I'm a newcomer to politics. Since jumping off the fence on the independence referendum in mid-April 2011; this year has been the most eventful of my political life. It had to be. Looking at the challenges facing Yes Scotland, and having came to the conclusion that Scotland would be to my mind better off: socially, democratically, internationally, environmentally, economically and culturally as an independent country, I knew that I had to get involved.

It took a whole year of seeing the wanton destruction of modern Britain under radical cheap-work conservatives, NHS privatisation, food banks, crushed real wages leading to decreased living standards, failing energy regulation leading to huge profits for corporates, disability support cuts, tax avoidance on an gargantuan scale, and trebled tuition fees to get me off my backside. For that, I apologise to all good active citizens in taking so long to get here. In speaking to people, and doing an awful lot of reading about modern British political history, it's like viewing the world clearly for the first time. And it's horrifying.

It took a little less time to fully grasp the fundamental thistle of the nationalist argument. I, and so many people I know, are frustrated by social democratic values being repeatedly thwarted by Tory governments Scotland did not elect and often despise. A Labour party becoming increasingly less relevant in Scotland is no substitute; lurching rightwards on immigration and "the deserving poor" to fend off bigoted UKIP knuckle-draggers and the Daily Mail crowd.

Seeing the diverging political aspirations within Scotland itself as expressed within its devolved parliament's elected representatives and the social democratic values it has demonstrated repeatedly has made it far clearer. This is most directly contrastable with with the UK's flip-flopping two-and-a-crutch party system, permanently enforced by its undemocratic first-past-the-post electoral system.

I see independence as fundamentally about building a better representative democracy. If I saw a route to a better politics for the UK through Westminster by the time I reach middle-age, I'd understand if others voted No.

Scotland has much to offer as an active global citizen. From a recent devolved past where we scrapped tuition fees (I see having a well-educated populace as an investment), prescription charges (we don't tax sick people just because they're sick), to one where we scrap the fiscally ignorant and ill-considered “bedroom tax” and keep public services best placed in public hands.

Furthermore, Scots are opposed to the renewal of the expensive and immoral Trident weapons system. Under the union, not only must we pay our share instead of spending that money on education, health and housing, we have to host these weapons of mass indiscriminate civilian incineration in Scotland’s waters, thirty miles from her largest city.

Since signing the Yes declaration in May 2012 and volunteered my time and skills to the Yes Scotland campaign - it's had a curious side-effect in my personal life. I've written more letters, been on more marches and rallies for causes I believe in, been presented with arrest, met more passionate and wise people who agree and disagree with me and spoken to more disparate strangers in the past year than I've ever done in my prior adult life. They all have bit-by-bit changed me, as I may have bit-by-bit changed them.

I've joined a political party, the Scottish Socialist Party, attended their national conference, met hundreds of interesting people, joined the local branch and helped them spread their vision of creating a better society, where people and not profit matter most.

Getting more actively involved in grassroots politics has changed my day-to-day life.

  • It's tiring. I've been sleeping less, and working harder.

  • It's rewarding. Slowly convincing people of the causes and overcoming skepticism is immense. It's given me confidence in my abilities to openly discuss things that are important to me.

  • It's frustrating. Quite often in those I meet, I find apathy blended with ignorance, cultivated over a lifetime of marginalisation, disenfranchisement and disempowerment. I have yet to find consistently good means to engage them. Wit occasionally helps.

  • It's terrifying. What if we fail, or screw up, or over-think the negative possibilities? The only way to surely fail is to not try.

I've also found my personal communication habits changing: when on marches, leafleting, stopping people on the street, knocking doors, talking to friends, neighbours, family or extended social circles. I find that I'm rarely off-message; looking for an opportunity, a careful gambit to insert a point of interest, or a means to guide some thinking. It's an oddly mercenary approach.

