Let’s not go back to our sofas

I’ve had the pleasure of hearing Robin McAlpine speak about the Common Weal twice in recent weeks.  And I hope he’ll forgive me for borrowing his Heroic Granny for this blogpost.

Heroic Granny is a wee wumman he met at one of the many public meetings on the independence referendum he’s been speaking at.  Possibly only Colin Fox and Jim Sillars have covered more miles in the last few months.  Anyway, this wumman approached him at the end and told of how the referendum had sparked her interest and enthusiasm.  For the first time in her life, she’s become a political activist, delivering leaflets, chapping doors and holding conversations with friends and family. She’s having the time of her life, she said, and after the vote? “I’m not going back to my sofa“.

This desire encapsulates the motivation behind the campaign for a National Council for Scotland launched today. Neither pro nor anti independence, it is instead the beginnings of a movement for a more participatory approach to democracy in Scotland.  Should there be a yes vote and negotiations required for independence to become a reality, ordinary people should be involved in Team Scotland to agree the division of the assets.  Should there be a no vote and moves begin in earnest to devolve more powers – we can only hope – then ordinary people should have a say in what they might be.

As the campaign’s press release says, “Scotland cannot be allowed to revert to the closed-shop, behind-closed-doors politics that has left the UK as the European nation with
the lowest level of trust in its government and in its political processes.”  Amen to that.

Instead, it is proposed that a National Council for Scotland is established, involving all citizens and organisations in a “wide-ranging but tightly timetabled debate on all
of the relevant issues.” The process would be conducted physically and virtually, through public meetings, citizens’ juries, hearings and other engagement activity. It would conclude with a “Citizens’ Assembly” in which a group of individuals would be selected in a randomised way to represent a cross-section of Scottish society.  The Assembly would consider the conclusions and recommendations from the National Council, as well as gather its own evidence, before setting out a series of proposals to be presented to the team negotiating whatever constitutional powers the vote in September results in.

The intention is to avoid the future of Scotland being carved up by a handful of un-mandated people, handpicked to fulfil the role from the narrow ranks of Scotland’s elected and corporate elites.  It aims instead to give all of us a stake – an active, real stake – in determining our future.

The proposals for a National Council and a Citizen’s Assembly have been developed by academics who have looked at what works elsewhere in the world.  And they are proposals I support.

I’ve long advocated the role and use of Citizen’s Assemblies and similar participative mechanisms.  Through my day job, I regularly get to spend time with people whose voice is not encouraged, who are rarely heard and even less likely to be listened to.  They are as every bit as expert as the rest of us, and often more so, having first hand experience of some of the social issues that vex our influencers and decision-makers.  With the right support and environment, people – ordinary people – are just as capable of giving their views as the great and the good, and often they come up with better and more pragmatic solutions.  We all have assets to contribute, if the determination is there to enable them.  And what better purpose to seek to put all the assets of the people of Scotland to work than in determining our future?

As Lesley Riddoch, one of the original co-signatories to the campaign, puts it :
The referendum has stimulated discussion about more than just the constitutional arrangements with rUK. Town and village hall meetings have been full to overflowing, all sorts of “hard to reach” people have been organising, social media is alive and all manner of subjects from local democracy to land reform are being discussed on a daily basis. Business as usual after the indyref is now unthinkable – whichever way the vote goes.

This National Council proposal provides a launching pad for transformational change in a topdown democracy which is well past its sell by date. There should be no more tablets of stone delivered from on high, no long term arrangements made behind closed doors, no more “politician and invited guests only” forums for debate. The people of Scotland have untapped capacity to participate in the remoulding of their own society. Now is the time to make that happen.”

I couldn’t agree more.  And if you agree too and want to make sure your future – our future, and that of our children and grandchildren – isn’t determined by the few instead of the many, support the campaign.  Get off your sofa now and sign the petition at www.nationalcouncilscotland.org  And don’t go back.





Guest post: Let the people decide

Another guest post from @deftleftfoot on the prospect of the referendum on independence and the current absence of a pro-devolution option.

It’s been nearly five months since I argued that Scotland’s independence referendum could be a unique opportunity to achieve something genuinely different and better to the turgid neo-liberal orthodoxies our political system seems unable or unwilling to change.

Now that the starting pistol has been fired for a November 2014 referendum and a week of fevered rhetoric on both sides of the argument has passed, my original views have been reinforced and perhaps radicalised by recent events.

