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.