by Deirdre Forsyth
I am a single parent, now retired from local government where I worked most of my life, and have been a supporter of Scottish independence for many years. So when the Edinburgh Agreement was signed and it became clear that Scotland would actually have a referendum I knew that I would vote Yes.
But in the days since, the independence debate has forced me to really think about my reasons. For all of us living in Scotland, about to take the most significant decision in our history, this is a time for inquiry, and for self-inquiry.
The reasons for voting Yes I will set out are inevitably personal. There will not be a typical Yes or No voter, come September 2014.
In examining my own ‘reasons’ for voting Yes, I have come to see that they consist of a complicated web of interconnecting beliefs and principles, many of them bound up with questions of political and cultural identity. One of the interesting things about this debate is that it transcends the left-right political spectrum and yet remains dominated by it. Most supporters of independence, and I am no different, do so from a left-wing perspective. Many of the reasons for independence I am going to talk about will make that clear. But arguments can also be made from the left for remaining part of the UK, even if I do not find them convincing. Ultimately, for me, there is a deeper dimension; the practical and political beliefs I hold complement my Scottish identity; but it is that identity, not those beliefs, that is at the heart of my desire for independence.
I am Scottish; I believe in my country and the people who live there; so for me the real referendum question is ‘Why would we not want to govern ourselves?’
So what has formed this strong Scottish identity?
It was from my mother and father that I first learned of socialism and the belief in self-government for Scotland.
My father was a member of the Labour Party and unsuccessfully stood for election to Westminster in three elections in the 1950s in the constituency of Edinburgh South. He included a reference to his belief in Home Rule for Scotland in his election leaflets. In the bye election in 1957 he was told by the party to remove this reference. He said that in that case he would withdraw; he was allowed to keep the reference in but did not stand again. My main memory is going round the doors trying to get people to put posters in their windows; not much fun for a 10 year old!
My father was also passionately pro-European. He had been at school for a year in Berlin in 1934, and was a fluent German speaker. In my childhood we travelled all over Europe on holiday, including to Denmark, Germany, Austria, and the then Yugoslavia.
My mother was also a member of the Labour Party when I was growing up and I remember she told me a story about differing attitudes to the poor. As a socialist she believed that the State should take care of those in need. Her friend Andrew, a Conservative, always gave to beggars and felt a personal responsibility to look after those who were badly off. The point is that in our community in Scotland there was a view from all sides that care should be provided to those in need. The only issue was by whom. I think that remains the common view in Scotland today. Sadly, in the UK now we seem to treat poor people as blameworthy, and to encourage policies that widen the gap between rich and poor. I want a Scotland that will return to being the caring community.
The first great modern success for the Scottish National Party was in 1967 when Winnie Ewing was first elected in Hamilton. She succeeded first in a Labour constituency, then in a Conservative one – beating the then Secretary of State for Scotland – then in a Liberal area, becoming Member of the European Parliament for the Highlands and Islands. When the Scottish Parliament was created in 1999, Winnie chaired the first session. This allowed her to actually say the words she had been waiting to hear all her life: “the Scottish Parliament, adjourned on 25th day of March, 1707, is hereby reconvened.”
Well Winnie is my aunt so we all, especially my mother, her older sister, are very proud of her. And now two of my cousins, her elder son and daughter, are Members of the Scottish Parliament.
Winnie was at University in the Netherlands for two summers in the early 50s, and learnt to speak Dutch. In 1996, when she was an MEP – known by some as Madame Ecosse! – she was asked to become Honorary Conservator of the Scottish Privileges in Veere, in Zeeland. Her influence has been important to me, especially my belief in the importance of the EU to Scotland.
I want to talk a little about culture. I was brought up with a very strong sense of Scottish culture and history and a sense of pride in our place in the world and our contributions to it. The work of Hume, Adam Smith, Lord Kelvin and our current reputation for innovation in science; the writing of Burns, Stevenson, Scott, Alasdair Gray and many more. I was taught that as a small nation we punched above our weight, and in many ways we still do. I should mention here of course our great Scottish sports stars like Andy Murray and Chris Hoy. And of course our football fans, who are the best in the world at losing!
When I was 1 year old, I moved to Edinburgh. The Edinburgh International Festival started that same year. I go to events at the Festival every year and it is a point of pride that the world’s biggest arts festival takes place in Scotland.
I went to the Citizens Theatre pantomime in Glasgow every year with my grandparents, who were regulars there. In 1988 we had the Glasgow Garden Festival and in 1990 Glasgow was the European city of culture. I went to many plays and exhibitions that year and got hooked.
