fiona macgregor

Interview: Jamie Hepburn (SNP MSP)

Jamie Hepburn, the MSP for Cumbernauld, has much to recommend him.  He is young (for a member of parliament), has an accent thick as treacle and positively oozing Scottish manliness (they don’t make them like that in Oxford), and a manner that instantly puts a nervous interviewer at ease, introducing the conversation with ‘Ha-iiii, how are you?’ and signing off with ‘Cheerio, bye-bye’. No wonder he got elected.

Having joined the SNP at 18, and presumably hacking his way through university and beyond, Jamie is probably the sincerest voice for Scottish nationalism since William Wallace. Speaking to him, I suddenly realise that a year and a half at Oxford has mellowed my Scottishness, deafened me to the impassioned call of my oppressed ancestors; I also realise that admitting this to Jamie would be the equivalent of confessing to a priest that you’d managed to commit every single cardinal sin before breakfast.

Given that the biggest stumbling block on the road to Scottish Independence is quite possibly going to be the lack of decisiveness among the Scottish people regarding whether or not they actually want it, I immediately steer us towards issues regarding the upcoming referendum. Particularly interesting is the potential disparity between the votes for SNP and votes for independence in an election. Jamie tells me that holding the referendum, rather than assuming that all SNP voters are behind the independence movement, is important because ‘our manifesto said there would be a referendum, it’s a manifesto commitment’ and that it will ‘ensure that Scots people are confident about the process’.

It’s true, of course, that Scots voted for a referendum on independence, not for independence itself, but I’m curious as to why many people would vote for a referendum for something they don’t endorse. Jamie ducks the question rather, with ‘You’d need to ask specific people’. He does, however, offer the reasons that the SNP have ‘other social and economic objectives, we have a raft of other policies we’d like to achieve … other than independence’.

However a question trying to draw out what some of these policies might be – ‘What is the SNP aiming for if not for independence’ – is immediately shot down by ‘well, we will be aiming for independence. We want to see the referendum through and we’re asking a very simple question, ‘Do you think Scotland should be an independent country?’’ I feel suitably rebuked for my lack of nationalistic certainty.

When tackled about the potential second question on the referendum, which would be to do with endowing Scotland with more devolved powers, Jamie did concede that many voters may ‘want something short of independence’ and that there ‘is legitimacy to that point of view’.

Undoubtedly the most emphatic moment of the interview was when I asked Jamie about the economic viability of independence, asking if Scotland could survive on its own. Jamie responded ‘A hundred percent yes!!’ and proceeded to criticise ‘anyone who tries to take forward the argument that Scotland is an economic basket case’, saying that they are ‘only trying to undermine people’s confidence’. He says that ‘it is true in some years there would have been a structural deficit, in other years there would have been a surplus’.

 

Jamie Hepburn defends Salmond’s position regarding the timing of the referendum. There has been some disagreement between Westminster and Holyrood on this matter, with Cameron urging Salmond to hold it earlier rather than later. Jamie says that as the time commitment has already been made it is one that should be honoured. He also tells us the later timing will help because the government are ‘trying to recover from economic mismanagement, to get the Scottish economy moving in the right direction again’.

To round off the interview I ask Jamie what he would like to say to Oxford students about how they should view Scotland. He advises us to ‘see Scotland as a neighbour country … but we want to be good neighbours on equal footing, an independent country’. He then expresses the very sincere hope that Oxford students will very soon be able to view Scotland as just that, an independent country.

As I cycle back to my flat, I fancy I can hear the ghosts of Robert the Bruce, William Wallace, Robert Burns, Walter Scott and my own clansman Rob-Roy Macgregor clamouring for my attention. From somewhere among them Mel Gibson’s voice seems to be shouting something.

I wonder where I can get hold of some woad.

-Fiona Macgregor

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Post-grad Tutors: Incompetent Ignorami or Informative Intelligentsia?

The proposition argues that being tutored by post-graduate students results in a quality of teaching far below what we might expect from Oxford (despite the possibility of increased tutor shagability).

Postgrads are us in three years. When undergrads choose a paper, they might be tutored by the world experts on the subject: professors with a quarter of a century’s experience under the belt. Or, they might be tutored by a postgrad. The allocation of undergrads to tutors within a given paper is presumably random, leaving it up to chance whether you enjoy the tuition of a seasoned professor, or use your reading to give tips to a 2016 version of yourself who’s struggling with a DPhil.

Postgrads were probably among the brightest and best in their undergrad years, but that doesn’t mean they have any talent for or interest in teaching, let alone any relevant training. The benefits that undergraduates are meant to be able to derive from the brilliance of a postgraduate genius are significantly dulled by the inability of said genius to communicate with other (younger, clueless) human beings.

Even the rarer, socially competent genius types have usually specialised to a pinpoint of a topic. This leads to a tendency among DPhil-writers to spend tute after tute telling you all about the relevance of a particular semicolon in a particular line of a particular legal text to our understanding of the literary conventions of a particular decade, when what you require is a comprehensive understanding of the century. Postgraduate tutors are a disadvantage to ambitious undergraduates, who must compete, in the exact same exams, with peers who are lucky enough to have tutors who actually know more than they do.

