Independence campaigner Dennis Canavan explains why he thinks now is the time to examine what kind of country Scotland is and where we want it to go.
Vision. A word used as frequently today by government ministers as it is by ministers of religion.
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Politicians like totell us how their ideas – their vision – will make our lives better. But today in Scotland we stand at a unique place in history where all of us, not just our elected representatives, have the chance to make the vision thing personal, tangible and meaningful.
It has been a long, drawn-out affair, but apart from a few outstanding, important details, the process that will facilitate the independence referendum in 2014 is complete. It is not too much of a cliché to say that this will be Scotland’s day of destiny, for the outcome of the autumn ballot will shape Scotland’s future for generations to follow.
It is therefore right that people should start thinking seriously about what kind of Scotland they want for themselves and their children. To start forming their own vision.
To achieve a clear picture, it is necessary to see through the fog of day-to-day party political discourse which, it has to be said, has become thicker in recent weeks as debate at Holyrood has degenerated into insult, invective and ire. (Do politicians honestly believe that their playground behaviour endears them to the voting public?)
Refreshingly, we had one example this week of a senior politician setting out her vision, free from party political varnish. Nicola Sturgeon’s thoughtful speech on the why of independence was praised even by those normally hostile to independence. As the independence debate unfolds, we need more such contemplative insight.
I do not praise Nicola Sturgeon simply because I share her vision of a fairer, more socially just Scotland. I am not a Nationalist. But, like her, I very much want an independent Scotland.
When I became a member of Yes Scotland’s Advisory Board, I made it clear I was interested only in running a positive, optimistic campaign, free from the traditional but jaded Punch ‘n’ Judy antics associated with party politics, chiefly at Westminster but now, increasingly, at Holyrood too. This was not an attempt to occupy the moral high ground; it was because I genuinely believed the independence referendum was – and is - far too important to be routinely fed into the party political mincer while the rest of us become disengaged or bemused bystanders.
If ever there was a time for the people of Scotland to be involved - to examine howtheir vision might become reality - then it is surely now.
The debate that takes place over the next two years must be of a quality and calibre that matches the vital importance of the decision people will be asked to make at the ballot box. That necessarily means lively and robust argument; an exciting, life-changing prospect deserves energetic and enthusiastic debate. But it needs to be illuminating, not illusory; responsible not reckless.
Over the past five months, from Yes Scotland’s HQ on Glasgow’s Hope Street, we have been busily building the largest community-based campaign in Scotland’s history. Through our nationwide network of 32 regional Yes groups, special interest and local groups, thousands of volunteers and specially-trained ambassadors, our task is to spread the message about the benefits of an independent Scotland, backed up with top quality research and information.
Everywhere I have been on the campaign trail, I have been struck by the sense of hope and opportunity, not only among committed Yes supporters, but also among those people who are as yet undecided but are interested in learningmore about the possibilities and promise of independence. They are all, in their own ways, trying to sharpen their vision. For most people, it is an exciting process.
The reason is simple. No one pretends that independence will, in itself, solve all our problems, but it will mean the solutions are in our own hands. The people of Scotland have the greatest stake in making our nation a success. That means we are more likely to make the right choices for our society and our economy.
So this is a time to examine carefully what kind of country we are, how we have arrived at this crossroads in our future and what direction we will choose to take.
Not many people realise that out of the last eight Westminster General Elections since 1979, Scotland has got the government it voted for on only three occasions. As an independent country, we would always get the government we choose.
For me, this goes to the very heart of the debate.
It is, of course, vital that answers are provided to the many questions people have about independence. Can we afford it? Will we remain members of the EU? What currency will we use and what border controls will be put in place? Will pensions be affected and what tax system will we use? The answers to these questions and many others are already provided on our website and in our literature and it will be a key task of the campaign over the next two years to continue supplying quality answers to the many detailed questions people rightly have.
But I believe that as more and more of these questions are settled, more and more people will begin to focus on the vision of a better, more prosperous, fairer and more equal Scotland. Framed in this way, I am convinced people will begin to see just what opportunity independence offers us to fulfil the values, priorities and aspirations that make us the people we are. This is not about being anti-British (I am convinced independence will make us closer, better neighbours as well as valuable and responsible players on the international stage); it is about taking responsibility for our own future and being comfortable in our own skin.
