Thursday 22 May 2014


This might be a little out of place here but it's quite important so I'm going for it anyway. I've had a few conversations with people recently who were either surprised or interested to hear that I'll be voting Yes for Scottish independence this year and wondered what my reasons were. In fact, I think it’s important enough that I’ve started wearing a “Yes” badge and have lent some assistance to the Yes group here in Stirling (one of the benefits of the move back north is that I can get involved properly). I’m going to have a go at setting out my main reasons, and hopefully a few of you will agree with me and decide to vote yes yourselves! Of course, if you'd like to talk about it then fire away. I should also be clear that this is from me (Sandy) - Jay is very much a floating voter and still thinking carefully about it.

Everyone who's for “yes” will have their own reasons but for me they are fairly simple. They boil down to it being the only realistic way of making the country the kind of place I'd like my daughters to grow up in, and Jay and me to grow old in. I think that the people living in Scotland taking control of their own destiny will help us realise our huge potential, protect vital public services, and give us a chance to get a modern parliament that’s fit for the purpose of running a better country. It’s not going to result in some kind of utopia, there will likely be some difficulty along the way, but ultimately I think it will be worth it in the long term. Think of it like moving out of your parents’ house: it often seems like a big scary step, and it’s usually hard at first, but it’s worth it in the long run for everyone.

Before we begin, as a Christian I think that it's important ask where God fits in to this. He is interested of course, because He loves us and is fascinated with what we do. In this debate, I think He's more concerned that we're putting Him first and making sure that we love others, both in making the decision and in the resulting setup we have afterwards. I recently read this which argues that mission might be easier with independence, and the church might change positively: particularly if we end up with a written constitution that can protect freedom of religious expression and end the creeping growth in laws that make it hard to share what we believe. I think that proper separation of church and state would also do both a lot of good. Of course there are arguments the other way, and there are certainly Christians on both sides of the debate. Above all, it's crucial to pray before making a decision, and consider the more worldly arguments with God's wisdom to help make sense of it all.
Who likes my awesome yellow
leafleting bag? Surely someone?
No? Oh well.

A little more detail on my thoughts follows. I start with the two big arguments I see in favour of "yes", then share some thoughts on arguments for "no", and finish with a load of links to more sources of information that may be of use. In various places I’ve included links to more detailed discussions on the different issues in case you’d like to take a look yourself. It’s been pointed out to me that I’ve slipped into impersonal academic mode for chunks of it as that’s the way I write when I’m making an argument: I guess that might be interesting for people who want to see that side of me without reading about Markov networks :) Sorry it’s quite so long but there’s a lot that needs to be said...

Public services.

I want to live in the kind of country where my children can get good healthcare whenever they need it, not simply what we can afford, by having a publicly owned NHS. Working in a university, I’d like there to be no tuition fees, so the students that I teach can come from any background, and if my children want to try for a degree they won’t be crippled with debt. Where the post gets delivered even if you live in the middle of nowhere because the Royal Mail is public-owned, not a profit-driven company.

I’d like the country I live in to be one where people unable to work because of ill-health are treated with dignity - where we value human life more than the small amount of money it takes to survive. Many of you will know that for a time Jay’s ill-health meant we had to live on benefits - it was hard then but it’s getting considerably harder, making vulnerable people feel even worse. It feels like honest people are being made scapegoats for the economic mess, when it is really the fault of gamblers in the stock market in London.

I’d also like our country to be more equal, where everyone’s children have a fair chance of fulfilling their potential. Currently, the UK, while quite rich overall, is one of the most unequal in Europe (also), with the obscenity of having areas with a life expectancy of 54 and people needing to rely on food banks. It shouldn’t need to be like that!

Many of the above things we either have already in Scotland, or the parties in power at Holyrood have them as policies but can't implement them because the parliament doesn't have the power to do so. Independence will protect the things above that we already have, and allow for the things that Holyrood currently lacks the power to enact. How? I’ll need to dig into some more dry detail to explain my thinking.

Scotland constantly votes for parties supporting the above values and the rest of the UK (particularly the middle and south of England) doesn't: in fact, in the last 60 years, Scotland has got the government it voted for only 45% of the time (and then almost always because the rest of the UK happened to vote the same way). In many ways, that’s fair enough: we’re a democracy, and Scotland makes up a small fraction of the UK population. The question is, do we want to continue like this, when we have a chance to change things so that both Scotland and the rest of the UK have the government we vote for all of the time?

