Letter to Miriam Brett

Dear Miriam,

I have campaigned actively for Yes. Not as much as some, but I have done as much as I felt I could. My wife was looking forward to seeing me again on Saturdays once the referendum was over, and I was looking forward to seeing her again on Saturdays! Many, many wonderful people have given hugely of their time, energy, talents and commitment. At the Stirling count last night, I was surprised to meet one of them in person: you. I recognised you from your Twitter profile picture, and you had already made an impression on me before I met you.

I first knew of you online: someone tweeted a video of you giving a talk. I have watched relatively few of the videos that have come out during the campaign – I can read most blogs and articles far more quickly than the 5, 10, 20 minutes that it might take to watch a video, and I am impatient when engaging on social media. But for some reason I watched your video, describing why you wanted to vote Yes. Miriam, right now you have time: you don’t have to go out canvassing, so watch yourself inspire this audience:

I tweeted a link to this video, and shortly after that you followed me on Twitter. I added you to my #IndyRef list and followed your tweets and engagement. I was already an admirer of your energy, optimism and commitment when we met by chance at the count on Thursday night.

Last night was an emotional roller coaster. We heard quite a bit of bad news coming through, and we heard some good news (Dundee, we love you!). When you found out the disastrous results for Stirling, you were close to tears. I spent much of yesterday in tears.

I was so tired, so very tired, as you and countless other Yes campaigners up and down the country will also have been. And yesterday I was constantly fighting back tears of both sorrow at what we potentially had and have (for the moment, at least) lost, and rage at the way it was lost – and we lost to the overwhelming might of a state structure devoid of any integrity (which is precisely why we took it on!). I think there are two colossal divides that have been highlighted by the results, and which we will need to address with urgency.

The first is age: surveys show that the No vote was carried by the over 65s, and that is a social disaster: 71% of 16-17 year-olds voted Yes, 73% of over-65s voted No. The aspirations of the newly motivated and engaged young people in our society who were busy creating the future they wanted – people like you and your friends – have been stymied by the threats, fears, comfort or complacency of the old. Secondly, there is a class division. The poor, the marginalised, the disenfranchised, broadly voted Yes, whereas the rich voted No, and too many of the middle classes also voted No – was it also threats, fears, comfort or complacency that drove those middle class No votes? I am not sure I like this term, but ‘class war’ comes to mind. These are divisions we will need to find a way to address in the future.

Miriam, I watch that video of you and I feel old! I’m actually twice your age; in the video you said you were 11 when Tony Blair lied and led the UK into an illegal and unjust war against Iraq. I lived in London in 2003 and protested that war in countless ways. My mother came with me on the first large demonstration in her life, and with over a million other people we marched through London to try and stop the war. As you know, it was ineffective – and thousands of people have died as a result.

But you are part of a movement that has shown us older lifelong campaigners the way forward. Tony Blair and the Labour party, hellbent on war, ignored us and pretty much got away with it. The Yes movement, with people like you in it, have terrified the establishment: why else do you think Cameron, Miliband and Nick-pledge-Clegg came to Scotland in these last weeks? You and all of us nearly overthrew a state power. (Read that sentence again and take it in: You and all of us nearly overthrew a state power.) And how did that happen? It happened because people like you did amazing things – when you watched that video just now, did you notice that over 10,500 people have watched it? You told me on Thursday night that you had spoken in countless school debates, frequently with misogynistic and patronising Labour/Better Together opponents, and more often than not, you convinced the young people of your case. You did that. You and your friends in Generation Yes, Women for Independence, National Collective and so on – you did that. I might have convinced a number of people of my generation to vote Yes, but I don’t think I really did much for the younger generation – that is something you can all take credit for, and it is amazing.

On Thursday, the age and class divides defeated us. We can fight for our vision another day. There are, as you said in the video, good people who sincerely voted No. We need them. Not in some pathetic pseudo-peace nonsense about unity and harmony, but in a context of hard questions and soul-searching. Some are good friends of mine and I want to say to them: “Iain, Iona, Ewan, Hilary, Francis and others – I need you now, and Miriam and her friends may need you even more than an old duffer like me needs you. We are hurting in ways that you maybe cannot even imagine. We need you to accept that – seeking social change on this scale has meant a huge personal investment. You voted No because you believed that this was the best way to achieve social justice. Prove it. Prove that this is actually going to work, and that the downtrodden in Scotland, in rUK and around the world will not be penalised by a No vote, as so many of us fear. Prove that it will not simply be an old Labour-Tory stitch-up, which is what appears to be happening already. I will work with you, but you need to really grasp this nettle. And if you want the likes of Miriam on board (and believe me, you really really do), you had better find a way pretty fast of proving this, and listening to her – not ‘enabling her and young people’ but putting her and her friends at the heart of change.”

