How Shetland Became a Stronghold for the Liberal Democrats

The following is an article commissioned by a publication which ultimately chose not to run with it before the Shetland by-election (I think Boris and Ruth’s shenanigans might have taken up most available space), so I’m publishing it here.  Although intended to be read before the results of the by-election were known, I think it mostly holds up – and my final conclusion turned out to be accurate!

The upcoming Scottish Parliament by-election in Shetland, triggered by Tavish Scott’s resignation, provides an opportunity to take stock of the position of the Liberal Democrats in the islands.  Alongside Orkney, with whom it shares a Westminster constituency, Shetland has more consistently voted for the Liberal Democrats and its Liberal Party predecessor than any other part of Britain.  The party has topped the poll at both constituency and list level in every election since the Scottish Parliament’s creation twenty years ago, while it has held the Westminster constituency since 1950, usually with clear majorities.  After Scott’s landslide re-election in 2016, Shetland became the safest seat in the Scottish Parliament.

When discussing Shetland’s Liberal roots, writers and commentators have tended to focus upon two factors.  The 1886 Crofters Act, passed by William Gladstone’s Liberal government, granted security of tenure to crofters and is often portrayed as a bedrock of support for the party in Shetland.  This argument states the Crofters Act established the good will and trust which left the electorate more open to appeals by future Liberal candidates, many of whom certainly invoked the Act in their campaigns.  Yet, while the Liberal Democrats have traditionally performed well in the crofting counties, only Orkney and Shetland have rewarded the party with such large and consistent electoral victories, suggesting further explanations are required to fully explain the party’s success.

The second factor frequently raised to account for the party’s hegemony emphasises the popularity of Jo Grimond, the isles’ Member of Parliament between 1950 and 1983.  Although an outsider to Shetland when first contesting the constituency in 1945, Grimond’s down-to-earth approach and ability to respond to local concerns quickly garnered support.  He averaged 57.6 percent of the vote in the ten elections he won compared with the 48.5 percent average maintained by his successors at Westminster, indicating the presence of a certain ‘Grimond factor.’  Nevertheless, the fact that Jim Wallace, Alistair Carmichael and Tavish Scott were each able to secure the party’s position in Shetland demonstrates we need to look beyond Grimond, as important an influence he undoubtedly proved to be.

Beyond these widely repeated arguments, Shetland’s liberal tendency can partly be explained by its demographic and economic structure, particularly where this served to weaken the Labour Party as a viable alternative.  In the postwar decades, almost twice as many homes in Shetland were owner-occupied than rented from the local authority.  Social housing tenants historically comprised a core voter base for Labour in the postwar years – 70 percent voted Labour in 1964 – thereby limiting its voter base.  Similarly, Shetland possesses an older demographic profile to the rest of Scotland, further limiting Labour’s voter base to the benefit of the Liberals and Liberal Democrats.

The party has benefitted from a lack of class identification in Shetland, a factor which has also tended to suppress support for Labour.  This stems from a combination of the islands’ close-knit community and their economic structure, traditionally dominated by small-scale industry.  Regardless of the truth of this claim – and real inequalities continue to exist in the islands – this sense of ‘classlessness’ has broadened potential support for the Liberals and Liberal Democrats, who generally have a greater appeal among voters with less class identification.

Liberal and Liberal Democrat candidates have capitalised on this by casting themselves as representatives and guardians of Shetland’s distinct interests.  Their ability to connect to local concerns can also explain the party’s wider appeal in rural Scotland but has proved particularly potent in the Northern Isles, where distance from the Scottish mainland increases logistical pressures and emphasises the importance of strong parliamentary representation.  Whether contrasted against portrayals of the Labour Party’s ‘urban’ socialism, the centralising impulses of the Conservatives under Margaret Thatcher or the SNP’s perceived Central Belt bias in recent years, party candidates have successfully argued that only they can be trusted to champion Shetland’s specific needs.

