I am a 51 year old working mum of five – not all at home thank goodness. Im a member of the Women for Independence National Executive. This Blog is growing and changing as my hopes and aspirations change. I actually DO expect to change the world but I accept that might not even make sense sometimes. I hope you enjoy the read.

Archive for the month “July, 2012”

Politics, politics, its not all party politics….

It seems that the Independence Campaign might be catching up with the people in the street. Last week the YES campaign announced its board members and there were people from all walks of life.  A new site Voters Alliance for Scottish Independence and its associated Facebook page have appeared along with “Labour Voters for Scottish Independence” quickly followed by a page for the Conservatives and the Lib-Dems. Not much action on the latter two but the Labour page is already starting to buzz. I’m not sure whether these pages will attract actual Lib-Dem and Tory voters and, whether there will be any sensible debate, is also still to be discovered over the next wee while, but these pages are there and I hope it is an indication that the debate over Independence is starting to cross party boundaries.

The online debate is already wide and varied – from Facebook pages with thousands of members to those with but a few. There is this site – National Collective –  NewsnetScotland , Labour Hame, Tory Hoose, a variety of bloggers and some “official pages” to highlight a few. Twitter baffles me a bit – I have no idea how to increase my followers and it took me ages to figure out what a “hash tag” was and what “#FF” means (Follow Friday apparently). I’ll keep at it but I’m not completely engaged.    My addiction is Facebook. I am a connoisseur. I feel like I should add “LOL” after that sentence LOL. (There I did it – I can stop twitching now). I follow the trail of both YES and NO supporters around Facebook – sometimes posting sometimes not.  I guess I’m a bit of a political page slapper. No real allegiance just picking up whatever I fancy at the time. There are others just like me (Although they might not like my describing them as slappers – my apologies).  I have learned much but also found some things that disturb and horrify me – a dance into the pages of the Scottish Defence League and links from their pages left me running for the hills and hiding behind my monitor for a few days feeling rather sick.

I have only ever actively left a page I had joined once. I  threw my toys out of the pram and said I wasn’t coming back.  It was a “NO” page for those of you who like to know those things, and when the threads descended into a pissing contest between the boys it was really not for me.  I retired to the relative calmness and solidarity of “Women for Scots Independence” to regroup.  I do still lurk on that “NO” page a bit and it is really irritating when I want to post but can’t because I made a big fuss out of walking away. I won’t do that again. Mostly I’m tolerant and interested by the views people express and the immediacy of Facebook. That’s the addictive thing you see – the immediacy. Post a comment and on the busier pages there is often someone who replies within a few minutes. I can while away the rainy afternoons with a film on the telly for the children whilst I, meandering around the internet, can find myself arguing about welfare with a baker in Nottingham, social policy with a lawyer in Glasgow and democracy with an anarchist in Ayr.

It’s tempting to suggest that the quality of the debate is better on the Pro-Independence pages but it does depend on the page.  And of course, we always prefer places where our opinions match other peoples so it’s not really a valid comment to say that the YES pages are better. Some are good and some are dire on both sides.  There is also a sense of optimism about many of the YES pages and a sort of negativity about the NO pages which is mirrored within the argument itself.  YES supporters tend to say “We could do this or this or this” and NO supporters tend to say “We wouldn’t be able to do this or have that”.  I’d like to see NO pages where they say “If we stay with the Union we could achieve this and this and this”. That doesn’t seem to be the case and I find that disappointing.

The area where the Internet is failing to provide any concrete answers is however clear. It’s the Economy – Ya bam! You can drive yourself mad, and quickly too, trying to get to the bottom of the economic argument for and against Independence.  Claim and counter claim, evidence and conflicting evidence, prosperity and austerity… once you enter the world of online debate on Scotland’s economic future you could be lost forever. I worry that one day they might find me slumped over my keyboard, having not eaten for days, smelly and unwashed muttering about McCrone and block grants and the amount of time before the oil will run out. Fortunately I have little ones and when my two year old comes to stand next to me saying “Hungry, hungry, hungry, hungry” I am forced to put my laptop away and turn back into their loving mum – at least until bedtime.  I’m waiting to see if l either get smarter over the next two years, or the arguments  become clearer. I’m not hopeful though.