You might say that having the Scottish parliament means that we can now do a lot of things differently, "the best of both worlds". In part, that’s true: there’s no tuition fees here and no privatised NHS. The way things are though, these things are under threat in the long term because the governments who've shared power in London have different priorities: in the past couple of decades the Conservatives and increasingly Labour have typically leant towards privatisation, and reducing public services, because these things are favoured by the swing voters in the middle of England that they need to win power in London. Because the funding for Scotland is simply a fraction of the money spent in England, if the rest of the UK elects governments in favour of privately-run services, or anything else, then the budget for Scotland is cut and whoever is in power in Edinburgh either has to follow the same policies, or cut something else. Further, if we vote “no” in September, both Labour and the Conservatives are talking about reducing the proportion that Scotland gets anyway, to counter the widely held (incorrect) belief that Scotland gets more than its fair share. This quote sums up the situation: “There is only so long you can keep patching the holes Westminster is shooting into the welfare state. Eventually the bucket will leak.” (Joan McAlpine MSP). On top of this, the Scottish parliament currently doesn’t have powers to do things like stopping the Royal Mail being privatised, or reversing the horrendous changes being made to the benefits system.

One solution would be so-called devo max: giving the Scottish parliament control over everything apart from defence and foreign affairs. Unfortunately, being realistic this isn’t going to happen. It was suggested to have this as an option in the referendum alongside full independence, but this popular option was rejected by the UK Government, with the promise of it coming after a "no" vote. There are two problems with this. (1) If we vote "no", the “threat” of independence will be gone, and there will be no incentive for the parliament at Westminster to devolve any more power. (see here) The evidence for this is that powers have only ever been offered or transferred to Scotland when independence has been a possibility, with the SNP doing well in elections (in the 70s, in the early 90s, in 2007 and in 2011). After a “yes” vote for devolution in 1979 was ignored on a technicality, Scotland dropped off the Westminster agenda until 1997. (2) For devo max to work properly, it would need a real shakeup of the whole UK, with a federal structure, more like Canada, the USA, Germany or Australia. That kind of change is not likely to happen any time soon because there’s no demand for it in England, nor do the Scottish MPs at Westminster who are needed to implement the idea support it. The answer is obvious: since Scotland has developed a different political outlook to the rest of the UK, we should change the political relationship between us to one where we each have the freedom to make our own decisions. This way both Scotland and the rest of the UK can each get the kind of government that they want, all of the time.

A crucial point, related to this theme, is that smaller countries also tend to be happier. This is summarised here and  also on p22 here. Ultimately, I want my children to live in a country that helps them to be happy - and don’t we all?

Getting a Parliament that’s fit for purpose.

This is a bit less tangible but as someone who is quite into politics and spent a while in student politics and debating, I think it’s pretty important. Lots of people are switched off from politics in general - and I think a big part of that is that politicians seem to be so far removed from everyone else, and it feels like voting doesn’t make much difference. This is a problem because even though the system isn’t very good it’s still what impacts on all the real-life things I mentioned above.

These are the seats in the UK parliament
that changed hands at the last election in
2010 and decided that we'd have the
current Conservative-led government.
Millions of people across the country
effectively had no say ( source).
This referendum is a once in a generation chance to get a parliament and a system that's fit for purpose. Anyone that takes a look at Westminster and thinks it’s working well is kidding themselves. We have unelected Lords making laws for the country, a voting system that means many people’s vote don’t count - just the 1 in 6 voting in swing seats, the only two parties with a change of power having little to distinguish them, a serious problem with transparency and an elite few getting access to power. Attempts to fix these things over the past couple of years (particularly reforming the Lords and AV) have shown how unlikely it is that these will be fixed anytime soon (in fact Lords and electoral reform have been promised for a century). That’s because those in power at Westminster have no interest in changing the system that put them there. The Scottish parliament has flaws too but is already miles ahead on these issues, and in shaping a new country we will have a chance to make it better still. What is proposed is a process of public involvement in shaping a new constitution, like in British Columbia (2004), the Netherlands (2006), Ontario (2007), Iceland (2010) and currently in Ireland. Can you imagine the chance to take part in shaping the very basis of the country in which you’re going to spend the rest of your life, and where your children are going to spend at least their crucial formative years? That’s one of the big draws for me - when Naomi and Miriam are old enough to understand all this stuff, I want to be able to say to them that I was part of shaping the country that allowed them to realise their potential (which, by the way, is huge).

I also think it’s good to bring the government closer to the people that is making decisions for. In a small country, each MP has fewer constituents to represent and is able to spend more time in the constituency because parliament is less far away. This means that it is easier for them to remain better connected with the people they represent, and there is less chance of the “Westminster Bubble” forming where the MPs are completely out of touch with the real world.

Further to all this, the removal of a tenth of MPs is likely to cause a realignment in the parties left at Westminster with the chance of a much needed shake-up to the benefit of the remaining UK people.


