My slow journey to YES

without bloodshed

I remember the ’it’s Scotland’s oil’ campaign by the SNP in the 1970’s. At that time I was young, left wing, and saw this as an opportunistic bid of some narrow nationalists – I was an internationalist after all. Wasn’t nationalism some kind of poison? At the time, the campaign seriously misjudged the mood of the Scots, by appealing to them simply on a selfish economic level.

At the same time, I was an ardent supporter of devolution, as I saw that Scotland needed government in Scotland that would better be able to address the issues and opportunities unique to Scotland.

I also remember that bitter day in March 1979 when, despite a majority voting for devolution, Scotland was denied its democratic right to a devolved Scottish Parliament by Westminster chicanery. This being compounded two months later with the election of Thatcher, and her Orwellian speech on the steps of Downing Street quoting a paraphrase of the ‘Prayer of Saint Francis’:

“Where there is discord, may we bring harmony. Where there is error, may we bring truth. Where there is doubt, may we bring faith. And where there is despair, may we bring hope.”

She promptly went about doing the exact opposite. I’ll not go into the hugely negative impact that Thatcher and Thatcherism had on Scotland, this is beyond the scope of this short essay. However, this legacy has meant the almost total demise of the Tory party in Scotland in relation to Westminster elections, currently having only one solitary MP.

Footnote: Alec Douglas-Home urged Scots to vote ‘no’ to Labour’s proposal in 1979, with the promise that a Conservative government would offer a “better” bill. (Via https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Declaration_of_Perth). And we got Thatcher and Thatcherism. We were also subjected to eerily familiar scare stories by Unionists/British Nationalists urging us to reject a Scottish Parliament in both referenda.

Fast forward to the late 2000’s, and we have a Scottish Parliament. Created with a fair electoral system, a mix of first past the post and Proportional Representation, designed to ensure no one party would achieve an outright majority, but would have to share power. The kind of system Westminster would never countenance, but that’s another story…

So the SNP are elected as a minority government in 2007 – ‘Scottish’ Labour is beginning to loose its foothold (some might say stranglehold). And for the first time in my life I put an X next to an SNP candidate. In this case for the list seat. I voted Lib Dem for the main candidate as I was, like many others, totally disillusioned with ’New Labour’ and the enshrining of PR, ’spin’ and aggressive bullying at the very heart of government.

The SNP minority government handles itself with some maturity, even if I was not in agreement with some of their policies.

Moving forward to 2011, and the polls are predicting a labour majority. Labour run a very negative campaign, attacking the SNP and Salmond. At the same time, Salmond is taken aside by key aids and colleagues and challenged about his own negativity. The message of positive psychology has an impact and Salmond, an seasoned and wily campaigner, listens. Why attack Labour when you can paint a positive picture of a future Scotland? The SNP moves to the positive ground and begins articulating their positive vision for Scotland.

The polls are stacked against the SNP, and even eleven weeks before the vote, Labour are predicted to win with a 14% lead. Then comes the shock. A very late swing to the SNP gives them an OUTRIGHT majority! Remember the Scottish Parliament was designed to prevent an outright majority with a mix of ‘first past the post’ and ‘proportional representation’. Now the SNP had a majority and with a key plank of their manifesto a referendum on Independence for Scotland.

Both my votes this time go to the SNP. Fully disillusioned with Labour, although still voting for my Dundee Labour MP as it’s better than the alternative, and believing a tactical vote for any other party would have limited impact. On of the severe limitations of a first past the post system, the ’wasted’ vote that makes no difference.

If there had been a question on the ballot paper on independence I would have voted NO. I believed at that time in being part of the UK. I still had a residual prejudice against nationalism and nationalists. And, were we not better in the Union? Why would we not stay together for solidarity with our English, Welsh and Irish cousins. Why break up something that was working, and had worked so well for 300 years? And, if we were independent, would that not condemn the rest of the UK to perpetual Tory rule? At the same time, was Scotland not dependent on the UK? We needed them to prop us up, we had higher levels of public spending, and we got a generous grant from Westminster through the Barnett Formula which was to Scotland’s advantage. Also, the brightest and best went to London: from business men and women, ‘creatives’, media types and politicians. We didn’t have the talent or intelligence to run things ourselves.

Of course, this was not all consciously thought, but it was certainly part of my psyche as for many in Scotland. We too quickly believe what I have now discovered to be a lie – that we are ‘too wee too poor and too stupid’ to run our own affairs.

So, what changed my mind? What moved me from a convinced anti-independence NO to a YES? A mix of things. Listening to people with different views. Actively engaging in research on the issues from multiple sources. Talking to people, and exploring options. And reviewing all this with an open mind. The more I listened, spoke, debated, dialogued and researched, the more I moved away from NO…

My day job involves working with leaders in the context of the organisations they run. I’ll not bore you with the detail, but suffice to say that one of the issues I have researched in depth is decision making. And, I’m very aware of the fact, as Swift pointed out, that:

‘Human beings are not rational beings, but beings capable of rationality.’