And so I am pleased to see that the campaign, both officially and online is trying to move on to mirror the debates that are taking place in houses, round dinner tables, over pints at the pub, over coffee at Starbucks and in workplaces. I have been worried that the YES Campaign will fail to engage with ordinary people – People who don’t belong to any political party, people who run small businesses, voluntary organisations or who just, simply, live their lives apart from the cut and thrust of political shenanigans. People ARE talking about Independence more, regardless of what political party they support, they are meandering around Facebook, and they are talking, face to face even, about how it affects them and their families – their lives. They agree or disagree with each other and then continue to drink their pint or talk about their children or their jobs, relationships and holidays. That’s a good thing.  Their conversations don’t start or end with a question about the political party you support and the Independence Campaign shouldn’t either.  We need to reinforce the message that this campaign is about more than party politics over and over again and it looks like we are, at least, starting to do that.

Molly Constantine

Molly Constantine almost passed unnoticed. An unremarkable woman to look at, Molly was of an indeterminate age. She might be fifty, she might be eighty it was hard to tell.  Her clothes were also unremarkable, plain and serviceable, the hint of a heel on her shoes, the cut of her coat suggested quality without frivolity, no jewellery to speak of – no wedding ring and just plain gold hoops in her ears, small and sensible. Her terraced house was neat and tidy in appearance – it’s little garden was kept well and her windows and net curtains were always clean.

When you met Molly she was warm and friendly. She smiled and her blue eyes were honest and gentle. She was the sort of person who kept herself to herself, not in a snooty sort of way like that woman round the corner but in a self contained, self assured manner. If you knocked at her door then you would be welcomed into a nice, neat, slightly dated living room and offered a cup of tea but Molly didn’t really DO neighnouring. The endless in and out of each other’s houses which typified life in these terraced streets didn’t include Molly.

Every month Molly went away for a weekend. She took her sensible case and a taxi to the station where she caught a train. No one knew where she went, no one really ever asked. Her neighbours waved her off and asked on her return enquired if she’d had a nice time and she would smile and nod saying the journey was good or the weather was nice but nothing in the way of details.  At first people were curious but as time passed her neighbours just accepted her absences as being as unremarkable as Molly herself.

Then Molly Constantine died.

Her neigbours were sad at her loss, each thinking they would go to the funeral as Molly had been very sweet when they were ill, bereaved, sad. In fact when they thought about it they remembered a book lent to pass a lonely day or two, a hot pie when they had come out of hospital that time, help when a carrier bag broke as they were trying to open their door, a bin taken out when forgotten.  Yes, Molly had been a sweet woman.

When they tuned up at her funeral, they were amazed. The church was packed to capacity. People who had known each other for years were surprised to find that they both knew Molly.  “What are you doing here?” they asked each other, only to find that Molly had fetched shopping, tidied a garden, helped write a letter, cooked a meal, or made a cup of tea for someone who was sad or weary. For years Molly had carried out these small acts of kindness  which no one really noticed. As people chatted they started to see the whole picture.  When the minister stood up to speak they were even more surprised.

Molly had been a member of the French Resistance during the war. Brought up in Jersey, Molly’s French was fluent and she was ideal as a candidate for spying against the occupying forces in France in World War 2.  She ran a unit responsible for helping allied troops escape capture. She lived a dangerous life of secrecy and deception and only evaded capture herself by hiding a cattle wagon as they passed through enemy checkpoints.  Her neighbours were astounded – they had absolutely no idea. The eulogy was given by a very handsome man who explained that the old soldiers at the home Molly visited every month would miss her. Her patience in sitting with them and chatting, her shared understanding of the horror of their experiences meant that they had come to love Molly and would miss her wonderful singing.  Her neighbours had no idea that she sang.

As the funeral ended and all these slightly amazed people left the church a recording was playing

“There’ll be bluebirds over the white cliffs of Dover”

If they had turned as they left they may have been forgiven for thinking a bird had accidentally flown into the church but if they had listened closely they would have heard the sound of an angel stretching their new wings.

My Ain Folk

He came to get a job done. Scotland – so far from his home and his world it might have been the moon.  His Scottish nanny had told him about the hills, the heather and the happy childhood she had growing up in Inverness-shire, and so it seemed like a good idea to head for the Highlands to get his licence. His privileged life had made him wary of people. From a massively wealthy and equally reviled and feted family, he had worked hard to make his own way in life, and he had been successful. This success came at a price. Few people got close to him, few knew the real him and he avoided “mates” but he was happy. His wife and family were his joy and it was the move to France which sent him to Scotland – the “auld alliance” his nanny had called it. He needed a European bike licence and he didn’t speak French, so Scotland it was.

