This week Parliament debated the outcome of the independence referendum. I spoke of the need to be ambitious in our vision of what we can do and be willing to work together to make it happen. You can read my full contribution to the debate below.
Scotland has voted no and I respect the democratic outcome of the vote. In fact, Scotland did so much more than vote: Scotland became a participative democracy and the change was almost palpable. We must strive to maintain that level of participation.
The vote did not deliver the result that the majority of—but not all—Greens campaigned for. However, it has delivered change. We may not have an opportunity to develop a written constitution, but “constitution” is a word that we use to refer to our physical state as regards vitality, health and strength. In that regard, I am encouraged and optimistic.
Alex Salmond was right when he said yesterday that there is
“a new spirit abroad in this land”
“we are a better nation today”.—[Official Report, 23 September 2014; c 8.]
I agree. People who have never attended a political meeting in their lives came along and took part in the debate; people who would not have come along to a traditional hustings where politicians debate their manifestos came along with their questions and their own manifestos.
There are those who feel that other issues were sidelined as we discussed the constitution, but that is not a view that I share and it is not the experience of the thousands of people who debated Scotland’s future in the meetings that I attended in church and school halls and even on the stage of Dunfermline’s Alhambra theatre.
A narrow debate would never have energised Scotland in the way that the referendum campaign has. The debate was broadened, deepened, energised and given a life of its own by the many diverse groups, organisations and individuals who took part. A woman who attended a discussion with an all-woman panel at Edinburgh College of Art stood up and said, “I can’t believe I’m standing up to speak in public and take part in a meeting about how my country is governed.”
Many people found their feet and their voices in the campaign. Many groups, including women for independence, the radical independence campaign, common weal, the national collective and business for Scotland, made sure that people from all walks of life were involved and represented in the campaign. We can learn much from those groups about engagement. Social media was invaluable in the campaign. It helped to level what was a very unlevel playing field from the point of view of support from corporate print media. The nature of campaigning itself was transformed in the campaign.
I took part in debates with people from all the organisations that I have mentioned and with people from none of them, and I was unfailingly impressed. I took part in debates with our youngest voters and they demonstrated why they should be fully involved in the democratic process. I welcome the growing consensus for votes at 16.
A meeting that was organised by [Untitled] Falkirk will be long remembered by all who were there. Young actors, speakers and poets took part, as well as the prominent playwright Alan Bissett. I was staggered by their talent. It was a Friday night and, even when there was an interval, no one left. The meeting carried on way beyond its scheduled end. There were six traditional political speakers, who were interspersed with outstanding Scottish artists. It was a model for the new politics in the new Scotland. A woman with disabilities who relies on benefits for her income told the meeting that she felt that she was voiceless and that the referendum campaign was finally giving her the means to get her message across to those politicians whose policies were making her life ever more challenging.
That insistent, increasingly confident voice led to the announcement of the vow by David Cameron, Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband, in which they recognised that the status quo is simply unacceptable. As tight as the timescales that Lord Smith has been given to work to are, we must do all that we can to ensure that those who contributed so much to the debate are given every opportunity to contribute to that process, too.
Debate in Scotland has flourished not in spite of but because of the diversity of speakers on behalf of the yes and no campaigns. It is no secret that the Greens and the SNP have many policy differences, as do the better together parties, but we all have common ground and we must all now work together for the best outcome.
Yesterday, Ken Macintosh suggested that among those who had lost the vote there might be a temptation to “lash out in anger”; not at all. He said that people were “genuinely scared”, and Murdo Fraser said that, for some people,
“even the debate was a threat to their identity.”—[Official Report, 23 September 2014; c 56.]
My experience was a far more positive one. People questioned assertions while relishing involvement. I hope that the debate has demonstrated to all that we can disagree with one another and remain friends, and we in the Parliament have a duty to continue to demonstrate that.
I do not accept the narrative of a hostile and bitter campaign that some have put forward. I believe that we should focus on the outstanding level of engagement and the overwhelmingly positive level of participation in the vote. The campaign was carried on in a passionate yet respectful manner. It was intense but, by and large, it was tolerant and engaging, and at times it was even entertaining. The narrative is a positive one.
So what now? The vow must be made real and we must deliver for all of Scotland’s people—everyone who voted and everyone who did not. The Greens were not campaigning for a wee version of Westminster. Let us engage with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities paper on local democracy and my party’s review. The referendum debate has shown us that democracy begins at street level.
In this energy and resource-rich country, fuel poverty persists, food banks proliferate and equal pay feels far away. Regardless of who takes over the Westminster reins next May, the levels of austerity that have been promised go beyond anything that has yet been experienced but, as the Presiding Officer said yesterday, those who got off their settees are not going back to them. Politics in Scotland must be open to all who wish to have a fairer and more equal nation. We should be ambitious in our vision of what we can do and willing to work together to make it happen. If we do that, another, better Scotland is possible.