Why I am voting Yes in the Scottish independence referendum

Congratulations, you have read past the headline. I hope you will stay with me for the rest of this post, but I appreciate many people – of either Yes Scotland or Better Together persuasion – have already read quite enough. Many in the former camp will have their own reasons for voting and be content there is one more Yes. Some in the latter camp may simply query “Who?” before deciding I am not worth the attention. Fine. No offence will be taken. I suppose it is the undecided or swithering voter that I might be reaching out to, which begs a lot of questions, such as: 1) why am I forgetting the Earl of Dalhousie’s important insight that – as a Scot – he preferred to do things cannily rather than boldly; 2) why am setting out my views about the very personal act of voting; and 3) why am I advocating Scottish independence when I have never been a member of the SNP, or indeed any other political party?

More on Dalhousie later, but first a disclaimer: there is no way I will cover all the points which I (or you) might want to be covered in this blog. To name but two, I do not know much about defence policy or economic forecasting, beyond knowing that other countries that might be a comparator for iScotland exist and sometimes do alright. That might be enough for you. If not, others make a case about defence or economics elsewhere, so (without comment) I direct you accordingly.

Believe it or not, I hoped to keep this post short. You may find that laughable by the time you wade to the end, but I tried to suppress my inner preference for grandiloquence and unnecessary verbosity. That requires a somewhat tactical approach, so please do not castigate me too much when I miss out your own deal-breaking/game-changing independence issue.

Enough disclaiming, what of my rhetorical questions?

1) Why am I being bold rather than canny?

If you do not know much about James Ramsay, 10th Earl of Dalhousie, do not fret: neither do I. Most of what I know comes from a book called The Scottish Empire, by the historian Michael Fry. Dalhousie was part of a crop of Scots who did rather well out of the British Empire, in his case in India, which goes right to the heart of why this sovereign movement might be vexing to some. Scots can and do achieve things in the UK, why would anyone want out?

More on that later. Meantime, I tangentially acknowledge Fry has had something of a journey from a Conservative candidate in Maryhill to just such a person wanting out, contributing to a website for “centre-right, pro-independence supporters.” Fry’s change of heart aside, if I thought Yes was going to ease to victory I would have adopted Dalhousie’s canny course, by quietly crossing the requisite box on 18 September 2014 and not crowing about it, but this blog represents me putting my head above the parapet.

2) Why am I setting out my views?

I am acutely aware that my views are no more important than the views of anyone else who is, come September: aged sixteen or over; not incarcerated; and on the electoral roll for a Holyrood election. That said, I might be able to add a few thoughts to the mix. In fact, I have been in the odd conversation where a No voter has had their relatively solid unionist credentials shaken on hearing I am voting Yes, because I come across as a cerebral type. I appreciate that sounds immodest, so I suppose I had better come up with some passable reasons for my Yes vote.

3) Why am I advocating Scottish independence?

My main reason for voting Yes is that I kinda fancy it.

That was a sure-fire way of torpedoing any false modesty, eh? After 600 words of an intro which raised at least pretensions of intellect, my main reason for voting Yes to Scottish independence is that I like the idea of an independent Scotland. I am not the sort of person who has the words of the Declaration of Arbroath tattooed on my body or on a T-shirt, but the simple (and – yes – simplistic) attraction of Scotland being run by Scots is something I can identify with. Or maybe it is sentimentality. Or maybe it is the hope that actually having an independent Scotland would aid in explanations when I am overseas and trying to communicate properly with a non-native English speaker who knows the words for “English” and “Irish” but not “Scottish.”

There are many nuances to this, I know. I am already anticipating the deconstruction of the paragraph above or simply being informed that these things do not matter in the grand scheme of things. (Here are two heckles for free: sentimentality does not feed you; and being lucky enough to be from a country that affords you the means and wherewithal to do things like travel is not something to be scoffed at.) Some say the independence vote is about the heart and the head. I hope fronting up about my own gut feeling might at least set the groundwork for any further discussions on the matter.

