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Nicola Sturgeon: No more ‘what ifs’

Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon. Picture: PA

Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon. Picture: PA

  • by NICOLA STURGEON
 

Next year, Scots have a chance to chart a new and exciting course. Nicola Sturgeon explains why Yes has to be the way forward

AS SCOTLAND looks forward to a hard-fought referendum campaign that will shape our nation’s future, it is inevitable that the disagreements between those who advocate independence and those who favour government from Westminster will be amplified and exaggerated. We should embrace vigorous debate because come referendum day it will be important for every citizen to be aware of the arguments being put forward by both campaigns – and understand what each choice means for the direction and wellbeing of our country. However, ­between now and the referendum, it is also important that we take some time to reflect on what unites us in Scotland.

There are many aspects of modern Scotland that we agree need urgent attention – first among them in my view is the fact that one in five Scottish children live in poverty and 800,000 people in Scotland live in fuel poverty. The Yes campaign argues that decisions on tax and welfare would be better taken at Holyrood rather than Westminster so that we have in our own hands the powers to eradicate these statistics – a position supported by nearly two-thirds of Scots in the latest Social ­Attitudes Survey.

We will have these and many other ­debates on the fairer society and stronger economy we can build with independence, and I look forward to them.

However, it is worth considering for a moment that while we have not yet reached a consensus about how Scotland should be governed in constitutional terms (such a consensus will, I hope, emerge with a Yes vote next year), there is widespread agreement that we should all work within the system as it is at any given time to improve life in Scotland. That may seem a straightforward point, but it underlines the essential unity and cohesiveness of our nation and that is something to celebrate.

Committed home rulers in the Liberal and Labour parties, and then in the emergent SNP, did everything they could for their communities and country at a time when Scotland was governed only by Westminster. Previously, anti-devolution Tories have played their part in opposition in a Scottish Parliament they did not want. The SNP worked from 1999 as the main opposition, and since 2007 as – by general consensus – an effective administration in a devolved parliament that doesn’t reflect the full measure of our aspirations. And we have always supported more powers for Scotland while campaigning for independence.

So while there is profound disagreement about our constitutional arrangements, we all work within them to improve the lot of Scotland and to achieve our wider ambitions with the consent of the people.

That is the spirit in which the Yes campaign approaches the referendum – and I am confident that we will emerge with the same national unity of purpose in the new, broader and I believe better context of an independent Scotland.

There is huge international interest in Scotland’s referendum. The process of a nation achieving independence by debate – in the most transparent and participative way possible – is a positive lesson for the wider world, particularly for those places which do not yet have the freedoms we enjoy.

We shouldn’t underestimate the fact that the Scottish experience is regarded as an exemplar of democratic change – and in that regard I was delighted to hear former Irish President Mary McAleese ­describe our referendum as a “remarkable and wonderful phenomenon”. We should all take pride in this – and bring forward quality campaigns to match.

So let me set out my positive reasons for wanting Scotland to vote Yes.

Growing up in a working-class family in Ayrshire in the 1970s, and then working as a lawyer in Drumchapel, my first and enduring political beliefs were not so very different from those of my contemporaries who supported Labour – a left-of-centre commitment to fairness and social justice, and passionate opposition to nuclear weapons.

But I joined the SNP and supported independence because I thought then, and believe now, that an independent Scotland is the best route to a socially just Scotland. For me, an independent Scotland has ­never been the goal in itself, but rather the means to deliver the vital objectives of a fair society and dynamic economy.

The range of identities in modern Scotland – Scottish, British, Pakistani, Irish, Polish and many more – will be encompassed in an independent country, but they are not dependent on it. In the 
centuries since the 1707 Union, Scottish identity has endured, evolved and strengthened. In a similar manner, British identity will continue in an independent Scotland.

In other words, the case for independence does not rest on identity or nationality, but rather on values of social justice, enterprise and democracy. My concerns are not just about the nation of Scotland – they are principally about the welfare of the people of Scotland.

The shocking poverty statistics cited above cannot be divorced from the fact that the UK is the fourth most unequal country in the developed world – a situation that will only worsen as a result of the cuts imposed on working families and vulnerable citizens by the Westminster government.

Inequality in Britain actually grew over the period of the last Labour government at Westminster, and my contention is that the UK has failed Scotland over the long term and under successive governments of all colours.

