Is the Philippines about to elect a dictator?

Four days ago I returned to Scotland after spending seven months in the Philippines. I have been visiting the country regularly for nearly twenty years, and I love being there. It is full of natural beauty, and the people are very friendly.

But, for the first time, I left the Philippines deeply troubled. There are elections throughout the country tomorrow (May 9th) and, if the opinion polls are correct, Rodrigo Duterte, who thinks the late dictator, Ferdinand Marcos, was the best President the Philippines has ever had, is about to be elected President. And ‘BongBong’ Marcos, son of the late dictator, has a narrow lead in the Vice-Presidential campaign.

The Philippines is a poor country: more than 12 million people do not even have enough money to provide themselves and their families with three meals a day. Corruption is rife – many politicians steal public money, and the police and many public officials accept bribes in return for favours. The last President, Gloria Arroyo, has been in hospital detention since she left office in 2010, accused of plunder though she has not yet faced any formal charges. Her predecessor, Joseph Estrada, was found guilty of plunder, but was pardoned by Arroyo, and is now the Mayor of Manila. The current President, Aquino, whose father was murdered by Marcos cronies, and whose mother led the revolt against Marcos in 1986 and subsequently became President, has proved a lacklustre President. The Philippines has seen strong economic growth but, although there have been some infrastructure improvements, the rich not the poor are the main beneficiaries. Aquino has failed to fulfil his promise to stamp out corruption, and – like his predecessors – has failed to deal with the ongoing struggle by terrorists to create a separate Muslim state in the southern Philippines. The violence in Mindanao with regular battles between the Philippines army and the rebels has claimed more than 120,000 lives since the 1970s. Another rebel group, the communist NPA, is also regularly fighting the army, and runs protection rackets in areas where it is strong. There is also concern about crime generally in the Philippines, particularly about drug-related crime.

All this means that many Filipinos are looking for a tough President who, they hope, can sort out the country’s problems. The last such President was Ferdinand Marcos who was elected in 1965. He imposed ‘martial law’ in 1972 and instigated a reign of terror which lasted until 1986 when he was overthrown in the ‘People Power’ Revolution. Tens of thousands of his political opponents were imprisoned and tortured. More than three thousand were killed, their rotting tortured bodies being thrown onto the streets as a warning to would-be dissidents. Another 400 ‘disappeared’.

The Filipinos are a tolerant people, and they allowed Imelda Marcos and her family to return to the country and several of them have been elected to office. Imelda, now 83, is a Congresswoman and her son, BongBong, is a Senator and a candidate for vice-President. They, naturally perhaps, refuse to accept that Ferdinand Marcos did anything wrong. They remain an incredibly rich family because the Philippines Government has succeeded in getting back only $3.7 billion of the estimated $10 billion stolen from the Philippines by the Marcoses.

The Marcos family has also succeeded in rewriting history so successfully that many Filipinos look back to the Marcos era as a time of ‘discipline’, a golden age when the Philippines was doing well economically and there was little crime. This is a myth. Poverty increased dramatically in the Marcos years. Foreign debt increased twelvefold, reaching $28.3 billion. The Marcos years were an unmitigated disaster for the Philippines, the consequence of which are still being felt today.

Rodrigo Duterte has been attracting massive crowds during his Presidential campaign. His supporters are everywhere on social media. And they are adept at doctoring documents and photoshopping photographs, falsely claiming that President Obama and the Pope support Duterte. And it is not just less educated Filipinos who are backing him. Opinion polls show that he actually has support across all social classes. And they are fiercely protective of him. They see him as the solution to all the problems of the Philippines. They believe his most ludicrous promises. In their eyes Duterte can do no wrong. The man is almost worshipped.

Supporters point to his track record in Davao where he has been Mayor for more more than 25 years (with an interlude when his daughter was Mayor). It is claimed that Davao is one of the safest cities, not just in the Philippines, but in the world. That is completely untrue. It is not even the safest city in the Philippines. On the contrary, police statistics show that Davao is the murder capital of the country. During the period from 2010-2015 Davao had the highest number of murders in the Philippines – a colossal 1,032. And during the same period, it had the second highest number of rapes – 843.

Davao is notorious for its Death Squads. Duterte speaks warmly of their activities, and it is no secret that he encourages them. Indeed he has in the past boasted about personally killing alleged criminals. And on April 22nd, the Philippines Daily Inquirer quoted Senator Trillanes as saying : Duterte “told me that he made people get down on their knees and shot them in the head, splattering their brains on the ground”.

But it seems Duterte supporters are prepared to accept this. Several of them have said to me that they don’t mind if ‘bad’ people are killed. But in a civilised society, the rule of law must prevail. People must be assumed innocent until proved guilty in a court of law. It is not for Mayor Duterte or anyone else to act as judge, jury and executioner.

Human Rights Watch found that from 1998-2015 there were 1424 summary executions in Davao. The youngest victim was a boy of 12. Youngest female victim was 15. At least 14 of those killed were victims of mistaken identity.

“I do not have any tears for you if you die, you idiots!” Duterte said, referring to drug pushers. “You all deserve to die.” (Philippine Daily Inquirer). But many of those killed were petty criminals. “In March 2002, Duterte declared war against teenage gangs, which local police said were responsible for most of the crimes committed in the city. ‘If they offer resistance,’ the mayor told reporters, “I will not hesitate to kill them. I don’t care about minors’.” (Philippines Daily Inquirer, 22 April 2016).