Curiously, this image was forged despite the Liberal Party finding itself at odds with the Shetland community on two key constitutional questions in the postwar period.  Advocating both European integration and Scottish devolution, the party’s stance was rejected by Shetlanders in each referendum held in the 1970s.  These results prompted Grimond to remark, perhaps only half-jokingly, ‘I have always suspected they did not know what I stood for.’  However, Shetland’s stance on these issues has since come into alignment with Liberal Democrat policy.  The electorate followed the Scottish national trend by endorsing devolution in 1997 and voting to remain in the European Union in 2016, while the party’s opposition to Scottish independence currently represents the majority view in Shetland as expressed in the 2014 independence referendum.  As the party now most clearly aligned to Shetland’s constitutional preferences, the Liberal Democrats have managed to establish a new foundation of support in the constituency.

The Liberal Democrats enter this by-election benefitting from Shetland’s strong liberal tradition, a favourable demographic profile, an association with local interests and an alignment with the community’s constitutional preferences.  Considering the party’s recent national revival fuelled by opposition to Brexit, its candidate, Beatrice Wishart, would be excused for expecting an easy win.  Yet, SNP candidate Tom Wills has run an energetic and well-resourced campaign which has seen numerous activists and party figures travel to the islands, including three separate visits by Nicola Sturgeon.  After achieving a record 37.8 percent of the vote in the 2015 Westminster election – albeit falling to 23.1 percent in Holyrood the following year and then 29.0 percent in the 2017 snap election – the SNP clearly believe victory is a distinct possibility now the seat lacks a popular incumbent.  However, opposition to independence and accusations of a centralising agenda place an upper ceiling on the SNP’s support which will be difficult for the party to overcome.

Lower turnout and the opportunity to cast a high-profile protest vote can make by-elections difficult to predict, and with ten candidates standing the vote will likely be particularly split.  Nevertheless, following 70 years of unbroken success and maintaining strong fundamentals, the Liberal Democrats should still be considered clear frontrunners.

Shetland’s Male-Dominated Public Sphere

The dominance of men in Shetland’s public sphere is a phenomenon I have been increasingly concerned about over the last few years as I’ve grown more politically aware.  Speculating on the reasons why this is the case would most likely result in an ignorant and uninformed conclusion without proper research, so I will not attempt to do so.  However I do want to highlight several areas where I see a problem.

In terms of political representation, Shetland is blatantly governed by men.  Every single Member of Parliament and Member of the Scottish Parliament the islands have elected have been men.  Perhaps this is because few women even make it onto the ballot paper – last year I wrote a letter to the Shetland News outlining the problem:

   “With the selection of party candidates for the upcoming election a relatively topical issue, I decided to take a look back at previous elections to see which parties normally field candidates for Shetland and Orkney.
   Upon doing so I was shocked to discover that every party’s candidate has been a man since at least 1997. There hasn’t been a single woman on the ballot paper throughout all this time.
Wondering whether this was just a fluke, I had a look at Shetland’s constituency for the last four Scottish Parliament elections. In the 1999 and 2003 elections every candidate was a man, while in the 2007 and 2011 elections all the candidates except one were men, the woman both times put forward by the SNP.
   To compare this nationally: 20 per cent of Scottish MPs and 33 per cent of MSPs are women, suggesting that at least a fifth of constituencies had at least one woman on the ballot paper.”

I added:

   “Thus far only the Liberal Democrats and the SNP have announced their candidates for this May’s election, both of whom are men.
   I will be keeping a close eye on future announcements from Labour, the Conservatives, UKIP and any other parties to see whether they will allow yet another election to be contested entirely by men.”

Unfortunately, the Labour, Conservative and UKIP candidates all proved, once again, to be men, making 2015 the fifth Westminster election in a row in which there was not a single woman on the ballot paper.  Although still overwhelmingly men, candidates for the Scottish Parliament’s Shetland constituency have continued to see better balance; for example, Labour fielded the excellent Robina Barton in last May’s election.  Nevertheless, 94% of votes ultimately went to male candidates.

As I stated in the letter, the same problem exists in the Shetland Islands Council (SIC):

“I discovered that only three of the 22 councillors are women – just 13.6 per cent. This is below the still shockingly small national average of 24.3 per cent.”

This inequality also includes leadership positions, with both the current Convenor and Political Leader of the Council being men.  As far as I’m aware, this has always been the case.

