spiralling destruction. We – at state and individual level – might not have intended to wreak irreparable harm, but this is what we have done. As Cocker writes, ‘At every turn of the road we chose ourselves.’ In an exasperated throwaway, he expresses surprise that plastic grass has not yet taken hold here. He should visit Carpetright, where it is sold by the metre like Axminster, or a tenement in Leith, where I saw it rolled out in a front garden, presumably to take the weeding out of weekends.

The stark reality, of which those who live in the country are most acutely aware, is that ‘the central engine of modern life and of the British economy is urban and industrial in character’. Our Place, however, is more than a political rant, or a crammer’s notes on the history of environmentalism. While it is rooted entirely in facts that explain the dismal state of our wildlife, it adds a personal dimension to the issues raised, as Cocker recalls his own life, and the landscapes he loves. Now living on a five-acre property called Blackwater, in Norfolk, where he wields his chainsaw as knights once brandished swords, he is attempting to create different habitats to encourage wildlife. ‘In any other age,’ he writes, ‘had man laboured simply to create a future living space for an arachnid called Dolomedes, he would either be canonised or carted off to Bedlam.’ The arachnid in question is the fen raft spider, and there is something decidedly spiritual about Cocker’s determination to improve the odds of a single, almost unheard of creature.

This awareness of the meaning of living organisms  beyond ourselves is the idea around which Our Place revolves. It gives the title half of its double meaning, placing us in perspective, and comes from historian Keith Thomas’s view that: ‘The explicit acceptance of the view that the world does not exist for man alone can fairly be regarded as one of the greatest revolutions in modern Western thought.’ We have, says Cocker, undergone a significant ethical enlargement –  yet to look around, you’d barely know it. Despite the huge numbers of us who are members of organisations like the National Trust – which he kicks hard in the shins for its wishy-washiness, or the Scottish Wildlife Trust, the RSPB (praised for speaking out) and countless bodies attempting to hold back the tide, we are nevertheless allowing loss to escalate.

Roving back through the past century and more, Our Place is a pacy, intense and always readable beginner’s guide to the origins of green awareness, from the middle-class women of Didsbury in 1889, who brought an end to the slaughter of millions of birds for hats and boas by hounding and shaming those who wore feathers, to the origins of the National Trust – and later the NTS – and the RSPB, Forestry Commission and Nature Conservancy, to name only the largest bodies.

At every turn it is a story of high politics, some of it naive, some actively obstructionist. For each heroic campaigner it seems there is an MP in cahoots with the landed interest, or wilfully blind to the needs of nature; for each far-sighted idea, an easy way of staying in a rut. Few writers are better at synthesising a morass of complex and potentially tedious material into such a digestible form. Cocker should be advising government ministers, he is so good at distilling the facts and getting to the nub. To leaven the fact-heavy pages, he occasionally lifts his eyes and refreshes the text – and his reader – by contemplation of the places where he is most at home: knee-deep in brash water in his beloved Norfolk, or climbing a bare Scottish mountain, to find a ‘Lilliputian forest’ in the inch-high montane flowers and shrubs. It is his ceaseless wonder at the natural world that keeps the flame of this book alight. Here he writes of pink-footed geese on his home patch: ‘They drop into the dusk’s pink afterglow over Warham, and steadily, towards the horizon, one by one, they plump down into the shadowy vegetation, their wings flickering in the last light, the barking-dog notes fading and the white crescents at their tail bases marking the spot where each bird berths finally on the dark ground. The night sky and the marsh are one.’

By its end, Our Place has, for this reader at least, only confirmed the reasons to be gloomy. The answer to ‘can we save Britain’s wildlife before it’s too late?’ is, by this reckoning, an obvious no, or – for those who prefer a smidgen of optimism – an equivocal: only some of it. Yet Cocker’s informed activism is infectious. It is also a reminder of what is being fought for, and dreamt of. His take on those who try to stem the tide of concrete and chemicals and find a better way, is heartening. Campaigners, since they appear to be harking back to less industrialised times, are inevitably viewed as conservative, as curmudgeons who wish to turn back the clock, and impede progress. He has a much more invigorating perspective: ‘environmentalism is a fundamentally positive ethic, a wish to shepherd into the future as abundant a range of life as possible’. Those who agitate for nature to be given its rightful place are not just forward-thinking but right out there on the cutting edge. No wonder it’s sometimes painful.

