Monday, 6 October 2014

Seriously, the referendum was about independence

There are many fault lines running through Scottish politics in the aftermath of the independence referendum debate. There is still a great deal of anger, mistrust and dogmatic assertion flying around. It is perhaps still too early to make sense of much of it.

But one theme keeps recurring, and it is the notion that the referendum was about a lot more than independence. And I think this betrays a genuine misunderstanding, indeed schism, between those on the left of Scottish politics, half of whom supported independence as a method of delivering social justice, and half of whom supported remaining part of the UK as a method of delivering social justice.

Here's the thing: the referendum vote was only about independence.

Of course both campaigns predicted different outcomes from their preferred votes. Of course the No campaign believed that the economic problems a Yes would have caused would have damaged the most vulnerable. Of course the Yes campaign believed the economic opportunities a Yes would have offered would have improved life for the poorest. And of course these were factors in people's decision-making when it came to the vote.

But the vote was still an answer to the single question "Should Scotland be an independent country?" And that was all it was.

This isn't me misunderstanding the fact that the Yes campaign galvanised a coalition of people who were and are genuinely working to improve lives. It's me pointing out that the No campaign wasn't against those outcomes. It was against independence. That is all.

I have a feeling that some people won't be able to move on from demanding more and more referenda until they have understood this. The No campaign was against independence. So, it turns out, were the majority of Scottish voters.

We still can, and must, make and win the argument that government policies should deliver for those who most need help. But if we're going to do that together we need to recognise where we disagreed. It was about independence.

Tuesday, 23 September 2014

Remarks to Glasgow Skeptics 22 September

Last night I spoke at a well-attended meeting organised by Glasgow Skeptics. Parts of the crowd were, as Alex Salmond might say, a bit "joyous". Which is to say they tried to shout down any point they disagreed with. 

I was struck by two things: that there has been created here, and I suspect not least through the influence of Wings Over Scotland, an angry brigade of the pale, male and stale; and that the Yes speakers not only ignored it completely, but spoke in gushing praise of the joy of a people's campaign. 

You can watch a recording of the event here. The speech I tried to deliver is set out below.



Thanks to everyone who’s turned out for this evening. When I agreed to do this the concept of “after the referendum” was a tricky one to grapple with. It seems for some of our leaders it remains a tough concept to accept. Nonetheless here we are.

We have spent 3 years staring down the barrel of a binary choice, and assigning every issue in our lives to one or other of the options. It’s been exhausting and, as a way of agreeing on what’s best for Scotland, it’s been totally dysfunctional. It’s time now, I think, to embrace a bit of participative democracy - to talk through the pros and cons of the issues that matter, and find shared solutions rather than exchanging binary ultimatums.

So my simple answer to “what now?” is that we must work to find a unity of purpose to deliver social and economic justice within the devolution settlement which is now unquestionably the settled will of the Scottish people.

What that doesn’t mean:

It doesn’t mean “revenge” against parties or individuals who voted differently from us. Harnessing the Yes cause to “wipe out” No parties, or harnessing the No coalition to target Yes parties, just embeds division.

It doesn’t mean boycotts of companies which took views during the debate that you didn’t like. Jim Sillars’ “day of reckoning” would be utterly self-defeating. The same goes for boycotts of, and demos against, media figures and organisations. The media did a good job. They gave platforms to diverse views. They also delivered brutal analysis, much of which was directed at the No side. They should be applauded, not condemned.

And it doesn’t mean insisting that independence is still the answer. Scots voters said no. If we are democrats, we must accept that. And please don’t suggest that those who voted No were duped, tricked or conned. Respect the voters’ decisions. They want a devolved parliament within a United Kingdom.

What it does mean:

It means we should see and celebrate what we achieved as a whole - mass political re-engagement. Engage with it. And remember lots of first time voters voted No, let’s not pretend our record registrations and high turnout was all galvanised by a desire for independence.

