Education

Scottish Independence Part 2: Interview With a Pro-Independence Teacher

After last week’s basic introduction to the rapidly-approaching Scottish independence referendum, I’d now like to offer the first of two posts to examine both sides of the issue from an educational viewpoint. I interviewed two high school teachers, one of whom will be voting Yes and one of whom will be voting No. I asked each of them the same four questions and I tried to ensure that these questions were as neutral as possible. I picked the order of publication via coin toss.

 

Today’s interview is with Peter Liddle, a computer teacher from a large high school on the outskirts of the city of Glasgow. Peter is in favour of Scottish independence and so will be voting “Yes”.

 

What is your opinion regarding Scottish independence and why do you hold it?

 I am voting yes. It took me two years to decide for definite that this would be my choice. I would still vote no, if there was a good reason to. I’d like to explain why I think there is not, and why I believe we must take the chance now.

It is a fact, rather than a worry or an open secret, that the UK political system do not want Scotland to become independent. The UK is not a neutral battleground, and this is to me understandable – the USA would not encourage secession. No state wants to lose assets, resources or people, or suffer turmoil. The UK government funds leaflets, websites, diplomatic work, meetings, papers, Treasury research and many other initiatives to encourage a no vote. It is the UK’s official position, spelled out clearly. I think it is important to realise this and acknowledge this before trying to explain why I disagree with staying in the Union – up till polling days things will not get clearer, because the UK’s rulers have their own agenda. Realising this was my first step towards voting yes.

Here are some of my favourite facts, all backed by government data, none of which are part of the UK marketing campaign. It took me two years to believe them, but I have read enough to know they are indeed true.

 1. Scotland is not subsidised. It has contributed more to the UK that it gets back for the last 33 years, in terms of tax per head. (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-26541575. – please note the headline though!)

2. Scotland has 25% of the EU (population 550 million) offshore renewable energy. (http://assets.wwf.org.uk/downloads/electricity_supply_web.pdf)

3. There is an estimated 1 trillion dollars of oil and gas left in the North Sea (http://www.scotland.gov.uk/News/Releases/2012/05/oil-and-gas29052012)

4. Scotland received a proportionally larger share of foreign direct investment and research and development investment than anywhere outside London in 2012. 11% and 18% respectively, despite having 8% of the population. (http://www.scotentblog.co.uk/2013/06/scotlands-continuing-inward-investment-success/)

5. Most polls show that a majority of voters favour independence if they were sure Scotland would benefit economically (the big unknown that we shall not know before the vote…) ( http://www.businessforscotland.co.uk/10-key-economic-facts-that-prove-scotland-will-be-a-wealthy-independent-nation/ )

Another was realising this: if you have any inkling that it might be a good idea, this might be your only chance to vote on it.

The Scottish referendum is happening through a strange twist of fate. The SNP government that have a majority in the Scottish Parliament may be unlikely to hold a majority again, due to the way seats are assigned in a list and constituency voting system. Tony Blair’s celebrated landslide UK (Westminster) Labour win in 1997 got 42.3% of all votes resulting in a majority of 103 MPs. The SNP managed 44.04% of the vote and this resulted in a majority of 9 MSPs. Westminster has almost six times the number of MPs, but you can see the balance of the Scottish system is finely tuned to prevent huge majorities and provide coalition governments.

The SNP majority arrived through a variety of events. The Labour vote was damaged by the Iraq war and the financial crash in 2007, but what I feel has eroded it over time is the understanding that Labour wanted to run Scotland like a council, not a country. It was to be trusted by some powers to allow it to shape its future in some ways, but not to use them in a way that might embarrass the UK party. Scottish Labour had real difficulty, as a regional satellite to the UK Labour party, of providing alternatives to UK policy. The only party that can function independently in this situation is the SNP. A large number of voters cottoned on to this fact and voted SNP. Many then voted Labour in the general election – there was an awakening that this wasn’t a conflict of interest, it was a canny recognition of what would help Scotland and the UK flourish. Areas of Scotland that had been Labour voting areas for half a century were suddenly awakening to alternatives.

Scottish voters seem to have validated decisions made by a minority SNP government between 2007 and 2011 by securing a historic victory for the SNP in 2011.In my mind, this was due to the SNP’s focus on outwardly progressive policies, like committing to free post-16 education, personal care or prescriptions. Cynics claim that such policies are simply carrots to get the public to turn away from Labour, but to me they are benchmarks of a decent society which are being left behind in the race to the bottom in the UK. The UK is amongst the wealthiest countries in the world but, unlike many leading economies, wishes to charge thousands of pounds per year in tuition fees for university. Scotland has bucked this trend and set an example to the rest of the UK. Maybe it is naive to think that taxes should fund university, but I would much rather argue that from the point of view of finding a better alternative than just not trying. Often, supporters of the UK parties will indicate that such forays into social spending are foolish and expensive, yet there are countless examples across richer and poorer countries of similar prioritisation.

