Jonathan Kiehlmann on his Journey to Yes
“In May 2007, the SNP took control of the Scottish Parliament. This made me sad, as I feared this would lead to the break-up of the Union.
Tony Blair was stepping down, Gordon Brown would replace him, but be massively unpopular, both because he represented more of the same and because people think he looks funny because he only has one eye. This would lead to the tory party winning the next General Election, and I could see Alex Salmond spending the next years playing Westminster against Holyrood until independence was the only viable option.
With the exception of Gordon Brown having a chance to win an election in ’07-’08 and blowing it, and David Cameron doing a lot worse in 2010 than he had any right to, it seems like this has happened.
I didn’t want the Union to break up. I was born in England, but moved to Scotland just before starting school. My mum’s from Yorkshire and my dad’s from Scotland: I always strongly identified as British and I deplore anti-English sentiment.
So how did it happen that I, born and living in England, despite living most of my life in Scotland, have ended up campaigning for Yes, and am going to vote that way?
I really didn’t want to.
In 2008, I moved to London to start my maths PhD, on the grounds that I’d probably hate living in the city and so it would probably be good for me. (I have never claimed to be intelligent.) In Scotland, called myself an average Scottish floating voter — I could vote for just about anyone except but tories. (On the day of the general election in 2010, I even considered voting for them, for about fifteen seconds — although on the grounds that I’d just had some really bad NHS treatment, so we may as well just get them in to get rid of the entire system. This was largely a joke, but it didn’t matter — like millions of others, I lived in a safe seat and so my vote couldn’t really change anything.) Despite this, until some time in 2014, I had never considered voting SNP, despite having a lot of respect for the party.
The SNP are a very interesting political party. They exist entirely to get Scottish independence (which is why the party’ll disintegrate within a decade or two of a “Yes” vote), and do things like “make Scotland a better place” in order to make the case for independence better. This differs a lot from the other parties whose major goal is “get into power” and tend to act, at root, according to this impulse. (That’s not to say that they don’t want to do good, or have goals besides power. A lot of politicians do a lot of good things. Most of the time, we don’t hear of most of it.) I once complained to an SNP friend that it wasn’t fair of them to govern Scotland better than England so we’re more likely to vote for independence. He pointed out, not unreasonably, that governing a country well is what politicians are supposed to do.
They also are spectacularly well-engaged at the grass-roots level: they’ve got a lot of very active, very committed supporters of all ages who want to make a difference and genuinely believe they can. A girl from my class in school was elected as a local SNP councillor aged 21, alongside her then-18-year-old brother: she’s currently serving her second term and doing a great job. The only smart, young people I know who believe we can fix things by working within the system of government are SNP. That we’ve arrived at this referendum might mean that they’re right.
London 2010 was an interesting place for a student. There was uncertainty everywhere, markets were falling as fast the banks, I didn’t know how I was going to finish my PhD, and under-funded NHS services were in chaos. And there was an election on. What seems to be forgotten right now is just how much the electorate was just fed up then. We’d put with MPs spending expenses on duck-houses, former ministers selling themselves to lobbyists as “taxis for hire”, and too much distrust over illegal wars. The people wanted a change, to the point that Nick Clegg got a boost of popularity just by seeming to be someone who wasn’t Tory or Labour. I didn’t vote Lib Dem, despite voting for them previously as I didn’t trust Nick Clegg. It had been reported that he didn’t really believe in cutting tuition fees, but campaigned on a pledge to do so. I feel incredibly bad about being proven right.
In 2011, the AV referendum went through, with some of the most negative campaigning ever. The tories argued against giving the public a fairer way to vote on the grounds that it would be a waste of money. (They argued it would cost £250 million, of which £130m was the cost of electronic voting systems which AV does not require, and of which £82m was the cost of the referendum, which was happening anyway.) A flicker of hope that democracy can change things came up from the Scottish election on the same day.
The SNP won a landslide that gave them a majority in Holyrood under a part-proportional system in which it is supposedly nigh-impossible to do so. They achieved this incredibly impressive result not from opposition, but from a position of minority government. They did this by engaging people on the ground, they did this by governing sensibly (they removed the private sector involvement Labour had introduced to NHS Scotland, and working instead on making it run efficiently) and they did this by taking a centre-left position of trying to look the most vulnerable citizens which New Labour has abandoned. I wished that there could be a similarly non-racist fourth party to vote for in England, as UKIP made more gains south of the border. Later that year, Cameron’s chief spokesman had to resign because it turned out the known criminal activity he’d lost his job at the News of the World for was a lot bigger than they’d admitted. As politicians depend on the press, they’re uncomfortably close to the media. Despite all of the illegal phone-hacking, there’s little to no practical change in press accountability.
