‘I’m voting “Aye”, notionally, reservations notwithstanding’

Opinion: What Westminster can give it can also take away, delay, prevaricate on

‘Many Scots are being registered to vote for the first time by young activists from the likes of the Radical Independence Campaign who are reinventing mass street campaigning.’ Above, Radical Independence delegates at their conference last November in Glasgow. Photograph: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

‘Many Scots are being registered to vote for the first time by young activists from the likes of the Radical Independence Campaign who are reinventing mass street campaigning.’ Above, Radical Independence delegates at their conference last November in Glasgow. Photograph: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

Sat, Jun 28, 2014, 13:02

‘Something pretty big is happening in Scotland, ” Lesley Riddoch warns. Such is her confidence that the Scotsman columnist and Yes campaigner was taking bets from her audience in Belfast that the turnout in its independence referendum will not fall below a stonking 80 per cent. And just over 80 days to go.

Like the beer that supposedly reaches places that no other beer can, the debate is having an electrifying effect, she says, in communities up and down Scotland, from small rural villages to the country’s most depressed inner city estates.

Riddoch recalls former Labour leader John Smith’s words about its traditionally low turnout: “The day the missing million vote, Scotland will change.” They are coming out, she says. Hundreds, at nightly meetings, many of them previously disengaged, many being registered to vote for the first time by young activists from the likes of the Radical Independence Campaign who are reinventing mass street campaigning.

If she is right, the narrow, albeit longstanding, poll leads for the No vote mean little, as they are largely predicated on turnouts around 50 per cent. Anything is possible . . .

Riddoch was speaking at a seminar on Wednesday in Queen’s, Scotland’s Choice: Reshaping Relationships, which also heard from one of the leading No campaigners,Tory MSP Murdo Fraser, one of the party’s few federalists. His recipe for saving Scotland for the UK: a radical federalist alternative of regional English, Scottish, Northern Ireland and Welsh parliaments to give expression to the country’s growing anti-Londoncentrism.

Agonising

Personally, I’ve been agonising about my vote, the notional one my Ulster Scots forebears would have handed down to me if we’d never left.

I’ve been firmly in the agnostic “don’t know” camp, deeply wary of those traditional “blood nationalist” arguments about ethnic identity, the pandering to Anglophobia, the obsessing about historic wrongs, the intellectually disingenuous abstractions about sovereignty in an interdependent world, and the inevitable insistances that the border is at the root of every single problem.

I’ve also some sympathy – however tough on the Scots it might appear – with the fear that Scottish independence and the loss of its many Labour seats would condemn the rest of the UK to live under a permanent Tory majority.

Now, however, I’ve plumped. I’m voting “Aye”, notionally – reservations notwithstanding – persuaded, I have to admit, by the Riddoch redefinition of the question.

“What’s it for?” she asks. That’s the crucial issue. Independence, not for its own sake, not for the flag and all its trappings, but independence to make possible particular things. Independence, because a nation permanently out of step with the political culture of its bigger neighbour is trapped in the latter’s stifling ambit and has no possibility of shaping its own sense of self.

So Yes campaigners like her have taken such issues as affordable childcare, the reform of Scotland’s deeply inequitable land ownership – 432 people owning half the private land – or the transformation of its unwieldy local government with councils representing on average as many as 165,000 citizens . . . and made them the stuff of the independence campaign, collectively an expression of what they see as distinct Scottish political culture, a sort of Nordic egalitarian, grass-rootsist, social democratic vision that is profoundly at odds with the post-Thatcherite neo-liberal vision that prevails in London, even in the ranks of Labour.

Voting Aye would not guarantee such a “bottom-up-democracy” of popular empowerment in Scotland. There would then be the not insignificant challenge of electing a majority government committed to such a vision. An Aye would, however, make it a possibility where none exists under the status quo.

Not so, you can have all that now, responds Fraser, without the trauma and difficulties (wildly exaggerated by the No campaign) of independence and the establishment of a new state. Not least because all of the unionist parties – Tories, Labour and Lib Dems – have, under the pressure of the referendum campaign, now belatedly committed themselves to the devolution to a Scottish Assembly of significant further powers. The sort of powers, Fraser argues, that would allow it to do any of the above. Most dramatically, the Tories have promised the Scots the right to raise and vary income tax. That’s up to 50 per cent of the local budget spend.

True, some of the above might well be possible under a “devo-max” new dispensation, but then, what Westminster can give it can also take away, delay, prevaricate on. And it has form . . .

So I’m voting Aye, even notionally, though the unionist ancestors may spin in their graves.

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