Simon Barrow: This Referendum Is A Moment Of Real Political Hope


There were 460,000 people born in England resident in Scotland on census day in 2011. Roughly 420,000 English-born people will have a vote in Scotland’s independence referendum later this year, because they live and work here.

I’m one of them.

If you had asked me a few years ago about whether Scotland should be an independent country, I think I would have been agnostic veering towards negative.

Like a lot of people living south of the border, I tended to view the issue through the prism of a certain kind of cultural nationalism – seeing ‘the independence issue’ as one of flag-waving, which I’ve never been keen on in any context. Equally, I would have been tempted to think of ‘the constitutional question’ as a distracting sideshow.

I was, I now acknowledge on the basis of four years immersion north of the same border, wrong.

My journey to voting ‘Yes’ on 18 September 2014, as a Scottish resident born in England, has nothing to do with national identity (I’m happy to be a mongrel), nothing to do with political factions (I’m not a member of any party) and nothing to do with ‘separation’ (as opponents of independence like to mischaracterise it). Rather, for me, this referendum has everything to do with new possibilities, people-based politics, and solidarity. Let me explain.

Politically, it seems entirely right to me that people who live in Scotland should be able to be governed by those they vote into power and take decisions about key issues impacting their future. It’s a basic democratic case: one which is currently thwarted by major decisions being taken by a parliament we do not elect, directed by interests remote from the needs of the Scottish people.

OK, so why not some version of ‘devo max’ or ‘devo plus’ then? Because, apart from the fact that it isn’t on offer (and don’t hold your breath that Westminster will suddenly offer a whole bag of goodies if Scotland votes ‘No’), one needs to ask why we would not want control over major economic levers, over welfare and the resources to fund the NHS, over legislation to give a better life to disabled and sick people, over tackling the underlying causes of the foodbank scandal, and much more?

Equally, why would we not want the power that might enable us to get rid of Trident and weapons of mass destruction, to reject immoral foreign wars, and to pursue more sustainable, environmental and just policies internationally? Devolution is still power retained elsewhere. It is not sufficient for Scotland.

Finally, why on earth would we think that the Westminster parliament (run by three parties who all accept the neoliberal consensus and bow to the powers that be who run the City-state of London) would be more likely to deliver policies based on principles of social fairness than Scotland itself, where those principles have strong residual support across the spectrum? Just look at the remarkable, cross-party Common Weal initiative, and weep at the fear mongering of Ed Miliband that a self-governing Scottish people would opt for a low wage, low welfare, multinational-cringeing system. That is utter nonsense, and Ed surely knows it.

In terms of possibilities, it’s not that an independent Scotland would suddenly become a social utopia. We have our own struggles (for widespread land reform, for proper use of energy resources, against unaccountable international capital, and more). But a ‘Yes’ vote in September would still be a major act of political resistance and regeneration, of claiming back democratic control, of pledging to work together for a better future.

Another Scotland is possible – and that, in turn, can offer real hope to all our friends in different parts of England, Wales, the north of Ireland (and, as of last week’s EU recognition, Cornwall) who want more self-determination and redistribution of power and wealth.

My aspiration is that an independent Scotland, as well as facing up to its own challenges in a fresh and demanding context of political responsibility, can help spark a democratic revolt across these islands and beyond.

A ‘Yes’ vote, it must be stressed, is not a vote for or against any particular party or leader, be it the SNP (over which some ‘No’ advocates have an unhealthy obsession, I have discovered), Labour, Tories, Lib Dems, Greens or anyone else. It is a vote to take that decision about who to elect, and how, for ourselves. It is a vote to change the system; to bring it closer to actual people and communities. It is, potentially, a vote to begin to reinstate democratic politics in place of a degenerating democracy hollowed out by the increasingly money-driven UK political settlement.

By contrast, voting ‘No’ to governing ourselves is not an act of solidarity with the disenfranchised in the north of England or elsewhere. It is, like it or not, a vote to strengthen the hand of the Westminster elite against both them and us. It is also, albeit inadvertently for many, a vote for a reactionary kind of ‘UK nationalism’ that could well end up breaking away from the European project, rather than seeking radical reform within it. It is, regrettably, a vote for an unbreakable nuclear weapons alliance. It is, in fact, a vote of confidence in precisely the class of politicians who are currently breaking up the welfare state, privatising the public sphere and hiving off the health service… or at best trying not to do those things while accepting current austerity-based spending plans and promising to slash public provision ‘more humanely’.

Seriously. Do we really NOT think we can do better than this?

And by ‘we’, I do not just mean those of us living in Scotland, but all those across the British and Irish isles (which are not, please note, automatically coterminous with the current United Kingdom political settlement). That is, all who want to see genuine change. For what becomes possible – albeit far from inevitable – if Scotland votes ‘Yes’ in September is a major, gradual change in the rUK towards a more diverse, con-federal system, as friends from the Jimmy Reid Foundation and elsewhere have also argued.

For me, therefore, this referendum is a moment of real political hope.