He arrived on the first day and was given a bike. He was suspicious of the tyres – although he knew they were legal he was used to new tyres on his bike every two months. Offering to buy new ones, he was surprised when the guy teaching him laughed.  “I can afford it” he said explaining his circumstances without boasting. He hated doing this, but he had found from experience that it was better to do it sooner rather than later. He waited for the instructor’s eyes to glaze over as he dismissed him as a posh boy, or to shine with greed as he saw pound notes, but the guy just laughed more.  “This is the Highlands” he said “It takes two days to get these tyres delivered, just pick the bike you like best and we’ll get started”. Surprised he picked one which had the newest tyres and they were off.

The lessons were surprising. He had to learn things he had known for years without knowing he knew.  He was given instructions in basic maintenance of the bike. Bored, he shrugged and said “I just get my mechanic to do this stuff”.  Again the instructor laughed and replied “Well you can fly your mechanic over here if you like but he can’t answer your examiner’s questions for you” then slapped him on the back and began talking about tyre pressure and oil leaks.

The ride outs were magnificent – the hills, the lochs – just as he had seen them through the eyes of his nanny. The colours were amazing – this country was so green compared to the sandy desert of his home. But the real surprise was the conversation. Miked up inside his helmet, he had an intimacy with the instructor that he had never experienced before. The conversations were not simply about the bike; the jokes, the interesting stories, the listening and talking began a change in him. Never one for closeness, he warmed to this country and this crazy guy, and talked about his life, his experiences and his hopes.  He became more relaxed in this place than he ever imagined.  He watched his instructor disappear off at the end of the day, telling him of his evenings in easy friendship with others, stories of firesides and tea with friends. He was a little envious – his dinners at the best restaurant in town felt small and lonely, after the intimacy of the bike helmet and the space of the hills.

“Come for dinner” his instructor said, “just a family dinner at a friend’s house” And so he went. Another bike instructor – this guy was as quiet as his instructor was loud. It was a chaotic house with grown up children, small children, grannie and granddad and dogs. Dinner wasn’t haggis, thank goodness, but roast dinner and chocolate dessert, laughter, stories and family. He couldn’t remember the last time dinner was like that, but he knew that this was what he wanted for his family, noise, happiness, laughter. He loved it when his wife cooked and he smiled to think how much she would like these warm people.  When he left everyone hugged him. He was touched and delighted.

And so he passed his test – he thought a handshake and a pat on the back would see him on his way, but no, a night out was arranged and he found himself drinking whisky in the pubs in Inverness; hot, noisy with chatter and fiddle music playing the songs he remembered his nanny singing – the songs of his childhood. He sat in the company of the people he had met the last five days and wondered how he felt so at home.  He loved these people – how did that happen?  He hadn’t even known them a week ago. Was it the whisky he wondered – making him drop his guard? He found himself offering tickets for next year’s TT race, and wasn’t surprised when the guys said “That would be fantastic“. People liked to be taken out by him – hotels, restaurants, the works. He was however surprised when they said  “We can take the tents and camp it will be great” and he found himself being swept along with enthusiasm but not expectation.  He very quickly pointed out that he didn’t do camping there would very definitely be no tents – a hotel! They looked disappointed at this and he threw his head back and laughed, long and loud – he knew there would be no begging letters, no business propositions no inflated prices, just what his nanny had told him – what she had sang about when she sang “my ain folk”. He struggled for a minute as he remembered the words. He had thought it corny and silly when she sang it and he never thought he would understand why she loved it so much. As he looked around he knew he would be back. For here “in dear auld Scotland” he had found his “ain folk” for the first time ever.

Lies, Damned lies and WelfareReform

The NO campaign launched last week and we listened to Alistair Darling talk of the things that we have shared as the United Kingdom.   We heard him talk proudly of the NHS and the Welfare State. At the same time David Cameron was  spelling out future welfare reforms  for a system which will exclude  the under 25s from housing benefit and which, he initially suggested, may lead to people on benefits in the South East receiving more money than those in the less affluent areas of Britain. Once again, David Cameron is targeting the poor and the most vulnerable in society in an effort to fix the mess that the rich and the greedy actually caused.

