Thousands of people across the North were already waiting to downsize before the bedroom tax came into force.
Almost 40,000 households across the North of England were on the waiting list for one-bedroom social homes just as the so-called Bedroom Tax came into force – half the total number of households on the list.
It compares with just 22% of households on the waiting list who were hoping for a social home with more than four bedrooms.
The controversial tax, which has reduced housing benefit available to families deemed to have extra bedrooms, was brought in by the coalition in April 2013.
Opponents warned at the time that people had ‘spare’ bedrooms only because of a lack of available smaller properties following years of councils selling off their social housing stock.
Now, figures reveal a chronic shortage of smaller homes in the North of England leaving thousands of households unable to move out of larger homes.
Meanwhile, they continue to be hit with cuts to their housing benefits despite major opposition to the policy.
Labour MPs across the North have reacted with fury at the figures, which they say highlight their concerns that thousands have been unfairly hit with the “pernicious” and “ideological” bedroom tax thanks to government failure to build enough homes.
Among them, Wansbeck MP Ian Lavery slammed the bedroom tax which he claimed was making the most vulnerable pay for the shortage of housing across the region.
“It’s a complete and utter bottleneck where families can not move because the homes are not available. They are then subject to this pernicious tax while they are struggling to make ends meet at this moment in time anyway.
“The government knew the consequences of this. They did understand and they still pushed ahead with this. The election can not come quick enough for these people.”
And Blaydon MP Dave Anderson said the figures dispel a myth about people who are being hit by the bedroom tax.
He said: “This blows the myth out of the water and Labour will be rid of it. It was a pretence and a myth right down the lines about people having too many bedrooms.
“There simply aren’t enough one-bedroom properties for people to move into. It’s nonsense. These are people, human beings in houses they have been living in 40 years. We’re talking about them as if they’re subhumans. It’s a disgrace.”
And Hartlepool MP Iain Wright, who was housing and planning minister from 2007 to 2009, said that housing supply had failed to keep up with a changing society that was seeing an aging population with more people moving to one-bedroom properties as partners passed away and children left home.
But he denied that Labour had been part of the problem or that they too had failed to ensure enough homes were built.
He said: “I would strongly disagree with that. We knew in full terms about the changing society. That’s why we needed to build more homes because we understand people are living longer and more people are living in one-person households.
“This government will have been aware of that too, and yet they still impose this grossly unfair tax. They know they don’t have the properties, they knew all along the difficulties this would” cause.”
And he added: “Where are the priorities with this government? It is not with people in the North who are suffering with housing problems. It’s about indifference – they don’t care about communities in Hartlepool.”
But a government spokesperson said the government was committed to building new homes across England and claimed ending the spare room subsidy had been a “necessary” move.
She added: “Nearly 217,000 affordable homes have been delivered in England since April 2010. Our affordable homes programme is on track to deliver 170,000 new affordable homes between 2011 and 2015, with £19.5 billion of public and private funding.
“We have also given the North East of England £13.8m since 2013 to support vulnerable people affected by welfare reforms and there has been a 12% fall in the number of people in the North East affected by the policy, as tenants take action.
“Ending the spare room subsidy was absolutely necessary to get the soaring housing benefit bill under control, return fairness to the system and make better use of social housing stock.
“Every day the policy saves taxpayers over £1m.”
The North MPs were joined in their criticism by Helen Goodman, MP for Bishop Auckland, and Sharon Hodgson, MP for Washington and Sunderland. All five reiterated Labour’s pledge to abolish the bedroom tax if they win this year’s election.
The party became one step closer to delivering the promise in September 2014, when Labour and the Liberal Democrats came together to voted in favour of a bill brought in by Liberal Democrat MP Andrew George.
If passed, it will mean the bedroom tax will not apply unless a tenant has been offered a different property and has refused to move.
> Hmmm…call me a cynic, but might that not just be circumvented by offering absolute shitholes that no-one wants to live in, then penalizing people for not wanting to live in them.
But prime minister David Cameron has shown no sign of revoking the policy, while a government spokesperson said it was saving the taxpayer £1m every day.
