The biggest question being asked in Scotland when I arrived was whether it should become an independent country. Campaigning was in full swing as polling showed the gap closing between yes and no, until a poll that had yes leading raised passions another notch. More interesting than the politicians making promises was the engagement of the so many people who had previously been disengaged, possibly due to a sense of disempowerment in the current system. There were political discussions on the buses, streets, doorsteps, and social media. People of all ages developing and voicing opinions, listening to each other and the vast majority being really respectful of each other about it.
As a new comer watching on I swung from yes to no and back to yes. The event that swung me to no was a debate in a hall at the University of Edinburgh. The yes side were arguing that independence would provide the opportunity to set up a constitution that would limit the powers of the monarch, state and executive. (I hadn’t realised the UK doesn’t have a constitution.) They were also arguing for independence for its own sake – from decisions made in Westminster that they didn’t agree with, and to have full control over decisions such as fiscal policy. It came off sounding like a vision of a left wing utopian welfare state, but one of the no debaters pointed out that not all Scots share that left wing persuasion.
The local Labour councillor said for the no argument that she wanted to be able to work towards improving workers’ conditions throughout the UK, not just in Scotland. She said she felt that being both Scottish and British meant that got her past being nationalistic and helps us see how we have multiple parts of our identities including those that outside of our national identity. She also made reference to numerous instances where a higher percentage of the UK funding pool is allocated to Scotland than the 8% of the UK population that is in Scotland and called this “punching above our weight” as part of the “best of both worlds”.
But there seemed to be contradictions in this that she wasn’t showing self-awareness about. What about workers’ conditions around the world? Isn’t working for UK workers just shifting her boundaries instead of erasing them? And isn’t getting more funding per person in Scotland unfair to those in other parts of the UK (although remoteness factors in there, as in regional Australia). So I came away feeling that the whole referendum was just a distraction from wider issues. Especially when yes campaigners claimed oil reserves would support Scotland without mentioning that, actually, most of those reserves need to stay where they are to avoid severe climate change. I’d also been reading a bit of Naomi Klein’s work and suspected that if there was a yes vote, the corporations and those with too much money would have undue influence in establishing a new state. But I was talked back around to the yes side by arguments for bringing power and decision making back closer to the people effected by them. It was all academic though, I wouldn’t be voting.
The day before the vote people were all over the place putting out the message they believed in. Sitting upstairs on a bus (where I was making the most of the novelty value of double deckers), I made eye contact with a young woman on the pavement dancing with her sign, her dark red dyed hair swinging from side to side. The no campaign had become very negative, focusing on perceived risks to the currency and banks, jobs and passport control. A yes voter I was talking to was pretty resigned that it was going to be no, but was more disappointed than she expected when the result was announced. There was a deflated air about the streets, but the yes signs stayed up and the fellow in his Saltire (Scottish flag) styled kilt kept wearing it. Perhaps just as well if he didn’t have anything on underneath.
A week later I went with a friend to a Dangerous Ideas event about how the political activity ignited by the referendum could be maintained. It was a really interesting evening. An academic on participatory democracy gave a bit of a talk to start with and then we broke into groups to discuss a few questions before reporting back to the whole group.
I wasn’t the only one to suggest that using aspects of the jury system could empower regular folk. People could be called up from the electoral role for service of a given duration, with financial compensation and a default expectation of doing one’s duty. Of course, experts and researchers would need to answer people’s questions so they felt confident in their decision making. As we talked about it I realised it could be done on various scales or at various levels of government. Instead of local councils consulting residents, a panel of residents could be the actual decision makers on an issue. At state/federal level, they could form an upper house to properly review legislation in a non-partisan manner. What do you think? Do you feel any different about this idea than you do about jury duty?
To top off three weeks of intense political discussions we went to a climate change rally on the weekend. I was conscious of being a citizen of the world, putting my body out there as one of the numbers who say we need to do more if we’re to avoid the devastation of climate change. At the last minute I made a rough sign that said something like, “Independence too risky? Try the unimaginable risk of climate change. Act now!” I wanted to draw attention to the way of thinking about it that really drove home the issue for me. It drew a few nods from spectators who read it.
Even if you think there’s a very small chance that human induced climate change is actually happening, imagine the risks, the scale of disruption and devastation that it would cause. Go on, really imagine it. On a global scale. How high would the likelihood of that happening have to be before you decided that we needed to act to insure against it? Would you be happy ignoring a 1% chance? A 10% chance? Compare it to the expense of home, contents or car insurance. How likely do you think it is that you’ll need to make a claim on all of them? If it’s less likely than climate change, maybe you’ll want to act to insure against the world burning up.