Saturday, 14 April 2012

Reclaiming the referendum

We need to recognise the "Scottish or British?" debate as the blind alley it is. Instead we should be articulating the Scotland we want to see, writes UNISON Scotland NEC member Gordon Mckay in the Morning Star on the day UNISON’s Scottish Council ran workshops on that very issue.

UNISON’s role in the constitutional convention that created devolution and the Scottish Parliament was significant. It is also significant that it was a Parliament that was created and not an ‘assembly’. A settlement where everything was devolved except for key reserved powers, rather than the other way around.

And UNISON’s longstanding position that this was a process rather than an event - supporting more powers for that Parliament - has led the debate in recent years. Subsidiarity is the key position. Decisions taken as close to the people as possible.

However, times have changed since UNISON’s original position was taken in the 1990s and it is right that the whole issue of the constitution is revisited. Revisited not on the basis of technical constitutional issues, but from a starting point of what kind of Scotland we’d like to see, moving back from that to what constitutional option is best placed to deliver it.

That agenda is being taken forward through discussions at UNISON’s Scottish Committee and today’s Scottish Council of over 250 branch delegates.

In today’s workshops, delegates from across Scotland were unanimous in a vision of a Scotland that brings equality, eradicates child poverty, invests in and values public services and drives forward social and economic policies for full employment – alongside a concept of building a fairer society through social dialogue and consensus.

The unity on those points was unquestioned. How we achieve that is the trickier question.

UNISONActive covered Richard Leonard’s view recently that “… the real division we are living with in these times, (is) not one between Scotland and England, but between an economy run in the interests of the rich and one that should and could be run for the common good.”

Gordon Mckay takes up that theme in his article today.

“When discussing the "national question" we would do well to ignore the appeals of nationalists, both Scottish and British, and concentrate on the fact that our concern is not with flags or anthems but with advancing the cause of working people”, writes Gordon.

“The nationalists on either side of the debate wish to reduce this to a question of identity, whether people should think of themselves as "Scottish" or "British."

“But for trade unionists it's not people's perceived identities that matter, it's their actual lives as working people.”

The consensus around today’s UNISON’s Scotland workshops was reflected in Gordon’s view that: “Scotland is a vision which is radically different from the privatised Britain of David Cameron - but is equally different from Scotland the corporate tax haven that Alex Salmond is trying to create.

“We should not be seeking constitutional change for its own sake, as something self-evidently good in itself (because it isn't). Neither should we adopt the blinkered Unionist "this far and no further" approach of the Tories and Lib Dems.

“Instead we should be looking to use the upcoming debates and referendum to put our issues on the agenda. Arguing for more powers for the Scottish Parliament not as some sort of abstract principle, but tied to plans to use them to create a Scotland more in line with our priorities” writes Gordon.

One of the key visions delegates voiced today was that of an open and inclusive Scotland. One that welcomed diversity, one that saw itself as force for peace internationally, one that shared the nation’s wealth equitably. Is independence the only way to achieve that?

Gordon argues not. “It should go without saying that anything that puts barriers between workers should be anathema to trade unionists, but it is a principle often ignored by those who are promising a land of Milk and MacHoney.

“If only we grasp the thistle and decide that our concern is with Dundee and that Durham is as foreign as Dubai - all will be well, so the rhetoric goes.

“Looking after ourselves and saying to hell with the rest isn't the principle that built the trade union movement and in the long run it will damage us all, north and south of the border…

“Instead we should be arguing for a better form of devolution than we have now, more powers over raising and spending money - but without neglecting the need to redistribute resources across Britain.”

UNISON Scotland has gone some way today to starting that debate in the union. There is a need to recognise that many of our activists and members are committed – for many and various reasons - to independence as a route to achieve our vision.

Others see that as a distraction from the real issues. For them the real division is between between rich and poor with the need to fight the inequality that transcends the regions and nations of the UK.

UNISON Scotland is right to try to foster a wider debate among its members and activists on those issues. It is right to shift the focus from the false idol of 'patriotism' and constitutional technicalities to what kind of Scotland we want to see, how we can achieve that and how we can focus on the real enemy.

Without that focus, any constitutional settlement from the status quo, to independence, to‘devo-max’ or even Calman will be nothing other than social and economic inequality wrapped up in a different, and perhaps more dangerous, parcel.

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