Guidance issued by the DWP last week on the new Fit for Work scheme makes it clear that referrals can only be made to the scheme with the consent of the employee. It also makes it clear that most health assessments will be carried out over the telephone.
Fit for Work is the new DWP scheme intended to cut sickness absence and ESA claims by getting sick employees back to work more quickly. In England and Wales the scheme has been outsourced to a branch of Maximus, the company also taking over the work capability assessment contract from Atos later this year. In Scotland fit for work is being delivered by the Scottish government.
GPs and employers can refer employees for an occupational health assessment via the Fit for Work service once they have been off sick for a month, provided that there is a reasonable prospect of the employee retuning to work. The employee must consent before a referral can be made.
Fit for work will carry out a ‘biopsychosocial holistic assessment’ of the employee over the telephone and draw up a return to work plan on the basis of that call. In a small number of cases a face-to-face assessment will be carried out.
For GPs, the attraction of a referral is that once a return to work plan has been drawn up by Fit for Work the GP will no longer be responsible for providing sick notes.
Employers receive a tax exemption of up to £500 per year, per employee on medical treatments recommended by Fit for Work to help their employees return to work.
Source – Benefits & Work, 06 Jan 2015
A “power imbalance” between landlords and tenants has led more households to seek external help to cope in the private rented sector, a Citizens Advice Bureau claims.
In the three months to September 2014, more than 100 people received advice from the Newcastle branch of the Citizens Advice Bureau (CAB) about problems.
Issues included landlords not repairing leaking roofs, not replacing emergency lighting, the withholding of personal mail and refusals to return deposits.
Nationally, CABs helped people with 14% more repairs and maintenance problems between July and September this year than in the same period in 2013.
The organisation’s latest Advice Trends report lists difficulties getting repairs and maintenance as the most common problem reported, with the charity having helped in almost 17,000 of these issues over the past year.
The study also claims one in three private rented properties in England does not meet the Government’s decent home minimum standard, while renters have few rights and fear eviction. CABs helped with 20% more issues where people are facing eviction without arrears.
Currently, the CAB-backed Tenancies Reform Bill is going through parliament, with a House of Commons debate taking place last month and another set for January 23.
If it becomes law, the bill would prevent so-called ‘retaliatory evictions’, and has been supported by Newcastle MPs Chi Onwurah and Catherine McKinnell.
Shona Alexander, chief executive of Newcastle CAB, said:
“Many people are finding it tough dealing with their landlords in the private rented sector. We are seeing more private tenants coming to us for help.
“People are living in homes which are damp, in need of repair and in some cases dangerous. But they fear that if they ask their landlord to fix problems they may face eviction.
“The power imbalance between private landlords and tenants needs to change. It’s time for private renters’ rights to be brought up to a decent 21st century standard.”
However, the National Landlords Association (NLA), which promotes and protects landlords, argues bringing in new legislation is unnecessary.
Bruce Haagensen, NLA representative in the North East, said:
“Retaliatory eviction, if and where it does happen, is an unacceptable and completely unprofessional response. Tenants should be able to raise issues with their landlords without the fear of losing their home.
“However, the Tenancies Reform or ‘Revenge Evictions’ Bill is a response more to the fear of it happening than widespread experience and the NLA has always been concerned that there is not the weight of evidence to justify the need for additional legislation.
“Following last month’s events it would seem the majority of MPs share these reservations given that so few were present to vote for it.”
Source – Newcastle Evening Chronicle, 08 Dec 2014
Six of the country’s biggest “debt hotspots” are in the North-East, a report has revealed.
South Tyneside, Darlington, North Tyneside, Gateshead, Middlesbrough and Northumberland have some of the biggest clusters of people seeking help from Citizens Advice in England and Wales.
The charity dealt with 405 clients in Denbigshire between July and September – or 0.54 per cent of the adult population – making this area of North Wales the top debt hotspot.
South Tyneside was fourth with 607 clients seen (0.5 per cent); Darlington joint fifth with 410 clients (0.49 per cent); North Tyneside joint seventh with 776 (0.48 per cent); Gateshead 748 (0.46 per cent) and Middlesbrough 499 (0.46 per cent) in joint 11th and Northumberland in joint 15th place with 1,166 clients seen or 0.45 per cent of its adult population.
