September 9 | comments icon 0 COMMENTS     print icon print


The only flag that matters in this debate is the red one

Catholic MSP Elaine Smith MSP (above) on why she is voting no in the Scottish independence referendum next week

How long has Scotland debated independence? Some may think 2 years; when the referendum campaign officially begun. Some may think 7 years; when the SNP first won a Scottish election. In reality it has been going on for 80 years, since the SNP were founded, and yet in that time the Irish Catholic vote in Scotland has remained unconvinced of Scottish nationalism.

Why is that? Whilst there is no exact answer, I suspect it is a simple case that the majority of us will always feel more comfortable with the inclusive unity, socialism and internationalism of Labour politics than with the grudge and grievance of Scottish nationalism.

I have been the constituency MSP for Coatbridge and Chryston since the opening of the Scottish Parliament in 1999 and it has been an honour and privilege to represent the town I was born and raised in. It’s a town with a huge ethnic Irish population, nicknamed ‘little Ireland’ and is host to one of the biggest St Patrick’s Day festivals in the world.

It is also a town that has consistently rejected the overtures of Scottish nationalism, and supported a Labour Party which has seen the inherent good and solidarity of remaining in political union with the working classes right across the UK.

I’m from an Irish Catholic family and I’m proud of that but I’m also proudly Scottish and inherently British. Whilst I would not attempt to speak for the Irish diaspora, I do note that the working class Catholic Irish immigrants of the late 19th century did not just make their homes on this island in Coatbridge, Lanarkshire and the greater Glasgow area but in Liverpool, Manchester and London as well.

The debate over what is best for Scotland’s future cannot be about flag v flag, no matter how many saltires the SNP fly. As a socialist, my personal preference in terms of flags is the red one which, interestingly, Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon have uneasily draped themselves in (in an attempt to hoodwink Labour voters that their tax cutting agenda is somehow reflective of Labour values?)

The reality is that the working class Irish immigrants and their children across the UK helped deliver the achievements we hold so dear.

It was working class Irish Catholic votes which sent Labour MPs to Parliament the length and breadth of this island to introduce our welfare state, create the National Health Service, build council housing, pass equalities legislation and deliver the minimum wage. We did that together. So why walk away from it?

Culturally, the first two Labour led executives in the Scottish Parliament made progress in battling sectarianism, by investing in education. The SNP cut funding for this, until a football match gave them a chance at a cheap headline.

This resulted in the Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications (Scotland) Act.

A historic piece of legislation; the first in Holyrood’s history to be passed without any cross party support and described by one senior political commentator as the worst piece of legislation ever passed by the Scottish Parliament.

A criminal justice law described by one Sheriff as ‘mince.’

A cheap PR stunt designed to chase headlines rather than deal with what in Scotland is an incredibly complex problem that is more than a century old.

At this point, those who favour separation will undoubtedly say that it isn’t all about the SNP. If only that were true. But the fact of the matter is that the views of decent, principled politicians like Denis Canavan, Patrick Harvie and Jim Sillars have been completely ignored to pursue a socio-economic model developed by the SNP and focus grouped to within an inch of its life.

A socio-economic model which gifts corporations like Google, Starbucks and Amazon a near £400 million tax cut.

A socio-economic model which cynically chases the votes of female voters with a childcare pledge, an issue already devolved to Holyrood that lives in the realms of economic fantasy.

A socio-economic model which does not mention how we solve our social housing crisis.

These issues matter to voters in my constituency because we are the direct descendants of those poor immigrants who delivered Labour values throughout this island, and it is insulting to see the SNP attempt to steal our clothes.

When the working classes of the UK, including the children of Irish immigrants were building the welfare state, the SNP were campaigning for separation.

When the working classes of the UK, including the children of Irish immigrants, were building the NHS, the SNP were campaigning for separation.

When the working classes of the UK, including the children of Irish immigrants were fighting for a more inclusive world with the Race Relations Act, the Sex Discrimination Act and the Disability Discrimination act the SNP were campaigning for separation.

And when the working classes of the UK, including the children of Irish Immigrants were delivering the minimum wage the SNP were….well, take a guess. Actually they weren’t even in the chamber to vote.

This is not ancient history. This very year we saw the SNP reject chances of improving the lives of people in Scotland.

When the SNP had the chance to deliver the living wage to more workers—they said No

When the SNP had the chance to limit zero hours contracts—they said No.

When they had the chance to punish blacklisters and tax dodgers—they said No.

With all that against them why should the descendants of working class Irish families say yes to their obsession with building borders and barriers?

Add to this the fact that their plans for separation would unleash a tidal wave of austerity on our public services the likes of which even George Osborne dare not dream of.

You don’t need to simply take my word for that: The expert, impartial and independent Institute for Fiscal Studies have calculated that a separate Scotland would need £6 billion of additional public spending cuts in the years following independence and the expert, impartial and independent Fiscal Affairs Scotland have calculated that a separate Scotland could be up to £900 per person worse off after independence.

Meanwhile oil revenues, on which the entire economic case for independence is built, fell by £4.4.billion last year.

These are big numbers and they need context.

£6 billion is roughly half of the Scottish NHS budget. Public spending in Scotland is currently £1,200 higher than in other parts of the UK. The drop in oil revenues? It’s the equivalent of the whole Scottish school budget.

Why in the world would we take that risk based on Alex Salmond telling us to trust him?

Today, the Scottish economy has the potential to create jobs and protect public services. By pooling and sharing our resources across a population of 63 million rather than 5 million we can protect funding for our schools and hospitals.

Meanwhile business in Coatbridge or Chryston starting today can sell their products and services, hassle free, to a domestic market of 63 million rather than 5 million, with the scope to create far more jobs than they could setting up in a separate Scotland.

And we do all this with a Scottish Parliament, with more powers guaranteed.

I am devolutionist, part of that first generation elected in 1999 on the basis of a better Scotland within the UK. I do not believe in separatism. I believe in solidarity. I believe in local decision making whilst being part of something bigger to protect our economy, our jobs and our public services.

I did not get involved in politics for flags, borders and brave heart but for workers’ rights, redistribution of wealth and power and to end poverty. I’m sure that’s what my Irish ancestors wanted too. I also have more in common with the people of Blackpool than I do with those in Balmoral. Our strength lies in unity across the UK not separation. Instead of supporting the SNP’s divide and conquer strategy we must stay ‘United with Labour’ to win for our people. For positive change within existing devolution, we need to say no thanks to nationalism on September 18.

—The views expressed in the opinion section of SCO_NEWS are those of informed individuals and groups and not necessarily those of the newspaper or the Church

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