Glasgow morning after the Scottish Independence Referendum

Not much sleep of course but what a historic night! If you saw the referendum as a battle between two sides and yours won, and now it’s all over, you probably missed the point.

Sure, as far as the Union of our Kingdom is concerned it wasn’t so much a victory as a near escape. But when 85% turnout and 1.5 million vote to leave, that’s significant.

Sitting with friends and hearing how a grass-roots fever took hold of the country’s political culture was an awakening.

Here in Pollokshields my hosts show me a phone video of the debate on their street the night before. A Yes and No camp set up at the junction below their flat. An impromptu dialogue took place with an interviewer asking each side their opinions via megaphone. It was good-natured and people were reckoning with the issues (between traffic lights) not in a stand-off with each other.

Given the area, most taking part in this pop-up debate came from the Scottish Asian community. Highly impassioned, informed, majority Yes-voters.

Then later I hear how the referendum drew on such grass roots, apolitical associations. Women for Independence, Asians for Independence, Christians for Independence, Business for Independence…. You get the idea.

I’m wondering if the high turnout partly relates to this. That people were not being asked to subsume their primary identities into a political party, but instead there was one clear issue and you came as you are to it.

So instead of deciding if you’re Labour, Lib-Dem or Tory, you could be what you most feel yourself to be and then make an organising choice. It worked organically because such identifications create networks and the like-minded can more easily find each other.

Imagine if that’s how we normally organise? Instead of choosing a preferred party, we vote (or ‘click’) on an issue at a given time and place. Say, the NHS… The population would have to gen up on all the options around management of the health service and click through their preferences.

Would that increase engagement? Otherwise we seem to be creating a political class to whom we delegate all powers for ongoing decisions, yet who we marginalise or resent because ‘they’re not like us’ or we don’t relate to their camp, or they’re just not managing well enough…

At least here that worked for the 16-18 year olds. They are well informed about independence! They had probed the many arguments and stepped up for the moment. Why? In the mix may be because it was a single issue they could really wrestle with. It didn’t come in a party-packaged bundle from someone asking you to Vote Labour / UKIP etc… to permanently throw your lot in with everything that party pretends to agree on. A single issue approach in an ever more complex world at least encourages serious grappling with public matters in bite-sized chunks.

So meanwhile in Westminster they will try to rewrite the constitutional rule book, but I just wonder whether those of us who work to encourage greater engagement with and accessibility for democratic politics might learn a lesson from the disenfranchised Scots, who very nearly just broke the record for electoral turnout, and showed us how people want a say more than they want a system.

Views expressed on this blog are not necessarily those of the Citizenship Foundation.

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