The charity, which has helped almost half a million people with debt over the last year, made the findings after analysing the cries for debt help it received over the three month period.
Citizens Advice said since the economic crisis, problems with consumer debt such as credit cards and personal loans have fallen significantly. By contrast, problems with “priority debts” such as rent arrears and council tax debts are growing.
Gillian Guy, chief executive of Citizens Advice, said:
“Times have changed, and so have people’s debt problems.
“Consumer debts like credit cards and personal loans have traditionally been the most common debt problems. But now priority debts such as council tax arrears are gradually building up as people struggle to cover everyday costs.
“In the past, people were more likely to get help for debt problems triggered by life events such as illness, redundancy or separation.
“But in recent years more people are being pushed into debt as they struggle to stretch their income to cover everyday living costs.”
Here are the biggest debt hotspots across England and Wales, according to Citizens Advice, with the number of people it helped between July and September, and also expressed as a percentage of the local adult population:
1. Denbighshire, 405, 0.54%;
2. Merthyr Tydfil, 248, 0.53%;
3. Stoke-on-Trent, 1,031, 0.52%;
4. South Tyneside, 607, 0.50%;
=5. Darlington, 410, 0.49%;
=5. Salford, 908, 0.49%;
=7. Copeland, 276, 0.48%;
=7. North Tyneside, 776, 0.48%;
=9. Mendip, 411, 0.47%;
=9. Liverpool, 1,793, 0.47%;
=11. Stevenage, 303, 0.46%;
=11. Gateshead, 748, 0.46%;
=11. Middlesbrough, 499, 0.46%;
=11. Torfaen, 330, 0.46%;
=15. Northumberland, 1,166, 0.45%;
=15. Lincoln, 348, 0.45%;
=17. Cannock Chase, 336, 0.43%;
=17. Barrow-in-Furness, 240, 0.43%;
=17. Hastings, 310, 0.43%;
=17. Sandwell, 1,015, 0.43%
Source – Northern Echo, 06 Dec 2014
> Comedy time at the House of Commons…
North East industry is thriving, a Conservative MP has told the House of Commons.
And the Government has created jobs in the region – while Labour was happy to concentrate prosperity in the south of England, according to the Prime Minister.
But the bold claims from the Tories sparked an immediate backlash from Labour, which claimed the Government had failed to tackle the region’s high level of unemployment.
Guy Opperman, Conservative MP for Hexham, highlighted what he said was the region’s strong economic performance as he questioned David Cameron.
“Is the Prime Minister aware that the region with the most tech start ups outside of London, and the fastest rate of growth in private sector businesses over the last quarter, and the highest rise in the value of exports, is the North East of England?
“And does he agree with me that we should stick to the long term economic plan so that we all have the benefits?”
The Prime Minister told him:
“It is notable that when we look at things like small business creation, exports, investment, the growth is coming from around the country including the North East – and that is a huge contrast.
“Under 13 years of Labour, for every 10 jobs created in the south they only created one in the North. That is the record of the last Labour government.”
“What we need to do is to increase entrepreneurship and start ups in every part of the country . . . there is a new spirit of entrepreneurship in Britain and this government is backing it.”
Mr Opperman was referring to a report by the British Chambers of Commerce which found there were more than 300 high tech and digital businesses in the North East, and that only London has a higher rate of tech start ups in the UK.
He also highlighted the Lloyds Bank Regional Purchasing Managers’ Index, which measures business activity in each region and shows that the North East has the highest rate of growth over three months. The latest index, published on October 13, shows activity in the North East growing in line with the national average, although faster than London.
And in September, official figures showed total value of exports in the North East had risen by 2.32% over a year – the highest figure recorded by any English regions.
Second quarter statistics for 2014 showed £3.102bn worth of goods were sold to foreign markets from the region, up by 9.66% compared to the same period last year.
But Labour pointed out that the North East still had the highest unemployment rate in the country. Most recent figures show unemployment in the region is 9.3%, worse than any other region of England, Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland. The overall UK rate is 6%.