The same trend occurs if you look into the Shetland Charitable Trust, arguably the second most important public institution across the islands, controlling significant income from oil revenues.  The trustees are appointed from across Shetland society and include individuals with a background in the SIC (including current serving councillors), the police force, the NHS, the Church of Scotland, crofting and marine policy.  A good range of expertise, but unfortunately only two of the 14 are women.  At 14.2% this is virtually the same proportion as the SIC’s 13.6%.  For an organisation intended to provide funding for charitable causes and projects across the isles, this is a stark gap of experience and background.

The dominance of men also seems to include the press.  The majority of journalists in the Shetland Times and Shetland News appear to be men – although granted, this isn’t unusual in a national context.  It’s also true that, although the majority of The Shetland Times’ editors have been men, between 1990 and 2006 it did have a woman editor in Vaila Wishart.  Nevertheless, the current news team of the Shetland Times appears to consist entirely of men.

Moreover, if you take newspapers as a key forum for debate, the pattern continues.  In the most recent publication of the Shetland Times there were eight letters submitted to the editor, all written by men. (Interestingly, six were about the EU Referendum, with four of the six expressing support for Brexit, despite the fact that almost 57% of Shetlanders voted remain.  Is the male-dominance of the public sphere creating a right-wing, eurosceptic echo chamber?).  Similarly, all of the most recent contributions to the Shetland News letters page were penned by men.  Indeed, these pages tend to feature the same men, arguing with the same people, again and again.  In my experience the Facebook comments of the news outlets see more representative contributions – of both gender and age – but these by their nature are less public.

Perhaps the greatest example of all is the Lerwick Up-Helly-Aa, Shetland’s most famous cultural festival.  Women are prohibited from taking part in the prestigious Jarl Squads which lead the procession, ceremonially burn the Viking longship and tour across Shetland.  Their role is instead confined to catering.  The satirical website Da Bonxie recently mocked this, stating:

  1.  Up Helly-Aa is the perfect time to reflect on your failed marriage or relationship and use the opportunity to freely cheat on your partner.
     Lerwick Up Helly-Aa famously bans women from being in squads, so your indiscretions can be completely secret! Better yet, most Shetland women know it’s going on but no-one seems to care! It’s amazing!.
  2.  Up Helly-Aa is a truly special night for women. Not only do they get to let their husbands off the hook as we noted above, they also get to do housework in their glad rags!
    As women are banned from being in a squad, they attend one of 11 halls throughout the town. At these halls, they’re expected to clean, serve, cook, and help men cheat on their wives. Sounds great? Well get doubly excited ladies – you get to do all of this in your best dress and high heels! Incredible!

The Lerwick Up-Helly-Aa is allowed to be discriminatory in this way because, as a private club, it is not bound by equalities legislation.  The issue is becoming a matter of increasing discussion, with a recent (admittedly poorly-attended) Althing debate ending with a vote in favour of gender equality.  More promisingly, the country Up-Helly-Aa festivals allow women to take part, with the South Mainland Up-Helly-Aa even seeing its first female Guizer Jarl in 2015.  Yet, with Lerwick’s Up-Helly-Aa continuing to be the largest of the festivals and possessing the most status, there is still a long way to go for gender equality.  This is not so simple as a misogynistic elite preventing progress, either – there is significant support among the public for maintaining the traditions, as evidenced by this Facebook comment thread.

There are no doubt other areas in Shetland life where gender inequality is also prevalent.  However, I do need to stress that, in spite of this indisputable male-domination of the public sphere, as a whole I do not think Shetland society is significantly more patriarchal than the rest of Scotland or Britain.  Women are as active in the workforce as anywhere else, play key roles in Shetland’s cultural scene, such as in music and literature, are reasonably well-represented in professions including teaching and healthcare, and social attitudes are not generally different to elsewhere.  This makes the male hegemony of several public institutions all the more perplexing, but perhaps also suggests change would not be too difficult to achieve.

Having illustrated the problem, at some point I will probably write a follow-up post in which I try to explain the reasons behind this.  I’ve recently discovered a book called Myth and Materiality in a Woman’s World: Shetland 1800-2000 by Lynn Abrams, the former Professor of Gender History at the University of Glasgow, which looks like a fascinating read I hope will broaden my understanding of gender relations in Shetland.