On 25th April 2016, the Philippines Daily Enquirer reported a Priest’s revelations about Duterte: “Picardy said Duterte has been accused of human rights violations and extra-judicial killings, but he has not been punished because no one wanted to stand up to him……..Nobody comes out as witness because people feared for their lives”.

Duterte has said that, if elected President, he will eradicate ‘criminality’ in 3-6 months. This is a ludicrous promise. He has failed to eradicate crime in Davao in 25 years, and no ruler in history – even the most vicious tyrant – has succeeded in eliminating crime. But no doubt Duterte will do his best. He says frequently that a President must not be afraid to kill. He will give the green light to Death Squads throughout the country. Vigilantes will roam the streets, murdering suspected criminals. No one will be safe.

Duterte says he will also reintroduce the barbaric and ineffective death penalty (presumably for those who escape his death squads). There will be public hangings, he says. So the Philippines will go against the world trend towards abolition of the death penalty, and join the handful of authoritarian countries such as Iran who make the deaths of human beings a public spectacle.

Duterte has no respect for women. He boasts of his many girlfriends and wives, and made the sickest rape ‘joke’ I have ever heard. Discussing the gang rape and murder of an Australian woman in Davao, he said she was so beautiful that he wished he had been the first to rape her.

He is known for his liberal use of swear words in his speeches, and called the Pope ‘the son of a whore’, but even in this predominantly Catholic country, this does not appear to have done him any harm.

Duterte supporters often claim he is honest unlike most other politicians. But doubt has been thrown on his non-corrupt image in the last two weeks by the allegation made by Senator Trillanes that Duterte had a Bank of Philippines Islands account with P211 million. Duterte at first denied the existence of this account, saying it “is just a fabrication of Senator Trillanes”. But three days later he admitted “I have a (BPI) account but a little less than 200 million”.

Duterte failed, as required by law, to declare this huge sum of money in his annual SALN return. By the way Duterte’s salary as Mayor is 78,000 pesos a month. It would take him 213 years to save P200 million from that salary.

A few days ago, Duterte showed selected extracts from eleven bank accounts. One showed a balance of P128million.

Senator Trillanes said that Duterte had 17 bank accounts which have seen transactions totalling P2.4 billion over a period of nine years. Trillanes said that if Duterte were elected President, he would seek his impeachment. But Duterte retorted :”If they try to impeach me, I’ll shut down Congress” (Philippines Daily Inquirer, 1 May 2016.) This is not the first time Duterte has threatened to close Congress if it displeases him. As President he would not have the constitutional right to do this, and would presumably have to resort to martial law and rule as a dictator.

Filipino voters have been warned. If they elect Duterte as President, it might be the last time they vote. Democracy and human rights could end in the Philippines, and a Marcos-style regime of terror be imposed.

The dream lives on

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“For Scotland the campaign continues and the dream shall never die” – Alex Salmond.

On Wednesday evening I joined 600 other YES supporters of all ages packed into the market square in Galashiels. There were speeches, songs, flag-waving, cheering and laughter. There was a carnival atmosphere – an excited eve-of-poll anticipation. None of us knew who would win, but we all hoped we would, and believed we could.

Similar scenes could be observed throughout Scotland. Tens of thousands gathered in Edinburgh, Glasgow, Aberdeen, Dundee and other cities and towns. In George Square, Glasgow, there had been many such rallies. They gathered again late on Thursday after the polls had closed. Many of them were young, and had cast their first vote. Hardly any of them had ever been involved in politics before. But they had been caught up in a YES campaign which held out to them a vision of a better, independent Scotland.

Meanwhile the world’s media had gathered. News organisations from 120 countries were there, ready to broadcast the celebrations when Scotland became an independent country.

But as the results came in, it was apparent that hopes were about to be dashed; the dream turned into a nightmare. There were moments when hopes were revived – particularly when Glasgow voted YES – but these were short-lived.

The Scottish people had been sovereign for one day as they were asked the question: “Should Scotland be an independent country”. 45% – 1,600,000 of us – said YES. But 55% – 2 million – said NO.

So instead of dancing, cheering celebrating crowds, we saw slumped, sad people, many of them shedding tears.

On my Twitter timeline there was desolation. One tweeted: ”I’m 25 years old, but I can’t stop greeting”. Some said it was worse than a bereavement. ‘Scotland died tonight’ said more than one tweeter.

After just three hours sleep, I woke up. A moment later I came to with a jolt as the realisation of what had happened hit me. I was more upset than I expected to be. Although I’ve been sympathetic for years to the idea of Scottish independence, I only decided definitely to vote YES two or three months ago. But once I’d made the decision, I soon realised how strongly I felt about it. I was in no doubt. I was convinced it was right that Scotland, for the first time since 1707, should once again be an independent nation. So I was in post-poll blues on Friday, and I’m sure most of my fellow Yessers were, too.

Eventually I walked into town. The YES shop had already been evacuated. No blue signs and posters. No campaigners handing out leaflets and engaging in conversations with voters. Just a bare, empty shop.

And then it occurred to me what was missing: celebration. The polls showed that the NO vote was particularly high in the Borders so where were the Unionist revellers? Nowhere to be seen. Perhaps unsurprising though as there’d been hardly any evidence locally of their presence in the weeks and months leading up to the vote.

And did TV show any evidence of celebrations by the NO camp apart from cheering on the night from their hq? Nothing that I noticed – that is until I saw the footage of hardline ‘Loyalist’ thugs rampaging on Friday night in George Square, taunting YES voters.

