My Promise to the Nationalists

I’ve made no secret of my intention to vote No on Thursday but I’ve not been quite as vocal about it amongst friends or on social media as I expect I would be under other circumstances. It seems to me that the debate has become quite difficult for everybody involved and that personal relationships all across Scotland are feeling the strain as each half of the country is battling tirelessly against the other in the last few days we have left before making what could be the biggest decision any of us will make in our lives.

I genuinely do believe that both sides are doing what they believe is best for the country and how can you be upset with anybody for that? You can certainly disagree with their means, but is it rational to be upset with anyone who is doing exactly what you are, albeit having reached a different conclusion? After all, I can and do dislike the policies of other parties without letting it affect the relationships I have with members of those parties – when you wear your colours on your sleeve as much as we do, you have to learn to put aside those differences and focus on friendships independent of politics.

As rational as all of that is though, I can’t help but be deeply saddened at the Yes campaign and I find myself biting my tongue around people with whom I’d normally engage in good-natured debate. It really does feel like this is an issue that lasting friendships rely on us avoiding. In a very real sense, the debate is creating deep divisions throughout the country and causing rifts between people who never expected their political involvement to interfere with their friendships.

So, why is that? For many of us, getting people engaged is a constant struggle. If you’d told me last year that everybody I know would be talking about the referendum today, I’d have been elated! I know people who have never voted before who are now out campaigning for their cause – surely that’s a great thing? Why is it then that things can so quickly turn so nasty when the topic comes up? Although many people are asking this question, I think it’s quite clear that the answer is simply that people on both sides are so genuinely passionate about this issue that we all find it difficult to conduct ourselves appropriately.

From my own experience, as much as I’d like to stick to the academic questions of the economy and the currency in these discussions, it feels like a smoke screen. I feel like I’m desperately clinging to the very rational and reasonable arguments (all of which I genuinely believe in on their own) but what I really want to do is drop all of that, lose all pretence of civility and shout out, “why are you trying to tear my country apart?” Always just beneath the surface of my reasoned arguments are passionate accusations like, “What right have you to make me an expat here in my home?” and, “how could you even consider risking my job, my mortgage and my pension?” I don’t want to have a reasoned discussion about who would set interest rates anymore, I want to stand up, wave my flag and scream “How dare you try to erect borders between my English family and myself!”

On the other side though, I know that I have friends who get angry with me when I’m singing the praises of the Union. I’m sure some of you are reading this right now wanting to ring me up and holler, “Why are you trying to deny me the right to self-determination?” Many of you are no doubt looking around at problems like unemployment, over-crowded classrooms and NHS waiting lists and genuinely believing that independence is the answer. It’s no wonder that we don’t chat that much anymore when you see me as somebody actively trying to block the fix to these things, and I understand that, because I find it hard to chat to you these days as well.

I am desperately hoping that the Union remains intact but if, in the early hours of Friday morning, I do find out that things have gone my way, I’m going to find it very hard to celebrate. I may exhale a sigh of relief and revel in the good news for a few moments, but my thoughts will quickly turn to the large minority of people in my country who are devastated that their months and years of hard work have been fruitless. I will feel for my friends and neighbours who will mourn what they perceive as their missed opportunity to make things better and I will sincerely hope that we can work together to mend the divisions that feel so deep from this side of polling day.

Whatever the result, almost half of the country will be hurting on Friday and we’re all going to have to work together to make the best of whatever it is we’re left with. It’s going to be difficult to move past the last few months, especially for those who find themselves on the losing side, but there will be no sense in dwelling on our differences anymore come this weekend.

So, I want to say now to my nationalist friends; I understand your passion. I understand how much this means to you and I hope you understand what it means to me. I know you’re campaigning for what you believe to be best and I hope you can respect that I’m doing the same. I know you’re going to be hurting on Friday if ‘my side’ wins and I hope you spare a thought for me if things go well for you.

I’m not going to gloat if we win and I’m not going to be bitter if we don’t – I promise now to put this past us and work on making things better again after Thursday, no matter the result, and I hope that that’s something that all of Scotland can agree to do, for all our sakes.

Votes at 16, but just this once?

Tomorrow morning, the papers will announce that the Scottish Government will allow 16 and 17 year olds to vote in the independence referendum in 2014. This has caused dismay amongst the most unlikely of people: the pro-votes-at-16 group!

Last Spring, the Scottish Liberal Democrats debated the issue and, as I said to Conference on the day, I am hugely in favour of extending the vote to 16 and 17 year olds for the referendum, whether or not the right is extended to all elections in Scotland. My reasons for this are three-fold:

Firstly, I strongly believe in votes at 16. I don’t want to focus too much on that debate because that could take all day and may over-shadow my point. So, let’s just take it as read that I think the voting age should be extended to include 16 and 17 year olds. I share this view with many people (particularly fellow Liberal Democrats), yet I feel quite alone in my support of the Scottish Government’s decision with regards this particular vote. It seems odd to me that anybody who supports the rights of 16+ year olds to vote could campaign against the decision, simply to serve their own political agenda (eg. “I will only support this if it will apply to all elections”.)