There are a few arguments for leaving things the way they are, many of which are quite legitimate. I’ve heard most of the following personally, at least once but often more. Obviously I think these are far outweighed by the arguments for Yes - but I also thought it would be worth adding my perspective on a few of the No arguments. I’ll try to keep them brief but if you’d like more detail then ask me:

  • It’ll be hard to separate all of our institutions. It’s true that there would be a lot of work to do, but just because something is hard to do, doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t be done. It’s also not as big a job as it might seem: many of the big things are already operated completely independently. These include the legal system, education, emergency services and the NHS (interesting fact - the NHS has always been independently-run in Scotland, and was based on a much earlier system in the highlands).
  • There are more important things to think about - like jobs and helping starving people. I agree. Hopefully I’ve made clear above that the point of independence is to make progress on the important things: equality, reducing poverty, having a government that’s in touch with our needs. Independence is not a goal in itself, but the means to an end: a better country to live in.
  • Independence will turn my family in England into foreigners. An obvious question to ask is whether “foreigner” is a helpful label to apply to anyone... Ignoring that, a more important questions to ask is: "is sharing a parliament really necessary for someone to count as family or a friend? This is not an issue between Ireland and NI, or for my numerous friends who leave near borders on the European continent, nor do I regard myself as any less close to my friends and relatives living in places like Australia, Canada and the US. There is no reason that it should be any different: To me, friends and family abroad only feel distant because it takes a lot of travel to see them. There’s certainly no plan to float Scotland away into the sea from the rest of Britain! On the same subject, there will be no passport checks at the border, just as is the case between many countries in the world (including UK / Ireland). The plan is to allow dual citizenship, something the UK also allows, so you can still choose to keep your British passport as well as taking a Scottish one.
    The heavily guarded crossing between Ireland and the UK

  • I don’t like Alex Salmond / Nicola Sturgeon / SNP / Windfarms / etc. This isn’t a vote about them - it’s a vote about the single issue of who is best placed to make decisions for the people in Scotland: the UK parliament where Scottish MPs make up 9% of the total, or a parliament that is 100% comprised of people who live and work in Scotland. We’ll still be a democracy after independence and if you don’t like any of the above people or policies, then just vote for someone else at the Scottish elections in 2016.
  • If we’ll be better off, we’ll be leaving the rest of the UK worse off, and that’s not fair. I genuinely think that independence will be a positive move for both Scotland and the rest of the UK. It’ll be a maturing of the relationship between the countries, it’ll bring power closer to the people, it’ll provide some kind of counter-balance to the domination of London, and it’ll provide an impetus for a sea-change in politics on these islands. There is also a strong argument (e.g. this) that allowing Scotland the freedom to do things differently will be an example to the rest of the UK to show that we don’t have to break up the welfare state, and we really can afford things like free prescriptions and tuition, decent pensions, and better childcare.
  • Independence - particularly the lefty socialist kind - will be bad for business. The UK doesn’t have a strong record on this. We've lost much of our skilled engineering and manufacturing industry when most other western countries seem to have managed to keep theirs. We did seem to be doing okay with the financial sector, but somewhere around 2007 that illusion was shattered. (see here for some thoughts on this). Independence gives us the chance to build on the things we’re good at - Scotland already has an international reputation for good education, skills and natural resources, and a parliament totally focussed on developing these in Scotland (rather than diverted by an ever-growing London) will be able to take them further. This one reason why some businesses have already come out in favour of independence.
  • We can’t afford it! The last time the government GERS figures were released, there was a lot of noise in the media about how they showed that Scotland gets more in spending than it pays in taxes. Of course, this also applies to the UK, that’s why we’re in such a lot of debt. It’s true that last year’s GERS figures showed that Scotland’s deficit per person was worse than the UK’s, though not that much, and the GERS figures are the rather pessimistic case anyway. If you take a longer term view, over the past five years (and the past three decades) Scotland has overall been better off than the rest of the UK. Our GVA is 99% of UK average without oil and gas, meaning that the energy industry is a bonus rather than a crutch we’d need to survive (see further below for more on this). All that said, ultimately we can all argue over numbers and statistics, and both sides can spin the figures to support their case. We can look at how Scotland is doing just now - if we’re doing well financially, then that could be evidence that we’d be better off independent, or it could be argued that we’re doing well because we’re in the UK. Likewise if we’re doing poorly, it might be a reason to become independent so we can do better, or it might be a reason to cling to the UK safety blanket. The point is that once independent, we’d be doing things differently to now, so the picture would be different. There are bigger and smaller countries than Scotland all around the world, all with varying degrees of wealth and equality. Certainly to start with, there might not be much change, but the point is that we’ll be able to prioritise things that matter most to people in Scotland. From the savings we’d make by not spending billions on nuclear weapons and subsidising massive projects in London, we’d be able to spend more on education, childcare, pensions and health. In the long term, these will make for a better country to live in, weather or not it’s richer in money terms. Some thoughts on this include this, this and this.
  • What if the banks crash again? Well, ignoring the huge amount of tax revenue that the UK received from the banks prior to them going bust to help pay for the bailout, and the question over whether bailing out the banks was the right thing to do in the first place, Scotland wouldn’t have been liable for much of the bailout anyway. This is because international banks were bailed out in proportion by the countries in which they were operating (see here) and most of the RBS/HBOS operations were in the city of London. This is why the US bailed out British banks to the tune of £640bn.
  • What about when the oil price drops / the oil runs out? As I say a couple of points above, the oil is a bonus, not something we need to survive, particularly if we change priorities to better suit our needs. However, there is still plenty of oil left (at least 30 years) at the moment, and even more off the west coast of Scotland that can’t currently be mined because the MOD don’t like the idea, thanks to the nuclear fleet being based there. The key is to save some of the proceeds from oil and gas in a savings fund, that will smooth out fluctuations in oil prices and in the future generate interest to take the place of income from oil itself. Further, we spend some of the money investing in renewables like offshore wind and tidal energy, that will never run out.
  • The debate had been terrible: I don’t want to be involved in it. I agree that much of the debate - particularly in the media (which likes a good fight) has been poor. There has also been a lot of good-quality discussion on the issue, but it often gets lost in the noise. In particular there are many local debates and information sessions there are worth taking part in. What I would say in response is that this is important: this is a time when every single vote really will count. Please have a think about it, and vote based on what you think will be best for you and the people you care about.
  • Uncertainty. A big and quite reasonable objection to independence is the question of uncertainty. Yes, independence will be a leap into the unknown. To me, that’s the exciting bit - it’s a chance to break the rut that we’re stuck in, a chance to start afresh and build a new country that much better reflects the values of the people in it. It’s understandable that people will be concerned over things like currency and pensions. In part, there is uncertainty over these things as part of the UK: for several years we were officially planning to join the Euro, then had to drop out. Shortly after Labour came to power in 1997, Gordon Brown unexpectedly made changes to the tax system that resulted in nearly all final salary pension schemes becoming extinct within a few years. Few anticipated that the Lib Dems would U-turn on tuition fees, with massive financial implications for students (all to actually end up costing the taxpayer more). Soon there might be a referendum on the UK leaving the EU. A possible change of government, every five years, represents massive uncertainty, yet we’ve managed to cope with it. The difference will be that the people making these kinds of decisions will be much closer to the people affected by them.