Sara Sheridan, the author, in her ‘journey to yes’ speaks about our decision making processes mainly being made up what the psychologists call ‘retrospective accounting’. That is, we make a decision intuitively then look to justify it. There are a lot of other psychological theories that also contribute to this – conformation bias, hindsight bias, recency bias and so on… In a nutshell decisions we make in life are rarely rational, though we like to imagine they are.

I also teach masters in leadership and decision making. Some years ago there was some research done by a famous car manufacturer to see which ads were most successful in attracting potential buyers for their cars in the glossy magazines. What they found was that the people who most read the ads were people who had just bought the car! In other words, they were seeking to convince themselves they did the right thing.

So how to wade throughout he propaganda and spin? Nothing was neutral. Blogs and articles always had a bias, from both sides. This was not going to be easy, but I felt compelled to seriously consider this and not just vote with my current view – which may have been prejudiced, or influenced by other irrational forces.

Along with speaking to a wide range of people and asking questions, I also began going to a series of events in Ullapool called “Changin’ Scotland”. These events hosted by Jean Urquhart at the Ceilidh Place and organised by her and Gerry Hassan, the writer and commentator. There I met a range of diverse thinkers from all ’sides’, and had wide ranging conversations on important aspects of life in Scotland. No one tried to ‘convert’ me, of even ask me where I stood on independence. I did a lot of listening, asked a lot of questions and engaged in intensive dialogue. I learned a lot. I grew in respect for men and women who stood for nationalism and the SNP. For example, a friend of mine from way back, Fearghas MacFhionnlaigh the Gaelic poet from Inverness, whom I love dearly, but previously had always dismissed his politics (sorry Fearghas!).

I also read a lot, and began to see what was for me the quite shocking distortions from Westminster that I had swallowed… That Scotland was to weak, too poor to run its own affairs. That Scotland was a public sector junkie, and dependent on a generous ’grant’ from Westminster via the ’Barnett Formula’ all of which have proven to be untrue. I only believed this because such thoughts found fertile ground in my mindset of Scottish inferiority (I’m not alone in this mindset!). We have been the victims of the Tories, and particularly Thatcher. Drinking this toxic mix of inferiority and victimhood is a cocktail that results in an inability to take responsibility leading to ongoing disempowerment. But at least we can blame others for our woes!

I read Arguing for Independence by Stephen Maxwell. This is an important contribution, where Maxwell makes the case of why independence is important across all areas of life in Scotland: democratic, cultural, environmental, economic, defence, and international. However, the part of the book which had the most impact on me was the chapter on ways of arguing. Maxwell, without getting too philosophical, clearly identified to me the nature of so many of the fallacious arguments of the NO campaign. It is not a serious argument or debate, but simply a series of “straw men” that are put forward, and when the issue is addressed, lo and behold, another “straw man” appears. Take for example, “there are too many unanswered questions.” This could be true, what about X or Y? Then the Scottish Government produce the white paper “Scotland’s Future” – 670 pages of detail, including 650 questions and answers over 211 pages going into significant detail on a wide range of important questions. The response of “better together?” Alastair Darling, within a few hours of the launch, when he clearly had no time to read and consider the document, dismisses it out of hand saying it “hasn’t answered any of the big questions.”

Does the white paper have it’s weaknesses? Yes. Do I agree with all of it? No. But it is a very serious and comprehensive attempt to map out what an independent Scotland might look like. And I still see people saying (on Facebook for example) that “there are too many unanswered questions”. I think this is due to either their mindset being stuck as mine was, or they have accepted the line which has been promulgated by an (up until very recently) a Media overwhelmingly negative towards Independence.

The problem for the NO campaign is that they keep coming back to their straw men, as if they are living in some parallel Orwellian universe whereby repeating the same accusations, they somehow become true. Have you heard them? A series of soundbites on the Pound, Pensions, and the EU. The Pound and Pensions deliberately targeted to install fear and uncertainty. Now both these issues have been addressed to a reasonable degree with a number of responses. The response of ‘project fear’ is what? ‘Ah, but you can’t be CERTAIN.’ Or to raise another scare story. For me, its not only about the money, but humour me for a moment because having a sound economy is very important.

I also began reading widely on social media sites. I found Newsnet Scotland, Bella Caledonia and Business for Scotland very useful sources of information outwith generally pretty biased media. I also came across National Collective, “Artists and Creatives for Independence.” Behind this excellent website is a small team of volunteers, working on a shoestring with no financial backing (unlike the votenoborders attempt to clone NC but set up and funded by a London based Tory millionaire). And I got to know some of these great people who have since become friends. There are dozens of other sites and blogs – for example https://www.opendemocracy.net, https://www.betternation.org, www.gerryhassan.com, https://lallandspeatworrier.blogspot.co.uk.