Let’s recognise that it’s been demonstrated that we the people have the power when we actually turn out to vote. Let’s those of us involved in political parties ensure that we give the people something to vote for in 2015, and 2016, and beyond.

And let’s work for honesty in politics. If someone promises to cut child poverty while also cutting taxes in a period of global recession, look hard at that proposition, because it’s probably a lie.

What to fight for:

Real democracy. Not the false idea that dividing the UK would have solved the problem when in fact it would just have changed a devolved government into a sovereign one. The real route to improving democracy is to reverse the trend of centralisation in Scotland - something of which Lab and SNP have both been guilty - and devolve real powers to communities. Recognise that what our current councils do is regional administration. We need community power. Cities, towns and rural communities with democratically elected government, with real cash to spend, because cash means power.

Early years and childcare. This should never have been a referendum football. It’s too important. The Scottish Parliament has the powers now to make a real difference. Research shows us time and again that investment in the early years is by far the most efficient use of public money to improve life chances. And I would say this: if it comes down to a budgetary choice between free university tuition and investment in early years, I will fight for early years every time. Politics should be about benefiting the many not the few.

Simply speaking, we need to fight for good policies at elections. We’ve fought a proxy war in the referendum over childcare and Trident and welfare and education. It was a proxy war because a Yes or No vote didn’t actually address these challenges. Policies at elections will. So don’t be tempted into using your vote as revenge next May. Use it to choose a representative whose policies are closest to what you want to happen.

The last thing we should be doing right now is re-fighting any aspect of the last three years. That debate has been settled. We have a massive opportunity to harness the political energy created across Scotland. Let’s seize it together.

Sunday, 14 September 2014

Finding social justice


We all aspire to make things better.

I first got involved in political campaigning because I was motivated by my experience growing up gay in a straight world. I joined the gay rights movement with a single purpose: to help ensure that the next generation didn't have to go through what I had done. Just as those who came before had done for me.

When we set up Pride Scotland in 1994, it was because we knew the greatest threat to LGBT equality was invisibility. That gay kids were growing up isolated in villages and towns across the country, thinking they were alone. Section 28 was stopping even their teachers helping them.

I remember hearing years later from someone who was just 16 in 1995, living in a small Fife fishing village. He told me how seeing pictures on the TV and in the paper of thousands of smiling people marching through Edinburgh gave him that all-important realisation that he was not alone, and there was hope. I got to know this young man rather well later in our lives. Reader, I married him.


I took the step into political activism the way many people do – an issue came up, and no existing groups seemed able or willing to fight, so we got some friends together and had a go. That was in 1997, and thus was born the Equality Network. 

One of the first major campaigns we were involved in was the repeal of Section 28. I blogged a couple of years back about some personal recollections of it. It was a dreadful time, a time when people lived in fear of lies being posted through their doors, and were afraid to put posters in windows or wear badges because of the hate being whipped up around them by a well-funded campaign backed by Brian Souter. But we won, and young people across Scotland had better lives as a result, and none of the scare stories came true.


All of this is a long-winded way of saying that I truly understand what it means to find a just cause, and to commit to it absolutely. I have the greatest admiration for everyone who does so. And I know that many people on both sides of the current independence debate are committed to social justice and see their vote as furthering that aim.

My old friend Patrick Harvie is a shining example of such a person. A hero of equality campaigning in this country. A man with whom I have always been, and will always be, proud to stand. He is also someone for whom, I think, the question of independence is a pragmatic best-outcome one, rather than an emotional lifetime ambition one. In that, we are also alike, except that we have come to different pragmatic conclusions. And we are, of course, in different parties.


Some people think that political parties encourage tribal behaviour. Some say that people like me place party loyalty above all else, and in doing so are blinded to what is the right thing to do. I won’t try to speak for anyone else, but for me this could not be further from the truth. 

I spent my formative political years outside party politics, bringing together people from different parties in support of LGBT rights. My loyalty always was, and always will be, to the cause not the brand.

