Four things we should learn from Scotland’s referendum

A week on from the after-parties and we aren’t talking about the result any more. There are other things in the headlines, Alex Salmond’s on his way out, and the governments are scrambling to move forward with what they promised in a moment of panic last week.

We’ve got the message – Scotland’s staying in the UK game. What should we be thinking about as we move forward?


1. Democracy isn’t dead.

Voter turnout has been dropping for a long time. It’s not hard to see why: first-past-the-post is hopelessly corrupt, people’s votes don’t matter if they’re voting for another party in a “safe seat”, politicians are universally hated. Voter turnout drops on rainy days. Young people and poorly-educated people have a particularly sparse voting record. And yet, people have shown that they will turn up to discuss things that they care about. The Scots cared about their country, so they turn up to discuss it. Non-Scots cared about what would happen when it went to the vote, so they discussed it, too.

If there is one thing we should take from the referendum, it is that people will vote for policies, not people. I think that’s because they know perfectly well that politicians are primarily self-serving. Politicians focus on other politicians, and it’s hard to wash away the idea that they are interested in their careers as much as they are in the country/ies they run.


2. People do care about the future, but they don’t care about the way the politics is done. 

There’s long been criticism that the parties are all the same, there isn’t enough difference between their policies. But something else worth considering is that policies are what politicians consider to be important, but that’s not what resonates with people.

Sure, some people care about policies. But they’re often the ones who’ve already taken an interest in politics, and have learned how the system works. To people entirely outside the sphere of the political world, the way it’s run makes no intuitive sense. It’s easy to hate politicians because they’re paid to sit around, argue, and make slippery comments in front of cameras. They court the media and their own parties in the name of “serving the interests of the people”, but do they ever ask what those people’s interests are?

The very concept of having a “whip”, enforcing party attendance and dictating how members should vote according to party policy, neatly embodies the problem. It means that people may elect a representative who answers to a member of their party rather than the people who put them in place. It means that, once again, politicians’ votes are affected primarily by the function of politics and not by people they’ve been elected by. Can you imagine what would happen if someone consistently voted against the whip?

They’d be disciplined for not keeping to the party line – at the very least. Ministers can automatically lose their seats if they don’t turn up to an important vote. This is a pack mentality, and it ensures loyalty to the party over everything else.

In case you hadn’t gathered, I don’t think that’s a good thing. Politicians should be answerable to the people who elected them, not the pack they’re currently running with.

Even the phrase “party whip” reeks of a privileged, aristocratic past. It comes from whipping dogs into a hunting pack, so that the group hunts more efficiently and individuals don’t break away and do their own doggy thing, like not taking part in blood sports, or possibly scaring away the fox.


3. People care about decisions that represent what they believe.

Petition sites have made it possible for everyone to belong to a pressure group and to lend their voices to the causes they believe in. There’s a greater level of political engagement over issues that resonate with people. Causes, passions, identities – the things that make people distinctive from all the other humans in the world. That’s what’s important to them. That hasn’t changed.

It’s feeling powerless to change things that keeps people from voting. It’s knowing how little value their votes count, how little effect they’re actually going to have on the people at the top. It’s being a pawn trying to outmanoeuvre a queen – and, yes, I’ve always hated chess. If the pawns ganged up and took on the royals, the whole board could be a republican utopia within half a game.

If politicians are looking at the referendum and thinking “How do we repeat that level of engagement?” (which they should be), they should pay attention to the importance of passion.

Of course, not every vote or referendum can be on something as fundamental or evocative as an expression of national identity. But the understanding that people vote for things that they feel strongly about should be what drives development in the political arena. Voting for ideas, for policies, and not for people to make faraway decisions about stuff where they might or might not then bother to tell their constituents what’s up – that’s the future. The internet will make it happen. It’s a question of when, not if. And we need to start preparing for it now, by educating people properly as to what their rights and responsibilities are towards themselves and the other people in the countries they live in.


4. Party politics has failed.

It failed a long time ago, but we’re all so used to it that it’s taken a while for people to notice. Party politics failed as soon as people started saying the main parties were all the same. They are: they’re mostly made up of rich white men who occupy a particular niche in society.

How do we fix it? Well, for one thing, we need to educate people more. We need to make it easy for them to vote, we should make their vote needed, and we should empower them to make choices.

We should enforce voting as a civic duty. I’m not saying people should go to jail for not voting, and I do think there should be space for conscientious objection and spoiling ballots, etc. But voting is really bloody important. We should be making it easy and important for people to do.

For one thing, we shouldn’t make people vote all on one day. Voter turnout drops drastically on days when it’s raining, which is ridiculous considering that the way the country is run has nothing to do with the weather. Polling should take a week. It works in New Zealand.

One thing that’s very clear from this election is that people do truly vote with their feet. They turn up to things they care about.  The panicked scrambling of politicians in the last few weeks has been extremely satisfying to see, because it shows just how out of touch they are with life on the ground.

They’ve presided over a country that’s struggling through an economic crisis, that’s looked to its leaders and found them wanting for a very long. So many of this government’s policies have been incredibly unpopular, and the government before that wasn’t much better as far as listening to the people goes.

Perhaps, one day, when we live in a resource-rich utopia and nobody needs money or religion, we won’t need people to make classified decisions. But that day’s a long way off, so for now, alright, I accept that there might need to be representatives who have access to those decisions. But they should properly serve the people who elect them by asking what the people want to have done. Of course it isn’t feasible that they ask every single time, but with the rise of the internet, it’s now far easier for people to engage with politics, to dispute what they dislike, and to make it clear to governments that there are consequences for betraying their people.

As I discussed before, empowering the people by offering a vote isn’t enough. It’s not empowerment to make ill-informed choices: that’s manipulation. That’s propaganda. That’s very close to fascism. Itt’s not going to build a stable society that caters equally to the interest of every party involved. And by “party”, I don’t mean political parties. I mean people. Every person.

Because if we’re not voting for a stable society where everyone has an equal chance to shine, what’s the point in politics at all?


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