For us undergrads, the primary merit of being taught by postgrads rather than more senior academics is that we’re more likely to (think about what it would be like to) shag them. I realise that this is not an insignificant benefit. The pain of learning about, say, the intertextual details behind Chaucer’s dream visions, which you can’t read because they’re in French, can be significantly alleviated by imagining one’s tutor naked.

But, I implore you, think of the postgrads. This is you, in three years, being dumped in front of your 19-year-old undergrad counterparts, who between them have almost certainly read more than you, and will therefore be more interested in your abs than your understanding of Spanish law. A postgrad tutor is a weary specimen, trying to reconcile completing a DPhil with the fact that he’s getting too old to go to Park End and still make it to a 9am tute. The last thing he needs is equally hungover Freshers who have read more and care less.

 

Fiona Macgregor responds that there are similar (or worse) drawbacks to being taught by experts, and that at least post-grads might be slightly more able to relate to the life of an under-grad.

It sounds to me as though the writer of the proposition has been embittered by a series of post graduate tutors who are both frustratingly incompetent and exasperatingly fit. My experience of student taught tutorials have been blessedly free of either of these hindrances, which is more than I can say of some of the tutorials taught by fully-fledged academics.

I see no reason why post-graduate students should be any worse at imparting knowledge than their counterparts on the other side of their DPhil. As the prop mentions, tutors at Oxford are here by virtue of being experts in their field. Unfortunately this virtue, believe it or not, does not magically turn them into communicative personages who are incredibly skilled at translating their knowledge into a revision-friendly format accessible to the tired, stressed out student who does sort of remember writing their essay, but went on a crew date last night, made a twat of themselves on the cheese floor, and still has Teenage Dirtbag ringing in their ears.

The tutors that have taught me thus far have been a fairly mixed bag, and include a fair few post-grads, but were I to pick out the few that I’ve had most difficulty learning from, and gained the least benefit from my tutorials, they are invariably from among those who already have a doctorate.  While it’s true that they might just possibly know more, the only real benefit in being taught by a non-student is that they potentially have more years teaching experience, but experience is very far from equalling competence. Some of the worst teachers at my school were just about to retire. And while a post-grad might get hung up on a relatively minor point, I rather doubt that the tendency as academics progress is to broaden their interests. Some academics will have written a book as well as a DPhil on their personal bugbear.

How good your tutor is, post-grad or not, will always be the luck of the draw; even if you tailor which college you apply to in order to be taught by a particular tutor, the chances are they’ll be on sabbatical by the time you arrive. However a significant part of me would much rather be taught by a cleverer, more knowledgeable and altogether more conscientious future version of myself than a century-old academic, probably born with a beard and elbow-patches, whose only experience of the student world are the occasional terrifying glimpses of it he catches in the drooping eyes of his clinically bewildered tutees.

What’s wrong with saying ‘chav’?

Fiona Macgregor reckons ‘chav’ is a useful and acceptable generalisation.

Owen Jones, writer of Chavs: The Demonisation of the Working Class, tells us class hatred is ‘the last acceptable prejudice’. He scolds us soundly for bandying about the word ‘chav’, explaining, like a scandalised parent reacting to their child’s first swear word, that it is offensive and derogatory and should be as universally condemned as  the word ‘nigger’. He has an unlikely ally in the comedian Reginald D Hunter, who observes that ‘the only reason [the British] have a class system is ‘cause they are so crap at racism’.

I don’t take issue with the idea that British culture is permeated by snobbery and class consciousness. What’s irritating is social visionaries like Owen Jones exploiting the middle class sense of guilt – possibly due to the helpless feeling of being undeservedly over-privileged – to make people feel the need to bowdlerise their vocabularies and erase from the lexicon a perfectly practical word. It is a generalisation, but a useful one.

Of course, the argument is really against the air of superiority and distaste with which the word is often uttered. However I don’t believe for a second that tinkering with the acceptability of ‘chav’ will make an ounce of difference to these opinions.

And to be honest, I’m not at all certain that those at the receiving end would give one twitch of a pierced eyebrow for the good opinion of their oh-so-refined persecutors. Class hatred is anything but one-sided. The word ‘posh’ can be uttered with the disdain usually reserved for something the cat brought in after a good long wee on it. Other classes may not exactly be demonised, but are certainly despised. What makes the connotations of ‘chav’ so much more offensive than derogatory connotations of ‘snob’? Why need someone show more tact and sensitivity solely for being more privileged?

Jones’ argument of course has more substance than simply chastising us for the use of one word. He would urge us not to dismiss problems of unemployment and poverty with generalisations, imploring us to spare a thought for the deserving poor. Although Mr Doolittle, of Pygmalion, points out that though he is undeserving his needs are the same or more as the deserving: ‘I don’t eat less hearty than him; and I drink a lot more’ so perhaps even this distinction is unsatisfactory. So spare as many thoughts as you like for the poor, deserving or not, but seriously, feel free to guiltlessly say ‘chav’. After all, a chav by any other name would still call you a posh twat.