During the riots that rocked England that year, Cameron, who, like many of his cabinet colleagues, partied with the Bullingdon club as a student by going out for dinner, smashing a restaurant and leaving cash on the table, described the violence as “Criminality, pure and simple”.
In 2012, the coalition pushed through the top-down reorganisation of the NHS they’d pledged not to introduce. These reforms seem increasingly to be described as privatisation. Many members of the government that pushed through receive large donations from Circle Health, one of the biggest private healthcare firms in the country. Like many others, I marched against it, though maybe not as much as I should’ve. Like many, my health directly suffered due to the chaotic disruption this caused. I’ve spent a lot of time dealing with the desperately short-funded NHS mental health system in London, which is better than elsewhere in the country, because London gets more money and is more centralised. It’s still massively short of the resources it needs, and is going to be hit harder and harder by these cuts.
We also discovered just how horrific the cuts to the disabled were: the government’s disability benefit cuts have been chaotic and poorly run. As a result of these government mistakes, no ministers lost their job, and thousands of vulnerable, needy and disabled people died within six weeks of being ruled fit to work. During that year I became best friends with a socialist feminist multi-millionaire philanthropist (genius) with mental health issues who has told me “If I hadn’t inherited wealth and was dependent on benefits, I would almost certainly be dead by now”.
In a wealthy, first world nation, as a result of cuts, we have come to rely on food banks, and hunger is a genuine issue that politicians need to address. Iain Duncan Smith, the minister in charge of benefits has refused to meet with the head of the Trussell Trust, the charity that runs most food banks, because he thinks meeting them would make him look bad. An official in his department allegedly warned the trust that if they didn’t stop speaking out against hunger, “the government might try to shut you down”. This is a horrendous situation. Ed Miliband, leader of the official opposition, has said that if Labour win the next election he will “keep austerity” and they will cut spending.
The increased tuition fees are more expensive to the public purse than the old ones. A private or part-private NHS is much worse value for money than a fully public model. The cuts have been pushed through out of conservative ideology: their cuts have decreased growth, increased the national debt, and thanks to their attempts to turn britain into a tax haven, made the rich better off as everyone else suffers. No-one with a hope of getting anywhere in Westminster seems to have any real hope of making life better for the people. And that’s the real sad thing. There seems to be no possibility of reform.
This summer, I worked as an intern with the SNP group at Westminster. It seemed like an interesting opportunity to be involved and see what’s going on at this very interesting time in our history. I watched as we were told that Rebekah Brooks is not guilty, and as the Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrats teamed together to rush through a new DRIP bill to allow electronic spying on citizens, without warning or consultation, on the weekend of the world cup final. It didn’t do a lot for my faith in the democratic accountability of Westminster.
I heard all the discussions of how Yes would be a good thing. I thought about them a lot, critically. They’re tempting, but they are the only place I’ve really heard suggestions as to how to make things better. The most hope Westminster’s put out, is the hope that they can make a lot of money blowing up the countryside in Scotland and The North.
On the other hand, if Scotland did vote “yes”, scary though that is, just think of what we could get.
We’d get rid of Trident, saving Scotland £163 million a year. Scrapping trident is consistently popular with the public, but no Westminster party wants to be attacked in the press or seem weak. Because of this, the UK still has the option (which it will never use) of making this world uninhabitable for life. As IS shows that our foreign adventures just seem to beget the need for more expensive foreign outings for the military-industrial complex, it seems tempting to end the UK’s claim to be a world power, I’d like to know my country won’t be dragged into any more illegal wars.
As the NHS, the greatest result of Britain’s postwar dream is torn to shreds over vested political interests and the desire to promote more growth, I’d like to know that I can vote for a government which can protect it. Yes, health matters are already devolved, but as the NHS funding gets cut in England, as, say, charges for seeing GPs are introduced, the amount of funding available to Holyrood will drop. Scotland won’t have the power to fully adjust a taxation system which works until all financial powers are separate from Westminster. Moreover, the soon-to-be-rushed through TTIP trade agreement would force NHS Scotland to accept bids from the private sector if we’re part of the UK, as the same services are open to private companies there.
