From one political gathering to another in the same evening – what I learnt from four male Scots sparring on independence
The first thing I was asked as I wandered towards the doors of the Cambridge Union building was:
“Are you Dick?”
To which I responded
“Nope – just me and the dragon”
…thinking nothing of it until Scottish folk singer Dick Gaughan wandered into the room. Clearly someone had not done an image search before the event had started!
An all-male speakers panel
The event was organised by Cambridge University’s Scottish Society. With what seemed to be all the speakers there, I asked one of the organisers why there were no women on the speakers list. They told me they had invited women to speak, but none of them had accepted the invitation.
An aside – how do we encourage more women to speak on panels, attend and ask questions at politics and policy events?
The reason I ask is because I’ve been going to quite a few of these events locally (to me in Cambridge), in London and elsewhere. All too often, the speakers are majority (White middle-aged or young professional) male. When it comes to the audience, even if it’s a diverse one it’s nearly always the men that volunteer to ask questions first. Having been one of the worst offenders in past times at wanting to ask lots of questions, I’ve now trained myself into the habit of pointing microphone people towards women in the audience indicating when they want to ask questions (or simply passing it on directly if it’s handed to me first) at Q&A sessions. At the event I was at previously with Maria Eagle MP, when she urged women to ask questions, one of the women in the audience responded saying that it wasn’t because she was a woman she wasn’t asking questions, but it was because she genuinely did not have a question to ask. I also noticed at the end of the formalities at the #indyref event (the subject of this post), the conversations in the bar were buzzing. So…any thoughts?
“So, who won what then?”
The speakers were Lib Dem Lord Nicol Stephen – former Deputy First Minister until 2007, David Greig the Scottish playwright, Thomas Docherty MP (Lab) for Dunfermline and West Fife, & Dick Gaughan the folk singer. David & Dick argued for independence, Nicol and Thomas against. There was a sort-of informal vote which was 14-yes, 28-no, but I abstained thinking it was only eligible Scottish voters that were being asked to indicate. But that didn’t matter. What mattered for me was what we all learnt about the nature of the debate taking place in Scotland – one that is not being properly reported at all in the London-based media.
It’s difficult to know where to start. I think it can generally be described as a ‘London bubble’ thing. The institutions in London are living their own lives in a city so very different to every other city in the UK that what goes on beyond the M25 or outside the south-east hardly registers. Think of the recent floods. Somerset had been struggling to deal with the floods for a few weeks and the media didn’t pick up on it in any big way. But as soon as the Thames Valley and Berkshire got hit, suddenly it was all over the media and Greater London had suddenly expanded one county westward. Council estate flooded and no one cares. A couple of mansions flooded and suddenly there’s a souvenir edition print special along with an online slide show to match.
“So…what did you learn?”
That recent political history matters. Big time.
Prior to Thatcher, Scotland returned Conservative MPs in numbers hovering around the 20s & 30s. That number slumped to zero in 1997 and has been at one ever since (see here). At the same time, there has been a significant decline in both Scottish Labour and Scottish Liberal Democrats since the inauguration of the Scottish Parliament in 1999. From 53% of the popular vote & 56% of MSP seats in 1999 that formed the first Labour-Lib Dem Scottish Executive, that combination in 2011 39% of the popular vote and 32% of the seats. The details of how and why this happened I’ll leave to far more informed people to explain.
That values matter. Big time.
Whenever I’ve gone out and about in the ‘not London and the South East’ bits of the UK, I’ve always been struck at how different the atmosphere is. It’s almost as if we take ourselves ***way too seriously*** in the south east. Dick Gaughan expressed this in words that had some of the pro-free-market-types in the room really scratching at their heads because someone was strongly challenging their perspective and assumptions they had – until the debate – perhaps taken for granted.
A battle of hearts vs minds?
That is how some are portraying the debate. ‘In their hearts, the Scots want independence but in their minds, they cannot see it working properly so best stick to what they’ve got.’ was how one put it. In the debate itself, those arguing for independence were from an arts background, and those arguing against independence were/are politicians. It fitted within that frame. The artists appealing towards emotional heart strings while the toxic politicians sowed seeds of doubt and uncertainty without offering a positive and inspiring alternative.
But you can’t have one without the other – otherwise you’d be dead
That’s what makes – or rather should make politics fascinating. The better politicians are the ones that can inspire others around them to achieve great things while at the same time demonstrating competence in public office. In the grand scheme of things a body with a mind/brain but no heart is pretty much a dead one, as is a body with a heart but no mind.
All of the speakers had interesting points to make, but the policy-wonk and politics-watcher in me was able to pick holes in all of them. (It’s what happens when you work in policy in the civil service: Your job is to pick lots of holes in everyone else’s arguments and policies – including those you are working for – then try to think how to deal with them).
