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New Scotland, new democracy?

Updated Wednesday, 10th September 2014

It is hope and fear that continue to drive the Scottish debate rather than evidence-based politics, argues Bram Gieben.

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An illustration of the United Kingdom showing Scotland separated from England and connected only by a drawbridge. The caption reads: Scotland is pulling up the drawbridge of democracy. Creative commons image Icon Catherine Pain under Creative-Commons license

Of the long constitutional debate, producing such a welter of competing claims, representation and misrepresentation, one can say a few things with absolute certainty.

The first is that there are not enough incontrovertible facts in the public domain, especially on economic issues, for a purely rational person to make an informed decision. It follows that people will vote in a way powerfully shaped by the emotions of hope and fear. And it follows that a vote for independence, to some extent, will be a leap of faith.

The second is that there has never been a national political debate of this range, depth, and intensity in Scotland: not at the time of the 1979 devolution campaign, not at the time of the 1997 vote for a devolved Parliament, and certainly not in any general election campaign in living memory.

Up and down the country, in town halls, village halls, community centres, there have been organised debates and discussions, massively well attended and participative. In every home and every workplace, in schools and in pubs, these debates continue. The newspapers and airwaves are full of it. The quality of that discussion, and, with rare exceptions, the civility of it, have been remarkable. One simple consequence is that people are becoming better informed and more critical: they are dismissive of uninformed knee jerk responses, and eager for serious arguments and credible evidence.

A third incontrovertible fact is that the No campaign, purely as a campaign, has been less successful in moving public opinion than the Yes campaign. From being as much as 30% behind in the polls, the Yes campaign, in the first week of September, have now, according to You Gov, taken the lead: excluding the undecided, those now saying they will vote Yes are ahead of the No’s by 51% to 49%.

For the Yes campaign, to have the momentum so close to polling day is a priceless asset. The initial success of the No campaign’s “project fear”, seems to be evaporating. Sorting out the currency and EU membership are no longer seen as insuperable obstacles to independence, but as eminently solvable practical problems of the initial phase of separation. What are a couple of years of negotiation, compared to two thousand years of controlling your own destiny as a nation?

For those of us in the middle of it, the most extraordinary thing that has happened over the course of the referendum debate is this: the permafrost of profound alienation and apathy from the entire political process has begun to melt. Of course there are still people in Scotland completely uninterested in politics. Of course there are many more who distrust all politicians, and think it is unlikely to make much difference whichever party gets into power. And of course there are some so angry with the political establishment that they want to register a protest vote – after all, Scotland did elect a UKIP MEP!

But there is a growing army of Scots who have grasped that simply by using their democratic vote, they have the power to usher in a genuinely different political world. There is an electricity in the political air, a growing and palpable excitement, as more and more Scots for the first time start to believe that they can change some of what were taken to be unalterable features of the political landscape: the toleration of mass poverty in a wealthy country, the colossal expenditure on nuclear weapons, the denial of global warming and the refusal to move decisively to green energy – to name but three.

To vote for politicians who share your values, to be governed by those you have voted for, and to have them close at hand so you can hold them to account: this is genuine democracy, and it is something the Scots demonstrably do not have at present. The turnout in the poll is expected to be huge – some say 80% or more.

Whatever the result of the referendum, this awakening of democratic sentiment, this burgeoning of intelligent political discussion, and this active engagement in the profound political issues of our time, are crucial consequences of this national debate. They have created a critical consciousness which will not simply evaporate. It remains to be seen whether this new level of political idealism and expectation can be bought off by promises of ‘devo max’. I doubt it, because I don’t think Scotland can now go back to business as usual.

To make a simple point, apathy amongst citizens, and the lowering of expectations about what can be done by politics and politicians, serve the interests of those who benefit most from the existing distribution of wealth and power. A vigorous democracy can, in principle, pose a challenge to that distribution and those interests. Hence the ripple of apprehension going through the establishment both north and south of the border.

Roll on September the 18th!

This blog post is part of Society Matters. The blog seeks to inform, stimulate and challenge our understanding of this changing world and of our humbling role within it. Find out more about the blog and the team.
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This article is part of the Scotland's Future collection, exploring the debate and national identity as the country prepares to vote on independence.

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