Paul Dodenhoff looks at the recent NO vote regarding Scotland and independence from the UK, and what it may mean for people with disabilities in Scotland.
Paul Dodenhoff is an independent researcher and writer. See 'bio' for contact details.
On the 18th September Scotland voted to stay part of the UK, after a two year campaign and debate over whether Scotland would be better staying part of the United Kingdom, or better off by leaving. While the result of the vote is currently being treated by the British media as 'conclusive' of Scotland's commitment to the UK, with opponents of independence winning 55 percent of the vote compared to 45% (from a record 85 percent turnout). 1.6 million Scots still voted for independence compared to 2 million votes against - a significant vote for independence by any standards.
Although the vote failed to back some opinion polls that forecast the referendum to be finely balanced on a 50/50 knife edge, the result sends a very clear message to Westminster. The message being, that nearly half of Scotland is unhappy with being governed by London.
So, what's the cause of Scottish discontent
In my last article for Disabled World, 'Why a Yes Vote for Scottish Independence is Important for Disabled Scots' (16 th September 2014), I argued that an independent Scotland might actually be a good thing for disabled people 'north' of the border. I am not Scottish and I do not live in Scotland, nor am I disabled. But I came to the conclusion that a 'Yes' vote was perhaps the best option for Scotland's disabled, by carefully considering all the facts and all the evidence that had been presented.
Clearly, there is a lot of discontent across all of the UK concerning recent Government welfare reform, particularly over 'benefits' associated with unemployment, housing and disability. However, it was my view that considering all of the three main parties within the UK (The Conservatives, Liberal Democrats and New Labor) are now seemingly underpinned by the same political ideology and economic policy, then as far as Scotland was concerned, an independent Scotland administrated by the Scottish National Party, offered the only viable alternative for its poor, it's disabled and it's disenfranchised.
At the very least, the SNP have a recent history of implementing positive social change, and have been publicly committed to halting the roll out of the UK's Government welfare reforms within Scotland - if Scotland had indeed voted for independence.
At the very heart of the referendum debate, the independence movement argue that Scotland should be able to choose its own leaders and make its own decisions rather than be governed primarily from London. Being governed by London effectively treats Scotland as a region within the UK rather than the nation it is, and gives Westminster sovereignty over Scottish territory and power over the Scottish people.
In September 1997, the Scottish devolution referendum was put to its electorate and secured a majority in favor of the establishment of a 'devolved' Scottish Parliament based in Edinburgh, a Parliament with tax-varying powers. Under the Scotland Act 1998 , the Scottish Parliament is able to pass laws on a range of issues including tax, but does not control defense or national security, nor foreign policy, immigration, employment legislation, social security, economic & monetary policy, energy, nuclear power, the railways or broadcasting. In effect, Scotland is governed by a Scottish parliament for a few issues, but by a UK Parliament for most.
One of the main areas of discontent for Scotland stems from the fact that while the Scots consistently vote against the Conservative party in UK General Elections, they have been governed by a Conservative Government for 38 out of the last 68 years. It is a governance where many believe to have driven an ever increasing divide between rich and poor on both sides of the border. It is also a governance that has had a dramatic impact upon the disabled within recent times, with welfare policy so draconian, that it would not be out of place within 17th or 18th century Britain.
An SNP led Scottish Parliament, has already managed to push through a number of key reforms that provide Scots with free prescriptions, free university tuition and free personal care for the elderly. It displays a political will for social justice, which is currently at odds with all three of the main political parties within the UK. While the three main political parties often talk about social change and equality, such talk fails to mix well with the economic policy they subscribe to, nor generates the action needed to erode inequality and injustice on both sides of the border.
If anybody wishes to argue otherwise, then please tell me what benefit the Conservatives, Lib-Dems and New Labor have been to the poor, the sick, the unemployed and the disabled within recent years? All have presided over a UK that has become increasing unequal and unjust, year upon year.
