The time has come
This is a debate over competing visions - a tug of war of ownership over social justice
This week Scotland will head to the voting booths to answer the question ‘should Scotland be an independent country?’ It has been a long and hard fought campaign. Reputations, names, money markets, arguments and eggs have all been thrown. But regardless of the final result, the overwhelming win has been one for democracy and a population energised by political debate.
Ninety seven per cent of adult Scots are now registered to vote. That’s an astonishing statistic. And as the deadline approached for registration, thousands queued in towns and cities across Scotland ready to put their name against change.
The First Minister, in his usual bombastic way, compared the scenes to the clamour among black South Africans 20 years ago for their country’s first free elections. And inevitably, and rightly, he was criticised for his hubris. However, we may have had universal suffrage for centuries but our passion for democracy had become moribund. The Iraq War, the banking crisis, the expenses’ scandal, the lack of House of Lords reform, the recession, and more – they have all contributed to a country turned off by its politics and politicians.
But we are changed. Scotland has shown the UK that if there’s something worth voting for then we will engage
Last week Gordon Brown, a Scot, the former Prime Minister, a Labour MP for more than 30 years, asked in an article for the New York Times why Scotland even felt the need to ask itself this independence question.
He asked why it had taken the SNP just half a century to move from irrelevance to centre stage. And in an essay that sprinted through Scotland’s industrial demise and the rise of the SNP, Brown mentions the role of his own party in that change not once. Therein lies the ointment’s fly.
Scotland’s real quarrel, argued Brown, is not with England but with the world, or, at least, with globalisation.
Brown has stepped into the referendum debate so many times now for ‘the first time’ that it has become known as Brownhog Day. Now, a poll showing a lead for Yes for the first time, we have him leading the charge for the Union, pushed front stage in a devil’s pact between Cameron, Clegg and Miliband, offering a timetable for change in a desperate, last-ditch effort to turn this ship around.
They miss the point. This new engaged Scotland doesn’t trust Westminster. Its argument has never been with England, its argument is how it is run.
The unionist politicians misjudge the mood if they think we can be simply won over by the lure that together things can get better when, ironically, their slogan is that we are already better together. They must hope that Scots have forgotten that the former chancellor set the lowest rate of corporation tax in its history while now using that stick to beat the SNP. They must think we have national amnesia about who regulated the City, knighted Sir Fred and why the banks went down. They must think us naïve to not see the inequality, poverty and think none of them is to blame. And should we not remember Iraq?
We’ve been variously threatened, love bombed, feted and now, at the last minute, offered so much more. This is the politics that turned Scots off.
Labour delivered devolution and assumed it would be theirs. When it lost power it failed to recognise why. The SNP changed and Labour didn’t see it. The SNP offered hope and Labour offered fear. The SNP says it gave credible government and Labour said it was a con. The SNP doesn’t do everything right. Its leader is not to everyone’s taste, but Labour has to learn that you can’t keep telling the electorate they are fools to vote the way they do and expect them to like you more.
Labour’s visceral hatred of the SNP, and Salmond in particular, clouds their judgement. This referendum would not be happening without him and while he was as surprised as anyone to find its time had come, he has been successful in projecting the notion that it is credible and an inevitability. If not now, then when?
This is a debate over competing visions – at times, a tug of war over ownership of social justice – and not necessarily about who will realise them. But Labour has continued to fight this campaign like an election that they can win and that’s not where the people of Scotland are.
This isn’t an argument about whether the SNP are socialists or not – it is about who Scots believe best represents their values and aspirations. That isn’t necessarily tied up in political dogma, ideology or even one party; it is just about a sense of what will be better than it is now.
This vote will now surely be won or lost by the finest of margins and that might be the hardest part for the key players to take – knowing how close it all was, that the tiniest decision could prove to make all the difference to change.
Further powers are hopefully inevitable regardless. But importantly, it is the public consciousness that has been changed. For a long time now, politicians have failed to inspire a generation enough to even get them to register to vote and yet, today, that has changed. Many Scots now have enough hope for the future to carry them to that ballot box for the first time and they will hear the whisper of future generations at their ear as they bend to put that cross in a box, ‘do the right thing’.
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Regardless of whether you think the SNP acted childishly in walking out of the House of Commons in protest, the symbolism was obvious