This also allows me the opportunity to frame the debate in terms of the two things which would make me vote No, and in turn why I think I will vote Yes notwithstanding. Those things are: A) a curtailment or removal of the human rights and fundamental freedoms I enjoy in the UK (as a signatory to the European Convention on Human Rights); and B) an existential threat to the National Health Service in Scotland. How is that for honesty, any would be hecklers? I am even displaying my weak points. If you want to convince me to vote No, press accordingly.

A) Human rights and political participation

The movement for Scottish independence is a strange beast at times. The referendum has been described as “wholly accidental”. Scots generally have the same rights, privileges and entitlements as the good people of Wales, Northern Ireland and England. As for me, I have little to complain about. I have never been tortured: the only state sanctioned and at times uncomfortable intervention to my anatomy to date has been very much in my own best interests (more on that below). I hope to continue to enjoy those fundamental freedoms and I am confident the state is not going to suppress this blog, given the standing freedom of expression has in the UK and under Strasbourg (ECHR) jurisprudence.

Be that as it may, I am fairly confident we will not be worse off in an independent Scotland. Drawing on an historical example, Scotland’s commitment to access to justice can be traced back to 1424. Returning to the present, human rights law is embedded in the existing Scottish constitutional set-up even more than it is in England, with the Scotland Act 1998 building on the Human Rights Act 1998 and case law like Salvesen v Riddellshowing that the Court of Session is perfectly happy to dress-down the devolved legislature as necessary. Granted, there will be work to do to ensure any new constitutional order works, but nothing in the Scottish Government’s White Paper, the existing work of the Scottish Human Rights Commission or indeed anything else makes me panic about this issue. It might even be hoped that any new Scottish government could do better on human rights issues like the “bedroom tax”, although that is conjecture. Essentially, I cannot visualise a situation where a new Scottish Government would take us out of the remit of the ECHR (a greater concern might be that the UK government would take us out, but mercifully such calls have quietened of late).

Having reassured myself as best I can about human rights, I will briefly return to the idea of Scots being able to participate fully in UK politics. It is not so long ago that some were speaking about a Scottish Raj in London. This was not a reference to the Earl of Dalhousie. Whilst it is inherently dangerous to present mutable factors as key to huge constitutional change, those days of a strong Scottish Labour presence in Westminster form a marked contrast to the current situation of Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition. In fact, it has been suggested in some circles that there will never be another Scot (or at least someone representing a Scottish constituency) in charge of the UK. This would be an operation of the devolution settlement and (perhaps more controversially, and this is my speculation) an issue about the acceptance of such a person across the UK. (As to my second point, I am thinking about some of the treatment of Gordon Brown in the UK press at the run-up to the previous general election.) This is a horribly unfair and hypothetical argument for me to run, as I can only be proved correct by a No vote followed by years of non-Scottish representation as Prime Minister, but I think it does merit some consideration. Is it feasible there would be a de facto exclusion of Scots from that top office in a post-No United Kingdom? If so, what kind of a union is that?

B) The NHS

Less than a year ago, my concerns suddenly and rather swiftly changed from the Scottish constitution to my own constitution. The question, “How should I vote?” was subtly amended to, “Will I be able to vote?” My elaborate means of potentially disenfranchising myself was to be diagnosed with metastatic testicular cancer, placing me pretty much entirely in the hands of the NHS. I had always been a big fan of the NHS, but this experience made me transmogrify into the ultimate NHS fanboy. As such, if someone was able to convince me the NHS was actually threatened by Scottish independence, I would vote No, irrespective of the human rights analysis above. Human rights tend to concern the living more than the dead.

I offer three tentative reasons as to why I think the NHS in Scotland will manage just fine, in descending order of simplicity.

The first is the gloriously simple one that not spending money on Trident will free up money for nurses, equipment, medication and the like. (Yes, I know not ALL the money that might be saved by a non-participation in Trident or other willy-waving post-Empire military projects will be diverted to healthcare, but even just a bit of that money could make a difference.)

