Closer is the second of four special supplements we’re producing this year in the build up to the referendum. Special thanks to Karyn Dougan and Stewart Bremner for amazing work to make it happen. We are looking to make contact with people across the country who could help us distribute the paper. If you might be able to help please get in touch via: bellasletters (at) yahoo.co.uk
If you want to order a copy, it’s £5.00 including p&p anywhere in the UK. Go here to buy your copy and we’ll post you out your copy – just mark your payment ‘Closer #2’ .
Even before any victory for the Yes movement, there’s already been an outbreak of independent thinking. The last few months has seen an uprising of hope and expectation versus a pantomime of negativity reaching its dark apogee with George Robertson’s warning that Scottish democracy would have a “cataclysmic” impact on the world, and be favoured by the ‘forces of darkness’. It was an infantile thing to say from a politician with little meaningful to contribute. It has just fed the realisation for many people that the Britain they thought you grew up with has gone. The values they thought it represented have been eroded or distorted, and the protector of those values, the institutions that might have held those values true, the NHS, the BBC, the Post Office, the railways, the Labour Party even, have been sold off or sold out.
This isn’t new. Tom Nairn wrote of it in 2000 (After Britain):
“The Constitution of old England-Britain once stood like a mighty dam, preserving its subjects from such a fate; nowadays, leaking on all sides, it merely guides them to the appropriate slope or exit. Blairism has reformed just enough to destabilise everything, and to make a reconsolidation of the once-sacred earth of British Sovereignty impossible. As if panicked by this realisation, his government has then begun to run round in circles groaning that enough is enough, and that everything must be left well alone. The trouble is that everything is now broken – at least in the sense of being questioned , uncertain, a bit ridiculous, lacing in conviction, up for grabs, floundering, demoralised and worried about the future.”
This broken floundering can be seen by the (too-late!) thrown-together constitutional plans of the Unionist parties that are emerging thick and fast now, like children building dams to stop the tide on the beach.
Independence is an opportunity not just to break from the centralised hereditary politics of Westminster, but to innovate a new set of democratic standards and models in Scotland. Today , in 2014, the present British Prime Minister, Foreign Secretary, Chancellor, Shadow Chancellor and Shadow Home Secretary all went to Oxford University together. Many of the Cabinet actually went to the same school together. David Cameron, Oliver Letwin, minister for government policy; Jo Johnson, head of his policy unit; Ed Llewellyn, chief of staff; and Rupert Harrison, George Osborne’s chief economic adviser all went to Eton. We are ruled by a failed elite from an absurdly narrow and privileged sect of English society.
Through the process of the referendum campaign a whole series of power relations have been exposed: the nexus between the media class, corporations, lobbyists, political dynasties and the supra-rich. This issue of Closer focuses on the positive examples of how we break that stranglehold and create new structures for a more participatory democracy. It’s a reverie for a new Scotland based on a different set of values.
A few months ago the idea of ‘a national conversation’ was laughed at. It was ridiculed because, probably rightly, it was thought of as something that would remain contained amongst the political obsessives, the sort of people with nothing better to do. The phrase had the dead hand of ‘government consultation’ about it. It would fail. Who cared?
But now the land is alive with debate from first principles, the public meeting has been revived in all its unmediated, shambolic and dangerously uncontrollable glory. More than 98,000 people aged 16 and 17 have registered to vote in September’s referendum. The figure, published by the National Records of Scotland (NRS), represents about 80% of the 16 and 17-year-olds in Scotland. Whatever the outcome that’s a victory for engaging a whole generation of people.
The official Yes campaign has done its job by making itself redundant and been completely overtaken by a deluge of positive energy as people begin to question the realities of power and explore the potential for transforming Scotland. Forget all that shit about the ‘quality of debate’, the quality of debate’s amazing, not least when you see past the professional sound-bitten politicians and through to the mass of people emerging blinking into the daylight and articulating a heap of hopeful, ambitious, aspirational, innovative questions.
