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.






This was the week when Better Together ramped it up.  First, there was an intensifying of the spook ’em tactics.

Thus, we had Bob Dudley suggesting that independence might not be a good thing for energy businesses like BP (though he was speaking in a personal capacity, you understand and not as CEO of BP).  It would create currency uncertainty, increased costs for BP and threaten investment, all of it vague and unspecific. His remarks prompted rebuttal from commentators as diverse as Derek Bateman and Alex Massie.  No matter, his intervention captivated the mainstream media: here was a big man, in charge of a big, very big business sharing thoughts on independence. 

Fund managers are also increasingly nervous of the uncertainty and risks (no irony intended) and especially, the prospect of a separate regulatory system for financial institutions north and south of the border, should Scotland vote yes.  James Clunie, a top fund manager – and having checked out his rep with someone who would know, this is a pretty accurate assessment – warned that big companies are already delaying investment decisions pending the outcome of the vote.  It’s very scary, he said.

There was also Justin King, the outgoing Chief Executive of Sainsbury’s warning of higher food prices in supermarkets in an independent Scotland.  From multi-billion pound industry and profit all the way down to the price of a pound of mince, the narrative is that independence doesn’t add up.  And while some might dismiss the impact of 5p on a pound of a mince as a reason to vote no, it actually is these bread and butter (literally) economic issues which will matter to many voters still to make up their minds. 

Along the way, there was an intervention by Caroline Flint, Labour’s energy spokesperson, who despite talking mince, probably gained sympathy plaudits on Newsnicht for trying to politely engage “Mr Ewing” in the debate only to be dealt with dismissively with bluster.  Not a good tactic, Yes people.  There was a Westminster debate in which a Lib Dem MP, Lord Thurso suggested that the lights would go out if we vote yes.  And Margaret Curran suggesting the independence campaign needs to “get real” and start talking the language of “ordinary voters”.  Expect more talk of mince then, though this was probably the most resonant intervention from all the BT folk and supporters in the week.

Today, we had the Chairman of one of the big oil engineering recruitment groups, Orion, saying that while he’d continue to live in an independent Scotland, he might have to run his business from elsewhere due to all the “uncertainty”.

Given all the dire warning emanating from distinguished that and renowned other on money, costs  and jobs,  it’s a surprise Scots didn’t just stay in their beds on Friday, waiting for the sky to fall in.

Good job we didn’t, for we’d have missed strand two of the new grand plan.  In the political equivalent of putting on a Barry White record, apparently we Scots are to be made to feel loved and wanted.  In perhaps the single most imaginative initiative to date in Better Together’s campaign, Rory Stewart MP, whose constituency runs to the border, launched Hands across the Border which aims to light beacons and unite 100,000 folk from the rest of the UK along Hadrian’s wall to show us how much they want the Scots to stay. How wonderful. All it needs is to be matched by a similar human chain from this side of the border to indicate we are not going anywhere and that we love the rest of the UK too.

Yesterday, it was clear the metropolitan elite had received a memo suggesting they get involved.  David Aaronovitch was given 20 minutes of airtime on Radio Scotland on Saturday’s Good Morning Scotland programme to pick up on a personal attack apparently first begun in student days, on Lesley Riddoch.  Given how several other male London chatterati got involved in twitter too, she clearly has ruffled a few feathers.  Apparently, all this political “othering” between England and Scotland is inaccurate and misleading and determined to drive a wedge in the Union.  To be honest, there was some truth in what Aaronovitch had to say, which is backed up by polls showing there is less difference between Scots and English on key social and political issues.  Perhaps, of more interest, though is the timing of the highly personalised attack, designed to add to the mood music being generated by the Union’s defenders.  Partly aiming to smother strong and resonant independent voices in the debate, but partly also to highlight similarity rather than difference.  We are family, and all that.

Which leads us to the big set piece at the end of a long week of staging: the Prime Minister’s speech.  From a formerly Olympian stage on Friday, he delivered a decidedly unOlympian speech, telling us how there are just “seven months” to save the Union.  “We must do whatever it takes… you don’t have a vote but you do have a voice...”  He urged family and friends in the rest of the UK to communicate with Scots they know telling them to please not go.  All that was missing was for him to be played out by Baby Please don’t go, though there’s still time for Better Together at UK level to adopt it as its official anthem. The many versions of this classic could enable a highly targeted demographic appeal to be mounted.  Yep, have that one for free.  I’d like the Them version please.

All of this activity, warning of doom and disaster on the one hand by respected this and that, coupled with expressions of love, family and togetherness by an army of supposedly notables on the other, was fascinating to observe.

But entertaining as it all was, it was also pretty pointless.  Because very little of it will have any effect or impact on Scots’ voting intention.

Indeed, Dr Matt Qvortrup – in no one’s camp, for the record – had an interesting piece in the Scotsman demonstrating evidence of a counter-intuitive impact of “big I ams” from any field intervening on big issue questions.  It tends to make ordinary folk do the opposite. 

But then, we already know that about the Scots.  No nation is better at harbouring tall poppy resentment.  The phrase “ah ken yer faither” still has currency here because it is regularly trotted out – and I have heard it and derivations of it – whenever someone gives the impression of getting above themselves.  It is an attitude not just designed to burst bubbles, but also to make clear that everyone’s opinion is valid, that there is no hierarchy of veracity nor weight of views just because they happen to be held and freely shared (whether invited or not)  by folk with entitlements, money, rank or education. While occasionally deployed in petty and mean ways, at its heart, such a mindset displays a wilful egalitarianism, best articulated in Burns’s A Man’s A Man for A’ That.  It might not be a uniquely Scottish value, having clear links to an internationally socialist belief system, but it probably is more evident in modern day Scottish values than in British or English ones.  A difference to note then, Mr Aaronovitch.

While Better Together might like to think that it and supporters of the Union “telt” the Scots a thing or two this week, they might wish to remember that actually, the Scots are not great at being “telt” on anything much.