This, to me, is the essence of the debate. We have already shown we can reshape the way we use public money, taking a different approach for the UK parliament. We are now in a position to defend that public good, only opting for an alternative if it is better. Why not extend that logic to the whole government? What benefit are we gaining from not doing this, and is there any positive impact on politics here by being reprinted in London as well as Edinburgh?

I think the UK system is outdated and bloated. It focuses heavily on the defence industry. It has an unelected chamber. It has been struck by a variety of scandals and abuses of power. It is not transparent enough. It make decisions that prioritise the booming South East, and the regions further from London feel isolated. I believe that serious reform is needed but it would require a revolution of thought: something that British people are not famed for. I think this is one reason why the Union has remained unchanged for so long – people do not like to doubt the intentions of those in power and want to trust them. The last ten years may have really changed that, but the system has not caught up.

 Is the broken system, a limp Labour party, and a few popular decisions regarding social policy reason to break up the UK? I think it is, at this time, simply because the UK is no longer a necessary construct – for Scotland, it serves no direct purpose outside of what the EU could do, apart from currency and defence. A wider, possibly more effective union is available within the EU, admittedly with its own problems, and may well suit Scotland better. Currency and defence are important but I see the future of a country aligned with the rest of Europe as more optimistic than one aligned with the UK. We are not just trying to break away from England, Wales and Northern Ireland: we are trying to join a bigger union, just as many other small nations have opted to do.

Simply put, would any other small nations opt to strongly bond with only their neighbouring countries, rather than embrace a bigger European union? So far it doesn’t appear so.

 I am not a proud nationalist. I love the BBC and many British things, and in many ways I would miss the shared identity of being a Brit: we have many shared victories, from the NHS to World Wars. But it isn’t about that. It is about the progressive choice at the place we find ourselves today.

 Many people, including David Cameron, have agreed that Scotland can manage as an independent state. There are huge worries and issues that will not be made clearer before the big day. My slow realisation that the answers wouldn’t all come, that we had been demonstrating desire for different policy, without Westminster influence, that we could opt to join what unions benefited us instead of our shared history, and that this probably won’t come along again, makes me think yes.

 

 

 As a teacher and given that 16 and 17 year olds will be able to vote , what have your experiences been with regards to discussion of the debate within your school? This can apply to both discussions with staff and with pupils.

 According to national policy, I haven’t discussed Independence with pupils. This can be very frustrating as comments between pupils go untested. I think schools have tried to deal with this through debates and meetings, and I think this is good. I have attended some events for pupils and found that most pupils were engaged with the debate. 

 I understand the need for the ban, but I also feel that pupils see the debate as unwanted. I believe this works in favour of the No side, simply because the status quo is less scary to young people. Some pupils have become politically aware through the referendum, which I think is great. I am sure, however, that the decision is daunting for many, and they will vote with their parents because of this. We must trust young people to find out, but given there is no history of voting at this age, we will need to see if we got the approach right to enable them to vote. It is a difficult decision and every voter, young and old, will be acting on partial information. I found that staff have avoided discussing the referendum because of the ban on talking to pupils. I have enjoyed discussions with colleagues when it has come up. I think staff discussions will grow as we approach the day of the referendum.

 

 

What message would you give to an undecided 16 year old Scottish school pupil?

 The advice I would give to a to a 16 year old pupil would be to realise that information is sparse, but to talk to as many people as they can. I would also want the to understand that the UK government has a No position and is using this to effect. 

 The main advice I would have for them would be to think about what they wanted the country to be like in the future, and to find out which parliament can make changes to what they are worried about. Talking is the key – there are legitimate reasons for both a yes and a no vote, but sadly a lot of hot air about the benefits of both sides. Talking and reading and debating are the best ways to nail down the truth, as best you can. So my advice would just be not to take anything for granted, and talk to people with different views.

 

 

What consequences would a Yes vote have for education in Scotland?

I am not sure what direct effect as Yes vote would have on Education. Education is devolved at the current time. Within the current devolution settlement, education has always been both a priority and strength. Scotland consistently outperforms other areas of the UK in international educational rankings. While this is not the most important thing in the world, it indicates that progress in Scotland remains strong, despite cuts to education budgets through difficult Local Authority budget cuts. Scotland’s Curriculum for Excellence is an attempt to provide an all-encompassing, deep but wide education to everyone between the ages of 3 and 18. It is extremely ambitious and, at times, poorly implemented, but I think the important think about it is that it’s supported by all Scottish political parties. The broad direction of education in Scotland is not a political pawn as it has been in England. Scotland does not suffer to the same extent from the encroaching private sector, or its simulations in the public sphere. I think this is down to the long-standing independence and universality of the Scottish system (dating back to the Education Act of 1918).

