Essay: coming out for Scottish independence

It is now a year since I began speaking out for independence and my first time was terrifying.Not because of the occasion – I received a warm welcome in a lovely coffee shop in Stirling – but because I was “coming out”, politically speaking. I had no background in politics and 30 years as a BBC reporter meant 30 years of studied neutrality: “On the one hand, on the other hand…”

Fishermen work in the harbour at Pittenweem where the main catch is now prawns, ratehr than haddock. Picture:PA

I’ve nearly always been able to see both sides of an argument and I’ve usually been better at asking questions than answering them. So, to stand before strangers and tell them I believed in major constitutional change, and to spend an entire evening justifying my position, was one of the most daunting ordeals I’ve faced.

Certainly it was more daunting than reporting a difficult story on live TV. In that context, you’re doing your job, playing a role. I felt as if I’d been asked to appear naked under the Mastermind spotlight.

Sign up to our Opinion newsletter

Sign up to our Opinion newsletter

But it forced me to really think through what I believed and why. After leaving BBC Scotland five years ago, I joined the Scottish Greens. It was my first opportunity to join a political party and years of reporting environmental degradation and injustice made them the obvious choice. Scottish Greens also support independence. As the party says: “Bringing political and economic structures and decision-making closer to the Scottish people is a core Green principal and ambition.”

But it’s one thing going along with the party line – quite another making a public stand. Like most folk, I’m pretty brave in company.

As a life-long union member, I have been happy to stand on picket lines and wave my placard. Waving a Yes banner is an entirely different matter.

What do we want? “A new currency, a different banking system, a land value tax, better support for small and medium-sized businesses.” When do we want it? “Obviously the whole system can’t change overnight. For example, there would have to be a period of transition to new taxes and away from sterling. Sorry, am I boring you?”

A year ago I also found that wearing a “Green Yes” badge could invite scorn or pity. “I feel sorry for you lot – you’re gonnae get thumped!” A lot has changed since then. Now I find that people in the street or in the pub are more likely to ask serious questions.

So, what are my answers? Devolution has achieved many things, but if we want real improvements to the way we live, Scotland has to go all the way. I don’t think there’s any alternative to a gradual restructuring of wealth and power. In short, there needs to be a lot less top and a lot less bottom.

People should have much more say in how their lives are run and that means a great deal of decentralisation, not just from Westminster to Holyrood, but right down to greater community powers.

There are so many big questions that I try to stick to the areas I know something about.

Time and time again, as a journalist specialising in environmental issues, I have encountered resignation and helplessness. People living next to opencast coal mines, landfill sites, radioactive beaches, traffic polluted streets. “Oh well, there’s not much to be done about it.”

Luckily, there is something to be done if Holyrood could take over the areas currently reserved to Westminster.

For instance, total control over energy policy would give Scotland the chance to pursue a wide range of renewable energy and local heating and power schemes. Huge investment is needed and that’s where the Greens look to North Sea oil revenues.

Of course, we’re against exploiting every last drop, as that would destroy attempts to tackle global warming. The advice of the International Energy Agency seems sensible: that no more than one-third of proven fossil fuel reserves can be consumed if we’re serious about climate change.

Control over defence policy would not only give us the chance to remove Trident (an ever-present threat to countless humans and Scotland’s environment) but help to end a situation where the Ministry of Defence can decide what we should be told.

They chose not to tell the Scottish Government about a radioactive leak in the Vulcan reactor at Dounreay in Caithness and for years remained obdurate over the post-war dumping of radioactive aircraft dials at Dalgety Bay in Fife.

The issue is one of accountability and while it would be daft to imagine that everything would be perfect under independence, we have the opportunity to design a much more open system and enshrine it in a written constitution. We also need a direct voice in Europe on fishing and farming policies. Reporting on both has given me first-hand experience of the problems in those industries.

I must confess that slightly scarier than addressing a Stirling coffee shop audience was being the media observer on a Greenpeace inflatable, being pursued by a large Danish trawler. Luckily we threw the “seal bomb” they lobbed at us into the North Sea before it exploded – it’s a small explosive device used to frighten mammals away from fishing grounds – and I managed to shin up a ladder to the safety of the Greenpeace mother ship.

This was the battle for the Wee Bankie fishing ground in 1996. Fife fishermen and environmental campaigners said the haddock fishery was being destroyed by the industrial-scale fishing of sand eels, part of the haddock’s diet. Whether or not that caused the decline of haddock, prawns replaced it as the main catch landed at Pittenweem.

Westminster negotiates fish stocks even though Scotland has the bulk of the industry. It hasn’t helped that, as part of the conditions for entry into the common market, Britain gave up its right to a 200-mile exclusive fishing zone.

Westminster also speaks in Brussels for all UK farmers. The Farming for Yes movement says that all too often Scotland’s needs have been ignored and resulted in farmers here receiving among the lowest single farm payments in Europe.

It’s extraordinary that, through intensive farming, we have destroyed bumblebees and their habitat to such an extent that Scotland’s fruit growers have to import bumblebees to pollinate their strawberries. Scottish Greens want to see a more diverse agriculture, as well as more local food production for local consumption.

In many ways, Scotland’s environment is superb but it alarms me how quickly it can deteriorate and how little say most of us have in how it is managed.

That lack of say extends to just about every other area of our lives, from the banks that are “too big to fail”, to the massive inequalities in wealth and land ownership.

The reasons are complex but, for me, most of the problems come back to the same root. The way we run our lives is structurally flawed and if we can start to put that right we should see improvements that are genuine and go way beyond short-term political promises.

More people having more say. That’s the outcome I really want to see. Now I’ve overcome my first night nerves, I’m enjoying these Yes campaign meetings; the audiences are getting bigger, their voices louder.

There’s a very big debate happening, away from the TV screens and often without the best-known politicians.

If you haven’t dipped your toe into these waters yet, come on in.

l Louise Batchelor is a former BBC Scotland environment and transport correspondent, and is now a freelance journalist