We could have a welfare state not so committed to letting people starve. We could stop cutting services like the EMA that give young people a chance to get ahead, under false claims of efficiency. We could stop using PFI, which involves spending vastly more to build infrastructure through the private sector, via loans which take hundreds of years to pay off. (These PFI contracts, introduced by the tories, over-enthusiastically embraced by Labour, and re-embraced by tories who publicly declaimed them, are popular as it makes the government look as though it’s not spending: the loans don’t appear on the books.) We could do something about the fact that thousands are starving, rather than have to blame a tory government we didn’t elect.
We could actually control our own borders: at present, we can’t get the skilled immigrants we need, owing to Westminster caps. Independent, we won’t have as many people who spend four years, five years or more studying here then have to leave all their friends behind. I love the fact that while Yes gets called a “nationalist” movement, there’s mass support among ethnic minorities and those from abroad.
Scotland’s got so much of the UK’s natural resources, even aside from the oil, we can make great use of it. Scottish land ownership is the most concentrated, most inequitably distributed in Europe. (Look up “scottish land ownership”. It will astound you.) This benefits no-one other than the rich landowners. An independent Scotland could introduce a land tax that would make the situation fairer and more profitable for our people and businesses. We can do a lot with what we have, and we’ve got all sorts of booming industries. If our corporation tax was low enough to compete with the City of London, all sorts of businesses could move here.
But the best argument for Yes is this. Across Scotland, right now, lots of people are talking about politics. A million people who’ve never in their lives registered to vote. There are hundreds of events around the country where people can hear speakers, people can get out and actively work towards contributing to a democracy and governing. The atmosphere’s electric. People want to know how we can make things better, want to think about how we should be governed. On the side of the Scottish Parliament is written “Work as if you lived in the early days of a better nation.” It’s good advice. It’s scary to think about, but it could be possible, and it’s so exciting.
The “No” campaign has been spectacularly poorly run. Westminster politicians who’re hamstrung by having to fit into the policies of Cameron et. al have offered nothing but fear. “You wouldn’t be able to join the EU”, they say. But that’s not true: Barroso said it, but was immediately decried by experts on European law from all sides. It’s not in the EU’s interest not to admit us. It would create a lot of disruption for sorts of interest — trade agreements, fishing quotas, citizens living elsewhere. I don’t know anyone outside the UK who thinks that Scotland should stay. We would have to re-apply to the EU, but that’s only because Scotland’s not currently a member. There won’t be border controls between Scotland and England because that’s something that doesn’t benefit anyone. Apparently, if we vote “No”, we’ll get devo max, increased powers for Scotland, which Cameron refused to put on the ballot papers. That’s an election pledge, and you can always trust those, as tuition fees, tuition fees, NHS re-organisations and so many others have shown. (Especially pledges made by people with less than nine months left in government, who’re about to fight another general election to a broader range of voters, on the battleground of papers which have taken an alarmingly anti-Scottish turn.)
Westminster hasn’t taken this seriously — David Cameron claims that he refuses to let any government department make contingency plans. This is presumably because he thinks a “Yes” win is impossible. (Although he’s clarified that if one does happen, he won’t resign.) That just shows a startling lack of respect for democracy. If they won’t even plan for the possibility of people voting for something they don’t want, why bother having a referendum, or democracy, at all?
I’m no cheerleader for Salmond (I’ve spent a lot of time speaking out against his shameless courting of Donald Trump) but it’s hard to deny that he has governed well. He is, perhaps, the highest positioned person active in UK politics who actually plays the politics game well. (Cameron attempts to spin a lot, but he overspeaks. Clegg appeared appealing in some TV debates four years ago, and Miliband needs no more jokes made about him.) That is to say, he reacts to situations well, thinks in the long-term, and actually seems to have tactics. But this isn’t about Cameron and Salmond. It’s about the UK media-political culture, and a chance to escape it and build our own. If we can stand together and build something, I’m sure it’ll spark a change in the rest of the United Kingdom, too.
This referendum, more than any democratic event I can remember, could go either way.
As always, uncertainty is scary. But I’ll go for the uncertainty of trying to do something to make the world better, over the uncertainty of what continuing down the Thatcherite neo-liberal hole of the Westminster parties.
If we vote yes, then everyone can come together to build a modern democracy. I didn’t ask for this decision, but we’ve got to a point where we can choose Yes and dream, or choose No, and take our punishment from a spurned government trying to woo the Home Counties.
If “No” wins, I will still want and try to make things better. But we will have missed a big opportunity.
I’m voting “Yes” because it would be wrong not to. “