The second is that the reforms to the NHS in England, which seem to indicate a creep towards privatisation, might impact on Scotland in terms of Barnett consequentials or indeed in terms of pressure to follow suit. I cannot add much insight to this point, but I did dabble as a projects lawyer north and south of the border in my time as a practising solicitor. From that experience, I appreciate the structure of the NHS in England (complete with confusing beasts like foundation trusts) is very different to Scotland. As such, to replicate English reforms up here would be a huge feat, so I would not want to overstate the possibility of mirror reforms. I also appreciate the NHS is already within the devolved competence of Holyrood. But the pressure to reform and/or the impact of any reduction in the Scottish block grant does seem to be real. Hence I am satisfied Scotland would, at the very least, be able to manage its NHS after a Yes vote.

The third is that the idea of sharing ideas and expertise across the border is fine in principle, but the one experience I have had to test this principle showed that it could be kiboshed within the current constitutional set-up. In the midst of my fifteen weeks of chemotherapy, I learnt there was a study at Leeds into testicular cancer. Altruism can be curtailed by a hospital treatment programme, but this seemed something I could help with and I volunteered to get involved. My involvement would have been the provision of blood samples. With the amount of blood being leeched out of me at the time, I figured this was not a big deal. I told my oncologist about the study. A few days later that oncologist told me my Scottish-based blood was probably not suitable for this project, apparently owing to concerns about cross-border issues relating to human tissue legislation. I did not press the point at the time, much as I may have enjoyed the challenge of mulling over the legalities, deciding instead to concentrate on getting better. (Nota bene: that is as close a reference to Scottish blood, pure or otherwise, as you will find in this post.)

Any social scientist worth her salt will tell you one anecdote does not make data, but this is the only anecdote I have and I find it pretty compelling.

In terms of other considerations, I cannot offer much expertise on how to run a health service, so again I am left to refer you to another source. I also have some reassurance on the European healthcare arrangements that exist at present and would presumably continue – in some way – if and when Scotland and RUK are both independent members of the EU. I know Scottish membership of the EU is another issue entirely, as indeed is RUK membership, so now seems a good time to consider some of the other perceived challenges to independence.

Other issues?

Law is not always easy. I knew this before I started a law degree, I knew it when I was in practice and I still know it now that I work in a university law school. But I also know that [international] law can sometimes be boiled down to the analysis that law is what happens. Ex post facto analysis is applied to try to justify the legalities of an international relations incident, when the effects of that incident are patently obvious on the ground. And so I turn to the nice question of what will happen should Scotland vote for independence within the EU.

Would Scotland be a member state? Would it be automatic? For what it is worth, my own view is that a mixture or realpolitik and creative analysis of the treaties could see an independent Scotland eased into the EU in a relatively pain-free manner. It might not be entirely painless, I grant you, but I cannot see how the removal of the EU citizenship rights of millions of citizens on the basis that the eligible voters of that group made a democratic choice could be justified within the EU scheme. The non-exact analogy of the admission of the former East Germany to the European project with relatively little fuss also bears consideration, as might the situation when Saint Martin hived away from Guadeloupe. People with better EU law credentials than me, from Scotland and Germany, have considered the issues and I commend their analyses to you.

Many questions remain, such as exactly what would happen to the existing EU opt-outs held by the UK, or how pension deficits that were previously internalised to a member state but are now cross-border could be dealt with. It might be that as part of any “entry” “negotiations” Scotland would be pressed on existing opt-outs, but other small countries in the EU have separate opt outs (think of Denmark and the private international law rules that apply in relation to it), so this might be overstated. As for pensions, the issue has to be acknowledged, but an argument that might be characterised as, “because the UK has allowed a pension deficit to be run up, you can never leave our heretofore mismanaged stewardship!” seems a little spurious to me. Spurious or not, it remains a difficult issue, and one which ICAS do not present solutions for in a recent post, so I will not try to either.