For the avoidance of any doubt, here are the key provisions I would like to see included in the referendum:

  • The inclusion of a defined increase of devolved powers option on the ballot;
  • 16 & 17 year olds to be empowered with the right to vote in this historic event;
  • Westminster handing over to the Scottish Parliament all powers required to fulfil the legal requirements of referendum; and
  • The referendum itself to be constructed and overseen by an independent commission to ensure the maximum fairness and transparency.

I’m not convinced about the SNP’s arguments for independence. They still have much to reveal about how an independent Scotland can credibly rebuild and sustain collective prosperity.

But I don’t know if I can stomach the prospect of a probable Tory majority in Westminster after 2015, resulting in an extension of the austerity agenda aided by the subservient Lib Dems and weakness of the current Labour leadership.

Like many others in Scotland, I would welcome an increase in devolved powers as a means to counter the ConDem economic and social vandalism.  At the very least, I certainly want to debate the potential of an increased devolved settlement and have the opportunity to vote on it.

So from a trade unionist perspective it was pleasing to see the STUC take a deep breath before entering the debate.  STUC General Secretary Grahame Smith’s call for the establishment of an independent Referendum Commission to explore all the potential options available in the formulation of this referendum and to offset legal uncertainty is entirely sensible.

Unfortunately it didn’t take long for our elected representatives to descend into predictable acrimonious bluster over ‘patriotism’, ‘Scottish-ness’ and such nonsense.  Politicians would do well get their minds focused firmly back on the issues at hand – proposals for economic growth, the future of our public services, dignity in retirement, tackling unemployment, making a positive case for your position in the referendum campaign…need I go on?  It would be a national embarrassment for gutter politics and buffoonery to dominate the next two years.

The stakes are simply too high for politics to be consumed by its own self-importance.

This process is a marathon and not a sprint.  With the eyes of the world focused on Scotland we have to show that we can deliver this referendum in a mature, open and truly democratic fashion.  The STUC proposals can help create a platform for the views of the Scottish grassroots to shape the referendum process prior to the campaign and vote itself, facilitating this objective. Surely this is something that any sensible politician should support?

We certainly need a renewed sense of ownership over our democracy.  In the last year my job has gave me the privilege of meeting people the length and breadth of the country.  Together, we’ve highlighted issues impacting their workplaces and communities.  We’ve also debated politics and policies; overarched by the spectre of the coalitions austerity agenda. And for me it’s becoming increasingly apparent that the status quo is no longer acceptable.

On the UK economy for example, we know we are being sold a pup. The sheer folly of this growth-less austerity is unravelling by the day exposing the dying neo-liberal ideology that many of us on the left have argued it to be from day one.  Last week’s downgrading of the French AAA credit rating by Standard & Poor merely highlighted this to a bigger audience and reminded us all that the UK can’t exempt itself from the economic sickness it helped spawn. It’s also a damning confirmation that our politicians are further descending into the post-2008 political aporia.

Whether people are employed in the public, private or third sector, or currently unemployed, they are increasingly unhappy and frustrated with our economic direction.  They want something better for themselves and their families but most of all they want fairness. Anger is mounting because they are being punished for an economic mess they did not create and yet they see hypocrisy and injustice all around them whether its financial sector bonuses, capital strike, phone hacking or the expenses scandal.

People have simply had enough of the tail wagging the dog.

And it’s the politicians themselves who must take a large chunk of the blame for this.  Politics has disenfranchised so many people from the democratic process through its own examples of hubris and weaknesses.  This referendum is a chance for politics to pay the people back. But can our politicians be trusted to set aside party-political inertia, at least for a short time, to maximise the scope of the referendum debate and empower the people they are there to serve accordingly?

On the face of it, we know what to expect from the SNP and the Conservatives. Their respective views will be argued with passion whether you agree with them or not. Indeed, the SNP have made proposals for the referendum process – altruistic or otherwise – which I entirely agree with (like the extension of the vote to 16 and 17 year olds).

But like many in the trade union movement I’m sure, it is Labour’s position I find baffling.  The party of devolution continues to reject the possibility of a third option on the referendum ballot.  Last November Labour’s Douglas Alexander argued that Scottish Labour must make the case for more devolution of powers to the Scottish Parliament ahead of the independence referendum.  Yet last week we’ve seen Labour slip back into to the ‘stronger together weaker apart’ mantra that failed them in 2007 and 2011. Devolution and independence are ‘separate processes’, say Labour.