Newcastle North MP and Shadow Treasury Minister Catherine McKinnell, questioning Chancellor George Osborne in the Commons, said:
“Whilst he’s been shifting funds from Northern cities to wealthier parts of the country, unemployment in the North East is the highest in the country; wages for working people in the North have fallen by even more than the national average; and, across the North, the number of young people unemployed for over a year is up 62% since the election.
“Why won’t he match Labour’s plan to devolve real power and £30billion of funding, not just to the North but to all city and county regions?”
Source – Newcastle Journal, 06 Nov 2014
The region must accept a single directly-elected mayor ruling from Durham to Scotland in order to grab dramatic new powers, George Osborne said yesterday.
The Chancellor signed a landmark devolution deal with Greater Manchester – covering transport, health, housing and the police – in return for a ‘metro mayor’, to run its ten authorities.
And he immediately warned that any city-region hoping for similar control over its own destiny must also accept a cross-border ‘Boris Johnson-style’ leader.
That list includes the new the North East Combined Authority, which brings together County Durham, Gateshead, Newcastle, North Tyneside, Northumberland, South Tyneside and Sunderland.
The area is believed to be third on Mr Osborne’s list for agreeing devolution deals – after Manchester and West Yorkshire – with an announcement as early as next month.
But, last night, Simon Henig, Durham’s leader and the chairman of the combined authority, criticised Mr Osborne’ attempt to tie the region’s hands.
And he pointed out voters in Newcastle and eight other English cities had rejected mayors – for city boundaries only – in referendums just two-and-a-half years ago.
Councillor Henig said:
“I strongly believe it is now the time for powers and control over spending to be devolved out of Whitehall throughout England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, not just to Manchester.
“However, my own view is that devolution should not be made conditional on accepting an elected mayor, which was rejected by the public in referendums in several major cities in 2012.”
The Chancellor’s move is a dramatic U-turn, because the Conservatives had rejected calls for metro mayors which, many argued, could be handed a powerful portfolio.
“Any other city that wants to receive more powers and move to a new model of governance, with an elected mayor, should bring forward their proposals.”
The Manchester package includes:
* Responsibility for re-regulated bus services and integrated ‘smart ticketing’ across all local modes of transport.
* An enhanced ‘earn back’ deal – keeping £1m a year from economic growth, to fund an extension to the Metrolink tram network.
* Police powers – with the abolition of the elected police and crime commissioner (PCC).
* Control of a £300 million ‘housing investment fund’.
* Power over business support services – including manufacturing advice and UK Trade and Investment (UKTI) export advice.
* Power to develop a plan to integrate health and social care.
A Government source said:
“Who do the voters sack if something goes wrong? City-region mayors answer that.
“So we can obviously go further for cities that are able to step up to the accountability challenge.”
Source – Northern Echo, 04 Nov 2014
> What can you do when an employment tribunal finds you were being paid less than the minimum wage and awards you compensation… but the employer doesn’t pay up ? Very little, it seems…
A woman who was awarded thousands of pounds in compensation following a legal battle with town charity has given up ever getting her cash and is set to leave the town.
Lynda Gooding says she has simply “lost the fight” to get her money, and is so fed up with life in Hartlepool that she has put her house on the market.
She was awarded just under £9,000 in April last year after an employment tribunal heard she had worked for Manor Residents’ Association for almost three years on less than minimum wage.
More than 18 months after the ruling was made, mum-of-three Lynda is still to receive a penny from the charity.
“I’ve been waiting 18 months. Well they can keep their dirty money now.
“The house is up for sale, and the sooner I can get out of this town the better as far as I’m concerned. I’d move tomorrow.”
Lynda, who lives in Forfar Road with husband Kenny, a joiner for Housing Hartlepool, has not worked since leaving MRA in 2012.
She added: “Who is going to employ me?
“I’ve found myself at the centre of a row which became political through no fault of my own.
“The court ruled that the trustees owed money, and obviously the mayor was part of that board of trustees so all of a sudden it became a political issue.
“Then there was all the fuss over the charity, which doesn’t exist anymore, and all sorts of rumours were flying about over whether it was coming back under a new name or operating from somewhere else.
“It was just a complete mess, the trustees left one by one and there was nobody left to answer my questions.
“I never asked for that, all I’d done was take my employer to court and I won fair and square.