So, why did Scotland Vote No
With a few days to do before the referendum, a 'You Gov' opinion poll put the 'YES' vote at 51% and the 'NO' vote at 49%. In the final days of the campaign, all three major party leaders within the UK, clearly shocked by the closeness of the opinion polls, desperately fought to hang on to the 'Union'. Or to be more precise, desperately fought to hang onto Scotland's vast oil and gas reserves.
They did this by promising extensive new powers for the Scottish Parliament, including sovereignty over tax, spending and welfare services, in the hope of boosting support for the 'No' vote. Even before panic and desperation kicked in, there had been an aggressive anti-independence approach from Westminster, painting Scottish independence as a doom laded exercise, and one that would only bring 'ruin' upon the Scottish people.
Undoubtedly, there had also been a massive media campaign to back up the political rhetoric, with all sections of the media determinedly pushing a 'No' campaign. Much of which has been argued by the 'YES' campaign to be little more than 'scaremongering'.
Although an Englishman living in England, I am nonetheless a frequent traveler across the border into Scotland, and more than twelve months ago, even I picked up on a bias that the Scottish media itself seemed to be showing against Scottish independence. By the day of referendum vote, I had listened to or had read a huge number of debates and analyses of the arguments both for and against Scottish independence - and very rarely did I feel that the argument(s) for Scottish independence were ever presented in a totally objective manner.
I am not the only person to think so. Here is a report from The Guardian newspaper (16th September 2014) poetically entitled 'How the media shafted the people of Scotland': "Perhaps the most arresting fact about the Scottish referendum is this: that there is no newspaper - local, regional or national, English or Scottish - that supports independence except the Sunday Herald. The Scots who will vote yes have been almost without representation in the media".
However, not only where the ordinary Scottish public left without mainstream media representation on 'independence', but faced a united media machine that was also overtly hostile towards Scottish independence and its supporters. Below are a few more quotes from the same article: 'Here is the condescension with which the dominant classes have always treated those they regard as inferior: their serfs, the poor, the Irish, Africans, anyone with whom they disagree. "What spoiled, selfish, childlike fools those Scots are ... They simply don't have a clue how lucky they are," sneered Melanie Reid in the Times. Here is the chronic inability to distinguish between a cause and a person: the referendum is widely portrayed as a vote about Alex Salmond, who is then monstered beyond recognition (a Telegraph editorial compared him to Robert Mugabe)' 'The problem with the media is exemplified by Dominic Lawson's column for the Daily Mail last week. He began with Scotland, comparing the "threat" of independence with that presented by Hitler (the article was helpfully illustrated with a picture of the Fuhrer' 'In June the BBC's economics editor, Robert Peston, complained that BBC news "is completely obsessed by the agenda set by newspapers ... If we think the Mail and Telegraph will lead with this, we should. It's part of the culture." This might help to explain why the BBC has attracted so many complaints of bias in favor of the no campaign.'
It is still early days yet for a complete and in-depth analyze of the referendum result, and there may turn out to be many reasons why 2 million Scots ultimately decided to opt for the 'status quo'. However, one must consider how media bias may have influenced the independence vote, and what this now means for Scotland's disabled, and for democracy itself within Britain.
Possible media bias
The prospect of breaking up the world's sixth-largest economy and a permanent member of the UN Security Council, prompted a media response that indeed rightly questioned what would be left for Scotland if it actually voted for independence. However, in my opinion it also often failed to give the other side of the argument, and failed to touch on what it would also mean for England, Wales and Northern Ireland, particularly by losing Scotland's substantial tax revenues worth billions of pounds every year.
Instead, the national press and television seemed to quickly close ranks with British politicians, the banks and the business world, to loudly warn the Scots only of economic hardship if they voted for independence. To warn of border patrols & border guards, of the Scots losing the 'pound', of losing their pensions, of huge job losses in Scottish industry, of defense insecurity, food price hikes, higher taxes, a weakened NHS and a lack of business investment - should the Scots decide to go it alone. Rather heavy and frightening stuff, and which seemed to voice the opinions of only those with an agenda of self-interest.