If you’re reading this and you have any ideas/comments relating to what I’ve written about, I’d be very eagar to hear them!

The State of Scottish Parties

Scotland’s decision to vote No in the independence referendum will have fundamental consequences regarding it’s relationship with the rest of the UK, but it will also prove to have far-reaching implications for politics at home.  Here are some of my predictions for how Scotland’s five major represented parties, significant  but largely unrepresented (the SSP) and others (UKIP) will fare over the next couple of years:

The Scottish National Party
In pure electoral terms, the SNP may end up becoming one of the big winners in the post-referendum fallout.  This may seem surprising given that they lost the referendum, however it’s important to remember how close the result ended up being.  Including nonvoters, around 38% of Scots voted for independence, far more than the 22.7% who voted for the SNP in 2011.  This extra 15% of Scottish voters who support independence must have come from somewhere.  Granted many will have been members of the other pro-independence parties, the Greens and Scottish Socialists.  However others will have come from Labour and the Liberal Democrats, who saw perhaps as many as a third of their former voters support independence.  I’m not suggesting these people will convert en-masse to the SNP but if they’re willing to go against their parties on such an important issue as this, it’s very likely they may be swayed to go against them again in 2016 and vote for the SNP.  Meanwhile a substantial portion of these Yes voters most likely came from people who don’t normally vote, but who may be likely to SNP in future.   I also believe the SNP could get significant support from the 46.8% of Scots who voted ‘No’.  Now independence is off the table, many No voters who support more devolution may end up backing the SNP as a guarantee for extra powers, especially if the Westminster parties are seen to be reneging on their promises.

This isn’t just idle speculation; in the last 48 hours the SNP have reportedly gained almost 5,000 new members, an increase of approximately 20% bringing them up to 30,000 – far and away the largest political party in Scotland (Scottish Labour refuse to publish their membership numbers but they’ve been in decline since 1997 and probably number no more than 13,000 people – though they still somehow claim to be ‘Scotland’s Biggest Party’).  Such a surge in membership in so short a time is virtually unprecedented.  For these reasons, and in this context, I’ll be very surprised if the SNP don’t remain the largest party in the Scottish Parliament after the 2016 election.  Another downright majority may even be within their grasp if the situation south of the border is perceived to be particularly dire.

Labour
I could be wrong, but I think Scottish Labour is in trouble.  The party has been in decline throughout the last decade, losing seats in every election for the Scottish Parliament to date.  As mentioned earlier a third of Labour voters may have backed independence, who could end up drifting away from the party if the devolution settlement doesn’t go far enough.  The Yes vote was particularly high in Glasgow, Labour’s stronghold in the country – I’ve heard rumours that it touched 60% in Pollok, Johann Lamont’s own constituency (indeed, there have been opinion polls suggesting she might lose her own seat at the next election).  The poor performance of the No campaign will also undoubtedly have harmed Labour due to its overwhelmingly negative tone, while firmly creating the image of Labour as a party of the establishment.  If Labour wins the 2015 general election, manages to avoid any major controversy and is able to bring forth a truly inspiring programme of reform under Ed Miliband the party may earn a reprieve – though probably not enough to actually win the 2016 Scottish election.  Otherwise, if the party fails to deliver on its promises or if a potential Labour government at Westminster has a very bad year, then they’re finished in Scotland.

Conservatives
I don’t think the Conservatives’ electoral fortunes will change much following the referendum.  They’ve consistently won within 12-17% of the vote throughout the last decade, not moving greatly in either direction.  Given that an overwhelming majority of Conservative voters are thought to have voted No, there aren’t many grounds for defection in the immediate future, except perhaps to UKIP – though they’re unlikely to do well enough in Scotland for this to make a major difference.  The Conservatives will probably remain the third largest party in Scotland for some time, unless the Greens begin to do particularly well or the Liberal Democrats see a reprieve.