Secondly, I don’t care what reason the SNP has for allowing this.I do not care that the SNP are hoping that 16 and 17 year olds will be more likely to vote for independence (something that is disputed anyway) because, at the end of the day, the motive is irrelevant if the result is desirable.

Finally, I think that it is imperative that 16 and 17 year olds get a say on this issue. Scotland’s relationship with the UK (and potentially even with all of Europe and, indeed, the rest of the world) hangs on the results of this referendum and that will affect the way the country works for a long, long time. It is Scotland’s youth that will grow up with the decision made in 2014 and they should get a say. I don’t want their voice taken from them because of party politics.

Me addressing Scottish Conference in support of votes from 16 at the referendum

Me addressing Scottish Conference in support of votes from 16 at the referendum

The truth is that we cannot achieve votes from 16 if we hold out for an ‘all or nothing’ agreement. By supporting their right to vote in 2014, we have an opportunity to extend that right to more elections. For a start, the Scottish Government don’t even have the power to change the voting age for Holyrood, Westminster or European elections. Should we pressure them to change the voting age for council elections? Yes, we should. Let’s do that in time for 2017! As for Scottish, General and European elections; let’s use 2014 as a precedent for those.

The Independence Debate Explained

Yesterday I posted a blog about ‘The Second Question’ and a lot of people told me that they were very confused by the whole thing. The independence debate is likely to get very interesting very quickly; it will be picking up speed for the next two years and it’ll no doubt continue long-past the referendum. I’ve asked around and there are a lot of people, particularly in England, who are interested in the debate but have no idea how to follow it so here’s a guide to what’s going on. I’m not an expert on this but I’ve tried to be concise, informative and unbiased. I hope it’s helpful to anyone struggling to follow the debate and if you’ve any suggestions for something you’d like me to add then please get in touch!

A Very Brief History: In 1707, The Acts of Union brought Scotland and England together to form the Government of Great Britain at Westminster. Since then there have been arguments for devolution or independence but it wasn’t until 1979 that the Scottish electorate were given a chance to vote on the matter. The referendum resulted in a very narrow victory for the ‘yes’ side but it had previously been decided that the Scottish Parliament would not be established without support from at least 40% of the electorate. The ‘yes’ votes accounted for only 32.9% and, as such, devolution was not introduced to Scotland.

In 1997, Labour came to power and upheld their manifesto promise to hold another referendum. This time the referendum was won by the ‘yes’ side and resulted in the Scotland Act 1998, following which the Scottish Parliament was established at Holyrood in Edinburgh and first met in 1999.

The establishment of the Scottish Parliament was not independence for Scotland, it was a devolution of powers from Westminster to Scotland. This meant that Westminster was still in charge of ‘reserved’ issues for the whole of the UK (constitutional matters, foreign policy, defence, immigration and social security amongst others) while Scotland now had power over devolved issues (health, education, local government and the environment amongst others).

This year, The Scotland Bill passed into law and became The Scotland Act 2012 which transferred even more powers to Scotland but not enough for those who support independence over further devolution. The Scottish National Party (SNP) got enough votes to form a minority government in 2007 but at last year’s election they gained even more support and became the first party to form a majority government since the establishment of the Scottish Parliament in 1999. The SNP’s main priority has always been independence for Scotland and they now plan to hold a referendum in 2014. This time Scotland will be asked to decide whether or not they want independence from the UK, rather than devolution of powers.

The Referendum: In January of this year, Alex Salmond (leader of the SNP and Scotland’s First Minister) announced that the referendum would take place in autumn of 2014. The Scottish Government ran a public consultation between January and May of this year, the results of which will be used to draft a Referendum Bill which will be debated at Holyrood in 2013 ahead of the 2014 vote. Included in the consultation were questions about the format of the ballot (including the controversial ‘Second Question’) and who should be allowed to vote. Since constitutional matters are reserved to Westminster, the Scottish and Westminster Parliaments will have to agree on the terms of Independence before it happens.

For and Against: I’m quite strongly against Scottish independence so I don’t think I could explain the arguments on each side without being a little bit biased but Liberal Youth’s blog, The Libertine, recently published posts for and against which are worth reading if you’ve yet to make up your mind.

Terms: Below is a list of potentially unfamiliar terms that are frequently used throughout the independence debate. If you know of any others that you want me to add, please get in touch.

Devolution: Devolution is moving power from central government (in this case, Westminster) to subnational government.

Unionism: Belief in ‘the union’. In this case, Unionists believe that Scotland and England are better off as part of the UK.

