Why I Will Be Voting Yes
by Douglas McKenzie
I’m publishing this on behalf of Douglas McKenzie, an excellent and thought-provoking contribution to Scotland’s journey towards independence:
It’s always easy for someone who has never intended to vote anything but yes or no to be intellectually sloppy in his or her engagement with the referendum debate. Your response is basically tribal, applauding those you agree with and dismissing their opponents. As someone for whom a yes vote has always been a given, after all I’ve waited sixty years for this moment, I have been genuinely astonished that anyone would want to vote no. However at such an important moment in Scotland’s history I don’t think this enough. I feel I owe it to myself, and maybe to anyone who has the staying power to read this, to articulate, intellectually and emotionally, exactly why I am so committed (I won’t use the word “passionate” since politicians during the referendum debate have clubbed that epithet to death) to putting a yes in the box beside the question “should Scotland be an independent country?” on the ballot paper.
Scotland and England have been united for 300 years and while it would be an exaggeration to say it has been an unhappy union it has never been an comfortable one. Scotland has always chafed under the load of trying to hold on to an identity under the influence of its much larger neighbour. It was never a willing union in the first place and it has led to a perception of Scots as being boastful and prickly, protective of their Scottish identity but at the same time timid and unassured, covering up their sense of inferiority for example by boring the pants of the English by reeling off lists of all the things Scotland has invented. One of the most depressing comments I heard on a radio phone-in after the first Darling Salmond debate was from a woman who, when asked if she thought Darling had won replied,”of course he won. After all he’s a Westminster London MP and Alec Salmond is only a Scottish MSP”. The Scottish Cringe is still flourishing and healthy.
So why do I think we should vote yes? I think their are two parts to the answer; where Scotland is now, a subordinate nation, trapped in a politically sclerotic, economically inequitable and socially divided state, and where it could be, not Shangri-La perhaps but still somewhere infinitely better, more ambitious and hopeful.
The UK political class despite its constant self-congratulation and frequent panegyrics on Britain as the cradle of modern democracy has in fact crafted one of the least democratic political systems in the developed world. The concept of parliamentary sovereignty is itself severely flawed, a smokescreen behind which a powerful and unaccountable executive can govern with scant reference to public opinion. The Iraq war is an obvious example. So arrogant is this political class that even fairly limited constraints on its exercise of power, such as the European Court or human rights legislation, are treated with a mixture of indignation and contempt. We have a parliament of 635 MPs elected by first past the post of which a little less than 600 of them are effectively representing “rotten boroughs”. The real general election takes place in 40 or or 50 of them in which spin doctors and political “celebrities” from all parties conduct a spurious campaign of claim and counterclaim, mendacity and misrepresentation in what is basically a squalid grab for power. Labour governed Britain from 2005 to 2010 with 35% of the vote. Our present Prime Minister heads a party in government which won 36% of the vote. Once in power this so-called elected chamber, assisted of course by a wholly unelected second legislature, the House of Lords, is in the pockets, through a complex system of whips, patronage, servility and sycophancy, of a mandarin class of ministers and civil servants. Two thirds of the cabinet went to public schools. This elite is able to fill the courts, the civil service and all our major institutions with their privileged accomplices. This is British democracy. No wonder a third of the electorate didn’t even bother to vote in the 2010 election. Even that was an improvement on the previous two elections. What is amazing is that so many actually choose to vote, a victory of civic responsibility over justifiable cynicism. Democracy in the UK is an illusion.
Compared with Westminster the Scottish parliament, with all its flaws, is a pattern of democratic excellence; MSPs elected by proportional representation, committees which can initiate legislation, a transparent expenses system and an openness to public participation through an admirable petition system. I’m not getting carried away. First Minister’s Questions can sometimes be a not very elevating version of its unedifying, posh elder brother and there are still disturbing examples of executive contempt for its legislature but compared with the male dominated, gin soaked gentleman’s club down South Holyrood is a model of democratic accountability.
Economically and socially the United Kingdom is in a condition of complete atrophy. Thirty five years of neoliberalism has induced an economic and moral catalepsy which means no politician from one end of the spectrum to the other can address the central question of the relationship between taxes and public services. The consequence is a public and a media which rages against deficiencies in the public sector, demanding Scandinavian standards in health and education while at the same time lauding an American culture of low taxes. The paradox evades everyone because tax has become a dirty word. We pay lower taxes than Belgium, Germany, France, Greece, Hungary, Austria and South Africa, well below the OECD average and still bleat when they have to be paid. Tax avoidance is an industry among the rich, roughly around 25 billion pounds in corporate tax avoidance . At the same time we wring our hands and ask why our “social wage” is so low compared with say Germany or Sweden.