 

Bethany McCrave points out  that ‘chav’ is an expensive image, not a generalisation for the poor.

I like wearing my college hoody. It’s warm, suitable for most weathers and obviously it’s stash, so who couldn’t love it? But the media and the government between them have ruined this for me by coming up with this horrendous ‘chav ideal’, if you will, in the form of a ‘hoody’. Fiona makes no argument against Jones’ conception of a chav as a poor, poverty stricken, unemployed hoody-wearer, but this is certainly not what I see when I’m yelled at in the street by a teenager. I see someone who has spent real English pounds on clothes from JD Sports and ridiculously oversized shoes from Footlocker. It makes absolutely no sense that ‘chav’ and ‘poor’ have become as synonymous as Fiona suggests. Consider the demands of the chav lifestyle. Footlocker is not the cheapest, and you can’t just get away with going to the market if you want the silver drawstring bag as well.

Whoever said that using the word ‘chav’ was meant to be a way to express hatred of the working class? For one thing class is relative, in the sense that money can buy a much bigger house in Manchester or Newcastle for the same price as a terrace in Jericho, so any talk of class needs to be qualified to a point. A generalisation of chavs as poor and impoverished is useless when you find out that the hoody cost sixty quid.

Not that I can speak from personal experience, but it seems that to be a chav is to maintain an image, just like being ‘rah’, or even the dreaded ‘alternative’. So, when we lump all the people who upkeep this image under one name, we’re left with a generalisation which will self destruct when an event like the riots lets everyone just blame it on the chavs. The 30 year old school teacher and 50 year old chef sentenced for looting in London would beg to differ.

Once, the townie used to be a tracksuit bottom wearing, Burberry cap sporting ‘So Solid Crew’ fan – and what happened to this breed of teenager? The notion of chav is undoubtedly fluid, and has evolved over time. Just like all generalisations, this one will die out and the kids will move on to something else. In the mean time, let’s leave class debates to a Sunday night in the basement of the Three Goats Head’s, innit.

-PHOTO/The Arches

Next Queen: Don’t Stop Her Now

On hearing Cameron’s inspirational speech as he smugly introduced gender equality regulation into the laws of royal succession (presumably patting himself on the back as he realised that this was another way to appeal to female votes) I could have sworn I had swallowed a nail the aftertaste of irony was so strong.

Cameron tells us firmly that ‘the idea that a younger son should become monarch, instead of an elder daughter simply because he is a man is at odds with the modern countries we have become.’ Alarm bells screech.

My first, and perhaps rather trivial objection would be against the blatantly self-congratulatory tone of ‘modern countries we have become’. These modern countries that as well as appearing quite content with the idea of an unelected form of government based on an accident of birth, also seem utterly oblivious to the irony of attempting to modernise and make fair this fundamentally archaic and arbitrary system.

It’s also more than a little bit mental to think that this move straightens out injustice in the system. Just how you can look at the system of royal succession and delude yourself into believing there is any kind of fairness there at all is beyond me. What we have, and what we will continue to have, is an arbitrary system which selects one person from a very particular and privileged class and hands them a crown and sceptre. Whether or not you have a problem with this inherently unjust system is a matter of personal opinion, but to turn round and claim that the system is being made fair and equal by endowing it with this semblance of modernity is frankly a right royal cheek.

On top of the laws of succession being fundamentally arbitrary, the royal family – let’s not pussy around – is inarguably a relic from a bygone age. They are very useful for filling up tabloid column space (especially the fit young princes), attracting tourists, keeping the rooms in Buckingham Palace looked after, and for being quite hilariously unrepresentative representatives of the country. However the actual purpose that a monarchy is originally intended for has long since passed its sell-by-date.

What I see as their current function is much the same as something like a pocket watch. It’s a pretty neat thing to have around, it did have a period in the past when it was the best thing until sliced bread, but its principal value is that of being an antique, and it has definitely been overtaken by the event of the wristwatch, the digital watch, and if it comes to it, the mobile phone.

This new law on the succession feels like someone trying to sell me a digital pocket watch. I can’t quite understand how we can as a country attempt to modernise an institution which is essentially synonymous with tradition.

Given that the royal family’s power is largely symbolic, and the Queen, while utterly unrepresentative of the country’s demographic (as is our elected ruler), is an effective ambassador for the country, I don’t quite feel that this situation is analogous to the proverbial rearranging of the deckchairs on the Titanic. It seems to me that it’s more like touching up a Michelangelo masterpiece with a highlighter pen, or setting Mozart to a reggae beat, because had these maestros known about neon colours and the skank beat, they would surely have incorporated them into their work.

The institution of the monarchy has probably not been ruined beyond repair by this move by the Commonwealth. There is probably enough injustice and arbitrariness left in the system for it to still qualify as being a British tradition we can continue to uphold.

-Fiona MacGregor

PHOTO/Jon (Flickr)