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The People We Could Be

What is the state we are in? We have two official versions – an old nationalist tale of identity, history and sentiment from the Brits and a half-formed promise of something better from the Scottish Government. Neither feels quite right.The state of the UK is critical. Heavily-indebted, a volatile economic model, diminishing in global standings, unable to reform welfare, discreetly privatising the NHS. No annus mirabilis for the Queen to laud.The state of Scotland is hard to ascertain. Why, if all of the above about the UK is true, do so many Scots want to keep that? Why, if change is essential, do the Scottish Government cleave so close to the old model?The better question is what kind of state do we want to live in and how is it achieved. That’s where I think the White Paper should have begun – what do we want as a people?The referendum may be about here, but its profoundly universal. We wrestle with how to fix the problems of a financial crash, of a failing democracy, of the purpose of government, just as everyone does. It’s not our state that is in crisis, but all states.

It’s long been assumed the 20th century ended in 1989. The end of communism marked a great shift between eras. Yet 2008 seems a better terminus – when the centuries emerging theory of globalism took a kick to the groin and everyone winced.

We can see how between 1945 and 2008 the modern state refined itself through welfare and common provision and then, from the 1980’s on, sought to pay for this through capitalist chicanery. We are left with states that can’t afford themselves and can’t find an alternative to the wonga-wisdom of the City.

The question is ‘Should Scotland should be an independent country?’ when it could be – who in god’s name has a plan how to get out of this mess? Thankfully, we’ve sussed this out – hence the boom in smart websites unencumbered by neo-liberal orthodoxies and public meetings where honesty is common.

So what state do want to be in? I suspect one where we admit old pension promises are simply unaffordable and we should sort out an honest solution. Where we protect the idea of the NHS but can discuss reform without being called a Tory. Where welfare is a mark of civilisation, as is paying your taxes. A state that can think how to get off the global finance charabanc without bankers threatening us with disaster. I’m really sick of democratic choice coming a poor second to financial thuggery.

Once we’ve worked out the kind of state we want, the question is will the UK or Scotland be the most likely to deliver it. In 2011 we prepared a paper for political cabinet arguing that instead of selling a prescriptive version of independence, we ask people what kind of country they would like. Loosely modelled on Finland’s national conversation exercise, it would go from town hall to classroom simply testing the dreams of the population. It didn’t fly then but it’s common knowledge now – we want a society of our choosing. Yes has heard this, No hasn’t.

If its equality that bothers you, then the British economic model is structurally incapable of adjusting without giving up on the City of London. If it’s a welfare system that works, then look at the chaos of the UK reforms. If it’s a tax system people respect, then you can’t have the UK Treasury’s tolerance of havens.

In short, if we are to become the people we could be, then it is impossible in the UK. That doesn’t mean it’s a sure thing in Scotland, simply that Yes is a start in the right direction.

Alex Bell is former Head of Policy to Alex Salmond and author of The People We Could Be, published by Luath and launches at the Quaker Meeting House, Victoria Street, Edinburgh, 5.15pm Monday 18 August.

Comments (12)

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  1. jaffamcneill says:

    Time’s getting late for philosophising, for maybe this, maybe that. People need straight answers to tick one box out of two. Instead of “Where we protect the idea of the NHS but can discuss reform without being called a Tory”, let’s have a simple commitment that the NHS is guaranteed safe in an independent Scotland. Vote NHS vote Yes!
    The Tories will merge Scotland’s NHS with England and Wales and give them over to their rich mates, as they just did with the Post Office. Let’s stop the sophistry and state the case simply: if you vote no you’re voting to leave the European Union and dismantle the NHS.

  2. Hortense says:

    Bravo Mr Bell.

  3. Dave says:

    the main point is one of economics the UK has a debt reaching 900% of GDP the cat out of bag http://topdocumentaryfilms.com/plague-black-debt/ … UK economy is gubbed.
    It was down to economics that we joined the union. it will be economic that destroys it.

  4. deewal says:

    FORMER Head of Policy to Alex Salmond.

  5. oldbattle says:

    For awe that an awe that Alex there is still a dust storm of fear on the doorsteps: ‘aye but can we manage’? For those with next to nothing it is shocking to hear ‘A will stick to the devil I know’ when they know/when they feel that there is no fking way they are better together. BT has blighted the poor, kept the poor in deeper poverty through debt; reduced/driven working people into poverty. Yet the same who are suffering most are reluctant to change due to fear. Fear said Eliot is found i’n a handful of dust’. And we have not yet defeated the blinding dust of the fear factor.
    What is this dust of fear?

    Dust has in pollutants made from the detritus of debris, waste matter, discarded matter, refuse, rubbish, litter scarps, flotsam and jetsam, rubble and the wreckage of times past.

    Dust is made up of dead, discarded matter blown from the past. Eliot is indicating the source and basis of fear is this dead discarded debris of history: a detritus of yesterday’s ideas, political solutions and refuse! The stoor of history is being thrown in our eyes.
    The dust of failed foreign policy: the stoor of old cold-war defence strategies not fit for purpose in the 21st century; handfuls of neo-liberal market economics built from Hayek and cheap Gulf Oil. All these dusty old shibboleths are being thrown at us in handfuls from across the spectrum of the NO campaign.
    We need to sweep out this polluting past and project confidence-political confidence and cultural confidence in the future.
    In the struggle for sovereignty we must begin with sovereignty of the mind and then of the imagination. From this position of personal strength we may create the necessary community of consciousness from which we can win next month.

