We All Want a Better Scotland
Last night I represented RIC Aberdeen in a debate at Robert Gordon University. There were four speakers on each side, and it was an absolute pleasure to speak alongside Ciaran McRae, Kirsty MacDonald, and Christian Allard in favour of a Yes vote. In the course of the hour-long debate (much too short to discuss anything in depth) and conversations afterwards, I was struck by certain arguments on the No side.
I was surprised that the No side agreed with a lot of what we were saying. None of the speakers was a Tory, and none liked the current UK government. None was happy with the status quo, and they all agreed that the system needs fundamental changes. The difference was their belief that change can be achieved by staying in the UK.
Several people on the No side criticised us for having so many different visions. No certainty! No clear plan! But surely that’s the point of democracy: that a diverse population can pursue the greatest good for the greatest number, while also safeguarding the needs of minority groups? For the No side, democracy works best in a larger partnership. They believe that the diverse needs of the nations and regions of the UK are best met centrally. But they also acknowledge that this hasn’t been the case for many years.
Another key difference was the No side’s vision of Britain as a world power. Setting aside the end of the Empire and Britain’s tiny proportion of the world’s population, the desire to be a world power is misplaced in the 21st century. A country’s standing is less about its embassies and more about the way it treats the rest of the world. I don’t want to live in a country that can push other countries around. I don’t want my country to pursue clout and unearned influence. I want it to pursue sensible solutions and sensible policies that lead by example.
On the No side, one person said that the UK can knock on the door of any of the G8 nations and be listened to. But they agreed that David Cameron’s government is not acting in Scotland’s interests, and set this up as a reason to stay in the UK and try to change the government. But did Gordon Brown’s government act in our interest? Tony Blair’s? John Major’s? Margaret Thatcher’s? How long do we need to stay in a partnership that’s not working before we decide it’s time to leave?
The more I hear in the referendum debate, the more this feels like an abusive relationship. The psychological root of No’s position seems to be that if the relationship’s not working, it’s our job to fix it. If only we can work harder, if only we can play by their rules more perfectly, we can make things better. In a romantic relationship, it’s a heartbreaking level of denial. In a political relationship, it’s a call to action for those who can see the abuse.
To give a brief example, whether we’re talking about a classic abusive marriage or the UK’s current situation, both partners work and pool their money. But the powerful partner controls how much the other gets to spend on their own needs – and that allowance keeps shrinking, relative to what’s paid in. Any criticism meets the same justification: it doesn’t matter, because we get to decide how we spend it!
Anyone who’s lived on a budget knows that choice becomes a punishment if there’s not enough money to make ends meet. The choice between heating and eating. The choice between new shoes for the kids or repairs for the car. The choice between taking a second or third job and having time to rest. The kind of choices that grind us down rather than empower us.
In the same vein, the Scottish government is forced to choose between paying the bedroom tax for its most vulnerable or hiring more social workers. Providing university places or facilitating the council tax freeze. Hiring more nurses or ending privatised cleaning contracts for hospitals. These are impossible choices, but it doesn’t have to be a zero sum game. We can take control of our finances and take control of our collective lives.
One person on the No side accused us of wanting it all. Why not? Why not pursue what’s best for everyone? Why not reject the idea that ordinary people have to suffer to pay for the mistakes of the rich? Why not ensure that everyone pays their fair share for services that benefit us all? Why is profit more important than human wellbeing or environmental sustainability?
If we can afford nuclear weapons and foreign wars, if we can afford bank bailouts and bonuses, if we can afford tax avoidance and the House of Lords, then we can afford civilised levels of healthcare and welfare and democracy.
After the debate, I had a chat with a few audience members. In the midst of some heated discussion, one woman asked, with no hint of irony, ‘What has the Scottish government ever done for us?’ I started to reply, ‘free prescriptions, free higher education, free long-term care…’ She exclaimed, ‘Free! Free! Free! It’s all about handouts!’ She didn’t let me get to proportional representation, land reform or green energy initiatives, and she clearly resented taxation.
It seems strange that taxation is often seen as punishment, when its proceeds can fund pursuits that help everyone. It’s not about handouts, and it’s not about punishing the rich. It’s about safeguarding everyone’s quality of life. Clean air and water, safe food, sanitation, good roads and transport systems, fire and police services, health services, schools, scientific research, state pensions, a social safety net… These are all thanks to pooling our resources to achieve ends greater than we could achieve individually.
This might be a compelling reason to stay in the UK, if not for Westminster’s insistence on squandering resources in pursuit of the inequality, imperialism and injustice that most Scots reject. Even the No campaigners want a more equal society!