Asking a defining question
Does anyone remember ‘Scotland on pause’? It’s difficult to look back at the last year, at the creativity, the public engagement and the debates from bus queues to broadcast news about the country’s future, and really believe that anyone ever used the phrase seriously.
Far from putting the country or its political life on pause, the current debate has given us the most lively period for many years. It seems certain that whether the majority votes Yes or No, we’re going to see a higher turnout than we’ve seen in elections, perhaps for a generation. The voters will have spent longer exploring the issues our country faces than is normal at election time and many will have reconnected with the political system. A new generation of young voters will have begun their political lives by asking – and answering – a defining question about their society, instead of simply choosing between cosmetically presented brands of broadly the same product.
Yes, there have been low points. For all the fun of social media, it can give a platform for less elevated debate. Whether the subject is football, crime stories, celebrity gossip or politics, abusive behaviour does happen, and should never be excused. But I agree with the words of JK Rowling in her statement announcing a huge donation to Better Together; she wrote: “I am friendly with individuals involved with both the Better Together Campaign and the Yes Campaign, so I know that there are intelligent, thoughtful people on both sides of this question. Indeed, I believe that intelligent, thoughtful people predominate.”
There will of course be those who just want the referendum over and done with, and who think it’s been a waste of time. But this question, which has been a dividing line in our politics for so many years, could only be settled in this way. I think we should be proud, regardless of the result, that the debate has been peaceful, democratic, mostly based on substance, and often inspiring.
Naturally I’ll want to talk up the Green Yes campaign, which has tried to offer distinctive perspectives on issues from public ownership to the welfare system, and from defence to energy policy. I think we’ve made a valuable contribution, without becoming defined by the constitution alone – in either scenario we’ll still know our purpose as a party once the votes are counted and the result declared. But I’m most pleased that we’ve been able to demonstrate that it’s possible to disagree about independence while still being friends. Everyone knows that not all Greens will be voting Yes, though it’s always been a clear majority at our conferences. But after debating, disagreeing and deciding, we then entirely fail to fall out about it. I think that’s the tone of debate that Scotland deserves.
And of course it hasn’t stopped us putting other issues up for debate and giving the Scottish Government a hard time when they deserve it. Agreeing about independence doesn’t mean we’ll ever agree on the oil industry, the road-building programme or the future of Corporation Tax.
So we’ve stood up for tenants’ rights in the Housing Bill, challenging the Government on secure tenure, rent levels and regulation of letting agents. We’ve brought the issue of inequality to the chamber, adding to the growing global debate about the obscene and destructive gap between the richest and the rest. Jumping on the tax competition bandwagon would only make that problem worse; we’ll need to come to terms with the principle that wealthy people – MSPs included – can afford to pay more to build a decent society.
And we’ve made it clear that the SNP’s stance on fracking just won’t do – promising to regulate the industry robustly is a tacit admission that the irresponsible dash for unconventional gas will in fact be allowed. We already have four or five times more fossil fuel than we can afford to burn, and chasing after even more simply can’t be justified. As campaigners in Balcombe made clear, if it has to come to direct action to prevent this, then so be it.
However, some of Holyrood’s finest moments this year came when party dividing lines were put aside, and progressive choices were made on issues which are both practical and symbolic. One week in particular will stay in my memory, as perhaps the moment I’ve felt happiest to be a Member of the Scottish Parliament, and most optimistic about what we can achieve when we’re at our best.
There was never much doubt that on Tuesday 4 February, Holyrood would vote to approve the Marriage and Civil Partnership Bill, allowing same-sex couples to marry on equal terms with mixed-sex couples. But every single attempt to undermine the principle of equality was roundly defeated. We then voted the Bill into law with the third largest majority of any parliament on earth which has dealt with this issue. What followed wasn’t quite the same as the New Zealand Parliament bursting into song when they passed their equal marriage law, but as the campaigners in the gallery stood to applaud the result, and MSPs in turn stood to applaud the campaigners, we saw what can happen when a parliament lives up to its founding ideal and truly shares power with the people.
The very next day, after months of blaming each other for the deadlock, Labour and the SNP resolved their differences and reached a deal on the budget which effectively neutralised the Bedroom Tax in Scotland. For once, winning didn’t mean making the other side take the blame for failure; it meant working together for success.
I suspect that week will stand as a highlight of far more than just one parliamentary year.
And what of the year to come? A referendum result of course, which will move us into a new chapter whichever way the people vote. Scottish politics will be entering a period in which the question of independence has been settled. Whether we face the transition to statehood and the challenges which come with sovereignty, or a future within the UK and the even more daunting challenge of trying to achieve social, economic and ecological progress within the constraints of devolution, one thing is certain; the future won’t look like the past.
A UK election to follow, whether Scotland’s last of those or the one which determines which UK party gets to set our budgets, steer our economic choices and represent us on the world stage for years to come. In either case, the UK’s attitude to the controversial EU/US trade deal will need more public awareness than it’s had to date. If it opens the door to privatisation of our NHS, degradation of our environmental regulations, and strengthening the hand of big business against the common good, even independence in 2016 might be too late to undo the damage.
But before then I have a promise to keep. Having been appointed as second member in charge of Margo MacDonald’s Assisted Suicide Bill, largely to ensure that I could act as ‘understudy’ if she wasn’t well enough to attend a crucial committee meeting, I have now inherited the responsibility to promote the Bill in her absence. I’ll never bring quite the sparkle that Margo did to the chamber, but I’m committed to ensuring that her proposal will be presented as well as I’m able.
The issue has gained momentum both in Scotland and at Westminster, with Charlie Falconer’s proposal gaining the support of politicians, public figures and religious leaders for the principle that in certainly tightly defined circumstances people’s right to take control at the end of their lives should be respected, and assistance given on their own terms.
It’s an argument which does still divide people on the point of principle. Often the detailed arguments about qualifying criteria, implementation and safeguards is really a proxy for opposition to the idea that our lives belong to us rather than to a higher power. As with the equal marriage debate, I’m likely to find myself engaged with a subject in which certain religious voices seek to speak for everyone, when in fact there’s a range of views which cut right across religious belief. My hope is that unlike the marriage debate we can keep this one focused on what’s actually in the Bill. On marriage, our opponents generally skirted around the homophobia, reluctant to say openly that they thought there was anything wrong with same-sex relationships or the people in them, instead disgracefully pretending that the door would be opened to incest, bestiality or child abuse.
Sometimes with the assisted suicide debate we see something similar, with arguments raised against versions of the law which are in place in other countries, or even ones never proposed at all, rather than the actual substance.
The Bill will most likely come up for debate around the end of the year, or perhaps early in 2015. It’ll be a high priority for me, but it will clearly be fitting into another year of ‘historic’ this and ‘groundbreaking’ that. The period between now and the next election could be extraordinary in the history of Scotland, and of the UK. Let’s hope that we can retain the creativity of the referendum debate when it comes time to decide where we go next.