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Just imagine what your family members would be saying if you’d been a decade in the dying and there was still no prospect of you doing the decent thing. People say very bad things indeed about the Labour Party so does that mean it’s taking its time getting into the ground?

The Daily Telegraph columnist Tom Harris thinks it has been dying for ten years, eight of them, it should be said, with him as an MP. A party member since 1984, Harris has upped the ante on former Labour MP Austin Mitchell who in 1983 wrote Four Years in the Death of the Labour Partyabout the Bennite divisions during the early Thatcher years. Added together, Labour has been insensitively withering for at least fourteen years of its relatively short existence, more if you include the precarious early days, the MacDonald betrayal and the Gaitskell-Bevan disputes that were so boring they sucked the colour out of the 1950s. It’s remarkable that this publicly disputatious organization has occasionally governed the country. Of the four leaders who have steered the party to Downing Street, only Clement Attlee is regarded affectionately. No one thinks about Harold Wilson because that would distract from hating Ramsay Mac and Tony Blair. Reflecting on the party’s current discomfort, Harris argues, ‘the supreme irony is that Labour could not point the finger of blame for this calamity at any of its political opponents or the media or big business or any of the range of its traditional enemies.’ This is nearly right. The most fearsome of the Labour Party’s traditional enemies is almost entirely to blame for current difficulties: itself.

Suggesting Labour’s demise can be traced to Gordon Brown’s premiership is impeccably Blairite and therefore eminently questionable. Harris is careful to flow with the consensus that allows Brown a successful few months in office but thereafter it’s largely a tale of indecision and blunder, starting with the botched election speculation in autumn 2007 and ending on the street in Rochdale where he met that ‘sort of bigoted women’ and accidentally said as much. Harris accuses Brown of conducting a decade long campaign against Blair ‘with a staggering level of self-regard’ and his punishment is to be mentioned only fleetingly in the chapter about the independence referendum. ‘It was this needless rivalry that poisoned the New Labour well,’ Harris argues in a way that implies Brown’s campaign against Blair is the reason the New Labour project is old news. But the element currently ascendant in the Labour Party views both prime ministers as having succumbed to the pursuit of dirty power.

Among voters, New Labour’s reputation was most seriously tarnished by Iraq and by the Conservatives blaming it for the deficit, a charge only limply countered by Ed Miliband who became leader after an uncomfortable contest that saw him defeat his brother, David. Harris believes both brothers viewed the job ‘as something of an entitlement’ because of their greasy-quick progress up the political pole. The tragedy was neither brother thought the other was more entitled than himself. David was viewed as the favourite because he was slightly less strange, but Ed triumphed thanks to significant trade union support for his slightly more left-wing stances. Harris fairly criticizes those MPs and trade unionists ‘who believed that electing a less capable leader with whom they agreed was preferable to having a more capable leader with whom they agreed slightly less’. The qualities of a leader are hard to define but Ed Miliband is no model. The same could be said of Gordon Brown and Jeremy Corbyn. Indeed, the Labour Party has burdened itself with a succession of leaders who look a bit strange, sound even stranger and who can’t smile naturally. Insufficient attention has been paid to how leaders will exist in the public imagination as opposed to their position on the party’s interminable squabbles. Throughout the 2010 parliament, Labour MPs reported working-class constituents were suspicious of the younger Miliband for usurping his older brother. They suspected it was ‘indicative of a deeper personal flaw’ but the public flaws were perfectly sufficient to hand David Cameron an unexpected majority at the 2015 General Election. Not even the Ed Stone, unclaimed to this day, could avert disaster. Harris is critical of Miliband’s decision to flee the scene rather steady the ship by helping the party form some perspective on its defeat. More than this, however, Harris believes ‘it is Miliband’s reforms to the party for which he will not be easily forgiven’, particularly the adoption of ‘election rules ripe for exploitation by entryists’.

