It’s no secret that the Scottish Green Party and I haven’t always agreed with Alex Salmond about a range of policy issues, but nobody in Scottish politics can doubt his commitment to the cause of Scottish independence, or the impact he has had not only within Scotland, but also on a movement which still has the potential to reshape politics throughout these islands.
The First Minister is 100% right to say that the aftermath of the independence referendum remains redolent with possibility, and that the incredible public engagement in our political process means that power must now lie with the public will, not with political parties in Westminster or Holyrood.
Despite our differences on a range of issues, I want to pay tribute to Alex Salmond for the role he has played in changing our political landscape. The future of Scottish, and of UK politics, could be entering a more open and creative period than we have known for many years. If nothing else, Alex Salmond has been central to bringing us to that moment.
I’ve been writing these columns every two weeks or so for quite a while now, and I’ve tried to address a mixture of local issues and the national debates that MSPs have taken part in at Holyrood. Naturally, the closer we’ve got to the referendum the harder it has been to write about any subject without that context creeping in. Now, in my last column before we know the result of the vote, I’d like to say something which I hope supporters of both sides can agree on; something which will remain relevant whether it’s a Yes to independence, or a No.
The campaign has been a long one. Some think too long. But it has also been engaging, creative and inclusive. I’ve long lost count of the number of public meetings I’ve spoken at, and the debate on the doorsteps, in the high streets and online has been amazing. Both sides do have a handful of idiots in their ranks who have behaved badly (and who probably didn’t need a referendum to encourage them) but both sides are also well served by the far greater number of thoughtful and intelligent people who may disagree, but who have the best interests of the country at heart.
Everyone, including the administrators who are running the referendum itself, is expecting a huge turnout. Up to a third of the electorate will return to the ballot box after having not cast a vote in years. In some cases, they’ll be voting for the first time in their lives.
So the challenge for all of us – politicians, activists, media and voters alike, is this: how can we maintain that connection between politics and the people, once the votes are counted and the result declared? It would be terrible if the drawbridge is pulled up again, and politics retreats once more to parliaments.
Political power isn’t supposed to be something for parties and elected politicians only. It’s supposed to be something that everyone feels a connection with. Many people haven’t been voting because they feel no connection with politicians, thinking we live in a different world. The proposed pay hike for Westminster MPs will only make that disconnection worse. Many have felt that voting wouldn’t change anything, or that the values and ideas on offer don’t mean much.
And all too often, those feelings have been justified.
This referendum is giving the voters the chance to decide on Scotland’s future. But just as importantly, it also offers the chance to repair a broken political system, and restore the link between people and power. It seems that there’s a good chance of a constitutional convention whichever way the vote goes. That process mustn’t be limited to the dry and technical question of which powers are exercised at which level. It must recognise that it’s been generations since most people have believed that politics was capable of making society a better place; it must seek to understand the reasons for that failure, and find ways to overcome it.
Yesterday, I was pleased to have the opportunity to meet with Natalie Bennett, leader of the Green Party of England and Wales. She was visiting Edinburgh to talk about why so many Greens south of the border support Scottish independence.
While it might seem strange to some, our colleagues are excited at the prospect of independence shaking up UK politics and the opportunity to encourage progressive forces throughout the British Isles.
Of course, it’s not just our closest neighbours who are taking an active interest in the referendum. Anyone who has been abroad in recent months, or spoken with visitors to Scotland, will likely have had similar conversations. People from all round the world are curious about what’s happening (and in places such as Catalonia, people are watching especially closely!). It should be a matter of pride for people on both sides of the debate that what observers are seeing is a peaceful, democratic and – by and large – good natured debate.
As a Green, I’d like to see this peaceful and democratic approach carried forward in the event of a Yes vote. Independence would give Scotland a chance to take a fresh approach to global responsibilities. Where successive UK governments have clung on to tired notions of being a global powerbroker, I’d like to see Scotland use its international experience and expertise more effectively. Smaller, yes. But with a unique and positive voice.
The chance to rid these islands of nuclear weapons is one of the biggest and most exciting opportunities a Yes vote would bring. And unlike the SNP, the Scottish Greens will continue to oppose membership of the NATO nuclear-alliance. We don’t just need rid of the weapons – we need to reject the macho approach to defence that NATO embodies.
In terms of our responsibilities at home, we’ll have the opportunity to reshape our humiliating and brutal asylum system, which has become focused on rejecting as many people as possible rather providing asylum for those who need it.
Scotland will be able to take its place as a member of global bodies tackling the economic, social and environmental challenges the world faces. As a Green, I am especially excited by our opportunity to give leadership on climate change. All countries are going to have to overcome the obsession with extracting and burning all the fossil fuels they can get their hands on. By ending the industry’s tax breaks for exploring new reserves that we can’t afford to burn, Scotland could instead fund a transition to renewable energy that works in the public interest instead of only benefiting a handful of multinationals.
As Scotland’s year in the global spotlight approaches its finale, the promise of being able to start anew on our relationship with the world is a very enticing one.
Though we’re now into the final few weeks of the referendum campaign, I’m pleased to say that one issue has been uniting people on both sides of the big divide.