Instead of a social-democratic party like Scottish Labour being able to carve its own niche and make progressive policy arguments for the extension of devolution, Johann Lamont will be on the same stump as David Cameron and Nick Clegg in the eyes of the Scottish people whether she likes it or not.

It concerns me deeply that out of our four main political parties we only have two outcomes being touted – yes or no to Scottish independence.  I think this narrow scope stifles democratic debate and ultimately treats the Scottish people with some contempt.  At least one mainstream political party needs to champion a campaign for further devolved powers, complementing the arguments for independence and the retention of the union, enriching the political debate.

This blunt ‘yes’ or ‘no’ politics merely intensifies the need for the Scottish people to dictate the identity of this referendum.  Whether you are pro independence, pro-union or pro-devolution; surely the Scottish people are best placed to set the terms and conditions of what is arguably the biggest political, social and economic decision many of us will ever have the opportunity to take?

Surely we don’t want the agenda to set by the malign influence of the Ashcrofts, Souters, and Sainsburys of this world or be left with some half-baked plebiscite formed from the scraps that the politicians could only agree on?

Politics has never been and may never be more interesting.  This referendum is golden opportunity to revitalise an environment blighted by distrust and apathy. We’re shaping our futures here and I have faith in the Scottish people to set a shining example of democracy and debate to the rest of the world – and also have the mutual respect for each other to accept the final outcome.  It’s time that politicians on all sides started to listen and learn.

Let the people decide.

Respect? My arse!

Whether we like it or not, never mind want it, we’re getting it.  So much for the sovereignty of the people.  Or even the settled will of the Scottish people.

Apologies for the profanity in the title but the news that we are to get five year Scottish Parliamentary terms released my latent Jim Royle.  Apparently, the ConDem Government are prepared to gift us five years of the next Scottish Government and group of MSPs because of their “respect” for we Scots and our devolved institution. 

And all because they want to move to a fixed term parliament for Westminster – not before time mind you – and doing so would make the UK General Election in 2015 clash with the end of the four year cycle for Holyrood.  So the solution?  Move over darling, this bed ain’t big for both of us. 

No matter that the Scottish Parliament four year term is enshrined in the Scotland Act, as is the day on which Scottish elections must be held.  No matter too that only a few years ago, the idea of tinkering with this Act was anathema to our politicians. And even had they wanted to, there would be no available Westminster parliamentary time.  Amazing what a difference political self interest makes.

The burd can understand why the Scottish parties are going along with the suggestion;  there are, after all, bigger fights to pick with Westminster these days.   But what is interesting is that no one is suggesting that the Scottish people be asked for their view on it all.  I’m not talking about another pesky referendum but even just a wee bit consultation.  It’s not a perfect mechanism by any stretch of the imagination, but community councils could have been asked for their view through an online survey?  Or would that come uncomfortably close to giving the people a say in how long we get stuck with our politicians for?

Apparently Clegg and Cameron making this decision for us is about showing “respect” to Scotland.  Clegg was at his most sonorously insincere when speaking about it on the radio the other day and Ms Goldie – glad she has found her voice on something – trumpeted how this was the UK government treating “Holyrood with respect“.  Indeed, it may be. 

But it shows darn little for the Scottish people, whose Parliament this is, after all.

The burd gets the impression oor politicians forget this weeny fact – here’s Annabel again:  “As a group, we will take decisions shortly over when the date of that election should be”.  How nice, our political parties in a wee huddle sorting it out amongst themselves.   We, the voters, are very much an afterthought and such pronouncements simply confirm what the burd increasingly believes, that elections are far too important to be left in the hands of the politicians.

But let’s not get too cynical or upset.  Here is a golden opportunity for them to resolve a few other matters pertaining to Holyrood elections.  Voting on Thursdays – why?  Like many parents I really resent having to use up a day’s precious annual leave to facilitate the electoral process.  Other countries vote at weekends, why can’t we? 

How about introducing some methods that make it easy for folk to vote – red button, onlne, by text even – instead of marching us up and down hills to our nearest community centre or primary school (particularly when with all the closures about to happen in the next few years, that will actually be some distance away for many voters).  It all might actually, you know, improve voter turnout which would surely be a good thing for democracy?

No, of course not.  This would involve putting the needs of the people before those of the political class.  And we couldn’t possibly have that.

Respect?  My arse!