But I eventually joined the Labour Party because I found in it a community which shared my values. Labour didn't go looking for me; I went looking for it. And I knew I had found my place when I sat in a cramped room full of bright, engaged people talking about changing the world one street at a time. Cynics will tell you Labour is all back room deals and compromised principles. I can tell you that in the four years since I joined I have been listened to, empowered, encouraged and supported, and I have found good people everywhere, helping to improve others’ lives every day.

This is the politics I know, this is the Labour Party I know, and this is the Scotland I know – full of good people trying to make a difference. 


As the independence vote approaches, we've seen a different Scotland arising. One in which grudge and grievance is taking all the air time and, more worryingly, one in which messages of hope and opportunity are only judged acceptable if linked to one side of the debate.

We are at a point that mentioning the genuine, evidence-based concerns that many have over currency and monetary policy means being met with a glib “It’s our pound and we’re keeping it” rather than rational concern at the challenges involved in the different possible outcomes of negotiations. 

We are at a point that bringing up the additional costs of government or oil price fluctuations endangering the delivery of social justice in an independent Scotland means being met with cries of fearmongering rather than honest engagement. 

And we are at a point that posing questions over the real prospects for the NHS, or pensions, or childcare in a context where investors are already taking capital out of the country means being met with “Westminster is against us” rather than any serious acknowledgement of the downside of independence.

A lifelong commitment to social justice is not an excuse to duck reality. You can’t deliver social justice without a functioning economy and you can’t support big government without taxes or borrowing or both. And, you know, it needs to be okay to say that without being called a traitor to Scotland.


Ironically it is the right wing supporters of independence who are being most honest at the moment. They see an opportunity to create from scratch an ideological small state in a new small country. They see the genuine challenges in the currency problem as an opportunity to make big government impossible. They back Sterlingisation as it would put the market in charge. To me it is a horrific prospect, but it is at least an honest prospectus.

The most dishonest, I fear, are those comfortable middle class left-wingers promoting independence as a way to fulfil a political wet dream. 

They will sing the praises of renewables while planning to spend the oil bounty, that alluring, polluting solve-all, ten times over, on childcare, on ending poverty, on a sovereign wealth fund and on a stabilisation fund. 

They will proudly assert that their priority is the needy, but then they’ll promise that free university education, free prescriptions, free travel, free care are all perpetual if we vote yes. They’ll even tell you this bonanza will be written into the constitution, alongside every aspiration for guaranteed rights you have ever dreamed of. 

And those caught in the middle, as ever, are the people who need real political solutions, not pipe dreams. The people who are being told they they will get a living wage, full employment and a generous and effective welfare safety net. Those who have perhaps registered to vote for the very first time because they have been told a single X in the right box can fix everything.

Even a cursory glance across this promise of a progressive haven tells you it is built on wishful thinking, but don't dare make any suggestion that you can see the emperor has no clothes or you will be damned as negative, lacking in ambition, and an opponent of progress. Or much worse.


An incident recently really drove this home to me. I was helping out at a stall on Princes Street, handing out stickers and badges, encouraged by the smiles of support, though concerned by the very many declaring support but declining a window poster because they were “too scared”.

A young man approached and started shouting. This is not a rare occurrence in itself, so initially I tried to ignore him. They usually get fed up and go away. But there was a tone in his voice which was impossible to ignore. A visceral anger which punctuated his diatribe with swallowed tears. He was calling us murderers. He was telling us that we were killing disabled people. 

This is where you have brought us to, Yes people. By associating the No campaign with every evil you can think of, pretending solidarity doesn't come into it and ignoring that many of us prize social justice as highly as you do, this is where you have brought us to. By holding up a Yes vote as the answer to all these problems, this is where you have brought us to.

Yes, we all want social justice. We demand that food banks are rendered unnecessary and poverty pay is made a thing of the past. We stand together to save the NHS and the welfare state. But you must stop claiming a Yes vote will deliver these things. In the real world, it will simply reduce our economic, social and co-operative capacity to tackle them. 