However, European leaders also warned that Scotland would be worse off after independence, and that it may even have to get to the back of the queue in order to re-join the EU. Spain had been especially critical of Scottish independence, perhaps in fear that it could further inspire Basque separatists within Spain itself. Even US President Barack Obama made it very clear that the United Kingdom 'needed' to stay together. All of this reflected day after day in the press, and by all the major TV and radio news channels. And often without anybody exploring the motives behind such hostility.
In June 2014, Professor John Robertson, a media politics professor at the University of the West of Scotland, released a report claiming that Scottish news broadcasts did indeed lean more favorably towards the 'No' campaign on Scottish independence. Professor Robertson also complained that after his report became public, it was not only suppressed by most of the mainstream media, but that he was also harassed by the BBC, a claim which they have denied.
Whether media bias over Scottish independence actually existed, or had any influence on the referendum result, will now be the subject of heated debate for many years to come. However, what is certain, is that a number of trends can already be picked up from the way the Scots voted on the 18th September. The BBC reported on 19th September 2014: Professor of politics at Edinburgh University, Charlie Jeffrey, said party loyalties did not seem to have mattered in the referendum vote. He said: "We have seen results in Labor strongholds like Glasgow and North Lanarkshire where there has been a 'Yes' vote, and in SNP strongholds like Angus and Perthshire there has been a 'No' vote. "What we have found is a very strong correlation between the Yes vote and a higher level of unemployment. Some 109,533 youngsters aged 16 to 17 registered to vote after being given the chance to do so for the first time. A snap poll by Lord Ashcroft asking voters how they had cast their ballots found this age group had voted overwhelmingly for independence, with 71% for Yes. However among the wider 16-24-year-old age group the Yes vote was 51%, according to the poll . At the other end of the demographic spectrum is Scotland's rising older population. The proportion of people aged 65-plus now stands at 16.8%, slightly more than the proportion of under 16-year-olds. Unsurprisingly, the issue of pensions consistently registered as one of the key issues in the independence debate. Those areas with a relatively older population are the places where "No" did well. The Lord Ashcroft overnight poll of 2,047 voters found that 73% over 65s chose No.
Even before the vote, a poll for The Guardian (13th September 2014) indicated that the reasons of opposing independence often focused on fears over public services and pensions (37%), fears about personal prospects (33%) and concerns about prosperity (25%). This poll indicated that while most age groups were pretty much equally divided on independence at that point, the aged 65 and overs, clearly supported a 'No' vote by 61% to 39%.
Therefore, while we may have the disenfranchised such as the unemployed perhaps voting for independence, we may also have a very clear split between young and old. Arguably, the young may have had access to alternative news media and opinions via the internet and perhaps had managed to hear alternative arguments about independence. Whereas, the over 65's may indeed have had concerns over pension provision and social services after independence, concerns which were hyped up to the hilt by mainstream media on both sides of the border.
However, most of these concerns had been addressed by the SNP at some point beforehand, but were often not articulated to the British public by any of its mainstream media, in any objective shape or form.
The consequences of saying 'No'
The referendum result while disappointing for many Scots, will still most likely result in a huge upheaval within British politics both north and south of the border. The UK Government are now committed to offering new powers to Scotland's Parliament, a move that may also have a knock on effect on all nations that make up the UK. It may also lead to 'devolution' for many regions within England itself, with each area having more power and control over its own affairs and finances. It may also lead to 'English votes on English issues', meaning that Westminster MP's selected by Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland may not get to vote on 'English' matters within the UK Parliament. A move that will dramatically undermine the effectiveness of a future Labor Party Government to introduce policy, particularly if it doesn't win a substantial majority at the polls. If a future Labor Government does try to implement any kind of 'real' or 'positive' change for disabled people on this side of the border, then it may not even have the power to get those bills passed through Parliament.