This issue of Closer looks at how we can surf this wave of democratic renewal and demand more. How can we take charge of our politics through independence? How can we make sure that the thousands of people who’ve been inspired by the process don’t retreat as politicians try and bring us all back to business as usual? How do we make sure we don’t let power quietly reassert itself? If we win and we replace Westminster rule with a new political elite in Edinburgh, we’ll have won nothing at all.
We need to create a more participatory politics closer to people. We need to bring power and decision making closer to everyday life, closer to communities and closer to rural Scotland. Stephen Elstub explores the six barriers to making this happen, and outlines practical solutions. Lesley Orr challenges us to overcome the gender gap that excludes women on multiple levels from society. Christopher Silver looks at how film and broadcast represent a huge opportunity for telling ourselves a different story, one of innovation and cultural expectation, rather than the dregs of a British broadcasting service that has become a tired coercive voice of the establishment. Having escaped those dregs, Derek Bateman suggests ways to reconnect people and place, engage young people with their land and breath new life into old towns. Paddy Bort explores how local democracy has ‘gradually been dismantled over the last 50 years’ from over 400 elected local governments in 1946 to 32 today – and how we might repair it. Robin McAlpine (and others) have a proposal for creating a crowdsourced constitution after a Yes vote. AR Frith examines the issue from three angles in his poetry series. In amongst it all, in a crucial piece, Niki Seth-Smith gives a unique account of how, as an English woman, she sees the potential for Scottish independence to unlock a new democracy in the rest of the UK after a Yes vote. Elsewhere Stuart Kelly reflects on how history and memorial is used to frame our own understanding of nationhood, and how this can boost or bedraggle democratic systems. Finally, but not least, Vonny Moyes gasps at the possibility of it all and the vitality of shedding decades of cool cynicism.
After reading Smari McCarthy’s feature describing how the Icelandic people tried to reclaim both their broken economy and their bankrupt political system, the need to protect this new wave of political revival comes into focus. The forces that want a docile unquestioning tick-a-box-every-five-years populace will return quickly after the referendum period to protect their position in the firmament.
From Port Allegre to PARECON, from Mondragon to Erik Olin Wright’s ’empowered participatory governance’ (EPG), from Swiss Cantons to citizen’s initiatives, the practice and theory of a better functioning democracy is clear. The opportunity of moving from being loyal British subjects, to active citizens of Scotland is ahead of us, but we need to do much more than change the flags.
Of course the real issue about exclusion in all this is basic but overwhelming economic inequality. The daily everyday experience of unemployment, low wages, zero hours contracts and precarity have now been amplified by a massive attack on the poorest and most vulnerable people by Ian Duncan Smith’s hugely aggressive welfare reform programme. Each day the grim reality becomes clearer. Extraordinary accounts of what’s being described as a “public health emergency” are emerging as Britain’s coalition government austerity measures begin to hit home.
The real picture of this is only beginning to be leaked out. Charlie Cooper for the Independent has written of a ‘Public health emergency’ declared as one in six GPs was asked to refer a patient to food banks in the last year’:
A Scottish government report has identified “welfare reform, benefit delays, benefit sanctions and falling incomes” as the main drivers of demand. The UK government’s own report on food banks has still not been published several months after it was completed, amid accusations that ministers have “suppressed” the findings.
These are reforms imposed by a government we didn’t elect holding values we don’t share. Somehow, we struck oil and got food banks.
So when we talk about political participation we need also to talk about social inclusion, social justice and basic economic equality before anything else. We need to be able to talk about solidarity and rebuilding a society broken and disfigured by poverty. That’s the real prize of an independent country, a society we want to be part of and that we assume everyone and anyone has a role in: all of us first. That’s a prize worth winning and it’s one within our grasp. It’s time to escape the Austerity Union, it’s time to get above ourselves.
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