The Scottish independence referendum was about different things to different people, but a common theme was the hope of finding better ways of doing things: ways of tackling poverty and inequality; ways of moving government closer to communities, of making democracy more responsive; ways of encouraging an economy to thrive.
For many people who are disillusioned by the remote and alien workings of Westminster the primary reason for voting Yes was a belief that making these kinds of changes would only be possible in an independent Scotland.
As someone who’s an advocate of radical reform, but voted No in the referendum, I have been challenged to explain how we can make such changes from within the UK given the right-of-centre political climate south of the border in which the dreary weather of austerity and blaming the woes of the world on Europe seem to prevail.
It doesn’t matter much where we are, UK or independent Scotland, when it comes to the question of how to make radical reforms happen there are no easy answers, but let’s start with the experience of the Yes movement itself and see what we can learn.
What began as an official campaign led by established political operators quickly turned into a blossoming of political engagement the likes of which Scotland hasn’t seen in my lifetime. For every official meeting and press release there were thousands of self-directed conversations and social media posts in which every aspect of independence, the union, and how they affect our lives was researched, dissected and debated.
The numbers are striking: 97% of those eligible registered to vote in the referendum; 82% (of those eligible) cast their vote. Compare that to the 2010 UK and 2011 Scottish general elections where only 57% and 46% (of those eligible) took the opportunity to participate.
The difference in the level of engagement can, I think, be accounted for by the simplicity of the proposition. The question – “Should Scotland be an independent country?” – allowed everyone in. Each of us was able to bring our personal collection of important issues and pet policies to the debate and imagine how they could be resolved and implemented in an independent Scotland.
Contrast this with a general election where unpopular political parties try to woo us with a hundred vague promises, most of which are of limited appeal and probably won’t be kept if those doing the promising are voted into government.
In the end the independence proposition failed to gain support from 63% of those eligible to vote, but the UK political establishment got the fright of its life and now recognises that the appetite for change runs right through the Yes vote and deep into the No side of the electoral calculus.
What form this change should take is less clear and is in danger of becoming lost in the murky world of party politics. If this is allowed to happen the energy and enthusiasm that has been inspired by the independence debate will soon revert to cynicism and apathy, which would be a tragedy.
A simple question with a “yes” or “no” answer prompted record numbers of Scots to participate in a democratic process. So what if we pose a different question, one that can capture the imagination of 70% or 80% or 90% of the population of the whole of the UK?
Can we form a simple proposition that offers something more directly empowering than rearranging our government; something in which everyone can see the possibility for positive change? I believe that we can.
What is the common obstacle that prevents us from making the world a better place? The answer is money. It’s the limiting factor for every government, every business, every organisation, every individual who tries to make a difference. There’s just never enough of it available to do what we need to do.
We argue endlessly over how the limited supply of money should be spent but never stop to consider the reasons behind the shortage. Our failure to investigate and understand how money works means we fail to see that the lack of money is caused by flaws in our financial system.
The nature of these flaws – the reasons behind the lack of money for government spending, business investment, or lifting people out of poverty – aren’t difficult to grasp. They’re partly technical and partly psychological. Once we understand these reasons it becomes easy to see how we could make money work properly for everyone all of the time.
Most people in the UK are burdened with repaying debt, and millions of us are locked into surviving on inadequate welfare payments. Just about everyone is imprisoned, in one way or another, by our financial system for big chunks of their lives. Our shared experience means that financial reform is the cause around which all of us can rally. This common aspiration – to make money work properly – can carry a thousand different ideas along with it, all of which can be realised within a reformed financial system.
Financial reform can eliminate poverty and unsustainable debt. It can create a truly free labour market in which we all have the power to choose how, when and under what circumstances we go to work. It can provide interest-free cashflow funding to government and business. It can create a stable banking system and remove our reliance on financial markets. It will allow us to replace “stupid” taxes (VAT, NICs, CT) with “smart” ones (land value tax, carbon tax). Most importantly it will allow productive people to be productive and our communities to thrive.
The challenge is to nail down the best way to make money work for us and then communicate how it can be done. Key to this is framing a question that requests a mandate for financial reform, the answer to which is an irresistible “Yes”.
If we get it right then all political parties will have to climb aboard or be left floundering in the wake of the same force that drove the Yes Scotland campaign: a mass of determined people pulling in the same direction. If we get it right all of the things that we hoped could be delivered by Scottish independence will be possible, along with a great many other things that currently appear to be unattainable because they’re “unaffordable”.
The shift of focus away from the long-held dream of an independent Scotland might be difficult for some, but we’re unlikely to get another independence referendum within the next decade. In the meantime Scotland’s Yes voters could lead the way, channelling their new-found political energy into radical financial reforms that could transform the lives of everyone across the UK.
Yes is powerful. Let’s use it.