Picture this, the editor of a left-wing publication is dragged before a bench of politicians, having upset his government. He is asked: “Do you love this country?”

This is not a committee on un-American activities in the 1950s. This is Westminster interrogating Alan Rusbridger of The Guardian little more than a year ago.

Alan Rusbridger (Photo via www.flickr.com/photos/internaz)

Alan Rusbridger (Photo via http://www.flickr.com/photos/internaz)

To his credit, Mr Rusbridger’s (evidently exasperated) reply was to tell the prosecutorial panel that what he loved in his country was its free press, but it often appears that this is not something the nation itself values.

As if to illustrate the point, comic John Cleese compared journalists to murderers at a public meeting, but the only person called a cretin by those present was the hack who shared the remark on Twitter.

Ordered first to stand up, then to sit down and shut up, the beleaguered reporter was at a gathering held by Hacked Off, a pressure group campaigning for state regulation of the press.

Of the emails I got from this group before becoming disillusioned with it, precisely none called for action against the police over phone hacking, despite reports of officers knowingly failing to act on it and selling stories for profit.

Nor do I recall any politicians being arrested amid the Leveson hysteria, despite one of those convicted being on the staff of the Prime Minister.

When it comes to the media though, Hacked Off is tireless, never forgetting to mention the hacking scandal; a failing of the few used to justify unprecedented regulation for the many.

We are constantly reminded of the value of a free press. This past week alone has offered the example of the cash-for-access scandal, while even phone-hacking itself was first unearthed by The Guardian.

Still, as a nation we are scornful of journalists, especially since 2011. For the politicians, this is a blessing.

It’s telling that the one thing our squabbling MPs can agree on is the Royal Charter, cooked up by themselves, setting out the rules for any future press regulator.

Waved through by all parties in the small hours of the morning (and definitely not over pizza with Hacked Off) this charter means exemplary court damages for titles refusing regulation whilst making them liable, even in victory, for their accuser’s legal costs.

Had any publication gone along with it, this charter could have ended centuries of press freedom. Not that the Prime Minister was slow to encourage the sceptical media to bow to it, warning of “hideous” regulation should they not.

Of course, nothing in the charter was necessary to prevent horrors like phone hacking anyway. The acts which outraged us all are illegal and were at the time; they needed only to be punished.

Instead we are now faced with a government-approved system which chastises naughty and nice alike.

Pushed as a way to reign in tawdry tabloids, the charter actually puts the honest majority at risk, including the regional press, community-run newspapers, blogs, charities and magazines like Private Eye.

Sadder still, it does so with public approval.

David Cameron. Photo: Number 10 (www.flickr.com/photos/number10gov)

David Cameron. Photo: Number 10 (www.flickr.com/photos/number10gov)

Like so many of the foot soldiers in my inglorious profession, the trudge to the bottom of my career ladder felt a long one.

In the years before my first journalism job, I cleared tables, washed dishes, stacked shelves, sold suits and even (on one particularly fragrant occasion) scrubbed clean the walls of a recently vacated stable. Glamorous? No. Paid? Certainly.

Yet it wasn’t all fun and games. I remember well the reactions of Jobcentre staff to any aspirations above menial labour; I recall the time wasted on tailoring applications that were not even acknowledged with a refusal.

The life of a jobseeker is not that of a bon viveur. It wasn’t when I graduated amid a deep recession, nor is it today. Still, there was once a basic dignity in it if you were making an effort. Not for much longer it would seem.

David Cameron, our ever-sympathetic Prime Minister, has announced plans to force the jobless to do community work in exchange for their benefits.

If the measure sounds familiar, that’s because the words ‘community work’ very nearly describe a punishment meted out to petty criminals. It’s also not the first time people have been penalised by the coalition for struggling to find employment.

Under the government’s workfare scheme, jobless graduates worked unskilled roles on a full-time basis for big-money bosses. Their reward? Their paltry Jobseeker’s Allowance – an hourly rate of pay outrageously short of the minimum.

The premise, as ever, was to get more people into jobs by building their experience, but the logic was daft. What employer would create a paid position when there’s a massive free workforce available?

