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Why I am scared to vote YES | John Paul Tonner

22 Jan

John Paul Tonner 21/01/14

Yesterday I had to give a talk to a very large group of student teachers in the Barony Hall at Strathclyde University. Now teachers, as witnessed first-hand at many in-service events, make the worst of audiences. Maybe it’s something about having to deal with unruly kids that turns them into a disengaged, apathetic congregation in a concerted effort to inflict poetic justice upon anyone who attempts to impart knowledge. I know; I’m a teacher; I act the same way. When attending these events the same strange puerile demon possess my body inevitably making me late and penless. Without conscious effort, I blankly stare at the speaker laying down the challenge with my disinterest: it’s your turn to teach me! Teachers are the worst audience.

So, with this in mind, I slowly ascended the platform in the Barony Hall in front of some 350 postgrads, heart sinking, pulse quickening and palms sweating. I fumbled over my notes so I didn’t have to appreciate the vast scale of the building and the endless emotionless faces whose blank gazes I would meet. I was scared. Fear had led me to accept the invite to speak here, fear had me awake until 3am the night before, fear had brought me here.

And yet, I enjoyed it. I knew I would. Certainly, I stumbled over some of my points and forgot plenty of my arguments. I lost focus a few times and became side-tracked by my own doubts. I saw a few people shaking their head in disgust at what I was saying and I’m sure, for a moment, I had the self-aware cringe of my own microphone enhanced voice booming through the speakers. Public speaking is frightening. And yet, despite the nerves and the sweats and the cringe, I enjoyed it. I think I came down from the platform a little more….’something’. It’s hard to describe. Not necessarily ‘confident’ or ‘happier’, but maybe something like more ‘experienced’; I finally know what it is like to stand up and talk to that many people about Children, Childhood and Constitutional Change. Would I be scared about doing it again? Yes. Would I do it again? Yes. Does the fear put me off? Obviously not.

Then it struck me. If I think about the times I was most scared, it was generally because something significant was about to happen in my life: exams, interviews, moving abroad. I remember the fear before I proposed to wife rendering me paralysed to the extent I could barely mumble the words, gesturing to the ring in a muted panic. Classy.

Life events, the big important things, do make you scared. It’s as if your body is preparing itself for a major change and it wants you to mark the moment. More than that. It motivates, pushing you through to the other side to a place of relief and, sometimes, elation. When I listen to some Celtic fans bemoaning the predictability of the league, I don’t think it’s Rangers they miss, it’s the fear of Rangers. For some, fear is a thrill, or at least the trigger which allows you to experience the excitement, relief and tranquillity at the other side.

Turning to the question of Scotland’s future, fear seems to be used as a justification for doing nothing, or rather, keeping things the way they are. That’s interesting because it don’t think this marries up with many peoples’ experience of it. I’m glad people are scared of voting Yes, so they should: all big events of this magnitude should frighten us. This is the one big life changing event that can create a new history. It is natural and reassuring that many people feel frightened. I would be more worried if people felt nothing: articulating that the referendum held little interest to the public. I think it’s healthier to have people in fear rather than a passive, zombified state of apathy. A state of no feeling can be ignored; fear has to be confronted.

So what is it people fear, what is it that people have to confront? Talking to a few don’t-knowers after the event, it was the same key issue that kept the flame of fear alive: the uncertainty of a financially viable independent Scotland. Could we continue to afford free Higher Education for all? What about free prescriptions and our pensions, surely they can’t last- the oil will run out! The economic uncertainty certainly wasn’t assuaged by the opposing speaker’s slide (the one about Scotland spending £63 billion whilst only raising £56billion). If anything, it reinforced a simple message the No campaign use in the arsenal of fear: that Scotland spends £7,600,000,000 more than it generates in wealth. Of course, that fear can be countered when someone from the Yes campaign can tell you that the UK spends £121,000,000,000 more than it generates; this is more as a percentage of revenue than Scotland (7.9% compared to 5%) and that most countries run a fiscal deficit (usually about 2-3%).

But that rarely matters; numbers on this scale are meaningless except in their ability to bamboozle those of us who are not au fait with economic norms; none of these numbers can tell you if you’ll be better off on the planet or how your life will unfold. So why are we told that it is one thing, a variation on a number no one knows (i.e. how ‘better/worse off’ we will be), that will decide the collective action of our nation? Is it really the case that £500 could make or break the Union? The price of a new TV to kill off independence; a new bike to break Britannia? The happy truth is, no one knows. Nor should they. They future is free to be written. The false certainty (in false hypothetical scenarios) stops people confronting the unknown; to live lives comfy, stunted and unexplored.

Uncertainty and fear are such natural things, steady companions on life’s journey. They will accompany us when we learn to cycle as children, leave home as young adults and confront our mortality as elders. Fear is motivator, it helps us change, to grow and gain confidence. On the prospect of Scottish Independence, of course many of us are scared; mainly because we aren’t there yet. But we are getting there and fear will help us embrace our destiny.

I’m glad I’m scared to vote Yes. Like marriage, starting a family, moving abroad or public speaking in front of 350 people, the feeling is a sign: we are preparing for an amazing experience in our lives. Let’s confront it together.

Come along to the Labour case for a YES vote. Thursday 23rd Jan, 7.30pm, at the STUC, Woodlands Road.





FAITH, HOPE, FUTURE! | John Paul Tonner

2 Aug

With the countdown to September 2014, the stories we tell will have an enormous influence in the political action we express. Britain, and how it is understood, our loyalties and feelings about it are under close inspection.