All things considered, I remain relatively – perhaps even surprisingly – relaxed on the EU point, but I do recognise it is absolutely crucial to the debate. For example, any argument about Scots being locked out of RUK embassies looks shaky when you consider that any EU citizen can pitch-up at any EU embassy for assistance, and I have already alluded to the benefits of the EHIC scheme. The issue also cuts both ways, in terms of higher education funding and access to free university tuition, but having acknowledged the point out of a spirit of fairness I am going to shamelessly side-step that and other higher education issues because of my gainful employment.

The importance of the EU argument means it will not go away before the vote. It is both unfortunate and unsurprising that it cannot possibly be answered one way or the other before the vote, so I will devote no more time to the issue here.

Um, so why are you actually voting yes?

Good question, and I suppose I should now get back on track. So far, I have explained that I quite like the idea of Scottish independence, why some things related to independence do not unnerve me as much as they may unnerve other people, and highlighted a wild claim that a Scot may never be UK prime minister again. Why else?

Many of my other reasons relate to things that we might be able to fix within the British state, but the problem is I am not sure we will.

Lords reform is a particular bugbear of mine. Clerics from a church that is the established church of another country have a role in our legislature. At any level, that is palpably absurd. I mean no offence to Anglicanism, and I have no doubt the current batch of Lords Spiritual have more to offer the Commons than previous offerings, but why do they have any role whatsoever in my legislative process? Why do we still have hereditary peers in the 21st century? Why do life peers get parachuted in on a whim? Admittedly there has been limited progress on Lords reform this year, with the House of Lords Reform Act 2014, but there is still a fair amount of unfinished business to resolve. You then have other issues like nuclear weapons/Trident, which I am not going to rehearse here. Westminster has a voting system that badly needs reform, but the nearest thing to meaningful reform was ruined for a generation in a curious referendum campaign and subsequent rejection of the AV system.

I could go on. Instead I will stop to recognise these things might be classified as the non-nationalist case for independence. I understand that. The argument that we do not get the governments we vote for is thoroughly dependent on what you mean by “we”. Scottish independence might then be characterised as an escape pod from the excesses of Westminster, leaving the residents of Tyneside and Merseyside to fight the good fight without us. But I also do not buy the solidarity shtick. I had plenty in common with the two Irish housemates I lived with a few years ago, much like a Scots Gael in Islay might have many shared interests with an Irish Gael in Sligo. Those commonalities do not mean we should stay shackled to the Westminster government and what Vince Cable characterised as the London suction machine. (The London thing could maybe be solved by it becoming a city state, but the last time I checked I did not have a vote about that.) It frustrates me when Scots do not have a meaningful voice when it comes to expensive projects like HS2 that in all likelihood will never reach Scotland and might actually harm the region in which I reside. As for the idea new barricades should not be introduced in an interdependent world, in principle I am all for a lack of borders, but I am also increasingly in favour of an effective border between me and Westminster.

Would an independent Scotland do any better in terms of decision making? All I can reply to that is a resounding “maybe”. I am well aware that a recurring problem with government of the people, by the people and for the people is the people. Standing that general scepticism of politicians and indeed everyone else, I generally like what the Scottish Parliament has done and I would like it to be able to do more. I like the fact I can be recognised and shouted over for a chat by an MSP when I am attending a Wildhearts concert in Glasgow, or can talk nonsense and even occasionally politics to MSPs on Twitter. I cannot imagine this happening with George Osborne. (No offence, George.)

Being closer to a seat of government does not give me an automatic expectation that I will always make a difference. I whinged about the SNP’s court closure plans and they still happened. Other aspects of justice policy have been trenchantly criticised by members of the legal profession, which criticism – at least in relation to corroboration – has led to a climb-down of sorts. All this means that I would need to remain a critical voice and participant in any new constitutional set-up. I am happy with that idea.

I have just highlighted my desire for more powers for the Scottish Parliament. Would the Better Together line of more powers within the union be enough? Leaving to one side the nice issue of what exactly the three main parties – assuming of course the Liberal Democrats can still be counted as a main party – might bestow on Scotland after a No vote, it seems there will remain a reserved model of devolution with certain key issues staying at Westminster. One trouble I have with any such model is that there is always a hint of an a priori judgement of what should be retained: i.e. we will keep these important things, do not worry about them. I also have more faith in a system where a parliament control all the levers, because that prevents incessant tinkering with the levers elected representatives are lucky enough to have control of when really it is one of the reserved levers that might need attention (as I mentioned in a previous blog). As such, independence seems entirely logical to me.