What the referendum result actually means for disabled Scots themselves is still too early to call. However, it would seem unlikely that a Scottish Parliament led by the SNP, would now have any real power to reverse the austerity measures imposed upon its disabled - nor bring in the measures it originally wanted to bring in. While Scottish independence undoubtedly carried with it some kind of risk, any risk to its disabled by keeping the 'status quo' may be much greater. While the SNP currently hold a majority in the Scottish Parliament, this may not always be the case in the future, and policy on Scottish affairs may be very much dependent upon what Labor wishes to happen.
The Labor party have recently come out and stated that a future Labor Government would scrap the dreaded 'bedroom' tax - but would not reverse other welfare cuts introduced by the present Coalition Government. The 'bedroom' tax itself had come under particular UN scrutiny for being especially detrimental to the disabled, and may even be in violation of human rights treaties. So, no wonder Labor have suddenly decided to ditch it.
However, by committing themselves to the 'austerity' measures currently in place, they are also pretty much guaranteeing the 'status quo' for Britain's disabled. It is a 'status quo' which will undoubtedly not improve the lives of those who live within poverty, but also condones the harassment and bullying of the disabled over 'capability' to work.
We may need to remind ourselves that many sick and disabled people have actually died after being forced off 'welfare', and with many more actually committing suicide over the fear and stress of going through the 'reassessment' processes put in place by the current Government. By adhering to 'austerity' come what may, this is a firm indication that the main opposition party within the UK may now only be a slightly 'softer' brand of Conservatism, pretty much influenced by the same underlying political philosophy.
It's a softer brand of Conservatism that also gives very little choice for the electorate on voting day, as it is aimed solely at capturing wavering Conservative voters, while depending upon the good will of its 'traditional' vote to turn out in force. However, wouldn't it make more sense to try and capture the third or more of the British electorate who often refuse to vote in any election - and primarily because they feel they have nobody to vote for? Either that or campaign for another box to be put on the ballot paper - so we may cast a vote for 'none of the above'.
Democracy and the Right to vote
Many Brits arguably confuse 'the right to vote' with 'democracy'. However, most countries around the world have the right to vote, including Iran, Syria and North Korea, and we would not consider them to be democratic countries. Therefore, having the right to vote is not an indication of democracy by itself. There is no point pretending we have a true democracy within Britain, if all of our main political parties have pretty much the same social and economic policies as each other. All we are doing at election time, is agreeing to and upholding the same old social order.
Similarly, we do not have a 'free' press within Britain if our newspapers are not objective, and subscribe primarily to scaremongering and bullying, in order to advance the self-interests of their proprietor. Most people buy a newspaper or watch TV news to be informed, if the information that is generated by this media is intentionally or unintentionally biased and unreliable, then all we have is a British media that spouts little more than propaganda.
I have raised my concerns about the behavior of Britain's media before, particularly in its role of portraying the unemployed and the disabled within the UK as workshy and as frauds. We cannot afford as a civilized society, to have a media that is not 'free', but owned by the rich and the wealthy, if the rich and the wealthy abuse that privilege by promoting a vision of the UK, that is totally out of sync with reality.
The 'No' vote for Scottish independence, not only highlighted the culpability of the three main British parties to work together when it suits them, but the weight of a combined media machine that tried to completely steamroller over the 'Yes' campaign. A media machine that arguably also tries to steamroller over any campaign that promotes equality, fairness and justice within the UK.
Hopefully, the young people of Britain may at least have noticed this now, and will be much better informed of political issues at home and aboard in the future, using social media and the internet to keep them fully informed of issues that affect them the most. Therefore any hope of producing a just, equal and democratic society will very much depend on our 16 - 18 year olds, and not the boring old farts like myself who are often bamboozled and frightened into accepting the 'status quo' by the UK's 'free' press.