Friday, 19 September 2014

The Morning After

Yesterday, my country held a referendum on its future. I have made no secret of the fact that I voted Yes to its independence, that I felt it would be better for all involved if it were to disentangle itself from the UK. In the cold light of dawn, after a result that was disappointing but not altogether surprising, I still feel much the same way.

I'd like to make clear, first and foremost, that I respect the choice of my fellow Scots. 1.6M of them agreed with me. I don't think that the other 1.9M are stupid (though I continue to lament the poor standard of finance education in schools that makes it easy to be misdirected). I certainly don't see them as my enemies. I just don't buy the notion of a deep divide that many people (mostly outside Scotland) have been pushing. Almost all of us did what we did because we wanted the best for our country and for the wider world. Compared to that, disagreements over the means of getting it are trivial. I am awed by the fact that some 87% of the Scots electorate came out to support that cause.

The struggle to reach this point has been long and hard. Parts of it have been quite distressing, particularly the hatred for Scottish people, especially Yes voters, expressed in parts of the UK national press, where we have been repeatedly accused of being members of some fascist cult, with little meaningful opportunity to dispute this notion. It's one of those things that sums up the discomfort one can feel as a Scottish person in England, despite all the assurances of love we have received from that country recently. The togetherness everyone now vaunts (one does wonder how many have only just thought of it) must involve action being taken to resolve these problems, which have their roots in the othering and exoticisation of Scots. In other words, it cannot just be about what we do here. Despite what you may have heard, nobody is going out today to hunt down No voters in the streets. It has been a long campaign; most of us would far rather have a nice cup of tea and a sit down.

That campaign now being over, people are talking about three things: a No victory; where things go from here; and what happens to the major figures involved.

On the first of those topics, yes, the No campaign has achieved its aims, but it's hard to ascertain what that 'victory' means. What has been gained? What is there to cheer about? The land has been defended: we have our feet planted on the same slippery ground. Soon, some tell us, we will have a much better life. Soon, after what? That part is unclear, probably because there is no consensus on it within Better Together itself. In fact, do a little digging and you'll find that quite a number of Better Together supporters actually want independence; they just didn't feel that the were being offered the right model, or that now was the time. If this movement is to have any real political meaning it must first identify its own point of focus. All it can be said to have achieved otherwise is a muddled delay. Perhaps that's better than the alternative would have been, perhaps not. If it starts to look more like the latter, uncomfortable questions will be asked.

On the second, Scotland has been offered a bizarre assortment of assurances, most of which are next to meaningless in real terms but some of which have the potential to cause great complication. There is a strong suspicion that what will ensue is an attempt to cripple the Scottish parliament by giving it many new responsibilities and few, if any, real powers. Taking away powers would be politically unwise but remains a possibility, and not all of us have forgotten how Scotland was punished last time it flirted with independence. What's intriguing, however, is the political corner that the Conservatives and Labour may have painted themselves into in relation to this, given the fragile balance of power at Westminster (and the very real possibility that whoever is in government after next May's election may need the support of SNP MPs in order to actualise its manifesto commitments). Given their close rivalry, neither of these parties will want to incur the wrath of Scots just yet, so there will be pressure to act on some of those promses, and that will put certain politicians in very difficult positions indeed.

So we come to the third point. David Cameron has had a difficult month. If he had 'lost' Scotland, his political career would not have survived, so he took  desperate gamble and made his wild promises. In doing so, he created fury among powerful elements within his party, and any move to make good on those promises will make that worse. Furthermore, because of the impending general election, his party has only a brief window in which to dispose of him before it becomes too difficult to get away with. The only thing really going in his favour is the lack of an alternative likely to gain popular support within the party, which illustrates its deeper problems. Its best candidate may well actually be Theresa May, yet she has proven herself to be incompetent at a basic level (such as quoting laws inaccurately whilst serving as Home Secretary) again and again. Gove is electoral poison, Bois has limited appal outside London and, well, it doesn't look good for them.

If Cameron goes, things get more complicated elsewhere. Labour may well seize the opportunity to get rid of the increasingly flaccid Ed Miliband, with Yvette Cooper a likely replacement. In Scotland, Johann Lamont, who was almost invisible to voters during the latter stages of the referendum campaign (with those in strong No voting areas more likely to enthuse about Ruth Davidson - if you're less popular than a Tory in Scotland, you're in trouble). No's campaign was shambolic in general and has little to do with its victory (which hinged on the concept of risk, introduced early on and gradually growing less effective as time passed); it is difficult to see what Lamont contributed. Despite the official victory, she too may disappear before long.