Earlier this year people right across the political spectrum in Scotland were shocked to learn that Gordon Aikman, well known to many of us as a Labour activist and staff member of the Better Together team, had been diagnosed with Motor Neurone Disease. MND is a debilitating and progressive disease for which there is no known cure. And it kills. Gordon now can’t look forward to the long life he should have had, but he has responded to this news in a way which has impressed us all.
Within a few short months of setting up his campaign, Gordon’s Fightback, he has raised over £50,000 and brought the issue of MND to many thousands of people’s notice. He’s campaigning for better care and support for people who have the condition, as well as a doubling of funding for research toward a cure.
Over the last week, this campaign has stepped up a gear with the “Ice Bucket Challenge”, in which people endure a cold drenching before nominating others to join in.
These charity stunts have taken off in the social media age, where Movember moustaches and no-makeup selfies can be shared around the world in an instant. Some people like them and some people don’t, but there’s little doubt that they raise awareness and they definitely raise cash for their causes.
But it’s especially nice to see Scottish politicians, who might otherwise be in combative mood, taking a moment before this final lap of the referendum campaign to help Gordon’s campaign without being po-faced about it. People right across the political spectrum, including Alex Salmond, Johann Lamont, Alistair Darling, Ruth Davidson, and I have joined in and taken an ice-cold soaking.
I hope you’ll take a look at Gordon’s campaign site, lend your support, and make a donation if you can. While Scotland debates the different visions of the country’s future, there are so many issues which we can all agree on. The need to support people with MND, and strive toward a cure, is surely one of them.
Please visit www.gordonsfightback.com and share it with the hashtag #gordonsfightback
In the final weeks before the independence referendum, it was inevitable that the media would zero-in on the one person most people associate with the cause of independence. To some, Alex Salmond is Scottish independence. And he can be a polarising figure, with some people enthusiastic fans and others strongly put off by his personality.
I’ve met voters who see the attraction of Scotland making its own political and economic choices, but who fear that voting Yes would simply let the First Minister have everything his own way.
This isn’t helped by the format of the big TV debates in the final stages of the campaign. Pitting Salmond against Alistair Darling, these debates are turning the question of independence into an even more personalised contest between two people. It’s almost as though the voters are only being asked to choose between these two individuals, instead of thinking about the real choice that the referendum represents.
It isn’t about that of course. Mr Salmond is the First Minister, whether you voted for him or not. He’ll still be the First Minister after the referendum, whether it’s a Yes or a No, until May 2016. If he wants to keep the job he’ll then need to win another election. As for Mr Darling, he has a UK ministerial career behind him and has never given any indication that he wants to stand for election to Holyrood.
I’ll never vote for either of these guys, but that doesn’t stop me reaching my own view about independence. These head-to-head debates were never going to capture the breadth of arguments on either side. They narrow the field of vision down to two men and their own political track record.
Of course this didn’t begin with the TV debates, though they do make it worse. Part of the problem is the SNP’s attempts to imply – quite wrongly – that a Yes vote is an endorsement of everything in their “white paper”, Scotland’s Future. By treating the referendum like an election, and trying to convince people that a Yes vote is a vote for this weighty manifesto, there is a real danger that they will alienate those who don’t support SNP policy on anything from corporate tax cuts to military expenditure.
It’s tragic really, because the exciting bit of this national debate – its beating heart – has been the creative and inclusive movement which has grown up independently of the SNP, not under its control and not bound to its policies.
In reality of course it’s that 2016 election which will determine which party – or parties – receive a mandate from the voters for their policies. A Yes vote is not a vote for the white paper and its contents. There is only one question on the ballot paper next month: Should Scotland be an independent country?
If the campaign to win that vote only manages to reach people who like the SNP’s policies, rather than those who see other possibilities for Scotland’s future, then Mr Salmond and his colleagues shouldn’t be surprised if they fall short. Scottish independence can be won, but only if the campaign reaches beyond the ideas in the SNP’s manifesto document, and expresses the broader ideas which have been part of the Yes campaign.
This year Holyrood’s summer recess is a little unusual. The Government goes into “purdah” a month before the referendum, setting legal constraints on what they can do as Ministers. Of course the SNP like all the parties will be campaigning furiously, But it would have been bizarre if Parliament had been meeting while Ministers were barred from answering the most basic of questions.
This problem doesn’t happen with elections, because Parliament stops meeting and MSPs revert to being candidates at the same time as purdah begins.
There were only two possible solutions – adding an extra three or four weeks of unnecessary recess or breaking it up into two chunks. Because of that, this is the first of three weeks of parliamentary business which take place between those ‘chunks’, and my concern was that it would all feel a bit odd and awkward.
But the way things have worked out, there is a long list of issues which need to be addressed, and I’m very glad that we don’t need to wait till after the referendum to discuss them.
First, the horrific situation in Gaza. While foreign policy is reserved to Westminster, it’s clear that the Scottish political spectrum leans more clearly in support of the Palestinian cause, and that voice deserves to be heard. As well as joining the global condemnation of the brutal attacks against the people of Gaza, I’ll be keen to press the Scottish Government to endorse the call for boycotts, divestment and sanctions targeted at the Israeli government.
