Archive for category Constitution

From the inside, the referendum is almost too close to call

Working at a university I count the year from September to September. The last few days of August have the same timeless quality as the lull between Christmas and January.

As the Scottish Parliament convened for the final time before the independence referendum a thunderstorm swept across Edinburgh and into the windows of my office, looking out over the Crags. You’ve been able to smell autumn in the air these last few days, and though the seasons may not be what they used to be they have still rolled around in more or less the usual order from last September to this.

What has changed though is Scotland, fundamentally so. Eighteen months ago I would have counted the chances of independence actually happening as virtually zero. There was a sense of inevitability that the SNP, misreading their defeat of Iain Gray as a ringing endorsement of their own policies, would plough a lone furrow. Some of the conversations that had begun to happen in the background were politically interesting but showed little sign of reaching the general public.

Having followed Yes and No activists, written about them and got to know some of them, the rising hope on the faces of the Yes side has been mirrored by a fear on the No side that everything could unravel. Nowhere was this clearer than when I ran into a wet and single-minded Jim Murphy on the harbour in Tarbert, surrounded by Labour aides and with no apparent public interest.

Whereas the Yes campaign, if not the SNP, has been able to galvanise support and activists, the No campaign has ended up going no further than where the Yes side were two years ago at Cineworld in Fountainbridge. Back then some retrograde patriotism and some minor celebrities made the Yes campaign look like an overeager and under-thought Visit Scotland ad, with Colin Fox drafted in as a fig leaf for the SNP’s centrist economics.

In the same way that the expansion of Yes has diluted the presence of some of the diehard nationalists in the SNP, the No campaign has inadvertently fuelled Scotland’s latent unionism. The Orange Order’s decision to march in Edinburgh in the days running up to the vote and the rhetoric of British or foreign produced by senior campaign members has served to isolate a great many people. I recently interviewed one English resident of Edinburgh who said they could not bring themselves to vote No, even though they were undecided as to whether they would vote yes.

The No side are unfortunate that the campaign has coincided with a fragmenting of British politics generally. Old loyalties are fading with both UKIP on the populist right and the Greens on the middle-class Left sucking up votes. Although they have huge financial resources, both Labour and the Conservatives are engaged in an electoral fight for survival to come anywhere near the dominance both crave. What chance the Liberal Democrats might have had to articulate a robust and egalitarian British federalism seems to have vanished, and given a choice between Holyrood and Westminster people are beginning to show a distinct preference.

Inside the No campaign it is just a question of hanging on till polling day and hoping the Yes side do not arrive within the one per cent margin of error. If they do, and they may well do, then there’ll be an autumn storm over Edinburgh that could wash over Scotland and leave it changed forever.

Some thoughts on nationalism and the messages of No

Maybe blogging less is a symptom of tweeting more. I don’t know. But I wrote a few things on “popular microblogging site twitter dot com” yesterday evening and was very kindly encouraged to gather them together here. So (displayed slightly oddly), here it is.

 

So, what’s the big idea?

A guest post today from about the principle of democracy from Duncan Thorp, who has previously blogged for us about social enterprise. Thanks Duncan!

Screen Shot 2014-07-14 at 13.10.22It’s kind of reassuring that regardless of the referendum outcome, a debate has opened up about the kind of Scotland we want. While visions differ greatly, it’s good that we’re moving slightly beyond just two stark and opposing factions, something I believe most people want to happen.

Though this “new Scotland” thinking is generally by pro-independence campaigners, there’s still a bit of debate on the pro-union side too. Common Weal, the various political parties, Radical Independence Campaign, commentators like Henry McLeish, Better Together, Nordic Horizons, think tanks like Reform Scotland – all are talking about the kind of Scotland we want. How much of this influences people and is talked about in homes, pubs and workplaces is of course another question.

But in terms of the progressive side, how much of this thinking is new or original? How much still relies on the old debates of public vs private, state spending vs the market, workers vs owners etc? Though the old ideologies have clearly failed, the “smash the state” mentality as a solution perhaps still dominates.