Thinking of it, I’m reminded of something my dad told me – one of those ‘back in the day’ stories about how he had left school on a Friday and walked into his first job on a Monday. Is investment in an untried young person now too onerous for employers?

Not that the taste is so sweet for those who are promoted into paid roles. I know people who work full time when their contracts stipulate a day’s worth of work. Their hours could be slashed at any moment, but they’re expected to keep the week free.

One of these people was berated by a previous boss for having the audacity to go home on time, being told their breaks (to which they’re statutorily entitled) obliged them to stay late. Clocking out times were, however, altered for staff to reflect their contracted hours.

Meanwhile, those plucky upstarts who would trouble their chiefs with tribunals have been dealt a blow, with steep fees enacted for those starting a case and smaller rewards for those who win them.

In the past, I’ve put this change in the workplace down to the economy – too many souls for too few jobs. But the much-proclaimed recovery we’re all supposed to be enjoying (which definitely isn’t debt fuelled) hasn’t abated things. Why?

Now I don’t consider myself a bolshy crusader or even particularly left wing, but the question I feel compelled to ask now seems an increasingly controversial one – can we not reward an honest day’s work with an honest day’s pay?

The details are hazy; I forget the reason for the party or how the conversation had turned to my education, but what I remember is the interruption – or at least the gist of it. From across the room came the semi-inebriated voice, “well what good is an English degree?”

Art and literature

Photo: Beki Dambrauskas

The speaker, a law student whose mouth would share its last load of bile with the toilet, continued: “All I ever see English students doing is reading books.”

Just one reply occurred to me, “and what did anyone ever learn from those?”

In hindsight, only a bad or hypocritical law student could have made the criticism in the first place, but the original point – however clumsily made – is not an uncommon one: that some educations are not worth having.

This week, Nigel Farage has announced a new UKIP policy. If elected, his party would ensure those studying science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) do not pay tuition fees.

One could argue that students of these subjects have all the financial incentive they need. Popular perception says that they go into gold-plated careers while those in humanities become starving artists, unhappy teachers or McDonald’s employees.

This view is, of course, wrong – most UK leaders were students of humanities, the arts or social sciences – but even if it wasn’t that wouldn’t make it wise to value STEM subjects more highly.

Asked to assess the worth of William Wordsworth or Samuel Taylor Coleridge, you would be thought to have missed the point if your first concern was with how many copies of Lyrical Ballads they had shifted.

The worth of these works – or of Shakespeare or Beethoven – is not measured in dollars and cents, but through their contributions to world culture. If we are to disparage the artistic endeavours of failed painters, penniless hacks or graduates we should at least apply the same standard.

Good creative work has a real and lasting value all its own. Name some ancient philosophers and odds are you’ll come up with a few names whose ideas are still being discussed today. Try and do the same with ancient engineers and the average person would have a tougher time.

I don’t say this to trivialise the importance of STEM subjects, but to ask why we encourage one over the other. Can you name a healthy state where culture is forsaken in the name of science or maths?

How much poorer would we be if every playwright, poet and composer without immediate or apparent commercial prospects moved on to a more realistic career?

The loss isn’t just one of the mind, but one with real world implications. Look at Zola and J’accuse or Solzhenitsyn and The Gulag Archipelago. These works, as governments knew, had explosive power.

The irony of all this is that the cultural exports of the UK are worth their weight in gold anyway. We are punching well above our weight here.

At time of writing, three of the top ten places in the American Billboard Chart (including numbers one and two) are held by British acts. Authors like the inescapable J.K. Rowling are read by paying readers the world over. Are these exports of so little value at home?

It’s true to say that great works aren’t dependent on a university education, but the whole field of culture is cheapened for those trying to find their direction when a state shows it will only invest in other fields of learning.

Charlie HebdoOn Wednesday, three masked gunmen murdered 12 people, ostensibly in response to satirical cartoons published of the prophet Mohammed.

It is a sad comment on our society that on hearing this, my first thought was of how long it would take for the massacre to become the fault of the victims. It is sadder still that my curiosity should be so quickly satisfied – less than a day.

