Another, better Scotland is possible

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.

Alison

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”

and that

“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.

A Green Yes – article for Bella Caledonia

Ever since the Scottish Greens voted to campaign for a Yes, our messages have focused on how independence offers the opportunity for transforming Scotland’s political culture, affording us the chance to fulfil our huge potential.

As well as supporting Yes Scotland, we established the Green Yes campaign to ensure our distinctive messages had a platform. In doing so we have spoken to a wider audience than ever before about how Green policies seek to tackle poverty, build sustainable industry and end inequality.

Greens have taken part in events all across Scotland – some well-used to public debate, others finding their voice for the first time, inspired to share their own vision as each of us contemplates what kind of society we aspire to create.

Green Yes has also published a series of ‘briefing notes’ at www.GreenYes.info in which we set out ideas for some steps our society can take to transform lives for the better in practical terms, beyond vague promises of creating a more just and equal country.

Citizen’s Income

We recently outlined our proposals for a Citizen’s Income as a new way of providing social security in an independent Scotland. We advocate a universal payment, providing enough income to meet the basic needs of everyone, replacing almost all benefits and the state pension. This would be cheaper to run, remove the complexity of the current system and make the lowest-earning 70% of households better off.

The benefits retained would be all disability benefits and carer’s allowance for those needing additional support, and housing benefit and council tax reduction for people otherwise facing homelessness.

The UK Government labels people on benefits “scroungers” and “shirkers” – language designed to stoke tension and prejudice. People are pitted against one another by successive governments as they target social security for swingeing cuts. With a Citizen’s Income, everyone would have the opportunity to change jobs, raise children, care for loved ones, pursue education or start a new project – without ending up on the breadline.

The late feminist economist, Professor Ailsa McKay, made clear that a Citizen’s Income benefits women in particular by recognising the “diverse roles of women as wives, mothers, carers and workers”. Engender recently highlighted that “since 2010, 74% of cuts to benefits, tax credits, pay and pensions have been taken from women…This rises to 81% of the ‘savings’ realised by the Treasury in 2014-15”.

Employment Law

One reason that women are disproportionately affected by failings in our systems is the ‘traditional’ division of labour down unacceptable gender lines through inequality in employment. Men receiving higher pay than women for the same job reinforces the role of men as primary bread-winner, meaning much of the extra work within the domestic economy falls to women. Life as an unpaid carer for relatives, for example, leaves women in a particularly vulnerable position, even without the devastating effects of austerity and withdrawal of state services.

In the event that responsibility for employment law comes to Scotland, our polling shows over 75% support a requirement for private sector employers to ensure pay equality. On average, women earn 13% less than men in full-time jobs, almost 34% less in part-time, and a clear desire exists to close this shameful gap. With employment laws reserved to Westminster however, public opinion being reflected in political will in the Scottish Parliament cannot yet be enough to effect necessary changes.

The hostility in Westminster to the right of workers in general – to organise and have the means to secure improved terms and conditions – also exposes Scotland’s powerlessness to repeal anti-trade union laws. As well as promoting a legal requirement for employers to pay a living wage to all, Greens are committed to legislating for stronger trades unions and envisage a major role for them in promoting economic democracy.

Key to this must be the role of unions in helping to roll back privatisation of services and utilities. With independence, we would be in a position to oppose deals like the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), which would prevent Scotland from reversing privatisation, but is currently reserved to the UK to negotiate as EU member state.

The opportunity we have now is to take responsibility for decisions like these in Scotland. Immediately following a Yes vote, the work would begin to determine how we wish to use our responsibility.

Greater empowerment

Independence shouldn’t simply mean devolution of responsibility from Westminster to Holyrood either. This debate is an opportunity to promote ideas of decentralising power further within Scotland, and we are encouraged to see wider calls for more local decisions, greater accountability and public participation.

With a Yes, we would like to embed the status of local decision-making in a written constitution. For example, Germany forbids national Government from interfering with tax rates set by local authorities for raising revenue. Further Green proposals include creating a greater number of smaller municipalities, and a Land Value Tax to give a fairer way of funding vital services than Council Tax.

The referendum debate has captured the imagination, and capitalising on that can mean increased participation and turnout at elections. We have an opportunity to address the democratic deficit and spark a revival in local democracy, bringing politics closer to people, instead of councils like Highland governing an area the size of Belgium.

Other opportunities we’ve highlighted include Green ideas for creating a jobs-rich economy, painfully-overdue banking reform, and ensuring digital rights are seen as civil rights.

Scotland has the skills and opportunity to create well-paid, secure jobs, in many areas such as shipbuilding, energy, digital technology, construction and engineering that can thrive across Scotland with investment and attention. We need to offer more than insecure jobs and low wages.

With a Yes, we can decentralise ownership of land and infrastructure that renewable energy depends upon, as well as developing a large, publicly-owned energy company and networks of local banks with communities’ interests at heart. The renewables industry has enormous potential to create the jobs required, but its prospects are damaged by Westminster’s determination to saddle us with astronomical costs and environmental damage from nuclear and fracking.

Decentralisation of responsibility must also be seen within the context of embracing a more responsible position internationally. The internet is moving towards a point when everyone on Earth should soon have access to the sum total of human knowledge. Governments and societies must collaborate to meet the challenges and opportunities ahead – including protecting against invasions of privacy.

Internet legislation remains with Westminster, and through Scotland taking responsibility, Greens see greater opportunity for a Digital Bill of Rights, democratic control of intelligence functions, a Scottish communications regulator, and a public forum for debate about the future of global society and technology.