Falling down on the risks
This was probably my second evil question of the evening – to David Greig. He finished his talk acknowledging risks voting for independence, but urged people to run with it because the opportunities with independence outweigh the risks. Regular readers of this blog will know what’s coming.
“What are the top two key risks you see associated with a ‘Yes’ vote for independence, and how would you mitigate those risks?”
David didn’t respond directly, but sort of indicated that the changes the institutions would have to make, along with the Westminster parties behaving in bad faith during the inevitable negotiations would be big challenges.
Labour MP Thomas Docherty went in for a standard public policy approach rather than a campaigning politics approach. By that I mean he looked at the proposals from his political opponents and tried to make the case why they would not work. An understandable approach but didn’t really set the room alight. Dick Gaughan did that.
Folk fights back
For those of you not familiar with folk music, there’s a strong vein of protest songs throughout it. The Levellers (Sell out and Another Man’s cause) featured regularly in my teens, just as Oysterband (Jam tomorrow and Bells of Rhymney) featured regularly in my 20s. Having grown up with the Cambridge Folk Festival on my doorstep (Puffles went in 2012), the music has kind of always been there for me.
What Dick Gaughan was able to do powerfully was to tell the very dark story about the devastating impact of Thatcher’s government on Scotland – explaining to a mainly undergraduate audience why there are more pandas in Scotland than Conservative MPs. He explained graphically about the impact this had on communities that he lived in, and that how the values of the majority of the people of Scotland were at odds with neo-liberalism adopted by the political establishment. His final main point was that the referendum was a historical opportunity to throw off the unpopular policies imposed from Westminster by governments aiming to please swing seats of London & the south east.
But his points were not met without challenge. Some were from an internationalist perspective of the world ‘as is’ – such as EU laws and regulations. Others were from a numbers perspective – one student comparing London’s population to that of Scotland. (I wanted to respond by saying ‘Look at the institutions and the power structures’ – but refrained).
Nicol Stephen takes on the nastiness in the campaigns
Turns out it wasn’t the former Liverpool player speaking. Lord Stephen started off with a long historical narrative – in particular about the centuries-long links with London, then focused his arguments around the political parties, the flaws in Salmond’s argument and a swipe at nationalism and its dark sides. On the final point, one woman pulled him up for not acknowledging the difference between a nationalism of national liberation, versus that of imperial conquest.
My question to him was that in the case of a ‘no’ vote, then what? Scotland is still left with the institutions that failed it most recently in the past few decades. His response then formed a discussion I had with a very bright Scottish undergraduate called Rebecca, about differentiating politics from public policy – and how to make sense of it in the context of the referendum.
‘Scotland is in the process of renegotiating its relationship with the rest of the UK – and in particular the political establishment based in London. The independence referendum will decide whether it will be a negotiation between two equal parties, or between one senior and one junior party.’
The above in a nutshell is what I’ve learnt from the debate. Before this evening, I was under the impression that a ‘yes’ vote meant Scotland would go off and do it’s own thing separate to the rest of the UK, and that a ‘no’ vote would mean Westminster might give one or two extra powers to Holyrood, but that would be about it. Whatever the outcome of the referendum, this won’t be the end – but only the beginning of a process that will take years before formalities come to a close. And even then, the relationship will continue to evolve as it has done for centuries.
Rebecca and I tried to unpick what we had heard in the debate – and finished our conversation off by asking whether I would vote yes or no in a referendum. That was when the ‘heart yes/head no’ issue came up. How do you unpick that?
For me, Independence for Scotland will not mean building a big iron curtain along the border. We live in an interdependent world as Lord Stephen said. Climate Change and globalisation tell us this. The question for me that the referendum will first answer is ‘where does sovereignty rest in the minds of the people of Scotland?’ Does it reside in the Westminster Parliament as part of the people of the United Kingdom, or does it reside in the Holyrood Parliament in Edinburgh? Then the negotiations for which powers and functions can be pooled can begin. Which ones would they want to pool with the rest of the United Kingdom? (This is the storm around the currency issue). Which ones would they want to pool with the EU? (What choice/flexibility would there be? Is the ‘Norway’ model an alternative?) Which ones would they want to pool internationally? (Not just things such as international human rights treaties, but things like the IMF, World Bank and the World Trade Organisation).
My friends in Scotland said similar things to what Dick Gaughan said about the whole referendum. It’s got people interested in politics again. People of all political parties and none are taking part in debates all over the country – and it has gone far beyond the control of the established political parties.
This perhaps was the point I was making about the poor media coverage of the debates in Scotland by the London-based media. You could be forgiven for thinking that it’s all Salmond vs Cameron backed by some elder statesmen of Labour and the Liberal Democrats (thinking Alistair Darling and Sir Menzies Campbell in particular). It’s not. I’ve learnt that the independence referendum and all that is going on around it in Scotland, has got a far broader breadth of coverage and far deeper historical roots in Scotland than the London-based institutions assume.