Green Party
The Greens could emerge from the referendum in a comparatively better state than even of the SNP.  Within the last 48 hours the party has gained an extra 2,000 members, more than doubling its membership count.  Even before this surge the party has consistently been polling at between 7-9%, up from 4.4% in 2011.  If this extra support lasts I could imagine the party easily reaching at least 10% of the vote in 2016.  The party is no doubt also benefiting enormously from the publicity boost it gained from the referendum, giving figures such as Patrick Harvie a much greater profile.  The future looks bright for the Greens.

Liberal Democrats
Like their compatriots across the UK, the Scottish Liberal Democrats are in a state of continual meltdown in Scotland since the Westminster party entered a coalition with the Conservatives four years ago.  At the 2011 election they lost 12 seats as their vote halved, while they’re now consistently polling even lower than they did back then.  I’m not sure they could possibly lose any more support even if the referendum had made a negative impact upon them.  Though I’m not sure it will really have made much difference.  The party – as in most current issues – has largely been ignored throughout the debate.  It was also the only unionist party calling for a full federal solution across the UK, and perhaps therefore the only party to recognise that the current system is broken.  Since the party has lacked a platform to get these ideas across I don’t know how much of a difference this will have made, but it certainly won’t have done any harm.  I expect the party to continue its position at around 5% in the polls, maybe climbing back up to the 7% or so they achieved in the last election by 2012, largely unaffected by the referendum.

The Scottish Socialist Party
As with the Greens, the referendum has proved to largely boost the profile of the SSP as one of the few parties to support independence.  Also like the Greens and SNP, the party is reporting a rise in members by around 600.  During the last year the SSP has risen to around 3% in the opinion polls – not a great position, for sure, but enough to potentially win a seat in Parliament.  The party lacks the base that the Greens and the SNP have – it’s only elected representative is one councillor in West Dunbartonshire – so there’s perhaps a risk that this boost could fizzle out, though the fact it’s had 600 members in the last couple of days suggest it is perceived as a genuine option for voters.  Winning a seat or two is definitely a possibility for 2016.

UKIP
I don’t expect UKIP to see its electoral fortunes changed much except to have become even more unelectable among the 45% of Scots who voted for independence (though I can’t imagine such an English/British nationalist party ever gaining any traction to anyone who’d consider independence in the first place).  It’ll continue gaining votes from the small section of Scottish society it appeals to, which may be enough to win a few seats in Parliament, while remaining incredibly toxic to the 90+% of the rest of the population.  UKIP is currently polling between 4% and 7% but it wouldn’t surprise me if this decreased by 2016 as the Greens and SSP become more attractive protest options.

For updates on polling in Scotland, which may or may not shift dramatically after the election, keep an eye on my election blog, The Election Stalker!

Why I’m Voting Yes to Scottish Independence

This has been a long campaign.  Three years ago, when plans for an independence referendum for Scotland were first being drawn up, my instinctual response was hostility.  I viewed myself as being British and didn’t see the point in becoming independent.  As the campaigns properly began I found myself veering away from a clear ‘No’ position to becoming much more undecided until, about a year ago, I realised I had ended up broadly supporting the idea of independence, though still not feeling that strongly about it.  In the last couple of months – like most people in Scotland, I would imagine – my feelings have strengthened, and I have few doubts at all that I intend to vote ‘Yes’ on September 18th.  Yet I do sometimes still ask myself: why exactly do I plan to do this?  It isn’t a question I can have a simple answer to as there are many reasons, which I hope to detail here.  But first, just to clear up any confusion, I think it’s helpful if I list the reasons that aren’t drawing me towards a ‘Yes’ vote:

  • Nationalism.  A few times when I’ve told someone I plan to vote ‘Yes’, they’ve responded along the lines of “Oh no, you’re a nationalist!”  To which I’ve had to reply “But I’m not a nationalist!”  I mean, I love Scotland and I’m very proud of it – it’s my home – and I have no plans to emigrate elsewhere, but I don’t see it as being superior to any other country.  The things I love most about Scotland – its tolerance, democratic institutions, culture and beauty – aren’t unique to this one country, and can be said to be largely circumstantial; in fact, much of our democratic institutions in particular came from the Union.  If anything, I’m an internationalist; I believe in creating international bonds and cooperation with the rest of the world.  As I’ll explain a bit later, this isn’t incompatible with support for independence, but actually can go hand-in-hand with it.
  • Anglophobia.  This hopefully goes without saying.  If we’re looking at ethnicity I’m three-quarters English, having had three English grandparents, while my mother herself is English.  The other quarter comes from Shetland, which probably has the least ‘Scottish’ background in the whole country.  Wanting to end a political union with England (alongside Wales and Northern Ireland) doesn’t mean I want to break the cultural and economic unions which benefit us all; on the contrary, I hope these can be strengthened following independence.
  • Alex Salmond.  Hopefully also goes without saying.  I’m not a member of the SNP and, although I like him more than many of our political leaders (not difficult to achieve) I wouldn’t want to see him continue as First Minister following independence.  I think it’s regrettable that we’re not seeing any prominent debates featuring other voices for independence, instead of simply Alex Salmond’s party-political SNP view.

