Last week, Saint Features editor Miles Adams and international politics sub-editor Maximilian Curtis sat down with Yes Scotland campaigner and national organiser for SNP Students Angus Millar. Mr Millar is also a third-year international relations student at the University and vice president of the St Andrews Students for Independence society. We covered the major questions students have regarding an independent Scotland and got Mr Millar’s take on why students should support independence.
Mr Millar began by discussing the role of devolution. Over the years, the Scottish parliament has been able to make substantial progress on policies regarding education, health, justice and so on.
“Where we made those decisions, we were able to make a real difference for the lives of people in Scotland, and the outcomes have been hugely different from the decisions we get at Westminster, where there’s a very different kind of rhetoric,” said Mr Millar.
To this end, he points to Scotland’s “partial independence” on education as having allowed the Scottish parliament to guarantee free university education to Scottish residents.
Responding to The Saint’s recent interview with Professor Colin Kidd, Mr Millar said that the Wardlaw professor and historian “raised some interesting points, but he seems very set in his own views. A lot of what he said seemed tended to be more a criticism of [Alex Salmond and the SNP], but it’s not particularly about them. It’s not about any one politician or another.”
So what does he think the independence vote is about?
“It’s quite clear that the Westminster system isn’t fair. It’s not working for people in Scotland, and independence would allow us to create a fair welfare system, to make an economy where work pays, to create more jobs and opportunities, and to create a fairer society where people are rewarded well for the work that they do.
“The biggest gain of independence is that we get control of these powers.”
The Westminster system
“That system [Westminster] isn’t working for Scotland.” Mr Millar argued that the clearest example of this has been the UK government’s austerity programme, which a majority of Scottish people and politicians opposed.
“What we’re seeing are these cruel measures being imposed by the Westminster government, which is harming hungry, working people in Scotland. So we’re having an agenda imposed on us by the UK government that does not have a democratic mandate in Scotland, and yet we have Tory-led policies harming the poorest and most vulnerable people in our society.
“For example, the bedroom tax has been harming so many people. We’re told that if you have a spare bedroom, then you’re not going to get a housing benefit towards it. Given the cost of housing in this country, that’s posing a real threat to the incomes and wellbeing of families everywhere. So we have families now having to go to food banks in many areas of Glasgow, for example. They have to go there, to depend on charity, just to eat. People have to choose between heating their home or putting food on the table for their kids. That’s a choice we shouldn’t have to make.”
To further his point, Mr Millar quoted figures released by the Child Poverty Action Group in Scotland, which estimates that another 100,000 Scottish children will be living in poverty by 2020. Much like Nicola Sturgeon, the deputy first minister, he attributed these numbers to UK economic policies and welfare cuts.
“With independence, we’re getting the economic tools – the taxation powers, the investment powers – that we need to create more jobs and opportunities, to increase our tax base, and to create a healthier and more productive economy that works for people here. We can move towards creating the better society that people in Scotland want to see.”
Scotland’s membership of the European Union has been a prevalent concern in the independence debate. Mr Millar refered to recent comments made by Professor Jim Gallagher. Although Professor Gallagher is an advisor for the Better Together campaign, he has said that “it seems pretty likely that Scotland would be an EU member state, probably after an accelerated set of accession negotiations.”
Mr Millar believes that these negotiations would prove favourable for Scotland owing to its developed “infrastructure and democratic institutions”. The extended timeframe may also work to the country’s benefit.
“If Scotland votes yes on 18 September, then we won’t become an independent country until 24 March 2016. So that’s 18 months where negotiations take place to get things smoothed out.” He called these EU concerns a “bluff from the UK government”.
After all: “If EU countries are saying to the UK, ‘You shouldn’t leave the EU,’ then why would they say to Scotland, which wants to stay in the EU, ‘You’re not allowed to stay, so we’ll chuck you out just to let you back in’?”
Although criticism has been levied against the University of St Andrews for not accepting enough Scottish students, a large portion of the University’s tuition revenues come from English students paying £9,000 per year. Universities may have reason to fear that if Scotland becomes independent, the Scottish parliament will subsidise the education of students from the rest of the United Kingdom, just as it does with EU students today.
“The Scottish government’s position is that they would seek to justify continuing to charge students from the rest of the UK. They would do so because of the exceptional circumstances,” including the shared landmass, the fact that RUK students vastly outnumber Scottish students, the country’s consistently excellent universities, and its shared language with the rest of Britain.
From The Saint’s own research into the matter, it is hard to believe that an independent Scotland, within the EU, would be allowed to charge EU citizens from the UK tuition fees other than what is charged to Scottish students. Therefore, if tuition is free for Scottish students, it would need to be free for all EU students, including those from the UK. Any change in this current setup based on equality in EU higher education would require significant EU legislation and overturn a long-held standard on EU tuition.
“At the end of the day, we need to recognise that the Scottish government, from whatever party, has always placed an emphasis on higher education. I think the education sector is much better served by having Scotland making its own decisions. With independence, we can build on those successes,” said Mr Millar.
For Mr Millar, immigration is one of the major factors playing into his decision to support independence. He stressed that this issue is paramount for students.
“A lot of people here will graduate from university, but when they look for a job they can’t find the high-quality work that they want and that they studied for. For a long time, there’s been a brain drain in Scotland, where talented young people have to go elsewhere to find opportunities and employment, especially graduates.
“With independence we’ll have the economic powers that we need to attract more companies to invest here, to grow small businesses, to create better quality opportunities. They’ll be able to find more opportunities in Scotland after they graduate.”
The UK government’s approach to immigration, which in Mr Miller’s opinion “is driven by a UKIP-inspired agenda south of the border,” is far less inspiring for him.
“It sees and treats immigrants as something to distance itself from, to be freed of, and that’s including international students who are finding it increasingly difficult to get into the country and to stay on and work here. The Scottish government, and the vast majority of people on the Yes campaign, propose a much less restrictive immigration system which values people who want to come make a contribution and live in Scotland.
“If you want to build your career here, if you want to start your family here, if you want to help make Scotland a better place along with all of us, then why would we not want to welcome you?”
Mr Millar believes that independence cannot come soon enough.
“The UK government in the 1980s was decimating Scotland’s industries. They were pocketing oil wealth.”
Had Scotland been independent then “we would be in a financial position comparable to that of Norway, which is another small, independent country, which has had masses of oil wealth, but they’ve been unfettered by the Westminster system, which squanders our resource wealth.”
In his Saint interview, Professor Kidd suggested that Alex Salmond prefers a ‘devolution maximum’ policy to independence. Mr Millar argued that this is beside the point.
“Devomax is not on the table. It was quite emphatically blocked by the UK government.
“Even if devomax in its entirety was on the table – even if there was a plan and a cast-iron guarantee that all powers would be devolved to Scotland except for foreign affairs and defence – I don’t think that would be adequate. That would still leave vital decisions about whether or not we go to war as a country, whether or not we’re part of the European Union, whether or not we have nuclear weapons [to Westminster].
“Independence is not an end in itself. It’s an opportunity to implement ideas, to make the country better. And it’s not going to happen overnight. We’re not going to wake up on 19 September, we’ve voted yes, and suddenly we live in a utopia.
“We will have to work for the better Scotland that we want to see, and I think we can do that gradually, one step at a time. But we can only do that if we have the powers we need here in Scotland.”