I've found the trick to good political communication is listening carefully to what's being said, add an appropriate interjection, answer all the questions put to the best of your ability, then thank them for their time and leave them to chew on the information. It's for this reason, I'm pleased the referendum campaign has spent a year preparing the groundwork, amassing an army of volunteers (each with their own talents and time) to best spend the remaining 50 weeks. People need time and reinforcement of facts, not froth to make a similar journey to pull them towards Yes.

I'm loath to use the term "real change", when it's so flagrantly abused to distinguish between flavours and colours of Thatcherite in Westminster party-politics, but real change does happen - with equal marriage, the welfare state, the National Health Service, universal suffrage. It happens slowly, but speeds up when there's a mass movement and force behind it. And hard to cultivate directly, amidst an ill-representative democracy and a collective stew of back-and-forth oppositional bickering.

If you want to add your piece of real change to the world, then do the following: talk to people, turn up to a rally, write a letter or email to your representatives (they're human beings, too - so write openly and honestly: a genuine letter in your own words matters) or join political organisations and parties that share your values and beliefs. And no matter how proud you are, always, always, ALWAYS be ready to accept you might be wrong.

Are politics and politicians failing us, or are we failing them? It's a little of both, but we should never fall into apathy in our public discourse. Constant vigilance protects us all.

Add your voice to public life. Get active.
This is a copy of an article posted by Michael Gray on April 7, 2013 on the website: National Collective. National Collective has been removed from the Internet. Some people just don't understand The Streisand Effect! Copy, print, and share.

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Today ‘Better Together’ disclosed £1.1 million of donations to its campaign. Almost half of that sum came from one man: Ian Taylor, a long-term Conservative Party donor and Chief Executive of oil-traders Vitol plc.

Today’s Sunday Herald described Taylor as “a Scots oil trader with a major stake in the Harris Tweed industry”. They also gave Taylor’s views – who is reportedly worth £155 million – print space to justify his funding decision.

This raises several concerns. Taylor, according to The Sunday Herald, is not registered to vote in Scotland. This breaks Electoral Commission guidelines for general elections, which Yes Scotland has promised to follow. Secondly, Ian Taylor has given £550,000 to the Conservative Party since 2006. This is a further case of Tory donors – and their political interests – bankrolling the ‘no’ campaign.

These general complaints, however, are minor in comparison to more serious incidents – unmentioned in the media today – linked to Ian Taylor’s business background.

While Chief Executive of Vitol plc, his company has been involved in shady-deals in Serbia, Iraq, Libya and Iran. Furthermore, Vitol avoided tax to the tune of millions of pounds through an offshore trading scheme. Douglas Alexander, Labour’s Shadow Foreign Secretary, described Vitol’s relationship with Westminster as “curious”, and said there were questions to answer.

As Chief Executive of Vitol since 1995, Ian Taylor has serious questions to answer in all of these cases. Better Together have serious questions to answer as to what they knew about Ian Taylor before they accepted half-a-million pounds from him. Alistair Darling – who recently met with Taylor prior to the funding deal – must also confirm what his position is on the following cases.

1) Vitol Admitted Paying $1 million to a Serbian Paramilitary Leader

In 1996 Vitol paid $1 million to the Serbian paramilitary leader Arkan to settle a score over a secret oil deal to supply Slobodan Milosevic’s Serbia with fuel. Ian Taylor’s director, Bob Finch, used Arkan as a ‘fixer’ after the oil deal in the former Yugoslavia collapsed. Arkan was assassinated in 2000.

Arkan was indicted by the UN war crimes tribunal in The Hague for crimes against humanity. According to The Obverver which names Ian Taylor in its investigation into Arkan – “his brutality was well documented” when the meeting with Vitol’s representative took place. Arkan’s paramilitaries – ‘the tigers’ – were notorious for massacring 250 patients and staff in a hospital.

Ian Taylor was Chief Executive of Vitol when Bob Finch, as Vitol Director, went to Belgrade. Arkan was then indicted with 24 crimes against humanity.

What did Ian Taylor know about his company’s dealing in Serbia and their payment to Arkan? What is the position of Better Together in relation to this?

