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Talking Utopian...an exclusive extract from Alasdair Gray's new book on independence

THINK of good things enjoyed by other nations, some with fewer people than Scotland.

The Netherlands have over three times our population, but that well-cultivated, partly submarine kingdom has so good a national health service that even the wealthy know they will not get better treatment by privately paying for it. Germany has now about 82 million people, almost one-quarter more than those in our United Kingdom, but before unification a West German friend told me that where he came from only the rich parents of mentally impaired children paid to give them a special education: normal children of the rich would not get a better education than in the common state schools.

What was, and I think still is, good healthcare and education in the Netherlands and Germany still exists in six Scandinavian nations, half of which are monarchies, though their royal families are not like ours. Their children go to the common state schools or have jobs in offices before assuming the throne. The king or queen can go shopping without being mobbed. How strange these foreigners are!

It is easy for governments to spend taxpayers' money on healthcare and education where every citizen is not taxed to pay for big armed forces and nuclear weapon bases, like the UK, the US and China.

But if Scotland could tax its offshore oil companies as Shetland does, and people here were not taxed to keep military forces and nuclear weapons, which most of the world's nations do not have (partly because Britain and the US would declare war on them if they were suspected of it), then a Scottish government chosen by folk living here could make this a more decent country.

Switzerland has no coastline, but is so sub-divided by mountains that its internal diversity resembles Scotland. It has four different national languages; a great part of it once adopted the Calvinist religion, and another part is Roman Catholic. In some ways it is the most democratic of modern nations, being ruled by perpetual referendums. Each canton, or voting district, has a perpetual polling booth where citizens can vote for or against acts being discussed in Bern, seat of the Swiss parliament. Swiss women were denied the vote before 1951 because it was said that good ones were too busy with housework and their children to bother with politics and voting.

I only suggest Scotland adopt the Swiss practice of everyone expecting to know what their government is doing and being able to influence it more often than once every five years. The Chartists were a democratic movement of labourers, tradesmen and professional folk who tried to get parliamentary reform between 1838 and 1848. One of their demands was for a new parliamentary election every year but, after the Reform Bill gave the vote to most of the wealthy middle class, this demand was found inconvenient. The UK, the US and other nations who think themselves democratic are now mostly content with governments whose minds the voters can only change by a general election every five years unless they run riot. This happened in England over the poll tax, and in the US over segregation and, to a lesser extent, the Vietnam War. The Swiss perpetual referendum idea is a safer idea. The voting station could also be the local district councillor and member of parliament's local surgery. The building should be rent-free to the users and a secretarial staff's salary paid by the taxpayer, though when councillors and members change through an election they should be allowed to give these jobs to friends or relations.

Here is another Utopian idea not in use nowadays, though once it was taken for granted. With modern means of communication it could be easily practised in Scotland. When kings were the highest judges in every land, the government had to be wherever the king lived, so the Scottish capital kept shifting between Edinburgh, Linlithgow, Falkland, Stirling and Perth. Scottish kings were Lowlanders so did not risk taking the capital as far north as Inverness, the former Pictish king's main seat. With the help of smartphones there is no reason why parliament should not sometimes convene in any town with a railway station. It would be inconvenient for Lowland MPs to assemble at Inverness once in a while, but no more than for Highlands and Islands MPs to meet in Edinburgh.

Since 1707, the curse of Scotland has been the fact that our MPs and lords have met in Westminster. I was told by Norman Buchan, once a true socialist: "As soon as you get to London and enter the House of Commons you see Scotland from a completely different perspective." We first met when campaigning in Dunoon against Holy Loch becoming an American nuclear weapons base. Later, as the Labour Party's Shadow Secretary of State for Scotland, he was totally opposed to the Scottish independence that in 1892 had been one of Labour's aims.

The problem of every nation is being governed by folk with a completely different view of life from those who elect them. This superior attitude is an occupational hazard or disease of any people with more power than most of us. It let Baroness Thatcher when a mere prime minister say, "It is my job to make life difficult for these people", when speaking of folk who mainly live in transport vehicles and had come together for a festival at Glastonbury. No politician should feel secure enough to talk like that about a minority, whether the minority is Gypsy, Jewish, Wee Free or even criminal. It is the job of the police to make life hard for criminals. I believe they do their best without politicians pressing them to be harder.

Like most other nations, Scotland should have a written constitution. The US was established with a fairly good one, though more and more amendments have been made to it. The UK is famous for having none, which allows any long-lasting parliamentary majority to do what it likes. Most states that were once part of the USSR empire had written constitutions, with clauses to guarantee democratic opposition, which their governments ignored. It is now forgotten that the main opposers who brought down the East German Republic were not enthusiasts for capitalist governments, but socialists who objected to a single-party dictatorship.

The Republic of Ireland has a constitution which declares its government must be neutral - meaning take no side - in conflicts between other governments. Between 2001 and 2005, it became known Shannon airport was being used by the US for extraordinary rendition - the transport of captured people suspected of terrorism to jails where they could be held without trial and tortured. Because this violated the Republic's constitutional neutrality, some Irish broke into and damaged a US aircraft and were arrested for this. Before the case was tried in an Irish court, ex-president Carter announced that he would appear as a witness for the defence, as he thought extraordinary rendition was in itself a crime. So the matter was never brought to court. I wish Scotland would get a constitution asserting its neutrality.

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