But, apart from that, no celebrations by those who voted NO. They seemed joyless in their moment of victory. Indeed there were signs that some of them were having second thoughts. One shopkeeper told me he was already regretting his NO vote. Sadly, too late.

But Saturday was a new day. The despair had been short-lived. People on my Twitter feed were in better spirits. Some of them have been campaigning hard for two years or more, and they are not going to give up now.

MOST YES CAMPAIGNERS NOT ‘NATIONALISTS’

There’s a lot of misconceptions about the YES campaign. Gordon Brown referred to “narrow nationalists”. Even The Guardian, which should know better, described YES campaigners as nationalists.

Even the SNP is not an old-fashioned nationalist party. It has an outward-looking inclusive approach, often called ‘civic nationalism’. It stresses that Scotland welcomes people of all ethnic, national and religious backgrounds, believing that Scotland should be run by the people who live and work here.

The YES campaign is a broad-based movement. It includes not only the SNP, the Scottish Greens and the Scottish Socialist Party but also a host of groups and individuals including the Radical Independence Campaign, the National Collective, the Common Weal, Women for Independence, Asians For YES, Business for Scotland and English For Yes. This is the largest ever grassroots campaign in the history of Scotland.

And the majority of those campaigning and voting YES are not nationalists. They are motivated by a burning desire for more equality, more social justice and a more caring society. And they think that the best way to achieve that is by having an independent Scotland so we can choose our own Governments instead of having a Government chosen for us by England.

The idea that we are anti-English is a ludicrous smear. I returned to Scotland last year after living most of my adult life in England and have many English friends so how could I be anti-English?

But I do want to disengage from the British state. As one English tweeter put it brilliantly: “I am not the British State, so if Scots leave the British State I won’t be offended. They aren’t leaving me. We still cool”.

POST-WAR CONSENSUS SHATTERED

I was born only three years after the second world war ended, and grew up feeling British as well as Scottish. The NHS was created in the year of my birth. The welfare state provided protection from cradle to grave. Essential industries were publicly owned. British values stressed fairness and a feeling we were genuinely “all in this together”.

But the post-war consensus was shattered by Margaret Thatcher. She closed down not only the mines but much of our manufacturing industry. She removed the rights of trade unionists. She used Scotland as a social laboratory, trying out the poll tax here first. Thatcherism was detested in Scotland and the Tories, who last won a majority north of the border in 1955, were gradually removed. In 1997 Scotland elected not one Conservative MP.

In 2010 just one of Scotland’s 59 Westminster MPs was a Tory. Yet Scotland had a Conservative-led Government imposed on it which proceeded to plunge many Scots into poverty. The hated bedroom tax was introduced. Food banks proliferated. ‘Austerity’ has resulted in cuts in public services and growing poverty for those who find their benefits cuts – while MPs continue to claim lavish expenses.

Meanwhile nuclear weapons, housed in Trident submarines, are based in Scotland. The British state continues to be run by politicians who seem to hanker after the days of Empire, revelling in their perception that Britain ‘punches above its weight’ and is a world ‘power’. Consequently we still spend far too much money on ‘defence’.

And what of the Labour Party? Can’t we just wait until they are re-elected? But Labour under Tony Blair embraced Conservative principles as well as plunging us into the disastrous and illegal war in Iraq. As for Ed Milliband’s Labour Party, even if it is elected, will it make much difference? Labour supports austerity and Trident.

The British state, at its peak as an Imperial power, has failed to adapt to modern times even retaining a wholly unelected second legislative chamber, which is an affront to democracy. The United Kingdom, which is not united and should not be a kingdom, is no longer fit for purpose.

The sort of society I want to see is far more likely to evolve in an independent country. Scotland should be a nation again, exercising our right to self-determination. At the same time, as an internationalist, I want to see us co-operate with other nations through our membership of such organisations as the EU and the UN.

REASONS FOR VOTING YES OR NO

Since Thursday’s vote, there have been claims that the Referendum provided a big margin of victory. Really? 45% of those voting (on an 85% turnout) voted for independence. They wanted to leave the Union. Glasgow, Scotland’s largest city and the third most populous in the whole of the UK, voted YES.

And, of those who voted NO, did they really vote because they wanted to ‘save the Union’, as has been claimed? Not according to the polling evidence of Ashcroft who interviewed 2000 people after they’d voted in the Referendum. Only 27% said their main reason for voting NO was “a strong attachment to the UK”. 47% – almost twice as many – said they’d voted NO because of the ‘risks’ of becoming independent. A further 27% agreed that their main reason was that a Scottish Parliament would have extra powers “together with the security of remaining part of the UK, giving the best of both worlds”.

So Ashcroft’s poll reveals scant evidence to support a claim that many people voted NO because of their pro-Union views. More wanted extra powers for the Scottish Parliament, and had presumably been convinced by the last-minute ‘timetable’ announced by Gordon Brown that they did not have to vote YES to get such powers but a NO vote would do the trick. And almost twice as many were concerned by the perceived ‘risks’ – including some pensioners who’d been blatantly lied to by NO campaigners who claimed their pensions were at risk despite the fact a UK Government Minister had stated categorically that pensions were secure.

MEDIA BIAS

Research during the campaign showed that the more informed people were, the likelier they were to vote YES. Many rely on the media to inform them. But the media was hopelessly biased in favour of a NO vote. Apart from the Sunday Herald, no Scottish or English national newspaper supported independence.

