A short excursion to pre-referendum Scotland

On a short trip to pre-referendum Scotland, it's possible to find senior figures in the yes campaign in small town halls across the country, making the case for a social democratic Scotland.

Helen Lackner
2 September 2014

Birnam, Perthshire

Mid-August 2014. A week in Scotland, weather reasonably good. Visited friends who support the Yes campaign, but are not particularly active canvassing, or at least not yet. Until 18 August saw very few ‘yes’ or ‘no thanks’ notices, though the latter usually prominent in fields and other rural areas, while the former more visible in the towns and cities, including one big flag on the roof of the Chamber of Commerce building in Dundee. Certainly on the last day we saw more ‘no’ posters than others, but during the previous 5 days, saw practically none, at least none that I noticed.

Websites of both campaigns offer plenty of opportunities for leafleting, door to door canvassing, and market stalls. We wanted to attend meetings: had sought them out before going and found none for that period for the ‘no’ campaign within 25 miles of Perth or the west coast where we were planning to be, though we did avoid the two main cities to get away from the traffic and crowds. As result attended three pro-independence meetings in Crieff, Birnam and Carnoustie, all small to medium sized towns. A few observations:

  • first all three halls were full regardless of timing [Friday evening, Saturday morning and Sunday evening] with well over 100 people attending, no empty seats.

  • participants were of wide age range, though I estimate the over-50s were the majority everywhere

  • gender balance was in favour of women though, given that one meeting was run by ‘Women for Independence’ [open to men] and another was only for women, this is hardly surprising. At the third, I reckon there were about half of each gender

  • the atmosphere of all three meetings was very ‘placid’, positive and friendly. No violent outbursts and generally politeness and courtesy reigned. Not sure if there was any ‘background’ to this, but at each meeting the chair initially stated that the discussion should take place with ‘respect’ to the opposing view.

Although selected simply because they were accessible and taking place during our visit, the speakers we heard were very prominent. The first meeting had John Swinney, the Minister of Finance, Michelle Thomson, a leading business woman promoting Scotland, and Jeane Freeman, the former Special Adviser to Labour’s First Minister. The second was addressed by Lesley Riddoch, the non-party affiliated author of a recent book discussing the social problems of Scotland and the anti-poor [or pro-wealthy] policies of Westminster (Blossom a good book, well worth a read about recent decades of social change in Scotland) and the third by Nicola Sturgeon, the Deputy first Minister of Scotland and the Deputy Leader of the SNP who was on her third meeting for the day! Somehow we missed the event with the leader of the SNP and First Minister which happened the next day but we hadn’t found it on the website. So it is clear that the ‘yes’ campaign is very active and that it is able to field some really senior people in even fairly remote places. To my knowledge none of the medium towns where these meetings were held had any particular significance with respect to polls or other aspects of the referendum.

The speakers all managed to be lively and really interesting, and in particular to present complex issues clearly and in a language understandable by all. The meetings were focused on policies and on the positive aspects of independence rather than petty ‘political’ arguments such as we get daily down here on every issue, with the Tories pointing out that whatever it is they want to do is to correct the mistakes and deal with the disasters left behind by the previous Labour administration; not having to hear this trivia [and nonsense] was a great relief and contributed to making attending these meetings pleasant, despite the fact that all of them lasted a full 2 hours. To summarise the presentations, the arguments presented, directly or indirectly, were as follows:

  • Scotland is wealthier than UK at present and its resources are sufficient to maintain a good welfare state, on the social democratic model of 1960s Scandinavia. Currently Scotland pays into the overall UK budget more than it receives back. More than once was it mentioned that Scotland would be among the top wealthy countries in the world, if I remember rightly number 4. Hence an independent Scotland will be able to ensure a higher standard of living for its people.

  • An independent Scotland would have full control over its finances; for example although currently health and education are devolved, the overall budget is determined in London and therefore Scotland cannot fully set its own priorities

  • Regardless of scare stories from Osborne and others, Scotland could continue to use Sterling. While it would prefer an agreement on currency which would give Scotland a say in setting interest rates and monetary policy, even without these things, Scotland could use the Pound. No one can stop anyone using this currency anywhere. This came up both in the initial presentations and very much in discussions, as it had clearly been a major issue in the media in recent weeks and the meetings came just after the head of the Bank of England had made a statement on the subject, rather more positive or at least neutral than earlier threats by the Chancellor in London.

  • Defence and getting rid of nuclear weapons was also raised as a) a means of saving money b) a policy which is widely approved by Scots and c) an actual realistic option though it was recognised that it would take some time to implement.

  • Independent Scotland would maintain and improve current high standards in public health service, free higher education and certainly improve welfare issues, in particular cancel the ‘bedroom tax’. It would run a truly social democratic system reducing inequality and improving living conditions for the poor.

  • People should not be afraid of this change, it is a challenge but Scotland would be far better off, with more investment in infrastructure, job creation, apprenticeships, a fairer society and run by politicians who have proved their competence over the years of devolution.

Questions and discussion focused very much on social welfare issues in the broadest sense: the NHS and the impact of the many privatization aspects of the NHS in England, education, welfare and pensions in particular [they would be maintained and no one would suffer]. There were questions on the currency, clearly a concern successfully raised by the ‘no’ campaign, on nuclear weapons, and on jobs. While I attended there was only one clearly anti-independence question, from a clearly very frustrated and angry woman who questioned the speaker’s ‘right to challenge the Union’. International relations remained completely absent from the discussions and the only fundamental ‘constitutional’ questions raised concerned the monarchy [an issue to be addressed after independence has been achieved] in one case and the number of parliamentary chambers [one elected] in another.

My conclusion is that the basis of the discussion and the main arguments in favour of independence focused on the type of socio-economic policies favoured, ie a welfare oriented social democracy versus the current neo-liberal Westminster regime. These are not fundamentally sovereignty issues and, were the UK currently managed within the welfare state paradigm of the 1960s, the pro-independence people would have little to say. The only fundamental issue discussed in detail and clearly interesting to the participants was that of nuclear weapons. Although raised, other issues relating clearly to sovereignty such as the type of parliament, the role of the head of state, preference for a republican/monarchical system. In that respect, many south of the border would certainly support the objectives stated by the pro-independence campaigners: a fair caring society, a decent welfare system, a functioning national health service, free education, reduced inequality. All we need to do to get all these things is to get a truly social-democratic Party in power. Too bad that such a party doesn’t exist in the UK.

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