As we race into 2013 a pause to reflect on years gone by and the significance of 2012 seems appropriate; especially since it was during this year that the foundations were set in stone for one of the most incredible democratic transformations in modern times.
I first became politically aware in the early ‘90s – increasingly aware of my dad’s SNP membership and his case for Scottish independence. For as long as I can remember he has been able to articulate a reasoned case for Scottish independence that focused on social and economic development. My parents have never been ones for limiting the independent minds of my brother and I though, and I can also remember helping my best friend’s dad deliver leaflets in the run up to Council elections as he stood (and got elected) as a Lib Dem councillor (back in the days when they were a party of sound principle). I was free to discover my own world of politics.
At that time there was no Scottish Parliament, we had 40-50 Scottish Labour MPs sitting opposite a Tory Minister for Scotland with a 10-20 Tory MPs making noises behind him (as is standard practice for parliamentarians). I watched it when I could and it was a pitiful democracy – change was clearly needed! However, any potential for change was controlled by the ruling class (MPs + media) and their tactic at that time was to shut down the debate. The standard technique was to portray anyone associated with the Scottish Independence Movement (primarily led then by the SNP) as a ‘narrow nationalist’ and come out with some bizarre dismissive claims that Scotland ‘couldn’t go it alone’.
The claim of ‘narrow nationalist’ immediately made me take note; this most certainly didn’t apply to my parents whose shared love for global culture and humanity led to an informative and very enjoyable childhood (and we now collectively share these passions together). My parents were no exception either: the common case that I heard from politicians and activists for Scottish independence was one of democratic representation, a more efficient link between the state and business and also pro-European. So the fact that senior politicians gave prominence to the cry of ‘narrow nationalist’ was an early alarm bell for me – an ulterior agenda seemed the most likely scenario. This then leads onto the claim that Scotland ‘couldn’t go it alone’ which was fervent during the ‘90s (and I believe the decades before). I occasionally still meet people who claim that Scotland is ‘too wee, too poor and too stupid’ but frankly I find that there is little cause for engaging in debate with such a distorted viewpoint. This ludicrous viewpoint claims that the Scots are incapable of managing their own affairs. This is a claim which is absurdly insulting and thankfully it doesn’t get a voice from the mainstream ruling class of today, but the lack of effort to set the record straight on that point demonstrates that the UK campaigners still rely on the fact that the decades of messaging has left an imprint on many a mind.
A couple of notable positive steps forward did occur when the Labour Party came to power in 1997: along with the introduction of the minimum wage (albeit clearly too low), a major positive development was providing a referendum which gave the Scottish electorate the chance to vote for a Scottish Parliament. I’m not sure if anyone quite realised the implication of this but suddenly the Scottish people became aware of the fact that they had a different public sector structure from the rest of the UK – Scottish education and the legal system remained independent after the Act of Union 1707 (with each having centuries of history before that), and NHS Scotland was independent at the point of the health services being established throughout the UK (1948).
So it is now clear for the Scottish people that the most visible of the public services are all being governed from within Scotland. However, the split of public services between Holyrood and Westminster as mentioned in this previous post ultimately seems to result in a disproportionate view of our politics. Ask most people who is in control of Scottish politics just now and they will most likely answer Alex Salmond, and given the general media attention that he gets this does seem like the logical call. However I’d argue that David Cameron and George Osborne are really pulling the strings since they control the budget that will be available for the Scottish parliament. So in a sense there has been a flip since the current Scottish Parliament was established in 1999 – before then the UK government dominated the news and Scottish political awareness, while the distinctly Scottish issues flew under the radar.
The impact of this has been more incredible than most imagined. There cannot be many cases in the democratic world with a ‘free press’ where a party has won its way into government despite none of the media publications or TV channels showing favour to the party. But in 2007, despite the front page of the 2 main tabloids running with apocalyptic headlines warning against the SNP – the electorate had (narrowly) made up its mind and the SNP minority government was established. The growth the of the Scottish independence movement and SNP were down to decades of hard work from people like my dad, who were keen to share their political outlook and a proposed alternative that could have significant positives associated with it.
This ‘national conversation’ as the SNP government coined it during their first term was in motion but with no referendum on the horizon there were still many people who paid no notice to the option of Scottish independence (http://www.scotland.gov.uk/Topics/constitution/a-national-conversation). After a relatively successful first 4 years in government, and the opposition parties feeling tied to the policies determined in London for a different political system which ultimately led to confused messaging for the 2011 election, the SNP were elected with the first majority government in the Scottish Parliament.
Finally, a referendum seemed inevitable and at the start of 2012 the UK Tory/Lib Dem government forced the issue of calling the Scottish government to announce the date of the referendum and they also came with their claim that they should own the process details (timeframe, wording etc). Things ultimately culminated in the Edinburgh Agreement between both Scottish and UK governments which gave primary control of the referendum to the Scottish parliament and also enshrined the outcome as legally binding (http://www.scotland.gov.uk/News/Releases/2012/10/referendum15102012). With that, the reality of a referendum in the autumn of 2014 was made a certainty and after a word of mouth process that had lasted for decades, Scotland will finally get its first chance to democratically vote on whether it should be independent or in the UK.
With many friends and colleagues knowing that I firmly believe that a Yes vote will bring positive change, I regularly find myself discussing the upcoming referendum. A key change that I’ve witnessed is that such discussions are increasingly instigated by people who had rarely discussed politics with me before. In a sense I was born into the constitutional debate but this wasn’t the case for most people; however I’ve still been surprised to find how many people have told me that up to now they had never looked at the option of Scottish independence before and that it is only now that they are starting to look into it. With that context I think the fact that the referendum is happening in 2014 is a good thing, allowing people sufficient time to review and reflect on the options.
The general feeling that I get is that the roughly 50% of the people who instinctively answer No to change would be willing to change their vote if they saw a compelling reason (whereas with people who answer Yes, there are very few who would change their mind at this stage). In that sense, I think the idea of the Yes Declaration* is a good idea to show that there is a valid case for independence and to thus encourage more of the potential floating voters to actively review the options.
So here is why I think 2012 was a great year for supporters of Scottish independence: now we have the chance to discuss the merits of Scottish independence with purpose – knowing that there will be a vote on this in the near future and knowing that this creates an opportunity to change the political landscape of the British Isles that should have a positive impact at home and abroad.
*The Yes Declaration:
“I believe it is fundamentally better for us all, if decisions about Scotland’s future are taken by the people who care most about Scotland, that is, by the people of Scotland.
“Being independent means Scotland’s future will be in Scotland’s hands.
“There is no doubt that Scotland has great potential. We are blessed with talent, resources and creativity. We have the opportunity to make our nation a better place to live, for this and future generations. We can build a greener, fairer and more prosperous society that is stronger and more successful than it is today.
“I want a Scotland that speaks with her own voice and makes her own unique contribution to the world: a Scotland that stands alongside the other nations on these isles, as an independent nation.”
Sign here: http://www.yesscotland.net/declaration