As always they do, the apologists begin their defence with something akin to, “It’s terribly sad, but…” What follows wastes no time in explaining how those slaughtered were the architects of their own demise.

In anticipating this reaction, I recalled the words of George Galloway before an audience in New York in September 2005. He said: “You may think that those aeroplanes in this city on 9/11 came out of a clear blue sky. I believe they emerged out of a swamp of hatred created by us.”

However, on the day of the most unashamed attack on free speech in recent memory, I dared to hope that the loathsome MP for Bradford West might hold his tongue. My hopes were, of course, soon dashed.

In a post on his Facebook page, the admirer of the late Saddam Hussein condemns the murders, before explaining that the French government has been “facilitating” such carnage, daily, in Syria. This from a man who said Syria was “lucky” to have Bashar al-Assad, the Ghouta gas murderer, as her president.

The cartoons of Mohammed “cannot possibly” justify the murders, he continues, but then Charlie Hebdo was guilty of “provocative actions” in publishing them.

The real victims, he says, are the beleaguered Muslims of racist France. Never mind the 12 families whose loved ones will never come home, what intolerance have they suffered?

Reaching his predictable conclusion, he argues The West is fixated on confrontation with the Muslim world. Perhaps NATO stepping down its activity in the Middle East was a provocation, ay George?

Arguments like Galloway’s are not without precedent. When a bounty was put on Salman Rushdie’s head in 1989 for the crime of writing a novel, many prominent figures who enjoy the freedoms of liberal society excused their reticence about the fatwa with attacks on the author.

Noted feminist Germaine Greer refused a petition in support of Rushdie, saying (as if it were a bad thing) that he was “an Englishman with dark skin.” Late historian Hugh Trevor-Roper said he “would not shed a tear” if the author were waylaid in a dark street and thus caused to “control his pen.”

Assume the worst of an artist and the worst of their work. Does the production of such work – be it novel, cartoon, essay, whatever – thus become a crime, much less a capital offence?

There is a grim tendency amongst people who think of themselves as forward-thinking to try and rationalise terrorists actions’ as merely reactions; their wrongs as responses to wrongs.

In an Oxford Union debate in 2013, Mehdi Hasan – the former politics lead at New Statesman and The Huffington Post – proclaimed: “There is little connection between suicide terrorism and Islamic fundamentalism or any of the world’s religions.”

Quoting Robert Pape of the University of Chicago, he continued: “What nearly all suicide terrorist attacks have in common is a specific secular and strategic goal to compel modern democracies to withdraw military forces from territory that the terrorists consider to be their homeland.”

Maybe Mr Pape knows the motives of those claiming divine inspiration better than they do. In any case, this attempt to divorce suicide attacks from their religious rationale was received sympathetically by the learned audience.

In the same way, Mr Hasan has already dismissed any notion that the Charlie Hebdo murderers were inspired by their faith, citing as evidence a news report which says a lead suspect was “not religious” as of 2005. Part of the same news report which says the culprits shouted “allahu akbar” he ignores.

For Mr Hasan, the blame lies – as it must – with The West, for its actions in the Middle East. He highlights his news report again, which says the suspects were sympathetic with Iraqi ‘insurgents.’

I’ve yet to see it satisfactorily explained how the murder of satirists based 2,400 miles from Baghdad is a result of the Iraq War.

To my mind, the staff of Charlie Hebdo were citizens of a democratic country exercising their right to free expression. Yet already their eulogies are being poisoned with the suggestion of blame.

Responsibility for Islamic terrorism lies only with those committing it. We cannot tackle those who would destroy free speech until we forgive ourselves for using it.

Je Suis Charlie.

Banksy graffiti in Clacton-on-Sea. Photo: Duncan Hull (www.flickr.com/photos/dullhunk)

Banksy graffiti in Clacton-on-Sea. Photo: Duncan Hull (www.flickr.com/photos/dullhunk)

I once saw a Chihuahua – a male Chihuahua, no less – attempt to have sex with a man’s leg. I daresay you’ve seen something similar, but the conclusion you drew was probably quite different from that which John Rees-Evans, the UKIP candidate for Cardiff South, might draw. He finds such scenarios good evidence of a latent preference for bestiality in the homosexual community.

