I have a personal, independence related, dilemma and it is one that I suspect many of us might share. When I say ‘us’ I mean those who are in the financial top 40% of the population, the ones who earn relatively high salaries and can afford to buy their own homes (though I would like to point out, for the sake of accuracy, that I am currently a non-earning student and we – my partner and I – rent our home, but the point is we can afford for me to be a non-earner for a few years, and what a privileged position that is).
I have a friend who is a little bit further up the property ladder than I am but who would not consider herself rich. And she would be right too when comparing herself to many in the Aberdeen area who have vast amounts more money than I believe she does, but compared to the bottom 20% of the UK’s population she is rich beyond their dreams (lottery wins aside). She’s English and is really only living in Scotland because her husband works in oil (and he is no high-flying executive, merely a well-paid professional). She is a completely lovely person who cares about all sorts of people a lot worse off than herself and while she now has money I don’t believe she was born with a silver spoon in her mouth (though of course, relative to the 20%, she was). I’ve recently found out that she is intending to vote No in September but that came as no surprise as she is the sort of English person who really considers England and Britain as synonymous and occasionally has to correct herself when she misuses the terms. You know the sort. But because I am not a rabid English-hating Scottish Nationalist, I forgive her these things.
When I asked her about her views on independence, via email, the response I got was that it was a crazy idea and that we should all be pulling together, pooling our resources and sharing our talent and experience. She felt that Scotland is already functioning well so why not leave it like that? So nothing I haven’t heard before. I don’t honestly know what lies behind these beliefs and I am reluctant to discuss it much with her in person because I don’t want to lose her as a friend and I don’t sense that she is a soft-No who can be persuaded otherwise. But I suspect the root idea behind it all is the sense that the UK is very much OK, in fact much better than OK, and that this belief is based on ignorance of the state of the UK today (remember, as I wrote the other day, ignorance is not the same as stupidity). But how do you get people with a lifetime’s worth of belief, based on what they have always been told, to re-examine the state of the UK today? Maybe, for those of us who are familiar with the process of buying and selling your own home, this will help.
Imagine you are in the position to buy a new house in a new area of the country. You are moving from your existing home because circumstances have dictated that you need to and not because you want to; perhaps because you have found a new job or your company has transferred you to another office. So how do you go about finding a new home? First of all you form an idea of what kind of home you want to live in and this will be linked to your family and financial circumstances, and whether or not you wish to live in town or in the country and perhaps you will speak to a few people who advise you on desirable areas or ones to avoid.
Now that you have got an idea in mind you take a look at the property section in the local newspaper and you see what looks like your dream home; a medium sized Georgian mansion set in a lovely garden in a lovely country location within easy commuting distance of your work. It is a featured home so there are a load of photos showing off the house and a bit of a write-up about its history. It looks ideal! So do you put an offer in then and there? No, that would be silly. You want to have a look around and see it with your own eyes first because you are aware that anything appearing in the newspaper is probably not the whole story and will be presenting the house in the best possible light in order for it to be sold.
So you make an appointment with the estate agent to view the property and duly do so.
As you drive in through the gateway and along the sweeping drive, you admire the beautifully cared for garden and imagine lying out in it on blissfully long summer afternoons, though you do pause to consider that a garden that size will take a lot of looking after. It is almost enough to tempt you to put an offer in straight away! Driving up to the beautifully proportioned house, with its majestic entrance you think ‘this is the one for me’ as it looks so right. The outside looks immaculate, gleaming paintwork and everything just so; this house has been well cared for. On entering the home you are met by a lovely couple, clearly wealthy but oh so warm and welcoming, who explain that the house has been in the family for generations and they have thoroughly enjoyed living there and bringing up children and grandchildren within its walls. The man looks vaguely familiar and you wonder if you have seen him on TV but think nothing more of it. They explain that the only reason they are, reluctantly, selling up is that they wish to move to somewhere a little smaller and more manageable in their old age. ‘Somewhere warmer with more sun as well’, your host says, and you agree that the UK can be a damp and windy place at times. You tell them that they have clearly worked hard at maintaining the place as it looks beautiful and they modestly explain that caring for the house and garden was a labour of love for them.
Inside the house is just as lovely as it is on the outside. It is well decorated and smells fresh and clean. The rooms are well proportioned and you could envisage your family’s possessions distributed throughout. The couple graciously show you around the house, presenting each room to you as if it were a masterpiece of art but they don’t open many cupboards and you don’t feel willing to pry. It would be somehow awkward and intrusive to ask to peer into their every nook and cranny and they seem so lovely that you feel you can trust them anyway. You ask them about whether the house had ever been flooded or the ground subsided or if any major renovations have been done and they laughingly say,’ oh no, nothing like that!’. You mention that it must take a lot to clean and care for such a large house and the lady says ‘well, it is a never-ending task, but it is worth it just to live here’ and you nod in agreement.
The place looks perfect and you can just see you and your family living a long and happy life there, just as the current owners clearly have. You have to bite your tongue hard not to make them a generous offer on the spot! But you know that your bank will require due diligence before approving your mortgage application, and this house is a little more expensive than you originally intended to buy, but it will be worth it in the end as it is such a lovely home and you just know you will be able to sell it for a profit if the housing market continues going the way it is.
