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Scottish Labour and the supposed self-evident truths of separation

We’re pleased to have a guest post today from dearly-missed erstwhile Better Nation editor and former Labour staffer Kirsty Connell. Thanks Kirsty! Come back to Scotland any time!

KirstyIt’s painful, not to be surrounded by others like yourself. Where you can repeat back to each other what you think, or are meant to think, and be reassured that others think the same.

During my time as a Labour Party member (which I am no longer) I heard from others and repeated back five core mantras as my reasons for opposing independence.

With the benefit of now being a member of no party, I have spent the last wee while having to think for myself. Likewise, I’ve not been living in Scotland, granting me distance and perspective from what I used to do and used to think.

Please don’t read the following seeking profundity, or innovation. You will have heard every line, probably many times, before. But like all oft-repeated things, these mantras are nothing but canards. Clung to. Repeated. Until they are instilled with the appearance of self-evident truth.

I’m not sure I’ve found the truth, whatever that may be, but at least I think I’ve identified the false. And if you want to tell me why I’m wrong, go ahead – at least I’ll take it as evidence you too have thought these things through. Haven’t you?

1. A vote for independence is just a vote for the SNP.

If you’re a Scottish Labour activist, the SNP are the opposition. Your reasoning goes something like this: SNP are bad. SNP want independence. Whatever the SNP want must be bad. Independence is bad. Hence, voting for independence is like voting for the SNP, and both are bad. Capiche?

Voting for, or against, Scottish independence is a decision stemming from, well, everything. What we want Scotland to be, how we want to act, what we want to do. There are considered and thoughtful arguments for and against both sides, whether Scotland is independent or part of the United Kingdom.

What a vote for independence it is not, is a vote for party politics. It doesn’t always, but it ought to transcend that. To relegate it to just choosing sides isn’t good enough.

And, if I can be really cheeky, a vote for independence is a vote to probably get rid of the SNP – how’s that for defeating your enemies!

2. Independence is a policy panacea.

“It’s the SNP’s answer for everything. Independence. We can’t do that unless we have independence. Once we have independence Scotland will be a land of milk and honey, ahem, oil and whisky…”

Oh, I’m sorry Labour, but the SNP’s competent record in government since 2007 rather puts paid to that one. Even the valid criticisms of significant policy reform – the police force, further education – still makes these not mere bagatelles popped out to make it look like the SNP have been busy. A solid opposition to Westminster cuts. A stable ministerial team with only a few hiccups along the way. In fact, I wish I could say the same for Labour’s leadership and direction since it lost power.

And of course, the SNP government in Holyrood could do more. But at least there’s a 670 page proposal for Scotland’s future under independence. Any chance you might want to let us know what life might be like under a continuing union?

3. We have as much in common with working people in Manchester as in Scotland.

Yes we do. During my twenties my friends moved from Scotland to Manchester and Leeds and Newcastle and it didn’t feel like they’d gone to a foreign country. And I have friends in Dublin and Toulouse and Stockholm and I don’t feel like they live in an exotic and faraway locale either. (And, no offence to the Greens who blog here, sometimes its a lot easier and cheaper to fly to them than to get a train halfway up the country.)

This is in contrast to all of us that moved to London (myself included), and haven’t been or thought much beyond the boundaries of the M25 since.

Solidarity doesn’t stop at the border, whether it’s old or new. It’s not good enough to not vote for independence out of a sense of obligation to (and a decent number of Labour MPs for) comrades in England. But it’s just not true to say without Scotland, England will be cast into a fiery pit, ruled by Tories and their City cronies forevermore. Labour would have won without Scotland in 1997, 2001 and 2005. There are people working hard in these green and pleasant lands for a better and more socially just England, whether that’s electing a Green MP or opposing Coalition cuts. Like an activist friend said to me: “I want Scotland to be independent. I just want you to take me with you.

4. A Labour government in Westminster working with Holyrood will deliver more for Scotland.

Debatable. My experience of working in Holyrood for Labour was that Westminster was really rather cross with us most of the time, whether about extraordinary rendition or Forth Bridge tolls. It still seems a bit frosty. And I’m not sure I favour the chances of a Labour Government being formed in 2015.

5. I didn’t get involved in politics to defend the union.

Actually, this one’s true. I didn’t. And so I won’t.