The inconsistencies with his reasoning are too numerous to explore in any depth, but suffice to say that a self-aware human homosexual and an amorous donkey are two separate things. Also, whilst we’re at it, the ass would technically be illustrating a sexual preference for animals by going after any quadruped, donkey or otherwise.

Anyway, if this past month is anything to go by, there’s nothing unusual in a UKIP member going off the reservation with their remarks. Candidate Kerry Smith last week quit after reportedly using colourful language like ‘poofter’ and ‘chinky’ while Councillor Rozanne Duncan was expelled from the party at the weekend for bringing it “into disrepute.”

Typically, the mitigation offered for such offences – be it by UKIP officials or supporters – is that members of all parties make similarly outrageous remarks, but the establishment media moguls will only pick on the plucky upstarts in their party.

According to this worldview, the media – as in the minds of the most paranoid conspiracy theorists – is a homogenous group, happily ignoring the indiscretions of mainstream parties and politicians. Yet we know this is not true. Last year, we saw a paper so eager to take a potshot at Ed Miliband that it dredged up the adolescent diary entries of his dead father, citing them as evidence of the deceased’s hatred of Britain. When it was alleged that former chief whip, Andrew Mitchell, used some colourful language of his own in Downing Street, the media frenzy was so intense that – even while protesting his innocence – Mitchell resigned, citing “damaging publicity.” Nor was the coverage limited to left-leaning media. These are not isolated examples.

Ours is one of the most competitive media markets in the world. News providers don’t run these stories as if grudgingly conceding that one of their own has been caught out – they fall over each other to be first to embarrass  our politicians. No establishment politician could whip out a word like ‘chinkey’ and expect to walk away unscathed because they lack a purple rosette.

True, these are not the parish councillors or paper candidates whose babble has drawn UKIP such unwanted attention recently, but then controversial comments are not limited to the party fringes. It was Godfrey Bloom, one of the party’s MEPs, who used the phrase ‘bongo bongo land’ to refer to other nations. He also yelled ‘Ein Volk, ein Reich, ein Führer’ at a fellow Parliamentarian from Germany. I could go on, but suffice to say he and UKIP went their separate ways last year.

Another UKIP MEP, Gerard Batten, said he would ask British Muslims to sign a charter rejecting violence while another, Roger Helmer, called homosexuality “abnormal” and “undesirable” in remarks since disowned. Both men are still party members and, in fact, party spokesmen.

Even Nigel Farage flirted with disaster when he said to one interviewer in a wink-wink nudge-nudge fashion that ‘you know the difference’ which makes Romanians such concerning neighbours. He was also among the many party members who spoke up in defence of an anti-immigration song written and later withdrawn by Mike Read, recorded – tastelessly – in a faux Jamaican accent. The blowback from the song, said Farage after its withdrawal, was the sort of “confected outrage” only UKIP get. Does anyone seriously believe that the Tories are so short on critics that they could record a song which was only one stop short of blackface without getting called out on it?

A friend of mine once said that UKIP wasn’t a racist party, but it attracted racist supporters. As if to concede the point, the party chairman has warned Kippers off Twitter and revoked unauthorised use of the party logo by supporters, members and officials. It’s a move which says ‘of course the anti-immigrant hysteria is justified, but for god’s sake don’t go telling everyone about it.’ It’s true the party gets plenty of press for colourful comments, but there’s a reason for that and this time it’s not the fault of the establishment.

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Hadrian’s Wall. Photo: Quisnovus (www.flickr.com/photos/quisnovus)

In 1861, the two halves of the American republic went to war. In the increasingly enlightened northern states, political debate was turning against the practice of slavery. The largely agricultural south, meanwhile, had benefited hugely from the practice and was growing impatient with the perceived radicalism of northern politicians.

So, with the line in the sand drawn, the south declared itself a separate Confederate nation and began seizing government property within its boundaries. The crisis erupted into war with the attempted seizure of Fort Sumter in North Carolina. In the ensuing conflict, 600,000 were killed. The United States, however, survived.

