IN 1999 I was elected to the Scottish Parliament as a Conservative MSP for Mid Scotland and Fife.
In my first speech in the chamber as a callow, inexperienced politician, I levelled the charge at the late Donald Dewar that he lacked ambition for Scotland. My words then were: “If you never raise your eyes above the horizon you will never see the stars.” Today, nearly 15 years later, the more successful Scotland I believe most of us want is not only firmly in focus – it is within our reach.
More recently, I have become convinced that a Yes vote on 18 September next year is the way to achieve that better Scotland.
Scotland is a fully developed, grown-up country. And whether from the perspective of action to stimulate a more dynamic economy, or measures to tackle poverty – and we are in a good place in Scotland to recognise that progress on one can and should help the other – we need the grown-up powers of an independent country to match.
Having followed the arguments of the Yes and No campaigns, my conclusion is that while a devolved parliament can do good things – and it has – it lacks the core economic and welfare powers to tackle the fundamental issues.
Put simply, while problems and opportunities with particular resonance in Scotland can go by the board at Westminster, it’s just not possible for that to happen in a Scottish Parliament. And I have faith that while not everything will be done perfectly, a Scottish Government will always make a better job of running Scotland than Westminster ever can.
The economic arguments will continue to be batted to and fro, and the negative campaign of the No group will continue to paint the future in dismal colours. I am not an economist and no one can predict what lies ahead absolutely, but my simple question is this – will Scotland be any worse off by grasping self-determination? Is it credible to believe that we could possibly fail to prosper solely on the basis that our own decisions are made by people and a parliament in Scotland? Surely the reverse is more likely to be true.
But there are wider issues than economics, and those are the ones that matter most to me. These issues are founded on the type of society that my grandchildren will inherit. Look at what we have been unable to tackle under the Westminster system, whether under Tory or Labour governments – there is evidential certainty that inequalities inherent in British society fester even more strongly in Scotland, leading to despair and often apathy. The problems are widely acknowledged, blighting the lives of too many children, yet they continue from government to government, generation to generation.
A new Scotland vested with full powers and full of ambition will be the kick-start I believe we need as a country. A hope I have is that once independence is gained, all people in Scotland will feel more inclined to participate in matters which directly impinge on their wellbeing.
An independent Scotland can and should rethink the way it governs itself – including the way that prospective MSPs are selected, so that all parties broaden their base.
The Yes camp draws support from across the political spectrum, but there is a lack of expressed enthusiasm from Scotland’s centre right, decentralist tradition. But this voice needs to be raised and heard. To encourage people to think for themselves and influence the decisions that affect them is not to abrogate responsibility, rather it increases and strengthens democracy.
Therefore, I welcome the Wealthy Nation initiative launched last week by centre-right advocates of a Yes vote – which I hope will help the debate to reach new places and win more converts.
So by voting Yes, Scotland has the chance to redress that 1999 accusation of lack of vision, to create a society free to rearrange itself in the way that suits it best, where innate fairness is the basis of the behaviour of government to its citizens, where inequalities of opportunity are eliminated over time, where people have influence over their environment, health and education, where we all work towards commonly agreed goals, whilst being guaranteed individual liberties and freedoms.
In short, an ambitious but realistic aspiration for a better country. One which Westminster has shown itself incapable of delivering – but I believe one that the energy and optimism unleashed by a Scotland that says Yes will.
Nick Johnston was Conservative MSP for Mid-Scotland and Fife from 1999 to 2001