Ayes to the Right

njFew people remember Nick Johnston‘s career as a Tory MSP, which ended more than twelve years ago. But his decision to come out for a Yes vote today is still telling, not because he’s personally significant but because it demonstrates that the desire for Scotland to do better with self-governance does indeed span the conventional left-right spectrum, just as the No campaign does.

To be fair, though, his arguments aren’t exactly outside the independence-minded mainstream. Anyone from the Radical Independence Convention or the SNP or the Greens could have said that “while problems and opportunities with particular resonance in Scotland can go by the board at Westminster, it’s just not possible for that to happen in a Scottish Parliament“, or noted that “inequalities inherent in British society fester even more strongly in Scotland, leading to despair and often apathy“. Wanting a “a more dynamic economy, or measures to tackle poverty” is hardly bloodthirsty Thatcherism.

The fact is that any ambitious young centre-right politicos should be seeing the opportunity Johnston sees. It’s impossible to see a strong future for the Tories under devolution, particularly given the current positions adopted by the SNP. A party that combines a degree of social liberalism and protection for public services from privatisation with a centre-right position on tax and spend will always hoover up their votes, especially if that’s a credible alternative Scottish government to Labour.

An independent Scotland will almost certainly keep voting to the left of the rUK, on average, despite the polls showing a smaller gap than many think, but independence will open up space for everyone to get out from under Westminster’s stifling influence and for our politics to be reshaped.

The Fergus Ewing wing of the SNP and the Johnston end of the Tory party aren’t that far apart (and independence would force the Tories to cut their ties to London and adopt the Murdo Fraser plan: Murdo coincidentally succeeded Johnston), the SSP might stage a comeback, Labour might rediscover an interest in something other than the constitution, and Greens, well, I think we’re already winning mindshare from SNP supporters and others on the left who want something more radical than NATO, the Queen and the pound. And the SNP itself: some of its activists and MSPs would go home – job done – but the rest would find other things to work on, new alliances to make based on issues other than the constitution. I can’t wait to see it unfold.

Disorganised, hypocritical and pointless: Labour MPs

Labour brought a vote yesterday at Westminster on the bedroom tax, calling for its abolition. Great: let’s end this stain on British politics, this attack on the poorest and the most vulnerable, yet another personal cut especially targeted at people with disabilities.

On the night only two Lib Dems dared to back Labour – Tim Farron, their next leader, desperate to find the right amount of distance from his own party, plus Andrew George. But with some abstentions, the coalition only secured 252 votes for the bedroom tax. With 257 Labour MPs in the Commons, plus the backing in this case of the SNP, Plaid, Greens and more, this should have been a historic victory over a key bit of Coalition savagery.

Unfortunately Labour didn’t turn up. That would have been sufficient. Simply to turn up. Not even all of them, necessarily, although if the poor and vulnerable matter to them, this might take precedence over, well, anything else they might be doing (pairing would have been fine). But no, there were sufficient Labour absentees to save the Tories’ and Lib Dems’ skins.

Yesterday Labour were criticising IDS for not turning up to the vote. Oh, the irony. Oh, the hypocrisy. What, seriously, is the point of an opposition that works like this?

But it gets worse. For some reason I get Labour spam, and I received this shameless email from Rachel Reeves this morning. If she signed this dishonest missive off herself she doesn’t belong in politics.

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Update: the full list of those voting is here (h/t). If it turns out I’m wrong and it’s all pairing, I’ll take some of it back. But I wouldn’t have let the Coalition pair on this, on reflection.

My Journey from Red to Green

Thanks so much to Pauline for today’s epic guest post, which we will let speak for itself. 

PaulineMy name is Pauline Ward. I used to be a fervent Labour Party activist, and for just over two years I was a Labour Party employee, as a full-time researcher in the Scottish Parliament (2007-2010). This is the story of the political journey I made to Green politics and to the cause of Scottish independence.