Today, America is the world’s leading superpower and largest economy. But across the Atlantic, that same question is being asked: one country or two?

Whilst no threat of military conflict looms, some of the factors that tempted the Confederacy into secession are also tempting Scotland into independence. I talked about the political split in my last post, here, but I want to take a bit of time over the economic argument.

The Yes campaign is arguing (perhaps honestly, perhaps not) that an independent Scotland would be wealthier. When the Confederacy went its own way, it was to maintain the status quo rather than disrupt it, but no doubt part of the consideration was economic.

Now many have gone over the economic ups and downs of Scotland going it alone. I will not repeat that Yes leaders have failed to ensure a currency union, or even a currency. Others can chart the flight of capital southwards and say how empty scaremongering is having some very real effects on markets. Nor will I delve into how risky it is to base all your projections on the best case scenario.

Rather, let’s say (somewhat indulgently) that everything turns out exactly like the independence movement projects. Picture a world in which the Caledonian Xanadu is a reality, with every Scot wealthier than before. Even if the economics of independence works out – is it the right move?

Put it like this, had America fractured into two separate nations, would the combined strength of those countries (be it economically, militarily or politically) be as mighty as it is now? Even if a split had worked out for one side, does anyone really believe that two bickering, smaller Americas would pack the same punch on the world stage?

Why not look at those countries that have split? India fractured first into India and Pakistan, then Pakistan itself fractured into Pakistan and Bangladesh. As with America, there was no shortage of perceived difference or enmity in either of these splits – the first between Hindus and Muslims, the second between Muslims and Muslims.

What followed these divorces however were not harmonious, homogenous groups. Pakistan and India ended up at war with each other repeatedly and border tensions eventually went nuclear. Bangladesh meanwhile, endured two decades of hardship after the break.

Never mind the menu costs of setting up a new state, were the resources here spent posturing at, competing with and defending against each other anything other than squandered?

Alex Salmond says that if Scotland goes independent, England loses a surly lodger and gains a good neighbour. As a line, it’s about as convincing as ‘we can still be friends.’ Borders rarely resolve our differences, but they often accentuate them.

Already, the referendum has sown seeds of difference between two peoples who have been one for more than 300 years. Nationalist rhetoric has told many Scots that they’ve had three centuries of bum deals from the English, while spurned voices south of the border have started lashing out at northern neighbours as being something like ungrateful millstones.

Nor do the differences stop there. Scots have bitterly fought among themselves. Nationalists claim they were attacked outside a football game while Unionist MP Jim Murphy had to cancel his speaking tour after being called a terrorist, a quisling and a defender of paedophiles.

It goes deeper. As with Pakistan, the threat of further disunion lurks. The Shetlands Islands have their fair share of North Sea oil and by all accounts are largely against being part of an independent Scotland. With their strong historical links to Norway , there has been speculation that the islanders will either jump ship or even claim independence themselves.

If personal gain is a good reason to break up a nation, why shouldn’t they? Their share of the oil could probably make for quite a wealthy little state. At the risk of carrying over a theme from my last piece, why stop there?

Even the ceaselessly optimistic Yes campaign admits on its website that Scotland’s economic product per head is less than that of London. Why shouldn’t London throw up some borders too? We could end up with a return to the city-states of Ancient Greece, each unstable, each bullying the smaller settlements around it and each vulnerable to attack from foreign foes.

My point is that – when used as an argument for independence – economics (as with politics) doesn’t support Scotland’s case exclusively.

This spiel has been finished for a couple of days now, but whilst I’ve been mulling it over the referendum has caught up with me. All that remains to say now is that I hope I wake up tomorrow in a country that’s agreed it’s better in one piece.

The time is nearly upon us. In just a few short weeks, our cousins to the north will decide whether to put an end to the marriage between Scotland and England after more than 300 years.

Photo: Julien Carnot (www.flickr.com/photos/julien-carnot/)

Photo: Julien Carnot (www.flickr.com/photos/julien-carnot/)

As with any divorce, it would be messy. Squabbles have already broken out over subjects like joint-custody of our currency, who’s taking how much of the debt and of course there is the oil to consider – the flat screen TV of our divorce analogy.