And, although the broadcast media have a legal obligation to be impartial, apart from Channel 4 News, they failed to be so. Indeed, although there were some exceptions, such as the BBC’s Robert Peston, many broadcasters shamelessly acted as cheerleaders for the NO campaign. Even NO supporters I have spoken to concede that. In my lifetime I have never seen the BBC, ITV and Sky so biased in their coverage. This was noticed by some media professionals. Paul Mason, for example, now working for Channel 4 News, told his Facebook friends: “Not since Iraq have I seen BBC News working at propaganda strength like this. So glad I’m out of there”. And Stuart Cosgrove, Channel 4’s Director of Creative Diversity, described the BBC reporting of the Referendum as “an outrage”.

The London-based media had not paid that much attention to the Referendum, assuming it was in the bag for the NO camp. Then on Sunday 7th September a YouGov poll gave YES a 51-49 lead, the first time they’d been ahead in the entire campaign. It was a remarkable turnround given that YouGov had shown a 22% lead for NO just a month earlier, on August 7th. A superb YES campaign seemed to have had all the momentum since the second Leaders’ debate which Alax Salmond had comfortably won. And all the while the YES activists, far more numerous than their NO counterparts, were knocking on doors, persuading people that their message of Hope provided a positive vision for Scotland’s future in contrast to the negative NO campaign dubbed Project Fear by their own leaders.

Westminster went into panic mode, fearing that the ‘Union’ was in serious danger of ending. Prime Minister’s Questions was suspended as a dramatic stunt, enabling all the party leaders to go to Scotland – although David Cameron only addressed gatherings of the faithful, never venturing out to face undecided voters. A hundred Labour MPs made a day trip to Scotland. And Gordon Brown was unleashed. Suddenly the man whose Premiership had been undermined by the press, became a media darling. The ‘great clunking fist’, as Blair had once dubbed him, in effect took over the NO campaign from the hapless Alistair Darling. Although now only a backbencher, the BBC and Sky News showed his speeches live, and he was the one interviewed for the NO camp by David Dimbleby on the Tuesday before polling Day.

On the Sunday of the YouGov poll George Osborne had announced on the BBC’s Marr Show that all parties had reached an agreement about new powers for Scotland which would be announced later. It turned out that there were no new powers – just the ones that had already been announced by the 3 UK parties. And they disagreed, making different offers. But what was new was a timetable for action announced by Gordon Brown. This was followed by a ‘vow’, signed by all three party leaders and published in the Daily Record, which pledged action in the event of a NO vote.

The broadcast media lapped this all up, failing to scrutinise exactly what was involved. It was constantly referred to as devo-max, which implies all powers being devolved except foreign affairs and ‘defence’. But even the best offer – from the Tories – was nothing like devo-max, and it soon became clear that the timetable was hopelessly optimistic and that backbenchers might well refuse to support whatever was proposed even if the leaders eventually agreed.

In the last 11 days of the campaign, the media coverage was non-stop. But it was hopelesly slanted in favour of the NO camp. Any scare story about the alleged risks of independence was highlighted, often without being properly checked. For example, following contact from the Treasury, the BBC falsely claimed that the Royal Bank of Scotland and Lloyds were planning to move their headquarters to London with an ensuing loss of jobs in Scotland. RBS then issued a statement saying that no jobs or banking operations would be affected. They were merely making contingency plans to move their registered office if there was no agreement on a currency union. And, as for the Lloyds headquarters, that was already in London, and had been there for a hundred years. Again, the only thing being contemplated was moving the registered office – the ‘brass plate’ as Alex Salmond put it.

Then after a meeting with the Prime Minister, Asda, John Lewis and some other large stores said prices might be raised in an independent Scotland. Morrisons and Tesco’s said this would not happen but their comments got little attention. The media seemed to want only stories that would damage the YES campaign.

Of course, we know broadcasters have views but they are supposed to keep them private. Some failed to do so. Tom Bradby of ITV News bewailed on Twitter the fact that he might have to report on the “break-up of my country”. In a tweet exchange with me, he sided with the NO campaign, ridiculing the notion that an independent Scotland could be part of a currency union. He failed to mention the YES case that the three UK parties were bluffing and that they would agree to a currency union as it was in the best interests not only of Scotland but the rest of the UK. He then declined to answer my tweet questioning how he could be impartial when he clearly favoured the NO side. Later he claimed I hadn’t asked a question and I’d been abusive – totally untrue.

Nick Robinson of the BBC claimed Alex Salmond hadn’t answered his question about the banks but a YouTube video showed that Salmond’s reply had been edited out.

My feeling is that the vast majority of presenters felt passionately that Scotland should vote NO, and that because they felt so strongly they were unable to cover the story impartially. So claims by NO were not subject to sufficient critical analysis.

Given the media bias, the YES campaign did remarkably well to persuade 45% of us to vote YES.

THE FUTURE

So where do we go from here? I’m sure there will be another Referendum but it probably won’t be in the near future – maybe not for another 10-15 years. It would only come earlier if the UK party leaders reneged on their ‘vow’ to devolve substantial new powers to Scotland in the near future. The timetable, drawn up by Gordon Brown, has already been put at risk by the Prime Minister’s opportunistic insistence – after the vote, of course – that new powers for the Scottish Parliament should be linked to constitutional change in England.

Also if the UK votes to leave the UK – and the people of Scotland vote to stay – that could hasten another Referendum.

There will now be strong pressure from YES campaigners for genuine devo-max, ie Scottish control over everything except foreign affairs and ‘defence’. And some will want to go further, for example, calling for the removal of Trident for Scotland.