I am desperately sad, and desperately worried, to find myself once again in a Scotland in which decent people are scared to put up posters and wear badges. I'm at the point that if I saw posters of Cameron with his fingers in his ears, echoing those of Wendy Alexander in 2000, I wouldn't be surprised. It’s the same person’s money paying for them, after all. The politics of fear and hate is back in my Scotland and it is profoundly, profoundly disturbing.

We who care for social justice have a responsibility to get the best outcome for the most people. Some of my friends have convinced themselves that the answer lies in dividing people rather than bringing them together. They have decided that walking away from the rest of the UK is an acceptable piece of collateral damage on the way to delivering social justice for people in Scotland. They have persuaded themselves that something must be done, that this is something, and that therefore it must be done.

Not me. I stand with the many, not the few. I know that we beat Brian Souter by bringing people together, not pushing them apart. I know that every single piece of social justice campaigning I've been involved in has succeeded by uniting people, not dividing them.

I aspire to make things better. That’s why I'm voting No.

Thursday, 14 August 2014

#indyref: The cost of Trident and the sad capitulation of Scottish CND

Tomorrow the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) is due to publish a paper analysing the future of the UK's Trident nuclear deterrent. In it, it is expected to claim that the true cost of relocating the base at Faslane to an alternative site in England or Wales would be a fraction of the previously suggested "eye-wateringly high" £30 billion figure provided by an MOD spokesperson in 2013.

RUSI suggests that the provision of a new base would add between £2.5 and £3.5 billion to existing costs. It also suggests that in the event of a Yes vote, negotiations between the Scottish and rUK governments would be likely to result in an agreement for Scotland to continue to host the nuclear deterrent until such time as rUK had completed its replacement base.

Readers with long memories might recall that this likely outcome is what I described in a blog post a year ago, in which I argued that "Vote Yes to disarm Trident" was not only a dishonest campaign, but also the opposite of what would likely happen.

For a long-time supporter of nuclear disarmament like myself, the separatist position adopted by Scottish CND in 2012 has long been both a disappointment and evidence of a self-defeating loss of focus. Instead of continuing its long and admirable fight for disarmament, in 2012 Scottish CND became a campaign for a nuclear-free Scotland, no longer caring about the existence of nuclear weapons, merely their location.

Scottish CND relied heavily on the MOD's "eye-wateringly high" cost of relocation to argue that delivering a nuclear-free Scotland by voting Yes would perforce result in unilateral nuclear disarmament by the rUK. The RUSI analysis holes this argument below the waterline.

It's not too late for Scottish CND to rescue its reputation. It can, and should, reverse its policy on independence and acknowledge that we need to retain our political influence over the UK's nuclear deterrent, not wash our hands of it and walk away.

Trident renewal would be a mistake. If, like me, you want to retain your democratic influence over the UK government to try to stop this mistake from happening, I urge you to vote No on 18th September.

Monday, 14 July 2014

Is the Electoral Commission working for #indyref?

The Electoral Commission (EC) is responsible for ensuring that September's independence referendum is conducted fairly, and that participants adhere to the rules on funding and conduct as set out in the Scottish Independence Referendum Act 2013. Penalties for breaking these rules are harsh - individuals can be imprisoned for a significant period if convicted of some of the offences defined.

But there is a fundamental problem with prevention. Assessment of whether rules have been broken is largely post-hoc. Little or no action is taken during the campaign. There is no apparent prevention activity; merely the threat that after the vote everything will be checked and if things don't add up you'll need a good lawyer. Is such deterrence enough? Is it working?

For normal elections, this is arguably a workable model. The participants are political parties who generally have existed for a long time and plan to exist well into the future. Reputational risk is serious and genuinely feared, and most parties have developed robust internal systems to prevent contraventions. Individuals standing for election have a powerful disincentive to breaking the rules - they could have their electoral victory taken from them. The EC has little need to police during a campaign; it can merely tot everything up afterwards and mete out any justice required.