2) Vitol plc: Guilty of Bribing Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi Regime For Oil Contracts

While Ian Taylor was Chief Executive, Vitol paid $13 million in kickbacks to Iraqi officials under Saddam Hussein to win oil supply contracts. The company pled guilty in a U.S. court to grand larceny in November 2007 and paid $17.5 million in restitution as a result. This undercut the UN oil-for-food program – 1996-2003 – that sought to trade Iraqi energy resources for humanitarian supplies.

Was Ian Taylor aware of his company’s actions at the time? To what extent did his company profit from these deals in Iraq and to what extent did he profit personally from the company’s success? Is Better Together content to accept Mr Taylor as a major funder in these circumstances?

3) Ian Taylor’s Company Avoided Tax ‘for more than a decade’

Vitol plc employed the controversial tax avoidance scheme known as ‘Employee Benefit Trusts’. (EBTs) Such schemes allowed employees to avoid paying income tax and companies to avoid national insurance contributions. Vitol used the scheme ‘for more than a decade’.

Tax evasion and avoidance costs the UK Exchequer tens of billions of pounds a year. EBTs were banned in 2011. Vitol then entered negotiations with HMRC over claims that it still owed millions of pounds in unpaid taxes.

What did Ian Taylor know about the company’s tax avoidance scheme? Even if it met legal requirements, does he consider tax avoidance to be morally just? Is Better Together aware of these claims against the company of its major donor?

4) Ian Taylor has been accused of improper political donations to the Conservative Party.

According to today’s Sunday Herald, Ian Taylor has donated £550,000 to the Conservative Party since 2006. He was one of the 70 millionaires who paid the £50,000 privilege to join David Cameron’s Leaders Group. Leaders Group membership led, in many cases, to a private dinner with the Prime Minister, which Taylor attended in Downing Street on November 2nd 2011. This was part of the “cash for access scandal”.

Taylor’s political donations have also been criticised by Shadow Foreign Secretary Douglas Alexander. In 2011 questions were raised concerning Taylor’s relationship with Alan Duncan, the International Development Minister. Taylor and Duncan had worked together at Shell. Duncan lobbied for an ‘oil cell’ within the Foreign Office to control fuel supplies within Libya. For this the government received substantial support through Vitol plc. Civil service official were concerned that the behaviour was “encroaching too far on commercial purposes”. According to The Daily Mail, Ian Taylor “profited from the war in Libya” and his company received a $1 billion contract to supply oil to the Libyan rebels. This was described at the time as a “huge conflict of interest”.

Douglas Alexander, Labour’s Shadow Foreign Secretary said, “Given Alan Duncan’s reported links with Vitol this curious briefing from within government actually raises more questions than it answers,”

Did Ian Taylor gain influence within government for his £550,000? Why was Douglas Alexander concerned about Vitol’s relationship with the UK Government? Is Mr Alexander happy for Better Together to be receiving financial support from the same source?

5) Iran and current business practices

Vitol recently conceded, in September 2012, that it had broken sanctions on trading Iranian oil. According to Reuters, the company purchased 2 million barrels of fuel oil. This undercut Western efforts to isolate the Iranian regime, and brought further attention to Mr Taylor’s close relationship with the UK government.

Is Vitol an ethical company and should Better Together accept support and funding from this source?

Better Together have serious questions to answer

  • This information raises serious questions – both for Ian Taylor and the ‘Better Together’ campaign.

  • There cannot be a fair referendum if money is solicited from outwith Scotland or from rich Tory donors who do not vote in Scotland.

  • There cannot be an open referendum if funding comes from unethical sources. Our politics is once again tarnish by ‘dirty money’ and vested corporate interests.

  • This information also raises serious questions for the Scottish and UK media, who have not raised any of these question in relation to today’s donation announcement.

  • There cannot be a fair or open referendum if the Scottish people are left in the dark. We need to have the facts. We need to know the truth.

I hope this makes the case for funding alternative media in Scotland even clearer on our path to building a more equal, prosperous and peaceful Scotland.

Michael Gray
National Collective



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