No one, not even our opponents, doubt thatScotland has the resources, the know-how and the character to be a successful, self-determining country. Economists have worked out an independent Scotland would be the sixth wealthiest nation in the industrialised world. And we know from the latest official figures (GERS) that while Scotland gets 9.3% of UK spending, it generates 9.6% of UK taxes. While it’s true that every Western democracy currently runs a deficit (many major corporations do also), Scotland is in a stronger financial position than the rest of the UK. If Scotland had been independent over the past 30 years then, according to the UK Government's own figures, we would have £19 billion less debt than we currently have as part of the UK.
We also know that the UK is one of the most unequal societies in the West – according to Professor Danny Dorling of Sheffield University, the fourth most unequal. So when it comes to envisioning the kind of society Scotland could become, we should focus on what needs to change to make that vision sharper. Does the Trident nuclear arsenal, for example, sit comfortably within our national outlook or is there, as I believe, a growing consensus in Scotland that nuclear weapons are both immoral and increasingly irrelevant? How else, as an independent nation, would we decide to spend the billions currently being squandered on nuclear weapons?
How, as an independent and free-thinking country, would we approach welfare policy? What priority would we set in caring for the poorest and most vulnerable in our society? Would we recognize the something-for-nothing culture to which Scottish Labour Leader Johann Lamont so infamously referred recently?
Through devolution, we are already meeting some of the priorities we value such asno tuition fees for our university students, free prescriptions and free personal care for our older people. How greater would our scope be to follow our values and meet more of our priorities if we had the independence to make all suchdecisions for ourselves?
As the proponents of change, we have a duty to spell out why Scotland would benefit from independence. Equally, our opponents have a responsibility to explain why they think the UK remains the better option for Scotland rather than just aimlessly attacking self-determination.
But the anti-independence parties – Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrats – also owe it to the Scottish people to reveal their visions for Scotland in the event of a Yes vote in 2014. After all, they will all be vying for your votes in the first independent Scottish Parliament election in 2016. The Scottish Government has said it will lay out its vision in a White Paper next year. But the people of Scotland deserve to know what all parties would do in an independent Scotland. It is simply not good enough to ignore it in the hope that there will be a No vote.
Some in the pro-union lobby are deliberately misrepresenting the 2014 referendum as a vote for or against the SNP. This, of course, is untrue since the referendum is not about electing a government but about giving people in Scotland the opportunity to vote for a government of their choice, whether that is Nationalist, Labour or a coalition of different parties.
Our opponents have also attempted to contrive splits within the pro-independence movement, citing the fact that different people have different views about, for example, the monarchy, currency or Nato membership. As I have said many times, the only admission ticket to Yes Scotland is a belief in independence.
The different visions and diversity within our movement is a strength to be cherished and I derive huge encouragement from the support we are receiving from groups such as the Scottish Green Party, the Scottish Socialists, Labour for Independence, Women for Independence, Trade Unionists for Independenceand Students for Independence, to name but a few.
Hopefully, you are now in the mood to think about your own vision for Scotland. However, if you are an exponent of lateral thinking, there is another, interesting way of framing the debate. Imagine that Scotland had remained independent in 1707 and the referendum question being asked in 2014 was: ‘Do you agree Scotland should join the United Kingdom?’
In those circumstances what would be the case for a Yes vote? Your main parliament will move hundreds of miles away, and your MPs will be in a tiny minority; you will probablyget a government you didn’t vote for; all of your oil and gas revenues will be handed over to the London treasury. The biggest nuclear weapons arsenal in Western Europe will be built on the River Clyde, 30 miles from your largest city. You will be joining a country where the health and education services are rapidly being privatised. Now and then you will get dragged into an illegal foreign war. An austerity budget will be imposed from London, cutting jobs and threatening the provision of vital public services. Weak regulation of the banking sector will bring your economy to the brink of disaster. And, on top of all that, the most vulnerable people in society, instead of getting protection and support, will be interrogated and humiliated in order to deprive them of the very meagre level of provision to which they are entitled.
There is a much, much better vision for Scotland than that.