No, politics is not everything and cannot deliver a utopia. As a radical Christian, I believe that personal and social transformation (both are needed) arises first and foremost from building transformed and transforming localised communities, not just through changes in structure, party, governance or national boundary. However, the sense of mobilisation for change towards a more hospitable, equal, fair, peaceful and accountable society is palpable in the momentum towards ‘Yes’ right now, not least in groups like Green Yes and the Radical Independence Campaign (RIC).

By contrast, even some of its own supporters and many who are undecided are frustrated at the sheer, grinding negativity of the ‘No’ campaign, which argues – against overwhelming evidence, it seems to me – that we are “better together” with the Westminster system, no matter how much worse off the Westminster system makes those who we are really better together with – ordinary people and communities, trade unions, alliances for social justice and more.

I respect the integrity, determination and sincerity of those who believe in maintaining current UK constitutional arrangements at all costs. But I am utterly puzzled by their conviction about how this can possibly make life better for the great majority, either side of the border. (If you want to know how it will benefit the one per cent, just listen to George Osborne’s recent speeches, and ponder why he really wants to stop alleged “subsidy junkies” in Scotland having their own way.)

Sure, there is bound to be risk involved in independence, in taking a new path. There always is when we take responsibility into our own hands. But never forget that Scotland has enormous resources and ingenuity at its disposal. It can bear the risks of change, and even benefit from them. Its main problem, you could argue, is that it has for far too long been tempted by an insidious ‘cannae do’ ideology which effectively says, “You’re really not up to it, you know – accept that you’re a bit crap, and then let those rich elites go on governing you… after all, they are wealthy, and to have got that way, they must know what they are doing!”

This, of course, is nonsense. Most of the wealth of the wealthiest is gained through inheritance, hoarding and/or speculation. That is also true of the dominant system it ferociously defends and depends on. Sharing wealth means sharing talent and opportunity. Not doing so kills possibility and spreads inequality, despair and anomie. A different way forward in place of the neoliberal nightmare is not only possible but also essential. (Yes, of course Scotland has its own elites, but they are less remote and more capable of being pinned down and tackled when they are subject to controls and challenges which we decide on and mobilise for ourselves. Likewise with global capital. Power aggregated is power lost; power dispersed is power that comes closer to our grasp.)

The Scottish independence referendum, I have come to see, is possibly the single most important democratic moment we have had on these islands for hundreds of years. Its resonance can, if developed positively, extend well beyond Scotland itself. That is why, from my perspective, a ‘Yes’ vote is an act of solidarity not separation, broad internationalism not narrow nationalism, hope not fear. Campaigning for it is also the beginning of a journey of change, not the goal or end itself.

As the Yes Scotland campaign said in its briefing for St George’s Day on 23 April 2014: “Our message to citizens from other parts of the UK is the same as to every other voter – the best people to make decisions about Scotland’s future are those who live here, regardless of where they are from. Scotland can be successful as an independent country; it should be independent so we can deliver key gains; and it must be to ensure we always get the governments that we vote for.

“Understandably, some will be more likely to seek reassurances on particular issues such as citizenship and borders, and are more likely to need information about some practical cross-border issues. And other key messages, such as the importance of the social union, ongoing co-operation, and the benefits of independence for people throughout these islands, will be especially relevant.

“So important messages for people living in Scotland who were born in England (or Wales or Northern Ireland) include:

· after independence ALL British citizens living in Scotland will be considered Scottish citizens and dual Scottish/British nationality will be possible, as will citizenship by descent;
· as members of a common travel area, there will be no border controls between Scotland and England and no need to use your passport;
· as citizens of the EU, Scottish and UK citizens will remain free to travel and work throughout these islands;
· after a Yes vote, the ‘social union’ between Scotland and rUK will remain as close as ever – our ties of friendship and family do not and never have depended on sharing the Westminster Parliament;
· after a Yes vote, Scotland and rUK will continue to be strong political allies, co-operating closely on issues where this is to our mutual advantage.”

I am encouraged that very many of my friends in England, where I have spent most of my life, are increasingly seeing the sense of all this – and the great majority of my Ekklesia colleagues and associates, too, though we have resisted taking a single ‘line’ on the referendum.

There are some who remain fearful and prey to scaremongering, of course. And angry, too. I was surprised and slightly alarmed to be accused of being a “faux Braveheart import” by an English friend the other day! But deeper hope ought finally to be stronger than fright and rage, because its focus is on what can be gained through the courage to make change, rather than on what will be lost by embracing that change.

Simon Barrow
National Collective

Simon Barrow is director of the progressive Christian political think-tank Ekklesia. He is a writer, researcher and commentator who lives in Leith, having moved to Scotland permanently four years ago. He is active in the NUJ.


Common Weal – All of Us First:

St George’s Day briefing from Yes Scotland (*.PDF Adobe Acrobat document):…

‘Another Scotland, another world: a declaration of radical intent’, by Simon Barrow:

More on the Scottish independence referendum from Ekklesia:

Westminster, Britain and Better Together, by Adam Ramsay (OpenDemocracy, 25 April 2014):…

A Green Yes (*.PDF Adobe Acrobat document):…

‘When the Saints Go Marching Out: Redefining St George for a new era’ (2007/9 Ekklesia report): Reissued in 2010 as ‘St George’s Day in a changing, global era: a positive proposal’:

Image from Michael Marten