A couple of years ago, while I was working for a charity, I started studying economics and sociology and history with the Open University (I was a scientist originally). It opened my eyes in many ways, at a time when I was enjoying the intellectual freedom of no longer being a Labour employee. It made me think about what a nation is. I learned about the way the nation states we find in Europe today were mostly born in the nineteenth century, as the manifestation of the shifting allegiances of ordinary people who had rejected the old royal rulers and ties of religion. The borders of the new nation states crystallised around the nations which people felt willing to defend with their lives. And this made me realise how I felt about the idea of Scotland having full fiscal autonomy: basically, that would not be enough for me, because I wanted the people of Scotland and the leaders they alone elected to have the final say on when and whether Scottish service men and women would be sent to fight in any war.

I had been opposed to the Iraq war. In fact, I’d actually exiled myself from the Labour Party for two years in protest over it, something which was very hard for me, given the party was like a second family to me. And at the time I did not see Iraq as a UK war imposed on Scotland – indeed, the polls told a different story. Rather, it was a war predicated on paper-thin excuses, driven through in spite of vehement opposition right across the UK, and at great political cost to Tony Blair and Labour as it turned out. But looking back now, I see that the parties elected in Scotland were more opposed to the war than those in the rest of the UK. And if Scotland had already been independent, whichever party was in power, I believe we would have sat that one out, because I don’t think our parties had an appetite for it.

And then in January 2012 Johann Lamont, my former colleague, a very intelligent woman, a nice person, newly-elected as leader of the Labour Party in Scotland, started calling publicly  for the referendum to be held early. Get it over and done with. I was disappointed. I had voted for Johann to be leader because I knew she would put the emphasis that I wanted on economic equality for people living in poverty and for women. But I had also felt reassured by the noises she’d made in the media about the independence debate during the leadership campaign: she had promised to be accepting and respectful of the decision if the Scottish people wanted independence. Johann had sounded like she understood that the SNP had a point. So I wasn’t expecting what seemed like a point-scoring exercise: it just seemed to me that she was calling for an early vote because of the polls showing a likely No vote, and because she wanted to rub the SNP’s noses in it; this didn’t feel like a more respectful, accepting debate. And I started to feel very uncomfortable about the idea of continuing to pay membership dues into this Labour Party that was going to spend the next two years primarily arguing bloody-mindedly against something I believed in. Johann had been in that Parliament at lot longer than me, listening to the nationalists quite often winning the argument: if Scotland was independent, we could make our own decisions about all sorts of things; we had more than enough resources to maintain levels of public services and so on. The sky would not fall in.

In my two years working in the Parliament, I didn’t think too much about the independence question. My job was to support the Labour MSPs, on behalf of the taxpayer, to help them put forward the priorities they’d been elected to put forward. Which primarily meant social justice, and by that I mean combatting poverty and its pernicious effects. They were decent people, just human beings, these politicians – the 46 MSPs I worked for were genuinely there to try and make things better. But they were blinkered. I didn’t think too much about independence, and neither did they. When Labour For Indy appeared recently, I knew full well they would get no comfort from the MSPs because they are on automatic pilot as far as the constitution is concerned. They’ve painted themselves into an anti-SNP corner. I was instructed and trained in saying white whenever the SNP said black. And I think the Labour MSPs are a bit unrepresentative of the Party membership in that sense. If you were thinking about standing for Holyrood on a Labour rosette over the past couple of elections, you probably wouldn’t do it if you had strong doubts about the Union. So it’s a Unionist rump that remains in Holyrood. Maybe among Labour Councillors and other members we will hear more pro-independence voices as the referendum gets nearer. I hope so.

I think that in their hearts the vast majority of the supporters of social justice in Scotland want to vote for freedom from Tory rule. That is a crucially important argument for me. Scotland consistently votes for more left-wing parties and politicians than the rest of the UK. But we keep on getting Tory governments that we never voted for. It’s happened in 8 out of the 18 Westminster elections that have taken place since 1945.

The Union means that Scotland is ruled by Tories and LibDems right now. It means austerity. It means humiliating, badly-designed, badly-administered, downright cruel Work Capability Assessments for so many people with disabilities and diseases. It means the cruel Bedroom Tax forcing families out of their homes when there are no homes of the ‘correct’ size for them. It means our supermarkets and other businesses using Workfare to grind work out of our jobseekers unpaid-for, a brazen slap in the face of the minimum wage, a shameful contribution to cheaper grocery bills for the well-off. Every little helps. It means a real-terms cut to child benefit and families being fed out of food banks, and widespread in-work poverty.