But some marriages aren’t built to last and just because it’s painful, it doesn’t mean a split is the wrong move. Yes campaigners cite the prospect of political freedom from a country lurching wildly to the right. They cite (as you’d expect) the riches their share of the oil would bring – about 90 per cent of the total if it’s split geographically. They also cite statistics showing how – given that oil wealth – they’d be better off in terms of debt and indeed more economically productive than the rest of the UK.

I’ll try and cover all these points and others in coming articles, but first let’s broach the political argument.

On this point, the frustration can seem easy to understand. Scotland returns 59 parliamentarians to Westminster – just over 10 per cent of the total. With this amount, Scotland’s power only really comes into play in a close contest. If the rest of the UK is agreed on a government, the Caledonian constituencies can only top up or diminish a majority, not topple it. This is pretty much what happened in 2010, when the Conservatives lost all but one seat north of the border, but were still making decisions on behalf of the Scots.

Yet it’s worth remembering that Scotland is home to something like 5.3m people – only about eight per cent of the UK total and three million less than London alone. Scotland’s slice of the political pie is roughly what it deserves. Granted, the electorate there are overwhelmingly (almost uniformly) against the government, but this is not unique to Scotland.

In Wales – another part of the UK with its own national identity – only 10 per cent of the seats are Conservative. The minority is less resoundingly small, perhaps, but it still raises the question; should Wales should go its own way too? The electorate in Cornwall now has minority status on par with that of the Scots, Welsh and Irish. In 2005, it returned only Liberal Democrat MPs. Another nation, maybe? If we’re willing to compromise on the area having a distinct national identity, why not the whole deindustrialised north?

One reason why is because places like Scotland aren’t always as helplessly disenfranchised as the nationalists like to pretend. All parts of the UK are governed to some degree by councils of varying size and scope, each reflecting the political make-up of the area is covers. On top of these, Scotland has its own (nationalist run) parliament with control over – among other things – law and order, education, housing and social services. It also has control over NHS Scotland, which rather rubbishes the claim from the Yes campaigners that this service would be better protected as part of an independent nation.

Generally speaking, matters reserved for the national parliament are of national significance; immigration, foreign policy, the constitution, etc. Some may say that even in these matters, Westminster – being where it is – has no mandate in Scotland. After all, Scotland at its northernmost point (in the scarcely-populated Shetland Isles) is some 650 miles away from Westminster.

Compare this, however, with the situation in America, where the westernmost point on the mainland (excluding Alaska) is in Washington state – 2,435 miles from the nation’s capital in Washington DC. If we’re doing a fair comparison and counting island territory as well, then Guam is nearly 8,000 miles away.

The span of American authority covers places with far less historical connection to Washington than Scotland has to the UK. Puerto Rico was a spoil of war taken from Spain in 1898. On the mainland, Texas was once an independent nation – today it has the second largest economy in the union. Are these candidates for independence too?

Each American state may have its own provincial government, but – as with Scotland – decisions of national significance are taken at the national level, however far away. While I am beholden to an online distance calculator of questionable veracity for this data, the point stands that you could be a lot further away from your government than even the most remote citizens of Scotland are.

What I’m trying to say is – in political terms – Scotland’s need for independence is no greater than that of many other places. But, even if this is accepted (by a great many, it is not) there will still be those who feel Scotland would be better off on its own.

For these people, my final political argument would be where does the fracturing stop? The comparison with Cornwall made earlier wasn’t made to belittle Scotland’s claim to independence, but to establish that – on the basis of the political arguments in support of it – we could argue for the creation of innumerable statelets of ever-diminishing size. And why not? Is size the deciding factor? If so, where do we (arbitrarily) draw the line?

History shows that new borders tend to accentuate divisions rather than soften them and I mean to demonstrate it in my next piece on this subject. For now though, I’ll conclude by saying that a democratically elected government is never going to please everyone, but by this time next year, we may well be have one which will leave the Tory heartland dissatisfied.