I went to church last night but I was among the converted they were preaching to, which was a novel experience for me. Canon Peter McBride of St Thomas church in Riddrie had organised a debate on the referendum, which was originally going to be held in the church hall, but a double booking meant a change of venue to St Bernadette’s church hall in Carntyne. Despite the late change of venue, there was still a good turnout – around 100 people attended, so many that the wee church hall wasn’t able to hold everyone and the event was moved into the church itself so there would be seats, or rather pews, for everyone.
However the debate turned out not to be a debate because Better Together or whatever they’re called didn’t manage to provide any speakers, although a number of requests had been made to them. Now there’s a surprise, they’re normally so keen on public engagement what with them being romping home in the polls and have supporters and donations coming out their ears.
But we must demonstrate some Christian charity, what with this being a church and everything, and assume that it’s not a deliberate strategy to keep people disengaged from the referendum debate, but their poor ears were so full of supporters and donations that they were unable to hear the polite request for some speakers for a debate. “What was that? You want streaker’s furry deer bait Father? Can priests ask for that? I’m sorry I can’t quite make you out, I’ve got a Tory business donor trying to privatise my cochlea.” So the good Father got slung a deafie. He’s clearly an SNP front organisation.
So we didn’t get a debate, and perhaps it was all the better for that. Free from the need to spend most of their time rebutting people who only want to talk mince about the currency (we’re going to keep using the pound, in case you were wondering) the speakers were able to expand upon more profound reasons for independence and what Scotland can achieve by taking her future into her own hands. For once we did not get bogged down in the trivial mechanics of the process of becoming independent.
There were three excellent speakers, the Scottish Government’s Health Secretary Alex Neil, Jeane Freeman, former advisor to Jack McConnell and founder member of Women for Independence, and the veteran Jim Sillars. All three spoke with passion and conviction about the kind of country that Scotland could become.
Alex Neil spoke about how we need independence in order to protect the health service from the creeping privatisation taking place south of the border. Even though Scotland’s health service is already fully devolved, the overall budget is still set by Westminster. It’s only with independence that Scotland can ensure that our health service is kept in public hands.
In an impressive speech, Jeane Freeman spoke about her journey to Yes from her traditional Labour background, and how over the course of her experience in politics she came to realise that devolution is not enough – Scotland requires the full powers of independence in order to develop into a mature and fully developed country. For Jeane, Scottish independence is the only way to fulfil the dreams and aspirations of the founders of the Labour movement, the people who first inspired her to get involved in politics.
But it was Jim Sillars I’d really come to hear. Jim has no need to go to Specsavers, he knows how to do the vision thing. Jim spoke about the oil. He mentioned the rumours of huge new discoveries off the west coast, and also explained how Westminster’s obsession with nuclear weapons led the MoD to ban oil exploration and development in the Firth of Clyde and the Atlantic approaches, despite significant oil resources lying under those waters. At the same time that Thatcher was taking an axe to the traditional industries of Scotland, her government actively blocked the development of a resource which could have led to a Clyde oil boom.
But then he pointed out that for decades, politics in Scotland has been reactive. We’ve devoted our energies and time to defending ourselves from the poll tax, from privatisations, against attempts to introduce fees in Scottish education, the bedroom tax and on and on in a litany of malign policies imposed on this country by governments we didn’t vote for or support. It’s only independence that can change that, and unleash those energies spent defensively to allow Scots can live in a country where we are no longer constantly fighting to maintain what we already have, but where we can take positive action to improve our lives and change things for the better.
Jim spoke of a Scotland of possibilities, a Scotland where working class people can have the audacity to dream bold dreams and seize the initiative. In passing he said that any independence negotiations must not be held in London, where the Scottish delegation could find its hotel rooms bugged by the intelligence services. We should insist that the negotiations are held in Edinburgh – that would really bug Westminster.
And he mentioned a mad off the wall and audacious idea, one which a friend had advised him not to bring up. The UK Government is currently building two massive aircraft carriers, even though they only expect to bring one into operational service – and that only after they’re able to find planes to put on it. The other was meant to be sold off on, but no one wants it. It’s a white elephant, a massive liability. Jim suggested that Scotland should do Westminster a favour and take it off their hands for them. It could become the flagship of the new Scottish navy, but not as an aircraft carrier bearing weapons of war and birds of destruction. Let’s convert it into a hospital ship, and send it to war zones and troubled regions around the world. With independence Scotland’s contribution to the wider world would no longer mean sending off our young men and women to fight and destroy, to kill and blow things up. Instead they would be healing the sick and caring for the wounded. It’s a vision of the kind of Scotland we can create.
Jim said the vessel should be named after that great Scottish humanitarian, Robert Burns. But that was the only point at which I disagreed with him. We should call it the Margo MacDonald.
But I’ll give the last word to Canon Peter McBride. In his closing words, he thanked the contributors, praised the audience for their polite and respectful reception of the speakers, and said that when considering how to vote in September we must not think solely of ourselves. It’s not about whether you personally will be £300 a year better off or worse off, you can do that by changing your electricity supplier, it’s about what’s best for everyone. Voting Yes, it’s the Christian thing to do.
Vote Yes. Dream a bold dream, dream of audacity, dream of taking your future into your own hands. Vote Yes, for compassion, empathy, and for those worse off than yourself.