Dan Paris: It Always Seems Impossible Until It’s Done

This is a speech by Dan Paris from the Glasgow University Independence Referendum debate.

“It always seems impossible until it is done.”

Those are the words of the great Nelson Mandela.

We stand at the brink of a new beginning. I’m excited to be part of a generation of Scots – those who were born here, and those who pay us the privilege of adopting it as their home – who will define the future of our nation.

There is no doubt that Scotland could survive as an independent country – not even the leaders of the No campaign would argue that case anymore. They have moved on from the argument that Scotland is ‘too wee, too poor and too stupid’ as, frankly, nobody bought it. Instead we now hear that ‘of course Scotland could be independent… but you’re no very big, you’re no very rich, and you’re no very smart…’

I do not doubt that those who disagree with me sincerely want the best for Scotland. But the portrait of modern Britain painted by those who claim we are ‘Better Together’ seems to bare very little relationship with reality. You may have spotted a few t-shirts on campus bearing the No campaign’s slogan, ‘UK OK’. Presumably, we are expected to accept ‘OK’ as good enough.

But really: is the 4th highest level of inequality in the developed world ‘OK’? Are illegal wars ‘OK’? Is it ‘OK’ to force families out of their homes with the bedroom tax, or is it ‘OK’ to force the unemployed to stack shelves in Poundland without pay? Is it ‘OK’ that thousands die because, in energy rich Scotland, they are too poor to heat their homes? Is it ‘OK’ that more and more families are forced to rely on foodbanks to feed their children? Is it ‘OK’ that welfare reforms will push one third of Scottish homes into poverty? Is it ‘OK’ that our generation no longer expect to have a better standard of living than their parents enjoyed?

David Cameron was elected by telling us that ‘Britain is broken’. Now he tells us Scotland must stay because ‘Britain works’. This is a story of managed decline: ‘Great Britain’ has been replaced by an ‘OK UK’.

Instead of vision, the dependence campaign give us fear. We’ve been told that if Scotland becomes independent, England may be forced to bomb our airports. It is insisted, without explanation, that profitable businesses will simply cease trading across these islands. We are told that we would become international pariahs, left outside of global institutions, isolated and alone in a scary old world. We are told that MI5 might have betrayed Libyan dissidents to Gaddafi, but those same people would naturally refuse to share intelligence with Scotland, because after all, how could they trust us? This attitude is best summed up on a leaflet produced by Ian Davidson MP, which stated that independence offers ‘doom and gloom’.

Becoming independent is a perfectly normal process. To imply that Scotland is uniquely incapable of doing so is beyond ridiculous.

If we want to have a serious discussion about our future, it is up to both sides of this debate to acknowledge that for far too many, life is far too hard, and to offer a vision for a better tomorrow. Yet the No campaign are only able to offer a nostalgic glance to the past, the Britain celebrated by Danny Boyle’s Olympic opening ceremony, the Britain which has been steadily eroded by successive Westminster governments.

The argument often made is that the coalition government might be bad, but why should we leave England to deal with it? Instead, we are told, we should simply wait until the next election and vote for the candidate in the red rosette. I believe there is a better way than choosing between red and blue in a two-party system where the only constituency that matters are the swing-voters in the wealthy South-East. The case for independence is not simply about disliking this particular government. It is about the ineffectiveness of a distant Parliament which has not been fulfilling Scotland’s potential. It is the idea that we can build a better country but only if we have the powers to do so, and that the structures of Westminster will never deliver the change we need, regardless of which Party is in government. And what price? What price to ensure that Scotland always gets the government that it votes for, and that Scotland’s government has the powers of any normal independent country? When the UK treasury give their worst-case scenario, they claim that independence might cost each Scot a huge £1 per year. Well I, for one, would gladly pay my £1 to have the opportunity to build a better nation.

I long to live in a country in which everyone has the opportunity to meet their potential; where the right to free education and a public health service are raised as progressive beacons; where the divide between the haves and the have-nots is actively challenged; where struggling families are not punished by the government for the mistakes of others; where we uphold the ideals of peace and justice abroad, and of opportunity and community at home.

The skeptics amongst you may ask, and perfectly reasonably, why changing the centre of government would cause Scotland to improve so greatly. The truth is, there is nothing inevitable about this. Nobody is claiming that an independent Scotland would be without its flaws. All countries will have their issues, and all governments will make mistakes. But remember, this is not the first time the people of Scotland have debated their constitutional future. Scotland voted for an Assembly in 1979, when their democratic wishes were ignored, and then for a Parliament in 1997.

These same questions were asked then, the same fears peddled, the same warnings given. Yet devolution has given a glimpse of what we can do differently. First, Scotland voted on the principle that we should have our own parliament; then, we voted for those who we trusted to govern. And Holyrood has protected free education; it has delivered world-leading climate change legislation; worked to abolish homelessness; seen crime at a 30-year low; delivered free personal care for the elderly; and scrapped prescription charges for all. All decisions which have benefitted ordinary Scots; all decisions made here in Scotland; and all entirely unpredictable before devolution happened.