In the few days since the Referendum, the parties supporting YES – SNP, Scottish Greens and the Scottish Socialist Party – have gained thousands of new members. Many will never forgive the Labour Party – now dubbed ‘red Tories’ – for their collaboration with the Tories in the NO campaign. The Party may have been partly motivated by the desire to retain their 41 Scottish MPs at Westminster. But they may face an electoral payback both at the 2015 General Election and the 2016 Scottish Parliament elections.

There is now a radical movement consisting of those who have been involved in the greatest grassroots political movement ever seen in this country. As Alex Salmond said: “The real guardians of progress are not the politicians at Westminster, or even at Holyrood, but the energised activism of tens of thousands of people who I predict will refuse meekly to go back into the political shadows”.

And younger people are much more likely to support independence. Ashcroft’s findings were that 54% of those aged 16-54 voted YES. NO secured victory because 66% of those aged 55 and older voted NO.

The 2014 Referendum was lost. But the hunger for radical change in Scotland will not go away. As much change as possible will be carried out within the confines of a devolved Scottish Parliament still in the UK. But ultimately I believe that will not be enough. The British state is on borrowed time. It has only postponed the inevitable. Sometime within the next 20 years – maybe much sooner than that – Scotland will become an independent nation

British Values – who abandoned them?

“We need to live in a fairer society. I’ve been a socialist all my life and I’ve never voted anything other than Labour. Historians will look back on this and say this is Thatcher’s legacy. Without her this wouldn’t have happened. She destroyed everything that made us British. She destroyed Ravenscraig when it was the most productive steel plant in Europe, she destroyed the coal mines, it was part of our identity and the whole sense of Britishness went out the window. We’ll never get it back..All these MPs who came up here, it’s desperate and patronising. Have they finally woken up to the fact that something is going on up here?”

– George Gray,65, from Paisley – quoted in Sunday Herald, 14 September 2014.

“The No camp tell us that we are the separatists, that we’re splitting the Union, divorcing, breaking up Britain, ripping things up, abandoning Britain and its common British values.
The irony is that it’s not Scotland that’s abandoning the British values that have bound us on both sides of the Border. It’s Westminster, the London City state and its rich elites who have abandoned the British values my father and millions of others fought for in the Second World War.
The ideology that threw away the values of the post-war consensus and sold them off to the highest bidder, the values that my parents and grandparents believed in – they did believe that we were “all in it together” ..the values that created the welfare state, the health service, that believed the state had a moral, as well as a social responsibility, to care for the sick, the poor, the disabled, the dispossessed..a society that would do its best to make people’s lives better”

– extract from an article by Eliane C Smith in Sunday Herald, 14 September 2014.
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WHY I’M VOTING YES FOR SCOTTISH INDEPENDENCE

“May your choices reflect your hopes, not your fears” – Nelson Mandela.

I have always felt British as well as Scottish. My mother hailed from Dublin so I feel partly Irish, too. But I’m also European and an internationalist.

I returned to Scotland last year after spending most of my adult life in England.

But I will be voting YES for Scottish independence on 18th September.

I have always rejected narrow tribal nationalism. I admire the tenacity of the SNP who have progressed from a tiny fringe party when I was a boy to winning an overall majority in the Scottish Parliament in 2011. The SNP is a forward-looking progressive party. Its nationalism is not tribal but outward-looking.

But many people who don’t vote SNP and don’t like Alex Salmond are supporting independence. My own politics are to the left of the SNP. I voted Green in the Euro Elections (my first vote in Scotland). I like The Radical Independence Group which brings together Greens, Socialists, trade unionists and nuclear disarmers, all campaigning for a YES vote.

It’s an exciting time to be in Scotland. Up and down the country meeting halls are packed with people discussing independence. I live in the Scottish Borders which polls suggest has only a minority of YES voters. Yet on two occasions in recent weeks I have attended packed meetings in Galashiels, a small town, where 500 or more people have listened to speakers in favour of independence including Nicola Sturgeon and Tommy Sheridan.

I would gladly have attended a NO meeting, too, but I have heard of none. The reality is that the YES movement is a grassroots campaign whereas the NO campaign is a top-down affair dominated by Westminster politicians.

I have negative and positive reasons for voting YES. And it would be foolish to claim that there is no negativity in the YES camp. But the NO campaign, which calls itself Project Fear, is unremittingly negative. They have no positive vision for the United Kingdom. All they do is try to frighten people by flagging up the ‘risks’ of independence. They hope people will conclude that “the devil you know is better than the devil you don’t”.

Of course, Independence carries risks. The one that has troubled me most has been that the negotiations which would follow a YES vote will go badly, and that Scotland will end up with a poor deal which will blight the early years of independence. For a short while I was even persuaded that a more sensible approach would have been to have had a second referendum to accept or reject the terms of the independence negotiations. But then I realised that wouldn’t work. A second referendum would encourage UK negotiaters to be as uncompromising as possible in the hope that the Scottish electorate would reject an unfavourable deal at a second referendum.

If Scotland votes for independence, both sides will be bound by the Edinburgh Agreement which states: “The two governments are committed to continue to work together constructively in the light of the outcome, whatever it is, in the best interests of the people of Scotland and of the rest of the United Kingdom”.

That’s not to say that negotiations will be easy, but it’s in the interests of both sides to reach an amicable, mutually acceptable agreement. That’s why, despite all that’s been said in the campaign, the likelihood is that a currency union will come about. However, in the unlikely event that rUK does not agree, there are other viable options including a Scottish currency (backed by the Greens and many on the Left).