“It has played on my mind, I’ve been depressed, it’s amazing how much of an effect something like this can have on your sanity.
“But I’ve given up now, my fight is over. They were ordered to pay by a court and they haven’t paid. What else can I do?
“I feel let down, and question whether the tribunal was ever worth going through.
“If I’d known then what I know now, especially after what I witnessed at the council last Monday evening, then I wouldn’t have bothered.”
Lynda’s former colleagues Sharon Henderson, Carl Williams and Sue Harriman also won their own court battles, taking the total payout to more than £20,000.
The Charity Commission, which regulates charities in England and Wales, has since opened an inquiry into Manor Residents’ Association after concerns were raised about the way it was run.
At the time of the scandal the charity was run by Labour councillor Angie Wilcox, but she stood down from her role as a councillor before eventually leaving her role with MRA after being arrested on suspicion of conspiracy to steal and false accounting by fraud squad detectives.
She remains on bail while the inquiry continues.
Manor Residents’ Association has since ceased operating, and the organisation which has taken over the charity’s former building – Kilmarnock Road Children and Young People’s Family Resource Centre – has no links with it.
Source – Hartlepool Mail, 20 Oct 2014
It was refreshing to hear someone born outside of the region have a good word to say about Ashington.
And Matthew Engel had more than a good word in fact. He admires the people who live there and what they represent.
Engel, a writer for the Guardian newspaper for 25 years, some time editor of the ‘cricket bible’ Wisden and now a columnist for the Financial Times, visited the Northumberland town while researching his latest book.
Called Engel’s England, he spent three years re-visiting the old counties which disappeared off the map of Britain as a result of the Local Government Act.
Drawn up by Ted Heath’s Tory Government in 1972, it was implemented by Harold Wilson’s Labour on, appropriately I would guess in Engel’s mind, April 1 – April Fool’s Day – 1974.
“It was a shambles,” he said. “Politicians are interested in political boundaries, people are not. We don’t care about local government and local government gets worse and worse.
“It caused a huge loss of local identity but there are still things left, things to celebrate that really have an identity, places like Ashington.
“What a tremendous place. Of course it has its problems but it has a tremendous richness of associative life.”
Associative life means a clearly identified way of life, from recognisable pass-times like growing leeks and racing whippets, something that hasn’t been lost despite the decimation of the coal mines in the area, he said.
> Is that associative life or is it a cliche ? Most people, even in Ashington, probably never grew leeks or raced whippets.
And in any case, Ashington is still in Northumberland, same as it ever was. It never disappeared or changed name.
“It is a place with its own accent, it’s own traditions, which are very, very strong,” said Engel.
In the book he explained how counties were formed historically and how they developed along locally defined lines which threw up their own idiosyncrasies.
There were the counties palatine, including Durham, which were directly under the control of a local princeling.
Then there were counties corporate and boroughs that were regarded as self governing and fell under the control of the local Lord Lieutenant for military purposes. Yorkshire, readers may well remember, was divided into three ridings.
As a result counties developed their own laws, dialects, customs, farming methods and building styles.
“They formed the tapestry of the nation,” Engel says. “The very distinctions show just how important the county was in the lives of the people.
“Real places with real differences inspiring real loyalties.”
The Local Government Act of 1888 brought democracy to the shires by establishing county councils but, according to Engel, the integrity of the counties were respected.
Not so The Local Government Act of 1972 which binned centuries of local identity to see, for example, Teesside renamed as Cleveland and Tyneside becoming Tyne and Wear.
> Ahem – Tyneside and Wearside ! And in any case, I don’t think it was such a bad idea.
Cumberland – which had been around since the 12th century – became part of Cumbria, a name that Engel shudders with distaste at. “Always say Cumberland,” said Engel.
Yarm had formed part of the Stokesley Rural District in what was then the ‘North Riding’ of Yorkshire and remained so until 1974 – when it became part of the district of Stockton-on-Tees in the new non-metropolitan county of Cleveland.
Cleveland – like Tyne and Wear – was abolished in 1996 under the Banham Review, with Stockton-on-Tees becoming a unitary authority.
In May a poll inspired by the Yarm for Yorkshire group saw locals vote emphatically “Yes” to the idea of transferring Yarm from Stockton to Hambleton Council in North Yorkshire.
