Yes campaigners talk extra powers for Scotland

Stephen McGinty speaks to members of the Yes camp in the second part of our series exploring what civic Scotland would like from the Smith Commission
Advocate of independence: Natalie McGarry founded Women for Independence. Picture: John DevlinAdvocate of independence: Natalie McGarry founded Women for Independence. Picture: John Devlin
Advocate of independence: Natalie McGarry founded Women for Independence. Picture: John Devlin

WHEN Dick Tuck ran for the California State Senate in 1966, he came third out of eight candidates, polled 5211 votes and earned a place in the dictionary of political quotations with a concession speech as brief as it was honest: “The people have spoken, the bastards.”

It is a sentiment that every Yes campaigner was entitled to share, though graciously, surprisingly few choose to reach for such a succinct means of expression. For the ardent Nationalist watching the dream of an independent Scotland rise up, as if on the crest of an indomitable wave, only to then watch it recede in the early hours of Friday, 19 September was a torturous experience. One for which words such as “disappointment” was too small and inadequate a bandage to adequately bind so broad and deep a wound.

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In the immediate aftermath there was talk on twitter of founding a movement, The 45, reflecting their rounded up percentage of the vote, which would carry on the campaign. The name conjured images of an automatic handgun, an old vinyl record, a failed revolt and, unfortunately, Britain’s finest hour and, thankfully, didn’t quite stick. It also made me think of the new American drama, The Leftovers, in which a “rapture”-type event removes, in the blink of an eye, 3 per cent of the world’s population. Three years on from this 9/11-style trauma a political group protests against anyone who wishes to move on, by standing around on street corners dressed in white boiler suits and continuously smoking in order to hasten their own demise from a world now rendered meaningless. Their name: the Guilty Remnant.

Any No voter fearful that their fellow citizens who said Yes to independence were set to embark on a decades-long guilt trip on those they viewed as less enlightened or socially conscious should sit down for a frothy coffee on a wobbly table at Costa Coffee in Royal Exchange Square in Glasgow with Natalie McGarry, the founder of Women for Independence. They are too busy planning to win the next referendum which may be sooner than you think.

It’s less than a month since the 18 September when Natalie walked along Glasgow’s High Street giving out more than 2,000 Yes badges in less than an hour and convinced the transformation of the city, once a Labour stronghold, into one squeezing independence in a warm embrace would be replicated across the country.

She learned the heart-breaking truth at the Glasgow count at the Emirates Arena, where her partner was also working – for the Conservative Party. As the early results were announced she took what comfort she could in Glasgow’s success: “We realised what had happened in Glasgow was not replicated around the country. It is hard to reconcile but looking at geography and socio-economics – now, it’s not about apportioning blame – but it’s clear that people in lower socio-economic areas were looking for greater change. People who were more financially comfortable were the most risk averse. Maybe they felt they had more to lose or less interest in change.”

When I say people don’t tend to like change, she smiles: “I like change.”

Change is coming to Scotland, but to what extent will be decided by horse-trading among the political parties while Lord Smith of Kelvin is currently seeking the views of civic Scotland through the Smith Commission. If asked what extra powers the Yes voters would like to see, the answer is even more concise than Tuck’s speech: “All of them”. Conversations with prominent figures from the Yes campaign make clear that if Britain’s political powers were transformed into a vast buffet, one from which others would prefer to pick and choose, leaving the more expensive dishes such as pension provision on Westminster’s silver platter, they would happily sweep them all up, leaving behind only that which they were never offered dishes such as defence and foreign affairs.

The idea of devo-max has too often been focused on achieving autonomy over all fiscal powers such as tax and welfare but Yes campaigners see no reason why everything that can possibly be devolved should not be devolved. The Scottish Parliament, under a federal system should be able to decide its own drug policy, debate the reintroduction of the death penalty and tighten up or further loosen access to abortion. When the Scottish Parliament was founded in 1999 abortion was deliberately withheld for fear that pressure from the Catholic Church and Church of Scotland could lead to reduced access as in Northern Ireland where terminations remain prohibited.

“I don’t like the idea of leaving my reproductive rights in the hands of the House of Lords, stuffed by intemperate old men and life peers who don’t know very much about the reality of many women, across the UK never mind women from certain backgrounds,” says Natalie. “So I trust the Scottish Parliament will actually be more ­progressive.”

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While the legal authority over abortion is a power she would like to see invested within the Scottish Parliament it is, she explains, “not top of my list.”

“What would you want?”

“Welfare is the absolute key.” “Pensions?”

“Everything. In terms of gender and equality it stems from the welfare system – 74 per of cuts have come from women’s income in terms of caring allowances and children’s allowance. Woman are in low income, transient jobs because of child care issues. Welfare and the minimum wage are crucial and I don’t think you can separate them. We want power over employment law, welfare and minimum wage and the ability to control and regulate employment. That would be my key demands then land reform, crown estate, renewable energy, it is imperative that we get renewable energy onto the grid. In Scotland we don’t have access to our own grid which makes us the only country in Europe that doesn’t.”

