Independence essay: Tommy Sheppard on voting Yes

Tommy Sheppard argues that an independent Scotland might fuel demand for political change across the UK. Picture: Greg Macvean
Tommy Sheppard argues that an independent Scotland might fuel demand for political change across the UK. Picture: Greg Macvean
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This is the latest in a weekly series of essays in which influential figures explore ideas related to the Scottish independence referendum

My name is Tommy Sheppard and I’m voting Yes. That’s not something I would have said a few years ago. For more than two decades, I was an active member of the Labour Party: a parliamentary candidate, a councillor for eight years, and a full-time official for three.

All my adult life, I’ve believed in what used to be called social democracy: strong public services paid for through progressive taxation; government economic action to temper capitalism, including some ownership in key sectors; tolerance and equality at home and a foreign policy to combat global poverty.

I believe now what I believed then. That’s why I’ll be voting Yes. I have come to the view that it is easier to change the world if we start first with a country of five million than by pressing the case within a much larger country where many are deaf to the argument.

Labour voters will determine the outcome of September’s referendum. If around a third of them can be persuaded to vote Yes, then it’s in the bag. To win, the Yes campaign will need to understand what is stopping those Labour voters from coming on board.

As both sides in the debate focus on the economy, the real question for many is not whether Scotland can afford to be independent but whether that is desirable in the first place.

The No campaign will say that independence has no place in the Labour canon and those who support it are narrow minded nationalists hell-bent on dividing families across the Border. And, to be clear, nationalism here is presented as a most negative proposition.

The term is spat out with pejorative disdain. Although never said, there’s just a whiff of ethnic cleansing in the air. Repeatedly – often without evidence – independence campaigners are characterised as anti-English. It’s all designed to leave a nasty taste in the mouth. How could such a prospect have anything in common with a belief in social justice?

Ironically, the case against independence is often made by reference to a greater United Kingdom nationalism – although some prefer the term patriotism. We are told that self-government for Scotland would break the social solidarity of generations that founded the NHS and the welfare state.

Some go further. Scotland becoming independent would be a betrayal of the ordinary working people of England; condemning them forever to a right-wing political permafrost. This in essence is the thinking behind the “Scotland, don’t go” pouted by Eddie Izzard and others in the London metropolitan elite.

These arguments resonate. They strike a chord in particular with 500,000 people born in England who have now made Scotland their home.

To betrayal in a moment. But first, let’s get one thing clear: the suggestion that the future for Scotland should be determined by the people who live here is not a nationalist proposition; it is a simple statement of democratic ambition. Those who describe themselves as nationalist will agree that Scotland should be independent. But they are far from the only ones. I know a great many people who have now come to the view that the changes they want for the society in which they live can be better achieved through making a start in an independent Scotland. They would not in a million years describe themselves as nationalist.

The No campaign will not recognise this diversity; it must constantly reduce the Yes campaign to nationalism and to Alex Salmond and does its best to demonise both. I understand why: that’s politics. But it’s dishonest and we should say so.

Now, let’s examine whether voting for independence really condemns my aunt in Hull and my mates in London to a future that is forever Tory.

The first thing to say about the argument that England needs Scotland to get a Labour government is that it’s just not true. Labour has won three out of the past four elections in the UK. On each occasion it won a majority of seats in England and Wales. And on each occasion the government majority was greater than the total number of Scottish Labour MPs. The electorate of England and Wales are more than capable of electing a Labour government if it wants to.

But supposing that were not true. Just suppose Labour could only get elected with Scottish votes. What sort of disrespect would we be showing to English voters if we said it doesn’t matter if you didn’t vote for a Labour government – you’re getting one anyway? That would simply create a disjuncture between the governed and the governing, the reverse of and many times greater than the one we see in Scotland now.

Labour voters should also consider that a Yes vote will create political change in England and Wales that they might well find attractive. This would be, after all, the greatest reform of the government of the British Isles since the partition of Ireland.

Things will not remain the same. There will be consequences. As night follows day, a Yes vote in Scotland would fuel demands for political devolution and local control throughout England. This could be the catalyst that leads to the great regions of England combining both to counter the economic suction of the city state of London, and also to better protect the vital services on which their communities depend.

An independent Scotland could also provide inspiration to people across these islands. Already many down south ask how come we can have free medicine and higher education when they do not. The Daily Mail will answer (wrongly) that this is because they are subsidising us.

But independence makes it clear. Just as it will remove that chip on too many Scottish shoulders which blames the English for all our problems, so also it will show that you can have these things because you choose to, not because you are getting an unfair cut of the cake.

Independence offers the prospect of building real solidarity where a Scottish government can take action to improve the lot not just of its own citizens but also of those beyond its borders. On these islands, there will still be a lot of governing to do and structures will be needed to allow Scottish, English and Welsh governments to work together.

In Europe too, Scotland can combine with other like-minded governments to run interference with global companies and create the conditions where their activities do less harm to the people and the environment in which they operate. In these situations, Scottish government action could help improve the lives of the people of England, too. Aye, even on occasion possibly against the wishes of their own Tory government. That’s real solidarity. And that, of course, is precisely why many people are now excited about the prospect of getting control of their own country: not to look inward, but outward; not to be nationalist, but internationalist.

They want to see a small independent country with a different set of priorities, capable of playing a role in the better government of Britain, of Europe and the world.

So the next time a London luvvie says “Scotland, don’t go” simply reply “England, come and join us”.

Some of my mates already have their tickets booked.

• Tommy Sheppard is director of The Stand Comedy Club and former assistant general-secretary of the Scottish Labour Party