John Barrett: Independence about country, not cash

BOTH sides in the independence debate should be answering bigger questions than ‘What’s in it for me?’, says former MP John Barrett
John Barrett during his days as an MP, with Alex Salmond sitting behind him. Picture: ContributedJohn Barrett during his days as an MP, with Alex Salmond sitting behind him. Picture: Contributed
John Barrett during his days as an MP, with Alex Salmond sitting behind him. Picture: Contributed

When I was a Liberal Democrat MP at Westminster I used to sit in front of Alex Salmond and beside Alistair Carmichael on the green benches. We were sometimes in the same lobby, voting against the war on Iraq and a number of other key issues. Some years later, I am now in a different position, deciding where exactly I wish to sit in relation to their very different policies on the referendum.

Having been elected at local and national level, I appreciate why politicians of all parties have to justify the positions of their own party while attacking their opponents. I am now in the fortunate position of not having a particular axe to grind and I could now put forward a good case both for independence and for remaining within the UK. There are good people on both sides, who genuinely believe in what they are arguing for. Unfortunately, as they are entrenched in their own positions, they are often unable to view many important issues in a non-party political way. Far too often, this results in the public switching off from the debate.

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As a Liberal Democrat, my natural position favours a federal solution, with Scotland remaining as part of the UK, sharing the same currency, monarchy, defence forces and our international obligations on aid and peace-keeping. However, this is not an option on offer next September. The independence now being offered includes many of my federal preferences, such as sharing the same pension arrangements and currency as the rest of the UK and remaining in the EU, which could well be put at risk by a strong Ukip vote south of the Border in May and an in/out referendum in the following parliament.

The position is further confused by the fact that the party I joined over 30 years ago bears little resemblance in policy terms to the Liberal Democrats now in government at Westminster. I have not changed my views on opposition to university tuition fees, Trident nuclear missiles and the construction of new nuclear power stations. More recently (and as one who voted with Alistair Carmichael and Alex Salmond against the war in Iraq), the defeat of the government over military action in Syria was something I welcomed. I was stunned to see those party grandees who were at the heart of opposing going to war in Iraq now advocating military action – before inspectors had completed their work. My, how times have changed.

In Scotland, I was at a Lib-Dem conference when it wholeheartedly opposed the bedroom tax, with not one MP in the room speaking up in favour of government policy, while it still remains something my party in government at Westminster supports. No wonder the public in Scotland drifted away in large numbers from the party at both the last set of Holyrood and council elections.

The economic arguments from both sides are as expected and they are locked into positions which will not change. The separatists say we will all be better off and the Unionists say we will be worse off in an independent Scotland. They would say that, wouldn’t they? I don’t expect either side to admit the truth, which is that neither side knows exactly what the position will be after the referendum and following elections, regardless of the result.

When I was elected to Westminster in 2001, nobody could have predicted the attack on the World Trade Centre and the two decades of war that would follow, costing thousands of lives, billions of pounds and hundreds of billions of dollars. When I was re-elected in 2005, again nobody could have predicted the economic collapse in many economies and the banking crisis that cost tens of billions of pounds with the longest recession in recent memory. For either side to say they know what will happen to the economy in the future is dishonest, to say the least. We deserve better from both sides in the debate leading up to the most important vote in Scotland’s history.

The Scottish public must also accept their share of responsibility for the current state of affairs. If in the run-up to the referendum they only ask “What is in it for me?”, they will be offered a range of unaffordable promises by both sides and should then not be surprised when those promises are not delivered.

It will not be just the fault of politicians if Scotland does not prosper in the future: we all have a responsibility for the country we live in. It is not a lack of funding that puts a strain on our health service; it is a population with a bad diet, that smokes and drinks too much, while taking little or no exercise – that is at the heart of the problem. Anyone who doubts this should visit an A&E unit at the weekend. If the Scottish public want the option they think will deliver a brighter future without them putting in any effort to improve matters, they are living in a fool’s paradise.

Many countries have become independent in my lifetime and Nicola Sturgeon often cites the fact that not one of those countries wants to give up their independence. She is correct, but fails to mention that some of these countries, like the newest independent country, South Sudan, have degenerated into chaos. I have been to South Sudan, and thankfully it bears little resemblance to Scotland, but politicians do us a disservice if they list countries which include successful states as well as disasters as a reason to vote for independence. We deserve an honest analysis of what independence has meant for those countries, not a sound-bite.

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Answering the question, “What’s in it for me?” is not what politicians on both sides should be concentrating on, as those who are prepared to vote one way or the other based only on personal financial gain are effectively offering their vote to the highest bidder. This is only one step away from selling their vote, or being bribed. When the US, former Commonwealth countries or the old Soviet Union states clamoured for independence, their citizens were not only prepared to support it because they knew exactly what the income tax or corporation tax rate was going to be in their new country. They were prepared to take a risk because it was something they believed in. There is a risk staying in the Union and a different set of risks becoming independent. What people believe will be right, regardless of what the rate of tax will be, should determine who will win the referendum.

What we should be getting from both sides is a clear picture of the Scotland they want to develop for generations to come. I want to see a fairer country at home, with access to a high quality health and education system for all, regardless of ability to pay; a compassionate and considerate country, where those who are able care for those who are less able; a greener country with sustainable energy production at an affordable price; and an internationalist country supporting peace-keeping obligations and those abroad less fortunate than ourselves, while avoiding any involvement in destructive military interventions, where civilians suffer more than anyone else. If this is the Scotland of the future, it is what I will vote for. It is also something that can only be delivered if Scots are prepared to participate in delivering that future: accepting increased personal responsibility will be part of the bargain.

Unfortunately neither side in the referendum debate has convinced me so far. Many people like me are now undecided on the referendum issue and are waiting for an honest vision for the future of Scotland from both sides.

My vote is not up for sale – it is there to be won by those who can spell out their vision of a Scotland my grandchildren will want to grow up in.

• John Barrett was the Scottish Liberal Democrat MP for Edinburgh West from 2001-10.