A few months ago, I was talking to my godson, Andrew, about the forthcoming referendum. He’s a lovely lad; in his thirties, he works in the care of adults with severe learning disabilities. He and his partner, a nurse, have the most beautiful two year old daughter, a smiley, happy, sweet child who charms everyone she meets. They both work punishing shifts for not much more than a combined living wage: Andrew frequently has to walk four miles to catch a bus that’ll take him to work.
He was going to vote No. Astonished, I asked him why. “Well,” he said, “look at me. I haven’t had a pay rise for over five years, and prices just keep going up and up. I’ll never be able to afford to buy my own home. I don’t even see how I’ll be able to buy a car. I rely on my mum for childcare because it’s so expensive, and holidays are a non-starter. If we go independent, how do I know it won’t get much, much worse?”
We live in a society that is crippled by fear. Ordinary working people live on the cliff edge of robbing Peter to pay Paul every month to meet the debt commitments they are blamed for having in our recession economy; deunionised, they are forced to accept derisory wage rises that are in effect cuts in living standards when the price rises in commodity-traded food and fuel that puts billions into the already groaning coffers of multi-national corporations are taken into account; they are labelled scroungers when they turn to the state for help, while their bosses in both the public and the private sectors pay each other handsomely over the odds because they have defined themselves as somehow ‘indispensable’ to the machine; they are conned into believing that they, the people at the bottom, are somehow to blame for all of this, and that despite the overwhelming evidence that the problems lie at the top on the desks of money-laundering, rate-fixing, tax-avoiding, mis-selling big banks and hedge funds, the status quo is the only way to go.
I remember growing up in the 60s and 70s, when optimism for the future was all the rage. Yes, we worried about nuclear weapons and knew that there was a huge problem with hunger and war in the Developing World; but, for ourselves, we felt that life was on the up, and never did any of us consider in 1973 that, in 40 years time, families would be worse off in real terms. But then the neoliberal Thatcher agenda came along and put paid to all of that, and the dismantling of the great public goods of the post-War period – gas, electricity, the railways, steel, mining and, especially, social housing – saw the beginning of what Naomi Klein calls the “great sacking”, the siphoning off of what we once all owned into the hands of a rapacious few who buy it with promises of consultancies and seats on the board to the appropriate career politicians.
And we have been made afraid. Our governments have become adept at getting their own way using it; I remember my parents were truly convinced that Sadaam Hussein could drop a nuclear weapon on us within 45 minutes. The discourse has become one of fear, one which reached its nadir last week with the unedifying sight of a UK Cabinet minister of Scottish origin, Jo Swinson, scaremongering against a Yes vote because it could entail higher mobile phone roaming charges and mean the end of Saturday letter deliveries.
I don’t know about you, but I reckon senior politicians have a duty of care to the electorate. They are meant to lead, to provide visions for the future, to reassure, to sound the voice of reason, to refute sensationalism, to think big. But just consider this: we are being asked to accept that we are not competent to run our national affairs because a mobile phone company might charge a few quid more if we do. The insult represents a preposterous infantilisation of the Scottish people, especially when Swinson neglected to add that the EU is likely to outlaw roaming charges anyway.
And Ms Swinson tells us that Royal Mail services will be cut if we make decisions for ourselves while at the same time a Cabinet she is a member of is pushing through the neoliberal sale of Royal Mail to already bloated hedge funds, organisations intent not on the social good of a postal service that delivers to isolated people come rain or shine but on the bottom line. We know what happens during privatisation: “efficiency” is bought on the backs of the customers and, especially, the ordinary workers, who find their conditions of employment ripped up to fund the additional burdens of a profit margin and the retirement packages of chief executives. Does Ms Swinson really believe that a vote by Scottish people is a greater threat to mail deliveries in Scotland than Goldman Sachs?
All over the world, we see sporadic instances of unrest at this gross perversion of human economic activity: The Occupy movement; riots in Greece, Brazil, London, Sweden and, ten years ago, Argentina; the Arab Spring movement. But all these offer only a fleeting glimpse of a brave alternative and, against the structures that have taken root in our politics, are pretty much doomed to failure. “If you want to change something,” protestors are told, “work from within.”
And that’s why I’m voting Yes. We have a legal, peaceful, constitutional means to say “Enough is enough; these are not our values.” We can reject an economic system that allows the South East of England to suck the rest of the UK dry to fund its stratospheric salaries and eye-watering house prices and its super car lifestyle. We can reject a social system that has been engaged in brutal social engineering for forty years and is now accelerating, with the whole of London becoming the largest gated community in the world, the poor made unwelcome by property prices and the bedroom tax, shipped out to be shipped back in on a daily basis to clean the offices and keep the wine bars staffed on a High Speed Rail line that Scotland will pay £4.5 billion pounds towards but will stop at Manchester. We can reject a political system that moves the centre of power out of reach of the ordinary man and deposits it amongst the voices of the rich, influential and corrupt where it cannot help but be seduced. And we can do all this at the mere stroke of a pen. No violence. No upheaval. Just one little cross in a box and the world changes.
I agree with Patrick Harvie when he says it’s not going to be hugely different the day after we vote Yes. We may find ourselves a little poorer (I doubt it) or a little richer (probably more likely), but the sun will not shine brighter, the air will not taste sweeter and birds will not fly in our windows to make our breakfasts. But what I do believe is that a Yes vote will send a message out to the rest of the world, and it’s a message of hope that we don’t have to accept the political, economic and social structures that have been used for so long to make us afraid.
I laid it on the line for Andrew. I told him it seemed that he had been conditioned to believe that his life was miserable, and that it would only ever get more miserable if he tried to take charge of it for himself. At a time of his life when he should be feeling the most hopeful ever – a loving partner, a beautiful baby – he has been disempowered, emasculated, hobbled by fear that any change he initiates in his life will make matters worse. When he should be growing in confidence and capacity, he has been told to stand still, to stay put, to accept what his betters have decided and, most of all, to shut up.
That’s not good enough for him. It’s not good enough for his daughter. And it certainly isn’t good enough for Scotland.