Mike Hauxwell: Scotland is not the same place it was just five years ago

2015-08-29

 

European Dialogue Think-tank in cooperation with European News in Slovakia is bringing to you a special interview with Mike Hauxwell. Mike Hauxwell is a Scot and a teacher from Edinburgh. Professionally, he started his career in the field of mental health and history but about 10 years ago embarked on a career in English language teaching. Mike has lived and taught in a number of countries including, Russia, Spain, the UAE, Japan and Slovakia but recently took a post in a large American corporation in Bratislava. Reason? One simply can’t teach forever. He needed a break. Besides, financial security in teaching is hard to find these days.

Why did you come to Slovakia?
Back in 2006 I applied for a number of teaching positions in east Central Europe as I was curious to experience the old ‘communist’ bloc. The first offer I received was to teach in Akademia vdelavania in Gorkeho, so Slovakia chose me. I then taught freelance in Bratislava for a while and left Slovakia in 2010 to travel but returned last year as I missed the pivo too much.

What do you know about Slovakia?
Not a great deal as I never achieved real proficiency in the language. Most of what I’ve learned has been from the people I’ve met and taught. I know it’s a small country roughly the same size as my own, with not an entirely dissimilar history with a more powerful neighbour etc. But of course there are big differences as well.

What is your greatest professional achievement?
Not an easy question but I suppose I’d have to say my development as a teacher. One of the great things about teaching a language is that you can teach almost anything you and your students want to know more about, you literally have the entire canvass of human activity, achievement and folly, as well as the natural world of which we are part, from which to draw. I have tried over the years to learn about and from my students. So, whatever I’ve achieved professionally has been down to them; not least what education could and should be.

You come from Scotland, tell us something about Scotland?
Hardest question yet. As with any country, there are aspects of the culture, society and history which induce both pride and shame. The greatest source of the latter for me would be our role as junior partners in the British Empire. There are large swathes of the world (25% of the Earth’s land mass at its height) where the destructive reality and legacy of British Imperialism has few peers, if any: Just ask an Indian, Irishman, aboriginal Australian or Native American to name but a few. It’s even been said, not unpersuasively, that the period Scotland and England were most closely united – WWII, was the only time Britain has been on the ‘right’ side.

By contrast, Scotland’s contribution to the development of British social democracy and labour movement has been considerable; the modern British Labour Party was born in Scotland. The intellectual and technological contributions of the Scottish Enlightenment are also quite remarkable for such a small country.

At any rate, it’s a far more interesting and complex place than the usual kitsch image of Braveheart, bagpipes and kilts would have you believe.

How is the situation in Scotland after the referendum?
Politically, Scotland is not the same place it was just five years ago. The lead up to the referendum vote last year saw an upsurge in engagement and interest in politics across the country. It’s a rare thing to be asked if you want to create a new country (or re-create an old one) and an obvious question that springs from that is; what kind of country do you want it to be? That resulted in discussions in meetings, in pubs, at work and in the home on a wide range of political, economic and social issues. It also saw a huge increase in people creating and joining political and media groups campaigning for independence such as, Academics for Independence, Women for Independence, Radical Independence Campaign, National Collective (artists) and many more. As one commentator put it, Scotland is probably one of the most politically literate societies in Europe just now.

A turn out of nearly 85% clearly showed people do bother to vote when offered a real choice. Though narrowly defeated the recent UK general election saw the Scottish National Party (the main political party advocating independence) return 56 out 59 Scottish MPs to the Westminster Parliament, indicating the issue is far from dead. It’s an academic but interesting question nonetheless, how different Slovakia might be today if you’d had a similar conversation in 1993.

Where do you see Scotland in 10 years?
I’ve no crystal ball, so no idea. Obviously I hope things will get better and as I said there’s good grounds for optimism. In my shortish time a lot has changed in Scotland, but a lot’s changed in the UK, Europe and beyond too and far from most of it for the better. Europe, for all its pluses, remains a club for investors to haggle for the best tax deals, resulting in a race to the bottom in countries setting business tax, and leaving governments no option but to increase the tax burden onto their citizens. It’s now even managed to bail out bankers and push a small member state headlong into a humanitarian disaster. While the UK has steadily become the most unequal country in the EU (the top 5 families now own as much wealth as the bottom 20% of the population). And it is even more firmly hitched than ever to aggressive American foreign follies. I was born 10 years after the war in Vietnam kicked-off, which we stayed out of, unlike many of the illegal fiascos since, in which we didn’t. As for the global scene – who can predict the weather?

Someone once said that a week is a long time in politics. Indeed, it can be so. I can’t help thinking though that 10 years is becoming a very long time in history. It does seem to be getting faster. How Scotland will fare in all this is anybody’s guess as so much is dependent on what happens elsewhere. But we’ll play our part though.

What do you think we could do better or differently?
If you mean in Slovakia, you should know better than me. As I said I can’t read Slovak and very few of my Slovak friends have any interest in politics, economics and such stuff. I’ve no idea how much unemployment, homelessness, trade union membership, youth poverty or tax avoidance by the big boys with the lawyers and accountants there is in Slovakia, no clue. There is one thing that has caught my attention over the years though and another more recent that might be worth mentioning.

I’ve some interest in how capitalism works, how it works as a system and one of the ways it seems work is in the production of marked uneven geographic development. I know a lot of people think of this as just like the weather, but someone somewhere decided that Bratislava is in dire need of yet another mall. It still strikes me how deserted Bratislava can feel at holiday times when all those students and workers seem to decant en masse for home, or back ‘beyond the plastic’, as it’s referred to in a circle I know. That creates pressure on Bratislava’s infra-structure and so on. One result is that the plastic seems to be bulging westwards into Austria; and though that diaspora has been growing for years there’s at least one sizeable development in Berg I know of, soon to be under way, which is set to lure more Slovaks over the border. Where all this will lead who knows, but leaving East Austria aside, I don’t think it will prove a good thing for your country. Resentments around unequal treatment can fester and become more serious than light-hearted quips about eating meat paste.

Another thing that caught my attention is the recent hullaballoo about EU quotas for accepting refugees. It seems strange to me that a country which in 1968 saw thousands of their citizens welcomed into Austrian who were fleeing Russian invasion, would deny the same to those seeking refuge today from similar horrendous circumstances. I mean, imagine the Austrian Government had declared in 1968 that they’d only accept Slovaks who spoke German?

Do you plan any activities in Bratislava with Scottish community?
Not only for the Scottish community. I do plan to hold a public meeting in Bratislava with a video-linked panel of people in Scotland involved in the campaign for Scottish independence. It’s open for anyone with an interest in what’s happening in Scotland and is meant as a counter to the portrayal in the Slovak media as just another parochial nationalist movement – which it certainly is not.

Interview was made by Miroslav Hajnoš

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