As you will know, in all this we are not alone. I asked for some reactions on the referendum from some friends on Twitter. Here are the responses (I’m afraid ‘countrymen’ appear a couple of times in notes from men and women, but these are good people, and I’ll blame Twitter character limits for the missing countrywomen!):

  • “It felt so good to cast a vote that counted for a cause that mattered. Today I feel terrible. Defeated by greed, self interest and fear of change. The No vote was an awful reaffirmation of the ‘I’m alright Jack’ mentality.”
  • “Very proud of Scotland conduct in the campaign. Totally turned off by the No campaign… as a non-SNP voter I am thoroughly impressed by Nicola Sturgeon and Salmond and am very disappointed in my fellow countrymen. Excited by level of engagement in the country. Trying to curb my disappointment. Wanted to waken up in a more just Scotland.”
  • “I voted Yes because this is Scotland – I don’t feel represented by Westminster politicians of any stripe, on both a national & a personal level. I voted Yes because I will probably never have another opportunity to be a part of such a positive and hopeful campaign. However, I have to say that from the start I felt that the result would be as it is & I also thought that the gap between Yes & No would not be as narrow as Yes hoped. So, this morning when I heard the result it did not come as a surprise. But, I am still glad I voted Yes and feel that Scotland did themselves proud with voter turnout – am left thinking that most of us up here feel distant and marginalised by politics in England/London and also unrepresented by them – hence voter apathy in elections.”
  • “I wanted to help build a stronger people’s democracy, the first in this island, free of Lords and privilege. I thought my fellow Scots wanted the same, to raise their countrymen out of poverty, to rid themselves of nuclear weapons and foodbanks. We must now wait a generation until the old ones are gone. I am heartbroken, and worry about the next few decades in which I will raise a family in this country, one which rejected compassion in favour of its own self-interest.”
  • “I voted Yes for building an egalitarian Scotland with developmental policies (not identity politics) at its core. I’m disappointed that older generation have let us down due to fear of change. However, this is a wheel set in motion. We’ve seen participatory democracy at its best – grassroots movements. It is not over and will resurface again.”
  • “One long term story is the decline of Scottish Labour and all its implications. The 4 authorities to vote yes have the worst poverty levels. Scots are a bit like people who get a rare disease – you quickly become an expert. Waiting for England to catch up will be frustrating. Average Scot now understands constitutional issues better than average English MP. It was, of course, really about social justice. Scotland’s not the real threat to UK – it’s the City of London, driving inequality.”
  • “I hoped Scotland would have collective confidence and self-belief to become fully empowered. Today struggling between deep disappointment and anger and shock. The Yes campaign has been inspiring and my aspiration is still that Scotland becomes an independent state where people are empowered, equality is embedded in our social, cultural and political lives, and the talent and creativity of our people nurtured. Today is difficult, but I still believe Scotland’s future lies in independence and participating in the global community of nations.”

Let me conclude with some words from beyond Scotland. Firstly, a Welsh friend, Rob Hudson: he’s been 100% behind us, and stayed up most of the night watching the results with excitement and in solidarity:

Here in Cardiff, today seems somehow greyer than the day before the referendum. I felt inspired by Scotland, I was even heard to say it was the most significant moment in my political consciousness since the miner’s strike when I was no more than a teenager. And I meant it!

I’m now 46 years old and considered myself reasonably politically aware, but looking back from the perspective of the past few weeks I’m shocked by my own complacency. Inaction meant I conspired with the apathetic and those who would wilfully promote a more unjust and unequal society.

I know full well that my Yes Scottish friends did not vote out of nationalism. The vote did not rise from it’s low of 24% to the end result of 44% because people suddenly discovered their inner Braveheart. What nonsense! It was because they realised that the only way to achieve a fairer, less divided and more accountable society was outside the UK state. Labour had three election victories in which to correct the devastation wrought by Thatcher that has caused such terrible poverty and inequality. And they did little more than tinker at the edges.

I am crying as I write this, sometimes grief takes time to filter through our tough outer carapaces. So, my friends, independence is denied, but those beliefs that drove the swing to yes will not easily be put back in their box. You and I will take some time to recover after losing the referendum, but our ideals are not defeated. Together we have discovered something worth believing in, policies that can bring real change.

If democracy is defined by how we treat those less fortunate than ourselves, then our democracy has failed. We need to find new ways to express the hope that this will change and new structures building on the groundwork of the brilliance of the Yes campaign to keep these ideas to the fore. We may have to regroup, there may need to be a new party of the radical left. But what other choice to we have to bring hope to others?

