I know, I call myself a political geek and yet I haven’t written anything about the Scottish referendum on independence. Well, not here anyway. I’ve tweeted (and retweeted) about it and have discussed in person with almost everybody I know. And that’s one of the things that really excites me about the referendum: just how much it has engaged the entire Scottish electorate. The news today tells me that about 97% of the Scottish electorate have registered to vote. That is incredible; this will be the biggest turnout, and the most important vote, of my life.
And after a lot of thinking and soul-searching, I’m going to be voting Yes. I’m certainly not a natural nationalist and a few years ago I wouldn’t have contemplated such a move, but a lot of exposure to the arguments over the last two or three years (that the UK-wide media are only picking up on now) and a number of other factors have led me to this conclusion.
The democratic deficit
The first, and probably most important, element in my thinking is the democratic issue. There is one Tory MP in Scotland. Scotland, over the three or so lustra that I’ve lived here, has consistently delivered centre- to left-wing MPs to Westminster, and yet we’re governed by a centre-right coalition led by the Conservatives, and before that, a centre-right government called New Labour. When England (which has the bulk of the UK population) is going in one direction, there’s no way that Scotland can counterbalance that. This is why I believe that a smaller country, with a more representative Parliament would work better. The existing hybrid constituency-plus-list system works well for us (although I’d really want to see a second chamber for an independent Scottish parliament) and I foresee a resurgence for Labour, and maybe even the Tories, in a Scotland where the whole of politics isn’t overshadowed by the giant that is Westminster.
Governing for the whole country
Following on from that, it feels to me that Westminster doesn’t govern in the interests of the UK as a whole. It governs in the interests of London and the south east of England. These regions are where both the population and the wealth of the nation is concentrated, and it distorts the whole of politics. London and the south east are crowded, so the government tightens immigration rules to breaking point, rather than encouraging migrants to spread to other parts of the country, such as Scotland, which is going to need larger numbers of immigrants over the next few decades as our own population ages.
This isn’t just a function of the current Tory-led coalition, the last New Labour government was guilty of it as well, as I’m sure many, if not all, governments over the decades have been. And I can see their point: they know where the wealth and population (hence number of MPs) is, so that’s where they focus. But it means that the rest of the country, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and the north of England, suffer for it. Changing this system would be incredibly difficult without some huge external trigger. The only one that I can see that might do it is Scottish independence, or possibly the threat of it. It’ll be good for us, but I hope it’ll also be good for the English regions and the other nations of the rUK.
In recent days, with Westminster panicking as a couple of polls put the Yes campaign neck and neck, or even ahead, of the No, this sort of major constitutional discussion is finally starting to happen. And it’s too late, for me, at least. If this had been discussed two years ago, putting forward a federal structure for the UK with powers being devolved down to the nations and regions of the country then I think it would have made a difference. But now it just seems like a panicked response at the last minute.
There’s been lots of drum-banging by certain kinds of No campaigners about the reduced defence power, prestige and spending of an independent Scotland. To which I respond: yes, and…? Trying to be a major player on the world stage has got Britain into a lot of trouble over the years. I foresee a much smaller armed force for Scotland, something that can be involved in UN- (and maybe NATO)-led peacekeeping operations, with no need for ridiculously expensive jets, missiles, and, of course, nukes.
I have no illusions that independence will be easy, certainly not within the first few years. Despite what the Scottish Government says, I think that the rUK government won’t go out of their way to make anything easier for us. In fact, I think quite the reverse. This article in the Independent has some views of the English on what the rUK government should and shouldn’t do if we leave (and, indeed, if we stay, which is no comfort either). I suspect that currency union wouldn’t be certain, that there’d be no common research area or many other agencies or services that spanned the nations. At least not in the first few years. After a while, things would hopefully settle down and more normal relations would develop. But then how long did it take for normal relations to develop between the UK and Ireland? I suspect we’ll eventually muddle our way back into the EU and maybe NATO as well, even if it does take some negotiation and time.
And yet, I can’t help but be excited and exhilarated by the prospects of independence. For me the currency and economics are quite low down on the list of priorities: it’s social justice and the prospects of finer democratic control that are the key. The idea that Atos won’t be turning down benefits claims of sick and dying people, and that those social tenants who have a “spare bedroom” won’t be charged for the privilege and so forth mean that I’m happy to pay a bit more in taxes to support that.
In the last weeks of the campaign, I think something has changed. The constitutional settlement of the UK is no longer a settled thing. If we gain independence, then the rUK will still need to take a long look at itself and change internally. And if we don’t, then the same will happen. The English are getting stirred up and are looking enviously at some of the powers that the other nations have. Devolution to the English regions must happen, and with it, I hope, the democratic renewal that the country needs. And I go back to the point I made right at the start: 97% of the electorate has registered to vote, many for the first time. As long as we can retain that engagement over the next years and decades, no matter which way the vote goes, we’ve already won.