Enter Jeremy Corbyn, but only just. It’s startling to be reminded that Corbyn secured the thirty-five nominations needed to stand in the election because MPs, including Sadiq Khan, hoped to ‘use their comradely gesture’ to secure their own place in the looming London mayoral contest. That plan was a success, mainly for Khan. Much to the dismay of the parliamentary party, Corbyn triumphed thanks to an electoral system that severely diminished the clout of MPs. Harris dutifully goes through the familiar list of Corbyn’s dodgy dealings during his years living out a teenage fantasy on an MP’s salary. The charges feel tired and Corbyn’s unexpectedly successful performance in the 2017 General Election proved they are of little tactical value for those wishing to depose him. ‘Corbyn’s historic political judgement became less of a drag on his and his party’s popularity than many had assumed,’ Harris concedes. Despite his dismay at the submission of former Corbyn opponents in parliament, he painfully acknowledges the long-term survival of the Labour Party depends on ‘that uneasy alliance, ugly and detestable in its cynicism and dishonesty’.

Ten Years in the Death of the Labour Party provides a brisk, efficient account of events in UK politics since 2007 but it lacks analytical depth and imaginative speculation. This is particularly noticeable in the sections that deal with the Scottish political scene and about which it might be thought Harris would possess useful insights. Not so. There is little new information to be gained about the independence referendum or the General Election the following year when Scottish Labour lost all but one of its MPs, including Harris in Glasgow South, to an SNP engulfment. Scottish Labour, the party Harris aspired to lead in 2011, had been sweating bad karma for a long time; the soul of Scottish politics having passed through it like a ghostly presence. It was dominant for too long and gave off the stale smell of old municipal facilities to people in need of something fresh. In local government, the party seemed to be a curious mixture of decadent and moribund; it’s representatives often looking like morticians who had ended up as councillors after getting lost on the way to buy more embalming fluid. Some of these time-served figures came up through the floors of parliaments in Edinburgh and London until enough voters seriously doubted the wisdom of their parents. Harris recounts the experience of one Labour MP who lost his seat in 2015. He boarded a plane to London the day after the election and Nicola Sturgeon got on after him. The First Minister ‘was greeted by a spontaneous and enthusiastic round of applause and cheers from the other passengers’. Something was already in the air.

The book’s most curious feature is a lack of passion. Harris stokes a sense of anticipation in the preface. ‘I make no apology for accentuating the negative while eliminating the positive,’ he says. As a matter of fact, it’s a disappointingly even-handed read with few damaging blows landed. Instead, there are just memories of old sores, the original impact of which is hard to recreate. This is a book that should be dripping with the red stuff, but it could be read by a bride to settle her nerves before she went down the aisle without fear of tarnishing her dress. Moreover, if the Labour Party is dying then Harris fails to convince that this is a matter of personal pain despite his three decades of membership. The emotional level is roughly equivalent to someone selling a car in which they had taken a handful of memorable journeys.

Is Labour dead? Dying? Headless? Legless? Ossified? Fossilised? Mummified? Petrified? Infected? Dissected? Here is Harris: ‘The theme of this book is not that Labour has died or even that it will necessarily die in the near or medium-term future; it is that it is in a constant state of dying that may or may not result in its final demise’. I think that means the party has a bad cough and the book has a misleading title. The Labour Party is neither dead nor dying but it is controlled by people with beliefs that differ greatly from those held by Harris. Voters don’t dislike divide political parties – they dislike political parties. Divided political parties are just that bit more awful because they bring to public attention disputes more trivial even than those that exist between rival parties. Suddenly the champion bores with the most inflexible outlooks come to the fore, reminding voters of the time they were stuck at a barbeque listening to the neighbour with the model airplane obsession. A dysfunctional party is worse than that because some of the bores end up on television. But it’s not just Labour. An inescapable feeling of bone-sucking tedium pervades British politics at every level below the high drama of Brexit. This tedium provides exactly the right conditions for the Corbynite Labour party to survive under a ceiling of low expectations. The obvious answer is for disgruntled MPs to form a new party but there is little appetite for that because they are smart enough to be terrified of the logical conclusion: merger with the Liberal Democrats.

