AMID THE clamour of voices competing to be heard in the Scottish independence debate, the tones of those belonging to Yes-supporting young people have been the most vibrant, writes Jordan Ogg.
One such voice belongs to a 23-year-old Shetlander from Bressay, Miriam Brett. A recent graduate of international politics from Stirling University, she has emerged as a leading light in the constellation of grassroots movements gathered around the Yes campaign.
Brett is currently a full-time campaigner, working on behalf of the youth movement Generation Yes and the leftwing Common Weal group by appearing at rallies, participating in broadcasts and hitting streets up and down Scotland.
With just days to go until voters make their choice, Brett is a very busy woman, so I count myself lucky when she agrees to meet in Edinburgh to speak about what moved her to join the campaign trail.
As we get talking, Brett is both earnest and personable, and a mild Shetland twang to the edge of her vowels is slightly more audible than in a YouTube recording of her (which has attracted nearly 10,000 views) giving a speech on the three main planks of her political vision: social justice, the scrapping of Trident, and taking a compassionate approach to international affairs.
We begin at home. In a recent visit north, Brett attended the Yestival gig at Mareel organised by National Collective, the arts wing of the Yes campaign. She admits that she was apprehensive about the potential turnout, given Shetland’s long history of unwavering support for the Liberal Democrats.
“Shetland has a different political sphere and the issues are so localised that I worried whether they would fill the space.”
Her fears were proven wrong as 200 people attended, making it one of the most popular National Collective events to take place anywhere in Scotland.
“Looking back, it was particularly useful from a Shetland perspective because it was about culture, internationalism, music, art and creativity. The younger folk found it uplifting, there was a real buzz, and, importantly, there were both Yes and No voters in the audience, eager for knowledge and showing a willingness to listen to both sides of the debate.
“A lot of Shetlanders speak about sharing common Scandinavian values, and that’s something I really cherish about home. The Common Weal advocates for similar values in its policies: a welfare state that rests at the very heart of our society; making sure money is prioritised to care for the most vulnerable people; a thriving NHS, and a well-funded education system. So from a Shetland perspective, the Common Weal is relevant, because it offers a progressive alternative to the economic policies that dominate the political sphere in Westminster.”
Brett is, however, aware that her message may not have the same ring in Shetland, a place where poverty and unemployment rates are amongst the lowest in the UK. Nonetheless, and quoting the “all of us first” slogan of Common Weal, she explains that, only by having full control of public finances can the welfare state, “one of the greatest attributes the UK has ever produced”, be protected for future generations.
Drawing on her support for progressive internationalist policies, Brett is also keen to point out the local relevance of the threat to the EU through the Prime Minister’s promise of an in/out referendum in 2017.
“I would much rather be a country trying to get into the EU for all the right reasons – job creation, support for small business, agriculture, fishing, seeing Scotland get its own-country status, and an appropriate budget allocation – than be attempting to leave for all of the wrong reasons.”
Brett came relatively late to the Yes campaign. Describing herself as a “half-English, internationalist Shetlander”, she initially found the flag-waving aspects of nationalism alien to her own ideals.
The eldest of three siblings, she grew up in a Labour-supporting household and her first political act was taking part, aged 11, in the Lerwick street protest against the Iraq war in 2003.
But as she learned more about the breadth of the wider Yes movement, Brett discovered a range of political priorities that she could identify with.
She then set about convincing her mother to join the cause, and in time was successful. Not only that, it appears that as a consequence Brett was instrumental in helping to grow the Shetland Women for Independence group, of which her mother is now a proactive member.
With only a few days remaining until voters hit the polling stations, Brett is confident that there will be a Yes vote. Yet, whatever happens she hopes that people on all sides will “remember that this has been a peaceful democratic election, and that’s what has to be important at the end of all this”. For her part, she will go back to her day-job, working full-time in policy research for the Common Weal.
So, having spent months, weeks, days and nights devoting herself to the cause, is she going to be lost when it is all over? Brett smiles, takes a deep breath and looks toward the end of the room – I guess that she hasn’t thought about this much, if at all, until now.
“The people I have met are just amazing – and I’m not talking about the politicians here – it’s the people around Scotland and their stories, listening to their journeys to yes, their apprehensions and their questions. Seeing such a huge level of engagement has been incredible and I will really miss that. This is a movement that I am so proud to be a part of, and it has become a huge part of me.”