Now that’s all cleared up, I’ll launch into the main reasons that are causing me to support a ‘Yes’ vote:

  • Democracy.  This is the standard one you hear, but it’s so important.  Essentially, I want Scotland to both get the government it votes for and have a national parliament that represents its views.  During the last fifty years Scotland has consistently voted Labour at the ballot box, yet has been encumbered with Conservative governments for over half this time, forcing disastrous decisions upon Scotland which our population have rejected.  The most recent examples are the ‘Bedroom Tax’ and privatising the Royal Mail, both of which Scottish MPs voted against but we’ve had to endure anyway.  We’re powerless to change the government if we disagree with its policies; the only time our vote made a difference was in 2010, and that merely caused what would have been a Conservative majority to require a coalition partner that would essentially rubber-stamp many of its policies anyway.  There’s been an undeniable political shift between Scotland and the rest of the UK during the last few decades.  Current polling suggests that the Conservatives and UKIP combined could get close to receiving over 50% of the vote nationally, yet linger at 25% in Scotland, where centre-left parties tend to dominate.  Why should we have to put up with governments making decisions for us we didn’t vote for?

    -I’ll admit, there are decent counterarguments to this.  The first is that in a democracy we should accept the will of the electorate and not ‘throw out toys out of the pram’ when we lose an election.  I think this argument comes down to a fundamental difference of opinion towards Scotland’s position in the Union.  As I see it, Scotland’s participation in the Union has only ever been voluntary from the beginning, and we’ve never had any reason to remain within it other than the fact we benefit from it.  And make no mistake, Scotland has benefited from the Union immensely.  But it’s my belief that, as a result of this divergence in political viewpoints, since around the 1970s the Union has no longer been of benefit to Scotland, instead holding it back from taking the more social-democratic path its electorate have been clamouring for.The other argument goes that, with a strong Scottish Parliament within the UK, we can have the ‘best of both worlds’ that helps fix the democratic deficit Scotland faces.  This is also a good case, but I’m not convinced this vision could truly become reality.Almost 70% of Scots want more powers for the Parliament, and I’m certainly one of them, but I have my doubts that we’ll see any significant powers devolved in the event of a No vote.  None of the major parties’ promises would go as far as fully devolving tax and welfare to the Scottish Parliament, and they’re not even bound to the promises they’ve already made (though I expect there’ll be at least some limited further devolution – it would be utter stupidity to renege on these promises altogether).  Another factor is that Scotland never gets the opportunity to vote for these different visions of devolution, since only the Westminster government can devolve these powers and, as we’ve already established, the Scottish vote makes little difference to which party gets to form a government.  Only a ‘Yes’ vote can guarantee Scotland gets the powers that its population desires.
  • Scotland’s Electoral System.  This may seem like a minor point, so it’s possibly surprising that this is one of my main reasons for voting ‘Yes’.  I’ve become so irritated by the two-party politics that have emerged in Westminster as a result of its First-Past-The-Post electoral system, where two increasingly identical parties seek to claim the centre ground and genuine opposition parties on both the left and right have no chance to win many seats.  Polls show 30% of the electorate will reject both the Conservatives and Labour, yet these other parties are unlikely to win more than around 7% of the seats.  This system stifles true political debate.  Scotland, in contrast, has a semi-proportional system which allows smaller parties to gain the representation they deserve.  Currently only the Scottish Green Party are represented, but in the past we’ve seen MSPs from the Scottish Socialist Party and even the Scottish Senior Citizen’s Party.  To be clear, this isn’t because Scotland is more progressive than the rest of the UK – we rejected electoral reform of Westminster alongside the rest of the country in 2011 – but the fact is, Westminster is unlikely to change anytime soon, whereas Scotland, for whatever the reason, has a working system now that will carry over into independence.  Simply put, I want my national parliament to represent all views, not just those of the two very similar parties.