Of course a love of the arts does not equate to a desire for independence. But the independence debate has itself already provided a cultural spark; I know that lots of people remain unengaged, but their numbers are reducing. The opportunity this debate is providing to take stock of our country, to think about what we want from the future as well as what is the best constitutional route to deliver it, cannot but create an atmosphere conducive to energy and creativity. And I think there is a link between a strong sense of cultural identity rooted in a thriving arts scene and the self-confidence that I hope will see Scotland take its place in the world.
In this context I recall what Dr Jim Hunter, then head of Highlands and Islands Enterprise, said about Shetland and their successful negotiations with the oil companies. He believes that the Shetlanders` self confidence, which enabled them to negotiate so strongly with these large multinationals, was fostered by the many years of interest in and support for their own culture, especially music. The head of one of the oil companies said “The two most difficult people in the world to negotiate with are Colonel Gadaffi and the CEO of Shetland Islands Council – and not necessarily in that order”!
I want to talk now about some of the issues which matter most to me, and how I see independence as the path to a better Scotland in practical, political terms. A lot of these issues will be familiar to those who have been following the independence debate.
I will start with some of the things that I am worried about.
I have been a supporter of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament for as long as I can remember. If people vote no we will never get rid of Trident and the daftness of the UK trying to be a major power through the retention of nuclear weapons. I could devote my entire speech to the senselessness of these weapons of mass destruction, the obscenity that we spend billions on them when it has been clear for a long time that they are nothing more than an expensive war-crime-in-waiting.
I hope that when we vote yes and get rid of these submarines from Scotland that it will lead to the rest of the UK choosing to scrap them completely. The expense and difficulty of recreating the facilities at Faslane and, especially, Coulport would make this quite likely I think – and that would be to the great benefit of not just Scotland and the UK but the world.
Immigration is one of the policy areas reserved to Westminster. As in other areas, there is an increasingly clear divergence between the policies the London parties implement and those which Scotland wants and needs.
We need people in Scotland. Over the centuries we have lost millions to emigration. We have 32% of the area of the UK with just 8.4% of the population.
Furthermore, I believe that the people of Scotland are open to immigration in a way that goes against the trends we are seeing in other parts of Europe. Certainly there has been little electoral success for anti-immigration parties such as UKIP.
We have lots of room in Scotland and my view is everyone is welcome. If you live in Scotland, and if you want to be, then you are Scottish.
The European Union
Again, the EU is an issue where I look at what is happening in London and worry about what might happen if we remain part of the UK. We can all see that a referendum on the UK leaving the EU is increasingly likely. I am sure that Scotland would vote to remain in the EU, and opinion polls back this up; but those same polls suggest that a majority of people in the UK as a whole would vote to leave, meaning Scotland would be forced out of Europe against its will.
This would be a disaster for all of us in Scotland. The anti-European rhetoric of those in favour of an exit leaves a nasty taste in the mouth.
I believe in the European ideal and the prevention of war that gave birth to it. Scotland’s legal system, like many others in Europe, is based on Roman law, and Scotland`s affinity with the mainland of Europe has always been strong. Scots had and still have links to France, Ireland, the Baltic cities in Germany and all along that coast, the Netherlands, Italy and elsewhere.
There were links between our ancient Universities long before the modern Erasmus student-exchange programme which I am pleased to say my son was able to benefit from. That programme led ultimately to him working in Dublin and then becoming an Irish civil servant who now works in the Permanent Representation of Ireland to the EU in Brussels . So now my own European connection is strengthened through a lovely Irish daughter-in-law, a French-speaking Irish/Scottish granddaughter and a newly-arrived Belgian/Scottish/Irish grandson!
Local Government and Service
In Scotland we depend for our funding on a block grant from Westminster. The amount we receive is based on something called the Barnett formula. This works by taking the amount of money spent in England on services and allocating an equivalent percentage to the Scottish Government. This detail is something I only found out this year – one example of the way the referendum debate is prompting me and others to look more closely at how our country is run.
In England, more and more services are being privatised – the most obvious example is the National Health Service – and public projects are being funded through private finance initiatives. The Scottish Parliament has rejected these policies, and I believe that reflects the wishes of the Scottish people. But because of the way the Barnett formula works, Scotland is in effect being punished for making its own policy choices.
Greater privatisation in England means less public money is spent there; less public money spent in England means less money is allocated to Scotland. This means that services in England are not losing overall funding, as the shortfall is made up by charging people at the point of access or by having the service provided independently of government by the private sector for profit. Over time this will make it more and more difficult for Scotland to continue to fund universal benefits and free public services even if the Scottish people make it clear that is the policy they wish to pursue.