Devo+: A proposed alternative to independence and a form of increased devolution. It is a system proposed by some that involves both Westminster and Holyrood raising what they spend in Scotland themselves. It would hand more tax powers to Scotland.

Devo Max: Another proposed alternative to independence. This system would involve Holyrood raising its entire budget itself but passing a grant back to Westminster for spending on reserved matters.

Indy Lite: This is the term given to what most people consider to be independence. With Indy Lite, Scotland would be a constitutionally separate state but would keep the Queen as head of state and other unions may be maintained (for example, Scotland may keep the pound under Indy Lite).

‘Full’ Independence: This is independence ‘to the extreme’, if you will. This isn’t what the SNP seem to be proposing. If Scotland became fully independent it would be a completely separate state and would not share a currency or head of state with the UK.

The West Lothian Question: This question points to some holes in the current system of devolved government. There is a town called Blackburn in West Lothian, Scotland and there’s another town called Blackburn (where I was born, if anyone’s interested!) in Lancashire, England. The MP for West Lothian can vote on all issues relating to the Blackburn in England (because it is governed by the UK Parliament) but is unable to vote on some issues for the Blackburn in his own constituency because some of the matters are devolved to the Scottish Parliament.

A Case Against The Second Question

I’m English. I thought I was European until I spent a few years at an International College in Spain where I had classmates from all over Europe and where I learnt a lot about cultural differences. I thought I was British for a while but then I moved to Scotland and found that the histories and cultures of England and Scotland were so different that I had to conclude that I am, in fact, English.

Although I see myself as an English person, I think of Scotland as my home. I’ve lived here for about 3 years (longer than I’ve spent in England since I was 11 years old) and I spend Scottish banknotes, study at Scottish institutions and live with a Scottish man (he says ‘the noo’, and everything). Along with the many other English people in Scotland and Scottish people in England, I love the freedom that the Union brings and when it comes to the question of independence, I can go through the pros and cons, the economics, the logistics and the legalities all day long but in the end, for me, it boils down to this: I’m not ready to be an expat in the country that I see as home.

Following the launch of the Yes to Independence and the Better Together campaigns, there’s a lot of talk about the independence debate and about the vote itself; ‘should 16-18 year olds be allowed to vote?’, ‘Should Westminster allow a referendum at all?’ and, most interestingly to me, ‘should there be a second question?’

I hadn’t given an awful lot of thought to the issue of the The Second Question until I went to a fringe at the Scottish Liberal Democrat Spring Conference this year in Inverness. The discussion was about the alternatives to independence and I got very interested in the comparisons between The Scotland Act, Devo+ and independence, amongst others. I won’t go into these different options now but I found myself completely convinced that there must be a 3rd option in the referendum. I was determined that the Liberal Democrats must jump at this opportunity to campaign hard for a second question and not to let this chance for home rule fly by after so many years of fighting for it. As Nicola Prigg said when addressing the conference floor; with a two question ballot, “a vote against independence is a vote for the status quo” and, again, I was excited to join the campaign against a Yes/No ballot.

I completely changed my mind later that weekend and after reading Graeme Cowies’s criticism of Willie Rennie’s stance against The Second Question today, I thought I had better explain why.

Graeme’s post on The Libertine is an excellent argument against the status quo and is well worth a read for anybody who hasn’t yet understood the reasoning behind the appetite for change but it hasn’t convinced me that independence is the answer or, indeed, that having a second question is something we should support.

Firstly, those of us that are interested in politics are likely to have strong opinions on Home Rule, Federalism, Unionism and Devolution but the general public are significantly less interested, on the whole. I don’t know many people outside of the ‘activism bubble’ who understand or care about the difference between Devo+ and DevoMax, for example, and therefore there would need to be a consensus on what the 3rd option would be, a scenario that I don’t believe is very likely. If it was decided that several alternatives should be offered, where would we draw the line? There are far too many and trying to explain them all would detract attention from the overall debate.

A popular argument against a second question is the 51% / 98% scenario in which 51% of the electorate vote for independence and 98% of the electorate indicate a preference for one of the alternatives. In this scenario it would be up to Holyrood to decide which would ‘win’ and, unfortunately, our SNP-majority government is likely to be slightly bias towards independence in that instance. It would be very bad for a new nation to start off with that level of confusion over the legitimacy of the referendum result.

Finally, the SNP love the argument we’re having about introducing a second question; they would love us to split the No vote and they’ve already made attempts to confuse the debate by focusing on other issues (including votes for 16 and 17 year olds). This debate needs to be completely focused on whether or not independence from the UK is the best option for Scotland. We need to challenge the SNP to be completely open with their definition of independence and everything that it would entail. The No campaign needs to unite against the Nationalists in the fight for the Union and, when the referendum is won in our favour, it will then be time to continue the pursuit for further powers to Scotland.