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You probably wouldn’t believe this tale if your read it in a library book. In 2004 Edinburgh became the world’s first Unesco City of Literature. This celebrated its writers, as well as initiatives which had consolidated its status as a home of the written word, from Allan Ramsay’s 1725 circulating library, via the 1962 International Writers’ Conference, to the Edinburgh Book Festival, founded 21 years later and still going strong.

The council had played its part. A 2002 study by architects LDN, Privilege or Purgatory, A Conservation Plan, stated: ‘The site behind the original building [on George IV Bridge] offers exciting possibilities for reinventing the Central Library. It would be a hugely wasted opportunity if the site was developed for other uses without seriously considering how it could not just solve the existing problems but reinvent the Central Library in a form relevant to 21st century needs and aspirations. The concept of expansion on the site addresses virtually all problems.’

This was an auld sang. A 1994 Royal Incorporation of Architects in Scotland competition to upgrade the library designed by George Washington Browne and funded by Andrew Carnegie, won by Benson & Forsyth, was one of many visions which would prove as illusory as an Angela Carter unicorn. Well, here’s how to make a library project vanish into thin air, if you’re Edinburgh council. The 2002 report was endorsed, and LDN instructed to produce a ‘Strategic Options Development Study’. This re-iterated its earlier observation: ‘The qualitative experience of the library is of a rather shabby, much loved, but somewhat neglected institution – [the] clear recommendation is to develop the vacant site to the west of the existing Library to create a new, purpose made facility.’

In 2008 the world economy crashed and Edinburgh became mired in a revenue-sapping tram fiasco and a property corruption scandal. Like Benson & Forsyth’s 1994 scheme, LDN’s Privilege or Purgatory – ‘a first step towards Heritage Lottery Fund and Historic Scotland grant applications’ – was spiked. Purgatory won out. By 2011, with the library’s ‘importance within the city’s cultural infrastructure – set to increase with Edinburgh’s designation as the first UNESCO City of Literature’ there was ‘now an opportunity to take forward a more strategic development of the Central Library and surrounding area, giving the potential to create a real cultural destination point’.

But the council’s Policy and Strategy Committee would ditch a vision, not fulfill one. ‘The gap site to the rear – was originally identified as a potential extension opportunity – however development has not been possible due to funding issues.’ Apparently, it was now ‘surplus to operational requirements’. The betrayal of Carnegie’s legacy was underway. Nearby other ‘surplus’ buildings included the Victoria Street Health and Social Care offices and the Cowgatehead Church. Glasgow’s Mitchell Library had expanded in 1962, 1981, and 2007, Dunfermline’s Carnegie library had a new extension, but Edinburgh’s flagship library was shrinking. With that illusory prospect of expansion the adjacent annex, which housed the music department and a children’s library, was sold.

The coup de grâce was a 2013 report by Bennetts Associates ‘premised on an option to discharge the annex building to the south of the Cowgate and consolidate the Library into the buildings to the north. The proposals avoid large extensions and allow neighbouring council assets to be developed or sold to raise capital’. This reflected a reductive economic development model of asset stripping culminating in an ‘Edinburgh 12’ list of sites for ‘regeneration’ drawn up by, among others, the council’s head of business development. India buildings went to Duddingston Developments Ltd in June 2007 under a so-called ‘Fit for Future’ programme which involved culling ‘traditional’ council properties, the better to finance a glitzy Stevenage-style HQ, Waverley Court. Plans for a boutique India Buildings hotel were lodged by Gregor Shore, but that company, like Duddingston Developments, was wound up, and the asset taken over by West Register (Realisations) Limited, a subsidiary of the Royal Bank of Scotland, which sold it in January 2014 to Jansons West London and Thames Valley Limited, a hotel developer backed by the £6 billion property empire of the William Pears Group.