Last month Stockton Borough Council rejected calls to refer the matter to the boundary commission into it, but the debate rumbles on.
To add to the horror of Teessiders who pine for a return to Yorkshire was this bit of research from Engel after a talk with a dialect expert from Leeds University.
> Presumably that’s Teessiders on the south bank of the river. Those on the north bank were in County Durham.
“He told me Middlesbrough accents have actually changed in the years since 1974. In those 40 years the Middlesbrough accent has become more North East and less Yorkshire.”
Engel describes his work as a “travel book” – “I think I’m the first travel writer who went straight from Choral Evensong at Durham Cathedral to the dog track.”
He added: “The historic counties need to return to the map, the media and our envelopes, so future generations can understand where they live.
“Only then will the English regain their spirit the way the Scots have done. This is not about local government – it is about our heritage and our future.”
* Engel’s England, is published by Profile Books at £20 on October 23, 2014.
> Sounds like another “intellectual” telling people what they should be doing.
People know where they live, future generations will too. Names and boundaries have always changed and will continue to do so.
Matthew Engel, incidentally, was born in Northampton and lives in Herefordshire. If he actually had some connection with the North East I might take him a bit more seriously.
Source – Middlesbrough Evening Chronicle, 19 Oct 2014
Local authorities across England, Scotland and Wales are issuing a call for a radical re-think of welfare-to-work policies.
The Industrial Communities Alliance, the all-party association representing more than 60 local authorities in Britain’s older industrial areas, says that welfare-to-work policies have nearly always been based on the false premise that there are plenty of jobs available.
The Alliance also says that the unemployed are now being blamed for their own failure when the true cause lies with the weakness of so many local economies.
> the unemployed are now being blamed for their own failure – now ? You mean like that hasn’t been government policy right from the beginning ?
Well its nice that they’ve finally caught up with reality, but I do wish they’d spoken out before… like several years ago.
In a new report (pdf), the Alliance highlights disturbing evidence on the failure of current welfare-to-work policies:
- Participants on the government’s flagship Work Programme are almost twice as likely to be sanctioned as to find sustained employment
- The official target is still that only 36 per cent of Work Programme participants will secure sustained employment.
- The Work Programme is failing claimants with health problems or disabilities – only 11 per cent of new claimants of Employment and Support Allowance are finding sustained work after two years, and only 6 per cent of claimants transferred across from Incapacity Benefit
In older industrial Britain the numbers out-of-work on sickness and disability benefits generally outnumber the conventional unemployed (on Jobseeker’s Allowance) by two-to-one.
The Coalition Government in Westminster and the Labour Opposition are both considering devolving more responsibility for welfare-to-work away from Whitehall. The local authorities in the Alliance are calling for more fundamental changes:
- A greater emphasis on growing the economy in weaker local labour markets
- A targeted job creation programme to provide routes into work
- A new focus in welfare-to-work on the obstacles of low skills and poor health
- Less emphasis on compulsion, more on working by consent
Cllr Terry O’Neill, Chair of the Industrial Communities Alliance, said:
“Most men and women have a fair grasp of their chances of finding work, and the value of the help on offer. Welfare-to-work should be about supporting them in ways they find relevant and appropriate.
“Too often it has become the mechanism for imposing punitive and unnecessary sanctions, fuelling business for food banks, pay-day lenders and loan sharks.”
Bernard Pidcock, Manager of the Citizens Advice Bureau in Blyth, Northumberland, adds:
“Every day we see decent men and women not only being pushed onto failing welfare-to-work programmes but also being squeezed financially by welfare cuts. This adds up to little short of a vendetta against many of the most disadvantaged in society.”
Source – Welfare Weekly, 18 Oct 2014
With the Scottish independence referendum only days away, journalist and university lecturer Neil Macfarlane explains why he would vote yes. And why he thinks you would too
I’m a Scot who lives in the North-East. There are loads of us – chuck a paper aeroplane out your front window and you’ll probably hit one. I’ve lived happily here for years, but it won’t surprise those who know me that I would like Scotland to vote yes to independence next week.