Of all the major players, the one who seems to have come through this best is Alex Salmond, despite him officially having lost. It's broadly agreed that the Yes campaign could not really have done more. If he resigns, it's likely to happen after the negotiations of the coming months, and will probably involve a decision to step down at the next Holyrood election (in 2016). Should that happen, Nicola Sturgeon will slip easily into his shoes, and the degree of precision with which Yes crafted its campaigning will become fully apparent. Take Salmond's statements about the unlikeliness of a future independence referendum, for instance. They may have sounded definite (they had to, or people might not have bothered to vote in th one), but not a one of them was presented as anything other than personal opinion. In other words, if the Conservatives and Labour (and, for what it's worth, the LibDems) fail to live up to the promises which they strongly disagree on (and some of which would be extremely difficult to implement at a technical level anyway), there will be nothing hypocritical about the SP calling for another referendum. For that matter, the Greens could call for one any time they liked. It would probably take at least five years to engineer, but it's a credible threat. And sure, Westminster could refuse permission for it, but if a clear majority of Scots wanted to go, that would place them in a very difficult position in terms of their international reputation.

Why do I suggest there might be a clear majority in favour when there isn't this time? For several reasons. Firstly, broken promises don't go down well, especially if they inspired people to change their votes this time around. Secondly, if you look at the demographics examined in polling, you'll see a clear trend for No voting to correlate with age, and one that doesn't seem to relate to people's preferences changing as they get older; in time, much of the unionist vote will simply die off. Thirdly, looking at the pattern of No votes in this referendum shows a correlation with areas of poor internet penetration. As people get online, they become less dependent on mainstream media, they are better able to educate themselves, and they are more likely to encounter a diversity of political opinions. Internet access is expanding geographically in Scotland at a considerable pace. Over time, this will have a political impact.

That relationship with the internet has been one of the most interesting aspects of this campaign because it illustrates the increasing breakdown of traditional networks of power, of traditional frameworks through which ideas can become dominant. This isn't easy territory for Britain's traditional institutions to lay claim to. Despite the threat posed by increasing censorship, the internet is a real force for political change, enabling ordinary people to participate in public life as never before. It's a game changer.

Given the old choices familiar in Westminster elections, barely half the electorate turns out to vote in most places. Yesterday, when presented with the prospect of influencing something that actually mattered, with real choice available, voters achieved turnouts as high as 91%. That's what democracy ought to be about. We have a choice now. We can sit back and 'go back to normal' (which mans, essentially, accepting imposed changes we normally do), or we can stand up - not just in Scotland but all across the UK - and demand real choice in other elections. We can tell our politicians that we want leadership and vision, not just frantic clustering around whatever the Daily Mail says is the issue of the day. We don't need to sit around passively and let those who are supposed to be our servants take us for granted.

If Westminster hoped that a No vote in a referendum would pacify the Scots, they were wrong. Not only are we still here, still engaged, still capable of hoping for and fighting for something better, but we all stand together now in pressing for change. Westminster, stand and deliver!

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Why I'm saying Yes to Scottish independence

Despite looking in depth at a number of key issues in the Scottish referendum, and writing on it from a number of angles for several different publications, I have hesitated to say anything personal about my vote. This is't simply about trying to keep people happy, having friends on both sides. I trust my friends to respect my decision as I respect theirs. Rather, it has been an ethical choice - it has been very important to me to keep my writing neutral and focused on the facts, because I think that's what the people of Scotland have been crying out for. I have also wanted to keep things straightforward as far as my business and charity work is concerned, though I can assre you that my coming out today does not mean either Trans Media Watch or Eye For Film will lose their neutrality. I haven't asked my colleagues what they think and I wouldn't presume to speak for them. The former is there to serve, the latter to entertain and inform; there is no place for this kind of politics in that.

Why, then, am I coming out now? It's because I think that, at this point, most minds are made up; because I want to be honest with m friends and my readers; and because I don't want to be smugly positioning myself after the fact. I want to be clear that this is what I believe in, in or lose.

As someone with fourteen years of experience in business and eight years of experience writing about it, as well as about the world of high finance, I feel confident in assessing the economic arguments at stake in this debate and I am not about to pretend that I think independence would be risk free. The thing is, I see some serious risks with staying in the union as well. It's important to remember that voting No is not a neutral option, not a vote for no change. There is always change, and there are many other major political and economic factors creating instability just now. I do find it vaguely amusing to hear avowed neo-liberals suddenly preaching against risk when it comes to this vote. All in all, I'm not too worried, because I've been following the policies of big business on this for a long time, I respect their ability to manage contingencies (they wouldn't be big otherwise) and I have, unfashionable though it may be, a degree of faith in the basic principles of capitalism. Market niches do not stay empty. High prices make retailers vulnerable to competition. Etc. Where currency is concerned, a see use of the pound (approved or not) as a viable short term option, and I would expect an independent Scotland to develop its own currency within five to fifteen years.

