Journeys to Yes
Coming from a middle-class Protestant background, I was unlikely to be anything other than an Ulster Unionist. Of course, the Alliance Party and Green Party in Northern Ireland attract support from across the religious divide. But as a Protestant, I most certainly fell (and still do fall) within the stereotypical political-religious cleavage that has existed since the creation of the Northern Irish state in 1921. I am an Ulster Unionist. However, since moving to Scotland over seven years ago, I have gone from a stereotypical Union supporting Ulsterman, to an Ulsterman in full support of Scottish independence. I’d like to tell my story about how the ‘unthinkable’ could occur, and I was partly inspired to do so through the experiences of broadcasters and journalists such as Derek Bateman and Lesley Riddoch, who’ve shown that one can change their views in the face of something more favourable and progressive, in the relevant context of course.
Admittedly, I had very little interest in Scottish politics when I first moved to Scotland as an undergraduate at Stirling University. Even by the time the Edinburgh Agreement was announced in October 2012, I was still what those on the Yes Campaign trail would call a ‘default no’. That, certainly in my case, was more to do with my roots in Ulster Unionism, as you might expect. But since the Edinburgh Agreement was signed by both Alex Salmond and David Cameron, putting into place a legally binding referendum on Scottish independence, I have been prompted to think about the issues and why anyone would actually want to vote for independence from the rest of the United Kingdom. What I underwent was a transformational change that resulted in my support for an independent Scotland.
As an Ulster Unionist and Protestant, it is natural to support an economic, political and social Union with the United Kingdom. In Northern Ireland, you tend to support either that, traditionally through the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) or the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), or the re-unification of the Island of Ireland, through the Republican-Nationalist Catholic parties; Sinn Fein or the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP). As such, Northern Ireland has a blatant political cleavage that divides voters on religious grounds. It has always been that way, and I doubt it will ever change. When studying on a Conflict and Co-operation module, the class often joked about how a generation needed to be kidnapped out of society in Northern Ireland, or elsewhere. Sometimes I think that might not be a bad idea.
So, clearly politics is rather stagnant in Northern Ireland, and that is probably one of the reasons that convinced me to move elsewhere for University. It didn’t take much self-convincing. It took me many years before I realised my true political beliefs, and I have the debate over Scotland’s future to partly thank for that. First and foremost, I am a Social Democrat. I, like most, also believe in Parliamentary democracy. But, most significantly, I have come to be a supporter of Scottish independence, and indeed, supporter of self-determination. Certainly in some cases around the World, federalism may be a better option. Deep down, I believe that there are Labour supporters out there who wish that there was some form of federalism in the United Kingdom, both for reasons of democratic accountability to citizens, as well as a means to quash Scottish nationalism. Indeed, I once spoke to a heavily involved member of the Campaign for a Scottish Assembly, who stated that federalism would have been a better solution to grievance in Scotland about democratic accountability, as opposed to the devolution that we now have.
From a personal perspective, I can divide my support for Scottish independence into three. First, the Yes campaign offers a very positive, pro-democratic vision about what Scotland can achieve as an independent country. Independence will give Scotland the chance to decide how it wants to tackle climate change and poverty, what kind of defence force it wishes to have, and whether or not it keeps Trident on the River Clyde. In terms of the latter, I have no doubt that most in Scotland wish to get rid of Trident, and that seems to have been a long developed consensus. It’s a shame how the Labour Party still can’t figure out if it’s for or against Trident. Way to confuse the electorate. Put simply, independence would allow the Scottish people to elect a government that they felt represented Scotland. Clearly Scotland and England have different sets of interests – why not let Scotland decide for itself which direction it wishes to take foreign affairs in, or which climate change goals it wishes to set, for example. Small is beautiful – and more democratic in relation to governance, particularly of a seemingly large proportion of people who do not see themselves as British at all, judging by the last census.
Second, as a social democrat, I believe that Scottish independence will lead to a fairer and more socially just society than what we have by being part of the United Kingdom. The Scottish Government has already shown itself to be an advocate of Universalism by introducing free bus passes for the elderly, free tuition for Scottish students at University, free prescriptions, and most recently – free school meals for all primary one, two, and three pupils. The SNP Scottish Government claims that it can go much further than this, but can only do so with the powers and freedom of independence. Free childcare is a major beacon for the SNP’s independence ambitions, and if in power in a 2016 independent Scotland, the party would seek to introduce a childcare revolution which would not only help every family in Scotland with childcare costs, but get women back into work and generate about another seven million pound into the Scottish economy. As a supporter of the principle of universalism, I believe that many families and women in particular, as well as those less well off, will benefit from independence.
Finally, the stifling, unjust and elitist politics of the United Kingdom completely turns me off the idea of staying part of a political Union with London, in particular. London is an economic and political drain on the rest of the UK, which means that other regions are held back both in terms of economic progress, as well as political and social progress. Added to that, is the steady dismantling of the welfare state that is occurring at the hands of David Cameron’s Conservative Party, and the introduction of socially unjust policy reforms such as the Spare Room Subsidy (‘Bedroom Tax’), Universal Credit, the curtailing of insurance benefit, or reform of what was known as incapacity benefit, to now include the restriction of a time limit to find work before benefits are withdrawn. Don’t forget, we’re ‘in it together’. Word must also go out to ‘Better Together’, the campaign that wishes us to stay in the Union. The negativity of that campaign is truly stifling. By the time of the vote, I suspect ‘Better Together’ will have convinced many people in Scotland that we’re better off with anything but a Union with one of the most elitist and inward-looking political systems on the planet. You only have to look to the complete failure at attempts to reform the House of Lords as an exemplar of the UK’s inability to implement true and meaningful reform. Another example is the failure of the Unionist parties to even come up with anything resembling a ‘devo-max’ style solution.
So there we have it. An Ulster Unionist and someone who should really be supporting the Union by definition, would much rather support Scottish independence. That comes down, very much, to my social democratic beliefs, and attraction to progressive democracy. If you’re a social democrat, then vote No at your peril. Whether it is the Tories or Labour in power, social democracy in Britain is dying out. We already know that the Tories wish to reduce our social security spending. But when you have people like Labour’s Rachel Reeves claiming that her party would be tougher than the Tories on benefits, I think that the writing is on the wall for all to see (as long as they’re looking at it).