I hope this happens because I don’t think the three main Westminster parties represent my politics any more. I like the idea of getting rid of nuclear weapons, of universal education, and I worry about the future of the NHS and the welfare state.
I think it’s sensible to increase immigration to help reverse decades of emigration by Scots like me and my family. I feel uncomfortable about parties of all stripes blaming foreigners and the poor for all problems.
I think the UK government and media is too focused on London. I think many people in the North-East feel the same about these issues.
I don’t know for sure if an independent Scotland would be richer or poorer but I do think it would be governed by people with its interests at heart. I like England and English people very much and I don’t think Braveheart is a good film.
Thatcher remains the longest serving Prime Minister of my lifetime, yet she was repeatedly rejected by the people of Scotland at the polls. When our teachers taught us about democracy, and how generations had fought and died to preserve it, something didn’t fit.
By the way, feel free to swap “Scotland” in the paragraph above for “Middlesbrough“, “Sedgefield“, Sunderland” or “Bishop Auckland“.
Pretty much all of this applies to the North-East, too. Sometimes people dismiss the independence movement by asking if there should also be separation for the North-East, for Manchester, or Liverpool.
Personally, I don’t see why not – if that’s what the people want. But the argument misunderstands what Scotland is. It is not a region of a country. It is its own country and always has been.
The United Kingdom only came into being 300 years ago as an agreement between two nations to form an alliance. Scotland was not conquered. Its remarkable achievements in science, philosophy, engineering, literature and statecraft had been established for centuries before 1707, and that spirit later combined with the same from England, Wales and Northern Ireland to make the union thrive.
This time last year most Scots liked the idea of the UK being a partnership of equals, and a sizable majority were happy enough to keep it that way. That has now changed.
The No campaign has been horrendously misjudged. Scots always believed they could be independent, but most doubted if they should. The Conservative-Labour-Lib Dem Better Together campaign then set about claiming that Scotland would collapse into disarray if left to its own devices. The campaign was dubbed “Project Fear” – by the No camp themselves.
Scots were told: You can’t keep the pound, you can’t stay in the EU, your aspirations are pipe dreams and we’ll rebuild Hadrian’s Wall to keep you out when it all goes wrong.
Their latest effort was billboards claiming: “Vote no if you love your children.” The polls are at 50:50, are they saying half the people in Scotland hate their kids? It’s so long since the Scots heard the positive case for the union, they’re beginning to suspect there isn’t one.
In the face of this onslaught, the Yes campaign has flourished. Grassroots activists have packed out town halls across the country making their case, bloggers have amassed followings to make newspaper editors cry with envy.
People who have never voted are being helped to register, and volunteers are putting on buses to give them a lift on polling day. Discussion on social media is dominated by funny, spiky, imaginative Yes voters.
There are touring arts festivals. Millions have been inspired by the idea that Scotland could become a fairer, more successful country, and by the promise of progressive policies that would never be offered by three Westminster parties all fighting over the same ground.
This isn’t petty nationalism. It is an inclusive movement. Every resident will be given a Scottish passport on day one of independence. One of the most high profile campaign groups is English Scots for Yes, who give away teabags branded: “Have a cuppa, vote yes.” There are groups for African Scots, Italian Scots,Polish Scots. I am proud of the fact I don’t get a vote but those who live in Scotland do, regardless of where they were born.
It’s even spreading beyond the border. A recent poll showed an even higher proportion of people in the North-East back Scottish independence. I’ve lost count of the number of times friends have asked: “Can we come too?“
The response to all of this has been a wishy-washy offer of more powers for the Scottish parliament, without saying exactly what those powers might be. This was George Osborne’s first intervention since he announced Scotland couldn’t keep the pound – a move which actually caused an increase in support for independence. At this point, the Chancellor could knock on every door in Scotland offering a free carwash, foot rub and £1000 cash and the polls would still rise for Yes.
While the SNP published a manifesto for Scotland’s future a year ago, Labour and the Tories are now trying to scramble a response with only days to go. Why not before now? Perhaps because they weren’t listening, because it’s too far away, because there are too few voters… because it was never a priority for them.
It’s a feeling the Scots, and we in the North-East, know all too well.
Source – Northern Echo, 11 Sept 2014