But it shouldn’t be about who controls or does things with the state – it’s about who makes all of the decisions everywhere. We certainly need community and we definitely need society – but these are not synonymous with the state. Statism doesn’t work. Using the state so it’s in the “correct” hands is the actual problem, in fact it often results in human tragedies.

But if not the old ideologies, what exactly is the so-called big idea? The big idea is democracy. Practical examples include empowerment through the local community ownership of land, buildings and other assets, community and social enterprise and the practise of authentic localism and autonomy.

This is about street-level democracy, neighbourhood welfare and a welfare society, human rights for all, comprehensive ethical choices by consumers, employee-owned businesses as standard, community-owned renewable energy and local food independence. Doing things for ourselves. All this can be driven forward by equal access for all to advanced, eco-aware technologies. A constant, systematic spreading of this democracy can replace narrow nationalism and other false identity politics on all sides.

But who will lead and implement this democracy in the real world and how? A political leader? A campaign group? An agency? A special vanguard? A government? None of the above. There’s no mythical Revolution Day or future salvation, it’s much more subtle and current than that. It’s simply the role of everyone, acting right here and now as individuals, in our daily lives and together as people.

In effect “the big idea” must be to change who actually decides on all the big ideas. Scottish independence is hardly radical, perhaps it’s just a logical democratic step. But perhaps there are other paths too, like radical autonomy for Fife, Glasgow or Orkney. Extending democracy should be the measure for every policy decision.

In any case, leaving it up to so-called decision-makers and policy-makers is a dead end, it’s the responsibility of all of us. It’s not complicated or some unrelenting battle against the state: the big idea is simply the building of freedom and democracy in every area of life.

Our Islands Our Future

Thanks to Neil Gray for today’s guest post. Neil is an Orcadian, who for the last six years has worked in the Scottish Parliament for Alex Neil MSP. He is also active in the Yes campaign in West Lothian.

Orkney in the gloamingRegardless of the referendum result, Orkney, Shetland and the Western Isles have guaranteed themselves greater recognition at a government level than ever before, thanks to the Our Islands Our Future campaign.

Last June the three island authorities saw an opportunity within the independence referendum conversation and formed a joint task force to lobby the Scottish and UK governments for enhanced decision making which would enrich island life. This week, with the publication of the Scottish Government’s proposals, that campaign won the proverbial watch with the promise of all Crown Estate revenues being returned to the isles should Scotland vote Yes in September.

That is the big prize for the isles in the 82-page Empowering Scotland’s Island Communities, but there are other proposals that will happen regardless of the referendum result.

However, clearly it is the Crown Estate pledge which is the most significant proposal for three very important reasons; the economy, the environment and for the politics of the referendum.

The Crown Estate controls the seabed out to 12 nautical miles as well as having significant land holdings and raises revenues from aquaculture, harbours, fishing and leasing the seabed for energy projects. It is notoriously difficult to extract figures from the organisation, but it is estimated that returning the aquaculture finance alone could be worth millions to the three local authorities. Regaining 100% control of that level of finance is a potentially massive windfall for the respective island economies given their growing renewables capacity. It will give Orkney and Shetland in particular an income stream bonus to allow them to plan and invest for life after oil. We have already seen some communities take stakes in renewables projects as a form of investment, with the returns being spent on community resources. Devolving the Crown Estate revenues will free up more capital for communities to invest in projects which can accrue further growth and provide greater scope for higher spending on public services. This will see our natural resources really work for the people. In remote and rural areas, where the delivery of public services can be a costly challenge, this could breathe new life into communities that heavily depend on them.

Providing cheaper, faster and more frequent transport and communications links would be obvious places to start. The Island Councils could also use the guaranteed revenue streams from the aquaculture and other developments already in place to do the UK government’s job for them and lay the much needed subsea grid interconnector.

