Firstly a bit of background. Despite the name of my podcast being “Edinburgh Man”, I’m not actually Scottish – I was born in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, albeit raised in Fife since an early age. I moved to Edinburgh when I was at University and never really left. Despite this, or more likely because of it, I don’t really have any nationalistic feelings. Not to England, or Scotland, or really even Britain. I don’t support any national football or rugby teams and my eyes are as likely to well up for a Kenyan, Polish or French athletics winner as they are from any member of “Team GB”. If I feel a sense of “belonging” to anywhere it’s probably Edinburgh. Hence the name of the podcast.
So because of all this I feel an emotional impartiality regarding the upcoming referendum. Indeed a year ago I had very little interest, thinking the outcome to be a forgone conclusion in favour of No. But since then I’ve got more involved in the issues surrounding Scottish independence and the more I read into it, the more it enforces a belief that Yes is the essential way forward.
I appreciate that if you’re a unionist or a nationalist of some persuasion the decision on which way to vote is probably an easy one. But if like me you don’t have those nationalistic feelings, you need to put in a bit more thought and effort into coming to a decision. That said, I think everyone owes it to themselves to put a good deal of thought and effort into deciding which way to vote. Vote with your head, not your heart.
I say ‘effort’ because as election campaigns go it’s rather interesting in that there’s very little point in listening to the politicians. I’m sure there are some disillusioned individuals who would say there’s never much point in listening to politicians, but in a normal election you have to. Their promises (such that they are), their manifestos, are the only real thing you can use to guide your vote. However in this referendum, the promises of politicians are largely worthless. Post-referendum Scotland, no matter what the outcome, really is an undiscovered country. Before the proposed independence day of 24 March 2016 there will have been an election in Westminster, and two months later one in Holyrood. Who is to say who would be navigating Scotland or the rest of the UK through this time? How can politicians on either side say with any certainty what will happen if you vote Yes or No?
Instead I’ve decided to look into issues that I feel matter – research into these myself rather than listen directly to the points raised by either sides of the debate.
The core issue for me is one of democracy – will a yes or no vote result in a more democratic society? As it stands the UK (and Scotland’s relationship within it) is profoundly undemocratic. The first past the post (FPTP) system used to elect the Westminster parliament is indefensible. It is supported by the two major parties in the UK because it sustains their grip on power. Defenders of the system always point it’s more likely to form a single party and therefore “stronger” government. But this isn’t necessarily the case. And even if it were, is that a good thing? The point of a parliament is to represent the people, not to bias seats in favour of one party at the expense of another. Sure a UK election using FPTP may never elect an UKIP MP – which is probably a good thing – but that’s brushing an issue under the carpet rather than addressing it head-on. It’s never likely to change either. The only recent attempt to change the electoral system (which admittedly was to the arguably no better AV voting method) was defeated due to a concerted campaigning effort by both the Conservatives and Labour.
Another undemocratic feature of the UK electoral system – that MPs are elected exclusively via constituencies – is no more apparent than when you look at Scotland. As a country Scotland regularly returns a majority of Labour MPs, but only when Labour are also elected into government by the rest of the UK does that result in a Westminster government that reflects the will of the people of Scotland. Remember Westminster still retains control of Scottish policy with regards to defence and foreign policy, immigration, benefits, employment, broadcasting, trade and industry, energy (nuclear, oil, gas, electricity), consumer rights, data protection and the constitution. This issue has a significant undemocratic impact on England too. It’s possible for a UK Government and Prime Minister to be selected solely because their seats obtained in Scotland push them into a house majority. This is worse than the so-called “West Lothian question” where English only issues can be carried as a result of Scottish MPs – an entire English government for five years can be chosen as a result of Scottish votes. And it has happened. Not for a while, but in both the UK elections of 1964 and February 1974 the Labour party relied upon their seats in Scotland to keep the Conservatives out of government.
My friend Lis Ferla put it better than I could ever do in a recent blog post at her site Last Year’s Girl:
“To me, it comes down to the fact that even if every single person in Scotland wanted Nigel Farage in charge, we couldn’t have him. And if a few key areas of England did, we could’t get rid of him.”
Even with devolved matters the UK government still has ultimate control of Scotland’s public spending (if not how it is apportioned) via the Scottish block grant. The size of the grant is based on a percentage of public spending in the UK has a whole. So if the UK government reduced spending in England this would result in a reduction in spending in Scotland – even if the Scottish people voted for a government to increase spending. Setting aside whether you politically agree with increases or decreases in public spending – the undemocratic nature is evident. There are quirks in the calculation too – an inflationary increase for UK spending results in a less than inflationary increase in the Scottish total.
And the final undemocratic issue with the UK political system – and note that I no longer use the term “electoral” system for obvious reasons – is the unelected House of Lords. Personally I think there is a good case to be made for a second chamber – it introduces an extra layer of checks and balances. But an unelected chamber is the most unequivocally undemocratic concept ever. It’s completely indefensible in a so-called democracy. The Westminster government has failed so many times to introduce any substantial reform to the House of Lords, and I can’t imagine any reform happening soon. An independent Scotland could finally free itself from this archaic system.
