Image Dauvit Alexander
Published on Postmag.org, 10 September 2014
Whatever Scotland says on September 18, we must keep this national conversation going.
Looking back, the New Labour period was an incredibly boring time to be interested in politics, and doubtless the fact that I was so engrossed in it then is a testament to how gawkish a teenager I was. Right now, though, we in Scotland – and those watching from outside – are blessed with the most vibrant period of politics for many decades. People who have gone their whole lives not having had a political discussion are now talking about independence – some in hopeful tones and others fearfully – but not in the world-wearily cynical way that even only a few months ago characterised the public’s attitude to politics. Places with previously dismally low turnouts last week saw people queuing out into the street to register to vote. During many elections, you’d be forgiven for not realising one was taking place, but now, anywhere you look, windows display posters and people wear badges (overwhelmingly ‘Yes’ ones, it has to be said). Campaigners on both sides aren’t only the usual and dwindling number of party activists, but people from all corners of society of all types of political belief, or none at all, save for wanting a better future for their country.
This groundswell of political engagement appears to have come as a surprise to the commentariat, which marvels at the way the debate has become a popular national conversation in the past few weeks as if it is some mysterious happening. On the contrary, it isn’t much of a surprise at all. As a number of referenda on statehood and other big issues – as well as public engagement initiatives on local matters – show, when you ask the people their opinion on something important and they know that what they say, goes, they wake up, engage and turn out to have their say.
The post-referendum period, then, presents both a huge challenge but also an unprecedented opportunity to improving public engagement with politics. Once we have a decision – and particularly if it is a No – then this realignment of the public and public affairs could melt away just as quickly as it appeared. This is what looks to have happened in Iceland, where the economic crisis prompted widespread political protest, resulting in an elected constitutional council tasked with drafting a new constitution. However, four years after the assembly convened, and two years after its proposals were approved in a referendum, they are collecting dust and nothing much seems to have changed.
We need to make sure that the spirit of the referendum lives on after the 18th, whatever the result. Simply continuing to talk about the kind of country we want is a start, but as the referendum is providing at the moment, we need catalysts to allow us to continue this national conversation. In either case, we can put more decisions in the hands of the public – the referendum shows that they are eager to take them – in the form of devolving power from local to community councils. We can beef up the responsibility councils have to consult communities and to hold local referenda. If the answer is yes, so much more becomes possible. A constitutional convention drawing on all parts of society for its members – as proposed in Scotland’s Future – would be able to draw up a new, modern, inclusive constitution with public engagement at its heart, rather than the 1000 year-old patchwork we have today, as well as prompting another national discussion of the kind we’re having now. That could give us a properly proportional electoral system to ensure our Parliament represents all shades of opinion in Scotland, binding manifesto commitments, compulsory referenda on constitutional changes and direct public involvement in the legislative process in the form of people’s committees, or even a people’s chamber.
My greatest fear about next week – even greater than a No win – is that this wonderful, energising, refreshing conversation the whole country is having about its future will stop and our politics will return to business-as-usual, with all the negative effects on the health of our democracy that entails. It’s up to all of us to ensure that this doesn’t happen, to keep up the pressure for political institutions and a way of doing politics that enables everyone to be involved, just as they are showing they are ready and willing to be right now.