By controlling the revenues from the seabed and Crown lands, the island communities will have an even greater vested interest in seeing the renewables sector boom. This draws obvious benefits, not just for our island groups, but for the whole of Scotland, as we strive to achieve our ambitious and world leading climate change targets. The Northern and Western Isles have massive potential for wind, wave and tidal power and we all have an interest in that taking off. With the European Marine Energy Centre based in Orkney giant strides are already being made into the commercialisation of marine renewables. The added impetus of controlling our own destiny and directing our resources for our own benefit, could be a game changing moment for this fledgling industry.

It is little wonder then that the Scottish Government’s proposals have been warmly welcomed by Cllrs Heddle, Robinson and Campbell, who have led the Our Islands Our Future campaign. Politically this could also be very significant in the referendum campaign. The reactions of the three constituency representatives for the Northern Isles – Liberal Democrats Liam McArthur, Tavish Scott and Scottish Secretary Alistair Carmichael – hint that they may have been outflanked and that the Crown Estate proposals will not be matched by the UK government. This is hugely significant as the Liberal Democrats have talked about the iniquity of the Crown Estate for time immemorial, but have allowed an SNP government to finally promise what their constituents have long desired. The line from the Liberals that this was a “referendum bribe” by the Scottish Government has not resonated, with one influential and politically unaligned Orcadian telling me it was not just weak, but “terrible” and that the last few days have been a “tour de force” for the First Minister as he “sliced the ground from under the unionist camp”. As a Yesser this is obviously welcome news to me, but these proposals were drawn together because devolving these powers is the right thing to do – by our islands and by Scotland.

It will be interesting to see what the UK government, which is due to publish its proposals soon, promises to deliver for our island communities if there is a No vote. What we do know is that the islanders have already embraced what this referendum campaign is about and started to look at what they want to see their communities looking like in the future. They already know that the Scottish Government will give them a far greater say even with a No vote. And while some islanders may not quite be ready to return a Yes majority, there is already a sense that decisions about their communities are best made by the people who live there. The decision islanders have on the 18th September is whether they can match the ambition the Scottish Government has for them, or whether after coming this far they retreat back from greater local decision making.

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Some different ideas to go with your referendum: Scotland 44

scotland44-page001Better Nation does not have a publishing arm, and despite ideas of a Better Nation film being mooted over some drinks last year the realities of living a normal life bit. I have not however, been sitting idly on my hands for the past eighteen months, instead putting most of my effort into the Post Collective publishing project.

The Post Collective was set up last year to provide a forum for progressive green journalism in Scotland. Made up of a merry collection of academics, sometime journalists, economists and science professionals  the project regularly writes about contemporary Scotland, science, culture, politics and democracy on postmag.org. Post also publishes printed books and magazines, and though we do not have any clear view on the referendum itself as a group, we decided to try and make a collective contribution. The result is a forthcoming book about the future: Scotland 44.

Scotland 44 is not designed to argue for independence, instead it sets out a number of different possibilities for Scotland’s next thirty years that would improve the lives of Scottish people in areas from how we build our cities to how we fund the arts, manage information and privacy and generate energy. Arguing for independence as an end in itself will not do much to change Scotland without the will or ideas to significantly restructure the way the country works, and a no vote is no excuse for political stasis from either side.

That said, independence would seem to be the most opportune moment to rip it all up and start again, including an areas the independence debate is yet to touch on. One of Scotland 44’s writers, the urbanist Stacey Hunter of Edinburgh University, will for example be writing about an area the Scottish Government already has full control of. Could independence mean an end to the SNP’s love of suburban estates and motorways over communities and sustainable transport?

And how can power be taken from the Scottish Parliament and given back to people? What would decentralisation mean for democracy and the economy? How do you come up with an arts policy for a nation as diverse as Scotland? Who gets to be Scottish, and what will Scotland in 2044 mean compared with the Scotland of 2014 and 1984? If you could put science and education at the centre of society, how would it work? What does citizenship mean in post-2014 Scotland?

These bigger questions transcend a decision between Yes and No and demand answers from ourselves as much as they do politicians. If you want to pre order a copy of Scotland 44 or find out about and contribute to the ongoing work of the Post project you can do so here.