I’ve talked here about electoral systems, and not so much political policies themselves. By and large I think it’s sensible to set aside most political feelings when deciding to vote Yes or No. I don’t subscribe to the feeling that Scotland can be a “socialist utopia” after voting for independence. I’m sure Scotland will make the same sort of mistakes as any democratic country makes, or indeed will be faced with difficult choices that compromise its political beliefs. But these will be Scotland’s choices, Scotland’s mistakes. Not mistakes imposed upon it.
That said, there are political issues that do re-enforce a Yes vote in my opinion. Tuition fees for university students – introduced by a Labour Westminster government and increased by the Conservative / Liberal Democrat coalition – for one. Something I strongly disagree with, and something the Scottish government hasn’t introduced. Similarly the opening up in England of NHS service delivery to more private companies. Currently these changes haven’t resulted in a reduction in public spending (and hence a reduction in Scotland’s block grant), but that is their ultimate aim. But these issues can’t be sole reasons for voting Yes. I mean, who knows what priorities a future independent Scottish government may have, who knows what decisions they may have to take? But at least it’s their decisions, decisions that (one would hope) ultimately have Scotland’s interests at heart. There are, however some political issues that are a valid reasons for voting for independence. Issues such as the current benefit caps, trident renewal and fracking rights – all of which come under powers reserved for the UK parliament, and all of which are supported by all major parties at Westminster. If you don’t want these to impact Scotland then there is no way to change these via Westminster elections, and without a “devolution max” option of the ballot there is little alternative to voting Yes. In fact, realistically any “devolution max” option would be unlikely to include the devolving of nuclear or energy responsibilities anyway. I do realise that in the case of fracking the Scottish government are playing their cards very close to their chest, but the UK government and the Labour Party have made their pro-fracking position very clear.
The most obvious conclusion to anyone who spends the time to look into the independence issue is this – that there is no reason to believe an independent Scotland can’t exist as successful economic entity. All the talk of currency details, or whether Scotland currently pays more or less into the UK finances than it gets out, is a distraction. There are countries of a similar size to Scotland who have sovereign currencies, there are also similarly sized countries who have currencies pegged to that of others. Yes the latter may sacrifice some fiscal powers – but it is a decision that they have taken as an independent country. When it comes to public spending you can, if you wish, drill into the minutiae of funding ‘x’ or ‘y’ under either a yes or no vote. But ultimately that’s meaningless too. You need to view funding as a whole, which is impossible to predict without knowing what future governments may do. The bottom line is this – many similarly sized countries are able raise taxes, balance their budgets, fund public services and be successful. With or without a sovereign currency. Saying that Scotland can’t do it is tantamount to saying that the Scottish people simply do not have the talent and ability to govern themselves – that somehow they are incompetent compared to the people of nearly every other nation in the world. That’s nonsense. There are uncertainties for sure, but there are no certainties in anything, especially not politics.
There are some voters in Scotland – particularly those who work for financial institutions in Edinburgh – who find themselves being used as pawns in this referendum. Many of their employers are openly threatening to relocate in the event of a Yes vote. That any corporation can seek to influence a democratic poll in this manner is extremely distasteful, whatever the motives or beliefs of those in charge. Personally it would make me more inclined to vote Yes out of spite. However taking a noble stance does little to allay the worries of those who find their jobs threatened by people who want to make a political point. I’m lucky, I suppose, in being part owner of my own business. I’ve also been made redundant by the collapse of a company in the past. It’s not pleasant, but something that it’s possible to recover from. Personally when I left University I had nothing to my name other than an outstanding student loan and an unhealthy overdraft. Now I’m lucky enough to have a job, a family, own (most of) a house filled with a whole bunch of nice stuff and even some savings. But I would trade everything except my family and their health to live in a more democratic Scotland. Everything. I care nothing about the pound (or whatever it’s called, or who’s face it has on it) in my pocket compared to democracy and self determination. This isn’t about me, it isn’t about the next couple of years, it’s about my children, their children and their grandchildren. It’s about what is best over the next ten, twenty, fifty, one hundred years.
But what of England and the rest of the union? As I said at the start I am English after all. Of course, it’s not really about the rest of the union. The choice first and foremost must be about what is best for Scotland. But here I believe that independence is best for England and the rest of the UK too. The overly centralised government of the UK is wrong, and a proper discussion needs to be had about how to resolve this. A half-hearted debate was started back in 2004 when North East England rejected devolution, and consequently polls in other regions were shelved. But the issue hasn’t gone away – whether in relation to regional assemblies, or an assembly for the whole of England. The key point however is that an independent Scotland would remove the issue of Scottish MPs influencing English laws and even selecting the English government. This will go some way to addressing the issues of democracy south of the border, and help to ensure English voters actually get a government they vote for too.
Ultimately the choice for me is clear – perpetuate an undemocratic centralised system that gives a disproportionate amount of power to a minority, or create a new independent nation with a significantly more democratic electoral system that can focus on tackling issues that affect the people of that nation. In fact, I don’t see it as a choice at all.