So you tell the agent that you are interested and arrange for a surveyor to visit the house the following week. Your bank has insisted on an in-depth survey of the house due to the age, size and cost of the house and have helpfully suggested the name of a company they use and you agree as it makes life simpler for you. In the meantime you read the Home Report supplied by the sellers, which you note has been prepared by a very prestigious company (how reassuring), and are glad to see that all seems in order. Yes, some minor signs of dampness in one of the basement rooms and couple of rafters look like they should be replaced in the not too distant future, but nothing to worry you or the bank. In the days it takes for your surveyor to get back to you, you read and re-read the house prospectus and the newspaper feature and cross your fingers that nobody else gets a bid in first. You so want that house!
One morning you get up to find a large envelope lying next to the newspaper on the doormat. You pick them both up and take them to the kitchen while you make yourself a cup of tea. You see the headlines blaring ‘New Scandal Rocks Cabinet’ but you are far more interested in the envelope as it is marked with the name of the surveyor. The good news you have been waiting for has finally arrived! You tear open the envelope and begin reading, tea forgotten. But you dreams are dashed, the beautiful dream home you want so much is not what it seems. The report is full of terms like ‘subsidence’, ‘dry rot’, ‘damp’ and ‘mould’ and remarks on ‘extensive flood damage in the basement’ and says that most of the roof needs replaced and there are major question marks over the structural integrity of some of the load-bearing walls. How can this be? The place looked so clean and neat and the owners seemed so decent. You can’t believe that they smiled at you and lied so easily. You realise that for the place to look so good a veritable army of servants (on zero hour contracts perhaps?) must have been working long and hard to paint, clean and paper over the cracks with the sole purpose of disguising the reality of what lay underneath. The surveyor’s report concludes that the asking price of the house is completely unrealistic based on the amount of work needed to be done to return it to being a sound establishment in which it was safe to raise a family.
You turn distractedly to the newspaper and open it up to see what horrors the government has been up to today and there is the face of the man who showed you around his house. No wonder he had looked familiar, he is a government minister! And the story is shocking. This man who lied about the house being in good order stands accused of corruption in office, of defrauding the taxpayers of millions of pounds. You notice another article, this one almost an afterthought, and see that the prestigious firm which had written the Home Report on the house was being charged with giving bribes to the very same government minister who had tried to sell you his house.
Things are not as they seem. That house is the UK today; still standing, still providing a home for people to live in, but cracked and ridden with damp and rot and in need of some major renovations of its political and social systems. The current ‘owners’ are the politicians and the rich and powerful who profit from this system and have little interest in changing it. In fact, they have NO interest in changing it because it would upset their gravy train. Many people, like my friend, have become wealthy via the booming property market but many, many more have not and have seen their real incomes drop and drop and drop. The media, which we trust to keep politicians and society honest and above board, is complicit in this state of being because of what they choose to report and how they choose to report it. I will leave it to others to speculate as to their motives and simply say, if you trust the media (print, radio or TV) to tell you the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, then you are deluded. You are not necessarily stupid, but you are most definitely ignorant of the real state of affairs in the UK today.
How many people, my friend included, have carried out any due diligence on their home, this UK of ours? How many ‘surveyor’s reports’ have they read or are they relying on the ‘Home Reports’ self-published by successive governments to tell them how wonderful things are? How many even go that far and simply read the flashy feature stories in the newspapers or watch the TV news uncritically? It is difficult, stepping back and taking a fresh look at your own ‘home’ and asking yourself if you would actually buy it now, but politically, this is what you must do before voting in the referendum in September. Actually, you don’t have to but then please be honest with yourself and admit you will be buying a whole political system, never mind a house, based on nothing more than stories printed in a newspaper.
There is another word used to describe such stories: advertising. And we all know that advertising is designed to make you want to buy stuff you might not actually buy if you stopped and thought about it for a while. Some adverts appeal to what makes you feel better (the slogans Better Together and UKOK) while others are about making you fear change (the questions that ask ‘what about currency/defence/pensions/ jobs/ health/education?’).
The UK is far, far from OK as things stand. If you believe that it is OK, you either place no value on those who are less well off than you or, more likely (I like to believe, though experience should tell me otherwise), you have simply not been keeping up with the reality of the UK today. There are foodbanks galore, people dying because ATOS say they are fit to work and their benefits are withdrawn, soldiers dying in wars we should never have taken part in and corrupt politicians protecting rich bankers who nearly bankrupted the UK. Wake up! Get informed and THEN make your decisions about whether Scotland’s future is best served inside the UK or not. But please don’t buy the UK Better Together House unseen simply from the nice pictures in the newspaper.
But if you do, could I interest you in a lovely Highland estate, complete with its own castle? I assure you it is mine to sell, I can send you photos and everything. It is all in perfect order and we don’t need to worry ourselves about a viewing, do we? You can trust me, you know. Here, let me give you the number of my offshore bank account and you can send me the money tout suite! It’ll be mine, sorry, yours before you know it…