At times Edinburgh’s business seemed to be controlled by a shadowy techno-elite linked to the property industry. When the Edinburgh Evening News failed to locate a picture of Colin Smith, alleged ‘fixer’ to the council’s then CEO Dame Sue Bruce, they ran a shot of Harvey Keitel, the ‘fixer’ Winston ‘The Wolf’ Wolfe in Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction. For ‘fixing’ various problems like the tram fiasco, Smith’s company, Hg Consulting, received in excess of £1 million.

There is an endearing Scotch myth that Edinburgh’s big property deals are cut in the exclusive New Club or on Muirfield’s fairways by members of the Speculative Society. Wrong. Today’s slicing and dicing is globalized and the souk of choice is the Marche International des Professionals d’Immobilier in Cannes, where city bosses invite wheeler-dealer property moguls to pitch schemes. If this horse fair for council bigwigs and transnational plutocrats may not quite justify Private Eye’s ‘Booze ’n’ Hookerfest’ label (though Edinburgh did offer whisky tasting in 2011) the Guardian’s take on MIPIM as ‘an event so lavish as to be almost comic’ has the ring of truth about it.

MIPIM is also an embarrassment-free zone. Eyebrows were raised when Southwark Council leader Peter John visited Cannes courtesy of global giant Lendlease. Later challenged on his council’s decision to sell Lendlease its Heygate Estate, he insisted his ‘conscience was clear’. Edinburgh, too, had its ‘synergies’. In 2014, Bruce, was named ‘UK City Leader of the Year’ in the ‘prestigious’ MIPIM UK awards for her part in ‘driving the city’s economic acheivements’.

At MIPIM there is little talk of emptying bins or filling potholes as council panjandrums are schmoozed on yachts and tune into Boris Johnson’s keynote speech. Jonathan Guthrie, ‘Edinburgh City Council’s Investment Promotions Manager’, reminded readers on page 53 of the 2011 programme – in which the UK was hailed as ‘The 2011 country of honour’ – that Edinburgh had been named MIPIM’s ‘Best Small City of the Future, 2010’. Such accolades reflect the ‘crane-count’ mindset of the property sector and its council allies, rather than cultural staples such as library provision or the education of the young. The Central Librarys deterioration is shocking, despite a token rebrand of its Scottish section which involved replacing an oak balcony, replete with heraldic panels and an art-deco clock, with a shop-style refit in glass, steel, and melamine. This vulgarity came at a price. The Edinburgh Room, much valued by locals and increasing numbers of North Americans researching their Scottish origins, was axed.

The rot was pervasive. I requested a copy of Charles McKean and Bob Harris’s The Scottish Town in the Age of the Enlightenment having read a review by American academic Ned Landesman, who quoted a passage stating that ‘libraries, literacy, and education were dominant’ in the average Scottish town. The librarian replied ruefully. ‘They think it’s more important to redo our space than it is to fix the IT, or buy books.’ Here was a public library, it seems, with no adequate book purchasing budget; a novel concept indeed.

In fairness, many local politicians opposed the land sale. It’s likely, too, that it horrified those responsible for the successful 2004 City of Literature bid. Then there’s the small print. The council granted a hotel consent in apparent breach of EU Law, for Schedule 2 of the relevant regulations states that an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) is required where development is in a ‘sensitive area’ such as ‘a property appearing on the World Heritage List kept under article 11(2) of the 1972 UNESCO Convention’. No EIA was undertaken. If it had been, a little nugget might have surfaced. The council’s environmental health officers had recommended against granting consent because the Cowgate’s air quality, which already breached recommended levels, would be exacerbated by the construction of the proposed eleven-storey building, while the data collection methodology had been defective. This was ignored, and the state regulator, the Scottish Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA), kept shtoom, in effect siding with the developers.