When I ask if she believes she can come to terms with any new agreement, she explains: “I’m not going to stop campaigning for independence. I don’t think any constitutional settlement will give me the powers that I want and foreign affairs and defence are red lines for me. But we are, where we are – as my mum says – and I really hate that phrase but it sums it up. People in Scotland have expressed their democratic sentiment and we have to work with that to get what is in the best interests of Scotland.”

The vision of a federal Scotland is shared by Blair Jenkins, head of Yes Scotland, who when asked if he shed a tear over the referendum result replied: “not publicly” adding: “It took a lot of getting over”. He believes Westminster now has a duty to deliver the maximum amount of powers possible to the Scottish Parliament consistent with the retention of the United Kingdom.

“I believe and will continue to believe that the future of Scotland is as an independent country. That is not a position that will change but you have to respect the result of the referendum and the fact that the majority of people voted for change, the 45 per cent who voted for independence and a core group of the majority who believed their vote will deliver substantive powers for the Scottish parliament. Various politicians and newspapers were using terms such as federalism and devo-max and I think there is an expectation rightly in Scotland that we are talking about giving as many powers to the Scottish Parliament as remains consistent with staying within the UK. That has to be the aim.

“The way the original devolution Scotland Act was constructed was the powers that had to be reserved were listed and that still seems to be the sensible way to do it and so you would look at all the powers that any parliament can discharge then those which will still remain at a UK level you do come down to defence and foreign affairs which would have to remain at a ­federal level.

“Some macroeconomic functions– the currency being one of those which would also remain at a UK level – but essentially much of the debate, a great deal of the debate that went on, was about what kind of country and society do we want to be and it was about being a more socially just and fairer Scotland and the powers to create jobs, more than anything else, the powers to create more decent employment in Scotland and so the powers to do that need to move to Scotland. That is very, very important particularly if what we are looking at something that will be accepted by the people.

“The previous approach was how little can we get away with – that cannot be the starting point. The starting point has to be Scotland came very close to voting for independence and you have to look at the fact that the majority of people in Scotland want what happens economic and socially in Scotland, wants those decisions made in Scotland, by their elected politicians. It has to be a federal UK, the further away you are from that the less people have understood the referendum and a great many people who voted No will feel they have been let down.”

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Jenkins, like many in the Yes campaign believes independence is now an inevitability and that the timing of any future referendum would be a carefully judged decision. He says: “It would be a calculation for the SNP to make and that a majority was likely to be achieved. The major ingredient is the will of the ­people.”

While a member of the Scottish Socialist Party, Kevin Williamson, who is the co-founder of Bella Caledonia, the nationalist online newspaper, devised the party’s drug policy which included the legalisation of cannabis and the provision of free synthetic heroin to addicts under the medical supervision of the NHS. Today he believes both broadcasting and drug policy should be devolved as part of a devo-max settlement.

Williamson explains the challenge which the Yes movement faces in coming to terms with the current negotiations.

“The Smith Commission represents as big a challenge for the wider Yes movement as it does for those who sought to defend the continuity of the UK. Scotland is no longer the country it was when the Edinburgh Agreement was signed. For both sides there are opportunities as well as dangers in the months ahead, as each tries to negotiate its way through a minefield of dented hopes, mistrust and raised ­expectations. The challenge now comes in connecting with the post-referendum hearts and minds of the people. And the starting point has to be a hard unflinching acceptance of the referendum result. The Scottish people, for whatever reasons, did not vote for independence. Sometimes democracy can be hard to bear, but its a damn sight better than the alternatives.

“It is highly unlikely that the SNP will stand in the 2016 Holyrood elections asking for a mandate to hold another independence referendum. Bar unforeseen circumstances, those of us in the Yes camp need to accept that another independence referendum is off the political agenda this side of 2020. The other side of the coin is that the status quo is unsustainable. The absurd idea that Westminster can throw Holyrood a few sops – for example, control of (a percentage of) income tax – is another non starter. Any attempt by the Smith Commission to go down either road would be to maintain the Yes/No divide and guarantee a second independence referendum as soon as the Yes side was ready.

“Divisions between Yes and No are breaking down when it comes to the question of devo-max. According to a new Panelbase poll, 66 per cent of Scots want Holyrood to control all areas of government policy except defence and foreign affairs; 71 per cent want control of all taxation, including income tax, VAT and corporation tax; 75 per cent want control of welfare and benefits; and 65 per cent want control of state pensions.

“If devo-max is what the vast majority of Scots say they want, then these powers, the powers of home rule, need to be the bottom line in all negotiations, a line in the sand which won’t be crossed.

“Home rule would give Scots a chance to show what we can do with real powers – the powers to create jobs and tackle poverty. There is a moral imperative behind this. The 2014 referendum was swinging towards independence in the last four weeks.

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“It is widely acknowledged it was Gordon Brown’s guarantee of devo-max and “The Vow” that tipped it back to a No vote. Those in both Yes and No camps need to listen carefully to the aspirations of the majority of Scots and get right behind devo-max.

“This comes with a democratic rider. If it was felt necessary to consolidate a devo-max agreement, or if there was intransigence on either side, full devo-max could be put to the Scottish people in a binding referendum: one which would unite Scots rather than divide us, as the 1997 referendum did. The days of Westminster dictating to Scots what powers we can or can’t have are over. We’ve tasted sovereignty and it tasted good.”