Also last week, I was deeply affected by some comments on the Highland News website. I don’t usually read the Highland News, but I followed an online link to an article about a man who had been up in court in Inverness.  The story was a depressing one – an alcoholic before he was a teenager, it detailed violent acts and anti-social behaviour.  However, it wasn’t the story that affected me, as much as the comments on the webpage, now removed – and rightly so – by the Highland News. These comments initially focused on the man named in the article – a troubled and difficult individual -­ but soon became more wide ranging. They moved on from the article in particular and began referring to the “feral underclass”.  It was clear that the comments were about those out of work, sick and in receipt of benefits.  The people posting talked about putting “wasters” on the “Auschwitz Express” and gassing them; they discussed how to remove the “scroungers” and suggested they fight each other to the death. One post suggested that the whole of “the Ferry” –   South Kessock – a deprived area in Inverness – should be bombed. Some of the posters named families who were nothing to do with the article, highlighted their dependence on benefits and discussed ways of getting rid of them and stopping these families being a drain on the taxpayer. There were gleeful suggestions that these “scrounging scum” should be euthanised or otherwise “got rid of”.  There was no hint of compassion for those people who were less fortunate or struggling to make ends meet on breadline benefits. The few voices that were raised to challenge those posting this list of insults and shocking language (It ran to six pages I think) were derided as “liberal apologists” who clearly knew nothing about anything.  Those posting spewed their vile, hate filled nonsense from behind pseudonyms, smug in their own living rooms and no doubt with self-satisfied smirks on their faces. It was frankly nauseating and it has upset me all week.

These two events are inextricably linked in my mind. The UK government has been persistently targeting the poor by trying to remove those claimants who they believe do not deserve benefits – the well-publicised “scroungers”.  They have very successfully persuaded the general public that, somehow the responsibility for the state of the economy lies with people who are on welfare benefits and the media perpetuates that myth. Headlines scream outrage about families with lots of children getting massive amounts of benefits; programmes like the BBC’s “Saints and Sinners” encourage people to see dishonesty and trickery going hand in hand with benefit recipients and so believe that this is the norm. The endless attacks on benefits are designed to encourage us to think that only by reducing the cost of welfare, only by kicking these “wasters” off benefits, can we regain control of the economy. People buy into the idea that draconian measures to reduce the costs of welfare are the only way to reduce the deficit. Yes, removing under 25s from Housing Benefit entitlement may save £1.8bn but Vodafone allegedly avoided paying £4.8bn in tax when HMRC settled a dispute and the cost of bailing out the banks is said to run into the hundreds of billions of pounds.   A survey by Prospect magazine recently suggested that people think that 40% of those claiming benefits are committing fraud. The truth is somewhat different – only around 3% of benefit recipients are getting more than they are entitled to through fraud or error – 3% that’s all.  What a mismatch between opinion and fact – a mismatch encouraged by the Tories and the mainstream media.

By encouraging this popular opinion the UK government has chosen to ignore the one thing that will in reality  tackle welfare dependency and make welfare affordable. The only way to successfully reduce dependence and spending on welfare is to create jobs.  Did you hear that?  I will say it again.  The only way to successfully reduce dependence and spending on welfare is to create jobs; Jobs for unemployed workers, jobs that are flexible enough for single parents and jobs with employers who can support workers with disabilities. The coalition government has shown no real commitment to economic growth and no real commitment to creating sustainable jobs. Instead, they persuade us that, to cut the deficit, we need deep and damaging cuts to benefits.  It is a big smoke screen that allows them to look like they are doing the best – that we are “in this together”- when they are actually just furthering the ideological agenda of the Conservatives whilst the Liberal Democrats  let them get on with it.

People on benefits are not to blame for the economic mess we are in – politicians and  bankers are to blame. These are people like the Barclays chairman – Bob Diamond, who earned 1.3 million before bonuses – not the man who receives £67.50 per week unemployment benefit.  People like  Bob Diamond, whose bonuses were set to exceed £1 million before he gave them up after Barclays Bank were caught rigging the interest rates – not the man who gets £50 a week in housing benefit  to live in a damp dull little flat in Govan;  People like  Bob Diamond, who thought that the best response to criminal activity within the organisation HE was in charge of,  was simply  to say it was “wholly inappropriate” – not the man who may be denied his mobility allowance because, despite being  blind he has no other health problems, so won’t get enough points. Incidentally no UK political leaders have condemned Bob Diamond but they have been queuing up to condemn benefit recipients. At least he had the good sense to resign, although the reports of this suggest that there is more chicanery to be revealed as he appears before the Treasury Select Committee and the newly announced enquiry.