There is a common theme running through these worries about the consequences of a No vote – ultimately it comes down to the lack of democracy. After all, there is nothing to stop a UK Government scrapping Trident, reforming the Barnett formula, renationalising the Royal Mail and adopting other policies that better reflect the wishes of the Scottish people. But the point is that even if these things happened, it would be chance, not because we voted for them; and there would be nothing to stop the next UK Government going in a different direction.
That is fine if you accept that Scotland is a nation which deserves to have half a say on its affairs; that it makes sense that we decide on our education policy but not our welfare policy; but I do not accept that.
Again, the question is not Why independence? The question is Why Not?
I now want to look at some of the more positive aspects of the question; some of the advantages Scotland has and some of the opportunities we must grasp.
I want us to be able to spend our money on the expensive capital projects that we need to make renewable energy effective; such as tidal and wave power; and more hydro both large and community-based. And the improvements to the grid that would allow these projects to benefit everyone. Scotland has 25% of the renewable energy potential of the entire EU. It is often said that we are the only country to have discovered oil and got poorer; I do not want this new opportunity for us to lead the way in green energy to be squandered.
And it appears there are years and years of income from oil still to come. Hopefully we could switch from the present spendthrift UK system now operating to something like the Norwegian way of forward thinking and concern for future generations.
For many years we in Scotland were told that we were subsidised and should be grateful for it. We now know that was not the case. But there are some people on the Isle of Islay where I used to work who will tell you that they are subsidising the rest of us through taxes on whisky! I think the sums from whisky are much more that most of us realise – whisky contributed £4.27 Billion to the UK economy last year, constituting 25% of all food and drink revenues.
I would like to see an independent Scotland use the revenues from oil, whisky and our other successful industries to fund improvements to our benefits system and make us a fairer society; so maybe we would no longer have beggars on the streets.
Scotland has a long history of universal public education, and this is a point of pride for many people. In the last couple of weeks, five of Scotland’s universities were ranked in the top 200 in the world, the highest number per capita of any country on Earth. So the potential is there to be harnessed by a successful independent country.
Rural Scotland and Land ownership
I may be biased, but I think Scotland is the most beautiful country in the world!
I have lived in Glasgow, Edinburgh, Ayrshire, and Argyll. I was Argyll and Bute Council`s representative on a project called Initiative at the Edge, which was set up to support our remotest communities. I was also the project manager of the Council`s millennium project called “3 Islands partnership”, which created service-points with video conferencing on the islands of Islay, Jura and Colonsay so that local people could access local and national public services without having to travel long distances. So I have seen at first hand what can be achieved when Government is brought closer to the people it is meant to serve. I hope that independence can lead not just to a less remote central Government in Edinburgh instead of London, but in turn to stronger, more responsive local government, particularly for rural Scotland.
And one of the biggest issues for rural Scotland is our system of land ownership. It is anachronistic and biased in favour of large estates, and needs to be changed. We have started to do so with the support for community buyouts. These are mainly on quite a small scale – for example a community saving their only shop.
But in 2003 the people of the Island of Gigha successfully bought their island from the former landowner with the support of the Scottish Government and other partners. I was involved from the beginning as part of my job working for the local Council. I spent a year going to weekly meetings with the islanders and I am proud to have been there at that time. I hope that independence would give a stronger voice to rural Scotland and create an opportunity for debate on how the system of land ownership could be improved.
I am chairperson of Scotwest, one of the biggest credit unions in the UK. A credit union is a financial co-operative that encourages saving and enables people to obtain loans at a reasonable rate. I believe in the ethics of co-operation and would like to see the whole of Scotland benefiting from this system; and, as in countries like Canada and Australia, having a more ethical alternative to banks.
But we need to be in control of our own economy. We have seen what happened to RBS and HBOS when they were allowed to become vast multi-nationals, far removed from their original purpose. If we had stuck to the system of local banks and as they have here in Germany, then we would surely be in a better state than we are now.
I am inclined to the view that we should have our own currency, rather than the pound and control by the Bank of England. But I am happy to leave such questions to the people of Scotland to decide democratically, following a vote for independence.
Scotland is one of the oldest countries in Europe. We have our own legal system, our own National Health Service, our own education system. Having our own Parliament to oversee these since 1999 has been a great improvement, but it has only increased my desire for a return to full self-government. We have more advantages – I have mentioned some of them – than many other countries which have successfully become independent – there are numerous recent examples in Europe alone.
Why would we not wish to be in control of our own destiny?
I will vote Yes not for selfish or negative reasons, but to enable my country to be what I want it to be; a place where everyone really reaps the benefits of a country wealthy in ideas and natural resources, and which can be proud of its role in the international community.
Rabbie Burns is known all over the world and my favourite quotation is “that man to man the world o`er, shall brothers be for a` that”.
It is time for Scotland to vote YES and, to modernise Burns, join the sisterhood of nations.