Wednesday 10 September 2014

Scotland's Vote 19: My family and the forces of evil

The polls are close, and we are eight days away from the vote. Inevitably, the campaign is becoming more heated.

A major theme of the Yes campaign is that the UK cannot be reformed. As an audience member asked in the second debate, "Why aren't we already better together?"

The argument is that the British state is controlled by the forces of evil, and they are just too strong to be worth fighting directly. Power is held by corporations, including the media and above all the banks of the City of London, seeking to maximize profits at the expense of ordinary citizens. UK politicians in all parties are smooth, bland products of public schools and Oxbridge, and they want to perpetuate the system, not fundamentally change it. The archaic structure of Parliament makes it too difficult to reform. Scotland has a one-time opportunity to use an escape hatch, and try to build something better.

I have a lot of sympathy with this point of view. The British state has failed its citizens in all sorts of ways. Change has proved difficult, and the Labour government of 1997-2010 was disappointing at best. If Tony Blair and Gordon Brown represent the absolute limits of improvement within the UK, why not declare independence? (I will have much more to say about this in future posts.)

A second theme is that No voters are stupid. Or perhaps they are evil, or treasonous. According to Alex Salmond, the referendum is not a disagreement between Scots, but a struggle between "Team Scotland" and "Team Westminster". Clearly he does not think No voters are on Team Scotland.

In a way, this follows logically from the first part. Surely someone must be foolish, wicked, or both to support the continuation of a state which is so obviously beyond redemption.

A little bit of my family history is relevant here.

My great-uncle Jim passed away last year at the age of 92. He was born and educated in Glasgow, played golf and the bagpipes, took salt on his porridge, and was intensely proud of Scotland. As a telecommunications worker, he was not required to enter military service in the Second World War; but he volunteered for two tours of duty as a pilot with the RAF. He was firmly opposed to Scottish nationalism in all its forms.

Jim was not stupid, and he was not evil. He volunteered to risk his life, to defend the UK and the wider world from fascism. After the war, he completed an engineering degree at Glasgow University. All his life, he worked hard to leave the world better than he found it, for me and others who would live on after him. Disagree with his point of view if you wish, but while you are at it, show some respect.

Jim is gone, but there are many people like him still around. Other No voters are doctors, nurses, teachers, or firefighters. They do as much as anyone to make a better tomorrow in Scotland, and probably more than the average political blogger. They are citizens with a stake in the future of Scotland, and they too deserve respect.

Those who believe the UK is unreformable should take a good look at its recent history. Before and during Jim's lifetime, the UK has changed beyond all recognition.

Let's go back to 1909, eleven years before Jim's birth and 105 years before the present. It was a long time ago, but a handful of people born then are still alive.

In 1909, women couldn't vote. The House of Lords was controlled by the landed aristocracy, and regularly vetoed laws passed by the Commons. This was the year that David Lloyd George, as Chancellor of the Exchequer, successfully fought to introduce the first national pensions and unemployment insurance. It is hard to argue that today's forces of conservatism are more powerful than their equivalents in 1909.

When Jim was born in 1920, women under the age of 30 still couldn't vote, the NHS did not exist and a Scottish Parliament was the dream of a few eccentrics and radicals. Homosexuality was outlawed. The UK ruled a vast colonial empire in India, Africa and elsewhere, and ruthlessly exploited it for profit. 94 years later, all of that has changed. It wasn't easy, there were tough battles and many setbacks along the way, but it changed.

That is the timescale to consider: Not only a few years or even a few decades, but change over the course of a lifetime. The referendum is a decision on breaking up a union which is 307 years old, and if Scotland votes Yes, there is no going back. 

Building a better tomorrow requires determination and hard work. This will be true in Scotland whether it leaves the UK or not. Setting up a newly independent country is not easy, cheap or free of risk, no matter what the SNP might say. Furthermore, the mere fact of having a new government would not deliver justice and prosperity for all; those are huge challenges in their own right.

There is nothing stupid or evil about looking at the UK, acknowledging its faults, and deciding to stay put and try to make it better.


  1. I just think those canny Scots have figured out a sure fire way to get out of the EU.

  2. The SNP are very clear that they want an independent Scotland to be in the EU, and the EU will probably agree to it (even if the transition won't be as quick or smooth as the SNP likes to claim). Meanwhile the UK Conservatives have promised an in/out referendum on EU membership if they win a majority in the 2015 election. So it's more likely an independent Scotland would be in the EU and rest-of-UK would leave than the other way around.

    1. Just to be clear, I don't think an EU exit is very likely even if the Conservatives do get their referendum -- big business would be solidly against it.