Jonathan Sher: Independent Scotland would have a better special relationship with US

This article originally appeared in Monday’s Herald and is reproduced here with kind permission of the author.

The 11th-hour bid by the No camp to offer the possibility of new powers to Scotland absolutely does not include devolving powers over foreign, military and nuclear affairs.

Instead, Scottish voters have been threatened that independence will mean exclusion from the “Special Relationship” between Washington and Westminster. However, upon closer examination, being freed from that suffocating embrace would be a blessing.

As a New Scot from the United States who has moved from undecided to Yes, I understand that Scotland can develop a much fairer, mature relationship with Washington. Independence will create the opportunity to move beyond being the tail of the British dog that consistently follows the lead of the American alpha male.

The US satirical TV show Saturday Night Live featured a character called The Church Lady. Her hyper-pious, condescending response to other people’s views and actions was usually a withering “Well, isn’t that special?” – with “special” meaning awful, ill-informed or simply not in line with her preferences.

I heard the echo of The Church Lady in Resolution 713 tabled within the US House of Representatives. It invokes the “Special Relationship” between the US and UK and encourages continuing the status quo (while expressing “deep friendship toward the Scottish people” and “respecting the right of the Scottish people to make their decision” in the referendum).

On the one hand, it is perfectly reasonable for Washington to assert its own interests by continuing a relationship with Westminster it heavily dominates. On the other hand, it is just as reasonable for Scotland to pursue its own interests in what will inevitably remain a friendly set of connections with America. Profound family, historical, musical, academic and trading ties between my two nations provide a firm foundation upon which we can and will build.

The difference with independence is that our new relationship can become more mutually beneficial at the political level. Scotland is very likely to end up with far greater attention paid by Washington to what the Scottish Government and Scottish people actually want, need, believe and prefer.

While growing up, I wanted to hang out with my much bigger brother and his big friends. Chuck was kindly disposed to me and often allowed his wee brother to tag along. While I could express my opinions, they were never decisive. Inevitably, I ended up following whatever path the big boys chose. One of the joys of maturing and becoming independent was being able to create new connections with my big brother and his big friends on a more equal footing.

The transition from shadowing my brother to being (and being treated as) a real person in my own right – whose voice, vote and choices mattered – did not happen overnight. However, it ended up feeling liberating and brought benefits to all concerned.

Scotland, too, has the chance to escape its tag-along status in favour of a healthier partnership with Washington. AsSeptember 18 draws near, it is worth remembering that our decision about independence carries with it as many certainties as uncertainties. For instance, a No vote absolutely ensures that Scotland will remain subject to, and an afterthought within, the US/UK “Special Relationship”. The illusory “new powers” that might possibly be gifted to Scotland by Westminster, if we vote No, certainly do not include powers over military affairs, foreign policy, nuclear weapons or anything else agreed between Westminster and Washington.

Alistair Darling said “everything that makes sense to decide here” will be in Scotland’s hands, but this conspicuously did not include defence and other international matters “reserved” for Westminster. A majority of Scots may oppose whatever future foreign adventures and military conflicts the US and UK jointly undertake. But, without independence, we will still be dragged into the ones for which Scots have no appetite.

Post-independence, the personal, cultural, tourism and other business ties that bind America and Scotland will inevitably continue and grow stronger. But, it would be Scotland’s own relationship, not a second-hand one via Westminster. That is yet another good reason to vote Yes.

Jonathan Sher was a US citizen who chose to come and live and work in Scotland.  He assumed British citizenship to allow him to vote Yes in Scotland’s independence referendum. He is Scotland Director of WAVE Trust but writes here in a personal capacity.

Whose fear is it anyway?

Fear is all around us.  All they feel is fear.  They fear it in their fingers and fear it in their toes.  They have nothing to fear but fear itself.

And boy is that a powerful emotion.  Especially when your biggest fear is that of losing your job.

The Westminster dinosaurs who once roamed this land with impunity, fearing nothing and nobody, are facing extinction.  And they are feart.  Running scared.

And here’s the news, newsfolk: just because they think they can make it news, doesn’t actually make it news.

Just because Darling and Murphy have gone to the police and the electoral authorities wringing their hands about how feart they are, doesn’t actually mean they have anything to fear.

