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.

2 comments:

  1. That is a beautifully written and evidently heartfelt piece, Doogs. I share your confidence that many people are seeking an outcome that results in increased social justice and equity for the people of Scotland. However, the conclusion that some have reached may not be the same as yours. Whether that is a result of altered perspective, different analysis of information or reflects personal wishes, dreams and aspirations, I would not feel qualified to say. I also share your assertion that a Yes or No vote does not make either side intrinsically less principled, patriotic or (ironic as it may sound) positive than the other.

    It is depressing and distressing that either side has felt the need to stoop to name calling and negative point-scoring from time to time during the campaign. However, this may sadly be the nature of politics (or politicians) and I hope that this has not set the tenor for the whole debate.

    I hope (and am - perhaps naively - optimistic) that, whatever the outcome, it will not result in a climate of bitterness, animosity and recriminations. As an outsider looking in, I have been struck by the incredible groundswell of popular engagement and outpouring of passion on both sides of the Referendum, which would suggest a genuine desire to build a stronger, better and hopefully more inclusive, socially equitable Scotland. I hope that this common desire can be harnessed in a constructive way - both to the benefit of those north of the border, but also to serve as a sign to the rest of the UK of the changes that can still be made when true democracy is able to cut through the usual self-serving, partisan, political game play.

    Signed,

    Comfortable middle class left-winger

    ReplyDelete
  2. A pretty poor article IMO. All the focus is on what voting Yes can't do for Scotland. You talk about social justice yet give no reason why voting No would and could deal with the root cause of the rising inequality on this island which is 30 years of Westminster governments carrying on Thatcher's I'm alright Jack legacy and putting profit before people. I see no prospect of that style of governance changing which will only mean more profit for the wealthy and big corporations and austerity and more food banks for the poorest. As it happens I'm doing alright for myself so could quite easily vote No and carry on as normal but I believe voting Yes is the right thing to do to change a failed system even if I have to pay more for it.

    ReplyDelete