Ah, but it is not really independence that is on offer, is it? The drive to keep the pound and to keep in with the Bank of England (the UK central bank) keeps you shackled to the very thing you are trying to escape, does it not? I get that argument, and it is undeniably challenging, albeit that it can be entertaining to hear opponents of independence saying, “But you won’t be independent enough!” The standard response to that is, “best” should not be an enemy of “better”, but the argument about leaving too much power with (or instantly ceding power to) English financial institutions does need addressed. In fact, my own inclination is increasingly towards a Scottish currency, perhaps pinned to the pound to start with, and in any event I am relatively comfortable with any sensible post-Yes starting position on the basis that we will not necessarily be locked into it in perpetuity and (most importantly) we will have the potential to diminish the distinctly south east of England flavour of some of the policies that impact on Scotland. I fear I am straying away from my own comfort zone, so I will say no more, other than to acknowledge that I am well aware this is a complicated issue that others will regards as a bigger deal than I do. It might be that absolutely no currency option in Scotland could possibly work. (The last link is offered ironically.)

Would independence leave Scotland somehow diminished in terms of its clout? As with many things in the debate, I do not think it is that simple. For example, we might actually have more influence in Europe if we had more than 6 MEPs, plus the likely shared interests of Scotland and RUK in relation to (say) North Sea fisheries would rather crudely increase the number of international advocates on an issue from one to two. As regards the likely loss of Scotland’s ability to participate even slightly in the UN Security Council, one response is to point out that the institution needs reformed anyway, and another response is to look at the role other countries of a similar size to Scotland can play without necessarily being part of a big player (assuming of course that Britain still is a big player). Again, I tread into an area that is not easy to summarise, but again I wanted to put down a marker to highlight that I have at least considered the issue. As I mentioned at the start, there will be plenty of other things I have not analysed. With that concession, I am going to try my best to wrap this up into a conclusion of sorts.

Conclusion

Do you still remember the Earl of Dalhousie? As noted, he did alright out of the union. Neither did many others like him, but I think it is fair to say times have changed. I have quite deliberately not looked at the historical case for maintaining or breaking the union – please look elsewhere for wild posturing about the effect of the union on the Highland Clearances or the involvement of Scottish troops in overseas military campaigns – so it might be wondered whether Dalhousie would act cannily or boldly in the contemporary Scotland.

I do not doubt there is still scope for Scots to do well in the existing constitutional arrangement. I can understand why some people are voting No, including (gasp) some of my friends and family who are doing so without falling into a convenient stereotype of being a CBI business type or a trough-ing Lord happily claiming expenses while blinded to the existence of food-banks. My understanding their reasons does not mean I identify with them. What I really identify with is aspiration. I am confident the world we live in today is one in which an independent Scotland will thrive and I aspire to be part of that.

That sounds a bit preachy, so allow me to clarify or mitigate those words. One Yes campaign slogan notes that Scotland can, should and must be independent. I agree with two thirds of that.

In terms of the “can”, countries like New Zealand, Denmark and Norway function not too badly, and I think Scotland could too. Heck, I have not made a big thing about the hundred plus distilleries that are lined up to pump whisky money into a Scottish rather than British exchequer, or the oil and gas money that Scotland stands to accrue even if it is a dwindling resource, or the renewables potential. All of that makes for a pretty good starting hand. I have also not analysed the small matter of Scotland’s land assets and empowerment of its communities, but full control of legislative and fiscal levers is something that could aid joined-up thinking on the land question and with it full utilisation of the natural capital of the country.

In terms of the “should”, I have detailed some of my thoughts above. You might agree, you might not. That is democracy and we should rejoice in that.