Defence

As a Green, I see an opportunity to reframe narratives of “defence” in terms of what security threats people actually face. While a Yes vote should consign Trident to history, we must also challenge the notion that Scotland should seek the moral hypocrisy of joining the NATO nuclear club, or, as the SNP intend, devote twice as much to military spending as to international development.

Major global threats facing humanity involve scarcity of food, water and land, as well as digital crime, and while Greens want a smaller defence sector, there will continue to be significant need for infrastructure and hardware for humanitarian and development work. We also want to see skilled workers deployed in the rapidly growing renewables industry, and see this opportunity as part of a long-term economic diversification agenda.

Key factors needing addressed by a government serious about people’s security within its borders involve health and wellbeing, domestic and sexual violence, poverty and working conditions. Immediately post-independence, we should begin by looking at what measures the government must take, particularly in terms of spending decisions, to alleviate the real threats facing people every day.

While this debate offers the opportunity to consider measures to enhance security and wellbeing that we could implement with new powers, we must also seriously consider why we would spurn the opportunity to crack down on tax dodging by corporations and rich individuals, or end the inhuman sanctions regime forcing hundreds of thousands into foodbanks and crisis loans.

Another issue affecting powers already devolved is immigration. There is no one-size-fits-all policy for attracting new citizens – particularly in areas like healthcare and education, and those coming to Scotland face unacceptable hostility from Westminster, no matter how much those in Holyrood urgently want to change that.

I wasn’t always of the view that independence was vital, but the debate has made clear that the path Westminster continues along is failing us all, and the genuine will that exists to do things better is matched in Scotland by a once in a lifetime opportunity to make it happen.

2014 can mark the beginning of a radical transformation of our economy and communities. I will vote Yes because I believe we must accept further responsibility, then we can push ahead to create a society that works for all, now and in the generations to come.

This article was originally published in Bella Caledonia – Closer edition 3. You can read more here.

With independence we gain the opportunity to decide how we build society

This article was originally written by request for a PCS Union members’ newsletter.

The debate on Scottish independence provides a unique opportunity to ask what kind of society we want to be, and with such a broad range of people inspired to talk about their vision, I am grateful for this opportunity to share my own views with members of PCS.

As a Green, my confidence in independence stems not from national identity, but from a desire to bring power closer to people. Greens don’t see independence as an end in itself but as a means to delivering politics that are better suited to those living with the consequences of decision-making, which engender more localised economics, and which encourage job-creation.

As a highly skilled country with good education and great potential, Scotland has the opportunity to create well-paid, secure jobs, with many sectors such as shipbuilding, energy, digital technology, construction and engineering that can thrive across Scotland with dedicated investment and attention. We need to offer an alternative to austerity, inequality, insecure jobs and low wages.

We live in a wealthy nation yet inequality is increasing, and the austerity agenda has a particularly devastating impact on women and children. Families struggling in poverty are bearing the brunt of the UK cuts, while the rich continue to get richer. A Yes vote will not transform our economy overnight, but does provide the opportunity to begin to create a jobs-rich, equal, resilient and locally-based economy designed for Scotland that provides for everyone to live well.

In the event that responsibility for employment law comes to Scotland, our polling shows over 75% support a requirement for large private sector employers to ensure pay equality. On average, women earn 13% less than men in full-time jobs, almost 34% less in part-time, and it is clear the strong desire exists to close this shameful gap. With employment laws reserved to Westminster however, public opinion being reflected in political will in the Scottish Parliament cannot yet be enough to allow us to effect necessary changes.

The opportunity we have in September is to take responsibility for decisions like this here in Scotland. I believe we have a greater chance of achieving the changes that so many want to see if we make decisions for ourselves rather than leaving them to an increasingly out of touch Westminster.

Independence is also an opportunity to create a progressive tax system, free from the loopholes that have seen billions lost in tax dodging and offshore tax havens, with enough people employed to collect a fair tax. We can afford more for education, healthcare and other vital public services if we take the opportunity to change course, and fulfil the responsibility we have to make Scotland as healthy and as fair a society as we have it in our power to be.

For many people there is no option but low-skilled, poorly paid work. Too many face underemployment and don’t have the secure jobs to provide the quality of life they need now, let alone a pay packet that enables them to save for the future. Focussing on creating highly skilled and highly productive jobs will provide better pay and more rewarding work. This will bring an increased tax take and the ability to invest in research and development, innovation and the services we all rely on.

While both support independence, one of the areas Green policy differs from the current SNP government is in their wish to cut corporation tax. This is a regressive step that risks a race to the bottom.

Employers seeking to develop or locate in Scotland need good quality infrastructure, a skilled and healthy population, and the other benefits of social provision. These factors matter more to employers with a genuine long term commitment, while marginal tax rates appeal to here-today-gone-tomorrow investors.

Nevertheless, differing opinion on policy among pro-independence parties is healthy, it emphasises that the politics of Scotland’s future does not end with a Yes vote on 18th September – that just marks the beginning. From the Holyrood election in 2016 and beyond, the people of Scotland will have the opportunity to choose the government that best represents them, whoever that may be.

The mass under-representation and lack of expectations currently on offer tell of a society desperately in need of revitalisation. With independence and further community empowerment, this generation has the chance to address the democratic deficit that exists in Scotland, giving people far more say in how their communities, let alone their country, should be run.

2014 can be the starting point for a radical transformation of our economy and society. I will vote Yes because I believe we must take the opportunity of further responsibility, for welfare, employment law, taxation and much more. Then we really can push ahead to create a society that works for all, now and in the generations to come.