Other than fear itself.

If anything told us that they are worried – seriously worried – that the tide in this referendum has turned, it is this little publicity stunt.  Because it is designed and intended to keep the Scottish people in their place.  To put the fear of God in them that if they turn out to vote on 18 September and to vote Yes, then something terrible may befall them.

It smacks of desperation, that the only way they can prevent defeat by democratic means is by suppressing the democratic process.  “We are worried there is going to be absolute carnage”? Yep, I can see why you’d be worried about that.  Clearly, the No campaign’s private polls are telling them things that they really would rather not hear.  That Scotland is on the cusp of dismantling the United Kingdom.  And with that, bye bye job, bye bye influence, bye bye control.  The only carnage there is going to be is of the Union and by extension, UK Labour.

I can understand why they’re just a teensy bit afraid of that.

The only attempts to “disrupt and intimidate” are coming from them, from backbench Westminster MPs with nothing but time on their idle hands.  Who are choosing to make this historic debate all about them and their craven need to be centre of attention and in a political job for life.  Scotland voting Yes changes everything. Everything.

Only men who have spent much of their adult lives plying their trade in another place could make such a vital mistake.  For months now, I have suspected that there’s a deep-seated problem at the heart of the No campaign, aside from the fact that it has far too many at the top and too few at the bottom.

It is being led by men – and it is all men – who have ploughed their politics in the last fifteen years in a neighbouring field.  They have crossed the fence to plough Scottish politics – either parachuted in on their reputation as big hitters or deliberately inserting themselves in order to create a relevance in their political lives that was hitherto missing – thinking they knew the soil conditions, they knew the way the wind blew and they knew how to grow a handsome crop of No votes.  They refused to listen to their colleagues who do know the land better – and many of them do.

And consequently, what they have produced is stunted, wind burned and blighted.  It might have bloomed late, but the Yes crop is coming good, patiently nurtured by people who live and work here, who understand the soil and the land and its people, just in time for harvest.

And all that is left to these hobby farmers is to trample that crop.  To tell the people of Scotland back in your box, do what you’re telt, ken what’s good for you.

If these Westminster dinosaurs had actually spent much time here rather than there in recent years (excepting the obligatory flurry home at weekends to do the political necessities) they would understand that the political climate and culture in Scotland has changed.  Hugely.

The defeats for Labour in 2007 and again in 2011 were not some aberration, brought about by not having good enough Labour politicians.  They were part of a shift, a knowing shift, orchestrated by the voting ambitions and actions of the Scottish electorate.

We cannot be telt, we cannot be put in a corner, we cannot be intimidated.  Those days when Labour ruled our land, our houses, our job aspirations, our business ambitions are long gone. Labour has only scattered remnants of  power over communities and families it once ruled with an iron fist.

Labour didn’t used to bother identifying the vote in many parts of Scotland.  It did little in the way of door knocking in the run up to elections. Instead, it would just wait for polling day and then, whole teams would appear, made up of trade unionists, community activists, MPs, MSPs, councillors,  They’d simply knock on every door and every biddable person would come out and vote.  I’ve seen it in action.

But they cannot do it in this referendum.  For one thing, Labour cannot rely on its former trade union allies – many national and local trade union leaders, activists and members are voting Yes. Community activists have gotten used to life under a different regime and many of them like it.  Little help to be garnered from there either, then.  And even the stalwarts, the old Labour grandees who knew everyone and whom everyone knew?  Some of them are at least diffident, others have already decided where the future lies for the communities they belong to and love.

As for the areas they once called heartlands?  Well in many parts of Scotland, Labour has abandoned these in this referendum campaign in order to seek No votes in the better off parts of towns and cities.  It might have resulted in an easy hit in terms of big sackfuls of early No intentions.  But here’s the thing:  the more information some of these aspirational voters receive, the more they doubt staying put and the more they are considering change.

The late foray into classic Labour territory to supposedly hoover up undecideds hasn’t worked because the Yes campaign has been working these areas for months, in some cases years.  And people in this referendum want to vote for who and what they trust.

They are no longer sure they have the votes to win fairly. And they sure as heck don’t have the teams on the ground to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.  Hence, why they are running feart to the heidie to prevent the Get out the Vote operation they know Yes can and will put into action.  In communities they once ruled with impunity.