In terms of the “must”, this is where I back down on the rhetoric. If there is a No vote, I am optimistic the sky will not fall in and I am hopeful I will still enjoy the fundamental freedoms that I have enjoyed to date. Perhaps the Scottish Parliament will get a few more powers, but most importantly I will try my best to stay pals with folk who vote No. Although I do reserve the right to say, “I told you so,” if something goes slightly awry in that future. You can do the same if there is a Yes vote and I am stopped for my passport the next time I cross over the land border to England at one of the regularly promised border posts.

So what will I do now? As one Twitter user perceptively noted, “We can’t just tweet and tweet and expect this social injustice to be righted. It will also take Facebook updates, maybe even blog posts.” On that test, I may have already gone beyond my Yes Scotland call of duty by writing this blog. You might even find me chatting about the issue with people. Perhaps I will wear a badge. I will not bother with any stickers though.

What if my efforts and the efforts of others lead to a Yes vote? Maybe we will not see massive change instantly. I can handle that. There will be very important negotiations to come, and I appreciate these will be challenging, but again I am willing to take that punt. I am not sure how soon it will be before the next independence bus comes along, so I vote to get on this one.

My closing thoughts, and closing words, about the future are offered to our friends in the RUK. I recently attended a Therapy? concert in Glasgow, where the frontman Andy Cairns made one of those non-Scottish sallies into the independence debate. His take? “I don’t care whether you are Scottish or British, it’s the people that matter, not the place.” To this he added, “And I should know, I’m fucking Northern Irish.” A sympathetic rock crowd is always ripe to cheer anything uttered from the stage, but I cheered that enthusiastically.

So there you go. I agree people matter more than the place, but it is not within my gift to unthink the post-Peace of Westphalia model of the nation state. For the reasons listed in this blog and more I think the people of Scotland can make a pretty good go of it as an independent nation. That is why I am voting Yes.

And I did not even mention bagpipes or Braveheart once.

Oh.

Yes

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About basedrones

Bachelor of Laws. Scots lawyer working at the University of Aberdeen. English law qualified. Took far too long to write this bio. Blogs on legal issues, with occasional veering into other purportedly intellectual stuff from time to time. Tweets about legal issues, education, law clinics, fitba, music, rogue cell division and not at all about politics at @MalcolmCombe.
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12 Responses to Why I am voting Yes in the Scottish independence referendum

  1. Ewan Kennedy says:

    Well said, Malcolm. If any readers would like the views of another somewhat older Scots lawyer please read my start of the year essay on the subject here: http://scottishboating.blogspot.co.uk/2014/01/why-i-am-voting-yes.html

  2. Elegantly put and aspiration at the heart of it.

    I do not share your optimism regarding the fallout of a No vote. The Question is existential. “Should Scotland be an Independent Country?” is really asking “Is Scotland a country?”, “Does Scotland exist?”
    And if the answer is Naw, and we acquiesce to having been ‘extinguished’, then why maintain an archaic separate legal system, why hold to the quaint notion that education should be available to all? Why not full integration? High stakes

  3. Craig Anderson says:

    Well said, Malcolm, and here’s to a thumping majority for Yes.

    I’m maybe a bit more pessimistic than you about the consequences of a No in September, the more so the wider the margin (hypothetically) turns out to be. Certainly, I think that a convincing No vote would lead the whole constitutional question to fall off the agenda, regardless of the unionist parties’ vague semi-promises of further devolution. What, after all, would keep it on the agenda, without the “threat of separatism”?

    I think we sometimes forget how anomalous our position is, in international terms. We have just enough of the trappings of nationhood to feel like a nation – we have separate international sporting representation, for example, and we were always to a great extent governed separately, even before devolution, with a separate legal system and separate institution. Yet, as far as the world is concerned, to a very great extent, England means Britain, and an attempt to distinguish the two is liable to be met with blank looks from the average person from outside the UK (and even many from within). To me, that is one of the major reasons for voting Yes. I want my country to be a normal country, just like all of those similarly-sized countries that seem to get on just fine.

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