Despite our rich human and material resources, Scotland’s average economic growth rate has been 40 per cent lower than equivalent, independent countries over the past 50 years.

In the Economist Intelligence Unit’s ‘where to be born’ index for 2013 – which analyses a range of quality-of-life measures – the UK ranked 27th. Norway, Sweden and Denmark – countries with many similarities to Scotland – were in the top five.

So on any scale, Scotland could and should be doing better. But in order to chart a different course from the prevailing winds of Westminster, our government has to have the vital policy levers in the areas of the economy, social welfare, the environment, Europe and international affairs that our neighbours in Scandinavia and elsewhere enjoy.

A prerequisite to fair policy in Scotland has to be representative policy – and a debilitating feature of our national life for too long has been the imposition of policies that do not carry our consent. Iain Duncan Smith’s unfair cuts to the welfare system will hit a million working age households in Scotland, weakening consumer demand as well as harming families. But 80 per cent of Scottish MPs opposed them – and to add insult to ­injury Iain Duncan Smith refuses even to appear before Holyrood’s welfare reform committee to explain them.

Last Monday, in response to a ­substantial increase in requests for help as a result of these cuts, I announced a £5.4 million package to support front-line advice and assistance for people worst 
affected. It is a good package, widely welcomed. But our national politics should not be focused on the amelioration of damaging measures that as a nation we didn’t support in the first place.

The damaging uncertainty about our place in the European Union created by David Cameron’s speech last week is another example – a process driven entirely by Tory electoral fears about Ukip south of the Border. In Dublin on Friday, I set out a distinctively Scottish case for Europe’s importance to Scotland and our importance to Europe.

This concern about Westminster governments’ lack of a democratic mandate in Scotland is not just a problem now, and has never been confined to the SNP. For more than half of my life, Scotland has had a Tory government from Westminster that we didn’t vote for. And it was Jim Wallace – ironically enough now the Lib Dem Advocate General in a Tory-led government – who said in the House of Commons on this very day 25 years ago: “The Conservative Party in Scotland has no mandate, and it is no use pretending that it has.” I agree with the former Jim!

The overarching benefit of an independent Scotland is that we will always get the governments we vote for. Therefore, our politics and policy can be focused on a proactive agenda – rather than being obliged to react to measures from Westminster that we have no control over and don’t support. Independence will be to the betterment of our national life – as well as to the betterment of relations between Holyrood and Westminster.

Independence means we can look to the future with clear eyes and a fresh start. We have had many constitutional proposals over the years – and all contributions about how, with more powers, we can improve the quality of life for people in Scotland and build a more dynamic economy are welcome.

But next year is the only guaranteed and certain opportunity to achieve these powers – and more – with a Yes vote. A No vote is literally a vote for nothing – other than the continuation of a Westminster austerity agenda we didn’t vote for, uncertainty about our place in Europe, and complete certainty that Scotland would have a new generation of Trident nuclear weapons dumped on the Clyde for another 50 years.

A No vote would relegate Scotland to the bottom of the Westminster agenda – the idea that Holyrood would gain new powers in these circumstances is fanciful. Scotland cannot afford the risk of a No vote – or the loss of opportunity for renewal and revival that a Yes vote offers.

It falls to few countries and few generations to choose their future in the impeccably democratic way that we are doing – in that sense we are a lucky country and a very lucky generation of Scots. After all, we don’t know if, as individuals or as a country, we will pass this way again.

Like most nations, Scotland’s history is littered with fascinating “what ifs”. What if the Darien scheme hadn’t happened – would the Union have ever come about? What if the narrow Yes to devolution vote in 1979 had been respected – would we already be independent? We cannot know for sure. But what we do know is that next year we have the chance to set our country on a new course.

At this exciting time, I believe that Scotland’s interests are best served by looking forwards and outwards with a Yes vote – not looking backwards by wondering “what if” and lamenting a No vote, as I’m sure many people would quickly come to do. Rather than years of introspection, Scotland needs the ambition which is at the heart of the case for Yes.

The Yes campaign will do all we can to persuade our fellow citizens to make the positive choice of an independent Scotland, and embrace this unrivalled opportunity. That is our responsibility – we will discharge it with passion, commitment and integrity. And I hope and believe that we, the people of Scotland, will say Yes. «


• Nicola Sturgeon MSP is Deputy First Minister and member of the Yes Scotland Advisory Board

 

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