Oh yes, I smell fear.  And I also smell shite.

It gives me yet another wee spring in my step.  Because we are winning.  We are winning the hearts and minds of the people of Scotland to choose a different future and to dump these dinosaurs into the dustbin of history.

What they are trying to do won’t work.  How do I know this?

Way back in the 1997 UK election campaign, I made sure in my patch that we worked the poorest communities assiduously.  We visited them regularly, we engaged them, we listened to them.  They too wanted change back then.  And they got that in order to dump the Tories, they had to vote SNP.  A Labour vote was a wasted vote in that constituency.  Folk began taking posters and car stickers.  But they kept disappearing.  Eventually, one told me what had been going on.  Every house with an SNP poster had been visited by one of the local Labour worthies. A wee nyaff who treated this community like his kingdom.  He’d fill himself with drink and go up and batter their doors.  He’d shout and swear through their letterboxes.  He’d threaten to get them evicted, that they’d never get the house they wanted, that their boy would get in bother with the police, that he’d report them to the social, that if they dared to support the SNP, he’d personally bring about retribution.

So they took their posters down.  And after some more strong arm tactics, Labour posters started appearing on all these same windows across the scheme.

But here’s the thing.  They didn’t vote Labour, they voted SNP.  They put on a charade of falling into line, knowing that once their vote was cast, there was little that could be done about it. They talked among themselves – they formed a secret SNP voting society.  If they all did it, it would be harder for the Labour henchman to exact retribution.  I watched some of them coming out of the polling stations that day, tipping us a wink or a shy wee smile, looking as though a load had been lifted, a black cloud dissipated.

These communities are about to do something similar again.  And Murphy and Darling and all the rest of them know it.  They thought they’d be welcomed back like prodigal sons.  They thought the people of Scotland were malleable, could be fed lies and misinformation and fear mongering and would do as they were telt.  They did not reckon on a populace getting close to decision time, giving a final glance over their wares and finding them wanting.  They did not think that the people of Scotland would ever, really believe that this is their chance to change things.  Forever.  For future generations.  That this really is their one opportunity.

The mistake they have made is that they thought they knew us and knew how to push our buttons.  Well, they ken noo.






The shift is on

At various points in the referendum campaign, I’ve felt the sands begin to shift. At the turn of the year, as folk looked ahead in a spirit of optimism and renewal, some clearly made their minds up and the polls registered an upturn in favour of Yes. But most still seemed to be waiting. Some were obviously waiting for Labour to announce its grand plan for new powers; the damp squib that was on offer marked the end of the dalliance for the disappointed, who decided it was time to go for bust. The polls inched forwards again.

Then in June, more women began to make up their minds and were opting for Yes. I thought we were in touching distance of the tipping point, it was oh so close.  But I hadn’t reckoned on the menfolk stopping short and even, hot tailing it back over the undecided boundary. July arrived and movement was becalmed.  Everyone was stuck where they were – for over 65s, they were stuck right where they had begun, firmly, implacably, instinctively No.

So there was nothing else for it but to roll up the sleeves and get on with it. The only bright spot was the visit to Glasgow for the Commonwealth Games. All those Yes Windaes blousily proclaiming affiliation, suggested a stirring across the city. Yet, there was nothing like it in Edinburgh.

And over the summer, even as the forgotten parts of Scotland awakened to opportunity and in their droves, began coming out for Yes, and registering to vote often for the first time, and Labour supporting areas began to settle their will, still it all seemed like too big a challenge.  Some in the aspirational areas got it and wanted it but those who had strived to get where they are, seemed determined to hold on to what they had, ignoring the doubt gnawing away inside of them that what little they had was always within the gift of the more powerful to sweep away. No firm foundations see?

But what didn’t make sense – still doesn’t – is the chasm still being recorded by some polls. This was going to be a skoosh for the No lot, if you looked at what some pollsters were saying.  Others showed the gap closing, but slowly. Subsidence really, with the odd crack and fissure beginning to show: 20 and 30 somethings still eachy peachy or narrowly Yes; under 25s shifting across (but what do they matter anyway, so few of them vote, some might arrogantly assume); women beginning to nail their colours to the mast, more of them – still – to Yes. Seismic activity then but nothing worth shouting about.