  • Europe. As someone who is generally in favour of the European Union, I believe independence is the best route of safeguarding our membership.  The ‘No’ campaign have argued that independence may require years of delay as we have to seek membership all over again and, although I doubt it will truly be this difficult, I can’t deny that is a possibility.  But the point is, this would only ever be a short-term difficulty.  The political will exists in both Scotland and the EU for us to become a member – no fewer than 86% of MSPs are from a party with pro-EU policies, while even against the UKIP surge 70% of Scots voted for pro-EU parties in the European Parliament election.  With this political will, whatever the procedure, Scotland will end up joining the EU eventually.  The real, long-term threat to Scottish membership comes from a Westminster that more and more is pandering to the UKIP agenda, where an in-out referendum in 2017 is a very real prospect.  This is another instance of Scotland’s priorities diverging from the rest of the country; only 40% of the rest of the UK voted for pro-EU parties, and UKIP came first place in the last election compared to only fourth in Scotland.  This is backed by polls – only 29% of Scots support leaving the EU (with undecideds removed), compared to anywhere between 45% and 55% in the rest of the country.  What if, in a potential referendum, Scotland votes to stay in the EU but is dragged out by voters in the rest of the country?  This is why I believe independence is essential to safeguarding our place in Europe.
  • Immigration.  This is another issue where I believe Westminster’s policies shame us all.  A further part of this pandering to the UKIP agenda I mentioned earlier is an almost unanimous agreement that immigration is a Bad Thing.  The major parties are tripping over one another in announcing ever more harsh and discriminatory policies against immigrants; only the Liberal Democrats and the Greens advocate treating migrants with respect and protecting their human rights, but we’ve already established that the UK’s electoral system pushes these voices to the sidelines.  In Scotland, however, we have a government that appreciates the benefits immigrants bring to a country – not only through the incalculable cultural benefit of multiculturalism, but also in simple economic terms, even creating jobs in the long term.  Granted, Scotland’s greater ageing population and sparse population gives it a greater need for immigrants than the rest of the UK, but even so there is little ground to oppose immigration in principle – and thankfully we have a government that recognises this.  It’s my hope that an independent Scotland would introduce much more humane immigration policies.
  • Welfare.  People on benefits are perhaps the only group of people demonised more by the British press and politicians than immigrants.  Sure,there are problems with Britain’s current welfare system – anyone can see that.  It’s needlessly complicated and bureaucratic, for the large part.  Unfortunately, the current British government’s reform policies are doing little to help the problems.  Backed by the right-wing press, Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith’s policies seem intent upon labelling people in need of welfare as ‘benefit scroungers’, tarring everyone with the same brush and cracking down on everyone’s benefits to target the minority who abuse the system.  The government propagates the myth than people on benefits could support themselves if they just found work and became less ‘feckless’, when in some parts of the country there just aren’t enough jobs to be found, while also failing to recognise that structural poverty is much more complex than simply being unable to find a job.  We need a system that does recognise this and makes real efforts to lift people out of poverty.  Sure, there is no guarantee that Scotland would establish such a system, but from reading the Scottish Government’s White Paper on Independence this seems to be the direction they have in mind.  A small point, but I was heartened to hear Alex Salmond refer to the issue as ‘social security’ in a recent debate – a phrase I doubt Iain Duncan Smith has uttered in his life.
  • Nuclear Weapons.  A fairly simple reason: Scotland is encumbered with Europe’s largest stockpile of weapons of mass destruction, a matter of miles from its most populated city, against the wishes of its people.  Polls show a clear majority of Scots oppose Trident nuclear missiles, while our democratically-elected Parliament has consistently voted against Trident.  Yet we continue to have these weapons we don’t want forced on our territory by successive British governments.  Even if you’re in favour of nuclear weapons, you ought to recognise that given this strength of opinion they should not be based within Scotland.  Only a ‘Yes’ vote can rid Scotland of these weapons – even the Scottish Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament recognises this, and is actively campaigning for a ‘Yes’ vote because of this.
  • Republicanism.  Okay, this is a very minor point, but worth mentioning anyway.  For those of us who would prefer to see a democratically-elected head of state rather than one born into the job, Scottish independence provides an opportunity to see this reform happen later down the line.  The Scottish government’s plans would keep the Queen as head of state, but I believe there is more likely to be a referendum in an independent Scotland than as part of the UK.  True, 60% of Scots support the monarchy (with undecideds removed), but this could easily shift in favour of republicanism, particularly if we end up with an unpopular monarch further down the line.  This is much lower support than in the rest of the country, where only 15% believe Britain should become a republic when the Queen dies or abdicates.  That said, if you do support the monarchy this isn’t a reason to vote No; there are no immediate plans for Scotland to transition to a republic – this would require a further referendum where arguments from both sides can be given due consideration.  The point is, this is another instance where Scotland can become more democratic if independent, being able to decide for ourselves whether we wish to keep a monarchical head of state or not.