But the Jansons/Pears project is toxic in more ways than one. With support from such luminaries as Alexander McCall Smith, Sir Tom Devine and Rory Bremner, a crowdfunded campaign raised almost £30,000 for a court challenge which, had it cited EU law, may well have succeeded. Unfortunately EU law seems to have little traction in Scotland’s courts. For the developer, a Pyrrhic victory cannot be discounted, especially after the air quality scandal was outed in Private Eye. The campaigners are not giving up, and with the support of local MP Tommy Sheppard, among others, are seeking a reversal of the planning consent under Section 65 of the Planning (Scotland) Act. The developers clearly discerned a need for a white knight, and, like the 7th Cavalry, Richard Branson duly announced the first Virgin Hotel in Europe, while ‘listening’ to the concerns of the local community. The primary concern of campaign group SAVE Edinburgh Central Library, of course, is that a grossly overscaled hotel will obstruct the library’s sunset views to Edinburgh Castle and block daylight – pointedly, the strapline of the campaign, Let there be light, repeats the inscription above the building’s entrance.

Might Virgin offer a glimmer of hope? After all, Jane-Anne Gadhia CEO of Virgin Money is to be the ‘Independent Chair’ of the Culture in Cities Enquiry, which will look at the role museums, libraries and galleries can play in reviving civic pride. Besides, not only had I once had a book published under Virgin’s imprint; I had even, in the early 1990s, tried to persuade its Hotel Group to acquire another important Washington Browne building – The Scottish Equitable HQ in St Andrew Square – as a potential boutique hotel. I emailed hotel group CEO Raul Leal and suggested to Virgin’s PR team that the way to win public support would be to replace its industrial-scale 225-250 bedroom monster with a smaller ‘premium brand’ hotel, preserving views and light and avoiding the crepuscular endark-enment of Enlightenment Edinburgh’s Carnegie Library.

Elsewhere, premium hotels place quality over quantity. At 181 rooms – seven fewer than Edinburgh’s Balmoral New York’s famous writers’ hotel, the Algonquin, is on the large side for a prestigious hotel, yet is perhaps a third smaller than Virgin’s proposed Edinburgh flagship. The ultra-prestigious Plaza on Central Park has even reduced its original 800-plus room total to 130. The US billionaire philanthropist Richard Driehaus has headed the acquisition of the Bonham hotel in Drumsheugh Gardens, with a mere 49 rooms. A 250 room bed-night stacker shoehorned into such a tight site is simply a mass-marketing travesty, by comparison, yet for all the spin about ‘listening to the community’ the reply from Virgin’s David Moth was uncompromising: ‘Our business case for India Buildings is based on the scale of hotel that is proposed and I am sorry, but we can’t reduce the number of rooms substantially as you have suggested without compromising the financial viability of the project.’

This issue is about more than a business model for a hotel. Perhaps Virgin has signed up to a deal it doesn’t control, and is merely providing a sign over the door. The complexity of ownership, now vested obscurely in a Guernsey offshore company, India Buildings Ltd, may mean that other interests, such as investment bankers Flemyn LLP, Jansons, and the William Pears Group, are steering the ship, and Virgin is unable to reduce the number of rooms even if it wanted to. Who knows? However, as far as the citizens of Edinburgh are concerned, the functional, social, educational and spiritual value of a library is to serve the community. For this writer, after a childhood spent in one of Scotland’s poorest estates, and lacking the advantages of a university education, Edinburgh’s central library was a cathedral of knowledge and a treasure house of wonderment. We inherit with Carnegie’s legacy a duty of stewardship to future generations. As Alberto Manguel, the director of the National Library of Argentina, has written: ‘Without public libraries, and without a conscious understanding of their role, a society of the written word is doomed to oblivion.’

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