But there are ‘risks’ in voting NO, too. Don’t be taken in by politicians promising more powers for the Scottish Parliament. A politician breaks a promise with consummate ease. And, once we’ve voted NO, what could we do about it? There would be moves amongst some English politicians to alter the Barnett formula so that Scotland ended up with less income than it has currently.

And although the Scottish NHS is devolved at the moment, that could change at the whim of Westminster. And certainly a partly-privatised NHS in England could affect the funding of NHS Scotland.

But perhaps the most fundamental risk is in continuing to be part of a state – the United Kingdom – which is frankly past its sell-by date. In 1962 Dean Acheson, an American politician, said: “Great Britain has lost an Empire and has not yet found a role”. The same is still true today. Britain is a country living in the past, hankering after the days when the sun never set on the British Empire. Too many politicians pretend we still rule the world. They want to put the ‘Great’ back into ‘Britain’.

This explains why we spend such a ridiculous amount of money on weapons of war. It explains the obsession with Britain retaining weapons of mass destruction. Our current missiles are in Trident submarines based in Scotland. As the former Conservative Defence Secretary, Michael Portillo, pointed out, when asked if Trident should be renewed: “No, I think it is all nonsense..It’s completely past its sell by date. It’s neither independent, because we couldn’t possibly use it without the Americans. Neither is it any sort of deterrent, because now largely we are facing enemies like the Taliban and Al Quaeda, who cannot be deterred by nuclear weapons. It’s a tremendous waste of money. It’s done entirely for reasons of national prestige”.

And Britain, boasting about having the ‘Mother of Parliaments’, is a badly flawed democracy with a wholly unelected House of Lords and a monarchy. Although the latter will be retained in an independent Scotland (but, I hope, only temporarily) we will not have a corrupt House of Lords.

Inequality has also greatly increased in recent decades. Thatcher, Blair and their successors have acted like Robin Hood’s enemy, the sheriff of Nottingham, robbing the poor and those on average incomes to help the rich. Much of the limited power and money of ordinary people has been transferred to the rich and powerful. Essential services, previously publicly owned, have been privatised, resulting in much higher prices for consumers and huge profits for private companies. Meanwhile parts of the welfare state, established after the second world war, are being dismantled. Greed has become a new religion; selfishness a virtue. Compassion, once seen as a virtue, is now often seen as weakness. While the rich get richer, the poor and vulnerable are faced with attacks on their benefits. Food banks, previously unknown in Britain, have sprung up to provide essentials for those who don’t have enough money to feed themselves and their families. And this is happening in one of the richest countries in the world.

It is well known that Scotland has more panda bears (two) than Conservative members of Parliament (one out of 59). Scotland last voted for a Conservative Government in the 1950s but has had a Tory Government foisted upon it for more than 30 of the last 55 years. Traditionally Scotland has voted Labour, and many of us had hoped for radical change through the Labour Party. But in the last 20 years under Tony Blair and his successors the Labour party has become more and more right wing. Now supporting ‘austerity’ as well as Trident, the Party apes the Tories, fearing to make any radical moves.

It’s not true, incidentally, that if Scotland leaves the Union, Labour will never be elected again in the rest of the UK. Even without Scotland, Labour would have won in 1997, 2001 and 2005.

But is there much point in electing such a pale imitation of a former great party?

Some people in England seem to have got the impression that those wanting independence are anti-English. That’s nonsense. But apparently English athletes, competing in the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow,were warned to expect a hostile reception. Instead the Scottish crowd cheered them enthusiastically.

Others, mainly ‘celebrities’, have signed letters saying they don’t want us to ‘go’. Scotland is not going anywhere. In fact, I will continue to regard myself as British (as well as Scottish) even if we vote YES. Just as Norwegians remain Scandinavian even though Norway’s an independent country.

There will be no border controls. I will continue to visit England, where I have many friends. Visitors from the rest of the UK will, as now, be warmly welcomed in Scotland.

I firmly believe an independent Scotland will be good for the rest of the UK, too. It will shake-up the political establishment. The dominance of London will, I hope, be countered by a more federal approach with regional assemblies being established throughout England. Wales may be encouraged to vote for its own independence. As for Northern Ireland, I hope the six counties will eventually be reunited – peacefully – with the republic. I want to see a united Ireland.

I’m an internationalist, and believe that in the 21st century, we must co-operate with other nations. I support our membership of the European Union (though it needs reformed) and believe in a much stronger and more effective United Nations. But I’m also opposed to centralisation and favour as many decisions as possible being made at a local level.

Scotland is a nation. We were a sovereign state for about 700 years, and I think democracy is best served by us regaining our independent status.

I believe that the sort of society I wish to see is more likely to evolve if Scotland is an independent country. The two largest parties will be – at any rate for the foreseeable future – the SNP and the Scottish Labour party (which may even become more radical once it ceases to be tied to the UK party). I hope the Scottish Green Party and Solidarity and other socialist parties will also have a strong voice in an independent Scotland. The political centre will undoubtedly be considerably more left-wing after independence.

This will result in a consensus for a fairer and more equal society. We won’t have nuclear weapons, and I hope we’ll move to very limited conventional forces, too. We’ll also be a more caring society, banishing austerity and looking after those who need help. We’ll take better care of our environment.

We are being offered the freedom to control the affairs of our nation. We are being offered the right to choose who runs our country. We are being offered the opportunity to make Scotland a better place.

It’s an exciting prospect.

We should vote YES on September 18th

My grandfather, the First World War and peace.