But in this independence referendum, things seem to me to be very different. The key participants, Yes Scotland and Better Together, have both been set up specifically for this event, and will almost certainly cease to exist shortly after. Many of the other registered participants - Wings Over Scotland, Vote No Borders and so on - are of a similarly disposable nature. Only the political parties have reputational risk, and it's clear that parties' existing systems are rolling into action as usual.

Individuals within the "disposable" campaigns will remain culpable, of course; but we need to look carefully at how that culpability might play out. Nobody here is in the position of an individual standing for election. And critically nobody is risking having any victory taken off them personally if they have done a bit of creative accounting. And if there is the risk of jail time - well, there are certainly participants in this debate who would thoroughly welcome martyrdom for their cause, and who could muster plenty of loud voices to paint any conviction as such.

Because here's the rub. If one or two of the campaign groups were discovered, post-September, to have mis-reported a bit of funding here, or co-ordinated where they shouldn't have there, the chance of that resulting in a re-run of the referendum are vanishingly small. There would be massive resistance on all sides to a re-run - for quite justifiable reasons. It would require evidence of major fraud for it to be even contemplated. Far more likely is that individuals would be given their punishments but the result would stand.

And so the issue of prevention is far more critical for this referendum than it is for a normal election. And yet there is very little evidence that the Electoral Commission is even slightly interested in it. They appear to be running this as a business-as-usual electoral campaign.

Does anyone care?

Saturday, 5 July 2014

Ed is on the bus

I have a few minutes to spare before heading out to speak to voters today, so I thought I'd jot down a few words about yesterday's visit from Ed Miliband, and his question and answer session at Newtongrange.


It was great to get the chance to talk to Ed about how the referendum campaign is going, as we travelled from Edinburgh to Midlothian with Anas Sarwar on Labour's referendum battle bus. He was clearly well-briefed, but keen to hear our impressions and concerns. As ever when I've spoken to him, he is far removed from the media caricature of wonkish awkwardness. He's smart, insightful and takes a long view.


We arrived with a lot of time to spare, and as Ed was doing media interviews and meet-and-greets, it was good to catch up with friends from across the Lothians Labour movement. Newtongrange is a fantastic resource, and I realise it must have been a long time since I was last there - lots of new facilities and improvements. Well worth a visit.


It's a striking setting for a talk, with light streaming in through massive windows, beyond which the preserved mine workings stand as a reminder of the industrial heritage this area has lost. Anas opened proceedings with a talk no less powerful for its familiarity, reminding us that the great achievements of the Labour movement have been the result of working together across the UK.


My online pal Margaret Curran stood up next to introduce the wonderful Davie Hamilton, and the affection in the room for him was palpable - here is a man who embodies Labour values and is rooted in the community he represents. No wonder the people of Midlothian don't want to vote Yes to lose his voice in our UK parliament. Both Margaret and Davie reminded us that Labour is in good heart and good voice in this campaign. We are united around a clear message, and it's a message the people of Scotland appreciate.


And then Ed stood up and, after speaking briefly about Davie, the campaign and the plans for 2015, opened the floor to questions. And this is where he shone. Everyone who raised their hand got a chance to speak, and we covered a wide range of areas from Trident to redistribution of wealth, to local devolution, plans for business growth and employment, and the sheer breadth of opportunity we have following a No vote to change Scotland for the better within the strength of the UK.

As we gradually left, there was a feeling from everyone I spoke to that this had been an uplifting, galvanising and positive contribution. Not everyone had expected it to be. But Ed came to listen and understand, and demonstrated to us all that he has the plan and the strength of character to deliver.

I got a lift home on the big red bus, and five minutes after walking in my husband said it had clearly been a good night, given the animated way I was describing it to him. It had. Sometimes this debate can be a hard slog of online fights and endless doorsteps. Sometimes we need a reminder of why we're doing it and who is standing alongside us. Last night gave me that, and looking out over Arthur's Seat at sunset I was very, very glad I went.


Saturday, 28 June 2014

A conversation with Yes Scotland about job-creating powers