The result is shocking levels of social equality in the United Kingdom as we bow to the free market demands and threats of the financial sector and global capital. The bottom 20% of the population have only 5% of the total income and 0% of the total of financial and property wealth. The top 10% have 60% of all the wealth in the UK. Five families are richer than the 12 million people who make up the bottom 20%. of the population. 13 million people are below the poverty line. The English NHS has been handed over to the private sector Competition lawyers are making millions out of the mayhem caused by NHS tendering processes, private healthcare companies like Virgin are winning contracts to perform a range of procedures and operations. Schools are being handed over to business chains; no requirement to meet a national curriculum, no state monitoring or supervision apart from occasional visits from Ofsted, all against a background of falling achievement in the poorest parts of England. This is Britain in the 21st century. What exactly does No Campaign mean by the “best of both worlds” slogan. What is “best” about the United Kingdom in 2014 as it lurches through the most stringent austerity programme since the Great Depression. Add to this a hatred of foreigners, Russian oligarchs and Saudi Arabian sheiks excepted, contempt for the poor, a right wing press with a fundamentally diseased world view and rising support for UKIP, a party which sees Europeans in the UK as a tidal wave of crazed criminals, sex traffickers and benefit tourists.
So in what way could an independent Scotland do better? Unfortunately the referendum debate has become bogged in a squalid battle over bank accounts, prices, mortgage rates, house sales, oil income and a series of squabbles over short term impacts of a yes vote most of which can’t be predicted anyway. It’s been less than edifying. The Better Together campaign has been the worst offender. Any attempts to look to the horizon of creative possibilities has been dragged back to the politicians comfortable and grubby zone of retail politics. But the most exciting and potentially transformative possibility of independence would be in the area of politics; the creation of a modern Scottish democracy, the engine which would drive real social and political change. This would be a political system founded on the principle of the sovereignty of the Scottish people not the democratic fiction of the sovereignty of parliament which every single No campaigner, regardless of party or extravagant promises is defending.
The sovereignty of the people means a written constitution which would enshrine a bill of human rights. This would guarantee not just political rights but social and economic rights also, the right to education, to housing, to universal health care as well as protection for all minorities whatever their race, gender or sexual orientation. This constitution could be backed by a Constitutional Court to which both the legislature and the executive would be accountable meaning it could strike down any law which violated the principles of the constitution. This is a far cry from the present Westminster parliament, an institution which is barely independent, largely controlled by an unaccountable executive, a corrupt self serving chamber which exists to serve the vested interests of a privileged minority. An independent Scotland, building on the system it already has, say with a second chamber and real mechanisms for citizens’ input could serve as a democratic model for the rest of the UK and break the class stranglehold which has choked the life out of democracy in the UK.
A country with participative and responsive democratic institutions can then go on to build the fairer society from which the rest of the UK has fled; tackle poverty, inequality and poor health, have real discussions about tax and spend and the social wage which it is impossible to have in the present UK. With real channels and forums for a citizens’ democracy we can make a real effort to make a social transformation in Scotland. The one thing that is certain is that within the present UK set up nothing is ever going to change.
The kind of modern and confident nation that could emerge from this kind of process could then go on to redefine what it means to be a constructive and respected international player. Not by penis envy acquisition of nuclear missiles or vainglorious foreign adventures under the delusion that we are some kind of foreign power but by the kind of work that Denmark, Sweden and Norway do, the three most successful countries in the world in working to support sustainable development in the Third World. That is where the battle against “terrorism” will be won, eradicating poverty and inequality in the world’s poorest countries. I am not suggesting Scotland leading the van and changing the world but what can be done through example and by modest but honourable and effective policies. By honourable I mean partnerships designed to alleviate poverty and inequality for their own sake not further the economic or strategic interests of ourselves.
This would be a new kind of Scotland, whose national pride would not be based on Braveheart, woad painted faces at international football and rugby matches, telling the world who invented steam power and sending enemies back home to think again. It would be a Scotland based on a quiet and modest self confidence, not thinking it can change the world but believing it can make a change; not thinking it’s better than anyone else but also not thinking it’s too inferior to do anything on its own or to act with independence and initiative. Who wouldn’t want to vote for that kind of Scotland? On September the 18th be brave — vote Yes!