The Business for Scotland group, which I have joined, has a wide range of articles on their website which gives the economic and business case for an independent Scotland. This group has people from all political parties and non party (like myself) and is only unified on their belief that an Scotland will prosper and business will thrive most if Scotland becomes independent.

So, I’ve had my eyes opened. The numbers are clear – even opponents of independence (like David Cameron) admit that Scotland could be a successful independent county. I’ve been impressed with the depth of thoughtful people who have decided to vote YES. I’ve been swayed by the wide range of people from diverse backgrounds and political leanings. I’ve appreciated the open minded conversations with positive people who have, like me, come to see the best way for Scotland to thrive is by voting YES.

At the same time, I’ve been increasingly disappointed by the negativity and scaremongering of the self titled “project fear”. They have singularly failed to come up with any positive message, or positive reason for Scotland to stay with the UK.

We have seen a recent backlash from Westminster, with an unprecedented alignment of Labour, Lib-Dem and Conservative all agreeing that ‘Scotland cant keep the Pound.’ A clearly orchestrated strategy to seek to derail the SNP, put them on the back foot, demand a ‘plan B’ and then attack the plan B. They underestimated Salmond however, and more importantly, the Scottish People. This plan has spectacularly backfired, swaying some undecideds to YES. Why the NO camp didn’t foresee that a Tory Chancellor flying into Edinburgh to lecture the Scots would not raise our hackles escapes me. The origin of Osborne’s ‘lecture’ had all the hallmarks of a PR exercise. I can imagine the ‘brainstorming’ session, the flip charts, the strategy. Fly in, ‘lecture’ release the civil servants letter of advice (another unprecedented move) to add braces to the belt of the argument. It’s not just the Tory Chancellor, not just the Lib Dem supporting act of Danny Alexander, but the heavyweight Ed Balls – labour shadow chancellor. And add to that, the senior civil servant speaks. Surely it must be true?

At the same time Osborne took a few token questions, then fled to his people carrier slamming the door on a hapless Bernard Ponsenby of STV asking ‘What about the costs to English businesses chancellor?’ Of course none of this is relevant in Osborne’s mind, as now he’s dealt the death blow to independence. He’s reframed the debate – that the vote on Sept 18th is now a vote to keep or loose the pound. Project Fear on steroids. That’ll teach them. They’ll vote no, so there will be no impact on English Business, or the rUK balance of payments from removing the Scottish Exports – seriously threatening the rUK economy and currency.

But this has backfired big time. Salmond has stated there is not just a plan B, but a plan C, D and E – and they are all in the Fiscal Report published by the Scottish Government. The writers included not just one but two Nobel prize laureates.

But why this tactic? The NO campaign has realised that the polls are getting close, and they are worried. At the very outset, they ruled out a second question on the ballot paper: yes-no and ‘devo-max’. This was the preferred option of the Scottish Government, but it was refused. Why? the assumption was that there would be a resounding NO and this would but Salmond and the SNP back in their box. What’s happening now? Despite the main UK parties complaining that a two year campaign for the independence referendum was excessive, they are all now scrambling to come up with their own plans of what they will do for/with Scotland if there is a NO vote. This smacks of hypocrisy and the worst of politics. The tide is shifting we need a different boat. Not born of principle or belief, but pragmatism. As a result, you can be assured that if the tide turns in another way, these ‘commitments’ can just as easily be abandoned.

Along with all the campaign heating up, I have been considering the trajectory of the British State. Something that has been obvious to others, I’m now seeing a lot more clearly. Steve Richards, The Independent’s chief political commentator, said at a ‘Cultures of Independence’ seminar in the Glasgow School of Art, that Scotland and England have been on a very different trajectory for some years. Exacerbated by the Tory-LibDem alliance coming to power. He argues that England (and Wales by default) are experiencing the most radical transformation of public services and public finance since the creation of the welfare state and the NHS. Driven by a neo-liberal ideology, we are seeing increasing privatisation and hollowing out of the public sector. And this is happening at an alarming pace.

Cameron criticised (rightly in my opinion) New Labour’s ‘meddling’ with the NHS and promised ‘no top down reorganisations.’ yet as soon as he was elected, he begins the process of privatising the NHS. And this will continue if they get re-elected as UK government as it seems likely. Richards said that public services will be unrecognisable within 5 years. The English NHS is fragmented and market driven. Compare to the Scottish NHS which, though it has it (significant) challenges, is taking a more integrative approach. Also education. Gove, when he was education secretary (and one of the most hated Tory politicians at the moment) took education to more testing and examinations. More top down manipulation of the curriculum. Privatisation of schools, undermining the quality of education by allowing ‘Free Schools’ to use non qualified teachers. Compare and contrast to the Curriculum for Excellence. Again, not without its problems, but a more integrated and systemic approach to educating the whole child.