  • Finally, I want to be clear about is that it isn't an anti-English thing. I'd like to think that those who know me well would realise that but for the benefit of those who don't: both my parents were born in England, as were my daughters. Many members of my family live there, and after living there myself for the last couple of years I have many English friends and can honestly say it's a nice country with many good people. I also know of many people supporting “yes” who were born outwith Scotland (many in England) - including several SNP MSPs. The nearest that this comes is that it’s an anti-Westminster thing, which I think many people in England could probably identify with! It’s also not about feeling oppressed, flag waving or watching too many films featuring Australian-American actors. I have met one or two people who do think this way, but I’ve met many others who don’t. It’s simply about fixing a political system that’s broken so we can all have a better chance of living in the kind of society that we’d like to.

    More sources of information

    There’s already a lot of information out there. As promised, here are some (maybe) helpful links:
    The independence white paper - the official document showing what’s proposed, with hundreds of questions answered, and what the SNP would do if it was elected to run an independent Scotland
    The Common Weal - a non-party political vision for a better society
    Business for Scotland - it’s often reported that business is against independence; these guys show that’s far from true has a load of stats and quotes worth looking at

    Please have a good think about it and come you your own decision - I hope I’ve managed to convince you that “yes” is at least worth considering. Finally, it’s worth remembering that the mainstream media is not always a balanced source of information - in fact, a recent report by the University of the West of Scotland found that BBC and STV output so far has shown considerable bias against independence. The BBC’s response was essentially to threaten the academic who wrote it, though there has at least been a subtle improvement in their balance over the past few weeks. I think you will struggle to find a truly neutral source because everyone has an agenda - but online there are a few sources that are at least biased towards “yes” that might help you to find some balance against the establishment “no”. Most are volunteer-driven or funded entirely by donations from readers. These include: - blog by a former BBC journalist, very thoughtful stuff (a little abrasive in places but often quite humorous, and among that there is some really thoughtful and well-researched stuff)

    Take a look and see what you think, and if you like, I’m happy to talk about any of the above in more detail. Thanks for reading!

    No comments:

    Post a Comment