 I think the consequences of a Yes vote would be indirect but meaningful. I think they would parallel the small but significant effect of the Yes campaign in the last year. Education’s supporters have always been those that understand its value – writers, politicians, artists, business leaders. In the last year, as the positive case for self-governance has been made, I have listened to and witnessed cultural events based not on nationalism but on hope of what could be possible. As the Commonwealth Games rolled through town, many people delighted in the wealth of creative cultural events in Glasgow. This culture and drive for expression and creativity, I believe, would be further unleashed with a smaller, more direct form of government. What we want out of life determines what we want out of education. I believe that for many people, the old sunglasses are coming off and we’re seeing what could be a brighter version of our future. To paraphrase Alasdair Gray ( who was quoting Dennis Lee) “Learn as if you live in the early days of a better nation”.

 

 

So there we have it. At the end of the week I will post the same questions, this time being answered by a teacher who intends to vote “No”. I’ve asked Peter to hang around the comments section after this article goes up, so please feel free to post any comments or questions you may have. I’d welcome any UK readers who might be reading this to add their own views to the discussion, but I’d also be particularly interested to hear the views of those of you from elsewhere in the world.

 

Until next time!

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Alasdair

Alasdair

Alasdair is a high school English teacher in Scotland. He's a passionate skeptic and science fan, which is why he runs a discussion club for young skeptics in his school. He loves space and astronomy more than pretty much anything and is studying for a physics degree in his spare time in order to become qualified to teach science.

He lives with a cat made of distilled hatred and spikes.

3 Comments

  1. September 1, 2014 at 3:13 pm —

    Hi Peter and Alasdair. As an American with only a limited knowledge of the current political situation in the UK, and being a lot closer to the Quebecsituation, I have some probably pretty naive questions. Is there some motivation beside keeping Scotland as part of the tax base and having access to the offshore resources that the UK has to push the “no” vote? (Those are clearly major motivators by themselves no doubt.). Also, is this issue as contentious in Scotland as the Quebec one is in Canada?

  2. September 1, 2014 at 5:09 pm —

    Hey.

    I think many people on the No side genuinely feel Britain is a better structure to live in. The Yes side is hopelessly romantic in terms of what -could- happen, but the campaign to promote staying in the union is really, really weak. The No side has plenty of “what ifs” that are BAD but very few that are good.

    The cynics, though, will say yup, it’s oil and tax, it’s loss of revenue, and a re-evaluation of UK’s power base – we’re part of so many top-table organisations, and they won’t want to risk that.

    The issue is fairly new to most people. It’s been around for 300 years and there’s been a nationalist party for about 80, but the idea of inclusive, civic nationalism (pushing for a new country that can avoid the certainty of austerity and ultra-capitalism espoused in the UK parliament by all parties apart from the one Green MP) is what’s new and what works. In other words, it’s not an identity thing at all – it’s an escape vessel for people that see that the UK is in the grips of something unquantifiably sinister.

    Scotland was/is a country – so to me this is about using that singular, ancient fact, to further something modern, important and progressive.

  3. September 1, 2014 at 10:05 pm —

    I think (speaking as a non-native Quebecker, but one who has lived here for a long time) that there are a number of similarities, with two major differences.

    A lot of sovereigntists in QC make a similar argument to the one given above about the direction of the federal government over the last number of years, basically positing independence as an alternative to endless Harper-style Conservative governments. I think this is a short-sighted argument (at least in Canada), since this political balance is relatively new and results from a merger of parties on the political right into a unified bloc while the centre and left are more fragmented. In any case, this is likely not going to be a permanent situation, especially with the Orange wave, etc. One could argue (and I frequently do) that Quebec is a crucial to the confederation for this reason.

    As for differences, there is the language question. Scotland has minority languages within the UK but most Scots are native speakers of Scottish English and not Scots or Gaelic. An independent Scotland would almost certainly remain an English-speaking society, but I imagine it might encourage its historic minority languages. Let’s just say, Quebec is different on this count.

    There is also the EU, which would allow Scots to hold on to many rights that would otherwise make secession undesirable, such as right of abode in the rest of the former UK, right to work without special approval, free trade, etc. Many Quebec sovereigntists would like to see similar kind of deal with Canada (common currency, freedom of movement, etc) but there is no previously-existing framework to provide it and little incentive for the remaining provinces to offer it.

    I have a lot more I could say, but don’t want to distract from the main topic!

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