Scottish Independence Referendum: A Launch-Pad for a Participative Democracy?

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Black Knight Rocket at the National Museum of Scotland.

The countdown has begun. The Scottish Independence Referendum on Thursday the 18th of September provides the Scottish people with the opportunity to once more experience democracy in its most traditional form; at the ballot box, one person, one vote. However, on this occasion, rather than giving the polling station a modest reception, as seen in the AV referendum in 2011, or a distinctly lukewarm response, like at this year’s European Parliamentary election, engagement has surged dramatically with 97% of eligible citizens registered to vote, that’s 4,285,323 people! As a result many are predicting a turnout that will surpass Sweden’s commendable 83% showing in yesterday’s national election.

The reasons given for such high engagement include the removal of traditional barriers or attitudes to voting such as ‘my vote won’t make a difference’ – or feeling that ‘the parties are all the same’. The enfranchisement of 16 and 17 year olds has added a youthful energy, most widely displayed during the “Big, big debate” in Glasgow last week, but also in classrooms and homes up and down the country. There has been a revitalisation of Grassroots movements across Scotland on both sides, and people are discovering new and innovative ways of engaging with the referendum: from a deliberative card game called Wee Play, to having a cup of tea and a discussion at a dedicated Referendum Café!

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A quiet polling place in Aberdeen, 22nd May 2014. Will it be busier on the 18th September?

Perhaps the most significant aspect of all of this positive engagement is that people feel and know that their participation will make a difference. Therefore, the independence referendum has energised Scottish Democracy and provided a fantastic opportunity for a more involving and participative democracy in the future: regardless of whether the result is yes or no.

Recent days have provided further reasons for such optimism with the Unionist parties in Westminster announcing that “people from all parts of Scottish society – rather than just politicians – would be invited to take part in a Scottish conference or convention that would decide on further large-scale transfers of power from London to Holyrood.” This stance echoes the Scottish Government’s plans to effectively crowd source the constitution of an independent Scotland, meaning that both Yes and No camps have paved the way for a more citizen focused Scottish Democracy once the referendum ballots have been counted.

However, before we relax and claim a win-win for participatory democracy it is important to note that all of this energy, engagement and promise of democratic reform can easily be stifled if traditional political actors retreat back into their comfort zones. The SNP has been talking a lot about the benefits of “Team Scotland” and appearing to show reconciliation by inviting prominent Better Together Campaigners, such as Alistair Darling and Gordon Brown, to join the Team when they are negotiating the future of a post-referendum Scotland.

I agree with the supporters of a National Council for Scotland that ‘Team Scotland’ “contains a suggestion of in-built elitism choosing our ‘best eleven’ based on some measure of merit. In this context it is absolutely essential that ‘team’ means ‘working together for a collective outcome’ not ‘selected for merit’”. I also concur with the thoughts of Open Democracy who recognise that “citizens need to be involved in new deliberative, participatory and decision-making democratic processes and fora” in the post-referendum period and beyond. Furthermore, I whole heartedly echo ERS Scotland’s call to “capture this enthusiasm for politics, discussion, engagement, understanding and collaboration” and “create a way for citizen engagement to become the norm.”

Using the referendum as a launch pad for more participatory and citizen led democracy is vital. However, the necessary changes won’t miraculously occur come the 19th of September. Citizens must continue to show an appetite for engagement. Politicians, institutions and governments must provide opportunities to satisfy the need of deeper community participation. These could be in the form of small democratic experiments to find what works best, or it could be something more ambitious. The Democratic Society is here to support all those who wish to take the necessary steps towards a more vibrant and active democracy,

It would be not considered an overreaction to say that the referendum will massively change Scottish democracy, but it is now the responsibility of all actors to ensure we harness this democratic energy and create a contemporary democracy we can all be proud of – Yes or No.

 If you would be interested in talking about democracy and participation in a more informal setting, please hold the evening of Tuesday 7 October for an event in Edinburgh at Hemma, 75 Holyrood Road. The event will feature the launch of  From Arrogance
To Intimacy: A Handbook for Active Democracies  by Andy Williamson & Martin Sande. 

Photo credits: Black Knight Rocket, Edinburgh By Veedar at en.wikipedia (Own work – Transfered from en.wikipedia) [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons

Polling station, authors own

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