And then No ramped it up.  Every day, an onslaught. Darling at his managerial best in the first debate; 200 Brit celebrities declaring their love for Scotland and pleading with us not to go; Gordon Brown, entering the fray for the first time since the last time; this one, that one and the other one slamming the idea that Scotland “can” never mind “should” be independent; analysis here, there and everywhere, but always that of the Naysayers proclaimed more loudly; and always, the finger of doom pointing down at us, whirling myriad details in our heads until they birled.  On the doorsteps, the fear mongering on the minutiae was parroted back.  People were absorbing it all and it appeared to be working. No’s splat approach to multiple targets seemed to be resulting in a lot of it sticking.

In one day alone last week, we were treated to 120 business leaders telling us why we shouldn’t vote Yes, Archie McPherson telling us to vote No, and a campaign broadcast showing the Woman who Made her Mind Up to make it a No.  In one, single day.

That broadcast spoke volumes. The reason it was so narrowly targeting the demographic of the busy, working mum who hadn’t had time to sit down and think about how to vote and therefore, was still making her mind up?  Because the No camp reckoned this was the only one left to target: all other boxes had been ticked, this was the only place left to hoover up to cement the victory.

But how the No campaign behaved last week spoke volumes to its weaknesses and flaws. Darling was monstered in the TV debate by the First Minister. I have watched and rewatched the closing remarks. Alex Salmond is majestic, passionate, emotional and visionary, winding it all up to a crescendo. Alistair Darling is broken, stumbling over his words, mumbling down into his papers, barely making eye contact with the autocue. He had nothing to offer.

And with his shambolic performance, the cracks in the foundations became much more visible. They had already assumed a victory, they had already filmed the advert, they reckoned it was in the bag. Would they have put that risible broadcast out if they had even for a moment doubted that Darling would do it?  Of course not. But it was the only film they had, and they had to go with it. Dotting the is and crossing the ts was all that was needed, keeping the announcements coming, reducing the final weeks of the campaign to white noise.

It’s a shame the Scottish people appear not to be listening anymore nor following the script. Because last Monday, with that debate, everything changed. Suddenly, the Scottish people are not liking being telt the ending of this long running series. Telt by everyone what to do and how to vote, the people appear to be lifting their eyes from the detail of dread being fed them on a daily basis and looking at the big picture.

And crucially, looking not at the past, nor even at the present, but thinking about the future. As the person in the debate audience asked, if we are better together, why are we not better together now?  A million heads nodded in agreement, thinking of the electric bill recently received, the 1% pay rise that’s paid for nothing, the bedroom tax eating into their incomes, their graduate son unable to get a proper job, the nursery costs going up again, the pension rise resulting in more council tax and rent to pay, the prospect of Christmas and how to pay for it all beginning to loom. Doesn’t feel much like better together really – not when you stop to think about it, rather than just read what they tell you.

The start of a new academic year also focuses minds. Proud parents, grandparents, godparents, aunties and uncles seeing off wee ones for the very first time, wondering where all the years go when looking at the gangly teenagers try to strut their stuff into secondary, realising just how empty that nest is going to be after they’ve packed up all that their fledglings own and delivered it to a city far away. What about them, what will their future hold?  “I can dress myself”.

Whatever is behind it, whatever is motivating it, there is a shift, a change in people’s attitudes and it would appear, their voting intentions. Those undecideds aren’t breaking the way the polls have foretold; women are making their mind up but not as the No lot hoped; instinctive Nos who have clung to their default position for nearly two years now have changed their minds.

You can smell it, taste it, sense it.  But most of all, you can see it.

When I first moved to Edinburgh 15 years ago, I was astonished that only a handful of window posters went up at election time. For three elections, nothing. Then in 2007, Edinburgh decided it was time to flash the colour of its knickers, the ones it may or may not have been wearing under its fur coat all this time. An SNP poster here, an SNP poster there. Something was happening:  by polling day, there were houses loud and proud, proclaiming that the folk here were up for bold and different and change.

If you live in Edinburgh, take a walk through your neighbourhood today and count the posters and Yes stickers.

The waiting is over.  Scotland is making its mind up. The shift appears to be on. “It’s the only chance we’ll get to change things”.