Within the same week as the extension of the franchise to 16 and 17 years olds for the Scottish referendum, the top YouTube video doing the rounds is one entitled ‘we didn’t own an ipad’. This version of Billy Joel’s anthemic apology for the baby boomer generation compares playstations and board games (amongst other things) to strike a contrast between growing up now and growing up in the late 70s and 80s. It’s well worth a chuckle; however, with regard to the Referendum debate, this division is misleading. The contrast is not between equally E-savvy 30 year olds and 16 year olds who broadly consume the same reality; the real generational line in the sand is somewhere nearer 1979. The ideas, visions and collective story of Britain on offer to each either side of the line are strikingly different. 

The 18-35 year olds voting in 1979 would have been the first crop of baby boomers, born in the shadow of the post-War consensus. Their parent’s had lived through war, depression and European fascism. This was the New Jerusalem:  the Britain of collective taxation, comprehensive Welfare and Universal provision of health. They worked in a Scottish economy that was often the closest to the British mean in terms of employment and infrastructure.[1] This was a Scotland that shared the same political vision of the UK electorate as a whole, sending MPs to London to play pivotal roles in directing the course of the economy and reshaping Britain’s image as it attempted to shed its leopard skin of Empire. With the exception of the minor irregularities in the 1959 and 1970 General Elections, the majority of Scotland’s MPs were of the same political party as the majority of the UK’s. [2] The future is always fraught with risk; until 1979 the baby boomer generation in Scotland found security in the New Britain. The Spirit of ’45 was still strong.

Cue the 18th September 2014.

The 16-35 year olds voting in next year’s referendum have experienced not just a different Britain, but a different world. Change is the one certainty. Since 1945 the number of nation-states has quadrupled in a global community that has grown dramatically more affluent.[3] The post-79 generation are painfully self-conscious of Britain’s image: at best a cringe-worthy Dad awkwardly trying to fit in, at worst a bully-boy in the world’s 21st century playground. Through their eyes, the credibility of Britain’s imperial might as a force for good has disappeared. They’ve witnessed Britain’s military involvement since 1979 with more cynicism and scrutiny.  Korea, Suez and Borneo have a different feel to The Falklands, Northern Ireland, Iraq and Afghanistan. With the world’s fourth largest defence budget and the fifth largest global exporter of arms, is difficult to feel proud of the UK’s recent military record. Watching that pride being expressed with fervour in the Last Night of the Proms or Royal pageantry events is, for this generation, increasingly like watching a London orientated Disney parade: removed and remote to any meaning in their lives. Particularly true in a Scotland where many don’t feel they are stakeholders in the British establishment of privilege and corruption. Nothing is British sacred; the instruments of state have shown themselves to be fallible and defunct, unravelling the consensus through MPs expenses, illegal wars and class warfare. Project Britain is over, giving way to elitist politics and democratic failure for many: 23 out of 36 years in Scotland from 1979 until the next general election in 2015. This isn’t just a statistical anomaly, a blip in voting differences between Scotland the rest of the UK; this is a fundamental divergence in our values and the types of society we want to live in. Westminster democracy from 1979 until 2015 has resulted in a 64 % failure rate for Scotland, hardly an endorsement for a common vision or shared story. Politicians can no longer rely on the Dunkirk spirit to appeal to a generation that don’t even know where Dunkirk is. The proclaimed ‘Miracle of 1940’ is starting to join the Charge of the Light Brigade or the Battle of Rorke’s Drift– remote events, historically distant and increasingly irrelevant to our identity in the 21st century. The UK cannot rely on the shared experience of war as a social gel- the ‘Iraq Spirit’ only reflects a divided society, people cynically aware of their politicians and distrustful of their political system.

So what is the story we adhere to now, what grand narratives are going to influence young voters in the referendum next year? Commentator Gerry Hassan highlights the need for Scottish society to extend itself beyond the limitations of the British legacy:

‘ a new language and philosophy is required for 21st century Scotland, one which addresses our own unique experience and which also contributes to the wider global debate about the challenges we face. This has to draw from past futures we have created, their limitations and possibilities….and always open to being made and remade’.[4]

Scottish independence is an opportunity for this generation, the post-79 generation, to build their own hopes, dreams and visions of the future. Of course, the dour realism of our climate may hamper some of these utopia ideals, some may gang aft a-gley. However, there is a growing realisation that we have to aspire. It is every generation’s responsibility to offer new hope, clearer direction and fresh belief. This constitutional debate isn’t just another issue amongst a plethora of others; it is a debate about how we do the basics of decision making in our future reality. Voting for independence gives us that option- to create a new narrative that isn’t based on the managed decline of Empire. We can build a story of our own; a young nation ready to face the globally challenges of the 21st century steeped in the labour tradition but not strangle by it. This generation have little to lose from independence, either culturally or to their sense of identity. The status quo, stagnant stuffy Britain ready to extinguish our progressive values, isn’t a viable option.

Yet there are some who claim we need to sacrifice our appetite for self-determination for the perceived safety of London’s womb, that security trumps liberty. Perhaps our story can be inspired words of courage uttered by a nation that faced the same dilemma nearly 250 years ago and has yet to look back. Benjamin Franklin, the leading intellect in the infant American nation remarked –They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.[5] Truly the way we can face the future is by believing in ourselves, our own actions and responsibilities. Everyone has to grow up. It seems the younger generation are more willing to grow up and create their own destiny: a Scotland proud of its British heritage, but not defined or constrained by it.  In the creation of a new story, our actions next September will leave a legacy of faith, hope and self-belief as together we take the exciting initial step into independence. It is this generation that have the voice to determine and shape the Spirit of 2014.

[1] David McCrone, We’re A’ Jock Tamson’s Bairns: Social Class in Twentieth-Century Scotland, in Devine and Findly (eds), Scotland in the Twentieth Century, pg. 108

[3] G Hassan, The Shape of Things to come, pg. 179

[4] G Hassan, The Shape of Things to Come, ImagiNation pg. 187

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