And Mark Tweedie, from Coventry, said to me:

for me this was more than just the independence question. As an English voter I was hoping to see the symbolic overthrow of a corrupt political elite in favour of fairness, progressive policies and what is right for the population and not just the corporations. A victory would have been a triumph not just for Scotland but for right-thinking people in England, Ireland and Wales too. Now I hope we can keep the momentum going and see this as a pause not an ending. The spirit of the Yes campaign will be an inspiration for years to come because it has broken the mood of political apathy which has engulfed the UK. Political idealism has been withering away since Thatcher took a hatchet to the notion of collective well being and this spirit feels like a Phoenix rising, in spite of the defeat. Anything now seems possible!

Miriam, cry and cry some more if you need to. But please don’t wallow and despair. We need you: my friends who wrote back to me on Twitter need you, and Rob and Mark and I need you. I look forward to seeing you continue to work at making the world a better place – it sounds trite, but we both know it’s not! – and I hope our paths will cross again.

Best wishes,

Michael

 

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2 thoughts on “Letter to Miriam Brett

  1. Hi Michael,

    As you have named me and asked for a response in your blog – I felt that I should respond. But as you know – I’m not very good at keeping it short! 🙂

    I appreciate that many will be very disappointed by the No vote, (just as I hope you would understand that many would have been very disappointed by a Yes vote). But I understood from our conversations that you said we would move on and work together for change, regardless of the outcome and I hope that is still true.

    I don’t think that dividing a country, either by opinion or by geography, will make for positive lasting change and as such do not agree with it. I have seen many good people upset and stressed throughout this campaign, families divided and unpleasant and divisive comments on social media sites, before and after the result. I have seen a lot of energy, yes, but I have also seen a lot of anger and negativity on both sides.

    Miriam has her opinion and I respect that, but I also know many young people that wanted the UK to stay together, for good reasons. Are their opinions not valid? (Indeed 55% of Scotland’s people have a different opinion and we are heading for very dangerous ground if we do not allow people to have different opinions from ours.) I also feel very uncomfortable when people pick out over 65s,as if their opinions are somehow less valuable. Many people I know over 65 are very thoughtful, have a lot of life experience and an element of wisdom that comes with age (traditional cultures respects this). Many also vote for their children and grandchildren.

    As you know, I believe the only way good and lasting change happens is by gradually taking people in a positive direction – through discussion, voting and campaigning. I’m not sure there is another way? How did South Africa change from a system of Apartheid to a government reflecting all its people? How have we developed workers’ rights? How have we created legal rights for people of all races, religions, genders, age, abilities and sexual persuasions? Through discussion, campaigning and working together to bring about change. And I think it is through this system that this country has changed for the better over the last 100 years or so and will continue to change. (It is far from perfect,and yes we have inequality and poverty – but unlike most people in the world, we have free healthcare, free education, a relatively safe country and are relatively free to say what we want – these are luxuries in many countries of the world).

    I can’t “prove” anything, as I’m sure you know, just as the “Yes” campaign couldn’t “prove” anything either– as no one can guarantee future outcomes. We all have hopes and will work towards achieving them – and like you I have done a lot of campaigning over the years and will continue to do what I can. I firmly believe the Margaret Mead quote “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” And I would imagine this quote would be relevant for the “Yes” campaign too!

    I believe an Independent Scottish Government would have suffered from the same issues as the UK Government (personal egos, big business pressures, “friends” supporting “friends” and the damaging effects on people of having too much power and influence). So I was never convinced of how an Independent Scotland would be better, or how it would deliver the many things it said it would.

    I do agree with a devolved government that can deliver local democracy but any centralised power – whether in Edinburgh or London will be distant from people who are geographically or socially far away. (The vote in Orkney and Shetland reflected the fact that they feel Edinburgh will not reflect their needs any more than London.)

    Instead I would like to see our Scottish politicians, political parties and Scotland’s people focusing on working together to bring about positive change. We have many existing powers to do this and we can start this work now. This is what I think we need to focus on – actually getting on with making change – rather than arguing amongst ourselves about whether independence would or would not deliver the change we all want. I think if people work together, the energy created in the independence debate, could be used to really tackle the social and environmental issues facing our country – but if we spend our energies squabbling and name-calling we will go nowhere. We have an opportunity to work for Scotland’s people – not “Yes” people or “No” people – but all people.

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  2. Hi Iona,
    apologies for taking several days to get back to you. I’ve been tired, and I wanted to take the time to give a considered response to your considered comment.

    We largely disagree about the extent of the “division issue” as you know, but if there is a division, it perhaps comes from the binary nature of the question. Of course, the SNP wanted three options on the ballot – Yes, No, Devo-Max – and Westminster refused because they assumed they’d easily win a No.

