Poverty is growing fast, extreme wealth is rising faster and Britain is running rapidly towards another financial collapse. For the first time in decades, people in this country are starving to death or relying on food banks yet power has become so concentrated in the hands of a very few that signifiant change seems almost impossible.
The Labour party
offer only a slower decline and the Greens, while growing fast, are
a very long way from government. In the struggle of people against
power, for more than a generation in the UK, power has been winning.
And when you keep on losing a game, it's time to question the rules.
There are good reasons to believe that Britain is a specifically regressive force. Unlike France, its understanding of itself is not revolutionary but conservative. They have a national holiday to celebrate the storming of a jail. We had one to mark a monarch getting hitched.
Unlike Germany, Britain has never been forced to radically re-imagine its self image in a post imperial age. They know their past was murderous. We still pretend ours wasn't: that our only role in the transatlantic slave trade was to end it; that our empire was about G&T, not blood and plunder.
Unlike almost anywhere else in Europe, Britain hasn't had to rewrite its constitution from scratch since it introduced universal suffrage. Instead, it has a malleable elite, one which bends with the times, but ultimately retains its strength.
There are, likewise, reasons to believe that the new political reality brought about by independence would provide better opportunities to empower people. Government would be closer to us. Our constitution would be new. Our national story would be one not of conservatism nor of violent revolution, but of democratic renewal.
It is a change we have already sampled. Already, health, education, housing, justice, the environment and planning policy have been devolved to Holyrood. The results have been impressive. Whilst approval ratings of the NHS in England have tumbled in recent years, satisfaction with healthcare in Scotland is higher than ever. Whilst tuition fees have soared in England, they have been scrapped in Scotland, and graduates from Scottish universities now do better than their peers studying anywhere else in the UK.
Holyrood has a much better record of building council houses than Westminster, delivering in 2010 as many in Scotland as were built in the whole of England, despite being 10% of the size. Prisons in Scotland have largely avoided privatisation and the disasters which have come with it in England; and Holyrood is delivering the renewables revolution that Cameron is trying to block. Land reform has helped finally reverse the de-population of the Hebrides and the Scottish Forestry Commission has drastically improved its approach to native woodland.
Where Holyrood has been given powers, it has largely been a success. In fact, as Peter Arnott has touched on, Scotland's middle classes have always ensured that the institutions which they use and work in are run from Scotland: our ministers, our teachers, our professors and our lawyers have from the outset been accountable to people based in Edinburgh or Glasgow, not London. Since the National Health Service was established, our doctors have always been employed by an institution based north of the border: NHS Scotland. The BBC has from inception had a Scottish wing.
Independence, on the other hand, means bringing decisions about foreign wars and the benefits system to Holyrood: decisions which primarily impact on those who are more working class – for it is they who suffer when benefits are cut and who die when Westminster declares war. If home rule is good enough for the middle class, it is good enough for the working class.
This trend of course isn't absolute, but it does cast a different light on the class differences in support for independence: the poorer you are, the more likely you are to have daily decisions about your life impacted directly by Westminster, the more likely you are to vote yes.
Ultimately, though, hope in change does not come from facts or figures, though they make it more credible. It comes from the 600 people who I'm told showed up to a public meeting in Troon the other night, the 10% of Ulapool who came to their village hall to debate independence when I was there in the spring, and the tens of thousands of people who have become actively involved in politics through the referendum process – on both sides.
If it is a yes vote, it won't have been delivered by Alex Salmond or Blair Jenkins or the SNP or the Yes campaign. It will have been secured with the soar feet and the late nights of thousands of activists tramping the streets and planning events and talking to their neighbours and learning.
If independence is won, it will be through the collective effort of a huge number of people who will have built their own networks, learnt how to organise themselves, and have the momentum of a famous victory behind them. It will have been against a well researched and thorough opposition who have anticipated every coming pitfall and will now be involved in helping to avoid them. These people won't be going anywhere, and they won't be alone.
Scotland’s greatest export for centuries has been people. Independence is a chance to reverse that trend. Everywhere I go in England at the moment, I meet people who promise to move north if it is a yes vote – some who have genuinely put life plans on hold as they wait for the result. Most of these are young, left leaning activists who are thrilled at the prospect of moving to and helping build a new country. Some are Scots who like me moved south for work; some are people with links to Scotland – English graduates from Scottish universities, for example. Many more are simply people excited by the opportunities a yes vote will bring; who wish to be involved in the hard graft of creating a better nation.
But recently, I have come across another group too: successful Scots, living south of the border, who hope the union will stay together. There are many of these, but typical of them is the Rory Stewart, Tory MP for Penrith and the border. Like me, Rory hails from Perthshire. At a debate on independence in London recently, he was asked if he'd move north if it was a yes, in order to try and help to resolve some of the things he feared it would bring about. He didn't hesitate to confirm that he would.
Rory is a Tory and I disagree with almost everything he has voted for in his four years in the Commons. In a sense, he represents an old elite whose power I hope will be hugely eroded by a yes vote. But it would be churlish to pretend that he isn't a ferociously intelligent and hugely competent man. Scotland will have a right wing, it will have conservatives, and it is important for democracy that it is wisely and articulately represented. When opposition is weak, no one wins.
My point isn't about him, though. My point is that he is typical of the many thousands of young Scots of all kinds who leave the country every year because the jobs which match their dreams are down south. Whether through excitement or worry, huge numbers will return to, or stay in, Scotland so they can roll up their sleeves and get involved.
Perhaps I am a little naïve. Perhaps it is wrong to hope – but however small the chance of positive change with a yes vote, it is surely less credible to imagine that serious reform can be achieved by remaining in a union whose institutions are built before anything else to protect themselves.
Independence is not an end in itself. It is an opportunity to forge a new country from an old nation. It is a chink in the armour of a political system built to keep the people out. Prise that gap open and we have the chance to fundamentally alter the balance of power on these islands. It is in the interests of the powerful to maintain the status quo. It is in the interests of the people to disrupt it. A referendum on independence may not be how many of us expected this opportunity to arise, but it's here. To miss it would be a generational mistake.
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