There are other smaller reasons I’m planning to vote ‘Yes’, but these are the main ones. Are you able to vote in the referendum?  Let me know which reasons are causing you to lean one way or the other!  Or if you live outside of Scotland, what do you think about the whole debate?

Also, here’s a poll, just for funsies.

2014 England Local Elections Result

I’m incredibly late with this but I still want an excuse to put these results onto a table so here’s a short blog.  The local elections in England have since been massively overshadowed by the European Election results, but they can still give an insight into public mood at present.  The results were as follows:
[PNS = Projected National share]

2014 England Local Elections

As only a portion of councils are up for election (or a third of the council in some cases), these elections only elected 20.7% of councillors in the UK.  The overall composition is now:

Conservative: 8,300 seats (40.4%)
Labour: 7,147 seats (34.6%)
Lib Dem: 2,257 seats (11.0
%)
UKIP: 370 seats (1.8%)
Green: 170 seats (0.8%)
Others: 2321 seats (11.3%)
(Source: http://www.gwydir.demon.co.uk/uklocalgov/makeup.htm)

Essentially, another standard victory for opposition parties at the expense of governing parties, like you normally see in local elections.  Of all opposition parties Labour have made the most gains, winning far more councils and councillors than the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats.  However, the projected national share (a figure which suggests what the result would be were the election held nationally – if you know how it’s calculated I’d love to know!) will be a cause for concern for Labour.  With the general election less than a year away, they should be doing much better than 2% ahead of the Conservatives if they want to win an outright majority.  You can’t, of course, read too much into these voting figures, since in local elections people vote for entirely different reasons – or not at all – but it’s important in terms of morale.  These aren’t great results for the Conservatives but I imagine they can live with them, achieving a close second in PNS.  As ever, the Liberal Democrats have taken the greatest brunt of the anti-government vote, losing almost half their councillors in the wards up for election.  Yet the beleaguered party has managed to hold on to six of their eight councils, suggesting that in its strongholds, which may prove crucial next year, the party is holding onto support.  A good night for UKIP, of course, boosting their councillor count by 8,150% – a staggering figure.  But I continue to argue that UKIP’s result needs to be seen in context; their PNS is only 17%, down from around 23% last year, and they continue to suffer from the First Past the Post electoral system used in local elections.  Given UKIP achieved 27% in the European election held on the same day, this could indicate the party still lacks credibility on important local issues.  Finally, the Greens have managed to build on their previous result for something like the tenth year running, but continues to grow at a painfully slow pace.

Local elections are not the best barometer for how the country may vote next year, not least because of the unrepresentative sample they represent (in a close election the Scottish and Welsh vote could very possibly swing it in favour of Labour), but I think it does show how tight the next election could be.  The two major parties only achieved 60% between them, only slightly below where the parties combined polling figures currently lie.  That’s plenty of space for parties like UKIP, the Greens and what’s left of the Liberal Democrats to fill.  The most likely outcome remains another hung parliament.