Let the people decide…

23 Jan

It’s been nearly five months since I argued that Scotland’s independence referendum could be a unique opportunity to achieve something genuinely different and better than the turgid neo-liberal orthodoxies our political system seems unable or unwilling to change.

Now that the starting pistol has been fired for a November 2014 referendum and a week of fevered rhetoric on both sides of the argument has passed, my original views have been reinforced and perhaps radicalised by recent events.

For the avoidance of any doubt, here are the key provisions I would like to see included in the referendum:

  • The inclusion of a defined increase of devolved powers option on the ballot;
  • 16 & 17 year olds to be empowered with the right to vote in this historic event;
  • Westminster handing over to the Scottish Parliament all powers required to fulfil the legal requirements of referendum; and
  • Then the referendum itself to be constructed and overseen by an independent commission to ensure the maximum fairness and transparency.

I’m not yet convinced about the SNPs arguments for independence.  They still have much to reveal about how an independent Scotland can rebuild and sustain collective prosperity.  Key questions remain unanswered.

But I don’t know if I can stomach the prospect of a probable Tory majority in Westminster after 2015, resulting in an extension of the austerity agenda aided by the subservient Lib Dems and weakness of the current Labour leadership.

Like many others in Scotland, I would welcome an increase in devolved powers as a means to counter the ConDem economic and social vandalism.  At the very least, I certainly want to debate the potential of an increased devolved settlement and have the opportunity to vote on it.

So from a trade unionist perspective it was pleasing to see the STUC take a deep breath before entering the debate.  Their call for the establishment of an independent Referendum Commission to explore all the potential options available in the formulation of this referendum and to offset legal uncertainty is entirely sensible.

Unfortunately it didn’t take long for our elected representatives to descend into predictable acrimonious bluster over ‘patriotism’, ‘Scottish-ness’ and such nonsense.  Politicians would do well get their minds focused firmly back on the issues at hand – proposals for economic growth, the future of our public services, dignity in retirement, tackling unemployment, making a positive case for your position in the referendum campaign…need I go on?  It would be a national embarrassment for gutter politics and buffoonery to dominate the next two years.  The stakes are simply too high for politics to be consumed by its own self-importance.

This process is a marathon and not a sprint.  With the eyes of the world focused on Scotland we have to show that we can deliver this referendum in a mature, open and truly democratic fashion.  The STUC proposals can help create a platform for the views of the Scottish grassroots to shape the referendum process prior to the campaign and vote itself, facilitating this objective. Surely this is something that any sensible politician should support?

We certainly need a renewed sense of ownership over our democracy.   In the last year my job has gave me the privilege of meeting people the length and breadth of the country.  Together, we’ve highlighted issues impacting their workplaces and communities.  We’ve also debated politics and policies; overarched by the spectre of the coalitions austerity agenda. And for me it’s becoming increasingly apparent that the status quo is no longer acceptable.

On the UK economy for example, we know we are being sold a pup. The sheer folly of this growth-less austerity is unravelling by the day exposing the dying neo-liberal ideology that many of us on the left have argued it to be from day one.  Last week’s downgrading of the French AAA credit rating by Standard & Poor merely highlighted this to a bigger audience and reminded us all that the UK can’t exempt itself from the economic sickness it helped spawn. It’s also a damning confirmation that our politicians are further descending into the post-2008 political aporia.

Whether people are employed in the public, private or third sector, or currently unemployed, they are increasingly unhappy and frustrated with our economic direction.  They want something better for themselves and their families but most of all they want fairness. Anger is mounting because they are being punished for an economic mess they did not create and yet they see hypocrisy and injustice all around them whether its financial sector bonuses, capital strike, phone hacking or the expenses scandal.

People have simply had enough of the tail wagging the dog.

And it’s the politicians themselves who must take a large chunk of the blame for this.  Politics has disenfranchised so many people from the democratic process through its own examples of hubris and weaknesses.  This referendum is a chance for politics to pay the people back.  But can our politicians be trusted to set aside party-political inertia, at least for a short-time, to maximise the scope of the referendum debate and empower the people they are there to serve accordingly?

On the face of it, we know what to expect from the SNP and the Conservatives. Their respective views will be argued with passion whether you agree with them or not. Indeed, the SNP have made proposals for the referendum process – altruistic or otherwise – which I entirely agree with (like the extension of the vote to 16 and 17 year olds).

But like many in the trade union movement I’m sure, it is Labour’s position I find baffling.  The party of devolution continues to reject the possibility of a third option on the referendum ballot.  Last November Labour’s Douglas Alexander argued that Scottish Labour must make the case for more devolution of powers to the Scottish Parliament ahead of the independence referendum.  Yet last week we’ve seen Labour slip back into to the ‘stronger together weaker apart’ mantra that failed them in 2007 and 2011.  Devolution and independence are ‘separate processes’, say Labour.

Instead of a social-democratic party like Scottish Labour being able to carve their own niche and make progressive policy arguments for the extension of devolution, Johann Lamont will be on the same stump as David Cameron and Nick Clegg in the eyes of the Scottish people whether she likes it or not.

It concerns me deeply that out of our four main political parties we only have two outcomes being touted – yes or no to Scottish independence.  I think this narrow scope stifles democratic debate and ultimately treats the Scottish people with some contempt.  At least one mainstream political party needs to champion a campaign for further devolved powers, complimenting the arguments for independence and the retention of the union, enriching the political debate.

This blunt ‘yes’ or ‘no’ politics merely intensifies the need for the Scottish people to shape the identity of this referendum.  Whether you are pro independence, pro-union or pro-devolution; surely the Scottish people are best placed to set the terms and conditions of what is arguably the biggest political, social and economic decision many of us will ever have the opportunity to take?

Surely we don’t want the agenda to set by the malign influence of the Ashcrofts, Souters, and Sainsburys of this world or be left with some half-baked plebiscite formed from the scraps that the politicians could only agree on?

Politics has never been and may never be more interesting.  This referendum is a golden opportunity to revitalise an environment blighted by distrust and apathy. We’re shaping our futures here and I have faith in the Scottish people to set a shining example of democracy and debate to the rest of the world – and also have the mutual respect for each other to accept the final outcome.  It’s time that politicians on all sides started to listen and learn.

Let the people decide.

This article was first published on the  ‘A Burdz Eye View’ blog: http://burdzeyeview.wordpress.com/

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