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.