If these seems a little brusque, forgive me. I could write pages on any one of these issues, but I don't want to bore you.

Setting aside the fear of financial catastrophe, then, and laying to rest some other fears through the simple process of looking at what has happened to other countries that have made this kind of change, I shall move on to look at some of the other headline issues. Firstly, England. You're so vain, I bet you think this vote is about you. Well, to be honest, that's not what most English people think, and I've heard a wonderful diversity of opinions from those I've discussed the matter with; I know many of them are frustrated at being purportedly represented by the likes of David Cameron saying "I think I speak for all English people when I say that I want Scotland to stay." In fact, many English people themselves want something loosely described as "independence from Westminster," and I wish them well with that - I hope that Scotland's actions can encourage a flowering of political engagement in England. That's why I don't accept the "Stay and help them fight" line. I think the best way to help is to illustrate what's possible. What politics has been most painfully short of in recent years has been ideas and real faith in the potential of ordinary voters. That, and I've helped England fight for decades, and nothing has changed. I refuse to keep on nobly banging my head off the same brick wall..

Still, it's not about England, and it's not altogether about Westminster either. It is, strangely enough, about Scotland, about what we are, what we can be, what we can do. It's about a different kind of politics already manifested in a fairer voting system, a much more diverse set of political parties (I alone have voted for four different ones at Holyrood elections), and a much more engaged public. Woken now that it might act tomorrow, the dragon of Red Clydeside, so long bound in despair and apathy, is not going to go back to sleep again. This is a country where the voices of working class people have political weight, and that, rather than any sentimental factor, is why I think it can become a fairer country. I don't think Scots are better than other people, but I think we are in a position to take advantage of a range of cultural and political factors that give us the potential to make active use of the virtues and talents we have.

I don't comprehend the argument that independence is tragic because it will make people into foreigners. I already am a foreigner to most people in the world. There are borders between me and my friends in Pakistan, Canada, Brazil and New Zealand, yet I don't care about them any less than my friends in England or my friends who live just down the street. I see borders as practical things, enabling society to be split into democratically manageable sections. I'd like to see more evenness between those sections, more freedom of movement, and respect for human rights across all of them, but those are bigger causes I shall be no less engaged with for supporting an independent Scotland.

It probably goes without saying, but I am no more afraid of being invaded by aliens in an independent Scotland than anywhere else on Earth. Nor am I worried about being invaded by the armies of Vladimir Putin, in part because I understand his empire's economic and naval limitations. I think Scotland could continue to play a useful role in the world militarily, playing to its strengths in engineering, tech and medicine; I favour maintaining a ground army but I honestly don't see us as high on anyone's target list provided that England doesn't get any silly ideas. I trust we can all be more grown up than that.

I don't see everything as dependent on oil. As has been pointed out, if we're still dependent on oil in fifteen years, we're really screwed regardless of our governance (and our low-lying neighbours are even more so). We have a number of strong industries here in Scotland and they compare pretty well to those on which many larger national economies are dependent. We're pretty flexible and we've maintained our strong tradition of innovation, which reinforces that advantage.

For the sake of friends elsewhere in the UK who have been dependent on UK national newspaper coverage to make sense of what's going on in Scotland, I would simply like to say, don't panic, there is no terrifying fascist cult here, thee is no danger of No voters being hunted down in the streets if their side wins; we're really not that exciting. There's no terrifying censorship going on (I think I personally have a pretty strong record on fighting censorship, so I hope you will trust me on this, at least enough to do some real research before buying those lines), and there is at present no convincing evidence that the debate here has led to elevated levels of violence (there have always been a few people who enjoy that, and it's not surprising to see them attaching themselves to each side of the debate, but they'd probably have been behaving much the same way without it). Perhaps most importantly, no-one here is going into the voting booths without having thought things through. It may be that parts of the UK have only just discovered the issue, but we've been talking about it for over two years. W've thought about this, you know?

So this is what it comes down to, for me. I'm voting Yes because I think it's the right thing for democracy and gives Scotland (and perhaps other UK nations too) the best chance of achieving greater social justice. There is no conflict between my head and my heart; I am voting Yes because my experience of Scotland's business landscape, its creative sector, its political mechanisms and its community leaders convinces me that it has what it takes to make a success of this, and to exemplify a better way to live than we have recently known. I don't know if it will make me better or worse off. I don't believe I have any right to concern myself with that ahead of what is good for the electorate at large. I think the time has come to grasp the nettle and to make practical change. There's no future in England's dreaming, nor in the vague promises of those who lied to us last time. If we want a real future, we must make it.

I don't ask you to stand with me. I ask only that, if you are voting in this referendum, you consider your decision carefully and do what honestly seems right to you. But for better or worse, this is where I stand. Yes I said yes I will yes.