  6. florian albert says:

    Alex Bell is amongst the most thoughtful of those proposing a better way forward for Scotland.
    One phrase stands out in his piece above; ‘we admit old pension promises are unaffordable.’
    It stands out because of its pessimism.
    There is a near universal optimism amongst those on the left supporting independence.
    Personally, I think Alex Bell’s view is more accurate and more honest.
    Whether the people of Scotland want to hear somebody – whether on the right or the left – saying that future pensions are unaffordable remains to be seen.

    1. Eoin Mhic Neacail says:

      Pensions, or anything else for that matter, are as affordable as they are a priority. If a Scottish or British government wanted to afford pensions, they would find a way, either by taking money from something else or by increasing taxes on this or that group of people or on corporations. Any government (British or Scottish) or party (Tory, Labour, Lib Dem, or SNP) that claims “we simply can’t afford X” is simply lying. What they mean is that “it is not our priority to afford X”. Or at most that “the international ruling class and it’s economic institutions are telling us we ‘can’t’ afford X, and who are we to argue?”

      Of course, I understand that the amount of money available is ultimately finite, but as long as they can afford to cut taxes on the rich or corporations, or to subsidise private profit, or to spend money on aggressive wars and nuclear weapons, or pay themselves vastly inflated salaries, or pay for things like the monarchy or the Olympics or Commonwealth Games, don’t even think about claiming they “can’t afford” pensions, or the NHS, etc.

      And if we accept that “pensions are unaffordable”, what will be next? Because you can be certain that something will be.

  7. thisgreenworld says:

    It’s all very well to say that fear is a dust of dead discarded stuff…

    Fear is a key driver for people. so is hope. The Yes campaign has mostly been about (the hope that) hope will always trump fear. And yet… it all comes down to Change, or rather the management of change and how it is presented – as a threat or as a possibility..

    What shouts out to me the the bit that says …”Why, if all of the above about the UK is true, do so many Scots want to keep that? Why, if change is essential, do the Scottish Government cleave so close to the old model?”

    Yes I know it may be too late to go into all of this, but if we find ourselves on doorsteps or with people who take fright at change, a line that I use is to say:
    “Things always change. Sometimes change is dumped upon us. Sometimes we can be the agents of that change. If you want to be more in change of the changes that affect you, vote Yes. If you’re happy for changes to be dumped on you, vote No”

    end of.

  8. thisgreenworld says:

    of course it should say …more in chaRge of the changes…

  9. Optimistic Till I Die says:

    The prospect of change engenders fear and anxiety in many individuals and this has to be countered. Facts alone won’t do that but it is undoubtedly one of the reasons why the SNP is trying to ride dozens of horses at once. One needs to assure the risk averse individuals that they can have a say in that change, have a degree of control, even if it is only the control of electing who represents them. In a true democracy one should be able to do more than that and partake in the decision making process much more often than once every election year. The Yes grass roots campaign and others are demonstrating that this is possible. Most individuals, however, will be reluctant to take such a step unless they perceive a realistic degree of hope for a better life.

    Campaigners need to stick close to the truth but point out that change is inevitable: think change of Government, In/Out of the EU, being dragged into war, economic disasters, etc. These have all been manageable, but not necessarily in the most desirable manner. Why should Independence be any different? And, in this instance, the change is self determined, open to modification and negotiated outcomes. As in the well known saying ‘The only thing to fear, is fear itself’ (Was that Rooseveldt?).

    One can also point out the cost of not taking what seems to be a risky decision. And here it is clear that people need not trust experts. Where for example have our politicians and economists led us in recent years. Robert Peston in his book ‘How do we get out of this mess’ states this explicitely, though I doubt if he would ever become a spokesperson for the Yes campaign. If you think your economic future is sound when it is under the control of Westminster think of the still growing national debt and the changes forced on the ordinary citizen, think also of the extraordinary financial implications for most individuals in society that have arisen in recent years from scandals relating to mortgages, bonds, pensions, tax avoidance, payment protection insurance, interest rates, payday lending, and money laundering. Is there any need to worry unduly about what might happen in an independent Scotland?

    I would love to agree with those who believe everything would be rosy after a vote for Independence. It won’t. It could be difficult for a few years if the worst economic forecasts are correct. However, I would like to put forward a small suggestion. Citizens in Switzerland, so I believe, still pay a portion of Swiss taxes, even when they are working abroad. Why should Scots such as myself, now living abroad, who wish to retain Scottish citizenship, not pay a small tax for the privilege? Now there is a thought that might scare many readers but I, for one, would have no reservations about paying a reasonable amount. After all, I have been spending a small proportion of my pension each month to support various independence campaign groups. Continuing to do so should an Independent Scotland need support would be no problem. Personally, I would bet on retaining my full pension if Scots citizens really shake up the UK and vote in overwhelming numbers for Yes. I reckon I am more likely to find myself on the receiving end of cuts if the UK’s booming deficit continues to grow.


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