The point is that while we don’t know precisely what independence will bring, we trust the people of Scotland to make those decisions and to work towards a better nation. We don’t know the specific policies of an independent government any more than we know the precise agenda of the next Westminster government. But in 1997, Scotland took the brave step towards Home Rule because Scots had experienced the alternative. They had experienced the brutal reality of a Conservative government which they had consistently rejected in the polls. They had witnessed their industrial heart torn out, they suffered first under the hated poll tax, and community after community were abandoned by the very state in which they had invested their faith.

The people knew then, instinctively, that a Scottish Parliament would be better. Not perfect, but more suited to the needs of our country. And they were right. Polls show that Scots trust Holyrood much more than they trust Westminster. Overwhelmingly, the public want more power here, not less. And why should they be satisfied with the status quo? In a country where already too many live with too little, Westminster welfare reforms are set to push even more Scots into poverty – welfare reforms rejected overwhelmingly by the elected representatives of the Scottish people. Why should this be when we live in one of the richest countries on the planet, wealthy beyond belief in resources and human potential? And how can we expect any different from a distant government, with a cabinet of millionaires, and a parliament of privileged Oxbridge graduates?

The exciting thing about independence is not the event itself, but the opportunity that it brings. The opportunity to imagine a better world; to ask ourselves what sort of society do we wish to live in, and how do we get there?

The evidence is clear: if you want a high standard of living and an equal and prosperous society, live in a small nation. A glance across the North Sea to our Nordic neighbours shows that small can truly be beautiful. Norway and Sweden are consistently ranked as the best places to live on the planet. The more unimaginative of Unionists might point to Ireland or Iceland as examples of the fate that could befall an independent Scotland. Never mind that Iceland’s economic recovery has outshone our own. All this shows is that small countries, like big countries, can make bad decisions. But Norway, the Netherlands, Sweden, Switzerland, Denmark, Belgium, Austria or Finland all have higher standards of living than the UK – what advantage do they hold over Scotland that makes this inevitable? They have no such advantage, other than the ability to set their priorities not on the needs of a large, disparate population, but based on the needs of a small country.

The Nobel Prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz agrees, arguing that Britain is now so unequal that it is actually harmful to growth and prosperity; and that the only way for Scotland to tackle this is to have the economic powers that independence brings.

The No campaign try to paint this question as a choice between uncertainty and stability. But the future is always unwritten. Our choice is not simply between continuity and change, but between two diverging paths – a fork in the road

To have an economy skewed towards the interests of big finance in the City of London, or to work to build a sustainable economy based on our own natural strengths.

To have Europe’s largest arsenal of nuclear weapons kept a short drive from our biggest city, or to take a leading role in working towards a world with no weapons of mass destruction.

To see Scotland’s sons and daughters continue to be sent to fight in illegal wars at America’s whim, or to join the family of nations as a partner for peace and stability.

To see our Prime Minister on glitzy tours of the Middle East, ensuring that those brutal dictatorships which are our ‘allies’ this week are armed to the teeth with British weapons, or to contribute to the world with an ethical foreign policy.

To have an unelected House of Lords and a government without support or mandate in Scotland, or a modern, proportional Parliament where coalition and minority government is the norm and consensus politics can be a realistic goal.

To accept that widespread poverty is inevitable and that we live in a ‘something for nothing’ country, or to reject this and demand that the most vulnerable will not be made to pay for a crisis they did not create.

You may ask: why does constitutional change matter when there are much greater problems facing us? But when we talk about the constitution what we’re discussing is the power to make decisions: WHO makes decisions and HOW. And that matters because the decisions that are made by our government affect each and every one of us.

If you believe, like I do, that we as a nation can aspire to be better, then surely you can also accept that those best placed to deliver that better nation are those who live amongst us, and not a distant elite? Surely you can accept that basic principle that democracy works better when it is closer to home?

The late Jimmy Reid famously spoke at this very University about alienation, defining it as ‘the frustration of ordinary people excluded from the processes of decision-making.’ You may ask what an independent Scotland offers to the pensioner in Partick, the refugee in Govanhill, or the single-mother in Pollokshields. The answer is that independence, in of itself, does not necessarily improve the lives of any of these people. But by bringing the power to make decisions closer to our people, it is reasonable to expect those decisions to better reflect our needs and aspirations.

And what if it doesn’t, you might ask? What if an independent Scotland sees politics as usual, with our social problems left unchallenged and complacency by our leaders? To that point I would issue you a challenge. Imagine the Scotland that you wish to live in. The society you desire. The change you wish to see in the world. And then ask: would it be easier to achieve this change in a country of 5 million or in a country of 60 million? Is it easier to envisage that change happening in the imperfect, but modern and proportional parliament in Holyrood or in the archaic, undemocratic structures of Westminster?

I am reminded of the environmentalist slogan, ‘Think global, act local’. The world is led by good example – improve your street, or your town, or your country, and hope that the good that we do inspires change elsewhere. The philosopher Voltaire said that “We look to Scotland for all our ideas of civilisation”. Small countries can have a big impact. Small can be beautiful.

The writer Alasdair Gray famously instructed us to ‘Work as if you live in the early days of a better nation’. But when he recently painted the mural at Hillhead underground, he tweaked this: it reads ‘Work as if you live in the early days of a better world’. These two ideas go hand in hand. There is nothing narrow or parochial about believing in our ability to do better; no shame in a faith in a better world to come.

It always seems impossible until it is done.

There is a better future, and great things start with ‘Yes’.

Dan Paris
National Collective