100 years ago today Britain declared war on Germany and entered the First World War. By the time it ended in 1918, 16 million people had died.

My grandfather, George Scott, served as a soldier in this horrific war. He died when I was six, and I have only one recollection of him – in the passenger seat of my father’s car as he was dropped off outside his Edinburgh home before we returned to Dundee. I was in the back of the car.

Nearly every family in this country knows of at least one relative who served in the ‘Great War’. Many died or were badly wounded. Many were traumatised by their awful experiences. Those who returned home to their families had given up years of their lives to fighting in a war.

They did what they thought was right. As did our allies. As did those fighting for our ‘enemies’. Let’s remember today all those who were involved in the First World War, whatever their nationality.

Today there is no place for triumphalism of one particular country or group of nations. Today is a day for reflection on the horrors of war.

We need to learn from the past. War is rarely, if ever, justified. We need to find peaceful solutions to problems.

As we think of the 1914-18 war, we see daily on our television screens the death and destruction still being meted out in 2014. And all too often children and other civilians are the victims.

When will we ever learn?

Tony Benn – campaigner for democracy, socialism and peace.

Tony Benn was a political inspiration to millions. He campaigned passionately throughout his life for democracy, socialism and peace. A man of great compassion, he was a brilliant orator and a wonderful diarist.

As a schoolboy my love of football was surpassed by my passion for politics. When I arrived at Bristol University in 1966, one of my joys was hearing a succession of famous politicians address lunch-time meetings of students. Tony Benn was a local MP and was a regular speaker at the students’ union. When the Labour Club visited the House of Commons, it was Tony Benn who showed us round and I got the chance to meet him briefly.

In Government, Labour ministers inevitably become more right-wing. Tony Benn was the exception. He grew more left-wing in Government. As a student, I too found I was moving leftwards. It was a time of student rebellion, and I participated in sit-ins at the University, marched against the Vietnam War and thrilled at the possibility of a socialist revolution in France. I was disillusioned with the Labour Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, and flirted with revolutionary socialism. I wrote to Tony Benn, explaining my frustration with the Government of which he was a part. I received a four page reply. Tony Benn treated my arguments seriously, agreed with some of them and rebutted others. He was a busy Cabinet Minister, and I remember being impressed by the fact he had taken the trouble to answer in such detail.

If Tony Benn had remained a centrist Labour politician, the man who was dubbed a ‘whizz kid’ as a youthful Postmaster General, might well have become Prime Minister.  Even despite becoming more leftwing, and his subsequent vilification by the media and many politicians (including those in the Labour Party) he came within a whisker of defeating Denis Healey for the deputy leadership of the Labour Party in 1981. Two years later, following boundary reorganisation, he lost his parliamentary seat in Bristol at the 1983 General Election. Although he was only out of Parliament for a few months before winning the Chesterfield by-election, it meant he could not contest the Labour leadership. Had he been able to do so, he might well have defeated Neil Kinnock and who knows how history might have changed?

After leaving University, I corresponded from time to time with Tony Benn – wishing him success when he stood in leadership or deputy leadership elections or sometimes writing about some issue I felt particularly strongly about. I always received the courtesy of a reply, often handwritten and always signed by him. And I heard him speak from time to time.  And, of course, I often watched his great parliamentary speeches on tv. With the exception of Europe, I nearly always agreed with him.

In 1979, I started working full-time for the Society of Teachers Opposed to Physical Punishment (STOPP). Tony Benn was one of our sponsors.  From time to time he would make a useful intervention on STOPP’s behalf. One notable occasion involved a case in Wales: two boys had been suspended from school when, following the caning of one of them, her mother had said she did not want her children to be caned again. She was actually fined for not sending her children to school, and the boys were taken into ‘care’.

This was a Labour-controlled Counci. So Tony Benn wrote to the Leader of the Council reminding him that Labour Party policy was opposed to ‘corporal punishment’. The Council Leader replied: “The Trade Unions in Mid-Glamorgan have asked us not to take precipitate action…we have loyalties to the principle of collective bargaining..”

Tony Benn fired back: “To imply that you are maintaining ‘corporal punishment’ in response to the demands of collective bargaining is, to put it mildly, absolutely ludicrous. You might as well argue that, owing to a failure to get executioners to agree, capital punishment should remain”.

Tony Benn, a great fighter against injustice. He will never be forgotten.

An Opening Ceremony For Everyone

Last night’s Opening Ceremony has perhaps ended for ever the long-held notion of Britain as a country full of people with stiff upper lips. It was a vibrant people’s history and a wonderful antidote to the stuffy pageantry of the recent Jubilee.

Director Danny Boyle worked wonders with his cast of thousands, all volunteers and mainly amateurs, and produced a magnificent community play – and film. He told our national story – or at any rate, part of it – through the eyes of ordinary people, and with consummate skill and technical wizardry moved from a rural Britain – complete with actual farmyard animals – to the industrial revolution and beyond.  The activities of monarchs and politicians were ignored, and the show was all the better for that.  Those like Toby Young who tweeted later that we should have had one of Churchill’s wartime speeches rather missed the point – Boyle was telling a story about people, not about leaders.

It was not bombastic and, although national pride was there, it was anything but jingoistic. We were invited to admire ordinary people as they faced the ravages of war and unemployment, struggled to win votes for women and then went on to create our present multicultural society. 