Scotland is not ‘leaving’ England – ‘England’ has been drifting away from Scotland for some years.

At the same time, we are seeing a resurgence of nationalism, not Scottish, but British. The NO campaign statements often begin with ‘I’m a patriotic Scot but I’m also proud to be British’ or words to that effect. We get celebrations of the START of World War One – and the British Media and political classes wallowing in nostalgia about the greatness of ‘Great Britain.’ Are we witnessing the death throws of the British State?

And, we are seeing unprecedented interest in this debate. The levels of engagement on social media, the numbers of public meetings (both mostly energised by the YES campaign) has astonished commentators. This level of engagement has been unseen in the UK for 40 years or more. At a time we have Russell Brand calling for a ‘revolution’ of not voting (Brand has since come out in support for Scottish Independence) we have a groundswell of young people getting involved and active in the YES movement as Greens, part of the Radical Independence Movement, or the National Collective. These young people want to be involved in creating the kind of Scotland they believe in and want to live in.

Which brings me to my main reason for moving to YES. It’s not the numbers, although any open, unbiased and independent (sic) investigation would show Scotland has more than it takes to run its own economy. What makes for a successful country is the resourcefulness of the people. In Scotland, we have this in spades – and now we know it. Not only do we have fabulous natural resources, and a strong economy (greatest growth in the UK outside London), but we have the belief we can do it.

It’s not just the fact that an independent Scotland would be able to be rid of nuclear weapons, although that is very very important. It’s not just that an independent Scotland would be able to create an even healthier economy and enable our inherent entrepreneurial flair to be nurtured and unleashed, although that is important. It’s not just that we would be able to take our seat in the family of nations at the UN, and round the table at the EU, although our voice for maintaining peace rather than projecting power is very important. It’s not just that Scotland who has an estimated 25% of Europe’s tidal potential and 10% of its wave potential and 25% of offshore wind resources, as well as world leading ambitious climate change targets seeking to be a role model in climate change globally – important though that is.

No, its because I believe Scotland is ready to take responsibility for its own destiny. And we have a once in a lifetime opportunity to create a modern social democracy. Westminster has show itself pretty impervious to reform. The power elites in Westminster and London have too much too lose. I want us to seize our opportunity. To begin to create the kind of country that is considerate of the weak and vulnerable, and at the same time releases our entrepreneurial flair. Facing tough challenges by taking responsible decisions based on the most important priorities for our democracy.

In short, the kind of country I want my children, and my grandchildren if I’m blessed with them, to flourish in.

without bloodshed

The key point of my move to YES was articulated when I took up the challenge to enter a competition run by Creative Stirling and the National Collective. A 140 character tweet about Scotland beyond the referendum. My tweet was among those chosen to be screen printed and exhibited. The discipline of having to write concisely and nail my colour to the mast was cathartic for me. And I’m proud of my winning entry.

without bloodshed or revolution
can we navigate the fraught narrows of independence
to enter the ocean of possibility

Will YES be the answer to all our problems? No. Will being independent be a panacea? By no means. We will have significant challenges to navigate. But we will be at the helm. We have the opportunity to reinvigorate democracy in Scotland, both at a national level and at a local level.

One of the amazing things about this campaign is that it has become a movement. I’ve never experienced anything like it in my lifetime. We have so many young people actively involved in politics. They are engaging and agitating for what they believe and want to see in Scotland. And this energy is what gives me hope. That we will not just be changing the grey suits that run our country. But we are creating something new and different. I believe that if we get a YES on September the 18th, that this marks the beginning of the real work. The next Scottish election will likely see a wider rainbow coalition as it will be unlikely the SNP will again have an outright majority. Some of this depends what spins out of new political groupings like the Radical Independence Movement, and how the newly engaged young people position themselves politically. Do they join the greens or some other party? Will Scottish Labour manage to come through the trauma and rebuild itself as a truly Scottish party independent (sic) of London party HQ? I even think that we will see a resurgence of conservatism (with a small ‘c’) in Scotland, freed from British Nationalism and the legacy of Thatcher.

Gray said that ‘we should work as if we live in the early days of a better nation.’ I believe, with the YES movement, we are already seeing this in action. I urge you to vote YES with me so we can continue this task. And together we can build a fairer, more democratic and just society. A society that cares for the vulnerable and gives it’s young people the best possible start in life. A country that nurtures entrepreneurial talent and inventive flair to build a strong and sustainable economy for the twenty first century.

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