Then we have Police Scotland’s disturbing drift toward putting armed police routinely onto the streets, rather than keeping such deadly force for situations which really need it. Many MSPs including my independent colleague John Finnie have been raising this, and want the Government to come off the fence.
The UK Government’s “emergency legislation” on data retention also needs to be debated. Rushed through Westminster in a day with no meaningful scrutiny, this will undermine our civil liberties, and also has devolved implications.
Then there’s the Commonwealth Games to discuss, and the need to make good on all those “legacy” commitments.
Of course there will also be “set-piece” debates in which the Yes and No sides will set out their stalls on independence issues like scrapping Trident, rebuilding a welfare state, investing in childcare, shifting to renewable energy, building a more equal society… you know, just the wee things.
As people prepare for the decision itself, with postal votes beginning in just three weeks, it’s important that all these issues and more get a proper airing. What might have looked like an awkward three week session could allow some of the most important debates Holyrood has ever seen.
Evening Times column: It’s no exaggeration to say that poor air quality is a matter of life and deathPosted on July 9, 2014
I held out against cycling in Glasgow for a long time. I was put off by potholed roads, dangerous traffic levels, and bike lanes looking like a fragmented mess in the few parts of the city where they exist at all. Most of Glasgow gives the clear impression that our city planners barely even know what a bike is.
But then about a year ago I took the plunge. Partly because I wanted to get a better range of exercise and partly because I was just getting thoroughly sick of the low standard of our bus services, I gave up buying my monthly bus pass and started getting about the city by bike.
I haven’t looked back.
Yes, the city still offers a poor deal for cyclists. Comparisons with many other cities in the UK, let alone with truly bike-friendly places like Copenhagen, just don’t stand up. Covered bike racks are few and far between, safe segregated lanes even more so, and traffic management seems designed exclusively with the driver in mind. And yes, many of our roads are in a shocking state with maintenance never seen as a political priority in the way that building new roads often is.
And yet, even with those problems and the feeling that bikes are pushed to the edge of the transport environment, I still wouldn’t give it up. It’s a far more flexible way of getting about, especially when my day might involve a lot of travel within the city. It’s obviously healthier, and I find it a far happier experience than any other form of transport. What surprised me most of all was the speed. From home to the office it saves me at least ten minutes against the bus… as well as the £1.95!
Now Glasgow has launched a bike hire scheme, which you can find here, and our city joins a growing list of such schemes in the UK and across Europe. Locals and visitors alike will be able to hop on a bike at one of a couple of dozen bike stations, and return it to any other. It’s a scheme which needs to grow – it begins with very little presence outside the city centre and the West End – and must remain affordable if people are going to use it.
But perhaps most importantly it should force the city council to face up to the long-term challenge of making Glasgow truly safe and welcoming for cyclists. There’s some evidence that public bike hire schemes can act as a catalyst for better investment in cycling infrastructure. That would be long overdue, but if the NextBike scheme takes off we could see Glasgow enter the 2020s as a dramatically more bikeable place than it is today.
The referendum’s still a dozen weeks away but the Scottish Government has taken the step of proposing an “interim constitution” – the document which would come into force from independence day in 2016 until a permanent Scottish Constitution is written.
Ministers want a broad, participative process to give everyone in Scotland to chance to help shape the Constitution. That’s a very welcome aim, and there are many international examples we can draw from about how to gain maximum public involvement. But there’s a danger in waiting till 2016. I’d far rather we began that public involvement as soon as the referendum is over.
If it’s a Yes vote (and the polls are heading that way) it seems likely that it will be thanks to a high turnout, with many people voting for the first time in years, or even decades. It’ll be important that we don’t lose that energy and positivity in the period between the referendum and independence itself.
And just because the “interim constitution” is meant to be temporary is no reason to expect that we just sign up on sight. The SNP must show a willingness to listen to the public, and to other political parties, in shaping it.
As for the content, there are good points and bad. It has a strong commitment to human rights and equality, to nuclear disarmament and to the principle that the people are sovereign. But it contains no mechanism for the accountability at the highest level – the Head of State. Whether you want to keep the Queen or elect our own Head of State, it’s important that the role is clearly defined and the person carrying it out is accountable.
More importantly, the “interim constitution” is in fact not really a constitution at all. That’s understandable, since before independence nobody will have the legal authority to create one. But it’s more properly understood as a “Basic Law”, a piece of constitutional legislation which would be passed by a simple majority at Holyrood and could be amended in the same way.
The SNP’s mandate in government comes from their hugely successful 2011 election win. But that was an election to the devolved Scottish Parliament; it doesn’t give a mandate to write a constitution. It will also be a four year old mandate by the time this legislation is debated. It would be wrong for them to think they could pass this foundation for independence, this Basic Law, with their slender one-seat majority in that context.
An interim constitution is clearly necessary, and there’s a lot to welcome in this draft. But the Government must accept the responsibility to reach a high bar on this crucial issue. That must mean a two-thirds majority.