Why can’t we have an economy that works for everybody? Why can’t we have a country where work pays? Where all companies are not just expected but required to pay their taxes. And this is where studying economics comes in. Because I learned that there’s no reason we can’t have these things. We can choose governments that will re-wire the economy to do these things. But UK Labour seem to have lost the belief in themselves to make radical change to benefit the people at the bottom. Why is that? I think it’s because they need votes in the wealthy South East of England to get into power in Westminster. They can’t afford to have a politics that’s fully focussed on the kind of widespread poverty we have in Scotland.

I’m from Clydebank (and on my mum’s side from a wee farm outside a petit village in France, and I grew up in Milngavie and Bearsden, and went to school in Maryhill). My grandfather and my great grandfather worked in the shipyards as engineers, back in the day when not all engineers had a degree. And when the German bombers came, in the Clydebank Blitz, our family was huddling together in the close, not knowing if they would make it through to see the next day, and not knowing whether their dad, my (great) grampa would be coming home from the yard ever again. I think successive Westminster governments abandoned people living in poverty in communities like Clydebank, and parts of Leith where I live now. The Union has not served them well.

So I joined the Green Party. Here is a party that’s willing to make those radical changes to the economy to bring a better quality of life for everybody. Here are people who’ve read The Spirit Level and like me were delighted to find in its pages the evidence for what we’d been working for all along. It turns out societies where there’s greater equality of economic opportunity (e.g. Japan and the Scandinavian countries, compared to the UK and USA) are better off economically as well as healthier and happier. Here are people who not only accept that climate change is real but accept some responsibility and are trying to do something effective to stop it. The Greens are willing to stand up to businesses when they need to, to force them to take responsibility for their impact on the environment, among other things, they accept that there are both advantages and disadvantages to Scottish independence, and they understand and respect that all members will make their own judgment about that. And I’ve never looked back. I’ve been a Scottish Green Party member for a year and a half now, and I’m very proud to be Green. I don’t think I’ll be tempted to go back, although I’ll always reserve the right to switch my vote on principle; I want politicians to earn it.

So, to round this off, I would say that learning a bit more about how our country works (both from my studies and from being inside the Parliament, seeing change happen) made me realise how plastic our world is. Our politics, our economy, our ideas of what fairness is, these are all subject to fundamental change. They’ve always been changing, and in our digital-age-democracy they can and do change quicker than ever, because each of us has so much more freedom and power to communicate and therefore to influence. And I’ve lost my fear of Scottish independence. My history taught me that one of the things that kept us in the UK for so long was the vast range of economic opportunities the Empire offered, both in trade and in work in the colonies. That no longer applies, thank goodness. And my history taught me that powerful elites always ran the UK and made the rules to suit themselves. And they haven’t given up power willingly, it’s had to be wrestled from them.

If you look around the world, you’ll see a great number of countries which used to be joined to the UK, as colonies or dominions. Not a single one of them is clamouring to get back in. Each of them is different, sure. But ask yourself when was the last time you heard anyone from Australia, or New Zealand, or the Republic of Ireland, or Jamaica, or Trinidad & Tobago or the USA or India, Pakistan or North or South Sudan, or Kenya wishing they could be part of the UK, wishing they could join us in a currency union, or asking David Cameron to command their armed forces.

What all this boils down to is that I think independence will give our children the best possible future. A future where there’s more dignity and respect for people in different circumstances and from different backgrounds, and where everybody feels they have a say, and a stake, and a chance to make the best life for themselves. That’s why I’m voting Yes.

A trampled bagpipe

Behold the greatest contrast offered by the Dunfermline by-election campaign: the aftermath of the moment when Zara Kitson’s Green campaign was interrupted by the 3rd Viscount Monckton, notorious climate change denier and UKIP’s top candidate for Mid Scotland and Fife in 2011. Personally I think it’s brave of him to campaign in Scotland having saidthe Scots are subsidy junkies whingeing like a trampled bagpipe as they wait for their next fix of English taxpayers’ money.” I also like the fact that Zara fobbed him off with a leaflet on the Greens’ vision for an independent Scotland. No wonder the furrowed brow, as he contemplates ideas he presumably can’t distinguish from full communism.