    Of course I fully expect to work together with people who voted No, and making the points I make here is not intended to detract from that. Had Yes won, I would expect No voters to be upset – that goes without saying. Nobody likes to lose. But the air needs to clear, and the Yes supporters need to work out what it is that they are doing next – and that is a process that involves primarily Yes supporters. That’s not exclusivist, it’s the continuation of solidarity and the ascertaining of a new goal, but it needs to happen on terms that we Yes supporters are happy with before we can move forward. I think anything that tries to circumvent that simply leads to pretending to be one big happy family when we are not and never were, nor are likely to be. That’s a pseudo-peace making (perhaps I should write about this here sometime?).

    I was not picking on the over-65s. I was noting that 73% of them voted No, meaning 27% voted Yes. The majority of all other age groups voted Yes, as far as I can tell from the surveys that have been conducted, so it is simply factually correct to say that the older vote carried the No camp to victory. Making that statement is not a judgement on wisdom or opinions. However, many were understandably scared: I met some on the doorsteps who had been told they would lose their pension and all kinds of other things, which were blatant lies by Better Together people (even the Westminster government minister confirmed pensions would be paid; I had to assure folks that my parents living in Germany still received their pensions).

    I agree with you that we need to work together to create a better future (incidentally, given what Mandela regarded as the essential element of the use of violent resistance against apartheid, and the fact that what we are confronting is qualitatively different, I’m not sure I think South Africa is an entirely appropriate model, though I do take your general point). However, we are back to the “how” question that we discussed before the referendum. I don’t think the current system works, which is why I don’t have faith in its ability to fix the situation we are in. For example, the Child Poverty Action Group in Scotland notes that 20% (220,000) of our children are in poverty, with that number expected to grow by a further 100,000. The system we have at present should be reducing this shameful figure of 220,000, but it is doing the opposite. That is a key reason why I and so many others sought to bring about a change in the system. For me, it’s not good enough to say that slowly things have changed over time but not think about and seek to implement ways of changing the really big things as quickly as possible – you’ll be aware from your work what effect child poverty can have on learning and general health etc. and every child only has one childhood etc. If WM is now going to remodel the UK because of the Yes movement, as some are suggesting (eg here) then that might be good, but that isn’t what No stood for until it panicked in the last fortnight.

    As for proving – I actually am serious. I don’t want to rehash the whole debate here, but what I meant was: if the existing system works, then I want to be shown what it is that I and others (Miriam, the Child Poverty Action Group etc.) are getting wrong. Why have we not been able to reduce child poverty? Ditch Trident? Close Dungavel? Stop fracking? Margaret Mead is absolutely right – but where are the mechanisms in the system we’ve had to do make such changes? That’s what I meant by prove. I didn’t see it in the WM system we’ve had. I can’t speak for Miriam, but I suspect she didn’t see it either. Changing the system offered the chance to bring these decisions closer to us. And, for example, not paying billions for immoral Weapons of Mass Destruction (which will now still be just down the road from me and millions of people in the greater Glasgow area) and so on would have freed substantial funds for more important things, as numerous studies showed. Now that we face something that is going to be somewhere between the “Labour” Party’s Devo-Nano and the Tory/LibDem Parties’ Devo-Something (that could be Devo-Max but probably won’t be), it is our job, as voters (not Yes or No voters, just voters) to hold their feet to the fire and make sure it happens – after all, it appears that 25% of No voters went for No on the basis of the promises from the British nationalist parties. Without that, Yes would have won. The British nationalist parties have to deliver, and we as voters need to hold them accountable. If that is sufficient to make these changes, then you’ve proved the point, but I think it needs No voters in particular to do so – that Yes voters will push for that goes without saying. I confess to scepticism, because even Devo-Max (traditionally understood as everything except “defence” and foreign affairs) doesn’t readily offer an opportunity to get rid of Trident – but I’ll be writing about that shortly in a separate blog posting.

    Of course, the Scottish parliament is not perfect – it consists of people! But it is demonstrably less corrupt than WM, not least because we have a fairer electoral system here that ensures a greater level of accountability. Plus, we don’t have an unelected second chamber that stymies so much legislation out of self-interest. By the way, Miriam comes from Shetland, and from what I gather, she might have a slightly different perspective on what the rationale behind the vote there was.

    Finally, of course I will expect to work together with people who voted No. But this is a changed landscape. It will take time, but is beginning to happen (see, for example, the Bella Caledonia website mentioned above and some of the newer postings there, or this statement that Miriam co-wrote). I too will be writing something about it on this blog shortly. That will be the time when it becomes possible for Yes and No voters to really come together to effect change (though that possibly excludes a certain group of No voters who didn’t want change but will have to put up with it anyway!).

    Thanks for writing. I have not tried to write a “rebuttal” in response, but have tried to engage sincerely with your comments. I hope it helps in the mutual understanding process.

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