As Danny Boyle put it in his programme notes:

“You’ll hear the words of our great poets – Shakespeare, Blake and Milton.  You’ll hear the glorious noise of our unrivalled pop culture.  You’ll see characters from our great children’s literature – Peter Pan and Captain Hook, Mary Poppins, Voldemart, Cruella de Vil.  You’ll see ordinary families and extraordinary athletes. Dancing nurses, singing children and amazing special effects.

 But we hope, too, that through all the noise and excitement you’ll glimpse a single golden thread of purpose – the idea of Jerusalem – of the better world, the world of real freedom and true equality, a world that can be built through the prosperity of industry, through the caring nation that built the welfare state, through the joyous energy of popular culture, through the dream of universal communication.  A belief that we can build Jerusalem. And that it will be for everyone”.

One of the most heartwarming sections was a tribute to our National Health Service. This was not a solemn preachy segment but a polished and witty performance by nurses, doctors and child patients from the Great Ormond Street Hospital. But it proclaimed the belief – held by the vast majority of British people – that free universal healthcare is a basic right; and expressed pride in the fact that we were the first country to establish a National Health Service, coincidentally in 1948, the last time London staged the Olympic Games.

And our contributions to the world’s literature, music and inventions also featured prominently. Kenneth Branagh, as the great Victorian engineer, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, read the ‘isles of wonder’ speech from Shakespeare’s ‘The Tempest’;  JK Rowling, author of the Harry Potter novels, read from JM Barrie’s ‘Peter Pan’; and Tim Berners Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, was there in person.

The show celebrated British music and popular culture with Elgar at the start, Paul McCartney at the end and much else in between. And there were references to our growing tolerance as, for example, we saw the first lesbian kiss on British television. This was back in 1994 but may have been a television first for viewers in Saudi Arabia!

This was the least pompous show imaginable. And very witty. Getting the London Symphony Orchestra to play ‘Chariots Of Fire’ could have been a stirring, patriotic experience – the film and the music are, after all, celebrations of two of our most famous Olympians. But Boyle punctured any possible pomposity by making Mr Bean (Rowan Atkinson) part of the orchestra. Hilarious.

As a republican, I was concerned that the royals might be given too prominent a role. How would Boyle deal with the Queen’s arrival at the Olympic Stadium? Quite brilliantly it turned out.  When James Bond (Daniel Craig) entered the Queen’s presence, her back was to the audience. I was sure it would be an actor – perhaps Helen Mirren. But, to my amazement, it was the Queen herself who spoke the words: “Good evening, Mr Bond”. We then saw Bond and the Queen get into a helicopter and parachute into the Olympic Park. Moments later the Queen and Prince Philip walked to their places. Stunt actors doing the parachuting, of course, but it was so well done that just for a moment many believed that the Queen had actually parachuted.

But any kudos the Queen won for being a good sport and agreeing to be in the James Bond film was lost by the way she comported herself during the Opening Ceremony. Unlike her mother, the Queen is not renowned for her warm smiles, but last night she seemed positively grumpy. Every time the cameras picked her up she appeared to be scowling. When the British team entered the arena all the VIPs around the Queen – including the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Prime Minister – leapt to their feet to give our athletes a standing ovation. Only the Queen and her husband sat, stony-faced. Worse was to come moments later when the camera panned to the Queen who appeared to be picking at her nails! BBC commentator Huw Edwards loyally tried to cover by saying the Queen was looking at the competitors with interest. She clearly wasn’t, and her apparent bad mood was widely commented on in Twitter.

There had been great speculation about who would be given the honour of lighting the Olympic Cauldron. We saw David Beckham speeding along the Thames, so we thought this was his consolation prize for being left out of the GB football team. But when his boat pulled up, he handed over the torch to the winner of five gold medals, Steve Redgrave. So we assumed he had the job. But, in fact, the lighting of the cauldron was done by seven of Britain’s most promising young athletes – an inspiring choice.

The lighting throughout the show was absolutely breathtaking. But for me the highlight was the lighting of that magnificent cauldron. Surely one of the greatest moments ever at an Olympic Opening Ceremony. 

I was concerned that those not steeped in British culture and history might find parts of the show difficult to follow. Thankfully this doesn’t appear to have been the case, and the overseas reviews of the show have been mainly very positive.  At times, though, I did yearn for a bit more explanation – perhaps Kenneth Branagh taking on a narrator role would have been a bit heavy-handed, but maybe more captions on the big screens?  Sometimes things moved so fast that it was difficult even for someone British like myself to take it all in.

I also thought the show was too long. Supposed to last three hours, it ran for nearly four, so it was getting on for 1am by the time it ended. This meant that when we got to the final performance – Paul McCartney singing ‘Hey Jude’ – it was well past many people’s bed-time!  This resulted in some irritable comments on Twitter directed at McCartney. He should have been on much earlier and it would also have been better if he had been integrated into the main part of the show.

The Opening Ceremony, of course, started late – at 9pm – apparently because Danny Boyle wanted to start when it was dark. And, given the importance of the lighting, I can see his reasoning.

However, I do think the show could have been cut – for me there was too much pop music, for example, but I would also have done things in a totally different order.

The parade of athletes has its moments, but with 204 countries, it frankly got a bit boring. In sheer theatrical terms it is better to start with the duller parts of a show and then end on a high note.

So I would have started with the parade and then had the boring speeches (sorry, but they were) by Seb Coe and Jacques Rogge.  This part could have been before darkness fell so it could have started at 7.30 or 8pm, thus ensuring that proceedings would have ended well before midnight.

This would have left the second part of the evening for the main show.

But a great start to the Olympics. Many people declared on Twitter that they were ‘proud to be British’. Not something we often say!