Here in Scotland the Scottish Government already knows that the way benefits are being cut is not the way to move forward. The Scottish Parliament has passed the Welfare Reform (Further Provision) (Scotland) Bill which is designed to reduce the effect of the UK government’s actions on welfare recipients.  The SNP has also given an indication of its desire “for a progressive welfare system that reflects our nation’s values and ensures fair and decent support for all our people” (Nicola Sturgeon 28/06/2012). To do that they will need to work very hard to undo the mean myth making by the coalition UK government

I know that there are people who do not want to work. I worked in Benefits through the 80s, 90s, and into the 21st century. I remember people who were lazy, feckless and not interested in getting a job.  I can remember the man who was signing on as unemployed, who was found to have a part time job as well as a full time job and who had just had a fortnight holiday in Florida.  I couldn’t even afford a weekend in a caravan in Tenby. I can remember the man who had secured a mortgage using the  income from his benefits  and was then claiming more benefit to help pay the interest on his endowment mortgage.*  I couldn’t even afford to stay at home looking after my wee ones, because I HAD to work to pay our mortgage. I can remember being satisfied when their benefits were stopped because, despite being given every chance, they were either committing Fraud or were not interested in working or helping themselves and it was the right thing to do.  I can remember them and others like them – even their faces, many of their names  and, the reason I can do this, is because they are actually few and far between.

I think I can count on both hands the people I met who were real “scroungers”. The people that the government would have us think are everywhere.  The truth is that the vast majority of people, when given the right kind of help, CAN work and are pleased to do so. The problem with giving people the right kind of help is that it costs money. This money is in fact small bier compared to what a life on benefits costs in both money and in wasted opportunities.  For the hardest to help, it means taking a tailored approach.  It is difficult, complicated and expensive to resolve these problems so to make any targeted measures REALLY work we absolutely have to have jobs.   Growth and the creation of sustainable jobs are not part of the script for Westminster because the Conservatives are using the economic crisis to justify their pursuit of privatisation, a smaller public sector and less welfare. Rather than trying to fix things, it is easier for the UK government to persuade people that benefit recipients are useless, criminal and lazy, and to blame them for the fact that the rest of us are struggling in this time of austerity.

An Independent Scotland must put eradicating poverty and creating a better welfare system at the heart of its policies. To do that we must, must, must have jobs. We can’t win people over with the economic argument – one side says black the other white and it is just too complicated to get to the bottom of the figures. I believe we can win people over by planning for better lives and that means jobs.   By securing jobs, an Independent Scotland will make welfare affordable.  We must develop a welfare system which offers hope and support and doesn’t demonise those who are struggling and need help.  We must strive to have a fair welfare system which supports those who are sick and ill, and which assesses their entitlement by applying medical evidence and clinical judgement to each case. We need a system which doesn’t use private companies to carry out interviews that take little or no account of the medical history and prognosis for the patient, and which leads to people being found fit for work when they are terminally ill or to people taking their own life as a result of draconian nonsensical and cruel decisions to cut benefits.

In an Independent Scotland, measures to help people back into work need to be given back to the public servants who can do it the best of all.  Private companies operating training or job support programmes for the unemployed do so to make money. Some of them have shown they do not have the best intentions for their clients at heart – they are simply interested in the balance sheet.  An Independent Scotland should not – indeed MUST not – allow multi-national rich companies to make money out of the misery of others – to use the unemployed for cheap unpaid labour and dash hopes when real jobs don’t materialise. This is immoral and deceitful.

Of course there  must also be a plan for people who cheat the system and who try to duck their responsibilities – there have to be penalties for those who refuse to engage with the world of work and will not take the help that is offered. Fraud detection must be robust and we should remove the incentives to commit fraud that are endemic in the Welfare system just now – why do two single people get less benefit than a couple?  It simply encourages people to lie about living together. We need, however, to recognise that these people are a small minority and not label all those claiming in the same way. Most of all we must push the message that people are valued. Most of us are just trying to live a good and settled life whether we are on benefits or not.

Unemployment, poverty, disaffection and isolation prevent people from contributing positively to society. Changing our attitudes to welfare will help to change that and will help to start building a Scotland where achievement is more prevalent than failure; where aspiration is greater than despair and where policies are designed to increase the chance of people living a fulfilled life, contributing positively to the society they live in, rather than being vilified and hated for their “scrounging”.


* This doesn’t happen in the same way today.










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